disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to Mars, for a lot of reasons.
notes: every time I look over my outline for this, I lose my shit. Mai's introduction goes "Mai is so over this" AND IT'S SO FUNNY I CAN'T HELP IT?

chapter title: like a thousand times before
summary: Zuko, Katara, and life after the war. — Zuko/Katara, others.

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So they went inside, all of them.

The Fire Palace was lit up with lamps hung from the ceiling that crackled merrily, in place of the natural light that filtered in during the day through the ornate carved windowpanes along the walls. The servants were nowhere to be found, but the kitchen smelled of spice and heat.

Sokka's stomach rumbled.

Katara laughed loud, and led the way to a small, private dining room.

"Please let the Fire Lord know where we are, when he returns," she told one of the serving girls, one of the younger ones with wide brown eyes that Katara had seen about the palace. The girl nodded, then scampered off into the depths of the palace without another word.

Servants still weirded her out, Katara had to admit.

Katara settled down, and she grinned at her brother and his fiancée curled up on the same pillow.

Ugh, they were so cute. It was gross.

Aang sat uncomfortably to her left, shifting his weight back and forth beneath the sheath of yellow-gold fabric thrown over his shoulder. Katara watched him out of the corner of her eye—his pants had been badly patched, she would need to get on that (and thought wait, no, that's not my job anymore)—he looked very young and very weary, like the world had already got to him.

Katara had an urge to wrap him up in a blanket, stick a cup of sweet warm milk in his hands, and never let anyone at him ever again. The world needed its Avatar, but not this much. Not so much that it sucked out his insides and left him hollowed-out.

She'd never wanted that for him. Never.

But then, Katara hadn't wanted a lot of things.

Not really, anyway.

"Here, egg custard," she said, and pushed a plate of the gooey-sweet tart towards him.

Aang looked at her with melancholy, unbelieving eyes.

Katara smiled in a guilty way; her skin crackled at the corners as her soul stretched, and this, this was how it was supposed to be—she was supposed to take care of him. She was supposed to be his older sister, not his lover.

No fourteen year old knew what they wanted, Katara thought. Not really, anyway. She hadn't, and neither did Aang.

Besides.

She couldn't go back, now.

She had duties here.

Katara thought about Zuko, and about how the light went out of his face whenever anyone brought his sister up. How he was as homeless as Aang was, really, because she'd learned that a long time ago that a house was not a home—how home was built in other people. How Zuko only had himself.

And how he needed her, too.

She closed her eyes for a little longer than a standard blink.

This had always been the end.

This had always been the only end.

"Oh, uh, hey guys."

Speak of the devil, Katara mused. She turned to see the Fire Lord standing in the doorway, Toph's tiny frame half-hidden behind him. She didn't need to look to know that Toph's little fist was curled into the fabric of Zuko's shirt; she'd done that herself, when she was afraid to face the world.

Zuko's shoulders were wide enough to provide protection from the storm.

Katara wondered why she'd never really noticed it, until now.

Maybe it didn't really matter.

"Oi, Hotman, you seen—Toph!"

Katara wanted to hit her head against something. Her brother was an idiot. He jumped up from the table, spun around, and whipped Toph out from behind Zuko to throw her in the air, laughing his face off.

"Hey, lookit you, kid! You're all grown up!"

Toph turned bright red, face screwed up and was, Katara knew, about to start wailing on him. He'd deserve it, too. She shot Suki a look—Suki, who knew better than anyone what Toph's crush meant, who understood, who didn't deserve to hurt like this—and was about to get up and yell at him.

"Sokka, put her down," said Aang, very quietly.

Somehow, his tiny little murmur expanded to fill the room. It became a loud swelling sound, thick with an annoyance and slathered liberally with bitterness.

"Leave her alone," the Avatar said.

"…O…kay?" said Sokka.

Regardless, he set the little earthbender down.

For a moment, the tension in the room was so thick that Katara could have sliced it in half with a blunted skinning knife, flint edge out to carve through the bad feelings that choked at her throat.

There was something going on here, and she was going to find it out.

However:

Sokka (being Sokka) didn't realize that anything was particularly wrong with this picture. He nearly skipped back to Suki's side, flopped down on his cushion, and went right back to stuffing food in his face. He grinned, wide and sloppy-silly. "Come and sit!"

He really hadn't changed at all.

Katara couldn't help the smile, nor the thick ache in her chest.

(Saving the world, what?)

"You know what, I'm not actually hungry!" Toph said. "C'mon, Twinkles, wanna go break something?"

She'd plastered on something like a smile, the smeared unhappiness of it visible in the dip of her shoulders and the way she'd stiffened all over. Katara thought of stone, cleave points, and wondered if this was Toph's.

Aang vaulted up and over the table, airbender light as he skated across to the floor. Toph must have felt the movement—Toph felt every movement, all of it, Katara didn't know how she'd not lost her mind—because her face cracked and sang the wicked-wide heresies of a girl with nothing left to lose.

Aang caught her up, and said "Sifu, maybe we should give Zuko a break—"

"Pfff, no, what are you even talking about, Sparky's got his shit together, we're gonna have some fun! Later, losers, have fun being boring!" Toph said. She whirled, and headed for the door.

Aang's closed his eyes. He'd seen it, too.

He followed her, anyway.

Katara's heart swelled painfully in her throat.

Zuko sat down at her side. When no one was looking, he curled his fingers over hers. It was barely there at all, but it was enough to settle the storm that was brewing under the face of her emotions.

Without even realizing it, Katara leaned into him a little.

Zuko was solid. Zuko was warm. Zuko was the head of a nation, wrapped up in a trembling terrified nineteen-year-old. Zuko was the only one who understood what family meant to her, who waited on the edges of her consciousness with his hands and his humility and his Spirits-be-damned honour.

He was ridiculous.

But somewhere in him was a funny, deep sense of duty that reminded her too much of herself.

Katara sat with her arm pressed flush against Zuko's, and wondered which parts of herself she was ever really going to get back.

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tbc.