Dawn finds Zuko standing in the center of the inn’s garden, shifting through basic katas that are not his own but rusty imitations of his wife’s. His fire trails in winding streams of orange, flickering with blue as he pours his chi into his bending. Hama’s words from the night before ring in his mind, echoed with the voice of his uncle drilling the ways of the waterbenders into him as a child.
He inhales deeply, tasting the scent of rich air. It’s wet and thick, smoky with the flavor of distant storms, the sharp smell of damp wood and dewy sweetgrass. Zuko focuses on the heat in his lungs, behind his sternum, sitting at his throat—deeper to his inner fire—and let’s out steam as he raises a thick wave of entirely blue flame before him. He shifts into his wife’s next form with another breath, arms wide and then inward, stance low. His fire soars towards the waking sky, illuminating the yard and just beyond the treeline, but a frown of frustration tugs at his mouth as he dips into the well of his reserves, willing the temperature to increase still.
During dinner Katara had wondered absently how hot the ice really needed to be, but Zuko had told her that they needn’t bother the old woman with asking. He knew. The heat from Hama’s burning ice had been palpable to him—it was then that his acceptance of the old woman’s prowess and knowledge really sank in.
Steam, hot as lightning, encased in ice. Meant to heal.
It was really no wonder that his uncle is acquainted with such a person; the knowledge of Hama’s technique read born of legend, exactly the kind of thing his uncle would trek across the globe for.
And that is something that snags Zuko’s attention.
Hama is not across the globe. She is right here in their homeland. A waterbender, living in the heart of the Fire Nation when they are rare enough in the colonies. He cannot help but be curious about the healer’s origins; about where she came to be aware of such bending knowledge. Curious still was what Hama wanted them to do with the information—he had an inkling of an idea of course, after hearing her comment on Katara’s chi, but this visit isn’t about him and his passing curiosities. He decides that he will hold off until an appropriate time presents itself to speak on the matter.
Sparks of white, not unlike the first vestiges of lightning, ignite at the belly of his flame. Zuko’s frown flips into a private grin of triumph even as a bit of dizziness touches at him—lightning is already tasking for him to produce, but to employ it in waterbending forms proves to be even more so. He rights himself and lets go of his inner fire, easing the flames with buoying waves of his hands.
“Not bad, firebender.” Zuko refuses to jump at Hama’s voice at his shoulder, only turns his head to glimpse her gaze, bright and steely in his flickering blue flame. “Your stance is too wide, but I have seen worse. Where is your wife?”
“Asleep.” Zuko answers shortly, narrowing his stance and raising a smaller wave of sparks. His mouth twitches at the bored sound Hama makes, in irritation or distant amusement, that is yet to be decided. “My experience tells me that most waterbenders would rather fight to the death than wake with the sun.”
“Most,” Hama agrees, and Zuko thinks she is far too chipper for the hour; far too chipper with him, considering he’s all but told her to kill him or leave him alone. He is almost startled that the old woman chooses neither. “Too narrow, boy. Are you sure you’re Iroh’s kid? All push and no pull, you are...” She hmph’s and summons water from the not-magic pond ahead, moving into a perfect rendition of the waterbending kata he’d been practicing—a blessedly silent urging for him to follow.
His fire is fluid henceforth, trailing next to Hama’s water in uncanny imitation and a startling improvement, heavy with wavy electricity. He has always trained better with visuals available to him, and after the second form the old woman must come to this conclusion about him, for he can feel the shift in her heat signature and the hum of her silent curiosity. Hama suddenly steps off into a series of complicated arcs, a test of some sort, of that he is sure, so still he follows.
The sky bleeds clear morning blue, chasing navy and the black of night away as they move. The peeping sunrays over the surrounding forest marks the seventh hour in long shadow across the garden. Hama rests her water and Zuko follows, quelling first the wave of lightning down to blue flame and then rapidly towards yellows, to nothing. Sweat clings in a fine layer under his tunic and peppers his brow, his loosened tendrils if hair sticky along his temples and his breath of fire finally coming to a stutter.
Hama makes a noncommittal sound from his side as he immediately moves into a set of firebending katas in the form of his typical cool down. Zuko narrows his gaze at the old woman as he falls into the steps of the Dance of the Dragon. There is a curiously approving gleam in her steely gaze, but it’s the fact that there isn’t a single bead of sweat or hair out of place on her head that perplexes him.
“It would seem that you are in relation to Iroh, at least.” Hama says airily, watching his steps. She turns abruptly on her heel, headed for the inn’s deck. “Fetch your wife when you are finished. Breakfast is in an hour.”
Zuko says nothing, only stops his kata and bows despite his raised hackles. Hama chortles all the way into the inn, as if he’s told her a joke instead of offering her proper respect.
“Your Tribe wasn’t from The Poles, was it.” Katara half asks Hama at breakfast.
Zuko looks up from his nearly empty bowl of kelp somen. Admittedly, he’d only been half listening to their conversation—an increasingly complicated string of musings revolving around the use of waterbending for hygienic things—because his wife is wearing a red bandeau and low black skirts today and he has been unable to think of little else since she joined them at the dining table—but the change in topic instantly piques his attention, with how along the lines of his own previous musings the question lands.
Hama blinks at Katara in minute surprise. Zuko finishes the last of his noodles in a bid to hide his sudden interest in their talk, even as Hama’s eyes flicker over to him.
“It’s just that I couldn’t help but notice the way you bend your snow and your steam.” Katara continues. “There’s an obvious Southern influence in your form, but some of your techniques look, well, a lot more like firebending than anything else.”
“... You are right, child. My Tribe was not from The Poles.” Hama answers after a beat. She folds her gnarled hands at the lip of the table and regards them both solemnly. “My tribe was from these very isles,” here, she turns her needling look to Zuko. “long before this was the Fire Nation we were the sister population to an ancient clan known as the Sun Warriors.”
Zuko hums quietly in faint recognition behind his mug of mango juice, remembers a tale his uncle once told, and then looks up in shock.
“You speak of Ice Bringers?”
“Correct.” Hama’s steel eyes sparkle strangely at him. “Our people shared their ways and lived as one for centuries, and are responsible for the healing technique I showed you previously… There are not many who know my Tribe’s story.”
“I’ll say. I’m familiar with the story of Sun Warriors, but Ice Bringers? I’ve never seen such a name, even in Earth Kingdom libraries.” Katara cocks her head excitedly. “Are there others?”
The sparkle in Hama’s eye dims. “No.” She says. “There are no longer others. My people left this place long ago, child. I am merely a remnant.”
Zuko watches as Katara’s brow snaps down in painful empathy, his own shock dwindling into something more sinister.
“You’re... the last?” Katara whispers. Her hand covers her mouth when Hama only nods in affirmation.
Zuko bows his head, knowing now the why behind his wondering about the healer’s seclusion in the Fire Nation. “Our apologies, Hama.”
“Such is the result of war.” Hama clears her throat and rises from the table, the legs of her chair scraping overly loud along the cherry floors. “Thank you, children, but times are peaceful yet and my people’s ways are well preserved. By people like your Uncle, in fact.” She inclines her head towards the archway of the adjacent hall. “Best not to dwell on it too much. It will not help your chi—or mine. Come; breakfast is over and your examination will take a stomach that is still full. You may leave your dishes.”
Hama has them change into plain white yukatas. They find out why there are no tubs in the rooms when she leads them, torch in hand, down a flight of stairs towards the inn's basement, where the packed dirt and concrete smooths away to glinting black rock.
“A bath house!” Katara sighs dreamily. Zuko’s mouth quirks at her returned excitement. Embedded into the ground is a long pool of water fed by an interrupted stream that gurgles in from the far walls. He makes a mental note to bring her back here after the evening has come and gone.
Hama hums in quiet amusement as she hangs her torch. She ushers them into the waters, warm, and has them face her where she remains standing at the stone edge. “I will start with looking inside the both of you. You will need to float, girl.” Hama turns to Zuko. “I ask that you keep light hold and stay still until I request otherwise.”
Zuko nods and Katara instantly tips back, eyes closed, her unbound mahogany locks bleeding black and spreading about the surface in curling tendrils. Zuko fits his hands gingerly under her back. His breath catches as the water around them turns aglow with the unearthly glittering blue with the ability to heal. Katara blinks her eyes open and catches his unabashed stare.
“Hello, beautiful.” Zuko mutters, unable to help himself.
A deep blush dashes across the bridge of his wife’s nose. Ardor spreads rapidly across his chest, and he contemplates the consequence of stealing a searing kiss.
“Calm yourselves. This requires the majority of my focus.” Hama intones pointedly in her snappish drawl. “You may speak, if you must.”
“Oh thank goodness,” Katara exhales softly. “I still have so many questions, Hama.”
Zuko raises his eyebrow at this, glances away to catch Hama’s reaction.
The old woman hums again. She has seated herself in seiza and shut her eyes. “Ask.”
“The... hot ice. What is that technique called? How do you use it?”
“The hot ice is called a crucible.” Hama snorts. “It is at first used to strengthen one’s chi, as the ice must’nt melt and the steam must stay burning in order for it to take on healing. After imbuing the ice with healing it is then placed in wounds or swallowed.”
“How does that work, exactly.” Zuko asks in turn.
“Of course you wouldn’t pick silence.” Hama huffs at him as if it wasn’t his wife to speak first, as if she did not pester him just hours ago, and Zuko narrows his gaze in exasperation that surprisingly starts to lean towards fond. Hama holds out her hands and makes gentle waves in the glowing water, described to them that in nature, away from manipulation, the elements are largely considered to be stagnant and how this is not true in the case of healing; in the case of healing, one must understand the root of the elements, that an element’s restorative power can be found in its movement. They are told that earth would not form without flowing lava. Winds would not come if the earth did not turn. Fire would not burn if there was nothing to feed it. They are told that water, however, has always moved on its own accord; that they might understand that the ocean is only tame because the moon calms it—and even now, the ocean is temperamental.
Katara makes a curious noise then. “This sounds… familiar. In other philosophies isn't it usually fire being singled out because it needs to be created? Why water in this case?”
“Because the ocean hates being used and told how to behave. The sun takes the ocean and gives it to the winds, who run away. The winds give the ocean to the earth, who drinks deeply. Rivers only run because the ocean is trying to become whole. This is why the crucible requires ice; ice does not move. That is why water has been singled out, as you say.”
His wife frowns and asks of lakes and tsunamis. Hama tsks again, begging one question at a time. Katara’s mouth clicks shut, though she fixes a glare at Zuko for his quiet chuckle.
“Think of it this way.” Hama says. “The elements are single parts of a whole, yes? Like old siblings they tend to bicker. To see them out of their natural state is to simply know that the elements fought there. You may upright yourself.”
The water ceases to glow and the old woman urges them out of the pool. Dry and seated, Hama finally tells them of her findings, though her answer does not differ from her first.
“There is nothing wrong, with either of you. It is your chi to be concerned with, Katara.”
Zuko wraps his arm lightly around his wife’s waist at this, frowning as they glance at one another. Hama continues before they can ask any more questions.
“Your chi is quite stagnant for a waterbender. Think on what I have just explained to you—water moves, and as a waterbender so should you. Change for waterbenders is as necessary as drinking it. It keeps our chi flowing and happy.” Hama pauses and looks them over with deep, calculating eyes. “I can see that you are plenty happy, Katara. It is just that you have been too still for too long.”
Katara blinks, shares another glance with Zuko. “What—what should I do? Do you mean like—“ his wife scrunches her nose just so. “vacation?”
“No, child.” Hama laughs, loud and full. “Vacations are for relaxing. You need movement and excitement. Something to crash over and sink into. An adventure.”
“Oh?” Katara sputters Zuko’s sentiments exactly. “I thought healing would be a lot more... medical, than simply running off on an adventure.”
“Internal and mental stability are just as crucial to your physical body.” Hama says sternly. “Two months is not an overly long time in terms of trying to conceive, though I stress that every human body is different. Sometimes it takes days, sometimes it takes years. But the two of you must understand: a bond of the opposing elements is rare—air fuels fire, earth can become magma, and even wind can become rain. Steam, however is fleeting...”
A wide smirk pulls at the old woman’s mouth.
“You want to have a firebender’s child? You need to stray far from your comforts, Katara.” Hama turns and winks at Zuko. “And then you need to go have the most exhilarating sex of your entire life.”