Chapter 1: Reunion
Zuko checks the temperature of the tea, ensuring that it is set to be properly cooled by the time he’s ready to serve it. Satisfied, he ambles through the kitchen, returning to carefully slicing the variety of fruits he’d picked up on the way home.
It is not long until he is plating the light meal, and he quickly arranges it onto the tea tray so that he can see to the rest of his preparations. He draws the curtains in the den and sets a small fire in the hearth. Upstairs, he changes out his tunic for a simple shirt, lets his hair free, and runs his hands through it with a sigh. The thick tresses split around his face, hiding half of the burn scar, and tumble well past his shoulders. Almost due for his seasonal trim.
The bedroom is already how he wants it, but he pauses in the doorframe of the space and double checks for discrepancies anyway. The bed is freshly made, littered with fire lily petals. The surfaces are tidy of any previous clutters, replaced entirely by the onslaught of candles he had painstakingly set up, one by one.
His dao, crossed over a tapestry of ocean blues above the bed, glints familiarly with the shifting light as it does every day, almost as telling as his internal clock. The sun is starting to set. It is almost time.
A hum of approval slips out of him when he returns to the kitchen; the tea is indeed perfectly warm. He fits his hand under the tray and places it in the middle of the small dining table against the wall in the den, where he knows it will be seen. Zuko returns to the bedroom, door cracked, and places himself in the center of the bed, his eyes falling closed in concentration. With a single breath of fire, exhaled, the candles light.
It won’t be long, now.
The sound of the front door sliding open only mere moments later has a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. His name echoes out in question through the house, music to his ears.
Soon, light steps in the hall, pausing at his office, the spare room, the bathroom. The bedroom door creaks slowly.
He loves the look on her face, how quickly those blue eyes brighten in surprise and how quickly those lips part and pull into a pleased flash of teeth. The ardor it brings sears his lungs, a terrible burn that he never wants to stop feeling.
“Welcome home, Katara.”
His wife steps into the room with soft steps, her feet bare, and he can easily picture her boots next to his by the front door. She is wearing red today, gold threads twisted in with her sapphire beads and her mother’s necklace ever present. There is a splash of odd color on her leggings, no doubt from the messy hands of the children that she teaches every day. His wife’s gaze sweeps the room again before landing on him with finality. Zuko’s heart picks up.
“For me?” Katara asks, quiet, stepping within his reach. Reaching.
Zuko takes her outstretched hand in his and guides her gently to him. He can feel the weight of his words as well as he can hear it when he answers her.
“All of it.”
A promise—their promise.
Katara falls into his lap with ease. Zuko fits his hands to her hips and draws her in flush for the kiss he has wanted to give her all day. She tastes first like the slices of moonpeach he left her, and then again like the raspberry tea. He tips her head back to deepen the kiss, his tongue lining the curve of her plush mouth. He is rewarded with entry and one of his favorite delighted sounds, long since committed to memory.
Zuko lifts one hand to deftly undo the string that holds Katara’s hair in place. The waves fall, and he pulls away to pepper kisses across her cheeks, where a blush has grown. He slides his other hand up from her waist, over her back and right into the curls at her nape.
“Zuko?” He hums in askance when she calls him, busy inhaling the scent of the sea and distant earth from her hair, his lips brushing kisses against her forehead. “What was in the tea?”
Zuko leans back, hating the uncertainty underlying her tone, a strange pluck on the trust heartline at the fact that she’d consumed the tea anyway. He cups Katara’s face in his hands and locks his eyes to hers, illuminated in the flickering candlelight. He pours every ounce of his emotion into his stare, every bit of love and elation that he’d felt when she’d told him just as they were falling asleep the night before that she wanted—felt ready—to extend their family.
To have his child.
“Nothing.” Zuko tells her.
Katara inhales sharply, eyes wet with the threat of tears, her hands a pair of tightening fists in the front of his shirt. Zuko’s world tilts as he is tackled to their bed. Fire lily petals fly. Laughter spills out between her joyful kisses, but it is quick to turn into pants and moans and please, Zuko.
He is quick to give her what she wants, his plan all along. After his own, her clothes come away by his hands, her wrappings by his teeth, but his wife does not let him spend too long with his mouth between her legs. She pulls him up quickly by the roots of his hair, just how he likes. Her eyes have turned stormy, and her words strike desire through him like lightning when she speaks them against his jaw.
“I won't get pregnant that way, Zuko.” Katara trails her fingers impatiently over his navel, curls them bold and firm around the base of his length. “You have to fuck me—“
Zuko is satisfied by the sharp yelp of surprise Katara makes when he snatches her wrists into his hands and pins them roughly above her. He knocks her legs apart with his knees, fits a thigh under one of hers, and promptly seats himself into her slick folds in one agonizingly slow thrust. Katara’s mouth has fallen open in a silent cry. Zuko latches on to her bottom lip and rocks his hips in the steady and sinuous pace that he knows makes her hate him, interlaces their fingers with an answering purr when she throws her head back and gasps his name.
Zuko’s hair curtains them, the ends mixing with her dark waves, swaying with every movement and letting thin slashes of candlelight dance over Katara’s gleaming copper skin. Her breasts bounce in time, making his mouth water and the want in his veins coil. Zuko does not give in to the temptation. He is far too enraptured with the blissfully pained look taking over Katara’s features.
“More.” She wants.
Zuko increases the force of his thrusts, but he does not change his pace.
“No.” He says.
Katara raises her hips in defiance, meets him snap for snap. “Zuko,” she is begging instead of demanding, now. The candles littered around the room flicker with blue. “Zuko, Zuko. Please.”
A growl builds and pours from his throat, taut with mounting lust. Zuko frees one hand to grasp at her hip and uses their interlaced fingers to pull her forward into his lap. He frees that hand, too, and the moment hers rests securely over his shoulders he cups the bottom of her thighs and makes her ride him as fast as his arms will pump.
“Katara.” His wife’s name falls out in a low drawl, bringing her eyes from the ceiling to his. “I love you.”
Katara soon shudders in his hold, her desperate gasps for air nothing like his crumbling breaths of fire. She unravels like silk around him, quivering and despicably wet. Her orgasm is the catalyst to his. Zuko lays her back and gives into the temptation of her heaving breasts as he lets her release milk his seed.
They are laying together in warm post-cotial haze, Katara’s legs resting over his hip and her face buried into the crook of his neck when she quietly asks: “Do you think it worked?”
“Do not worry, beloved.” Zuko chuckles and presses a tender kiss to her shoulder. “I will try as much as you like, however you like.”
Chapter 2: Counterpart
Katara wants to try again in the morning, and every morning after that. It’s been two weeks since they have started to work to conceive in earnest, and Zuko finds that he cannot at all complain about his wife’s increased libido. The kind of tired her insistence makes him is his favorite kind of tired.
Today, it is their shared off day, and it is barely dawn. Zuko is standing in the kitchen preparing tea leaves when Katara emerges at the bottom of the steps fully naked and with waking eyes, stirring with need. He remains true to his word and takes her on the kitchen counter like she asks. The water in the open teapot boils and sloshes onto the floor but neither of them bother to notice.
Zuko’s heart sings with content when he carefully carries her back to bed so that he may prepare without distraction for the day of errands ahead of them. Katara is nipping and licking a hickey onto the slope of his neck with drowsy focus, her legs loose at his sides and arms light around his shoulders.
“Love when you carry me.” Katara murmurs.
Zuko takes another measured step upward. “Is that right?”
“It’s safe here.” Katara’s sigh is in time with the skip of Zuko’s heart. He tightens his hold under her thighs. “Warm. I also get to not walk and look at you at the same time.”
A deep rumbling laugh vibrates through Zuko. He presses a kiss to his wife’s temple as he ascends the last of the stairs. Katara only grumbles a little when he deposits her back into their bed but she hushes after Zuko promises to wake her on time for breakfast, dots dragonfly kisses along her brow and pulls the duvet over her.
Zuko cleans the mess he finds and resumes his mint tea, only moving to bathe once he has meditated and completed a full set of katas in the back yard. He pulls half of his hair into a topknot, and is careful not to rouse Katara when he returns to their room to dress. Zuko considers the energy the sun pours into him and dons a sleeveless white shirt with a higher neck for the day; his instincts tell him that it will be pleasantly warm.
Light begins to seep in from the den’s windows, and breakfast comes together nicely. Sunberries and kiwi from the garden go into a salad, and the fish that had been set to dry the night before is expertly gutted, split, and seared over the stove at Zuko’s hands. Zuko sets the filets over platters of banana leaf and steaming rice before he sets about making tea again, raspberry this time.
Katara picks up right where she left off when Zuko slips into their bedroom to wake her: grumbling and demanding attention.
“Breakfast is waiting,” Zuko tells her between his indulgent press of lips against the swell of her breast; he has ripped away the blankets and replaced them with himself, knowing that the morning’s lingering chill will pull her into action once he leaves the room. “and your tea is almost ready, beloved.”
Katara only tugs at his hair and grumbles more. Zuko presses a kiss to the lithe lines of her abdomen— wondering only briefly how she will look when she is finally heavy with his child, lest he rile himself—and leaves his wife to ensure that she wakes properly.
Zuko watches with unwavering eyes when Katara soon joins him at the dining table in the den. Her long hair is completely down today, still damp and curling prettily at the ends, and the toned planes of her stomach are on display under the fur lined hem of her cropped blue tunic. White, tight leggings peek at him between the high slits of her blue skirt, and Zuko knows she is exacting a modicum of revenge against him for leaving her cold just moments ago. The modified Water Tribe outfit is one of his favorites to take her out of, and the glitter that dances across his wife’s bright blue eyes when their gazes lock lets him know that she has every intention of eventually letting him do so.
They go over their to do list as they complete their meal. Zuko needs to collect this month’s pay from his security work, staple groceries need to be replenished for the week, the garden is prime for new planting—chilis for the winter, they decide—the ostrich-horses need more feed, and the type of wood they agreed to use for their child’s crib is supposed to restock this afternoon. Katara suggests taking lunch in town while they wait for the lumberman’s shop to ready for them, and Zuko agrees.
Zuko readies their small cart for attaching while Katara rears the ostrich-horses from the small barn at the edge of the yard. The ride into Yu Dao is as it always is when they go together, filled with affectionate banter and passing observations. Within the hour, the dirt road leading out of the forest-lined hills of the lush plains they call home quickly bleed into cobblestone streets and scattered buildings, before tightening into the familiar structure of the city’s outskirts.
On the way to his own place of work, they soon pass the school—closed for the day—where Katara teaches both bending and basic education to kids. It reminds Zuko to ask her how her waterbenders are doing, all three of them, and he delights in how she gushes over her students recent progress. They say hello to a few familiar faces as they ride towards Yu Dao’s food market, mainly to Zuko’s coworkers, who are seen scattered across the streets for one security gig or another, and one of Katara’s own. A smart mouthed earthbender who’s bluntness and skill Zuko has come to appreciate over the years.
Ostrich-horse feed is the first to go into the cart once Zuko collects his pay, and he leads them through the markets by foot from there, reins in hand. A pack of chilli seeds and another bushel of raspberry tea leaves make their way into the cart. Katara stops them to dart into an apothecary after that, and it is while he waits for her to return that Zuko can tell that their pleasant morning of errands is about to be disrupted.
A man with dark eyes and an arrogant step suddenly saunters towards Zuko, a stick of wheat between his teeth. The man tips his head back in greeting.
“How much for the ostrich-horses?”
“Not for sale.” Zuko responds shortly, staring resolutely at the entrance to the apothecary.
“Oh, c’mon. This is Yu Dao, my friend! Everything here is for sale.” A chuckle, then, “How much.”
It isn’t a question anymore. Zuko remains still, but he does let his gaze cut towards the stranger. There is a much more stern look on his face now, and Zuko matches it with the narrowing of his eyes. Not many people approach him so boldly—the burn on his face is good for something, nobody really walks away from an injury like his after all, and the combined indication and image of it is usually enough to keep others out of his way.
Zuko concludes that this man is either bluffing or completely serious. He does not care to find out which.
“No, thank you.”
“I don’t think you get it.” The man lets out a laugh. “I’m not really asking—“
Zuko thanks both Agni and La, how badly he does not want to bother with this stranger. He slides his attention to Katara, who is now standing on the top steps of the apothecary with a small pouch in hand, looking at him with a confused furrow to her brow. Zuko doesn’t resist the immediate smile that tugs at his mouth, telling her not to worry. He reaches out his free hand for hers in a silent beckon.
Zuko feels his blood run cold.
“Forget about the ostrich-horses,” the man is saying now. “how much for her—? Woah!”
Zuko does not recall moving, or conjuring the blue flames in his hands that startle the ostrich-horses and gain the wary attention of other market-goers. He only knows the protectiveness and the outrage, and the satisfaction that licks through him at the flash of fear in the stranger’s eyes as he takes a hasty stride backwards, a wise response to his own swift advancement.
Zuko stops dead, less than an arm’s length from the retreating man. Katara’s tone is razor sharp and promises nothing but icy wrath in the face of his scalding anger—even their mounts seem to become still at the snap of her voice. The market appears to hold its breath. Zuko lets the flames die from his hands, but he does not back away. His hands itch for the knife in his boot, instead, and he balls them into fists.
The stranger’s eyes flicker over Zuko’s shoulder, to Katara, and Zuko holds in the growl that gathers at his throat.
Cool fingers touch his arm. “Let’s just go.”
Just as Zuko takes a single step back, just as the market breathes again, the stranger suddenly laughs, long and loud. The look on his face has changed into something belligerent and disbelieving, amused nonetheless.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of your girl!”
The fingers on his arm turn freezing.
“No man is afraid of their wife.” Zuko hisses. “He only honors her.”
“She’s too pretty for you. Honor her by selling her to me.”
The growl spills out of Zuko, but the fire that erupts from his hands is doused by a thick tendril of water that shoots past him and directly towards the stranger, who rocks on his feet and slams into the side of the next shop’s stone steps.
“She doesn’t belong to anybody. Least of all someone like you!”
Zuko stops and observes with rapt attention as Katara breezes past him, her eyes like flashing thunderclouds and her words a soothing balm. Katara pulls the water from the ground with deft movement before the stranger can recover, creeping it upwards over his body, returning the fear to his face as it slowly freezes into glinting shards of ice.
The man’s features morph into something arrogant again and he says something too low for Zuko to catch. Zuko finds that he doesn’t really care; he only has eyes for Katara, who hauls her fist back and punches the man across his jaw with an audible crack. The man lets out a strangled groan of pain and glares daggers at them both as he spits blood, but Katara only turns her nose up at him. Zuko’s heart sings.
“You’re lucky it was me that got to you first.” Katara says as she turns away. “It’s not like you can afford me, anyway.”
A litany of curses follow them as they continue on their way—“waterbending bitch!”—but Katara bids Zuko not to bother as she resumes her mount. An unease works its way into Zuko as they venture further into the market to put distance between themselves and the stranger, betrayed only by the way he curls his fingers absently around his wife’s calf. Katara promises him that she is fine with the roguish grin she gives him, and Zuko allows his worry fall away.
The fresh memory of Katara dousing his angry fire pulls a wry smile across Zuko’s mouth. His wife always seems save him in ways that he lacks to consider in the heat of moments; killing with fire is the highest offense in Yu Dao, and Zuko knows that his wife knows for certain that he would have killed that man for daring to dishonor her.
Zuko’s wry smile blossoms into a private grin. Katara hadn’t let herself be dishonored, either. She had been surefooted and quick in her bending movements, so wonderfully terrifying as she had encased the offensive stranger in ice. More so, when she had connected her fist to his face.
Only the awe and the ardor remain from the moment now, as the food stalls come into view. Zuko’s hands tighten along the reins where he has returned them, the warmth flushing through his body having nothing at all to do with the heightening sun.
Zuko kisses her fiercely when they sit down for lunch, garnering all kinds of looks. Katara blushes to the roots of her hair and concedes with only a shy glance when Zuko drags her chair closer to his.
Katara asks him what the kiss was for. Zuko gathers her hand, knuckles dusted with blood, and gives her another.
What is he if nothing without her beside him?
“Saved again.” He tells her quietly.
Chapter 3: Fuse
The stranger does not make trouble for them again, which Zuko is glad for. The general unease he’d felt after coming into contact with such a crass person had returned to him several times over the weeks since, yet still nothing has come of it. No—trouble has managed to find its way to them in a completely unexpected way.
Zuko frowns as he crests the rolling plane that his home sits on. He can see the open barn on the other side of the wide yard from his ascending angle, and he notes with a halting curiosity that their other ostrich-horse is already within its stable. Zuko doesn’t need to look or feel out the sun to know how strange the sight is, as it can only mean one thing, and Katara is never home before him.
Zuko tugs at the reins in his hands and leads his ostrich-horse quickly to the stables, where water and food are already waiting, a chore that he typically sees to.
“Katara?” He calls the moment he steps foot within the house. He slips his boots off as only silence meets him. Zuko sweeps his gaze over the den and the kitchen, noting nothing out of place, and heads up the stairs. He does not have to look much further; there is only one door open in the hall. Zuko stops at the threshold of the spare room, where the baby’s bed he has built lay finished against the immediate wall to his side.
Worry gnaws at him. In the crib is his wife, asleep, curled up on her side in her day clothes, her hair spilling between the bars. His chest tightens when he recognizes the lines of dried tears on her cheeks. Zuko reaches out and cups the side of her face in his palm, his thumb running briefly over the corner of Katara’s mouth. Why is she home early and why has she been crying?
Why is she in their child’s room, in their child’s bed, instead of their own?
“Katara.” Zuko calls quietly, tucking away the damp curls that have matted to her face. His wife does not wake when he calls out to her again, her only response a fleeting flash of pain drawing her brow. Zuko lowers the bars and gathers her in his arms then, careful of her hair and wondering how it is she managed to fit herself into the baby’s bed in the first place.
He has not made it two steps into their bedroom when Katara murmurs his name, her voice a tiny and broken rasp that makes his throat ache.
“I am here,” Zuko firms his hold and sits at the edge of their bed, places soft dragonfly kisses down her cheeks in a bid to soothe, to ignore the panic that riddles him when her tears come, suddenly and silently. “I am here, I am here.” Katara buries her face into his neck, and he tightens his arms around her. “What’s wrong, Katara?”
Katara pulls back and Zuko lets her. Her eyes are dark with something he cannot really read. Her mouth works, but no words come out. There is pain wrought in her features, in her grip, the very same that had flickered across her face when he’d come upon her in their child’s crib.
“It’s been six weeks, Zuko.” Katara’s words are an abrupt whisper, but Zuko can tell that she is screaming. “Why am I not pregnant?”
A wave of cold dawns over Zuko, stuttering his heart and sucking the air out of his lungs.
Six weeks—two months—already? Zuko places a hand over Katara’s abdomen, feeling the lithe flatness he knows lay underneath the layers of her tunic, brows snapped down in bewildered wonder, because of course he trusts her to know. He has seen her holding her hands over herself in the moments after each of their couplings, between meals and careful spars in the yard, bright with the innersight that her abilities bring her. It is not an action he often misses—and he knows within his heart of hearts that the moment she knows, he will know.
So how did he miss her passion underlined murmurs of “no, not yet,” so eager to try again, turn into the sadness that bleeds from her now? How did he miss the fact that it has started to hurt her so much that she needs to come home to cry?
Katara’s hair sways with the sharp shake of her head, shoulders racking with a halted sob. The sound snaps Zuko out of his daze, and he lifts his eyes from where his palm rests on Katara’s stomach to lock eyes with her.
It hits him, the look on her face. His wife is expecting an answer. Zuko watches the tears stream endlessly and freely down her cheeks, and knows he can say nothing. Katara tips forward with a heart-shattering wail in the midst of his unsure silence, her forehead coming to rest on his collarbone and her fingers grappling harshly at his shoulders.
“I love you,” he tells her feverently, gathering her further into his lap and rocking her slow. He does not know how long they stay that way. “I’m sorry,” he says, but the apology gets lost in her hair, under the sound of her crestfallen cries. “We can fix this,” he decides, lips leaving lingering kisses in the shadow of her wet lashes, and it is then that she quiets, only sniffles left.
Katara’s voice is so small and hopeful that it breaks his heart all over again, strengthens his resolve. Zuko cups her face in his hands and places a kiss on her nose.
Chapter 4: Celestial
Zuko’s promise comes in the form of a healer named Hama that villages in Yu Dao’s western outskirts fearfully dub a blood-witch. Zuko only knows for certain that Hama is indeed a healer because his only family, an uncle who happens to be a well respected general with a net of influence so wide that it would take Zuko a lifetime to see the end of, tells him as much when he asks.
It is a week later, just moments past dawn, when Zuko receives the response. A woman on a komodo-rhino with the Fire Nation insignia branded on its hide brings the paper wrapped package directly to him in the yard, where he is completing his katas for the day. Zuko bows to her in thanks and waits until she returns to the road before opening the letter that’s been attached to the surprisingly heavy delivery.
Zuko, it reads.
It overjoys me to know that you and Katara have decided to bring life into this world. I believe that you will both be outstanding parents when the time comes, and I myself am quite looking forward to spoiling my future grandchildren.
Rest your fears, nephew. It relieves me to inform you that the healer Hama that you ask of happens to be a great acquaintance of mine. Despite what you may have heard, you can be assured that she will be more than adequate in the kind of assistance that you seek. Note that while her methods will come as a shock to you, I have trusted her with my life many times. In this, I ask that you trust me and do the same.
Hama can be found in the Eastern Isles of the Fire Nation, far west of Yu Dao. I have enclosed an item that will ensure that you are well received. Give her this, and she will know that it is I who sent you.
You and Katara may keep the rest.
There is a missive and a map of an island tacked to the back. A strange kind of relief washes over Zuko as he finishes reading the full contents of the letter. He has been planning every day since he found Katara sleeping in the baby’s bed, meticulously arranging for them to be able to take leave from Yu Dao without consequence in the light of finding the right healer. He has more than enough personal savings to afford any passage into the Fire Nation, he is sure, and now that he knows about Hama’s association with his uncle there is nothing left to stop him. Anything, to never hear his wife cry like that again.
Zuko takes the package inside and hopes that their trip will not take too long. The Eastern Isles are not terribly far from his uncle’s current station according to the missive, and Zuko will take Katara to visit him as thanks should they find themselves with extra time on their hands. The sky is still mostly dark, and Zuko contemplates the pros and cons of waking Katara at such an hour as he ascends the stairs, especially on their off day. A fond smile pulls at his mouth, knowing that he will be met with icy glares and even colder water.
“This Hama lady… Iroh clearly trusts her, but...” Katara murmurs once she’s read the letter. She catches Zuko’s eyes. “What do you think?”
“I trust my uncle. You know that I do.” Zuko finishes steaming the water from his hair with his hands, and Katara blushes prettily when he slips out of his soaked shirt. A chuckle rumbles out of him. “I think that we should see her, beloved.”
“Are you sure?”
Zuko stops tugging at the hem of his wet pants, the quiet fear in his wife’s voice sending a current of protectiveness down his sternum. In a single stride he stands before her, tilting her face upward with firm hands so that she can read the sincerity that scores through him when he speaks.
“As sure as I am about you being the mother of my children.”
Katara’s eyes brim, but her smile is bright. “Children?”
Zuko knows that his words are really his uncle’s, borrowed from the letter. He knows that Katara is only joking, but he looks at her—how she sits at the edge of their bed in her lighter wrappings, her hair big and wild from tossing in her sleep, blue eyes and brown skin catching a glow from the sun’s peeking rays. Love, clear and sure, warms his lungs stronger than any breath of fire. How did she ever choose him?
Zuko leans in and brushes his mouth over hers. “As if I could keep away…”
Katara cards her fingers through his unbound hair and draws him down for a full kiss, tender and underlined with a waking urgency. Zuko falls into the feeling carefully, humming in light encouragement when Katara dips her tongue fleetingly past the seam of his lips; he has kept his hands and his cock to himself at her behest, happily letting her lead the pace of their desire until she feels that she is once again ready for more. Zuko’s hum turns into a warning growl, his kiss turning a little firmer when she tugs at the roots of his hair. Katara relents with a quiet laugh, easing back, but Zuko gives chase, nipping quickly at her bottom lip as a lingering warning before allowing the distance.
A torrid shadow darkens the blue of his wife’s eyes.
“Come on,” Zuko urges instead, back to changing out of his wet clothes. “we can leave by noon if we are quick.”
“Noon? As in, noon today?”
The shadow fades. Katara’s brows furrow, but Zuko stops the barrage of questions before they come, pulls her up by the hands and twists her in his hold so that he can smooth his hands down her abdomen. “I have a plan, beloved,” he says against the shell of her ear. “you needn’t worry about anything save packing enough clothes.”
“I hate when you plan without me, Zuko. I’m the better tactician and we both know it.” Zuko doesn't need to see Katara’s face to know that she is pouting. She sighs at his plactating hum. “If you’re sure…”
“You know that I am.”
Zuko places a kiss of thanks on her temple and lets her go with a swift reminder to focus on packing only. He is quick to wash, knowing that his wife will also want to bathe before truly getting started. Zuko dresses plainly in a sleeveless tunic while Katara folds items into a large leather rucksack, and he moves to create a quick breakfast of leftover jook and spiced strips of moo-sow for them to share before readying their ostrich-horses.
Zuko does not take long to prepare his own travel bag while Katara loads hers into their cart; he has gone over what they might need enough times to pack in his sleep. Zuko brings his rucksack and the unopened delivery to the door where his boots wait, only returning upstairs to take his dao from the wall.
Katara is mounted when he steps into the warming morning air, the sun that escapes from the tree-line casting her halfbound waves in fiery halo. She looks as regal as she is when she arches an eyebrow at his blatant stare. Zuko unroots himself and locks the door behind him.
“Haven’t seen those on you in a while,” Katara gestures to the dao sheathed across his back as he hoists himself over his ostrich-horse.
Zuko nods at the twin waterskins strapped over her shoulders, bare like his in her green tunic. “Likewise, princess.”
“Chief’s Daughter to you, peasant.” Katara tsks affectionately, and just like that the ride into Yu Dao is as it always is. Zuko stops them at Katara’s school, where he leaves a letter with the groundsman, and again at his work, where he has his boss allocate a month’s worth of pay to the most trusted member on his security team to watch over their house. Zuko can feel Katara’s excitement begin to bubble once they eventually near the docks; the breeze brings the scent of the sea and the distant sounds of fishermen’s work. It is late morning when they purchase their passports, the summer sun unhindered by clouds. Zuko takes extra care in picking out their rooms, and they gather their luggage and board their mounts. They follow the appointed seaport staff to the pier where a large Fire Nation vessel is anchored. Zuko can no longer hold the smile that pulls at his mouth as they move pass Fire Nation guard and crew and ascend towards the deck.
Katara is practically jumping for joy. A fond laugh falls out of him. “Excited about the water?”
“Yes, I’m-excited-about-the-water!” Katara admits in a rush. She blushes when their guide raises an amused eyebrow at her over their shoulder. “Waterbender,” she grins sheepishly, gesturing to herself. “please don’t mind me.”
When Katara beams further at the sight of their accommodations Zuko knows that it was worth every extra piece of silver. She is immediately drawn to the wide half-glass sliding doors that offer a view of the horizon and leads to a secluded deck. Zuko focuses on helping their guide with the luggage, listening to Katara gush about the ocean air with one ear and noting the staff’s verbal itinerary report with the other. Zuko tips the seaport guide with leftover silver and returns their short bow of thanks, a portion of the weight that has been sitting on his shoulders lifting with the sound of their suite’s closing door.
One step closer to seeing the healer; to fulfilling his promise.
The peaking sun slants in large rays from the windows above the bed, making the steel walls radiate warmth and reflected light. Zuko arranges their rucksacks near what he can tell is a closet behind the paneled wall, sets his dao and his uncle’s package on the small table for two in the far corner. A wistful sigh under the loud sound of lazy waves catches his attention.
“Do not jump,” Zuko warns sternly as he leans in the frame of the balcony’s open entrance. Katara steps back from the railings and turns to him with a spark in her eye, one that tells Zuko that he has caught her red handed, so to speak. Zuko pulls her back inside and turns her toward their room so that she can examine it fully; the enormous bed covered in deep reds, the nook with a low desk, a feature he picked because he knows that she couldn’t resist bringing papers to grade. He quietly points out the attached bathroom with large mirrors peeking at them through the open door, the plush purple rug in front of the large fireplace, the panda lilies scattered across their pillows.
It’s a lover’s suite, and it is their home for the next two weeks while they are at sea. The spark in Katara’s gaze brightens when she looks at him. “For me?”
“All of it.”
Zuko tells her then that a tour of the ship’s facilities are in order, but only because that the spark in his wife’s gaze simmers into something much more sultry, the very same look she’d given him earlier in their bedroom, and because he does not wish to wander aimlessly for food and drink in the after of when the result of that look comes into fruition.
And it does. Lunch is spent on the ship’s upper deck with other passengers, where they listen to an announcement from the captain about stops and storms. Zuko makes sure that they know where the kitchens are, and who to ask for in case of emergencies. The crew announces that they are to soon weigh anchor, and that is when Katara leads him impatiently back to their suite.
Zuko is helpless under her cool hands, her mouth—Agni her mouth—leaving marks all the way down to his navel, where his cock lay full and heavy, and then shamelessly uttering filthy things against his own. It is nothing short of cosmic when Katara braces, splits her slick folds and slowly sinks down his aching length. She is tight around him, hot and wet. Stars smatter briefly across his vision, his breath of fire caught and his eyes unable to drink in anything but the glow of her umber skin in the angled evening sun.
Katara is an angel if he’s ever seen one, the fiery halo of her hair perceptible in the saturated light, her ocean eyes clear and otherworldly in the cut of the sun’s beams. Her movements are as steady as they are curvilinear and sinuous; her thighs tremble and her mouth parts over pants and crescendoing whimpers. The litany of those familiar little begging sounds has Zuko reaching up to tangle a hand at the curls of her nape and bringing her down for a bruising kiss, pressing his other hand along the dip of her back and fucking into her selfishly.
Zuko spills, messy and long, when Katara utters his name over a particularly high moan. He shudders and shudders and shudders some more as Katara plants her hands on his thighs, riding him through his orgasm while chasing her own. Zuko runs his fingers through the cum leaking down her thighs and circles her clit, featherlight and swift, just how she hates it. He nearly howls, watching with returning lust and rapt attention as she flutters and tightens around him, her body wound in a beautifully taut arch.
“I love you,” Katara murmurs sleepily into his neck a moment later. She has not moved from her—rightful—place in his lap. Zuko takes a panda lily from one of the few undisturbed pillows and tucks it into the wild tresses of her hair.
“To the sun and back.” He agrees, tightening his hold. “To the moon and beyond.”
Chapter 5: Hesitancy
After loss, Zuko knows that he is a man afraid of very few things. He is not afraid to admit that Hama sets off an undercurrent of that rare fear in him.
She stands at the top steps of an old inn that rests at the last of Bunraku Village’s roads near the woodland, her fossil gray eyes cold and calculating as they narrow down at him. The old woman looks to examine the object he has given her; the single pai sho tile that had come in the package that his uncle delivered. Hama shifts the white piece between her gnarled fingers with a short hm, her sudden smile strange and wide as she drops the game tile into a pocket.
“You appear to have come far, young man.” Hama says in the low, snappy drawl of the Eastern Isles. “Iroh’s, are you? Yes… I see. Alright, then. I’m listening.”
Zuko remembers his uncle’s words about trust and tells her the truth. Hama’s pale gaze seems to darken with the rapidly lengthening shadows of the inn’s awning at his words, her thin lips pursing as if she’s bitten into a rotten moonpeach. Her silence is heady with something that makes wariness crawl down his spine, bright with the instinct to heat his body need he fight or run. Zuko finds that he is suddenly much more aware of the distance between his hands and the hilts of his dao, the amount of seconds it would take to spit fire, or to reach his wife, who he has instructed to wait in the carriage along the street.
Was he right to? Katara certainly hadn’t liked the idea, but he would see her spared in any chance of direct rejection.
Zuko clears his throat. “I was told that you can help.”
“Your wife. Let me see her.”
With sharpened focus, Zuko forces his shoulders to ease, inclines his head in a polite nod, and pivots on the heel of his boot to motion for the carriage driver, who bows curtly in understanding. He does not let the relief come yet—he has not forgotten the words of western Yu Dao—though he does remind himself that he is supposed to trust Hama with his life, despite how mysterious she seems. A moment later Zuko is watching Katara step onto the road and into the sunset, lovely in a sleeveless plum robe, her eyes searching out his. Zuko holds his hand out for her as she nears, and presses a kiss to her knuckles without hesitation.
“Spirits. A waterbender?” Hama’s surprise is as clear as her correctness, though not at all the correct interjection. Zuko catches the flicker of caution that flashes across Katara’s blue gaze, now aimed over his shoulder, and knows that their thought is the same: how can she know that? Zuko turns slowly to see Hama staring right back, but the old woman does not have eyes for him.
“Spirits.” Hama says again, sliding her hands into her sleeves. There is an indescribable difference in her demeanor. “Come in.”
The inside of Hama’s inn is surprisingly grand—and how fortuitous for a healer to own an inn, Zuko thinks—but the lack of warmth in the air tells him that the place is rather empty. The floors and beams are made of polished red wood and there are windows everywhere. Colorful crystal vases of flora are scattered throughout the foyer, along the shelves and in the center of the tables he can see in the areas ahead. He waits at the door for the carriage driver to bring their things, keeps careful and conscious attention to the signature of Katara’s bodyheat as she draws away from him and across the wide foyer where Hama leads.
Their rooms are on the second floor, large and plain, save the wide stain-glass window that faces east of the woodland.
“Do not get comfortable.” Hama warns them. “You are to meet me in the garden at moonlight.”
“How does she know that I’m a waterbender?” Katara wonders when they’re alone. “Did Uncle Iroh…?”
“I don’t think so. Your guess is as good as mine. She seemed surprised… Uncle did suggest that she would be... adept.” Zuko says, just as wary. He latches on to the position of the sun and rests their bags at the end of the bed. “When is moonlight?”
“A few hours, give or take.” Katara’s answer comes absently; she is inspecting the bathroom with a frown. “There’s no tub in here.”
Zuko chuckles. “Perhaps a walk around the grounds, then.”
“Perhaps.” Katara’s frown becomes a small smile. “There is a lake nearby.”
She’s right about the lake, of course—a fair walk around the bend of what crooked old signs call Mt. Himei. It’s nestled into a wide shore of dark sand that ends at a tall outcropping of rock and is surrounded by thickets of reaching maples. The setting sun cuts across the rippling green surface and the far waves bring a warm breeze, drawing Zuko’s attention to the high flutter of Katara’s skirts as he follows her down towards the water.
Katara coaxes him to rest his dao and play in the shallows, though despite his initial reluctance it does not take very much for him to concede to deeper water. She hikes the hem of her dress into a knot and lunges right into the waves, emerging slowly with come hither eyes and smirk that dares him to catch her. Steam billows out from the edge of the lake where he wraps her around him—because he does catch her, because she lets him, like she alway has—and kisses her dizzy.
“We have to go soon,” Zuko reminds her when she’s dragged him from the shallows a second time to place forget-me-not kisses down his neck. “the sun is all but gone…”
“Fine.” Katara mutters, but it’s a lie. The second they’re out of the water she tackles Zuko onto the sandy bank near his embedded dao, fists her hands in his soaked tunic and straddles his hips. Zuko nearly purrs at the sight of her as he cants upward, unbidden, into her familiar weight. His wife is as soaked as he is, and it hides absolutely nothing.
Zuko groans. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” Katara laces their fingers and pins his hands. “Yeah, let's do that—“
No, he means to say it, he really does, but Katara rolls her hips and he retaliates automatically by taking a hardened nipple between his teeth, soaked plum fabric and all. The sound she makes seals both of their fates.
Hama is waiting in the yard when they return to the inn, swaying in a rocking chair and a steaming teacup in her gnarled hands. She looks as amused as she does completely unimpressed as she sits next to the small metal fire pit in front of the porch and takes a slow sip. It reminds Zuko far too much of his uncle, and he has the decency to blush when Katara pretends to knock sand out of her ruined robes and ever so casually apologizes for their tardiness.
“It is of no consequence in your case.”
Zuko nearly flinches in anger at the old woman’s choice in words. Hama tips her cup back to down the contents in the same moment that the dampness in his own clothes turns freezing, and he reaches to hold Katara’s hand before she can fully fist the water around her into ice. Hama’s bemused chuckle does not help.
“What’s funny?” Katara asks quietly.
“You, child.” Hama chortles, then with measure: “Tell me why it is you believe that you cannot have one.”
Katara raises her chin even as her shoulders fall. “I don’t know.” Her voice comes even quieter, haunted with pain and fear. Zuko lets out a slow breath and gives her hand a firm squeeze, the memory of her cries still loud in his ears. “I check. All the time. I even tried to heal myself—as a waterbender my healing abilities are better than most—but I can’t figure out the problem.”
“Have you checked your husband?”
“Yes.” Zuko answers shortly. “I’m fine.”
Hama nods but she does not look away from Katara. Zuko narrows his eyes and swears he sees a twinkle of amusement flickering in the old woman’s gray gaze.
“I see. How long have you been trying for a child?”
“Since the summer solstice.” Katara answers immediately. A blush dusts across her nose as she glances at Zuko. “We’ve rarely skipped a cycle.”
An acknowledging hum sounds from Hama as she rocks forward in her chair. Her stare suddenly intensifies, and she peers at them as if looking right through. A chill runs down Zuko’s spine. He gives his wife’s hand another squeeze.
“I believe you.” Hama says it as if she is doing them a great service. “However, I will still need to check you for myself before coming to a conclusion. We will do this tomorrow morning.”
Zuko blinks, his brows furrowing. Why would she have them wait until moonlight to have a conversation that could have been had upon arrival? “Is that all?” He asks, hesitant.
“How will you…” Katara starts up after him. “How will you examine us?”
Hama smiles and rises from her rocking chair, leaving her teacup and gesturing for them to follow. Zuko does not move but Katara tugs at his hand pointedly, and he keeps her close as they take a curving pathway that leads around the back of the inn. A large deck comes into view, and the narrow path turns into a skipping stone pathway to the middle of a large clearing. Hama stops before a pond filled with lotus pads, and Zuko halts a respectable distance away.
“A pond?” Katara mutters under her breath. “It better be magical.”
Zuko snorts. “Hush.”
“Yes, do be quiet.” Hama interjects, her drawl full of tepid mirth. “I am old. I require concentration under moons that are not full.”
What? Zuko sees the word forming on his wife’s lips, but before her voice comes the pond erupts into a soaring wave with a deafening crash, leaving the ground bereft as it spins with a wind-bringing speed.
Suddenly, Zuko understands the rumors of west Yu Dao. Hama is no witch. She’s a waterbender, of a Tribe who’s ways have been long lost, she says as she splits water into dancing rivers, and she is absolutely frightening. The old woman thins the water into sprinkling snow; pulls tendrils out of nothing; shifts sharply through forms that belie her age and remind Zuko vaguely of firebending. She shows Katara how water can glow with the bright blue of healing from afar. She tells Zuko that there is healing in heat, and he stares in wonder as she turns already glowing water brighter, white and scorching hot in the palm of her hand without so much as a wisp of vapor.
“The outside is constructed of ice.” Hama says sagely as she nears with the white orb that hovers above her palm. She has long since ceased the snow and returned the pond. “The heat comes from the inside, though it is difficult to maintain opposite aspects without a counterpart.”
Katara has stars in her eyes now, and Zuko cannot blame her.
“How?” His wife asks, reverent. There is a gleam of hope in her bright blue stare. “Has it worked before? Will it heal me?”
“There is nothing wrong with you.” Hama retorts. “Your problem lies within your chi.”
“My chi? But you haven’t—how do you know?”
“Yes. Your chi.” Hama nods at Katara and then promptly dissolves the hot white ice into thin air. “We will speak again in the morning—I may be agile but I am still old. I require rest.”
Zuko bows when his wife does, mind racing with what they’ve learned.
Hama chortles as she steps around and leaves them standing at the edge of the yard, her snappy voice ringing out behind her as she ascends the inn’s deck to slip inside. “Dinner will be sent to your rooms shortly and breakfast is after sunrise. You will do well to remember that tardiness is frowned upon in the Fire Nation.”
It’s Katara that blushes this time.
Chapter 6: Affirm
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.”
Chapter 7: Rebirth
They had left Bunraku Village with a short prescription written in the small tilted calligraphy of weathered healing hands. It read simply, or, rather not so:
- Go on an adventure (or two)
- Practice the crucible (once a day during cycles)
- Have life changing intercourse (you’ll know when)
Seeing the insisted-upon method of healing on paper had certainly been... a moment for them, despite that his uncle had warned previously that Hama’s methods would come as a shock—though how his uncle seemed to know why the methods would be a shock, Zuko would remember to ask about later.
And then the relief had come.
He could fix this, like he’d promised. They could have a child, and his wife needn’t be cut into or undergo treatments, as he’d silently feared, in order to do it. He just needed to know when, whenever that was.
For adventure Katara suggested taking the long way home. “I know!” She’d said on their last day at the inn. “Let’s walk! That counts as an adventure, right?”
The excitement in his wife’s voice had quickly dashed his knee jerk denial, and he’d watched anticipation rapidly unfurl behind her ocean eyes before he could even formulate a verbal response. As silly as the prescription seemed the mere idea of adventure had returned a brightness to her gaze, a brightness that had been nearly bereft in the weeks before. He would not deny her. Could not; want not.
And so Zuko had sent word ahead to Yu Dao, and they had traded a swift two week passage by sea for a leisurely two months travel by mount and foot. They are almost home, now—when still pending though not to say that they have not tried—perhaps another three days komodo-rhino ride, if not a week, depending on his wife’s whim.
Presently, his wife’s whim demands cliff diving alongside the deafening spray of one of northern Makapu’s many woodland waterfall sites. Their komodo-rhino rests hitched at their impromptu camp aways from the edges of the lagoon below, growing smaller in the distance as they slowly hike their way to the top, all the while bickering and joking and stopping to admire the different views. The forest air is rich and wet, the hiking trail warm under the late afternoon sun. In the distance, thunder begins to roll, and even though it sways the tops of the jagged canopy the skies above them are clear yet. Zuko lets Katara from where he’s got her held up against a towering oak by the placement of his knee between her trembling thighs, and leads her forward with a smug grin.
Moments before she’d jokingly uttered the words “as if you could ever shut me up,” during their debate over which Fire Nation dessert is the best, as if his homeland’s glazed mango tarts weren’t the answer. Naturally, she’d hailed Water Tribe cuisine over Fire Nation food entirely.
Naturally, he’d pressed her into a tree and shut her up.
The jump from the top of the cliff feels like happiness less than half way down, and they crash into the clearwater lagoon with unabashed screams of laughter, the water surrounding and accepting them with a cooling rush softened just so by Katara’s hand. It’s not their first waterfall jump by a long shot, but it is the highest, so between laughter and splashes and oh my spirits are there riverfly-fish in this lagoon? they decide to go again. On their trek upwards for their third and last pitch over the cliff for the noon Katara rattles off a half-baked list of supplies they’ll need when they make it into the next town.
“Do you want to actually camp tonight?” Zuko asks curiously once they’ve returned to the road. They’ve only camped a grand total of maybe four times thus far, having usually stuck to main villages and well populated areas. He inhales the crisping woodland air, made sharper by their refreshing play in the water, and briefly tightens his hands on his wife’s hips from where she’s steering the komodo-rhino. “While it’s still warm? That waterfall is a really nice spot.”
“You don’t want to stay in town?” Katara asks over her shoulder, surprise in her tone. “This is practically the home stretch! I thought you’d be ready to make haste, not double back.”
Zuko visits the fresh memory of her soaked through her wrappings, the way her eyes glittered with joy in the rainbow spray of the fall, and then he brushes his hand lovingly over the navy fabric of the light hunter’s garb she has on now... A little more time on the road won’t hurt—they’ve had nothing but a safe journey thus far and home is only days away. He leans over Katara’s bare shoulder and ghosts his mouth over the shell of her ear, unable to help a grin as she automatically leans back into his chest.
“What I want, is to have you as loud as I please this evening.” He takes silent delight in the quiet hitch of his wife’s breath, smirks to himself and eases away from her. “If you wish for lodging, then I will book a room. The place will not matter, Katara. You will be loud regardless.”
“Zuko!” Katara whispers his name in admonishment despite their lonesome. Zuko basks in the affection crashing around his ribcage in waves and crowds his tall frame over her in a single swift movement, presses his mouth to the exposed juncture of his wife’s neck and nuzzles at the sweet spot over the start of her jaw. His name is exactly what he wants to hear.
“Louder, beloved.” He growls.
Katara’s little gasp is lost under a chattering sound that has Zuko drawing up ramrod straight and reaching for the hilt of his dao. Katara pulls their mount to halt, reins in one hand and the other hovering over the waterskin at her hip.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Calls a nearing voice. “Looks like we got ourselves a couple of lovebirds again, boys.”
Rowdy hoots begin to echo out from the treetops, the canopy above rustling as if the beginnings of storm winds had gathered.
“No.” Katara whispers, leaning into him and shaking her head. “No, no, no—”
Zuko can feel his pulse kick as an icy dread seizes his lungs, his wife’s immediately despondent shift in tone unlocking something ugly in his chest. He has to mind the grip he still has on Katara as the whizzing sound of rope slices sharply through the air, and he agrees. There are many of them. Almost too many.
“Katara.” Zuko snaps her name quietly, drops his hands to her shoulders, bidding her to focus. “Let me—”
“Hands where I can see ‘em, lover boy.” A snarling man emerges from the thick cluster of trees lining the road ahead. The snarl turns into a leering smirk. “Mouth, too.”
The komodo-rhino under them snorts and shifts in unease as armed figures clad in black descend rapidly upon them, hitting the near ground and stepping into a tightening circle. Zuko remains frozen, holding onto Katara in fear of what he might have to do with his hands should he let her go. The bandit’s chatter is loud and threatening as they close in, and their komodo-rhino paws at the ground in agitation.
“They got alotta stuff, Jet.”
“Nice clothes on ‘em at that.”
“This guy’s wearing steel, boss...”
“Damn. She’s gorgeous.”
“That’s what I was gonna say!”
Wolf whistles and jeering laughter rings out from the moving crowd of the bandits. Katara shudders and presses further into him. Zuko’s blood boils. He takes a deep breath as that ugly thing rears it’s nasty head, an acrid sting of rage in his throat; he starts counting, watching; sliding his hand slowly into the middle of his wife’s back with a firm press of warning.
“We’re going home.” Zuko says gruffly. “Trouble isn’t on our itinerary.”
Yet there trouble is, returning to them in the form of a nearing man who he can only presume to be the lead. A man who he can now see has dark eyes and a stick of wheat in his mouth.
Zuko stops short, incredulous as recognition is mirrored on the man’s face.
“Oh, come on.” Katara spits before Zuko’s words even form, and the exasperation in her tone resonates with him. “You?”
The man laughs abruptly. “Well, isn’t this my lucky day.”
“You know these assholes, Jet?” One of the bandits asks.
“It’s the pricey waterbender that got away and her boy toy from Yu Dao.”
“Excuse me?!” Katara hisses over Zuko’s snarl. “Watch your mouth! And I didn’t get away, I froze your dumbass to a wall! Now let us go.”
Oohs break out among the shifting bandits. The man, Jet, wastes no time silencing them.
“Go? Enough talk.” Jet barks, whistles, and just as quickly the upturning atmosphere breaks into a threatening hush. A hollow thunk sounds from the trees, and suddenly their komodo-rhino is stumbling, tilting.
There is no more of a warning.
The bandits leap at them in unsurprising coordinated tandem, but they’ve been through enough together to know better. Zuko hauls Katara by the back of her tunic into a protective tuck and roll out of their saddle even as the komodo-rhino whines and collapses. The gurgle and crackling of Katara’s water freezing into ice against the shrill ringing of his blades sliding from their sheath is an old, comforting duet.
Zuko drops two bandits lunging for his wife’s side in rapid succession, outraged cries of pain and blood spraying in the wake of severed tendons, and then he promptly turns his attention to their leader with murderous intent.
“Don’t ruin the merch too much!” The man is shouting with a grin, walking the perimeter and twirling hookswords eagerly in his hands. “She’s worth her weight in silver at least.”
Zuko roars as he sweeps through another three of the bandits, dao clashing with katana and jian and splitting a spear. Katara matches his forward steps with backward ones, faster than him in getting through the threat with her ice encasing and shattering anything daring to breach her range, which is wide. The jian wavers and the katana falls under the force of his precise blows, trailing heatwaves, and in two quick twirls the bandits drop with loud grunts.
Senses on high alert, Zuko shifts his form and raises his blades along his arms, sharp sides out as the crowd thins to nearly nothing. Katara’s frozen most of the bandits on the spot, and he nearly laughs as Jet’s step falters at the sight of his men littering the ground at their feet.
Zuko lets flickering blue flame eat at the curves of his swords.
“You should’ve let us go. This isn’t Yu Dao!” He advances gleefully, growling. “I’ll kill you this time, filthy scum!”
“Longshot!” Someone frozen yells, and Zuko nearly misses Katara’s snap of a warning—“Zuko! No fire!”—under the desperate call. “Longshot, the girl!”
Before Zuko can even register the blurry whiz of an arrow past his ear a mangled cry of pain is stopping his heart; rendering everything into addled motion. The turn he takes to track the sound feels as slow as Jet’s sneering grin, as slow as the juts of ice sticking from tree trunks and the forest floor alike collapsing into liquid. As slow as he takes in the dark red starting to seep from where an arrow has been lodged into the notch of flesh along his wife’s collarbone.
“Zuko?” Katara’s whisper is laden with fear. She sways, “I—dizzy...” and then Zuko is dropping his dao and sliding in the dirt to keep her skull from cracking against roots and rock. “No!” Katara is out cold. “No, no, nonono—“
“Round ‘em up!” Comes Jet’s shout, laughter. “Scum.”
The resounding cheers of the recovering bandits are lost on Zuko. A numb heat so incredible that it is more cold than hot washes over him as he takes in the blank look on his wife’s face—where only hours ago there had been happiness and joy. Where only seconds ago her eyes had been open, bright with the fighting spirit that drew him like moths to flame even after all this time. There are tears burning at the back of his eyes, and a tremble has found its way into his hands.
Zuko sees white.
“No fire.” He concedes quietly, feeling the heavy weight of static under his skin. “I promise.”
“Told you he’s her toy.” “Aww,” a couple of the bandits are laughing. “he’s smart to tell her goodbye.”
Lightning stirs easily along Zuko’s fingertips as he deftly rises to his feet. In a single precise twist the bolt rips diagonally through the treetops, shadowing the woods with eerie blue that crests through the canopy and beckons the loudest of thunders from the clear skies.
A beat of stunned silence as the bandits all still; a sickening snap and a hard thud on the distant forest floor. Longshot, whoever the fuck they were, is dead.
That beat is all he needs. The next arc he makes becomes a horizontal spider web of waves that cuts outward at the roughened stagger of a stolen kata, well practiced now. At once the sounds of scrambling and screams cease, all but a single wayward bandit falling to the ground in unrecognizable char. Any other time the scent of burning flesh would render him useless, how terribly it evokes memories that break him. It does not, now. Not while his wife lay sprawled with an arrow sticking out of her chest and what is probably poison pumping through her veins.
Finally, Zuko fixes his glare on the last. On Jet, whose eyes are wide with the full realization of the consequences his mistake has made him, swords loose in his hands.
“My wife—” Zuko’s voice cracks through a trembling smile, an ache in his heart. His wife; his Katara, precious and innocent and lying bloody on the ground. “she would ask if you have any last words, or do something dramatic like tell you to run for your life and never look back...” Zuko laughs, high and adrenaline fueled and leaning on hysterics because his wife is lying bloody on the fucking ground. “Well?”
The second the man moves his mouth Zuko dips, sharp and intent. Electricity cackles at his fingers and thunder rolls. Jet’s lifeless body falls to the dirt, the gaping hole in his chest whistling wetly and trailing smoke on the way down.
Last words are meant for men of honor—and he is not his wife.
Zuko clamps down on the sear and the still-swelling panic in the back of his throat, lungs heaving with an unused breath of fire and tongue tasting like ozone. He pivots and crouches, gingerly gathers Katara into his arms and presses his fingers to her pulse. He stands quickly, cursing and cursing and cursing again.
Katara’s breathing is fast and shallow, and his body feels as hefty as lead as the fear starts to claw at him. He spares but a glance to the massacre at his feet, picking his way through the smoking bodies and the blood, around the fallen komodo-rhino and their discarded belongings. He heads down the road in the direction they’d been coming from—away from home and towards the water, where he needs to submerge her before—before—
Katara lets out the faintest of whimpers.
“Agni.” Zuko resists holding her any tighter, breaks into a steady run along the line of the underbrush. “Stay with me, Katara. Stay...”
The crash of the waterfall doesn’t take him long to source out at his haste; their leave of the site had been leisurely and the glitter of the lagoon is easy to pick out even from between the thick redwoods. Zuko wades right into the cold water, only stopping when the ripples around them begin to glow with Katara’s innate ability to heal.
Riverfly-fish scatter and buzz. Zuko curses under his breath, even as relief edges in. The glow is far too faint, and at that he dares not remove the arrow. His heart clenches. The poison could last for weeks for all he knows.
“Katara.” He babbles her name repeatedly against her cheek, sways in the water, so busy trying to pump enough heat into the surrounding pool to help heal without burning her, that he doesn’t register the eventual setting sun or the end of his adrenaline. “I’m going to be so mad if you don’t wake up,” he cries. “you have to, Katara. Please. Please.”
It feels like an eternity before she deigns his litanies with any kind of response. The sound she’d made when he’d scooped her up was the first and the last, and he’s convinced that the steam he’s been constantly making is messing with his already scrambled mind when her breathing finally evens. Then he hears the hushed call of his name.
Zuko inhales sharply as the healing glow abruptly fades. He leans back and tilts Katara’s chin carefully, watching her face.
Her lashes flutter and her brow snaps down in a small frown, but her eyes do not open.
“S’too hot, Zuko.” She mumbles.
Zuko stops feeding the steam with a short burst of irrational laughter. “Look at me.” His vehement beg comes in a raspy whisper as he thumbs the curve of her bottom lip. His hand still shakes, and he knows that the tremble is likely to remain for days. “Look at me, Katara.”
The longest of seconds go by. Katara makes a small sound of discontent and cracks her eyes open, their bright ocean blue darkened to a startling navy in the sinking light, but Zuko finds comfort in the fact that they are not glassy and the whites have not bled red even as they close again. Tears wet his lashes, and he drops his mouth to Katara’s forehead in a desperate, lingering kiss of affection.
“By the Spirits, woman. Never, never, ever scare me like that again.”
“Hn’kay.” Comes the tiny reply. “Water... Want out.” Katara mutters, and he knows then that she is drifting back into slumber. “Wanna go home, Zu.”
Zuko chokes down a sob as warmth and honest relief bloom behind his sternum. His wife, sedated with a poisoned arrow but already grumbling and making demands...
“I hear you, beloved.” Zuko presses more kisses down her face as he lifts her higher into his hold, out of the water and towards home; an agreement and a promise. “Loud and clear.”
Chapter 8: Heartbeat
Zuko picks through the fallen bandits in search for his dao with apathy, orange flame in hand and much more focused on the dulled heat signature of his slumbering wife, who lay propped against a nearby redwood. He pauses to observe her for the nth time, eyes falling from the long shadow of her lashes to the now cauterized gash under her collarbone with a mixture of loathing and apprehension.
He’d removed the arrow carefully, thinking that his wife’s healing abilities would reactivate in the lagoon once she’d truly fallen back into sleep—but they hadn’t, and his wife hadn’t stirred, either. His own clumsy attempt to fix the inch long split of flesh with waves of lightning-hot steam had left a smooth line of raised scar tissue instead. He grits his teeth against the loathing and turns his eyes back to the gruesome scene at his feet. He suspects Katara will be able to try and fix it proper if she wakes soon, but at least the wound won’t catch infection.
The komodo-rhino is gone and with it their map, though it’s left a trail in the underbrush. Zuko wagers that it can’t be too terribly far but he scraps the thought of tracking it down in favor of simply slinging their fallen rucksacks over his back—he’s looked at the map enough to know that the next town to Makapu City is only a few miles walk, and tracking would require his undivided attention. He spots the glint of his dao in the light of his modest flame and steps over a charred body. He realizes with little emotion that there’s a hole in the chest of it. Blackened hookswords in the petrified hands.
Zuko sheaths his blades and resists the nasty urge to spit. His wife might anger at the loophole he used when she asks, but by common Earth Kingdom law he was within every right to protect her—to honor her—in the way he saw fit. He thinks of the mangled cry of pain she’d let out when the arrow hit its mark and hopes that she will not entirely begrudge him for his vicious ways. She never has in concerns to his time before her, and the night they took their vows she’d looked him in the eye and promised that she never would—and his wife always keeps her promises. Yet he has broken his.
Worry gnaws, and the apprehension piles up tenfold as he pockets the wayward cap to his wife’s waterskin. How did she ever choose him?
Zuko returns to the redwood and gathers Katara back into his arms. Her even exhales against his neck are a reassuring balm as he lets his eyes adjust to the half-moon’s pale glow and starts walking.
The town of Xiuxi De is lively for the hour, nearing midnight. Torchlight and lit windows are visible from the thinning treeline and cooking smoke crawls up the tall hills that the road winds between. Zuko holds in his sigh of relief as he steps into the town. He ignores the quaint restaurants and the flower shops, places they would’ve gone. A stable house is visible from the outskirts, and he makes a beeline for the open doors.
“A carriage and your fastest driver. Now.” He says curtly to the girl doodling on a clipboard at the counter, travel-weary and snappish. His arms are numb but he doesn’t dare rest them. “I don’t care how much. Just be quick.”
The girl at the counter makes a face at his tone and looks warily at Katara, still silent and unmoving within his hold. She would no doubt scold him for forgetting his manners.
“My wife.” Zuko allows. “We walked here.”
“Overnight drives cost extra, sir.” The girl relaxes. “Where to?”
Zuko thinks the kid is crazy for trusting his word so easily but he is harried and the adventure is over so he keeps that bit to himself and watches the girl write their home address on a new parchment. The drive will take about half a day, and the girl talks about pit stops as she leads him out. He ignores the bug-eyed look the girl and the driver give him when he reaches into his rucksack and then pries away the velvet bottom of the chest his uncle gifted them. The inside is lined with jade nuggets and golden eggs. He takes one of the eggs and drops it into the girl’s palm.
“The tip is included.” He says flatly, shouldering the bag and reaching for the carriage door. He directs his next words to the carriage driver. “Make haste. Wake me if there’s trouble.”
The driver grumbles something but Zuko doesn’t care to hear. He slips into the carriage and drops his bag onto the floor with the other. He slides into the wide shaded booth and fits himself behind the spot where he’s laid his wife, wraps his arm around her as he rests his nose snug against her pulse, and then promptly falls into a restless sleep.
In a blink dawn nudges at his senses. Zuko wakes to find them stopped at the river crossing that leads to northern Yu Dao. Katara hasn’t moved. He presses a kiss against the slope of her throat and uses the warmth there to open his blurry mind to her heat signature. The carriage driver is letting the ostrich-horses drink from the bank, and the gangly man offers him a canteen of water and a few dried strips of moo-sow when he notices him.
“I know it’s no bang for your buck,” the driver says sheepishly. “but it’s what I have.”
Zuko thanks him, accepting the meager parcel after finishing the kata he’d automatically stepped into—in his rush—he notes absently that he’s been on autopilot for upward of sixteen hours—he had clearly, though perhaps foolishly, foregone refilling their travel supplies, food included.
Katara barely accepts the sips of water he gives her but he takes comfort in the fact that it glows faintly when it touches her lips. She sleeps through the ride through Yu Dao, only stirring slightly in his hold when they ride by the docks, the scent of the ocean and the sound of fishermen’s work loud and familiar through the carriage windows. It’s high noon when Zuko starts to recognize the tree-lined hills in the near distance, and if he squints he can see the roof of the barn on the far end of their yard. They’ve made good time, but Zuko doesn’t pause and let that feeling of being home wash over him quite yet.
He lets the carriage driver help him bring the rucksacks into the den while he deposits Katara into their bed. He gives the man his canteen back and a jade nugget for his kindness. The carriage driver bows and bows and Zuko has to threaten to change his mind on the tip yet again to get the man to take his leave. Only after he’s washed and oiled and tucked Katara under the covers does he let the tension in his shoulders start to ease, but he doesn’t stop there. If he sits still now he knows that his mind will stray to the splatter of blood and the litter of charred flesh that he’d left in the wake of his rage.
If he sits still now all he will see is Katara, swaying and falling and looking at him with fear in her eyes.
There’s food in the kitchen though not much anymore, and the bushel of raspberry tea leaves they’d purchased before their trip is down a handful. Zuko goes to the door and finally removes his boots as he maps out a meal. He bathes while the last of the rice slow boils and the slab of dried duck roasts high over the firepit in the garden, ignoring the red and the rest of the grime as it swirls down the shower drain. He knots his hair and dresses plainly in a simple shirt and soft pants, sighing as the clean material fits comfortably over him.
Zuko looks at Katara, who’s nude frame has inched steadily towards his side of the bed, and lets home sink in.
By mid evening Zuko has unpacked, eaten, stored the last of the cooked food away for his slumbering wife, compiled a grocery list, reacquainted himself with their ostrich-horses, aired out the den, and gone through a set of kata with his swords in hand in the garden—which needs weeding. Their peppers have perished, purple with rot and chunks missing from bug bites. He notes the new leaves attempting to unfurl from the broken stems and adds it to the growing list of house chores that still need tending to.
Exhaustion finally, thankfully, catches up to him. He wants for a dreamless sleep, and he hopes that the comfort of his wife in his arms while they rest in their own bed will aid him, though he also hopes that she will not sleep for much longer. If she doesn’t wake by sunrise tomorrow he’ll have to send for a healer, and there is really only one that he trusts.
There’s a pile of mail resting on the counter, and he snatches it up to rifle through absently on his way up the stairs, setting the important ones—like the one with the official Southern Water Tribe seal addressed to his wife in his father-in-law’s neat calligraphy, and the ones from his wife’s school—in his other hand. A letter from his uncle is in the middle of the stack, marked a month ago. Zuko stops at the threshold of their bedroom and melts open the wax seal.
May this letter find you well. I have recently been regaled with words of your prowess as a bender in every sense, competency as a husband, and honor as a man. While these words do not shock me, as I raised you myself and know very well of the good in you, it is the source of these words that have encouraged me to remind you that—as always—you have made me proud to call you my son. Hama is not a Master easily impressed, yet ‘impressed’ was indeed her word of choice.
Although it saddens me to hear that you and our dearest Katara will not be able to indulge in a detour to entertain an overworked old man such as myself this summer, it does gladden me to know that you have set forward on your path towards becoming a healthy and loving family. With this slight in mind, allow me to take the moment to depart on you a piece of wisdom—as an old man is want to do.
While I wish nothing but for your journey ahead to be guided gently by the hands of the Spirits, the notion depicts ‘trial and tribulation’ , not ‘or’. I encourage you to embrace this when the time comes, and to have Katara in your heart in those moments that you find yourself needing to. Remember, nephew, your lessons in patience: a sound soul dwells within a sound mind and a sound body, and you are of each. Remember to believe in yourself as those who love you do. You will find yourself an even better man for it. You will find yourself a better father.
I am remiss to cut our correspondence here, alas it seems I am soon to be needed yet again and I must prepare for the task that is leaving my desk. My bones have only managed to become heavier and louder despite my active duty—you really must keep me updated on your progress on bringing my grandchildren into the world, nephew. I am eager to greet them, as time has wings!
Take plenty of your medicine.
Do not hesitate to ask for, or of me.
“Tui and La. What ever was on that arrow...”
Zuko snaps his head up, the breath he’d been holding at his uncle's words—timely and tugging sharply at his heartstrings—punching out of him at the sound of Katara’s voice, groggy with disuse as it is. “Oh,” she’s saying. “we’re home..!”
“Yes.” Zuko folds the letter with shaking hands. “As you wished.”
“I don’t... How did you—” Katara clears her throat, letting her hands from her temple to where the arrow had been and feeling the scar there. Zuko can see the memories playing across her bright ocean eyes. “Did you heal this?”
He almost looks away. “I tried to.”
Her voice is thin when she asks her next question, and he knows that she does not refer to the blemish. “Did you use fire?”
Zuko lets out a mirthless laugh as he nears the bed. “A little.”
“How much is a little, Zuko? I don’t yell at you about using fire on people for fun! We’re bound by Yu Dao law because we married here and—”
Zuko sighs fondly; with relief. Grumbling and making demands. To think she had dropped to the ground so quickly... She quiets when he leans down and places his unsteady hand over her heart. It beats strong and solid under his palm, nothing like the weak skips he’d found in her pulse amongst the riverfly-fish and the roaring spray of the waterfall in Makapu.
“For the longest of moments I thought you would die.” He tells her, trailing his fingers to hers where they still rest at the arrow’s mark, then to grip firm and gentle at her chin so that she can see the sincerity in his gaze. “You will forgive me for not caring about the law. No matter how sorely tempted I am to remind you that as your husband I am within my overall right.”
“Hm. Seems to me that you’re happy to do the reminding, husband.”
“Seems to me that you’re well enough if you’ve it in you to argue not ten seconds after waking, wife.”
Katara’s mouth clicks shut. Zuko hums and sits on the edge of the mattress. “Lightning is not fire,” he tells her pointedly, revealing everything and nothing at all. He’d much rather spare her the imagery. “but I was careful enough. You’ve been asleep for over a day and you have—a scar to show for it... Tell me, beloved. Do I worry for nothing? Did I dishonor your wishes, my vow, for nothing?”
He must not be doing a well enough job to hide the cocktail of lingering fear and rage he’s trying to keep at bay under the fatigue. Katara reaches out and turns his face to hers, thumbs the line of his scarred cheek as she searches his eyes. He knows that whatever she sees must scare her, because she fists her hands in his shirt and drags him into a tight embrace.
“I’m sorry, Zuko.” Katara’s hold tightens around his shoulders, and he shifts so that he can wrap his arms around her waist, bury his nose in the line of her neck and let his tears fall freely. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Is it fine?” His words come muffled from her skin, the root of the growing part of his fear. “You’re not mad?”
“I’m pretty sure you saved my life. How could I be?”
Zuko thinks of the snap and crack of someone falling dead from a tree and the massacre of blood and ash scattered in the middle of a northern road, no doubt found by now. He thinks of how his wife has never killed a man before and how she goes out of the way to keep him from adding more red to his ledger; how he’s failed at it.
He presses his mouth to the scar at Katara’s collar. The question that hurts him the most is how could he let injury befall her?
“Don’t be silly, Zuko. It barely hurts and is little more than a cut thanks to you. I’m fine.” Katara presses a kiss to his mared ear. “Bit of a headache, but I’m just glad they didn’t get to you.”
An upset sound lets itself from his throat. He doesn’t want to think about that possibility—or any possibility where he is unable to protect her as he swore to, like he’s doing his best to—but his mind skips dangerously ahead, fueled by every anxiety ridden thought he’s had since she’d taken the hit. He remembers the bandit leader’s words—that his wife is worth her weight in silver—and feels that ugly thing snarl and bark in his gut.
“Katara...” Zuko represses a shiver. “I will never regret spilling blood for you. Do you understand me? They were going to take you if I—if I hadn’t—”
“I get that, Zuko.” Katara splays her fingers on his chest and holds him still. “I’m not angry, okay? And you’re not bad for keeping me safe, no matter how you managed it. I woke up and you were here and that is all I really care about.”
Zuko inhales sharply and pulls Katara back into his embrace, tucking her head under his chin so that she will not see how his eyes have become wet.
Katara scoffs quietly. “Stop it. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
“You are alive and awake,” Zuko says evenly, pressing a kiss to her temple. “that is thanks enough.”
The kiss Katara returns is to the side of his jaw, open and cloying and his near undoing. Heat scores down his ribcage when she latches gently onto the spot with her teeth, and her name spills out of his mouth in a low warning.
Katara’s cool hands wrap around the base of his neck. “Louder...”
Zuko growls at her as he ushers her out of bed and promptly swaths her in one of his robes. “That’s enough out of you,” he tells her pointedly, gathering her up in arms and grinning at the sound of her surprised little yelp. “you’ve gotten into enough trouble for a lifetime, don’t you think? Best not to start with me.”
“I’ll start with you whenever I want,” Katara mumbles as she nips at the slope of his shoulder. Zuko can hear the remnants of fatigue in her voice, and the sound of it banishes his own. “where are we going?”
“Kitchen,” He answers, holding her close; for all of her protests, her legs had still wrapped around his waist and her hands had still gone to the hairs at his nape. Ardor, underlined with a hot streak of protectiveness, sears away the nasty thing that still lingers at the edges of his being. “you need to eat. You’ve had nothing but water since we left Makapu.”
Katara hums softly in acknowledgement, and Zuko tries his best not fuss overmuch when he deposits her in the den and all she does is silently sink into the sofa. His wife is overthinking—he knows. He lights a fire in the hearth for her, being sure to lock it behind the panel of gate so that he will not have to mind it, and sets about preparing the roast he’d set aside. He feels the weight of her gaze on him as he moves around the kitchen. Katara accepts the plate he brings her with quiet thanks and a faint glimmer in her eye, one he recognizes, and one that brightens after she’s had her cup of raspberry tea.
“Trouble,” Zuko tsks under his breath, noticing how his wife has untied her robe; watching as she reclines coyly along the length of the couch and fixes him with a darkening stare from under her lashes.
Katara only smiles.
The fire in the hearth flares when she sits up, demands that he kneel before her. He has to focus on his breath of fire as he concedes. She is all but glowing in the lapping waves of the firelight, every bare expanse of skin touched golden, the wild tendrils of her unbound hair reclaiming their visage as a fiery halo.
“Zuko,” she beckons, and he is a useless man under the touch of her fingertips over his cheek, along the sides of his abdomen as she deftly pushes his shirt down his shoulders. She leaves a dragonfly kiss along his brow, ghosts her lips over his as she touches their foreheads together. “I love you.”
In a blink, a sigh, Zuko has his mouth on hers; behind it the stirring residual ache of longing and heartbreak that had crested in the wake of her forced rest. For every second that he had not seen her eyes bright with joy or alive with light; for every second that he had missed the soothing cadence of her voice, that ache—that loss—had swelled and splashed like volatile magma.
“I love you,” Zuko says it back, exhales it over Katara’s lips in a dawning revelation, revisited. He echoes the sound she makes when he grips her chin with firm fingers and dives in for more. “Always. I love you. I love you—”
With a tiny mewl his wife parts her lips for him, the tip of her tongue gracing fleetingly along the underside of his. The pit of longing in his chest explodes, a spewing storm in the suffocating aftermath of a volcanic eruption; shifting erratically into need.
A keening whine resonates out of him as Katara slides down from her spot and right into his lap, murmuring his name in the very same breath that he envelopes her. With a whimper she becomes malleable beneath his searching hands, the bated roughness of his movement a lingering tell of his desperation; his remnant lightning strikes of fear. Katara gasps and arches when he slides a palm over the swell of her breast, between her thighs over waiting, hot, wetness, and Zuko nips at her mouth as he splits her folds and curls his fingers.
“Never again,” he reminds, moving to nuzzle at the juncture of his wife’s neck, drinking in her every movement of shudder and sound at the purposeful pump of his wrist. “I mean it. Never, ever, ever again—”
“I promise. I promise—” there is a beg in his wife’s voice, and his blood runs south, painful and swift, when she gasps her plea. “Zuko!”
Shades of bright blue wash out the glow of orange, the hearth’s fire a billowing roar that echoes the heat that blazes through his body. Katara tugs impatiently at him, cool fingers of one hand digging into the flesh at his shoulder blade and the other daring to slip past the hem of his pants.
Zuko captures her mouth as he flips them, drowning in the taste of her as he presses her into the rug and cages her underneath him. He peppers hot kisses down the valley of her breasts, expands his free hand over the flat of her stomach as he scissors his occupied fingers and opens her up; as he gingerly takes a nipple between his teeth. The sound she makes reminds him briefly of moonrises and black sands. He growls as his wife arches into him, just as she had then, and silently swears that he will make a mother out of her yet.
A curse falls from his lips when her hands finally find their way into his pants and over his cock, and he moves with the quickness of a kata when she demands he be rid of the last of his clothes.
“Oh, yes, Zuko,” she sighs when he sinks into her, and he’s sure that stars dance across her eyes as he rocks forward with a low groan. “yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Zuko swallows her next moan; echoes it against her lips as adoration and love splash around his ribcage, as her wet heat flutters and clenches over his aching length. He fits his hands under her thighs and pulls her legs to lock securely around his hips and, Agni, he knows that he will not last—that he will have to give her his all.
A fine sheen of sweat touches his skin, and he exhales steam through his nose at the scrape of her nails down his back.
“My wife,” Zuko all but coos as pleasure seizes his veins and tightens his loins. To think someone had dared to take her away. “I love you, princess,” he gasps against her, relishes in the needy little moan that she lets out. “mother of my children,” he promises. “my everything—”
Katara lifts her hips to meet his with a choked sob, and Zuko knows that there will be bruises there later, how tightly his fingers grip there at the slick slide of his cock sinking deeper from the shift in angle. He kisses away the tears that track down his wife’s cheek as she calls his name; keeps his pace but adds force to his thrusts, steady and strong like he knows will break her apart.
“Yours,” Katara cries out her own vow, eyes flying wide to lock with his. His heart sings at the breathless sound. “All of me, yours.”
Static dances under his skin as his release overcomes him. Zuko lets his hips stutter with a guttural growl, heart in his throat and head under water; long lost in loving ocean eyes. A loud moan cuts through his wife’s gasping cry as he swipes his thumb through the wet mess that spills between them, over where his cock meets her core and to the bundle of nerves begging his attention. He shudders as Katara tips her head back, back bowing up and away from the floor in an abrupt arc.
“I’ve got you,” he whispers, deftly shifting onto his knees and gathering her to him as her thighs quiver around his hips. A soft groan falls out of his mouth as her orgasm milks the last of his seed, and he dots kisses along the line of her damp curls. She’s crying still, and he circles his arms around her waist, brings her flush to him as he feels his own tears prick painfully at the back of his eyes. “I’ve got you, sweetheart. It’s alright. I’m here. You’re here.”
Katara buries her nose in the hollow of his throat, wraps her arms tightly around his neck even as her shoulders shake. Zuko murmurs sweet nothings into her hair, makes her match his breathing until they are nothing but a serene puddle of softness and sated.
“Zuko?” She asks once he has her comfortable and clean and back into his arms. The fire in the hearth has settled into a smatter of blue embers. He hums quietly in answer. “Do you think it worked?”
Zuko sighs and presses a tender kiss to the new line of scar on her shoulder.
“You need not worry, beloved,” he promises her. “we will try as much as we need to—however we need to.”