act three: and it’s my whole heart (burned but not buried this time)
Katara receives a letter from Aang a few days later, a week to the day before she and Zuko and a few others will leave for the Council of Four. It’s fairly short, merely talking about matters he intends to bring up at the council, but he also asks if she would speak to him in private after she arrives.
It’s with some trepidation that she agrees, although she thinks it’s probably a step in the right direction, and it’s nice that he asked this time, instead of waiting for the Council to start and then ambushing her.
She’s not quite as anxious on the boat ride over this time as she was the last, and anyway she’s got more to think about, since she’s in something of a unique position this time – as an ambassador for two countries simultaneously, she’s going to be occupying a place similar to Aang’s, as a mediator and peacekeeper.
Toph greets them when they get to Ba Sing Se, waving at them to follow her.
“We’re still waiting on your brother,” she tells them, “and Aang. But Aang sent word that he was held up by something at the Air Temple, he shouldn’t be much longer.”
“And Sokka?” Katara asks, but a bit deadpan, because she knows her brother, and she knows how he gets so invested in things that he loses track of time. Toph shrugs.
“I think his story is that the ship ran into trouble right around Kyoshi.” She marks the word trouble with air quotes and an eyeroll. “Even though Suki’s gonna be here, too. I guess he couldn’t wait.”
Katara smiles; Sokka has been keeping her (somewhat) abreast of things, and apparently now that Suki doesn’t have to go to the Fire Nation all the time, they’ve been able to really rekindle their relationship. He’s been really happy about it, and even confided in her that he’s been trying to carve a pendant, only he is “not the greatest carver in the world, I know this shocks you to hear”.
She really can’t wait to see him again. It’s strange, and it isn’t at the same time, how much she’s missed her big, goofy brother.
They've got a few hours to kill, since half the crew has yet to arrive, and after Toph gives them a somewhat-suspect tour of the Earth King's palace (“Bathrooms are over there, the East Wing is where the King lives so don't go there because the Dai Li will probably eat you, we'll be having all the meetings in the South Wing and the festivities in the West Wing, here are the kitchens and here is the wine. This concludes your tour.”) they split up, Zuko saying that he's going to go check out the meeting room.
As such, Katara finds herself wandering around the place for the better part of an hour, a bit lost.
It's not quite as big as Zuko's palace, but it's more open, so it feels larger and more inviting; the color palate is also greener and bluer, but it somehow seems colder to her, with hard stone floors and sheer stone walls instead of the rugs and tapestries that adorn the palace at the Caldera. The art is pretty, though, with ink-and-water paintings that, although less colorful than Fire Nation art, have their own sort of beauty in their austerity.
She's admiring a painting of what is probably Oma and Shu, when Zuko startles her.
“That was quite the tour Toph gave us,” Zuko says in a strange voice, as he walks up to her from another hall. “Turns out, the palace is circular. You can think you're walking to the meeting hall but find yourself standing outside King Kuei's door and getting ambushed by him. He likes bears.”
Katara can't help it; she laughs out loud at this, a full-on, throwing-her-head-back-and-cackling peals of laughter. Zuko looks so blasé, and at the same time so harassed, that it brings tears of mirth to her eyes.
“At least you didn't get eaten by the Dai Li,” she chortles, and he shakes his head.
“I did almost get eaten by Boscoe. Kuei mistook my manners for interest. Did you know that brown bears eat as much as 90 pounds of food per day?” he asks, with an expression of pure fascination. She bites her lip, trying with little success to restrain her laughter. “Boscoe doesn't have to eat as much, because he doesn't hibernate through the winter, but he makes up for it by eating all the time. In fact,” he goes on brightly, “King Kuei spends more on feeding Boscoe than he does feeding himself.”
“How fascinating,” Katara squeaks, and Zuko lets out a long-suffering sigh.
“I had to fake an allergy,” he deadpans, running a hand over his face. “If Kuei asks, I'm deathly allergic to bears.”
“You laugh,” he says darkly, “but wait until he catches you.”
“I like bears,” she counters, shrugging airily, but he shakes his head.
“Nobody likes bears enough to listen to Kuei go on about them,” he says, with feeling. “I never thought I hated them before a half-hour ago. Now I think they should be outlawed.”
She laughs, and he rolls his eyes, but it’s with over-exaggerated exasperation, and he can't quite hide his smile.
“Boscoe's sweet,” she says, trying to contain herself, with more success than earlier. “And Kuei means well. He's just… not good at talking to people.”
“No, Katara,” Zuko counters, raising an eyebrow. “I'm not good at talking to people. Kuei is an alien.”
“He's not an alien,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “He's just sheltered.”
“You always see the best in people, don't you?”
She glances at him, and the humorous mood seems to evolve. “I try to,” she replies simply. “Some people make it hard, but I like to see them for what they mean to be.” She pauses, and thinks about this. “Sometimes that's “a huge jerk” but, well,” she shrugs, “you can't win all the time.”
Zuko laughs at this, the kind of sweet laugh that starts in the eyes and gravitates outward, and it's so warm in here, so she links arms with him and walks toward the nearest balcony.
“You see the best in the ministers,” he suggests as they step through the doors. “Even though some of them were huge jerks to you at the start.”
“It's okay, you can say Xu,” she says lightly, and he snickers. “But it's just a matter of perspective,” she goes on seriously, thoughtfully. “I thought at the start that none of them were loyal to you.”
“They're not,” he sighs. “I've tried to weed out everyone who sided with my father, but it's hard to know who to trust.”
“I can't speak for all of them,” she muses. “But I think mostly, they're loyal to the nation. It's… both good and bad.”
“Loyal to the Fire Nation but not to the Fire Lord?” he challenges, but he doesn't sound particularly questioning.
“Exactly,” she says, deliberately ignoring his tone. “They want the best for the nation: peace, prosperity, qualified freedoms. As long as that's you, they'll support you. But they'd turn on you if they thought someone else would be better.”
“And you think this is a good thing?”
She looks at him, startled. “Well, yeah,” she replies, a bit blunt because it's so obvious to her. “Because you are. The best for the nation, I mean,” she adds, and turns away, looking out over the city. “They'll support you as long as you have the best interests of the Fire Nation at heart. And you do. So they'll be loyal to you.”
“You don't think they could be convinced that, say, Azula would be better?” he counters, looking a bit sour, but she shakes her head.
“No,” she says firmly. “Azula thrives in a war zone. The people on that council who've watched their children die in war, they don't want someone who doesn't know how to be at peace. They're desperate for peace, but they don't want it to come at the expense of their country's honor. That's where you come in,” she goes on, tilting her head and looking back at him. “You set out on a journey to regain your honor – which, by the way, your father never had the power to take from you –” his face comes over sort of queer when she says this, but she barrels on without examining it “ – by bringing back the Avatar, which you did. But on your terms, not his. You saw a warmonger deposed, and took the throne on the platform of stopping the fighting for good. Look, Zuko…
“You're approaching this the wrong way,” she says, turning full-on to him. “You think that it's you against them, and trust me, I can see why, but it's not really. They want you to be the answer,” she says very deliberately, leaning forward and making sure that he is listening to every syllable she is saying. “They want you to be the Fire Lord who brings the nation to peace and stability. Not just the ministers, but the rest of the nation, except for a few jerks in the nobility. They want you to be the one who saves them and their place in the world. All you have to do is hang on and keep doing what you believe is right.”
He doesn't reply for a while, and when he does it's in a strikingly small voice. “I haven't exactly been the answer for them so far. That's why they don't really have faith in me.”
“Well, I do,” she snaps, with righteous force, and he looks up at her. “I believe in you. And I know that you are the answer they've spent a century looking for. You just have to know it, too. That's your biggest problem, Zuko,” she adds, much softer. “You think you're not worthy of their faith, but you are. You just have to trust yourself. You know what the right thing is. You know what they need. Maybe you don't know how to go about it,” she goes on, agitated, gesticulating wildly, “but that isn't the important part, not really. We can figure that out. What matters is that you have the right goal.”
Zuko watches her for a moment longer, before turning away, blinking rapidly and swallowing hard. “You really believe in me?” he murmurs.
“I really do,” she replies quietly. “I wouldn't be here if I didn't.”
“Yeah, but,” he starts, looking away from her, “how long will you be here?”
She blinks, the only answer rising in her at the same time that she knows exactly what sort of thing she's getting herself into by saying it. “As long as you need me,” she answers, and he glances back at her, then to the railing. “I promise, Zuko,” she goes on. “I'm here, by your side, as long I have to be to see the world through this and onto a better future.”
“It may be a while,” he says enigmatically.
“Then I'll be here a while,” she replies, and meets his eyes.
Aang ends up arriving just before dinner, and although he joins the group at the table, he sits far from her and doesn’t look at her, instead conversing with Toph about something that appears to be serious, judging from their expressions.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” she asks Zuko, who’s sitting beside her and looking kind of underwhelmed by the Earth Kingdom food.
“Who? Aang and Toph?” he asks, glancing down the table and making a face. “Looks serious. Probably something about the colonies, again.”
She makes a face. “Ugh. Remember that “no crappy politics at teatime” rule? I think it should apply to all meals.”
“I would be completely on-board with that,” Zuko replies evenly. “Actually, I’d be completely on-board with a “no crappy politics, period” rule, but I don’t think I could get away with it.”
She snickers. “Yeah, I think you’re kind of stuck with it at this point. At least you’ve got me,” she adds, a bit more flippantly than she feels. “I like the political stuff. Usually.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he replies, with an over-dramatic sigh and a sidelong smirk at her. “Besides go nuts.”
Katara glances at him, feeling the lightening of the mood but also the serious tone underneath. “You’d be just fine,” she says, and he glances at her.
“A wise person once told me that just fine isn’t good enough,” he replies, and she smiles.
“Once?” she scoffs, nudging him with her shoulder. “That was like two weeks ago.”
“You did say it once,” he counters, lightning-fast, and she shakes her head, laughing a bit, “it still counts.”
She rolls her eyes, but can’t stop smiling.
Sokka is, of course, the last to arrive, just as the sun is setting on the western horizon. She greets him when he gets off the boat, shielding his eyes in the fiery light and scanning the docks until he sees her, and his face splits into a huge grin.
“Katara!” he cries, dropping his back and opening his arms wide for a hug. She tries to maintain her stern, hands-on-hips glare, but she can’t help but step forward and let him pull her into his arms.
“You’re late,” she accuses when she steps back, but the bite is taken away by her smile. “You missed dinner!”
He rolls his eyes. “I know, I know. But we really did run into trouble.”
“Uh-huh,” she replies, raising an eyebrow and he scoffs with exaggerated offense.
“I mean it! The Unagi hit us, I think it was hungry,” he explains, picking his bag back up. “It didn’t do a lot of damage, but we stopped for repairs anyway, because I have this thing where I don’t like my boats sinking and drowning everyone.”
“Sure,” she says airily, “and it just happened that you took damage right by Kyoshi.”
He gives her a mock-glare, but it’s ruined by his grin. “Maybe the Unagi knew that true love was about to be reunited, and it couldn’t wait.”
Katara laughs, and glances back up to the boat where Suki is still waving her warriors into formation.
“So…” she starts, leaning forward, “have you done it yet?”
Sokka winces, and pulls out a misshapen lump of wood. “No, because this is how far I’ve gotten on the pendant.”
She bites her lip, trying not to laugh because she knows this is important to him, but it really does look rather sad. “What were you going for?” she asks, and he sighs, stuffing it back into his pocket.
“It’s supposed to be a fan, you know, for Kyoshi, with the symbol of the Water Tribe under it, but… It’s bad. You can say it, it looks awful.”
Katara hesitates, then reaches up to touch their mother’s pendant at her own throat. She’s not really using it, she thinks, and their mother would… she’d like that.
“Why don’t you give her this one?” she offers, and he looks surprised, then touched, but he reaches out a hand to stop her from taking it off.
“I appreciate it, Katara,” he says sincerely, “but that’s yours. You should keep it, and give it to your own kids someday.”
“It’s as much yours as it is mine,” she counters. “Mom would have loved Suki, she would have been happy to see you give it to her.”
“Katara,” he says, taking her by both hands. “I know how much it means to you to offer it, and I really do appreciate it, but I’m not gonna take that away from you. I don’t mind waiting until I’ve carved the right pendant for Suki. Keep it.”
“Well,” she replies, “if you change your mind… the offer’s open.”
“It means a lot to me,” he says, and gives her a slightly watery smile.
“What are you two over here talking about so seriously?” Suki asks loudly, shouldering her own bag and walking down the gangplank to meet them. Sokka jumps, and Katara makes a face.
“Well, it’s gonna be a serious few days,” she says, extracting herself from Sokka – who, she can’t help but notice, takes the opportunity to discreetly brush a tear away – and walks over to hug Suki. “Not much room for fun, at least unless we have another party this year.”
“You say that,” Suki counters, laughing, “but I have good money on you dousing the Council again. Sokka thinks you won’t do the same thing two years in a row, but I think you won’t change a good thing when you find it.”
She laughs out loud, shaking her head. “I’m hoping I don’t have to!”
“And I’m hoping a thousand gold coins fall on the ground in front of me,” Suki says, with a smile and an eyeroll. “But you know how all these stuffy ministers get. I hear you’ve had your hands full in the Fire Nation with them, yourself.”
“It’s getting better,” she replies, and Suki makes a face.
“You’re a better woman than I,” she shudders. “I thought I was going to punch some of them in the face more than once.”
“Believe me, I wanted to,” she laughs. “But they’re not as bad as I thought when I first got there.”
“Maybe they just like you,” Suki says, raising an eyebrow, and glances back at the boat where her warriors are filing onto the docks. One of them, which she recognizes as Ty Lee, standing next to a non-uniform-wearing Mai, waves with over-exaggerated motions, and Katara waves back. “I gotta say, you did me a huge favor by going over there full-time. I never felt like I was actually accomplishing much except beating up terrible assassins.”
“I actually haven’t seen any assassins yet,” she muses, wondering at that a bit, but Suki gives her an aside glance.
“Yeah, well, you’re famous, not just as a waterbender powerful enough to stop Azula, but also as the world’s best healer. I doubt they’ll stay gone for good,” she adds, more seriously, “but they’re probably walking more carefully with you there.”
“Do you think the council is clear?” she asks, and Suki sighs.
“As far as I can tell,” she replies. “It took a while for me to snoop on all of them enough to figure out where their loyalties are, but I think, between me and Zuko, and Mai for a while, that we got rid of all Ozai’s fanatics. I mean, they’re not all great,” she adds, shrugging, “but I went out of my way to find people Ozai had dismissed. Some of those were because, you know, they weren’t incredibly competent, but mostly it was just because they’d been loyal to Iroh. I figured that was a safe place to start. What do you think?”
“I think you made the right call. At worst, I think some of them are, yeah, incompetent, or power-hungry, but at least they’re probably not plotting his death.”
“Of course,” Sokka cuts in, joining them, “there’s still a lot of people in the nobility who aren’t on that council.”
“One thing at a time, Sokka,” Katara says fervently, and Suki smiles, patting her on the shoulder.
“You’ve got this,” she tells her, with firm confidence that she isn’t sure she deserves, and walks back to her warriors.
“If you say so,” she mutters to herself, and Sokka throws an arm around her shoulder.
“If you won’t trust Suki,” he says softly, “then trust me. You’re doing great. You’ve got this.”
This time, it's Katara who finds Aang at the balcony two hours after dinner, looking over the city.
“Hi,” she says quietly, a bit hesitantly. He's grown a lot in the past year, she thinks; he's taller than she is now, and even has the start of a beard going. He looks at her with a slightly pained smile.
“Thanks for coming to see me,” he says, and she shrugs like it's nothing, it's easy. “I wanted to…” he makes a frustrated noise and runs his hand over his head, and then goes on in a bit of a rush, “I wanted to apologize for how I acted when we were together.”
She tilts her head. “Aang, it wasn't your fault. You didn't do anything wrong.”
“Don't say that if it's not true, Katara,” he counters, sighing. “You always tell me that things aren't my fault, even when they are. I didn't realize I was holding you back, but I was. I'm really sorry about that. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you,” she says, walking forward to join him, leaning against the railing. “You never meant anything but the best, and I should have said something a lot sooner,” she says softly, and he nods, glancing away.
“Yeah,” he replies, sounding kind of hurt. “You really should have. It really hurt when you said that you thought we never should have gotten together in the first place.”
“I was wrong about that,” she says, closing her eyes. “Just because it didn't work out doesn't mean that it was a mistake. No love is wasted,” she adds, thinking about Ty Lee's words and how true they were.
“You really did love me, then?” he asks, and she glances at him.
“Of course,” she replies simply, and he takes a deep breath.
“You said that,” he starts, sounding hesitant, and something in her sinks right through the stone floor, “in the future, maybe we could work together.” He turns to her, eyes wide and imploring and reaching right into her heart and tugging with all their might. “Maybe that future is now,” he says softly, and it reverberates in her head like a glacier cracking into a thousand icebergs. “We know where things went wrong in the past, I know where I went wrong. We won't make the same mistakes, we're older and I think we've both learned a lot about ourselves and our place in the world. I still love you, Katara,” he goes on, looking down and looking so nervous, so vulnerable, that it rips her insides to shreds all over again. “I've missed you so much, I just… I just want to be with you, always.”
Maybe he can see her hesitation, maybe he can sense it, maybe he always knew he was just getting his hopes up to have them dashed, because he sighs and reaches out, taking her by the hand. She lets him, but doesn't return the pressure.
“At least consider it, Katara, please?” he implores, voice cracking a little on the please and cracking her heart.
She is so, so tired of hurting him.
He squeezes her hand once more and lets go, starts to walk away, to give her the space she once asked him for, all those years ago on Ember Island, the space he hadn't given her then – and a tiny part of her thinks that maybe it's a sign, he really has learned, he really does mean it.
But she promised Zuko she would be by his side for the duration, and she's not foolish enough to believe that such a promise can coexist with a relationship with Aang.
(Part of her thinks she's using that as an excuse for the more primal reason: she simply doesn't want to.)
“I don't need to consider it,” she tells him, clenching her jaw and hearing him stall at the door. “I already know.”
She doesn't look back, but she can see him turning in her mind's eye, see the hope she's about to crush in his eyes, and it hurts .
“I am happy where I am now,” she says deliberately. “I don't want to go back. I'm sorry, Aang,” she chokes. “I will always love you, but I don't think it's the same way you love me.”
“You won't even consider it?” he asks, voice breaking with tears she can't wipe away. “It wouldn't be going back, it would be starting over . We could start over, on the same page this time. You and me, side by side, making the whole world better. You're so good at this, Katara,” he chokes, and she bites her lip, eyes burning and vision blurring as she wills herself not to cry. “You're such an amazing diplomat, I can't believe I never saw it before. If we were together, we could be… we could be incredible, for the whole world. Why won't you even consider it?”
The half-lie about her promise to Zuko is on her lips, but she makes the mistake of turning to him and seeing the devastation in his eyes, and she knows that there is no sense in false hope. It was her being weak then and giving him false hope that led them to this in the first place.
“Because I don't want it, Aang,” she breathes, closing her eyes and feeling the hot tears run down her face. “I don't want to be your girlfriend. I don't want to spend my life in your shadow.”
“I wouldn't overshadow you!” he cries. “That's what I'm trying to tell you! I know I did before, I know it was wrong!”
“You would still overshadow me, Aang,” she chokes. “You wouldn't mean to, but you would.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because I want to say yes!” she cries, finally looking at him and wishing there was still an ocean between them. “But not because it's what I want, just because I'm sick of hurting you. I do love you, you're the person who taught me to have hope and be free and enjoy life, you'll always mean the world to me. But I don't want to be in a relationship with you,” she articulates, swallowing hard and taking a deep, ragged breath. “I can't be in a relationship with you, I'm always ceding ground to you.”
“You won't even try?”
She closes her eyes tight and shakes her head, thinking of her own words: better an unpleasant truth than a sweet lie. “I would have hated you, Aang,” she whispers. “If I had stayed with you, I would have hated you in the end, because I barely had the strength to leave then, even though I was miserable. I can't be honest with you, I know you say that I should be able to but that doesn't matter because I can't. I can't even look at you right now.”
There's a pause, before he says, in a cold and watery voice, “I never had you pegged for a coward before, Katara,” and leaves, shutting the door behind him with a resounding bang that makes her flinch.
There it goes, she thinks darkly. There goes the one person who believed you were perfect.
And good riddance, another part of her hisses.
She thinks, a bit traitorously, that she should have lied.
Toph didn't give them much information about the upper floors of the palace, because they wouldn't be open to the council members, but this is why Katara goes to them: probably no one will be there, and she will be able to be alone.
She's halfway to hysteria as it is, and the last thing she needs is for someone to see her like this.
She finds a drawing room in a secluded corner of the north wing, and barrels through it like an avalanche, so quickly and with so much force that she doesn't even realize someone is already there. She's standing at a little table, taking in deep lungfuls of air and choking on her own sobs, when the other person speaks.
“I'll just go, then,” Mai says, and Katara jumps, looking up at her with an expression that she's sure looks completely insane, before turning back away, horrified that Mai of all people is the one who saw her.
In retrospect, it makes sense: Katara came here to be alone; it's not unreasonable to think that Mai, trying to be fine in the face of Zuko's presence here, might have had the same goal.
She hears the footsteps retreating, but out of the corner of her eye, she sees Mai hesitate by the door.
“What… happened?” she asks tentatively, and Katara runs a hand over her face.
“It's… Aang,” she chokes, trying to breathe but finding it unreasonably difficult.
Mai pauses. “He… didn't want to get back together?” she offers, sounding uncertain, and Katara shakes her head.
“He did,” she replies, sniffling. “He wanted to try again, to… start over, ” she spits the words out with more force than is necessary. “I don't want to start over. I like my life just the way it is.”
There's another pause. “So… you're crying because…?”
She looks up, gaping at Mai, who is standing beside the door with one eyebrow raised, the only concession someone like Mai could give to confusion.
“I'm so sick of hurting him!” she cries, choking on her tears. “It's like that's all I've done, he saved the world and all he ever wanted was me and I just can't stop hurting him!”
In the ringing silence, she runs a shaking hand through her hair, and Mai makes a strange noise.
“Let me get this straight,” she drawls. “You're upset because he wanted to get back with you, which you don't want, and you turned him down, which hurt him. And now you're crying alone in a tacky drawing room because you chose not to be someone else's prize for saving the world?”
She swallows hard and glares, wondering why she expected Mai to understand.
“I do care about him, you know?” she snarls, taking in a deep, shaky breath. “Caring, it's something most humans do.”
Mai doesn't take the bait, and Katara is a bit irritated by this, since she's now itching for a fight. “For the love of Agni and all his dumb children,” Mai snaps, rolling her eyes, “he's sixteen. When I was sixteen, the guy I thought was the love of my life dumped me in a letter. He'll get over it.”
Katara hesitates, feeling a bit stupid in the face of Mai's deadpan deconstruction of the thing that's currently turned her life upside-down.
“And, furthermore,” Mai goes on, folding her hands into her sleeves, “he was a real jerk for dumping all this on you right now.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, and Mai raises that eyebrow again.
“It's the Council of Four, in case you hadn't noticed,” she says sardonically. “It's the single most important three days of the year, at least for people like you and Zuko and Aang, and the last thing anyone in the world needs is for anyone to be distracted by their dumb personal crap right now.”
She wants to say something about how it's not dumb personal crap, it's love and the whole future, but at the same time… it is kind of dumb in comparison to the things they're supposed to be here to discuss.
“Look, Katara,” Mai continues, stepping forward, “you don't have time for this. The Fire Nation – the world – needs you to be on tomorrow morning, no matter how late you stay up tonight crying over some stupid teenager with delusions of true love. That's what you signed up for when you shacked up with Zuko,” she adds, and heat rises to her face at the implication, but Mai doesn't give her the opportunity to deny it. “If you're not willing to do it, then you need to get the hell out of here now, because you're just gonna make everything worse.”
Almost against her will, the antagonistic, “Is that what you did?” slips out of her mouth before she can stop it. She's just stinging from Mai's tone, and still from Aang's when he left her on the balcony.
(It seems so long ago, when she and Zuko were laughing about Boscoe.)
“Yes,” Mai replies simply, shrugging. “That is what I did. I didn't want to be Fire Lady, I hated everything about it, and loving Zuko wasn't enough to justify staying there and doing all that crap. But you're all about the political stuff,” she goes on, rolling her eyes again and waving a hand irritably. “You've got all these plans about improving the world. I really thought better of you than this.”
It hits her like a slap in the face.
She wonders distantly just what Zuko decided to write in his letter to her.
She swallows hard, looks away, and takes a deep, even breath. “You're right,” she says, rubbing at her face angrily. “I need to be focusing on the Council, not on Aang. I… I just didn't expect this.”
“Which, again, makes him the asshole here, not you.”
“Aang isn't an asshole,” she says, kind of dejected, and Mai shakes her head. “He just loves me more than I love him.”
“Love makes people do stupid things,” Mai tells her. “It even makes nice people act like assholes.”
It's an entirely different perspective than anything she would have even dreamed of, and although she definitely still feels like a horrible person for shutting him down, it was kind of short-sighted on his part, to dump all this on her right when she most needed to be focused. Maybe he just couldn't wait; but then, even if she had just fallen right back into his arms, she would have had to jump straight back into politics and ignore their romantic reunion, so what was he really hoping for here?
Still, the image of his face – crushed and shattered, with his image of her on that pedestal he'd always kept her on crumbling to the ground – haunts her.
“He'll get over it,” Mai repeats, opening the door. “But even if he doesn't, his feelings aren't your problem.”
She looks up.
“Thank you,” she says suddenly, and Mai raises an eyebrow. “For listening.”
“Whatever,” she sighs. “Just don't let this get in your way tomorrow.”
Mai looks at her, sizing her up for a moment, before giving her the tiniest of smiles. “Good.”
He'll get over it, but even if he doesn't, his feelings aren't your problem.
Don't worry about everyone else. They'll come around or they won't, but you shouldn't wait on them to get on with your life.
I never had you pegged for a coward before.
You did him a favor in the long run.
It all echoes in her head and drowns out the exhaustion that lurks under her skin once the tears have washed themselves out. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has advice, everyone has something to tell her about how she should respond.
It's all meant well, sure, but it's driving her slowly insane.
She gives up on sleep altogether – it's closer to dawn than midnight, anyway, she'd be doing more harm than good trying to rest at this point – and goes to the kitchens Toph pointed out, taking care not to wake any of the servants as she makes herself a pot of tea, but she's brought up short by the fact that the kettle is already hot.
Someone else is awake.
But the kitchen is deathly silent, and anyway, she doesn't really want to talk to anyone right now, so she decides not to question it, not to go looking. Just drink her tea and maybe eat a mango or something and begrudgingly decide to welcome the dawn.
She gingerly sets the pot and cup onto a tray and takes it out into the nearest courtyard, but her luck is both with her and not with her – the early-rising tea-drinker is sitting out there, obvious in silhouette.
Really, she should have expected it as soon as she noticed the kettle.
He turns, hearing her before she can sneak back out, and his face splits into a jovial grin.
“Lady Katara!” Uncle Iroh beams, beckoning her over to him, and his good cheer is infectious enough that she's torn between wanting to join him and wanting to leave him so she can sulk in peace. “You're up early this morning.”
“So are you,” she replies, giving up and walking over to sit next to him. “I only brought one cup,” she starts, but he waves her off, and anyway he has his own cup and pot of tea next to him.
“At my age, sleep neither comes easily nor lasts long,” he says, and pours himself a cup from his own pot. It smells much better than the tea she's made for herself – a simple collection of as many black tea leaves as she could cram into the basket – but of course, it would. “But you should be abed! You've got quite the day ahead of you.”
“I… couldn't sleep,” she answers, hoping that the low light is sufficient to hide her puffy eyes. She hasn't really thought about what she's going to do about that in the actual morning, when the sun is up and everyone can see her. “Nerves, I guess,” she goes on, laughing and hoping it sounds more convincing to him than it does to her.
“Nonsense,” he says, waving a hand. “You've nothing to be worried over. According to my nephew, you're the best thing that's happened to the Fire Nation in centuries! Not in so many words, of course,” he adds, eyes twinkling in the dim torch- and starlight, and she can't help but smile. “But he speaks very highly of you and your prowess as a politician.”
There's some sort of undercurrent to his words, something in the vein of I know you're lying, and she wonders if he can tell she's been crying.
She looks down and pours herself a cup of tea, drinking it probably faster than she should. And that's when she knows that he's waiting for her to open up to him and explain why she’s upset, because Uncle Iroh would absolutely have commented on her shooting dull black tea like it's hard liquor otherwise.
“Aang wanted to get back together,” she finds herself telling him, even though it wasn't quite what she opened her mouth to say. The tea has left a bitter sensation in her mouth, burning and drying at the same time.
“Ah,” he replies, drawing out the syllable and taking a sip of his tea. “That is the peril of young love: it does not understand letting go.”
“I really wish he would get the picture,” she sighs, shivering in spite of the warm weather. “I'm so sick of hurting him.”
“Some hurts are unavoidable,” he says. “He will learn peace in time, as will you.”
“That's what Mai said,” she mutters, a bit mulish in her determination to be upset still. “That he'd get over it. But I thought that two years ago, and here we are. He thinks we're destined for each other.”
“Destiny is a funny thing,” he replies thoughtfully. “What may seem so clear to you at dawn may turn out to be an illusion by midmorning.” He looks at her sideways. “Take my nephew, for example. For years, he was convinced that his destiny was to capture the Avatar for the Fire Nation and regain his place beneath his father's iron fist. It took a great deal of upheaval for him to realize the truth. Those sorts of revelations never come painlessly, my lady,” he adds, somewhat apologetically. “But in the end, we are always better for having had them.”
“Everyone's full of advice,” she grumbles. “But it seems like they don't really know what I'm feeling.”
“Ask Zuko,” Uncle Iroh says seriously, and she glances at him a bit critically. “I am serious, Lady Katara, Zuko does know this pain. He and Lady Mai spent years trying to force their relationship to work, ultimately hurting the both of them far more than they would have had they walked away when it first failed.”
“Mai didn't seem to understand very well,” she counters, but then she thinks about it a bit more, and wonders if maybe she did, and maybe that was why she was harsh.
“Mai herself is difficult to understand,” he says, as though reading her thoughts. “I doubt she would be very open to discussing such a painful time with a near-stranger. But you and Zuko are close, from what I hear,” he goes on, and she tells herself that she's imagining the slight innuendo in his tone. “I think he would be open to discussing this with you.”
But talking about romantic entanglements with Zuko seems… dangerous.
“I feel like this is the wrong time for all this,” she mutters, Mai's words about Aang being an asshole for bringing this up now ringing in her ears. “We shouldn't be focused on… personal stuff, there's so much more going on.”
“Alas,” Uncle Iroh sighs, “the heart is a selfish beast. It does not choose an appropriate time to make its demands.”
“The heart may not, but Aang should have,” she cries, louder and with more feeling than she intends.
“Avatar Aang is a young man ruled by his heart,” he counters softly, without any apparent reproach. “It makes him an effective peacemaker and well-loved by the people, but it is not without its downsides.”
She doesn't want to let go of the anger that Mai gifted her with – when she's angry with him, she doesn't have the space in her head to remember how crushed he looked. But all of her anger crumbles in the face of Iroh's good-natured kindness.
“I thought he wanted to make amends,” she says quietly, running her hand over her face. “When he wrote to me asking to speak in private, I thought it was because he was ready to be friends again. I was ready to be friends again.”
Uncle Iroh pats her sympathetically on the knee. “It will pass, Lady Katara, and you will find yourself stronger for it.” Maybe he can see that she’s in no mood to be comforted, because he gives her a soft smile. “You should rest. It will be a long day.”
“Breakfast is only a couple of hours away,” she sighs. “I’d just be doing more harm than good.”
“Ah,” he counters, raising a finger, “but the meetings do not start until after mid-morning. You could still achieve four or five hours of sleep.”
She thinks about it for a moment, but she isn’t sure; although she doesn’t feel much better, she does feel less scattered and stretched-thin, so maybe she will be able to fall asleep. But she doesn’t want to waste hours trying, only to get a half-hour of sleep and wake up feeling worse.
“Take it from an old man,” he says softly, “you will feel better after sleeping.”
She takes a deep breath and runs a hand through her hair. “I guess you’re right,” she mumbles. “I don’t want to be falling asleep in the middle of a meeting, after all.”
“Exactly,” Iroh says, and then waves her off as she starts to gather up her teapot. “Allow me to take care of this, my lady. I’ll send someone to wake you in time for the meetings. Get some rest, now.”
She smiles at him a little wanly, and goes back to her room; she doesn’t change clothes or even turn down the blankets again, instead kicking her shoes off and falling onto the bed, where she holds the spare pillow to her chest like a lover, and falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The first thing she becomes aware of is the knocking on the door.
The second thing is that her mouth feels like it’s filled with dirty cotton, and the third is that she is fully-clothed on top of the covers of her bed. It takes her a moment to remember why: the tea, Uncle Iroh’s advice… Aang.
“Come in,” she says muzzily, sitting up and blinking in the bright morning sunlight. The door opens tentatively and – of course, she thinks, she should have expected this from the meddling old coot – Zuko leans in a little bit, keeping his eyes carefully averted.
“Katara?” he asks, and she staggers to her feet, taking a bit longer still to return to consciousness. “Uncle asked me to wake you, he said you were up really late.”
“Yeah,” she replies, shaking her head and still blinking rapidly. “You can come in.”
“I saved you breakfast,” he says, stepping through the door and holding out a tray with a pot of tea and a cup, as well as a plate of fruit and rice balls. “Are… you okay?”
She looks up a bit dumbly at his tone, and then down at herself, wincing: her dress is rumpled from sleeping in it, her hair feels as though a bird or seven set up a nest near the back of her neck, and her eyes are still swollen from all of last night’s crying. She definitely doesn’t look like she’s having the best day ever.
But on the other hand… the tea smells sweet and strong, undoubtedly one of Iroh’s recipes, and there’s what looks like a whole mango sliced on the plate, and the rice balls are dusted with lotus seeds and stuffed with red beans, and the morning air is breezy and the sky is bright blue and wide open through the window… And damn him, Iroh was right, she does feel better.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she replies, taking the tray from him with an awkward cringe, “once I clean up a little, sorry.”
“Uncle… said you seemed upset,” he starts hesitantly, looking concerned. “Is something wrong?”
She looks up at him, hesitates a half-second, and then smiles. “I’ll tell you about it later,” she replies quietly. “We’ve got more important things to deal with today.”
Zuko doesn’t seem convinced, but he lets it go. “At least we’re not dealing with the colonies until tomorrow.”
“And thank all of the spirits that have ever been for that,” she says fervently, popping a rice ball into her mouth and setting the tray down on the bedside table. Zuko laughs a bit, and rubs the back of his neck, watching her with what looks like trepidation as she pours a cup. She raises a questioning eyebrow at him, and he coughs, wincing.
“I made the tea,” he admits. “It’s Uncle’s recipe, so it’s probably fine, but… it may not be great.”
She lets out a small laugh. “It can’t be worse than the tea I made myself this morning,” she says, and takes a sip. It is good, some kind of earthy, vaguely floral black tea. “What kind is it?”
“Jasmine and ginseng,” he replies, still rubbing the back of his neck nervously. “Uncle swears by it.”
“It’s good,” she tells him, and he smiles. “I’ll see you in the meeting hall,” she goes on, gesturing at herself to indicate the need to dress appropriately, and he starts.
“Right, yeah. Don’t, um… Don’t get lost.”
Katara laughs a bit at that. “I won’t,” she says. “Thank you for the breakfast, and the tea.”
“You’re welcome,” he replies, still looking awkward, and backs out of the room, wincing a little.
Alone in the room with her thoughts, she stands still for a long moment, closing her eyes and centering herself.
Don’t let this get in your way, Mai warned her.
“I won’t,” she says again, to herself, and nods firmly.
“I’m sorry,” Toph murmurs to her as they take their seats at the table. Katara glances at her, surprised. “I tried to talk him out of it.”
“Oh,” is all she can think to say, and then: “How is he?”
Toph shrugs, a bitter twist to her lips. “Upset. Said some things I doubt he really means, but…”
“He doesn't want anything to do with me,” she finishes for her, and Toph winces.
“Give him time,” she says. “He will get over it.”
She hesitates, glancing down the table to where Aang is sitting, and although he isn't scowling, he isn't smiling, either. Mai’s words rattle around in her head.
But instead of everything she'd like to say, she settles on, “I hope so.”
Ultimately, it's better than last year, when Aang was so frustrated with her that he couldn't focus; instead, he treats her like a stranger, which hurts Katara more but is better for everyone else.
The first day of the Council runs relatively smooth, since the main focus is on trade between the nations, and mostly a simple task to hash out. The first tentative year of open-borders trading has been pretty successful, although not as wildly as she and Sokka sort of hoped it would be, and the Earth Kingdom – this being their first real meeting with the Water Tribe since the last council – is eager to discuss the expansion of their textile trade, whereas Katara and Minister Lian have pretty much handled the Fire Nation’s trade already.
“It seems a bit unfair, really,” Lady Jiayi of Omashu points out, glancing sideways at Minister Lian, “that the Fire Nation has its own live-in Ambassador from the Water Tribe, whereas the Earth Kingdom has to make do with these yearly meetings.”
Katara hesitates, unsure how to tackle this (particularly with her sleep deprivation starting to catch up with her), but Lian takes the lead on it.
“The difference lies in centrality,” Minister Lian responds smoothly. “The Lady Katara is only one person, and can only be in one place at one time, whereas the Earth Kingdom would require her presence in several major cities at once, or, alternatively, a series of ambassadors to work with each city individually, thus depriving the Water Tribe itself of many of its own key politicians.”
She wants to point out that, also, Zuko really needs her help a lot more than the Earth Kingdom does, but that would make the Fire Nation appear weak; she has to go at it from another angle.
“Moreover,” Katara adds slowly, “the Fire Nation is in the middle of a transition from a military industry to a production industry, which is a delicate process. Fire Lord Zuko –” she nods at him “– and I both thought that the inclusion of a member of another culture may help aid in smoothing that transition, as well as showing the world as a whole that the Water Tribe does not bear ill will toward the Fire Nation for the war.”
“I note that he never requested the aid of any Earth Kingdom diplomats,” Lady Jiayi starts, but Zuko, apparently thinking fast, steps in.
“As a matter of fact,” he says, glancing down the table, “I have actually recently requested the aid of Lady Bei Fong, although I’ve yet to receive a response.”
Katara is surprised; if he actually did this, and isn’t lying through his teeth to prevent any more fighting with the Earth Kingdom dignitaries than tomorrow is sure to bring, he never mentioned it to her.
“Yeah, about that,” Toph drawls, waving a hand in front of her face. “I couldn’t exactly read the letter myself, and my mother took issue with the idea of me leaving the Earth Kingdom. It turned into a fight. In other news, I’m going back to the Fire Nation with you.”
Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose; Aang, she notes, does almost the exact same thing.
“We don’t wish to cause any tension with Gaoling…” Katara starts, hoping to convey through her tone how bad an idea this may turn out to be, but Toph shrugs.
“I mean, they already know I’m doing it,” she replies, and Katara glances sideways at Zuko, inadvertently catching his eye, and his surprise.
He totally was bluffing. But now the ball is in Toph’s court, and while Toph can certainly be counted on to have their backs – she didn’t rat him out, for one thing – she isn’t exactly the reigning champion of tact or discretion.
“Well, in that case,” Zuko says brightly, all traces of surprise and concern gone by the time he looks up to the rest of the table, “I would be happy to have you accompany us to the Caldera. If the present ministers have no objection…"
Xu glances between Katara and Toph, then takes a deep breath. “I will admit that I objected to the addition of the Lady Katara, and found myself proven wrong, so, in the interest of not making the same mistake of mistrusting the Fire Lord’s judgment, I have no objection this time.”
Katara bites her tongue and wants to melt through the floor.
But Toph gives Xu a beatific smile. “I promise,” she says fervently, “you won’t regret it.”
“So,” she murmurs to Zuko at the dinner table after the day’s meetings have concluded, “that went… well. It’ll be nice to have Toph around.”
Zuko coughs, and winces. “It was a few months ago, but I did actually ask her to come and stay for a while,” he says, as though defending himself, “to help deal with the assassins. She said she couldn’t leave at the time, but she’d come visit whenever she got the chance. So. It wasn’t entirely a lie.”
“Hey, I’m not judging,” she replies airily, and then cringes. “I do worry about her on the Council with Xu, though.”
“I was trying very hard to forget all about that, thanks.”
Katara laughs a little, and pats him on the shoulder. “It’ll be all right. Toph can be… well, Toph, but she knows how to act like an adult, too. And hey, it does send a strong message about unity, like I mentioned.”
“Nice save there, by the way,” he comments, and she makes a face.
“Thank you, it was made up entirely on the spot.”
“Well,” he says, smirking at her sideways, “wasn’t that the same way it was with your trade deal with them last year?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she deadpans, struggling not to laugh, and he nods once, slowly.
“Sure you don’t.”
“Nope, not a clue.”
They fall into a companionable silence as the servants bring out the first course: a light, clear soup with Earth Kingdom vegetables, paired with a yellow wine she’s never heard of before but finds herself falling in love with all the same.
“You like this stuff?” Zuko asks, delicately placing his glass back down with what looks like intense effort not to wince.
“I do,” she replies, with some defiance.
“It’s… very dry,” he says magnanimously, and she shrugs.
“I like dry wines,” she counters, glancing around to see if anyone is watching before pouring the contents of his glass into her own and taking another drink. The reason is twofold: for one, she likes the taste, but also whenever her mind stops, the image of Aang’s crushed expression rises up in her eyes.
Zuko watches her for a moment, and she gives him a (slightly-exaggerated, she can admit) look of offense.
“What? You didn’t want it.”
He meets her eyes, and she knows he’s thinking of how disheveled she looked this morning, and how she wouldn’t tell him what was wrong, and how his uncle had told him she was upset but now she’s pretending that nothing is wrong…
“Later,” she murmurs, and takes another drink, looking up and away to prevent the tears from coming back.
“If you say so,” he says, but still sounds concerned.
The next course comes out with a wine that Zuko likes too much to let her take, or else he’s just pretending to enjoy it so as not to inadvertently enable her bad decision; it’s a little sweeter than the previous, but a deeper orange-red color that she is – in her tipsy state – fascinated with.
By the time the main dish comes out, Katara is drunk enough to talk to him about it. After all, Uncle Iroh had said he would understand, right?
“Aang wanted to get back together,” she tells him in a low voice, and he looks at her with an unreadable expression.
“But you promised me that you’d stay in the Fire Nation,” he infers, sounding somewhat dejected, but if there’s a good reason for it, it goes over her head.
“That’s not it,” she sighs. “I just didn’t want to. I probably should have told him that instead, though,” she goes on, picking at her plate a bit miserably. “I decided to be honest with him, and now he hates me.”
“I doubt very much that Aang could ever hate you,” Zuko says, and she shakes her head.
“You didn’t see the look on his face,” she mutters darkly. “Like I… wasn’t who he thought I was.”
“Well…” he starts, rubbing the back of his neck and taking a large gulp of wine himself, “Aang has never exactly had the most… accurate perception of you. Not that you’re bad, or anything, I didn’t mean…”
He looks away, cringing hard, but she just sighs again.
“No, he thought I was perfect,” she says. “And… it was just too much pressure. I couldn’t go back to… pretending. Even though he seemed to think it wouldn’t be that way anymore,” she goes on, agitated, waving a hand and snatching her glass back up. “But the fact that he was so upset when I was honest with him tells me it would have been. Right?”
“Maybe?” he replies uncertainly, wincing again. “He may have thought he had it figured out, but that kind of thing is pretty hard to get over. Or he may have just been upset because you turned him down. It’s hard to say.”
She glances at him. “You’re supposed to say yes,” she mumbles, the alcohol chasing the words out, and Zuko raises an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to make me feel better.”
“How’s this?” he offers, face softening as he leans in a little bit. “You made the right decision. You break up with someone, then you remember how much you cared about them, and so you get back together only to remember why you broke up in the first place, but now it hurts more because you both had all this hope riding on it. You thought you could beat the odds and get it right this time, but it never seems to work like that. It’s better to just let it go when it’s over, because you’ve already lost what you had, and you can’t get it back.”
“But I really hurt him,” she whispers, and her vision is blurry, so she tries to clear it with another drink; it doesn’t work.
“It would have hurt him more if you’d gotten back together, only to break up again later. Trust me on that, Katara,” he adds, with feeling. “Aang will be okay. He’s stronger than he looks.”
“I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me for this,” she says, thinking about exactly what she said to him, that she would have hated him in the end – and why, why, why did that seem like a good idea? – but Zuko simply nudges her with his shoulder.
“You said the same thing about me,” he counters, and when she looks up at him, he gives her a hesitant smile. “And Aang is way more forgiving than I am.”
She returns the smile, albeit weakly. “That’s true,” she replies, although she doesn’t quite believe it. After all, Aang’s feelings run a lot deeper than Zuko’s did when she hurt him.
“You remember how you told me that everything would work out?” he goes on, apparently hearing her hesitation in her tone or seeing it on her face. “Because you were on my side, I wasn’t alone in the Fire Nation anymore?”
“Yes…” she mumbles.
“Well, it goes both ways,” he says. “You’re on my side, I’m on yours. We’re in this together.”
She sighs. “This is a lot… less important than all of that.”
“Not really,” he replies. “I mean, to them, maybe,” he adds, gesturing around the table, “but to you, it’s just as important, and it affects you just as much. It doesn’t matter any less just because it’s personal.”
“It’s the wrong time for all this, anyway,” she says, a bit hastily, and takes a gulp of wine to drown out an unidentifiable emotion rising in her chest. Zuko shrugs.
“Maybe, but when would be a good one?”
“Never?” she suggests, laughing with some desperation, and Zuko looks at her sympathetically but doesn’t comment on it. She bites her lip. “I was trying to be honest with him,” she admits shamefully, “but I think I went too far in the opposite direction. I can’t seem to get it right with Aang. I never have.”
“Well…” he muses, rubbing the back of his neck again, and she wonders what he’s thinking. Probably what Uncle Iroh would say right now, but she doesn’t want Uncle Iroh’s advice, she wants Zuko’s understanding. But what he says instead of any adage or teaching is, “You got it right with yourself, that’s the most important part.” He takes a deep breath and looks at her with a wry twist to his lips. “Trust me, once you get yourself where you’re supposed to be, everything else falls into place a lot easier. Aang will see that, sooner or later, he’ll realize that you’re better off this way, you both are. That process, though, it’s… not something you can have a part in. He’s got to figure it out on his own, and you’ve got to walk away and leave him to it.”
“It’s not easy,” she says softly.
“No,” he sighs, glancing down the table to where Mai is sitting with the Kyoshi Warriors, “it’s not. And I don’t know anything that makes it easier. It’s hard to walk away from someone you love but just can’t be with, when it should work on paper, but it just doesn’t and you can barely even put your finger on why. It’s better in the long run, but… it really hurts in the now.”
A silence falls as the servants make a pass around the table, picking up plates, and Katara hands hers over even though she’s barely touched it, making a half-hearted comment about filling up on the soup. When they’ve gone, she looks back to Zuko, struggling to find the words in a way she’s unused to being.
“Thank you,” she says, feeling lame that that’s all she can come up with, but he smiles at her instead.
“It’s nothing,” he replies, shrugging like this emotional interlude really wasn’t difficult for him, even though Katara knows that’s not true, that Zuko struggles with this sort of thing: he’s a great person and has many great qualities, but he’s not much of a speaker. “I mean, we’re friends, right?” he adds, although a bit delicately.
“Right,” she agrees, and wonders why it doesn’t feel right.
At breakfast the next morning, they all (including Aang, although he sits by Toph and doesn’t look at her) all congregate together, and drink a couple of pots of strong black tea, none of them appearing to have slept very well, Katara included.
“So, how are we tackling this?” Sokka asks, leaning in. “The colonies are pretty much everyone’s business at this point, after all.”
“The best we’ve been able to come up with,” Katara replies, gesturing to herself and Zuko, “is a sort of public works program in the Fire Nation, to hopefully entice the colonists to return home. I don’t know if the Earth Kingdom will accept that as a total solution, though."
“It’s not one,” Aang interjects, but he doesn’t sound hostile. “It will help, but it’s not the whole solution. We need to come at this from another angle.”
“What have you been thinking?” she asks, and he looks up at the group, but not at her.
“I was thinking about establishing a new nation,” he says. “Under its own governance, not subject to any nation’s rule.”
“But will the Earth Kingdom give up their land for that?” Zuko asks, and Aang takes a deep breath, glancing at Toph, who gives him an encouraging gesture.
“They don’t have to,” Aang replies. “The Air Nomads are gone, and the temples are just gathering dust. I… well, Toph and I were thinking about making a trade with them, for the land around the Northern and Eastern Air Temples in exchange for at least some of the land that the colonists are occupying, and we could build a major city there. She said… well, I’ll let her tell you.”
“I ran it by my dad, actually,” Toph admits, wincing. “I figure, there’s no one more quintessentially Earth Kingdom than Lao Bei Fong, so he’d be able to tell me if they’d totally hate everything about it, but he thought about it for a long time and said it might actually be a feasible idea. So I think we’ve got a chance of selling it to them.”
“That would actually work as an answer for our problem, too,” Katara says, glancing at Zuko. “If we’re going to build a new city-state, we’ll need buildings, homes and shops and, well, a city. That would be an effective public works project, and if the Earth Kingdom was willing to help pay for it… would they be willing to help pay for it?”
“Unlikely,” Suki offers. “As far as they’re concerned, they’d be completely in the right to eradicate the colonies altogether. I doubt they’d help pay for it.”
“Leave that up to me, then,” Katara says, eyes narrowing. “I’ll see if I can convince them. But I think it’s a really good idea, Aang.”
“Thanks,” he replies, but still doesn’t even look at her.
“You expect us to simply give up our land, so that the invaders can have it?” Lady Jiayi asks, eyes ablaze, and Aang takes a deep breath.
“In exchange for half of the territory traditionally belonging to the Air Nomads,” he replies, showing an impressive degree of patience, even for him. “It’s been terraced in many places, and there are many orchards and rare fruits. Overall, the land you receive in this deal is more than you cede.”
“All so that you can build a new, happy little nation of colonial monsters?” she counters, blinking rapidly in false interest.
“All so that we can take this problem out of your hands,” Zuko cuts in. “The colonists are, ultimately, my problem. The Avatar has gone to great lengths to come up with a solution that benefits the greatest number of people with the lowest amount of sacrifice –”
“Because your people eradicated the Air Nomads!”
“With all due respect, Lady Jiayi,” Toph snaps loudly, “ get over it. Your pride will be the death of thousands and thousands of people if you don’t –”
“Our pride is all that those firebending dogs didn’t take from us!”
“That’s wrong,” Katara says quietly, but it lands on the table like a thousand-ton boulder, and Jiayi has the self-awareness to look a bit ashamed. “The Southern Water Tribe could say that our pride was all that the Fire Nation didn’t take from us, but not the Earth Kingdom. Your cities are intact, your people thrive, whereas I am the last native waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe,” she adds deliberately, voice wavering slightly with rage as her hands clench into fists under the table. “But none of the people responsible for that are here today. None of them still hold power, none of them are on Fire Lord Zuko’s council of ministers. It’s in the past. We must deal with the future.”
A ringing silence falls.
Lady Qiaolian of Ba Sing Se coughs lightly. “King Kuei,” she says, looking to the King seated beside her, although he looks like he really wishes she wouldn’t, “this is up to you. Will you agree to the Avatar’s deal?”
Kuei looks from Qiaolian to Aang to Katara to Zuko, and then back. “If you think it is a good idea, then I have no objection. The people of those colonies, obviously they will have the opportunity to emigrate or return to the Fire Nation, right?”
“Of course,” Aang replies. “No one is going to be forced to live somewhere they don’t want to be.”
“How will you pay for it?” Jiayi interjects, apparently willing to take this fight to the grave. “If you believe that Omashu will put forth the funding –”
“Actually, I believe King Bumi would be quite supportive of the idea,” Aang counters sharply, and Katara can see the yes but he’s a very old man forming on Jiayi’s lips, but she must see the look on Aang’s face, and decides not to press it.
“Not that I disagree with the Avatar,” Lady Qiaolian says, subtly inching her chair away from Jiayi’s, “but I do have to wonder at how he plans to fund this operation. Do you really feel it morally justifiable, to have us pay for your colonies, Fire Lord Zuko?”
“I would have us both pay,” he replies, although he glances at Katara when he says it. “Many of those people consider themselves practically of the Earth Kingdom –” he starts, but it’s the wrong thing to say.
“They are invaders, Fire Lord,” Jiayi snaps. “They are not our people. They are yours, and your problem alone.”
“As the Lady Bei Fong said earlier,” Katara cuts in, “get over it. The Fire Nation has its own concerns to deal with, it cannot fully fund this project on its own. Everyone stands the opportunity to benefit from this deal.”
“You expect us to just let this go?” Jiayi snarls, and Katara gives her a look of pure, icy steel.
“Why not? I did,” she says sharply. “Aang did. Sokka did. Toph did. Or do you mean to tell me,” she goes on, with false fascination, “that a group of teenagers is capable of greater cultural empathy and forgiveness than grown adults with decades of experience who purport to speak for thousands of people?”
“That’s… different,” Jiayi replies, although she seems to know she’s reaching.
“Please, enlighten me as to how,” Katara counters.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Ministers Lian and Xu exchange looks of what might just be amusement.
Jiayi clearly knows that she has no ground to stand on in this argument, at least not with Katara, but she’s also too stubborn to let it drop without a fight.
“The Fire Lord is a personal friend of yours,” she lands on, and Katara raises an eyebrow.
“He wasn’t when we first met,” she says simply. “But I’m not here on behalf of the Fire Lord. He can speak for himself. I’m here on behalf of the people who otherwise have no voice. You can ask Minister Xu about my feelings on this topic,” she adds, and he pinches the bridge of his nose in irritation, but she also notices that it’s hiding a small smile. “This is a solution which will benefit us all, as well as create a large number of jobs as the city requires building and maintenance. Jobs which are desperately needed. The Fire Lord has said he will offer half of the required funds, all we ask is that you meet us there.”
“And how much would that be?” Qiaolian asks, striking for an artery and, unfortunately, drawing blood: none of them actually did that research. Katara glances at Minister Lian – a businesswoman with long years of experience in managing construction, albeit mostly on weapons of war in the past and now on technology – for help.
Lian rises magnificently to the occasion.
“In terms of manpower,” Lian starts, writing a few figures down on the paper in front of her, “to build the bare bones of a city – a residential area, a market, and an administrative district – we would require a few hundred civilians, or half that if earthbenders were involved. In terms of gold…” she pauses, doing a few figures on the paper. “Perhaps 62,000 pounds, all told. That covers the cost of material as well as wages for workers. Beyond that, the city should be able to fund itself.”
“So you want us to supply you with 31,000 pounds of gold?” Qiaolian asks, raising an eyebrow, and Lian looks from her to Zuko.
“If the Fire Lord is willing to supply his half, I see no reason why the Earth Kingdom could not do the same.”
Zuko, Katara notes, looks a bit alarmed at that figure.
“I would hesitate to set the number at that,” Xu interjects, glancing down at Lian’s notes. “62,000 may cover the cost if nothing goes wrong, but we must consider that things may not go according to plan. I would set the beginning cost at 70,000, myself.”
“Yes, well, you’re a pessimist,” Lian mutters, and Xu raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t comment.
“35,000, then,” Qiaolian says, crossing her arms. “That’s 35,000 pounds of gold out of the pockets of our people and into the pockets of a new nation, with no guarantee of payoff."
“But look at what you stand to gain,” Sokka counters. “A new nation means new trade, new cultural developments, new technology. For everybody. We all stand to benefit.”
“I do not believe you know just how much 35,000 pounds of gold truly is,” Qiaolian deadpans, but Kuei steps in.
“I will fund it,” he says quietly, and everyone looks at him. “I have at least most of that in my own personal coffers,” he goes on. “If Omashu and Gaoling and Kyoshi are willing to supply, perhaps, a thousand pounds apiece, I can cover the rest without inconveniencing the people in any way.”
Another hard silence falls, and Qiaolian bites her lip. “Ba Sing Se – independent of the King – should also be included,” she says, apparently somewhat ashamed by her king’s generosity. “In fact, I would say that we could spare two thousand.”
“A thousand pounds is a lot easier to come up with,” Suki muses. “But I’ll have to talk to the Elders at Kyoshi before I can say for sure.”
“As to that,” Xu cuts in, steepling his fingers and peering at Zuko. “How do we intend to come up with 35,000 pounds of gold for this?”
Zuko gives him a blank look. “My own coffers,” he replies, like it’s obvious. “We have a lot of gold, passed down through generations of royalty, and all it’s doing is sitting around in the vaults. I’m sure we can make 35,000 pounds out of that.”
Katara notes the passed down through generations of royalty, and she hopes that it’s the truth – the idea of using gold stolen from other cultures to fund this sits wrong with her, and she knows it sits wrong with everyone else, too.
“We will perform an inventory upon our return to the Fire Nation,” Lian adds helpfully.
Jiayi looks very much like she wants to disagree, but now that she’s been thoroughly outnumbered – and now that Kuei has proven his own intent to side with this – she simply purses her lips.
“I will discuss this with King Bumi,” she says finally, begrudgingly, and Katara knows they’ve won.
“Of course,” Aang replies, smiling, and for all the world, it looks completely genuine. “I hope to discuss this with you further, when we begin moving forward with construction.”
“That’s settled, then,” Kuei says, with a tremulous smile. “We will take the land surrounding the Northern and Eastern Air Temples, and contribute half of the funds to building a new nation for the colonies to inhabit.”
“Everyone wins,” Sokka says, sighing in relief, but Katara thinks – everyone except the Air Nomads.
But they lost a hundred years ago, and if it bothers Aang, he won’t show it to these people; or, for that matter, her, not anymore.
This is what Zuko was talking about last night; although she wants more than anything to reach out and ask him if he’s really okay with this, she can’t. He said that he discussed it with Toph, and at any rate, Katara has done nothing but hurt him for two years running. He won’t want to talk to her anyway.
You’ve got to walk away and leave him to it.
Oh well, she thinks. Oh well.
Her own words rise up in her mind: it’s in the past. We must deal with the future.
She smiles at Zuko, and he smiles back.