Mothers Are Always Right
AN:I have officially reached over 400 reviews. And you know what? YOU GUYS ROCK SO MUCH! Thank you, every single one of you, for each and every review. Even just the one-liners make my heart swell with joy. I am gobsmacked that people like my stuff; I really can't get over the fact that I'm not only writing for myself. It's a great honour, and I appreciate it more than you can realize.
This fic is a prize for lovenote4uwho was the person who gave me my 400threview. She requested that I write a fic where Ursa has just returned to the Fire Nation and mistakes Katara for Zuko's girlfriend. She also was awesome enough to leave the ending to me, as long as Katara and Zuko ended up together in the end. My muse thanks you for the free rein, hun. Hope you like this even a little bit: if not, feel FREE to ask for it to be re-written. As for me, I have no comment on this one. I'm Neutral. I feel I could have done better but I don't know how and I'm not in the mood for a total self-loathing editing session. So I'm just going to wash my hands of it and… yeah.
Reviews will be LOOOOOVED xox
Disclaimer:I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related.
The great flying bison landed outside the Fire Nation palace with a slight groan. Aang patted his head gratefully while Katara slipped off his back with the grace of a Waterbending master. Aang flipped off Appa to land beside her with a happy grin on his face as Iroh walked forward to meet them. He expressed his great joy that they had decided to visit, and told them that Zuko would be along to welcome them shortly. Then old lips smiled and told them the reason Zuko was late and blue eyes widened in a chocolate face. The Avatar's excited voice asked questions, but she could do nothing but stand in shock as the news set in.
She was the first of the three to notice Zuko, and the first one to walk up and meet him halfway between the palace and where Appa had landed. Her blue eyes met his gold ones, and no words had to be spoken. Perfect understanding shot between them, and her lips curved into a gentle smile. It was only natural for her to pull him into a hug, crushing his body to hers fiercely. She hugged him tight because she felt his joy at knowing his mother was now safe in the palace. He held her close because he felt her pain that she would never get her own mother back.
The palace had only changed very slightly since she had last been there. But as she walked through the halls she could feel the difference of the place; it no longer seemed dark and sad. There was warmth back in every one of its bricks. She smiled at the knowledge that it was all her son's doing. Her baby boy that was now as much of a baby as she was a man. Ursa sighed as sadness gripped her. She'd missed out on so much. And while Zuko had assured her when she returned the previous night that he had forgiven her from the very start, she knew she could never forgive herself. She had left him, and he had suffered while she was away. As his mother she could see the scars, both the physical and those that showed only as shadows in his eyes.
Shaking her head she leaned against the balcony and forced herself to turn to lighter thoughts. Iroh had assured her, over their morning cup of tea, that Zuko was happy. There was a lot of work for him to do, yes, but he was content. He had friends, support and, most importantly, a girlfriend. According to her beaming brother-in-law she was very pretty and was actually a very sweet girl, once you got to know her. Ursa chose to ignore the implication that it would take time to warm to the girl. It wasn't her place to judge the girl that made her son happy without even knowing who she was first.
She pushed away from the wall and headed down to the study, intent on at least watching Zuko work. There was an untamable hunger in her to have her son in her sight every second of the day and she was finding it almost impossible to fight the urge. Nearing the room she heard voices and curiosity made her tread lighter. Peeking stealthily around the door she found Zuko seated on the couch with a scroll and brush in his hand. Next to him sat one of the prettiest girls Ursa had ever seen in her life.
The stranger had beautiful dark skin, long brunette hair and eyes bluer than the sky on a summer's day. She was lightly teasing Zuko, who retaliated with a sharp comment that made her mock gasp and shove his shoulder. He laughed lightly and tapped her on the nose with his brush, slyly reminding her about some incident with pirates and a tree. Her face reddened and she threw all the pillows she could reach at him. Zuko put his hands over his head but did not surrender. When she was finished with her pillow assault she leaned over his shoulder to read what he was writing and began criticizing his grammar, handwriting and spelling.
Ursa couldn't help but giggle and both of them looked up at her in surprise, the girl's hair falling over her face as she froze with her arm around Zuko's shoulders as she attempted to grab the scroll from him. Zuko's face split into a smile as the blue eyes of the girl widened in realization.
"Morning, Mom." How she had missed him saying that… "Mom, this is Katara. She's Aang's Waterbending teacher from the South Pole. Katara, this is my mom."
Katara could hear the utter pride in his voice at the last sentence, and she hid a smile. She of all people could understand his tone. She untangled herself from Zuko a bit so she could reach forward and grasp the approaching Ursa's hand in a true Water Tribe greeting.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." She smiled warmly at the woman.
"And you," Ursa agreed truthfully. "So, Zuko, is this the girlfriend your uncle hastened to tell me about?" She really does seem wonderful…
Both of them blushed slightly and inched a bit away from each other. "No, Katara's just a friend," Zuko told her. "One who's going to get her butt kicked out of here if she doesn't stop annoying me," he added.
"Oh so now I'm the annoying one?" She placed her hand on her hip and glared at him with one eyebrow raised. He gave her a look that clearly meant "Well if the shoe fits, wear it" and she raised her hands. "Okay I think I'd better go before His Royal Jerkbender throws a temper tantrum. On my way back to normal people I'll tell your council to bring in an interpreter to read that report you're writing."
He gave her a sarcastic smile. "You can't even better your brother's lame nicknames? That's just sad."
"You don't deserve any better," she shot back as she headed towards the door. "And don't forget to spell Zuko properly: P-I-G-H-E-A-D-D-E-D."
"Get out of my study," he growled at her retreating back. "And don't steal anything on your way out. I know it's going to be difficult but at least try."
She stuck her tongue out childishly at him as she exited. "See you at lunch, Zuko." There was an unmistakable smile in her voice.
"Whatever." He was smiling too as he bent back over his report.
Ursa raised her eyebrow and watched Katara's retreating back before she turned back to her son. It was such a shame that she had been wrong about the Waterbender and Zuko… And yet, she had the strangest feeling that she hadn't been wrong, that there actually was something going on between them. The playful banter had seemed… She shook her head. If Zuko said it wasn't her, then it wasn't her. And if somebody made her son happier than his Water Tribe friend, then she would stop the thoughts that were in her head at once. She sat down next to Zuko with a scroll in her hands and began to read in companionable silence with her son. Only three times did she catch herself thinking how perfect Katara and Zuko would be together.
Ursa was surprised to find Katara at the turtleduck pond; she wasn't aware that anybody but her son and her enjoyed the little creatures. She was more surprised when the Waterbender clicked her tongue in a special way, and the ducks came quickly to her. Her smile was brilliant at their response, and she gently tore off strips of bread to feed them.
"You know how to call them?"
Katara jumped and the turtleducks retreated a little. The Waterbender's face coloured as she straightened.
"Zuko taught me how," she explained shyly.
Ursa smiled fondly at the news and for a second she was consumed by memories. Then she shook herself back to the present and gestured to the grass beside Katara.
"May I join you?"
"Of course!" The blue eyes sparkled in sincerity.
Again Ursa noticed how beautiful the young woman was. And, before she could stop it, the wish that it was her that Zuko loved returned. She hadn't been entirely surprised to find out it was Mai Zuko was courting; they had always been close. But she had expected some change in the girl. Instead, Mai had remained… well, Mai. And after having lunch with the bubbly and vivacious Katara, the dinner with the stoic noblewoman had been rather painful.
"You'll get used to her in no time," Iroh had assured her, patting her back soothingly. "And she makes him happy…"
How that was possible, Ursa could not fathom; she doubted Mai even knew the meaning of happy. But Zuko and Mai had sat close together all night, holding hands when they could and giving each other secret little smiles. Ursa had watched them closely, forcing herself to keep her thoughts in her head. The love they supposedly shared had seemed a little fake to her, but she suspected she was just being biased and looking for problems. She had vowed that morning that she would give Mai every chance in the world. Even if she was still sure that Katara…
She shook herself out of her thoughts and gently called the turtleducks back towards them. The silence stretched between the two women, and Ursa decided to break it.
"Zuko and I used to feed them all the time," she told Katara gently. "I think it was only because of him that this pond stayed here all these years."
A look of understanding crossed Katara's face, but it quickly turned to one of guilt and shame.
"I… I didn't now this was… a special place… I…"
"Oh no, dear! That's not what I meant. You're more than welcome to sit here."
Katara gave Ursa a tentative smile, which the woman returned. They fed the turtleducks in silence for a while before Katara felt the need to explain.
"It's just so calm here. It seems to… radiate peace. You can sit here and just… sort through all your problems…"
"It is a tranquil place," Ursa agreed with a smile. "However, one doesn't always have to face life's problems alone…"
Katara ducked her head as Ursa's eyes, so like Zuko's, looked calmly at her. She fiddled with her hands for a while, debating whether to tell the lady what was on her mind. She didn't know Ursa well at all, and yet she gave off such an aura of a loving mother that the Waterbender was finding it hard not to feel like she'd known her forever.
"I just… Relationship problems," she muttered, blushing deep red.
Katara struggled with herself for a while longer before blurting out, "How do you know when you love somebody enough?"
Ursa sat back with a thoughtful look on her face. "I don't think I'm the best one to ask about these things; my marriage wasn't exactly a raging success."
"That's because your husband is a psychotic tyrant," she blurted out. Then she realized what she'd said and bit her lip, shame turning her face red again.
To her surprise, Ursa had to fight to hide a smile. "I can, however, tell you about the wisdom others have given me about love." Katara shifted closer, her face eager. Ursa gave her a gentle smile. "You should know by now that every energy in life is balanced." Katara nodded. "Well love is no different. Those who have too much pure love will never make it, because you cannot be truly in love with one you think of only as your brother. Likewise pure passion or romance will never work either, because when the novelty wears off there is nothing to keep you together. Love has to be a harmony of all things, or else it isn't love at all."
"Like yin and yang…" Katara murmured, thinking of the koi fish. Then she blinked. "That's why Suki and Sokka fit so well together… She's the serious side to his playfulness, the calm to his excitement…"
"And yet they have a lot in common too, don't they?" Ursa prodded.
"Yeah. They're both warriors… and they both want the same things out of life." Ursa nodded and tossed another piece of bread into the water. Katara was silent. "But… how do you know when you've found your other half? How do you know when your love is balanced?"
The other woman sighed and stared up at the sky. "I can't tell you that, Katara. If there is one thing that cannot be explained, its love. Love is the most erratic and confusing thing on earth. All I know is that when you find the right guy, you'll know."
"My grandmother always told me to wait for the guy who did whatever I told him to." A grin crossed her face.
Ursa laughed. "She sounds like a smart woman." She shared a grin with the young Waterbender, then became slightly serious again. "I've heard sayings similar… Maybe they will help?"
"I'll take anything I can get," Katara answered thankfully.
"Well… You should wait for the man who argues with you. Not over the petty things, but over the things that matter. Because without the challenge you will never grow in your morals and your mind will remain closed. Wait for the one who wants to protect you from everything, including themselves, but who still lets you in when you ask. Wait for the one who shows you the darkest part of his soul. Wait for the one who calls you beautiful, even when you're a complete mess." She paused. "And, the one I hold closest to my heart, wait for the one who will denounce the greatest part of his personality for you." Katara's face turned puzzled, and Ursa explained. "I once met a man, for example, who prided honesty above everything else. He was brutally honest about everything he did. Then, one day, his wife accidentally broke an unkind and brutal guard's vase. The man who lived in utter honesty lied so that his wife would not be hurt."
"That's so sweet…" Katara murmured. "So… if the guy is known to love his freedom above anything else I'll know that our love is real if he agrees to settle down and start a family with me?"
"That's right," Ursa smiled. "Although it does work both ways. You need to be willing to set aside your greatest character trait for him as well."
Katara pondered what that would require from her and Ursa laughed again.
"It's not an exact science, Katara. Just leave your heart open, and true love will find you."
"Thank you. For the talk and… Thanks." Her eyes were utterly sincere.
Ursa gently squeezed her shoulder. "You are a strong and brave young woman. But every girl needs a mother. I'll be here whenever you need me."
At that moment Katara fully agreed of Zuko's assessment of his mother.
"Aang, do we really have to leave so soon? We've barely been here three days!" Her gaze was pleading.
"Yeah, I know it sucks. But we promised we'd go see Toph. And Ursa and Zuko should get to have some time alone…"
She pouted. A part of her realized she was being unreasonable and childish, but she really didn't want to leave the Fire Nation yet. The palace was peaceful and allowed her to practice her bending freely, and yet still get the comforts of proper meals and long baths. And she enjoyed spending time with Ursa and Iroh.
… And Zuko, too…
"Aang, I really want to stay."
The Avatar shrugged. "Okay then, you can stay for a little while. You can come to the Earth Kingdom in a few days." He smiled brightly at her. "Just don't take too long; I'll miss you."
Somehow this response irked her more. "But what do you want me to do?"
He stared at her, bewildered. "Well I'd like for you to come with me but… I want whatever you want, Katara." His gaze turned pleading. "Let's not fight, please. I'll follow whatever you choose gladly."
"Your lack of arguments are making me close-minded and are destroying my morals!" she yelled at him, throwing up her hands in anger.
Aang gaped at her as if she'd grown another head, but before he could say anything she turned on her heel and stormed off. She rounded a corner too quickly, still irritated, and smacked straight into Zuko. His arms caught her and prevented her from falling over.
"Sorry." The blush covered her entire face. "I just… I wasn't looking where I was going."
"Who did what this time?" His eyebrow rose.
"Aang and I had a fight about staying here," she murmured. "I got mad at him and stormed off."
She waited for his usual teasing reply, but none came. Confused, she looked up to find that his face was unusually pale. His eyes, too, looked dull and slightly unfocused, and unless she was mistaken it was sweat that was clinging to his hairline.
"So are you going to stay longer?"
"I am, Aang's still leaving," she said distractedly, frowning as she peered at him. "Are you okay?"
He blinked rapidly. "I'm fine."
"You don't look it."
She raised her hand towards his forehead but he twisted away, taking a few steps back for good measure. She swore she saw him sway on his feet.
"Zuko…" Her voice turned threatening.
"I… I have to go. Another meeting. Sorry."
And without another word he hurried away, shooting her a rather fearful glance over his shoulder. Her eyes narrowed; something was definitely up. For a few moments she stood still and pondered and then, her mind made up, she started towards the palace gardens. As she had suspected, Iroh was seated under a fat umbrella, calmly drinking tea in the afternoon sun.
"General Iroh?" she called as she approached him.
He turned to greet her with a wide smile. "Katara! Please do come and join me. And for the last time, just call me Uncle."
She smiled and seated herself across from him, accepting a mug of tea with a thankful smile.
"Now to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I…" She hesitated. "I was wondering if you'd… noticed anything… off… about Zuko?"
Iroh's face turned to a frown at once. "You've seen it too?" She nodded, her fears being confirmed. Iroh sighed. "I have a feeling that Zuko is sick. He hasn't been eating much lately and I've caught him coughing often in the past few days. But in order to treat him I need him to admit that he's ill. And to do that…"
"Is impossible," Katara finished for him. The old general inclined his head sadly. Katara finished her tea and stood up, a determined look on her face. "Don't worry, I'll get to the bottom of this. And if he is sick I'll heal him. Whether he wants to be healed or not."
Iroh chuckled at her face, and raised his cup to her. "Thank you, Katara."
She bowed slightly to him and then headed back to the palace, her face and will set. Zuko would not escape her this time.
The voices taking part in the argument were nothing more than background noise to Zuko. He had stopped paying attention to what was being said a long time ago, as he had no place in the debate. In fact, the only reason he was present was so that the Fire Nation nobles didn't kill each other. And so, with the knowledge that he didn't have to pay attention at all, Zuko allowed his thoughts to stray.
He tuned out the bickers and instead thought about the warm bed that was waiting for him. In that warm bed he would surely find sleep and the chance to escape from his burning head and throbbing temples… His eyelids began to droop and he forced himself awake again. One of the people in the heated argument proved to be a Firebender, and his wrath was making the torches to the room smoke. Zuko eyed them in slight alarm: he'd had a hard enough time suppressing his coughs without the presence of thick smoke…
Luckily for him the argument quieted down and the smoke drifted away. He would have sighed in relief if his throat didn't start tickling ominously. The men finally came to an agreement amongst themselves, and Zuko put on an approving mask at whatever decision they'd made. All the men bowed to him and he sent his guards away too. Finally, finally, he was alone. With a sigh he allowed his head to fall into his palms, and the relief was almost overwhelming.
Well... I can't fall asleep here. He inhaled deeply and prepared to get up. But his ascent was hindered by the unmistakable arrival of a coughing fit. He grit his teeth and shut his eyes tightly as his body jerked under his suppressed coughs. When it was finally over he rose slowly to his feet and headed towards his bedroom, the idea of sleep seeming more precious to him than gold. He wondered briefly if his uncle and mother would be disappointed if he missed dinner. At the thought of food his stomach rolled sickeningly, and he realized he'd just have to make it up to them some other time.
To his growing horror, however, the nausea did not disappear when he stopped thinking about food. Instead the queasy feeling grew by the minute, and he started to stumble towards his chambers quicker. He finally reached his room and was thanking Agni that his lunch was still inside of him when the last voice he wanted to hear called his name.
He turned in disbelieving panic to find Katara marching up to him, her face set and her eyes flashing.
Oh, Agni, no… Please, no…
He wanted to tell her to wait just a few minutes, but he didn't trust himself to open his mouth. The world had started to spin in a rather peculiar fashion. His hand reached for his doorknob- whether to steady himself or prepare him for his escape he wasn't sure- but Katara stopped him in his tracks.
"Don't you even think about running away again!" She stood right in front of him, hands on hips and eyes glaring fiercely. "I'm not leaving until you tell me the truth, got it?"
Her yelling made his head throb harder, and it was all he could do no to rub his temples. His legs were seemingly changing into jelly, and his stomach was still rolling unpleasantly.
"Well?" the Waterbender demanded. "Are you going to spit it out or do I have to drag it out of you?"
The irony of her statements made him want to laugh. He was going to chance it and ask her exactly what she wanted him to say, but as he opened his mouth he tasted bile and knew he had lost the battle. Clamping his jaw firmly together he abandoned all etiquette and almost bashed his door open, sprinting as fast as his shaking legs could take him to his bathroom. Katara gaped after him in utter shock before she narrowed her eyes and stalked after him, now fuming.
"Don't you run away from me!" she growled. "You and I are-"
She stopped in utter surprise as a sound reached her ears. An unmistakable sound that made her skin crawl instantly. Thanking the spirits for her weak gag reflex she rushed into Zuko's bathroom. The Firelord was on his knees, braced against the wall by his shaking arms. He was panting and sweating heavily, but at the sight of her he tried to compose himself. No sooner did he attempt to raise his head when he had to lower it again, his body retching.
"Don't look," he moaned at her, gasping for air. "It just makes it worse when somebody-"
He broke off to be sick again. Katara ignored his words and instead kneeled right next to him, gently rubbing his back as he shook and retched. She breathed through her mouth so the smell did not reach her, and then gently stroked his wet hair away from his forehead. His skin was blisteringly hot under her fingers and she bit her lip.
"You should have said something earlier," she said quietly, realizing now that he probably had a killer headache. Zuko didn't reply and she just continued to stroke his shoulders while he got his breathing under control. "Come on. Let's get you into bed."
Zuko shook his head slowly. "'ma stay here."
"You can't sleep on the cold floor," she told him firmly.
"Really," Zuko groaned in a hoarse voice. "I don't think I should leave the toilet."
"We'll get a bucket," she soothed him. "Come on, you'll be more comfortable."
Again he refused to move. "You'll catch it from me," he mumbled. "And I don't want you to watch."
"I'll close my eyes," she responded, still stroking his shoulder soothingly. "And I would have caught it already, anyway." She paused, but he remained stubborn. "The sooner you let me heal you, the sooner you can go back to being strong, untouchable Zuko. Please, let me heal you. You can't protect me from this."
The last words were out of her mouth before she even registered thinking them. Zuko's dull eyes raised to meet hers, and his guard dropped as he let her in. Something about his surrender and her previous outburst reminded her of something, but she pushed the niggling thoughts away and instead wrapped Zuko's arm around her shoulders. Slowly she pulled him to his feet, holding him closer when he swayed. Then she half dragged him to his bed, tucking him in firmly.
"Don't move," she growled, before sprinting towards the kitchen to get a bucket and a bowl of water.
When she returned he was lying with his eyes closed. Not wanting to wake him, she started tiptoeing to his side until his gold eyes flashed open.
Summoning the water from the bowl she gloved her hands and then placed them on Zuko's forehead. At the cool contact the Firelord closed his aching eyes thankfully, and Katara had to smile.
"Try and get some rest. You'll be fine in a day or so."
"I have a meeting tomorrow morning," Zuko slurred.
"Well you'll have to reschedule it; you're not leaving this bed until you're well."
His eyes fluttered open again, and she could see the argument in them. Before she could stop him he'd pushed himself into a sitting position. But before he could say a word he began to cough violently, turning his face away from Katara. She winced at the painful sounds and rubbed his back again, trying to alleviate the hacking. His body shivered violently under her hands and she was just about to push him back down when he heaved. She grimaced and quickly handed him the bucket, which he grabbed and then turned his back to her so she could not watch.
The vomiting turned into more coughing until finally he was still. She pushed him back under the blankets and placed a wet cloth on his forehead. He was shaking and her face twisted in pity.
"Again: get some rest," she said quietly. Then, unable to stop herself, she added, "How long has this been going on?"
"A few days," Zuko rasped. "But it was only a headache and coughing until today…"
His shivering increased and instinct caused Katara to sit next to him on the bed. His eyes opened and focused on her with some difficulty. For an unknown reason a blush tainted her cheeks.
"Your body is cold," she explained in a small voice. "I'll stay here until you fall asleep, okay?"
He didn't answer, but instead shifted to give her more room. Surprised, Katara slowly lay down until her body was pressed to his. His shaking lessened, and a satisfied smile crossed her face. His breathing was still labored, though, and she wondered how she could ease him into sleep.
"I'm going to carry on talking to you until you're asleep," she said in a low voice.
"Mmmm," Zuko sighed.
"I talked to your mom the other day." A smile twitched at Zuko's lips. "She's wonderful."
"I know." He was silent for a while. "I told her what I did. Even… even about Ba Sing Se… And she just forgave me…"
A gentle smile crossed the Waterbender's face. "You've redeemed yourself."
"She said the same." His voice was fading. "But I'm glad she now knows the darkest part of me. Like you do."
Wait for the one who shows you the darkest part of his soul. Katara blinked at him in astonishment, her mouth practically hanging open. Zuko took her silence to mean something was wrong, and he forced his eyes open. She pulled her face into a neutral expression, but he continued to stare.
"What?" she asked self-consciously.
"You're pretty…" he murmured. "Have I ever told you that?"
Her face turned as flushed as his was. "You're delirious. My hair hasn't been washed in days and I have mud all over me."
"Still, you're pretty."
Katara forcefully pushed Ursa's words out of her head, and reminded herself that Zuko was feverish. Gently she ran her fingers over his eyelids, closing them.
"Go to sleep," she murmured.
Zuko didn't reply and after a long while his breathing turned even. Still Katara didn't move. What had made her think about Ursa's love talk at his words? It was only a coincidence that they seemed similar… The feeling she'd had in Zuko's bathroom returned, and her eyes widened as she realized what she'd been thinking of back then. She shook her head. Really, now you're just being silly. Zuko's sick and it's your job to take care of him, not analyze his words against all other conversations.
Zuko jerked in his sleep and her attention was drawn to him again. His face was no longer peaceful, and his breathing had hiked. She slipped closer to him and stoked his hair gently, soothing him with her words.
"Please," he moaned. "Not my friends. It's my fault…"
"Zuko, it's okay. It's just a dream."
"Shh, I'm here. Nothing's happening. Everything is okay."
He finally quieted, but she knew that she could not leave his side; he would need her that night. She made herself more comfortable next to him on the bed and wrapped her arms around his shaking body. She refused to think of anything except healing him, and braced herself for a very long night.
The sunlight kissed her eyelids and dragged her back to consciousness, but she refused to open her eyes all the same. It had been one of the most harrowing nights of her life. Zuko had half woken seven times during the night. Three of those times he'd gotten sick again, and the other four he'd simply retched and coughed until Katara was sure his entire body would shake in two. When he was asleep he was restless, inwardly burning at the nightmares Katara didn't want to see. The things he cried out made no sense to her, but she still felt guilty at hearing them; they were too private for her ears. And even in the few rare times he was quiet she hadn't been able to sleep because of the worry that had burned into her. Zuko had always been one of the most indestructible forces in her life. Seeing him so weak and tormented and knowing she could not help… It had torn her to pieces.
In the early hours of the morning sleep deprivation and hopelessness had caused her to dissolve into tears. She had held him and cried, begging every spirit she knew that it would be over. Whether Zuko or the spirits heard or whether she somehow managed to cool him with her tears she didn't know. All she was sure of was that after an hour of crying into Zuko's hair the Firelord quieted and most of his fever left him. She remembered feeling relief so sharp she could have kissed him.
…Hypothetically, of course…
After finding that his fever was gone, however, her memories stopped. She supposed that's when she had fallen asleep. A faint blush tinted her cheeks. She'd fallen asleep holding Zuko. At least nobody would find out about it. As her tired brain woke up she became aware that she was warmer than she should be. A faint trickle of alarm raced through her at that: what if Zuko's fever had returned? She pushed sleep away for good and forced her eyes open.
She was lying on Zuko's big bed with the sunlight streaming over her face. She was warm because the blankets had been pulled over her. And Zuko was nowhere in sight; her arms were stretched over empty mattress. Confusion and worry entered her, and she sat up and looked quickly around her. Zuko was not in the room, and his bucket had been taken out as well. She dragged her tired body out of his bed and went to his bathroom, only to find it empty as well. She grimaced when she saw her reflection in the mirror, and bended some water onto her hair to make it lie flat.
Not even bothering to fix her dress or wash her face she walked briskly out of Zuko's room, intent on finding the Firelord. She assumed Zuko had gotten up on his own and had used his stealth skills to sneak out without her noticing. She actually hoped that was the case: it would mean nobody had seen her cuddling Zuko and there was no accomplice to kill as well.
I mean honestly! I told him he wouldn't be strong enough. But nooooo, Firelord Zuko always knows best. If there was a servant who woke him or helped him execute his escape, I am going to make sure he or she gets a piece of my mind!
Fuming and more worried than she would let on, Katara stalked towards the meeting room. The hum of voices within told her that the meeting hadn't started yet, and a twinge of relief flowed through her. She didn't want to have to interrupt something that would benefit the still war-stricken Fire Nation. When she approached the guards hesitantly lowered their spears, but one glare from her and they wisely backed off. Katara opened the doors with more force than necessary, and they bounded off the walls with an almighty crash. About twenty pairs of eyes turned to oogle at her, but her gaze was set only on the Firelord right at the top of the hall.
Zuko saw her look and visibly quailed for a second. But then his chin jutted out stubbornly, and Katara grit her teeth. Without saying a word she marched up to him, feeling all the noblemen watching her ascent.
"Which servant was idiotic enough to wake you up?" she fumed.
"None of them. I rise with the sun." His voice was slightly weary; he knew about her anger.
"You know why none of them woke you?" she said, changing tactics with the new information. His face remained passive, but she ploughed on anyway. "Because they all have enough common sense to know that you should still be in bed!"
She saw him refrain from rolling his eyes with difficulty. "Katara, this is a very important meeting. I cannot miss it, or reschedule it, or cancel it. I'm sorry it doesn't fit in with your plans, but it has to start now, so I need you to leave."
"Do your uncle and mother agree with you?"
Zuko winced, and Katara felt smug victory enter her. Ursa and Iroh did not know of his actions, and he was aware that they would side with her if it came to a battle. His flinch turned to a scowl, and she saw the fire light in his eyes: he was going to fight her for this.
"They know what has to be done in order to heal the world after the war." There was a dangerous tone to his voice now, and she knew his temper was slipping. Her eyes flickered to his forehead and her heart clenched as she noticed the sweat. She was right; he was still very sick.
He did not look her in the face as he delivered his next sentence. "You're the Avatar's girl, you should know about these things."
She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. She had told Zuko about all her doubts and problems concerning Aang. She had left almost nothing out, because she knew he'd take the time to understand more than her other friends. And now he was purposefully using her relationship with Aang as the one thing she'd detested it as: a bondage and a label for her as a person. Tears of anger filled her eyes, and she suddenly wondered why his words were hurting her so much. Why did she not want to be reminded by his lips that she belonged to another guy? She swallowed hard, and pulled her anger back into her heart.
"I may be Aang's girlfriend"- she swore he flinched at the words- "but I'm first and foremost a healer. And I know you need to-"
He stood up so he was a head taller than her again. For one split second she was afraid, but then she reminded herself that it was Zuko and her fear disappeared. His gaze was firm and stubborn as it bored into hers.
"Katara. Please leave."
They glared at each other for a very long time before she realized she was defeated. Growling in frustration and worry, she turned without another word and began to head out. A part of her savagely hoped Zuko had the biggest headache Agni could give. As she left a few of the nobles started to smirk and mutter.
"What did she think she was doing, barging in here like that?"
"There isn't even anything wrong with the Firelord."
"I think she just wanted an excuse to get in here…"
"Or maybe she just wanted an excuse to be alone with the Firelord? Do they even have knowledge of infidelity where she comes from?"
"Well this is going to interest my dinner guests tonight. The peasant who made up stories to get to the Firelord… How dishonorable…"
Katara felt tears well up in her eyes again, and she clenched her fits to keep herself from retaliating. She wanted to glare at all the snobbish creeps, but she knew it would only make things worse and so she lowered her head and tried not to cry. Then, suddenly, there was a thumping noise. The entire room turned around to look, and shock rooted everybody, including Katara, to the spot.
Zuko had fainted.
Katara was the first person at his side while the rest of the nobles gaped like fish out of water. She checked his pulse, found it regular, and then sent somebody to go and fetch a guard. One of the nobles closest to the door ran out quickly. The rest of the men stared in dumb shock at her. She bent over Zuko again to hide her smirk; they were all eating their words very quickly right then. And, if she wasn't very mistaken, the story at the dinner party would change to 'how the Waterbender saved the Firelord'. Served those pigs right.
Two guards came in and helped her carry Zuko back to his room. She was very glad he was out cold- he would have died from embarrassment if he had to witness what was going on. When the guards had placed Zuko in bed she shooed them out and readied herself to heal him. To her utter astonishment Zuko's eyes opened as soon as the guards left.
"What…? You… You were faking!" She didn't know whether to hug him or hit him.
"Er… Yeah…" He refused to look at her.
"But… but… I…" she gaped at him. "The meeting."
"You were right; it wasn't really that important."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What is going on, Zuko? And don't you dare try lying to me!"
He didn't meet her eyes, and she folded her arms and waited in silence. Finally he sighed, massaged his temples, and gave in. "I heard what they said to you," he said in a low voice. "You were only trying to help and they…" Her arms dropped limply to her sides. "So I saved your reputation."
"But…" She was confused and touched at the same time. "But in doing so you damaged your reputation…" She bit her lip. "And your honour."
"As ironic as this sounds coming from me, there are things greater than my honour. Like yours."
Wait for the one who will denounce the greatest part of his personality for you.
Katara looked at him then. Really looked. And her heart fluttered in a peculiar way. Her face flamed bright red, and she saw that Zuko was blushing too. Then his eyes flickered up to meet hers, and some unseen force of electricity shot between them.
"I don't… understand…" she whispered, unable to look away.
"I'm sorry," he murmured back. "My mom… I met her at the turtleduck pond the other day and she talked to me about Mai and… She said some weird things." He swallowed. "About Yin and Yang and love and loving with your head and not your heart… And I overheard her talking to Uncle about how great we would be… you know, together"- his ears turned red and he dropped his eyes- "and I guess some of that rooted in my brain… somehow…"
"Ursa thinks I'd be a better girlfriend for you than Mai?" Her voice was tiny.
"Yeah. Weird, right?" His nervous laugh turned into a fit of coughing.
Instinct took over and she leaned beside him and started to rub his back. When the coughing stopped her hand stayed on his shoulder. He looked at it, and then up at her, and she felt as though a whirlwind started in the pit of her stomach. It was just a coincidence. Ursa had just been teasing Iroh. Her words about true love couldn't possibly mean Zuko; she was just reading things wrong. And Ursa couldn't possibly be right about her and Zuko…
She made as if to remove her hand, but Zuko's slightly clammy fingers tightened over her wrist. She was finding it hard to breathe, and she wasn't sure if anything she'd ever believed was right any more.
"I… feel kinda funny…"
She swallowed. "Yeah, I told you so. Maybe I should… stay with you again… just in case…"
"That'll be nice." His voice was hoarse as he gently began dragging her to the side of his bed. "You look… sweet when you sleep. Peaceful."
She blushed. "I… was using my body heat to sweat out your fever…" Technically it was only half a lie.
"Thank you," he whispered, and his voice was right in her ear as she sat down on the bed.
"Sure. Do you… Do you need me to… do it again?"
He stared at her for a long while, reading her eyes. "I think so…"
She placed a hand on his forehead. It was hot again, but not as bad as it had been the previous night. "Yeah you do. Need me, that is."
He lay right back on his pillows and she followed suit slowly. Each of them was cautious with every move, judging their companion's reaction before they did anything. They both did not want to destroy the moment. Slowly Katara's arms wrapped themselves around Zuko's torso again, and the feel of him beneath her sent shock waves through her arms right to her heart. He closed his eyes, and she realized that despite the situation and the fact that it was barely noon he was exhausted. Very gently she laid her cheek against his shoulder, listening to his heart as he slowly drifted off to sleep.
Just before he lost consciousness his arms snaked around her too, so that they were both holding each other. Katara snuggled closer, telling her mind sternly that it was only for healing purposes. She knew that she didn't believe that lie anymore. But whatever was happening now would have to wait until Zuko was better. The Firelord's rhythmic breathing lulled her into sleep. And she was sure she imagined Zuko's voice saying that he loved her.
Ursa arrived at Zuko's room half an hour later. She had heard the rumors about the war meeting and she wanted to get to the bottom of it by interrogating Zuko. When she saw her son, however, she instantly thought better of it. Tiptoeing into the room she shut the heavy curtains and draped an extra blanket around Katara. Only when she was heading out the door did she allow a smug smile to cross her face.I knew it. Mothers are always right.