A/N: I've been sleeping a lot now. Like twelve hours during my days off. I think being in another state is messing with my biological clock. I'm pooped. D:
I thought I was clear in the previous chapter on how much time had passed, but since I kept getting asked about it, I'll clarify it here: Zuko and Katara were engaged for a year, they married on the solstice, spent six weeks of vacation time together, and chapter six began two weeks after their return from the Southern Water Tribe. I'm sorry for any confusion this might have caused. I'll try to be clearer with time passages from now on.
The arrangements with the hospital ended far later than Zuko liked so by the time he was on his way back to the palace, the sun had already set. There was so much about that test that he didn't understand, and while he liked to think of himself as an open-minded individual, he was finding it extremely difficult to grasp at the positive here. It had also shattered any hopes he had that it would be a quick cure, since that doctor seemed to put quite a lot of faith in his "big discovery".
She was too far gone, they had said. Many, many more tests would have to be conducted before they would get any sign of improvement. Zuko rubbed the bridge of his nose, slumping forward. He didn't think he had it in him to sit through another one of those sessions. Yet, if they so much as touched her without him there, he would burn the entire facility to ash. He had even said as much.
Katara was going to be furious with him. He could almost hear her screaming in his head now. He hadn't meant to just run off and abandon her to the mercy of Mizuchi's governor, but he couldn't blame her in the slightest for being angry. Getting access to that port was a huge deal, and a burden he had shoved onto her shoulders at the last possible second. He knew he deserved every tongue lashing he was going to get. And water lashing. And…
The moon was bright and bloated in the clear night sky.
Oh, yeah. She was going to bloodbend him right out the window.
Maybe he should have stopped at the market and bought her a gift. Women tended to be more forgiving if they were presented with peace offerings, right? Too late now because all the shops were closed for the night, so it didn't matter. He would just have to rely on what little charm and wit he had and hope for the best.
He dismissed the servants for the night the moment he stepped into the palace, not wanting their presence to make this inevitable confrontation even more uncomfortable. Standing outside their bedroom, Zuko took a deep breath. Here went nothing.
"Katara?" he called out, as he opened the door enough to poke his head in. It wasn't like he was trying to be sneaky, but he kept hunched low in case his warm welcome home consisted of random flying objects.
The room was dark, illuminated only by the soft glow of moonlight streaming through the open window. Smoke drifted from the lantern on the table, its fire long ago extinguished. Katara lay on the bed, on her side as she normally did, the slow rhythmic rise and fall of her shoulders indicating that she was asleep.
It wasn't like Katara to trick him when it came to her feelings, but Zuko was cautious anyway as he approached the bed. "Katara?" he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. She stirred and rolled onto her back and continued to sleep. "Kataaaaraaa…" He waved his hand in front of her face, but she was completely unaware of his presence. This would have been the perfect time for him to slip away and at lease have his final night on earth be a peaceful one when he noticed that she was still wearing all of her formal attire, crown included.
Zuko sighed and shook his head. Silly girl. It was just like her to wait up for him. And it was just like her to fall asleep doing so. Unable to help himself, he brushed his index finger along her cheek.
And, yeah, okay, just where had that come from? Well, sure, he had always thought so, one had to be blind not to see it, um, yeah… Zuko snatched his hand back and scratched the back of his head, his face flushing with embarrassment. To be honest, he really had no reason to be embarrassed, but he was.
"H-uh?" Katara woke up a little bit as Zuko gently tugged her to a sit up position and began unclasping her outer robes.
"It's okay, I'm only taking the top layer," he assured her. That was all, really, but his face still felt warm all the same.
"Zuko?" This was the time for Katara to waterbend him to oblivion for not only leaving her high and dry before a critical meeting, but also for undressing her. However, she was much too tired to even open her eyes. She settled for leaning her head against his shoulder instead.
"No kidding," Katara mumbled.
He removed her headpiece, hair from the topknot tumbling down in odd little waves. "You should give me a massage while you're at it," Katara remarked with a soft sigh.
Zuko chuckled. "I might make it worse, I'm pretty bad at such things."
She had just enough strength to lift her hand and poke his side, hard. "You owe me," she growled as he winced. "So no excuses."
"How did the meeting go, anyway?"
Katara groaned loudly and shook her head against his shoulder. "I really don't wanna talk about it."
"Didn't I just say I don't wanna talk about it? But I got it."
"No, pentapox." When Zuko didn't respond to her obvious sarcasm, Katara gave an exasperated growl. "Yes, I got the treaty, you doofus. I don't think I've ever had to deal with a man more stubborn and sexist than Master Pakku. Like I said: You. Owe. Me."
Zuko could hardly believe it. They had a treaty with the city of Mizuchi! They could expand their trade, create new routes, import new resources, the possibilities could be endless! Unable to contain his emotions, he lifted Katara's head from his shoulder to kiss her on the cheek. "You're amazing," he whispered. "You managed to accomplish this nearly impossible task all by yourself."
Katara was not in the mood to be praised right now, especially when he was praising her over something he had shoved entirely on her shoulders without any regard to her feelings, and the more Zuko talked the more her previous rage began to stir. "I can do pretty amazing things when I'm backed into a corner," she snapped. She sat back and stared at him, her eyes cold. "Where were you?"
Zuko's elation faded. For a minute or two, he avoided her frigid gaze, playing with his fingers and scratching at his neck. He hadn't expected to be confronted with this so soon, and he knew that the every second that went by, the more suspicious he seemed. He wanted to be honest with her, but he also wanted to keep her safe.
"I was at the mental facility," he finally said softly. "They're working on these tests over there. Tests that might be the key to Azula's cure. But I won't let them work on these tests unless I'm there. They held one today. I didn't want to cancel the meeting with Mizuchi, but I didn't want to delay the testing if there was a way to handle the meeting without me necessarily being there."
Katara stared at him. "Azula?" she said and her icy gaze melted to concern. "Zuko… why didn't you just tell me from the get go? That's completely understandable." Inconvenient, but understandable. "I would have been more than happy to handle Mizuchi in your place. Isn't helping you out the reason I'm here?"
Zuko took a deep breath. "I couldn't risk you wanting to get involved."
Now she really stared. "Uh… what?"
"I know how you get, Katara. You'll want to get involved and help me out more, and even follow me to that place - which, by the way, you are forbidden to go to-"
"I'm sorry, wait a second, back up, did you just forbid me to go somewhere?"
"I already gave the staff and guards my orders, under no circumstances is the Fire Lady allowed to go into the asylum."
Katara's jaw drop, her eyes sparking as they reflected her indignation. "I can't believe this. How dare you forbid me to do anything."
"Would you for once just listen to me?" Zuko shot back, throwing up his hands. "There is shit in that place that you should never see. Shit I should never see! No one! And some of things they do there, what they do to those people -" He shook his head. "-it's a very nasty place and you have no business being there."
"Well, if that's bad why not change it?"
"Because I'm not a doctor, Katara. I can't deny these people treatment because I don't understand the practice even if I don't like it. I mean it, Katara. Do not go to that place."
Katara glared at him but when she saw that his eyes were more pleading than demanding, she gave in. "Fine. I won't step foot inside that place. Even if, all things considering, Azula is now my sister, too."
"I know you want to help out, Katara, and I'm grateful. It's nice of you and all but-"
"Nice!" she cried, cutting him off. "I don't help you out just to be nice, Zuko! Despite our current circumstances, I thought we were still friends."
"Why do you think I'm even here? Do you honestly believe I would leave Aang, my brother, everything I am to help you out just to be nice!"
"I didn- Katara, what are you doing!"
Katara ignored him as she untied his robes enough to push aside the crimson fabric and expose the bare skin. She pressed her palm against the round scar just beneath his chest. "This," she said, her eyes boring into his. "This is the reason why, when you came to me with your proposal of marriage for the sake of the world, I agreed. Yes, the world is better off this way, but, there was more to it than that, at least for me. I owe you my life, Zuko."
Zuko's face twisted into an emotion stuck somewhere between confused and upset. "Katara, I… surely I haven't been the only one to save you at some point."
"Like this, you were. You threw away everything for me. If I didn't have healing abilities-" She shook her head. "-no, if I didn't get to you in time, you would have died. You are my friend, yes, but even if I hated your guts still, I would still be honor bound to serve you the rest of my life."
"You stopped Azula, that's more than enough return payment."
"Anything less than death won't be enough, that's just how I was raised."
"I still don't want you to feel like you were forced into this."
"Forced? Zuko, I just told you it's a display of honor for me. Surely, you of all people would understand that."
He went silent.
"And besides," she went on, squirming a little and lowering her gaze, "there's our friendship, too. I did want to help you. You… mean so much to me." She blushed a little and moved her hand from his chest to her lap. Sweet spirits, it was almost like she was confessing her love to him. How embarrassing! "You're my best friend." Her voice was barely a whisper. "I don't want to lose you."
Maybe it was the moonlight or her words or he was just that tired, but Zuko suddenly had the urge to be closer to her. He leaned forward a little until his forehead pressed gently into hers. "You won't lose me. I'll never leave you."
Katara didn't know why her heart skipped a beat and maybe it was just her imagination playing tricks on her but it certainly felt like it had. She never had any qualms when it came to touching Zuko be it hugging or wrestling or trying to throttle him for getting on her nerves too much, yet somehow being this close to him right now made her feel very self-conscious and even nervous. Her mouth was suddenly dry and before she could stop it, her tongue flicked across her lower lip to clear the feeling away. Zuko's breathing hitched ever so slightly in response and she heard it. Someone's heart was beating very, very fast right now, but who it belonged to she couldn't tell or maybe they were beating in such perfect sync together that it would be impossible to.
They had been engaged for a year. Zuko's birthday was exactly one month away and by then they would have been married for almost three months. Katara knew it was stupid to believe that nothing could have started to develop between them during that time. All that was left was to reach out and grasp that feeling, nurture it into something more. But her heart wasn't ready to leave Aang behind, not now, not yet. Her feelings were so mixed up, sloshing about like week-old five flavored soup. And then there was Zuko's little confession to Mai that made her a little sicker inside every time she thought about it for reasons she wasn't ready to explore just yet.
Spirits, he was warm. Every night, sleeping by herself became more and more difficult and what she wouldn't give for the feeling of arms being wrapped around her as she slept once more.
Katara pulled back from him before she ended up doing or saying something she would regret later. "We should, um, get back to bed," she said after clearing her throat in order to wake up her vocal cords. "We probably won't wake up in the morning otherwise."
"You've done more than enough today," Zuko replied. "Sleep as much as you want tomorrow."
"A day off? Zuko, I can't."
"You won't do anyone any good if you collapse, especially me."
"I'm not going to collapse, I'm fine."
Zuko stared at her with a look that could compete with a puppy hare's and win. "Please?"
Katara pursed her lips and crossed her arms, giving a short exhale of displeasure. "Fine."
"Don't you have to plan my party, anyway? Uh, or was that supposed to be a surprise?"
She snorted. "It's hardly a surprise if the entire country has been talking about it for weeks, Zuko."
Smiling a little, she reached up to pull his headpiece out of his hair, black strands falling over his face in shaggy directions. "Now who's the tired one? Come on, your Majesty, let's go to sleep."
As Katara settled back on the bed, Zuko changed into a simple tunic and pants. Climbing into his designated side, his eyes caught hers again. Those blue eyes brighter than the moon itself stared back him, a part of her robe slipped off one shoulder, and dark brown hair cascaded in long, teasing waves around her lithe body. Zuko's heart might have still thought of Mai, but he was still a human being with all his parts functioning properly. It had been a long time since he had felt a woman's touch upon his skin, and firebenders were probably the most passionate of people in every sense of the word. Being born in late summer did nothing to diminish that passion.
"Zuko?" Katara was the one to break the silence because he was staring at her and she couldn't help staring back and him and it was beginning to freak her out a little.
He snapped out of it. "Yes?" And cringed when his voice came out like a squeak. He coughed as if it would help regain that bit of masculine dignity he had just lost.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, perfectly fine, nothing's wrong at all." Hoping she couldn't see how red his face was, he climbed onto the bed and tugged the covers around him, keeping his back to her. "Night, Katara."
"Night." Katara rolled onto her back and pulled the covers up to her chin, no longer feeling tired or exhausted. She had seen the way Zuko was looking at her and she knew what it was. Aang had sometimes looked at her that way too, but it was more like out of a boyish curiosity over feelings that were strange to him. Those kinds of feelings intensified with age, and the way Zuko was staring at her had been quite intense. Worse, while it scared her a little, it also made her restless.
Just an attraction is all it takes, Toph's voice rang in her head. A little wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am and voila! your heir issues are covered.
Katara threw the covers over her head. Okay, yeah, she was feeling restless and strange and antsy and maybe the full moon and Zuko's eyes had something to do with it, but she was not - totally not - prepared to go in that direction just yet.
Besides, the idea of making love to Zuko out of duty felt very wrong, too. And it would be out of duty, it totally totally would despite that, when he was looking at her, duty had been the furthest thing from her mind.
Aang was beginning to see that the more he did his job, the more he realized that the people really did not understand what the Avatar actually was. A peacekeeper. A guardian. A balance of the all the elements.
This was not a part of his job description. Which he had been trying to tell the mayor of this town for the past ten minutes to no avail. "How can you be so heartless!" the mayor cried. "Aren't you the Avatar? Isn't it your job to make the people happy?"
"It's my job to keep balance," Aang interjected, trying oh so hard to be polite. Dealing with stubborn people was not his strong point, especially when he himself got irritated easily.
"Which serves to make the people happy."
"That's actually your job as a leader. I-"
"You lead the elements, don't you!"
"No! Even if that was how it works, it's not the same thing!" Aang took a deep breath. Calm down, calm down, a spiritual figure should not yell at people. They really shouldn't.
"Well, it was her dying wish, after all. Surely you can't turn your back on that!"
"She was dead for days according to your mortician, how could you possibly-"
"She cared for your friends, didn't she? Don't you feel a sense of gratitude? Don't you think you owe her for her services?"
Aang sighed with deep exasperation. There was no way he could do this. Appa might not care much, but Momo would pitch a fit. He had a feeling stopping by the little village of Taku Yi was a bad idea. Aang knew what was going on here. Taku Yi had been built a few years ago among the ruins of Taku in hopes that one day the grand port city would be restored to its long lost splendor and wealth. The Herbalist Institute was just at the top of the mountain and these people didn't even bother to check to see if any crazy old timers were staying up there until the stench that drifted down finally forced them to do so. The villagers, feeling guilty that they had indirectly left someone to die all alone in that abandoned building, took in her cat. However, Taku Yi was a fishing village and therefore having a cat around would be bad for business, despite Aang pointing out that the cat - what was its name? Miyuki? Yeah, Miyuki. - preferred plum blossoms, not fish. It didn't matter, the village mayor was more than determined to shove this fluff ball of bad luck onto Aang no matter how much he irritated the Avatar.
Truth be told, despite Momo's possessiveness, Miyuki had a better chance of surviving with Aang than in this village. Poor thing. Aang could sympathize with a fellow vegetarian forced to eat meat in order to survive.
"Fine, fine, I'll take the cat," Aang growled.
"I knew you would, Avatar!" the mayor cried joyfully and literally shoved Miyuki into Aang's arms. "You truly are a marvelous, glorious, wisest -"
"Yeah, yeah, thanks, I'm just gonna leave now."
"Certainly, certainly, is there anything else my village can do for your most esteemed grace?"
"Nope. I'm good." Aang just wanted out of this village as soon as possible. He had a party to get to and there was no longer any time for delays. Once outside, he set Miyuki down so she could walk. "Sorry about that," he said to her. "I can't keep you but I have a friend whose birthday is next week. He and his -" he choked. "Uh, they'll be more than happy to take care of you. You'll be much better off there."
It was difficult to believe that after so long he still had trouble accepting Katara's marriage to Zuko. Perhaps the simple fact that during all this time he pretended it didn't bother him had something to do with it. After all, he was the Avatar, the balance of the world. How could he stand in the way of a union that could unite the countries and bring true peace at last? It was right, it was fitting, it was a solid solution to many of the world's problems.
So why couldn't Aang shake away the nagging feeling that something wasn't adding up here? He didn't think he was selfish enough that these uncertainties were all stemming from his lingering feelings for Katara. At least, he really didn't want to think so. At the same time, it would be better as that would mean there wasn't a genuine problem brewing here.
Appa growled a greeting as Aang approached, impatient to be on their way already. Momo was about to jump on him when he saw the newest addition to their little group. Hissing and spitting, Momo hovered over the cat. He flew in little circles as he growled and squeaked angrily, pointing out that Aang was his and his alone. Miyuki just stared at him, her eyes unblinking and every part of her down to the smallest hair as still as stone.
Then her paw shot out and slapped into Momo's face. The lemur went flying, somersaulting through the air to slam into Appa's leg. After shaking his senses back, Momo leaped onto Aang's shoulder, chittering excitedly. "That's what you get for being rude," Aang replied. "I don't feel in the least bit sorry for you."
"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Miyuki. She's the one you were being a jerk to."
Momo glared at Miyuki and Miyuki's whiskers twitched upward in a smug expression only a cat could have.
Almost everyone Katara had invited showed up to the party, and those who didn't had sent along representatives in their places. The guests had come from all corners of the world, traveling for weeks to celebrate the birthday of another country's monarch. Even Mizuchi's governor had sent a representative to pay his respects.
Ever since that nerve-wracking meeting with Mizuchi a month ago, Zuko kept pestering Katara to take time off. He had claimed it was so she could focus on the party preparations, but Katara knew it was because he was worrying over her. Usually, she hated being worried over like she couldn't take care of herself, but there was a bit of warm fuzzy feeling inside alongside that annoyance. She finally took him up on his offer, rescheduled all her meetings, and kept all her focus on his party.
It really was more than just a party. This was another opportunity to show the Fire Nation's reformed hospitality to the rest of the world. Katara had to be in perfect condition in order to be the perfect hostess. Many of the V.I.P. guests were staying at the palace for a few days to recover from their travels, a few arriving as early as a week prior. There may be more than enough servants to take care of their every need, but it was Katara's responsibility to make sure those needs were seen to in the most efficient way possible.
As she helped out the preparations for this kind of high society mingling, Toph refreshed Katara on her hosting mannerisms and etiquette. "Remember, Katara, besides baby making, this is your most important job as a female political figure."
"Way to put the pressure on me, Toph."
Toph just grinned. "All right, sugar, how's your dancing?"
Katara balked. "D-dancing?"
"What did I tell you about impressions?" Toph demanded, placing her hands on her hips. "People are more taken by leaders if they express things like family values and all that. You want the people to like you more, you and Zuko need to show yourselves as so happily married you could suffocate the entire room with your eternal love."
"Uh… Toph, I don't think it has to be that much-"
"Maybe I did exaggerate a bit. But you do see my point, right?"
"Good, let's get dancing!"
Katara backed up a few steps. "Wait, wait, Toph, I still don't think the dancing is necessary. I haven't had a lesson in months. I've forgotten most of it, I think."
Toph's grin grew, stretching from ear to ear. "Luckily for you I'm here, sweet cheeks."
"You can dance?"
She shrugged. "Nothing more than feeling rhythmic vibrations on the ground. It's almost the same as earthbending but with a little more perk to it. Come on, let's see what'cha got."
Toph discovered that Katara was just being difficult because the young Fire Lady was not a bad dancer at all. "See, sweetness? You totally got the hang of this! Dancing isn't so bad."
"It's not that," Katara muttered. Just the idea of dancing with Zuko sounded bad. Something weird happened after that night when he came home and she was sleeping, exhausted from her day. The way he was looking at her and the way she knew she was looking at him. After that night, it was difficult to look at him again. She had the strangest urge to close the distance between them, and she felt so guilty for it because she was sure her heart would belong with Aang always.
Now she wasn't sure of anything anymore.
"Hello, Earth to Katara, are you listening?"
Katara snapped back to reality. "Sorry, Toph. My mind kinda wondered there for a second."
"Uh huh," Toph replied, rolling her eyes. "Come on, you still got more practicing to do. This time let's try something a little more… intimate."
"Now, now, don't be so shy, sweetness, I'll be gentle, promise."
This dance was definitely had her much closer to her partner than Katara would have liked. Of course, Katara didn't mind Toph, but she didn't think she could bring herself to dance this way with Zuko. The hand touching, the slow turns, the closeness, it felt intimate despite only a few simple touches and steps.
And Toph was her partner! Katara blushed heavily. If she felt this way with Toph, she was not going to survive the embarrassment with Zuko!
"What's going on?"
Katara nearly choked on her own spit when she saw Zuko standing in the doorway, raising his eyebrow at the two girls twirling about in the room. "I'm just brushing up your wife on her dancing skills," Toph replied and suddenly grabbed Katara in a tight hug. "What's wrong, Sparky? You jealous?"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Hardly."
Katara tried to wiggle out of Toph's grasp but no such luck. Toph may have gotten a little taller these days, but it was still hard to imagine that such a small girl had such a strong grip. "Did you - nnnh! - need me for something?" Katara gasped, still struggling for her freedom. Toph's grip tightened.
"No, not really," Zuko replied, his eyes going to the floor. "Just wanting to see what you were up to."
"That's great, Sparks, now get outta here and let the girls have their private meeting over your party."
"Toph," Katara hissed, less at the innuendo and more at her hold because it was beginning to hurt.
"Okay. Um, see you at the party, I guess."
The moment Zuko was out of sight, Toph released Katara. "Spirits, Toph, what the hell was that for?" Katara demanded, rubbing her stomach to ease the soreness.
Toph began to snicker, ignoring Katara's words. "Heh heh, I wonder just how long he's been standing there."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Shall we continue, your Royal Sugariness?"
"Toph, I asked you a question. Toph, wait, what were you talking about?"
"Aaaaaand one, two, three… one, two, three…"
Once the dancing lessons were over, Katara had to rush to get everything ready for the designated time the party was supposed to start. The city was already celebrating, fire works and parades and entertainment and music decorating the atmosphere with joy and color. Katara loved this sort of thing, knowing that she had the ability to bring happiness to the people who depended upon her. With each smile, each hearty laugh, she felt like she had accomplished something worthwhile. She never would have believed she was cut out for the royal life until she found out what it truly met and that it was much closer to her ideals than she had realized.
Her servants helped her change into her special ceremonial kimono for that night, long fabric of golds and reds that trailed like a blaze of fire behind her. The last time she had been dressed for a royal ceremony, she had been depressed and withdrawn. Now she sat back and enjoyed the pampering as the handmaidens colored her cheeks and brushed her wavy hair. She felt excited, even happy, feelings that were easier to come by with each passing day. Well, once the stress of peace meetings and cultural changing projects were pushed out of the way and she actually had proper sleep for once. In fact, it was as if Zuko making her take the entire week prior off from her usual duties restored a certain glow to her, something the servants were quick to compliment her on.
When she finally had to leave and make her appearance, Katara felt overdressed and ridiculously feminine and loved every ounce of that feeling. Her quiet giggling to herself ceased when she saw Zuko approach from down the hall, wearing his ceremonial armor complete with the Fire Lord's cape. She felt a smile tug at her lips. Between them, they were wearing enough fabric to cover a small mountain, how in the world were they going to be able to dance without something tearing?
"Don't you look dashing," Katara remarked as she took his arm.
"You seem a little giddy," Zuko replied. "You haven't been hitting the sake already, have you?"
"Hey, be nice, I'm quite the happy person," she shot back, punching the part of his upper arm that wasn't covered by armor. "Things are lively, it's your birthday, and it's about time we were able to sit back and enjoy ourselves."
"We just back from vacation two months ago."
"That's a long time!"
He poked her back. "You just want to slack off."
"So says the guy who sneaks naps in the study."
"Writing letters is boring, Katara! In fact, writing in itself is."
"Yes, which is why I usually have to correct them before they're sent out."
Zuko stopped in his tracks and stared at her. "Do you really?" Without a word, Katara just grinned at him and grabbed his hand, urging him on to the courtyard.
The courtyard was filled with many distinguished guests, monarchs and governors and the personally invited, talking and mingling, and each and every one of them stopped to bow when the royal couple stepped outside. "My wife and I are honored by your presence here and thank you for coming so far from your homes to celebrate this day with us," Zuko announced. It always impressed Katara how well he could speak in public, especially when he tended to say clumsy and awkward things in private and could barely write his way out of a wet paper bag. "Please enjoy yourselves to the fullest and let the Fire Nation see to it that your stay here is a memorable one."
With that, the guests straightened with cheers and applause and the party erupted into full swing. Still holding her hand, Zuko led Katara to their table where the rest of the gang was waiting for them. "Happy Birthday!" they cheered in unison.
"Thanks," Zuko mumbled, feeling shy when all this attention began to reach a personal level.
"All right, so dinner or presents first?" Sokka asked. "Personally, I'm ready for the cake."
"Actually," Aang interjected, and Katara saw that he was holding something white and fluffy in his arms, "I need to go ahead and give him his present before we do anything."
"Oh, sure, just go ahead and do what you want because you're the Avatar."
Suki pinched Sokka's arm. "Be nice," she chided.
"What? I was teasing."
With a bright smile, Aang held the bundle toward Zuko and Katara, a furry creature with a pink bow tied around its neck. "This is really for the both of you, but Happy Birthday, Zuko!"
The royal couple stared at Miyuki and Miyuki stared back.
"How cute!" Katara exclaimed, scratching Miyuki's ears.
"What the hell is it?" Zuko demanded.
Aang rolled his eyes. "What's it look like, genius? It's a cat."
"It's not a bearded cat?"
"Not an owl cat?"
"Not a panther cat?"
"Not a baboon cat?" Toph threw in helpfully.
"No, it's just a cat! Nothing else!"
Zuko glanced at Katara and then went on staring at Miyuki. "How weird."
"Actually, there are a lot of cats in the southern part of the Earth Kingdom," Toph pointed out. "But not too many in other parts of the world."
"He is pretty," Zuko said, gently taking Miyuki from Aang. "Hey there, little guy."
Sokka could barely hold in his laughter. "Dude, I think that cat's a she. You know, given the pink ribbon and all." Zuko glared at him.
"Her name's 'Miyuki'," Aang explained. "She belonged to the herbalist who helped me heal Katara and Sokka when they got sick."
"Wait, she was the one who told you to make us suck on those frogs!" Sokka exclaimed.
"Yes, but she died a while ago."
"How awful," Katara breathed.
"The villagers, um, asked me to take care of Miyuki for her but since I already have Momo and Appa, I figured you guys could use a pet." Aang's smile returned. "She's pretty special. She's a vegetarian cat."
Zuko raised his eyebrow and Sokka really burst out laughing. "There's no such thing as a vegetarian cat!"
"Sokka, you didn't even know there was such a thing as a cat five minutes ago," Katara pointed out, rolling her eyes.
Miyuki twitched her whiskers, not knowing what these humans were squawking about and not really wanting to know. Oh, but the man holding her had a very warm touch. This was why she loved going down to the Fire Nation camps when they stopped at Taku's ruins. They always had the warmest hands to pet her with. So she grunted in displeasure when Zuko placed her in the colder hands of a servant with orders to take her to the royal chambers. Her claws dug into Zuko's sleeves.
"Hey, she won't let go!"
Laughing, Katara and Aang helped gently pry Miyuki off the Fire Lord. "It's because she likes you," Katara told him. "You really do have a way with animals, don't you?"
After Miyuki was taken to settle in her new home, dinner was served, gifts and stories were passed around and bottle after bottle of sake and other spirits were poured. Katara had never indulged herself like this before, made merry without an absolute care, but the moon was full once again and as with every other Waterbender in the world made her prone to do impulsive and impish things. She danced many times, with Sokka, with Aang, even Toph again, letting the music - and the alcohol - take her wherever they wanted her to go.
The music eventually found her in Zuko's arms. Well, they had impressions to give, didn't they? Except by this time in the evening, everyone was past the point of caring and while the music slowed to a tender flow of notes much like the flow of a river, Katara had other plans in her intoxicated mind. The moon was high in the night's peak, filling her with a friskiness that wouldn't be denied for this month like it had been last time. Their attempt at proper dance moves were quick to evolve into a spinning of some sort.
"Wh-what are you doing?" Zuko demanded in surprise as Katara spun them around and around and around. "This isn't, ah-"
"Oh, be quiet and enjoy it!" Katara shot back with a laugh. Then he began laughing with her and hearing it made her warm all over, but she would swear to her dying breath it was really all the sake she had been drinking.
They managed to stop before either of them could throw up and then, still hanging onto his hand, Katara pulled Zuko away from the party, giggling as she did so. She felt so childish, like she had the biggest secret in the world and was about to bestow this unique knowledge on the one person she deemed worthy. "Katara, where are we going?" Zuko asked as she led him from one hallway to another, twisting this way and that. The palace looked so much bigger at night. So much more fun. She only continued to giggle.
Zuko supposed he should feel weird about this, but he also had his share of drink for the past few hours, too, and was definitely feeling its effects. Katara's laugh was catching, almost magical, and once again the full moon was outlining her like she was a playful spirit just as he saw her a month ago when he came home so late that night. Playful… and tempting.
"Here we are, here we are," Katara said, her voice an almost devious whisper. She led him into a tiny courtyard nestled in the heart of the palace. It was very tiny, with just enough room for a pond and in the center of the pond on its own little island, a cheery tree grew. The island itself had enough room for two people to sit comfortably on the grass together. Zuko's eyes widened. He had lived in the palace all his life and he had never known this place was here.
"Come, come," Katara urged, pulling him along the stepping stones leading to the island. "I found this a few days ago. Isn't it amazing?"
"Y-yeah, it is," Zuko agreed, his mouth suddenly feeling dry. Maybe he had way too much to drink.
"Shhh, but that's only part of it."
Apparently, Katara had, too. "Part of what?"
"Your present, silly." She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small purse made of deep indigo fur. She opened the drawstring and retrieved something that glowed like a jewel in the night. It was a silver chain attached to a thin stone that reflected many colors of blue and violet and even a little green. Like staring into the sea itself.
"It's the scale of a sea kirin," Katara explained softly and she sounded the most sober than she had all evening. A little laugh passed her lips. "That's the story, anyway. It was a mythical creature that lived in the South Pole. No one has ever seen one, at least not for many, many centuries. I always thought someone was making it up, personally, but who knows, right?"
"It's from your tribe, isn't it?"
Zuko stared at her. "And you're giving it to me? Isn't it important to your people?"
"I am decked from head to toe in Fire Nation fashion." She reached up to slip the necklace around his neck. "To see you wearing a part of the Water Tribes would make them very happy, I think. Besides, look."
She tilted the scale - stone, whatever - toward him and he saw in the swirling colors of blue and violet the faintest twinkle of orange.
"It is also said that the sea kirin knew how to use fire." Her eyes rose to meet his and he was lost in blue once again. "But like I said: it's just a legend."
"It's… beautiful," he whispered. The loveliest blue he had ever seen. Or maybe this was the sake talking again. Oh, wait, she was talking about that scale-but-not necklace, wasn't she? It was getting a little difficult to think. Water for him when he went back to the table.
He was giving her that look again, the kind that was making Katara's chest tighten. The world was beginning to spin around her, threatening to slingshot her into oblivion if she didn't find a stronghold to keep her grounded. She felt warm, inside and out. Like the dancing Toph had showed her, she felt like nothing was more intimate than the miniscule space between him and her where they were just barely touching. She could still hear the music from the courtyard, merry and upbeat, but there seemed to be a different melody flowing with the beat, the kind that was making her heart pound faster and faster with each second.
The world was spinning, like they were doing their silly dance again only standing still this time. She didn't even know she had moved until she felt her lips press into his. This was much warmer than she had expected. And soft. And a little wet. The world spun faster and her lips matched its quickening pace, seeking… something. Yes, this was very nice. Who knew that clumsy, awkward Zuko could be such a good kiss-
Katara jerked back like he suddenly burned her and gawked at him. What did she just-? She looked around wildly, as if there would be something in this little courtyard that could get her out of this new predicament. "Uh, um-" She smiled widely, ridiculously, trying to lighten the mood while judging the distance between her and the nearest stepping stone that would lead her out of this humiliation. "Yeah, h-hey, Zuko? Is there any chance you can completely ignore what I just did?"