Chapter 1: Just a Dance
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.
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.
Originally posted separately on ff.net for competition rules. Written for the Avatar: the Last Writer Competition on ff.net
Salt spray coated her face and threaded her hair, and nothing had ever felt or tasted so good. She wondered if this was what freedom tasted like, or if she was being dramatic about it.
Katara stood on the prow of the Fire Nation ship and stared out across the undulating blue horizon. They had left the Earth Kingdom just under a week prior, and it'd been four days since they last saw land of any sort. It would be at least another week or so until they saw the first of the Fire Nation islands, and even longer than that before they reached the capital. For now, blue stretched out all around—scattered across the sky were a few clouds, and the sea was deep and clear. In talking with the captain, she'd learned that there were several sea lanes that followed strong currents between the nations, and the Fire Nation had many of them mapped and regularly utilized them to a ship's advantage.
It felt like they were making good time, but from what Zuko told her, they were actually sailing leisurely. It was so different from a cutter ship, where they might make this kind of speed only for a short while if the winds were very kind. Her mouth pulled into a frown and she leaned on the rail. It felt like a long time since she'd traveled by sea, with as much time as she spent on Appa after the war was over; with as much time as she spent traveling with Aang.
A pang of guilt and disquiet twisted in her stomach. Was this the right choice, what she was doing? She knew she could help—she wanted to—but was going to the Fire Nation as ambassador from the Water Tribe enough to outweigh her accompanying Aang as he did his work? Her frown deepened. It felt a lot like running away.
"Good afternoon, Master Katara." A pleasant voice broke up her thoughts.
She smiled and glanced back over her shoulder as Zuko's uncle joined her at the prow. "Good Afternoon to you, too. Another nice day, isn't it?"
"Yes! The weather has been very kind to us this trip. I must admit," he continued, standing next to her and looking from her to the sea, "I am quite surprised that my nephew has decided to make our journey back with more leisure than is his custom." A smile spread across his face and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "But, I am not complaining—whatever the reason, I welcome it."
A soft noise cousin to a hum signaled her agreement. "Me, too. I love sailing, and it feels like it's been a long time since I was out on the open sea." Katara's shoulders relaxed as she followed Iroh's gaze. "And sometimes it's just nice to take your time."
"You are right, and very wise to understand such a thing at your age. It is a bit of wisdom that I often worry my nephew will never quite take to heart."
Katara laughed. "Oh, I don't know. Once Zuko's put his mind to something, he follows through to the bitter end. Maybe you just need to convince him slowing down is something he needs to learn to do."
"Ah, that is something that I have been trying for years now, I'm afraid." His eyes were merry, and focused on her in a way she might have thought calculating had it occurred to her. "Perhaps it is a thing better left in another's hands at this point."
Before she could think to say anything, he continued, "Would you join us for lunch, or shall I leave you to the sea for a while longer?"
Katara hesitated, but then pushed off the rail. "The sea will still be here, I'm pretty sure. Lunch sounds great."
Lunch turned out to be on the observation deck, where she could see the ocean anyway. Iroh brewed a ginger and orange blossom tea, which he declared would compliment their food marvelously. Katara was pouring it when Zuko joined them.
"Ah, Nephew. I am happy you could join us," Iroh exclaimed as Zuko took a seat at the end of the table, where he could see both of them.
"The food should be up soon," Zuko told them, taking a cup from her with a nod of thanks. He lifted it beneath his nose. "Is this a new blend, Uncle?"
The old man in question lost half his face to a grin. "You are developing quite a good nose; it is." He gesticulated gently as he spoke. "I wanted something simple, yet complementary to go with our lunch."
"We're just having leftover curry," Zuko said. "It's not anything to make a special blend for." Still, he took an appreciative sip of the tea.
Two crew members brought up their food and Iroh turned his attention to thanking them. Katara took advantage of his distraction and leaned close to Zuko. "I think your uncle just likes experimenting," she said in a quiet voice that did nothing to hide her amusement.
The way his mouth curved made part of her chest fill with warmth. "I know. It reminds me of the years we were on my ship. He was always having us make port for different kinds of teas… and anything else interesting that caught his eye."
The dip in his tone made Katara giggle. "I sense a lot of stories there."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You have no idea."
Bowls were placed before them and a thick curry ladled into them, accompanied by smaller bowls of rice. The curry smelled like it was going to be spicy, and she found herself looking forward to the heat. Katara peered at it, wondering just when she had developed a liking for spicy foods.
"It's not too hot," Zuko said suddenly. She blinked up at him, and his cheeks tinged with color as he shifted his gaze away from hers. "I mean—I know you're not as used to spices as us—you know, hot spices."
Katara could not resist a little affectation. "By now I've gotten used to dealing with heat," she said, and he looked at her again, bemused. "Zuko, you remember I've been on the ship the whole time, right? And I was in the Fire Nation for several weeks, living off the spicy land."
Iroh chuckled across the table from her, and Zuko's face reddened more, but he didn't back down. "Should I see if the cook can whip up some east island dishes for you then? Those even make me sweat sometimes."
His challenge made something winch a little tighter in her belly. "You're on. I bet I can handle it just as well as you can."
The smirk that he sent her way stoked the competitive spark in her, and she suddenly wanted to drag him down to the deck and go toe to toe with him. She hadn't had much chance to stretch her bending since the war ended, and never with Zuko. She wondered if they sparred as well as they fought together.
"Zuko," she began, idly twisting her wrist to stir her curry, "what do you think about getting a good workout in while we're still on the ship?"
Almost as soon as she asked, he started coughing, slamming the porcelain spoon in his hand down on the table. Katara glanced worriedly at Iroh, who seemed unperturbed.
"Nephew, are you all right?"
Zuko waved them both off and reached for his teacup. After a few sips, he calmed down, though his face and neck were still flush.
"I didn't realize an offer to spar would be so surprising," Katara droned.
"Sparring!" Zuko echoed. "Yes. No, it wasn't—yes. I would very much like to spar."
Katara took a spoonful of curry to hide her smile. It was spicy, but not so much that it burned the subtleties of flavor away. While in disguise during the war, she had tasted a few foods from Fire Nation markets that she couldn't even tell what they were supposed to taste like, they were so spicy. This was good, though—a nice heat down the back of her throat while still allowing her to savor it.
"How about later today, then?" she offered.
"No, no, no. That won't work at all," Iroh interjected, quite adamantly. Both Zuko and Katara stared at him. "It's the end of the week," he said, as if that were a fitting explanation.
At a loss, Katara looked to Zuko for some sort of elaboration. Instead of giving her an answer, however, he closed his eyes and his shoulders slumped.
"I forgot," he groaned. "Can't we just… skip it this trip?"
Iroh gasped, utterly aghast. "Nephew, how could you even suggest such a thing! The crew has come to expect—no, anticipate it!"
Tired of not knowing what they were talking about, Katara pressed, "Anticipate what? What's going on?"
"Music night, of course!" Iroh beamed at her; Zuko looked as if he wanted to dunk his head in the curry. "Once a week, the crew all gathers with instruments for song and dance." He lifted his spoon in a vague salute. "It was our custom during the war."
"That actually sounds like a lot of fun," Katara said, rousing another beleaguered sigh from Zuko. Ignoring him, she looked, bright-eyed, at Iroh. "Can anyone join in?"
"Of course," Iroh told her, sounding delighted she had taken to the idea. "Do you play?"
"If there's a morin khuur, I just might."
Zuko perked up, just a little, with curiosity. "A what?"
"It's a string instrument of the Water Tribes," his uncle answered. "But, I'm afraid we do not have one—I have not seen, or heard, a proper morin khuur in many years."
"Oh." Katara tried not to allow disappointment seep into her voice, but she sounded crestfallen even to her own ears. She tried to pick up the pieces and brighten her tone. "That's okay, I can just listen."
Iroh stroked his beard, already lost in thought. "Even though we don't have a proper one, we do happen to have a kokyū on board. It is not the same, but quite similar. I am sure that its owner would be delighted to have you play."
An old aching hollow settled in her chest, but she smiled and nodded as if it hadn't. She had years of practice pushing back any of the sorrow she felt from the loss of her culture, so the suppression was second nature. Of course there weren't any morin khuur on board. Katara wondered if they would find her khoomei singing to be barbaric, or simply exotic and different.
Those were unfair thoughts to have, she realized, and did her best to quell them. So, she deftly changed the subject and they finished out lunch with pleasant conversation; Iroh seemed just as happy to talk about something else, and she guessed Zuko was probably glad for the change in topic.
Afterward, Katara excused herself to return to the rail again. Her thoughts wandered back to music night and she chastised herself for falling back into old, bad habits. Letting out a breath in a rush, she leaned out over the edge of the rail, her hair stirring in the wind.
Closing her eyes, she breathed in deep the brine smell of the sea, and let the spray in the air settle into her skin. It helped her find her center again. She felt so off-kilter lately, from her decision to stop traveling around with Aang to the faded traditions of her Tribe still digging hollow within her. She wasn't entirely certain going to the Fire Nation to be a Water Tribe Ambassador was the right thing for her to do, but it was something that she chose to do. It was her suggestion, it was her choice to offer herself for that role, and that, at least, felt right.
She felt warmth, as if someone had brought a torch into her proximity, and didn't need to look to know who it was.
"I'm sorry," Zuko told her.
Now she did look at him, casting a glance back over her shoulder amid her curling hair. "For what?"
He leaned against the rail. "You don't have to come to music night if you don't want to, let alone participate."
He sounded so deflated that Katara had to laugh. When he shot her a confused look, she turned, putting her back against the rail. "Why don't you like your uncle's music night?"
"It's just…" He let out a breath. "So frivolous. I was so intent on finding the Avatar that any unrelated distractions just made me angry, I guess."
"So why are you still moaning about it?" She leaned over and nudged his shoulder with her own. "You might end up liking it now that you've got real free time."
Zuko snorted. "I'm not sure anyone in the Imperial Palace actually knows about this mythical 'free time'."
"You're not at the palace now," Katara pointed out. She craned her neck back almost enough to see the ocean stretching out behind her. "We're out in the middle of the water with a week or more left before we rejoin civilization. So why not live it up a little?" She lifted her head to look at him again, only to find his gaze already on her. It made her feel warmer.
The smile he offered her was soft at the edges, and while not wide, it reached his eyes in a way that made the heat in her spread.
"Maybe I will."
Later in the afternoon, one of the crew approached her with a worn case in hand. The helmsman turned out to be the owner of the kokyū Iroh mentioned, and he was more than happy to show her the fingerings along the neck and let her handle it to get a feel for it. It was all at once familiar and strange in her hands—the body was smaller, the neck shorter, and the timbre of the whole instrument was much higher than the fiddle her mother had taught her on, but the basic mechanics were the same. It took her a little to get used to the different spacings of the notes, but she could play it passably. Well enough for an informal music night on a ship in the middle of the ocean, anyway.
It wasn't until after the sun set that the crew gathered on the foredeck. Katara didn't notice at first, sitting perched upon a crate and plucking quietly at the kokyū strings. When it became nearly too dark to see, she joined the crew, surprised by how many had come. It seemed only a skeleton crew was left to run the ship.
Feeling a bit awkward carrying an instrument not actually hers—or even of her culture—Katara took an empty spot to settle in. Maybe this wasn't the best idea, she found herself thinking. She didn't know how one of these things actually went, and what if her music was too strange for all the Fire Nation sailors, or she didn't play this instrument as passably as she thought she did…
A swell in the conversation around her interrupted her worrying, and she refocused her attention. Several torches and a few grated canisters had been moved to form a circle of light in the center of the deck, illuminating the deck for everyone to see. A group of three men settled not far from her, each with a different sized drum nestled in their laps. One of them idly began a beat; she presumed this meant it was starting.
Iroh's laugh came from one side, and she craned her neck to find him. He was talking with a man carrying a gekkin, and they both made their way into the circle of light. Katara hadn't yet seen Zuko, and she wondered if he was going to sit out after all. Part of her was glad—he wouldn't have to see if she did fumble her song—but another part was disappointed; she was hoping she'd play well enough that he might enjoy hearing a song from her Tribe.
It seemed all the other crew members were far more relaxed than she felt, and she wondered if they were all part of Zuko and Iroh's old crew. She soon was drawn out of her thoughts when the gekkin player began. The other drummers joined in, handing out an upbeat tune to start off the night.
The gekkin wasn't alone—after the first song was over, another joined in with a liuqin to complement and pluck around the more melodic wanderings of the gekkin. By the time they went into their third song together, several of the crew were dancing to the cheers of others. Everyone that passed by Katara had rosy cheeks, and it dawned on her that they were drinking, as well. It reminded her a lot of Aang's dance party in the cave, only more raucous.
Listening from her seat, Katara plucked along with some of the melodies she knew or could pick up quickly, and only partially out of nerves. She hadn't played—or sang—in a really long time, and while she was honestly looking forward to it, she also worried about how she'd sound. She did not think of her mother or the nights in their home around the cooking fire she spent learning to play the morin khuur.
She was so determined not to be lost in thought about the past that she wasn't aware Iroh had come up to her until he put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Startling a little, she looked up at him.
He smiled, cheeks rosy and the wrinkles around his eyes deep. "Are you still willing to play for us?"
One fortifying breath was all she needed to give him a firm nod. She was ready. Sitting a little straighter, she nestled the kokyū between her knees and picked up the bow. The drums quieted, waiting for her to play. She started slow, languidly reminding her fingers of the different fret spacings this instrument had. Despite being an octave or so higher than it should be played, Katara found the winding melody she was searching for. The dancing crewman slowed to watch her, and she kept her eyes on her fingers, coming to a pause with the bow. She couldn't stop her grin as she leaned into the next part, lifting up the melody into an easy, faster rhythm; the drums picked up after only a few repeats. It was a simple tune, the melody played overtop the drone of the other strings—there was one more than she was used to—but it was driving and she could forget that she wasn't playing around a Water Tribe communal fire. Almost unbidden, her voice came bubbling up through her throat and she hummed the melody line before mustering the last bit of her courage to sing Tribe words to this crew of Fire Nation sailors.
She was rusty, she knew that, and it was by no means perfect—especially to her own ears. But she sang. In the ancient words of her Tribe, she sang the joy of her people finding land beneath the ice and building a home there, and the Fire Nation sailors thoroughly enjoyed themselves. How much of that enjoyment was augmented by alcohol, she couldn't say, but if it was, she was grateful for it. It was pleasant, having such an enthusiastic audience.
When she finished, she could feel the last notes reverberating in her bones. Finally looking up from her fingers, Katara was taken aback by the sudden burst of applause and foot stamping that commended her. Her face hurt and she realized that she was grinning; even if it wasn't the traditional instrument or people listening, it felt good. She felt good.
Bowing deeply to the helmsman, she handed back his kokyū with breathless thanks. He asked her to show him how to play like that, and laughing, she agreed. She searched for Zuko, then excused herself and looked for him. Maybe he would dance with her if she could find him, informally.
"I didn't know you spoke another language." Zuko said a little bit away from her, once more leaning on the rail and looking out at the salt-dark of the ocean.
Smiling halfway, Katara shook her head. "I can't. I only know a few songs in the Tribe tongue. We don't really speak it anymore."
No sharp sorrow tinged her voice; it was not something she personally forgot, but that had been lost before she was ever born. A slow erosion from her culture the way that water carved away ice over the course of years.
"What's left of ours is mostly in old poems," Zuko said, and she was as surprised by that as she was grateful it wasn't an apology.
"Really? Do you know any?" She joined him at the rail and absently wondered how many times during this trip they would find each other here.
He was silent for a long while. Then, so quietly she almost didn't hear him over the sound of the music and laughter and waves, he said, "I don't know if I can do this."
She lost no elation from the music; she felt herself soften. He didn't have to explain himself for her to know what he meant; she felt the same way.
"You can," she told him earnestly.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Zuko—" The way he looked at her when she said his name made her breath hitch for a moment in her throat. Her cheeks warmed and she angled her head to look out over the waves. "You know, I don't know if this is even something I should be doing," she said, subdued but not timid. "It makes me feel like I'm abandoning Aang, like I'm running away from my responsibility to him."
"You're not—" Zuko shook his head. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay. You're not wrong, but you're not entirely right, either. I'm his friend and teacher, and I'll always feel responsible for him. He's still a kid in a lot of ways."
Zuko snorted softly. "We're all still young. I'm not the youngest Fire Lord ever crowned, but I'm the youngest to rule without a regent before I officially come of age." He let out a heavy sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "Now that we've established we both don't know how to do something we're not even sure we should be doing in the first place…"
Katara laughed. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Look," she said to his incredulous glance, "we've overcome a lot of things I would have never thought possible, that I used to question a lot."
"Like stopping my family?"
She reached out and gave him a playful shove. "Like becoming really good friends. I didn't know if trusting you again was the right thing to do, or even something that I could do." Her hand came to rest on his arm when he cast his gaze down at his hands and she knew his memory was in the catacombs. "But we did anyway, and I'm really, really glad that we did."
He looked up at her then, hope and vulnerability and something a little too raw drawn clearly across his face. "You are?"
Swallowing the sudden thudding of her heart, Katara nodded. "I am. I'm also really nervous about being an Ambassador, but I'm going to do it anyway, too." She paused for a breathless moment. "And I think it's something I really want to do."
Zuko shifted until his hand found hers, and then her fingers were encased within his. He gave her hand a warm squeeze. "I'm really glad you're going to be there."
He smiled then, and it was soft and wound between her lungs. It made her wonder if she wasn't running away, but rather headlong into something.
Written for the Avatar: the Last Writer Competition on ff.net
Chapter 4: With Just the Dawn as Company
I don't have an accompanying short for this one, so this it just has to be lonesome!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He woke up over water.
The sun was still low on the horizon, glittering pale gold over the bay waters. For a moment, Aang didn't remember where he was. He shot up with a gust of wind beneath his feet, staff ready in his hands. Then—he remembered. He dropped his staff and sat back down, a small cloud of dust rising around his legs.
It was an impulsive thing to leave in the middle of everything like he did—impulse bolstered by a tugging sensation deep within him that pulled him eastward. He'd flown through the night, not even stopping long enough to retrieve Appa. The compelling urge to just go was too strong. When he'd finally collapsed, exhausted, onto a narrow outcropping overlooking Chameleon Bay, it was deep night. The only reason Aang woke now was because he'd felt the sun rise and stir his qi, something he began noticing after learning from the dragons.
Now that he wasn't caught up in the urgency he'd felt last night, driving him back to the Eastern Air Temple, Aang couldn't stop his mind from trying to sort all the things reeling within him into some kind of order. The hurt from Katara's choice to abandon traveling together resurfaced again, keen as ice biting against bare skin. To entertain the thought that she would no longer be there for him to reach out for comfort or even simple conversation settled gloom around him like a shroud. No small part of him wondered how long she'd been wanting to leave, if she had ever really wanted to go with him to begin with.
Curling forward, Aang cradled his head in his hands. Despondency clawed at his heart like a living thing, threatening to squeeze the air from his lungs in a few hiccuping breaths. He felt dragged downward as if he was a sinking ship with too many breaches in the hull to stem the flooding. Maybe he had done something wrong—something to make her want to go. The light from the rising sun warmed his skin without him really feeling it as he wracked through his memories to try and pinpoint any moment that could have foretold Katara saying Zuko needs my help more now. Isn't that what they had been doing already by going to all those Earth Kingdom towns? Wasn't that helping?
Within the spiral of his despairing thoughts, Aang could feel qi welling in answer within him. A year ago, he would have been sent into the Avatar state, completely unable to control the swift, virulent surge of his emotions, but now—now nothing happened. That avenue of release was barred and locked to him. Instead he felt the knotting and twisting of all that fettered energy in the center of his back.
Clenching his jaw tight enough to hurt, Aang let out a sound of frustration that startled a cluster of birds perched on the rocks not far from him.
"I have to fix this," he announced, lifting his gaze to pinks and oranges pooling across the sky. He knew all at once that then, at that moment, he didn't mean fixing things with Katara. There were things he needed to confront that did not begin with her. His face flooded with heat, only now realizing how childish he had been. He was so worried about making things work with her, he had avoided addressing the bigger issue. Again.
Aang had spent all of his life only knowing how to be an airbender, and how to sidestep problems like one. But, he wasn't just an airbender.
Feeling a weight settle between his bones, Aang stood again and picked up his staff. He was tired of having this problem, over and over, stuck in a mire of his own making. He launched himself off the outcropping, continuing eastward.
He was the Avatar. He would learn to finally act like one.
Written for the Avatar: the Last Writer Competition on ff.net
The sun bore down on her relentlessly; no clouds marred the sky and its light bounced back up from the crest of the waves surrounding them. Sweat beaded across her forehead and down the line of her spine. She grinned.
There was no way he was going to defeat her, even in with the sun at its apex.
Across the deck from her, Zuko slid into an easy stance, hands raised toward her as if he could keep her at bay with that simple motion. They both knew better.
Reaching out with the smallest curling of her fingers, Katara pulled at the ocean on either side of the ship, and drew up two slender streams of water, sending them directly for him the moment the streams breached the top of the hull. Zuko glanced at them, and dodged out of the way at the last minute, both of the streams narrowly missing him and crashing instead onto the deck itself. He came up in a fluid roll, fire following his momentum and curving toward her in a vertical arc from a sweep of his fist. She tugged up the water that remained on the deck and extinguished the arc into nothing more than steam. But, she knew better than to stay in one place, and using the sudden steam as a cover, she raced to one side, pulling up again at the ocean water, this time in small parcels that she brought to ring her in undulating globes. Zuko came at her through the steam, cutting through it with his body like a knife and jabbing several bouts of flame at her from his fists.
Katara was anticipating something like that, and with each fire burst he sent toward her, she wove out of its reach and sent one after another of her globes of water to engulf the flames. As she extinguished the last of his jabs, however, she almost didn't turn in time to avoid him leaping straight at her. She turned the moisture on the deck into ice and used the momentum of her dodge to slide out of his way, while also hoping the ice tripped him up and gave her more time to counterattack. It was his turn to anticipate her move, though, and he landed with flames beneath his feet, melting her ice almost instantly.
With a fierce grin, Zuko spun to face her as soon as his feet touched solid ground after his leap and he went on the attack again—only he was a hair too slow. Katara had already drawn up yet another arcing stream from the ocean and sent in spiraling his way, dousing the flames even as he summoned them to his knuckles.
"What's the matter, Zuko, can't keep up anymore?" she taunted, grinning so hard her face hurt.
In answer, he growled and fell into a quick series of katas, and she was suddenly meeting him blow for blow, turning each away with practiced sweeps of her hands and feet. She fell into the rhythm of fighting him so quickly, she didn't notice until he was almost upon her that he'd been creeping closer with every strike. He was so near to her that she could feel the heat emitting from his whole body, and he seemed to intentionally increase it to evaporate the remaining water at her immediate disposal.
Or so he thought.
His firebending heat evaporated her ocean water, but it made her sweat. Katara would never again be without a weapon at her fingertips. Before she could gather the sweat from her skin and the moisture in the air to her, Zuko rushed the last bit forward in a way she hadn't anticipated; she couldn't move away in time. He collided solidly with her and sent them both rolling over one another against the deck. They came to a stop with him on top, his knees on either side of her and pinning the cloth of her tunic down beneath them. He quickly took advantage of the situation and lifted his hand as if to strike. Zuko grinned down at her, triumphant and straddling her hips.
"I think I can keep up just fine," he said smugly.
Katara smirked at him, and when he looked down, he noticed that she'd gathered the sweat from her skin while they were rolling together and formed it into an ice dagger only about as long as her hand. It was pointed directly at his ribcage, pinned between them with only an inch to spare him from being punctured.
He relaxed his hand and conceded defeat, sitting back on his haunches a bit. "You're still really good."
She rolled her wrist and the ice dagger flowed into water that she then sent splashing against his face. "Did you expect me not to be?" she asked, incredulous. "I'm a master waterbender, and should never be underestimated."
Water soaked his head and shoulders and ran in rivulets down the open front of his tunic as he laughed above her. "I can't believe I didn't think of that. You would have really got me." The way he leaned back, settled against her hips, eyes flashing bright gold in the sunlight—it made her feel flush all of a sudden. More so than their little sparring session should have.
"You can let me up now," she said, a bit sharper than she intended.
Her tone sobered him instantly, and he immediately acquiesced, scrambling back to his feet and lowering a hand down to her. She took it and felt like she was accepting a peace offering, and that, in turn, made her feel guilty.
So, she flashed him a smile. "That was good. We should do it again."
Zuko's face visibly brightened again; he wore all his emotions on his sleeve, and she found herself worrying for just how easily read he could unthinkingly be. Had he always been like this, before his heart had been covered with all the scars his father had given him? She'd learned during the time he was with the group in those last weeks of the war that the angry young man who'd chased them across the world wasn't really who Zuko was. He'd just been broken and cracked too many times, and it made all his edges ragged.
"It was." His agreement brought her out of her thoughts. "We've got plenty of time left before we reach the Fire Nation to do it again at least a few more times." The sly twist of his mouth and lifting of his eyebrow made her breath a little fluttery in her throat for some reason she couldn't pinpoint. "Maybe I'll beat you next time."
Folding her arms across her chest, she raised an eyebrow at him and smirked, amused. "Well, you can certainly keep trying, Zuko."
They ended up going their separate ways for lunch. Sometimes they ate with Iroh on the observation deck of the ship, sometimes they did so individually. Katara enjoyed having both options at her disposal—she was used to being in a group her entire life, but recently had been learning to appreciate the times she had to herself. It was nice, not having to worry so much about looking after everyone anymore—though as soon as she had that thought, she felt guilty. They were all on their own for so long, someone had to step up and handle the daily minutiae. Katara had simply been the best candidate, and the most qualified, having been doing her mother's work for years before she'd ever found Aang at the South Pole.
The thought of her village filled her mind—both of how it was when she'd left it, and how it was before, when her mother was still alive. Katara's life had changed so much, and she was still so young, even if she didn't always feel it.
Katara's appetite suddenly waned, and she lowered her chopsticks to the plate before her, staring at the half-eaten rice and fish but not really seeing it. The heat of the afternoon sun was more bearable with the breeze rising off the waves to where she sat, but with her thoughts all at once gone adrift, she didn't really feel the coolness of it.
She was so used to thinking about going back to her village and picking up her life there again. It'd be better, she'd always convinced herself—her father would be back, the war would be over, and they could start to rebuild. Sometimes, in her darkest moments, that was one of the few things that kept her going, kept her able to put one foot in front of the other and get up every morning.
But, now that everything was said and done, it felt… It didn't give her the swell of reassurance it once had. Now that she could actually go and do just that, she wasn't sure she wanted to. More guilt washed over her at the thought, and her stomach turned. Wasn't she supposed to want that, though? To go back home and help put her Tribe back together from the scattered, fragmented pieces it had become?
A frown pulled down the corners of her mouth.
If she didn't go back to do that, somehow along the way, it had become an unspoken thing that she would go with Aang and help him plant and give peace lasting roots across the world. Though she'd been with him for several months, it turned into her not helping spread peace so much as taking care of him, and that quickly become lackluster. She didn't want to be taken for granted, and that's what traveling with Aang had become—he did his work as the Avatar, as much as he could as still a kid—and she… was there to clean up after him, or pester him into doing things he didn't want to do, but needed to. She was only fifteen; she didn't want to simply continue being someone's mother.
Who was she, though, if she didn't want to go back to pick up the remains of her life at the South Pole or give herself to the winds and Aang?
She was adrift now, with her decision to accompany Zuko back to the Fire Nation. She'd originally intended to talk it over with everyone after suggesting it—with her father, Sokka… and with Aang. But that's not the way it had worked out, and now here she was, already over halfway to Caldera City. She winced as she recalled the argument following her telling Aang she'd offered to be Zuko's Ambassador to the Water Tribes.
All at once, Katara needed to be in the water. She needed to feel the rush of the currents around her, reminding her that they, at least, knew where they were going. They knew what their purpose was, and nothing would change that.
She abandoned the remainder of her lunch and approached the gunwale, hesitating for less than a breath before vaulting herself over the rail and into the waiting ocean below.
It was an instant relief to be surrounded by the water. Forming just the smallest pocket devoid of water over her nose, Katara could pretend she was a fish, slicing through the waves with flashing scales, with her only thoughts bent toward food and survival. She closed her eyes and sped through the water, flowing with the same current that the ship followed, some distance behind her now. The whole ocean was at her disposal, and she could go wherever she wanted in it, just like a fish.
Her little pocket began to run out of fresh air, so she swam up to the surface. When she breached it, she took a moment to simply float and bob with the roll of the surface waves. She looked back at the ship and saw a handful of the crew leaning over the rail. One of them spotted her and pointed. A small flurry of activity followed until a figure she immediately recognized as Zuko came up to the group. She watched his crew point out at her, and he made a few vague motions with his hand that she could just barely make out. The crew dispersed slowly after that, but he lingered for a moment, looking out at her. Katara was too far away to see his expression, so she couldn't guess at what it could be, but it was clear that he had just stopped an impromptu rescue mission his crew had thought they needed to launch. She smiled, watching him leave the railing.
It was funny, she thought, diving beneath the waves again and feeling the desperation in her chest ease a little. Never in a hundred years would she have thought that a firebender—the frequently hot-headed leader of firebenders, at that—to be the one to understand what she needed the most. He was steady, she realized, even when they'd been enemies. He was so very focused and direct, always pursuing his goal despite all the challenges that got in his way. She let that thought roll around in her mind as she moved within the waves for a while longer.
When she finally made her way back to the ship, Katara lifted herself up on a swift crest of water to step easily back onto the deck. A quick twist and push of her wrists removed the water from her hair and clothes, and she sent it back into the ocean. Something she couldn't quite get rid of, however, was the salt. It curled her hair and stiffened her clothes a little, but she didn't really mind; it wasn't anything she couldn't wash out with some of the fresh water they kept in the cargo bay.
A good portion of the afternoon had passed while she was in the ocean, and that, coupled with the short sparring match she and Zuko had earlier, left her feeling a pleasant ache in her muscles. She hadn't really been able to do that all those months she traveled with Aang. He never seemed to want to even practice with her anymore, let alone spar in earnest. It made her sad—she enjoyed Aang's company, and cared for him a lot, but when it was just the two of them in Appa's saddle without the driving purpose of the war, it left her feeling she was missing something. She got a similar feeling now when she thought of going back to the small life she'd lived before him. In some ways, she felt ruined. Now that she'd seen the world, Katara didn't think she could truly be happy settling back in the South Pole for the rest of her life, but she'd traveled so much for so long that it exhausted her just to think about only doing that, day in and day out.
A fluttering, unsettled feeling pooled into and filled her belly. She retreated to her quarters instead of lingering out on deck longer.
Her room was sparse, containing a bed, a washbasin, and her bag of personal effects. Worrying her lower lip, Katara opened her bag and pulled out each item, laying them in a neat row across the length of her bed. She placed her folded clothes all in one pile—a spare deel tunic and leggings, two sets of underwraps, a silk dudou that was a keepsake from her last time in Ba Sing Se. Next to them she placed her whale tooth comb and a small, plain box that contained bone and coral beads for her hair. Her sewing kit came next, the folded penguin leather worn from years of unwrapping and wrapping, and beside that she laid a sealskin-wrapped knife she'd made years ago with her mother. And… that was it. She peered into the bag as if she might have forgotten something she packed only a few weeks ago. Nothing more remained inside it. Katara sat back on the floor, legs tucked neatly beneath her, and slowly lowered her hands to rest in her lap, despondent.
Was this really all she had of her life? If she died tonight and had to be put into a boat for her last journey out to the sea, hers would be virtually empty. It left her empty, just thinking about that.
Unbidden, tears tracked wet lines of salt down her cheeks, mingling with what was left from the ocean. She didn't want an empty inuazavi, she didn't want to not leave anything behind in the world of her own doing. If she went back to her village, she could help them restart again, set up a waterbending school, repair the long years of damage her people endured. But she knew she would feel restless there. She could go back to traveling with Aang, see the world again and satisfy the wanderlust being contained solely to the South Pole would awaken in her. But she wouldn't be able to do enough to satisfy her want to make in impact on the world that was all her own. It felt too much like she was expected to choose between two extremes, and Katara found herself desperately longing for some middle ground.
She wanted her own freedom, but she couldn't be completely without a moor. Katara was a waterbender; she had to have some sort of anchor to keep her from drifting. Something she could come back to, that she could look for if she ever needed a port in troubled times. She needed a place that felt like home to her.
Mulling these ideas over in her head, she got to her feet and went to her washbasin to clean off her face and skim water over her clothes to get the worst of the ocean salt off them. Leaving her things laid out on her bed, Katara wandered back out to the deck, discovering that more time than she thought had passed; it was already dusk. When had so much of afternoon gone by? She'd missed the dinner hour entirely, though she knew that getting food would be as easy as going to the galley and asking for some. She didn't, though. Instead, she went to the rail at the prow of the ship and looked out at the still-glowing line where the sea met the sky, trying to decide if she felt nervous or anxious.
After a time, she felt a heat draw near, stopping a few steps away, and knew it was Zuko. She wasn't quite sure how one would be able to tell the heat of different bodies apart—especially if one was not a firebender—but she knew that she was learning his distinct signature of warmth.
"I've been thinking a lot," she said, not looking at him. When he said nothing and only joined her at what had become their usual spot at the rail, she continued. "I don't know that I could ever really do it."
She felt his gaze settle on her, but resolutely kept her own on the waves.
"We traveled so much during the war," Katara went on, knowing he would wait patiently for her to elaborate further. "I can't keep doing that forever. I need… I want a place I can come back to. I want a home." An aching sorrow caught in her throat and sent threadlike fractures through her words. Though she had thought that very same sentiment earlier in her quarters, saying out loud somehow solidified the fact that she didn't feel like any one particular place was truly home for her anymore. Keenly, she felt the loss her village had once claimed as home in her heart.
"We can go south," Zuko said suddenly, after several beats of silence. She wasn't sure she heard him properly. There was no way he could read her thoughts, and yet he had so succinctly parsed through her words and pinpointed the heart of what she was talking around.
"What?" She blinked at him, confused, but his face was turned from her toward the horizon.
"The South Pole," he clarified. "We can change course and take you home." A pause hung between them, and the breadth of it softened his voice. "I know what it's like to want to go home, but feel you can't."
All at once her heart ached for everything he'd never had in a home that she, at one point, did. More than that, she ached because he couldn't know what she'd been thinking all afternoon, about how she needed to find a new home, but here he was anyway, knowing once again exactly where her mind was. Before she knew it, her arms were around him, hugging him close.
"Oh, Zuko," she breathed against his chest. "I'm sorry."
She was able to bury herself in his warmth for only a moment before he put his hands on her waist and gently moved her away. The look he fixed on her was bemused, his dark eyebrow canted upward in question.
"Why are you sorry?" he asked, sounding genuinely confused.
Katara thought of all he'd ever told her about his mother, about all the things he didn't say about Ozai, about how inevitable the Agni Kai with his sister had always been to everyone. She thought of the pack her grandmother had made for and Sokka when they first left, how she'd always fought to keep bright the kernel of one day I'll return home in her heart, how she now knew she couldn't do that—not with the South Pole.
"I just am," she told him as opposed to any of that, taking his hand in hers. For a brief moment, she feared he would pull it away, and was surprised at how much her throat tightened at that thought.
He relaxed instead, threading his fingers through hers. Heat seeped into the space between them, and Katara felt the insistent desire to lean against him. It wasn't that she was cold, but the warmth he emanated felt comfortable; he felt safe and easy to her. He felt like an anchor.
They stood like that for a while, the wind tugging at them in the twilight. At length, Zuko spoke again.
"Do you want to go home?"
Katara resisted the impulse to tighten her grip on his hand and give away just how unsteady she felt at the thought, like she was without a moor line and was in danger of drifting away if she let go of his hand. She turned her face into the wind and out to sea.
"I'm not sure that's really home anymore," she said very quietly.
"Well," Zuko said, the rasp of his voice gentle, "there's the Fire Nation, now." His words dragged her attention back to his face. When their eyes met, his searched hers with a fluttering sort of desperation before darting away, off to one side. "I mean—you'd probably still have to travel as Ambassador, but if—if you like, you're always welcome to stay at the palace for however long."
A sense of elation blossomed inside her, with the slow unfurling of a smile across her face that she could not quite keep in check. Red dusted across Zuko's cheeks and nose, noticeable even on the dimly lit deck where they stood. Katara could not definitively tell if the warmth now bloomed between her lungs and across her own face was from the hope of finding somewhere that felt like home again, or that it was Zuko offering her his. Either way, it made her suddenly feel a little giddy, made her want to laugh a little breathlessly. Instead, now she did tighten her fingers with his, bringing his eyes back to hers. The warmth across her face crept down her neck.
The words she'd held on her tongue to say suddenly tangled in her mouth under the brightness of his gaze; by the way his eyes widened slightly, she knew her cheeks were stained a vivid maroon. Embarrassed, Katara ducked her head.
"I'd like that a lot."
inuazavi is a combination of the Inuit word inua, "the spirits" and the Mongolian word zavi, "boat" to mean Boat of the Spirits, or a boat the Water Tribe would use to send their dead off to be reclaimed by the Ocean Spirit.
Written for the Avatar: the Last Writer Competition on ff.net
Chapter 6: It Wasn't Just a Choice
Another lonesome little short, following Aang's thread.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Eastern Temple sat before him, the bases of its three great pagodas shrouded in clouds. Aang stood for a while on the cliffside of the mountain facing the temple, as if studying it, though his eyes did not quite focus on the slanted rooftops or overgrown gardens.
Aunt Wu had once told him he could shape his own destiny like he had the clouds. If only life worked like that—at least, his life. No matter what he did, it seemed like he ended up walking in the grooves laid out for him, anyway. She had just told him that to make him feel better about not hearing what he wanted. Embarrassment rolled in his chest like an iron marble, cold and heavy. A hundred years ago, the monks planned to send him here, to the Eastern Temple, and he'd run away that night. When he'd come to meet and learn from Guru Pathik during the war, he ended up running from that, too. All the times he tried to subvert his destiny of learning to control a power he had never wanted to be saddled with, and he was back again.
Aang let out a lengthy exhale. How much time could have been saved if he hadn't tried to force things? How much frustration could he have avoided if he'd listened, instead of just heard?
A spin of his hand snapped his glider open, and he launched himself into the air, curling with the currents toward the temple's middle pagoda. He would learn to be better.
The winds took him to a gazebo with a broken roof near the midway point of the temple, where he alighted upon the ground. It sat off-center in a garden left to its own devices over a century, with vines reaching up and winding around the structure. It looked at Aang as if the plants themselves had caused the damage to the gazebo's roof, rather than an attack. Then again, it'd been a hundred years; it was difficult to really tell for sure. Aang wandered through the garden. On the way here, he'd been ready to fly straight to Pathik and start up his spiritual training again, but now that he'd actually arrived, he couldn't quite will himself to go look for the old guru.
Rhododendrons and junipers grew lanky and wild, several types of flowering plants all entwined together beneath wide rhubarb leaves: saffron, ginseng, and tsi-tog. He tread gently between and around the sprawling leaves and flowers, absorbing the quiet. Even with no traditional spaces cleared for meditation, Aang knew he would have no trouble doing so here; it still was peaceful.
It wasn't long before he came upon a stone bench only half-covered by a flowering plant he didn't recognize, so he perched on the other half. A breeze stirred the garden around him and he closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath of the fragrant air.
"I wondered if I would see you again," a familiar voice came from nearby.
Without opening his eyes, Aang smiled, though it was a little wan. "I've come to finish my training."
A long pause followed. Aang slowly blinked his eyes open and saw Pathik standing beneath a weeping cherry tree a few spans away, his face tilted up as if he were studying the flowering boughs.
"An untended garden has beauty, but things that grow wildest will strangle out those that require a gentle hand." Pathik lowered his gaze to Aang sadly. "You left my guidance unfinished. I can no longer help you."
Cold gripped the bottom of Aang's lungs; he felt the ghost of pain through the scar on his back. Curling his hands into fists in his lap, he ignored the hot prickling at the corners of his eyes and met Pathik's gaze with a fierce determination.
"I'm the Avatar. I've mastered it before, and I will again."
Written for the Avatar: the Last Writer Competition on ff.net