"You're still stumbling," she heard Mai say in a scolding sort of voice.
Outside, the moon was high and all around the palace, crowds of people had gathered to watch Prince Zuko's coronation. The tension in the waiting room was unbearable. Zuko leaned on Mai's outstretched arm with both hands, taking one clumsy step after another. The idea was supposed to be that he and Mai would walk arm-in-arm down the coronation hall. To all the guests, it would probably look regal. Maybe even a little romantic. Only the six of them would know the real reason. After Azula's attack, Zuko's newfound bloodbending skills remained the sole reason he could get his body to move. And, unfortunately, he wasn't terribly good even at that.
"You think I'm trying to screw this up?" he asked. "This is supposed to be the most momentous occasion of my life. You think I want to spend it tripping over myself?"
Mai sighed. "Well, want to or not, you're going to look like a fool if you don't get it together."
Katara watched the two of them from across the room. Mai's words were harsh, but Katara didn't blame her. Both she and Zuko were exhausted and completely stressed out. They'd been practicing all with hardly any rest for two days straight and still Zuko's steps were clumsy and faltering at best. It was almost like he got worse the longer they tried.
"Um, if it helps," Katara said quietly. Mai shot her a look of pure hatred, but she didn't care. Mai couldn't offer advice, and she could. "Waterbending… it's a very freeflowing sort of thing. When I concentrate too hard, the water's movements get all jagged and less controlled." She stood and walked up to the royal couple. "I know it's a huge day for you and this is hard, but I think if you relax, the bloodbending will come easier to you."
Zuko nodded. Even smiled at her. "Thank you, I'll try that."
"We should head out soon," Aang said, after peeking out behind the curtain for about the fifteenth time. "Now, you're totally sure that there's no coronation rule where you have to give some sort of grand firebending display or anything like that?"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "For the final time, no," he replied as Mai pinned his hair. "And will you please stop checking out there? People have probably thought it's starting five times over already."
Aang lowered his head and walked a safe distance away from the curtain. "Sorry," he said. "I'm just excited. I've never even seen a coronation before, never mind being a part of one."
"Congratulations," Zuko muttered. Katara tried to smile at Aang enthusiasm, but still found herself nervously smoothing the red silk dress that hugged her waist. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe they should've waited longer to have the coronation. But the quicker Zuko was established on the throne, the quicker the Fire Nation could start pulling itself back together. She had to keep that in mind.
Mai cleared her throat, looking sharply in Katara's direction. At first, she pretended not to notice. Mai coughed loudly, and finally Katara looked up. Mai nodded off to the side, motioning away from Zuko's earshot. Katara cocked her head in confusion, but followed along behind her nonetheless.
"Is everything okay?" she asked.
"Fine," Mai said. "But I've been wondering. What exactly is your... relationship with Zuko?"
Katara blushed. "Relationship? None! What makes you think we've got a relationship?"
Mai raised her eyebrows like she didn't quite believe it. "Nothing," she said calmly. "I was just curious, is all."
Outside, they could hear a blast of instruments silencing the crowd. "Okay, people, let's move it!" Sokka yelled. "We've got a coronation to start!" Mai immediately broke off the awkward conversation with Katara and hurried to Zuko's side. Katara went and stood next to Aang, who had his hand ready on the curtain.
"It's time," he said to Zuko. "Are you ready?"
Zuko nodded and straightened up. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then he put one arm to the side and gripped Mai's arm with the other. Gently, he placed one foot in front of the other. His steps were better, but they weren't good either. People are going to notice, Katara thought. There's no way no one sees that. Still, she couldn't do anything more than she had, so she stood to the side, ready to let the coronation proceed as it would. The moment Mai came past her, though, Katara felt an elbow jab into her side.
"Take his other arm," Mai hissed. Katara blinked, not sure if she heard right. Maybe Mai just wanted Katara in a good position to stab her.
"I don't know if I should…"
"Don't be an idiot. I can't do this alone. He needs you."
Katara nodded and without another word, she came up to Zuko's free arm and wrapped it around her own. He didn't object. In fact, she could've sworn she heard him breathe a sigh of relief. His pace became smooth, and the curtain parted before them. Katara tried her best to look as serious and regal as Mai did, but in truth, her heart pounded. Walking out in front of all those people, she never felt more nervous in her life. Still, she would be here for Zuko, whatever he needed. She felt sure of it.