At least some things had survived the war.
The Earth Kingdom palace looked exactly as it had five years ago, and because of that, Katara could breathe again. She really shouldn't have expected it to be different—the Earth Kingdom, especially Ba Sing Se, had escaped the war relatively unscathed (at least in comparison to her home, which was even now picking through rubble and ashes and scars and oh, who was she kidding—Ba Sing Se was just as damaged, only far, far better at hiding it). But a knot of dread had twisted in her gut the moment she had heard about the party, and every step up into the palace had only yanked it tighter until here she stood, in the grand dining room, looking at a sight that made her feel fourteen again.
The dining table stretched on and on, impossibly long and stacked high with steaming platters. Dozens (perhaps hundreds, because really now, who hadn't been invited) of people sat near the table or mingled around the edges, chatting above the clinking of goblets and the gentle whining of instruments from the far right corner. Gold trim shot in sharp rectangles around panels of green on the walls, creating a theme that carried throughout the hall. Green and gold, olive and sunshine, emerald and yellow—the colors chased each other around the room, perfectly crisp lines that always stayed just beside one another, never intermixing, never touching more than necessary.
The last time Katara had been here, she and Toph had snuck in to confront the Earth King, trying, yet again, to stop the Fire Lord from burning the world.
The last time Katara had been here, life had been so much simpler.
And at this point, she achingly needed simplicity in her life again.
She forced herself to take enough steps into the dining room that she stood unobstructed and visible by all. Not hiding in the shadows, not ducking stray eyes in the doorway—she walked into this celebration as she had the last one. Confident, strong, if not a little stupidly obstinate that the evening would pass without incident. And why shouldn't it? This was a night for celebration. It had been five years since the war's end—everyone in all four nations deserved this night.
Katara winced, tying her arms across her chest. Everyone else in the world deserved this night. Everyone else deserved to celebrate the peace. And she might have, too, if not for the past seven months and how painfully, inescapably aware she was of every single day that distinguished her from the guests who weren't more terrified than jubilant to be here.
Which was why she felt the exact, wrenching moment he saw her.
She was fairly certain most of the people in the room felt when he saw her too. It would have been something silent and private, a glance between two people, if it had been anyone but the Avatar.
A funnel of air swished up around the band, causing the poor flutist to all but swallow his instrument in the sudden disturbance. Katara's eyes met Aang's as he rushed (nearly floated) over to her. Such an instinctual thing it was, to look at him. When had she last done that? Had it really been seven months now? The way her body responded to him made it seem like much more recently. She still knew exactly how to feel about him—protective, instant and unyielding devotion, the kind that choked everything else.
"Katara." The way Aang said her name made her think he had rolled those letters through his mind many times since she'd left him. "Where have you—why?"
Her mouth dipped open. She'd rehearsed this, oh, she'd rehearsed this until she couldn't see straight.
I'm sorry, Aang. I needed to get away. I'd only intended to leave for a little while, a few days, maybe, but—I forgot. I forgot, Aang, how it was to breathe air that isn't you. I'm sorry I didn't come back. I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was okay.
I'm sorry that I'm not sorry at all.
She curled her tongue against the roof of her mouth, jaw clamped tight. Aang's gray-blue eyes flew over her face, watching, waiting, begging her without saying a word. He was so good at that, conveying emotion in wordless waves. Dredging up passion or anger or hope or guilt with one look. It was unintentional on his part, she knew, but that didn't make it any less taxing.
"Are you okay?" His brows slid up, pointed over his perpetually childlike face. Such innocence—already she could feel it tugging at her, looping strands around her heart that had taken years to break. "Sokka said he got a letter from you a few months back. But I…I just want to know. From you. Are you…happy?"
Katara almost laughed. She knew he wouldn't be angry with her, but he should have been. She was angry at herself for leaving him, knew it was a stupid, selfish thing to do, and yet he was asking if she was happy.
She forced her mouth open. "I—" Talk. Talk. She needed to say something. She needed to explain herself to him, to get him to understand so he'd stop looking at her like that, like she was blameless and perfect when she was anything but. She wouldn't get sucked back into his world—he was so good, so maddeningly good, at whisking her up into a breathless whirl, and she wouldn't do it, not again, not again—
Trumpets. Where Katara had managed to sneak in without proper introduction, whoever this guest was had not. She sent a silent prayer of thanks for the interruption and pivoted to the door.
Only to suck that prayer of thanks right back in. No, not thanks at all—she'd rather the trumpets have signaled an attack than the guest who entered.
Katara shoved into the crowd, twisting haphazardly through the people before Aang realized she had left him. Again. Maybe this time he'd be angry with her; maybe when she saw him next, he'd yell at her, spit all of the hateful things she knew she deserved.
"You abandoned us at the start of something important, Katara! We're forging a new world, and you just…left. How could you? How could you turn your back on people who need you?"
Because of this feeling. This suffocating barrage of sensation that encased her now—this was how she had felt the moment Aang and Zuko had united in their effort to create a better future. After the war, it had been a dream, a dalliance while Aang toured the world, healing wounds, mending damage; while Zuko stayed in the Fire Nation, cleaning up his own battered country. But once all immediate concerns were fixed and they'd come together, spent their collective time on what they called Republic City—
Katara could barely handle the tornado that was Aang. Every day had worn more and more on her resolve to tolerate the eternal state of suffocation in his presence, forever caught up in how his every action trumped anything she could ever do. It was selfish of her, and she knew that, which was why she had lasted at his side as long as she had.
But on top of that, she could not handle, would not handle, absolutely refused to handle…
"Fire Lord Zuko," a steward announced once the trumpets had ceased and Katara was halfway across the dining room. "And Fire Lady Mai."
There was a door, a hazy opening at the far end of the dining room. Katara remembered a balcony being out there, or a garden, or maybe it was just a servant's side entrance and she'd stumble out into a stable yard—wherever it led, she dove at it, bursting into the coolness of night as the audience applauded behind her for the two new guests.
Their titles scratched at her, digging into the ignorance she'd spent seven months building in her mind.
Fire Lord Zuko and Fire Lady Mai.
Fire Lady Mai.
He'd married her. Honestly, though, had she expected Zuko to wait for her? She'd left without a word, without a letter in all those months. She hadn't expected him to wait for her.
But she had wanted him to.
A garden waited out here, blissfully empty—a stone walkway shot around a fountain before unwinding into a labyrinth of paths and towering green hedges. The night air clung cool and moist to her skin, enveloping her in silence as the walls of the palace muffled the crowd.
Katara gulped the air, hand to her stomach, face tilted up to the moon that rained perfect ivory light. Thank Yue for the full moon—Katara instantly felt a spike in her resolve when the light poured down on her. The water in the fountain lapped toward her, an unconscious pull of her power just because she could, because it was there and the moon was plump and she needed to remind herself that she wasn't weak.
She'd spent days doing just that once she'd left. Standing in the ocean, drawing water up and down and back and forth, causing waves and braiding raindrops and drenching herself until even her bones felt soggy.
See? each pull of her magic said. I am powerful. I am strong.
I came here tonight on my own. I came not as the Avatar's advisor or…or the Fire Lady. I came as me. Katara.
I came alone.
I am alone.
She dropped to her knees on the brim of the fountain, the silk of her robe nearly ripping as she arranged herself, bent forward, and dunked her hands into the water. Koi fish darted away from the frenzied surge of motion. Water droplets beaded into gelatinous blankets that coated her hands, lifted higher, wrapping her arms in protective shields.
I am alone. But I am me.
She had a burst of impulse to lift all of the water out of the fountain and cocoon it around her entire body so she wouldn't be able to see anyone for the rest of the night. But she hadn't come here to hide (she had spent seven months hiding, running, breathing). She had come here to…
She had wanted to…
Katara dropped her hold on the water and it all crashed back into the fountain with a sloshing, gushing plop.
Heat warmed her back. Steady, strong heat, and she knew he was close, that he'd taken her silence as some kind of invitation and approached her. He didn't say anything else, not like Aang. No, nothing about him was like Aang, not even the way he said her name. Where Aang had said it with a lingering coo of respect and awe, Zuko said her name like he barely remembered it, like it was a word from a dream that toyed with the edge of his subconscious.
Her heart formed a resolute lump in her throat. "Enjoying the party?" was all she could think to say, and it came out choked and warbled.
Zuko huffed, a wheezing exhale that battered more heat over the back of her neck. "Are you—what?" He stepped closer, so close, so close and she still couldn't turn to look at him. "You vanish, then show up here, and all you say is 'enjoying the party'?"
She winced. But it was more relieved than hurt, and a part of her relaxed. Finally—someone would berate her for what she had done. Someone would yell at her, and she wouldn't have to spend the rest of the evening waiting for it to happen.
"You really aren't going to say anything else?" Zuko's voice dipped low, hung with disbelief, and Katara realized she'd been motionless and silent in the pause.
Planning what she would say to Aang had been easy. Planning what she would say to Zuko had been…impossible. She'd dumbly told herself that the words would come when she saw him, that her heart would just know what to say.
But letting her heart have rein of anything had always been a mistake. She had made that one of her most impenetrable mottos these past seven months:
Think. Things. Through.
Zuko was a whirlwind of his own, though. Not so much a whirlwind as a wildfire, crisp and blinding and so hot all of her other senses dulled. An inferno that charred her to bits in ways Aang wanted to but never could—so when she pushed herself off the fountain, spun around, and found herself in Zuko's golden gaze, her reasoning slipped from her fingers.
"You married her."
Stupid, stupid—such a weak, childish thing to say, but more tumbled from her lips.
"You married her, Zuko, even after—you kissed me. And I told you I lov—"
No, she wouldn't say that again. She might be losing control of her tenacity at this moment, but she would never lose that much control of it.
"And you married her." She flared against him, wanting to slam her fists into his chest and beat him back, but she didn't trust herself to touch him. "So don't berate me for not explaining myself when it's you, Zuko. You owe me the explanation."
Zuko stared down at her as she talked (yelled, screamed, prayed) at him, his expression muted. In the moonlight his black hair gleamed blue in its half-knot, the Fire Nation crown sparkling gold over his head. He looked, in that moment, like a leader, a lord, and Katara couldn't remember when he had gone from the broken, uncertain teenager to the immovable, careful man.
Tears shoved against her eyes, and she would have cried if she wasn't a waterbender. She only cried when she wanted to, when she let herself, and that would never be in front of him.
Long moments passed, and finally Zuko inhaled, breaking his motionless stare with a drawn blink. When he looked back down at her, his eyes were clouded. No, they couldn't be—he had no right to cry for this. Katara had hoped for—she didn't know what she had hoped for. But not for him to be married. And not for him to regret that marriage.
It would be much, much harder to hate him if he regretted it.
"I don't owe you an explanation," Zuko started. Any anger in him had long since fled, leaving only the lilting, raspy voice that fluttered each word into her chest like lit embers. "You left before I'd ever agreed to marry Mai. You left first, Katara; you left me. So yes, I married Mai. I married her, because I thought you left because—because I saw how you were with Aang. How you…wilted. And it wouldn't have been different with me, I know that, and I'd thought you'd realized that. I don't claim to be the Avatar, but you wouldn't have been you with me either. We wouldn't have been balanced."
Katara gasped, unable to breathe, unable to do more than wallow in the agonizing perfection he didn't even know he'd said. That was her greatest fear, her reason for leaving Aang and…yes, even for leaving Zuko, too—to not exist outside of another person.
But, more than once, she had wondered if it wouldn't be such a bad thing. To be so completely Zuko's that she didn't know where she stopped and he began.
She had never wondered that with Aang.
None of that mattered now. Whatever closure she'd wanted from tonight wouldn't come—or maybe it had. Maybe this was closure, knowing Zuko was married, knowing nothing would happen between them now. She'd chosen to leave, and he'd chosen Mai.
"I have to go," she spit, every vein frozen solid, every nerve numb.
I am powerful. I am strong. I exist.
And I don't need him.
Katara took a few hard, fast steps away from Zuko.
But I want him.
Fingers around her arm. Hot, so hot her silk sleeve should have burned right through under his fingerprints. How was it that just one touch, something so small and not at all intimate, still sent her into a choking flurry? Lungs shuddering, heart throbbing, pulse rapid and deafening in her ears.
"Katara," he murmured, and this time, he said her name like a plea.
Music rose in a jolting pitch from the dining hall. The party had switched from feasting to dancing.
She should leave. Again. She should pull out of his grasp and vanish just as unexpectedly.
"Maybe I wanted to be imbalanced with you," she whispered.
Zuko groaned, soft enough that she almost didn't hear it. "Don't say that. You would've hated me, eventually."
Her eyes shot up to his. "I do hate you."
He smiled. She hated that smile too. Hated the way it lit up his face because he did it so infrequently; hated the way it was warmer than his touch, brighter than the sun.
But after a moment of her staring at him, silent, his smile slipped away, tucked carefully back in the guarded box he always kept it in. The music from the dining hall reached a crescendo, notes wailing in eager drawls for dancers to obey, and without thinking (for the second time that night, think, think, think, Katara), she folded into Zuko.
Arms around his neck, forehead to his chest, her body drooped against his as she started to sway. He stiffened, shocked, before reacting in a jerky rush—his hands pressed to the small of her back, his head tipped down to nestle beside hers. Their breath intermingled, and the heat from their bodies rose tenfold with Zuko's natural fire. The moon, unhindered by any clouds, continued to cast its hazy light onto them, encasing them in one, two, three brief seconds of a dream. That was what he was to her now—a dream. A memory.
So she pushed back from him before the dance drew too long. He was married now. Married, and not hers, and she shouldn't be dancing alone with him, not like this. Every nerve in her body wailed at her in protest, crying out to lose herself in this one night, this one moment.
But she was Katara. She was strong; she was powerful; and she existed, outside of him, outside of this night.
"I have to go," she said again, and this time, she meant it.
Zuko's arms dropped to his sides. He didn't say anything, just stared at her with those liquid gold eyes, and Katara wondered for what was surely the thousandth time how he had ever thought himself lacking when they were younger. Even with his scar (especially with his scar). Did he still think that about himself?
She turned. One step, then another, she forced herself to walk away from him—for the second time now. This time felt…final. Because she knew he would go back into the party, and dance with his wife; and Aang would continue building Republic City with him, and the future would unfold.
How would her future unfold, though? She had no answer.
But she knew that whatever it held, it would be hers.