The pride of the Fire Nation, the ancient crown passed down over generations, was unceremoniously skewed on the head of the regent. His top knot was looser than usual, appearing just significant enough to keep the gold headpiece on.
He had a smear of lipstick dragged across the skin just above the left side of his top lip. His naturally pink lips were slightly swollen and a darker hue than usual.
And if both those facts weren’t enough to be suspicious, he was wearing the most dumbly pleased smiles his uncle had ever seen.
Zuko was never very good at hiding how he felt. He wore his heart on his sleeve. For some time it looked like this tender quality had been cruelly stripped of him by his father and sister and yet only a few years later, the young Fire Lord, swept into a new (and supposedly secret) romance was displaying his happiness and lying, poorly, about its inspiration.
Iroh watched as his nephew emerged from the shadows and slumped happily against the wall. It was a mingling portion of an official dinner and the Fire Lord had disappeared for a short interlude, excusing himself stating he had been drinking more water lately.
He had been drowning himself in the most refreshing glass of water.
(He said that to her once. She told him it was clunky but the sentiment was sweet and she rewarded his effort with a languid kiss and a squeeze of his ass).
Iroh had excused himself to the corridor outside the ballroom and caught Zuko’s blissful smile.
“Nice trip to the water closet?” The old man inquired cheekily. Zuko blushed slightly, mumbling something under his breath about “a closet next time”.
- - -
She was pretending to sleep, lounging across his bed as he got up. The air has that warm thickness she was still getting used to.
Lightning gives her nightmares so the night before, during the thunderstorm, she’d snuck into his room and asked to sleep beside him. At first it had seemed like they’d do just that.
She’d folded herself under his arm, protectively wrapping herself over the scar in the middle of his chest. But the night was hot and humid. Neither of them could sleep. So the young couple enjoyed a hot night of heavy petting and thunder drowning out the sound of moans.
Her thin nightgown was in disarray; her hair spilling out across his pillows and encircling her head like a halo.
When Zuko had woken up that morning he’d been the little spoon. She was pressed against his back like a human backpack. He detangled himself reluctantly after a while but not before gathering her small hands in his and pressing a kiss to them.
She watched the muscles in his back ripple as he gets up.
She wondered if there had ever been something as beautiful as Zuko in the warm first light of dawn.
He stretched and she couldn’t help herself. She sighed.
“Katara? You awake?”
His voice was particularly raspy first thing in the morning. He looked over his shoulder at her and she noticed how awry his hair was and only barely managed to contain a giggle. She merely wriggles and pretends to be asleep. He smiles lazily at her before reaching out to brush some of her hair away from her face.
She hummed appreciatively and shuffled towards him.
He smirks before leaning down and kissing her temple.
“I know you’re awake, Katara.”
She flicked one eye open and pouts at him.
He laughed at her as he pushed himself off the bed.
She watched his back curve, humming softly in appreciation. As he stretched his arms she can’t help but smirk and heckle.
“Quit flexing, you show off.” She covered her mouth with the sheet but he can see the playful smile in her eyes. He looked at her over his shoulder, flashed a winning smile and flexed properly,
“Quit enjoying it then,” then he unceremoniously threw the blankets off her and she squealed and threw his pillow at him.
That’s how his guards find them; engaged in a savage duel of wills and pillows. They’re both laughing and the men slowly return to their post – recalling that the young leader’s uncle had briefed them all on the bond between all the war heroes,
“They were children when they saved the world, in some ways they are still children. They are connected to each other in ways many would be unable to fathom. No only comrades in war but the human heart of the rebellion. Those remarkable individuals forged themselves into a family. So give them space and understand their relationships are different and special and should not be questioned… or discussed.”
- - -
The Fire Lord often trained alone in his private dojo. Usually he practiced his basics then would move up the forms to complex expert level katas. That was where she found him. She’d been spat at and vomited on in the hospital that day but she tried not to let it get her down. She’d dealt with worse. It was nothing that the nice long bath she’d just had couldn’t fix (thank the spirits for the Fire Nation and their water heating).
Her hair was still ever so slightly damp as she wandered across the gardens to see him. It was a warm afternoon so she didn’t bother bending it dry. She could feel the waves of heat undulating out of the vents in the dojo as she got closer. Leaning against the doorframe and playing aimlessly with the ends of her hair, she watched him and how he moved. His body was lithe, toned and strong. He’d broadened and bulked a lot since the war, the chef made meals were doing wonders in comparison to living like a refugee. As the muscles in his back and arm move she can’t help but recognise that a few of his forms look an awful lot like hers. He moved his arms in long arches, shifting fluidly through positions.
She decided it would only make sense for her to show him how it’s done.
It wasn’t until a tendril of cool water wraps around his ankle that he knows she’s there. Unfortunately he was too surprised to stop her from pulling him off balance and dragging him up slightly by one foot.
They sparred with the same amount of conviction as they did when they were enemies. They’re almost more desperate to be victorious - his uncle warned him that a little competition was healthy in a relationship but one must also be proud of their partner’s successes. They were both impossibly stubborn but they managed to keep the competitions healthy.
In the end he had her pinned against the wall of the dojo, smirking into her ear until he felt her cold ice dagger nip slightly at his bare abdomen.
She let her head loll back onto his sweaty shoulder and smiled at him.
“Unless you want to go another round”
He pecked the cocky smirk off her lips and shifted away before she begun to fully utilise their proximity.
It was one thing to be caught in a compromising position, another to be caught in a compromising position with a hard on. She turned, resting against the wall of the dojo again. When she smiled at him it was tired but nonetheless radiant and infectious. The sun was starting to set, warm orangey-pink light washes over them, enhancing their shared blush of exertion.
“You are so beautiful.”
“I’m so sweaty.” She bent out her hair and teases fingers through her newly dried curls.
She smiled brightly at him again, summoning a tiny water whip and hooking him around the wrist. She reeled him in and he forgot about the fact that they were both official, professional politicians. He forgot their relationship was a secret.
His sweaty forehead hit hers and her arms twinned around his neck. Her eyes said “I love you’. His hands said it back, his thumbs drawing lazy circles over her waist. Their lips touched tenderly, without rush.
He wondered how he ever imagined a future without her.
- - -
She was making sand spirits.
It involved flopping on your back and waving your arms about in the sand so you can get up and leave the shape of, what is in theory, a spirit. Apparently they’d do it in the snow of the poles all the time. He dreaded the thought of how much sand would be in her hair, between her toes, in the band of her bather bottoms and caked to her spine... but then she looked up at him over her shoulder and said “join me” and he couldn’t help but flop down beside her.
There was sand in his hair, between his toes, in the band of his bather bottoms and caked to his spine and still he can’t help but feel wonderful. She hopped up first, offering him a hand to look at their handiwork.
“Is that what their meant to look like?”
“What? They’re sand blob spirits”
“That’s so not a thing Katara,”
“Who died and made you king of the spirit world?”
“Well my great grandfather WAS the Avatar…”
“And my best friend is the Avatar too, what’s your point?”
He laughed. It was a hearty chuckle that she swore she could feel. He wrapped an arm around her, squishing her into his side.
“I like them,” he said, voice barely above a whisper and she smiled like he gifted her all of the stars. Then he very intentionally shook his sandy hair in her face and ran off, laughing like it was the most clever prank anyone had ever played and she’s chasing after him.
That night, when the sun was down and the tide was in, they sat just shy of where the water creeps to. They watched the bio-luminescent creatures dance under the surface, mesmerised. He buried his hands in the sand and she looked confused for a moment until he lifts out a transparent stone of some kind - glass.
“It’s an otter penguin” he explains, passing it to her. Her fingers trace the lines, admiring the details. He told her he’d been practicing his artistic fire bending. The little figurine wasn’t perfect, he’d rushed it a little, but she treasures it and wraps it in fabrics on their way home so it isn’t broken. He presses a kiss to her hairline and smiles. There was still sand in his hair. There would be sand in his sheets by morning. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
- - -
It had seemed like such a great idea at the time. But when they got there, the swamp didn’t quite seem to be such a romantic destination. It had an odd smell to it and Zuko couldn’t help but feel like he was never quite dry.
It had been his Uncle’s idea and after the insanity of their (second) wedding the idea of a quiet getaway, far from the prying eyes in the cities, sounded wonderful.
He’d also been swayed by the idea of his new wife dressed in just vine leaves.
He hadn’t gotten to the part where that would be all he was wearing too.
She giggled at him as he messed with his leaf hat. The Swamp tribe had been wonderful about their desire to stay with them for a little while. They repeated over and over how the Banyan-Grove tree loved the union of souls.
The day they arrived they wandered around among the vines for a little while, linking pinkies because that particular day was ridiculously humid and misty.
He isn’t quite sure when he lost track of her but he started hearing unfamiliar giggling and mumbles.
He turned to see a child playing with a toy dragon.
It was a little girl, no older than three. He could only see half of her face but her tan skin was the same shade as the woman who slept beside him and her fine black hair was styled into loopies. He stepped on a twig and the child starts, small face flicking to him.
It lights up with happiness and…
Her eyes are miss-matched… like his.
Just not in the same way his are.
One is gold. One is blue.
He goes to wrap her up in his arms, tears welling in his eyes, but the vision dissipates and he’s left clutching to a boulder.
Katara found him like that and placed a hand on his shoulder. He smiles up at her with tears in his eyes and he can tell she understands what happened without saying a thing.
In the swamp they got the privacy they missed out on back at home. He just wished it was without all the bugs and mud. Katara was enjoying herself, waterskiing on the bayou and using the rainforest mud as some sort of face mask.
On their second night there she took him to watch the glowflies.
“I was talking to Hue and she mentioned this beautiful, secluded marsh not too far away.” The look she gave him was baffling, innocent on the surface but thrown off by the fire in her eyes.
She sat with her back flush to his torso and his arms wrapped around her. It was peaceful in a way he wasn’t sure he’s ever really known and he realised it may be the first time in his life that he had absolutely nothing to stress about.
The Fire Nation was in his uncle’s capable hands and his wife was in his arms, drawing lazy patterns in his forearm mimicking the movements of the bugs.
It also struck him that they were alone. Alone in a way they never, ever got to be. There were always a few staff around on Ember Island, always staff in the palace and everywhere in between was populated with so many people that aren’t just the two of them. He pressed hot kisses down the column of her neck and relished in her sharp intake of breath. They make love over and over under the stars. He tried to memorise everything about the moment; The way her brown skin glowed under the light of the glowflies and the stars reflected in her eyes. The noises she made with no chance of being heard by anyone but him.
By the end of their holiday he decided the swamp had been an insanely great idea.
- - -
He heard the tell-tale grumbling of an oncoming melt down from a room away. She’d only just settled down after getting up to feed twenty-five minutes earlier so it was only fair he handle it this time.
He walked into the nursery with a small flame in hand. The baby stirs a little and raises his small voice a little more for good measure. Zuko scooped him up, resting the little boy’s head over his shoulder and supporting his bottom while he tapped him on the back.
When Katara woke up the next morning she wasn’t surprised by her husband’s absence. She was surprised however when she goes into Lu Ten’s room and there he is. Sitting in her nursing chair, with a sleeping baby in his arms. The Fire Lord was only lightly dozing, eyelids fluttering with dreams. It felt like her heart had grown two sizes. She looked on as her two boys sleep, tears welling in her eyes. She toyed with the idea of kissing them both on the head but decided instead to let them rest a little longer, shutting the door silently behind her.
- - -
They were sitting on an ice bench in the Southern Water Tribe watching the sunrise. He had four scarves on but his nose was still red like rudolph the red-nosed reindeer-horse. Her head was resting in the crook of his shoulder and their hands were pressed against one another because their mittens made interlocking fingers impossible.
He shuffled a little to look at her.
“You’re so beautiful”
“I’m so old”
He smiled at her cheekily and she elbowed him in the ribs.
“The spirits work in such mysterious ways.” he mused. His voice would take on an Iroh-esque quality when he thinks too much - she doesn’t mention it. “To think, I married Katara of the Southern Watertribe. Waterbending master, war hero, revolutionary, activist and the most beautiful woman in all the four nations.” She snorted at him but kissed his wrinkled cheek.
“You’re such a sap Zuko. I’m not going to stroke your ego by reminding you how much of a catch you were.”
“Were? As in past tense?” he raised his good eyebrow at her and she chuckled.
“I think we’re both a little past our prime now.” She laughed. She was about to be a great grandmother. They were both well past retired; their three children and eight grandchildren carrying on their legacy of peace, prosperity, love and progress. His eyes took on that far-off warm look they so often do when he’s looking at her, like all the years they’d spent together were rolling through his mind.
“Really? I never even noticed.” He wasn’t even kidding.
She smiled at him, heart in her eyes. The golden glow crept over the expanse of ice. She still wondered if there had ever been something as beautiful as Zuko in the warm first light of dawn. She pressed the softest peck on his lips as the sun rose.
“Come on Sparky, let’s make snow spirits.”
They’re both still fit and spritely for their age. She dragged him by the forearm to a nice soft spot of snow and just fell back onto the fresh powder. Had any one of their decendents seen them they may have kicked up a fuss - something about his back, something about her hip. But they were blissfully alone on the tundra that morning.
He looked over at her, as they both created shapes with the same dumbly pleased smile playing on his lips that he’d wear when he was a younger man.
All this time and I guess I never left the honeymoon phase.