p style="border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 15.12px; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; list-style: none; margin: 1.286em auto; padding: 0px; line-height: 1.5; color: #2a2a2a; text-align: center;"strongLetting go/strong/p
p style="border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 15.12px; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; list-style: none; margin: 1.286em auto; padding: 0px; line-height: 1.5; color: #2a2a2a;""Daddy?" Hanabi asked just before Zuko left for dinner. "Is it true that Master Jeong-Jeong is the best firebending teacher in the world?"br /Zuko blinked. "Who told you that?"br /"Uncle and Master Piandao. They said he even taught the Avatar!"br /"span style="font-style: oblique;"I/span taught the Avatar," Zuko said defensively. "But yes, so did he. As did Uncle Iroh," he added immediately, trying to hide his /"Do you think he'd want to teach me, too?" Hanabi asked. Zuko /"He's a bit old, but I don't see why not. Why don't you ask him tomorrow?"br /She grinned and hugged her father. "I will!"br /He kissed her cheek and nudged her towards Doona the nanny, who was waiting in the /"Now go and have your bath, I have to go to dinner. Sleep well, sweetie."br /"Sleep well daddy," Hanabi smiled. "Can you ask auntie Katara to come and give me a goodnight kiss, too?"br /"I think she's still busy talking to our guests from the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom," Zuko said, and Hanabi's face fell. "But I'll ask her, of course," he quickly continued, and she smiled again./p
p style="border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 15.12px; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; list-style: none; margin: 1.286em auto; padding: 0px; line-height: 1.5; color: #2a2a2a;" /p
p style="border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 15.12px; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; list-style: none; margin: 1.286em auto; padding: 0px; line-height: 1.5; color: #2a2a2a;"Zuko entered the dining hall and saw Katara, who was indeed talking to the Earth King's envoy. Sokka, Suki and Iroh were also part of the conversation, so he could easily take her aside for a /"Hanabi asked for you to kiss her goodnight," he said. Katara's first reaction was to smile mollified, but then she /"Listen, I don't want to imply that it's a bad thing…" she started hesitantly, and Zuko /"I know what you mean. She's getting too attached to you."br /"Yes, I feel so too. I'm afraid she's coping with her mourning by projecting her longing for her mother on me."br /"It's understandable. You do care for her like a mother."br /Katara lowered her eyes and bit her lip. "I do… Zuko, I don't want to impose, but I really do love Hanabi, and it's hard for me not to take on that role."br /Zuko touched her elbow lightly, careful not to show too much affection in front of other people. In a low voice he said: "It would make me very happy if you took on that role one day."br /Her breath caught in her throat. Doing her best to keep her voice down, she replied: "Are you serious?"br /He nodded, looked over his shoulders to the hall full of nobles, and turned his back on /"I'm not sure if now is the right time. I don't want you to feel like you're only a compensation for what she's missing. But I know that there is no one else I would rather share her with," he smiled. "And I know she will love you like a mother, too."br /She swallowed to get the lump out of her /"Let's go and tuck her in then, shall we?" she asked with a shy smile. They sneaked out of the hall quietly and walked through the corridors to the /When Zuko slid open the door, however, he /"She's not here."br /Katara's blood ran cold. A thousand scenarios crossed her mind. The palace was full of people from the other nations. Sure, there was peace now, but how many people still resented the Fire Nation? And how many would want to take out that resentment on the Fire Princess, the only heir?br /"Oh no," she whispered. She glanced at the empty futon and the rest of the room. All was in place, no sign of a struggle. Even the kris still hung in its sheath on the /Zuko balled his fist. He was doing his utmost to remain calm, but Katara knew he'd be blasting down the walls in a minute. She took a deep /"Let's check the bathroom first," she /There was no one in the /"Where is her nanny?" Katara asked. Zuko's face had become grim and pale. Through clenched teeth he said: "She usually tidies up Mai's room after putting Hanabi to bed."br /"We should check there, then. And maybe the other rooms too. Do you want to split up?"br /"No," he said decidedly. Katara could hear the unspoken span style="font-style: oblique;"'I'm not losing you, too'./spanbr /They hurried to the royal bedroom, but when they came to the door they heard a quiet sobbing behind it. With big eyes they looked at each other. Then Katara slowly pushed open the /The room hadn't been in use since the funeral. Zuko slept in Katara's room, and only the maids had come in to clean. No one had had the courage to start sorting out the Fire Lady's wardrobe /On the bed lay a big heap of clothing. Silks, brocades, linens, from thin underdresses to richly embroidered ceremonial robes. The air was filled with the musky perfume Mai used to wear on formal occasions. Amidst the clothing was Hanabi, wrapped in one of Mai's favourite black ao dais, her face buried in the pillows. She was sobbing /Zuko carefully walked up to the bed and sat down beside her. She didn't give a sign that she'd noticed their presence, but when he softly put his arm around her back, she limply let go of the pillow and allowed her father to press her close against him. He slowly rocked her and shushed quietly. "Shh, sweetie. I'm here. It's okay."br /"I can s-still smell her," Hanabi sobbed. "How can I still smell her, when she's never coming back?"br /Katara sat down next to them and stroked her /"She'll always be close to you, even if you can't see her. The people who love you will never really leave you."br /"I couldn't even say goodbye," Hanabi wailed. "I was only hurting her. And now she's gone! She must still be angry at me."br /"No, she's not," Zuko said. "I know she's not, because she told me."br /Hanabi /"She told me that she loves you, and that she's proud of you," he continued. Katara nodded. "Yes, she told me the same."br /"Really?" Hanabi asked with big wet eyes. "When?"br /"Just before she… went away," Zuko said. "She said you were everything she ever wanted in life, and that you had made her happy."br /This made Hanabi cry again. She buried her face in Zuko's neck and tightly grasped his shirt. He held his arms close around /Zuko looked at Katara. "Could you let everyone know I won't be at dinner on time?" he quietly asked. She nodded and stood up. She pressed a kiss to Hanabi's temple and caressed her hair, then left./p
p style="border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 15.12px; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; list-style: none; margin: 1.286em auto; padding: 0px; line-height: 1.5; color: #2a2a2a;"Dinner without the Fire Lord was an awkward affair, but after Katara had briefed him Iroh took care of things gracefully. After what seemed like hours Zuko entered the hall again, his clothes wrinkled and his face still dark. He sat down next to Katara without saying anything, only grasped her hand under the table and did not let go. He finished his meal without /"Come outside with me," he said to her when he had dismissed the nobles with a curt nod of his head. "We need to talk."br /Sokka overheard. He pulled a face to his sister, but she shook her head. He gave her a sympathetic look, then joined Suki, Iroh, Piandao and Jeong-Jeong for after-dinner /Outside, in the dark evening air that had cooled down already, Zuko could breathe again. He held on to Katara's hand until they reached the turtle duck pond, plopped down into the grass and leaned back to look at the /"Katara, it's a good thing you'll never be a mother," he said. She blinked, slightly hurt, but he continued. "There have been too many dead mothers in this palace. My grandmother died when she gave birth to my father. My aunt, Iroh's wife, died of a fever before I was old enough to even remember her face. My own mother- you know. And now Mai. It's a curse, I'm sure of it."br /Katara shook her head. "It's terrible, but I don't think…"br /He cut her off. "Of course. Aang's been here often enough, if there was anything wrong with this place he'd have known. Uncle has a connection with the Spirit World too. I trust them."br /"Then why do you say this?"br /"I don't think Hanabi should stay here. The palace is too full of memories for her. When my mother had gone, seeing all those familiar places without her in it became torture. I'm sure she's going through the same now."br /Katara remembered how empty the fireplace in their tent had looked, and /"She's going to school after summer, isn't she?"br /Zuko pursed his /"I'm not sure if the Fire Nation Royal Academy for Girls is a suitable place for her, honestly. Of course the curriculum has been changed in recent years, but I still don't like sending her there."br /"Then where would she go, if you don't want to keep her here?"br /"I was thinking of asking Master Piandao. She likes him, and I trust him. His school is in a beautiful place and it's not very far from here. He and Jeong-Jeong can teach her everything she needs to know."br /Katara drew her knees up to her chest and tapped her lip, staring at the reflection of the stars in the /"She's only five years old…"br /"She'll be six soon. Honestly, I think getting out of the palace is the best thing for her now. After my mom had gone, I wanted nothing else but to run away. What about you?"br /Katara thought back on all the bleak mornings she had stared at the sea, wondering what on earth kept her in the village. Only a sense of duty and fear of the unknown had held her /"You might be right. A change of scenery, like Ty Lee said."br /"Exactly."br /She looked at Zuko sideways. "Do you know I made a promise to Mai?"br /He eyed her curiously. "No?"br /"I promised her that I would take care of you and Hanabi. She asked me to."br /Zuko didn't say /"So sending Hanabi away to school, even if we know it's good for her and she would like it, feels like I'm breaking that promise. Like I'm leaving her."br /"You promised to take care of her. Not to stay with her at all times."br /"That is true…"br /"Is that promise also the reason why you won't admit that you want to go back to the South Pole?"br /She inhaled sharply. Of course he saw through her, there would be no use in /"It is a factor," she /"So you do want to go back."br /She nodded. "I want to see my father again. I haven't seen him in years and I miss him. I want to feel the cold wind bite my nose and hear the snow crunch beneath my boots, I want to wear fur and leather again. I miss the taste of seaprunes and seal jerky…" Zuko pulled a face and Katara punched his shoulder. "Don't give me that look! You've never even tried seal jerky!"br /"I'm not eager to," he laughed, but then he became serious again. He gazed at the pond for a minute, then looked back at /"Would you stay here if I asked you?"br /He saw the conflicting emotions play across her face. She bit her lip. There was longing in her eyes, sadness, but also love and something like gratefulness. Then /"Yes. I'll stay if you ask me."br /Completely unexpected, he turned and grabbed both sides of her face, kissing her hard. Kissing was still something they shied away from, even holding hands or hugging caused emotions to rile up, so Katara gasped and stumbled backwards. Zuko wrapped one arm around her waist to keep her upright and placed his other hand at the nape of her neck, digging in her hair. He kissed her hungrily, like he had been starving for weeks and she was an oasis, and after the first few seconds of surprise Katara returned the kiss. Her knees turned weak. She held his arm, felt the muscle under the fabric of his sleeve and a fire started in her stomach. She pressed more closely against /"You would stay…" he said between kisses, a little out of breath. "You would stay if I asked you, even if you didn't want to. You would do that for me."br /His lips had traveled from her mouth down her cheek to her neck, and articulating was hard, but she managed to say: "Yes. I won't leave you if you need me."br /He kissed her collarbone and closed both hands around her /"Then it's a good thing I won't ask you," he said. She stopped kissing /"What?"br /He stepped back a little, loosening his grip on her but still keeping his arms around /"I won't ask you to stay. I love you, Katara, and I love you even more because you'd be willing to stay for my sake, but I don't want you to."br /She blinked, unable to /"You'd come to resent me. If I was the reason you couldn't return home, then this place, and my love, would start to feel like a prison. Wasn't it the same with you and Aang?"br /She nodded /"Don't make that mistake twice, Katara. You sacrifice yourself for the people you love, but it's not necessary. I will never ask you to give up anything."br /She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him /"Thank you."br /He coloured and looked away. "Not to say that I won't miss you terribly…"br /She caressed his cheek. "I'll miss you too. And I'm worried. How will you feel when you're left here all alone, with both me and Hanabi gone?"br /"I won't be alone. Uncle said he'd stay here for a while, and it's not like I have to be locked in my office all day." He shook his head and smiled. "I needed you before, I couldn't deal with everything on my own. You've been a great support to me. But I'll manage now."br /"Are you sure?" she asked. He nodded /"You can go back with Sokka and Suki after the festival. As the Fire Lord, I dismiss you from all obligations here."br /She stepped back and made a curtsey. "I am honoured by your generosity, Your Highness," she giggled. Then she hugged him again and pressed a last kiss to his /Arm in arm they walked back to the palace./p