Katara rises early and gets out of bed before her mind has a chance to wander. Beds—and the fact that she has one to sleep in—are an oddity about this place that lingers, like the climate here and the fact that food is prepared for her, though its oddness has ceased to be novel or cause for too much thought. Like everything else in the past several months, she has managed to convince herself that she’s accepted it.
She quickly dons her clothes and ties back her hair, before scarfing down whatever Fire Nation delicacy had been left outside her door by the servants for breakfast—she insisted that she did not need to be served every morning—and preparing for the day. It promises to be a busy one. Dignitaries from the Water Tribes are set to visit the Fire Lord, and though, as he always did, the Fire Lord told her that she need not do so, Katara took it upon herself to ensure the logistics of their visit went smoothly. There is security to arrange for their convoy—and while she is at it, she might as well check that those Kyoshi Warriors who had volunteered to join the Palace Security Forces were adjusting smoothly...There is food to arrange—as a native to the Southern Water Tribe, she is uniquely situated to help the kitchen servants with this matter—and minutia of the guests’ travel to coordinate. Anything to make the Fire Lord’s job easier. She also ought to go out into the City and speak to the people, and continue to assure them that, despite what seemed to be public option in the months since the end of the War, the Fire Lord has their best interests as his top priority. And, she should also swing by the hospital—where Fire Nation soldiers and those Earth Kingdom combatants and civilians who had been in stable enough condition to be moved alike were being treated—to see if her Water Healing could be of any assistance. And then, if she still has time, she’ll respond to Aang’s letter.
She misses Aang. In the first few weeks after the War, he also stayed in the Fire Nation. As the Avatar, there was much that he had to do here, meetings that he needed to have in a professional capacity, if not in a personal one, with the new Fire Lord. But, there was also a lot that he needed to do in the Earth Kingdom, wounds he needed to help heal. For a time, he tried to fly between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation each day, but, the more time he found himself needing in Ba Sing Se, the more impractical that became. So, as long as Katara is obligated to be here—and that was for the foreseeable future—letters between them will have to suffice.
But at this moment, she doesn’t have time to think of Aang either. Too much to do. Katara breathes once, before leaving her chambers and getting to work.
She tells herself that the reason she didn’t go to great the ships from the Northern and Southern Water Tribes when they arrived that afternoon was because she was tired. And that is certainly true—she is exhausted. As anticipated—and, if she is honest with herself, as she wanted—the day had her running from one task to the next, without time to pause or think. But, had she made the effort, Katara might have nonetheless mustered the energy to go to meet the ships at the docks. The truth, however, is that, unless one of those ships carried Dad, or Sokka, or Gran-Gran—and they didn’t; she is fairly certain one of them would have written to mention if they had planned to come—Katara has little interest in actually seeing anyone from the Southern Water Tribe.
Rather than standing at the dock or with the emissaries, therefore, she is sitting on her bed, trying to think of something else to busy herself with when there is a knock at her door.
“Master Pakku!” she exclaims when she answers it. “I didn’t know you were part of the delegation!”
“Your father and grandmother thought that, given that I’ve fought alongside the Fire Lord, I might be a good person to represent our interests with him.” Pakku smiles. “May I come in?”
“Of course!” Katara steps aside to admit him, before gesturing to a chair. “How’s everything at home?”
“We’re slowly rebuilding. There is much to be done.” He sighs, still feeling, Katara knows, the same guilt that first washed over him a year ago, just after the Siege of the North, when he realized the extent of his ignorance and complacency in the the state that his sister tribe had found itself in, when he first set out for the South. That he uses the word we though, that now, only a year later, he feels himself to be a true part of their Tribe, doesn’t escape Katara’s notice.
Pakku continues: “Having your brother to spearhead the rebuilding efforts has been a great help.”
“I’m sure. Sokka’s waited his whole life for a chance to help lead the Tribe.”
When he speaks again, Pakku’s voice is soft, hesitant. “You would be a great help as well.”
“No.” Katara turns away. “I can’t...I need to...I miss home. I miss Sokka and Gran-Gran and Dad more than anything. But I can’t...I have to be here.”
“Iroh mentioned when I spoke with him today how helpful you have been.”
“I try to make myself useful.”
Pakku inhales, like he wants to say more, to protest maybe, to try to convince her—futile as it would be—to come with him when he returns to the South. But at the last moment, he seems to change his mind, and she is relieved, even if she hates the tone of pity that seems to creep into his voice when he speaks and lays a hand on her shoulder. “If you change your mind, you are always welcome to come home. And should you need someone to talk to, you can write to us. To me.”
“Thank you, Master Pakku.”
He leaves his hand on her shoulder a moment more, looking at her seriously, before nodding, bidding her a good day, and leaving the room.
Katara is awoken the following morning by a messenger at her door informing her that the Fire Lord wished to see her at her earliest convenience.
“In the Throne Room?” she asks.
“No, ma’am. His Majesty will be in the Tea Room.”
The messenger leaves when Katara has nodded and thanked him, then she quickly dresses and goes to meet the Fire Lord.
The guards in front of the Tea Room admit her without a word, and when she sees the Fire Lord standing, stoically, his back to her, she sinks to her knees. “Fire Lor—“
“Katara, no.” When Iroh hears her voice, and turns to see her in a prostration on the ground, he walks over to her, kneels to help her up. “I have told you before, you must not bow to me.”
“But—” Katara begins as she sits up.
Iroh doesn’t let her finish the thought. “I do not even ask my subjects to bow to me, and you are not of the Fire Nation. Now, may I offer you a seat?”
A moment later, when they are seated across from each other, the man speaks again. “Pakku came to speak to me again last night, this time in an unofficial capacity. He said that he believes that you stay here and do everything you do for this country and for me because you feel you owe me something.”
She looks away and says nothing.
“Katara, you do not owe me anything. I should have said as much many months ago.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No.” The Fire Lord’s voice is exceedingly gentle, if more of a monotone than it had been before. “You do not.”
“I do though!” She bursts out of her seat and turns away. “You don’t have anyone, and it’s my fault! If it weren’t for me, he’d still be alive! If I hadn’t been in Azula’s line of fire, or if I’d gotten to him sooner, or if I hadn’t listened when he said he wanted to fight her alone, or if I’d been quicker to trust him before, maybe he wouldn’t have felt such a stupid need to prove himself and take damn lightning for me…” She covers her mouth, embarrassed at the tears that have suddenly welled up in her eyes, trying desperately to stifle her sobs.
The moment is burned into her brain, even more deeply than her shaking the unresponsive body, and desperately bending water onto the wound again and again, until she depleted all the water in her pouch: Iroh sprinting and stumbling toward it, falling to his knees with a cry more guttural and horrible than anything that Katara had ever heard when he approached it. How he had seemed to throw his face onto his nephew’s body with deep, bellowing sobs, before gathering it in his arms and rocking it back and forth gently. How he sat there in an apparent transe for hours after, and only moved when the Fire Sage came to rouse him.
“It is not your fault.” Iroh paces to where Katara stands, places grounding hands on her shoulders, snapping her back to the present. “I should have told you this months ago as well—forgive me. If anyone is to blame, it is me. I never should have sent him. I knew how strong Azula might be.” The regret that drips from his voice is palpable, painful, and he pauses in it for a moment before continuing. “Or Ozai is to blame, for banishing him in the first place, or for what he turned Azula into. Or Sozin for starting the War. But not you.”
She doesn’t quite believe him. And if she’s honest with herself, she’s not sure she wants to. In some ways, it’s easier to believe that it is her fault, even with the guilty anguish that that knowledge has caused her over the last months, than the alternative, that he is just another victim of a decision made by a young Sozin a hundred years ago. That there is nothing she could have done, just as there is nothing she could have when her mother was killed. That the War is monstrous and all-consuming, and she is powerless in the face of it.
Zuko is dead, and she had been powerless to stop it. Just as now she is powerless to stop the grief his death had caused—Iroh’s, and her own, and Mai’s, and everyone else’s.
“It’s not fair,” Katara says finally.
“No,” Iroh agrees. “It is not. It is not fair that he is gone. It is not fair that he was scarred and banished as a thirteen-year-old boy. It is not fair that children—including my nephew, and including you—were forced to pay the price for my and my father’s and grandfather’s war. And for that I am deeply sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault, either,” Katara says when her voice returns to her. “Any of it.”
Iroh smiles a sad smile, like he disagrees but will not argue with her, and when he speaks, it is to change the subject. “My nephew was in exile for three years. It would pain him greatly to know that you are exiling yourself from your home.”
“It has been a year-and-half since you have been home, has it not?”
“But what about you? Didn’t you say on that last morning of the War that you didn’t want to be Fire Lord?”
“I do not. I would give anything for my nephew to sit on this throne in my place. Or my son. But neither of them is here. This is a burden I must bear for my country, because it needs me. As yours needs you.”
“Are you sending me away?”
Iroh shakes his head. “I never would. But I cannot allow you to remain if your reason for doing so is penance for something for which you are not to blame. I would not be able to live with myself. As it is, I...” He pauses, seems to change course. “Life is short. You should spend it around those you love.”
“Will you be alright, on your own?”
“I will manage. I always do. Your people need you, Katara. And I believe you need them.”
After a moment, Katara nods solemnly, then hurries back to her chambers to pack, hoping perhaps to catch Pakku’s ship before it departs.
Iroh waits until he is sure she is out of hearing distance before he sits, buries his face in his hands, and weeps.