The gardens were truly beautiful, even more so in the gilded moonlight. It sparkled off the scattered ponds and made the stream glisten. It caught dew on flowers, made the white lilies stand out in the near dark. With so much to study around her, Katara didn’t notice the extended silence between herself and her betrothed, until he stopped halfway across a bridge and leaned on the rail.
He asked her something.
She blinked, slowly pulling from her thoughts, filtering through her nerves to find a coherent answer.
“The dinner was lovely,” Katara said, flashing a modest smile. “I especially enjoyed the roast duck. I’m happy with my room, as well.” She lifted her arms marginally, gesturing to the gown he’d left on her bed. “And you have excellent taste, my Prince.”
Unlike him, her posture remained formal as she conversed. Katara kept her back to the water, her attention astutely on him. Folding her hands in front of her legs, she hoped she posed as the perfect lady. Like his mother.
Stealing a glance in Lady Ursa’s direction, a tremor of self-awareness ran through her. She wasn’t as tall, wasn’t as graceful— La knew, Katara wouldn’t have the same luck flashing a radiant smile at a man to get something she desired. And, that stood without mentioned her lacking knowledge of An-kadai.
Fidgeting ever so slightly, she searched from something—anything—to fill the quiet. She settled, eventually, on some of the simpler phrases; her tutor often required she tell personal stories to grasp words and pronunciation.
“Do you like walking in the gardens?” Katara asked, a tilt to her head. “When I was younger, my grandfather kept a greenhouse— it was the closet we could ever come to such greenery in the South Pole. I used to spend most of my time there.”
Zuko’s face lit up listening to her. He was starting to grow concerned that she wouldn’t want to open up at all—perhaps a silly notion, considering she’d only just arrived and they hadn’t had any time together. Still, he feared that since this was a purely political marriage that she might not want anything to do with him beyond perfunctory duties. If that’s what it turned out to be, he would live with that; he had no real other choice. But… Zuko wanted her to like him, and he wanted to like her, too.
Thankfully, his mother had always made the best suggestions, and this one was no different. It was the perfect solution of getting them away from the pressures of their fathers (if Zuko had read that situation correctly, and he thought he had), but still operate under propriety. If he shifted his gaze beyond Katara, he could see his mother making her slow, meandering way up to where they stood on the bridge. She would never break her promise to Katara’s father to keep an eye on them—and, he suspected, she wanted just as much to make sure they had a chaperone—but she still allowed them time to start to get to know one another.
“I love the gardens,” he told her, watching her intently. He’d never paid much attention to other Water Tribe visitors in Caldera City, but Zuko was struck now by the small differences in the way she moved and held herself. It wasn’t something he felt he could even begin to describe, but there was a definite difference. He wondered if it came more from her life growing up in the South Pole, or from her waterbending.
That reminded him. “We’ve actually got a waterways system here you might like. All the major gardens have at least one pond, and they’re all interconnected by smaller streams fed by this lake, all flowing into one another.” Though he’d started out enthusiastically, his tone diminished into shyness as he continued. “Maybe… you’d like to see them? The flow of water is something important… right? I mean, to a waterbender?”
Her eyes betrayed her panic, widening as her breath caught. “How do you—?”
Of course. The gardens. He must’ve seen her teaching Takaani. He must’ve watched a while, too, to have overhead the conversation about listening to the water’s natural push and pull.
The one thing she was told not to do… she’d broken her father’s rule, and been spotted by her betrothed, nonetheless.
It was an effort to keep her composure. Her insides lined with hot, liquid fear. Would he tell her father? Would he call off their engagement? All it took was one stupid move, and Katara may have ruined everything.
“I was only trying to help my sister,” she blurted, looking at the prince now with wide, terrified eyes. “She- she’ll have a master, back at home, but… I fear their personalities may clash. Takaani is sweet, but naive. I wanted her to leave with some final tips, for bending and navigating Master Hama’s lessons.”
Managing to pull her eyes from his, Katara turned in the same direction, facing the water. She hoped she’d look at ease; she had to be failing miserable. Was failing miserable. At all of this.
She buried her shaking hands deep within her wide sleeves. “It won’t happen again,” Katara promised. “I know I’m a guest here. I won’t push the boundaries of my welcome.”
At first, Zuko simply stared at her. She acted as if he’d caught her with her hands full of candied orangepeach blossoms and was about to admonish her for it. Several beats of silence passed between them before Zuko found his voice again.
“I–I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. Only I could make her waterbending come out like an insult. Was there something in Tribe custom against wedded women waterbending? He didn’t know and frantically tried to rake his memory for anything. “It’s not a bad thing here,” he tried to explain, “in the Fire Nation. Bending, I mean. And, the gardens aren’t sacred or anything; you can use the water here.”
Agni, he was doing an awful job of trying to fix his mistake. It didn’t help that he wasn’t sure why she’d balked at his mention. Was it because of some Water Tribe custom? Was it because she thought the gardens were a sacred place? Was it because she was in an unfamiliar land and thought her waterbending would insult him?
All his ideas of practicing with her seemed ridiculous now. What if she didn’t want to? How could he tell her he wanted to learn more about her, that he didn’t want her to leave all her customs at the door when they married? What if… what if she didn’t want to share that part of her with him?
Zuko’s chest tightened, and his stomach twisted. The roast duck might have been cooked to perfection, but duck was a greasy, rich meat, and it now sat unpleasantly in him. He swallowed, let out a warm breath, tried to release some of the tension with a quick dash of fire meditation technique.
Slowly, he reached out for her hand, but stopped short of touching her. He didn’t know if they were there yet.
“Kiinuk,” he said in halting, though correct Aisu-kei, “Wō kaujimak zhe bushi nauk ipvit tian’ommak, zhishi…” Please. I know this is not where you were born, but… He gave her a small, hopeful smile, then switched to his native tongue. “I hope that with time it will become home for you, too.”