“I knew I’d find you here.”
Zuko looked up and smiled at her. A turtleduck, sensing that his attention was diverted, squawked with indignation and clambered up into his lap.
“I was just about to send someone for you,” he said. “To ask for you to join me.”
Katara laughed and sank down to the grass beside him. There was a small plate of rolls, and she crumbled one between her fingers and offered it to the offended turtleduck. It snatched the whole thing from her hand and jumped back into the pond.
“How are you feeling?”
Zuko shrugged wordlessly. The massive shoulder spikes rose and fell like tectonic plates in an earthquake.
“I think your brother is being even more obnoxious than usual to try and distract me from my nerves.”
“Is it working?”
“I’m not really nervous, but he’s really obnoxious.”
“Yeah,” Katara snorted, tucking her slippers under her robes. “You just kind of have to love him anyway. Besides, he proposed to Suki the night before we left the South Pole and she said yes and it’s killing him to keep it a secret, so we should give him some slack.”
Zuko looked at her with wide eyes.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. Suki told me. Just in case Az— in case things didn’t go well, he said. They’re letting us have our big coronation first before stealing the spotlight… and make sure to act surprised, all right? Suki promised not to tell anyone, and then made me and Toph promise not to tell anyone, and now I’m making you promise, too.”
“Okay,” Zuko said, shaking his head with a fond smile. “I don’t see how an engagement would outshine a coronation anyway, but I appreciate the thought.” He paused. “I asked Aang if he would be up on the platform with us when it happens. The Fire Sages have to do the actual ceremony, but… People are going to be afraid of him, and I want them to see that I trust him.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“He also said he thinks there’s a chance Azula might be able to get her bending back.”
Katara startled, but Zuko’s face was calm.
“Should we be concerned?”
“I don’t think so. He said—I don’t remember exactly what it was, but something about how there are chi reserves that can replenish themselves but chi paths that can’t? Because… chakras. I don’t know. Basically, she can build up her strength on her own but that won’t be enough to get her bending back completely. She’ll have to learn the way the first firebenders did: from the source.”
“Yeah. So she’ll have to heal, convince me and Aang that she can be trusted with their location, and face their judgement without being killed. Even if she wanted to do it, I don’t know if she could.”
“I think she can,” Katara mused.
She hadn’t meant to speak out loud, and Zuko did a double take. She was thinking of the pain in the princess’s voice when she said he killed our father, and the confused relief in her eyes when she realized Zuko was going to survive. Katara wasn’t sure if she could describe these things, or if they were really evidence. She shrugged.
“Call me an optimist, but I believe in redemption.”
Zuko smiled. He laced their fingers together and kissed the back of her hand.
“I’ve got a present for you. Well, two presents, but the other one is for later.”
He twisted around to reach for two wooden boxes on his other side. He lifted the larger one first, and opened it to reveal a folded piece of midnight-blue cloth. It was a sash, embroidered with a symbol in gold—the sun, fitted with a crescent moon.
“I told Ayako these robes were missing something,” Katara said with a smile. “She told me I’d been away from the palace too long, that the fashion had changed.”
“It has—I’m changing it. I had them make one for me too, now that I’m officially a member of the Southern Water Tribe. Actually I wanted to wear the clothes you made me for the ceremony, but the Fire Sages said they were too casual.”
“You were bullied by five old men in pointy hats? I thought you earned the mark of the brave.”
“Well, I had already beaten them once, so I decided to show mercy.” He picked up the second box and lifted the lid. “They were not happy when I said I was melting down the old crowns.”
Katara wasn’t surprised to see the ornaments in the box. The five-pointed flame had become a five-pronged sunburst. She had never seen the Fire Lady’s crown, but she knew it hadn’t looked like this. She reached out and ran her finger over the graceful curve of the golden moon.
“Do you realize next month it will be three years since we met?” she asked. The corner of her mouth tilted up. “You called me a peasant.”
“I was hoping you had forgotten that.”
“I forget nothing.”
Zuko stood and helped her to her feet. They tied the blue sashes for each other and stood for a moment in peaceful silence. The turtleducks chittered, and Zuko brushed a loose strand of hair from her face and kissed her beneath her ear.
“We should go,” he said. His breath tickled her skin. He bent down to pick up the box with their crowns, and his other hand found hers. “Are you ready?”
A breeze stirred the leaves above them and teased at his topknot. Katara remembered how he looked when she first saw him, a boy with a shaved head and armor and a frightening scar. He looked older and younger now. Less hard but more confident. Broader shoulders, longer hair, absent the bitter teenage scowl. His expression was serious, but the harsh lines on his face were smoothed away. He wore his pride like a simple cloak, not gilded armor.
Katara had no idea how she looked by comparison, but the soft light kindled in his eyes reassured her. She stretched up, and he leaned down, and their lips brushed.
“No,” Katara whispered.
She threaded her arm through his, and they left the garden together.