“There you are!”
Zuko nearly faltered, mid-form, but caught himself and used the fumbled momentum to turn his kick into a roll. He bounced back upright with a sweep of his feet, making the split-second decision not to stop his practice.
“Zuko.” He could hear the way his mother stood with her arms crossed. “Why haven’t you dressed yet?”
Still not turning to face her, Zuko shifted from the more aggressive spark katas to a smoother smoke stance. “Still practicing,” he announced shortly, breathing out and sending flames dancing along his knuckles through the forms.
“Zuko,” his mother said again, sharp enough to finally make him stop.
He rolled his shoulders one by one and raked fingers back through his hair to his phoenix plume before glancing back at her. Yep. She was definitely displeased with him. Her mouth pulled into a tight frown, and though her hands were folded into the wide sleeves of her robe, Zuko could easily visualize her fingers drumming against the opposite arm. He turned to face her fully, then dropped his gaze to the ground at her feet.
The edge of her robes shifted a little as she moved, then filled his vision as she walked over to him. “It’s okay to be nervous,” his mother told him gently.
“I’m not nervous,” he denied, even though he knew she could hear it in his voice anyway. Zuko let out a breath. “This has been planned for years. I… can’t be nervous.”
Her hand reached out and lifted his chin so that he was meeting her eyes again. She smiled at him. “That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be nervous. No matter how much you prepare for something, it’s always different when the day arrives. I felt much the same way when I first came to the capital.”
His mother hummed her agreement, her hand moving to tug at his hair with fondness. “I’d only met your father twice before, and only once after my parents accepted the proposal. And I’d never met the rest of the royal family. It was all very imposing.” She tilted her head a bit, her smile turning a bit sly. “So, I’d be willing to bet that our arriving guest will probably be just as nervous as you, if not more.”
Tension didn’t quite leave Zuko at her words, but it eased a little. His mother always knew what it was he needed to hear, even having just celebrated reaching his majority. He was a long way away from the little kid who burrowed into his mother’s lap during a thunderstorm, but Zuko wasn’t sure he’d ever be too old to take his mother’s encouragement to heart.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he tamped down the anxiety still jittering through him. “Well, I suppose I should make her feel as welcome as I can, then.”
“I think that’s a very good plan. Now, will you come inside and clean yourself up?” She made to poke at his side, which he nimbly avoided. “I’m not sure showing up sweaty and half-dressed will make a very good first impression.”
Zuko laughed. “Are you sure? It might make her feel more comfortable if I look sillier than everyone else.” He took a few steps back to her as if to drape himself over her.
She laughed, lifting her hands to keep him from leaning all over her. “Go clean yourself up and get dressed,” she chided him without malice. “You will have plenty of time to be a sweaty mess after the welcoming ceremony.”
Grinning, Zuko stopped and watched her smooth the front of her robes again. Without warning, she reached out and ruffled his hair, rendering it completely unkempt. His hands flew to his hair in protest, and she laughed.
“Zuko, you must do something with your hair. Honestly! It’s not befitting a Prince of the Fire Nation.”
She waved dismissively as she turned and headed back toward the eastern wing of the royal grounds where they lived, and he followed suit soon after. His uncle and cousin, as direct heirs to the throne, lived in the western wing, while his grandfather lived in the main palace proper in the Fire Lord’s official suites. Zuko’s sister constantly complained about having to be relegated to the east, the lesser side, as she called it, but Zuko liked it. He could go out of his balcony every morning with the sunrise and meditate with no interruptions, and he even had a clear view of Lake Hizari.
After he’d cleaned himself, dressed in semi-formal robes, and his hair was retied in a dragon’s knot, Zuko dismissed the lingering servants. He went to his wide balcony and leaned on the rail, looking at the spread of Lake Hizari. The mid-afternoon sun danced gold across the lake’s surface. Would she like it here? he found himself wondering. She was coming from such a long way, everything would probably be very different. Anxiety twisted itself into another knot in his stomach, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten anything that morning.
A soft knock came at his door, followed by a servant’s subdued voice. “My Prince, the ships are approaching the harbor and will be docking soon.”
The words hit him muffled, and after a few seconds of pain, Zuko realized he was gripping the rail so tight his knuckles were leeched white. He very consciously let go, only for his hands to tremble in the air. He felt like he was going to throw up.
All at once, Zuko snapped out of his thoughts and managed to contain a nervously high chuckle. He drew in a deep breath and released it, mustering any shreds of composure that he could. When he finally turned and crossed the room, the servant then led him the long and winding way out to a palanquin, which then took him down through the bustling Harbor City. Zuko normally would like to keep the curtains open to see the city, but that was the last thing on his mind. All too soon, it seemed, the palanquin came to a halt and he was expected to step out. His heart thundered in his ears and he just prayed that he would be able to keep his feet beneath him as he exited, joining his mother and the rest of his family.
This was it.
Before him, three ships bedecked in rich furs and colorful bunting in every shade of blue he could have imagined loomed above them in the harbor. Great, long beams of wood creaked, and the sails flapped in the wind, and Zuko was sure he was going to throw up.
The Water Tribe had officially arrived.