Thank you for reading and reviewing!

This chapter went through some changes.

Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender or any of the characters.

Chapter Twenty

Aching Distance

Guilt was the first thing Katara felt when she woke up the next day, followed by sadness. She should have told Aang that there was nothing to think over, that she would not change her mind and marry him. She felt horrible for leading him on and letting him continue to think that she had feelings for him. But she did not want to hurt him. That fearful look in his eyes had twisted her insides in guilt and she had been unable to repeat herself to him that she did not love him—never had. She was afraid of what his reaction would be if she were to deny him. She remembered that hurt and frustrated look he had given her when he had unexpectedly kissed her the first time they were at Ember Island almost four years ago and how mad he had gotten when she had chastised him for it. She was not sure what he would do now. What if he hurt himself or accidentally hurt others?

Pulling the blankets away, Katara slowly got off her bed and sighed. The young woman absentmindedly pushed her slightly mussed hair over her shoulder as she looked at the nightstand where she had placed the golden necklace Aang had given her the night before. She picked it up, frowning at it. The topaz gem that dangled from the center glinted softly from the small amount of sunlight that came through the window, and she closed her eyes when the color of the yellow stone made her think about the warm color of Zuko's eyes.

With a shake of her head, Katara opened the nightstand's small drawer and quickly placed the necklace inside, gently shutting the drawer firmly closed. Her eyes lifted again and immediately caught the shine of the silver rose hairpin that also rested on the nightstand. She stared at it for a while as the trinket brought images of Zuko to her mind. She reached for it, but stopped midway, retracting her arm back to her side. She instead stood up, made her way to the small frozen window in her room, and splayed her fingers against the smooth and cold surface of the ice.

How was she to tell Aang that the reason she could not accept his proposal, the real reason why she could never return his feelings, was due to the undeniable fact that she was deeply in love with Zuko?

Moving away from the window, Katara made her way to her dresser so she could get ready for the day. She wondered if perhaps she could ask her Gran-Gran for advice or even Lady Ursa, but she had no idea on how to begin telling them everything that was bothering her. She was afraid of what they would think of her, being in a relationship with Aang while she was in love with Zuko.

Katara touched the smooth blue pendent of her necklace and sighed. If only her mother still lived, if only she were there to comfort her. Her beloved mother would have listened to her with no judgment in her eyes and with a sympathetic smile on her beautiful face. Even though she loved a firebender, the Fire Lord no less, Katara was positive Kya would have supported her, even though it had been a firebender who had ended her life. She was sure her mother would have adored Zuko—despite his taciturn personality.

"Zuko," she sighed.

A sad smile appeared on her lips as she remembered the time they had spent together the previous day with the tribe children. She closed her eyes and touched the left side of her chest. The more she learned about Zuko, the more time she was around him, and the more she got to see of him, the more her love for him grew. But it did not matter. Zuko would never return her affections. A sharp pain went through her.

The waterbender opened her eyes and caught the longing expression on her face in the mirror's reflection. What should she do?

"You're leaving? Why?" Katara asked with a frown as she turned in her seat to stare at the unreadable expression on the silent Fire Lord's face.

"I received an urgent letter from the Fire Nation and I must return immediately," Zuko responded coolly without raising his gaze from his plate to look at her. He was afraid of what he would do if he looked at her.

They were eating in the grand house dining room and the morning laughter had died when Zuko had announced that he was leaving the Southern Water Tribe with Lady Ursa, Iroh, and the rest that had come with him. They had tried to persuade him to stay for a while longer, but he had been firm in his decision to leave.

Hakoda and Pakku glanced at each other, both wondering if the young ruler was having even more problems with his country and why had he not asked for their help. Kanna stared at the young Fire Lord with a raised gray eyebrow as she tried to figure out the sudden change in his behavior. Sokka and Suki looked at one another with frowns at the unexpected news before they gazed down at their sleeping twins, carrying one in each of their arms.

Toph crossed her arms over her small chest and scowled deeply since what Zuko had said was true, but she could also sense that he was lying.

What does that mean? Is there another reason why he's leaving? Toph grumbled in her head.

Iroh, Ursa, and Jee looked down at their breakfast plates with confused expressions. They had been informed the previous night about the change of plans by a morose-looking Zuko and they all wondered what was really going on.

Aang sat quietly in his spot with a calm Momo on his shoulder. He had mixed feelings about Zuko's departure, and so he had remained silent during the entire meal. On one hand, he felt like he should talk to Zuko about his suspicions and perhaps they could resolve their problems and return to the friendship they shared before, but another part was glad that Zuko was leaving so Katara could pay more attention to him—attention that she had recently been giving Zuko.

However, the one that was most affected by the thought of Zuko's departure and resulting absence was Katara. Her heart had almost stopped when Zuko announced that he was leaving and she pushed her plate away, no longer hungry as sadness settled in her chest. Why was he leaving all of the sudden and why had he not told her before? Though his presence caused her some pain since she knew they could never be, she did not want him to leave.

"But the Winter Solstice Festival is next week," Katara said quietly.

Zuko clenched his hands at the sound of Katara's sweet voice laced with sadness and hurt, and he resisted the urge to go to her and comfort her. It was not his place, but her...future husband's. His insides twisted painfully at that and he took a quick drink from his teacup before he replied to her.

"I know," he responded with the same impassive tone. "I was really looking forward to it and I apologize for being unable to attend the Winter Solstice Festival."

With you, he added forlornly, still unable to look into those cobalt eyes of hers that he had come to love immensely.

He just couldn't, afraid he would break down if he were to see the happiness in her eyes due to her...engagement. He wondered why Katara and Aang had not announced the news to everybody, but he was glad they had not said anything yet. That was the reason why he was desperate to leave as soon as possible. He would not be able to bear hearing the news of her upcoming marriage to another, especially coming from the mouth of the woman he was irrevocably in love with.

"We understand. Duty comes first, after all," Hakoda spoke up since it seemed his daughter would not—or could not—say anything else. "We just hope that you could solve whatever problems that are troubling you."

"Thank you," Zuko responded simply as he resumed his breakfast, all except Katara doing the same.

A few hours later, the entire tribe gathered along the docks to bid farewell to the young Fire Lord they had come to respect. The crewmembers ran about the deck of the Fire Nation flagship as they followed the orders Jee was directing to them. A few gray clouds were spread in the morning sky, indicating that snow would descend upon the city soon.

Iroh watched his nephew carefully as he grasped Chief Hakoda's forearm in farewell while the two exchanged some words. He shifted his eyes to the side and frowned when he saw Katara's saddened look on her face as she continued to stare at Zuko with a confused expression.

"Iroh," Ursa's voice made him looked away so he could glance at her. "Is it true about the urgent message?"

The retired general sighed as he glanced back at his nephew who was now being embraced by Kanna. He would have chuckled when Zuko tensed and awkwardly hugged the old woman back had the situation been different.

"The message was important, but I do not believe it was that urgent that we need to return to the Fire Nation so soon," he told her.

Ursa frowned as she looked away from her friend's face as she, too, stared at her son.

"Then why are we leaving?" she asked softly.

"That I do not know, my dear Ursa," Iroh responded with a deep frown. "Zuko won't say."

Katara watched as Zuko said his goodbyes to everybody else and she felt her anxiety grow when he began to near her. There was something off about Zuko and she wondered what it was that had caused him to be acting so strange, so distant, so…cold. Everything had been fine the previous day—he had even played with her and the children—but now he seemed more reserved than usual and he had not smiled once since the morning. She did not like what she was seeing and she was afraid that he was reverting to the way he used to be before.

Zuko moved away from Toph—who had punched his arm when he refused to give her his real reason for leaving—and hesitantly made his way to where Katara was standing. He made sure to avoid looking into her eyes as he approached her. Some part of him was telling him he was making a mistake and that he should have a talk with Katara, but another part kept replaying what he had seen the night before, which made him determined in his decision to leave the Southern Water Tribe, return to the Fire Nation, and forget everything.

"Well, I guess this is goodbye," he stated emotionlessly as he stared at a point over her head.

"Zuko, what's going on? Why are you acting like this?" Katara hissed quietly as she narrowed her eyes at him when he kept avoiding looking at her.

"I don't know what you mean," Zuko replied in a low tone as his own eyes narrowed. "This is the way I always am."

"No, it's not!" Katara exclaimed low enough for only him to hear. "You're even more uptight and colder than ever! That's not you!"

She sighed when Zuko did not respond.

"Why are you leaving all of a sudden? What happened?" she asked more softly.

Zuko closed his eyes briefly as another image of Katara and Aang embracing flashed in his mind.

"Nothing happened," he said dispassionately. "I'm leaving because I am needed in the Fire Nation." It was not the whole truth, but he could not tell her the real reason.

"I understand that…" Katara began as she continued to search Zuko's face for any possible hints as to why he was acting so strangely toward her.

His behavior was hurting her and she wanted to know why he was behaving in such a way. She had finally realized that she was in love with him and now it seemed that something was pulling him away from her. She would never get to tell him what he meant to her.


"I'm sorry I won't be able to participate in the Winter Solstice Festival," Zuko interrupted as he glanced back at his flagship that was ready for departure. He briefly glanced at her face and frowned slightly at the look of sadness that he found there before he looked away again. No, he will not raise his hopes up and misinterpret the look to be something it was not.

"Perhaps we'll see each other soon," he said.

"Uh, I…" Katara began again and frowned.

"Goodbye, Katara." Zuko smiled sadly and then in an even more emotionless tone he said, "I wish you much happiness."

"Huh?" was Katara's reply as she stared at him, confused. What was that supposed to mean?

Zuko lingered for a second before he turned around and began to quickly make his way to the awaiting ship, motioning for Ursa, Iroh, and the rest to follow him. He had almost reached his arms out to embrace her, but he had been able to stop himself before he caused himself more pain.

Katara watched as the large Fire Nation vessel began to move away from the docks while the people waved and cheered. She stood there unmoving until her brother's voice reached her ears.

"Did you guys notice that something seemed off about Zuko?" Sokka asked as he turned to look quizzically at his family who was watching the ship sail away as well.

"Zuko, wait!" Katara called out after she came out of her stupor, making all those around her turn their heads in her direction.

Without another thought, she ran forward with her heart racing in her chest as she tried to reach him. She needed to tell him about her true feelings. She needed him to stay. But he had already boarded his flagship and it was almost at the great frozen wall that led to the outside ocean.

"Zuko!" she yelled as she came to a stop at the edge of the dock.

"Wait," she whispered.

Zuko turned around on deck and moved to the edge of the ship. He noticed Katara standing all alone as she stared after them. Though he could barely make out her features, he admired the way her hair swirled around her as the wind picked up. He raised an arm and waved sadly as the noon sun made the city before him sparkle. He stood there with the chilly wind blowing around him until the protective ice walls closed after them and Katara's form disappeared from his view as they moved away from the Southern Water Tribe where he had left the woman he loved and his heart behind.

Toph sighed irritably as she led Katara to her room. They had finished a silent dinner and Toph was worried since Katara had been unusually quiet all day after Zuko left. First Sparky was acting weird and now Sugar Queen, too? What the hell was happening? The small earthbender wrenched the door open and almost shoved the waterbender inside. She was even more concerned when Katara did not start yelling at her for treating her like that, but instead she just made her way to her bed and sat down.

"Okay, Sweetness, spill it," Toph order as she crossed her arms over her small chest. "What in the hell is going on with you?"

Katara snapped her head up at the demanding tone Toph directed at her and she crossed her own arms as she scowled at her friend.

"It's nothing, okay? Just leave me alone."

"The hell I will!" Toph shouted as she stomped her way over to where Katara sat. "I want to know what's making you act like this."

When Katara remained silent, the blind young girl sighed loudly and plopped herself next to the waterbender.

"It has something to do with Sparky, huh?" Toph deadpanned.

Katara bit her lip as she tried to maintain her silence. But everything was too much, she needed to confide in someone.

"Toph…I'm in love with Zuko!" she blurted before she could stop herself. She groaned and she dropped her head onto her hands.

Toph gaped at her for a moment before a huge grin appeared on her face. She laughed and patted Katara's back almost painfully in her delight.

"It's about time you finally admit to it!" she exclaimed. "I was seriously beginning to question your intelligence."

"What? How did you know?" Katara asked as she looked up at her friend with wide eyes.

"Oh, please," Toph stressed, waving her hand in the hair as she rolled her eyes. "It's so obvious that it's making others suspicious! I mean come on! I'm blind and I know!"

The young tribeswoman frowned as she watched her sometimes annoying friend continue to laugh. She looked away and sighed. She tuned out Toph's laughter as her thoughts returned to Zuko. Why did he act so distant with her? Did she do something wrong?

Toph stopped in her mirth when Katara became quiet again and did not argue back. Her dark eyebrows furrowed on her small face as she tried to figure out what had Katara in such a mood.

"Okay, so you love Zuko," Toph pointed out as she leaned back on the bed with one hand while she cracked the other to get the kinks out. "Why's that making you all depressed and stuff?"

Katara pursed her lips.

"My love for Zuko is not what's making me sad, Toph." She sighed. "It's the way he was behaving towards me. I just don't understand what happened to make him act like that. I mean, he was laughing and joking with me yesterday, everything was fine. He…he seemed so…happy."

"Oh," Toph said. "I wish I could tell you what happened, but even I don't know what was going on in Sparky's head this morning."

They were silent for a moment before something dawned on Toph that made her frown deeply. What if Katara confessed her feelings to Zuko and he rejected her? That could be the reason he was acting all weird. Maybe it made him feel uncomfortable.

Nah, that can't be it, Toph dismissed the idea. I'm pretty sure Sparky would've been smiling like a lucky fool if Sugar Queen told him she loved him.

"Did you tell him what you feel for him?" the short girl asked.

"Of course not!" Katara exclaimed as she shook her head and blushed.

"Well, why not?" Toph demanded. "Don't tell me you were all scared or whatever that he'd throw your feelings back to your face. I thought you had more guts than that."

Katara growled irritably as she jumped away from the bed and began to pace the length of the room. She paused for a minute as something else came to her mind and she cringed.

"Does that make me a horrible person?" Katara asked almost in a whisper.

Toph stopped scowling and frowned at the waterbender's dejected tone.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"I mean…I'm in love with Zuko, but…Aang is my boyfriend. I can't stop feeling so guilty, and though I know I should break up with Aang, I can't find it in myself to do it and hurt him. But I also can't find it in myself to forget Zuko," Katara said so softly that Toph almost missed what she said even with her great sense of hearing.

"I think the answer is so obvious," Toph responded with a snort. "You should tell Aang what you really feel for him and let him down gently and then you should tell Zuko that you love him. See? It's so simple."

No, it's not! Katara closed her eyes and clenched her hands.

What did Toph think? That she was a heartless woman who was willing to hurt the man that had loved her for years just so she could run into the arms of another? That she was so strong that she did not feel fear of being rejected? That she had the strength to pour her heart out without caring if her feelings were not reciprocated?

"Toph…please leave. I want to be alone for a while," she said quietly and sighed.

Toph opened her mouth to retort, but decided against it and snapped her mouth close with a huff.

"Fine, I'll leave you alone…for now," she said as she stood up and stomped her way to the door.

Katara sighed once Toph closed the door and left. She sat back down on her bed and glanced at the rose hairpin resting innocently on the surface of her small nightstand. She looked away from it and lay back on her bed, hugging one of the pillows Iroh had given her close to her chest. She laid still like that for a few minutes as she went over her conversation with Toph before one part in particular made her heart ache.

'Oh, please. It's so obvious that it's making others suspicious!'

If what Toph said was true, if she had really been making her feelings for Zuko so obvious, then that meant that Zuko also knew or had noticed. But since he did not say anything, since he did not acknowledge it, then it was just as she had suspected. He did not reciprocate her feelings, he did not love her.

Katara clutched the pillow closer to her as quiet sobs escaped her lips.

Two weeks later found the Fire Nation flagship sailing smoothly over the surface of the clean, wide ocean while the bright sun shone warmly and fresh salty winds blew by. The crew moved around and below deck as they worked to keep the ship going and made sure no unexpected attacks were thrown their way. Though the war no longer raged, pirates continued to roam the seas in hopes of looting a ship for treasures. But aside from that, it was an enjoyable day and the Fire Nation natives were enjoying the weather as it began to get warmer the farther they headed northwest. The only one who seemed unaffected by it was the Fire Lord.

Sitting alone in his lavish cabin behind his large desk, Zuko tried to read the document he held in his hand, but to his aggravation, he was unable to concentrate on the words. As much as he tried, he could not stop replying what he had seen back in the Southern Water Tribe. Though he had not been able to see Katara and Aang's expressions since the lighting of the room had been poor, he had no doubt that their expressions had been joyous. He kept seeing the way Aang had held Katara to him while she had her arms wrapped around him with the golden necklace in her hand.

Enraged, Zuko snarled and he jumped from his seat, throwing a fireball at the steel wall to his left. He breathed hard as he tried to rein in his temper and emotions before he slumped back down in his chair. He shoved the piece of parchment aside and laid his head on the desk as he let out a sigh.

He was angry, but his anger was not directed at either of them, not even Aang, and certainly not Katara. No, he was mad at himself for not acting sooner upon his feelings for Katara, for not confessing his love for her sooner, and for not having the courage to remain in the Southern Water Tribe to be witness to her happiness with another.

'Oh, Sparky. You're going to have to face the truth one day and it better be fast because then you'll regret it for the rest of your life.'

Zuko chuckled humorlessly. Toph had been right. He had not admitted his feelings or acted upon them faster and he regretted it immensely. He had been so foolish to believe that Katara would have waited for him until he finally came up to her and confessed his feelings and wishes for a future together. He had been arrogant in his belief that Katara would immediately jump into his arms and forget about Aang. But most of all, it was stupid of him to believe he actually had a chance with her.

He should have listened to his earthbending friend. Toph was always right. And now he had set himself up for a life of loneliness and misery for his mistake and arrogance.

A knock at his door brought him out of his glum thoughts and he straightened in his chair.

"Enter," he called out somberly as he picked up the document he previously discarded and began to scan through it.

He looked up to see his uncle close the door behind him and walk into the cabin with a worried expression on his aged face.

"Zuko, I heard a small explosion a while ago and I came to see what happened," Iroh said as he glanced around the room until he noticed the scorch mark on the wall. "I'll need to get someone to fix that," he mused silently.

Iroh looked back toward Zuko before his eyes widened in concern at the dejected look on his nephew's face.

"Nephew, what is the matter? Are you all right?" he asked in alarm as he rushed to his silent nephew's side.

"No, I'm not all right," Zuko replied emotionlessly. "I will never be."

"What do you mean by that, Zuko?" Iroh asked while his bushy eyebrows furrowed in concern.

When the young man did not reply, Iroh's unease grew. Zuko had closed himself in his room ever since they left the southern city and the only time he emerged was to check on the crew. He had been unable to make Zuko leave his room to enjoy the fresh air, and not even Ursa was able to sway his mind. It reminded Iroh of the journey they had taken to the Earth Kingdom to arrive at the Abandoned Fort all the months ago and the only ones that had been able to draw him out had been his friends and…Katara.

"Zuko…what is the real reason we left the Southern Water Tribe so suddenly?" Iroh asked curiously.

He watched as his nephew let out a sigh before Zuko closed his eyes and turned away.

"I would only hurt if I stayed."

Suki smiled as she watched her sister-in-law play with her twin daughters. They were currently in her and Sokka's room and the baby girls were giggling and gurgling as their aunt cooed at them and gently tickled their cute little faces. Jing cried out joyously and raised her small fists in the air while her younger twin giggled and stuck a fist in her mouth, her hand immediately getting drenched with baby drool. Katara laughed as she pulled Ting's hand away from her mouth before rubbing Jing's belly, but the lighter-haired baby just place her wet fist where it had been before.

The young mother smiled wider as she watched her daughters and Katara have their fun before a small frown appeared between her eyebrows. A few weeks had passed since Zuko and his family had left to the Fire Nation, and during that time, Katara had been stuck to her and the twins whenever she did not have waterbending training or meetings with her father and the elders concerning trade with the Fire Nation. Suki had also noticed that there seemed to be this sort of sadness and pain behind Katara's eyes despite her efforts to hide them with smiles and laughter, and she wondered what was causing it.

"Katara?" Suki called out as she moved away from the bed and walked closer to the crib her children were laying in.

"Yeah?" Katara replied without looking up as she giggled when Jing grabbed her finger and tugged at it.

"What's wrong?" the female warrior asked.

Katara finally pulled her finger free and looked up to frown at her brother's wife with confusion written on her face.

"What do you mean?"

Suki let out an exasperated sigh before she replaced Katara's finger with her own when Jing began to whimper in sadness.

"Come one, Katara! You've been acting so quiet and depressed ever since Zuko, Lady Ursa, and Iroh left."

Katara's heart skipped a beat at the mention of Zuko's name before she shrugged.

"It's nothing that serious. I just miss…them," she replied lowly, but what she had really wanted to say was 'him'. She missed Zuko badly and she could not stop herself from longing for him.

"Oh," Suki said as she eyed the waterbender whose mood had darkened again. "Anyway…So…Aang…"

"What about him?" Katara asked warily as she looked back at the twins who were giggling so they could receive attention again.

Suki frowned slightly as she placed a finger on her chin in thought.

"Well…I noticed that Aang seems to be very happy and excited about something."

Katara shrugged again and looked guiltily down at her mother's necklace. She had been unable to tell Aang the truth about her feelings since he was preparing his things for his return to the Earth Kingdom while he kept trying to regain her favor the times she consented in spending time with him.

Both young women were interrupted from their conversation when loud voices sounded from outside the room. They looked up when the door was thrown open and Toph marched in with her usual smirk on her porcelain face with a bubbly Ty Lee trailing after her, her long ponytail swishing from side to side as she bounced into the room.

"Toph! Don't be so loud! You could've upset the babies if they had been asleep, and then I'd be the one to have to calm them down from their crying!" Suki exclaimed as she darkly scowled at the unabashed earthbender.

"Eh," Toph grunted as she shrugged and waved her hand in the air. "I'm not the one who got myself knocked up, so deal with it."

"Toph!" Katara chided and placed a restraining hand on the Kyoshi warrior, who had taken a menacing step toward the unwavering young girl. Suki sighed and muttered under her breath.

"Aww, they are so adorable!" Ty Lee crooned, unaffected by the actions of the others as she hovered over the giggling babies that had taken a hold of her long hair in their small hands.

"Of course they are," Suki spoke up smugly.

Katara laughed and Toph snickered as she plopped herself down on the bed since she couldn't see the little brats anyway.

"Just hope that they don't inherit Snoozles's stupidity," Toph remarked and chuckled as she placed her hands beneath her head. She grinned when the door burst open again.

"Hey! I resent that!" Sokka groused loudly as he entered the room.

"I don't see why, since it's the truth," Toph replied, pretending to examine her nails.

"Why you…" Sokka began before his daughters' laughter caught his full attention.

He ignored the annoying earthbender as he made his way to his baby girls who laughed and wiggled in their crib as their funny father came into view. Sokka began to coo and make gibberish sounds as he tickled his daughters' chins.

"See," Toph piped in as Sokka had a conversation with the babies in unintelligible words, "I rest my case."

The three other young women giggled when Sokka looked up to glare at Toph, who of course was unable to see or be affected by it.

"I wonder if my babies will be this cute," Ty Lee mused as a sparkle appeared in her bright, brownish-gray eyes.

"I wonder how your and Haru's babies would come out with you being all bouncy and stuff and him being all calm and shy," Toph remarked from her comfortable place on the bed.

The others laughed as the usually talkative acrobat was rendered speechless while a deep blush surfaced on her cheeks as she gaped at the blunt, blind girl. Her momentary lapse of silence was forgotten as the normal smile on her face reappeared and she began to talk rapidly of a possible future with the young earthbending man.

Ty Lee clapped her hands as she enthusiastically said, "Well, then I want dozens of cute babies with my eyes and his hair, or his green eyes and my hair, or with his—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. We get it," Sokka interrupted as he picked both babies into his arms.

Ty Lee was unfazed as she continued dreaming with a smile on her lips before she turned a bit serious.

"Of course I will pay attention to every one of my children unlike how my parents treated my sisters and me. And I will love them all, unlike Mai who doesn't want kids since she can't stand them." The acrobat's large eyes widened. "Oops. Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

The young tribesman shrugged as he let his daughters pulled at his small beard.

"It's not like it's surprising or anything considering how she is," he stated.

Ty Lee opened her mouth to defend her friend, but was interrupted when Suki spoke up as she grabbed Ting from her father's arm.

"What's Mai going to do if she marries Zuko then?" the auburn-haired woman asked curiously.

Toph perked up at this and swiveled her head in Katara's direction. The waterbender stiffened as her heart clenched painfully in her chest.

"Well…" Ty Lee responded, placing a hand on her cheek as she tried to remember what the noblewoman had told her. She glanced at Katara hesitantly as she continued, "Mai said that she'll just have the heir. She said that she is sure Zuko doesn't want too many kids either."

Katara looked away as she frowned.

I don't think that's true. Zuko got along well with the children a few weeks ago. I'm sure he would like more than just one child. She mentally shook her head. I shouldn't assume things. After all, Zuko had never voiced his opinion about having children to me.

"Is it official, then?" Katara spoke up quietly that it made everybody turn around to look at her.

When Ty Lee asked what she meant, Katara forced herself to say it.

"Is it official that Mai and…Zuko are getting married?" she asked and swallowed thickly. She was afraid of knowing the answer.

Ty Lee shifted from foot to foot as she debated what to say. She had noticed weeks ago that Katara's aura had been the same color as Zuko's had been after the incident with the arctic panther-wolves. But now it was tainted with black just like Zuko's had been when he had left the Southern Water Tribe. She was confused as to what was going on. She did not want to hurt Katara, but Mai had been her friend for years and she was loyal to her.

"They haven't made it public," the young Fire Nation woman replied softly, "but Mai told me that they will very soon."

Katara felt as if something had stabbed her chest and a cold sensation overcame her body. It became difficult to breathe at the pain she was feeling. They all jumped, startled, when Katara abruptly stood from the chair she had been sitting on before she quickly walked away and left the room.

"What was that about?" Sokka asked as he stared after his sister.

Ty Lee looked down and sighed guiltily. Sokka and Suki looked at each other with confused frowns, but Toph just sighed and left the room as well without giving an answer.

Meanwhile, Katara had raced to her room. Once she had firmly closed the door behind her, she threw herself on her bed and unleashed her anguish in sorrowful tears. She knew she should not have been surprised, after all, Mai already lived in the palace and she had heard Mai talking about them being intimate when they had been heading to the Abandoned Fort. She clenched her eyes tight at the thought of Zuko being with Mai in such a way. It hurt too much. But it just stood to reason that they were ready for marriage.

Tears fell down her cheeks as she clutched her pillow. She harshly scolded herself for thinking that Zuko would leave Mai, for hoping that she had a chance with Zuko, for even wishing that Zuko would love her in return.

"I'm such a fool."

"We have received news from the governors in the colonies that reside in the Earth Kingdom, my lord," Chao addressed the Fire Lord as soon as the other advisor had finished recounting the agricultural procedures in the Fire Nation.

"Proceed," Zuko responded passively as he sat on the dais behind the fire wall.

Though he really did not want to be sitting all day in the stuffy meeting room listening to some of his advisors babbling, he endured it since he knew he had an obligation to his country. Besides, it would distract him from his depressing thoughts concerning a certain blue-eyed waterbending woman.

"They have reported that Master Haru has done a great job teaching the earthbending residents in the colonies," Chao continued while a small frown appeared on his aged face at the cold tone of the young Fire Lord. "They are most pleased with the way the people of both races seemed to be getting along."

There was a snort among the Council members and Zuko's glare immediately landed on Wei who was pretending to be reading from a scroll he held in his chubby hands. The other advisors shifted uncomfortably in their spots at the irritated and angry look on their lord's face that seemed to be intensified due to the light and shadows that the wall of fire created.

After a while, Zuko returned his steely gaze to his most trusted advisor and nodded.

"You may continue."

"Yes, my lord," Chao responded with a small bow of his head as he picked up one of the letters in his hands. "The governors have also reported that the raiders continued to attack the villages, causing a few damages to crops and buildings outside the protective walls. However, thanks to the training of both firebenders and earthbenders, the raiders have been driven off before any more damage or loss of lives could begin."

Zuko was silent for a moment before he let out an inaudible sigh.

"I am glad to know my people are no longer in too much danger," he said.

Though his usual tone was even more emotionless and stoic than normal, the men could see that he was indeed glad.

"Is there anything else, Advisor Chao?" Zuko asked.

"That is all, my lord," Chao responded as he bowed again before he sat back down on his cushion among the other advisors who sat in two lines facing across from each other.

Zuko nodded again before he looked around the room with cold, amber eyes.

"If there is nothing else to discuss, then the meeting is over," he said dispassionately as he prepared to stand up from his elaborate cushion so he could descend the few step from the dais and leave the room.

"There is one more thing to discuss, Young One," Wei's grating voice irritated Zuko's ears.

Zuko resisted the urge to hurl a fireball at the old advisor for the name, but instead he clenched his hands as he sat back down. The young Fire Lord glared at Wei and raised an eyebrow to command him to continue.

"As we all very well know, your twenty-first birthday is in a couple of months," Wei began as he stood up from his spot to walk leisurely in front of the fire wall.

When the Fire Lord remained silent, Wei hid a smirk as he stood directly in front of the young man.

"And yet you have not chosen a wife and produced an heir. Is it not about time that you do? I am sure we do not need to remind you that if you do not marry soon we will have to choose a Fire Lady for you."

The men jumped when Zuko snarled as he rose to his feet and seemed to loom over them due to his height and from standing on the raised platform.

"I'll choose a Fire Lady when the time comes, and I will not allow anyone to pressure me into choosing my own wife!" Zuko growled angrily, the flames before him almost rising to the ceiling in his fury.

The advisors gaped in surprise at his fierce reaction as the young Fire Lord parted the blazing fire wall and strode down the dais before marching away from the suddenly silent meeting room. Wei smirked and Chao glared at him before he worriedly looked after the angry young man.

Zuko ignored everybody he passed as he made his way to his royal bedchambers in swift strides. One of his personal guards opened one door quickly as they noticed the murderous look on their lord's face. Once he passed through and the door was shut, the guards looked at each other and silently prayed that they would not suffer their lord's wrath for whatever had caused his dark mood this time.

Opening the other set of identical golden doors, Zuko slammed it shut before he took off his robe and threw it to the side, uncaring of where it landed. He walked angrily toward the fireplace on one wall and leaned his arm on the mantelpiece as he stared at the flames with glowing, golden eyes filled with outrage.

"How dare that fool try to force me into marriage?" Zuko growled. "I'll choose a wife when I'm good and ready, dammit!"

The flames in the fireplace rose and a few embers floated in the air. Zuko noticed and took a deep breath to rein in his temper. Pulling away from the mantelpiece, he made his way to his bed and sat down heavily on it. Maybe he should not have reacted so heatedly in front of his advisors since he knew it was inevitable. As Fire Lord, it was expected of him to find a Fire Lady so they could produce an heir that will continue to rule the Fire Nation after his death.

But he could not stop himself from becoming angry when they brought up the subject. He did not want to marry and tie himself to any of the flimsy women the noblemen presented him or wanted to choose for him. What was he going to do? Maybe Mai would be the only possible solution to his problem. She was the perfect example of a true noblewoman and what the Fire Lady should be, and she loved him. He sighed guiltily since he had not thought about his 'girlfriend' ever since they had taken a small break from their relationship.

Maybe when she came back, he could try to work in their relationship and perhaps one day announced her as the future Fire Lady? Zuko shook his head and dropped his head on his hands. No. He just couldn't. He did not want Mai.

He wanted, needed, and longed for Katara. She was the only woman he wanted by his side, the only one he wanted as his wife and Fire Lady, the only woman who had his love and held his heart. Ever since he left the Southern Water Tribe and returned to the Fire Nation, Katara was the only one who was in his mind all day. He could not stop thinking about her even though he had ordered himself to. By day in his silent study and at night in his lonely bedchamber, her image would come between him and the papers he strove to read or the sleep he tried to gain.

He had not visited the Royal Palace Garden ever since he returned, for it brought too many memories of her. He was sure that if he saw the many flowers that decorated the garden, especially the rosebushes, he would only see the way she had bent down to delicately sniff the sweet fragrance of the elegant, red roses…

If he gazed down into the clear and peaceful pond, he would remember the night they had stood under the full moon while petals from the cherry blossom tree fell around them as she sought to comfort him from his fear while she gently caressed his scarred cheek with her soft hand…

Zuko blinked and shook his head. No. He was only hurting himself. He had to stop thinking. He had to stop remembering. He had to stop…loving her.

He looked over at the closed curtains that blocked the balcony from view to where his private garden rested below it. Zuko sighed again.

If only it was so easy, he thought.

Most of the grand house was silent since everybody had either gone outside or retired early to their rooms. Sokka and Suki had decided to finally take the twins into the city so they could be greeted and lavished upon by the tribe people and the few guests that remained. Katara had decided to go along with them.

Toph's bare feet carried her down the corridors of the frozen structure and, though the marble floor was chilly to the soles of her feet, it was better than going outside in the cold snow where she had to wear boots, which impeded her from 'seeing' where she was going or what was happening around her.

Toph was on a mission to find a certain airbender. She was not sleepy so she refused to just lay there in her room and she did not want to go outside only to become disoriented as somebody led her around like a helpless child while her face became numb from the cold. It was not that she disliked the Southern Water Tribe, quite the contrary, she like the amiable people she encountered, the unique and delicious food she was given, and the fresh and clean scent that reached her sensitive nose. The problem was that the freezing climate irritated her and her feet longed to bury themselves in warm soil while her senses became restored.

Where in the world is Twinkletoes? Toph grumbled mentally as she continued on her march.

After Katara had left with the young parents and their daughters, Aang had disappeared for a few hours, and the blind earthbender was getting really irritated since she had told him that they needed to talk about heading to some of the villages in the southwestern part of the Earth Kingdom that seemed to need their help. Aang had received a message two days ago about a problem in a village, and even though he had been determined to go offer some aid, the young monk would avoid her when she brought it up, almost as if he did not want to leave the South Pole.

The young girl grinned as she neared one of the sitting rooms and her senses picked up the familiar rhythm of Aang's energetic heartbeat. Toph stomped her way inside the room, and by the vibrations she picked up from the stone floor, she was able to 'see' that Aang was sitting crossed-legged in the middle of the room, as if in meditation. She wondered if perhaps she should let him be for a while, but when she caught the unsteady beat of his heart and heard low grumbles come from him, she knew without a doubt that he was sulking.

"What's wrong now, Twinkletoes?" Toph exclaimed loudly as she came up behind him to stand with crossed arms beside his sitting form. It was her way of showing her concern.

Aang jumped and yelped in surprise before he turned to scowl at the girl that had a raised eyebrow aimed at him.

"It's none of your business!" he snapped at her as he crossed his own arms over his chest.

"Hey, don't you talk to me like that!" Toph barked as she raised a fist at him. "I just wanted to help, but you can just forget it!"

She turned around to stalk angrily away from the room and away from the jerk, but she froze when Aang's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you," Aang apologized quietly. The young airbender marveled at how thin and delicate Toph's wrist was despite her rough and strong attitude.

Toph felt heat rise on her cheeks at the contact, but she quickly wrenched her arm away with a snort before she crossed her arms over her chest, resisting the urge to touch the skin where Aang had grabbed her. What the hell?

"Whatever. Are you gonna tell me what's wrong with you or what?" she asked as she pretended to find an interest on the floor in order to hide the blush she knew was there. Did she hit her head or something?

Aang pressed his lips together as he debated whether to tell Toph what was bothering him or not. Finally, he sighed.

"I'm just frustrated with Katara because she's avoiding me again and I don't know why."

Toph let out a sigh of her own as she ungracefully dropped herself on the floor to sit opposite the pouting Avatar. Seriously, sometimes Aang could be very wise for someone as young as him that it never failed to amaze her, but other times he was so clueless that it caused her to want to throttle him! Or was it perhaps that he pretended he did not understand and instead chose to believe whatever he wanted? Did Aang not see that Katara did not return his feelings and was avoiding him because she felt guilty being near him while she pined for another?

"I asked Katara to marry me," Aang said softly after a few minutes of silence.

Toph stiffened at his words and her mouth flew open.

What? When? Why didn't Sugar Queen tell me? she thought. Was this perhaps the reason why Sparky left? Did he somehow found out and was unable to bear the news? But that couldn't be because then Katara would've said something about accepting Aang's proposal.

"What did Sweetness say?" Toph asked with a frown.

She heard Aang sighed sadly before he replied.

"Katara rejected me."

"What? Really?" the young woman asked as both her eyebrows rose on her forehead and a smile broke on her face.

She was puzzled at the happiness she felt at the news before her smile quickly vanished, and she scowled. Of course, she was glad because it meant that Katara and Zuko still had a chance to be together and be happy. Again, it had nothing to do with Aang finally being single.

"She said that she was not ready and then…and then she…she told me that she didn't…love me," Aang stammered brokenly that it even made Toph wince at the sorrowful tone to it.

The earthbender sighed.

"Oh, Aang—" she began, but was interrupted when the young man jumped lightly to his feet.

"But I know that she didn't mean it!" Aang reassured.

Toph wondered if he was reassuring her or himself.

"She just needs some time to gather her thoughts and realize that she's just confused and that she does love me!" Aang continued.

Toph opened her mouth to argue, but scowled when Aang just moved away from her and began to pace the room frantically, muttering quietly to himself.

"And then I'll propose to her again and this time she'll accept!" Aang continued with a wistful smile on his young face. "I mean what's there to wait for? We love each other and we're meant to be together."

Toph stood up from her spot on the floor and placed a hand on Aang's shoulders, effectively making him pause in his pacing. Aang looked down at Toph in surprise and gaped at the serious expression on her porcelain face.

"Have you ever thought that maybe that's what you keep telling yourself?" Toph stated casually as she squeezed his shoulder.

Aang pulled away from her with an annoyed growl and, turning away, he began to walk to the entrance of the room.

"I know what I said is right. Katara loves me and we will get married one day," he repeated himself stubbornly before he disappeared.

Toph stood silently in the middle of the room as she listened to Aang's footsteps until they faded from her senses. With a huge sigh, Toph shook her head as she, too, exited the room.

They still needed to talk about heading to the Earth Kingdom, though.

Guards stiffened in their posts and servants scurried away with haste as the Fire Lord exited the throne room and made his way down the golden corridor toward the western wing of the Fire Nation Palace. Everybody seemed to be walking on eggshells around the young lord ever since his return. It seemed that he had little patience for anything nowadays and nobody wanted to bring on the wrath of their temperamental lord. No one knew what could have happened in the Southern Water Tribe to make him change so. They all wondered if he would ever revert back to the cool and impassive way he was before or if his current angry and volatile behavior would be permanent.

Zuko strode down the hallway with a dark scowl on his face, his amber eyes blazing in hardly controlled anger. He barely noticed the frightened servants he passed, trying to give him a wide berth while cowering as if trying to escape his notice. He occupied his thoughts with what he had learned in the meeting with his advisors as he continued on his way to his royal bedchambers. Trade with both the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom seemed to be going well, much better than it had years before when he had recently ascended the throne, and he was glad it had to do with his meeting with the Earth King and both Chiefs of the Water Tribes. His scowl deepened, however, for the thought of the Water Tribes always brought pain as well as warmth to his heart despite the fact that he had tried very hard to numb his feelings and shove them away.

His pace slowed slightly when he came upon the guest wing like it always did when he passed it in order to reach his room. Every time he walked on this part of the palace he always tried to keep his gaze ahead of himself when he came near the room a certain waterbender had slept in a few months ago. And every time he did, he failed miserably and ended up looking at the door to the room anyway as memories resurfaced in his mind.

Memories of how he had stared at the sleeping waterbender while he fought himself from leaning down to capture her lips with his.

And just like always he would shake his head from his thoughts as his gaze landed on the closed door while he resisted the urge to walked up to it and enter the empty room where he knew the woman he loved would not be sleeping soundly or waiting for him in. And at the same thought he always had, he turned away from the door and continued on his silent march with a stony expression on his face.

He nodded at his personal guards once he reached his rooms and entered without a word when they hastily opened the golden door. His gaze softened slightly when he saw his mother and uncle in the antechamber, sitting at the low table in the center of the room as they waited to dine with him. He had taken up eating in his rooms again since more memories would surface if he used the family dining hall. Besides, the table was too large for just three people to have dinner.

"Mother. Uncle," Zuko greeted them dispassionately as he gracefully sank down on the cushion at what could be called the head of the table.

As soon as the Fire Lord sat down, Jiao moved forward, opened the lids to the food dishes and plates, and quickly began to serve the small royal family. Once finished, she bowed and excused herself when Zuko absentmindedly nodded at her. She then stepped outside the room and waited with the guards for the meal to finish so she could call for a few servants and clean everything up. She exchanged a knowing look with the two soldiers at the doors and the three frowned at the change in their respected and admired lord.

Zuko picked up his chopsticks when Jiao left and the door was closed, and he stared blankly at the food placed in his plate before him. Without another word, he began to eat, occasionally picking up his cup of wine to take a drink of the burning, red liquid. Iroh and Ursa shared a worried look at the lifelessness in the young man's eyes and how he seemed to be eating automatically.

Iroh cleared his throat loudly, and when his nephew looked up, the old man spoke.

"Nephew, is everything all right?"

Zuko stared at him for a brief moment before he gazed down uninterestingly at his plate.

"Yes," he replied passively.

Ursa slammed her teacup down on the smooth, wooden table, causing the plates and utensils to rattle and the soup and tea to swoosh in their containers. Iroh calmly took a bite of the food from his chopsticks while Zuko snapped his head up and his eyes widened at his usually gentle and quiet mother who had her eyes narrowed down at him.

"I finally have had enough, Zuko!" she exclaimed angrily as she scolded her son with a glare. "I hate seeing you like…like…" she paused as she waved a hand at him, trying to find the words to describe his current state, "this. Please, my son. Tell us what is happening to you."

Zuko looked away from the worried look on his mother's irritated face. He felt slightly guilty for making her and his uncle worry, and he really wish he could tell them how horrible and miserable he was feeling at the moment, but he just could not find it in himself to speak. He still found it hard to talk about his feelings and open himself up to others, and the one person that he was willing to reveal so much about himself was the one person who was making him feel so depressed and the one whom he was currently trying to forget.

Looking back down at the table, Zuko gazed at his reflection on the surface of his cup of wine and glared at himself.

"It's nothing, Mother," he finally answered her and looked away from the red liquid. "It's nothing for either of you to worry about."

Ursa looked back at her old friend, who had been silent during the entire time, and silently pleaded for him to help her. Iroh returned her concerned look before he took a sip of his tea, and once he swallowed the soothing liquid, he placed the cup gently down on the table.

"Zuko," he finally spoke in a calm and soft tone. "Does your behavior have anything to do with Miss Katara?" he asked.

Zuko stiffened visibly and looked away, unknowingly answering Iroh's question by his reaction and silence.

"If you'll excuse me," Zuko muttered as he stood up from his spot, "I'm going to retire for the night." He stood up, turned around, and began to make his way to the other set of doors that led to his bedroom.

"You're in love with Katara, are you not, Fire Lord Zuko?" Iroh stated calmly. He smiled when Zuko tensed and stopped in his tracks with his back turned toward them. "Your feelings for her have been obvious for a long time, Nephew."

Zuko closed his eyes before he let out a soft sigh.

"Yes…I am," he confessed softly without glancing back.

Iroh and Ursa glanced at each other with pleased smiles at the fact that he had finally admitted his feelings for the Water Tribe woman both had come to care for.

"Then why are you so…sad?" Ursa asked gently as she looked at her son's back with a concerned frown. "Did…did Katara…reject you?"

Zuko let out a humorless chuckle and shrugged lightly.

"Katara doesn't even know how I feel about her," he answered truthfully. "And she never will since she's…marrying Aang," he added bitterly.

"What?" Ursa gasped. "How can that be? Are you sure?"

"I saw them embracing and Katara had the betrothal necklace Aang had showed me before in her hand!" Zuko almost growled out. "What other explanation is there?"

"Zuko, maybe what you saw wasn't what you think it was," Iroh reasoned as he mentally willed his nephew to turn around and look at them. "We would have known by now if they were engaged. Besides, we're sure Katara loves—"

"I don't know why they haven't announced their engagement yet," Zuko interrupted, vaguely listening to what his uncle was about to say. He did not want to be reminded that Katara loved Aang. "But I'm sure they will eventually."

Before either his mother or his uncle could say anything else, Zuko made his way to his room again where he opened one door and sighed.

"Please…I don't want to talk about it," he said quietly before he entered and silently closed the door behind him.

Silence permeated the antechamber for a moment before the only ones left in the room looked at each other with bewildered and concerned expressions.

Sitting among a pile of papers and different types of elaborate cloths in a large sitting room, Iroh and Ursa tried to determine what would be best for Zuko's upcoming twenty-first birthday the following month. Iroh furrowed his eyebrows in concentration as he wrote down everything he thought was needed—as well as what was not—on the piles of scrolls that surrounded him on the table they were sitting at.

I wonder if Zuko would like the singing nomads Aang had once told me about to be the musical entertainment for the night, Iroh mused with a small grin before he shook his head. Zuko would probably throw them out.

"Iroh dear," Ursa called out from her end of the table. She critically looked at the different kinds of fabrics made of various designs and shades of red and gold that the servants would hold out for her or move away if she did not like them.

When Iroh looked up from his paper, Ursa held out piece of material made of a dark wine color with intricate patterns woven in gold and black thread.

"Do you think this would look nice as the tablecloths?" she asked.

Iroh examined the material and nodded with a bright smile on his face.

"I think it would look wonderful," he exclaimed.

Servants scurried back and forth, as they went about doing their lord's family members' biding. Invitations were sent, the cooks were told ahead of time of the menu that was to be served, florists were called, and musicians were searched for.

Four months had passed since they left the Southern Water Tribe and returned to the Fire Nation. Iroh and Ursa were busy as they strove to have everything ready and perfect for Zuko's celebration. The entire nation was excited since their young Fire Lord had never had a celebration for his birth ever since he took up the throne and they all looked forward to the festivities. Zuko had refused to have a celebration this year just like he did in the past, claiming that his country's economy and wellbeing was much more important than a lavish party, but Iroh argued that the Fire Nation was doing extremely well and the economy would not suffer if they gave him a party. Ursa then had told him that they had been separated from each other for so many years and it would make her happy if he allowed them to throw a celebration for him to make up all those years of her absence in his life, and with that, Zuko had relented.

The real reason, though, why they were insistent on giving Zuko a party was so that perhaps he could relax and enjoy himself for a change. Ever since they had returned and they had learned of what Zuko saw—or thought he saw—back in the Southern Water Tribe he had become more withdrawn and angrier than ever. The Royal advisors, courtiers, and servants were almost afraid of him due to his sudden terrible temper. He would have almost fired a couple of servants and advisors if it had not been for Iroh's intervention, and he had made a few of the young noblewomen cry or storm away in outrage when they had tried to flirt with him. He refused to eat in the royal family dining room, avoided visiting his private garden, buried himself in paperwork, and trained all the time when he had no political business to attend to in the throne room. Overall, it was not good and everybody was worried for him.

"Iroh?" Ursa called out again in a soft tone as she dismissed the servants with the pieces of cloth she did not like.


"Did you send the invitation to the Southern Water Tribe already?" she asked as she looked at her old friend meaningfully.

Iroh looked up and nodded.

"It was the first invitation I sent out," he replied with a small glint in his golden eyes.

Both smiled at each other with significant looks before they continued in their task to make the party as perfect as it could be for the young man they worried for and loved so much. They were convinced that the only one that could bring Zuko back was Katara and they were looking forward to the day both young benders would meet again.

The Fire Nation sun began to make its descent towards the west. The bright sun was getting a bit warmer and stronger since winter was over and spring was approaching, but the warm weather seemed not to be acknowledged by the Fire Lord as he continued to practice his fiery element, despite the fact that he was perspiring profusely and his muscles screamed for him to take a break. He also ignored the obvious weary grimace his admiral wore on his face as he tried to keep up sparring with him.

Standing to the side of the large training arena, Iroh and Chao watched with frowns on their faces as Zuko hurled attack after attack toward Jee and easily evaded the ones the older man sent his way. Though they had to admit that the young Fire Lord was firebending magnificently and his control on his element was admirable, both old men were not pleased that he seemed to be driving himself too hard and they were afraid he would collapse at any moment.

Zuko dove to one side when Jee tried to punch his jaw and quickly righted himself before he sent a powerful kick to Jee's torso when the older firebender pivoted around. The admiral barely had time to cross his arms in front of himself in order to protect his chest, but was unprepared for the force of the kick and he was sent flying backwards. He landed on his back on the stone ground and skidded on the smooth yet grainy surface for a few seconds because of the blow. He panted heavily from the exertion and groaned in pain when he sat up.

"Admiral Jee, are you all right?" Zuko asked with a frown as he reached a hand down to pull the older man up.

Jee winced as his back protested at the movement, positive he was going to have a bruise the following day, but he refused to cry out in front of his lord.

"I am fine, my lord," he answered as he tried to straightened out. "I just can't keep up with you anymore." He smiled slightly.

Zuko nodded as he stepped back to give the winded man some space.

"Thank you for the training, Admiral Jee. I think you deserve some rest for the moment before you stand guard of my mother again."

"Thank you, my lord," Jee responded.

He bowed briefly before he walked away to his room to get some rest before he resumed his task as Lady Ursa's personal guard. A few servants rushed to his side and handed him a towel and a cup of water, both of which he gratefully took before he stepped into the palace.

Iroh and Chao frowned even deeper when Zuko picked up his dual broadswords that he had placed to the side before he stepped back into the middle of the arena and resumed his vigorous training by himself since nobody else was able to keep up with him.

Chao glanced over at his old friend as he stroked his chin.

"Iroh, what is wrong with Fire Lord Zuko? Everyone in the palace is worried for our young lord since he has been acting so strange lately," he stated curiously.

Iroh slid his hands inside his long sleeves and sighed heavily.

"I wish I really knew, my friend," he replied with a low tone. What really happened in the Southern Water Tribe?

"Perhaps it is the news about the new attacks from the raiders in the colonies?" Chao pondered.

"No, it's not that," Iroh said with a shake of his head. "It's something much graver than that."

Both men looked back to the lone figure training in the arena without pausing in any of his vigorous moves. They were silent for a moment before Iroh huffed and narrowed his eyes. He was tired of seeing his nephew like this.

"Chao, I need to talk to Fire Lord Zuko in private," the retired general said solemnly.

Chao looked over at the somber look on his old friend's face and nodded before he walked back inside the palace. Iroh watched a minute longer as his nephew kept slicing the air while he channeled fire from his hands and into his swords. The Dragon of the West squared his shoulders and approached his young nephew with determined steps.

Zuko spun around, slashing the air with his flaming sword, but he paused when he caught sight of his uncle walking toward him. He did not want to stop, for when he did, thoughts, memories, and images about her would start playing in his head. But, nonetheless, he lowered his swords and straightened himself out as he waited to see what his uncle wanted to make him pause in his training.

"Fire Lord Zuko," Iroh began and Zuko knew it had to be something serious if his uncle addressed him formally, "We need to talk."

"There's nothing to talk about," the younger firebender growled and turned away since he knew what it was his uncle wanted to discuss.

"Yes, there is, Zuko," Iroh insisted firmly.

Zuko briefly glanced at his uncle who had narrowed eyes trained on him before he looked away to dismiss his servants and guards. Once the training arena was empty except for the two of them, Zuko looked back at his aged uncle and raised a dark eyebrow.

"Nephew," Iroh began with a concerned frown, "Please. Tell me what is really going on. You are worrying everybody."

Zuko shrugged.

"It's none of their concern," he responded stoically.

Iroh took a deep breath in order to calm himself down and not slap his stubborn nephew upside his head.

"Of course it's our concern! We are all worried for you, especially your mother and me. Zuko…when will you return to the way you were before? When will you stop being so…sullen?"

Zuko looked away and glared at the darkening sky above.

I will never return to the way I was before. Not until I have Katara at my side, he thought before he closed his eyes, Which will never happen.

"You must overcome whatever happened in the Southern Water Tribe with Katara and find a way to live your life again, Nephew. Perhaps the best way is by admitting to Katara your love for her," the older firebender said, exasperated.

When the young man refused to talk, Iroh cried out, "You are destroying yourself, Zuko!"

Zuko snarled as he spun around and released a fire blast that exploded against the wall on the opposite side of the training arena before he threw his swords aside and slumped to the floor with his head in his hands. Iroh ran to him with a small cry and knelt next to him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Why?" Zuko whispered brokenly. "Why is love so incurable? Why does it have to hurt so much? Why is love so painful?"

Zuko raised his head from his hands and looked up at his uncle desperately, making the old man gasp at what he saw. Iroh frowned sadly as he realized that the anger Zuko had in his eyes disappeared and was replaced by incredible pain and sadness. He realized Zuko had hid behind his mask so he could conceal his hurt as anger just like he had done all those years ago.

"Nephew," Iroh spoke softly as he squeezed the desolate young firebender's shoulder. "Love is never easy, and most of the time, it will bring heartaches and anguish. But I want you to know that if you fight for it and never give up, all that pain, all that suffering, will be worth it in the end," he said as he gazed carefully into the austere young man's eyes. "Or would you have preferred to have lived your life without knowing what love is? Would you have preferred never to have fallen in love with Katara?"

Zuko looked away from his uncle's wise eyes and looked down at his clenched hands. He was silent for a long moment as he tried to think over what his mentor and father figure had said. Would he have preferred never to have known what love is in order not to feel pain? Would he prefer not to love Katara?

"No," Zuko finally replied in a low tone as he glanced back at his uncle who was now sitting by his side. "I don't prefer to have never known Katara or never have fallen in love with her. I don't regret my feelings for her and I will always love her despite the pain it causes me."

With a groan, Zuko dropped his head back into his hands and sighed deeply.

"I don't know what to do anymore, Uncle."

He tilted his head back to gaze at the sky, which was a combination of golden and red hues and dark purples and blues.

"I can't get her out of my head," Zuko almost whispered and Iroh noticed that his nephew was thinking to himself by the faraway look in his eyes and the soft manner in which he spoke.

"What would I give just to kiss her? Just to hold her in my arms one more time? I don't want to lose her. She's everything to me…" Zuko trailed off before he blinked and looked back down to glare at the ground. "Yet there's nothing I can do. She's not mine to have."

Iroh placed his hands inside his sleeves and stayed silent for a moment as he watched the way his nephew seemed to keep torturing himself. He was not surprised that Zuko had misinterpreted what had happened that day in the Southern Water Tribe, and yes, Iroh was positive Zuko had misunderstood because he would bet on his life that Katara loved Zuko. His nephew had endured hate and abhorrence from many people like Ozai and Azula since a young age, and Iroh had a feeling that the young man somehow felt that someone like Katara could never love someone like him.

He cleared his throat and sighed.

"Zuko, I know you think that you have lost Katara forever, but trust me when I say that you have not…at least not yet."

"Why do you say that, Uncle?" the Fire Lord asked with a frown.

"I can't tell you why because it is something between Katara and you," Iroh began before he continued with a serious frown, "Zuko, you will never find peace and happiness if you don't tell Katara you love her and find out what her response truly is."

Katara watched with a proud smile on her face as her young waterbending students strove to complete the bending moves she had instructed them into doing before a melancholy sigh escaped between her lips. In a few years, the children would no longer be her students as they either decided to make their livings as normal citizens with jobs or become warriors for the tribe. If they decided to be Water Tribe warriors, then the older warriors, and occasionally her brother and Pakku, would take up their lessons. Her job was to ensure that the children learned the basics of waterbending and learned how to control their elements, encouraging them to embrace what they were.

Katara sighed at the memory of that time in the Fire Nation garden where she had told the same thing to Zuko. A small tear fell from her eyes and trailed down her cheek, but she angrily wiped it away before the children could notice it and become worried.

Why? Why could she not stop thinking about Zuko even after all the times she had told herself he was not meant for her? Why did she keep hurting herself by dreaming about him and the life and children they could have if only he were able to love her back?

Spirits, how much more pitiful can she be?

The children's excited laughter reached her ears as they succeeded in accomplishing the most difficult part of their training for the week. She shoved her previous thoughts from her mind as she smiled down at the children with an approving smile.

"You all did excellent today! I'm so proud of you," Katara told them sincerely and grinned when some of the boys puffed out their chest in pride while some of the girls blushed bashfully at the praise. "Class is dismissed. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bye, Master Katara!" the children chorused enthusiastically as they raced away from the training area to either go play or go home and eat.

For the past few months, the curious children had constantly asked her why the Fire Lord had left so early. Her heart had warmed at the saddened and disappointed looks they gave her when she told them he had a responsibility to the Fire Nation and did not know if he was coming back for a visit soon. The truth was that it was the same thing that she asked herself every day since Zuko had left with that strange and cold behavior.

A small tug on her sleeve snapped Katara out of her thoughts and she looked down to see Lien looking up at her with a small frown on her young face.

"Lady Katara, are you okay?" Lien asked quietly as she tilted her head to the side.

Katara smiled down at the child and nodded.

"Yes, I'm fine, Lien. Why do you ask?"

The small girl's thin eyebrows furrowed as she tried to explain to the young woman what she had in mind before she raised her head again and frowned.

"You aren't the same Lady Katara since Fire Lord Zuko left," she replied simply.

Katara's eyes widened and she gaped lightly in surprise at the young child staring up at her before she looked away and sighed. Had she been that obvious? It only made her sadder. Looking back down at Lien, Katara opened her mouth to respond, but closed it again since she did not know what to say. She watched as Lien's serious expression changed and turned into the delight and enthusiasm of a normal child.

"Are you…uh…" Lien began as she scrunched up her small nose as she tried to remember the word she was looking for before she smiled again, "breaking up with Avatar Aang to marry Fire Lord Zuko?" The small girl excitedly clapped her gloved hands.

"W-What?" Katara stuttered as she stared wide-eyed at the grinning girl in shock. "What makes you think that?"

Lien giggled at the funny look on the waterbending woman's face as she gushed out, "You were staring at Fire Lord Zuko with big goo-goo eyes!"

"No I wasn't!" Katara denied, horrified.

"Yes, you were, Lady Katara!" Lien argued back with another giggle.

Katara was about to retort before she rolled her eyes at herself for arguing with a child as if she were a little girl, too. She had to admit she was amazed at how children could be so intuitive at times as she stared at Lien who stared at her back with a large smile on her face.

"It'd be nice if you married him," Lien said suddenly.

"Why?" Katara asked, though she thought it would be wonderful to be Zuko's wife, too.

The little girl looked up at her as if there was something wrong with the older woman's head before she smiled with large, adoring eyes.

"Because you'll marry a handsome and brave man who's very nice and a strong warrior, too! And then you will live happily ever after!" she exclaimed dreamily at the thought. It would be like the stories about the handsome prince who saved the princess her mama told her when she went to sleep.

Katara smiled ruefully at the idolization in Lien's eyes. If only everything could be as simple as children saw it. If only life could be so easy and she could have everything she desired, but she couldn't because she was not that selfish and because life did not work that way.

"That sounds very nice, Lien," Katara began quietly. "But it can't be that way."

"Why not?" Lien asked with a small pout.

Katara looked up at the bright sun in the sky before it was hidden from view by dark clouds.

"Because Fire Lord Zuko doesn't have feelings for me like I…have for him."

"Yes he does!" the small girl disagreed, making Katara blink down at her in surprise. "He wouldn't stop staring at you! And then when you fell down he looked so worried! And then when you were both staring at each other it looked like he was gonna kiss you!"

Katara gasped and blushed deeply at the blunt manner in which the little girl had spoken. It vaguely reminded her of Toph before her thoughts wandered off. Katara touched her lips as she looked in the direction where the penguins lived and where Zuko and she had spent a day with the children. And how it had looked like Zuko wanted to kiss her when they had fallen on the soft snow.

Katara blushed again at her thoughts as she continued to touch her lips. It reminded her of the other times she had been with Zuko, such as when they were in the Royal Palace Garden or after their spar on his flagship where it seemed as if he had almost leaned over to kiss her. Would he have kissed her this time if the children had not interrupted them?

No, he wouldn't have because he had to like me more than just a friend to do that, Katara thought with a sad frown, Even if I would've liked it, loved it really, if he had kissed me. I have to stop thinking and wishing things like this. I can't let myself hope only to set myself up for more hurt and pain in the end.

"Lady Katara?" Lien called out worriedly when she noticed the older woman's eyes begin to get watery.

"Lien, can I ask you to do something for me?" Katara asked instead as she composed herself.

"Okay!" the small child enthused happily.

"Don't tell anybody about anything we said today, okay?" she asked softly.

"But Lady—"

"Please, Lien? Promise?" Katara insisted gently.

Lien frowned deeply, her young face looking a lot older when she did that.

"I promise," she replied in a low tone.

"Thanks," the waterbender said with a small smile. "I think it's time you go home and eat."

"Okay," Lien grumbled before another grin found its way to her lips. "But I know what I said about you and Fire Lord Zuko is true!" she exclaimed before she raced back toward the city.

Katara stared after the little girl and sighed heavily. If Lien had noticed that something was wrong with her, then that meant that her family and friends had noticed it as well and were probably worried about her. She had to get a hold of herself and her emotions so she could stop worrying them, she needed to toughen up and continue with her life. Maybe she could give Aang another chance and give their relationship another shot. He loved and needed her.

She closed her eyes and touched the left side of her chest over her heavy heart. But she knew that she would be miserable in the inside and she knew she would never be able to stop loving Zuko.

Shaking her head, the waterbender left the arena and aimlessly roamed the city for a few hours before she finally made her way to her home when dinnertime approached. After taking a few bites of her dinner, she excused herself and headed to her room, oblivious to the concerned looks her family threw after her.

Once she entered her room, Katara sat quietly on the edge of her bed in the semi-dark room, the only light coming from the full moon from the frozen window. She thought about the past weeks and sighed. Aang and Toph had left a few months ago and during the time they had been in the Southern Water Tribe, Aang had been nonstop trying to win her over again. Katara reached into her nightstand's drawer, pulled out the golden necklace, and frowned at it. She had tried to return it to him and tell him their relationship was over, but every time she even made a hint about it, Aang would start talking rapidly about something else before he would make a hasty retreat.

She touched the yellow topaz stone and frowned even more at it. She had to admit it was a very beautiful necklace, but she just could not bring herself to accept and like it. She let out a wistful sigh. If only it could be Zuko's necklace that she was holding and it was he that was asking for her hand in marriage. Shaking her head from such thoughts, she dropped the piece of jewelry back into the drawer and shut it closed. She glanced at the silver hairpin on top of the nightstand and finally picked it up since the last time she had done so months ago. She cradled it lovingly to her chest, blinking back the tears that wanted to escape her eyes.

Katara stood up from her bed and made her way to the frozen window in her room. Large, cerulean eyes stared unwaveringly at the bright full moon high up in the dark sky where not a single gray cloud marred the sight above her. Once again, the waterbender had been unable to find sleep due to the energy the full moon emitted.

But this time there is no Zuko that I could talk to. Zuko is not here to keep me warm and safe in the lonely and quiet night just like that time he accidentally came upon me while I bathed, she mused with a sad smile as she stared out from the frozen window in her room.

Katara blinked and looked down at her clasped hands that she had placed over her heart. She did not know what she would do once she saw him at his birthday celebration. She had tried to find a way to forget Zuko since she knew that he and Mai would be married sometime in the future, but as much as she tried, she just couldn't. Instead, her love for him kept growing almost to the point that it felt like her heart would burst from her chest from the intensity of it. She longed to be by his side, to be wrapped securely in his warm and strong arms, to have his lips touch hers. But most of all she longed to show him her love for him and have his in return.

Katara moved her hands away from her chest and opened them slowly, revealing the silver rose hairpin with the precious ruby and sapphire gems that sparkled in the soft moonlight. She would wear the hairpin at the party to show Zuko her gratitude for the gift and to show her love for him as well…even if he would not know it.

"I can't forget about you," Katara whispered softly to the small trinket in her hand as she caressed it gently with her fingers, "Just like I can't forget about Zuko."

Zuko stormed into his room and slammed one of the golden doors shut. Removing his fire crown from his topknot, he placed it carefully in its designated elegant box before he ran his fingers agitatedly through his dark hair. He stepped into his private bathroom and let the marble bathtub fill with water while he fumed silently. He was furious that his courtiers and advisors—that mostly being Wei—were constantly harassing him into choosing a Fire Lady and producing an heir. How many times would he have to endure their badgering?

Once the tub was filled, the angry Fire Lord reached a heated hand into the water and warmed it until he was satisfied with the temperature. He disrobed, threw his clothes and boots to the side, and then climbed into the bathtub. Zuko sat down and let out a contented sigh as the warm water soothed his tensed muscles. He relaxed for a moment before proceeding to clean himself, but then he remembered how his day had been and he scowled darkly at the innocent sponge in his hand.

He was also irritated since everywhere he went he had been pestered about his birthday celebration that was to occur the following day—having to listen to whether he liked this food to be served or that, or if the banquet hall should be arranged this way or that, and other annoying questions that he really did not give a damn about. Did they not realize he was in no mood to celebrate? His life was miserable and the only person who was able to make him happy was probably already planning her own celebration…her wedding celebration.

Zuko threw the soapy sponge into the water, and with a heavy sigh, he reclined his head on the edge of the cold marble bathtub. His heart hurt at that thought and he sank deeper into the water until it reached his neck.

He remained in the tepid water for a few more minutes before he finally made himself get out. Once he was dried and dressed in dark red sleeping pants, the young man laid down on his bed with a tired sigh. He closed his eyes and attempted to fall asleep only to open them again with an irritated growl when sleep eluded him. Zuko stared at the dark ceiling above him for a few minutes before he rolled on his side and stared at the closed curtains that led to the balcony as well as the empty space on his large bed.

He reached a hand out and ran it down on the cold spot next to him. He had never given much thought about being the only one on his bed before since he had always liked his space and privacy. He had always avoided the subtle hints Mai would give him about letting her into it and he never even entertained the thought of having a concubine in it either.

Now, however, as he looked at the empty spot beside him on the rather large bed, a cold, empty, and lonely feeling assaulted him so greatly that he felt like he was suffocating due to the intensity of it. He no longer cared for his space or privacy because now he wanted, he longed, to have the woman he loved filling that empty space in his bed, in his life, and in his heart. What would he give to have that spot occupied by Katara while he watched her sleep peacefully next to him? To have her by his side, wrapped in his arms, as they reached passionate bliss together or were lulled to sleep in the comfort of each other's warmth and presence? How he wished Katara were his to kiss, his to touch, his to make love to, his to enfold her petite body within the safety of his arms, his to love.

With a deep sigh and a shake of his head, Zuko looked away from the cold and vacant spot and sat up, running his hand through his short and loose hair.

He heard his uncle's words echo in his head for the hundredth time since he had left the training arena a few weeks ago.

Could it be true that maybe I misunderstood what happened that day in the Southern Water Tribe? But then what could it have meant if not that Aang had proposed to Katara and she had accepted? At this thought, Zuko felt his stomach twist and he cringed.

But if what Uncle said was true then perhaps…maybe…I still have a chance with Katara? he asked himself with a pensive frown.

He felt pathetic, but he just could not bring himself to care. He could not stop thinking about Katara, and even though he had told himself countless of times for his own sake, he could not stop loving her either. Instead his heart yearned for her, for her presence, her smiles, her laughs, her touch. It seemed his love for her kept growing even to the point that he loved her more than life itself.

The only consolation he had about his birthday celebration the following day was that he would be able to see her again. Though it would probably only bring him more pain.

A/N: Ah, the angst!

Thank you for reading!