A Man's Drink
T for Teen
Summary: Upon meeting Hakoda for the first time, Zuko discovers that Water Tribesmen have a unique way of determining manhood. [Katara/Zuko
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of Nickelodeon. No profit is made by this story.
"I can't believe we finally get to see Dad," Sokka said, folding his hands behind his head and lying back against one edge of the saddle. "Suki, my dad's going to love you!"
"Is he going to love the part where you tell him you've been living together for a month?" Toph asked.
The Kyoshi warrior blushed. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sokka's words over-ran her: "Come on, Toph, the last time we saw each other, he called me a man."
"Oh, if your father said it, that must mean it's true," Toph said, rolling her sightless eyes and folding her arms. Zuko barely suppressed a smile. Although he would never admit it, he liked the earthbender's wit. For a blind girl, she was surprisingly perceptive.
"I'm sure your dad will just be happy to see you guys," Aang said from his place between Appa's horns.
Zuko leaned down further in the saddle and tipped his rattan hat low. He found it best to pretend drowsiness when Sokka and Katara discussed their family. They had been sharing more and more stories of late to prepare the others for what might await them. Zuko found some of them disturbingly reminiscent of his uncle. Even a year or two ago, he might have wondered what it was like to have a father who would welcome him with open arms. But now he knew -- and he had lost it.
Azula's final betrayal had taken Iroh from him. And Zuko had promptly sent her to whatever dark corner of the spirit world would take her, with the assistance of his two swords. Those two deaths had more to do with Zuko's own foolishness in Ba Sing Se than anything else. Since joining the Avatar's faction, he had resolved to commit no further acts of foolishness. That meant keeping himself isolated from their little family. He was not a part of it, and never would be, and served the Avatar's interests best as what he was: a weapon.
"We're almost there!" Aang called out. "I can see the ships!"
From her position a respectful distance away from him, Katara sat up on her knees peered over the saddle's rim. Her body ducked and wove in time with Appa's churning legs to get a better glimpse. After a moment, she sank back down and faced away from the sea. Sokka and Suki were still gawping avidly at the ships below. Toph had stuck her nose in the air.
"I haven't seen him in so long," Katara said.
"I know the feeling."
Just then Appa took a sudden turn. "Going down!" Aang shouted. Zuko steeled his nerves -- he hated Appa's moody style of travel -- and gripped the saddle with tight fingers. Beside him, Katara reached over and squeezed his arm. Her hand stayed there as Appa pointed his nose earthward, and the hat flew from Zuko's head, and Katara's braid whipped behind her. It only relaxed as the mighty beast coasted gently toward the beach. Zuko took a shaky breath and tasted salt air. The smell of the sea -- the smell of home, in a way -- calmed him enough to look down at her hand touching him. She smiled, and seemed about to say something when Sokka shouted: "Dad!"
And then Katara was standing up beside her brother, the two of them dark and strong and smiling, waving both sets of arms at the men waiting below. He saw Toph and Suki and Aang rise slowly to their feet, the uneasiness of the outsider already upon them, the nervousness caused by watching familial affection that one had no claim to. Not for the first time, Zuko realized that he rode on a flying boat full of orphans -- the exceptions to which now stood shouting at the father who loved them. Sokka and Katara slid down Appa's fur and into the arms of a man with huge shoulders and a jaw dark and hard as ironwood. He hugged them both and then, as if noticing his daughter for the first time, picked Katara up by the waist and swung her in a circle.
"I'll bet it looks really touching," Toph said. "I'll bet it's sweet enough to rot your teeth."
"Like moon-peach custard," Zuko said.
Her small lips pursed. "Gross."
"Come on, Toph," Aang said, staff in hand. "Let's go." Together, they slid down Appa's fur and into the crowd. They met the gazes of wondering Water Tribesmen, their mouths dropping at their first sight of the Avatar, their first conversation with a blind person. Then Suki joined them and the men's eyebrows rose -- men who had not seen women in who knew how long, Zuko realized, suddenly thinking of Katara and with a tightening in his gut -- and they seemed to welcome her with extra verve.
As though she had heard him thinking of her, Katara turned with one hand shielding her eyes from the setting sun and beckoned him with the other. Shouldering his bag, Zuko took a deep breath and slid carefully down Appa. He kept his face down for as long as possible. He took halting steps toward Sokka, Katara, and their father. In three, two, one… His face rose, and he slid back his hat.
Their father's face betrayed his shock. There we go. What's worse -- the scar, or the color of my eyes?
"Dad," Katara said, "this is Prince Zuko." She mustered an optimistic smile. "Zuko, this is my dad, Hakoda."
Hakoda's eyes had bugged like a backwater yokel's on his first market day. Zuko bowed. "Sir."
"You travel with the Fire Prince," Hakoda said. Something cold had crept into his voice.
"Former Fire Prince," Sokka said. He threw an arm around Hakoda's shoulders and grinned. "He and his dad don't exactly share our special bond."
"Sokka!" Suki and Katara said in unison.
"Is this true?" Hakoda asked. "You are no longer the Fire Lord's heir?"
Zuko opened his mouth, but closed it. There was no easy way of explaining his family. If he were better with words, he could have said something eloquent or poetic, something that would assure Hakoda that he had no intent to harm either his children or the others. He could say something that would make the imposing man now looming over Zuko stop looking at him like an arctic hen ready for the butcher-block. Well, you see, I think my father murdered my mother, and I watched my sister kill my uncle. And surprise, surprise -- I did my best to chop her in half.
Instead, he met Hakoda's eyes. "Fath… Ozai exiled me over three years ago."
"And he gave him a pretty nasty parting gift," Sokka said in a stage whisper, gently pulling the skin near his left eye backward, reducing his eye to a slant.
Katara reached to give her brother an uppercut. Zuko held up a hand to stop her before Hakoda could intervene. Although he could feel his fury threatening to bubble over, he channeled a trickle of Azula's craftiness into his speech. Again, he looked at Hakoda and summoned the barest trace of a convivial smile. He cocked his head at the Kyoshi warrior. "I see you've met Suki, your new daughter-in-law." His smile stretched. "To hear Sokka's bragging, you'll have grand-children in no time."
As he'd hoped, Hakoda's eyes widened, and his gaze snapped to Sokka. The Water Tribe boy's hands came up. "He's lying! We're not married!"
Hakoda's face darkened to a thunderhead. "So you've taken a girl out of wedlock?"
Hiding his mirth at the havoc he had caused, Zuko carefully extricated himself from the conversation. Toph joined him a moment later, letting her impromptu sand castle fall and leaving the surrounding Water Tribesmen agape. "Nice work," she said.
"He deserved it." He reached a hand to stop her and took hold of her tunic between thumb and forefinger.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
"Do you want to step on a dead fish?"
Toph jumped to one side. "No!" She jabbed him in the ribs with one grubby finger. "Carry me!"
"What, are you too good to carry a barefoot girl over the icky dead fish, mister-wannabe-Fire Lord?"
"You impossible brat," Zuko said, crouching in the sand. "Get on."
So he carried her over the beach ("Stop bouncing so much!" "Stop choking me!"), and he only noticed Katara's eyes on him when he bent to let Toph down in softer, cleaner sand. "Thanks a bunch, Sparky."
"She's looking at you again, huh?"
Zuko scowled at her. As though she could see his expression, Toph waved one hand dismissively. "Your heart's doing that thing it does when she's nearby."
"And what's that?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"Hopping around like a rabbaroo after a big noise," Toph said. She dug one toe in the sand. "Her heart does the same, you know. When you two are close together."
With sickening predictability, his heart skipped a beat. He wanted to call Toph a liar. If Katara watched him, it was out of wariness or pity. But he decided not to risk the earthbender's wrath. "Why would you say that?"
"I'm saying it because it's true," she said. "But I'm telling you because…" Her toe dug even further in the sand, unearthing the dark, wet matter under the surface. "It'll really annoy Sokka. And it'll help Twinkletoes figure things out."
"How does your telling me something help the Avatar learn anything?"
She smiled. "There's a lot you don't know, Sparky." She clasped her hands behind her back. "Aang's got to make his mind up about a certain waterbender, if you know what I mean."
"His mind is already made up. He worships her."
Toph nodded. "But good little Avatars aren't supposed to do that," she said. "Love really screws with the Avatar state."
Zuko frowned. He had heard nothing of this. In fact, Aang had not produced the luminous eyes and arrows that had so defined Zuko's experience of both the North Pole and the glittering caverns of Ba Sing Se. And Zuko liked it that way: he preferred Aang to remain his gentle, forgiving student, and not lose himself in the swirling vortex of power that surrounded him when his eyes began to glow. Could that be the reason? Is he afraid of hurting Katara? Or is it just that he's distracted?
"What do you mean?"
"I've said too much already," Toph said. "But I thought you should know." She folded her hands and rested them palms-up on her head. She turned heel and walked away, one toe roving a little ahead of the others, doubtless seeking anything that felt remotely like dead fish.
Taking advantage of the spot where Toph's toe had begun digging, Zuko started slowly forming a fire pit. The sun's last rays now burned on the horizon. In the lengthening purple shadows, he saw Katara join her father and his captains. He heard snatches of laughter on the wind, and the words "grown up" and "beautiful." Sokka and Suki were nowhere to be found. His eyes scanned the shadows again. He couldn't find Aang. His heart found his throat, and he looked upward-
-and Aang descended with a grunt, his glider snapping shut. "What are you doing, Zuko?"
"It's a poor firebender who can't dig his own fire pit, Aang."
"But we're having dinner with Hakoda's troops." Aang's bald head, now covered in a thin dusting of moon-peach-fuzz, tilted to one side. Zuko would have to remind him to shave it tomorrow. "Didn't anyone tell you?"
"No," Zuko said. "But I doubt that whatever invitation you heard was extended to me." He continued digging.
Aang folded his legs under him. "I heard about what Sokka said." He leaned over, and began to help Zuko dig. "He's still really suspicious of you."
"So I gathered."
"That doesn't give either of you any reason to be so mean to each other, though," Aang said.
Zuko's good eye narrowed. "Are you lecturing me?"
"We need to work together if we're going to defeat the Fire Lord," Aang said. "Can't we just agree on that?"
He patted down the walls of his fire pit. "Yes." He sat back on his knees and watched Aang pick sand from his fingernails. "Toph says you're having trouble with the Avatar state."
Aang's tattooed hands made tiny fists. "Yes," he said. "But I think I've got it under control, now. I talked with Roku and the others -- the other Avatars before me -- and they said that I have to find my own way. The state is hard to master for every Avatar. There's no right answer. I have to figure it out on my own."
"And will you have time to do that before the eclipse?"
In the dark, Aang seemed like the ghost of a child and not a real living one. "I don't know."
"And if you fail, could it endanger the mission?" Could it endanger us?
Zuko heard Aang sigh tiredly as he hung his head. "Yes."
He stood. The first stars had made their appearance, and the horizon was now a violet scar between the ocean and the heavens. "Firebenders have the energy and drive to achieve what they want," he said.
Zuko turned. "Do you know what you want?"
"I… I think so. Why?"
"Because Ozai knows what he wants. And Azula knew what she wanted. And so did I…at least I thought so." He looked out to the sea. Impossibly light Water Tribe catamarans skimmed the surface of the tide, washing forward and back on seafoam stained with moonlight. He thought of eroding beaches and the sound of a suungi horn on night-dark waters. "Perhaps the other Avatars were wrong. Perhaps you simply need to imagine the world you want, and reconcile yourself to every step it will take to get there."
"But what if I don't like some of those steps?"
And then he understood the primary weakness of the airbenders. Not being earthbound, they could simply fly above the world's most troublesome paths. Swamps, rivers, lava fields, mountains -- they could simply go up, not across or through like the rest of humanity. But that meant never learning how to navigate a dense forest or safely cross a desert. And now Aang stood trapped on a road he had not developed the muscle to walk.
"You still have to take them," Zuko said. "You can't skim over them on an air scooter."
"Oh." Summoning a tiny flame, Aang shone it up at Zuko's face. "You're really good with metaphors."
"Stop it, you'll make me blush," Zuko said in a flat voice. "Help me get driftwood."
"I told you. We're eating with Hakoda and the others."
"Driftwood, or I wake you for dawn meditation."
Aang stuck out his tongue. "Yes, Sufi Zuko." They set off together down the beach. "And to think I just came here to warn you about the stewed sea prunes…"
"It's made with fermented sea prunes," Hakoda was saying. "The men drink it when they return home from a dangerous hunt. It's called ikku-jartok."
Contrary to his earlier assumption, the Water Tribesmen had actually fed him. It took some coaxing from Katara to convince him that the food was neither poisoned nor begrudgingly offered (he maintained doubts about the latter) but now his belly was full of odd, bland-but-fatty foods whose names he couldn't remember. The Water Tribesmen were big on salt, apparently, and eating their food left him terribly thirsty. And now Hakoda stood offering him a drink that only the men were allowed to sample, and only in Hakoda's own tent.
They want to get you drunk and club you to death, said the painfully pragmatic part of his mind. You finally manage to dispatch Azula, and now you're going to die for politeness' sake.
"Only the men drink it?" Suki asked.
"The women are too smart," Katara answered. "That stuff will make you go blind. No offense, Toph."
"None taken," Toph said, and belched loudly.
"Come on, Dad, there's no way a prince like Zuko would drink with dirty peasants like us," Sokka said. "Let's just go to the tent."
"My tent only has room for honest men, Sokka, and so far the Fire Prince's words have cut closer to the heart of matters than yours," Hakoda said, casting an eye at Suki. The Kyoshi warrior's ears burned and her gaze hit the sand.
"I'll go," Zuko heard himself say. "Thank you for inviting me." He made to stand, then feigned a pebble in his shoe. Pretending to dig it out, he knelt beside Katara and murmured: "Is he testing me?"
"No," she said under her breath, barely moving her lips.
"Aang, will you come with us?" Hakoda asked.
"I don't eat meat, and I don't drink," Aang said. "It's part of being an Air Nomad."
"Do not drink too much," Katara warned tersely as Zuko stood.
"You're wise to keep these lovely women to yourself," Hakoda said. "That's just the kind of crafty thinking we need in an Avatar!"
Aang colored deeply. "Um, right…"
"Come on, Sparky," Sokka said, slapping Zuko a little too hard on the back. "Let's get frosted and try getting along better."
Two drinks later, Zuko believed he was a lot closer to "frosted," and that he might actually start to like Sokka. His jokes were a lot funnier when Zuko had been drinking. The ikku-jartok was absolutely foul stuff that Zuko thought might be better for cleaning drains or lighting lamps, but it did grease the wheels of communication. Now he sat in a dome-like tent made of bone and skins, a small hole at the top letting smoke escape. The other young men surrounded him -- the same men I might have tried killing, had things gone differently -- and they liked Sokka's stories too. They especially liked the one about the Five-Seven-Five Society, a group whose aims had shifted from poetics to something decidedly more illicit by the third telling.
"Here Sparky, have another," Sokka said. Before Zuko could protest, Sokka had plucked the little bone cup from his fingers and held it under the sparkling stream of liquor trickling from Hakoda's jug. "This is way better than that sissy Fire Nation stuff, isn't it?"
"I thought you liked cactus juice."
Sokka's eyes popped. "I can't believe Katara told you! She is such a little traitor!"
Zuko rescued his drink from Sokka's hand. "Who says it was Katara?"
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Come on, Sparky. Katara is such a blabbermouth. She tells you everything." Sokka's finger poked Zuko's chest. "And what's up with you telling on me to my dad? What are you, my brother?"
"Stop pestering him, Sokka," Hakoda said. "I want him to tell us about the Fire Nation."
Ah. There's the catch. I wondered where all this generosity came from. Zuko took a sip of his drink and said plainly: "It's very hot."
There was a pause, and the men around him exploded in laughter. Sokka bent double and clutched his ribs. Suddenly there were hands on him, on his shoulders and ruffling his hair, a stranger's sweaty arm around his neck pulling him into an unbidden sideways hug. He fought the urge to push them away. People in the Fire Nation don't touch, either, he felt like saying.
Hakoda flicked a tear from the corner of his eye. "Did you have any other words of wisdom for us, Zuko?"
"What are the girls like?" one of the others asked.
"They're hot," Sokka said, and the men laughed again. "They're on fire." The whole tent seemed to roar then. Zuko shook his head. Could his jokes get any simpler?
"You disagree, Zuko?" Hakoda asked. The tent quieted to a few snickers. Hakoda's eyes pinned Zuko in place. "Perhaps your tastes lie…elsewhere?"
The men around him made a low "ooohh…" sound. Knowing laughter bubbled up from around the tent. Zuko met Hakoda's gaze. A hint of his earlier stormy aspect had hardened Hakoda's mouth and eyes. He knows. He saw Katara looking at me, and me looking back. Uncle, if you're listening, help me. "Even if they did, I'd have no time to pursue them," he said. "I have a Fire Lord to kill."
The men cheered. Zuko smiled with one corner of his mouth. Hakoda gave him an odd, approving nod. It's an Agni Kai of words. I just landed the first blow.
"I suppose you have an arranged marriage waiting for you in the Fire Nation," Hakoda said, when the hoots and hollers died down.
The room went almost silent. Only the crackle and spit of the fire made a sound.Zuko swallowed. "I doubt it," he said. "Ozai exiled me. I'm not exactly the best catch."
"You got that right," Sokka said drowsily. "Don't worry, Sparky, you'll find a nice girl."
"Of course he will," Hakoda said, "especially if he takes the Fire Lord's throne out from under him."
"Then they'll be all over you," Sokka said, throwing himself on the ground. His eyes drifted shut. "You lucky jerk."
"You see, Zuko?" Hakoda asked. "Good things come to those who wait."
Zuko knew a warning when he heard it. But, a distant and sober part of him acknowledged, he had never been very smart about heeding warnings. "Fire Lords are surrounded by sycophants. You are surrounded by loyal friends. Shouldn't the Fire Lord choose someone who appreciated him when he had nothing, not a woman who only wants the crown?"
And watching Hakoda's eyes over the rim of his cup, he drained the entire serving of ikku-jartok. His awareness narrowed to a single burning point before expanding, tongues of flame licking each dark corner of his mind. He blinked and saw stars. When they cleared, Hakoda was giving him a level stare. Summoning the last of his resolve, Zuko put his cup down and settled it in the sand rimming the fire-pit. He stood -- don't let my legs shake now, please -- and said: "Thank you for your generosity, Hakoda. I would stay, but I have an Avatar to train tomorrow morning."
"Later, Sparky," Sokka said, waving weakly.
"Sleep on your side, Sokka. Spare everyone your infernal snoring."
"I don't snore…" he protested, rolling to one side.
Bowing, Zuko left the tent. His legs carried him unsteadily down the beach. He paused at the dying fire where Aang and the others lay sleeping. He did his best to clear the fumes from his mind and touched the sober part of him still capable of control. Breathing deeply, he exhaled and raised the flames ever so slightly. Satisfied, he made his way to his own fire-pit. When he reached it, however, heat boiled up to his skin from his core. I shouldn't have drained that last drink.
Dizzy but not sleepy, he trudged down to the boats. He didn't trust his legs -- or his stomach -- on a catamaran. The long boats seemed more secure. He touched each boat as he passed it, his hand sliding along the smooth surfaces of wood and skin, fingernails snagging on ropes. Choosing the last boat in the line, he struggled to lever himself upward. Stumbling toward the prow where his view of the sea would be best, he crumpled down against the mast and stared out at the waves. His lips tingled and sweat tickled his neck. He leaned forward and peeled off his shirt. That's better. He kicked off his shoes and socks. He contemplated swimming.
"What are you doing?" Katara asked.
He jolted, fire in his hands before he could stop it. His heart thudded in his chest -- Is it her? Is it the drink? Is it the surprise? -- and he closed his fists. "Katara. Do not startle firebenders. I've told you before."
"If you weren't drunk, I wouldn't have startled you," she said, hands meeting her hips.
"I'm not drunk. I just firebended. Bent. Firebent. Anyway, I fixed your fire for you. I can't be drunk."
She sat down beside him. "You're drunk."
"I am no such thing."
"What did Dad say?"
Zuko tried to ignore how close she was pressing. He wants to know if I'm going to marry you. "He's suspicious of me, and rightfully so."
Katara growled at the back of her throat. It was a surprisingly pleasant sound. "This is so annoying. Why can't people just accept that you're one of us, now?"
"I'm one of you?"
"Don't you start. Of course you are."
"I thought I was more like your brother's boomerang. You send me out when you need to, and I manage to come back." He frowned. "Well, a boomerang that sets things on fire."
"You're a flaming boomerang?"
"Aang says I'm good at metaphors."
"I say you're totally frosted."
"And I say you're wrong," Zuko said. "And why do you people call it that? Frosted, I mean."
"Because when drunken men fall asleep outside, the next day we find their bodies covered in frost."
"Oh." Zuko squirmed. Her hair tickled his bare shoulder. "That's morbid."
"Were you going to go swimming, or something? Why is your shirt off?"
"I got hot."
Unbidden, her hand came up and felt his forehead. It stayed there for a moment and he closed his eyes. Her hand flipped and the backs of her fingers played against his cheek, his neck. "You feel fine to me." She cast a hand over the water and a ribbon of fluid snaked up under her palm. She made a wringing motion. A cloud of particles burst free from the twisted water. Carefully, she shaped an orb of the clear water and held it out. "Drink this. I took out the salt."
He cocked his head. "You want me to drink out of your hand like a dog?"
"Priss. Open your mouth. I'll bend it inside."
Dutifully, he opened his mouth. Brows furrowing, Katara bent the water drop by drop into his mouth. He had to lean sideways to get some of them and they made it a game: "Hey, you missed that one!" "Stop aiming at my eyes!"
Something obscured the moonlight. "What's going on, here?"
Katara's water fell to their laps. Zuko's stomach flipped. "Dad," she said.
In the dark, Hakoda's eyes were the brightest part of him. His hands clenched and unclenched. "Don't make me repeat myself, Katara. Answer me."
She stood. "Nothing's going on. I followed Zuko. I thought he might be sick."
"Is that why he's half-dressed?"
Zuko found his feet. "It's not-"
"Stay out of this, firebender," Hakoda said. "I'm talking to my daughter, not you." Hakoda took hold of Katara's shoulders. Zuko reached to pry Hakoda's hands away and put himself between them -- punish me, it's my fault, she's good and she doesn't know what I want -- but Hakoda said: "Sokka I could understand, but you?"
And he saw Katara's shoulders posture stiffen and her chin come up, and the hairs on his neck prickled because he knew what was coming: "I don't like what you're insinuating."
Too late, Hakoda removed his hands. He spoke quietly. "What are you doing out here with him, Katara?"
"I told you. I thought he was sick. Why don't you believe me?"
"I've seen the way he looks at you. I've seen the way you look at him."
"You see a lot for someone who hasn't seen me in two years." She folded her arms. "Before dinner, you said that I'd grown up. And I have. Two years keeping the Avatar alive does that."
"Katara, you're not old enough to marry-"
"I'm probably not old enough to be a master waterbender, either, but Master Pakku doesn't have a problem respecting me as one," she said. "I'm not the little girl you left behind at the South Pole, Dad."
Hakoda's mouth fell open. "That's what this is about? Me leaving you? I was trying to protect my family-"
"I've got my own family, now!" She pointed up the beach. "Aang and Toph and Suki and Zuko are my family. I love them. And I won't stand by while you insult one of them."
"Katara, you don't know what men are like-"
"It's the Avatar you should worry about," Zuko said before he could stop himself. Both of them stared at him. He swallowed. "The Avatar is in love with her. Did you see that?"
In the face of Hakoda's growing astonishment, Toph's words suddenly made sense: Aang's got to make his mind up. Zuko could nudge the Avatar in one direction, or close off one of his paths. He could help Aang's decision. History could change. "Do you know what's going to happen if he goes on loving her? He won't master the Avatar state. And he needs to master it, if we're going to win this war." He licked his lips. "You didn't see what he did at the North Pole. I did. He broke those ships like twigs. If he loses control, he could kill us all."
"Zuko, Aang would never hurt us," Katara said. "You know that. He doesn't even want to attain the Avatar state again. He told me himself. It happens when he's angry or scared. He doesn't like himself that way."
He felt defeated for a moment, felt their attention slipping away from him, until an idea that felt very much like his uncle's thinking occurred to him. "That's even worse," he said in a low voice. "Ozai will do anything to eliminate the Avatar forever. That means pushing Aang into the Avatar state and killing him." He reached for Katara's face, let his hand fall. "Where do you think he's going to start? What would make Aang the angriest?" She started to protest and he said: "He loves you, Katara. And Ozai preys on weakness."
Katara reached for him. Her fingers drifted over the scar. He closed his eyes. For a moment there was just the two of them, and he completely forgot Hakoda. "Love is not a weakness," she said. She slid her arm through his and Zuko opened his eyes to see Hakoda staring at him. It occurred to him that they had just discussed their strategy without paying the older man any mind. Because that was how it worked in their family -- they had survived without parental help, and now that Hakoda wanted to resume authority Katara wouldn't let him.
"You protected your family, and I have to protect mine," Katara said. "That means Zuko stays part of it."
Belatedly, Zuko realized that he was better dressed for an Agni Kai than a meeting with his possible father-in-law. And that perhaps where Hakoda saw naked skin, Katara saw strength. He drew himself to his full height and met Hakoda's stare.
"Is that how you feel, Zuko?"
He stood with planks beneath his feet and the sea spreading vast and dark beyond his vision. I'll die before I let Ozai take anything else from me. His hand found Katara's in the dark."My family is here, not in the Fire Nation."
Her hand squeezed his. Relief flooded him. They stood together looking at Hakoda's silent, stony visage. The older man looked between them. His mouth opened, then he seemed to think better of speaking. "Just…be careful," he said, looking away.
"Dad. Relax. He hasn't exactly given me a betrothal necklace."
"It would be better if he had," Hakoda said, and walked away before she could say anything further.
Zuko let loose a breath he hadn't known he was holding. His knees folded slowly under him, and he rested against the boat's prow. "Can we never do that again, please?"
She turned. "Were you telling the truth about Aang?"
"Of course. Ozai will kill you to get to him, ignite the Avatar state, and-"
"Is he really in love with me?"
Zuko blinked. "I thought Toph was the blind one."
Katara backed up against the mast and slid down until her knees and her chin almost touched. "Don't tell me you didn't know," Zuko said. "I thought everyone knew. I knew the moment he looked at me in the caves under Ba Sing Se."
"He looked at you…?" Her voice was oddly distant.
"In a very possessive way," Zuko said. "I thought you knew."
She shook her head. "He never said anything."
"You'll never get anywhere if you expect men to say things, Katara."
She said, "That's rich, coming from you," and suddenly it was all out there in the open where he could no longer avoid it.
He hung his head. "What would you have me say?" He almost laughed, but his voice hardened in his throat. "'Hello, Katara, I know my bloodline is pure poison and I have nothing to offer you, but if you're ever feeling reckless, then…'" He curled further into himself. "I don't even know how to end that sentence."
"Do you want to get married?"
He choked. Dear sages, where were her father's subtleties now? "We can't have this conversation."
"You said I was drunk."
"Then maybe you'll tell me the truth!"
He twisted to look at her. "I don't know, all right? I don't know if I want to get married. Ever. Half the time I think it would be better if the bloodline just died with me, and the other half I'm wondering how we're going to survive this war!"
They watched each other. Her eyes seemed unnaturally bright, this close to the water and the moon. She sighed. "Well, at least that's the truth."
He looked out over the sea. "I told your father I wouldn't…pursue anyone…until Ozai was dead."
She sniffed. "That was honorable of you."
He frowned. "Are you crying?"
She wiped her eyes. "No."
"You're crying. Sages in heaven, you're crying."
"People do cry sometimes, Zuko."
"Why are you crying?"
"Because we're discussing wedding plans and you haven't even said how you feel about me! Because I just told my dad to shove off because of a stupid hunch that I have about the way you might feel!"
He thudded his head against the boat. "You are blind."
She sniffed again, and folded her arms. "What, is it so hard to say? Do you still think you'll be contaminated if you spend too much time with a dirty little Water Tribe peasant like me?"
"You know that's not true! I love you!"
And then it was out, just like his protests in his father's council chamber, just like his pleas for mercy in the arena, just like his confession in Ba Sing Se. Really, nephew, he almost heard Iroh say, you should learn to control your mouth. "I love you," he said, more measured this time, and he blinked and looked away again at soft black waves under stars. "I can't help it. It's like my scar. It's not going away, and no one likes it."
He swallowed. "Don't make me say it again."
"I thought…I thought you just had a crush, or something. I mean, because I'm nice to you, and-"
"There were others before you. You're the one I want."
She crept up beside him. "Really?"
He turned and she was startlingly close. "Yes," he said, wondering why he couldn't make his voice louder. She licked her upper lip and reached for his face. He went still and closed his eyes. She's going to say she doesn't feel the same. That she can't feel the same -- not with Fire Nation soldiers killing her mother, not with what happened in Ba Sing Se.
"Kiss me," she said. His heart almost stopped. "I want it to be somebody who loves me, the first time."
"Yes," he said, and he moved carefully to her face. A strange part of his mind wondered if she'd taste alcohol on him, or if her lips would be as clumsy as Mai's had been in their childhood. But then he closed that final distance and it was really happening. He wanted to be gentle. He watched her through half-lidded eyes. Her own eyes had closed. Her lips were so still and expectant that he had time to suck the lower one just a little. Her fingers fisted in his hair. That alone set off parts of his brain he hadn't known existed: he was pulling her, suddenly, shifting their weight and breaking the kiss just so that her knees could move and she could sit astride him. "Is that better?"
"Mm." She nodded and then they were kissing again. His arms came up to hold her in place. Her mouth opened and her chest crashed into his and he had never had it this good. Nothing in his life had ever, ever been this sweet or honest or painless. His arms curled around her. She broke away and kissed his forehead, his nose, his chin, down to his throat and -- dear sages, was that her tongue? -- his collarbone. Her teeth nipped him there and he gave a helpless groan, his grip tightening on her and his hips jerking upward.
"You'll be the death of me," he said in her ear. She laughed under her breath. He turned his attention to her neck, kissing down that delicate curve to the notch at the base of her throat -- he loved the way she threw her head back like that -- and down further, tongue flicking out and tasting salt and smoke until he reached the loose folds of her dress and something soft and white underneath. Her underclothes.
He pulled away, gulping. Their foreheads met. He gave her little kisses on the lips, now, little chaste ones. "Any further, and we'll have another Fire Lord on our hands."
"Huh? Oh." Her eyes popped. "Oh."
"I love you, but I'm really not ready for that just yet."
"I mean, I've delivered babies on my own, and it's not pretty. And I don't even have a job! And there's th-"
"The other part, Katara."
She grinned. "Of course I love you, Zuko. At least, I think I do." Her hands twisted behind his head.
"For heaven's sake, why?"
She seemed to think for a moment. For one terrible instant he wondered if he'd put her onto a dangerous train of thought. "You're the best at shopping."
"The others always want gadgets or fancy meals or tickets to a traveling show. But you're always insisting on soap and needles and thread and the stuff we actually need." She shrugged. "What can I say? I grew up with barely any money. I like a guy who can stretch a copper piece."
"No, really, it's true."
He rolled his head back and stared at the stars. Hadn't he always chided Iroh for his obsession with useless trinkets? Was it possible that his killjoy nature was actually good for something? "Perhaps exile taught me something, after all."
"I'm sure it did." She stood unsteadily. "Let's go back. If we fall asleep here, we'll never hear the end of it."
The next day, his mouth tasted of sand, but he felt wrapped up in something that was part triumph, part simple joy. He opened his eyes to see Toph standing over him, the sun full and high behind her and the sky a bright, painful blue. He rolled over. As he did so, Katara's hand slipped free of his -- had they really fallen asleep holding hands? -- and the world returned to him with a rush that left him giddy. He smiled.
Toph smiled, too. Her mouth opened wide. "Zuko and Katara, sitting by the sea, K-I-S-S-I-"
He was up and away like a rocket at a festival, his steps as light and quick as they had been in his Blue Spirit days. Toph's breath left her in a grunt when he tackled her. "Put me down!" She drummed his back with her fists and kicked his chest. He kept running.
"Bath time!" he shouted, splashing his way into the sea.
"No! You'll drown me!"
But he kept stepping until the sand beneath his feet softened and the water rode at hip level. At which point he flipped Toph over and into the water head-first, his hands strong on her when he dunked her like a big, screaming radish in the world's largest hotpot.
"Let me go!"
He pretended to loosen his grip. "Really? All right, here goes-"
She shrieked. "No, don't! I can't swim!" She was grinning again.
"Well, in that case…" He flipped Toph up again and this time she clung to him for dear life, her freakishly strong arms and legs tight as a hog-monkey's. "I guess we can go to the shallow part. You know, where the babies play."
"I hate you," she said, but her chin dug into his shoulder and he felt her smile on his neck.
When the ensuing splash war was over -- and Zuko was certain that Toph's dress was something like clean -- he carried her on his shoulders up the beach. She held his hands for balance. He took it slow and felt the eyes of the Water Tribesmen on him the whole way. At any other time, the staring would have bothered him. But Katara loved him, and Toph no longer smelled like a barn. If he and Aang could just reduce Ozai to a pile of ashes, the world might just turn out perfect.
"Have fun?" Katara asked, as they strode up to the firepit. He looked at them: Suki with a knowing smirk across her face, Sokka clutching his head in abject post-drinking agony, Aang looking between Katara and Zuko while Momo took advantage of his distraction to steal his papaya…and Katara, her happiness plain on her features and the most beautiful thing he'd seen in years. My family really is here.
"It sure looks like it," Hakoda said. Zuko turned, Toph's hands still warm and damp in his own. Hakoda's look was appraising, and for a moment Zuko wondered if the older man had watched him and Katara last night. His terror at this prospect dissipated when Hakoda said: "You must have played a lot with your younger sister, Zuko."
Zuko snorted. "Azula did not play, sir. She trained."
"There's no need to call me sir, son." He said the last word quietly, almost whispering it, but Zuko heard it anyway and he heard Katara cough suddenly. Hakoda mustered a half-smile. "You're part of the family now, aren't you?"
"Damn straight," Toph said from atop Zuko's shoulders. She flicked him on his good ear. "Put me down, Sparky. I'm starving."
Still digesting Hakoda's words and their implications, Zuko knelt. Toph slid away from him and Katara stood. "Zuko, can you do the fire and start the potatoes? I just want to talk to Dad for a minute."
"Sure," he said. "Leave it to me."
"I love potatoes," Sokka said sleepily. Suki patted his hand.
Aang frowned, watching father and daughter walk away. "What just happened? Why was Toph shouting this morning?"
Zuko reached out and skimmed his hand over Aang's fine bristles. "Go get my soap and razor. You're due for a shave."
"Come on, Twinkletoes." Toph took hold of Aang's hand and started dragging him. "I wanna shave you, this time!"
"Toph, you're blind…"
"Quit the wuss-talk, Avatar."
Suki took up the potatoes from their sack. He watched her do a silent head-count. "So," she said, making quick work of a potato with her fan, "you really think Sokka and I will make you an uncle?"