Actions

Work Header

Neither is Love a Cage

Chapter Text

[Harbor City, South Pole - 115 AG]

Katara smiled as she demonstrated to one of her younger students how to control a basic water whip. The girl was very enthusiastic about being able to waterbend, and had obviously practiced the movements as her teacher had instructed in their previous lesson, but in her eagerness she performed them a little too fast and too sharply, causing her to lose control of the blob of water she'd pulled up so that it ended up splattering all over the ice in front of them. It didn't mean anything about this student in particular; it was an issue many of her younger students had to deal with, as the concept of ebb and flow and the smoothness required for waterbending did not come easy to young children.

The girl nodded at Katara's guidance and tried it again, this time a little more carefully— her little tongue was peeking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration and Katara thought it was the most adorable thing— and eventually managed to hold the clumsy whip a little longer than she had before. The second the water was out of her grasp, the girl turned to Katara with wide eyes and a bright, gap-toothed grin.

Katara's own smile widened as she patted her little student's head encouragingly. "That was great, Yuka! I'm so proud of you." The girl beamed at her before turning to the water to try again. Katara took that opportunity to pan her gaze over the rest of the younger group, all of whom were similarly practicing, and then toward the right where her older students were split into pairs so they could spar. It was as she was looking in that direction that she noticed someone was approaching the training grounds, and it didn't take long to realize it was her older brother.

"Katara!" he yelled as he waved a hand in the air to get her attention as he ran toward her, or at least speed-walked as fast as the ice under his feet would allow. Katara rolled her eyes. For a man over 30 with a ridiculous amount of responsibilities both within their tribe and in the world at large, Sokka somehow still managed to find enough free time in his schedule to come bug her at the training grounds every other day. She figured even after achieving some kind of maturity, Sokka was still going to be Sokka no matter what.

Not that that stopped her from complaining, of course. She crossed her arms, adopting a no-nonsense posture. "Students," she said in a loud voice so that everyone, including Sokka, would hear her. "What do we tell Representative Sokka when he interrupts our lessons?" On cue, the younger students started booing and glaring as her brother approached the group, the teenagers off to the side chuckling to themselves at the kids' theatrics.

Sokka, with all the dignity bestowed by his position as the Representative of the Unified Southern Water Tribes to the United Republic of Nations Council, deftly ignored the jeers and sneers of her group of pre-pubescent pupils as he made his way toward her. "Katara, I'm serious—"

"No, really, Sokka..." She shook her head and waved him off with a hand as he made his way to her side. "Don't you have anything better to do with your time than come annoy me while I'm attempting to teach a class? I know you want the kids to ooh and aah over your 'heroic deeds' or whatever, but can't you do that on your own time—"

"Katara!" Sokka exclaimed, and there was an edge of alarm in his tone that effectively stalled her complaints mid-sentence. Her gaze immediately met her brother's in surprise, and when it registered with her just how worried he looked, she felt a pit open at the bottom of her stomach.

"What's wrong?" she asked anxiously, her mind already running through the possibilities of everything that could possibly have happened to make Sokka so apprehensive.

"We just got word," he started, gasping a bit for breath as he was still winded by the run— erm, speed walk. He paused for a second to regain his bearings. "The Fire Lady..." he finally explained. "She's passed away."
As his words registered with her, she could almost feel her heart halt inside her chest.

Zuko.

Her students, realizing that something important was going on, had quieted down and silently surrounded the pair, curious as to what was making their waterbending teacher and one of the leaders of their tribe so uneasy. When Sokka's news was revealed, there were gasps of shock from the older students, and murmurs of confusion from the youngest, who were still too tender-aged to understand.

Katara could barely hear any of it. Clenching her hands into fists at her sides, she pursed her lips and looked up at her brother, her voice not faltering for one second. "We have to sail for the Fire Nation," she declared. "As soon as possible."

.
.
.

[Future site of the URN Capital City in Yue Bay, United Republic of Nations]

Aang stretched his back luxuriously against the soft cotton of his bedsheets, trying to extend the deep-seated feeling of post-coital satisfaction for just a little bit longer. "You... are a terrible influence on me," he said with a small laugh as he turned his head to the side to smile at his companion— her head was resting against his shoulder, so all he managed was to end up with his nose buried in her dark hair... not that he minded all that much.

Toph snorted, as she's wont to do. "I'm taking that as a compliment," she said. Aang wanted to say something sarcastic in return but didn't. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of the tips of her fingers sliding over his skin— she was trailing a hand down his chest and enticingly close to the area around his bellybutton, and it was proving to be very distracting. "Seriously, I don't know what would become of you if I weren't around to pull you out of those boring meetings."

She had a point. Not that Aang was complaining about his job, mind you; he loved being the Avatar and protecting the peace and getting to talk to people and help everyone achieve balance where needed, but a lot of things had been set in motion over the past couple of years, and he was juggling a lot of different responsibilities nowadays. Between supervising the planning and construction of the future URN Capital City, settling down in an island just off the coast in Yue Bay, and aiding the Air Acolytes with the organization of their new self-sustaining society while teaching them as much about Air Nomad culture as he could while also writing down as much of it as he could to pass it down to future airbender generations to make up for all the information that was lost in the genocide, Aang was very busy and, indeed, a lot of it involved being present at countless meetings. Sometimes he had more meetings than waking hours in a day. It was encouraging, but tiring. He'd be lying if he said Toph's visits didn't help him relax, and not just in the obvious way.

Over the last few days, though, all those tasks had been the last thing on his mind. "I probably wouldn't have been able to focus on any of those meetings, honestly," he mumbled, bringing something of a cloud to the contentment of their afterglow.

Toph turned her head in the direction of his voice and nuzzled his shoulder with her nose. "You worried about Sparky?" she asked, correctly guessing what was weighing on his mind. It didn't take a master-level earthbending sixth sense to figure that one out; she was just perceptive that way.

Aang sighed. "It just... it really sucks that we can't be there for him," he admitted, almost inadvertently starting to run his hand down the dark cascade that was Toph's long hair. He really loved doing that. One of the benefits of... whatever this was that he and Toph were doing... was that sometimes he got to see her with her hair down. He never got to see her that way outside of these moments.

She poked him teasingly in the ribs and he laughed. He couldn't help it; he was ticklish and she knew it. "Uncle Iroh is with him, and his mom," she reminded him pointedly. "And Snoozles said in his letter that he's dropping Sugar Queen off in the Fire Nation before coming here. He's not alone. They'll hold him up until we can get there and throw rocks at him to snap him out of his funk."

He laughed again. "I don't think throwing rocks at people is an appropriate way to help them deal with their grief, Toph," he said amusedly shaking his head. Any other person probably wouldn't have been able to make him laugh at such a somber time, but Toph was unique that way.

She shrugged rather snottily. "Hey, don't knock it till you try it." With a sudden burst of energy, she pushed herself up to her knees beside him; the sheet that had been wrapped around her torso fell down to onto bed and unwittingly gave him a rather enticing view of her nude body. None the wiser, she leaned forward over him and cupped his face softly in her hands. This was another thing she often did that he loved; intellectually, he knew she only did it because she couldn't see and it helped her aim properly at his lips when she was going to kiss him, but it also came across as a tender gesture of sorts, and the idea of Toph possibly expressing affection with a gentle touch rather than with punches made it feel all the more special somehow.

Pulling back from the kiss, she gave him a sharp little nod. "Don't worry yourself to death, Twinkles. He'll be fine," she declared with finality before pushing herself up and off the bed. She stood there for a couple of seconds, most likely using her bending to locate her clothes, which in their earlier eagerness had been discarded all over the floor, alongside his.

Immediately feeling her absence from his arms, Aang pushed himself up on his elbows and frowned. "You're leaving already?" he asked as she took a couple of steps forward, once again unknowingly giving him an alluring view of her backside as she bent down to pick up her uniform. Except now he was wondering whether she knew exactly what she was doing because, come to think of it, she really did this sort of thing quite often when they were together like this.

"Yep," Toph said as she buttoned up her clothes and sat down on the edge of the bed so she could make sure the hem of her pants was located properly around her ankles and wouldn't slide down and obfuscate her feet-vision. "It's good for me to go MIA for a little while— it lulls my idiot cadets into a false sense of security— but I do have to go back and teach them something eventually."

Not for the first time, Aang felt sorry for the police force cadets; he knew more than anyone how tough Toph could be when she was trying to teach you something important. That said, that was precisely why he'd suggested she take the Chief of Police job in the first place: she would do things in her own way, but she would take her charge seriously, and the results would vindicate her methods.

Still, he couldn't help a little dejected about her quick exit. Couldn't she stay for a little longer? Maybe he could show her the latest Air Nomad relics he'd just received from the Eastern Air Temple. Some of them were interesting metal alloys; she'd probably like that. And it would help him keep his mind off Zuko and his recent tragedy.

Halfway through putting her hair up in her usual bun (something she must've had a lot of practice with since she did it with exceptional dexterity— and skill, not one hair out of place— considering she couldn't see herself even with a mirror), she once again demonstrated her perceptiveness when she commented, "Your silence speaks volumes, Twinkletoes."

He couldn't help but huff a little in exasperation, pushing himself up a little so that his back rested against the headboard of his bed and his arms were free so he could cross them. "I just wish you wouldn't scurry out of here every time like we just did something wrong," he declared in a disappointed tone, studying her movements as she finished pinning her hair up in place. "I mean, would it be so terrible to just stay for a while longer and, I don't know, talk or something? I mean, I'm trying to repopulate my race here, and if I just get to see you once a month that's not—"

Aang cut himself off abruptly, knowing very well what he'd just been about to blurt out was something she was definitely not going to like. It was too late, though; Toph paused sharply in her movement to get off the bed and Aang knew she could infer what he'd been about to say either way. "I thought that's what your groupies are for," she said in a snide tone before finally pushing herself to her feet, all dressed and ready to go.

Aang scowled at her even though she couldn't see it. "They're not groupies, they're Air Acolytes, and they've pledged to preserve—"

"And I'm sure any one of them would be more than happy to make lots of airbending babies with you," she interrupted him harshly. "You're totally free to sleep with other people, Aang. I am," she finished with a shrug, sounding entirely too casual for his taste.

He knew she was. He knew she'd slept with other men in between their encounters, but that didn't mean it didn't sting. He should've known, back when he and Toph started this... whatever it was... all those years ago, that it was a very bad idea. He wasn't made for this ambiguous, no-strings-attached, friends-during-the-daytime but sex-partners-behind-the-curtains kind of relationship. It just wasn't him.

When he thought about it, it really felt like a failure on more than one level on his part. Air Nomads didn't exactly believe in monogamy; yes, sometimes bonding ceremonies— sort of the Air Nomad equivalent of marriage— were held for two people who developed a particularly intense emotional connection, but it was more of a way of honoring that connection rather than committing to another person. For the most part spirituality was more important to his people than any earthly attachments, including romantic love; based on that, they had a different concept of what family was. Children were raised not by their progenitors but by the community as a whole. Aang never knew who his birth parents were, and had never felt his life any lessened for it.

Along those same lines, sex was seen as a means of reproduction and sating temporary urges, not as an expression of an emotional bond. It was quite common for Air Nomad monks and nuns, even those who were bonded, to take many different sex partners through the course of their reproductive years. But that was something Aang really struggled with. He knew since he was freed from that iceberg over fifteen years previous that he was different from the rest of the Air Nomads when it came to relationships. His relationship with Katara might not have lasted forever as he thought it would when he was twelve, but if there was one thing he'd learned from it, it was that he was more in tune with the concept of family that was taught in the other nations than that of his own. He wanted to love one woman more than anything in the world. He wanted to have the absolute certainty in his heart that he would spend the rest of his life beside that person, complementing each other, supporting each other, raising their children together if they should be so lucky to have them.

And this clandestine thing he had with Toph clashed spectacularly with those ideals, and he should've known better than to get attached. Of course, one could argue he'd been attached even before their physical relationship started. She was the only woman he'd ever been with. He'd dated Katara for many years but he'd still been a bit young for full-on sex even by the end, or at least he felt that's what Katara thought. Their relationship hadn't been completely innocent, but they'd never gone all the way— Katara always pulled back when things got intense and Aang wasn't confident enough to push further. Then this thing with Toph started really quickly after his breakup, out of curiosity more than anything else, but they were close and he liked Toph so why not give it a try? By now they'd been doing this dance on and off for nearly a decade, and Aang really should've known better than to complain. But he couldn't help it.

"I know," he said, swallowing hard down a dry throat as he tried to ignore the way his chest felt like it was being crushed. He didn't exactly want to talk about her other sexual partners any more than she wanted to talk about their little... arrangement. It was a kind of unspoken rule: they didn't talk about it. They met up, they did the deed, they joked around a little when they had the time, then they went on with their lives like nothing had ever happened between them. Best friends with no long-term plans other than normal friendly things.

But Aang was the last airbender, after all, and he couldn't just ignore that he had a moral imperative to at least start the repopulation of the Air Nomads... except the idea of sleeping with someone else just to achieve that goal felt wrong to him for some reason, and it bothered him that she seemed to have no problem with it.

It's not like he was about to ask her to marry him or something, but... would it be so bad just to hang out for a little longer? They lived in the same city and he felt like he barely saw her. He wanted to spend more time with her. He liked Toph. He really liked her. Not just in a sexual way, either. He and Toph understood each other. She could tell when he was lying to himself even when he actually believed his own lies. She cut through all the bullshit like it was the easiest thing in the world and helped him see things more clearly than he ever would on his own. She made him laugh like no one else could. They had so much fun together, even outside the bedroom. She was steady as a rock and always had her feet on the ground when he felt like he had so much going on in his head that he was one step away from flying off into the stratosphere, and not in the good way. And he just... he loved being with her, in any capacity. Did she not feel that?

"I know," he repeated somberly. "I just wish I was enough for someone to stay."

She turned toward the bed— she couldn't exactly glare at him but she could sort of narrow her eyes in his general direction. "You're the only one I ever come back to," she admitted in a serious manner, arms crossed. "Doesn't that make you feel special?"

Her matter-of-fact tone only made him feel angrier. "I don't want to be special," he threw back, shaking his head in a disillusioned manner. He was already special enough. Maybe too special in ways that made him feel completely separate from everybody else. No, he didn't want to be special. He wanted to be normal. "I want to be loved."

Toph was quiet for a long moment. Then she took a deep breath and released it slowly, almost in a sigh. "Well," she said as she took a couple of steps closer to him. She leaned forward, supporting her weight with her arms against the mattress, and brought her face close enough to him that she could speak in a low tone and still have him hear her. "It's not always about you, Avatar."

With one more pause at the end of the sentence as if for dramatic effect, she pushed away from the bed and turned around, making her way to the door without another word and leaving Aang on the bed feeling quite unsettled.

.
.
.

[Royal Caldera City, Fire Nation]

Zuko tried yet again to read the scroll that was unfurled on the table in front of him, but he still couldn't manage it. It was like the words blurred on the paper every time he tried. He had spent the last fifteen minutes struggling with this, telling himself over and over that he had to focus, but it proved futile. Thank goodness this wasn't some kind of urgent matter, because his mind just wasn't in it.

He was glad that his uncle was around to take over the majority of his Fire Lord duties. Initially Zuko had meant to keep on working as usual; he declared that the best way to deal with grief was to not dwell on it, and as such keeping his mind on work would be an ideal way to push himself to move on. Uncle Iroh had delicately pointed out that Zuko wasn't really known for "not dwelling on things," and if he was going to be thinking about it nonstop either way, he might as well take the time off work to do it properly. Zuko had no choice but to agree, if reluctantly. Now he was glad for it. His uncle was right: he was going to be thinking about it, anyway, and at least his way he wasn't completely shirking his responsibilities in his despondency.

Well, not that he wasn't doing that either way. Yes, Uncle Iroh was overseeing the Fire Nation during Zuko's period of bereavement, in particular the organization and logistics of the Fire Lady's public funeral, but Zuko still had to approve the costs, which was what he was currently attempting to do. Except it shouldn't take him twenty minutes to read through and sign one measly piece of paper. His mind was all over the place.

He just felt so guilty.

This wasn't a particularly novel thing for Zuko. He'd been carrying guilt for something or other in his life since practically the day he was born. He screwed all sorts of things up on a regular basis, and he was used to feeling the weight of it on his shoulders all the time— even now, far into his tenure as Fire Lord. But he was also used to feeling the implacable need to make up for whatever idiotic mistake he had committed, the relentless urge to fix whatever it was that he did wrong. Except there was no fixing this. There was nothing he could do to assuage this kind of guilt. Death was final.

He sighed deeply and rubbed at his face with his hand. He once again shook his head and told himself to focus, damn it. He grabbed the piece of paper and lifted it up straight into his line of vision, determined to get it done this time. He was only a few lines in when he heard the door to his office open. Figuring it was just his mother bringing in that cup of tea she had promised earlier, he didn't look up. However, it was not his mother's voice that came when the silence broke.

"My Lord," said the guard that was stationed outside his door that day, "you have a visitor from the Southern Water Tri—"

"Zuko!" Katara, obviously not having enough patience to wait for the guard to finish introducing her, pushed past the armored man like he was nothing but a mannequin and quickly made her way toward him. Zuko barely had time to drop the scroll and stand up before she barreled into his arms.

"Oh, Zuko..." she said almost in a sigh, squeezing him with her arms as if the gesture alone was enough to convey all her empathy. It worked. Zuko wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her as close as he could, closing his eyes as he leaned into her embrace.

He'd never admit it out loud, but he had needed this. Yes, both his uncle and his mother had taken the time to hug him the day his wife passed, and he was incredibly grateful for their presence, but he'd still been a bit in shock at that point, a little out of it, unable to process it all. In the two weeks since, he had regained his bearings for the most part, and his relatives had allowed him the personal space to do that in his own way. Zuko would never ask for a hug— it was unbecoming of the Fire Lord, and Fire Nation people weren't very touchy-feely to begin with— but now that he was in Katara's arms, he could feel the reassurance she meant to convey down to his bones.

They stayed like that for a couple of minutes— Zuko didn't hear when the guard tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind him, and Katara didn't seem to notice it, either— until it was finally Katara herself who pulled back, just enough that she could look him in the eye. "Are you okay?" she asked, looking worried about him. She lifted her arms from around his shoulders and moved to cup his face carefully. The tips of her fingers touched the edge of his scar when she did. "You look thin. Have you been eating properly? You really need to eat something— I should get you something to eat right now—"

She meant to turn away and make for the door, but Zuko's arms were still around her waist and he quickly held her in place. "Katara," he called out, trying to pull her attention back to him. She was still babbling about the importance of regular meals, but his firm tone was enough to snap her out of her jabbering. He smiled at her lightly— really just a small curling up of the corners of his mouth, but it was more than he'd managed since his wife passed. "I'm sure the rather large kitchen staff we employ is more than capable of handling the meal prep," he said with some amusement— again, more than he'd been able to muster since that fateful day two weeks ago.

"Right. Sorry," his friend replied with some chagrin. She shook her head and patted his forearms lightly, inches from where his arms angled as he was still holding her by the waist. "I'm being silly. I just... I worry," she admitted softly but without any contrition.

"I know," Zuko acknowledged with a nod. "And I appreciate that." Once they were past the rocky start to their friendship, concern was always the main characteristic he'd come to associate with Katara. She cared about people in general, but more than anything she cared for her friends and family. She cared so much. And for those people she cared about, she was always worrying about their wellbeing and doing everything she could to help them stay safe and achieve happiness. As bossy and pushy as she could be (and boy, she could be really bossy and pushy), he knew very well that sometimes overbearing instinct came from a place of love.

Since the end of the war, Katara had taken it upon herself to be the one to make sure their ragtag little group kept in regular contact somehow. They were all busy and scattered all over the world and could only manage to see each other every few months if they were lucky, so Katara took it upon herself to be the one to write to everyone as often as possible and make sure the rest of the group was appraised on anything important going on in everybody's lives.

She corresponded with Suki often, or at least she had before her relationship with Sokka went south— Zuko knew the two girls still talked and were friendly with each other but Katara had admitted to him before that their exchanges were a little bit awkward since then. It was the same with Zuko— not that he'd been terribly close to Suki before, but he did notice a difference in the general tone of her letters since the two of them split up. Zuko did hear from Sokka by letter a few times over the years, but he was pretty sure that was on Katara's insistence, too; Sokka preferred to have his conversations in person, so they did a lot of catching up whenever he did manage to make his way to the Fire Nation or whenever they convened in URN meetings.

Katara wrote to Toph often, too— which Toph would usually reply to with a quick "Stop sending me letters, Sweetness. I can't read" note, scribbled by a different proxy each time. Zuko thought she was secretly pleased to be included in the missive circle, as she seemed to be aware of everything Katara told her in her letters even though she loved being contrary about it. Nowadays, when Katara had to write to Toph, she usually sent the missive directly to Aang, since they saw each other the most often out of all of them. Katara's communications with Aang had been similarly tense for a couple of years there after they broke up, but once the two of them adjusted to the split and reasserted their friendship, it was mostly smooth sailing from there on. Zuko corresponded with Aang more often than any of them except Katara, but their exchanges were often about work— problem-solving any and all issues that might've come up recently in the process of establishing the URN or even between the four elemental nations. Therefore Katara's input on whatever might be going on with Aang personally was something Zuko, as his friend, greatly appreciated.

Mostly, though, it had been Katara who he had maintained the most constant communications with, and thank Agni for that. It's not that he didn't have a cadre of advisors and relatives to lend him their guidance when it came to his Fire Lord duties, but there were things— personal things, intimate things— with which he couldn't go to his uncle or his mother because he didn't want to worry them. He and Katara had always understood each other very well— well, not always always, but yeah— and she was sufficiently far removed from Fire Nation politics that he didn't feel he was putting an undue burden on her just by telling her these things. And she paid attention to his woes and gave the best counsel she could come up with, although sometimes he didn't follow it (because he was a giant knucklehead, as she was always glad to point out). He was always glad to have her as a soundboard, to have someone to talk to about all these things and have them take them as seriously as any Fire Nation business. He didn't know what he would've done without her letters and her periodic visits these past few years. He appreciated her presence in his life more than words could say.

And he did so more than ever right at that moment.

She looked slightly to the side and seemed to notice something: the unrolled scroll he'd left half-read on the table. "Are you working?" she asked with a small frown, in a tone that indicated she was simply aghast at the idea that he would be expected to think of work in these circumstances. "Why are you alone? Where are General Iroh and your mother?"

"It's nothing huge, just a little paperwork," he assured her dismissively, trying to emphasize the idea that the documents he'd been attempting to read weren't really a big deal. "I'm not really working. Uncle has taken over my duties for a while— he's probably around here somewhere, taking care of the preparations and logistics for the..." His voice faltered a little here. "For the funeral," he concluded quickly after clearing his throat.

Fire Nation royal funerals took a lot of preparation. He'd already explained to Katara, back when his mother's husband Noren had passed a few years ago, how the whole thing worked. Generally the body would be incinerated as soon as possible after death— usually that very day or the next one— and the ashes would be spread over hot coals. The coals would then burn for twenty-eight days in a shrine that family and friends were encouraged to visit so they could pray for their loved one's swift ascent to Agni. On the twenty-eighth day, the funeral ceremony would be held, where the family and guests would convene to remember the person and a local fire sage would bless the coals and the ashes would be collected for burial, signifying that the deceased had now transitioned to Agni.

This procedure was followed strictly for every Fire Nation citizen who passed away except the Fire Lord, mainly because the transition of power to his or her heir necessitated more expediency, and the Fire Lord was believed to be the representation of Agni on earth, anyway, so there was hardly a need for prayers for a quick ascension. In the case of Zuko's wife, however, it was a much larger event than your average Fire Nation funeral. Because she was the Fire Lady, it was expected that people from all over the Fire Nation would travel to the Capital to pay their respects and offer their prayers (her coals were already burning and open to the public at Coronation Plaza), and a large number of international guests would be invited to the funeral ceremony, with all the logistics that entailed. Zuko hoped his uncle wasn't having too much trouble organizing it all, but he had to admit he probably wouldn't have been in the right state of mind to handle all of it himself, given that he could barely get through reading one procurement form.

"And my mother was sitting here with me before you arrived," he continued, "but she went to get me some tea to help with my headache." He rolled his eyes a bit. "If there's one thing Uncle and my mother agree on, it's the medicinal properties of tea."

Katara smiled at him a bit tearily "And their love for you," she pointed out, and he nodded his agreement. He was really glad to have the both of them by his side in this difficult time. Uncle Iroh had not even thought twice about extending his stay in Royal Caldera City when Zuko's wife... took a turn for the worse; he just knew that Zuko would be needing all the support he could get and was more than happy to offer it. And while his mother usually split her time between her three children— she would spend a few weeks with Kiyi, who had recently gotten married to the governor of one of the eastern islands, then stay for a while at the private island where Azula had been transferred a few years back to be cared for by mental-health professionals, before returning to Royal Caldera City with Zuko— she had spent the last couple of months at the royal palace and insisted that she would remain there for as long as Zuko needed her.

It was a thought that would never have occurred to him fifteen years ago, but he was really glad he had a family to support him through this difficult time. And now Katara was here, too, and for the first time in weeks he was beginning to feel like he was standing on solid ground again.

She lifted her hands to his head again, this time resting the tips of her fingers against his temples. "You want me to heal that for you?" she asked, referring to the headache he'd briefly mentioned before.

Zuko shook his head as he looked down at her softly. "I'm okay. It's faded by now." It wasn't a lie; his headache had disappeared pretty much the second she walked through his door, actually. "Did you just arrive?" he asked, realizing that he hadn't even inquired as to how her travel from the South Pole had gone.

She nodded. "Yeah, our ship docked at the harbor about an hour ago and I made my way here as fast as I could," she explained. "Sokka wanted to be here, too, but he's got that progress meeting at the URN Capital next week that he can't miss." Zuko nodded, understanding. He'd been slated to be present at the URN progress meeting, too (since he was one of the originators of the idea of the United Republic of Nations, he had decided not to name a representative as most of the other nations had done and instead be directly involved in the process himself), but given the circumstances, no one would expect him to show up. Since Iroh was busy with funeral preparations and general Fire Nation goings-on, Zuko figured the responsibility would fall on Mai, as she was the Fire Nation ambassador to the Earth Kingdom, and therefore the closest high-level Fire Nation dignitary.

"He did ask me to tell you," Katara continued, "that he and Aang and Toph will be on a ship the minute the meeting is over and they'll definitely be here for the funeral." She emphasized the point with a sharp nod of her head. Zuko was grateful for that; his friends were like family, and he would be comforted by their presence and support as well.

She was looking up at him with what seemed to him like a hopeful expression, and he tried to transmit through his own that he was glad to have her with him, but it must've not come across right because after a second or two her expression fell and he could see tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes.

He was about to ask if he'd said something wrong when she abruptly let out a sob. "I'm so sorry, Zuko," she said, her voice catching in her throat halfway through the sentence as the tears started to fall. She threw herself into his arms again, crying into his shoulder. Zuko hugged her tightly again. It was a little ironic that he was the one doing the comforting now, but he hated seeing women cry. He hated seeing her cry.

"Thanks," he said a little feebly, thinking she was giving him her condolences for his wife's passing. Everyone he came across over the past two weeks had done that, and thanking them had become almost reflex for Zuko.

He realized that understanding was wrong when she shook her head emphatically. "No, no," she said, pulling back a little so she could wipe the tears off her cheeks. Then she looked at him again, a little bit hesitantly. "I mean I'm sorry about... about Rin."

Zuko frowned at her, a little confused. Wasn't that the same thing? But she continued speaking, dodging her gaze a little as if she was worried about his reaction to her words. "She'd had such a complicated time of it... and I wasn't here. Maybe if I had been here, I could've..."

"Hey, hey," he piped up, now his turn to cradle her face in his hands. It unsettled him that she, of all people, felt guilty about his wife's passing. "Don't say that. We knew this could happen from the very beginning. Even if you had been here, there was nothing you could've done." And he meant that. Katara had already done more than would be expected of her; she'd visited way more often than she usually did over the past few months and every time she was in Royal Caldera she would make it a point to examine Rin, heal any aches and pains she could find to ease her burden, and offer any medical expertise she could to help his wife prepare as much as humanly possible for the difficulties that were coming her way. Zuko was infinitely grateful for her aid and did not for one second blame her for what happened to Rin.

Himself, on the other hand...

She didn't look entirely convinced, but she nodded either way, giving him a tremulous little smile. She took a deep breath as if to settle her sobs, and asked, a little warily, "And... the baby?"

Zuko's heart stuttered through a couple of beats as it always did when he was reminded of the little person he and Rin had created. "She's... she's fine," he responded in a shaky tone. Suddenly, his hands were trembling. "Probably with her wet nurse right now."

Katara's smile immediately widened, a hint of brightness coming back into her expression. "A girl?" she asked, and Zuko confirmed it. "I can't wait to meet her," she added, hope infusing her tone again. She grabbed his hands where they were still holding the sides of her face and held them tightly in her own. "Zuko... you're a dad now," she said, full of wonder.

He knew that. He knew that, and yet... it still didn't feel real, somehow. "Yeah," he all but croaked through the knot that had suddenly formed in his throat. He was already responsible for the well-being of an entire nation, but for some reason that didn't feel half as scary as being responsible for the well-being of one tiny human being. "I don't... I don't really know how to feel..." he admitted, a little hesitantly. He wouldn't have confessed this to any other person, but this was Katara. She'd dealt with him at his worst and still somehow managed to see the best in him.

"That's okay," she assured him, offering him another supportive smile. "There's no right way to feel when something like this happens. But we'll always be here for you, Zuko," she added as she squeezed his hands comfortingly. "I'll always be here for you."

Then she threw her arms around his neck again, squeezing him as tightly as he could. His own arms wrapped almost automatically around the curve of her waist once again, holding onto her like a lifeline. He buried his face against the curls of her hair in the hollow where her neck met her shoulder and breathed in deeply, inhaling her scent. She smelled like open skies and the sea, and he found that incredibly comforting.

They stayed like that for some time, just holding each other up and drawing comfort from the other's presence. Zuko wasn't sure at which point of their friendship exactly it had become a commonplace thing for them to hug this way, to so easily accept and even reach out for the other's touch in times of distress, but right then and there he couldn't imagine it any other way. He needed this, and for once he wasn't going to question his motivations.

Many an onlooker might, however, or so Zuko realized when he heard someone clear their throat and both he and Katara sprung away from each other like they'd been bitten by two-headed rat vipers. "Mom!" Zuko exclaimed when he noticed his mother's presence at the door, holding a plate and a cup full of steaming liquid in her hands. He'd completely forgotten his mother was going to be bringing him tea soon. He hadn't even heard the door open.

"Lady Ursa," Katara said in a cheery tone, although Zuko could tell she was also a little bit winded from the sudden fright. "It's been so long since I last saw you."

His mother gave both of them a warm smile and walked toward them to leave the tea on Zuko's desk, right beside the scroll he'd now been ignoring for entirely too long. "Katara, dear," she said in the usual motherly tone she used with all of her children. She moved forward to give the younger woman a hug, which Katara eagerly returned. "I'm so glad you're here."

"There's nowhere else I'd rather be," Katara assured her, and her certainty was a balm on Zuko's heart. He hated inconveniencing other people with his problems, but Katara wanted to be here. His friends wanted to be here for him. Just that small knowledge felt like it uplifted his soul in these trying times.

"Good, good," his mother said, patting Katara's shoulders affectionately. "Did you just arrive?" she asked, unknowingly echoing Zuko's earlier inquiry. "You must be really tired from such a long trip. Zuko, are her rooms ready?" she added as she turned to her son.

"I don't think so," Zuko admitted. It's not like he had any way to know; he hadn't even had the opportunity to ask the guard when Katara arrived.

"Um, that's my fault, probably," Katara interjected sheepishly. "I barged in here without letting any of the staff know that I'm staying. I don't even know where they took my things," she added with a little bit of an "oops" expression. "And then we got a little... distracted." She signaled at the space between her and Zuko off-handedly. "Zuko was just telling me about your precious new granddaughter," she pointed out, giving his mom an excited smile. Zuko's stomach churned.

"He was?" his mother asked. Zuko could hear the undertone of surprise in her voice and felt her eyes dart in his direction. He dodged her gaze. "She is indeed the most precious thing you will ever see," his mother continued speaking in a loving tone, seemingly untroubled by his reaction, although Zuko knew she had noticed it. "I stopped by the nursery on my way to the kitchen. She's asleep now, but perhaps you can meet her tomorrow?"

"I'd love that," Katara replied enthusiastically.

His mother smiled at her and nodded in agreement. "Well, why don't we just take you to your rooms, then, so you can rest?"

Zuko begged out, pointing out that he still had work to get to. His mother gave him a knowing look, as she was well aware that he only had one single piece of paperwork that he'd been trying to read for the last half hour, but otherwise said nothing. "You two go," he insisted. "I'll see you at dinner."

The women agreed. "Come on, dear," his mother told Katara, delicately grabbing hold of her arm. "I'll walk you to your rooms. You can tell me all about how the Southern Water Tribe is coming along while we make our way there."

"And you can tell me how Azula's been doing," Katara replied, linking arms with the older woman. Her interest on Azula's condition was something Zuko had always been grateful for; it made him feel like he and his family were not the only ones holding onto a glimmer of hope that she might get better someday. Katara couldn't cure her with her waterbending healing— nor could any medicinal concoction simply restore her mental health— but the therapy she was receiving at the private facilities did seem the most promising and Katara was always enquiring about her progress, both out of professional curiosity and out of personal empathy. She'd been there with him that day, the day he'd first witnessed his sister's mind break. She knew more than anyone what a tragedy it was.

They walked arm in arm toward the door like grade-school bosom buddies and Zuko watched them go, wondering at the contrasting shades of their clothing as they made their way out. Walking out last, Katara gave him one last encouraging smile and a small wave. He returned the wave as the door closed between them. With a sigh, he turned back toward the table and tried to get his mind focused back on procurement forms.

It didn't work. All he could think about was her.