posted December 17, 2010
The fire had burned to coals glowing among ashes when Zuko woke, and the first gray blush of dawn traced Katara's form where she lay against him. Zuko raised his hand to stroke loose hair from where it had fallen across her face; he let his fingers linger on her skin. She murmured but didn't stir and he watched her face as dawn broke through the overhead smoke-hole.
He stood on the rocky shore below the great houses for a long time after he swam. The air held winter's chill, but each day the sun rose earlier as the equinox crept closer. What is wrong with you? Zuko asked himself, yet again, as the dawn faded to leaden clouds and restless sea.
Katara waited when he turned back to the shore, her arms folded and her mouth pressed in a thin line, but she looked apprehensive and almost shy, the emotion startling as she met his eyes. What must she think of me? Zuko wondered, but the first of the tension left her shoulders as she dropped her eyes and picked her way down the beach. He reached out when she neared, and she took his hand and let him draw her into him. The morning's breeze strengthened, but Katara was warm in his arms, against his cheek where he rested his face on her neck. She sighed, the breath shuddering from her, and Zuko echoed it.
Neither spoke, even when they broke apart and turned back up the beach, but Zuko felt some measure of peace fall over him as they walked hand in hand back to the great house.
The canoe lay smooth and solid beneath the carving shed, the few knot holes now filled with wooden bungs. Orvik tapped each one with a mallet to test the fit, while Zuko smoothed the approved ones with careful adze blows. If Orvik found his silence odd for a man just married, the carver gave no indication. Then again, Zuko thought, I suppose he's used to my moods by now.
"I have asked Ontok, my youngest brother, to join us this afternoon," Orvik said when they paused to eat a rich, salty fish stew. "I believe, Xtl'ikgut'tlak, that we are ready to shape this vessel." These simple words held great satisfaction and anticipation, to which Zuko had no response but a nod.
When Ontok arrived, Zuko recognized him as one of the young waterbenders who had guided the canoes between ice flows on the seal hunts many months ago. Almost a year, he thought, as Orvik lay fresh cedar branches into the vessel and Ontok sank into a bending position. Orvik surprised Zuko by starting to sing, his voice low and rough, as his brother stretched and pulled at the air.
The sea lapping the beach below the carving shed stretched and belled, elongating into a clumsy stream that snaked towards the canoe. Orvik's song told of gratitude and excitement, a vessel straining under patient hands to be borne into the sea. Ontok spread his hands wide, guiding seawater over the vessel to release it with a splash. It spread through the canoe, trickling down the soft grooves and channels left by adzes and wetting the green boughs. Orvik stopped singing and in that moment, the silence felt heavy, profound, as if the spirits themselves had paused to witness.
Then Orvik clapped Ontok on the shoulder and Ontok grinned and wiped his brow and reached again for the sea. The expectant silence dissolved into ordinary sounds of wind and waves and distant seabirds.
At first, Orvik and Zuko watched as Ontok repeated his motions, bending water in short bursts and streams and listening to it splash into canoe. Soon, though, Orvik turned away, gesturing to Zuko to follow him to the back of the carving shed. Here, they pulled hide tarps from boxes, shaking the folds out and draping them on racks alongside the canoe. "The seawater will work its way into the canoe tonight," Orvik explained. "Tomorrow, we will begin heating it. These tarps will help keep steam within the vessel, to further soften the wood and prepare it for shaping."
Zuko nodded and they worked in companionable silence. They gathered adzes and hammers and mallets and stored them away in small boxes. They swept curled cedar shavings and stubs of wood into the cookfire, and carried accumulated shells and fish bones to a midden farther down the beach. Still Ontok worked, his face beginning to show exhaustion as afternoon faded and the canoe filled splash by splash.
Katara, Zuko knew, could have filled the canoe in half the time with a quarter the effort. In comparison, Ontok was clumsy, slow and unpracticed. Why aren't men taught to bend? Zuko wondered. He remembered the male waterbenders at Moon Rising village, and wondered if children there learned together, if his –
A child, he thought, and he tried to focus on the work before him.
Dusk fell before Orvik nodded and raised his hand. Water lay two hand spans deep in the canoe, and Ontok looked relieved. "Our thanks for your help," Orvik said, and nodded to Zuko in farewell for the evening.
The rain that had threatened all day fell as Zuko walked along the beach, thin and drizzling and damp as anxiety built in his gut. He and Katara had not actually spoken that morning – what if she were angry, or gathering her pride to reject him? Would she resent him? Would her face hold the bitterness he'd heard in her voice? He paused outside Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House to breathe deep once, twice, a third time before steeling himself and stepping inside.
The great house was warm in contrast to outside's chill drizzle, holding the cheerful chaos of mealtime. Hakoda sat with Sokka and a warrior from another house, while Kana sat in the place of honor, Tua a step behind her. Zuko saw it all in that instant before he found Katara in the midst of it, Akiak on her lap and Tahnra standing before her. Their eyes met and he saw tension that mirrored his. Then her mouth curved in a tentative smile and she tipped her head before Tahnra tugged her arm and she turned away.
Zuko sagged in relief, leaning back against the wall beside the mouth-opening for an instant before making his way to the place beside her – his place, now – and accepting the bowl of stewed meat Tahnra had fetched for him. The evening's easy routine helped him relax, and when dancers and singers stepped up later, Katara leaned against him and twined her fingers with his.
When the songs ended, Zuko wondered if Katara would send Tahnra and Akiak across the great house to Hakoda's sleeping platform, but instead she tucked them into the bed she now shared with Zuko. She settled in beside them and turned to Zuko, hope and fear warring on her face before he knelt beside her and took one of her hands. She closed her eyes as he kissed each of her knuckles, then sighed as he released her hand to lay down and pull her against him. The darkness around them, the small sounds of Tahnra and Akiak's breathing, and the feel of Katara's skin against his soon lulled Zuko into sleep.
The next day dawned fair and clear, the most pleasant morning since winter's storms had blown over the land. The great houses emptied onto the beach after the morning meals, as Faces-To-The-East village took advantage of the sun for chores and play.
Children's laughter rang along the beach as Zuko helped Orvik build up the canoe shed's cookfire. Zuko had offered to heat the water in the canoe, but Orvik had shaken his head. "For this, Xtl'ikgut'tlak, I prefer the old ways, if only for they are the ones that I have long practiced."
Zuko stifled his sigh and resigned himself to a long day of heating stones and maneuvering them into the canoe, raising the temperature one splash at a time. At first, Orvik limited him to tending the fire and moving soot-stained stones from a pile beside the shed into the fire. Orvik showed him how to push each stone into the coals using a hard meimu wood stick. "They must be heated evenly, or they may explode when placed into the water."
Zuko nodded, but found it easier to position them with his fingers, moving his qi to bend the heat away from his skin. Just like Uncle and his teapots, he thought, as the morning passed and the water in the canoe warmed. Soon enough, the work became routine and Zuko helped Orvik pull tarps over the canoe as well as tend the fire and heating stones.
"What are you doing?" Tahnra asked, startling Zuko. He'd last seen her far down the beach with other children, but now she stood at the edge of the carving shed. He looked up to see Orvik smile.
"We're shaping the canoe, little one."
"Can I watch?"
Orvik tipped his head at Zuko. It's my decision, he realized. As her father. Somehow, he found the words to respond. "You can watch. But be careful." She nodded, her smile so wide Zuko had to return it, but she had already turned back to the canoe, clasping her hands behind her back as she stood on her toes to peer into it.
Zuko expected her to soon grow bored and scamper back to the other children playing on the beach, but she remained quiet, even helping Orvik layer more branches into the canoe. She stepped back out of the way as Zuko helped Orvik re-position the tarps, thin steam escaping where two overlapped.
Orvik paused to wipe sweat from his forehead. "My thanks again for your help, Xtl'ikgut'tlak. Without you –"
A scream cut him off and Zuko fell into a defensive crouch ready for –
Tahnra wailed, standing beside the fire with a still-hot rock at her feet, and Zuko's vision bled into panicked white. Oh spirits, no. He leapt forward, pulling her away from the fire.
"Katara!" he shouted, but he hadn't seen her on the beach and Tahnra sobbed in pain as Zuko rocked her against him. "Oh, Tahnra, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry sweetheart – Katara!"
He heard Orvik's voice but didn't hear the words as Zuko caught Tahnra's wrists in one hand to keep her from grabbing him. Her palms were angry red as she wailed again, the sound choked and anguished. "Hold on, Tahnra, sweetheart, your mother will be here, and she'll make you feel better." Fear and guilt burned within him. "I'm so sorry."
Katara stumbled into the shelter, her face white and hands wreathed in water. She met Zuko's eyes for a moment and he tried not to flinch, but then she dropped to her knees in front of him. "It's okay, Tahnra. I'm here. I'm here. Give me your hands."
Zuko released her wrists and Tahnra held out her hands and Katara's water glowed around the burns, soothing them away. Her sobs dissolved to sniffles and she buried her head against his chest as Katara stroked her hair and Zuko remembered to breathe. Katara slumped back, shifting on her knees, and Zuko freed one arm to pull her against him. He kissed her temple as she lay her hand on his knee and Tahnra's sniffles quieted.
"Is Tahnra okay?"
Both he and Katara looked up, startled. Akiak stood at the edge of the carving shed, sucking his fingers, his eyes wide with concern. They stared at him, then Katara blinked. "Of course, sweetie. Tahnra's fine. She was hurt, but now she's fine. Come here." She held out her arm and he ran to them, crowding into the embrace.
Zuko's guilt lingered into the evening when he sat with Katara beside the sleeping children. "Tahnra is a curious child," she murmured, stroking Tahnra's hair. "She's learned this lesson before with the cookfires, and now she knows that the same is true for heated stones."
"I told her to be careful," Zuko whispered. "I didn't tell her what to be careful of. Or how to be careful . Or –"
"Thuko. She's a child. She's learning how the world works, and sometimes those lessons are painful." Katara lay her hand on her daughter's back. "I was there, and the pain was short. Don't blame yourself."
"No buts." She lifted her fingers to his mouth. "Firebender you may be, but Tahnra will bend water – if she bends anything – and this wasn't your fault."
He wanted to protest again but Katara frowned and tapped his lips. He sighed, instead, and she dropped her hand to take one of his. She smoothed her fingers over his skin, along his forearm. Their sleeping platform was dim, but Zuko knew she traced the scars there, fine scattered lines left by knives and rigging, a wider one from a blade blocked. The wound from her husband's spear, that she had healed a lifetime ago, had left no scar. "Thuko… I've wondered."
He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. "What?"
"You hold fire in your hands." Her fingers moved back down his arm, tracing over his palm. "You fight with it, you work with it. I've seen you surrounded by it. I've seen you heat rocks until they split apart when splashed with water."
He nodded, though she did not look up.
"And yet…" Katara sighed, touching his fingertips with hers. "You have no scars, here. No burns, as I would expect from one who holds fire, like those I have seen in villages and houses without healers. No marks, on you who wield flame."
Zuko held himself rigid as she lifted her hand.
"None save here." She touched the scar, her fingers so light he barely felt them through the damaged skin.
Zuko caught her hand and pushed it away, turned his head and willed himself to not tremble.
"What happened, Thuko?" she whispered.
The memories flashed by, the searing pain of burned skin and damaged heart. "I…" he started, trying not to remember. "I… I – it… it was a long time ago."
He knew by her breathing that she waited, for him to speak, for him to give an answer, an explanation, anything, but the memories were too painful, too shameful to be forced into words. I'm sorry, he wanted to say, but he said nothing, and she sighed. She pulled her hand free, reaching to touch the unscarred side of his face, and Zuko turned his head to kiss that hand.
She stroked his cheek and pulled her hand back. "I love you," she whispered, and settled herself into the blankets. Her breathing soon slowed, but Zuko found himself again sleepless as the night slipped by.
Orvik and a handful of young men from his house had tended the canoe overnight, sleeping in shifts to rotate cooled rocks from the water and heated rocks into it. Zuko started to apologize for his absence, but Orvik raised his brows. "A newly married man, spend the night in this shed? My aunt would have my head if I were to suggest it. Now." He gestured to the canoe. "Our wait is nearly finished."
Several of the young men drifted away as the morning stretched into afternoon as Zuko tended the cookfire and the stones. Orvik measured staves across the canoe, cutting each wider than the gunwales at bow and stern and several places amidships. The simple activity soothed the lingering feelings of shame and dread of the day past, and Zuko felt at peace when Katara stepped into the canoe shed with Akiak and Tahnra.
"We brought clams and salmon," Katara said with a smile. "Can you eat with us?" Akiak released her hand to sit next to Zuko, while Tahnra held out a basket and smiled.
They shared the meal with Orvik, who nodded in thanks and doted on Akiak. Tahra shared stories of a morning spent scrambling through tide pools, and when at length they gathered the empty baskets to leave, Zuko pulled Katara close. Thank you, he thought, but couldn't say the words, not then. Instead he kissed her, and she stepped back with a smile.
Billows of steam escaped the canoe when Zuko helped Orvik pull two tarps aside to reveal the interior. "The widest brace, please, Xtl'ikgut'tlak. Yes, that one. There." Each brace, Zuko had learned, forced the canoe's gunwales farther apart, spreading the vessel into the familiar graceful shape. Staves now lined the canoe, and Zuko wiped sweat from his brow before he passed the stave to Orvik. He braced the end nearest him while Orvik pounded the other end into place. "There," Orvik said when he finished. "A fine day's work."
Tarps still lay over the canoe, distorting its lines, but Zuko saw the changes. The sides flared outward, tapering to a narrow bottom. A seaworthy craft, he thought, surprised by how much pride he felt. That simple pleasure lingered as he bade farewell to Orvik and made his way along the beach to Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House.
Tahnra greeted him just inside the mouth-opening. "Look, Daddy, I did it!"
Zuko accepted the spindle she held up. Thick lumpy yarn wrapped the center post, the fiber an almost garish bright blue. He remembered his mother's elegant fingers, embroidering with the finest silk. "It's beautiful, sweetheart – the most beautiful yarn I've ever seen."
She beamed as he returned the spindle, then scooped her up onto his shoulders and carried her to their family's place by the fire.
"Thuko…" Katara asked, when later they lay together in warm darkness. "Tell me about your uncle."
"You said – during our binding ceremony, you gifted me with a gift from your uncle." She rolled over to face him, resting her hands on his chest. "I want to know about him."
Zuko lay back, lifting one hand to stroke her hair. "His name is Iroh – my father's brother."
"Your father's brother?"
"Why is that surprising?"
She shrugged, her shoulders dipping. "An uncle – oh, never mind. 'It's different.' "
"Are you mocking me?"
"No. Tell me about your uncle."
Zuko thought of manifests and calligraphy, scented steam and hearty laughter. Of strong arms and sincere welcomes and guidance when he needed it most.
How could he ever describe Iroh?
"He… he's nothing like – he sings. And he dances. He loves art, and fine food. He taught me how to make dumplings – Fire Nation food." Zuko smiled at the memory. "He'd like the Water Tribe." Zuko pulled her closer. "He'd like you."
The days slipped towards the equinox as Zuko spent his days in the carving shed, helping Orvik replace the braces with broad permanent thwarts. "The notch must be deep enough to support the end," Orvik explained, "but not so deep as to penetrate the hull."
While they worked, Arluk made paint, scooping oils and minerals and what looked like fish eggs into a great basket and mixing them with a narrow paddle. It looked and smelled greasy, but Arluk and Orvik nodded in satisfaction.
When Zuko returned that evening to Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House, Katara sat by their sleeping platform, the painting he had made unrolled across her lap. Zuko watched as she studied it, tracing her finger over the brush strokes and pale washes.
She looked up when he sat beside her. "What does it say?"
Zuko felt his face heat as he pointed. "This is the date. How we mark the passage of time. This part –" he moved his finger to point "—marks the day of the binding ceremony, as close as I can to tell to our calendar. This part marks the month, and this part the year."
Katara nodded, and indicated another block of characters. "What about that part?"
Zuko ducked his head, hoping to hide his blush. Katara bumped his shoulder with hers. "Thuko, what does it say?"
"It says… it's a – a poem I wrote, for you. It's like a song." His face burned with embarrassment as he waited for her teasing comment, but instead she took his hand.
"This is how your Fire Nation shows a marriage?"
Zuko nodded. "In part. We have ceremonies, too – and we would notarize it. Sign our names before a witness."
Katara's brows rose. "Then we should sign it," she said, then tipped her head to regard him. "How do you make your name?"
Zuko swallowed his surprise and rose to his feet. His chest of belongings sat in its place under their sleeping platform, and he sifted through it for brushes, paint, and a scrap of parchment. His hand remained steady as he dipped the brush and set it to the surface. Katara stayed quiet, expectant, as his name took shape. The characters looked foreign, more foreign than the date and the lines of poetry, as if they belonged to another person, another life.
Katara studied it. "How would you make my name?"
Zuko paused to think. "What does Katara mean?"
She flushed and dropped her eyes, surprising him. "She who does not hide from the storm," she muttered. Zuko considered teasing her, but her expression stopped him. Instead, he again set brush to parchment as he thought out the characters.
"This," he said as he drew short lines and strokes, "means 'stand down'." Katara started to protest, but he continued writing. "This part is a negative – it makes the whole character, this group of lines, mean 'does not stand down.'" He paused to think, then drew out another character. "This means 'storm' – a steady rain from the ocean. Though we have a lot of words for storm – maybe you should be typhoon, instead."
"Nothing. This," he drew a third character "means 'woman'." He drew the possessive modifier beside it. "That makes it mean 'hers.'" He tapped each character in turn. "So this is how I would write 'She who does not hide from the storm.' Katara."
She stared at it, touching the "stand down" character, now dried, with one careful finger. Zuko saw her lips move, mouthing the sounds of her name. He set the brush down and slid his arm around her, pulling her against him.
"Gran should be our witness," she said.
"You said we should… write our names in front of a witness. To make a marriage in your Fire Nation."
"We don't have to –"
"I want to."
Something in her expression made Zuko's protest die on his lips. He nodded instead, and saw relief wash over her face, then uncertainty.
"Will you…" she started. "Will you write my name, for me?"
Zuko swallowed against the ache in his throat, the hope and uncertainty and desperation in her voice and on her face. "Of course."
Kana agreed to witness the signing with a grumble that softened as she watched Zuko write Katara's name, then his own. Katara stared at the parchment as the ink dried, that same mix of feelings on her face, and Zuko forced his eyes down to the painting as well. The black lines and ancient characters stood out against the background, final and official as those of any scribe. Zuko waited for the lurch in his stomach, the conflict, but for the first time, it didn't come.
Katara laid the painting atop one of her own chests to dry as they ate the evening meal. She stared at it after they finished eating, too, until Tahnra scrambled up beside her.
"What is it, Mama?"
Katara smiled and tilted the painting for her to see. "This is a painting. It shows – what does it show, Thuko?"
Zuko cleared his throat. "That's Jang Zhei Shi – the great capitol city." He pointed. "That's Hu Tei Mountain. The sages say it's a sleeping dragon that guards the Fire Nation."
Tahnra nodded, her eyes wide. "Is that your home?"
"It… was my home, when I was young."
"Do you miss it, Daddy?"
For an instant, he smelled yin tao blossoms, snowy pink and fragrant. "Yeah," he said, trying not to choke on the memory. "I miss it, sometimes."
The silence felt heavy that night, when Tahnra and Akiak lay asleep beside them and Katara lay her head on Zuko's chest. He waited for her to speak, to ask, and wondered how he would respond, but she said nothing. Anxiety built inside him, pushing at his throat.
"My father…" he whispered, but didn't know how to continue, didn't know if he could continue.
Katara lay her hand along his neck, her fingers warm and strong and solid. "Our child will always be loved, by both of us, even if you aren't here to say the words."
Zuko had no response, tears burning in his eyes and his throat thick with emotions he thought he'd forgotten. He swallowed, and turned his head, and nodded once against her shoulder as she threaded her fingers through his hair and stroked his cheek with her thumb. He pulled her tighter against him and reached deep within himself to breathe deep once, twice, feeling the fire swell and contract as the tears slipped down his cheeks. His breath shuddered but she didn't pull away, only kissed his forehead, her own breath warm against his skin.
He relaxed as the sting in his eyes receded and his breath calmed. Katara rested her cheek against his for a long moment, then moved against him, shifting in his arms and settling the blankets around them. He pulled her close, burying his face against her neck, and soon fell into easier sleep than he had since the binding ceremony.
The equinox dawned bright and blustery, the wind pushing towering clouds through blue sky as Zuko stood on the beach. He felt… good, the lingering uncertainty overshadowed by simple happiness.
He smiled when he heard footsteps on the beach behind him, and turned to greet Katara.
"Do you know what today is?"
She smirked and slipped into a bending stance before answering. "What? The day you get wet?"
Zuko saw the strike before she made it and leapt away. "The equinox," he called, gathering fire in his hands. "The spring equinox."
"You and your foreign ways – what does that even mean?"
"It means that the day is as long as the night. It only happens twice a year."
They moved over rocks and bleached logs, splashing through the shallows and trading blows. Back and forth, push and pull. "And you doubtless have a ceremony – a festival – for it, in your Fire Nation across the ocean."
Zuko ducked, avoiding stinging tendrils of water. "Of course!"
"The longest day, the longest night – what do you celebrate when the day and night are equal?"
Zuko waited, recognizing her motion. He heard the rippling noise of a wave rising behind him, and lunged when Katara's arms were highest. He caught her with one arm around her waist, one trapping her arms against her body. She struggled, twisting against him, but he held her fast.
"Balance," he whispered against her ear, and he felt the fight bleed from her body. Her head fell back, revealing the curve of her throat as he kissed her neck and slid his hand over her hip. She shivered against him and Zuko lost himself in her.
Half the village, it seemed, came to the carving shed that afternoon to help turn the canoe. Men and boys took places along its length and on Orvik's command, picked it up and swung it overhead as Ontok drummed a steady rhythm. At Orvik's next words, others stepped in to move the supports into new positions. A third command had the canoe settled back on the frame, its smooth hull ready for paint, as voices raised in song around it.
The words were a blessing, a prayer to the spirits and thanks to the tree and the carvers who had brought forth the canoe's shape. Zuko stood silent, waiting again for awkwardness to settle in his gut, but instead he felt at peace. Balance, he thought, as Orvik laid fresh cedar boughs over the canoe.
Katara stood among those gathered, her mouth open in song and holding Tahnra and Akiak's hands. Her expression creased into a smile as their eyes met, and Zuko thought again of yin tao blossoms, the quiet of the orchards at his mother's family's mountain compound.
Home, he thought, and it wasn't the Fire Nation he thought of.
Author's Note 11/6/12: This story is not done! Chapter 36 is slow, but it is coming. Keep watching!