Chapter 1: in which some things never change but some things are very different
I’ll save you from the pirates.
She looks different now. Older, of course, and more confident. The Katara who had glared up at him, bound to a tree, was young and frightened. Master Waterbender Katara, Ambassador of the Southern Water Tribe, is something else entirely. When she glides off the ship with Sokka, now Chief, she is practically regal.
When they sit down to discuss peace and trade – all of them, representatives from the North and South Poles, the Earth Kingdom, the Avatar, gathered at the Fire Lord’s table – the facade slips a little. Sokka has forgotten a scroll, and Katara thwacks him on the back of the head.
“You’re lucky I remember the numbers! Didn’t I tell you a thousand times to pack all the documents?”
Some things never change.
At the end of a long day of diplomacy, Fire Lord Zuko stands and bows. “The Fire Nation is grateful to each of you. Rebuilding each of our nations is no small task, but to undertake it together is a great comfort. I hope you will all join me for a banquet in your honor this evening, and for more discussions tomorrow morning.”
As the delegates file out, murmuring honorifics to each other, he sees Katara look at him for a beat, then two. He does not return her gaze, but he wonders if she is remembering what he is remembering.
Try to understand.
He hadn’t, not then. Had not understood the thrill that raced down his fingertips when he had seized her wrists. Had not understood the unfurling of something primal within him at the sight of her tied up, at his mercy. Had shoved down the desire that threatened to choke him.
But that was years ago. He understands a great deal more now.
He has worn the title Fire Lord for almost two years now. It has been a difficult two years. Peace has come slowly, and every nation bears great wounds, his included. He rises with the sun each day but usually sees the moon before he goes to sleep, every hour filled with the hard work of healing his people, his nation, the world.
Well, not every hour.
Being the Fire Lord does, after all, have certain advantages. He cannot deny that he has engaged in the occasional fling, cannot deny that a few beautiful women have occupied his bedchambers now and then. He cannot deny that he’s learned a few things about his own proclivities.
That, too, has been difficult. Ozai had been a tyrant, cruel and domineering, and Zuko wants nothing more than he wants to be different. To be strong yet just. To earn his people’s respect but not their fear. To draw pride and pleasure from seeing his nation flourish, not cower.
But behind the closed doors of his royal suite, well, a few women had let him be a tyrant, and he finds he wants that very much.
And so he can look back on himself, young and inexperienced, and identify the first blossoming of that desire when he yanks Katara by her wrists, when he meets her huge eyes while she is bound. And he’s not exactly proud of it – he had intended nothing of the sort at the time – but he cannot pretend that wasn’t the beginning of it all.
And he cannot pretend that he hasn’t remembered that night nearly every night in the last two years.
He hasn’t laid eyes on her in that span of time. In the blurred few days after their long quest had ended, Sokka and Aang had spirited her away. Since then he’s had letters from all of them, and from those he gathers that she’s been mostly in the South Pole, healing and rebuilding her tribe. Aang has been all over the world, flitting from city to city, helping wherever he is needed. Sokka has been with Katara, growing into a man, taking on the mantle of Chief.
When Zuko had decided it was time to convene, time to plot a way forward now that every nation had managed to staunch the bleeding, of course he had invited brother and sister from the South. And if he hoped to see Katara again for more than strictly diplomatic reasons, well, he hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, least of all her.
Because though he doesn’t doubt that she remembers that night, he seriously doubts she remembers it the same way he does.
And yet, here she is, in his palace, every bit the spitfire she was years ago, and about a thousand times as beautiful. And so he dawdles around the Water Tribe’s suite of rooms, pretending to check on his guests, hoping to speak with her.
What exactly he will say is another matter. Hey, Katara, you remember that night, with the pirates? Were you by any chance super turned on, or was that just me? Oh, you were terrified, and you still hate my guts? Ok, just checking.
A set of double doors bangs open, and Zuko has a split second to take her in, dressed in formal blue silk with her hair free and woven with jewels, before she storms away. She is yelling over her shoulder, “Honestly, do I have to do everything myself? The two of you are just like children, and I cannot believe—”
Zuko reaches out to catch her arm, finally locks his fingers around her wrist, and she freezes mid-tirade.
“I was just coming to welcome my honored guests from the South,” Zuko begins, trying to bite back a laugh. “Is everything alright?”
Katara is staring at his hand on her wrist. She tears her gaze away to look at him, eyes huge, locked onto his face.
“Katara?” He drops her wrist after a second too long.
She blinks, touches her skin where he had, and then seems to remember her rage. “Not only do Sokka and Aang not understand that formal dinner means they cannot wear just anything, but they want to know why I can’t just bring them back some food, and why I look, and I quote, Like I’m getting married or something dumb like that.”
Zuko cannot suppress a laugh at that. He sees Aang and Sokka standing, dumbfounded, in their doorway, dressed in the same clothes they’ve had on since they arrived, admittedly a little worse for the long journey. “Chief Sokka, Avatar Aang,” he does a little bow, “feel free to wear whatever you like as long as you are dining with me.” He gestures to Katara, “Insulting this finely arrayed woman, on the other hand, is something I would advise strongly against.”
Katara flushes, which Zuko finds irresistibly pretty. “Lady Ambassador,” Zuko says to her, offering his elbow, “May I escort you to the banquet hall while your companions, uh, prepare for the evening?”
Katara takes his arm, turns haughtily away from the boys in the doorway, and allows Zuko to glide her away.
“I can’t believe I’m back here after so long!” she exclaims when they are in a quieter hall. “So much has changed.”
“Not those two, though,” Zuko points out, and she harrumphs.
“Not those two, one bit,” she agrees. “They’re like my children. Katara, clean this, cook that. Katara, where did I leave my socks. Katara, heal this cut I got penguin sledding when I should have been at a council meeting.”
Zuko snorts at the last one. “Sounds like they keep you busy.”
She sighs. “Sokka does, day in and day out. Aang isn’t around much, but when he is, he’s still the same kid, even after everything that happened. Not like…” she hesitates. Zuko raises his remaining eyebrow at her. “Not like you.”
Zuko steers her through a doorway. “What does that mean?”
“As much as it may pain me to say it, I’m so impressed with what you’ve done here. Three years ago, it was unthinkable that the most important leaders the world over would gather here, as your guests, to write the peace and prosperity of the future. But here we all are. It’s easy to believe in the world when you’re the one telling us about your visions of trade and agriculture and schooling.” She seems almost embarrassed by how much she’s said, and she looks away. “Hey, this isn’t the banquet hall!”
Zuko smiles. He’s pulled her into a little courtyard, secluded from the rest of the hubbub of the palace. “I know. And I promise I will take you to the banquet hall, if only because I would hate for your finery to go to waste.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs, flushing again, and really, it is unbearably pretty. Who knew she would turn shy and sweet at the subtlest of compliments?
“I brought you here because I wanted to ask you something,” he admits, gesturing to a bench so they could both sit. His next words get stuck in his throat, because now he has surpassed the end of his plan, and if he had been hoping for a bolt of divine inspiration, the Spirits haven’t come through yet. “Do you…” He clears his throat, starts again, “Do you remember, a long time ago, when I may have, uh, sent pirates after you?” He grimaces. Not a strong start.
And why does he feel suddenly so terrified of her answer? He is the Fire Lord, for crying out loud.
If she won’t worship him, he already knows a few women who will.
“Of course I remember,” Katara laughs. “I had stolen a scroll from them, and they came after me. And you…you grabbed me.” Her voice is softer now, but she is looking away, and Zuko can’t tell what her change in tone really means.
“I did,” he agrees, trying to prompt her.
“And you tied me to a tree.” She still isn’t looking at him, and she is maybe trying to sound annoyed, but she really sounds…wistful.
“Katara, look at me,” he tells her softly, and she does, and her eyes are huge and unfocused, and Zuko fights the urge to crow with victory, because there it is, that sweet submissive look he knows so well on his past lovers’ faces.
And it is really, unfairly, unfathomably lovely on her face, and Zuko has seen some very lovely women on their knees for him.
Katara swallows, and blinks, and asks brightly, “Why do you ask?” and visibly tries to shake herself out of it.
“Oh, no reason,” he says airily, and gets to his feet. Now his question is answered, but where to go next is going to take some scheming. He offers her a hand, says briskly, “Now let’s get you to dinner,” and whisks her to the banquet hall.
He finds he can’t keep his eyes off her all night, even as he tries to mingle with the other guests, reminding himself that he is forging important bonds of diplomacy on behalf of his nation. He has real work to do here, and that work is not imagining how he can reel in the object of his first affection as quickly as possible. It is also not admiring the drape of her blue silk gown, and it is definitely not vowing that this is the last time he wants to see her in anything but red, ever.
Chapter 2: the work of healing
It is a few more days of meetings and councils and Katara in her regular Water Tribe blue before he has a chance to formulate the next steps of his plan. He has no small list of obstacles.
She has clearly not learned about herself what Zuko has learned about himself in the last few years. This is hardly surprising, since there aren’t many men Katara’s age left in the South Pole, not to mention that he’s pretty sure she still shares an igloo with her brother.
The actual diplomacy—his actual job, he has to remind himself—takes mountains of time and effort. Zuko fancies himself a capable Fire Lord, but there are a lot of egos at the table, as well as a lot of competing interests.
As the diplomacy sucks down his time, he grows increasingly nervous that time is running out. The talks are set to run for four days, and the third is drawing to a close while Zuko paces his rooms, scheming how to ensnare his lovely little Waterbender.
And then there’s the Avatar.
He remembers from years ago, when they were all together as a ragtag band of misfits and rebels, that Aang had spent as least as much time making eyes at Katara as he had saving the world. He had heard rumors of a kiss, and everyone seemed to regard them as a couple, or at least her as his. But it’s also no secret that Aang has been gracing people with his Avatar Presence all over the world during the last two years. The two of them could hardly have shacked up as a real partnership, considering the Avatar had no shack to speak of. Tough to start a family on a flying bison.
So Zuko has a little more than a day to woo Katara into his bed, convince her to see in herself what he can practically see from space in her, finish the most expansive trade negotiations in living memory, and do it all under Aang’s nose.
Zuko goes in search of Katara, again without much of an idea of what to say – it had kind of worked last time, hadn’t it? And when he arrives at her door, much like last time, she is yelling.
“What do you mean, We’ll just go back to the South Pole? Don’t you want to visit our trading partners in the Earth Kingdom? What about bringing home more healing herbs from Omashu? We haven’t left home in two years, and we’ve been here for three days, and that’s it?”
Zuko eases the door open in time to hear Sokka say, “Well, what about all the work that’s piling up at home? Think about all the cooking and the laundry that’s going undone—”
“You want me to leave the Fire Nation to DO LAUNDRY?”
Zuko almost feels sorry for Sokka – almost. He clears his throat, asks them, “Are the Water Tribe liaisons still finding everything comfortable? Anything I can do to make you feel welcome?”
The two of them swivel to look at him. “You can let me move in,” Katara spits, not at him but at her brother, who still looks wholly bewildered at what has brought on this screaming fit.
Oh, if only, thinks Zuko, but figures that would be jumping the gun. “How about I show you the gardens?” he counters, and Sokka perks right up.
“That’s a great idea! Katara, you love plants and stuff, right? Why don’t you go, and I can get some peace and quiet – to review today’s notes, of course, for diplomacy, and stuff—”
Katara fixes him with a look that could extinguish flame. Without a world, she flounces out of the room behind Zuko and slams the door.
He has brought her to his favorite fountain and is watching her make little stars of water in the air that burst and rain mist down onto the pool. “How are you finding the meetings?” he asks her.
“Oh, wonderful!” she turns her focus to him. “We’ve managed to get such a robust series of trade deals with the Earth Kingdom, and I know they’ll benefit, too – seal blubber, you see, is an excellent insulator, and there’s nothing like it in the Earth Kingdom to stabilize temperatures, and we can get so many medicinal plants from them that can’t possibly grow in the South Pole.” She pauses and remembers she is upset. “Nothing grows in the South Pole,” she finishes.
“It’s your home,” Zuko says, surprised to see her face grow sad.
“It was. But then Sokka and I left, and we saw the world, and there’s so much still left to see, and…when we came back, it wasn’t the same. Dad’s home, and that’s wonderful, but he’s spent all his time training Sokka to be Chief. Sokka gets to grow into this powerful role, and I’m so proud of him, but for me…” she looks down at the shimmering water star cupping in her hands. “For me it was back to cooking and laundry right away, like nothing was different. Like I wasn’t different.” She sounds, to Zuko’s horror, like she might cry.
Not that he’s never seen a woman cry at his hand and enjoyed it. But this isn’t that. This isn’t that at all.
“There’s no place for me in the South Pole anymore,” she is whispering, and Zuko’s heart wrenches.
The words are out of his mouth before he can think them. “You could stay here.”
She snaps her head up to look at him.
“Just for a little longer,” he hastens to add. “There is much the Fire Nation still has to learn about healing. Many of our people have never seen a Waterbender outside of conflict, and they know nothing about medicinal herbs. Even though we cannot heal like you can, Firebenders can be taught to see inside the body, to find what is broken.” He’s making up his plan as he goes along, but he is also telling the truth. The Fire Nation has sowed destruction for so long it has forgotten how to care instead of harm.
“How do you know all that?” Katara frowns at him.
“Uncle taught me. He said his grandmother was a healer who learned from a Master in the North Pole. It’s not the same, of course, but he says she could still care for the sick.” He curls his fingers inside hers, turns her star to steam, lets it rain down on them again. “We have room for you. You could travel around the Fire Nation and teach, and you can see as much of the country as you want.”
Katara is wavering. “I wouldn’t be imposing?”
Zuko scoffs. “Have you seen this palace?"
Katara rolls her eyes. “Oh, you’re just keeping me here to show off?”
Oh, yes, thinks Zuko. You just wait, Princess.
“Well, excuse me for trying to help,” he huffs back, and she laughs.
“I would love to stay,” she says warmly, “if you’re sure.”
“Of course I’m sure. It would be our honor.”
She’s beaming. She bounces to her feet and exclaims joyfully, “Sokka’s going to be pissed!”
Zuko hopes this won’t bode poorly for their negotiations tomorrow.
“Well, I’d better get to bed,” Katara says. “Can you show me? I still get lost in this place.”
I’ll show you to bed, Zuko thinks, then grinds his teeth. Way too soon for that to work.
Sokka is pissed. He’s grumpy the whole next day, but it doesn’t derail the talks, and Zuko breathes a little easier when the day finally comes to a close. He sees off all the ships personally, watches with amusement as Sokka grumbles at Katara and she chirps back, “Maybe this’ll teach you to really appreciate me.” Aang is already gone, hardly a dot in the sky, and Zuko hasn’t seen any evidence of a tearful goodbye between them.
Zuko ticks off his obstacles. Diplomacy, done. Time pressure, solved. Avatar, gone.
Now he just has to get her into his bed.
Chapter 3: flowers and silk and gowns and jewels
Buckle up, friends, things are going to get a little more explicit in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko likes to think of himself as particularly talented in the art of pleasing women. He doesn’t exactly think any of the women he’s had are above flattering him, but he’s also been pretty intimately acquainted with certain parts of them that don’t lie.
The getting them into bed part, though. That’s a part he doesn’t usually have to do at all. Being Fire Lord has, historically, been quite enough to woo the women he’s enjoyed.
It doesn’t seem to be phasing Katara much, though.
He tracks down his uncle. “What do women like?” he asks without preamble.
Iroh nearly spills his tea. “My Lord!” he exclaims. Zuko rolls his eyes, having given up on asking Uncle to call him Zuko years ago. “What has brought this on? Who is the lucky woman? Oh, Spirits, I have dreamed of this day! She will be like my own daughter, like you are my own son!”
“Don’t get carried away,” Zuko growls. “It’s not serious. She’s just…harder to persuade than usual.”
Iroh fixes him with a glare. “You mean, she doesn’t fling herself at you naked because of your crown?”
Zuko tries to muster enough shock to look indignant.
“You think I don’t know what goes on around here? I may be an old man, but I still hear just fine!”
At this, Zuko is actually indignant. “That’s none of your business!”
“You came to me!”
“Which I now regret,” Zuko mutters. But he’s stuck. It’s three days into Katara’s solo stay at the Palace, and she’s spent every waking moment of those days out in the town, healing and teaching and generally endearing the public to herself. Which was, he has to admit, what he had asked her to do. It just wasn’t what he wanted her to do, which was to spend every moment, waking or otherwise, shut up in his bedroom, preferably naked.
But he can’t very well explain that to Uncle Iroh.
“Well, you won’t regret taking my advice. You must pursue a lady. You must make her feel lovely. Gifts, my Lord! Have you given her any gifts? Flowers are always wonderful—oh, what about silk? Gowns? Jewels! So many jewels in this palace, looking for a woman to adorn.” Iroh claps his hands together with joy, seeming to forget the part about the relationship not being serious. “Oh, it would warm my old heart to see some of the family jewelry loved again. You know, I won over your dear aunt’s heart with the most exquisite necklace. After that it was the only thing she wanted to wear, and I mean the only—”
“I get it!” Zuko exclaims. “I get it, I got it. Gifts. Flowers. Gold. I got it.” He beats a hasty retreat, but not before he hears Iroh sigh, “To have a daughter at last…”
“It’s not just because of my crown,” Zuko mutters to himself. “And they don’t fling themselves at me, and they’re not already naked…” He is rifling through drawers and trunks in an old unused room in the palace, looking for a suitable gift to, well, bring about the flinging.
He bolts upright, a silk crimson wrap in his hands, and finds Katara in the doorway, squinting at him in the dark.
“Katara? What are you doing here?” With a flick of his wrist, he lights the sconces on the wall so she can see.
“They told me I might find old healing texts stored in here. What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” he tells her, deadpan.
“You know what I mean!” she huffs, fists on her hips.
“I’m just, uh, looking for something.” He looks at the wrap he’s holding and dimly registers that it might in fact be what he was looking for. He has wanted to see her in red.
“Don’t you think that’s a little, ah, feminine for you?” she intones, smirking.
He scowls. “It’s a gift. Aren’t you supposed to be looking for scrolls?”
Katara is snickering at him, which is infuriating, and kind of cute, and he stalks out of the room, extinguishing the lights on his way.
He leaves the red silk folded neatly on her bed and picks her a single radiant fire lily.
She finds him at breakfast the next morning with the wrap draped loosely around her shoulders. “The gift is for me?”
She’s still wearing blue under the red, but Zuko think it’s a vast improvement. “No, I left it in the wrong room. Yes, it’s for you.”
She frowns, and Zuko notices she is clutching the lily tightly in both hands. He gets up and loosens her fingers, sliding the poor strangled flower out of her grasp. “Why?” she asks.
He tucks the lily into her hair. “You know why.”
“I don’t,” she protests, voice small, pupils big. Before he can answer, she’s gone, and he’s left with sparks on his skin where he’s touched her and nothing more.
“What if gifts don’t work?”
Iroh’s hands on his teacup don’t falter at all this time. “How many gifts?”
“One. Well, two. One two-part gift.”
“One,” scoffs Iroh. “I have failed you, nephew! How did I neglect to teach you the art of wooing a woman? When you have given her a hundred gifts, then ask me what to do if gifts don’t work.”
Zuko scowls. This is much harder than the last lover he’d taken. In fact, he’s sure she's still around somewhere, and he could indulge himself again at his leisure.
But he can only see Katara, only feel her soft skin, only hear her unsteady breath.
This time he leaves her a bracelet with a single tiny charm. A fire lily.
He doesn’t see her the next day, or the next, and he despairs. He’s overstepped. She’s not interested. He had imagined her response to him, had projected his own desires onto her. He feels like a fool.
But the third day, she comes to see him at breakfast again. She’s wearing blue, but she’s twisting her hands nervously, and he can see the gold bracelet under her sleeve. “Why?” she asks him again, her voice a whisper, and Zuko aches to take her into his arms.
“Do you remember the night with the pirates?” he asks her. He closes his fingers carefully around her wrists and draws her closer.
“Yes,” she says.
“That’s why,” he tells her.
She squeezes her eyes shut, confusion written across her face, but she doesn’t pull away. “I don’t understand.”
He leans closer, murmurs in her ear, “Try to understand.”
She snaps her eyes open, and her pupils are blown with desire, and he lets a smirk cross his face, because he’s got her.
“What is—” she asks breathlessly, then stops, unable to formulate a question.
“Don’t worry,” he tells her. “I’ll save you.”
He can’t push her very far the first time, of course. It wouldn’t do to scare her away. He’s grateful it isn’t her first time at anything at all, but she’s obviously less experienced than he is.
No matter. She is an excellent pupil.
When he holds her hands above her head and sinks into her, she arches off the bed to meet him, but she doesn’t even try to break free. When her legs start to tremble and he tells her, low and dangerous, to come for me, it’s a matter of seconds before she does, gasping his name so sweetly it makes his chest hurt.
She’s a natural.
Even though it’s midmorning, he drifts off, fingers threaded lazily into her hair.
When he wakes up, she’s gone.
“This did not happen with the other girls,” he grumbles, yanking his clothes back on. He’s already late for a meeting, he’s missed lunch, and he doesn’t have time to hunt down a lady who ought to be a quite satisfied customer, thank you very much.
It’s evening before he has time to look for her, but when he knocks on her door, her chambermaid answers. “Lady Katara is gone,” she tells him, looking puzzled.
“Gone?” he repeats.
“She asked me to pack her clothes and food for a few days. She’s gone into the countryside to see if the more remote villages need healing.”
Zuko slams the door in her face.
“Gone!” he snarls. “The countryside!” A few palace guards glance at him strangely, and he pinches the bridge of his nose. He’s supposed to be preparing for dinner with a few Fire Nation governors visiting from far-flung cities, not muttering to himself in the hallway. He schools his face into Calm and Welcoming Fire Lord Zuko and heads to greet the dignitaries. This will have to wait.
When he’s sure his guests are all asleep, he tugs on familiar black clothes and slides a blue mask over his face. He slips out a window and dances across the rooftops toward the outskirts of the city.
Katara hasn’t made it far beyond the last few buildings. He finds her tucked against the trunk of a tree, chin on her knees, still awake in the dark.
When he drops lightly from the branches, she is on her feet in an instant, a whip of water between them. He lifts the mask, and she blinks at him, letting the water splash to the ground.
“What are you doing out here?” she asks.
“I, uh, still live here,” he says drily. “What are you doing out here?”
She crosses her arms. “Running away.”
He snorts. “And here I thought you had a good time.”
“That’s the problem,” she snaps. “Don’t make fun of me! This is…not who I am. I don’t just jump into bed with the first guy who asks! And I don’t take orders!” More quietly, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Zuko counts on his fingers. “One, I’m very certain I’m not the first person who’s asked. Two, you absolutely do take orders – beautifully, might I add – and three, there is nothing wrong with you.” He takes her hands. “I’ve heard you with your family, with Aang. You do everything all the time. It’s perfectly natural that you might want to…let go, sometimes. Not being in charge for once…it’s freeing. Let someone else do the thinking.”
“I am perfectly capable of doing the thinking,” she retorts, but she doesn’t pull away. Zuko sees the glint of the fire lily bracelet and almost bares his teeth. She’s his.
“Of course you are,” he soothes. “But wasn’t it nice to choose otherwise?” Now he does start to reel her in. “It was certainly nice for me.”
“Is this why you kept me here?” she asks suddenly, her eyes sharp again. “All that about healing—that was just to get me into bed?”
“No!” he exclaims. “Well, a little. No, no, wait—” Now he’s got her by the wrists again, and he swears it wasn’t intentional this time, but here they are. “It’s true that I wanted you to stay. But it’s also true that your healing is needed here. You are needed here, and not just by me.”
“Have you been trying to get me into bed since the pirates?” she asks, yanking her wrists away.
“Oh, no,” he growls, and he lunges for her, twisting her arms behind her back. “Don’t think for a second that I won’t tie you to a tree again.”
She makes a strangled sound that is maybe supposed to be a huff of annoyance but is so far from it that Zuko has to smother a laugh. “And to answer your question, no, not since the pirates. Have I wanted you since the pirates? Yes, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t understand what about having you at my mercy made me feel…the way I felt. And I didn’t know until I saw you a few days ago that you felt the same way.”
“You don’t know that,” she mumbles, and Zuko does laugh this time.
“Yes, I do, darling,” he breathes in her ear, gratified when she melts against him. “Now, come back to the palace. I promise to take you into the countryside if you really want to heal all the way out here, but you can’t come out here by yourself.”
“I can take care of myself,” she protests.
“We just covered this, Katara,” he grits out. She huffs at him, and he drags her back to the palace, bundling her in through his window, unwilling to try to explain this to the guards.
“This is not my bedroom,” she grumbles.
“Well, you told your maid you’d be gone for a few days,” he smirks, and puts out the lights.
Part of this chapter inspired by this fanart.
Chapter 4: dangerous territory
For the next two days, he gets to fulfil his earlier fantasy of shutting her up in his chambers, mostly naked, entirely his. She is still shy, still hesitant, still sometimes conflicted. On the second day, after he has snuck away from his duties for a lunchtime tryst and introduced her to the sweet sting of his hand on her ass, his fist in her hair holding her down across his knees, he can hear her grinding her teeth as he’s getting redressed. “Out with it,” he tells her.
“I’m not weak,” she snaps, and Zuko sits back on the bed.
“Who said you were weak?”
“It’s what anyone would think, if they—if they saw us. Together. Doing this.”
Zuko scowls. “It’s none of anyone else’s business one way or the other. Katara, we aren’t enemies anymore – haven’t been in a long time. Giving yourself over to someone willingly isn’t the same as surrendering in a fight. It doesn’t make you weak.”
She looks away.
“I know this is new to you,” he says gently, stroking her hair. “I remember feeling uneasy about it, too.”
She leans into his touch. “What do you mean?”
He hesitates, knowing that assuaging her fears and revealing his own are different things entirely, but she is looking up at him now, and he can’t deny her anything when she’s like this, flushed and tangled in his bedsheets and wearing her heart on her sleeve. “At first, I was…afraid. Afraid that this meant I was a tyrant, like my father. I hope my actions as Fire Lord speak for themselves, but I didn’t want anyone to think, for any reason, that I intended to be a dictator.”
“Oh, Zuko,” she whispers, turning her face into his hand to kiss his palm. “You aren’t anything like your father.”
“I know that now. But I had to learn the difference between ruling a nation with terror and ruling a willing partner behind closed doors.”
“Had a lot of willing partners, have you?” Her tone is teasing, but she looks jealous, and Zuko realizes he’s on dangerous ground.
“Only one at a time,” he says lightly, unwilling to talk about attachment. He never has before, and he doesn’t intend to start now. “I have to go back to work. I’ll see you tonight.”
He has to release her back to her own work the next day, as much as it pains him to let her out of his bed. He rises before she does and slips away, but not before he leaves her a red shift embroidered with gold. He’s pleased to see her wearing it later, the stitching along the hem shimmering in the firelight. He’d had it made for her.
The gold thread is sewn into fire lilies.
They settle into a routine, working during the day, crashing together at night. Zuko is running short on sleep, but he’s not about to complain, because Katara is blooming like a lily under his fingertips.
She is far from the first woman to yield to him, but she is the first woman to learn from him. His partners have always been more experienced, and while that has certain advantages, nothing is so electrifying as watching her experience submission anew each night.
He teaches her how to use her mouth on him, and she really has gotten a little too good at it, because she brings him off one night without being instructed. When he can breathe again, he rewards her with a hand across her face. He fears, then, that he’s pushed her too far, but she looks up at him with such slack-jawed longing that he has to force himself to find his breath all over again. He rewards her, too, the next morning, with ruby earrings, and she wears them and nothing else for him that day, and if that wasn’t a red-letter evening, he doesn’t know what could be.
He is always a little trepidatious that he will scare her, but she always meets him where he is, always willingly follows where he takes them. He can’t come up with a way to tie her to a tree without traumatizing some palace staff, so he settles for tying her to his bedpost. He’s a lot defter with rope than he used to be, and she looks incredible, knots crisscrossing her body. She’s breathing raggedly, and he’s barely touched her, just enough to truss her up and nothing more. He blames it on the severe lack of blood in his brain, but he whispers without thinking, “I should keep you like this forever.”
“You can,” she whispers back, and he knows she means it, and he knows he’s in dangerous territory once again.
Iroh heckles him day in and day out. “How is the lady liking her gifts, Fire Lord? Have you charmed her to your satisfaction?” Zuko just glares at him, and hates the knowing twinkle in his uncle’s eye, and can’t imagine that Iroh hasn’t noticed Katara’s presence and put two and two together. “I’m not getting any younger, my nephew. You know, I would like to meet my grandchildren!”
“I told you,” he says, to the grandchildren remark. “It’s not serious.”
“It’s been two months,” Iroh shoots back, and Zuko blinks. It has. He has been so busy, day and night, that the time has slipped by him.
The most he’s kept a lover for is two weeks. Not to mention that he has stolen away the Water Tribe’s most important lady, and if Sokka was grumbling about laundry before he left…
But his latest gift to her is made of silk and lace, and she wears it for him that night, and he loves the sight of her in it so much that he almost regrets ripping her out of it, and he forgets all about any claim anybody has on Katara besides his own.
Chapter 5: in which the countryside is the most dangerous ground of all
A few weeks later, when his work doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming, he does finally take her into the countryside, and they spend over a week traveling.
Zuko meets the farmers and their families while Katara heals the sick and explains, patiently and over and over, how to feel a patient’s chi and which herbs will speed recovery. Zuko spends most of his time listening to his citizens, and all his remaining time answering Katara’s questions about the Fire Nation. He names every tree, flower, and brook, and after dinner he tells her old Fire Nation legends and folk tales by firelight.
Everywhere they go, all the citizens adore Katara, but the children especially flock to her. Zuko can’t help but smile to himself when she giggles along with them and scoops them into her arms. He finds her telling them the same stories he’s told her and comforting little ones frightened by the unfamiliar sensations of her healing energy creeping along their arms and legs.
His mother’s face, unbidden, rises in his mind when he sees her crouch down to talk to a little boy. She is so gentle, so caring, so blindingly trusting of all that is good in the world. He doesn’t want to see his mother in her, but now that he does, he’s surprised it hasn’t come to mind sooner. They are, he thinks, bound together as the only two women who’ve ever loved him.
He has not trod into dangerous territory so much as he lives in it now.
He has tried to keep his hands to himself on this trip, there being not a lot of privacy in the country, but that night he yanks her behind a barn and fucks her mercilessly against the wall. He thinks he may have really hurt her, but he’s fresh out of gold and silk to use to smooth it over, so he avoids her for the rest of the trip.
When they are back at the palace, Zuko hunts through every storage room trying to find her something special. Something to say, I’m sorry if I was too rough. I’m sorry I can’t face you now.
I’m sorry I realized you are my mother reborn, sent here to take care of me, and I will never recover from losing her enough to risk losing anyone else ever again.
I’m sorry I kept you here, and now my people think you are their savior, and you think I’m yours, and I have barely managed to save myself.
There is no such gift. He gives up and storms back to his room but stops with his hand on the doorknob.
A fire lily is threaded into the keyhole.
She is inside, kneeling at the foot of his bed, and his mouth goes dry.
She’s looking down. “I don’t know what I did to upset you,” she says in a tiny voice, “but I’m sorry.”
Zuko looks at this lovely timid girl, longing etched into every line of her body, and knows that outside his bedroom she is one of the most powerful benders in the world. For reasons beyond his comprehension, she has chosen to surrender herself to him willingly again and again. He almost sobs.
“No, no, no,” he hushes her, pulling her up, urging her onto the bed. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
“But you’re upset,” she protests, hair spilling onto the sheets behind her, so picture-perfect he is speechless for a moment.
“No, I’m fine,” he insists. “Well, maybe I’m upset because you’re not already naked.”
She gives him a look that suggests she is hardly fooled by this, but she pulls at the ties of her robe anyway. He peels her out of it, sees where his grip on her thighs the night at the barn has left purple handprints, winces. “Why didn’t you heal that?”
She looks at him through her eyelashes, maybe pretending to be shy, but Zuko is not convinced she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing to him at all times. “I didn’t want to.”
“Are you being coy with me?” he demands, and his suspicions are confirmed when she can’t quite manage to school her face into innocence. “Oh, you’re going to get it.”
And so that night is a red-letter one, too, because he bends her over his bedside table and doesn’t let her up for quite some time.
He manages to push down the rising panic he feels every time he remembers that Katara loves him and then remembers that his mother loved him and look where that ended. It seems to get harder every day, though. He’s not sure how long he can keep this up.
When he has tea with his health minister next week, the poor man looks more relaxed than he has in quite some time. “Lady Katara has made incredible strides,” he practically gushes. “Many of our sick are healed, and she has made injured soldiers almost new again.”
Zuko wills himself not to look proud. “And what about her instruction of Fire Nation medics?”
“I believe they have learned much, but of course, there is no substitute for a waterbending Master.” He clears this throat. “Will she be…staying?”
“What do you mean, staying?” Zuko frowns. “What would she do if she stayed? Has she not taught many of the healers in this part of the nation?”
“She has taught them all, my Lord,” he answers, and then repeats, “but there is no substitute for a waterbending Master.”
Certainly no substitute for this one, Zuko thinks, and he repeats his own question. “What do you have in mind for her?”
“My Lord, far be it from me to presume, or to make demands on the Lady’s time,” the minister demurs.
“I’m asking,” Zuko insists, patience wearing thin. Something has begun to niggle at the edges of his mind, and he can’t quite put his finger on it, but he thinks it has something to do with whatever the health minister is hinting at.
“If she would lead our Capitol Hospital,” the minister suggests, very quietly. “I know it is not customary for the women of the royal family to assume any duties outside the palace, but she has eased the suffering of our people greatly, and I think her presence brings…hope.”
Zuko is so hung up on the family part he can’t even get to the hope part. “She’s not a woman of the royal family.”
“Of course not, my Lord,” he says hurriedly. “I mean, um, of course, that she is Water Tribe, uh, royalty, my Lord.”
“Of course,” he repeats thickly. He stands abruptly. “Thank you for your time, Minister. This meeting is adjourned.”
He wavers between searching for Katara and searching for Iroh, and he settles for locking himself in his own rooms and sliding down against the door. This thing with Katara and his mother is always an inch from drowning him now, and to try to grapple with this new idea…He has not dared to think about the future until now. Has not dared to think about hope or about if she would be staying.
He ticks off his obstacles.
She is Water Tribe royalty. The South Pole is probably already seething that she’s been away this long—has it been three months? No, almost four. Sokka must be beside himself.
She is Water Tribe royalty. Zuko can’t bring himself to name what exactly the health minister had been implying, but a member of royal family working outside the palace was hardly the only custom they would be breaking.
And, really, the whole thing is ludicrous. He had never considered making any of the women he’s been with into a member of the royal family. He knows he will have to take a wife, someday, and he is sure it will be a marriage of convenience, not love, and there would be nothing convenient at all about a Water Tribe Fire Lady.
And certainly nothing about love.
Well, he guesses it would be a little convenient, in a way, because he does want to keep seeing her, and showering her with gifts, and watching her play with little Fire Nation children, and he hasn’t so much as looked at another woman since she’s been here, and of course no one else could have her or he’d execute them on the spot, and…
He needs a new plan.
He goes to find his uncle.
“What if it is serious?”
Chapter 6: the new plan
Uncle Iroh takes his sweet time gloating. “I knew it! I knew a lucky lady had caught your eye! And it is the Waterbender, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” he mumbles. “Can’t you just give me advice?”
Iroh is laughing at him. “Oh, nephew, you really do not understand women. They are not all the same! Of course it matters who it is. You must know the woman you love. You must speak directly to her heart.” Iroh smirks, stabs a finger at him. “Katara is a lovely woman. Too good for you, really.”
Zuko makes a frustrated noise. “What am I doing? It can’t be serious. We both have responsibilities. Forget I said anything.”
“I might forget, but you won’t,” Iroh intones sagely. “I do not know her heart, but I know yours, my nephew. This woman is important to you. Do not walk away from her.”
“It’s not me walking away I’m worried about,” he says quietly, thinking of his mother, wishing he could think of anything else.
“Fire Lord Zuko, your past may be a part of you, but do not let it dictate your future.”
“Do you have to always speak in riddles!?” he snaps, resisting the urge to upend Iroh’s tea set.
“Oh, by all means, let us have a frank and open conversation about our emotions. You go first, my Lord.”
Honestly, is Iroh always this smug?
“Fine!” shouts Zuko. “She reminds me of my mother, and I’ve lost enough!” He does upend the tea set then, hears it shatter with some satisfaction.
It evaporates in an instant. He hasn’t lost his temper in some time. “I’m sorry, Uncle,” he says, turning to go.
“Wait!” Iroh puts a hand on his shoulder, spins him around. He looks seriously into his nephew's face. “She reminds me of your mother, too. Ursa loved you very much, Zuko. She did not leave because she wanted to. Ozai forced her hand.”
“And how do I know something like that won’t happen again?” Zuko feels tears slide down his face. Every time he thinks he’s quieted the turmoil of his past, every fucking time, the Spirits remind him they aren’t finished with his suffering.
“Nothing in life is certain, my Lord, but Ozai cannot hurt you again. You have made sure of it. There is no evil in this palace. Not anymore.”
Zuko flexes his fingers, wills them not to burst into flames. He can’t remember when he last felt this out of control. “It doesn’t matter. She can’t be Fire Lady anyway. She’s a foreigner.”
“The Fire Nation has survived many changes these last few years. I think our people could handle one more.” Iroh’s face splits into a smile. “Besides, the people love her. She is bringing us healing in more ways than one. And have you seen her with the little ones?”
Zuko smiles a little in spite of himself. “Yeah, I have. She’s good with them.”
Now Iroh is waggling his eyebrows, and Zuko stifles a groan. “A woman who is good with children—now that is a gift you cannot waste. You will have to produce an heir, you know! Well, really she will produce the heir—”
Zuko daydreams through the rest of his meetings and considers having her summoned from the town. She would be furious to have her work cut short, so he refrains, but just as soon as he possibly can, he makes for her chambers, hoping she is already there, wanting to implement his new plan.
Of course she’s not there, because the Spirits are always against him, and he wonders how long he will have to wait for her to finish charming the locals and get her ass back up here where she belongs.
He gives up trying to appear aloof before he even starts and paces the length of her room as the evening drags on. Where is she?
When she shoulders the door open, reading a letter, he pounces on her, growls, “You’re late!” He crowds her against the door and crushes his mouth to hers.
When he lets her up for air, she blinks at him for a minute before she stops looking dazed. “Did we plan something? Was I supposed to meet you?”
“No,” he admits, splaying his hands over her ribs. He wants that dazed look back on her face as soon as possible.
“Then how could I be late?” She twines her arms around his neck.
“You’re late for when I wanted to you to be here.”
She snorts. “Oh, ok. Well, my apologies.”
“Listen,” he says, and she does, because she always does what he asks. “The summer solstice is in a few days. Historically, it’s been an occasion for celebration every year, but then during the last years of the war, we were stretched so thin…and since the war ended, we’ve put all our efforts into rebuilding. We haven’t had the resources until now.”
“You’re having it this year? Oh, how wonderful!” She is beaming at him, like he single-handedly is going to pull off the biggest ceremony of the Fire Nation calendar, like she believes he could.
Truthfully, he is a little nervous about pulling it off at all, even with an army of palace staff already running pillar to post to make it happen. The work of governing that is poring over scrolls and numbers—that he can do. Negotiating with a table full of squabbling noblemen is harder, but he’s getting better at it. Presiding over a nationwide day of reverence for the sun is another thing entirely.
It is the sort of thing a Fire Lord would do with his wife at his side. In the past, the Fire Lady would even take over most of the planning for ceremonial events. And while he can’t ask Katara to plan anything, he does want to try out having her at his side.
“I want you to come.” He gulps. “To the festival. With me.” For Spirits’ sake, he can see at least three love bites he’s left on her right now, and she’s still fully clothed, and he’s stumbling over his words like a lovesick schoolboy asking a girl out on his first date.
Which he kind of is. But that’s not the point.
He needn’t have worried. “I would love to come!” She claps her hands together, and he frowns only because she has to take her hands off him to do so. “I’ve gotten to learn so much about Fire Nation culture, but I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is such a significant event—why, it would be my privilege!”
“Are you using me to conduct an anthropological study of the Fire Nation?”
“And an anatomical study, and a physiological study—hey!” He’s hauled her off the ground to toss her onto the bed.
“It better not be the whole Fire Nation, then,” he warns her as he makes quick work of her clothes.
“Just you,” she breathes, because he is raking his gaze over her body, and his heart stutters.
When he has finished making very sure she is thinking of just him, and she is nestling into the crook of his shoulder, she asks him sleepily, “Won’t you be busy at the Solstice Festival? Doing royal things?”
“So you need me to stay out of your way while I’m there.” It’s not a question.
He frowns and props himself up on his other elbow. “No, I need you to come with me. You already agreed to this.”
“No, no, no,” she says, and the lovesick schoolboy feeling comes rushing back. “You can’t have me hanging around. You’re the Fire Lord, and I’m not even royalty.”
“Technically you are,” he says automatically, trying to think through the panic that has flooded him. He has misestimated her joy. She really does just want to conduct an anthropological study. She has missed entirely that he’s practically asking her out on a date, a very public date, and a trial run of history’s first Water Tribe Fire Lady. Or, worse, she hasn't missed it at all, and she is trying to bow out gracefully.
“I’m not Fire Nation royalty. I’ll make you look bad! I can’t do that.”
“If you don’t want to go with me, just say so,” he snaps, and she shoots up so she can put her fists on her hips. The effect is somewhat muted by the fact that she is naked, but she looks imposing all the same.
“That’s not what I’m saying! I’m saying you need to look regal, and people will talk if they see you with some girl from the Water Tribe!”
“You’re not some girl,” he growls, and he yanks her back onto the bed.
“You know what I mean!” She’s going for haughty, but she squeaks when she lands on his chest, and so again, a somewhat muted effect.
“I don’t care if people talk.”
“Well, I care! I won’t do anything to jeopardize your throne! You’ve worked too hard for me to drag you down.”
“Are you kidding me? They like you better than they like me.”
“No, they don’t,” she insists.
“Yes, they do. Today my health minister told me you were a miracle-worker. He went ahead and invited you to stay forever.”
She smiles a little at this. “Well, I am a pretty good healer.”
He puts a pillow over his face. She’s going to be the death of him.
He hears her muffled voice ask him, “You think they really like me?”
He pauses his plan of smothering himself with his own pillow to tell her from underneath it, “Yes, I do.”
“So you think I can be seen with you? At the Solstice?”
It’s cute, really, that she thinks her presence hasn’t been the talk of the town for four fucking months. “I think we can risk it.” He can’t shake the schoolboy feeling, though, so he adds, “But it’s ok if you don’t want to go with me. I get it.”
Katara snatches the pillow away from him. “Of course I want to go with you! Don’t be stupid.”
Do not get carried away with this, he orders himself, but he feels like a sunrise. He buries his face in a pillow again, this time so she doesn’t see him beaming.
Zuko wakes the morning of the solstice feeling jangly with nerves. At the same time, he is thrumming with energy, suffused with the sun’s power. He feels like his life is one wrong move from crashing down. He feels unstoppable.
The morning crawls by. He presides over the preparations, which mostly means answering a thousand insignificant questions from scurrying aides. He’s too keyed up to eat, so he shrugs into his formal robes and slides the golden flame into his hair. He almost never wears the crown, and he barely recognizes himself in the mirror. There’s the scar – no mistaking that – but otherwise, he can almost believe the man looking back at him is royalty.
He swallows hard. It is time to fetch Katara, and he thinks how, a hundred years ago, she was nervous to see him.
He raps on her door, and her chambermaid answers with a little curtsy. “She’s almost ready, Your Highness!”
From inside, he hears her call out, “Is that Zuko? Show him in, please!”
“You’re not ready yet,” the maid hisses over her shoulder. “You have to make an entrance!” She promptly shuts the door in his face.
Zuko wonders when exactly he lost control of Katara and his own staff. At least when they were all terrified of him, they listened.
Then the doors are opening, and Zuko forgets his complaints, because she’s breathtaking.
Her long curls are swept elegantly into a complicated updo. Her lips are painted red as the satin of her gown, which has a neckline so plunging it would scandalize Iroh, and if it doesn’t exactly cover every bruise he’s bitten into her skin, so much the better. The full skirt of the dress is gauzy layers of chiffon, and the gown is sleeveless but her arms are wreathed in gold jewelry. He can pick out every cuff and bracelet as gifts he’s given her, except for one. He picks up her hand to look closer and realizes it’s her mother’s necklace tied around her wrist. The long line of her throat is bare for the first time since he’s known her.
She looks a little embarrassed. “The dressmaker said it didn’t match the outfit,” she explains. “I wanted to look…the part.”
“I don’t know what part you mean,” he tells her, “but whatever it is, you look it.” He steps back. “Let me see all of you.”
She gives him a slow twirl, her skirts shushing. Zuko realizes simultaneously that the dress is backless and that the palace seamstress must be trying to kill him. Add her to the list of people he’s lost control of, because between the gown and conning Katara out of her betrothal necklace, she’s sending Zuko a less-than-subtle message.
The health minister, the maid, and the dressmaker? If there’s a conspiracy here, he’s certain Iroh’s in charge of it.
“What do you think?” she asks him shyly, and he remembers exactly what it was like when she was nervous to come to him.
He tells her the truth. “You are so lovely I can’t breathe.” She lights up as if dawn is breaking over her. He offers her his arm, much like he had that first night she had arrived at the palace. She tucks her hand into his elbow, just the same as that night months ago. So much is the same.
So much is different.
Two guards in dress uniforms open the palace double doors for them. Zuko ushers Katara down the wide steps and onto the palace grounds, where the festival is in full swing.
“Look at all of it!” Katara gasps, and Zuko sees that his staff have outdone themselves. The grounds are crisscrossed with banners and streamers; music spills across the crowd. The sun is blazing overhead, and Zuko breathes it in, feeling more unstoppable than nervous for the first time all day.
Impulsively, he whisks her into the throng. “Dance with me,” he tells her, and she blanches.
“I don’t know how!”
“Well, then it’s a good thing you have a lot of experience taking instruction from me.”
In an almost comical reversal, she flushes to the tips of her ears as the crowd parts ahead of them. It is so unbearably endearing that Zuko is glad he has a good excuse to pull her flush against him and curl one hand around her waist.
Her worries are baseless, of course; she is Waterbender through and through. She flows easily with him, a natural at this just as much as at anything else he’s asked of her, from healing his people to quaking under his hands. To healing him, he realizes with the now-familiar ache settling in his chest, and really, this can’t be healthy for his heart.
“How do you know how?” she’s asking him as he dips her. “You don’t seem like the dancing type.”
“Before I was a banished prince, I was just a regular prince,” he reminds her. “My mother made me learn all the formalities of royalty, dancing included. I hated it at the time, of course, but she taught me anyway.”
When she is silent, he realizes that this is the first time he’s mentioned his mother to anyone but Iroh since he stomped on Katara’s heart underneath Ba Sing Se, and she realizes it, too.
He is suddenly, painfully aware of the eyes of everyone at the festival glued to them. He doesn’t know if it’s reverence or fear that keeps them all at a safe distance, no one dancing anymore but them, and his heart sinks, because this is not going according to plan. Not at all.
He catches sight of a streak of red heading right for Katara, and he is about to turn whatever it is to ash when he realizes it’s a little boy launching himself into Katara’s arms. “Lady Kat, Lady Kat!” he is hollering in excitement, and Katara giggles and lets go of Zuko to catch her new admirer.
“What the,” he mutters, finding himself no longer holding his dance partner, having been usurped by a five-year-old.
A woman hardly older than Katara dashes out of the crowd. “Mako,” she hisses, “you are in so much trouble!” She seems to realize the full magnitude of the situation when she turns to Zuko, and she is on her knees in a flash, face to the earth. “Your Highness, I beg your pardon. He doesn’t know any better; he is just a child! Please have mercy on him.”
He is horrified, and so is Katara. “You’re going to have mercy on him, right?” she stage-whispers.
“Of course,” he snaps. To the woman, he extends a hand. “Please, my lady, get up. You and your son have nothing to apologize for.” She looks up, relief scrawled across her face, but she hesitates to take his hand. It is customary not to touch the royal family, but Zuko figures he’s already broken so many customs, what’s one more? “It’s alright,” he says, trying to sound encouraging, and so she does let him help her up, if only because she seems more afraid of defying him than touching him.
“Zuko, this is Lu, one of the healers at the hospital here,” Katara is saying. “And this is her son, Mako.” She has him propped easily on her hip, her arms under his little legs, like he is her own child and she is not wearing satin embroidered with actual diamonds.
Zuko gives Lu a little bow. “I am honored to meet you, Healer Lu.” Then he risks a smile and a teasing tone and says, “So you’re who I should ask if Katara is up to no good when she’s out of my sight, hm?”
Lu gasps and seems ready to hit the ground again. “Oh, no, Your Highness! Lady Katara has worked miracles on our wounded. She is a blessing from the Spirits!”
“Yeah, I’m a blessing from the Spirits,” Katara tells him with a smirk.
“Don’t let it go to your head,” he tells her, and she sing-songs back, “Too la-ate.” He rolls his eyes at her.
Mako is trying to pull the pins out of her hair. “Hey,” she says, and his mother reaches for him, but he turns away and insists, “Uh uh! Lady Kat!”
“I’ll see you next week, Mako,” Katara promises him as she gently untangles him. Lu takes him back gratefully and inclines her head.
“My deepest apologies again, Your Highness, Lady Katara.”
“Please, think no more of it,” Zuko tells her.
“You are too kind, My Lord,” Lu says, and that’s not one he’s heard before.
“Great to see you, Lu!” Katara calls as mother and son disappear into the crowd. Somehow, Mako has broken the spell that had kept the crowd at bay, because now they are all dancing and laughing again.
Zuko reaches for Katara to coax her back into rhythm, but now Iroh has appeared, bowing low to Katara.
“My Lady, you are like a vision from the Spirits!” he exclaims, over-the-top as always, and Katara giggles.
“Don’t encourage him,” Zuko mutters.
Iroh plucks at her skirts. “I see you went with the chiffon. Excellent choice.”
Zuko is further convinced of the conspiracy with the dressmaker. “Did you guys get together and talk about fashion or something?” he demands.
Iroh says “Of course!” at the same time Katara says “Who do you think I eat lunch with when you’re not around?”
Well, there’s the conspiracy.
“May I have this dance, my Lady?” Iroh spirits Katara away from Zuko before he can blink.
“He is the only other man you can dance with!” Zuko calls after them as they whirl away.
He takes Iroh’s kidnapping as his cue to do his actual job, so he sets off to greet his guests. They all seem surprised and—a little pleased?—to see him mingling freely, and they are quite complimentary of the ceremony. Zuko figures they’re flattering him, but the crowd does seem happy. His nerves, at least about the festival, ease incrementally. He and his staff are pulling it off.
He has caught glimpses of Katara twirling with partners who are definitely men and definitely not Iroh, and maybe it should make him jealous, but he’s mostly happy to see her meshing so easily with his people. She wasn’t born in the Fire Nation, but no one could call her a foreigner any longer. Mako and Lu aren’t her only adoring fans; he gets at least as much praise for her as for the festivities. All the comments from the noblemen are about her healing, of course, but sometimes their wives inject: “And her gown is exquisite!” “She fixed my Tom-Tom’s broken leg and had him giggling while she did it!” “She looks like a queen.”
The last one is a little pointed, and Zuko wants to laugh when the woman’s husband elbows her. “Well, she does,” the lady harrumphs.
When the sun begins to set, Zuko’s porters bang gongs in unison to signal the start of the evening feast. He takes his seat at the head of the royal table and raises his goblet of wine to the crowd. A cheer rises in response, and on cue, an army of servers begin to distribute the finest food the Fire Nation has to offer.
His uncle is supposed to be seated on his right, but he must not have made his way to the dais yet. Zuko thinks it is unlike him to miss an opportunity to feast. He has left the seating arrangements to some undersecretary of diplomacy, and he knows that custom will dictate Katara be seated with the few other foreign dignitaries who are visiting. He has decided not to fight this, figuring he is pushing plenty just by spending half the day with her visibly on his arm.
So when Iroh finally appears with Katara in tow and deposits her in his seat, Zuko thinks that might be overly risky, but Iroh is gone as quickly as he arrived, and Zuko is hardly going to kick her out now.
“Hi,” she says. She is out of breath from dancing, and a few tendrils of hair have escaped her updo.
“I distinctly remember telling you that you could only dance with Uncle,” he says back.
Her eyes are sparkling. With exaggerated innocence, she shrugs, “Oops.”
He leans in to whisper in her ear, “You’ll pay for that later.”
She whispers back, “Promise?” and he thinks, not for the first time, that she is trying to kill him.
He is briefly worried that her seat of honor—Iroh’s seat, except that interfering old man had executed his own plan—will draw some ire from the noblemen and women seated around them, but Katara strikes up a conversation with the couple on her other side, and several people call to Zuko from up and down the table that the food is excellent, the wine sublime, and the music superb. They don’t seem the slightest bit bothered, and he finds himself chatting with them about their memories of Solstice Festivals past. He had obviously been absent for the most recent several, but he does recall attending when he was much younger. He cannot claim very many happy childhood memories, but the Festivals are among them, and he tells them about the time he had stuffed himself with sweet buns and promptly fallen asleep under the table. “My mother was so relieved when she found me that she didn’t even read me the riot act,” he chuckles. “But I wasn’t allowed to eat sweet buns after that.”
The laughter from his rapt listeners is raucous, and he is unaccountably moved by it. He can’t remember anyone laughing in the presence of his father or his grandfather, ever. For that matter, he can’t remember anyone laughing in his presence until now.
Maybe it wasn’t Mako who had broken the spell. Maybe it was Katara.
She’s listening, too, and she laughs along with everyone else, but she’s looking at him seriously. Under the table, she reaches for his hand and threads her fingers through his. “It’s nice to hear you talk about you mother,” she says in his ear. “I know it’s hard.”
“It’s not a big deal.” He tries to brush it off, afraid that he will undo any progress he’s made as his nation’s leader if he starts crying at the banquet table.
“Take a compliment,” she says threateningly.
“Fine, fine. Eat your food.”
After the meal is over and darkness has fallen, the crowd turns to two Master firebenders perched on the palace roof. They put on an expert show of intricate bending that culminates in stunning fireworks that have Katara literally oohing and aahing. It’s impossible not to be happy when she is so infectiously delighted by everything, and his heart swells with pride that his nation is the source of her joy.
The end of the fireworks is supposed to be the end of the festival, but people seem reluctant to leave. He rises to thank as many of his guests as he can, and Katara flits away to say good night to Lu and Mako and all the other people she knows from healing, which is starting to seem like more people than he knows from being Fire Lord. He is bidding farewell to the last of his courtesans when his uncle materializes.
“What a spectacular evening, my Lord!” he shouts, clapping Zuko on the shoulder.
“Thanks, Uncle,” Zuko winces, certain they can hear Iroh yelling in the North Pole.
“And I think our plan went off beautifully!”
“Can you keep it down,” he hisses. “What’s the point of our secret plan if you tell everyone?”
Iroh is not daunted by this at all. “I do not think it is much of a secret anymore, nephew! Why, the two of you dancing – it could have been your wedding waltz!”
Zuko supposes, in retrospect, that he was a little conspicuous.
“No matter—” Iroh waves a dismissive hand. “We would all have gone along with it, if it had been. I was right, you know! The whole nation loves her. Water is the element of change, and she is just the Waterbender to bring some much-needed change to our people.”
Zuko wonders if he has been planning this little speech since he drew the elements in the sand while they were still banished.
“Have you thought about dates? What about next year’s solstice? No, that is too far away. Oh, isn’t your birthday next week? That would be perfect!”
Zuko scrubs his hands over his face. “We are not having a wedding next week.”
Iroh shrugs. “Suit yourself, but it will be easier if you are already married when she produces your heir, and I can’t imagine that’s too far away, what with the way she is covered in—”
“Watch it,” growls Zuko. Iroh puts up his hands in surrender.
“Fine, ignore the advice of an old man. What do I know?”
“Good night, Uncle,” Zuko grumbles, and goes to find Katara.
She is waving to a gaggle of women who are leaving with their arms full of sleepy children. She turns to Zuko and surprises him by throwing her arms around him. “I am so proud of you,” she says fiercely, squeezing him tight.
“For what?” His fingers spark as they slide along the bare skin of her back.
“For how kind you were to Mako and Lu. For talking to practically everyone at this festival. For sharing part of your life at dinner. For making this whole thing possible, this whole celebration of your history and your people. For bringing joy to everybody.”
“I think the joy was you. Everyone seemed scared of me until you and Mako had your little reunion.”
“It wasn’t me and Mako,” she protests. “It was you and Lu. Everyone saw you help her up and bow to her. You were gracious to her, and people noticed.” She pops up onto her tiptoes to plant a quick kiss on him. “I know you think tonight was some kind of test of your nobility, and I promise you, you passed.”
She’s not wrong, but she’s not all the way right, either. He wonders if she can sense that tonight was a kind of test for her, too.
Either way, he thinks the people of the Fire Nation have given her high marks.
She is stifling a yawn against his shoulder, and he untangles their arms. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.” With his hand lingering on the small of her back, he takes her up the palace steps and through the winding halls to his chambers.
By the time he bolts the door, she is half asleep against him. “Wasn’t I supposed to…pay you…for something?” she mumbles, eyes half-closed.
Zuko laughs. “I’ll put it on your tab. You can settle up later.” He steers her to the bed, and she blinks at him sleepily while he eases off her shoes.
“I can do that,” she protests, lifting her hand to help him and immediately dropping it to her lap again. “No, really, I got it.”
“Let me take care of you,” he soothes. He tries to get all the pins out of her hair, and when he thinks he’s got about six hundred of them, he gives up on the rest and tries to turn her around to unfasten her dress. She flops facedown on the bed, sighing happily, and he unties the sash around her waist. He’s ripped her out of a lot of outfits before, but he doesn’t think he’s ever done this, this slow and careful unwrapping of her body. Heat starts to creep up his spine, but she really is going to have to settle up later, because she is fast asleep.
Chapter 8: in which the plan goes only a little sideways
The next morning, he kisses the hollow of her throat where her mother’s necklace usually is. It’s probably the only square inch of her skin that he’s never had his mouth on, and it feels like a victory.
He thinks about marrying for love. He thinks about how much good she has done for his people, how out of every person he had greeted yesterday, not one of them had criticized this outsider dressed like a queen. Like his queen.
He thinks about how terrified he is of hoping for a long and happy life with this woman. He is, if he is honest with himself, already doing it anyway.
He kisses her from head to toe, and she wakes making satisfied little purrs. It takes her a few minutes to realize that Zuko has bound her hands to the headboard with her sash, but he knows it’s finally dawned on her when she hisses, “Fuck.”
“If it’s convenient for you,” he tells her innocently, “you can pay up now.”
And pay up she does, because he takes his time with her, careful to keep her on the knife-edge of pleasure. Desperate tears spill over her face, and he kisses them away. He curls his fingers inside her, and her whole body trembles. He’s never seen anything more stunning in his life.
“Promise me something,” he orders.
“Anything,” she gasps. “Zuko, please.”
“Please, what?” He strokes his thumb over her and she makes a strangled scream.
“Please fuck me,” she pants. “Sir.”
His vision whites out for a second, but he’s not done with her, not yet. “Maybe, if you’re very good,” he tells her, and she whines. “But you have to promise me something first.”
“Whatever it is, I promise,” she insists, and he knows what he is about to do is hardly fair. And he wants to be a fair ruler and all that, but making sure he rules her—that’s a different thing altogether.
“Promise me you’ll stay,” he whispers, and her eyes fly open. He thinks she might have stopped breathing.
He thinks he might have, too.
“I’m yours,” she tells him earnestly, and he is on her in an instant, rocking into her, swallowing up her every sound.
When they are both breathing steadily again and at least halfway dressed, she burrows into him until he cannot see her face. “Did you really mean that?” she peeps.
“You know the answer to that.” He rubs her back. “Did you?”
“Well, it’s not very nice to ask me things while I’m at your mercy—”
“You like being at my mercy—”
“That’s not the point—”
“Did you mean it or not?”
“Of course I meant it!”
He breathes a sigh of relief. “When are you going to stop doubting how I feel about you?” she grouses.
“You have literally never told me how you feel about me,” he retorts.
“I have literally been serving the Fire Nation every waking moment for four months.”
“I thought you were just a nice person!”
“The healing is because I’m nice person!” she says haughtily. “This is because I’m in love with you!”
To hear her say love feels like sunshine in his veins.
She’s still sniping—“And you made very clear this was just sex! I only figured out that you might have more in mind because your uncle isn’t very subtle.”
Zuko decides to yell at Iroh—and thank him—at a later time. “Was that really your only clue?”
“Ok, when you started having dresses made for me, I may have gotten a hint,” she concedes. Another point to Iroh. “And then, when you asked me to the solstice, it sounded a little…like a date.”
“It was,” he admits. “A high-stakes date, but a date.”
She smiles up at him. “Well, I had a very nice evening.”
“Let’s do it again sometime. Are you free a year from now?”
This seems to sober her. “Actually, no. I think a few people are expecting me to leave eventually, maybe to go back to the South Pole and take up domestic labor.”
“You need to tell Sokka that if he stills need help with his laundry, he needs to find himself a wife.”
“I’m sure that’ll go over well.” She’s trying to joke back at him, but she’s wilting. He’s starting to get a bad feeling about where this is going. “I guess I’d better answer him soon and come up with some excuse to stay longer.”
“Did Sokka write you?” He doesn’t remember hearing about this.
“Oh, yeah. I meant to tell you. I got his letter the day you invited me to the Solstice, but you tackled me as soon as I got in the door.”
“If that’s the reason you don’t tell me things, we’re going to have a very difficult time communicating.”
She ignores this. “He wants me to go back to the South Pole, like, now. He says I’ve been up here long enough.”
Zuko definitely has a bad feeling about this. “Tell him I’ll be the judge of that.”
She ignores this, too. “He said he might fly up with Aang sometime soon, presumably to drag me back home.”
He exhales. “They’re coming here, and you didn’t think to mention it?”
“He said they might come,” she says defensively. “You tackled me!”
He hears his voice rising like it’s beyond his control. “Your home is here!”
“Sokka doesn’t know that! We’re not married!”
“Well, then, let’s get married!”
“If you need an excuse to stay here—”
“You think I want to get married as an excuse?”
And, yeah, ok. Zuko can see where that came out wrong. He tries again. “I just meant, so that Sokka and Aang don’t think they have some kind of claim—”
“This is, without a doubt, the worst marriage proposal I have ever heard!”
Zuko grimaces. He has managed to convince the entire country to accept, even adore, his beloved waterbender, and now his real problem is going to be him putting his foot in his mouth and Sokka and Aang?
He breathes deeply. “When do you think they’re going to be here?”
“It could be any day now,” she says sullenly. “But it’s not like they can make me leave. I just…don’t want to fight with them. Sokka is my brother, and Aang is my friend.”
It’s a little late to ask, but he wants to know. “Were you and Aang ever…more than friends?”
Katara shakes her head. “I think he wanted that, but I never did. He’s like another brother. And they’re both sort of like my children.”
“Oh, good. So I’m just going to piss off the leader of half the Water Tribe and the Avatar, who is, by the way, in unrequited love with my—”
“With your what?”
So he’s not going to get out of the whole botched proposal thing, then. Of course not.
“We had a plan,” he promises her. “I mean, Uncle also offered to schedule the wedding for next week, but we had planned…I was going to…When the right time came along…”
This isn’t going a whole lot better than the first time.
He gets up and crosses the room to the wooden desk. From the bottom drawer, he retrieves what he’d had made for her an embarrassingly long time ago. It’s not a traditional betrothal necklace, which was how he had justified it months ago—just another piece of jewelry, like any other he had given her—but he had hidden it away just the same. Long before he had hatched a plan to marry her, some part of him had known, and so the gold-and-diamond wreath of fire lilies has been waiting ever since.
She sits up in his bed, and he kneels down beside it, head bowed. He presents her the necklace in his open palms and hopes she knows this is a traditional Fire Nation proposal. “Marry me.” His voice is cracked with longing, and he wishes, not for the first time, that he could maintain some façade of being suave and experienced.
“Is that an order?”
He looks up at her, and she is twisting up her hair to give him access to her throat. “If it is, will you follow it?” And after all, she does follow orders so very beautifully, so he reaches up to fasten the necklace before she even answers.
Her lips curl into a wicked smile. “Yes, my Lord.”
She’ll be the death of him.
He’s going to eat her alive.
Chapter 9: the fallout
As it turns out, Zuko only gets a few hours to bask in the sight of her as his betrothed before someone is banging on his door to tell him the Avatar’s bison has been spotted in the distance.
They dress silently and go to the palace gates to greet Aang. Sokka jumps down behind him, and he is unsurprisingly oblivious, but Aang notices the necklace immediately. “What is that?”
“It’s a necklace,” Katara answers, trying to keep her voice level.
Sokka says, “Hey, where’s Mom’s necklace?” at the same time Aang says, “Is that an engagement necklace?”
Zuko thinks Sokka might faint. “A what necklace? Did you just say engagement?” He splutters for a moment. “That’s ridiculous, Aang. Who would she be engaged to?”
Zuko is pretty sure he’s being insulted. “Me, dumbass,” he snaps.
Katara gives him the side-eye.
“No, no, no.” Sokka actually wags his finger at them. “Water Tribe custom dictates that a suitor must petition a woman’s oldest male relative to approve the engagement. That’s Dad, or in Dad’s absence, me, and I didn’t approve anything, so whatever it looks like, Katara’s not really engaged.”
“You want me to take her before the Fire Sages right now?” Zuko threatens. “Because I assure you, they’ll think we’re really engaged, and they’d be happy to make us really married.”
“I’m right here,” Katara reminds him under her breath. “And I think, you know, a winter wedding would be really nice.”
Aang looks equal parts enraged and heartbroken, but when he speaks, only rage spills out. “The Fire Sages would never marry you. Katara isn’t Fire Nation. They would never accept it—the Sages or the country.”
His tone is so derisive that Zuko thinks about actually challenging him to Agni Kai, but Katara cuts in first. “The country happens to love me. Unlike some people, they value the work I can do.”
“We value your work!” Sokka protests. “You’re the best cook in the South Pole, and we have so many clothes that need repairing—”
“I meant my healing work,” Katara grinds out through her teeth.
“Oh, well, uh, yeah. That too.”
“Nice save,” Zuko deadpans.
Aang bursts out, “Katara, this is stupid! You don’t belong here. You belong in the South Pole, and you belong with me.” He starts toward her, and Zuko puts himself between them immediately. “Get out of the way, Zuko. We’re taking her home.”
“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Zuko growls.
Aang doesn’t even slow down. “She can speak for herself, you know.”
Katarta erupts. “Oh, now you want me to speak for myself? But not when you want me to cook, and clean, and darn socks, and somehow belong with you while you’re gallivanting around the world?” The water in the ponds on the palace grounds is roiling, and ice is starting to glitter over Katara’s fingertips.
Now Aang does stop, rooted to the spot. “I thought you were waiting for me,” he whispers.
“Why on Earth would you think that?”
“I—I don’t know. I just assumed…” He seems to realize that he doesn’t have the argumentative high ground.
“That’s right! You both just always assume you know what I want!”
“I guess you’ve got me there,” Aang says coldly, “because I certainly didn’t think what you wanted was to jump into bed with the enemy.”
And that’s it. Zuko is trying to be a steady leader or whatever, but he has never claimed to be a patient man.
A wall of flame shoots up between them, and Aang and Sokka jump back. “I haven’t been your enemy in a long time, Aang, but I’m willing to start again right now. Get out of here, right now.”
Sokka clambers onto Appa, but Aang stands his ground. With a whirl of his staff, he cuts a passage through the fire and stalks closer. “Katara, don’t do this. I do know what you want, because I know you. And you know me. Come with us, and we’ll forget whatever little tryst you had with Zuko—”
With one motion, Katara draws the water from the pools into a flood that knocks Aang back. She freezes the wave into a wall of ice that seals the entrance to the palace grounds. In a terrifyingly calm voice, she tells him, “Get out. Now.”
Strictly speaking, Aang is more powerful than Katara, but whatever he hears in her voice convinces him to retreat, and together Zuko and Katara watch them fly away.
Zuko risks a glance at her. Her face is absolutely expressionless, and only the fine trembling of her hands gives her away. “Katara,” he begins, but she interrupts him.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
As Zuko tries and fails to come up with something comforting to say, a soldier comes skidding out of the palace doors. “Fire Lord!” he is shouting, half out of breath. “The Council—they’ve called an emergency meeting. They said the Avatar was here, and there was a fight, and—” He processes the now-melting ice in the gateway and the still-smoking grass where Zuko had thrown up a wall of fire. “Uh, seems like you know the rest.”
He sighs. “I think I’m about to have to have some very long meetings.”
Katara steps wordlessly around the messenger and disappears into the palace.
When he gathers his panel of military and domestic advisors, he announces his betrothal, and there is a long moment of silence. He braces himself for a fight, verbal or otherwise, but his health minister breaks the stillness by exclaiming, “Thank Agni!” Zuko smiles to himself. At least he has one ally.
In the end, no one complains about Katara, but several of his councilors are concerned about the development with Sokka and Aang. They don’t really suspect an attack, but they order a doubling of the Palace guard anyway. Zuko dismisses them until first thing tomorrow morning as a dull throbbing settles in behind his eyes.
What a fucking day.
Katara isn’t in her bedroom, or his, and he asks a guard if anyone has seen her. “The training grounds, sir,” he says, and he looks a little stricken.
Katara is hurling discs of ice that shatter like bombs against a stone target, and Zuko sees why the guard had looked concerned. The target is at the end of a line of identical ones, evenly spaced so that squadrons of firebenders could train in tandem, but the grounds are deserted, and each target is shattered. She is finishing off the last one when he goes to her. She looks like she’s been doing this since he left, stripped to her sarashi and covered in sweat and breathing hard.
“Hi,” he says. “You’re scaring my soldiers.”
Katara snaps a water whip that cuts the remaining target clean in two. “Good.”
“Is this making you feel better?”
“Ok, well, I told the Fire Council that we’re engaged, and they said they’re all very excited for the wedding.”
She turns to face him. “Did they, now?”
“The Health Minister actually did. The rest of them didn’t complain. We decided to double the palace guard, just in case.”
“Do they think Aang is a threat?”
“I think they just want to do something. No one believes that Aang would hurt anybody.”
Except, of course, her.
“I told the Council that Aang and Sokka will come around.” She looks weary, and he risks getting in water whip range to take her hand. “It’s going to be ok, Katara. Really. And I’m not an optimist.” He squeezes her hand. “Let me take you to bed, ok? It’s been a really long day.”
She is silent until they are both in bed and he’s put out the lights. “What if they don’t come around?” she whispers into the dark.
Chapter 10: in which no one appreciates Zuko
They don’t come around, not for weeks and then not for months. Katara keeps working in the hospital. She has long meetings with Zuko and the Health Minister, and they draw up plans to start a school. Katara and Lu and some of the other healers spend a day every week teaching anyone who wants to learn, and people travel from all over the Fire Nation.
Zuko goes to the hospital on those days as often as he can to hear news from the more distant parts of the country. While Katara works one-on-one with her students, mostly women, Zuko meets with the others. He learns that the rural parts of the country are still struggling, and when he asks Katara if she ever hears anything about it, she nods sadly. Most of her students are malnourished, she tells him; many are raising children alone after losing husbands to the war.
Zuko decides to pull her from the hospital one day and have her sit in on an agricultural council. His ministers had been telling him that the numbers weren’t as good in the smaller villages as they were in the city, but seeing the villagers’ thin faces has him anxious to work on the problem. Katara can fill in more details—she knows there are not enough hands to work the farmland because many of the surviving men carry combat injuries, and the women struggle to recover after childbearing without access to healers or clinics. They leave the meeting with a plan for Katara to travel to some of the villages with the advisors. They will go much farther than Zuko had taken her long ago; this trip will take at least a month. She can do some healing herself, and she can teach those who want to learn but could never leave their families long enough to attend her school in the city.
This new mission is the only thing that has animated Katara since the fallout with Aang and Sokka. She has been going about her usual business, but the spark in her has dimmed, and Zuko hates every second of it. Any goodness in himself, he’s sure, is just a mirror reflecting the goodness in her, and if her flame is flickering out, he fears for them all. He is loathe to let her out of his sight, but she seems a little brighter with this new goal, and so he dares not ask her to stay.
The day she leaves to travel into the country, he puts a letter in a messenger’s hand. It is the thousandth draft, and it is his only hope. He prays that he will have a response by the time she gets back.
Greetings to the Southern Water Tribe from the Fire Lord’s court. Please accept this invitation to be our honored guests at the Fire Nation Palace at your earliest convenience. Please also extend this invitation to our most esteemed friend, Avatar Aang.
We both know what it is like to lose family. Nothing is ever the same. I beg you not to invite that loss on your family again. Come see your sister. Bring Aang. I know you both love Katara. I do, too. You can hate me if you want to, but don’t let go of her. She doesn’t deserve that. We have all already lost enough.
The month of her absence has been excruciating. Zuko bangs around his lonely palace, sits listlessly through meetings, destroys his own set of training ground targets, and plays hundreds of games of Pai Sho with Iroh. But by the time Katara’s caravan is three days from the palace, he’s gotten good enough to beat his Uncle every now and then, which is not so much triumphant as it is depressing.
And by the time Katara is three days away, he is running very short on time to try to reunite her family.
He takes to pacing the courtyards, and that’s how he spots Appa early in the morning on the day Katara will be back. He is a knot of hope and anxiety, and he thinks maybe, if he’s really lucky, his heart will just give out, and he won’t have to live through whatever is swooping out of the sky.
When they land, Zuko has them shown into the same room he’d used to host the Four Nations, and he bows when they enter. “Welcome,” he says. “Thank you for coming.” He gestures to the table, which is laden with Fire Nation delicacies. “Please, sit, eat.”
This was apparently all the encouragement Sokka needed, because he starts piling his plate high at once. Aang sits, but he doesn’t touch the food, and he doesn’t look at Zuko.
Zuko busies himself pouring tea and tries to think of how to start this conversation. Hey, you guys were real jackasses, and you better apologize to Katara or I’ll throw you both in a volcano. No, that’s probably not it. Look, you broke Katara’s heart, and she’s so depressed I haven’t gotten laid in months. That’s probably not it, either.
Fortunately, Sokka saves him the trouble, because he breaks the silence through a mouthful of food. “Hey, man,” he says, “congratulations. Katara’s a real catch. She’s way out of your league, actually.”
Zuko smiles. “Yeah, I know.”
“So, man-to-man, that’s awesome. But brother to boyfriend, I’ll kill you if you hurt her.”
Zuko cocks an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah,” Sokka says, more quietly. “I know we were the ones that hurt her this time. But you have a lifetime with Katara, and if at any point you put one toe out line, I will fly up here and kick your ass.”
“Noted,” Zuko deadpans.
“When can we see her?” Sokka asks.
“As soon as she gets here,” Zuko answers. “She’s been traveling with a medical team for the last month, but they’re due back today.”
“How mad is she? At us, I mean. Do I need to stand behind Aang at all times?”
“She’s not mad. She’s heartbroken.”
Sokka winces. “Shit. That’s so much worse.”
“Yeah. That’s why I wrote you. Look, I know I’m not who you or her Oldest Male Relative would have chosen. But for reasons beyond me, I’m who she chose, and I think you owe her enough respect to let her make that decision. None of us have so much family left that we can start splitting up over things like this.” He glances at Aang. “You guys have a sister and a friend who would do anything for you. Take it from me—that’s not an easy thing to come by.”
Finally Aang speaks up. “Fire Lord Zuko, I owe you an apology.” He seems ready to launch into a tortured speech, so Zuko holds up his hand.
“Your apology is heard and accepted, Avatar Aang.”
Aang blinks at him. “What? Just like that?”
“Did you want to duel for our honor or something?”
“Well, I, uh, kind of thought, maybe we’d have to? I mean, I did insult your honor, and hers…”
Such is life—you spend years rebuilding your country and yourself, and people still give you shit for what you did when you were sixteen.
“Aang, I guess you haven’t noticed, but I haven’t been a teenager obsessed with my honor in quite some time,” he says drily. “You can keep insulting me, if you want, as long as you apologize to Katara. She’s been moping around since you left, and I can’t take it anymore.”
An aide knocks on the door and eases it open. “My Lord, the medical team is coming through the gates—”
Zuko dashes past him in an instant. Katara is already in the hallway, and she launches herself into him. He swings her in a giddy circle. “Hello, my love,” he whispers to her. “I missed you.”
She kisses him, and he forgets their troubles, because for that moment, everything feels right in the world.
When she pulls away, he tells her, “Sokka and Aang are here.”
“I know,” she says. “It’s hard to miss the 10-ton flying bison parked outside.” She looks over his shoulder at the half-open door. “Did they just show up? Did they bring an army?”
“Neither. I invited them, and I think they both feel pretty bad about the way they acted.”
“You invited them? But Aang insulted your honor!”
“Ok, really, has no one been paying attention for the last, like, five years?”
She ignores his indignation. “What do we do now?”
“I think we should go in there and make up with your family.”
She squares her shoulders as they enter, and he thinks she is trying to look reproachful, but when Sokka jumps up to throw his arms around her, she bursts into tears.
Sokka yelps. “What are you doing? Why are you crying? I came up here to apologize, I swear!”
“I just missed you,” she hiccups. “And I thought you hated me and I would never see you again.”
“Of course I don’t hate you,” Sokka says. “I’m your brother.”
She pulls back to put her hands on her hips. “You sure were a real asshole, though.”
“Yeah, I deserve that.”
Aang clears his throat. “Hi, Katara.”
She turns to him expectantly.
“Katara, I am so sorry for the way I acted. It’s my job to bring everyone together, not tear them apart. I hope you can forgive me somehow, someday.”
She smiles at him. “Done.”
“So,” Sokka interjects, “when’s the wedding? There’s gonna be a feast, right?”
She laughs. “I don’t know. We haven’t had a chance to make any plans. I haven’t even been here lately; I was off healing in the interior of the country.”
“Yeah, Zuko told us. I’m really proud of you, Katara.”
She beams, and Zuko breathes a little sigh of relief that she seems as bright as ever, the spark inside her fanned back into flame.
“Speaking of being in the country, I haven’t had a real bath in a month, so I’m gonna go do that. How long are you guys staying?”
They look at Zuko.
“As long as you like,” he tells them.
“Great,” Katara says. “We’ll see you later.” She raises her eyebrows at Zuko and starts to drag him out of the room.
From behind them, Sokka shouts, “Gross!”
Katara chatters at him about her month healing while he sits by the tub and keeps a hand in the bathwater so it stays piping hot. He’s trying to make affirmative noises at the right times, but he hasn’t so much as laid eyes on her in what feels like forever, and he is itching to get reacquainted. When she steps out of the bath and elegantly draws all the water off her body, he snaps.
She gasps when he yanks her to the ground by her wrists. He rolls her easily and pins her to the floor. The tile is uncomfortable, but he doesn’t care. “Hi,” she peeps up at him, eyes wide.
He slides his fingers into her mouth, then her body, and he notices all her pretty bruises have faded since she’s been gone, so he busies himself biting ownership back into her flesh. She’s making such beautifully wanton noises that he can’t imagine this will be a lengthy reunion for either of them.
When he presses into her, it is like sunlight after a storm, and she is so lovely beneath him it hurts.
After a regrettably short time, he eases her up off the tile and wraps her in a soft robe. She looks suitably dazed, but she manages to articulate, “I missed you a lot.”
He kisses her tangled hair. “Welcome home.”
Chapter 11: the children
They entertain Sokka and a somewhat muted Aang for a few more days, and then they all have to return to their responsibilities. Katara and her team make an official report to the Health and Agriculture Ministries, and they draft updated plans for medical access and crop subsidies. She goes back to the Capitol Hospital and keeps training anyone who wants to learn. Zuko goes back to his day-to-day duties, content to work for the betterment of his country and admire the betrothal necklace glittering on Katara, a sure sign of his claim for anyone to see.
He still slips away to the hospital when he can, ostensibly to observe the training and meet his citizens, but mostly for the rare privilege of kissing Katara in the middle of the day, and in public. They are a month or so into this new routine when he makes it to the hospital and finds Katara bouncing a little boy on her hip with one hand while she heals a young woman with the other. “Oh, thank goodness!” she cries when he arrives. “Here, hold this—” and then she is practically tossing him the baby so she can turn her full attention to the woman, who is crying into her bloodstained hands.
“Hold this?” he repeats dumbly, trying awkwardly to wrestle the boy into a comfortable position for both of them. The baby is fussy already, and Zuko wills him not to start crying, because what is he supposed to do then? “Hi, Zuko here,” he says, embarrassed beyond measure to be talking to an infant who cannot possibly understand him. “What’s your name? Yes, I see. You can’t tell me. Of course. I understand. Well, I’m the Fire Lord. Not that you would know what that means. That lady is your mom, right? Don’t worry about her. Katara is the best healer in the world.” The baby does not seem comforted by any of this.
He manages not to drop the little boy for what seems like hours while Katara flits around the woman. Finally, the look of concern on her face eases, and she washes the blood off both of them before turning to Zuko. She regards him and the baby with some mirth and tells him, “You don’t have to look so scared. He’s not a threat.”
Zuko glowers at her. “I know he’s not a threat. I’m just…not good with children.”
“You have a baby sister!”
“Who regularly tried to kill me!”
Katara concedes him this point. “Well, most babies aren’t like that.”
“I know. I scare them, though. I don’t know if it’s the scar, or…”
Katara reaches out and puts her cool fingers against the ruined side of his face. “No, Zuko,” she says, voice as soft as her touch. “Besides, does he look scared of you?” The baby is trying to pull his crown out of his hair. “Kids don’t know enough to be scared. They just want to play, and they think everybody loves them until proven otherwise.”
Zuko remembers being barely older than this little guy.
He remembers knowing enough to be scared.
He remembers thinking no one loved him unless proven otherwise.
Zuko thrusts the baby back at Katara and hurries out of the hospital so no one sees their king dash tears from his eyes.
Katara slips inside Zuko’s room and closes the door quietly behind her, hovering on the threshold. Zuko is writing letters at his desk. “Still working?” she asks him.
“Yeah. Long day.” He doesn’t look up, but he hears her pad across the room. She lowers herself to the floor beside him and just sits, head tipped against his shoulder, until he finishes. He knows she wants to talk, can feel her biting back a million questions, and wants just as much to pretend he had never come to the hospital that day. He can’t think of a way to get out of it, though—he could retreat from the hospital, but this is his own room.
“Zuko—” she starts.
“Is that woman okay?” he interrupts, trying to deflect as long as he can. “What happened to her?”
“She…she was pregnant. She lost her baby, and the bleeding wouldn’t stop.”
“What will happen to her?”
“She’ll be okay. Physically, at least. We got her stable.”
“And the little boy?”
Another long stretch of silence.
“I know you lost your mom,” she says finally. “And I’ve met Azula, unfortunately. I know that…things were hard for you. I should have been more sensitive earlier today. I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t apologize,” he tells her, waving a hand. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I did,” she insists. “I spoke without thinking. You don’t owe me the whole story, but I know enough to be more careful.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”
She wraps her arms around him. “You don’t have to tell me anything. But I want you to know that I’m here. For whatever you need. Okay?”
It takes him a week to get up the nerve to talk to her. He sits her down in the bedroom one night and tells her the whole wretched story. Azula, Ursa, Lu Ten. Azulon and Ozai. The Agni Kai, the banishment. The scar.
By the end, they are both crying, and Katara throws her arms around his neck. “I—am so—sorry,” she chokes out.
He lets her hold him. It feels nice. “It’s ok. Things are different now, and I have you, and you saved me.”
She jerks back and looks seriously into his face. “No! Zuko, listen to me. You saved yourself.”
He shakes his head. “Without you and Aang and everybody—your kindness—nothing would be the way it is.”
“You chose the way things are,” she insists. “Of course we showed you kindness, but you didn’t have to accept it. You—you turned your back on everything you’d ever known to do what was right. To follow the right path.”
He leans his forehead against hers. “I was just following you. All this time.”
She kisses him gently. “That’s very sweet, but I can’t take the credit here. Really. You have done an impossible thing, and I am so incredibly proud of you.”
So maybe, if what she says is true, the goodness inside his soul is his own. He can scarcely dare to believe that, but he can at least bask in the warmth of her pride, the glow of her flame. He can breathe her in like oxygen, and know that he need never be scared of her, and know that she has proven her love for him again and again.
He is having tea with Iroh the next morning when a guard raps on the door and admits Katara. “What are you doing here?” he asks her, surprised.
“I asked Lady Katara to join us,” Iroh explains, pouring her a cup. “We have many important things to discuss.”
Zuko looks between the two of them. “Like what? Did you know about this?” Katara shakes her head no and accepts her cup from Iroh.
“Like the wedding!” Iroh nearly shouts, clapping his hands together. Zuko groans. “Don’t give me that, my nephew! I have waited many years for this, and many months after you proposed—and by the way, the Lady has told me how you came to do so, and I must say, I think your approach could have been much more elegant.”
Zuko gives Katara a sideways look, and she mouths, “Sorry.”
“Now, there are many decisions to make. The date of the ceremony, of course, and who to invite, and what my soon-to-be-niece will wear. What we must know first, is if my Lady is expecting.”
“What?” Zuko splutters, but Iroh plows ahead.
“Strictly for planning purposes, you see! It will be easier if you are already wed when the heir is born, legally speaking. On the other hand, many women do not feel well when they are with child, and you may wish to wait until the process is over to celebrate your union.”
“Uncle,” Zuko says through his teeth, “try to reign it in. Katara’s not expecting, and we don’t need you to plan our wedding.”
He takes a sip of his drink, and notices Katara is very silent and very pale, and spits out a mouthful of tea.
“You’re pregnant?” he demands, voice rising. He looks between his uncle, who looks very smug, and his bride-to-be, who looks very sick. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you tell him and not me? How did this happen—I thought you had the special tea—and you drink it every night—”
“I didn’t tell him,” she says miserably. “He figured it out when I started asking for tea without caffeine.” She is crying quietly now. “And I was drinking the contraceptive every night, only I stopped while I was traveling because there was no need, and I must have forgotten the first night I was back, and we…” She trails off, and he remembers very well the first night she was back from her monthlong trip. She takes an unsteady breath. “And I know that you don’t like children, and I…there are herbs I could take…and I didn’t know what to do.”
He grinds his teeth and fights to lower his voice. “Uncle, could we have a moment of privacy? Now?”
“Of course!” Iroh says, still entirely too cheerful, and Zuko glares at him, the jolly old busybody.
He waits until the door closes and pulls Katara into his lap. “Hush,” he murmurs, stroking her hair. “It’s ok. Don’t cry.” Amazingly, this makes her cry more, and he looks upwards, calling on the Spirits for help. “Katara…”
“I’m sorry,” she sniffs into his shoulder. “I should have told you as soon as I knew.”
He has so many questions he’s not sure where to begin. “Are you…sick?”
“No, I feel ok so far.”
“What if you…what happened to that woman when I was last in the hospital…what if that…happens?”
She shrugs. “It happens sometimes. But that woman, she never had any prenatal care, and I don’t think she always had enough to eat. That makes a—a miscarriage—more likely.”
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl? Can you know?”
“I can,” she says quietly. “I can feel his chi.”
His. A son. He’ll be the Crown Prince, the heir to the throne, like Zuko made over.
“I don’t know how to be a father,” he whispers. He is terrified.
“Yes, you do,” she whispers back. “You know how to care for someone, how to love them. You’ll be a great father, if—if you want to be one.”
He pulls back a little to look at her tearstained face. He cannot imagine a more nurturing woman to be a mother, except maybe his own, and he thinks about being able to redeem his childhood, about the risk of ruining it all over again. “What do you want?”
“Out with it,” he orders her.
She lets a corner of her mouth quirk into a smile. “I want to be a mother. I want to be the mother of this baby—your son.”
My son, he thinks. It is the most petrifying, most exhilarating thing he’s ever considered. He would not have chosen this until much later, but here they are, and she is looking up at him, radiant, hopeful.
And he has never been able to deny her anything.
Chapter 12: the end
They put off the wedding until after the baby is born. If there are any legal snares to an heir born by an unwed mother, his court neglects to raise the issue, and he is grateful. Iroh appoints himself Katara’s round-the-clock assistant, fussing over her every move, and Zuko has to put his foot down when Iroh offers to sleep on a cot in their room. Lu and the other healers dote on her even more, if that could be possible, and they have set up what seems like an entire hospital in an unused room in his wing of the palace. They assure Zuko that Katara is in the best of hands—never mind that the best hands are her own—and Katara reassures him, too, but he is a nervous wreck for the duration.
When Katara goes into labor, he paces the length of her makeshift hospital room, and he is so worried he thinks he might be sick. But they tell him she’s doing beautifully, and he figures this is right, seeing as how she is good at everything, and before he knows it the gaggle of healers is calling him over excitedly.
He is not prepared for the sight of her, exhausted and shining, holding an impossibly small bundle. She beams up at him, because she is unfailingly like the light of the sun, and offers him the tiny swaddled body, and he takes the bundle with trembling hands. He is even less prepared to clutch the baby to his chest and look into the little scrunched-up face of his firstborn son. He is still nervous, but that is dwarfed by the immeasurable adoration he feels for this small soul, with his big golden eyes alight in his dark-skinned face, and he might not know how to be a father, but he knows how to whisper to his son, “I’m your dad. I love you.”
They name him Lu Ten, and Uncle cries for days and fights them both over who gets to hold him longest. They get married soon after, and Katara refuses to part with baby Lu Ten for the duration of the ceremony, so he is there, wrapped in crimson and gold, when the Fire Sage slides a golden flame into her hair.
Zuko watches Lu Ten grow with unadulterated joy, and he works twice as hard to govern well, determined that his son will come of age in a world awash with peace and plenty. Katara won’t let him bring Lu Ten to his meetings every day, and he thinks this is hardly fair, because she takes him to her job, strapped to her front and awing the hospital with every new noise he learns to make.
Zuko is playing with him one night when he laughs for the first time, and Zuko thinks how silly it was that he had ever doubted the flourishing of hope and light and good in this world.
He thinks about how Katara insists there is good inside of him. He thinks about how the Fire Nation was like a desert for a hundred years, and she washed over them all like rain. They had spent a century of war sharpening their knives and their teeth, and they had forgotten that any good existed inside of them at all. Then Katara had set her terrifying power to healing instead of conquering, and what had flowed from her hands had revived some tiny seed in their hearts. With Zuko on the throne shining like the sun, and Katara with him to push and pull like the moon, and Lu Ten like their North Star, the seed had sprouted, and taken root, and bloomed.