Work Header


Chapter Text


She stopped to gaze at the water.

The last time Katara had been within the ring around the royal palace of Ba Sing Se, she hadn't really been able to appreciate the scenery as it should have been. It was immaculate, of course, the grounds shaped by only the best earthbenders the city had, and maintained by what she was sure was a small army of groundskeepers. There were gently curving stone pathways that meandered back into gardens she couldn't see the entirety of, guiding the land around the palace building itself. Bridges arched over manicured streams, and ponds were strategically placed throughout. The one she stood before was filled with brightly dappled koi and lily pads, with small blooms of some plant she couldn't identify floating along the soft current. The water was dusted with pinks and purples, reflecting the darkening sky across its surface.

The last time she'd been here there'd been no time for any sightseeing—she and the others were too busy forcing their way into the palace. That all felt like so long ago, when in reality it wasn't even a full cycle of seasons since then. The spring equinox had only been celebrated a little over two weeks ago, and the Qingming festival just wrapped up yesterday; ghost papers still fluttered by many graves and willow branches still hung over doorways. There were perhaps some who deemed it inauspicious for the Earth King to be wed so quickly after Qingming, but Katara knew that the timing was very intentional.

"Honor those who gave their lives by celebrating the start of new life," she said quietly to the water.

They had all arrived in Ba Sing Se a week ago in order to participate in the festival as well as be present for the wedding—indeed, Katara felt that Qingming was the more important of the two. All the war heroes were there, including the young Fire Lord, to honor everyone who'd given their lives during the last year of the Hundred Year War. That itself was a contentious point; the war had been long and brutal, and sixteen seasons (by the Earth Kingdom píngqì calendar) was hardly enough time for everyone to truly start the healing process. In those long months that she'd been accompanying Aang after both the war's end and Zuko's coronation, Katara saw first hand that old prejudices refused to die easily. There was still a lot of resentment and hate fostered throughout the Earth Kingdom, though Aang and she had done what they could to stop it from festering. Sometimes, Katara wasn't sure if they'd ever really succeeded.

But, now they were all here to make a statement of cross-nationally celebrating in the Earth Kingdom. Lifting her gaze from the swimming koi and drifting blossoms, Katara hoped that it wouldn't all fall on deaf ears.

Pressing those worries to the back of her mind for now, she smoothed out the front of her deel unnecessarily before turning and making her way back toward the palace. Tomorrow was the wedding, so she was able to enjoy the evening with her friends before they all had to separate to sleep and prepare the next day.

This time, instead of having a house provided for them in the Upper Ring, the Avatar and his friends were each given a suite of rooms in the palace. It was certainly quite an honor bestowed by Kuei's insistence himself—not only had they saved the entire world from the tyranny of the Fire Nation, but they also had liberated the Earth King to see the world with his own eyes. It was during his travels that he had met and fallen in love with his soon-to-be wife, Zhi Ruo. Despite her somber thoughts and mood regarding the progress—or lack thereof—of peaceful harmony across the nations, Katara was determined to feel glad. Marriages were a time for joy, she reminded herself as she walked through the gardens and up a stone set of stairs that led to the wing where she and her friends were staying. It was not a time for her personal apprehensions about the state of the world.

She schooled her face to a lighter expression and followed the sounds of her friends' loud chatter to join them in the shared sitting room that conjoined all their suites. When she arrived, they were scattered around a central table on large, plush cushions and enjoying dinner. Wall sconces and a few artful lanterns hanging from the ceiling lit the room, while large, airy windows looked out across the gardens and dimming light of the sprawl of the city beneath the upper ring. Lights winked into existence in distant windows and streets like firebugs blinking as they meandered through a summer field.

"Katara!" Aang exclaimed upon seeing her, drawing her attention away from the settling dusk of the city. "You're here!"

"Yes," she replied, giving him a strange look as he bounded up from the table and came rushing over to her in a flutter of robes. "We came together, so you already knew that."

"What he means," Toph supplied, "is that the Sugar Queen herself has decided to grace us with her presence for dinner—finally."

"I didn't want to start without you, but Sokka kept complaining how hungry he was, and that it wasn't right to let the food get cold—"

Katara couldn't help but laugh at that. "It's fine, Aang. There's plenty left, anyway." She pressed past him and took a seat between her brother and Toph. Aang looked a little dismayed as he took his seat, but she chose to ignore his expression and filled her bowl instead. "And I don't mind if it's a little cold."

A hand reached out across the table and grasped the side of her porcelain bowl before she could draw it back toward her. Surprised, Katara looked up to meet Zuko's eyes.

"Here," he said.

Not understanding until she felt the bowl warm in her hand, a smile broke across her face. When he finally let go, her food was steaming.

"Thanks." While she did say she didn't mind cold food—and it wasn't exactly a lie—she certainly wouldn't turn down having it hot.

"That's a neat trick, I should have thought of that—" Aang started, but Sokka waved him off with a dismissive gesture, chopsticks in hand.

"You were too slow this time, buddy." Her brother nudged her with an elbow. "Pretty handy having your own personal firebender around, eh?"

Katara rolled her eyes, missing Aang's face fall into a glower. "Sokka, he's not a cooking stone." Zuko huffed a bit, but didn't say anything.

It was an easy sort of banter they all slipped back into, as if they hadn't been split across the entirety of the world for the last fifteen seasons—more than half of a year's worth. Any somberness she might have felt lingering from her garden wandering earlier melted away beneath the presence and conversation of all her friends. She didn't feel much like talking, and so contented in listening to the others as she ate. Once they had all finished, servants came bowing in to clear the table for them, replacing the food with cups of tea, small nuomici dumplings, and delicate bowls of sweet almond jelly. When she picked up the tea and smelled ginseng, it brought a thought to Katara's mind. She glanced around the room, searching.

"I haven't seen Iroh yet," she commented, her gaze making its way back to Zuko.

He ate a spoonful of almond jelly before replying. "He's just joining us at the ceremony. Said something about wanting to give us all time to catch up before we have to be proper tomorrow."

"But, he did provide the tea," Aang added with a grin.

"I bet he was beside himself," Katara said, sending a quiet sort of smile at Zuko.

The curve of his mouth echoed hers from across the table. "Yeah," he breathed quietly. "He was."

They managed to make the desserts last for much of the night, and the hours were small before they decided needed to find their rooms. Suki gathered up Toph and shook Sokka awake enough to lead him back to a bed. Katara did the same for Aang, then came back for Zuko, who'd fallen asleep an hour or two before. Standing over him, she hesitated. For a brief moment, Katara was transported back to the days after they defeated Azula, and she'd spent every waking hour healing him and every sleeping hour next to him. His face had been just as peaceful then, but she'd been so terrified he'd never wake up. On impulse, she reached out and brushed fingertips along the line of his cheekbone. When he stirred at her touch, she quickly withdrew her hand. Aside from after being grievously wounded, Zuko had always been a light sleeper. His eyes blinked open at her.

"Katara? What… what time is it?"

She smiled at him, feeling warmth spread through her belly at the soft edges of his voice. "Later than you'd like to know," she told him, keeping her voice as subdued as his. It seemed wrong to speak in a normal volume, as if the calmness of the dim room would be broken. "Come on, let's get to bed."

He took her offered hand to help him to his feet, his palm warm and callused against hers. She didn't release it until they reached the exit of the sitting room and bid one another a quiet goodnight. Her hand seemed to retain his warmth as she went back to her room.


It was late in the morning before she roused herself, and shuffled her way to the private bath adjoining her room. She felt much more awake and human once she'd washed. With an absent motion of her wrist, she bent the water still lingering on her skin off and back into the basin, leaving her hair damp. It was more manageable when it was wet, and she expected the attendants assigned to her from the palace staff would appreciate that.

As if on cue, a soft knock came at her door. She quickly slipped into a silk robe to cover herself before answering. Three primly dressed women bowed low to her and only entered once she stepped to the side and told them they could.

"Master Katara," the oldest of them said. "We are here to help you prepare for the ceremony and banquet, if you will allow us."

Katara's smile was a bit strained. It was nice to be fussed over, but she wasn't sure she'd ever really welcome it. "Of course."

They got started right away. One of the younger women set down several carefully folded packages on a table and produced a silk dudou the color of green sea foam with silver wave embroidery and a small pocket full of scented spices. Katara's eyebrows lifted. It was lovely, and entirely unlike the undergarment she was used to—she had thought to simply wear her sarashi beneath her robes, as had been her custom all through the war. After being handed the dudou and feeling how it rested against her skin, however, she was convinced. It wasn't as firm as she was accustomed to, but that strangeness was outweighed by the feeling of such fine silk. The rest of the clothing they had brought for her was just as rich, and much to her delight, blue. She would have been fine wearing green if she had no other choice, but it said a lot to her that King Kuei—or at least the grand chancellor—had the foresight to provide her Tribe colors.

It was made in a style that was an altered traditional Earth Kingdom shenyi, but the effort to try and make it pay homage to what the tailors knew of Water Tribe wear was clear, and Katara was happy to wear it. The layers of silk were finely constructed, and the weight of them felt comfortable rather than hindering. Once she had been dressed to the attendants' satisfaction, the oldest woman turned to her with a question.

"Master, how old are you?"

The question startled her. "Fifteen. Why?"

The older woman bowed. "We wanted to know in order to style your hair." Lifting her gaze back up, she regarded Katara. "Young women who have gone through their ji-li wear their hair differently than those who have not, or than those who are married."

Katara's expression relaxed and she smiled. "We have similar traditions with hair in the Southern Water Tribe." There wasn't one explicitly for when a woman became of marrying age, but rather for each step of life a woman went through—and the same with the boys, though the styles themselves were different.

"Is there a particular tradition you wish us to honor? We would be humbled to do so, Master."

She hesitated before replying. There were styles she thought might fit the occasion, but none of those would be truly appropriate here, steeped in ritual themselves as they were. Finally, she nodded to herself. "Four braids," she told the attendants. "With beads." One for each step of her life so far, counting surviving the war as one of them.

In the end, the attendants went above and beyond, and she couldn't have been more pleased. The four braids she requested were perfect and not only were her indigo bone beads woven in, but also delicately carved coral pieces. Half her hair was drawn up in an elegant bun, twisted and held with a single ivory hairpin. Her braids were pinned into the bun, and the rest was left to cascade down, brushed and oiled to a shining sleekness. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she no longer saw the little Water Tribe girl who set out over a year ago to find a waterbending teacher, nor did she even only see the hardened fighter she had become during the war. She was all of these things all at once, and more. Most of all, she looked proud and of the Tribe, even if the materials and underlying style were not of her people. Turning away from her reflection, she smiled and bowed deeply to the attendants in thanks. In sudden embarrassment, they all hurriedly moved to bow lower.

Once they had left, a servant came in with a tray of tea and dim sum for her lunch. She mildly questioned that she would not be having lunch with her friends, and was told they were all in various states of getting ready and would be privately taking their own food before the wedding itself started. The servant left the tray for her on the table. Left with not much to do until she was summoned for the wedding itself, Katara enjoyed the mint tea and steamed dumplings that had been provided while she waited. She wondered if the others had similar modes of dress as her robes—altered to honor each of their cultures in turn.

When she was finally summoned, she was in the middle of flowing through some of the more soothing katas—not because of any nerves she might have, but because she simply wanted to. It was actually nice, feeling the swirl of quality silk against her as she shifted and moved in a constant set. She sent the water she'd been working with back to the wash basin and eagerly answered the door. It was still early in the afternoon, and as they walked the servant who fetched her told her that the wedding would be concluded before sundown, after which everyone would go to the great ballroom for the rest of the evening. There would, of course, be several celebrations continuing through the rest of the next four weeks, but the grand wedding and following banquet was for the kingdom's topmost nobility. It was also where the royal gifts would all be presented. Katara drummed her fingers on the silk-covered box in her hands, feeling apprehensive about the gift she brought. It was traditional, but she worried mildly about representing the her Tribe as an equal cultural contender as the rest of the nations; so much had been lost in the South.

She didn't see any of her friends as they walked through the halls and felt nerves begin bundling into knots in her stomach. Katara had at least hoped she'd be able to be with her brother, but it seemed as if she'd have to enter by herself. Would she be seated by them, or would she end up having to find them herself at the banquet? Her grip on the box tightened a little.

In the end, she needn't have worried. Much to Katara's delight, she was led to a cluster of cushions on which most of her friends were already lounging. Iroh was there as well, chatting pleasantly with Aang about tea. The young air nomad nearly bounded up out of his seat when she arrived to greet her, but a hand on his arm from Iroh prevented him from doing so. Silently, she was grateful to the elder for the uncanny timing. Toph and Suki were dressed in rich greens and in different, but still both very Earth Kingdom styles, and Aang was in a variant of the orange and yellow formal robes he'd worn for Zuko's coronation. Iroh was wearing a medley of red and rich terra cotta layers that made him look very stately.

"Wow, Katara, you look great!" Suki exclaimed as Katara took a seat nearby.

Katara grinned and set her silk box on the floor next to her. "Thanks! I was surprised they gave me blue robes to wear for today."

Aang laughed. "Yeah—me too! It was a nice surprise when the robes they provided were in Air Nomad colors." A tall, carved wooden box sat next to him. Katara motioned to it.

"What gift did you bring?"

"A duomu flask—it's a traditional Air Nomad gift for butter tea." He laid a hand gently on the box. "I couldn't find any in the temples, but Toph helped me make a new one."

The girl in question waved a dismissive hand. "It was fun to work on something ornamental and functional to practice on with my metalbending."

Katara wanted to ask Toph what she had brought, but a servant brought her brother and Zuko to them before she could. Sokka was dressed in a similar style to hers—blues in rich silks, and his head freshly shaven into a wolf tail. Zuko's robes were the most formal of the group's, but still less so than the ones for his formal coronation, and he seemed to move easily in them. Both boys held boxes. Katara raised an eyebrow at Sokka.

"We're both giving gifts from the Tribe?"

He shook his head and deposited himself down on a cushion next to Suki, handing his box to her. "Suki and I are presenting an Earth Kingdom gift together—with a Water Tribe flair, of course."

His answer made her giggle. "Of course. I can't wait to see it!" She turned her eye to Zuko, who folded himself on a cushion between her and Iroh. "What about you, your highness?"

Zuko's mouth tugged to one side. "Just some Fire Nation stuff my uncle suggested."

Katara was about to remark on his vague answer, but a gong sounded, signaling the start of the ceremony itself. They all turned and shifted their positions to be more formal, lending their full attentions to the procession and ritual.

To King Kuei's credit, despite the ceremony being a royal one, it was relatively short. The king and his bride were lead in from different sides and presented to one another in the very center of the room. They exchanged traditional gifts between them before kneeling and receiving a blessing of flower blossoms. Katara felt a tightness in her throat, and tears that didn't fall gathered at her eyes as they each bowed and spoke vows to one another. Then together they bowed to their guests and, symbolically, to their kingdom. Another gong signaled the conclusion of the ritual, and everyone was ushered to the grand ballroom for the banquet.

It was here that all the gifts would be given. Aang went first, as the Avatar. He proclaimed a blessing on their union before presenting his carved box. Inside was a bamboo-shaped silver flask, with an elegantly curved spout. It was made in such a way that it looked almost real had it not been metal, with two tassels hanging off the handle that ended in silver spheres that jangled in delicate tones.

Zuko was next, and Katara could see proudness beaming like the sun off Iroh's face as his nephew approached King Kuei and Zhi Ruo with his gift. They opened his presented silk box to reveal a porcelain set of two ornate sakezuki cups, a tall tokkuri sake flask, and a lacquered masu, which he explained was filled to the brim with the Fire Nation's finest plum blossom sake.

Toph presented hers after—a finely crafted gold ruyi scepter that Katara suspected she had also made herself. Sokka and Suki went up together, bowing in unison to give their box. It was another ruyi scepter, but this time carved of bone ivory—Katara recognized it immediately as from a seal-lion tusk, and her heart swelled with pride.

Last to present of their group was her, and she unfolded to her feet just as her brother and Suki returned to their cushions. What she gave the royal couple was a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped traditionally around a small silver cup. She told them the scarf represented health and peace, and that the cup represented honor and respect.

Many other guests followed her gift's presentation, their order determined by Earth Kingdom society and propriety. Soon the couple had quite a collection of fancy boxes to either side of their seats. Finally, however, the gifts were all given, and after a third gong sounded, servants came to bear away all the boxes and the banquet itself began.

Much like the party she and Toph had attended their first time in Ba Sing Se, there were tables of food lining the perimeter of the room, leaving the center open for dancing. Aang asked her to dance, which she accepted, feeling more confident now than she had last time he'd pulled her into the sway of music. She enjoyed herself, and managed to avoid him kissing her at the end of it. Despite having travelled with him since the war's end, Katara still wasn't sure of her feelings toward him. His were obvious, and it was also obvious what he wanted hers to be—what he believed hers to be—but she couldn't find it in herself to give him an affirmative answer. She turned away from his disappointed look before he was drawn away by others. Katara made her way back to her friends.

"Having fun yet, Sweetness?" Toph handed her a cup of something sweet that also made her tongue tingle with spice when she drank it.

"I am—wait, is this ginger wine?"

The younger girl shrugged and grinned, and Katara finished it off anyway. It made her head feel light and the sweetness of it lingered pleasantly along her throat. Maybe a bit of alcohol would make her feel less awkward the next time Aang wanted to dance with her.

As if her even thinking his name summoned him to her, she caught a flash of orange and yellow headed her way. Before she could figure out an escape route, she saw Zuko frowning down at the cup in his hand not two steps away, and reached out to grasp his arm.

"Zuko!" she exclaimed, hating how the tone of her voice was just shy of desperate. "I'm glad you're here. Let's go dance."

He tried to protest even as he hastily set down his cup, but she dragged him out onto the floor and away from Aang's approach. It took them a few faltering steps, but soon they moved in time to the music, and Katara rested her hands on his arms with a breath of relief.

"Mind telling me what that was all about?" Zuko asked her, holding her under the scrutiny of his gaze.

She flushed beneath his look and rearranged her hands on him instead, forcing him to do the same, until they were properly dancing like everyone else on the floor.

"Just wanted to dance, is all," she muttered, lowering her eyes from his to stare at his chest. Perhaps it was just the wine, but she suddenly noticed that even in the space of less than a year since she last saw him, Zuko was filling out. There was the curve of muscle beneath her hand as it rested on his shoulder, and she was sure that he was taller than he was before. A swift heat rose in her throat as she was all at once very aware of just how much taller than her he now was.

Instead of pressing the issue like she feared he would—she definitely wasn't ready for a confrontation about how she felt right now—he made a soft noise and simply continued dancing. It was nice, she decided. His steps were sure and he guided her expertly, even though she didn't quite remember all her own. With that diverting her attention, it took her several moments to realize that he was still frowning. The corners of her own mouth turned down as she looked up at him.

"Sorry," she apologized suddenly, causing him to blink down at her in surprise, his face smoothing out. "I know I'm not the greatest dance partner."

"What? No—no, you're just fine," he told her.

Katara tilted her head a bit. "Then what's wrong?"

His frown returned. "Nothing." He caught her look and let out a breath. "It's just—there's so much hurt we've done to the world for so long."

The hush of his voice caught her off guard, and she softened. "The other nations have agreed to reparation negotiations, haven't they?"

Zuko closed his eyes briefly and directed her in a gentle spin before he answered her. "On the surface, yeah. But it's proving really difficult to figure out a way to satisfy everyone without bankrupting the coffers or putting unnecessary hardship on my own people." He grimaced and didn't meet her gaze. "The Water Tribes in particular have been obstinate."

Hearing that didn't surprise her. Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom were one thing, but half her people had been nearly wiped out by the war. She was about to say something more when someone bumped into her from behind, sending her solidly into Zuko's chest. His hands came up to catch her, even as hers tightened around him. So flush was she against his warmth that it took her a moment to understand that the gentle vibration beneath her cheek was from him reprimanding someone from above her head. She pushed a bit of distance between them and he immediately released her so she could turn to face who'd bumped into her. It was a young Earth Kingdom man, one of the minor nobles if she recalled the order of gift-giving correctly, and his face was red with embarrassment.

"How about you watch where you're going next time, instead of bumbling around like a—" Zuko stopped short when she placed a hand back on his chest, still facing the noble.

Katara gave the young man a swift smile. "It's okay—nobody was hurt. There's a lot of people dancing here and a lot of wine going around. Just be more observant next time."

The nobleman bowed deeply to her, repeating thanks and apologies, and in the end she had to steer Zuko away from the scene. By the time he'd calmed down again, the dance had ended. He folded his arms across his chest and looked at her, brow furrowed.

"He did you a dishonor, interrupting like that, you know."

Katara laughed, waving off his disgruntlement. "I'm not offended; it was just a dance that I wasn't very good at anyway." She picked up his hand again and watched whatever ire had remained in him diffuse entirely. "I'll make it up to his royal highness with another, okay?"

They began again, into a dance she knew a little better and so flowed more easily along with him.

"You know," Katara started shrewdly, absently enjoying how the dark red of his formal robes counterbalanced the ocean blues of her own, "I think you might need someone with a bit more of a diplomatic leaning than you to deal with the Water Tribes."

Zuko let out a rueful laugh. "Yeah, no kidding."

"Someone who's familiar with their ways and traditions."

A line creased across his forehead as they stepped apart, then back together in time with the music. "That would be the ideal choice."

"An intimate source, you could say," she went on, aware of the slight reddening of his cheeks and chalking it up to abashedly realizing who she was talking about.

When he simply stared at her, heat from him radiating through her layers of silk, she laughed. "Zuko—what you need is an ambassador to help you navigate the treacherous waters of the Water Tribe." Her eyes lit up with delight. "And who better suited to that job than a master waterbender who also happens to know the Fire Lord personally?"

Realization dawned across his face, but she didn't feel him entirely relax. When he spoke, his voice was collected and if she hadn't been dancing with him she would have thought him completely at ease. "That's not a bad idea."

"Of course it isn't," she told him with a wide grin. "I could help you work out a reasonable reparation agreement—even the Northern Tribe would have to agree with me, considering that my Tribe suffered far more than theirs, and for a whole lot longer. If I can come to an agreement with you and my father, then the rest should fall into place." Her grin faltered when she saw the way his brow drew together. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing, but I—" Zuko stopped himself, then began again. "What about helping the Avatar? Isn't… isn't that more important?"

Katara didn't meet his eyes, shoulders tensing beneath her robes of their own accord. "Aang is welcomed basically everywhere," she said quietly. "And I—" She cut herself off just as Zuko had done, unsure if she should say what she wanted to say next.

She didn't get the chance to. Aang stepped up to them abruptly, the displeasure on his face clear as a cavern water.

"There you are—I've been looking all over for you!" he exclaimed, and made to grab for her arm.

With a simple shift of her weight, Katara moved out of his way. It was an understated motion, but Zuko noticed it and his fingers tightened around her hand enough to anchor her.

"We were just dancing," she said, Zuko's presence giving her strength enough to allow irritation at Aang come through her tone. Or perhaps it was the wine still lingering sweet edges in her mouth that gave it to her. "You know, the thing that everyone's doing?"

Hurt flashed across the younger boy's face. "I only got to dance with you once, and this is your second one with Zuko."

Guilt bubbled within her despite herself, and she felt her resolve weakening. "Aang, I just—"

"Yeah, and have been interrupted both times," Zuko cut in before she could say more. "You've danced with half a dozen other girls so far, and besides, we were discussing important alliances."

Something about the way he said that made warmth spread slender fingers through Katara's belly, and she felt her cheeks heat in response. Aang's face softened a little, but then hardened the moment he looked at her.

"An alliance?" The way he said the word was like an accusation thrown at her feet.

There was a time, a few months ago, when she would have capitulated to his hurt feelings and the jealousy she new recognized writ across his features, but with Zuko's solid warmth beside her and his fingers still around her hand, Katara straightened her spine and shoulders into a posture worthy of a master waterbender.

"Yes," she said firmly, drawing both Aang and Zuko's attention back to her face. "I offered myself as an ambassador for the Water Tribes to help Zuko with the post-war reparations."

"But," Aang said, crestfallen. "Katara, you've been traveling with me."

"Yes, and you've been doing a great job." The severity of her voice softened a bit; she always found it difficult to retain the anger in her voice against how small he could make his own. Katara swallowed and tasted the sweet of the wine again. "So Zuko needs my help more now. My Tribe needs my help more now."

His face fractured into one of betrayal, the way ice cracked when it shifted against itself. "How could you abandon me like this?"

She felt heat from Zuko flare up behind her, but gave his hand a gentle squeeze before she slipped hers out from the wrap of his fingers. "Aang," she began, trying to remain firm but not entirely harsh. "I'm not abandoning you. I would never abandon you. I just want—"

"You want to not be with me," he interrupted hollowly.

Katara froze. She did, but she didn't. She wanted to be with him like they were before, but she wanted to be free of all the weights he handed off to her so he could go weightless. Her shoulders ached so much.

When she didn't reply to him in some allotted time he suddenly determined was appropriate, he nodded. His mouth twisted into a grimace, he balled his hands into fists and walked away. Part of her immediately wanted to go after him, to apologize and ask him to not be so hurt by whatever she had said that was wrong. But she didn't. Instead, she turned back to Zuko, who was intently watching where Aang had vanished into the crowd.

"I'll leave with you back to the Fire Nation, if that's not too much trouble," she said quietly.

He blinked and looked at her. "I—of course. It's not at all. I still need to talk to my ministers about an official position, but…"

She shook her head and bit her tongue to keep back tears. "We can figure out the details later. I just…"

Zuko let out a soft breath and took her hand again, his calluses warm against her palm. "We'll figure it out. Don't worry."

Katara nodded and let him lead her out of the center of the room.