"That bad, huh?"
Zuko stirred with a start. He sat in the sun near the willow tree in the king's garden, his own body half-drooped like a wilting flower. He rubbed his eyes and looked up at Katara. She was smiling, perhaps amused by the fact she'd found him dozing. A breeze rustled the willow's trailing leaves and made ripples on the pond. It was surprisingly serene, even with the guards lingering on the outskirts.
"Maybe you should just lie down," she observed. "That doesn't look comfortable."
Warmth tickled Zuko's cheeks. "I didn't plan to fall asleep."
That had been stupid. Just because the fight with Azula, the rebels and the Fire Nation army was over didn't mean that it was safe for him to make himself defenceless out in the open. There was still a lot of tension going on thanks to the rebellion. Not only that but his cover had been blown, Uncle's cover had been blown, and while King Kuei had been more grateful than anything, that didn't change the fact that not everyone was so quick to forget paranoia and suspicion.
Katara stretched her arms above her head and sat next to him. "I'll keep watch if you like. Go ahead and sleep. You look like you need it."
Creases formed on his brow. "You'd do that?"
"It'll be boring."
Her voice softened. "I don't mind. Healing always takes so much out of you and you promised to help Shizue with her memories, right?"
That was why he'd come here. He'd had to strip to his pants so he could better absorb the sunlight and replenish his chi faster. The king's private garden seemed the best place where he could sit in the sun and avoid making a spectacle of himself.
Katara met his gaze. "Then rest. Do what you need to heal." She patted her lap. "I'll even let you use me as a pillow."
His face felt a bit hotter. "Oh. Thanks, but, uh—"
"You'd prefer to lie on the ground?"
Zuko closed his mouth. There was a subtle edge to her tone that suggested he should stop resisting or he was going to offend her. Badly.
He shifted onto his back and rested his head on her lap. Zuko expected his body to prickle with tension and discomfort, just as it had always done when he made physical contact with others in unfamiliar ways. That was why he'd tried to refuse her offer. Hugs and hand-holding he was beginning to handle, even appreciate, but using her lap as a pillow seemed different. More intimate. The warmth coming from her seeped into his already sun-warmed skin.
"See," she said a bit teasingly from above him. "Not so bad, is it?"
She was right. Being close to her like this didn't make him want to freeze or recoil. In fact, he felt calmer. At ease.
He exhaled and closed his eyes. They were both quiet for a long moment.
"Do you think I did the right thing?" he asked softly.
She let out a breath. "Do you regret it?"
"Don't know. I didn't even think about what I was doing at the time. My body just moved and then I found myself healing her. I know the others aren't happy with me, though."
Mai had called him an idiot. Sokka had looked grim and said he could understand not wanting to kill Azula, but saving her—actually offering up his own energy to heal her in the middle of a fight—wasn't smart. Toph had seemed to agree with Sokka. Even Iroh had just frowned and said what was done was done. Only Katara had offered no opinion, which had made Zuko curious. She was the one who had seen it all. She was the one who was also a healer.
Her fingers slipped into his hair. He opened his eyes in surprise, but her expression was pensive. She wasn't even looking at him. It seemed running her fingers through his hair was more of an absent gesture. Not that he was complaining. It felt nice. Unexpected, but nice.
"I don't know if there was a right or wrong option," she said slowly. "Your sister is horrible. Some would say she deserved to die, but then I ask myself what I would have done in your situation, and I just don't know."
Again, they were quiet.
"I can still feel her," he confessed. "Inside. Her energy is bonded to mine now."
Katara's hand stilled. "Does that bother you?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I hate her. I hate her so much and I hate how many people she's hurt, but I couldn't … I just couldn't let her die." He pressed his hands to his face. "Even after everything she's done, I couldn't do it."
Katara was quiet. She resumed threading her fingers through his hair. "Well, she's in prison now. You don't have to worry about her hurting any more people."
His stomach twisted. Would stone walls be enough to contain his sister? Should he even trust the Earth Kingdom with her? He remembered what had happened to him in the North Pole; he was also vividly conscious of what had happened to Toph. But it wasn't like they could take Azula with them. Then there was Ty Lee to figure out.
A sigh escaped his lips. Everything was such a mess.
"Hey." Katara gave his hands a light tap. He obligingly lowered them from his face and looked up at her. "It's okay. What's important is that Ba Sing Se was saved and we're all together again." She cupped his cheek, thumb brushing against his skin. "Don't beat yourself up just because you didn't want to watch your sister die. You have a healer's instincts. It's only natural."
He stared up at her for a long moment. "You always know what to say, don't you?"
She raised her eyebrows, perhaps because he was frowning. "Sounds like you're saying that's a bad thing."
"I don't mean it like that."
Zuko fidgeted with a blade of grass. "It's just … you're always there. If someone's upset or needs help, you're there to give them the support they need. You just do it and expect nothing from them."
"And that's bad?"
"No, it's not bad at all. That's not what I'm saying." He covered his face with his hands, smothering a groan. "This was easier in my head."
She laughed and removed his hands. "Zuko, just tell me what you're thinking."
He was quiet for a moment. "Sometimes … sometimes it feels like you're always looking after others. Like you're trying to be strong for everyone, like you feel it's your responsibility to be positive and keep everyone else positive or something." His brow creased. "I just … if you're always there for others, then who's there for you?"
Colour dusted her cheeks. "Oh."
His face heated and he averted his gaze. Maybe he should have just kept his mouth shut. Using her lap as a pillow suddenly felt a lot more awkward.
"Thanks," she said in a soft voice.
He blinked and glanced back up at her.
"For being concerned," she elaborated, "but you don't need to worry. Someone has been looking out for me."
She smiled and lightly flicked him in the forehead. "You, dummy."
His eyes widened. "Me?"
Katara laughed again and went back to running her fingers through his hair. "You really need to stop selling yourself so short." Her voice gentled, losing the teasing tones. "You're a good friend, Zuko. I don't know what I would've done had you not been there when we got separated from the others." There was a small pause and an even smaller confession. "I was scared. Really scared."
He was filled with the urge to clasp her hand or reach up and touch her face. Her words reminded him of when he'd woken up on Changpu's farm. She'd clung to him then and cried. That was the first time he'd seen her so vulnerable.
"I was scared too," he admitted just as softly. "I'm glad you were with me."
Katara smiled in a way that left him warm all the way to his toes. They both were quiet after that, content to just relax and enjoy each other's company. Zuko's eyes slid shut. The drain from chi loss and the lulling way she ran her fingers through his hair was making him sleepy again.
He wasn't sure when he finally dozed off, but it was the sound of voices that stirred him from his dreams.
"A few things of interest were found in the Dai Li's records," Iroh was saying, sounding oddly muffled to Zuko's ears. "One of them was an intelligence report about a small fleet of Water Tribe ships protecting the mouth of Chameleon Bay."
"What?" Katara exclaimed.
"Your brother reacted the same way. As you guessed, the fleet is being led by your father."
"Dad's here?" she breathed, as if she hardly dared to believe it.
Zuko was fully awake now. He sat up and rubbed the dregs of sleep from his eyes.
"Oh, sorry, did I wake you?" Katara asked.
"It's fine," he said. "I think I was out for a while."
Which also made him feel guilty. It couldn't have been comfortable for her to have his head resting on her lap for all that time. She was far too nice of a friend.
"Go," Iroh encouraged her. "Your brother is looking for you. You might still be able to find him near the guest chambers."
Katara smiled, told Zuko to make sure he got as much rest as he needed, then dashed off to meet with Sokka. Silence settled back over the garden, at least for a moment.
"She's a lovely girl," Iroh observed.
Zuko made a sound of agreement in the back of his throat.
"It's nice to see the two of you so close."
A pause. Zuko turned to look at his uncle. "We're friends."
"I never said you weren't."
Creases formed on the prince's brow. It felt like he was being led through the conversation like the ostrich-horse with the carrot. He decided to ignore the bait. "Has your chi returned to normal yet?" he asked instead.
Iroh frowned. "I'm afraid I don't have your ability to replenish chi at a rapid rate. Slowly but surely I am getting back to full strength."
Zuko brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. He'd tried so hard not to absorb too much of his uncle's chi, yet it seemed he'd messed up again. "It's my fault you couldn't fight Azula like normal," he mumbled. "I made you vulnerable."
"I chose to weaken myself. I believed then, as I still do now, that saving Biyu was more important."
"Azula could have hurt you."
"But she didn't." Iroh placed his hand on Zuko's shoulder. "You protected me. You did very well, my nephew. I knew I was right to trust in your skills."
Zuko said nothing and simply hugged his knees tighter. Even if Iroh had given him permission to absorb the necessary chi that time in the Old City, the thought of sapping the strength and life from his uncle still made his stomach turn to knots. He hated the ability. He would always hate the ability.
"Try not to worry too much about it," Iroh advised. "Just get some rest while you can. Healing Shizue will not be easy."
There wasn't even any guarantee that it would work. Yet Zuko still had to try. He needed to find his mother, to find the truth about the Children of the Undying Fire. He also desperately wanted to help Aang. Maybe learning more about energy bonding would give him some ideas about how to wake Aang up as well.
"Tomorrow," he murmured. "We'll know for sure then."
He looked up at the sky, even as the sun filled him with strength and energy. Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough.
"You're still here," Katara said softly.
Toph gave a small a twitch. She sat on the cushions near where Aang was sleeping. "So are you. I thought you and Sokka would have left by now. You haven't seen your dad in three years, right?"
Katara sat next to her on the cushions. "Yeah."
"Then why are you still here?"
"Why are you?"
Toph pulled a face.
"Your mum is in the city," Katara continued. "It sounded like you wanted to see her."
"Are you saying I'm too scared to go on my own? That I need someone to hold my hand?" Toph balled her hands into fists. "I was the one who took down all those tanks, you know. You don't need to treat me like I'm fragile."
"I know. Sokka told me. He said you were amazing."
Katara bit her lip. Zuko had said she always knew what to say to people, but she had never been good at handling Toph. They butted heads so much. It hurt sometimes. Katara knew she got a little sensitive when people spurned her help or called her bossy. Toph did both on a regular basis. Even so, there was something troubling the younger girl and that was something Katara couldn't ignore. She wanted to be there for her.
She tentatively reached out to touch Toph's shoulder. "Listen, Sokka told me how you froze up when you first went out there."
Toph twitched away from her hand. "So what? I got over it, didn't I? I did what I had to do."
"I know, I know. I'm just—"
"I told you to stop acting like I'm fragile! I'm not some scared, weak little girl! I can take care of myself!"
Katara bit her lip again, this time to stop her own frustration from spilling out. She wanted to remind Toph that it was she who had bathed her and healed her during those early days; that it was she who had been kind and gentle and patient when Toph had been unable to say a word. She wanted to say that she could see right through Toph, because all that bravado couldn't disguise the damage that had been done. Toph's trauma was still there in her tense posture, in the downward tilt of her chin, in the way she seemed to stick close to her element.
How was Katara supposed to ignore all that? How was she supposed to pretend like she didn't hear that cry of hurt?
But retaliating with anger wasn't the answer. She had to be calm. She had to somehow get Toph to lower her walls of defence.
Katara frowned at her hands. "I'm not saying you're weak or fragile," she said quietly. "I know you're not. You're a fighter. You're strong."
Toph tilted her head slightly. She was listening.
"But sometimes it's hard to fight alone. Sometimes we do freeze up and get scared." Her fingers found their way to the pendant hanging from her throat. "Sometimes it's just really hard to ask for support."
There was a shaky exhale from beside her. Katara took courage from the sound. She released her necklace and faced the other girl.
"I've never thought of you as weak, Toph. Not ever. But I am your friend and I know you've been through a lot." Her voice lowered. "I guess … I guess I'm saying if you want someone to be there with you when you go see your mum, the offer is there."
Toph was quiet for a long moment. Katara wondered if she was going to get a response at all. Maybe she should have approached Zuko and got him to talk to Toph instead; the two of them seemed to have a better understanding.
"Um," Toph began a bit awkwardly, "maybe … maybe it would be easier if I have someone else with me. But it's not because I'm scared to be alone or anything."
Katara let out a small breath. "Of course. I'll let Sokka know to go on ahead."
"Dad can wait. It's not like I won't get to see him."
There was another moment of silence. Toph abruptly punched her arm.
"Ow," Katara exclaimed, rubbing the stinging spot. "What was that for?"
"Nothing much." Toph stood up and dusted off her hands. "Shall we go then, Sweetness?"
Katara bit back a smile, even as some of the stinging faded from her arm. "Alright. Let's go."
It didn't take them long to locate Sokka. He seemed surprised that Katara wasn't going to come with him to see their dad, but he didn't argue either. Perhaps he understood why she wanted to be there for Toph.
She waved to Sokka as he flew off on Appa towards Chameleon Bay. Then she and Toph made their way into the Upper Ring. Remnants of the rebellion and the battle still lingered. Parts of the street were all broken up from earthbending and there were bits of metal scattered around. City guards and citizens alike worked together to clean up.
"Crazy to think Zuko's sister caused all this," Toph muttered.
Katara made a noncommittal sound. She didn't like to think about Azula much. Her feelings got so conflicted. It was easy to hate such a monster. Azula had got so many people hurt with her manipulations and plans. She'd even killed Jet, the boy who had given Katara her first kiss and also her first proper taste of betrayal. That made Katara conflicted as well.
But then she thought of the duel she'd witnessed between Zuko and Azula. She thought of the way Azula had let her heal Zuko, of the way the arrows had struck and how distraught Zuko had been. She thought of his confession in the garden, soft and vulnerable. He hated his sister, of that there was no denying, but it was clear he loved her as well. The whole thing made Katara feel … odd. Confused. Angry.
"Do you remember the address?" Toph asked.
Katara shook off the troubling thoughts and pulled out the letter. "It shouldn't be far from here."
They kept walking until they reached the house. It was beautiful, like all the buildings in the Upper Ring, and seemed to have been untouched by the rebellion. That was a relief. It would have been horrible if Toph's mum had got caught up in the struggle.
"Ready?" Katara said.
Toph looked paler than normal, but she nodded and strode ahead to knock on the door. It opened slightly.
"Guess it's unlocked," Katara observed.
The younger girl exhaled before pushing the door open more and stepping inside. The room was unlit and there didn't appear to be any furnishings. "Hello?" she called. "Mum? Anyone home?"
Katara was slower to enter. That was a mistake. A metal box fell from the ceiling and entrapped Toph inside. There was a small cry of alarm from the girl. Katara reacted fast and got her water ready, eyes frantically scanning for a sign of whoever had set the trap. She was surprised when Xin Fu and Master Yu strode out from the shadows. Had they really followed all the way from Gaoling just to try to kidnap Toph again?
"You're in the way, girl," Master Yu said.
Katara narrowed her eyes. She wasn't sure why Toph hadn't busted herself out of the box yet, but there wasn't time to worry about that. Instead, Katara, shifted into a flow of bending moves: violent whips to snag feet off balance and break stances, blasts of water that shoved back and left both men dazed. She was swift and vicious like the unexpected currents in a river. Her fingers curled to freeze both their hands and feet to the ground. Now neither of them could bend.
"Where's the key?" she demanded.
Master Yu's eyes widened before he quickly glanced to the left. Suspicious.
She marched over to him. "You have it, don't you?"
He made a sound that was a bit like "meep". Katara glared at him warningly before she reached into his pocket and fished around until she touched metal. She pulled the key out. Xin Fu looked like he wanted nothing more than to bash her head over with a rock.
Katara quickly unlocked the box and tugged it open. Toph sat in a huddled ball with her hands over her face. She was shaking. Oh spirits, of course. Toph had been locked up in a box by the Dai Li as well.
"Come on," Katara said gently. "Let's get out of here."
Toph didn't move at first, but with some encouragement she uncurled herself and managed to stand. Katara held her hand firmly. Her eyes narrowed on the two men.
"Come after my friend again and I won't go so easy on you," she warned.
To make her threat clearer, she flicked her hand and made ice daggers strike the stone mere inches from the men's faces. They both stiffened and their eyes bugged wide. Message received.
Katara led Toph out of the house without another word. They walked at a rapid pace until Toph tried to slip her hand free. Katara instantly let go. For a moment, neither of them said anything.
"Are you alright now?" Katara asked.
Toph trembled. She kept her face lowered so that her fringe hid everything. "I froze up again."
Katara's heart ached. Oh, Toph. She was always trying so hard to be strong. She was probably beating up on herself right now.
"Hey, it's okay," Katara said, reaching for her. "You don't need to—"
"It's not okay!" Toph stepped back abruptly. "I froze up! I could have bended myself out, but I just couldn't. I couldn't move."
"Why does this keep happening?" Toph's chin wobbled. "If you hadn't been there, I'd still be trapped in that box and—"
Katara pulled her into her arms. Toph stiffened right up like a piece of wood, but she didn't pull away.
"It's okay," Katara said over and over. "It's okay, Toph. You have nothing to be ashamed of. It's okay."
Toph pressed her face closer and her arms slowly came up to wrap around Katara. "Don't tell the others," she pleaded.
Katara held her tighter. "If you don't want me to, I won't."
They stood embracing for some time. Eventually, Toph stepped back and averted her face, though Katara still caught the hasty scrub she gave to her eyes. Katara chose not to comment on the fact Toph had been crying.
"Let's head back," she said. "I'm sure we can get Iroh to make that nice tea again. I could really go for some."
Toph's mouth twitched into the most fragile of smiles. "I'd like that."
The walk back was mostly quiet. It was only when they reached the palace gates that Toph asked the question Katara had also been pondering.
"Do you think those two were working for my parents?"
"I don't know," Katara admitted.
It did seem strange that they'd come all this way and used a letter from Toph's mum to lure her in. That is if the letter had even been authentic. There was no one who could tell since Toph was blind.
"I won't go back," Toph said. "I still want to travel with everyone."
It almost sounded as if she was asking if it was okay to even want such a thing. Did she think she no longer had a place with them if she froze up sometimes?
Katara squeezed her shoulder. "We want you with us as well, Toph. No one will ever make you leave."
Toph's tiny smile was a bit wider this time. They had only taken a few steps before Katara got another punch to the arm. She winced and rubbed the spot, though she didn't bother to protest. Not anymore.
Little by little, Toph was getting better. Not a perfect recovery, but certainly more like her old self. Katara thought she could handle a few punches to the arm if it meant being there for a friend.
Much to everyone's surprise, Sokka arrived back later that night. The reason for why was soon apparent. He'd learnt that some of Zuko's old crew were with the Water Tribe warriors.
"What?" Zuko exclaimed, sitting bolt upright from where he'd been lounging on the cushions next to Katara and Momo.
Sokka explained how the fleet had run into a Fire Nation riverboat out in the middle of the ocean. The crew aboard had ended up surrendering; they'd already been hit by a storm and had essentially been stranded anyway since the engine couldn't be fixed. They'd had no hope of surviving.
"Dad ended up keeping them around as prisoners," Sokka said. "Though I think he just wasn't sure what to do with them, to be honest. One of them used to be your cook."
"The cook?" Iroh looked as if he'd found a lucky star. "Cheng is alive?"
Sokka nodded. It turned out Lieutenant Jee, Tomoki and the old helmsman had also managed to make it out of the North.
"Now I see what happened," Iroh murmured.
"What do you mean?" Zuko asked.
Iroh reminded him of how he'd found Kan in a seaside Earth Kingdom village. Before Kan had died, he'd expressed his worry for the "others" who had escaped the North with him. He'd said he'd been knocked off the boat during a Water Tribe attack and had got separated from everyone.
"Kan must have been with them on that boat," Iroh said.
Zuko nodded, though it was with mixed feelings that he accepted the situation. Learning that some of his crew was alive was a relief. For all they'd had their tense moments, he'd still travelled the world with them for three years. But even then he was aware that many, if not most, of them were probably dead. There had been so many bodies floating in those icy waters.
"So they're prisoners now?" Zuko asked.
Katara furrowed her brows. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You can see for yourselves when you meet them. I said I'd bring you all there tomorrow."
Iroh's mouth curved into a smile. "You have been busy, haven't you?"
Sokka rubbed his nose with his forefinger. "Well, I realised we can't all fit on Appa now, and it's not like we can just stay in Ba Sing Se. Besides, Biyu and the Order of the White Lotus have everything covered here."
As expected of the self-proclaimed Plan Guy. He'd already been thinking ahead.
The others continued to talk. Zuko excused himself after a while and found his feet taking him out to the garden. Moonlight bathed the night in silver. There were so many stars in the sky that for a moment he just found himself mesmerised by the scattered specks of light.
A snuffling sound came from behind him, and he heard the soft pad of footsteps. Zuko turned to see Bosco in his silly yellow coat. King Kuei arrived a moment later with his usual guards on watch. It was just like their first meeting, except this time Kuei wasn't wearing his pyjamas.
"Oh," Kuei said, spotting Zuko. "You're here."
"I can go if you like," Zuko offered.
"No, no. It's fine."
There was an awkward silence. Zuko wondered if he was supposed to say something. What was he even supposed to say? Or was it okay to just pretend Kuei wasn't there? Would that be considered rude when he was a guest in the king's garden?
Ugh, socialising was so difficult sometimes.
Zuko folded his arms across his chest and looked the other way. Kuei scratched his chin and fiddled with the rims of his glasses. There was much more awkward silence. One of the guards coughed.
"So …" Kuei and Zuko said at the same time.
Kuei smiled. "You go first, Prince Zuko."
Zuko shook his head. He'd actually been about to make his excuses and leave. "You're the king. Go ahead."
"Ah, well, I understand you and your companions will be leaving soon with the Avatar."
"Yes. Probably tomorrow."
Kuei lowered his gaze. "So soon."
He sounded almost sad. Or maybe it was anxiety weighing down his tone.
Zuko frowned at the older man. "You should keep your head high, you know."
Kuei blinked and looked up in a confused manner. "What?"
"You're the Earth King. People are going to be looking to you for guidance, especially after everything that's happened." Zuko shrugged and looked up at the sky. "Just try to have more confidence."
A faint smile curved Kuei's mouth. "Easy for you to say. You were clearly born a natural leader. I'm afraid all I was born to do was to sit on a throne and let others do the talking." His smile twisted. "A puppet king, your sister called me. Perhaps she was right."
"Nothing my sister says is worth listening to."
It was always hurtful. Always poisonous.
"Then what kind of king do you think I am?" Kuei asked. "Do you think people will really look for protection and guidance in someone like me? I'm no fighter, not even much of a scholar. I know nothing except these walls and my only companion has been Bosco. I didn't even know the war was going on."
"You can learn, can't you?"
Kuei blinked again.
"If you want to be good at something, you have to work hard for it," Zuko said softly. "That's something I've learnt."
"You really believe that, don't you?"
Zuko's mouth curled up at one corner. "You said I was born a natural leader, but the truth is I've struggled for every scrap of respect I've received. Growing up, everyone thought I was a failure. They all wished that Azula had been born the eldest so she would be the heir. When I got banished and had to captain a ship, some of my crew mutinied against me and it was only my uncle's presence that stopped things from getting too ugly or from it happening again."
Kuei's eyes widened. "I had no idea."
"It's not exactly the kind of thing I go around sharing with everyone." Zuko shrugged again. "Anyway, all I'm saying is that no one is expecting you to be perfect. It's not like you're going to be on your own either. You've got people at your side you can trust now."
The king was silent for a moment before he exhaled and stood a bit taller. "You're right. I swore to myself I'd be a better king after I learnt about Long Feng's betrayal. Now I guess I just have to walk the talk."
Zuko nodded in encouragement. Still, for his own peace of mind, there was something he had to ask. "Can you promise me one thing, though?"
"Promise you'll do everything you can for the Joo Dees. The Dai Li stole their identities and free will from them. They're going to need your support."
"I understand. I'll gather all the healers in the city if I have to." Kuei smiled. "You have my word, Prince Zuko."