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everything i am

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“On the day of Fire Lord Zuko’s coronation, the whole world had seemed to stop and listen, stuck on an inhale, waiting for what was to come. Regardless of how you felt about the disgraced, usurper revolutionary, you were waiting and watching him with bated breath. I remember thinking he looked young, that the world’s Peacebringers were just children. I remember thinking that he was just a boy on the cusp of being a man on the cusp of being a myth.”

–An excerpt from the personal journals of Fire Sage Raoke

There is something treacherous about new beginnings. Maybe it’s the first, wobbling step, the leap of faith that makes your stomach swim up to your throat, the call of the unknown, the sudden aching nostalgia to turn back, and the terror of knowing you can’t. Zuko feels it now, kneeling before the Fire Sages, trembling like the world does, uncertain, but hoping, hoping, hoping with everything inside of him as he is crowned Fire Lord to his nation. 

“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” The Fire Sage’s voice echoes and Zuko holds his breath. 

There is cheering in the streets, streamers and shouts and applause. The world has turned upside down. When Zuko looks out, he can see only blurs of color in the crowds, the world brimming on a new era. His chest is tight and he feels old and young all at once, the eyes of history upon him, peering into him. He rises. 

Aang is there, beside him, when he feels the weight of it all. And Aang smiles, so Zuko does, too. His eyes sharpen on the crowd and he searches, finds the Kyoshi Warriors and Mai and there’s Toph-- Sokka. Katara. Smiling. And he feels like he can breathe again. 

So he takes the leap and he doesn’t look back. He begins again with the Fire Nation, with the whole world, ushering in a new era. Humbled and proud, seeking and found, unsure and unshakeable. 

And he looks out on his nation with the hopeful eyes of a child, the hardened eyes of a man, and breathes thanks to whatever stars or spirits have decided to write his story into a triumph and not a tragedy.   

The evening gives way into revelry and celebration for his crowning, for the end of the war. There is drinking and food and merriment. Music swells around the room, and dancing couples hold fast to each other. There is laughter and excited, bright conversation all around. Party guests swirl before his eyes in silk and gems, noblemen and women clamoring for his attention, royalty from other nations who give congratulations while they eye him uneasily. Toasts in his honor. Diplomats and politicians, poets and artists, so many faces that come and go. 

It’s all a little overwhelming.

He wants to know where they were before? Did they clamor for his father’s attention, too? But it’s a night of celebration, he tries to remember, there is time to be suspicious. There is time to weed out the old from the new. And it is not tonight. 

His chest is aching, though, his injury still fresh and tender. It worsens as the night goes on under the weight of his regalia, under the weight of his armored shoulder plates that rest so heavily upon him. He has to try and keep his face serene for his guests, it wouldn’t do for them to know he’s in any sort of pain, that there is already weakness in him. 

So when his friends are finally able to occupy his attention, he breathes a sigh of relief as they surround him. 

He doesn’t even get angry when Aang greets, “Flameo, Fire Lord Man!” 

“Look at you, buddy!” Sokka says with the brightest smile, “The best Fire Lord I’ve ever seen!” 

“I would hope so,” Suki quips. 

“You do look handsome, Zuko.” Ty Lee pipes up, eyes glittering, “Your aura is the loveliest shade of red right now.” 

Zuko’s cheeks turn a little red, too, and he offers a nervous smile, “Uh, thanks guys.” he gets out, before Toph suddenly punches his arm. 

“I’m proud of ya, Sparky.” she says, just as pain lances through Zuko’s arm, reverberating through his chest. He winces, doubles over a little. 

And then it’s Katara, in front of him, all blue, blue eyes that are looking up at him in concern. “Easy, Toph, he’s still injured,” she scolds, and her hands, cool and small are on his chest then. “Are you okay? How do you feel?” 

“I’m okay,” Zuko tries to ease her worry, “Just a little sore.” 

“I can heal you again,” she offers quickly, “After the party.”

The polite part of him insists to tell her that he’s fine, he’ll be okay, she doesn’t need to. But the part of him that feels weary and achy wins out, because he nods a little, and says, “That would be nice. Thank you.”

Pleased with this answer, Katara backs away and the group breaks into lively conversation. Anything from horrible impersonations of stuffy nobles to ranking the fancy food to who might be able to sneak glasses of wine. Zuko finally eases up, feels normal for a moment. He laughs with them, even if it makes his ribs burn. He plucks the wine glass that Toph manages to steal from her hands, holds it out of her reach because she’s too young to drink wine. 

He hands it off to Katara, who hands it back to a passing server, despite Toph’s protests. He shares a look with Katara, who looks exasperated, but happy. Like nothing’s changed from them hiding away together, taking care of everyone. 

Even if everything’s changed. 

As the night winds down, he and Sokka do steal wine together. They don’t tell Toph.

“Because we’re the oldest!” Sokka declares, clinking their glasses together. 

Sokka drinks too quickly, the wine no doubt burning and he splutters, choking, his face growing red. 

Zuko throws his head back and laughs, reaching out to pat Sokka on the back. He’s filled with warmth, the sweet, sticky kind that clings to his insides. It makes him bright eyed, and crooked smiled. 

When he finds Mai, sitting at a lone table on the outskirts of the ballroom, he slides into the seat beside her. His friends have given away to dancing, Toph and Aang are making up a new dance move and Sokka has managed to find a way to dance with his crutch still in one arm. Suki is laughing at his flailing so hard that she’s doubled over, clinging to Katara, who is laughing, too. 

“Fire Lord Zuko,” Mai greets, her voice a teasing drawl. Her eyes glitter, just before he leans in to brush a kiss to her lips. He feels her smile, rather than sees it.  

“Have you been drinking wine?” she asks, pulling away, almost amused. 

“Just a little-- with Sokka.” Zuko answers and she hums in response, just as his attention returns to the group on the dance floor. 

Aang has pulled Katara into a dance and she is fluid, the silk of her dress swirling beneath candlelight, looking like the arc of a wave. She practically lights up the room, her melodic laugh carrying, even to Zuko. He is mesmerized for a moment, with her joy, with her youth and love and delight, with the way she moves like she’s compelled to-- like there’s something in her that makes her want to get up and dance . To be so moved by her own happiness that it can’t be contained in her, stretches inside of her through her arms and legs, fills her torso, extends through the graceful turn of her wrist, the playful step of her feet. 

Maybe it’s the wine, or something boyish and soft in him, but he turns to Mai and asks, “Will you dance with me?” 

Mai scoffs a little, “You know I don’t dance.” she remarks dryly. 

“Just once? Just for tonight?” Zuko asks, and he’s not pleading, but maybe he could be.

“No, Zuko,” Mai says, thinking it’s nothing, and as if to placate him, she takes his jaw in hand and presses a kiss to his cheek, “Why don’t you ask Ty Lee?” she teases and he huffs. 

But he’s still watching Katara and maybe she can feel it, because she glances at him, looking over her shoulder for a moment, her eyes sparkling, crinkled into happiness. And then she spins and spins and spins and enamors the rest of the ballroom, too. 

The night winds down and Zuko begins to bid his guests goodbye and goodnight. His friends linger, he can hear their laughter and shouting. When he can, he glances at them, commits them to memory, here and now, like this. Happy and young and bursting at the seams, vibrant and endless. They’re heroes, the figures of legends and myths, but they’re also just kids. They’re just kids who have lived to see another day and can laugh because of it. 

He tries to hold onto the happiness that has sunken into his bones, cling desperately to the moment, even as it slips from him as he does so. 

There is a tentative knock on his chamber doors not long after he has retired to him. He had sent his servants off, told them he would do without them until morning, though regrets it slightly now that he can’t reach his top-knot and crown without wincing, can’t quite shrug off his shoulder plates or robes. Still, he manages to return to his feet and go to the door to pull it open. 

Katara stands there, her cheeks flushed and rosy, her smile a little shy. 

“I promised I’d stop by to heal you,” she says when all he does is blink at her for a moment. 

He’d nearly forgotten, and he breathes, “Oh,” and then, “Right. I remember.” Before he steps aside and allows her to enter his room. The door clicks shut behind her and then they’re left in the dim light of his bed chambers and-- he’s been alone with Katara before, he’d taken a whole trip alone with her before, when they went to find Yon Rha. 

But for whatever reason, it feels different, strange and a little intimate in here. Maybe it’s because it’s his bedroom, maybe it’s the low, soft lighting that casts her in gold and shadow. 

“I’ll just--” he starts to break the stretching silence and he moves to take a seat at the chair near his desk. A neutral place, not like the edge of his bed. Not that it should matter, he reasons internally, it’s just Katara but-- but just to be sure. 

He tries to reach up and take out his crown again, but pain lances through him and he hisses through his teeth. Sharp, quiet, and quick. 

Katara is there in a heartbeat, though, and her hands gently brush his away, “Zuko, are you in that much pain?” she asks, her voice soft, but almost a little scolding. She sets to gently pulling his crown from the top-knot in his hair, setting it on his desk, and then delicately, she begins unwinding his hair. 

“I’m just a little sore,” Zuko tries to ease her worries. She’s always worrying about everyone, “It’s been a long day.” 

His hair falls onto his forehead, the nape of his neck, over his ears. She quickly runs her fingers through it and he becomes keenly aware of it. Maybe she does, too, because she stops suddenly and maybe he catches the slightest shade of pink rising to her cheeks. 

“It has been a long day,” she agrees and she moves to begin easing his shoulder plates from him. “These are so heavy!” she admonishes as she lifts them from him, just as he ducks out of them and she pulls them the rest of the way off. She sets them on the ground, even if his advisors would keel over to see royal armor touch the ground. But Zuko doesn’t care. And Katara continues, “You shouldn’t have been walking around with those on all day! No wonder you’re sore.” 

“Tell that to my advisors,” Zuko replies, exhaling roughly as he finally lets his shoulders drop. The muscles in his back, in his shoulders and chest are aching and tense. She comes around to face him then, moves to step between his legs and--

And he knows it’s just so she can begin to help him pull his robes off, but something about it makes his heart tumble a little. He is careful, turning slightly, pulling his arms free to help her. He is keenly aware of her small hands, the way they steadily unravel him. 

“I will, if I have to. You should stay out of those for long periods of time while you’re healing.” Katara responds and though her tone is firm, almost commanding, her voice is quiet because she’s so near to him. Almost hushed. He also knows she’s serious, he thinks she really would scold his own advisors over it. “Doctor’s orders.” she then adds, beginning to fold the layers of robes she’s peeled off of him.

“You’re a doctor now?” Zuko asks, lips quirking up slightly, almost fondly. 

“Healer’s orders, then.” she quips back to him, and when she turns back to him, she carefully begins to remove the bandage wrapped around his chest and ribs. Her fingertips are cold, they brush his skin and when she leans closer, he can smell water lily and dew, the distant ocean breeze caught on her. 

And then his chest is bare before her. 

The wound is pink and raw, all burned but healing flesh, sensitive and newborn-looking. He isn’t unfamiliar with it, with the sensation of tight skin trying to knit itself back into health after being so sharply burned. 

She pulls the cool water from a pitcher in his room, coats her hands in it until it glows blue and bright in the shadows and then sets them upon his chest. 

He hisses quietly and her eyes flicker up to his face in concern, “Are you okay?” she breathes, so quiet he fears she didn’t even say it at all.

But he nods, small and quick, “Your hands are always cold.” And then he sighs a little, sinks deeper into the chair as the soothing cool of her hands begins to melt away the ache and tenderness of his wound. It’s an instant relief, after the initial plunge. 

“Well you’re always so warm. Sometimes I think you have a fever.” she retorts quietly, tracing the outline of his injury, slowly drawing the water over it. 

They lapse into comfortable silence.

Zuko watches her face as she works, the glowing blue of her hands makes her eyes appear pale and gem-like, opalescent and pearly. Her brow furrows the slightest as she works over a particularly sensitive spot on him, like she’s working through his skin, down into the inner parts of him. It’s like he can feel her there, on the other side of his chest, swimming around his heart. It’s a little frightening, if he thinks too hard on it, but he’s too tired. 

And her touch is too gentle. And she is too careful with him. 

She handles him with such fragility that he feels breakable suddenly, keenly delicate under her hands. He doesn’t know if anyone has ever handled him with such care. Maybe not since his mother. He doesn’t want to think of her, though, not today. Not now. He isn’t sure if he would be able to bear the weight of her memory, too.

But he still feels compelled to murmur, “Thank you, Katara, for this.” with all that he has inside of him. 

She shakes her head fractionally, “You don’t need to thank me,” she replies, “It’s the least I can do.” 

“You never do the least,” Zuko points out before he can stop himself. “You offered to come tonight, after the party, and you didn’t have to. You could’ve waited until morning.” 

Katara pauses for a moment, her eyes finding his in the glow of the azure light. Her hands are still on his chest, over his heart. Something unnamable crosses her face, something like disbelief or awe, and whatever she has seen in him, makes him turn nervous under her gaze. He already feels so raw, so exposed, so aching. He isn’t sure what she’s going to say but--

“You saved my life, Zuko.” she whispers with a quiet fierceness, the kind that is meant for best kept secrets and a spilling of emotions. It’s meant for lovers and promises, like the rush of the waves, or the feeling of  fire when it eats up all the oxygen in a room. It almost feels like it shouldn’t be for them. 

But it is. It is.

And there’s almost a question in it, too-- you saved my life, but why? You risked everything; kingdom and crown and glory and life for me. But why? 

Zuko swallows. He doesn’t know if she expects the answer to the unspoken question, he doesn’t know if he’s supposed to shrug it off, tell her he would’ve done it for anyone like some false hero. But Katara is not just anyone to him and he’s not a hero. 

“You saved my life,” she repeats, softer, “So it’s the least I can do.”

You also saved my life.” Zuko counters, peering into her eyes that are like pale, blue moons. “So we’re even.” 

Katara huffs out a small laugh, like she can’t believe he’d fight her on this, just as she finishes up healing him. The blue light dims. Shadows flicker across their features, soften them. Had it been this dark before? 

“Alright, we’re even,” she concedes with a small smile, “But I’m still going to continue to heal you.” 

Zuko supposes he can’t argue with that and he tells her so. They’re still so near and her hand is still on his chest. As if she realizes, she pulls away, stands a little straighter, looks to busy herself by reaching for the cloth wrappings to bandage him back up. 

She works with the same delicate steadiness and he leans forward for her, so she can wrap it behind him, her arms going around him, then receding. He is careful, his face is near her shoulder, his eyes trace the line of her neck. When she is finished, she looks down at him, surveys to make sure he is all okay again, he is all put back together. 

And then she says, “I am proud of you, Zuko.” 

His heart does something strange in his chest. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you,” he breathes, and then as if to soften it, as if to backpedal a little from it’s intimacy, he adds, “Without all of you.” 

Her eyes glitter again and he thinks she might cry. She’s looking at him like he’s a little too good and he doesn’t quite think he deserves it but-- but she still tips forward, wraps her arms carefully around him in a hug. The angle is a little awkward, it’s all a little uncertain and fumbling but he returns it, and she tucks her face into the juncture between his shoulder and neck. His pulse leaps. The scent of lilies and the ocean envelope him as he buries his face into her curls. She squeezes and if it's a little too tight, if a little bit of pain wrings through him, he doesn’t say a word. 

She pulls away, stands, quickly steps out of his space, as if it all becomes a little too much. 

“I’ll let you rest,” she whispers because this moment is just for them, “Goodnight, Zuko.” 

“Goodnight, Katara.” he rasps softly and watches her leave the same way the sun watches the moon slip beneath the horizon. 

As much as Zuko wishes he could keep the sliver of time with all of his friends in the Fire Nation in the palms of his hands, it all has to come to an end. They may have toppled his father’s regime but there is far more of the world to fix; they are inheriting a broken place, wounded and war-ravaged, one wrong move from dissolving into new chaos. They have a lot of work to do. Zuko has a lot of work to do. In the face of it all, usurping his father and defeating Azula seems like a leisurely stroll in the park. 

 It is daunting and with everyone leaving to different corners of the world, Zuko feels rather alone. Suki and Ty Lee are returning to Kyoshi Island, Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Toph are returning to the Southern Water Tribe before Aang and Toph go on to the Earth Kingdom to begin smoothing over damage done there. There has already been talk of bringing Fire Nation soldiers home, pulling them out of the colonies in the Earth Kingdom, and reparations from the Fire Nation to the Earth Kingdom and Southern Water Tribe respectfully. 

There is a lot to do and selfishly, Zuko wants them all by his side to do this. He wants to go back into hiding, he thinks, when they were on Ember Island and he never felt alone. He knows this is all for the better, he knows they have to be strong now, to push the uncertain new world in the right direction. He is just terrified, watching them all load up Appa to leave him. 

He hates goodbyes. 

Ty Lee’s hug is bone crushing and Mai receives an even tighter one, with some added watery eyes. Mai doesn’t let on too much, but he can tell with the way she squeezes Ty Lee back that she’s going to miss her. The way her eyes close for a moment, like maybe she won’t let go of her. 

Suki pulls him into a hug, Toph slugs his arm before she suddenly throws herself around his middle. He is shocked, the breath knocked out of him for a moment, but he still wraps his arms around her. Squeezes. He’s going to miss her. She pulls away and pretends it didn’t happen and it makes him smile a little fondly, a little sadly. 

Sokka’s hug is tight and he admits, “You know, I really am gonna miss you, buddy.” and he sniffs a little, pulling away to look at Zuko, “Take care of yourself, okay?” 

Already, he misses Sokka, and he’s still standing in front of him. Zuko swallows around the lump forming in his throat. He nods a little and when he feels like his voice won’t splinter, he says, “Yeah, you too, Sokka.” 

Aang hugs him tight, too. “I’ll be in touch,” he promises quickly, “I’m sure I’ll see you soon.” he continues, more like he’s trying to convince himself that this goodbye isn’t so bad. And it’s not-- it shouldn’t be. It’s not forever. But Zuko just feels so unsure still, desperately wants to cling to all of them. “It won’t be long.” he promises quietly. 

And then it’s Katara who wraps her arms around his neck, buries her face into his chest. He would never admit it aloud, but he is going to miss her the most. He almost feels tethered to her, like after what they went through, she has some precious part of him. And when she pulls away slightly, her eyes round and filling with tears, he wonders if he has a part of her, too. 

“Sokka and I will be in touch,” she tells him, and he knows she means about fixing the relationship between their nations. “But-- you should write to me, too. Not about politics.” Katara tells him, “Write to me?” she implores, her voice rough with unspoken emotions. 

“I will,” Zuko rasps quietly and he lets her slip from his arms like water between his fingers. 

Mai stands beside him as they watch Appa lift into the faded blue sky. She reaches out and takes Zuko’s hand. He grips her a little too tightly, but for once, she doesn’t say anything.

They don’t say anything at all and Zuko tries to swallow everything down, even if his eyes are burning as he watches Appa become a speck in the sky. 

When he finally breaks to Iroh that night, catching a sob behind his hands like he could force it back down inside of him-- sick with worry about his nation, with self doubt, with being alone, with already missing them, Iroh tells him very gently;

“It is easier to leave than it is to be left behind, my nephew.” he touches Zuko’s shaking shoulders, “It always has been.” 

Zuko tucks his face into his elbow and tries not to cry harder. 

Days turn into weeks and weeks blur into months and Zuko is always busy. He gets little sleep, pouring over scroll after scroll of proposals or old laws or history or letters from other nations. Not to mention, there are so few people he can trust, even in the palace. His council is all half out to get him, ready to devour the young and revolutionary Fire Lord whole. The first few weeks had been the toughest, as he’d learned all about politics and trade and negotiations. It had helped that he’d traveled the world, but applying everything at once was like piecing through a jigsaw puzzle you didn’t quite have all the pieces for.  

He was thankful to have his uncle to help him and Mai to confide in. Even if it led to bickering more and more often now. He could still trust her. 

And it was one of the most important things to him now after the handful of assasination attempts upon his life. There is a group of terrorists who still believe in his father’s regime and they wish to see Zuko dead. Though his guards have been reinforced several times, there are still too many instances for everyone’s comfort. One of which even circles back to a member of his council who does not agree with the radical ideas of giving reparations to previously conquered nations. 

When he cannot sleep, tossing and turning in the middle of the night, he returns to Katara’s letters. The personal ones, not the political ones. They detail Sokka’s antics and how she believes she’ll soon be joining Aang to help him with the Earth Kingdom. How the spring brings baby otter-penguins and the sky at night has so many stars that it takes her breath away. And those letters always end with;

I miss you. Write back soon.

He writes to her in these twilight hours, too, when sleep evades him. And on one particular occasion, he mentions all the turmoil, his lack of trust in those around him. How he misses her, too.

In a matter of days, he receives a letter from Suki, much to his surprise. She explains that she is already on her way to the Fire Nation with the Kyoshi warriors, since a little sparrowkeet told her that he could use some better security. And maybe some friendly faces. 

When he sees her and Ty Lee again, he lets go of a breath he feels like he’s been holding since everyone left all those months ago. 

He thinks even Mai is pleased to have Ty Lee back, with the way her eyes light up. 

The next letter he sends to Katara begins like this;

Dear Katara,

Even from across the ocean, you’re still managing to look out for me. 

And it ends as it always does, I miss you. I hope you’re well. But this time, there’s an addition, I can’t thank you enough. And a small, scribbled out phrase which she will never see, and it reads;

When will I see you again? 

Mai worries over him, but her worry usually comes out in the form of breezy, near waspish comments and scoldings. Which makes his temper flare and he usually says something he regrets and then she says something worse. Because Mai likes to have the last word in, the last dig, as if to maybe feel as if she’s won that argument. Zuko doesn’t know how to say he’s not competing with her and it all just feels like he’s losing anyways. Unraveling. 

She is dismissive and he is hyper-sensitive. She’s both the rose and the thorn and he reaches towards her bare-handed and too quickly every time, gets himself all cut up because of it. She once told him that talking to him is like playing with fire, she shouldn’t have to get burned just to speak with him. 

They have good moments, too, and he clings to them every time she storms away from him. He clings to the children they were, the familiarity of her, the steadiness of her. She is the only constant of his past, besides his uncle. She is here when so much else has changed and he is infinitely grateful for her. He can’t think of his life without her, not after everything they’ve been through, not after growing up together. In ways, she is all he knows. 

And maybe, he is all she knows, too. 

“Can’t you ever put Fire Lord Zuko to rest? Can’t you just be Zuko?” Mai asks him one night when he hasn’t picked his eyes up to look at her over the dinner table, he is glued to the scroll in his hands. It’s a report about the many soldiers returning from war who are now left  impoverished and struggling. What many people fail to recognize is that war, even from the supposed winner, still wreaks havoc on it’s own country, specifically it’s lower and working classes. His father has not only left him with a desperate need to repair relations with other nations, but also an increasing class disparity in his own--

Zuko,” Mai snaps sharply and he finally peels his eyes away from the scroll. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, “This is important.” 

“That’s what you always say,” Mai counters and her voice is so clipped and icy that he nearly shivers, “Can’t you ever take a break?”  

“Well, it’s all important.” Zuko retorts and maybe there’s an edge to his voice. Maybe his temper is just lurking beneath his skin, itching to burst outward. He hasn’t slept well. He barely eats half the time, too. He is stressed. “So, no, I can’t ever take a break.” 

“You can’t live like this.” Mai responds, “You’re going to burn out.” 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Zuko grinds out, and feels the temperature in the room spike sharply.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” Mai seethes, her eyes flashing dangerously. 

“Then what do you mean?” Zuko asks, and maybe he shouldn’t but he continues, “Is this about not getting as much attention from me?” And maybe his tone is a little too harsh, “Sorry, Mai, but I think the state of our nation comes before our relationship.” 

The second it leaves his mouth, though, he regrets it. 

There’s a flash of pain in Mai’s eyes before she quickly schools her features. That’s somehow worse for Zuko— he wishes she would tell him off. He wishes she’d shout at him, get angry, anything but this coldness and the pain he causes her. 

Mai stands sharply, “Enjoy your dinner alone, Fire Lord Zuko.” Mai hisses, before she turns and strides out with her back straight and tall and her chin tipped up. The silence that stretches in her wake is long suffering, makes guilt claw up, drag it’s talons along the insides of him. He shouldn’t have snapped at her, he shouldn’t have said that. 

He thinks about swallowing his pride and chasing after her, apologizing. He thinks about taking her into his arms, kissing the corner of her lips, trying to assure her that he didn’t mean it.

But it isn’t fully true, is it? The state of the Fire Nation is, in some way, more important than his personal life, is it not? It’s bigger than him, he can feel it, those eyes of history and time upon him. It’s bigger than all of them. 

He can feel a migraine forming. He doesn’t rush after her. He sits in the silence. The crown in his hair feels suddenly heavy.  

He’s glad Mai has Ty Lee, for when he’s hurt her like this. 

He lets out a rough exhale, just as Suki melts from the shadows of her position as his personal guard. She rarely breaks protocol but now she moves to sit beside him. She doesn’t say much, just puts her hand on his slumped shoulder and he drops his head into the fold of his elbows on the table. 

And they sit like that for a long time, until Zuko speaks up quietly, “We don’t always argue,” he feels the need to tell her, knowing that Suki sees them bicker often. 

“I know,” Suki says, maybe to placate him. “She’s just worried about you.” 

“I wish she would say that, then.” Zuko mumbles into the crook of his elbow, feeling miserable. He still shouldn’t have been so mean, though, so cruel. Shame and guilt work at him, make him duck his head to hide his face in his arms. He feels stupidly young again, trying to hide from Suki, drowning in another regret. 

“I know,” Suki says again, gentler this time. 

And then she tells him that they should really talk, sort out why there are so many arguments between them. There has to be a bigger reason, something trapped between them. Everything is so different now, and with it brings the pains of nostalgia. He’s so different, Mai is, too. 

“And that’s okay,” Suki tells him, ducking her head so that he has to catch her eyes, “Change always brings growing pains. I think you’d know better than most that it isn’t easy nor very pretty.” 

He does know this. And he is still changing, he realizes, the way the world is changing, too. 

He talks softly with Suki until he doesn’t feel so tender and frustrated, until he can pick at his food and eat. He is grateful for her company, for her friendship. He finally is able to drag himself back to his bed chambers, vowing to find Mai and apologize to her tomorrow, to try and instigate a more open conversation. But he ends up sitting at his desk for a few more hours, pouring over scrolls for the next day. 

He climbs into bed eventually, weary, his neck and shoulders sore, and with tired eyes. He lets loose a slow, unraveling breath as he sinks into bed. Exhaustion pulls him into a deep sleep. 

When he dreams, he dreams of the fairytales his mother used to tell him, in colors of pale blue and ruby red, of golds and quicksilvers. Great dragons and koi fish, of princes from far off lands and girls with gems for eyes. He dreams of the holding of hands and the saying of prayers. He dreams of the beginning of myths and legends, the swirling words of prophecies, and the crowing of fate. 

He dreams of the plunging, opening line to the epics that begin with a boy who has to be a man who has to be a hero. 

And when he wakes, he knows the story has just begun. 

Chapter Text

the prophecy of a hero 

“I think what all the epics and poetry fail to capture about Master Katara is her sense of self. Yes, she was as lovely as the painters make her out to be and as fearsome and strong as the poets described her, but she was always, unabashedly herself. A girl from the Southern Water Tribe with a too-big heart and the determination to rival the gods. She saw the war-torn world and decided to reshape it with her own, two hands. Had it not been for The Last Waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe and her unfaltering faith in a new world, I don’t think the war would have been only one hundred years.” 

–an excerpt from ‘The One Hundred Year War and it’s Heroes’ 

Katara searches the endless, azure horizon- for what, she isn’t quite sure, but there is something entrancing about the world from this high up. She has long since gotten over any fear of heights and now the back of Appa has become as familiar as her home. 

Aang sits at the front of the saddle, steering Appa. There’s a wind coming from the north, lifting her hair from her shoulders. It has been three years since the end of the war, three years since Zuko’s coronation, nearly three years now since she has been to the South Pole. She has spent these three years here, with Aang, on the back of Appa, rushing around the world to wherever they are needed next. It is mostly in the Earth Kingdom, specifically the colonies. There was an initial struggle with the Harmony Restoration Movement; it wasn’t nuanced enough to address the issue at hand. With all of the younger, newer colonies, they were able to dismantle and bring Fire Nation citizens back to the Fire Nation. However, many of the older colonies had an intermixing of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens, families that had grown and interwoven together throughout the past century. They were not as easy to uproot. But it also had not been enough to simply leave the colonies alone- she was quick to point out that there was a great disparity between many of the Earth Kingdom natives and the Fire Nation descendants, whose families had colonized there. 

So Zuko and King Kuei had begun drafting a new agreement, to allow some of these older colonies to be governed by themselves through a democracy. Beyond that, reparations were given to Earth Kingdom natives who had been affected by the Fire Nation. Schools were built in impoverished areas of the colonies, monuments and statues that once upheld Fire Nation colonizers were torn down, replaced with fountains and sculptures made by artists in the areas. There was still more to be done, everyone could agree upon that, but it was a start in a long and complicated process. 

Katara had aided Zuko in first drafts of such agreements, usually through letters, offering advice where she could. Aang had a harder time with some of the official political aspects; policies and laws in long, drawn out scrolls were not something that Aang had ever had to deal with and because of this, Katara did most of the reading and replying on this front. And then she accompanied Aang to the colonies to be sure such orders were being carried out fairly. When more problems arose, Katara was quick to pen a letter to Zuko and King Kuei. 

They’d spent the better part of those three years doing this, as well as jetting off to any other corner of the world that might need their help. They’d even helped Zuko find his mother, and to their surprise, his younger half-sister Kiyi, too. It had been a busy three years and to Katara, shows little sign of slowing now. 

They’re currently on their way to one of the Earth Kingdom colonies, more to be sure all is running smoothly rather than because there is any glaring problem that has arisen. Katara wishes to return back to the South Pole sometime soon to check in on Sokka and her father. They are working on rebuilding after the damage the war has done and attempting to expand further with the influx of families that have cropped up because the men have returned from war. 

A part of Katara feels that she should be there with them, alongside her father and brother, working to repair her home. Another part of her can’t imagine leaving Aang to be on his own. Though he’s matured in the past three years, he was still Aang to her. His smile was still wide and infectious, he was still playful, his heart still so youthful, bursting with energy. He still rushed off to do something fun or exciting, still laughed so brightly that it made the whole world seem wonderful. He still needed help, needed someone to care for him. 

Katara couldn’t have imagined him traveling alone three years ago and she still can’t envision it fully now. 

It’s no secret that Katara does most of their chores, from cooking to washing and mending their clothes, she keeps herself busy. She takes care of both of them, does the small things because Spirits know that he has bigger things on his plate. She also keeps up on the news between foreign nations, she’s the one that reaches out to Zuko or King Kuei on Aang’s behalf, makes sure to comb over policies and new laws and proposals sent his way. She does anything she can to take some of the weight off his shoulders since she knows he carries the whole world there. 

More than that, Katara loves him. She follows him to the ends of the earth-- because that’s just how Katara loves. 

She studies his back, the silhouette of him against the sky. He’s still young, just a boy of fifteen, maybe that’s why she can’t imagine him alone. And here she is, on the cusp of adulthood, looking after Aang. She thinks of her brother, rebuilding their home. And Toph, with her Metalbending school. 

She thinks of Zuko, as Fire Lord, shaping his nation and the world. 

She feels strange suddenly, her heart twisting bitterly. And what has she done?  She’s not unhappy but she’s not-- she’s not fully satisfied, she thinks, looking after Aang. But no, that can’t be right, can it? She is happy, she decides, looking out at the horizon.

“Almost there!” Aang says happily and now that Katara looks down, she can see the city in the near distance. The sky is beginning to bleed into orange and red, lullaby pinks that gather between the colors and clouds. The world is open before her, hers for the taking. 

Katara climbs to the front of Appa, to sit beside Aang. He presses a kiss to her cheek and she smiles, feels suddenly a little guilty for her previous thought. So she crushes the feeling, the dissatisfaction or strange, new sadness. She dismisses it sharply. She’s done plenty, she reasons, helping Aang. She gazes at him, at his bright eyes trained on the world below. 

What is there not to be satisfied about? 

When they land, they are almost immediately swarmed by a group of Air Acolytes, who have recognized Appa in the sky and have been waiting eagerly to see Aang once more. Katara holds back a tired sigh as the group of girls gather around him. There’s a few boys now, too, at least. Though Katara’s relationship has improved with many of the Air Acolytes, she does not harbor the same enthusiasm that Aang does upon seeing them.

She’s gotten over her childish jealousy of them, for the most part, and is certain that even for all their fawning, Aang only has eyes for her. Now, she grows tired of them because of the way she is sharply pushed aside and forgotten. Not by Aang, but by the Acolytes. Katara doesn’t need all the compliments and gushing, but it’d be nice if she felt like she even existed to them. 

Beyond that, many referred to her as Aang’s girlfriend. Occasionally, the Water Tribe girl. 

She makes herself scarce then, as she always does when they’re around. She tells Aang that she’s going to walk around the town, maybe try to find them food for dinner. She bids him goodbye with a brief kiss, slinging a pack over her shoulder and beginning to wander off. 

The streets are somewhat busy still with vendors and storefronts, though Katara can tell they’re winding down for the day, beginning to sweep and close up shop. Kids play in the street. Many people meander about. She can hear the trickle of a guitar from a rooftop, the chords drifting down to her. There’s pleasant conversation, the faint sound of laughter. The sounds of a quaint town who know each other well. It soothes her and Katara finds herself loosening up, the light returning to her eyes, curiosity blooming soft and small inside of her. 

She searches for food, notes some of the storefronts that could be options as she continues to walk along the stone streets. Her eyes drift, until they land on a small, ramshackle place that reads ‘Shono’s Divination Services.’ 

Katara pauses, stops dead in her tracks. 

She shouldn’t, she knows she shouldn’t. 

But she hasn’t been to a fortune teller since Aunt Wu, all those years ago, and she’s sure Aang will be with the Air Acolytes for a while. Besides, what’s the harm in this? It’s mostly for fun, isn’t it? 

When she walks into the little shop, a twinkling chime sounds. A sparrowkeet in a cage chirps brightly. Crystals dangle from the ceiling by twine, catching pink and azure and amethyst in the last rosy rays of evening. Katara can smell something strong like frankincense or bergamot. There is a great deal of knick-knacks littered around the small shop-- detailed masks hanging on the walls, jars of herbs, of glittering liquid or elixirs, and even what looks like animal bones. 

This is much different than Aunt Wu’s. 

“Good evening.” 

Katara jumps at the voice that comes from the back of the shop, it’s raspy and soft, a little lilted. She turns sharply, nearly knocks over a small shrine near her. The woman who has emerged is middle aged and tan, with thick, long hair as black as coal. Her features are sharp, almost foxen to Katara. She looks sly, with shrewd emerald eyes. 

“Uh, hello!” Katara replies, a wobbling smile coming to her face. Something about this woman makes her uneasy, as if she knows a secret that Katara doesn’t. 

“I’m Shono,” she says, drifting nearer, “Welcome to my shop.” 

Katara bows her head in greeting, “I’m Katara.” she answers, feeling uncharacteristically shy under Shono’s gaze. 

Shono’s eyebrow ticks up and she asks, “The Master Waterbender?” 

“Oh. Yes.” Katara says, not completely unsurprised that Shono knows of her, but she has yet to get used to the idea that strangers know her now, too. It’s been three years and it’s still a little odd. 

Shono hums, appraising her, before she asks, “What do you seek, Master Katara?”  

The question is a little strange, she thinks, a little mysterious, but she swallows. “Just a palm reading?” she means to say, but it comes out as more of a question. 

“I don’t do palm readings here,” Shono replies, her lips quirking up at the corners slightly, “But if you wish to inquire into your future, I can still help you.”

“Oh,” Katara says quietly, a little uncertain suddenly. Against better judgement, she nods, “Ah, yes. I would like to inquire into my future.” 

Shono nods, somewhat amused, before she says, “Follow me.” And she disappears behind a curtain to the back of the shop. Katara follows. 

She is led to a small, back room where the only light source is flickering candles. There is a table that takes up most of the space and atop it is a series of strange items. One is a small tray made of stone, with some wood placed upon it. There are scorch marks on the stone where the wood rests to suggest a fire. There is a plum colored, velvet pouch placed nearby. There are several crystals, all taking on jagged shapes that cast strange shadows against the candlelight. Shono takes a seat on the side closest to all the items, so Katara takes the seat across from her. 

Once payment is agreed upon and made, Shono strikes a match and sets fire to the small pieces of wood on the stone. Katara watches with fascination; Shono’s hands are graceful and thin, flitting  from place to place. Her nails are long and tap against the table, move with a ceremonial sort of flow. She has done this many, many times. 

Shono empties out the items in the small, velvet pouch. They fall onto the table with a bit of clacking and clicking. It takes Katara a moment to realize those are bones- little animal bones. Maybe of a bird or rodent, Katara can’t tell. 

Shono takes them into her palms, “Open your hands,” she instructs and Katara cups her palms, holds them open. Shono drops the little bones into her hands and they rattle before they settle against her skin. They are surprisingly light. 

“Shake them in your hands and when you feel ready, drop them into the fire.” Shono instructs simply.

Katara thinks it strange-- how is Shono supposed to tell her future like this? But she supposes she knows little about palm reading, too, and she never questioned Aunt Wu. Katara nods and closes her small hands over the bones. Gently, almost tentatively, she begins to shake them. 

She breathes, doesn’t exactly know what she’s waiting for. She isn’t sure if she’ll feel ready to drop them in but after another moment, she glances into the flames. They flicker, hungry. Curiously, Katara finally drops them above the fire. 

A sudden plume of white smoke erupts from it and Katara jerks back in surprise as they sizzle and snap. 

Shono eyes Katara then, “White smoke,” she comments, a little surprised, “It’s rare.” And then a smirk touches the corner of her lips, “Though I suppose it’s not every day I get someone like you in here.” 

Katara doesn’t know what to say to that, so she doesn’t say anything at all. The fire begins to die down after it’s initial flare when the bones touched it, though the room remains smoky and Katara ducks her head slightly to avoid it. They wait and Katara isn’t sure what for. 

But eventually the fire lowers to embers on the bones, until it is barely anything at all. Without letting it cool, Shono pulls the stone closer to her and begins to pick the bones out of the ashes with careful fingers. If she burns herself, she doesn’t even flinch. 

After a moment of rearranging and inspecting the bones, Shono looks up at her, “As you know, you’ll leave your mark on history. They’ll tell your story for years to come.” 

Katara supposes that she doesn’t know that, nor is she arrogant enough to assume that history itself will recall her. She has not fully thought about being immortalized in this way, in the stories to come about the end of the One Hundred year war. She hasn’t even thought of her own legacy yet, hasn’t thought of what history or time will remember her for. 

A quiet, terrified part of her asks, will you only ever be Master Katara, Avatar Aang’s teacher? Avatar Aang’s girlfriend? Avatar Aang’s wife? What else do you want to be? 

Shono cuts those thoughts off as she draws in a hiss of breath through her teeth, her brows furrowing as she gazes down at the bones, “How strange,” she mutters.

Katara grows worried, “What’s strange?” 

“I’ve never seen such a difference in potential paths.” Shono replies, still studying the strange, squiggly lines of one of the bones. “Usually, everyone has diverging paths, potential choices they make, most small, most leading to a similar place in their future. Sometimes larger choices that lead in different directions, but I’ve never seen one like this.” 

“Is that...bad? Is there a right choice to make?”

Shono is quiet for a moment and Katara worries there is, she worries that she’ll choose wrongly, that she will--

“There is no right nor bad choice,” Shono replies evenly, but Katara can tell she is holding something back and though Katara can feel her heart quicken, can feel the fear she carries for the potential answer, she still needs to know. Katara, if nothing else, has always been brave. 

So she prompts, “But?”

“But one path doesn’t only alter your life significantly, it alters the lives of countless others. Look,” Shono says, almost breathless, and she begins to rearrange the bones to show Katara. “Here is where you are in life now.” Shono points to a line on one of the larger bones, draws her finger up the crooked splinter until it reaches a deep fork in it’s road. The two paths diverge sharply and deeply into two different directions, “And here are your diverging paths.” 

Katara studies this, just as Shono continues, “One path,” she follows the crack on the left, “Will affect some others, it will still be significant.” Now, Shono’s finger follows all the splintering effects of that path, which lead out onto other bones, like puzzle pieces that, together, form a whole picture of cracks and splinters. They look like a tree, branching outwards, criss crossing and spreading. They fade out, though, don’t even reach some bones on the left. “But this path,” And now Shono draws her finger to the path on the right, which arcs off into hundreds, no, thousands, of spider webbing cracks. All of the bones on the right side are filled with them, can’t even encompass them all, and Katara’s breath catches in her throat, just as Shono says, “This path will alter the state of the world.” 

Katara stares, wide-eyed. 

Shono’s not done, though. She points to a bone along the path on the right, which has a deep splinter in it, almost through it. “This bone represents fame, history, the passage of time, and divine change.” Shono looks amazed, “This bone is usually only marked in readings of kings and queens and Avatars. Emperors or conquerors. And only in the deeply significant ones, at that.” Shono’s tone becomes breathless as she meets Katara’s eyes, “And yours is nearly cleaved in half.” 

Katara stares at it, at the way hundreds of tiny, spindly cracks come from the deep one. She can’t fathom it. Kings and queens? She was no leader of a nation, she was no Avatar. She hadn’t helped Aang or fought the One Hundred year war for fame, she hadn’t done it for her spot in history. She’d done it because she felt like she had to. Because she couldn’t stand to look at the world the way it was, because if she didn’t do it, who would? There had always been a furious tempo to her heart, the gritting of her teeth had been too strong, her eyes brighter than the stars-- she had always been more tempest than girl. Not for fame, but for love.

Love of a lost mother and a war-taken father. Love of a brother with eyes like hers. Of her unrelenting and brave people. Of a boy in an iceberg and a girl with the will to move mountains. Of a prince with a scar. She’d done it all for the suffering, the downtrodden, the desperate-- the lost, broken people who needed her healing hands and a drop of the hope she carried in her chest. 

At her silence, Shono arches a brow, “At this point, most people would be asking how to be sure they achieve this,” she says slowly, her finger tapping at the deep crevice of the bone of fame, “How they make sure they make the right choice.” Her eyes dance curiously, almost slyly. “Don’t you have questions, Master Katara?”

She doesn’t care about the fame. She only cares about--

“Is it good?” Katara asks.

“What? Is what good?” 

“You said I’d change the world with this path.” Katara traces her finger along the right path. “Do I change it for good?” 

Shono blinks, perhaps surprised.  And then she smiles a little, maybe marveling at Katara. “Yes, Master Katara, it seems to be good change. Either path, you will do good for the world.” 

Katara exhales a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. 

“You don’t have any further questions?” Shono asks, eyeing her. 

Maybe when Katara was younger, maybe at fourteen she would’ve pestered and pressed about her love life. Maybe she would’ve asked about how many children she might have or-- or what she should do tomorrow. But now, looking at the bones, at the two paths, Katara can’t think of anything except a singular question that bubbles out of that secretive place inside of her, “Will I be satisfied in either life? Will I be happy?”

 Shono is silent and still for a moment, she glances at the bones spread out before them, then back at Katara. “Those are two different things; to be happy and to be satisfied.” Katara is about to protest, maybe, she thinks they’re the same, aren’t they? But Shono speaks before she can;

“You’ll be happy in both but satisfied in only this one.” 

And Katara follows Shono’s nimble, slight finger as it travels along the path on the right side. 

Katara swallows, stares hard at that side, at all it’s intricacies and crevices and notches, at the way it reminds her of the connecting of constellations and the breaking of glass. All the veins in the body that lead to the heart and all the paths on a map. 

“Thank you, Shono.” Katara finally says and Shono bids her goodnight, walks her out of her store. It’s growing dark outside, the sky has gone plum and peach and Katara can feel Shono’s sharp eyes on her as she walks back out onto the street, now beginning to glow with lamps that people light. She doesn’t quite know what’s just happened, what she’s just learned, but it leaves Katara quiet and contemplative. 

Even when she returns to Aang with food, when they sit and talk and speak together as naturally as ever, Katara still lingers on Shono. On the bones. She doesn’t tell Aang about it-- she doesn’t know why, but she can’t seem to bring herself to. It feels personal, or perhaps she’s scared that Aang wouldn’t quite understand it, or why it’s left her feeling so strange. Almost melancholic. There’s nothing to be sad over! Aang would tell her, she said with either choice you would be happy! That’s good!

But I won’t be satisfied in one, Katara thinks, again and again and again. 

When she drifts off to sleep that night, she keeps hearing Shono’s voice, over and over, lilting around her mind. She hears the clatter of bones and the beat of her heart, the strange feeling in her chest as she flew above the clouds with Aang- the unpleasant, sour one. Then the guilt that follows. She sees those darkened cracks, the branches of trees. The flames that had swallowed those bones whole. 

And now she wishes, in hindsight, as her heart aches strangely in the cage of her chest that she would’ve asked;

What’s the difference, Shono? Between satisfied and happy? 

How can I be happy and never be satisfied? 

Dear Katara,


I’m glad to hear that you’ve made it safely back to the Earth Kingdom. Tell Aang I say hello. Things are well here in the palace, if not eternally busy. Kiyi’s birthday was the previous day-- she’s getting so big. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s only been three years since I found her and my mother. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s already been three years. 

Azula has been well lately. She still can’t be around our mother, but she’ll speak to me. And she’ll brush Kiyi’s hair. Sometimes, she’ll even let Uncle sit with her and drink tea. It’s progress, I think. She’s also permanently moved back into the palace, even if there are nurses with her nearly all the time. 

It’s strange, though...she asks about you from time to time. I can’t decide if it’s because you defeated her or because you tried to heal her mind in the days that followed. I’m not sure which haunts her more; your strength or your compassion. I know, even after I betrayed you in Ba Sing Se, I had never been able to forget what you had offered me. I still haven’t. It’s hard to accept kindness when you have only known the opposite. It’s hard to accept kindness when you feel like you don’t deserve it. 

She asks about you like you live here, though, like she’s waiting for you to return home. To the palace. She asks about my scar, too. The one on my chest. And sometimes she stares at me and asks, “Why’d you do it?” and I know she’s asking why I jumped in front of you.  It’s all very strange. 

I never knew that you had an interest in divination. Your experience with Shono sounds strange, too. You seem...unsettled by it. Uncle used to visit these sort of shops and I’ll admit I’m skeptical of their validity. I’m not particularly superstitious by nature. Besides, all the fortune tellers used to say to me was that I had great conflict and strife in my future. I don’t think you need to look into the future to see that. 

Still, I’m not sure I have an answer to your question. I do think happiness and satisfaction are different, though. For instance, I was happy at Kiyi’s birthday. I was happy holding her in my arms, I was happy that evening when I was able to sit on the floor of her bedroom beside Azula, with Kiyi in her lap as we told her stories of dragons. But I am not satisfied. 

I’m not sure I will ever be. There is too much to do still. 

Maybe you feel similarly. Maybe we want too much for the world. Maybe we’ve always been reaching and chasing and searching. I’ve always felt you understand me the most, maybe this is why. 

However, what I do know with certainty, is that whichever path you take, you will be brilliant. You always are. In the meantime, try not to worry too much about it. I know that’s easier said than done for you. 

I miss you. I hope you’re well. 


Your friend,


Chapter Text

“There is a severe lack of documentation on the Lady Mai of the Fire Nation. She resided in the palace in the first few years after the One Hundred Year War, but after, she seems to disappear from record. Some documents even appear to be purposely sabotaged, as if someone was helping her hide from history. She reappears few and far between; making herself into somewhat of a ghost or legend. There are some records of her visiting Toph of the Earth Kingdom. There are also several, strange accounts and tall tales from pirates describing “a phantom” that fits her description and particular use of weapons and fighting. There is a rumor that she aided the Avatar for some time, too, apparently even facing down the great spirit, Koh the Face Stealer. She seems to have taken on a sort of vigilante role, becoming myth herself. We now believe that the mask for the Silver Wraith is based on her impassive but striking features. Much of what we believe about the entity could possibly be attributed to her, too.” 

–An excerpt from ‘The Fire Nation’s Spirits, Legends, and Myths’ 

“Fire Lord Zuko, the council has one more matter they would like to address with you.” Jokao, Zuko’s main advisor, begins rather cautiously. Which is strange because Jakao is rarely cautious. He has been ordering Zuko around since he was a newly crowned sixteen-year-old. 

Zuko braces for the worst, “What is it?” 

Jakao clears his throat, then begins, “Since you are twenty, nearly twenty-one, and now that we are no longer on the brink of war or any sort of uprising or economic collapse,” his fingers nervously twitch against the table, “For the first time in awhile, we are, relatively stable, of course, not completely, but --” he continues to ramble and Zuko’s brows furrow as he tries to keep up, “Better than we have been in awhile. Our relationships with other nations are on the mend and well, our own nation has been healing well since--”

“Advisor Jakao?” Zuko inquires, searching for his point. 

He clears his throat again, “Right. What I’m trying to say is the council believes it would be an opportune time for a wedding.” 

“A wedding?” Zuko says dumbly, “Whose wedding?” 

Jakao flounders for a moment, the room growing tense. Finally, he gets out, “Well, yours, Your Majesty.”

Zuko almost chokes on nothing, “Mine?” 

Another advisor chimes in, “We just assumed that since you and the Lady Mai had been courting for the past four years that--” he tries to find a delicate and polite way of putting it, “Well, we think she would make an adequate Fire Lady, should you so wish to propose to her.” 

“And now would be an opportune time to do so?” Zuko asks, somewhat incredulously. 

“We believe a royal wedding would help demonstrate a new found peace and happiness in our nation. Besides, you need a wife. You need heirs --”

Zuko actually winces at the word. He knows, in theory, he is supposed to have an heir as soon as possible to secure the throne. He knows, in theory, he and Mai have been dating for the past four years. 

(Never mind that they’ve broken up a few times in those years, only that right now, they were back on again--)

They’d never discussed marriage, though. 

It’s always been a strange thing, some wedge between them. Because he knows what comes with being his wife, so he assumes she knows what comes with it, too. And he knows, in theory, she is nearly born and bred for this-- for the Fire Nation courts, that is. Her parents raised her for this. In theory, she should make an excellent Fire Lady. 

But she despises it all. 

And therein lies the small part that has always sat in the back of his mind, waiting, lurking. He knows this the way the sound of the axe must be known by the tree. The way the sparrowkeet must know the eyes of a fire hawk.

She has never tried to come to any meetings with him because they’re boring, she despises social gatherings; dinners or solstice celebrations or hosting other dignitaries. Mai is eternally annoyed with all of it. Perhaps even trapped by it, ensnared in it all since she was young and small, never given the freedom to be anything put perfect and precise and empty.

He understands why, he understands but--

It’s his life. It would have to be hers, too. 

“Perhaps Lady Mai can attend a few of our meetings?” Another advisor interrupts Zuko’s quickly spiraling thoughts, “Not that we doubt any of her capabilities, but--” 

Zuko doesn’t want to have this conversation anymore. 

“I’ll speak with her,” he says, but it is too sharp, a dismissal. 

And he doesn’t actually wish to speak with her, afraid that he might break something very fragile between them.   

Azula speaks in riddles. 

He takes dinner with her now, just the two of them, seated on the balcony that connects to her bedroom and overlooks the sloping, craggy mountains. The sun begins to dip below them, the sky blossoming red and burnt orange, honey gold. 

It has been four years since the end of the war and Zuko is the only one who can parse through what Azula is really saying half the time. Her nurses can sometimes, they’ve gotten used to some of her ranting and raving and muttering, but it is Zuko who knows her best. She’s gotten better in these years, so much so that, a year ago, she was permitted to move back into the palace. She still does not speak to their mother and Zuko wonders if she ever will, but for now, this is enough. 

He often alternates his days and meals with his family; sometimes breakfast with Azula and Kiyi, other days with his mother and Kiyi and Uncle. Lunches with dignitaries and advisers. Dinners with Mai, usually. Tonight it is with his sister, though. 

In ways, he feels spread thin, like he’s doling out parts of himself to everyone-- and all of them want different things from him. A dutiful son and nephew. A calm elder brother. An attentive boyfriend. A capable Fire Lord. They want a wise leader who is also strong and proud but not so proud that he is arrogant, lest they see a glimpse of his father in him. But a good man with a noble heart, who also isn’t a coward— they want him to have the fire of a dragon, but with dulled teeth so they might not get cut on all his sharp edges. Someone charming or graceful or amusing. They want him harmless in equal measure that they want him to be intimidating. They want him to be a Fire Lord, a man, a myth, or just their Zuko, just—

All these splintering facets of him that twist and unwind like a spool of thread. 

He wonders when he will reach the end of it. 

He wonders if anyone sees him for all of it— or sees him for none of it. 

He wishes he had someone constant. Someone who sits and eats beside him at every meal, no matter who else is in his company at that time. Right now, he feels as if he’s cycling through their faces, a strange rotation. 

He wants someone to know him, he realizes with a start, a dull ache blossoming in the pit of him. He wants someone beside him in all of this.

He considers asking Mai-- he already has to ask Mai too much anyways, doesn’t he? 

She may sit through meals with his Uncle or mother or advisers, but he is certain this is where she might draw the line. She has only ever expressed thinly veiled disdain for Azula, worry for him every time he goes to eat with her alone. 

He supposes he understands why. 

She nearly killed you, Mai says sometimes, her voice quiet, maybe touched with an emotion she doesn’t wish to share. She tried to kill me. 

Zuko doesn’t know how to explain to Mai that it’s all Azula knows. It’s all their father taught her. He doesn’t know how to explain that he looks at Azula and sees some warped version of himself; the one without Uncle. The one without Aang or Katara or Sokka or Toph. 

(It's the one without love, he realizes, without forgiveness.) 

He looks at Azula and just sees a series of tragedies; a girl forced into the mold of monster, all her child-soft edges sharpened until she was nothing but jaggedness, like a lion-tiger’s tooth, like a lightning strike. 

And maybe he’s always loved a little too hard, maybe he’s always been quick to get burned, but he can’t turn his back on her now. Even if there’s a scar in the shape of a blossom on his chest from her. 

So he’ll be the constant that she needs, the way Uncle was to him. He’ll be the unwavering love, the forgiveness—

He’ll be her– but I am ready to forgive you—

Her– I was never angry with you. I was scared you’d lost your way. 

He’ll be her love and acceptance, the one he needed so badly to change. 

(And maybe, in the darkest parts of him, forgiving her is like forgiving the angry, brutalized thirteen year old in him). 

No, right now, his only constant is perhaps Suki and her ever-present watch of him. She and the other Kyoshi warriors keep themselves somewhat hidden, but they’re always there. And while her companionship is greatly appreciated, even somewhat needed by him-- she isn’t Mai, is she? 

And he’s not Sokka. 

It’s strange, he thinks, because he shares the same melancholy that Suki carries for missing Sokka. But Mai’s right here. It’s like he misses her when she’s in front of him.

He picks at his food with his chopsticks, tries to unwork his thoughts, tries to let them slip away. He’s had a long day. His mind is running in lagging, worried circles. 

“My, your shoulders look tired.” Azula says, her voice clear and clipped. Even somewhat annoyed. And then, “You have weak shoulders for such a heavy burden.” 

Despite the jab, she seems more lucid today. He can’t decide if that is a good or bad thing for his impending headache. 

Zuko sighs deeply, “It’s been a long day, Azula.” 

“Isn’t it always?” she counters, her long nails drumming slowly against the wood of the low-set table that they’re at. “Today, though, your shoulders seem particularly weak.” 

It’s her way of saying she can tell something is wrong, something is bothering him. 

“Political?” she asks when he doesn’t respond. More silence stretches between them before she presses, “Familial?” Still nothing, her nails continue to tap, tap, tap against Zuko’s waning patience, “Romantic?” 

Something in Zuko’s jaw ticks and Azula pounces. She has always been part predator, part girl, always too attentive, even after her breakdown, always waiting to strike where it hurts the worst. 

She’s always been good at that. 

“Ah,” she says and there is a cruel smile tugging at her lips, like this is entertaining. “Did you and Mai finally break up again?” 

He likes to think underneath the meanness is genuine concern and interest in him and his life, she just doesn’t know how to express it any other way yet. Maybe he’s being too generous. 

“Finally?” he grumbles, pushes his food around more.

I know you’re an idiot, Zuzu, but please don’t play that dumb.” Azula says sharply, rolling her eyes and for a moment, he catches sight of the old her. But it’s a strange new part of her, like some shuddering version of both. She’s being mean to him, but it’s not as malicious as she used to be. She isn’t trying to kill him.

It almost could be normal, being harped on by his sister. 

He thinks of Katara scolding Sokka, maybe saying something similar. Perhaps not so meanly. 

He still doesn’t respond, though. He doesn’t know what to tell her or say to her. Should he defend himself and Mai? Snap something about her being wrong? Should he tell her to leave him be? 

He settles on, “We haven’t broken up.” 

“Yet.” Azula tacks on. 

Zuko glares at her. 

There is a long stretch of silence between them, then. Zuko turns his irritated gaze out towards the setting sun. Azula eats in peace, almost merrily. She’s content with herself, at least. It’s one of her good days, where she seems like herself. Zuko’s headache mounts. He can’t seem to eat much more. 

But just as he stands up to leave, to retire to his room for the night, Azula’s hand darts out to grab his wrist and still him. 

Her gold eyes roll up to meet his, clashing briefly. Her grip is too tight, he thinks of shaking her off, but doesn’t. 

“I want you to know,” Azula begins and her tone now is strange, perhaps not so cruel or lilting anymore, “There is a reason I never went after Mai when you left to help the Avatar.” 

“She was your friend.” Zuko says quickly, unsure what she’s trying to say. And she had? Hadn’t she? She’d nearly killed Mai--

But only after Mai had betrayed Azula for him. 

Azula hadn’t done that to hurt Zuko, she’d done that because she’d been hurt. She’d been betrayed. 

Azula’s eyes glimmer coldly, like the glint of bronze from a weapon. “You and I both know that’s not why I didn’t.” 

Zuko grows apprehensive, he doesn’t quite understand what she’s saying. He goes to pull away from her, tries to yank his wrist from her grasp but she holds fast to it. Her nails bite into his skin. 

“Father always taught me to go for the sensitive, vulnerable places when hurting others.” Azula tells him, “And there is a reason I never went after Mai for you.” 

She releases him. Zuko pulls away like she’s burnt him. He checks his wrist; she hasn’t. Then she turns away from him as if none of it ever happened. As if Zuko’s heart isn’t beating too hard and too strangely in his chest. 

“Goodnight, Zuzu.” she says simply and he leaves without another word. 

Her voice spins around his mind, even as he tries to sleep that night. He dreams of lightning when he does manage to fitfully sleep, dreams of Azula chained and all her heartbroken, wrecked screams. The plumes of blue flames. 

He dreams of washing up on an abandoned beach, the ocean rolling over him in a gentle caress. He dreams of gold and silver, of a falling star and the petals of a rose. He dreams of being a boy again, tripping after his sister. He dreams of predators with gold, cunning eyes. 

Azula always waits to strike where it hurts the worst. 

He dreams of the lightning careening towards Katara and wakes with a jolt when it cracks against him instead again.

Dear Zuko,


We’ve received your invitations to the Summer Solstice in the Fire Nation and I’m so excited to see you again! We all are! Aang and I will be picking up Sokka and Toph before we arrive and it’ll be just like old times again! 

Except, we’re all older now, of course. And it is different. But it’s been so long since we’ve all been together. Not to mention, it’s been just as long since we’ve all attended a good party together. I’m practically counting down the days until we all can be together again. It’s so strange to think that it’s been years since I’ve last seen you. Sometimes, your letters make it feel as if I’ve been beside you every step of the way and not across oceans or continents. Sometimes, I feel your absence keenly while reading them. Sometimes I miss you so much it feels like I can’t breathe-- moments when I wish I could just turn to you and catch your eyes. 

I feel so lonely lately and I can’t fathom why. Aang is right in front of me. I’m rarely without him. 

Regardless, I just can’t wait to see you again!

Now, while I initially laughed at the idea of your council cornering you about getting married soon-- it seems so silly! That we might be getting old enough for such things! I can see how terrifying it would be. And I’m sorry that this is just one more challenge, one more duty that you’ll undertake for your crown and nation. 

That being said, I am also of the firm belief that you’re the Fire Lord, Zuko. If you can’t fathom getting married yet, don’t. I don’t see any of your council with a crown on their heads. 

Especially if you have yet to discuss such matters with Mai. That’s critical in all of this. I know you’re scared that bringing it up might cause strife or issue between you two, but then I suppose, she perhaps isn’t meant to be the Fire Lady. Unfortunately, that’s the deal with you. It’s who you are-- you can’t step away from it, nor change it. And you shouldn’t have to. The person you marry will understand this, I think. 

I sincerely hope that Mai surprises you. But please, please talk to her. 

As for your question, Aang and I have, occasionally and only briefly, brought up marriage. Nothing concrete or official, Aang is still only sixteen. And I’m not in any rush, either. 

I have too much to do still before marriage. Or kids. 

I hope it all works out between you and Mai. And tell your council to mind their business in the meantime!

I miss you. I can’t wait to see you.


Your friend,


Zuko’s fingers are careful as they card through Mai’s silky, dark hair. She rarely has it down like this, now splayed over his bare chest, where her head lays. It tickles his neck, his chin, but is soft and smooth to the touch. His calloused fingers slide to her bare shoulder, where he draws listless patterns into her skin. 

She shakes him off a little, “Tickles,” she mumbles into his chest and his lips quirk upwards at the corners fondly. He stops, settles his entire hand upon her shoulder, a firmer, warmer touch that she does lean into.

It’s moments like these that he thinks maybe they’ll be okay. He is lulled by a sense of security, of warmth and love for her. They’re both at ease, weapons and regalia laid down at the door. 

And before he can stop himself, he says, “My advisors cornered me about getting married the other day,” and he says it like it’s silly, like it’s something they could laugh at together. 

But Mai goes very, very still. 

“Did they?” she responds, her voice careful, controlled. Always so controlled. 

“Yeah, they said it would be a good time for the nation to have a wedding,” he snorts, still trying, and now failing, to be casual about it. He can feel his nerves jump. Especially as Mai doesn’t respond. 

He’d hoped maybe for even a dismissal of the idea. Or something drawled out about how they should leave them be, not be so stuffy about this. He’s sure that she can hear the quickening of his heart, laid bare beneath his ear. He feels horribly exposed now. 

“What’d you tell them?” she finally whispers. 

“Nothing, really.” he responds too quickly, and then, “That I would talk to you.” 

“About marriage?” she breathes. 

All he can do is nod, for some reason, his throat feeling suddenly tight, his mouth dry. 

“Don’t you think we’re too young?” Mai asks then, a little defensively. 

“Yes. Spirits, yeah.” Zuko exhales, “But we should, maybe, talk about it--”

“Why?” Mai responds sharply, sitting up suddenly, her hair sliding over her shoulders. He finds her eyes and they’re hard, cold, like steel. 

Zuko doesn’t know what to say at first. He feels-- well, he feels somewhat caught off guard, like she’s just pulled a knife on him. Like if he makes a wrong move, he’ll get all cut up. He swallows, tries to find his wits. 

“Because,” he starts slowly, cautiously, “Because i-isn’t that what we’re leading up to?” he gets out and hates that his voice has gone somewhat small, so tentative. He feels terrifyingly fragile suddenly. A little too weak, a little too soft and raw beneath her.  

 Mai glances away from him, silent. He can’t get a read on her features. 

After a long moment of silence, she whispers, “Can I think about it?” 

She isn’t looking at him. 

And even though he nods, mumbles, “Of course,” and she settles back onto his chest, he can still feel the aching begin in his ribs. It’s like he’s bracing for impact. The blow will be bad, but maybe if he grits his teeth, puts his arms up to protect himself, he’ll come out of this okay. 

He’ll be okay, he tries to tell himself, but his breathing goes all strange and tight.

Because even though she falls asleep in his arms that night and he holds her a little too closely, fingers digging into her back, her waist, he thinks he already knows her answer. 

He found it in her silence, in the way she wasn’t able to look him in the eyes.  

Lady Ursa is serene and graceful and lovely still. She is beautiful in the delicate way of flower petals and dawn. She is warm, especially with Kiyi, who still rushes into her open arms. Ursa reminds Zuko of a sparrowkeet, a canary-jay, something fluttering and light, like clouds, like spring. 

Some days he looks at her and thinks she’s as fleeting as those things, too. 

Like he’s chased and chased and chased her only to come up empty handed still. Even if she’s sitting in front him now, eating lunch with him, with Kiyi at her side. 

“How are the new trade agreements with the Southern Water Tribe going?” his mother asks, but she doesn’t quite look at him. 

Zuko has found over the years that his mother doesn’t like to look at him when he’s dressed as the Fire Lord, in such similar clothes to his father. At first, he made excuses for the behavior, brushed it off, told himself that he was being paranoid or ridiculous. But she barely glances at him some days, always when he is dressed formally. Won’t look up at him or gazes past him, like she’s remembering something she doesn’t want to. 

Zuko tries not to think about how she hadn’t wanted to remember him at one point, too. 

On Azula’s bad days, she screams about this, about being a ghost-- that she is a ghost in her mother’s memory, some lurking, nightmarish shadow in the vague shape of a girl. She breaks things. She demands why their mother got to forget. Why did she get a new life? Why were they stuck here? 

Azula doesn’t get to forget what she did, who she didn’t become, could’ve been, had to become at the hands of their father. 

Zuko tries not to dwell on this, tries to be thankful and happy that he has his mother back. That he has Kiyi now, too. What will it do to linger on this? For so long, all he had wanted was his mother. And now he has her. 

With her eyes that won’t quite find his. 

He grows fearful that he will look in the mirror one day and see his father staring back at him, too. He grows fearful that it will be all he is known for-- the usurper son, the betrayer. 

Zuko, with everything inside of him, wants to be more than his father’s son. 

He’s his mother’s, too, isn’t he? 

“It’s going well, thankfully.” Zuko responds and doesn’t offer any further explanation. For some reason, he doesn’t feel like speaking to her now. He also sincerely doubts that she has any interest in trade. 

His mother fusses over Kiyi, slouching and squirming in her seat, pushing at her food a little too much. 

“Do you have a busy day today?” Ursa inquires, the way mothers do, then she glances at him. Glances away. 

“Don’t I always?” Zuko responds, deciding he is no longer hungry. Or maybe that he just can’t quite eat anymore. The hollowness inside him feels pretty hungry, though, feels like it will eventually gnaw through him.

Then he’ll just be a boy with a hole through him, for all the world to see. Empty and starved. 

Will his mother look at him, then? 

Will she be able to look at his scar without flinching? Zuko has always known when people are uncomfortable with his scar. He can sense the way they seem to shudder when they truly look at the marred skin, like he is scary, in some way. He’s horrible to look at without growing squeamish. Like they’re looking too closely at a spider. 

His mother won’t look at him and he’s scared that if she did, she would look at him like that. 

“I suppose,” she responds evenly, pulling Kiyi back up in her chair, scolding her in a hushed, soft voice. Then, “Don’t forget to visit your Uncle later, you’ve missed tea with him the past few days.” she reminds him, like a mother does. 

“I will,” he says and excuses himself from lunch. When he walks past her, he places a fleeting kiss on her temple as a goodbye, like a son does. One for Kiyi, too. His mother smiles softly and bids him goodbye without ever looking at him. 

No one notices that he doesn’t finish his meals anymore. 

“Fire Lord Zuko, you seem terribly distracted today.” His uncle comments as he pours tea for the two of them. Steam rises in the air between them, curls prettily before disappearing. Then, “More so than other days. I know you are always busy and distracted.” he adds when Zuko opens his mouth, already prepared to fire back aren’t I always? 

Zuko, without his excuse anymore, lets loose a long suffering breath. He reaches for the elegant cup, allowing it’s warmth to seep into his palms. His mind rotates around the same several issues, occasionally dispersed with reminders of other tasks and duties. 

He thinks about Mai’s silence and how she has avoided him since that conversation. He thinks about Azula’s cryptic words. He thinks about his mother’s fleeting gaze. His council. Marriage. The colonies and their development. His own nation. Sokka’s letters about the trade agreement. Katara. The upcoming Summer Solstice and he just--

“I have a lot on my mind.” 

“I can tell,” his uncle responds, almost on a laugh, because it’s an understatement. Iroh knows this. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

No, Zuko wants to respond instinctively, sharply. He wants to shut it all down, he doesn’t want to try to explain the look on Mai’s face and his mother’s and how he can’t seem to eat anymore. 

He inhales slowly to cool himself, closes his eyes to gather himself. He won’t snap at Uncle for no reason, not anymore. 

Then, in a voice that is far smaller than he intended, he says, “I feel very, very alone lately.” 

Iroh waits, his eyes softening. 

“I-I know I’m not, technically.” Zuko continues, feeling his throat tighten up. Don’t cry, there’s no reason to cry, he fights with himself. “I know I have you and my mother and Mai and Suki and maybe even Azula--” his voice breaks. 

He swallows around the lump in his throat. 

“But I feel like I’m torn between everyone. Like I’m just-- just a different version of myself for the next person who needs me. I don’t feel whole.” 

When he says it outloud, something in him splinters. 

“I don’t feel whole,” he says it again because it rattles around him like a death knell. Stubborn tears well up in his eyes, “Like nobody sees all of me. Or they just see the part they want, or don’t see any of me.” 

He sets the tea back down. He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand quickly, forcefully, like he could keep it all in. 

“You don’t feel understood,” his uncle says softly, “Because you don’t feel seen.” 

Zuko nods, a jerky move of his head, unable to find the strength to use his voice. He pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes like he could hide in his palms, his chest too tight, breath too quick. He refuses to cry. He has nothing to cry over. 

After a long moment, Iroh finally says, “I think there is a lot left unsaid between you and the people in your life.” 

Zuko picks his head up, slowly pulls his hands away from his eyes as he peaks at his uncle. 

“They don’t mean to hurt you, my nephew, but all that is left unsaid will.” 

The door to Zuko’s bedroom creaks open quietly. He is already in bed, laying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. He eases up onto his elbows, catches sight of a figure in the darkness that he recognizes instantly. 

Mai doesn’t say anything, she just comes to the side of his bed, slips in beside him. 

She lays on her side to face him in the darkness. Zuko turns to lay on his. He can make out her features this close in the soft, blue dark. 

He reaches out, touches her cheek tentatively, almost like he’s making sure she’s real and here. She catches his hand, cradles it in hers, holds it to her cheek. 

She closes her eyes. 

“I have an answer for you,” she whispers and Zuko can feel her lips move against his open palm. 

His heart twists, plummets inside of him. He stays perfectly still, like he’s scared that if he moves, it’ll spook her. Or himself. 

She opens her eyes slowly, finds him in the darkness. Her eyes glittering. “I don’t want to be the Fire Lady,” she manages to get out, her voice rough, talking around unshed tears. She swallows hard, “I can’t be.” 

And there is the impact he was bracing for. He feels it in his chest, in the clench of his jaw and the sudden pressure behind his eyes. He feels it like a blow, the quick burst of pain before it radiates out into every part of him. 

He feels bruised, tender, aching. 

But he still swallows and says, “Okay,” so quietly that he fears he didn’t even speak at all. 

This is nothing like their previous breakups, which were loud, exciting things. This is a whimper, a breath being let go after being held for too long. 

“I’m sorry--” Mai’s voice hitches, her face crumpling suddenly. She’s shaking, he can feel it, and maybe he is, too. He thinks that maybe this is the most fragile he has ever seen her. It is heartbreaking. “I’m sorry I can’t be what you need--” 

Zuko shakes his head and it loosens his own tears. They slip down his cheek, disappear over his chin. “No,” he hushes, “No, don’t apologize for that.” And his thumb catches her tears as he swipes it along her cheeks. “You have to do what’s right for you, Mai.” Zuko tells her softly, even if his voice is trembling. 

Maybe he’ll be mad at her tomorrow or some other day for all of this. But he means what he says and all he feels now is a miserable sort of sadness that comes with goodbyes. 

For whatever reason, this breaks her. She hitches on a sob, catches it behind her teeth so it won't escape. She tries to swallow it, stomach all her heartache. 

“I loved you,” she tells him, squeezing his hand so tight that Zuko gets the impression that she’s holding onto something she doesn’t want to let go of yet, “I love you. Please know that I love you.” 

“I love you, too.” Zuko chokes out, too. 

“I just can’t--” 

“I know,” he soothes, brushing her hair from her face. And then, “I want you to be happy.” 

She turns her face into his open palm and cries. Hides there. She has never liked to let him see her cry. 

“You’re a good man, Zuko.” she manages to get out and he feels the words on his skin more than he hears them. “You deserve the world.” 

“So do you,” Zuko says quietly, tears rolling down his face openly. And because he won’t be able to handle it if he doesn’t say it now, because he can’t leave anything else unsaid, he whispers, “I don’t want to lose you.” 

“You won’t,” Mai promises quickly through her tears, “You won’t. It might take awhile but-- we’ll be friends. We’ll still be friends.” 

Something about all of this is far worse than a blowout argument, than too much fighting or an uproar of an ending for them. They don’t want to let go, but it’s time to. It isn’t fair to either of them, if they try to hold on any longer. It hurts so bad because maybe if he wasn’t the Fire Lord, if he was normal--

But he can’t be. He can’t be and he wishes he could be. He wishes he could be the one to give her everything she wants. And this life-- his life-- of high society and politics and rules have only ever been a cage to her. 

So he’ll let go of his claim on her. 

They shouldn’t, but they stay the night together. One last time. He kisses her soft, like she’ll disappear beneath his hands if he isn’t careful enough. And she will, he thinks, she will.

She does. 

Mai is gone before he wakes up. 

He forces himself up with the sun still, like maybe he could be normal. Usually, he would go through Firebending exercises on his balcony, the sun his eternal comfort. He doesn’t have the energy to Firebend, so he sits, cross-legged and alone out there. The sky is open before him. 

Suki sneaks up on him. She sits beside him silently, cross-legged, too. 

She is in plain clothes and her face is bare of makeup. Her hair is damp, like she’s just showered. He knows she usually takes the morning shift as his guard, but she’s come without armor, as his friend. 

He doesn’t know how she knows what’s happened already. He assumes Ty Lee. He also figures there is little the Kyoshi Warriors don’t know. Regardless, he is eternally thankful that he doesn’t have to open his mouth and explain it to her. 

He just leans over and rests his head on her shoulder. 

He lets go of a shuddering breath. 

“I know it doesn’t feel like it now,” Suki begins softly, “But this will be better in the long run.” she runs her hand over his back soothingly, even as she says, “You two loved each other in the same way that we have temples in our hospitals, you know?” 

He doesn’t really but she adds, “Always one foot out the door. Like you were waiting for the inevitable to happen.” 

He exhales shakily. He doesn’t respond to her. 

But when he does feels like he can speak, he finally whispers the greatest fear twisting and turning in his chest, “What if I can’t find anyone who will--” 

He can’t finish, his voice splintering, falling off over the edge of his balcony and getting lost to the wind.  

Suki wraps her arm around him and he turns to tuck his face into her neck, “You can have Sokka, if you want.” she jokes, her fingers digging into his side, his back. 

A broken laugh erupts from his aching ribs, but it sounds more like a sob. Feels like one, too. When he starts crying, Suki holds him tight. She takes all his weight with her strength. Maybe he cries harder just because he’s so thankful for her, for being held by her.  

“I promise you’ll find someone,” she whispers to him eventually, “And you won’t be able to fathom how you ever thought differently.” 

He misses his first few morning meetings to stay with Suki.  

He doesn’t finish his breakfast, but he eats more than he has in a long, long time. 

Dear Zuko,


I’m so, so sorry to hear about you and Mai. Me and Aang and Sokka and Toph will be with you soon.

I’ll be with you soon.

I wish I could heal a broken heart.  

Until then, take care of yourself. Drink tea with your uncle and spar with Suki. Feed the turtleducks and read stories to Kiyi with Azula. Eat a little poorly– sweets are a good cure for sadness. Watch the sunrise. Write me a thousand letters. Do everything that you love and then some. 

Be kind to yourself. 

I’ll be with you soon.


Your friend,


Chapter Text

“The Fire Lord was never happier than when she visited. I knew this instantly, like she set him aglow the way the moon does the water. His demeanor was softer with her around, more jovial, more excitable, like all the world was open before him. Like the world was inside of him. 

I think the spirits smiled down upon them. It’s no wonder we’ll be telling their love story for centuries to come. And what a story it is.”

    –An excerpt from ‘A Mouse-Bat in the Cupboard: Tales of a Fire Nation Handmaiden’ 

The sky is periwinkle and pink over the icy landscape of the South Pole, the colors reflect off the white, glittering snow below. The ocean is dark, a sharp contrast to the soft, hazy colors of the evening sky. The waves are choppy, rolling up to crash into white spray. 

Katara doesn’t realize how badly she’s missed home until it is just below her. It has been over a year now since she’d last visited again and her previous visit hadn’t been for long. Then she’d taken off with Aang again, wind in her hair and the clouds at her fingertips. And while she loves traveling with Aang, she is growing tired. She wants roots, she wants a home. Somewhere solid and grounded, a place to return to again and again. She wants her own space, somewhere she can keep trinkets and a vase of flowers and a hearth and a bed so that she can fold the quilt she’d made with her grandmother as a child atop of it. She wants to know the creaks of a home, the nooks and crannies and it’s secrets and warm, sunny patches to lay in. 

When she had brought it up to Aang one night, while they lay looking up at the stars, he hadn’t quite agreed with her. 

“Home doesn’t have to be a place,” he’d explained softly, looking up at the vastness of the cosmos. “Not for me, anyways.” 

Then he had turned to look at her and she swore there were stars caught in his eyes. She had held her breath. 

“It can be a person, too.” he whispered, looking at her with a little too much awe. 

He had kissed her sweet then, soft and careful. She had kissed back, but something had nagged in the back of her mind. Some quiet, secretive part of her had responded;

Don’t make a home of me, Aang. Girls don’t make good homes, it’s like trying to lay down with the ocean or a storm or the sky.

She brushes the memory from her mind as she spots Sokka below, already racing for where Appa will land. His form becomes sharper as they grow closer, the blue of his parka, the dark flash of his hair. Katara’s heart surges sharply at the sight of her brother, of her father just in the distance. 

 Appa barely touches the ground before Katara is launching herself off and sprinting for her brother. Sokka meets her halfway and they nearly tackle each other in a hug, colliding hard and fast. It knocks the breath out of her, but she laughs brightly, the sound echoing around them.

She realizes, as she crushes her brother in a hug, that he’s gotten taller since the last time she’d seen him.  

“Can’t. Breathe--” Sokka gets out and Katara finally pulls away to look at him but he’s still got his hands on her shoulders and he’s beaming, wide and brilliant. 

“You’ve gotten taller!” she says excitedly. 

Sokka instantly becomes smug, raising his arms to flex his muscles, “Yeah, well, you know, I’ve really grown into myself lately.” 

In his defense, he has. Katara can see now that the years have shaped her brother from the somewhat flailing, pitchy boy she used to know, to a man who looks very closely like their father. He’s grown stronger, more muscular, and far taller. He’s twenty now and looking like an adult. Katara feels suddenly overcome with a strange aching in her chest-- like she’s blinked and missed him growing up. 

But he has the same, lopsided smile. 

It’s their mother’s smile, she sees it in the edges, in its warmth and brightness. 

Still, she swats at his arm, “And is the patchy fuzz on your chin part of growing into yourself, too?” Katara teases, inspecting the hair on his chin.

“Hey!” he squawks indignantly, “I thought it was coming in pretty nice!” 

But Katara doesn’t get a chance to respond, because she catches sight of their father making his way towards them, just over Sokka’s shoulders. 

She rushes past Sokka, “Dad!” she shouts and launches herself into his arms, too. 

Her dad stumbles a little, laughing slightly, but squeezing her tight. His laugh is familiar and warm, a balm to Katara’s soul. She could cry because she’s missed it so badly. 

“It’s so good to see you again,” her father murmurs, holding on just a little too tight. 

When he pulls away, it’s to inspect her, to take in her face and how tall she’s gotten and if the light in her eyes is still as brilliant and fierce as it always has been. 

“Look at you,” he says, his eyes suddenly glittering. Maybe he’ll cry, too. But if he cries, then Katara will surely cry. “We’ve missed you. We always miss you.” 

“I’ve missed you, too.” Katara breathes, not trusting her voice, and her father folds her into another hug. 

She can hear Aang greeting Sokka, can hear their excited voices chattering, carrying on the wind. 

When her father pulls away this time, his inspection of her is more intense, his eyes roving over her face. Whatever he finds there makes him pause, makes his brows furrow a little, like something in her looks different. 

“Are you taking care of yourself out there?” her dad asks and the question catches her off guard. “Are you doing okay?”

Katara laughs, a little nervously, “Of course I am! You know me,” she responds, “I take care of everything.” 

She means to say it brightly, like it’s something to be proud of, but it comes out a little tense. A little forced. Something about it might even feel bitter. Her dad grows more warry. She feels suddenly vulnerable beneath his gaze. She squirms slightly. 

“Is Aang still treating you well?” he asks, lowering his voice so it is just for her ears. 

“Dad!” Katara scolds, “Of course!” she responds quickly, “He’s the sweetest.” she promises, trying to dispel his strange worry, “He always is.” 

“Okay,” her father responds softly, but he doesn’t quite seem convinced. 

Regardless, he still greets Aang warmly. 

Though Katara is thrilled to be back, it is only for a night. They’re only here to pick up Sokka, before they take off for the Earth Kingdom, where they will pick up Toph, too. And then they will make their way to the Fire Nation for two full weeks of as close to a vacation as they have had in-- well, Katara can’t even remember when the last time they’d had a vacation. 

As they walk through her village, Katara takes in how much has changed. There are far more homes and now a great building near the center-- it’s beautiful and sleek, almost looks like it could be made out of ice or glass. It’s the town hall that Sokka told her about and it’s incredibly striking. There are roads now, too, made out of the blue stone from nearby caves and it shines prettily against the snow. More than that, it seems-- busy. Katara can hear children running and playing, can hear chatter from adults, the sound of a village who works and plays and knows each other well. 

It is heartwarming, and sends a rush of affection through Katara. And maybe a pitch of sudden despair for not being here to watch it grow, too. Like with Sokka, she feels as if perhaps she has missed out on something key. 

“It's grown so much in the last year again,” she says in soft awe.

“Yeah!” Sokka agrees, “Isn’t it great? Dad and I have been working really hard.”   

It stings a little, but Katara is immensely proud of her father and brother, of her home. “It’s incredible.” she tells him with a smile and means it down to her bones. 

Katara reunites with Gran-Gran again, too, being far gentler with her than she had been with Sokka or her father, but still hugging her just as tightly. 

They sit around the hearth, telling stories of their lives in the past year. Though it’s past dinner, her and Sokka split seal jerky together, tearing off pieces and handing it back to the other. Her father is eager to hear everything of her life; she writes to him, of course, tells him everything major, but there is nothing that beats sharing it all in person. 

Especially in the Southern Water Tribe-- storytelling by mouth is an important part of their culture. Even sharing this vocally, her experiences travelling, helping keep the world in balance, make her feel warm and pleased. 

She can tell her father is, too, seeing her here, back at home. 

A pang hits Katara again, because she knows they’ll leave at dawn, and she’s not sure she wants to leave quite yet.

She thinks of seeing Toph again. And Suki. She thinks of Zuko and she longs to be with them all, too. Maybe after the solstice, when they bring Sokka back home, Katara will stay for a while. 

Yes, she thinks, watching Sokka laugh around the jerky in his mouth, nearly choke on it, from something their father has said, she would like to spend time home.  

However, too soon they need to retire for the night. They have to get up early for travel, it wouldn’t do to stay up, even if Katara would like to keep speaking with her family. Aang readies for bed, arranging many of the quilts and pillows that have been placed in front of the fireplace for him. 

Sokka grabs Katara’s arm a little sharply, drags her quickly into another room-- his room, she realizes distantly, as she’s too busy hissing at him to let her go. 

“Sshh, sorry, sorry--” Sokka says, trying to get her to quiet down and now, as Katara looks at him, she realizes that he looks terribly nervous. She sobers up quickly, peering into his face. For a moment, she grows worried, too. She fears something is wrong. 

“Sokka, what is it?” 

“It’s nothing bad,” Sokka says quickly, noting the concern coloring her voice. Katara releases a breath, but only marginally. 

“Then what is it? You scared me.” 

“I know, it’s just--” he pauses, peers around the edge of the doorway to make sure Aang is still curled up beside the fire. “You can’t tell anyone .” 

Katara blinks, “Okay, I won’t.” she promises easily, eyeing her brother suspiciously. 

“No, Katara, I’m serious. Not a soul. Not even Aang-- actually, especially not him. He can’t keep a secret. No one, do you understand me?”

“Okay, okay, I promise! Not a soul.” Katara replies, growing a little impatient.

Sokka releases a slow, steadying breath. Then, without another word, he wades further into his room. He rummages in a chest beside his bed, which is covered in furs and intricately threaded quilts. He pulls something out- something somewhat small and Katara can tell with the way he handles it that it’s precious. 

He turns slowly and Katara takes a curious step forward. 

A gleaming hunting knife rests in his hand, the metal sleek and silver and sharp. The pommel is dark green, sturdy looking, and in it's center is a pale, jade stone embedded into it.

It’s a betrothal knife, Katara realizes with a quiet gasp.

In the South, after so many women fled from the North and their archaic traditions of marriage, the South decided to change the custom. Rather than stones carved and placed on necklaces to then be offered to the woman and worn as a symbol of ownership by her future husband, they embedded the stone into a hunting knife. It's said the tradition comes from the first Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, who offered the woman he loved a knife to cut the betrothal necklace that had been forced upon her in the North off of her neck, to free herself of it.

More than a symbol of agency and equality between the couple, it also become a symbol of protection. It is said that a wife is to protect her husband's back with the knife, to use it to defend any future children they might have, too. Or use it for to hunt, fish, and survive. And when the war reared it's ugly head into their lives, the knife and it's symbols of protection became even more significant.

They kept the stones, though, men still carve something meaningful into it, an image to represent their hopeful union, something cherished between the two. It is placed within the knife's pommel proudly.

She rushes to her brother’s side, “Oh, Sokka,” she breathes, finally taking in the intricacies of it. 

The design of the stone is neat and smooth and it’s of a fan, with a sword through it. It’s not the traditional blue, not made from the stones they usually use, but is a precious jade. 

“It’s beautiful,” Katara whispers, tentatively reaching out to touch it, to run her fingers along the pommel. Sokka allows her, too, and when she glances up at him, her brother’s face is so raw and wide-eyed that she almost feels terrified for him.

“Do you really think so?” he asks earnestly and it could break Katara’s heart. 

“Yes,” Katara answers softly but firmly, “Yes, Sokka, it’s perfect.” And then she looks up at him again, “You’re going to propose? That’s what you’re telling me?” 

He clears his throat a little, “That’s the plan, I guess.” he says and she can tell he’s nearly shaking with nerves simply at the idea of it. 

Before Katara can stop herself, she asks, “You don’t think you’re-- you don’t think you’re too young or anything?” 

Sokka lets loose a sigh, rubs his thumb over the cool jade of the stone. “I mean, you know how it is around here. Most people are married around sixteen. Everyone’s been harping on me to marry Suki for years now.” Sokka then eyes her, “If you were here, I’m sure they’d say the same thing about you.” 

“You’re not proposing because of that, are you?” Katara asks quickly, ready to scold her brother. 

“No! Spirits, Katara, no. If I was, I would’ve done it years ago.” Sokka replies, then, softer, “I just-- we just-- we’re young and in love, you know?” 

Katara thinks she’s also young and in love but she doesn’t want to get married. Not yet. And she isn’t quite convinced this is a good enough reason. She wonders what Suki would say, to becoming a wife-- perhaps a mother, perhaps soon. 

Sokka, as if he has read her train of thought, continues quickly, “We’re not going to start a family anytime soon, even if she-- even if she says yes. Suki doesn’t want kids for a while and I’m too busy here, anyways. We’re not ready for that but,” Sokka swallows hard, tries to gather himself, “But she said something to me, in a letter, and I just can’t stop thinking about it.” 

“What was it?” Katara asks quietly.

Sokka, for fear of misquoting her words, returns to his chest for a moment, rifles around in it until he pulls out the letter. He returns to Katara’s side, pointing at a line in Suki’s somewhat messy scrawl. Katara reads;

Marriage can be whatever the couple wants it to be. It doesn’t have to be having children or ‘settling down.’ It doesn’t have to mean anything except what they want it to mean. It doesn’t have to follow anyone’s traditions. Sometimes, I just think marriage can mean ‘I love you and I want to face the rest of my life alongside you.’ 

Or I think it should, at least. 

Katara looks back up at Sokka. 

“I just love her more than anything and I want-- I want to face the rest of my life with her.” 

“Sokka,” Katara hushes, her face softening, but before she can properly respond, Sokka is continuing.

I know marriage is more than that, of course. But we want similar things in life. We’ve talked about the future. And I just want to be by her side for all of it.” 

Without thinking, Katara asks, “Do you need to be married for that?” And she thinks of Aang, thinks of the stars in his eyes. 

“No,” Sokka answers truthfully, “But it’s for us, you know? Besides— do you know what the traditions are for proposals and weddings on Kyoshi Island?” 

Katara shakes her head, she knows a little about Earth Kingdom practices, but none specific to Kyoshi Island. 

“Well, usually, our family would bring her family gifts- money, food, jewelry–jade, especially- but it’s to propose, from our family to hers, becoming one family.” Sokka takes a breath, glances down at the betrothal necklace laying delicately in his fingers, “But, as you know, Suki’s family has been gone for a long time. All she’s had is the Kyoshi Warriors. 

So, I figured, if we got married, Suki would have a family again. She’d have us.” Sokka finishes and he’s grown quiet, a little small. 

He’s clearly thought this through. But Sokka has always thought everything through. 

“We can’t really bring gifts to her family, but I made the stone in the knife out of jade. And dad— you know how dad is, he carved a bracelet for her out of the silver ore we have here and Gran-Gran made her these earrings out of jade and ore, too.” 

Katara suddenly socks her brother in the arm. 

“Ow!” he whines, “What was that for?”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!” Katara demands, “I need to get Suki a gift!” 

“No, you don’t have to– I didn’t tell dad or Gran-Gran to do that! They just did it!” Sokka tries to explain.

“Because it’s the proper thing to do, doofus!” Katara hisses back, stifling a groan of frustration. “When do you plan on proposing to her? I can’t be the only one who doesn’t offer a gift!” 

“On the Summer Solstice.” Sokka responds. 

That’s a little over a week away. 

Katara socks him again. Sokka bites back a louder noise of pain to not disturb Aang. 

“That’s barely any time!” Katara scolds as Sokka rubs at his shoulder, trying to soothe the ache of being hit twice now. And Katara’s no weakling, she doesn’t pull her punches.

“Katara, it’s fine–”

“No, she’s going to be my sister-in-law!” 

The moment she says it aloud, she catches Sokka’s eyes and they both look at each other, a little stunned, maybe dumbfounded. Like they can’t quite believe it. Like it’s a little too good to be true. Katara can’t think of anyone in the world she’d rather have as a sister-in-law. 

Can’t think of anyone in the world who would make Sokka as happy. 

“Hopefully,” Sokka tacks on after a moment.

“Hopefully.” Katara agrees. 

And then she smiles, so bright and happy and full and Sokka is her mirror. His smile is more nervous, but it’s somewhat relieved, now that he’s shared his secret with his sister. 

She seizes him in another crushing hug that he returns, her cheek squishing against his shoulder as she mumbles, “I’m so happy for you, Sokka.” 

“She hasn’t said yes yet,” he jokes, holding her tighter, because she can tell that he’s terrified. 

Katara pulls away, “I think she will,” she whispers and Sokka’s face becomes so earnest, so wide-eyed and hopeful that it makes something in Katara almost burst. 

“You think so?” he whispers.

“I think so,” Katara responds and means it. She has a good feeling about it, something in her chest that is fluttery and warm. Her intuition is strong and it feels good.  “And I’m usually right, so.” Katara adopts a smug smile, a clever quirk of her lips.

Sokka tousles her hair, pushes her away a little, laughing, and the sound curls around Katara’s heart and promises something bright and beautiful and warm. Something more full, like she can already taste a part of her future with her brother and sister-in-law, with a bigger family. 

With another person to love.  

The ocean glitters below them, the waves a bright, cerulean blue compared to the dark, sloshing waves of the South Pole. The sun is brighter here, hot on Katara’s back as she peers over Appa at the Fire Nation that is rapidly coming into view. Excitement jumps in Katara’s belly, a little swoop as she finds the port, the walls of the Fire Nation, and just beyond that, the palace.

“Are we almost there yet?” Toph complains, “I can’t wait to get my feet on solid ground again.” 

Toph, at sixteen, has not changed at all. At least not in personality, she has grown into a somewhat spry and wily teenager, though. If Katara thought she was trouble at age twelve, she realized she’d seen nothing yet. The last time that Katara and Aang had visited Toph in the Earth Kingdom, she had just about started an all out brawl over something ridiculous, endlessly amused when Aang had stepped in to try and keep the peace. 

Katara had seen everyone but Zuko in the past four years. The times that Aang had returned to the Fire Nation to aid him, Aang had requested that Katara stay in the colonies in his stead or she had been visiting with her family in the South Pole. It had never worked out in the past. 

And now she just can’t believe she hasn’t seen him in four years. She wonders how he’s changed. She wonders if he’ll think that she’s changed. 

Strangely, for being the furthest apart, she also feels the closest to him. They kept most in touch throughout the years. And perhaps Katara has shared the most with him, treating their letters like some sort of diary for her to share her thoughts in. They had felt safe, something only for each other. 

Zuko’s responses had always been a source of comfort to her, too. Especially lately, for some reason. 

She feels she can scarcely breathe now that she can see his palace in the growing distance. 

“Almost there!” Aang answers Toph cheerily, “Few more minutes!” 

And in no time, Appa is lowering onto the lawn of a courtyard in the palace with a tired groan. He has been flying for a little too long and Katara can hear Aang trying to comfort him, promising a long rest and fresh food. 

Toph is the first to jump down, followed by her and Sokka. They begin unloading Appa, lifting their bags away when Sokka suddenly drops the bag he’s holding and yelps, “Suki!” 

In a dash of blue, her brother is gone, and Katara whips her head around to see Suki break out of the small group of Kyoshi Warriors to come running at Sokka, too. 

And then, just behind the wall of green warriors, Katara catches a flash of red. Of inky, black hair. 

Before she can think, she shouts, “Zuko!” and her body is moving on it’s own accord. He turns at the sound of her, like something in him has been sharply awakened, his face open with a rush of disbelief, of excitement, maybe desperation. 

It’s like he can’t quite believe it’s her. 

Time seems to slow, blurring slightly, but then Zuko is breaking free of the Kyoshi Warriors, too, and they’re running for each other like there’s nothing else in the world. 

They end up meeting halfway, colliding like reckless stars, like the way the sea collides with the cliffsides. 

He’s warm, Spirits, he’s so warm, is the first thing that Katara thinks and simultaneously remembers about him. She folds into his arms so easily, like she could belong there, like she’s returning home. He lifts her right off her feet and her laugh rings out, bright and pinging in the courtyard. 

When he sets her down, he doesn’t pull away far, and neither does she. Just enough to really take in each other’s appearances. His gold eyes are bright in the sun, near glowing with happiness. His hair is long, half down around his shoulders, the rest pulled into a neat bun at the back of his head. He’s gotten tall and broad shouldered, his features somehow sharper, more defined. Like Sokka, Zuko has really-- well, grown up. 

He looks like a man. Like a King. Like a hero from an epic. 

“Tui and La, Zuko, look at you!” Katara gasps, her smile so wide it’s almost painful.

“Look at me? Look at you!” he responds and his voice is a little deeper than she remembers, but it’s still raspy and warm and his eyes fly over her face again, like he’s trying to memorize all of her, like he’s trying to relearn her. 

“Your hair has gotten so long!” Katara returns quickly, “And you’re so tall now!” 

Suddenly an arm is thrown around Zuko’s neck from behind and Sokka’s face pops over his shoulder as he yanks Zuko back into his chest a little roughly, the way boys do. Suki appears at Zuko’s otherside. Katara is about to reach for her, too, but the boys are in the way. 

“I’ve missed you, buddy!” Sokka says just as Zuko stumbles slightly into Sokka, his back colliding with her brother’s chest. Zuko laughs in a way that takes Katara’s breath away. 

There’s a gust of wind, followed by Aang tackling them in a hug, too. She thinks he shouts, “Group hug!” before suddenly Toph launches into all of them, too. And she’s thrown herself into them more like she’s trying to wrestle, the weight of her strong and sturdy. 

It effectively makes Katara and Zuko, who are at the center, lose their balance. Katara flails for Zuko, who's tipping back into Sokka and Suki, who can’t support all of them. 

They all go down in a tangle of limbs, Katara’s hip hits the ground a little hard and Toph lands on her legs in a way that makes her yelp, but she doesn’t even care.

They break into laughter, now just in a dogpile on the ground, everyone’s arms thrown around each other, so happy and excited to be back together. It’s like they’re all kids again and they can’t stop laughing. Like it’s just them versus the entire world and there is nothing else to it but their smiles and being together.  

It makes Katara’s sides ache, and she thinks her ribs will get tough and strong with all this laughing. Her heart feels close to overflowing, like it could spill out over all of them and drown them in her love. 

She looks at Zuko, who turns to catch her eyes and she thinks that all is good again, that she could do anything with him and Sokka and Suki and Toph and Aang beside her once more. 

She tips back into the grass, lets her back hit the ground, her eyes going skyward with the warmth of her friends surrounding her. 

She realizes she feels happier than she has in a long, long time. 

That night, they all eat dinner together at a long, dark wooden table. Katara sits beside Zuko, who's at the head of the table, and Aang, who is beside her. Sokka and Suki are across from her. Toph’s on the other side of Aang. 

Palace staff bring out steaming bowls of round, sticky rice to set around all of them, followed by the main dish, which is eel on a bed of vegetables that are in season. Several sauces of varying color and viscosity are placed around the table for them to choose from, too. Pickled vegetables, edamame, dumplings, and other brightly colored foods are spread out before them, too. It’s almost overwhelming, the amount of food placed before them.

Aang peers at the eel on her plate and makes a face, almost a little woozy. Then his eyes return to his noodle and vegetable dish that he was served instead. 

Katara is too busy trying to figure out which sauce is for what dish and which vegetable pairs well with what. 

While she flounders, her brother reaches for the nearest sauce, a deeply red and thicker one and begins dumping it liberally on his meal. 

“Wait, Sokka–” Suki starts, but it’s too late because he’s already dumped most of it on. Suki stifles a laugh, “I don’t know if you’ll like that one. It’s really spicy.” 

“I like spice. Sometimes. A little.” Sokka defends, picking up his chopsticks. 

Katara catches Zuko’s lips quirk upward in amusement. She has a feeling that it's more than Sokka can handle, but nonetheless, they all watch as he takes his first, stubborn bite. 

His face screws up and he yelps suddenly. Suki begins laughing, followed quickly by Zuko. Sokka manages to swallow, but his eyes have already started watering and he reaches so fast for his cup of water that he nearly upends it first. 

“I warned you!” Suki says through her laughter, patting him on the back as he sputters and whines. There are tears gathering in his eyes, too. Aang looks like he’s in pain for Sokka and Toph is too busy cackling. 

Katara looks around at the table again and she must look rather frightened now, because Zuko leans towards her and says, “These two are still rather spicy,” and he points to two of the sauces in front of her. Followed by, “This one isn’t. It’s sweeter, though.” and he brings the small bowl closer. It’s more orange in color, not as rich looking. 

And he goes on to describe all of the dishes for her, the spread at the table. He explains which sauces pair well with the eel and which are better for the dumplings or other smaller items around them. He explains it all in a low, soft voice and Katara is infinitely glad that she won’t be making the same mistake as her brother. 

She settles on something savory, but not spicy, to put on her eel and is pleasantly surprised by it. The Southern Water Tribe doesn’t have a lot of sauces or spices and while travelling with Aang, they stick to the more plain noodle dishes of the Earth Kingdom usually. She hasn’t ever tasted anything like this before; it’s rich, extremely so, and a little salty. It warms her.

Her and Sokka clumsily wrestle for the last dumpling with their chopsticks. If Katara were at home, she would simply pick it up with her fingers. But since it isn’t polite, she screws up her face in concentration and tries to grab it before her brother can.

Zuko swipes it from both of them with a deft move of his chopsticks and her and Sokka gape at him as he pops it into his mouth. He smiles a little smugly around it. Katara laughs as Sokka whines about it not being fair. 

A spread of desserts is brought out following dinner and it’s just as overwhelming as their main course. Sokka and Toph dig in quickly, before Aang begins delicately picking at candied fruits. 

She isn’t sure which to try, so she asks Zuko, “Which is your favorite?” 

He quirks a brow, mildly surprised that she’s asked, but then he let’s his eyes fall over all the sweets on the table. Finally, he points to a doughy, sugary-looking dessert. Katara pulls it near them to look at it further. 

“These ones,” Zuko says, and then, “When I was really little, my cousin, Lu Ten, would sneak down to the kitchens with me and we would eat these until we were sick.” 

Katara smiles, imagining a small Zuko, stuffing his face with sweets. She catches his eyes, “Split it with me?” she asks, since it’s the only one at the table and it’s his favorite. 

Zuko smiles again and it’s softer, a little tender. “Sure,” he says, even if he ends up letting her eat most of it. 

It is good and she tells him so around a mouthful of it before they dissolve into laughter. It’s sticky and overly sweet, dusted with a more spiced sugar. She can’t imagine eating more than one, though. She’s now certain that Zuko wasn’t kidding about getting sick from eating too many. 

After dessert, they’re brought out sweet wine and Katara feels like an adult as she sips and listens to her friends exchanging stories, swapping ideas and jokes and talking animatedly together once more. She feels pleasantly warm and joyful, maybe a little gooey with it all as she laughs freely, surrounded by her favorite people. 

Eventually, though, Aang and Toph end up challenging each other to some sort of game they’ve made up– something about bending stones through posts. Since no one else can earthbend, they stay at the table, still drinking. But now it’s just the four of them, her and Zuko and Sokka and Suki, the older ones of the group. The ones closest to Zuko, so Katara finally feels comfortable asking in a soft voice, “How are you doing?” 

It’s been just under two weeks since him and Mai broke up. Sokka and Suki both go quiet, looking at him. 

Zuko doesn’t look at any of them, peers into the glass of wine, at his rippling reflection in the red liquid. “Fine,” he responds finally, and then, as if regretting his lie, he admits, “It hasn’t been easy.” 

Katara rests her hand atop his arm and he bites the inside of his cheek, trying to keep his emotions together. 

“I’m sorry, buddy,” Sokka says softly, turning kind eyes on him. “It’s really hard. Four years is a long time to be together.” 

Suki nudges him a little, to make sure he stops talking while he’s ahead. 

Zuko swallows thickly, nods a little to Sokka. He forces a wan smile, waits until he can speak clearly, and says, “I’m glad you’re all here.” 

But he’s looking at Katara when he says it. 

 She squeezes his arm, just as Sokka announces, “I know what you need!” And Zuko turns to look at Sokka now, breaking their contact. “A man’s night! Me. You. Too much alcohol.” 

Suki snorts, “That sounds disastrous.” 

Zuko manages a wider smile, somewhat wry, “Isn’t that the point of it?” 

Sokka cheers, clapping Zuko on the back, jostling him affectionately a little. “That’s the spirit! Name a night, Fire Lord, and I’ll drink you under the table.” 

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Zuko says, somewhat happier than he was moments ago. 

And they talk like this into the night, over wine and in good spirits. Katara is happy to see Zuko laugh, happy to see him even fractionally happy after his break up. She knows he’s hurting, she could tell in his short answers. Maybe she’ll press more another time, when they’re alone, but for now, she talks and jokes and laughs with her friends. She savors them, the way she savors the wine, sip by sip, with joy and excitement. 

When she goes to bed that night, it’s with a full belly, and a pleasant flush to her cheeks.  

Katara wakes rather late in the morning the next day. It’s been a long time since she’s had the luxury to do so and she stretches in the sun beam that falls from her window and rests on her bed. She’s pleasantly warm, tucked beneath the silk sheets, and for a moment she considers staying in bed. 

She realizes that this is one of the best nights of sleep that she has gotten in a long time. She feels rested for once, no aching muscles or soreness. There are no lingering dreams about small bones that clack against the inside of her skull or snowstorms that tear through her mind or lilting voices that sing strange, unsettling hymns. 

And when she rises to get ready, she is deeply pleased by the fact that her clothes and minimal amount of belongings have actually been put away in an ornate dresser. There’s a desk in the corner where her scrolls and ink have been placed for letter-writing and reading. She feels unpacked, she feels somewhat content knowing that this room will be hers for the next two weeks. 

It’s been so long since she’s had real roots. 

Not that two weeks is enough for roots but--

But it feels good. 

And so she begins her day. She sets about on getting ready. She knows, technically, she’s supposed to ring for a handmaiden to help her; it was what she was told when shown to her room, that they’ll tidy it up for her, too. They’ll comb her hair and dress her, but Katara has always been self-sufficient. She does it all herself. 

She takes breakfast alone in her room, too. She sits on it’s little balcony and picks at summer fruits with her fingers. They’re sticky and sugary and drip down her wrist. She savors her time alone. 

She loves Aang, but for a moment, all she has to worry about is herself. She can hear the birds chirp, their wings beating softly, carrying them from tree to tree. She can hear the wind rustle through the branches. She doesn’t have to worry about finding breakfast for her and Aang or packing up their bed rolls to get going for the day. 

She can just be.

Katara lets the sun kiss her face, tips it up to the sky eagerly, and exhales slowly. 

When she finally leaves her room, she wanders the winding halls of the palace. No doubt everyone else has already taken breakfast, already begun their days. It’s only by chance that she walks past one of the courtyards, one that is cleared for training, where a ring has been made for sparring where she spots Aang and Toph. The earth rumbles beneath her feet only a moment later.

They’re sparring. Aang loves to spar with Toph, perhaps the most out of anyone. She knows it’s because Toph is always pushing him. And she thinks Toph prefers to spar with Aang, too, it forces her to get creative when he takes to the air and she can no longer feel him. Their opposite elements make for a good challenge. 

It makes her miss sparring with Zuko, when they were young and on Ember Island, preparing for the end of the war. 

Katara steps out to watch them. Immediately, Aang spots her. He gets distracted.

“Hi, Katara!” he chirps, just before taking a small rock to the gut. He goes toppling backwards. Katara winces as Toph cackles. 

“Stay focused, Twinkle Toes! What are you, twelve again?” Toph taunts, slamming her foot into the ground to rip up more of the earth and send it towards Aang. 

For a moment, Katara feels fourteen again, watching Toph train Aang. She blinks again and she’s eighteen. If she blinks once more, will she be twenty-two suddenly? Where will she be then? 

She feels strangely soft and contemplative today. 

(Even more strangely, she has an inkling to try and find Zuko, like he’ll understand this feeling. She knows he’s probably busy, though. She hopes she’ll see him at lunch). 

Their sparring lasts a while, until Katara can tell that both Toph and Aang are growing fatigued, even if Toph is trying to hide it. They’re both getting a little sloppy, taking a little too much time between attacks and defenses. 

They end up finishing when Aang’s toe slides outside of the ring. Toph can feel it and she shouts in triumph and then proceeds to gloat loudly. Aang bows to her and tells her that it was a good fight but Katara can tell he’s a little disappointed. She’s mildly amused; it's good to know that even the Avatar can be humbled from time to time. 

Aang ends up collapsing against Katara, draping his head onto her lap as Toph comes to flop over in the grass in front of them. 

“I checked on you earlier this morning and you were still sleeping,” Aang says, looking up at her. “Figured I should leave you be.” 

Katara traces the line of his cheek, still flushed from sparring with Toph. She smiles a little, infinitely grateful that he had, and she’d been able to keep her peaceful morning to herself. “You figured right. I needed that sleep.” she responds lightly. 

Aang’s eyes flutter shut at the touch and he only hums in response. 

Toph flops over onto her back, stretching out in the grass, under the sun. 

“Just so you know, Katara, I plan on kicking your ass next.” Toph says up to the sky. “Then Zuko’s. Have to make sure you all still know who really is the best.” Toph announces, mostly to the open sky, but her voice carries. 

Katara smiles, “Oh, you think so?” she remarks, her tone teasing, “We’ll see about that.” 

And even though there’s talks of fighting, they spend the afternoon laying in the grass. Aang and Toph give way to making weird rock structures and designs and forcing Katara to judge them. It’s a little childish, but it’s fun and light and Katara is content to stretch her legs in the grass. 

When lunch is served, the three of them wander back into the palace, to the dining hall. Aang and Toph race ahead, like children. Like sixteen-year-olds who spent their morning sparring. 

Katara rounds a corner, and nearly runs straight into Zuko. He steadies her with his hands on her biceps. His hands are warm and big, wrap fully around her arms. She doesn’t know why she notes this, only that she tries to forget it just as quickly. 

“Sorry!” she says, just as he apologizes immediately, too. 

They both laugh, soft, almost hushed in the hallway. Katara takes him in, in all his formality, dressed as the Fire Lord. He’s grown into it all, that’s for sure. He looks the part, like he was born for this, made for this. He also looks-- tired. Wound up.

She also realizes that he’s headed away from the dining hall where lunch is being served. 

“Where are you going?” she asks, “Aren’t you coming to lunch?” 

“Oh, I sometimes take meals with Azula.” Zuko answers, “So I’m heading towards her room, to have lunch with her.” 

Katara tries not to look disappointed. But even she can feel herself deflate a little. 

Zuko must see it, too, and maybe there’s something in him that wants to be near her as well, because he blurts out suddenly, “You can come, if you want.” And when Katara’s eyes go a little wide, he quickly backtracks, “I mean, obviously you don’t have to, and I’ll eat dinner with you, with all of you later, so it doesn’t–” 

“No, I can!” Katara says quickly, if only to ease his sudden nervousness, but once she’s said it, she realizes she means it. “I can, if you want me to.” she says again, “If you think that’d be okay for her.” 

Zuko relaxes marginally, blinks at Katara, like he can’t quite believe she’s agreed. But then he gathers himself, “I’m not actually sure how she’ll react to you.” he tells her honestly, “And I don’t know what kind of day she’s having.” he shakes his head then, “Maybe this is too much to ask, I can go alone.” 

“Well we can try, in the least.” Katara responds and she gets the impression that Zuko doesn’t ask for a lot from people, that he tries to shoulder everything quietly and on his own. She wonders how much others ask of him. So before he can protest further, she assures him, “Maybe it’ll be good for her.” 

Once more, Zuko looks a little struck. But he nods slowly, assures her again that if she wants to leave at any point, she can. That she doesn’t have to do this. 

Katara wants to, though. She wants to spend lunch with him, to help him or Azula. She knows how much it means to him that Azula is healing and that in and of itself is a good enough reason to join him, in Katara’s opinion. 

Still, she grows somewhat nervous as they stand outside the door to Azula’s room. She can tell Zuko is, too. Zuko knocks and beyond the door, Katara hears Azula give them permission to enter. She sounds the same, she sounds the way Katara remembers and for a moment, she’s struck with the idea of fourteen-year-old Azula behind the door. 

But then Zuko enters tentatively, Katara just behind him,  Azula is not a fourteen-year-old girl anymore. She’s grown taller, taller than Katara now. Her features, like Zuko’s, have become more refined, prettier, somehow. Though the sharp eyes that Katara remembers about Azula seem duller now. 

And even though she’s only dressed in a long, silk robe, with her inky hair spilling over her shoulders loosely, she still looks like a princess to Katara. 

The blinds are drawn. It becomes clear to Katara that Azula hasn’t gotten dressed for the day, that she’s been in bed until now. The way she slithers in the shadows of her room, edges away from them, make Katara wonder if this is one of her bad days. 

The moment that Azula spots Katara over Zuko’s shoulder, something unnameable passes over her darkened features. Her head tilts, hooks unnaturally and Katara gets the impression of a doll who has learned to move. Zuko tenses beside Katara. 

“You’ve finally returned,” Azula says, her voice rough with misuse, but lilting and almost playful. A flicker of a sharp smile touches her lips, “Here for round two?” 

“Azula,” Zuko warns, but Katara edges away from his shoulder. 

Katara is good at reading emotions, always intensely empathetic, always observing people keenly to adjust how she could better care for them. And what she finds in Azula’s tone, in the shadow of a smile, the strange tilt of her head, is nothing threatening. Nothing violent. She supposes Azula is unpredictable but-- but Katara smiles a little, too, because she thinks Azula is teasing her. 

So Katara tries, “Depends,” and she tilts her head a little, too, mirroring her, “Gonna fight fair this time?” 

Azula’s eyes flash and she slinks closer, “Where’s the fun in that, Waterbender?” 

But there are no fighting stances or weapons drawn. It’s all a little empty. Zuko must think this is a decent interaction, because he lets go of the breath that he was holding. Katara realizes that she does, too. So far, so good. 

 Then Zuko moves further into her room, to the drapes at her tall windows and he throws them open. “You’re in no state for a round two, since you haven’t even seen the sun today.” he scolds softly and light spills into the room, silhouetting him for a moment. Katara blinks against it. 

Azula hisses and moves away from it. 

 There is a knock on the door, followed by staff that bring lunch in and set it up on the balcony of Azula’s room. It’s much larger than the guest room’s that Katara is in. It’s view is better, too, of the mountains, the distant gem-like sea.  The staff hurriedly apologize for not bringing more food for Katara, too, since they didn’t know she’d be joining them. Zuko assures them that it’s fine, even as they rush to prepare more. 

They eat out on the balcony together and their lunch is going relatively well until Azula turns her shrewd eyes on Katara. Katara tries not to squirm under her gaze. 

“What took you so long?” Azula demands suddenly, almost cruelly, “Did you forget about us, too?” 

The word forget makes Zuko visibly wince, like he’s been struck. Katara picks up on this, and on the “too” at the end of that question. Like she isn’t the only one to forget them. 

No, their mother forgot them, Katara remembers. And she feels a bolt of pain press into her for the two of them, she feels her heart splinter a little. Her stomach goes a little sour. 

Katara also becomes aware of the fact that she’s walking on eggshells now. Whatever relative peace they’d first acquired is at risk of slipping away now. “No,” Katara says quickly, shaking her head, “No, I wrote to Zuko all the time. I didn’t forget.” 

Azula looks to Zuko, and he adds, his voice gentle, “I told you this, Azula.” 

Distantly, Katara remembers Zuko explaining in a letter that Azula had a strange fixation on her. She feels mildly surprised to see it in person, to see Azula demanding why Katara wasn’t here over the years, with them, like she was supposed to be. 

“Don’t speak for her,” Azula hisses to Zuko, “Why did you leave?” 

With the strange look in Azula’s eyes, Katara has a feeling that she’s no longer really talking to her. But Katara still answers, “I had to help Aang. I’ve been travelling with him.” 

“Why did you get to leave?” Azula asks sharply and she lunges suddenly, so that she grabs Katara’s wrists, like a viper that’s struck. Katara doesn’t flinch, though. “Why couldn’t I?!” she demands, just as Zuko grabs Azula’s shoulder, tries to urge her back.

“Let her go,” Zuko warns his sister, his voice low, just on the right side of threatening.

Azula holds fast to Katara’s wrists, “Why didn’t you take me with you?” she asks wildly, strands of her hair falling down in front of her face, “I wanted to leave–

Her voice breaks. Her eyes seem to shutter, before they return to Katara’s face. 

“I want to leave,” she says again, through her teeth, with all that venom and heat. Her hands begin to heat up, Katara can feel it and she does try to pull away now, but Azula digs her nails into her. 

Zuko grabs hold of Azula’s arm, “Let her go, Azula.” he says again, sharper, and then “She’s not mother.” 

Azula’s eyes cut to Zuko and for a tense moment, Katara readies to protect him, but then Azula withdraws, and Katara rubs at her wrists. They’re not burnt, maybe a little red from her hold, but she’s fine. 

And when Zuko murmurs, “Are you okay?” to her, concern flooding his features, Katara nods quickly. 

 Azula slumps back over in her seat, clutching her head. She growls in frustration. Katara feels more than she sees, but angry, hot tears rise to Azula’s eyes. Azula grits her teeth through the pain, claws at her skin for a moment, at her cheeks and temples, as if she could scratch inside her skull and pull out all her nightmarish thoughts. All those parts of her that make her monster, that make her the deranged princess. She looks like she’s in agony. 

Katara’s eyes soften. 

“I’ll get a nurse,” Zuko says quietly.

“Do you want me to try and heal you, Azula?” Katara asks gently before he can. 

Zuko pauses, watches Azula carefully. 

“It didn’t work the first time,” Azula responds behind her hands. 

“You remember that?” Katara asks, a little surprised. Azula hadn’t been lucid in those days after Zuko was crowned, all those years ago, when Katara had attempted to heal her fractured mind. She’d been in a horrible state, in some form of psychosis, completely broken from reality. She’d been howling and screaming and tearing at her hair and clothes and skin. All Katara’s healing had done was calm her for some time, leave her somewhat empty and silent. 

“Of course I remember,” Azula spits, “I remember everything.” she seethes, “ Someone has to.” 

“I can try again,” Katara offers softly.

There is a long stretch of silence, before Azula nods. It’s so slight that Katara feels she’s missed it. 

But then she’s drawing the water from the pitcher on the table, coating her hands in its coolness. She rises from her spot and walks around the low table to kneel beside Azula. Tentatively, Azula allows her hands to come down from her head and Katara delicately replaces them. She touches Azula’s temples, wraps her fingers around her skull with care. 

Her hands flare bright blue and Katara prods gently at Azula’s skull. Her bending searches first for a physical ailment, something to stitch together, to mend, but when it finds none, she needs to guide it deeper. She pushes it gently, eases it the way the ocean eases onto sandy shores. She thinks of the Fire Nation’s azule water, the way it sparkles, the way it rolls onto their white beaches and recedes. She thinks of the turtleduck pond’s soft ripples in the courtyard, the way a stream rushes past little stones, caresses them softly to keep moving. 

Katara’s healing has gotten stronger over the years and now she can feel parts of Azula’s mind that she hadn’t  been able to when she’d attempted to heal her before- with her or with Jet. Katara closes her eyes because a thread of rage lances through the connection, oh so much rage. So much pain. Katara tries to pull on one of those strings in Azula’s mind, gently, as if to unwind it.  

One of her hands lifts delicately from Azula’s head, as if she’s truly pulling on a thread.

Azula cries out, grabs at her head again, “Don’t,” she hisses, “Stop.” 

Katara stops, takes her hands away, the connection gone. Katara shudders out a breath, trying to shake off all of Azula’s agony. Strangely, she feels tears rush to the surface, feels as if she could suddenly cry, too. Like she needs to just weep. 

She steadies herself, though, swallows it down slowly. 

Katara wants to say, it’ll work, it’ll work if you let me in. 

But Azula is already receding into herself, her eyes going distant and hazy. Lost. She’s swimming in her mind, in all those thoughts. Katara aches to reach out again, to try and soothe her, but she doesn’t push it. 

“Zuzu?” Azula asks distantly and her voice is small, like a child’s. 

“I’m here,” Zuko soothes and he helps her stand. 

Katara watches as he guides her back to bed, as he tucks her in, like she’s eight instead of eighteen. His movements are gentle, careful, but habitual. As if he’s done this a thousand times before. Katara is sure he has. For some reason, this breaks her heart, too. 

They leave quietly and Zuko requests for her nurses, who bustle into her room silently to care for her. Katara wraps her arms around herself. 

“I’m sorry,” Zuko starts, “I’m sorry you had to see that.” 

“What? No, don’t apologize,” Katara replies, her voice a murmur, “I’m sorry I couldn’t help more.” 

Zuko looks a little shocked before he says, “Don’t apologize for that, either.” 

“I think I could–” Katara starts quietly, “I think it could work this time, if she would let me.” And then before Zuko can respond, she is continuing, “Maybe we can try again next time.” 

She thinks, by the look on Zuko’s face, that he was prepared to never invite her to eat with Azula again, not because he doesn’t want her there, but because he’s scared that she doesn’t want to be there. He opens his mouth, closes it, like he’s not sure what to say. 

Finally, he settles on, “You don’t have to.” 

Katara shakes her head fiercely, “But I can help her,” she says and though her voice is quiet in the hall, it is firm, “I wouldn’t ever turn my back on someone that I can help.” 

“Thank you, Katara.” Zuko breathes and she finally picks her head up to look at him. He looks tired and Katara’s heart twists for him, too. She thinks of him doing this for years, alone, taking care of Azula between political meetings, she thinks about how much must weigh on his mind, on his soul. 

Katara suddenly winds her arms around his middle, squeezes him tight in a hug. He sags against her slightly as she whispers, “I’m sorry it’s been like this for so long.” 

  His arms around her tighten fractionally. His exhale is a wobbly, fragile thing against her. “It’s okay.” And then, “She’s getting better at least-- very, very slowly, but I’ve seen her get better.” 

Katara pulls away and offers him a soft, encouraging smile, “And she’ll continue to.” she promises and he is at least able to return her smile, as small as it is, and that’s good enough for Katara. 

Later, at dinner with their friends, he is more reserved and Katara understands why. She speaks to him in a softer tone than she does the rest, carefully attuned to him. She urges him to pick at another sweet, doughy dessert with her before Sokka ends up stealing the rest. 

Katara tells him to go to bed early, to rest, and he actually listens to her. 

Suki stares at Katara a little funny when she catches that, before she says, “I think you’re the only one he’s ever listened to when told that.” 

For whatever reason, Katara’s cheeks flush with heat, even as she tries to play it off, “He has his priorities straight, at least.” 

“More like he’s too terrified of you to disagree.” Sokka quips and Katara pinches him in retribution. He yelps, high and loud, and the group laughs. 

After they all decide to finally turn in for the night, Aang kisses her goodnight softly, tells her, “I missed you today. I felt like I barely saw you.” 

“Aang, this is the first day in a long time you haven’t been with me all day.” Katara says with a slight laugh, but she can’t quite share the same sentiment. She thought the time apart was nice. 

“I know,” Aang grows sheepish, “I guess I just got used to it always being us.” 

“Yeah,” Katara says and before she can say something she regrets, or something less than perfect, she presses a kiss to his cheek again. “Goodnight, Aang. I love you.” 

“I love you, too.” he murmurs and she disappears behind the door of her bedroom. She unravels her braid, coaxes her hair loose. She changes into a silk robe as pajamas, loose and smooth and cool against her skin. She relishes in the fact that she can fold her clothes up and return them to the ornate dresser. She loves that she can set her whale-bone comb on the vanity. 

She crawls into the same bed that she slept in last night and is overwhelmed with the fact that she has a place to return to, like she could belong here. 

And as she drifts off to sleep, she tries not to think of the way that some can make homes out of people, and what it must feel like for those people, who’ve been made home and hearth, by someone else’s hands and heart.

  I was not made to house you, Katara thinks distantly, just before sleep gently coaxes her under its wing, I was not made to be a home .

She dreams of lightning striking a house, striking her, and feeling it all go up in flames.

Chapter Text

“Braiding and winding beads into one’s hair, a tradition of the Southern Water Tribe, only became popular in the Fire Nation several years after the One Hundred Year War due to the influence of Fire Lady Katara, the Master Waterbender from the South Pole. An old painting done by the artist Teko Shira is the earliest depiction of both Fire Lord Zuko and Master Katara with beads in their hair at the Summer Solstice celebration (104 A.G.). Shira was struck with their appearances at the festival and thus painted them in a rare moment before their marriage, sitting together, their friends in motion around them. Many art historians will cite this painting as a turning point in culture and art, the end of one era and into another, led boldly by the two figures centered in the painting.”  

    –an excerpt from ‘A Comprehensive History of Fashion and Art in the Fire Nation’

When Zuko goes to the Fire Sage’s spiraling towers, he doesn’t expect to run into anyone. Actually, Zuko disappears to the Fire Sage’s towers to avoid people. Especially his advisor, Jakao, who usually means well, but Zuko is tired and can’t listen to Jakao tell him that his crown is fractionally crooked for the fourteenth time today. Jakao also has taken it upon himself to try to mention every young, eleggibile Fire Nation noblewoman in the courts since he discovered Zuko and Mai had split. Jakao thought he was being subtle and helping but Zuko has to fight the urge to bash his head against the nearest flat surface every time he does it. 

Zuko just needs time when next to no one can find him, aside from the Kyoshi Warriors, who even happen to cover for him in these moments . The amount of times that Suki or Ty Lee, or any of the other Warriors have lied to advisors or old politicians seeking out Zuko when he wished to be alone was far more than Zuko could count and he is eternally grateful for them. Sometimes, he thinks they’re half the reason he’s able to keep his head on straight.  

He just needs to breathe and the top of the tower, with it’s view of what feels like all of Caldera City, has become a favorite of his since his coronation. The Fire Sages are also blessedly quiet and in fact, encourage him to use their tower as a place of peaceful reflection. They also notoriously play dumb when Jakao comes searching for Zuko, pretending as if they haven’t seen him, either. 

And usually, the tower is quiet, but Zuko hears a clatter, followed by a yelp in one of the small, storage rooms that appear  along the stairs. He climbs the few more stairs to the next landing and presses his ear against the door to listen. He hears shuffling, some muffled grunt, more shifting. 

Part of Zuko is tempted to simply keep walking. But the other, more curious part of him wins out, and he gently nudges open the door. The storage room is still dark, so he holds his hand up and a small flame blossoms in his palm, casting the room in a soft glow. 

Zuko catches dark, wavy hair, a flash of brown skin. “Katara?” he asks, just as she yelps and falls over from her precarious position on top of a small, old chest. She’d been reaching for something on a higher shelf, wobbling on one foot, but now she’s on the ground, staring up at him through a curtain of her hair. 

It’s down, he realizes, out of her usual braid. The front pieces are braided back into a neat, Fire Nation bun. The rest is loose, wild around her shoulders, in her face. He also notes dimly that she’s in traditional Fire Nation clothes, the red warm on her skin. There is a flash of gold from an armlet on her bicep. 

Something about it makes his heart trip sharply. 

“Zuko?!” Katara asks, blowing her hair from her face, “What are you doing here?”

She’s flustered. There’s a growing pinkness to her cheeks that Zuko focuses on for a moment too long. 

“Um,” Zuko says eloquently, “I live here?” and then, feeling mildly amused to have caught her, his lips quirk up at the corners, “What are you doing here?” 

He still moves to help her up with his free hand, and though she glares at him for his answer, she still takes it. Her hands are small and soft and cool to the touch. His hand envelopes hers. He pulls her up gently. She begins to straighten out her skirt and brush herself off. 

Zuko waits for an answer and Katara glances at him warily. 

“I’m looking for thread and beads,” she explains tentatively, “And I was told by my handmaiden that I would find them in one of the storage rooms in this tower.” 

“What do you need thread and beads for?” Zuko asks, and then, “Didn’t your handmaiden offer to fetch them for you?” 

Katara huffs, “I hate ordering her around, I assumed I was capable of finding it on my own.” 

“And how’s that going?” Zuko drawls with a hint of a smile and it earns him another glare from her, but there isn’t any heat or venom behind it. Then, he remembers his other question, “Wait, why do you need the thread and beads?”

Katara pauses, chewing on her lip, like she isn’t sure she should tell him. Finally, she let’s go of a breath before she moves past him, to peak around outside, like there could be someone listening. 

She still shuts the door, then turns to face him, her back pressed to it. She looks really serious when she says, “You can’t tell anyone,” 

Zuko becomes wary; he didn’t know that thread and beads warranted this much secrecy. 

Still, he promises, “I won’t.” 

“I’m serious, Zuko,” Katara continues, “Not a soul.” 

“I won’t, I swear.He insists and then realizes that they’ve both gone hush with the smallness of this storage closet. 

Katara lets go of a breath, “Sokka is going to propose to Suki on the Summer Solstice and– do you know marriage proposal traditions on Kyoshi Island?” 

“Sokka’s going to propose to Suki?!” Zuko exclaims and Katara rushes forward, hushing him, like someone is going to hear them in a random storage closet in a part of the palace that next to no one visits. 

Still, it’s brought them sharply together. In the dark. 

Katara blinks up at him, then quickly steps away. “Yes but you can’t tell anyone ,” she says, “He only just told me a few days ago. And– do you know about marriage proposal traditions on Kyoshi Island or not?” she repeats, but Zuko’s mind has drifted sharply.

He’s mildly surprised, perhaps even a touch bitter. No, not bitter. Maybe a little jealous. Not specifically because they might be getting married– he doesn’t envy that, but just because they’re in love and he–

Well, he’s in love with Mai still, unfortunately. 

But not like Sokka and Suki are in love. 

He’s alone, really. His heart feels suddenly tender, the way it does when it’s taken a beating. But then it’s replaced with a feeling of affection. He’s closer with Suki, and knows how much she loves Sokka. He knows how happy Suki is to get Sokka’s letters, how excited she was to see him again. 

Zuko wants nothing but the best for her. And, well, Sokka’s the best, isn’t he? 

No, he’s happy for them, if she says yes. And weddings are exciting events. Zuko feels suddenly giddy at the idea. He forces himself to hold tight to that feeling, not the subtle, insidious creep of loneliness. 

He wracks his brain as he realizes he hasn’t answered her question, “Um, yes. One of the Kyoshi Warriors got married a year or so ago. Her and her family received gifts from his family.” He remembers the girls gushing about what she’d gotten from them. Jade rings and a beautiful, ornamental fan. 

“Yeah!” Katara agrees, and then, “But, you know, Suki doesn’t have a family, so my dad, Gran-Gran, and I are just going to give them to Suki. And Sokka put jade as the stone in the betrothal knife.” 

“Oh,” Zuko says, softening at the idea, at the combination of the two cultures, “That’s so sweet. She’ll love that.” 

Zuko knows that the betrothal knife in the South is important, he knows it represents a separation from the North and their traditions, and symbols protection between the two– he supposes it's like asking someone to guard your back for the rest of your life, to give them a knife and trust that they won't turn it on you.

“You think?” Katara asks and her eyes have gone wide and hopeful, glittering in the soft light of the flame. 

Zuko loses his train of thought, for some reason. 

But then he’s forcing himself to focus and he nods, “Yeah,” he breathes, “Yeah, I do.” and there’s a sudden intimacy to them. Maybe because she’s just told him a secret, maybe because her face is just so open and soft and hopeful, maybe because they’re in such a small place.

The flame in his palm makes it soft, hazy around the edges. It makes her eyes look violet-ringed, touched with gold. 

He clears his throat to dispel it and Katara blinks and looks away, too, as if she had felt it as well. To clear the air, Zuko then asks, “So, I take it you’re making her something out of threads and beads?”

“Yes,” Katara agrees, “I’m going to make her traditional Southern Water Tribe hair wraps.” then she frowns a little, “I know it’s not much, but Sokka only told me a few days ago and–” 

“She’ll love those, too, Katara.” Zuko promises her softly. He smiles slightly, “I think it’s perfect.” 

The look on her face, the way it lights up in the soft dark, with her lips pulling into that lovely, bright smile makes Zuko a little flushed for some reason. He blames it on the flame near his face, the small space. 

“But your beads and thread aren’t in this closet,” he then says, “I can show you where they are.” and he finally is able to put space between them, to move to the door and push it open. He extinguishes his flame and begins to lead her up the winding, spiral stairs to the next landing. 

“Wait, you never answered my question,” Katara says from behind him, “What were you doing here?” 

“I come here to hide from my advisor, usually.” 

“In the storage closet of the Fire Sage’s tower?” 

A surprised laugh bubbles out of Zuko, “No,” and he glances over his shoulder at her, “I go to the top of the tower.” 

Before she can respond, Zuko eases another door open, the fire blooming in his palm once more and the light reveals extra fabric and thread and beads and sewing supplies. It’s the seamstresses' storage, he knows. “Here they are,” he tells Katara and let’s her duck under his arm to explore the contents inside of the closet. He keeps the door open, a little distant from her this time, but continues to hold his hand up to give her light to look around. 

Katara sets to work right away. She makes a pleased sound when she pulls out thread a little thicker than usually used when sewing. She picks out a dark, emerald green, a brighter green, and then a softer, pale blue. She adds white and black to her growing thread collection, too, before she finds the chest with all of the glittering beads in it. It’s smaller and she decides to just take the entire thing. When she’s finished with gathering supplies, she ducks beneath his arm again and he shuts the door behind her, closing his hand around the flame so it disappears in a wisp of smoke.

When he turns to her on the landing, she offers him another warm smile, “Thank you,” she says and then, “Also please don’t tell anyone. I haven’t even told Aang.” 

Zuko is mildly taken back by this. He just assumed that Katara tells Aang everything. But he also knows that Aang isn’t the best secret keeper, “Of course,” he says, both to the thanks for helping her, and to keeping his lips sealed. 

Katara relaxes a little, before she adjusts her grip on the chest, “I’ll let you– um, I’ll let you get back to avoiding your advisor then?” 

Zuko smiles, endeared by her, and he can tell she hesitates somewhat. And maybe he does, too. And they’re standing on this landing, in a tower, looking at each other with a soft expectancy, like they’re just hanging in space, suspended. 

Like they don’t want to leave each other. 

Her eyes are so blue, so pretty. 

She’s only been here three days, but Zuko doesn’t like parting with her much. He hasn’t seen her in years and she’s so painfully dear to him that he wants to spend as much time with her as possible. He also realizes with a sudden, sharp pang lancing through his chest, that he doesn’t know when he’ll see her again after this visit.

No, he doesn’t want her to leave him. 

So he tries, his voice a little more timid than he’d prefer, maybe a little more vulnerable, “Do you want to join me? It’s the best view of Caldera City.” 

“Are you sure? If you want to be alone—“

“No!” he says it too quickly, his face flushing with embarrassment, “No, I want you to join me. If you want.” 

“I want to!” she assures him, nearly as quickly and as eagerly as he had just been. Her own blush rises back to her cheeks as they both stare at each other. 

Zuko knows that he’s been lonely, that he’s been far too eager for a friend, for her. He hadn’t quite realized that Katara might’ve felt similarly. 

“Okay,” Zuko breathes, relaxing, his lips easing into a small, pleased smile. “Follow me,” he says and then turns to begin climbing the stairs once more. Katara tucks the chest of beads beneath her arm and follows after him. 

As they reach the top, the stairs get narrower because the tower is old; one of the oldest parts of the palace. It hasn’t been renovated like many parts of the palace, either. Zuko pushes open the door to the top floor, a place for the Fire Sages back in the day, but now it mostly collects dust. The roof of this room is small and Zuko has to duck somewhat, moving to the wooden latch on the ceiling. He shoves it open wide, with a low creak of protest from the old metal and wood, before golden sunlight suddenly spills into the space. It falls onto the uneven wooden floor in a neat square. 

Zuko silently and gently eases the chest of beads out of Katara’s hands, followed by the thread, and he lifts them out of the latch to sit beside the opening on the roof of the tower. There used to be a small ladder that rested here, so that people could reach it easier, but it’s been gone for several years now. Besides, Zuko’s never needed it. 

He’s always been tall enough to be able to poke his head out, to set his hands on the edges and lift himself through the hole and onto the top of the tower. However, glancing at Katara, he realizes this might prove more difficult for her, since she’s not as tall as him. 

He’s about to offer to help lift her, give her a boost, when she moves to stand in the square of light, beneath the opening. She peers up at it, her face caught in that ray of sun, of the only light in the room. 

She looks otherworldly, bathed in all that gold and white. Like a spirit in this dark space, like an apparition. A girl from his dreams. Her dark hair shines, the looping waves now soft and light, her skin warming underneath the sun’s touch. Her eyes light up like the warmest, bluest part of a flame, glittering like precious gems. 

Zuko watches as she bends at the knee slightly, before gracefully jumping up, catching onto the edge and swinging her body up and through the opening with ease. She sits on the edge, her legs dangling down, and smiles at him. 

Now, the sun is a halo behind her and Zuko looks up at her the way an acolyte looks up from their altar. 

And then Katara moves, shifts so he can come up, too, and the light of her spills over him. It’s warm on his face. He lifts himself through the opening easily, eases up onto the top of the tower. Then he closes the latch, and picks his head up.

Katara is at the edge already, looking out at all of Caldera City. Zuko moves to her silently, coming up at her side. She looks in awe, her lips parted, eyes wide. 

“It’s beautiful,” she says softly and part of Zuko marvels at how Katara can see all the world from the sky and still think this view is something beautiful, too. 

“It’s one of my favorite places in the palace.” Zuko admits. 

Katara turns to him, smiles soft, “I can see why.” 

They gather her beads and thread and sit near the ledge, Katara cross-legged and beginning to create her hair wraps for Suki. She asks Zuko to hold one end of the thread while her nimble fingers begin braiding and weaving with ease and certainty. She uses that deep emerald thread, winding the lighter ones throughout it. 

“It looks so difficult,” Zuko comments, trying to figure out the pattern, any sense of how she is able to do this. 

Katara shrugs lightly, her work not faltering, “It can be. The ones I’m making aren’t too difficult. You should see the intricate patterns of others– people who do this for a living. They’re incredible. I only know how because it was just a hobby Gran-Gran taught me when I was a girl.” And then Katara smiles, her eyes flicking up to catch his, “Sokka actually knows how to make these, too.” Mirth flashes through her features, warm and impish, “But Sokka’s were never very good.” 

Zuko snorts, imagining a small Sokka and Katara, weaving these hair wraps with thread and bead. He imagines them as children, with the hair wraps braided into their dark hair. 

They talk softly like this, as the afternoon slips into evening. He tells her about Jakao, about his eagerness for marriage still, despite Zuko’s lack of a relationship. He thumbs the end of the thread when they talk about Mai. 

He admits how lonely he is here, how he’d even felt lonely with Mai. 

And then Katara admits with a strange quietness, “Sometimes, I feel that way with Aang.”

Zuko doesn’t quite know what to say. He’s surprised; he assumed Katara and Aang were— well, perfect. He thought they were in love and content and perfect . But Katara continues and he can tell that perhaps this is the first time she’s spoken the words out loud, “Sometimes I don’t think he sees me. Just a version of me that he likes.” 

She weaves and braids quicker now, evidently nervous. 

“I get scared that one day he’ll actually see me and be disappointed with what he finds.” Katara admits and Zuko softens immediately, any surprise melting away.

“Katara, he’d never be disappointed with you.” Zuko says gently, “But you should— you should talk to him. About not feeling seen by him.” 

It was something he wished he’d talked to Mai about sooner. And he doesn’t want Katara to go through what he is now, doesn’t ever want to see her heartbroken like this. 

Katara picks her head up to catch his eyes for a moment, and Zuko continues, “He doesn’t mean to hurt you, but all that’s left unsaid between you will.” 

Katara blinks, taking that in, and then a wry smile twists at the corner of her mouth, “Did your Uncle tell you that?” 

Zuko can’t help the sheepish smile, “Maybe,” he replies and they both burst out into laughter, the sound carrying out across the city, wrapping around his heart.

When Katara grows tired of working on the hair wraps, she gives up and begins digging through the beads in the chest. They clink together prettily, look like sea glass as she moves her hand through it. They continue to talk as she begins taking a small section of her hair and braiding beads into it with ease; crimson and plum and gold glitter in her braid. It’s simple, only a few along the braid, but it’s pretty. 

Eventually she asks, “Can I put some in your hair?” 

Zuko smiles a little, certain his advisors will take issue with it. But they’re so lovely and Katara looks so at ease to be doing something so familiar to her. Once more, he marvels at the idea of something he’s only ever seen in the Southern Water Tribe, with blue and white and silver beads, now in his hair. 

 “Sure,” he says and he eases to sit in front of her, at first straight backed, but she touches his shoulder to get him to ease down so she can reach his hair better. 

She takes a strand of hair in the front, one that is lower, frames his face so that it will show with half his hair up in his top knot. She sets to braiding the tiny section, reaching into the chest of beads occasionally. He catches the flash of bright red, of maroon, and gold. He ends up easing down on his side in front of her eventually, shutting his eyes against the orange and rose evening rays of the sun. Enjoying their warmth and Katara’s gentle braiding of his hair. 

He lets go of a content sigh, tries to etch this moment into his memory. He doesn’t ever want to give it up, he realizes. He can’t remember the last time that he’s felt so at ease, so peaceful.

Katara says “Finished,” but she continues to play with his hair, her nimble fingers braiding and rebraiding strands with ease. She runs her fingers through it, and the strands slide away in her hands. She lets out a soft, content sigh that matched his own earlier.

Eventually, Zuko says, “We should go to dinner, I’m sure they’re all looking for us.”

“Yeah,” Katara agrees but doesn’t move right away. It’s Zuko, however reluctantly, who has to finally push himself up and then offer his hands to her to bring her up with him.

They make their way back down the winding, spiraling tower stairs. The Kyoshi Warrior who's hiding near the entrance, Niri, eyes them shrewdly but says nothing, only silently follows after them. 

When they return for dinner, Aang is the first to spot them, excitedly asking where they’d been and somehow, in the same breath, telling them about his exploration of the volcanoes and volcanic rock with Toph. Eventually, he looks at their hair and cocks his head, “What’s this?” 

Katara thumbs one of the plum beads in her hair, “Oh, nothing. I just braided some colorful beads into our hair.” 

When Aang pouts a little, almost in jealousy, Katara laughs, “Aang you don’t have hair for me to braid any into!” 

And Zuko can’t help but laugh, too. Which makes Aang laugh. 

When Sokka sees him, he immediately goes for the braid in his hair, pulling on it a little, “Hey!” he begins, “This is Water Tribe style!” 

“Your sister did it.” 

Sokka steps back a little to eye him, “I mean I assumed. But—“ Sokka tilts his head, still scrutinizing him, “Why does it look good on you? With the Fire Lord costume? It looks nice, buddy!” 

Zuko can’t help but laugh, the sound falling easier from him than it has in awhile.

“I really like them, too.” Zuko admits softly, as his friends begin talking around him and they take their places to eat together.

He nearly finishes all his food tonight. 

Sokka arrives at Zuko’s door late three nights before the Summer Solstice. He’s got two bottles of wine beneath his arms and he’s grinning. Zuko had finally decided to take Sokka up on his offer to drink until they couldn’t stand and as Sokka stands in his doorway now, he thinks it’s probably a bad idea.

So he lets Sokka in anyway. 

They go out to Zuko’s balcony, into the night air that is balmy and seems as sweet as the summer fruits. The distant smell of the seabreeze soothes Zuko, too, and the moon is nearly full. It’s soft light falls over them in a soft, pearly glow. 

Despite the peaceful night, they are chugging wine, which is not advised. Zuko knows this is supposed to be savored, slowly sipped at, but it was the only alcohol Sokka could get his hands on, and they’re not here for a casual evening. It is bitter and sweet, heavy and thick on his tongue. It makes Zuko warm quickly and a rosy flush rises to his cheeks. His eyes get a little brighter, a little glasier. Sokka is in a similar state. Sokka somehow gets chattier when drunk, rambling on and on. Zuko likes it, though, Sokka’s chatter is familiar and growing more and more amusing the drunker they get. 

Eventually, in a lull of silence, Sokka asks, “Did Mai leave then? I haven’t seen her or Ty Lee around since we’ve been here.” 

At the mention of Mai, Zuko sobers a little. “Yes,” he answers, “She left with Ty Lee. They’re traveling, I think. I’m not sure. Suki said Ty Lee would return soon, though.” Zuko tries hard not to pout, because it’s childish and a Fire Lord shouldn’t pout, but he even sounds a little whiny when he says, “Wish I could drop everything and go travel.” 

“You’re the Fire Lord! You can do whatever you want!” Sokka replies, “Say you’re going on a vacation or something!” 

Zuko laughs a little, “I can’t, Sokka, that’s not how it works.” 

Sokka thinks for a moment. Maybe longer than he usually does. His brain seems sluggish now. “Well, could visit the Southern Water Tribe! Pretend it’s for politics but–” Sokka hiccups a little, “But it’s actually just for fun.” 

Zuko smiles at that, “I should visit sometime.” he replies, “I would love to.” and then, “I mean– if you’ll have me, of course.” 

“Of course we’ll have you!” Sokka replies, “It’d be good for the–” he seems to lose his train of thought for a moment, “For the world or whatever.” 

Zuko snorts. He takes another long sip of wine straight from the bottle. Some of it spills down his chin and he wipes it away with the back of his hand and when he looks back to Sokka, he is closer than he was before. 

“I have to tell you a secret,” Sokka says very solemnly. 


“You can’t tell anyone.” Sokka slurs. 

“I won’t,” Zuko promises, and though his mind is slower, he has a feeling he knows what it is–

“I’m gonna propose to Suki on the Summer Solstice.” Sokka whispers, almost comically loud. 

Zuko stares at him, unsurprised. 

“Why aren’t you surprised?!” Sokka shrieks and then Zuko remembers he wasn’t supposed to know this, so he blinks and says;

“Woah, you’re proposing to Suki?” But it sounds garbled and lackluster even to his own ears. 

“How did you know?!” Sokka asks, lurching forward somewhat to fist his hands in Zuko’s tunic and shake him a little. 

Zuko feels like his brain has just been rattled around inside his skull. “Um,” he says smoothly, “I just assumed?” He tries because he doesn’t want to get Katara in trouble but Zuko is a notoriously poor liar. Especially drunk apparently. 

“You’re lying!” Sokka says, “Did Katara tell you?!” 

“What?! No!” Zuko says, his voice going high as he squabbles to hang onto Sokka, who's still shaking him around a little too much. 

“She did, didn’t she?!” Sokka says, “I’m going to kill her!” 

“No!” Zuko says and for whatever reason, he starts laughing a little, “No, don’t kill her, it’s not her fault!” 

A smile still breaks out on Sokka’s face, even as he continues to shake Zuko more, tussle him up as Zuko continues, “I caught her– I caught her looking for threads and beads! She hasn’t told anyone, just me! And swore me to secrecy!” 

Sokka laughs now for some reason, probably because they’re both drunk, and Zuko takes the opportunity to push at him, to send him toppling backwards. Sokka yelps, before his head pops back up, and he lunges for Zuko. 

Zuko grunts, before more laughter overtakes him. They begin grappling with each other, wrestling like they’re boys. There’s no technique to it, no finesse, they’re not trying to actually fight each other, they’re just playing. And they’re laughing through their teeth and Zuko feels too warm and a little dizzy but stupid and young. 

“You can’t tell anyone!” Sokka says, throwing his arm around Zuko’s neck to put him in a headlock.

“I won’t!” Zuko laughs, “I won’t!” and he squirms and twists in Sokka’s grasp. 

Sokka finally lets him up and Zuko takes a deep breath of air, between laughing and wrestling with Sokka, he feels out of breath and giggly. He feels fuzzy and light. 

But they grow quiet and they look at each other and Zuko reaches out, puts his hand on Sokka’s shoulder, squeezes a little, jostles him, “I’m happy for you, Sokka.” 

Sokka grins, lopsided and infinitely happy and Zuko hopes with everything inside him that he’ll feel that way one day, too. 

“She hasn’t said yes yet.” he laughs nervously, dragging a hand through his hair, which is down, tousled around his face from their wrestling. 

“I think she will.” Zuko answers decisively, nodding sagely. 

“That’s what Katara said.” Sokka says, eyeing him a little. 

Zuko shrugs, “She’s usually right.” 

“That’s what she said, too!” Sokka laughs, pushing Zuko once more. Zuko pushes back childishly and the sound of their laughter carries, echoes around in his head, in his chest. He feels youthful for once, less of a Fire Lord, more like a young man. Drunk and reckless and with his friend. 

They end up meandering to the kitchen in the palace. They do break an antique vase in the hallway on their way there and then run from the crime scene like fools. They dig around and maybe make a little too much of a mess in the kitchen. But they find desserts and more wine, which they try to smuggle back to Zuko’s room. Evidently, though, they don’t make it all the way back into his room. He blames the extra wine they had in the kitchen. They end up slumped against each other, leaning against the outside of Zuko’s door, food forgotten about in their laps, spread around them.

They’re woken with water to the face, both of them spluttering and gasping like idiots. Zuko’s head throbs painfully and the whole world is somewhat bleary. His neck aches because of the odd angle it’d been at to rest his head against Sokka’s shoulder. But he makes out Katara in front of them, Suki at her side. He thinks Toph is behind them, snickering. 

“What happened to you two last night?” Katara demands, looking at them, “You’re covered in desserts!” 

Sokka groans “Not now, Katara.” 

Zuko clutches at his head. He can’t fully form the words to answer her and besides, it’s not nearly as exciting as it seems. But Suki moves to help Sokka up, whose grumbling about how he’s going to sleep the rest of the day. Zuko nearly groans himself now, since he knows he has to be in political meetings all day. 

Katara comes to ease him up, too. He feels woozy, his head thick and stuffy and aching. He feels somewhat queasy, too. 

“Don’t you have meetings all day?” she asks, almost like she is scolding him.

“Don’t remind me,” Zuko grumbles and maybe he just looks that miserable and pathetic, because Katara’s features soften. 

“Do you want me to help?” 


“Do you want me to help with your...duties for today?” she reiterates, “I do it for Aang all the time.” 

Zuko blinks at her. He knows that Katara sends most of the letters in Aang’s name to world leaders and politicians. He received several from Aang as the Avatar, which he knew were most certainly written by Katara. But he couldn’t–

“I can’t ask that of you.” Zuko says.

“You’re not! I offered!” 

Zuko looks at her warily, “Katara, it’s okay.” 

“I don’t have anything to do today,” she responds instead, “I hate not being busy. I promise I don’t mind.” 

She looks at him so earnestly, so openly, that he can’t help but tentatively, finally agree to her proposition. And she almost looks pleased by it. He doesn’t know anyone who would be pleased to do any part of his job, but he is infinitely glad for the help anyways. 

She ends up helping him a great deal, too. She begins with returning responses to dignitaries and politicians for him. She also looks over the numbers and supply list for what the Fire Nation will be providing to help build the new United Republic of Nations. She helps him pick decorations for the rapidly approaching Solstice. She even willingly and easily accompanies him to his last meeting. She doesn’t look bored; on the contrary, he can tell Katara is greatly interested in politics. Some of the elder councilmembers gripe a little about her being there, and Zuko quietly but sharply reminds them of who she is, and how lucky they are to have her input. 

And she’s– well, Katara’s always perfect, isn’t she? She’s quiet for most of the meeting, learning and observing, but when she does speak, it’s poignant, clear. She brings up good questions, offers solutions that are then built upon. She’s a natural. 

At dinner, she looks at him and says, “It’s hard work, but it must be rewarding. To see your country change. To help people. Hopefully.” 

Zuko looks at her like he’s seeing her all over again. He wants to say yes, it’s why I overwork myself. He wants to say yes, it’s why I can’t ever give up or slow down. He wants to say yes, it’s why I lost Mai. 

But all that comes out is, “Hopefully,” on a soft breath. 

Zuko takes lunch with his sisters and Katara in the courtyard the next day. He is still mildly surprised that Katara wishes to join him for meals with Azula, but he should know by now that if Katara wishes to do something, she will, and he certainly won’t stop her. This is her third time accompanying him to a meal with Azula. The staff expected Katara’s presence this time. 

Last time, towards the end of their dinner, Katara had offered to heal Azula once more. Azula had said no, not to come near her. Katara had left it. He thinks she will probably offer again today, that she’ll offer everyday in case it was the one time Azula says yes.

But today, Azula is in a good place. She looks like herself. Her eyes are sharp, keen. She watches Kiyi show them her Firebending forms with a cool face. She corrects her sternly, but usually not meanly, telling her to strike sharper, more forcefully. Exhale here, inhale here. 

Kiyi loves Azula. It’s so clear that she thinks Azula is incredible. Zuko doesn’t know how much Kiyi knows about her elder sister, but he doesn’t plan on ruining their budding relationship. He has no desire to tell Kiyi everything until she’s older, until she can fully understand it all. Until she can fully understand Azula. 

 Zuko is thankful for Katara, again, he realizes, because she seems to understand Azula, too. He doesn’t have to explain, he doesn’t have to say; she didn’t get the love and forgiveness I got, so I’m trying to give it to her now. He doesn’t have to say, she did it all to survive our father. I don’t blame her. I can’t blame her for wanting to survive.

  No, she sits on the quilt that had been laid out for their picnic and watches Kiyi attempt another Firebending move, a burst of flames erupting from her small fist, and says, “She’s good with her.” 

Zuko nods, “Thankfully, Kiyi has been a great help to Azula’s healing.” 

Katara returns to watching them and after a moment, she says, “They look alike.” she glances back to Zuko, her eyes flickering over his face, too, “You all do. It’s cute.” 

“Cute?” Zuko retorts, a brow quirking upwards, “Don’t let Azula hear that.” 

Katara smiles, just as Kiyi manages to finally land a more difficult form, landing with a whoosh of flames. 

“That was great, Ki!” Zuko calls out, smiling, proud of her. Always proud of her. He gives her the praise he never received as a child, showers her in it, in all the attention he can. He hates and loves seeing her grow up so quickly. 

When they return to the picnic blanket, Azula smiles, all sharp and smug, “Thankfully Ki’s taking after her elder sister and not her brother in regards to her bending.” 

Zuko huffs at the jab, but Kiyi, at age ten, is all toothy smiles and too much energy. She’s a little firecracker and she glows under Azula’s praise. They sit down to eat beside them. 

“You’re quite the talented bender, Kiyi.” Katara also praises, smiling, and Kiyi’s eyes light up. 

“Thank you! I want to be just as good as Azula and Zuzu when I’m older, and my teachers said that I have to put in a lot of work, but I wish my fire was blue like Azula’s, or pink! I think it would be so cool to have pink flames–” Kiyi rambles excitedly, chattering away. 

Katara seems charmed by this, smiling as Kiyi continues, “And Zuzu told me that you’re the best Waterbender in the world!” she looks at Katara with wide, sparkling gold eyes. 

Azula scoffs and Katara turns to look at Zuko, a mischievous smile pulling at her lips, “Is that what Zuko said about me?” 

“I don’t think I–” Zuko tries, but Kiyi cuts him off;

“Yes! He said you were the last one from your tribe and you’re the strongest healer the world has ever seen!” 

Katara laughs and she’s smiling at Zuko, who has a blush crawling along his pale cheeks. 

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Azula cuts in, rolling her eyes. 

“Too late,” Katara shoots back, feeling playful, and though Azula throws a glare at her, it lacks it’s usual venom. It soothes Zuko to see them getting along. To see their encounters going better than the previous two. The last one had ended with a shattered dish. This one seems to be going much smoother. 

“Will you show me Waterbending?” Kiyi asks excitedly, nearly bouncing where she sits, “Please, please, please, please?” 

“Kiyi, we’re eating–” 

But Katara lifts some water from the nearby fountain and she forms it in the shape of a glittering, watery dragon. She snakes it around Kiyi, who immediately goes quiet in awe. She watches the dragon swirl in the air, with all her childlike wonder. 

It reminds Zuko to enjoy it, too, to look on happily, too. 

Then Katara flexes her fingers and the dragon bursts into droplets, which slide into fluffy, white snowflakes. Kiyi gasps when she realizes it, and though it melts before it can even get to the ground in the humid summer air, Kiyi is already screeching, “Snow! I’ve never seen snow before!” 

“I grew up in the snow,” Katara says and Kiyi is immediately interested in this, too. She asks Katara question after question after question. Katara answers happily, playfully. She’s wonderful with kids and Kiyi adores her by the end of the meal. Zuko isn’t surprised, though. 

And when they walk back in, Katara falls into step beside Azula. She asks her gently, “Do you want me to try and heal you?” 

Azula’s face goes perfectly blank for a moment. She pauses and Katara stops with her. Azula, strangely, looks up at the sky. Then, “Not today,” she says, “The sunset is going to be nice tonight.”

Zuko doesn’t quite see the connection, but Katara nods, accepting her answer, almost pleased. 

It wasn’t a no. Just not today. 

“It’s progress,” Katara tells him quietly, when they have parted from Kiyi and Azula. 

“It’s all I can ask for,” he responds, and then proceeds to thank her again and again and again. 

She laughs him off, but Zuko is already trying to think of ways to make it up to her. He needs her to know how much she’s helped, how much he appreciates her. Not just for what she’s done here and now, but the countless letters over the years. Her neverending care and lack of judgement, her advice, her encouragement. All of it. 

And he thinks, just like she had all those years ago when his chest had been a mess of electricity, that she’s healing him again. Slowly, but surely, like the turn of the earth, the bringing of the tides. 

The Summer Solstice Festival is a long-standing tradition in the Fire Nation. Before Zuko’s reign, it had been scaled down greatly because so many were away at war, and because the Fire Nation didn’t want to invest in it. The Summer Solstice had always been a day to appreciate artists specifically; dancers, poets, singers, painters all prepared their finest work to present to the court, to the entire city. His father’s reign couldn’t be bothered with it and once Zuko had been crowned, he’d been more than happy to return the Fire Nation to it’s tradition, to support the artists in his country by bringing them to Caldera City. 

And this would be the first year that foreign leaders and dignitaries attended in a long, long time. Zuko has finally managed to convince the world that he has no ill intentions and that they were welcome in his nation. 

There is a lot riding on this. He doesn’t wish to disappoint. 

There is to be a dance troupe at the palace as well as poets and musicians, the circus in the heart of Caldera, and many plays going on throughout the city, too. Not to mention, it is tradition for much of the court to wear clothes from revered designers to show off their creations. And the clothes are always a little more extravagant on the Summer Solstice, veering into costumes that referenced old Fire Nation myths and figures. It isn’t uncommon to add body paint or more outrageous headpieces. 

This is not Zuko’s favorite part of the Solstice, but he enjoys supporting the designers. He wears whatever they give him. 

And this year, Zuko’s designer is a young woman, Moyan, who is not much older than him. He knows that she is new, an up and coming seamstress. If she is nervous to be dressing him in her designs, she doesn’t show it. 

Zuko realizes, looking in the mirror, that she’s dressed him drastically differently than any of his previous seamstresses and tailors. He is in crimson still, but the shoulder plates are gone, the heavy, traditional robes are gone. She has put him in something sleeveless, a little stiff and tighter, but has the traditional, ornamental gold pattern that Zuko is familiar with. The collar is a deep-v, baring more of his chest than usual. She has put gold around his neck, his biceps, his wrists. 

More than that, Zuko realizes she's dressed him in the ways they depict ancient heroes. 

“I want to leave your hair down,” Moyan says, scrutinizing his appearance. 

“My advisor might kill you,” Zuko replies and he’s trying to be funny.

Moyan’s lips quirk up into a smile, in the least, and she says, “And...those beads you were wearing in your hair the other day. How did you do that?” 

Zuko blinks, “Oh,” he exhales softly, a little surprised, “Master Katara did them. The style is from the Southern Water Tribe.” 

“Would she do them again? I’d like the front two strands of your hair to have gold in them.” Moyan explains, her eyes still sliding over him critically. 

“You’d have to ask her.” Zuko replies; he’s sure she wouldn’t mind, but he doesn’t wish to speak for her. 

One of Moyan’s helpers is sent to retrieve Katara and Moyan moves to delicately lift the gold, flame crown. She nestles it in the back of his hair, secures it tight. Then she brings forward a headpiece; it’s gold and shining, a ring of protruding, thin beams of gold arcing out from where it will be placed on his head. It looks like the rays of light. 

She places it just behind his crown, so that it looks like a halo, like the tails of the sun. 

A moment later, someone announces, “Master Katara, Your Majesty.” and bows to him. Zuko turns, just as Katara steps into his room. 

She’s a vision of plum and crimson and deep blue. She reminds Zuko of the evening sky. He also recognizes that they’ve dressed her in a similar fashion to his; the flow of her skirt, the side v-neck of her top is also reminiscent of ancient heroines. Her midriff is bared, and instead of gold, her jewelry is silver and gleaming against her brown skin. Her hair has also been left down, and there are several, small strands that are braided, woven with far more beads than she’d done the other day. At the back of her head is the exact same headpiece as Zuko’s, but it’s glinting silver in her dark hair. 

If Zuko is the sun, then she is the moon.

They both stare at each other for a moment, perhaps realizing all of this at once. 

“You look–” Zuko starts, then promptly cuts himself off. Beautiful. Lovely. Ethereal. Extraordinary. 

He doesn’t think any of those are acceptable compliments to give to a friend. A friend who's been dating your friend for four years. 

“Incredible.” Zuko settles on, his voice soft. He hopes she takes it neutrally. 

She still flushes high on her cheeks and Zuko watches the pink rise to red. “Thank you. So do you.” and then, as if to shake off the moment, she clears her throat and says, “I heard you wanted beads in your hair, too?” 

“Oh– yes. Yes.” Zuko replies. 

Moyan seems to be watching them with some interest, but at this, she begins speaking with Katara. Zuko can’t seem to focus on what they’re saying. He’s still a little dazed, for whatever reason. 

And then he is being placed in a chair so that Katara can do his hair and she tentatively steps near him. He is suddenly brought back to being sixteen and freshly coronated, having Katara stand so near to him as she heals the mess of his chest. The lightning scar is just barely visible with his clothes, the strange, criss-crossing pattern that it left behind on him peeking out from beneath the fabric. 

Katara takes one of the strands of hair that frame his face and she begins to braid it, reaching for the gold beads that she is supplied with to work into his hair. He tries not to watch her face as she works, tries not to see the glittering silver caught beneath her eyes, or the way her lashes seem longer and darker. Or the shade her lips have been painted. 

When she finishes his hair, she looks over her work briefly, at the gold woven through his hair, before nodding to herself. Then she moves away so that Zuko can see himself in the mirror. 

He feels a little like he can hardly recognize himself. He looks...bolder. Otherworldly. 

Katara then moves into frame beside him and their reflections, their matching headpieces and beaded hair all come into focus. The designers have played upon their opposite bending, their celestial parontage, while making them equal. 

“What was it you said to me, so long ago? In the Northern Water Tribe?” Katara muses softly, finding his eyes in the mirror, “You rise with the sun and I rise with the moon?” 

It takes him a moment to recall the memory, but when he does, he nods, feeling strangely breathless. Katara smiles. He smiles back. 

She pulls away and he immediately misses her reflection beside his in the mirror, “I’ll see you at the celebration in a little bit.” Katara says.

“Thank you for braiding my hair once more,” Zuko returns and she smiles warmly again, before disappearing from his room. 

Zuko comes to find that all his friends are in a similar style of clothes, reminiscent of ancient heroes. It was intentional. What better way for the heroes of the One Hundred Year War to dress than like their own legends? 

But he and Katara are the only ones with matching headpieces, halos of gold and silver. 

The Summer Solstice celebration goes surprisingly well. As the evening fades into night, Zuko is exhausted but deeply proud of the hard work that his staff and nation have put in to show the rest of the world that they are a new country, a new people. The performers and artists are wildly successful, too, and he receives many praises from foreign officials about them, about the growing prosperity that peace has brought his country.  

It lifts the load from his shoulders fractionally. He still isn’t satisfied, there is still so much to do but this— this is a good start. He walks proudly tonight. 

Katara and Suki are most interested in the dance troupe, who blends Firebending with traditional dancing accompanied by their fluttery, ornamental fans. When music strikes, he watches the two try to learn from the dancers and their swift but graceful movements. 

He watches Katara dance, eventually foregoing the fans, and beginning to move on her own with Suki. And eventually Sokka and Aang and Toph. It’s like watching her at his coronation all over again, the nimble turn of her wrist, the push of her arm, and tilt of her hips. She’s smiling, her lips lifted at the corner, her eyes sparkling with joy.

She draws everyone’s eyes. She always does. Whatever it is that needs to dance inside of her is enchanting, it’s enamoring. 

And as the evening draws to a close, Sokka grows more and more nervous, Zuko can tell. Several times, he puts his hand on Sokka’s shoulder, squeezes him a little in reassurance. Zuko can also tell that Katara is laying off him for the night, too, she’s being kinder, more attentive to him. 

The sky fades into inky blue, the moon chasing away the sun. Everyone readies to watch the fireworks, an invention of the Fire Nation. 

He has finally been able to break away from mingling with dignitaries and politicians to be with his friends once more. He is glad that he’ll be able to watch the fireworks with them.

“Suki and I are going to watch the fireworks at the beach,” Sokka announces and with the way he glances at Zuko and Katara, he can tell that this is what he’s been waiting for. 

“Good idea, Sokka! We’ll come—“ Aang begins.

“No!” Zuko and Katara both say together, a little too quickly.

“I mean, Aang why don’t we stay here?” Katara tries to soothe over, “They’ve set the fireworks up so we’ll get the best view here!” 

Sokka and Suki manage to slip away as Aang looks at them quizzically. When Sokka and Suki have disappeared around the bend, it’s Toph who says, “Alright, something's going on. Spill it.”

“Nothing’s going on!” Zuko tries to say and Toph scoffs.

“I know you’re lying, Sparky.” 

Aang looks between Katara and Zuko and Zuko can’t quite make out the expression on his face. 

Katara squirms under his gaze before she finally says, “Okay, but be quiet about it.” Then she takes a deep breath and says, “Sokka’s going to propose to Suki tonight.” 

“What?!” Aang exclaims, “That’s so exciting!” 

“It’s about time,” Toph scoffs, but there’s a smile pulling at her lips, too.

And then Aang looks at Zuko, “How did you know, though?” He looks at Katara, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” 

“Sokka told me while drunk,” Zuko says and it’s not a lie. He’s not lying, but he’s not admitting the full truth. For whatever reason, he doesn’t admit that he heard it first from Katara. 

Distantly, he knows it’s because it would hurt Aang’s feelings and he doesn’t want to do that. Especially not tonight, not now. 

“It wasn’t mine to tell,” Katara replies, evidently thinking the same thing, then, “Besides, Aang, I love you, but you’re not great at keeping secrets.” 

“Should we go spy on them?” Toph interrupts before Aang can protest, her grin turning the definition of trouble.

“No!” Katara responds, “Leave them alone!” 

Toph groans, “What are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for them?” 

“Yes,” Zuko replies flatly, “And we should all pretend we don’t know until they say something. In case she–” 

“Good point,” Katara agrees, chewing on her bottom lip nervously. 

They end up sitting in the grass, tucked away from the other party-goers, looking up at the stars that have blinked into existence with the night sky as they wait for the fireworks. 

Despite his precaution, Zuko thinks Suki is going to say yes. He is surprisingly calm, knowing this. Knowing his friends will be happy. He’ll have a wedding to go to soon. Which will be just another occasion that he can see them all again. He tries to keep any baying jealousy or loneliness away, he tries not to think of Mai, of where she is, what she’s doing. He wonders how long he will wonder about her. 

He thinks of Suki’s words and tries to take comfort in them; I promise you’ll find someone and you won’t be able to fathom how you ever thought differently. 

Katara laughs brightly at something Toph says and Zuko’s gaze is drawn to her. 

Then there’s a loud boom that echoes, followed by the sky erupting into a shower of red, explosive light. He watches the color wash over Katara’s face before fading. Another great boom, and then the sky is orange, the light flashing over her features once more.

She must feel his eyes on her, because she turns to him and smiles and breathes, “It’s incredible.” 

“Yeah,” Zuko agrees, but he’s only now turning to look up at the sky, to watch as another firework explodes across their vision. Colors of purple and blue and green streak across the sky. 

Toph covers her ears, grumbling, but Aang is in awe, too. 

The sky is a thousand different lights and colors and Zuko is lonely and comforted, heartbroken and joyful, happy but not satisfied all at once. 

White and gold sparkling fireworks burst across his vision in the final act of them, louder than the others, bigger and brighter, too. He tries to get lost in them, chasing them like shooting stars until they’re nothing but wisps of smoke. And then there is nothing but darkness and a hush that falls over the crowds of people. 

Cheering begins, applause and shouts of enjoyment, and Zuko feels like the entirety of Caldera City is cheering with them. He feels like he can hear people all the way down to the docks, to Aang sitting beside him. It’s an incredible feeling, he realizes, and he clings to it while it lasts. 

But then the night is quieting and party-goers are dispersing, finally beginning to leave. Some of his staff come out to begin cleaning up the evening's revelry. They all decide to stay here, in the grass, waiting for Sokka and Suki to return. They try to talk, but he can tell Katara is growing more and more nervous. Aang is trying to distract her by telling her about the adventures he’s been going on while here, all the places he has explored, but Zuko can tell she is only partly listening, nervously pulling at the grass. 

“Wait!” Toph says suddenly, her voice hushed and Aang quiets immediately, “I think they’re coming.” 

They all hold their breath as Sokka and Suki come around the bend once more. They all look to them, unsure for a moment, silent–

“Guess who's getting married!” Sokka throws his head back and crows, loud and echoing into the night sky, like he could scream it to the whole world. 

Katara is up in a flash, running for them. Zuko is right behind her, though. 

She crashes into the pair, laughing, and he can hear Suki’s shout of excitement, Sokka’s yelp as he takes Katara’s weight, as Zuko gets to them, too. Aang and Toph are right behind them and once more, they’re pulling each other into a group hug. Zuko has really come to love these, since being a grouchy sixteen-year-old. 

But even when they pull away, Katara and Suki hug tight to each other. He can hear their sniffling, quiet words that are passed between them, squished into each other’s shoulders. A laugh, before Katara tightens her hold. When they pull away, both Katara and Suki have tears glittering in their eyes, but they’re smiling. 

Zuko pulls Suki into a tight hug, too. “I’m so happy for you,” he murmurs by her temple.

She squeezes him tight but when she pulls away, she is looking up at him with a gentleness, “I can’t wait to be this happy for you, too.” she tells him and he knows she means it with everything she has, he can tell she believes it. 

He hugs her again, before Sokka is yanking him into a hug, too. Zuko laughs into Sokka’s shoulder, squeezing him tight, too. He tells him the same thing and Sokka beams so wide that Zuko thinks his face must ache. 

They stay up late, smuggle wine together and roll around in the grass, beneath all those stars. They pull their headpieces off, some of their more restrictive garments, strip themselves of ancient heroes and titles and run around recklessly. They’re young and foolish, just on the cusp of adulthood, of something like marriage. He feels a little melancholy, like this is one of his last nights to be young. It might be foolish, but he feels the winds changing again, the cusp of another phase of his life–

The beads in Zuko’s hair clink musically as he chases after Katara, follows her all the way down to the beach. She crashes into the waves and he goes in after her, followed quickly by Toph and Aang. Suki and Sokka. Never mind their clothes or makeup or appearances.

It’s just them as they are and the sea and the sky and the earth and the fiery, little stars that wink down at them happily. 


Chapter Text

    “Letters discussing political policies with world leaders were discovered with Avatar Aang’s name on them, but upon further inspection, were not written with his hand-writing. Rather, the script matches the Fire Lady Katara’s penmanship. Beyond that, these letters were written and dated when she travelled with Avatar Aang after the war. While some would say she simply transcribed them for him, many historians believe that she was the true author behind them, especially in comparison to the letters she would later write as the Fire Lady, as a politician. If this is the case, then Fire Lady Katara was helping change the world politically well before her monumental reign.”  

        –An excerpt from ‘Women in History: The Told and Untold’ 

Although Katara has only been in the Fire Nation for just about two weeks, she feels strangely attached to her room. She’s loved having the same bed again and again. She loves that she knows where her things are and they aren’t all tucked away in a pack, ready to move on to the next place. And she loves the small routine she has settled into in her brief stay here. 

She spars with Toph or Aang in the mornings usually or spends time with her brother or Suki. She sometimes helps Zuko with some of his last duties of the day before they all have dinner together. Some days she takes meals with Azula and Zuko and at times, Kiyi. Azula has only allowed her to attempt to heal her once more and it didn’t go well, to say the least. They got further than the previous time, much further but–

Something strange had happened this time.

Katara wonders if it’s the nature of what she’s trying to heal, if it’s because she isn’t trying to heal something physical, but mental. She can’t see it, so instead she can feel it. Katara has come to find that healing a mind is odd and confusing. All of the trauma and anguish and breaks in Azula’s mind are knotted webs, she can feel those. Her memories are like pools of water, some vast and deep, others shallow and choppy, she can feel that, too. She tries not to disturb her memories while she unworks the knots of her mind. 

And Katara thinks that she can also feel the emotions attached to those tangled up threads. She wonders, if she were to try dip her fingers into the pools, would she feel her memories, too? 

She’d figured this out when she had started healing Azula again, her hands flaring with bright light, hovering over Azula’s head. She had begun trying to pull at the threads of her mind again, her fingers delicate, careful. Azula had grit her teeth, closed her eyes against the way Katara was trying to unweave a single thread. It had started fine.

But as Katara worked, a feeling of dread had begun to creep through her, followed by a sharp twinge of fear, followed by horror. Disgust. Pain. 

Azula had clutched at her head, fingers squabbling for purchase, as if she could rip Katara out. 

Katara had tried to work through it, her bending easing over that part of Azula’s mind, but it had caused a wave of nausea to roll through her. 

Azula had started screaming, guttural and raw and aching. 

And then Katara could feel Azula’s turmoil, could feel the part of her mind that was inflicting so much pain on her, like it was bleeding out beneath Katara’s bending, some wound that had been reopened. Katara could feel all of Azula’s anguish–

 It had felt like Katara was watching something horrible, like she’d been forced to watch something that made her sick. It felt like she'd been forced to do something that made her stomach roll violently. It felt like disbelief, like she couldn’t fathom why she’d done that. And guilt, it had felt like guilt squirming in her gut, overwhelming, threatening to make her keel over with it. Katara almost couldn’t take it, grit her teeth against the onslaught of it, against the viciousness of it. 

Looking back on it, Katara realizes that it must have been what Azula felt, had been feeling, would continue to feel. Azula had seen something horrible, something that traumatized her. She’d been forced to do something monstrous and Katara could feel all of that guilt weighing deep into her bones, so hard and heavy, so all consuming that it seemed to compact in Katara’s chest. And the disgust of it all. Katara, again, had felt like she could’ve been sick–

Azula had lurched away then, her scream tearing through Katara’s head, ringing around inside of her. Katara had stumbled away, too, the connection broken, but leaving her nauseous. Unable to breathe. Katara's chest rose and fell rapidly, her eyes wild and bright and helpless. 

Katara’s hand had come over her mouth to trap her own scream, like she could scream with Azula. For Azula. 

Zuko had been there, at her side, “Are you alright?” he’d asked quickly, eyes wide, just before Azula had released another long, drawn out scream that broke off at the end, fell off into a sob.

“Fine,” Katara had gotten out, still unable to breathe. “A-Azula–” 

Zuko had dropped to his knees beside his sister then, trying to grab her shoulders, trying to hush her screaming, her hitching sobs. He had said her name, over and over and over again, tried to get her to come back to them.

Katara had watched, her own sob caught somewhere in the back of her throat, frozen.

 Eventually, Azula’s screams had resembled words– words like broken glass, splintering, tearing up the soft insides of her first before heaving them out.

“I hate him,” she’d spitted out, “I hate him!”  she’d screeched, fingernails digging into Zuko’s forearms, “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him–”

“I know,” Zuko had soothed instantly, “Azula, sshh, please.” he was just trying to steady her, to quiet her, “ I know.” 

It had taken Katara a moment to realize they were talking about their father. It had taken her another moment to try and keep herself from sobbing, too. She’d known their father was horrible but, this bad? 

She hadn’t been able to shake how Azula had felt. Her screaming. How quickly Zuko had known who she was referring to, how quickly his face had warped. 

Eventually, Azula had tired herself out, until she was slumped forward, silently crying. Zuko had lifted her, like nothing more than a broken doll, and brought her back to bed. He’d held it together as he left her room, followed quickly by Katara

The moment the door had shut behind him, Zuko had crumbled. And Katara was there, instantly, her arms going around his middle, supporting most of his weight as he sagged against her. 

“I’m sorry,” she had whispered, over and over and over again. “Zuko, I’m so sorry.” 

And they had stayed like that for a long, long time.

Katara had also realized how hard it would be to heal what she couldn’t see, what she didn’t know. The mind was so tricky. She wouldn’t give up, but she didn’t have enough time, these two weeks–

These two weeks are nearly over, Katara realizes glumly, glancing around her room as she begins to pack up her belongings. She’ll leave tomorrow afternoon to the Earth Kingdom to return Toph and then to the South Pole to return Sokka. She had wanted to stay with Sokka for some time, but Aang is already talking about what they need to do, how they should be in the budding Republic City as soon as possible. 

And still, Katara is thinking about Azula, how upset she’d been when she’d eaten her last meal with her and Zuko. How she’d hissed about Katara leaving again. But Katara had vowed to return, promised to send letters, if that was what Azula wanted, anything. But nothing soothed Azula and Katara had left her in another state of fragility.

A knock on her door startles Katara out of her thoughts of Azula or packing or leaving. 

“Come in,” Katara calls and the door opens quietly, almost tentatively. She half expects it to be Aang, but then a flash of dark hair peaks in. 

It’s Zuko, who closes her door behind him and then stands, surveying her room, all of her items out and ready to be packed away. Zuko’s shoulders drop a little, even if he lifts his eyes and tries to smile at her in greeting. It feels wane, though, a little sad.

“I came by to give you something,” he says, a little tentatively. 

“What?” Katara asks, surprised, just as he moves further into her room. 

He decides to sit on the very edge of her bed, since there is nowhere else and he gestures her over quietly. Gingerly, she  sits beside him. She is keenly aware of the sliver of space between their hips, their legs, their knees. She brushes it away quickly, though, in favor of taking him in. 

She now notices that Zuko has a small package cradled in the palm of his hands. He offers it to her and she realizes it’s wrapped in fine tissue paper, there’s a silky, blue bow around it, too. 

“It’s just a thank you, for everything you’ve done for me while you’ve been here.” Zuko explains softly, his fingers brushing hers as he drops it into her hand now. “It’s not much, not compared to how much help you’ve been but–” 

Katara, her heart fluttering strangely, gently slides the bow away, unwraps the paper delicately. It crinkles gently in the silence between them. Zuko peers over her shoulder, watches her nimble fingers work the paper open. 

What rolls into her palm is a beautiful hair-comb barrette, with curling, blue leaf designs. Pops of pink and orange pearls as petals, which gleam red in the sun from her window. 

“Oh,” Katara gasps softly, “Oh, Zuko, it’s beautiful.” 

“I figured, since you showed me a Water Tribe hairstyle, I’d give you something we wear in the Fire Nation,” Zuko explains and his voice is a quiet rasp by her ear. 

She feels strange suddenly and she can’t explain why. Just that she could cry, if she let herself. Maybe it’s because of Azula or because she’s leaving him or because she just–

She just doesn’t want to return to traveling with Aang. 

The thought strikes her, makes her feel terrible. 

Still, she swallows around the lump in her throat, picks her eyes up to look into Zuko’s face, “I love it. You didn’t need to–” 

“It’s nothing,” he assures quickly, “It's nothing compared to what you’ve done for me.”

And then they’re looking at each other, suspended in the patch of afternoon sunlight from the open window. A warm breeze lifts his hair from his brow a little. She opens her mouth to speak, to say something, anything–

“I’m going to miss you,” Zuko whispers. 

Why is he whispering? Why is her heart pounding? 

A tear bubbles up to the surface, glasses over her blue eyes. Zuko’s quick, before it can even fully escape the corner of her eye, he is swiping it away with his thumb. He does it without thinking and his face falls a little, as if seeing her like this hurts something tender in him. 

“Don’t cry,” he pleads softly, which only makes her want to cry more for some reason. “It won’t be long until we see each other again.” he promises, voice still so gentle, almost coaxing, “Probably just under a year, for the wedding.” 

Katara takes in a shuddering breath to try and soothe herself, “I know,” she responds, nodding, forcing herself to remember this. 

His hand is on her cheek, thumb pressing just beneath her eye. 

When he realizes this, he pulls his hand away sharply, puts it back in his lap. He’s about to apologize, she’s sure of it, but all she does is tip towards him a little, let her head fall onto his shoulder. 

Zuko freezes. 

“I’m going to miss you, too,” Katara exhales and Zuko softens, melts a little. He lets his cheek rest atop her head.

And Katara sits beside a beautiful boy with a scar on his face on the edge of her bed that isn’t actually hers but she wishes it was. She sits beside a beautiful boy with her head on his shoulder and tries not to feel like she’s done something terrible or that she’s about to fall apart or leave behind a part of her that she can’t be without. 

She sits beside a beautiful boy with a scar on his face and convinces herself that she would sit this way with Toph or Suki, too. That she would rest her head on their shoulders. She tells herself she’s going to miss him because he understands her in the way that best friends do. 

But then his hand touches hers, just a brushing of their fingers, so reverent it could’ve been a prayer or a hope or the fluttering of wings and she realizes she’s trembling. Maybe he is, too. 

He takes her hand. 

She sits beside a beautiful boy with a scar on his face on a bed she wishes were hers, her head tilted onto his shoulder, realizing how badly she doesn’t want this to be goodbye, and takes his hand in hers, too. 

When she leaves tomorrow, she won’t realize her mother’s necklace is gone from her neck until they are nearly halfway to the Earth Kingdom. She panics and frets and cries over it, all the way to the South Pole, where she receives a letter from Zuko in the clutches of a tired firehawk. 

“Dear Katara,


I’m sorry to write to you so soon, but I have your mother’s necklace. I knew you would be upset when you realized it was missing, so I wanted you to know as soon as possible that it’s here, with me. It must’ve fallen off when you were loading up Appa. 

I’ll keep it safe until I see you again. 




Katara arrives in Republic City with Aang two days after they dropped Sokka off in the South Pole. The past two weeks were a pleasant reprieve of their nomadic life, of taking on world problems of peace alongside the Avatar, but now it is time to return to work. There is a lot of strife now, in the bubbling Republic City. There is no leadership and it’s causing issues. Aang and her have come to play mediator, to begin trying to figure out what they should do about potential leadership. 

Katara thinks it should be a democracy, like the Southern Water Tribe. Her father was elected as chief and when he retires or passes away, they will elect a new chief. But there is still debate, since the United Republic of Nations is supposed to be a place for anyone, from any nation, while still watched over by all the nations. It is in a precarious place; is it it’s own nation, not to be meddled with by other nations? Or since it was built by the four nations, working in harmony, is it theirs to govern together? 

And if so, what does that look like? 

There is a lot to do. 

Katara spends her days writing to King Kuei or Zuko or her father and the Chief of the North. She prefers this work, the political work, the specifics of plans and deals and negotiations, rather than the work that Aang does in keeping squabbles from breaking out, in making sure everything stays safe. 

When she proposes new ideas to dignitaries and leaders, though, she still signs as Aang. These leaders are not writing to her, Katara the Master Waterbender, they’re writing to Aang the Avatar. 

When she was younger, it didn’t bother her. She thought it was her way of helping Aang, but now, looking at his name in her handwriting at the bottom of letters, she’s growing somewhat frustrated. This is his job. And it’s not like she’s helping politically for attention or fame in any way, but these are her policies. Her ideas to help. With his name on them. 

He doesn’t mean to hurt you but all that’s left unsaid will. 

Katara swallows. She needs to talk to Aang about this. About a lot. 

She catches him after dinner one night, before he can go spend time with the Air Acolytes that have already gathered in Republic City. There’s discussion of an island to be dedicated to the Air nomads, to the acolytes that want to live in the way of the nomads and monks. She’s thrilled for him, but he spends more and more time with them. 

“Aang,” Katara begins, “I think we should talk.” 

Aang grows somewhat wary, but he maintains his smile, and says, “Okay! What do you want to talk about?” 

“I think it’s time you start responding to leaders’ letters and propositions and policies.” Katara begins, almost gently. 

Aang blinks, “Oh,” and then, “Are you getting tired of it?” 

“No,” Katara responds, “No, I enjoy this work, it’s just– well, it’s all my ideas, all my thoughts on the matter, under your name.” 

Aang looks at her, almost blankly, unsure of what the issue is, “Well, that’s okay, they’re ideas I like and agree with, too.” 

Katara pauses, also unsure, before she realizes that Aang thinks she’s worried about his name and what is attached to it. 

“No,” Katara begins, shaking her head slightly, “No, they’re my ideas, with your name– like you’ll get the credit for them when they’re not yours.” 

“Oh,” Aang says softly, then quickly, and brighter, “Well, then put your name!” 

Katara tries not to grow frustrated, “They’re not writing to me, Aang. They don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to you. ” 

She doesn’t realize how bitter she is about it until she says it aloud. Aang must pick up on it, because his brows draw inward. Katara can tell he’s trying to think of an adequate response, something that is both wise and kind. 

But what he ends up asking is, “Well, does– does the credit matter to you?” and before she can respond, he continues, “I only assumed that you didn’t care whose name it was under, as long as you were helping.” 

When he puts it like that, Katara feels scummy. She feels some form of guilt or embarrassment heat her cheeks. She isn’t doing any of this for the credit, for the fame. But it’s also–

“Besides, everyone knows you help me.” Aang adds, like this is consoling, “Everyone knows that you travel with me. They know you’re incredible!” Aang smiles now, “You have nothing to prove to anyone, Katara.” 

But it’s not about proving herself. It’s about her hard work being given to Aang. It’s about her ideas being thrown to him. When they tell Aang’s story– will it be him they cite for her ideas? For the United Republic of Nations? Will they consider him a strong politician and peacemaker? 

This isn’t for fame or history, but these ideas are hers–

For a heartbeat, she sees a future like this. She sees the rest of her life like this, helping him with no credit. Being him because they don’t want to talk to her, because it’s the only way she can help. She sees herself as his wife and they all know her but they only know her policies as his. Her ideas as his. She sees herself in his mind’s eye, devoted and loving and helpful. She sees herself in the reflection of his eyes and she doesn’t like what she sees. 

“So I’m supposed to live in your shadow, then?” Katara asks before she can think, her tone a little sharp, a little cold, like the first winter winds that cut across the ice in the South Pole. 

And Aang winces. 

Katara immediately regrets it, she deflates fast, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” her tone softens, almost to a coo. “It’s just–” 

“Maybe we should try and talk about this later.” Aang says, his voice growing firmer as he stands from the table. “Besides, I have to go. The Air Acolytes are waiting for me.” 


He’s gone in a whoosh of air, which billows around Katara for a moment, makes a chill run through her. She looks at the empty doorway, where he’s already gone, not even a shadow left in his wake. And Katara remembers how badly she hates when he runs away. She feels frustration swell in her like an unruly wave, feels a sudden pain, feels the sharp sting of rejection or loneliness. 


She feels foolish but tears well up in her eyes, the way they always do when Aang runs away. She feels stupid and young and angry; like her father is leaving her for war, like Aang is disappearing to fight on his own, like her mother is gone between one breath and the next.

She’s being dramatic, she tries to tell herself, but she still presses the heels of her hands into her eyes and let’s out half a groan of frustration, half a sob. 

Katara still hates being left like that. 

Unprompted, Azula comes to mind, how much she’d hated when she’d discovered Katara was leaving, too. She thinks maybe they have more in common than she originally thought. 

She thinks of Zuko. 

She wants to shout or cry or break something. It’s irrational, it’s childish, it’s immature. But so is running away. 

Aang’s only sixteen, though. She’s an adult. 

Still, Katara storms out of the small inn they’re staying at, into the streets of Republic City. She walks until the rough, newly made roads turn into nothing, turn into forest and untouched land. She walks until she comes to a pond, like it’s called her home. 

The sky is bruised purple, angry looking, hurt looking. 

The moon is a sliver of itself, hidden by some wispy clouds that still reflect the very last rays of blue sun.

Katara freezes the entire pond with a breath, with a lift of her hand, just to shatter it in another. The groan- crack of it is satisfying to her festering anger. The way it breaks, splinters into jagged, sharp lines and cuts. It feels good, to freeze and unfreeze, to break and create over and over again. She uses sharp movement, the violent kind, the storm-making kind, to break apart all that ice, to break it all apart so she doesn’t. 

She looks out at all those splinters and gets a sudden, sharp memory of Shono. Of the bones with their cracks and fate lines. She traces her eyes over the breaks in the ice and feels sour and irritable, feels somewhat lost. 

But she thinks, looking out at that gleaming, broken ice, that maybe she’s getting closer to figuring out the difference between being happy and being satisfied. Like she’s pulled on a string she isn’t sure she wants to unravel, but knows she needs to now. 

She flexes her extended fingers, curls them, lifts her hands so that the water beneath the ice rushes up and just swallows all of it whole like some great monster. 

So it’s just her, the dark, sloshing, unsettled water, and her furiously beating heart. 

Dear Katara,


I’m glad to hear that you and Aang worked out your disagreement, at least now he’ll be learning how to do what you’ve done for him for years. But I think you are right to be upset that you aren’t getting the credit or recognition for your plans. You’re not being silly or childish; not everyone can be a Monk and live the most pious and humble life, ya know?  I would be pissed! Besides, I love the kid but Aang’s gotta grow up at some point. He won’t always have you to do it for him, just like I had to learn, too. 

In other news, Suki and I have chosen Kyoshi Island for the wedding! We’re going to have Gran-Gran officiate, but Suki has had a dream of getting married beneath these cherry blossom trees there that she’s loved since she was a kid. We’re going to spend two weeks before the wedding here in the South and Suki and I really want you here. I know you’re busy helping Aang, but I’m asking as your brother to be here.

As for our future plans, we both know we’re going to be long distance for a while, still. Suki is happy being the Captain of the Fire Nation guard and a Kyoshi Warrior and I still want to help dad here in the South, but we knew this going into it. We’ve talked, though, about eventually settling in Republic City, maybe. Maybe I can do something for the Tribe there! Eventually, we’ll settle down somewhere, but we’ve got all the time in the world to do so. We’ve always got a plan. It’s why we’re amazing. 

You mentioned that since our engagement, Aang’s been asking about marriage, too, and unfortunately, I can’t really help you there. You need to talk to him. You need to figure out what you want your future to look like and if that matches with his future. Or if you can make it work, somehow. 

I’ll be honest; I don’t think you’re happy traveling so much, but you can always tell me to shut up or say ‘Sokka, what do you know?’ It’s not like I’m your brother or anything, not like I’ve known you since the moment you were born or whatever. Dad’s a little worried, too. But Dad always fusses over you. 

I also hate that Aang runs away from you. From any conflict. And I hate that you’ve always taken care of everyone and you’re still taking care of him. But, Sokka, what do you know? 

Just talk with him, though. I hope it works out. 

Miss ya. Love ya.


Your brother,


Katara’s life goes on, the way it had before the Summer Solstice. They spend more and more time in Republic City, but still move around quite a bit. Days turn into weeks which turn into months. She feels as if the days are long and the months are short, like time is unraveling before her eyes. Not that she’s wasting it, because she’s helping Aang and for the most part, she is happy with this. 

They decide to spend a week exploring some of the mountains in the Earth Kingdom as a mini-vacation of their own. Aang is thrilled and Katara tries to be excited, too, if only for him. And she can’t deny, many of the views are beautiful. They’re breathtaking, with the sky so open and the world so green. 

But they meet a couple about halfway through their week, who are also exploring the mountains, not much older than Aang or Katara. 

And they have a baby. 

Her name is Alani and she is adorable. Her parents are Nashan and Azo; a young, adventurous woman from the Earth Kingdom and a man from the Fire Nation, who’d been a soldier that illegally deserted the war effort. They’d met back then, when they’d both been hiding away from the Fire Nation. 

Nashan is a sweet and cheerful woman, fluttery and kind. Azo is funny and gentle-natured. Katara sees why he ditched the war, why he left on his own. He doesn’t seem like a soldier. 

More than that, they discover that they’re self-proclaimed nomads. They don’t have a home. Alani stays strapped to one of their backs and they plan to explore all of the world they possibly can. They admit, whole-heartedly, and enthusiastically to Aang, that they’d gotten the idea from the Air Nomads. 

Aang is thrilled with this. He thinks it’s brilliant. He was raised by the monks but he knew so many friends raised on the backs of their traveling parents who loved it. They talk and talk and talk and talk about it all. 

And Aang has something wonderful in his eyes as he looks at them, as he looks back to Katara. She recognizes it as hope, maybe. Something gooey and starstruck, something too soft. 

When it is just them, settling down for the night beneath all of those dashing stars, Aang asks, “Isn’t that incredible?” and she knows he means Nashan and Azo, their little traveling family.

“Yeah,” Katara agrees, choosing her words carefully, “It’s great for them.” 

“Do you think– do you think it’d be great for us?” Aang broaches carefully, a small smile touching his face. 

Katara wishes she could say yes. She wishes with everything inside of her that she could. But she thinks of words unsaid and knows that if she stays silent now, it will hurt her in the long run. 

“I don’t know, Aang, I kind of want a home. Somewhere to settle.” Katara admits, her voice quiet. 

She watches his eyes drop away from her face, somewhat crestfallen. She feels terrible. She always feels guilty when she upsets him; she’s not doing it purposefully. She’s just being honest. And she realizes, faintly, that this is what she’s been afraid of, isn’t it? 

That he would start to see her and she would disappoint him. 

She swallows hard, as he says, trying to be cheerful, “Well, we could do that, too! Maybe have a home but...but travel a lot together? With our kids?” 

It could almost sound promising. If Katara wanted to be optimistic, if she wanted to put it all behind them and make him smile, she would agree. But–

“What about when you have to go and be the Avatar?” Katara asks, feels the question that’s been gnawing at her suddenly bubble out. “When you have to jet off to stop squirmishes or disasters?” 

When Aang doesn’t answer right away, she presses, “Would I stay home with the kids? While you go be the Avatar?” 

Aang is quiet for another long moment. All of that wonder in his eyes is gone now. “If you wanted?” he says, but it’s a question, his voice tips upwards into uncertainty. 

“Say I don’t,” Katara breathes, her heart aching suddenly. 

“I-I’m not sure.” he admits and she wishes he had a better answer, and then he tries for a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and he reaches out to take her hand. He squeezes it, gentle, an attempt at reassurance. “But we’ll figure it out, right? We have time.” 

Katara tries to take comfort in that, but she falls asleep restless that night.

She dreams in strange, heated visions. 

She tries to pretend she doesn’t remember it when she wakes up, but she dreams of dark hair in her fingers, in the curl of her fist. She dreams of calloused hands on her wrists, over her fluttering, tender pulse. On the arch of her back. The dip of her waist. The inside of her thigh. 

She dreams of a bed that isn’t hers but she wishes it was. 

Dear Katara,


Ugh, I still can’t believe I have to wait another two months to see you again! I also can’t believe the way in which time has passed. Maybe it’s because I’m busy; between organizing the wedding with Sokka or looking after Zuko and leading the Kyoshi Warriors, I feel as if I haven’t slowed down in months! But it’s nice, I’m happy. I’m so excited for what's to come. 

I can’t wait to see you in the South Pole and spend some much needed girls time together before the wedding. I can tell from your last letter that you’re in desperate need of it especially. 

But for now, I’ll leave you with this advice; I think you should really, sincerely consider if you think you can be with Aang for the rest of your life. I know the idea of ever leaving him probably sounds insane, but at some point, you need to consider what you want. I know you don’t want to hurt him, I know this probably hasn’t ever even crossed your mind yet, but I think you need to consider it. And maybe I’m being too forward, too extreme, in which case, you can tell me to shut up! What do I know? 

Well, what I do know is that every letter you send me (which isn't nearly as much as you send Zuko, by the way, RUDE!), you sound more and more confused. More and more lost. 

It almost sounds like you’re waiting for someone to tell you it’s okay to not be what he wants. Or for him to not be what you want. It almost sounds like you’re waiting for someone to tell you that it’s okay to break up with him. If so, here I am, telling you it’s okay to break up with him. It’s okay to do something for yourself. I don’t care if he’s the Avatar and you were the first thing he laid eyes on in one-hundred years; it’s okay, Katara.

I’m worried about you. Can I do anything for you? 

I’ll see you soon, though, and we’ll have two weeks together in the South! Then the wedding!

Miss ya. Love ya.


Your future sister-in-law,


(P.S. Zuko wears your mother’s necklace around his wrist. When I questioned him about it, he said he was keeping it safe, and when I asked why he didn’t just put it away in a chest to keep it safe, he got huffy like a little dragon. I think he just likes it. And I think he just misses you. It’s cute. You might have to fight him to get it back, though, he’s grown fond of it.) 

Katara starts to see the spindly, crackling pattern of her potential futures on the bones that she’d thrown into the fire all those years ago in everything. Shono’s voice circles around her blue-dark dreams. She sees it in the constellations and in spider-webs and in the curving and wrinkles of the barks on trees. She sees it behind her eyelids. In the cracks of lightning and splinters of rocks.

She can’t escape it, and she supposes, like the way she can’t escape the threads of fate. She thinks of the vastness of one choice– the one she’ll be satisfied in, and longs for it. 

Longs for it so badly that she wishes on stars for it. Sends prayers to Tui and La begging for it. She aches for it. 

Katara aches, she realizes, aches so bad that she thinks her bones are changing and growing inside of her, like they’re shifting all strange beneath her skin. It’s silly, but she thinks some days she’ll wake up and be something else entirely. 

But she can’t heal this one, can’t heal misery, and all she’s left with is this dull, aching pain that she carries, that she houses in her body. 

She looks at Aang some days, with all of that growing inside of her, and wonders if this is what it feels like to be made a home out of. 

Some days she thinks she’ll wake up and she won’t be a girl at all, but a house. And he’ll be living inside her ribs, where her chest was, where her heart was, now all hollowed out for him.

Chapter Text

“Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors would go on to have two children in total; Kanna and Heluo of Republic City. Sokka would become a representative of the Southern Water Tribe on the council in the budding Republic City and Suki would serve as Fire Lord Zuko’s Captain of the Guard until eventually aiding in the formation of Republic City’s first orphanage and Shelter for Women. Both were faithful public servants dedicated to the aid of the New World. Heluo, their son, would become one of the earliest founders of Pro-Bending, having developed the game with his cousin, the Princess Kya of the Fire Nation.” 

        –an excerpt from ‘A History of Heroes, Warriors, and Generals’

Zuko is twenty-two and will be attending the first wedding that he’s been to in a long time. No one tells him this, but weddings feel stranger in your twenties. It’s not like when you’re a kid or even a teenager and it doesn’t matter; you’ve been forced into a fancy outfit and maybe you manage to sneak some wine when the adults aren’t looking. Maybe you dance or hide away with someone else closer to your age. Marriage isn’t even on the back of your mind and it doesn’t matter the way it starts to in your twenties. 

He’s twenty-two and heading to Kyoshi Island for his dearest friends’ wedding and it feels strange. 

Suki has already been gone for the past month, spending time preparing with Sokka in the South. He’s meeting them in Kyoshi Island. He can’t spare long; the wedding is in three days. He will leave for the Fire Nation the following day. He wishes he could spend more time with them, but his place as Fire Lord allows him little time to spare. 

Kyoshi Island comes into view from the edge of the ship that Zuko is on, all emerald greens and choppy, ocean waves. He hasn’t been here since his first year or so into his reign; he had come to apologize, to pledge money as reparations to help them rebuild. He’d gone with Suki beside him and he’d been able to learn about her, how she grew up, where her favorite places on the island were. 

He’s excited to see her again, he’s excited to see all of them again. He fiddles with the strip of blue wrapped around his wrist, runs his thumb over the engravings on the stone of Katara’s necklace. It has been a little over a year since he’d last seen everyone at the Solstice. A little over a year that he’s had Katara’s necklace around his wrist. 

He’d gotten used to wearing it, took comfort in tracing over the delicately carved lines on it. Maybe he studied it a little too closely. He slept in it. Sometimes, he’d brush the silk of it against his cheek, tuck it close to his body, near his heart. He knows that part of it’s comfort is because it reminds him so much of the owner. In the past year, their letters have only gotten more and more frequent. Some days, he waits around just for a firehawk to arrive carrying her letters. 

He looks at her necklace on his wrist and just wonders about her, what she’s doing in that exact moment. Sometimes he looks up at the moon or the sun and takes comfort in the idea that it’s the same moon and sun that Katara looks up at. 

He remembers being sixteen and having her necklace, too. He remembers being curious about it’s carving, the design of it. He remembers wearing it on his wrist then, too, for entirely different reasons. But he remembers thinking of Katara still, even back then. He remembers wondering about her then, too, like he couldn’t get her out of his mind, even then. 

He doesn’t want to part with it, he realizes, but he wants to be able to give it back to her.

His ship can’t dock soon enough. 

And when it does, he steps onto the docks and looks out at the bustling island, at the crowds of workers moving to and fro. He searches for– 

There’s a flash of green. 

“Toph!” Zuko shouts and her head tilts somewhat, towards the sound of his voice. A smile pulls at her lips because she recognizes the sound of him, and he can’t help but smile, too. 

“Sparky!” Toph says after squeezing her way through the busy docks, already moving to slug him in the shoulder in greeting. 

He winces, bites back a noise of pain as he rubs at his arm. “Hi, Toph,” he says and before she can jump out of his reach, he throws his arm around her slender shoulders and pulls her into a hug. 

She squawks in protest first, but her arms go around him, too, and she’s still smiling. 

She’s getting tall. Zuko hates to sound like an old man but he remembers when Toph was twelve and barely up to his chest. She used to hug his arm when they walked, hang off of him a little. Now she’s seventeen and wily, lean and strong looking. She’s taller than Katara now, she has to be. 

When she pulls away, her brows furrow a little, before she’s reaching with quick, clever fingers for his wrist, where Katara’s necklace is. 

“Why are you wearing this?” she asks, feeling the blue stone of it. 

“I have to give it back to Katara,” he responds and he can tell by Toph’s face that this isn’t the answer she’s looking for. 

“You don’t have to wear it to do that.” She quips and Zuko opens his mouth to respond, to find some sort of excuse, but Toph cuts him off, evidently uncaring, “C’mon, weirdo, I’ll show you where we’re staying.” 

Zuko adjusts his pack on his shoulder; he’d wanted to travel extremely light and mostly on his own, with no staff bustling around him, and he’d barely gotten away with it. Mostly because the Kyoshi Warriors were accompanying him; half for him, but half for Suki’s wedding. It feels good to carry his own belongings, like he used to. He misses autonomy sometimes. He misses what it’s like to not have a crown resting atop his head. 

Toph leads him through the busy square and they wind in and out of the townspeople. No one spares him a glance. It feels good. She leads him to an inn a little further from the center of town, slides her hands along the wall and tells him which room belongs to who for the duration of their visit. Finally, she comes to a room at the end of one of the halls and Zuko doesn’t need a heightened sense of vibrations to hear the commotion that comes from behind it. 

“This is Katara’s room, but we’ve unofficially decided it’s where everyone hangs out.” Toph explains, just before she wrenches the door open to reveal a rather chaotic room of people, and a shouting match in the middle of it. 

“Sokka, I told you to do your own laundry!” Katara yells, before a ball of clothes is harshly thrown at Sokka. 

Sokka catches it with an oof, before shouting back, “I’ve been busy! Planning a wedding!” 

No one even notices Toph or Zuko yet, watching as the siblings break out into more yelling and arguing. And despite it, Zuko smiles to himself, especially when Katara whips a small burst of water at Sokka’s face from a nearby pitcher. Sokka immediately breaks out in shrieking and spluttering. 

It isn’t until Suki finally notices him and says, “Zuko!” darting from her spot on the floor, where it seems she had been helping create decorations, that everyone else even notices his presence. 

The room goes quiet for a moment.

Suki is up first, rushing to him. Toph steps out of the way so she can throw her arms around him and Zuko drops his bag to catch her easily. 

“Longest time we’ve been apart in awhile, huh?” Suki says when she pulls away from him, “Glad to see you’ve survived without me.” she adds cheekily. 

Zuko can’t help the small huff of a laugh that escapes him, “It was hard, but I made do.” he responds, a touch dryly, but his smile is a little crooked at the edges. 

Move, Sokka,” Katara snaps, just as she pushes past her brother so that she can get to Zuko first. She’s still somewhat angry and flustered, so when she throws herself around Zuko, he grunts a little with the force, but it only makes his smile widen. 

She shoves her face into his chest and his arms go around her, squeeze her tight. “Thank Spirits you’re finally here.” Katara mutters into the fabric of his shirt and maybe she lingers there, like his hug is soothing some of that bristling anger in her. She lets go of a breath that makes him think so. 

 When she pulls away fractionally, she looks up at him and gives him a smile, something slow and sweet and Zuko gets caught there, in the line of her lips, and the brightness of her eyes. 

He realizes, when Sokka says, “Quit hogging him,” that they’ve been hugging for a fraction too long and they both ease away. He clears his throat, and she glances away, her cheeks a sweet shade of pink. 

Zuko doesn’t dwell on that, not as Sokka throws his arm around Zuko’s neck, tries to wrangle him into a headlock. Zuko laughs, the sound a little tight as he tries to squirm out of Sokka’s hold. When Sokka lets him back up, they actually hug. 

“It’s good to see you, buddy.” Zuko says, just as Sokka claps him on the back. 

“My turn!” Aang says, working his way between him and Sokka. Zuko realizes as he hugs Aang, too, that he’s also gotten taller. He’s still shorter than Zuko and Sokka, but not by much. In the past year, Aang has gone through somewhat of a growth spurt. Like Toph, he’s seventeen now and Zuko feels a little old looking at him, nearly grown up. 

Once they’ve all greeted each other again, Zuko is immediately thrown into the fray of preparing for the wedding. There is still plenty to do, he’s assured by the group, and instead of Suki as the bride whose an emotional wreck, it’s Sokka. He’s fretting over everything being perfect. 

They’re broken off into groups to tackle tasks that still need to be done, from finishing decorations to finding wild flowers for bouquets to doing the laundry– which Katara gets saddled with, much to her annoyance, so Zuko volunteers to help. 

And then it feels like they’re teenagers again, hiding away at Ember Island, doing the mundane chores for the group because no one else will. Back then, Zuko had partly been trying to get in her good graces when he’d offered to help with laundry, with cooking, but now it’s just so he can spend time with her.

Katara leads him to the washroom at the inn and it’s a little humid and damp inside it. It smells sudsy and several basin’s sit around the room. Katara sets down the basket of clothes and before she can do anything else to set up, Zuko remembers her necklace. 

“I have something for you,” he says and when she turns to him, he holds up her mother’s betrothal necklace, still on his wrist. 

“Not going to tie me to a tree and interrogate me for it, are you?” Katara asks, her lips hitching up into a smirk. 

Zuko’s cheeks smart with color, “Um no, not this time.” 

Katara laughs and the sound is melodic, like twinkling bells, something that runs along the ridges of his heart. 

But then she sobers a little, stepping towards him, “Thank you for keeping it safe for me. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had–”

“Don’t mention it,” Zuko responds quickly, stepping towards her, too. He reaches for the necklace on his wrist and almost reluctantly begins to unwind it. He’ll miss it, already it feels a little foreign without it. He can’t imagine how it must’ve felt for Katara to be without it for so long, so he holds it up to her.

Katara looks at it, then looks at him. Her eyes are a little round, a little dark beneath the curl of her lashes. She turns suddenly, showing her back, sweeping the waves of her dark hair over one shoulder to show him the nape of her neck. 

She peaks over her shoulder at him, “Will you–?” 

Zuko’s breath gets caught somewhere in his throat. He goes still, can feel a rush of heat swarm through his chest. He tries to tell himself, she’s my friend and she just needs help. He looks at her, the line of her shoulders, the dip of her back, the way her lashes fan over her cheek. 

She’s my friend, he has to tell himself. 

She’s so pretty, though, another part whispers, so pretty it hurts.

Zuko swallows, knows he shouldn’t be thinking this. Just as he probably shouldn’t have worn her necklace around his wrist for so long. Or written her so much over the past year. They’re only friends but that’s starting to make his chest ache strangely. 

He’s had a crush on her for years now, he thinks. He’s always known that she was attractive and strong and kind and courageous. He’s always been, in the least, somewhat enamored with her. But he also always assumed his crush was harmless– toothless and simple. Something he could shoo away, run from, hide from. Something he could squash or get rid of. 

“Of course,” he gets out and he steps towards her. He can hear his heart jumping in his chest, and has the absurd idea that maybe she can hear it, too. 

He eases his arms around her. He can smell water lilies, the ocean. Her hair tickles his hand as he lifts her necklace up to her throat. 

He’s delicate, so careful, but he wraps it around her neck, his fingers brushing softly against her. She exhales shakily. Zuko tries not to fumble with the clasp, but he can’t stop thinking of the slope of her neck, or how he wants to run his fingers through the soft curls of her hair, or how he could almost feel her back press into his chest. 

“There,” he whispers finally, settling the necklace back into its place on her neck. It isn’t lost on him that he’s technically just put a betrothal necklace on her. It isn’t lost on him, but he wishes it was, especially when she lets her hair fall and turns around to look at him.

“Thank you,” she breathes and they’re still close, so close that all he can see is her and the blush that has risen to her cheeks that he suddenly wants to trace with his finger, with his lips–

“You’re welcome.” he gets out before she manages to put distance between them. Before she sets to work on the laundry and he finally follows after her. They work in the sudsy water until their hands are wrinkled and soft. They talk quietly, catching up on the past year, on each other. They talk like it’s natural, like they haven’t missed a beat, like they haven’t been apart for a year. Like it isn’t her letters that Zuko waits for, longs for. 

Like it isn’t her he longs for. 

Internally, he curses. 

He thinks maybe his crush has grown teeth now. Maybe it’ll tear him apart.

They all eat dinner together, something simple, on the floor of Katara’s room. It’s casual, nothing fancy, considering they’re all busy in the final days before the wedding. He watches his friends eat and talk, always more soothed with them around. 

However, he lingers on Katara and Aang in a way that he hasn’t in the past. He knows, the past year, that Katara has been struggling with Aang, with their traveling. She has confided in him many times about it. 

It has never crossed Zuko’s mind that perhaps they weren’t meant to be together. 

And Zuko, based on her letters to him, doesn’t think Katara has ever considered it, either. 

Zuko won’t suggest it. He realizes, looking at the two of them with some form of envy, that he can’t now. What would his motives be? To encourage Katara’s happiness? Of course, but now another part of him feels selfish. It feels darker, it feels wrong. 

Aang is his friend. 

Katara is his best friend, he can’t–

His feelings are not for her to worry about. They’re not hers to take care of. So he’ll stomach these feelings, swallow it all down, even if it feels like it’ll tear apart the soft, tender insides of him by doing so. 

He will leave her be, he doesn’t presume to have any sort of claim on her. He will smile when Aang looks his way. 

And when Aang catches Katara in a kiss, he will pretend like his eyes don’t darken a fraction, like his heart doesn’t twist painfully in the barren part of his chest. He will pretend like it doesn’t just hurt, like he’s not being unwoven. 

Katara jolts away from Aang, from the kiss. 

She glances at Zuko, accidentally catches his eyes. 

Zuko looks away quickly. 

When he picks his eyes back up, though, it’s Toph whose head is canted in his direction, like she’s listening for something. She tilts her head to Katara, listening again, then back to him. 

Her sightless gaze peers at him. Through him. 

Zuko wakes early the day of the wedding, when the sun has barely risen in the sky. When everything is still quiet, a little dark. He dresses to do firebending forms, to begin his day as he begins all of them still. He is quiet as he eases through the halls of the inn, planning to find a quiet place outside, maybe beneath a tree, in the chill of the early morning. Maybe somewhere he can see the sun, feel it on his skin. 

However, he isn’t expecting to find Sokka sitting on the creaky, front stairs of the inn. Sokka looks out at the horizon, and Zuko realizes he’s gazing at the moon, still high in the sky, nearly full. Pale as the night sky begins to bleed into day. 

Zuko knows why. He doesn’t have to ask.

Silently, he moves to sit beside Sokka. 

Sokka lets out a small breath at Zuko’s presence, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look away from the moon.

Eventually, Sokka says, “I miss her still, sometimes.” He swallows, “When I was fifteen, I would look up at her and think that I would never be fully happy again, never content.” 

Zuko is quiet, he glances out to the moon, as if she’ll say something on the matter. But she is quiet, too. 

Dimly, he wants to say I understand. He wants to say, I still don’t know if I will ever be happy. But this isn’t about him. So he bows his head and he listens. 

“I’ve never been one to believe in fate, I guess. I always thought it was up to us with what we do.” Sokka then says. “And then I wonder about all the choices I’ve made, what would’ve been different if I had done something different, taken another route–”

Zuko glances to him as Sokka continues, somewhat unsure, “I’m not very superstitious, you know? I think our destiny is ours to plan, to shape, with all it’s choices.” 

Zuko stays quiet. 

“But I’m also starting to think that, maybe, everything will work itself out, too. The universe will bring you to exactly where you’re supposed to be.” 

Sokka turns to smile at Zuko and he can see the slight glimmer in his blue eyes, like maybe he could cry. 

“And I’m here. Exactly where I’m supposed to be.” 

This is the first wedding that Zuko has been to in his twenties. 

He watches as Suki, dressed in pale green, swashes of blue, and dashes of light pink and peach, kneels alongside Sokka. Though she is out of her armor and in a dress of silk with long, billowing sleeves and a fluttering skirt, her sword and fan still rest proudly at her hip. There is a headpiece nestled into her hair, an array of blue and green gems, sparks of red. Her lips are red, reminiscent of her Warrior makeup. The hair wraps that Katara made for her are woven into the two front strands of her hair. When the wind lifts her hair up, the flashing beads twinkle musically. 

Sokka is her counterpart in pale blue, cuts of green. A pale pink flower pinned to his the fabric of his chest, which has been embroidered in a way that Zuko knows is traditionally Earth Kingdom, though the style remains Water Tribe. White fur is slung over his shoulder. The gleaming, pearl of his bone necklaces stands proud against his brown skin. His own sword is at his hip, alongside his boomerang. 

They look like warriors. They look like a blend of their two cultures, their two lives, coming together as one. 

The sky is blue and open before them. The ceremony is high on a bluff, overlooking the sapphire sea. There are cherry-blossom trees that scatter their petals over them, into the wind. There is a small, stone shrine, nestled between the trees and their roots that they kneel before. 

For now, only close friends and family are gathered. At the reception after, there will be more people to celebrate with them as they eat and drink and dance. 

Zuko watches as Katara and Sokka’s grandmother stand before the couple, silhouetted by branches and sky, and offer them a cup of lotus tea. Sokka and Suki are arm and arm. They both sip from the cup passed to them. A Kyoshi Island tradition. 

Their grandmother speaks more but Zuko’s gaze has slid over to Katara. 

She’s in a dress the color of the sky and she is wearing the clip he gave her last year in her dark hair. It matches perfectly, sparkles in the sun. It stands out against the dark, rich brown of her hair. It compliments her well, it suits her. 

She is teary-eyed and happy and so beautiful that Zuko thinks she must be a vision from the Spirits. 

“There is no good time to fall in love, is there?” he hears their grandmother tease lightly as he still gazes at Katara, “Not during a war, or the rocky years to follow.”

The wind brushes past Katara, pink petals twirling around her, kicking up the skirts of her dress. Her eyes are glittering, so bright and hopeful, maybe touched somewhere with melancholy. 

What are you sad for? He wants to ask, his throat suddenly tight, what am I sad for?  

Katara glances at him with tears glittering on her lashes and blossoms caught in her hair and the wind dancing around her. She finds Zuko’s eyes, and he feels the way  his heart becomes a storm in his chest, feels the way all of him is ensnared by her, enamored with her, feels the surge of hopelessness that comes with a free-fall and she–

She smiles at him. 

“You fall in love accidentally, between one breath and the next– somewhere between the sea and the sky, between their heart and yours.” 

The reception is nothing short of exciting and vibrant, with too much alcohol and plenty of music, everyone is overjoyed. There are lanterns that hang around the courtyard, their gold glow casting everyone in tall, playful shadows on cobblestone streets. The sound of chattering and laughing and shouting surrounds Zuko. He nurses a glass of wine as he watches his friends dance. 

Sokka is sweeping Suki into another dance and her peels of laughter float over the room, her happiness makes Zuko fond, tender-hearted. He watches Katara try to teach Toph how to dance, taking hold of her hands and guiding her to the rhythm. Aang is encouraging them, his smile so wide and brilliant. So full of delight. 

He tries not to be sullen in any way. This is a time for celebration. He takes another slow sip of his wine, bitter and rich in flavor. 

He isn’t expecting Suki and Sokka to stumble their way over to him eventually, nearly out of breath from dancing, their eyes bright, faces flushed. They’re giddy. Maybe tipsy. 

“Aren’t you going to dance?” Suki asks as Sokka throws his arm around Zuko. His wine sloshes precariously in his cup. 

“No, I don’t think I–” 

Suki takes the wine from Zuko’s hands and offers it to Sokka, who takes it and downs most of it in one go. Some wine dribbles down his chin but Sokka wipes it away unceremoniously. 

“C’mon, Zuko,” Suki says, taking his hands, “Dance with me.” 

Zuko fidgets, glances to Sokka like he might oppose, but Sokka’s smile is crooked. “You’re either dancing with her or me, buddy.” is all he says. 

Zuko huffs out a laugh and he let’s Suki drag him out to all of the dancing. Zuko knows how to dance, technically, he just hasn’t done it in a long time. He learned as a Prince, too, he only knows courtly dances, but Suki steps into him, puts her hand on his shoulder, keeps one hand in his. He lays his hand high on her waist. 

She guides him and it’s different from a dance in the Fire Nation, more grounded, jauntier, but Zuko adapts quickly. 

Suki looks up at him, delight dancing in her eyes, “Thank you for being here for me, for helping with the wedding,” she says and he thinks maybe the wine and merriment have made her a touch softer, but Zuko doesn’t mind. He smiles. 

“Of course, I wouldn’t ever miss it.” he responds, just as she turns, skirts flaring. 

When she returns to find his eyes once more, she is more earnest, “I know, but your job is demanding and it’s a lot to ask. To have the Fire Lord at your wedding.” Maybe the last part her tone turns teasing. 

Still, Zuko smiles again, fondly, “I’m happy to, for you.” he promises her, “You’ve been there for me since I was crowned. It’s the least I could do.” 

Suki squeezes his shoulder, “I’m happy we’re friends.” she says, her voice thick with emotion and once more, Zuko attributes the slight glimmer in her eyes to her intoxication, to her wedding day.  

But he feels strangely choked up, too, looking at her in her wedding dress and the joy in her face. “I am, too.” he responds softly and when the song ends, she pulls him into a fierce hug. 

He wishes he could express to her that he doesn’t know what he’d do without her. How lucky he is to know her. How happy he is for her, for her love, for Sokka. 

They walk back over to Sokka together as the song changes again, into something slower, more serene. Sokka takes Suki back into his arms and they hold each other close, their shadows intertwined on the ground beside them, the soft gold of the lanterns making them ethereal and hazy and tender-looking. 

Zuko catches sight of Aang twirling Katara, the way she moves softly in the glow of light. The way she turns with him, pressed close to him. He watches like he always does, reminded of his coronation, of the Solstice. He watches her move with the grace and fluidity of someone brimming with life and wonder and–

And melancholy. And love. And vulnerability. 

Her face is so open, all of it caught there in her eyes, in the reach of her hand, the glide of her foot, the gentle line of her torso. 

Everything just fades away when he watches her. 

He wishes she would love him, he realizes with a horrible pang to his chest.

There, he thinks bitterly, breathlessly, I’ve admitted it. 

I love you, he thinks miserably as she turns and turns and turns, I love you, I love you, I love you. 

He watches her dance and wishes that he was the one dancing with her, that he was the one that could sweep her into his arms. He wishes he could hold her, touch her like that. He wishes he was hers. 

He watches her dance and realizes he’s in love with her. That he has been in love with her. That maybe he always will be. 

He watches her dance and knows that she is not in love with him.

And that’s it, his heart whispers, that’s all there is. 

He turns away because he can’t watch anymore but he doesn’t catch her eyes, so blue and so bright, caught somewhere between desperation and hope, follow his form until it becomes just a shadow. 

A shape that she longs after.  

And that’s it, that’s all there is. 

He leaves Kyoshi Island the following day in a blur. 

He hates to say goodbye and Katara hugs him too tightly but what is it his Uncle said?

It’s easier to leave than it is to be left behind. 

So that’s what he does. He leaves and tries to quell his heart and his mind. He tries not to look out at the sea and think of her. He tries not to look at the moon that night and think of her. He tries not to be lovesick, to be strangely heartbroken over someone he never even had. 

He tries not to dwell, to sour. 

But he lays down at night, with the ship rocking him to and fro and he clutches his chest like he could hold it together, like he could keep everything from spilling out of him. He holds himself, like he wants her to hold him.

Even his chest, riddled with the spindly, pink scars of a lightning bolt ache for her. He could laugh, he thinks, that no matter how hard he tries, the evidence of his love for her will always be with him. Branded on him, so plain for the world to see. 

He could laugh at all of it, if he didn’t feel like crying so badly. If he didn’t feel this hurt. 

What else is it his Uncle had said? 

They don’t mean to hurt you, but all that’s left unsaid will. 

So Zuko pens a letter that he will never send, that will sit inside his desk in his bedroom at the Fire Nation, that he considered destroying but never did. Maybe as proof of something that could not be said or shown or expressed. He writes a letter saying everything he can’t, as if this will purge him of what he feels, as if he could get it all down on a page and forever put it to rest. 

He writes all that will forever remain unsaid. 

Dear Katara,


I have come to the very horrifying and overwhelming realization that I have fallen in love with you. That some part of me probably always has been in love with you. That some part of me maybe always will be. I love you and I have to watch you love another.

And I will never tell you this– because I know you, Katara. Because I know if I told you, you would worry and fret and sacrifice some part of yourself to appease me. 

I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if that happened. I want to see you whole and untouched and so bright that you bring shame to the stars and their moon. 

I will not tell you because you are (perhaps to your detriment) too good and compassionate and kind and so fiercely loving that I don’t think anyone in the world could deserve you. 

Least of all me. 

So I will love you and never tell you. My feelings are not yours to worry over. You owe me nothing, so I will tell you nothing. 

My feelings aren’t yours to bear, my love. 

I will bear them alone, in silence. And that’s okay. I will learn to be okay.

I still wish there was a version of us that did know, though. Some lifetime where you could love me in the same way. 

Your brother told me he doesn’t believe in fate, but that maybe everything works out in the end. That eventually, we’re all where we’re supposed to be. I wonder if there is a version of us that works out in the end, too. I want there to be, Spirits, do I want there to be. 

I wonder if there’s something I could’ve done, some different path I could’ve taken to make you love me. I think I’ll forever wonder about it, about fate, about yours and mine and the world’s. 

You asked me the difference between happiness and satisfaction many years ago. 

It’s this, isn’t it? It is loving someone but never being able to have them. Eventually, I will find someone to make me happy, but I won’t ever be satisfied. 

Everything I am speaks to everything in you. It always has, since the moment I laid eyes on you. I think this is how the sun feels about the moon. 

I love you, I love you, I love you.

I will always love you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. 


Yours forevermore,


Chapter Text

“Tell me, Avatar Maker–

King Saver–

Tell me, Destroyer–

Peacebringer, Mother of the Seas–

Tell me, Heartbender, what it’s like to sit on the throne,

Of the tyrant who wanted you dead. 

And make it yours.

How restless is his ghost? 

Tell me, Hope Finder, what it’s like to shape the new world. 

To know it was your hands that gave birth to the future.

Tell them, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, what it’s like to make myths out of men.

To make a myth of yourself.” 

            –An excerpt from Imora Narak’s collection of poems ‘For the World’s Sake’

Katara dreams in colors of violet and smoldering red, sharp dashes of blue like lightning through the smoky clouds. She dreams in shuttering, disjointed images–

A waltz that falls apart, until she is stumbling, crawling in the dark. A sea that sucks her in and doesn’t spit her out. It’s water is hot, scalding her throat and nose and lips. Crumbling cities. The rise of a plum moon, heavy in the sky. 

She dreams of wandering and wandering and wandering, no place to rest, to hold her body down. Her feet are scraped raw, bloody and tired. 

She dreams of Aang, larger than life, towering over her. She is caught in his shadow. She shouts to him, his head so high in the clouds, but he can’t hear her. 

Her father yells to her from an icy little island, trying to beckon her home, but something lurks in the water between them. A single black fin in the dark water. She doesn’t dare try to cross it. 

She dreams of Zuko, in crystal caves, the gems glowing strangely on his pale skin. He looks luminescent, too bright for her eyes. He looks otherworldly. Godly. 

“Take my hand,” he urges softly, palm open to her. 

When she does, her skin prickles, and her own body brightens, too, until they are possessed by light. 

 Sometimes, his hand is delicate at her throat, replacing her necklace. Sometimes it’s in her hair, tangled there like the clip he gave her. Sometimes, she runs her fingers carefully over the beads in his hair. 

Most of the time, she doesn’t want to wake up from those dreams. 

But they’re always caught in those caves. Frozen there, like an eternal underworld, their garden of crystals, of glittering stone and stalactites that look like ice. That looks like fiery, spun glass. 

Their purgatory, where time had seemed to freeze. And it was just him and her and the sound of her heart against her ribcage. 

Sometimes in these dreams she sits in front of him, cross-legged, and he sits in front of her. 

“I can heal you,” she whispers and wonders if this time it will all turn out differently. If she will pull the water from the twinkling, little vile and put her hand on his cheek. He will bow his face into her touch, close his eyes. Maybe she’d be able to feel his soft breath on her open palm. 

She wonders when it could’ve all gone differently. 

He presses a kiss to her wrist instead, to the pulse there that flutters dangerously, beating like quick, little wings. And his lips are the sun, all heat and love. She thinks she’s flying too close, surely she’ll burn right up. 

But her dreams drift into smoke and she wakes in the middle of dark, suffocating nights.

She wakes, but wonders why she still feels like she’s sleeping, like she hasn’t been truly awake in a long, long time. 

After the wedding, Katara’s life returns to it’s normal pace.

She is exhausted

It’s the bone-deep kind of tired, the kind that leaves her feeling miserable and sluggish. She’s getting plenty of rest, still eating well. She is active. All things considered, Katara is healthy. So why is she so fatigued? Why does every day grow heavier, slower? Why do her shoulders droop? 

She feels lonely, too. So lonely that an ache just lives in the pit of her chest. It’s made a nest there, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. She writes to Zuko and Sokka and Suki and Toph so much that she’s sure they must be sick of her. She feels half sick of herself, ready to crawl out of her own skin, shed this sadness and strange, festering anger. 

She knows something needs to change, something needs to give. 

She can’t go on like this. 

Aang has finally caught on to the simmering unhappiness that lurks behind her eyes. Katara has never been good at bottling up her emotions and now it seems to fill her out, to color her eyes a storm blue, to stretch in her limbs. Her waterbending is sharp, jerky– the crashing of waves, the forcefulness of a riptide. The loneliness in the eye of a hurricane. 

Aang tries to cheer her up. 

He writes his own letters now to politicians and world leaders and dignitaries, only requesting her help on occasion. 

She feels a little aimless now. She feels like the Avatar’s Girlfriend. She feels like Aang’s. She doesn’t feel like herself. 

She doesn’t feel like she’s accomplishing as much as she could be. She just shadows Aang, does their laundry, makes sure they have a meal to eat. She looks after him. She looks after him like she’s fourteen and he’s twelve again except now she’s twenty, nearly twenty-one, and he’s eighteen. It all feels like a loop for her. 

On a night where Katara is particularly quiet, Aang finally works up the courage to say, “Katara, I’m worried about you. You don’t seem like yourself.” 

Katara wants to ask, I don’t seem like myself, or I don’t seem like the version you see? 

Are you disappointed in me? 

Am I not what you expected?  

Instead, she draws in a slow breath. She swallows around the sudden lump in her throat. Now it’s her turn to work up the courage to speak, “I’m not happy.” she eventually says and she tries to say it with as much calm as possible. 

But the moment she says it, it feels real. Like she’d spoken it into existence and suddenly she thinks she could collapse into sobs. She bites her lip hard. 

Aang goes very still, “What would make you happy?” he whispers, peering at her. 

It bubbles out of Katara before she can stop it, escapes so fast that she almost chokes on it, “I want to go home.” 

Her voice catches, breaks at that word. On the way it sounds in her mouth, open and heavy, it hollows out inside of her.

Tears start falling, “I want to go home,” she says again, rougher, but more sure of herself. 

Aang reaches for her, “We can visit again,” he says quickly, soothingly. “We can leave tomorrow, if you want. I’m sure we can spare a few days.” 

Katara lurches away from him.

“No,” she gets out, “No, I want to go home and I want to stay.” she says and now there’s a sob that explodes out of her. “I want roots . My own room. My own things all in one place . I want to wake up in the same bed. I don’t want my horizon to change every time I blink, I want–” 

She covers her mouth, as if maybe that’ll keep back the next sob. It still shutters through her. 

Aang is wide-eyed. He doesn’t quite know what to say for a moment. For some reason, this angers Katara. 

“I want a home.” Katara hisses through her teeth. 

I don’t want to be your home, I don’t want to be a house, don’t want to be hollow for you, for what you want. I want to be myself, I want to be myself, I want to be myself. 

Aang swallows hard, “Okay– okay, we can make that work, too.” he says easily, but she can tell that this isn’t what he wants. It isn’t how he wanted this to go. He didn’t want her to say that. He wanted to be able to cheer her up, make her smile a little. He wanted to keep her by his side. He wanted her to be happy in his way. 

“For how long?” Katara snaps suddenly, voice thick with tears, with all that anger. 

Aang winces. She wishes she regretted it more. 

“What do you mean? For– for however long you need, or–” Aang stutters, brows drawing together. 

“What if it’s forever?” Katara asks, “What if I want to go home and I never want to return to traveling?” 

Aang looks nervous now, grey eyes going a little round with fear, “I-I don’t know, we can figure something out for that, too.” he reaches for her again, takes her hand in his, “We have time for this.” he tries to assure her, his thumb rubbing circles over the back of her hand. “To figure this all out.” 

For some reason, Katara doesn’t believe him. And she gets the impression that he doesn’t even believe himself. But the fight drains out of her, leaving her with that loneliness and grief. 

She cries and cries and cries that night. Aang tries to soothe her, but it only makes her cry harder, only makes her feel like she is cleaving into herself. She is collapsing, splintering apart. 

She looks at Aang that night, another sob wracking through her, and dimly realizes that she’s already started to mourn him. She’s getting ready for him to slip between her fingers like the air, like the wind.

Dear Katara,


There is no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it; this isn’t okay. It’s not okay to be so miserable. It’s not okay to be so unhappy. Something needs to change, Katara, something big. I know that you’re helping Aang and working with the Avatar is important, but so are you. So is your happiness. Your peace of mind. So is what you want. 

Ever since you found him in the iceberg, your whole world has been Aang. He has been your center of gravity since you were fourteen. I know it isn’t easy to think differently, but...haven’t you given enough? Haven’t you given yourself over tenfold to him? You have raised him and guided him and taught him and healed him and saved him and loved him enough for a whole lifetime. For two lifetimes. Three. Four. 

I remember, back before Aang had a grip on the Avatar state– which he still struggles with from time to time, doesn’t he? I remember how something would hurt Aang badly and he would get upset, so painfully upset. And his eyes would glow blue and the ground beneath his feet would shake. He would throw a cosmic-sized tantrum. And every single time, I watched as you were the only one brave enough to go near him. You begged him to stop doing that. You begged him to learn how to control it. And he couldn’t. Didn’t. 

I remember thinking you looked so tired, so hurt, so exhausted. I remember thinking that you gave everything and then some to him. For him.  

Spirits, Katara, give to yourself from time to time. You want to come home? Come home. There are a thousand things you could help me or Dad with. Or you could rest. Anything you want. Everyone misses you. The Tribe always asks about you. Just, come home. Please. I’m worried about you. 

Take care of yourself. 

Love ya, miss ya. 


Your brother, 


Katara tries to take a small break from Aang. She goes off on her own for a while as they stay in Ba Sing Se. Aang is meeting with King Kuei. She wanders the streets. A little aimless. A little lost. 

She watches a mother and father herd their children back into their home from playing in the street together. She watches the ease and casualness that they all barrel into their home. She can tell it’s well-loved. So used and full. 

She watches a grandmother tidy up in the evening light, sweeping at the stoop right outside her humble house. 

She watches a boy peel apart a tangerine and offer it to the girl sitting beside him. She watches as he kisses her sweet then. 

Katara looks away. 

Her eyes glitter with tears. 

She watches everyone return to their homes peacefully, waits until she’s the only one out there. All alone and in the blooming violet light of the evening. 

She wonders why it feels like she’s grieving when no one’s died. When no one’s left. 

Dear Katara, 


I think you are on the cusp of a big change, you know? I think it’s scaring you. But I don’t think you should be scared. You’re a waterbender! Your element is to change! Don’t be scared of it, the same way I know you’re not scared of the sea. 

I used to remind Zuko that change brings growing pains. It isn’t easy. Transformations are painful. They push against us, realign our bones, ourselves. Sometimes they tear us apart. They might feel like our destruction but I swear– I swear it’s your new beginning. 

Right now, you need to do what’s right for you. You need to put yourself first for once. Aang is a big boy now, Katara, he probably doesn’t need you as much as you think he does. And if he does, he should learn not to by now. 

It’s gotten to a point where you have given far more than he has. And it’s hurting you. Something needs to change. 

I think you should leave him. Go home to your brother. Come to me, in the Fire Nation. Do what you want, because you’re always doing what he wants. 

Please be gentle with yourself, Katara. Try to care for yourself as much as you care for others. Be selfish. 

Do what you need to do, whatever it is. 

Love ya, miss ya. 


Your sister,


A storm hits Republic City when Katara is walking along it’s shores. She could go back to the inn she’s staying at with Aang, hide from the wind and rain, from the sea that rolls in sharp and choppy against the shore that she walks along. But it isn’t so bad. And she likes the way the rain feels, cool, a little stinging. 

It brings her an odd comfort, to watch the thrashing waves, the violent streak of lightning that bursts between the clouds. It feels good to stand among it’s force, to feel her element whip around her, beat into her. 

As if it’s reminding her who she is. Who she could be. 

She wades out into those waves, only to force them to part for her. The waves rise up, threaten to crash down onto her, but she pushes them away with flat palms, with a steady, rocking motion. 

She tries to find peace in the middle of a raging sea, letting it’s storm speak to her. 

She tries to gather her strength, her ferocity all over again. 

She tries to ease the ache in her chest, the knot that has grown worse and worse and worse. Katara even lifts a watery, glowing hand to her sternum. 

She tries to heal herself. 

But she knows that will only come with change. With time. 

Dear Sugar Queen,


Since no one else seems to have the guts to tell you this, I will. 

Break. Up. With. Him. 

Are you slack jawed yet? Are you already getting defensive? Are you terrified? You aren’t happy. You don’t fit what he wants. He doesn’t fit what you want. So let him go. Say goodbye. Move on. 

And I know what you’ll say– “that’s easier said than done, Toph!” 

Sure it is. But do you know what will be harder? Staying silent. Giving so much of yourself to him that there’s nothing left. 

I get it, you’re scared of hurting him. Your entire existence since you met him, has been protecting him. Helping him. Loving him. You have tried to shield him from everything. You have tried to be so good and kind and caring to him as if it could make up for all that he had to endure. 

But what about what you had to endure? What about you? I thought you were brave, too. Or does that come second to sheltering him? 

I’ll put it this way for you: this isn’t fair to him. You don’t love him like you think you do. And somebody else could.  What are you holding on for? Want him to live the rest of his life beside a girl that isn’t happy with him? That doesn’t love him like he should be loved? 

And I’ll ask again; what about you? This isn’t fair to you, either. You’re scared of a future like this, so change it. New path. It’s all for the taking, Sugar Queen, you just have to take it. 

Leave him. Go home. Do whatever the hell you want. Don’t write to me again unless you’ve done those three things, in that order. 

Also, take care of yourself, Katara. 




Katara works up the courage to break Aang’s heart, something she has been trying to protect the moment she laid eyes on him. She doesn’t know how or when, but she tries to rehearse something, she tries to practice it in her mind over and over again. She looks at him and she tries not to cry. She still loves him; it doesn’t make it easier because she still loves him. She can’t imagine being without him, in some ways. 

But she knows there needs to be a change. She knows she cannot continue like this. She knows, deep down, that she is done being miserable and aimless. She is done giving too much. She is ready to reclaim herself. 

She reminds herself, over and over again, that it isn’t fair to him. Or her. Someone will love him how he needs, someone will want to travel beside him, they’ll want to live wildly, freely beside him. They’ll chase the wind with laughter, with excitement. She tries to picture him happy with this person, overjoyed, and it pains her as much as it soothes her. He will move on from her. She will not destroy him. 

She will move on from him, too. 

She also tells herself this. It will hurt, it will feel like hacking off a limb, but she will recover. She will heal. 

He will not destroy her. 

He will if she stays, she tells herself. So she breathes deep and she gathers her bravery one morning after packing up all her measly things into her bag. Hopefully, this will be the last time she does this in a long time. Hopefully, she will go home after this, into the arms of her father, her brother, her Tribe. 

“Aang, we should talk.” she begins after finding her voice. 

The day is entirely too bright and cheery, the birds are singing outside. She sits on the floor beside her pack in this little, creaky inn. Aang moves to sit beside her. 

“Okay, what would you like to talk about?” he asks and she wonders if he suspects anything. If he has an inkling of what's to come. She hopes he does, she hopes he expects it, that he takes it easily, that he just–

She balls her hands into fists. She screws her courage into place. She tries not to cry already, but tears gather in her eyes. 

But finally, finally she gets out, “I think we should break up.” 

Aang reels back like she’s struck him. His face crumples, eyes bleeding with hurt, with shock. Oh, this is so much worse than she thought–

“W-what?” he breathes. 

She rephrases, chokes out, her voice raw but strong, “I want to break up.” 

So there’s no discussion. There’s no conversation, no potential for him to convince her otherwise. This isn’t up for debate, it isn't something to work through. It is the end, and that's all. 

Aang’s brows crease inward, tears welling up quick in his eyes. He looks at her like she’s stabbed him, like she’s done something horrible. Her stomach turns like she has. But she won’t take it back, she forces herself to not say another word, to let it hang before them in the air, heavy but real

“Can I ask why?” Aang asks and his voice is rough, thick with tears. 

“Because I’m unhappy.” Katara tells him softly, tears loosening from her own eyes, tracking down her cheeks, “Because I don’t want– I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to go home.” 

“We can work something out– I told you that. W-we can do long distance!” Aang responds and she hates it because he’s almost pleading. 

Katara shakes her head, trying to catch the sob inside of her. “Not for forever. We want different things, Aang.” Katara responds, gentler, through her tears, and she tries to explain, “I-I don’t want to travel anymore, and you don't want–”

“So you’re giving up?” The question bursts from Aang sharply, suddenly, his eyes snapping to her, “Just like this? Seven years together and this is it?” 

Giving up? For a moment, she almost lets guilt wrack through her. She almost believes it. Is she giving up? Maybe she should’ve given him more of a chance? Maybe he was right, maybe they had time to figure it out–

An overwhelming part of her surges like a tidal wave, though, grows angry. It blisters beneath her skin. Giving up? Hasn’t she given enough? Hasn’t she given seven years of her life to him? Hasn’t she done everything he has needed and then some? 

If anyone has tried desperately to make this relationship work, it is Katara. 

Her face morphs, her teeth baring, “How dare you say that to me,” she hisses, low and hurt and furious. “I have spent the last seven years of my life trying to make this relationship work. Since the moment that I met you, I have given you everything that I possibly could.” 

Her lip wobbles, but she pushes on, “This isn’t giving up, this is doing something for myself finally.” 

Aang has good enough judgment to remain quiet, to seem somewhat cowed or remorseful after that. He wipes away his tears. For a moment, she's scared they will leave it all like this, that maybe Aang will run away from this. That after everything, this horrible silence will be their ending. But Aang eventually manages to look at her again, face so open and hurt.

“Is there anything I can do?” he finally whispers, “Is there anything I can do to make you stay?” 

He sounds so young suddenly that it physically hurts Katara. She covers her mouth to catch a sob. Pain blossoms in her ribs, spreads throughout her chest, her throat. Still, she shakes her head no. 

When she speaks again, her voice is only a whisper, a plea, “You can let me go.” 

Aang breaks now, too, his own sob bursting free from his throat. He turns such pained eyes on her, “ Please, Katara, anything–”

“Let me go, Aang.” Katara says again. 

“I don’t want to–” Aang cries and it breaks her to hear it and even if she cries with him, she stays strong. 

“You have to,” she gets out, “Don’t you want to see me happy?” she asks quietly, “You have to let me go.”  

“Why can’t it be with me?” Aang counters, almost begging, "Why can't you be happy with me?" 

“Because we want different things in life. Because I can’t be– I can’t  be what you want. And you can’t be what I want. It isn’t fair to either of us–” Katara’s voice breaks a little, but she swallows, wipes at her tears, “I have to do what will be best for me. And I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it will be better for you, too–” 

“How can you say that?” Aang gets out through his tears, “All I want is you.” 

“That isn’t true,” Katara tries to explain, “You want someone who will travel with you. Who can– who can do this life with you. Forever.” she swallows hard, watches his face carefully, “And I want a home. I want someone beside me, in that home.” 

She thinks, maybe, he finally understands somewhat, because he starts crying harder now. Like it’s finally hit him, like he’s finally realized this is the end. That he can't be trapped to one place. And he can't make a home of her.

It makes Katara cry harder, too. 

“I don’t want to lose you,” he sobs. 

Finally, Katara moves to wrap her arms around him. He falls into her, head digging into her chest, just as she’s done a thousand times before. He clings to her, just as he's done a thousand times before, too. 

“We’ll always be friends,” Katara promises him. “I– I love you too much. I always will, Aang.” 

He sobs into her and she holds onto him tightly. She rocks him a little, maybe to soothe him, maybe to soothe herself. She tries not to think about how this will be the last time that she holds him like this. 

“It’ll be okay,” she whispers through her own tears, “We’ll be okay, Aang, but you have to let me go. You have to let me go– ” 

Even though he holds fast to her, the way he’s crying, hard and heartbroken and gutted , let’s her know that he’s going to. He has to.

And they stay like that, holding each other on the floor of an inn, for the last time. They mourn each other, together. They kiss seven years goodbye, try to give it a soft, loving restful place between them. 

Despite everything, despite how much pain she’s in, and how hard she’s cried, Katara let’s go of a breath when they pull away and feels as if it's the first, clear breath that she has taken in a long time.

Like she’s resurfaced, like it’s the beginning, wobbling breath of her young life. 

Despite everything, all the heartbreak and pain, she finally feels peace when she pulls away from him. 

Dear Katara,


I am so, so sorry to hear about you and Aang. But I am so, so proud of you, too. I know it isn’t easy, I know you’re probably hurting, but you’ve done what’s best for you. And that’s good, even if it might not feel like it yet. 

When Mai and I broke up, as heartbroken as I was, I wanted her to be happy. I knew to do that, she couldn’t be with me. I knew that she had to do what was right for herself. Just like you had to do what was right for yourself. 

Aang will come around. He will see this, too. He will be okay. So will you. 

Know that I am always here for you, in whatever way you need or want. Know that my door is always open to you. Know that I would do anything for you. 

I wish you safe travels back to the South Pole. Please rest well. Eat well. Indulge yourself in what you love. Be selfish. Be proud. Most of all, take care of yourself. 

As always, I miss you. 

Give your family my well wishes. I’m sure they’ve missed you, too. 




Katara declines Aang’s offer to fly her back to the South Pole. She tells him that she wants to take the long way home, she wants to take the journey on her own. She promises to write to him once she’s gotten there, to assure that she’s made it safely. But they also agree to take a break after that, so that they can–

So that they can adjust to this. To them being apart. 

It will not be easy. 

But it will be worth it, Katara thinks, gazing up at the ship’s silhouette in the evening sun that will bring her to the shores of the icy South Pole. 

The rocking of the ship as she boards, as they set out to the sea, has never felt so comforting to her. She has already written ahead to her father, to let her know of her return. Of her break up. She tells him that she doesn’t feel okay, but she will. She will.

That night, she stays on the deck of the ship until all of the stars are out and above her head. She looks up at them, distracts her heavy heart with tracing the constellations with her eyes. Their spindly, winding course in the sky reminds her sharply of the mysterious burns in the bones of her fortune from so long ago. 

And she can’t help but wonder which path she’s on. 

If she’s changed something drastically. 

Has she messed it all up? 

But she keeps counting the stars, tracing their patterns and paths. She tries to soothe herself in their infinity, in their brilliance. She turns her face up to her moon and breathes through any tears that arise. 

And then she turns to look out at the dark horizon, as if maybe she could already see the outlines of the South Pole. As if she could see Sokka there, at the docks, waiting for her. Her father. Gran-gran. Her Tribe. 

She wipes her tears. 

Katara is finally coming home.

Chapter Text

    “My father used to tell me that love was about patience.” 

        –an excerpt from Fire Lord Izumi’s personal diaries.  

Zuko has made it a tradition to walk into the heart of Caldera City once a month, down by the docks, where the sailors and vendors and working people live and sell and bustle about. It is both to bolster the relationship between him and his people and for Zuko to see, with his own eyes, truly how they’re doing. And what needs to be done. 

Many of the elders on his council despise this. They think it is beneath Zuko to walk among the common people, they think that he should remain an untouchable presence in their lives. Others think it’s too dangerous. Though the public’s opinion on him has grown significantly better than when he was first crowned, there are still those who believe he is nothing but a usurper. That he plans to strip the Fire Nation of all its strength and morals. People who are terrified of change. They fear-monger to others, trying to spread insidious ideas that his father and grandfather had begun. 

But Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors are always by his side and he fears little with them at his back. Besides, Zuko is determined to know his people. And not just the wealthy noblemen that linger in the palace halls. He considers it his job to serve the people, to do what it is in their best interest. And the best way to figure out what it is he needs to do, is to see them for himself. 

For the most part, his presence is well-received by the people of Caldera City. Every six months, he takes a journey further out, to the farms, to the rural, small places in the Fire Nation. They’re a little more wary of him there, but those visits have become routine and welcome, too. 

Today, though, Zuko returns to the palace in a somewhat sour mood. Mostly because the hospital down by the docks is not equipped to deal with the rising population of Caldera City. They need more healers and doctors– they lost and continue to lose most of their students and academics to other nations where the education is better, a trend that had begun during the War. Specifically, they went to Ba Sing Se University and Suluk University in the North Pole. 

He knows he’s going to end up having a long and difficult discussion with his council about putting more money into education, perhaps building their own university in Caldera City. Not to mention, the issue of healthcare that is a little more pressing and needs his direct attention. 

He can already feel a migraine beginning in his temples, pressure behind his eyes. 

His strides are quick and long as he approaches the palace steps. From the corner of his eye, he catches the Kyoshi Warrior at the gates of the palace, Kaia, snag Suki and inform her of something. 

Zuko doesn’t slow, though, and Suki has to jog to catch up to him. 

“Wait, Zuko,” she tries, but he’s already being let into the main hall of the palace. She follows after him, on his heels, “I was just informed that–” 

Her words dwindle as they both come to a halt because of the woman standing before them, silhouetted in the red evening sun. 

She turns and Zuko feels his eyes go a little wide. 

“–Mai has returned to the palace.” Suki finishes, mostly just a breath of air. Zuko throws her a glare. She throws him one back as if to say, I tried to warn you! 

His eyes widen a smidge, turn a little pleading now as he holds Suki’s eyes. He tries to convey don’t leave me with her in a look. 

She seems to understand because she rolls her eyes fractionally, before letting go of a breath. She isn’t going anywhere. 

Zuko turns back to Mai, trying to keep his face neutral. Mai is sporting a rather bemused look. 

“Fire Lord Zuko,” Mai drawls in greeting and she barely bends into any sort of bow, it’s mocking, a little teasing. From anyone else it would be downright disrespectful, but with Mai it is nothing but a friendly jab. Then she slides her eyes to Suki, offering a far more sincere bow of her head, “Captain Suki– I’m nearly a year late, but congratulations on your marriage.” 

Suki bows her head respectfully, too, “Thank you.” 

“Hello, Mai,” Zuko finally manages to speak, mouth a little dry, as he takes her in. The first thing he notices is that her hair is short, botched up to her chin, sharp and angular. It gives her features more of an edge, makes her look more intimidating. The next thing he notices is the tattoos curling up her arms, onto her biceps. Their ink is dark, dashed with red in places, silver in others. 

She looks good. Like she belongs in her own skin more. And he doesn’t think he’s ever seen her eyes so bright, so keen and sharp. Her face is still rather apathetic, but now it seems to be a languid confidence, rather than boredom or intense displeasure. It seems she’s really grown into herself in her time away, since they broke up.

Zuko is happy for her, he realizes. He’s happy to see her happy. 

“It’s been awhile,” she says casually, as if it’s only been a few months and not nearly three years since he last saw her. “But I’m back in Caldera City for now. I thought I would stop by, say hello.” 

“I’m glad you did,” Zuko replies, and he means it when he says, “It’s good to see you again.” 

Mai offers a smile, it’s small still, but genuine and almost friendly “It’s good to see you, too, Zuko.” And then she tilts her head a little, “We should catch up sometime, if you can squeeze me into your schedule.” 

Zuko’s lips lift up a little, “I’m sure I can. Where are you staying now that you’ve returned?” 

“Near the port,” she says vaguely, “Not with my parents. And I’d appreciate your discretion with my return, actually.” 

Zuko’s brows lift, a question caught on his lips, but Mai beats him to it, “I don’t want them or anyone else to know I’m back. I’ve come to enjoy the privacy.” 

He’s heard rumors about her, about the way she works now. Apparently, she’s become somewhat of a vigilante or spy. He imagines that she likes her privacy plenty if that’s the case. 

He only hopes she hasn’t gotten into too much trouble since she left. 

Toph at one point mentioned she was among pirates for a while. The rare letters that Mai had sent him over the years had all been purposefully vague to her adventures, too. They gave him no clear indication as to what she was up to these days. 

Zuko wonders if she’ll tell him any of this in person finally. 

Regardless, he still nods his acceptance to her wish for privacy. “Of course,” he agrees, before lapsing into a silence that isn’t tense, but certainly isn’t comfortable, either. 

Mai is content to let him squirm for a moment. He nearly glances to Suki for help. 

“I’ll let you return to whatever pressing matters you have to attend to now,” Mai finally says to save him, “I’ll be around, if you need me.” 

Zuko gestures vaguely to the palace, “Likewise.” 

Mai smirks a little at his poor attempt at humor, before she bids him farewell with a more proper bow now. Nothing deep, nothing overly formal, but it also isn’t a hug goodbye. It’s casual, but not overly friendly and Zuko finds he’s glad for the clear mark in the sand between them.

 Zuko returns the gesture, just before she slips out of the doors of the palace, her lithe form disappearing down the stairs, into the last crimson rays of the sun. She becomes a shadow, vanishing from his vision between one breath and the next. 

Suki eyes Zuko. 

“Well?” she says when he doesn’t immediately speak. 

“Well what?” Zuko asks, his gaze finally returning to her. 

“How do you feel?” 

“I feel fine.” 

Suki’s brow quirks, “Just fine?” 

“Somewhat surprised. Mostly fine.” Zuko replies with a slight huff. 

“Not still in love with her?” Suki asks, “Not going to crawl back to her?” 

Zuko snorts, but in the same moment, he feels his heart give a painful little tug. No, he thinks, trying to keep his face from falling, it’s not her I’m in love with. His mind flashes to Katara. He swallows it all down, around the sudden lump in his throat. 

He tries to clear it away before he speaks again, “No, I will not be crawling back to her.” 

“She did look good,” Suki tests him, waggling her brows as she nudges her elbow between his ribs. 

Zuko pushes her back, not hard, but enough that she stumbles away a little before he rubs at his ribs as if she’s hurt him. He scowls at her and a slight laugh falls from her lips. 

“She looks happy and I’m glad for that.” Zuko counters, perhaps overly formal, overly polite and platonic. Still, Suki sobers a little from her teasing, studying him.

 “Wow,” she says, “Look at you. Finally over your ex.” Then she gives him a grin, it’s a little lopsided and teasing. It reminds him of Sokka. “Now we just have to find someone to set you up with!” 

Zuko chokes.

“Obviously, she’ll be the next Fire Lady, so–” 

That migraine Zuko was worried about seems all the more threatening now. “Suki, please–”

Suki continues, though, “The Kyoshi Warriors and I have ideas. We’ve already given this plenty of thought. I think that–”

“As Fire Lord, I command you to stop.” Zuko tries.

Suki snorts and yeah, okay, Zuko didn’t think that would work, either. But it was worth a shot. Instead, she continues on about how the Kyoshi Warriors have been waiting for this and that the topic of his love life is apparently one that is often discussed between them. 

They walk the winding halls of the palace together, on their way to the dining hall for a late dinner, trading quips and remarks all the way there. 

“There has to be someone,” Suki says after he’s shot down nearly everything and everyone she’s said, “You don’t have anyone in mind?” 

Once more, Zuko thinks of Katara. He just sees her smile, the curve of her lips. He thinks of her dancing. He thinks of her bending, the water a graceful arc around her lithe body. 

He aches. Like he has a raw, gaping wound. 

His stomach flips as his mind whispers, almost hisses to him, she’s not with Aang anymore. 

Zuko quickly shuts down that train of thought. It has only been a few months since their break up. And they were together for seven years. Zuko sharply pulls his mind back into the moment, back to Suki. 

“I believe, at one point, you said I could have Sokka?” Zuko replies, hopefully to distract her. 

She laughs, bright and full, tossing her head back slightly. The sound eases his tension somewhat, and makes him smile, too. 

And he tries to hold onto it, even if all he ends up thinking about that night, as he tries fitfully to fall asleep, is how Katara is no longer with Aang. 

He tries to be careful with his imagination, but it runs and dances and leaps circles around him. Flashes of blue eyes, of brown skin, the sound of her laugh. He thinks of holding her, of the way she fits against him. 

There has to be someone.

And there is. Oh, there is.  

Dear Zuko,


I am unsurprised that Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors have been discussing your love life. Suki is also overly curious about mine (or lack thereof one). So is Sokka. And the whole of the Tribe, unfortunately. Usually, most people get married around sixteen here, so at twenty-one, I am well passed marrying age. I am affectionately referred to as a spinster already. 

You’d think they’d give me at least a year to get over Aang, but apparently seven months is good enough for them. 

Sokka thinks I need someone as passionate and headstrong as I am to deal with me. Suki thinks I need someone mature and sophisticated. My father jokes that I should be with whoever I’m writing to so often and for whatever reason, I get flustered to admit it’s you. 

As for how I am, things have been well. I’ve been well. I haven’t been this happy in awhile. It feels good to be busy, to be helping out here and to immerse myself in my home and culture again. It feels good to work on policies, to sit in meetings with my father and Sokka. It feels good to sign my own name at the bottom of letters to foreign politicians. 

I’ve taken up dancing, too– there’s a style here in the South, where we move to drums and use the forms of Waterbending. It’s been really good for me, I think. It feels somewhat healing, which might sound silly, but it makes me happy. It soothes me. 

It’s still hard from time to time. I miss him, you know? This is the longest I’ve gone without Aang since I’ve met him. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, but at the end of the day, I think I did. I hope I did.

I miss you a lot. So much that I dream of you sometimes. I love to hear from you.  Tell Suki to get lost if she keeps pestering you about your love life. 

Take care of yourself. 




P.S. I’ve also been making beaded bracelets and necklaces with Sokka and some of the kids in the Tribe! I’ve attached a bracelet to this letter for you! The style and pattern of the beads is specific to the South, but I chose the burgundy color for you and the Fire Nation. I hope you like it!  

Zuko watches as Azula demonstrates a firebending move for Kiyi, watches the way her body twists, before blue fire explodes out from her palms. In recent months, Azula has been able to practice her bending more. She is always surrounded by Kyoshi Warriors who are well trained in chi blocking and firebending guards, but she still is able to practice again. 

Zuko can tell her bending has not been the same, not since the end of the war. 

But he also thinks she’s trying to reclaim a piece of herself, reclaim her bending. She’s trying to figure out what really makes her flames so blue, now that there’s no pressure to be perfect, to survive. 

He thinks it’s good for Azula to teach Kiyi, like maybe she’s fixing the way she’d been taught to bend. She’s still a little too stern at times, or has an offhand comment that Zuko has to correct, but otherwise she does well with Kiyi. She always has. 

Kiyi tries to imitate Azula and the flame that jumps from her palm is smaller, but it’s there. 

“No,” Azula says, “Exhale when you push your hand outward, it’ll give more force to the flames. Try again.” 

Kiyi furrows her brows. Sticks her tongue out in concentration as she resets herself. Her gold eyes become harder, more determined. She attempts the move again, this time, a stronger flame bursts from her hand. The smile that Kiyi gives Azula as she seeks out her praise is lopsided, eyes sparkling excitedly. 

“Better,” Azula offers, before she moves on to the next firebending form that she wants to teach to Kiyi. Their younger sister is an eager pupil, especially from Azula. She looks up to her so much that sometimes it makes Zuko ache. 

Their mother is mildly concerned about Kiyi’s adoration for Azula. Ursa has always been skeptical of Azula, about her stability. Zuko supposes that their mother has only ever seen Azula at her worst over the years. Any time that Azula had seen their mother, the few conversations they have attempted to have, went south extremely quickly. 

Azula isn’t quite ready to face their mother. 

Zuko tries to assure her that Azula is better, she loves Kiyi, that Kiyi’s been good for her. Their mother is quiet on these matters, but her silence speaks more than she ever could, Zuko thinks. 

After a while, Ursa comes out to collect Kiyi, to bring her to her tutor for the afternoon. She stays far away, beside Zuko, just a shadowy figure to Azula in the distance. She lets Zuko yell for Kiyi, who bows to Azula, before throwing her arms around her waist. Azula, mildly surprised, freezes for a moment, before patting Kiyi on the back. Kiyi rushes for Zuko and her mother. 

“Did you see me?” she asks, breathless and excited. 

“You were incredible, Ki. You’re getting better every day.” Zuko tells her, only to be met with her firecracker smile. Zuko becomes keenly aware of Azula’s eyes on them now. 

Perhaps Ursa does, too, because she ushers Kiyi along quickly and without a word.

Zuko can’t stand the briefness, the silence, but he doesn’t know what to say. 

Azula’s trying, is what he wants to tell her as he watches her retreating form, she’s always only tried her hardest, for better or for worse

Zuko is left alone, his sister a figure ahead of him in the courtyard. 

She returns to bending and Zuko watches as she attempts harder forms, moves that she used to be able to accomplish with ease and perfected grace. She used to be ferocious, but now as he watches her, he catches the way her flames curl red at the edges. 

Like she can’t quite hold onto all of that heat she once had. 

She grows frustrated quickly, expelling fire sporadically, unable to hold anymore poise. Zuko approaches cautiously in hopes of diffusing her before she explodes, before her mood shifts too far. 

When she turns to him, there’s a strange look in her eyes. “I hate this,” she says, then crosses her arms over her chest as if to guard herself. 

“Hate what?” Zuko asks and Azula only grows angrier, more impatient. She huffs. 

“My bending. The way things are. I hate–” Azula pauses and Zuko can tell she is digging her nails into her palms, “I don’t understand why she likes me so much.” 

It takes a moment for Zuko to follow what she’s saying, but when he realizes it, he inhales sharply. “Because she’s your little sister.” 

Azula’s face morphs, eyes flashing dangerously, “I’m not like you,” she sneers, all venom and bitterness. At first, Zuko thinks she’s trying to insult him. But then she adds, “I’m like father.” 


“And you’re like Uncle. And mother. And Kiyi.” Azula hisses, “You’re so nice. And good.” 

She’s jealous, Zuko realizes. 

“You’re not like father.” 

“I was made in his image. He molded me.” she replies, “While you were off–” 

“You’re better than him.” Zuko gets out before she can finish and she quiets. 

For a moment, Zuko fears he has said the wrong thing. Sometimes, Azula’s moods are as untempered as flames. She can change direction in an instant. He half expects her to start raging or screaming or crying. 

“You’re better than mother, too.” Zuko adds for some reason. 

Azula’s eyes dart to him, almost as surprised as he was at his own words. And he continues before he can think, “She’s nice, but I don’t know how good she is.” 

She forgot us, he wants to add, but he won’t say it aloud. He can’t. She’s cordial and polite, but she is evasive and selfish. 

    He softens slightly, almost deflates, “You’re better than you know. You’ve come a long way.” 

    Azula doesn’t know how to respond. She looks away from him. Zuko, again, thinks he’s misspoke. Surely, now she will blow up or snap something. He waits and waits with tight breath for her features to change. For anything to happen. 

Eventually, she says, “I suppose at my worst, I’m still better than everyone else.” 

Zuko should be mad, maybe, or perhaps he should at least be annoyed. But all that escapes him is a slight laugh, relief flooding through him. It really is one of her good days. So much so, that she even offers him the barest slip of a sly smile. She’s only teasing. 

It feels good, though, normal. 

They lapse into comfortable silence. Azula’s arms finally come down, unfold from her chest. After a moment, she speaks again, “Will you do me a favor?” 

“Depends,” Zuko responds, a wry smile touching his lips. 

His sister bristles a little, but she still says, “Will you send a letter for me?” 

Zuko’s brow quirks, mildly surprised, “Of course.” Then, he asks, “To who?”

Another pause. 

“The waterbender.” Azula eventually answers and if Zuko was surprised before, he is downright shocked now. 


Azula rolls her eyes, “Close your mouth before you catch flies.” she sniffs then, tipping her chin up, “What other waterbenders do I know?” 

Zuko is infinitely curious as to what Azula would like to speak to Katara about, but he supposes he shouldn’t pry. He only hopes it isn’t anything offensive. Should he warn Katara? He decides he will, he’ll pen her a letter right after this, send it along before–


Zuko blinks Azula into focus, who is mildly glaring at him. “Yes, of course. Just don’t–” he tries to find the right words, “Be nice, will you? She’s dear to me.” 

The moment he says it, he regrets it. Azula’s eyes sharpen, fix on him quickly. He doesn’t know how he always manages to forget that Azula is painfully sharp, that she always knows how to find secrets and weaknesses, but here he is again, caught between her claws. His cheeks smart with color. He probably looks as foolish as he feels.

“She’s my best friend, is all I mean.” Zuko reiterates. 

All Azula does is hum and Zuko feels all the more nervous for it. 

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but it’s not–” 

“Shouldn’t we be getting to Uncle? Wouldn’t want to keep him waiting for tea.” Azula muses, trailing off and Zuko follows closely behind her, rambling in a poor attempt to lead her away to the clear conclusion that she’s already come to. 

And despite it, Zuko feels warmth blossom in his chest. Especially when he sits beside his Uncle and his sister and they’re able to talk, Azula trading quips, teasing him. Making Iroh laugh, full and rich. 

It feels like a victory somehow, like he’s finally getting to know his sister after all of this time. But he thinks that maybe Azula is just starting to really get to know herself, too.  

Perhaps his patience has finally begun to pay off, seven years later. A childhood later. 

And how worth it is, Zuko thinks, feeling too fond and proud, to see Azula actually smile. 

Jakao is set on finding Zuko a wife. He has only gotten more persistent as time has gone on. He introduces Zuko to every single noblewoman that stops by the palace; Zuko almost wonders if Jakao has put out an advertisement for the whole of the Fire Nation with how often Zuko gets stopped by Jakao to meet another young woman. 

And all of their poor souls then have to endure an awkward conversation with Zuko, who is only trying to make it through his daily tasks as Fire Lord. 

Suki begins to weigh in, too. 

“She was nice,” she’ll say, trying to goad Zuko a little, but he always just responds with another disinterested comment. 

Suki eventually catches on. He is firmly not interested. She doesn’t stop trying with him, but she does ease up. 

Zuko thinks she can tell something is bothering him, something is squirming on the inside of him, trying to unearth itself. 

Somedays, he wants to tell her. He just wants to snap, he wants to say, I’m in love with someone else. He wants to let it out, send it flying like a dove loosened from its cage, I’m in love with someone else and she doesn’t love me back. 

Not the way he wants her to, anyways. 

It slowly eats him alive from the inside out. It bubbles inside of him, clambers around his skull and the chambers of his heart, looking for it’s way out. 

He rubs his fingers along the bracelet that Katara sent him, let’s the pads of his fingers find the cool beads, roll over them slowly. It both soothes him and makes him ache in equal measure. 

He has not parted with the bracelet since Katara sent it to him. 

His Uncle notices over their shared, private dinner one night. 

“Something is bothering you.” Iroh tells him gently, “I can tell.” 

Zuko shakes his head, tries to deny him. He focuses on his food. 

For a moment, Zuko thinks Iroh has already dropped the subject in favor of the noodles in his dish. He thinks he’s off the hook. 

But then Iroh asks, “What are you so scared to say?” 

Zuko pauses. He glances up to his uncle. “Nothing,” and when he can tell Iroh does not buy this, either, he tries to find something to give him, “I just– I don’t like Jakao’s pressure for marriage.” 

That isn’t untrue. But it isn’t the whole truth, either. 

Iroh nods, “That can be quite frustrating. He means well, though. He’s only trying to help you.” 

“I know,” Zuko gets out, trying not to grind his morals together too hard. 

There is another long stretch of silence. But this time, there’s pressure to it. His uncle pretends to ignore him in favor of food, but Zuko suddenly can’t focus on anything except the pit in his stomach. 

He thinks that the love trapped inside him will eventually rot if it doesn’t see the sun. Is it always supposed to hurt this bad? 

He clutches at his bracelet, thinks of Katara’s hands weaving the beads carefully. Did she think of him when she made it? Does she wonder about him, too? She is always on the back of his mind, always living in his daydreams, in his heart. 

He tries to swallow it all down, but it doesn’t go down right. 

“My Lord?” his uncle finally inquires, as if he knows down to the moment when Zuko will finally just explode– 

Zuko inhales sharply.

“I’m in love,” he says then, miserable and sick with it. 

Iroh’s eyes widen fractionally. It’s not what he’s expecting, Zuko relaizes. But then his uncle’s features soften. “Why, isn’t this a good thing?” Iroh asks gently, “Love should make you happy.” 

Zuko shakes his head quickly, “She doesn’t love me back.” 

“Did she tell you that?” Iroh inquires. 

“N-no, but–” 

“Then how do you know?” 

Zuko doesn’t know how to tell him that it’s more complicated than that. He doesn’t know how to tell him that he can’t tell her because she’s far too good and kind and he would just ruin everything and then she would leave, she would disappear from his life, too, like he’s used to and–

“You will never know unless you tell her.” Iroh says softly, his voice barely above a murmur. He tries to find Zuko’s downcast eyes, “Perhaps she will surprise you.” 

Dear Zuko,


It’s the middle of the night, but I can’t sleep. I’m sitting by the fire in my family’s home and I suppose I just miss you. As much as your letters are a comfort to me, I wish I could speak to you in person. 

You have always understood me best, I think. 

I can’t stop thinking about fate lately. And you. Do you know the story of Oma and Shu? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. 





Chapter Text

    “My mother’s favorite bedtime story to tell us was of Oma and Shu and their beautiful crystal cave. It became my favorite, too. I had found out, though, that she used to change the ending. Where Shu usually died, she told us that Oma had saved him, that she had moved heaven and earth to do so. And together, they ended the war and peace was restored. 

You can imagine how silly I looked when I told this story, incorrectly, in front of my entire class.” 

        –An excerpt from the biography ‘The Life of a Prince’  

Katara begins most of her mornings early, when the world is tinged pink and peach, the ice glittering under the light of dawn. She isn’t usually an early riser, but has gotten into the routine of doing so ever since she joined the dance troupe that practices in the community center at the heart of the village. Together, they practice in the early light of morning. It’s nice for Katara because it doesn’t interfere with meetings or work later in her day. Often times, she can even sneak in bending practice afterwards before she joins her family for breakfast. 

She has been home for a little over a year now and it feels good. She is happy. She has plenty to do during the day, she has purpose and drive. She’s an Ambassador for the Southern Water Tribe and she signs her name as such to important politicians and leaders;


Ambassador Katara of the Southern Water Tribe

Even to Zuko, when she isn’t writing to him in personal letters, she refers to herself as such. She addresses him as Fire Lord and he addresses her as Ambassador. She doesn’t know why it makes her smile every time she reads it. 

Perhaps because she writes to him personally so often that it almost feels like an inside joke to call him Fire Lord, for him to call her Ambassador. Still, to see it fills Katara with some sort of pride. Like she’s finally doing something for her Tribe, like she’s finally progressing, moving forward. 

She dresses in the blue dark of dawn. She slides on layer after familiar layer, it is habitual. Almost a ritual with herself every morning. She combs out her hair with the pale, whale-bone comb that has a home on her dresser that was made by her father. She sits in front of her mirror and slowly winds her braid together, breathing slow and deep, letting it fill her stomach and then expand out into her ribcage. 

She rubs at her eyes a little, still sleepy. She stretches in the mirror, reaches her arms tall above her head, savors the feeling.

Katara leaves her room to find her brother in the common area of their home, stroking the small embers of the fire. He’s up rather early, too. He glances to her when she emerges. 

“Hawky brought mail.” he says quietly as a greeting, as if not to disturb the house, though Katara is sure that her father is probably awake or will be soon. 

She moves to sit beside her brother, in front of the fire, taking the handful of letters that are addressed to her. Sokka has a few in his own hand, one already opened. The fire is warm and casts the room in an amber glow. 

“Suki’s coming to visit next month.” Sokka tells her, pushing at the fire a little more. 

Katara smiles, “For how long?” 

“Two weeks or so.” 

Ever since they’ve gotten married, they’ve visited each other more frequently. Sometimes even meeting in Republic City for a week or so. This is the third time that Suki has come to visit since Katara has been home and she’s always excited to have her. Especially so the first time, when her breakup with Aang was fresh and Suki had spent most of her time with Katara, rather than her husband. 

Katara remembers laying in front of this fire together, bundled beneath a quilt, her face tucked into Suki’s shoulder, Suki’s hand stroking through her hair, holding her as she cried. She’d been eternally grateful for Suki’s presence then, for the soft, comforting words she’d repeated to Katara.

You did the right thing. 

You’ll be okay. So will he. 

It’ll all be okay.

She had fallen asleep like that, against Suki, wrapped in her arms. And Suki had stayed with her the whole night, in front of the dwindling fire. Sokka had stayed near, too, wrapped in his own quilt. And though Sokka and her father had been comforting in their own ways, it had been especially nice to have Suki. 

And Suki had been right. Katara was okay. She had healed here, in her home, among the cold, rough waves of her ocean and the snow and the ice. Of course, she has more healing to do– seven years is so long to move on from, but she has changed, grown into herself. Into her new roles, into who she wants to be. 

“That’ll be nice.” Katara finally responds, shuffling through her own letters, looking for Zuko’s messy scrawl first. 

Sokka eyes her for a moment, just as she picks out what she’s sure is Zuko’s letter. For a moment, she tries to ignore him. But she can still feel her brother’s eyes on her as she begins to lift the wax seal from Zuko’s letter and she doesn’t want Sokka peering over her shoulder to read Zuko’s letter–

“What is it, Sokka?” 

“What? Nothing!” he says, but his voice rises. 

Katara huffs, “Just say it.” 

Sokka pauses and she thinks she’s going to need to push harder at him before he says, “It’s nothing, really. Dad and I talked about maybe sending you to the Fire Nation sometime soon.” and before Katara can even inhale, Sokka is continuing hurriedly, “But we know you don’t really want to travel anymore so don’t worry about it if–”

“Why do you want to send me there?” Katara asks, feeling her heart quicken as she picks her eyes up from her letter, “For how long?” 

“Because you’re Ambassador and you work the most with foreign policy and politicians. The South doesn’t see a lot of foreign dignitaries because it’s so far from the rest of the world but the Fire Nation does.” Sokka explains, “Well, so does the Earth Kingdom, but I figured you’d rather go see Zuko than King Kuei.” 

He’s right, but Katara narrows her eyes at the way he said Zuko. 

“You know, since you write to him so much.” Then he glances pointedly down at the letter in her hand. 

Katara doesn’t know why, but she feels like she’s on the defensive suddenly, “So? We’re good friends.” 

Sokka’s brow quirks, his eyes a little too calculating for Katara’s taste, “I didn’t suggest otherwise.” 


“I haven’t even said anything!” he counters quickly and there’s a slight smile pulling at his lips to Katara’s frown. His eyes are a little too bright and Katara wishes it was the glow of the fire, but she knows it’s because Sokka’s brain is working too much for her liking. 

Instead of fighting more, she tries to change the subject, “For how long?” 

Sokka looks at her a little too closely for another beat before he finally drops it, shrugs,  “We didn’t talk about it. Probably awhile, though, so you can get some meaningful work done. But we know how much you like being home, so if you don’t want to–” 

“No, I’ll consider it.” she responds, maybe a little too quickly, “I had only gotten sick of the constant traveling and changing. If I was there for awhile, I’d be okay I think.” 

Sokka nods, “Well, we have time to talk about it and for you to think it over.” And then he offers her a smile, which is a touch mischievous, “But I’m sure Zuko misses you.” 

Katara slugs Sokka in the arm and he yelps, his hand coming up to rub at his bicep, which is more muscular and harder than it was when they were young. Nowadays, Katara has to force herself not to shake the pain out of her hand lest she give her brother any sort of satisfaction. 

“What are you two doing?” Their father asks, stretching into a yawn, his form a shadow in the growing light of the doorway into his room. 

“Pestering Katara about her little crush–” 

Between one moment and the next, a dash of snow that had been water from a pitcher explodes in Sokka’s face. He yells more, spluttering, trying to wipe snow away from his face. 

“The Firebender who writes to her so much?” Hakoda asks, shuffling for the kitchen. 

Katara jolts to her feet, protests already falling out of her mouth. And even though her face is hot to the touch and she can feel her heart kicking up into a strange rhythm, Sokka’s cackling laugh that bounces off the walls of their home feels familiar and fond. 

She denies their accusations heatedly, arguing with Sokka, and even after all the while, she’s still clutching Zuko’s letter in her hand, up to her chest.

The rest lay forgotten on the floor. 

The days go by quickly when she’s so busy. Usually, she doesn’t have much time to herself throughout, but when she does, she has several places that she prefers to spend it. Especially if she is trying to decompress, to let her mind and body ease.  

One is near the ocean, maybe in a boat, even better if she can get Sokka or her father to join her out on the water for a while. Another place she prefers is the watchtower. It’s quiet and reminds her of the top of the Fire Sage’s tower that Zuko had shown her. Sometimes, when she looks out at the horizon from that high up, she thinks if she looks hard enough, she’ll be able to see the Fire Nation so far in the distance. 

She can’t, of course, but she imagines she can. She imagines Zuko sitting atop his own tower, with his own view of the world, looking for her horizon, too. Two figures in the sky, looking out towards each other. 

The last place that she tries to slip away to when she can are the crystal caves that had been found in recent years. They weren’t far from the main part of downtown, they’d been discovered when they were expanding in the recent years after the war. 

But they’re stunning. Bright, near glowing crystals and gems that jut from the earth. A small, glittering pool of water that trickles peacefully through. The flash of silver and gold, of ruby and peach in the precious stones that line the walls. 

They try not to mine from it too much, have already put laws into place to protect it. The Southern Water Tribe has never been about taking in excess or in greed. Only what is necessary. They work hard to preserve and take care of the environment around them, no matter how harsh and cold it seems to them at times. 

Katara finds immense peace in the caves, in sitting among the glittering earth, the glide of water so clear it seems otherworldly. 

She feels as if she’s been here before, like she knows this place the way she might know an old home. She thinks of her dreams often, the ones where she meets Zuko in a cave of crystals, glowing and soft against their skin.

She thinks of Oma and Shu and the way love seems to meet in the middle. 

She feels like maybe she’s going in circles when she thinks of a boy and girl from two warring nations, meeting somewhere between her home and his. Between one breath and the next. 

It all feels like she’s been here before, like there is something sacred and familiar about it, but something new, too, or something forgotten. A half-formed memory, fuzzy and soft on the edges, like she’s still reaching for what she doesn’t know. 

She’s finally happy again at least, but she still isn’t satisfied, still not content. 

She’s getting closer though, she thinks, as she runs her fingers over the cool crystals that sparkle her reflection back at her. 

They make her look divine. Mythic. 

Dear Katara,


Things are always busy, as usual. I am specifically having trouble with our healthcare and education, but you know this. I have detailed my trouble to you before. However, what I’m struggling with now is my old and outdated council that won’t allow me to get anything done. It seems at every turn, they are refusing something that would benefit my people. For some, I think their only motivation is their own pockets and not the people of the Fire Nation. I am growing increasingly frustrated with them and their lack of compassion. 

But enough about politics in our personal letters, too. I also want you to know that Aang just left the Fire Nation after his visit. As his friend, I’ll disclose little, only that he is okay. I know you worry about him from time to time still. I would even say he’s doing better, he’s more independent. He also mentioned that he would be embarking on a spiritual journey of some kind and for us not to worry if we don’t hear from him promptly. He does hope you’re doing well, too.

It’s the rainy season here in the Fire Nation. I think you would like it. It’s nice to fall asleep at night to the sound of it. It makes it hard to rise in the morning, though. I like how green the Fire Nation is at this time, it’s so vibrant. I wish I could show you the fire-lilies that grow at this time. I think you would like those, too. 

I’d send you some, but they’d die by the time they reached you. 

I hope you’re doing well. I miss you more and more these days. 

Take care of yourself. 




P.S. I’ve included a red moon hair clip that I bought the last time I visited the merchants by the dock in Caldera City. It was hand made by an old woman by the name of Yamu who was very scrappy. The clip reminded me of you. Yamu reminded me of you a little, too. She gave me a hard time. I hope you like it. 

It is evening when Suki’s ship comes into the harbor. Sokka has gone to greet her. The sky is just beginning to bleed into the dramatic, ripe orange of dusk, casting the icy world in its splendor. 

And the moment that Katara spots her brother and Suki walking back from the docks, she drops everything she is doing to sprint towards Suki. 

They collide with squeals and peels of laughter and excitement, holding fierce to each other. Katara can see her brother’s fond smile from the corner of her eye. She doesn’t know why it makes her momentarily emotional, but it does, makes her heart squeeze. 

“I missed you,” Katara tells Suki, her face tucked into her shoulder. 

“I missed you, too.” Suki says, pulling away to get a good look at Katara. The hood of Katara’s parka has fallen down and Suki is able to fully take her in. “You look good,” Suki then adds, her smile widening, “You look happy.” 

“I am,” Katara agrees with a warm smile, squeezing her arm. 

 Suki reaches up, touches something in Katara’s hair, it’s the moon clip, the crescent shape holding back some of her dark hair, ruby against the blue of everything. A knowing look crosses over Suki’s face. 

“I was wondering who he gave this to,” she murmurs. 

Katara’s cheeks flush with color, perhaps the same shade of red as her clip. “O-oh. It’s nothing, really–” 

Suki hums, but she doesn’t sound convinced at all. Something about it makes Katara squirm. “I thought he had a secret girlfriend he wasn’t telling me about when he bought it.” Suki says, and Sokka’s brow quirk upwards. The last thing she needs is–

 “Secret girlfriend, huh?” Sokka asks, narrowing his eyes at Katara. 

“It’s not like that!” Katara says quickly, “I-I sent him a bracelet awhile ago, I’m sure he’s just returning the favor.” 

Suki and Sokka exchange a look, which makes Katara groan in frustration before turning to stomp away, which is followed by their laughter. Despite herself, a smile lifts fractionally at her lips. Suki rushes to catch up to Katara’s side, followed by her brother at her other side. 

Sokka throws his arm around Katara’s shoulders, “When are you going to admit that you have a crush on Mr. Brooding Firebender?” 

Katara feels her stomach twist nervously, “Never! Because I don’t!” 

Suki elbows her a little, “Not even a little one? You know he writes to you the most. He wears your bracelet everyday.” 

Katara doesn’t know what to do with this information, except that it makes warmth sweep through her chest. It makes her want to pause, to think about it for the rest of the day. She mentally shakes herself, she’s sure he wears the bracelet as a courtesy, certain that he is just her friend. That he’s good and kind and cares about her, that’s all. 

“He’s my best friend,” Katara responds, “That’s it. That’s all it’s ever been. ” 

“You know you’re allowed to have a crush on him, Katara.” Suki says and though it’s said casually, too easily, it takes Katara up short for some reason. 

“What do you mean?” she half-laughs, nerves fluttering. 

“It’s been over a year since you and Aang broke up,” Suki says, linking her arm through Katara’s, easing into her side. She’s warm, keeping the wind from cutting into Katara as they make their way back to their home. “It’s not wrong to have a little crush on him.” 

Before she can think, Katara says, “He’s Aang’s friend, too.” And then when Sokka and Suki exchange another look over her head, she adds, “And like I said, it’s not like that.” 

“Say it is,” Suki responds, her eyes bright, intrigued. She thinks her and Sokka are too smart for their own good. “You’re allowed to have feelings for other people. You don’t have to keep waiting or denying for yourself or for Aang.” 

“I’m not!” Katara tries to protest, but it even feels funny in her mouth. 

“Whatever, your secret’s safe with us.” Sokka says, jostling her under his arm a little with a grin. Katara squirms, tries to get out of his hold, but Suki catches on and grabs tight to Katara, keeping her in Sokka’s hold. She’s stuck between the two of them and they won’t let her go. It turns into a bit of wrestling, which makes Katara laugh, trying to twist in their arms. 

Suki digs her hand into Katara’s side, trying to tickle her, which makes Katara shriek. Sokka holds tighter so she can’t get away. 

“Admit you have a crush and we’ll let you go,” Suki threatens, her fingers flexing, making Katara gasp with laughter. 

“I-I don’t!” Katara barely gets out, laughing harder, trying to double over, but Sokka is holding her up. He’s laughing, too, just as Suki is as she tries to tickle Katara harder. “D-don’t m-make me Waterbend–” but the threat is muted with all her laughter. 

“Admit it! And you’ll be free!” Suki says, getting her other hand to Katara’s other side, which makes Katara shout, twist harder. 

“No!” Katara yells, tears streaming down her cheeks, her smile so wide it hurts. The wind is cold with her tears, but she doesn’t care, her face is so warm and she can’t stop laughing. Katara manages to get an arm free, to loop it over her head for snow to drop onto Sokka’s head. 

He let’s her go and Katara is able to break away from them both, sucking in a huge breath of clear, cold air. She’s still smiling when she scoops up snow into her palm and lobs it at Suki. It hits her square in the chest. 

“Oh, you’re on.” Suki says, dropping the pack on her shoulder that she had traveled with into the snow to then pick up her own snow and pelt it at Katara. 

They devolve into snowball fights and wrestling together. They’re just as bad as the kids in the Tribe, running around in the snow, chasing each other, shouting with laughter. So happy and full of joy and mischief that it bursts out of them, their voices carrying into the sky that begins to bleed into plum and nightshade. The moon is a smile in the sky above them.

When they’re breathless and cold and dripping in snow and slush, they finally make it the rest of the way back to their home. Katara bends the water from them so they’re dry. They sit by the fire with their father, who laddles them a brothy soup that Katara knows well. It reminds her of her childhood. It warms her down to the bone. 

They sit and talk like this, as a family, teasing and happy, catching up with each other and telling stories. Suki is curled up against her brother’s side. 

Faintly, Katara wonders when she’ll have someone, too. She isn’t envious of her brother. But their love is so clear and strong that Katara can’t help but want to chase the same for herself. She can only hope she’ll be half as happy as they are, she thinks.

More than that, a quiet part of Katara thinks that they’re not just happy, they’re satisfied. So content. So at peace with each other that it makes Katara ache. 

Katara drifts off by the fire that night, bundled in a quilt, curled on her side on the floor. 

Her fingers curl towards the warmth, the soft glow of the embers. Vaguely, the warmth reminds her of Zuko, of his hands, the tender way he would look at her sometimes. 

And no one has to know, her secret’s safe here, in the hearth of her home, tucked away in the quiet places of her heart. 

Dear Katara,


I’ve received a letter from your father asking if I would house you here in the Fire Nation for you to work on more foreign policies and relationships. Of course, I accepted, only to then receive another letter from Suki that told me you would be returning to the Fire Nation with her at the end of this week. As excited as I am for you both to return, I just want you to be wary of the stormy season that we’re approaching. I know you’re a Master Waterbender, but our seas can be dangerous and unpredictable at this time of the year.

Other than that, though, I can’t wait to see you again. I can’t wait to have you back. You won’t be across the ocean anymore, just across the palace, just a moment away. Of course, I know you’re here for business, technically. You’re here as an Ambassador to the Southern Water Tribe, not as a friend, but I can’t help but be excited anyways. I hope you’ll come to enjoy living here, in the Fire Nation. I can’t wait to show you more of it. 

I also noticed in your previous letter that at one point, you told me that the fire in your home reminds you of me and my hands because of how warm they always were. Which, I understand, it feels like an obvious connection. But at the end of your letter, you told me “I am starting to miss the warmth while here. I miss the real thing.” Did you mean me? Or my hands? Something else? Am I reading this wrong? 

I miss you, too. Your hands. Your smile. Your eyes. Just you, all of you. Always you. 

Please keep in touch on your journey here. I’m counting the days until you’re here again. It’s been so long. 

Take care of yourself. I can’t wait to see you again.




Katara dances among the blue dawn in the large, spacious community center.

Their drummers pound out a rolling rhythm on the hide of their instruments, letting it fill the space. It's a steady beat, something that resounds in Katara's chest. She can feel it with her heart, the steady beat that she often finds in the roll of the ocean. In the way that she gives and takes with her element, the ebb and flow of water that is ever present.

Her torso twists, her wrists flick, revealing licks of her palms, the heels of her hands. She leans, spreads her arms wide, moves her feet in time to the drums. She feels her features soften out, feels the stress leave her body. She can even feel the up-tilt of her lips, moving in time to the up-tilt of her chin, of her knees.

While she dances, she let's everyone around her fade away. All the world drops from her eyes. It's just her and the beat, the pull of the water in the room.

Before she knows it, she is moving her hands to draw the water to her. And then the glide of water is surrounding her, moving around her. It twists around her middle, twines alone her outreaching arms, dances back to circle above her head. It rolls with the sway of her hips, darts out with the kick of her heel. It becomes one with her, with her dancing.

She feels weightless, a little breathless. The whole room has stopped to watch her. The drums keep playing. And Katara keeps dancing.

And it's like she can feel herself healing, feel herself changing and growing and shining like this. Her element moves around her body like a limb, like her own. She feels attuned to it, to her own body and the energy around her. The push and pull. 

Katara dances and she feels her heart take root inside of her body, finally ready to grow, to burst free from her, and shower the world in all it's glory.



I hear you’re finally returning again. It’s about time. 

Safe travels and all that, I suppose.



Princess Azula

Chapter Text

“They called Fire Lady Katara Stormbender, Mother of the Seas. They called her Caldera’s Guardian, the Sea’s Tamer. When her statue was built in the heart of the city, with water spilling forth from her hands into a fountain, people dipped their hands into the water and placed it on their brows to ask for protection and healing. She became a symbol for the weary and downtrodden, for those that needed strength and refuge. 

And they called Fire Lord Zuko Lightbearer, King of the Fallen, Redeemer, Caldera’s Guidance. His story became a lesson that the light always prevails, even when one is in darkness. He became a symbol of truth and revolution, guiding the way to the future, to safety. His statue near the port of Caldera City stands tall and proud and harbors fire in his outstretched palm, a beacon to those lost at sea, out in the dark.

They symbolize change and hope to the people. It’s why activists quote them so often. It’s why it is tradition for protestors to meet at his statue, at the docks, and march to hers, where they will ask for her protection and strength before marching to the palace gates. 

They are the proof of transformation, of unparalleled strength and determination. They are the proof of a new world, one built on the bedrocks of hope.” 

        –an excerpt from ‘A History of Activism in the Fire Nation”  

Lightning flashes brightly, illuminating Zuko’s pacing silhouette for only a moment before he is dashed back into darkness. A storm rages just outside the palace, the wind howling and whipping, tearing at the doors and windows, as if it were trying to press inside. They haven’t seen a storm this severe in years, maybe not since Zuko was a boy, young and small and able to hide in his mother’s arms when the thunder rattled the palace halls. 

But now, he worries. He has heard already that the sea levels are devastating to the people whose homes and storefronts are located by the docks. They had tried to evacuate them to higher ground, further into Caldera City, but the storm had struck too suddenly. 

More than that, Katara and Suki’s ship was supposed to return this evening. 

Zuko feels like he could be sick. 

And there’s nothing he can do about it except wait. Wait for a word from someone, the hope that they somehow made it safely to port. Or they’ll withstand the storm at sea. All his mind can do is conjure up images of dashed apart wood, bodies in an unforgivable sea. A lifeless hand. He tries to breathe. 

Katara is a master waterbender. She can get through this– her and Suki will get through this. 

Caldera City, though, will be in ruins. His people. Particularly the lower and middle classes who live on the outskirts, who live near the sea, will pay dearly. Perhaps both in life and livelihood. It makes his heart split apart, nausea roll through him sickly. 

He curses. He feels so useless. 

He’s already sent out rescue personnel, pouring in any resource that they might need. He’s already given the order to turn schools, theaters, and community centers of any kind into places to harbor those who will lose their homes. He is doing everything he can and he knows it is still not enough.

There’s a slight commotion from down the hall, some shouts, and Zuko turns, only to see a messenger running for him, drenched and pale faced with fear and wide, dark eyes. 

He doesn’t bow, “Fire Lord Zuko–” he gasps, his breathing ragged. He must’ve run here, in the storm.

The guards try to apologize for the breach in security but Zuko won’t hear it, raising his hand to let this man, who clearly fought to get here so quickly, speak. 

“Ambassador Katara–” the man’s voice breaks, “She’s– she made it to port and she’s holding off the storm.” 

“What?” Zuko hears himself ask, but it feels far away suddenly. 

“She’s holding off the storm,” the man emphasizes, clearly just as shocked still, “To get everyone near the sea to safe grounds.” 

Zuko doesn’t take the time to process this information, his body is moving before his mind. He doesn’t think he’s even fully registered what has been said to him. He rushes past the man, though, past his guards, who are hot on his heels.

There are protests as he makes his way to the doors of the palace, but no one dares to actually stop him. When he opens the door, the wind throws it the rest of the way open, rain already pelting him. It stings, but he doesn’t care. He darts out into the storm, the wind tearing at him, at his clothes. 

Two of his Kyoshi Warriors rush out after him, “We’re coming with you,” one reassures him when he gives them a hard look, as if to say don’t try to stop me.

And with that, Zuko tries to shield his face from the rain to get a good look at the dark horizon. 

He can see a wall of shimmery water. It’s huge, reaching up into the sky, blocking out the storm. It reminds him of when Katara held all the rain in place when she faced Yon Rha all those years ago. But it’s far bigger, far more incredible. 

It steals his breath away. 

He almost wants to say it’s impossible, but he knows better. 

He races off towards the source, trying to shield his face from the harsh rain, from the terrible wind. Several times they have to stop, take cover behind something larger when debris sails through the sky. But he pushes on until he can see the shimmery wall of water in the distance. 

He hears wailing in the streets. 

He whips his head around, searching for the sound in the darkness, above the sound of the storm. 

It sounds like a child. 

Zuko wipes water away from his eyes, tries to clear his vision as he turns and moves towards the source of the sound. It’s high pitched, terrified. Zuko’s heart pounds as he nears the source, before he is finally able to make out a small figure in the darkness, clinging to a tree. 

He doesn’t think, just rushes for them. Up close, he can tell it is a little girl, crying and wailing. 

He touches her shoulders first, tentative, “I’ve got you,” he tries to assure over the wind, “I’ll take you to safety.” And thankfully, the child is so scared that all she does is turn to latch onto Zuko in desperation, her small arms holding tight to his neck as he lifts her away from the tree easily. 

She can’t be older than five. She tucks her little face into his neck and Zuko bands his arms around her, cradling her head, trying to shield her from the storm. 

“I lost my mom,” she cries and Zuko swallows, turns slightly so that his back takes the brunt of the wind and rain, so that she’s held away from it. Her fingers and face are cold, so he huffs a little to raise his body temperature, to warm her. 

“I’ll help you find her,” Zuko promises, even if his heart is in his throat. “What’s your name?” 

“U-ukori.” she sniffles.

“I’m Zuko. I’m going to get us to safety, okay?” he tells her, before he continues to push on through the storm, towards the safety of the bubble that Katara has created. He moves slower now, with Ukori in his arms, careful of her especially. 

But he makes it there, bursts through the wall of water, only to end up on the inside. Immediately, the rain and wind have stopped, pelt against the shimmering shield as Katara continues to bend the water of the storm away, to keep out the wind. He realizes that she is even bending the sea away from their feet, the water that has risen so high. 

It’s astonishing. 

Zuko is able to finally stand tall, not need to brace himself, or curl around Ukori. She finally picks her head up slightly, peaking around at what feels like the eye of the storm. 

In front of him is a massive crowd of people, huddled inside this bubble. There is shouting, people stumbling. Some coughing up what he assumes is sea water. Bloody injuries, maybe from a run-in with debris. Those who can are rushing around to help people up, to do damage control, trying to usher people on. 

He could weep at the state of his people, his heart aching for them, eyes going somewhat wide and desperate. He swallows hard around the lump that has lodged itself in his throat. 

There isn’t time to stand here and stare. 

He turns to the two Kyoshi Warriors who followed him, “Go, help anyone and everyone you can.” he says and they are gone in a flash of green, melting into the crowd of people, searching for those that need aid. 

Zuko adjusts Ukori in his grip, so she’s propped on his hip, her little arms still securely wrapped around his shoulders and neck. His eyes sweep out over the crowd, searching and searching for Katara, for Suki. 

There seems to be a slight gap in the crowd, a small circle cleared away and Zuko, on instinct, moves towards it. He gently eases his way through the crowd and all at once, it’s like they part for him.

And at the center is Katara. 

Relief crashes into him hard and swift, stealing the breath from his lungs. 

His vision narrows and all he sees is her for a moment, with her arms up and moving in firm, slow movements. Her brow is furrowed in exertion, jaw clenched. She’s soaked, hair clinging to her neck, her cheek. Her shoulders are tense, body straining hard, fingers flexed and reaching for the heavens. The water high above her, all around her, moves to her command. 

Her eyes flash in the lightning, stormy like the sea, determined and fierce and brilliant. 

Zuko gets the impression that she’s holding up the weight of the world with her hands, with the strength of her shoulders. 

She’s made a storm bow to her will. He feels like it’s something only an Avatar should be capable of, only a god, but here Katara is, defying all odds. Defying everything. 

He thinks she’s a goddess made mortal, there’s no other way to explain it. She is too ferocious, too powerful, too incredible to be of this earth. And somehow, somehow, Zuko has the privilege of knowing her. Of having her here, when he needs her. When his people need her. 

He only wonders for a moment how many stars had to align for this to happen. 

And then he’s moving, rushing for her, clutching tight to Ukori. 

Katara picks her head up, blinks hard when she sees him, like she can’t quite believe he’s here. 

“Katara,” he breathes with reverence, feeling the syllables on his tongue, the awe caught somewhere in his chest, in his throat–

She’s doing this for his people. 

Single handedly, she has saved the people of Caldera City. 

He doesn’t know how he’s ever going to thank her for this.

“Zuko?” she chokes out, her eyes shining. “What are you doing here?”

“I had to come,” he says, “The moment I heard–” 

She shakes her head fractionally, “You shouldn’t have–” 

“I had to.” he insists, his mind finally catching up with him. Katara’s steps are slow, but still steady despite her clear exhaustion. She is trying to push forward, to keep this makeshift shelter moving, but the crowd is slow. 

“How can I help you?” Zuko asks, coming to her side, “What can I do?” 

“Guide me,” Katara responds quickly, through clenched teeth, “Guide the crowd. I don’t know where to go– I don’t know where it’s safe. And it’s too dark.” 

“Okay,” Zuko breathes, coming to her side. He wishes he could help support her, wishes he could do anything more, but she clearly has a rhythm, clearly is fighting through this on her own. He can’t do much, but he can listen to her. 

So he lifts his hand above his head and ignites a flame in his palm, bright and burning. Gold light falls over them, casts tall shadows of her, of him, so they look larger than life.

 He’s a torch in the night, against the battering of the storm. 

Ukori gasps softly, looking up at his hand, then out at the crowds of people. Katara glances at her, but she doesn’t have the energy to question him about the small girl in his arms.  

“Where’s Suki?” Zuko manages to ask her, his chest tightening, fear lancing through his throat. 

“Safe,” Katara responds, “Somewhere in here– she’s helping the injured.” 

Zuko exhales in relief again. “Then let’s get everyone to higher ground. I’ve already ordered all spare spaces to be transformed into refuge from the storm.” 

Katara sets her gaze ahead of her, nods once in confirmation, her eyes hard and fierce, and pushes onward.

They move together. 

People start to catch on, to fall into line behind them because of the plume of flame that he keeps steady and bright over the tops of everyone’s heads. Zuko falls into rhythm with Katara, at her side. 

He leads her up into the hills of Caldera City, to safer grounds. It is slow going with the large crowd, with the people who drag on, with all of the power it takes for Katara to move a mass of water far larger than herself, with half of the city beneath it’s protection. 

Suki, at one point, finds them again, her eyes widening as she sees Zuko. 

“Who let you out of the palace?” Suki quips and Zuko manages a surprised laugh, though it’s just a sputtering, weak sound. 

“I didn’t ask for permission.” he responds, “Can I help you at all?” he then asks. 

Suki shakes her head, “Stay beside Katara, keep going.” and she offers him a more serious look now, glancing to Katara, then back to him. That look suggests Suki is worried about her. He can’t blame her– Katara’s arms are beginning to shake and they still have quite a ways to go. And Zuko can’t imagine what Katara had to do to get them safely into Caldera City, he isn't sure what happened to their boat or their crew.  

“Whose this?” Suki then asks, turning her attention to Ukori, who is still clinging to Zuko. 

“Ukori. I found her out in the storm, she says she lost her mother.” Zuko explains and Suki reaches for her before he can do anything else. 

“Ukori, huh? I’m Suki,” she offers a warm smile and Ukori willingly wraps her arms around Suki now, easing into her arms. “I’ll help you find your mom, okay? Zuko’s a little busy.”

“O-okay,” Ukori murmurs, fingers tightening in Suki’s damp shirt as she glances back to Zuko for reassurance. 

“You’ll be safe with Suki,” he promises, “She’s very brave and strong.” 

Ukori’s bottom lip wobbles, but she nods.  

“I’ll see you again soon,” Suki tells Zuko, then shifts her eyes to Katara, who isn’t paying much attention to them, too focused on her bending, on the storm. She’s breathing harder now, trying to keep a stable rhythm. In through her nose, hard exhale through her mouth. 

Suki’s expression falls into one of worry, before shifting back to Zuko, “Watch out for her. She–” Suki swallows, before continuing quietly, “She’s already been doing this for hours.” 

Zuko nods once and forces himself to stay calm, even if he feels his own worry for her spike. But he stays calm for Katara. For Suki. For the terrified people behind him. 

Suki turns to go, but Zuko shouts to her. She turns back around, her eyes finding his once more. 

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Zuko tells her and a smile lights up her features for a moment, even in the midst of all this danger. 

“Me too,” she says and then she disappears into the crowd behind him, gone in a flash with Ukori. 

Now Zuko focuses ahead, on the fastest route to safety. He focuses on Katara, doesn’t dare speak so that she can keep her focus. He keeps his arm above his head, the flame a bright light, a beacon in all the chaos. 

People fall in line behind them and they lead the masses to safety the way a shepherd leads their lambs, slowly and carefully. With no one left behind.  

Eventually, Katara manages to ask, “H-how much longer?”

Her legs are beginning to shake now, each step more of a shuffle. Droplets of rain manage to fall in, misting them. She’s growing so tired, her face falling away into pain. 

“Almost there,” Zuko promises her, “Just a little longer.” 

Katara groans slightly from behind her teeth, her breaths labored. Zuko desperately wants to take away the struggle, the pain in her features. He desperately wants to do more than just guide her. He’d do anything to help, anything–

His free hand moves to rest between her shoulder blades, so he’s not disturbing the way she moves, but offering support. “We’re almost there,” he says again, feeling her muscles flex beneath his hand as her hands keep up their pushing and pulling. 

 She straightens fractionally, a new fire in her eyes, and she keeps going. Step by step, up the hill, leading his people to safety. He keeps his hand firmly on her back, consistent, warm, supportive. Sometimes his fingers dig into her, pressing harder, more desperately. She hisses through her teeth when more rain gets in, falling on them harder. 

“The wind is so strong,” Katara bites out, pain flickering over her features again. 

Zuko moves to block her from the onslaught of the rain, the flame in his hand flickering, but never going out. He urges her on, keeping his eyes on the horizon behind them, on the crowds that are just barely making it up onto the hill, out of the dangers of the high sea waters. They can find safety now. He knows there are places for shelter just ahead of them.  

He catches Suki, who no longer has Ukori, but an injured man draped over her shoulders and tells her that the moment Katara drops the barrier, she and others need to start herding people to those shelters. To get them out of the storm. 

Suki moves quickly, shouting orders, passing them on to others who are helping her. She takes hold of the situation in the way of a leader, of a warrior. 

The last few groups of people round up the hill and he waits, waits, waits until he’s certain, until he knows every last person is on higher ground, away from the most dangerous part of the storm. 

And the moment he’s certain, he tells Katara, “They’re safe. Everyone’s safe. You can let go now,” his voice is rough, almost choked, “You did it, now let go.” 

Katara wavers, before her arms drop like stones. The barrier comes crashing down. The storm rushes in, wind whipping at Zuko’s hair. He can hear Suki and others shouting over it, urging people into the free buildings. Some people open the front doors of their homes, gesturing wildly to aid in sheltering those out in the storm. Light pours from their homes, illuminating in the darkness. 

Small beacons of hope, of compassion. 

Katara’s body sways and Zuko moves the moment he sees her eyes roll back, rushing in front of her, the flame in his hand finally going out so that he can catch her. 

She slumps into his chest, “I’ve got you,” he whispers, feeling her go slack. He adjusts his hold on her, easing her so that he can lift her into his arms. He cradles her to his chest, her head lolling onto his collar bones. “I’ve got you,” he says again, more for himself, as if to reassure himself that she’s okay, in his arms. 

She’s not lost at sea. She’s here, she’s here with him, with his people. 

But fear pricks at him still and he struggles to reach his fingers to her neck, to push through her wet hair and find her pulse. It’s there, soft against him, but it’s there. He doesn't breathe yet, though. 

He hates to leave his people now but he needs to get Katara to safety, he needs to get her to a doctor. So he doesn’t wait, he tightens his hold on her and he turns towards the palace that rests just in the distance. 

Zuko carries her all the way there in the storm. Her skin is ice cold so he breathes deeply, until his breath comes out as steam, until his chest is warmer. She stirs in his arms, eyes fluttering open and then dropping shut again. She fights against unconsciousness. 

“Zuko?” she mumbles, turning away from the rain, into his chest. 

“I’m here,” he murmurs, ducking his head to down to her, “I’m here, Katara.” 

She passes out again, going slack in his arms, which is a terrible feeling. It frightens him deeply. He fights the urge to search for her pulse again, his own heart hammering hard against his chest. She feels like a doll in his arms, loose and small. 

When he gets to the palace doors, they are thrown open wide for him. 

He’s drenched but he stumbles inside and he can hear gasps at his appearance, perhaps because of Katara, who is seemingly lifeless in his arms. 

“I need a doctor!” he shouts and a handful of staff break into a flurry of movement. Without thinking, he continues on, carries her deeper into the palace, trailing water in his wake. For a moment, he doesn’t even know where he’s headed. 

But then he’s at the door to his own room. He nudges it open with his foot, leaves it wide open for the staff, for the doctor. He’s about to lay her on the top of his bed when a staff member rushes into the room, already with towels and blankets in hand. She’s a small girl, but has a determined brow as she goes to Zuko’s side. 

She is not timid around Zuko and he is thankful for it. She’s quick to help Zuko bundle Katara in towels, in a blanket, before he finally is able to lay her onto his bed with the utmost care. Instantly, he drops to his knees beside the bed, waits and watches until he can see the rise and fall of her chest. 

He counts each breath she takes, watches steadily, gold eyes wide with worry. His heart feels like it’s going too fast, too hard. Fear is heavy in his gut, making a home of his body. 

She’s okay, isn’t she? Zuko wants to ask, he wants to reach out and touch her. He thinks she looks a little too small, bundled into those towels, on the corner of his bed. He wants her blue eyes to crack open and see him, to give a small laugh at how silly he must look, worried over the girl who just bested a storm.  

The handmaiden who had helped Zuko with Katara now lays a towel around his shoulders, too. Then she is moving out of the way for the doctor and nurses that flood into the room.

Zuko has to be told twice that he needs to step away. He jolts up, feeling strange, stumbling away from the bed to let others encircle her. They set to work in checking her over, bustling about the room. He feels suddenly agitated to be away from her, restless. 

Thunder rattles the palace. Lightning flashes outside his window. 

Zuko is certain that it has been hours, but in truth, it is probably only several long minutes before the doctor finally is able to step away from her. He looks at Zuko, and let’s go of a breath. 

“She’s fine,” he says first and watches as Zuko visibly relaxes, “She’s just extremely exhausted. And we need to get her out of the wet clothes,” then he looks Zuko over, “Which, we recommend for you as well.” 

Zuko nods numbly, “Thank you.” 

The handmaiden appears beside Zuko again, “I can find spare clothes for her,” she says, and then, “And can dress her. Did you want to keep her here, my Lord?” 

“What? Yes.” Zuko says, perhaps a little too quickly, a little too defensively. He knows he could have a room prepared for her, but the idea of parting with her only makes him squirm, it makes his nerves twist. 

If she thinks anything of his answer, she says nothing, just dips into a small bow and rushes off to do her job. Most of the nurses and the doctor file out. For all the commotion, it is eerily quiet now, save for the storm that thrashes outside. 

He drifts back to her bedside, mindlessly drawn to her. 

Tentatively, he reaches down to brush a damp curl from her cheek. She doesn’t shift, but she releases a deeper sigh, burrows down deeper into his bed. A pang hits Zuko, squarely in the chest. He doesn’t know what it is– if it’s because she’s just saved half of the people in Caldera City, if he’s just so in awe of her, of her bravery and strength and selflessness. Or if he’s guilty she’s hurt and unconscious, or if it’s because here she is again, back in his life after nearly two years apart. 

In his bed. 

Zuko’s hand jerks away from her face as if she’s burned him. 

If he didn’t deserve her and all her goodness before, he certainly doesn’t now. 

The handmaiden returns with clothes bundled into her arms. Zuko reluctantly stands and leaves, shutting the door behind him. 

For a moment, he finally breathes. Exhales hard, only to suck in air. 

He warms himself, until his clothes steam, some of the dampness receding. 

Katara is safe. Suki is safe. Most of his people made it to refuge. There are still problems that already arise in his mind though; where will they get supplies to house these people? How long will it take to rebuild what was lost? How long will the storm even last? 

He doesn’t waste time. He can’t. So he squares his shoulders, forces himself to stand tall. There is so much to do. He’ll check on Katara again soon. But for now, he has business to attend to.

Zuko makes his way down the hallways. He calls for a meeting between his advisors, between council members. 

Lightning illuminates the corridors, casting Zuko in it’s eerie light for brief moments. Zuko sets his jaw as he prepares to fight tooth and nail for his citizens, for what they’ll need. He thinks of Katara and all she did to protect them, tries to summon the look in her eyes, the one that got the sea to bow to her. 

Dawn creeps up on him, but the storm continues to hold his city in its clutches, so Zuko does not give up, either.      

Sometime in the early morning, when Zuko is still pulling at his hair in the council room, now alone, Katara appears in the doorway. If Zuko was growing tired at all, it leaves him in an instant at the sight of her. He lurches from his chair, goes to her side immediately. 

She looks ashen still, the color washed from her features. But her eyes have not lost their spark. 

“You’re awake,” he breathes, “Are you okay?” 

“How long was I asleep?” she asks instead. 

“A few hours, maybe. I don’t know if you should be up–” 

“Where’s Suki?” 

“Out helping still. Safe, though.” he replies and he can tell that something is bothering her. “Maybe we should–” 

“How many injured?” she interrupts him and Zuko pauses. He knows her. He knows where this is going. 

“Katara,” he tries to say evenly, catching her eyes, “I think you should rest.” 

Katara’s eyes flash dangerously, “How many injured?” she reiterates, her tone clipped. 

Zuko exhales slowly, “A few hundred, maybe. Which is incredible, all things considered. And all thanks to you. Now, please, you should rest.” 

“Take me to them, I’ll heal them–” 


Katara almost does a double take, like she can’t quite believe what she’s just heard. Her gaze hardens into a glare, fixed on Zuko, eyes like chips of ice. 

This wasn’t exactly the reunion that Zuko had hoped for.

“I can heal them.” she snaps, her voice sharp, laced with determination. 

Their eyes clash, a spark fizzles between them. 

“You need to rest.” Zuko says again, firmer, more authoritative. 

“You’re not my doctor,” she hisses and when she realizes how she’s spoken to him, she almost takes it back, he can see the flash of regret in her eyes, the sudden worry that she’s been too mean. He can tell that she’s used to pulling her punches.

Vaguely, he wonders if it’s because of Aang. If it’s because she was so cautious of her tone with him, always careful to be gentle, to soften all her blows.  

 But Zuko doesn’t flinch in the face of her anger. And he’s not running away or stepping down. 

When she realizes this, it must reassure her, because she adds, her tone still harsh, “I can’t sit here when I could be healing them.” 

“You just saved half my city and then you passed out. Go back to bed.” Zuko says, tone just as hard, perhaps a little too commanding, because it makes her bristle. 

Her shoulders rise like hackles, lips curling back to bare teeth. 

He wishes he didn’t find her so incredible still, that he doesn’t think this side of her– the temperamental, stubborn side of her– is just as stunning as the overly kind and caring side. He can’t decide if the heat that curls inside his chest is because of his own temper or because of hers. 

“I’m going whether you approve or not. I don’t take orders from you.” Katara responds, moving to shoulder past him. 

He catches her arm before she can get too far, “I don’t expect you to,” Zuko tells her through his teeth, “But you’ve done enough, Katara. Please go rest.” he says, his tone finally softening. Maybe he turns a little desperate. 

She deflates now, too. Faintly, he realizes he is still holding onto her arm, but she doesn’t pull away and neither does he.  She looks up at him, lifting her face up to meet his eyes. They’re so close that Zuko swears she’ll be able to hear the way his heart falters in his chest. 

“I’ll rest later,” Katara tries to assure him, gentler now. She’s looking up at him through her lashes, “I won’t be able to now, knowing that people still need help.” 

Zuko sighs in defeat, “I’m not winning this one, am I?” 

Katara’s lips quirk up at the corner in the slightest bit, “No,” she agrees, “You’re not.” 

Still, Zuko doesn’t let go of her, “Let’s compromise,” he tries and when she only offers a raised brow in response, he continues, “You only heal the gravest injuries, you don’t worry about non-life threatening ones. Then you rest.” 

Katara pauses, considering this for a moment. He fears she’ll be stubborn, but then she nods, a small dipping of her chin, “I can do that,” she tells him and Zuko lets go of a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. 

Silence settles over them and it isn’t uncomfortable, but it is charged. There is something between them, something that keeps them rooted in place. His hand is still wrapped around her bicep, looser now, but she hasn’t shrugged him away. 

Zuko doesn’t want to let her go, he realizes. No, he–

“Katara,” he says her name now, so softly that he fears he hasn’t even spoken at all. 

Katara’s eyes grow a little wider, gentler. Her face softens up and Zuko can’t help but feel like she looks so vulnerable like that, so open now . His throat feels suddenly tight, eyes burning somewhat. He has so much he could say to her. He hasn’t seen her in nearly two years and then he’d thought she’d been dashed away at sea, only to find out that she had managed to survive and save half of his city. Thousands and thousands of his people. 

Tentatively, her hand comes up, cold fingertips settling on his cheek, just below his scar. His eyes gutter, a shaky breath escaping him. He doesn’t mean to, but his hand tightens around her arm, like he doesn’t ever want to let her go. 

“It’s okay,” Katara murmurs, “It’ll be okay.” she promises, settling her hand onto his cheek, her touch firmer, braver. The pads of her fingers skim his scar, as gentle as possible. Zuko’s eyes flutter shut and he stays perfectly still, scared to move, as if it might frighten her away. 

“I was so worried–” Zuko starts, stops, voice catching. He shakes his head fractionally, his cheek brushing against her open palm. “And now I have no idea how I’ll ever be able to repay you. I can’t even begin to thank you enough.” 

“You don’t need to,” Katara breathes, “You don’t owe me anything. I would’ve done that anywhere, for anyone that needed my help.” 

He knows this. He knows this but still, he can’t help but be overwhelmed with his gratefulness for her. With his awe of her. He wishes he could tell her, wishes he could express the way his chest feels right now. 

He wishes he could explain the odd sensation, the realization that has crept up on him. It had struck him earlier, when he had seen her holding the storm off, but now it settles atop him like a weight, like the world on his shoulders. 

So much had to happen for her to be here now. 

Fate is not a light matter.

The strings of destiny weave in strange ways, all to bring her to Caldera City, on the night of the worst storm they’ve had in nearly a decade. All so she can save thousands of lives. 

He wonders if this would’ve happened if she was still with Aang. Would she have visited, here and now? What if Suki hadn’t visited the South Pole recently? What if Katara had never become the Ambassador for the Southern Water Tribe? He wonders how many choices had to fall into place, how many moments had to occur for this one? 

It all feels like a miracle, if he looks at it like that. 

He wants to tell her that– you’re a miracle, you’re a wonder. 

And I’m in love with you. 

But instead, all he does is pull her into him. Her hand falls away from his cheek, only to tighten in the fabric of his shirt. His arms go around her, maybe too tight, but she buries her face in his chest and holds him back just as fiercely. 

Her exhale is shuddering, like she’s been waiting an eternity for this. “I missed you,” Katara whispers and he feels her lips move almost more than he hears her. 

“I missed you, too.” Zuko tells her, his lips brushing against her temple, “I always miss you.” 

Katara holds tighter to him, pressing closer, like she could fuse them together. Zuko wishes she would, wishes somehow that he could fall into her, or that she could sear herself to him. The ache in his chest is a bittersweet thing, equal parts love and melancholy. 

Longing sits in the quiet places in his heart. 

Still, they don’t let go of each other. 

And the storm keeps raging, the world keeps turning, fate’s clever hands keep working, and time stops for no one. 

But he feels like it has, maybe for them. 

Maybe for them, who’ve defied all odds already, haven’t they? 

Why not add time and history, too? Zuko thinks, his heart falling into rhythm with hers, I think I could do anything with you at my side. 

And it’s just them and the universe, and all it’s taken to get to this moment, right now. 

After healing all of the gravely injured, Katara had nearly collapsed again, still too exhausted from earlier. Zuko had carried her back to the palace again, with her shuttering in and out of consciousness. 

He lets her sleep in his bed. 

She sleeps for nearly a full day. 

Zuko, on the other hand, has not slept at all. He is too busy working with his council, with advisors, writing letters to other nations to plead for help and request more resources. Much of which had been lost in the storm or are now rapidly dwindling. 

Once Katara has woken again, she tells him that she’s already written to the Southern and Northern tribes, asking for their aid. She can guarantee the South’s help; her people would never leave those in need to fend for themselves. 

And then she sends Zuko to bed, promising that she would help handle things. 

He can hardly keep his eyes open, so he barely fights her. 

Zuko collapses in his bed, buries his face in his pillow and let’s sleep take him swiftly and mercilessly.

Dimly, he realizes he can smell water-lilies. The sea breeze. 

The storm breaks on the third day and the sun splits through the clouds, almost making it seem like it was one long fever dream. 

But the damage is clear. And devastating, especially down by the docks. 

Miraculously, there are no reported fatalities. There were injuries, but no one died. That, in and of itself, is enough to soothe Zuko in moments when already the plan to move forward, to rebuild, grows too overwhelming. 

He has to negotiate with the Earth Kingdom for any of their resources, spreading the Fire Nation’s own resources thin. Still, he has faith that even if it’s risky, will be worth it. The Southern Water Tribe sends over a medium sized boat with extra, preservable foods, items they keep for the long winter months that now can aid the Fire Nation in their crisis. They also send over metal to rebuild with and several of their best healers and doctors. 

The Northern Tribe sends more food and a group of their own Waterbenders that specialize in rescue and repairing in order to help clear much of the flooding and damage sustained. They do so with the promise that the Fire Nation will return the favor when needed and when soonest available, send over their finest scientists and weapon manufacturers to aid the Northern Water Tribe. 

Zuko works long, exhausting days in the aftermath of the storm. And whenever he picks his head up, eyes bleary from so much reading, or lack of sleep, or too much thinking, it is Katara at his side. 

Always at his side. 

He loses count of how many times he thanks the stars for her. 

She even walks with him through his torn apart city, her shoulder brushing his. It’s hard to see– from trees toppled over to houses and stores crushed by debris, at times, it doesn’t even look like his Caldera City.

But he sees hope in his people, in the ones that have already begun cleaning up as much as they can. Clearing debris from roads, picking up the destruction. The sun is bright and despite everything, the mood is not somber as he walks through the streets of his city.

People are shouting to each other, helping each other. There is some laughter. Some cook food for those cleaning up the city, they offer jugs of fresh water. 

His people are safe, he tells himself over and over and over again. 

He and Katara go unnoticed for much of their walk, Suki trailing near them. People are too busy to notice and they keep their heads down, not wishing to disturb. 

It isn’t until a little voice calls, “Zuko!” and a dash of red streaks for his legs, that anyone really notices them. 

“Ukori,” another voice scolds quickly, just as Zuko looks down to find the little girl firmly attached to his legs and looking up at him with a toothy smile. 

Instantly, Zuko’s face melts into a smile of his own as he recognizes her. “Ukori!” he replies, leaning down to scoop her into his arms easily. 

“Mama, this is Zuko! This is the man who saved me in the storm!” Ukori says, squirming in his hold slightly, her eyes a bright shade of hazel. 

Zuko turns his gaze to Ukori’s mother, who stops dead in her tracks as she looks at him. Her mouth falls open, her face flushing. “F-Fire Lord Zuko!” she exclaims, dropping into a deep bow. Heads begin to turn towards them. “I-I’m so sorry for my daughter, she must have you confused–” 

“No,” Zuko says, “No, she’s right. And please, stand up, it’s okay.” he assures the woman, feeling his own flush of embarrassment at her reaction to him. Zuko always hates when people bow to him.  

If she looked surprised before, she looks absolutely stunned now, her eyes flicking between her daughter and Zuko. “Y-you saved her? The night of the storm?” she breathes and before Zuko can even respond, the woman’s eyes are filling with tears. “Agni, thank you. Thank you. I was so scared–” 

Zuko flounders somewhat with the outpouring of emotion, but still he says, “Of course. I’m only happy she’s safe and that you were both reunited.” And then he offers a smile to Ukori, who gives him one back. 

“Suki!” Ukori then cries when the little girl sees her over Zuko’s shoulder. Zuko doesn’t catch Suki's response as Ukori’s mother speaks again. 

“And you–” the woman continues, now turning to Katara, “You must be Ambassador Katara. I think I speak on behalf of Caldera City when I say thank you. Thank you so much. You saved us–” 

Ukori’s mother bows deeply at the waist for Katara, who seems somewhat taken back. “Oh,” she hushes, moving to ease the woman back up, “Please, it’s okay. There’s no need to thank me.” 

A crowd has gathered around them now. One person reaches out, their voice carrying as they offer thanks, too. Then another. And another. And another. And then the crowd has grown in size, in excitement and him, Katara, and Suki are at it's center.

It’d be overwhelming, if Katara wasn’t at his side, handling all of it with a grace that he tries to mimic. She offers warm smiles, reaches out to touch strangers, to rest her hands over theirs, on their shoulders. She offers reassurances, oozing a sort of calm and warm confidence that leaves Zuko basking in her light. 

She offers hope. 

And Zuko follows her lead. He tries to ease up, smiles more. He listens to the people around him, to their stories of that night, to their concerns. He bows his head in gratitude to those helping the city. He tries to offer hope, too. 

Ukori is still propped on his hip and he thinks maybe she’s helping his appearance, too. She's adorable, a little shy, but friendly.

Katara glances to Zuko, smiles because of Ukori still in his arms. She eases closer, standing in front of them. Zuko tries not to think about the way Katara’s hand rests on his arm, the one holding up Ukori.

“Hi, Ukori,” Katara says, her eyes glittering with joy, “I don’t think we were ever formally introduced. I’m Katara.” 

“Hi,” Ukori says, a little bashfully. 

Katara glances at Zuko and they share another smile over how sweet she is. Katara is about to speak again, when the crowd seems to grow even more, and her attention is drawn away to others looking to thank her, to speak with her. 

Their afternoon is spent like this, in the center of a crowd, speaking with everyone they can, reaching out, offering open palm and extending hope. Eventually, as the sun begins to fall in the sky, slide away to reveal the evening, the crowds finally disperse. People go back to work, trying to clean up the city in the last rays of the sun. 

Katara and Zuko join them, rolling up their sleeves to help. At first, people are tentative to let them, but Katara wins them over. He isn’t surprised, he thinks Katara could win over just about anyone. 

More than that, she lifts everyone’s spirits. Especially when, during a break for water, she bends some to splash their Fire Lord in the face with. Her laugh is so warm and free, that he thinks she fills the entire sky with it. 

Everyone waits for Zuko’s reaction and the moment a smile breaks out across his face, too, there is laughter. He swipes at the water to clear his vision and fixes his eyes on Katara. “Oh, you’ve done it now,” he says, beginning to approach her. His own glass of water is still in his hand. 

“What are you going to do? Get in a water fight with a waterbender?” she asks, mirth glittering in her eyes, even as she backs away from him. 

But she backs right into Suki, who has a mischievous smile curling at her lips. Suki is swift, wrapping her arms around Katara to trap her hands at her side, so she can’t bend. So she can’t go anywhere. 

Katara yelps in surprise, before it melts into more laughter. Then she is struggling in Suki’s arms, trying to get away as Zuko approaches. “Hurry up!” Suki laughs, “I can’t hold her forever!”

Katara shrieks with laughter as he dumps the remainder of water on her head. And the sound is infectious, because Zuko is laughing, too. So is Suki. 

And the people around them. Children are running around now, playing. Even some adults are. The evening breaks away into playfulness, into music that people start playing, into dancing and bonfires made out of debris. 

All of it with an undercurrent of hope, of a brighter day tomorrow. Of the strength to push on into the next day, the bittersweetness that comes with rebuilding. 

When they finally make their way back to the palace, Katara reaches out and catches Zuko’s hand, squeezing it once as she looks up at him with wide, wondering eyes. 

“You’re an amazing leader, Zuko. You should be proud of yourself.” 

His breath leaves him with a soft exhale. 

He squeezes her hand back. 

“So are you,” he murmurs without thinking, “So should you.” 

He watches as the prettiest blush rises to her cheeks, before she drops his hand, almost like he’s burnt her, replying with a suddenly shy thank you. 

It isn’t until later that he realizes what it might’ve implied, what she might’ve thought he was suggesting. And then he can’t stop thinking about it. He agonizes over it. 

It runs circles in his mind, and his daydreams were always of her, but now they’re of her in vermilion and maroon and peach. Gold nestled in her hair. Of her at his side. 

In his arms. Beneath him. Her hair tickling his cheeks, his collar bones. Laying on his chest. 

He tries to tamper all of his bubbling feelings, tries to squish them before they can grow, before they can overtake him entirely. 

He tries not to get his hopes up. 

But, Spirits, hope is what she’s good at, isn’t it? 

Weeks after the initial disaster of the storm, Zuko is still spending long days trying to solve the problems that it posed, but at least he has staunched the bleeding for the time being. Katara has been beside him every step of the way, an immense help and support to him. 

She even shares nearly every meal with him, including all the ones with Azula. With Kiyi or his mother or Iroh or politicians. She doesn’t back away from anyone. 

Tonight, they have dinner with Azula and Kiyi, out in the courtyard where the air is balmy and warm. 

Katara ends up braiding Kiyi’s hair upon her insistent requests, weaving it into the style of the Southern Water Tribe. Kiyi is overjoyed with the result. Running her fingers over the ridges of the braid, over the pattern, again and again and again.

“Want yours braided, too?” Katara asks Azula, half-joking, a smirk curling at the corner of her lips. 

Zuko’s expecting a snappy response from his sister, hoping it won’t be too mean. 

But to his complete surprise, Azula moves suddenly, so that she sits in front of Katara. Her back facing her. Offering her inky, dark hair to Katara.

Katara’s eyes widen fractionally and she shoots Zuko a look over Azula’s shoulder, clearly just as shocked as he is. 

Zuko offers her the smallest shrug, the slightest twitching of his brow in response. 

Still, Katara lifts her hands and tentatively reaches up to loosen Azula’s hair from it’s top-knot. When it comes loose, it cascades over her shoulders and Katara, as gently as she can, begins running her fingers through it, untangling it more before she sets to work on the braid. 

Azula doesn’t say anything after Katara is finished, she grows strangely quiet, sliding her fingers over the braid like Kiyi had, but more exploratory, slower. 

Kiyi bounds back over to show the firemoth that she’s caught in the palm of her hands. It’s glowing wings wink with light in the soft dark of early night. When it flits off, Kiyi races after it, after the other glowing moths, too. 

Katara follows after her, laughing and helping Kiyi try to capture them in their palms. 

As if Azula hadn’t surprised him enough already, she suddenly stands to join them, too. Kiyi excitedly pulls at Azula’s hand to drop a firemoth into it. The three of them crouch close to watch as it glows and shudders, shining it’s pretty little light. 

It suddenly leaps out of Azula’s hand, it’s wings fluttering momentarily, before it lands on Katara’s forehead. She yelps, jerking backwards, almost losing her balance before the firemoth takes off into the sky again. 

Kiyi’s laugh is a firecracker, peels of it that brighten up the whole courtyard. Katara’s follows after, lovely and full. 

And even Azula laughs, the sound breaking free from her, a little grating and uneven. Like she’s forgotten how. 

But Katara and Kiyi teach her, their laughter infectious and freely given, freely falling. 

Zuko’s face softens as he watches them, as such happiness fills him to see them all so joyful. Especially Azula. He can’t remember the last time he heard her laugh and it wasn’t some broken, strange sounding thing. It makes him swallow around the sudden lump in his throat. 

And Katara–

She’s so beautiful it hurts him.

All he can do is watch them from his place in the grass. 

Eventually, Suki appears from the palace. She’s out of uniform and she drops down beside him, evidently just looking for some company. 

It’s quiet between them and Zuko can feel the way that Suki looks from him, to his sisters and Katara in the distance, chasing after the firemoths. 

“You know,” Suki starts, eyeing him, “It’s okay to love her.” 

Zuko’s head whips back to Suki, “What?” he rasps, “What are you–” 

Suki rolls her eyes somewhat, a knowing smile playing at her lips, “C’mon, no need to play dumb with me now.” 

Zuko swallows hard. He can’t decide how to respond. Should he pretend he still doesn’t know? Should he ask for clarification? 

Instead, all he does is drop his shoulders somewhat, hang his head. He let’s go of a hard breath. “Is it that obvious?” he grouses and Suki laughs. 

“Only to me,” she says, but he thinks she may be lying just to placate him. Still, she says again, “There’s nothing wrong with loving her, Zuko.” 

 Zuko’s heart jumps, and finds an unsteady rhythm inside the cavity of his chest. He looks back out at Katara, who has her hands around Azula’s, with Kiyi’s face peering into the bundle of glowing firemoths they’ve caught. 

He thinks of her with her determined brow, with the storm stopped at her fingertips, a tempest in her own right. With the heat of her conviction, of her fierceness. He thinks of her, curled in his bed and exhausted, he thinks of her eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at his side, bickering with his advisors in meetings. 

He thinks of her with his people, shining so impossibly bright for them. Of her easy smile and blue, blue eyes. 

He thinks of her palm at his cheek, soft against the rough lines of his scar. 

Katara’s laugh rings out again, up to the heavens. Zuko thinks he’s smiling, maybe, wistful. Soft. So, so fond. He feels fragile suddenly, feels desperate, feels like he’s so close and so far from her. Like he’s on the cusp, like there is hope in the way she turns to look at him, to seek out his reaction as she tosses the fiery little moths back into the sky. 

He smiles at her, so enamored, so full of love. 

“She just makes it so easy," Zuko finally exhales and it doesn't make him feel sick this time, just new and softened. 

Maybe a little too hopeful.


Chapter Text

“It became tradition after their union for the Fire Lord and Lady to visit the South Pole for the Winter Solstice. After some time, many of their citizens followed and traveled all the way there to celebrate, too. It then also became tradition for many of the citizens in the Southern Water Tribe to visit the Fire Nation for the Summer Solstice. The two nations forged a strong bond and compared their opposite but complementary cultures to one another. In one of her most famous speeches, Fire Lady Katara described the nations as “two sides to one coin, the sun and the moon, darkness and light, yin and yang, and my husband and I.” 

        –an excerpt from ‘The Times of Change and Transformation’

After the first few weeks of the storm, things begin to return to normal, or as normal as they can be. Zuko is still stressed, still addressing issues as they crop up. For a while, it seems like once one fire had been put out, another had sprung up. 

Katara had helped Zuko and the Fire Nation in any way she could while also keeping up on her own duties as Ambassador to the Southern Water Tribe. Thankfully, her father, and the council in the South understood any delay in her own responsibilities due to the catastrophic storm that had swept into the Fire Nation and the efforts to rebuild and aid the people here. 

In her father’s letter, he’d told her;

I had been terrified to hear what you had done. I had been worried sick. Part of me wants to scold you, to beg you not to be so stubborn as to think you can face nature’s wrath on your own. 

But on the other hand, I would’ve been wrong, wouldn’t I? 

I am so infinitely proud of you. The Fire Nation is blessed to have you. The world is, too. 

I always knew you were destined for greatness, I knew you were destined for something bigger than any of us could’ve ever fathomed. 

Katara’s thoughts get stuck on this idea of destiny again. Fate. The cosmic aligning of everything for her life to play out exactly as it is now. 

She thinks of Shono. She wonders if she’s on the right path, the one that expands out further than she’ll truly ever know. That weaves and tangles like constellations in the night sky. 

She supposes she doesn’t know. Maybe she never will. 

But what she does know, is that there is work to be done. 

Katara spends most of her days in meetings, alongside Zuko. His council is not overly pleased with her presence. Most of them our elder, wealthy men whose fathers before them served on the council. And before them, their fathers served on the council. 

It seems outdated to Katara, especially when Zuko can hardly get anything done if it doesn’t directly benefit them and their ever-growing pockets. Still, she argues and bickers and debates with them. Zuko is constantly pushing back, too, constantly trying to take as much as he can from them. 

After a particularly hard meeting in which his council vetoed another attempt to raise taxes on their wealthier population in order to fund more schooling, aid their hospitals, and offer more relief to the people whose homes and businesses were destroyed by the storm, Zuko is ready to pull out his hair. 

Katara doesn’t blame him and it makes him irritable and tense. 

“Why don’t you just fire them all?” Katara half-jokes and then considers it a moment, “I mean why don’t you replace them?” 

Zuko pauses, the hand that had been rubbing at his temple falls away. “Because I don’t think I can, technically.” 

“You’re the Fire Lord,” Katara retorts, “Can’t you do anything?” 

Zuko huffs, half a laugh escaping him. “If I could do anything I would have much more done.” 

Katara exhales, “I guess.” and her eyes drift to her hands on the wooden table in front of her. She shakes her head a little, “It’s just getting you nowhere. And a council of elders whose fathers also served your father and grandfather seem outdated, to say the least. Dangerous, at the most.” 

She doesn’t let Zuko respond, “In the South, the community elects a group of representatives to amplify their voices in our politics. Our chief is elected, too, though. We’re much more of a democracy than the Fire Nation. Which, I think is something that would benefit you now.” 

Zuko considers this. “I’ve been saying since I was crowned that the council does nothing for the everyday citizen. It’s function was to keep checks on the Fire Lord, so they wouldn’t become a tyrant, but clearly that didn’t work well.”

Zuko drums his fingers against the table, thinking, “I’ll review the laws on the council, I think there might be something about being able to replace them if they fail to serve their purpose.” 

“Which they had, previous to you.” Katara points out.

“I’d have to build a case proving that and present it to the Fire Sages, I think.” Zuko responds, letting out another deep sigh. 

Katara can tell he feels dismayed by this somewhat. It’s a lot of work, maybe even a stretch. There is a lot that Zuko wants to do, sometimes it almost feels like too much. Katara understands the feeling– idealists often die in politics. 

It’s like looking up at the steepest mountain possible, knowing you’ll have to try and get to the top. It’s frustrating. It’s terrifying. It’s overwhelming. 

But if it’s one thing Zuko is, it’s determined. And so is she. 

If they don’t try, who will? If they don’t fight for change, who will? 

She nudges him a little, offers a smile, “Well, sounds like we’ve found our next project to work on.” 

She doesn’t even realize she’s said we, doesn’t realize what she’s implying until she watches Zuko blink in surprise. 

She realizes now that this isn’t really a part of her job description as Ambassador. But neither was visiting his hospitals everyday after the storm to help them, she supposes. But can she claim it’s part of being his friend? Do friends help other friends abolish outdated systems in their country? Katara wouldn’t know, feels her cheeks smarting with color. She almost goes to take it back– is it inappropriate of her to help? Is she then technically meddling too much in foreign affairs? 

She panics. Is this considered an attempt to destabilize his own government? 

But then Zuko smiles somewhat and it clears all of her worry, like the sun parting from the clouds and he says, “We’ll have our work cut out for us.” 

Katara snorts a little, “Hasn’t stopped us before.” 

This makes Zuko ease up slightly, she watches as his shoulders finally lose some of their tension. His brows unfurrow and his fingers finally still. Then, for perhaps the hundredth time, Zuko finds her eyes and murmurs, “Thank you, Katara.” 

Something about the way he’s looking at her makes her cheeks flush pink, she can feel their warmth. Almost wants to hide her face, but she doesn’t. She just dips her head a little, “You don’t need to keep thanking me, Zuko.” 

He’s about to protest and she cuts him off before he can, “Wait, before we have this argument again– I have one last bit of official business.” 

Zuko’s mouth closes and he quiets for her to continue. Katara shuffles through the papers and scrolls in front of her, pulling out an envelope with an official Southern Water Tribe seal stamped onto it. 

“As Ambassador of the Southern Water Tribe, I’m formally inviting you to our Winter Solstice celebration.” Katara tells him, sliding the letter over to him. She doesn’t know why she feels somewhat nervous. Her father was the one who suggested it to her. After all, they’d been invited to the Summer Solstice before. Katara would be inviting Toph and even Aang, too. 

Their fingers brush as Zuko takes the letter from her. Katara tries not to dwell on it. 

She watches as his nimble hands lift the seal with care, opening up the letter to scan its contents quickly. 

“I haven’t been to the South in years, not since I was first crowned.” he says, as if she doesn’t know this. She thinks he’s just talking aloud, as he tends to do with her. The last time he’d been there had been on a brief tour to all the other nations about a year or so after his coronation to formally apologize, offer reparations, gifts, and to show a new dedication to peace and restoring relationships that had been lost and broken by his father.

When he’d gone to the South, Katara had missed him. She’d been traveling with Aang at the time. If she remembers right, she’d been with him in the Northern Water Tribe, trying to help Aang settle an issue they'd been having with the spirits. 

“It’s changed a lot since then,” Katara tells him, “It’s grown a lot.” 

Zuko picks his eyes up to find hers and he offers a genuine smile as he tells her, “I’m excited to see it again.” 

Katara matches his own smile, feeling something swoop low in her stomach, a fluttering of nerves. Not bad ones, the kind that makes warmth blossom inside of her. 

“Think you can manage to squeeze it into your busy schedule?” she asks then, allowing her chin to rest into the palm of her hand. 

Zuko leans towards her a little and Katara becomes aware of how close they’ve been sitting, with their shoulders brushing. There is no one left in the meeting room, but Katara’s certain that if there were, they wouldn’t be so close. 

People would talk. 

Not that they haven’t been already. The amount of hushed comments that Katara has caught the tail end of about her and Zuko has been too many to count. Not to mention, there seems to be some sort of conspiracy among her handmaidens. They do a lot of subtle teasing and suggesting. 

“I think I can manage something,” Zuko responds, the corner of his lips curling up into a hint of a smirk. 

They finally decide to put any political talk to rest as they head to the dining hall for dinner together, side by side. Their shoulders brush as they walk together, Zuko ducking his head to speak with her. 

She tries not to think about how normal this feels, how good this feels. To work beside him all day, only to share dinner with him at night. Her mind is busy. She feels like she’s working towards something meaningful, something wonderful. 

She’s warmed up to the Fire Nation quickly, too, feels some sort of belonging in her room at night. The palace halls have become familiar. The streets of Caldera City, too. 

As Zuko laughs at something she said, the soft, rasping chuckle that she’s become so fond of, she thinks she could do this every day. She could get used to this. 

She bites her lip. Maybe her heart has been a little too busy, too. 

And maybe Sokka and Suki were right all along. 

She could groan– she’ll never hear the end of this one, will she? 

Mai visits in the morning and Katara hasn’t seen her in years. She watches her talk with Zuko from a distance. Katara waits by the doorway to the meeting room for Zuko. She feels strange watching them. 

Part of her wonders if her and Aang will get along that well again. That easily.

Mai says something that makes Zuko laugh, the rasping chuckle soft and fuzzy to Katara’s ears. Her chest twists strangely at the sound, at the way that they’re smiling at each other. Katara thinks about how many years they’ve known each other, their history. 

She thinks Mai looks regal and poised and strong in the red of her Fire Nation clothes. She looks mysterious, sharp like her stilettos. 

 She doesn’t know why, but she thinks back to being fourteen, maybe fifteen, when the Air Acolytes would swarm Aang. And he was so oblivious to her. So painfully swept up in their attention and affection and gushing. She thinks of that jealousy that had seeped into her, of the way it felt like being forgotten. 

She doesn’t know why the memory comes to her now, but she wishes it wouldn’t. 

She feels a little foolish. She’s not jealous, is she? She tries to tell herself she isn’t, that there’s no reason to be. 

Still, her mood sours somewhat. 

She watches as Zuko bids her goodbye, before walking over to her. He seems somewhat relaxed, his face rather open and that dumb flash of jealousy lurks somewhere deep inside of her. It vies for her attention, she tries to ignore it. 

She puts on a good face, offers a smile, “How was Mai?” 

Zuko eyes her and Katara feels oddly like he can see through her. Like the smile she gives him wasn’t quite convincing enough. Or maybe it was something in the tone of her voice. 

“She’s good,” Zuko responds anyways, “She wants to have dinner soon.” 

“Oh,” Katara responds, desperately trying to keep her face neutral. “That’s nice.” she says and it’s bitten out a little too much, a little too clipped. 

Now Zuko pauses and his look turns concerned, a brow quirking upwards as he asks, “Is something wrong?” 

Katara is almost caught off guard and she feels guilty for letting any of it bleed through into her tone, for cluing him in to how she was feeling at all. She’s quick to say, “No, nothings wrong.” 

Zuko’s eyes are sharp, the gold of them like honey, like the sun. They peer right through her. “You don’t have to do that with me, you know.” 

“Do what?” 

“Hide how you’re feeling for my sake. I’m not–” he searches for the right words, “I can handle it.” 

“I don’t–” Katara starts but then stops. What is she supposed to say? That maybe she’s a little jealous? That she’s suddenly wondering how often Mai comes around the palace? How often do they have dinner? 

Katara isn’t used to being pressed on how she feels. It isn’t ever about her. And she doesn’t want to hurt him or start an argument or cause him trouble–

But Zuko is waiting patiently. He hasn’t shied away from this conversation. He didn’t quickly dismiss it in favor of an ignorant sort of peace of mind. 

She doesn’t know why it’s left her a little dumbstruck. 

She finally blurts out, “I was just wondering if you and her are– well, you both seem good.” she says and when Zuko looks at her expectantly, she adds, “ Really good.” 

It takes Zuko a moment to realize what she’s implying, but when he does, his cheeks flush pink. “Oh, no. Spirits, no.” he says quickly, “We’re– we’re good, but we’re not really good.”  

“Oh,” Katara exhales, feeling her chest loosen. 

“We’re not ever um, revisiting that.” Zuko assures her and then tilts his head curiously. There’s a certain gleam to his eyes, the slightest curling of his lips that makes Katara flush, “Was that what you were...upset about?” 

Katara can feel the heat that rushes up to her face, can feel it even on the tips of her ears. Still, she’s perhaps a little too quick to say, “I just wanted to make sure that, as your best friend, I didn’t have to get mad at you for going back to your ex.” 

Zuko laughs and the sound is warm, wraps around Katara’s heart, settles low inside her and now she’s flushing red for entirely different reasons. 

He assures her, perhaps with too much of a smile, like there’s a joke she’s missing, that she has nothing to be angry over if that was the case. 

And then he sets his hand, large and warm, on the small of her back to lead her into the meeting room. 

She tries to focus on the councilmen around her and all their debating and talking, but now all she’s doing is watching Zuko’s fingers against the hardwood of the table, the way they move to take notes, shuffling through papers. 

And she wonders and wonders and wonders about how his hands would feel elsewhere not just on the small of her back. But along her rib cage, the dips of her waist. Moving up the skin of her inner–

“Ambassador?” A councilman asks, “What are your thoughts?” 

Katara has to ask him to repeat what he’s just said. 

Afterwards, Zuko asks if she’s feeling alright. She usually never misses a beat in meetings. 

Now it’s her turn to laugh, like there’s a joke that Zuko’s missing. 

Azula’s healing brings new challenges. 

So much so that Katara worries they are doing more harm than good for her to go prodding and seeping into her mind with her bending. Azula had been showing progress socially and emotionally, she’d had little tantrums or outbursts as of recently. She’d been able to practice her bending again. She’s been able to be around Zuko and Katara and Iroh and Kiyi more. She’d been doing well.  

Now her outbursts are frequent. She is more irritable, more unstable than she has been in years. What’s stranger is Azula is specifically lashing out at Zuko more recently. Where he was once able to soothe her tantrums, his presence only makes her worse. 

Several times now Katara has had to ask him to leave so that she could calm Azula down herself now. She hushes her and is patient and sometimes she cries with her. Oftentimes, it ends with Azula’s head pressing onto Katara’s shoulder, and Katara rocking them both slowly. Sometimes, Azula calms when Katara puts hands chilled with ice to her feverish forehead. 

But through all of this, Azula insists they continue. She had admitted to them, after the last time, when she’d sobbed her way through the healing, when she’d screamed and clawed at herself, that it was helping her. 

“I don’t see him anymore, when he isn’t there.” she’d explained, “I hear his voice less, too.” 

It had taken Katara a moment to realize she was talking about their father. 

Katara wonders if all of her new agitation is because they’re dragging out old memories, old traumas that Azula had tried to bury. She wonders if she’d just been ignoring the shadowy figure of her father, trying to ignore his voice to appear normal for everyone else. 

So they don’t stop, but they take it slow. Katara heals her twice a week. Long, drawn out sessions that more often than not leave Azula a wreck and Katara silently crying for her. For all that Azula had to endure. She can’t see those memories, but she can feel them while she heals her. It’s horrible. 

Today, Katara watches as Azula practices some of her firebending forms. Zuko is beside her. They had sparred earlier, but now they stand off to the side, sipping on water and watching her. The sun is warm on Katara’s face, on her bare shoulders. Her muscles are pleasantly sore. 

As Katara watches, she thinks maybe Azula has regained a piece of herself through bending. Or maybe she’s trying to reclaim it, find what really makes her fire burn so blue, instead of the drive to survive, to succeed no matter what. She doesn’t have to worry about not being good enough anymore, no longer has to fear the thunder-clap voice of her father, picking her apart, pushing her. 

She wonders how much it still haunts her.

Katara glances at Zuko. She wonders how much it haunts him, too. 

Katara is no firebender, but she can tell that Azula is struggling today. Her forms are somewhat sloppy, the fire curling red at its edges, like she can’t hold onto the strength of its heat. She’s getting frustrated. 

Eventually, she tires herself out. Her hair is slipping from the top-knot it had been pulled into. She breathes raggedly. When she turns to see Zuko and Katara watching her, the flash of her eyes looks dangerous. The Kyoshi Warriors nearest to Zuko shift, but he doesn’t move. 

When Azula stalks over to them, Katara is not expecting Azula to shove him hard. Katara, for a moment, feels like she can see a flash of them as children, as Zuko ungracefully falls into the dirt. 

Katara moves with the Kyoshi Warriors as they lurch towards Azula, but Zuko holds up his hand, “Don’t!” he snaps and they freeze. So does she. 

Azula pays everyone no mind, glaring down at Zuko, breathing hard. Her cheeks are flushed an angry red. 

Finally, she asks, “Why couldn’t he have hated me, too?” 

Zuko blinks, “What?” 

Azula lunges for him suddenly, a frustrated snarl tearing from her mouth as she goes for his neck. They roll gracelessly and now Katara does move. She grabs at Azula’s shoulders as the two wrestle and Katara really is reminded of children. But Azula is livid and hurting and clawing at her brother and Katara is trying to wrench her off. 

 Azula is in Zuko’s face when she hisses through her teeth, “He sent you away.” And then she shakes him, like she’s trying to get him to understand, “You got to leave.” 

Katara finally manages to wrench Azula off of him and she starts to lose it, a plume of flame and smoke billowing from her mouth with another growl as Katara tries to hold onto her arms. 

“Azula–” Katara tries, her nails digging into her arms. 

Zuko scrambles to get up. “Let her go,” he tells Katara, his eyes wide with worry, with fear.

It takes Katara a moment to realize he’s worried about her. 

Tentatively, Katara let’s go of Azula. 

She falls to her knees, shoulders tense and breathing hard. Her hair is a mess. When she picks her head up to look at Zuko, her eyes are wild and livid. 

“You left and it was just me and him– for years. While you were off finding yourself!” Azula’s teeth bare, her lips are pulled back. She looks half-feral, she looks like she wants to tear him apart, and Katara wonders if her and Zuko should be more afraid of her. If they’ve gotten too comfortable or too brave. 

But Azula isn’t some predator, not some animal they tried to domesticate or became too bold with. She’s a girl with so much baggage that it’s crushing her. 

She thinks if Zuko were a different man, he’d be angry at the accusation. He was banished– by the same man who had hurt Azula, too. But Zuko just looks hurt. He just looks sad. 

Katara reaches for her again, goes to coo something, to try and calm her, but Azula lurches away. 

“I wish he’d hated me!” Azula half-yells, the sound ragged and raw, cutting up her throat. 

Katara wonders how badly Zuko had wished their father had loved him. She thinks about how unfair Azula is acting lately, and feels an intense surge of protectiveness for Zuko. For everything he must've endured, too. None of this can be easy on him, either. 

Vaguely, she wonders which was worse; their father’s hatred or their father’s love? 

“Leave us,” Zuko tells the Kyoshi Warriors.  

“Your Majesty, are you–” One begins to ask, hesitant to leave him. 

“Please. Leave us.” Zuko reiterates and slowly, the courtyard thins out. Until it is just him and Azula and Katara. Katara doesn’t doubt the Kyoshi Warriors are hiding somewhere near, but at least they’re out of sight. At least they have the semblance of privacy. 

Zuko moves to sink down in the grass in front of her. Katara settles onto her knees beside her. 

“You’ve no idea what I had to do–” Azula starts, “What he made me–” she chokes back a sob or a scream, Katara can’t tell, but the noise that leaves her throat is strangled. “It’s eating me alive.” she breaks,  now pulling at herself with clawed hands, at her hair, at her skin, at her clothes. 

It’s horrible to watch. 

He tries to console her. Katara is quiet, but her hand is solid on Azula’s back, gentle and supportive. At moments, Azula seems to calm down, breathing slowly, even as tears cut tracks down her cheeks. Then in the next moment, she’s screeching again, nails lashing out at herself, at Zuko. 

She catches Zuko on his unmarred cheek, a scratch running livid and pink on his pale skin. 

Katara latches onto Azula’s arms, yanks her back with her, away from Zuko. 

Over her screaming, Katara manages to get out, “You should leave–” She squeezes tighter when Azula thrashes. “Go, Zuko. I can handle her.” 

Zuko’s reluctant. He looks devastated, his hand pressed to the scratch on his face, like he can’t quite believe it. He looks defeated, heartbroken. Katara swallows back tears at his reaction, tries to soothe Azula with calm murmuring. 

After another long moment, Zuko stands to leave. 

It doesn’t take long for Katara to calm down Azula. She wonders if she just needed to be away from Zuko. She wonders why Azula is struggling so much with her brother lately– part of her thinks he’s a permanent reminder of what escaping their father did for him. It’s clear she’s in pain, that maybe she’s jealous in some way, of who Zuko became. And who she didn’t become. 

Katara manages to help her back to her bedroom, where Azula lays in bed, now blank-faced. Empty. It’s almost hard to believe it’s the same girl, but the tear tracks stuck to her cheeks indicate otherwise. 

Katara finds Zuko in his room after she’s left Azula. He’s sitting on his bed with his head tipped into his hands. His hair spills over his shoulders like a shadow. The evening sun casts the room in maroon, in burnt orange. It all looks saturated, so angry and hurt. 

Katara steps towards him and he finally lifts his head to look at her. He’s caught in this sliver of the fiery light, one of his gold eyes flashing brilliantly. 

She thinks he looks like a hero from the myths, the ones that are tortured and fractured, their crevices spilling out with light. The ones that have persevered through too much, the ones that went to the Underworld and back. 

“Are you okay?” he asks, like it was her sister who just nearly attacked her, fell apart because of her, and not his

“Of course,” she still reassures him, steps closer and, really, she doesn’t think, she just keeps moving until she is nearly between his legs. He has to tip his face up to look at her. “Are you okay?” 

Zuko nods but even as he does so, Katara can see the way his lip wobbles, the way he seems to be one exhale from falling apart. “You shouldn’t have to deal with this–” he starts then, “I’m sorry,” he whispers, “I’m so sorry.” 

Katara hushes him, “I want to help her,” she promises quietly, “I signed up for this. And you don’t need to be sorry.” she assures him and then asks again, “Are you okay?” 

Zuko’s exhale is unsteady and he parts his mouth like maybe he’s going to respond, but he closes it, as if he’s unsure how.  A piece of Katara falls a little. She finds that she wants him to confide in her. She wonders if he confides in anyone like this– maybe Iroh. She hopes he has someone, in the least. 

She wants to say Zuko, please talk to me. Please don’t shut me out. He rarely has, except for on the subject of his family. Specifically, his father. For as close as she is with him, she still knows little about his childhood. She doesn’t even know how he got his scar. 

It never made a difference to her, she supposes, and she always assumed that if he wanted her to know, he would tell her. 

But now she wonders if he just doesn’t know how. 

Has he ever spoken it aloud? 

Instead of answering, Zuko’s head falls forward and his forehead rests against her stomach. She freezes and her hands come up in surprise. But then she is softening, and they tentatively settle in his hair. She feels him sigh, watches his shoulders drop as her fingers ease into his dark locks. 

She shifts fractionally closer, drawing nearer. Delicately, she cards her hands through his hair. She hears him sniffle, but she doesn’t ask. She just holds him. 

Katara thinks maybe he hasn’t been held enough in his life. She wants him to talk to her, but maybe this is speaking more than he could right now. 

She decides that one day she’ll try to ask about everything, maybe someday soon she’ll ask about his childhood and his scar and all the pieces of him that she does not yet know. 

But for now, she holds him as the light falls away from their forms, the sun disappearing beneath the lines of the sky. 

In the dark, she thinks she is the only one that is allowed to see him like this. He’s not the Fire Lord now. He’s not the revolutionary, not a myth or legend. He’s not brave or stoic or dutiful now, but fragile. Exhausted. Frightened. He’s nothing more than what he can be at this moment. 

And it feels precious for Katara to see him this way. His trust feels precious, deeply important to her. 

In the dark, she knows him, too, as much as she knows him in the light. 

Over breakfast, Zuko’s mother comments on the scratch that is still a streak of pale pink on his cheek. Ursa barely glances at her son at first, but when she notices it, she lingers on it. Zuko squirms under her gaze. Katara can tell that he feels uncomfortable with her stare. 

“What happened?” her question hangs in the air between them. 

Zuko swallows and Katara can tell that he’s trying to keep his face completely neutral, “Nothing, really. Azula just caught me accidentally.” 

Ursa pauses and Katara watches her mind slowly work. Katara doesn’t know Ursa well, only knows what she did. How she left. How she forgot. 

Her opinions on Ursa are not particularly high or glowing. But she keeps this to herself. She’s Zuko’s mother and she supposes that it’s a miracle he has her back at all. Isn’t it? 

A bitter, dark, protective part of Katara whispers, how much of a miracle is it to be forgotten? 

She tampers this thought down inside of her.  

Eventually, Ursa lets out a slow sigh and shakes her head, “I wish you would be more careful with her.” 

Zuko’s hand tightens around his chopsticks. He freezes, eyeing his mother. Katara feels herself go still beside him, too. Anger glimmers to life inside of Katara for Zuko. For Azula. She bites the inside of her cheek. 

Ursa continues, despite Zuko’s silence, because she’s no longer looking at him, but fussing with the food in front of her, “I don’t know how safe it is for her to be bending again.” 

“She didn’t burn me.” Zuko says, “It’s just a scratch.” 

“Still,” his mother responds, “She’s been unstable for years.” she shakes her head again, like it’s a shame, “She’s always been too much like your father.” 

That ember of anger roars into a fire inside of Katara. 

Katara knows that would crush Azula. Katara knows how much guilt and hatred and disgust she has for herself, for being like their father. It feels so horribly unfair to Azula, who was just a child. 

A forgotten child. Like Zuko. 

Katara opens her mouth, but Zuko beats her to it– 

“How would you know?” Zuko asks, his voice clipped and hard. 


“How would you know what Azula is like?” Zuko reiterates through his teeth, “You haven’t interacted with her in years–” 

“She won’t let me–” 

“You forgot her!” Zuko snaps suddenly, his voice echoing in the dining hall. 

Katara’s heart splinters, cracks right inside of her. 

And then there is silence, the sharp, ringing kind. Katara tries to will Ursa  into looking at her son, into picking her eyes up from her plate and facing him. She doesn’t. 

“With all due respect, mother, you don’t know Azula. You don’t know what she went through or who she was forced to become or who she’s trying to be.” Zuko tells her, his voice low but heated, an edge of quiet fury caught in his tone. 

Katara realizes that maybe he’s not just talking about Azula. 

“Zuko, I was only–” Ursa tries.

But Zuko stands, unable to finish his meal now. “I know you don’t like to remember this, but Azula is your daughter, too. I would urge you to have more compassion for her.” 

And with that, Zuko leaves, fury coloring high on his cheeks, in the shimmering, fierce gold of his eyes. Ursa looks to Katara, as if she’ll somehow help her or sympathize with her. 

All Katara manages is a hard look, before she jolts up from the table to follow after Zuko. Outside the dining hall, a Kyoshi Warrior attempts to follow after them.

“Can you give us a minute?” Katara asks and her voice isn’t mean, but it isn’t gentle, either. It’s fierce. The Kyoshi Warrior backs off and Katara quickens her pace. 

She follows Zuko all the way to one of the smaller courtyards, an infrequently used one. There’s a little shrine to Agni beneath a tree with vivid, red leaves. A small, ornamental stream winds its way through the courtyard. Koi swim lazily beneath the glass surface. 

It all seems so tranquil after what’s just happened. 

When she finally reaches Zuko’s side, she is almost out of breath. She touches his arm, comes around to face him and her other hand goes to his chest. “Are you okay?” she asks, and this time, if he doesn’t say anything, she thinks she’ll beg until he does. 

Instead, he asks, “Can I tell you something?” 

“Of course,” Katara breathes, looking up into his face. He won’t meet her eyes, focused on somewhere just beyond her. 

“It’s a long story,” he says like this might dissuade her. 

“Then let’s sit down.” she suggests gently, taking his hand, leading him to a patch of sunlight, to a spot beside the stream where the grass is soft and tall. 

It takes him a long time to gather the courage to speak. He stares at the softly rippling water for awhile. But eventually, he does. 

And he tells her everything. He tells her about his childhood. About his grandfather and father. He tells her the story of how he got his scar with a wobbling voice. He tells her about Azula. About Lu Ten and his Uncle. And his mother. 

He tells her about his banishment. 

He even tells her about how much he wishes he hadn’t betrayed her in Ba Sing Se, how conflicted and torn up he’d been. 

By the end of it, his voice is a little hoarse, raspy. They’re leaning against each other– Katara has wrapped her arms around his middle, curled up into his side, tried to press all the love she has for him along the notches of his ribs. 

Her cheeks are damp with tears. She’d started silently crying almost immediately, if she was being honest. But she let him speak. 

She thinks he needed to say it all out loud finally. He even admits it to her, “For the longest time, I thought if I started talking about it, it would all be real and present again. I thought that if I never said it, it would never hurt me again.” 

“How do you feel now?” Katara asks softly, turning her face to look up at him. 

“Like it’s finally my story,” Zuko admits, “Like I’m a little lighter.” 

Another tear slips down her cheek. She can’t even begin to try and tell him how hurt she is for him, how none of that should’ve happened to him. How much she cares about him, her heart nearly overflowing with it, unbridled with it. 

Her beautiful, bright, fire-hearted boy who endured more than anyone ever should’ve. Whose come out of it all only stronger, only more brilliant and miraculous. 

She doesn’t think, just reaches up to cup his cheek, to tilt his face down to hers so that she can press a soft, fleeting kiss to his cheek. 

The scarred one. It doesn’t matter to her, but with the way his eyes flutter shut, she thinks it must matter to him.

“I’m so proud of you,” she whispers, “I’m so so proud of you.” 

Zuko exhales shakily. “Thank you for listening.” he hushes. 

“Thank you for telling me.” Katara responds and means it with all that she has. 

She tucks herself back into his side and they stay like that. Unwilling to part as the morning turns to afternoon and Katara can feel this shift– maybe between them. Maybe between something bigger, grander, more cosmic. 

The sun glimmers on the water in front of them, spilling and refracting light onto them. And she feels touched by it, tender, soft-hearted. She feels intertwined with him, feels as if he’s burrowed into her the way his fingers curl into her side now. She feels like she can see a part of him that she hadn’t been able to before, his soul laid bare for hers to touch. 

I know you, she thinks in the same way someone might say I love you. 

In the weeks following, Azula begins to stabilize again. The healing now does seem to be helping finally. She’s gained a new spark to her eyes. Her bending has grown stronger again. Her tantrums have turned into arguments, she’s less unhinged than she has been. She bickers with Zuko a lot now, though. For the most part it seems normal, almost like they’re relearning how to be siblings without the weight of their father’s abuse or mother’s absence or Azula’s crushing mental illness. 

At times, it reminds Katara of her and Sokka, which makes her miss her brother. She’ll be seeing him in a few more weeks, when she returns for the Winter Solstice. She’s going to leave a week ahead of Zuko, to spend time with her family and get some work down in the South. But she’ll be returning with Zuko after the Solstice, back to the Fire Nation to resume her duties here. 

Azula is bothered that they’re both going to be leaving her in the near future. She won’t say so outright, but she gets huffy and agitated if it comes up. 

She even makes Katara promise to return one night. Which, Katara does, willingly and easily. 

Maybe a little too easily. 

She chooses not to dwell on this now, not while Iroh is telling a fable from the Fire Nation. It’s mostly for Kiyi, who is interjecting every so often with questions. Iroh is patient as ever with her, trying to come up with answers that satisfy her. They’re sitting around a low table on the floor, red cushions beneath them. A pot of tea and sweet and spicy desserts are spread out on the table. There’s a soft glow from the hanging lanterns in this room, shadows flickering across the walls and floor.

Azula is poking at a dessert, Zuko is beside Katara, leaning back on the heels of his hands, looking more relaxed than she’s seen him in awhile. 

Iroh’s voice is soft and jovial and soothing. 

Telling stories reminds her of home and the importance that they place on storytelling, on passing these tales onto the younger generation through word of mouth. Katara feels warmth curl inside of her at the realization that this is something their cultures have in common. 

She realizes, with a certain fondness, that despite being in another nation, with a group of people who seem so different from her, they’re all just– well, human. 

Of course, they have their own traditions and culture and talents and beliefs, but at the end of the day, she thinks they’re all searching for something similar. They’re all looking for the moment around the fire, around the lanterns, with their loved ones. A bit of peace, of happiness. Maybe satisfaction, if they can find it. 

She doesn’t know how to explain what she’s feeling, only that it makes her feel small and grand all at once, aching and happy and in awe. All she keeps thinking about is how it’s the same moon and sun that they all look up at. And how they all have little stories to tell each other. And food to share. And love to give and extend. 

She keeps thinking about Shono and the interweaving webs of her fortune, of the grandness, the splintering galaxy it had presented to her. She can’t explain it, but she thinks it’s inside her, or maybe spreading out of her, all around her. So many connecting paths and constellations, so many similarities. It’s something small and precious in the pit of her chest, but she thinks it’s also something huge and overwhelming, touching every life form around her. 

Zuko walks her to bed that night and he’s sleepy, yawning a bit, heavy lidded. He looks sweet, soft. She wants to invite him into her room, to her bed, to her heart. 

But he stays at the threshold of her door and offers a gentle and tired, “Goodnight, Katara.” 

“Goodnight, Zuko.” she replies softly, reluctantly pulling the door shut with a last look to him. 

She falls asleep that night easily, curled around her pillow, breathing deep and slow, knowing, somehow, in some strange way, that she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be. 

Time flies when she’s working hard and when she’s happy or in some way eager for each new day. Of course, there is trouble and the stress of work, but it is not enough to deter her in any way. Working beside Zuko is easy, she realizes, extraordinarily so. They make a good team. 

She is packing the last of her things to catch a boat back to the South Pole. She knows Zuko has a meeting soon, so she’ll say goodbye to him first, before they part ways for the short week. 

This goodbye feels much more casual, knowing they won’t be apart long. Maybe even because they know she’ll be returning with him again afterwards.

Still, she meets him at the entrance of the palace. One of the staff members informs her that her boat is disembarking in twenty minutes. Zuko’s meeting is in about five minutes. 

“Safe travels,” he tells her, his arms moving to encircle her, to pull her into him. He’s so much taller than her, she realizes, not for the first time, as he just about completely envelopes her in warmth. 

She wants to burrow down into him, to stay cocooned in his chest and arms. 

“You too,” she murmurs into his chest. 

He pulls away a little to glance down at her, “Send me a letter when you’ve made it safely?” he asks. 

Katara smiles, “Of course.” she agrees and they stay like that for a moment longer than they should. 

Reluctantly, Zuko pulls away. “I’ll see you soon, then.” 

Katara nods, tipping her head up to look at him still, smiling warmly, “I’ll see you in a week!” 

He returns her warm smile and he’s about to turn away when Katara remembers something, her face lighting up, “Oh– wait!” 

Zuko pauses and she continues, “Did you have that list of schools you wanted to give to me to talk about the potential for exchanges? I can take it now and bring it up to my dad this week.” 

His face lights up in recognition now, too. “Oh, yes! I completely forgot. It’s in my desk, in my room.” he glances towards the hallway that leads to the meeting room, “I have to go now, but you can grab it quick.” 

“I will,” Katara agrees, and they offer each other one more light-hearted goodbye, knowing it won’t be long at all. 

Katara starts off towards his room, the winding hallways now familiar to her. She’s been in Zuko’s room plenty of times before. They’ll spend time working there together, sometimes trying to find a moment of peace, sometimes sharing a meal. 

It doesn’t feel strange for her to nudge open the door and move towards his desk. His desk and organizational skills are what she likes to call chaotically neat. Things don’t look particularly put together, but it isn’t exactly out of order, either. She shuffles through the main drawer, finding the list of schools easily.

But beneath it is something that catches her eye.

It's a letter. Addressed to her. 

Katara cocks her head, curious. She reaches down with tentative fingers to pick it up from the pile. It seems like any other letter that he’s sent her. Maybe he forgot to send this one? 

She doesn’t really think, just slides the seal open carefully. She begins to pull the letter from the envelope, to unfold it, the whisper of paper loud in the quiet room. The moment it opens in her hands, she finally reconsiders. She probably shouldn’t–

But it’s too late, because her eyes have skimmed the first sentence and her heart has stopped beating. 

Dear Katara, she reads, feeling as if all the world has fallen out from underneath her, I have come to the very horrifying and overwhelming realization that I have fallen in love with you. 

Chapter Text

KATARA: I could heal you.

ZUKO: It’s a scar, no one can heal scars. 

KATARA: But maybe if it’s me, maybe if it’s you.”   

        –An excerpt from the trilogy of plays ‘One Hundred Years of War’

The ocean is a dark abyss that Zuko’s ship cuts through, it is not the teal, clear sea that rolls onto the shores of the Fire Nation. Zuko feels as if anything could be beneath the rippling, midnight surface. It seems as threatening as it does beautiful. 

He picks his head up to see the Southern Water Tribe growing nearer with every passing moment. He can see the glistening slopes of homes, covered in snow, smoke curling into the air in huffs of grey. The sky is a strange shade of hazy orange, the horizon bloodshot with a deep crimson where the sun is resting. It casts the winter world in all it’s russet glory. The edges of the sea are cast garnet, the light glancing off the waves. 

The wind cuts across his cheeks, stings his eyes a little. 

All the ice is beautiful like this, all the world gleaming like glass, like jewels. There is no denying that the South Pole is captivating in it’s own ways. It looks otherworldly, Zuko thinks, something of the Spirit World, crystalline and ethereal. 

When his ship docks, Zuko can already see the figures of Sokka and Suki waiting for him, their faces buried in the fur of their hoods. Suki’s cheeks are flushed with color from the cold. 

He tries not to be disappointed that he doesn’t see Katara with them. 

He assumes she’s busy.

Besides, he hasn't seen Sokka in a long time, either, and he’s already smiling when he disembarks from the ship. 

Sokka collides with him roughly, throwing Zuko a little off-balance, a short laugh erupting from his throat. It’s all fluff, between their parkas, but they still grip each other tightly, fingers squabbling for purchase. 

“It’s been awhile!” Sokka gets out, pulling away to look at Zuko, to take in his features once more. “Welcome back to the South Pole!” 

Zuko matches Sokka’s smile, “I’m glad to be back.” 

The only greeting he receives from Suki is a slight nudge and a grin, they’ve only been parted a week. Suki went ahead with Katara to spend time with Sokka. 

“Where’s Katara?” Zuko asks before he can stop himself, followed quickly by, “And Aang and Toph?” 

Sokka and Suki exchange a glance, which makes Zuko’s face heat up. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t try to make things worse by sputtering out an excuse. 

“Aang and Toph won’t be coming for another few days, right before the Solstice. Katara is helping our father with plans for the banquet.” Sokka explains, then he grins, and the smile makes Zuko a little wary, “Don’t worry, we’ll take you to her.” 

“That’s okay,” Zuko says too quickly, “If she’s busy.” 

Suki rolls her eyes, “Relax, would you?” and then she mutters, “I’m sure she wants to see you, too.” 

But the way Suki says it, tinged with amusement, makes Zuko think he doesn’t quite know what Suki knows. He tries not to dwell on it as he begins walking with them, over the creaky docks and into the opening of the village. 

Though smaller in size than a place like Caldera City, it has grown significantly since he was last here. People bustle around them, children run and shout, their footfalls echoing on the cool, blue stone that lines the paths, the whole village. Everyone’s homes are around the same size, not massive, but comfortable. 

A new, small canal runs through the village, snakes its way around. Wooden brides arc over it. People walk and talk leisurely beside it. 

It isn’t like the Fire Nation, where homes by the docks are tiny and cramped, ramshackled places that are nearly falling apart before you wade closer towards the palace, where the homes grow larger, more extravagant. 

While there is variation here, Zuko becomes keenly aware that there is little disparity. More than that, he becomes aware that there aren’t any homeless or impoverished. Or at least none that he can see. And despite the Southern Water Tribe being smaller than Caldera City, it is still a large enough place that in the Fire Nation, people would still struggle with homelessness or poverty or starvation. 

“Not to be blunt,” Zuko begins, looking to Sokka, “But I don’t notice any poverty here. And you’ve grown enough that there certainly could be– especially with the influx of immigrants I know you’ve had. It’s a wonderful thing, I’m just wondering–” 

Sokka smiles a little, perhaps proud, “Our first priority are the lives and wellbeing of our people. Every decision we make in our government, we keep that in mind.” Sokka explains, “And we don’t place the same value in coin or wealth as the Fire Nation or the Earth Kingdom does.” 

Zuko is about to ask more questions when Sokka adds, “No one goes hungry. If we have excess food, we give it to those who need it. We put roofs over the heads of those who need it. We value community greatly. Everyone does their part and we all take care of each other.” 

“And everyone abides by that?” Zuko asks, “People don’t grow upset?” 

“Why would they?” Sokka asks, quirking a brow. 

“Well, if some people aren’t doing their part, or others are working harder–” 

Sokka shakes his head, “I mean, a few people struggle. But they’re outweighed by the majority. We’ve found that people want to contribute to their community when their needs are met, at least here they do. Maybe it’s because that’s what we value.” Sokka shrugs then, though, “But I don’t know, I think at the end of the day, we all just want security. Love. Maybe some entertainment.” 

Sokka cracks a grin, reaches out to put his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, squeezes him a little in reassurance, “I’m sure Katara can tell you more about it all. She can go into the specifics.” 

Zuko nods, “I’ll have to ask her about it.” and then he smiles, too, “You guys should be immensely proud of yourselves. This is incredible.” 

Zuko takes another slow look around the village. It’s teeming with life and noise and a certain joyfulness or ease. Snow flutters lazily from some of the thin clouds in the sky. The village is rose colored, the snow pink and red in the last rays of the sun. Homes glow with gold light, promising warmth and shelter. All the world looks softer. 

Sokka bows his head, “Thank you,” he says and Zuko can tell that it meant a lot to him. He claps Sokka on the back now, too, and he realizes how much everything has changed. And how they’ve changed and yet remained friends. All the change they’ve brought has not changed their bond. 

Sokka and Suki lead Zuko on, through the village, until they come to a house towards the edge of the village. Sokka shoves the wooden door open with his shoulder, a blast of warmth floods out of it, the burst of cozy light spilling onto Zuko. Sokka and Suki part in front of him to reveal a spacious living room. The floor has a large, fur rug spread across it. The fireplace is bright with flame, kept well fed with wood, filling the space with bright and warmth. 

And Katara stands beside her father, in pale blue, with her hair down around her shoulders. Free of braids, or her traditional loops. She’s peering over her father’s shoulder, looking at a scroll in his hands. 

It seems so intimate, for some reason. He’s seen her like this, without her parka, comfortable, with her hair down. But something about it strikes him now, the softness of her, the cast of the fire on her skin.

She picks her head up, her eyes cutting to him from across the room. 

He swears all of time stops.

It’s not like he hasn’t seen her before– he only saw her a week ago. 

But there’s something in her eyes this time, the way they widen out, impossibly dark and blue, that catches and holds him. 

“Zuko,” she breathes, surprisingly tentative, surprisingly soft.

She stutters towards him, past her father, past Sokka and Suki. 

“Hi,” she says when she’s in front of him, oddly hesitant. Why is she so hesitant with him suddenly? 

“Hi,” he parrots just as softly, “It’s been awhile.” he jokes and her answering laugh is so sweet that he is certain his teeth ache with it. 

“A whole week,” she replies and when she looks up at him, Zuko thinks she’s looking at him strangely. He can’t place it. “Survive without me?” 

“Barely,” he responds and he watches as her cheeks blossom into the prettiest shade of pink. She’s so lovely–

Hakoda steps up behind Katara, who moves to the side to let her father greet him. 

Zuko hasn’t seen him in years and though he looks older, grey at his temples, more wrinkles on his face, he is still kind looking. Still tall and proud looking. His eyes are the same blue of his children. 

Hakoda bows and greets him, “Fire Lord Zuko, welcome to my home.” 

Zuko bows in response, tipping his head down in respect, “Chief Hakoda,” he replies, “Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for the hospitality.” 

Zuko has barely straightened up when Sokka says, “Now that it’s out of the way, please no more formal titles.”  

Hakoda’s laugh is low and warm and fond and it instantly makes the tension in Zuko’s shoulders ease up. It makes any tension or formality in the room evaporate entirely. And then they’re ushering him in and Zuko sheds his parka and boots, and ends up with tea pressed into his hands. 

“Not that you probably need any warming, Firebender.” Hakoda says with a smile, clapping him on the back the way that Sokka does. The way he says Firebender is nothing but friendly. It makes Zuko smile.

“I appreciate it nonetheless.” Zuko responds, letting the warmth of the tea seep into his palms. 

They have dinner around a low, dark wooden table in front of the fireplace. Quilts and furs are laid on the ground for them to sit on. He sits beside Katara, his eyes sweeping over the steaming, warm food that is laid out in front of them. 

One of the things Zuko notices is the lack of chopsticks beside his smooth, stone plate. He glances at Katara, waits and watches her. 

She must feel his eyes on her because she glances at him. She tilts her head a little before she says, “We don’t eat with chopsticks here.” and there’s a small smile curling at her lips, “We use our hands– unless it’s soup or stew, of course.” 

Zuko glances up at Sokka, who is reaching for food with his fingers, pulling it onto his plate eagerly. 

“Look,” Katara says and he watches as she places flatbread onto her plate, followed by a slice of meat, which she places in the bread, and then steaming seaweed to top it all off. She folds it a little, the movement natural to her before she takes a bite. She swipes at her mouth as she chews, before she adds, “Sorry, no fancy spices or sauces for you to add.” 

Zuko huffs out a small laugh, “I think I can manage.” 

He mimics what Katara has taught him, pulling the flatbread to his plate, carefully placing the meat and seaweed atop it. He tries to fold it the way she had– she’d made it look so simple. 

His first bite is warm and savory. The meat is a little tough, but rich in flavor. It seeps into him and Zuko understands why they eat it the moment he swallows it. It’s filling, it heats him up from the inside out. It’s comforting. The perfect thing to combat the wind and snow and ice. 

The perfect thing to share around a fire. 

Conversation is easy and full of laughter. It’s so casual, Zuko realizes, it’s so intimate. It’s refreshing, coming from the formality of the Fire Nation. And it’s so clear that Katara and Sokka are close with their father. 

Zuko doesn’t feel jealous, per se, but there is something that touches a part of him that was once curled up and bitter, like a tightened fist in his chest. 

It unfurls now, tentative, unsure. 

“The men of the tribe are going on a hunting trip for a few days to bring back meat for the Solstice,” Sokka explains to Zuko, “We’re leaving tomorrow morning. You should join us.” 

“Sokka–” Katara says and it sounds almost scolding. 

Zuko isn’t sure why.

“What?” Sokka asks Katara innocently, “He’s welcome to come.” 

Zuko glances at her, only to find that she’s flushed a deep shade of red. What has her so flustered? He glances to Hakoda only to find that his eyes are on Zuko, waiting for an answer. 

Zuko would never refuse, for fear of being rude. 

“I’d be honored to join you.” Zuko says, dipping his head into a slight bow. 

“Perfect!” Sokka crows, before he begins to ramble on about hunting trips and what they do, how great they are, how excited he is to show Zuko the ropes. 

But Katara has gone strangely quiet for the rest of the meal and Zuko isn’t sure why. She’s been acting oddly in general, though she doesn’t seem particularly mad or upset with him, it seems like something is holding her back. 

He doesn’t have time to question her, not surrounded by her family.

After dinner, more quilts and mats and furs are brought out to their living room. Despite being able to sleep in their own bedrooms, Sokka and Katara agree to stay with Zuko and Suki out here. Zuko rekindles the fire for them. Sokka and Katara build a nest of all the warmest pillows and blankets. There’s clearly a method to it and Zuko is somewhat amazed with how comfortable it is. 

“It’s no palace,” Sokka jokes, fluffing a pillow. 

Zuko curls a handmade quilt around his shoulders, burrows deeper into it, “It’s perfect.” he returns and he means it. 

He keeps the fire low, so that darkness falls over them as they settle down to sleep, but warmth still fills the room. Suki and Sokka are curled up together beneath a mountain of blankets. Katara is just to his right, a short distance away and he tries not to think about this fact too heavily as he hunkers down into all the warmth. 

Everything is so soft, so hazy. 

He turns on his side and watches Katara’s shoulders rise and fall with each breath. 

It reminds him of being sixteen, sleeping near her, nestled onto Appa. 

He lets out a slow breath and sleep begins to pull at him, the safety and warmth seeping into his bones, dragging him under. 

A little while later, Katara rolls over in the dark to face him, to trace the shadowy features of him. 

“Zuko?” she whispers, but there is no response. Just the soft crackling of the low fire. The winter winds howling outside her home. 

Zuko is already asleep and her voice drifts through his dreams, like a lullaby, like a heart’s quiet melody. 

Zuko wakes just before Sokka. It is still dark and the fire has nearly gone out, so Zuko breathes a little life back into it, letting the flames flicker and twist, cast dancing little shadows across the floor. 

Zuko sits up, the quilt still draped around his shoulders. He debates going out to do some of his Firebending forms in the cold before everyone else wakes, but then Katara stirs beside him. Her eyes flutter open softly, the blue of them as dark as the night sky and she looks sleepy, a little disgruntled. Zuko smiles fondly as she reaches up to rub at her eyes. 

A piece of hair has fallen into her face and Zuko has to twist his fingers in the quilt to keep himself from reaching out to her, to tuck the strand behind her ear. 

“G’morning,” she murmurs, still burrowed into the blankets, nuzzling her cheek into her pillow. 

“Good morning,” Zuko responds gently, feeling his heart pull a little. “You’re up early.” 

Katara only gives a small huff in response, her eyes already beginning to slip back shut. Her lips part a little. Zuko watches her doze in the half-light of dawn, the fire aglow on her cheek. 

It isn’t until Sokka wakes that everyone else begins to stir, mostly because Sokka is noisy and excited as he begins packing for the hunting trip for both himself and now Zuko. Zuko helps as much as he can. 

The sun is beginning to rise above the horizon. 

“Do you want me to braid your hair before you go?” Katara asks him, still bundled in a blanket near the fire. 

“If you don’t mind,” he responds and she shakes her head, before wordlessly getting up and disappearing to her room for a moment. When she returns, she has her whale-bone comb in her hand. It’s pearly in the fire’s light, a slight gleam to it. 

She sits behind him, cross-legged and draws his hair over his shoulder, to hang across his back. It’s getting long, past his shoulders, though not quite to his mid-back yet. Katara lifts the comb and gently drags it through his hair. Her touch is gentle, coaxing his hair through the teeth of the comb, gently easing out any snarls. 

“Don’t let Sokka convince you to do something stupid,” Katara says softly as she sets down the comb to begin running her finger through his hair. “I know how you two get.” 

Zuko exhales a huff of laughter but still he promises her, “I won’t.” 

Quietly, Katara begins to pull his hair into three strands. She begins to braid deftly. After a moment, she asks him, “Do you know what the three strands of a braid symbolize to us?” 

Zuko almost shakes his head, before answering, “No.” 

A soft hush has fallen over them. The fire snaps lazily beside them. 

“Mind,” Katara pulls on one strand softly, overlapping it with another, “Body,” she continues, tugging on another lightly before it is woven in, too, “And soul.” 

Her voice is gentle, almost delicate, as she continues, “Every time we braid we try to do so with clear, good intentions as we weave the three parts of ourselves together.” Katara explains, “And when we do so on others, we wish the same for them.” 

“I really like that.” Zuko responds, his voice low, only for her ears.

Katara hums lightly and he can feel that she is nearing the end of the braid. He almost wishes she wasn’t, wishes they could stay like this a little longer.

But she ties off the braid easily, settles it against his back. “There,” she murmurs, running her hand along it’s ridges for a moment. 

“Thank you,” Zuko tells her, finally turning to glance over his shoulder at her. And then, before he can stop himself, he asks, “Will you teach me sometime? How to braid like this? And with the beads?” 

Katara’s eyes brighten, “Of course,” she responds, a smile touching the corner of her lips. 

Sokka comes barreling back into the living room with two, large packs in either hand. Hakoda is close behind them. 

“Ready?” Sokka asks and Zuko nods, beginning to stand. Katara stands as well.

They shrug on their parkas, bundle up beneath fur and fabric. They slip on their boots and tighten them to their ankles. Zuko doesn’t actually need all of the extra layers and protections against the cold, but he puts it all on anyway. He wants to fit in, he wants to look like the rest of the Tribe in blue, in white fur.

Suki kisses Sokka goodbye. He cracks a joke that makes her laugh. 

Zuko stands at the threshold of the door with Katara. She looks up at him, tips her chin up to catch his eyes. The light of the rising sun casts her in honey gold, tinged pink at the edges. Her eyes flash like the blue of a flame, brilliant and striking. 

“May the Spirits bless your hunt,” Katara tells him and Zuko can tell with the way the words are spoken, they’re traditional. Old. 

Zuko bows his head to accept them and he catches the curl of her lips, the upward tilt of them that he traces with his eyes. 

“And be careful,” she adds, perhaps half-teasing. Zuko shares her smile. 

“I will.” he promises. 

And they linger. Katara opens her mouth, like maybe she’ll say something, like there’s something trapped inside of her. He waits patiently. She does not speak, can’t seem to form the words. 

Sokka throws his arm around Zuko, “Ready to spend the next three days at my side?” 

Zuko laughs, the sound low, warm. He glances at Katara, but she’s turned away and now hugs her father goodbye. 

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Zuko says and Sokka grabs Zuko’s hood, pulls it up, yanks it down over his eyes until Zuko has to bat him away.   

   Final goodbyes are said before Zuko follows Sokka and Hakoda into the swirling, winter winds that kick up snow and dance around them. They meet with the other men of the Tribe– men nearing old age and boys as old as thirteen. 

They head towards the forest in the distance, the snow covered trees reaching tall into the sky. 

When he glances back, he finds Katara’s silhouette in the doorway of her home, hazy with the soft gold light behind her. 

It fills him with warmth, for some reason, and he keeps the image of her in his mind’s eye even as he turns back around, even as the distance between them grows. 

Many of the men in the Tribe are wary of Zuko at first. He assumes they’re expecting a stuck up Fire Lord, someone who doesn’t help, or scoffs at their traditions. Zuko works hard to prove them wrong. 

Sokka helps, too. With the easy, casual way that Sokka treats Zuko, it aids in showing that Zuko doesn’t expect any kind of formality or special treatment. Zuko isn’t as serious as he seems. 

They hold their breath when Sokka pushes Zuko into a snowbank for fun. Zuko huffs, a small flame curling out in front of his mouth before he sets his eyes on Sokka. He reaches for snow, curls it into his fist, into a snowball, before lobbing it at him. 

Sokka yelps as the snow bursts on his chest.

Collectively, many of the men watching seem to exhale. Some chuckle. Zuko finds himself relaxing, too. 

They teach him how to throw a spear, teasing him a little as they do so. Zuko takes it in stride and thanks the stars that he’s a quick learner. 

Some of the older men are impressed when Sokka tells them that Zuko’s weapon of choice was the dual swords. 

The younger boys are interested in Zuko’s Firebending. He pulls his gloves off to show them a flame, cupped in the palm of his hand.

The Tribe loves to have him start their fires in the evening, they cheer every time he does it and Zuko finds it mildly amusing. The comradery is new to him, but he warms to it quickly. He was never included like this growing up, not until Aang and Toph and Katara and Sokka and Suki. 

It soothes another tender part of him, something he hadn’t realized he’d ever wanted. 

On the second day, as Zuko trudges beside Sokka along a partially frozen stream, Sokka side eyes him. 

“So,” he begins and Zuko grows wary just at the tone of his voice, “You and my sister.” 

Zuko’s heart stops. 

He doesn’t realize he’s stopped walking until Sokka stops and turns to look at him, too. 

“W-what about us?” Zuko gets out.

Sokka rolls his eyes, “You know Suki’s my wife, right?”

“Well, yes–” 

“And we don’t keep secrets between us.” 

“It’s not her secret, though!” 

Sokka’s smile is sharp, knowing, “So it’s true then?” 

Zuko groans in frustration and a few birds startle and burst from trees. Snow drops from the branches and onto the ground beside them. 

Men in the tribe who are a little ways away loudly shush them. They’ll scare the game if they keep that up. 

Sokka rolls his eyes and takes a few steps back towards Zuko, “You should tell her how you feel.” he says, his tone gentler now. 

Zuko’s eyes widen and he shakes his head quickly, “I can’t do that.” 

“Why not?” Sokka asks, his face screwing up into confusion. 

“My feelings aren’t her problem.” Zuko explains and he glances away from Sokka, “I don’t want her to worry about them. About me.” 

“As noble as that is,” Sokka begins, “I think you’re an idiot” 

“Yeah, well, that’s fine.” Zuko responds stubbornly, throwing a glare to Sokka, who barely pays it any mind. 

There’s a beat of silence between them before Sokka exhales slowly. 

“Alright, look, don’t freak out when I tell you this–” Sokka begins and Zuko can already feel his heart rate ratcheting up inside of his chest. “But going on a hunting trip with a girl’s father and the men of the tribe is usually the first indication that you want to propose to her.” 

Zuko’s mind goes perfectly blank for a moment. 

“What.” he bites out.

Sokka winces a little, “Yeah, it’s tradition in the South.” 

“Sokka!” Zuko snaps and Sokka lurches forward to cover Zuko’s mouth with a gloved hand so he doesn’t make any more noise in the painfully quiet forest. 

“I told you not to freak out–!” 

Zuko rips Sokka’s hand from his mouth, “Why would you invite me if you knew that was tradition? What does the tribe think? What does your father think?!” 

Sokka smiles sheepishly. Zuko recalls the way Katara had scolded Sokka now, when he had first invited Zuko, how red her face had gotten. No wonder. 

“They probably think you’re going to propose to her sometime soon,” Sokka gets out.

Zuko has to take in a massively deep breath to keep from exploding. The snow beneath his feet has begun to melt away, smoke curling from it. Sokka glances down, but doesn’t back away. 

“We’re not even dating,” Zuko hisses.

“You might as well be.” Sokka scoffs.

Zuko grips at the front of Sokka’s parka, yanking him closer as panic starts to seep in, “This isn’t funny. You don’t understand–” 

Fear steals the words from his mouth. She doesn’t– Katara doesn’t love him the way he loves her. It’s painful, his chest suddenly burning, his throat tightening. More than that, he could never ask her to take on the massive responsibility that comes with being Fire Lady. She has to do what she wants, not be stuck with him, not be stuck with such a burden–

“Relax,” Sokka hushes, “She didn’t stop you from coming, did she?” 

Zuko blinks and then shakes his head slowly. 

“She knows the implications, too. She knows what it means for me, as her brother, to ask you to join us.” Sokka explains gently, “She would’ve stopped you if she didn’t want you to come.” 

Zuko’s fists slowly uncurl from Sokka. He has to take in several more breaths. The air is clear and cool and fills his overheated lungs. He tries to let the crispness clear his mind, flood his chest. 

The idea that Katara feels the same for him is nearly unbelievable now. He has spent so many years loving her, made his peace with the idea that she would never love him back the same way. He’d thought maybe there was something between them recently, maybe he’d gotten hopeful, but he hadn’t expected– he had never expected her to love him back. 

He never expected this. 

Not marriage. Maybe, in the hidden, quiet parts of himself, he’d wished for it. Dreamed of it. He never expected it, though. 

Still, his doubts surge forward, “I couldn’t– she’d be the Fire Lady.” 

“Obviously.” Sokka replies as if it’s that simple.

“That doesn’t concern you at all?” 

Sokka waves away his fear flippantly, “The only thing I worry about is how big Katara’s ego will be with a crown on her head.” 

Despite everything, all the fear and turmoil, a surprised laugh ruptures out of Zuko’s aching chest. It’s a rough sound, but it bursts from him anyways. He feels half mad, his stomach in knots, a rush of fear, of adrenaline, of hope coursing through him. 

He swears he’s going to lose it. 

A smile explodes onto Sokka’s face now, though. His eyes brighten. “C’mon, admit I’m a little bit of a genius for–” 

Zuko shakes his head, even if he can’t help the smile he tries to bite back, just as he can’t help the desperate hope that rises in him like a tidal wave. 

“For tricking me?” Zuko asks, and then adds, “You’re the worst.” 

Sokka’s smile remains, though, knowing and a touch smug now. 

“But since I’m already this far,” Zuko then begins tentatively, swallowing down the nagging fear, “Are there any other proposal traditions I should know about?” 

“Usually, on this hunt, you’re supposed to find the stone you’ll carve and embed in the hunting knife you give her.” Sokka explains then, “Other than that, no.” 

“I don’t– do I have to talk to your father at all?” Zuko asks, feeling suddenly terrified. 

Sokka screws up his face, “No, we don’t do that in the South. Our daughters aren’t our father’s property– you don’t ask for her hand in marriage. Usually, you just try to bond with him on your hunting trip. You try to prove to her family that your character is good and you’re reliable. That you deserve her.” 

Zuko must look horrified, because Sokka gives him another easy smile, as if that will soothe him, “If it helps, my father already knows you have a good character.” 

When Zuko’s expression doesn’t change, Sokka continues, “The first time he truly met you, you were helping me bust him and Suki out of prison. And then you nearly died saving Katara. Not to mention all the good changes you’ve brought since the war ended. I don’t really know what you’re worried about here, buddy.” 

Everything, Zuko wants to say, only everything. 

When he doesn’t respond, Sokka softens, “How would you propose in the Fire Nation?” 

“With gold, usually. Our families would meet and exchange nine gifts.” Zuko explains, “And I would ask her father if he would–” 

Zuko’s voice wavers, “If he’d accept me as his new son.” 

Sokka goes quiet. He reaches out to put a steadying hand on Zuko’s shoulder, squeezes him a little, jostles him to get his attention, “I know he would accept you.” Sokka promises quietly. 

“I haven’t even gotten Katara to–” Zuko gets out. 

“Do you want my advice, as Katara’s brother, your friend, and an expert in romance?” Sokka asks instead of letting Zuko finish. 

Zuko nods, jerky, unsure. He tries to swallow around the lump in his throat. 

“You’re both just wasting time at this point.” Sokka tells him and there’s a note of sadness in his tone, a softening that makes Zuko’s shoulders fall, “And take it from me,” he continues, his too-bright eyes casting out, beyond Zuko, up into the sky for a moment, before they find the gold of Zuko’s eyes in the dying light;

 “Every moment counts.” 

When Zuko turns around, he notices the moon creeping into the evening sky and she is nearly full, her face a somber and tender reminder. 

They make it towards a vast lake in the center of the forest on the third day. It’s so large that it doesn’t freeze and it’s waves roll lazily onto a rocky shore. They set up camp early that evening, since they’d had a good day of hunting. They have plenty of meat for the Solstice. Now, most of the boys play and the men sit around a large fire that Zuko had started, sharing dried seal-jerky and stories. They’ll head back tomorrow morning.

Hakoda calls Zuko over to him and though Zuko feels nerves twist to life inside him, he dutifully goes to Hakoda’s side. He stands at the shoreline, just out of touch from the rocking waves. The stones below his feet are gleaming like scales, a shuttering of colors beneath the water. The sun is bruised violet and garnet in the sky, low on the horizon, the water taking on shades of maroon and navy. 

When Zuko stands beside him, Hakoda says, “Kya and I used to take Sokka and Katara here in the spring months when they were little.” 

Zuko looks out at the lake as Hakoda continues, “It was warmer then and they’d wade in the shallow part here. Katara would try to Waterbend. I taught Sokka how to fish. Sometimes, we’d skip rocks across the water. Kya was always the best at it.” 

There is another pause and the gentle cascade of waves is the only thing Zuko can focus on. 

Zuko doesn’t know why, but he finds his voice enough to say, “There’s an island in the Fire Nation my family used to visit when I was a child. It reminds me of that.” 

Hakoda smiles faintly, softly, almost sadly. 

“I hope they were good memories.” Hakoda says quietly. 

“They were,” Zuko admits quietly, “One of few from my childhood.”

Silence settles over them, not unkindly so, not uncomfortably so, but simply. Nostalgia sits between them on the shore of this lake, the soft kind that is handled with love and care. The kind that is cherished.  

After another moment, Hakoda pats Zuko on the back and leaves him with, “I’ve always thought the stones were prettiest here.” 

Zuko looks down at the shimmering, jewel-like stones beneath the water’s rippling glass surface. 

He spends his evening with his pants rolled up, boots cast aside, wading in the freezing water, his eyes searching and searching and searching. He must look crazy, but he doesn’t care. He breathes deep, huffing to keep his temperature up, smoke curling from his mouth occasionally. Even still, he grows cold. Especially as the sun slips away and night settles over them like a blanket. 

But he doesn’t give up. Not until he grasps a perfectly smooth, round stone in the palm of his hand. 

He tucks it away in his pocket. He goes to warm up beside the fire. The Tribe teases him, playful, finally having relaxed around him. Zuko smiles, laughs freely with them, responds to their teasing with quips that make them laugh in turn. He feels new and open with them, clings to their kindness and joy. 

Sokka nudges him later, “Can I see it?” he asks, glancing at Zuko's pocket. 

Zuko contemplates it, before finally shaking his head, “Not until I’m done with it.” And then he eyes Sokka, “And don’t say anything about this to anyone. Especially not Katara. I’m not– I don’t want her to think–” 

Sokka nudges him to stop him from running into a rambling explanation, “Don’t worry,” Sokka replies easily, “I won’t.” 

When Zuko falls asleep that night, it is beneath a map of stars, fiery against the sea of blue night sky. He tucks his hand into his pocket and rubs his thumb over the smooth surface of the stone. 

He wonders about fate again and the strange nature of the universe, the endlessness of the stars and sky. The round edge of the stone in his pocket. The girl that he wants with everything inside of him to give it to. 

He dreams that night of wandering in the dark. He follows the sound of a heartbeat, the soft pulse urges him onward, it beats steady and grows louder with each step. The dark tunnel opens up to a cave of luminescent crystals, setting everything aglow. 

Katara is there and when she turns to face him, she smiles. She offers her palm to him, up and open.

He steps towards her, meets her in the middle of his world and hers, among the crystals that drown out the dark. He thinks maybe they’re actually in the sky, surrounded by stars. 

When he touches Katara’s hand, they are set alight, possessed by it. 

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispers, “For so many years.” 

Her voice sounds strange, ancient, buzzing and layered with another voice. 

“It’s been far too long, my love.” he murmurs for some reason, his voice not entirely his own, either. 

When he wakes the next morning, all he can think about is the story of Oma and Shu. 

He wonders if they ever got a second chance, another life, he wonders if the universe rewards lovers and all their soul-soft, burning glory. 

When they return to the village, Toph and Aang have arrived. Aang is first to reach him and Sokka, a gust of air right on his heels. He pulls both into an excited hug, throwing one arm over each of them. Sokka’s laugh is infectious. Zuko holds them both tight. 

He is excited to see Aang, even if the stone in his pocket seems like it might burn him.

Still, Zuko asks, “How was your spiritual journey?” 

“Enlightening,” Aang responds with a wide, wonderful smile. One that Zuko hadn’t seen the last time Aang had visited the Fire Nation. 

Zuko is happy to see him happy and he’s about to question him further when he catches a flash of green in the corner of his eyes, before a sharp pain echoes up his arm. 

He winces, rubbing at his arm, but still can’t help the smile when he says, “Hi, Toph.” 

Toph grins up at him, “Hi, Sparky.” 

He pulls her into a hug and she doesn’t even protest this time, but she does squirm away quickly. 

Katara and Suki come out to join them, to greet Sokka and Zuko, too. Zuko’s eyes slide between Aang and Katara. Thankfully, there seems to be little tension between them as the group floods with talking. They don’t exactly interact with one another, but they aren’t ignoring each other, either. 

Zuko is mildly surprised. He wonders, with perhaps the slightest hint of worry, if they’ve spoken. What they’ve spoken about. 

Sokka drags him from his thoughts when he crows, “Look at us! All back together again!” 

And there is something about that, the rarity of it, the preciousness of it, that steals all of Zuko’s thoughts. 

They share dinner together at Sokka and Katara’s house, around the low, intimate table where they trade stories and laughter and joy. 

“How was your first hunt?” Katara leans over to ask him when she finally gets the chance, and her voice is soft, only for him. 

His heart ticks up in pace. He tries not to grow too nervous. 

He leans towards her, though, ducks his head down closer to her ear,  “It went well I think. I hope.” 

Katara smiles at him warmly, touches his arm in reassurance, “I’m sure it did.” 

They all sleep in a pile of furs and blankets and quilts, pillows that barricade them in, in front of the fire that warms them. They whisper late into the night, the way teenagers do, and it makes Zuko feel younger, more at ease. 

Their laughter is a balm, it’s something that he’s missed, something that he cherishes. He never knows when the next time they’ll be together, so he savors it now. Savors Aang’s playfulness and Toph’s bluntness, Sokka’s jokes, Suki’s clever quips, Katara’s fire-bright smile. 

They barely sleep that night, giddy with each other’s company.

Before the Solstice celebration, Katara teaches Zuko how to braid hair and how to wind beads into one’s hair on Toph and Suki and Sokka. He isn’t perfect and several times Katara has to ease her fingers past his to fix his mistakes, to help him along. 

Their hands touch, brush with every fleeting move. They share glances. Katara seems softly hesitant again with him, blushing soft beneath his gaze.  

When everyone else has their hair done, she delicately slips the beads into Zuko’s hair, too– colors of dark blue and silver and flashes of violet gleam in his black hair. 

Toph likes to shake her head to make the beads clink and clack together in her ears. Zuko runs his fingers along them in his own hair. 

He goes to the Solstice dressed in a deep, rich blue, the softest cast of red to it, of warmth against his pale skin. 

He doesn’t realize until later, when her beads flash in her hair as she moves, that they are the same pattern as his. 

We match, Zuko thinks and can’t stop the desperate twist of hope in the cavern of his great, broad chest. 

The Winter Solstice celebration is held in the Southern Water Tribe’s cultural center. It’s huge and brilliant and beautiful, new to the village, near the community center in the middle. The top of the cultural center is made of gleaming, clear glass, which allows in light during the day, and the cosmos at night.

There is a massive banquet first, where everyone sits at a low, long table and eats traditional Southern Water Tribe food– the meat that they caught on the hunt, warm, brothy soups, savory dumplings, dried berries upon crackers. 

Even their wine is warm and spiced, settling lowly in Zuko’s chest. 

As the evening gives way to night, music is brought out. Drummers begin an upbeat rhythm. Zuko knows from Katara’s past letters that this is traditional music in the South, for their traditional dances. People stand, break away from the long table to begin moving to the music. 

Katara is among them.

This time, she is alone, but no less remarkable. The whole room seems to be watching her, even other dancers, following her lead. She is smooth and graceful, playful with the upbeat tempo of the pounding drums, with the way her heels kick up a little, soles of her feet flashing. The beads in her hair clink together musically as she turns, spins over her shoulder. 

They all know her, they all adore her. 

She is the heart and soul of the room, Zuko thinks, she always is, isn’t she? 

When Katara adds Waterbending to her dancing, Zuko can hear the room in soft awe of her. Some begin to cheer, drummers vocalizing as Katara flashes them a smile, as the water around her twists and turns with the bend of her wrist, the move of her arms. Her hips move, the slow roll like a wave as her water winds around her torso. 

Zuko is enamored. He always has been. 

When one song ends, Katara finally takes a moment to breathe, her smile luminous. She casts her gaze back out to the room and her eyes fall on Zuko’s, the blue of them burning and beautiful. 

He can feel his heart get stuck in his chest.

She walks towards him a little, her palm open, offered to him, “Come dance with me,” she says with a smile so remarkable that it hurts him. 

Nerves bubble up inside of Zuko quickly and before he can think, he is shaking his head, “I don’t know how–” 

“I’ll teach you,” she promises, undeterred, her hand now in front of him, open and upturned. 

Zuko is a simple man when it comes to her, and despite his fear,  he can’t resist the temptation of her hand in his. Tentatively, he slides his own large hand into hers. She’s cool beneath his palm and her fingers tighten around him. She pulls him up, pulls him to the dance floor before he can protest again. 

Zuko’s heart thuds against the cage of his chest, threatening to break free. He can feel the eyes of the room on them. 

“Find the rhythm,” Katara instructs him and her thumb taps lightly against the back of his hand to the beat of the drums. “Dancing with a partner is a little like sparring, it’s like bending.” 

And then she is beginning to move, taking graceful steps away from him, only to turn back into his arms. 

His breath hitches at how close she is. Her smile is a curl of mischief, of playfulness. She pulls away from him again and he finds himself moving now, too. The tentative chase of her feet with his. 

His hand finds the gentle curve of her waist. Her body moves with his touch. He eases into it, into the rhythm that grows in tempo steadily, pounds with the rhythm of his heart. 

They’re moving then, together, with ease. And it is like bending in some way, sparring with her. There is a push and pull to it, a give and take that Zuko surrenders to easily. She moves from him, only to return moments later. He lets her stray, only to pull her back. 

His hand glides along the curve of her arm, down to her wrist, to slip back into her hand. 

When she begins to Waterbend again, Zuko can hear the room’s soft gasp. He can feel the water rush around their legs, swirling up around their torsos before disappearing to move around Katara again. 

After a moment, she twirls back into him, her face tipped up to his, so that they’re only a breath apart. “Use your bending,” she murmurs and her eyes are hooded, soft.

He can feel the twist of her torso, the roll of her hip beneath his hand. “I don’t want to hurt you,” is his immediate response, hushed beneath the drums’ beat. 

“I trust you,” she almost purrs, voice low and warm to his ears, and Zuko can feel the cool brush of water by the nape of his neck, snaking around him to pull them closer, almost flush, almost touching–

And then she is retreating, casting a glance over her shoulder, daring him to chase.

So he does. Tentatively, he glides his foot along the ground, only for sparks to kick up, before fanning into a rush of bright flames. 

He can hear the sharp gasps of surprise, the awe of the room. 

When Katara smiles at him this time, it is breathless, excited. Her eyes glow like jewels. And all the room fades away except for her. He falls into step with her, with her bending, with his. He can only see her, feel her, the line of her spine, the dip of her waist. The cool water that arcs around them, the flames that chase after her playfully. 

For a moment, he thinks he can feel something more– energy, maybe, the rush of it between their bodies, around them. The brushing of her chi to his, cool, but flooding him with warmth. 

The water shines gold, glimmers ruby with his flames, shimmers iridescent. It casts the room in all it’s splendid light, reflecting it out onto everyone, onto the floors and walls. 

Zuko doesn’t want it to end, and can feel the way his hands tighten on her, never wanting to let go. 

He had thought at one point that maybe he could go his whole life loving her and never asking for more, content off her smiles, the fleeting touches, the hugs. And he could, if that's what she wanted. If she asked him to. 

He’d do anything, if she asked him.

But now he realizes he is a fool and he was always going to want more of her, if she’d let him, if she’d have him, too. 

The song begins to come to a rolling close and they’re both breathless, chests rising and falling, looking at each other with wide eyes. A little in awe. 

Far too in love.

When the song ends, Zuko can faintly hear applause, but all he can focus on is Katara and the way her face breaks into a radiant happiness. 

She lurches forward, throws her arms around him. 

He catches her easily, wraps his arms around her tightly because he can, because she’s in his arms, joyful and open and shining brighter than all the stars and their moon. 

He lifts her clear off the ground, spinning her, if only to be rewarded with her beautiful, ringing laughter in his ear, curling around his heart. 

“You’re incredible,” she breathes, tucking her face into the crook of his neck, like it’s where she belongs. 

“So are you,” he responds, reluctantly setting her back on her feet. When she looks up at him now, he thinks something has changed in her eyes, in her face.

She looks softer, maybe. Tender. She almost looks like she could cry, but there is still a smile on her face, so lovely and warm. 

The rest of the night is spent at her side, celebrating, laughing and talking and drinking with his friends. With the Tribe. 

He looks at Katara, haloed by the gold warmth of lanterns, the full moon’s light that washes over her, turns her skin pearly and rosy in its glory. Her eyes are alight, as bright as the seas in the Fire Nation, the blue beads in her hair. 

She smiles at him and all Zuko can think, over and over again, is that every moment counts. And he’s tired of wasting time.   

The celebration goes long into the night and Zuko is certain that when everyone begins to finally trudge back home, it is just before dawn. When the world is still dark and silent, still night, but the promise of morning is just on the edges of the world. Twilight blankets them in softness.

“I want to show you something,” Katara tells him just before they leave to return back to her house. She takes his hand to pull him along, away from the others– whatever hesitance she’d had with him earlier this week has melted away, a dam now broken between them. It’s been replaced with something eager and new, something that draws them together. 

The last thing he is expecting is for her to pull him out into the tundra. The snow dances lazily, glitters under the moon and starlight. 

“Katara, where are we going?” he asks as a wind whips past them. Her hand is small in his and cold, so he adjusts his grip to surround it, to warm it. 

“Just trust me,” she tells him, pulling him along. He follows blindly, doesn’t say another word as she guides him to the mouth of a cave. Even in the dark, Zuko can see the gash in the ground. 

There is a ladder, Zuko realizes, as Katara eases down onto it, before dropping into the darkness. He follows after her. His feet land on solid ground beneath him.

He lights a flame in the palm of his hand so that he can see her face and she glances around, “There are torches. Can you light them?” 

It only takes him a moment, a breath of air, before all the world is set afire. 

“Oh,” Zuko breathes the moment he realizes where she’s taken him. The crystals glow brilliantly with the fire, like burning, bright stars. They’re celestial, ethereal, flickering in colors of turquoise and blushing pink, crimson, blazing orange, casts of iridescent violet. They don’t look of this world, but maybe another, where everything is rose colored, and more brilliant, a world where lovers go. 

“It’s beautiful,” Zuko barely gets out, wading further into the cave. 

When he turns to find Katara, she is closer than he expects, but he doesn’t back away. In fact, she steps towards him. Until she is right in front of him. Zuko can feel his pulse take a tumble, and can feel the way warmth flushes through him. 

He thinks of Ba Sing Se suddenly, her hand on his cheek, her thumb on his lips. 

I have healing abilities. 

It’s a scar, it can’t be healed. 

He thinks they're always coming back here, circling each other, a never ending force between them.

When she looks up at him, she says, “I have a confession to make,” 

Zuko swallows, feels suddenly fragile with the tone of her voice, “Okay.” 

She lifts her hand and it finds its home on his chest, over his heart. “Before I left, I went to your room to find the list of schools in your desk,” Katara begins, her voice gone quiet, tentative, but the cave carries it, making her whisper echo softly, “And I found a letter addressed to me.” 

Zuko feels his heart plummet in his chest. He knows the letter, he knows what she’s–

He feels like he is going to unravel, like his heart will undwind like a spool of thread, into her waiting hands. He feels like he will fall apart, his heart rabbiting in his chest. His eyes gutter, flutter shut because he isn’t sure he can find her gaze right now. He isn’t sure he can face her. 

“Katara–” his voice is strained, choked.

She hushes him gently, “Look at me,” she whispers and because she’s asked, he does, he does. 

He opens his eyes to find that hers have welled up with tears, and her hand is clutching at his shirt a little too tightly, as if to keep him here, in front of her. As if nothing could take him from her now. 

“All this time?” Katara breathes. 

Zuko’s chest is heaving, tight, aching. But he can’t lie now, not when he is split open for her, for all of her to see. He exhales shakily. 

“And then some.” Zuko murmurs.  

She surges up onto the tips of her toes, pulls him down to her by the collar of his shirt. 

He meets her halfway.

And when he kisses her, it’s like an answer to a question he thinks he’s been asking for years. Something is set free inside of him, wings unfurled, outstretched finally, bursting free of him to take flight. 

The darkness seems to glows behind his eyelids and for once, all feels right in the expanse of his chest. 

It’s less of a new beginning, Zuko thinks as he kisses her, as he feels like he holds all the world in his arms, and more like a reunion. 

A reprise to a song his heart has always known.

Chapter Text

“While it is said that their romance began with the unsent letter that Fire Lady Katara once found, it was not the last of their love letters by far. There are near hundreds– most unsent by fire hawk, but rather said to have been simply placed around the palace for each other to find throughout their day to day lives. The last of these letters was from Fire Lord Zuko, who would’ve been in his last years of life when he wrote, “We’re getting old, aren’t we? It was my dream as a young man to grow old beside you and I can safely say there is nothing else better. You put the moon and all her stars to shame, my dear. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

        –An excerpt from ‘A History of Fire Lords and Fire Ladies’



    “Something on your mind?” Katara’s father asks as she pages through a series of documents about the Winter Solstice celebration in time’s past. The fire in the hearth crackles restlessly. Katara is bouncing her leg nervously, twisting her hair around one finger over and over again. 

She feels her nerves jump at her father’s question. 

“What? No,” Katara responds too quickly and she pointedly avoids the heavy look her father gives her, pretending as if she’s too busy with the words in front of her. Which couldn’t be further from the case; she hasn't’ read and comprehended a single sentence since she’d started. She hadn’t been able to focus on anything, not since–

I will always love you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. 

She’d only read the letter twice; once out of her initial discovery, and the second time in disbelief. To make sure she hadn’t missed anything, that she was even reading it correctly. But there was no way to misinterpret his words, he’d been candid, so honest that it had hurt her. And it was his handwriting, there was no denying that, either. Katara would recognize his penmanship anywhere– she knows it’s sharpness, the dips and jagged lines of it that had become so familiar to her over the years. 

It had been one of her few comforts when she was her loneliest. 

“You’ve seemed distracted ever since you arrived.” her father presses gently, tilting his head to study her, “Has something happened?” 

Yes, I found out my best friend has been in love with me for years and hasn’t told me because he didn’t want me to worry and–

Katara swallows harshly, deciding to push the papers away from her finally, giving up the facade of working at least. She tries to gather her thoughts, tries to hang on to a single one, but all she’s thinking of is the way Zuko looks at her, how he’s always looked at her, caught somewhere between tenderness and the fearful kind of hope.  

Out of all the things to come out of her mouth, she isn’t expecting this question, but it bubbles out anyways, “How did you know you were in love with mom?” 

Her father seems surprised, too, bushy eyebrows raising. He leans back a little in his chair, the wood creaking. 

“I think I was in love with her the moment I saw her,” Hakoda tells her with a smile. 

“Dad, be serious–” Katara responds, “When did you really know?” 

“I am being serious,” he promises, “I fell in love with her far earlier than she fell in love with me.” 

Katara feels her heart stop, “Did you tell her you loved her when you realized it?” 

Hakoda laughs now, the sound warm and familiar, “No, she would’ve thought I was crazy.” Then he let’s go of a slow breath, “I was also too scared to lose her friendship if she didn’t feel the same.” 

  “Then how did you two end up together?” Katara asks and of course, she knows the story of how they met, she knows how they got engaged. The story of their wedding. But she doesn’t know this particular detail. 

“I fell through the ice while fishing once,” her father begins, and now that he says it, Katara does vaguely recall this story, too. But she stays quiet, she lets his warm, low voice tell the story again. “And she pulled me out. At the time it was terrifying, but looking back, I don’t think it was nearly as dramatic as we thought it was. But she– well, by the fire after, while I was still warming up, she kissed me.” 

His eyes drift away for a moment, as if he can recall the memory. “She said she couldn’t stand the idea of anything happening to me without knowing that she loved me.” Hakoda tilts his head, “And with the war, as you know, things were far more uncertain.”  

Katara nods, a little numbly. 

“What’s brought this on?” her father asks then, “What’s going through that brilliant head of yours?” 

Katara shakes her head a little, unable to open her mouth. But her father is patient and he is quiet, but does not drop it. He does not let her up from his gaze. Katara worries her bottom lip, working up the courage to speak the words out loud. 

She runs her fingers over the wood table in front of her, tracing the splitting wood, which arcs outward in a spindly image of lines. Like Fate lines, like Shono and her bones. 

She feels like she’s always seeing it now, all of those connecting lines, in all of nature, in all of life.

Finally, she opens her mouth and says, “Before I left the Fire Nation, I found a letter in Zuko’s desk addressed to me.” she draws in a shaky breath, “And I opened it, even if I probably shouldn’t have– but it was dated right after Sokka and Suki’s wedding.” 

Hakoda is quiet. A log in the fire breaks in half, tumbles down, little embers bursting and licking up into the air. 

“And it said that he was in love with me. He had been for awhile and that he won’t tell me because– well, I was with Aang at the time and–” Katara doesn’t know why tears are welling up in her eyes, she doesn’t know why it’s become hard so speak suddenly, only that her voice breaks when she says, “And because he didn’t want to burden me.”

Your love is not my burden, she thinks, feeling her heart twist for him– knowing he has always felt half too heavy, forever undeserving of all that is good. 

Her father stands suddenly from his place to join her at the table, he takes the seat beside her. He reaches out to lay his warm, rough hand over hers. 

“He sounds very selfless,” Hakoda says when she cannot speak. 

“He is,” she whispers, wiping at tears that slip down her cheeks.  

“Do you love him?” her father asks softly.

Katara doesn’t know why, but it makes her cry harder, especially when she chokes out, “Yes, I love him–” 

And there it is. Freed from her mouth, from the cage of her teeth. 

When she looks back, she realizes she has fallen in love with him so slowly and so gradually, she can no longer find the beginning. Was it between letters? Was it watching him care for his sister? Was it on top of a Fire Sage’s tower or pressed to his side while saying goodbye? Was it watching him become a caring and just leader? Was it working beside him? Maybe it was when he spilled his past and heart to her. Maybe it was all of it, tangled up inside of her, all the moments now feeling precious to her, to be coveted. 

Her heart is a fragile thing in the aching pit of her chest. 

She thinks of him sacrificing his feelings for her, spending years as her friend and never once imposing upon her. She thinks of the way he just loved her silently, from afar, so that she was– what had the letter said? 

Whole and untouched. 

I don’t think anyone in the world could deserve you. Least of all me.

Katara feels more tears slip from her eyes. She wants to shake him, to yell at him. She wants to be angry if she wasn’t so terrified, if she wasn’t so uncertain. 

Your love is not my burden, she wants to say to him, you are good and kind and deserving of everything. Even my love. 

She thinks maybe she’s also crying because he was right, wasn’t he? He was right about her– she’s crying about him now, for him. She wants to laugh, maybe, too, because he knows her so well, knows all of her and then some. She has never felt so– so seen, so brutally raw, stripped bare and open. 

“Oh, Katara,” her father murmurs, “What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Love should make you happy.” 

“He does make me happy,” Katara half sobs and in turn, it makes her choke on wet laughter at the irony, “He makes me so happy.” 

“Then why are you crying?” her father presses carefully. 

“Because– because he’s so self-sacrificing and kind and I’m scared I missed my chance. I’m scared he’s moved on. I’m scared because I don’t know how– he’s the Fire Lord.” she rambles, “He’s the Fire Lord and there are traditions–” 

“Breathe,” her father commands gently and she does as he asks, taking in shaky breaths until they can even out, until she has calmed somewhat. Then he speaks, “From what I know of him, I don’t think he is much concerned with tradition.” 

Katara can’t help the slight laugh that bursts from her and her father smiles fractionally at the sound. Still, she shakes her head a little, “But his nation does, his council does.” 

“I think if he loves you as much as you’ve already told me, this won’t worry him, either. Not after all he’s already done.” Hakoda then takes in a slow breath, and there is a glint to his blue eyes, the clever kind that reminds her of Sokka. He adds, “It could, arguably, even be politically advantageous for him.” 

“And if I’m too late?” Katara responds, her voice trembling. 

Hakoda squeezes her hand gently, “Then he is a fool and has done the impossible.” 

“The impossible?”

“To stop loving you? Impossible.” Hakoda says with the fondest of smiles. 

Katara laughs again, a choked little sound, but it’s a laugh and with it, loosens all the tension that she’d been holding. Despite it all, she feels lighter, like she’s finally breathing right again. 

Later that night, she confides in Suki about the letter, too. She wants another opinion, someone who knows him and Suki does a lot to ease any of Katara’s fears. They lay by the fire, facing each other, talking quietly beneath quilts. They talk until Suki is making her laugh and she feels young and old all at once, feels dizzy with love, and sick with hope. 

And she falls asleep, trying to recall every word from the letter. Every moment between them now painted in a new light, a new color. 

Your love is not my burden, she thinks again, but my lightening. 



When Katara wakes, the house is still quiet. The fire has been restored, though, softly crackling in the early morning silence. The wind rushes against the outside of the house and Katara burrows down deeper into the furs and quilts.

She turns over to find that the place where Zuko sleeps is empty, the only thing left is the imprint of him, his pillow and the blankets pushed aside. She picks her head up a little to find that Toph, Aang, Sokka, and Suki are all still sleeping. She rubs at her eyes a little, settling back down into the nest of blankets. 

She knows Zuko is probably out doing Firebending forms and she dozes once more, curling up on her side. 

Faintly, she hears the creek of the door. 

Her eyes flutter slowly, blinking into the dimness to see Zuko slip back into the house. He removes his parka, strips down to his dark indigo tunic. Eases out of his boots to leave them by the rest at the door. He pads back over to his place near her, sitting down once more. 

Katara turns over to lay on her side to face him, eyes flickering up to find his face. 

“Sorry,” he murmurs, “Did I wake you?”

Katara shakes her head, her cheek rubbing against her pillow. “Lay down again?” she requests quietly, sleep still clinging to her, making her words slur.

Zuko smiles softly, before easing back down into the warmth of the blankets. He lays on his side to face her, too. Instinctively, she inches towards him, he eases towards her, too. 

They’re careful, they keep a small distance apart, but Katara lays her hand between them, palm up, and Zuko tentatively reaches out to take it. 

He touches her like she’s precious, like he can’t quite believe he gets to touch her. His fingers close over her hand, his palm warm and rough against hers. 

They haven’t had the time or space to discuss anything fully since the Winter Solstice. Any time they’ve attempted to broach the conversation of what they are, or what this means, they are sorely interrupted– by Sokka or Aang or her father or anytone. 

Zuko had finally promised, “We can talk about it later,” and there had seemed to be something unhurried about it that soothed her nerves, like it was going to be a simple conversation. Like it wasn’t anything to be concerned with. 

It all feels simple, she thinks, looking at him now laying down beside her. It feels almost obvious. 

And more than that, any brief time alone they have had, has also been spent stealing quick kisses, and brief, fleeting touches. It’s almost fun, having their own secret, something just for each other. 

She’ll tell her father and brother and Suki soon. She’d tell Toph soon if she wasn’t so worried that she’d tell Aang. 


He’s still sleeping, not far from her. Should she feel guilty? How badly will he be hurt by this? Is this selfish of her? 

But then Zuko lifts his hand from hers, reaches out carefully to touch her furrowed brow, “What are you worrying about?” he murmurs, his voice just a low, warm rumble from his chest. 

Immediately, Katara’s features soften somewhat. Her guilt is dispelled or perhaps worth it’s trouble, if only to have him gaze at her like this. If only to have him. 

“Nothing,” she responds and can’t help but smile fractionally at the way his brows furrow now. He doesn’t like nothing as an answer. He doesn’t like non-answers, especially from her. Still she hushes, “We can talk about it later, I don’t want to wake anyone.” 

He accepts this answer more and returns his hand to hers, palm to palm. 

She wants to curl closer to him, wants to know what it’s like to lay on his chest, to feel the rise and fall of his breath beneath her. She wants to tangle her legs up with his, feel his arms looped around her, holding her close. 

But for now, this is what she’ll take, his hand in hers in the soft, growing light of dawn.

Someone stirs and they both jolt away. Katara burrows down and perhaps squeezes her eyes shut a little too tightly, as if to pretend she’s still asleep. She tries to soothe out her features, tries to keep away the hint of a smile that’s crept to her lips. 

Because it’s something only for them finally, something she has wanted and never allowed herself. 

Because she’s so painfully happy, and she thinks that after so many years of staving it off for others, keeping herself hungry for her own desires, she deserves this. 

And she knows that he does, too. 

They spend their days around warm fires, telling stories and talking, sharing each other’s company. Katara basks in spending time with her community again, visiting her dance troupe again, and being back with her father and brother and grandparents. 

Katara and Zuko try to do work at points, but are quickly shut down by Sokka, who won’t allow them to do much. Toph and Aang have been exploring the forests, the surrounding area. Zuko has become determined to master braiding. Whenever he can, he sits cross-legged behind Katara and tries to wind her hair together. 

The first few times, she laughs a little as he struggles, as she can hear him huff in some form of agitation. But he is persistent and eventually, he is able to manage a loose braid. 

Still, she enjoys those moments, when she can feel his fingers in her hair and his voice grows soft in a way she thinks is reserved for her. Sometimes she can feel his touch along the nape of her neck and her breath hitches. Warmth flushes through her. 

She spars with Toph and spends time with Suki. She takes Zuko out fishing with Sokka and laughs when they can’t catch a fish without her help. 

They spot sea wolves one morning– the huge, black and white whales that travel together in their dark waters. Their fins breach the surface, only to disappear again. They can hear the warbling, waning cries they make from beneath the water’s surface. 

“Are they dangerous?” Zuko breathes, gripping the edge of their large canoe in fear. 

“Not to us, usually,” Katara responds, and then, “Look! There’s babies!” 

Smaller fins cut through the water, towards the middle of the pack. 

“They’re taking all our fish, though,” Sokka grouses, just as one touches the surface of the water to blast air up, causing a spray to douse them. Katara’s laugh is bright and echoes off of the glittering ice around them. 

She even spars with Aang later and she doesn’t go easy on him, but she is somewhat tentative with him. She can tell he’s being tentative with her, too. 

And afterwards, when the sun is beginning to rest on the horizon, when everything has turned peachy and golden, Aang asks, “Katara, can we talk for a moment?” 

Katara pauses and she lets out a slow, careful breath. It puffs out in front of her. “Sure,” she agrees and she only glances back towards the others for a moment, before she begins to walk a little distance away, trailing behind Aang. 

She peaks over her shoulder to catch Zuko watching her. 

When they’re out of ear shot, Aang turns back to her. Katara isn’t sure what she’s expecting to hear. 

“I just– I guess I wanted to apologize, actually.” Aang starts and his voice sounds small. 

“Oh,” Katara breathes, “A-About what?” 

“For how I treated you, when we were together.” Aang tells her, “I realize now that I was immature and selfish and I was– well, I was somewhat blind. To you, especially.” 

Katara is surprised, she can feel her mouth fall open a little. 

“I know I’m a few years too late with this apology,” Aang then says quickly, “But if I had apologized any sooner, I wouldn’t have understood why I was apologizing. I needed to mature more.” Aang then inhales, “And I don’t expect you to forgive me suddenly–” 

“I do, though,” Katara says and her voice is gentle, soft on the wind. 

And she does, she finds. Katara may have been bitter, at one point, but most of it receded when she was able to put distance between them. Once she regained herself, what she wanted, any bitterness melted away slowly but surely. She shook off the frigid chill of it, and blossomed into herself. 

Aang shuts his eyes a moment, his head bowing fractionally. “Thank you, Katara.”

Katara nods in return and she doesn’t say of course, because her forgiveness should not be obvious nor expected. She says, “You’re welcome.”  

When Aang’s eyes open, there is a misty quality to him. She can tell he has something else that he wants to get out. Katara braces herself. 

“I guess I also want to know if–” he swallows, clings to his courage, “If there was ever a chance for us to try again. If maybe, in a few years or–” 

Katara knows her answer. She doesn’t need to think about it. She made it long ago, solidified it days ago. 

“No, Aang,” I’m sorry, she almost adds, but she doesn’t. Because there is nothing to be sorry about. “No, there’s no chance.” 

She can see the hurt in his eyes, she can see the way he opens his mouth, perhaps to say more, to encourage her to think about it. She watches his chest rise and fall. The wind sweeps her hair from her face, it makes the distance between them seem greater. 

But instead, all he does is bow again and say, his voice breaking, “I understand. Thank you for speaking to me.” 

Katara bows somewhat, too. “You’re welcome.” and when she straightens herself back up, she regards him softly, feels sorry for causing him pain but still swallows her apologies. Instead she says, “I hope you’re doing well, Aang. I hope you– I hope the best for you. Always.” 

Aang straightens up to give her a sad smile, but he nods, and she thinks he means it when he says, “I hope you’re doing well, too.” 

Katara smiles, “I am.” she agrees and Aang lets out a breath, like that was all he needed to hear. 

Then he casts his eyes out, towards the horizon, “I’m going to– I’m going to go for a walk, I think. Maybe meditate. I’ll be back for dinner.” 

“Okay,” Katara says, “Take your time.” 

He bids her one last goodbye before they part. Katara returns to the group and Aang goes off on his own. She exhales a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. 

When she returns, Zuko is at her side first, “Are you okay?” he asks, lowering his voice for only her to hear. 

“Yeah,” she responds, “I’m alright.” 

“Is he?” Zuko then asks, his eyes flicking out to find the speck of yellow and orange among the white. 

“I think he will be,” Katara answers and Zuko nods, accepts her answer. He looks at her in a way she can’t decipher. There is more to say, maybe, but for now, that’s all. 

Later, when Aang returns for dinner, he is perhaps quieter than usual but otherwise joyful. He talks with them and he can still look her in the eye. Sokka’s jokes make him laugh. Toph and him bicker a little before he eases off. He even speaks with Zuko about visiting the Fire Nation again sometime soon. 

Aang smiles at her, small but friendly, and Katara thinks it’s something that is on the mend. But better, growing. She returns it. 

And she knows, deep down, even if it will take some time, they’ll be okay again in the future. 

She laughs at something Suki says and Aang chimes in quickly, followed by Toph’s voice. Zuko’s rasping, soft laugh. Sokka’s bright laugh, too. 

Yes, Katara thinks, it’ll be okay once more. 

Saying goodbye to Sokka and her father is always tough for Katara. And while she misses the South Pole each time she leaves, she has found some sort of comfort and peace in the Fire Nation, too. There is no dread in returning to it, but perhaps there are some nerves now attached to it, with the shift in her relationship with Zuko. 

She knows that he loves her. 

She loves him, but she’s not sure if he knows that. 

And they have not said this explicitly to each other. 

There is a tentativeness to their new relationship– it all feels a little fragile between them, wobbling like a newborn. 

Returning to the Fire Nation will open up all of the conversations they had promised for later. Katara isn’t scared of them, per se, but she can feel the slight swoop in her stomach at the idea. 

And there is worry for when they have to deal with the council and the courts. 

But they still have several days on a ship before they return. 

So they bundle up in the early morning on their last day in the South Pole, packing their bags, wandering around sleepily. Aang will bring Toph back to the Earth Kingdom on Appa. Zuko, Katara, and Suki will depart at the docks. 

The sky is a strange shade of blue and black and twinged with magenta, like a tender bruise. All the world is still peaceful, the snow gleaming under the strange, darkened light of the sky. 

At the docks, they all hug, holding tight to each other. There are promises of seeing each other again, urging each other to take care and stay out of trouble– be safe, be safe, please. Write to me. 

Katara hugs her father tightly. He squeezes her like he always does when she parts with him again. 

And then, strangely enough, after Zuko and her father bow to each other, her father pulls him into a hug, too. Zuko seems surprised and for a moment he is tense, before he eases into it. 

Quiet words are exchanged, words Katara doesn’t catch, but she eyes Zuko a little afterwards. 

She overhears Sokka telling Suki, “I’ll see you again soon,” before he kisses her goodbye, and Katara wonders how soon, when they’re already planning again. 

But it fades as they all say their last goodbyes. She boards the ship with Zuko’s hand at the small of her back, with Suki in front of her. She watches Appa rise in the sky with Toph and Aang. She keeps her eyes on the forms of her father and Sokka at the docks, watching until they get smaller and smaller, watching until they turn away. 

The sky above them bleeds into gold, vivid orange, tapers away into the beginning of the pale blue of daylight. 

“Are you sad to be leaving again?” Zuko asks, coming to stand beside her at the rails of the ship. 

Katara lets go of a breath, “I’m always sad to leave home a little,” she answers, but finds his warm hand with her own much colder one. She slips her fingers between his, “But I’m excited to get back to work with you in the Fire Nation.” 

Zuko pulls her a little closer by the hand, tugs her gently towards him. He glances around, to be sure they’re alone on deck. The sound of waves against the ship is all that’s heard, maybe the early calls of seagulls. 

“I really enjoyed my time here,” he admits to her, leaning down to brush his nose against hers, nudge gently at her cold cheek. She smiles, just as he adds, “But I’m excited to return home with you, too.” 

Katara’s mind gets stuck on the home with you. It sounds natural. Feels just as natural to murmur back, “We’ll come back.” 

The implication is clear and Zuko drops a promising, little kiss to her lips. She clings to the front of his parka, let’s her eyes fall shut in the warmth of him. 

His kiss is sweet like hope, shy like butterfly wings. 

Returning to the Fire Nation comes with shedding layers and newfound energy with the shining sun, the warmth. Katara almost wishes she could spend her days at the beach, soaking it up, wading in the warm water with the hot sand between her toes. 

But they’ve been gone for awhile and there is plenty of work to do, to catch up on. 

Azula had missed them. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but she seems pleased to see them again. And when Katara had asked, “Did you miss us?” with a playful grin, Azula hadn’t told her no. 

She’d only scoffed and rolled her eyes. 

Katara had resumed healing her, too, spending evenings with her hands at Azula’s temples, hovering over her head. It was taxing, but now there seemed to be more progress. 

Katara  had also spoken with Zuko on the way home about what they are finally. They’d settled easily on dating, but they hadn’t– they hadn’t talked about what feels obvious, a little too large and serious. They hadn’t talked about the future and Katara tries to tell herself it’s too early but–

But dating Zuko comes with the obvious insinuation, knowing that whoever he stays with will become the Fire Lady. 

Is that what he wants? Is that what she wants? A crown is not a light thing. 

And they’re not sixteen anymore. She’s known him for years, been both his confidant and confided in him. They’re both past marrying age in their cultures. Katara knows there is heavy pressure for Zuko to marry as soon as possible. 

It leaves her feeling a little uncertain– perhaps she’s expecting too much of him. Perhaps she should take each day as it comes. She doesn’t want to be too intense, does she? But it sits with her and eats at her, chews at her resolve. She starts even having strange dreams of Zuko disappearing, slipping through her fingers like wind. 

He can sense it, like he always can, that there’s something bothering her. 

And he asks her one night, after dinner, when they’re in his room and she’s uncharacteristically quiet, “Is something bothering you?” 

Initially, Katara answers, “No,” because why make him worry? He already has so much on his plate and what would she even say

He isn’t satisfied with that answer and after a moment of scrutinizing her, he asks, “Why do you do that?” 

She thinks the question is unfair, “Do what?” 

“You hold back how you’re actually feeling.” Zuko responds, “Or you bury whatever is bothering you.” 

Katara grows defensive and her tone takes on a harder edge, “No, I don’t.” 

“It feels like I’m pulling teeth to get you to admit what’s bothering you. You don’t need to hide it, I promise. Anything you have to say I can handle.” 

Katara glances away from him. This isn’t the first time he’s said something of this effect to her. But still, he says it again, another reminder. 

Katara swallows, “But it’s nothing, okay? It’s fine.” 

“It’s not nothing if it’s bothering you.” Zuko answers, “Now please tell me what it is.” 


“I’m not Aang,” he suddenly says and Katara can tell it’s something that’s been on his tongue for awhile now, something that bursts from his mouth, “I’m not going to run off because you’ve told me something unpleasant. I never run. And I’m not leaving you.” 

Katara doesn’t know why it feels like a blow when he says it. She doesn’t know why the phrase, I’m not leaving you, comes with the sudden burning of tears. Her throat tightens painfully. She feels foolish but–

“Hey,” Zuko murmurs the moment that he catches sight of the tears brimming in her eyes, the shaky breaths that have overtaken her frame. His entire demeanor softens, completely melts. He moves from his place at his desk to kneel in front of her, where she sits perched on the edge of his bed, “Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I just want you to know–” 

She shakes her head and tears loosen, slip down her cheek. Zuko is quick to swipe them away with a warm thumb, a gentle hand cradling her cheek. 

“You’re right,” she gets out, voice barely above a whisper, her chest tight and aching. And she’s even still scared to speak what’s on her mind, what she feels, lest she disrupt any peace or hurt him. “I-I’m scared you’ll run off,” she chokes, turning her face into his broad palm as if to hide, “I’m scared you’ll leave me.” 

She doesn’t just mean now, either, she thinks she means in the future, too. This fear is one Katara knows well, it’s the one that has been with her since she was a child. Since the moment her mother died, gone from her life between one blink and the next. Since the moment her father left for war and it was just her and Sokka and Gran Gran. She thinks of Jet, even, of all the people there and gone in an instant in her life. She thinks of every time that Aang disappeared. Every time he ran away. It is a fear that has sat with her, held tight to her the way children hold to their parents, terrified and clutching with angry fists.  

She feels fragile, almost like a child. She feels half foolish, maybe, too. All this for a little question she couldn’t even answer? 

All this because he’d said, I’m not leaving you. 

“Katara,” Zuko coos softly, says her name like he’s trying to soothe her with just his voice, like he’d do anything to put her back together. “I just got you, I’m not going to leave you.” 

When he leans forward to place a kiss on her cheek stained with tears, she clutches at the front of his robes, at his shoulders. He eases his free arm around her waist, taking her hint, hitching her nearer, holding her close. 

She turns to bury her face in the crook of his neck, shudders as she holds back a sob– she doesn’t even know why she still feels like crying, doesn’t know why she feels as if she’s going to shake apart. 

Maybe it’s because so few people have said that to her. Maybe it’s because so many have left her. 

“I won’t ever leave you,” Zuko murmurs, “I promise.” 

Katara pulls back fractionally, inhales sharply, “Don’t say that unless you mean it.” Her voice is raw, thick with emotions, but it’s hard, unwavering. 

Without hesitating, Zuko offers himself to her, wholly and with so much sincerity in his gold eyes that Katara almost can’t handle it, “I mean it, I swear I mean it. I’ll only ever leave if it’s what you want.” 

Her fingers curl tighter into him, “I don’t,” she breathes, “I don’t ever want you to leave.” 

There’s an unspoken conversation between them, something that passes between their gazes. 

“Then I won’t.” Zuko breathes in finality, and his lips press tenderly over her cheek, down to the line of her jaw. “I won’t leave you,” he says again, as gentle and reassuring as his broad hand at her waist. 

She turns her face to catch him in a proper kiss, and it’s soft at first, loving. Something she sighs into, loosens all her tension as she slides her arms around Zuko’s neck, into his hair. He bears her weight easily, tightens his hold on her waist, drags her closer. 

When he pulls away, his eyes are still closed, his lips still skimming hers. “I’d do anything for you,” he murmurs against her, “And I’ll take anything you’ll give me.” 

She thinks maybe he means it emotionally, can hear the weight in it, like he’s trying to tell her it’s all on her terms. It has always been on her terms– whether she wants him to stay or go.

Like he would take scraps, if that’s all she gave. Like he’d devour her whole, if she wanted that, too. 

It occurs to her that, perhaps, he is just as terrified of their future as she is. His heart is a quick-fire tempo beneath her palm on his chest. She thinks that maybe he is scared she doesn’t want the future that his life entails. Faintly, she thinks of Mai, and what she hadn’t wanted to give or take from him. 

She realizes, perhaps, they are both scared of the same thing. 

That they both want the same thing. 

And she knows, perhaps, that they should say this all in plain terms, speak clearly. But the low rasp of his voice, with his lips still parted beneath hers, has warmth sinking low inside of her. 

She inhales shakily, “Anything?” 

“Anything,” he swears. 

Their next kiss is not as gentle, not as careful. It’s a desperate thing, half a plea from both of them. She tries to get closer, small hands tightening in his clothes, in his hair, over the muscles of his shoulders and back. Her lashes are still damp, tickling against his cheek, his hands flexing over her waist, one dragging along the line of her hip, up to her torso, finding the grooves of her ribs beneath his warm palm.

But she wants to be closer still, so she pulls at him, eases him up until she finds herself moving back, falling onto the bed and pulling him down with her. He catches himself over her, but he pulls away, breathing hard, chest rising and falling. He looks a little wide eyed, uncertain. 

This is new territory– the bed beneath her back, him over her. They’ve kissed, their hands have wandered, but Zuko has been exceedingly careful with her, half reverent, like she’s made of glass. 

But looking up at him, with the flush high on his face, his lips kiss stung, she thinks maybe she wants to be shattered beneath his hands. 

“Are you okay?” he asks, letting his forehead rest against hers, “S-should we slow down?” 

Katara thinks they’ve been too many years too slow, so she shakes her head, her nose brushing his, “I don’t want to slow down, do you?” 

He shakes his head, too, “No, i-if you’re okay with it.”

She presses a kiss to the corner of his lips, “I am,” she assures, another kiss to the sharp line of his jaw. He swallows harshly. 

“Tell me if you want to stop or– or slow down.” 

Katara smiles fractionally, against his skin, at how concerned he is, “I will.” 

“You’re sure?” he asks again and Katara pulls away from the trail of kisses that were leading down to his neck to be able to find his eyes. 

“Zuko,” she nearly scolds, “ Yes. Are you?” 

“Yes,” he breathes. 

“Okay,” Katara says, bringing him down for another kiss, it’s slower, all heat, all tenderness. “Then this is what I’m giving you,” she murmurs against his lips. 

She feels his shaky exhale, the trembling of his heart, “Then I’ll take it.” 

And then it’s his hands finding their courage, sliding over her sides, her stomach. Her clothes get tangled beneath his palms. That’s okay. His lips are warm against the column of her throat, beneath her necklace, the shy brush of his teeth along her vulnerable pulse. He sets his lips there tentatively and sucks until there’s a prick of pain and at her gasp, he pulls away, only to soothe it with a loving kiss. 

She fumbles with his clothes and they both laugh, a little breathlessly, when his shirt gets stuck over his head for a moment. His hair comes away messy, slipping in his face, but now his chest is bare and warm beneath her hands. 

He shivers at her touch, at the way her fingers glide over him in exploration. She realizes that he’s rather sensitive, with the way his muscles jump, with the way his breath catches. She even wonders if it’s all a little overwhelming for him, because he grabs her wrist at one point to still her touching, presses a warm kiss to her open palm, before settling it down on the mattress by her head. A silent request. One that she listens to. 

But then his attention is fully on her and he works on undressing her, too. Their kisses have become coaxing, curious. He tries to find out what makes her arch into him, what makes her gasp, or even pull a soft moan from her. He’s getting bolder, more encouraged by her reactions so she starts to give him more. 

He is still careful with her, though, almost painfully so. Especially as he rains kisses down her bare chest like falling stars and she feels as if she can’t quite catch her breath. His hands are warm and rough on her skin now, finding the peak of her breast, brushing over it gently. She can’t help the soft sound that breaks from her, that he pulls from her. 

She can feel his exhale, “You’re so beautiful,” and when she glances down her body at him, his eyes are keen, so bright in the dim light of his room. 

He takes his time with her, unhurried in his kisses, in the slow glide of his mouth, his fingers. She is heaving and flushed, squirming slightly beneath him when he finally decides to slide lower, mouth tracing over the lines of her stomach. 

Katara feels her nerves flare now, as he shoulders apart her legs to settle between them. He is careful as he works her wrappings off, and as her last barrier falls away, she has to slam her eyes shut. Her heart is rabbiting in the cage of her chest. Desire is a terribly vulnerable thing, she thinks, as she feels the first brush of his lips on her inner thigh. 

He tries to ease her into this feeling, too, taking his time, gentle with her, until he sets his mouth to where she’s most sensitive and she gives out a wobbly, little cry. 

He hooks his arms around her legs, pulls her fractionally closer and she has to fist her hands in the sheets of his bed. 

And then it’s all the rush of heat, the coiling of her muscles as he winds her up with lip and tongue. He learns her eagerly, eyes flashing up to her face, to watch her writhe when he finds something she likes. She feels herself finally relaxing, giving into him, easing into the warmth, the ever growing pressure inside of her. 

She isn’t really expecting it– it sneaks up on her, but then it’s too much, it’s far too much, and she arches up, back bowing off the bed as all of that pressure inside of her pulls taught only to snap . His hold finally tightens on her, though, roughens a little as she starts to move and squirm. 

She feels the rumbles of his groan against her, which forces a whine out of her, her head thrown back as heat overtakes her like a bursting inferno. 

He doesn’t let up until she says his name, a plea, a broken sound, and then he finally moves back up her body. She is still heaving and he’s looking a little disheveled, his hair a mess around his shoulders, cheeks flushed darkly, eyes shining, almost feverish. 

“You’re incredible,” he gets out, voice rough, a little raw. 

Katara is still heaving, still a little out of breath, but she laughs, and the sound is full and warm, spilling around his room, “I think I’m supposed to be the one saying that to you right now.” 

And he laughs, too, and she tries to commit it to memory, the sound easing her until she feels as if she could melt. 

She reaches up to kiss him and maybe it’s a little artless, a little messier, and she can taste a hint of herself. Her hands slide back over his chest and he he lets out a soft, low noise against her lips that she swallows down. 

But he pulls away, “Do you want to stop?” he asks.

“No,” she responds, hooking her calf around his hip, trying to pull him closer, “Do you?” 

“Spirits, no– but we can, if you want.” 

“I want you, ” Katara blurts out, nuzzling her face into the crook of his neck, “I just want you.” 

“Okay,” he murmurs, “I’d give you anything,” 

And she smiles slightly against his skin, feels her heart stutter, “Then I’ll take it.”  

She begins to work off any remaining clothes he’s wearing until it’s just him and her and he’s slotting his hips between hers and it reminds her of how mosaics are just broken pieces that come together. 

It isn’t perfect and maybe it’s a little unsure or careful, maybe there’s a little pain with the stretch of him but he stops to drop scattered kisses over her cheeks and nose and jaw. 

He hushes, “I’ve got you, love, relax.” Until she feels she can breathe again. Until she rolls her hips against his tentatively. 

And then his head drops to her neck and his moan is low, something that unravels her. She wraps her arms around him, slides a hand into his hair, wants him as close as she can get him. 

It isn’t perfect, maybe, but it’s never felt like this before. Weighted with their love, with all that’s come before them. With all that’s ahead of them.  

He sets a steady rhythm, a push and pull, give and take. He murmurs into her neck, soft, adoring words, prayers pressed into her body. 

He holds her hand, fits his fingers in the crux of hers, squeezes tight to her when she moans, when her hips lift for him. 

And it’s all love, showered over her, pressed into her. She feels overflowing with it, brilliant and full of it. 

She even says so, biting it out into his shoulder before she can think, the words unraveling like a spool of thread, “I love you— I love you.” 

Faintly, she realizes it’s the first time she’s said it out loud to him. Spoken it true, into their world.

His answering groan is a broken one, shattered, and he loses his rhythm when he gets out, “Say it again— will you say it again for me, love?” 

So she does, over and over and over again, until he can’t take it, until he’s reaching his peak, too, and they’re both a tangle of limbs and heaving chests and trembling hearts. 

When he kisses her again, he drops the words into her mouth like jewels, precious and adoringly, “I love you, too.” Then again, with the weight of him over her, his warmth cocooning her, a place for her to rest, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

 And she thinks the words sound so much better coming out of his mouth, than being read in the confines of a letter. 

Chapter Text

“For some time, blue flames in a firebender were seen as a sign of madness. But after ‘Blue Phoenix’ was published by Zona Yan, a novel that explored and shared, for the first time, the true story of Princess Azula from childhood to adulthood, the image of blue flames became a symbol of cleansing. Princess Azula, in her older age, even opened the famed orphanage Blue Phoenix, from which the novel gets its name. Princess Azula ended up living out her life in a beach home in Caldera City, not far from the palace, so that she could visit her nieces and nephew frequently. Her nephew, the prince and son of Fire Lord and Lady Zuko and Katara, even developed the famous hot blue color in his flames. He became renowned for his study of healing and using the flames to cleanse wounds and push medical discoveries.” 

        -An excerpt from ‘A History of Families in the Fire Nation’ 

Recently, Azula has begun sparring again. It started by helping Kiyi practice. He can tell that Azula holds back with Kiyi. And the restraint she shows is reassuring, both for Azula’s health and Zuko’s peace of mind. He is always present when they spar. And more often than not, Katara is beside him, too. 

Katara has continued to heal Azula, at least two nights a week. There are good days and bad ones, but thankfully, the bad days are growing fewer, lesser. They are shorter. She seems to be regaining a part of herself. Finding new parts, ones that she was never allowed to have before. 

Sparring with Kiyi has helped this, too, he thinks. He knows that being trusted to do so speaks volumes to Azula. She doesn’t feel like a monster that needs to be wary of, rather, just an older sister. Someone worthy of trust. 

Azula would never admit it, but Zuko is certain that she really likes Katara’s presence. Katara treats her like she’s normal. She doesn’t walk on eggshells with her, doesn’t tip toe around her the way most of the palace does. He wonders if, in part, it has to do with the fact that Katara has touched some deep part of Azula’s mind. She heals her and for that, he thinks there is a unique bond between them. One he is thankful for. 

After Azula is done sparring with Kiyi one afternoon, Katara douses Azula in water as a joke, only for Azula’s immediate reaction to be a burst of vivid, blue flames in Katara’s direction. 

Zuko jerks up in worry, in fear, but Katara is faster, deflecting it with a flash of water. It sizzles, smoke curling into the air between them. He thinks this is going to be a set back, this is going to be a bad day–

But their eyes clash and then Katara is smiling, “Is that all you got?” she asks and before Zuko can respond, before he can stop them, Azula is up like a shot and after Katara. 

Katara races away on a glide of ice and when Azula is far enough away from him, her flames roar to life to follow after. 

Zuko’s vision gutters, in and out for a moment, shuddering between the past and the present. Pain twinges within his chest, the sizzling crawl of his nerves that arc through his body. One moment, he’s watching Azula chase Katara after he’s been struck down by her lightning, the next, he has returned to the present, and he can hear the sound of Katara’s laughter carrying high on the wind as she races past. 

He grits his teeth, feeling the flash of fear, trying desperately to work breath into his lungs. They’re fine, he tries to tell himself, over and over and over again. They’re fine. 

They’ve obviously buried the past, so why can’t he? 

He has to look away when he hears the roar of flames. 

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, struggling to breathe, but eventually, Katara and Azula wander back over to him, both a little out of breath from sparring each other but bright-eyed. Smiling. 

“Did you see–” Katara starts, only to notice the state he’s in, looking as if he might be sick, “Hey,” she immediately drops down to her knees beside him in the grass, “Hey, are you okay?” 

Azula is staring at him. He can feel her eyes. 

“Zuko?” Katara asks, her voice pitched with concern, her hand going to his back.

“I’m fine,” he clips out, but Katara can tell he isn’t. His sister can tell he isn’t. 

He feels the sick crawl of guilt inside of him, his inability to let go of the past. They were fine, they are fine. Why can’t he let it sleep? 

He doesn’t quite realize that Katara has spoken to him, or that she’s gotten him alone, away from Azula, in a quiet hallway, until she’s touching his face. 

“Zuko, what’s wrong?” she asks again, he thinks for the second or third time. Her voice seems so far away still, but he finally manages to focus on her, to get his vision to sharpen. 

“I-I don’t know,” he exhales, “I saw the two of you again, fighting and I–” 

She must understand, he thinks he can see the realization of it dawn on her face, “Hey, it’s okay. I’m okay. So is she– we’re alright, we were just playing. I’m sorry.” 

And then her arms are around him, taking some of his weight. He curls around her and she’s up on the tips of her toes and he’s slouching down, shoulders bowed forward, burying his face in her neck, taking in sharp, shaky breaths. 

“I won’t do that again,” she tells him softly, “I’m sorry.” 

“No– no, it’s good for her.” he gets out, his fingers tightening in her clothes. 

“But it upset you.” Katara counters, and then after a moment of thinking she adds, “I won’t do it when you’re around.” 

He doesn’t love the thought of that, either, truthfully. But he knows it is perhaps their best option. He doesn’t want to make Azula feel as if he’s afraid of her or that he doesn’t trust her but– but he was also still hurt by her, in some way. 

And he doesn’t know what to do with that. 

He’s thought that he’s forgiven her. And he has, he tells himself. He doesn’t hold a grudge, just– 

Just this lingering fear of that memory. 

He knows she’s changed, but he hadn’t been able to help it, the sudden tightening of his chest, the lack of breath. 

Katara tells him it’s okay, that she understands. She touches him soft, like he’s fragile, and it does make him feel breakable. Uncertain until he can find the reassuring blue of her eyes. She tells him that they’ll take this slow, that it’ll be okay. 

That they’ll get through this. Together. 

 Later, he watches Azula practice again, alone in the courtyard save for the guards that linger on the edges. It’s dark out. The blue of her flame lights up the world. 

He can tell something is bothering her with the frustrated grunts, and the throwing of her body. Reckless, a little artless. Unlike her. 

But Katara takes his hand and she draws him away. 

He sleeps fitfully, his childhood playing out in some warped dreamscape. He chases Azula. His father is just a towering shadow. His face burns and burns and burns. His mother slips through his fingers like water. 

Katara murmurs to him sleepily when he jerks awake, her cool hands smoothing over his cheek, his neck. He settles back down into her, let’s her slow, even breaths rock him back into sleep. 

At breakfast, Azula lets him have the last sweet roll. He thinks it’s her way of apologizing. 

He accepts it easily. 

“May I have a word with His majesty?” Jakao asks after a particularly long, drawn out meeting that had been filled with bickering. Katara lingers beside Zuko, as they always do after meetings, watching as others file out so that they can stay and discuss further. It’s become tradition for them. 

Now the room has narrowed down to just them and Jakao, who looks at Zuko expectantly as he adds, “Alone?” 

It isn’t said crassly and Zuko can tell that he doesn’t mean any disrespect towards Katara, but it still makes him bristle slightly. Part of him wants to say, anything you have to say can be said in front of her, but the look in Jakao’s eyes stops Zuko. 

“Will you give us a moment?” Zuko then asks Katara, his voice soft, and though she catches his eyes a moment, she puts up no fight. 

She nods, “I’ll see you at lunch, then, with Ambassador Huan from the Earth Kingdom.” 

“I’ll see you then,” he agrees, and just before he turns, he remembers, “And Mai is stopping by later this afternoon, she wants to talk. It seemed somewhat pressing.” 

Katara chews the inside of her cheek as she takes in the information and Zuko can’t quite read her expression before she tells him, “Don’t forget you promised your Uncle we’d have tea with him this afternoon, too.” 

Zuko curses softly, just under his breath and Katara huffs out a slight laugh at his forgetfulness. He can’t help but smile bashfully, too. 

“What would I do without you?” he asks her and the smile that she gives him is enough to send his heart stumbling. He wonders if he’ll ever survive one of her smiles. He’s a simple, weak man when it comes to her; he doesn’t think he will. 

“Forget about your Uncle, apparently.” she teases, but she’s finally risen from her seat to go. She bids him one last goodbye, then a curt bow to Jakao. Zuko watches her go, the door falling shut behind her. 

“What is it you wanted to speak to me about?” Zuko asks, his eyes finally returning to Jakao. 

He clears his throat, straightens up a little, “About Ambasador Katara, actually, Your Majesty.” 

Zuko braces himself. He knew this conversation would eventually come up once he and Katara stopped keeping their relationship a secret. Suki had found out first and really Zuko should’ve known better. He was never alone in the palace and it was only a matter of time for Suki to figure it out. And then Katara wrote home to her father and brother. Zuko told his Uncle, his mother. 

Painstakingly, he’d even had to tell Azula and Kiyi, which, as with any sibling, opens anyone up to intense mockery. Mostly from Azula, but Kiyi is veering into young teenhood and Zuko’s found her invasive questions and unfiltered observations to be a challenge lately, too. 

Katara had even written to Aang. Zuko had offered to do so for her, but she assured him that she thought it should come from her. Aang has not responded, despite the letter being sent weeks ago. 

Toph had only responded with a simple about time. 

But Zuko had been waiting for Jakao, for the Council, to finally work up the courage to say something about their relationship. Truthfully, he’s surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. 

“What about her?” Zuko gets out and if his voice has grown a little clipped, somewhat short and sharp with authority, he doesn’t bother to soften or backtrack. There is a warning there, allowing Jakao the option to stop while he’s ahead. 

Jakao continues, though, “I’ve become aware of your newfound relationship with her,” he begins, swallowing slightly, “And I’m only– I would just like to say that I am happy for you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so– so at ease.” 

Zuko softens, deflating somewhat from his defensive position. He dips his head, perhaps part in apology as he says, “Thank you, Advisor.” 

Jakao continues, though, as he usually does, “And she’s– well, she’s brilliant and capable and she attends every meeting. She’s well versed in our politics and worldly politics. Spirits, she saved Caldera City from a storm–” 

“Jakao,” Zuko interrupts gently, encouraging him to get to the point. 

Jakao sighs deeply, finally looking at Zuko, “Sir, I have been trying to get you married for the past several years.” he says bluntly, “And I believe Ambassador Katara would be a perfect Fire Lady.” 

Zuko can feel his heart do something strange, he feels his brows raise in surprise, “She’s not from the Fire Nation,” Zuko tests him, “Have you already spoken to the Council about this?” 

“It makes no difference to me where she’s from,” Jakao answers, “Besides, it could even be politically advantageous.”  A frown works its way onto his features, though, a sour little thing, “I have yet to speak to the Council upon this matter since, as I’m sure you can also assume, there will be pushback against this for aforementioned reasons.” 

Zuko can’t even respond, before Jakao is continuing, rambling in that familiar, quick way that Zuko knows, “But I have already done research into our ancient laws and there are none that bar a foreigner from marrying into the throne. Legally, there is nothing to support any arguments that they may present.” 

Zuko is taken back by this, somewhat, but he figures he shouldn’t be. This has been Jakao’s goal for a long time but he– he just isn’t ready for it. The realness of it. And while he is on sturdy ground with Katara, they have not explicitly talked of marriage. Of her becoming the Fire Lady. 

The smooth, round stone burns a hole in the chest he’s locked it away in. 

He’s scared, truthfully, that she will not want the burden of this life. He’s scared because like Mai, he wants her to be happy, and if that means not at his side, then so be it. 

But then he thinks of Sokka and the hunt and weight of it’s symbolism. 

He needs to work up the courage to speak with her about this, about marriage and the future , and in explicit terms. But he’s been so blessed to have her now, to be hers now, and so scared to ruin anything. To watch it all unravel. 

Not to mention, the opposition they will face, that she will face. It is another weight upon her shoulders, another burden that comes with him. 

Zuko realizes that Jakao is waiting for an answer from him, as if to assure him in his correct assumptions about Katara and a future proposal, or not. 

Zuko inhales slowly, “Are you aware of proposal customs in the Southern Water Tribe, Advisor Jakao?” 

“Up until recently, I was not. But I’ve already looked into them, Your Majesty, and it’s tradition that you attend a hunting trip with her father and the Tribe, as well as carve a stone to be embedded in a knife which will be–” 

“I know, Jakao,” Zuko responds, and then he admits, “I’ve already been on the hunting trip.” 

The look of surprise that flashes across his advisor’s face is almost amusing. “O-Oh, well that is fantastic news then, Your Majesty. If you’d like, I can also produce a list of the finest jewelers for the stone that is to be embedded into the knife, as well as the gold that you might–” 

“I have the stone, too.” Zuko says faintly and Jakao falls silent once more. 

“Then all that’s left is to propose,” he says and Zuko nods faintly, as if he can’t quite believe it. 

When Zuko doesn’t know what to say, Jakao asks, “Do you have any idea of when you’ll propose?” 

“Her birthday, I think, which is in about four months.” Zuko answers, “I’m going to surprise her by inviting her family here.” 

“That’s a brilliant idea, Your Majesty.” Jakao says and there’s something to his voice, maybe it’s a little fond, a little excited. 

Zuko worries it’s too soon for a proposal, but he supposes this is not like any previous relationship. He has loved her for years. He has known her even longer. She’s been his best friend for so long– it hardly feels like a short time at all. 

It feels as if he’s waited ages for this, centuries to have her again. 

But it comes down to her, what she wants. He will give her anything. 

After a moment, Jakao adds, “I really am happy for you, Fire Lord Zuko. And I think Ambassador Katara is– well, I think she’s exactly what the Fire Nation needs right now.” 

Zuko lets his words absolve him of some of his worries. Having Jakao, his head advisor on his side for this, will hopefully make it far easier than he thought it would be. 

“Thank you, Jakao,” Zuko answers and he finally allows a small smile to touch his lips. 

He allows himself to seep into the hope of what his future could be. 

How it could be intertwined with hers. 

When Mai arrives at the palace, it is closer to evening than afternoon, the sky a darkening blue that seems mildly ominous, especially with the clouds on the horizon that promise rain. Zuko is with Katara, working in one of the studies with the windows thrown open wide. Faintly, Zuko can smell the promise of the storm, the air balmy, a little too still. 

Mai does not look particularly happy or pleased when she enters, not that she often reveals her feelings, but Zuko can tell that something is troubling her. 

Katara glances between them, and though she holds Zuko’s eyes longer, she still rises and says, “I can leave you two–” 

“No,” Mai says quickly, “You should hear this, too. And so should Suki, where is she?” 

Zuko glances at the Kyoshi Warrior who is posted at the door, “I’ll fetch her,” she says immediately, and disappears around the corner. There is a distinctively tense silence once the three of them are left alone. 

Mai is not bothered by it, rather she appraises both him and Katara with an almost amusing glint to her eyes. Katara fidgets briefly with the scrolls in front of her and Zuko tries not to squirm under Mai’s gaze. 

After a moment, Suki appears, plain faced, in a casual tunic and loose pants, “I’ve been summoned in my time off?” she drawls, but she doesn’t seem genuinely upset by this. 

“Apologies,” Mai replies and though it’s not insincere, it’s not quite serious, either, said in that aloof way of hers, “But it’s imperative that the Captain of the Guards has this information.” 

That, however, is said seriously. 

Mai glances behind her, towards the door, where she is certain it is shut. Then to the windows, “Katara, will you shut those?” Mai then asks.

“Why?” Katara asks, but she still stands to shut them, pulling them closed, sealing them in. 

“I don’t want there to be a chance that we’re heard,” Mai replies and Zuko knew that what she had to say was pressing, but he hadn’t known that it was this serious, or required so much precaution. 

“That bad, huh?” Suki asks, crossing her arms over her chest. 

Mai has been gathering intelligence for Zuko for about a year now, mostly on the last remaining members of the New Ozai Society, or any other potential threats to the Fire Nation. She’s worked with Suki, too. He knows Ty Lee often accompanies Mai in her rounds of the city. Usually, their meetings are relatively uneventful. 

Mai nods fractionally, before she says, “There’s a new underground rebel group that has been gaining traction in the rural parts of the Fire Nation. They call themselves the Insurgency. At first I thought they were something of a joke– conspiracy theorists and purists, but then I discovered that much of what was left of the New Ozai Society had been absorbed by this group.” 

Mai presses forward, “Their reach has grown far larger than I’d initially thought, what had once started out in rural, small towns with old traditionalists, has now reached places like Caldera City. The worst, and most pressing part of this, is that I have reason to believe that there is a mole or spy within the palace working for the Insurgency.” 

Zuko’s heart drops, right into his stomach, just like a stone. But he tries to keep his face even, his voice steady, “Why do you think that?” 

“They’re aware of your relationship with Katara,” Mai says, “Which, is how I initially discovered it actually, too.” She gives Zuko a pointed look, who winces sheepishly before she continues, “And I had to confirm with Ty Lee the validity of it.” 

“I mean is it possible that news of their relationship has finally reached beyond the palace?” Suki asks, brows drawing down into a furrow. 

“I thought the same thing, but now find it unlikely, since I questioned at least five dozen average citizens of Caldera City and none had any idea of their relationship. Ty Lee also questioned the same amount. My other sources say that, for the most part, knowledge of their relationship has been confined to the palace.” 

Katara’s blue eyes finally lift to Mai, “I assume, then, since you’re sharing this with us, that they’re not happy with our relationship?” 

The room falls silent. 

Zuko knew this would happen, at some point. He faces opposition in everything he does, it is unsurprising that there is opposition here, too. However, when he looks at Katara and the way she’s sitting taller, maybe putting on a brave face, all he wants to do is spirit her away somewhere safe. Somewhere just for the two of them. He wants to go back to the South Pole with her, tuck themselves away there. He feels a sudden, jarring stab of protectiveness for her. She doesn’t deserve this– no, she deserves sanctuary and peace and love and joy and satisfaction. She deserves the warmth of the fire in the winter, curled beneath furs, dusk just a wash of baby blue and pink in the sky, she deserves the sun kissing her skin and endless horizons, sandy beaches and the blossom of flowers. Anything she wants, everything she wants. 

Not this. 

“No, they’re not happy at all about it.” Mai answers evenly, “There have been rumblings of some sort of terrorist attack or assasination plan, but all so far have been rather baseless, empty threats made by fanatics. However, I won’t stop pursuing them or taking precautions.” 

“So we need to find this mole within the palace and add security to Katara?” Suki asks and though it’s a question, it doesn’t feel like she’s looking for a particular answer, rather, just an agreement. 

“I can protect myself,” Katara speaks up, “I don’t need–” 

“That’s fine, then my Kyoshi Warriors will have to do less work, but they’ll still be there.” 

“Suki–” Katara starts, ready for an argument. 

But she cuts Katara off, “I hate to pull this card, but I’m Captain of the Guard, and what I say on this matter, goes.” and then Suki grows more serious, fixing her gaze on Katara, “ And I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you on my watch.” 

Katara’s mouth closes, the argument that must’ve been on her lips dying. She looks to Zuko, as if maybe he’ll back her up and usually, he is quick to do so. There is little that Zuko disagrees with Katara about, perhaps even less that he would fight her on. 

But Zuko’s stomach is twisted up into knots and nerves. He hates the idea that she might be unsafe here. “Sorry, I’m on Suki’s side,” he tells her, “I don’t think we should risk anything.” 

 Katara huffs, but she knows when she’s been outnumbered. 

“Do you have any leads as to who the mole could be?” Suki then asks Mai. 

“Is there anyone who has access to your letters?” Mai then asks Zuko and Katara, “I think they may have gotten the information from letters they intercepted and read before sending off again.” Mai draws in a slow breath, “But I wouldn’t rule out anyone. And,” she looks to Suki, “I would, as subtle as possible, investigate your Kyoshi Warriors to be sure, too.” 

Suki nods, “I will. I’ll only leave my most trusted with Katara and Zuko.” 

“So we shouldn’t trust anyone?” Zuko speaks up, catching Mai’s eyes.

“I wouldn’t say that, but I would be careful with sensitive information– don’t write them in letters anymore. And I wouldn’t go anywhere without guards.” Mai then looks to Katara, “Especially you.” 

“I’m not going to sit back and cower. I mean, you said it yourself that most threats are probably baseless.” Katara responds. 

“Don’t cower,” Mai says, “That’s what they want. They want to scare you back home. But you shouldn’t be stupid, either. It’s better to be safe, especially until I have more information.” 

A silence descends upon the room. Not an awkward one, but it is wrought with tension, perhaps worry or uncertainty. Faintly, Zuko hears the low rumble of distant thunder, the rain that begins to fall. 

“Is there anything else we should know?” Zuko asks Mai and this time her eyes flicker briefly to Katara and Suki. 

“May I speak to you alone?” she asks Zuko, then adds, “It will only be a moment.”  

Suki nods, before slipping out of the room. Katara stands, her hand brushing along Zuko’s arm as she does. When she walks past Mai, there is a silent look that passes between them. He only catches Mai’s face, the quirk of her lips into the faintest hint of a smile. It almost seems friendly, Zuko can’t quite decipher it. 

But then he is alone with Mai and regards him carefully.

“Are you going to propose to her?” she asks and Zuko almost chokes on nothing. 

“I don’t– I–” 

“Because that’s the intel the Insurgency had, that you were going to propose to her. They’re worried she’s going to be the next Fire Lady, but when I checked in with Ty Lee, she said there’d been no official planning of a proposal. Figured I’d be kind and spare you by asking you alone first.” Mai explains to him, her tone rather blaze, almost irreverent. But there’s an edge to her, not a jealous one, not anything malicious towards the idea rather–

She seems worried for him. For Katara. 

Zuko swallows, wracks his brain for who might know this. He hasn’t told anyone that he plans on proposing except maybe Sokka, her father– but that was in person, in the South Pole. And then Jakao, when they’d discussed–

The idea of Jakao being the mole makes something in Zuko’s chest tighten painfully. It couldn’t be, could it? 

After all these years at his side? 

Before Zuko’s thoughts can spiral, he exhales harshly, “I– yes, I was thinking of proposing to her if–” he swallows down the sudden twist of fear, “If she’d want this life. I know it’s a burden, I know that it’s unfair of me to ask this of her, and it’s a lot of pressu–” 

“Zuko,” Mai stops him from breaking off into rambling. “Just because I didn’t want to be Fire Lady, doesn’t mean that she won’t want to be.” 

Zuko feels himself pause, feels his heart beat a little too hard, a hammer chipping away at his fragile chest. 

“I mean, she’s perfect for it.” Mai says, glancing at the door, as if she could see Katara through it, “She was born to be a leader, you know?” 

It sounds causal, but the words settle over Zuko the way night falls over the day. A slipping, a sudden glide of peace. He sees what Mai sees in her; what everyone must see, the way she carries herself, her strength and determination. She was born for greatness, had already achieved it at such a young age. He has no doubt in his mind that she would take to being a leader like a fish to water. She has always been someone extraordinary.

Someone to write epics and poetry and songs to. Someone to paint, to sculpt, to be carved in all of history. 

He already knows they will tell her story years and years after them. 

But painfully, perhaps selfishly, he wants his story to be told alongside hers. When they mention his name, he wants it to be beside hers, in the next breath. 

He wants to be remembered as hers eternally. 

But it’s her choice, it’s hers to decide. 

“I know,” Zuko breathes, caught somewhere between fragile hope and tender fear, “I know.” 

“Have you told anyone?” Mai asks, “Your plans to propose?” 

“Just her brother and father, in not so many words, when we visited the South Pole.” Zuko explains briefly, “And recently, my advisor Jakao approached me about marrying her.” 

Mai takes interest in this, “He could be our mole, then.” 

Zuko doesn’t want to believe it. But he stays silent, he doesn’t disagree. He knows she’s right. More than that, Jakao has always been based on tradition, pushed for it, and wanted it from Zuko.

“He’d seemed supportive,” he defends weakly. 

Mai gives Zuko a look, “You don’t need me to tell you that could’ve been an act.” 

“I know,” Zuko responds, perhaps dejected. 

“I’ll look into him. For now, keep him at arm’s length. I’ll also let Suki know, just in case.” Mai says, “I’m going to have Ty Lee as my eyes around the palace, too.” 

Zuko nods and he feels a swell of relief, of gratitude for Mai. For Suki. For Ty Lee. He’s lucky to have them. 

“Thank you, Mai.” Zuko says and he tries to find her eyes. 

She waves him off, “I’m just doing my job.” And for a moment, Zuko thinks this is the end of their conversation, but then she adds, “Besides, you’re finally happy and–” 

She doesn’t say the rest, but Zuko can hear it in the way her voice tapers off. 

Zuko bows his head to Mai, a genuine, deep show of respect and gratitude, “If there’s anything I can do for you, too, you only need to ask.” 

When he lifts his eyes, she is smiling faintly. She nods once before she says, “Thank you, Zuko.” 

And then she is slipping out, a shadow that disappears down the palace hallways. 

The rain comes down in a steady rhythm, a quiet roll of thunder blossoms and eats up the sky. Lightning flashes weakly, it’s light a slash through the slants of the window. 

It’s a quiet thing, maybe with the potential to be something more, but he knows it will pass soon. As all things do. 

That night, Katara lays on his chest and her hair is splayed out over his collar bones, tickling his chin, falling along his shoulders and biceps. He is lucky enough to be able to slide his fingers through her loose curls, let them wind around his finger before slipping away.

She traces the staggering, pink lightning bolt scar that arcs over his skin. In some places, the nerves are so damaged he can hardly feel the pad of her finger, in others, the touch zips through him, like the old wound calls to her in some way, knows her. She seems fascinated with the pattern of it, the spindly, branching quality it has. 

It’s still raining.

And he’s still thinking about what Mai told them. 

She’s quiet, too. There is a weight that has settled over them. 

He readjusts his hold on her, squeezes at her waist a little tighter, pressing into her skin like his touch could seep into her. 

“Are you worried?” Zuko eventually asks and his voice is soft, almost hushed. 

Katara shakes her head slowly, which serves only to burrow further down into his chest, into blanket and bed. 

“Not at all?” he then asks, sinking his hand into her hair, to cradle her scalp. 

She shifts to tilt her head up, a blue eye peeking up at him through the curtain of her hair, “I’ve faced more frightening things in my life than a little disapproval.” 

“It didn’t sound like just a little disapproval–” 

“Mai said those were baseless threats.” 

“And if they aren’t?” Zuko asks quietly. 

Katara finally lifts her head up from his chest so that she can look at him. She searches his face for a moment, takes him apart with the sharp blue of her eyes. The sheet falls away from her shoulder and it should make her seem more vulnerable, but the strength of her gaze outweighs it. 

“I’ve still faced worse,” she finally responds, “I’m not afraid.” 

“But you shouldn’t have to face it,” Zuko speaks before he can stop himself, “And it’ll only get worse, if–if we–”

He has a feeling she knows what he wants to say. But he stops himself, holds his breath as she looks at him. “If we what?” she prompts, tilting her head, perhaps daring him to say it. 

Zuko swallows hard, around the sudden lump in his throat. The last time he had this conversation, it led to the end of his relationship. He thinks of trying to loosen the words from the gate of his teeth, trying to dislodge him from his chest to spit them out, to lay them out for her to look at. 

He wonders if she can feel the pounding of his heart beneath her hand. 

“If we ever got married.” he finally gets out, the words so quiet that perhaps he didn’t speak them at all, his lips barely touching the words. 

“Are you proposing?” Katara asks, her brow arching. 

“No!” Zuko says quickly, sitting up fast, jostling her until they’re both face to face, almost nose to nose, “ Not– no, not right now.” 

“Not now?” she breathes and she leans fractionally closer, her nose brushing along his. 

“I know it’s early to be talking of marriage,” he says and he’s glad for the quiet lull that’s fallen over them so that his voice is nothing but a whisper. He doesn’t know if he could muster more than that, “If it’s– if you don’t ever want that, or what it comes with, I understand. And when I told you that I’d take anything you gave me, I meant it. And it’s okay, if this is where you draw the line–” 

“Zuko,” Katara hushes, but he continues. 

“I have never wanted to burden you,” he tells her, his eyes falling shut as she touches her forehead to his, “And I know that this– everything that comes with me– is one of the heaviest.” 

“You have never burdened me,” she says fiercely, and the words are a balm to a wound that has never healed right inside of him. “It is not a burden to love you for the rest of my life.” 

“There’s more to it, though–” 

“And,” she talks over him, silencing him again, “It would be an honor, if you asked it of me, to lead beside you.” 

Zuko’s eyes finally flutter open to find hers and her response settles over him like a resolution. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Zuko thinks he doesn’t deserve her and he has to thank the Spirits, thank all of time or history, or the heavens and earth, for somehow allowing their fates to cross. 

For bringing him here, to her, now. 

When he tips forward to seal his lips to hers, it feels like a promise, like the inevitable press of the future. 

Their future.

In the coming weeks, Zuko grows more comfortable watching Azula spar. He notices what is different about her, about her bending. There is no edge to her eyes, she is not trying to kill or hurt. No, she’s more relaxed. There is nothing riding on this. She can bend simply to bend, not to prove something, not to achieve something. 

Not to appease someone. She doesn’t need to push herself to the brink, doesn’t need to be fearful of losing. 

Her eyes aren’t as serpentine, not as ruthless. No, she even has fun sometimes. 

Her laugh is a new and welcome sound. 

Dear Zuko,


I have heard from Aang recently. He is okay. He did not mention anything about you or Katara to me, but I am certain he received her letter. I would give him time– I’m sure she’s worried with his lack of response, but I think he’ll come around. I’ll talk to him if he doesn’t. And I’m sure Toph would knock some sense into him, too. You and Katara haven’t done anything wrong; it’s not a crime to fall in love. 

As for your sister, I hope she continues to improve, but I wonder if it would be good for her to leave the palace. I can’t imagine she has good memories there. I used to take Katara away from the village when I could tell things were getting to her. I used to force her to go fishing with me, or out into the forest. Sometimes, a change of scenery is good. I hope this helps somehow. 

I’m excited to visit again for Katara’s birthday! I think she’ll love what you have planned. Couldn’t have planned it better myself. Which is high praise, coming from me! You’re welcome! I’ll make sure not to mention it to my sister, I can’t wait to see the look on her face.

Stay safe. Suki told me what was going on (in a secret code we made up– don’t worry), and I trust you and her to keep Katara safe. 


Your friend, 


The first time that Zuko spars with his sister again, it does not go well. 

It begins fine. They are both strangely tentative. Zuko is mostly deflecting and Azula’s advancements are not vicious, they aren’t even very powerful. He thinks she is testing him, seeing how comfortable he is. He’s never known Azula to be careful, but she is now with him. 

He takes it as another one of her silent signs that she does care about him. She has developed her own quiet language in this way with him. 

But all it takes is one wrong move. 

Zuko isn’t as focused as he should be. He isn’t trying very hard, not even with deflecting, which he’s been doing for most of their fight. 

He’s trying to focus on what’s different about her, the cast of her eyes, the lack of fierceness in her movements. They’re easier now, they’re more effortless–

He’s watching the curl of her arm, not the fan of blue flames that hurtles towards him. It isn’t like him, to just throw his arms up, but he does, he does and suddenly pain sizzles over his forearms that shield him from the flames. He loses his balance when he braces himself against their strength, falls back, into the grass. 

Zuko shouts in pain, maybe, as Azula’s fire singes his arm, burns him harshly and quickly. Her flames were always so hot, so brutal. So unforgiving. Pain lances through his arm and he looks down to already see the flesh raw and horribly pink. 

She’s burned him. 

Azula stops, arms falling to her side, slack. Almost shocked. 

Katara is there in an instant, on her knees, by his side, “Are you okay?” she asks, already reaching for his arm, the cool pull of her water. 

He hisses when she touches him with a cold, glowing hand. “I’m alright, just a little burn.” 

It covers most of his forearm, raw and angry and pink. But it isn’t anything he hasn’t seen. Practicing Firebending sometimes means getting burned, no matter how careful. 

Katara casts her eyes up to his face, “Are you?” she asks again and he knows she doesn’t just mean physically and he–

He feels okay, he thinks, save for the throbbing of his arm. He feels a little shaky, maybe, a little unsure if he wants to do this again sometime soon. But he’s okay. And he tells her so, especially when she’s here, in front of him. 

Katara’s touch is soothing, always calms any wounded and prickly part of him. 

With his free hand, he brushes a piece of her hair from her face as she works on his arm. The burn is shallow, at least, and instead of the pain that radiates from his arm as she heals him, he focuses on her. 

And then there is a noise, something caught between a cry or a sob. It’s a pained sound. They both look back over to Azula. She’s fallen to her knees and she’s looking at them like she’s done something horrible. Like she can’t believe herself, all shock and guilt and that terrible twist of disgust in her lips. 

Katara is fast to read her, perhaps faster than Zuko now, and she lifts her hand away from his forearm, “Look, Azula, he’s alright. I’ve already healed it. It was nothing.” 

Azula looks between Zuko’s face and his arm. Back to his face. He watches her eyes swell with tears, he watches her mind work. And then something inside of her just breaks because suddenly her face crumples. She shatters. She curls in on herself, a choked up sob ripping free from her throat. 

Zuko moves then so that he’s in front of her, on his knees, too. She’s bowed over, with her head pressing into the grass, heaving out low cries, harsh breaths. 

“I’m alright,” he says, touching her shoulder, offering her his forearm to inspect. It’s still tender, but it’s okay. It’s healed. 

She picks her head up, but seeing his face only makes her cry harder for some reason, the wail that she swallows down splintering Zuko’s heart.  

Then she manages to spit out, “I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry–” 

And Zuko realizes it is the first time that she has ever apologized. 

“I’m sorry,” she heaves out, “I-I could’ve, I almost–” she can’t say it, but Zuko knows what it is. He doesn’t need her to say it. He doesn’t need to hear it. 

He understands. And he understands how badly she needs to hear these words, too;

“I forgive you,” he tells her, his voice soft and fierce. He tries to catch her eyes, “Azula, I forgive you. I forgive you, it’s okay–” 

The weight of her startles Zuko when she throws her arms around him. She sobs again, harder, and Zuko’s hands come up in surprise. 

But then he’s hugging his baby sister, hard and tight, squeezing his eyes shut as she apologizes, over and over and over again. 

He assures her again and again that she is forgiven. That he understands. That they’re going to be okay. He rocks them, like they’re kids, comforts them the way they needed when they were younger, when there was nothing to grow into but defensive, fearful creatures. 

He forgives her, again and again, forgives the monster of a girl that kept her alive. Spirits, he thinks maybe he’d even thank that version of her– that vicious, snarling little girl that clawed and burned and fought– for protecting Azula. For keeping her safe under the hands of their father. She did what she had to in order to survive. 

(Maybe he’s forgiving that boy inside himself, too, the one that was angry and upset and hated the world and his fate. Maybe he thanks him, too, for protecting him when he needed it.) 

But now it’s time to put those parts of them to rest, to soothe them. To tuck them into bed gently, the way all children should be. 

When she tires herself out, he carries her to bed the way he used to when she was worse. 

The next day, she walks a little lighter. Like she’s shed something heavy, left it behind, left it to the past. 

She leaves him the last sweet roll at breakfast, even nudges it towards him. 

He accepts it easily.

Azula even laughs when Katara swipes a piece of sticky, sweet roll, the sound of it filling up the space in his heart. 

Soothing the child in him that didn’t get to hear it enough. 


Chapter Text

“Oma and Shu built winding, cryptic tunnels to see each other, to hide from a world that would not approve of them. They met there, in their creations. And when Shu perished from the war, Oma erupted in rage and grief, so great that it shook the world. But instead of destruction, she chose creation. And for Shu, she ended the war that took his life and the lives of countless others. She built a new city, a new future for him. 

With their love, they shaped the world. ” 

–an excerpt from ‘Tales of Love From the Four Nations’  

Katara sits in front of the vanity in Zuko’s bedroom, the mirror tall and ornate, lined in gold. It’s early, the birds singing soft songs that carry on the light, sweet-blossom breeze. The balcony door is open, sunlight spilling in, rosy gold, the sky a dreamy lilac, tapering off into the promise of bright blue day. 

Zuko is still on the balcony, sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and proud. He begins everyday like this, his face uplifted to his morning sun. Katara usually tries to sleep a little longer, but they have a morning meeting, so now she sits in front of the mirror. She gently pulls her whale-bone comb through her hair. 

She has mostly moved into Zuko’s room in the past three months. Almost all of her clothes and belongings have found a home alongside his. It was a natural transition, something that seemed to happen gradually, until she’d realized that the room she’d been staying in was no longer of use to her. She can’t decide if they’re moving too quickly or if it all has been such a long time coming that it isn’t soon enough. 

Regardless, it is easy, simple. It feels right. 

Thankfully, there was no fuss from the palace staff with this new development. Katara is certain there are rumors of some kind, but that’s fine. To her, they are all respectful and kind. The cooks are overly fond of her. Jakao is, too. Her handmaidens have always been sweet and helpful, encouraging. The morning after she’d spent her first night in Zuko’s room, one had subtly given Katara contraceptive tea– which was presumptuous, though not incorrect. And it saved Katara from the potentially awkward conversation of asking for it. She’d smiled reassuringly at Katara and added honey to sweeten it. 

She hates that one of them could be a traitor. She’s cultivated a genuine relationship with each and it pains her to think of their betrayal. She’ll find herself laughing at something her handmaiden said or teasing Jakao until he lightens up a little, only for the reminder to sour the moment. It settles heavy in her chest, twinging painfully when she interacts with them. 

Still, she keeps her head high. She has to. And she hopes, even if perhaps she shouldn’t, that they all end up surprising her. And there isn’t any traitor, not here, not one that she’s grown so fond of. 

Mindlessly, she’s been combing through her hair, perhaps a little too long. She finally sets the comb down carefully, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair is a little frizzy from pulling at it, long and falling down the length of her back. She looks a little drowsy still, eyes half-lidded and sleepy. There are faint marks along the line of her neck, blooming red. One creeps above the high collar of her top, no longer hidden. She huffs lightly as she turns her head to examine it more– it’s very clearly a love bite. 

Zuko’s notorious for them. He doesn’t mean to, he swears, he just likes the sounds she makes when his lips are at her neck.

Katara flushes, heat blanketing her for a moment. 

She really doesn’t mind them, except that she perhaps looks a little too unprofessional with them, so she is careful to heal the ones that are not hidden by her clothes.

Especially after Kiyi had asked what it was on her neck, before she’d begun to heal them. 

She’d spluttered, completely at a loss for words until she’d told her to ask her brother, while sending a glare to Zuko. 

They’d barely made it out of that conversation, so Katara had vowed to start healing the ones she couldn’t hide.

She presses cold, glowing fingertips to the mark, watching as it fades easily. She leaves the ones that trail below the dark red of her collared shirt.  

She’s dressed in nearly all red, with accents of gold, of black, as she tends to wear nowadays unless she’s meeting with another foreign dignitary, where she will don blue again to symbolize her nation. She prefers shades of purple, too, lavender and plum and magenta. She also likes to blend the two cultures, style her hair as she does in the south while she wears silks of red and maroon and peach. 

She’s about to begin pulling her hair into part of a braid, fingers beginning to weave and wind through her tresses in the familiar way she knows, when Zuko returns from the balcony. He’s shirtless still, and when he comes around her shoulder, he rests his hand lightly on her back as he rummages through a drawer at the vanity for a moment. He pulls out a long hair stick, black and gleaming in the morning light and Katara watches as he lifts it to his hair. In a series of quick and graceful movements, he ties his hair back into a top-knot. The hair stick holds it together perfectly.

“Wait, how’d you do that?” she asks, peering up at him, “How is it holding like that?” 

“You twist your hair a certain way around it and it keeps it in a top-knot.” he explains briefly, about to turn away to get ready for his own day now, to dress formally. 

But Katara catches his wrist, “Will you do it for me?” 

He smiles softly, returning to her, moving to stand behind her, “Of course.” 

She pulls two strands of hair out in the front, which she plans to braid and pin back, but otherwise let’s him pull the rest of her hair back with careful fingers. 

“You can pick one out,” Zuko tells her and her eyes fall to the drawer Zuko had just opened, and she slides open again. There are several hair sticks inside of various colors and designs. They clink musically as she gently pushes them around to look. 

She settles on a garnet one, with gold etchings. She hands it to Zuko over her shoulder and he takes it easily. 

She watches his face in the mirror as he begins to twist and turn her hair. His brows are furrowed only slightly, just in concentration. His gold eyes are soft, all honey and fixed upon her. 

The morning light looks good on him. He’s half sun, half man. All golden and beautiful. Like the ancient heroes and their fixed brows, their broad shoulders to carry all the weight of their world. Chests to keep their battered, brave hearts safe. The twisting scars of the lightning bolt on his are a reminder of it. 

The spindly, pale marks on his skin branch out over the expanse of his chest. 

The pattern reminds her of the weaving lines of the divination bones, it reminds her of the pattern she now sees everywhere. In the fabric of their night sky. In the wood and the stones and the earth. 

And once more, she wonders if she’s chosen the right path. 

But this time, as she watches Zuko finish her hair, his eyes lifting to find hers in the mirror, the thought doesn’t consume her. It doesn’t worry her at all. 

She feels strangely at peace. She doesn’t even care if it’s the right path. Only that it feels right, that it feels balanced and aligned. 

And maybe some quiet, hidden part of her is certain it is somehow. Or maybe she just wants it to be so badly that it somehow is. 

He smiles at her in the mirror– the one that is reserved for her, fond and reverent. Like she’s a gift, like he can’t believe she’s here, in front of him. 

“Thank you,” she says, her voice suddenly hushed. 

He leans down to press warm lips to her cheek but she turns to catch him in a proper kiss at the last moment. He makes a soft, surprised sound against her. 

She brings her hand to his chest, sliding up to his neck to pull him down more, to deepen the kiss. She parts her lips beneath his, tips her head up to him more in offering. She feels his smile more than anything, a huff of amusement perhaps at her sudden eagerness before he pulls away fractionally. 

He brushes his nose against hers, “What was that for?” 

“I don’t know,” she murmurs back, her own lips lifting into a ghost of a smile, “I’m just happy. I just love you.” 

Zuko leans in to kiss her again, slower this time, lazy, like he’s trying to memorize her. Like they have all the time in the world. 

And in this little pocket of their universe, with all that gilded light spilling over them, the halcyon morning moving on slowly, tentatively, she thinks perhaps they do. Maybe all of time has stopped for them, like it does for all lovers in these precious moments. 

When he pulls away, his eyes are molten, warm and tender. He moves a hand to cradle her cheek, thumb at her bottom lip. 

“I love you, too,” he responds, “I’m happy, too.” he tilts her head so that he can press his lips to the corner of hers, “So,” another kiss, “So,” another, lower, lips skating along her jaw, “Happy.” 

Katara’s breath hitches when she feels the warmth of his mouth at her neck. 

They end up a few minutes late to their meeting– Zuko had to redo her hair. His own, too. There’s a new mark on her neck that she missed in her haste to get ready again. 

She doesn’t even notice it, not until Suki remarks about it later. 

But Katara can’t find it in herself to care, not when all the world seems rosier, brighter and more tender. Not when she feels so eager, so full of life, all open and bright. Like all of that love she has to give has overflowed out of her, spilling onto everyone around her, flooding all the world with it. 

There’s a new passion in her, a new peace, too. She doesn’t wonder about her place in this world, or where she should be, which path to take. She feels confident in the one she’s on. She works hard, laughs harder; she feels half on top of the world, like she could mold it into something better, like her love will shape it, like it will guide her. 

And when she turns her head, it’s always Zuko beside her. Like he always has been. 

Like she always wants him to be. 

Mai’s investigation into the palace staff and Zuko’s advisors have revealed nothing so far. As far as Mai has discovered, much of the palace staff adores Katara. Zuko’s council has different feelings about her, though. 

They dislike her relationship with Zuko. They think she is trying to manipulate him in some way in order to benefit the Southern Water Tribe, they simply haven’t figured out how yet. 

Katara is infinitely glad they don’t yet know about her and Zuko’s plan to get rid of them. They would certainly run wild with ideas of her then. But she cares little, not when she’s debating with them day in and day out. Not when she’s seen firsthand how cruel and selfish they can be, how out of touch they are with the average citizen in the Fire Nation. 

Still, Mai tells her, “You still need to be careful. You’re really shaking things up– not just here, but in worldly politics, too.” 

“What do you mean?” she asks, brows furrowing. 

“You should be cautious around other foreign dignitaries, too.” 

Katara frowns, “Why would I–” 

Mai sighs lightly, “Aren’t you the politician? Don’t you think the North and the Earth Kingdom are keeping a little closer eye on you since you’ve spent so much time here? Since news of your relationship with the Fire Lord is spreading?” 

Katara is silent for a moment, so Mai continues, “I know you’re not unaware that you and Zuko are considered radicals or extremists by some politicians. The North especially, but the Earth Kingdom is wary of you two, too. Don’t you think that a potential relationship between you two could be seen as threatening in some way?” Mai then shrugs lightly, “Besides, you’d be surprised what people will do to keep their wealth safe.” 

Katara’s frown worsens. She knows the people who are most threatened by Zuko and her are ones that hold too much power, too much money in their possession, since they are so hellbent on evening out old, outdated systems that work better for the wealthy than the poor. She knows that bringing significant change to the Fire Nation, one that has so much worldly influence and power, could encourage it globally. 

No wonder they're scared. 

Katara almost smiles, somewhat proud of herself. Of Zuko. She does want to scare them, all those greedy and power-hungry politicians that care more for coin than people. 

“They’re scared.” Mai says, echoing Katara’s thoughts. 

Katara’s eyes flash to Mai’s, “They should be.” 

Mai laughs, a sound Katara doesn’t think she’s ever heard from her, but one that is welcome nonetheless. 

“Yeah,” Mai agrees, her smile as sharp as her stilettos, “They should be.” 

But when her features slip back into ones of neutrality, she adds, “But you have to remain safe and alive for them to be scared. So be careful.” 

Ty Lee ends up accompanying Katara to all her own meetings with foreign dignitaries as a Kyoshi Warrior after that conversation. Perhaps as a spy for Mai, too. Peace of mind for everyone, to know that someone like Ty Lee is looking after her. Though unassuming, Katara would never underestimate her now, no matter how bouncy her step or sweet her smile. 

And after a meeting with the fussy and judgemental Ambassador of the Northern Water Tribe, Ty Lee comments to her, “Boy, his aura sure was awful. And he certainly doesn’t like you at all.” 

“No,” Katara agrees, feeling somewhat accomplished that she has him so rattled, “He’s not particularly fond of me.” 

Ty Lee giggles, “That just means you’re doing something right.” 

Katara throws her a grin, too, but she doesn’t have time to dwell. 

She has far too much work to do. 

Ursa and Zuko have not talked about the last outburst between them. Rather, things have returned to some semblance of silent politeness again. When Katara encourages Zuko to speak with his mother about it, he grows rather closed off. 

But she knows he is hurting. And she is careful, lest she tear holes in both of their fragile memories of mothers. 

Zuko tells her that he oscillates between being furious with his mother for forgetting him and trying to start a new life and feeling an intense amount of pain and sympathy for her, for what she had to endure at the hands of his father. He knows she left to protect him, she had to leave. To save his life. Her own life. 

But did she have to forget? 

Was he not worth remembering? 

She sees now, how horribly and clearly his sense of worth was torn into again. He’d barely managed to get through his father’s brutality, and Katara watches him still be haunted by it. The way he wakes from nightmares, thinks he is never good enough or smart enough or–

–I don’t think anyone in the world could deserve you.

Least of all me. 

Every day she tries to assure him differently, tries to press her love and adoration and respect and awe into him. Tries to pepper it along his skin, smooth it his arms and shoulders. Softens it with the trail of her lips. 

She knows she can’t fix him in this way, wishes she could, wishes she could lift her hands that glow with the healing touch of her water and set them to his heart again. Patch up all that has hurt him. She wishes she would never hear another soul mention his father, especially not in relationship to him. Not in comparison in any way. She wishes his mother would let go of her cool facade and tell him why she did what she did– that she couldn’t stomach not having him. That the pain was too great for her. So she forgot. 

But she can’t do those things for him, just as he can’t undo what’s been done to her, either. 

He offers her the space to express all of her emotions, including the negative, horrible ones. He doesn’t run from them or shame them or quiet her. She thinks she could tell him anything, no matter how hard or horrible her heart thinks it is. And he would still hold her afterwards, he would still love her. His opinion on her wouldn’t change because he knows her in a way no other has.

She never has to baby him or look after him in the way that she has taken care of everyone her whole life. He is mature and responsible and as headstrong and passionate as she is. 

Isn’t that what Sokka and Suki wanted for her? 

There is still healing to do, of course, they struggle with it– still wake up from nightmares together, only to curl around each other, hold tight. In those quiet moments, when all the world is asleep, they marvel that it’s already been ten years since the end of the war. Ten years since they met. They marvel that it’s only been ten years since the end of the war. 

Sometimes, Zuko asks her to tell the story of Oma and Shu. She thinks it soothes some part of him, to know that two people could overcome all the war and strife between their people, between past generations. It soothes him to know that love is stronger than something like war. 

There is a transcendence in love, Katara thinks, something that is far above the whims of nations and leaders and society. 

She knows he rereads a volume that has the Oma and Shu story in it. She has caught him rewriting a line from it, etching it down in all his spare notes, fixated on it. She sees it often enough that it becomes familiar, almost comforting. A phrase she thinks they understand, perhaps better than anyone else. 

She sees it again and again and again, a phrase that she begins to covet, hold close to her heart. 

Like it was written for them and not just Oma and Shu, like one day, when someone writes their story, they will include that line, too. 

Time pushes on, weeks turning into months. 

Katara enjoys spending her time in the libraries, typically working her way through scrolls, responding to letters from other politicians, from the South. Lately, she has been aiding Zuko in developing a case to present the Fire Sage’s in an attempt to get rid of his outdated council, to potentially replace it with everyday people that would represent their communities in politics. It’s a lot of historical work and research, digging through old archives in order to provide evidence that supports their argument. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough for them to point out how none of the previous councilmen stopped the rising dictatorship in the Fire Nation or how they all profited from the war. Profited off of sending their citizens to die in order to expand their wealth and terrorize the world in doing so. 

She also has been preparing for the summit that will take place in Ba Sing Se in two months time. It is the first year that they will be discussing the United Republic of Nations, now that it has finally grown large enough in size and citizens. Katara is certain there will be potential fights over which nation might have the most jurisdiction over the new nation. She has been working on a plan to hopefully appease all the nations– one in which a representative for each sits on a council in Republic City to make the best decisions for the United Republic of Nations. 

Zuko had helped her draft it, Sokka had weighed in, too. Even Toph had given her own advice after spending several months in Republic City. 

Katara still hasn’t heard from Aang. She knows he’s fine because he has responded to Sokka and Toph’s letters recently. But he has yet to respond to Zuko or her, not in any personal way, at least. 

Not since they told him about their relationship. 

She tries not to dwell on it. She reminds herself she did nothing wrong. That she’s happy and she won’t give up on her happiness because Aang has not fully moved on. Still, it worries her from time to time. Sits with her. 

If she isn’t careful, the thought will consume her, guilt will rush through her. She will want to drop everything and chase him, the way she used to when he ran from his problems, from his feelings, from anything that wasn’t peaceful and simple and optimistic in nature. 

But that isn’t her job anymore. All she can do is give him space to figure it out on his own. All she can do is hope that he comes around, that she hasn’t lost a dear friend of hers. 

The thought sends a stab of pain through her. No, she can’t even imagine Aang not being her friend anymore. Even if they’ve grown more distant in these previous few years she– she’ll always love him, the way she’d always love Toph or her brother. She can’t fathom losing him. 

She tries to brush these thoughts away, realizing her mind has strayed from her tasks, her eyes have gone bleary and tired from reading so much. She’s spent most of her day in the library, hunched over this desk. She decides that this is her cue for a break. 

It’s late afternoon, just before dinner. She goes searching for Zuko. Her souring thoughts have left her somewhat tender and he seems to always know what she needs. 

But she has trouble finding him. He isn’t in their (his?) room. He isn’t in a meeting. Jakao says he hasn’t seen him in awhile. She checks all of his usual spots only to find them empty. 

The last place she checks is the Fire Sage’s tower. She knows when she can find him nowhere else, he is most likely here, hiding. He doesn’t do it often anymore, but Katara has come to realize the spot feels somewhat sacred. Like the caves in the South Pole. It’s almost dreamlike, something so beautiful it doesn’t quite feel of this world. 

Places only for them. 

He’s admitted that she’s the only one who's been up there with him, the only one he’s shared it with. 

So she climbs the winding stairs in the tower. She sees the latch to the roof has been thrown open. She climbs through the darkness, through the latch, and onto the roof. The sky opens up before her vision, wide and never ending. Filled with full, floating clouds. 

And Zuko sits against it, his back to her. He looks out over his city, the wind softly blowing strands of his dark hair from his shoulders. 

She wanders over silently and he glances up to her once he sees her, his gold eyes glinting in the light. Her hand comes down naturally, slips into his hair. Zuko tilts his head towards her, let’s his eyes fall shut. His temple rests against her hip for a moment. The distant hum of the city seems soft from all the way up here. 

Katara finally moves to sink down beside him. Silently, he untangles his legs and they move together, until she is settled between his legs, her back against his chest. She gazes out at the city before her, busy in the late afternoon light. 

“How has your day been?” he asks and she can feel his lips at the top of her head, before they settle into an absentminded kiss. 

“Fine,” Katara admits on a sigh and maybe it’s the way she says it, the way she sinks further into him, because Zuko is quick to question her. 

“Is something bothering you?” he asks, one of his broad hands wrapping around the curve of her waist. 

“I just have been thinking about Aang,” she admits and she can feel Zuko let out a slow sigh. 

“He’ll come around,” Zuko tells her, “I know he will.” 

“I hope so,” she replies and Zuko draws a hand up her side, up to her shoulder to rub soothing circles there, to knead softly at her tense muscles. 

“He just needs some time.” Zuko soothes softly, “And if that isn’t the case, I’m sure Toph will knock some sense into him eventually.” 

Katara snorts softly, leaning into his touch at her shoulder. She feels some of the tension leave her, her thoughts drifting away, as if being carried out into a vast sea. Her eyes almost flutter shut, a sudden drowsiness overcoming her. The rooftop is warm and peaceful. Zuko is comforting, the mold of his body to hers familiar, relaxing. 

But after a moment, she asks, “Been up here for awhile?” 

He hums lightly in response, a confirmation. 

“What have you been contemplating?” she then asks, “I can tell there’s something on your mind, too.” 

He is silent for longer than Katara anticipates and for a moment, she’s almost about to ask again, or prompt him further. But then what he says is perhaps the last thing she thought he would say;

“I’ve been thinking about abdicating the throne.” 

Katara jolts up from his chest, turning to look at him over his shoulder, “What? Y-you can do that? You want to do that?” 

Zuko is almost amused with her reaction, but he’s calm when he says, “It wouldn’t happen in our lifetime. I’ve been doing some research. But I could begin the process.” 

Katara deflates somewhat, “Oh.” she says, her mind churning through the thought. She certainly isn’t opposed to it, especially since she knows Zuko must have a good reason for it. So she questions him, “What’s brought this on?” 

He shrugs lightly, a graceful lifting of his shoulders. “Just thinking about the future, is all. I want– I want to leave this nation, the world, better than when I came into it.” 

“You’ve already done that,” Katara says and he squeezes lightly at her waist.

“I want to ensure, even after we’re gone, that something like the One Hundred Year War can never happen again. I want the Fire Nation to have a say in who their Fire Lord is.” he explains to her and his voice is soft, but certain. 

She feels a sudden burst of pride for him. She marvels at how good he is, how strong of a leader and person he has become. She marvels at his mind, at his heart, as golden as those rays of sun, gilded and tested and burnished. He is the type of leader that will burn his way into their history, streak like a comet across their skies, brilliant and extraordinary. 

Perhaps this is why she is so certain of her future with him. Above everything, Zuko is good, and he has worked endlessly for it. 

Katara settles back down into his chest, looking out over all of Caldera City again. 

It is so easy to love him, she thinks, feeling the drum of his heart against her back. 

She wants to tell him all of this, wants to express the way her chest suddenly feels, but what she asks instead, softly, perhaps tentatively, “Who would finish the process?” 

Zuko is quiet again, “Well,” he begins and she can tell he is being careful with his words, hesitant, “The next generation, I suppose.” 

Katara tilts her head back into his chest, cranes it to look up at him. He drops a kiss to her forehead, to her nose, which she then wrinkles, a smile blooming at her lips. 

“Is this your way of bringing up kids?” she asks and he nearly chokes on nothing. 

“What? No! I mean–” 

Katara laughs at his sudden fumble, at the way his cheeks have gone somewhat rosy. She straightens herself up again, turning to look over her shoulder at him. 

“Do you want kids?” she asks and she watches Zuko squirm under her gaze. 

“Do you?” he asks in return. 

“I asked you first,” she fires back, a hint of a mischievous smile pulling at her lips. 

He swallows, “I suppose.” 

“You suppose?” 

“Yes. Yes, I’d want kids.” 

The answer makes her return to her place in his arms, her back cradled against his chest. The rooftops of Caldera City gleam under the sun. She smiles somewhat to herself. She isn’t exactly sure why. 

“I do, too.” she admits and feels him relax, feels him sink back into her. 

A sudden peace descends over them. The breeze brushes past them, a gentle caress, sweet with spring season on the way. The world feels startlingly content in this moment, temperate, perhaps soft and hazy. There is a promise of the future that settles between them, just a whisper, just the first ember of hope that has flared to life. It warms her from the inside out. 

“How many?” Zuko asks, his voice soft, and she thinks he’s envisioning it, their future, like it’s somewhere out on the horizon.

“How many do you want?” she asks in return. 

“I asked you first,” he responds, his fingers flexing against her ticklish sides to tease her. She yelps a little, before it falls away into a giggle, a laugh that makes him smile, too. 

“Three,” she says, a little breathless, smiling, “I want three.” 

“Three,” he hums lightly, like it’s a revelation, and there is something so distinctively happy to his tone that Katara feels as if it is seeping into her, melting into her very being. 

She looks out at the horizon now, too, turning her face to the sky, to the world that opens up before them. The sun has begun its descent, the slow fade of the colors of day that soften into the lullaby colors of evening. 

And she swears, out amongst those clouds, that horizon, that she can see the golden rays of their future, too, a promise of a life that she is excited to know.

Katara’s birthday rapidly approaches. She will be twenty-four, which feels strange in some ways. She feels both young and old. Like she can hardly believe she’s already twenty-four and also can hardly grasp how she’s only twenty-four. She feels as if she’s lived more life than plenty– she supposes war will do that to a girl. And yet, she also feels impossibly young, marveling at the size of her world, at all the work there is to do still. 

Besides that, Zuko and Suki have been acting strange. They keep sending Katara on odd errands. Or distracting her. Zuko left her with Iroh the other day in which he rattled on about his favorite teas for at least an hour before Katara was able to slip away as politely as possible. 

Even Kiyi and Azula had done a great amount of rambling the other day and when Katara had said she had to go, they’d both shouted, no! Before scrambling for reasons as to why Katara should stay with them. 

Everyone was acting strange, come to think of it. She swore the whole palace knew something she didn’t. 

It’s beginning to wear on her nerves, but she tries to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she’s simply being touchy, a little sensitive to everything and everyone lately. 

However, she begins to grow suspicious when Zuko keeps her in the meeting room with him longer than usual. They’re always usually the last two in there after most of his council or other politicians have trickled out, but this time, he is lingering too much. 

Katara can tell he’s running out of needless questions to ask her or subjects to discuss that relate to politics. These are all things they’ve already discussed, things that she knows he is well aware of. 

Finally, she asks, “Zuko, what’s going on?” 

“What?” Zuko asks, but he’s a notoriously bad liar, so his voice raises, before he clears it and tries again, “What do you mean?” 

Katara fixes him with a look, “I don’t know– everyone, including you, have been acting strange lately.” 

“I haven’t noticed,” Zuko says, but he averts his eyes from her. 

“I can tell you’re lying,” Katara says, ducking her head in an attempt to force him to meet her eyes. Zuko has never liked lying to her. 

And when he finally gazes at her, he swallows, suddenly unsure. He tries to tell her, “I-I’m not lying.” 

Katara huffs in frustration, especially as a tendril of worry works through her. Is it something bad? No, it couldn’t be, she has faith that Zuko wouldn’t keep something so serious from her. But then what is it? 

She begins to roll up scrolls, stack papers, finally standing to leave but Zuko snags her wrist, stills her.

She looks down at him, and doesn’t mean to give him such an attitude, but she ends up quipping, “What now? Another question you already know the answer to?” 

“No,” Zuko says, maybe too quickly, standing with her. 

He towers over her now and she has to tip her head back to look up at him. He’s so near that she can feel the warmth radiating from him, his broad chest at her eye level. She feels suddenly small, especially as she peers up at him. 

“No,” he repeats, voice steadier, more sure. Lower. “But you can’t go yet.” 

Katara quirks a brow at him, almost amused if she wasn’t so frustrated, “Why’s that?” 

“Because–” he searches for a reason, eyes trailing around the room desperately. When he comes up with nothing, they finally return to her face, dropping to her lips for a moment, before returning to her eyes, “Because I don’t want you to.” 

“Zuko–” Katara laughs at his poor answer, but the sound gets swallowed in the kiss he presses to her lips. She makes a high, surprised noise against him and she feels his hands come up, slide along her waist, draw her nearer. The press of him is firm, his fingers easing their way up her sensitive sides, vying for her attention. 

And it nearly distracts her. 

She pulls away, “Seriously, what is going on?” she asks now, huffing slightly. 

“Nothing,” he repeats, kissing her again, and again, and again. Until they’re long, and drawn out things, the slow roll of heat building between them. Inside of her. “Just been a long day,” he murmurs, voice low and a little rough. 

Katara doesn’t know when she lost her breath. 

He lifts her easily onto the table, stands between her legs. He lifts his hand to pull at the hair stick that was keeping her hair in it’s neat bun she’s been wearing it in lately. It slides out easily and her hair falls in a cascade down her shoulders, over her back. The clink of the hair stick against the table feels loud in the silent, empty room. 

“Zuko–” she half-scolds, but his hand is already winding into the hair at the nape of her neck, cradling her, angling her head up so that he can kiss her again. 

He’s more insistent now, the brush of his teeth to her bottom lip, the way he’s grabbing at her, like he’ll never get enough. 

He never fails to make her feel like the only one in his world. His whole world. She always feels half divine with him, under his gaze, beneath his hands. It makes her arch up into him, give in, and tighten her hands in the fabric of his shirt. 

He’s all hunger, the flint-strike of his eyes as he pulls back to look at her ensnares her, as he takes her in. Her lips are parted, she’s sure her cheeks are flushed red, hair a mess down around her shoulders, spilling through his long fingers. 

Zuko releases a huff, “You’re so pretty,” he says, almost like he’s frustrated. Like it isn’t fair. 

Katara looks up at him with wide, wondering eyes. She wants to say the same of him, of the sharp angles of his face that make him so striking, so mesmerizing. The curved bow of his upper lip. The pink that dusts his pale cheeks. 

Once more, she thinks maybe all the world has stopped for them. 

She hooks her leg around his waist and his hands scorch her, one wandering lower, and lower. 

When a wobbling moan works its way out of her, his free hand flies up to cover her mouth. His eyes are worried as he glances to the door, back to meet her own wide eyes, “Sshh,” he hushes her, “We have to be quiet.” 

And then he huffs a laugh, the sound low and breathless, which makes her glare up at him. 

When he lifts his hand away, she hisses, all blushing and flustered, “Not funny.” 

Which only makes him laugh more, the soft rasp of it sinking down into her warmly. He leans down to brush his lips to her cheek, “I’m sorry,” he says but he’s still smiling, so her glare remains, “‘M sorry,” he murmurs again, lips pressing to the corner of her lips. 

And she melts then, the way ice does against the warmth of a fire, slow and soft. 

Whatever worries she’d had have left her mind now, with him here, too close and not close enough. 

She’ll realize it later, that he was just trying to distract her. But it worked, so she isn’t sure which one she should be more upset with; herself, for being so easily swayed. Or him, for distracting her. 

There’s little to be upset with, though, not when it’s all love. The tender sort of affection, not when she feels so precious in his arms, so held. 

Suki ends up sending Katara on a wild goose chase across half the palace, giving her wrong information at every turn. She becomes aware of how truly cunning Suki is. And when Katara questions her about it, all she does is laugh her off. Tells her it was nothing, just messing with her sister-in-law. 

Zuko continues to act stranger and stranger in the days leading up to her birthday. She’s starting to grow concerned. 

But no one will tell her a thing. Except that she should stop worrying. 

Dear Katara,


I want to apologize for not responding to your letter sooner. I needed some time to take in what you had told me. 

I want you to know I’m happy for you. And Zuko. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I have realized that there is something greater at play, in the universe, I think. And all will work out as it should be. 

I hope you’re doing well. I hope Zuko is, too. 

I have also realized that I miss you, as a friend. I am tired of avoiding or ignoring you. You and Zuko mean too much to me. I was told that you were worried about our friendship, about me, and I want to assure you that despite everything, I will always be your friend, Katara, if you’ll have me. 

I’ll see you soon.


Your friend,


Most of Katara’s birthdays have been uneventful things. She doesn’t expect much of them, doesn’t need a lot, just those she loves. 

She’d been a little sad in the days leading up to it, knowing that she wouldn’t be with her family this year. But she was with Zuko and Suki and even Azula and Kiyi and Iroh. People who still cared about her. 

Even the palace staff, despite allegations, had been excitedly asking her about what she would do on her birthday– the cooks asking if she wanted anything special, her handmaidens wondering if they should have a special dress made. 

Katara denied them all with a smile, but it was the thought that counted to her. The fact that anyone was thinking of her on her birthday was enough. 

And on the day of her birthday, Zuko had let her sleep in. There had been no meetings to go to, no business to attend to. He’d assured her that they both would have the day off. 

He’d had her favorite breakfast ready for her to eat in bed, the fruits sweet, bursting on her tongue. He’d kissed her sweet, too, been exceptionally tender with her. There had been something about him, she’d realized later, he’d been almost nervous. Almost tentative. 

But he’d been adamant about pampering her. 

She’d told him that he didn’t need to. 

All he’d replied with was, “Let me take care of you,” and she’d realized how little anyone had ever pampered her. Or taken care of her. It was hard when she’d spent most of her life taking care of others. Taking care of herself. No one else had needed to care for her, so they hadn’t.  

He’d drawn a bath for her, sat beside the tub while she sank beneath the frothy water. He’d dipped a hand in and kept the water warm for her, talking with her in that soft rasp that she was so fond of. 

He’d given her his gift but promised there was more later, that she had to wait. But the quills he’d given her were gleaming and beautifully made. Her more practical gift, he’d joked with her.  She’d wanted to use them right away, perhaps overly excited for something as simple as quills, but they would be useful to her. She was always scribbling down notes, writing to dignitaries, or home. Or in her own journal. 

She’d wanted to respond to letters, certain that she would have plenty of letters from her family and friends wishing her a happy birthday. 

However, there’d been little to no letters. Mostly official letters from other politicians not wishing her a happy birthday. Her heart had sunk. Maybe they’d gotten lost? Maybe they were coming later? 

She’d felt off after that, somewhat dejected. 

Zuko had asked her to dress up for dinner, since he was doing something special for her. She hadn’t exactly been in the mood, but she’d obliged him. She’d put on a pale rosy dress, the silk smooth against her legs, hugging the curve of her waist before falling towards the floor. She’d accented it with dark blue, pulling her hair back with a blue and red hair clip Zuko had given her. 

And he tugs her along now, not towards the dining hall, which is where she’d assumed they were going. 

She almost asks him, before they stop in front of the wide, ornate doors to the ballroom. His hand is still holding hers, encompassing and large. 

He turns to look over his shoulder at her and he is smiling in a way that makes her think he knows something she doesn’t. He is excited, she realizes, and for what, she isn’t sure. 

Not until he pushes open the door and light falls upon her. The warm kind from chandeliers and tall candles spills over her face. 

The room bursts into color, into a collective, “Surprise!” that makes Katara blink against the bright confetti that is fluttering through the air, drifting down like bright snow. 

And through the blues and reds and pinks and purples and yellows, she can see her family’s smiling faces. Sokka and her father and Suki and Gran Gran. She can see Toph and even– even Aang. 

And more people than that still. A whole room of people who she has befriended, who love her. Who she loves. 

No wonder she didn’t get any letters from them today. 

She’s smiling, smiling so wide it hurts and she doesn’t know why, but tears are gathering in her eyes. Maybe it’s because she’s so happy, so happy to see all their faces, bright with joy, here with her now. For her. 

The thought strikes her– this is for her. She doesn’t think anyone has done something like this for her before. Nothing so extravagant or– or kind. To gather all of the people Katara loves into one room, to reach out and bring them all together. 

All to make her happy. On her birthday. 

She turns to Zuko, her heart feeling so fragile and joyful, fluttering in her chest like a little bird, “You did this?” she asks him, barely breathes it, in awe. 

“I had help,” he answers, seeing her tears, reaching out to brush one away from the apple of her cheek. “Do you like it?” 

“Of course– of course I do.” she answers, and she presses a fleeting kiss to his palm, just before she turns towards the group of people. 

And they swarm her then, her brother and Suki first, followed quickly by Toph and Aang, but then the whole room is gathered.

All to hug her and hold her and greet her. To wish her a happy birthday. To cherish her.  


That’s what she feels– so, painfully loved. And it’s not that she hadn’t before, her family and friends have always shown their love for her in their own ways, but no one has ever gone through the trouble of doing something like this.

She isn’t frivolous, she doesn’t care about the attention or wealth of the party, rather just the effort. 

She can’t imagine how hard it was to bring everyone together. It happened so rarely in their lives. And Zuko did this. And others agreed to it, dropped their important work to see her here, now. 

Katara needs to hold back the tears. 

Sokka tells her so, hugging her tight, “Quit with the water works, would you? It’s your birthday!” 

But his eyes are misty, too. Katara doesn’t know why. He glances at Zuko and there’s a strange look that passes between them. She thinks Sokka hugs Zuko tighter than usual. Her brother murmurs something to him and when Zuko pulls away from him, he’s smiling, his own eyes a little glassy, too. 

“C’mon! Someone get the birthday girl a drink!” Toph shouts, throwing her arm around Katara. Toph’s taller than her now, which is strange and something Katara has yet to get used to. But she laughs, especially when a rose colored, bubbly wine is thrust into her hands. 

It’s sweet and chilled, fizzles on her tongue, popping excitedly. 

And this is how the night kicks off. 

There is music and food and far, far too much alcohol. There is dancing and laughter and shouting and talking. 

Sokka pulls her into a dance when he’s had too much to drink and she laughs the whole way through it, tears rushing to the corner of her eyes. Her stomach hurts because he’s being ridiculous and she can barely spare a breath. Especially not when Suki tries to haul him off the dance floor. 

Toph and Mai have been trying to outdrink each other. Ty Lee informs Katara that Mai acts tough, but she will be sick later. Katara tells Ty Lee that the same can be expected of Toph and they laugh about how stubborn they are. 

Ty Lee swipes the bottle they’re drinking from to steal a swig, then to hand it to Katara, who does the same. 

They laugh together and when Ty Lee’s giggles fade, she looks at Katara and says, “Your aura is so so bright and pretty tonight. It’s spilling onto this whole room! You’re practically glowing!” And she takes Katara’s cheeks between her palms, perhaps because she’s tipsy, but Katara doesn’t mind, still smiling, “I can tell your future is full of so many wonderful and lovely things. As bright as you!” 

It is an odd thing to say, but Katara still smiles and thanks her. She feels like she’s on the cusp of that future, on a precipice. Like everything is falling into place.

Aang tells her that he’s happy to see her again. 

“I’m glad you came,” she admits to him, “It wouldn’t be perfect without you.” 

Even if they’re not completely healed, even if there is perhaps something more to say between them– now is not the time for such heavy conversations. And she simply can’t imagine him not here. She can’t imagine how hurt she’d be. 

She can’t help but take this as his gesture of good faith, stepping back onto the right foot after being so out of pace with each other. 

And he smiles at her, wide and real and toothy. “I’m glad I came, too. I’m glad Zuko– I’m glad he reached out to me again.” 

Katara tilts her head, surprised. 

“Zuko reached out to you?” she asks and she watches as his face washes over with some form of nervousness. 

“Oh,” Aang laughs a little, the sound tight, “He didn’t tell you? Well– uh, yeah, he did! And I’m really grateful for it.” And then Aang deflates a little, softens, as he gazes at Katara, “He really loves you.” 

He doesn’t say it with any ire or contempt. It’s just a fact. Like the sky is blue. Zuko really loves you. 

Katara glances to Zuko, whose across the room, speaking with her father and Sokka. The sight does something strange to her chest. 

And as if he can feel her eyes on him, he turns to catch her gaze. His lips lift into a smile naturally, easily. More easily than he ever used to smile. 

“I can tell you’re happy, too.” Aang continues softly, “And I’m glad to see it.” 

She finally returns her gaze back to him. She smiles gently, “I can’t wait to be happy for you, too.” she says and Aang swallows hard. He gives her a smile that is perhaps twinged with sadness, but it is still sincere. 

“Happy birthday, Katara.” he tells her, letting go of a breath she thinks he’s been holding for awhile. Maybe too long. He lets his smile be warm, reach his eyes. 

“Thank you, Aang.” she responds and she means it, catching his eyes and holding them. It makes her feel like they’ve finally made some sort of progress, taken tentative steps in the right direction. 

The fact that he would be here for her, especially upon Zuko’s request, she thinks speaks volumes. He supports them. He still wants to be her friend. And that soothes a part of Katara that had remained troubled and prickly, jabbing insistently at her heart. 

When she returns to Zuko’s side, she has already had another drink. She’s feeling giddy and light, excited and tender. She presses herself into his side and his hand comes naturally to the small of her back. 

“Thank you. For all of this.” Katara tells him, wishes she could thank him a thousand different ways. She wishes she could kiss him, right here, in front of a whole room of people, but thankfully her impulses aren’t that skewed from alcohol yet. 

“Of course,” he murmurs, “I’m sorry for the previous few weeks– all the secrecy.” 

It clicks for her then. All the odd behaviour from him. From Suki. From everyone. 

“I almost told you,” he admits with a slight laugh, “I felt so bad for lying.” 

Katara laughs, too, “You’re forgiven,” she assures him, “I think this is a unique instance. Besides,” she smiles up at him, fitting her smaller hands into his like puzzle pieces slotting together. “You can make it up to me.” 

“How do you want me to do that?” he asks, brushing his thumb over the back of her hand. 

“You can dance with me,” she responds and he’d deny her little, especially when she looks up at him like that. So she drags him over to the dance floor and he pulls her into his arms easily, brings her in close, into his orbit. 

She thinks about how he’ll always be her dance partner now. 

They don’t try very hard, just move together, to the rhythm of the music that cascades over them like a wave. They talk, bask in each other’s company as he dances her round and round and round again. Until all the world fades away and its just him and her. 

He says something that makes her laugh. She tosses her head back, the sound full and echoing in the room, falling into the notes of the music. She teeters closer to him, into him, giddy and light with champagne and love. 

Eventually, her father asks to cut in and Zuko smiles softly, bows respectfully as Katara accepts her father’s hand. 

She thinks Zuko gets roped into helping Aang with Toph, who is perhaps a little too drunk after her game with Mai. 

Katara falls into step with her father. She looks up at him, squeezing his hand, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you here.” she admits and she doesn’t know why, but she feels a touch of nostalgia work at her. 

Her father smiles softly, perhaps filled with that same nostalgia. The kind every parent feels when they look down at their child on their birthday. She finally begins to see the wrinkles that are creasing his face. Though not old, Katara now sees the way youth has faded from him. 

She’s so, so happy to have him here with her now. 

“I’m happy to be here,” he responds just as softly, “I’ve been looking forward to this for months.” 

“Months?” she asks, assuming it was something that had been planned in the past few weeks, at best. 

But her father nods, “Zuko mentioned to Sokka and I at the Winter Solstice that he wanted to do this for your birthday.” 

“That was nearly seven months ago now,” Katara responds, a little in awe. 

Her father nods, “He wanted to be sure it was perfect for you.” 

The thought of it is almost overwhelming in some way– like she can’t fathom he thought this much of her. For her. 

“He really loves you,” her father says softly and he is now the second person to say that to her tonight. 

“I know,” Katara finally breathes, and then, some small, young part of her that still looks to her father for advice, for his approval asks, “Do you like him?” 

Her father laughs softly, a little surprised, maybe, “You don’t need my approval, Katara.” he says gently. She has always been free to make her own choices. She does not need him. 

Still, she says, “Just– humor me?” 

He smiles gently, nodding, “He has overcome a lot and turned out better from it– that is not an easy thing to do. He is a strong and just leader. He’s dedicated to the world in the same way you are. More than that, he is good and kind. And, if he has managed to attain your respect and love, then he has mine, too.” Hakoda tells her, and Katara doesn’t know why, but her chest is feeling tight. “I like him a great deal, Katara.” he says softly, reassuringly, before he adds, “I also think–” his breath stutters now, eyes suddenly too bright, misty with tears. 

“I think your mother would love him, too.” he tells her, the words barely a whispered hush. Like that’s all he can manage. 

Katara feels a tear slip from her eyes, feels her throat tighten, feels that bittersweet ache at his words. 

“Dad–” her voice breaks quietly. 

“And she’d be so, so proud of you, Katara.” her father continues, and Katara doesn’t even realize they’ve stopped dancing. Not until she throws her arms around him like she’s not twenty-four but fourteen again. And they hold each other tightly. 

When they pull away they are smiling through their tears, caught somewhere between joy and nostalgia. Happiness and melancholy. She is infinitely glad for him here now, while also missing her mother sharply.  

“Go,” Hakoda says, “Enjoy your birthday with your friends. Stop crying with me.” 

She laughs a little, hugs him tight again, but that is what she does. She enjoys her birthday, surrounded by her friends, talking and laughing and dancing. Drinking a little too much. Being in love. 

And at the end of the night, when everyone finally begins to turn in, and she’s leaning against Zuko’s side, he tells her, “I want to show you something.” 

He seems tentative suddenly, a little nervous. But he breathes deeply, offers his hand to her. 

Katara takes it without knowing anything else. 

She brightens, though, cocking her brow at him, “Are there crystal caves in the Fire Nation, too?” she asks and his sudden, answering laugh is a sound she wants to bottle, a sound that burrows down into her. 

“No,” he says, taking her hand, leading her out of the ballroom, into the winding palace hallways, “Not that I know of, at least.” 

“Is this another birthday gift? Another surprise?” she jokes, but he doesn’t quite respond. She can see in the line of his shoulders that he’s nervous, maybe. Somewhat tense now. 

He leads her to the Fire Sage’s tower. 

“Zuko?” she inquires, imploring him to answer her. 

“Just follow me,” he replies and he begins to lead her up the spiraling staircase of the tower. She has to grab the silk of her skirt and lift it to follow him up. She feels like a princess, she thinks with a smile, rushing up the tower steps, following her prince. Their footfalls echo softly in the stone space. His hand squeezes hers tightly. 

They reach the top and Zuko throws the hatch open. 

Even though she doesn’t need it, he lifts her through it, to the roof. Then he follows after. 

The first thing Katara realizes is that there are winking, warmly glowing lanterns set up around the roof. They shine soft against the navy night sky. The stars flicker above their heads, too, the cosmos bright tonight, showering them in their starlight. In the moonlight. She looks out over all of Caldera City, softly glowing in the dark, too. The ocean out in the distance bleeds silver, gleams under the moon. A world of gold and silver. 

It’s beautiful. 

She turns to Zuko, and he moves to take her hands in his, too. 

She notices the slightest trembling in him, his calloused palms rough against hers. 

“What is it?” she asks, her voice suddenly soft, almost like she knows. 

Zuko draws in a slow breath to gather himself, “I have something to ask you,” he responds, his voice quiet, carried on the gentle breeze that lifts her hair from her collar bones. 

“Okay,” she responds, just as hushed. 

And she watches as he eases down to his knees before her. She swallows roughly, just as he takes his hands from hers to reach behind him, to pull out something that flashes golden, glowing under the lantern light. 

It takes Katara a moment to realize what it is, as he holds it up to her. 

It’s a– a knife, sheathed in gold, but there’s no mistaking it. A betrothal knife. 

She gasps softly. 

“Katara,” he starts gently, looking up into her face with so much earnestness, so much love that it physically makes her ache. “I haven’t been able to decide if this is too early or a long time coming,” he starts, the slightest wobble in his voice as he tries for a smile, “But I’ve known you for ten years, you’ve been my closest friend for nearly nine of them. I have been in love with you for at least four of them and– and your brother told me that we were just wasting time at this point and I– I don’t want to waste any of it. Not with you.” 

“And I know,” he exhales, “ I know what I am asking of you with this. It’s not just a marriage with me, but another nation, too. But you have been at my side since I was crowned, through letter, and in person.” He bows his head slightly, his palms open and offering around the knife. “There is no one else I would rather have beside me for the rest of it, too.” 

Katara takes this moment to inspect the handle of the knife. The stone pressed into the gold of it is richly blue, almost purple, glimmering red and iridescent lilac in the light. 

It’s carving is nearly the symbol of yin and yang. A burst of flame chasing the smooth glide of water, chasing the tale of the flame. It reminds her of Tui and La, forever circling each other. Pushing and pulling. Taking and giving. Light and darkness. Fire and water. 


When she looks closely, she can see the small image of the sun within the flame, the curve of the moon in the water. 

She feels her chest rising and falling, feels the rapidness of her heart like wings, fluttering hard and quick in the cage of her body. 

“And more than anything,” he says and she hears the crack of his voice before she finds his face, so open before her. His eyes are shining with tears that threaten to fall, “I just love you and I don’t know how everything has led to this, but I thank the Spirits, Fate, the universe – for giving me someone as good and brave and miraculou s as you. I can’t think of anything I want more than be at your side." He tries to swallow those tears, but they finally fall, cut tracks down his cheeks softly, catching gold, a slice of silver in the light as he says, "To grow old with you.” 

He finally asks, his voice rough with emotion, with love and fear and hope, “Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, would you do me the honor of taking me as your husband in this life?” 

With shaking fingers, Katara reaches out to grasp the hilt of the knife. She takes it in hand, unsheathes it to see the gleaming gold of the sharp blade, too. 

There is an inscription on it, the markings etched clearly. They are familiar to her. She reads them once, before she feels her own tears burst free. Slip and fall down the line of her cheeks, too. 

She sheathes the dagger, only to drop to her knees and throw her arms around Zuko’s shoulders. The colliding of them like reckless stars. 

He catches her, like he always has. His arms are already tight, already crushing her to him, as if he could fuse them together. 

“Yes,” she breathes fiercely, the sheathed dagger pressed to her palm, pressed to his back. She pulls away to look at him through her tears. Through his, too. “ Yes, I will take you in this life. And in the next and next and next.” 

She doesn’t know who leans in first, only that she kisses him with all that she has. She can taste the salt of tears, like the ocean, the warmth of him like a wildfire. The knife in her palm is solid and cool, and the inscription almost burns it’s way through her. 

And above the city, above all the world open before them, glowing and gilded, she becomes the first person of the Southern Water Tribe, of any other nation, to accept the future title of Fire Lady. Above that soft and gold world, she changes the very course of history. She changes the future. 

Just like the inscription on her betrothal knife says, the one that rests in tales of past lovers, the one that will become apart of theirs, too;

With their love, they shaped the world. 

Chapter Text

"Avatar Aang would go on to marry an Air Acolyte from Ba Sing Se, Lenah Jiu. Both upheld the traditions of the nearly forgotten Airbenders to live their lives as nomads and later, raise their children the same way. Lenah would go on to assist Avatar Aang the rest of his life, too. Though not a Bender, Lenah possessed a striking fighting style that resembled old Airbenders and utilized a bo staff as her weapon of choice. She was also known to have a wicked sense of humor and wit. More than that, her letters indicated that she became a confidant of both Fire Lady Katara and Master Toph. She helped draft the National Cultures Preservation Council with Fire Lady Katara, which still stands today. All records of her indicate that she was a powerful and generous woman. She had three children with Avatar Aang: Bumi, Mele, and Tenzin. Their youngest, Tenzin, would go on to help Avatar Korra complete his parents' long attempted mission to restore the world of Airbenders."
    –An excerpt from 'A History of Avatars'

News of Zuko and Katara’s engagement breaks three days after her birthday. First, in the palace and amongst Zuko’s council and advisors. Then news spreads rapidly, so on the fifth day, they decide to publicly announce it– both to the Fire Nation and the world. Zuko mourns the fact that they had little time to enjoy being engaged to themselves, but he supposes such is the way of two trailblazing politicians.

Zuko feels they barely had the time to even perform the gift exchange for their proposal– it’s tradition in the Fire Nation for the families to give each other nine gifts respectively. All gifts are to symbolize a hope that each family has for the marriage.

So they had gathered the day after Katara's birthday. Katara with her father, grandmother, Sokka, and Suki and Zuko with his Uncle, mother, and both sisters.

Each family had presented nine gifts to each other. Most with the hopes for things like happiness, everlasting love, health, plenty of children– five, his Uncle is hoping, and six to make it even, Katara’s grandmother jokes. Also hopes of vitality and strength, courage as new leaders. 

Finally, as if planned, both families' last gift to each other is an offering of peace and solidarity. 

From Katara’s family, they had made a bouquet of flowers out of the precious ore and glittering gems of their caves. They had explained that real, live flowers wilt, but they want this to be everlasting. More than that, the glittering crystal of the petals are white and opalescent, symbolizing a flower of peace in the South, one that is rare, but survives their harsh climate to prevail in their warmer months. 

Zuko’s family had made a small statue of firedoves taking flight, their gleaming gold bodies had been molded and crafted with fire. The firedove is another symbol of peace, and the gold instead of living birds were also a hope for longevity in their union and peace. 

At the end, his Uncle had said, “You two, with this union, are single-handedly ushering the world into a new era.”

Katara had looked at him then, open and so bright that she could’ve put the sun to shame, and said, “That’s what we’re hoping to do.” 

Despite the joy of their families and friends– even Aang, though reserved, had been gracious about their engagement (though Zuko is certain his letter to him had something to do with that, where he had been candid with Aang, and told him in advance that he plans on proposing to Katara), others did not take well to news of their engagement. 

Specifically, Zuko’s councilmen. Many of them had thrown a fit. Some had even presented a case to the Fire Sage’s, attempting to nullify the engagement since Zuko did not seek their approval first. But nowhere in previous laws of their nation did it state that the council needed to approve the Fire Lord’s choice of marriage, rather it had always simply been a custom to do so and Zuko had foregone it for this very reason.

Thankfully, the Fire Sage’s had instead given their union the blessing of Agni, and dismissed any attempts at nullifying it, also solidifying its validity in the eyes of the nation. 

 That hadn’t stopped Zuko and Katara sitting through far too many heated meetings, though, defending their engagement from reasons as grand as Katara’s foreigner status, to some as trivial as, where will the marriage ceremony be held? And whose traditions and customs will be used? 

Jakao, at one point, though Zuko’s advisor, and usually relatively silent in these meetings, had even spoken up. 

Specifically to defend Katara, after one councilman had sneered ‘ foreigner’ a little too harshly, Jakao had snapped, “You will not speak to the future Fire Lady in such a way again.” 

It burns his council to hear it, to hear her be referred to as such, but it fills Zuko with a pride and hope that he wouldn’t be able to put into words if he tried. 

More than that, his and Katara’s plans to overthrow the council now feel more pressing. Any free time they’ve had since their engagement has been spent in the library, poring over history and any information possible that will make for strong evidence against the council and it’s role in politics.  

Not only that, but they have to draft their official plan for a new council and the way in which it will work– including, but not limited to, how often the councils will be turned over to the public for voting, and how many will sit upon it, where they will be from, and a great deal more. 

They also want to put in safeguards, so that the council does not become wealthy noblemen again, and they want to ensure that none have ties to businesses or industries, lest their decisions then be fueled by money, and not the people’s interest. 

But they announce their engagement together, in front of as much of Caldera City that can be packed into the forum. They announce it for the world, which will surely now receive the official word of their union. They do so hand in hand, pressed shoulder to shoulder.

Caldera City is overwhelmingly supportive. Which is unsurprising, since Katara is now seen as a treasure and hero in their eyes after she saved the city completely on her own. And when word drifts down to the citizens that noblemen are not as pleased with the union, many of Caldera City’s residents wear swatches of blue to show their support. People wear their hair in braids. 

Other parts of the Fire Nation are more unsure. Some are outright hateful. The Insurgency apparently has been noisier, trying to recruit others to their cause. Mai reports that their numbers have largely stayed the same, though, thankfully. 

They are still unsure of who the mole in the palace could be. They are still careful. 

They receive a strangely cold congratulations from the Northern Water Tribe’s ambassador. King Kuei sends them flowers and precious jewels of the earth as congratulations, but their ambassador does not seem overly thrilled, either.

Suki and Mai have agreed that security should be tighter on them. At times, Zuko feels as if he can hardly get a moment alone, not even with his fiance. 

He hopes it doesn’t always have to be this way. 

More than that, the Ba Sing Se summit is approaching rapidly. It will be the first time that Zuko and Katara are debuting together, as a couple, and Katara as the future Fire Lady. While she already held great political esteem being an ambassador for the South, this will be her first time appearing politically, as a future leader. 

There is a lot of pressure riding on this, something that Zuko’s advisors– which are now becoming Katara’s– are adamant about. 

Jakao reminds them for the thousandth time while they prepare for the summit, “Other politicians, other nations, will be looking for any weaknesses,” then he fixes the circular glasses on his narrow face and adds, “They need to see a completely unified front. This includes socially, at the balls that King Kuei always hosts, and politically, while in meetings.” 

“We know,” Zuko replies, trying to refrain from huffing. 

“This includes questions of the ceremony, honeymoon, and perhaps insensitive questions about the merging of your two cultures and ideals.” Another one of their advisors speaks up, peering up from the notes she’s been scribbling almost frantically.

“We have compiled a list of suggestions for the ceremony and honeymoon locations,” a third advisor chimes in. 

“We have time for a honeymoon?” Katara asks, her tone somewhat amused. 

“Only about four days, after your coronation, Ambassador Katara. And mostly for appearance and tradition. We’ll expect you two to be politically available if need be, though.” Jakao replies and Zuko shares a look with Katara that might as well say, lucky us, as dryly as possible .

She has to bite back her smile, glancing away momentarily, which makes Zuko smile fractionally, too. 

Jakao clears his throat pointedly at them and Zuko refocuses. 

“With all due respect, we’ve already decided about the ceremony.” Zuko replies, “But we’ll take the honeymoon suggestions.” 

“Oh,” Jakao replies, “What have you two decided?” 

“We’re going to hold two ceremonies. A traditional Water Tribe one in the South and then when we return, a traditional Fire Nation one here, in Caldera City.” Katara explains, “This marriage is important to both nations and would also solidify our union in both cultures, so no one could question it’s validity.” 

For a moment, their advisors are silent, clearly thinking this through. 

“Logistically, it might be a little tough. Which ceremony would be first? Will it cause outrage to the other nation to be second? Which should worldly politicians and leaders attend? Surely, you don’t expect them to attend both–” Jakao already begins to ramble. 

But Zuko cuts him off, “We want the ceremony in the South first, since it’s more spiritual and focused on the union of souls. It’s also traditionally more intimate. We expect other leaders and politicians to attend the one in the Fire Nation, which her coronation would follow.” 

Once more, their advisors are silent. 

Zuko isn’t sure if it’s because they can’t stand the idea and are working through ways to tell them no, or for another reason entirely. 

After a long moment, Jakao finally says, “I think that would be acceptable,” and then he sighs slightly, shoulders dropping, “I suppose, regardless of what you two do, you’ll receive criticism from someone. Might as well do as you please.” 

“Jakao, I think you’re getting soft,” Zuko says, a smile curling at the corner of his lips. 

It is unfortunately easy in these moments to forget that Jakao is suspected of betraying them. 

The thought strikes Zuko between the ribs, especially when Jakao looks between them, and offers a rare smile before he says, “I suppose I am.” 

He swallows hard. 

Their meeting concludes soon after and as their advisors trickle out of the meeting room, Katara takes his hand beneath the table. His eyes flick out to her. As if she’s read his mind, she murmurs, “I really don’t think it’s him, Zuko.” 

Zuko let’s lose a slow, weary sigh. “I don’t want it to be,” he admits and he squeezes her hand. 

“I don’t either,” she replies, just as softly. 

Reluctantly, they part, and their day presses onward. But the idea of a mole weighs heavy on their mind, especially as they have to discuss their wedding plans to not seem suspicious themselves. 

It is growing difficult to hold up facades, though, and Zuko finds himself more and more worried lately. He sees his future with Katara, wants it so badly that it hurts, and is terrified of it slipping away from him. 

He holds her tighter, fiercer, like his love of her will be all that it takes to keep her safe. To keep their future safe. Part of him whispers, it worked once already, didn’t it? He’d saved her once already. He could do it again. 

He just hopes he never needs to, not with their future, so golden and promising, just a breath away. 

One of Katara’s handmaidens reports that she saw the Ambassador of the Northern Water Tribe rifling through letters that had yet to be sent by firehawks yet. She tells one of Katara’s Kyoshi Warriors first, before it is then reported to Suki, who quickly tells Mai. 

The Ambassador claims that he wanted his own letter back before it was sent, since he forgot to add something to it, but after everything that’s happened, everything they know, they cannot let this slide past.

Mai personally begins an investigation on him. 

Ty Lee adds that it would make sense, he is not fond of Katara. And she’s sure the announcement of their marriage did little to help. Still, Zuko is unsure of motivations for the Northern Water Tribe to risk partnering with an extremist group in his own nation. That would be grounds for war, which is the last thing any of them want. 

Perhaps he’s working alone, of his own agenda, Suki suggests. 

But all it does is raise more questions. And raise Zuko’s already mounting anxiety. 

In the weeks that follow, there is a tenseness to the palace, one that he remembers as a child, just before his mother left. In fact, it is something that his mother comments on one afternoon, when he’s sharing tea with her. 

Katara is in another meeting, he thinks with the Earth Kingdom Ambassador. Otherwise, he knows she would be here with them. 

“I was thinking of going away for a while, to one of the islands. The palace seems so–” she searches for a polite enough word, “Tense lately.” 

Zuko’s relationship with his mother has been rather tense lately, too. He feels as if he’s trying to put a tea cup that has shattered back together when he speaks to her. He is careful, so careful and quiet and uncertain. 

Did this piece go here? Or was it there? He’s trying to fit the jigsaw of their relationship back together, but he doesn’t know how to do it. 

And sometimes, he grows so frustrated he just wants to leave it, let all it’s shattered pieces collect dust over time. 

He gathers in a slow breath, though, “Okay. Kiyi would go with you then?” 

She nods, taking a small sip of steaming tea, “I think it might do Azula well to get away, too.” 

The clattering of his cup to the table startles his mother slightly. She startles so easily, he realizes with a pang. “With you? ” he questions, unable to keep the shock out of his voice, perhaps even the slight edge that’s crept into it. 

She shakes her head quickly, “No– no, I mean, if she wanted to, then, of course. But we’re not– we haven’t had a conversation in years.” Ursa frowns into her tea and Zuko watches as her eyes nearly well up with tears suddenly, they grow glossy and gold, shining in the afternoon light. Her lip quivers a moment and Zuko feels as if his heart has fallen through a trapdoor, plummeted into uncertainty. 

“Mom–” he starts, soft, tentative.

And then he watches, right before his eyes, as his mother takes in a breath, gathering herself together– stitching together all the errant pieces of herself, and settling her sadness. She tucks it away quickly, precisely. When she draws her eyes back up to his, the wobble in her lip is gone, her tears have been pushed away. 

As if it had never happened. 

She swallows once, and then says, “Will you remind her, please, that if she ever wishes to mend our relationship, I would be more than willing?” 

Zuko’s mouth is still hanging open somewhat, shocked. The last time they had discussed Azula had been the time when he had snapped at his mother. More than that, he doesn’t think he has ever seen his mother display such emotion before. She is always serene, always pleasant. Part of him wants to ask if the offer is on the table for their relationship, too. But his heart feels too strange, too tentative, too youthful. 

He realizes, though, that this display of control is perhaps how she survived his father. Where Azula was vicious, all searing perfection and fierce attitude, their mother was a master of disguise. Where Zuko was full of outbursts and blind determination, their mother was cautious. One slip up could’ve cost her life. 

Could’ve cost his life. 

She had to be cunning, had to be careful if she wanted to make it out alive. 

He wonders if he’s been unfair to her. Another part of him demands, but did she have to forget me? Did she have to forget Azula?  

There is too much between them, far more than the small tea table they sit opposite of can hold. 

He wonders if one day they’ll speak openly, if she’ll ever– if she’d ever apologize, for forgetting him and Azula. 

He doesn’t have to wonder if he would forgive her. 

There is so much more to say, but for now, all Zuko says, softly and full of promise, is “Of course, mom.” 

Zuko visits the Fire Sages alone one evening. There is something he needs done, now that he and Katara are engaged, now that she is about to be Fire Lady. He’s already done the research, scoured through old laws and history for what he needs, for what he had to be certain of. 

He doesn’t tell Katara, maybe because the insinuation is enough for her to grow upset with him. But he won’t sleep peacefully until it’s done. It’s just a precaution, one that he needs. It is something that has been weighing on his mind for a while, more and more now that there seems to be a growing threat surrounding the palace. 

“Fire Lord Zuko,” the head Fire Sage, Raoke, says as he bows. He sounds mildly surprised to see him. 

Zuko bows in return, greets him quietly in the echoing space that rests at the bottom of their tower. It is used most often for prayer and meditation. The fire that lines the wall casts the spacious room in bronze and ruby, the gold of decorations glinting, catching like sunbeams. 

Zuko doesn’t waste time, “I have come to appoint a new successor, should anything happen to me.” 

Fire Sage Raoke is silent for a moment, tilting his head to study Zuko. Previously, his successor was always his uncle.  

“I presume you wish to make your fiance your successor? And for it to fall into effect upon her coronation?” he asks and there is no judgment in his tone, though he does press, “Forgive me, I am surprised, my Lord, I assumed she would be here with you.” 

Zuko draws in a slow breath, “I would like it to go into effect immediately, actually, and not require our promised marriage or her future coronation.” 

Now Fire Sage Raoke pauses fully and the silence that stretches out between them is weighted, Zuko’s voice fading in the echoing chambers. He feels a slight shiver, despite the fire, despite the warmth, like there are more eyes watching them. Like something else, something otherworldly presses in. 

“Do you presume something to happen to you before the wedding, my Lord?” Raoke finally asks him. 

“Hopefully not,” Zuko replies, but there is a wry twisting of his lips. 

Another pause where Raoke studies him carefully. His next question is level, though scrutinizing, “Is Ambassador Katara aware of your wish? Does she know of this?” 

“She is aware of my concern. But no, she does not know.” Zuko answers, “She doesn’t like the insinuation.” 

She also didn’t think that the nation would be keen on her leading them without him. She also hates to hear him speak like this, to speak of his death in any way. But Zuko has faith in her, in her ability to lead. She is the promise of their new world, she is their hope, their peace embodied in the form of a girl with too much determination, too much love and ferocity. 

He was willing to give up his nation, his crown, his life for her when he was sixteen by taking a bolt of lightning for her. 

He’d give her his nation now, bow his head so that she could take his crown. 

And perhaps, bitterly, viciously , if anyone were to seize his life, seize the future that he has so desperately wanted– if they were able to take him from Katara– he would want them to live in a world where she is their leader. Where their worst nightmare, a girl from the Southern Water Tribe, sits on their throne. 

More than that, his uncle is getting old. She will be his successor in a few months time, when they are married, anyways. 

“Nor do I, my Lord.” Raoke answers and his voice is gentler, a frown working its way onto his lips. Raoke has always been fond of Zuko. In his younger years, Zuko found solace in their conversations. 

Zuko inhales slowly, “Regardless, it is my wish. A precaution I want to take.” 

“Very well,” Raoke agrees then, with a bow of his head. “Come, then, Fire Lord Zuko, and let us recite the rites.” 

“Fire Sage Raoke?” Zuko asks, before he moves, before he follows him.


“I require your discretion. I don’t wish for anyone to know I’ve done this, lest it get out to the public and cause...more trouble.” 

“Of course, my Lord.” Raoke agrees, bowing deeper, “You have my silence, always.” 

The only people that Zuko ends up telling is his uncle, who, despite also disliking the insinuation, agreed, and strangely enough, Azula. 

At first, he doesn’t really know why he tells her. Only that it’s the two of them and they’re sitting cross-legged on his balcony. Katara is still in the library. Kiyi is with their mother for the evening. The sun has just set, so all is quiet and blue and balmy. 

Azula’s response is simple. It’s a roll of her eyes, “You’re so dramatic. Do you plan on dying before your wedding?” 

“Well, no–” 

“The least you could do if you are planning on it is leave me with a niece or nephew to remember you by.” she continues and Zuko’s mouth falls open. 

She turns to face him, a glint in her gold eyes that looks like it could be mirth, “What? I’d like to be an aunt and I don’t want to wait for Kiyi.” then she offers him a shrug, a graceful lifting of her shoulders, “Besides, then there’s no way the nation would reject her.” 

“Wait, you want to be an aunt?” Zuko asks, deciding that that’s the more pressing matter. 

Azula waves him off, “Yes. Now stop dwelling on tragedies that haven’t happened. You’re finally happy, isn’t that enough? Stop expecting it to be taken from you. More than that, don’t let anyone take it from you. It’s yours.”  

She says it waspishly, flippantly, but it strikes a chord inside him, a pang he hadn’t realized resonated. 

She’s right, but admitting that feels too mature for an elder brother. So instead he says, “I can’t believe you want to be an aunt.” 

Azula scrunches up her nose, “What’s so surprising about that? I’d make an excellent aunt.” 

Zuko laughs, he doesn’t know why fully, maybe it’s the indignant look on her face. Or just the sudden squirming in his chest, that painful twinge of happiness, and the following cold dash of fear. He is worried someone will take this from him, he is worried that it will all fall away, slip from his fingers like sand. 

Don’t let anyone take it from you. It’s yours. 

Azula’s lips quirk upwards, too, like she’s won something for making him laugh. 

Later, when he is watching Katara get ready for bed, Zuko mentions Azula’s desire to be an aunt to her. She tosses her head back and laughs, before saying, “Her too? Sokka and Suki are already mentioning it– as if we’re not the ones that should be harassing them for nieces and nephews!” 

Katara nearly falls into bed then, just about collapses on top of him and he smiles the moment his arms go around her. The moment she is on his chest, tucked away into bed with him. It’s still strange to think sometimes, that Sokka and Suki will be his in-laws. Two of his closest friends now family. 

It all feels too good to be true. 

He swallows hard when he remembers what he’s done behind her back. He almost opens his mouth to tell her, unable to keep a secret. Not from her. 

But Katara continues, just as she’s sinking down into him. He can feel the way her muscles begin to relax beneath his coaxing hands, “Sokka said they’ve been waiting for me to get married so our kids will be around the same age.” 

Zuko snorts, “Talk about planning ahead.” 

He feels Katara’s huff of laughter against his neck, “Yeah, well, you know them. There always needs to be a plan.” 

“No wonder he tricked me into going on that hunting trip. He was sick of waiting.” Zuko responds, his hands slipping into her hair. He tugs a little, so that she’ll lift her head and he can press his lips to hers. Sweet and slow, a little indulgent. Her fingers settle lightly onto his chest, skid over the lightning scar that marks him as hers.

She hums lightly against his lips, before murmuring, “I’m surprised you weren’t tired of waiting by then.” 

Zuko glances down at her, the gold of his eyes softening, “I didn’t think I was waiting for you. I didn’t expect anything in return.” 

Katara blinks at him, pulling away more to take in more of his face, the slight furrow of his brow, the sudden vulnerable set of his lips. He feels strangely nervous suddenly, under her gaze, with his words hanging between them. 

“You really had no idea?” she asks, marveling at him, “You had no clue how I felt?” 

When Zuko shakes his head, his nose brushes hers, “I hoped, maybe. Dreamed about– about you. But I didn’t know. I would never presume.” 

He swallows hard because he just– he had resolved himself to his fate. He would’ve happily been her friend and only her friend, if she would’ve never reciprocated his feelings. He would’ve been happy just to have her, in any capacity.

For a moment, another life flashes before his eyes, one where he watches her get married to someone else. One where he doesn’t stop silently loving her, but has to watch her love another. 

But then he’s looking into the depth of her eyes, as deep as the sea she loves, as brilliant as the sky. And she’s here, with him, in this life. This version of them is happy and in love. This version of him has the privilege of holding her. 

He doesn’t want to dwell on the version of him that doesn’t. 

What had Azula told him? Stop dwelling on tragedies that haven’t happened. There is no other shoe to drop, he reminds himself. He has her now and that’s all that matters. 

Katara places another kiss to his lips, chaste, but loving, lingering. 

Her hand that had been tracing lines on his chest comes up to stroke the curve of his jaw, the plain of his cheek. She is looking at him in the way that makes him feel strangely remarkable. 

“You’re too selfless for your own good sometimes,” she finally murmurs, the pad of her finger gentle as it runs down the slope of his nose. To the bow of his lips. Absently, he kisses the tip of her finger. Down to her open palm. 

“Maybe,” he responds, “But it worked out, didn’t it?” he asks, his voice just a murmur, “Partly because you’re so nosy.” 

“Zuko!” She laughs and the sound instantly makes him smile. Her head falls onto his shoulder, “You hadn’t exactly hidden that letter!” 

He sets his hands on her sides, along her ribs, palms large and warm and wide over the curves of her body. “Maybe I wanted you to find it,” he teases, leaning in to steal another kiss. Longer this time, warmer. She sighs and he can feel it against his lips, beneath his hands. 

“Did you?” she asks when they part again, her lips brushing his. 

No, not at all.” Zuko’s eyes are still closed from their kiss when he admits, “I almost burnt it, after I wrote it.” 

He doesn’t see her reaction, just feels the tripping of her heart against his, “Thankfully you didn’t,” she breathes and there is something sacred there. Something otherworldly. So many choices made, so much that Fate toyed with, all to end up here. 

“And now we’re getting married,” Zuko answers, like he can’t quite believe it. 

The smile that blossoms onto her lips, which is felt against his chin, is enough to gut him. It’s enough to cleanly render him speechless, foolish, and stupidly lovestruck. 

“And now we’re getting married,” she agrees, her voice so full of excitement, so sweet that he swears he could get a tooth ache from it. 

He thinks his new goal in life is to make her that happy, for the rest of her life. 

When he kisses her again it is stronger, more certain, with a lick of heat. A nip of desperation, the deep pressed love of his hands, of hers, fluid and soft. He rolls her onto her back, spread out among the plush sheets of their bed. 

Her cheeks are flushed, all pink and pretty. Her dark hair spread out beneath her in curls and waves. Blue eyes dark, half lidded and soft for him. 

She is so beautiful that she puts sunsets and mountains and horizons to shame. No art or flower or sight compares to her. He wishes he was a poet, maybe, wishes he could express the love trapped in his chest. 

And he’s finally able to put his mind to rest with her, when her leg hitches over his waist. When her arms pull him down, down into her. All thoughts of precautions and lost tragedies finally quiet. Maybe he’s greedy, desperate when it comes to her. Maybe he’s protective, with the way he grips her, so tight she gasps, so tight he tries to fuse them together. 

Maybe he’s just protective of their love, of the future that burns and shimmers for them, all for them to reach out and grasp. 

He thinks again, while he holds her, that this happiness belongs to him. The future belongs to them. His life is his own, to be shaped, to be lived. 

He thinks of his sister’s voice, sharp, and right ;

Don’t let anyone take it from you. It’s yours. 

Zuko watches as the world blurs past, becomes a wash of color, streaking across his vision as he sits beside Katara on the Ba Sing Se monorail. She’s asleep, curled up at his side, her head tipped onto his shoulder. It’s still too early for her. Not to mention, they’ve had three days of travel to finally arrive in Ba Sing Se. 

He watches as the monorail moves from the most impoverished parts of Ba Sing Se, to the wealthiest. It is unfortunately a similar sight in the Fire Nation at times. The only difference is that there are no explicit walls to keep out the poor. There are gates and fences and other clever ways the rich have learned to keep out the poor, but there are no explicit walls.

Zuko wonders how many of the impoverished in Ba Sing Se are refugees from the One Hundred Year War. He wonders how far and wide it’s reach was. He thinks he will forever wonder about it, that he will spend the rest of his life trying to atone for it. 

You can’t carry the weight of your nation’s sins on your shoulders, Katara had told him one night, it’ll drive you crazy, Zuko.

He feels as if he could, though, watching the world pass him by. 

There’s only going forward, she had told him, lovingly brushing a strand of hair away from his face, only working towards a better and brighter future. 

He knows she’s right. She’s always right.

He turns away from the window finally to look down at her beside him, her lips parted softly in sleep. Her hair is mussed, slipping from it’s braid. He doesn’t dare move to brush a strand of it from her face, he doesn’t want to disturb her. 

The mid-afternoon casts her in warm light, splashes shadows against the curve of her cheek, the slender line of her neck. 

The cart is jostled somewhat and Katara finally stirs, blinking sleepily into the light, groggily picking up her gaze to look at him. There’s a deep, confused scowl on her face, as there often is if she’s woken unexpectedly. Zuko bites back his fond smile.

“Good morning,” he drawls softly. It’s afternoon.

She rubs at her eyes, nose scrunching up slightly, before she opens them to peak out the window. “Are we almost there?” she asks, as if she’s still trying to make sense of the world. 

“Little bit longer,” Zuko responds, finally lifting a hand to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Almost there, though, finally.” 

She hums softly in response, letting her head drop back onto his shoulder. “Do you think the Earth Kingdom gave us separate rooms because we’re only engaged and not married?” 

Zuko snorts, “Yes, to keep propriety, unfortunately.” 

Katara turns her head slightly, looking up with shimmering blue eyes, as bright as the sky, “I can sneak into your room, can’t I?” 

He laughs at this, rasping and soft, and her own smile twists onto her lips. “What are we, sixteen?” 

“Feels like it,” Katara replies, “Being back in Ba Sing Se.” 

She’s right. It does always feel a little strange being back in Ba Sing Se. Uncle’s tea shop is here, but he hasn’t visited in awhile. Not since the last time he was in Ba Sing Se for political reasons. And his Uncle has been spending plenty of time at the palace since he and Katara got engaged. 

But he thinks of working there, sixteen and so uncertain of his place in the world. 

He isn’t nostalgic, he doesn’t think. He tries not to be nostalgic over being a banished prince during a war. He thinks there’s not much to romanticize there, but perhaps there were moments– flickerings of times he loved. Memories he keeps sacred. The tea shop– his uncle’s full laugh, the smell of spice and herbs, the warmth of hot water. He thinks specifically of Ember Island, too, for fond memories and it’s as if he can feel the sun-warmed sand beneath his feet, and remembers doing chores quietly beside Katara. He can hear Toph’s laugh and Sokka’s surprised yelp. He can see Aang, only twelve, looking to him like he holds the secret of the universe in the palm of his hand. But it was just a flame.

And he was only sixteen. 

Ba Sing Se also makes him think of more sour moments. He remembers falling ill, being so conflicted he thought that he was going to tear his own heart in two. He remembers being sick with it, with the weight of everything he’s ever known, and the trembling first steps towards a different future. 

He thinks of the catacombs. Of his betrayal to her. 

Zuko can’t believe the way Fate has twisted, the way she held her cards all those years ago. Did she know then? 

He thinks about the way it all is sewn together like a brilliant, gold-threaded tapestry. The way he had to be banished to find the Avatar– the way she had found the Avatar after one hundred impossible years. 

They had to have been destined. Fate was pulling their strings long before they even met. 

“Zuko,” Katara says his name in a way that makes the rough syllabus of his name sound sweet, drawing him from his thoughts, “Stop thinking so hard, dear, you’ll give yourself a headache.” 

He huffs a laugh, catching her eyes, which glimmer with mirth. I’m marrying her, he thinks, and the thought makes him giddy, so joyful that he could be sick with it. 

He dips his head to press a kiss as soft as feathers to her cheek. He settles lower, and can feel her smile when he kisses her lips, presses softly to her. She sighs, parts her lips beneath his. It’s all slow, all for savoring. 

When he pulls away, he gently nudges her nose with his, “Are you nervous?” he asks then, his eyes half-lidded, honey gold. 

She shakes her head fractionally, looking up at him through dark lashes. “Are you?” 

“A little,” he sighs, just as she kisses the corner of his mouth. 

She pulls away to look into his eyes, a smile curling at her lips, lightening her features, “C’mon, we’ve faced worse than this and made it out alive.” 

“I know,” he agrees, “This is nothing, all things considered.” Then he takes her hand in his, feels the coolness of her palm to his warmth. He fits their fingers together carefully, “Besides, it’ll be nice to go into this as a team this year.” 

She hums in agreement, looking down at their interwoven hands, then back up to the window, to watch as the world passes them by. 

She smiles slightly, to herself. He doesn’t know why, but he smiles fractionally, too, as if something inside him naturally blossoms at her happiness. 

“What?” he asks, squeezing her hand slightly.

“Nothing,” she responds, soft, almost wistful. She turns to face him, eyes lit up with all her joy, with all the world, “This will be the first of many summits we go to together.” 

Zuko feels his heart squeeze. So many firsts. So many things to look forward to. He leans in, brushes his lips to her cheek. 

She turns to catch him in a proper kiss, eager, all full of warmth and love. 

The monorail glides on, the world outside the window dashes of emerald, sky blue, a burst of yellow and ruby. 

Katara settles her head back onto his shoulder and they arrive in the innermost ring of Ba Sing Se together, hand in loving hand. 

They meet with Toph first, who has come from Republic City, where she’s spent a lot of her time lately. Katara’s father and Sokka have not arrived from the South Pole yet and Aang has yet to arrive, either, though all should be arriving by tomorrow morning. 

Business already begins tomorrow afternoon. 

But for now, they walk through the city with Toph. It’s near dusk, burnt orange falling over the city, saturating everything in it’s rusty vividness. They’re in the upper ring, since they’re staying in the palace as guests. Everything about it is tranquil, from the flowing streams that catch bronze in the dying sun and their wooden bridges that arch over it prettily, to the well-manicured greenery. It’s beautiful, like a slice of oasis. 

Zuko knows this peace comes with a cost, though. Ba Sing Se, like Caldera City, like many major, thriving cities, often lives off the backs of it’s poor to achieve such serenity for it’s wealthy. 

It is something he has been trying to work on since his coronation. It is something that has marked him as such an extremist to some, something that has gotten Katara in trouble, too. Something that they’ll continue to push against now, together. 

Together, the word buzzes around inside his head. He thinks about taking her hand now, just because he can, but he knows Toph will tease them, or give a snarky remark. In ways, she’s still immature, always something smart to say on the tip of her silver-edged tongue. 

They’re on their way to his uncle’s tea shop for a brief visit– who had spent some time in the Fire Nation with them following their engagement, but has been back in Ba Sing Se for some weeks now. Zuko hasn’t been to the Jasmine Dragon in years, though Toph tells him it’s doing well still. She visited the last time she was in Ba Sing Se. She checks in on his uncle when she’s here. 

Toph is telling them about how she may open up an Earthbending school in Republic City, too, when there is a dash of strange, shimmery light that crosses Zuko’s vision, followed quickly by a blur of yellow and orange. For a heartbeat, Zuko thinks it’s–

“Twinkle Toes?” Toph asks, startled, jolting away from where she must’ve felt the person rush past. 

But when the person slows enough for Zuko to catch a look at them, it is not Aang. But she is dressed in clothes that Airbenders would wear, her robe sloping around her form in a pale yellow, stitchings of orange. She chases after that dash of light. Which, he doesn’t recognize, struggles to make sense of. 

Suki is the first on defense, swift with her fans, the flash of gold sharp in the fading sun. 

Katara becomes defensive next, though, her gasp alerting him of potential danger, “Is that a spirit?” she asks, just as her arm comes up, the curl of water from a nearby stream whipping towards her, circling around her, around him. 

And the- the spirit– stills on a tree branch. It’s form is strange, small, but with legs like a spider, a face with sunken eyes, the flash of teeth as it makes a warbly, pitched, screeching sound. Zuko winces, covering his ears. The girl swings up into the tree branches with grace, barely rustling the branches with her swiftness, with her ease. 

But the spirit jumps and in an instant, it flickers out of sight. There’s a hushed curse. Then the girl drops from the tree with near silent feet. It doesn’t even seem like she’s hit the ground she’s so light. So careful. 

But her posture is relaxed, open, as Zuko finally takes her in. Her hair is dark, somewhat choppy, though most of it’s pulled back, save for messy bangs. There’s a lightness to her face, the crinkle of her eyes as she smiles. An upturn to her nose that gives her almost impish features. Her smile is easy as she blows her bangs from her face. 

“Yeah, that was a spirit. Buggers have been popping up all over Ba Sing Se recently for some reason. They’re harmless for the most part, so far.” she begins, her eyes sweeping over them. Though Katara lowers her defenses somewhat, Suki is still tense, poised for a fight, even if her face seems relaxed. 

At the girl’s voice, Toph finally recognizes her, which is strange, since Toph can usually tell by footsteps alone but–

Hadn’t Toph thought she was Aang? 

She must move similarly to him, in the least, to have fooled Toph.

“Oh,” Toph says, tilting her head slightly, “It’s you.”

“Long time no see, Toph.” the girl replies brightly, before dipping into a graceful, almost theatrical bow– it’d be almost disrespectful, if she didn’t seem so light, so playful. Besides, her words are sincere, “Apologies Captain Suki, Ambassador Katara, Fire Lord Zuko,” she addresses each of them formally, “I’m Lenah, an Air Acolyte in Ba Sing Se. I didn’t mean to startle you.”    

“How do you two know each other?” Suki asks, eyeing Toph and Lenah. 

Toph waves her off, “She’s helped out Twinkle Toes from time to time. She’s visited Republic City with him, too.” 

At this, Zuko turns to Katara to share a look, who clearly is on the same page as him. 

Zuko cocks a brow to her, do you think-?

Katara shrugs fractionally, as if to say, how would I know? 

Still, Katara turns to Lenah with a warm smile, “Well, it’s nice to meet you! Any friend of Aang’s is a friend of ours.” 

Lenah’s eyes flicker to Toph, a hint of a smirk that is all teasing and sharp touches her lips, “Toph, aren’t I your friend, too?” 

Toph scoffs, but her lips twist up into a crooked smile as well, “Don’t push your luck, Feathers.” 

Lenah smiles then, fully, as she refocuses on Katara, bowing somewhat in gratitude, “Thank you, Ambassador Katara. I appreciate your warmth.” her eyes, spring green and sly, slide back to Toph, “Unlike someone.” 

Toph stamps the ground and a jut of the earth cuts upwards, beneath Lenah’s feet. But she’s nimble, so quick that Zuko almost doesn’t catch the way she dances away from it, like leaves swirling on the wind. Like a feather. 

Oh, Zuko realizes, almost dumbly. 

Lenah laughs then and Suki finally let’s down her guard, Zuko even finds himself relaxing, too. Clearly she’s closer with Toph and Aang than they know. He doesn’t know why, but it comforts Zuko to know that Aang seems to be close with others, that he isn’t completely alone when traveling and working as the Avatar.

He glances at Katara, he’s sure she must feel similarly, though there’s a certain curiosity in her eyes. A question that lingers, one she doesn’t directly ask. 

“We’re headed to the Jasmine Dragon to visit Zuko’s uncle, if you’d like to join us.” Katara even goes so far as to offer Lenah. And though he knows Katara’s intentions are good-hearted, he also wonders if she’s being somewhat nosy. He eyes her. 

“Oh,” Lenah says, a little surprised, a flush working it’s way onto her tan cheeks. “That’s alright! Night’s falling and I should try to help these little spirits.” she gives another smile, “But thank you for the offer,” and then she glances to Zuko, “And give your uncle my best!” 

Zuko nods and tells her, “I will.” 

He is both unsuprised and surprised to find that his uncle does know Lenah. He supposes he should’ve known, his uncle somehow knows almost anyone from just about anywhere. Especially here in Ba Sing Se. 

He tells them that she is very clever and helpful. 

“She seems nice,” Suki adds over her cup of tea, the steam rising into the dim light of the shop. They’re tucked into a corner together, seated around a table. Katara is pressed to his side. Toph and Suki are across from them. His uncle at the end of the table. They’re missing Aang and Sokka, and Uncle has already said they’d need to return after they arrived. 

Still, it’s warm, almost sleepy with the flickering, soft lights of the tea shop. It reminds Zuko of being young, spending long days working on his feet, letting his troubles of being a disgraced prince fall away. Melt away with herbs and warm water. 

And it’s made better with the company, with the people he loves, sharing tea, sharing conversation. 

“Feathers is fine,” Toph gruffs, but Zuko thinks that for Toph, she might as well have said she likes her. 

“Well, maybe we can get to know her better, while we’re here.” Katara suggests, her hands curled around the warm mug in her hands. 

“Yeah if we can spare the time outside of these boring meetings,” Toph grouses, slumping in her seat slightly. Most of the time, Zuko is marveling at how Toph has matured, but there are more moments, like now, when looking at her brings him back to when they were young. And she was only twelve. He smiles, small and fond. 

Katara tries to assure her that it won’t be so bad, which dissolves into Toph throwing a few light hearted jabs at Katara. Their banter is familiar, it amuses him and Suki and his uncle. 

Eventually, conversation turns to their upcoming wedding. His uncle will be staying in Ba Sing Se just until they depart for the South. Though Toph grumbles about going to two ceremonies, he is certain she wouldn’t miss either of them.

They even end up teasing her about how her or Aang will be next to marry after them. 

“I’m not gettin’ married,” Toph snaps at all of them, which only seems to fuel them. 

Even Uncle is gently poking at her, “Master Toph, everyone finds love in their life at some point if they’re lucky.” 

“I have found love and it’s Earthbending and freedom, thank you very much.” she snaps, her fingers wrapped protectively around the warm mug of tea in her hands.

“Aw, c’mon, Toph, there hasn’t been anyone?” Katara asks, a playful smile lilting her lips. 

“No. Now leave me alone.” Toph replies sharply and Zuko can’t help the slight laugh that huffs out of him.

“You’re too young to be such a grouch,” Suki tells her, bold enough to try and ruffle Toph’s hair. She gets her hands swatted away for her trouble. 

Katara laughs now, too, and despite Toph’s apparent sour mood, her features are still relaxed. There’s maybe even a smile on her face, small, as if she could hide it from them. 

Still, the night is easy. Relaxed in a way that Zuko hasn’t felt in awhile. Not with planning Katara’s birthday, the proposal, preparing for this summit, dealing with wedding planning, and traveling. 

By the end of their night, Zuko follows Suki and Toph back to the palace. Katara leans heavily into his side, sated and soft-eyed. 

The lanterns around the city at night are like stars, twinkling gently, casting their shadows tall and hazy on the cobblestones behind them. 

Zuko is tired but happy, happier than he can ever recall being for having a long day of meetings ahead of him tomorrow. 

He squeezes Katara’s hand. It doesn’t seem so daunting, not so bad, with her at his side. 

Katara sneaks into his chambers once most the Earth Kingdom palace has gone quiet with the fall of night. He isn’t entirely surprised, but he does feel stupidly young, sitting up in bed when he hears the lock of his door being opened. 

He’d given her the key earlier. Nearly the moment he’d gotten it and no one was looking. 

She ducks into his room, closing and  locking the door behind her. However, when she turns, Zuko realizes that she’s got scrolls stacked haphazardly in her arms. Gone is her earlier sleepiness, it seems. He huffs, almost in amusement, if he weren’t certain that she is worrying needlessly at this point about tomorrow’s meetings. She has her policies and prepared arguments and research almost memorized at this point. Still, she clambers into bed and drops the scrolls out in front of him. 

Zuko, without having to be asked, reaches over and lights the lamp beside his bed. The room blooms with rose colored flame. Katara settles in beside him, already unwinding a scroll. 

“Katara, love,” Zuko begins softly, “I think you’re prepared enough.” 

“I just want to go over this with you once more,” she replies, undeterred, searching through the scroll, her finger careful as she skims over the words in front of them. 

He can’t say no to her, so they spend the next hour in the lamplight, with Zuko’s chin hooked over her shoulder, peering sleepily at the documents in front of him. Their voices are soft, hushed as they talk to each other. And the way she speaks, even now, with the quietness of night, with such conviction and intelligence, is enough for him to fall in love with her all over again. 

Not for the first time, Zuko marvels that it’s him who gets to hold her in these moments, when the world has gone still and soft. He marvels that it’s her who will be beside him the rest of his days. 

There will be many nights like these to come and he has never been so excited for his future, while in the same breath desperately wanting to remain forever in the present. He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve this life, this future, but he will never stop trying to earn it. He will never stop being thankful for it. 

“Zuko?” she asks, “Are you listening?” 

His eyes flutter softly, exhausted, sated, “Sorry,” he murmurs, “Will you repeat what you said?”

He feels her smiling lips pressed to his cheek more than he sees it. The flame in the lamp is beginning to dwindle, softly flickering, barely holding on against the pull of peaceful darkness. 

“That’s alright,” she says finally, “We can sleep.” 

They finally clear the scrolls away, messily setting them on the ground beside the bed– never mind these are important, never mind that they’re official documents of some kind.  

He curls around Katara when they lay down, their legs tied up into a knot. He burrows down beneath blankets, presses close to her, his arm wrapped around her waist. 

He doesn’t last, not with the lulling of her breathing, the comfort of holding her so close. 

Zuko falls into a warm and dreamless sleep, beside the person he loves. 

Aang and Sokka both arrive early the following morning. In fact, they’re awoken to a loud crash in the hallway, which happens to be Sokka and Aang’s doing. They’d already managed to knock down a decorative vase somehow. And they’re bickering like children so much that Zuko doesn’t think he ever catches what truly happened. 

Besides, everyone is mostly concentrated on the meetings in the afternoon. 

The first round of them end up being rather intense, a strange tension in the room. There are congratulations given to him and Katara, but an air of defense remains up around most politicians in the room. And while things are usually rather terse between all of them, Zuko, who at times has trouble reading a room, gets confirmation from Katara that yes, things are more tense than usual. 

He wonders if it’s the announcement of their marriage. He wonders if they’re that threatened by them.

Regardless, he and Katara do not waver. They are cohesive, complimentary. Where Zuko is stern, Katara becomes sympathetic, passionate. Where she grows fierce, Zuko becomes gentler, more contemplative. 

He marvels that he hardly needs to even speak to her to know what she may be thinking, how she seems to read him just as easily. Unspoken communication between them has always been strong, but it seems to shine now, when they can make decisions between each other with a look. A nod or a tilt of the head. 

They are sure-footed. Decisive. Some of their fellow politicians grow angry at them, perhaps at their strength, their inability to be shaken. They give them no openings, show them no weaknesses. 

Angers bubble when a politician from the Northern Water Tribe accuses Zuko of being similar to his father. Someone always does at these summits, it’s just a matter of time. 

Which unfortunately, despite all the years, despite everything Zuko has done and grown into, still feels like a slap to the face. He wishes it didn’t still sting. He wishes he could say it no longer bothers him, but there is still something malignant and tender inside him. 

Like he’s sixteen again and won’t ever be anything more than his father’s son. 

The idea of ever being like his father, his father who was cruel and brutal and power-hungry is always enough to cut away at him, enough to torment those fragile parts of himself. His father, who gave Zuko the scar on his face–

Before he can respond, before he can even inhale, Katara’s eyes have flashed dangerously.

“Fire Lord Zuko is nothing like his father.” 

Her words hang there, like the steep edge of a cliff, daring anyone to try and jump off and into her rocky waters below. There is something in her tone, in the curl of her lip that is unwavering, almost vicious in it’s protectiveness. 

No one dares to defy her, the man that had made the accusation is now tight-lipped, jaw tense. 

“No,” Aang agrees, firm, his voice clear, “He’s not. Nor does that have anything to do with our current meeting.” And he redirects them, he plays peacekeeper, as always. He deflects, he transitions, he guides. 

These meetings take up most of their days. Long and exhausting and testing their patience, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it when, with the help of Katara and Sokka, they can get the drafts for a national environmental protection council. Katara’s suggestion for Republic City, a group of appointed officials from each nation to sit on their own council, though initially picked apart, also ends up doing well. It is something that each nation can compromise on. 

The first day was by far the most tense, but the following days are still long and drawn out. Toph, at the end of each meeting, when the evening is giving away into night, needs to stretch her legs. She throws around boulders in open practice space within the palace. 

Some nights, they join her. Though they’re all mentally drained enough that any sparring dissolves into something petty or playful. 

There is a night when they try to see each other’s bending forms translated to another style of bending. And while they’ve all learned from each other greatly, it is intensely amusing and insightful to watch Toph try to mimic the fluidness of Airbending to move rocks. It’s also interesting to discover that when Zuko mimics certain Earthbending moves, the jarring strength of it can cause fire that is almost explosive. 

A burst of flames, a sudden pop of them. 

Airbending forms with his Firebending bring untempered flames, as if they’re being kicked up, wild and hungry, by the wind. 

And with Waterbending, when he mimics the fluid movements of Katara, the fire seems to blossom instead of burst, like it’s being stoked. 

“It’s more in your torso,” Katara tells him and he watches as the water moves with her, the swaying of her body, the turn of her torso. “With water, there’s a rhythm to tap into. You have to move with it, not against it.” 

He tries to fall into her rhythm, and for some time his fire is an infinity loop. Truly, a test of control with flames to keep it steady, consistent and rolling like water. He can’t sustain it though, not without the flames mounting. 

Still, the sensation of learning her bending, specific to the South, is important to him. 

I hope we have Waterbenders, he thinks suddenly, so they can learn from her. 

So they can learn the South’s Waterbending style, something that was almost extinct, something that is slowly returning, but only because of the perseverance of Katara. 

He tries not to marvel at her, for the thousandth time. 

When he shows her a Firebending move, one with a high kick, he watches as her water turns to sharp ice with the jarring movement. It shatters on impact with the ground. 

She laughs, “I can’t keep water fluid with some of those movements!” 

Still, he can’t help but notice the way the elements interact together. The way they need each other. He can’t help but notice the way he and Katara compliment each other. Maybe it’s the undercurrent of their relationship, all the years between them, but part of him thinks it’s always been like this. 

Since the moment he met her, whether they were fighting against each other or fighting together, there has always been an energy between them that felt unstoppable. Inevitable. Two forces clashing or coming together as one. 

At the end of their days, after hours of meetings and evenings of bending, they collapse into bed. Exhausted, mentally and physically, but feeling good. He feels as if they’re making progress, like they’re starting out on the right foot together, with all the world’s politicians watching them now.

And one night, after their fourth day of meetings, Katara turns on her side to face him in bed. He turns on his side to face her, too. There is a question in her eyes, in her questing fingers, which trace up the lines of his neck, his jaw. 

She hitches her leg over his waist when he pulls her closer. But still, she gazes at him. After a moment, she says, “I have a question.” 

“Okay,” he breathes, fingers flexing over her hip bones. 

“Are you happy?” she asks, “Are you satisfied?” 

Zuko draws in a slow breath. He nudges her cheek with his nose, before settling an absentminded kiss there. 

“I’m happy,” he breathes, “I’m so, impossibly happy.” 

She smiles fractionally, her fingers nimble and soft, brushing the hair from his face. 

“I’m not quite satisfied,” he admits, “Not yet.” 

“Not yet?” her voice is just a whisper. 

“Not yet.” he says, “We have far too much to do for me to be satisfied yet.” 

Her smile is like the curve of a crescent moon, soft and glowing. There is an understanding that passes between them, a shared spark, a determination that comes with all world-changers. 

“Do you think we’ll ever be satisfied?” she asks then, soft, not like it’s a bad thing, rather something simple. Like she’s asking if he thinks the sun will come out later. 

He thumbs lightly at her cheek, cradles her head in the large warmth of his palm. “Hopefully when we’re old and grey,” he answers, his voice just a murmur, “When all our children are adults. When we have grandchildren to spoil. When the world is better than when we found it.” 

There is a fragility in her expression now, like she can’t decide if she’s going to laugh or cry. There is something about all promises of happiness, of golden-touched futures, that are cut with bittersweetness, because that’s what they want, not what they have yet. And there is a long time between now and then. A lot can happen. More than they can ever know now. 

Just as ten years ago, they inherited a war they were fated to end. 

They were enemies. 

But their love was strong and they found a way. 

I think I’ll forever wonder about it, about fate, about yours and mine and the world’s. 

With their love, they shaped the world. 

Don’t let anyone take it from you. It’s yours. 

He wonders where they’ll be in ten more years. He looks at her and he sees the love of his life, bursting with possibility, with all that hope that she has carried and fought for and protected, so bright inside of her. As if she’d swallowed a star and he’d followed her the way wandering men do, eyes to the heavens, and was led to his redemption. Like she guided him– the world– into a new era. 

The silence between them stretches with this weight, with all this tenderness. 

Katara lifts her hand to touch his cheek, her fingertips loving, pressing into his skin like he is precious. To be touched gently, with care.  Time must stop for lovers, he thinks, every once and awhile. 

He thinks of the cave, here in Ba Sing Se, where all of time had suspended and it was just them beneath a galaxy of crystals, light in the darkness. 

He thinks of watching her dance, when he realized he was in love with her. 

I will always love you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. 

He thinks of her against the backdrop of a storm, fierce and brilliant and unwavering. 

He thinks of her in the South Pole, laying beside him, almost like this, with the fire light warm on their skin.  

Moments like this, where he is stuck on an inhale, where the world is theirs, and only theirs. 

When Katara speaks again, her voice is as soft as petals, as hopeful as wishing on a shooting star;

“I think I could be very satisfied then, Zuko of the Fire Nation.”

As promised, they return to visit the Jasmine Dragon with Aang and Sokka now accompanying them. It is one of their last nights in Ba Sing Se. There is a ball the following night that King Kuei is hosting, after the day’s long meetings, and the next day, they will all begin departing. 

But for now, he walks beside his friends throughout Ba Sing Se again. The evening air is colder than the Fire Nation, but still pleasant, almost honeyed with spring well on the way. 

Sokka and Toph are bickering at the front of the group, Zuko isn’t sure about what, only that it has Suki laughing as she plays moderator between them. He thinks Toph is winning whatever argument they’re having, though. 

He and Katara are lagging towards the back, though Aang is near, too. And he isn’t expecting it, but as Suki, Sokka, and Toph round a corner, Aang suddenly pauses. 

Zuko could tell something had been on his mind, that he’d been more contemplative lately, but he had assumed it had something to do with all of their meetings. The state of their political world. 

He asks if he can speak to them a moment, but he’s looking at Katara when he says it. Zuko offers to leave them to talk, to catch up with Suki and Sokka and Toph.

But Aang says, “No, Zuko, I want you to hear this, too.” 

So he stays and he watches in a somewhat tense silence, as Aang inhales slowly. Katara seems to be bracing herself. Zuko swallows, unsure, but bracing himself, too. 

Aang begins, “Firstly, I owe you both an apology– again. I shouldn’t have ignored your letters. I had been hurt, at first, and needed space, but I should’ve told you that, rather than avoided it and left you in the dark.” Aang then looks at Zuko, “And I want to thank you, for reaching out to me again. I needed that. You’re a good friend, Zuko.” 

Zuko is momentarily surprised, but he nods, a gentle dipping of his chin, “Of course,” he responds and he means it. He hadn’t done it for Aang’s sake, though, he’d done it for Katara’s. Selfishly, maybe his own, too, in an attempt to get his friend back. 

Still, Aang continues, “And Katara, I want you to know that you were right. So was Guru Pathik.” 

“Guru Pathik?” Katara laughs, somewhat nervous, surprised, “But that was nearly ten years ago–” 

“I know,” Aang sighs, “He told me, all those years ago, that I had to let go of you if I wanted to control the Avatar state. And you told me that it would be better for both of us, if I let go of you.” 

Aang shakes his head and Zuko can tell he is finding his courage again, drawing inward, “And you were both right. I finally got a hold of the Avatar state, after I let you go.” he pauses now, just a moment, before finishing, “My feelings for you were selfish, so much so that it was even blocking me from being a better Avatar. I needed time to gain this hindsight, and now that I have it, I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry – for how I acted, for how I treated you, for how blind I was.” 

“Aang, I forgive you, I already told you that.” Katara reminds him, her tone gentler, “You were young and it’s not an excuse but– you learned. You grew.” 

Aang’s shoulders drop finally, not in disappointment, but some form of relaxation. “Thank you, Katara.” he says sincerely, dipping his head into a respectful bow. 

He glances at Zuko then, too, “Finally, I just want to say, I am happy for both of you. Truly.” Aang smiles now, wide, a familiar sight, “And I’m excited for your wedding!” 

Now Katara smiles, too, and it feels– well, normal. It feels like they’re friends, like the knot between them has been loosened, almost all but smoothed out. 

“That means a lot for me to hear,” Katara says, and then, “And, you know, you’re welcome to bring someone to the wedding, if you want.” 

“O-oh!” Aang laughs nervously now, “I don’t– I mean–” 

Katara laughs, too, which pulls a smile from Zuko. 

“Quit holding us up!” Toph suddenly shouts and the three of them turn, to see her standing just around the corner again, “We’re waiting for you, you know!” 

“We’re coming!” Aang shouts back, and they finally begin to move again. 

Katara takes Zuko’s hand, squeezes once, as she settles into his side. Still, Zuko gets in one last, small dig, “Lenah seems nice.” he tests, “We met her the other day.” 

Katara elbows his side a little, but there is a smile on her face. 

Even in the waning light, Zuko can see the color rising high on Aang’s face. “Um yeah! She’s great!” 

Katara’s laugh echoes off the brick of the buildings around them, bouncing and happy, just as they enter the amber glow of Uncle’s tea shop again. Just as they join their friends in the warmth. 

They pile around one table, tucked into a corner, beneath the lantern’s honey warm glow. They talk and laugh around a steaming pot of tea well into the night, when all the world is asleep, and they still feel young and lively and tender-hearted.  

The following evening is important. It is the grand ball that King Kuei hosts, where more than just politicians but nobility and celebrities will gather for a night of decadence. Zuko thinks it’s overkill, but he knows that it will be his first time with Katara at his side in a social setting. 

Think of it as your debut, his advisors had told them, all eyes will be on you two. 

It’s so important that they had Moyan, Zuko’s designer and tailor, meet them in Ba Sing Se to help prepare them. Much like other events that she has dressed Zuko and even Katara and the rest of his friends for, it is supposed to make a statement. And Moyan has always been nothing but bold in her choices. 

She doesn’t disappoint this time, either. 

The moment he sees what she’s decided to put him in, he knows that it will make a statement. 

So now he sits in front of the mirror she has placed him in front of, dressed in traditional Southern Water Tribe formal wear, save for its color, which is crimson and maroon, with flashes of blue sewn throughout. The v-neck of his top is lined with light, short fur, dusky white, almost tawny at the edges. 

“I asked for help from Water Tribe designers,” Moyan tells him, just as she sets out a whale-toothed necklace for him to put on. There are gold beads between the teeth, flashing prettily in the light. “Most of this comes from the South, too.” 

A gold band is placed on his bicep. The boots he steps into are not as thick as the one’s he wore in the South, but the leather is dark and supple all the same. His hair, instead of the traditional top-knot, is pulled back into a style much like Sokka’s when it’s up. Though Zuko’s hair is longer, it is still clearly the wolf’s tail that the men of the tribe favor. His crown wraps around the base of the wolf's tail.

Gone are the traditional robes of the Fire Lord, replaced with the clothes of his fiance’s people. 

“I’d like Ambassador Katara to finish your hair,” Moyan tells him, scrutinizing his reflection in the mirror. “I requested she stop by your room after she was finished getting ready.” 

And when Katara walks into his room, Zuko is woefully under prepared for the sight of her. The style of her clothes are fashioned after traditional Fire Nation formal wear; the fitted waist of her gown is all silk, the sleeves long and flared at their ends. But it’s been dyed shades of blue, lovely and fluttering in a way that reminds Zuko of the shores of the Fire Nation. Her mother’s necklace is in place. Her dark hair is pulled into an elaborate top-knot, a loose curl slipping away to frame her face. There are formal hair sticks stuck into it, sapphires that hang from them clink musically as she walks. 

There is a headpiece, silver, smaller than the Fire Lady’s crown but reminiscent of it, with it’s curve that is supposed to be part flame, but now looks part crescent moon. 

Her betrothal knife is at her waist, gleaming, the blue of the stone sparkling, fit perfectly to the blue of her dress. Red is stitched throughout her clothes, the way blue is accented in his. 

They stare at each other a moment, reflections of their shared cultures, the fusion of them, the sharing of them evident between them. 

There is nothing holding him back now from breathing, “You look beautiful, love.” 

Katara smiles, moving to him, taking the hand that he offers up to her. He brings her hand to his lips, kisses soft, kisses sweet. 

“You look good, too,” she says, reaching out with her free hand to play with a tassel on his shoulder, roll the bead between her fingers, “Almost like one of our warriors.” 

“And you look like the future Fire Lady,” he murmurs, his lips brushing her knuckles as he looks up at her. Not just any Fire Lady, though, she looks like the future Fire Lady from the Southern Water Tribe. 

He becomes aware of Moyan’s eyes on them, keen, almost amused and Katara must, too, because she pulls away from him fractionally. 

“What did you want me to do to his hair?” Katara asks, moving to stand behind him.

He’s reminded of the Summer Solstice, the first that she attended, when she braided beads into his hair. When they were the sun and the moon. 

His eyes flicker to Moyan in the reflection of the mirror. Had she known back then somehow? She couldn’t have– there was no way. But there is something knowing about her, something sharp and clever. 

Moyan hands Katara hair wraps, their patterns in shades of ruby and garnet, beads of azure popping through. Katara, with nimble fingers, winds them into strands of his ponytail, tying it together with red thread. 

It reminds him of the ones she gave Suki, which she had made green, for her heritage. 

The sharing of her culture, one that had almost been destroyed by the same throne she would soon sit on, is something that is not lost on Zuko. 

Moyan forces them to stand beside each other for her to inspect, her eyes sharp, searching. But eventually she smiles and decides her work is done. She bows to them both and bids them luck, bids them a pleasant evening. 

They are announced together when they arrive at the ballroom and the whole room seems to fall to a hush to watch them enter. They stand tall, Katara’s hand tucked into the crook of his elbow. Whispers rush through the crowd and if Katara hears them, her face does not betray her. Her chin is tipped up. 

She looks every bit a leader, every bit of her brave and proud. She is nearly otherworldly now, with her radiance. Zuko is proud just to stand beside her. 

The next person is announced to enter, but eyes are still lingering on them, even as they greet their friends, as Sokka and Suki and Toph and Aang welcome them. 

And unfortunately, they cannot stay beside them the entire night. No, Zuko knows these gatherings well. They’re expected to make their way around the room, greeting and socializing with everyone they can. 

Some clamor for their attention, eager to poke and prod and peer into the couple. Some are distant and snobby, attempting to look down their noses or scrutinize them. Some are sly, searching for pressure points, weak points. 

But they come up empty handed. 

Let them look, Zuko thinks to himself, let them see us for what we are. In love. Strong. Revolutionaries. A threat to their greed. A promise of something more. 

War heroes, he thinks, legends, he adds, watching Katara sway the room to her. She has always been the love and light anywhere she goes and now is no different. She is brilliant, sharp where she needs to be, always clever, lovely and compassionate in the ugly face of the ruthless courts. 

If they are searching for faults in her, if they are searching for a weak future leader, they do not find it now. They do not find it in her. 

As the night goes on, they become somewhat looser, perhaps with their friends at their side. Perhaps because they have grown brave. Katara lets her head rest against his shoulder from time to time. He leans down to steal a kiss, tastes the berries of wine caught on her lips. They dance together, slow, easy. They laugh like there is not a care in the world, trading jokes, trading smiles to get through the evening of stuffiness and opulence and propriety. 

The world watches as Ambassador Katara rocks onto the tips of her toes, pulling lightly at his shirt to bring him down to her, and kisses his left cheek. They watch as he smiles, fond and warm, down at the woman who has changed the very course of history.

They watch as he tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear, but they do not hear him murmur, filled with awe and affection and only for her;

“I love you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.” 

Chapter Text

“Betrothal knives, while an engagement gift in the Southern Water Tribe, took on a new meaning in the Fire Nation. They were only ever gifted to the Fire Lord’s partner. In the South Pole, the betrothal knives signify agency and equality in marriage, but in the Fire Nation, it became a symbol of protection after Fire Lady Katara stopped the assasination of her husband, Fire Lord Zuko, with it. More than that, it would later become a reminder of the thin line, the ‘knife’s edge’ between corruption and integrity within positions of power when Fire Lady Aiyoke used it to assassinate her husband, the elected Fire Lord Sao, when he slid into tyranny. In doing so, historians believe she successfully stopped another world war and saved many of her citizens from his unjust camps. Fire Lady Aiyoke’s betrothal knife was inscribed with the words, “Anything for justice, anything for you” which is a reference to Fire Lady Katara’s coronation speech.”

–An excerpt from ‘The Sharpest Knives: A Historical Account of Significant Weaponry”  

There are more long days of political meetings that Katara navigates gracefully, Zuko at her right hand. Katara has always known that she is considered a radical in these spaces, with older politicians who cling viciously to conservatism and the past, but she sees their ire and fear of her now more than ever. When things get heated, there are claims that she will singlehandedly be the result of some sort of apocalyptic version of the Fire Nation in which money is dissolved and meaningless and the economy has fallen into ruin. 

On the other hand, the Northern Water Tribe insinuates that she is conspiring against them or even going so far as to subtly suggest that she is some sort of traitor to Waterbenders, to either tribe. While it isn’t forwardly said, many come to her defense immediately, but it’s Sokka’s voice who rings sharpest. 

His voice is clear, echoing in the tall space, filled with an anger that Katara doesn’t often see in her brother. He puts them in their place, reminds them who it is they are speaking to; a war hero, the girl who fought for the people in each of their nations at every chance she could, a future world leader. And then he eyes one of the councilmembers from the Northern Water Tribe who had begun insinuating such things, his eyes frigid and hard, like the ice back home, like the cutting of winter winds. Sokka says he knows Katara must be intimidating for them up in the North , but to suggest she is a traitor is a mistake he won’t allow to be made twice. 

They don’t try to discredit her again, but the animosity towards her, towards Zuko, is still apparent. 

“They’re scared,” Toph says at dinner that night when it’s just their small group, her arms crossed stubbornly across her chest. “We did what they couldn’t as teenagers and now that we’re continuing to push for change, they’re nervous.” 

“Change always brings fear,” Aang says, “But there is a balance to be found between the old and the new, like everything else.” 

Toph scoffs, “Yeah, well, they’re the ones unable to accept the new.” 

Suki enters now and Katara can tell she’s tense, her brow furrowed. She shuts the door tightly behind her, sweeps the room with a critical eye. When she takes her seat, she leans forward to ask Toph, “Can you feel anyone else near this room?” 

Immediately, Katara feels Zuko straighten up beside her. 

Toph listens for a moment, before shaking her head, “No, they’re far enough away.” 

Suki nods once, glancing at the faces of their most trusted friends for a moment, “I’ve received word from Mai in the Fire Nation that the Insurgency is planning an attempt on Katara’s life here in Ba Sing Se. They thought it would be easiest to target her here, without all of the usual Fire Nation guards.” 

Zuko’s fists tighten beneath the table, his jaw ticking, and without thinking, Katara reaches for him. Her hand closes over his. 

“More than that, apparently there are members of the Insurgence stationed here, in Ba Sing Se, and others that traveled here for this specific reason.” Suki draws in a breath, “We have reason to believe that either there is a separate mole here, or the same one from the palace. Regardless, it confirms Mai’s suspicion that someone in a place of political power is feeding the Insurgency intel on Katara’s wearabouts.” 

Several people open their mouths at once to speak, but Suki cuts everyone off, “Mai, my Kyoshi Warriors, and I have already discussed a plan going forward.” 

“Let’s just knock a few skulls together,” Toph says and though it’s her usual ruggedness, there is a hint of something more vulnerable, more visceral in her voice. 

“I do think we should deal directly with the issue,” Aang agrees, “Not with violence, of course, but shouldn’t we be questioning and then arresting the mole for conspiracy against the Fire Nation’s crown? The summit should be called off then–” 

“No,” Suki says, firm, her voice unwavering, “If we do that, we potentially endanger Mai and her mole. More than that, then we alert the Insurgency’s mole of their own danger. They’ll immediately backtrack. We want to catch them for good and it’s too risky to go in head first.” 

“Maybe Katara should stay in the South for a while, until you find this mole.” Sokka suggests.

“I’m not running away!” Katara finally protests, her own temper flaring a little. 

“Katara, don’t be–” 

“I’m not going to cower. I’m not scared of them.” 

Sokka is about to open his mouth to argue, but Suki interrupts again, “No, we knew you wouldn’t do that. And we figured you’d want to finish out the summit.” 

Suki eyes Katara, who nods slowly. 

“So one of my Kyoshi Warriors is going to be Katara’s double for the rest of the summit. This is to both try to figure out who the mole really is as well as keep Katara’s actual location safe from any potential threats.” Suki explains, but immediately Katara squirms. 

“No, I can’t do that, either. What if she gets attacked because they think she’s me?” 

“We’re prepared for that–” 

“I can protect myself, too.” Katara protests. 

Suki levels Katara with a hard look, “Listen, I know you’re trying to be noble and brave– no one is doubting how powerful you are, but you have to also remember that you’re going to be the Fire Lady. A world leader. Losing or incapacitating you in any way signals to other nations that the Fire Nation is unstable. As much as you despise it, you’re now a game piece in the political world– you’re not just Katara anymore .” 

Katara frowns. She knows this, in theory. She knows that she is about to step into a completely new position, that her life is going to change in some way. But–

“That doesn’t mean someone else’s life is more expendable than my own. Fire Lady or not, I can’t let your Kyoshi Warrior take my place. There has to be another way.” Katara responds, meeting Suki’s eyes. 

“Sending you back to the South with your brother.” Suki tells her, dry, though not joking. “This is the only way you stay to finish the summit safely if you’re so determined not to cower, and then eventually get back home safely to the Fire Nation.” 

There is a long, drawn out silence where Katara digs for another plan, another way for this to work. Part of her wants to protest that she can handle any threat that may come, but she knows Suki will not accept this answer. 

“What is the rest of your plan?” Zuko finally speaks, his voice calm, but surprisingly wary. 

“We were going to use Katara’s double to confuse the mole about her location for the rest of the stay and plant her in front of politicians we have suspicions of in hopes of figuring out which one is the spy by seeing what they end up reporting. Apparently, their assassination attempt is planned for when Katara is leaving Ba Sing Se, boarding her ship.” Suki glances around the table before continuing, “So we’re going to send Katara’s double on the regularly scheduled ship back to the Fire Nation while we have Katara actually brought home on a different, smaller ship.” 

“What about me?” Zuko asks, “Will I have to go with Katara’s double back to the Fire Nation?”

He squeezes her hand beneath the table. She can tell he doesn’t want to part with her. 

“No,” Suki answers, “I’m going to sneak you off before it leaves so that you can leave with Katara later, on her ship.” 

“But won’t Zuko then be in danger if he boards the original ship? If that’s where the assasination plan is attempted?” Katara protests and now it’s her turn to squeeze his hand back. 

“As far as we’re concerned, Zuko isn’t the target at this point.” Suki replies, “And we need it to look as realistic as possible. I also don’t know how quickly I’d be able to find a double for Zuko. We’re lucky that one of my Kyoshi Warriors looks just enough like Katara to pass if there’s a group of guards shielding her.” 

“Isn’t Zuko always the target of the Insurgence, though? They’re like the New Ozai Society, right?” Toph speaks up suddenly, brows furrowed. 

“It’s a different group, though apparently some New Ozai members switched over. The Insurgency is more concerned about purity on the throne and Zuko, despite how he got on the throne, is the rightful heir. Their goal is to keep Firebenders within the bloodline.” Suki explains, eyes navigating the table, watching the faces of her friends around her.  

 “I still don’t like substituting a Kyoshi Warrior for me.” Katara says, “especially swapping her in for a potential assination plot against me. I don’t understand why I can’t just go through with it and we come prepared. I don’t want to risk another life.” 

“Apparently one of Mai’s moles said the plan involves chi-blocking in some way. If they expect to chi-block a Waterbender, they’ll be sorely mistaken to find my Kyoshi Warrior with her abilities still intact. We’ll have the upper hand with surprise.” Suki’s response is clear and concise. 

“Chi-blocking can also block movement, too.” Katara counters. 

“But they’re still expecting a Waterbender, not a Kyoshi Warrior.” Sokka finally pipes up, “And more than that, they’re expecting you, not someone else. It’s possible when they realize it’s not you, they’ll call off their plan or it’ll be so derailed, nothing will happen.” 

Katara goes quiet with that logic. She also has a feeling she won’t be winning this argument. Zuko is almost unsettlingly quiet beside her. She can tell he’s disturbed by this information, perhaps more so than she is. 

Katara swallows hard, “Fine. But I want as much protection on your Kyoshi Warrior as you would’ve done for me. If anything happens to her–”

“Nothing will happen to her.” Suki says, sharper, as if she’s already dwelled on this. “She’s my Kyoshi Warrior and I won’t let anything happen to her.” 

Katara exhales slowly, shakily. The whole room seems to let go of an uncertain breath. 

There are no jokes to crack, nothing to break the silence or try to soothe their nerves. 

Toph tries to make a weak threat at anyone who dares try to come up against them, but it falls away. Sokka is even quiet. 

It’s Aang who says, “We’ll get through this, too, just like we have everything else.” 

And Katara finds that it’s not the voice of the boy she once knew, but the young man that he’s become. 

The voice of an Avatar, of her oldest friend. 

She takes comfort in the unwavering, smooth tones of his voice. When he turns to her and Zuko, he bows his head deeply and promises; 

“I’ll do anything to ensure the safety of both of you.” 

And Katara thinks he’s trying to promise them the future, too, the security of a long life beside him, in a world they’ve all changed. 

The rest of their time in Ba Sing Se is colored by a sense of anxiety. Katara is made to feel strangely fragile, with the way her friends hover around her. She tries not to grow irritated with them and their worry. She has to remind herself that they know she’s strong and capable, they’re just scared. She reminds herself that if it was one of them, she would be the same way. She would do anything to protect them and that’s all they’re doing for her now. 

They do a lot of hanging around with Katara’s double, too, to throw off anyone who might be spying, while Katara hides away. Her double’s name is Bani and she’s a sweet girl, skin brown like Katara’s, hair rich and dark but straighter. It’s about the same length, though, and if it’s styled up, it’s hard to tell the difference. Her eyes are round like Katara’s but a mellow, dark green. Her nose isn’t quite as broad as Katara’s, either, but at a glance, Katara can definitely see people mistaking them for each other. Especially when Bani is dressed as Katara, walking alongside Zuko, or surrounded by Fire Nation guards. 

Katara feels strangely alone during this time, hiding away until her friends can sneak away to find her, too. Suki stays around Katara, though, almost at all times. Just in case. 

There’s an evening where Katara is finally able to spend time in a courtyard tucked away from the rest of the palace, connected to Aang’s room. Bani is pretending to be Katara in the library at the palace, pretending to do work for the final meetings of the summit. 

Katara rests now under a plum sunset, Zuko’s head in her lap as he sprawls out in the grass with her. Toph is tucked against the trunk of the tree, picking and pulling at weeds beside her. Sokka is next to Katara, with Suki sitting back against his chest, her face tipped up to the dappled, last rays of sunlight. Aang is sitting cross-legged next to Toph, a pleasant smile on his face as the wind dances past them. 

There is a stream that bubbles near them. The air is sweet and warm. The world is rosy and blue-violet, like ripe summer berries. It casts them all in the rush of color, warm and flushed and saturated. 

For a moment, Katara sees them all as kids for a moment, lit golden by so many sunsets across the world. Different but the same, tucked away from a world that hunted them or sought them out, a world that despised or needed them. 

It feels the way the sunset in a new place does; different, but the same. The same sun, but a new place, a new color in the sky. She looks at the people around her, different, but the same. Old and new. 

She watches the sun set on one part of her life, the moon behind her rising to blossom into another. The way day bleeds into night. 

When she looks down at Zuko, his eyes are peering back at her curiously where they were previously closed. 

He quirks a brow at her, as if to ask, what are you thinking about? 

And Katara smiles softly, shakes her head gently as if to dispel those thoughts, nothing, she seems to say to him silently, brushing the hair from his brow. 

He still peers at her curiously, but nothing more is said. 

The wind is gentle as it steals through their hair. 

The sun sets and the moon rises, like they’ve done a thousand times. 

Like they will a thousand more.

Their goodbyes are said to each other in secret. Katara’s double readies to take her place on the large ship back to the Fire Nation that had originally brought her here. 

There is a sense of anxiety, a reluctance to part from each other. A reluctance to leave Katara, truly.

But Aang says, “the next time we see you will be in the South, for your wedding.” And he smiles when he does. “It won’t be long now.” 

It’s what Aang always says, when he doesn’t want to leave. It’s always been a way to reassure himself, too. 

“Stay out of trouble,” Toph says with a grin, but it’s not quite the brave smile she was hoping for and with the tone of her voice, the joke falls a little flat. 

Katara still smiles and says, “never.” 

Sokka pulls her into a fierce hug and Katara finds herself strangely emotional. 

“Please don’t be stupid or stubborn.” He implores her, almost begs of her. 

“I’m never stupid,” Katara responds, but Sokka pulls away only to fix her with a hard look. He isn’t laughing. 

“Katara, I’m serious.” He implores, “Just lie low, please.” 

Katara swallows harshly, “I’ll be okay, Sokka. I promise.” 

Sokka studies her features carefully and there is something in his eyes that is sad and unreadable. Terrified. 

(Katara feels more like she’s looking into the eyes of Sokka as a child, small and motherless.)

Finally, he nods, swallowing hard, “I know, I know.” 

When he hugs Zuko, there are quiet words passed between them that Katara doesn’t quite catch. But it’s somber and Katara doesn’t like the look that passes between them. 

She thinks she hears Zuko say, “–with my life, Sokka.” 

“Pardon the interruption–are you ready, Fire Lord Zuko? Bani is waiting in Katara’s room to walk with you down to the ship.” A Kyoshi Warrior speaks up from the mouth of the door. They’re below the palace now, to hide Katara. They’re going to use the tunnel system to sneak her onto the smaller ship that is masquerading as a merchant or trade ship in the harbor. Suki will walk with Bani and Zuko and once safely aboard and eyes are off them, she will sneak Zuko onto the merchant ship. 

There is a held breath where they all look at each other. 

Aang says, “We’ll see you soon, under much happier circumstances.” 

Zuko smiles and agrees, a promise for the future, “I’ll see you all soon.” 

He turns to the Kyoshi Warrior waiting and agrees that he’s ready. As he goes, he kisses the curve of Katara’s cheek, squeezes her hand. 

“I’ll be with you shortly,” he says softly.

Katara can’t help but feel her nerves jump, her stomach twisting into an unsettling queasiness. But she still says, “see you soon. Be careful.” 

He is whisked away from her, and Katara is soon whisked away, too. 

She’s dressed in green, swathed in a cloak to cover her head, a shimmering scarf to hide part of her face. She does not braid her hair, but winds it into a neat bun. 

She walks with other Kyoshi Warriors that are disguised to the merchant ship. It bobs in the harbor next to the grand Fire Nation ship that Bani, Zuko, and Suki will board. Zuko and Suki will then slip between the lower parts of the ship, out of the eyeshot of the public. 

Everything goes smoothly. Katara goes undetected. 

A crowd gathers to see Bani and Zuko off. 

Katara watches from the deck of the merchant ship as they make their way through the docks. Zuko is stiff, she can see the terse lines of his shoulder, the set of his brow. 

There’s a sharp movement that makes Katara’s heart drop into the pit of her stomach. 

The Kyoshi Warriors around Zuko and Bani converge sharply, like a well-trained pack of wolves.

Katara lurches forward, like she might rush off the ship and into the action but she’s grabbed sharply by her own Kyoshi Warrior. 

“No–!” Katara shouts as commotion erupts below, as the dock floods with screams and panic. 

“I have to get you below deck!” 

Katara can’t find Zuko or Suki or Bani in the flood of people below. 

She clings frantically to the side of the ship, searching, searching–

Another pair of hands help pull her away, hauling her as she struggles against them. Katara is nearly dragged below deck, kicking and screaming. She’s thrown down into a small room, someone’s quarters– a small, neat bed made in the corner. 

“Listen to me, I’ll go find out what’s happened. You have to stay here.” One of her Kyoshi Warriors says. 

“I can’t just stay here!” Katara snaps, “I need to get to them–it’s my fault they’re out there at all!” 

“They’re prepared for this,” she responds, her voice stern, “And our orders were to keep you safe at all costs. I’ll return as soon as possible with news.” 

Before Katara can disagree any more, the Kyoshi Warrior disappears, and the others block the door to keep Katara from following. There is a moment where Katara considers trying to go through them. Her gaze levels, cool and dark. 

They all tense, bracing for it. 

They aren’t the enemy, she reminds herself, they're doing their job

She deflates, fear flooding her without her anger to protect her. She swallows hard. She’s just supposed to wait in this room until there’s news? Her stomach twists up into knots.

She sets to pacing, wringing her hands. Her heart is in her throat. She can hardly breathe. She strains to listen, to see if she can hear anything else beyond the ship–if the commotion has gotten worse or quieted. She even listens for the ocean, like it might give her the answers, too.

Katara feels as if she’s been waiting hours, though it has probably been less than fifteen minutes when a Kyoshi Warrior appears at the door, heaving, and out of breath. 

“Master Katara, I’ve gotten word that Zuko, Bani, and Suki are all safe. There was an attempt on Bani with a knife, but Suki easily apprehended the perpetrator and they are now in custody.” 

Katara manages to let go of a harsh breath, thanks Tui and La fiercely, her hands squeezing tight as relief floods her. 

“Zuko and Suki should be here shortly–they can tell you more than I can.” The Kyoshi Warrior adds. 

“Thank you,” Katara responds and she means it deeply. Perhaps thanking more than just this Kyoshi Warrior, but something far greater. 

Still, waiting for them, though she knows they’re safe, is not easy. She’s impatient, desperate to have them in front of her, safe and sound. She can’t force herself to sit or to breathe. She remains pacing, remains jittery with nerves. 

There’s a scuffle of noise and Katara picks her eyes up to find the Kyoshi Warriors parting to let Zuko in.

She rushes for him, her feet carrying her before her mind can even comprehend it. His arms open to catch her on reflex. 

“You’re okay?” She breathes.

“Perfectly fine,” he replies, squeezing tight to her. 

There is a moment where all she does is hold him, be held by him. 

Then Suki emerges behind Zuko and Katara detaches herself to throw her arms around Suki, too. 

When she pulls away, she asks, “Bani’s okay?”

“Not a scratch,” Suki answers and Katara can hear the relief in her voice, too, “her cover wasn’t even blown.” 

“What happened?” Katara implores, looking between them. 

“Someone darted out from the crowd to pull a dagger on Bani. I mean, they didn’t get through me or the Kyoshi Warriors around her. It was sloppy, at best. Downright embarrassing for the Insurgence at worst.” Suki explains, “we quickly apprehended him. He’s in custody now. Bani is safe on the royal ship back to the Fire Nation.” 

Though these are all good things, an unsettling feeling grows slowly inside of Katara. It shutters to life like tentative moth wings in the night. 

Suki sounds apprehensive, too, troubled by something. 

Katara points this out. 

Suki tilts her head, chews on her bottom lip in thought. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Suki begins, “I hope this is all the Insurgence can muster but–” her face twists up, a little sour, “it felt too easy.” 

Katara inhales, a quick and quiet breath that gets caught in her throat. 

That unsettling feeling bursts into flight inside of her. 

“I’ll try to get a firehawk directly to Mai, though, and see what she says. Perhaps it is only fanatics who aren’t as organized as we thought.” Suki says and sensing their trepidation, she adds, “we’re safe now, anyways, for the trip home. You two should rest. We’ll take it one day at a time.” 

Katara doesn’t like that answer but she doesn’t have a better one. She nods slowly, as does Zuko. 

She thanks Suki again, who waves her off. 

They spend the afternoon on the deck, watching the world pass by, the wind caught in her hair. She keeps to Zuko’s side. He keeps to hers. 

But not even the sound of the sea soothes her, the waves brushing up against the side of the ship like whispers, warnings it's trying to share with her. 

She squeezes Zuko’s hand tight and doesn’t let go. 

The room her and Zuko are given below the deck is small, it’s not much and the captain had felt bad–he didn’t think it was right to have royalty staying in such a cramped cabin but they assured him it was perfect. 

They’d slept on the ground, in worse places than this during the war. Besides, there is something charming about fitting together in that small bed, laughing through elbows in sides and hair in faces. 

Still, she’s glad she gets to be so close to him now. She takes comfort in the way he presses every part of himself to her back, wraps a strong arm around her waist, palm warm beneath her sleep shirt, splayed out along her stomach. 

“Are you worried?” Katara asks into the dark, burrowing down into his warmth. 

Zuko is quiet for a moment, and then he inhales carefully, “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t.” 

Katara shifts to turn and face him; there is some struggling, shuffling around, before he’s pulling her in tight, tucking her head beneath his chin, thigh sliding between her legs. Fitting together like a key to a lock. 

“You don’t think that was it, do you? All they had planned?” Katara asks and her voice is surprisingly small, muffled by the crook of his neck. 

His broad hand moves along her back. 

There is a long, reluctant pause, before Zuko answers, “no, I don’t.” 

Katara’s hands tighten along his bicep, clinging tight to him. 

“We just can’t seem to catch a break, can we?” Katara tries to joke, but her voice is wobbly, surprisingly fragile. 

Zuko presses doting, kind kisses along her brow, the curve of her cheek, like he’s trying to soothe her. 

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he murmurs, a promise she knows he’d fight to keep with his life. That he already has almost lost his life to, when they were only teenagers. 

“I know–I’m worried about you, though, and Suki.” Her voice whispers along his collar bones. 

“We’ll be okay,” he hushes, “just like Aang said, we’ll get through this, too.” 

Katara lets out a shaky breath, tilts her head up to find his lips in the dark. The kiss is surprisingly needy, deeper than intended. Her nails nip into the skin of his bicep, his fingers tighten around the curve of her waist. 

She whimpers, small, broken, against his mouth. 

He curls his arm around her, cradles the back of her head, catches those small sounds inside of him. Soothes her with warm, gentle hands. But there is a tremble to them when he touches her, a reverence that makes her feel fragile. 

It’s all quiet desperation, heaving chests, trying to get as close as possible. Whispered promises–

“Need you–” 

“‘M here, I’ve got you, love–” 

“I love you, I love you–” 

It’s a little rushed, the dark hiding the shine of their eyes, the prickling of fear. It’s messy, a little too raw, like they’re running out of time. At the end of their ropes. Appearing before another cliff's edge, a precipice that Katara is terrified of. 

The ocean thrashes against the ship, Katara can feel the unruly pull of the waves. She can feel their unease, too, the way the whole world seems to be unsettled. There is a warning in their rhythm. A little rushed. 

Like they’re running out of time. 

As much as Katara tries to fight it, cling to Zuko, to the night, it slips from her like water. 

And the day comes again and time does not stop. 

Not even for lovers, not even for them. 

Katara tries to feel relieved stepping back onto land in the Fire Nation, home again. She looks out at the docks that are swarmed with people and forces out an exhale. 

Suki is by their side, other Kyoshi Warriors flanking them as they prepare to make their way back to the palace. 

Once people begin to notice them, they gather, flocking to them. 

The people of Caldera City know them and are eager to welcome them home. Katara wishes she could enjoy it more. But something is sitting on the back of her mind, putting her on edge, like knowing there’s a snake in the grass, but it’s nowhere in sight. 

Zuko is tense beside her, too. 

Suki is vigilant at their side, eyes sharp and careful. 

There’s a blur of movement that Katara catches in the corner of her eye. A loud bang. She turns sharply. People begin shouting. 

Katara watches as the ship that Bani had come in on begins to smoke– thick, black smoke that curls menacingly up into the air. A small fire has erupted on the deck. 

An explosion–? 

It catches everyone’s attention, makes the whole world pause for a moment. 

The hairs on the back of Katara’s neck stand up. 

Something fast comes for them, Katara turns, but not in enough time, as she feels several, sharp jabs rush up the side of her torso, her arm. A tingling spreads throughout her body, numbing. 

“Chi-blockers!” Someone shouts and the moment Katara searches for water to draw to their aid, she realizes she can no longer sense it. Everything seems to go dull in a horrifying way. She curses quietly, eyes flying open and searching frantically for the enemies.

Thankfully, her movement isn’t blocked, too. 

The Kyoshi Warriors around them spin into action. 

A masked man rushes for Zuko, blade drawn, and before Katara can think, she is moving. 

Her betrothal knife glints in the high sun, sparks flying as the two blades clash and Katara takes the impact with all her strength. 

She grits her teeth. 

Then Zuko rushes into action, too, and despite their bending being gone, they are still a force of nature. They fight beside each other fluidly, moving around one another with an otherworldly grace. 

Katara passes the betrothal knife to Zuko to use when needed, who slips it back to her again. Sometimes so fast that their enemies can’t even catch the course of the blade. 

They do a brutal, swift dance together, so synchronized that Katara could’ve sworn they were even sharing breath, sharing heartbeat. 

Perfectly balanced. 

But all it takes is one wrong move–

There’s another small explosion that is set off, distracting everyone. Including them. And then from a distance, someone takes deadly aim. 

“Katara!” Zuko shouts, guttural, desperate, as he grabs her roughly, pulls her into his chest and turns to take her place, shielding her–

There’s a horrible, dull thwack, that she feels more than hears. 

Zuko’s body tenses up horrifically. 

“Zuko?” Katara looks up at him, watches in horror as his eyes go wide, as his breathing becomes suddenly difficult. “Zuko!” 

Blood leaks from the corner of his lips. 

Chaos erupts.

The world blurs as he sags into her, as time rushes to catch up with them. 

She sees their future suddenly, blurrier than it ever has been, like it's fading from her fast. 

She looks over the slope of his shoulder, sees the knife protruding from his back. 

And now we’re getting married–

Three. I want three–

She catches a scream behind her teeth. Feels it tear up her heart. 

She needs to heal him, she needs to heal him–

But then there’s a louder, more thundering boom. It rattles deep inside Katara, shakes so hard she feels like it rattles her very bones.

And the whole world goes up in horrible red, all heat and fury, an explosion so large it seems to shake all of Caldera City, too.

The whole world. 

Pain explodes in the side of Katara’s head. She goes down with Zuko, still clinging to him desperately, the nip of her nails into his bicep. 

They fall, curled towards each other, like lovers in a tomb. 

Was Oma laid to rest beside Shu like this? 

Their story can’t end here, can it? She begs, can it? 

Katara’s world is stricken with darkness.

Unconsciousness sweeps in to take her sharply and without remorse.


When Katara wakes, there is still a ringing in her ears. 

She fights against the throbbing pain that has blossomed in her temples. She winces as she sits up, whole body aching. The world comes into focus slowly, blearily. 

Suki sits across from her. 

There is a bandage wrapped around Suki’s head. More wrapped up her arms. 

Memory comes back to Katara like mud, slow and unsure. 

But when it does–

“Zuko,” she gasps, trying to force herself to sit up. The whole world spins horribly.

“You’re awake,” Suki croaks, going to her instantly. 

“Where’s Zuko?” Katara gets out, her mouth sore and filled with cotton.

Suki’s wane face goes hard and pale. Her bottom lip trembles. 


Katara’s heart drops. 

“Where is he?” She asks, sharper, almost begging. 

Hysteria pulls at the corners of her voices. 

Suki instantly slips her arm around Katara to help her up from the hospital cot. Katara’s body almost buckles under her own weight. 

“Where is he?!” Katara snaps, voice echoing in the cold room. 

“Can you heal?” Suki asks instead, forcing Katara to move, to stumble with her. Katara becomes keenly aware of the fact that Suki is limping, too.

“Yes,” Katara bites out, even if her vision is still swimming and she isn’t sure if the chi-blocking has worn off yet. 

“Come on,” Suki gets out, "I'll take you to him. We have to hurry." Then she pulls harder at Katara, trying to shoulder more weight as she leads Katara through the winding hallways of the palace. 

When they round a corner, Suki pauses.

“Where are my Kyoshi Warriors?” Suki asks out loud and Katara forces her eyes up to see the Fire Nation soldiers that are posted in the hallway. Katara knows further down is another hospital room. There are one too many soldiers there. 

When Suki and Katara approach them, they block their paths. 

Confusion pulls at Katara. How hard did she hit her head? Are they really– are they trying to stop her? 

“Let us through,” Suki says, voice firm, the voice of a Captain of the Guards, “she can heal him.” 

“We’re under strict orders that only direct family to the Fire Lord is permitted this far.” One of the guards says, swallowing. 

“I’m marrying him,” Katara snaps and her voice doesn’t sound like her own, it sounds more vicious, faraway to her own ears. 

“Direct bloodline only, I’m afraid–” 

Katara rears up, forcing herself to stand without Suki, “whose orders?”

One of the guards winces. 

Silence. Horrible, ringing silence. 

Katara doesn’t even think, she just reaches for her betrothal knife, feels the weight of it, the ridges of the inscription in her palm and tries to swallow around tears. 

She is surprisingly swift as she brings it to that guard’s throat. 

The gold of it gleams dangerously. 

The other guard’s draw their weapons, too. Suki’s fan is drawn, too. 

The guard she has by the throat glances into her eyes. 

He trembles at what he sees. 

“Whose. Orders.” She grits out. 

“From the High Council, who controls the crown if the Fire Lord and his named successor, General Iroh, are incapacitated or otherwise absent–” 

“Wrong.” A voice from behind the guards cuts in, clear and venomous, forcing them all to pause.

A voice Katara almost sags in relief to hear. 

Azula’s eyes glint like the core of a dangerous flame. 

“Fire Lord Zuko, under law, oath, and Agni, sworn by Fire Sage Raoke, changed his successor of the throne should anything befall him or render him incapable of serving to–” 

Azula’s voice rings out, echoing in a way that Katara feels in the depths of her, that she can hardly believe is real;

“–his betrothed and future Fire Lady, Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.”