It had been five years since Katara had seen Zuko, and she wasn't especially looking forward to the visit. As she sat next to Sokka on Appa's back, it was hard to focus on the wind whipping in her hair, or the jokes Sokka was swapping with Aang in an attempt to be lighthearted. All it seemed she could notice was the leaden lump in her stomach.
They hadn't parted on bad terms. Not exactly. The problem was, perhaps, that they hadn't parted on any terms at all. It would be so much easier if she had Zuko's temper to blame, or even her own. Instead the distance was nobody's fault, and that made it much harder.
Katara had honestly tried to saddle herself with some guilt, as if that would help, but it just kept sliding off like water on a turtle-duck's back. Five years ago she had woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic messenger hawk. She remembered reading the message aloud to Toph, who was endlessly curious, and jokingly demanded that it was her right as Katara's host in Ba Sing Se to know what it was about. She remembered that the handwriting was messy - it was Zuko's, frantic and desperate. Come to the Fire Nation Capital immediately. Please. He would do anything. Something was going very wrong, and he was worried for Mai's sake, and for his child's. Katara remembered months before welcoming the news of a new heir for the Fire Nation with a smile, and some idle offhand conversation with Sokka about how Zuko was going to either be the very best or very worst of fathers.
Before she and Toph were even packed and scrambling to find transport, another messenger hawk pecked at the window. This time the writing was elegant, neat, and courteous. There was no need to come, and the Firelord deeply appreciated their support. But Queen Mai was dead, and not even the most powerful healing waterbender could bring her back. The Fire Nation only had its new princess to comfort them. It was signed by one of the court officials.
Katara remembered how excruciatingly quiet it was when she finished reading the letter out to Toph. Then they didn't hurry as much, but still made their way to the city.
The Fire Nation Capitol looked so strange covered in black banners of mourning, and the entire court had followed suit. Katara had found her way into the palace easily enough. She had even found her way to the Firelord's rooms.
He hadn't even looked her in the eye - that was the most painful part. She talked at him as he stood with his back turned, looking out one of the wide windows. She had apologized, repeatedly, and asked if there was anything she could do. She had said she was worried about him. It seemed to take him ages to speak, but when he finally did, his voice was hoarse, and Katara remembered his words exactly.
"I'll be fine. I know what I'm meant for. It doesn't mean that I won't enjoy happiness when it comes, but I can at least deal with this… with dignity. Like a Firelord should."
She had been so confused. What was he meant for?
The answer was so quiet and casual it threw her. Brain stalling and trying to fumble for a response, she reached out for his shoulder, a comforting gesture even through the elegant pauldrons he was bound to wear as part of his office. But Zuko had merely flinched away like a startled animal.
Katara had hoped with an odd desperation that he would turn around and yell at her, scream and shout in furious confused anger. It was what she expected from Zuko, and she knew that in such a situation it was probably the catharsis he needed. But he didn't. He merely turned and started to walk briskly to the pack of court officials who seemed to hover by his elbows now, dictating details of the funeral in an oddly flat tone.
He hadn't even said goodbye.
The funeral itself was full of grim pomp and circumstance. Katara, officially, was there for Sokka, who was there for Suki, who was there for Ty Lee. The somewhat-ditzy gymnast seemed to do enough sobbing for the entire section of honored attendants. Which was good, because Zuko's eyes remained dry. Katara just saw something that made her even more heartwrenchingly anxious. A look in his eyes - something missing. As if someone had torn away a flame from the end of a match, leaving only the glowing tip to slowly fade. It was the only way Katara could think to describe it…
She was quietly brooding over it when Sokka poked her roughly in the shoulder and gave a cocky grin. "Hey! Are you still in there?"
"Hnnh? What? Of course I am. Don't be stupid," she said, dusting herself off with an appropriate amount of bluster. From his seat, Aang laughed, shaking his head.
"I've been trying to ask you a question for a good five minutes!" Sokka rolled his eyes. "Anyway. Who's going to look better with a beard? Me or Aang?"
Katara resisted the urge to roll her eyes immediately. "Both of you look utterly ridiculous right now."
"Hey, I think mine's coming along nicely," Aang half-whined, reaching up to rub the just-beyond-stubble on his chin. "And so is Sokka's. Not as magnificent as mine, but, you know…"
"Not all of us can be beardbenders I guess! But seriously, I don't know why I didn't do this sooner." Sokka had pulled a dagger from his belt and was now admiring his reflection. This time, Katara couldn't resist rolling her eyes. "Suki loves it. Like seriously, it drives her w-"
"That's way more than I ever need to know!" Katara pulled a face, clapping her hands over her ears. "I'll just watch for when the city comes into view instead of waiting for you two to tell me!"
It was oddly soothing seeing the landscape of the Fire Nation roll far beneath them, anyway. She had already noticed when they were stretching their legs earlier that the government buildings, even outposts, hadn't returned to their usual crimson splendor. No, the flags were still black with golden embroidery, flashier than they had been but not as decadent as usual by far. 'Half-mourning', the official had called it. The Firelord may take joy in the Princess Mei Lien, but his heart still carried the sadness of the Queen's death. As it should be.
Hours later, Katara could see the black-and-gold banners covering the Capital City, and she quietly noted that she was already sick of them.
As sunlight filtered through the windows of the Firelord's luxurious room, Katara gave a twitchy frown. Sokka shifted from foot to foot as he stood by one of the windows, and Aang tapped his fingers against his staff.
"…So? How is h-"
"Sssht!" Katara's voice was so harsh that both Sokka and Aang jumped and then looked to each other, just about cowering. It was easy to be intimidated in such a room. Even if it was a bedroom, some architect had made sure it was impressive and imposing. Zuko's quiet and modest lack of decoration couldn't get rid of all such planning. The bed in the middle still had a golden flame stretching up above it, a gauzy canopy of red silk stretching down from the very top to the bottom posts of the bed itself. Everything was decorated with heavy tassels and golden embroidery. A room fit for a king. And for a queen.
There was a reason why it seemed strangely empty, after all. Aang could see the dust that had settled on one of the expansive closet doors - Mai's wardrobe, no doubt. He ran his finger along one of the slats and frowned. No doubt it was driving the servants crazy, but if Zuko hadn't allowed them to even touch it…
Sokka paced back and forth, making footprints in the plush and ornate rug that stretched over most of the room. Katara nearly snarled, looking as if she was about to hush him, but her eyebrows twitched and she was consumed once again with her work.
The water hovering above Zuko's chest glowed softly, and Katara frowned deeply. There was no better healer in the water tribes, but even still, she was struggling. If it wasn't for the fact that he was pale and, more importantly, deeply unconscious, Zuko almost looked… good. Dignified, certainly. A Firelord was expected to be, of course. His black hair had been grown out to his shoulders, pleasantly glossy and spread out on his pillow like a fan. Unlike Sokka and Aang, he seemed to have realized that going cleanshaven for now was a wise idea (though Katara had already healed a few nicks and cuts from where the servants had shaved him while he was unconscious). His physique spoke to the fact that he hadn't let ruling a nation be any excuse to slack off on training. Others would have been a bit thrown off by the burn on his face, or the much newer scar on his chest - but to them - to his friends - it was just another part of him.
His chest rose steadily and evenly, but almost mechanically. More worrying was the fact that he just wouldn't wake up. Katara had already tried all of the basic tricks she could think of, and had tried tipping one herbal elixir into his mouth, but he still laid there, completely unresponsive.
Finally Katara sat back, cracking her neck and shaking herself off. "Ugh."
"How bad is it?" Aang asked this time, making sure to be slightly more polite than Sokka.
Katara's shoulders rose and then fell in a long sigh. "Bad." With a flick of her wrist, the water that had been hovering over Zuko's chest snaked its way back to the bottle by her hip. "I can feel… so many things have gone wrong. It just doesn't look like it at first." Aang walked over to stand by her, worriedly looking down at both her and Zuko as she continued. "It's definitely poison. And they said it was introduced in his wine at dinner? He didn't ingest much, and it's done all this…" She reached up to rub her eyes with the palms of her hands. "It's not like any other poison I've seen before. Something… it's blocking his chi. I don't think he could bend - " She paused, gesturing at Zuko. "Well, obviously not right now. But not when he wakes up."
The guards at the door hovered nervously, and a man quietly entered. He looked as if he hadn't gotten a night's sleep in about three days and was definitely showing the wear and tear. "Sirs, ma'am." He bobbed in a quick bow before taking off his helm and holding it under one arm. "My apologies about not reporting to you sooner."
Sokka gave the man an easygoing smile. "It's fine. So you're, uh…"
"Lieuten—er." He paused before clearing his throat a little. "Captain Deshi of the Palace Guard. Recently, ah… recently promoted, sir." Deshi cleared his throat again. "We chased down the man identified as the assassin after it became apparent the Firelord had been poisoned, sir."
Sokka listened before gesturing for the man to continue. "And…?"
"He was killed in combat, sir." Aang watched quietly, letting Sokka take over as their expert on battle tactics and strategy. But it was obvious to everyone the distress that came over Deshi's face. "Along with Ca- …former Captain Qian and…" He had to stop and gulp again, but Sokka was patient, merely reaching up to stroke the stubbly beginnings of his beard as the Captain spoke. "Nearly fifty of our best men."
Sokka's fingers stopped mid-stroke on his chin. "Wait. Fif…teen? That's what you meant, right?"
"No. Forty-seven is the precise count, sir, but they don't expect Shen or Tai to live the night." The Captain's voice shook somewhat, but to his credit, he put his hands behind his back and stood straight with military professionalism even when talking about the slaughter of his friends.
Aang, Katara and Sokka all looked at each other for a long moment. One man taking out fifty… no wonder the entire palace was nervous and twitchy. The Captain interrupted them by clearing his throat in a way that suggested he was shaken to the point of tears thinking of the current death toll. "He did… he did leave a note, sir. I believe it's actually addressed to you, Avatar Aang, sir."
Aang immediately frowned, pushing himself off of where he had been leaning on his staff. "Well, I guess if it's for me it'd just be impolite to not read it, right?" His joke didn't go over as well as others had before, but he nodded to the Captain.
"It's being kept in a room near the security wing, Avatar, sir. We've attempted to read it but it appears to be in some sort of… code. We're not sure. It may be some sort of riddle. Any help would be appreciated, if you can spare it, sir -"
"Zuko's my friend, Captain. Of course I'll help."
Sokka leaned out of the doorway somewhat, giving a small smile before leaning on the doorframe. The guards outside still seemed shaken, though to their credit they were doing their jobs with deadly seriousness, polearms up and at the ready. Sokka took a deep breath in before looking up and slouching a bit while starting to talk to himself. "Well, if they're being that sneaky about getting in, it's probably not going to do much good to reinforce any of the battlements or -"
"Sshh!" Katara's tone was irritated once more. She had broken into a sweat, water swirling above Zuko's chest once again. Apparently whatever damage had been done was going to be hell do undo. Sokka wasn't sympathetic to that, although he did bite his bottom lip as he watched.
Fortunately, he was distracted by a blur of movement at his feet. The guards scrambled, nearly tripping over themselves, but it was… a little girl?
The guards had to haul her out by the wide bow of her dress even as she tried to claw her way back in and huffed. Sokka stepped outside the door with the guards, rather curious, closing the door behind him. He could see a fat nursemaid huffing and puffing her way up the hall, trying not to trip and fall on her skirts. "Princess! Princess, you absolutely cannot -"
The girl just gave a huff, stomping her feet angrily and glaring at the now-closed door with fury that absolutely, positively reminded Sokka of Zuko. He crouched down, hoping to catch her attention. "Princess, huh? So you must be Zuko's daughter… Mei Lien, right?"
She turned to him and pouted. If there was one thing going in her favor, she was certainly cute. Her black hair was pulled back with some sort of beaded ornament, but her long bangs were nearly in her wide eyes. Even with her face scrunched up in a decidedly disgruntled frown, she was still pretty adorable. Enough for Sokka to grin at her and offer a hand out. "Hey there. I'm Sokka, one of your dad's friends."
The child looked him over critically and announced: "Your hair looks stupid."
Sokka's grin dropped into a flat frown. "Well, it's traditional for Water Tribe warriors, and -"
"Water Tribe hair is stupid," she proclaimed before facing down the door again. "Lemme in, I wanna see Daddy!"
The nursemaid had finally caught up with her, and the older woman looked distinctly flustered. "Your father needs to rest, Princess, he's been hurt -"
"But I want to see him! You said I could!" Sokka could see the tears in her eyes now, and suddenly things clicked into place. Well, perhaps being Zuko's daughter was enough to explain the blithe callousness, but this made it make even more sense. This wasn't her normal behavior. This was the start of a tantrum because she was anxious and upset.
"Not yet, Princess. Maybe tomorrow -"
"But he has to read to me about the turtle-ducks! He always reads to me about the turtle-ducks! Every single night!"
"I can read it to you again -"
"No! You don't do the voices right! You're -" Oh, here it came. The Princess' entire small body shuddered as she drew in a breath that became a bawling scream. "You're stupid and ugly and I hate you!" The nurse was about to splutter some response - and even Sokka felt somehow obligated to try and be a good moral example by saying something - but the girl rushed forward, flinging herself at the door. It had just barely popped open and that was all the leverage she needed. Even as the guards scrambled, she hopped up, flinging herself onto Zuko's bed and clawing her way up. Katara was so startled that both the Firelord and the Princess nearly got doused in water, and she was only able to collect it back to the bottle on her belt in the nick of time.
There was plenty more water on the way. Princess Mei Lien sat half on her father's shoulder, shaking it, her hands seeming far too tiny in comparison. Her black hair was shook out of its ornate hairstyle and the beads on her hair decorations clattered. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. "Daddy! Daddy, wake up!" Zuko said nothing - did nothing - remaining perfectly limp and unconscious.
"I'm so sorry, Lady Katara," the nursemaid whispered, looking genuinely frightened of what Katara's reaction would be.
"Oh - n-no, it's - it's fine -"
The nurse had already reached out to grab Mei Lien, hands sturdily reaching around the child's waist. The girl gave a sticky, tearful shriek, clinging hard to Zuko's arm. "Daddy, wake up! Wake up! Why won't you wake up!" She was tearfully screaming even as the nurse dragged her inch by inch. Zuko's arm was limp in her grip, and the nursemaid tried to be soothing, but it was far more powerful seeing his large hand slip through her tiny grip, finger by finger, to fall lifelessly limp on the side of the bed.
Eventually Mei Lien was sobbing so hard she couldn't keep her eyes open, tears running from her eyes and sticky snot from her nose as she bawled. But even as the nurse, flanked by the guards, carried her out of the room, the Princess continued to stretch her hands over the nurse's shoulder, desperately still reaching for her father even though her fingers only groped empty air.
Neither Katara nor Sokka knew anything intelligent to say. They could only watch as the doors closed and the chaos was muffled in the hall, and then became distant. By the time the doors opened again, Katara was trying to heal Zuko inch by inch once more, and Sokka was sitting on a bedside stool twisting his boomerang in his hands.
This time she didn't shush him, instead continuing to work, eyes closed, tone languid and distant. "Yeah, Sokka?"
"If there's anything I can do… I mean, anything… count me in."
"I already have."