I can't believe this is my first Zutara fic! I've had the idea for this story for ages, but I finally got around to writing it. It's set thirteen years after the finale. I think everything else is self-explanatory.
Return to the Fire Nation
A strong south-western wind made the sails bulge and let Zuko's robes flap around his legs. He watched as the great ship with its green flags lowered the gangway and the passengers started to disembark. Parcels of various sizes as well as the usual crates filled with merchandise from the Earth Kingdom were unloaded and coolies ran back and forth, their backs bent under their heavy loads. Zuko's mouth remained a straight line, but his eyes softened at this sight of prosperity. And then, between the brown-clad merchants, cursing seamen and sweating laborers, almost brighter than the sunlit ocean, a spot of blue appeared. There she was.
He walked down the steps to the dock, and the captain of the ship hurried towards him, bowing deeply.
"Y-your Highness," he stuttered, his face red, but Zuko only nodded. He was too impatient to meet his guest, who neither bowed nor blushed when he greeted her.
"Welcome back, Katara."
"Hi Zuko. It's been a while," she smiled with tired eyes. She wore a simple Earth Kingdom-style robe, in a hue that rivaled the summer sky. He took her arm and they turned their backs to the bustling docks, walking up the broad steps to the city.
"I am happy you're here. How was your journey?" he asked.
"I'd forgotten how long it took, but the sea was calm and I loved being on the water again."
"Of course. Don't you have any luggage?"
"Only this bag. I didn't need anything else."
He noticed she didn't sound very enthusiastic. The wind blew strands of hair in her face that had escaped from her long braid, and again he saw the fatigue in her eyes.
"You must be tired. The palanquin is waiting nearby."
She smiled. "That's very kind of you."
On their way to the palace, in the hobbling palanquin, she was quiet. Zuko inwardly cursed himself for not knowing how to make easy conversation. She had never been this introverted. Where was the chattering girl that had made him both annoyed and jealous with her youth and carefreeness?
"How is Toph? And your brother?" he finally asked, a little abruptly.
"Oh, they're fine. Well, actually I haven't seen Sokka in a long time, he's back at the South Pole with Suki and the children, but I was staying with Toph in Ba Sing Se when I received your letter. Her school's doing great."
"I'm glad to hear it."
And then he knew nothing more to say without mentioning the sore subject that pressed upon them with the weight of an elephant in the small, dark palanquin.
He swallowed and reprimanded himself. He'd have to ask sooner or later.
"So how have you been, since you left… since you came to Ba Sing Se?"
"I won't die if you mention Aang's name, you know," she said. It sounded sharper that she'd meant and she quickly said: "Sorry, that was harsh. I appreciate that you're trying to be considerate, but I just hate how everyone is tiptoeing around it. I'm doing fine."
"I'm sorry," Zuko said. "I'm not good at this."
Now she smiled genuinely. "I know. Don't worry. Of course I've been sad, but life in the city was a nice change, and I was happy to spend time with Toph. Though she's never very affectionate. You should've seen the way she said goodbye, as if I was only going grocery shopping."
Zuko laughed at the memory of that tough little woman. Then Katara looked at him sideways.
"Have you had any contact with Aang at all?"
"Very little. Only political business, but recently we haven't had any major issues to worry about. So I haven't heard from him in quite a while."
She nodded. He bit his tongue to prevent himself from asking that which he wanted most to know. Why had she left the Avatar? As if she could read his mind she looked at him.
"Not now. I'll tell you all, later."
"Okay," he said, and they both fell silent again.
Katara had to shield her eyes against the bright sunlight after stepping out of the palanquin. There was no wind here, and she felt the heat of the sun on her skin. With her hand above her eyes she took in the view of the palace.
"It was much bigger in my memory!" she said.
"Maybe you were smaller then?" Zuko asked. "I didn't change much about it. But the trees have grown a lot since your last visit."
She turned to him and laughed with squinted eyes. "It really has been a long time. You know, I'm actually happy to be here again!"
Zuko smiled. "Come. We'll take the garden path." She followed him inside the gates.
The garden was beautiful and green and the sunlight reflected on the golden roofs of the palace buildings. The shadows of the trees were small, it was almost noon. Despite the heat, a little girl came running towards them. Her nanny followed not far behind.
"Daddy!" she called, and threw her arms around Zuko's legs. He kneeled down and picked her up.
"Hey Hanabi, look who's here," he said, hoisting her on his hip. "It's auntie Katara!"
Hanabi looked at Katara with wide golden eyes. Although Katara smiled and wanted to pat the girl on her head, she looked confused and turned away from her, burying her face in her father's shoulder.
'It's been too long," Katara said, a little dissapointed. "You don't remember me."
"Come to the pond," Zuko said. "I'm sure she'll remember when you do your magic again."
Under the shadow of an overhanging tree, the three of them sat at the edge of the water. Hanabi was still shy but watched Katara from the safety of Zuko's arms. Katara dipped her hands in the water and instantly seemed to relax. She took a deep breath.
"Oh!" Hanabi squealed when a wave rose up and took the shape of a ship. The ship sailed around the pond, scaring a few turtleducks before taking the same shape as them. The watery turtleduck floated across the surface towards Hanabi, who strechted out her little hands to touch it, but then it dissolved back into the water. Before the girl could see where it had disappeared to, a ball of water rose up into the air. With a few swift movements of her hands, Katara made the water dance around Hanabi, who laughed and tried to catch it. After a few circles around the three of them, the stream of water dove back in the pond.
'Again, again!" said Hanabi and clapped her hands. Zuko tried to hide his own fascination at seeing Katara's waterbending again after years, and said: "That's enough for now. Auntie Katara has made a long journey and she's very tired."
"That's true," said Katara. "And I don't mean to be impolite, but I'm actually really hungry too."
"Of course, I'm so sorry," said Zuko. "I'll get you lunch immediately. We haven't eaten yet, either." He waved to the nanny and she hurried ahead of them towards the palace.
"Where did you come from, auntie?" asked Hanabi. Zuko still carried her on his hip.
"I travelled across the sea on a very big ship," Katara answered. "Have you seen the ships that come to the port?"
"Yes, I've seen them! Daddy and mommy took me. Do the ships really go to the sea, so far that you can't see them anymore?"
"And you've been so far away?"
"The Earth Kingdom is on the other side of the sea. Daddy told me. So did you come from the Earth Kingdom?"
They reached the entrance to palace and Zuko put Hanabi down. "Enough chatter for now," he said. "Go to nanny and get your lunch."
The girl pouted but skipped to her nanny. They disappeared into another room. Sliding open a door, Zuko invited Katara in.
"Come. Mai is waiting inside."
Katara swallowed and nodded. She had never really been able to get along with the Fire Lady, but now it would be even harder.
In a half-lit room, a slender figure reclined on an elegant sofa. With a small gesture Zuko made the lamps burn higher, and Mai stood up. She slowly walked towards them and extended her hands to Katara.
"Welcome," she said softly. Katara bowed slightly, taken aback by how beautiful the Fire Lady still was, despite her illness. Still, she clearly remembered that she had never liked the way her silver eyes were always half closed. She never seemed to really look at anyone.
Absently, Mai waved to the tables, where servants were putting down plates with rice and fish.
"Please sit down. You must be starving after that dreadful journey."
"Thank you," Katara said, not mentioning that she'd found her journey actually very pleasant. She knew Mai absolutely hated the sea. She sat down and attacked the plentiful meal, appreciating the superb quality of the food after living on dried fish and sea biscuits for days.
Zuko sat next to his wife and busied himself with making sure she ate enough.
"Here, taste the seaweed, it's unbelievably fresh," he said, but Mai pushed the plate away.
"Oh, I love it," Katara said. "It's so salty, you really taste the sea."
Zuko smiled at her almost gratefully but Mai sighed with disgust. Then she looked at Katara.
"I am sorry for my lack of manners."
"Oh, never mind it," said Katara, "I'm really not bothered."
"No, it's not fitting for me," Mai shook her head. "But I've been feeling so weak and disgusted with everything. I am not myself. I really hope you can help me."
"I hope so too. That's why I'm here in the first place."
"I am very thankful that you could come. It means a lot."
Katara was surprised by these words from the icy woman. She had never received this much cordiality from her.
"O-of course. Well, it's not like I had anywhere else to be. And of course I want to help."
Mai showed a small smile. Then she turned to Zuko and said in a very soft voice: "Can you bring me to bed? I'm so tired."
Zuko helped her up and supported her with such care that Katara had to look away. How long had it been? A year or more, surely. But still the memory of Aang's touch on her skin seemed as fresh as if it had been moments ago.
She shook her head and helped herself to a last portion of fish, until Zuko returned.
"Let's go outside," he said. "I can't stand being inside these walls now."
"Really? But it's so hot outside," Katara said.
'Oh, of course, you're not used to the climate. Let's go to the back gallery then, it faces north and there's usually a breeze."
He led her through the halls with their squeaking wooden floors, past rooms with beautifully painted screens and splendid interiors.
"I've asked the staff to prepare your room. There should be fresh clothes as well," Zuko said.
"That's very kind. Where is my room?"
"Very close to ours. To be honest I've been sleeping in my office lately, Mai needs all the rest she can get, but you'll be close to her. Actually, would you like to go there to change first?"
"Oh, no, that can wait, thanks. How do you like my dress, anyway? The latest fashion in Ba Sing Se. Toph insisted on buying new clothes for me, even though blue was the most expensive colour. But green and brown look so bad on me…"
"Nonsense. I remember you dressed up in Ba Sing Se, with flowers in your hair. You really looked like a noble Earth Kingdom lady. And Toph too!"
"Haha, if you start comparing my looks to Toph's then I'm not listening anymore. I love her, but I do care about my appearance a bit more than she does. Not that it matters to her, but still. I guess I'm just a little vain."
She was starting to chatter a little like the old times again, and Zuko felt more and more comfortable in her presence. They reached the open gallery in the north of the palace and he invited her to sit down. They looked out over a little stone garden with some small trees. It was still hot, but they were sitting in the shade and Katara leaned back, enjoying the slight breeze that cooled her face.
"It is peaceful here," she said. "So quiet."
"We don't actually have that much staff anymore," Zuko said. "And this part of the palace isn't usually busy. Of course you still remember it full of guards."
"Yeah. But I'm glad that time is over."
"Every era has its new challenges," Zuko commented. Katara sat upright again.
"Don't be so gloomy! Your country is absolutely blooming! The trade with the Earth Kingdom is going great, I spoke with a few merchants on board. And from what I could see when we travelled along the coast, the countryside is becoming wealthier as well."
"Yes, that's true. After all the trouble we had in the beginning, I'm happy with how the people are doing now. Trade is going well, too. But we still struggle with the farmers in the midlands, especially after the droughts of the past few years. We just don't have a good irrigation system and rice production is at a very low point."
"But surely you can attract some engineers from other countries? I might know a few! From Omashu, or even waterbenders from the North Pole, I'm sure they could help."
"We've received so much generosity from other countries already, which we don't deserve. I feel like I can't ask for any more help."
"That's nonsense. Common prosperity is something everyone wants to contribute to. Besides, bad crops and famine are a much worse threat to peace than a request for help. You know what angry farmers can get up to…"
"You're right. I just haven't found the right person or the right words yet."
"You shouldn't hesitate with important matters like this."
Zuko leaned forwards and rested his chin in his hands.
"I've just been so distracted, with Mai like this, she's always been such a support for me and I really don't know what to do now that she's so ill."
"I'll look at her as soon as she's ready," Katara said, placing her hand on Zuko's knee. Zuko smiled at her. "I'm so happy you're here. I really wouldn't know what to do if you hadn't come."
"Oh, silly. Of course I'd come. I'd always help a friend in need."
Zuko looked out over the rocks. "You're being too kind. I know you never liked Mai."
"You're my friend," Katara said. "And you love Mai, so she is my friend as well."
They were both silent. After a while, Zuko awkwardly said: "You know, uhm…"
"It really means a lot to me that you say that. That I'm your friend."
Katara looked at him, but he kept staring at the rocks.
"I've never really had friends, apart from my uncle, but that's different. But you, and Aang of course, and Toph and your brother and Suki, for you to say that I am your friend, I feel like I don't deserve it."
Katara shook her head and wanted to say something, but Zuko interrupted her.
"I mean it. When I wake up, just before I am fully awake, I still feel like I am wandering all over the world, lost and hated by everyone, and then I realize I have friends, I have my people who look up to me, I have a wife and a daughter, and I just can't believe it's true."
"I completely understand," Katara said softly. "People always find it hard to simply be happy."
After a while, when Zuko thought the warmth of Katara's hand on his knee became almost too much, he said: "I'm sorry for not asking about you, but I thought you didn't want to talk about it."
"You were right. I don't think I can talk about it yet." As he had expected, she removed her hand and leaned back.
"Did you also have difficulty with simply being happy?"
"No," she said, curtly. "No, I don't think I was happy at all."
Zuko didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. Katara sighed almost inaudibly, then asked: "Tell me more about Mai. You wrote that she has been ill for some time, but that it's only getting worse?"
Glad for the change of subject, although this subject wasn't exactly a cheerful one either, Zuko said: "Yes. It started a few months ago. She doesn't have appetite, she's tired all the time, she feels weak and says that her whole body hurts. Of course I've had the best doctors look at her, but nobody seems to know what it is or how to cure it. Now she's only getting out of bed to eat, and even then she eats almost nothing. She's gotten very skinny and pale, and she seems completely detached from the world around her. Even I sometimes can't seem to reach her, and Hanabi gets really sad because of it as well. You've noticed she's almost always with her nanny now. Mai just can't take care of her anymore."
"I see. That must be hard on all of you. It doesn't sound like anything I know, but I'm sure I can make her better soon." She sounded confident.
"I had planned to travel around and earn my living as a healer, you know," she said. "But it didn't work. I wanted to live anonymously, but I was just too well known. As soon as I healed someone, or used waterbending, people would know who I was and I'd get all these questions… It wasn't at all what I had imagined. I wanted that adventurous, careless traveling life again, I'd really missed it. But it wasn't fun on my own. So I just went to Ba Sing Se to live with Toph."
"I'm sure Toph was very happy."
"She was, actually," Katara smiled. "She's not been very lucky in love either, so we could support each other. And by the time I got your letter, I had established quite a succesful healing practice for myself."
She noticed his look and quickly continued: "But I'm not sad to leave that. I'm not really suited for life in a city. To be honest I'm not sure how Toph can live there all the time. Luckily her school is outside the walls. The city was always so noisy!"
"I know. The capital here can be overwhelming too, but I try to keep the palace grounds as peaceful as possible. Especially since Mai hasn't been able to endure any disturbance. The servants all walk on felt slippers in our quarters now."
Katara nodded slowly. "Do you think I could look at her soon?"
"I can check on her. Then you can change first, I'll show you your room."
They walked back through the halls, to the inner quarters where the royal family had their rooms. Zuko led her to a sliding door decorated with pines.
"This is yours," he said. A maid opened the door from the inside and bowed.
"I've prepared everything, Your Highness," she said.
"Thank you, Sen," said Zuko. "I'd like you to treat Master Katara with the same care you always treat us with, and to assist her in every way."
"Of course, Your Highness,' she said, and bowed to Katara.
"Milady, I've laid out a new kimono for you. If you require any assistence in dressing, or in any other way, I am always available."
"Thank you, Sen," Katara said, bowing back. "But I'll be fine for now."
The maid bowed again and went away. Zuko said: "I'll wake up Mai. I'll come to get you soon." Katara nodded and stepped inside, while Zuko walked away. She took in the room. It was simple but elegant, being actually very luxurious, but not in a flashy way. The subtle pine decorations, the beautiful wooden closet, the soft blankets, it was all of the highest quality and yet looked as simple as possible. So very different from the pomp and glamour of the Earth Kingdom capital. Of course the Fire Nation people liked their gold, but it never seemed too much.
Katara took off her Earth-style dress, noticing that the journey had indeed taken a toll on it, and picked up the bundle of silk that was spread out for her. The supple fabric was cool to touch and smooth, and had a deep azure colour. For a proper obi knot she would need the assistance of a maid, and she didn't want to bother with that, so she just wrapped one of the narrower bands around her waist, tied it simply and tucked in the ends. This was much less constricting, too. She saw new slippers as well, and took off her traveling boots with some relief.
There was a soft knock on the door.
"I'm coming," she said, and stepped outside. Zuko was waiting for her.
"It's blue," she smiled, gesturing at her dress. "You didn't have to do that." Zuko only shrugged. They crossed the corridor and Zuko pointed to the sliding doors.
"The one with phoenixes is the Fire Lady's room. My office has dragons and Hanabi's nursery has cranes."
"The dragon is the symbol of the Fire Lord, right?"
"It is. And the phoenix has always been associated with the Fire Lady."
"What about cranes? And my pines?"
"Cranes usually symbolize good luck, and pines longevity."
"Well, that's suiting then."
They quietly stepped inside the Fire Lady's room. Katara had to adjust to the darkness for a moment. Slowly the interior became visible. A big bed with beautiful woodwork and dark red curtains was the main piece of furniture, the room being mostly empty otherwise. Mai arduously sat upright when they entered, assisted by a maid who quietly stepped away when the Fire Lord entered. Zuko was by her side immediately. Mai pushed her sheets aside and looked at Katara with half a smile.
"I'm all yours," she said. Katara folded back her sleeves, pulled some water out of the air with a swift hand movement and asked: "May I?"
"Please," Mai said, and Katara placed her hands on her temples. A faint glow appeared, and while Zuko watched in silent amazement, Katara slowly moved her hands across Mai's forehead.
"It's not mental. Your mind is completely clear and healthy," she said. She expected a sarcastic remark from the Fire Lady, but it didn't come. Mai kept her eyes closed. Katara turned to Zuko: "Can you ask for some more water?"
Zuko nodded and went to the other end of the room, said something to the maid, who nodded and disappeared immediately. After a few moments she returned, carrying a copper bowl filled with clear water. She placed it on the elegant table next to the bed, and Katara dipped her hands in it.
"This might be cold," she warned, and Mai nodded, her eyes still closed. Katara untied Mai's silk robe and let her hands slide along her chest. She took in a sharp breath.
"Now here is something. Your lungs are damaged."
Zuko looked at her with an intense gaze. Katara wetted her hands again and the faint glow became stronger. She rubbed Mai's chest and the Fire Lady began to cough violently. The maid was immediately by her side, supporting her, and casting a mistrusting look at the waterbender.
"You were well on your way to a heavy pneumonia," Katara said. "No wonder you were so tired."
Mai kept coughing, and the maid wiped her mouth with a handkerchief. Zuko asked: "So that's it? Her lungs?" He sounded relieved.
"Don't celebrate too early. It's quite serious," Katara said. "But she'll be clean in a few minutes."
After rubbing her glowing hands all over Mai's back as well, she let the Fire Lady lay down again. Mai coughed one last time, then took a deep breath. She rested her head on the pillow.
"I feel much lighter," she said.
Katara smiled. "Rest a little and you'll be able to get out of bed before dinner." Then she turned to the maid. "Make sure she drinks enough and get me immediately if you notice anything disturbing."
She left the room while Zuko was still by Mai's bedside, but she was only halfway the corridor when she heard his footsteps behind her. She turned around. He walked towards her, stretched out his arms and took both her hands, his face unusually full of emotion.
Katara was a little at loss for words and looked away. "It's nothing," she mumbled. She drew back her hands and avoided his look. "You know what I can do."
"I know. I won't ever forget what you did for me, nor this. You are a treasure."
She laughed, uncomfortably.
"Thanks. If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to unpack my things. I'll be in my room if you need me."
She turned around and continued towards her own room, leaving Zuko a little puzzled. His confusion couldn't surpress his relief for long though, and he went back to Mai's room quickly. Katara probably needed some time alone, the unpacking was obviously a lie since she had only brought one little bag. But he found Mai sound asleep, and the maid was watching her so carefully that he felt quite useless there. So he just returned to his office to try to finish some paperwork.
Katara took of her new slippers and lay down on her futon. Healing Mai's lungs had been tiring, and she closed her eyes. While dozing off she wondered how a pneumonia could manifest itself in a slow way like this, she hadn't seen it before. The phlegm had been very thick and had stuck to the membranes, that's why she hadn't been coughing and the Fire Nation doctors hadn't suspected a pneumonia. It was very unusual. But she'd loosened all the phlegm. Mai's lungs were definitely clean now, she contented herself. Soon the fatigue of the journey and the healing became too much and she drifted off.