There was a knock at the door while Zuko was eating. He’d been taking all his meals in a private room, and he’d made it perfectly clear that he wanted no one else in said room except whichever servant happened to be assisting him. So the knock, short of being some kind of dire Fire Nation emergency, was pretty rude, if not outright disobedient.
His servant put down the bowl of soup she’d been holding and bowed as she went to check the door. Zuko could hear an exchange of quiet voices before he recognized Katara’s: “Well, tell him I’m planting myself out here, and I’m not leaving until he lets me in.”
The servant said something in reply, her words unclear, but her tone worried. Once again, Katara’s words blasted above her. “Tell him he did it to me first. Heck, he waited outside my tent all night once. How’s it feel now?”
The servant spluttered some words that were probably on the lines of, “There is no way I’m repeating that.” Zuko shook his head in frustration.
“Let her in,” he called out to her. The servant’s tense stance visibly relaxed. She walked up to him and bowed again.
“Do you still want–”
“I’ll eat later,” he told her. Not happily. He’d been chatting so much with all the representatives from the other nations, he’d already pushed off his usual dinnertime by about three hours. If he kept up this nonsense, he was going to faint in the middle of a meeting. Hopefully, though, he could deal with whatever Katara wanted quickly.
“Check back in with me in ten minutes,” he said to the servant.
She bowed again and started to walk over to open the door, only to see that Katara had already invited herself in. The servant looked extremely annoyed, but picked up the tray of food and left without expressing it. Katara eyed the tray as it moved past her.
“You didn’t eat much.”
“You came in here to tell me that?”
“No,” she said, shutting the door behind her. She took a slow, deep breath. That couldn’t be a good sign. “I came in here to tell you that… that, quite honestly, I’m sick of you hiding from me.” Any hope Zuko had for this being a short conversation flew out the window.
“Hiding? How am I hiding?” He had been, of course, but he played the stupid card all the same. It had annoyed Mai enough to make her leave, at any rate.
Katara rolled her eyes. “You’re acting like you’re not even a little bit upset about what’s happened. Like everything is perfectly normal. Well, I hate to point out the elephant-koi in the room, but it’s not.”
Zuko’s jaw tensed. What was it with girls and spilling emotions? “This is normal for me now, Katara. And I’m okay with that. I wish you would be, too.”
“I’d be okay with it if it wasn’t so obvious you’re still upset!”
She was yelling at him now. Actually yelling. He didn’t get it. How did trying to keep the peace around this place get her so mad at him? “What exactly do you want me to say?” he snapped. “You want me to cry into your shoulder? Wail about how awful I’ve got it? I’ve spent my whole life trying to be happy, and it never worked. Let me hold onto what happiness I’ve got without acting like it’s a crime or something.”
She didn’t yell back at him. Instead, she lowered her head. Flames, was she crying now? He thought being screamed at was bad, but making her cry when he wasn’t even sure how he’d done it felt even worse.
“Why?” she said, her voice cracking. “Why are you trying to act like everything is perfect in front of me?”
His face blazed with frustration. He almost wished she’d start yelling again. At least then he knew how to defend himself. So he said the first thing that came into his head, the thing he’d been hiding from everyone since Azula’s defeat. “Gee, I don’t know, Katara! Maybe I don’t want to sound like a blubbering idiot in front of a girl I like!”
She gasped and jerked her head up, face crimson. Zuko probably looked about the same.
“I… you…” she stuttered. “Since when did…”
“I don’t know,” he said quickly. “I mean, I think I knew early on, but then…” He shook his head. “I wanted to tell you. A bunch of times. But I didn’t want it to be when you were taking care of me. And that… turned out to be a lot. Then, Ren was always there. And Druk, and–”
“You know it would never work, right?”
He gritted his teeth. Couldn’t she at least let him finish his confession before she shot him down? What was all that stuff about being honest with her? He hung his head and stared at his hands, too humiliated to keep looking her in the face.
“I… understand,” he said. “I mean, that makes sense.”
“What? No, no no no.” Katara waved her hands frantically. “I didn’t mean it wouldn’t work because of that. I only meant… because you’re the Firelord and I’m– arg, why am I so bad at this?”
She held the sides of her head as if fighting off a migraine. Then she sat down in the chair next to Zuko that the servant had been using right before she entered.
“Look,” she said, softer now, lowering her hands and looking him in the eye. “I’m not… I don’t hate you or anything. But I’m confused. Everything’s changed so fast. First you were an enemy. Then an ally. Then a friend.”
“And what am I now?”
He shouldn’t have pressed her; he could read all over her face. But did she want him to back off because she had no answer or because she knew he wouldn’t like the answer he heard?
“You’re… someone very dear to me,” she finally said. “But that’s just the problem. I care about you, and I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
“Hurt me?” Zuko’s one eyebrow furrowed in confusion. “Hurt me how?”
Katara smiled sadly at him, like his inability to read her thoughts was naïve and adorable. “It was my waterbending that almost lost you the throne. It was me that failed to heal you. And it was because of me that Azula hurt you in the first place.”
“It was because of Azula that I got hurt in the first place,” he said sharply.
“Say it that way if you want. There’s no way us being together will help you, Zuko,” she said. “Do you need it to be official? If you’re asking me out, I’m saying no. Does that make things better?”
“No,” he answered instantly. She straightened in surprise at that, but he didn’t regret it. There was something about her that he trusted, like he could open up about anything. What was it Ren had said? “Sometimes you can’t help who you love, even if you know it isn’t right.”
“No,” he repeated. “It doesn’t make things better. But I’m glad I at least know why.” He forced a smile. “I’ll keep trying to convince you you’re wrong, you know.”
She shrugged him off, murmuring something under her breath. When she spoke loud enough for him to hear clearly, all she said was, “Feel free to try.”
Zuko stared intently into her now-blue eyes, suddenly realizing that their faces were suspiciously close, could be even closer if he stretched his neck out a bit. His lips felt dry; he was afraid to breathe, like she was a dragon-firefly that the slightest sound could scare away forever.
Then his perfect silence was broken by the sound of the door reopening. “Firelord, are you–” came the servant’s voice. Katara jerked backwards. Way too hard. The chair she was sitting in tipped and went down on the ground with a huge crash. Katara let out a small yelp as she spilled out and onto the floor. The servant stared dumbfounded with the dinner tray in her hands while Katara scrambled to her feet. She dusted herself and looked at Zuko, stuttering over her words as she hoisted the chair back into an upright position.
“Yes, well… I… these chairs appear to be quite capable of falling without breaking,” she said. She even patted the chair’s back as if to reassure it. “Yup, sturdy chairs you have you, Firelord Zuko.”
“Oh, um… yes. Thank you for testing the chairs for me, Katara. I appreciate that.”
“No problem at all. I mean, back in the Water Tribe, I was a renowned chair-tester.”
The two of them both stared at the servant at the same time, trying to gauge just how little she believed them.
“Should I…” the servant tentatively held up the dinner tray, “…come back later?”
“Yes,” Zuko said.
“No,” Katara said at the same time.
The servant glanced back and forth and seemed inclined to obey her Firelord over a young lady from the Water Tribe, but Zuko called out to her.
“Actually, just leave it here,” he said, then glanced at Katara. “Have you eaten dinner yet?”
“I um…” Katara fingered her hair. She looked ready to say no, but her growling stomach proclaimed otherwise. “No, actually, I haven’t.”
Zuko smiled warmly and nodded at the servant girl. “Could you bring us another tray of food, please? I mean,” he looked back at Katara, “if you’ll consent to having dinner with me?”
She smiled back at him. “I’d love that. Thank you.”
Zuko returned the smile and for the first time since Aang had taken the bloodbending from him, he felt like he had no barriers. What’s more, even with the barriers gone, he felt genuine happiness, rather than a face he put on for the world. Maybe he couldn’t be with Katara right now like he wanted to. Maybe all her “I don’t want to hurt you” talk was a load of garbage, and her heart belonged to someone else. She still wanted to spend time with him. For right now, that was enough.
Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph stayed in the palace for a few more days. Zuko enjoyed the company, and he was quite happy that the amount of meetings he needed to attend died down a little bit each day. He still had to set up a meeting with Earth King Kuei sometime soon to discuss the removal of the Fire Nation colonies from Earth Kingdom territory. But the man insisted that the Firelord come see him and not the other way around. Something about “nerves getting to him” outside of the palace. Zuko had wanted to send back a very snarky reply, but on Katara’s advice, he had managed to refrain.
Right now it was early evening; Zuko still found himself strangely aware of when the moon was coming out, and he was sitting by an open window enjoying the breeze on his face. His chair sat perpendicular to the window, giving him a decent view of the outside, while still keeping the rest of the room within eyesight. Katara had come in to join him, not so much because he’d requested it, but because she knew it gave him a break from the servants fussing over him.
She smiled contently as they watched the wind whipping waves across the ponds in the palace gardens. Zuko had about a million things he wanted to say to her. What she meant to him. How she’d helped heal him, even if it wasn’t in the way she wanted. He didn’t get too much time to express his thoughts, though. Someone gave three short knocks on the door before opening it up. “Hey, your majesty!”
Zuko craned his neck to see Aang waving some sort of paper in the air. “A letter came in on one of your messenger hawks. From…” he narrowed his eyes at the seal, “Someone named Rin? Rand?”
“Ren,” Zuko corrected. “What’s it say?”
In true airbender form, Aang walked up, sat cross-legged on the windowsill (it was three finger-widths wide at best), and broke open the scroll.
“‘Congratulations on resuming your place as Firelord,'” he began reading, “‘Or, y’know, not losing it in the first place. You’ll be happy to know that Druk has arrived back safely and I plan to take full advantage of the generous space you set aside for the dragon preserve. I’m sure Druk will be excited to rejoin you once he’s had some time to help me foster the new eggs.'”
Katara actually smiled at this, Zuko noted, a welcome relief from the dour expression she’d had on her face the past couple weeks. Who did she think she was, anyway? Him or something?
“‘Take care of yourself and remember, don’t be a moron and forget yourself again,'” Aang finished reading. “‘P.S. Sien says hi.'”
Zuko smiled. “Thanks, Aang. If you put it on the desk in my study, I’ll have someone write up a reply tomorrow.”
“No problem, Sifu Hotman,” Aang said, rolling the scroll back up.
“And please stop calling me that.”
“Oops. Point taken.” Aang rubbed the back of his head and started to leave, but Katara reached out to him.
“Aang, hang on a second.”
He turned and looked at her curiously. “What’s up?”
“Well,” said Katara, rubbing her arm, “now that we’re all in the same room together, there’s been something I want to talk about.”
Something she wants to talk about? Zuko would’ve sworn he could hear his heart pounding. Why would Katara suddenly want to talk to both him and Aang at the same time? Unless she–
“It’s about my waterbending,” she said.
Zuko felt more than a little disappointed at that answer, but at least kept his face impassive.
“There’s something… off about it,” Katara said. “It’s hard to explain. But the bloodbending feels like…” She placed her hands on her heart. “Like something foreign now. Like there’s a tightness in my chest that shouldn’t be there. I’m worried that the exchange went wrong or something.”
A look of concern passed over Aang’s face. “You think the energybending hurt you?”
“I don’t know… I just…” She locked eyes with Zuko. “Do you understand what I’m talking about?”
Strangely enough, he did. Not quite the same way she had expressed it, but when he focused on certain aspects of his firebending, they did feel a bit strange. Not the dragonfire; that felt as natural as regular breathing. But the lightning…
“I think I follow you,” he said. “Maybe not in the same way. But you managed to learn lightning generation with my powers. And I can sense that if I could get the movements right, I could easily create lightning, too. But whenever I think about it, it’s like there’s this ache in the back of my head.” He shook his head slowly. “I guess I chalked it up to all the stress I’ve been under lately.”
Aang nodded, at least a bit of the worry easing out of his face. “So… Zuko advanced bloodbending way beyond what you were able to do with it, and now that part of your waterbending feels strange to you.”
Katara nodded. “Yeah.”
“And you,” Aang said, pointing to Zuko, “Katara learned lightning generation while she had your powers. And now that part of your bending feels strange to you.”
“Uh-huh, I think that’s pretty much what we’re saying,” Zuko said, unsure where this conversation was leading. “So, what? You don’t think it’s anything to worry about?”
“I think it’s better than something to worry about,” Aang said excitedly. “I think I just came up with a way to help you, Zuko. Katara, stand next to him.”
Katara looked down at her feet and Zuko tried to think of a polite way to point out that she pretty much was standing next to him already. Aang rubbed the back of his neck again. “Right. You are. Never mind. Okay, both of you close your eyes and relax.” He reached out both hands towards their foreheads, but Zuko leaned his head away.
“Whoa, whoa. What are you trying, now?”
“I’m going to try energybending again,” Aang said. “But I think I might be able to only do a partial switch.”
“A… partial switch?” Katara asked.
Aang nodded eagerly. “Exactly. I felt it when I was switching your powers the second time. There was part of your energy that wanted to stay with Zuko.” He turned. “And Zuko, there was a part of your energy that wanted to stay with Katara. I completed the switch anyway, but I don’t think I had to.”
They both stared at him blankly and he waved his hands in the air as if that was proof of his sanity. It was sort of the opposite. “I know it sounds crazy,” Aang said. “But please let me try.”
Zuko exchanged some nervous glances with Katara. He couldn’t deny how dangerous the energybending was and didn’t particularly want to think about what would happen if it went wrong. What would happen to the Fire Nation if he got hurt? And what would I do if Katara got hurt?
Still, he’d trusted Aang with his life so many times now. He had to trust him one more time. He nodded his approval, Katara did the same, and both of them closed their eyes.