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Deep Burn

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The four main inhabitants of the Royal Palace all made an effort to dine together at least a few times in a week. It was Zuko who insisted, really, but he liked to think it was everyone’s idea.

There was Mai, an often begrudging Azula, Zuko himself, and Katara—who had become more or less a permanent fixture in his household in the past couple of months. The other council representatives had moved to their lodgings in the Council's Assembly Hall building, but she had opted to stay in the palace. Mai suspected it was at Azula’s behest, but Zuko doubted his sister could make any demands of Katara. No one probably could. Not even her own girlfriend, he was sure.

One such dinner found the couple in question in a particularly grim mood. Azula's countenance was steelier than usual—which was saying something. Next to her sat Katara, her expression hitting Zuko with a sudden recollection of the time when she still absolutely loathed him that his mere presence was enough to get on her nerves, only this time Zuko wasn't the cause.

The two hadn’t exchanged a single word since they had sat down for dinner.

Zuko gave Mai a furtive glance. His wife was languidly picking at her food, seemingly unbothered by the tense energy in the table. He was at a loss.

Katara was the one who usually took the helm during dinner, the one who prompted and steered conversations to stay lighthearted with the same effortless proficiency she possessed as a waterbender. But with her in a gloomy spirit, the task fell to Zuko.

He was still trying to come up with an appropriate conversation starter when Azula herself punctured the silence. She was frowning at her plate like it had offended her somehow. “This braised chicken could do with a bit more spice.”

“You should help at the kitchens next time, if you’re such an expert.” muttered Katara.

“I’m no scullery maid.”

“Maybe a change of profession could help with your attitude.”

Azula kept her face cool, but her jaw was tightly clenched and the cord in her neck showed. Katara defiantly refused to spare her a glance, equally fuming. Here were two of the greatest benders in the world seething at each other. Zuko’s eyes bounced between the two of them, feeling justifiably nervous.

Mai sighed. “At least wait until dinner is over before you decide to duel each other.” she said dryly. “I hate to think of the amount of headache it would give me if I end up having to arrange for repairs.”

Katara looked sheepish. Azula shot Mai a glare. It wavered eventually, and the four of them lapsed into silence again, the sound of utensils and the quiet footsteps of attendants filling the rest of the dinner. Zuko sneaked glances towards Katara and Azula the entire time.

When he and Mai retired to their rooms, Zuko finally addressed it.

“You think the two of them got into a fight?” he asked.

Mai didn’t look up from the book she was reading. “It was pretty obvious, Zuko.”

Zuko rubbed his temples as he sank lower in their bed. His day had been quite uneventful, but seeing Azula and Katara not on good terms left him with an uneasy feeling. He knew their relationship was still new, but he couldn’t help but start to look forward to a future where Katara became an official part of their family, not that he didn’t already treat her (and his other friends) as one.

“It seemed serious.” he remarked.

Mai finally put her book down and turned to him. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Of what?”

“Don't start meddling with other people’s affairs. Especially not your sister's.”

He was mildly offended at that. “I wasn’t going to.”

His wife leaned over to kiss him softly before collapsing back underneath the covers. “Get some sleep, Zuko.”

He lay on his side and tried to do just that. He hoped his sister was going to fix things with Katara so he wouldn’t have to pick sides. Imagine what a disaster that would be. 

 

~

 

Azula arrived in the meeting room a bit later than usual. She looked a bit frazzled, though in other people’s standards it still meant that she was smartly dressed and in tip-top shape. But this was Azula. A few extra strands of her hair escaped her topknot as if the attendant who fixed it up was in a rush. She tried to brush it off with her hand as she made her way to sit beside Zuko, a tiny satisfied quirk of her lips taking the edge off her usually domineering features.

“Have you gone through the list of agenda I gave you yesterday?” she asked him by way of greeting.

“Twice over. Nothing to worry about.”

Azula nodded and said nothing more. While they waited for the other lords and councilmembers to arrive, Zuko surreptitiously peered at his sister to gauge for himself whether she was truly doing fine, knowing he’d get a sneer in reply if he asked her directly.

Despite his worry, Azula actually looked… relaxed. At ease. He couldn’t quite place how, but he could just sense that Azula was in a much better, breezier mood. If Ty Lee were here, she’d probably comment about her aura being bright or something, whatever that meant.

When the meeting finally started, she hadn’t even glowered at someone even once for the entirety of it, which was a rare enough case for Zuko to notice. And when everyone filtered out of the meeting room, Azula didn’t stay behind to berate him about some things she didn't approve of like she usually did. She merely gave him a half-hearted wave before leaving, an extra spring to her step as she let herself out.

Zuko shook his head, bemused. It seemed that he could never completely comprehend his sister.

 

~

 

Zuko had tea with Katara later that day.

He sat with his friend in his wide balcony, the cool breeze lending them a reprieve from the sweltering afternoon heat. They had just gone over a letter from Sokka together. The letter was supposed to be official, but they’d laughed through most of it as Sokka's humor leaked through every line. They sat in companionable silence after that. Katara left her tea untouched, a peculiar expression grazing her face. She looked pensive and perhaps even a bit dreamy—as hard to grasp and puzzling as Azula’s oddly glowing mood earlier that day.

“So, how are you doing?” he ventured to ask.

Katara’s face was scrunched up when she turned to him. “I’m fine. What made you ask?”

“Uh… nothing.” He held his teacup beneath his nose briefly. “It’s just that you and Azula seem to be—at odds with each other.”

“Oh, that.” To his surprise, and utter bewilderment, Katara started to blush furiously, as if he'd caught her doing something unseemly. “It’s okay now. We— uh, talked it out last night.”

“That's good. Uncle told me once that discussing your issues with your partner before things escalate or take root is a good way to keep your harmony.”

Katara nodded along. “Yeah, discussing. We definitely did that... Just talking is good.” she said, flushing a deeper shade. 

Zuko tried not to frown at that. “I got a bit worried. I thought it was serious.”

“It was just a little tiff.” Her flustered face melted into a soft smile. “I appreciate the concern, though.”

Zuko returned the smile. Puzzled as he was, it was at least a relief to know that the next family dinner wouldn’t be as strained as the last one.