act four: this is as good a place to fall as any (we will build our altar here)
Perhaps not to be outdone by the Fire Nation, Kuei hosts his own party after the final meetings have adjourned, with musicians and an overabundance of food and that dry wine that Katara liked so much and decides to imbibe perhaps entirely too much of.
Aang attends the party, but avoids her in a way that's so painfully obvious that it cuts her – at this point less because he's avoiding her, than because he doesn't even try to hide it.
“It'll be fine,” Suki says with a shrug, and Katara sighs.
“Yeah,” she replies. “It'll be fine.”
It's just not fine now, she wants to say, but lets it go. Now is a time for celebration, for talking about all the good things they have accomplished, for planning ahead and getting a jump-start on the future. What's done is done. All she can do is work with what hasn't happened yet.
Suki looks at her with a sympathetic quirk to her lips. “I know how much this sucks,” she says quietly, “but… I want you to know, I'm really impressed with you.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, and Suki smiles.
“Until Sokka told me this morning, I had no idea Aang tried to get back together with you,” she explains. “I would never have guessed that you were hurting, or struggling. You had a job to do and you did it, and you were even better than you had to be. It's really impressive. I'm really, really proud of you.”
She's taken aback by Suki's frank praise, and she knows it's clear on her face. “Um… thank you. I just… People are depending on me, I couldn't let them down.”
“Yeah, but it's harder than it looks, I know,” Suki replies, draining her glass. “I had to be the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors after me and Sokka broke up the first time, it was rough. I didn't do it as well as you did. You nailed it, Katara. You absolutely nailed this council, and I think it's amazing that you did it while you were reeling.”
Katara hides her emotion behind a deep drink of wine. Hearing it actually said to her in so many words is… overwhelming, so she tries to laugh it off a bit. "Well… I know you had good money on me dousing everyone again, so I doubt you're one-hundred-percent happy with me right now.”
Suki pauses, perhaps sensing that Katara doesn't really know how to respond, and then laughs. “That is true. I lost five gold pieces to Sokka because of that, so, you know. Thanks, Katara.”
She snickers into her glass. “I'll pay you back.”
Both of their glasses are empty now, so she offers to get the both of them another drink, but Suki shrugs it off, insisting on joining her. It feels… strange, she thinks, in some small way, to know that Suki – the proud warrior, the impossibly unshakeable woman, the person who survived being Azula's favorite prisoner at the Boiling Rock when she was sixteen – is proud of her. It's sort of how she feels when she sees her with Sokka: a bit bewildered at how much Suki softens when she's around someone she loves. It's easy to forget how compassionate the other woman is, when she covers her face with the heavy warpaint and fights with such a deep well of conviction that it's impossible to imagine her ever giving up.
But Suki is a person, a woman only a little older than Katara, who has been through awful things and come up out of each and every one of them swinging, who has a heart that's big enough for the whole world.
Suki wouldn't be upset with Sokka's awful pendant; she'd wear it with pride, because she'd know it was made with love, by someone who loved her so much that he tried to do something he knew he wasn't any good at just to show her how much he cared. Katara makes a mental note to point this out to him.
They're at the drinks table, waiting on a new bottle to be opened, when the conversation drifts in from the nearby balcony, and they both freeze.
“– all due respect," Mai is saying, "I don't plan to return anytime soon.”
“Well,” Zuko replies, “you're welcome to, whenever you want. You're not exiled, I mean.”
“I appreciate that,” Mai says, and Katara can practically hear her raising an eyebrow. “I know more than a few people were telling you to do it.”
"They're not the Fire Lord, I am."
“No one does it alone, Zuko, not even you.” There's a pause, and she thinks they really ought to go now that their glasses have been refilled, but she meets Suki's eyes, and neither of them move a muscle. “Don't shut her out like you did me.”
“It's not – it's not like that,” Zuko stammers, and even to Katara – who knows for a fact that it's not like that – it doesn't sound convincing. “I mean –”
“Stop,” Mai snaps. “You’re a terrible liar. Everyone can see it, and they won't shut up about it. I'm not upset, but I do really wish they had something more interesting to talk about.”
Zuko groans. “Mai…” he starts, and then sighs. “I'm sorry.”
“For what?” she counters. “I told you, I'm not upset. I don't want to go back to the Fire Nation, and what we had…” she sighs, “it was good while it lasted, but it's long gone now.”
“That's true,” he replies, but it sounds a bit forced, or maybe just awkward.
“I…” Mai starts, and then lets out a long sigh. “For everything we had that was good, I thank you,” she says in a low voice, almost as though the words are rehearsed. “And for all we had that was bad, I apologize. It's over now, and it's long past time for us to move on.”
“You're right,” Zuko says slowly. “And I apologize, too. I… wasn't a very good boyfriend to you.”
“You were exactly as good a boyfriend to me as I was a girlfriend to you,” Mai replies evenly, and then takes a deep breath. “You meet people, Zuko,” she says in a strange voice, as though speaking something aloud she's never really thought about before. “You rise as high as they expect you to. I didn't ask much of you. I didn't believe you'd give it to me if I did, and that was wrong. I was wrong not to have faith in you. But she has faith, just like your uncle does. They believe in you, and it'll make you a better person and a better ruler in the long run, because you'll never let them down again.”
Suki reaches out and touches her shoulder, and she jumps, glancing aside to catch the other girl's gaze. We should go, she mouths, and Katara nods.
The whole walk away, Suki is watching her out of the corner of her eye, perhaps waiting for her to confirm or deny anything going on between her and Zuko, but Katara wouldn't even know how to answer that question if she was asked. Is there something between them? He was non-committal, but was that because he wasn't interested, or because he was talking to his ex-girlfriend?
Is this what she wants? To be Fire Lady, the way Mai clearly thinks she will be, and rule by Zuko's side?
It has a certain appeal, she can't deny it – to be the Fire Lady, the second-most powerful person in the nation and, officially, one of the most powerful people in the world. It's a position traditionally associated with social action; Fire Ladies of the past have usually invested in social welfare, in hospitals and schools and safety nets for the poor – it's actually generally been considered the Fire Lady's job to care for such things, while the Fire Lord concerns himself with foreign policy and defense and the economy.
In a successful reign, the Fire Lady is the one who cares about the small-scale, while the Fire Lord is the one who cares about the large. When they work together to bring everyone up, they have, historically, found great success. The position is associated with great influence over social and domestic affairs.
But it's not the political part that really occupies her mind.
She's thinking distantly of all that she could do as Fire Lady, but she's thinking much more personally and clearly about all the times she's sat with Zuko on the roof and talked about things – sometimes important things and sometimes about pictures in the stars. She's thinking about having tea with him and assuring him that they would work together to make things right. She's thinking about how they laughed about Boscoe and how he understood her conflicted feelings about Aang.
She's thinking about a partnership, being seen as an equal rather than a perfect goddess who could do no wrong.
It's even more appealing than the power to affect great change.
But there's something else lurking under the surface of her mind, something that's slowly wrapping its vines around her heart and squeezing, and she can't put a word to the emotion; it's not jealousy, not really, but it's something like it, something that keeps going over the conversation she's overheard and seething inward. It's upsetting, both at herself and at Mai's calm words, and she can't identify it clearly.
“You okay?” Suki asks, and Katara jumps, then gives her a brittle smile.
“I'm fine,” she lies. “I was a little surprised to hear… do you think me and Zuko are an item?”
“No,” Suki replies in a measured voice, watching her carefully. “The rumor mill has been going, that's true, but I always figured you would have told me, or at least Sokka.”
“I would have,” she says, almost automatically.
“Is something wrong?” Suki asks her again, concerned. “Don't worry about what people are saying.”
“I'm just –” she starts, but doesn't know how to articulate her emotions, so she changes tack to something else, which is only a lie in the sense that it's only just now crossing her mind for the first time: “I don't want Aang to think I turned him down to pursue Zuko. That would hurt him a lot.”
Suki hesitates, then reaches out to turn Katara so that they're facing each other. “Is that why you've stayed single since you left him?” she asks seriously. “Because you don't have to wait until he's over you to move on. You don't owe it to him to stay single until it won't hurt him to see you with someone else, even if that someone is a friend of his.”
Katara takes a deep gulp of wine to hide, again, the startling feeling of transparency, and settles on jokingly-aloof as a solid way to respond. “For your information,” she says archly, “I've stayed single because I've either been in the Water Tribe with my brother or in the Fire Nation with a bunch of people three times my age. I'm too busy for romance, anyway.”
There's a beat, where Suki seems to decide not to press her for more details. “Fair enough,” she sighs, holding up a hand in apology. “I just don't want you putting your life on hold because you’re afraid to hurt Aang. You deserve better than that.”
She takes a deep breath and gives Suki a brittle smile. “I'm not, I promise,” she says, and wonders distantly if it's a lie.
Her mood doesn't improve as the party progresses, and she finds herself unconsciously avoiding the people who would make her feel better. Uncle Iroh is organizing the musicians into playing some sort of upbeat dance piece, while Zuko stands beside him with his head in his hand and Toph appears to be trying to convince one of them to teach her to play the drum – it's like a little pocket of people who would make her happy, but she doesn't want to be cheered up right now.
The only person she'd really like to talk to right now is Sokka, but for all that she's scanned the room, she hasn't seen him in a while, and wonders if maybe he left early. Come to think of it, Suki seems to have melted out of the party as well, which probably explains it.
She's just about to call it a night so she can go sleep off her bad mood, when Mai's voice surprises her for the second time tonight.
“You did good,” she says, and Katara jumps.
“Pardon?” she replies, a bit dumbly.
“I said, you did good,” Mai repeats, evidently thinking that Katara didn't hear her, rather than Katara doesn't know why she's being complimented. “At the Council. If I didn't know you were a wreck at the start of this, I would never have suspected it.”
She blinks. It's a kind thing to say, and it's meant as a compliment, and not even a backhanded or half-hearted kind of one, either, but her mind sticks on you were a wreck, and she bites her tongue.
“Thank you,” she says instead, with a thin smile, but Mai doesn't seem to be paying very close attention. In fact, she looks agitated, as though she's steeling herself up to say something she doesn't want to say. “Sleeping on it helped.”
“I'm sure,” Mai replies, with a fleeting, insincere smile. “Look,” she starts, taking a deep breath and glancing away, “take care of Zuko, all right?”
Katara flinches in spite of herself. “It's not… I know people are gossipping, but –”
“I don't really care about your denial,” Mai cuts her off, and Katara finishes her wine with alacrity. “I just care that he's okay. He'll work himself to death if you don't watch out. He has to have someone there to give him a break sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Katara stammers, distantly wishing that she hadn't drank so much. “I mean, he'll have both me and Toph there, we'll make sure he doesn't get overwhelmed.”
Mai gives her a deadpan look that nevertheless laughs at her incredulously, and she tilts her chin up against both it and that dark, clawing emotion that threatens to choke the air out of her lungs. It's so much stronger now; she'd almost forgotten about it until Mai decided to be nice for once. She still can't identify it, what exactly it is about Mai right now that is so upsetting to her, why she wants to grab her by the shoulders and scream – something, something at her, but she doesn't know what.
Mai lets it go first.
“Good,” she says evenly. “He should be happy.”
And then it hits her, what it is she wants to scream – why do you get to be at peace when I can't be?
It's envy, the emotion sucking at her like a whirlpool; envy, raw and running deep, she envies Mai for being at peace with her past relationship, while Katara's won't stop haunting her. Mai can have a normal conversation with her ex-boyfriend – someone she loved, and sacrificed for, and lived with, and believed she would spend the rest of her life with – without either of them leaving in tears or lashing out, and, in fact, both walk away from it feeling better and lighter and calmer.
Everyone says that peace will come with time, but she doesn't want it in time, she wants it now.
She wants it three days ago.
“Yes,” Katara says, swallowing the emotion hard, and if Mai can tell that she's a tangle of dark emotion right now, she doesn't give any indication of it, merely giving her a small smile with more sincerity than before, and that smile – meant in kindness – fills her with the need to leave the room, now. “He really should. If you'll excuse me,” she adds, and gives the other woman a slight bow, which Mai returns, before she flees the party entirely.
It’s Ty Lee who finds her in Kuei’s private garden, and the all-too-casual way she slinks in makes Katara think that someone – probably Suki – told her that she needed a friend right now.
“Hi,” Katara says tightly, “sorry I haven’t had much time to talk.”
“It’s fine,” Ty Lee replies, waving it off with a smile, “everybody’s been super-busy.”
There’s a stretched-thin pause, and Katara sighs. “Did someone tell you to come looking for me?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I saw you leave the party, you seemed kind of upset. Mai told me about Aang. Did he try to talk to you again at the party?”
She bites her lip, considers lying – but Ty Lee would probably know, and, worse, not say anything about it. They would just both know that she lied to a friend who left a party to make sure she was okay, and Katara isn’t sure she can be that kind of person.
“No,” she answers, sighing. “He’s pretending not to know me at all. I… overheard Zuko and Mai talking, and…”
“You know they’re not getting back together, right?” Ty Lee says fervently, and Katara shakes her head.
“It’s not – I mean, yes, I know, and I wouldn’t be upset even if they were,” she replies woodenly, knowing deep down that that part is absolutely a lie, but at least it’s the sort of lie she won’t be judged on. Ty Lee keeps her expression very carefully still. “It just made me think… I wish I had their peace. I wish Aang and I had that peace. I… I don’t usually envy other people, it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Silence falls, and Ty Lee bites her lip.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” she says softly, after a moment. “Trust me, however nasty things got between you and Aang, it was nastier between Zuko and Mai. She said and did a lot of things she regrets, and I know she feels like she’ll be apologizing for how she acted to him for a long time, no matter what he may say about forgiveness. It’s taken them both a long time to get here.”
“I know,” Katara replies, running a hand through her hair. “And I know, it just takes time. I know it’s not fair to expect Aang to – to wave his hand and be over it. I know.”
“Yeah,” Ty Lee says, nodding sympathetically. “Just because you know a feeling is wrong doesn’t mean you stop feeling it.” Katara buries her head in her hands, half in frustration and half in a sort of raw, seething resentment that’s directed inward, at herself for feeling such stupid things, and Ty Lee rubs her back. “Look at it this way, you’re hurting because you care, and your caring is your biggest strength. If you were the kind of person who was okay with hurting Aang, you wouldn’t be the kind of person who inspires worldwide change.”
Katara’s hands tighten in her hair.
“Don’t wish for not caring, is what I mean,” Ty Lee adds, striking at something Katara hadn’t even thought of in so many words.
“It seems like it would be easier,” she mutters, and Ty Lee tilts her head.
Katara opens her mouth to say me, obviously, but then closes it again: if she didn’t care, didn’t hurt for others, if she could just magically – right now – make her compassion leave her, then she would be leaving the Fire Nation and the world to hang. Chunhua would never get her school, because no one would argue for it; the poor people in the city would never have a voice in the council to speak for their concerns, because no one would care to listen; the Water Tribe’s place in the world would diminish, because no one would be fighting to include them.
And maybe it would all work out eventually… but, after all, what didn’t, eventually, work out for some people?
According to the writings of the Fire Sage Lao Shen, nations weren’t built on the force of ideas or might or power, they were built on the force of personality. They were built, not because they were necessary or pragmatic or strategic, but because one person stood up and said I will build this, join me, and people joined them. That was what made the difference between a decent ruler and a great ruler: the ability to say follow me and be followed.
And that ability required you to care. No leader could be great without compassion, no great things could happen without someone who cared pushing them forward.
Katara looks up at Ty Lee, a different sort of unidentifiable emotion rising in her chest: a strange, heavy calm, like the sort that falls after the storm has swept the land clean.
“You’re right,” she says slowly. “It wouldn’t be easier for anybody.”
Ty Lee gives her a wry smile. “You’re gonna be okay, and so will Aang. And you’re gonna do it without blowing each other to bits and regretting everything you’ve done. And then you're gonna go make the world a better place for everyone. If you won’t trust yourself, trust me.”
Katara returns the smile, albeit with some water, and gives her a tight hug.
“Thank you,” she says quietly, and Ty Lee squeezes her back.
“You're not alone, you know,” she replies. “We're all rooting for you.”
She closes her eyes and breathes deep. “I know," she says. "I know.”
They're all ridiculously hung-over on the trip back to the Fire Nation in the morning. Katara is lucky – being a waterbender who grew up half in kayaks, she's never in her life gotten seasick, even when the hangover is threatening to evacuate her brain from her skull – and Zuko spent three years on a ship when he was younger, so he has ironclad sea legs, but Toph is not so lucky.
“Why didn't you stop me from drinking all that wine?” Toph moans, leaning heavily on the railing, and Katara sighs.
“I didn't see you for half the night,” she replies, gingerly holding the younger girl's hair back as she starts dry-heaving again. “And I was too busy drinking myself into oblivion, too, anyway.”
“I'm never touching wine again.”
“At least not for a while,” she agrees.
“Look on the bright side,” Zuko says from Toph's other side, “you don't have to see your parents for a long time.”
Toph simply groans, and Zuko pats her on the back sympathetically. Katara leans her forehead on the cold railing and takes a deep, steadying breath.
In spite of the hangover, she feels better today than she has since walking out onto that balcony to speak to Aang.
It will be okay, she thinks, even if it isn’t right now. Just keep moving forward. The only way out is through.
The first day back in the Fire Nation, they don't have any meetings – figuring that they would all need a day to recover from traveling, everyone had agreed not to schedule anything – but Katara has a few stops she intends to make.
Chunhua smiles at her when she walks into the teashop, and a few people wave. She's become a regular now, and has gotten into a few spirited conversations with Chunhua, her parents and young sister, and other regulars at times, about what the country needs, what the workers and the builders and the artisans need – although Katara has kept quiet about who she actually is, doubting that people would be quite so open to discussion if they knew that they were speaking with someone who had some measure of real power to act.
Katara wants to be seen as one of them, a person first and a council member second – she wants to know what they say to each other, what they think and want, not what they think is pragmatic to ask for, or what they think is realistic to hope for.
She wants to know what they want, not what they'll settle for.
“How'd the vacation go?” Chunhua asks, with a twinkle of amusement in her eyes at being in on something secret, bringing out a pot of tea for her. “This one's on me, I think you'll like it.”
“I think it went pretty well,” Katara replies, smiling. “I feel like we got a lot done, it was… refreshing.”
“That's great!" Chunhua says. “It's always good to get away for a while. How was the city?”
Katara laughs. “I didn't see much of it, unfortunately. But I'm glad to be back here.”
“I'm glad to see you back here, too.”
“Yes,” she says evenly, feeling energized. “I have work to do.”
The first thing the Council decides is to make a separate, offshoot committee for working on the new city, a committee that will work with Aang and the Earth Kingdom as they move forward, and Katara thinks long and hard about it before deciding, with some internal defiance, to add her name to it. She was sort of expected to, unofficially, but her delicate history with Aang made her hesitate.
But the world is more important.
Toph is sort of taking the lead on it, and Katara suspects that she had more than a little to do with its inception in the first place – at any rate, as their resident Earth Kingdom expert, she’s going to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in making arrangements with the stubborn people who never much wanted this to begin with and are likely to fight her every step of the way. She can’t wait to see one of them try to argue Toph down, though; Toph has pure steel in her backbone, and she believes in this, probably more than any of the rest of them except maybe Aang, if Katara is being honest.
Katara will help her, if she needs it, but Katara has work to do in the Fire Nation, first.
As such, the next thing she proposes is a hospital.
“We have “Healer’s Row” off the marketplace, but it's diffuse and fragmented,” she explains, “and their skills can only go so far. I know there are a few barber-surgeons, if we brought a couple of them together with the herbalists and bonesetters and such, we could have a central place where people could go when they need medical help. Plus, building a hospital would provide jobs, at least for a while.”
“We’ll need to consider the cost,” Xu, of course, says, and Katara nods.
“Absolutely,” she replies. “I just wanted to put the proposal out there, so we can begin moving forward on it.”
“Minister Lian,” Zuko says, nodding at the older woman, who returns the nod and shoots Katara a smile, “can help you draw up a full proposal, and we can discuss it at length in next week’s meeting.”
“I would be glad to, Fire Lord Zuko,” Lian says, with a small bow.
“And the secondary committee will meet in three days to begin moving forward on the issue of the colonies and Avatar Aang’s city,” Zuko says to the assembly. “I want a tentative plan of action on my desk that morning, along with a preliminary breakdown of the cost and what we will need to come up with to break ground. Toph, you’re in contact with Aang and King Kuei, right?”
“Right,” she replies, fingers tapping on the desk nervously. “Aang is staying in Ba Sing Se for the next few weeks, at least, to work out details on that end. I’ll be the go-between for you. Kuei said he would come up with their own estimate for how much we’ll need and send it to me once they’ve got something worked out, so we can compare ours to theirs.”
“Good, that’s a good start. Does anyone have anything else to ask, or propose?”
A general murmur of agreement and settling-up passes over the table, and Zuko nods.
“All right, let’s get to work,” he says firmly, and they all stand to mosey out of the room.
Toph sighs heavily and runs a hand over her face, and Katara glances at her.
“The work never stops,” she mutters, as an explanation. “One day of rest and then back to the grind.”
Katara smiles. “That’s how it goes, I guess,” she says wryly. “The world never stops moving, so neither can we.”
“I know,” Toph sighs. “When did we get to be adults, with all this dumb responsibility?”
“When we stepped up,” she replies, patting Toph on the shoulder. “Hey, you could have stayed in Gaoling and had servants feed you grapes all day, you know.”
Toph shudders. “Yeah, trust me, I’ll take these meetings and boring reports any day of the week. They kept trying to wash my feet.”
“It gets easier,” she says, and Toph shrugs.
“I guess. I can count on you to help me write out the first draft of my plan?” she asks, and Katara nods.
“Of course. When do you want to discuss it?”
“Sure,” she replies. “I’ve got some meetings in the morning, but we’ll have tea in the afternoon and hash it out.”
“Sounds great,” Toph says, and laughs a little, almost at herself. Katara tilts her head.
“What’s so funny?”
Toph pauses, then makes a face. “I sound like my mom, making political meetings. I was always against authority, now I am one.”
Katara hesitates, then sits back down. “That’s a good thing, Toph,” she says seriously. “You can stand up for things you believe in, rein in people who try to control you, and help people. You have the power to change things for the better. We have the power to change things for the better.”
“I just never really cared about all this stuff, you know?” she replies. “I just wanted to cheer Aang up, and now I’m in charge of making a city out of nothing. I never asked for this. I just wanted to be left alone, myself.”
“Apathy has never accomplished anything,” Katara says, in a measured tone, and Toph tilts her ear toward her. “You stepped in when you ran away from your parents to join us and teach Aang earthbending – have you ever regretted it?”
“No,” she answers immediately.
“Of course not. Nobody who ever stands up and acts for something they believe in ever ends up regretting it,” she says, with feeling. “Even if it’s hard, and boring, and you have to deal with tedious little details like how many bricks you’ll need to build a city and how much public restrooms will cost and who to bill for them – one day, you’ll look back on all you’ve done and all the incredibly boring meetings you barely managed to stay awake in, and you’ll know that you made something amazing happen.”
Toph pauses, apparently mulling it over, and then smiles, punching her lightly in the arm. “I’m gonna make you sit through all these boring meetings with me, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, and we’ll complain about them later,” she laughs. “But we’ll get things done.”
“Yeah,” Toph replies, standing up. “We’re gonna get it done.”
Katara finds Zuko in the private garden late the following afternoon, sitting on a little stone bench, watching the turtleducks with a sort of blank expression.
She sits next to him, and he glances up at her, blinking rapidly in apparent surprise.
“You were very engrossed with the turtleducks,” she says, and immediately feels a bit stupid for it. He laughs, rubbing the back of his neck.
“I think one of them has a nest somewhere,” he replies, pointing at a turtleduck that, to her, looks no different than any of the others, except maybe a little bigger. “He keeps going back and forth to those reeds on the other side of the pond, I think he's bringing food for his mate.”
"You study turtleduck mating behavior?" she asks, deliberately deadpan, and he gives her a look of mock-affront.
“I like turtleducks,” he says. “If you're gonna be like that, I won't let you see any of the babies.”
She has to admit, that actually sounds unpleasant – they're pretty damn cute as adults, she can only imagine how adorable turtleduck chicks must be. “Okay, okay,” she sighs, holding her hands up in supplication and snickering. “I apologize for pointing out how huge a dork you are.”
Zuko tries to hold onto the affronted look, but he can't hide his amusement. “Hey, now,” he says anyway, but she just shoves him lightly in the shoulder.
“How many do they usually have at a time?” she asks, and he shrugs.
“I've only seen a couple of broods hatch before,” he answers, wincing at her and rubbing the back of his neck again, which must be a nervous habit. “Maybe nine or ten?”
“Are they as stupidly adorable as I think they will be?”
“When will we see them?”
“Whenever they're big enough to learn how to swim, their mother will bring them out into the pond,” he replies. “All the turtleducks know me," he admits, a bit sheepishly, and she has to admit to herself that that is – although incredibly dorky – really, really sweet, “so she probably won't get upset if I pick up one of her ducklings.” He must feel her amusement, because he looks up at her, and then away. “What?”
“Nothing,” she replies airily. “I think it's sweet. You're friends with the turtleducks.”
“I know it's not the most… um, manly thing,” he winces, coughing a bit and cringing, but Katara simply shrugs.
“I can't think of anything better in a guy,” she says, leaning in a little, “than a nurturing personality. Women don't want a guy who will bail on them,” she goes on cheerfully. “They want someone who stays and cares for small things, like turtleducks, and children.”
He laughs a little, and it sounds kind of nervous.
“I read your proposal for the hospital,” he says, apparently out of the blue, and she blinks.
“Oh,” she replies dumbly, but catches herself and shifts gears back into politics-mode. “Do you think there's anything I've missed?”
“Xu is gonna say you're lowballing the cost,” he says, shrugging, “but I think we could handle it if it goes over what you've planned for.”
“Xu is a pessimist,” she scoffs. “I worked that out with Lian, she thinks it's reasonable.”
He holds up his hands. “I didn't say I disagreed,” he says lightly. “Like I said, I think we can handle it if it goes over, so we can cover Xu's definite argument. My only concern…” he trails off, wincing, and then looks at her. “Do you think a healing waterbender from the North will agree to come to the Fire Nation on a permanent basis?”
She hesitates. “Honestly?” she replies, sighing. “Not really. Not at first, at least. But…,” she goes on, biting her lip, “I think I can do it, at least to get things started. I could go for a few hours a day, I have that time. And, as we grow, and things improve… well, I think there are some healers in the South who are getting pretty good, and they're young so they probably want to travel… I think we can make it work.”
“That's a lot of responsibility to take on,” he says, in a deceptively neutral tone, and she tilts her head.
“What, you think I can't do it?”
“No!” he cries, surprised. “It's not… I just don't want you to get overwhelmed. You're already doing a lot, I just... don't want you to get overwhelmed,” he repeats, a bit lamely, and she wonders what he was going to say.
“Like I said, I don't have to be there all day, every day,” she shrugs. “There are herbalists and healers in the Caldera already who can deal with the normal things, I'd just be there to handle things that are beyond their skills.”
“I… You're doing a lot for us,” he says quietly, “that's all. You don't have to, you know.”
She looks away. “I don't do things halfway, Zuko,” she replies deliberately. “Either I'm here completely or I'm not here at all. I'm not going to stand here and not help to the fullest of my ability just because I don't have to.”
“I know,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck again and glancing down. “I guess I'm trying to say thank you. For everything you've done when you didn't have to do anything.”
She looks back at him and tilts her head, before catching his hand and stopping him from that nervous tic. “I came here to help, Zuko,” she says softly. “I'd be betraying you if I didn't do everything in my power.”
He meets her eyes for a second, then looks away. “I mean…” he starts, sounding nervous, “I could never talk to anyone like this,” he goes on, in a bit of a rush. “Mai always thought that… we couldn't talk about anything serious when we were alone, I think she thought… she was trying to get my mind off of things and help me relax, but… I don't stop being the Fire Lord when the sun sets. It's my life, not my job. And… it's been really helpful, to me, that I can talk to you, and you're always willing to listen and respond.”
“Of course,” she replies, because she's not really sure how else to respond. He seems agitated now.
“So…” he starts, although it sounds slightly disappointed, “um, thank you.”
“Well…” she says slowly, and then glances away, to the turtleducks. “Thank you. I feel like I’m actually making a difference, making the world a better place. I feel like I’m in a better place since you offered me the position, so. Thank you.” She looks at him again and smiles, and he returns it, albeit tentatively.
“How is Toph doing?”
Katara laughs a little. “Complaining about the boring work, but I think she likes feeling involved, too, although she’s too proud to admit it.”
Zuko snickers. “That sounds like Toph. I will say this,” he adds, leaning back on the bench and stretching his legs out, “it is nice to have someone I can trust who can take over a lot of the details on the new city, it’s a weight off my shoulders.”
“It’s nice to have someone else we know we can trust here, period,” she says, leaning back and almost – but not quite – against him. “I think the ministers are fine, but it’s nice to have a friend.”
He glances at her. “Yeah,” he replies in a strange voice. “It really is.”
Xu, predictably, complains about the cost of the hospital, but agrees that they’ve worked out a reasonable proposal, and pledges to commit some funds to its building, so Katara figures it’s as close to an unqualified win as she’s likely to get, well, ever. The planning for the new city goes less smoothly, because now that they aren’t there in person to argue over it, Kuei (or, more likely, his ministers) is being a little more reluctant with funding and preparing.
“We agreed on a fifty-fifty split!” Toph yells, after Katara has read to her his latest, frustrating letter. “It’s not my fault that the cost is higher than expected! He can’t just say he agreed to pay however much money, he agreed to pay half!”
“We can talk to Suki,” Katara soothes. “And you can talk to your parents. If Kuei isn’t willing to pay any extra, or if he can’t pay any extra, we can talk to other Earth Kingdom cities. This was always going to be the hard part. We can work this out.”
Toph lets out a scream of frustration and punches a hole in the ground. “Politics are stupid!” she shouts, and Katara tries not to laugh, because she knows that Toph is truly upset over this stumbling block, since it throws a wrench into her delicate planning. But Toph is the quintessential earthbender – she never gives up, and she knows how to deal with stumbling blocks. Once she calms down, she’ll realize that there are other ways to handle this setback, and that it’ll be okay.
It’s just that right now, she is not calm, and Katara is, unfortunately, the punching bag.
But she figures that she knows how to deal with an angry Toph, too, and better than pretty much anyone else here, so it’s better her than them. Toph won’t actually hurt her, at any rate. She’ll yell and throw things and make a bunch of holes in the ground, but she won’t do anything that will actually cause lasting damage.
“Deep breaths, Toph,” Katara says. “These things happen. Two steps forward, one step back. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Toph growls and throws herself to the ground sullenly. “Those grapes and footbaths look really good right now,” she mutters, crossing her arms, but Katara rolls her eyes.
“I mean, I can get the servants to arrange that.”
Toph shoots her a glare, but Katara is utterly immune to those by now, so she simply raises an eyebrow. “Fine. Fine! Let’s compose a letter to my parents. I think I can pull out of my inheritance to make up the difference,” she adds in a low voice, as though the idea just occurred to her, and Katara inwardly sighs in relief.
“Exactly,” she replies, pulling out another sheaf of paper. “That’s a great idea for another way to fund this. Do we address it to your mom or your dad?”
“Mom,” Toph answers shortly. “She always wants to hear from me anyway, we can fill it with a bunch of nonsense and then tack in the request for money at the end.”
“All right,” Katara says, writing Dear Mother at the top of the page. “Let’s get started.”
She’s standing on the edge of Healer’s Row, looking at the frame of the building that will be the hospital in a few more weeks, while Toph inspects one of the market stalls, when she hears the shout.
“Katara!” Toph screams, loud and frightened enough to be heard over the sounds of the city. “Duck!”
There’s a split-second where it processes – Toph never sounds that scared for nothing – and then she drops to the ground and covers her head as something clatters to the ground not far from her, but before she can look up to see what it is, the earth itself is rising up around it, not two seconds before it explodes, and little pieces of shrapnel and dust shudder off of the box Toph must have bent.
She’s shaking uncontrollably as Toph runs up to her, breathing heavily, panic clear on her face.
“Are you okay?” she cries, and Katara nods, numb. The noise it made, even boxed in by the ground, even though Toph contained it – the noise it made.
Someone just tried to kill her, and they tried to take out a whole city block – along with the new hospital that she’s building – to do it.
She looks around, but the crowds are gathering to see what the commotion is about, and there’s no telling who threw the bomb, from here.
“Do you know who did it?” she asks, but Toph shakes her head.
“I just felt someone throwing something at you,” she replies, and Katara sees that she’s shaking, too, maybe even harder. “I didn’t follow them, I wanted to make sure nobody got hurt.”
“Why would someone do this?” she asks, but there are a lot of possible answers to that question. Maybe they take issue with the way they’re handling the colonies, maybe they don’t like a Water Tribe woman being involved in their politics, maybe they wanted the healer out of the way so they could take out Zuko. Maybe they just hate her, personally.
A better, and at the same time worse, question is: how many people feel this way?
She scans the crowds for any familiar face, but doesn’t recognize any of them, and in spite of Toph standing next to her with her hand on her shoulder, she suddenly feels very alone.
Zuko is angrier about it than she is. Maybe he’s taking it personally – that they attacked her because of him – she isn’t sure, but it’s been a long time since she’s seen him this angry, yelling at his police force to find out who did this and find out where they’re hiding.
He’s not taking it well, she thinks distantly. He’s scared, and he’s overreacting, and at the wrong people.
Toph hasn’t left her side, although Katara isn’t sure if that’s because she’s afraid they’ll target her (as another foreigner in the Fire Nation’s top leadership) or if that’s because she wants to be able to protect Katara if they try again. If Toph hadn’t been nearby, near enough to shout, near enough to act…
Toph saved my life, she thinks in that same distant way. Toph was terrified that she hadn’t gotten there in time.
Toph, who always seems so unshakable, even when she’s complaining about boring meetings or yelling about politics being stupid, Toph is still shaking.
Katara closes her eyes and centers herself, then stands up.
“Zuko,” she says sharply, and he looks at her, paler than usual. “They already know what they have to do. You can’t yell at them until it un-happens. Calm down.”
Zuko takes a deep breath and looks away, hands clenching into fists. The policemen look uncertain, like they don’t know if they’ve been dismissed, and Zuko doesn’t look like he’s about to say anything, so she takes charge.
“You’re dismissed,” she says, as calmly as she can. “We don’t have any leads yet, unfortunately, but I trust you to do the best you can to find the culprit.”
“Yes, milady,” the leader – a young man by the name of Lu Ten, apparently named in honor of the then-crown-prince – says, bowing sharply and marching out with his men.
“Zuko,” she repeats, and he flinches.
“After everything you’ve done for them,” he growls in a low voice. “For us .”
She isn’t sure what to say. That change happens like this – like she told Toph, two steps forward and one step back – that no one is universally popular and people lash out when they feel unheard? She doesn’t even know why they did it, if it was against her specifically or against the color of her skin and the country of her birth. Ozai’s poison runs deep in this country, and she’s managed to – surrounded by people who were cast out by him or who openly supported Iroh – somehow forget just how entrenched his views on Fire Nation superiority really are out there.
People aren’t always grateful of change, especially when that change is perceived as coming from outside – in this case, she’s both a woman wielding no small amount of political power, and also unmistakably foreign, an outsider, identifiable from a distance. Spending time with Chunhua, with the ministers, with people who treat her like an equal, she’s managed to forget the fact that Ozai and Azulon and Sozin spent a full century telling the people of this country – the one she has adopted, intentionally or not – that everyone who isn’t a native member of the Fire Nation is the enemy, is barbaric, is to be eliminated.
These waters run deep. It’ll be long after all of them and probably all of their children are dead before it can ever run clear.
But that’s no reason not to try.
“We’ll catch him, Zuko,” Toph pipes in, standing up and cracking her knuckles. “I’ll go out there and help them. I’ll be able to keep them safe, too.”
He nods tightly, and Toph starts to leave, hesitates, then comes back and gives Katara a tight hug.
“Stay safe in here, okay?” she says quietly. “Don’t go anywhere alone.”
“I’ll be safe, Toph,” she replies, and Toph nods shortly before leaving, still visibly anxious.
There’s a long, taut pause.
“I’m not going anywhere, Zuko,” she says finally, and he takes a deep breath.
“Maybe you should,” he replies darkly. “If it isn’t safe –”
“I don’t give a damn about safe,” she snaps. “I have work to do here, and I’m not leaving until it’s done. I’ve promised you, I’ve promised the people. I’m not breaking those promises. I’m not letting them run me off. I’ve never backed down from a fight before,” she goes on, crossing her arms. “I said once that I would never turn my back on people who need me, and I’m not about to start now. People are depending on me. On us. The future is in our hands, and I’m not about to drop that because I’m scared.”
Zuko looks at her with an unidentifiable emotion in his face, jaw clenched. “I can’t believe someone would do this,” he says through gritted teeth, and she shakes her head.
“I can,” she replies, a bit softer. “Your father, your grandfather… they spent a hundred years telling the people that the Fire Nation was superior to everyone else, and I’m a walking symbol of everyone else . I can’t change that, and I wouldn’t even if I could,” she adds, even though there’s a part of her – the small, frightened part of her that feels, right now, like she did when her father walked into their home to find her mother’s body, like the world is falling apart and full of evil people who want to hurt her, specifically, because of who she is – is thinking about how much easier it would be if she could, or if she could just leave this all behind. But that part of her hasn’t been in charge for a long, long time, and she’s not giving it control today.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she repeats, placing a hand on his shoulder. “None of this is going to go away overnight. You can’t make a hundred years of propaganda vanish in five. We’ll be fighting this for the rest of our lives, that’s how it’s going to be. But the only way to make it ever get better is by standing our ground and fighting it and never giving up.”
Zuko nods, swallowing thickly, and then pulls her into a tight hug, tighter than Toph’s was.
“Promise me you will stay safe,” he says seriously, and she nods into his shoulder.
“Of course,” she replies. “Just because I plan to stand up to it doesn’t mean I’m gonna be stupid.”
“If you leave the palace, please take Toph with you.”
Katara laughs a little, although she knows it sounds as forced as it feels. “As if she’d let me leave without her now.”
He laughs with her, in that same forced, clipped way, and his arms tighten around her. They stay like that for a long time, until she isn’t sure who’s being comforted here, anymore.
“Did you find them?” she asks Toph later that night, but Toph scowls into her bowl of soup.
“No,” she growls. “We did find some things, though,” she adds, sighing. “Signs point to the attackers being involved with the New Ozai society. Opinions on the force are divided between them trying to get you out of the way so they could go after Zuko, and them wanting to “purify” the Fire Nation leadership.”
Katara flinches at the word purify, in spite of the fact that she knew this was possible, even likely. It’s probably both, she thinks. “If it’s… that second one,” she says delicately, “then you’re a target, too.”
“Yeah,” Toph replies, but then squirms a bit. “But… well…”
She catches on. “From a distance, you can pass for Fire Nation,” she infers, and Toph looks away miserably. “Still, you’re not exactly unknown. Just because your skin is paler than mine doesn’t make you safe.”
“Zuko said you were really adamant about not leaving,” Toph says quietly, and she nods.
“I can’t solve anything from a hiding place,” she answers. “I’m not gonna take any stupid risks or anything, but I’m not backing down, either.”
“You want to move forward on the hospital?”
“Of course I do,” she replies. “Someone targeting me doesn’t make it any less necessary.”
“Don’t you dare go out there without me.”
Katara tries to smile. “I just said, I’m not gonna take any stupid risks. You saved my life,” she adds softly. “Thank you for that.”
Toph, to her slight surprise, doesn’t respond with something light-hearted – it shows just how seriously she’s taking this. “You know I’m not gonna stand aside and let somebody hurt you,” she says, still scowling and picking at her soup without any apparent desire to eat. “We’re in this together.”
“Right,” she replies, reaching out and taking Toph’s hand. “We’re in this together.”
She determines not to even hesitate, not to give them the satisfaction of thinking that she’s been cowed, and so she and Toph go out the very next day to pick up where they left off, on getting the hospital building finished, and then moving forward on setting it up.
People are whispering all around them, watching her carefully, and she holds her head up high even as a small, frightened voice in the back of her mind wonders how many of them think it’s a tragedy that she wasn’t killed yesterday.
Sun-Li, Chunhua’s young sister – twelve years old a few weeks ago – runs up to her, braid flapping behind her. There’s a blue ribbon in her hair, and her hands are full of groceries.
“Katara!” she cries, and Katara gives her a strained smile.
“Hi, Sun-Li,” she says with forced warmth, and then gestures at Toph. “Toph, this is Sun-Li, she’s a friend of mine. Sun-Li, Toph.”
“Hey,” Toph says, and Sun-Li pauses, bowing low. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, miss. Are you going to oversee the building?”
“We are,” she replies. “Is the teashop doing okay today?”
It’s a belated reaction – if they’re going after her, they may also target places that she frequents – but it turns out to be premature, when Sun-Li grins.
“We’re great! Sister was really worried about you after yesterday, she’d be happy to see you.”
Katara smiles with a little more ease. “I’ll make sure to stop by,” she replies, and Sun-Li nods, holding up the bags in her arms.
“I’m going that way right now, if you wanted to walk with me?”
She glances at Toph, who shrugs, and then nods, saying, “Okay,” even though she isn’t quite sure why the young girl wants to walk with her.
“We were all really upset by what happened yesterday,” Sun-Li says, as though making light conversation, as they walk up to the teashop. “Chunhua was crying, she said she was scared you’d gotten hurt, or that you’d think everyone in the Fire Nation wanted you to leave.”
“It… has crossed my mind,” she admits, and Sun-Li looks up at her with wide, bright eyes.
“We don’t!” she cries. “We love you. You’ve really listened to us and we really believe in you. That’s why I’m wearing the ribbon,” she adds, swishing her head so that her braid swings back and forth, showing off the blue ribbon. “We started passing them out this morning, so that you’d know you have people on your side.”
Katara freezes mid-stride and looks around – now that she’s looking for it, there are a good number of people wearing blue ribbons, either tied into their hair or around their upper arm or woven into their belts. It’s not everyone, or even most people, but there are a lot of them, and not all are familiar faces.
Heat rises to her face and prickles behind her eyes, and her vision blurs.
We really believe in you.
Chunhua steps out of the teashop, face lighting up as she sees her, and she’s wearing blue ribbons in her hair, too. The teashop seems to be a nexus of them – everyone inside, that she can see, at least, is wearing one.
We love you.
“You’re okay,” Chunhua gushes, but Katara can’t seem to form words. “We were so worried! I can’t believe somebody tried to hurt you! After everything you’ve done for us!”
“I –” she starts, but her voice catches in her throat. “I didn’t realize I had this much support,” she manages to choke out, and Chunhua smiles.
“You like the ribbons?” she asks brightly. “They were Sun-Li’s idea, she said we should show you how many people in the Fire Nation are on your side.”
She covers her mouth with her hand, unsure how to even begin to articulate what she’s feeling. It runs deeper than simple gratefulness; it’s security, she realizes slowly. Katara always knew how to protect herself, but there’s something about knowing that she is surrounded by friends, by allies, by people who are openly supporting her… it’s heartening, after a very, very disheartening day yesterday.
“Can I have one?” Toph asks, and Katara glances at her. “Actually, make it two, Sparky will want one once he hears about this.”
“Of course,” Chunhua replies, grinning.
Of course Zuko will want one, she thinks distantly. Except for maybe Sokka, he’s her biggest fan.
“You okay, Sugar Queen?” Toph asks, tacking on the nickname in a transparent attempt to lighten the mood.
“I’m…” she starts, but doesn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Thank you,” she tells Chunhua, instead of trying to come up with an answer to Toph, as her eyes fill and brim over with tears. “Thank you.”
Chunhua smiles. “I don’t want you to ever feel like you’re not welcome here,” she says seriously. “You are. You’re here to help us, of course you’re welcome here. I don’t care what any old Fire Lords of the past have said. You’re my friend, and I’m going to support you.”
Katara gives her a watery smile, and then a tight hug, which is returned with force.
It isn’t much – they still haven’t caught the guy, they still don’t have much in the way of leads to even start – but it feels like a big step in the right direction, anyway.
She walks away from the teashop feeling energized, feeling less alone; Toph has already tied a ribbon around her arm – when Katara commented on being a little surprised by her openness, she had actually gotten a little offended, saying, “Just because I make fun of you and yell at you sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t support you,” like she was genuinely upset at the thought that Katara might not know how much she cared.
“Seriously, though, this’ll really cheer Sparky up,” Toph says lightly, as they walk to the building site. “I think he’s more upset than you are.”
“I think so, too,” she replies.
“Why do you think that is?” Toph asks, in a strange sort of tone, almost prodding. Katara glances at her sideways.
“I have no idea,” she deadpans, and Toph sighs, giving no indication of having any ideas as to why that might be, herself.
“Seriously, though,” she goes on in a lower voice, “he’ll be really happy to know that at least a lot of his people love you as much as he does.”
She pauses, the breath in her lungs suddenly becoming so much thinner. “What did you just say?” she asks, but Toph doesn’t give an inch.
“I said , he’ll be really happy about this,” she replies in a louder voice, then beckons her to follow. “Come on, I don’t have all day. Let’s get this inspection over with.”
Healer’s Row isn’t far, and they’re there soon, where it’s going pretty smoothly, but Katara is a bit preoccupied by Toph’s too-casual-to-be-really-casual words, and can only focus so much on how things are progressing. The frame is fully complete, and about half of the inner structure has been finished, and the workers comment to her about how relieved they are to have a decent job right now, does she know what the next building project will be?
“Not yet,” she replies, with some apology, “but I was thinking about a school.”
A school would be good, she thinks, looking at them. Something else they could build, another job they could take on, and which would need near-constant upkeep, guaranteeing them at least some form of work, for quite some time.
Plus, she promised Chunhua a school, and she’s more determined than ever before to ensure that it happens.
“Let’s get back to the palace,” she says, and Toph nods, waving at the construction workers as though they’re friends. “Do you know them?”
Toph shrugs. “Sort of. I talked to a bunch of them yesterday, to see what they knew. They’re not bad people.”
Katara looks at her carefully. “You liked that, didn’t you?” she muses, and Toph gives her an affronted look, so she clarifies: “Not – I mean, not the attack, but the investigation. You seem… I don’t know, it just seems to suit you.”
“It’s definitely more interesting than politics, that’s for sure,” she mutters, but seems to be mulling it over. “That’s for damn sure.”
“Yeah, the day-to-day of politics is pretty boring,” she concedes, stretching her arms out and looking around. There are so many people wearing blue ribbons, so much more than she would have guessed. She supposes that she’s been more visible than she’d thought. “It’s worth it, but it gets tedious.”
“Understatement of the century,” Toph replies, and as openly relaxed as she seems, Katara can see her tilting her head this way and that, still looking out for threats and, perhaps, seeing if there’s anything familiar from yesterday. Toph is playing calm, for Katara’s benefit, but Toph is still on-edge.
It’s not as though Katara is fully relaxed, herself, but she feels a lot safer with Toph by her side, and with all the blue ribbons around her, than she did right after the attack, when she’d felt completely alone, a blue-and-brown spot in a black-and-white world.
The letters start coming in that afternoon.
The first one she receives is from Sokka, which is full of freaking out and tell me you’re okay tell me it’s okay tell me you’ve got Toph by you 24/7 tell me you drowned that guy in his own body fluids tell me you are okay – so much of it, in fact, that she’s almost surprised that the words don’t leap off the page and actually yell at her. The second is from Ty Lee, which is almost identical to Sokka’s, and the third is from Suki, which asks if she wants her to come back to the Fire Nation for a while.
The fourth is from Mai: Congrats, it says, you had your first assassination attempt. Get used to it. It means you’re doing something right.
That’s a bit ominous, she thinks.
The fifth is from Aang.
Katara, he starts, and she can almost hear him taking a deep breath while trying to think of what to write, I’m so sorry this happened to you, and I’m glad to hear that you’re safe. Please stay safe. You’re too important to the world for us to lose.
I also wanted to apologize for what I said in Ba Sing Se. You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met, please don’t ever think otherwise. I hope this finds you safe, and happy.
Your friend, always, Aang.
After replying to all of them – some with a lot more comforting required than others, and she isn’t entirely certain that Sokka isn’t already on a boat over – except the last, which she thinks she’ll need much more time to process and think up a response to, she goes up to the roof. It’s been a while since she’s been up here, too busy with the planning and yesterday too anxious to dare go out in the open, and she’d almost forgotten how calm it is, how peaceful.
She’s beginning to think that Amaya the First didn’t make this as a romantic getaway, after all. Maybe she just built it as a place to hide, for a little while, when things got too scary or overwhelming or heavy down below in the palace.
The letter from Aang is what she wanted to hear on the balcony, now several months ago, and she wonders how much of it was motivated by the fear of her dying before he could make amends – even so, she thinks, it’s nice to know that he wants to make amends at all.
It’s nice to know that maybe they can repair things, at least enough that they can talk to each other again.
“I wondered if I’d find you here,” Zuko says, startling her a bit, since she hadn’t heard the door open, but she shifts over to give him room to sit down all the same. He stays standing.
“I needed to get some air,” she replies, smiling wanly. “Toph seems to be getting along well with the police force.”
“I think they’re more afraid of her than they are me,” he deadpans, running a hand through his hair.
“Something on your mind?” she asks, and he laughs a little, sort of desperately.
“A lot of things,” he replies, but holds out a hand. “Right now, I just wanted to show you, the turtleducks have hatched.”
She bolts upright without stopping to let him help her up. That, she thinks, is exactly what she needs right now: ridiculously-adorable baby animals. He snickers at her enthusiasm, but looks tired.
They arrive in the private garden to the sound of quiet, high-pitched quacking, and Katara melts inside when she sees them – they’re so tiny, and so downy, with orange-brown fluff sticking out all around their little shells as they swim around their mother, begging her to feed them.
“You’re right,” she says faintly, “they are even cuter than I thought they’d be.”
“I felt like we could both use this,” he replies, snickering again. “They’re soft, too,” he adds.
And alive, she thinks, as he picks one up and hands it to her. Soft and alive and quacking and nuzzling her hand, totally unaware of how ungrateful and awful the world can be sometimes, but also unaware of how wonderful and rewarding it can be, too.
Zuko has a blue ribbon tied around his wrist.
Maybe they’ll catch the guy – actually, no, she knows Toph won’t stop until she has him wrapped up in rock and behind bars, so they’ll definitely catch the guy, but it’s only maybe that they’ll catch the rest of whoever he was working for. Or maybe they’ll just disappear into the jungles until they fade away.
Maybe she’ll live to see the Fire Nation fully accept her the way Chunhua has. She’s off to a great start, if the number of ribbons is any indication; maybe there will always be people who hate her based solely on where she came from and the element she bends, who will never, ever give her a chance.
But eventually, they’ll fade away, too, even if it’s long after she’s gone and all that’s left is her legacy, her hospital and her school and whatever else she pushes for, whatever else she leaves here. Maybe that’ll only be policy and a few buildings. Maybe that’ll be more.
The turtleduck waddles up her arm and sits itself on her shoulder, snuggling up against her neck, its down tickling her and its light warmth spreading much further than its size would suggest.
Maybe she and Aang will be real friends again someday. Maybe they’ll just be co-workers in rebuilding the world.
Peace isn’t something that falls on you, she’s slowly realizing, it isn’t something that just happens when the fighting stops – peace is something you build, brick by brick by tedious brick, until finally you look up and you’ve got a foundation of something solid and lasting. Peace isn’t something you find; it’s something you make for yourself, out of the ruins left behind by war and heartbreak and loss. It’s something you put together, out of what’s left after the storm has passed.
She reaches out and takes Zuko’s hand, then, on impulse, leans up and kisses his cheek, being careful not to disturb the turtleduck.
He’ll be happy to know that a least a lot of his people love you as much as he does.
Toph would know.
“Katara…” he says softly, and she smiles, and he seems to lose track of his thoughts. “Thank you, for everything.”
“I told you,” she replies, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You promise?” he asks, squeezing her hand tightly.
“Yeah,” she says, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I promise.”
They're all there for the ground-breaking ceremony, just before the sixth Council of Four is scheduled to take place, on what they've (reluctantly, in some cases; Sokka in particular was pushing for something related to a fifth element) decided to call Republic City. "Because it will be a republic," Aang had explained. "A place where everyone is represented and everyone has a voice."
Sokka, Katara suspects, was simply bitter about not being able to include his puns on national scale.
“Come on, Katara,” he grumbles to her, crossing his arms. “We had the perfect opportunity to place my wit on the map for all of history. I can't believe you've betrayed me like this, siding with 'Republic City'. That's so boring!”
“Wit?” she counters, hands on her hips. ““Aether City” is your definition of wit?"
“Well, if anyone had even considered any of my other ideas…”
Behind him, Suki rolls her eyes and makes a hand motion to imitate a flapping mouth, and Katara snickers.
“How much of this have you had to listen to?” she asks, leaning around Sokka.
“You would not believe,” she replies fervently.
Suki sighs heavily in exasperation, but she fingers the pendant on her neck all the same. It’s not perfect, but he put a lot of work into it, and it suits her – it suits them, and not just Sokka and Suki. It’s imperfect, but it’s made with love and care and hope, and so it’s something to be proud of.
Aang walks up from behind her and sighs. “He won’t let go of “Aether City,” will he?”
“I’m pretty sure he’ll have it carved on his grave,” Katara replies. “How are things at the Air Temple?”
“Pretty good,” he answers, smiling. “I think some of the Acolytes are pretty much masters at this point, they’re starting to take Air Nomad philosophy and apply it to the modern world. They’re excited about the city.”
“That’s great!” she says, and means it. “I’m really happy for you.”
“Yeah,” he says slowly. “I hear there’s reason for congratulations to you, too.”
Her breath catches in her throat a bit, but she’s wearing the headpiece in her hair – it’s not like she came here to hide it.
“Fire Lady Katara,” Aang muses. “It’s got a good ring to it. I’m glad you’re happy,” he adds in a quiet voice. “I really am.”
“Thank you,” she says, matching his volume. “It means a lot. I know we’ve had a rocky path, but… I’m glad we can stand here, as friends.”
“Me too,” he replies, with a genuine smile. “You’re gonna be an amazing Fire Lady.”
“All right,” Toph cries, joining them and barging into the conversation with all the subtlety of a mallet, “let’s get the future started!”
“Yeah,” Katara says, as they walk forward to join Zuko and the builders at the site. “Let’s get the future started.”