"Don't find love, let love find you. That's why it's called falling in love, because you don't force yourself to fall, you just fall." - Unknown
He heard the screaming before he had fully registered what the sound, desperate and tortured, was. But as it trailed, before rising again, weaker, his steps quickened. A maid, nearly white with fright, clipped him as she careened around a corner. It was proof of her urgency when she neither addressed him, nor apologized.
"The lady Katara, oh, sir, you must hurry…"
Leaving the frightened maid in his wake, he raced down the short private corridor, his skin chilled. He pushed past the gaggle of maids that had gathered outside of the door to the guest sitting room.
He stopped, frozen by the sight for one long moment, before stepping forward.
The room was silent, though the women stayed. The floor, a pristine white pine, was spattered with droplets of blood, and on it, Katara, unconscious and looking far more like a corpse than the vibrant woman he had seen so briefly earlier.
"What happened?" He knelt at her side, unmindful of the blood. Her tunic along one side was soaked with it. Her hair was wild, disarrayed, her lips bloodless, and a knife in one limp hand. Had that scream come from her? Her arm, a cloth being pressed to a wound by a maid, was bleeding from a long, deep cut down her forearm.
"Who did this to her?" he demanded.
The maid who knelt closest to her shook as she answered, her words tumbled and rushed. "She did, my lord. She was holding the knife when we arrived. She asked for you. She was saying she had to get it out. She had to get it out, or it would kill, and she cut herself. The blood… The blood just came out and she started screaming…"
There was a murmur of agreement from behind him as he cradled the back of Katara's head in his hand.
"Someone send for the healers!"
"It has been done, my lord. They should be here any moment," a voice replied from behind him.
"Get what out?" he wondered, grasping his control around him with finely wound cords.
"Poison, my lord. She said it was poison."
He stood back, useless, while the two healers who had been called at the personal request of the Fire Lord himself, clucked and fussed over the injured Katara like a couple of old hens. The flow of blood had been staunched, relieving the immediate danger, but she had not woken up. Not from the moment the screaming had stopped until now. The wound had been stitched and wrapped in clean white binding. He would admit to no one but himself that he had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep his composure while he watched the needle slide in and out of her skin. But watch he had. He owed her that much.
After his first couple of questions had been coldly ignored, sometimes not even the Fire Lord frightened the healers, he had resigned himself to watching in case there was something, anything, he could help in. Two maids stood at attention outside the door, just in case.
"She must have a quiet room in which to recover, somewhere close so she can be monitored at all hours."
He stepped forward. "She will have it. We'll put her in the rooms of the Fire Lady. There will be plenty of room."
"That will be fine."
"Why isn't she awake?"
"She has been through quite a trauma. Her body has shut down to protect itself against further damage. If it was a poison, as you say, then there may be damage we don't know of. She may not wake for some time while her body mends. To say nothing of the child. If it lives, it would be beyond our understanding. You say she is a water bender? If she was able to remove the poison that way… She nearly bled too much to save its life, but that would have been the only thing that did."
Zuko's back stiffened when he heard the world "child." She was pregnant? His eyes focused on the gentle slope of her belly. It was not so obvious, if you were not looking, but it was there.
"How far along…?" he asked stiffly.
"Perhaps five, six months."
Five or six months. What had happened in the past half a year that would lead to this? He had been in the South Pole the previous autumn, seven, no, eight months ago, and he hadn't received even the slightest inclination that her having children was an event close on the horizon. How well, though, could he know anyone when he saw them less than twice a year?
Gently, they transported her to the large, lavish room that had been so quickly prepared. The healers left an infusion of herbs, and orders for clear broths and water. A little at a time, they said, and her reflexes might allow her to swallow it without choking her.
He sent the maids from the room to fetch the broth, and when they had left, sat in the chair they had placed beside the bed. She had been cleaned, though she was pale, and her injured left arm stood out like a beacon on top of the dark coverlet. Her necklace lay askew on her neck, and he straightened it, feeling the coolness of her skin. He gripped her right hand, and studied her face. Her cheeks were rounded, the bloom of pregnancy sitting well on her. He allowed himself a glance, no more, at her abdomen.
Katara, with child. His mind could not find an answer for it that he liked, though the role was not one he doubted that she could play.
"We're going to take good care of you," he said, gently squeezing her hand. "Rest and heal, for both of you."
He had slipped out of the chair by the time the maid returned, and he watched only half of the maid, gentle as she was, sitting Katara up and spooning broth, spoon by spoon, as it slid into her, unaware was she was. She would not starve while she healed, at least, he thought. He settled in the chair against the wall while the herbal infusion was given. He was not leaving this night.
His guards were on high alert, the staff all but roiling with tension. Someone had done this, deliberately, and they knew Zuko was looking.
"I want to know everything that happened that afternoon. Who was where, what they did, what shoes they were wearing. What did they eat for dinner and who did they eat it with? Who is unaccounted for? Who was there that shouldn't have been? The fresher it is in their memories, the more you might find out."
It was unlikely that someone who had poisoned a personal guest of the Fire Lord would be seen if they did not want to be. It was suicide. Unless that person was on the staff, doing what they always did. In which case looking for an anomaly was almost next to useless. But for the moment, it was all he had.
It had taken nearly two days for any sign of consciousness to surface. During the days, he could not stay with her, and during the nights, he would not stay alone. A maid was always in one corner of the room, while he sat in a chair against the wall and watched. If any of them wondered why the Fire Lord sat in her room, no one questioned his decision. He slept, sometimes deeply, in between visits from the skilled healing assistants. She moaned as they moved her, and his hair stood on end, but they left each time shaking their heads. No change. Her body was still healing.
She did, though, look better. Her lips were no longer bloodless, and her skin had warmed, a sure sign of healing. But still, she lay near silent, jerking as if against some invisible enemy. He ordered her awake, as though will alone could compel her. But he began to believe his wishing had been too strong.
As the second day drew to a close, he sat, eating his dinner as a healer finished spooning broth into her. Strip by strip a second healer unwound the bandage that covered her injured arm. It was an ugly wound on her skin, but it had not become red and angry. She would not lose her arm, at least. It was one less thing to worry about.
Until the screaming started. As they treated her arm, and wrapped it, she began to move, slowly at first. He watched with a cautious eye as they held her to complete their work, but though they did not hurt her, she cried, little mewls of pain, as if they were torturing her.
"NO!" In a waterbender's hands, the basin of water became a weapon, and the two healers were knocked back as Katara sat straight up, her good hand clawing desperately at the wrapped wound. "It has to come out. It has to come out. Have to tell…"
That was when she screamed. It was hard to say which it hurt first… his ears, his gut, or his heart.
He raced the final steps to her, gripping her wrist to keep her from hurting herself, touching her face, her shoulder, anything to let her know someone was with her, his words nearly coming in a stammer.
"It's Zuko, I'm here. It's all right. You're all right. The baby is all right. You're fine. I'm here. You're fine."
"Yes. I'm here. It's okay," he said as she struggled.
She cried out again as she tried to wrap her injured arm around her stomach. He laid his hand over her stomach for her.
"You're both all right."
"Have to find… Poison. Baby." Her voice got softer as she relaxed.
"You got it out. It's all right now," he soothed, nearly resting his forehead against hers as he supported her.
As her head relaxed back into his hand, he saw what he had been unable to when she had fought against him. Her eyes, though open, were unfocused.
He glanced behind him, and the healers confirmed his fear. It had been a waking dream. She had not truly ever awoke.
It was a nightmare she was to repeat, striking at any time of day. He had been there for most, and he had ordered them to come for him if he was away. His brittle nerves had frayed, but he could soothe her, if only a little. The one time they did not come for him they had drugged her, unable to calm her otherwise. She had been screaming his name.
He left her room for limited periods of time. But he did not leave the family wing after that.
What could he tell the historian now? The week in the life of Zuko. "This week I helped a woman who was injured in my own home, and by someone we don't know. I have been searching for that person, to no avail, and would like to kill them immediately for the harm they have caused. This woman also happens to be someone whom I routinely dream about, in ways not fit for any memoirs, which makes it all the more an embarrassment as I feel like I should be able to control myself now that I am grown."
Which was a joke. Control. When that golden day of adulthood shone, there was no magic porthole or gift of sense and stability than there was the day before. This control process took time to master, more time than anything else. He wondered if he would ever have it, where she was concerned. But no, he could not tell the historian that. Barely any of it was fit for the annals of history, and until the culprit was found, none of it was meant for the ears of an outsider. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was suspect. Everyone except him, because he was sure he hadn't done it, and Katara. Katara, who lay under the power of a sleep more potent than any curse, and relived the horrors of the days before.
The wardrobe in the room of the Fire Lady, a huge thing made of cherry that was older than his grandfather, had found a place in the hallway. It was a pristine piece of wood-working, and a point of pride and entitlement to have such a fine piece in their collection. In its place stood a desk made of wood younger than he was, fashioned by arguably skilled hands. Its benefit was that it did not take up much more space than the ejected wardrobe, and yet still provided Zuko the flat surface area to keep track of the things he had to do.
It was not that he did not trust his staff. He did, as much as he trusted the sun to rise, and the ocean to wave. But too much trust would lead to burns and death by drowning. No, he did not trust his staff that much. Not when he routinely talked Katara down from heart-pounding panic. By the end of day four, the healers began to worry about the effect the stress might have on the baby. But the baby moved, routinely, and in a seemingly normal way, so there was little to do but watch and wait. They could not drug her more. She had to work her way out of this herself.
It also was known to him that someone here had done this to her. If she had not acted, then it might have been death… if not her, then her child. Someone's hands were bloody, and he wanted those hands to pay.
When they palpated her stomach he watched, as they hmm-ed and told him everything was fine. She was just simply still healing. He had given up on his chair by the wall, sending the maid to a chair in the hallway where she could hear him calling. It freed him to do what he wanted to start with: to sit beside her. If he held her hand, or touched her shoulder, it was merely to reassure himself that she was fine.
If he touched her stomach, it was curiosity. What were the healers feeling for? He pressed a hand to her stomach, in reality barely touching her, and waited. The slope of it was always steeper than he seemed to remember. It seemed oddly disconnected from the Katara in his mind. This strange figure, with a stranger body. It was a mystery to him, though he knew how it worked, but it was a puzzle, an enigma. It was a piece of the reality of life that he had not grasped before. This was a small person. Just as he had, his child would be formed this way. His fingers pressed gently into her flesh, and a tiny thump echoed through them.
He jerked away, freezing, his breath stopping a strangled shout for the maid as his mind raced through a thousand things that he could have just done wrong. Broken something, hurt something, pressed too hard. His hand flexed. It had just been a small bump against him, as if… as if the baby had kicked.
There was a baby in there! He laughed softly. And what a revelation to be having four days later. It was not some kind of tissue that had mistakenly come into existence. It was a child, a child that might have Katara's hair, her eyes, her acerbic tongue. It might even… Have a father. Somewhere. Zuko shook his head to erase the thought.
"I can't keep calling you it," Zuko said. "And "he or she" doesn't really have a good sound. I'll call you… Adara. Little fire. Your mother she…" He looked at Katara, really looked, her serene face, parted lips. Someone's mother. "She wants to meet you. And I do, too."
And strangely enough, he did. She had kicked his hand. She was real. Katara had risked her life to save them both. And there was no other person in this whole palace who truly cared about the outcome of their lives. He dozed, his cheek pressed to Katara's arm, his hand on hers. The baby Adara, a tiny girl creature barely larger than the size of his hand, slept on.