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Reverie

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It had all started with a cold. Well, it had all started with a boy in the ice. She supposed that if she and Sokka hadn’t gone out fishing that day, her life- and the world- would look very different now.  As it was Katara woke up one morning in the Earth Kingdom sniffling and coughing and feeling like her head was full of cotton wool. It had been some eighteen months since the end of the war and six since she and Aang had left Ba Sing Se to go on what he called the ‘Avatar World Tour’.  They travelled from village to village, greeting citizens and fixing problems big and small alike, Aang’s connection to the spirit world and her healing abilities often proving invaluable.  Yes, to the handful of Earth Kingdom settlements they had visited they were every inch the power couple, but Katara had noticed recently that they were much better around other people than they were alone. She couldn’t say why, but they just didn’t seem to have much to talk about, and she was reminded of that time Sokka went off to train in swordsmanship, when it had felt like they all suddenly forgot how to interact with each other. So when she started to feel sick, she hadn’t wanted to shiver away on Appa while Aang fussed and worried, she hadn’t wanted to sit in some random village with deferential strangers tiptoeing around her, all she wanted was to go home.

“Come on Katara, I’m sure it’s just a cold, it’ll be gone by the time we get to the next place! Gita told me there are these Rabbit-Gulls that-”

Katara snorted and bit back a snarky comment. Gita had been a particularly deferential citizen of the last village. She wouldn’t mind the excessive hero worship so much if more of it were directed at her. She was respected yes, but the adulation, the awe, that was all his. She felt a pang of guilt at her pettiness. He had saved the world after all, and friends don’t hate friends for their success.  But – said a treacherous little voice in her mind-  Girlfriends can hate peppy little rays of sunshine for drooling all over their boyfriend…  She took a calming breath before speaking.

“Aang, I’m sure the Rabbit-Gulls are great, but I feel like death, I don’t feel up to making dinner, let alone fixing a war ravaged land.” He looked crestfallen, but she put her arm around him and smiled. “Besides, I haven’t been home in forever! You can even drop me off and come pick me up when I’m better if you like, so you can continue your world tour!”

“Won’t be the same without you.” He said, pouting.

“Won’t be the same with me coughing and sneezing all over you either,” she said, managing to get a chuckle out of him, “Anyway, you’re the Avatar, you can’t get sick, too much to do.”

“I guess you’re right” he said, and she felt an unbidden surge of excitement. She hadn’t seen Gran-Gran in over a year, but more than that, she couldn’t remember the last time she had some real alone time, and she suddenly longed for the south pole, with its silent glaciers and endless skies.

Aang murmured something to Appa, and she felt his massive bulk turn in the air as they headed south.

By the time they reached the South Pole a few days later though, Katara knew it wasn’t just a cold. She felt… wrong. She felt pitifully weak and she always seemed to be the wrong temperature, either shivering or sweating, and she hadn’t even tried bending. Their arrival was something of a blur of jubilation and excitement turned to concern as familiar hands held her up and whisked her off to a comfortable bed in a cosy hut. She had an impression of Gran-Gran’s face, looking down at her with love and worry, apparently she looked as bad as she felt. She closed her eyes, hearing a snatch of conversation between her father and Aang, and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

 

***

 

Katara dreamt of the Western Air Temple.  

The eerie inverted pagodas loomed overhead and she realised she was completely alone. It occurred to her that she hadn’t been completely alone for months. She had never been a loner, but weeks and months of travelling with a big group of kids and teenagers –all expecting her to mother them in different ways of course- would take its toll. Even Aang, who she had no doubt respected her, seemed to require constant encouragement and attention, and as she got older, she seemed to have less and less energy for it. Guilt bloomed in her stomach. She loved Aang. She did. He wasn’t some annoying little kid she’s been tasked with babysitting, she liked spending time with him, even if had been feeling a bit strained lately…

She roamed the silent temple, feeling oddly as if her surroundings were moving around her as she stood still in the middle of the shifting scene. She found herself if one of the rooms they had slept in where, to her mild horror, Sokka and Suki lay kissing each other.

“Oh!” She exclaimed, “Sorry, I- I didn’t know you were…” They hadn’t shown any sign they had heard her. In fact if anything their activities appeared to get more intense. Katara cleared her throat loudly, turning away slightly, but to no avail. They continued with abandon.

Recognising a lost cause when she saw one, Katara turned and left the room, only to find herself in an identical one, face to face with Aang, looking exactly as he had that day all those years ago in the ice fields. She turned and found to her great relief that the writhing heap that was Sokka and Suki had disappeared.

“Do you wanna go penguin sledding with me?” Aang suddenly asked happily, his eyes bright.

“I-” She was struck by how young he looked. He had grown at least 6 inches since the war ended, although the youthful light in his eyes was ever present. She expected it would still be there when he was an old man. Young at heart.  She smiled.

Aang returned the smile and turned to leave, without waiting for her response.

“Wait-” she started after him, but as she turned a corner, she found herself in the fire palace, of all places. The walls rippled with heat haze and indistinct figures lined the walls. It was a kind of exhibition hall, some sort of display happening on a central stage. She heard voices from the middle of the room, one, cold and disapproving, the other begging and distraught. A silhouetted figure bowed low, his pleading voice still echoing around the silent room. She thought she could make out a few words; sorry… father… But before she could concentrate more, there was a flash of fire from the far end of the chamber, and she felt as though she was thrown back, out of the room, out and up, up…

Katara woke in a cold sweat, convinced she could still feel the fire singeing her eyebrows, despite the chill air.

Chapter Text

“Gran-Gran?”

“Yes dear, it’s me. You’re home.”

“But- but I was- I saw-I don’t know…” She stammered, shivering and looking around wildly. Gran-Gran nodded and stroked her arm soothingly.

“You have a terrible fever, Katara, I’ve no doubt you’ll come out of it, but not for a while yet I don’t think.”

“I… I don’t…” Keeping track of the situation or even the conversation was taking a colossal amount of mental energy. Her brain felt shivery and shaky and like even staying awake right now was more trouble than it was worth. It probably was.

“Shh, the healers have been in already, nothing to be done now but ride it out.” Gran-Gran smiled sadly, “Sleep now, dear,” And she did.

 

Katara flew through the icy air. She didn’t have Appa or a glider, or anything, but she sailed over the earth kingdom with unthinking ease. There was Ba Sing Se, the rings rippling out as if the Earth Palace was a pebble dropped in some great green-brown ocean. She had barely begun to enjoy the sensation when there was a flash of blue light, and suddenly she wasn’t flying, she was sitting on the cold ground, the sky a distant memory beyond a heavy roof of stone. Crystals surrounded her, throwing a hazy turquoise light over the cave and over the figures that sat slumped at opposite ends.

“I could try to heal it you know,” she heard herself say, and for a second she wasn’t sure whether she was here, watching herself avoid meeting Zuko’s eyes, or over there, speaking from her own mouth.

Now she was across the room, though she didn’t remember moving, hand reaching out tentatively to his scarred cheek and watching Zuko flinch from her touch.

“I don’t know if it would work, but…”

It was an impossibly delicate moment, and she felt as though breathing too hard might shatter it. Her hand cupped his cheek and despite his initial flinch, this time he didn’t move. A tiny flash of something showed on his face for a moment, and as he spoke, Katara thought she could see it peeking out, like a light behind a doorway; a tiny sliver of uncertain hope. 

“You would do that?” he asked softly, hesitant eyes rising to meet hers.

She saw herself shrug, lowering her hand but holding his gaze.

“Maybe it’s meant to be.”

“What do you mean?” He was still looking down at her, as though if he looked away she would disappear. Maybe she would.

“Maybe I’m meant to heal you, so we can heal the world together.”

But this wasn’t right was it? She thought suddenly. Aang and Iroh should have barged in through the wall, shattering the moment into a thousand pieces, and Zuko wouldn’t help them heal the world for a long time, and not before he had shattered her heart as well.

The realisation hit her like ice water. Oh it may have born and died in these catacombs, but that tiny, fragile moment of possibility had existed between them, it was just that she had never admitted it to herself.

As if on cue, the wall exploded into nothing and Aang and Iroh burst in, but apparently she was done with this scene, because the crystalline walls melted away into the softness of sleep.

When she awoke it was to the muted bustling noises from outside the hut and the tantalising smell of some sort of broth wafting over to her. She thought she felt better than the last time she woke, but not by much. She wasn’t even sure if she had dreamt the conversation with Gran-Gran, but she did know that she was hungry to her very bones and that broth was calling to her.

With a groan, she attempted to push herself up in bed.  There was a louder bustling from outside and she was quickly joined by Gran-Gran and another woman, probably one of the healers.

“Easy now,” said the younger woman with a chuckle, “Can’t go undoing all our hard work.”

She heard Gran-Gran snort and mutter something like, “stubborn”.

“H’ngry” she managed as she settled gratefully against a mountain of cushions and furs. More chuckling.

“Well you would be, you’ve been in and out for nearly a week!” said the healer brightly.

Katara spluttered in surprise, thankfully before she started drinking the water that was offered to her.

“A week?!”

“Oh yes, quite the bug you picked up on your travels. I’m Mara by the way, came down from the north to teach healing here, as well as get to know our wonderful southern sister tribe, but I digress-”

Katara was having trouble keeping up, her brain seemed determined to focus on the occasional single word rather than the sentence as a whole. Mara’s voice boomed with a casual confidence that clearly came as naturally to her as breathing, and Katara got the impression that she would be a true force of nature if someone did anything as unproductive as trying to cross her. Woe would betide the stubborn soldier who wouldn’t take his medicine. Mara would get along well with Toph, she thought.

It occurred to her that Mara had been talking this whole time, and was now looking at her patiently, as if waiting for a response.

“What? Sorry.”

“Quite alright, I daresay it’ll be a while until you’re fully up to scratch. Here.” She swapped the water in Katara’s hand with a large spoon as Gran-Gran brought a large bowl of broth over to the bed.

The broth was hearty and delicious. She ate carefully, since she still felt pretty shaky, feeling like she could literally feel her energy restoring with each spoonful, while Mara and Gran-Gran chatted in the background. When she had finished, Mara took the bowl from her and left the hut, leaving her with Gran-Gran. She stroked Katara’s hair gently, and she smiled as she closed her eyes, warm and comfy and home.

“My Katara,” she crooned affectionately , as her granddaughter slipped yet again into sleep. “My little waterbender.”

Chapter Text

Katara’s fever dreams waned somewhat over the next few days as she spent more time awake, and with each passing day she felt a little more alert, a little more herself. But although Mara told her she was past the worst of it, she still felt as weak and insubstantial as smoke, and she still woke to an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, if she could only figure out what it was.

“Where’s Aang?” She asked one evening while chatting with Mara. It had occurred to her that she hadn’t seen or heard him since they had first got here; she felt a twinge of guilt that she had only just noticed his absence.

“Oh, he flew off on that great fluffy beast when I told him he wasn’t needed.”

“What?” There was more to this story, she was sure.

“I told him, avatar or not, he knows nothing about physical healing, and he was doing no good to anyone, least of all you, by buzzing  around the place worrying and trying to distract himself and everyone else along with him…” Mara trailed off, and Katara realised to her surprise that this unshakeable woman felt guilty about dismissing Aang. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Oh no…”

“Yes well, I confess I may have upset him. But he does fuss so, doesn’t he?” Katara just grinned, tickled by the image of Aang’s incessant worry-fuelled jabbering battering up against Mara’s  usually unflappable temperament. Mara sniffed haughtily, collecting herself.

“In any case, that boy needs to not get his way more often. I know a sulk when I see one.”

“Truer words…” muttered Katara, before she could stop herself. Mara looked surprised, but didn’t say anything, and looked at her interestedly.

They sipped their tea (a gift from Iroh to her father) in silence for a few minutes. When Mara spoke again, Katara got the impression she was picking her words very carefully, a rarity since Mara generally valued pragmatism over tact.

“Is all well with Aang? With you and Aang?”

“Yes of course,” she replied automatically, but it was no use. Mara just looked at her steadily and she knew that whatever she told everyone else, or even herself, this woman was having none of it. She sighed.

“It’s- I don’t even know. It’s awkward. It was never this awkward before, but we just go from town to town and he does his avatar thing and I do my healing thing and then we hop onto Appa and start all over again. I mean, at least when we were running for our lives we had- I don’t know, a purpose, we were doing something important.

Mara looked somewhat taken aback that all this had been so close to the surface. She opened her mouth to respond, but Katara wasn’t done. The floodgates had been opened.

“I mean, I guess the work we’re doing now is important, but it doesn’t feel important. I’m sure he feels important.” She added, slightly bitterly. “And whenever I suggest that I do something else for a while, something to make me feel important, he either convinces me to just let it go and stay, or he ends up coming along and then surprise surprise! It’s all about the avatar again!”

There was silence for a few seconds as they both took all this in. Until now, these had just been jealous, treacherous little thoughts which came to Katara at night when there were no distractions; thoughts she had dismissed as petty at best, resentful and unworthy at worst. Now though, in the light of day, were they so petty? Was she so wrong for wanting a bit of independence? Maybe even a bit of Katara-specific glory?

“Well,” said Mara, surmising from her watery eyes that she was done for the moment, “I’m certainly glad you’re back to yourself!” Katara let out a short laugh.

“I don’t think I’ve been myself for months.” She said weakly, and felt the truth of it in her bones. She suddenly thought bizarrely of that ridiculous play on Ember Island, of that slightly pudgy actress with her water tribe robes and her hair loops; “you’re making me tear bend!” She laughed again, with much more humour than last time, despite the tears.

“I don’t know you well, Katara,” Said Mara seriously, “But from the short time I’ve spent with you and from what I’ve heard from your grandmother, I know that whatever you end up doing, it will be important. Now, will you take a bit of advice from an old lady?”

“What are you, like 35?” said Katara incredulously, but Mara just waved dismissively.

“You of all people, should know that many of us have to grow up all too quickly. This last century hasn’t lacked for experiences which force us to age inside. Now, neither you nor Aang are strangers to having too much responsibility far too young, but –and remember this is purely my opinion, such as it is – I cannot help but get the impression that you change with each new hardship, each new joy, taking the experience and making it a part of yourself, whereas Aang, Aang is himself. He will always be just himself, hardships do not change who he is at heart. Neither of these is a bad way to be, you understand, they are just different. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it is never easy to realise someone you love will never see things the way you do, but life is full of those. I daresay you’ve already realised as much with regards to your brother, for example. What you have to decide, is how much it bothers you, and knowing that this is what it is, whether it is still what you want.” She sighed heavily and Katara was silent. She hadn’t expected such a lengthy, nor such a profound response from the usually uncomfortably straightforward Mara. Maybe she was closer to Iroh than Toph after all. 

She wasn’t crying anymore, but there was a terrifying empty feeling inside her chest. She knew that awful though it was, she had crossed a threshold and there was no going back. There was no more lying to herself, or Aang. She loved him, she really did, but they weren’t right for each other, perhaps they never had been.

“Anyway,” said Mara briskly, clapping her hands and making Katara jump, “Food for thought, certainly, but nothing to be done about it tonight.” She fluffed the pillows and started fussing around the room and just like that, Katara knew that girl-talk was over.

Mara seemed to feel like she had crossed sort of boundary after their conversation, because she didn’t stay to chat as often and didn’t bring up Aang again. Thankfully, Karata was granted a brief reprieve from her boredom in the form of a messenger hawk, squawking from outside the hut. She crossed the room with great effort and removed the message as the bird regarded her regally. To her great relief it was not news of the avatars imminent arrival, but rather a letter bearing the seal of the Fire Lord, and she started to read immediately, relishing the distraction.

Dear Katara,

                I was sorry to hear you have fallen ill, there are a few Fire Nation diplomats at the South Pole at the moment and they mentioned your arrival in their last communication. Obviously an afterthought for him, but it was far more interesting news than his rambling accounts of shipping lanes. I’m sure your family is taking excellent care of you and Aang is keeping you company, but I thought you might appreciate a letter from a friend all the same.  

Things have been fairly uneventful here, only one attempted coup in the last year, which failed pathetically. I was almost disappointed. It may have been a welcome break from the endless minutia of administrating a nation. I know it sounds ridiculous, I know I’m doing my duty to help heal a war ravaged land and all, but I can’t help but think sometimes that it was all much simpler when it was just a matter of defeating Azula and my father. Now I’ve written it I see how absurd it is.

Summer is starting to turn to autumn here, to my relief. Generally I’ve got no problem with the heat, but apparently I’m still expected to conduct my meetings from behind a literal wall of fire and I admit it is starting to drive me crazy.

I hope you have started to feel better when this reaches you, maybe you will even feel well enough to reply and provide me with a much needed diversion from Fire Nation bureaucracy.

Yours sincerely,

Firelord   Zuko

Katara smiled widely and looked around for ink and paper. A much needed diversion indeed.

Chapter Text

Dear Zuko,

                I am feeling much better, thank you! I’m still confined to bed, though I’m not shivering and sweating and sleeping all day like I have been for the last week, which is a great relief. It has been wonderful to see my family again, I can’t imagine being in better hands, although I wish it were under better circumstances.

I must admit I was very happy to get your letter, healing a war ravaged land gets terribly monotonous sometimes doesn’t it? I’m sorry your coup was so disappointing. Seriously though, I think it did me a lot of good to hear from you, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the work and lose sight of everything else. I can’t believe it’s been a year since Ba Sing Se, maybe it’s time for another reunion?

I hope you and Mai are well and that you haven’t been working too hard.

Katara

***

Another week passed uneventfully and Katara was thoroughly bored with being in bed, although Zuko’s letter had been a pleasant surprise. Her limbs were still weak, but she longed to breath the fresh air, eat with the rest of the tribe, maybe even practice some bending if she was strong enough. She had tried bending the water from the skin to her mouth a few days ago, but apparently she was too weak for even that. Still, she thought that at this point, even just practicing the forms would make her feel better.

Anyway, there were entirely too few distractions in the little hut. Since she had had her big epiphany about Aang, her mind was restless and her sleep disturbed. She would have to talk to him at some point, but was unsure when he would be back, and was reluctant to summon him. In the mean time, she found herself too often going over and over in her head what she would say, why she felt the way she did, anticipating his responses in a way she was sure was entirely unhelpful. So when Mara gave her the go ahead to take a (GENTLE) walk to go see her father, Katara was overjoyed.

Hakoda rose immediately when she poked her head around the curtain of the chieftain’s hut, moving straight away to hug his daughter, despite the assembled dignitaries. Katara was overwhelmed with affection for a second, as her father held her tight, resting his chin on the top of her head.

“I’m so glad you’re ok, Katara,” He said. Once upon a time she might have pulled away in adolescent embarrassment, but at this moment she felt like he was the only solid thing in a world where nothing was certain anymore.

“Me too, Dad,” she whispered. He turned to the rest of the room.

“Can we resume this later? I haven’t seen my daughter in far too long.”

There was nodding and a flurry of activity as the group collected their stuff and filed out through the curtained doorway. She was mildly surprised to see that a few of them were fire nation, but they were mostly water tribe, Katara recognised Hahn from the North Pole and gave him a quick nod, which he returned as he left.

“Sorry about this,” Hakoda said, gesturing to the meeting’s mess, “Just another chapter in the endless excitement of being a diplomat.” He grimaced, reminding her so much of Sokka for a second that she couldn’t help but grin. He smiled back, apparently pleased to see her happy.

“Sometimes I feel like I made a much better warrior than a chief.” He said, shoulders slumping a little.

“Well, it’s certainly become a more high profile job in recent years.”

“You can say that again.”

“So what was the meeting about, or do I not want to know?” she asked, grinning lopsidedly and making her father roll his eyes exasperatedly.

“Reparations, trade routes, shipping lanes, cultural exchanges…”

“All that huh?”

“And so much more…” He grimaced again. “But enough of that, how are you feeling? How have the last six months been?”

“Tired, and tiring. I have to admit, I think even without the fever I was ready for a trip back home, although I wish my body could have let me know in less uncomfortable way.”  He laughed warmly and offered her a cup of tea, which she accepted.

“Still, it must have been something, travelling the world with the avatar. Again I suppose.”

“Mhmm.” She said, too quickly. She took a sip of her tea, mostly so she wouldn’t have to talk.

“Oh, that reminds me, we got word yesterday. Aang’s on his way back,”

Unfortunately Katara had just taken another sip of tea and spluttered into her cup in a very undignified fashion.

“What?”

“Yes, apparently he’s finished his latest business.” He said casually, as if she hadn’t just nearly spit tea all over her lap.

She smiled tightly and focused on her tea. She had known he would be back at some point, but knowing it would be in the next few days had paralysed her. What would she say to him? Would she say anything? What would everyone else say? Oh Spirits, what if she caused a diplomatic incident by breaking up with the avatar? Would she be shunned? What was she doing? And has Dad been talking this whole time?

“So it looks like I’ll be travelling back to the fire nation,” he continued, clearly oblivious to her inner turmoil. “Apparently I’ve been roped into a tour of the islands with some Earth Kingdom bigwig to ‘foster cultural understanding’” He said these last words with heavy sarcasm, as well as finger quotes, proving once again that Sokka was his father’s son.

“What, you’re really not looking forward to being waited on and fed like a king in all those towns?” She said innocently. She knew that her father was deeply uncomfortable with normal people gushing sycophantically at him as if he were some kind of aristocrat, although it happened more and more these days. People in the rest of the world tended to see the northern and southern water tribes as the two parts of the same whole, which in a way they were, but it meant that Hakoda was often treated with the same veneration as the chief of the far more aristocratic Northern tribe, or even the Earth King, and he hated it.

“Hardly.” He said sourly, but perked up quickly, a mischievous grin forming on his tired face, “Oh, I forgot! For some reason Hahn, from the northern tribe, keeps referring to you as Princess Katara!”

“What? Why?” she said incredulously. Her father shrugged.

“Beats me. But I think they called Chief Arnook’s daughter Princess Yue, so I guess it makes sense to him.” Katara felt a little pang at Yue’s mention and looked upwards momentarily, even though it was daytime.

“Anyway,” her father continued, “ I suppose when he met all the fire nation diplomats, that’s what he called you, so then of course they started too, and no matter how many times I tell them that you’re not Princess Katara and your brother certainly isn’t Prince Sokka, it’s clear they all just see it as the appropriate title now.” He chuckled to himself at ‘Prince Sokka’ and even Katara, in her mild horror couldn’t suppress a snort at that.

“But- Oh Spirits, I hope it doesn’t catch on.” She said, shaking her head. “I’m as much of a princess as Appa…”

“And Sokka as much as Momo.” He chuckled, then sighed. “I should probably let them all back in, they do love to talk at me, but will you eat with us tonight?”

“Of course,” she said, smiling.

They hugged again and Katara ducked out of the hut into the chilly afternoon, smile fading as she remembered that Aang would be here in a matter of days. She had a lot of thinking to do.

Chapter Text

It was a full four days until Appa appeared on the horizon, and Katara spent every idle minute agonising over what she would tell Aang when he arrived. What she would say, what he would say, then what she would say back and how everyone else would react. She had a horrible feeling that Gran-Gran had caught her muttering a rehearsed conversation under her breath when she thought she was alone. Katara wasn’t sure how, but she was sure that Gran-Gran knew what Katara herself had barely accepted; she was about to break up with the avatar.

Oh Spirits, she was about to break up with the avatar.

More than that though, she was about to break one of her best friend’s heart.

Not for the first time in the last few days, she found herself sinking into a chair with her head in her hands.

“What am I doing?” she breathed.

“Over-rehearsing by the sound of it.”  Came a no-nonsense voice, scaring her half to death.

 “Wha-?” her head snapped up to see Mara enter the room with a basket of laundry. Mara. Who else.  She bustled around the room, tidying away clothes and gathering cups.

“Obsessing won’t do anyone any good. When there’s no right way to say something, the only right way is straight from the heart.” And with that, she was gone as quickly as she arrived, whisking away the mess with her. Katara sat stunned.

“Are you related to Iroh or something?” she called irritably after her. No response. “It’s like they’re eighty percent proverb…” she muttered to herself.

 

That night she dreamt she was flying again, but this time on the back of a giant messenger hawk, with Appa and Aang flying alongside her.

“Why don’t you fly on Appa?” called Aang, looking hurt.

“This is better,” she said.

“Why?”

But before she could answer, there was a crackling flash of electric light, and she wasn’t flying anymore, she was standing paralysed in a courtyard, watching Zuko’s silhouette crumple in the explosion of light between her and Azula. And then it was her that was crumpling, the lightening ripping through her body and bringing her to her knees.  There was a high, cold laugh and she saw that Azula was standing over her, eyes wild.

“See? You’re nothing without him.” She laughed again. “Just another peasant without the avatar’s shadow to protect you…” Katara’s vision swam, but Azula’s cackle echoed in her mind until she woke abruptly in a cold sweat.

Later that day, after a few hours of thankfully dreamless sleep, Katara heard a shout from one of the lookouts. The avatar’s bison had been sighted. The bottom dropped out of Katara’s stomach and she sat in a daze while the village prepared for his arrival. By the time Appa set down on the ice, Katara was in conversation with Hahn about- something. She had hardly heard a word he said.

“Katara!” Called Aang jubilantly, hopping off Appa with ease and grabbing her for a tight hug. She forced a smile. “I missed you, I’m so glad you’re better!”

“Not fully better.” Chimed in Mara from somewhere behind them, “No gallivanting off on giant sky cows quite yet.” Aang narrowed his eyes in an uncharacteristically hostile expression, and she got the impression that he hadn’t quite forgiven Mara for dismissing him.

“Anyway, I’m sure the two of you have a lot to catch up on,” she continued, ignoring Aang’s glare. “It’s a while until dinner and I see no harm in a short walk.” She said pointedly , not breaking eye contact with Katara. Now it was her turn to glare.

“Sounds good to me!” said Aang brightly, bouncing back.

“Sure,” said Katara, unsure whether or not to hate or love Mara at this moment.

They walked a little way out of the village, Aang prattling on about rabbit-gulls and who know what while Katara half-listened and tried to ignore the nausea which was coming over her. They stopped in the shelter of an icy cliff and watch the ocean for a few minutes in silence as Katara worked up the courage to start.

“Aang, we need to talk.”

“We are talking!” he laughed.

“No, I need you to listen.” She took a deep breath. Just do it. “This isn’t working. Us, I mean. I don’t know when, or how, but It’s not right…” She tailed off.

“What- what do you mean?” he said, voice suddenly very small. Another deep breath. You can do this.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Aang. I don’t think I can be with you.” His eyes were watery and she felt tears spill down her cheeks. “I’m sorry…”

“But-” He was crying too now, and she felt utterly out of her depth.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, unable to think of anything else to say.

“I- Is there someone else?” he asked, after a lengthy pause.

“What?” she yelped, taken aback. Bizarrely, Zuko’s face popped into her mind, and for a split second, she thought back to the letter sitting innocently in her hut.  “No there’s not someone else! How can you ask that?”

“I dunno,” he looked down at his feet, “I just saw you talking to that guy from the North Pole and I thought-” Katara couldn’t help it, despite the tears, she barked out a laugh at the sheer absurdity of it.

“I’ve hardly said two words to him!” She shook her head disbelievingly, “The most I can say for Hahn is that he’s not as obnoxious as Sokka described. That or he’s mellowed with age, but Spirits, I’ve spent all of twenty minutes in his company!”

Aang nodded at his feet glumly, apparently unable or unwilling to meet her eyes. 

“But why then? I don’t understand, we’re meant to be together!”

“Aang, I-”

“You’re my forever girl, Katara, we’re meant to be together!”

“Says who?” she snapped, and immediately regretted it.

“That’s not what I meant!” cried Aang, sounding utterly distraught. “I just meant- It’s always been you, Katara, and I thought- I thought it would always be you…”

                This was finally too much for Katara, and she couldn’t keep the tears in anymore. Apparently neither could Aang. This was a disaster. They stood there for a while, silent apart from the ongoing snivelling that neither of them could suppress. Finally, Aang exhaled loudly, and addressed Katara, though he still didn’t meet her eyes.

“I think I’m going to go. For a while at least.”

“Aang-”

“Will you apologise to your family for me?”

“Of course, Aang,” she said, hanging her head. “I’m sorry,” she repeated yet again, but he just shook his head.

“Don’t apologise, don’t keep apologising, I just can’t. I can’t- Bye Katara.”

And with that, he jumped up onto the massive cliff above them, and presumably back towards Appa.

Katara didn’t know what to do. She found herself standing in the same spot, staring out at the cold expanse of water for a long time, simply not having the will to do anything else. Eventually, she became aware of the cold seeping through her heavy coat, and without a thought, turned back towards the village, where her grandmother was waiting with open arms to usher her back into her warm little hut and away from prying eyes.

Katara collapsed, sobbing into Gran-Gran’s arms, no thought in her head but the image of Aang’s heartbroken face.

“It will get better,” murmured Gran-Gran, “Not today, probably not tomorrow, but it will get better.”

“I know,” sniffed Katara, “It just sucks.” She broke into uncontrollable sobs again.

“Yes it does, my darling,” she kissed the top of her head, holding her closer.  “It does suck.”

Chapter Text

Dear Katara,

                I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but of course I’m working too hard. I am literally the head of a nation. (That never feels less strange to say, even after all this time.) Uncle tries to tear me away when he can, but the Jasmine Dragon keeps him pretty busy, and it seems no matter how much I get done, there’s always another thing. It may be a new era of peace and love but sometimes it is very tempting to threaten a little wrath and ruin.

I like the idea of a reunion, maybe we could all meet up on Ember Island or something in the spring? I know these days it’s difficult to get us all in one place, but I’m sure it’d be good for everyone. In the meantime, I’ve seen that your father will be touring the Fire Nation soon; you could always join him for a while, take a break and come visit the palace? You and Aang are always welcome.

Zuko

P.S. I hear it’s Princess Katara now. Water peasant to royalty is quite the advancement; my congratulations.

***

Dear Zuko,

                I-

Katara sat with the pen poised over the page, sentences wriggling uncomfortably through her mind. A large drop of ink fell to the page and she crumpled it up in frustration. She laid another out carefully.

Zuko,

                I have had a very rough week.

She stopped again, this time thinking to lay the pen down to avoid more mess. How much to tell him? It felt wrong to slap all of her and Aang’s heartbreak on a page and strap it to a bird for potentially anyone to read. Of course anyone wasn’t going to read it, the hawk had Zuko’s seal which bought a lot of respect, but even so, it felt like a breach of privacy to discuss it like this.

I don’t know if you’ve heard anything, but Aang and I-

Nope. She scrunched it up again and threw the page in the fire, feeling a pang of guilt at wasting such a luxury resource, at least it was a luxury here in the barren tundra. OK, no more wasting paper.

Dear Zuko,

It has been a very long few weeks. I think it would do me a lot of good to have a change of scenery, so I’m planning on joining Dad when he leaves next week for the Fire Nation, assuming your offer is still open, and my healer/jailer Mara allows me. It should take us a few weeks to get there by ship. (He insists. I don’t think he likes flying.)

Looking forward to seeing you. Don’t work too hard.

Katara

P.S. It’ll just be me, Aang’s busy with avatar stuff.

P.P.S. Don’t you start with this princess crap too.

 

That would have to do.

She still cringed when she wrote Aang’s name, even though it had been nearly a fortnight since he had left. But Gran-Gran had been right, she couldn’t regret what she had done and after a few days she started to feel like herself again, despite the gnawing grief she still felt. The days after she had broken up with Aang had been rough alright; the village was abuzz with speculation. Gran-Gran and Mara had done their best to convince everyone to respect her privacy, but that would only go so far. At least she was finally up and about. Mara still watched her like a hawk, but she had begrudgingly admitted that she was well enough to travel, especially since she would be going to the much warmer Fire Nation before the harsh arctic winter began. Also, to Katara’s glee, she was able to practice bending again.

For what seemed like the longest time she had barely been able to bend water from the tank to a cup, but a week of gently going through the pushing and pulling motions by the shore had her feeling almost normal. She still wasn’t sure how she would hold up in a fight, but these days that shouldn’t be a problem. She had to admit, she was excited for the trip. True, only a few weeks ago she had desperately longed for home, but all that time stuck in bed and the anguish of her break-up with Aang had left her desperate to travel again, to make her first steps forward to a new start.  

She attached the letter to the hawk’s leg and sent him off into the night. Shivering, she crawled into bed, it was getting colder each day. It would be quite nice to sit out the winter in the much more temperate Fire Nation, she thought. She was looking forward to seeing Zuko too, it had been far too long and as she drifted off to sleep, she wondered if he had changed much.

 

The fever had long passed, but still Katara dreamed.

She was at a party. She couldn’t tell where, other than some fancy house, jammed with people buzzing with conversation. As she looked around she recognised the occasional face, there were Sokka and Suki, Toph was talking to Mara, and for some reason there was Yue, having what looked like a very engaging conversation with the Koi that was the ocean spirit, who was swimming animatedly around in a floating sphere of water.

She looked up to see Iroh, sipping tea and talking to her about something, though she couldn’t make out any of the words.  Then she felt the briefest brush of a hand against hers. Iroh nodded solemnly and turned to continue his conversation with someone else. Katara turned around just in time to see a shaggy black head disappear into the crowd. She followed.

There he was, talking to one of the faceless guests. He looked up as she saw him, and when their eyes met- as their eyes met… Katara thought her knees might buckle with the frisson his gaze sent through her. His eyes were honey and fire and promise.

He bowed his head at his companion, who turned back to the rest of the party. His eyes never left hers and as he began to turn away, the tiniest jerk of his head indicated that he meant for her to follow.

He led them into a hallway of sorts, still visible from the party but devoid of guests. She leaned against the wall just beside the doorway, and his hand was on her waist, the other against the wall by her shoulder. Her breaths became shallow as excitement coursed through her. His head bent towards her and his lips ghosted over her neck, though never quite touching, as he gently curled her hair around a finger.

A tiny whimper escaped her, and he pulled away looking smug. She held his gaze for a few seconds and Spirits, was it even possible to be this overwrought by eye-contact alone? To her distress he pulled away, letting her hair thread through his fingers slowly as he moved. He stepped smoothly through the doorway beside them, and was gone, leaving nothing but the whisper of his breath on her neck and the memory of promise in his eyes.

***

When Katara woke, her thoughts were a conflicted jumble, tinged with both guilt and exhilaration. What was that?  She tried to control her thoughts and get her bearings, but was hindered by memories of those eyes and his hand in her hair and…

She exhaled in a rush and took a big gulp of water. At this rate she would have to dunk her head in it. The worst part of all of this was that she knew whose eyes they were. She knew, though she couldn’t bring herself to connect the face with the name. Not yet anyway.

But then, she was probably over thinking this wasn’t she? If she was honest it wasn’t the first time she’s had an –ahem-  intense dream about him, she’d had one or two about Jet and even Haru back when they were travelling, fuelled by raging hormones and their irritating (and distracting) habit of training shirtless.  She had managed to just get on with her life then, well enough at least…

She was certainly prone to over thinking. Yes. It was a dream, that’s all, everyone has dreams, and you didn’t have an existential crisis every time you saw something weird in a dream, did you? No. Of course not. It was just a dream.

Chapter Text

Life in the village was pleasantly uneventful for Katara as the date of her departure approached. She spent a lot of time with Gran-Gran, helped with chores, and even went fishing, which gave her a much appreciated chance to keep practicing her waterbending, even if it was just on fish. She was still shell-shocked after the breakup, but that week she could swear she felt little pieces of her soul fall back into place. She knew it would be a long while until she was able to stop her mind from flitting back to Aang every few minutes, but just like Gran-Gran said; each day was a tiny bit easier. Even if it really was only a tiny bit.

So it was that she found herself packing up her stuff on a crisp autumn morning, saying tearful goodbyes to Gran-Gran and Mara and casting one last look at her harshly beautiful home. She would return and as she stepped onto the boat, she promised herself it would be sooner than last time.  

She watched wistfully as the village faded away into the misty horizon. Katara inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, feeling the sea spray on her skin and the soothing presence of the undulating ocean beneath them.  Yes, this was right. She was where she was meant to be.

Katara spent the rest of the journey bending the water around the boat, relishing the fierce joy it brought her to be in her element, and spending time with her father. He was grateful for every second he didn’t have to spend with the dignitaries that were returning to their homeland. Peace or no, she had a feeling that her father hadn’t quite forgiven some of the more officious members of the Fire Nation for the war.

A week passed and the weather slowly warmed. Another few days and the first of the Fire Nation islands emerged on the horizon, jutting up like an old bone from the ground. Katara felt a shiver down her spine as she remembered sailing these seas before the day of black sun, preparing for an invasion which would take her father from her, albeit temporarily. Next they had hidden out in the enemy’s own house, and finally for the coronation of a new Firelord. It had been long road to be sure, but here they were, visiting as honoured guests and old friends.

As they sailed through the Gates of Azulon, Katara felt an inexplicable surge of nervousness, which persisted all the way to the port. They assembled at the bow, watching the busy docks come closer, the masts of many trading boats alongside the hulking mass of Fire Nation warships seeming oddly incongruous.  There was a small crowd gathered when they docked, a group of officials looking very formal in what she thought were ceremonial outfits had attracted a throng of traders and dockworkers, craning their heads to see what all the fuss was about. She also saw a small fleet of palanquins, which made her roll her eyes. Were they really going to traipse all of them all the way up to the palace in those things? More importantly, did they actually expect her father to allow himself to be ferried around like some delicate aristocrat, had they met him? Well, probably not, she conceded, but still.

They disembarked and the Fire and Earth representatives piled gratefully into the palanquins, while Katara and her father hung back with the others from the Water Tribe. To her mild disappointment, it seemed the Firelord himself hadn’t come to meet them at the docks. Too busy, she supposed, as they too were piled uncomfortably (with much objection from her father) into the last few palanquins. The ride was sullen, with her companions tired from the long journey and her father sulking about not being allowed to walk, but Katara’s odd apprehension multiplied when they finally arrived at the palace and filed out behind the others. As she stepped into the courtyard, her heart leapt in her chest as she spotted him, Firelord Zuko, in his voluminous official robes, looking harried as he greeted the delegates on the palace steps.

He gazed over the crowd and their eyes finally met. Katara couldn’t help but think back for a second to her dream- honey and fire and promise- and she felt her pulse flutter for a moment. She saw a genuine smile light his face briefly, before he seemed to wrestle it under control, leaving just a curl at the corner of his mouth as he wrenched his attention back to his duty.  

When they finally reached him, Katara felt an unbidden swell of nerves again. Zuko had indeed grown in the last year, he was now about her father’s height, and to Katara’s mild annoyance she found herself a head below the two of them.

“Chief Hakoda, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” He said easily, shaking her father’s hand.

“And you, Firelord Zuko,” replied her father wearily. “But if it’s all the same to you I’d like to retire for a bit before dinner, for some reason those palanquins don’t agree with me…” Katara choked down a laugh and Zuko’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly in response.

“Of course,” he said graciously, “One of my stewards will show you to your rooms, and hopefully I will see you this evening?”  Hakoda nodded and left for the palace and much needed nap if Katara was any judge, leaving the two of them alone. Zuko’s eyes seemed to twinkle in the setting sun.

“Princess Katara, it’s my honour to welcome you to the palace.” He bowed ostentatiously, startling an incredulous laugh from her and effectively banishing her nerves. Suddenly it was if no time had passed. She shoved him lightly in mock annoyance.

“That’s Master Katara to you, Sifu Hotman.” He grinned infectiously, and she pulled him in for a hug. He held her tightly for a moment, bending to rest his head on her shoulder and a hand in her hair, reminding her again of that damn dream.

“It’s been too long,” came his husky voice next to hear ear, making her heart flutter again. She pulled away and smiled widely at him.

“Definitely,” she agreed.

He gestured for them to walk back to the palace and she linked her arm in his, all apprehension forgotten.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you all at the docks, my advisors conveniently forgot to tell me your ship had arrived, presumably because it was during one of their beloved trade meetings.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, waving dismissively, “it was already a bit too much for Dad, he’s still not used to being treated like a head of state.”

“It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure. I’m still not sure I’m used to it.”

“Well,” she said matter-of-factly, “You certainly look the part.” And he did, the robes didn’t seem to swamp him quite as much as they had at the coronation and his crown gleamed in his hair, which was twisted into a traditional topknot. Nonetheless, he rolled his eyes at the statement.

“Ugh, if they had their way I would be wearing these ridiculous robes every second of the day.” He said, sounding for a second every inch the grumpy teenager that had joined them all those years ago. “I feel like I’m offending them every time I train in normal clothes.” Katara chuckled, grateful for her own people’s far more laid-back sensibilities.

“Oh, it’s a hard life, isn’t it?” she teased, pouting up at him. He flashed her a crooked grin which flustered her far more than she would want to admit.

“Easier now you’re here,” he said sincerely, rendering her momentarily speechless. That was actually almost smooth. The first few replies that flitted through her mind were all unacceptably flirty, much to her chagrin, so she remained silent. He cleared his throat, apparently realising how it had sounded.

                “It’ll be great to have people who aren’t bureaucrats around anyway.” He finished a bit lamely. She chanced a look at him and was shocked to see his pale skin had coloured slightly. She laughed nervously.

                “I bet,”

                “Yeah,” He cleared his throat again as they reached the entrance hall. “Sorry again but I’ve got to finish this meeting before dinner, can Li Min show you to your rooms?” He gestured to a steward inside the great doors, who nodded respectfully at them.

                “Sure,” she said, feeling suddenly unsure of herself, but he smiled warmly back at her.

                “Great. Later then? Dinner should be at 7.”

                Katara nodded mutely and returned the smile.

                “Great.” He said again, and headed away towards a corridor behind him. He turned back quickly, as if about to say something, but then apparently thought better of it and just waved awkwardly before he left the room.

                She couldn’t help but smile. Firelord or no, she suspected that even years from now Zuko would still be the same, well meaning dork at heart. She followed the steward, half listening to her rehearsed speech about the many amenities the palace’s guest wing offered.

The rooms were beyond what Katara had expected. The last time she was here was for Zuko’s coronation, and she hadn’t paid much attention to the accommodations then, being busy dealing with the fallout of the final Agni Kai, healing Zuko’s wound and who knew what else. Today though, after a fortnight in a shoebox sized cabin, Katara let out an awed breath as she took in the silk panelled walls and richly upholstered furniture. The steward seemed satisfied with her slack-jawed wonder and began outlining the features of the ambassadorial suites as Katara ran a hand over a small couch covered with a red silk blanket.

                “Through the screen door is the bedroom, in which you will find a walk-in closet with extra bedding and plenty of space for your clothes, as well as any you might happen to buy during your stay. There is also a washroom off the bedroom which is fully plumbed. If you should require any laundry services or anything at all, please do not hesitate to ask.” She smiled widely and bowed. Katara bowed her head slightly awkwardly and the steward left, shutting the door behind her.

                Despite her exhaustion, a giggle bubbled up in Katara’s throat at the absurd luxury of this room. Leaving her bags by the door, she crossed the room quickly to the large screen doors which dominated the back wall. They were decorated with a beautiful dragon motif in golden brown ink, and she carefully slid the door open, feeling as if she was about break something.

 She gasped. The bed was enormous. Covered in blankets of deep burgundy and a mountain of fluffy pillows, it seemed to call to her. She took a running jump and leapt into the heap of blankets and pillows. It was like jumping into a cloud and she giggled indulgently as she spread out.

After a few minutes of smuggling like a contented cat, she reluctantly got up and poked her head into the washroom, which was a (relatively) small wood panelled room with a large tub in one corner. The ridiculous bed was hard to beat, but as she turned the tap and steaming water began filling the tub, Katara could have cried out of sheer exhausted appreciation.

“Not bad, Sifu Hotman,” she murmured when she sank into the hot water, feeling it relaxing her body and soul. “Not bad.”

Chapter Text

When she finally left her rooms to go to dinner, Katara was feeling well and truly reinvigorated. As she walked briskly down the corridor with her clean hair and clean clothes and newly scrubbed skin, she thought about how much she was looking forward to dinner with Zuko. She slowed. Dinner with Zuko, and her father, and a thousand other fusty old diplomats from all over the world. Ugh. She had almost forgotten. She didn’t hate politics and diplomacy with the same fervour her father and Sokka seemed to, but she was well and truly bored of hanging around the same people for weeks on end. Especially when most of those people couldn’t hold a conversation that wasn’t about trade routes for more than a minute. She rolled her eyes in the deserted corridor and told herself to grow up. It was only a dinner after all, she wasn’t the one stuck with them for another month.

“Poor Dad,” she muttered to herself as she set off again.

 

                To her great relief, Katara was seated between her father and the Firelord himself, which severely limited the possibility of getting caught in conversation with one of the many delegates. Quite the honour, she thought to herself, sitting down with her father next to Zuko’s empty seat. Well, it was more of a mini-throne. This place was ridiculous. She was chatting with her father about the lavish rooms when a gong sounded from across the room and a loud clear voice rang out.

                “His highness, Firelord- Oh-” He spluttered indignantly as Zuko swept past him through the doorway before he finished his announcement. “Firelord Zuko.” The man finished, somewhat lamely.  Katara heard a distinct ‘tutting’ noise from a few of the assembled fire sages.

                Zuko looked like a storm cloud as he sat down.

                “My apologies for my lateness, ladies and gentlemen,” he said tersely, “dinner will be served imminently.”  He gestured at the man who had attempted to announce him and gave him a look which said that it would be served imminently, or else. He turned to Katara, his expression softening despite the disgruntled fire sages behind him.

                “Honestly, was I supposed to wait awkwardly in the doorway for him to finish saying my name? I’m starving…” Katara laughed, her own hunger momentarily forgotten.

                “A man after my own heart,” said Hakoda. “Do they have to announce you every time?”

                Zuko nodded grimly.

                “At least when we have guests, which is most of the time.” He launched into an explanation of the courtly etiquette he had to deal with which her father appeared to find fascinating, if horrifying. As they chatted, Katara had a few minutes to really look at him.

                Zuko had shed the official Firelord’s robes (another reason for the tutting, she was sure) and wore a loose tunic and pants similar to what he had worn when he first turned up at the Western Air Temple, although this was obviously much finer. As well as being a little taller, she noticed he was broader in the shoulders too, clearly he hadn’t given up the strict training regimen. Her mind flicked back to all those years ago, sitting on the steps of the beach house, watching him train in the courtyard. Lean muscles moving under pale skin, all tightly controlled movements and raw power…

                “Katara?”

                “Hmm? What?” Her head snapped up. Had she been staring?

                “You alright?” he asked, seeming concerned but still mildly amused.

                “Yeah fine,” she said, trying to shake the images of his bare chest from her mind, and hoping against hope that she wasn’t blushing, “Just tired.”

                “Tell me about it,” he nodded, with a noise of agreement from Hakoda, “But it looks like the food’s here at last.” Suddenly the room was filled with servers and platters and more food than Katara had seen in one place since the coronation banquet.

                The dinner was both far too long and far too short. The ministers droned on endlessly as the food gradually disappeared, and after the last of it was cleared away, Zuko stood, looking far more gracious than he had when he entered.

                “My friends, I must apologise again, it’s been a very long day and I must retire if I’m to get anything done tomorrow!” There was a ripple of polite laughter around the table, as Zuko smiled and made his exit, to Katara’s disappointment. Oblivious, Hakoda yawned hugely next to her.

                “I think he’s got the right idea, I could sleep for a week.”

                Her father and many of the various diplomats returned to their rooms, while the others were herded into some sort of parlor, but Katara felt oddly displaced. She wasn’t ready to sleep, and she would rather eat spiders than join the diplomats for brandy and more trade talk. That must have been Zuko’s opinion too, since he had practically sprinted out of the dining room. Even though she was sure his hasty exit was due to his unwillingness to continue the political schmoozing, she couldn’t help but feel a little stung. She had just got here after all, and it had been so long!

                She was just considering going for an evening walk around the grounds when another of the omnipresent stewards came up to her, smiling widely and reminding her unsettlingly of Ju Dee for a second.

                “Master Katara, the Firelord has asked me to convey to you that he will be in his study for a time if you wish to continue your discussion from earlier.”

                Katara’s heart leapt, and she felt a smile spread from her chest all the way to the tips of her ears. She nodded at the steward.

                “Could you point me in the right direction?”

                “I would be happy to escort you.” She said, with a slight bow of her head, and they set off.

                Zuko’s door was predictably ostentacious, she thought as the steward knocked.

                “Master Katara to see you, your highness,”

                “Yes, show her in,” Did he sound nervous?

                Katara entered as Zuko rose from his absurdly large (and gilded) desk. His face split into a grin that she knew from experience was a rare sight, she returned the smile as she crossed the room.

                “I’m so sorry I ran off after dinner, but if I hear another word about shipping lanes or reparations I might set fire to the curtains just for the distraction.”

                “It’s fine really,” she said, trying not to grin like a moron. “I’m just glad you managed to find time in your busy schedule for little old me.” Zuko snorted.

                “Katara, last time you felt ‘snubbed’ by me you froze my tongue to my teacup. This seemed like the safer option.”

                “Ok, first of all, that wasn’t about me feeling snubbed, that was about you and Sokka sniggering to yourselves about my hairdo-”

                “It was just so…poofy-”

                “I know, I was there. And secondly,” she took in his face, caught between sheepishness and amusement, and sighed. “Secondly, I’ve missed you.” His mouth curved up again.

                “I’ve missed you too. Would you like to sit?” he gestured to a chair on the other side of the desk.

                “Am I being interviewed or something?” He rolled his eyes.

                “Fine, we can go next door to the parlour-”

                “It’s not where those diplomat guys are is it?”

                “Agni, no. This is my private wing.” Private wing. Ridiculous, she thought.

                “Alright, it’d be nice to catch up somewhere you’re not literally surrounded by work.” She gestured at the desk, which was piled high with papers.

                “Fair enough.” He chuckled, leading her through a door behind the desk to a comfortable, if enormous sitting room. She plonked herself down on the nearest sofa.

                “Muuuch better,”

                “Good. Would you like some plum wine?” he asked, brandishing a bottle which was probably worth more than her whole village. She nodded and he poured two glasses, setting them down on a spindly table as he sat down next to her.

                “Tut tut, our illustrious Firelord serving himself? What would the sages say?”

                “Oh shut up,” he said, without malice. “So, how’s life?”

                And just like that, she was uncomfortable again. Where to start?

                “Fine,” she said tightly, taking a large gulp of wine.

                “How’s Aang?” Another gulp of wine.

                “Fine,”

                “Are you ok?”

                “I’m fine!”

                “Well you’ve made that very clear!”  She snorted and looked up to meet his eyes, and found she didn’t want to skirt around the subject like she did with everyone else.

                “We broke up.” She sighed, finishing the glass.

                Zuko looked shocked, his good eye wide. For a second he looked completely out of his depth, before recovering and pouring her another glass of wine.

                “I- uh- I’m sorry, I had no idea, that’s really rough-”

                “It’s fine,” she said.

                “Yeah, you said that,” he muttered, the ghost of smile on his lips. She scowled and shoved him in mock annoyance. 

                “Anyway, it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t right anymore between us and I couldn’t keep going like everything was normal.”  There was a beat of silence.

                “Mai and I broke up too.”

                “What? When?” Oops, she hadn’t meant to be quite so abrupt. He just shrugged though, looking down at his glass.

                “Six months or so? She said she just woke up one day and realised that this wasn’t what she wanted. Took me a while but I realised she was right. We were just blindly going through the motions. I think we started to remind her of her parents.” He smiled self-deprecatingly, “Which isn’t something anyone likes to see.”

                “Oh Zuko, I’m sorry-”

                “It’s fine,” he echoed, “Really, I’m just glad we figured it out before…” he trailed off, and Katara imagined them, the perfect Firelord and Lady on their wedding day, glossy hair flowing around sharp and beautiful, but miserable faces. This rankled her for some reason, and her mind flitted for a second to a blurry image of her a decade down the line, the Avatar’s wife; mother to a new generation of airbenders first and master waterbender second. She  suppressed a shudder.

                “Yeah, you’re right, I’m glad I figured it out before anything was, you know, decided.”

                “Mmm.” He agreed, draining his own glass and refilling it, she mirrored him.

                “Well,” she said, raising her glass, “A toast; to figuring out the right thing.” 

                “Sometimes it takes us a while, but we get there in the end.” She laughed and they clinked the glasses together.

 

Yes, she had a good feeling about this visit.

Chapter Text

When Katara awoke, it was still night time and she most definitely did not feel good. In fact she felt as though a colony of agitated lemurs had taken up residence in her head. How had they got through that much wine? She marshalled her thoughts and tried to recap the events of last night.

Dinner, then Zuko’s study, then wine, then she told him about Aang, and he told her about Mai. Yes, this was all familiar. Then more wine, then she had started talking about Aang, and how he had never said explicitly, but she was sure he had pegged her as his airbender baby-machine. She was sick of being his sidekick, sick of not feeling like herself and –Oh Spirits, had she cried?

Oh spirits, she had cried. Typical, barely a day in the Fire Nation and she had embarrassed herself spectacularly by drunkenly crying all over the Firelord’s fancy sofas. She groaned and buried her face in a pillow. She remembered him patting her back awkwardly and eventually letting her fall asleep on his shoulder before taking her back to her room. Her cheeks warmed as she recalled him hesitantly kissing the top of her head as they said goodnight. Then she had skittered off unsteadily to bed without another thought. 

                “Ugh…” she moaned, managing to drag herself up and to the washroom. She shaped water from the tap into a large sphere, positioned it over her, and dropped it over her head. Much better. She drank and drank until she felt halfway human, dried herself off, then staggered back to bed.

***

Katara roamed the palace, the halls eerily empty. She felt again as if the surroundings were moving around her, rather than the other way around. She stopped at a door and it opened autonomously to reveal another corridor. She saw herself and Zuko in front of her door as they were a few hours ago. Then she was back in her body. They hugged and she smelt the plum wine on his breath, felt him sigh into her hair, and plant a light kiss on her head.

She pulled back, smiling up into his face and realising vaguely that the surroundings had changed from the dusty corridors of the fire palace to the Western air temple again. A light, plum scented breeze caught a few strands of his shaggy hair as she looked into his eyes. Time stretched and she was trapped under his gaze, feeling uncharacteristically helpless.

The wind ruffled her hair again and she suddenly realised they were very close to the edge of the cliff, the precipice looming up at her. Oddly though, she didn’t feel any fear, just a fuzzy sense of anticipation. Her stomach swooped giddily. Zuko began to lean down, torturously slowly, and the world seemed to move in slow motion.

They fell over the precipice together as his lips brushed hers, gentle as a whisper, but they didn’t fall, just floated in the misty air. She rose up into the kiss, feeling her body tingle with shock and joy, relishing the sensation of his body pressed so close against her. Her head tilted and the kiss deepened, tongues tangling as he pulled her impossibly close, heat radiating from him like a furnace.

His hand wound in her hair, brushing her neck and sending a shiver down her spine. She was ensnared, intoxicated, she let out a gasp which he swallowed, responding with a sigh which she felt reverberate through his chest. She felt a surge of pleasure jolt down to her core.

“Zuko…” she breathed as she ground herself into him, earning another deep moan from him, and for a second she thought she could get delightfully drunk on that sound alone.

They were back in the palace now, outside her room again. Hands wandered, their kissing became more urgent and she didn’t know whose gasps and moans of pleasure were whose.

 

Katara woke with a start, her muddled thoughts flitting through her poor, hungover brain like angry mosquitoes. What was that? She tried to shake the confusion from her mind.

She was alone wasn’t she? She had definitely gone to bed alone… That was a dream. Just a dream. He had kissed her head, said goodnight and she went to bed alone. Yes. Not real. Alcohol fuelled nonsense. Yes. But… Well. Damn.

She dunked her head in another sphere of water, but it was less effective than earlier. She needed distraction, something to concentrate her mind away from- well- that. Mind made up, she got dressed and headed down to the training grounds, she vaguely remembered there being a fountain there. Yes. A good training session would get her back in gear.

Unfortunately, fate was not on her side that morning, and the training grounds were occupied. She felt her face flush. Honestly, would it kill him to put a damn shirt on?

She watched guiltily for a few minutes as Zuko went through his forms, shooting flame through the courtyard, until he suddenly noticed her mid-leap.

“Katara?!”  The flame fizzled and he almost lost his balance. Katara choked down a giggle. “Agni, why’d you sneak up on me like that?”

“I didn’t- I don’t sneak.”

“Sure you don’t,” he muttered, going for a towel on by the fountain.

“I just wanted to bend a little to try and work off the hangover” she said innocently, “which is your fault by the way.”

“My fault?” he said incredulously, “I wasn’t the one who suggested the second bottle.”

“Ugh, spirits.” She groaned. “Don’t remind me.” He shrugged, smirking.

“Well, I don’t see why we can’t both train. I can be careful. Or we can spar if you feel up to it?” She scoffed.

“Oh you’ll be careful will you?” She sneered through the headache, pulling water from the fountain into a ring around her. “What if I’m not up to it?” He smirked again, a glint of mischief in his eyes which frankly, flustered her far more than she would care to admit.

“I’m sure you’ll manage,”

A spurt of flame shot towards her and she quickly threw up a shield of ice which evaporated after a second and enveloped her in a cloud of steam. Zuko burst through the steam as she began to re-form it, the force of his momentum making her step back. She caught her balance and sent a water whip at him, which he somersaulted to avoid. She couldn’t help but notice the way his stomach muscles flexed as he moved- so NOT the time…she thought as she dodged another fireball. She reformed the ring of water around her with a deep inhale, and sent it back towards Zuko in a hail of icicles. He spun on his back, creating a whirlpool of fire which swallowed the icicles, but gave Katara time to regain her stance.

They continued like this for some time, their own push and pull, slightly muted by their tiredness, until finally they began to wane. They stood facing each other, stances wilting but still strong, breathing heavily.

“Call it a draw?” panted Zuko.

“If you say so.” She said, stubborn to the core, lowering her guard only once he started.

He nodded and smiled as he came towards her, a sheen of sweat still covering his torso. He held out his hand, which she shook tiredly. The handshake lasted a second longer than was comfortable as she held his gaze. Unbidden, images from her dream popped into her mind. Bodies pressed up against each other like they had never meant to be apart, sending tingles all the way to her toes. All lips and tongues and heat…

“Want some breakfast?” he asked, unaware of the havoc he was causing in her brain.

“Sounds great.” She said, grateful that the exercise provided an explanation for her burning cheeks. She sighed as she followed Zuko inside, finding it unexpectedly difficult to not stare at his ass.

It was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Katara tried hard to put the dream to the back of her mind, blaming the wine and her emotional turmoil about Aang. She spent her days training and exploring the palace while Zuko was endlessly confined to his study or the ceremonial hall for meeting after meeting. She noticed he skipped meals often, cooped up in his study, although his ministers never seemed to. Ironic that even with all that power, he was the one skipping meals and they were the ones laughing and relaxing.

She sat apart from them at the enormous mahogany table, picking at her food and getting more and more irritable. Finally she stood up in a huff, exasperated at the injustice and absurdity of it. Her father and the Earth Kingdom dignitaries had left for their grand ‘cultural exchange’ tour yesterday, and Katara hated the thought of mooching around the palace for the whole winter with no one for company but deferential servants and officious ministers. Come to think of it, what was she going to do for the whole winter? She hadn’t actually made any plans for her stay in the Fire Nation beyond a vague wish to spend some time with Zuko. This was very unlike her. As she stomped to Zuko’s private wing, she decided that was something to figure out later, for now, she had a mission.

She arrived at the study door, knocked and waited. She knocked again after a long pause. When there was no reply, she opened the door anyway. There he was, sitting half buried in papers behind the desk, a frown of utter concentration on his face. Despite her irritation, Katara couldn’t help but smile at the big scary Firelord all adorably engrossed in his work. His head snapped up suddenly and she saw him start.

“Will you stop sneaking up on me!?”

“I knocked! Twice!”

“I- really? Sorry. I guess I was just caught up in this…”

“What even is all this stuff? Don’t you have a staff?” She moved past the desk, looking over his shoulder at the documents.

“Reparations, budgets, forest re-planting…” He pinched the bridge of his nose, “I think there was a hospital construction in here somewhere…”

“That’s it.” She said, taking in the bags under his eyes and his messy hair, freed from the topknot. She pried the paper out of his hands and pulled him up by the shoulder.

“What? Wait-” He stammered. She put on her best bossy mom voice and began to march him out of the study.

“You need some food, and probably good night sleep by the look of you.”

“But- I have to-”

“The only thing you have to do is eat a damn meal.”

“You can’t just drag me through my own palace!” he said indignantly, although he wasn’t actually trying to stop her. “I’m- Katara, stop.” She stopped, hands on her hips.

He looked utterly exhausted, his shoulders sagging. He opened his mouth to say something else when his stomach gave an almighty rumble which seemed thunderous in the enclosed corridor. She raised an eyebrow.

“Pfft,” He snorted and smiled tiredly. Katara began to laugh, and soon Zuko was laughing too, his hand over his eyes as his shoulders shook with mirth.

“Alright fine,” he conceded, “I guess I am pretty hungry.”

“Duh,” she said, rolling her eyes and linking her arm with his, “Come on; you’ve earned an evening off. Just not so much wine as last time, ok?”

“Deal.” He chuckled.

They went straight to the kitchens rather than the official dining room, wanting to avoid running into any ministers who might ambush them with unexpected tasks. The kitchen staff were extremely surprised to see the Firelord himself down there, but otherwise delighted to serve them whatever they wanted.

“I should go down there more often,” said a well fed and therefore much less grumpy Zuko as they left the kitchens, “They seem like decent people, and I’m pretty sure I want to be on their good side.” He smiled lopsidedly.

“Yeah,” said Katara, who had found it very refreshing to spend some time with normal people after the last few days cooped up in the palace, “Always be nice to the people preparing your food. That’s just common sense.”

“Yeah well, I guess if any of them wanted to poison me they would have done it by now.”

“Zuko!” she scolded half-heartedly.

“What? I told you, assassination attempts are the closest thing I’ve got to entertainment around here.” He said, giving her a sideways smile.

“Spirits, that’s grim.”

“Well, you can’t have too much fun being the Firelord, otherwise everyone would do it.”

“Was that a joke? I may die of shock.” He gasped and clutched his chest dramatically.

“Ouch, Katara.” She sniggered, bringing back his half-smile. “But seriously, I am somehow both bored out of my mind and stressed to breaking point at the moment. Thanks for rescuing me.”

“Any time,” she said, “But I don’t understand why you don’t just tell them it’ll get done when it gets done. You’re their boss right?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, “I just don’t want-” His face darkened as he trailed off and she understood.

“You don’t want to be like him?” She said in a quiet voice as they came to a stop in an empty corridor.

He didn’t say anything, but suddenly seemed incredibly interested in the pattern on his cuff. She felt a rush off affection and sympathy for this moody, impossible man who was trying so hard not to become his father he was almost coming apart at the seams.

“Zuko,” she said, resisting the sudden urge to cup his cheek, “You are not your father. You’re-”

“Not here.” He said suddenly. “Let’s go to the courtyard.” She nodded as he grabbed her hand and led her swiftly through the labyrinthine palace to a pretty little courtyard with a small pond. It was dusk, and the sliver of a moon was just visible over the palace roof, the gentle trickle of water cutting through the silent evening air.

“Zuko, this is beautiful!” she breathed.

“It’s my favourite part of the palace,” he said, smiling a little sadly, “My mother and I used to spend time here.”

“Oh,” was all she could think to say as they sat down on a bench next to the pond. There was silence for a while, as they sat under the stars together.

“I have this memory of him shouting at the servants,” Zuko began, shattering the quiet of the courtyard. “He was in this towering rage about some tiny thing and all I could think was that I was glad it wasn’t directed at me. I was a coward.” He spat.

“You were a child.” She said firmly, having had plenty of experience with Zuko’s self-flagellation.

“Yeah. But then later, before the coronation, after Azula, the servants wouldn’t even look at me. They were terrified. I just-” He sighed, his shoulder’s sagging. “I just don’t want to be that.”

“Zuko, the very fact that you’re here worrying about it shows that you’ll never be like them. You think Azula sat around worrying what the trade ministers thought?”

“That’s an unexpectedly creepy image…” he muttered.

“Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with taking time for your own life,” She said, hesitating for a second before grabbing his hand. He looked at her in surprise. “Don’t worry so much, you’re doing great, I just wish you wouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”

“I know, and I’m sorry Katara.”

“What, why?”

“I dunno,” he blushed slightly, looking down at the dark water. “It’s just- I don’t want to be another person you have to take care of.” Katara was taken aback. This was not the response she had expected.

“Zuko, you’re not-” she started.

“No, that’s not what I meant!” He blurted, “It’s just that you’ve always taken care of everyone. Aang, Sokka, even Toph, and I just felt like you shouldn’t need to take care of me too…”

Katara’s heart leapt and she suddenly felt a lump form in her throat. She was genuinely touched by the thought. It wasn’t something she had ever really put into words, but he had somehow cut through right down to the very truth of it, and she felt in that moment that he could see her more clearly than she even saw herself.

“Zuko,” she said, slightly dazed, “I think that may be the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

He blinked down at her and smiled shyly, obviously surprised at her reaction. She stared at the pond, blinking back unexpected tears. No plum wine to blame this time.

“Well,” she said, sniffing slightly but keeping her composure, “I’m glad there’s at least one person who I don’t have to be ‘mother’ with.” She nudged him gently, trying to lighten the mood.

“I definitely don’t see you as a mother, Katara,” he chuckled, and there was something in his voice which sent her pulse racing. She was suddenly acutely aware that she was still holding his hand, and dropped it quickly.

“Well I appreciate that.” She said, a little too formal in her attempt to not sound flustered.

“Good,” he said quietly.

There was another small silence, it felt heavy somehow.

“So what have you been up to the last few days?” Zuko broke the silence, slightly awkwardly.  Katara laughed flatly.

“Very little to be honest,” she admitted, “it occurred to me today that I have made literally no plans while I’m here. I didn’t really think beyond getting a change of scenery when I left the South Pole, and now I’m here and obviously you’ve got tons of work to do, so I have no idea what I’m doing.” She finished with an annoyed huff, as Zuko had given a short laugh. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, still smiling, “You’re stir crazy right? There’s something about this palace that kind of closes in on you, it used to drive me crazy before the work really started piling up and gave me something else to focus on.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, training helps, at least it’s outdoors. But really there’s no reason you can’t go out and explore the capital, it’s not like you constantly require a babysitter.” He said sourly.

“I don’t see a babysitter around now,”

“They seem happy enough to let me roam the palace without supervision, but as soon as I leave they’re like mother turtleducks. It’s almost as if they think someone would try to kill me.” He smiled wryly and Katara snorted.

“Please, people have been trying to kill you since the day we met,”

“Yeah, I noticed.” She snorted again. “But I’ll tell you a secret,” he said, leaning in conspiratorially.

“Yeah?” she said, trying to ignore the way his breath tickled her ear.

“I used to sneak out all the time, before the workload got crazy.”

“What?” she exclaimed, charmed at the thought. He shrugged casually but seemed pleased with her reaction.

“Nothing dramatic, I mostly just sat around on rooftops, watched the stars. You know, just generally enjoyed not having anyone looking over my shoulder.”

“When did you become such a romantic?” she asked, and even in the low light, she was sure he blushed.

“Well,” he smiled ruefully, “I may have also got into a few fights…”

“Uhuh,”

“I’ve got a lot of pent up rage, Katara, I may as well use it to stop some lowlifes from causing chaos.”

“Sure,”

“It was practically a public service…”

“Ok Firelord-Fighty.” She laughed, and he smiled back.

“Oh, I forgot!” He said suddenly, “I got a letter from Uncle, I think I must have mentioned the idea of having a reunion, and he suggested having a Festival for the Winter Solstice to welcome back your father and the other diplomats. What do you think?”

“That’s a great idea!” she said, thinking that it would at least give her something to do. They chatted for a while about the festival, what food and entertainment there should be, and how nice it would be if they managed to get everyone together. At the back of her mind, Katara was aware that this meant she would probably see Aang again, but dismissed the concern. By then it would be nearly four months since he had left the South Pole, surely it would be fine. Anyway, it was far more fun to think about what types of cakes they would serve and what the costumes would be like than worrying about seeing her ex.

The thin moon was high in the sky by the time they finally decided to call it a night.

“I’ve not been up this late except when I’m working for ages,” he said as they headed back inside.

“You should do it more often!” laughed Katara “I enjoy the company.”

“It’s a deal.” He smiled, eyes gleaming in the lantern light. “And you can always come train with me in the mornings if you want some fresh air.”

“Or we could always sneak out one evening.” She said teasingly.

“Yeah,” he said, looking thoughtful for a moment before yawning hugely. “Night, Katara.”

He turned towards the royal wing, smiling over his shoulder. She returned the smile, not wanting the evening to end, before turning reluctantly back towards her rooms.

“Night Zuko.”

Chapter Text

 

Life in the Fire Palace became much more enjoyable after Katara’s impromptu dinner with Zuko. She managed to catch him most mornings for training and sometimes sparring, and they often chatted over breakfast before he went off to tend to his never-ending work. She spent much of her day either exploring Caldera City or helping with preparations for the Winter Solstice Festival. The city was certainly full of life; with the increased trade since the war there was always a market on somewhere, selling groceries or clothes or trinkets, and there was a dizzying selection of street food. She had tried a lot of it, but she had found a little oden cart run by a wizened old man that had quickly become her favourite. He was pretty much silent most of the time, just smiling good-naturedly as he served her lunch, and Katara found it oddly soothing to sit quietly for a while and watch the bustling city pass her by.

Though the Solstice was still more than two months away, there was a staggering amount of preparation to be done. Iroh and Zuko were committed to it being a multi-cultural festival, so while Iroh gathered Earth Kingdom entertainers from his tea shop in Ba Sing Se, Katara wrote to the Northern Water Tribe to invite some of their decorative benders, as well as hire some traditional Water Tribe catering. She had also written to Sokka and Suki to invite them to the festival. Apparently, Iroh saw Toph often, so he had invited her personally (there wasn’t much point in writing to her after all) and Zuko had volunteered to write to Aang, much to Katara’s relief.

Zuko and Katara had dinner together in the kitchens fairly regularly now, she had got over her reluctance to disturb his work, and he seemed grateful for it. They had fallen into an easy closeness that Katara was careful not to overthink. They talked about the past year, occasionally about Aang or Mai, reminisced about their adventures, and swapped bittersweet stories from their childhoods.

They had just finished dinner about a week one evening about a month after Katara had arrived in the Fire Nation. She gathered it had been a particularly trying day for Zuko, he had been quieter than usual during dinner, and she couldn’t help but notice the subtle signs of tension on his face.  As they finished the meal and bade the kitchen staff goodnight, she thought he seemed particularly twitchy tonight.

She was just thinking about what she was going to do with the rest of the evening when he grabbed her forearm without warning. She turned to face him in the corridor, fearing he was about to have another existential crisis.

“What is it?”

“I’m going stir crazy with all this work on the military budget,” he looked over his shoulder quickly and lowered his voice, “You wanna sneak out?”

It was then that Katara knew she was in trouble. His eyes glittered playfully in the lamp light; his hair fell around his thin face in a perfect shag and his mouth quirked up in that half-smile she knew so well. She felt giddy and nervous and excited. Delicious anticipation curled in her chest and down into her stomach. She knew this feeling. This was the feeling that had preceded that one night with Jet. His eyes had promised trouble too. This feeling caused mistakes.

“Definitely,” she breathed, before she could stop herself. Shit.   

“Great,” The half smile had turned into a grin that lit up his whole face, and Katara thought she could imagine exactly what he had looked like as a little boy, excited at the prospect of mischief. “You have a balcony right? Meet you there in an hour?”

“Yeah,” she said dazedly, her thoughts racing.

“Great,” he repeated, flashing her another grin as he turned and walked back down the corridor, he turned a corner and Katara let out a breath she didn’t realise she had been holding. She stood still for a minute while she tried to marshal her thoughts, which were a combination of girlish giddiness and utter panic.

 What is wrong with me? It’s just Zuko for Spirit’s sake. It’s Zuko. She thought as she turned on her heel and headed quickly back to her rooms. But somehow reminding herself that it was Zuko only made things worse. She thought back to all that shirtless training during the war, golden eyes glinting in the sunlight, locks of glossy black hair falling artfully over his delicate features. She was in trouble. Cheeks burning, she slammed the door of her bedroom behind her in a fit of frustration at her misbehaving body. She stared at herself in the large mirror that hung over the couch.

“Get it together, Katara.” She said sternly, “This is only a big deal if you make it a big deal. It’s just Zuko.” She pointed at herself to emphasise the point, trying not to think of how ridiculous she must look.

“Alright?” Her reflection said nothing. “Alright.”

She changed into loose fitting, dark clothes with a deep blue scarf she could use to cover her face if necessary and spent the rest of the hour nervously pushing and pulling the water in her tub to stop her mind from running amok. She was so absorbed in her work, so soothed by the gentle presence of her element that she nearly jumped out of her skin when he called her name.

“Katara?” Came a hoarse whisper from the other room. She smoothed her clothes, gave herself another stern look in the mirror for good measure, and went out to the balcony.

He had poked his head around the door and appeared to be wearing similar clothes to her, reminding her of when they had gone after her mother’s killer together. The life-changing field trip that had finally got her to forgive him, even trust him. He had seen her at her worst, her most shameful that day, and here they were sneaking out together like unruly teenagers. Life was funny sometimes.

He looked relieved when he saw her.

“Oh good, for a second there I thought I got the wrong balcony…”

“I was just washing my hands,” She said, too quickly, but he didn’t seem to notice her nerves.

“The guards are about to change shifts, we should be able to slip out easily enough,”

“Ok,” she said, not trusting herself to say more, but he seemed to sense her reticence.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah of course,”

“We don’t have to go-”

“No! I want to, it’s just-” She shook her head, unable to suppress a wild smile, “It’s just surreal.”

“It is a bit I suppose,” He said, “But weirdly, this feels more normal than a lot of the Firelord stuff. Guess I just got used to having to sneak everywhere.” The corner of his mouth curled up, sending her traitorous pulse fluttering.

“Meh, what’s normal these days?” she shrugged and smirked, “Nothing wrong with a little sneaking every now and then.”

 “Shall we then?” he offered a hand and she felt her stomach swoop. Get it together… She nodded and took his hand. “Follow me,” he said with a roguish grin, and set off across the palace rooftops.

Chapter Text

They scampered over the palace like shadows in the night, silent under the stars.

Despite her excitement, Katara felt a little out of her element, she had done her fair share of sneaking around, but this was clearly second nature to Zuko. She followed closely as he navigated the dark rooftops, around corners and chimneys until they finally reached the outer walls. Sure enough, they were deserted, the guards changing shifts. He dropped down from the roof, landing lightly and unnervingly quietly. She dropped down behind him and he gave her a quick grin before jumping over the battlements into the city below. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward, and was relieved to see that the drop was actually only a few metres, Zuko stood on the rooftop below, hand extended and ready to help her down.

Katara jumped, landing heavier than he had, but still upright, which she was very glad about. The exchanged quick grins before moving off again. He seemed to know where he was going, and a few minutes later, they were climbing up a clock tower, which much to Katara’s relief had a ladder. It wasn’t so very tall, but standing a few stories above most of the buildings, it offered an impressive view of the city. As Zuko sat down casually on the tiles, Katara stood enthralled; the city spread out before her, glittering with life, even at this late hour.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“It’s…”

“Yeah.”

She sat down where she stood, a little in front of Zuko, and stared. He seemed content to just sit for a while, because they sat in silence for several minutes, enjoying the cool night air and the muted buzz of the city sprawled beneath them.

After a while, Katara had completely forgotten about her earlier nervousness. She felt the same effect that she got from sitting at the oden cart, comfortably relaxed as she sat quietly while the rest of the world whirred away below. Absently, she felt Zuko shuffle forward to sit next to her.

“I did this in Ba Sing Se a few times too, when we were fugitives.” He sounded relaxed too, and she chanced a sideways look at him; it seemed like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Yeah?”  He nodded, but kept his eyes forward, gazing peacefully at the city. The expression seemed almost alien on his normally strained features.

“There’s something calming about removing yourself from all the bustle. Clears your head. I needed that back then.” He gave her a small smile, “It’s nicer with company though.”

Her heart fluttered. Damn it Zuko!  She thought, suddenly right back where she had been a few hours ago. All flustered and fluttery and uncomfortably aware of how close he was sitting. She laughed nervously, but despite herself, didn’t move away. Instead she nudged his shoulder fondly. 

“Most things are,” She realised that they had been grinning at each other like idiots. They were so close she could feel his warmth through her clothes, and for the second time in so many months, she thought of that impossibly delicate moment in the crystal catacombs, ready to shatter into a thousand pieces. No interruptions today though. He looked down at her, golden eyes shining with a tranquillity and contentment she rarely saw in them. She felt a surge of affection for him, and a sudden mad urge to get closer to him. She could smell spices and something aromatic. Probably whatever he washed his hair with, she thought vaguely. She would only have to tilt her head slightly and…

What are you doing? She thought frantically, snapping herself out of her daydream before finally clearing her throat awkwardly, feeling as if she had narrowly avoided something momentous.

OK, if this night wasn’t going to end in something she definitely wasn’t ready to even think about, she needed to not be alone with him. Damn Zuko with his damn half-smiles and those damn eyes. In the low light they seemed to reflect the whole city, sparkling with the light of a thousand lanterns below. Focus, damn it!

“Do you want a snack?” she asked, struck by inspiration, “I know a really good place.”

Zuko shook his head, as if he had been a million miles away for a second there.

“Sure,” he said, standing up abruptly and nearly dislodging a few tiles.  “Where?”

“This oden cart in the market districts, it’s pretty close to the palace actually.”

“Ok, lead the way, but you’ll have to get it for me, I’d rather not be recognised.”

“I bet you just don’t want to pay,” she joked, and his face fell comically.

“No! I mean, I don’t have any money, I don’t usually need it- but you don’t have to-”

She laughed, shaking her head at his seriousness.

“Lighten up, Firelord, I’m kidding. Let’s go.”

The oden cart was back in the direction of the palace, and as they headed back over the roofs the way they came, Katara’s thoughts were racing. She felt similar to the way she had felt upon waking from that dream about him, confused and scared and yet, exhilarated. Except she was reasonably certain she hadn’t dreamt the last hour. This was real life. He was real, and just a few minutes ago she had been close enough that she could have kissed him. And what was worse was that she had thought about it. Actually, she hadn’t thought about it. Her body had been acting of its own accord all evening, and deep down, beyond thoughts of practicality and propriety, it had wanted to lean in that terrifyingly short distance and capture his lips with hers.

She was in trouble.

But would it really be so awful? Said a small, sly voice in the seedy recesses of her mind. Would it really be the end of the world if you just- her mind was flooded with images her subconscious was apparently only too happy to provide. Gentle yet firm lips, moving against hers, hand wound in her hair, bodies pressed together, swallowing each other’s moans of pleasure…

Nope. She shook her head again, urgently trying to shake the images from her mind. She didn’t need this.

They approached the street where the oden cart usually resided. Katara felt bewildered and oddly emotional, she desperately hoped this night wouldn’t end in her crying again.

“Stay here,” she said to Zuko as they dropped lightly into an alleyway. She turned away before he answered, eager to put a little distance between them. She emerged warily into the main street, concern about being discovered momentarily trumping her inner turmoil. The cart was in its normal place, and she casually made her way towards it, pulling her scarf from her head and freeing her hair as she walked.

“Hi,” she said. The cart’s aged owner just smiled up at her like always.

She looked over the selection, wondering what Zuko would like.

“Ok, can I get-”

“Katara?” Came a familiar voice behind her. She froze.

Turning around, she saw Iroh striding happily though the crowd, his arms wide in greeting.

“Iroh!” she said, trying to sound happily surprised rather than suspiciously shocked.

“I didn’t expect to see you out so late,” he said, grasping her hands joyfully. “Although Li’s oden is the best in the city, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Of course, she thought, all old people know each other.

“Just wanted a late night snack,” she said casually, “what are you doing here? I thought you were staying at the Jasmine Dragon until the solstice.”

“I wanted to surprise my nephew,” he said, and Katara’s eyes flicked guiltily to the alley, but he didn’t seem to notice, shaking his head in exaggerated sorrow. “Alas, I was informed that he had retired early, so I decided to go for a walk before bed.”

“I’m sure he’ll still be surprised,” she said truthfully. Iroh looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes which reminded her so much of Zuko earlier, proposing they sneak out, that she couldn’t suppress a guilty smile. Could he know? She wouldn’t put it past him.

“I’m sure he will be.” He sighed dramatically, “Well, I’m an old man and I need my sleep. I might have a chat with some of the guards on my way back though, such interesting people!”

“Right,”

“You should head back soon too,” he said pointedly, “No one is too young for a good night’s sleep!”  He said the last bit slightly louder, as if he was offering advice to the world at large. He definitely knew.

“Right,” she repeated, “I’ll just grab-”

“Your oden, of course! Have a nice night, Master Katara.” He smiled warmly and left as quickly as he had appeared.

Katara stood stunned for a few seconds until she remembered herself. She bought a few snacks to go and retreated into the alley, where Zuko stood, looking thoroughly embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry, I had no idea Uncle would turn up,” he said, sounding distraught.

“It’s fine, really, let’s just head back, while he’s distracting the guards.”

“Yeah,” he said uneasily. “This is so embarrassing; he hasn’t caught me for years…”

“He’s caught you before?” she said, surprised and slightly amused. Zuko rolled his eyes like a moody teenager.

“Once or twice.”

“And did he have to send the Firelord to bed without supper?” she said, now unable to hide her smirk.

“No. He just said that if I needed time off I should just take it, rather than sneaking around like a lowlife.”

“Smart man.” Katara giggled as they climbed back up onto the rooftops.

“Typical,” he grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I should have known he’d turn up at the worst possible moment.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” she said, “Come on, let’s go.”

He mumbled something she didn’t quite catch, but sounded suspiciously like ‘don’t wanna go’, and they began the quiet trip back over the rooftops to the palace, which loomed imposingly over the smaller buildings like some great hunched predator. From this side, she could see why he was reluctant to return.

They managed to reach her balcony without incident, Iroh’s company apparently distracting the guards enough to give them a clear run. As she climbed back over the railing into her room, Katara couldn’t help feeling a pang of sadness that the night was ending. Tumultuous and unsolicited revelations aside, it had been a wonderful night, a truly refreshing departure from the dry atmosphere of the royal court, made all the better by the company.

“Sorry we had to cut the night short,” said Zuko, “I hope you had a good time anyway,”

“I had a great time,” she said, smiling widely but keeping her voice down. The last thing they needed now was rumours.

“Good, we should do it again some time,” the corner of his mouth quirked up again in that grin she was fast beginning to love.

“It’s a date,” She replied, smile freezing on her face as she realised what she had said.

“Um,” Zuko had frozen too, his hand gripping the railing with white knuckles.

“That’s not-”

“I’m-”

“I didn’t mean-”

There was a tense silence.

“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” said Zuko, his voice hitching almost imperceptibly.

“See you tomorrow,” she squeaked.

“Yup, night Katara,”

“Night Zuko.”

Chapter Text

The next morning she was awoken by a steward, knocking on her door to tell her that her presence was requested for breakfast with the Firelord and Lord Iroh. She told the steward she would meet them in the courtyard, feeling disproportionately nervous for a casual breakfast with old friends. As she dressed, she thought of last night, stealing across the darkened rooftops together, sitting above the city, below the stars. A tiny smile tugged unbidden at her mouth. Emotional turmoil notwithstanding, that part was utterly lovely. She could admit that much, and maybe, just maybe, in another life… Well. Maybe another Katara would have thrown caution to the wind and kissed another Zuko with reckless abandon. The thought tasted bittersweet though, she was, after all, this Katara, and he was this Zuko, and their lives were far too complicated to just be making out on rooftops.

Are they though? Said a dangerous voice in the back of her mind. Is anything really too complicated for making out on rooftops? Katara dismissed the idea, feeling like she was going crazy. That was the sort of logic Jet would have used. What was she doing, even considering it? It was absurd. It was Zuko for Spirit’s sake.    

When she entered the courtyard, Iroh and Zuko were already seated at the low table. Iroh was pouring tea and seemed as serene as ever, but Zuko appeared to be hissing at his uncle under his breath. She heard Iroh chuckle something and Zuko threw up his hands in irritation. As she moved closer, she caught a snippet of the conversation.

“Uncle, it was not a date-”

A flush bloomed on Katara’s cheeks and she considered going back out of sheer awkwardness, but it was too late, Iroh had seen her.

“Katara! Good morning!” Zuko started as if he’d been electrocuted. He obviously hadn’t noticed her approaching.

“Good morning Iroh, Zuko.” She sat down and accepted a cup of tea gratefully. Zuko looked uncomfortable as he sipped his tea stiffly.

“I was just telling my nephew that he should really venture out of the palace one of these days, Katara,” said Iroh, golden eyes twinkling mischievously. “Being cooped up in that office all day is not good for you.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Katara, ignoring Zuko, who had slapped his hand over his eyes in an unnervingly Sokka-like way in response to Iroh’s gentle teasing.

“Stop, Uncle, if it bothers you that much, we can go in together at some point this week.”

“Oh no, I’m far too busy with the festival preparations,” Iroh tutted, shaking his head. “Why don’t you go with Katara? She has excellent taste in street food.”

“Uncle,” said Zuko warningly.

“Nephew,” Iroh mirrored, lightly mocking his grim tone. Zuko rolled his eyes and sighed exasperatedly, apparently deciding that it was more trouble than it was worth to keep arguing.

“Is that ok?” he asked Katara, and it seemed like he was trying to say something without saying it.

“Of course it’s ok,” she replied, giving him a strange look. “I’ve been trying to get you to take a few hours for yourself for weeks!”

“Yeah, but-”

“Excellent!” exclaimed Iroh, clapping his hands and taking a victorious sip from his steaming cup of tea. “So, Katara, you must tell me about this past year, it has been far too long!”

They chatted easily for a while until Zuko was called away to a meeting with an apologetic smile. As she waved goodbye, Iroh turned his bright eyes to her. She felt a little as if she was in some sort of exceedingly friendly interrogation. Either that or he was reading her mind.

“What?” she asked, when he didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“Nothing, my dear.”

“Right,”

There was another few seconds of silence.

“I cannot say I have approved of my nephew’s uh, ‘excursions’ in the past,” he said suddenly, not looking up from his cup. “But I find I have fewer objections, knowing he is not alone.” He looked up at Katara, eyes crinkling affectionately.

“Um-” She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I’m glad you came to visit when you did, Katara, I think it has been very good for Zuko, having you around to remind him that there is life outside the office.”

“I uh, I’m glad,” she managed, but he was already draining his cup and brushing invisible dust off his lap.

“Unfortunately I must be going too, do you have plans for the day, Katara?”

“Uh, yes, I have some letters to go through from the North Pole about the festival, and I thought I might go for a walk later.”

“That sounds lovely,” he said, “I hope you will join us for dinner this evening?”

“Sure,” she said, feeling like she was missing something.

“Wonderful,” He beamed, “I will see you this evening then.” And just like that he was gone, pausing briefly to smell some of the fire lilies by the door.

The next few days passed uneventfully, but after their unsanctioned outing, things between Katara and Zuko were –well- odd. Not unpleasant, just… odd.

They hadn’t had dinner with just the two of them since Iroh had arrived, which wouldn’t be unusual in itself, but Katara began to get the impression that Zuko was avoiding her. Even Iroh seemed to have stopped his less than subtle suggestions that they spend time together. The last straw was when Zuko began to start his training an hour or so earlier than usual, apparently ensuring that she wouldn’t catch him before he sequestered himself in those infernal meetings. 

So it was that Katara found herself stomping through the halls to Zuko’s private study again, determined to catch the illusive Firelord alone so she could give him a piece of her mind. Iroh was at his weekly pai-sho game, and by next week Toph would have arrived, having begrudgingly agreed to help out with some of the new construction in the capital. Katara was very much looking forward to seeing her, but there was no way Toph would miss the weirdness between her and Zuko. The time was now. It was a little over two weeks until her father and the other diplomats returned, with Sokka and Suki arriving a few days before them; the festival was approaching fast. She didn’t know when Aang was arriving, and she made a mental note to find out, the last thing she needed right now was his surprise appearance. No, she had to resolve this now.

She knocked on his door and barged in before waiting for a reply, fearing she would lose her nerve. To her disappointment, the study was empty but for the usual mountain of paperwork, and Katara deflated a little. Moving to the other side of the room, she knocked a little more timidly on the door she knew led to the parlour.

“Zuko?” She called, feeling her sense of purpose evaporate with the adrenaline. She heard some shuffling from the other room. The door opened a crack, which widened when he saw who it was.

“Katara? What are you doing here?” He looked dishevelled and utterly exhausted.

“I wanted to talk.” She said, trying to recapture some of her earlier fervour.

“What about?” he said, gesturing for her to come inside and stifling a yawn.

“I- We don’t have to actually, you look like you could use an early night-”

“Katara, you came here for a reason, right?”

“Why are you avoiding me?” she blurted. He looked taken aback by the sudden accusation.

“I- I haven’t-” He started, but his ears had turned a guilty pink.

“I knew it!” she exclaimed triumphantly, pointing childishly at him.

“I haven’t been avoiding you,” he repeated.

“You’re a terrible liar.” She said matter-of-factly, “Zuko, what is going on?”

He stood up, running his hand through his hair distractedly.

“Ok, so-” He stopped, lost his nerve and started pacing. He stopped again, fixing her with a determined glare. Had she done something wrong?

“Ok, so I had a really good time the other night,” he said heatedly, starting to pace again. “And suddenly I’ve got Uncle here, winking at me and making all these comments about how much he likes you and trying to get us to spend time together-”

That’s what this is about?” she said incredulously. “Zuko-”

“And I start thinking about how I did enjoy the other night,” he continued as if she hadn’t said anything, “And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it…” Understanding dawned on her with a dizzying rush of emotions.

Oh. Oh.

Katara felt as if the bottom had dropped out of her stomach and Zuko continued to pace like a caged moose-lion. All that time trying so hard not to disrupt the careful status quo they had cultivated and she had marched in here and unknowingly smashed it to pieces. She had been carefully squashing all the adolescent thoughts of romance that had popped up since they snuck out together, (and before that, if she was honest with herself) but it had never occurred to her that he might be doing the same… The notion was both exhilarating and frightening.

She sat dazed as thoughts stampeded through her brain. What a mess. And right as their friends were about to descend upon them, one of which with an uncanny ability to tell when people were being less than truthful. Her timing was impeccable as ever. Zuko was still pacing, occasionally muttering under his breath and raking his hand through his hair. Well, she thought, the damage was done, nothing to do now  except deal with it.

“Zuko,” he stopped, hand still buried in his hair.

“What?” he said distractedly.

“I had a good time too,” she said quietly, looking down at her hands. He paused for a beat, looking completely dumbstruck.

“Oh,” he murmured, dropping down next to her on the sofa.

After a moment of awkward silence, she chanced a sideways look at him. He sat beside her, his eyes down and his face oddly blank.

“So,” she whispered, heart thumping in her chest, “What now?” She wasn’t sure if she was afraid or excited for his answer.

“I- I don’t know, what do you want to do?” He croaked.

“I don’t know.”

There was silence again. This was unchartered territory. She watched him under her eyelashes, trying unsuccessfully to gauge his thoughts. 

“I uh, I thought you would have left by now,” he said, his voice tight. “I was trying to back off, so I didn’t- well, so I didn’t do this…”

“That’s why you were avoiding me?”

“It didn’t seem fair,” he shrugged, still looking down at his knees, “I mean, it’s not been that long since you broke up with Aang, and I didn’t want to upset you, and-” he paused seemingly unsure whether or not to continue, “thinking about you was distracting me from, well, everything.” As he finished speaking, his pale cheeks coloured slightly. Feeling suddenly brave, Katara reached out to place her hand over his.

“I’m still here, Zuko,” she said shyly, still unsure exactly what she was doing. The landscape of the conversation had changed so drastically since she had entered, she felt almost as if she were dreaming. A tiny smile had appeared on Zuko’s face, although he still wasn’t meeting her eyes.

“But,” she said, and the smile disappeared, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to do anything- to change anything, until the festival is done, there are too many people around. Too many people who know us too well not to notice something’s um, changed.” The acknowledgment was terrifying, electrifying.

“Ok,” Now there was an infinitesimal spark of hope in his voice.

“So, just back to normal? At least for the time being.” She said, unable to keep the eagerness from her own voice.

“For the time being,” he echoed, suddenly looking up at her with a fire in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before, except perhaps in her dreams. Apparently emboldened, he took her hand and planted a chaste kiss on it, making her heart leap and her cheeks redden.

“See you tomorrow then?” she replied, unable to keep herself from grinning.

“See you tomorrow, Katara.”

Katara thought she liked the way her name sounded, when he said it.

Chapter Text

Against all odds, acknowledging their feelings somehow made it easier to act normal around each other. Oh, there were definitely still moments when their eyes met and Katara thought that anyone who happened to be watching had to know that something was up, but if they did, no one said anything. Even Iroh seemed to have curbed his suggestive comments and meaningful looks at Zuko.

But the real test came in the form of Toph, who arrived the following week with a hoard of brawny earthbenders in tow. Evidently the festival was to include more earthbending matches , and Katara recognised The Boulder and a few others from the match they attended all those years ago when they first met Toph.

While Zuko, Aang and Sokka seemed to have grown a few inches more every time she saw them, Toph was barely taller than she had been when they first met. The tiny earthbender stepped off the boat with a sigh of relief, grinding her heels into the ground gleefully.

“Finally, I can see again!” she exclaimed, striding over the docks towards the welcome party,  “Sugar Queen!” Katara pulled her into a hug, and Toph punched her shoulder good naturedly as the parted.

“Hi Toph,” she said as she rubbed her sore arm. “How’re things? How is the metalbending school going?”

“Good, although at the moment there’s way too much organising and not enough actual metalbending. How are you? How’s life with twinkletoes?”

“What?” Katara squawked, blindsided by the question, “We, uh, we broke up.” She lowered her voice.

“What!? I knew there was something up with him…”

“He didn’t say anything?”

“Maybe,” Toph shrugged, “I do tune out sometimes when he talks. Oh well, good for you Sugar Queen. Hey, do we have to go straight to the palace? I could use a drink.”

Toph’s reaction to their breakup was by far her favourite so far, and Katara was very glad not to have to elaborate anymore on the matter.

“Zuko’ll be in meetings until who knows when, we’ve definitely got time.” She said hesitantly. Toph may have been the most powerful earthbender in the world, but she was still only 16, and Katara felt oddly uneasy taking her to a bar.

“Sweet,” she grinned, “I’m sick of floating around on a raft I can barely see. Let’s go.”

An hour later and one bottle of sake down, Katara realised that she had severely underestimated Toph’s tolerance and appetite for alcohol. Apparently she drank regularly with The Boulder and his cohorts, who clearly had none of Katara’s qualms about Toph’s young age. What Toph lacked in years, she made up for in intimidation.

“So,” said Toph loudly, slapping Katara’s shoulder and making her splutter comically. “What was the deal with Twinkletoes? Come on, give me allll the dirty details.”

“There aren’t any dirty details! We just-” She sighed and drained her glass, the sake burning pleasantly. “We just grew apart.” Toph gave her a sceptical look, or at least looked sceptical in her general direction, and she sighed. “I realised I didn’t know who I was when I was with him, except for someone who was following the avatar around.”

“Sounds about right,” said Toph causally, “I mean, I love him to death like all of us, but he does adooore attention doesn’t he? It’d drive me crazy, that’s for sure.”

“It was driving me crazy!” she said, pouring herself another glass from a new bottle which had magically appeared in front of them, “Anyway, I got sick and had to go home and when I was better, I realised I had just had enough.”

“You know once, he told me that he wished someone would erect a statue of him, because it would seem too self-centred to make it himself.”

“What, Aang?”

“Yeah,” she chuckled, “I mean, he was pretty drunk-”

“Aang doesn’t drink…”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s because of that night.”

“You are a terrible influence.”

“I am, aren’t I?” she said, grinning evilly and sounding entirely too proud of herself.

“He’ll probably get a damn statue as well, won’t he?” said Katara, mostly to herself.

“You want a statue? I’ll make you a statue, where do you want it- ooh, how about right in Firelord grumpy-pants’ castle?”

“Toph. No.”

“But it’d make him so mad!”

“No.”

“You’re no fun.”

“So I’ve been told.” Said Katara with a small smile

“So what, you got sick, broke up with your boyfriend and just decided to randomly come here and hang out with Sparky?”

“Pretty much,” she said, trying very hard to keep her breathing even.

“Well, at least it’s warmer here.” Said Toph, “I gotta say, I like this new Katara, impulsiveness suits you.”

“I don’t know about that, but it does feel good to do something just for myself.”

“Here here!” yelled Toph over the hubbub of the bar, raising her glass in a toast. “To doing stuff for yourself!”

“THE BOULDER WILL DRINK TO THAT!”

***

Another hour later and they headed back towards the palace, and dinner with Iroh and Zuko. The Boulder and the others weren’t staying at the palace, so they had stayed at the bar to continue their revelry. Katara was rather more tipsy than she would have liked, but the walk had sobered her up a little, to her relief. She was, after all, supposed to be keeping herself under control, and last time she had got drunk she had ended up crying all over Zuko’s couch.

“Sparky!” shouted Toph as they reached the palace, the alcohol didn’t seem to have affected her at all except for raising her volume to near unbearable levels. “It’s good to see you again, you too old man.”  She grinned widely as Iroh pulled her into a hug.

 “Hi, Toph,” said Zuko, smiling warmly and only wincing a little as Toph punched him on the arm. “Shall we?”

“Definitely, I’m starving!” Toph grabbed Zuko by the arm and marched him back into the palace, Katara and Iroh following behind.

Zuko and Iroh excused themselves fairly early after dinner, leaving Katara and Toph to return to their rooms together. They walked  through the halls, chatting happily and stumbling slightly. Katara helped Toph to her room, where someone had deposited her stuff earlier. She closed the door behind them as Toph dropped luxuriously onto a sofa.

“Well, well, well. I gotta say, I didn’t think you had it in you, sweetness.”

“What?” said Katara, feeling confused and too tipsy to bother figuring it out.

“What is going on with you and Sparky?”

“What? No! I mean, nothing…” Toph giggled.

“Suuure,” she said, slurring a little but seeming no less satisfied with the reaction she had provoked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said haughtily, to which Toph bellowed with laughter.

“Katara,” she said, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, “I may be blind, but I’m not blind.

Nothing is going on, Toph!” she said, semi-truthfully.

“Whatever you say,” she said amusedly, reclining on the opulent couch and wiggling her toes.

Goodnight, Toph.” Said Katara pointedly, turning to leave.

“I approve of this whole-heartedly!” Toph yelled at her as she shut the door behind her.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Katara awoke to the muted rumbling and shaking that could only be Toph’s bending. That or the palace was being quietly demolished around her. Her room was relatively close to the enclosed courtyard she and Zuko used for training and sparring, and as she stepped out onto the balcony with a yawn, she saw a lump of rock shoot up on a plume of fire from amongst the rooftops. She smiled, it seemed both Toph and Zuko were up. She dressed quickly and made her way down to the training grounds, not wanting to miss the show.

Sure enough, as she entered the courtyard, Katara narrowly avoided losing her eyebrows when a flurry of flames battered the wall just next to her. Zuko and Toph were sparring with a ferocity that the training courtyard was not built to withstand. The stone walls were half-destroyed, and the floor shook with Toph’s onslaught, Zuko springing around and shooting fire at her, looking bizarrely like some kind of firebending cricket. Looking around at the wreckage, Katara thought that she wouldn’t be at all surprised if Zuko actually let Toph lay waste to the place in his own private act of rebellion against being cooped up in the palace.

Suddenly, Zuko noticed her standing by the door, and in the moment he was distracted, Toph, cackling like a madwoman the whole time, brought up a pillar of rock which shot him into the air like a ragdoll. He slowed his descent with a column of flames directed at the ground, but before he could regain his stance, the earth beneath him shifted and became shackles over his feet and ankles.

“You are no match for the Melon Lord!” Crowed Toph dramatically from atop her pedestal of rock, “I hereby claim this ground for myself and my Melon-armies!”

She lowered the pedestal to ground level and with a gesture, a perfect, ready-made statue of her rose from the ground. It was smirking.

“Really, Toph?” said Zuko, who was still stuck in the ground.

“Gotta commemorate my victory somehow,” she said casually, “Morning Sugar Queen.”

“Katara, will you tell her-”

“Oh hey, you want one too?” Toph stomped the ground and a stone replica of Katara sprung up next to Toph’s. She couldn’t help but laugh, causing Zuko to roll his eyes and groan.

“I think I’m fine without one, Toph,” said Katara, still smiling.

“Suit yourself,” she said sweetly, and the stone Katara was swallowed by the ground, though the smirking Toph statue remained. Apparently feeling generous, she removed Zuko’s shackles and strode off out of the wrecked courtyard. “You guys coming for breakfast?”

“Unbelievable,” muttered Zuko.

“Well that was fun!” said Katara brightly.

“You would say that.” He said dryly as they picked their way around the debris to follow Toph. “You weren’t the one getting thrown around.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you,”

“Can you blame me?” he said softly.

“Well, I guess I’m pretty distracting, probably best there’s not a statue of me there, you’d never get anything done.” She said in a low voice.

“You have no idea,” he said, his voice was rough and his eyes bright in the morning sun.

“Come on you two idiots!” Shouted Toph from inside. They exchanged rueful grins and went to join their friend for breakfast.

***

Katara spent the next week keeping Toph company and assisting with preparations for the festival. She spent a wonderful few hours just sitting with some of the caterers and picking which dishes would be featured on the day. A few days were spent helping with the construction of the hospital that Zuko had mentioned, not that she could practically help all that much, but Toph and the construction workers seemed to appreciate her advice on the best way to lay the place out. They went for a late dinner together and Katara managed to convince Toph not to put yet another statue of herself in the entryway of the new hospital.

Katara retired to her room a few days before Sokka and Suki were due to arrive, her father the day after. She was just thinking how much she was looking forward to seeing them when she noticed something out of place; a piece of parchment was pinned to one of the columns by the balcony. As she moved closer, she saw that it was a scrap torn from the Firelord’s personal stationary, covered in Zuko’s angular script. Of course he had his own personal stationary. She grinned and started to read.

 Katara,

I was trying to figure out how to talk to you without our favourite lie-detector overhearing everything, and then it occurred to me (far too late as usual) that Toph can’t read.

I know Sokka’s arriving soon, and once the diplomats return I won’t have a second to spare, but I should be less busy than usual tomorrow. Would you like to spend some time together? Nothing too exciting, as much as I would love to sneak out again with you, I don’t want to risk getting caught again (plus, I’m not sure I could keep my promise to keep things ‘normal’). So lunch? Toph said she was spending the day with those massive earthbenders, practicing for the festival, so I think we can manage a quick meal without being interrogated.

If you’re busy or don’t want to, just mention how tired you are at breakfast tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll meet you in the courtyard at midday?

I can’t waiLooking forward

See you tomorrow.

Zuko

 

Smiling from ear to ear, Katara sat back on the bed, still clutching the note. She knew nothing would happen tomorrow, or the day after. She knew that in a matter of days almost her whole family, not to mention her ex, would be descending on them and therefore it was the worst possible time to be indulging a crush. And yet, she couldn’t stop grinning like some lovestruck teenager. She felt a lightness of spirit that she hadn’t felt since right after the war ended, back when nothing was wrong and everything was possible.

It wasn’t quite the same feeling though, she didn’t feel the same relief and calm that had swept over her after Ozai and Azula had been defeated, this was anything but calm. Katara felt fire in her veins and the delicious spark of anticipation thrumming through her. This was similar to the thrill she felt just as the tide turned in battle, knowing she was winning, yet still having to work for it. This was a challenge, and she found that she was delighted to play the game, at least for now.

Eventually, Katara slipped into a contented sleep, and she dreamt of heat and hands and honey coloured eyes.

She was awoken earlier than usual by a sharp knocking at her door. It was probably something to do with the festival, crises were popping up all over the place now that they were less than a fortnight out. Pulling on a robe, she glanced at the bedside table where Zuko’s letter still lay and allowed herself a small, secret smile as she crossed the room. She opened the door, still smiling, and froze where she stood.

“Hi, Katara,”

“Aang?!”

Chapter Text

“Aang, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here for the festival, I thought you knew… I’m sorry it’s so early.”

It occurred to Katara that she had never actually found out when Aang was expected, but she was sure Zuko would have mentioned it if had known, especially given their lunch plans. She remembered the incriminating scrap of paper in the bedroom.

“I- I didn’t know when you were arriving,” she said dazedly, subtly moving in front of the door to block his view of her bed. He nodded, looking a little nervous.

“Yeah, I’m a bit early,” he grinned, looking uncomfortable.

“Aang, why are you here?” she shook her head, it was far too early in the morning for this.

“I wanted to talk.”

“At the crack of dawn?”

“I couldn’t sleep. I know I’m not supposed to be here for a few days but I was restless so I decided to come early. I- I missed you.”

He looked at her with such unguarded optimism that she could swear she felt her heart shatter into a million pieces all over again. She wanted to scream, to slam the door in his face and bury her head in the duvet and pretend this was a dream.

“I- did you see Zuko already?” She asked, deciding not to acknowledge his admission.

“No, I didn’t miss him as much as I did you,” said Aang, managing a weak smile.

“Ha,” she choked out the ghost of a laugh. Katara felt so totally unprepared for this situation, she was sure that she was either going to burst into tears or start laughing maniacally.

“So, can we talk?”

“Aang, I just woke up ten seconds ago, can you give me a few minutes to at least get dressed?” she snapped. Aang looked shocked.

“I’m sorry-”

“No, I’m sorry,” she sighed, “Look, why don’t we have breakfast? Go let Zuko know you’re here and meet me back here in half an hour? We can go somewhere on Appa.”

“Ok,” he said, brightening up, “see you soon.”

“Yeah,”

He left, leaving Katara to stand stunned. She stepped back inside, shut the door behind her and stared at it for a full minute.

What.

What?

This is not how today was supposed to go…

Apparently she wasn’t going to laugh or cry, because Katara found herself going from an unnerving trancelike state to a towering rage in five seconds flat. What was she thinking? She didn’t want alone time with Aang, why did she invite him to breakfast? She didn’t even want breakfast! What she wanted was to go back to bed and forget this ever happened.

She furiously threw herself onto a sofa, buried her head in a cushion and screamed. She let off a string of expletives that even Toph would have been proud of, then shouted wordlessly into the poor, innocent cushion until she felt a little less overwhelmed.

As she bathed, she tried to calm herself by practicing her forms, but today, even waterbending wasn’t helping. What could he possibly want to talk about? Had he heard rumours about her and Zuko? No way, nothing had even happened, there couldn’t possibly be rumours… Did he want to discuss their breakup?

Her mind raced through possibilities. She knew it was counterproductive to worry like this, but right now, it was impossible to stop. Distantly, she realised that lunch with Zuko was now out of the question, at least with just the two of them. She felt a wave of disappointment almost as intense as her distress over Aang’s sudden appearance. She had really been looking forward to that lunch; it was the latest, and possibly the last chapter of the fun little game they had been playing, before everything got too complicated. But it was too late, everything was already too complicated.

She growled as she tried to fix her hair, giving up on the braid halfway through and shaking it out in frustration. How long had it been? She had lost all sense of time in her fugue.

As if in answer to her question, there was a knock at the door. She opened it with rather more aggression than was necessary.

“Shall we go? Zuko said there was a beach near here with a nice café.” Said Aang in a rush of breath. He was obviously nervous, but Katara had been shocked out of bed at the crack of dawn by the surprise appearance of her ex-boyfriend, and she was in no mood to humour him.

“Whatever.”

They made their way through the palace in silence, until they got to the entrance hall, where none other than the Firelord himself was standing formally by the doors, ready to see them off, as a good host would.

His eyes were oddly blank, and Katara felt a surge of sadness.

“See you later!” said Aang brightly.

“I hope you have a good time.” He said stiffly. She noticed his topknot was messy, and there was the shadow of stubble on his jaw.

“Be back soon,” she said, pouring all the regret and sadness and frustration she could into her eyes in the hope that he would understand, but if he did, he didn’t give any outward sign of it. Zuko just inclined his head slightly as Appa took off.

The beach was only ten minutes away on Appa, and as they touched down, she realised that the café definitely wasn’t open this early. It was probably for the best. If there was one thing living in the Fire Palace had taught her, it was to appreciate privacy.

“I think Zuko was pretty annoyed I woke him up,” said Aang, breaking the silence.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Said Katara shortly, trying to focus on the calming sound of the waves.

“Yeah,” They stood in silence for a few moments, before Katara sat down in the sand with a tired huff.

“Why are you here, Aang?” she asked, for what felt like the billionth time.

“I just-” He sighed, his shoulders slumping, “After the South Pole, I didn’t know what to do, you said it wasn’t working between us, and I couldn’t figure out why, so I went back to the tour. There was this girl at one of the villages and we got talking and she told me that if we’re meant to be together, it doesn’t matter what happens along the way, and suddenly everything made sense, Katara.”

He turned to her and took her hand.

“Katara, I know you weren’t happy, but just because things weren’t working then, doesn’t mean they won’t ever work. I love you.”

She didn’t know when she had started crying, but now tears slid down her cheeks like a waterfall. She didn’t trust herself to speak, and Aang seemed to take her silence as acceptance of his words.

“It’ll be better now, it’s not the same without you. Everyone always asks after you, you know, in the towns and villages. I told them you were just visiting family, but I could tell they were disappointed.”

“Aang, you know that- wait, did you say you told them I was just visiting family?”

“Yeah, I mean I didn’t want to go into the whole thing with everyone and it just seemed easier to-”

“You’ve been lying to people? Pretending we didn’t break up?!”

“Well, I didn’t lie, I just-”

“Unbelievable. That’s why Toph didn’t know. Unbelievable.”

Katara was seething now. She had agonised over the decision to break up with Aang, thought it through a thousand times over, and now it seemed the decision had been taken away from her. With that simple act of denial, Aang had negated everything she had worked for over the last few months. At least it felt that way. Here he stood, looking at her like nothing was wrong after barging in here after she was finally starting to feel normal again and ruining the delicate balance she had forged for herself here.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I know I messed up. I guess I just thought-”

“What? What did you think?” she snapped, “Maybe I’d change my mind if you just turn up here without any warning to what? Woo me?”

The look on his face told her that that was exactly what he had thought. She struggled to wrestle her temper under control. If she and Aang were going to have anything left to continue their friendship on, she was going to have to stop herself from saying something she would regret. She took a deep breath.

“Aang, I think I need some time alone.”

“But-”

“Aang, leave me alone.

“I- Ok.” He bowed his head and turned back to Appa. Katara turned away, and heard the whoosh of air behind her that signified Aang’s departure.

A few minutes later, Katara stood up, suddenly overflowing with energy. She began to walk. She walked and walked until sand became pebbles and the pebbles became jagged, seaweed covered rocks.

Ultimately she was glad she had managed to keep her temper with Aang, but now she was angry. Really, if there was one time she would have been justified in losing her temper, it was just now. Turning up at her door determined to change her mind? Lying to everyone after all this time just to avoid an awkward conversation? It was unfair, and she should have shown him exactly how much it had maddened her, but somehow whenever she was confronted with his face, those vulnerable grey eyes, she couldn’t bring herself to let it out. Maybe that was part of the problem. She cared too much about him to unleash her anger on him, but that had only led to pushing it down, down until it mutated into resentment.

She could let it out now though. She was at least a mile from where they had landed, and there wasn’t a soul in sight, only the occasional crab, scuttling from rock pool to rock pool. She closed her eyes and reached out with her mind to the sea, feeling its comfortable presence and letting her conscious thoughts be swept away with the rhythm of the waves.

Then, she pulled her arms up, wrenching an enormous wave from the sea, and threw it against the cliff with a roar. That felt pretty good, so she did it again, and again. She pulled water from the pools around her to her hands, making glittering spikes over her nails as she had once seen Hama do, and threw them ferociously at the cliff wall, where they shattered satisfyingly. She continued her onslaught for what felt like hours, and when she finally collapsed on the rocky shore, her arms felt like jelly and she felt the livid tension dissipate, leaving only a vague sense of emptiness. Maybe it was time for some actual breakfast.

She sighed, and began to trudge back to the palace.

Chapter Text

A few days later, Katara had never been more grateful to see her brother. The days after Aang had arrived had been the loneliest since she had arrived in the Fire Nation, he hadn’t made another attempt to corner her, seeming to spend most of his time with Toph or Iroh, but she was careful not to run into him nonetheless. This wouldn’t be so bad, but it seemed that Zuko was avoiding her again for some reason, and she didn’t have the strength right now to confront him about it.

She stood tensely on the dock, picking at her hair distractedly while she waited for Sokka and Suki. When she stepped off the boat, she was so relieved to see him, she ran up and threw her arms around his neck.

“Whoa,” he said, clearly surprised at her enthusiasm, but he returned the hug quickly. “I missed you too.”

After a few seconds, he pulled away and looked at her closely.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just been a really crappy few days. Hi Suki,”

“Hi, Katara,” said Suki, smiling warmly as she pulled her into another hug. “Shall we all get some lunch? Sokka’s spent most of the journey listing all the Fire Nation foods he’s looking forward too.”

“Hey, I talked about other stuff!”

“Sure you did, let’s go. ”

They turned towards the city together, when Katara had a horrible thought.

“Hey, you guys know I broke up with Aang, right?”

“Yeah,” said Sokka, looking confused, “Dad told me,”

“But that was months ago wasn’t it?” asked Suki.

Katara breathed a sigh of relief. She had never been happier about the Water Tribe’s tendency to gossip.  

“Yeah, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you at lunch.”

She recounted the tale of the break-up. Suki listened attentively, but Sokka seemed distracted by the colossal sharing platter he had ordered for himself, swatting at Suki’s hand when she tried to pick at it. She gave him a look and he withdrew his hand guiltily.

“Sorry, force of habit.”

“So, he just lied to everyone he met for like, four months?”

“Pretty much, certainly seemed that way. We haven’t spoken since, and now I just feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under me. Everything we’ve been through and I’ve never felt like I couldn’t trust him, but now I don’t know. Am I overreacting?”

“No.” said Suki firmly as Sokka nodded in agreement, his mouth full of fire flakes. “He lied about you, it might not have been malicious, but it definitely wasn’t fair.”

“Thanks, I need to hear that. I’ve just been bouncing around in my own head for two days, and Zuko’s avoiding me too for some reason so there’s that too,”

“What? Why would Zuko be avoiding you?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she shrugged. Actually she did have some idea as to what was going through Zuko’s head, but she was definitely not going to discuss it with her brother.

“I swear,” said Sokka through another mouthful, “I know his heart’s in the right place and all, but sometimes that guy makes no sense. Knowing him, it’s probably something about honour.”

“Probably,” said Suki, who was now looking at Katara curiously.

Katara mumbled noncommittally and took a drink.

“Well, he’s having dinner with all of us whether he likes it or not-”

“You’re already thinking about dinner?” exclaimed Suki incredulously.

“Just planning ahead,” Sokka said, “Anyway, if Zuko thinks he’s getting out of hanging out with us tonight, he’s got another thing coming.”

***

As it turned out, Sokka needn’t have worried, when they got back to the palace, there was a steward waiting to cordially invite them for dinner in the Firelord’s private quarters, and later that evening Katara entered the room to find everyone waiting for her. Sokka and Suki sat chatting animatedly to Aang, while Zuko laughed at something Toph had said.

It warmed her heart to see everyone together again like this, and for a second she could almost convince herself it was exactly as it had been between them all at Zuko’s coronation. Aang faltered slightly as she sat down, but caught himself quickly and continued his story. She was glad to see that Zuko looked much better than the last time she had seen him, his hair was loose and he looked calm, if tired. He smiled widely when she sat down, making her wonder if she had actually just been imagining that he was avoiding her.

The rest of the evening was just like old times, with the obvious exception of her and Aang carefully avoiding talking to one another. By the end of the night, Katara’s earlier melancholy had all but vanished. Toph was trying unsuccessfully to persuade Aang to ‘keep the party going’ while the rest of them sat around sleepily after dessert.

“Oh Sokka, I should show you this new airship design I saw the other day,” said Zuko, beckoning Sokka to his study.

“Cool, is it one of the new ones that use waterbending for the coolant flow?” he asked enthusiastically as the two of them disappeared.

“Well, if none of you party poopers want to go out, I may as well turn in.” said Toph, getting up and cracking her knuckles loudly.

“Yeah, I’ll head to bed as well,” yawned Suki. “who knows how long they’ll be talking shop.”

There was a murmur of agreement from Katara and Aang, and after a quick goodnight to Zuko and Sokka, who seemed entirely absorbed in the new designs, they all returned to their rooms. To Katara’s intense relief, she managed to close the door behind her without being cornered by Aang for another impromptu ‘chat’.

She fell asleep quickly, aided by the soft buzz of the wine they had with dinner.

 

She sat around the campfire with her friends, their faces cast into dramatic shadows by the flickering flames.

One by one they got up and walked into the dark forest that surrounded them, until finally she sat alone. She watched the flames lick playfully towards the canopy, relaxing her eyes until she could imagine shapes and images formed in the fire. Slowly, it twisted, became clearer and clearer until she could see a scene emerge. The scene got bigger and bigger until she was inside it, the dark forest melting away.

She was back home, back at the iceberg that had started it all. The avatar lay before her, was he asleep? Dead? His eyes snapped open.

“Do you wanna go penguin sledding with me?” he grinned, but Katara felt a chill that had nothing to do with the ice that surrounded her.

“I-”

Before she could reply, the scene shifted again and she was back in Ba Sing Se, going for a nice cup of tea. But no- as she entered the tea shop she saw Prince Zuko before her, what was her enemy doing here of all places? She felt a stab of fear followed by a curl of uncertainly. Was he her enemy though? She opened her mouth to say something, but Aang appeared in front of her, blocking her view of Zuko and interrupting her train of thought.

“Wanna go penguin sledding?”

“No, Aang…” she turned away from him and suddenly she was back in the fire palace, sitting in the courtyard and sharing a pot of tea with Zuko. Firelord Zuko now, not her enemy but her friend.

“Katara,” he said, and she heard the smile in his voice. She smiled back at him and sipped the tea.

“Zuko,”

“Katara,” her head snapped up in surprise, the voice wasn’t his, and to her alarm, it wasn’t his face either. Aang sat before her, his bald head looking bizarre poking out of the official Firelord robes.

“Leave me alone!”

“Katara,” came his voice again, now echoing around the place.

“No!” she cried, clasping her ears and spinning around, but he was everywhere she looked, smiling at her brightly. “Leave me alone!”

 

Katara woke in a cold sweat. For a second, she wasn’t sure where she was, or if she was alone. She dropped back into an uneasy sleep to the sound of the wind whipping around outside the palace.

Chapter Text

The next day, Katara was too busy to dwell on her dreams. Her father had arrived, along with the rest of the delegation from the Earth Kingdom and the few her father had brought with him from the Southern Tribe.

The family reunion was lovely, it had been over a year since all three of them had been together, but as expected, Hakoda was in a bit of a touchy mood from the last few days of travelling, although he assured them that the trip had generally been fruitful and not at all as bad as he had anticipated. He told them over lunch about the many wonderful people he had met in the various towns they had visited, comparing them to the officious Earth Kingdom diplomats with clear disdain for the latter. Despite his travelling companions though, the trip had obviously been a success, due in no small part to the lack of bureaucracy in the Southern Water Tribe. Where the other diplomats had to check and double check every decision with their counterparts in Ba Sing Se, her father was able to act on his own behalf.

Nonetheless, he was clearly tired. When they finished the meal, he went straight back to his rooms with the intention of sleeping until dinner. She rolled her eyes at Sokka as her father left for the palace, and he smirked in return. Maybe he was exhausted from a lifetime of fighting, or maybe Pakku was rubbing off on him, but their father was getting more and more grumpy these days.

“Well, I’d better get going.” Said Sokka as their father disappeared, “I’m meeting Suki.”

“What, you too?” she said, surprised. She had been looking forward to spending the whole day with Sokka and her father, and more importantly, that what was she had told Toph loudly within earshot of Aang. She had a horrible feeling that despite her anger the last time they spoke, Aang still felt that there was some chance he could still salvage the relationship, and she was responding in the only mature way; avoiding him at all costs.

“Yeah, and she wasn’t exactly happy about me barging in so late last night, so I don’t want to be late.” He said, looking bashful.

“What did you do?” she asked with a smile.

“Why do you assume I did something?”

Katara gave him a look.

“Fine,” he sighed. “I may have had a tiny bit too much wine and fell over the table.”

“Oh no,”

“And then fell into the screen door…”

“Sokka!”

“I didn’t break it or anything! It just…wasn’t the most graceful of entrances…”

“Fine, go.” She said, laughing, “Just try not to break anything on the way there.”

“I didn’t-

“See you at dinner?”

“Yeah,” he smiled warmly and hugged her before setting off into the city.

Faced with the task of occupying herself for the rest of the day, Katara started to wander back in the direction of the palace. She supposed she could go back to the beach or something; it would certainly be nice to appreciate it without being distracted by essentially having to break up with Aang. Again.

She was on her way to her rooms to get changed, deep in thought about Aang, when she rounded a corner and almost collided with Zuko, who was walking briskly in the other direction.

“Katara!”

“Spirits, Zuko, do those robes have to be so damn pointy? I almost impaled myself!” she huffed, feeling irrationally annoyed.

“I- you’d have to ask the Fire Sages,” he said, looking amused, despite her snappy tone, “I just run the country, I’m not in charge of wardrobe.”

“What are you doing here? I thought you’d be holed up in meetings all day.” she asked tiredly, ignoring his attempt at humour.

“I thought you were spending the day with your family?” he said, apparently unperturbed by her irritability.

“Sokka’s gone to meet Suki and Dad’s gone for a nap.” She said, crossing her arms. To her annoyance, the corner of his mouth twitched. “I was going to go for a walk- what? What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, but continued to smile, and she found herself mirroring it, despite herself.

“Sure,” she said, eyeing him suspiciously and keeping her arms tightly crossed, but it was too late, her bad mood was already lightening.

“Would you like some company? I could use some fresh air.”

“Don’t you have work to do?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, looking a little guilty, “But I’ve been working since dawn and my head had been pounding for every second.”  She laughed, feeling the last tendrils of her earlier irritation dissipate.

“I realised I wasn’t getting anything done anyway,” he continued, rubbing the back of his neck nervously, “so I thought I’d see if Uncle would like a tea break. And then I ran into you.”

“Literally.” She smiled. “Well you’re welcome to join me, but I’m sure your uncle would like to see you.”

“He’s crazy busy with the festival stuff,” he said, waving away her concerns, “We didn’t have plans or anything.”

“Well I was just going to grab some stuff from my room-”

“I need to change anyway,” he said, gesturing to his voluminous robes.

“See you back at the main entrance in 20 minutes?”

“Sounds good,” he smiled.

They were about to leave the palace when they were cornered by an irate Fire Sage, who was determined to prevent them from leaving without a full escort of royal guards. Zuko groaned impatiently.

“How would these assassins even know I was leaving the palace?”

“There are always opportunists, Firelord.” Droned the sage.

“And you don’t think I can handle myself well enough to manage a short stroll?”

“My Lord, we simply want to minimize the risk-”

“And what about if he’s accompanied by a master waterbender?” said Katara, suddenly struck by inspiration.

“Well, I’m sure that one waterbender couldn’t-” He spluttered.

“How dare you!” said Zuko, drawing himself up overdramatically.

“Why don’t I show you what one waterbender can do?” She said, bristling and narrowing her eyes at the sage. The guards were shuffling awkwardly now trying to distance themselves from the fire sage.

“Without Master Katara you would still be at the mercy of Azula!” Growled Zuko, “Perhaps you would prefer my sister’s rule?”

“No, Firelord, I-”

“That’s what I thought.” Snapped Katara, who linked her arm with Zuko’s and turned around sharply, marching away from the dumbstruck sage. She shot him a threatening look over her shoulder for good measure as they exited the gates.

“That was fun,” she said, once they were out of earshot.

“Yeah,” said Zuko, “It definitely does them good to get put in their place every now and again, especially by a waterbender.” He grinned.

“Yeah well, putting them in their place did me good too.”

“I can tell, you were pretty formidable.” 

“It was nothing,” Katara blushed and cleared her throat. “So, uh, you guys were up late last night?”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.” He said, rolling his eyes, “Your brother is a terrible influence. But-” He paused and looked down.

“What? What did Sokka do?”

“No, nothing,” he chuckled, “We just- we had a good chat.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

They settled into a comfortable silence as they walked. Katara wasn’t really paying attention to their route, but Zuko seemed to know where he was going, so she just followed beside him until they reached an ornate pair of wrought iron gates. A delicate sign next to them told her they were at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Even in the winter, the gardens were beautiful. Exotic plants bloomed like fireworks, though surely not as many as in the summer, and there were colourful lanterns strung by the side of the paths, though of course they were unlit in the bright sunlight. They sat down on a wooden bench nestled between two gnarled trees with spiky maroon leaves.

“This is lovely,” she sighed.

“It’s not in season,” said Zuko, “but it’s still something isn’t it?”

“Mhmm,”

“So, um, I feel like I should explain myself.”

“Huh?”

“I know it’s been a bit weird since Aang arrived, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, I wasn’t sure how you felt about it-”

“Zuko-”

“Let me finish,” he said hoarsely, touching her hand and taking a deep breath, “I didn’t want to pressure you or get in the way of anything that might- If you decided to, um, rekindle anything…”

“Zuko, that is not what is happening.”

“Well I know that now! But at the time I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to make an already complicated situation worse. Anyway, I talked to Sokka- he had had a few drinks by then and he started ranting about it all, he’s really mad about how Aang’s handled everything. Then he turned to me, and told me off for avoiding you,”

Katara felt a surge of affection towards her brother, although she would have to have a word with him about discussing her personal life behind her back.

“Anyway, after being thoroughly dressed down for ‘caring more about my honour or something than actual human people’s feelings’ –his words- I realised that I may have uh, misread the situation.”

“I’ll say! All this bullshit with Aang turning up out of nowhere and then suddenly you’re avoiding me too! I was pretty upset.”

“Sorry,” he said, grinning. “Forgive me?” She sighed exaggeratedly.

“Oh fine, but in the future maybe get your information directly from the source? I’d much rather you actually talk to me than just assume and then sulk until my brother of all people gets drunk and decides to set you straight.”

“Fair enough, when you put it like that it does sound pretty stupid.”

“Yes, yes it does.”

They sat for a while in silence, listening to the leaves rustle in the cool breeze. Katara took a deep breath and rested her head on Zuko’s shoulder. She felt him tense for a second, until he relaxed and rested his arm on the bench behind her. When he spoke, she felt his voice rumble in his chest.

“I get the feeling that Sokka wouldn’t be quite so uh, encouraging if he knew the whole story.”

“You’re probably right,” she grinned and felt herself flush when she thought about the ‘whole story’. She could feel the heat radiating from him, despite the cool air. He had moved his hand forward slightly from behind her and was now gently rubbing miniscule circles into her upper arm.

The timing was terrible. Here she was dealing with an ex who wanted to get back together who also just happened to be the avatar, and she was sitting in a public garden doing what? Snuggling? Ridiculous. Her family was here, could be anywhere, as well as Toph the human lie-detector and Aang the aforementioned ex. No. This was a terrible idea. Indiscrete and irresponsible.

Perfect.

She tilted her head off his shoulder, looking up into his face, which held a rare expression of contentedness. Their eyes met, and she felt the last of her resistance evaporate. Tentatively, he brought his hand to her face, raising her chin on his knuckles. His eyes searched hers for some sign, some indication that she wanted this, and she knew then that this was real. He was real.

“I’m still here, Zuko,” she breathed, and the sound of his name seemed to spur him. He sighed shakily, his eyes like molten gold, and finally, finally closed the distance between them.

Their lips brushed together impossibly lightly, and yet she was aflame, she felt as if every nerve in her body were tingling with some ephemeral energy. She moved closer, placing her palm on his chest, and felt rather than heard him let out a deep moan as he moved his hand up to cup her jaw, his thumb settling just behind her ear and making her shiver. Katara felt as if time had fallen away, as well as any and all awareness of her surroundings; her universe contracted until all that existed was the two of them, and the almost unbearably gentle sensation of their lips moving together.

Reluctantly, she pulled away, resting her forehead against his and feeling as if she may never stop smiling. Perfect.

After a few minutes of catching their breath, they finally pulled apart, both smiling widely. Katara felt dangerously close to giggling like a teenager. She stole a quick glance at Zuko, who was now blushing furiously, the redness contrasting sharply with his pale skin.

“I, um, this is not how I thought today would go.” She giggled.

“Agni, me neither,” he rasped, rubbing the back of his neck and sounding like he couldn’t quite believe what was happening.

“I doubt this is what Sokka had in mind when he told you to talk to me.” She smirked as the colour drained from his face at the thought of that conversation.

“No kidding…”

“We uh, we should probably head back, I’m sure the fire sages are just besides themselves with worry.”

“Yeah,” he said distantly, playing with a lock of her hair in a way that made her think that heading back was the last thing on his mind. It wasn’t exactly strengthening her own resolve either…

“Come on, we wouldn’t want them to think you’ve been assassinated, would we? Think of how embarrassing that would be.”

“I guess not,” He sighed, “but let’s sit for a few minutes first, ok? I need to get my head together. You know you’ve effectively destroyed my ability to get any work done today?”

“Hmm, I can’t quite bring myself to feel bad about that.” She grinned, and he returned it, before exhaling heavily and throwing his head back onto the back of the bench.

“You’re going to be the death of me.”

Half an hour later, they walked back through the palace gates to a congregation of very relieved looking fire sages. They began to chastise Zuko, but he just waved them aside, heading back to his study and looking for all the world like the dutiful public servant, eager to catch up on missed work. Katara knew better though, especially when he shot her a tiny, secret smile which somehow contained more than he could have ever said out loud.

 She couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot, and in that moment, she really didn’t care.

Chapter Text

Dinner that evening was a tense affair. Katara spent the whole time desperately avoiding Zuko’s eyes, convinced that one look at the two of them would be enough to make it obvious to everyone exactly how they had spent the afternoon. Also, there was the fact that she kept losing track of the conversation every time she thought about their brief sojourn to the gardens that afternoon.

The kiss had been so gentle, and almost (but not quite) chaste. No, that groan which rippled through him had definitely not been chaste, and neither had the look in his eyes as he threaded her hair though his long fingers. Spirits, the feel of those fingers brushing her bare neck…

“Katara?”

“Huh? What?” She said, startled out of her reverie.

“Are you doing anything for the festival?” Repeated her father.

“Oh, I- no, I’ve helped a lot with the preparations, but I’m not participating.”

“That will be nice,” said Iroh, “You can just sit back and enjoy the festivities!”

“Meh, I still think I’d rather be throwing rocks at people for entertainment.” Said Toph grumpily through a mouthful of something. She had been reluctantly convinced to referee the earthbending bout rather than participate, on the grounds that she was the only one who could actually hope to control both the earthbenders and the crowd. Also, as the incumbent champion, it was only fair that she present the belt herself to the new winner. Katara had her doubts about this though; she wouldn’t be surprised if Toph challenged the poor guy to fight her for it.

“You ok, Katara?” asked Sokka, “You seem a bit out of it.”

“Yeah… yeah I’m good. Just tired.”  She said, not daring to look at Zuko.

“Uhuh. Sure.” Grunted Toph next to her, thankfully low enough that no one else heard.

“You should get an early night,” said Iroh, “Tomorrow will be a big day for all of us!”

“Yeah, I think I will,” she replied, trying not to think about how his heart had thundered under her hand on his chest.

She excused herself as early as possible and was about to head to her room when she heard the dining room door click open again behind her. Turning around, her stomach sank as she saw Aang standing before her looking uncomfortable.  

“Hi,” he said quietly.

“Uh, hi.”

“I was hoping to get a few minutes alone with you.”

“Aang,” she said warningly, “This is really not the time.”

“I know, you’re tired, but just hear me out,” he pleaded, taking a step towards her.

“Aang,” she started, but to her great relief the door behind him opened again to reveal Suki.

“Oh, hey guys,” she said innocently.

“Hey Suki,” said Aang, sounding ever so slightly less chirpy than usual.

“Katara, can I borrow you for a bit? I bought this dress today for the festival and I still don’t know if I actually like it or not.”

“Sure,” said Katara, too quickly.

“But-” said Aang helplessly.

“Sorry, Aang, but Sokka isn’t exactly the best for this stuff, and neither is Toph for obvious reasons.” said Suki, linking her arm with Katara’s and marching her away. “See you tomorrow!”

“You are a lifesaver.” She muttered when they had rounded a few corners and she was sure Aang wouldn’t be able to hear them.

“No problem,” said Suki casually, “I saw him beeline for the door as soon as you left and I thought you might need rescuing.”

“I hate having to be rescued.” She said sulkily. “But there’s something about his damn puppy-dog eyes that I just can’t face! I’m terrified I’ll say something terrible that I can never take back…”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. You know, Katara, you don’t always have to be the most mature, best-decision-making, most adult-adult ever. You have as much right to do dumb stuff as anyone else. More even, given that you share genes with Sokka.” That got a chuckle out of her.

“Ugh, it just feels like I’m constantly on the cusp of a world changing conversation with him. It’s got so complicated…”

Suki nodded wisely as they turned a corner into the guest wing.

“Did things even out with Zuko? Sokka mentioned he had a ‘talk’ with him last night, and knowing him that means he ranted drunkenly at him until he forgot what he was talking about.”

“From what Zuko said, that sounds accurate.” She chuckled, focusing hard on Sokka drunkenly ranting rather than the memory of how Zuko’s hand had felt, tangling in her hair as they kissed…“Yeah, we had a talk. Seems Sokka did something right for once.”

“Well, colour me impressed.” She said, smiling proudly. For a second, Katara saw love and respect as clear as day on her face, and she felt a rush of happiness for her brother.

They reached Suki’s room and she beckoned Katara inside.

“Ok, so I actually did buy a dress for tomorrow, I do like it but I wanted to check it with another girl beforehand. It’s uh, it’s a little too nice…” She ducked her head into the bedroom and brought out a wooden hanger with a traditional fire-nation robe on it. It was a deep wine colour, with a flowing skirt which parted at the thigh. Like most of the dresses here, it had an exposed midriff, with loose fabric falling from a gold clasp at the neck.

“Suki, it’s beautiful!” she breathed.

“I know,” she said ruefully, “It’s just that it’s not exactly a royal ball tomorrow, I feel overdressed.” Katara could see what she meant, it wasn’t overly formal or revealing, but the outfit was beautifully made, and even on the hanger she could tell that Suki would look stunning in it.

“But it’s so beautiful,” Katara threaded some of the skirt through her fingers, admiring the way the silk shimmered in the lamplight. “You have to wear it!”

“Ok fine,” said Suki, looking happy to have been persuaded, “But you have to dress up too.”

“I dunno…”

“Come on, it’s only fair!”

“But what about Aang? What if he thinks I’m dressing up for him?”

“Forget about Aang. You took down Azula. You can manage an awkward breakup.” She said matter-of-factly, as if it was that easy. “Besides, you sure you don’t want to dress up for someone else?”

“Well if it was just a matter of freezing Aang to the- Wait what?” Katara did a double take. Suki had snuck that last question in so smoothly she hadn’t really registered it. Before she could stop herself, her mouth dropped open in surprise and she felt a flush bloom on her cheeks.

“What do you mean?” she said, after a slightly too long pause, but it was too late, Suki was looking at her sharply, as if scrutinising her every move. She felt uncomfortably as if she was being analysed for tactical weaknesses.

“I think,” she said, raising her eyebrows smugly, “That you know exactly what I mean. If you talked to Zuko and things are hunky-dory between the two of you now, there is no reason for it to be as awkward as it was at dinner -you two were avoiding each other like the plague- except if maybe there’s some other explanation for the tension.” She said the last word with relish, making Katara blush even harder, much to her horror.

“Suki-” She started, taking care to keep her voice even.

“I knew it! You’re no better at lying than your brother. What happened? Tell me!” Suki looked besides herself with glee.

“Suki, nothing-”

“Oh give it up, your face is matching my dress.” She put her hand over Katara’s and looked serious for a second, “I won’t tell anyone, least of all Sokka. Come on Katara, talking about it’s the best part!” An unruly smile had crept onto Katara’s face before she could quell it.

“Nothing happened, not really…”

“I knew it!” she repeated, settling on the sofa net to Katara and watching her attentively.

“It’s really important that you understand that nothing happened-

“Yeah right-”

“-until today…” Suki’s mouth dropped open in happy astonishment, and a small part of her was deeply satisfied to have shocked Suki to silence. She sighed. “I don’t know, I came here to get away from the South Pole after the break-up, and the weeks passed, and we had dinner together, and sparred, and after a while we just…”

“Became something more.” Sighed Suki. Katara gave her an odd look. “What? I’m not allowed to like romance because I’m a warrior?”

“Fine,” she said, grinning now, it was so rare she got to indulge in a little girl-talk.  “I knew I felt something, but it was so soon after Aang and our relationship wasn’t exactly low profile. Neither is Zuko come to think of it… But anyway, we had a few, um, moments, but then Aang turns up a few days ago and Zuko must have thought we were getting back together or something-”

“And then Sokka told him to be a damn adult about it, yes I know this part-”

“Stop being so impatient! So I ran into him on my way back from lunch with Sokka and Dad, we went for a walk and talked…” Suki raised an eyebrow at her, sensing her hesitance. “Andthenwekissedanditwaswonderful.” She blurted out the final part of the story in one rushed breath. Suki was smiling from ear to ear.

“You and Zuko! You know, I wouldn’t have called it, but now I think about it you two are probably actually pretty good for each other…”

“We aren’t anything for each other!” cried Katara, feeling suddenly as if she was losing control of the situation. “Everything is so complicated, and Aang is here, and Zuko is literally the ruler of a whole country! How on earth could it even work?”

“Katara, remember what I said earlier? You have as much right to do dumb stuff as anyone else. I know it’s not exactly a simple situation, but look, all this time you’ve got closer naturally right? It’s working to some extent without you even trying. I can’t believe I have to say this, but stop worrying about how your love life is going to affect global politics- you see how ridiculous that sounds? Just do it for you.”

“You really think it’s that simple?” asked Katara in a very small voice.

“I do.” She said quietly, squeezing Katara’s hand. “Now for the real questions. Is Zuko a good kisser?”

“Suki!”

“What? Oh, you did say it was wonderful, I guess you answered that one…” Katara flushed crimson. “What sort of kiss was it? Like a sort of gentle caress or was it full on we-can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other, why-did-we-wait-so-long, making out?”

Suki!

“I’m just kidding- mostly. You don’t have to answer that. Ok, what are you going to wear tomorrow? You promised you’d dress up with me, remember.”

“I don’t know, Suki-”

“Well, whatever you pick, I’m sure it’ll make his Highness’s eyes pop out of their royal sockets.”

“I’m leaving now.”

“Fine, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She looked at Katara thoughtfully. “Katara and Zuko, who’d have thought?” she muttered to herself.

“Ok, definitely leaving. And Spirits, please don’t tell anyone. Whatever it is between us, I don’t think it’s ready to be public. ”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Good, and Suki? It was definitely the first kind of kiss.”

Katara shut the door behind her before Suki could reply, feeling unexpectedly light after their conversation. It had felt good to talk to someone else about it, someone who knew both of them and didn’t judge. She made a mental note to tell Sokka not to mess things up with Suki.

Chapter Text

The day of the festival dawned chilly but bright and when Katara awoke, she was abuzz with energy and anticipation. Some of it was due to the culmination of months of work of the festival, but she couldn’t help thinking about Zuko- about the kiss.

They had kissed! Oh Spirits, what was she thinking? What an absurdly inappropriate thing to do. What was she thinking?

Her hand flew up involuntarily, touching her lips softly and remembering his feather light kisses and gentle moans. Oh right. That was what she was thinking. No matter how many times she tried to admonish herself for such spectacularly poor judgement, she couldn’t bring herself to actually regret it. Quite the opposite in fact; as she brushed her hair she realised she was smiling softly. She shook her head to try and dislodge the undeserved glee, but to no avail.

She thought about what Suki had said; just do it for you. Was that really so terrible? Didn’t she deserve a little happiness after everything? Whatever the rest of the world thought, it had been four months since she broke up with Aang, it was hardly cheating, although his presence here now didn’t make anything easier.

Oh well, obsessing over it wasn’t going to do her any good. Today was the festival, everyone was going to be so busy with everything there would hardly be time to have an extended conversation with anyone, let alone play out their personal drama.

She remembered her promise to Suki about dressing up, and crossed the room to the large closet that dominated one wall. She knew she didn’t have anything as fine as the dress Suki had shown her yesterday, and as she rifled through her clothes she was wondering if she would have to make her excuses, when she saw an outfit she bought in her first week here. She hadn’t found an occasion to wear it yet, but like Suki’s it wasn’t particularly formal, just well made and fitted. It was similar to the robes she had worn when they were hiding out in the Fire Nation during the war all those years ago, but instead of red, it was midnight blue. The split skirt was light and floaty, with a simple border of gold thread around the hem, instead of loose pants, there were light grey leggings under the skirt which gave the outfit a sleek silhouette. The top was a simple halter which extended to just above her navel, leaving only a small section of midriff exposed.

She decided to leave her hair down except for her usual loops, and stood in front of the mirror for a moment. The overall effect was certainly striking, she was enjoying the way the skirt floated as she moved and in an uncharacteristic fit of vanity, she felt a rush of pride at the way it made her body look. She looked glamorous; she didn’t think she’d ever looked glamorous before. Hoping it wasn’t too much, she set off for Sokka and Suki’s room.

Suki answered the door, looking just as stunning as Katara thought she would in the burgundy dress.

“Wow,” they both said simultaneously. They laughed and Suki beckoned her in.

“You look great!” she said happily, “I’m so glad you dressed up too! Sokka hasn’t stopped drooling since I got dressed, I was this close to changing.” She muttered this last part just before Sokka entered, thankfully excusing Katara from having to address the idea of her brother drooling.

“Hey Katara, you look nice. Doesn’t Suki look amazing?”

“She does,” she said as Suki rolled her eyes in mock exasperation.

There was a thunderous knock at the door and Toph entered without waiting to be let in.

“Hey guys, you all look great!”

“I know, doesn’t she? Wait, damn it Toph I hate it when you do that!” pouted Sokka.

“Oh loosen up. You ready to go?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He grumbled, and they all set off into the city for the opening ceremony.

 

The main square was heaving when they arrived, with endless food carts and vendors lining the streets and the air thick with the sounds of excitement and enjoyment. There were so many people packed in that Katara was momentarily unsure how they were actually going to get past, but before she could think of a strategy, Toph had pushed to the front of the group.

“Blind girl coming through! Get out of the way!” she shouted, making huge, heavy steps forward which shook the earth and made an effective path for them through the crowds, although many people looked deeply unsettled at being shuffled out of the way by the very earth under their feet.

There was a small, temporary stage at the far end of the square, with a few rows of spindly chairs besides it which were already filling up with a combination of Earth Kingdom dignitaries, local nobles and the few Water Tribe men who had accompanied Hakoda. Iroh waved at them from the front row where he sat next to her father.

“I’ve saved you all seats!” he said, beaming and gesturing to the four empty seats behind him. They sat down gratefully, happy for the reprieve from the constant press of the crowd. It didn’t take long for the rest of the seats to fill, and the buzz of the crowd seemed to swell until finally, a horn blared from the vicinity of the stage, and Zuko and Aang stepped up to tumultuous applause. Zuko gestured for quiet.

“Welcome to the first Winter Solstice Festival!” he said, to more applause and cheering, “Though this is partly to welcome back our visiting emissaries from the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe, the festival is primarily a celebration of diversity. Today we have entertainment from all corners of the world, and I thank everyone who had a hand in putting this wonderful festival together, be they political representatives or food vendors. We are honoured by the presence of Avatar Aang today, and I now invite him to say a few words before we officially start the festival.”

Zuko beckoned to Aang and stepped aside respectfully with a small bow of his head. There was yet more cheering as Aang stepped forward, beaming, but Katara couldn’t help but watch Zuko. There was the slightest flush on his cheeks and he looked relieved. Katara smiled to herself; he never actually expected anything to go well, but he was far better than he thought he was. She could feel the respect of the crowd when he spoke, and he cut an impressive figure up on the stage, projecting calm confidence in his crown and flowing robes.

She managed to catch his eye and gave him a small smile. When he saw her she could have sworn that the flush deepened slightly as he returned the smile. She grudgingly wrenched her gaze away from him and tried to focus on Aang, who had started talking.

“I’m so happy to be here! This festival reminds me of the Fire Nation I knew, and it gives me true hope to see so much joy and love here today.” He looked right at Katara for a second, but quickly looked back up to the crowd. “So let’s have some fun! I declare the Winter Solstice Festival open!”  There was an explosion of applause, followed by the excited buzz of conversation as people started to mill around, deciding what to do.

For her part, Katara didn’t really know what to do. She hadn’t liked the way Aang had looked at her when he said ‘joy and love’. Not one bit. She hadn’t had any concrete plans for the day, but now she was all tense, preparing for another confrontation with Aang. Her temper flared for a second before she wrestled it under control. No, she wasn’t going to let that ruin her day. Not when she had spent all these months preparing and looking forward to it.

“Right!” said Toph, clapping her hands together and standing up. “I’m off to the Earth Rumble ring, first bout starts in an hour. Get there early if you don’t want to sit in the crush-zone!”

“What’s wrong with the crush zone?” said Sokka, “You get the best view.”

“There’s those finely honed survival instincts.” Said Suki wryly, and Sokka pouted.

“We should still get there early, come on, we can get food on the way! You coming, Katara?”

“You aren’t waiting for Zuko or Aang?” she asked, just as the unmistakable yellow blur of Aang’s glider flew over their heads into the city. “Or just Zuko I guess.”

“Nah, he told me yesterday he didn’t want to be in those robes all day so he would meet us later.” He said.

“Oh, alright.” Shrugged Katara, feeling actually quite grateful to sit back and let someone else make the decisions.

“Cool, let’s go, I saw a stand selling fire-flake crusted kebabs…”

They set off with Sokka in the lead. He spent a clear twenty minutes at the stand trying to decide what to eat, eventually settling on buying half of the menu. Zuko caught up with them halfway to the ring, dressed in a simple tunic and loose pant. He obviously wanted avoid drawing too much attention, because he had also shed the crown and topknot, allowing his hair to slightly obscure his scar.

 The crowds had thinned a little now they had cleared the tight alleyways and streets of the inner city, and Katara watched at Sokka and Suki went on a few paces ahead of her, leaving her to walk next to Zuko.

“You, uh, you look really nice.” He said in a low voice, “I almost messed up my speech when I saw you.”

“High praise,” she said, shooting him a furtive smile.

“Well deserved.” His smile was steady and calm as he spoke, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  She smiled and looked down as her heart fluttered, wondering how he managed to be so easily flustered one minute and so charming and confident the next.

She was careful not to walk too close to him, they were in public after all, but occasionally their hands brushed each other, sending a frisson through her body. She felt as if she was in some sort of old-fashioned romance novel, all secret glances and lingering touches and barely contained passion bubbling under the surface. It was- actually kind of hot, she thought as her wrist grazed his knuckles and she held her hand out for a fraction of a second, prolonging the tantalizing contact.

He suddenly stopped, leaning against the corner of a building and fiddling with the sash around his waist, apparently uncomfortable.

“You ok?” she asked as she stepped aside to let the family behind them walk past.

“Fine,” he said, with an almost predatory grin as the family completely passed.

Before she knew it, he had grabbed her hand and yanked her forwards between the buildings, making her squawk ridiculously. The alley was barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side, and the sound of the crowds beyond was muted somewhat.

“What are you-”

“Katara, just-” he sighed shakily, cupping her jaw with one hand and resting the other on her waist, “Just, hush.”

Their lips crashed together and a deep moan reverberated through his chest. She scrabbled at his tunic, pulling him to her as her back hit the wall. His hand on her waist tightened spasmodically when she deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue between his lips, and he responded enthusiastically in kind.

But it was over before it began, and he pulled away from her, eliciting an embarrassing mewl from her at his sudden absence.

Her eyes snapped open and she saw him standing uneasily before her, a triumphant face grinning at her over his shoulder and a knife glinting at his throat.

Chapter Text

“Well, well, looks like I hit the jackpot.” Sneered the man behind Zuko, “I thought it was you, your majesty.”

“Look, whatever you want-” started Zuko, swallowing very carefully. Katara watched in transfixed horror as his adam’s apple grazed the blade.

The man laughed hoarsely, revealing several missing teeth and making the knife jiggle dangerously.  

“What I want is what we had.” He spat, “What you took from us. The Fire Nation was well on its way to taking its rightful place in the world! And then some pathetic whelp turns up-”

Katara wasn’t listening as he ranted. Horror had paralysed her. The whole situation felt unreal, and she felt entirely incapable of looking away from Zuko’s eyes. When she finally looked to the man with the knife however, her terror turned to cold fury. She felt ice in her veins as she took in his weathered features, twisting as he raved.

Without conscious thought, she reached out with her mind, past Zuko’s warmth to the brittle pulse that thudded through the man’s veins. Not taking her eyes off him, she felt herself tighten, power thrumming through her as she took control.

The knife clattered to the floor as his wrist began to bend grotesquely backwards.

“What the-?!”

Her muscles shook and her joints ached from the effort, but she slammed the would-be assassin’s face into the dirt, watching impassively as his eyes darted around in panic. She was vaguely aware of Zuko moving around her, placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

“Katara,” he whispered, and as if she was coming out of a trance, she dropped her stance with a gasp. Reaching out with shaky hands, she bent the water from a nearby trough into icy shackles, trapping the man on the ground. But that was all she could do, and she collapsed into Zuko’s arms, her whole body shuddering with sobs.

Zuko murmured soothing nonsense as he held her, and she felt so disconnected from the world that she may as well have been on the moon, rather than six feet away from the revelry of the festival and the oblivious crowds.

She hadn’t used bloodbending since Yon Rha, hadn’t needed or wanted to, and now she had taken control of this man with no thought or conscience. There was a trough of water right there. It was completely unnecessary. It was like she had been possessed, and it disturbed her greatly. She felt dirty, as if her very soul had been stained somehow.

When the sobs started to subside, Zuko pulled away a fraction and tilted her chin up so he could look at her.

“Katara, it’s ok,”

“No-it’s not!” she gulped, utterly overwhelmed. How long had it been since they had been walking to the earthbending bout? Ten minutes? She felt like she had emotional whiplash.

“You’re ok, Katara. I’m ok. You saved us.”

She started to take deep, shuddering breaths, trying to get a grip, and after another few minutes, she began to almost feel like herself again. She tentatively stepped back from Zuko’s embrace, though he kept his hands on her upper arms, an endearing expression of concern on his face.

“I- I think I’m ok…” she lied.

“Are you sure?” he said, looking unconvinced.

“No,” she let out a teary laugh, “but I am sure I don’t want to stay here.”

He nodded, frowning over at the incapacitated man.

“We should get some guards. We can’t leave him here.” He said, “Or better yet, Uncle, he knows who can be trusted.”

“You think he has friends in the guards?”

“No, this guy’s just another crackpot,” he said disdainfully, “but the last thing I want is for the festival to be called off because of an assassination attempt. It would be a disaster. This needs to be handled as privately as possible, and Uncle knows who can be discrete.” Katara nodded mutely, and Zuko poked his head out from between the two houses to the main street.

“Looks clear, I guess everyone’s already at the match.”

“There you guys are!” Aang dropped down neatly from his glider in front of them, timing uncanny as always. But his smile faltered when he saw the look on Katara’s face. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you guys at the match?”

“Aang,” said Zuko, “Can you go find Uncle? I think he was going to the match too.”

“Yeah, he’s there, I just left him to come and find you two. But what’s going on?” Zuko sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose

“Some scumbag with a knife just got the jump on me and dragged me into an alley. Katara saved me. He’s incapacitated in there and I need it to be dealt with discretely.”

“What? Are you ok?” He asked Katara, reaching out as if to hold her arm, but apparently thinking better of it.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“If he touched you-”

“He didn’t touch her, Aang, and anyway, she saved me remember?”

“I’m just in shock,” she said quietly, “I think I just need to sit for a while.”

“Ok,” nodded Aang flicking open his glider, “I’ll be back soon.”

“Tell Uncle I really need his advice on a game of Pai-Sho, he should know something’s up.”

Aang nodded again and flew off, leaving Katara to drop down on the roadside, her head in her hands.

“That’s the official story then?” she asked without looking up, “That guy dragged you in there and I followed?”

“I- sorry, I thought it was better than the truth, given the circumstances…”

“No, it’s fine, you’re right.”

“No one will believe him over us. Well, Uncle might have his suspicions, but he won’t say anything. It’s not going to be a scandal.”

“Mhmm.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

“No. I think I just need to sit quietly for a while.”

“Ok,”

They sat in silence until Aang returned a few minutes later, saying that Iroh was right behind him, accompanied by a select few guards and by the time they arrived, Katara was almost feeling normal again. Iroh and Zuko bustled around her, ordering guards around, and before long the disgusting man was marched out to the closest barracks, wrists bound and mouth gagged.

“Tragic.” Sighed Iroh, sounding revolted. “There will always be those who cannot accept peace.”

“What now?” asked Aang.

“I will escort Master Katara back to the palace, if she will permit it.”

“I would like that,” said Katara softly.

“I’ll go with you,” said Zuko, and Aang nodded.

“No,” Iroh shook his head and frowned. “The Firelord and the Avatar will be missed at the festival; you two should rejoin your friends, at least for a time.” Zuko looked sullen and Aang started to object, but Iroh silenced him with a wave. “This would ruin the spirit of the festival. No one was harmed, and you both need to show the people that all is well.”

“If you think that’s best,” said Aang uncertainly.

“It probably is.” Grumbled Zuko begrudgingly.

“Excellent!” Iroh clapped his hands together and smiled as if they were discussing the weather. “Now, I don’t know about you, Katara, but I am quite ready for a soothing cup of tea after this morning’s excitement.”

***

Half an hour later, they sat together in the courtyard with a fresh pot of tea, listening to the sound of the water trickling into the pond and watching the turtleducks float around peacefully. Iroh poured the tea with practised elegance, and Katara watched with pleasure as aromatic tendrils of steam rose from the cups.

The tea was near miraculous in its calming effect. ‘Silver blossom’, Iroh told her with a great deal of pride, his own blend. Katara made a not to ask for some when all this was over. They chatted about nothing for a while, Iroh respectfully not pushing her to talk about anything.

“Thanks,” she said as she finished the last of the tea, “For coming back with me, and for telling Aang and Zuko to stay. I think they both would have been worrying and it would have stressed me out even more.”

“Nothing but practicality, my dear,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “Besides, I need a break myself every now and again at my age.”

“Still, I appreciate it, it’s a shame for you to miss the festival.”

“It is a shame for you to miss it too! In fact, if you are feeling up to it, we can head back down to the city, it’s nearly lunchtime.”

“Ok,” she said, feeling that the sooner she got back to normal, the better.

But it wasn’t meant to be, because soon after they left the palace grounds, Aang swooped down in front of them.

“I know,” he said to Iroh before he could chastise him, “but I just had to come check. I was so worried about you, Katara.”

“Katara-?” Iroh started.

“It’s ok, I’ll see you later.” She said, and Iroh left them alone.

“I just kept thinking, what if he had hurt you? I can’t lose you, Katara.”

“Aang,” she said quietly, taking a deep breath and internally thanking the spirits for Iroh and his magic tea, “You will never lose me, not truly, we’ve been through way too much together, and I will always be your friend. But – and I really need you to hear me now- I am not your girlfriend anymore. That part of our relationship is over.”

“Katara! You can’t-”

“No, Aang! You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do! You come in here with your hopeful looks and your terrible timing and you make me feel like I’ve lost all control of my own life!” she was on the verge of shouting now, the tea apparently having reached the edge of its usefulness.

“That’s not fair! You can’t just-”

“I can just! And if you had a single ounce of respect for me you would accept that I have the right to make this decision.”  He stepped back as if she had struck him, and she felt a tinge of guilt dilute her rising temper.

“How can you say that I don’t respect you?” he said, sounding dazed and hurt, “I respect you more than anyone in the world.”

“But you don’t always act like it, Aang,” she said softly. “I know it felt really sudden, but everything I said at the South Pole had been creeping up on me for a long time.”

“But- but why couldn’t you talk to me about it? We could have figured it out!”

“I tried! I tried so many times to tell you something was wrong, but you just shrugged it off like it was nothing and bulldozed it under your- your damn positive attitude! I didn’t feel like myself when we were together, Aang,”

“So now my positive attitude is to blame?” said Aang defensively.

“No, but you never took my concerns seriously enough to let them interfere with your plans. It was always, ‘oh Katara you worry too much’, or ‘you’ll feel better, you’ll see’, and I convinced myself that was true for a long time, until I realised how unhappy I was.”

“How can you say that?” he said in a very small voice, “How can you be so sure?”

“It’s how I feel, Aang,” she sighed.

“It’s not fair.”

“I know.”

“But, if it’s meant to be-”

“Maybe it’s not meant to be,” she said gently.

He opened his mouth as if to say something, but shut it, nodded once and turned to leave.

“I- ok.” He bowed his head in defeat. “I guess I’ll just go…” 

“Ok.” She nodded, not meeting his eyes.

As she watched his glider disappear over the rooftops, she couldn’t help but think back to earlier in the day when she had vowed to herself not to let anything ruin this festival. Well, that ship had well and truly sailed.

With a hollow laugh, she headed back into the deserted palace, to do the only thing she felt able to do right now; sit in bed and pretend the outside world didn’t exist. Exhausted, Katara crawled into bed, spending several minutes crying before she drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

Katara was beset on all sides by faceless attackers. They lunged at her with glinting swords, cutting her dress to ribbons and slicing at her skin. Terrified, she reached out instinctually to their blood, feeling the rhythm of their life-force, before stopping them in their tracks, their bodies contorted like monstrous statues. The weapons rattled to the floor, and suddenly the attackers were screaming. Katara whirled around, but they weren’t the attackers anymore, now they were innocent men and women, shackled underground away from light and hope, powerless before her.

A screeching cackle echoed around the stone walls and suddenly Hama was before her, grinning triumphantly.

“It’s too late, you’re a bloodbender now.” She sneered.

“No…”

“Too late…”

“NO!”

She stepped back and Hama melted away. As the prisoners faded into the background, Katara suddenly felt enveloped on all sides by a warmth that seemed to penetrate into her very soul. She felt strong arms wrap around her.

“You saved me, Katara. You saved us.”

 

Katara’s eyes fluttered open, and for a second she wasn’t sure where she was. Sunlight streamed through the curtains of her room and she wondered if she had overslept and missed the festival. Wait, she had gone to the festival hadn’t she? And suddenly it all rushed back to her.

Barely contained passion, released for a glorious spit second before everything was shattered by a man with a knife. With a surge of nausea she remembered reaching out and grasping the blood in his veins, clenching her fist as she slammed his powerless body to the floor.

One minute she had been feverishly kissing Zuko as if her life depended on it, the next she was facing a man holding a knife to his throat. She had been so shocked and traumatized by the abrupt change of circumstance that she had acted in desperation, frantically seeking to end the threat decisively without hurting Zuko.

Ugh, and then there was Aang. Oddly though, their confrontation didn’t elicit the same guilt and confusion that everything else did. At least it was done and she couldn’t imagine how she could have possibly been clearer.

Stretching indulgently, she wondered what time it was. She felt invigorated by the nap, and found she was ravenous, having skipped lunch. She redressed, glancing quickly at the clock, which told her that it was late afternoon. Well at least she hadn’t missed the whole festival, there was a firework display scheduled for the evening which she had particularly been looking forward to, and she felt strongly that sitting alone in her room for the rest of the day would only make her feel worse.

She made her way out of the palace and into the city, which was somehow even more crowded than it had been this morning. She would never find her friends in this, and her stomach rumbled loudly as if to concur, so she decided that food was the priority at the moment. She looked around, wondering how she was going to choose between the dizzying array of food on offer, when by chance she glanced down a side street and saw, as if it was waiting just for her, her favourite oden cart.

The side street wasn’t as busy as the main roads, but there was still a steady stream of people going about their days, and as Katara ate, she occasionally absorbed snippets of conversation. A mother, tutting at her son for eating too much candy, a group of teenagers discussing the earthbending match, a young couple, heads bowed towards each other. She felt a stab of longing as she imagined her and Zuko in their place, strolling around in public together, with no thought for who might see or what the consequences might be. She shook the image out of her mind.

Finishing her dumplings and feeling somewhat restored, she decided to try again to find her friends. Although it would be difficult to spot them, the sun was fast sinking behind the rooftops, and it would be even harder in the dark. She wandered around the city in no particular direction, stopping occasionally to watch a street performer or browse a stall, and found that she rather enjoyed the solitude. There was something refreshing about just being another face in the crowd, given that she had spend most of the last few years with either the avatar or the Firelord. After a while though, she spotted Sokka’s blue tunic in the mass of red and black, and she wove through the endless stream of people towards him.

“Katara!” he beamed, sounding utterly jubilant.

“Hi guys,” she smiled back, happy to see that both Suki and Zuko were with him. They sat around one of many small wooden tables which were scattered around the square.

“You have to try some of this spiced mead! Here look I’ll go get you a mug…”

“He’s a little hyper,” said Suki as Sokka disappeared into the crowd. “Some merchant basically dared him to try this paste stuff- what was it called?”

“Inferno sauce,” Zuko chuckled.

“Yeah, that, and he’s been bouncing off the walls ever since.” Katara laughed and took Sokka’s seat.

“He’ll be lucky if he can sleep at all tonight,” said Zuko, smirking “You’re only supposed to put about a teaspoon in a group meal, and he was using it like dipping sauce.”

“Oh joy.” Said Suki dryly.

“So what did I miss?” asked Katara.

“Not too much,” shrugged Suki. She recounted their day as Katara nibbled at a tray of snacks in the centre of the table, and she noticed Zuko watching her closely, as if checking for signs of distress. It was full twilight before long, and firebenders were starting to weave through the tables lighting lanterns. Zuko lit the one on the table with a flick of his fingers.

“I wonder where Sokka’s got to,” she wondered out loud.

“I supposed I’d better go find him before he gets himself into trouble,” Said Suki with a long-suffering sigh. “See you guys later.” As she left, she shamelessly winked at Katara.

“How are you feeling?” asked Zuko almost immediately after she’d gone. “I was so glad when you came back out; I was worried you were-”

“I’m feeling much better,” she said, cutting him off before he could start rambling.

“Oh, good.” He faltered.

“It was just- this morning was- how to put it? Um, jarring?” she lowered her voice, although there was no way anyone could hear their hushed conversation over the revelry and the discordant noises of the band in the centre of the square tuning their instruments. “Suddenly there was a knife at your throat, and it’s not the first time we’ve been in life threatening circumstances together, I know, but like, ten seconds before I was-I mean, we were- It was just all a bit much.”

“I know you don’t like- I mean, when you had that guy-” Katara looked down quickly.

“I feel disgusting,” she said quietly, “I haven’t- not since Yon Rha…”

“I remember,” he said softly, making her look up. She had almost forgotten that he was there that day, the only time she had used bloodbending other than in defence of her friends in desperate circumstances, and he had watched without judgement. He had truly seen her at her worst, her most cruel and base, a far cry from the shiny, idealised version of herself she always thought Aang saw when he looked at her. And now, by some miraculous quirk of fate, here they were sitting together in peacetime, both of them forever changed and yet somehow still anchored to each other.

“I’m so ashamed.” She said, not meeting his eyes.

“You shouldn’t be, what you did was heroic, Katara.” She let out a hollow laugh. “Seriously, the way I see it, it’s like firebending. Firebending isn’t inherently evil, but it is dangerous, and the lure of all that power can trap people, like it did my father, and Azula.” A shadow passed over his face, but he continued. “You though, you’ll never fall into that trap, you’re too honourable. You used your bending to save me, simple as that.”

“It doesn’t feel that simple…”

“Look, I’ve done some bad stuff- some very misguided stuff in my life, and you managed to forgive me for it.” He put his hand over hers, looking serious, “The least you can do is forgive yourself for simply employing a weapon in your arsenal in self-defence.”

“You’re sounding more and more like your uncle,” she teased, managing a small smile.

“I don’t know about that,” he shrugged, his scar stark against his skin in the low light, “I can’t help but feel responsible. I put you in that position in the first place. I was completely out of line, and-”

“Wait, what are you talking about?”

“I- I dragged you in there-” She almost laughed at his tortured tone, but instead squeezed his hand and smiled at him when he met her eyes.

“Zuko! Don’t be ridiculous, have you been worrying about this all day?”

“I-Maybe,” He said sheepishly.

“Zuko,” she raised her eyes to the heavens, wondering if she would ever manage to convince him that he wasn’t the villain. “You weren’t out of line, and as for dragging me in there, as you so eloquently put it,” she blushed slightly and hesitated. She felt oddly as if she was nearing some invisible point of no return, but Zuko’s eyes twinkled in the lamplight and a slow smile was beginning to spread over his face, encouraging her to continue.

“Zuko, I was very much enjoying myself this morning, before everything. In fact, if that jerk hadn’t interrupted us, I may have shown you how much I enjoyed it,” His expression had hardly changed, but suddenly it felt like this morning again, and it was as if she could see what he was thinking, as if she could see all the barely contained passion bubbling under the surface. She smiled slyly and squeezed his hand again. “And if I had done that, I would have missed the earthbending match anyway, so stop worrying.”

He laughed, and for a second his face showed such open and unabashed joy she desperately wanted to kiss him, right then and there in the middle of the crowded square, audience be damned.

“Well,” he said, his voice low as he leant closer, “Now I know what I’ve missed I’m even more upset about the interruption.”

“You don’t know what you missed,” she said before she could stop herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret it when she saw the look on his face. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be shocked at her sudden boldness or to just to throw caution to the wind, whisk her up in his arms and carry her back to the palace where she could show him exactly what he had missed. She gulped as she realised an increasingly large part of her was very much hoping he was leaning towards the second one. She was both disappointed and relieved when he cleared his throat and ran his hand through his hair, eyes fixed on the table and a tentative yet oh so expressive smile played on his lips.

“Feel free to enlighten me,” he said, grinning crookedly and flicking his eyes up to hers, making her heart flutter. She managed to roll her eyes, despite her pulse thundering in her ears.

“Something tells me that might not be the best idea,” she gestured around to the hundreds of people that surrounded them. He looked around for a moment as if he had forgotten where they were, but quickly recovered.

“You’re probably right,” he chuckled, “Uncle always did say I never thought things through.”

She nodded and the band started playing, a few people around them getting up to dance. They watched for a time, suddenly bashful after their discussion, then she felt his hand grasp hers under the table, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles in time with the music’s steady beat. She angled her leg a little towards him so their knees touched and felt the warmth of him as their legs brushed. They exchanged subtle smiles, satisfied for the moment with sharing this small expression of closeness.

The day had been stressful, full of shock and heartbreak, but the night was only just beginning.

Chapter Text

Katara and Zuko sat together until night had truly fallen over the city, chatting easily and holding hands under the table as the crowd flowed around them. It seemed that if Sokka and Suki were going to return, they would have done so by now, and where Toph and Aang had got to was anyone’s guess.

“The firework display will be starting soon,” said Zuko, “Would you like to find somewhere with a better view?”

“Please tell me you’re not suggesting climbing up the clocktower again? I think I’ve had enough near death experiences for one day…”

“No,” he laughed, “I was actually thinking of the gardens, there’s a hill that looks over the city.”

“That sounds great,” she smiled as he offered his hand to help her up.

“So I’ve been wanting to ask you about something,” he said after they had been walking for a few minutes.

“What?” she asked curiously.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bring it up after- after this morning,” he was looking straight forward, and she couldn’t read his expression.

“Spit it out, Zuko,”

“There’s um, there’s an ambassadorial position at the court, I think you’d be great for it. You’re certainly capable of handling all the ministers, and your role in the war and dealing with Azula earned you a lot of respect here. Your father wouldn’t have to keep coming here in person, and you’d be given a house in the city, and a salary, obviously-”

“Stay here? With you?” she blurted out.

“Well, not with me-” Said Zuko hurriedly, and even in the dark she could tell he was blushing.

“I’m- I don’t know, I’d have to think about it.”

“Of course,” he said quickly, “Obviously you don’t have to make any decisions now, I just wanted to raise the idea…” He trailed off and they walked quietly for a while.

Katara hadn’t really given much thought to what she was going to do after the festival was over; she had been so busy with preparations and dealing with her friends and family arriving, as well as Aang’s drama.  She had never considered staying here. Six months ago the idea would have seemed insane, but as they walked through the garden gates arm in arm, she wondered if she might be just where she was supposed to be. They walked past the bench that had been the scene of their first kiss, and Katara felt a rush of warmth spread right to her toes as she remembered the gentle, almost unsure brush of his lips against hers as they explored the new ground that had opened up between them.

They passed another bench, this one occupied by a couple engrossed in their own… exploration.  With a shock she realised she recognised the blue tunic and she clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from shouting in surprise. Zuko’s eyes followed hers and he sniggered, although Suki and Sokka didn’t seem to notice, apparently far too busy with what looked like an enthusiastic attempt to literally eat each other’s face. Katara quickly grabbed Zuko’s arm, and dragged him down the path, out of earshot.

“That’s inferno sauce for you,” whispered Zuko, smirking.

“Ew, Zuko! He’s my brother!” She hissed and slapped his arm lightly, but he continued to grin amusedly, his face cast in dramatic shadows by the flickering lanterns which lined the path.

The view from the top of the hill wasn’t quite the spectacular panorama that the clocktower offered, but it was certainly charming. The path they had taken wound down before them towards the glow of the city, and the sky spread out above them, stars seeming to mirror the hundreds of lanterns glittering below.

“You know all the best spots, don’t you?” She sighed, smiling widely as she enjoyed the open space and fresh air after the crush of the city streets.

“It is my hometown,” Zuko shrugged, but seemed pleased with her reaction. “I’m sure there are some nice, uh, glaciers or something you could show me at the South Pole,”

“Don’t be an ass.” She swatted at him as he led her to a comfy looking wooden loveseat which was perched on the apex of the hill.

“Sorry,” he grinned. “It is a nice spot though, and the fireworks should be starting right over there, so it’s a great view.” There was a measure of pride in his voice which made Katara narrow her eyes at him in mock suspicion.

“Zuko, did you plan all this?” He cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Well, it might have occurred to me last week that this would be a good spot to watch the fireworks, and I might have suggested to the city planners that it might be a nice place for a bench…”

“You really are a hopeless romantic, aren’t you?” she smiled and nudged him affectionately with her shoulder.

“Maybe the hopeless part,” he muttered, but she could hear the smile in his voice. “I admit this morning I let my impatience get the better of me, you really did- do look beautiful, Katara. Then everything went to shit and I was sure I’d blown everything. Not very smooth, I know.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said softly, turning to face him, “You’re definitely better than you think.”

She closed the distance between them, and when their lips met it wasn’t like the feathery touch of their first kiss, but it wasn’t the clumsy, desperate frenzy of this morning either. Their lips moved together like the tide caressing the shore, slowly settling into an exquisite rhythm.

His lips were warm and firm and he tasted faintly of the mead he had been drinking. Katara sighed, burying her hand in his hair and relishing the silky feel of it between her fingers. She could feel the calluses on his hand as he cupped her jaw, contrasting with the surprising softness of his lips, and when he tilted her head delicately to slip his tongue between parted lips to brush against hers, Katara felt herself melt against him.

Their tongues danced with each other maddeningly, coaxing soft moans of pleasure from both of them as they pulled each other ever closer. Zuko nipped at her bottom lip, and Katara was unable to suppress a wanton gasp as a jolt of pleasure shuddered through her body. She felt Zuko smile against her lips, continuing his gentle, teasing exploration of tongues and teeth. He smelt of spices with the tiniest hint of smoke, and she could feel her awareness narrowing, her universe shrinking until all it contained was the two of them, and the glorious symphony of their mouths moving together, their hands pulling each other close, holding on for dear life.

She shivered when his hand left her jaw to snake around her bare waist. The feeling of his heated skin against hers was wonderful, addictive, and she responded by slipping her hand under the neck of his tunic to settle against his back. Zuko let out a deep moan, and now it was her turn to smile, as she gently ran her nails over his shoulder blade.

Zuko growled, the sound reverberating through their bodies and sending a shock of pure lust to her very core. Wrenching his mouth from hers, he planted a kiss behind her ear; nibbling on her earlobe and making her head fall back in ecstasy. She fisted her hand in his hair as he slipped his hand under the waistband of her top, skimming the bottom of her wrappings while he kissed down her neck to her shoulder.

Suddenly, there was a whining, drawn out squeal, and Katara’s eyes slammed open just in time to see the first firework explode in a riot of colour and light. Zuko startled, and abruptly removed himself from her neck in response to the sudden onslaught of light and noise. She realised her hand was still anchored in Zuko’s hair, and she released it with a giggle. Blinking as he came to his senses, Zuko started to laugh as well.

Smiling from ear to ear, Katara snuggled into Zuko’s shoulder, watching the fireworks bloom across the night sky, the booms and crackles echoing around the valley. The giggling subsided, and he laid his arm over her shoulders, resting his head on top of hers.

“All that preparation, and we forgot about the fireworks,” he murmured.

“Mhmm,” she chuckled.

“Katara?” He asked after a pause, his breath ruffling her hair.

“Yeah?”

 “Would it be really incredibly cheesy if I said we were making our own fireworks?”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, I thought so,”

So cheesy…”

“Yeah…”

“I wouldn’t hate it though.”

“Good to know,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. He kissed the top of her head and sighed against her hair. They sat for a while, content to look out over the city together and simply bask in the simple joy of being able to be so close to each other.

Zuko pulled away slightly, and Katara looked up to meet his eyes. A shower of sparks rained over the city, and his eyes glittered like treasure, capturing her under his gaze. The moment seemed to stretch forever.

“Katara,”

“Yeah, Zuko?”

“I’m really glad you came to visit,”

“Me too,” she said, smiling widely and linking her hands around his neck. “I bet you didn’t see this coming when you invited me.”

“The two of us making out in the royal gardens? No, I definitely did not.” He laughed huskily. “Can’t say I’m disappointed with the outcome though.” He leant down to claim her lips again in a searing kiss.

He pulled away a fraction, frowning slightly as if he was trying to burn the moment into his mind forever. His eyes were dark with desire as he spoke again, his voice low and rough as he stroked her cheek.

“Katara, would you- I mean, do you want to-”

“Yes,”

“You didn’t-”

“Yes,”

“Katara, at least let me finish,” he huffed in mock annoyance. She turned her head and kissed his hand, making his eyes flutter closed for a second.

“Ok fine.”

“Would you like to go back to the palace with me?” he said, his voice was tight and rasping with nervousness, or was it just that he was so close to losing control he could barely speak? Oh, how she hoped it was the latter.

“Yes,” she said again in a rush of breath. Distantly surprised at her own conviction, she wondered when she had become so sure about this, about him.

“Are you sure? We don’t have to-”

“I want you, Zuko,” she whispered, heart thundering in her chest. His breath hitched and she felt him tighten for a moment, but then he exhaled shakily and grabbed her hand.

“You’ve got  me,” he murmured as he pulled her up, “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Katara’s heart leapt as they stole through the darkened gardens. Hand in hand, they almost ran down the path, grinning and occasionally giggling with a light-hearted effervescence that was quite out of character for either one of them. Katara felt like the silly, carefree teenager she had never been allowed to embrace, sneaking through the city with a boy, alive with passion and excitement and lust.  Well, yes, that boy was the Firelord, and true, part of the reason they were sneaking was the political ramifications of getting caught, but in that moment, all the titles and trappings fell away, and there was just them.

They passed the benches near the gate with a little more caution, but it appeared that Sokka and Suki had moved on, although she would rather not give too much thought as to where, given their earlier enthusiasm. They paused to check the street when they reached the gate, but as she went to step out, Zuko pulled her into a knee-weakening kiss, his hands tight on her hips, holding her close and muffling her squeak of surprise.

Her body was flush against his, and in this position she could feel the bulge in his pants that told her exactly how much he wanted this. She shifted her hips experimentally and was gratified when his breath hitched in response, his hips twitching against her. Not here… said a sensible voice which cut through her lust-clouded brain. They pulled apart breathlessly, resting their foreheads against each other.

“Are we moving too fast?” she asked, as much to herself as to Zuko.

“Maybe,” he panted, “I mean, our first kiss was only yesterday,”

“Spirits, that was yesterday? It feels like ages ago…”

“Well, today has been long,” he said, rubbing his thumbs gently on her hips, “A lot has happened…”

Truer words have never been spoken…  She thought. It felt like a million years ago that she had confronted Aang on the palace steps, and even longer since the assassination attempt, but in reality it had only been a few hours. Was it too fast? Was she stumbling into a rushed encounter, doomed to be a memory forever tainted by the unpleasant events of earlier?

Her night with Jet had been hurried and wild, a reckless surrender to raging hormones and a wicked smile from a charming boy who way neither her brother nor 12 years old. It had been over almost before it had begun, leaving her with only a lingering soreness and an insidious sense of shame she never quite managed to banish. And Aang, well, she still wondered if she had been over-correcting with Aang. His love for her had seemed so pure, and while they had shared several intimate experiences, Katara had been reluctant to initiate anything or suggest the next step, not wanting to pressure him like Jet had her.

She couldn’t bear for either of those things to happen here, couldn’t bear to think of Zuko becoming another shameful memory of not-quite-rightness.

“Hey, Katata, you ok?” Zuko lightly squeezed her shoulder and she snapped out of it. He was looking down at her worriedly.

“Yeah…yeah.” she said slowly, “Just thinking. Over-thinking.”

“Katara, we don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” He tilted her chin up delicately with his finger, his eyes seeming to burn in flickering lantern light. “This- You are too important to me. I don’t want to do this wrong.”

Spirits, but he was perfect. Katara took in his intense expression, worry evident in his eyes, the line of his jaw, all while his lips were swollen from their kiss, his hair a chaotic mess from her wandering hands. He was a study in contradictions, from his calloused hands and soft lips to his mismatched eyes, right down to his deep, resolute concern for her emotional wellbeing, even when ten seconds ago they had been a few whispered words away from doing it right here in the gardens. 

“I might need to slow it down just a little,” she said quietly, placing her hand over his heart, “But Zuko, I want this, I really, really do. Just maybe not all right this second. I hope that’s ok…”

He laughed softly, took her hand and kissed her knuckles.

“Katara,” he murmured, “I’ve wanted this since you beat me at the North Pole, I think I can wait a little longer.”

“I-Oh.” Was all she managed to say, making him chuckle.

“So what do you want to do? We can go back to the festival, or if you like we can go to the kitchens for some tea?”  He linked their arms and started down the path outside the garden gate.

“I think I’d still like to go back to the palace,” she said, shooting him a sideways glance, “But can we maybe find a happy medium between tearing each other’s clothes off and platonic tea before bedtime?” He barked out a laugh.

“We can certainly try,” he said, his eyes suddenly full of their earlier fire.

Oh she was in trouble alright, she thought as they walked back.

***

Half an hour later, they settled in Zuko’s private parlour, taking care to lock the door just in case any servants decided to tidy up, or if Iroh came looking for them.

“Would you like a drink?”

“Sure,” she smiled, “Not the plum wine though.”

“Fair enough, I think I have a bottle of that spiced mead they had at the festival if you want?”

“Sounds good,”

He found the bottle, poured two glasses and raised his in a toast.

“To a happy medium?” he said, lip quirked up in a mischievous half-smile.

“A happy medium.” She whispered, and they linked their arms with a lot of giggling, sipping awkwardly at their drinks. The mead was delicious, spices tingling on her tongue while the sweet, smooth taste soothed the burn of the alcohol. It reminded her of Zuko’s kisses, and she wondered if she would always think back to kissing on the hill after the festival when she drank it.

“So,” she said, taking another sip of mead and putting the glass down. “What exactly did you mean when you said you’ve wanted this since the North Pole?”

“Oh,” he said, blushing and looking surprised at her bluntness, or maybe he just hadn’t expected to have to explain himself. “Well, um, you were just so fierce. You had got so much more powerful since the last time I had seen you, and your bending is so graceful…”

“Uhuh,” she said sceptically, raising an eyebrow, “And was this before or after you called me a peasant and stole Aang?”

“Ugh, I’m sorry. I just pushed all those thoughts to the back of my mind, tried to focus on my goal, but it was too late, you sort of lodged yourself in my brain that day, and when you beat me later in like, four seconds flat, then rescued me from freezing to death- well, you fascinated me, Katara, I had never met anyone like you.”

Katara was speechless, she had had no idea he had thought about her for so long. She took another drink.

“Well, to be fair, it wasn’t my decision to save you,” she said, “Aang thought it wouldn’t be right to leave you there.” He laughed.

“I did call you a peasant, never let it be said that you don’t have a temper.”

“You’re one to talk,” she muttered.

“How can you say that?” he cried in mock dismay, “Anyway, I happen to like your temper.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah, I mean, ideally when it’s not aimed at me, but I know I’ve done a lot to deserve it over the years.” He sighed, but smiled faintly, “Whenever you’d yell at me, I knew I was supposed to feel guilty or angry, but I’d just get distracted by how beautiful you were. It was harder to push you to the back of my mind when we were on the same side. But then you were with Aang, and I got back with Mai, and I figured it just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Zuko- I had no idea…” He flushed and smiled wryly.

“Well, it’s not like I’ve been head over heels in love with you all these years, but you were always there in the background, whether I wanted to admit it to myself or not.”  

Katara reached out and took the glass from his hand, placing it down on the side table. She grabbed the front of his tunic, regarding him for split second before pulling him down into an achingly tender kiss. He let out a muffled moan, and she felt him relax in her arms, pulling her ever closer.

She slipped her hand inside the tunic, resting it where she knew Azula’s scar bloomed on his chest. He gave a jerking start and deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue against hers and reclaiming some of their earlier urgency. Their knees bumped as they tried to get closer to each other, and Zuko rested his hand on her thigh, stroking up and down maddeningly slowly. Every time his hand reached its furthest point from her knee, she felt the pressure build a little more. She longed for him to move just a little further, to give her some small release, and the next time he stroked up her leg, she involuntarily bucked her hips towards him, bringing his hand dangerously close to her center.

Zuko withdrew his hand and pulled away from the kiss to nip her neck, his breath ragged in her ear.

“Katara,” he growled, so close to her that she felt the scrape of his teeth on her neck, “You are making it very-” he planted a kiss below her ear, “-very-” another kiss, right under her jaw where her pulse hammered, “-difficult-” he pushed her hair aside to expose the rest of her neck, and his breath tickled the sensitive skin there, “-for me to -slow- down,” he finished, punctuating his words with more hot kisses.

Katara just whimpered breathlessly, clutching at his shoulder and hoping the noise would spur him to continue, but to her disappointment, he dragged himself from her neck, looking frustratingly smug, his good eyebrow raised.

“No, no, you said you wanted to take this slower,” he said, grinning and taking her hands in his, “And while I am deeply flattered by your, um, enthusiasm, I have to believe you said you wanted to slow down for a good reason.”

“You’re impossible,” she said, half irritable, half affectionate.

“I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not,” he grinned ruefully, “But if it helps, stopping just now may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Helps a little.” she muttered.

“C’mere,” he said, leaning back on the plush sofa and putting his arm around her. “I’m pretty sure that if someone told me that every time I kissed you, a baby moose-lion dies, I’d still have to really think about it.” She laughed and gently swatted at his chest.

“That’s awful!”

“It’s accurate,” he sniggered, and she settled back into his shoulder.

“I thought about you too, you know. Back then.”

“Really?” he said, sounding surprised but happy.

“Yeah,” she said with a small smile, “I mean, not as far back as the North Pole, I definitely still hated you then-”

“Good to know,” he muttered.

“-but when you joined us, you’d do firebending practice with Aang… I told myself I was just interested in Aang’s training, but I liked watching you. You’re more…fluid than most firebenders, more graceful- plus you’d always train shirtless, which didn’t hurt.”

“Also good to know.” He said, chuckling lightly.

They were quiet for a minute, and she snuggled into his shoulder, relishing the comforting weight of his arm encircling her. She felt a fierce rush of joy that had nothing to do with the mead, and something in her mind clicked.

 “I’ll stay.”

“What?”

“I want to stay here. I want to stay with you, I mean not necessarily with with you, but-”

He silenced her with a searing kiss, his hands cupping her cheeks and enveloping her in warmth.

“Good,” he whispered hoarsely, before claiming her lips again, a desperate, earnest kiss which seemed to touch her very soul. “Good…”

Yes, maybe she really had ended up just where she was supposed to be.

Chapter Text

Katara awoke very early the next morning and spent several minutes trying to figure out why her bed was so uncomfortable, until she realised she wasn’t in her bed, she was sprawled, fully clothed on Zuko’s couch. Actually, to be more accurate, she was sprawled over Zuko, who was sprawled on the couch. Her head rested on his chest, their legs tangled together and she felt the warm weight of his hand on the small of her back. Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so uncomfortable.

They had stayed up very late, talking and every now and again spending several glorious minutes kissing as if it was their last day on earth, until they had evidently fallen asleep at some point. And she had said she would stay here with him, she remembered with a small shock. As she listened to his steady heartbeat, she mulled over the idea. Last night had been clouded by the thrum of excitement and lust and tenuous self-control, but now in the cold light of day she was pleasantly surprised to find that she still liked the concept. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t really see herself going back home permanently, or to the Earth Kingdom, she had got to know the capital over these past months and had actually grown quite fond of it, with its winding streets and dramatic vistas, cramped but still packed with life. She was even beginning to like the spicy food, although her taste was still far milder than the vast majority of fire nation citizens it seemed. But more than that, the idea of being an ambassador actually appealed to her. Although she didn’t feel qualified for it, she wanted to help her people, do something important again, and if the position came with the opportunity to put some of the stuffy Fire Nation ministers in their place, all the better.

She smiled against his chest. Of course it certainly didn’t hurt that she was anticipating many more of those scorching yet tender kisses that had set her aflame so effectively yesterday. Mind made up, Katara raised her head slightly and tried to figure out how extricate herself from Zuko without waking him. His breathing was calm and his face was more peaceful than it ever was when he was awake, and she found she was reluctant to disturb him.

Seized by a sudden impulsiveness, she pulled herself up and pressed her lips to his. His body tensed up and his eyes shot open with surprising alertness, but they softened almost immediately when they met hers. He relaxed beneath her, winding his arms around her as they kissed.

“Morning,” she whispered, smiling drowsily.

“Morning,” he said, voice rough with sleep. They kissed again, slow and indulgent. Katara shifted slightly and noticed the growing hardness beneath her that definitely was not conducive to taking things slow as they had discussed last night. Zuko apparently noticed her tense, because he stopped kissing, a blush rising on his cheeks.

“Sorry…”

“It’s ok,” she giggled, “You rise with the sun, right?”

“Ugh,” he said, blushing furiously now, “I can’t believe I said that…”

“I should probably get back to my room, don’t want to get caught sneaking out of the Firelord’s chambers in last night’s clothes,” she smirked, but made no move to get up.

“Wouldn’t want that,” he said tightly, also not moving.

“No…”

“Definitely not…”

She leant forward to kiss him again, but as her lips brushed his, the throbbing echo of a gong being rung startled her out of her haze.

“It’s just the dawn gong,” said Zuko, rubbing slow circles into her shoulders, “Most people still won’t be anywhere close to getting up.”

“Oh,” she said, relaxing slightly.

“I can help you get back to your room over the roofs if you like- I mean, if you still want to go back-”

“I probably should… I don’t know if I’m ready for my father or Sokka to see me leaving your rooms in last night’s clothes looking like- well, like this.”

“That’s very fair, I’m not sure if I’m ready for that…”

After indulging in a few more minutes of holding each other close on the too-small couch, they straightened their clothes and hair and made their way to Zuko’s balcony. They scampered over the rooftops, the rising sun casting long, dark shadows over the tiles. When they reached her balcony, Katara hesitated for a second before climbing into her room, not wanting the night to end.

“I hope you enjoyed the festival,” said Zuko, eyes twinkling.

“Very much,” she blushed, “It was… eye opening.”

“I’m glad,” he said quietly, reaching up to stroke her cheek.

“See you at breakfast?”

“Definitely.”  

Katara watched as Zuko disappeared over the rooftops back to his rooms, and when he was out of sight, she turned and shut the sliding door behind her and leant against it dazedly, her knees weak and her chest heaving. Well, there was no doubt about it now, if it meant more of that she was definitely staying.

She shook her head abruptly, at this rate she wouldn’t be able to be in the same room as Zuko without falling to pieces, let alone get through a group breakfast with family and friends. She was too wound up to go back to sleep, so she spent a few satisfying hours in the bath, enjoying the steam and lazily swirling the water around over her head. The hot water also was doing wonders for her stiff limbs, which ached after sleeping in such an awkward position, not that she was complaining. And just like that her mind was off again, lost in a rush of memories of heat and hands, gently stroking and exploring until the pressure within her was-

There was a knock at the door, breaking the spell. She blinked dumbly, and when there was another knock, she got up hurriedly, the whirl of water she had been holding above her head splashing down around her.

“Just a second!” she called, putting her hair in a towel, pulling on a robe and hoping that the steam that had floated into the main room would be enough to explain her flushed face.

It was Sokka, because of course it was Sokka.

“Hey, Katara,” he said, sounding suspiciously chipper for someone who wasn’t supposed to have got any sleep. “Phew! It’s like a sauna in here.”

“Yeah, I uh, I couldn’t sleep so I had a bath,”

“So did you have a good time yesterday?” he asked causally, sitting down on the couch as she bent some of the steam back into the bathroom.

“What? Oh. Yes… Fine.”

“Sorry, I know what with the assassination attempt and all…” he started, obviously taking her agitation as stress, rather than, well, the other thing.

“No, don’t worry about it,” she said, “I think I dropped off for a bit in the tub, so I’m a bit out of it.”

“Fair enough,” he said, “So, um, Aang flew off this morning, said he had ‘Important Avatar Business’ and he couldn’t stay here, you know anything about that?”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “He came to me again yesterday, wanting to get back together and I had to tell him again; no, I am not your girlfriend anymore. It was…tiring.”

“I thought as much,” he said, nodding.

“You did?”

“Yeah, yesterday he was super weird after you went back to the palace, talking about how worried he was and how he should have been there, but still seemed like, weirdly optimistic. So I had my suspicions, but he disappeared before I got a chance to tell him to knock it off.”

“Sokka, when did you get so perceptive?” she said, nudging his shoulder affectionately.

“Suki’s a good influence,” he muttered, smiling lopsidedly, “But seriously, I know you can take care of yourself and all, but you’re my sister, if you need me to punch Aang for you, I will, Avatar or not.”

“I think I’ve got it under control,” chuckled Katara, patting his hand.

“Oh good, because I’d rather not. He is the Avatar after all.”

“Still, I’ll be sure to keep you in mind for all my ‘punching people’ needs.” She grinned.

“Well, it’s good to stay useful in my old age.”

“Yeah,” she paused, momentarily unsure of herself, “Hey Sokka?”

“Yeah?”

“I think I’m going to stay here. Zuko offered me an ambassadorial position.”

“Really?”

“What do you think?” she asked, searching her brother’s face for signs of disapproval.

“Does it matter what I think? If it’s what you want to do, that’s all that matters.”

“I think it is what I want,” she said quietly.

“Well good,” he said matter-of-factly, “But for the record, I think you’ll be great. You’re already twice as sensible and level-headed as all the ministers and whatnot here, and that includes Zuko. I love the guy but he really does get upset very easily. Thrives on angst, that one.”

Katara laughed, and pulled him into a hug.

“Thanks, Sokka. Now I’ve just got to tell Dad.”

“Oh, he’ll be fine, just tell him he won’t have to come on these diplomatic tours anymore and you’ll be golden.”

“I hope so,”

“Don’t worry about it. Now do you want to come down for breakfast?”

“Sure, just give me a few minutes to get dressed.”

***

Breakfast was actually easier than she had expected, while she was sure she looked at Zuko more than was probably necessary, Aang’s absence made her much more at ease with the whole situation.

Sokka was loud and slightly brash as usual, Suki much less effusive, but generally much wittier when she did interject. Toph was her normal, half-grumpy, half-rowdy self, and Zuko mostly just listened, occasionally chipping in with advice or a self-deprecating comment. And by the time she had finished her meal, Katara was glowing with affection for all of them. She had almost forgotten her nervousness about talking to her father when she left the room, only to run into him right outside.

“Oh, morning, Katara!”

“Dad!”

“I was about to get some breakfast, have you already eaten?”

“Yeah, I- actually I wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh, ok,” he said, looking concerned.

“Well, um, I was talking to Zuko about after the festival, and he sort of asked if I wanted to be the Water Tribe ambassador, and I think I want to. I think I want to stay here.” She said without taking a breath. Her father blinked, then smiled warmly.

“Katara, that’s wonderful!”

“It is?”

“You don’t think so? If it’s what you want, I think it’s a great idea.”

“It is what I want,” she said, a little more confidently, “Plus, it would mean you don’t have to keep coming here for the diplomatic stuff.”

“Well that’s certainly an extra perk.”

“You don’t think Gran-Gran will be upset I’m not coming back home?”

“From what Sokka’s told me, she was the one who sent you off with the Avatar in the first place. Gran-Gran is the last person who’d be upset about someone following their own path.”

“I guess so,” she said, starting to smile.

“Katara, if you told me five years ago that you were going to settle in the Fire Nation, I would have been- surprised, to put it mildly, but life’s not always predictable. I can tell you this much though,” he put his hand on her shoulder, “Your mother would be so very proud of you, Katara, and so am I.”

Katara felt the prickle of tears and the swell of emotion in her throat. Unable to speak, she threw her arms around her father’s neck and held on to him like she was a little girl again. They stood like that for several minutes, until he kissed the top of her head and spoke into her hair.

“I can’t think of anyone better to represent our people.”

“Really?”

“Really. Now, I’m going to get some breakfast if you’d like to join me?”

“Sure, I could have another cup of tea.”

“Good.”

Chapter Text

To her disappointment, when Katara re-entered the dining room, it seemed that Zuko had left during her brief conversation with her father, and she didn’t see him for the rest of the day. She spent several fun hours in the cool sunlight sparring with Sokka and Suki, enjoying the challenge of fighting sword and fan rather than fire and rock.

She didn’t see him at dinner either, so late that evening she found herself back at his study door, like all those times back before everything had changed between them. She knocked, feeling a little nervous, but unable to suppress a small smile. To her surprise though, it wasn’t Zuko that answered the door but Iroh, who seemed elated as ever to see her.

“Master Katara! What a pleasure to see you. Come in, come in, would you care for a cup of tea? It’s a very pleasant floral blend of jasmine and moon-peach,”

She shuffled in, seeing Zuko sat by a full tea set. He rose hurriedly when he saw her.

“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt-” she started.

“Nonsense!” said Iroh genially, “Actually, we were just discussing possible accommodations for our new Water Tribe ambassador!” he winked, causing Zuko to sigh audibly and pinch the bridge of his nose.

“No rest for the wicked, I guess,” she said, taking a seat and grinning at Zuko’s grimace.

“That’s one way of putting it,” he said, “I thought things might slow down a bit after the festival but obviously I was wrong.” Iroh poured her a cup of tea.

“Now, now, Zuko,” he chided, “There’s only so much you can complain about your workload when it is you who insists on locking yourself in here and missing dinner.” He winked again at Katara, who snorted into her tea. Zuko rolled his eyes.

“Must you, Uncle?”

“Must you, nephew? It’s not good for me to miss meals at my age. In fact,” he finished the last of his tea with a satisfied smile, “I think I will go for some dinner now, I’m sorry to leave so soon after you’ve arrived, my dear, but I find myself quite ravenous!”

“No problem at all,” smiled Katara, “Enjoy your meal!”  

Iroh gathered his things and left with only a fleeting look at Zuko which seemed to convey something she couldn’t quite discern.

“I’m sorry about him,” muttered Zuko as he poured another cup for himself.

“What for?”

“Seriously? He’s not exactly subtle.”

“Maybe not just now,” she laughed, “but he’s subtle enough outside this room, which is more than I can say for my brother, for example.”

“Wait, what do you- does Sokka know?” The colour drained from his face.

“No! No that’s not what I meant; I just meant, you know, general subtlety. Although I did tell him and Dad about staying here.”

“How did that go?”

“Surprisingly well,” she said, sipping the tea, “They’re both really supportive, and I think Dad actually likes the idea, so that was nice.”

“I’m really glad,” he said, and he really did look it. Katara smiled into her cup.

“So what’s this about potential accommodation?”

“Oh, it’s just a shortlist of available houses, there are a few here in the Royal City, but they’re all pretty small, there are much more available in the city proper but they’ll be further from the palace,”

“Zuko, I used to live on the back of a flying bison for literally months at a time. I don’t care if it’s small.”

“Oh, well I guess that’s true-”

“Plus, the idea of living closer to you holds a certain appeal.” She loved that little curl of surprise at the corner of his lip when she said something he hadn’t expected. She wasn’t usually anywhere near this flirty, but something about that smile was addictive, she found she wanted to keep surprising him just to bring it back.

“I suppose it does,” he said, looking at her intensely over the steaming tea set.

The moment seemed to stretch forever, the unspoken question hanging in the air. Katara thought back to Suki’s words about not always having to make the most sensible decision. Just do it for you.

“Damnit, Zuko, just kiss me before I lose my mind.”

Zuko murmured something, some fragment of a sentence that she didn’t have time to ponder, because he surged forward and their mouths crashed together as if a dam had burst between them. In a fevered rush of probing tongues and grasping hands, all thoughts of discretion or prudence evaporated. They manoeuvred awkwardly around the tea set until they were crushed together on the low couch by his desk.

 Zuko’s grip on her hips tightened as her hands roamed wildly, desperate to touch his chest, his hips, his jaw- anywhere she could reach. To her great satisfaction, she realised his tunic had loosened in their jostling, and she slipped a hand under the heavy layers of material to finally touch his bare chest. She could feel the hard planes of muscle and the slight texture change of the skin as she ran her hand over the sprawling scar over his heart, pushing him gently so he fell back so she could straddle him.

He stroked his hands up from her hips along the sides of her torso, grazing the side of her breasts, and when he moved them back down, he didn’t leave them on her hips, but moved lower. He let out a low groan as he cupped her ass, squeezing experimentally. Katara responded by canting her hips slightly, grinding into him.

He let out another moan, a deep, rough tremor which sent a shock of arousal through her. She pushed his tunic open, pressing her chest to his and rocking her hips, relishing the friction of his hardness against her centre. He wrenched his mouth from hers, eliciting a disappointed whine from her which quickly turned into a high pitched gasp when he bit her neck, placing wet, open mouthed kisses down her throat. His hands were still on her ass, guiding her hips as she rocked gently and meeting each movement with a shallow thrust of his own.

Katara was lost in sensation, somewhere deep in her mind she knew that this was accelerating with alarming speed, every second that passed made it harder to stop, and more than that, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. If last night had been too fast, was this really that much different?

The thought was swept away in a heady wave of excitement as he snaked his hand around, over her hips and between her legs to cup her sex. She shuddered, gasping at the sudden intensity of the feeling. Zuko removed his hand immediately and pulled away from her neck, looking up at her distraughtly, obviously having wildly misinterpreted her response.

“Shit, I’m so sorry, Katara, I got carried away again and-”

“Zuko,” she panted, trying not to think about what she must look like, hair wild, lips swollen and turned on beyond belief. “Zuko, don’t you dare stop now…” She said, her voice breathless and needy.

“You’re sure?” he rasped, cupping her cheek and sounding like he couldn’t quite believe what was happening.

“I’m sure,” she whispered, turning her head to kiss his hand, pausing to take his hand in hers and kiss each finger individually. She lingered with her lips over the tip of his index finger for a fraction of a second, enjoying the way his eyes widened.

“Wait,” he managed to gasp, “Door…”

With a gesture, she bent the water from the teapot to make an icy cage around the door’s lock and handle. 

“You’re impossible,” he growled, “But-” –And he grabbed her hips, flipping her over so he straddled her, grinning as she let out a squawk of surprise. “-Since I’m not even sure this isn’t a very pleasant dream-”

“Zuko…” she breathed as he hooked his thumbs inside her leggings.

“Who am I to deny you?” He purred, his voice like the spiced mead; smooth like honey but with a burning edge that she found quite intoxicating. Not as intoxicating as the feel of his fingers running around the waistband of her leggings, though, and as he started to push them down over her hips, she felt as if she was coming apart at the seams. He started to remove them, and she wiggled to help, relishing the delightful friction of every movement. The leggings were thrown to the floor, and Zuko returned his attention to her, running his hand up from her ankle to the inside of her thigh, mere inches from her wrappings.

He skimmed his hand up her leg again, leaving feather light kisses in its wake, and she felt her thighs part a little as he kissed his way upwards, pushing her skirt up around her hips. She felt completely exposed, though she was almost fully dressed, somehow both powerful and utterly at his mercy as she quivered with arousal at his every touch. He paused with a halting, questioning expression in his eyes when his hands brushed the top of her wrappings.

“Katara…?” It might have been too fast, might have been a thousand other things, but as she lay there with his golden eyes fixed on her, she felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of rightness, and a desperate need to be closer to him.

“Spirits, Zuko, please don’t stop…”

He grinned, his eyes blazing with passion as he started to loosen the wrappings. He fumbled for a minute until Katara sat up slightly.

“Are you ok?”

“This is the most complicated underwear I’ve ever seen…” he muttered.

“They’re just bindings,” she giggled, “Everyone wears them at home,”

“Yeah well- Ugh, that’s it!” He sat back in frustration and before Katara could respond, there was a rush of heat at her core and a soft ‘whoomf’. “That’s better…”

“Zuko, did you just-?”

“They were in the way,” he rumbled, kissing her collarbone.

“Did you just burn my underwear?

“Sorry,” he said, chuckling roughly and not sounding sorry at all.

“Zuko! I can’t believe-” She gasped as he slid a hand between her legs and she felt herself shudder at the feel of his fingers against her. “Oh- Zuko…”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing you say my name like that,” he said, his fingers continuing their spine-tingling exploration, so very close, yet still too far from where she wanted them to be.

“Zuko,”

“Mhmm, just like that,” he grinned, pulling back briefly to stare into her eyes, “Katara, this- this is more than I ever- Katara, I’m so glad you came,” And with that he finally pushed a finger inside her. Her back arched as she gasped, a high, shocked sound.

She groped mindlessly to try and anchor her hand in his hair, but it seemed he was sitting back, never tearing his eyes from her face. Her eyes fluttered close as he started to pump his finger slowly, but the pleasure multiplied when she felt a warm puff of breath at her core. With a thrill of exhilaration she watched, enthralled as Zuko lowered his head, finally pressing his lips to her and swirling his tongue over her clit. He groaned when he made contact, the noise sending tingling vibrations over her sensitive skin, and began to move his finger again. She felt herself tense, felt the invisible string in her lower belly pull tighter and tighter as the pleasure built and built.

There was nothing, nothing but the relentless movement of his hand and the exquisite swirl of his tongue. She arched off the sofa again, clutching desperately at the fabric and moaning incoherently. She felt him smile against her and he added a second finger, sucking firmly on her clit and pushing her over the edge. She shattered, scrabbling wildly at the cushions and fisting her hand in his fair violently as she cried out, riding the explosion of sensation until she collapsed onto the couch, hand still clawed in his hair. After a few moments, he gently pried her hand away, kissing her wrist and lying next to her.

“Agni, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” he murmured into her hair.

“I- Spirits.” She breathed, unable to say any more. He pressed a kiss to her temple and wrapped her in his arms. Eventually she started to come back to herself, and she shuffled around to face him.

“Hi,” she whispered shyly.

“Hi,” He pressed a light kiss to the corner of her mouth.

“You burnt my underwear.”

“I, uh- Yeah.” He said, colouring slightly.

“I suppose you made up for it,”

“I hope so…”

“Zuko, that was- You are very good at that.”

“I hope it wasn’t too much…?” he trailed off, frowning anxiously. She shook her head, smiling.

“Just right,” she said, stroking her hand down his side.

“I’m glad you think so,” he said, smiling that playful half-smile, “I certainly enjoyed myself.”

There was a sharp knock at the door and Katara nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Shit-” she frantically smoothed her skirt down, looking around for her leggings.

“Wait, Katara,”

“Shit…”

“Katara, they won’t come straight in, just take a breath!”

“Shit…” she pulled on her leggings, trying not to panic.

“Katara,” he grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face him. “You froze the door shut.” She looked. The iced lock dripped lamely, as if to emphasise his point.

“Oh,” she said, and laughter bubbled up in her chest. “I did, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” he smiled warmly. Still laughing, she smoothed her hair and generally attempted to make herself at least slightly presentable, before she bent the ice away from the lock and back into the teapot. She hoped no one tried to drink it by accident.  

There was another knock.

“Lord Zuko?” Came a muffled but polite voice from behind the door, “I have the construction reports you asked for.”

“Yes of course, I’ll be with you in a moment,” called Zuko as he turned to Katara, “You ok?”

“Yeah I’m good, really good actually,” she said, flashing him a sly smile.

“Sorry we had to cut this short…”

“Me too,” He pulled her close and pressed his lips to hers.

“Plenty of time later though,” he murmured, smiling wickedly.

“I’ll hold you to that,” she said as he opened the door, revealing a harried looking minister who opened and shut his mouth silently when he realised Zuko was still mid-conversation.

“You have my word. Until next time, Master Katara.”

“Until next time, Firelord,”

Chapter Text

When Katara went to bed that night, she fell asleep thinking about all the lost time she and Zuko would have to make up for when everyone had left and they had a modicum of privacy. It certainly seemed she had made the right decision to stay. That was… well.  And of course she would have to return the favour. That was only polite after all. Her face heated at the prospect, and she couldn’t help but imagine him, bare before her, panting and shuddering and whispering growly, filthy things as she pleasured him…

When she awoke the next morning, it took her a few minutes to remember why she was feeling so odd and fluttery. Oh, yes. She smiled into her pillow.

Get it together. She told herself sternly, but it was largely ineffectual and she couldn’t stop smiling, giggling to herself every time she thought back to the festival, or last night… Spirits, last night. Her brain started its usual routine of trying to make her feel bad about what she had done, about what she had let him do, but the usual narrative wasn’t fitting today. She didn’t feel bad, she felt wonderful. Free. Regretting nothing but the odd circumstances they found themselves in which prevented them from spending all night tangled in each other’s arms. It was a strange, but not at all unpleasant feeling, being at peace with a decision that wasn’t the most objectively sensible thing to do. Or indeed, the most objectively sensible place to do it… She thought to herself, in his study? Really, Katara? But it was no use, she couldn’t make herself feel anything but giddy.

She dressed quickly , checking her hair in the mirror by the door and tamping down the faint smile she was sure was as good as writing ‘I FOOLED AROUND WITH THE FIRELORD’ on her forehead. They just had to get through the next few days. Her father left tomorrow, Sokka and Suki next week with Toph. Five days. Five days until the human lie detector and her over-protective brother left. They would go and she and Zuko would have a modicum of privacy, leaving them free(er) to, well, pick up where they had left off. Yes. She could do this.

She opened the door and turned into the corridor towards breakfast, only to be confronted with the aforementioned human lie detector just a few feet out of her room. Oh Spirits, she couldn’t do this…

“Morning, sweetness!” said Toph jovially. “I was just coming to see you, you getting breakfast?”

“Um, yes. Yes.”  Katara managed.

“Cool, I’ll go with you.”

“Um, yeah, ok.”

“You ok? You seem… twitchy.”

“What? Yeah, I’m fine,” she smiled reassuringly at Toph, before feeling like an idiot.

“Yeah, ok, whatever you say.” Said Toph sceptically, “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about the hospital. It’s pretty much finished but there are a few things I could use your advice on before they’re set in stone- you know, literally. Any chance you could come down to the site today or tomorrow?”

“Yes that’s fine,” she said absently.

“Not even a snarky comment about ‘set in stone’? What is up with you today?”

“You’ve been spending far too much time with Sokka,” she said, grinning slightly.

“There’s the snark,” said Toph, smirking.

“I’m just a bit tired is all, it’s been a really busy few days.”

“If you say so,” she shrugged innocently, “I guess it has been pretty busy for all of us-”

“Yeah-”

“-Especially for Sparky,”

“Huh? Oh. Yes I’m sure he’s been very busy.”

“Yeah, real busy.” She snorted, a shit-eating grin plastered over her face.

“I- shut up, Toph.” 

“I’m sure that’s why he’s so twitchy too.”

“Just- oh, for- just shut up, Toph, it’s too early in the morning for this.” She said irritably. Toph cackled in response.

“Lighten up, Sugar Queen, I couldn’t care less how you and Sparky are keeping busy,” She elbowed Katara suggestively, still grinning shamelessly. “But it’s great fun to watch the two of you stumble around in public trying to keep it a secret.” Katara’s face was burning now, and she felt completely out of her depth.

“I-I’m glad you’re entertained I suppose?” she stammered.

“Oh, Katara, it’s been the highlight of my visit!”

“Ugh…” she groaned.

 

***

 

When they reached the dining room however, Katara barely had time to pour herself some tea before a steward crept up behind her and bowed, clearing her throat and giving Katara half a heart attack.

“Apologies, Lady Katara, but the Firelord has requested your presence. He did stress that the matter is not urgent, and that he will be in his study for most of the morning, so you may join him at your earliest convenience.”

“Oh, well, I haven’t started my meal yet, so I suppose I may as well just see him now,” Toph’s head had shot up from her plate at Zuko’s mention, grinning cheekily

“My Lady, I do not wish to interrupt-”

“No, it’s fine, really,” said Katara quickly, getting up and abandoning her tea. “Let’s go.”

As she turned to leave, Toph sniggered.

“What’s so funny?” said Sokka through a mouthful of fruit.

“Oh, nothing to worry your pretty little head about,” said Toph airily as Katara left the room.

 “Katara!” said Zuko, getting up hurriedly and smiling widely when she entered the study, “You’re here sooner than I expected, I thought you’d still be at breakfast.” Katara shut the door behind her with a click and shrugged, trying not to smile as she remembered icing the very same door shut last night.

“Well I hadn’t started eating yet, so I thought I may as well come and see why the illustrious Firelord requested my presence.” She took a step towards him as he sat back on the desk, folding his arms and smirking slightly.

“Maybe I just wanted to see you,” he said, cocking an eyebrow. His eyes flicked for a second to her lips and her stomach lurched giddily. It took a lot of self control not to look over to the couch.

“You just wanted to see me?” she said sceptically, mouth curling, “So you sent a servant all the way down to the dining room to summon me here, in front of everyone?” A tiny pink tinge had appeared on his good ear, but he didn’t stop smiling.

“Is that so hard to believe?” he asked, lowering his voice, “After yesterday?” Katara laughed, and Zuko looked a little put out, obviously not expecting this response. She crossed the room and cupped his cheek fondly.

“It’s not so very hard to believe, but you forget how much time and effort I’ve put in over the last few months to trying to drag you away from that damn desk.” He laughed and leaned down for a quick kiss.

“I hate to admit it, but you’re right, although I definitely did want to see you.”

“Me too,” she said quietly, “So what’s up?”

“Nothing earth shattering, I just wanted to discuss a few things about the ambassador position.”

“I’m all ears,” she sat down on the couch and she could have sworn his eyes darkened for a second, as if he was thinking back to the last time she had been there. “Unless you’d prefer me to sit somewhere else…?” she asked innocently.

“Don’t tempt me,” he said slightly gruffly, “No, I’m just kidding. Mostly. Something tells me that with you staying, I’m going to have to learn a lot of self-control very quickly, so I may as well start now.”

“You and me both,” she muttered, but sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap, the picture of professionalism, at least she hoped so. “So, the ambassador position?”

“Yes, I have the shortlist of houses available here, they’re all in Caldera city so they’re a short walk to the palace. Uncle said he’d be happy to accompany you if you’d like to go see them.”

“That would be lovely,” she said, smiling as she took the scrolls from him, “I’ll see when he’s available and take a look at these today.”

“Good,” he smiled, “Uncle will be pleased. The other thing, uh since your father is leaving tomorrow, I wanted to announce you to the court as the new ambassador as soon as possible.”

“Oh,” Suddenly everything felt very imminent, very real.

“It doesn’t have to be a public ceremony or anything,” he said reassuringly, “But if you feel up to it, I’d like if you came to one of our general meetings, I can introduce you to the rest of the ministers and you can get an idea of how the meetings go.”

“Ok,” she said, feeling uncharacteristically meek.

“Are you alright?”

“It’s just- I feel a little out of my depth, I’m not a politician- don’t laugh!”

“Katara,” he chuckled, “I was born into this and I still feel out of my depth every day. Don’t worry about it, just treat it like- oh, like the other day when you told that Fire Sage off for disrespecting you! Well, maybe not quite so aggressive, but what I’m trying to say is you’re a force to be reckoned with, Katara, whether you’re across the battlefield or across a desk. I remember just a few weeks ago when you dragged the Firelord himself through his own palace without a second thought.”

“That does ring a bell.” She took a deep breath. “When’s the meeting?”

“There’s one at ten tomorrow,”

“Ok, I’ll be there. I don’t have to dress up or anything do I?”

“Katara, just be yourself and you’ll do fine.”

“No fancy, spiky ambassador’s robes?”

“You’re a foreign dignitary and a war hero. You could turn up dressed as a polar bear-dog and they’d probably be falling over themselves to praise your courage and your culture.”

“I suppose it doesn’t hurt either that I’m a close, personal friend of the Firelord, does it?”

“No, it definitely does not hurt.” He said with a small smile, “And speaking of close, personal friends ,” he stood up from the desk to sit beside her and tilted her chin to kiss her. His lips were soft and warm, and he smelled of warm citrus with a hint of soap.

“I’d better go,” she said, lips a hairs breath from his. “Otherwise neither of us will get anything done.”

“You’re probably right, my productivity has already taken a massive hit just from getting distracted by that damn couch.” Katara stood up.

“Self-control, right?” she said with a rueful grin.

“Sometimes I really hate being the Firelord,” he pouted, making her laugh.

“See you at dinner? It’s dad’s last day here and it’d be nice if you were there.”

“I’ll be there.”

“You’d better, otherwise I’ll have to drag you back through your own palace again.”

“Spirits forbid,” he said with a playful curl of his lip.

When Katara returned from Zuko’s study, she found Iroh deep in conversation with Toph, who was laughing uproariously about something. She took a seat next to them and started to help herself to breakfast. When she was finished eating they left for the city with the promise to meet Iroh at the oden cart afterwards.

“So what did you want to ask about the hospital? I thought it was almost finished.” Asked Katara when they got closer to the building site.

“It is pretty much finished, yeah,” said Toph, “Just some decorating and stuff left that they definitely don’t need me for.”

“Then what-?”

“I’ve got a surprise for you, Sugar Queen,” she smiled widely. Katara knew that smile. That was a ‘I’m about to wreck something expensive’ smile.

“Toph,” she said warningly, “What did you do?”

“You’ll see,” said Toph nonchalantly, adding to Katara’s growing sense of unease.

They rounded a corner and the unfinished hospital came into view. At first glance it looked completely normal. A few people were milling around with buckets of paint and brushed, and there was a carpenter outside the main entrance sawing lumber into neat columns.

The main difference since she had been here last was a large fountain set into the pavement in front of the building, just off the main street. It wasn’t particularly ostentatious or elaborate, just a plain stone bowl with a statue of a small figure on a plinth in the centre, water cascading down from its outstretched hands. The statue was indistinct, but there was something familiar about it…

“Toph, you didn’t…”

“I did.”

Katara looked closer, it might not have been obvious to a casual observer, but now she saw that the statue in the fountain was unmistakably of her. It even had hair loops. She was overwhelmed by a sudden rush of affection towards Toph, as well as a slightly guilty sense of satisfaction. She leant down and pulled the smaller girl into a tight hug, making her splutter indignantly; although Katara was sure she was smiling.

“Woah now, calm down, it’s just a statue. I’ve hidden a dozen of me around the capital and the palace.”

“Still. Thanks, Toph.” Katara released her from the hug and Toph shuffled a little awkwardly.

“You deserve your own statue as much as anyone else,” she said, shrugging casually, but smiling all the same.

“Well, thanks. It’s nice to hear.”

“You’re welcome. Now we can go meet Gramps if you’re done with all this mushy stuff.”

“Yeah, ok- wait, what d’you mean you’ve hidden statues of yourself? Does Zuko know?”

“Now that’d just ruin the fun, wouldn’t it?” said Toph sweetly, grinning evilly.

Chapter Text

When they found the oden cart, Iroh was deep in conversation with its owner.

“Heya, Gramps,” said Toph, startling him slightly.

“Oh, I didn’t see you two there! I was having a fascinating conversation about the virtues of ginseng tea.”

“Fascinating,” said Toph uninterestedly.

“Isn’t it?” Iroh smiled benignly, “Are you ready, Master Katara?”

“Yes, I think so,”

“Wonderful, will I see you for Pai-Sho this week, Li?” Li just smiled and nodded silently. “Excellent. Shall we?”

“Have fun house shopping, or whatever it is you’re doing.” Called Toph as they left.

“Did Toph show you her newest work of art?” asked Iroh as they made their way through the winding streets.

“She did.” Said Katara, a shade defensively. She felt a little guilty about it. She had never been one for fame and glory, but it had felt good to see that small monument to her actions. It still felt a bit petty and self-centred though.

“I thought it was very tastful,” said Iroh, “Far more subtle than most of her creations.”

“That’s certainly true,” she said, biting her lip uneasily, “But- well, do you think it’s a bit presumptuous? I mean I don’t even have a house here yet and I’m going around putting up statues of myself?”

“Firstly, my dear, it wasn’t you that put it up.” He smiled kindly down at her, “And secondly, I have it on good authority that while Toph rarely asks for permission to do anything, she did in fact consult with the Firelord himself regarding this particular construction.”

“Toph- Toph­ asked Zuko’s permission?

“I am sure she wouldn’t put it that way,” he chuckled, “But I believe she was aware of the somewhat public location, and felt it prudent to at least inform my nephew of her plans. I understand he was quite fond of the idea.”

“I- really?” she felt her face heat slightly.

“Oh yes- ah, here we are!” Iroh gestured at a small but well-maintained house wedged into a side street. The first two houses were much the same, small but sturdy and richly decorated. Iroh told her that this was the norm in the Royal City due to the confining mountains of the caldera, which severely limited building space. The third house, Iroh told her, was between the palace and the Royal Gardens, and when he pointed it out to her, Katara knew it was her favourite before they even went inside. A wizened old elm was hunched over a small, rocky pond to the side of the front door, which was set several feet from the main street.

“I thought you might particularly like this one,” said Iroh, seeing her smile.

“It’s lovely,” she said as they walked through the door. The inside was slightly plainer than the first two, but the wooden beams and simple furniture gave it a cosy, natural feel that put her at ease far more than the rich, heavily ornamented style that was prevalent in the palace.  There was a small study lined with bookshelves, a cooking and dining area, and an airy sitting room with large screen doors that led onto a walled garden. What really got her attention though, was the large lake beyond the back gate. Iroh told her it was part of the Royal gardens, but even from the house she could feel the faint, soothing rhythm of the water on the edge of her perception.

“This is definitely my favourite,” said Katara when they had finished looking around.

“I’m so glad you like it! I will let Zuko know and we can start getting it ready right away.”

***

Everyone was in high spirits at dinner that evening, and it turned out to be one the best nights Katara had had since everyone arrived. Her father seemed to be in a much better mood now he knew he was going home, and he was having a very animated conversation with Iroh and Toph about a prank he had pulled when he was younger. It was late in the evening and it seemed that both Sokka and Suki had rather over-indulged in the wine with dinner, as they were leaned towards each other, hand in hand, giggling very unsubtly and looking like they would very much rather be somewhere else. Zuko caught her eye from across the table and jerked his head towards them, looking amused. She rolled her eyes, but smiled back, making the most of Suki and Toph’s distraction.

Eventually, they all decided to call it a night after Toph almost fell asleep right there on the table. Sokka and Suki practically ran out the door, while Katara brought up the rear after everyone else said their goodnights, with plans to see her father off at the docks tomorrow morning.

 “Katara, there are a few things I’d like to go over before the meeting tomorrow if you have a minute?” Katara looked over her shoulder quickly, but it seemed her father, Iroh and Toph had already disappeared back to their rooms, and the corridor was empty.

“I think I can spare a minute,” she said softly, not breaking eye contact. She stepped back inside, shutting the door behind her. She only had a second to wonder if he actually did want to talk about the meeting before he pounced, burying one hand in her hair as he pressed his lips to hers in a desperate kiss. She leant back on the door, pulling him towards her and making it rattle a little against the frame. He pulled back a little and kissed down her jawline.

“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” he rumbled as he trailed kisses down her neck.

“What happened to- ah- self control?” Her breath hitched as he ran his tongue over her collarbone.

“What about it? I got through that whole dinner didn’t I?” She snorted as he moved up to meet her eyes, trying to pout but clearly grinning too much. 

“You know, for a public official you’re very impatient,” she muttered, pushing him away lightly and giving him what she hoped was a provocative smile. Seduction wasn’t really something she had ever really actually thought about, with Aang, mutual attraction had always just been a given and with Jet she had definitely been the seduced rather than the seducer. But now she felt a thrilling, electrifying desire to tease and entice, to fluster him as much as he flustered her. This was all new, and she couldn’t help but feel like her body had suddenly wrenched control from her brain, and all she could do was hold on for the ride.

She thrust a hand into his hair and kissed him slowly, luxuriantly, then walked him backwards with gentle pressure on his shoulders until his legs bumped against the table. She mirrored his earlier actions and kissed down his neck, pushing down his collar so she could reach lower. She gripped his hip with her other hand, and bit down on his neck, relishing the involuntary shudder that swept through him when she pressed her tongue to the bite.

“You call that self control?” he growled, moving his hand down to cup her ass, “That’ll leave a mark…” She laughed lightly at his tone, half exasperation and half breathless anticipation.

“Are you complaining?” she purred, canting her hips ever so slightly, enough that she felt his hardness between them. He let out a hiss of air and gripped her tighter.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,”

“Good.”

Emboldened, she moved her hand from his hips to cup his crotch. He gasped, his eyes wide for a second, before he let out a rough moan and claimed her lips fiercely with his own. She squeezed experimentally, moving her hand in rhythm with their tongues and was rewarded with another low moan.

“So, you found a house?” he managed breathlessly between kisses.

“Yup,” he kissed the corner of her mouth, “The one with the pond,”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that one,” He curled her hair over her ear and nipped her earlobe.

“It’s pretty close to the palace too, so that’s a perk…”

“Mhmm, just a few rooftops away,” he murmured, his breath tickling her neck. He stood up from where he had been half-sitting on the table and grabbed her hand.

There was a knock at the door and they sprung apart as if they had been electrocuted just as the door swung open and a servant backed into the room pulling a large cart.

“Oh!” she exclaimed when she saw that the room wasn’t empty, “I’m so terribly sorry, Firelord, I thought you had retired for the night! I’m just here to clear up after dinner. I’ll come back…”

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Zuko, a touch tightly, “We were just discussing tomorrow’s meeting-”

“Yes, the meeting.” She said, just a little bit too quickly.

“Of course, Firelord,” said the servant, her eyes downcast. Katara cleared her throat awkwardly as Zuko shuffled on the spot.

“I should be going… Lots to do tomorrow, I should get an early night.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I think so, I don’t want to be tired and uh, distracted for the meeting.”

“An honourable sentiment,” he said quietly, smiling at her in a way that sent her heart fluttering. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Yes, see you tomorrow.”