posted March 23, 2016
Ceremony marked the next full moon. Every house of Faces-to-the-East Village gathered to eat and dance and sing. Zuko had received pride of place to light driftwood and fallen logs piled into a mighty bonfire. Now he sat as one of many in the crowd, watching warriors and waterbenders dance and sing to honor the turning seasons.
Tahnra and Akiak had long fallen asleep when Katara caught Zuko's eye to smirk across the fire. When the dance ended, she grabbed his hand and pulled him from the circle of firelight. She shushed his token protest with a finger against his lips. He smiled and allowed her to drag him away.
She guided him down the beach, the night split with black shadows and silver moonlight. They picked their way along the tideline, hopping from log to log.
"Why do your people celebrate the moon by building a bonfire?" he whispered. The singing and clapping faded into the distance, giving way to the whisper of waves on smooth stones. "That doesn't seem very – ow!"
"Shhhh," she hissed, but he heard the laughter behind it. "All the waterbenders will have stolen away this night."
"Even the men?"
She shrugged her shoulders, the patterns on her blanket rippling in the moonlight. "Could you resist your equinox?"
"I thought you called it an equinox."
"I did. But it's the summer solstice – the longest day – that must be most like the full moon. And no. I can't." He smiled into the dark and squeezed her hand. She returned the pressure and he felt her smile, simple understanding shared between benders.
The drums faded as Katara pulled him along, until they rounded the point and were alone in the night. She squeezed his hand and leaped off the driftwood. Zuko followed as she her blanket off her shoulders.
They splashed through the shallows out into the chilly water. Waves lapped around their ankles as she took Zuko's hand again and drew him close. His other hand tangled in her hair as she stretched to meet his lips.
Later, they curled together in their blankets against a mighty driftwood log. Moonlight played on the water, the night bright around them as the moon sunk to the horizon. Power still thrummed through her, a shiver against his skin, but the urgency was gone, the sensation quiet now.
Zuko leaned back, drowsy and sated, Katara's forehead against his neck. Her breath cooled his chest as she stroked her hand through his hair. He turned his head to kiss her fingers.
"Your charts," she whispered, "the ones that track the sun and the moon and the days?"
"Those aren't charts, those are –" he caught himself. "What about them?"
"Do they say when the next time the full moon will be on your solstice?"
He shivered. "Yes, they would." He stroked his hand up her back, his fingers coming to rest at the nape of her neck.
She tilted her head to kiss his throat. "And?"
"And, I haven't memorized the sequences, since that's why we write them down, but, if you're really curious, I could chart out the cycles and find out."
She hummed, deep in her throat. "I'll consider your offer," she murmured, and shifted to nestle closer against him.
Dawn silvered the horizon when at last they roused. They walked back to the great houses, Zuko's blanket draped over them both.
That full moon, Zuko found, marked the end of the sacred season and the beginning of the work season.
Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House hummed with activity even before the morning meal. Members of the house ate hasty breakfasts, many not bothering to sit. Kana already directed two young women to move baskets stored under a sleeping platform.
Sokka met Zuko's eyes over a group of men seated around him and jerked his head in rough invitation. Zuko frowned.
"Go." Katara said, handing him a full bowl. "It's time to work. I'll be leaving Tahnra and Akiak with the elders today. You should go with Sokka."
"What will you be doing?"
"Teaching my students."
She shrugged. "My work is different."
Zuko quirked his brow and waited.
She scowled. "Not different in the way of – oh for the spirits' sake, go tie a net or something." She turned away, but Zuko saw the smile she tried to hide. He reached for her hand and reeled her in for a kiss. She smiled as she pulled away, her fingers lingering on his arm. "Go."
Zuko had little time to eat before being caught up in work. He spent the morning and the afternoon and the next morning working with other men. They moved gear from racks below the floorboards and canoes from frames behind. Men from Shark-Swims-The-Deep House and Sea Urchin House joined them. Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House's men in turn moved to the other houses to help where needed.
The beach above the tideline became treacherous. Spears and nets and clubs lay spread on stones and logs for inspection, ready to trip the unwary. Warriors, fishers, and elders inspected knots and hafts and blades, sorting and prioritizing those that needed repair. Older children fetched and carried, moving tools and baskets between circles.
Late on the second day, Zuko again found himself working beside the canoe shed. Arluk and Yarak joined Orvik to inspect every inch of every canoe for cracks and soft spots. They deemed most ready to launch and pulled only a few into the shed for repair.
The light had faded when Orvik outlined a damaged area with charcoal, nodding to himself.
"Well?" Arluk asked.
Orvik gestured. "That one will take several days. The others, not as long. They'll all be ready for the seal hunts."
"Are you joining us this year?"
Orvik stepped back, still considering the canoe. "No," he said. "No, my sister's marriage approaches, and I'm needed here."
Arluk nodded, and turned to Zuko. "What about you, Xtl'ikgut'tlak? Or should I call you Thuko?"
Cold memory washed over him, of standing on the beach while the hunters gave his share of seal meat to Katara. "Call me whatever you like," Zuko replied, too sharp, to cover the remembered resentment. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment before speaking again. "As for the seal hunt, I have yet to consider it."
Arluk's brow rose, Orvik looked up from the canoe, and Yarak just stared.
Hot embarrassment flowed through Zuko. That was not the right answer, he thought, and turned away to hide the flush he felt rising in his face.
Orvik cleared his throat. "This day ends soon. We'll start the repairs tomorrow morning."
Zuko returned to the canoe shed the next morning, still finishing a hasty breakfast. The others nodded to him as usual, any awkwardness forgotten.
Like preparing a ship to sail, Zuko thought as he shaped a patch for the damaged canoe. Wait and then rush. As he worked, the rest of the village seemed to march up and down the beach past the canoe shed.
Women of all ages wove new baskets and mend old ones. Others ventured into the forest to strip bark from trees. A few paddled with their children to small rocky islets beyond the bay to collect seagull eggs. Every shed and sheltered area – and many spare sleeping platforms in the great houses – soon filled with bundles of roots, strips of bark, baskets of eggs, and other supplies.
Men repaired nets and cleaned the great salmon boxes emptied by winter's feasts. They scoured each box clean with sand and saltwater, then stood them in rows to dry in the spring sunlight. Other men carved hooks and points from bone. One man and two apprentices heated and pounded iron and copper blades. Men and women alike repaired fishing nets and tied new ones, sitting before a fire to chat while they worked.
They finished the most-damaged canoe one afternoon, too late to start another project but too early to retire for dinner. Zuko excused himself to Orvik and the others, and made his way to the clearing where Katara taught waterbending. Two new students moved among the young women, girls just into adolescence.
Katara noticed him as she closed one form, sending water back into the creek with a splash. She smiled, then schooled her expression into a challenge. "Thuko. Here to demonstrate for my students?"
"Only because I'm sure their master has prepared them." He let himself grin, let himself enjoy the teasing; he saw the fierce delight in her eyes and on her face. He suppressed a shiver of desire and concentrated on the fight and the forms, on the skill of a matched opponent.
Katara called to her students at the beginning, demonstrating forms and blocks, but lapsed into silence as the fight flowed on. They ranged back and forth along the creekbank, moving from offense to defense as in a practiced dance. They fought to a careful stalemate, a wall of ice and a circle of flame. Zuko bowed while Katara tipped her head back, both panting with the exertion.
Katara caught his eye for a moment before turning back to her students. "What you saw," she said, and began to explain particular moves and strengths to her rapt audience.
Zuko turned to leave but changed his mind, and instead hopped up on one of the boulders beside the creek. He folded his legs and focused on his breathing. He let the tension of the fight flow from his muscles and bones, and let satisfaction replace it.
A soft touch on his knee roused him from meditation, and Zuko opened his eyes to Katara's smile. Her hands felt chilly from the damp, so he took them between his own and warmed them. Katara smiled again and leaned up to kiss him, and they walked back to the house hand in hand.
Zuko tried not to sweat as he smoothed the final repair to the last canoe while Orvik, Yarak, and Arluk looked on. This isn't a test, he told himself, and concentrated on keeping his hands steady.
"Well done," Orvik said when the task finished. Beside him, Arluk nodded, and Zuko dipped his head to acknowledge the praise. "Now, to test our work." Together, they carried the canoe down the beach, stones shifting beneath their feet. The waves lapped cold against Zuko's feet as they set the canoe in the water and watched the repairs for leaks.
Orvik nodded in satisfaction as the canoe stayed dry, bobbing in the water. "Well done indeed. Paddles, Yarak."
They paddled the canoe down the length of the bay and back in the fresh afternoon breeze. Zuko stepped ashore again first, and steadied the canoe for the others. Together, the four men carried it back up the beach. They flipped it over and lay it above the tideline to join the other canoes ready for the season.
Takuak the hunter stepped into the carving shed as they put away tools and swept shavings and scraps into the fire. " Xtl'ikgut'tlak," he said in greeting. "May I request your help finishing some new seal harpoons?"
Zuko tried to keep the surprise from his face. "I – I am honored by your request – but I don't know of what help I'll be, since I'm new to making harpoons."
Takuak raised one eyebrow. "That is a surprise to me, since your help was so welcome last year."
Zuko frowned. When did I – oh. He dipped his head again, an informal bow. "I will be happy to heat pitch for you, after I finish my duties here."
Zuko stepped into the work shed beside Sifts-The-Shallows House late that afternoon. Takuak looked up from the harpoon shaft in his hands and smiled. "Welcome, Xtl'ikgut'tlak." Two younger men nodded to Zuko before going back to their work. "We are just ready to haft the heads. When you are ready." He tipped his head towards the fire, where a bucket of pitch warmed.
The work came naturally to Zuko, half-remembered from last year and familiar now from repairing canoes. They finished one set of harpoons that afternoon as dusk fell.
Takuak set the last point himself, after having coached the other men. "Thank you for your help, Xtl'ikgut'tlak. This step goes much easier with an extra set of hands – especially ones that can keep the pitch malleable." He flexed his fingers, the knuckles cracking. "Perhaps you will have the time again tomorrow."
When Zuko returned the next morning, Sokka and a handful of other men were already at work, sharpening points and shaping hafts. "With your help, we are ahead of ourselves," Takuak explained as he set a point to a haft. "We may even finish a third set today."
By the time they ate a quick midday meal, Zuko had helped fasten all the prepared harpoons.
"Nice work, Hotman." Sokka said, and shoved a stone knife and an unfinished bone point into Zuko's hands. "Now let's see you do some real work."
Zuko frowned, but set to work, trying to copy the other men's motions. It proved difficult, the knife sliding along the bone with too little bite, unlike the mountain sheep horn he had carved during the winter. In the time it took others to make a whole point, he managed to shape one satisfactory barb – which broke as he soon as he began the next.
He grit his teeth as Sokka crowed. "You can carve an entire canoe, but you can't even carve one little spear point?"
Zuko set aside the broken point. "A canoe is surprisingly hard to break with one strike."
He fared better at setting the points against the shafts, mastering the wrap, twist, and tuck to secure the harpoon head. Takuak nodded that evening as they set the last harpoon. "Well done, Xtl'ikgut'tlak." He paused, his brow lifted in inquiry. "I hope you will join us on this year's seal hunt."
Zuko felt his face flush. "Your invitation honors me." He inclined his head, not quite a bow, and stopped himself from fidgeting.
That evening, Sokka plunked down beside him. "Takuak says you haven't decided if you're going on the seal hunt. I told him I'd talk some sense into you."
"Tell me how that works out for you."
Sokka sighed, long and loud. "You know, it's not healthy to spend all your time with the wife and kids. Men have to be men sometimes. You know – with other men. Doing manly things."
"You know – hunting."
"That's a manly thing?"
Zuko watched the cookfire and debated how to respond. He'd seen Katara little since they last sparred. The mornings had become too hurried for anything save a quick swim, and sleep came too fast when they finally fell into bed.
Sokka's tone changed, seriousness creeping into his voice. "Thuko, I know you're from across the ocean and don't know any better, but trust me. You don't want to become the kind of man who stays in the village all year. Come on the seal hunt."
The fire crackled, sparks bursting up into the smoke. "Fine."
"Good." Sokka slapped his shoulder. "We leave the day after tomorrow."
They made their farewells on the beach, the women this time present as the hunters prepared to depart. The waning full moon hung low in the sky. Katara stood beside the canoe with him. "Are you sure?" Zuko started to ask again, but Katara placed her finger on his lips.
"We'll miss you, but I'm glad you're going. The seal hunts are important." She reached with her free arm, the one not holding Akiak, to pull him closer. Zuko breathed her in, closing his eyes for a moment before she released him. He tried to think of something to say to express everything he felt, but she smiled at him and knew she understood.
Zuko stooped to hug Tahnra, and ruffled Akiak's hair. He leaned in for one final kiss from Katara, catching her hand in his.
"Thuko! The tide waits for no man!" Sokka yelled from where he already sat in the canoe. "Not even a waterbender's husband!"
Katara smiled again, squeezing his hand before releasing it. "Go. You'll be home soon."
He stepped into the water and into the canoe, shaking the water from his feet before he settled in.
"Finally," Sokka grumbled, and Zuko made sure to accidentally hit him with his paddle. A wave rose to lift the canoe off the rocks and into the water, and Zuko saw Katara lower her hand, then wave farewell. Akiak and Tahnra waved as well, other women and children beside them.
Home, Zuko thought, as he and the other hunters buried their paddles deep and set off for the glaciers.
They paddled late into the evening, falling into an easy rhythm. The following days passed easily, too, as they rose early and paddled late and the wind turned glacial cold.
They camped early the third night, as the tide turned against them. Half the men secured the canoes while the other half gathered wood, and soon a campfire burned bright. Individual conversations trailed away as they finished eating, and the first song began. The men shared songs of winter hunts, and after a time they turned to Zuko.
"Come, Thuko. Share the story of your adventure this winter – of your capture, and your escape."
"Hear hear. Auka's been telling everyone that Katara did all the work, but I'm sure that's not true." Sokka elbowed him.
Zuko ducked his head, feeling the flush spread across his cheeks. "Everyone knows what happened."
Takuak prodded a log in the fire, stirring a cloud of sparks from the embers. He set the stick down on the rocky ground. "Some of us may know the tale, Xtl'ikgut'tlak, but still wish to hear it from you."
Zuko ducked his head, staring at the fire.
"Go on." Sokka nudged him. "Sing."
Zuko cleared his throat. "I… don't sing."
He glanced up, saw Takuak's brows dip in mild disappointment. Beside him, Sokka drew in his breath to wheedle.
Zuko let out his own breath, felt his teeth click together. "But… I'll tell the story. Since… you want to hear it."
He realized, as he told of Jet's treachery and Katara's fight, Jin's bravery and Gyucha's help, that his voice fell at times into a bard's cadence. He stumbled the first time, then caught the pattern again as he told of Arnook's hospitality and Yue's grace. Sokka took up Takuak's stick at Yue's name, prodding the fire with a closed expression.
"We stayed a week at Moon Rising Village, and they honored our days with their generosity," Zuko concluded. Around him, the hunters nodded their appreciation. Zuko hesitated, unsure whether to continue.
Sokka lifted the stick in salute. "And I'm sure the spirits honored your nights with – hey!" He dropped the stick as the smoldering end caught fire, flame flicking up the length. The other hunters laughed, and Ontok slapped Zuko's shoulder.
Takuak lifted his hands in a salute, almost a toast. "Hakoda's son may joke, but indeed. You bring honor to our village, and to our clans. May the spirits honor your marriage to Katara with many healthy children."
Heat spread across his cheeks again, but accepted the blessing. This is something you've earned, Zuko, he forced himself to acknowledge. Around him, the other hunters told their own stories and made their own boasts, welcoming him into their group with their ribbing and confidences. This is something you've always wanted.
They arrived at the sealing camp midday on their fourth day of paddling. Blackened logs from last year's fire lay strewn across the narrow spit, and the wind held winter's chill.
The sun slipped behind the mountains as they unpacked the canoes. A handful of younger men set up camp while the rest inspected spears and floats and clubs. This year, Zuko sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the other hunters – other fathers and husbands. He unwrapped the sealing spear Sokka had given him and checked its bindings and its tip, the floats and the line that would snare the seal.
They pushed off to hunt the next morning, the air heavy with chill, the wind gone and replaced with low clouds. The slap of paddles echoed off the water, and soon Sokka gave the command to cease paddling. A male waterbender took his place at the prow of each canoe and water rose to move them forward.
Silence fell, the only sounds the wind and the distant crash of ice falling into the sea. The hunt became timeless, the world silver-gray and dark green around them. The hunters' breath hung visible in the air as long stretches of waiting were broken by thrown spears, muffled curses, and quiet cheers.
Zuko's turn came late in the afternoon. Don't mess this up, he thought as the canoe slipped towards where they had seen the last splash and ripple. He waited, spear poised and trying not to hold his breath, and - there. Silver flashed past the canoe and he thrust the spear and braced himself to recover from a failed throw.
Instead, his arm shuddered with the impact. The spear lurched in his hands and Zuko almost let go from surprise. He recovered and jerked the haft back in the motion that Takuak had demonstrated. The spearpoint came loose from the haft, line paying out as the seal dove. He wrapped the line around his hand as he'd been shown and braced his weight against the pull.
At length, the struggle slowed and finally ceased. He hauled in the line carefully and accepted help to pull the seal into the canoe. Sokka slapped him on the back, and from another canoe Zuko saw Takuak nod in approval.
Zuko sat before the fire late on their final night at the sealing camp. Moonlight silvered the mountains and sea as the fire burned to glowing embers and he considered the turn of the seasons. Spring marched towards summer, and by his count Toph's ship would soon return to the Water Tribes. It's time to decide, Zuko, he made himself think.
Memories floated up to him: in the moonlight with Katara, paint drying on his arm as he whispered a promise. Sokka's friendly back-slaps. The trust and adoration Tahnra and Akiak showed him. The welcome from Moon Rising Village and Yue's blessings. The camradarie at the canoe shed and on the hunts.
Realization hit then, leaving him breathless. Zuko, you've already decided. He laughed aloud at the simplicity of it, at how long it had taken him to understand that his home was here.
He thought then of Katara and her children – their children – and perhaps the children he now allowed himself to want. What would they look like? he wondered, thinking of Katara's smooth brown skin and vivid blue eyes, but he could only see Tahnra and Akiak. My children, he thought, unafraid for the first time.
Memories of the only other place that felt like home floated up, scented like jasmine and tea. Uncle.
Iroh would want to know – Iroh alone would care what had become of him, would be troubled until he knew. A letter, Zuko decided. Toph could deliver it, if she returned again to Chang Ye Shen. Iroh would appreciate that – knowing that his wayward nephew had found a place to belong.
Faces-to-the-East Village gathered on the beach the next morning. Zuko stood in the crowd, holding Tahnra's hand while a trio of hunters sang a cadenced tale of the hunt. The last beats faded into the sound of waves as Sokka and other leaders began to pull bundles of seal meat from the canoes.
Remembered anger rose in Zuko's throat, last year's shame when his portion was given to Katara. His hand must have twitched, as Tahnra looked up at him; he crooked a smile at her and swallowed down the anger. When their turn came, he surprised himself with a flush of pride when Katara accepted their bundles in his name. She piled them into Tahnra's waiting arms, then pulled Zuko close for a kiss.
"Not in front of the meat, Katara!" Sokka called in mock distress, and around them the village laughed.
Soon, Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House marked another full moon with a weary evening ceremony. Katara stood to dance again and when she returned to their space, Zuko caught her wrist and pulled her close. He whispered to her, feeling his face flush, but that new, reckless joy drove him on.
She grinned in response. They settled Tahnra and Akiak with Hakoda and slipped away from the singing early again. This time, they followed a trail into the woods, an extra blanket slung over Zuko's shoulders.
They ran hand in hand through the trees, Zuko pulling her along. "Do you even know where you're going?" Katara laughed.
"I'll know it when I see it," he replied
At last, they found a dry hollow beneath a spreading tree. Zuko pull barely got the blanket beneath them as Katara tumbled into his lap. She giggled, a high delighted sound, and Zuko smiled into her skin.
"The child," he murmured, kissing along her neck. "Our child."
She gasped as he pulled her closer against him. "Thuko…"
"I'm – I want to make it. Now. Starting tonight." His voice sounded harsh, a hoarse whisper. He waited for her response as she shuddered, a soft noise escaping her –
Zuko frowned and pulled away. "Are you laughing?"
Katara leaned forward to kiss him, amusement in her eyes. "Oh, Thuko, I've been waiting to hear you say that, but… you have bad timing." She kissed him again. "This cycle has passed. We'll make no child tonight." She slid her hand up his chest and to the back of his neck and Zuko shivered. Her grin held wicked promise as she pulled him down whisper against his ear. "But we should practice for when the time is right."
What could he do but agree?
The last seal hides had been tanned and the fat rendered and the summer solstice again pulsed on the horizon when Zuko stepped onto the beach one morning to see a ship at anchor in the bay. Distant bells sounded as he squinted to make out the ship's name and flag. The Good Earth, he confirmed, relief and anxiety mingling in his throat as he turned back to the Wolf-Howls-At-The-Moon House.
Katara stirred when he settled on their sleeping platform, reaching for him from their tangle of blankets. Beside her, Tahnra and Akiak lay curled together. "You're back early," she whispered, smiling.
He smiled back at her. "Toph's ship is here."
Her brows lifted. "It will be good to see her." She stretched, then rose to sit, her knees bent and the blanket tangled over her lap. "You should wake Gran. She'll want to start the formal greeting."
Zuko leaned over for a kiss. "There's still time for our swim."
The sun neared its zenith when Zuko stood on the beach with Sokka and other warriors, Kana and a group of Mothers before them. The longboat pulled slowly ashore, scraping over rocks, and Toph stumbled out to retch on the beach. "Why do I keep doing this?" Zuko heard her mutter as she wiped her mouth and stood.
"Still have your earth legs, I see," Zuko called as he stepped down the beach.
"You make your way through a labyrinth, blind, and we'll talk." She smiled and punched his arm. "Good to feel you, Sunshine. I brought someone along who couldn't wait to see you."
Zuko raised his brow. "You'll have to tell Jun I'm taken."
Toph snorted. "Not Jun." She waved one hand at the tideline, where other passengers stepped from the longboat. Jun already picked her way up the beach, and behind her, jumping lightly to the stones –
Zuko's blood seemed to freeze in his veins, shock like bloodbending surging through him.
Author's Note: What things have transpired, dear readers, since last I updated. I won't bore you with the details except to say that my life when through a period of change five years ago, and when things settled back down I was no longer in the habit of writing.
Thanks for sticking with this story; it's always been my intention to finish it, and I'm pleased that so many of you are still reading. I've read every one of your reviews and smiled at each, and I hope you can feel how grateful I am.