A/N - Written for Zutara Week 2016, incorporating all seven prompts to a greater or lesser extent – dragons, reincarnation, memories, lilac, fever, coffee, and candles. Some will be obvious, for others you might have to squint. For example, this chapter (and really half of the story) is brought to you by the prompt "memories" as half of the story is told in flashback. The time frame is alluded to throughout the story, but overall this takes place in the 5 years following the end of the war.
A final note before you get started: for some of my other fics, readers have suggested bringing tissues. For this, I recommended keeping your toothbrush handy, because there's some sugary sweetness coming your way. I'm trying something a little different this time (though let's be real, I can't help but include some good old-fashioned angst, too). Enjoy!
Katara squints at the slip of parchment in front of her and frowns. "Hey, Zuko?"
"What do you think we should do about Aang?"
From behind his massive desk the Fire Lord looks up from his work, his head barely visible from behind towering stacks of paperwork.
"Do about him?"
She waves the paper at him. "Yes. Where do you think he should sit?"
Laid out in front of her on the plush carpets of Zuko's office is an enormous piece of parchment dotted with circles and squares. To her left is a stack of smaller slips, much like the one in her hand, each bearing a single name. Some of them have already made their way onto the makeshift map, but the percentage is far less than she would have liked. Zuko raises himself out of his chair to peer at her work.
"What's all this? I thought you were going to work on that hospital reform."
She ignores the hint of reprimand in his voice. "I was, but that can wait."
Katara nods. "The budget won't allow for any changes until the fall, but our wedding is in two months!"
He gestures with his chin. "It looks more like you're planning a war than a wedding."
"Don't I know it," she grumbles. "I made this from the guest list. I'm trying to decide where everyone should sit for the banquet."
"Ah." He sits back down and reshuffles his papers. "So what's this about Aang?"
She picks up a second slip. "Well, I thought I had it figured out until I came across Bumi. I thought maybe Bumi would want to sit with the rest of the White Lotus members, but he and Aang have been friends for like a hundred years, so maybe he would rather sit there."
"What about your brother and Toph?"
Her brow furrows. "Why would Bumi want to sit with them?"
"Not Bumi. Wouldn't it make sense for Aang to sit with them?"
She sighs and studies the map. "Well, I had considered having a Team Avatar table, but it might be weird since we won't be sitting with them. Plus, Sokka and Suki will be there as a couple, and I think that Toph is bringing a date."
Zuko's good eye goes wide. "Toph has a date?"
Katara shrugs. "She insists it's casual, but you can never tell with her."
"I see." A pause. "Aang isn't bringing anyone?"
"Not that I know of. If he's been dating anyone he hasn't told me about it, at least."
She squirms a little. She knows she isn't responsible for Aang's happiness, but that doesn't mean she doesn't care. Not for the first time, she is struck by the unreality of the situation. Here she is, planning her wedding – a wedding to the Fire Lord and not the Avatar, contrary to what she or anyone else would have imagined when they all met at the bottom of the world all those years ago. Though she has no regrets about her choice, she was raised to be gracious and hospitable, especially to those who matter most in her life. While it's possible that Aang has made his peace and let her go, she knows that if their situations were reversed she would be more than grateful to be seated away from all of the happy couples while she watched her childhood sweetheart tie the knot.
"Anyway, I thought he might like to sit with Bumi. What do you think?"
"I think you should go with your intuition. You know him best."
She looks at Bumi's slip again. "But that would screw up the White Lotus table."
"Although maybe that was a bad idea to begin with. After all, Uncle Iroh will be sitting with us, and he's their leader. Not to mention that maybe they don't want to broadcast that they know each other. Secret society and all."
"And I know that Master Pakku won't want to be separated from Gran-Gran. But then what do I do with Piandao and Jeong Jeong?"
"I know! And then – " She double takes as she glances up at him. He's propped his chin on one hand, eyes aimed at the papers in front of him. "Hey! Are you even listening to me?"
He blinks. "What?"
"I knew it! You didn't hear anything I just said!"
He has the grace to look ashamed. "I'm sorry. Really. I'm just trying to get through this tax proposal and – "
"What, you think I should do this all by myself?"
He frowns. "What? No! Honestly, I don't know why you would want to do it at all."
She recoils. She had only been teasing; that is not the response she had expected. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His eyes are already drifting back to the papers in front of him. "There's a small army of staff members who would be honored to take that off your hands so you can focus on more important things."
Her jaw drops. "This is our wedding! How is that not an important thing?"
He winces at her tone; she has his full attention now. "I didn't mean it like that! I just meant that you're stressing out over something when you don't have to! Why not let someone else take care of that?"
Indignation builds beneath her ribcage. "Because I thought since it's our wedding that we could plan it together! But I guess I misjudged your priorities. Sorry I assumed that you cared!" She crosses her arms and pointedly looks away, trying to ignore the stinging in her eyes.
The belabored sigh and the creak of his chair only has her sticking her nose higher in the air. From her periphery she can see him come out from behind his desk. With a rustle of heavy silk he drops down to the floor next to her. She tries to edge away from him, but he captures her with an arm around her waist and pulls her close.
She won't look at him. "Don't 'hey' me, your majesty. Don't you have something more important to be doing right now?"
"Hey. Look at me."
She tries her best to give him her most disappointed glare, but it starts to fizzle as soon as she sees the sincerity in his eyes.
"I do care." At her quirked eyebrow he gives her a look. "I do. And you're right, as always. Now show me what you've been working on."
For the briefest of moments she's tempted to tell him to shove it, but the truth is she wants his opinion, and when he's looking at her like that staying angry with him is more effort than it's worth. She rolls her eyes. "It's pretty self-explanatory. The long rectangle here is the head table, and all the circles and squares are tables for guests."
He studies her work, and the corner of his mouth twitches. "I think you have bigger problems than what to do with Aang."
"Oh? Why's that?"
He points. "You can't possibly have the Jiang's sit with the Hattori's. They hate each other!"
She blinks and reaches for the slip. "Oh. Well, what if we move them over here – "
He catches her wrist. "No! That's even worse! The Hattori's are an old conservative family, but they're nothing compared to the Kanoe's! Putting them together is practically an invitation to conspire."
"Okay, then how about we move the Kanoe's – "
"Not there! Their patriarch is a recovering alcoholic, and the Takashi's are known for drinking well past the point of embarrassment at these things." He sifts through her stack of names. "Now, they might be okay over here with the Yosano's…"
She crosses her arms and tries her hardest to keep the smile off her face. "Would you rather do this instead?"
"What?" He drops the slips. "No, I uh, have to review this tax proposal that my ministers have been clamoring about for far too long. If I don't have something to say about it tomorrow they might revolt."
"You want some help?" At his skeptical look she shrugs. "I'll be Fire Lady soon enough, I may as well get started now. Trade me."
Katara shoves the remaining slips into his hands and swiftly stands. "Why not? You work on this infernal thing for a while. See how you like it."
Without waiting for a response she saunters over to his desk and settles into his chair, propping her feet up and crossing her legs at the ankles. Taking up his documents, she gives him her most imperious, teasing look. "Well? Get to work, Fire Lord."
With papers in hand he bows at the waist and mockingly salutes. "Yes, Lady Katara." He smirks at her. "Good luck. That thing's been giving me a headache for weeks."
"Yeah, well, so has that thing." She settles deeper into the chair. "We'll just have to see who can outlast who."
He snorts. "You're on."
He's right, of course; the document is dry and cumbersome and tedious, but once she finds the rhythm of the language her confidence grows. She loses herself in the words, nodding along until she understands just what the proposal represents. Her heart drops. Education cuts? Reduced aid for refugees? But how can that be, when there's allotments for –
"Ugh! This is worse than pai sho!"
Concentration broken, she turns her attention to her husband-to-be, formal robes crumpled on the floor, one fist in his hair and the other curled around a bunch of slips. The slightest hint of smoke wafts from between his fingers.
She stifles a laugh. "Careful, you'll burn all those up and then you'll have to start over!" He startles and drops the slips, waving away the smoke. "Party planning too much for you, your majesty?"
He gives her a long-suffering look. "If I have to keep doing this I'll end up in a cell next to Azula."
"So you're admitting defeat?"
"I surrender with honor." He stands, smoothing out his robes. He gestures at the papers in her hands. "I'd rather read that proposal any day."
She clutches it to her chest. "Maybe I'm not done with it yet."
"You – what?"
"I said you can't have it yet. I'm still working on it. I think I might have a few ideas."
"Really? Let's hear them."
He comes to stand behind her and she adjusts the proposal so they can both look at it. "First of all, you can't sacrifice these valuable services just to lower taxes. It's a short term solution but it won't help in the long run. However, I don't see why you can't keep the services and lower taxes. See, right here, this allotment for – Hey!"
He waves his snatched prize outside of her reach, grinning widely. "I told you I wanted it back."
"And I said I had an idea!"
"I thought you said you wanted to work on planning our wedding." His smile is smug as he gestures at the abandoned map. "Now's your chance."
She throws up her hands. "That was before! Now give that back!"
He dangles the papers above her head. "You want it?" Rolling it up and sticking it in his sash, he takes a few steps back. "I guess you better come and get it, then."
She answers his smile with her own. "You asked for it!"
The chase is on. She bolts out of the chair and lunges for him, but he neatly sidesteps and she trips as she catches her toe on the corner of the desk. As she looks up from the floor he makes a show of examining the paper, fingers stroking his chin. "Hmm, it seems you may be right…"
She shakes her head and laughs. "Oh, you're so going to get it."
He just smiles and darts out of the way when she pulls water from the humid air to snap at his ankles. He's laughing as she gets to her feet. "Hey! No fair bending!"
She grabs for his wrists, but he weaves just outside of her grasp. "Thieves are in no position to be talking about fairness!"
He snickers as he ducks to avoid an attempt to collar him. "You'd know all about that, wouldn't you? What happened to the light fingers that stole that waterbending scroll?"
It's all out warfare from there. Using his Blue Spirit stealth he dodges and weaves, but she's more than familiar with his moves. In no time she has him wrangled to the ground, their laughter echoing off of the ceiling as she straddles his hips and wrenches the crumpled proposal from his hands. Her smile is triumphant.
"I win. For the second time tonight, I might add."
He's panting beneath her, his grin impossibly wide. "Congratulations. You've conquered the Fire Nation." The smile in his eyes softens as he takes inventory of their position. "How will you celebrate your victories?"
She leans down. "As conqueror, I suppose there's a few things I could demand of their leader…"
A hum from the back of his throat rumbles through his chest when she presses her lips to his. The proposal is forgotten as a different kind of struggle begins, one of grasping hands and stolen breath. For a while the rest of their problems fade away, and her world narrows to the sound of his groans and the way her blood sings at his touch.
Until a loud crash startles them apart.
Breathing hard, she glances around, twisting until she sees the source of the noise. Near Zuko's foot is an upended decorative table and the shattered remains of a delicate glass vase. But how could that be? Weren't we just on the other side of the office…?
She turns back to Zuko, who hasn't even bothered to investigate the damage. She bites her lip. "I hope you weren't attached to that vase."
He's already pulling her back in. "Never mind that. Come here."
She's more than happy to oblige, but just as she is leaning back someone is pounding at the door. Automatically she scrambles off of him, clutching her disheveled robes and edging backward toward the desk.
"My Lord! We heard a crash! Is everything alright?"
Zuko huffs and props himself up on his elbows. He pitches his voice toward the door. "Everything's fine, Captain. Back to your post."
Through the door they can hear a muffled "Yes, sir!" and the sound of retreating footsteps. Zuko glances down at his own rumpled clothing, the collar of his robe pulled down to expose one pale shoulder. Then he quirks a teasing brow in her direction.
For a long moment they just stare at one another, but soon her lips start to tremble at the edges. A bark of laughter escapes from her lips, and Zuko follows a beat later.
When her giggles are contained, she says, "Well."
He straightens the crown in his hair with a smile. "Indeed."
She tucks her robes back into place. "I suppose we should get back to work."
"Huh? Oh, right. I suppose we should. Where'd that proposal go?"
He turns and beneath him she can hear crinkling paper. She gasps. "Zuko!"
"The seating chart!"
Beneath him the large parchment is wrinkled and tattered, and the small slips of paper are scattered across the floor. One sticks to his hand as he lifts it. He deflates and lets his arm fall. "And just when I might have finally solved the problem with Aang…"
"Doesn't matter now; it's kind of a mess."
She crawls up beside him. "Well, if it makes you feel better, I was serious before about finding a solution to your tax problem."
"If we can find it in all this mess, I'd love to hear it." He shrugs an arm around her shoulder and plants a quick kiss to her temple. "Perhaps we should trade more often."
She smiles and rests her head on his shoulder. "We've always made a good team."
"And good opponents." He glances at detritus surrounding them. "You know," he says, stroking her forearm with the back of his fingers, "We've already made this mess…"
She smacks his hand away playfully. "And we've already started enough rumors with your guards. Let's not embarrass ourselves any further."
"If you insist." He steals one last quick kiss. "But it's not the first time, and I doubt it will be the last."
Well, he was right about that.
The first time she knew that she loved him they were in the South Pole.
The daughter of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe was turning seventeen, and the entire tribe was bustling about in preparation for the celebration. Invitations had gone out to all corners of the world to friends she had made in her travels two years prior, and her skin tingled with anticipation as she waited the final few days for them to arrive. She was anxious to see them all, but there were a few people in particular who edged their way to the top of the list.
Well, one person, really.
When news of his arrival reaches them, Sokka rolls his eyes as she bolts from their hut, hastily pulling her arms through the sleeves of her heavy parka. By the time she reaches the shore he has already begun to disembark, ringed by a small crowd of curious villagers. Unlike the last time he was here, he is covered in heavy, rich robes rather than hard armor, and instead of scowling at those assembled he smiles benevolently. The four guards trailing him file off and stand at attention from a respectable distance. His eyes scan the group as he approaches, lighting up when she shoulders her way to the front, waving an arm above her head.
In three long steps he has her surrounded, and she squeaks when his arms circle her waist and hoist her in the air. Her laughter bounces off of the ice as he spins her, bringing her low enough for a kiss.
She blushes, aware that they have an audience. "Zuko, people are watching…"
He gives her that soft smile, the one only reserved for her, the one she wouldn't have guessed even existed when their journey began. "I can't help it. I missed you."
Secretly she is pleased, but outwardly she rolls her eyes as he lowers her to the ground. He still hasn't released her. "It's only been a month."
"Only? It's the longest we've been apart in the last six months."
She teases the fur at his collar with one finger. "I didn't know you'd been counting."
He leans his forehead against hers. "Why wouldn't I? Don't tell me you haven't wanted to see me, too."
She closes the distance between them just a fraction, their breath clouding in the space between them. "Well, maybe just a little…"
"Oh!" Katara spins out of his arms, but keeps a hand on his shoulder. Her father and grandmother stand at the head of the crowd, their expressions unreadable. The assembled crowd's eyes seem to bore into her in the ensuing silence. She winces. "Gran-Gran, you remember Zuko. Zuko, this is my grandmother, Kanna."
Katara's hand falls away as Zuko bows low at the waist. "It's a pleasure to be formally introduced." When he rises, she can see beads of sweat along his hairline, despite the frigid temperature. "I'm… um, sorry about the last time I was here. I was a different person then, and I deeply regret how I treated you."
A long, intense moment passes before her grandmother's mouth curves just slightly at the edges. "You're forgiven. Assuming that you can behave yourself, this time." Her eyes flick to her granddaughter and the implication makes Katara wish that the ice would open up and swallow her whole.
Zuko nods sharply, straightening his spine and subtly inching away from Katara. "Yes, Lady Kanna."
"Call me Gran-Gran," the old woman deadpans.
"Welcome to the Southern Water Tribe, Fire Lord Zuko." Her father extends his hand and Zuko grasps his forearm.
"Chief Hakoda. A pleasure as always."
"Glad you could finally find the time in your busy schedule to visit our part of the world."
Katara can hear the teasing in her father's voice, but Zuko doesn't know him well enough to pick up on it. "I – well, I would have liked to have come sooner, and the Fire Nation values our alliance, but – "
Hakoda laughs and claps him on the shoulder. "Calm down, son. We're glad you could make it." He raises a brow. "Though for someone so busy, I'm surprised that you were able to arrive ahead of schedule."
"…Well, the winds were in our favor, and – "
Hakoda gives him a skeptical look. "I don't see any sails on that ship."
"What I meant to say is – "
"Stop sputtering, Sparky, Dad's just messing with you." An arm comes up around his shoulders from the other side as Sokka embraces him in a sideways hug.
Zuko ducks his head and smiles. "Right."
"Well, now that you're here, let me show you around." Katara watches with astonishment as Sokka starts to pull him in the direction of the village. Her brother's spare arm waves grandly at the huts and igloos. "As you can see, we've expanded in the past two years since the war ended, and – "
Her hands find her hips. "Sokka!"
He pauses and gives her a look over his shoulder. "What, Katara? Can't you see the men are talking, here?"
"The men?" She balls her fists and marches over, tugging at Zuko's free arm. "Zuko is my guest. I'll show him around. Go polish your sword or something."
Sokka smirks. "Careful sis, any angrier and you might just crack another iceberg."
A noise escapes from her throat that sounds an awful lot like a disgruntled rhino, and she points toward their hut. Her words grind through her teeth. "That'll be the least of your worries if you don't go find something else to do."
His hands come out in supplication. "Okay, okay." He fixes Zuko with a hopeful look. "Speaking of swords – spar later?"
Zuko nods but Katara just glares. "Bye, Sokka."
She turns to her father and grandmother, sees the crowd dispersing. "I'm going to give Zuko a tour; see you all for dinner later?"
Her father waves. "Of course. Have fun."
"But not too much fun!"
Trying to hide her blush, she quickly links her arm with Zuko's and leads him in the opposite direction. By the time they make it to the eastern edge of the village Katara thinks her coloring might have finally returned to normal. She clears her throat.
"Sorry about my family. I don't know why they're acting like that. I swear, since turning eighteen Sokka's 'manliness' has returned with a vengeance."
Zuko chuckles. "It's okay. I'll take your family over mine any day."
Her palm meets her forehead. "Ugh. I'm sorry. Again. I wasn't thinking." She smiles. "What about your Uncle? He's not so bad."
"Depends on your system of measurement. If you mean that he isn't a megalomanical evil mastermind, then no, he's not so bad. If you mean that he's an insufferable flirt and a meddler, then your family can't even compete." He gives her a sideways glance. "You remember the last time you were in the capital when he was there."
She smiles at the memory. It was months ago, before she and Zuko had put a name to the fragile feelings that were blossoming between them. Iroh's hints couldn't have been more obvious, and he seemed to delight in making his nephew squirm. Still, she knew his heart was in the right place.
"I don't know, I think he's kind of sweet."
"Just don't tell him that. But you're right; I suppose I'll keep him." He surveys the tundra that's spread out before them as they walk past the last home on the edge of town. "Weren't you supposed to be giving me a tour? We're headed away from the village."
"Oh!" In her haste to escape from prying eyes she hadn't really been paying attention to their trajectory. Thinking fast, she says, "Well, there's more to the South Pole than just the village. You can see more of that later. For now, I want to show you one of my favorite places."
Hand in hand, they cross a wide stretch of tundra, picking up their feet to trudge through snow drifts that are shin deep in places. Next to her, she can hear Zuko's breathing, rhythmic and heavy. Out in the open, the wind whips through her hair and she pulls up her hood.
"Is it much farther?"
"Don't tell me you're tired already. Can't handle a little cold, Fire Lord?"
"I'd hardly call this a little cold. And I'm not really dressed for it. I didn't know we'd be spending this much time outdoors."
She looks at his red cheeks and frowns in concern. "Sorry. We're almost there. It'll be worth it though, you'll see."
Wiping at his nose, he says, "How have your people survived in this? I mean, I'm a firebender, and even with my bending I'm freezing."
She recites their basic survival strategy by rote. "Warm furs, warm fires, and warm bodies."
"Sure. In the long winter months we sometimes share a communal space to sleep, because the collective body heat keeps us alive. When you live down here, you use what you've got."
The sea comes into view, the horizon blending almost seamlessly into the cloudless sky. They walk a little further until they reach a sheer drop. She leads him to the edge, and when she peers down a sliver of the shore is visible at the bottom. Thank the spirits for low tide.
"Is this what you wanted to show me? It's a beautiful view."
She grins. "It is a great view. But this isn't it." She detaches from him and teeters on the edge. "Do you trust me?"
"Then come over here and hold on tight."
He doesn't have to be told twice. Two arms snake around her middle, holding her securely. "Like this?"
"Good. Don't let go."
Before he can reply she is calling the sea to her, and with a flick of her wrists the streams split and wrap around them, the chill seeping through their clothes in the brief instant it takes for her to transport them to the shore below. As soon as they have their footing she unwinds the frigid ropes and sends them back to the sea. Zuko releases her and steps back.
"That's some way to travel."
"That's nothing." She grabs his hand and pulls him along. "Come on!"
A cave entrance opens up at the base of the cliff, its mouth jagged and dark. His footsteps slow as they approach. "We're going in there?"
"It's what I want to show you."
He looks unsure. "Is it safe?"
She smirks. "Don't worry. I'll hold your hand if you get scared."
He glances down. "You're already holding my hand."
"Then you have nothing to worry about. Let's go!"
Together they enter the cave. The walls are narrow, but become darker and wider the deeper they go. In her periphery she can see deepening shadows from where the cave branches off, creating tunnels that crisscross within the cliff side. When she determines that they have gone far enough, she lets go and turns to face him.
"A little light, please?"
"Sure." Fire blooms in his hand. Immediately his eyes track upward and his jaw drops. "Oh, wow."
All around them the surface of the cave glitters and sparks, refracted light dancing to the rhythm of the flame. Long stalactites reach down from the high domed ceiling, letting occasional drops of water escape from their tips. Katara beams as she watches him take it in.
"During high tide this place fills with water, and when it recedes the water freezes again. Sokka and I used to come down here all the time as kids. We had to take the long way, of course, since I couldn't bend back then."
"It's astounding. Like being inside a giant gemstone." He frowns. "Or like the crystal catacombs."
Her smile falters. "I hadn't thought of that…"
He pinches the bridge of his nose. "Ugh, I can't believe I brought that up. Forget I said anything."
Her heart squeezes. "Zuko..." She closes the distance between them with a few steps, and raises her gloved hand to rest on the side of his face. He drops his arm and leans into her touch. "That was a long time ago. Things are different now." She gives him a wry smile. "After all, now I can do this."
On tiptoe she brushes her lips against his. Without hesitation he brings his free arm up to cradle her hair. When he pulls away he is smiling. "I wish you would have done that back then."
Her face is skeptical. "Right. Like that would have happened. Besides, what would you have done if I had?"
His eyes sparkle like the cave walls. "I can't say for sure, but it definitely would have gotten a reaction."
Katara snorts. "Yeah, it would have gotten me burned to a crisp."
His hand finds her hip, gently tugging her closer. "Maybe, maybe not." His eyes flick to the fingers still lightly tracing over the edges of glossy flesh. "After all, I let you get away with that unscathed."
Her fingers still. "What do you mean?"
He gives a shrug and a half smile. "Before you, no one had ever touched my scar. I wouldn't allow it."
Her mind twists on the enormity of the statement, sifting through the implications. "Really?"
"I don't know what to say…"
"You don't have to say anything. Just come here."
Just as she is reaching for him a low, dangerous growl vibrates though the cave, and they both freeze.
Zuko's good has gone wide. In a hushed whisper, he says, "What was that?"
Before she can answer the growl is followed by a deafening roar and the sound of claws shearing the ice. She grabs his hand and makes a dash for the cave entrance. "Time to go!"
Her heart is pounding as loudly as the footsteps behind her, footsteps which she hopes are just Zuko's but which is isn't brave enough to confirm by looking back. As soon as the daylight touches them she is calling for the water with one hand, gripping his in the other as she rockets them both upward. In her haste she misjudges the distance, and they soar up and over the lip of the cliff before crashing down into the snowbanks. She grunts as she rolls to a stop a few feet away from him. Once her breathing evens out she calls out to him.
Only the wind answers.
"Zuko?" She props herself up on her elbows and glances to her left. A gloved hand peeks out from underneath a crumpled snowdrift. Her blood stills. "Zuko!"
With a wave of her hand she pushes the snow away, leaving the surface of his black coat and his hair dusted white. On hands and knees she scrambles toward him, and without putting any pressure on him she straddle his hips, shaking him lightly by the lapels of his coat. "Zuko? Are you okay? Say something!"
A low groan issues from his parted lips and bathes her in relief. He cracks his eyes open. "Katara…"
She leans down to hear him better. "Yes? Are you hurt? I'm so sorry, I – "
She yelps as something cold meets the back of her head and grinds into her hair. Automatically she sits up, and when she looks back at Zuko he is smirking, the remains of a snowball perched in his upturned palm.
"Hey!" She scowls, dusting the snow out of her hair. "What was that for?"
He pushes himself up and leans back on one hand, looking smug. "That's for scaring me half to death down there."
"So you decided to scare me back by playing dead?" Her eyes flick to his chest. "Not funny, Zuko."
He flinches. "Right. Sorry. But you're changing the subject. I thought you said it was safe down there!"
"I thought it was!"
"Then what in Agni's name was that?"
She crosses her arms and looks away, heat rushing to her cheeks. "…Well, Gran-Gran used to tell us that there were polar leopards that hibernated in the caves around here, but Sokka and I never saw one so we thought she was just saying that to scare us."
She expects him to keep chastising her, but instead he just chuckles in the back of his throat. "You know, I entertained a lot of scenarios of what this trip might be like when I was on my way here, but I have to say, being chased by a man-eating animal mere hours after disembarking was a possibility that never crossed my mind."
She worries her bottom lip between her teeth. "Not quite what you were expecting?"
"Not quite. But you're full of surprises, and I like that." He smiles and sits up fully, letting his hands tangle in her hair. "Besides, now you owe me one for taking a few years off my life."
She leans into him, letting her arms come up around his shoulders. "Oh? And what would you like?"
"Didn't you say something earlier about body heat?"
She blushes, but just as she is about to retort his head jerks forward and he winces.
"Ow." Scowling, he reaches back to brush hard-packed snow out of his hair. "Katara, that hurt."
She blinks wide eyes. "That wasn't me."
"I thought I told you not to have too much fun!"
Her brother appears from behind a snowbank, brandishing a second snowball. He tosses it casually into the air and catches it with ease. "Is this what you've been doing out here all this time?"
With as much dignity as she can muster, she climbs out of Zuko's lap and stands to face him. "Not that it's any of your business, but I wanted to show Zuko the caves. How did you find us, anyway?"
Sokka gestures at the expanse of tundra leading back to the village. "You don't have to be a master tracker to follow two pairs of foot-deep footprints in the snow."
Katara resists the urge to groan. "Fine. What do you want?"
He chucks the snowball over the cliff edge. "Gran-Gran asked me to come find you and let you know that dinner will be ready soon. We shouldn't be late if we hurry."
Dusting herself off, she holds out a hand and pulls Zuko up off of the ground. "Okay, we're right behind you."
Sokka rolls his eyes and grabs her hand. "No, now Katara. You know how Gran-Gran gets about these things. You can play kissy-face with the Fire Lord later. Right now it's time to eat."
She snatches her hand back but keeps pace with him, with Zuko trailing behind. "Oh, like you won't do the same thing once Suki gets here!"
Her brother squares his shoulders. "Yeah, well, I'm older than you, which means that I'm mature enough to make those kind of decisions."
She scoffs. "Don't give me that. I'll be seventeen in a few days; older than mom was when she and dad were betrothed." She points behind them. "Besides, if this is about age, are you forgetting that Zuko is older than you?"
He holds up one gloved finger. "That's precisely my point. I know how older men think, and as your big brother it's my job to keep an eye on you." He calls out over his shoulder, "No offense, Zuko."
Katara reaches up and fists her hands in the fur at the edge of her hood, pulling it low over her eyes as she groans in frustration. "You're impossible, Sokka."
Oblivious, her brother reaches out and throws an arm over her shoulder. "You might not think so now, but someday you'll thank me. This was all so much easier when you were dating Aang, since he was younger – "
Katara stiffens and pushes his arm away. "Why would you bring that up?"
"I didn't mean – "
She quickens her pace. "Forget it. Let's just go home."
From behind her, she can hear Sokka's stage whisper directed at Zuko - Women, am I right? – and her feet pound into the snow as she makes her way back to the village.
If Katara had thought that being caught snuggling in the snow by her brother was awkward, it was nothing compared to dinner. She'd take Sokka's 'lectures' any day over this. She might even prefer the polar leopard.
With a tip of her wrist she ladles a healthy portion of stew into a bowl and serves her father, who sits at the head of the table. Gathered around the table are her brother, her grandmother, her new grandfather, and Zuko. When she finishes serving everyone she takes a seat between her brother and boyfriend. The only sound is of clinking dishes and scraping utensils until Zuko clears his throat.
"This is delicious, Lady Kanna. Thank you for the meal."
She narrows her eyes at him. "I told you to call me Gran-Gran."
Zuko's eyes drop to his bowl. "Of course. Gran-Gran. My mistake."
Hakoda laughs. "Now, now. That's no way to treat visiting royalty. Tell us, Zuko, how fares the Fire Nation?"
Zuko dabs at his mouth. "Stability is improving, but the citizens are still adjusting to peacetime. Aang's efforts have helped to establish or maintain trade with otherwise wary or resentful provinces. With continued peace, we expect the economy to rebound within the next five years or so."
Katara suppresses a smile at his answer. He's grown to be quite the politician; he's learned so much in such a short time.
"Problems adjusting to peacetime, you say?"
"The poorest of the citizens sent their sons to die in a war that was unjust and unwinnable, and the wealthiest are tightening their purse strings at the loss of profits from the war machine. Their discontent is understandable, and, with any luck, transitory."
Katara can see the way her father is weighing his words, the way he's listening between the lines. I can't believe it. He's vetting him. She resists the urge to crawl under the table.
"I see. And what about internal affairs? Is the capital secure?"
Translation: is it safe? Is my daughter safe when she visits?
But Zuko seems to hear it too, and he maintains eye contact when he responds. "The capital has always been among the most secure locations in the country. The palace in particular is designed as a stronghold. No system is completely immune, of course, but the fact that I am still breathing two years after deposing Ozai suggests that my people are trustworthy." He smiles. "Aside from attacks by rebel factions, the capital has weathered or defended against threats with ease."
Her father's brows rise. "Rebel factions?"
Zuko smiles and takes a bite of his stew. "You may have heard. We suffered a lapse of security during an eclipse a while back when a team of formidable warriors infiltrated the palace."
Hakoda laughs out loud. "Yes, I might have heard something about that." He shares a knowing smile with Zuko and Katara releases a breath she didn't know she was holding. She thinks she might finally be able to relax, but then her grandfather speaks up.
"So, firebender – "
"That's Fire Lord, GranPakku."
He frowns at Sokka. "Grandfather." He redirects his gaze to Zuko. "As I was saying, firebender, I understand that you have designs on my granddaughter."
Katara's jaw drops and Zuko seems to shrink in his chair, all previous confidence vanished. "Designs?"
Pakku leans forward. "That's right. Plan to marry her, do you? Arrange a marriage and steal her away to the Fire Nation?"
Zuko's eyes flit to Katara before skating away. "I – we haven't talked about anything like that, we've only been together for half a year, and – "
"Because let me tell you, if that's your plan you can forget it. Water Tribe women are notoriously stubborn and strong-willed. Just ask this one." He jerks a thumb at Gran-Gran, who gives him a self-satisfied smile.
Catching on, Zuko relaxes a little. "I'm well aware of the strengths of Water Tribe women. Katara keeps me in line, not the other way around. I wouldn't dream of trying to force her to do anything."
Forgetting herself, Katara snorts. "Yeah, except for that time you tied me to a tree."
He smirks at her. "And you remember how well that turned out."
A chorus of male voices startles them both out of the memory. "You WHAT?!"
After much placation and even more shared discomfort, dinner mercifully comes to an end. Katara was beyond ready to escape the house for a little while. After helping with cleanup she finds Zuko deep in conversation with her brother about the quality of weapons available in the South Pole. After waiting for an opening, she announces her presence by laying a hand on his shoulder.
"You ready for that tour, now?"
Zuko glances out the window, and then gives an apologetic look to both Water Tribe siblings. "Actually, it's getting pretty late. I should probably be getting back to my ship."
Katara clasps her hands in front of her. "I'll come with you!"
"Katara!" Sokka looks appalled. "You can't possibly think that – "
Katara gives him a weary look. "Can it, Sokka. I'm not going to spend the night or anything. I just want to see where Zuko's staying." She looks to Zuko. "Please? I promise not to keep you up."
Zuko looks like he's about to say something but glances at Sokka and thinks better of it. "That would be fine." He stands and offers his arm.
Together they walk the short distance to his ship, the prow still lowered to display a sprawling staircase. He nods to the guards at the base who bow as he passes. It's been a long time since she has been on a Fire Nation ship, surrounded by metal and steam rather than wood and wind. They climb a series of switchback staircases until they come to a brief hallway dotted with burning braziers. The door at the end is a little more ornate than the others they pass, but other than that it is non-descript. Digging in a pocket, he produces a key which he uses to unlock the door. He pushes it open and invites her inside.
She takes in his quarters. The furnishings are sleek and sparse. Along one wall is a bed, and along another is a desk. A sheath containing his broadswords is propped in one corner, and his heavy coat is folded over the back of a chair. Moonlight filters in from a single porthole, and beneath it stands a short, long table dotted with half-melted candles. With a snap of his fingers he lights the lamp next to the desk, illuminating the stack of paperwork piled there.
"This is it. My home away from home."
"It's… not as fancy as I thought it would be."
He laughs. "What did you expect?"
"I don't know. You're the Fire Lord. Maybe a few cushions, at least. More gold. Something."
He shrugs out of his coat. "I don't need any of that. I'm surrounded by enough of that at home."
From the other side of the desk something chirps, and Katara jumps. "You have a pet?"
He rubs the back of his neck. "Actually, that's for you."
"You brought me a pet?"
From behind the desk he produces a large gilded cage with a red ribbon on top. Inside is an especially large messenger hawk. He shoves a few papers aside and sets it on the desk. He gives her a hopeful look. "Happy birthday?"
Of all of the gifts that she might have envisioned getting from her boyfriend on her seventeenth birthday, this was certainly not on the list. Tentatively, she approaches the cage and the bird within gives a loud squawk. She flinches.
"You don't like it."
Her face falls at his hurt expression. "Of course I do! Thank you." She hugs him, keeping a wary eye on the bird with its beady black eyes. "But… you do know that we have a fleet of them here, right? And Sokka even lets me use Hawky sometimes, when he's not busy sending letters to Suki."
"I thought you should have your own. This particular breed is known for its superior speed and accuracy. Since we live so far apart, I just thought…"
Oh. Her heart curls in on the edges, and she smiles up at him. "Thank you, Zuko. That's really thoughtful."
He gives her a quick kiss. "You're welcome. I have a set of instructions, if you need them."
"That would be great." She gives him a teasing smile. "So should I just act surprised on my birthday when you give it to me?"
His eyes skip away. "About that…"
Her skin goes cold. "What?"
"Let's sit down." He leads her over to the bed, which sinks beneath them. It's the first and only sign of comfort in the entire room, but she barely notices. He's worrying her hands within his own and biting his lip. Anxiety rakes icy fingers through her gut.
"What is it, Zuko? What do you need to tell me?"
A heavy sigh escapes from him. "I'm not going to be here for your birthday. We'll be heading back the day after tomorrow."
Concern washes over her like a wave. "Is something wrong? Spirits, Zuko, if you're needed in the Fire Nation I would have understood if you couldn't come."
"No! No, it's nothing like that. Things are fine back home. They can live without me for a few days."
Relief floods her, only to be replaced with disappointment. "Then why can't you stay? It's just one more day."
"I just can't. It's not a good idea."
"Is this because of my family? Because they're just giving you a hard time. I know they like you, and if you'll give them a chance – "
"No! It's nothing like that either. I like them a lot. Sokka and I are friends, you know that, and I have nothing but respect for your father and waterbending master. Gran-Gran too."
She tries to ignore the stinging behind her eyes. "Then why? I don't understand."
He looks away. "I'd rather not say."
She breaks away from him. "You're hiding something from me?"
"No! I mean, yes, but it's not like you think."
Disappointment weighs heavy and sour in her gut. "I thought we were past this, Zuko."
"We are! I don't like it either, but just believe me when I say that this is for the best."
Disappointment curdles to anger, and she's on her feet before she even registers moving. "For the best? Since when do you get to decide what's best for me?" He blurs in her vision, and she turns to cover her tears.
There's a rustle of clothing, and she can practically see him running a hand through his hair. "That came out wrong. Look, it's not that important. I just can't stay, alright? Please believe me that it's not something you should trouble yourself with."
She takes a shaking breath. "If you can't be honest with me, then this isn't going to work out very well. I can't do this with you. Not now. I can't believe…"
She hears the bed creak as he stands, and feels his hands as they fall lightly on her shoulders. "Katara, you can't mean that."
She won't look at him. Old hurts, things she thought were long forgotten and long forgiven, awaken from places deep within to pierce her heart. "What am I supposed to think, Zuko? I thought I could trust you. But you're keeping secrets from me."
He gently spins her to face him. "It's not like that. Look at me." She sniffs but keeps her eyes locked on the metal plates at her feet. "Hey."
With effort she looks into his eyes, and her tears are renewed at the sincerity in them. Gently he wipes them away with the back of his fingers. "I – " He looks away, takes a deep breath. When his eyes find hers again, he looks like he's pleading. "I love you. I would never hurt you like that again. You have to believe me."
Her heart stutters in her chest. How long had she been waiting to hear those words? How many different times had she caught herself in a daydream, lost in the fantasy of just how he would say it and when and where? As if the situation weren't bad enough, her chest constricts at the loss of her fantasies, the way her perfect, romantic moment seems stolen from her. It should have been panda lilies and sweet kisses and soft sighs, not tears and dishonesty and metal walls.
She gathers her courage and tries to focus. She steps out of his arms. "You don't get it. You are hurting me. When you keep things from me, it hurts. And I can't – I won't – "
She turns and sprints out of his room, down the hallway, her feet clanging against the steel stairs as she takes them two at a time. She can hear him calling for her to wait, but she only runs faster. When she makes it to the deck she doesn't even bother using the stairs, she whips her arms around her and calls the sea, riding it to the shore below. If his guards are shocked she can't be bothered to care; she just breathes heavily as she weighs her options.
She can't go home, not right now. She doesn't even want to go back to the village for fear of running into her well-meaning neighbors. Instead, she turns and jogs the length of the docks, stopping only when she finds her father's fleet. Bypassing the massive fishing vessels, she keeps running until she finds just what she is looking for: a small catamaran bobbing with the swell of the waves. With practiced hands she picks the knots and unwinds the ropes that tether the craft to the dock, and within moments she is propelling it forward, pushing herself out to sea. The burn in her muscles as she commands the waves is comforting in its familiarity; she bends until the anger in her heart subsides, leaving behind a dull and heavy ache.
Bringing the catamaran to a coast, she picks her way to the prow while letting it drift and crest. With a deep breath she settles back against the mast, listening to the creak of the wood and the gentle flapping of the sail. Shivering, she pulls up her hood. Glancing behind her she can see the docks at a distance, the lights from the village and the Fire Nation ship winking along the coastline.
She sighs and turns back to the horizon, the water and sky inky black, pricked with pinpoints of white from the stars. Directly above her Yue shines with all her might, casting a soft glow over them all. Looking at the scene, she wishes everything could be so calm, so black-and-white. She should have known better.
It's not as though she expected relationships to be easy – the year she had spent with Aang following the war's end had been equal parts delight and heartbreak – but she had at least expected to face new challenges, not fight off old ghosts. And yet here they were, back to haunt her and cast a shroud over her happiness.
I thought you had changed.
He had changed. She was sure of it. Just as she had changed. The war, the struggle, the losses – the world seemed to redefine itself with every new victory or defeat, but she had been so certain that despite the whirlwind of change she would remain the same, like the cool, unflappable center in the eye of a storm. But the comet – or rather the events of the comet – had been enough to send gentle tremors through her solid foundation, to create jagged, hairline cracks in the fragile casing of her understanding of truth. It didn't shatter her worldview or crumble her core; she wasn't brought to her knees under the weight of epiphany. It was more like a subtle shift in the light – it cast pale shadows where none were before, and illuminated corners that had been best kept in the dark. It wasn't much, but it was enough. And those shadows only shifted and grew in the months following their victory, leaving her edgy and unsure in a time of peace. It was unnamable, this shift, but it was more palpable every time she and Zuko crossed paths.
It wasn't just her. The odd, fleeting changes in his expression when they met at this gathering or that summit meeting, the flickering softness in his eyes when she would pull away from his embrace upon greeting him – she knew that he had seen it too. That subtle change in the light, the one that shouldn't have changed much but ended up changing everything. The future that she had known – had fought so hard for - suddenly wasn't the future she wanted. It was a good future, a safe future – but she knew it would be an empty one.
It hurt, to see that truth. It was prickly and painful when she picked it up to examine it closely, it sent waves of longing and sadness careening through her body, wedged shards of ice under her ribs. But it shone much too brightly to be ignored. In the end, she knew what had to be done.
It hadn't been easy. And even after closing one door and wading through the loss and the guilt of it, she found herself hesitant to open another – the new future that beckoned her was far from certain, and the path was likely to be rough. In the end she reconciled herself to taking the steps, to gently prying open the new door and facing a new destiny.
The Fire Nation palace started receiving a lot more messages from the South Pole after that.
It started slowly, carefully. They didn't talk about it, the change in the light. But she could tell they both felt it. The first time he had kissed her – hands trembling in her hair, eyes squeezed tight – released a weight she hadn't known she had been carrying, the burden of doubt that she had made the right choice. She had held him tightly, afterward, knowing that this – this – was the right thing.
They were still Zuko and Katara. She was still stubborn and willful and hopeful and loyal; he was still serious and pragmatic and dedicated and self-sacrificing. That much hadn't changed. But the difference – the one that counted – was that together they were more. Together they were laughter and kindness and teasing, together they were conflict and struggle and reprieve. Together, she thought, they had the strength to endure.
But she was still Katara, and she had been wrong about people before. She had been wrong about him before. She had been so sure, but maybe the things that had changed weren't the things that needed to. Maybe some things stayed exactly the same, hidden below the surface, waiting to be revealed at the most vulnerable, inopportune time. And now it was over before it even had the chance to begin.
Her throat closes around the disappointment that threatens to choke her, and when she cries the tears sting her cheeks. She huddles deeper into her parka and pleads with Yue to give her an answer, but the moon stays silent and cold.
A rumbling engine surprises her out of her thoughts, and she turns just in time to see Zuko pull up beside the catamaran in speedboat. Though it's a smaller, sleeker model, she recognizes the design from the soldiers she had fought when she had masqueraded as the Painted Lady. She pushes the memory of it away, along with the mixed feelings that accompany it.
"How'd you know where to find me?"
"Tracking people is my specialty, remember?" He clears his throat. "My crew spotted you."
"Well, you wasted a trip. I don't want to see you right now."
He cuts the engine and bobs out of sync beside her. "Katara, please just hear me out."
She wipes her tears away and tries to muster the energy to scowl at him. "Why? So you can lie to me some more? No thanks."
"No, so I can tell you the truth."
A part of her wants to tell him exactly where he can stick his 'truth,' but the other part - that stubborn, hopeful part – won't let her. She gives him a level glare.
"This better be good."
He swings one leg over the seat of his boat, but then stops. "May I?"
With a calculated leap he hops onto the catamaran, teetering on the edge for just an instant until he finds his balance. Steady, now, he makes his way to her, sitting next to her on the prow. There's a long moment of silence before he says, "I know you're angry."
She snorts. "You got that right."
"And I know you're disappointed."
Her tone softens. "You're right about that, too."
"I know you're disappointed in me, but believe me when I say I was really, really reluctant to share this with you."
She huffs. "Quit stalling. Just get it over with and let me decide for myself just how devastating this secret is."
He takes a deep breath and studies the sea. "I'm leaving because I don't want to ruin your birthday."
Her face contorts as though she bit into something foul. "Ruin it? How could you ruin it? I want you there! Everyone wants you there! In fact, everyone will be disappointed not to see you!"
He hangs his head. "Maybe… maybe not everyone."
"That's ridiculous." Mentally she ticks through the guest list. "Who wouldn't want…" But then she knows. Her expression falls. "This is about Aang."
"Yeah. It is."
Realization dawns, cold and gray. "Did he say something to you? Did you guys discuss this?
Zuko shakes his head, his hair falling over his eyes. "No. I haven't seen him since he was helping to broker a trade agreement with me in the southern Earth Kingdom a few months ago."
"And? Was he rude to you or something?" Even as she says it she knows it can't be true. It's impossible to even imagine – the Aang she knows is kindhearted, upbeat, forgiving.
"No. He was… distant. Not cold, or unfriendly, just…" He runs a hand through his hair. "I could tell he was hurting. I think it might be too soon for him to see us together."
Katara shakes her head. "I don't understand. Aang and I… that's been over for almost a year. He wasn't like that this spring at the reunion."
"We weren't together then." Leaning back on his hands, he directs his gaze at the stars. "I don't know, maybe he still had hope that you would reconcile, or maybe it's because it's me… either way, I just don't want to hurt him more than he already is."
"You shouldn't have to protect him, Zuko. He's fifteen. He's not a child anymore."
"He's my friend. Our friend. And I don't want our relationship to come between us. Any of us."
She turns to him. "But you'd have it the other way around? Risk our relationship for the sake of our friendships?" Her anger is misdirected and she knows it – coddling Aang was something she had grown weary of quickly after the war's end, and to see it manifested in Zuko only amplifies her irritation. "You would risk me for the sake of him?"
His voice is stern. "No. I don't want to risk losing anyone, especially you." She watches as his hand creeps up to rub the space below his heart, an unconscious habit he's picked in the aftermath of Sozin's Comet. "I thought I could come up with a compromise. It didn't occur to me that it would come to that."
"Come to what?"
"Choosing between you. Is that what you want?"
"No! I want all of us to be friends, the way it used to be. I want us all to be a family." She deflates. "I want Aang to stop ruining things."
He lays his hand lightly over hers. "You can't think like that. This was my decision, not his. And this is exactly why I didn't want to tell you."
"Because I didn't want you to be mad at him, or think less of him. He'll get over it eventually, but right now he's in pain. If you want to be mad at anyone, be mad at me."
"Oh, is that what you want?"
"No, but I can handle it. And if you feel even a fraction of the way I do, I think that we can handle it too. Together."
She sees the hope in his eyes, the pleading. "You care about him that much?"
"Yes. And I know you do too."
She knows that he's right. Underneath the pain and disappointment and anger she knows that this is an argument she doesn't even want to win. The light shifts just a little more as she studies him. It's not that she's surprised by his compassion, or even his self-sacrifice. Those are things she knows are a fundamental part of him. It's the realization, slow and sweet, that his values are hers – if given the same choice, she is certain that she would have done the same. Something inside of her warms a little, something bright that melts and thaws and awakens something raw and fresh and new.
She shuffles a little closer to him, jostles him with her elbow. "You know, this would have been a lot easier if you had just told me."
"I know, I'm sorry. I promise I'll be upfront with you in the future." He peeks at her from the corner of his eye. "There will be a future, right?"
She smiles, and it feels good. "Only if you're on your best behavior." She snuggles a little closer. "Not everything you said earlier was bad, though."
Next to him, she can feel him stiffen. "Oh?"
She nods. Her eyes keep skipping away when she tries to look at him. "You, um, you said you loved me earlier."
His expression turns serious. "I did. I do."
She bites her lip. "Tell me again?"
He removes one glove so that he can run his thumb along her cheek and trace his fingers through her hair.
"I love you, Katara. For longer than I even knew, and more than you could ever know."
She studies his eyes; they are sincere again, the eyes she knows she can trust. "I love you too, Zuko."
He blinks, his expression equal parts hopeful and scared. "You do?"
"Yeah. I think I really do."
Without warning her arms are full of firebender as he pulls her into his warmth. A small part of her heart sings – it wasn't panda lilies and poetry, but it was memorable all the same.
When he pulls away he takes his warmth with him, and she shivers.
"You're cold. Maybe we should be heading back."
She reaches for his hand. "No, I'm fine. Let's just stay a little longer, okay?"
He seems to consider something. "I know just what will help."
He stands and shimmies his way between Katara and the mast, allowing her to settle back against warm furs rather than hard wood. His arms come around to circle her waist and his legs cage her in on either side. She snuggles in to his warmth.
"There are some perks to dating a firebender."
She laughs. "I suppose that dating their leader has a few perks as well."
"Fewer than you might imagine, but…" One hand leaves her waist and she can feel him digging in his coat. "Close your eyes."
She obeys, and he shifts until his arms have come up and around her shoulders. When he tells her to open them, something long and studded with gemstones is stretched out in front of her face.
She laughs. "I suppose you're going to demand the location of the Avatar, next."
"What? Oh!" He laughs with her. "I can't save you from the pirates this time, there aren't any around."
"Pft, I think I'm more than capable of handling them myself now, thank you very much." A stray thought occurs. "What about my messenger hawk?"
"I would have to be completely oblivious to present my girlfriend with only a bird for her birthday. Give me a little more credit, I'm not Sokka."
A giggle escapes her lips. "What you mean to say is that Uncle Iroh helped you pick this out, right?"
He draws on his most royal voice. "As Fire Lord, I have been known to take the advice of others on occasion."
She laughs. "That's what I thought." She takes it from him, her breath catching as she marvels at the sparkling red stones. "This is gorgeous, Zuko." She holds it out. "It's a little short for a necklace though."
"I would never presume to compete with your mother's necklace. It's a bracelet."
She turns part way in his lap to kiss him. "Thank you. It's breathtaking, really. Help me put it on?"
She takes off her glove and allows him to loop the bracelet around her wrist and adjust the clasp. The stones seem to glow in the moonlight.
"If you like, you can wear it on your birthday, as a reminder that I'll be thinking about you."
"I think I'll do that" She turns back around and admires the bracelet, leaning into the heat at her back. A sense of satisfaction washes over her as his arms settle around her once again. The day had been full of unexpected events and challenges, but this was an ending she could wholeheartedly endorse. She wishes that they could stay this way forever, and almost says so when she hears Zuko stifle a yawn from behind her. She smiles.
"You know, there might be some perks to dating a firebending Fire Lord, but there's some downsides too."
"And what might those be?"
She laughs. "Well, that whole thing about rising with the sun is definitely not a perk."
His chuckle rumbles against her back. "You caught me. But I confess, the nights are pretty spectacular too; I can't blame you for favoring them."
She sighs and watches the waves. "It's beautiful out here, isn't it?"
He snuggles closer, props his chin on her shoulder. "It is. And so are you."
She blushes. "Zuko…"
"I mean it. I was struck by it even as I was riding out here. All I could see was your silhouette against the sea, the stars and the moon reflecting on the water… you looked so beautiful, like you were exactly where you were supposed to be. Like you were home."
She squeezes his hand. "I am home."
His breath puffs against her cheek. "I suppose it was a silly thing to say. I mean, of course the sea is your home. You're a waterbender from the South Pole."
"True, but… it's more than that. It's the stars sparkling on the water, and the smell of the sea, but…" She tilts her head back to lean her cheek against his. "I think that this is home, too."
She can feel his smile against her cheek. "I couldn't agree more."
A/N - Up next: "lilac" and "candles."