Zuko's head reeled.
Something was going on between his friends, and it wasn't the thing that everyone assumed it was. Well—maybe not everyone. He cast a glance to Sokka, who was definitely watching his sister from a few tables away, clear concern in his expression. There'd been a few things that the Water Tribe warrior had mentioned to him during their walk to the ballroom earlier that hadn't made much sense to Zuko then, but in retrospect made him wonder. You know my sister, he'd said. She'd cut off her own arm before risking a friendship. Or, you know, a whatever.
But, the way Katara had tensed against him when he mentioned her helping Aang, the way Aang had tried to guilt her and caused an almost imperceptible shudder through her frame had him remembering Sokka's words in an entirely different light.
He knew it looked bad, leaving together, but he did it anyway. When she allowed him to lead her out of the center of the room, where scores of eyes were honed in on the two who'd just upset the Avatar enough to drive him to vanish, Zuko didn't hesitate. He drew her back toward the table where Toph and their abandoned cups of wine waited, but it wasn't his ultimate goal. He paused only briefly when Toph turned her head in their direction.
"What the heck just happened out there? One moment you two were dancing just fine, and then the next Aang—"
He shook his head firmly. "Later." He tried to put enough command into the word that she would accept it without further question, and it seemed to work. The earthbender worried her lip, but nodded in the end. He hesitated a moment longer, debating the wisdom of picking up cups of wine to take as well, but in the end discarded the idea as ill-advised.
Had he paused to consider the situation, he would have been surprised that Katara let him take her so far without stopping him. As it was, she said nothing and didn't even try to withdraw her hand from his, merely following in his wake. They exited beneath open archways that lead out of the ballroom, then ducked into the first empty room he spotted. Only then did he stop, stepping into the soft light and finding a huanghuali table meant for waiting guests. Even then, he didn't release her hand, not until they were fully inside. Now that they had stopped, Zuko realized his heart was pounding. He watched her put the table between them, pausing by a zabuton. Her eyes focused on the empty tea set that took up the center.
"I didn't need saving from that," she said after a while, not looking at him.
That startled him. He hadn't thought of it that way, and his cheeks heated. "I didn't—I know. I'm sorry."
She let out a choked sound he realized was supposed to be a laugh, and he moved to the table separating them, fingertips resting heavy on the lacquered wood, before he could think better of it.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, worry coloring the jagged edges of his voice.
Now she did look at him, the light flashing off the beads and coral in her hair. The fragile look on her face gripped his heart tightly. "It's just as easy as that? Just two simple words?"
Zuko furrowed his brow, not understanding and desperately wanting to know, wanting to help. "What do you mean?"
"He's never apologized for any of the things he's done that I didn't want him to do," she said, very quietly.
It felt as though someone had dropped a stone deep into Zuko's gut, and his palm started hurting before he realized he'd clenched it into a fist. With a controlled breath, he relaxed his hand.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She bit her lip.
Aang couldn't breathe.
It was as if a very essential part of him locked up, like he'd lost his ability to bend air, and now he was suffocating.
He'd made the mistake of turning back, of thinking he could try and talk to her again. The only thing he'd managed was to see the two of them vanish from the room and out into the night. The image of her hand ensconced in Zuko's was burned into his memory. Jealousy twisted cruelly in his stomach.
"Aang? Everything okay?" Sokka's voice cut through the muffled haze surrounding his head.
Despite the burning in his cheeks and up his neck, Aang forced out a smile that he knew Sokka would see straight through. "Fine. Yeah. Thanks."
His friend's eyebrows steepled together, and he drew in a breath as if to say more. Aang shook his head, doing nothing to clear it.
"I gotta go."
In a rush of fabric, he brushed past Sokka and out of the ballroom, opposite the direction where Zuko had taken Katara. His mouth turned down in a grimace. I would never abandon you, she'd said just moments ago. But he knew that was a lie. His hands found cool stone bathed in moonlight, and he stood with his shoulders hunched, overlooking the sprawl of the city.
Aang's eyes stung and he felt wetness slip down his cheeks before he lowered his head to rest it on folded arms. All he ever wanted was to be happy with Katara—and he thought they would be, now that the war was over. He'd fulfilled his destiny. He'd defeated the Fire Lord who threatened the world and ended the war and brought back peace in its place. He should be able to have the happiness he wanted with the person he wanted—that's what he wanted from his destiny.
Unbidden, words that Iroh said earlier in the ballroom drifted back to him of their own accord. No matter how deeply the crane wades in water, it will never become a fish. He clenched his teeth. It was Jeong Jeong and fish and rivers all over again and he didn't see how it made any kind of sense. He didn't understand what either of them were trying to say to him before, and he didn't now.
The scar on his back twinged with the memory of pain, and he sucked in a sharp breath as he felt lines of qi twist up inside him.
Letting out a groan, Aang clamped his eyes shut. "Why is nothing going the way it's supposed to?"
Everything was all wrong. Katara was supposed to want to travel the world with him, people were supposed to be working with one another toward peace, and he was supposed to be a fully realized Avatar. None of those things were happening how he envisioned them. Katara was somewhere with Zuko, people still hated the Fire Nation and any attempts at rebuilding, and his chakras felt as blocked as they were before he ever worked with Guru Pathik.
He paused in his mental tirade. Maybe… maybe that was the answer. With the comet passed and the war over, Aang suddenly wondered if he should seek out Pathik again, and try to complete his training. A sickening worry threaded down through his belly at the thought of the crown chakra, knowing what he would be expected to do.
But—now that he considered the idea, it felt right. He had to truly unlock his qi and the Avatar state. Pushing aside the dread of having to let someone he loved go, Aang straightened and looked out over Ba Sing Se without really seeing the glittering lights below. He could already feel the pull inside him, tugging him back to the Eastern Air Temple. He had to go.
Without another thought spared, he vaulted over the balustrade and set out into the night.