The final door to the outside stood open, and he pressed outside it, to the shadowed upper area of a small, decorative wood that was ringed in growing shadows.
He heard Katara's muffled voice before a familiar voice began to respond.
"…what you think, I never meant to hurt you, Katara. Sure, I gave you that tonic so you would miscarry, but it's not like it was going to kill you. You could've returned to the South Pole and found a nice, safe man and had more babies with him. I just couldn't let you have Zuko's."
"Then what do you plan to do now?"
"Unless I'm mistaken, and I'm not, you're in labor. Unfortunately," Ty Lee said, her voice dripping with sadness. No, not Ty Lee. That was not her voice. One of her sisters. "I can't let you keep the baby. Not even if you promised me to return to the South Pole and never speak of it. Zuko is a man, but even he might get a clue eventually, if the baby was a firebender or happened to have his eyes. You couldn't have chosen anyone else to get you pregnant? It had to be the Fire Lord?"
"I didn't choose anyone," Katara said. He kept his eyes focused on them as he moved silently down the near steps. "You told me Zuko had sent for me."
"But you got pregnant anyway, which is as good as a choice. Don't worry, though, I won't kill the baby if I don't have to. I'll see it has good parents somewhere you'll never have to worry about."
"Don't do this. This is Zuko's daughter. You can't take her…"
"Be quiet, okay! Just go over there and have the kid already!"
She gave Katara a shove, and his heart skipped as he watched Katara stumble.
"No!" Zuko's shout carried over the short distance between them as he watched Katara right herself and turn, moving toward him. He heard the roar, felt the heat, as a fireball swept behind her, knocking her into him and sending them both to the ground.
He stared in fascinated horror at Ty Lee's sister's body, still beneath the tree where the force of the fire had thrown her. His eyes scanned the area that the blast of fire had come from. Their enemy had grown by one.
"Over the years the families have become weak, Fire Lord. Once upon a time, protecting the crown was the greatest honor. But this child could not even carry out a simple assassination. Neither mother nor child was supposed to survive the poisoning. A tragic end to an ill-timed visit. Her family would grieve, and the Fire Nation would be contrite. The dangers of consorting with royalty."
Zuko struggled to put a face to the voice.
"It was her family's duty, you know, to protect the royal family from ill-claimed bastards and the irresponsible and self-serving blunders of the Fire Lords. Of course it was the men who trained for this, not sentimental girls who wish only to carry little acts of treason off to a better life. But they failed to have sons, and on the generation where the transgressions were the worst. One does what one can with what is available. Pity."
The gray-bearded form of the court historian stepped from behind the rocks.
"And who else? I have seen years of tradition and scandal in the annals of history, and this… This caps them all. I wouldn't want my successor to see such a blemish on the great history of the Fire Nation."
Zuko spied Katara's arm come up around her stomach. Good, she was recovering while the man spouted nonsense.
"And you would kill…"
"Your daughter? Your whore? Yes. A son might have been harder to rationalize, once I knew the gender. It might have warranted waiting. But no life is worth more than the pride of the Fire Nation. I tried to help you see that. You are a man, and swayed by a willing body, so my issue is not with you, though I hope that you will choose better next time. And not something like this. Perhaps your taste will be…refined."
Katara's breath hissed through her teeth at this, and he stared as liquid pooled on the earth beneath her. Not now! His mind shouted.
"Leave now," the historian said, his voice silky and persuasive. "I will dispatch them as quickly as possible. There will be little pain. We will find you girls, a new one every night if you wish, all beautiful and willing. You can do anything you wish to them, while we find you a worthy wife. Wouldn't that be better?"
Zuko rid himself of his hindering robes, dressed sleekly beneath, ready to fight.
"Do you expect me to be able to walk away?"
"No," the man said sadly. "Your stubbornness is well known. And I know my price for the nation will be to take my own life, once she is dead. It is worth it, even if it means attacking my own ruler in order to correct the balance!"
He deflected the fire in the only way he knew how, watching it race on either side of them in high, roaring sheets. The flame grew hotter, even as he sent his own tendrils out through it, and the roar receded, muffled as a thick bubble of water enveloped them. She was panting, her face contorted in concentration and pain as she held the bubble, cooled it so that it didn't boil out from around them. He met her eyes with determination and waited. The historian could not hold up this level of flame for long. And he intended to be ready.
The ground around their protected circle was scorched, smoking.
"Can you protect yourself?" he asked.
She accepted his hands and got unsteadily to her feet.
He ran, gathering her belief in him around him like armor, as the fire welled, burned, bright as his anger, bright as his determination.
The fire lived, as the dragons had… Sweat dripped into his eyes and he ignored it, concentrating instead on the rush of power, the tingle, the unnamable pleasure/pain that came with the creation of it.
He used it, sweeping his arm to control it, bending it to his will as he erased from his mind the urge to kill and to focus instead on drawing attention and to disable the man threatening to take away everything he had just found. He imagined himself a great wall, standing between the historian and Katara. He would sooner die than let this man touch her. Or her child.
The fire swelled as it moved streaking in lines and globs as it reached for the historian. He had youth on his side, practice.
The historian was tiring.
A fire bomb knocked the historian off his balance, and the next, and the next. The fire exploded back at him, and he leaped from it, staying clear of moving from Katara. He could not spare her a glance. He knew she could protect herself from fire, if any broke through. He grinned as he stopped, bent, and sent a storm of fire – they made a good team.
He felt the tremble of the earth before the rushing sound reached his ears. Both he and the historian saw at the same moment, the deluge that threatened – water, a spinning vortex of it. Now, he saw Katara, rising up some like some sea goddess and directing it at the both of them. The historian's face registered fear, not at the water – they could move from it, but the great fire whips that Zuko had swept at him. From that, there was no escape.
The water swirled away, fading into the earth. Bits of fire still burned and it hissed as the water fell on it.
Zuko stood straight, wiping his cheeks and noticing that he was bleeding from the last fall. From this defeat the historian would not be getting up lightly. He bound the man's feet and hands with strips of ruined clothing. He stood, the rage still there, but abated for the moment. The battle victory shimmered in him, and here, now, he looked for Katara. He moved before he processed it, seeing her on her hands and knees, her fingers curling into the ground, moans wracking her.
He dropped beside her, her hand gently on her shoulder.
"Let me get you back to the palace. We can be there…"
She shook her head vigorously.
"I can't. It's too close. Too close."
His hands were trembling as he helped her to sit back against the nearest tree, and gathered her close briefly.
His words tumbled out of him.
"You'll be far away from your family, and the ice. You can visit though, as much as you are able. I'll go with you, if I can, because I don't know how long I could send you from me. She… the baby would need to know the other part, of her, always. If you stay… If you stay with me, be my wife…"
He waited, moving back, gripping her hands and breathing with her more out of fear than any knowledge as another contraction gripped her. He touched her chin, met her eyes as his very foundations trembled.
"Please stay, Katara. I love you."
Tears streamed down her face as they considered each other, and he felt her sob.
"It'll be hard, and it won't always be easy, but we can help each other… Please don't hate me," he begged, his face close to hers.
"No matter how hard it is, Zuko… I couldn't hate you. I can make my place with you. Together…" she smiled, grimaced. "I love you too, damn it, but she's coming right now."
Right now was a slight overestimation as he scooted back, his dark inner robe near to clean the child. His abdomen clenched and ached with her. He had no idea how she could be this strong. He had no idea. Nothing had prepared him for this. He was supposed to be an ornament. He had expected legion of healers and helpers. There were none, as a tiny, squirming life was born into his hands. For a brief, panicked moment he was afraid she would squirm right away from him, before he slid her gently onto Katara's stomach, a wail sent up at the cold, the shock as he gently wiped and cleaned. Katara was laughing, gasping for breath at the same time as the touched the tiny head, and waving arms. Somehow, together, they managed to cut and tie the cord. He was grateful for Katara's head, as he seemed only capable of staring at the tiny little creature. With something like reverence, he held out his arms as Katara placed the child in them, and he wrapped her in her birthing blanket, albeit a bit makeshift. It was his outermost robe, the most fine, red and gold, as was befitting the daughter of the Fire Lord. He had a daughter. He was a father.
There was a commotion as she ate her first meal, as Sokka and Iroh and a swarm of others found them. They managed to direct the chaos, but both the new uncle and great-uncle gathered as close as they deemed safe to coo at the child. She was dark haired, no surprise, and they would see what color her eyes became. He gripped Katara's hand, and she smiled.
The clapped him on the back as he stood, followed as he went with Katara as they were all taken back inside. He was following his wife. They had exchanged words, and for this moment that was enough.
"Rise and bow for Fire Lord Zuko," the man's voice said, carrying over the throng of people. "And for the Fire Nation's new lady, the Lady Katara." At that there was a slight murmur through the crowd. "And for their daughter, the Princess Adara."
Zuko felt a chill sweep down his spine as he looked from his daughter to the tired, smiling eyes of his wife. They had not discussed this. He had never told…
"When I was asleep… It's one of the few things I remember. I could hear your voice. You named her."
"Yes. I was tired of calling her "it.""
She laughed softly, careful not to jostle the child. "What does it mean?"
"But you didn't know."
"She was part of you. And I knew you would name her for what she was. I never thought she would be a firebender…"
He watched his daughter's hand curl around his wife's offered, slender finger.
"But she might be."
"She might be," Katara agreed.
He pondered her quietly, in the moments they had. The lighter streaks of her hair gleamed next to the gold flame adorning her hair. Would it be easy, this? Hardly. But he hadn't seen anything in life that was. Each path had its own hardships.
Impossible? He snorted softly. What could be more impossible than her agreeing to be his wife?
Her eyebrows rose in question and he shook his head and gently squeezed her shoulder. All was fine. A hush had fallen. He looked out over his people, his city.
And the sun rose on the face of the baby Adara, out of water born of fire, nestled in the arms of her mother. No one could foresee on this day what was in her future. How as princess she would find herself, standing proud next to her brothers, she of fire who would one day inherit her father's crown.
"Love has no uttermost, as the stars have no number and the sea no rest." Eleanor Farjeon
My enduring thanks to each of you for your support as we travelled our way down the path of this story. It was my pleasure to join you on the ride… though I occasionally thought the story was driving me, instead of the other way around! It means a lot to me that it is up and done. I'll definitely miss it. Here's hoping that the other ideas pinned to my clipboard go just as well.
Again, can't thank you all enough.