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Katara hadn't been quite aware of what happened until she actually woke up with a small groan. Her pillow was... unusually warm. More to the point, she didn't actually remember going to bed that night. She just remembered trying to hurry and use whatever help the moon gave her before it dipped below the horizon once more, and focusing so hard on her healing work that she was incredibly tired, and then... and then...
She managed to not actually shriek as she jerked her head up, spluttering. Yes, that was... that was Zuko's chest. With some of her drool on it. Had she really...? Yes she had. Quickly, Katara rubbed at her eyes with the palms of her hands. What time was it, anyway? Sunlight was coming through the window, filtering through the gossamer shades, and... the guard posted just inside Zuko's door was definitely staring at her flatly.
"I was just, uh... checking his breathing," Katara stuttered quickly. "For... several hours... um..." Katara winced. "Can we just pretend that you never saw any of that."
"See what, Lady Katara? I've seen absolutely nothing," the guard said flatly with a nod of agreement. Katara gave a sigh of relief.
At least today Zuko looked a little healthier. Some color was back in his cheeks, even if she hadn't initially noticed it missing. The way he held himself was less unnaturally limp. But he was still deeply asleep with no sign of waking up soon. Still, progress was progress, even if Katara had woken up with her head throbbing and body aching. And damp. Apparently that happened when you dozed off mid-waterbending...
The guard still looked flatly unimpressed at Katara, and she couldn't really blame him. By the time she had managed to get both herself and Zuko towelled off - distracted for a good five minutes by how incredibly plush the Firelord's towels were - there was the sound of a scuffle from the closed door. Two voices she recognized. One was a very small falsetto, the other deep and rich like the rumbling boom from a large drum.
"But I want to see Daddy!"
"Surely five minutes couldn't hurt... besides, I have something for Master Katara."
"I'm very sorry, General Iroh, but my orders are very strict and very clear. Nobody is to enter without -"
By then Katara had made it to the door and she gave both of them a tired smile. Iroh smiled back just as brightly. He was dressed in attire so elegant it didn't suit him - with Zuko indesposed, he was the makeshift ruler of the Fire Nation. That hadn't stopped him from bringing a tray with a pot of rather strong tea. "I had a hunch you might need this, Master Katara."
"Please, just Katara..." Her tone was still a little nervous. After all, she hadn't had the time to get to know Iroh, not the way Toph had, and largely knew him by reputation. "And thank you. This smells wonderful." The tea was so engrossing that she had barely noticed the blur of color moving by her feet.
In fact, by the time she turned around, Mei Lien was already scrambling up onto the bed. Thankfully the child was less hysterical. "Daddy, wake up," she fussed, half-whining as she shook his shoulder. "I got all dressed up for court today and everything! Wake up!" The child did indeed look more elegant than yesterday, even if her dress almost seemed to be swallowing her. Fire-red poppies were embroidered in white silk, accented in gold thread, and even her hair was swept up into an elegant coif held in place by a gold filigree ornament with poppy blossoms carved in cinnabar along the edge. She truly looked like a princess.
Fortunately Iroh was there to intervene before the child broke down into tears again and ruined the effect. "Mei Lien, he needs his rest. Don't you want a cup of tea?" That caught her attention, and she settled for sitting on the edge of Zuko's bed, kicking her feet. Katara pulled up a chair, as did Iroh, and he went about gracefully serving tea for all of them even as Katara flopped into the elegant chair. Silently, Mei Lien dragged her father's hand over to her, momentarily clutching it like a teddybear before being distracted by the tea.
After the second cup of the extremely strong tea, Katara had to admit she actually felt vaguely human again. Or at least human enough to realize that she hadn't really said anything. "I'm sorry, uh... thank you for the tea. Is there anything else I can do for you, or -?"
Iroh held up a hand. "You're already doing more than enough. Truthfully we came to see if there's anything we can do to help you," he said patiently, catching Mei Lien's eye. "More than just tea, of course."
As if on cue, Katara offered out her empty teacup and Iroh refilled it. "I'm not sure there's much else," she admitted. "I think I understand what the poison's been doing, it's just slow going actually getting it out of his system..." She reached up to rub one of her eyes again.
"Rest for yourself is important, too," Iroh gently chided with a warm smile.
"I know, I know. I'll take a nap soon. Best to resume work tonight when there's the full moon, anyway -"
"Uncle Iroh 'splained things to me!" Mei Lien cut in. "The Moon Spirit helps you do things better, right? How do you give things to the Moon Spirit? 'cause my favourite doll has a dress that's white like the moon and I could give it to the Moon Spirit if that'll help! I tried dropping it in the pond because you can see the moon down in it, but I dunno if that's really a good way to do it -" The princess was half-whining, but there was genuine concern behind it.
The childish simplicity made Katara smile. The moon helped Katara heal, Zuko needed healing, so Zuko's daughter thought that her favourite toy was a good trade in exchange for some help for Katara. But she reached out, smiling, cutting Mei Lien off. "You don't need to do that." Mei Lien's face fell, and Katara leaned in and dropped her voice a little. "I knew the Moon Spirit, and I think she's very touched that you want to help, but if you gave her your favourite toy, she couldn't come play with you." Well, it was stretching the truth. But from what Katara knew of Yue, probably true. Instead of looking glad that her favourite toy was safe, the princess looked increasingly crestfallen. "But there are still ways you can help me, okay?"
Iroh watched with a smile. Katara wasn't really used to dealing with children, but at least she could get along decently. "Be good and nice, and come in here and say hi to your dad every day. Can you do that for me?" She asked sweetly.
Mei Lien pouted. "But being good is boring."
Katara bit back a laugh. "Well... sometimes it is. But I promise it's what you can do to help the most right now." Mei Lien gave a long sigh as if this was some intolerable cruelty, but then looked rather serious.
"Mister Sokka said you were the best healer ever. ...You're gonna make sure Daddy's okay, right?"
Part of her screamed to be honest, but it was quickly drowned out by the rest. "Of course I will," she said cheerfully. "All he needs is a little more rest, and he'll be all better in a few days!" Iroh caught her eye directly, and her smile faltered a little as she went to lift the Princess off the side of the bed.
Her face immediately lit up in a bright smile, and she went to tug at Iroh's robes. "Uncle Iroh, Uncle Iroh! Daddy's gonna be all better tomorrow! Did you hear!"
"I heard," he soothed softly before looking up to Katara, his expression more serious. The quiet sadness in his eyes said what he couldn't actually speak in front of Mei Lien, and it questioned Katara directly. Was this just false hope, or a real promise?
Her smile was a little more washed-out this time, but she reached out to quickly pat Iroh's arm in what she hoped was a soothing manner. "Aang and Sokka are out there right now," she whispered. "And they definitely will make sure that Zuko gets over this." Iroh saw the seriousness in her eyes and smiled, nodding, murmuring a 'thank you'.
They left but didn't take the pot of tea with them - Katara finished it off, knowing she would still be able to sleep hard all day despite it. The morning light colored the room with a warm glow, and there was a simple pleasure in merely walking in circles on the plush carpet as she took her time with each up of tea. As light caught a red glow by coming through the gossamer curtains, a heavy crimson glow slid over Zuko's face. Katara wasn't sure if it was the sleep deprevation or something more, but she took the time to notice how his face had sharpened with age. He was rather handsome, Katara supposed, if she had to look at that sort of thing objectively anyway. Both of them had definitely improved out of teenage awkwardness. Even as he laid there unconscious, there was still something quietly dignified about him... perhaps a little too dignified. Katara tried not to think about how with his hair neatly spread on the pillow around him and his eyes closed, Zuko looked almost like the corpse of some deceased king lying in state so his citizens could mourn...
That was likely the reason why she reached out to his temple, gently pulling a strand of his hair out of place. The movement was so tiny she wasn't sure it had actually happened until she stopped and looked at the expression on his face. It had gone from eerily calm to almost a grimace, as if he was fighting against something. Very gingerly, her hand went to his temple again, and he let out a small groan that made her heart leap into her throat. "...Zuko?" Katara crouched by the bed, carefully watching his expression. She hoped to see the snarling pain grow more fierce until he finally opened his eyes. She hoped to see the same unrelenting drive that had always made him claw his way up for one more try.
Instead something slipped away. He sighed, and his face relaxed. She watched for a few more moments, making sure his breathing stayed even and steady, before getting up and shuffling quietly to the lush guest quarters she had been assigned.
Maybe when they were teenagers, Zuko had been defined by determination and Katara by hope, but now they were older, and she had the odd sense that both of them knew there were limits to how much ambition and optimism could take them. Katara knew that it was a part of growing up, but as she slid into the silk covers of her wide bed, she couldn't understand why she felt such a sense of loss.
The word 'selenic', much like 'lunar', references something pertaining to the moon.
The reason Zuko's hair length keeps fluctuating so badly in these illustrations is because of the simple fact that the author cannot draw consistently worth a damn. Sorry, folks.
For the collective works of the author, go here.