Zuko picks through the fallen bandits in search for his dao with apathy, orange flame in hand and much more focused on the dulled heat signature of his slumbering wife, who lay propped against a nearby redwood. He pauses to observe her for the nth time, eyes falling from the long shadow of her lashes to the now cauterized gash under her collarbone with a mixture of loathing and apprehension.
He’d removed the arrow carefully, thinking that his wife’s healing abilities would reactivate in the lagoon once she’d truly fallen back into sleep—but they hadn’t, and his wife hadn’t stirred, either. His own clumsy attempt to fix the inch long split of flesh with waves of lightning-hot steam had left a smooth line of raised scar tissue instead. He grits his teeth against the loathing and turns his eyes back to the gruesome scene at his feet. He suspects Katara will be able to try and fix it proper if she wakes soon, but at least the wound won’t catch infection.
The komodo-rhino is gone and with it their map, though it’s left a trail in the underbrush. Zuko wagers that it can’t be too terribly far but he scraps the thought of tracking it down in favor of simply slinging their fallen rucksacks over his back—he’s looked at the map enough to know that the next town to Makapu City is only a few miles walk, and tracking would require his undivided attention. He spots the glint of his dao in the light of his modest flame and steps over a charred body. He realizes with little emotion that there’s a hole in the chest of it. Blackened hookswords in the petrified hands.
Zuko sheaths his blades and resists the nasty urge to spit. His wife might anger at the loophole he used when she asks, but by common Earth Kingdom law he was within every right to protect her—to honor her—in the way he saw fit. He thinks of the mangled cry of pain she’d let out when the arrow hit its mark and hopes that she will not entirely begrudge him for his vicious ways. She never has in concerns to his time before her, and the night they took their vows she’d looked him in the eye and promised that she never would—and his wife always keeps her promises. Yet he has broken his.
Worry gnaws, and the apprehension piles up tenfold as he pockets the wayward cap to his wife’s waterskin. How did she ever choose him?
Zuko returns to the redwood and gathers Katara back into his arms. Her even exhales against his neck are a reassuring balm as he lets his eyes adjust to the half-moon’s pale glow and starts walking.
The town of Xiuxi De is lively for the hour, nearing midnight. Torchlight and lit windows are visible from the thinning treeline and cooking smoke crawls up the tall hills that the road winds between. Zuko holds in his sigh of relief as he steps into the town. He ignores the quaint restaurants and the flower shops, places they would’ve gone. A stable house is visible from the outskirts, and he makes a beeline for the open doors.
“A carriage and your fastest driver. Now.” He says curtly to the girl doodling on a clipboard at the counter, travel-weary and snappish. His arms are numb but he doesn’t dare rest them. “I don’t care how much. Just be quick.”
The girl at the counter makes a face at his tone and looks warily at Katara, still silent and unmoving within his hold. She would no doubt scold him for forgetting his manners.
“My wife.” Zuko allows. “We walked here.”
“Overnight drives cost extra, sir.” The girl relaxes. “Where to?”
Zuko thinks the kid is crazy for trusting his word so easily but he is harried and the adventure is over so he keeps that bit to himself and watches the girl write their home address on a new parchment. The drive will take about half a day, and the girl talks about pit stops as she leads him out. He ignores the bug-eyed look the girl and the driver give him when he reaches into his rucksack and then pries away the velvet bottom of the chest his uncle gifted them. The inside is lined with jade nuggets and golden eggs. He takes one of the eggs and drops it into the girl’s palm.
“The tip is included.” He says flatly, shouldering the bag and reaching for the carriage door. He directs his next words to the carriage driver. “Make haste. Wake me if there’s trouble.”
The driver grumbles something but Zuko doesn’t care to hear. He slips into the carriage and drops his bag onto the floor with the other. He slides into the wide shaded booth and fits himself behind the spot where he’s laid his wife, wraps his arm around her as he rests his nose snug against her pulse, and then promptly falls into a restless sleep.
In a blink dawn nudges at his senses. Zuko wakes to find them stopped at the river crossing that leads to northern Yu Dao. Katara hasn’t moved. He presses a kiss against the slope of her throat and uses the warmth there to open his blurry mind to her heat signature. The carriage driver is letting the ostrich-horses drink from the bank, and the gangly man offers him a canteen of water and a few dried strips of moo-sow when he notices him.
“I know it’s no bang for your buck,” the driver says sheepishly. “but it’s what I have.”
Zuko thanks him, accepting the meager parcel after finishing the kata he’d automatically stepped into—in his rush—he notes absently that he’s been on autopilot for upward of sixteen hours—he had clearly, though perhaps foolishly, foregone refilling their travel supplies, food included.
Katara barely accepts the sips of water he gives her but he takes comfort in the fact that it glows faintly when it touches her lips. She sleeps through the ride through Yu Dao, only stirring slightly in his hold when they ride by the docks, the scent of the ocean and the sound of fishermen’s work loud and familiar through the carriage windows. It’s high noon when Zuko starts to recognize the tree-lined hills in the near distance, and if he squints he can see the roof of the barn on the far end of their yard. They’ve made good time, but Zuko doesn’t pause and let that feeling of being home wash over him quite yet.
He lets the carriage driver help him bring the rucksacks into the den while he deposits Katara into their bed. He gives the man his canteen back and a jade nugget for his kindness. The carriage driver bows and bows and Zuko has to threaten to change his mind on the tip yet again to get the man to take his leave. Only after he’s washed and oiled and tucked Katara under the covers does he let the tension in his shoulders start to ease, but he doesn’t stop there. If he sits still now he knows that his mind will stray to the splatter of blood and the litter of charred flesh that he’d left in the wake of his rage.
If he sits still now all he will see is Katara, swaying and falling and looking at him with fear in her eyes.
There’s food in the kitchen though not much anymore, and the bushel of raspberry tea leaves they’d purchased before their trip is down a handful. Zuko goes to the door and finally removes his boots as he maps out a meal. He bathes while the last of the rice slow boils and the slab of dried duck roasts high over the firepit in the garden, ignoring the red and the rest of the grime as it swirls down the shower drain. He knots his hair and dresses plainly in a simple shirt and soft pants, sighing as the clean material fits comfortably over him.
Zuko looks at Katara, who’s nude frame has inched steadily towards his side of the bed, and lets home sink in.
By mid evening Zuko has unpacked, eaten, stored the last of the cooked food away for his slumbering wife, compiled a grocery list, reacquainted himself with their ostrich-horses, aired out the den, and gone through a set of kata with his swords in hand in the garden—which needs weeding. Their peppers have perished, purple with rot and chunks missing from bug bites. He notes the new leaves attempting to unfurl from the broken stems and adds it to the growing list of house chores that still need tending to.
Exhaustion finally, thankfully, catches up to him. He wants for a dreamless sleep, and he hopes that the comfort of his wife in his arms while they rest in their own bed will aid him, though he also hopes that she will not sleep for much longer. If she doesn’t wake by sunrise tomorrow he’ll have to send for a healer, and there is really only one that he trusts.
There’s a pile of mail resting on the counter, and he snatches it up to rifle through absently on his way up the stairs, setting the important ones—like the one with the official Southern Water Tribe seal addressed to his wife in his father-in-law’s neat calligraphy, and the ones from his wife’s school—in his other hand. A letter from his uncle is in the middle of the stack, marked a month ago. Zuko stops at the threshold of their bedroom and melts open the wax seal.
May this letter find you well. I have recently been regaled with words of your prowess as a bender in every sense, competency as a husband, and honor as a man. While these words do not shock me, as I raised you myself and know very well of the good in you, it is the source of these words that have encouraged me to remind you that—as always—you have made me proud to call you my son. Hama is not a Master easily impressed, yet ‘impressed’ was indeed her word of choice.
Although it saddens me to hear that you and our dearest Katara will not be able to indulge in a detour to entertain an overworked old man such as myself this summer, it does gladden me to know that you have set forward on your path towards becoming a healthy and loving family. With this slight in mind, allow me to take the moment to depart on you a piece of wisdom—as an old man is want to do.
While I wish nothing but for your journey ahead to be guided gently by the hands of the Spirits, the notion depicts ‘trial and tribulation’ , not ‘or’. I encourage you to embrace this when the time comes, and to have Katara in your heart in those moments that you find yourself needing to. Remember, nephew, your lessons in patience: a sound soul dwells within a sound mind and a sound body, and you are of each. Remember to believe in yourself as those who love you do. You will find yourself an even better man for it. You will find yourself a better father.
I am remiss to cut our correspondence here, alas it seems I am soon to be needed yet again and I must prepare for the task that is leaving my desk. My bones have only managed to become heavier and louder despite my active duty—you really must keep me updated on your progress on bringing my grandchildren into the world, nephew. I am eager to greet them, as time has wings!
Take plenty of your medicine.
Do not hesitate to ask for, or of me.
“Tui and La. What ever was on that arrow...”
Zuko snaps his head up, the breath he’d been holding at his uncle's words—timely and tugging sharply at his heartstrings—punching out of him at the sound of Katara’s voice, groggy with disuse as it is. “Oh,” she’s saying. “we’re home..!”
“Yes.” Zuko folds the letter with shaking hands. “As you wished.”
“I don’t... How did you—” Katara clears her throat, letting her hands from her temple to where the arrow had been and feeling the scar there. Zuko can see the memories playing across her bright ocean eyes. “Did you heal this?”
He almost looks away. “I tried to.”
Her voice is thin when she asks her next question, and he knows that she does not refer to the blemish. “Did you use fire?”
Zuko lets out a mirthless laugh as he nears the bed. “A little.”
“How much is a little, Zuko? I don’t yell at you about using fire on people for fun! We’re bound by Yu Dao law because we married here and—”
Zuko sighs fondly; with relief. Grumbling and making demands. To think she had dropped to the ground so quickly... She quiets when he leans down and places his unsteady hand over her heart. It beats strong and solid under his palm, nothing like the weak skips he’d found in her pulse amongst the riverfly-fish and the roaring spray of the waterfall in Makapu.
“For the longest of moments I thought you would die.” He tells her, trailing his fingers to hers where they still rest at the arrow’s mark, then to grip firm and gentle at her chin so that she can see the sincerity in his gaze. “You will forgive me for not caring about the law. No matter how sorely tempted I am to remind you that as your husband I am within my overall right.”
“Hm. Seems to me that you’re happy to do the reminding, husband.”
“Seems to me that you’re well enough if you’ve it in you to argue not ten seconds after waking, wife.”
Katara’s mouth clicks shut. Zuko hums and sits on the edge of the mattress. “Lightning is not fire,” he tells her pointedly, revealing everything and nothing at all. He’d much rather spare her the imagery. “but I was careful enough. You’ve been asleep for over a day and you have—a scar to show for it... Tell me, beloved. Do I worry for nothing? Did I dishonor your wishes, my vow, for nothing?”
He must not be doing a well enough job to hide the cocktail of lingering fear and rage he’s trying to keep at bay under the fatigue. Katara reaches out and turns his face to hers, thumbs the line of his scarred cheek as she searches his eyes. He knows that whatever she sees must scare her, because she fists her hands in his shirt and drags him into a tight embrace.
“I’m sorry, Zuko.” Katara’s hold tightens around his shoulders, and he shifts so that he can wrap his arms around her waist, bury his nose in the line of her neck and let his tears fall freely. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Is it fine?” His words come muffled from her skin, the root of the growing part of his fear. “You’re not mad?”
“I’m pretty sure you saved my life. How could I be?”
Zuko thinks of the snap and crack of someone falling dead from a tree and the massacre of blood and ash scattered in the middle of a northern road, no doubt found by now. He thinks of how his wife has never killed a man before and how she goes out of the way to keep him from adding more red to his ledger; how he’s failed at it.
He presses his mouth to the scar at Katara’s collar. The question that hurts him the most is how could he let injury befall her?
“Don’t be silly, Zuko. It barely hurts and is little more than a cut thanks to you. I’m fine.” Katara presses a kiss to his mared ear. “Bit of a headache, but I’m just glad they didn’t get to you.”
An upset sound lets itself from his throat. He doesn’t want to think about that possibility—or any possibility where he is unable to protect her as he swore to, like he’s doing his best to—but his mind skips dangerously ahead, fueled by every anxiety ridden thought he’s had since she’d taken the hit. He remembers the bandit leader’s words—that his wife is worth her weight in silver—and feels that ugly thing snarl and bark in his gut.
“Katara...” Zuko represses a shiver. “I will never regret spilling blood for you. Do you understand me? They were going to take you if I—if I hadn’t—”
“I get that, Zuko.” Katara splays her fingers on his chest and holds him still. “I’m not angry, okay? And you’re not bad for keeping me safe, no matter how you managed it. I woke up and you were here and that is all I really care about.”
Zuko inhales sharply and pulls Katara back into his embrace, tucking her head under his chin so that she will not see how his eyes have become wet.
Katara scoffs quietly. “Stop it. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
“You are alive and awake,” Zuko says evenly, pressing a kiss to her temple. “that is thanks enough.”
The kiss Katara returns is to the side of his jaw, open and cloying and his near undoing. Heat scores down his ribcage when she latches gently onto the spot with her teeth, and her name spills out of his mouth in a low warning.
Katara’s cool hands wrap around the base of his neck. “Louder...”
Zuko growls at her as he ushers her out of bed and promptly swaths her in one of his robes. “That’s enough out of you,” he tells her pointedly, gathering her up in arms and grinning at the sound of her surprised little yelp. “you’ve gotten into enough trouble for a lifetime, don’t you think? Best not to start with me.”
“I’ll start with you whenever I want,” Katara mumbles as she nips at the slope of his shoulder. Zuko can hear the remnants of fatigue in her voice, and the sound of it banishes his own. “where are we going?”
“Kitchen,” He answers, holding her close; for all of her protests, her legs had still wrapped around his waist and her hands had still gone to the hairs at his nape. Ardor, underlined with a hot streak of protectiveness, sears away the nasty thing that still lingers at the edges of his being. “you need to eat. You’ve had nothing but water since we left Makapu.”
Katara hums softly in acknowledgement, and Zuko tries his best not fuss overmuch when he deposits her in the den and all she does is silently sink into the sofa. His wife is overthinking—he knows. He lights a fire in the hearth for her, being sure to lock it behind the panel of gate so that he will not have to mind it, and sets about preparing the roast he’d set aside. He feels the weight of her gaze on him as he moves around the kitchen. Katara accepts the plate he brings her with quiet thanks and a faint glimmer in her eye, one he recognizes, and one that brightens after she’s had her cup of raspberry tea.
“Trouble,” Zuko tsks under his breath, noticing how his wife has untied her robe; watching as she reclines coyly along the length of the couch and fixes him with a darkening stare from under her lashes.
Katara only smiles.
The fire in the hearth flares when she sits up, demands that he kneel before her. He has to focus on his breath of fire as he concedes. She is all but glowing in the lapping waves of the firelight, every bare expanse of skin touched golden, the wild tendrils of her unbound hair reclaiming their visage as a fiery halo.
“Zuko,” she beckons, and he is a useless man under the touch of her fingertips over his cheek, along the sides of his abdomen as she deftly pushes his shirt down his shoulders. She leaves a dragonfly kiss along his brow, ghosts her lips over his as she touches their foreheads together. “I love you.”
In a blink, a sigh, Zuko has his mouth on hers; behind it the stirring residual ache of longing and heartbreak that had crested in the wake of her forced rest. For every second that he had not seen her eyes bright with joy or alive with light; for every second that he had missed the soothing cadence of her voice, that ache—that loss—had swelled and splashed like volatile magma.
“I love you,” Zuko says it back, exhales it over Katara’s lips in a dawning revelation, revisited. He echoes the sound she makes when he grips her chin with firm fingers and dives in for more. “Always. I love you. I love you—”
With a tiny mewl his wife parts her lips for him, the tip of her tongue gracing fleetingly along the underside of his. The pit of longing in his chest explodes, a spewing storm in the suffocating aftermath of a volcanic eruption; shifting erratically into need.
A keening whine resonates out of him as Katara slides down from her spot and right into his lap, murmuring his name in the very same breath that he envelopes her. With a whimper she becomes malleable beneath his searching hands, the bated roughness of his movement a lingering tell of his desperation; his remnant lightning strikes of fear. Katara gasps and arches when he slides a palm over the swell of her breast, between her thighs over waiting, hot, wetness, and Zuko nips at her mouth as he splits her folds and curls his fingers.
“Never again,” he reminds, moving to nuzzle at the juncture of his wife’s neck, drinking in her every movement of shudder and sound at the purposeful pump of his wrist. “I mean it. Never, ever, ever again—”
“I promise. I promise—” there is a beg in his wife’s voice, and his blood runs south, painful and swift, when she gasps her plea. “Zuko!”
Shades of bright blue wash out the glow of orange, the hearth’s fire a billowing roar that echoes the heat that blazes through his body. Katara tugs impatiently at him, cool fingers of one hand digging into the flesh at his shoulder blade and the other daring to slip past the hem of his pants.
Zuko captures her mouth as he flips them, drowning in the taste of her as he presses her into the rug and cages her underneath him. He peppers hot kisses down the valley of her breasts, expands his free hand over the flat of her stomach as he scissors his occupied fingers and opens her up; as he gingerly takes a nipple between his teeth. The sound she makes reminds him briefly of moonrises and black sands. He growls as his wife arches into him, just as she had then, and silently swears that he will make a mother out of her yet.
A curse falls from his lips when her hands finally find their way into his pants and over his cock, and he moves with the quickness of a kata when she demands he be rid of the last of his clothes.
“Oh, yes, Zuko,” she sighs when he sinks into her, and he’s sure that stars dance across her eyes as he rocks forward with a low groan. “yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Zuko swallows her next moan; echoes it against her lips as adoration and love splash around his ribcage, as her wet heat flutters and clenches over his aching length. He fits his hands under her thighs and pulls her legs to lock securely around his hips and, Agni, he knows that he will not last—that he will have to give her his all.
A fine sheen of sweat touches his skin, and he exhales steam through his nose at the scrape of her nails down his back.
“My wife,” Zuko all but coos as pleasure seizes his veins and tightens his loins. To think someone had dared to take her away. “I love you, princess,” he gasps against her, relishes in the needy little moan that she lets out. “mother of my children,” he promises. “my everything—”
Katara lifts her hips to meet his with a choked sob, and Zuko knows that there will be bruises there later, how tightly his fingers grip there at the slick slide of his cock sinking deeper from the shift in angle. He kisses away the tears that track down his wife’s cheek as she calls his name; keeps his pace but adds force to his thrusts, steady and strong like he knows will break her apart.
“Yours,” Katara cries out her own vow, eyes flying wide to lock with his. His heart sings at the breathless sound. “All of me, yours.”
Static dances under his skin as his release overcomes him. Zuko lets his hips stutter with a guttural growl, heart in his throat and head under water; long lost in loving ocean eyes. A loud moan cuts through his wife’s gasping cry as he swipes his thumb through the wet mess that spills between them, over where his cock meets her core and to the bundle of nerves begging his attention. He shudders as Katara tips her head back, back bowing up and away from the floor in an abrupt arc.
“I’ve got you,” he whispers, deftly shifting onto his knees and gathering her to him as her thighs quiver around his hips. A soft groan falls out of his mouth as her orgasm milks the last of his seed, and he dots kisses along the line of her damp curls. She’s crying still, and he circles his arms around her waist, brings her flush to him as he feels his own tears prick painfully at the back of his eyes. “I’ve got you, sweetheart. It’s alright. I’m here. You’re here.”
Katara buries her nose in the hollow of his throat, wraps her arms tightly around his neck even as her shoulders shake. Zuko murmurs sweet nothings into her hair, makes her match his breathing until they are nothing but a serene puddle of softness and sated.
“Zuko?” She asks once he has her comfortable and clean and back into his arms. The fire in the hearth has settled into a smatter of blue embers. He hums quietly in answer. “Do you think it worked?”
Zuko sighs and presses a tender kiss to the new line of scar on her shoulder.
“You need not worry, beloved,” he promises her. “we will try as much as we need to—however we need to.”