Toph was proud of the fact that she clocked it before everyone else.
It was hilarious, really. Everyone just going about their business weeks after the mess they just went through and here was Toph, holding the ultimate blackmail material against Katara.
“So, Katara,” she said, cornering the other woman one day. They were in Iroh’s tea shop just hanging out and it felt like the perfect time to drop the bomb on her, with all the people nearby who could see Katara’s tomato red face. “What’s up with you and Dragon Lady?”
Katara’s whole body froze for a second then quickly recovered. “Nothing. Why do you ask? I thought you don’t have a problem with her anymore?”
“I don’t. But I just couldn’t help but notice something.” Toph leaned an elbow against the table, her lips curled in a smirk. “And by something, I mean you having a big, fat, obvious crush on her.”
She sensed the increased pulse rate and just knew Katara was blushing like a preteen. Really, Toph ought to pat herself on the back. Even Sokka couldn’t pull this off.
“What? No, I don’t! That’s crazy!” Her eyes flickered over to the other side of the room, where their friends were huddled around Azula and Sokka. The two were in the middle of their second game of Pai Sho. Azula, who won the last time, was bored out of her mind, while Sokka was incredibly focused. He was probably losing again.
“You do know I can tell when you’re lying, right?” replied Toph, probably looking as smug as she felt. She let Katara’s anger simmer down and soon enough, her friend gave up— slumping against her chair in defeat. Toph guffawed.
“Shut up, this isn’t funny,” Katara said, clearly still too stuck-up to laugh this off.
“Oh, but this is the funniest thing ever!” She pounded a fist against the table as she laughed again, making their tea slosh around. “Your heartbeat is going nuts right now! It’s like that time Ty Lee got Azula drunk after the victory party and she kept leaning against you for the rest of the night. And that time you—”
“Keep your voice down!” Katara hissed through gritted teeth. She bent the spilled tea back into their cups before letting out a sigh. “Am I really that obvious?”
She bit back the urge to laugh this time. “Nah, I’m just way more perceptive than everyone.”
“I bet Azula already noticed, too,” she said, still not done feeling sorry for herself.
Katara sounded so pathetic that even Toph couldn’t get herself to poke fun at her anymore. “If it helps,” she said to her, “I’m pretty sure that Fire Princess likes you back.”
It took approximately twenty-two seconds for Katara to process that in her useless brain. Finally, she raised her head back up with a hopeful smile. “You think so?”
She palmed her face once. “And I’m the one who’s blind?”
“Cut me some slack, it’s not easy to figure out if she even likes girls in the first place.” Katara’s mood fell again. And just like that, the nervous beat in her chest took on a different note. “You- you don’t think that’s bad, right? I mean, it used to be illegal in the Fire Nation until Zuko changed things, and I don’t think it—”
“Come on, Sugar Queen. You think I’m one of those bigoted people who care about that sort of thing? So, you like a woman. I think that’s fantastic, if you ask me. Men can be so stupid.”
“But what if… I mean, I don’t care about what strangers would think, I’m just— what if the others aren’t so accepting?” Katara whispered the last question helplessly. By others, Toph knew she was talking about the rest of their little gang. She sounded like she was close to crying which, okay, Toph wasn’t expecting that. She just wanted to tease Katara and have a good laugh.
“I’m sure the others aren’t the type, but if any of them gives you shit just because you like women, I’ll beat them up myself,” Toph said with enough conviction that Katara wouldn’t doubt her. She did mean it. Katara could do it herself, of course, but still.
That was apparently the wrong thing to say because Katara was openly shedding tears now. Uh-oh. “You know, I said that to cheer you up. I meant it, but, uh… Stop crying. It’s okay.”
Katara chuckled and wiped her tears. She rose from her seat and walked over to Toph’s side of the table to hug her. Toph tried to wriggle away from her grubby hands, but Katara’s hold was fierce. “Thank you.”
Toph stopped resisting and patted her friend in the back. “Yeah, no problem. I always got your back.”
Sokka and her sister never liked hiding things from each other, so he wasn’t entirely surprised when one evening, right before the gala celebrating the first Council of Nations meeting, Katara told him about the current state of her love life. He’d outgrown his immediate urge to tease her about it, or act disgusted, or cover his ears like a petulant child. It was tempting to grate Katara's nerves, but not this time! After all, he was a man engaged himself, and Suki had been a great influence on him in being tactful.
But still, when his sister said she was dating the last person he’d think of, he couldn’t help but laugh. Loudly. His mirth echoed through Katara’s (incredibly fancy, he might add) living quarters.
Katara, who was in the middle of tidying up his traditional Water Tribe formal wear (with a bit of a modern touch to suit Sokka’s newly acquired style), slapped him in the shoulder. “Why do I even bother telling you anything?” she grumbled.
“Because you love me,” he replied with a pout. “Also, you can’t expect me to just, like, not react that way. I mean, Azula? Really?”
“You got a problem with my girlfriend?” She emphasized the last word defiantly, eyes staring daggers at him.
He raised his hands up in surrender. “Gee, little sis, I don’t mean it like that. You might not believe me, but I think Azula’s great! I mean, she did use to be the epitome of evil and I hate that she keeps beating me at Pai Sho, but she’s pretty cool. I just didn’t expect you two to be—” he shaped his hands like a heart, “—you know?”
Katara finally dropped her glare and went back to mothering him. Really, though, his clothes looked fine! It was like she could see invisible creases or something. “I didn’t expect it either, believe me.”
There was a softness in his sister’s voice that immediately made Sokka smile. He realized how she truly was happy about this unexpected progression of her relationship with Azula. When he first saw just how close his sister and their old-enemy-now-friend had grown, he had dismissed the initial weirdness of it and chalked it up to battle-forged bonding. But it was clearly more than that.
“So, are you two making it public or anything?” he asked when Katara was satisfied with her handiwork. She went to sit at a nearby chair and grabbed a small mirror from the table in her living room.
“If you mean announcing it to everyone? Definitely not,” she answered while fixing her already neatly done up hair. She was wearing a deep blue traditional dress with white fur trimmings, her arms bare. It was a good thing that her sister’s girlfriend had such an effective death glare because now he didn’t have to worry about sleazy eyes straying too long. “I just told you because you’re my brother and I don’t want you hearing about it from exaggerated rumors.”
“Does Zuko know?”
Katara shrugged. “Mai does, so it's possible that she told him. I doubt it, though.”
He perched on the armrest of her chair. “The Fire Lord is a bit slow, isn't he,” he snickered.
“As if you would notice anything if I hadn’t told you.”
“You wound me, dear sister.” He put a hand on his chest. “I’m not dense.”
A knock came and Katara called for the person to come in. The door opened to reveal Azula, stepping inside the room like it was hers. She was all dressed-up Fire Nation Royalty style: deep red and black with gold trimmings, half of her hair down and her topknot bearing the gleaming sign of royal birth. Beside him, Katara was openly eyeing the princess up and down. It took all of Sokka’s self-restraint not to laugh. He’d never seen this side of Katara before, not even when she and Aang were still all lovey-dovey.
Azula turned to him with a raised brow. “You clean up nice.”
“You know, the way you sound surprised doesn’t make it feel like a compliment.”
“It wasn’t,” said Azula plainly. “Just an observation.”
Katara snorted as she got to her feet. “Don’t worry, Sokka,” she said, walking over to Azula and linking their arms together. “I’m sure Suki won’t call off the wedding, however you end up looking.”
Great, if these two ever decide to get married, I'll have to put up with two bullies in the family.
The tree of them were joined by Mai and Zuko and together, they made their way to the Council’s newly built Grand Assembly Hall, which was converted into a setting for the gala. There were two carriages waiting for them outside the palace. Zuko and Mai took the first one, while Sokka joined his sister and Azula inside the other. The Council's Assembly Hall was on the other side of Caldera, but the journey didn’t feel long with the three of them deep in conversation about the meeting that happened earlier that day. Katara aired a few frustrations about the other representatives, but all in all she seemed satisfied and optimistic about the whole thing.
When it was time for them to emerge out of their carriage, Sokka disembarked first. He theatrically offered his hand to his sister, who rolled her eyes but let him help her step down the carriage anyway. He watched as Katara did the same for Azula, and the normally icy princess melted into an amused smirk as she grabbed her girlfriend’s hand.
Despite pretending not to be one, Sokka had always been a bit of a romantic. And the sight of Katara dragging Azula wherever she went to greet some delegates and Azula allowing her to, the way he would hear Katara’s laugh then catch them in one corner with Azula smirking and Katara’s face alight with glee (probably after Azula poked fun at everyone else in her signature cutting humor that he’d come to know these past few months) made something warm curl up in his chest. It felt nice seeing his sister happy like this.
The way Zuko found out was purely accidental.
He had been absently taking a walk about the palace (because it helped him think sometimes) one night when he saw the two of them in the royal gardens. They were sitting by the pond, glued to each other so close that it would raise some eyebrows. But Zuko knew that the two were friends and have only grown closer in the time since they rescued him and the others together, and really, Zuko was just happy that his sister had a friend like Katara.
He was about to turn away and move on when suddenly, and to his great astonishment that the Fire Lord was frozen in his feet, Azula leaned close to Katara… and pressed their lips together. His sister finally noticed the sight of him after what seemed like a minute, stunned and as flustered as he felt at being caught by her.
Now, they were in his personal study. He was seated on his chair while Azula stared him down, both of her hands leaning against his table. The tap-tapping of her fingers against the polished wood did nothing to calm his nerves.
“So, uh—” Zuko began, “…you and Katara?”
"I know you're not the sharpest knife in the drawer, brother, but the answer to that should be clear to you by now." Zuko couldn’t get a read on her expression whether she was angry or not, but the blankness and her sharp tone definitely told him she was far from pleased.
"I'm sorry, okay? I don't know how to go about talking to you about this."
Azula’s brows drew together. "Well, then let me make it clear for you Zuzu. Katara and I are together,” she said firmly. “Now that you are informed of that fact, you are well within your rights as Fire Lord and a purveyor of our nation’s values and laws to put me to prison for it."
He blinked in surprise. "What? I put an end to that nonsense, you know that."
"Oh, so should I be thanking you now? Is that what you want?” she bit back. “Shower you with praises for terminating such a backwards, obstinate law?"
"Why are you like this?"
"Like what, exactly?" she said, like she was daring him.
Zuko all but groaned. "I'm trying to talk to you!"
"We're talking right now!"
"Then why are you being so—"
"I was scared, okay?" Azula admitted. That silenced him right away. "I didn't want you to judge me, and I hate that anyone still has that power on me, even after I've come to accept who I am long before I decided to come back to this wretched place."
Zuko watched as Azula’s mouth worked up and down, her face a myriad of emotions. Pain stood out among them, dimming her bright golden eyes, the kind that had been bottled and buried long ago and found its way back to haunt her. He felt his heart break at the sight. He didn’t want to think about what their father would’ve done if he knew… if he even so much as sensed something…
"Azula, I'm happy for you and Katara," he said gently as he placed his hand atop one of hers. Azula didn't flinch away, and he counted that as a victory. He went on, "And I'm never going to judge you for who you choose to love when there’s nothing to judge in the first place. It’s a beautiful thing, and I think it’s something to be celebrated, not condemned."
His sister turned away and sniffled. There was a small smile on her face, and Zuko felt like a torn was plucked out of his chest. “Uncle has definitely rubbed off on you, Zuzu. You sound all philosophical and foolish now.”
Zuko let the teasing slide, content that Azula was far less upset. He didn’t want to dwell on how different his response would’ve been if he had found out many years ago instead, when they were younger and he was a much different man.
He wasn’t going to be like his father, or his father before him. He wasn’t going to uphold Sozin’s tainted legacy. He had sworn long ago that he would break the chain, he wasn’t about to stop now.
Zuko wanted to get up and pull Azula into a hug, but that would’ve been pushing his luck too far. Instead, he settled with a question. “Am I the first one to know?”
That drew a mocking laugh from Azula, though it didn't have the edge that used to trigger fear or anger out of him all those years ago. “Don’t be stupid, Zuzu. You forget how shrewd your dear wife is. And Katara told her brother during his last visit.”
Mai knew. Of course. Before he could start complaining about being left in the dark, and how his own wife didn’t inform him about something as significant as this, he remembered that Mai simply respected her friend’s privacy. Azula's anxiety also probably stopped her from telling him, and their relationship wasn't exactly at the stage where they would openly trade personal secrets... They were still working on being siblings, after everything. Zuko was happy enough that they weren't trying to kill each other anymore, and that Azula looked well and better than she had been the last time he saw her before she vanished, but he was going to do his best to bridge the remaining gap between them.
So, he offered his sister the warmest smile he could muster, a hint of mischief in his voice. "Well, I just hope this doesn't make things awkward during dinner."
Azula found his attempt at humor lackluster, but he noticed the way her shoulders had relaxed, the storm in her features clearing.
Ome welcomed her dear Azula with open arms. She knew the child wasn’t fond of embraces, but she had missed her so, despite her visit being not so long ago. Perhaps this was what she got for convincing her to go back into the world and fulfill the bright path that was hers for the taking, the one that had been foretold and one that she deserved.
But love did not mean keeping someone to yourself, and watching Azula soar to great heights would always be one of the greatest joys in Ome’s life.
Another reason for Ome to be happy about this visit was the company she brought with her.
“Ome, this is Katara.” Azula reached out for the hand of a young woman with eyes like the ocean and a smile like the dawn’s promise. The young woman named Katara bowed before her in the way of her people, no doubt Azula had taught her. Ome was amused.
“It is wonderful to meet you finally.” Ome skipped the rest of the pleasantries and embraced the young woman who held Azula’s heart, knowing the formal welcoming ceremony later which they held for invited outsiders was going to be more than enough. “Azula has told me marvelous things about you.”
Katara glanced at Azula briefly before turning back to her with a graceful smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t help but notice Azula’s flustered face. “It’s also my pleasure and a great honor to meet you, O wise one.”
“Just call me Ome, Katara. You are family to me.”
Katara’s smile only grew wider, making her already beautiful face even lovelier. Azula has chosen well, it seemed.
The rest of the day went by in a festive blur. Her people were always pleased to welcome Azula back, who had been one of them for years, and to Lan the Magnificent to whom they bow down to and also let the children play with.
At some point during the day, the other young women had pulled a reluctant Azula and a willing Katara to join them in one of the dances. Azula released a jet of her flames into the bonfire and the people cheered as it burned blue. The crowd of young people paired up and Azula swayed along with practiced ease, a laughing Katara following her lead.
Ome was overwhelmed with such a deep emotion all of a sudden.
Years ago, an admirer had left Azula baffled and distressed about her regard for women, and Ome had been confused about her hesitance for something that was natural and normal to her and her tribe. They talked through it, as they always did, and Ome did her best to guide Azula so she could unlearn the false beliefs of her people and embrace herself. This was merely one of the many hurts and cracks that Ome helped Azula mend, and watching her now, laughing and dancing with her love with not a care in the world, made Ome feel the deepest of happiness.
Aang didn’t know why he felt awkward. He’d known for a while, with Sokka not being able to keep something for so long, and coupled with the fact that Aang had been over Katara for much longer and had expected something like this to happen. Was hoping for it, even. He always wanted what was best for Katara.
“So, Azula, huh?” he said. Pathetic. He couldn’t have come up with something better to say?
Katara just smiled, though. Always understanding. “Yeah… Sorry for not telling you sooner.”
“Oh, no. It’s totally fine,” he assured her profusely. “Nothing to be sorry about at all.”
A short silence.
“This is awkward,” Katara finally said.
Aang let out a relieved laugh, glad that he wasn’t the only one. “I know,” he said, scratching the back of his head. When he looked up again, Katara didn’t seem as relieved as he felt. Determined, he stepped forward and hugged her. Katara melted into it and held him back.
“I’m so happy for you,” Aang said as they pulled away. “I mean, I have to admit, I didn't see this coming. But when I thought of it, I realized it totally made sense.”
“Really?” said Katara with one of her eyebrows raised. Amused.
He nodded eagerly. “Absolutely! You two balance each other out! I think. Azula is always in a better mood around you. And, if you ask me, you two are more alike than other people would think.”
Katara laughed and Aang felt the last vestiges of awkwardness fall away. “You’re the first one to say that, so thanks,” she said.
“Not everyone has my insight,” he said, beaming at her.
The two of them laughed again. He might have been in love Katara a long time ago, and there was a part of him that would always be, but he didn’t have it in him to feel even a sliver of resentment over Katara moving on with her life and finding someone else. If he had been a lesser man, a petty and bitter one, his reaction would’ve been far different.
And when he saw Katara and Azula together that night, their silhouettes shaped to form a whole under the light of the moon, Aang thanked the spirits and smiled.