Summary: Twelve years after the final battle, Zuko summons Katara to heal the victims of an epidemic spreading throughout the Fire Nation. [Katara/Zuko
Rating: T for Teen
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of Nickelodeon, not me. No profit is made by this story.
Notes: This story begins with a Katara/Aang pairing. Have no fear -- it quickly disappears. Keep the faith!
Katara's eyes opened slowly. Hay prickled her face and she couldn't hold back a sneeze. Disorientation ruled for a moment before she remembered where they were -- the stable. Pale pre-dawn light seeped in through one unshuttered window. In a little while, the children at the Southern Air Temple orphanage would start their morning chores. Beside her, Aang lay awake on his side. He stared at her with beautiful, clear eyes that had not changed in ten years. He smiled before saying in a sad, resigned voice: "I've just had a talk with Roku."
Perhaps from her husband's tone, or perhaps because she knew that any discussion held between the thousand and one Avatars almost never meant anything good for anyone, a cold weight settled in Katara's stomach. Aang took her hand. "Roku says that I spent too much time with Appa in the iceberg," he said. "Every Avatar is connected to his animal guide. But apparently I shared too much of my own energy with Appa while we were in the iceberg."
She pushed herself up on her elbows and studied the giant sleeping animal. Foam dribbled from one corner of the great beast's mouth. His breath shuddered in and out with a wheeze like a dry hinge. He was the last of his kind, and where once there had been numerous monks who had shepherded hundreds of flying bison into the world, there was now only one, and he could ask none of his predecessors how to treat his friend's illness. "When Appa goes, I'm going with him," Aang said.
"No," Katara said. She straightened up and looked at Aang. He sat up to listen. "You need to talk to Roku again. There were a thousand other Avatars, and a quarter of them were airbenders. They know how to treat flying bison. You can ask them for help."
Aang looked at Appa, then his wife. He rested one hand on the bison's enormous paw, and squeezed Katara's hand with his other. "It doesn't work that way, Katara."
She withdrew her hand and crossed her arms. "You're the Avatar. Make it work."
"I can't." He shrugged. "It's my time."
For a moment Katara thought she would end Aang's life right then and there with her own two hands, if he could let it go that easily. "How can you say that? Don't you want to live?"
"Of course I do. I love this world."
And that, she realized with clenched and trembling fists, was the core of the problem. Aang loved the world. He loved her, yes. He loved Sokka and Toph and Iroh and even Zuko. He loved the orphans of war for whom he had re-opened the Southern Air Temple. But he also loved blades of grass and drops of dew. He loved every partially-frozen frog used to treat fevers, and every stinking hog-monkey squealing from every tree. He loved every speck of dirt of the long and difficult path that they had walked together. And he loved them all equally.
"You loved this world enough to save it, but not enough to try to stay?"
Aang frowned. "That's the wrong way to think about it."
"Why? Is it not enlightened enough? Is it not detached enough for the Avatar?"
"No," Aang said in a measured voice, and she knew from this single syllable that he responded gently only out of strong self-control, "it's not peaceful enough for an Air Nomad." He stretched a hand over the hay surrounding them. Air swirled beneath his open palm. Inside the miniature whirlwind were tiny hayseeds. They were almost translucent and Katara needed to squint to see them. "This is what our lives are like," Aang said. "Your life, the Fire Lord's, everyone in this world -- even me, the Avatar -- we're like this." He bent the air again, and blew the seeds away on a soft breeze. Katara did not see where they fell. "We're seeds carried on the universe's breath. We're small. We have great potential, but we are only subject to the whim of forces beyond our control."
He let his hand fall back to his lap. "At least, that's what airbenders say about death."
Through silent, angry tears Katara said: "Well, the Water Tribe thinks about it a little differently." She stood. Ignoring Aang's pleas for her to wait, she put one foot in front of the other and strode out into the misty dimness of the temple. In the early morning light, each monk's statue looked especially disappointed in her. She pulled her cloak a little tighter, and climbed the steps to the highest tower. A slight boy with dark hair and golden eyes stood in the middle of the room with a heavy leather glove on one hand.
"Sifu Katara!" he said, straightening. "I was just about to feed the dragon hawks, ma'am."
"I'm not here to criticize, Rizu."
The boy's shoulders fell as he exhaled in relief. "How can I help you?"
Katara cast her glance around the room. Inside their elegant cages, the dragon hawks shuffled on their perches. Not for the first time, she felt a little chilled when staring at their hooded eyes and cruel beaks. "Which of these is the fastest?"
Rizu grinned. "That'll be Zin, ma'am. The Fire Lord sent him specially."
She nodded. "Good. I have a message for General Iroh."
She sat at a tiny table while Rizu slid on his glove and carefully unlocked Zin's cage. It sat at the furthest end of the room, and even in the room's cloistered shadows she could see that he was the largest of them. Rizu chirruped and extended his arm into the cage. A tiny wedge of fear formed in Katara's throat as he did so -- she had seen the Fire Nation orphan tend his beloved hawks any number of times, but she still thought of them as dangerous creatures. The feeling passed when the hawk jumped onto Rizu's arm and let the boy stroke his throat. Rizu cooed reassuringly at the hawk and smiled. Aang has made something beautiful here, she thought. And I can't protect all of these lost children without him.
Rizu turned to her. "Have you written your message, ma'am?"
"No," she managed to say. She quickly drew a brush, ink, and paper close. Her hand took up the brush, dipped it in water, and swabbed it over the ink stone. The brush hovered over the empty page. The situation now felt more real than it had in the stable, when Aang had explained his imminent demise in the same calm, careful way he might tell a child the rules to Fireball. How do I tell him that Aang is dying? A droplet of black ink dripped down and spattered where it fell.
"Are you all right, Sifu Katara?" She looked up. Rizu seemed blurry until she blinked and realized to her horror that she had been weeping. "Your hands are shaking," Rizu said.
The Avatar is dying, a scared child's voice within her shouted. We just got him back, and now he's going to leave us! And he's fine with it! He's just going to abandon us and not give a damn, because that's what Avatars do!
Katara ignored the petulant, terrified voice within and summoned the reserves of courage that had served her so well against Azula, Ozai, and all the others. She used it to smile and say in a steady voice that everything was fine. She held it there until her hand had scrawled the words, rolled the scroll, and tucked it into its ivory carrying tube. She marshaled it long enough to tie the tube to Zin's impatient leg, smile at Rizu, and sweep herself down the high tower and into her own bedroom, where she could finally let herself shriek into her pillow.
General Iroh arrived weeks later. He brought a tank full of new toys and spicy Fire Nation candy. He replenished the temple's tea stocks. He even let the youngest children hang on his leg as he trudged up the winding path from the rope-and-pulley lift at the summit's rim. The sight of him as he finished the ascent surrounded by laughing orphans, his body still round and thick and jovial, almost cut her off at the knees. She fisted her hands to keep from running toward him and throwing her arms around him -- something she had never had the chance to do with her own father after he left, a small part of her noted. His wife, his son, his brother and niece, and now Aang -- will Iroh outlive all of us? Katara greeted Iroh in the courtyard and he presented her with a single panda lily. "I saw an old friend on the way here," he said, tucking it into her hair.
Katara tried to remember a time when she had hung on Aunt Wu's every word. It seemed so very long ago. "And what did she say?"
Iroh took one of her hands in both of his. They seemed terribly old now, dry and covered in liver spots. "She said your story is not over," he said. "Now, Lady Katara, let us see the Avatar."
"Where's Zuko?" Sokka asked when Iroh had finished his pleasantries.
"I want to know where he is, too," Toph said, folding her arms. "I thought Sparky and Twinkletoes had made up."
"Prin--" Iroh seemed to catch himself, and smiled ruefully. "Fire Lord Zuko is in the middle of trade negotiations with representatives from the Earth Kingdom," he said. "They should be finished in a few days. When he has hammered out a new agreement, he will join us."
"In case you hadn't noticed, we don't have a few days," Sokka said in a terse whisper. He pointed at the stable door. "Aang hasn't left that stable for weeks. He's sick, and the least Zuko could do is show up to say-"
"Quiet!" Katara hissed. She gave her brother the hard stare that usually brought him in line. "I didn't invite you all here so that you could fight. Aang has convinced himself that he's dying, and he refuses to do anything to stop it. We're his family -- we have to remind him of his attachments to this world. Without a reason to fight this illness, Aang will let it overtake him."
Sokka and Toph nodded. Iroh looked uncomfortable and shifted his weight from one foot to the other before nodding in agreement. Katara took a deep breath and threw her shoulders back. She drew aside the heavy bolt closing the stable doors, and pushed them open. "Aang, you have visitors," she said.
"Hello, everyone," said her husband's thin voice from the hay-scented shadows, and the others dashed forward. Katara moved to follow, but Iroh's hand stayed her.
"We need to talk," he said.
Katara turned. "I know," she said. She drew him aside. "Did your research yield anything? Have you ever heard of something like this happening before?"
Iroh's hands found his sleeves. "My experience of the Spirit World is not nearly as vast as the Avatar's, Lady Katara. I see only what little the spirits reveal to me -- enough to know that their world is nothing to trifle with."
Her eyes narrowed. "You're not answering my question."
"Only because I know you will not like my answer."
She barely repressed a snarl. "Are you this evasive with your Fire Lord?"
"Only when I want him to see the truth for himself," Iroh said. Katara's mouth opened, but he held a single finger up. "Lady Katara. The truth I want you to see is that your husband, the Avatar, must gather his energies to prepare himself for the next leg of his journey. If he does not establish a strong sense of himself before death, he will be of no use to the next Avatar as a mentor. Avatar Roku did not have this luxury -- why do you think that Aang needed to visit the temple to speak with him at first? It was because he was cut down before he was ready."
Katara frowned. "So, if Aang fights this illness but dies anyway, he can't mentor the next Avatar?"
Iroh nodded. "Yes. I'm sure that Roku has communicated this to Aang." He sighed. "More importantly, Aang is the last airbender. The airbenders were very particular about what to do with a body after death. Like the firebenders, they cremated it. But then, the friends and family used their abilities to send the ashes far away, where the wind could disperse them." Iroh's eyes settled on her heavily. "That way, the airbender could leave this world in peace knowing that his family had truly let him go."
Anger threatened to overwhelm her. "We'll let go of Aang when we're good and ready! In case you hadn't noticed, he's more than the Avatar -- he's the caretaker of these children! Children the Fire Nation orphaned!"
Iroh quickly hid his shock and hurt, but not before she noticed. Instantly, a wave of shame soaked her and put out her anger. "I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "That was a low thing for me to say. But…"
"But you're wondering how you will possibly manage once Aang is gone," Iroh said.
It hurt to admit it. "Yes."
Iroh put a hand on her shoulder. "I am not saying that letting the Avatar go will be easy," he said. "I am saying that you will need to respect his traditions the way he has respected yours. Aang is the last of his people, but he has done everything he can to keep their ways alive -- he still refuses to eat meat, wears his nomadic colors, and shaves his head."
Katara did not mention how far Aang had gone to protect the last hope he had of preserving his people. His most selfish desire was not for Katara, but for more airbenders. Aang had asked for her hand only after completing an unsuccessful worldwide quest to find fellow survivors. The reason for their marriage remained a secret to all but Sokka and Toph. Katara and Aang cleaned their own rooms -- not even the children on laundry duty knew that the Avatar and his wife slept separately when not trying to conceive, and that they had not tried in years.
As though reading her mind, Iroh said: "Of course, he married. That is very unusual for one raised by monks. But I think it far wiser to choose a wife like you than to live alone."
Katara smiled mirthlessly. "Even if I can't save him in the end?"
Iroh squeezed her shoulder. "When you brought the Avatar back to the world, you saved us all," he said. "Without your strength, your friend could not face this final challenge by himself."
Despite herself, Katara felt herself beginning to cry. "He's not by himself," she said. "We're all here!"
"Death is the final secret, Lady Katara," Iroh said. "It is one all of us learn in solitude."
Days later, Aang opened his eyes and said: "I've been conserving my energy, Katara."
He said it in the same tone he had used as a child when he asked her to watch what he would do next. Penguin-sledding, riding an elephant koi, fashioning a necklace -- it took her years to see those appeals for love for what they were. "You don't have to show off for me any more, Aang," she said.
He smiled. "I know. I just want to make things a little easier. Could you open the stable doors, please?"
Puzzled, she stood and unbarred the heavy doors. She threw them wide. Sunlight washed across the stones at her feet. "Like this?"
Aang nodded. He stood. He looked so terribly thin and pale that her knees almost buckled, but she firmed her stance in the way of all waterbenders and waited. Her husband brought his arms up gracefully, and drew a deep breath. And in the single second between knowing what he was about to attempt and opening her mouth to protest, she watched the last airbender send a ten-ton flying bison coasting through the air to the courtyard outside. Aang came with him and so did some hay. Aang floated -- an autumn leaf on a breeze, dry and brittle but still bright -- until he settled in his old place between Appa's horns. The bison made an affirmative sound, as though they were setting off on a journey together. Katara ran after them.
"Why?" she asked, staring up at her husband.
Aang smiled tiredly. "When Zuko comes, he and Iroh will know what to do," he said.
"No." She shook her head until her braid whipped around her. "You can't do this."
"You're right." His gaze softened. "I already let you go once, Katara. I can't do it a second time." Aang frowned, and patted the space beside him. "I forgot my glider. Can you get it for me?"
She had already turned to run away when she heard a softly murmured "Yip, yip." She spun just in time to see her husband fall to one side as the animal beneath him sighed its last. A gust of wind tore through the Southern Air Temple, knocking her to her feet. When it left, the air seemed cleaner and colder than it had before, and she did not find the strength to stand until her brother came and called her name.
Zuko arrived at sunset. The children noticed his war balloons first. Rationally, Katara knew that she should meet him as she had met Iroh. But as the hour passed she continued staring at the two bodies of her friends, and only spoke with the Fire Lord when he fell on his knees beside her. She watched Zuko bow until his forehead touched the stones. He remained that way for a long time, and she thought he might be weeping. But when he rose his face was dry, and only the left half of his face shone in the glossy, melted way of all scarred flesh.
"There was so much I hadn't told him, yet," Zuko said, staring straight ahead.
"I know," she said. She turned, and suddenly they were back in a crystalline cave, regarding one another as people for the first time. "He forgave you years ago, you know. We all did."
His lip twitched as though she had struck him, but after a moment he said: "I have yet to deserve your forgiveness, or his."
Katara had no idea what to say. In the years after the war, she and Aang had come to think of Zuko as a distant relative of sorts -- never really available, and sometimes difficult to understand, but harmless. Since saying this would have been condescending at best, she said only: "Aang knew you were coming. He said you and Iroh would know what to do. I'm not sure what he meant."
Zuko blinked, and glanced at Appa's magnificent corpse and the much smaller one atop it. "I am," he said. "Leave it to us." He turned to her. "When is the funeral?"
"Tomorrow," she said. "Your uncle is in the kitchen preparing a feast."
Zuko rose. "I will go and help him." He lingered there for a moment as though he had something further to say, but turned on his heel and left. She heard from him only hours later when Iroh, covered in flour and spatters of cooking oil, told her that his nephew wished to eulogize the Avatar.
"Let him," she said, thinking of the things left unsaid between the Zuko and Aang, and wondering how she had come to live in a time when the Fire Lord spoke for the Avatar at his passing.
The day dawned bright and clear. Katara wore her old blue dress like a coat over a simple white shift, and covered her hair in the beaded veil she had worn the day of her wedding. After trying unsuccessfully three times to braid her hair, she let it hang loose.
In the courtyard, Appa's horns were adorned with flowers from the garden, and the area at his feet was spread with his favorite fruits and the sweet cakes Aang had liked. Sokka stood with something in his hands and knelt, laying it down carefully.
"What is that?" she asked.
"It's a piece of unfried dough," he said. "You know, to commemorate the day the Avatar was not cooked in oil."
Katara almost laughed, but it turned to tears too soon because Sokka was crying loud enough to drown out the sound of birds. They crouched on the stones and wept together. A distant part of her realized that they had not done this since hearing of Hakoda's demise, but that earlier loss had been easier to bear with Aang there and a world to save. Now there were different responsibilities entirely -- mouths to feed, children to comfort, an enclave to protect and other benders to train. Small tasks, not nearly as dangerous as defeating a blood-thirsty Fire Lord and his conniving daughter, but terrifying all the same for the way they seemed to never be finished.
Over Sokka's shoulder, she saw Iroh escorting Toph to the courtyard, and many children following them. Zuko brought up the rear. Fire Nation orphans surrounded him. He looked as though he hadn't slept. When the children, youths, and those who volunteered at the temple had settled in the courtyard, Katara stood and thanked them for their attendance. She had no idea where her voice came from or how she managed to stand without wavering, but she watched Sokka set his shoulders as she spoke and saw the uncertainty leave Toph's face, replaced by the steadiness Katara loved. She took a deep breath and announced that the Fire Lord had journeyed far to bid farewell to the Avatar. When she sat, Sokka took one of her hands and Toph took the other. She held on tight. She had the strangest feeling that if she let go, she might fly away.
Zuko ascended the dais slowly. He wore a robe of pure white, and the delicate crown circling his head gleamed. He surveyed the courtyard for a moment. The assembled children straightened under his gaze. He drew a deep breath before speaking.
"In the Fire Nation, we learn that the fire that burns brightest also burns most briefly," he began. "This proverb could not be truer for Aang, the last airbender.
"Fire was the final element that Aang mastered, but in many ways it was the one most suited to him. For Aang was the light in a world shrouded in darkness. He kindled hope wherever he stood. His warmth could thaw the coldest heart.
"The Avatar's duty is to bring balance and harmony to the world, and it is a testament to how far we had fallen that Aang displayed such a peaceful, loving spirit. He was the perfect hero for his age -- a man who could both punish injustice…and forgive those among him who least deserved his kindness." Zuko's voice roughened a little there, and Katara watched him take a shaky breath. It was the only visible clue to his grief, aside from the tears streaming silently from his unmarked eye.
"I had the strange fortune to know Aang as both opponent and ally," Zuko continued after a moment. "In both cases, Aang proved to be an inspiration to better myself. For a long time, I thought that chasing the Avatar meant winning honor for myself. But now, I see that what I was chasing was not the Avatar, but rather what the Avatar means to us all -- the peace, love, and hope that he strove daily to instill in others. What I wanted was not a trophy, but an example to follow. All Fire Lords should be so lucky to see such a fine example of true leadership in their midst.
"For although Aang was the last of his people, and though there can be only one Avatar at a time, Aang's strength lay not in his uniqueness, but in his ability to encourage excellence in others. He did not fight or win his battles alone. Instead, he relied on the diverse talents he recognized in his friends. He respected the efforts and sacrifices made by his companions. He reminded us of our potential and unlocked it in everyone he met. That strategy is one we must remember as we turn to face our destiny without him at our side.
"I know that the world seems darker now with the Avatar gone. But the gifts Aang left us with do not fade with time. Like stones that remain warm long after the sun has set, we hold the Avatar's light within ourselves. The wisdom he imparted to us -- that we are all worthy of mercy, that we all must take care of the land and each other -- remains with us despite his absence. And like the first star of night, Aang's love for us continues burning from a distance. It may seem unreachable, but it has already conquered the darkness, and it will always be there when we think all hope has vanished."
Katara could scarcely breathe for the tears, but a quiet voice within said: This is why he is the Fire Lord. This is why Aang trusted him, and why Iroh loves him. Aang was right -- Zuko did know exactly what to do.
"There is no way for me to repay the many favors that Avatar Aang granted me in his short time," Zuko said. "And now, I am ashamed to say that I cannot perform my final gesture of respect alone. I must ask for my uncle's assistance."
Iroh rose. He nodded at Zuko and lumbered over to Appa's other side. The two men bowed and assumed firebending postures. As one, they sent jets of flame straight for Aang and Appa's bodies. The pyre roared. The children scooted backward to avoid the heat. Zuko and Iroh remained long after Sokka and Toph had herded the children toward the funeral feast, making sure the fire never went out. Katara knew this because shortly after dawn, when the Avatar and his animal guide were only a great pile of ashes, a pair of strong arms that smelled of sweat and smoke lifted her from the ground and carried her to the room prepared for Zuko. Hours later she awoke there alone.
After bathing and eating, Katara found Zuko on a small landing high above the main courtyard, directing a group of men and women in Fire Nation colors. She was surprised to notice that much of the pile of ash that Aang and Appa had left behind had already been taken by the wind. She had thought it would take longer. The others in the courtyard below avoided the mound, and she saw the way Zuko's eyes looked everywhere but at it. Upon catching sight of her, Zuko dismissed the soldiers. They jogged away in separate directions.
"Who are they?" Katara asked.
"Your new garrison," he said.
Part of her bristled at his choice of words. "We're not a colony."
He sighed. "I know that. I should have said that they are your new guard."
She frowned. "Guard?"
Zuko gestured at the misty peaks surrounding them. "You're isolated, here. There are thieves and renegade Fire Nation soldiers. I'm not leaving you unprotected."
"I'm a master waterbender-"
"You are one master waterbender, surrounded by children who need you," Zuko said. "Fear of the Avatar kept outsiders in line, Lady Katara, but with him gone the threats increase tenfold. You need help." He squinted into distance. Near the stable, Iroh demonstrated firebending tricks to a group of Fire Nation orphans. "You have firebenders here who don't know the most basic safety procedures," he said in a gentler tone. "They haven't had parents and teachers instructing them in the rules they should have learned from birth. If I leave my best people here, there's a chance they'll learn."
For the time being, she decided to ignore his dismissal of her gifts and his paranoia about the threats he perceived in the outside world. She also decided to ignore the way he called her Lady Katara -- Fire Nation men were so stiff and formal. "Your best people?"
He nodded. "They are part of my retinue," he said. "Iroh trained them personally to guard me and the palace."
Katara sputtered. "Are you insane? You can't just leave them here! You'll be in danger the moment you set foot on your balloon!"
Zuko shook his head. "My uncle is surer protection than an army of firebenders," he said. "And there are more guards waiting for me at the palace." He withdrew a small bag and handed it to her without looking her in the eye. "There is more of that as well, if you need it."
Katara opened the bag. Inside was a cluster of gold pieces. Her pride wanted to tell him that they didn't need his money. But her manners said: "Thank you. Your name will be honored along with the other donors on the day of gratitude."
"Your donations will drop once the world learns that the Avatar no longer lives here," Zuko said, looking away. "Tell me when that runs out. I'll send more."
"Zuko, Aang never asked for reparations," Katara said. "And I know that you've had to lower taxes to maintain favor-"
"That isn't Fire Nation money, it's my money." He swallowed. "It used to be Ozai's and Azula's and Zhao's money. I made it when sold their possessions or melted them down." His hands clenched and unclenched. "I stripped their ships, their rooms, anything I could find. I took apart Zhao's house. You could be carrying his gilded toilet seat, for all I know."
Zuko never gives up, her brother's voice said inside her mind. She should have known that Zuko would take his vengeance -- and his penance -- this far. She hefted the bag. "Is Ozai's crown in here?"
"It was the first thing I melted."
A tiny smile touched her lips. "Thank you."
Zuko nodded. He watched a dragon hawk make a wide circle high above the temple's blue spires. "I meant what I said yesterday." He looked down at the courtyard where Aang and Appa's ashes sat. "For the longest time, I thought that all I had to do was find the Avatar, or figure out Azula's game. I thought that when I finally did those things, it would all be over. I would have won."
Something like a smile tugged at his mouth. "But now I see that it's never over. The problems a Fire Lord has to solve would have confounded Azula. My time searching for the Avatar was idyllic -- I could be my own man. Now I worry over the price of rice and who will farm it, since most of the eligible men are dead or wounded and the Fire Nation has no hold over the Earth Kingdom's land."
He faced her. "The Fire Nation has a hunger it cannot sustain. Our former enemies are laughing at us. The one man who could have negotiated a settlement is dead. I'd kill Ozai all over again for doing this to us."
"Zuko," Katara said. Uncertain, she took a step forward. She rested her fingers on his scar for a moment. Then as now, he closed his eyes and went perfectly still. Sighing, she let her arm fall and wrap itself around his middle, where her other arm joined it. His own arms closed around her a moment later. She laid her head on his chest and heard his heart hammering inside.
"I'm scared, too," she whispered.
As though hearing an important cue, Zuko tightened his grip. He seemed to surround her. His fingers dug into her middle, and his chin rested on her shoulder. To her surprise, Katara felt something within her let go. The awkwardness the Fire Lord usually inspired within her vanished. She held him closer, the way a small part of her suspected she always should have, and sighed. Zuko did the same. They stood together until an especially harsh mountain wind tore the veil from Katara's hair, and Zuko's hand reached out to catch it. Carefully, he looped it over one arm before handing it back to her.
"A woman my sister's age already the Avatar's widow, and the Fire Lord clinging to her like a child," he said. "What a strange world we live in."
"It's the world we agreed to look after," Katara said.
He nodded and squared his shoulders. "I have to leave tomorrow," he said. "If I stay any longer, my uncle will take it upon himself to train all your firebenders and commandeer your kitchen."
"And we can't have that."
"He's my best general. I can't lose him to a group of orphans, no matter how charming they are." His smile was genuine now, if barely visible. "You've done well with them."
"I had good practice," she said, without thinking.
Zuko gave her an odd look, but had no chance to ask anything further. Rizu arrived with a message from the Fire Nation that set Zuko's teeth on edge, and the Fire Lord excused himself. Katara saw him only briefly the next day, at dawn when he and Iroh left. "There is always a place for you at the palace," Iroh said, taking hold of her shoulders. "Don't let these children run you ragged. Even a master waterbender needs her rest, and the residential wing at home is built over an excellent hotspring!" Iroh turned to Sokka and Toph. "That goes for the both of you, too!"
"I'm down," Sokka said.
"Me too," Toph said.
"Wonderful! We'll have a feast! I can-"
"Uncle," Zuko said. "We should go before the winds change."
Iroh rolled his eyes before settling his gaze on Katara. "You must let us know the moment you need anything," he said.
"Good." Iroh smiled, and quickly enfolded her in a hug. "You've grown up so fast, Lady Katara," he said in her ear. "I never met your parents, but I'm sure that they are proud."
"Thank you," she whispered.
He pulled away, hugged Sokka and Toph (he lingered with her, too) and ascended Zuko's war balloon. Zuko held her eyes for a moment, nodded, and sent a jet of flame into the balloon's cavern. Katara watched them fly away as children from all over the temple ran from their various places, waving and shouting their goodbyes. She stood staring until the red balloon became the size of a copper piece in her vision, then turned away and let her charges lead her by the hand.