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and love, the shoreline, where you and i meet

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love is the harmony, desire’s the key
love is a symphony, now play it with me.

 

She can't find Zuko.

He's not in his office, he's not on the roof, he's not in the courtyard, he's not in his room, he's not in the meeting hall or the library or – or anywhere that she can think of he'd be. It's possible that he's gone out into the city, but she can't imagine why he wouldn't have invited her to go with him if that were the case.

Finally, in a fit of frustration, she goes to Toph.

“Sparky's missing?” she asks, and Katara sighs.

“I don't think so, not missing, really,” she replies slowly. “I haven't seen anything that's disturbed, and nothing's gone except him.”

“You checked your – ha, I'm sorry, his room?”

“I did, yes,” she deadpans, narrowing her eyes even though Toph can't see it. The realization that Toph's seismic sense meant she knew when someone was out of bed at a suspicious hour was not a pleasant one. 

Toph makes a little hmm sound and taps her foot on the floor, shifting it a little and furrowing her brow before pointing off to the right. “Someone's alone down this way.” As they walk, Toph taps her foot another couple of times, and on the last nods firmly. “Yep, that’s him.”

“Thanks, Toph.”

“No problem,” Toph replies, stretching and locking her fingers behind her head. “What did you need him for, anyway? Or did you just miss him?”

She rolls her eyes at the teasing tone. “Sokka had an idea about transplanting some of the Water Tribe's summer berries and healing herbs to the hospital here, once it's fully up and running. I wanted to bring it up to him.”

“That would be cool,” Toph muses, and she nods.

“I'm not sure how to do it, though,” she sighs. “The climate here is so different.”

“That's what greenhouses are for,” Toph says, shrugging. “Hey, Zu– oof.”

They turn a corner and run straight into Zuko, who looks surprised and then strangely alarmed, and something clatters to the ground. 

“I'm so sorry,” Katara gushes, reaching out to steady him. “I couldn't find you, so I got Toph's help.”

“Yeah, I –” Toph starts, and then stops, expression going still. “Well, found Zuko for you!” she declares loudly. "Bye!”

With that, she literally walks through a wall and leaves the two of them alone. Katara stares at the spot on the wall, blinking in confusion.

“That was – oh.”

Her eyes land on the object that he dropped: it's a golden hairpiece he must have gotten from the vault. The Fire Lady's crown.

Heat creeps up the back of her neck.

Of course, people talked, even before there was anything to talk about, and he'd make an idle comment here and there about how good a Fire Lady she could be, or that he wanted this to last, and she agreed with all of it and even made her own comments about the looks on all those noblemen’s faces, and… 

In retrospect, she really should have seen this coming.

“This is… not what I had in mind,” he says, drawing the words out and wincing.

“You… want to marry me?” she asks, and he stares at her blankly for a couple of seconds.

“Does that surprise you?”

No. Yes. Maybe. Their relationship has been an open secret, but while his position – and hers as an ambassador from another nation – have made it complicated, that fact has been in the background of everything else, a distant mountain on the horizon, the what happens next? She’s decided to live in the moment beside him instead, because maybe a piece of her has assumed that it wasn’t actually possible, and didn’t want to face the thought of watching him marry some Fire Nation noblewoman for the purpose of making heirs.

Not wanting to think about the inevitable future heartbreak, she’s spent most of the past year pretending that it isn’t but never quite forgetting that it is all just a dream she’ll have to wake up from sooner or later.

But what have they all been doing all this time, if not changing the definition of what’s possible?

She looks up at him.

What if it isn’t impossible?

“I… wasn’t sure you were serious,” she admits, a bit faintly, and he seems to withdraw a little.

“Does that mean that you weren’t?”

“I didn’t think it was possible,” she says slowly, picking up the crown and running her fingers over it. “I’ve wanted… but I…” the words trail off.

She wants to say yes to Zuko. That’s not a question.

Katara never meant to fall in love, although it lingered in periphery from the start, even before the rumors and the stolen moments: the late-night spar in the courtyard that ended with both of them drenched on the grass and his eyes drifting to her lips, the first time she kissed him on the roof under the stars, his hand on her back, in her hair, at her waist… 

Falling in love with him was so easy that she hardly noticed it was happening until she was already well beyond that shoreline. She thinks of the moment it hit her –

He was at the pond, and he didn’t know she was there, and he was idly feeding and talking to the turtleducks, and she realized that he had named all of them. Zuko – one of the most powerful men in the world, a master of dao swords and firebending, who had hunted them all over the world, who she had once feared and hated – named a brood of turtleducks, and they were all stupid names.

She laughed, which startled and then embarrassed him, but all she thought was, He’s such a dork, I love him.

And she does. She loves Zuko.

But Zuko is also the Fire Lord, and that makes this much more than a hairpiece.

Fire Lady Katara. Of the Fire Nation. Her children won’t be Water Tribe, won’t grow up in the huts over the long, dark winters, listening to stories of the stars. They won’t eat stewed sea prunes, cooked slow over the flame in the center of the tribe, or learn to ice dodge and receive the half-moon. They’ll be princes or princesses of the Fire Nation.

They’ll see dragons in the stars, not koi.

“I need to think about this,” she says finally, and he cringes, clearly thinking that it’s a soft no. She stops him before he can start talking. “Zuko, I’m not saying no,” she says, taking a deep breath. “But this is… it’s a lot.”

“I…” he starts, rubbing the back of his neck and glancing away. “When you said –”

“I know,” she cuts him off, taking his hand. “But I… I’m not from the Fire Nation, it’s… a big step.”

“If you’re worried about what the nobles and ministers –” he says fervently, and she shakes her head.

“I’m worried about what my tribe will say,” she replies, and understanding crosses over his face, followed by something like guilt.

“I… it’s selfish, isn’t it?” he murmurs, looking away. “To take you away from them.”

“I don’t think selfish is the word,” she muses, running her thumb over his knuckles. “If you’d just… snatched me up from them, that would be one thing,” she huffs, and then shakes her head again. “But I chose to come here, and I chose to stay here, and I chose to… be with you.”

It’s hard to put into words what it means, exactly, that she chose this.

So much of this has unfolded almost on its own, inexorable as the tide, and wasn’t that what she felt so trapped in with Aang? Like she’d been dragged along by destiny?

This both does and doesn’t feel like fate. It feels like finding the current in a kayak, by turns exhilarating and calming, wind in her hair and the warmth of the sun on her back, the smell of life and wet earth. She could row away from this river, go down another path and find another current to carry her to another sea, but she likes the thought of where this one will take her.

She wants to say yes to him. She doesn’t want to lose herself to a relationship again. She wants to be with him, to be the Fire Lady and change the world alongside him. She doesn’t want to stop being Katara of the Water Tribe.

She looks up at him, blinks back to the present and meets his eyes. He’s got that guarded hope on his face, like he’s steeling himself up for the worst but can’t quite give up on the idea that maybe it will work out. Katara makes a split-second decision.

“Let’s take a vacation,” she says abruptly, clutching his hands in both of hers. “Let’s go visit the Tribe. It’s the equinox, we can be part of the ceremony. You’ve never seen the aurora, have you?”

“I think I saw it once when I was banished,” he admits, and she scoffs.

“You haven’t really seen the aurora,” she declares. 

.

Katara has worn blue every day she’s been in the Fire Nation, a little bit of defiance to make sure that nobody (not even, or perhaps especially, herself) forgets who she is. It has to be a balance, she thinks. She learned their laws and adopted many of their ways, but she won’t compromise her core, the things she took with her from home, both all over the world and then to the Caldera: the importance of family, of supporting everyone whether or not they can give you anything in return, how pulling together and respecting the power of their element is the only way to survive the water and the winter. 

How, if you stay the course and read the stars and flow with the current, you can always find your way home.

But Zuko wears blue when he comes with her to the Southern Water Tribe. It’s a bold statement, and one that won’t go unnoticed, especially compared with her own choice of colors.

She considers wearing red, just to soothe the inevitable sneers about their Fire Lord capitulating on things their would-be Fire Lady won’t, but that’s not why she’s here. She didn’t ask Zuko to wear blue instead of red, and he’s never asked her to do the opposite.

She’s here because this is a fork in the river: one path leads her to a throne and a new home, and the other leads her back to the sea and the snow she was born from.

She misses her home, the pavilion she helped build and paint and the children whose handprints adorn the walls, she misses the long winters and the midnight suns. And she loves Zuko, who speaks with such confidence to the country and the ministers and then stumbles over his words when she smiles at him, who names turtleducks Spots and Quackers and Ahiru, and she loves the cherry blossoms in spring and the heavy summer rains.

Is there some way to keep both? Suki has managed, but that’s because she splits her time between Kyoshi and the Water Tribe, even when Sokka can’t join her. The Fire Lady would have no such luxury.

“Well, look who it is!” Sokka says, opening his arms to hug her as they step off the boat, and she hugs him tightly around the neck, tight enough that he makes an overdramatic choking noise until she lets go. “Ah, come on,” he goes on, opening his arms to hug Zuko, too, and then looking over his outfit. “Not all Fire-Lordy today?”

“I’m here as Zuko, not as the Fire Lord,” he replies neutrally, with a little shrug, although they all know that the two are inextricable. What it really means is: today, he’s chosen not to care what the world thinks of him. 

There’s something in Sokka’s face, like a cat that’s heard a chirping bird, and she wonders if he’s guessed or if Zuko maybe confided in him. 

“So, what’s been going on here?” she asks, linking arms with the both of them and dragging them along with her to the city. “Anything you haven’t put in your letters?”

“Nothing big,” Sokka answers, “except that we finally finished the pavilion.”

“So quickly?” Zuko deadpans, and she snickers as Sokka rolls his eyes.

“Look, I’m not even joking, I’ve considered giving up on it at least like seven times.”

“You can’t just give up on something like this,” she gasps, shaking her head. “It’s for the future. You can’t give up on the future.”

“Yeah, well, tell the future that marble on ice is a mistake that takes an unimaginable amount of time and frustration to fix.”

“Is it really?” Katara asks, and Zuko cringes as though just realizing something.

“Marble is porous, isn’t it?”

So porous,” Sokka sighs heavily.

She draws in a sharp breath. “Oof,” she winces. “How do you fix that? Do you just… start over?”

“You have to seal it,” he answers, in the tone of someone recounting a horrific nightmare. “All of it. Top and bottom and sides of tiles. Carefully.”

“Good thing you discovered this before you finished placing all of the floors, huh?” Zuko drawls. Sokka lets out a dramatic sob.

“I wish I’d figured it out that soon,” he cries. “I really, really wish that was true.”

She feels a little bad for laughing at this, but it’s such a Sokka thing, both the mistake and the complaining about the mistake, and she’s missed him badly.

Hakoda greets them as soon as they walk into the door of the pavilion, and pulls her into a bear hug the moment he sees her. She’s missed him, too, and the feeling of soft fur and leather at her cheek when she buries her face in Dad’s shoulder.

When he lets her go, he – somewhat awkwardly – shakes Zuko’s hand and pats him on the shoulder in the universal friendly-but-not-too-friendly male greeting, and she thinks:

Whether or not Sokka knows or has been told, whether or not anyone has said anything to Hakoda about it, her father absolutely knows why they’re here.

It’s in his eyes, a sort of wariness and uncertainty, and she knows that he’s sizing Zuko up – not the Fire Lord, but Zuko – to see if he’s worthy. It will be a high bar, and the look on Zuko’s face says he knows that, too.

She meets Sokka’s eyes, and he grins at her and gives her his characteristic it’s all good shrug. “Come on,” he says brightly, “let me show you around.”

“I’d like to talk to the Fire Lord for a moment,” her father says, and nobody actually winces, but they all mentally share one with a glance. “One leader to another.”

“Of course,” Zuko replies, and it sounds so confident that she almost thinks he’s somehow missed the undercurrent, until he glances at her with a brief panic in his face. She finds herself smiling, the way Sokka smiled, and giving him that same shrug.

It’s all good. And it is. He’ll do his best to put the fear of Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe (and All of His Warriors) into him, but her father will prioritize Katara’s happiness over anything else. And if Katara has chosen Zuko, then Hakoda will accept him into the family with only mild grumbling.

Sokka throws an arm around her shoulder and steers her down a different hall, right past the mural. She gasps when she sees it: in full context, with the glittering floors and crystalline sconces and elegant stained-glass windows on the opposite wall, it’s so beautiful her eyes fill with tears.

“Told you it was a great idea,” he says softly, and pats her on the shoulder. “Everyone loves this hallway. One of the tribesmen even proposed to his girlfriend here.”

“Was that you?”

He laughs a little. “Actually, no,” he admits. “I did that on the boat between here and Kyoshi, under a full moon and a clear sky filled with stars.”

“Really?” she asks, because that sounds surprisingly romantic for her brother. She narrows her eyes at him. “Whose idea was that?”

“Bato’s,” he coughs, and then sweeps her along into another room. “But look at the meeting hall! It’s great, isn’t it great?”

It’s beautiful, too, with a bigger table in the center than the one she stood at before she left, rough-hewn wood that seems almost to be a large tree trunk growing out of the ice and floor. The top is smooth and glazed, but around the edges are a series of carvings; when she looks closer, they’re all of scenes from her people’s history and the stories they learned as children.

“Sokka, this is amazing,” she breathes.

“Thanks, it was awful getting it in here,” he deadpans, and she snickers. “I had to get help from Aang to get it set into the floor like that.”

“You couldn’t have it sitting on the floor like a normal person?”

“No, it looks better this way,” he sniffs, then takes a seat at one of the chairs at the table. “All right, I’ve stalled as long as I can, hit me with it.”

“Hit you with it?” she repeats, but he gives her a really? look, and she sighs, sinking into the seat beside him. “I don’t know what to say,” she admits, running her fingers along the carvings. There are tiger-seals on this part of the table, with a girl falling from the canoe into the waves: Sedna. Not the happiest of stories, but part of the Water Tribe’s culture all the same. 

“Do you want to marry him? To be Fire Lady?” Sokka asks her seriously, and she frowns.

“Yes,” she replies in a soft voice. “But I also don’t want to lose myself to some other nation.”

“Hmm,” he mutters, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I won’t lie to you,” he says, leaning back against the armrest of his chair, “there are some people who already say you abandoned us for the people who nearly wiped us out. They won’t be happy, and they’ll say that you’re not one of us anymore.”

She cringes and looks away. “And there are people in the Fire Nation who already say I can’t be one of them, either.”

“Well, no,” he says, with a little cringe. “You’re not from the Fire Nation, and honestly? That’s kinda proven to be what they needed, you know?” he explains, tilting his head. “Someone from outside to look at the country and their problems in another light. So, you’re not one of them and you shouldn’t be. You’re one of your own. And you get to decide what that means.”

She draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them, thinking for a moment. “How do I stay connected to the Water Tribe if I’m the queen of the Fire Nation?” she asks, half to him and half to herself. He makes a face, as though mulling it over.

“Well…” he starts, drawing out the syllable. “You can take some of the Water Tribe back with you.”

“Like… people?” she splutters. “I’m not going to –”

Culture,” he cuts her off, then gestures to the table. “Our history, those ridiculous stories Mom used to tell. And you can add some blue to the way oversaturated red of that palace, like, wow does that place need other colors.”

She laughs at that, shaking her head. 

“And you can visit,” he goes on, leaning forward a little. “Maybe not the way Suki does, but you can make sure you come back and stay connected with your people. And, I mean…” he rubs the back of his neck and glances at the doorway. “Zuko showing up here in blue is a really loud gesture, you know?”

“I know,” she says, releasing her knees and dropping them back to the floor, looking at them a bit critically. “I never wear red.”

“You can wear both,” he suggests, like it’s obvious. “Or purple.”

She looks up at him without tilting her head up. “You think I should say yes?” she asks quietly. “Even if half the Tribe hates me for it?”

“I think you should do what makes you happy,” he replies, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “When it comes to everything else, we’ll figure something out. We always have, right? Isn’t that the whole thing with water? Adapting to change?”

She smiles a little, and then lets out a breathy laugh as that sinks in. “It is,” she murmurs, then laughs again and shakes her head. “Maybe that’s what the Fire Nation needed so badly,” she muses, leaning back to look at him properly. “Someone experienced in adapting to changes.”

“Someone who could show them how,” he says seriously, reaching out and poking her forehead. “Who can keep showing them how. They don’t need another Fire Nation noble who’s never dodged ice in rough seas or navigated their way home by the stars and the wind. They need you, and they need you to be who you are.”

She runs her fingers over the carvings again, a little lost in thought as all the words echo around in her head, until Sokka claps her on the shoulder.

“Come on,” he says, standing up, “let me finish giving you the tour.”

.

They meet back up with Zuko after the tour – during which Sokka made sure to fill her in on all the juicy gossip, or what passes for juicy gossip by Sokka’s standards, which starts with the “battle of honor” he got into with someone who insulted Gran-Gran’s cooking and goes downhill from there – where he and her father are standing by the fire, looking remarkably friendly, considering Katara is very sure that Hakoda has recently threatened Zuko’s life and/or certain organs. 

“She’s never said much about it,” Zuko is saying, when they meet up with them, and he’s rubbing the back of his neck again. He glances at her, and then gestures with his shoulder to her father. “He was just telling me what it’s like when the sun stops rising. I didn’t know it’s someone’s job to keep the fire burning.”

“Oh, yeah,” she replies, glancing at it. “Once the storms start to pick up, it’s impossible to relight it if it goes out, so it’s an important job, with a lot of responsibility.”

“And not a fun one, I’ll tell you that,” Hakoda groans, dramatically popping his back. “I once had to send people out hunting at the last minute for fuel while I burned my own summer clothes to keep it from going out. That was a miserable winter.”

“I never heard about that,” Sokka says, frowning, but their father laughs.

“It was before either of you two were even a twinkle in my eye,” he replies. “Your mother used to say it was what convinced her to say yes to me,” he goes on, with a soft sort of melancholia. “If I could keep the fire from going out in that storm, I’d never abandon her, either.”

Katara leans her head on his shoulder, and he puts an arm around her, squeezing tightly.

“An eternal flame,” Zuko muses, then shakes his head with a little laugh. “In the Fire Nation, there’s a place… well, if you want to meet with the firebending masters, you have to carry a steady flame all the way up a mountain. To have kept a fire burning when even the sun went out… I think that makes you an honorary Sun Warrior.”

Hakoda keeps a straight face and looks at Zuko sideways. “Do I get a fancy hat?” he drawls, and Zuko shrugs and winces.

“I think there’s a headband?”

He seems to mull it over for a moment before nodding. “Eh, I’ll take it.”

“Do I get to be an honorary Sun Warrior?” Sokka asks, and Zuko raises an eyebrow.

“Have you ever kept a steady flame burning when everything around you is trying to put it out?”

There’s a beat. 

“Nnnnnnno,” Sokka says, drawing the word out. “But I do want a headband.”

“I’ll make you a cute headband,” Katara offers, and without missing a beat:

“It can have beads and stars,” Zuko deadpans; she affects a look of excitement and grips his arm.

“Ooh, we can embroider a sun on it!”

“A sun with a smiley-face,” he adds, and she struggles not to laugh as Sokka glares, unimpressed, at both of them.

“Come on, Dad, back me up,” he scoffs, crossing his arms, and Hakoda looks at the three of them.

“It should be reversible,” he suggests. “Sun on one side, moon on the other.”

Sokka’s jaw drops theatrically as he gapes at their father and Katara finally gives up and dissolves into giggles. 

“I cannot believe that my entire family would betray me like this,” he grumbles, crossing his arms and turning away from them. “I’m gonna go make my own headbands, and none of you get to have one.”

“Speaking of family, when will Suki get here?” Katara asks, and all of the drama falls off Sokka’s face as he turns back toward her.

“Not long now,” he gushes. “She said she’d be here before the ceremony started. You’ve gotta see the finished work!”

She’s confused for a moment until it hits her, and then a little sad. “Oh,” she says. “Did she make the… I noticed you didn’t bring me anything this year.”

He blinks. “We had a… different idea, you’ll see,” he answers, somewhat uncomfortably, and she frowns but he barrels on before she can say anything else. “I meant the necklace. It came out really well, if I do say so myself.

“I’m sure it’s beautiful,” Zuko says, and both she and Sokka peer at him, trying to tell if he’s being sarcastic. “What?”

“I think you’re mocking me,” Sokka says, narrowing his eyes, and Zuko holds up both hands.

“No, I’m serious,” he insists. “I’m… sure it’s really pretty?”

“I’m sure she loves it,” Katara corrects, with an apologetic glance to Sokka. “Pretty isn’t required.”

“I think I liked Zuko’s encouragement better,” Sokka deadpans. “You could learn a few things from him, on how to talk to people.”

“Really?” Zuko says tightly. “Are you really sure about that?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Zuko, but I’m terribly offended by that suggestion,” Katara says, crossing her arms, and he glances at her.

“No, I’m offended on your behalf. No one should take my suggestions about talking to people.”

“You seem to have done all right for yourself so far,” Hakoda says, patting Zuko on the shoulder.

“That’s because we let the “Hi, Zuko here” thing slide,” Katara replies, and he cringes.

“I practiced that speech, you know,” he says, somewhere between affronted and apologetic.

“Did you really?” she asks, suddenly a little embarrassed, but he just coughs and rubs the back of his neck.

“I mean, I’m not saying it was a good speech, it was a terrible speech, but I did practice it.” He glances at her and coughs again. “The bullfrog I made listen to it thought it was terrible, too.”

Katara chokes, Sokka bursts out laughing, and Hakoda shakes his head. “Classic mistake,” he says flatly. “Should have tried practicing in front of seals. They clap.”

The laughter seems to have caught a couple of people’s attention on the other side of the fire, and even from here, the disapproval is clear: they stare for a moment, stone-faced, then start talking to each other. Katara’s throat closes up a little when she looks over, and the one still facing them makes cold eye contact. He’s an older man, one of her father’s warriors, and he looks from her to Hakoda and then to Zuko, lip curling, before he turns sharply away.

“Don’t worry about Amaruq,” Hakoda says in a low voice. “I’ll handle him.”

She’s trying to think of a response and becoming horribly aware that there isn’t a good one, when Sokka scoffs. “Oh, Amaruq,” he sighs. “He still thinks letting women out of the huts is an affront to the gods.” The last he says with an exaggerated eye-roll and hand gestures. “What a jerk.”

“I don’t think that’s what he’s upset about,” Zuko mutters, and Sokka shrugs.

“He’s upset about everything, all the time,” he insists. “Even if everyone did everything his way, he’d still find an excuse to be mad about something .”

“Thanks, Sokka,” Katara says quietly, and he claps her on the shoulder.

“You know what they say in the Earth Kingdom?” he asks, then goes on without waiting for her to guess. “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Katara wrinkles her nose. “Did that come from Suki or Toph?”

“Yes,” he answers.

But Amaruq isn’t a bastard, she wants to say. He’s a gifted warrior who has fought beside their father for years, who invaded the Fire Nation with them on the Day of the Black Sun, who defended their people against onslaught after onslaught from the Southern Raiders. She looks at Hakoda, who is frowning and seems to be thinking the same thing.

“Amaruq is passionate and stubborn,” he says in a measured voice, and crosses his arms. “Slow to let go of grudges, but a lot of the men are. They weren’t at the Boiling Rock like I was, to escape alongside you and Zuko and Suki. It will take time to convince them that this isn’t a betrayal.”

“What if Zuko went along on one of our hunts?” Sokka suggests, and Hakoda raises an eyebrow.

“That may be a good idea, but not today,” he replies seriously. “That’s too much to ask them to accept, and too soon. Hearts and minds don’t change overnight.”

“I know that,” Zuko murmurs. “It took me a long time, and a lot of humiliation, to realize that my father – and I – was wrong.”

“It can be done,” Hakoda agrees, nodding. “But not until they want to give you a chance. I can talk some sense into them, but that can’t be rushed.”

She looks into the fire and thinks of her own words after the assassination attempt: we can’t make a hundred years of propaganda vanish in five. They also can’t make these old wounds go away through force of will. It’s one thing to tell a council that they need to swallow their pride and act without prejudice for the betterment of everyone, but it’s a very different thing to tell people on the ground to get over their pain and accept a future they aren’t sure they have a part in.

Her people bear a different burden on their path forward than the people of the Fire Nation, or even the Earth Kingdom. Healing for them won’t come from policies or city halls; it has to come from within, and from the heart, and it can’t be forced or demanded. Some of them simply cannot and will not ever forgive. The best they can do is move on.

It took Katara a whole life-changing field trip to face down the actual person guilty of murdering her mother before she could forgive Zuko, not just for his betrayal under the city but in a larger sense for being the prince of the Fire Nation and heir to all its crimes. She can’t expect to wave a hand and have everyone else be over it, too.

But could they forgive her, at least?

“We should get some rest,” her father says, clapping her on the shoulder and startling her out of her reverie. “It’s still a few hours to go before the sun really sets, and I’m sure you’ve had a long journey.”

“It has been a long day,” she admits, and stifles a yawn before glancing at Zuko. “Will you be okay if I leave you to their tender mercies for a few hours?”

“Considering my family, if they don’t actively try to kill me, we’re doing all right,” he says flatly, and she and Sokka both snort.

Zuko meets her eyes for a second, and she shoots him a fleeting smile before she turns away, although she isn’t sure who she’s trying to reassure.

.

Once on her own, and laying in the hut that used to be home and now almost isn’t, Katara starts to think that maybe she’s overreacting to Amaruq’s glare. Sokka did warn her that there were people who thought she’d already abandoned them, and he assured her that they could handle it. And Sokka wasn’t entirely wrong about Amaruq: he is the sort who’s always finding something to complain about.

The fact that her father said outright he means to convince his warriors to accept this says a lot, and it’s an encouraging gesture, and… 

She both does and doesn’t feel guilty about the way Amaruq glared. Mostly, she feels guilty that she doesn’t feel more guilty. She can’t tell if she’s just searching up excuses not to be upset, or if she really does think he’s being overdramatic and Sokka is right and Hakoda will handle it.

This has been less difficult than she expected, or difficult in a different way: it feels like a goodbye that she just wasn’t quite prepared for.

It always seemed quietly impossible, and so she never really thought about what it would mean to stay with Zuko, to be the Fire Lady. She spent so much time preparing herself to say goodbye to the Fire Nation and to him that she didn’t ever think about how she would say goodbye to her tribe instead, if it even is a real goodbye.

The emotion hits her hard in the gut: she wishes her mother were here.

This is the kind of thing they would have talked about, that Kya would have advised her in. And as soon as the emotion strikes, she tries to catch it with: well you still have Gran-Gran and Sokka and Dad, and Suki will be here too in a few hours, and you have Zuko too, you’re not alone.

And she’s not alone. But Mom isn’t here to listen.

It’s the kind of grief that lays dormant for years and makes you think it’s not there at all, until all of a sudden and with no warning, it rises up and chokes the air out of your lungs. 

She covers her face with both hands and takes in several gulps of air, then grips her pendant and tries to control her breathing, but with little success. Tears fall from her eyes and into her hair and fall on the pillow beneath her, but –

Katara has cried so much for Kya. She can’t imagine that her mother would want her to spend so long weeping – and especially not now, young and in love and with a bright future ahead of her, the whole world at her feet. But maybe that’s why she’s crying: she’s young and in love and has the whole world at her feet, and Kya’s still just as gone as she was ten years ago.

Mom will never meet Zuko, and she won’t be at her wedding, and she won’t meet any of Katara’s children, and she’s known this for years but suddenly this side of it is real and immediate and staring her in the face, and it hurts.

And it hurts. And there’s nothing that makes it hurt less but time.

Let it in and let it out and let it go.

“Goodbye,” she whispers, to the hut and to its ghosts, then clutches both hands over her mouth, biting back the powerful and nearly unnameable feeling. 

It may have come on like a lightning bolt, but it takes its time leaving and it leaves her drained, until it finally, slowly fades and allows her to sink into a fitful sleep.

.

Katara manages to get a couple of hours of sleep before she’s awake again; when she peeks outside, it’s starting to get good and dark, and people seem to be slowly filtering out of their huts, although it’s still a little while before the ceremony will start.

She looks around the hut, rubbing her eyes and feeling heavy but calm, imagining Kya sitting in here with her and telling her to get up and get ready.

Everyone’s waiting on us, sweetheart.

The memory brings a smile to her face, and she touches her pendant again.

When she shuffles out into the cold, yawning, she spots a figure a little way past the huts, standing and facing the water. Black hair, off to the side and probably feeling out of place, and wearing much less coat than everyone else, there’s only one person it could be. She smiles to herself and sets out towards him.

“Inspecting the sea?” she asks, and Zuko jumps a little, before rubbing the back of his neck and gesturing out and vaguely up.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, and he’s looking both at her and the sky when he says it.

She pulls her coat a little closer around her and joins him near the edge of the ice. “This is just the beginning,” she murmurs. “Once the sun really sets, and sets for a whole month, it’s up there every time the sky isn’t cloudy. Anytime you look up, anywhere you look up from, it’s there and it’s something new.”

“So, what is it, exactly?” Zuko asks, placing a hand on her back as she tilts her head toward the sky. It’s still relatively faint right now, but the colors are stark on the dark sky and reflected in the dark water, and it makes her suddenly miss the deep winter, when the sky clears and the wind stills and the lights and stars are so brilliant on the snow that it lights the whole world up in glittering greens and purples. The memory is so vivid that it aches.

“I don’t know what Sokka’s answer would be,” she admits, and leans back against him. He’s warm in spite of not wearing much of a coat, but then, of course, he would be; she draws his arms around her. “I’m sure he’s got some theory.”

“What did your mother tell you?” he murmurs against her hair.

She hesitates, watching the sky for a moment and trying to recapture all those winter nights, Kya’s voice and fingers in her hair. “There are a lot of stories,” she answers slowly. “I think every group that ever got absorbed into the Northern and Southern Water Tribes had their own tale.” She lets out a long sigh and wishes it were darker, before closing her eyes and picturing the scene. “She told me it was a curtain,” she says, a bit dreamily, “between this world and the next. That was always my favorite, after she died. To think that… just over there, on the other side of that – that color, she was watching… I’ve always liked that.”

Eyes closed, she places this moment in her hall of memories: the cold wind on her face and his warm arms around her and the smell of salt and snow and woodsmoke. The surf crashing against the ice beneath them, the murmur of people behind them, and the silent dancing sky above them.

“I like that, too,” he says softly, and she takes one of his hands, running her fingers over his knuckles and then bringing it up to her lips briefly before pulling his arms tighter around her.

This is what she’s thinking to leave behind, to go back to turtleducks and cherry blossoms and fields of red flowers and changing the world beside the man she loves… and it’s not regret, not really, but she does wish she could bottle this moment and stow it away to pour back out whenever she needs it. There’s a kind of peace here that she’s never experienced anywhere else and maybe never can experience anywhere else, and she wants to always be able to have it at her side like a waterskin.

The voices behind them are getting a little louder as the sun sinks even further; Suki’s boat is arriving, the ceremony will start soon, and it’s time to go back. She feels him glance behind them and tightens her hands on his wrists.

“Just a little longer,” she breathes, looking back up at the sky. He relaxes and presses a gentle kiss to her temple, and she commits this moment to memory, every breath and every breeze, every sight and smell and sound. 

And then she lets the moment pass, and turns to him, eyes bright, and nods. “Let’s go see Suki!”

.

“Katara!” Suki cries, once she sees them, and she opens her arms for a hug. “It's been too long!”

“I know,” she groans into Suki's shoulder, hugging her tightly. “How are things at Kyoshi?”

“Pretty good,” she answers. “We talked Mai into learning tessenjutsu, and I'm gonna be honest, she is scary good at it.”

“Mai and edged weapons are a match made in heaven,” Zuko says, and Suki laughs.

“No joke. I don't think she plans to stay with the warriors, though. I told her about that Earth Kingdom bounty hunter we met before the comet, and she seemed really into the idea.”

“I could see that,” Katara muses. “It definitely wouldn't be boring.”

“Yeah,” Zuko says thoughtfully. “She should talk to Toph, I think she picked up the hunt-down-and-beat-up-bad-guys bug last year.”

Understatement,” she interjects. “Once the city planning is finished, I think that's her plan, to ditch politics and go straight to tracking down the whole New Ozai society.”

“Ooh, Mai would be a lot of help with that,” Suki says seriously. “I'll pass the word along. I'm worried about losing Ty Lee to them, though.”

“How is Ty Lee? I miss her!”

Suki laughs again, and shakes her head. “She's Ty Lee, you know? She makes sure everyone’s auras stay pink!” She says the last with a passable imitation of Ty Lee's voice, but there's a sort of eye-rolling fondness to it. 

“Mai, Toph, and Ty Lee, bounty hunting squad,” Sokka says, drawing out the words and then affecting a dramatic shudder. “That's a terrifying thought.”

“Evildoers beware,” Zuko adds, with a smirk, and Katara punches him lightly in the arm.

“I think it would be great for them.”

“I never said it wouldn't,” he argues, holding up his hands in supplication.

“So, did Toph come along with you?” Suki asks.

“No, she’s still at the Caldera,” Zuko replies, and Sokka makes a strange noise in the back of his throat.

“Are you sure it was a good idea to leave Toph to her own devices at the palace?” he asks, and Zuko waves a hand.

“Uncle is there with her, she’ll be fine.”

There’s a beat.

“Are you sure it was a good idea to leave Toph to her own –” he starts again, and Katara laughs.

“They won’t get up to too much mayhem,” she insists. “Besides, it’ll be good for all those ministers. Toph and Uncle Iroh will keep them on their toes.”

“I’m sure they’ll fix anything they destroy,” Zuko adds, and she glances at him.

“Oh, definitely. And they’ll insist nothing happened at all.”

“I can’t wait to hear what Xu says,” he drawls. Katara shudders dramatically, and Sokka laughs, then bounces a little and nudges Suki.

“Ooh, you've gotta show them,” he urges, looking giddy. “They’ve gotta see it.”

Suki rolls her eyes but takes off and hands over the necklace. It's on a green ribbon, and he actually did manage to carve a decent-looking pendant with the earth and water signs entwined together. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than his first attempt.

“Sokka, this is wonderful,” Katara gushes, and Suki smiles like she's trying not to show how happy she really is.

“It was so romantic, too, although someone should have reminded him that boats are windy.”

“The flowers being picked up by the wind and swept off into the sea was part of it,” Sokka says immediately. “I definitely planned it that way.”

Behind him, Suki is shaking her head, and mouths, he cried.

Katara giggles. “I’m happy for you! Have you decided when yet?”

“Spring is a good time for a wedding,” she answers, with a glance at Sokka. “New beginnings.”

“Water Tribe weddings are usually in the summer,” he says. “But I think it’s the same idea, we just don’t really do spring.”

“Excuse you,” Katara scoffs, “those five minutes of spring we get where there’s both a real day and a real night are wonderful.”

“What about the Fire Nation?” Suki asks, and Katara’s entire being wants to sink through the ice. To judge from Zuko’s expression, he feels the same.

“I… don’t actually know?” he replies slowly, cringing. “I’ve never been to one.”

“I’d think spring, too,” Katara answers, trying to barrel through the awkwardness and going perhaps a bit too far. “Right when the cherry trees are blossoming. That seems like the perfect time to me.”

There’s a moment of silence, before Suki says, in a very intrigued voice, “Oh, does it?

Oops.

(…but it does sound nice.)

“Well, I think everyone’s starting to gather at the fire,” Sokka declares, with all the subtlety of a moose-lion. “You need help getting your things down?”

“No,” Suki answers, and shoots Katara a cheeky grin and a wink, “but you can help me anyway.”

They wave them off and start back toward the huts, and they’re about halfway there when a voice stops her dead in her tracks.

“So, that’s it, then?” a tribeswoman – the mother of one her old students – says. She’s standing near the huts but still close enough to the docks to have heard the conversation, and her expression is betrayed; Katara’s heart sinks. “Fire Lady Katara?”

“Meriwa –” she starts, but the woman shakes her head, beads in her hair all tinkling against each other.

“You’re supposed to be ours,” she chokes. “Our hope, our leader, our voice out there in the world. Our last waterbender. And now you leave us for the Fire Nation? Have you forgotten what they did to us?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Katara says seriously. “But at some point, we have to let go and rebuild.”

We don’t do anything,” Meriwa cries. “You aren’t part of we anymore. You’re leaving us. Where were you last year?” she goes on, crossing her arms. There are tears on her face. “Malina wanted to show you how good she’s gotten at waterbending, but you weren’t here.”

It stings like a slap to the face, and she flinches.

“I…” she starts, but there’s nowhere else for the sentence to go. She got distracted, is the truth. There was a hospital to build, and Toph was hunting down the assassins who’d tried to kill her, and she was working on Aang’s new city, and… she’d forgotten about ceremonies and autumn nights. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is all well and good,” she says coldly. “But sorry doesn’t comfort a crying child whose teacher didn’t come back. And for what?” she scoffs, and Katara flinches again. “A big palace? Fancy dresses? Power, glory?” Her eyes land on Zuko. “A pretty new boyfriend to replace the Avatar?”

“Don’t talk to her like that,” Zuko snaps, and Katara catches him by the arm. Meriwa scoffs again, a watery anger.

“Or what?” she challenges, voice tight. “You’ll sic your war dogs on us? Again?

He starts, and looks surprised. “No, I –”

“Save it, Fire Lord,” Meriwa chokes. “Blood will out. It’s only a matter of time, you’ll show the world who you really are, just like your father and grandfather before you.” She shakes her head again and looks back at Katara. “You abandoned us,” she hisses. “The least you can do is not rub our faces in it. If you’re going to go, just go,” she snaps, drawing herself up to leave, tears spilling out of her eyes. “Just go and don’t come back.”

With that, she turns on her heel and stalks away, and Katara stares after her, at a loss for words.

“Katara,” Zuko says, putting a hand on her shoulder, and she can’t – won’t – look at him, because she knows what she’ll see: guilt and concern and probably even some dawning resignation. “I… I’m sorry,” he manages to say, in a bit of a rush. “I never meant to –”

“You didn’t do this, Zuko, I did,” she replies softly, already thinking longingly of the cliff a few yards behind them. “I got… so caught up in other people’s problems that I forgot about my own people. I keep doing that…” she mutters to herself, trailing off and looking down at the snow.

She did it when she was with Aang, and she thought she’d learned her lesson. It isn’t Zuko’s fault, any more than it was Aang’s: neither of them ever asked her to abandon anyone or anything to be with them. But she throws herself too deeply into everything she does; she thinks of Sokka, years ago now, telling her that she can’t not get involved.

I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!

(Those words never felt like a curse before.)

“Katara, there you are,” a new voice says, from just a few feet in front of her. It’s Gran-Gran, and she holds out a hand for Katara to take. “Come, sit with me a moment. I believe Sokka is already at the fire,” she adds, with a glance to Zuko and gesture in that direction. “I’ll bring her back, don’t worry.”

Gran-Gran gives him a kind smile, and pats Katara on the hand; Zuko looks at her and meets her eyes for a second that seems to last a very long time. 

He looks… longing, almost, like he’s memorizing her face before she slips through his fingers.

“Don’t worry so much,” Gran-Gran insists, waving him off and shattering the moment so completely that it can’t be anything but intentional. “We’ll only be a moment, and it’s not as if it’ll start without me.”

With that, she steers her away from Zuko’s forlorn eyes and into her own hut. It looks just the way she remembers it, warm furs and soft glow of the lantern hanging from the roof, and for a moment, she feels like the last – La, has it really been six years since she found Aang in that iceberg? – haven’t happened. 

“Bold of a Fire Lord to come here at all,” Gran-Gran says evenly, sinking into her chair. “Let alone wearing our colors.”

It’s hard to tell if it’s approving or admonishing, and she’s still too scattered from Meriwa’s words to really read into it. “He came because I asked him to,” she admits quietly. “He wore blue because… well, I’m not sure. He decided that on his own.”

“He did it to prove that he loves you enough to spite the vipers in his nation’s leadership,” Gran-Gran explains curtly. “To extend an olive branch and show that he means to share you with us.”

She tilts her head and frowns. “I… can’t tell if you’re upset about that or not.”

“Me?” she replies, raising her eyebrows. “I think it’s a sweet gesture. I think he’s a good boy, and I think he adores you and will treat you very well. But I also know that some of the people in the Tribe find it offensive. As though he’s trying to pretend he’s one of us.”

“That’s not how Zuko is,” she insists, shaking her head. Gran-Gran sighs.

“I know that,” she says. “You wouldn’t be marrying him if he was that foolish.”

“I haven’t… I mean, officially…” she trails off as her grandmother gives her a very pointed look. She looks away. “Meriwa spoke to me about that,” she mutters.

“Yes, I heard,” Gran-Gran says, with some distaste. “She’s a good girl with many good qualities, but too young to even know how young she really is.”

“She’s older than I am.”

“Some people stay teenagers well into adulthood,” she replies, and then sighs, shaking her head. “I won’t pretend I’m nothing but happy to see you go,” she says softly. “I’m a selfish old woman and I want my granddaughter to come right back here where she can always lay her head on my lap. But more than that,” she goes on, leaning forward a little, “I want my granddaughter to be happy. And what Meriwa said about not coming back – that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re always one of us.”

She walks over and sits down at Gran-Gran’s feet the way she used to, and leans her head on her knee. Gran-Gran places a hand on her head and smooths her hair back, and Katara closes her eyes and breathes it in, for a moment a child again, sitting here just like this while she sews and Mom cooks and Dad is teaching Sokka how to hold a sword right outside the door…

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I came here,” she admits, catching part of Gran-Gran’s skirt and clutching in her fist like she did as a small child, running her thumb over the embroidery. “I wanted to say yes right away, but I thought… I don’t know… How can I still be one of you if I’m the queen of another nation?”

“Katara, you don’t stop being a tribeswoman when you step off the ice,” Gran-Gran says seriously. “Suppose you did come back,” she muses, running her fingers through Katara’s hair. “What then? Would you be happier here than you are there, than you were before you left?”

She shrinks in place a little, and answers, “No,” on a mumble. Gran-Gran laughs shortly.

“Then why are we even entertaining the thought? You know what you want to do, where and who you want to be.” She shakes her head. “Your eyes are trained on the future, my girl, and that’s a good thing, but it can blind you if you aren’t careful. You could never not be a daughter of the Southern Water Tribe, or have not grown up under our midnight suns and month-long nights. You carry your history with you wherever you go,” she says warmly. “How you build that into the history of your children is your decision, and no one else’s.”

She blinks back tears and swallows hard. You carry your history with you wherever you go.

Gran-Gran would know.

“I talked to Sokka about that a little,” she says slowly. “He said I should take some of my culture back with me, share it with the Fire Nation. But if the Tribe already thinks I abandoned them, and they’re already offended by Zuko just… wearing a color, won’t they hate that?”

“Katara, they’ll hate anything you do that isn’t running right back to us and forgetting the love and the promises you’ve made to another land,” Gran-Gran replies. “And even then, some of them still may not forgive. That doesn’t change who you are, either to yourself or to them.”

Ty Lee’s words rise again into her mind: they’ll come around or they won’t, but you shouldn’t wait for them to get on with your life.

What Gran-Gran is really saying: she can still represent her people, if she chooses to. Either they’ll come to accept this or they won’t, but that doesn’t mean she should stop helping them or reaching out to them or bringing their concerns to the forefront of the world.

She can have it both ways, if she wants it badly enough to put in the work.

Gran-Gran smiles slowly, as though watching her inner turmoil unravel itself into purpose as they meet each other’s eyes. “That’s my girl,” she says softly, and then squeezes her hand. “I’m trusting you with this,” she goes on in a slightly admonishing tone, but it’s proud, too. “You hold all of our futures in the palm of your hand.”

“I won’t let you down.”

“You have never let me down, Katara,” she replies, and cups her cheek with a warm, rough hand. “Now, what I was going to say: while some members of our tribe are set in their ways, others think the future is built by connecting with the past, and would be honored to do things like make your wedding dress.”

It’s extremely pointed, and she looks up sharply, glancing at the loom where she taught her to weave as a girl. There’s nothing on it yet, but it stands ready.

“You would…” she starts, a bit faintly, and Gran-Gran smiles.

“The Fire Nation’s tailors may take offense, but as your grandmother and matriarch of your people, I insist,” she says, holding out both hands for Katara to take as they help each other to their feet. “They can make your fancy dresses for other occasions. This one is mine.”

She throws herself forward as gently as she can, wrapping her arms around her grandmother and burying her face in her shoulder.

“You come back to see us often, my love,” Gran-Gran says into her hair, and Katara nods, burying her face in her shoulder.

“I will,” she breathes, closing her eyes and breathing in the smell of this hut, her childhood, and the echoes of the past chasing her forward. “I will.”

.

She holds Gran-Gran’s hand to help her out into her seat at the fire pit, although her grandmother is spry and doesn’t exactly need it. It is, in some way, a symbolic gesture.

Night, by a certain definition, has fallen – it’s autumn, about two weeks past the equinox, and darkness comes on swifter and swifter by the day – and the sky is already beginning to light up in tendrils of emerald and purple, slowly arcing between the land and the stars. Most of the tribe has gathered for this; the sun gives in slowly and then all at once to autumn here at the edge of the ice cap, and while this is the first time the sun has set in months, in only a few days, it will be the last they see of it for just as long. 

It’s an edge-time, and there’s a story to be told.

Zuko looks up at her as she settles Gran-Gran into her chair, and shifts aside to give her a space to sit. She takes it, and then his hand; a few people around the fire turn quickly away, to look at Gran-Gran instead of what they see as a betrayal, and a few others smile and wave at her, and some of the younger girls even look giddy, leaning in and whispering to each other while looking at her and Zuko with very significant expressions. Sokka nudges her with his shoulder in a sort of solidarity.

“Is… are you all right?” Zuko asks, and she gives him a somewhat overbright smile, lacing her fingers with his and placing her other hand on top of his.

“I am,” she replies, and leans her head on his shoulder. He seems a little confused, but doesn’t press the issue at the moment.

“What are we waiting for?” he murmurs, after a moment of watching the circle of people.

“She’s going to tell us a story about the aurora,” she replies quietly. “Sometimes it’s about how it came to be, other times about the spirits involved with it, sometimes about gods and goddesses. This happens every year.”

“Why tonight?”

“It’s the first aurora of the winter,” she answers. “Or… we call it the first. You can see it a little, earlier in the season, but it’s faint and it doesn’t last long before it starts to get too light to really see it again.”

“The darkest twilight before night,” Gran-Gran says, startling Katara, because she hadn’t realized she was being heard. And then, louder, for the whole circle to hear: “In a week’s time, the sun will set for the last time until spring. The icy winds will blow, and the chill will settle in, deeper by the hour. From here on, we must pull together, lest we freeze.”

Her father arrives then, with a fur cloak that he lays on Gran-Gran’s shoulders; it’s a bit amateurish, to Katara’s eye, and she realizes that he made it himself. The last winter that she spent here, and all the ones before it since her mother died, her father brought her the pelts and she sewed the cloak. Sokka even brought the pelts to her last year and let her sew it, even though she couldn’t leave to give it to her in person. Is this idea he talked about earlier – that Hakoda would sew the pelt himself? 

“My son Sokka hunted the wolf whose fur will keep our matriarch warm,” he declares, and Katara glances down. “I made it into a cloak for my mother’s shoulders. I do this as her son, who loves her, and as the chief of her tribe, who follow her.”

There are a few murmurs, and she can feel them more than hear them: why wasn’t it his daughter who sewed the cloak? It was supposed to be Kya – the chief who hunts it and the wife who sews it – but in the absence of a wife, a daughter is acceptable. It was Katara’s job, but Hakoda did it, and everyone has noticed. Sokka leans in closer to her ear.

“Suki offered,” he whispers, and she looks at him. “But she’s not really… well, she can’t sew very well. Dad said he had a better idea.”

“It was supposed to be me.”

“It was supposed to be mom,” he corrects.

“You brought me a pelt last year to sew, why didn’t you bring one this year?”

“Because Dad had a better idea, and Gran-Gran agreed with him,” he insists. “You’re the one who’s made the fuss about the importance of equality.”

Before she can say anything else, her father is speaking again.

“All of us, men and women both, are people of the Water Tribe,” Hakoda says to the circle. “All of us must do all that we can to support one another. The women may hunt, the men may sew. Believe me,” he adds, with a quirk to the lips, “if I can sew a few pelts into a cloak, anyone can.”

A few chuckles sweep around the circle, and Bato shoots her a grin and an exaggerated cringe from the other side of the fire. Gran-Gran snorts.

“He broke four needles,” she drawls, to laughter from the women, Katara included. “I didn’t even know you could break a bone needle, but leave it to my son.”

“I pride myself on bringing innovation to the tribe,” he interjects, lightning-fast and clearly struggling not to laugh.

The bitter atmosphere has dissolved with the joke, to Katara’s relief and shame.

As he walks past her to sit on Sokka’s other side, he takes a moment to squeeze her shoulder. It’s small comfort.

Zuko squeezes her hand and gives her a quizzical look; clearly, something has transpired here that he didn’t know anything about, and he knows her well enough to know she’s upset about it. She shakes her head a little and mouths later.

“This year, I tell a new tale,” Gran-Gran says. “Although it may not be new to the oldest of our Northern brethren,” she adds, with a glance to Grand-Pakku, who frowns as though trying to figure out what she could mean. “It’s one not told for over a hundred years, my grandmother taught it to me only in the name of hope: that one day it would again be able to be told.”

The aurora arcs lazily across the sky and reflects off the snow, and the only sound in the circle is the crackling of the fire.

“Many long moons ago,” Gran-Gran begins, her voice hypnotic in its cadence, spoken almost like a song, “lived a girl named Ticasuk, the knowing one. She was a clever, curious girl, always asking questions and looking for answers, ever farther and farther from home. Her wandering took her out of the icy seas and into warmer waters, strange waters with strange fish, and when the sun rose high into the sky – higher and hotter than it ever did at home – it blinded her and she lost her way.

“Frightened and adrift, Ticasuk prayed to the spirits and the gods of the sun and of the moon, of the earth and of the sea, to guide her to safety, and of all of them, only La of the sea listened to her cry. La calmed the waves and swelled the tide to bring her to an unfamiliar shore, covered in grasses like the high summer meadows, and flowers, oh, the flowers, the likes of which you’ve never seen, in all the colors of the world. The beauty and the newness of this land dazzled Ticasuk, who quite forgot her fears and loneliness, and set off into the grasses toward the dark high trees on the horizon

“She had never seen a tree with such wide leaves before, or with such bright, full fruits, hanging low and heavy from the branches, and she’d never seen birds like these before, small red and yellow feathered things singing high in the treetops and picking at seeds. She traveled inland all day, but when night began to fall, she remembered her fear and how far she was from home, and she called to a red bird, asking, please, could you show me a safe place to stay the night?

“The bird heard her voice and sang a reply, follow me, follow me, and so she followed. The red bird flew her to a village, where it landed on the house of a boy, a boy who looked so different from the ones she had known, with golden eyes and ink-black hair, handsome and tall and strong, and in his hands burned fire with not a torch to be seen. She had never known anyone to bend an element but water, and in her eagerness to learn more, she stumbled and fell, and only then realized what he must see.”

Here, Gran-Gran laughs a little, as heat crawls up Katara’s spine. This story was chosen for a very specific reason.

“A lovely young girl with salt in her hair and skin browned by the midnight sun, in blue-dyed furs stained with dirt and the grass from the woods, looking at him with eyes the color of the sea. She didn’t know it then, but he fell in love with her the moment she fell into his life. His name was Kaito, and his family was poor, but they were rich in spirit, and they took her in and gave her food and shelter, and for a season, she was happy and beloved and warm.

“But soon, she longed for the snow of the north, the waters and the ice and cold stone of her home, and she longed even more to show her love the land she was born to and called her own. But he could not leave behind his father’s land, as it was all they had and he their only son, and so, with bitter heartbreak, she left him behind and returned to her boat. But she did not know the way back to her tribe – she had come on the back of La herself, and she was once again lost at sea. When she prayed again for guidance, La told her only that she had guided her once already, and would not be so kind again.

“A storm swept over her, and the rain fell hard and the seas rose high and they shattered her boat into a thousand little pieces, and sent her falling and sinking, down and deeper down, until she landed in the realm of the goddess Sedna.”

A sharp gasp sweeps over the crowd at this. Gran-Gran shifts a little and raises her head.

“This is a dangerous and deadly place to find yourself, deep below the waves where no light can reach you. And Sedna is not a goddess known for her mercy or her kindness, and she offered to Ticasuk neither succor nor guidance, but Ticasuk had heard all the stories of Sedna and she knew what she had to do. You see, the goddess’s hair is long and she cannot hold a comb, and in the sea and in the waves it becomes so tangled that the waters flow through it and stop. So Ticasuk took a comb and she knelt at the feet of the stone-silent goddess and she combed out the tangles and the seaweed and the salt, and she combed out the shells and the pearls and the twigs, and she combed out the rocks of the shore and the lost little fishes and the bones of the dead, and she combed.

“And when she was done, Sedna’s long hair gleamed, so lovely and clean, and she ran her fingerless hands through her hair, and she turned her face to Ticasuk for the first and for the only time. Go back to the surface, she whispered in the water. You will be at the shore, and I will guide you home.  

“And so Ticasuk went back to the surface and washed upon the shore, where she was quickly found by her love, who had come to the waters with fear that the storm had swept her away forever. He begged her forgiveness and vowed to build her a new boat, a strong boat, a swift boat, that would carry her home and then back again, if only they could map out the way. By the time it was done, the summer had ended and the autumn winds had begun to blow, and when the sun set deep beneath the horizon, Ticasuk saw Sedna’s reward.

“Sedna, tragic Sedna, with her hair loose and free again, had risen to the surface of the waves and she told Torgarsuk of the sky to make a pathway for the lovers.” Gran-Gran indicates to the aurora above them, weaving across the night sky, tracing its path with her hand. “To build a road of flame in the high, cold stars that would lead them to the ice, so that he could always find his love, and she could always find her way back home.”

The silence after she stops speaking falls on them like snow. The meaning of this story, and telling it now of all times, is twofold: one, to indicate her approval of the match, and two, to signal to any dissenters that their disapproval will not be heard.

The matriarch of the Southern Water Tribe has spoken. 

Sokka is the one who starts the clapping, which slowly picks up around the circle as everyone blinks back to reality and the present, out of the dreamlike world spun by Gran-Gran’s voice. Katara glances at Zuko, but he’s looking at Gran-Gran, who is looking directly at him. She nods once, subtly, then rises to her feet and gestures toward the pavilion.

“There is food in the hall, for any who have not yet eaten. All are welcome to partake. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she sighs, holding out a hand and allowing Hakoda to take it, “these old bones need rest. Good night to all. Keep warm and keep the wind and the wolves out.”

The circle clears as everyone makes their way either to their own homes or to the pavilion for food, but Katara stays in her seat, looking up at the aurora and watching it wave across the sky.

A curtain between this world and the next; a road that always leads home.

You carry your history with you wherever you go

“We’re gonna come back next year, right?” Zuko asks softly, and it’s more than just the one question. She looks at him and smiles.

“Yes,” she replies, then laughs. “And I don’t care what Dad says, I’m making the cloak next year. It’s my job.”

“It looks like he did a pretty good job on that one,” Zuko says, glancing behind them, and she snorts.

“Spoken like a man,” she scoffs. “I don’t think it will fall apart, at least.”

“I bet that’s more than Sokka could say.”

“I bet that’s more than you could say.”

He laughs but doesn’t deny it, looking back toward the fire a little self-consciously, and she watches him for a moment, the firelight reflecting on the unscarred side of his face. Golden eyes and ink-black hair, handsome and tall and strong. She wonders if that was actually how Gran-Gran’s grandmother had described the lover when she told her the story.

“Zuko,” she says, and he looks at her with a little hmm? and she reaches out and brushes the hair out of his face. “Yes.”

He searches her face for a moment, expression open and vulnerable and hopeful, and then he places a hand on her cheek; it’s warm and rough and familiar and she closes her eyes and leans into it for a moment before she leans forward and kisses him.

“You know, I had a plan,” he says quietly, once she’s pulled away. “I was going to –”

“Shh,” she cuts him off, putting a hand over his lips. “Don’t tell me, I still want to see it!”

He smiles at her, that rare little smile that grows on his face like he can’t believe something has gone right for him, and it makes her heart melt; they’ve come so far, through all their ups and down and fights and spars and field trips and moments under the night sky. She leans forward and rests her forehead against his – here, in the darkest twilight before night, lit up by the fire beside them and the gift of the goddess above them, it’s a perfect moment.

And then Sokka happens to it.

“Hey, are you two lovebirds coming to eat or not?” he calls out, in a deadpan voice, which startles both of them into turning toward the pavilion. “‘Cause if you’re not, I’m eating your portion.”

“Which one of us are you talking to?” Zuko asks, and Sokka raises up two bowls.

“Both of you. Don’t underestimate my appetite.”

Zuko stands up and offers her his hand, which she takes and lets him pull her up very close to him, and she thinks he’s about to kiss her again before Sokka loudly clears his throat.

Food’s waiting.”

“I’m gonna kill him,” she growls.

“I’ll hold him down for you.”

Katara laughs, bright and happy and warm, resting her forehead briefly against his chest, right under his chin. Then, with the firelight and the green and purple lights waving them on, fingers laced together, they make their way to sit with her people on the edge of the night.