A/N: *said she would have an update ready for the end of the year*
*squints at the clock*
*sees there's still a few hours to spare*
*does a celebratory dance with butt-wiggles and chanting*
*blows you all a kiss*
Happy New Year, my loves.
Brightest Nights or Darkest Days
"Are you all right?" Katara whispered to the boy spooned around her in the early hours of the morning when he jolted awake with a sharp gasp, his arm tight around her mid-section and crushing her back against his chest.
Zuko was breathing hard and she squeaked when he yanked her to her back, looming over her, his eyes half-crazed in the early morning light. The very first rays of dawn were beginning to peek into the ferry port where they'd camped, awaiting the morning crossing, and Katara blinked up at Zuko warily.
"Zuko?" she asked when he continued glaring down into her face, looking like he wanted to murder her.
He panted, before his vision slowly cleared and his hate-filled scowl melted away into a mask of sleepy confusion.
"Katara?" he asked softly, frowning at her.
"It's me," she nodded, reaching up and carefully smoothing her fingers across his jaw, brushing the underside of his terrible scar.
He breathed out a shaky exhale and leaned into her touch, closing his eyes.
"Bad dreams?" she guessed quietly.
"Mmmm," he hummed. "Sorry I woke you."
Katara smiled kindly when he opened his eyes, their golden hue holding his apology.
"I don't mind," she promised. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Zuko shook his head before lowering his face to lay his forehead against her own. He was warm to the touch, the dawn's early light giving him strength.
"No," he replied. "You don't need my nightmares. I'm sure you have enough of your own."
And he knew she did. Of course, he knew. He'd been sharing a bedroll with her for weeks. He knew all about how she woke in the night calling out for her mother, for her father, for her brother, her nightmares full of Fire-Nation raids and the agony of losing her mother all over again.
"Sometimes sharing the load makes it easier to carry," she reminded him quietly.
He opened his eyes without taking his forehead from hers and she saw one corner of his mouth twitch like he wanted to smile despite the bad dream.
"Sometimes sharing the contagion just infects others, too," he argued, before leaning down and pressing a soft, chaste kiss to her lips.
Katara didn't push the issue. She had enough of her own nightmares that she preferred to keep to herself, so she understood all too well that sometimes it was better to let the horrors slip away as the vestiges of sleep receded.
"Who's on watch?" she asked when Zuko pulled back after a moment, the fussy prince preferring to have a minty morning cup of tea before kissing, most often.
Zuko lifted his head, looking across their small camp. Kuzon and Meng were wrapped around each other, Meng sprawled across Kuzon's chest and muttering softly in her sleep. Kuzon, a typical fire-bender, was already awake, smoothing his hands up and down his girlfriend's back.
"Uncle," Zuko answered Katara's question, noting that Uncle was already sitting up at the fire, a steaming cup of tea in one hand while he looked out over the ferry port, watching the sunrise.
"He's probably hungry," Katara smiled. "Shift over and I'll get breakfast started."
"I can do it," Zuko told her. "I know you were awake late, with the moon almost full. Sleep a little longer. The first ferry won't be for a few more hours."
Katara smiled when he kissed her forehead before climbing to his feet. She watched him go, noting the way he greeted his Uncle quietly, accepting a cup of minty tea from the man and clapping Iroh lightly on the shoulder, asking him if he wanted to squeeze in a short nap while Zuko made breakfast. The General declined, though he looked touched by the offer, and Katara let her eyes drift shut as the pair of Fire Nation princes fixed her some breakfast.
Katara stirred, realising she must've fallen back to sleep.
"Hey," the soft voice disturbing her slumber continued. "Wake up, kawairashi-sa."
Katara blinked her eyes open at the unfamiliar word, surprised to find Zuko leaning over her, his face just inches from hers.
"Zuko?" she murmured.
She wondered what had gotten into him when he smiled warmly.
"This is for you," he said quietly, reaching for a steaming cup he'd brought her.
She blinked again, stretching languidly before sitting up slowly.
"Thanks," she said, accepting the tea and seeing that it was the Golden Thread tea she took every morning to avoid getting pregnant. "What was that word you just used?"
"Nothing," he shrugged. "A Fire-Nation word."
Katara stared at him, knowing it must mean something and that it obviously pleased him.
"Does it mean 'peasant'?" she narrowed her eyes.
Zuko surprised her when he laughed out loud.
"No," he shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Come on. Breakfast. The boat will be boarding soon."
Katara frowned, looking around the terminal and seeing that morning sunshine streamed in everywhere, people already up and about, packing up their gear and preparing to board the ferry as soon as possible.
"How long was I asleep?" she asked.
"A while," he answered. "Here."
He handed her a bowl of leftover noodles for breakfast.
"Thank you," she smiled sleepily, leaning into him for a moment and resting her cheek on his shoulder, wondering why he was in such a good mood and finding that she liked him like this.
Warm. Friendly. Kind. After the coldness between them, it was a refreshing change and she welcomed it wholeheartedly. Zuko kissed the top of her head.
"Eat up," he encouraged quietly. "We need to get moving."
Katara nodding, pulling away and doing as she was told while he rose to his feet and moved over to their packs, fishing in hers for clothes for Katara to wear on the crossing and urging her out of the bedroll so he could roll it up and pack everything else away. Katara blushed a little as she changed quickly, folding her things and putting them away while Meng moved over and took away her cup and bowl, washing them in a bucket of seawater they must've collected from the docks before putting them away.
Feeling guilty for having slept through most of the preparations to be on their way, Katara rushed to help, though even after all this time with her new friends, she was still a little surprised by their willingness to take care of her just as much as she took care of them. She realised with a jolt that she'd never have been given a lie-in and breakfast in bed if she was still travelling with Aang and Sokka and she felt even guiltier for thinking that as much as she missed them, she had really enjoyed feeling a little bit pampered and cared for.
"I will go and buy our tickets," Iroh declared, getting to his feet and smiling at them all.
"We can accompany you, Uncle," Zuko protested.
"No," Iroh shook his head. "You go and join the line to board, over there."
He pointed to the docks where people were already queuing, waiting for the gates to open so they could get aboard the next ferry out. Already people who hadn't made it to the terminal the night before were beginning to flood into the port and milling around wanting tickets and the chance to cross and Katara resigned herself to a busy morning until they could get aboard the ferry and be on their way.
"Good idea," she nodded. "That line is getting longer by the minute. We don't want to have to wait for the lunch-time ferry instead."
Zuko glanced around before nodding.
"Look at all these people," Meng said as they hurried to join the line. "Did you ever see so many people? Oh, Katara, look over there. What a cute baby! Look at those curls! And those brilliant green eyes. Isn't that just the cutest baby you ever did see? And spirits, look at that man. He's enormous. I didn't know people could grow so tall. Did you ever see anyone as tall as him?"
Zuko's long-suffering sigh was drowned out as Meng continued to chatter, voicing every thought that popped into her head as they joined the line, the little Earthbender exclaiming over everything they saw. Katara glanced up at the Fire Nation prince, noting that Kuzon had heard the sigh and was smirking too. Laughing softly, Katara took Zuko's hand and gave it a squeeze.
"First thing we buy when there are stalls available in Ba Sing Se will be earmuffs," Zuko muttered to Katara as Meng chattered on, pointing out more people before she struck up a conversation with the young couple whose baby she had admired, quickly earning herself the ability to hold the small boy, bouncing him on her hip and baby-talking to the child while his exhausted parents took a few minutes to themselves.
"First thing Kuzon better buy is Golden Thread tea unless he wants that to be a permanent sight," Katara commented, nudging the other firebender and smirking.
"Don't give her ideas," Kuzon said, his eyes wide with worry as Meng tossed the laughing little boy in the air and caught him again, laughing and bouncing him some more, drawing childish giggles from the toddler.
"She is so clucky," Katara laughed, watching her.
"She misses her siblings," Kuzon admitted. "She's been half a mother to them most of her life."
"She'll be a full mother to one if you two keep at it the way you've been going," Zuko taunted. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's already got a bun in the oven, actually. You two never leave off."
Kuzon shook his head.
"She drinks something to prevent that," he said.
"The last thing we need with where we're going is a squealing baby to worry about," Zuko reminded his friend when Kuzon grinned as Meng turned to them, her face alight with joy while she played with the small boy.
"We'll have to settle eventually," Kuzon shrugged.
"That could take years," Zuko hissed back.
"Katara, look! Isn't he the sweetest thing you ever saw in your whole entire life?" Meng gushed, moving closer to see what they were muttering about, bouncing the child on her hip.
"He's very cute," Katara agreed, accepting the boy when the toddler squealed and reached for her with both hands, squirming out of Meng's arms, intent on yanking on the decorative hair-loops she wore every day.
The child's parents looked on fondly, keeping an eye on their son while they got their gear sorted out, taking full advantage of having their hands free for a few minutes.
"Hello, handsome," Katara said to the toddler when she perched him on her hip. "And what's your name?"
He replied in gibberish.
"They said his name is Bardo," Meng supplied. "Look at these glorious curls, they're so fabulous. I love them."
Katara laughed when the other girl put her hands in the child's hair, grinning widely.
"Hello, Bardo. It's very nice to meet you. Yes, it is. You're such a cutie, aren't you? I just bet you're going to have all the girls fawning all over you one day, won't you? Yes, you will. Stars, look at those eyes. Just like emeralds. Yes, they are."
"Don't even think about it," Zuko said when Kuzon smirked at him knowingly while Katara was suckered into playing with the small boy, too.
"Who is this wonderful young man?" Uncle Iroh asked when he joined them, his smile lighting up at the sight of the boy too.
"Bardo," Katara supplied. "Bardo, this is Uncle. Say hello."
"Hello!" the boy shouted, making Iroh laugh in surprise.
"It's very nice to meet you, my friend," Iroh said and Zuko shook his head.
"Meng's not the only one who's clucky," Zuko commented to Kuzon, shaking his head as his Uncle instigated a game of Peek-a-Boo with the boy, laughing long and loud at the cheers and gasps and gurgles from the child.
"I want one," Meng announced, burrowing into Kuzon's arms and clinging to him, smiling widely.
"No, you don't," Kuzon laughed. "Nappies and midnight feedings and tantrums. It's not all giggles and cute curls, Meng. Remember?"
"But they're so cute!" Meng argued.
"We've got too much to do, Koibito," Kuzon reminded her. "Walking to Ba Sing Se would get a lot harder if you had to waddle along with swollen ankles and an aching back."
Meng sighed, wilting into Kuzon's chest.
"I know," she admitted. "But look at him. He's so beautiful!"
Kuzon laughed, kissing the top of her head before lowering his mouth to her ear, whispering to her too softly for Zuko to hear. The Fire-Nation Prince shook his head, turning his attention back to Katara while she held the boy as Iroh played with him, smiling serenely. His gut twisted when it occurred to him that she looked beautiful holding the child, her smile soft, her eyes glittering with happiness.
Squashing the thought down of her doing so holding a child with her blue eyes and his dark hair, Zuko turned away, looking around the terminal, scanning for threats, keeping his mind on the worries at hand and not on imaginings of Katara one day playing mother to the heir for the Fire Nation throne when the time came that Zuko took over as Fire Lord. It could never work. His countrymen would never allow it. She was a Water Tribe peasant, not fit to be Fire Lady.
Her gleeful laugh drew his eyes back to her when she tossed the boy in the air and caught him again, as Meng had done, cuddling him and dancing around to make him laugh. Zuko's heart lurched in his chest. He didn't even like children. He didn't like people. This was ridiculous. He didn't want a wife or a baby. He wanted his throne.
But when Katara turned to him with that kid in her arms and laughter in her eyes, Zuko realised that maybe he wanted something more than that damned throne.
He was so screwed.