Much to Zuko’s humiliation, his opening words to Katara when she visited for the first time in years, “So, um… how are… life things?”
He really wanted to slap himself sometimes.
The two of them sat opposite each other at a small dining table waiting for breakfast to be served. She looked at him blankly for a moment before bursting into laughter. Zuko felt less like a dignified, seventy-year-old Firelord and more like an embarrassed teenager again. Seeing the red flooding his face, Katara busied herself with pouring a cup of tea and tried to keep the laughter to a minimum.
“Life things… are going fine,” she said stifling one last giggle. “Well, of course, all the talk around the Southern Water tribe now is ‘who’s the next Avatar?'” She took a long sip of her tea, and shook her head. “Mm… it’s too bitter. Do you have any honey for it?”
He didn’t, because of course to Uncle Iroh’s tea proteges, that would be an offense to nature. Still, he managed to get one of the servants who probably wouldn’t tattle on him to bring some to the table. Katara put a generous dollop into her cup and stirred thoughtfully, the kinking of the spoon the only sound in the room.
“Here’s a question,” she said suddenly. “Let’s say you were the Avatar…”
Zuko gripped his own teacup. Yeah, that was… a question, all right. “Um, I’m not.”
“Okay, but let’s say you were,” she took another sip of the tea, “Ah, that’s much better. So, your next form would be an airbender. What do you think your life would be like? What kind of person would you be?”
“Well, I imagine I’d shave my head, listen to proverbs all day, probably take airbending lessons from Tenzin… I guess I would technically have to be related to Tenzin… hey, quit laughing!”
She didn’t stop this time. Instead, in her attempts to cover her mouth, she almost knocked her teacup over. She only managed to keep it together when the servants finally entered with the morning meal: various fruits, eggs, broiled fish, and rice. Zuko had even had the chef attempt to make some stewed sea prunes, but judging by the way Katara only put a small polite sample on her plate, it probably was not Water Tribe authentic.
“Okay, then… let’s say the Avatar is you,” Zuko said. “You’ve been reborn in the Earth Kingdom. You… um, earthbend things. What are you like?”
“Me? Oh, that’s easy.” Katara flicked a wisp of her whitening hair out of her face. “First of all, I take it as my sworn duty to prove that not all earthbenders have to be rough around the edges. I’m skilled, but I’ve got precision and elegance. Waterbending comes naturally to me, of course.”
“Of course,” Zuko said, trying one of the sea prunes with a whole lot of rice to disguise the taste. “You don’t sound like you’d change much.”
For the first time since she’d arrived yesterday, it was now Katara who blushed a little. “Maybe it’s a harder question to answer than I thought.”
Zuko smiled at her, but his heart felt a bit heavy. He watched her enjoy her meal, but found reading her emotions impossible.
“Hey,” he faintly said, “are things… really okay at home?” He braced himself to feel humiliated again, to get more frustrated at his inability to keep his mouth shut on subjects that didn’t concern him. She looked up at him. Then, to his surprise, she smiled.
“You’re sweet, you know that? You’re always thinking about me.”
He managed not to blush this time. “O-of course I think about you. You’re one of my closest friends.”
She reached her hand across the table and patted his. It seemed like she had a lot more creases and wrinkles across his knuckles than he did. Why had he never noticed that before?
“And you are one of mine,” she said. “Thank you, Zuko. But I’m doing all right now. I know that life keeps going. That’s the way of things. And I want to do the most with all the life I have left.”
Shakily, he put his other hand on top of hers. So do I, he thought. So do I.