And so they told the Story of Aset.
Also called Isis, the Goddess was often represented as the perfect traditional Egyptian wife and mother— wise enough to stay in the background while things went well, but able to use her wits to guard her loved ones and adherents should the need arise. The shelter she afforded her children gave her the character of a goddess of protection, but her chief aspect was that of a great magician, whose power transcended that of all other deities.
The old stories tell of her magical prowess, far stronger than the powers of her husband and the other gods, because her powers were of a kind that few could fathom. She had power over life and over death; she had the power of transformation. And so people began offering her bread for bread was once living grain, ground into flour, and reanimated as dough.
All knew transformation was the power of death and life, yet the question remains: Does the soul die along with the body or does it simply transform into something else?
She greets him with weary wave, graveyard eyes, and, ‘The clean towels are in the back of my car. Can you give me a hand?’
He dusts his hands against his thighs and flour plumes before him, pale and insubstantial. ‘Yeah. Give me a minute.’
It’s not yet dawn. The ovens are roaring and winter’s touch cannot be felt in the kitchens; in fact, Zuko long ago left his jumper with his jacket and scarf by the backdoor. Instead, he works in a short sleeved shirt in the heat and all his uncle’s stories of ancient grain harvest and the People of the Nile— heat and cicadas, spice markets and incense-soaked winds— feel a lot closer with old recipes rising in the ovens.
He slides the last tray of round aysh doughs into the hungry oven.
The gas fires roar and spit; he’s got maybe fifteen minutes before the first batch will be ready.
He dusts the remaining flour from his hands, towels them briefly on his apron, and meets Katara by the backdoor. She’s chewing her lip, fiddling with the golden symbol on her keychain.
‘What? What’s the matter?’
She looks at him and there are rain clouds in her eyes. ‘Your uncle…’
A stone drops into Zuko’s stomach. ‘What about him? Is he okay?’
‘He lives,’ she says but she is watching the floor, twisting her lip between her teeth, the key ring symbol between her fingers. ‘He isn’t going to get better though.’
It isn’t a question; it hits him like a prediction. A truth. In that moment, he questions how well he knows his colleague. ‘Have… Have you been to see him?’
‘No. I don’t know him.’
She grimaces. ‘I know how to help him. Zuko,’ she stills her fiddling, the keys giving a cold, jangling clang , ‘I know how to heal your uncle.’
The aysh bread, the cultured baguette dough on his workbench, the order he’s supposed to make by six— all rise from his thoughts and flee out the door.
She was known for her magical power and for her cunning, which enabled her to revive her husband, Osiris, and to protect and heal Horus, her son. By virtue of her magical knowledge, she was said to be more clever than a million gods.
three months ago...
‘To be successful in this position, you will need to be willing to begin work at four in the morning and work through til midday. Are you willing to do this?’ Zuko doesn’t look up from the application. Three months at his last job, two at the job before that, six weeks at the position before that … ‘You sure move around a lot.’
‘Yeah,’ the kid says bashfully, scratching the back of his neck with a Cheshire cat grin. ‘I like to see as much of the world as I can!’
‘We’re really looking for someone who can commit to the bakery… this role will be much more than a job or an apprenticeship.’ He glanced up at the boy with the arrow tattoos. ‘Bakery is a craft. It’s been passed down through my family for generations.’
‘That’s cool!’ the tattooed boy tells him. ‘My family passed down early male baldness and a laid back attitude.’
Zuko writes unreliable on his notepad in neat, efficient strokes. ‘You don’t say.’
‘But four a.m… I dunno, man, that’s really early…’
‘This is a bakery. It takes time to make the day’s goods.’
‘What if I make them the day before? Like in the afternoon.’
Zuko opens his mouth to talk tell this fucking kid about yeast and humidity and tradition, but he’s meant to count to five slowly when he gets the urge to rant these days. So he shuts up, lets the kid outline his stupid plan, and counts to twenty-five instead.
‘I’ll consider it,’ he says stiffly when the kid falls silent. He mostly definitely won’t consider it— he jots down NO on his pad— but nods politely to the boy. ‘Thank you for coming, Aang.’
‘Hey, no worries! And uh, I don’t really have a phone right now but my friend said I can use hers, so just call her if you want to talk to me, cool?’
Zuko counts to seven. ‘Okay.’
The kid beams. ‘Cool! See ya, Zuko!’
As he’s walking out the door, Zuko draws a cross over the front page of his resume before he smashes the unlock button on his phone and dials his uncle.
‘Good afternoon, neph—’
‘There’s no one,’ he snaps, throwing down the pencil and glowering at Aang’s resume. ‘ No one .’
‘Uncle. Anyone who actually knows how to bake is way out of our budget salary-wise and some of these people couldn’t hold down a nine to five, let alone handle the rigours of—’
‘Have I told you the story of the Egyp—’
Zuko sighs, dropping his face into his hands; he’s been awake half the night baking the whole shop’s stock for the day. With Iroh out of action, the bakery is running on him and him alone. He doesn’t have time for his uncle’s stories. ‘Yes, you have,’ he interrupts the old man, ‘and I need to go. The next applicant will be here soon.’
There is a series of mechanical beeps that crackle through the phone line; clinical, cold bleatings. ‘Okay, nephew.’
‘What was that?’
‘What was what?’
‘That noise! It sounded like an alarm.’
‘Oh, these machines have not been agreeing with me today, Zuko. It is nothing to concern yourself about.’
‘ Uncle . Have you called the nurse?’
‘It is all under control, my nephew, please do not worry. Go. Conduct your interview. And remember to breathe.’
Zuko drags his hand down his face, feeling three times as old as he actually is. ‘Sure.’
Tired melancholy drags at him ‘Take care, Uncle,’ he mutters.
Zuko startles. The voice comes not from his phone, but from the back door where a woman hovers, frowning at him. ‘What?’ he parrots, dumbly.
Her brow furrows further, long brown hair falling over her shoulder, hesitance in every movement. ‘Did you… What did you say?’
What did he…? ‘I… I was…’ He holds up his phone in explanation, mouth dry, brain slow. Shit, he needs more sleep.
‘You…?’ She points to the phone, eyes sliding to him. Colour suffuses her cheeks— pink and glorious. Well, fuck . ‘Oh. Apologies, I thought you said something to me.’
Zuko glances at the phone he’s clutching like a club, a safety blanket, a defence from wide blue eyes and long legs and—
He lowers his hand, sets his phone down on the table. ‘It’s fine. No. I was talking to… It doesn’t matter.’
She hovers in the doorway, forcing Zuko to look back up at her. ‘You’re Katara?’
‘Last time I checked.’
‘Right.’ The long legs and mischievous, bright expression and— he’s staring. He’s definitely staring. ‘Of course, you are.’
He raises his voice then; his uncle always accused him of mumbling. Maybe the old man was right— is right. ‘I said “Come in.”’
She watches him as she approaches the table, sets her bag down, and drops into the chair with a movement like rain under a storm. ‘You mumble a lot. That’s an old baker’s saying, you know? “Whisper to the dough to get her to rise,” but it seems you’ve taken it literally.’
Zuko narrows his eyes. ‘I don’t mumble. How did you get in through the back?’
‘Oh, I came in through the shop but the girl with the plait—’
‘—told me you were waiting around back.’ She raises an eyebrow and almost smiles. ‘So here I am.’
He shoves Aang’s resume to the bottom of the pile and glances over Katara’s; the ovens are cooling for the day but heat still lingers in the autumn air. Enough that his own cheeks feel warm. And the back of his neck.
The double doors between the kitchen and the shop swing open and Ty Lee peers through. ‘Oh, good! You found him!’
Katara shoots the other woman a sunny smile. ‘I sure did, thanks to you.’
‘Aw, your welcome!’
‘Thank you, Ty Lee,’ Zuko interrupts, shooting her a stern look.
Ty Lee glances at the table between them. ‘Has he offered you tea or coffee yet?’
He clears his throat. ‘Your resume says—’
‘Not yet, no.’
Ty Lee sighs. ‘He’s an Aries, you should see his aura when he doesn’t get his own way.’
Katara watches him speculatively. ‘Aries can be… intense.’
‘You’re telling me!’ Ty Lee leans against the door gesturing emphatically. ‘They’re the first sign in the zodiac, right? So they’re really raw with their needs and emotions.’
‘ Ty Lee .’
Katara glances at him, back at Ty Lee. ‘Needy, huh?’
‘Oh yeah. He’s a typical Aries, you know?’
‘Yeah… or reckless.’
‘Oh, gods yes.’
Ty Lee squints at him. ‘Try tactless.’
‘Then let me tactlessly tell you to get back to work,’ he snaps, irked from his head all the way down to the soles of his feet. ‘If you’re done reading the stars?’
Ty Lee shoots Katara a meaningful look. ‘Tea or coffee? Water?’
Katara glances at him with the barest-possible smile, or smirk. He’s pretty sure it’s a smirk. ‘I’ve got a water bottle, but tea would be great thanks. Koshary if you have it.’
‘We don’t,’ he says bluntly, standing. ‘Jasmine, black tea, or peppermint.’
‘You got this, Zuko?’ Ty Lee calls from the doorway.
Katara is grinning when she turns back to him. ‘Jasmine, please.’
He collects a mug from the wall, a tea bag from the canister on the counter, and fills the mug with boiling water from the urn by the tea. In silence. The easy chatter between Ty Lee and Katara makes the silence that follows ring that much louder.
His grip on the mug tightens.
‘I read something once,’ she comments, ‘that said Aries get frustrated if people don’t get to the point fast enough.’ He turns, steaming mug in hand, and narrows his eyes at her. Katara, for her part, is smiling. He sets the tea down in front of her and retakes his seat. ‘You wanted to know about my resume?’
He clears his throat, thumbs through it. ‘It says you have baking experience?’
‘Yes. I used to work for a Chinese family, learned all about dumpling pastries and mantou and baozi . I can bake a fair few Indian things too, and the French stuff of course, though North African is my specialty.’
Zuko schools his features into mild interest despite the thrill rising in him; in his notebook he writes, Desirable experience; pastries, mantou, baozi . ‘We would need you five days a week initially for training, then four-to-five-day work weeks after that.’
‘Fine by me. The more shifts the better, to be honest.’
‘Why is that?’
She holds his gaze, tucks her hair behind her ear. ‘I could use the money.’
‘How does $26 per hour sound? It’ll go up to $30 when your training period is over.’
‘$30 sounds wonderful.’
‘There’ll be a review,’ he warns, ‘at the end of the training period.’
‘That’s fine, good! I’m sure I’m up to the challenge, Mr…?’
Zuko scratches a note on his pad: Driven; works hard to prove self. ‘Just Zuko is fine.’
She beams at him, beautiful and unguarded. ‘Zuko.’
‘Um, to be successful in this position, you will need to begin work at four in the morning and work through til midday. Are you willing to do this?’
‘Of course… Do you not bake in the morning?’
Zuko knows he doesn’t need to run this decision by his uncle.
It’s a no-brainer.
‘Can you start on Monday?’
She had influence over astrology, stars, and planets — whether good or bad. She was also a being of fate. An initiate, after getting her favour, could change destiny and receive salvation. Although her mysteries were open to everyone, it is believed she was the one who chose her followers. She met them in their dreams — waking and otherwise — and, once chosen, no one could refuse her invitation…
It takes no time at all.
Within a fortnight she is making bread as well as, if not better, than Zuko himself. Within a month, her doughs are as soft as his uncle’s— even the flatbreads have lift to them, a weightlessness Zuko has never quite been able to achieve.
In fact, before her training and trial period are over, Katara has taught him a few new loaves.
‘Barley?’ he repeats sceptically as she opens the sack she’s brought with her that morning. Her long tresses are braided back out of her face, her cheek already smudged with the heavier flour. Despite his reservations, Zuko finds himself hovering nearer.
‘A mix. Ground lily seeds also.’
‘Barley and lily flour?’
‘Just so,’ she says cheerfully, more cheerful than he’s seen her yet. This smile is different from her others— it’s at ease, content, as she throws down a base of the strange flour and drops a few cups of it into the timber mixing bowl she’d brought.
‘That is not up to code.’
Katara winks at him, pulling purified water from the canister, cup by cup. ‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’
He crosses his arms over his chest, but can’t help but watch on as she mixes the dough by hand with a familiarity and ease that astounds him. She moves with the dough, before the dough, as though it is a dance partner whose steps she knows so well she can catch them before they fall.
‘What’s this bread called again?’
‘Tau ,’ she says in a thick accent.
‘Is that Arabic?’
‘Coptic,’ she corrects, tipping the dough onto the floured bench. Then she does something that surprises him.
Again, it’s in a language he cannot understand but she seems to speak with perfect pronunciation. The harsh consonant sounds gargle in her throat then roll into the rest of the word— very much like the action of kneading dough itself. It’s a short prayer, no more than a few sentences from the sound of it, but he is amazed at the reverence and sincerity in the deed.
This is anything but a casual action for her.
When she opens her eyes, there is peace there of a kind that matches this new, mysterious smile. Before he can ask about what transpired, though, she is kneading the bread.
‘Did you know, in Ancient Egypt, bakers were revered for baking the loaves the people offered to the gods?’ She bows over the bench, rolling and reversing the sticky dough. ‘Ra, Osiris, Horus, Isis… hundreds of loaves a day.’
‘My uncle respects the Ancient Egyptians. He says that bread is the king of the table and everything else is just the court that surrounds the king. The courtiers are the soup, the meat, the vegetables, the salad, but bread is king.’
Katara grins, broad enough that her teeth show. ‘Your uncle is very wise.’
‘ I think so.’
‘He would bake himself, then, no?’
Zuko leans forward, rests his elbows on the table. ‘He did.’
‘Has he passed?’
‘No, no, he’s…’ He feels his scar twist as he scowls. ‘He’s not well.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t be. He’s been sick for a while.’
She looks back to her kneading, brow furrowed. ‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘A horrible sickness. I’m so sorry.’
They are both silent while she rolls the dough thoughtfully. ‘He’s being… helped?’
‘He’s in the hospital, yeah. That’s why your job… I needed help staying on top of the baking.’ He clears his throat. ‘You fell out of the sky at the right time.’
‘I have a habit of doing that,’ she agrees, and it's such a strange thing to say that he spends all day puzzling out what she could have meant.
That night, Zuko dreams in vivid colours of a long, wide river, of flood plains and wheat fields and temple incense and pyramids that tower into the clouds.
It occurs to him: Katara’s perfume is the same kind of incense he smells in his dreams.
The cycle of myth surrounding the God-King Osiris's death and resurrection was first recorded in the Pyramid Texts and grew into the most elaborate and influential of all Egyptian myths. Isis plays a more active role in this myth than the other protagonists; she became the most complex literary character of all the Egyptian deities. At the same time, she absorbed characteristics from many other goddesses, broadening her significance well beyond the Osiris myth...
Today, it’s Katara’s turn to open, fire up the ovens, and make the day’s dough so by the time Zuko arrives with a travel mug of coffee, it’s six a.m. and she’s already been here two hours. The scent of warm bread— sourdough, whole wheat, rye— and their Mediterranean herbs and spices envelopes him as he comes through the backdoor. It’s still summer but the early morning warmth of the kitchen reminds him of being knee high on his uncle and getting under the old man’s feet as Iroh explained yeast and culture and the science and magic of dough.
Now, a woman in a long, pale, loose-fitting dress bound with a checkered apron stands master over the floating stainless steel workbench, both her and the bench dusted with flour. Her hair is tied back in a simple braid but, as always, wisps have escaped, falling to curl by her jaw and jugular, though she does not appear to have noticed.
Bent to her work, he can see the wiry muscles in her arms tense and release as she rolls butter into a pastry dough. The movement is melodic, smooth, unhurried; it’s hypnotic to watch, the way she pushes and pulls the rolling pin…
Shaking his head, Zuko jerks himself away from staring at his colleague’s curves. Pull yourself together! ‘Morning,’ he calls over the oven’s groaning.
She turns towards him, a smile splitting her cheeks; there’s flour in the sweat on her forehead. ‘Zuko.’ He pretends his body doesn’t warm at the way she says his name. ‘Good morning.’
He drops his bag by the coat rack at the door, trades his over shirt for an apron, and by the time he’s composed himself and turned back to her, she’s returned to her butter and dough. ‘Croissants?’
‘The last batch.’
He stops before the sink, running soap and cold water over hot hands. ‘The ciabattas?’
‘On the shelf.’
Zuko rinses his hands, drying them on his apron, as he crosses to the steel cooling racks against the far wall of the cramped kitchen. Ciabattas, golden with a healthy dusting of pale flour, are not the only occupants. Lines of French baguettes, humped multigrains, white grain, sourdoughs, and half a tray of gleaming sepia croissants; bagels, bing cakes, focaccia, mantou , roti bakar, rye, and two neat trays of Uncle Iroh’s secret recipes scones.
‘You baked all of this in two hours?’
‘No.’ The bashful note in her voice has him turning; sure enough, Katara’s mouth is twisted in a tired smile. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I came in early.’
‘ How early?’
She looks back to the folded croissant dough; 754 folds so the pastry rises light and fluffy as air. ‘The night didn’t agree with me. I bake when I’m restless.’
He catches himself before the words can escape him, stands there in silent frustration. He’s painfully curious, he wants to know what’s keeping her awake, what’s on her mind, but she is his employee and colleague.
It’s hardly his place.
‘I’ll have to check the books for the overtime,’ he says instead and internally cringes.
‘Don’t bother. I didn’t do it for the money.’ She’s watching him like he’s a glacier slowly melting under the climate’s change or a man folded into himself on a street corner with no home to go to. Before he can say anything, she drops her gaze back to the dough and picks up a knife. ‘Bu rekh ef nahy i ahby ḥopet ef.’
For a second— less; a moment’s fragment— he smells rosemary and sage burning, hears a distant bell chime, and voices raised in song turn to screams and flames and—
He blinks, and it’s gone.
A headache begins beating behind his eyes. ‘What can I do?’ he asks so quietly he’s surprised she can hear him over the oven’s grumbling.
She doesn’t look up from slicing triangles out of her dough. ‘The sourdough; they’ll be full of life by now.’
It’s his favourite of the doughs they work with, and something he has in common with Katara. Yeast is fine, a convenient and neatly packaged way to leaven bread, but he was raised by his uncle who appreciates life for the living. And sourdough is life reanimated. Shaking off the unease that his colleague’s melancholy has left in his belly, Zuko pulls the towel off the gestating culture and gets to work.
It’s only when he hears Katara muttering to herself that he turns around to find her reaching her bare arm into the hungry oven.
‘What are you doing?!’
He’s moved before he registers it, is at her side, yanking her back by the wrist, his own fingers stinging with the heat.
She casts him a puzzled look. ‘I’m testing the heat,’ she says slowly, clearly.
‘Testing the… Is there something wrong with the temperature gauge?’
‘I presume not.’
‘Then…’ He glances down; he’s still holding her by the wrist; déjà vu curls around him, intangible as mist. They have been here before. He’s sure he’s never touched her and yet the soft dusky skin under his hand is as familiar as his own. Slowly, he lets her go. ‘Sorry, I thought you’d burn yourself.’
She studies him, expectantly, hungrily. The intensity makes him uncomfortable, like he’s answering questions on a test he hasn’t studied for. ‘Is that how you were burned?’
For all the heat of the open oven, he’s suddenly cold. ‘Excuse me?’
She purses her lips, turning back to the oven. ‘I won’t burn. I was only testing the heat; croissants are sensitive to too much heat.’
‘So is skin , Katara, that’s what the thermometer is for.’
‘I don’t use the thermometer.’
‘Well, I don’t like using ambulances on my staff!’
‘It doesn’t harm you! Look.’ She holds up her hand, warnings in her eye, before holding it before the yawning oven. ‘See? You get a feel for the intensity of the heat, you can sense its hunger. This heat is just about gentle enough for the croissants.’
‘Yeah, two hundred degrees.’ He taps the glass covering of the gauge, the red needle hovering over the tiny black 200 ° C .
Katara scoffs. ‘I don’t need a thermometer to tell me that.’
‘Well thermometer’s are precise. And they don’t give you burns from putting your limbs in them!’
‘People have been baking for thousands of years without mercury and sensors. Have a little trust in the magic of the process.’
Something volcanic, fuming, licks at his insides. ‘Magic?’
She clicks her tongue in irritation, turning around for the tray of raw croissants.
But Zuko… Zuko is boiling with fury. For some reason, he thinks of his uncle and how he didn’t visit the old man yesterday and his anger only grows. ‘Baking is a science. You heat dough to a specific temperature, you get food. It’s simple.’
‘That you think science and magic are separate at all,’ she snaps as she slides the tray home, ‘is laughable.’
He scoffs, rolls his eyes as she turns her back on him. ‘Jesus, you sound like my uncle.’
‘Do I?’ she asks stiffly. ‘Maybe you should listen better to your uncle then.’
I don’t have time for this , he thinks suddenly, with blind savagery, and turns back to his sourdough while a frosty silence falls over the warm kitchen.
Ty Lee arrives soon after, late as usual, and Zuko snaps at her that he’s had to deal with the daily orders for the two cafes down the road and she better make sure she’s on time tomorrow.
She just blinks at him. ‘Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or something?’
‘I woke up on the wrong side of I’m doing your job for you!’
‘We quarrelled,’ Katara calls from the kitchen and Ty Lee’s mouth forms an O shape.
‘Did you yell?’ she asks him with a threatening edge to her voice.
‘Do you have anything better to do than get involved?! Your job maybe!’
Ty Lee leans back against the counter, squinting at him. ‘Have you been to see your uncle recently?’
Katara adopts a similar pose against the kitchen doorway. ‘The sick uncle?’
Zuko doesn’t want to hear about his dying uncle; he’s sick to death of thinking about it. ‘Can you both just do your jobs? Please? Without forcing your way into my personal life?’
‘Excuse me, Iroh told me I was supposed to look out for you,’ Ty Lee exclaims and her usually playful expression turns grim. ‘You always get like this when something’s wrong.’
‘He meant with work , Ty Lee.’
‘You know he didn’t, Zuko.’
Katara steps between them, a hand on each of their shoulders. ‘I can finish your shift if you want to visit your uncle.’
His guts twist, they tangle, and he hates that her touch steadies him. He hates it. ‘You’ve already been up half the night—’
‘It doesn’t bother me.’
‘There’s unfair overtime and occupational health and safety issues to consid—’
‘I’m not tired, Zuko.’ Her eyes, usually blue as the ocean, swirl and for a dislocating moment they’re the colour of desert sand. ‘It’s okay. I wouldn’t say it was okay if it wasn’t.’
He rubs his eyes, pressing the heel of his palms into them. He wants to yell at them both again. Instead, he counts to five. ‘I was going to visit him after closing.’
‘Then you’ll see him for breakfast instead of afternoon tea,’ Katara sighs and drops her hand from his shoulder. It skims his chest as it falls, rankles his nerves. ‘And when you return, you can apologise.’
From Katara’s side, Ty Lee nods.
‘Apologise,’ he repeats tightly.
‘Tomorrow.’ Katara holds out her hand, watching him expectantly. ‘Agreed?
Zuko hesitates, feels the discord in his chest swirl indignantly, but his temper has done nothing but get him into trouble. It’s why he counts, why his uncle calls so often to check on him, why Ty Lee is eyeing him with that don’t be stupid look she gets. In the privacy of his own mind, he admits that he could have handled today better.
Grasping Katara’s hand gently, he shakes it. ‘Agreed.’
Later, after he’s brought Iroh a new book and sat with him until the old man falls asleep, Zuko swings by the bakery as it’s closing. He treats Katara and Ty Lee to a few drinks at the pub.
And, on the way, that apology.
By Ptolemaic times Isis was connected with rain — the “Nile in the sky” — with the moon, and the annual flooding of the Nile.
The lights don’t shudder in warning, they don’t flicker; they just disappear in a cold flash. Bright one moment, dark the next. Zuko pauses in his sticky work at the bench with the focaccia dough, cocks an ear since the darkness has stolen sight. No sound, nothing to explain why the power has forsaken them.
Only Katara is lit in burnished gold, glowing in the light from the ancient gas oven; she looks up from the tray in her hands, considering the ceiling. ‘That’s no good,’ she says and in the syllables surrounding the consonants, there is a rolling lilt to her accent he hasn’t heard before.
The kitchen’s familiar scent of rising bread and flour clouds like an eclipse and the dark kitchen shimmers with unseasonable summer heat, distant merchant calls, and the rumble of a cart drawn along—
‘I have a torch in my car.’ Her words are clipped once more; Zuko blinks, begins to detangle himself from the sticky focaccia dough— too slowly. Her silhouette disappears from the mouth of the oven and drifts through the gloom towards the back door. He tries to call to her, to remind her that the phones in his pocket and hers have torches, but his tongue is still heavy with the scent of crushed lotus root and incense. She beats him to the door, is lost to the slowly dawning morning beyond it while he wrestles back some sense of reality.
Maybe Uncle was right; maybe he does need a holiday. These hallucinations are getting worse. He grits his teeth and mumbles to himself, ‘It’s not like it’s easy to concentrate with her around all the time…’
Zuko shakes his head but she doesn’t disappear; she stands— keys, torch, and confusion— in the doorway, watching him. Always watching him with that… ‘Just… I was just talking to myself.’
The torch clicks on, throwing cool white light into the little kitchen. ‘Talking to the bread again?’
‘Something like that,’ he mutters, wiping his hands against his apron as he circles the bench. She meets him there, setting the torch face up in the flour dust; it makes the whitewashed ceiling glow, casts eerie shadows on the walls.
Katara drops her keys on the bench and they glimmer in the low light. ‘This is like the old days,’ she comments, a small and secretive smile playing around her mouth as she tilts her head back to examine the ceiling. ‘Though the ancients baked by firelight in the pre-dawn.’
‘Mmhm.’ She holds her hands up to the torch, hovers them there, searching for warmth. ‘Electric light is so cold but firelight… that’s why evern modern bakers worth their salt bake with gas ovens. Flames cannot be improved on by modernity. Stone ovens give you the most even temperature but there’s something about cooking with a living flame that’s so…’
The same smile-with-a-secret interrupts her musing.
Zuko finds himself distracted by her lips; he swallows. ‘You know a lot about it.’
‘How people used to bake. You talk about it like you’ve studied it. Did you learn during your apprenticeship?’
She traces the glimmering shapes on her key ring. ‘Experience, I suppose. You pick things up after a while.’
‘When you worked overseas, you mean?’
Katara smirks. ‘Something like that. Have you seen this before?’ She withdraws her fingers so he can see the symbol she’s been tracing with her forefinger; a cross with an upside down teardrop where it’s northern prong should be. It’s maddeningly, vaguely familiar.
‘Yes,’ he hears himself say, reaching for the warm burnished gold. ‘My uncle carries one. It’s a key, isn’t it?’
‘The key of life,’ the woman beside him answers. ‘It means “life,” it is life. Where I grew up, people had respect for life and bread is reanimated life. They told stories about gods who transformed life to death and death to life… The ankh symbolises that.’
He traces the same path she had over the ankh . ‘Where did you grow up?’
‘A long, long way from here,’ she says sadly and reaches around her neck, fiddling with the leather choker there. Deftly, she pulls a golden charm from beneath her shirt. ‘Here. This is for you.’
She takes his hand, turns it palm up and drops the charm there. ‘When a symbol calls to you, you should never ignore it. There are forces in this world stronger than thoughts; you would be wise to let them guide you from time to time.’
That makes him furrow his brow. ‘Forces? You mean like magic?’
‘I don’t believe in magic.’
‘I know.’ She winks at him and turns to the oven, fishing a tea towel from her apron pocket. With the ease of one who has done so a thousand times before, she slides a tray of golden brown sourdough free and sets it on the cooling shelf.
No, he doesn’t believe in magic, but there is something about her… And that, he believes in.
As he returns to the focaccia dough, Zuko secures the ankh charm and its leather cord around his wrist.
Ty Lee is first to arrive. He opens the apartment door to find her with her arms outstretched in a playful Y, a bottle of wine in each hand.
‘Happy birthday, boss!’
‘It’s not my birthday.’
‘It will be tomorrow,’ she sings, pressing the two bottles into his chest as she passes by. ‘What was our agreement?’
He lets the door swing closed and follows her into the hallway. ‘That I won’t complain about… birthday things.’
‘Good boy.’ She pulls up short as they enter the living room. ‘Wow, Zuko.’
Ty Lee sets her bag down slowly. ‘You really went all out. The candles are beautiful, very moody .’
Heat suffuses his cheeks. ‘They’re just something I had lying around; a gift from someone.’
‘Yeah, from me and Mai.’ She smirks at him, shedding her jacket. ‘I’m glad they’re finally getting some use.’
He doesn’t understand why she’s making such a big deal about it. His apartment is plain, sparse his uncle calls it; the living room is little more than a couple of couches, a coffee table, and stacks of books he hasn’t found a bookshelf for yet. So he’d set out some candles on the table. And window sills. And the mantle over the dysfunctional fireplace. He is trying to be accommodating.
‘She’s coming, right?’
Zuko blinks, looking up from his critical study of the room. ‘Who?’
‘She’s not my girlfriend.’
‘Oh really? Who did you think I meant then?’
He shoots her a dirty look. ‘Where’s Mai?’
‘Running late.’ Ty Lee nods towards the kitchen where she promptly hunts down wine glasses. ‘She has a thing.’
‘Well, it’ll just be you, me, and Katara then,’ he mumbles, setting down the first bottle of wine and cracking open the second. ‘Uncle told us to have a wild time, his words not mine. He even made a Spotify playlist.’
‘He’s getting techy now he’s on bed rest.’ Ty Lee holds up the two glasses while Zuko pours. ‘A whole Spotify playlist by himself? He once spent an hour trying to find Google.’
‘He’s bored.’ Zuko caps the bottle, setting it by its twin, and following Ty Lee back into the living room. ‘He’s taking online classes. The nurses are helping him.’
‘I bet they are.’
‘I don’t ask, Ty Lee. I don’t want to know.’
She’s smirking when she hands him one of the glasses, still smirking as she settles into the armchair. ‘I saw him. Last weekend.’
Zuko frowns, surprised. ‘You did?.’
‘Uh huh. Told him I’m keeping my promise, and keeping you in line.’
‘Of course you did.’
‘He had a million questions,’ she continues, sipping the red delicately. ‘Mostly about Katara. And you. And you and Katara.’
He chooses to take a deep drink from his glass. Then a second. It's good enough— as a distraction at least. ‘So that’s why you’re calling her my girlfriend? Because you’re giving Uncle Iroh ideas?’
‘Oh, no.’ She reclines deeper into the couch as footsteps clatter on the staircase beyond the front door. ‘I called her your girlfriend because your little crush is obvious.’
Knock, knock sounds from the front door.
‘I’m not going to dignify that with a response,’ he practically hisses at Ty Lee as he passes her on his way out of the room.
Excitement, heady as wine, accompanies him to the door. He takes a moment before opening it— a moment to exhale, to run a hand through his hair, to straighten his collared shirt.
His hands are steady when he twists the lock and swings open the door.
Katara looks up from her inspection of the doormat, a smile like wildfire catching; he can’t help but return it. ‘The birthday boy,’ she says as though it’s a secret joke that only the two of them can understand.
She hoists the bag slung over her shoulder a little higher, tilting her ear halfway to her shoulder as she studies him through eyes that whisper. ‘Twenty-five today?’
He swallows. ‘Tomorrow.’
‘Ah, we must make it to the midnight hour, then.’ Her smile grows again. ‘May I come in?’
Shit . ‘Oh, of course.’ He trips over himself to make way and Katara enters his apartment.
‘It’s the worst beer I have ever tasted,’ Mai declares after the first sip when no one says a thing. Katara’s knocked back half of hers with a relish Zuko can’t quite muster for the cloudy brew she’d produced after dinner. Apparently neither can Mai.
Or Ty Lee.
‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Katara,’ she splutters, setting down the drink. ‘There are solids in this!’
‘Sediment, yes…’ A funny little smile is curling at the edge of her mouth. ‘You prefer modern beers?’
‘Do you mean the ones that aren’t also a meal?’ Mai drawls from Ty Lee’s side; her mouth is pinched into a grimace that’s attempting— poorly— to be a smile. ‘We’ve had dinner. I don’t need seconds.’
‘Try it with the filone .’ Katara leans forward, plucking a slice from the breadboard, topping it with hummus and prosciutto. Mai takes a slice of the crusty bread sceptically. ‘Trust me, it’s a classic.’
‘She’s like a bulldog with this stuff, babe, you may as well get it over with,’ Ty Lee stage whispers, winking at Zuko over the others’ heads.
Mai sighs but dips the bread, chews it, and washes it back with a tepid sip of beer. ‘Better,’ she admits after she’s swallowed.
Katara turns to Zuko with a triumphant grin; she offers him the filone with hummus and prosciutto. ‘Here. You try.’
He smiles, reaching for it, but she presses past his hands, hovering before his lips. ‘Open.’
Zuko can’t look away from the cloudless night skies in her eyes as he bites and chews; there’s something painfully familiar about this. He’s sure this woman has never fed him before, not from her hand, not with this intoxicating intimacy, and yet...
‘Good?’ she asks him.
‘Delicious,’ he replies.
'And on that note.' Ty Lee sets down the full beer, getting to her feet with that same dancer's grace she uses as she makes her way around the shop. 'Mai?'
'You're leaving?' Zuko asks on the heel of a deep drink; the beer might be growing on him.
Mai sighs and casts the whistling beyond the window a dark look. 'I suppose.'
Katara glances between them. 'But it isn’t midnight yet. He isn't truly twenty-five until the new day.'
'You'll have to fly it solo, chicky babe,' Ty Lee tells her matter-of-factly. She grins at Zuko, wrapping her scarf around her neck with a flourish. 'Not quite solo.'
Zuko tells himself that he only looks over at his baker to see her response; her eyes are already on him. Considering. Shaded. Secretive. 'I can't rightly let him bring in his birthday on his own now, can I?'
Mai snorts, rolls her eyes, and tugs at her girlfriend. 'Jesus. Let's go.'
Ty Lee is beaming. 'I got you, babe. See you two on Monday!'
Something nervous and shivery as the cooling May mornings settles in Zuko's chest as they let themselves out. 'Thanks for coming,' he calls with a half-raised hand.
'See you Monday,' Katara echoes.
The door closes.
And they are alone.
'Can I get you another beer?' she asks him, touching his knee as she passes.
Despite everything, Zuko finds himself saying, 'Yes.'
Time passes strangely then, in wild and unruly leaps and bounds. There are painful moments of slow, aching clarity— when she goes to the bathroom, when he disappears into his room to roll a joint. Time slows and he becomes painfully aware of how his shirt sits askew on his shoulders or how warm the room is. Most of the time though, he is so drunk on the stories they share that it might have already been morning and he'd never have known. Not even the sun could distract him from Katara's trip to Mozambique or the time she broke her wrist sailing to Peru.
He uses his phone to light their way to the top of the stairs to smoke and sees it's only quarter to twelve; it's then he decides the time doesn't really matter. Birthday or not, it's the moments she laughs while they pass the joint back and forth that really count. Not minutes. Moments.
'What happened?' she asks him as the rollie burns low. There is little more than streetlight glow and the luminescence spilling softly from the doorway behind them.
He exhales and the smoke turns the low light opaque. 'Happened?'
Katara hooks her finger around his, steals the last of the joint. The cut under his bandaided pointer finger smarts.
‘Ah. That. It's nothing. Nicked it with the kitchen knife earlier.’
She exhales and through the smoke, he sees the frown crowd her brow. ‘And this one?’
He stills as her fingers drag softly over his scar; the ruined skin itches under their feather-light touch. ‘Baking accident. Years ago.’
‘Who did it to you?’
He blinks, mirrors her frown. ‘What makes you think someone did this to me?’
She raises her eyes to the heavens as she takes the last toke, stubs out the joint, and releases her breath in a rush. ‘It’s always someone. A brother. A father. A daughter or son.’
Shit, he must be really high. Or maybe she is. ‘Always?’
‘Always.’ She doesn’t look back at him, though he can’t look away from her. She raises her hands, palms up, and stares at them wistfully. ‘I’m never in time to help, always too late. I’ve been too late for years. Scarred. Always scarred.’
He wants to wipe the old sorrow right out of her eyes, wants to return laughter and light there. ‘If it’s any consolation, there’s not a lot you can do for burns like this. Even the doctors. They did the best they could…’
He trails off. She’s shaking her head, heavy, disconsolate shakes. ‘I’m not a doctor.’
She glances at him then and he’s suddenly aware they’re speaking two different languages, two conversations that overlap somewhere but he’s not sure what she’s really saying to him. ‘Will you keep a secret, Zuko?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
‘I mean, really keep it. Do you know what it means to keep a secret?’
‘Katara.’ He’s touching her arm before he can stop himself; she’s trembling. ‘You can tell me anything.’
She studies him and by this midnight light, her blue eyes appear black, gleaming. ‘Give me your hand.’ He does and she pulls the bandaid free, tossing it behind her where it disappears into shadows. Brow creased, she raises his hand, twisting it this way and that under heavy scrutiny, before bringing it to her lips.
Slowly, he feels her lick the cut. ‘K—Katara?’
‘Shh.’ She closes her eyes, expression grim as a tomb, and cups both her hands around his at her lips. She whispers something… something low and guttural in the notes of a lament; he misses all but the last few words. ‘ Unen pet unen etj kher .’
His hand is warm, fireside warm, as she lets him go; it falls into her lap where goosepimples sail up his arm. ‘Katara?’
She’s looking at him, at his scar, again; her face is ashen. ‘I would have healed it,’ she tells him, taking her bag from the top stair and standing. ‘Happy birthday, Zuko.’
He’s frozen as she descends the stairs, and disappears down the street. When he finally stands, chilled to the bone, and returns inside to the light, he has to sit down again when he finds no cut on his finger.
She looks at him and there are rain clouds in her eyes. ‘Your uncle…’
A stone drops into Zuko’s stomach. ‘What about him? Is he okay?’
‘He lives,’ she says but she is watching the floor, twisting her lip between her teeth, the ankh symbol between her fingers. ‘He isn’t going to get better though.’
It isn’t a question; it hits him like a prediction. A truth. How she knows it though... In that moment, he questions how well he knows his colleague. ‘Have… Have you been to see him?’
‘No. I don’t know him.’
She grimaces. ‘I know how to help him. Zuko.’ She stills her fiddling, the keys giving a final cold, jangling clang , ‘I know how to heal your uncle.’
White noise swells for a dizzying moment, cluttering his mind. ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
‘I’m not the one who mumbles.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asks loudly, hands becoming tense fists at his side. ‘Cause it sounded like you said some bullshit about “healing” my sick uncle.’
She studies him with curious, wary eyes. ‘That’s right.’
‘He’s in hospital, Katara! With real doctors who know how to treat cancer! Not some fucking magic trick you refuse to explain!’
‘I told you, Zuko.’ She changes then— imperceptible and yet unignorable. Bronze, eyes ringed in inky kohl, flanked by stone pillars; it disappears in a moment. ‘Magic and science aren’t as separate as you think.’
And he wants to deny it, wants to yell at her for the flicker of hope and excitement that flares to life inside of him. ‘What are you saying?’
‘I’ve made him something. A sourdough. It’s a gift.’ She watches him warily. ‘Will you take me to him after work?’
It’s still dark outside. There’s aysh bread in the oven, cultured baguette dough on his workbench, the order he’s supposed to make by six… but science is magic and she healed his finger the way nothing but time should be able to.
The cancer ward is open until eight. They knock off at five.
‘Yes,’ he agrees, running a distracted hand through his hair. ‘Okay, yes.’
Zuko doesn’t talk the whole whole drive back from the hospital.
He’s not sure he can.
‘Nephew, you told me our new baker was talented but this must be the best sourdough I’ve ever tasted!’ The old man — Zuko is so used to seeing only a figure fading into the crisp, stark hospital sheets — has colour, definition, he hasn’t had in a year. Iroh twinkles at Katara where she sits at his bedside. ‘My dear, thank you for brightening an old man’s day.’
‘Sleep,’ she had told him in heavily accented English and the old man’s smile barely slipped as he slid into dreams.
‘What the fuck?’ Zuko had croaked. He’d barely heard himself over the white noise blaring in his ears.
‘Come,’ she’d coaxed and those vivid blue eyes were the only thing that made sense in that hospital room. ‘I’ll explain everything.’
She’s still silent as she guides his car up the gutter and down the alleyway down to the bakery’s backdoor. Secretly, Zuko’s relieved. He wants answers but he’s not sure he’s not going to throw up.
He just needs a moment.
Katara parks his car neatly beside her own, lets her hands fall from the steering wheel back onto her lap. Those hands baked that sourdough. He’s seen them bake dozens of loaves, hundreds by now, but never one that chased cancer away.
‘What the fuck?’ is the most eloquent question he can phrase just now.
She nods, slowly. ‘Will you sit with me for a while and listen? I’ll talk… But you have to promise to listen.’
Zuko’s not sure he can say anything anyway. He makes a sound of assent and gets messily from the car. His nerves are sizzling, restless things; his hands are shaking. ‘W… Will you wait?’ He points to the back step of the bakery. ‘Just… wait. There. Please.’
She studies him over the roof of the car. ‘Where will you go, Zuko?’
He points upwards, to his apartment, and swallows. ‘Please. Just… wait here.’
Cool acceptance clouds her expression; storm heads gather there in her eyes. ‘You do what you must.’
What he must do is clatter upstairs, fumble his front door open, and snatch a joint from the box he keeps in his sock drawer. As soon as he has it, fear curls around his insides; would she still be there? She said she would wait but…
He takes the stairs three at a time, staggering to a stop before the bakery doorway.
Katara watches him cautiously.
‘You’re still here,’ he says dumbly.
‘I said I would be.’ Her eyes are swimming, overfull. ‘I didn’t think you would come back.’
Zuko holds up the joint in explanation while he searches his pockets for a lighter. ‘I said I would.’
‘That’s not always enough for you.’
He frowns, stills as his fingers close on a zippo. ‘Who are you?’
Katara gives a broken, humourless laugh. ‘Here.’
She holds out her hand for the joint and lighter; he hands them over, sits quietly at her side as she lights the smoke and puffs at it. When she passes him the joint, when he gets the courage to look at her, there are rivulets of salty water on her cheeks.
Zuko’s chest tightens. ‘Katara…’
‘I had temples once,’ she says through those tears that fall like floodplain rains. ‘Though these days it feels more like a dream… I wore a sheath dress, a cow’s head, and smelled of incense. Women and men baked for me, so I would help them, heal them, it’s all I wanted; to help my people. The exchange is older than I am… an offering, a reward. Give and take. Push and pull. I was friend to the meek long before him, friend of slaves, sinners, and the downtrodden. I heard the prayers of all, no one was forgotten or overlooked…
‘But then Brother-Church came.’ Here she turns cold as ice, hard as stone, and Zuko cannot see any of the Katara he knows in the blank planes of her face. ‘With his Virgin Mother, because a woman who loves sex cannot be holy to these people. No, she is either a virginal saint or a prostitute, and She was the Holy Mother of God. Her son took my bread, he broke it, and I have never been the same since.’
Zuko looks at the joint between his fingers and wonders what the fuck is in it, even as somewhere, down by the base of his spine, he hears truth in the things she says, the words she speaks.
Somehow it is easy to accept his workmate is a goddess, especially after watching his uncle’s complexion brighten for the first time in months after a mouthful of barley-lily sourdough.
She takes the joint from him and her fingers are warm as sunlight. ‘We had a herb like this,’ she mumbles, studying it with those overcast eyes. She holds it before her, following the lazy smoke trailing from the glowing tip. ‘Mandrake, you’d know it as. Initiates burned it and I could speak with them, directly with them.’ She inhales, long and slow, her eyes wandering over his face. ‘Like this.’
She leans forward, beckoning him, and Zuko’s whole body catches fire as she drops a hand to his shoulder, pulling him nearer. She places her lips right by his and exhales a roar of smoke into his mouth.
It isn’t so much that the world falls away as falling enters the world. Nothing changes exactly — the stars are still in the sky, the bakery door still at his back, the woman-goddess smiles sadly at him through wet, blue eyes — but there is a shift . A pivot. Room is made in his brain for ghostly memories of farmers plucking geese and alligators in the papyrus, of mud-brick homes and stone temples and tombs that towered into the sky, of plentiful, fertile lands that bore wheat and barley and the fine breads they transformed into. Loaves, hundreds of them, offered in temples. Servants, even servants , ate well on bread, oil, fish, and vegetables— and every year the wild celebrations when the goddess blessed the lands with life-bringing floods.
Zuko exhales Katara’s breath and a final vision seeks him: a wall of carvings and hieroglyphs, with her painted in brilliant ochre, black, and cream at its centre.
He blinks and the earth stops spinning.
She is watching him, toking slowly at the joint, a melancholic smile at the corner of her mouth. ‘Long gone, those days.’
‘What the fuck .’
Katara just shrugs.
Zuko runs his hand through his hair, peering at her from the corner of his eye. ‘My uncle told me a story once, more than once—’ His mouth is dry, it’s so dry ‘—of the goddess Isis. I told you he said bread is the king of the table? That all else is just the court that surrounds the king. And we bake bread, from all over the world. Even when I wanted to expand into new markets, he refused to abandon the loaves we’d become known for. And always, that story about Isis and Osiris and Egypt.’
‘It’s why I could help him,’ she says, and nods up at the full moon. ‘That needed to be full, the tides right, but every loaf your uncle has baked, he has baked with the old ways in heart. Every loaf, he might not have known it, but every loaf was for me. And a lifetime’s worth of bread is the kind of offering that can move mountains or heal the sick.’
Zuko’s chest is tight, his stomach roiling. Every nerve tingles, every limb feels heavy, numb. His heart is the only thing he can feel, galloping and charging as though under pursuit. ‘In the story… In Uncle’s story, you had a husband. A son.’
She says nothing but he catches the movement of her throat as she swallows.
‘Where are they?’
‘I don’t speak of the dead,’ she says softly, with finality. ‘Not everyone can adapt or change or rise with the times.’
He might be having a heart attack, or maybe he’s just really fucking stoned. He’s not sure. But his lips are cold. ‘I think… I need some water.’
She looks at him then, a shadow crossing her face, before she shakes her head. ‘Sorry, my fault. Here.’ Her hands are gentle; one on his shoulder, the other his neck. Slowly she draws closer, apologies written in her eyes. ‘Don’t be upset about this.’
And she kisses him.
Instantly, the atrophy of his limbs washes away like dust under rainfall. His limbs relax, his arms regain sensation and heat builds where she touches him— shoulder, neck, lips .
He’s washed clean. Renewed.
For the first time in a long time, something makes sense to Zuko. He opens his mouth and a low sound escapes him as he reaches for her, runs a hand over her cheek and back into her long, loose hair.
His other just pulls her closer.
She makes a surprised sound— high, breathy— and presses forward, into his touch, and then beyond his lips. Her tongue is confident, but she waits for him to engage, to meet her, and tangle. They dance, trade touches, share breath— Zuko swears he can taste honey and butter on her tongue.
He’s so turned on he’s only half aware that she’s lifting his shirt, searching out his belt. ‘W—Wait,’ he gasps, gripping her hands, pulling them up, away, even as he deepens the kiss.
Groaning, he pulls apart, rests his forehead against hers. Neither of them is breathing steadily. ‘Inside,’ he attempts to communicate. ‘Upstairs?’
Her eyes are wide as galaxies and full of stars and all the weather the sky can hold. For the first time tonight, she looks peaceful. Happy. ‘If you’ll have me,’ she whispers through shiny, swollen lips.
He wants to laugh at her, it’s laughable; as if there has been a moment this whole time — this whole time of knowing her — that he hasn’t wanted whatever part of her she was willing to give him. ‘Yes,’ he tells her and surges to his feet, pulling her with him. Despite his earlier thought, it’s she who laughs at him — a husky, delighted sound — and rises up on her toes to kiss promises into the corners of his mouth. They feel like promises. They must be.
Why else does she look exactly as he feels?
‘I want you,’ she tells him, and he feels the words as she says them against his lips, ‘for so long, I’ve wanted you.’
‘Upstairs,’ he begs, and tugs at her, pulls her towards the old steel staircase. ‘I want— please, come with me.’
She follows, allows him to draw her up by the hand, up, up, where he’s met with the locked apartment door— the key to which is in the backpack he’s left on the step they’d been sitting on.
Katara hides her grin behind her hand, leans back against the door jamb, eyes sparkling. ‘I’ll wait, shall I?’
‘You better not disappear or—or beam up or something.’
She laughs, then, snorts. ‘You’re ridiculous.’ She tilts her head, watching him as he races back down the stairs. ‘Cute, though,’ she calls down to him. ‘But ridiculous.’
Zuko loses sight of her while he snatches his bag and her jacket from the bakery’s back step and breathes deeper when he rounds the corner and she’s still waiting for him at the top of the stair.
He climbs them in seconds, retrieving the key from the pocket of his bag and shoving it into the lock.
He turns to her, triumphant, as the door swings in. ‘After you.’
She grins and strides forward, into the apartment. She leads them with no hesitation through the entryway, down the hall, turning to face him finally outside his bedroom door.
There, she tucks her hair behind her ear, reaches for the handle, pauses. Katara watches him. Zuko’s so impatient he’s ready to break down the door with his bare hands. ‘Shall I…?’
He opens the door and she’s on him. His bag goes spilling to the floor along with both their jackets— his shirt a moment later. She presses him backwards, back into the gloom of his room, lit only by the moonlight streaming in through the window. Her lips are hot and wet and fuck, it’s been a while and he’s about to lose it if she doesn’t—
A hand on his chest. The barest pressure.
Zuko’s knees hit the back of his bed, drop him onto it. Instinctively, he reaches for her, seeks to fill the emptiness she’d occupied only seconds ago, but Katara dances back out of his reach, into the moonlight.
‘Uh uh,’ she whispers when he makes to follow her. ‘Stay.’ Then, she takes the hem of her shirt and he spies a slip of hidden, brown skin. ‘Watch.’
Her eyes leave his and suddenly, it’s as though he’s not there at all. She breathes in deeply and the sound she makes when she breathes out makes his cock leak precum and heat beat in his cheeks. She turns, catches sight of herself in the full length mirror against the wall, and raises her shirt in a movement he can only call a dance . It’s sinuous, smooth, like the skin she reveals and so clearly a movement that feels good to her, rather than something meant to titillate him, that it leaves him speechless, struck dumb. The slow upward movement of her shirt halts when just the dusky underside of her nipples peek through the shadowy opening her fisted hands have made of this simple cream shirt. Shit. No bra. Zuko’s eyes are glued to the curve of her waist, the way it flows into her hips, where they lay hidden beyond the waistband of her jeans.
He’s aching to touch her, to run his hands along that line, to lick it and kiss it— a momentary madness grips him and he suddenly craves to bite her there, just to feel how soft the skin is. He wants to feel it yield to his teeth.
Katara, though, is as unhurried as the seasons. She is caught in quiet contemplation of the mirror and he sees now that the little circles she draws with her hips pull the seam of her skin-tight jeans across her crotch and the sensitive places there, that the slow way she twists her shirt teases her nipples.
He is painfully close to coming just from watching this.
After long, painful minutes, she sighs and flexes backwards, lifting her shirt over her head and tossing it to the floor. He can see her nipples— desert-coloured, only shades darker than her skin— perked and straining and when she runs her hand down her body she circles them, twists them just hard enough to make herself moan.
‘Katara,’ he pleads in a cracked voice, every part of him straining for her.
She turns, plucking her left nipple, teasing her right with her thumb. ‘Zuko.’
‘Let me…’ He doesn’t know how to put this into words, how to translate this desire into anything legible, tangible. Worship comes close, but seems a touch too close to hyperbole to offer to worship the body of a goddess. God, he just needs to touch her.
She grinds forward again in one of those loose, unhurried movements; her cheeks flushed. ‘What do you want?’
One of her hands wanders from the dusky peak it teases, down her breast, her round belly; it pops the button on her jeans. ‘What do you want of me?’
‘Fuck, I want to touch you and lick you and fuck you. Please, please come here.’
Her eyes are half-lidded, her lips parted, as she bends from the waist, shifting her weight so that first one hip, then the second, are freed from the stretch denim. Fuck, no panties. She glances up at him, grins slow and wide. ‘Why don’t you come help me with these?’
He moves as though in a dream. He’s not sure if he’s still stoned or just drunk on this woman and the fire she’s bending in his blood. When he goes down on his knees before her, and her eyes gleam, he decides he doesn’t care which it is. He knows what she wants from him.
Slowly, keeping her gaze, he bends forward and kisses her above the black curls between her legs. She drops her hands from her jeans as his replaces them, edges the jeans down her thighs, over her knees, calves… The lower they get, the lower he’s forced down until he’s practically bowing at her feet.
She steps one foot free, then the second, and finally— finally— she’s naked before him.
Zuko holds out a hand, strokes the outside of her thigh. ‘Will you let me taste you?’
A wicked grin crosses her face. ‘Mm. My favourite thing.’
He doesn’t need any more encouragement than that.
In a heartbeat, he’s peppering kisses across her stomach, down, down until he can drag his nose through the dark curls over her pubic bone. Shamelessly, he inhales, draws her in scent, sight, and all, until his lips brush somewhere sensitive, swollen.
He looks up at her, holds her gaze as he kisses it.
Her legs are shaking.
‘Step back,’ he tells her and delights when she shivers at his voice and obeys. Moth to a flame, he follows. ‘Another.’
She sucks in a breath when her back hits the wall-mounted mirror. ‘Cold.’
Yes, but not for long.
He hitches one of her legs over his shoulder, catches the briefest sight of himself in the mirror— sharp and hungry and focused— before he finally leans forward and grazes his tongue over her clit. She sucks in a breath but he’s already repeating the movement again… and again. Then he can’t help himself: he strokes the swollen bundle of nerves, caresses it, and presses her back against the mirror with a bruising grip on her thigh and his forearm pressed into her belly.
She tastes salty as the sea only infinitely sweeter and more complex— she is earthy as soil and flavoursome as the richest meal he could imagine. She intoxicates him like wine. Fuck. Fuck. He’s close, too close. Her hands find his head, weave into his hair, and she gasps his name. Twice . And—
‘Oh, fuck , your tongue... your tongue .’
He finds himself groaning into her cunt as he comes from the taste-scent-sounds of her. Fuck . He kisses her pretty little clit throughout his orgasm, bucks into nothing as it rides him, plunges two fingers into her as the pleasure leaves his body. Fuck!
He sucks at her clit, curls his fingers inside of her as her wetness drips down his chin. He feels half mad but what a way for him to lose his mind. The one leg she’s supporting her weight on is trembling; the hands pressing him closer and rubbing his lips harder against her, more insistently. Her breathing is ragged as ocean winds.
‘Keep going,’ she gasps, ‘please don’t stop, I’m so close.’
His mind— full to bursting with her sunshine flavour and the soft, wet flesh against his mouth— focuses on the repetitive circles he’s drawing over her clit, the fingers he’s fucking her with. And because he’s always wanted everything, all the things, everything he can get— he wipes the wetness from his chin with his free hand and reaches up to thumb and flick one of her nipples.
She gasps and her grip on his head slackens as her hips buck against his mouth, her cunt squeezing his fingers. Greedy for more— more of those sounds that set his body ablaze— he adds a third finger and fucks her through her orgasm.
She cries out, legs shaking, and slumps down, sinks, until she is a mess of shuddering limbs on the floor at the base of his mirror. He leans forward, stealing her lips for a kiss, making her taste what he’d done to her, what he’d made her do all over his face.
He lets his fingers slow, the pace exploratory, gentle once more, albeit no less heated. She shakes under his lips, drinks his kiss like it's all she has left.
He’s hard again— who wouldn’t be after making a goddess come on their tongue— and regrettably fully clothed below his waist. It’s involuntary, the slow way he’s grinding into her leg in time with his fingers, he can’t help it. Half of him wants to bring her off on his hand again, the other half wants her to fuck him senseless the way he suspects she could.
What does she want?
She moans into his kiss, turning her head aside to gasp for breath; a single line of saliva connects their lips. ‘That… That was…’ She shudders as he pushes deeper, turns her head into his neck. ‘Mm, that feels…’
‘How does it feel?’ he asks in gravel tones.
She grips his arm, nails digging into the muscle. ‘Like heaven, like magic. Like— ugh— like I want to come again.’
‘What do you want: Fingers or cock?’ She whimpers and he speeds up his thrusts, his free hand wandering back to her breasts. ‘Or fingers then cock?’
She laughs weakly into his neck and then she’s thrusting back onto his fingers, adjusting his hold on her nipples— squeeze tighter , pluck harder , bend down, lick here . Zuko is paying such close attention to her body, how it speaks to him, he almost forgets all about the aching cock in his pants, the mess he already made. He gets lost in the goddess bowed against his bedroom wall, moaning as he snarls and bends again between her thighs and licks devotion into her clit.
His arm is aching, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t have enough hands to do all the things he wants to be doing to her at once. He wants more .
This time, her orgasm hits her like the retreating tide. She gasps, her whole body going briefly slack as a doll, before a surge of lightning tightens every muscles in her body. She arches into him, mouth open in a silent shout, and Zuko pulls his face and fingers free in time to watch her cunt contract, tremble, and a gush of liquid soak the floor before her. Tremors play along her thigh muscles, writhe under her skin as she comes with her eyes squeezed closed.
By the time it’s done, she’s closer to reclined than slumped up against the wall and he’s shedding his pants, one hand around the painfully hard flesh between his legs.
This is how she sees him when she opens her eyes: kneeling before her, his eyes traveling the mess he’d made of her, fist pumping up and down his length.
‘That for me?’ she asks in a voice of milk and honey.
He nods. He means to say Only if you want, if you’re too tired I’ll just finish myself off, please, please let me come on your tits or your arse but all that comes out is a grunt of, ‘Please.’
Katara picks herself up, runs a heavy hand through her knotted hair, as she watches his hand. ‘Bed.’
She swats the hand away, giving him half a dozen curious strokes before nodding behind him. ‘Lay back in bed.’
He scrambles to his feet, helps her up, and kisses her all the way back to the bed. She warms again under his kiss, more vocal now she’d loosened up with a couple of orgasms. She sighs and moans, lets loose little breathy sighs into his mouth.
Finally, she pushes him down, crawls over him, and as she rears back aligning herself with his cock, he can see the goddess in her. ‘Wait.’ He curses himself, squeezes her legs. ‘Condoms—’
‘I’m clean and protected.’ She circles the head of him against her lips and he grits his teeth and closes his eyes. ‘No plastics or latex, if you’re okay with it.’
‘Y—Yes I’m clean too,’ he manages, and she sinks onto him in one hot, wet movement that forces a groan from him. ‘Oh, fuck me.’
‘Hm, that’s the idea,’ she grins, bending until her hair shrouds them like a curtain and she can pluck kisses from his lips. ‘I like you with the taste of me at your lips.’
‘What? It’s true,’ she whispers and moves. Just her hips; she lifts them slow and long, so that time stretches out while she strokes up the whole length of him, and just as his cock is about to pop free, she reverses, pressing steadily back down.
Together, they sigh.
Zuko raises a hand, presses her hair behind her ear so he can cup her cheek, kiss her as slow as she’s moving above him. ‘I love how you feel. You’re beautiful and soft and…’ He doesn’t quite know how to say it— that this is not just fucking. He thinks he touched something in her earlier by the mirror and she’s sure as hell fucking something more than his cock right now. She knows it, too, he can see it in the gentle creases at the corners of her eyes.
‘I know,’ she whispers and brushes kisses over his eyelids, cheeks, lips. ‘I feel it too, you know.’
He hisses out his breath between his teeth as she surges a little deeper, a touch faster, on his cock. He runs a hand down her spine, splaying it against her lower back. Together, they press down and sigh at the spikes of pleasure.
Love. She’s making love to him.
They’re making it together.
‘Katara,’ he gasps and she bends nearer to kiss her name from his lips, her thrusts beginning to speed up, her hips tilting forward as she thrusts up, backwards as she plunges down. ‘Tell me how it feels for you.’
She’s barely more coherent. Roughly, she takes the hand at her cheek and presses it onto one of her swollen nipples. When she speaks, her voice is rough with an accent he doesn’t recognise. ‘When I stroke up, like this … mmm, if I tilt my pelvis, I can feel my clit drag against the whole long length of you. Ah . And when I go down…’ She hums under her breath, eyes fluttering closed. ‘At this angle you hit such a nice spot… but if I sit up…’
He rolls her nipple between his fingers, kisses her lips. ‘Sit up.’ She peels open her eyes, bleary with pleasure. ‘You can always come back if you miss me.’
She smiles so brightly he can’t help but return it. The hand at the base of her spine slides around to her hip, the one at her breast likewise tracing a path downwards. She sits straight and he has only a second to appreciate every curve and roll of her stretched above him before she raises herself and drops back down and they both groan.
Fuck, that was deep .
‘Good?’ he asks in a strained voice.
She braces herself against his chest, nodding. ‘Fuck yes.’
He huffs in laughter but then she sets a steady rhythm that brings to mind drumbeats and stamping feet and his hands at her hips help her rise and push her back down. He follows her movement, wide-eyed wonder at the sight of his wet and gleaming cock disappearing inside of her, as she chases her pleasure.
‘Again?’ he asks her tightly as his own orgasm curls closer. ‘Can you come again for me?’
Her head— tilted back— rolls forward and she meets his gaze with storms in her eyes. Fuck… ‘You want me to?’
‘Fuck yes. Come on my cock. Please come on my cock.’
A shiver traces her spine and he knows what to do to help her. He splays his palm in her pubic hair, steadying it against her thrusts, so he can swipe that wet little clit with his thumb.
Her lips part, her eyes lock with his. ‘Circles, Zuko— ugh— circles. And faster.’
He thrusts up into her as he obeys. In an entirely unguarded moment, her eyes flutter and her hands tighten on his chest. Fuck, I could watch her get off on me forever …
‘I’m close,’ she sobs and there are tears in her eyes. Either side of his hips, her thigh shake, her thrusts weaken. ‘I’m so close, Zuko…’
‘Touch yourself,’ he growls, releasing her clit, grabbing her hips and holding them up as he thrusts up into her.
She gasps, one hand flying to her breast, the other to her clit… The two of them hang suspended there in those long moments of mounting pleasure, moving feverishly but held still in the gaze of the other.
He feels it.
The moment she comes.
Again, she’s the tides and the moon and he’s a mere mortal— powerless to resist her pull. She drags him out to sea with her.
He comes with a shout, pushing her down even as he presses up. His back bows, his hips twitch him deeper, deeper— he must be bruising her with the way he’s holding her.
Zuko pulls her down, wraps his arms around her, provides some structure for the way she twitches and gasps under her own orgasm. He peppers her neck and shoulders with kisses until her body releases her and she slumps— loose and limp— in his arms. The kisses are softer, more tender, each one weightier somehow than their deepest kiss yet tonight.
He rubs gentle circles into her back, stroking her, soothing her, even when she shakes and he feels tears leak against his neck.
Something in him knows these aren’t sad tears, but they worry him all the same.
He waits them out and when she finally calms, he pulls out, strokes her hair over her shoulder and rolls her onto the bed next to him. He slides his arm under her pillow, turns and wipes the tears from under her eyes.
Katara’s eyes flick between his. She breathes in a shaky breath, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to his lips.
‘Hey,’ he whispers against them.
She sniffles. ‘Hi.’
‘That bad, huh?’ he attempts to joke but she just hiccups and butts her forehead against his. ‘What’s…?’
‘I just realised something,’ she whispers and falls silent. He strokes mindless patterns into her skin, her hair, and waits. She’s quiet so long, he wonders if she intends to tell him anything at all, then—
‘You’ve only known me for six months, Zuko, but I’ve known you for lifetimes.’ She wipes her eyes against the back of her hand, rests it against his chest. ‘Thousands of years. Hundreds of lives. Every time you look different— are named differently— but you’re the same. Here .’
The hand on his chest presses flat. She’s right over his heart, his galloping heart.
‘Every time, you grow old and die— you’re mortal now— and yet I go on… Only I don’t want to, not this time, not again. And now… I think I know how to do it.’
There’s something in his throat, something thick as fog and just as obscuring. He doesn’t understand. ‘How to do what?’
Her smile is watery; it comes with tears. ‘How to live as a mortal.’
He frowns. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You don’t need to. You just need to make a choice.’ She traces his brow, his cheeks, with the tips of her fingers. ‘I can make you forget. Not Katara or what we did together tonight, but my past; what I truly am. If you can live without that knowledge, we can be together, bake bread together… Otherwise the cycle continues. You age and die, I go on.’
‘Wait… for you to…’ He frowns. ‘You really don’t age?’
She says nothing, only stares at him with ancient eyes.
‘Okay, you don’t age… So, for you to do that… I have to forget the truth about you?’
She glances away, over his shoulder, grim as death. ‘Yes.’
Zuko swallows, raises his hand to her face. ‘Lifetimes together?’ he whispers, his mind quaking at the thought. ‘I don’t remember any of them…’
‘You can’t,’ she mutters, gaze still locked over his shoulder. ‘The mortal soul can’t contain more than flashes over lifetimes. Déjà vu is all you get… Your last life, you were a war veteran. You saved lives and your country forgot about you. You were scarred then too… You’re always scarred in some way.’
He holds still when she lays her hand over his left eye. ‘Stop… I don’t… I don’t want to know.’
Katara falls silent, waiting.
‘I only know you now, like this , as… as Katara who can stop fucking cancer and bake the best bread I’ve ever tasted.’
‘Lifetimes,’ she reminds him.
‘What I’m saying,’ he presses, ‘is I’ve only known you for a few months.’
She grimaces. ‘I know.’
‘Katara, I can’t ask you to give up… being a god? Fuck, that’s weird to say aloud.’
Her fingers trace the edges of the scar, scatter soft touches like raindrops. ‘I’m not asking you to decide that, I’m asking you if you want to be with me? If you do… you’ll have to forget. And trust me.’
‘Of course, I want to be with you,’ he snaps, pulling her hand from his cheek so he can lean up on his elbow. ‘I liked you when you first came in for the interview, but I want to know you, too.’
‘There’s more to me than Isis of Egypt, Zuko.’
‘I know! But that’s still a big fucking deal!’
She frowns at his chest, pressing her hand flat over his sternum. ‘You want to remember.’
‘I want to know you .’
‘Then trust me . Forget.’
He sighs and slumps down into his pillow, studying her, trying to figure out what she isn’t telling him. ‘You were more honest when I was inside you,’ he mutters.
She snorts but all she says is, ‘Sleep on it. Tomorrow, the bakery is closed. Let’s spend the night together and in the morning, I’ll make you nou bread.’ The hairs on the back of Zuko’s neck stand on end at the strange word, at the rolling accent in which she pronounces it. ‘Will you have me? Tonight?’
He pulls her closer, until she’s sprawled half on top of him. ‘Of course, I want you to stay, Jesus Christ. Oh, sorry,’ he adds quickly. ‘You’re not a fan of him, I guess.’
‘Christ, I’m a big girl; I can hear his name, Zuko.’
Despite himself, and the discord swirling uneasily inside of him, Zuko grins. ‘Are you cold? Do you want the blanket?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
He tugs the cover up with his feet, then snatches them in one hand, hauling them over their bodies. There are goosebumps on her skin, so he tucks the doona in around her.
‘With you here? Yes.’
Zuko softens, presses a kiss to the top of her head. ‘Tell me about being a goddess in Ancient Egypt.’
And she does.
Right through until the sun comes up.
Isis formed the cosmos through what her heart conceived and her hands created.
Zuko wakes around midday with long brunette hair fanned across his chest and— with her thigh over his crotch like that— a painfully hard erection. He gives a muffled groan, all throaty with sleep, and flexes against her. Mm, even her thigh feels good .
Instead of waking her by coming on her leg, Zuko shifts them until he’s on his side and can press lazy kisses to her lips. His eyes are still sleepily closed, but he feels it when she wakes and leans into the kiss.
Katara hums, low and drowsy, threading her fingers through his hair. Idly, she hitches her leg over his hip and then he’s right there, at her entrance…
‘Good morning,’ he husks, running a hand down her side, over the curve of her arse… She’s still wet from their night…
‘Good morning.’ She presses forward, into his fingers. ‘You woke right up, didn’t you?’
‘Can I wake you up, too?’
‘After coffee,’ she yawns but allows him to circle her clit with his slicked, sleep-clumsy fingers. ‘Mm, we can do that again too.’
His cock throbs, aches, but he sighs, sits up and stretches. ‘Stay here. I’ll bring the coffee.’
‘No, I should get up.’ She sits cross-legged, blankets falling away and revealing her chest to the midday winter sun. ‘I’ve got a loaf to make.’
He doesn’t move as she slithers from the bed, pressing a kiss to his shoulder as she passes. ‘Katara.’
‘Hm?’ She’s found his shirt from last night, slides it on over her head. She looks right at him when she holds the front of it up to her nose. ‘You smell like smoke and wine and the brewers districts. Still. After all this time.’
Something in him wants to cry. ‘I’ll forget,’ he croaks and twists the bed sheet around his hands. For her, he’s discovering, he’d do almost anything. ‘Whatever you have to do, you can do it.’
‘Yeah. Yes. I trust you.’
Her eyes gleam, bright and gleeful, and Zuko softens when she squeals and dashes forward. She plants herself on his lap and kisses him for all he’s worth. ‘Shapeḥmot,’ she says and the word tastes of sand when she whispers it onto his tongue.
‘Thank you. It means “thank you.”’
He presses his forehead against hers, warm and smooth, runs his hand up her arm and into her hair. ‘You knew I would agree.’
She shrugs playfully and he feels the smile in her lips when she kisses him again. ‘I suspected.’
‘You always did the wise thing. Eventually.’
He shivers, tightens his arms around her. ‘Go make your bread, I need a shower.’
She leaves him with a final peck, a heavy heart, and a thousand questions he isn’t sure he wants to know the answer to. And an hour later when he eats the bread of Aset, he forgets all about the goddess of rain and bread and the moon, and for the first time in her long, long life, Katara grows a day older.
Years later it comes back to him, his true name. True names . Osiris. Usir. First born of Geb and Nut shortly after the creation of the world. His knowledge of Katara’s past, given up freely, selflessly, the act of trust he made that day, had more power than he knew. He isn’t the son of the Earth and Sky anymore— this world no longer has need for such gods— but he remembers himself and he remembers his wife.
They are Zuko and Katara for the rest of their days, or Mum and Dad, or Grandpa and Gran Gran. But at night, in their dreams, they walk through Nile waters and burn temple incense and speak together a language long since dead.
Merer ē tu, they say to one another when they wake. Merer ē tu.