Hakoda squints in the firelight; Kanna's hand pauses mid-stir over the pot of five-flavor soup, and on their father's other side, Sokka looks up, surprised out of his concentration on the blubber jerky he's been devouring.
"The…the whole city? They want to throw a week-long festival for Katara?" Hakoda's voice carries the disbelief of everyone in the room, save for two.
Iroh nods. "They wish to honor her for her service and loyalty to the Fire Lord, immediately after his Agni Kai with Azula."
Katara stares at her plate. The flush is sweeping up her cheeks as she can feel everyone's eyes on her, but even worse are the tears clawing their way up her throat until her own eyes sting.
"It doesn't sound like I've got much of a choice," she says.
Iroh looks surprised. "No one is going to force you, Master Katara." His voice is mild, but she can read the confusion just beneath the surface.
She closes her eyes, and tries to ignore the memory of a red sky, of orange and blue fire, of hot cobblestones under her knees, of tragic, horrible screams echoing in the dry, hot air, of the rattling in his chest as his heart fought desperately to keep beating.
Her father looks worried, but also confused, and she wishes she could tell him.
"I'll go." She is surprised at how strong her voice is, but she is not surprised when the look on Hakoda's face tells her that he's not buying the act, not anymore. She swallows and faces Iroh, her voice more sure and her shoulders rolled back in an effort to remove the weight of guilt.
"When do we leave?"
The voyage takes two weeks.
In a way, she can tell her father is happy – it brings back memories of the war, which are mostly bad, but there were a few nights with his crew where they told stories, where they thought about home and wives and children, of the things they had left behind to protect. He and Sokka both give the engine room a thorough inspection, and Katara makes a mental note to recommend the captain for a raise and promotion when she sees Sokka trailing behind him day after day.
In the early evenings, she finds a quiet place on deck and practices her bending. Her grandmother can't quite believe how far she has come, and watches her in something of a trance. Once they reach warmer waters, Katara practices less and less – the others think it is just because the heat makes her tired faster, but Sokka comes and finds her one day, tucked behind one of the smokestacks.
Her knees are drawn under her chin, her water pouch lies discarded beside her, and her eyes stare at the faint, dark smudge on the horizon, the smudge that grows closer and closer every hour, the land that she once feared – still does, but for entirely different reasons.
"He'll be thrilled to see you," Sokka says, quiet as he sits down, close but not invading her personal space. Few people can read her like her brother can; he knows she is not hiding from a tangible person or object, but from memories.
She sighs. "I know."
"It's just, I don't know, it's – " she shakes her head, allowing the horizon to blur as her eyes glaze over. "I kept in touch with his healers, after we left."
Sokka grunts in surprise. "That bad, huh?"
"You and Toph and Suki only saw him a week after it happened," Katara says, her voice soft with the power of those memories, those seven days she sequestered the two of them inside the palace, refusing help from any servant, any guard because she couldn't afford to trust anyone, doing her best to heal him and keep herself alive without taking time to rest in between.
"Yeah, I remember. You were exhausted." Sokka was scared senseless when he found her.
"I was, but he…" Katara wonders if it will ever get easier, talking about this. "He almost died. His heart stopped, I had to restart it I don't know how many times, and I had to tell the healers what happened, but you and Dad…I don't know. It was harder, somehow."
"But he's okay, thanks to you."
"I know," she chokes. "But he almost….he almost wasn't, because of me. And that's worse."
Here begins the territory that's unknown to Sokka, the part of the story that no one outside the Fire Nation has heard, though she knew it was only a matter of time when she left to go back home. Word travels, and war stories will be told round campfires and on freighter ships until every person in the world knows what Master Katara did for the new Fire Lord.
She fights the burning in her throat at the thought of people knowing why she had to heal him in the first place.
"Katara," Her brother isn't a bender, but his voice, low and steady, reminds her of the tides. "What happened during the Agni Kai?"
She wipes the sudden dampness beneath her eyes. "Azula shot lightening at me."
She can hear Sokka's breath catch, can see the color drain from his face as he remembers the only references he has to that kind of injury – Iroh, at the Earth Kingdom ghost town, Aang's weeks spent comatose below deck, and of course the most recent one, an irate firebender kept on bed rest by an even more irate waterbender and constant babysitting. She knows what's going through her brother's head now – picturing one of those starburst-scars mottling her own flesh, the dark pink blooming across deep brown.
"How – "
"I was stupid," she says, and wipes her nose on her sleeve, the wool rough and scratchy on soft skin. She relishes the sting. "I was supposed to be behind one of the columns, but I was so sure that he would need me – I was standing, just standing there, and she…she was just toying with him, but she was so…well. She wasn't herself. And he tried to push her, to get her to throw lightening because he knew how to redirect it, and he's good at it, you've seen him – "
Sokka nods. Aang might have the Avatar spirit to aid him in his firebending, but….
Zuko doesn't need it.
"But, I…I got in her line of sight, and she threw it at me, instead. Zuko was too far away to catch it, so…."
"Tui and La…" Sokka stares at the horizon. "He just…ran for it? Let it hit him?"
"I-I don't know," Katara admits. "I was behind him, but I think he at least tried to redirect it, but most of it…you saw him."
"And Azula?" He already knows the answer.
"I dealt with her." Katara's voice is quiet, remembering how dark that day was, no matter how brilliantly red the sky had turned. "I was terrified I was going to kill her, but I didn't. I chained her up and got Zuko inside."
The details of the battle are insignificant. Sokka doesn't say anything else, only slides closer and lets her cry a little on his shoulder.
They watch the sun pass its midday mark, watch the Gates of Azulon pass by, only this time there are no fireballs, and in fact several ships they pass cheer and wave, all for the waterbender who saved their Fire Lord.
Katara thinks she's going to be sick.
A short time later, and she's despondently scuffing her toes on the cobblestones, trying not to think about the fact that the servants sent to escort them from the harbor to the palace insisted she walk in the front of their little entourage. Normally this would be her father's place, with his children on either side.
But no. No, Master Katara is the guest of honor, and from the time her feet touch this soil until they leave it, she will be treated better than the Fire Lord himself.
It's enough to make her want to scream, but Sokka is close by, and every so often he lets his arm bump hers, reminding her she's not alone. Their father is on her other side, and keeps sending looks of concerned confusion her way, but thus far he hasn't said anything.
She can also feel Gran-Gran's eyes, boring into the back of her skull. Her grandmother was provided a palanquin, though she insisted the curtains be drawn back so she could take in the city. The servants immediately complied, which only confirmed Katara's suspicion that Zuko gave strict orders on how Gran-Gran was to be treated. The thought makes her smile a little.
Fire Lord Zuko, usurper of Ozai, Heir of Dragons, bloodline of Roku, and a master bender and swordsman in his own right, reduced to a softie by an old woman.
His nobles would have a field day with that one, she's sure.
All too soon, they reach the palace steps. And just as she feared, he's waiting for them. For her.
Odd, she's more tempted to run away now than she ever was at any point during the war. Zuko is her friend, and a good man, yet at this moment she would rather face an entire squadron of soldiers.
She's surprised that he's standing alone; a glance at the crowd gathered in the courtyard tells her that Mai isn't in attendance, and her curiosity distracts her a little from the way her heart is trying to climb up her throat.
"Welcome, Chief Hakoda, Lady Kanna, Master Sokka." Zuko bows deeply, then shocks everyone – including his own officials – when he steps forward and holds his hand out.
Numbly, she lays her own hand in the cradle of his warm fingers; he squeezes gently before bowing even lower.
"And welcome, Master Katara."
"Th-thank you," she manages, and even remembers to hold her chin up when he turns and escorts her up the stairs, with her family trailing behind them.
He keeps the act up until they reach a lounge somewhere deep in the right wing of the palace – the residential wing, Iroh explains – and the moment the doors are shut behind them all, Zuko's shoulders slump and he sighs.
"Thank Agni." He smiled, so big and genuine that it makes her pulse stutter. He's let go of her hand already, but now he comes closer to wrap her up in a hug. "Hey, Katara."
Despite it all, she can't help but smile, and hug him back. "Hi, Zuko."
Sokka is next. "Sparky!"
"Meathead," Zuko acknowledges, then turns a more serious, but no less genuine smile on Hakoda and Gran-Gran. The latter pulls him in for a tight hug, patting his face and exclaiming that he's getting thin and isn't eating enough. Iroh watches it all from the sidelines, smiling fondly, and in a few minutes a stream of servants comes in, leaving trays of food and drink on the low table.
Zuko sinks onto one of the cushions, motions for them all to join him. Katara intentionally chooses a seat between her father and brother; Sokka notices and pokes her knee when they're all settled, but nobody else makes anything of it and for the first time since she left the South Pole she thinks she might be able to eat something. She can almost pretend this is like old times, meals eaten around the campfire after a long day of training Aang. Uncle makes tea, Zuko tries not to laugh at Sokka's lame jokes, and Katara spends half her time making sure everyone's plates are full even though that's not her job anymore.
Old habits die hard.
Once they finish the main course, Zuko turns the conversation to business.
"So, Katara, as you've probably gathered, this…this is kind of a big deal. I'm ashamed to say it wasn't my idea, but I'm also pleased that my officials are willing to do this for someone outside of the Fire Nation. It's sign of progress."
Katara doesn't know how she manages to swallow. "I – that's, um. Good."
He looks at her a little funny, but continues. "The Fire Sages are wanting to do some kind of ceremony, they haven't told me exactly what, but it's some big symbolic thing where they express their gratitude for you saving my life."
He says the words so simply, so casually, and Katara thinks that if he had reached inside her chest and ripped out her heart, it couldn't have possibly hurt more than his nonchalance.
Zuko keeps talking, but it sounds muffled, like her head's underwater and he's speaking to her from above the surface. She stares at her gold plate, the pile of khomodo chicken and the steamed peppers, willing the tears in her eyes to recede before anyone sees them.
She blinks quickly, swallows, smiles. "Sorry, it's been a long trip," she shrugs lightly. Sokka cuts his eyes at her, and Hakoda doesn't look entirely convinced, but Zuko's worried frown relaxes into one of sympathy.
"Of course. How stupid of me – you can hear all the details tomorrow. The servants can show you to your rooms. Get some rest."
She's not about to argue; she all but scrambles to her feet, murmuring something polite to the others, and follows the silent maid down the hall. Her rooms are luxurious, and indoor plumbing is enough to brighten her spirits for a little while, but all too soon boredom strikes. After a couple of hours, the moon rises. It's just past a half moon, but she's still restless enough that she eventually gives up and changes into training clothes and creeps down the hall.
The courtyards and gardens are beautiful, white stone shining in the moonlight, fountains bubbling softly, and Katara almost wants to hate him again for how perfect it all is. She goes through her stretches, bringing the water around her like a cloak, floating just above her skin. Its sheen and coolness soothe her, but she doesn't take long before moving on to more complicated forms. Liquid whips crack against the ground, small tidal waves move from one end of the courtyard to the other, and when she spins to freeze a miniature geyser, she jumps and yelps in surprise.
She takes a deep breath. "It's okay."
Hakoda smiles gently, watches her return the water to its source with undisguised awe. "Your mother would be so proud, of the warrior you've become."
Despite the stress and the headache she's had for the past five days, Katara feels her insides glow at his praise. Not many Water Tribe men will use the term warrior when referring to the daughters of their people, much less one of the chief. Over the past few months, her father has been asking her and the other women to sit in on village council meetings, which was met with mixed reactions from the other men. But Hakoda allowed no room for argument, saying that if his teenage daughter was able to save the Avatar and defeat the Fire Princess, then the women are able to help them decide on trade agreements with the Earth Kingdom and on how much seal-jerky to store up for the winter.
Hakoda watches as she pulls puddles up from the pavestones, soothes the turbulent surface of the koi pond. There's a small family of turtle-ducks in the shallows that are probably traumatized by her display; she smiles at the babies who peek from under their mother's wing.
"Are you all right?"
Her father's voice reminds her of Sokka, but less of the tide and more of the ice that surrounds and founds her homeland, resilient and sturdy. Ice has born the weight, the sorrows and the fears of her people for generations, and perhaps it is this knowledge that has Katara's soul unburdening itself.
"It's my fault, Dad."
The balmy evening is far from silent – the distant hum of late-night city life, the buzz of insects, the various sounds that accompany a massive palace like this one closing for the day. But her father doesn't say anything for several long moments, and his silence rings in her ears.
"You didn't make him run for it, sweetheart."
Her breath catches, jagged and sharp in her throat. "Wh – you know? How?"
Hakoda sighs, and drops to sit on a decorative boulder. "I was…concerned. And you may look like your mother, but you're more like me than you realize, Katara. I could tell this was a burden you were too afraid to share. So I asked Iroh."
Part of her wants to be angry. After all, she is no longer a child, to be discussed by adults when she's not around to hear them. But then her father looks at her, and she sees the soldier he had to become for their people reflected in his eyes.
And she understands.
"It…it's just that – I'd never ask him to do that for me. Ever."
"I know," he replies softly.
"A-and, I – for a second, I really thought I was going to die. And it was okay. I mean…n-not that I wanted to, I know you and Sokka and Gran-Gran would be heartbroken, but I'm – I wasn't next in line for a throne anywhere, I – "
I don't matter as much as he does.
For a long time, neither of them speak. But when he does, the seeming change in topic startles her. "Katara," he ventures slowly, "we…we've never talked about when your mother died."
He eyes her, cautious, but she doesn't stop him. In her bones she knows this conversation is long overdue.
"I didn't…" Hakoda clears his throat, and Katara resigns herself to the fact that she will likely be bending tears away from both their faces before the end. "I never realized just what happened, in the tent before your mother sent you to find me."
"If I'd known, honey…" her father's voice breaks. Katara comes closer, perches on his leg like she used when she was a small child. She buries her face in his shoulder, lets him hold her tightly. She wonders how he does know, but it doesn't really matter. "Your mother…she loved you and Sokka with every breath in her body. The last thing she would want would be for you to blame yourself."
"But, she wasn't the last waterbender – " Katara tries to say through the mess of snot and tears.
Hakoda gently shushes her. "But she was your mother. And, sweetheart, as much as I loved and miss her, I was never once, in all these years, angry at either of you." He smiles sadly, wipes his thumb across her face. "Tara, one day I pray you'll be a mother, and when that happens, you'll understand why what your mother did to protect you, wasn't because of anything you did – it was because she loved you."
Deep down, Katara knows that. She's been repeating those words as a mantra to herself for years. But hearing it from her father, remembering the cold rain and the crying of a pitiful man who neither loved nor hated anything, is nothing short of liberating.
She leans her head on his shoulder again, and she thinks that's the end of it. But after a few moments, he catches her off guard once more.
"So why is it so hard for you to forgive yourself for what happened to Zuko?"
Her head jerks back up, but the knowing look on Hakoda's face gives her pause.
"Because…" she stammers, "b-because it's different."
She fights the urge to bristle at his questions, forces herself to sit and think and answer honestly. "Because…he, well – he would have done it for anyone."
She knows that's true; Zuko is so blind to the man he's become that his integrity is his most glaring, obvious trait to her, like she's trying to compensate for the fact that he still sees himself as a spoiled, angry teenager.
Hakoda hums, and nods slowly. "Well, you're both right and wrong there."
She frowns. "What?"
"Zuko told his uncle all about that day," Hakoda tilts his face up to the moon. "He said looking back, he knew there was time to redirect the strike. He just…he couldn't think to."
"What does that mean?" she asks, trying to stem the rising tide of panic in her chest. "Why couldn't – "
"Because he was scared, honey." He smiles sadly again, but the look in his eyes tells her that the reason for that horrible, sinking feeling in her stomach, the chill in her bones she hasn't been able to shake since the comet…
She almost spits the word, and finds herself standing ten feet away without any memory of getting up. Hakoda looks at her sympathetically, and it makes her want to cry all over again.
"Katara, it's not that far-fetched of an idea," he says soothingly.
She shakes her head, stamping down the urge to panic and run back to her room. "No, Dad. I – he doesn't, not like – he can't."
"Why not?" Hakoda doesn't sound pacifying anymore; now he sounds genuinely confused. "You ended things with Aang months ago, and he's not with Mai – "
"That doesn't – they're not related." Katara breathes in, imagines the ebb and flow of the tides. Better. She clears her throat. "Zuko doesn't love me."
"You wanna bet?" Hakoda says drily, one eyebrow quirking. It's uncanny how much Sokka resembles him.
She sighs, and runs one hand across her forehead. "Even…even if he did now, which I don't think he does….he didn't love me back then. He couldn't have. Aang was just…he was everywhere, and Zuko was a friend. A good friend, one I could talk to and rely on, but that's it. He was carrying all this baggage around over abandoning Mai, I was busy trying to keep Aang motivated. It just wouldn't have worked."
Hakoda frowns. "You're talking like you had to come up with reasons not to be with him, despite the fact that it was what you wanted."
She stares for a long time at the pavestones. When she finally looks up, she can't hide the tears in her eyes any longer. "It was the middle of the war," she says softly. Her father inhales, sharp enough for her to know that he's hurting for her. "Things…things don't always happen the way we want them to."
"Sweetheart – "
"And I really don't want to talk about this anymore," she declares abruptly. Hakoda pauses, unsure of his next move; he got up to come closer and one of his hands is still reached out towards her, but Katara doesn't take it. She's afraid if he lets her, she'll start crying again and she's not sure how she'll stop this time.
"All right," he finally says, soft and regretful.
Katara clears her throat, nods, and scurries away without so much as another hug.
Back in her room, she cries herself to sleep, but she'll be fine.
It's not as though it's the first time, anyway.
The worst thing about Fire Nation ceremonies is how intricate they are. Even though she's the guest of honor, she's forced to sit through three days of lessons on how to walk, kneel, bow, prepare her speech, and various other etiquette-related details that nobody really cares about except the Fire Sages.
Katara doesn't mind, since her mind is too busy and numb to worry about anything else. It's hard to obsess over your broken heart when all you have time to think about is which way to rotate her teacup during the banquet.
The festival – she'd thought maybe Iroh was exaggerating, but no, the city of Caldera is holding a week-long festival in her honor – doesn't start for another two days, but she only sees her family at mealtimes. Gran-Gran is spending her days with the servants, teaching them Water Tribe cuisine and helping with the constant pile of housework and mending.
Sokka and Hakoda follow Zuko around all day; he doesn't seem to mind, and whenever she passes them in the halls they're always laughing and elbowing each other in the ribs.
Her father always catches her eye in those moments, and she can see his plea but she turns away, giving her brother and Zuko a brief but cheerful greeting before making her escape. It's not exactly pleasant, but she makes it work until the night before the festival is supposed to start.
She snuck out to bend again, and exhausted herself with the more advanced forms that she's not practiced since the war. Now, she's seated by the koi pond, gently swirling the water as the baby turtle ducks play in the faux current. Their mother is on the shore, next to Katara's foot, watching her young contentedly.
It's a humid evening, more so than usual, and she eyes the starless sky. Not even the moon, now almost a full circle, is visible. The wind is stiff, batting her hair loops against her cheeks and rustling the trees; it smells like smoke and salt – like her homeland and this one, and yet the balance is soothing. She's not sure what to make of that.
Her hand falters, just barely, before she hitches a smile into place and aims it over her shoulder at Zuko as he ambles across the courtyard towards her.
"Can't sleep?" He lowers himself to the grass, pats the mother turtle duck affectionately.
She shrugs. "It's almost full moon."
He hums, digs a loaf of bread out a pocket and starts tearing off pieces to throw to the babies. "I guess I can relate. I can't sleep much past sunrise."
She eyes him. "So…then why are you up so late?"
Zuko exhales, and she sees the faintest hint of smoke at his nostrils. He settles in, bends his knees and wraps his arms around them, and turns to look at her.
"I've been trying for the past week to figure out what's bothering you."
Her breath catches. "Oh – um, Zuko – "
"I finally decided it would be easier to come ask you," he admits, "even though I wish you'd just come to me about it. We're friends, right?"
Katara has no idea how she manages to keep a straight face. "Of course we're friends, Zuko. I'm fine – I've just been busy. There's a lot to get ready for the festival."
"Is it too much? I tried to the persuade the Sages that you didn't need lessons – "
"No, no," she assures him. "I'm glad for them. Knowing my luck I'd accidentally insult Avatar Roku or something."
He grins, but only for a moment. "Are you sure, Katara? Your dad and Sokka have been telling me how busy you've been back home, teaching combat and still taking healing lessons and helping run the village…this wasn't advertised as a vacation but I still wish you had time to relax more."
"That's why I come out here," she says, leaning back on her hands; the baby turtle ducks are more concerned with the chunks of bread that Zuko's tossing them than with her water tricks. She can smell rain now, on the wind. She's excited – it doesn't storm like this back home. "It's different, bending here."
And it is. Water blurs together at the South Pole, simply because it's all that her environment is made of. It can be hard to feel the water she's bending as opposed to the frozen water beneath her feet.
Here, though, the water moves through the air with a sharpness, a distinct flow that makes her pulse thrum and quicken; she can distinguish her element from the rocks and the earth, from the lit torches that line the pathways in the distant gardens, from the sticky air that makes her hair curl on the ends. Here, waterbending is refreshing because it's so different from everything else around it.
Zuko nods, understanding, but the concern doesn't leave his brow. "Would it help more if you had a sparring partner?"
She raises her brows – there were a few times on Ember Island they had a four-way bending match, for Aang's sake. Just the two of them, one on one…
That hasn't happened since Ba Sing Se.
He must catch what her look means, and smiles uncertainly. "Oh. Uh – you don't…I'm not going – only if, like, you want, or – "
She stands up, slings her waterskin back over shoulder.
By the time she faces the length of the courtyard, he's already in place on the other end. She can see his smirk from here, and it prompts one of her own. She uncorks her skin, twirls a small globe above her palm.
"Do you have any dramatic dialogue scripted, or is this all improvised?"
Zuko rolls his eyes, and calls back, "Leave the jokes to Toph. You're worse than Suki."
She gasps, pretends to be mortally offended, and hurls a shaft of ice right as the first clap of thunder shakes the ground.
They spar for what feels like hours, the rain coming down in torrents and making her feet slip on the pavestones. The air is thick with steam, hissing off his shoulders as the rain pours down and at one point she has his arms pinned, hands encased in ice, and she tries to loop a water whip around his neck to pull him down but he spits fire, golden heat curling out of his mouth. The whip shatters, the ice over his hands is reduced to puddles, and he goes on the offensive.
She steps back, onto sodden grass. Her hair is plastered to her back and neck, rain drips into her eyes but she tosses her head, and pulls the steam out of the air, turns it to ice and catches a fireball, throws it back at him.
He slips in the mud, flails to keep from falling, and she giggles. He hears the sound, over the rain, and his grin is blinding even in the darkness; a wet leaf gets blown into her face, right over her eyes, and she hears his shout of laughter as she peels it away.
She's about to shove him backwards with a well-placed tidal wave when the sky illuminates. The white line, jagged and sharp, shoots across the black canopy above, and a split second later, there's a deafening crack.
Numb, she watches the tree behind her split in half, one massive limb tearing away as though the lightning sliced it from the trunk.
She hears a shout, her name, distantly, but it's muffled by the sound of the severed branch cracking and splintering as it falls, bringing several smaller limbs with it.
She barely has time to take one, two steps away when something collides with her midsection, and she tumbles to the ground, sliding across the grass and mud.
Disoriented, she begins to take mental inventory of her body, but she doesn't feel any pain, so did –
"Are you all right?"
She blinks, looks up. Zuko's hair is dripping water down the bridge of his nose, his shirt is stuck to his torso, his gold eyes shine bright in the dark. He frowns.
"Katara?" he calls, louder. "Are you hurt?"
The fog clears, and Katara sits up so quickly he has to scramble backwards to avoid head-butting her.
"What in Koh's name were you thinking?"
He pauses, confused at her tone. "I – "
"Are you out of your mind? Why would you do something like that?"
The first flicker of indignation begins to spark in his eyes. Good, she thinks. Let him be angry.
"Sorry I didn't want you to get crushed by the three ton tree limb," he snaps.
"I can take care of myself! And look – " she points at the small gash on the back of his leg, aware that her voice is on the verge of hysterics but unable to do anything about it. "You got hurt for a stupid reason, and now I have to heal it and explain to your staff why I wasn't the one – "
"Don't be an idiot," he interrupts her, fully annoyed now. "They don't expect you to be my personal bodyguard, and it's barely a scratch. Would you calm down already?"
Katara grits her teeth, well aware that as far as injuries go, this one is hardly more serious than a papercut. But he's bleeding, and it's because of her.
"I won't calm down," she spits, "until you get it through your thick skull that you're not supposed to protect me."
He throws his hands up. "Well, what am I supposed to do, then?"
"Gee, I dunno, maybe remember that you're the first decent ruler your country as had in a century and they need you?"
Zuko's mouth snaps shut on whatever retort he had ready, and she watches the disbelief creep onto his face.
"Is that really what you think?" he asks, quietly. "That we don't need you?"'
She doesn't want to answer, not while he's looking at her like that. Instead she climbs to her feet, wipes her hair out of her eyes. The rain has lessened some, more of a steady drizzle than a downpour, and she reaches down to pull him up with her.
"Come on," she says, suddenly weary to her bones. "I need to get that healed."
"Wait," he tugs on her hand, pulls her back to stand in front of him so he can look down at her. "Katara, is that really what you think?"
"It doesn't matter what I think," she says, trying to free her hand. He won't let go.
"It matters to me," he tells her, and she makes the mistake of looking up at him. A worried Zuko is something she's never been able to argue with, and the downward curve of his mouth only makes the guilt spike sharper in her chest.
She draws a shaky breath, prays that he won't hear the catch in her voice over the rain.
"Look, I appreciate it, Zuko, really. But I'm not a ruler anywhere, and it's not fair for you to keep risking your life for me like that."
He shakes his head, bewildered. "Katara, I told you it's barely a scratch. I'm fine – "
"But you weren't," she bursts, unable to hear any more of his reassurances. He falls silent, suddenly realizing that she's not talking about this night.
Against her better judgment, Katara runs her free hand down the front of his shirt, rests it over the scar she knows is there. "You died." Her voice trembles. "You died, and it was my fault – "
"Hey." His other hand cups her chin. "I'm here."
She swallows the tears. "I know you are. You're always wherever it's the most dangerous, because you think nobody cares about you or that the world's better off without you, but – "
Zuko is suddenly looking at her strangely. "I know people care," he ventures slowly, like he's not sure what they're talking about anymore. "I know – Katara, I didn't do it because I thought nobody needed me."
"Then why?" she demands, curling her fingers around his shirt. "Why would you do that?"
For a long moment, he just looks at her. Then he licks his lips, says hoarsely, "Your family…and Aang…would have been devastated."
She drops her hands, his touch suddenly unbearable. She hates herself in this moment, nauseous over the fact that she was hoping, dreaming he'd prove her father right.
"Well, I'm sure they were all grateful," she says, unable to keep the bitter edge out of her voice. "And so am I, by the way. Sorry if it sounded like I wasn't."
Zuko looks like he feels like he's missing something, and is struggling to catch up. "What – Katara, I – "
"Anyway, looks like you were right, it's already stopped bleeding," she points weakly at the gash on his calf, "So I better go get some rest. Goodnight."
She turns and runs away before he can even begin to answer, wondering when she became such a coward; she distracts herself by bending the water that drips from her clothes and hair up off the floor, depositing the puddle into the sink of her bathroom before changing into dry clothes and crawling into bed.
This night, she cries until her throat is raw, but sleep doesn't come.
The festival is every bit as exhausting as she thought it would be. Every day is packed with rituals, luncheons and formal dinners, dances and public appearances. People throng her, asking her to bless their children, to demonstrate how she turns water to ice and back again, to tell them a hearth-story of her people. It's touching, their genuine interest in a culture so different than their own, especially considering how they've been force fed the superiority propaganda for so long.
So, yes, it's exhausting. But it's also a great deal of fun, and Katara stays so busy she doesn't get a chance to talk to Zuko until the last day of the festival.
The morning begins with a parade, one that ends at the new Water Tribe temple constructed in the middle district. The building is beautiful, and Katara spends longer than she's probably supposed to inside.
She stands in the middle of the main room, unable to choose her favorite feature. There's a waterfall in the corner, emptying into a trough that runs around the edges of the room. A pond along the opposite wall is filled with koi and water lilies, and the floor is a blue and white marble mosaic. She looks up – the roof is domed, white marble on the inside, to resemble the moon. She smiles, but then notices something…she gasps when she realizes the ceiling is carved in the design of a young woman.
She wonders if Sokka noticed.
By the time she returns to the palace, she barely has time to change – Zuko had the finest blue silks and linen brought in for her, and she has to admit the finery is much more comfortable than her usual wool and furs. As soon as her hair is in place, the maids usher her out to the plaza where the crowds roar at her appearance. She smiles and waves hesitantly, taking her seat beside Zuko.
Katara can feel the tension rolling off of him in waves; she feels bad, but determines to force her way past the mess she's made.
"The temple is beautiful," she murmurs softly. The old councilman on his other side doesn't need to know that the Fire Lord and the guest of honor are arguing.
Zuko relaxes, but not much. "I'm glad you like it," he replies. "Sokka almost cracked one of my ribs when he noticed the ceiling."
Katara smiles, relieved. "I can imagine. He's – "
"Can we talk later?" he blurts. She feels her eyes widen.
"Oh…um, I – "
His eyes are earnest, pleading. She can't say no.
They sit and watch the ceremony, an ancient dance ritual performed by a class of preschool children who stumble and bump into each other, losing track of the beats when they spot their mothers in the crowd. It's adorable, and the teachers beam with pride when Zuko thanks them.
She wishes there was more time, but for lunch she's been invited to eat with Zuko's council. It's a seven-course formal meal, and Katara wonders how on earth she's going to eat anything if her stomach is all in knots.
The maids help her into the blue gown, braid glass and shell beads into her hair, and she feels almost ready when she steps into the hall. Zuko's waiting for her, which is new but still isn't surprising, and she even manages to smile when he tells her she looks lovely.
The lunch goes well, all things considered. One or two members served under Ozai, but Zuko warned her so she's not taken aback by their veiled barbs. For the most part, the others are gracious and welcoming, and if she makes any social fumbles no one remarks on it. She's almost chalked it up to a success when one of the older councilwomen clears her throat.
"Master Katara, the story of how you saved Lord Zuko and defeated his sister has been retold so many times since the war's end that it's become nearly impossible to separate fact from legend. Would you mind giving us your version?"
Katara wouldn't be at all surprised if she accidentally froze the contents of her wine glass. She manages to hide the tremble in her fingers as she sets down her chopsticks; out of the corner of her eye she sees Zuko looking at her with obvious concern. She flashes him a smile.
"Um. Well…first of all, Zuko and I had planned to fight Azula together. Then she challenged him to an Agni Kai, and before I could even ask to talk about it he accepted."
"That sounds like him," a middle-aged man puts in, good-naturedly glaring at Zuko. "Rash decisions are his specialty."
Zuko grins. Katara forces a small laugh.
"So…so anyway, they start the duel, and I was standing on the sidelines wondering what I'm supposed to do now, because obviously I couldn't help, but I didn't want to just go sit and wait for it to be over. So I sort of hovered, in the back, only…."
She falters; she stares at her plate until the gold finish and the gleaming tabletop blur together.
Startled, she jerks her head up. The councilwoman is leaning toward her, looking concerned.
"Are you all right?"
Katara takes a shaky breath. "Y-yeah, I'm fine, I – "
"Katara." Zuko says it so softly she almost doesn't hear him, so softly it reminds her of how he sounded that day when she finally got his heart started again and his eyes opened and he thanked her, as if it wasn't her fault to begin with.
"I'm sorry," she whispers. She doesn't know who the apology is aimed towards, but she gets up and flees before anyone can say anything else.
She makes it all the way out to the garden – funny, how she's come to think of it as her garden in the short time she's been here – and sinks to her knees beside the koi pond. The baby turtle-ducks recognize her, swim closer in hopes she'll play with the water for them again.
She smiles faintly, curls her fingers and watches them bob on the soft current. The mother watches from the shadows, the koi nothing but bright swirls of color beneath the rippling surface.
She's not surprised. But that doesn't stop the dread from sinking into her stomach, thick and heavy. She sighs, and stands so she can turn and face him.
He ditched his crown at some point on the way out here; he's still in his formal robes but they're all askew, and her heart squeezes almost painfully when she realizes that he practically sprinted here from the dining room to make sure she's okay.
Which, of course, she is not, but it's the thought that counts.
"Zuko, I'm so sorry, I…I'll explain. I've just been tired lately – "
He interrupts her, ignoring her entire sentence. "When you say it was your fault…what did you mean?"
She blinks. "What?"
"This," he taps with one finger on his chest. "How was this your fault?"
Katara swallows. "Um…well, I….I was standing – out in the open. If I'd stopped to think, I wouldn't have – "
She fumbles to a halt when Zuko shakes his head.
"Azula went after you because she knew I'd do anything to keep you safe," he sighs. "It wouldn't have made any difference where you stood."
The look in his eyes sends a shiver down her spine. She has no idea if it's the good or bad kind.
"When it comes to you…" he shrugs. "I'm predictable."
She swears the earth's axis just tilted under her shoes; it feels like she's standing crooked and she can't get it straight again no matter how hard she pulls things back towards normal.
It's the first time all week he's looked nervous, but even so he doesn't break eye contact. "Because I love you, Katara. I have for a long time, ever since the Western Air Temple."
"You love me?"
He eyes her warily. "Yes."
He must pick up on the hopeful uncertainty in her voice, because his gaze softens and he takes a few steps closer until he's just outside arm's reach. "Really."
"That's why you saved me?"
"Yeah." He smiles gently at her, his face so open and warm and full of affection she almost wants to cry again. But she can't, because she's too busy smiling.
"Why did you save me?" he asks.
"Because I love you, Zuko. I have ever since Ember Island."
The words come easily, but she has to keep herself from gasping once they leave her lips; she feels for a moment more like an airbender than she ever has before, light and free from the weight that's been there for so long she stopped noticing it.
Zuko looks at her searchingly. "You love me?"
Katara smiles – it feels so good to smile again. "Yes."
She half-expects "Really?" but instead he simply grins.
And then he kisses her.