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Neither is Love a Cage

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[Future site of the URN Capital City in Yue Bay, United Republic of Nations - 115 AG]

"You yourself must watch yourself," Aang read from the scroll as the words reverberated against the walls of the large, mostly empty room he and the rest of the local Air Acolytes were in. Back when he was a child, the elder monks would do the morning meditation recitations from memory, but Aang hadn't learned them by heart yet. Still, he was happy when the old scroll with the daily recitations was found in the ruins of one of the old Air Temples a few years back; at least he could read them while the others meditated. It made him feel a little closer to what the Air Nation used to be.

"You yourself must examine yourself," he continued as he looked at the tranquil faces of his people— his new people, at least. They might not be airbenders, but they were every bit as dedicated to spirituality as the old monks had been. They truly did believe in the Air Nomad way of life and would give their all to restore it. "And so, self-guarded and mindful," he continued, "O monk, you will live in happiness."

There was silence for a moment as he finished, almost like everybody had been holding their breath and only released it once the recitation was over. He smiled as he looked at some of the younger members in the back; he was pretty sure at least one of them had fallen asleep. He didn't mind. He used to be just like that when he was a kid.

The murmur of a multitude of voices started up again as everyone began opening their eyes and standing up now that morning meditation was over. Aang got a few waves and a few "Avatar Aang, look!" from the back as the congregation started to mobilize out the door, the gaggle of children racing each other as a slower-moving crowd of adults chastised them as necessary.

Among the latter group he caught the face of someone he'd been thinking to talk to before meditation started, and he found himself blurting out a call without even intending it. "Yee-Li!" As soon as the name was out of his mouth, he regretted it. What had he been thinking? Sure, he'd been pondering on whether or not to bring this up with someone, and Yee-Li seemed like a good candidate, but truth be told, Aang had no idea what he was even going to say.

The brown-haired woman split from the crowd and approached him, seemingly unaware of his internal panic. "Yes, Avatar Aang?" she asked with a smile. Yee-Li had been one of the original Air Acolytes, back when it was still the "Avatar Aang Fan Club" in Ba Sing Se. As she was around his age, over the years she'd become one of Aang's most trusted assistants, moving to the Yue Bay site early on in the URN process and taking a large load of the work of organizing the Air Acolyte community while Aang was tied up with higher-level international negotiations. She had really been a lifesaver in more ways than one, and she'd been the first woman who came to mind when he was thinking of doing this earlier in the morning.

Of course, now that she was in front of him, he was floundering. "Um, well..." Spirits, how exactly was one supposed to even ask something like this? At least most of the other acolytes had shuffled out of the room already and weren't there to witness his obvious discomfort. "See... uh... you know how I have to, erm, repopulate the Air Nomads?"

"Of course," Yee-Li replied quickly. Aang wasn't really sure if he had ever stated that particular goal of his in a public setting, but it seemed like a foregone conclusion that many people had come to set for him on their own. The Air Acolytes, especially, knew about his desire to restore his race, as they were helping him do it from the cultural side of things, so it was no surprise that Yee-Li took it as a given.

"Yes, well." Aang cleared his throat awkwardly. "I've just been thinking lately that, you know, if I want to actually achieve that goal I kinda have to... I guess... start seeing women at some point, and... Not— not that I think of women as baby-making machines or anything," he rushed to add in a desperate attempt to clarify his word vomit, "but, like, if I ever want to have children it's kind of necessary, if you know what I mean—"

"Oh," Yee-Li exclaimed with wide eyes, as if suddenly understanding what Aang was trying to say underneath all the nervous babbling. "It would be my honor to help you bring more airbenders into the world, Avatar Aang," she declared with a smile that looked genuine and unconcerned. "I'm available to have sexual relations with you whenever you'd prefer."

The breath Aang was just taking in lodged itself in the center of his throat like a rock at her blunt way of putting it. "Um," he started in the middle of the ensuing coughing fit, "I was actually thinking maybe going on a few dates before, erm...?"

"Oh, there's no need for that," Yee-Li waved him off with an amused scoff, almost like he'd said something silly. "Restoring the Air Nomads is the most honorable goal. The world won't be in balance again until all four nations coexist, and it's already been a hundred and fifteen years since that was last true. There's no point to wasting any more time," she concluded with a shrug. She was still smiling at him like she had just explained something absolutely obvious.

Aang wouldn't admit it out loud, but his brain broke a little at all of that. How was it that she managed to sound more like the Avatar than he did? As uncomfortable as this whole situation was, he had to admire her dedication to the cause. "So you, uh, don't... mind, then?" he asked, his words dripping with hesitation. She seemed to be completely clear as to what was happening, but he had no freaking clue what he was doing.

"Not at all," she replied without a second of doubt. "Would you like to start tonight?" she suggested helpfully.

The gears inside Aang's head were still turning as she asked, trying to just understand how he'd even gotten to this point, let alone the question she'd just posed to him. "Um, sure?" he said, more in the tone of a question than a firm answer, and the reply was almost a reflex because he was so overwhelmed by this whole conversation to begin with.

"Great!" Yee-Li said in a chipper tone, her smile beaming with enthusiasm. "I'll stop by your chambers after dinner, then, if that's okay with you." Barely two seconds after declaring this she started walking toward the door like nothing significant had happened, animatedly calling out to some of her friends who had gone on ahead of her earlier.

"Okay...?" Aang mumbled to himself as he stood there in shock, feeling very much like he assumed someone would feel if they were run over by a railroad. Of all the reactions he'd ever expected, that was definitely not one of them.

What... what just happened?

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[Royal Caldera City, Fire Nation]

It was easy to forget sometimes that the city outside the palace walls was probably a flurry of activity in preparation for the upcoming funeral, Katara thought. Usually when she visited the Fire Nation Capital, she liked to take some time to go into town and look around, interact with the locals; that had always been her favorite part of traveling. This wasn't a normal visit, however. She tried to stay close to Zuko, as her intention when she set sail for the Fire Nation was to support him as much as she could, and as it wasn't a good idea for him to be out in public until the day of the funeral, she was stuck inside the palace alongside him.

Katara was trying her best to keep him from thinking too much about what happened and about the funeral. She knew it was impossible for him to put it completely out of his mind, but she didn't want him to fall too deep into his grief— she knew Zuko had a special talent for wallowing in despair that he hadn't quite grown out of even by the time he aged past his teens— so she resolved to keep him as active as possible.

They'd spent a lot of time sparring together or watching each other train, trying to point out any weaknesses in the other's form that they could possibly improve on. One of the things that was unique to their friendship was the fact that they were very well acquainted with each other's fighting styles in both an adversarial and a friendly manner on top of bending opposite elements, so they were in an unmatched position to help each other when it came to this. The idea came up often in their letters and whenever they managed to be in the same place at the same time, but they were always so busy with something or other that it was always hard to actually take the time to work on their bending together. Now that Zuko was supposed to be not working and Katara didn't have a whole tribe to babysit, it seemed like the perfect time to try this. She was thinking that maybe they could take the chance to adapt some of each other's moves; General Iroh was always going on about how the next great frontier of bending was imitating other bending styles.

It's not like they were practicing all the time, of course. Sometimes they'd just hang out in Zuko's sitting room, drinking fire wine while they chatted about the places they'd traveled to or reminisced about their younger years. Sometimes they'd spend the afternoon in the library, Zuko recommending a particular book to her before picking one of his own and settling down on the lounge area to read in comfortable silence. Sometimes the whole morning went by with the two of them ensconced in Zuko's office discussing politics and policy for both their nations, giving each other advice and venting about their various obstacles and frustrations to the point that sometimes they forgot about lunch until a servant knocked on the door to ask if they would like their food to be reheated.

Not that having mostly only Zuko for company was a problem, of course. She loved Zuko and quite enjoyed spending time with him; in fact, it was rather refreshing to be able to hang out with an old friend without needing to worry about their usual responsibilities or deal with all the shenanigans that seemed to follow Team Avatar around on a constant basis. But she did have to admit that it was a little quieter than she was used to, almost like they were trapped in their own little bubble where they were completely isolated from the outside world.

The only times she was actually reminded that life still went on outside the palace was whenever she saw General Iroh, and he was so busy that the only time she saw him most days was during breakfast. But Katara appreciated what little time she got with him either way; she adored the affable old man— it was hard not to.

"We've already seen large numbers of people visit Coronation Plaza to pay their respects, many even traveling from the provinces," Iroh was explaining how the funeral rites were going while he calmly sipped his ginger tea like it was the secret that would get him through the day. "There's a growing pile of flowers and cards at the foot of the shrine. It's marvelous to see." He put his cup down and it clacked lightly against the porcelain of the saucer plate sitting in front of him on the table. "The Fire Lady was very well-loved."

"She was," Katara agreed, pausing for a second on her breakfast as she contemplated his words. She thought back to all the times she'd interacted with Rin through their acquaintance; they hadn't exactly been close, but they'd always gotten along well. Rin was a sweet woman, if a little shy, and she'd always been more than accommodating whenever Katara or the rest of Team Avatar visited the Fire Nation Capital. They'd gotten to interact a lot over the past few months, since Katara had visited several times in order to check on the progress of her pregnancy. Rin had even been to the South Pole once, a few years ago. Katara's students had taken her penguin sledding. She didn't think she'd ever heard the Fire Lady laugh as much as she did that day.

"Some of our foreign guests are starting to arrive, too," Iroh continued after taking another sip of his tea. "That is, I presume, the reason why Ursa is not having breakfast with us this morning." That made sense to Katara. Usually Zuko's mother shared the morning meal with them as well, but she was absent today. Welcoming guests of the crown and organizing their accommodation during their visit was usually a task handled by the Fire Lady, but given the circumstances, it had been up to Lady Ursa to take charge on that front. No wonder Katara hadn't seen her in a while.

"Is there anything I can help with?" Katara asked, feeling a little bad that everybody was so busy while she was doing nothing but lounge around the palace with Zuko. Surely there was something she could do...

Iroh, however, simply shook his head with a gentle smile. "Thank you, my dear, but that's not necessary," he said while stretching out a hand to pat her own where it rested on the dining table. "You traveled all the way here to support Zuko, and I think that's where your time is better spent." He pulled back, and his smile turned wistful. "How is he doing, truly? I haven't been able to spend much time with him, what with all the work, and I worry."

Katara sighed as she picked at the pieces of fruit left on her plate with her chopsticks. "He's..." She wasn't sure how to put it. "Okay" seemed like an outright lie, but he wasn't doing terribly, either. "...about as well as can be expected, I guess," was what she settled on. "I've been trying to keep him occupied, but there's only so many things to do while staying inside the palace grounds."

She bit her lower lip lightly before hesitantly raising her gaze from her plate up to Iroh, unsure of how to bring up what she wanted to say next. "Lady Ursa mentioned that... Zuko hasn't been to see the baby since... well. Since she was born," she stated carefully. She didn't want to seem like she was accusing Zuko of something; she wasn't. She was just worried. She'd been to see the baby a few times over the week she'd been here, but usually kept her visits short; babies that young did little more than sleep.

"Ah. That's right," Iroh said, his expression sobering up as he picked up the teakettle in front of him to refill his cup. "Ursa and I did not want to push the issue at first, figuring that he was probably still in shock at the abrupt passing of his wife and thinking that he needed some time to... adjust to his new circumstances." His lips pursed for a moment. "But now that it's been three weeks, I must admit his continued avoidance has become..." He sighed. "...concerning."

Katara absorbed that sadly. "Why do you think he's acting like this?" she asked, curious. She wondered about it every time she was alone with Zuko— which was, of course, most of the time this past week— but she had no idea how to bring it up with him for real. Maybe if Iroh had some insight on it, she could avoid touching a nerve with Zuko and upsetting him more than he already was.

"Knowing Zuko, there could be many reasons," Iroh posited, picking up his now-refilled teacup and taking a sip of the steaming liquid. It was hot enough that Katara might've instinctively blown on it to cool it had it been her own cup, but Iroh being a firebender and all, she figured the extreme temperature didn't bother him that much. "I have tried to ask him a few times, but I'm afraid he hasn't been very forthcoming. With my nephew, oftentimes it takes a while to get him to talk freely about the ailments he's holding in his heart." He lifted his gaze from his cup to Katara. "Although now that you're here, perhaps you'd have better luck than we have, Master Katara."

Katara couldn't help but cringe. "That's what Lady Ursa suggested, as well," she admitted somewhat hesitantly. "And I want to help, I really do, but... I'm not sure I'm the right person to talk to him about this. I mean, I've never even been married, and I don't have children... I wouldn't even know where to begin..."

Iroh gave her a reassuring smile. "On the contrary, young master; I think you're probably the best person to get him to talk about this for once." He took another sip of his tea, seeming to pointedly ignore the curious look Katara was now giving him.

"Why do you say that?" she asked. Iroh and Lady Ursa were the closest people to Zuko in the whole wide world, the people he trusted the most. If they couldn't get him to open up, Katara didn't see how she would have an easier time of it.

Iroh chuckled, almost like he was amused by her confusion. "Ah, if you could see how excited he gets every time he gets a letter from you," he revealed with a glint of mischief in his eyes that made Katara wonder if he really should be telling her this. "It's like something in him just lights up from the inside. Even if we're in the middle of a meeting when he gets the news that he has correspondence from the South Pole, once the meeting is over he'll walk right out to go read your missive."

He shook his head as if immersed in the joyful memory. "And then the next time I see him, all he will talk about is what is happening with you, and what new waterbending move you've developed recently, and what hijinks your students have gotten into, and how well the Southern Water Tribe is progressing..." He trailed off, and for some reason Katara felt herself flushing. It was nothing he actually said that caught her off guard, but there was something in his tone, maybe... that made her feel like he was implying something.

If he was, though, he never actually stated it out loud. "He really does trust you, Katara," he said instead. "He really appreciates your advice. He knows when you give him your opinion on something, it's because you truly believe it's the right thing to do, and not just because he's the Fire Lord or because you're worried about him." That last point made... a lot of sense, really, when Katara thought about it, and to a large extent answered the question she had wondered about earlier. Whereas Zuko's relatives would always see things through the lens of protecting him, she'd never held back on telling him what she really thought, even back when that meant nothing but mistrust and suspicion.

And that candor wasn't about to change now. She really needed to put her discomfort aside and talk to Zuko. His daughter needed him, and he was clearly hurting. Just avoiding any mention of Rin and the baby wasn't enough; if Katara could help heal that hurt in any way, she had to try. "I'll do my best," she conceded to Iroh, who nodded at her, satisfied.

"I'm glad to hear that," Iroh acknowledged with a nod. He took another sip of his tea as Katara finally lifted a piece of fruit to her mouth, so there was a pause in the conversation before Iroh spoke again. "You know, it's a tradition in the Fire Nation that the father is the one to name the child," he said. Once again he sounded like he was implying something— except this time he actually pretty much stated it explicitly: "I'm just saying, if you're going to bring it up with my nephew, it should probably be soon. It's getting a little unwieldy, having to call the little lady 'Princess' all the time."

Katara let out a breath in a huff. "No pressure," she muttered before taking a bite of her breakfast. Iroh laughed at her pout, his shoulders shaking in mirth.

General Iroh inquired about her sparring sessions with Zuko and whether they were, indeed, helping Katara develop new waterbending moves based on Zuko's firebending forms. They were animatedly discussing this when the Fire Lord himself made his appearance in the dining room, fresh out of his morning meditation. "Good morning, Uncle," he said. "Katara," he added, giving her a small nod of acknowledgment as he sat down at the head of the table just before a harried-looking servant could reach him to pull the chair out for him. "It's okay, Ryo," he told the servant with some amusement at the man's deeper-than-usual bow. "I'm perfectly capable of seating myself. If I'm taking some time off, I think you can afford to take it easy for a bit, too."

Katara chuckled at the man's effusiveness as he thanked his Lord for his magnanimity. He was bent over so far down, it was a miracle the tip of his nose wasn't mopping the floor. "They really like sticking to their protocols, don't they?" she asked with a grin. She'd already been down that road with her handmaid several times over the past week, trying to convince her that she didn't need any help getting dressed. It's not like the Fire Nation wardrobe Zuko had generously provided for her so she wouldn't boil in her furs was any more complicated than the layers and layers of cold-resistant clothing she wore at home.

"The palace staff endeavor most fervently to uphold these gloried traditions that have been in place for thousands of years," Iroh commented, although there was an undertone of amusement beneath his words as well.

"I've been trying to break them out of this for fifteen years," Zuko added in a deadpan tone as two more servants popped seemingly out of nowhere and approached him from each side to deposit his breakfast plate and a clean teacup in front of him. He didn't even flinch. "Somehow, I don't think it's working."

His expression was so wry that it sent Katara into a giggling fit. Zuko smiled before picking up his chopsticks and splitting them. As he did so, Katara saw out of the corner of her eye that General Iroh had put down his now-empty cup and was smiling contentedly at the two of them.

"Well, now that my nephew is here to keep you company, Katara," Iroh said with a nod in her direction that once again made her feel like he was implying something, "I think I shall take my leave. There is some urgent correspondence I must get to before my first scheduled meeting of the day."

Zuko frowned at that. "Urgent correspondence?" he asked, staring at the older man as he pushed his chair back and stood up, also just before a servant could assist him with it. "What's so urgent about it? Is everything okay?"

"Oh, just the Earth Kingdom asking if we'd be offended if they sent a representative for the funeral rather than having King Kuei himself come." Iroh waved his hand as if to indicate that it wasn't a big deal. "It's not serious, just time sensitive."

It was Katara's turn to frown. "Why are they asking you who should attend? Shouldn't that be their decision?" she asked, confused. She wasn't involved in diplomacy in her tribe, but she had never heard from her father or Sokka about the Earth Kingdom being so wishy-washy about those things. Of course, then again, it's not like they welcomed foreign guests all that often at the South Pole...

Zuko had obviously had to deal with this before, Katara figured, if the frustrated groan he let out was any indication. "It's not about who to send. It's more about what they can bring with them," he let out with a roll of his eyes, as if that was enough to completely clarify everything. "Uncle, do you want me to handle the response? I don't mind taking care of it myself."

Once again Iroh waved his hand, dismissing the offer. "There's no need, my nephew," he assured the younger man. "It's just one letter, it will take but a few minutes. I'm sure there are much better things you could be doing with your time." He turned to look at Katara as he said this last sentence; in any other circumstance the words would've sounded suggestive, but the general gave her a nod that reminded her he was talking about their earlier conversation about possibly convincing Zuko to stop avoiding his daughter. Zuko remained none the wiser to any of it. "I shall take my leave now. Nephew. Katara," he said, giving each of them a nod, respectively, as he stood up.

"The bear is most definitely not invited!" Zuko hollered at his uncle's retreating back, and it was only then that Katara understood what the sticking point really was: King Kuei wanted to bring his pet bear Bosco (how that creature was still kicking around with how spoiled and lazy it was, Katara had no idea), and wouldn't come if Bosco couldn't come, leading the Earth Kingdom diplomats to go into damage-control mode. She cringed; she didn't envy her friends having to maintain stable political relations with these crazies. And then she started laughing because... come on, it was ridiculous.

Zuko gave her a halfhearted glare. "It's not funny."

"It's a little funny," she wheezed out in between snorts, she was laughing so hard.

Zuko rolled his eyes but otherwise did not attempt to interrupt her mirth, starting instead to eat his breakfast. It was only when her laughter began to die down that he spoke. "Uncle doesn't want me to handle the bear thing because he knows I wouldn't be able to rein in my temper."

"'Uncle' doesn't want you to handle the bear thing because you're supposed to be on leave," she clarified, poking his arm with her pointer finger as if emphasizing those last two words. "Boy, you're really bad at staying away from work, aren't you? You've finally got some vacation time but you just can't stay away."

He cringed, and she heard what she'd just said and felt immediately contrite. His wife had just died, and she had just referred to his leave period as a vacation? "I'm so sorry," she hurried to apologize. "I didn't mean to imply that this time off is meant to be fun for you, I just meant—"

"It's okay, Katara," Zuko interrupted her ramble before she could get too into it. He genuinely did not seem upset. "I know what you meant. And you're pretty much right, anyway," he conceded with something of a shrug. "It's hard for me not to want to... supervise everything, I guess. Just to make sure nothing goes wrong. I've been called a control freak once or twice, you know," he added with a chuckle.

Feeling relieved that she hadn't unwittingly offended him, she chimed in teasingly. "I hope you fired whoever it was that called you that," she retorted, sharing in his amusement.

He smirked. "Can't fire the representative of the Southern Water Tribe to the United Republic of Nations Council, I'm afraid," he revealed, and Katara had to bite back a groan. Having been on the receiving end of the exact same accusations from Sokka for the majority of her life, she knew what that was like. "I'm trying not to think so much about work, though, I really am," he insisted. "It just... I guess it seems way easier to think about literally anything else rather than about... about Rin," he admitted, his tone softening as he reached the end of the sentence.

She felt a pang in her heart for him again, as she did every time she was reminded of his loss; an instinctive need to reach out and try to make him feel better. At the same time, though, she couldn't help but think I know of a little someone who would keep you plenty occupied if I could just find a way to convince you to go see her. She bit her lip, pondering how to go about it.

Unfortunately for her, this time Zuko did notice that something was going on with her— probably because she was staring— and forced her hand on it. "What?" he asked, seeming curious.

She looked at him, wracking her brain for something to say that was sensible to his situation, but coming up blank. So in the end, since they'd just been talking about Sokka and all, she decided to go with a strategy that was tried and true on her brother: When in doubt, trick 'em.

She pushed herself to her feet, her chair loudly scraping against the floor as it moved back from her momentum, and extended a hand to him. "Come with me," she demanded in a determined tone.

Zuko looked from her face to her extended hand, and then back to her face. "...Where, exactly?" he asked really slowly, obviously dubious about whatever plan she was concocting.

"You'll see," she said with the brightest, most innocent smile she could muster under his inquisitive gaze. When he remained dubious, she let out a huff. "Zuko," she insisted, all of her natural bossiness seeping into that one word that was his name, "don't you trust me?"

To his credit, there was no hesitation when he answered. "Yes," he said straight away, except that was immediately followed by an equally direct, "but I literally just started breakfast."

"Well, this is going to be better than breakfast," she declared enthusiastically. "Come on." She stopped waiting for him to take her hand and instead grabbed his arm, pulling him up and practically dragging him out of the room without any further explanation. He didn't complain as much as someone else might have, basically resigned to whatever fate she had planned for him at this point.

She led him through the hallways with relative ease. She knew the route from the dining room to the nursery fairly well after a week of visiting often, but of course, this was Zuko's palace, so it didn't take him long to put two and two together. "Wait," he said, and she felt him stumble a little on his steps behind her. "Are we going to the— Katara, will you just stop— I can't—"

"Can't take five minutes to go see your own daughter?" Katara stopped abruptly, leading Zuko to almost run into her, but he caught himself on time. Letting go of his hand, she turned around and fixed a glare on him, hands on her hips.

Pinned down by her stare as he was, all he could do was sigh. "Uncle told you," he stated, more than asked.

"No, your mother did," she corrected, crossing her arms over her chest. At least he had the decency to look abashed. "They're worried," she continued. "Understandably so. It's been three weeks." She shook her head. "Zuko, what's going on?"

He ran both his hands over his face in a show of frustration. He started to walk, and for a second Katara feared he was just going to walk off and leave her standing there with half her argument unsaid, but he just started pacing in place. "I just—" He shook his head. "I don't think I can do this."

She frowned, immediately feeling defensive on his behalf. "What are you talking about?" she asked in an incredulous tone. "Obviously it's not going to be easy, but you're the most determined person I know. You'll figure it out, I know you will. Unless..." A concerning thought crossed her mind. "Unless you blame your daughter for what happened to Rin? Zuko, please tell me that's not it," she all but begged.

Zuko's pacing halted abruptly and he turned to her with an expression that was nothing short of offended. "Of course not!" he exclaimed, seemingly incredulous that she would even ask such a thing. "I could never. She's a baby, for spirits' sake, none of this could ever be her fault! How could you think so lowly of me?"

"I don't! I'm sorry," Katara hurried to assure him. She knew he was sensitive about his integrity, and she didn't mean to insult him on top of everything that was already plaguing his mind. But she had to ask, just to rule it out. "I just don't understand why you're acting like you're scared of your own daughter. It's like you said: she's just a baby; it's not like she's going to spit fire at you." She paused for a second, then amended, "Well, not yet, at least."

Zuko exhaled loudly, the action releasing some of the tension in his shoulders— but just lightly. "It's not like that," he replied in a lower tone this time. He snuck a look over his shoulder as if looking around for other people, and it was only then that Katara realized that maybe a palace hallway was probably not the best place to have this conversation. Oh, well. "I'm not afraid of her; I'm afraid for her. I just—" He shook his head harshly. "I think it's better for her if I just... keep my distance."

Katara cocked her head to the side, looking at him for a moment before rolling her eyes. "Zuko, that is ridiculous—"

"It's not!" he interrupted her before she could launch into her argument. "I have no idea how to be a father—"

"Nobody does!" It was her turn to interrupt. She might not be a mother herself, but she'd delivered dozens of babies back in Harbor City and not one of the first-time parents she'd helped had ever felt they were prepared to raise a child, yet they all pushed on and did the best they could. Why should Zuko be any different? Being nervous was normal; quitting on your child was not.

"I'm not just anybody," he retorted, and from anyone else the response would've sounded conceited, but from Zuko it only sounded tortured and miserable. "You know me, Katara. You know what my childhood was like. For years I was a mess. I still feel like a walking mess half the time. What could I possibly have to offer her?"

Katara huffed, incredulous. "You're kidding, right? You're the Fire Lord—"

"Agni, I don't mean economically," he clarified. "I mean emotionally. I don't have the slightest clue what being a good father even means. I certainly couldn't see it in my family. Ozai thought less of me than he would of a glob of dog shit in the sole of his shoe, my mother disappeared on me for years, I couldn't even be any kind of role model to my younger sister, I've got an awful temper, and my being emotionally stunted has been a running joke in the Fire Nation and beyond since I was in my teens. I've made so many stupid mistakes in my life that I can't even begin to count them if I tried. What kind of example could I possibly set for a child?"

He had begun pacing again, and he was so focused on his pacing that Katara had to grab onto his arm to get him to stop and look at her. "Zuko," she said, lifting her hands to hold him in place by his shoulders. She made sure to meet his gaze head-on, so he would understand that she was being completely serious about this. "As one of your best friends, it's part of my job description to inform you when you're being an overdramatic idiot. So here it is: you're being an overdramatic idiot."

He frowned and opened his mouth to retort, but she continued speaking before he could. "Yes, your father was an evil asshole. Yes, your childhood was very, very far from ideal. Yes, for a long time you were misguided and had a hard time telling right from wrong. But you've grown since then. You've gone through so many terrible life experiences, but you've learned from them and come out stronger on the other side. You're one of the best people I know, one of the bravest people I know, one of the most honest and caring people I know. Don't sell yourself short. You can do this. I know it's scary, but what are you going to do, just avoid her for the next fifteen years or so? That's not sustainable, and you know it."

She squeezed his shoulders in an attempt at comfort. "Sure, you'll make mistakes, and that's okay. I'm not saying you're going to be the perfect parent— but no one is. You just have to try your best. And because I know you so well, I know that you always, always try your best. I'm not worried for a second."

She shook her head. "Besides, I think you're exaggerating a little bit. You've had some great parental role models. Wasn't General Iroh more of a father to you than Ozai ever was? He's always been there for you and supported you and guided you through every complicated matter. So there's your parental role model, right there. If doing the opposite of what Ozai would've done isn't enough of a guide, just do what General Iroh would've done. That's gotten you this far, hasn't it? And yes, your mother was missing for a long stretch of your adolescence, but she was there for you when you were a child, and she's here for you now that you're an adult. You know what a parent's love should be like, Zuko. You've felt it." His gaze lowered, and she knew he saw sense in her words.

"As for what you have to offer her... all she needs is for you to love her. That's all. She's already lost her mother; she's going to need her father more than anything, Zuko. I know that better than anyone." She had to blink to keep her humid eyes from overflowing. She heard his breath catch slightly at the reminder of her own loss. "Besides, underneath all these insecurities, you want to be in her life, don't you? You already love her," she guessed. Sure, his doubts were silly, but she could see they all stemmed from an entrenched desire for his daughter to have a better life than he ever did. Only someone who truly loved another could be that self-sacrificing.

"Yeah," he admitted quietly, but sincerely. His voice was husky, and she saw him swallow hard as if his throat was drier than usual. "I... I thought Rin would be here. That we would raise her together," he started, still not quite looking at her, but then he sighed and met her gaze again, looking disheartened. "How am I going to do this on my own, Katara?"

She shook her head emphatically, her grip falling from his shoulders to hold each of his hands in her own. "You don't have to," she assured him. "You have your uncle, and your mother, and you have all of us to help you, as well. You're not alone, Zuko." She smiled at him and felt him squeeze her hands a little tighter in response. She recognized it as a silent expression of his gratitude.

She had to let go of one of his hands to wipe away the tears that were threatening to fall, but the smile remained. "Let's go see your daughter, Zuko," she suggested in a buoyant tone. "I'll be there with you every step of the way." He simply gazed down at her for one heart-stopping second, but then he took a deep breath and nodded, letting her pull him the rest of the way toward the nursery. She could feel his hand trembling in her hold, but his steps never faltered.

When they arrived at their destination, Katara stepped to the side and let Zuko take things at his pace. It took him nearly a minute to pluck up the courage to knock on the door, but once he did, he let himself in, quickly letting the baby's governess know that they'd be spending some time with the princess and to please give them some privacy.

Katara walked in as the older woman was walking out, made her way to the crib and smiled down at the infant. "Hey there, little flame," she said in a bubbly tone, stretching out a hand to caress the girl's head, which was already covered by a shock of fuzzy dark hair. The baby squirmed and gurgled contentedly in response to her touch. "Oh, you're awake, aren't you? Good. I brought someone to meet you today," she added, reaching in to carefully pick the little bundle up.

Once the baby was resting securely in her arms, she turned the both of them toward Zuko, who was standing a few feet away with the most stupefied expression on his face, his feet flat on the ground like the soles of his shoes had been stuck to the wooden floors with glue. You'd think she was carrying a bomb rather than a newborn, but she figured that was par for the course when it came to first-time jitters. "Look, princess," she said in a stage whisper, looking down at the baby but pointing toward Zuko with a finger, "it's your daddy. You love your daddy, don't you, sweetheart?"

She crossed the space that separated them in just a few steps, presenting the child in her arms to her still (figuratively) frozen-solid father. "Fire Lord Zuko, meet your daughter," she said with a proud smile. "Isn't she beautiful?"

Zuko still looked shaken, but his gaze was fixated on the baby's chubby face like he would never be able to tear his eyes away from her. It warmed Katara's soul. "She's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he said in a breathless murmur, lifting a hand to the child's delicate brow. He didn't quite touch her before pulling back, however, almost like he thought he might accidentally break her.

Katara's heart clenched for him. "Do you want to hold her?" she offered.

Zuko cleared his throat, then shook his head. "Maybe in a while. When I'm not..." He looked down at his hands, and Katara could see that they were trembling. She understood. "Maybe we could sit down for a while? There should be a sitting area in the back... I think."

There was, but Katara was surprised that Zuko wouldn't know about it. "Rin was the one who did all of... this, you know," he said, gesturing to the entire room around them. It was a response to her unasked question, no doubt. "I hadn't even seen this room until the day she..." he trailed off, but he'd said enough for Katara to surmise that the first time he saw the nursery was the day his wife died.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to go somewhere else, somewhere Zuko wasn't surrounded by memories of his loss. "It's lovely. She had great taste," Katara affirmed genuinely. She really did love this room. Unlike the rest of the palace, which was all dark reds and maroons and blacks, the nursery was decorated in softer yellow, gold, and orange tones. It reminded her of the sunrise. Nevertheless, perhaps a change of venue was due. "The princess has spent enough time inside her room, though, don't you think? Maybe we could take her somewhere else, for variety's sake. Do you have any suggestions? Like, say, maybe somewhere you used to hang out when you were a kid..."

Zuko nodded, accepting her premise, his expression then growing pensive as he thought of a place they could go. Katara watched him as she gently rocked the baby in her arms, wondering if there were really so few places in the palace grounds that held happy memories for him that it took him this long to think of even one. But just a few seconds later, he spoke up. "The gardens," he said with full certainty.

Katara was all in for that. She thought a little bit of sunlight would do them all good.