To say I was angry would've been an understatement. I was furious. In fact, furious didn't even cover how mad I was at myself. Sure, it had been something I'd wanted to do since probably the fiasco with the pirates a lifetime ago, but this was not the time or place or anything for that! So why did it happen?
I didn't lie to her. I didn't want there to be another what-if. There were already so many, and judging by the torrent of emotions I watched fly through her eyes in that instant, she had a few too. But this moment in time was not a good one for insane things like that. Anyone could've seen that. And suddenly my mind went to Aang, and the guilt took over. Aang was a good friend and I hated the thought of betraying that friendship, but at the same time I didn't want to betray my heart either.
To put it plainly, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
As I watched the blue-clad Water Tribe members board the ship, I felt a deep longing to go with them, to be back on a ship travelling again. I missed the freedom I had before the responsibility of the Fire Lord was placed upon me, and I cursed my uncle for giving it to me. I felt Mai tighten her hold on my arm, then I looked up and noticed Katara was walking toward us.
"I hope you have a safe journey, Master Katara," I said courteously as she stopped front of us, looking between Mai and myself.
"And please let us know when the ceremony is," Mai added dutifully. "We would be honored to attend such an event."
Katara forced a smile. "We would be honored to have you. Thanks for all your hospitality, Fire Lord Zuko. Lady Mai."
She made a traditional Fire Nation bow and started to turn toward the ship. "Katara," I called before I could think. She turned back a little, uncertainty wavering in her eyes. "I know things will be hard without Aang. I just wanted to remind you our invitation is open. You're welcome here anytime."
I felt Mai tense up beside me, but I felt myself relax a little when she offered a smile. "Thanks. I'm sure I'll be back. I can only take so much of Sokka before he drives me crazy."
And with that, she turned and disappeared amidst the blues of her fellow tribesmen. Sokka started after her, pausing briefly to bow before me, then disappeared with Suki being dragged along behind him. None of the sounds of the harbor reached me as I watched the waterbenders pull a wave in to push them out to sea. The only things that pierced my senses were the smell of the sea and the bright blue eyes watching me from the bow as she helped push and pull the water.
When we returned to the city, I went straight to my study. I asked a servant to summon my uncle to me, then immediately started poring over the documents skewed across my desktop to keep my mind occupied while I waited. It didn't matter what day of the week or what time of the year, there was always something that needed doing in the homeland.
Three excruciatingly long documents in, Uncle finally came knocking. When he entered, he was carrying a tea tray with two small cups. I smiled a little at the thoughtfulness of the old general. He gave me a calculating look as if trying to figure out why he was there before setting out the tea pot and cups on the space that I had cleared free of documents.
"May I inquire as to why I'm here at such an hour?" he asked. "Or better yet, why you are here at this hour?"
Suddenly I was at a loss for words. I didn't know where to start, or how, or why I even thought it was a good idea to talk to my uncle about this at all! But I knew I had to talk to someone or I would eventually explode, and my uncle was the only person in the world I trusted with this. My mouth opened and closed as my brain struggled to find the right words. I fidgeted with the corner of a nearby document.
He seemed to sense my hesitation. "Perhaps this is about a certain ship that just cast off?" he offered. I could hear a smile in his tone of voice, though his face hid it well.
I sighed, defeated. "I don't know what to do..."
"I'm assuming you are talking about your feelings for a certain waterbender," he said.
I looked up, shocked at his accuracy. "Tell me it wasn't that obvious," I begged.
"I am an old man with a keen eye for these things," he laughed. "I noticed a long time ago, perhaps before you did."
"Doubtful," I replied with a smirk.
He smiled knowingly. "So what is it you are unsure of, exactly?"
I finally gave in. "Exactly what you said: my feelings for her. They're more than just feelings, Uncle. But… everything is so messed up now, I don't even know how-"
The old man sighed and smiled into his teacup. "Zuko, you have grown so much from the young hotheaded prince chasing the Avatar. I'm sure that whatever happens was meant to happen. Just like you found your way to Avatar Aang, if it was meant to be, she will find her way to you."
I growled a little. "That doesn't help me now," I retorted, sipping at my tea. "I don't have much time to wait. You heard the council. They want me to marry Mai, and soon! I can't hold them off forever just to wait and see if Katara decides she wants to come back for me. After what I did, I don't know if she would want to…"
I glanced over my cup to see Uncle Iroh raising his eyebrow at me. "What you did?" he urged on.
"Yeah, I… I kind of kissed her…" I winced at the sound of Uncle's cup of tea hitting the floor, so I rushed through the next words hoping to explain before he interrupted with a harsh lecture. "But she kissed me back, and that's why I'm so confused and I do like Mai and I'm trying to make it work, but I don't feel for her what I feel for Katara, Uncle, I love her!"
But the interruption never came, nor did the lecture. He sat staring at me for several minutes. I didn't dare speak. I felt his eyes trained on me, studying my sincerity, carefully considering my confession. It was in these minutes that the full weight of what I had just said sank in. I don't think I had really admitted it to myself yet, and there I was blurting it out to my uncle over tea in the middle of the night. I felt my chest tighten. Finally, to my relief, he broke the strained silence.
"Did anyone see you?" he asked quietly.
The kiss. "No. I don't think so," I replied just as quietly.
"You have to be certain, Zuko."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I don't know!" I hissed. "We were out on the balcony over the west garden. I didn't see anyone around."
He bent and picked his teacup off the floor. "I will keep my ears open then, and try my best to quell any rumors that may sprout from a witness."
"I am proud of you for coming to me with this," he continued. "And I am proud that you are willing to admit your feelings for a special someone. But teenager or not you have a responsibility here, and now she has an equally important one. The nations cannot afford more instability this soon after. Please, keep your head and be more careful."
As he made to leave, I stood and bowed slightly. "Thank you for your advice, Uncle."
"Be more careful" was not a "Don't do it ever again". Mental note made...
I had visited home a couple of times during my travels with Aang while the rebuilding was being done, but I had never seen the completed work. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed that I didn't get to help. When I laid my eyes on the new wall, my heart leapt up to my throat. What had they done since the last time I was here? How many of the Northerners actually stayed? Were Pakku and Gran-Gran getting along well?
So many times I wished I could tell Aang just to stop so I could go home and see my family. I missed them so much, but then Aang would say something Air Temple-related and guilt grabbed me by the throat and made me think how much he must miss his entire race. My guilt won, so off we went on some new adventure. Don't get me wrong, we did have fun. It just felt like I never really got a say in where we went.
As the ship approached the city, Sokka appeared by my side at the bow. "Everyone's been missing you, you know," he said quietly.
"I've been missing them too," I replied with a sad smile.
"You're going to love our home."
I wasn't sure what to expect. It was obviously not an elaborate ice palace like the North Pole had, but not the dinky little igloos we lived in before Sokka and I left home for the first time either. Butterflies fluttered around in my stomach. Who would be there? What would they say? What would they do? What would I do?
Before I knew it the wall was opening before us, revealing a bustling harbor and a landscape I didn't recognize. So many new buildings, so much life! I felt warm tears gathering in my eyes as I found Gran Gran waiting for us when we docked, standing in front of Master Pakku and my father. She was the first warm pair of arms that enveloped me as I flew off the ship to meet them. After a few moments, my father pulled me from her to get his own hug, and I even gave Master Pakku one. He was, after all, my grandfather now.
When I was done with the initial wave of hugs, I found Sokka and Suki standing behind me waiting. Suki had had a parka specially made for her in the Water Tribe style, but in her own Earth Kingdom colors. She was bundled up and hovering under Sokka's arm for extra warmth. I couldn't blame her. After a while away from all the cold weather, it would take me a day or two to get used to it again as well.
We all moved into the city, Sokka promising that our things on the ship would be taken care of. As we made our way along the bustling streets, Sokka and my father pointed out all the different buildings: the small shops, neatly sculpted apartment buildings and houses, a brand new meeting hall right beside a huge main square like the one Master Pakku and I had fought in at the North Pole, only this had an ice statue of Aang in the center holding a banner with the symbols of the four nations on it. The sight made me tear up, and Sokka quickly pulled me along to our next stop.
A great building loomed before us just past the meeting hall and I was pulled inside to face a fur-filled living area complete with a fireplace. I could see a bit of a dining area off one side of the room and stairs that lead up to another level. My eyes widened as I realized where I was. My father stepped in front of me and smiled.
"Welcome home, Katara," he said, relief evident in his voice.
Suki grabbed my arm, pulling me toward the stairs. "Come on. I'll show you to your room. We took the long way around so your stuff should already be here."
I went along without resistance, still a bit speechless from all the change. Just a couple weeks ago I was in the land of never-ending summer surrounded by fire lilies and pink and orange sunsets that complimented the Fire Palace's many gardens. Now I was surrounded by ice and snow that was supposed to be familiar and welcoming and yet somehow it wasn't at all how I imagined coming home would be. Suki was chattering happily as we walked along a small corridor, finally stopping in front of a door at the end. She pushed it open and a warm feeling took over.
A huge canopy bed covered in white and blues, an ornate white oak chest at the foot of the bed carved with the Water Tribe symbol, a small vanity in one corner, all preceded by a small receiving area with a small fireplace and two comfy-looking couches where my bags from the ship had been placed. I immediately forgot all my discomfort as I bolted for the closet, nearly ripping one of the doors off to see it fully stocked with the most beautiful gowns I had ever seen in every shade of blue, and even some purple. Behind me, Suki giggled.
"I had a hand in your closet," she said with a smile. "I knew you'd like it."
Before I realized, I was nearly choking her in a fierce hug. "Thank you so much, Suki! I do love it!"
She patted me on the back. "Hey, a Water Tribe princess has to look like a Water Tribe princess. I considered adding some red in there, sort of in memory of our time undercover in the Fire Nation, but there were some who deemed it inappropriate in the Water Tribe. It would send the "wrong message". But there are some normal clothes in the dresser for, you know, training and stuff."
I rolled my eyes and sighed. "Yeah…"
"Is something wrong?" Suki asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
I closed the closet door gently, then walked to my bedroom door and shut it too. "Can I talk to you about something? Girl-to-girl secret stuff?"
"Sure!" she replied without hesitation. "You can talk to me about anything! Your secrets are my secrets."
"Well," I started slowly, "something happened in the Fire Nation… Something… serious."
Scan. Sign. Stamp. Toss. Scan. Sign. Stamp. Toss. Scan. Sign. Stamp. Toss.
My routine had become monotonous. I almost missed the hustle and bustle of organizing a Summit. Hell, any kind of event would do right now. I'd hardly left my study at all, except for the occasional council meeting and, of course, when my uncle dragged me out kicking and screaming. Not literally because that would be undignified… but very, very close.
I half-heartedly picked up a folded piece of parchment to scan over when something caught my eye. Coronation. I had been so caught up in nothing that I had almost forgotten about the grand ceremony in the South Pole. There was still a month left… Then I noticed the seal had already been broken.
The man had a penchant for timing, as he picked that exact moment to enter with a tray of tea. I cleared a small spot for him to set it down, then as he started to fill the cups I tossed the letter on to the tray. He glanced at it for a moment, then he resumed filling the cups.
"Yes?" he asked innocently.
"Did you open this?" I started, then realized how silly that was and answered it myself. "Of course you did. Who else would dare come in here? I guess my question is, why didn't you tell me about it when it first arrived? We need to reply immediately."
He smiled and lifted the cup to his lips. "I already have."
I could feel my face turning red. "Why didn't you tell me then?!"
"Nephew, you have had so much to worry about that I didn't think one letter would hurt. And besides, we already promised we would be there, so it was only a matter of verifying that we would indeed be attending."
"I still have so many arrangements to make," I continued, standing from my chair to pace behind my desk. "We need to arrange transportation, gifts, winter clothing," I felt myself cringe, "and I haven't been to the South Pole since… well, you know… and I don't know what the lodging situation will be like-"
Uncle Iroh held up his hand to stop me. "Zuko, I have already made most of the preparations myself. All I need is to get you sized for your new parka!"
The blood drained from my face. My eyes narrowed at him. "This was all a ploy to get me to go shopping with you, wasn't it?"
I watched as a tear rolled down one wrinkled old cheek. He had his hand over his mouth as if attempting to hide the fact that he was laughing, but it wasn't working well. I stood as still as I could while the two young seamstresses moved around me, adjusting this, pinning that, poking and prodding until they thought it looked perfect. My narrowed eyes stayed focused on my uncle as he sat in a small chair in a nearby corner.
"All done, my lord," one of the women said as she bowed away from me. "Please, take a look. Let us know if there are any adjustments that can be made for you."
"Anything at all, my lord!" squealed the obviously younger of the two. I watched a silent exchange between the two before the younger one bowed her head as well.
I closed my eyes, let out a deep sigh, and turned to face the mirror wall. When I opened them, I saw nothing funny about the parka. It looked fine! It was thick red material with a gold trim and some black detailing around the belt. Dragons? Very nice. I tried to pull the hood up, but it got caught on my hairpiece.
"Maybe the hood could be a bit bigger," I suggested. "Or I could go without my hairpiece."
The younger girl gasped. "Oh my lord, you simply can't go without it! It's a symbol of your status! You're the ruler-"
"A larger hood it is," the other woman said quickly, covering her partner's mouth and dragging her away. "I beg pardon, Fire Lord. She's new."
The look of shock must've been evident on my face, but I shook it off and muttered a quick "It's okay."
Uncle was nearly rolling. "Oh nephew, you do have a way with the ladies!"
I turned on him and could feel my face turning red. "Why are you still laughing?!" I demanded. "The parka doesn't look bad at all! What's so funny?"
"The fact that you are blind to the actions of all the women around you," he responded with a smile, "except for one."
My eyes widened a little. What exactly were they doing while I was glaring at my uncle and not paying attention? I shuddered at the thought as I pulled the parka over my head and threw it into a chair beside him.
"Have you already gotten yours made?"
"I'm not going."
My attention snapped to him. "What?"
"Someone needs to stay here and watch over the Fire Nation while you're gone," he reasoned. "Unless there is a trusted councilor you would be willing to hand that responsibility to. Mai's father, perhaps? Personally I would love to see what they've done to their city. I wonder if it's as beautiful as the North Pole. And of course I would cherish seeing Princess Katara surrounded by her own element again. I hear she's to give a performance at the ceremony."
He cocked his eyebrow at me, clearly waiting to see how I would respond. I cleared my throat. "Do you think I should too?" This time, his eyes widened. I had to elaborate my reasoning. "Well, she- they are close personal friends of ours, and I think it would be a more meaningful gift coming directly from us than from some shop."
Uncle smiled. "Nephew, I think some of my wisdom may finally be rubbing off on you. That is a wonderful idea and I'm sure she will love it. And by she, I obviously mean they."
I couldn't hold back the smile that appeared on my face. I had to find time to start practicing again. But like all good things, the moment had to be ruined as the seamstresses entered the room again to collect the coat and stare.
"Yes, ladies?" I asked in my most polite tone.
"Yours and Lady Mai's coats should be ready in two days' time," the older of the two said.
I felt a groan working its way up my throat, but was stopped short by my uncle's hand on my shoulder. "Thank you, ladies. I will be picking them up myself. Please give your master our warmest regards."
They smiled and bowed before leaving the room, parka in hand. My sullen glare turned to my uncle's bright smiling face.
"Why is Mai coming?" I demanded. "And why didn't you tell me?!"
"Nephew, you have been trying your best to avoid that poor girl for nearly a month now. If it wasn't for me dragging you to the occasional dinner, you probably wouldn't have seen her at all."
I felt like Sokka when my hand smacked my forehead. "Uncle, I don't know what to say to her anymore. I mean, I can't break up with her because that would look bad on me. But, I guess I can't keep avoiding her either. I've been trying for over a year to feel more for her, but I can't." I ran my hand over my head and looked him in the eyes. "I can't just stop loving someone else."
He gave me a sad look and squeezed my shoulder. "I once told Aang that he was wise for choosing love and happiness over power. I'm afraid in your position that advice doesn't work so well."
"Is that supposed to comfort me?" I growled.
"I cannot tell you what to do here," he continued. "But if it was truly meant to be, it will find a way to be. You just have to be patient."
I sighed. "Yeah, I'll just go hold my breath."
As the door slammed behind me, I felt a pang in my chest. What if we weren't meant to be? What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to let go of these feelings and move on? I needed to clear my head. Off to the training grounds it was…
I absolutely loved the training grounds. I felt truly at home here, practicing my waterbending, completely surrounded by my element, staring down my opponent as he smirked at me from across the field. His white goatee had grown a bit longer since his days in the North Pole, but it failed to make him look any more intimidating. To me, anyway. Other people, perhaps, but I haven't felt intimidated by him since our duel.
He had grown to be a respected member of our tribe since he and the others arrived to help with the rebuilding. It was he who helped shape some of the political restructuring, and he who was the reason I was here today. I hadn't had a good spar in a while and I needed to get back into shape if I was going to perform at the ceremony.
Pakku moved quickly, unleashing a torrent of snow in my direction. I held my ground and whipped it around me, turning it back against him as two icy whips. He dodged easily enough, rolling forward and using water from one of the nearby pools to attack with. I braced myself and let it hit, the water rushing loudly past my ears before gaining control of it. He looked caught off guard when he noticed I was still standing. I grinned.
I slid my foot to the side and the snow underneath his feet moved, making him lose his balance momentarily. His eyes widened. I gathered my senses and punched my fists out in front of me and a small pillar of snow shot out toward his chest. He just barely managed to dodge it. Confusion flitted through his eyes.
My horse stance was flawless as one stomp sent a great chunk of ice into the air, Master Pakku on it. I had never seen him look so terrified. I struggled to keep control of it before I finally punched forward and sent it flying across the practice field. A master with Pakku's reputation should easily be able to bounce back from that. In anticipation, I jumped forward and, with a little waterbending, launched myself into the air, prepared for whatever he was going to come back with.
But it never came. I had to quickly make an ice slide to ease my landing and find out what happened. I ran over to where my ice boulder had hit and, to my relief, found Master Pakku intact beside it. He was hunched over and out of breath. I had never seen him like that before and found myself a little worried.
"Master Pakku, are you okay?" I asked, kneeling down beside him.
"You… That was earthbending I just saw," he gasped.
I couldn't help but smile at his surprise. "Aang and I spent some time with Toph not too long ago." I explained. "Zuko- I mean, Fire Lord Zuko once told us about a firebending move his uncle invented by watching waterbenders. I was curious about how one element's form could translate to another and they ended up teaching me some of the basic forms. Of course I couldn't use it until I got here, but it was still fun."
Pakku looked up and smiled proudly. "You will be a great leader one day, Katara. Your position will suit you well, not just as a princess but as a master and a teacher."
"Teacher?" I asked, confused. "There's no one here to teach, Master Pakku. I'm the last Southern waterbender, remember?"
"Yes, you were," he grinned. "You didn't think you would always be the last Southern waterbender, did you? Why do you think we built the training grounds?"
I could feel the grin spreading across my face. "How many? Where are they? Are there girls? Have you started working with them yet?"
He laughed and held up his hands. "Calm down, Katara. There is one as of right now, and yes, a young girl. But, before you go running off to meet her, you need to work on this performance of yours… and I think it should include your new moves and more. Tell me, what can you remember of firebending?"
Master Pakku and I agreed that my new pupil could wait until after the ceremony to begin her training to avoid any unnecessary stress beforehand. Unfortunately for me, there was still plenty of stress to be had. Suki and Gran Gran were fussing with the seamstresses over a new formal gown and coat while I stood in front of a large ice mirror with my arms raised so they could take measurements. Master Pakku moved my practice to the late evening so that my practice time would fall around the same time of day my performance would, therefore increasing the accuracy of my abilities. Also there were plenty less disturbances that time of day.
Sokka came around a couple of times to check on my progress, even asked if he could be in the show somehow because it was his ceremony too. He realized quickly that he looked silly just standing there slicing through my water. Unfortunately I'm not that good at choreographing without another element coming at me, but he did help a little when I tried to imitate some firebending forms. I didn't realize he'd had much time to pay attention while we were running for our lives. Maybe he just paid more attention to Zuko while he was training Aang.
The thought of him sent a pang through my chest. I had had copies of the ceremony invitation sent to several different places hoping he was somewhere nearby to get it, but I had to admit that I didn't think he would make it in time. He was probably very busy with his Avatar duties, resolving conflict all across the Earth Kingdom, trying desperately not to stop and ride some wild creature he'd heard of. The thought brought a smile to my face and I barely noticed Suki jump onto my bed with a package in her arms.
"Katara, this arrived for you today from the Earth Kingdom!" she squealed excitedly.
I was hurled from my thoughts and immediately jumped on the notion that perhaps Aang had gotten the invitation after all and sent a gift ahead. As Suki ripped through the green ribbon with the golden seal of Omashu, my heart was in my throat. I heard her gasp and watched as she lifted a bolt of beautiful purple material out of the shredded paper. My hopes still high, I grabbed what was left of the packaging and pulled out the note at the bottom with Bumi's personal seal on it.
Dearest Princess Katara,
With the war over and most of the fighting done, I'm afraid my age is finally catching up with me. My trip to the Fire Nation alone seems to have taken its toll on me. Unfortunately your party will be a little less exciting without my presence there. Please accept this gift as a token of my deepest apology. It's from my royal collection. Trust me; it's much warmer than it looks.
I know you're going to wonder about Aang. I'm holding his invitation here, but the truth is I haven't seen him. He was scheduled to arrive here two days ago, but it seems he got held up somewhere. Don't worry; I'm sure he's fine. I will send him your way once he arrives. I think I can handle my city until he gets back.
Wishing you all the best in your new position,
King Bumi of Omashu
A thousand questions and twice as many scenarios ran through my mind and suddenly I felt woozy. The letter slipped through my fingers and drifted to the floor as I flopped back onto my bed. Suki gave me a worried look, then she picked the letter up and scanned over it.
"Oh Katara, I'm sorry," she whispered. "But I know Aang is fine. He is the Avatar, after all. And I'm sure he'll make it in time. He still has a week and a half to get here."
I rolled on my side and looked out the window at the white sky threatening snow. I wasn't so optimistic.
For those who are patient and sticking with me on this, I say thanks. The artwork for this chapter was harder than the chapter itself, so I apologize for the delay. Please visit my deviantART account (linked on my profile) to see the art for this chapter!
There will eventually be more than just Zuko and Katara's POV's, just in case you were wondering. And yes, the next chapter has the *ahem* epic performance at the coronation ceremony. You just gotta wait! :P
As usual, R&R! I love my reviews. They're my brain food and they keep me writing this story.