Chapter 1: Reunion
Zuko watches the brightening sky as he sips his cooling tea, revelling in the quietness. These days, he wakes earlier, his blood singing before any sunlight seeps the horizon. He’s finished his morning training, just in time for the sun to appear, and it is now the precious hour before anyone wakes.
He’s reaching for the pot when Katara shows up with hair like a spider-rat's nest, the rising sun behind her lighting every frizzy strand a vibrant brown. Zuko’s mouth turns dry. He hastily takes a gulp of the tea, wishing it was something stronger, wishing he was a stronger man around her. Or weaker. It’s hard to think. It’s been hard to think, since Katara showed up without notice yesterday evening with a storm in her eyes, a raised chin daring him to turn her away, and barely anything else. Not even a reason or a prepared excuse. But he’d meant it, when he’d told all of Team Avatar that they would always be welcome at his palace, so he assigned her a guest room, no questions asked.
She went inside and did not reemerge—until now, apparently.
“Hey,” Katara says. She sounds tired. Looks tired, actually, even more than she did last night. “Can I join you?”
“Uh. Sure.” He reaches for a second cup, only to realize that he never brought it from the kitchens. He offers his own, instead, and she takes it.
“Thanks.” She sips the tea without complaining about its tepidness. When she returns the cup, it’s cold. “Sorry about that. It’s a warm morning.”
It’s seven years after Sozin’s Comet, smack dab in the middle of summer. The days are longer, the firebenders at their strongest, and Zuko’s council at its most furious. He can barely begrudge Katara’s need for cold tea. In fact, he can use some himself, so he wordlessly hands her the half-full pot and she holds it between her palms before refilling the cup with blessedly ice-cold tea.
Zuko lifts the cup for a sip, but he ends up downing the whole thing.
“It’s great, right?” Katara says, beaming.
He smiles back. “It is.” He thinks he should keep her around and have cold tea every day. Then, “You didn’t sleep, did you?” and it sounds a little too accusatory for a change of topic, but it’s better than asking her why she’s here, than begging her to stay. He wants to, so very much, but he knows better.
“Last night’s the full moon.” She doesn’t say, it’s hard to sleep when you feel so powerful, but she doesn’t need to. He understands. Isn’t that why he’s here now?
But he didn’t notice the moon last night, too preoccupied by her sudden appearance, too busy telling himself that it was fine. It’s been a year. She probably has forgotten about it. He pushes all the things that happened last night and last year down and says, “Well, moon’s out. Go to sleep, Katara. You look like you really need it.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?” she asks.
“Do you want me to?”
She holds his gaze, one second, two, then sighs as she tips her head back. “Kind of, but I guess you won’t ask me until I sleep, huh?”
He smirks. “No.”
“Well, as you wish, my lord.” She gets on her feet, using his shoulder as leverage, and he finds that he doesn’t mind. He misses this, actually. Not even his friendliest staff touch him so casually, so carelessly. She lifts her hand and rests it on her hip. “Do I really look that bad?”
She doesn’t look bad, of course, but that’s neither here nor there, so he simply shrugs.
“Jerk,” she says, but there’s no heat in it. “Fine, I’ll sleep.”
“Not night anymore, but thanks. And thanks for… you know.”
He doesn’t. He has no idea if she’s referring to him letting her stay here, or telling her to sleep, or sharing his tea with her. But he’s not about to continue this conversation and rob Katara of her sleep, so he nods and she leaves him to be alone, aching and wondering and wanting.
Katara finds him in his study, neck-deep in a report. Specifically, a financial report. The Fire Nation coffers have not been flourishing, and it’s naturally Zuko’s fault for daring to even suggest paying reparations. Even his current ministers, who were appointed from people who do not want to kill him, hate him. Sure, they are loyal, but that doesn’t mean they love him.
He slumps a little lower, elbows sliding forward and head resting on his palm, and he feels his crown slipping lopsided, again, and this is when Katara asks, “Fun book?”
He pretends he isn’t startled by her sudden appearance, plastering a grin on his face. “Very.” And, because he was raised to be polite, and because he cares, and because he wants to talk about anything but the damn report with the depressing numbers, “Did you sleep well?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, and she does look well. “And I don’t know what it is with that room, but my hair has never looked better.” Her hair shines with a sort of luster, every wave tumbling perfectly.
“The bedsheets?” he suggests weakly.
“They are very soft.” She closes the door and walks to his desk, reading the report upside-down. “What am I looking at?”
“The reason why everyone wants to kill me, apparently.” He hands it to her and she quickly does a scan, top to bottom.
“I’m no accountant, but it looks like you’re doing better than last year.”
“We are,” he confirms. “But not fast enough, and nowhere as good as when we were still at war.” He raises a hand. “I know, I know, we advanced through subjugation and oppression, and though the numbers looked good, the people suffered as my father drafted them and sent them to a fool’s war.” He looks at her, morose. “They still think I should do better.”
“You’re the best they have,” Katara says, and the incredulous tone she uses warms Zuko’s heart. “I don’t know if it’s possible to do better.”
And here, Zuko laughs, hollowly. “Oh, they have ideas.”
“To start with, I should marry, and preferably marry a woman that can bring in trade.” His ministers would kill to get him married. As far as they are concerned, another day Zuko lives without an heir is another day Zuko can die, leaving only Azula as his heir.
Katara laughs, on and on and on until he thinks he can’t bear it, but what she says next surprises him. “They actually want you to marry someone from outside the Fire Nation? I thought they were all old coots who would want you to maintain ‘the purity of your bloodline’ or something.”
“Trust me, they’d be like that if we weren’t in the red.”
“But you’re always in red,” Katara says, giggling when Zuko groans. “I’m sorry. I think Sokka is rubbing off on me.”
“How is he?” Zuko asks.
“Oh, all is well on Sokka-land. Rangi can walk, now, so she’s basically unstoppable.” Zuko raises an eyebrow and Katara waves a hand dismissively. “She’s very cute, okay, and I’m happy for Sokka and Suki, but they’re all the village elders can talk about, and also when are you going to settle down, Katara? and what happened with you and the Avatar? He’s such a nice young man, was he not good enough for you? and I hate it. I hate it and I hate the way they look at me and say oh, Katara, you wouldn’t understand. It’s not the same, once you’re married.”
She’s pacing the room, now, throwing her hands in the air every now and then, and in her eyes are the same storm she brought last night, and he at last understands. “Is that why you’re here?”
She stops in her tracks. “Not really,” she says, wringing her wrists. “I mean, I left the South Pole because of that, but I just… I don’t know where else to be. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” he says before he can stop himself. “Use me as your escape.”
Katara stares at him, one eyebrow raised, and he realizes what he’s just said.
“I mean, the palace. Caldera city. The Fire Nation. You’re welcome to it, to all of it.”
“Zuko,” she says, eyes wide and a crazy grin on her face, “I think you just solved both our problems.”
Katara takes a step towards him, then two. She takes his hands in both of hers, and all of this is so alarming he doesn’t even have the presence of mind to enjoy how nice it feels. That’s when she says, “We should get married.”
“Think about it!” she says, still impossibly cheery.
And here’s the problem, the one thing Katara must never know: Zuko has thought about it for the past year. He has turned the idea over and over, hours in total if not days, on sleepless nights and at boring cabinet meetings, in the morning as he trained on his own. Every time he wished her to be there, he considered keeping her forever by his side—and that was why he would never act on that notion. Katara was not one to be bound, to be shackled. How does one even begin to shackle an ocean?
Still, he’s fantasized of longing looks, of impassioned declarations, of fervent vows, of her in his arms, of her in his life.
Yet the way Katara looks at him now is so far away from his fantasies, how he thought this would happen. How he wanted this to happen.
“Katara,” he says. “I don’t understand.”
She must have noticed something in his tone, because she immediately sobers. “Look, I know it sounds crazy, but there’s some sense in it. I do want a family. You need a family. And we know we make a good team, why not in raising kids?”
Zuko’s mind just… collapses into itself, the moment Katara mentions a family. Their family. He’s imagined it, of course, even went as far as spending a sleepless night at the royal archives to look for precedent on a royal wedding with a foreign national, and the status of children from such unions who bent other elements. But he never once thinks of it as a possibility, least of all like this. Like now.
“And, you know,” Katara says, tapping one finger against her chin just like her brother would, “It’s not like we’re incompatible in bed.”
A headache is beginning to grow behind Zuko’s temples. He pinches the bridge of his nose, scrunches his brows. “Katara,” he groaned, “I thought you’d forgotten about that.”
“Just because we agreed to pretend it never happened, doesn’t mean I would just forget. Did you?”
He hadn’t. Zuko remembers everything, like the way Katara’s hair cascaded onto his chest as she lowered herself onto him, like the way their mouths tasted like sake and smoke, like the way she asked him afterwards, with a slurred voice, if he felt better. It was as if she’d bended ice water into his lungs, reminding him sharply that this had only happened because she’d offered to help him get over his ninth breakup with Mai. It had been a drunk offer, drunkenly accepted—and it had been the most sobering thing that could have happened to him then.
Zuko realised two things that night. The first was that he would never be able to get back together with Mai, because he had always been in love with Katara and he’d never known. The second was that much as Katara enjoyed their… experiment… she did not love him. Not the way he longed for her, burned for her.
So Zuko met with Mai and they had a long, cold discussion to truly, truly conclude their prolonged song and dance, while Katara left to oversee the first batch of Republic City University’s medical students. They sent each other letters, writing about themselves and other people, how Katara’s students needed surgical tools and that the Fire Nation’s factories could stand to gain a fair bit of profit from the production and import of such tools.
Katara never knew of the letters he burned, unsent; she never read the feverish declarations and pleas that all turned to ash. To her, that one night was exactly what she offered: some stress relief for her, some rebound for him, and a little experiment they could both pretend had never happened—until now.
He tries a different tack, an old argument he’s gotten used to saying to himself: “You’ll have to be the Fire Lady. There’s rules, traditions, expectations—”
She laughs. “Zuko, I’m a woman. I don’t have to be the Fire Lady to have those things in my life. And besides, this way I’ll get access to the Fire Lord’s ear”—Katara grins—“and his coffers.”
Zuko offers a weak smile. “If you’re marrying me for my money, you should have done so before I gave back all the spoils of war from the last hundred years.”
Katara chuckles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’m tired of working on my own, Zuko. All of the others have put down roots—even Aang, and he’s supposed to be a nomad. Much as the elders are infuriating, they’re right. I have to settle down, at some point.” Then, another grin. “Though I wouldn’t call marrying the Fire Lord settling.”
“Okay,” Zuko says.
He shakes his head, as though to clear a little bit of water from his ear after a long dive. He certainly feels light-headed, waterlogged. “I don’t mean okay, I’ll marry you. I mean, okay. I’ll consider it. And even if my answer’s no—not that I’ve decided—you’re still welcome here. You’re always welcome here.”
She reaches forward and by reflex, by a seven-year habit, he falls into her embrace, folding himself to envelop her. Something in him snaps and he holds her tighter, inhaling the fragrance of her freshly-washed hair, and he knows, right there and then, that he won’t be able to refuse her proposal.
Even though Zuko knew his answer mere moments after Katara proposed, it still takes him three entire days before he tells her that yes, of course he’s going to marry her.
This is how it goes: he avoids Katara for one and a half days, citing royal business whenever she asks, and at the end of the third day Katara demands to spend some time with him unless she wants her to kick him up his royal business, and he takes it as a challenge, because of course he does, and so they begin sparring in the same courtyard they took down Azula.
He lands a few hits on her, the force of his flame knocking the breath out of her and making her stumble, but the sounds she makes are so distracting because even though they’re not exactly the same, they’re similar enough to the sounds she made when they slept together that his treacherous mind conjures the image anyway.
And that’s how she catches him unaware, sliding a tendril of water around his ankle and tugging until he does fall on his ass as she promised. She slides forward, letting her water carry her, and light as seafoam, she straddles his lap and presses an ice dagger to his neck.
There’s a triumphant grin on her lips. “You’re getting slow,” she says.
She’s way too close, far too tempting, so he flops backwards and puts one arm over his eyes. “I’m out of practice,” he says, which is both true and false. His discipline never wavers, but he is sorely lacking in sparring partners that won’t hold themselves back. He’s sorely lacking in anyone on his side that won’t hold themselves back, truth be told. It’s one of the more rational reasons he has to accept her proposition.
Not that he has accepted her. Officially.
She lifts herself off of him, extending a hand in his direction. He grips her forearm, glad for her help, her support. This is who Katara is. She will never turn her back on people who need her, and he needs her—though she doesn’t know exactly how much, and in what ways—and so he finally tells her, “Yes.”
She tilts her head.
“Yes, let’s marry. You’re right, it’s a good solution. And if you have no problems taking on the mantle of the Fire Lady, then there’s no one more suited to it in my life.”
Katara smiles so brilliantly that Zuko doesn’t know what else to do but to kiss her—and when she kisses him back, he can almost believe that she, too, longs for him as he longs for her.
Chapter 2: Counterpart
The wedding commences. Zuko despairs.
Part two of our marriage of convenience fic! Very unbeta-ed because all my betas are asleep and I have NO TIME if I want to follow the actual schedule.
The wedding vaguely borrows from the Shinto tradition of sharing sake, but that's probably where the similarity ends. Honestly, I don't even know. Don't @ me.
Thank you to ImberReader, slipsthrufingers, and EryiScrye for the hand-holding and cheerleading, and thank you to letters2the0 for the fantastic comment on the first chapter that kept me going whenever I get frustrated.
Let the wedding commence!
The sake is warm and sweet as it slides down Zuko’s throat, but his hands still feel cold when he sets down the cup. He shouldn’t feel cold. It’s summertime—he’s sure that if he strains his ear hard enough, he would hear the crickets playing their music from the garden—and he’s enrobed in his full regalia, heavy and so much red and gold it looks as if a dragon had thrown up on him.
That’s what Mai had said this morning, anyway, before patting him on his shoulder and solemnly, calmly wishing him good luck. It had calmed him down for all of two seconds before Katara said, lightheartedly, “Don’t worry. You look very handsome in your dragon puke.”
Zuko could puke, right now. He won’t, because just imagine the shame it might bring. He would have to shave his head and hunt the Avatar again. And speaking of, he feels the Avatar himself beaming at him, patiently waiting to take his cup back so they can proceed with the ceremony.
It’s not traditional, of course. The Fire Sages usually do this kind of thing, but Katara is not of the Fire Nation—or not yet, anyway—and they’d decided to wed in a mish-mash of Fire Nation and Southern Water Tribe cultures. Zuko had spent the past week sailing and fishing with Sokka and Hakoda, received gifts of sealskin and ambergris and fishbone beads, and given a ceremonial chest of silks and golds to the Water Tribe elders as a symbol of his commitment to their prosperity. Meanwhile, Katara had learned names of nobilities and dignitaries, listened to lectures on etiquette, practiced her table manners, and read scrolls upon scrolls to prepare herself for her new duties.
The sake sharing ritual is the last one. After this, they would be properly married and Katara would be crowned as his Fire Lady.
Zuko returned his cup to Aang, who refilled it and passed it to Katara. Despite officiating the wedding of his own ex, Aang is calm. Serene, even. As though he has become a full Avatar with his Avatar-ness. Seven years ago, Zuko would have called him guru goody-goody, but he’s now just glad that his marriage to Katara doesn’t form any rift between them.
Aang tilts his head, the edge of his mouth twitching in a weird gesture towards Katara, and since Zuko can’t tell him that he’s been very futilely trying to avoid looking straight at his bride—who doesn’t look at all like dragon puke—he turns his head, infinitesimally, to watch Katara drink from the cup that mere seconds ago were pressed against his lips.
By the spirits, is he twelve? What does it matter that they might have shared an indirect kiss through the cup? They’ve kissed before! They’ve done more than kissing!
Katara pulls the cup away from her mouth. On its black-lacquered surface, Zuko sees the imprint of her red lip paint, and something in him whimpers like a trapped animal. She returns the cup to Aang, then turns to face Zuko.
It’s not as if Zuko doesn’t know what Katara looks like. It’s very hard to not catch a glance of the person you’re marrying during the actual wedding ceremony. Zuko has been spending the entire day vaguely looking at the point around five inches to the right of Katara’s face, and he’s now very well-acquainted with the elaborate hair ornament she’s wearing. But now comes the point where they say their vows, face to face, and it’s simply impossible—not to mention impolite—to not look her in the eye.
So he does, and now he sees her, in full and with intention: the sweeping color on the edge of her eyes, the red of her lips, the hairdo that looks Fire Nation and the Water Tribe beads woven in, and at last, of course, the robe: sweeping blue silk, embroidered in silver, but in a style that is very much from his land.
She looks beautiful, but Katara is always beautiful. It is a fact as simple as the movements of the sun. No, what’s arresting Zuko at this very moment is how she looks like this because it is her wedding. With him. Because she is marrying him and this is real.
Not his fantasy, not an imagining. Not another vivid dream where everything looks just a little blurry and she only exists in the periphery of his eyesight. She is here and there’s sweat beading on her hairline and her lip paint has a little smudge where it touched the sake cup. It’s all a touch too tangible to be a mirage.
When she swears to love him until the end of her days, she smiles at him as if they’re sharing a little inside joke.
He smiles back—it’s impossible not to when she looks like that—and thinks, yeah, definitely not a dream.
Katara is very, very good at charming the nobility. Half of them are already predisposed to think of her as a water peasant—just as Zuko had, years ago—and yet right now they have no room to criticize her. Zuko keeps his face as blank as possible, but he notices the way their brows tick and their mouths twist in an unhappy smile as Katara endures and side-steps every backhanded compliment.
When Lord Xiao finally retreats, defeated and indignant, Katara leans in and asks Zuko, “What’s that about his house?”
“Azula and I burned it down,” he answers, grinning. “It’s exactly as horrible as it sounds, but in hindsight, he’s also one of those warmongers and there’s a reason he’s not admiral anymore.”
Katara’s lips are pressed together into a thin line, the corners of her eyes crinkling in mirth.
Zuko adds, “Oh, and Azula tried to flirt with his son, but he turned her down and that’s possibly part of the motive behind the arson.”
“No!” Katara exclaims, finally. “She didn’t!”
“I absolutely did,” Azula says, sauntering to them. “A mistake. We’ve all made those, haven’t we?”
“Azula,” Katara greets. She puts on the same smile she had when facing Lord Xiao.
“Hello, Zuzu. And the Fire Lady. Congratulations on your wedding that no one is surprised about.”
“Thanks,” Zuko says before Katara can say anything or, even worse, before Azula can explain what she meant by that statement. “You weren’t here earlier. Everything fine at the warehouse?”
“Zuko, I know Fong tells you everything about my warehouse. You don’t have to ask me that question to check if I’m hiding anything. Oh, don’t look so tense. He’s bringing in money and I don’t give a crap about whether or not he’s spying on me.” Azula studies her nails. They’re cropped short and blunt, now. Zuko knows she has little metal tips she wears at her semi-illegal fighting pit, but apparently she’d left it there. “Besides, who wouldn’t rat me out at the first possible chance? Especially if that will get them the new Fire Lady’s favor.”
Zuko relaxes. It is true that people who don’t know that he knows about Azula’s pit, or as they say in polite society, her warehouse, tend to very enthusiastically try to buy his favor by telling him about it.
“I’m leaving now. Wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome. Bye, Zuzu. Tell me when your pretty wife finally figures it out.”
Zuko immediately turns to Katara. “There’s nothing to figure out.”
“Yes, there is!” Azula calls out from five paces away, sing-song, and Zuko briefly regrets not exiling her to Whale Tail island like many of his advisors had begged him to.
Katara takes his hand before he can say anything. “I believe you,” she says, and he feels himself relaxing. “I know Azula likes to play these games. I understand she’s not exactly the enemy anymore, but…” She bites her lip. Zuko watches the motion with hungry eyes. “Well, anyway, I know you’re not hiding anything from me.”
“I would never,” he lies. He looks to the crowd, searching for an excuse and finding it in two seconds. “I think Uncle and Aang are trying to get our attention.”
Katara turns to look at where Uncle and Aang are, across the room by the band. “I’m pretty sure they’re going to make us dance,” Katara says. “I want you to know that I’m not opposed to it, but how about you?”
“We don’t dance here,” Zuko says, but even he knows he’s quickly being proven wrong. A few people are, in fact, dancing. These people include, of course, Sokka and Suki, their very young and very cute daughter, and Ty Lee, who’s spinning the tiny toddler in the air with the grace of a born circus freak.
But Zuko also notices several young Fire Nationals tentatively shuffling in time with the music, and it’s not as if he’s never heard of Aang’s cave dance party. Apparently, the Avatar has been busy with more than one agenda.
“Come on,” Katara says, prodding his side. “You learned a dance with Aang.”
“The Dancing Dragon is an ancient and noble firebending stance,” he says with mock indignation, but he lets her drag him across the room anyway. Day one, and she’s already bossing him around. He wonders what his people will think about them. Will they think her a witch, and him under her thrall?
But the tune changes into something upbeat and Katara twirls herself into his arms, surprisingly nimble on her feet despite her heavy robes, and he finds himself no wonder caring about something so mundane as the court’s opinion of him.
After the last of the fireworks sizzles out, a group of maids shuffles Katara away while Zuko’s own attendants follow him to his chambers. Most days, Zuko doesn’t need help with his clothes, but his full regalia needs extra care. Some of the items that he’s wearing right now are older than his father.
Still, he doesn’t have any make-up on, so by the time they leave him alone, Katara still hasn’t arrived. Which means he’s alone with his thoughts, and much as he despairs not being able to think properly around her, this is somehow worse.
He starts pacing the room, and when he starts sweating he discards his robe, and when that still doesn’t help he leans into the heat and begins running through his stances. Besides, he’s barely had time to train today beyond a very brief sun salutation in the morning.
So of course, of course, that’s how Katara finds him: sweaty and smelly and dressed only in his underpants.
She herself is clean of all traces of make-up, painfully lovely in a red silk robe that drapes over her body in a way that straddles the line between modesty and indecency, her hair a wavy mane free of her elaborate updo earlier. And she’s looking at him—hungrily, Zuko realizes. Does Katara… want him? Right now?
No, that shouldn’t be a surprise. They’ve already slept together once before, and as Katara had put it herself, they weren’t exactly incompatible.
And, after all, it is their wedding night.
“Katara,” he says. His mouth feels so very dry. “I… you look nice.”
“Thanks,” she says. After a while, she adds, “So do you.”
Something in the way she says it makes him even more conscious of his state of dishevelment. He grabs his robe from where he’d tossed it on the bed earlier and hastily puts it on. “You must be tired,” he says. “Take the bed. I have… work to do.”
And then he flees.
Chapter 3: Fuse
Zuko and Katara have a long-overdue talk.
As usual, unbeta-ed. Fresh from my keyboard, possibly contains trace elements of tense slippage.
And this is the chapter where the M rating comes into play. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko isn’t woken up so much as he is launched upwards by the living ground itself while his assailant yells, “Rise and shine, dumdum!”
And then, there is light. Sunlight so bright and offensive Zuko cringes with his entire body. His mouth opens in a groan that feels like scraping gravel from his throat. Toph—because even in his hungover, barely awake state Zuko knows it can’t be anyone else—shoves a very big glass, no, that’s a pitcher, into his hands, and he puts it vaguely against his mouth and drinks about a third while the rest sloshes onto his front.
Zuko feels the earth pressing against his back recede back to where it belongs as he takes long gulps of the water. By some miracle, he is upright. He takes stock of his surroundings. Furniture, all covered with plain linen. The smell of dust. Right. The royal nursery, long unused and abandoned. Last night, he’d snuck into the kitchen, liberated some wine, and when he was back at the royal wing he chickened out and snuck into the first empty room he found.
The sunlight streaming in from the open window casts only a narrow shadow. Almost midday, then.
He offers the pitcher back to Toph, who sets it on the nearest surface before poking his chest with her index finger. Well, poking is technically what it is, but it feels like being stabbed by a pointy rock.
“You idiot,” Toph says. “You absolute—ugh! We’ve all been looking for you. Katara thinks she’s driven you away for daring to go to your room for the wedding night—stay where you are, I’m not done and she’s fine, Uncle’s with her—and right now, the only reason no one’s turned the entire castle upside down is that Sokka knows that having the Fire Lord run away from his wife during the wedding night is not a good look for the alliance you’re supposedly promoting, and that is why I’m here.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, groaning. “I messed it up.”
“Tell that to Sugar Queen, not me.”
He runs his hand over his face, dislodging a few flakes of eye gunk in the process. “You know I’m in love with her, right?”
“Duh,” Toph says, waving her hand dismissively. Zuko makes a mental note to ask her exactly how many people know about his terrible affliction.
Now, however, he has some griping to do. “She doesn’t know. And she doesn’t feel the same. To Katara, this is just a way to solve both our problems. But she looked happy yesterday! And then she was—when she finally arrived at my rooms she’s—I couldn’t, okay? Yesterday was already a waking nightmare.” It’s a weak excuse, he knows. Last night, he’d panicked. It wasn’t pretty.
Toph heaves a sigh and rolls her eyes. “I knew as soon as I found you like this, Sparky. You didn’t need to tell me that. But talk. To. Your. Wife. I know you don’t want her to know about the whole feelings thing, but just… tell her you had a headache like every other wife in the world. Or something. I don’t care.”
Despite Toph’s completely cold treatment—which is what he deserves, anyway—Zuko feels oddly comforted. He hasn’t told anyone about this, not so straightforwardly. Uncle probably knows about Zuko’s feelings for Katara, but lately, he’s only given Zuko any advice if he asks for one, and Zuko had never asked him about this. It felt wrong. Like saying it would make it real.
But it had always been real, and now that Zuko has said it, he feels better. He’s not slowly going insane on his own. He probably is still going insane, this is true, but at least someone knows about it, now.
“Ugh, don’t. Let’s go, they’re gonna launch a search party if I don’t come back with you soon.”
“Look alive, Jerk Lord’s here!” Toph announces as she kicks open the door to Zuko’s chambers.
There are, frankly, too many people in the room, and most of them are staring at him as though he’d been run over by a carriage. Katara, however, looks at him blearily, dark bags under her red, sleepless eyes. “Zuko,” she says. “Where were you?”
“I—” he starts, but then clears his throat and scans the room. “I’d like to speak with Katara alone, please,” he says in his Fire Lord voice. It never fails to scare his ministers.
His friends, however, roll their eyes and pat his shoulder as they trickle out of the door. Sokka gives Katara one last hug before he leaves her. Uncle gives him a very loud look. Toph punches his arm in that affectionate, bruising way. Mai’s the last one to leave with a squirming Rangi in her arms, but Zuko’s known her long enough to tell that she’s now calling him an idiot in her mind.
And then, he’s alone with Katara, the heavy door closing behind them with a final thud.
“You look horrible,” she says. “Where were you?”
“Being an idiot,” he answers. He rushes forward. Takes Katara’s hands and looks into her eye properly. “I’m sorry, Katara. I shouldn’t have run off like that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.” Katara sighs. Her whole frame slumps and falls into his. Against his shoulder, she says, “You can’t keep running away from me, Zuko. Especially now that we’re married. We’re supposed to be a team.”
Zuko’s arms wind around Katara’s body, squeezing her close. Her hair smells like perfume. “I’m sorry. We barely had time to talk between the preparation, and it’s all happening so fast and—and I think that’s why. I should’ve talked to you, but—you seemed so excited, and you were doing great in every step of the wedding preparation, and I’m still coping with the reality that I’m marrying you.”
She pulls back and raises an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with marrying me?”
“Nothing! You’re brilliant, but we’re not—this isn’t a love match. We’re friends—you’re probably my best friend—but marriage isn’t the same as teaming up with you to fight Azula, or—or trying to get Aang in good enough shape so he could take down my Father. It’s a lifelong commitment and it’s a lot and half the world thinks we’re in love with each other and—” Zuko feels it, the moment he loses control. The moment he slips and admits it: “Maybe I’m not ready to sleep with you.”
Katara’s eyes are wide as saucers. “That’s what this is about?”
“Not just that—”
“But it is.”
“Yes, okay. Fine. Katara, it was one time and we were both very drunk, and rebound sex isn’t the same as—trying to get royal heirs.” He’s not going to admit that ever since that one time, he’s ruined for anyone else. This is embarrassing enough. She’s now wearing a gentle, pitying smile, and he would very much like to dive into the turtleduck pond and never reemerge again. And since he can’t do that, but he also doesn’t know what she’ll say next, he does the next best thing and just keeps talking. “And yesterday was exhausting and I should have talked to you, we could’ve just slept and not do anything, and I know it looks bad that I ran away from you during our wedding night, and—”
There’s no more room for excuses. He meets her eyes. So close like this, he can almost count the branches of bloodshot veins on its whites.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I just panicked. Like a coward.”
“You did. But…” Katara looks away, biting her lip. “I shouldn’t have pressured you into this marriage. You’re right, it’s not just another mission we can complete and then move on with your lives. I should’ve given you space and time to consider my proposal, but…”
“I was avoiding you,” Zuko reminds her, softly.
She shakes her head. “You weren’t ready to answer and I should have respected that.”
Zuko wants to cup Katara’s face and tells her that she’s wrong. That he’d already known the answer and that was why he avoided her. That’s he’s a fool when it comes to her, when it comes to his heart.
He wants, so very bad, to tell Katara that he loves her.
So, he doesn’t. Instead, he lets go of her and takes a step back. “Let’s have a do-over,” he says. “We can’t undo the wedding, but we can fix what happened after.” Extending his hand to her, he says, “Katara. Welcome to my chambers.”
She takes it, though her expression is skeptical. “Uh, thanks. It’s very… big.”
“Best room in the building,” he jokes. “Right. Uh. You must be tired. I am, too. Long day. Would you like some refreshments, or would you like to rest right away?”
Katara makes a face at refreshment and that’s when Zuko notices the table, laden with dishes half-empty. “Can’t say I’m hungry. Can we just sleep?”
“Of course.” He leads her to his bed, and never has he been more grateful for its size. “There’s plenty of room for two. I’m exhausted, too.”
They lie down on their sides, face to face. The last time they were in this position, Katara had asked him if he felt better about his breakup. That feels like a lifetime ago.
Katara reaches forward and rests her palm on the side of his face, the one with the scar. “Zuko,” she says. “I know we married too soon and there’s no undoing it, but I want you to understand this. I don’t regret this. We’ll take it slow, but we’ll also make it work. I believe in us.”
Zuko closes his eyes lest they betray his secrets to her. “Go to sleep, Katara. We’ll talk later.” He can feel himself drifting, too.
The last thing he feels is her hand slipping to the scar on his chest, palm pressed against it as if she’s still trying to heal him.
When Katara wakes up, the moon is rising and Zuko is eating leftovers from the food tray. It’s a habit his attendants have been trying to stop, but Zuko maintains that there isn’t anything bad about eating perfectly good leftovers. They’re not swimming in spoils of war and Zuko has eaten worse food during his exile. Far, far worse.
She walks over and peers over his shoulder.
“Hungry?” he asks.
“Not really, but I should probably eat anyway.” She sits next to him, reaching for the big, mostly full bowl of sea prunes. “It’s awfully nice of your cooks to get water tribe food for me,” she says, before taking a bite and then making a face. “Even if they can’t seem to hold back from putting fire flakes in everything.”
Zuko resists from saying that not even fire flakes can ever save sea prunes from tasting like brine and penguin piss. Instead, he asks, “Is it that bad?”
“Not really. It’s just not how I’m used to eating it.” She takes another bite, then pushes the bowl away from her. “Okay, I can’t eat and it’s not the food.”
Zuko leans back and looks out the window. “Have you trained today?”
Katara blinks. “No,” she says slowly. “Not yesterday, either.”
Zuko smiles thinly. “Come on,” he says, standing up.
“Of course not. I know a place.”
He takes them out of the castle, through a path of hardened lava rock and away from the city, closer to the edge of the caldera where its towering wall casts a shadow. There, away from eyes and ears, are a number of sulfuric hot water springs that only members of the royal family can access. Thin wisps of steam gently stir on the surface of the pools.
“I’ve never been here before,” she says, wide-eyed and agape. “Zuko, It’s beautiful.”
“Only the royal family is allowed here,” he answers. “That includes you, now.”
“Do you bathe here?”
“Not every day,” he says. “It’s not very practical. But I do come here to relax when it’s all too much.” He kicks off his boots. The ground is warm and smooth under his feet. “And we’re not here for a bath.”
She pulls a mass of water from the nearest pool, coating both her arms with it. “You know, you could have chosen somewhere drier,” she says, grinning.
“I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your much-needed fun,” he replies, shooting a ball of fire her way.
She raises an armful of water as a shield and the two elements meet, exploding into steam, and from the middle of it a tendril of water whips out. He deflects it and sidesteps a second tendril, shooting fire from one hand and to slice through the mist—there—but then she reaches forward with an ice-coated hand and yanks, throwing him off balance, and a sliver of well-placed ice under his foot sends him careening into a pool, and down he goes in a big splash as her laughter rings out, delighted.
“Real mature, Katara,” he says after he finishes spluttering sulfur water out of his mouth and nose.
She sticks her tongue out, very much unlike the suave Fire Lady she had been last night, and he thinks he would very much like to splash water into her face.
So he does. It doesn’t take waterbending to simply scoop water over the surface and throw it at her, and she’s still too busy taunting him that it hits her square on her face, and before she recovers from her shock, he leans out far enough to reach the end of her split skirt and tugs.
And from there, they forget to bend, simply splashing and wrestling and preventing each other from leaving the pool, splashing and laughing until his sides hurt and she’s snorting very indecorously, and somehow, somehow he manages to eventually pin her to the edge of the pool, her wrists pinned between his own two hands, and the world feels as if it’s slowing down for once instead of rushing to leave him in the dust.
Her clothes are soaking wet—as are his—and clinging to her in such a way that he can’t avoid noticing the way her chest heaves, the way a drop of water falls from her chin to the hollow of her clavicle before sliding downward and vanishing from view. He forces himself to look into her face, but it only shows the same sort of hunger she wore last night, tenfold. Her lips are slightly parted, her wet lashes framing wide, dark eyes that could very well be whirlpools by the way they suck him in.
He wants her, and here she is, pliant against him, and the only reason she hasn’t taken him for herself is that she has promised him time and space. He thought he wanted that, too, but now he realizes that no amount of time will be enough to reckon with the reality of how much his whole body aches for her.
“Katara,” he says carefully. “I don’t want to go slow.”
Her eyes widen as she sucks a little breath in. He’s ready to let her go, ready for reprisal, but then she says, “Then show me how fast you want to go,” and that’s all he needs to kiss her, taste the ocean on her tongue, feel the curves of her body against his, the pool enveloping them in a gentle cradle as they explore each other, hands slipping underneath soaked fabrics to peel them away, skin against skin, and this is not unlike a fight, the push and pull of it all, the timing of a stroke, a kiss, a lick, and he’s fought her plenty, knows the way she moves, the sounds of her frustration and want, and all the while she’s no wallflower in her demands, asserting herself and overwhelming him, her hands firm in their intent and her hips moving a certain rhythm that drives all thoughts away from his head, leaving only instinct and muscle memory.
This is easy, for them. The easiest part, perhaps, and he was a fool for fearing it.
When steam settles around them, Katara is curled in Zuko’s lap, her face pressed to the crook of his neck and like this, she’s almost within his reach.
So, that happened.
Up next, we see things from Fire Lady Katara's eyes.
Chapter 4: Celestial
It's the full moon. Katara can't sleep.
Nothing celestial about it other than the full moon parts of the chapter? Oops. But here you go, a Katara chapter.
So, I hoped to be able to write a chapter a day, but then a depression episode decided to just... ruin my plans, I guess. Rude. (I'm fine, it's not my first rodeo, I got meds, etc, but it still sucks.) We're past the halfway point, though! I'm hoping to be able to post the last three chapters in the next three weeks. Earlier, if I'm lucky, but yeah. Three weeks. Hope that's okay.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko has a beautiful back. Katara studies it, fingertips ghosting over the line of his spine. On the pillow, his hair is an ink-black spill against red silk. There’s still a sheen of sweat over his skin, lighting it in an ethereal glow. Over hers, too. It’s only been minutes since they made love.
That’s the right term for it, isn’t it? Because it feels right to call it that. Made love.
He’s made her love him. In hindsight, she should’ve known it would happen, eventually. She should have known she was already halfway there.
Katara watches the pink crescent-shaped indents peppering his back. Outside, the full moon taunts her.
She doesn’t sleep.
They leave the hot springs loose-limbed and light-hearted, as though the pools had sloughed off the shell they’d worn for so long. Their fingers brush against each other and, just as Katara considers taking his hand in hers, he does it first. Her fingers fit well in the gaps between his own, just like how their bodies fit each other in uncanny perfection.
Katara would be lying if she doesn’t find it a little unsettling. Everything feels too right with Zuko, too comfortable. At first, she’d thought it would be why her proposal made sense. Good friends who work well together; what could be a better match?
But then Zuko ran from her and for a while, her world tilted. Maybe she’d been wrong all along. No, he should have talked to her. No, she should have given him space.
She felt crazed and upset even though a part of her knew it was not a big problem, that compared to the one time he’d sold them out to Azula this didn’t even count as a tiff. When he returned in the morning looking no more sane than her, they talked, they made it work again. They’d take it slow, they promised.
That promise didn’t even last half a day.
They arrive at his chambers. Hers is next doors, he tells her. There’s a door connecting the two suites, a sliding bolt on either side should they need privacy. “You can sleep next door if you want,” he says.
“I don’t,” she says. “Not tonight, anyway.”
Zuko exhales a little breath, and then, “Katara.” And she looks at him, and there’s something terrifying there, something sharp that she’d rather leave alone. So she leans in and kisses and kisses and kisses him until his brows smooth out and she swallows all the words unspoken between them.
Katara’s first meeting with Zuko’s cabinet goes… as well as she could expect, actually. Even though they were the ones who demanded Zuko to marry a foreign national, they had never intended for the woman he chose to be quite so… active. They want her to perhaps hold a few parties and visit some orphanages. Look pretty and smile and wave and maybe not think too much as she does her duty and pop out a few firebending babies to be heirs to the throne.
Zuko, on the other hand, opens the meeting by declaring that she is his equal. That her approval is equal to his, that her orders are his orders, and that nothing in the Fire Nation should be kept secret from her.
This announcement, understandably, is met with an uproar.
One or two of the protests are about her being a woman—“So’s my sister, Minister Shan, and you seemed ready to throw yourself off the balcony for her, two nights ago”—but most of the ministers seem more concerned with her foreign status, and particularly what it would mean to Zuko’s opponents that he cedes his power so easily to her.
“I’m not giving up my power. I’m sharing it with my wife. Your Fire Lady.”
“I understand, Your Majesty. But considering the rumors, which in fact says that you are very much in her thrall, I do not think the distinction matters.” The minister—Hei—bows a little to Katara. “Your opponents will see it as a weakness of your character.”
“I don’t care what my opponents think of me!” Zuko exclaims. “Katara has saved my life, defeated my sister when I failed, and she is stronger than all of you combined.”
The ministers exhale a collective breath. One of them put their head between your hands. “We were worried you would say that. To be perfectly honest, Your Majesty, it would perhaps be better if you also restrain yourself from extolling your wife’s more… divisive virtues.”
Zuko’s frown becomes deeper. Katara can see it as if everything slows, the way his mouth opens in protest, the tightening of his fist as he holds back his anger, and before them, his ministers. Who are all watching her.
And that is when Katara understands. She places one hand on her husband’s wrist. “Zuko,” she says, gently.
He stops. “Yes?”
“You should always care about what your opponents think of you.”
Zuko frowns, but he says nothing. How could he? He just said that he would not tolerate disrespect for her.
Katara continues, “They already think I’m a witch. I was strong enough to defeat your sister and if you do this, they’ll think that I’m now using you as a figurehead. And then, they will use that to turn those who should have no reason to oppose you otherwise.” She turns to the ministers. They look relieved, for the most part, and a few even look impressed. “Surely you have a plan for me?”
The sexist minister, Shan, clears his throat. “The Earth King is visiting next month. If Her Majesty could oversee the party—”
“Done,” Katara says. Shan begins to smile, but then she continues, “Anything that is more to the benefit of the common people?”
His smile drops. The room falls silent.
She watches them, this time, as they avoid her gaze. Eventually, Zuko says, “The Caldera City Hospital has been begging for funding to renovate and build a new wing. I haven’t found time to review their proposal, but maybe you’d like to take over and oversee the project altogether.”
Hospitals. Katara knows hospitals, no matter the nation, and she’s already acquainted with the healer who runs this one. “I’d love to,” she says.
“All final decisions should still be signed by His Majesty,” Shan hastily says.
Zuko glowers, but Katara smiles a sweet smile. “Naturally. Haven’t we established that?”
“The Fire Lady will still attend our meetings,” Zuko adds, glancing at her as though waiting for her to contradict him. She doesn’t, and he continues. “I will consider her my most trusted advisor. She may not have signatory power yet, but I expect you to listen to her counsel.”
The minister bows, and then the meeting resumes its agenda.
After, in Zuko’s study, he pouts at her. It’s really kind of cute. “I could have given you signatory power, anyway.”
“I’m the Fire Lord. Anything I say goes.”
Katara chuckles. “I know.”
“And I thought you wanted the power of the Fire Lady!”
Katara walks around the desk and pushes Zuko down to his chair before leaning against his desk. “Of course I do. But in the past seven years, I’ve only spent a total of, what, one and a half years here, and only as a diplomat or a healer. You can legally give me the power, but it’s not going to win your cabinet’s trust. Give it time.”
He grins, reaching for her hand. Why does he like her hand so much? “You handled Shan well.”
“They were all testing me. Not just Shan.” Katara squeezes his hand, turns it over to watch the veins in his wrist. “Thanks for giving me the hospital project. I was already going to ask you to give it to me if you hadn’t volunteered it.”
He shrugs. “It’s a big project, within your scope of experience, and nothing too threatening to them. It should do the trick.”
“It’s perfect. And Director Mori has been writing to me. She thinks you’re ignoring her.”
Zuko averts his eyes. “She’s asking for a lot of money.”
“And you don’t have an auditor you can trust to review her budget?”
“I do, now.” He looks up at her. “You were so good in there.”
She pushes away from the desk then plops herself onto his lap. “You weren’t so bad yourself.” He scoffs, and she has to cup his face between her palms to make him look at her. “I mean it. You’re a good Fire Lord, Zuko.”
His eyelashes flutter closed as he embraces her, pulling her flush against him. “I’m better, with you by my side,” he says against her neck. His breath is warm against her skin. He is warm all around her.
She hadn’t known he’d needed a partner so badly. Seven years, he’d led this country on his own. Seven years of fighting and hoping for the best, seven years undoing the damage done by the war, uprooting the corrupt government his father had left behind, making amends to the world. What hungry, lonely work it must have been. No wonder he was so grateful.
Something twinges in her heart, something she doesn’t want to feel. She shifts herself so she’s straddling his lap. He pulls back, looking up to her with wide hungry eyes before surging up to kiss her, and for the next half hour, she pretends that the twinge is nothing but lust.
Katara falls into a routine.
She wakes up to the morning sun lighting up the room, and then she walks to the garden to watch her husband do his morning exercises. The sun salutation, he calls it, slow intense moves that culminate in bursts of fire. It’s all in the breathing, firebending. His chest goes up and down, steadily. Sometimes she joins him, but she prefers to watch.
After he’s done, they’ll bathe. Quickly, if they have an early schedule. Not so much, if they have the morning free. He does rise with the sun, after all.
Then, they eat a quick breakfast—or again, not so quick—and then they go to work. Sometimes they attend events or meetings together, but more often than not, they part ways.
She often goes to the city, either to go to the hospital or to simply walk through the market. She’ll buy something, a fresh fish or a basket of fruits for dinner later, or a bolt of silk or a little trinket. Something. The things don’t matter as much as the people. She wears plain clothes and pretends to be the Fire Lady’s handmaiden and sometimes a tired-looking old man, or a small child, or a group of scared girls will take her hand and ask her to tell the Fire Lady that they don’t have work, or they’re hungry, or that they need a healer because they can’t pay for one, isn’t the Fire Lady a good healer?
“I’m not as good as her, but I can heal too,” Katara says, and the child brings her to his sick mother, and Katara helps. Katara helps as many people as she can, then she goes to the hospital and helps some more, soothes the aching joints of old healers and helps the director draft a budget amendment, and when she finally returns to the palace she tells Zuko about it and he promises to fight his cabinet for reforms and poverty alleviation programs, then they eat dinner and they train together and one way or another they end up in bed.
Then they talk shop, or they talk nonsense, and all the while they touch each other in some insignificant way. He takes her hand and lifts it and watches the moonlight dance on its surface. She strokes his shoulder, back and forth with her thumb. Eventually, the conversation lulls. He always falls asleep first.
Katara stays up a little later. She reads some scrolls or writes a letter home. She reaches her bending out, not to manipulate, but simply feel the beating of his heart. Slow, steady. Sometimes, not so much—when that happens, she knows immediately he’s having a nightmare so she wakes him up and he trembles in her arms and touches her face, making sure she’s okay, she’s real. It’s been seven years since the war. Ten since his father maimed him. Eleven since he last saw his mother. Minutes since all that and worse played out in his mind.
Sometimes his nightmare makes him alert, makes him want her. His hands roam her body and his mouth kisses a trail downwards. She tangles her hand in his long hair and lets him do what he needs—
—what she needs. No, wants. No, needs. It’s been harder to differentiate the two. It’s been harder to tell herself they’re only friends when he does these things to her.
It’s been harder to not love Zuko as she shouldn’t.
Katara falls into a routine. If she is busy enough, she doesn’t have time to wish for something silly like romance.
“This is an excellent party you’re throwing, Fire Lady Katara,” Uncle Iroh says, sidling up to her with a cup of cold tea cradled between his hands. “And the tea is even better than the party.”
Katara chuckles. “I’m glad,” she says. “I can only take credit for the tea, though. The palace staff is already so experienced in throwing parties that my only role was to choose which table runner to go with which set of dishes.”
“Well, surely the dessert buffet is also your doing?” Uncle Iroh asks, gesturing to the block of ice in one corner that serves as a table for the dessert. “I assure you, no one in the room ever stops talking about how wonderful it is to have something cold in this weather.”
Katara feels the heat, too, of course. Even in her thin robes, through the sheer sleeves, she feels all too warm. Her etiquette tutors forbade her from bending her sweat away from her temples, so for the sixth time that night, she lifts a piece of cloth and lightly dabs the sweat away, careful not to smear the carefully-applied cosmetics. “I did bend that particular block of ice,” she admits at last.
“Well. No small feat!” Uncle says cheerfully. “It is all right to acknowledge your smaller successes along with your bigger ones. I heard the hospital renovations have finally begun.”
“You’re the first person who brought up the hospital renovations tonight,” Katara says. Honestly, she’s a little miffed that the palace staff throws such a great party. Maybe if the party fails just a little, Zuko’s cabinet will stop making her be ‘in charge’ of such events and give her responsibilities that actually affect something beyond court intrigue.
Across the room, Zuko is stuck in a conversation with an Earth Kingdom businessman who looks vaguely familiar. He’s got his Fire Lord face on, but the businessman is either oblivious or persistent.
“You should go help your husband,” Uncle says. Before Katara can apologize for her very blatant lapse of attention, he raises his hand. “He needs you, and this old man will stay for the rest of King Kuei’s visit.”
“I think he can handle himself.” Katara is certain Zuko can, in fact, handle all of this without her. The longer she stays, the longer she sees just how well he does his job. She’s handling one project, but it’s a hospital project, and she’d worked for many such projects over the years as a consultant. She doesn’t need to be Fire Lady for this. In fact, Zuko doesn’t really need a Fire Lady, other than for the issue of heirs.
“Zuko has gotten used to handling everything himself,” Uncle agrees. “But he doesn’t have to, now that he has you.” There’s a knowing glint in his eyes as he says, then, “And if I may be a little nosy, you should know that he would rather have you here than anyone else.”
Zuko’s stealing glances in her direction now. He still looks dignified enough, but Katara knows what he looks like when internally panicking. Throwing Zuko a smile, Katara says to Iroh, “I’m sorry, Uncle,” before she goes to her husband.
“Katara! This is Mr. Lau. He deals in—”
“Cabbages and other fine produces,” Lau interjects. “I have a business proposition for your Fire Lord, but he insists that it is unfeasible.”
Katara straightens her back, folds her hand in front of her lap. “We have plenty of time to discuss something like that, Mr. Lau, but I must ask you first. Have you perhaps sampled the lotus duck wrap?”
Lau sniffs. “The duck is passable and the cabbage you use for the wrap is abysmal.”
“I’m glad you agree! The summer drought has not been kind to our crops,” Katara says, pressing one hand to her chest. On her side, Zuko takes her free hand, squeezing once, the warmth of his palm seeping into her.
Her face is too warm again. Damnable summer.
As soon as they enter an empty hallway, Zuko pins Katara against a pillar and kisses her, long and hungry, nipping on her lips as his hands roam her sides. Katara kisses back—it’s impossible not to kiss Zuko back, she’s found—but as soon as he leaves her lips so he can begin kissing a trail down her neck, she asks, “What did I do?”
“Saving me from mister cabbage,” he says.
Katara squeaks out a laugh that can either come from the way he kisses the little spot behind her hear, or from the sheer ridiculousness of his answer. “What?”
He pulls back and looks her in the eye, and the lantern over their heads seems to light his eyes from the inside, all warm amber and honey. She’s glad he has her firmly pressed against the pillar because all of a sudden she feels weak-kneed. “You know if not for you, I would be trapped there for at least another ten minutes listening to him whine about the cabbage cart he had in Ba Sing Se that Aang ran over?”
And then he kisses her again, and it’s only by some miracle that they make it into their chambers—not that they actually make it to the bed, the first time.
The full moon is tugging at her blood again. Katara tosses and turns, but cannot sleep. Next to her, she feels Zuko’s heartbeat in a steady rhythm as he sleeps on, unaware of her restlessness.
Katara arrived here on the full moon too, she remembers. She’d felt like a dam that was beginning to crack before Zuko welcomed her. She’d crossed an ocean with nothing but her bending and still she’d ached to do something, to pull water out of the humid air or pluck a poor man’s veins like strings on a zither, to spend all the power that was threatening to boil over.
She hadn’t known why, of all places, she’d fled to Zuko, but he’d welcomed her and offered to be her refuge, and instead of merely accepting, she’d asked him for more.
And this, too, he’d given her.
Katara rolls to her side and goes back to watching Zuko’s moonlit back. If she connects the marks of their lovemaking, she could probably divine their futures on it. This is the back that has carried his nation alone for seven years—it is as hallowed as any night sky. This is the back that had stood straight and accepted her proposal, even though he deserved better than a cold arrangement.
Katara knows, now, why she’d gone to him. The knowledge burns like hot coals inside of her.
She can never let him know. He’s burdened with enough things—her feelings would be nothing but another imposition. Katara had offered him a partnership between friends, and that is what she will give him.
She sits up. She should go and train in the garden.
“Katara?” Zuko asks, half awake. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she lies, running a hand over his arm. “Go back to sleep.”
He shifts and rolls to face her. “What is it?” he asks again, and this time his voice is firm; he is fully awake.
“It’s just the full moon,” she says. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to tire myself out a little.”
He watches her wordlessly. In this light, his eyes are dark and unfathomable. Finally, he reaches out to her, pulling her down onto him. “Let me help.”
She does. In her chest, her heart beats quick like the wings of a sparrowkeet, and not for the first time, she’s glad that he’s no thrall to the moon.
Oh, yeah. We're fully in the woods. It's all pine trees here.
My notes for this chapter consist of literally one line, and it's a link to this song. (It's not graphic, but kinda NSFW anyway. Click on your own peril.)
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 5: Hesitancy
As the hospital renovation comes to a close, Katara grapples with her feelings for Zuko.
This chapter is brought to you by this art by Elithien, which came across my tumblr dash, kicked me in the shin, whispered the obvious fix to the weird plot progression/scene transition/pacing issue that had halted progress on this fic, then ran away with my whole heart. Wherever you are, Elithien, I hope you are well. (To be clear: she did not make this for me, I am merely a distant admirer of her work.)
Also, I'm sorry for the delay, but uh. What is time anyway, in 2020? Heheheh... heh... heh...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara’s in deep trouble.
They’re at his favorite garden, lounging under the shade of a tree. She’s holding the last monthly report for the hospital renovation, but her eyes are fixed on her husband, who doesn’t know how much grief he’s giving her at the moment.
The thing is, Zuko is sitting by the pond a few paces away, his feet bare and submerged in the water, surrounded by quacking turtleducks. The mother waits for him to take a handful of grains from a bag and toss it to the water, but the little ones are literally eating out of his hand.
It’s ridiculous. Katara wants to scream. But Fire Ladies don’t scream. Fire Ladies are composed and calm, and—according to the history scroll she’s read—they are commonly not so obsessed with their husbands. A noble marriage is often a loveless one, and it just so happens that it was the exact thing Katara had proposed to Zuko.
He turns to her. “You know, I used to feed them bread, but one of the gardeners told me that it’s not good for their digestion.”
Katara makes a little humming sound. Any more and she’ll start cooing. And sure, she has done so around babies, baby animals, and other similarly cute things, but being in love is already an indignity and she refuses to bow down to her base impulses.
Zuko gives her a smile and turns back to the pond. Katara sighs a little, both relieved and missing his face—love is truly, very much, the worst—but those feelings are short-lived as soon Zuko pads over to her with a turtleduck cradled in his hands.
He plops the little thing onto her lap. “Here,” he says. “You look like you could use some help with that report.”
She looks at the turtleduck. It looks back at her with tiny, beady eyes. Katara places her cupped palm in front of it. It waddles onto her hand, curious at first before settling in with a final quack, its body fitting perfectly in the curve of her palm. “Right,” she says carefully. She feels as if she might explode. That would not be good for her or her new, adorable assistant. “And does this turtleduck—”
“Har Gow,” Zuko supplies.
Katara wants to jump into the pond, dig through the soft muddy floor, and emerge in the open ocean. She’s a good enough bender for that, surely. “You named the turtleduck after a dim sum.”
He frowns and looks away and she knows, immediately, that he’s embarrassed. He clears his throat, gesturing at the pond. “They’re all dim sum. That one’s Shumai, that one’s Bao, that one’s Xiao Long Bao—”
“And the mom?”
Zuko looks straight into her eyes, unblinking, and says, “Zhenglong.”
A short bark of laughter bursts out of her. Who names a duck after a bamboo steamer of all things? No, silly question. Zuko would. Because he’s a dork, despite his best efforts to be anything else in front of everyone else.
Said dork is currently smiling at her as if he’s won.
Katara schools her expression. No way is she letting Zuko win. She asks, mock-serious, “Ah, of course. And does little Har Gow know how to read a budget report?”
“Why, of course. I have a very strict curriculum in place for our young generation.”
Katara feels it again, the bubbling need to spill all her unwanted feelings on Zuko, but she swallows it whole and busies herself with petting little Har Gow. She doesn’t notice Zuko stealing the monthly report from her until much later.
Director Mori watches them both with something of a knowing look. Katara doesn’t care for it; it reminds her too much of the meddling elders in the South Pole. She loves her elders, and she likes the Director well enough, but she doesn’t like that look and doesn’t need her husband to see it, lest it tips him off.
Katara loops her arm through the crook of Zuko’s elbow and drags him to see the new healing pool. It’s a simple pool, oblong in shape and about waist-deep. The water smells slightly of sulfur. Nothing as intense as the pools in the royal hot springs, but it summons memories anyway, memories that warm Katara all over and douse her with regret. She should have shown him a different facility in the new hospital wing.
Zuko clears his throat. “Do Water Tribe healing pools normally use sulfuric water?” he asks. His voice is harsher than usual.
Katara resolutely looks at the pool and not at him, though she swipes her thumb over his sleeve and feels the jerky breath he takes. “No, we don’t. But this is the Fire Nation, and it seems silly to insist on freezing water when your hot springs have their own healing properties.”
“A marriage of two nations,” Director Mori announces cheerfully, causing both Katara and Zuko to jump a little. “So to say.”
Katara freezes, but Zuko pulls her closer and says, “It sounds like something my uncle would say.”
“We always take the time to play a game of pai sho when he’s in town,” the Director says. Her expression turns a little dreamy, but soon she gathers herself and, professional and clinical like talking to a patient, says, “Allow me to show you our new operating rooms. This way, please.”
The rest of the tour passes uneventfully, except for the time Director Mori glances pointedly at Katara’s abdomen when they’re showing the new maternity ward to Zuko. Katara raises her hands to cover her middle protectively, then immediately drops it when she realizes that it sends the wrong kind of message. Zuko lets out a little chuckle, and when the Director has turned away from them, Katara elbows him in the ribs.
By the end of the day, everyone is in agreement: the wing is ready to open. Both royals will attend the opening. Zuko will deliver a speech. Katara will supervise the two new waterbending healers for the first three months of their tenure.
The renovation is a success. That night, at the royal hot springs, her husband extensively congratulates her for this accomplishment.
Katara finds Zuko drooling all over his work, smudging black ink on his cheek. She tilts her head, reaching out with her bending. His heart beats steady, slow, unaware of her entrance. He’s just asleep.
Carefully, she closes the door and bolts it before tiptoeing to Zuko’s desk. She places one hand on his head, gently stroking his hair—little stubborn strands have escaped his topknot again—but he barely stirs.
“Zuko?” she asks, gently.
Katara purses her lips. He’d shrugged away her concerns this morning, saying he only needed some tea to properly wake him up, yet here they are now. He’s usually such a light sleeper. That he’s so overexerted like this worries her and angers her in equal measure. When he’s properly awake, she needs to remind him to take care of himself better. Now, though… there’s only one thing to do.
She moves her hand to his cheek, and—still fast asleep—he makes a little content sound and nuzzles her palm and she has to hold back from shoving his whole head away from her as if he was a bomb.
A bomb to her sanity, maybe.
The nuzzling proves to be helpful, however, as she slips her hand further to lift his face ever so slightly from the desk, leaving the scroll under him free for her to liberate. Which she does, and when he whines as she lets him go, she closes her eyes and counts backward to ten. She’ll blow this little heist of hers if she can’t hold back the urge to, of all things, pine over her sleeping, needy husband.
When she opens her eyes, she only feels marginally more normal and he’s back to his blissful, oblivious dozing.
Katara looks down at the unfurled, creased scroll, the scrawled-out mess of his speech for the hospital’s reopening, the big smudge of ink around the middle. The legible parts are disjointed and awkward and it sounds like he doesn’t even know what to say—which is not how Zuko usually is. He can be awkward, yes, but he usually has something to say.
Then again, he probably wrote it half asleep. It definitely sounds drowsy enough to spread yawns to the audience. She fishes out a fresh scroll from a drawer, settling herself in the chair across from him, and gets to work.
After all, the hospital is her project. No one knows as much about it as perhaps Director Mori herself. With her help, the Fire Lord will deliver the best speech ever. Arguably better than his coronation speech, because this is both motivational and researched. While a war-torn country doesn’t need research, a hospital in times of peace lives and dies by its studies, and as such Zuko owes the people some degree of academic rigor.
She’s just thinking about the right closing line when Zuko makes a little groan, pushes himself off the desk, and stretches in a way that makes all his bones creak and clatter. When he lowers his arms, he finally notices her. “Katara? What are you doing?”
“Your job,” she says. “We’re going to have a talk about your schedule because obviously you’re exhausted, but before that”—she holds the speech up in front of him—“what do you think?”
He doesn’t answer immediately, instead taking the scroll for her. He intently reads what she’s written, and eventually, he says, “It’s very informed, without being stilted or too formalistic, and...” He pauses, returning the scroll to her. “And it’s hopeful. Uplifting. It’s a great speech, Katara.”
She smiles, satisfied. “I thought so, too.”
“I have just one note, however,” he says, smiling back. “You wrote it for the Fire Lord to deliver the speech, but this project has always been the Fire Lady’s. She should deliver the speech.”
Katara finds, inexplicably, tears welling in her eyes. Why? It makes sense, what Zuko said just now. But something in her balks, like a horse straining against its reins. “Zuko,” Katara says, a little choked, “I—can’t. It’s…”
“I should’ve refused to do it from the start, but it only sunk in when I actually tried writing it.” He looks a little sheepish. “I guess I’ve gotten too used to doing everything on my own.”
“You can do the speech. I…” She scrambles to look for a reason other than she can’t, and eventually settles with, “Your ministers would never agree to it.”
He doesn’t answer except with one raised eyebrow.
Moments like these are the hardest. When he’s affectionate, or adorable, or—for lack of a better word—vigorous, she can wave off the surging feelings in her as something sillier. Infatuation, maybe. A crush. The word is infantile, but so are her feelings. Right? Right. Sure, most days she knows it. In the most inopportune times, her mind will sneakily supply, I love him. I love Zuko. Her mouth threatens to betray her. But she can always shake her head and force the thought out.
But right now Zuko is neither affectionate, nor adorable, nor vigorous. Right now, Zuko is earnest. Which only makes her want to come clean. He trusts her with so much, including but not limited to his whole nation, and that only makes whatever she’s feeling right now a betrayal, and doesn’t he deserve to know? Doesn’t he deserve her trust, and shouldn’t she trust him with her shameful heart?
“Katara, what would the ministers do? Fire you?” He’s grinning at his own pun, and Katara realizes that Zuko thinks she’s hesitant about the speech and not the speech. Or, well, not a speech, really, more like a jumble of words and feelings she wants to vomit at him but can’t won’t shouldn’t—
She feels sick. The study is narrow and stifling and summer is at its peak and Katara tugs at her collar. Begins, “I…”
Zuko looks at her with an expectant smile, and she can’t lie to him and she can’t tell him the truth so she says instead, “I have to go.”
She looks away just as his smile fades and leaves the study, walks through the palace, the gates, and escapes into the city.
Up next: Affirm, where things come to a head. We're almost out of the pine forest, folks!
Chapter 6: Affirm
Katara faces the consequences of her thoughtlessness, and reaches a decision.
Content warning: violence, depiction of death.
Thank you to EryiScrye and slipsthrufingers for the beta, handholding, brainstorming help. You both are the bestest.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara only stops walking when she reaches the marketplace. She stands there, breathing heavily, listening to the rush of her own pulse. She didn’t run, but she had run away. Zuko had offered her something wonderful, something that would be her own, something she’d never had when she’d been ‘The Avatar’s Girlfriend’.
And Katara had run away from him.
What is she doing? She should go back now. Zuko’s probably fretting and worrying and thinking he’s offended her somehow. She knows because she knows him and because that’s what she’d done months ago when he’d fled their wedding night.
Her hand clenches. The scroll crumples in her fist. She doesn’t remember bringing it. She unfolds it, runs her eyes over the speech she was so proud of not an hour ago, stumbles at the little parts that she’ll have to change when she delivers it. Because she will deliver the speech. Zuko was right. It’s her project.
But the thought of coming back and telling him that yes, of course, she’ll do the speech—just like that, as if she never walked away from him, as if he never shattered the dam that serves as her heart—terrifies her.
And besides, she’s already here. Might as well help a few people. Clear her mind before she has to face him again.
Katara lifts her eyes to find a loose circle of people around her, watching her warily. She blinks, clearing the remaining pool of tears from her eyes. “Sorry, I just have a lot in my mind.”
They flinch when they hear her voice. She frowns. These are vendors and workers at the market, a few of whom she already knows. She asks, “What’s wrong?” To the fruit vendor who always tries to introduce her to his son, she says, “Jiro, why are you all looking at me like that?”
They throw themselves on the dusty ground, prostrating themselves before her. Without lifting his face, Jiro says, “Your Majesty, forgive us—we never meant any disrespect—”
“What are you talking—”
“We thought you were the Fire Lady’s handmaiden, not—”
And Katara realizes it, then: she is still dressed in her finery, and her crown still sits on her topknot. “Oh,” she says, quietly.
They still have their foreheads pressed to the ground. Why wouldn’t they? She’s expressed displeasure at the way they look at her, so they don’t look at her. Katara knows, on some level, how the common people in the Fire Nation see their royalty, even seven years after their tyrants were deposed. Her disguise as the Fire Lady’s handmaiden is borne out of that knowledge, too. She tolerates the palanquins and the honor guard, the pomp and ceremony that comes with her office. It’s the cost of her power. But her marketplace runs have nothing to do with her official duties, and hence the disguise. The lies.
Even when she tried to be herself, she lied.
She looks down at the people on the ground—her people now, since she married their Fire Lord—but before she could even say anything, the ground under her quakes.
She leaps, launching herself just as a hole opens where she stood before. The air around her dries as water rushes to coat her arms. Her eyes catch her assailant, their nondescript clothes, and the mask concealing the lower half of their face. Another three, dressed the same, rush forward. They don’t make speeches before they strike. They know better.
The first attacker is an earthbender. That’s not very surprising, nor is the jet of fire she douses in a burst of steam. The steam parts, faster than it should, and Katara sees it—a flash of blue eyes—a waterbender. Personal vendetta, or mercenary? She has no time to contemplate. The fourth leaps forward and Katara barely misses the strike of their knuckles.
Paid assassins. They work a little too well to be a ragtag group, and unreservedly deadly even for her. The chi-blocker aims to incapacitate her, but that’s no mercy. Every time Katara dodges their precise jabs, a dagger of ice follows, or a boulder the size of a boat, or a jet of fire quick and hot. She dances, dodging and deflecting and side-stepping. She has no room to shoot back, no space to gain ground.
She relinquishes any form of strategy; thinking at all is now overthinking, too slow to keep up with the barrage. She relies on muscle memory, reactions hammered into her for seven years and counting. It’s not enough. Her body, trained to sit still through long meetings and bow gracefully to dignitaries afterward, tires so much faster than the assassins’. A shard of rock opens a gash on her upper arm. First blood.
She doesn’t know how long she’s been fighting. Dimly, she’s aware of her surroundings. The road has cracked in juts and craters. A stall is now in pieces, the colorful hair ornaments strewn on the ground. The people cower, away from danger but watching, enraptured. A lone figure on the roof—the roof? That makes no sense. The distracted thought costs her an arm as the chi-blocker renders it limp.
At least it’s not her legs, she thinks, just before water wraps around her ankles and knocks her prone. As she watches the ball of fire come to her, time stretches—then it snaps as the figure on the roof leaps down, erecting a wall of blue fire.
The heat is fierce against Katara’s face. When Azula rolls the wall away from them both, Katara hears a scream.
“One down,” Azula says lightly as if she didn’t just burn someone to their possible death. “Are you just going to sit there?” she asks Katara.
Katara shakes her head and pushes herself up on her working arm. She adjusts her stance. Pushes her own blood to ease out the knots of chi on her useless arm. It feels like the prick of a thousand needles. Good. In a few moments, she’ll be able to use it again. Now, though, she stands with her back against Azula’s—a moment of pure trust that she’ll question later—and surveys the assassins.
Around them, the three remaining assassins—the earthbender, the waterbender, and the chi-blocker stand and wait for someone to move first. It looks as if losing their own and gaining an extra opponent have thrown their rhythm.
Katara uses the time to ask, “Guards?”
“Dead,” Azula says.
That explains why none have come. Katara swallows the guilt and grief. She’s tired, one of her arms is still half-asleep, and it’s still two hours before sundown. At the start, the assassins gave her no openings to fight back. Now, she’s so tired she has to strain to even feel heartbeats beyond her own.
But she can do it. One heart at a time, with great effort, she can feel the quick pulse of her enemies.
They’re still at an odd stalemate, the assassins refusing to move first. Maybe they’re also buying time, or waiting for something else. That’s the first mistake they’ve made, today.
Katara reaches out as if she’s going to clasp the chi-blocker’s shoulder. The movement startles the assassins into movement. They rush her. It brings the chi-blocker’s heart close, close—
She closes her fist and the assassin collapses, dead.
Katara releases a breath, staggering. Even that one act costs her. She's almost grateful she doesn't have enough in her left to do the same to the other two. She hates how death feels in her hand, how the blood in her grasp begins to cool and congeal the instant she crushes the heart.
Water swings towards her neck, like a scythe, or maybe a garotte. She throws her body to the side, her brow splitting under the water whip. As she straightens her stance, her whole body trembles with the ache of exhaustion. Blood mingles with sweat and drips into her eyes. The waterbender rears back, turning water into an array of needles.
Katara raises her arms. To deflect or melt or turn the needles around, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t think.
Lightning crackles through the air. The waterbender arches their back, their mouth agape in a silent scream.
Katara turns, sluggish, to see Azula with smoke coming out her fingers, to see the earthbender bending the ground from under the princess, to see the pillar jutting at an angle and ramming into her middle, the impact launching her to the air, to see Azula falling to the ground, to see the earthbender turning to Katara and raising his arms.
There’s no time to gather water into her hands. There's also no energy to reach forward and tug at the assassin's veins, but Katara tries anyway, because time she cannot bend, but she is made of water, all humans are, and so she wills all her muscles to hold, wills her blood to slow into a leisurely pace, wills her hand to extend toward her attacker, like an offer of peace, like a threat.
Katara's legs quake before they collapse under her. Her vision narrows. She sees a roar of red fire. She hears someone calling her name, hoarse and urgent. She never gets to see who it is.
Katara wakes to the hospital’s plain wooden ceiling. The sun is bright and her head is pounding and from beside the bed she hears, “Ugh, finally.”
She turns and finds Azula by the window, enthroned on a plain chair, the hospital gown draped over her frame like full regalia. Her arms are crossed across her chest, completing the effect.
“Azula,” Katara says. Her mouth tastes like dust. Next to her bed is a jug of water and a little cup. Katara reaches with one aching arm, spilling water on the nightstand as she pours and spilling more as she sips from the overfull cup. “You’re… okay?”
Azula’s mouth twists in a sneer. “I wouldn’t have gotten these cracked ribs if not for you.” She rolls her eyes at Katara’s falling expression. “I’m fine. I wanted to go straight home, but Zuzu begged me to watch over your sickbed. Not my most riveting morning, really.”
“Where is he?”
“You tell me. He stayed all night, you know, but then he said he has”—air quotes—“work. Now,” Azula says, leaning on her elbows, “whatever could ever be more important than moping over his darling wife’s sleeping face?”
Azula’s tone leaves no doubt in Katara’s mind that she thinks watching grass grow would be more important than watching Katara sleep, but her words are still, somehow, informative. There was an attempt on her life. Zuko would never sit still and let that slide. “The earthbender,” Katara says, slowly. “Is the earthbender alive?”
Azula raises an eyebrow. “So you’re not a complete idiot after all. He’s dead now, but he had time to talk.” She inspects her blunt, unpainted nails, flicking her fingers as though they’re still manicured. “The powers that be in Hu Xin Provinces aren’t very happy with you. They’ve spent years grooming the perfect bride for Zuzu, years waiting for the silly on and off relationship with Mai to be permanently off.”
Katara understands, then. “And I snatched him right from under their noses.”
Azula scoffs. “If you don’t count the one year when he just ignored all the prospective brides, sure.”
Katara studies the puddle of water on the nightstand, pulling it with her bending, pouring it back into the jug. She doesn’t spill, this time. “Poison would be easier.”
A small smile plays on Azula’s lips, as if the idea of poisoning Katara entertains her. Maybe it does. “You’ll never be killed by anything but the deadliest, fastest poison. They know that and they hate you too much to give you a clean death.”
So they’d attacked Katara in broad daylight, in the market. Messy and terrifying. The foreign bride of the Fire Lord, leaving destruction in her wake. Katara remembers the way the people had groveled, the way Jiro’s voice had quivered. They’d been scared already, even before the attack. Except… “How did the assassins know I would be at the market?”
The smile drops. Azula leans forward, her eyes narrow and flinty. “You may have fooled the commoners with your adorable costume, but the palace staff know you don’t have a handmaiden.” She doesn’t say, all it takes is one loose tongue. Katara understands anyway. “They’ve been planning this for months, and in the meantime, you got slow, you got weak, and you got stupid. The first two, I assume, is just how you are, but the third cost you eight men.”
“Eight,” Katara echoes.
“Two for each guard post around the market district.”
Eight people died for Katara. Eight people killed just so the assassins could reach her. As if they were nothing but fences to be broken, windows to be smashed. Inconsequential, compared to the prize they hold within. They hadn’t leaped to protect her, but that’s worse somehow. There was no choice given to them. They just happened to be there, and their deaths were means to an end.
To her end.
Katara says, “And why were you there?” and it sounds very much like an accusation.
“They did some… last minute training at my warehouse, two nights ago. Someone overheard their plans and ran to me, but by then they were already lying in wait.” Azula looks at her steepled fingers in consternation. It’s not quite guilt or grief. “The guards were dead when I arrived.”
“It’s not your fault,” Katara says.
Azula’s gaze snaps up, her brows knotted. “I know that,” she says irritably. “It’s your fault.”
Katara presses her lips together, swallowing the denial. No more lies, she promises herself. Not even to comfort her guilty conscience.
Lightly—as if she didn’t just lay out Katara’s blame so blatantly—Azula says, “Zuko blames himself, you know,”
Katara raises her eyes, so quick she feels dizzy, but holds Azula’s gaze in a question.
She shrugs. “He does. He thought yesterday he’s done something to upset you, and that’s why they could catch you off-guard.”
“But it’s not—”
“Do you think he’d listen?” Azula shoots back. “I didn’t think so either. He does love his self-flagellation.” She pauses. “Tell him yourself, if you want to set the record straight so much.”
Katara tallies a list of guilts she has to confess to Zuko. One: that she’s been letting him think that she always follows protocol when going out of the palace. Two: that this action, over time, has ended the life of eight people, and she’s lucky it’s not more. Three: that she’s broken the core of their little pact by loving him, though that seems trivial compared to eight innocent lives.
There’s no repairing their friendship, if she tells him all of that. It’ll break his heart. Hers, too, if there’s anything left to break.
“Yeah,” Katara says. That one syllable feels sharp in her chest. “Yeah, I should do that.”
Azula’s nose wrinkles. “Not that I care, but what is up with you two?”
“I…” Katara pauses. She doesn’t know why she says her next words, just like how she didn’t know why she trusted Azula to guard her back. “I nearly told him that I love him.”
Azula’s face crumples into a mask of disgust and horror. “Ugh,” she says. “That’s stupid. You both are so stupid.” She raises her hand in surrender. “You know what? Never mind. Don’t tell me. Just… talk to him and sort this out before I decide you two make horrible rulers and organize a coup. Again.”
“I’m joking. Kind of.” Azula stands up, reaching out a hand as if to pat Katara’s shoulder and then letting it fall awkwardly to her side. “Okay, good talk.” And then, she leaves.
Katara looks down to her lap, the hands she didn’t remember clenching. She fans out her fingers. Studies the crescent-shaped indentations on her palm. Smooths it out, directing her blood to flow under the skin.
She needs to talk the Zuko. The resolve is heavy in her stomach, but firm. It’s what’s right. She always does what’s right. Or rather, she should. Starting now.
She will tell him everything, and then she’ll go back to the South Pole, where she can’t hurt any more innocent Fire Nation citizens.
I initially planned for a happier affirmation. A love affirmation, or maybe some life-affirming makeout. But no one told me that fight scenes are so damn long, so Katara gets a sadder sort of affirmation.
But I promise you, I really do, that they're going to make it. That's not a spoiler, I hope. I will give them a happy ending.
Chapter 7: Rebirth
Katara and Zuko clear the air.
My thanks to slipsthrufingers and EryiScrye, for the beta and handholding and cheerleading.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko paces around his study. There is nothing left to do but wait, now. He’s sent his best men to chase down the Hu Xin ambassador, who’d fled his townhouse just yesterday evening. Zuko could go himself, but that’s both unnecessary and reckless. While this particular enemy doesn’t want his blood—only his bloodline—he has other enemies. Hungrier ones.
You should always care about what your opponents think of you, Katara once said. Displaying an unstable temper at this juncture would reflect badly on her, too. Their opponents will twist it and spread the word that the Fire Lord is now nothing but the sea witch’s eel-hound. Stoke the already flickering embers of xenophobic hate, push forward the belief that if the Fire Lady must be foreign, then she should at least be from the colonies, with some Fire Nation blood in her. After all, only a firebender can inherit the throne. What would the mingling of fire and water mean, for the future Fire Lord?
And is that not what the conspirators wanted all along, by attempting to murder her?
So Zuko stays in the Palace, even though he could return to the hospital to be by her side. He closes the door and feigns that all is as normal as can be. Pretends that he doesn’t grieve whenever he remembers that she could have been killed. Pretends that by all the pretending, he can fix his mistakes.
He’s checking his file drawers for the third time when he hears a knock on the door. “Your Majesty.”
The door doesn’t even slide open. Whoever it is must have heard of his explosive rage right after he’d saved Katara, and prefers the illusory protection of a pane of wood. “The Fire Lady is awake. Director Mori checked her condition and said that she doesn’t need further treatment, only some rest.”
Zuko shudders with relief. He’s glad for the door now, too. “Thank you. Dismissed.”
“Yes, Fire Lord Zuko.”
Alone once more, Zuko continues his pacing, chafing against his own sense of restraint. He doesn’t cry. They’ll know if he does, and a weak Fire Lord is worse than an angry one.
The sun has begun its descent when Zuko decides that having afternoon tea at the hospital with his convalescing wife is perfectly proper. After all, he can’t let people think he doesn’t care at all about the Fire Lady. One visit, and he’ll bring some tea and cakes and the fold-up pai sho board, and before the sun sets he’ll be on his way back. Just enough affection to demonstrate his commitment, and not a drop more.
He arranges a basket, summons his honor guard, agrees to a palanquin, and—as he goes to his rooms to change into something lighter—runs into his wife, who gives him a wan, cautious smile.
“Katara,” he says. “You should be at the hospital.”
“I like our bed better,” she says with a quick grin, though it drops immediately. She looks weary. There’s a bridge of pale skin across her left eyebrow, freshly healed. The hair hasn’t grown back. He remembers the blood that poured out of that wound, painting half her face slick crimson. The color had never become her less.
“You’re healed,” he says lamely.
“I am a pretty good healer, you know,” she says, just as awkwardly.
Another pause. Since when did it become so difficult to talk to Katara? He doesn’t know what to say or how to say whatever it is. He manages to say, eventually, “You should rest.”
She looks up to him with steely eyes. His stomach sinks. “No,” she says. “No, we should talk.”
“Right,” he says. He calls off the palanquin and asks for the tea and cakes to be brought to his rooms instead, and Katara simply stands there, impassive, her face even and unreadable.
She takes his arm when they walk to his rooms, only letting go once they sit down on either side of their tea table. Black lacquered wood spans between them like an ocean; that’s when Zuko knows.
This is the end. She will leave him, and he will let her. Being his queen nearly killed her, and if he makes her stay, it will continue to hang over her head like an executioner’s blade. He can confine her to the palace, where it’s safer, but she would hate the gilded cage, and then hate him in turn. Besides, he’s been attacked at the inner palace before. There is always danger if he’s not careful—and he hasn’t been, lulled by her warmth and company, spending his days relying on her strength and his nights in her arms.
He’s been happy, these past few months. Happiest he was ever been. All at her expense.
He waits. He has no right to speak first.
Katara still hasn’t said a word by the time the tea and cakes arrive. She waves away the servant with a smile, and the poor boy bows gratefully before he scampers away from the unbearable tension.
“Cold tea?” Katara offers.
“Please,” Zuko says.
She holds the pot between her palms, and when she releases it, condensation beads on the pale porcelain. Her own palms are red, and only now does Zuko realize that the water in the pot must have been boiling hot.
“It’s my own fault!” she snaps, jerking her hands away from his reach. “It’s all my fault,” she says, more gently this time. She holds out her palms for his inspection, the red fading away quicker than it would on his own. “See,” she continues, pulling her hands back and folding them on her lap, “my hands are fine.”
Zuko nods, not knowing what else to say. He busies himself with pouring for them both. The court would erupt in scandal if they ever see him pouring for her, but to hell with the court. This might be the last time he gets to drink tea that she chills herself.
They raise their cups and drink. The cold oolong slithers down his throat, soothing him against his will. He wants to burn with regret. It’s the punishment he deserves. But with the tea—with Katara—cooling him down, calming the storm in his mind, he catches something odd that she said just now.
“What do you mean,” Zuko begins, carefully, “it’s all your fault?”
Katara laughs a little. Her hand clutches the cup, her knuckles pale. “I mean it’s my fault that the assassins got to me. It’s my fault eight of your men are dead. It’s my fault those vendors at the market got their stalls wrecked.” She looks at Zuko with wide, glistening eyes. “I’ve been sneaking out of the palace. In disguise, pretending to be—”
“Your own handmaiden,” Zuko finishes for her. “Katara, I know.”
“I know about your market trips,” he repeats. “I’ve known for a while, now.”
She gapes. “You never told me,” she says, accusingly.
“I didn’t want to shackle you,” he says, sharper than he intended, but it felt good saying it like that, and so he continues. “What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t tell you that I trust your judgment, then insist that you can’t even leave the palace without a palanquin and six guards! I didn’t want to keep you prisoner. You’re not a prisoner.”
“All the people you meet at the market, the kids you healed, they all love you. How could they not? You’re—urgh!” He throws his hands in the air and, unable to keep still, he stands up and begins to pace. “I got complacent. I forgot that we have enemies. That you made enemies the moment you married me. I should have warned you; I know this nation and the poison in its courts. It’s my duty to protect you.”
“I could protect myself!”
“You could have died!” Zuko is yelling, now. Some part of him registers that, but the rest of him refuses to stop. “If I hadn’t arrived in time, you could have died. I can’t—” His face is wet. All his words are stuck in his throat.
Katara stands and pads over to him. She leans up, cupping his face in her hands, her thumbs wiping away his tears. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she chants, and she’s crying, too, sniffling between each apology.
“It’s not your fault,” he says.
Shaking her head, Katara says, “No, it’s ours.”
She’s right. He loops his arms around her waist, pulling her close, pressing his cheek against her hair.
With her face still pressed against his shoulder, she continues, “You’re right, you should’ve talked to me about it, if not stop me altogether. But I should’ve told you, instead of sneaking around. We’re the Fire Lord and Lady. When we fail to communicate, fail to keep each other safe, we’ll endanger the people, too.” Her fingers bunch up the fabric of his tunic as she clings to him. “I’m sorry,” she says, “for the guards.”
“Me, too.” He strokes her hair. “We’ll arrange some compensation for their families. It won’t bring them back, but…”
“And we’ll cover the vendors’ losses, too. Pay for their new stalls, reimburse their damaged goods.”
She makes a little sound of assent. It sounds as if she’s already far away, already distancing herself.
Pathetically, before he can stop himself, he says, “Please don’t leave me.” Gone is the resolve he’d had to let her go. All Zuko feels right now is the desperate fear that if Katara leaves him, he will not know how to smile anymore, or how to live beyond his work. He thinks he’ll see her in every curl of steam in the hot springs, hear her in every splash of water. He thinks he might do a decent job at coping. He thinks he might end up coping for the rest of his life. There’s nothing he’d like to do less.
It’s selfish, but it’s the truth. Lying by omission nearly got her killed, after all.
She pushes away from him. The cold fear grip at him tighter, but then she looks up and he sees the confusion in her expression. She says, “I thought you’d be better off without me.”
He laughs. “I would be a wreck without you. Katara—” he begins, a confession threatening to spill from his lips.
“No,” she interrupts. “Zuko, I… I want to stay. But I have to tell you everything, first.” She swallows. Clenches her jaw. Takes his hands and says, “You might not want me to stay anymore, once you know this. But you deserve to know.”
Zuko tries to fathom what Katara could possibly say that would make him want her any less and comes up with a blank, so he simply says, “Okay, tell me.”
“I—” she starts, opening her mouth, then closing it again, a quick swipe of her tongue over her lips. She walks over to the tea table and takes his cup, draining it. She turns to face him again, then turns away a little, then turns back.
“Katara,” he begins, but she raises one hand and he falls silent.
“Look, Zuko… When I proposed this—when I proposed to you, I guess—I didn’t know yet. I mean, looking back it’s pretty obvious, but by the time I found out, it was too late to do anything. So I thought I’d just keep it to myself and you didn’t have to know, but trying to keep it from you is why I walked out on you yesterday and—” she pauses, making a vague gesture with her hand. “You know?” she eventually says, tense.
He reaches for her hands, holding them loosely enough so that she can pull away if she wants to. Instead of doing that, however, she tangles her fingers with his. Her palms are cold, clammy. He squeezes her hands, summoning heat to his palms, just enough to warm her up.
She presses her trembling lips together, as though holding back a laugh, or maybe a sob. Looking up at him, she takes a deep breath. “I’m in love with you.”
Against his better judgment, Zuko lets out a huff of laughter. “That’s it?” he asks. “You’re in love with me? That’s your big secret?”
Katara’s open, vulnerable expression warps into one of fury as her brows knot and her lips curl in displeasure. She jerks her hands away, placing them on her waist. “Yes, laugh it off. Isn’t it just hilarious when your wife, who once promised to not overcomplicate the situation of the political marriage she proposed, is in love with you? Oh, and she’s now confessing this, despite her fear of rejection and—” she laughs, high and false, “—ridicule. A round of applause!” She pokes at his chest with one index finger. “I never expected you to return my feelings. I just hoped you’d be kind enough to not laugh in my face about it.”
Zuko can’t decide if he should be scared of his wife or attracted to her. He knows, however, when to give up to her, so he raises both hands to placate her. “Katara,” he says, slowly.
“What?” she snaps.
“I’ve loved you since you first offered to heal me.” He doesn’t say, eight years ago. He doesn’t say, just before I turned on you. He knows she remembers. “And I’ve known since—well, since we first slept together.”
Her eyes are wide and disbelieving. “You never told me.”
He smiles ruefully. “I didn’t think it was relevant.” She opens her mouth in outrage, but he continues, “If marrying you meant I would make your life easier—if it meant you would be able to seize more power, make more change in the world, get the respect you deserve... Katara, I would’ve gone on loving you in silence for the rest of my life.”
She’s quiet, for a while. Then: “We’ve both been idiots about this, huh? Some couple we make.”
He grins at her. “Yeah, we have.”
She reaches for his hand again, watching the way their fingers interlace. Suddenly, her brow furrows and she snaps her head up. “Wait. The wedding night…”
Zuko winces. Not his greatest moment, that night. “Yeah.”
Katara giggles. “I’m sorry,” she says, though she doesn’t sound the slightest bit repentant. “You have to admit, it’s a little bit funny.”
“Oh yeah?” he challenges. “Would you say it’s as funny as thinking I would send you away for loving me?”
She gasps exaggeratedly. “How dare you?” she says. “It’s a violation of our agreement!”
“Which one? Because I distinctly remember that our wedding vows include a promise to love each other until the end of our days.”
“Oh, you think you’re so clever, aren’t you.” She makes a little moue, a perfect little pout that’s right there for him to kiss.
Zuko takes a step forward. Katara stays still, though she tilts her head up, as though in expectation. “Not clever, no,” he says, cupping her face. “Just lucky.”
She sighs into his kiss. It feels exactly like all their kisses in the past. It is nothing like any kiss he’s had before. She’s here, within reach, in his arms, warm and alive. And she loves him. She loves him as he loves her, and somehow he finds that the biggest impossibility, the most unbelievable wonder.
They reach the bed, and—after a fashion—Katara gets her much-needed rest.
Five months later, in Ba Sing Se
“Did you hear?” Toph says, picking up her cup.
“From Zuko and Katara? Yes, I have,” Uncle says, stroking his beard. “I have to say, I expected more pushback from his cabinet, but I’m glad the Fire Lady is finally afforded real authority over—”
“Not that,” Toph says impatiently, wrinkling her nose. “The actual news.”
“Master Toph,” Uncle says patiently, “Unlike you, I have to rely on letters—or on my earthbending friend who can hear gossip from a mile away.”
She grins. “I know. Okay, so this pepper merchant just arrived last night, and he heard from his sister, who grows the pepper, that according to her neighbor’s son-in-law who sells novelty chamberpots in Caldera City’s marketplace—”
“It is incredible how hearsay travels much faster than a piece of paper,” Uncle says.
“Letters are dumb anyway. Who cares about noodly shapes of ink on paper? Not me.” Toph takes a slice of mooncake and munches. “Anyway.” She takes another bite. Double yolks. Nice. “Word on the street is: Sugar Queen’s finally pregnant.”
Iroh gasps. “That is wonderful news, indeed!” He stands up in a rush. His joints literally creak. Toph winces at the sound.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“The Fire Nation, of course,” he says, already puttering about in the back room. “I am not missing the birth of my first grandchild!”
“What about the tea?” Toph calls out.
He stops. Walks back to the tea table. Sits back down. “Yes, you’re right. It would be a waste to leave this tea.” He drains his cup and refills it. “But we’ll leave right after!”
Toph snorts. She knew this would happen. Good thing, she supposes, that she’d brought her traveling pack with her. She’ll pick up some nice rocks on the way, too. Babies play with them, right?
Thank you, so so much, for reading until the end. When I first decided to scratch my fifteen-year-old Zutara itch, I never expected the wonderful responses the story would bring. I am grateful for each and every one of you.
Also... I may have another Zutara idea cooking. And here I thought I was just going to post one fic and go!