The war ended so quickly that it was startling. News came late to the Southern Water Tribe, and Katara was nine, nearly ten, when word finally came by a trader from the Southern Islands. The Fire Nation had ended the war, and the Fire Lord's head hung on the walls of Ba Sing Se.
The new Fire Lord, that was. Katara and Sokka crept into the large igloo with the other children, listening as the weather-beaten man in Earth Kingdom green told the story to the gathered adults. The Fire Lord had two sons, it seemed. While the elder was away at war, the other murdered their father and made himself Fire Lord. (As near as Katara could determine, that happened at around the same time her mother died, and she had no sympathy for the old Fire Lord at all.) When the older brother returned, he was suspicious of his brother - not least because the brother's wife had disappeared on the same night that the old Fire Lord died.
Now the older brother, whose name is Iroh, was Fire Lord. He'd found his brother's wife, sent into exile, and learned that his brother forced the Lady Ursa (what a strange name) to poison the Fire Lord, threatening to murder her children - his own son and daughter! - if she did not commit treason for him.
Lord Iroh had been merciful to the Lady Ursa. He had a son of his own, almost lost to him in battle, and he understood a parent's need to protect their children. She had not been executed, merely confined in a wing of the palace, and even allowed to have her children with her. And Lord Iroh had summarily ended the war, withdrawing his troops from the polar waters and the shores of the Earth Kingdom and beginning negotiation with the Earth Kings over the disposition of the colonies.
Katara was ten, sitting with Gran Gran and sewing a new tunic for her father, when the Fire Nation ship arrived. She dropped her work and ran to her father, reminded of the last ship, but this time there was no attack. The ship halted out of range of the village, and a single small boat with only a few men on it approached, under the yellow flag that Gran Gran whispered used to be a sign of peace, when the Air Nomads still lived and acted as mediators between combatants.
The man who stepped off the boat was not armored, and he carried a single sword at his hip. This, Katara was old enough to know, was a good sign. No firebender carried weapons, so this man couldn't be a bender.
He was a diplomat, he said, when Hakoda grudgingly invited him inside the igloo where all the tribe gathered to hear. For the first time, Katara and Sokka were called to sit beside their father as his heirs - there hadn't been any kind of formal meeting since they were babies. (The man's eyes passed over Katara thoughtfully, and she shivered and resisted the urge to hide behind Sokka.) He introduced himself as Zemin, and explained that he had come to offer reparations to the Southern Water Tribe for its losses during the war.
Hakoda, colder and angrier than Katara had ever seen him, asked what reparations the Fire Lord thought adequate for the loss of three-quarters of his tribe. For the waterbenders snatched away, for the women taken to serve the soldiers who slaughtered their husbands and children. For Hakoda's wife, and the mother of his children. What could be enough?
Zemin bowed his head, and Katara thought he looked sad. If any of those taken away still lived, he promised, they would be returned home. The Fire Lord could not restore life to the dead, but he offered to restore communication between the Water Tribes of the Northern and Southern regions. Two of the great metal ships would be placed at the disposal of each tribe, with sailors to teach the mastery of them. The Fire Lord would fuel the ships for three years, or have them modified so they could be propelled by waterbenders. In this way, he hoped, the Southern Water Tribe will find the new blood it needed to rebuild. Trade goods and gold would be on the ships, Zemin added, to ease the privations caused by the war, but they were not meant to pay for the lives lost.
Hakoda frowned, clearly surprised by this generosity, and asked why. Zemin smiled, and to her surprise Katara found that he looked nice when he smiled. The Fire Lord truly desired peace, he said. He had almost lost his own son to the war - the Fire Prince had never entirely recovered from the wounds he suffered at Ba Sing Se, and walked only with difficulty. No more sons or daughters were to be lost to conflict between the nations... and the Northern Water Tribe was being stubborn. The Fire Lord hoped, by restoring contact between the sister tribes, to divert their thoughts to rebuilding instead of vengeance.
Katara thought that the Fire Lord sounded very sensible, for a firebender.
It was not enough, Hakoda said firmly. It would help, but it was not enough.
The igloo was as silent as a snowfall before dawn when Zemin nodded and offered them a prince of the Fire Nation. Blood for blood, he said, and life for life. The Fire Lord would betroth his nephew, second in line for the throne, to Hakoda's daughter and send him to live at the South Pole as hostage and blood-price for their dead.
Hakoda stared at him, but it was Sokka who spoke up indignantly. "Katara's only ten! She can't marry anyone!"
Zemin inclined his head politely, as if Sokka were a grown man and not a child interrupting his elders. "And Prince Zuko is only twelve. But they will both get older. If a formal betrothal can be agreed upon, he will be sent here at such time as Katara is considered to be of an age to be married. I do not know what your customs are - "
"Sixteen," Hakoda said uncertainly. "Sixteen is marrying age, for both boys and girls. But - "
"Good." Zemin looked oddly relieved. "It is fourteen in the Earth Kingdom - parts of it, at least. Can you imagine? So young! No, sixteen is better. Zuko will be eighteen then, and a man by the standards of the Fire Nation."
"But we do not practice arranged marriage in the Southern Water Tribe," Hakoda said flatly.
Zemin looked surprised... no, stunned. "But... but the Northern Water Tribe - "
To Katara's surprise, Gran Gran spoke up. "The Northern Water Tribe treats its women as little more than chattel," she said grimly. "I was born in the north, young man. I came to the Southern Water Tribe to escape just such an arranged marriage, because here I could choose for myself. I will not have my granddaughter bound as I was. Does the chief of the Northern Water Tribe have no daughters?"
"He does," Zemin admitted. "But it seems that the girl is his only heir... and already betrothed. He suggested that the Southern Water Tribe, having suffered more at the hands of the Fire Nation..."
"That we should have the honour of accepting a young fire viper into our midst. How generous," Gran Gran said dryly.
Hakoda inclined his head. "Tell your Fire Lord that we must decline his offer, according to our own laws. Katara will choose her own husband, when she is old enough to do so. I cannot give her to your prince as if she were a polar dog or a new spear. She belongs to herself."
"He will not be pleased," Zemin said slowly. "He has made many concessions already, and now offers his own niece and nephew - of whom he is fond, I will tell you - to the leaders of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe in token of peace. If that offer is rejected, I fear he will be grievously insulted."
Katara shivered. Would the war start again? Would more soldiers come, would she be dragged onto one of their ships as she'd begun to understand would one day have been her fate?
Hakoda spread his hands. "We are not unwilling to negotiate with the Fire Lord," he said slowly. "But I do not have the power, under law, to give him what he asks."
Katara swallowed hard and lifted her head. Mom had been brave, telling her daughter that everything was all right while her death stood over her. She had given her life for Katara. If Katara had to give that life for her tribe, then she would. She would make Mom proud. "But I do."
Somehow, her small voice cut right through the voices of the adults, and that eerie silence fell again. Hakoda was staring at her. "What?"
Katara cleared her throat, blushing under all those staring adult eyes. "But I do have the power under law," she repeated, a little more confidently. "Don't I?"
"Katara, you don't know what you are saying!" Her dad sounded horrified. "You can't - "
"Yes, I do. That man says that the Fire Lord will be angry if we won't make peace and take his nephew." Katara pointed, not caring if it was rude. "The war might start again. I don't want soldiers coming to our village ever again. So I'll marry the stupid prince."
"No, Katara!" Gran Gran protested, while Sokka gibbered in horror. "You cannot understand what it would mean - "
"YES I CAN!" To her own surprise, Katara realized she was on her feet, standing over the seated adults and screaming. "I'm not a baby! I know what would happen to us if the war started again! I know what would happen to me! I'm not going to let my tribe lose anyone else and I'd rather one firebender than a whole ship full of them taking turns."
The ugly words seemed to hang in the air, muffled gasps and sobs coming from all around her. Gran Gran suddenly looked small and crumpled. Sokka was pounding on the ground with his fists, muttering 'no, no, no' over and over... and Dad was crying silently. "Katara," he said almost pleadingly. "You don't have to... there must be some other way - "
She turned to see what the Fire Nation diplomat and the soldiers thought of what she'd said. To her surprise, there were tears in more than one pair of golden eyes. Silently Zemin rose, the soldiers with him, and then they dropped to their knees before a trembling little girl in shabby blue, bowing until their foreheads touched the floor.
"Your daughter does you honour, Chief Hakoda," Zemin said softly, rising to sit again. "She may not claim the rank of a princess, but I have seen few more worthy of it." He met Katara's eyes, and he looked nice again. "Listen to me," he said gently. "You are right. If you do this, your tribe will be safe from the Fire Nation for all your life - and longer, most likely. Even those who speak out against peace, and there are many, must hesitate to sacrifice a hostage as important as the Fire Lord's own beloved nephew."
Katara swallowed hard and sat down with a bump. "What's he like?" she asked nervously. "Prince Zuko, I mean. Do you know him at all?"
"I was his sword-master," the diplomat said, surprising her. "I know him well. I would not hesitate to betroth my own daughter to him, if I had one, for I know him to be an honourable boy with a gentle spirit. He has a temper," he added thoughtfully, "but it is all flash and blaze. He will flare up and shout and then forget all about it in an hour."
Katara nodded slowly. "Sokka's like that." Sokka was being all but sat on, she saw, glancing behind her, with Dad's hand firmly over his mouth. "I... I think I could manage that." It might not be true, of course, but the suggestion that Zemin would let his own daughter marry this Zuko was very comforting. "But... if you're his sword-master, does that mean he's not a firebender? I thought firebenders never used weapons."
"They do not, as a rule. Zuko is an exception." Zemin leaned a little closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "And believe me, you are getting a better bargain than King Kuei. Zuko's sister Azula is being offered to him - she is your age, but Kuei is only twenty, so by the time Azula is old enough to marry the gap won't be so large - and I will tell you just between us that Azula is a spiteful, spoiled little brat who is far too like her father for anyone's peace of mind. She has set her maids' clothes on fire before now, merely for not giving her her own way! Zuko, fortunately, takes after his mother. A very gentle and honourable lady."
Katara frowned, trying to remember. "Her name was... Urza? Urzai? She killed the old Fire Lord because her husband said he'd kill her children if she didn't. We heard about that."
Zemin nodded. "The Lady Ursa. Yes, she did."
"And you would have my daughter wed the son of a man who committed patricide and used his wife as the weapon?" Hakoda protested.
"I would have Zuko somewhere safer than the capital," Zemin almost snapped. "There are many who would use the boy as a figurehead to rebellion or worse."
"And you think he will be safer in a village that has lost three-quarters of its people to his?" Bato asked, his voice sour. His wife had been taken away years ago, when Katara was still toddling.
"I think he would be safer in a den of platypus-bears," Zemin said, sounding positively cross. "And I trust, sir, that the honourable people of the Southern Water Tribe would not punish a boy who was not eleven years old when the war ended for the actions of his elders!"
"I trust we will not have the chance!" Bato's fists clenched. "Hakoda, you cannot allow this!"
There was a lot of arguing after that, but Katara wouldn't listen. She knew what would happen if she didn't go through with it, and she wasn't going to allow that. And as she patiently reminded her father - and Hakoda at last had to agree - he really had no right to stop her. If she wanted to marry a prince of the Fire Nation, or a merchant from the Earth Kingdom, or a wandering nomad with flowers in his hair, then she could do so. She wasn't her father's property, but her own.
Zemin gave her what he said were 'suitable' betrothal gifts. Katara didn't care much for the heavy gold-and-ruby jewellery, but she liked the books, volumes of poetry and what Zemin called 'historic tales'. There was a picture of the Fire Prince, too, a solemn boy with dark hair pulled back in a tail and wide eyes.
Katara insisted on sending gifts in return, and Hakoda agreed. The Water Tribe would not, at least, appear to be stingy. They had no jewels to send, or books, but Zemin returned to the Fire Nation with ambergris perfume and plates of carved ivory, tiger-seal furs and a letter.
* * *
Zuko sat in his cabin, cross-legged on his bed, and opened the box again.
He'd been so hurt and angry when his uncle told him that he had to go away to marry some peasant girl from the Water Tribe. Why was he being sent into exile? He hadn't done anything wrong!
It had been a long time before he understood that Uncle Iroh was trying to protect him. Him and Azula both. Far away from the Fire Nation, the rebels couldn't try to kidnap them again. (It had happened when he was fourteen, and been utterly terrifying.) Married to what passed for the leaders of the other nations, they could not be used as alternative heirs against the maimed Prince Lu Ten or his two daughters.
He took out the beautiful carving of graceful dolphins frolicking around a strange, low-made ship with an angled sail, and looked at it, then set it aside. It had been his favourite thing at first, out of the strange betrothal gifts he'd been sent. He'd given the ivory necklace to his mother, and the perfume to Azula (she'd raged for a solid month over her betrothal to King Kuei, but having a whole bottle of the rare and fabulously expensive ambergris perfume had cheered her up quite a lot) but he had kept the other things. The ivory panels, the carved bone knife and the exotic furs... and the letter.
Katara had only been ten when she wrote that first letter, her characters a little ragged and lines not quite straight. In it, she had explained that she understood that he wouldn't want to leave his home, or to marry someone he didn't know. She didn't want to either. But it had to be done, so she'd promised to make sure that everyone in her tribe was nice to him - and added a few encouraging details about how nice it was at the South Pole, describing the joys of penguin-sledding, ice-sliding, and so on.
Zemin had told him what had happened. About the chief's refusal of the Fire Lord's offer, and a tiny, brave little girl with blue beads in her hair standing up and insisting that she would do her duty to her tribe. That she had wanted to know what Zuko was like, and what he liked to do.
After a while, Zuko had written a letter back. He'd told her that she was very brave, doing her duty so courageously, and that he would try to be brave enough to be worthy of her. He'd told her that he liked to fight with swords, and did not like playing the tsungi horn, even though Uncle had made him continue his lessons. He'd said, untruthfully, that ice-sliding sounded fun. He'd asked Zemin to find him the right kind of beads, and the letter had gone to the South Pole weighed down with small beads of turquoise and lapis and silver, as well as gold and crimson enamel.
And for six years, the letters had continued to travel back and forth. Sometimes they included small gifts - once, Katara had embroidered a panel of soft leather with a curling wave in white, and a curving flame rising out of the wave, to signify their betrothal. Charmed, Zuko had had the emblem copied into a delicate silver ornament for Katara's hair. When she sent a portrait two years later, the ornament was tucked into the front of a round knot of hair on top of her head, and she was smiling.
He looked at the portrait, wondering how much the young woman of sixteen resembled the girl of almost thirteen. The portrait was coloured, so he knew she had blue eyes and dark skin, but the letters told him more about her than any portrait.
She'd written to him about her training in waterbending, and he'd told her about never being quite as good as Azula at firebending. She'd encouraged him to master weapons as well as fire, pointing out that he would need to use sword and spear to qualify as a warrior in the Water Tribe. He'd sympathised with her frustration at being taught only healing, and encouraged her to demand combat training as well... after watching the boys training and practicing in secret, so she could prove she could do it. When she told him she'd fought her grandmother's new suitor to a standstill, and that her Gran Gran had followed up by telling Master Pakku that if he ever wanted her to accept his proposal he'd damn well train her granddaughter, Zuko had been proud of her, and told her so.
The letters were his greatest treasure. He had kept all of them, reading them over when the thought of going so far away to marry a girl he'd never seen made him nervous. He liked Katara. She was kind and tender-hearted, with a temper worthy of a firebender and a strong sense of duty that he found appealing.
He read them over again now, from the first childish attempt at reassurance to the very last one, received just before he left the Fire Nation.
"I'm nervous," Katara had written, as honest in her last letter as she had been in her first. "But I'm looking forward to seeing you at last. I'm so glad that you won't be a stranger, Zuko. I know you so well that you couldn't be, even if I have no idea what you look like. I know the South Pole will be strange for you, but I remember what I promised years ago, and I won't let anyone be unkind to you. And you don't need to worry about building a house! Sokka convinced Dad and the warriors that it would shame us if you showed up and we didn't have anywhere to put you, so they built a house for us instead of making you do it. I know it won't be what you're used to, but I hope you like it. I'll be watching the horizon for your boat every day."
It wouldn't be what he was used to, though he'd done his best. He'd gone to his uncle and asked to have his personal servants withdrawn over a year ago. He had to learn to take care of himself, he'd said, or the Water Tribe warriors would laugh at him. And he had learned, little though he'd enjoyed it. He'd learned to hunt - not the formal, tidy 'hunting' nobles practiced, but how to hunt on foot and alone, to skin a catch and know what organs were good to eat and what should be thrown away. He'd mastered the use of swords, spear, and the odd club the Water Tribe warriors used. He'd learned to sail a boat, and how to fish.
But he was still nervous. It would be so cold! How could he get used to snow all year round? To wearing the heavy furs Katara described, and trying to provide for a wife when he'd never even really had to take care of himself?
Carefully, he packed the letters away in their compartment in the box containing his particular treasures. The portrait of Katara in a simple frame was laid in another compartment, with the images of his mother and sister and uncle. The ivory went in the bottom, with the Earth Kingdom knife his uncle had given him, the incense he would not be able to get at the South Pole, the embroidery threads he'd brought to give to Katara as a private gift and the box of beads in varying sizes that his mother had given him before he left. "Katara's hair is so pretty," she had said, kissing her son sadly. "I am sure my granddaughters will be just as beautiful with beads in their hair. You must send me pictures."
He hadn't brought much with him. The Water Tribe, especially the warriors, didn't set much store by possessions. He had warm clothes, and his weapons. Gifts for his new wife and her family - Katara had suggested practical things, like good steel needles for her grandmother and steel weapons for her father and brother, and blue-dyed wool cloth for all of them. He had a set of formal robes suitable for state occasions, to be put aside in case of need. And he had his box of all the things he valued most.
He closed the box, and went to be dressed in the new clothes prepared for this day - leather dyed red and black over layers of wool, thick white fur lining the whole. The village was already in sight.
He heard the shocked murmurs behind him as the ship drew into the 'harbour' of ice and snow, as his escort saw the humble village that would be Prince Zuko's home. Zuko himself was far less concerned with the village Katara had already described to him than he was with the men gathered to greet him.
The older man with high cheekbones and braids down one side of his face must be Hakoda. The young one, a little younger than Zuko, must be the brother who featured so often in Katara's letters. Zuko had hopes of finding a friend in Sokka, and certainly the youngest member of the group seemed the most welcoming. He smiled as Zuko descended from the ship, while the older men glared.
Zuko bowed as deeply to Hakoda as he would have to his uncle, wanting to show respect. "Chief Hakoda," he said, trying to sound calm and mature. "I am honoured that you have come to meet me yourself."
Hakoda bowed much less deeply, looking as if he didn't care for it much. "Prince Zuko," he said grimly. "Welcome to the Southern Water Tribe. Please come with us."
If he'd said 'let's get this over with' it couldn't have been more obvious. Zuko sighed silently, following the chief as he walked towards the large igloo in the center of the village.
To his surprise, Sokka dropped back to walk beside him. "Sorry about that," he whispered. "Dad's been trying to convince Katara to back out of this for years."
"I know. She told me," Zuko whispered back. Katara had also told him that she'd had to threaten to get on a boat and go to the Fire Nation herself before her father had finally accepted the inevitable and started arranging the wedding.
Sokka grinned, and his blue eyes were friendly enough. "She was furious. Look, I know why Dad's upset. You're Fire Nation, and the war wasn't that long ago. I was angry at first too. But I know Katara likes you, and that's what matters."
Zuko was embarrassingly relieved to have even a single ally. Even so, his nervousness increased rapidly as he approached the round white structure. There would be no dithering about with introductions, Hakoda's curt instructions had made that clear. One ship would approach the village, and only one. They would hand over the prince, who would be hauled up in front of the elders and married to his betrothed before the chill had time to set in. There would be a feast that afternoon, as custom required, and the ship and all Fire Nation citizens except for Zuko were to be out of sight of the village by noon the next day.
Uncle Iroh had been angry and Lu Ten furious at the not-even-veiled insult. It had taken all Zuko's limited tact to smooth things over, reminding his uncle that Hakoda had lost a dearly beloved wife to the Fire Nation not ten years before, and now must give up his daughter to a man he believed to be a pampered prince completely unsuited to Water Tribe ways.
Uncle had been somewhat mollified by this, but Lu Ten had been seething even after Zuko pointed out that Lu Ten wouldn't be happy if he had to marry one of his beloved daughters to a man who he thought couldn't provide for her and her children, either. Fortunately, preparations for Azula's wedding to King Kuei were already underway, with pomp and grandeur enough to satisfy anyone. Uncle Iroh was very amused that his great-nephews would rule Ba Sing Se even after his notorious failure at capturing the city, and even Lu Ten seemed grimly pleased about it.
(Zuko spared a moment of sympathy for Kuei, who had no idea what he was getting into. Azula was beautiful, clever and devious, and would no doubt have him dancing to her tune within a month and the whole kingdom pinned firmly under her dainty heel in three.)
But there was no more time for musing. They'd reached the igloo, and as they came to a halt, all the Water Tribe men turned towards the large house nearest it. A heavy leather curtain was pushed aside, and a parade of women began to emerge. A little girl of about five came first, followed by several older girls in clear sequence of age. Grown women came next, and finally a heavily pregnant woman and a very old one stepped out, escorting a girl.
Zuko knew he was staring. He couldn't help it.
Katara had never really described herself, any more than he had. She'd been a pretty girl, he knew that from her portrait, but...
But now she was beautiful. The words on the page that he'd been fond of were a lovely young woman, graceful as she walked towards him with downcast eyes, and the reality of her struck him breathless.
She didn't look at him until her party joined his and they stood facing each other. Then she lifted huge blue eyes to his, looking as shy and hopeful as he felt. When their eyes met, Zuko felt suddenly, absurdly relieved. It had been hard to believe that this exquisite girl in lavishly embroidered blue and white was the same Katara who'd written to him about washing her brother's socks and learning to fight, but her eyes were just the same as they had been in the portrait... and after a moment, so was her smile.
"Hello," Katara whispered, and a faint flush warmed her cheeks.
"Hello," he whispered back, and smiled at her.
The ceremony was far briefer than any marriage in the Fire Nation - but since it was conducted under the open sky, standing in the snow, Zuko didn't think that was necessarily intended to be insulting. In what felt like seconds, Katara's small mittened hands were in his, and Zuko was promising to keep a strong roof over her head and food on her table. Katara smiled up at him, and when she promised to bear his children and keep his hearth Zuko's heart seemed to turn over happily in his chest.
The feast, thankfully, did not take place outside. He sat beside Katara as they were formally congratulated - and while some of the 'congratulations' sounded more like sympathy for Katara, she just rolled her eyes and held his hand under the low table. The touch of little soft, warm fingers had him blushing again. Now that the wedding was over, the inevitable aftermath of the wedding was looming large in his mind. They'd met barely two hours ago, and soon they would have to...
He choked on a spoonful, and gave Sokka an indignant look. Sokka was snickering unrepentantly. Katara leaned around Zuko to glare at her brother. "Why would you give him sea-prunes without telling him?"
"Oh, it won't hurt him." Sokka grinned. "Okay, okay, if he doesn't want them - "
"I didn't say I didn't want them!" Zuko protested, very aware of hostile eyes on him. Rejecting some Water Tribe delicacy would be a very bad idea. "I was just surprised." He took another spoonful and ate it slowly. Very sour, with a tangy edge... thank Agni he liked sour foods. He finished the bowl, mouth only a little puckered, and only then reached for the rice wine they had brought. "They're good."
"Awww..." Sokka looked disappointed that his prank had backfired, but Zuko was pretty sure that several of the old people watching him were signalling grudging approval. "I hoped you'd hate them so I could eat yours."
"I like sour food." He smiled a little shyly at Katara. "And I know you do. Remember the candy I sent you that time?"
"The plum candy!" Katara nodded. "I had to hide it from Sokka - he kept trying to steal it!"
"It was good." Sokka didn't look at all apologetic.
Sokka and Katara between them made the feast actually somewhat pleasant, despite the nervousness coiling in Zuko's stomach.
All too soon, the feasting was over. Zuko and Katara were escorted to the small house prepared for them and ceremonially but firmly pushed through the door. To Zuko's surprise, there seemed to be a lot of noise outside afterwards. "Uh..." He cleared his throat, knowing he was blushing and trying to pretend he wasn't. "What are they - "
"They're walling us in," Katara said, sounding as embarrassed as he felt. "It's... traditional. To, uh, make sure we can't get out. Until morning."
"Oh." Zuko cleared his throat. There were no windows - of course not, they'd only let in the cold - but lamps had been lit in the small house that appeared to be about half tent. "I... I see."
His possessions had been brought to the house, he saw. His weapons were arranged on a rack that wasn't quite the right shape for them. His box was sitting on a table, and the large cedar chest that held his clothes was at the end of the bed.
He swallowed hard.
A small warm hand crept into his. "Zuko?" Katara asked in a small voice. "Have you ever... uh..."
He squeezed her hand gently, realizing guiltily that she must be even more nervous than he was. "No," he admitted. "It... it didn't seem right, when I was betrothed to you."
"Oh." He wasn't sure, but he thought she sounded pleased. "I haven't... I mean, I know what's supposed to happen. Gran Gran told me. But she didn't, uhm... she was really kind of warning me, not giving me advice, exactly."
Zuko frowned. "Warning you?" What did the woman think he was going to do to Katara? Jump on her and rape her?
Well. He remembered some of what he'd learned about the war as he got older, and what had happened to the Southern Water Tribe specifically. That was probably exactly what the woman thought - and for all he knew, from personal experience.
"Mostly." Katara was nibbling on her lower lip, clearly nervous. "I mean, I know she was wrong, you wouldn't..."
"No. I wouldn't." He reached out, curving his fingers to cup her cheek, and the way she lifted her face to his made his heart pound. "I don't... I'm not exactly an expert. But I know what to do, sort of, and I'm not going to hurt you," he said quietly. "We'll... we'll figure it out together. Okay?"
She smiled up at him. "Okay."
The smile was irresistible, and Zuko did what a carefully-ignored part of him had wanted to do since he saw her - he leaned down and kissed her. It was slow and careful at first, but then she sighed and cuddled into his arms and he held her close and kissed her a little more ardently.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there, Katara nestled in his arms and her lips sweet and warm under his. But they were both breathing fast when she pulled back enough to look up at him, hands still grasping the front of his long vest. "Oh," she murmured, and there was nothing nervous about her smile now. "I'm so glad it's you."
Nobody had ever looked at him like that. Had ever wanted him above anyone else. Zuko swallowed hard, cupping her face gently between his hands. "I'm glad it's you too," he murmured, and bent to kiss her again.
* * *
Katara was nervous and a little shy still, but not at all reluctant when Zuko turned from warm, melting kisses to removing their clothes. Even without their heavy coats, removed for the feasting, they were both wearing many layers, and undressing was a slow process - especially since Zuko seemed to feel it necessary to pause after every layer to kiss her again.
Not that Katara minded that at all.
She hadn't seen a picture of him since the first one, of the sober boy with cheeks still rounded with childhood. She hadn't been prepared for how handsome he was, tall and broad-shouldered, with high cheekbones and serious golden eyes that softened when he smiled down at her. She hadn't believed that Zuko, the friend she'd always confided in, could be as callous and rough as Gran Gran had warned her he might... but she'd been nervous. It hadn't really occurred to her that this might be something they would want to do, not right at first. But she did want to, wanted him, and the way he kissed her - and not just her mouth, but her neck and her palms and the line of her collarbone as he undressed her - made her think he wanted her too.
When they were down to their underwear - at least, she assumed that the knee-length pants tied with a string were what served him for underwear - he paused to gaze into her face again, eyes intent. "Do you want to... to wait a while?" he asked, adorably awkward. "I don't want to rush this, I know that would make it worse for you..."
Katara shook her head, blushing as his hands settled on the curve of waist and hip and she felt the heat of his skin against hers. "I don't want to stop," she said as firmly as she could when she was melting and shivering the way she was. "I... I meant it. I'm glad it's you, and... and I want to be with you." She touched his cheek, running her fingers over smooth skin as he frowned doubtfully. "I mean it, Zuko." And to prove it, she reached out with her other hand to touch the very apparent bulge in his pants.
He yelped, and she jerked her hand back hastily. Had she done something wrong? But he tugged her close, kissing her fiercely, so he couldn't have minded it too much. "Don't," he murmured, when she ran her fingertips down over the muscled ripples of his stomach. "Don't... not yet. Not yet. It feels too good."
Katara wondered how anything could feel too good, but it seemed impolite to interrupt him while he was trailing hot kisses down the side of her neck. His hands were smoothing over her back and her sides, callouses dragging intriguingly over her skin, and then he slid gracefully to one knee, kissing and nuzzling a trail down from the edge of her sarashi towards her navel. It should have tickled, she thought dizzily, but... it didn't. Tickling was definitely not what it was doing.
Her hands shook a little as she reached up to untie the sarashi. He probably wouldn't know how, and she wanted it off. She wanted everything off. Maybe this was what Zuko meant by something feeling too good, this restless need for more and more...
When he looked up and saw her bare, his eyes widened and he made an intent, hungry noise that almost made Katara's knees buckle. He shot to his feet, kissing her fiercely as his hands came up to cup her breasts gently, thumbs brushing over her nipples and seeming to send little jolts of lightning through her.
The last of their underwear vanished with all possible speed, and Katara was a little regretful that she didn't get a good look at him before he tumbled her onto the bed and joined her there - but again, it seemed so very impolite to interrupt him when he was trailing kisses from her collarbone to her nipple and licking and nuzzling it delightfully. She could always look another time.
She'd never been set so afire in her life. Nothing she had ever done for herself, no vague imagining she'd been able to conjure, had ever stirred her blood the way Zuko did. She slid eager hands over broad shoulders and a muscled back, quivered and moaned as he tasted and touched... and when he eased a hand down between her thighs she was soaked and more than ready, pushing up against his exploring fingers. He had some idea of what he was doing, clearly, and she only had to whimper a few suggestions before his thumb settled on the little bud she liked best and one of his fingers eased slowly into her.
It felt as if it only took moments for her to be panting and shivering, clutching at him as she pushed eagerly at his hand, wanting more, just a little more... but she could feel him shaking, too. He wanted to as well, and she had done almost nothing for him while he did everything for her. So she pushed his hand away, and when he lifted his head she kissed him gently and wrapped her fingers around the hard length she still hadn't had a good look at. "Now," she said, surprised by how firm her voice could be when she was a quivering puddle of lust.
He groaned, shifting eagerly into position, but he still hesitated for a moment, looking down at her. "You're sure?"
She smiled up at him and reached down to guide him into place. "Now, Zuko."
There was only a little pain, and a strange stretching feeling, and so much pleasure that she could only cling to him, twining her arms and legs around him as she wailed his name. She almost didn't hear his choked groans, or feel his clutching hand on her hip, and she was a little surprised when he rolled off her onto his back, covering his face with both hands. Somehow, she'd thought it would take longer.
* * *
Zuko pressed both hands over his face, wondering how long it would take to burn his way through the wall of snow and throw himself into the icy sea.
Maybe a minute.
Forty-five seconds might be more accurate.
The really pressing question was; could he burn through the wall and drown himself before Katara said anything?
"Uh... Zuko?" Katara's voice was small and hesitant.
No, he couldn't. "I'm sorry," he groaned, keeping his face covered so he wouldn't have to see her disappointment. "I couldn't..."
She hesitated. "Couldn't what?" She definitely sounded puzzled. "I mean, you did, so..."
"I couldn't last. I tried, but..." He pressed his hands harder against his eyes, so that false sparks flared in the darkness. It had been going so well, he'd savoured her every gasp and moan, wanting it to be perfect... and barely a minute after he entered her, it had been over. It had felt so good, she had felt so good, and ecstasy had overwhelmed him then faded away into shame. "I'm sorry, Katara."
A small soft hand settled on his shoulder. "I did think it was supposed to take longer," she said, sounding oddly cheerful. "But I didn't mind, really. I liked it a lot, but - "
"Don't." He sat up, hunching over and staring at his knees. "Katara, don't lie to make me feel better, not now - " She never had. Not from her first letter. He couldn't bear for it to start here and now.
"But I'm not." She sat up too, sliding her arms around him and leaning against his side. "I mean, it was wonderful, but after..." she paused. "I don't know what you call it."
Katara shrugged, her shoulder shifting against his ribs. "You know. The breaking wave? The really good part before you're finished?"
"Oh." Zuko wasn't telling her any of the euphemisms he knew for that. "Uh, finished works fine." Then he jerked his head around to stare at her. "Wait, you did?"
Katara sighed and snuggled against him with a happy little smile. "Oh, yes. Almost right away. So I didn't mind you not going on after that."
"But..." He stared at her, bewildered. "I thought it was supposed to take longer. For you, I mean."
Katara's eyes lowered, and even in the dim lamplight he was almost sure she was blushing. "It does. I mean, usually. When, uh... when I do it. But after what you were doing with your hands and, uhm, your mouth, I was already about to... that's why I said 'now'. Because I didn't want to do it without you."
Somehow, Katara not wanting to climax without him seemed like the sweetest thing any woman could have ever done. He almost pounced on her, easing her down on her back again and kissing her until they were both breathless. "I love you," he blurted, and then flushed. "I mean... I think I do. I know you so well, and now you're here and you're real and my wife and I..."
She curled her arms around his neck, and kissed him softly. "I know," she said a little shyly. "I think I love you too. I can't imagine ever wanting to be with anyone else."
Zuko cradled her against him, so happy it almost made him dizzy. "If... if you want to," he suggested hopefully, "we could do it again. If you give me a little while, maybe half an hour..."
Katara's eyes lit up. "Yes, please. Can I touch you too, this time?"
Half an hour rapidly became a few minutes. "As much as you want to."
The second time was almost perfect.
The third time was perfect.
The fourth time was something of a non-event, but they were both half-asleep by then, simply delighting in holding and caressing and being as close as they possibly could.
The next thing Zuko was aware of was a brush of cold air along his spine. He groaned, burrowing into the furs and finding his soft, warm wife. Mm. Nice. He looped an arm over her and snuggled against her.
He was vaguely aware of voices somewhere, but voices were not important at this time. Nothing mattered but the cosy nest of furs and the wife inside it.
The voices got louder. Someone was calling for him, and someone else for Katara. The second person sounded annoyed. "G'way," Zuko growled, hoping it would work. He definitely hadn't had enough sleep.
"Katara!" The voice was much louder. Inside the house.
Why was someone inside their house?
Zuko sat up, prepared to order whoever it was out, and found that 'whoever it was' seemed to be half the village, Zemin, and two of the honour-guard Uncle had sent with him. "What on earth - " he yelped, clutching at the furs. If this was some kind of custom, Katara should have told him they needed to put clothes back on!
Katara uttered a little protesting groan as he pulled away from her, and her grandmother pounced, grabbing her arm and tugging her away from Zuko's side. That sent a gust of cool air down into the furs, and Katara's eyes popped open. "Eee! Cold!" she squeaked - and then her squeak became a shriek of protest as she clutched the furs to her chest to hide what were surely the most exquisite breasts in the world. "What are you doing in here?!"
At least it wasn't a custom. Zuko straightened up, trying not to let the goosebumps erupting over his naked torso detract from his dignity. "That's what I wanted to know!"
"Katara," the grandmother was saying anxiously. "Are you all right?"
"I was sleeping!" Katara protested, rubbing her eyes.
The cold was suddenly of less concern to Zuko. He looked around, glancing at and then pointedly dismissing Hakoda and his warriors, and turned to Katara's grandmother whose name he couldn't remember right at this moment. "If you think," he said icily, "that Katara might have come to any harm at my hands, then I can't help but wonder why you walled her in here with me last night."
"She's a waterbender," Sokka pointed out. He was standing rather pointedly away from his father and the other warriors, and clearly making something of an effort not to look at his naked sister. "She could have whipped the snow in here and gutted you with it in a wink. Or just left you walled up in here."
"Ah. So that big pile of snow in the entrance was supposed to be for her benefit?"
Sokka held up a placating hand. "I had nothing to do with any of this. I just wanted to throw a polar dog in here to wake you two up, but nooooo..."
Katara was uttering little squeaks of what Zuko judged, from her expression, to be sheer outrage. "And so you just barged into our house, on the morning after - " She rounded on her grandmother angrily. "You were wrong about him, and I told you you were and I was right!" she snapped. "He would never hurt me, he was really sweet all four times and it was wonderful and I don't know what you made such a fuss about!"
There was a long moment of deeply awkward silence, while Katara flushed and clapped her hand over her mouth and Sokka went a little green. "I didn't need to know that, Katara," he said plaintively. "Ever."
"Well, then you shouldn't have come in!" Katara snapped, voice slightly muffled by her hand.
"I came in to protect him! I know you like him, even if Dad and Gran Gran don't believe it." Sokka actually looked rather wounded.
"Well, I do. And he is my husband, and if any of you dare even think something like that about him again..." Katara glared at her father and his warriors, now on the other side of the room and looking increasingly mortified. "All of you! Out!"
Zemin, who looked like he was barely restraining laughter, bowed politely. "Under the circumstances, Prince Zuko," he said smoothly, "perhaps we will dispense with formal leavetaking? I will assure your uncle that, ah, all appears to be well."
"Thank you." Zuko was blushing clear down to his chest, he could feel the heat of it, but he inclined his head just as politely. "Please give him my respects, and all the usual things."
"Of course." Zemin turned on his heel, his exit so pointed that he seemed to drag the others along in his wake, Katara's grandmother bringing up the rear and giving Zuko a speculative look that was even more unsettling than the suspicious one.
Katara and Zuko looked at each other, and in perfect accord flopped back and yanked the furs up over their heads.
"I'm never getting up again," Katara whimpered. "I'm staying under here forever."
"Me too." Zuko groaned in remembered embarrassment. "Did you have to tell them it was four times?"
"They were implying that you were some kind of, of brute who wasn't good at it!" Katara declared hotly. "Nobody says things like that about my husband! Or thinks them!"
He laughed and kissed her, and when they did finally come up for air it was to find a tray of food sitting inside the door in what seemed to be mute apology.
* * *
Katara couldn't look anyone in the entire village in the eye without blushing for a while. But after that, things seemed to get better. Sokka and the other warriors clearly enjoyed the way Zuko turned bright red every time he heard the phrase 'four times, but their amusement seemed to be tinged with an odd respect. Katara might have added something to that with her blushing but fervent boasting to the other women of her husband's skill, consideration, and stamina. She certainly meant to.
For the rest, Zuko settled in surprisingly well. He was a decent if not gifted hunter, and very quickly established himself as a swordsman without equal in the tribe. He didn't seem to miss having servants, and didn't expect Katara to wait on him even as much as some of the other men did, if their wives were to be believed. By the time their first baby was born, even Hakoda had accepted him as a member of the tribe and the family, laughing and tugging on Zuko's wolf-tail affectionately when Zuko was reduced to incoherent babbling by having his son laid in his arms for the first time.
By the time the second baby was born, Zuko was managing most of the tribe's trade. It turned out that part of a 'proper' royal education included memorising lists of imports and exports for places all over the world, knowledge that Zuko put to use to get much better prices for some of their trade-goods - seriously discomposing several merchants who had apparently been making a fortune by misleading Hakoda as to the price of ivory in Ba Sing Se, or ambergris in the Fire Nation. (And it didn't hurt that Fire Nation merchants seemed to think it was positively blasphemous to lie to a member of the royal family, let alone trying to cheat him)
'I think' had become 'I know' quickly. Katara loved her husband, and she never doubted that he loved her. Joy slowly became peaceful certainty, though Katara never quite lost the little thrill of wonder she got sometimes, when she saw him laughing and swinging one of their children up onto his shoulders, or training with Sokka, or smiling sleepily at her in the morning, that he was hers.
A little over ten years after her wedding, Katara was sewing a sleep-sack for her third child, currently squirming like a sleepy cat under her ribs. While she worked, she was keeping an eye on Kya, sitting on the floor with a bowl in her lap, making little waves in the water. Both Kya and her brother Roku (which was apparently the name of one of Zuko's great-grandfathers) were water-benders. Katara cherished hope that the third would be a firebender like its father, sure the first two had never warmed her so much in the womb.
"Mom! Mom!" Roku burst through the door. "I found something!"
"I thought you were fishing with Uncle Sokka and your father."
"I was, but we came back because I found something!"
"You can't keep it," said the mother of the world's most inquisitive nine-year-old in the voice of long experience.
"Dad said we could." Roku plumped down on the floor, tugging off his snowy boots.
"Is it fluffy?" Six-year-old Kya abandoned her water to clap her hands.
"No. It's bald. But it's cute!"
Katara was about to demand clarification when Zuko ducked through the low doorway, pushing his parka ahead of him. Well, that was how it looked, until she saw little legs peeking out underneath it and a small round face under the hood. "I'm okay!" the child was saying cheerfully. "Really, the cold doesn't bother me."
"I found him in an iceberg!" Roku announced proudly. "I got mad at Uncle Sokka because he said waterbending was magic water and I cracked an iceberg and then there was something glowing inside it so Dad helped me make a hole and he came out!"
"And never crack icebergs again. You could have killed us all." Zuko frowned reprovingly at his son as helped the strange boy wriggle out of the parka.
The boy wearing orange and yellow, with blue arrow tattoos stretching over his head and hands. "Hi!" he said brightly, smiling up at Katara. "I'm Aang."
"You're an airbender," Katara said weakly. She'd told her children Avatar stories, as Gran Gran had told her, but it had been so long since she'd believed them...
"Yup!" The boy frowned. "Everyone keeps saying that like it's a surprise. I guess the airbenders haven't visited in a while, huh?"
Katara met her husband's eyes over the little bald head, and saw the shame on his face for something that had happened nearly a hundred years before he was born. "No," she said gently, touching Aang's shoulder. "Not... not for a while. I'm Katara, by the way. It's nice to meet you, Aang."
He smiled at her in a trusting way that tugged at her heart. "It's nice to meet you too."