A/N: *sneaks in while you're sleeping*
*deposits the new chapter inside your morning coffee mug*
*sets the percolator for you, knowing that mornings are hard*
*blows you kisses for you patience and your kindness*
Katara looked over at Iroh when he sighed and put his head in his hands. She could tell from the way he drew in a shaky breath that he wanted to cry over having to hurt his nephew with the truth. Crossing the room, she squeezed the General's shoulder gently.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I shouldn't have brought it up."
Iroh shook his head, clearing his throat and peering up at her.
"Miss Katara, can I ask why you came back?" he said. "Why did you ever come here at all?"
He didn't sound bitter or angry. He sounded genuinely curious.
Biting her lip and looking in the direction of Zuko's closed bedroom door, she shrugged her shoulders helplessly.
"He saved me from those thugs while dressed as the Blue Spirit, and when we realized the gates to the middle and upper rings were closed, I mentioned that I had nowhere to go, and that I was afraid to stay on the streets by myself in case those thugs came back. I didn't realize that Zuko was the Blue Spirit until we go back here."
"And yet, when you found out, you stayed," Iroh said, looking curious about why she might do so.
"He's never really hurt me," she said quietly, stirring the stew and turning the fire-chicken before moving over to sit beside the old man when he used his bending to heat a fresh pot of tea. "I mean, he's chased us and harassed us, and his destroyed villages and beat up Sokka and tried to capture Aang… but he saved Aang when Zhao caught him, and he saved me from those thugs, and even when he captured me and tied me to a tree as bait to try and catch Aang, he never actually hurt me in any lasting sense. And I was scared to be on the streets by myself for the night – more scared of that than I was of Zuko, anyway."
"You slept with him," Iroh reminded her, and she could tell the old man didn't want details, but did want to know how they both could possibly have done so when they were enemies.
Sighing and sipping her tea, Katara nodded heavily. "I don't know what to say, General. We are both young, and riddled with hormones. We're both impulsive. Foolish, even. The bed is small, and we both had to change our clothes, and one thing just led to another, I guess."
Iroh shook his head slowly.
"You had never… been interested in him before that moment?" he asked.
Katara's cheeks brightened, and she knew it would do no good to lie to the old man.
"I confess that earlier that same afternoon, I'd been pondering the type of life I might've lived if not for the war, and pondering notions of romance. I doubt you'd know but Aang is… interested. And I was thinking to myself about the type of boy I'd always imagined being with, one day. The type Gran Gran and the other women of my village told me I'd someday marry… There was talk before I left of marrying me to one of the young warriors in my Dad's fleet, when I was old enough. I'd seen him a few times when I was too young to notice things as a woman, but he was handsome, I suppose. Strong. Tall. Had a nice smile. And then I thought about the only other boys I'd been interested in before coming here and before Aang started to seem interested in a bit more than just friendship. Both were cut from the same cloth as the boy I'd been told I might marry one day. Tall. Strong. Nice smiles. Nice eyes. Witty."
She shook her head, thinking of Jet and Haru.
"One turned out to be a psycho who lost sight of the need to protect innocent people in his urge to rid the world of the Fire Nation that invaded his home and took away his family," she said quietly. "The other, I helped regain his family and take back his village before he could tread the same dark path – especially since it was my fault he was found out for being an Earthbender in the first place."
"The Earthbending prison ships we went to after rumours the Avatar had been there?" Iroh asked. "I believe that was where Zuko originally found your necklace before using it to have June and her shirshu track you down."
"Anyway. All the boys I'd shown an interest in so far were… well… nothing like Aang, anyway," she said. "I certainly never imagined myself with a man covered in blue arrow tattoos… and whilst thinking about the types of boys I had imagined myself with and wondering who else I knew who wasn't Jet, or Haru, or Nemantak, an image of Zuko flashed, briefly, in my head. And then I ran into him."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You had been with others before my nephew?" Iroh asked quietly.
Katara shook her head.
"No. I mean, I kissed Jet, but I hadn't done anything else with any of them."
"But you did with Zuko?" Iroh confirmed. "And now you have returned. Why?"
Katara sighed, putting her chin in her hand as her cheeks turned pink. She couldn't look the old man in the eye.
"I don't know," she whispered. "Because… well, because I can't stop thinking about what we did, and I can't stop thinking about him having my mother's necklace, and I can't…"
She shook her head, fingering the strip of cloth he'd given her. The one she wasn't supposed to be wearing around her neck.
"Wearing that around your neck is considered a very great honour in the Fire Nation, Miss Katara," Iroh told her.
"I know," she said. "Zuko told me."
Iroh nodded, pouring her a fresh cup of tea when she drained her mug.
"So, you returned because you are confused," he said. "You are attracted to Zuko, and you don't know what to do about it?"
Katara nodded. "I suppose so," she said. "He… He told me about how he got his scar, the last time I was here. And I suppose it got me thinking, what with you both being here in the city, and knowing where to find Aang, and yet not doing anything to capture him… I suppose I started to think that Aang needs a Firebending teacher if he's going to take down Ozai during the invasion, and well, I've had firsthand experience with Zuko's ability to firebend, and I thought… maybe…"
She shook her head, sighing heavily once more.
"But I see now that perhaps it was a little too much to ask."
"No," Iroh said. "It wasn't."
He rose to his feet, tossing the remaining dregs of tea from the pot before collecting more water and more tealeaves to brew a fresh pot.
"I confess, I gave you that coupon for the teashop hoping you would return," Iroh told her. "It had been many years since I had seen Zuko laugh as he laughed the morning I interrupted the two of you, Miss Katara. It has been even longer since I have seen him thinking about anything other than how to please his father. But, in the time since we were declared traitors, and especially in the last two weeks, I have seen Zuko grow, and begin to look toward a different destiny. I know he will never be able to relinquish his yearning to reclaim his throne, but I'd begun to hope he might be considering alternative ways to do so, especially once he knew the Avatar was in the city, but did not act to capture him."
"You want him to join us, and to fight Ozai alongside us," Katara surmised, her eyes wide as she regarded the old general.
"My brother is a wretched man, Miss Katara. Younger than me, it was never supposed to be he who was crowned Firelord. However, when my own son, Lu Ten, was killed, I no longer had a viable heir to follow me in the line of succession. Some very bad things took place to usurp my birthright and to keep me off the throne, and Ozai has done everything in his power to ensure that he has no threat to ever take it from him. He thinks that by banishing Zuko, and by warping him as he has to crave Ozai's approval, that Zuko will never seek to succeed him on the throne. He means to, eventually, give the throne to Azula – though probably not until he is a very old man on his deathbed. Zuko is too driven; too determined; too stubborn, to ever accept that he should wait until he is older than me before taking the throne while Ozai continues to pervert and abuse the position."
Iroh shook his head.
"The biggest reason my brother sought to remove Zuko from the Fire Nation – to banish him and make him think he is without honour – is because Zuko is so very honourable and, though you might find it hard to believe, so very kind-hearted. Under Zuko's reign, the Fire Nation would finally, finally, know an era of peace. He is angry and bitter and driven now, but before he was cast out, my nephew was kind. Burning to prove himself. Humble enough to know that unlike his sister, he is no prodigy to Firebending. He has worked – worked hard – to become as skilled as he is. Even as a boy, he worked hard to ensure he was skilled with weapons in addition to being a good Firebender. He was banished because he spoke out against the violence and bloodshed the Fire Nation capital thrives on. A boy of just thirteen, and willing to stand up and tell experienced and stubborn old men that sacrificing young boys was unacceptable? Of course, my brother threw him out. As he grew, Zuko would only have grown more defiant, more outspoken, and more aware of the horror my people have inflicted on the rest of the world."
Katara nodded slowly, looking in the direction of Zuko's bedroom and wondering if he was listening through the door. From the way Iroh shot her a wink, she suspected the old man hoped he would be.
"Do you think he will do it?" she asked, more than willing to play along. "I'm sure I could convince Sokka and Aang that he's changed, if he was willing to forget capturing Aang and instead wanted to focus on teaching Aang Firebending."
"I'm afraid that is up to him, Miss Katara," Iroh said, smiling. "My nephew can be very stubborn. Now, would you like me to show you how to make the moonpeach and sunberry sauce to go with this fire-chicken?"
"Yes," she admitted, getting to her feet once more and moving over beside the old man, letting him show her how it was done.
She heard cursing coming from Zuko's room before his bedroom door slid open and he stomped out of the apartment clutching a towel and some clean clothes.
"Do you think he was listening?" Katara asked when Zuko was gone.
"I hope so," Iroh chuckled. "I do have one more question for you, Miss Katara, and I did not want to ask it while Zuko might've been eavesdropping."
"Oh?" Katara asked, turning to him and smiling encouragingly when he hesitated like he didn't think he should ask.
"That token around your neck, as Zuko has told you, signifies that you are of such high importance to the Fire Nation that you have been made bride to a member of the royal family," Iroh said. "To any from the Fire Nation who saw that, you are currently garbed as though you were Zuko's wife…."
Katara nodded, Zuko having already told her that.
"My question is… Would you ever consent to truly accepting the title? Would you ever be willing to marry Prince Zuko?"
Katara's eyes widened in surprise at the directness of the question.
"Please know that I do not ask to be nosy, and I do know that the two of you have had limited and hostile interactions up until now, I was merely curious, as it would go a very long way to secure an era of peace should the rightful Fire Lord, when he takes his throne, be seen to be on good terms with the other nations. I understand that you are Chief Hakoda's daughter, making you the Water Tribe equivalent of a princess. As such, it would be well-met from a political standpoint if you and Zuko were to marry."
"I…." Katara floundered, unsure how to answer him. She'd never considered the notion of taking things so far as to one day be Zuko's wife.
Iroh smiled gently.
"As I said, I know you are young and confused about your feelings for Zuko, as I am sure he is confused about his feelings for you. I merely wondered if you might ever consider it?"
Katara blinked, gulping audibly.
"I never… I mean… I suppose I… Yes," she landed on, her thoughts racing.
Iroh looked surprised his face morphing into a curious expression as her regarded her.
"Yes, I'd consider it," Katara said strongly, her mind made up. "If we prove amenable, and we both survive the war, and he asks, I would consider it very seriously."
Iroh smiled widely, looking as though that was exactly what he wanted to hear.
"Not just because he is a Prince, I hope?" Iroh asked.
Katara thought about being insulted before she laughed.
"General, I'm best friends with the Avatar," she reminded him. "And I know he is interested in me. I've also spent almost a year travelling the world and being given anything and everything we could need or want because of who Aang is. And yet here I am, spending the money they gave me and escaping the finery of the house they provided for us, instead seeking out the company of those in the lower ring whose lives have been uprooted by war. When I was chased by those thugs Zuko saved me from, I'd spent the entire day down here, healing people and trying to help those less fortunate than me because in my village, even as the daughter of the Chief, I learned what it was to be hungry. I know what it is like to go days without food when the weather is too dangerous, and the hunting is poor, and the world is frozen, making fishing impossible. If I were to ever consider marrying Zuko it would not be for finery, or money, or the political power the marriage would grant me. It would be entirely because of Zuko. If I were to marry him, it would be a result of falling in love with him so deeply that I would not be able to bear living without him."
General Iroh of the Fire Nation beamed, looking pleased by her answer and Katara returned the smile.
They cooked in companionable silence after that, finishing the final preparations for the meal and beginning to serve it just in time for Zuko to return. His hair was still wet, hanging in his eyes and obscuring his scar a little, and from the rigid way he held his shoulders, Katara doubted that bathing had helped to improve his mood.
"Ah, Prince Zuko, just in time for supper," Iroh exclaimed as Katara helped him carry everything over to the table and they both sat around it.
Zuko curled his lip but his hunger got the better of him, as was evident when he threw his clothes on the floor in his bedroom and joined them at the table.
He didn't speak as they all began to serve themselves, not bothering to say thank you to her for cooking and not bothering to ask what she was still doing there. Katara rolled her eyes to herself before taking a bite of the Fire Nation dish Iroh had requested.
A little groan slipped from between her lips, her eyes closing at the decadent and sweet flavor of the chicken. She'd never tasted anything so spicy and sweet at the same time. It was delicious! When she opened her eyes, intent on taking another bite, Katara's cheeks flushed pink to find that Zuko's eyes were fixed on her in a manner that made her think he'd very much enjoy taking all of his problems out on her in the most carnal of ways. Her body thrummed at the thought and Katara suspected she had a problem.
"Thank you for cooking dinner, Miss Katara," Iroh said politely after a few minutes of tense silence had passed between her and Zuko. "You are very kind to spend you coins and you time on us."
Katara smiled at the old man, wondering how it could be that this man had once been a fierce war General who had almost conquered the very city they dined in when he had such fine manners and such a pleasant nature.
"You are very welcome, General," Katara smiled at him. "Thank you, for teaching me how cook something so delicious. Did I get the flavours right by Fire Nation standards?"
"Yes," Iroh smiled.
"No," Zuko said at the same time, still sounding surly.
Katara looked over at him before looking in askance at Iroh. The General shot Zuko an annoyed looked.
"I believe it is the quality of the fire-chicken here in the Earth Kingdom that is responsible for the slight variation in flavor to what we are used to in the Fire Nation," he told her kind. "The meat is not quiet as spicy as we are used to."
"Oh," Katatra frowned. "Would extra fire-flakes help?"
"No," Iroh chuckled. "No, the flavor of the fire in the meat is not spicy in the same way that the flakes are. It is more like tasting the fire that once ran through the veins of the bird in the meat. It is hard to explain."
"Maybe it wasn't real fire-chicken," Zuko sneered quietly.
"They told me at the stall that it was," Katara frowned. "But I've never seen one, alive or butchered, so I wouldn't actually know the difference."
"It is Fire Chicken," Iroh shook his head. "Just a different species, or perhaps just fed a different diet here in the Earth Kingdom compared to the Fire Nation. We actually feed the birds fire-flakes in the Fire Nation."
Katara nodded, supposing that there was little to be done about it now.
"Did you try the sea prunes?" she asked of Iroh, knowing Zuko hadn't touched them.
"Oh!" Iroh said. "No. I forgot that there was more food to be sampled."
He reached for the stewed sea prunes, serving a small amount into his bowl.
"They're not for everyone," Katara warned him. "Aang can't stand them."
Iroh smiled before spooning some of the stew into his mouth. Katara could tell in a heartbeat that they weren't what he'd expected, and she laughed just a little.
"They are icy!" he exclaimed. "The outside is hot, and the stew is tasty, but the prunes themselves are ice-cold in the middle."
Katara nodded. "They grow along the ocean floor deep beneath the ice in the South Pole, though I've heard that other species of them grow in different parts of the ocean."
"Peculiar," Iroh said, and Katara was intrigued when the old man went back for more, forgetting his manners so much as to pluck one of the prunes from his bowl and bite it in two so that he could examine the center. "Amazing! Zuko, you must try them. They have the most unique flavor."
"They look like the way I imagine it might taste if we stewed your sandals, Uncle," Zuko said unkindly, though he did as he was told and dipped his spoon into the pot, scooping up some of the stew along with a prune.
He eyed it like he thought it would come alive, his nose wrinkled with disgust before he opened his mouth and deposited the spoonful onto his tongue. His eyes narrowed at the flavor of the soup and Katara heard the audible crack when he bit into the prune, cracking it open.
"Oooh, an extra icy one," she chuckled. "Usually you can't hear them crack."
Zuko looked rather like he feared he'd cracked a tooth, and like he didn't want to be rude and spit out the mouthful of food, but couldn't stand to swallow it either. Iroh began to laugh at the young Firebender and Katara shook her head.
"You can spit it out if you want to," she told him. "They're not for everyone."
Zuko gulped loudly, looking like he'd just been forced-fed vomit.
"They're disgusting," he informed her. "The stew they come in doesn't taste that bad, but those prunes taste like boiled hunks of leather wrapped around an ice-cube."
Katara laughed, not insulted in the slightest.
"I suppose they do, a little," she nodded. "Usually, when cooking them at home, I would let them stew for at least three days. They soak up the flavour of the stew when I do that, and taste a little less pruney."
Zuko looked rather like he doubted it, but Katara didn't bother trying to explain. Stewed Sea Prunes weren't for everyone. She knew Aang wasn't fond of them, either. The conversation at least helped to clear some of the tension after their earlier fight and Katara snuck glances at Iroh throughout the rest of the meal as he regaled them with tales of the many varied cuisines he'd tried whilst travelling the globe hunting the Avatar alongside Zuko. She could tell he was trying to lighten the mood and trying to make Zuko feel better after dropping so many uncomfortable truths on him.
"Well, that was delicious," Iroh exclaimed a while later when they'd finally eaten their fill. "I suppose we'd better set about tidying up."
"Oh, I'll do it," Katara said. "Washing dishes is child's play when you're a water bender."
Iroh looked intrigued, helping her carry their plates over to the bucket in the corner while Katara bent the water from a barrel outside into it. She almost jumped when Zuko stuck his hand in there and heated it rapidly until it was steaming and almost boiling. Katara smiled appreciatively before she began to bend the water over the plates with all the intensity of a turbulent sea. In a matter of minutes the plates were blasted clean and dried as she pulled them out and handed them to Zuko, who neatly stacked them away.
"Well, that's certainly a fine trick," Iroh complimented. "I don't suppose you might be available every night to help out with cooking and cleaning, Miss Katara?"
Katara laughed. "I think my friends might notice if I go missing every night – if only because then they'd have to feed themselves and they get stroppy when the realize they're all rubbish cooks."
Iroh laughed, and Zuko looked rather like he thought her friends were useless.
"Well, at least they value as a member of their team," Iroh chuckled before a wide yawn escaped him. "Excuse me, Miss Katara. It seems I am worn out this evening. Would you be terribly put out if I turned in for the night?"
Katara smiled. "Not at all, General. I hope you feel better in the morning, and thank you for teaching me to make so many exciting Fire Nation dishes."
"It was my pleasure, Miss Katara," Iroh assured her. "Nephew, can I count on you to ensure Miss Katara will be safe this evening?"
Katara almost giggled at the way Zuko glared before emitting a long-suffering sigh.
"I'll walk her back through the gates and up to the Upper Ring, myself," he said.
"The gates will be closed, by now, surely?" Iroh said and Katara could see the mischief glinting in his amber eyes.
She suspected he very much wanted to see something come of her and Zuko's interaction, beyond the evening they'd shared together.
"The gates don't close until ten o'clock this evening," Zuko argued.
Iroh's eyes twinkled. "So they do," he nodded. "Be sure to remember that we're on the early shift tomorrow, Prince Zuko. It might be a long run home early in the morning when the gates open if you should get yourself caught in the Upper Ring this evening."
Katara almost laughed when Zuko look affronted by the very suggestion.
"Goodnight, Miss Katara," Iroh bade her. "Goodnight, Prince Zuko."
"Sleep well, General," Katara said.
"Goodnight, Uncle," Zuko replied, though he still looked to be in a bad mood.
Katara watched as Iroh shuffled off in the direction of the small partition that hid his sleeping platform from view, disappearing behind it before he climbed into his bed. When he was gone, the partition slid closed, she turned her eyes to the prince she'd come to see, wondering if he was still angry enough to hurt her, or if he might be amenable to more exciting uses of their time.