The chilly fall air was a relief after the pressed heat of hundreds of bodies inside the palace of Ba Sing Se. The ice-packed home where Katara had grown up had saw to it that she didn't need the wrap about her shoulders, unlike most of the other women that night. Still she wore one, if only for appearance's sake.
She wasn't alone in the gardens; several other people walked alone or in groups--getting "air" as she was. Stopping on a bridge over one of the many ponds, Katara leaned against the rail and looked down into the water below. In the torchlight, it became a perfect mirror, showing to her the gray streaks in her hair and the laugh lines long since etched by her eyes and mouth.
The sound of footsteps on the bridge alerted her to his presence, but she didn't bother to turn. In another moment, the watery image of Zuko joined hers in the pond.
"I should have known you'd be out here," he said by way of greeting as he leaned his elbows against the rail. Though his hair had turned from brown to slate, and his mouth was framed by a thin beard that ran down to his chest, his smile still held the same shyness of years before. It was both strange and comforting, Katara thought, how little they had changed.
"You fire-benders are all alike," Katara mocked with a lift of her chin. "You seem to think we water-benders are so predictable."
"And you never disappoint us, do you?" He countered with a dry chuckle. She shared in his laugh, and spared a glance behind them at the doors to the ballroom. The party still raged, and she could imagine Aang still ensconced in the middle of it.
"He was dancing with Toph when I left," Zuko supplied.
Her cheeks heated as she looked at the Fire Lord, and she chuckled at herself. Perhaps she was that predictable. "How's Mai?"
Zuko seemed to wilt a few degrees and he jerked his gaze away. Folding his arms on the railing, he stared down into the water. "She's... better," he replied with care, "Stronger. Not enough to travel, but she was able to get herself out of bed a few times this past summer."
After a moment, he added with a hard swallow, "I didn't really want to come this year."
"Mmm," Katara hummed, "Have the doctors--"
"They don't know," Zuko cut her off, then winced. "Sorry, Katara, I didn't mean to..."
"It's okay," she assured him with a hand to his forearm. Zuko lifted his eyes to her and for a moment they caught her own. It was like sinking, she thought. A tug at the bottom of her stomach, pulling her downward.
In another moment, they'd each torn their gaze away; Zuko to the party, and she to the pond. Her reflection reminded her, even if her emotions denied it, that she was no longer a teenager; she had responsibilities, children, a husband whom she loved--and he had his wife, his kids, his country.
It was ridiculous, she reminded herself, and not for the first time. There was no reason--no logical reason--for her to be out here, with him.
"Mai is a fighter," she heard herself say, "She's pulled through worse."
"Thank you," he breathed. In the reflection below, he stared at her, and she at him. Then, he pushed away from the rail.
Zuko made it to the end of the bridge before he stopped and turned back to her. "Katara."
Katara lifted her head, catching his eyes once again, now that they were at a safe distance. He seemed to hesitate a moment before asking, in a quiet voice so that they would not be overheard. "Have you ever thought... if things had been different..."
"No," she breathed.
"Me neither," he agreed after a moment. Silence hung between them, a chasm neither dared to cross, and then, once again, he turned his back to her.
On his way inside, Zuko gave a curt nod to Aang as the Avatar made his way outside. Katara held her place, and when Aang neared her, she extended her hand for his. As her husband wrapped his arms about her, she knew that she was happy here... no matter that she wondered.