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Red is the Color of the End of the World

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Katara grew up in a world of stillness and silence, where the sharp snap of breaking ice could echo for miles across endless white plains. She grew up with muted colors, a thousand shades of blue and white and gray, blending seamlessly into each other under low clouds, or contrasting sharp and clear on a brilliant winter day. Her people moved with the rhythm of the seasons, adjusting their lifestyle to the long winter nights and the longer summer days, clothing themselves in the colors of the wilderness around them.

The temperate zones are riotous explosions of color and life to her eyes, in a way that fascinates and compels her. After growing up on the polar icepack, where life must be carefully nurtured, she can only gaze in wonder at the spectacle of living things, in so many shapes and colors, crowding each other as they grasp for a much warmer sun. The browns and greens of Earth Kingdom clothing and architecture reflect their forested nation, and she finds it exotic but lovely, a pleasing wealth of sensory input in which she basks, burying her hands and feet -- like Toph -- in the damp, fragrant soil.

The garish red of Fire Nation flags and uniforms, though, is an assault on her senses, an affront to the natural rhythms that she was raised to respect. In the Antarctic, the Fire Nation's colors stood out against the snow like splashes of blood. In the Fire Nation itself, it is overwhelming -- the hot oppressive weight of the enemy that took her mother, bearing down on her until she might be crushed beneath it.

She does not hold the common people of the Fire Nation responsible for their leaders' war. Maybe she once did, but not anymore. She's seen them scrape and struggle to survive, broken and afraid of their own military, as crushed beneath their nation's imperialism as her own people have been. But the more she saw of their suffering in her travels, the more she hated the nobles, waging their cruel war in blood-red robes, while their own countrymen suffered and died for their petty ambitions.

But that was before the prince of a proud warrior nation knelt at her feet, offering up his hands as a prisoner to atone for his wrongs. Before he gave her his loyalty and respect, as a fighting partner and a fellow warrior -- before he threw his own body between her and Azula's deathblow, falling before her in a stink of burned flesh and a swirl of the blood-colored robes that she'd learned long ago to despise.

For that, and a thousand other reasons, she stands at Zuko's coronation with her head held high, and she cheers with the others around her. A small corner of her heart whispers traitor, and she walls it off and raises her voice as high as the rest. Months ago, she would have considered such a thing unthinkable, unspeakable -- a daughter of the Water Tribe, throwing her support behind a Fire Lord -- but the world has changed, and Katara with it.

Still, she cannot stop being a daughter of the Water Tribe. The legacy of the war lives on in her, and she would not want it any other way, even if it means that she still flinches instinctively at the sight of Fire Nation uniforms. Because she has somehow, against all odds, come to love Zuko almost as much as Aang does, she will never tell him how difficult it is to see them all around her. She doesn't understand how anyone can stand to live in the palace, with its gloomy red and black draperies, its echoing hallways lit with curtains of flame. She can see how this terrible place produced people like repressed Mai, or brooding and damaged Zuko, although Ty Lee's sunny disposition is a little harder to fathom. People are people here, just like everywhere else, Katara reminds herself; they will be who they will be.

Zuko has set aside rooms for all of them in the palace, in the same wing that houses his own chambers. I know you're not staying long, he'd said, but they'll be there for you, whenever you come this way. Diplomatic visits, and that sort of thing. A place to go, if you need one. And he'd ducked his head to the side and smiled in that disarmingly shy way.

Katara appreciates the gesture, even though this place is nothing like home to her. When she walks with Aang, their hands brushing but not quite grasping, it's always outside in the gardens, where she can choose paths that hide the battle-scarred palace walls behind ornamental trees. Even the flowers are garish to her eyes. The Fire Nation favors splashy, colorful blossoms in bright colors, standing out against the landscape like a babble of voices drowning out a beautiful concert.

Sokka is already gone. He left after Zuko's coronation with the majority of the Water Tribe warriors, sailing home to bring an offer of reparations to the Southern Water Tribe. Katara tries not to think about him, because in her entire life she's never been apart from her brother for more than a few days; it's like a piece of her soul has been ripped away. They've all made plans to meet three months hence in Ba Sing Se, so she knows it won't be forever -- but Suki and the other Kyoshi Warriors went with him, and Toph has also departed, sailing for the Earth Kingdom to meet Iroh in Ba Sing Se and begin assisting with the reconstruction. The palace seems empty and echoing in its vastness, bereft of their laughing voices.

Aang comes and goes, traveling around the Fire Nation and the nearest parts of the Earth Kingdom on Appa. His work is vast; the world is huge, and terribly, terribly out of balance. Katara often goes with him, and together they walk down rubble-strewn streets to hand out rice and fish to hollow-eyed children. While Aang meets with one regional governor after another, directing the recovery efforts, Katara goes down in the streets alone, kneeling to heal festering battle wounds and trying to close her eyes to the color of the uniforms: red or green, it doesn't matter, she tells herself, as if saying it will make it true.

But she is rarely gone from the palace for more than a day or two. Aang makes the longer trips by himself. Only a handful of people, their most trusted inner circle, know why Katara hasn't left yet: because she's not finished healing Zuko, because the wounds he sustained saving her life go deeper than even the servants and counselors know. To the nation and the world, Zuko must present a front of strength and power. The coronation could not wait until he was fully healed, and neither can the interminable counsels and state dinners with diplomatic envoys and Fire Nation nobles. But he's pushing himself so hard that his body can barely hold itself together. In the evenings, Katara sits on a futon in his chambers and lays her hands on the terrible knots of scar tissue on his chest, knitting his body back together so that he can break it apart again the next day.

Aang is usually there too, lying in the lamplight of Zuko's chambers with his head propped on his arms. He's running himself ragged too, though at least his body has more reserves to draw upon. Katara isn't sure if his presence is due to jealousy, or worry for Zuko, or just the desire to spend more time with her; knowing Aang, it's probably all three. She could tell him that he has nothing to be jealous of, but she and Aang still haven't talked about the status of their relationship since that awkward conversation on Ember Island, and she's not sure what words would reassure him when she herself is so uncertain where they stand.

"It would help to have spirit water from the Northern Water Tribe, wouldn't it?" Aang asks one evening, as he lies and watches her do her work. "I can take Appa to the North Pole, and get some."

Zuko raises his head to glare at him. "Don't even think about it. How long would that take? Weeks? Do you really think you can be gone that long? You're needed here." He lets his head sink back onto the futon, closing his eyes. "This truce -- this nation -- is held together with threads right now."

So are you, Katara could have said, but she only spreads her fingers across the livid wounds, and lets herself sink into her work, their voices washing over her as they continue to bicker mildly. She remembers a time when she loved healing, and she will never stop hating Hama for taking that away from her -- these days, she has to force herself to ignore the throb of water under living flesh. Red is the color not just of the Fire Nation but also of blood, the color of her gift misused in horrible ways. Water used to sing a sweet song to her, a song of life and recovery, but now it's a siren song with a shivering, ugly note underneath.

Still, in a terribly messed-up way, the war has been a boon to her: it's given her ample practice at healing, and with every wound that knits beneath her fingers, she can feel a little of Hama's taint slipping away.

"That's all I can do for tonight," she says, sitting back on her heels. Across the room, Mai looks up from her book. She's usually present at these healing sessions too, and Katara suspects that she's drawn by the same combination of factors that motivates Aang: jealousy and worry, blended into one. On top of that, she's now the Fire Lord's personal bodyguard, and is rarely far from him. Reclining in a lazy spill of black and red robes, Mai appears to pay little attention to what goes on in the room, but Katara can see the glint of knives in her sleeves.

This, too, is part of palace life: the constant suspicion, the awareness of bodyguards everywhere, discretely hovering in the background. Katara supposes that if one grew up with it, then it must weigh less heavily. Or maybe, she thinks, looking down at the lines of strain and exhaustion on Zuko's face, sharpened into chiaroscuro shadows in the lamplight -- maybe familiarity makes it no easier to bear.

"I suppose you should be getting to bed," Mai says, and sits up, laying her book aside. The implication is not hard to suss out; she gets little enough time alone with Zuko, considering all the demands of politics and reconstruction.

Katara tries not to feel dismissed, because it's fair, and she's tired herself. Aang looks half-asleep, but rouses himself enough to say, "We're leaving before first light tomorrow, flying out to the eastern archipelago to bring medical aid to the villages there. We probably won't be back until the following evening."

"Mmm." Zuko throws an arm over his face, not opening his eyes. "Well, fly safe and whatever. Don't fall in the ocean."

Mai sinks down beside him on the futon in a whisper of silken robes. In the lamplight, the inner folds of her robe are the dark rich color of drying blood. Katara closes her eyes briefly, and when she opens them again, it's just a sort of muted crimson with no meaning at all.

"How are you feeling?" Mai asks, leaning over Zuko. She does not touch him, but her hair dances across his face.

"Tired," he murmurs.

"There's still damage to your heart," Katara says. "You'd have more energy if I could get more of the scar tissue cleared out, but it's accumulating as fast as I can clean it up. Aang's right -- we should probably take a trip to the Arctic when we can be spared, because I could do a lot more with water from the shrine than I can with ordinary water. I'd like to go back and learn more from the waterbender healers anyway."

Propped on her elbow on Zuko's futon, her body curled around him without touching him, Mai looks up at Katara. Under her habitual layer of calm, there is a look that's weirdly familiar and yet out of place -- and after a moment Katara places it: Mai is looking up to her as an expert, like a child regarding an elder. She probably doesn't even realize she's doing it "This thing with his heart. Is it life-threatening?" Mai asks.

Katara is aware of Aang going tense behind her, uncurling his limbs from their loose tangle, and she chooses her words with care. It's not just the heart, though that's what worries her most. One can't route that much energy through a human body without doing critical damage to vital internal organs, and she has so little experience with these things that she can barely understand the tenth part of what she feels when she reaches into Zuko's scarred and burned body. She only knows that it's bad, and that it's getting better, but very slowly, painfully slowly.

And it could have been me. If not for Zuko, it would have been, but a hundred times worse. In a way she thinks that's the greatest curse of being a healer -- she can't ignore the depth and magnitude of the damage that people can inflict on one another, not anymore.

"I don't think so," she says at last. "It'll just wear him down, unless it gets worse." And it will, unless he stops pushing himself so hard, she could add, but does not.

"Hello, still here," Zuko murmurs crossly.

Aang crouches down beside Katara. "If I don't fall into the ocean, will you promise not to drop dead of a heart attack?"

Zuko's gold eyes crack open. "You're a weird kid, Aang. Go to bed, both of you." He flicks his fingers dismissively. "Good night."

Aang, still crouched beside her, catches Zuko's hand and squeezes it. For some reason, Aang's casual gestures of affection startle her more with Zuko than they ever did with herself, Sokka or Toph. Maybe it's because Zuko always looks so flustered and disconcerted when Aang does that sort of thing. It's abundantly evident that he's not used to people loving him, or touching him. Impulsively, Katara puts her hand over their linked ones, and curls her fingers around theirs. She casts a quick sideward glance towards Mai, because if anything could set off Mai's slow-burning fuse, this might do it. But Mai just gives a little shrug. Her slim fingers twitch as if she might be thinking about joining in, but instead she adjusts her robe, smoothing it down the side of her long legs.

Katara still doesn't know how much room there is in Mai's admittedly quite limited heart for other people. But Zuko is already there, it seems, and she might be making a little space for the people around him, as well.

With every day Katara spends in the Fire Nation, it's easier not to see red, red, red when she looks around her. It's like these people are born bad, Toph said once. But they're not -- they're just born ... people. For every Azula or Ozai, there's a Zuko or an Iroh. Just as for every me, there's a Hama, Katara thinks, and suddenly the weariness of the day and the awareness of the early morning ahead of them makes her sag, her body wilting against Aang.

Zuko blinks against the lamplight, and the corner of his mouth tugs in a dry smile as the vaguely freaked-out look fades into something warmer and softer. He pulls his hand free. "Go. To. Bed."

"We'll be back day after tomorrow," Aang says, straightening up and looking down at the couple on the futon.

"Charmed," Mai says, and lays her head down on her arm. When Katara looks over her shoulder as she follows Aang out the door, Mai is stroking her fingers through Zuko's hair.

Aang walks Katara to her room in a weary, companionable silence. An impulsive part of her wants to ask him to come in and stay the night; it's so strange and sad to have a room all to herself. She grew up crowded in a house with all her extended family, with Sokka never far from her side, and then there were Aang and Toph -- she's just not used to sleeping alone, especially in a big dark room filled with hanging red tapestries. But they aren't there yet. Katara wishes they could just have the conversation that they both so clearly need to have, and move on to the next level in their relationship -- whatever it might turn out to be. But it's easier to stick with the comfortable, safe ground underfoot than step into the quicksand on either side.

"Is Zuko going to be all right?" Aang asks her quietly.

"I don't know." She's too tired to have this conversation. "I think so, probably? Eventually? I just don't know."

"Maybe someone should write to his uncle," Aang offers, looking up at a particularly depressing tapestry hanging above her door, with a scene of decapitated war captives picked out in black thread on the dark red fabric. "I mean, if anybody can make Zuko slow down a little, it's Iroh. I wonder how much he knows of what's happening here, anyway."

"I don't know." She is tired of all of this -- tired of the constant struggle against her own prejudices that is part and parcel of living in her old enemies' stronghold, and equally tired of fighting other people's battles for them. She just wants the people she loves to be safe and happy and together. She had that once, before her mother died, before her father went away. And she has so many more people to love now, scattered to the corners of the world. "You could do that."

"I guess I could," Aang agrees, and Katara can almost see the weight pressing down on his narrow shoulders. He has much more to carry than she does, she realizes -- and he's already lost a family and a people once.

She moves before she knows what she's doing, and hugs him, pressing her cheek against the top of his head. "Oh, Aang," she says, and the words spill out of her. "I want all of us to be together. I want to see Sokka again. I don't think I can wait two more months to fly to Ba Sing Se."

Aang's arms tighten around her. "I want that too," he says into her shoulder, sounding young and miserable. "And I want to fly to the North Pole to get spirit water for Zuko, because it's not fair for him to survive the war just to -- to have a heart attack later."

"He's not going to," she says, wishing she was more convinced of it herself. "I'm sorry I worried you."

Aang gives a small, sad laugh. "I thought defeating Ozai and winning the war was the hard part."

Katara catches herself sniffling. She's way too tired; she'll be sobbing in a minute. And she can't stand the idea of sleeping another night with battle scenes hanging around her bed, painted the color of blood. "Aang, were you going to sleep down in the stables with Appa?"

"Yes?" he says, sounding nervous. Like all of them, Aang has a room of his own in the palace, but he rarely uses it for anything except meditation.

"Can I come with you?"

"Yes," he says, more definitely this time.

She sleeps in her clothes, with a coat draped over her, and the musky animal smell of bison hair filling her nostrils -- so much more familiar and comforting than the subtle floral perfume in the palace bedrooms. When she wakes in the night, Aang's soft snoring guides her back down into sleep. She doesn't even have nightmares this time.

"You two are hopeless."

Zuko's voice drags her up, up, into the stillness before dawn. Growing light outlines his robe (red, always red) and the tray in his hand.

Aang sits up, stretching, with a strand of hay on his nose. "What are you doing here?"

The Fire Lord, absolute monarch of his military nation, sits cross-legged in the straw and places the tray in front of him. He looks tousled and sleepy and vaguely annoyed. "Well, I was at your rooms, trying to figure out if you'd been kidnapped in your sleep. Then the guards pointed me down here."

Katara raises her head. She can just catch a glimpse of a Fire Nation uniform outside the stable door, the red turned black in the predawn light. They're everywhere. She's almost stopped noticing them, which makes her even more nervous than seeing them out of the corner of her eye everywhere she goes.

"What's that?" Aang wants to know, sliding from the bison's head to the floor with his usual liquid grace.

"Breakfast," Zuko says, and the way he says it makes it sound like he's challenging them to a duel. He pulls the lid off the tray to reveal hot buns of various types and three steaming cups of tea.

Katara yawns and picks straw out of her hair. "The leader of the Fire Nation bringing us breakfast in bed? I'm flattered."

Zuko blushes, huffs and looks away. He's awfully easy to embarrass, and the fun of it still hasn't worn off. "Well, if that's how you're going to be, don't ever expect it again."

It's tempting to linger with the food and companionship, but they have a long flight ahead of them, and none of them really has the energy to talk much anyway. Aang is almost nodding off in his cup of tea, and Zuko looks wan and gray. Katara had been planning to go back upstairs to wash and change clothes, but she decides that it isn't worth the delay -- they never bothered with such niceties on many mornings of their travels, and Appa's saddle is already loaded with the food and medical supplies that they're taking out to the archipelago.

Katara reaches out to touch the front of Zuko's shirt; he flinches a bit, but doesn't pull away. Through the silk, she can feel the rough knots of the healing scar, and with her waterbending she prods gently at its edges, feeling the way that they uncoil through his chest and stomach like the roots of a malevolent tree. "If you find yourself short of breath or dizzy, don't hesitate to sit down until the feeling goes away. I won't be back for another healing session --"

"-- until tomorrow night, yeah." He pulls back, effectively cutting off the contact. "I told you, I don't plan to drop dead."

Aang gives her a hand up to Appa's saddle. Zuko, collecting the tea things, looks like he's braced for one of Aang's impromptu hugging sessions, but instead Aang just grins and tosses a handful of straw at him, lifting it with a light touch of airbending to dump straw and stray Appa hair over the leader of half the world.

"Hey!"

"Yip-yip, Appa," Aang cries cheerfully, before the Fire Lord has an opportunity to contemplate revenge.

The sun is rising over the Fire Nation capital, rising on a new world. Below them, the land is black and red, with dusty green fields marked out in a ragged patchwork across the monochromatic volcanic soil. Banners flying from abandoned ranks of war machines flicker beneath Appa's paws like tiny dancing flames. Ahead, the ocean sparkles; behind, the red tile roofs of the city dwindle in the distance. In both directions she has people she loves -- and also north, and south, and of course in front of her, sitting between the curving spread of Appa's horns. Tonight, if there is time, perhaps she will see if there is a brush and inkstone in the bundles of supplies that share saddle-space with her, and write a long-overdue letter to the Dragon of the West.

Because red, she reminds herself, is not only the color of the war's beginning, but also the color of its end. It is the color not just of her scourge but also her shame, for she has no illusions that taking down all those war balloons and ships was accomplished with no loss of life, and she's a long way from the angry girl who might smile at the graves of Fire Nation soldiers. Red is, after all, the color of the flames that beat back Azula's lethal blue ones.

Like the dragons taught Aang about fire, the color that has haunted her nightmares since childhood has two faces: life and death, protection and destruction, the blood of the dead and the hot pulse of life in a heart damaged on her behalf. It is the color of the people who killed her mother and shattered her life, and the color of people she cares for and people she would like to know better. In her life moving forward, the nations individual and at peace again, this will ever be true.

Katara leans on the forward edge of Appa's saddle with the wind in her hair and a swell of affection in her heart, and she wonders if this warm feeling is the new shape that contentment has taken in this unfamiliar post-war world.