He moves to sit up but she – firmly yet somehow gently at well – pushes him back down. Her hand lingers on his shoulder as she looks up at the ceiling. There a low rumbling and the earth around them quakes for a moment. An explosion.
They are deep under ground, in ancient catacombs long thought lost to those who did not know better. Above them the capital burns – its citizens at war with one another.
"I can't lie here while people fight and die in my name," he says through gritted teeth, as he tries once more to get upright. He collapses back before she has a chance to stop him.
"You're still weak," she replies, checking his bandages again, making sure he hasn't unraveled any. "You wouldn't do them any good in this state."
He'd awoken only about an hour ago. He'd been struggling to pull on a robe when the shouting started. Katara was gone for the moment. She'd ordered him to remain in bed while she searched for some food. His wound was still fresh – the fight with Azula, and a lightning bolt to the chest only a day behind him. News had not yet come on the outcome of the other battles, but they had remained hopeful.
The yelling came from outside – the people in the street were shouting. He managed to get himself to a window to see the sky darkened with smoking blimps. The fleet had returned – smoldering and minus half its numbers, but still flying the Fire Nation flag.
Suddenly the door to his room exploded open, revealing a Sage and two armored soldiers.
"There!" shouted the Sage and without hesitation the two soldiers shot huge twin fireballs at him. He barely had time to bring up his arms to block the blast and the force of it sent him stumbling back. He lost his footing and fell hard to the ground, the wind knocked out of his lungs. His vision grew dark, but before he lost consciousness completely he heard the rush of water and the sound his attacker's bodies hitting a wall.
An instant civil war had erupted, she told him when he woke up some hours later, safely hidden by the Sages who had chosen his side.
Later, they would call it the Five Day Civil War. The Capital City would be nearly demolished by the end of it. Nearby cities and villages would see the smoke streaming out, as if the dead volcano had suddenly come to life again after a thousand years.
Across the Islands there was no other bloodshed but privately, even those who would never fight chose their side. You were with the Phoenix King or you were with the Rebel Prince.
But now it was only the first night, and they knew nothing outside of this dark musty hiding place. Now he looks at her, at the dark circles under her eyes, at the little cut above her eyebrow, at the careful way she touches him. The Sage that found them and got them out of the palace, hasn't told Zuko yet of how he came upon her dragging his wounded prince to safety or of how she flung razor sharp icicles at him before he declared his allegiance. Zuko hasn't learned the details of it all, but still he knows she's saved his life again.
So, he says:
"You saved my life. Again."
She shrugs dismissively.
"You saved mine first."
"Yeah, but I've only saved you once. You're one ahead of me."
Their eyes meet and she chuckles softly.
"Well, then you'll just have to catch up."
The little crush that has been slowly building up in his chest, knocks up against his rib cage.
He stormed down the hall only to turn around and start to storm back and then stop himself. He did this several times.
At one point, the anger got so hot inside him he flung flames at a wall in a fit of rage. A large group of people had turned the corner at that exact moment. They stared at him – some looked back and forth from the smoking scorches on the wall to the muttering Prince glaring at it.
At last, after angrily wandering around the whole ruin for some time, he found his room.
As soon as the door closed behind him he sank down to a crouch on the floor, a trembling hand over his eyes, the fight leaving him completely.
What were they going to do? What was he going to do? She was so damn stubborn—
His head snapped up. Across the room – as if from a dream memory of the days on the road in the earth kingdom – sat Iroh holding an open flame in one hand and a worn metal teapot in the other.
He barely managed to stand up before he was caught in a platypus-bear hug. Over his Uncle's shoulder he saw the teapot laying on its side, forgotten. A wave of tenderness over came him and he belatedly hugged the older man back.
Iroh pulled back, gripping Zuko's arms, the wide smile slipping from his face as he took in his nephew's appearance.
"Nephew, you look… awful."
Zuko sighed and pulled away from the older man. He walked over to the teapot and picked it up from off the floor.
"I just got here this morning. I haven't had a chance to clean up yet."
Iroh came and took the teapot away from him.
"Ah, that explains it," he said, in a gentle tone that Zuko was all too familiar with.
"Well," he continued, as he sat back down and reached for a waterskin Zuko had not noticed, replacing the water that had spilled, "I was just about to make some tea. Would you like some Nephew?"
And although Zuko had still not developed Iroh's obsessive love of hot leaf juice, he found himself nodding and sitting down across his uncle watching as the flames danced up from Iroh's palm to lick the bottom of the pot. He closed his eyes for a moment and it was as if the exhaustion brought on by so many days of travel was just now catching up with him. He found himself picturing Katara, the way she had almost seemed to melt right into him when he was finally able put his arms around her. Soon the pot whistled and Iroh produced another, more delicate pot from his bag. It was an Earth Kingdom teapot – ceramic and green with painted intricate gold designs, mostly of abstract plant life. As Iroh went through the familiar routine of steeping the tea, Zuko thought of the wounded look on her face right before he'd thrown the door shut.
"What troubles you Nephew?" Iroh asked as he handed him a small, steaming cup.
Zuko took a small sip, avoiding his Uncle's concerned look.
"Katara and I had a fight," he admitted, after a lengthy pause, "It… Ended badly."
"I see," said Iroh, nodding and then sipping his own tea.
"And what," he asked, "could possiblyprompt such an argument between friends as close as you and Katara?"
Zuko closed his eyes. He had never told Iroh. Katara was always so cautious around others. So nervous. And although she had not asked him to keep such a huge a secret from his only family – she would not, he knew, ever ask such a thing – he had kept it one all the same. If her family couldn't know, he'd decided, neither could his. But now, when he opened his eyes he stared down at the leaves swirling around in his cup and the words slipped out of his mouth.
He didn't dare look up at first, he felt a bit like a small boy again – waiting to be scolded, standing outside his father's office as a servant told him of how his son was "playing with swords again" when he was supposed to practicing his fire bending.
Iroh's silence continued for much longer than Zuko thought normal and so he snuck a glance at his Uncle only to see that the Dragon of the West was staring at him, eyes wide with surprise, his mouth slightly open.
"Zuko…" he said, his voice low and hushed. He blinked and shook his head as if to shake away the look of wonder on his face.
"I take it," he said, his voice returning somewhat to normal, "that you are privy to this information because…" He trailed off and learned in close with raised eyebrows.
Zuko, a bit overcome by his Uncle's reaction, could only manage a quick nod at first.
"Yeah..." He managed to say, a bit hoarsely, "I… I'm…" But he found he couldn't quite get the words out.
"The father of her child?" Iroh supplied, with only a hint of gentle mocking in his voice.
"Yeah," he said, and the weight of that word settled on his shoulders. He had spent so much time worrying about just getting to her, that he hadn't really allowed himself to think about the reality of it. Katara was having his child. He was going to be a father.
"Uncle," he said as the panic began to properly spread through his body. "What am I going to do?"
Iroh seemed not to notice his nephew's silent struggle and was up and rummaging through one of his bags.
"Well," said Iroh, throwing random clothing and supplies out of the bag as he searched, "For starters, you should probably ask the girl to marry you."
Zuko ran a hand over his face and felt like laughing and crying at the same time.
"I've asked. She's refused."
"You have to be persistent about these things Nephew. If at first you don't succeed—"
"This isn't first time I've – Uncle, I've asked her a hundred times! I've been asking her for years! She's so damnstubborn."
Iroh stopped his hunt and looked over at Zuko, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
"Nephew, now that we're talking openly about this, may I ask exactly how many years you and Miss Katara have been… Involved?"
Zuko felt his face heat up.
"I – Uncle does that really matter right now?"
"Allow an old man this one curiosity."
"As if all of your spies don't know already," he grumbled, under his breath.
"Not all of them," Iroh applied, with a casual sort of air – as if he were discussing the weather – that made Zuko roll his eyes. "A select trustworthy few. But they have never quite gotten the timeline down."
Zuko fidgeted. He didn't have to tell his Uncle anything of course but now that the truth was out, he felt awkward – this washis sex life after all – but also compelled to tell Iroh everything. Iroh always seemed to have this effect on him. When he thought about it he realized that if his Uncle had ever outright asked him about his and Katara's relationship he probably would have blurted out every detail.
But he had never asked. Never directly anyway. Iroh would give him little teasing looks when he stumbled into a gathering exactly five minutes after Katara, still smoothing down his hair or tucking in his shirt. At social events, while surrounded by large groups of people he would loudly say, "Myhow lovely Master Katara looks this evening. Wouldn't you agree Nephew?" And then sip his tea with a smirk while Zuko stammered some neutral reply.
He had clearly known something was going on. But he'd never pushed Zuko. Instead he had taken a lesson from the Earth Benders, and waited and listened.
So, because he felt he owed his Uncle that much, Zuko counted up the years in his head.
"It's been… About six years."
Iroh gaped at him for a moment and then burst out laughing.
"I'm glad you find this all so amusing," Zuko said, crossing his arms in an irritated manner, as Iroh finally pulled out a small corked bottle from his bag.
"I'm sorry Nephew, it's just that – six years," he shook his head as he uncorked the bottle and poured a clear liquid into their empty teacups. "I'm surprised I don't have a whole gaggle of grand-niece's and nephews by now."
"We've been careful," Zuko muttered. "Well… we had been careful."
He pinched the bridge of nose and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
"Here nephew," Iroh said holding out one of the teacups to his nephew.
Zuko sniffed it cautiously.
"What is this?"
"The finest liquor the desert has to offer. But first, a toast!"
"Uncle, I don't think—"
"It is not everyday that one learns they are to be a father," Iroh's voice had gone very soft and serious. He put a warm hand on Zuko's shoulder, squeezing gently. "To be a father is one of the greatest things a man can do. You are about to embark on an incrediblejourney, my nephew."
"Uncle, I'm… I'm terrified."
"That's how you're supposed to feel, Nephew. But, Zuko, remember this is why we fight. For our children – our families – for those we love. That is why we run into harm's way. And that is why we will win this war one day, my Prince. Because we have not forgotten the true source of our strength."
Zuko could only nod at this, the tight feeling in his chest prevented him from speaking properly.
Iroh held up his cup once more and Zuko clinked his own against it.
Iroh took a small sip, but Zuko downed the whole thing in one go.
"Spirits!" Zuko said almost immediately. "Ugh, Uncle, that is disgusting."
"The desert can only offer so much nephew."
"Damn it, it's like Momo peed in my mouth."
Iroh laughed again, as Zuko stood.
"Not having another drink then, Nephew?"
"No." He replied, his expression sour, "Even if that wasn't the worst thing I have ever tasted in my entire life, I have to go. I need to apologize. And somehow trick her into matrimony."
He turned for the door.
"I'd wait on that for a bit nephew." He said as he started to look through his bag once again.
"No, Uncle, trust me, with Katara it's best to fix things sooner rather than later."
"Of course nephew, but before you do that," he pulled a large bar of soap from his bag. "I can't speak for Lady Katara specifically, but generally women prefer it when apologizing men do not smell."
"There's an odor Nephew."
"Give me the soap."
The assassin's knife is quick but he is quicker. He is ready for it – his attacker had projected every move and he knows with one quick, calculated blast of flame the weapon will be dropped it's owner across the room – rendered harmless. He is about to implement this plan – his feet planted, his fist warming – when the blade is water-whipped from the assassin's grip. And before Zuko can blink the man is frozen to the opposite wall.
He turns with surprise, his mouth slightly open, to Katara who is counting on her fingers.
"So that's… forty seven to your thirty nine. Hm. Interesting." She smiles her impish smile, shrugs, and then turns on her heels and strides out of the room.
The other rebels move around him, unfreezing the assassin from the wall, talking fast, asking the man how he got in, who sent him, what he had told them and so on. But the Fire Prince, the supposed victim of the attack can only stare at the doorway in which the waterbender has just exited – looking completely offended.
When a Sage approaches and asks is he's all right, he mutters, "I'm perfectly fine," before he takes off after her.
"No." he says as he catches up to her.
"You're welcome, by the way," she replies breezily.
"First of all It's not forty seven, it's forty four."
"Ha! You wish." She's so smug, it makes his blood boil.
"And I don't have thiry nine," he says with authority. "I have forty one."
"You do not." She stops in the middle of the cramped corridor, hands on her hips, looking at him with her little satisfied smile. "Spirits, Zuko you are such a terrible loser."
"I am not, you're just a blatant cheater."
"A cheater?" She laughs. "How am I cheater?"
"You – how – this is – first of all, that—" he gestures wildly in the direction of the room they'd just left, "does not count."
"What?" She yells, legitimately confused. "How does that not count?"
"I would have got him."
"Oh Zuko," She turns and walks away from him again, "You just can't take that I'm better at this than you are."
He follows, of course, "Better? Better!"
"Yeah, ok, keep telling that to yourself."
"I will. Because it's true. forty one? Please. You wish."
"I know, because I don't cheat."
"Ok hotpants," she pauses in her speech, as she turns a corner, to give Toph's nickname its proper punch. "When did these miraculous extra three life saving events take place? Hm?"
"One," He says actually holding out one accusing finger, "The falling rocks at the western air temple."
"Oh come on," she laughs again. "We're counting that now? That was so long ago."
"Yes. We are. Because they would have crushed you and you would have died, ergo I saved your life and it counts."
"Fine, you can have that one-"
"I can have it?"
"Oh great. Thank you so much Master Katara for that generous gift."
"You are welcome."
Smoke actually comes out of ears.
She stops again, spinning around to face him. He stops just short of bumping into her and they are standing very, very close and damn it she is smiling in that way that she does and he can't speak.
"Zuko, you know what you need to learn to be a good Fire Lord?" and she is speaking much too softly and leaning in too near to him for him to respond properly so he just shakes his head. He stares at her lips and tries his best not to imagine how they taste.
"What?" he asks, breathless.
"That water benders are better at saving people's lives than fire benders, which means I am much better at it than you are. And the sooner you accept that, the better you'll feel."
Her eyes flick down to his lips as well, almost too quick for him to see. But he does.
"Got it?" She asks, with somewhat less confidence – a hint of a crack in voice that wasn't there before.
"Good." And she nods too. They both nod – too much and for too long – before she suddenly gains control of herself and spins around again – walking away from him once more.
He stands there for a moment watching her go – as frozen as that assassin was.
But he recovers.
"Wait – what?"
"You heard me," she yells over her shoulder and he starts after her once more.
"What does that even have to do with being Fire Lord?"
"It just does Zuko."
Her laughter fills the corridor.
She saw him before he saw her. He was knocking at her door – he'd cleaned up, hair washed, face scrubbed, beard trimmed. She would have thought he looked handsome if she hadn't been so pissed at him, still.
She too had angrily wandered the passages of the Beetle in the aftermath of their argument. She'd gone to the infirmary, but had found the place calm and properly staffed for once. Malai had spotted her across the room and, seeing Katara's irritated expression, given her a questioning look. Katara had only managed a frustrated shrug at the doctor.
So, she'd grabbed a few supplies she knew she would need later and left before Malai could catch and interrogate her.
She was nearly back to her room when she heard a noise that made her stop. She looked to her left to see one of the enormous Beetle statues that were frequent in this wing of the ruin. The sound had seemed to come from behind it.
Cautiously, one hand on her water skin, she approached the statue. She peeked around it to see that there was a small dark space between the statue and the wall – a space filled Nuka and a firenation boy her age, fiercely making out.
"Nuka!" She said in surprise, before she could stop herself.
Nuka and boy jumped apart immediately, the boy hitting his head against the statue in the process.
"Ow," said the boy.
"Master Katara! What are you – how – " stammered Nuka.
"We were just…uh…. This is Kyo." She pointed at the boy, apparently at a loss as to what else to do.
"It's an honor to meet you, Lady Katara," said Kyo in a nervous, rushed sort of way as he bowed to her.
"Hello," she said, unsure of how to proceed.
"Kyo was just leaving," Nuka cut in.
"I was?" Said Kyo, bewildered, looking over at Nuka.
"Yes," Said Nuka through gritted teeth. "You were."
"Oh – right, yeah, I, um. Yes. I have to go. Right now. Things to do. It was nice meeting you."
He bowed again, hurriedly, and then started to nearly run away before he stopped short and turned back.
"I'll see you later?" He said to Nuka.
"Get out of here!" Nuka yelled, her face red with embarrassment.
"Right, sorry." And he sprinted away.
When he was gone Nuka mumbled something about Malai needing her and attempted to leave, but Katara grabbed her arm. Thinking of her own fire nation boy and the predicament they had found themselves in, she began the awkward sex talk that Nuka had hoped to escape.
"Do you understand?" Katara asked at the end and Nuka nodded, although her eyes remained fixed on the ground.
"Alright. Good. You can go now."
Nuka sighed with relief and quickly moved to leave when a thought struck Katara.
"Wait, Nuka –"
Nuka stopped, looking back at Katara with legitimate fear in her eyes.
"Is he nice?"
Nuka blinked. "What?"
"Kyo. Is he nice to you? Do you get along?"
Nuka made very typical teenage face – the sort that asked why are adults so clueless?
"Yeah," she said, "He's really nice."
Nuka gave her another weird look.
"Can I go now?"
After Nuka had fled and Katara was alone, walking back to her room, she allowed herself to think about him – of how infuriating he could be and how sweet too.
But he was wrong. Too much was at stake. Why couldn't he see the bigger picture? And how dare he leave like that! How dare he walk away from her like that – he knew how she hated that.
So, when he saw him there at her door, neatly groomed and looking quite contrite, her anger and affection briefly wrestled.
Anger won of course.
He knocked again at her door and then noticed her watching him.
But she avoided his eyes. She went to her door and he stepped back as she opened it, as if the aura of her rage might have burned him.
She went inside, leaving the door open behind her. He stayed in the doorway, unsure. She started to unpack the supplied she got from the infirmary.
"You going to stand out there?" She said, still refusing to look at him.
She heard him mutter something as he came inside and closed the door behind him.
They stood across the room from each other. The silence was crushing.
Finally he spoke.
"You don't get to that again." She interrupted, her tone harsh.
"Do what?" He asked, feeling his ire rise.
"Leave. You don't get to leave."
"Katara," he said carefully, jaw clenched. "Don't you see that, that is exactly what you're asking me to do?"
"No it is not!" She reeled back as if he had threatened her.
"Yes it is! You want me to pretend that it isn't happening – that it isn't my child!"
"No." she said fiercely, "That is notwhat I want, Zuko."
"Then what do you want?" He asked, his voice rising.
"I don't know!" She shouted. "I don't –" But she felt herself losing control, her throat constricting with emotion. She covered her mouth and shook her head, stubbornly trying to push back the tears she felt coming.
He stepped forward, his hands going to reach for her before he could stop himself. But she put a hand up to stop him, not ready to give it up.
"I just –" she managed to say, sounding so strained and weak that what anger she had left was now focused on how her voice could betray her in such a way.
"I just," she started again, pushing through. "I thought – when I started getting sick and then when I pieced it all together and I was sure, I… I don't know, I thought – I thought that if you just got here – I don't know, I don't know what I thought."
She looked up at him, finally, and his brow was furrowed and he looked so lost.
"Zuko, I have no idea – I'm so –" But she couldn't control it anymore and clapped her hand over her mouth again as a sob escaped and she felt those hot stupid tears on her cheeks.
"Hey," he said as went to her and gathered her to him. "Hey, it's ok."
"I'm scared," she managed to say into his chest.
"I am too. But it going to ok. We're going to figure this out."
He rubbed her back but that, along with his soft words, only seemed to make her cry harder. For so long she had been holding this all inside. Keeping it together, pushing the panic down, smiling for her friends and family when all she wanted to do was freak out.
"We're going to figure this out," he said again, in the firm determined way he sometimes said things – things he knew to be true and absolute.
"We've been through worse than this," he added, gently.
She laughed through her tears.
"When?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Well," he said with a hint of a smile, "I havesaved your life four hundred and thirty eight times."
She groaned and buried her face into his chest, wiping away her tears on his tunic (which was, thankfully, a cleaner one). She hugged him tight and sagged against him.
"Four hundred and thirty three times," she said, tiredly.
"You heard me. And I'm still winning by fifteen times."
"You –" He stopped himself, resignedly shaking his head as she shook with laughter against him.
"You," he whispered, as he cupped her cheek and leaned in close, "are an impossible water bender."
"And you," she whispered back, standing up on her tip toes to better reach him, "are an awfully sore loser."
He kissed her then and she was very glad, for it had been such a long time since he had done that.
After a bit she pulled back from the kiss only to have him follow her and steal another small one.
"I got you a present," she whispered.
"Yeah?" he asked, his eyebrow quirking in interest.
"Not that," She replied, rolling her eyes. She pulled away from him and went to the supplies she'd brought from the infirmary. He stayed close to her, moving when she moved, never more than a step behind. He looked on with interest as held up a glass bottle in front of his face.
"Your eye solution."
"You said you needed some."
"That was excuse to steal you away."
"So you don't need any?"
He thought about it. When was the last time he'd used that? His eye did feel pretty dry.
"Probably," he said after a moment.
She sighed in exasperation.
"Sit down," she ordered and he obeyed.
She unscrewed the cap and he watched as she bent a few drops out.
He looked up. He didn't much like putting liquids into his eye, but she insisted and he did his best not to blink as she leant over him and dropped the solution into his bad eye. The sensation was, as usual, odd and unconsciously he reached up to rub at it but she swatted his hand away.
"There," she said, screwing the top back on. "Doesn't that feel better?"
"Yes, much better," he said, obligingly.
"You need to use this everyday," she lectured, shaking the little bottle in front of his face.
"You know, I managed to take of myself before you came along with your fancy eye solutions," he said as he grabbed her by the hips and gently pulled her down to him.
"Yeah and I bet your eye itched constantly." She wrapped her arms around his neck and sighed as he kissed her neck.
"Yes," he said against her skin. "Yes it did."
She tangled her fingers into his hair and kissed the spot just above his scarred ear. He rubbed her back again, in slow circles. She pulled away from him a bit and took his hand from her back to her lower abdomen – to her womb.
"We need to talk about this," she whispered.
"We will," he said kissing her mouth again. "Tomorrow."
He nodded, "I promise."
In the morning, he made her of some the tea that Iroh gave him the day before.
"It's supposed to help with the nausea," he told her as he handed her the steaming cup. After she finished it he'd lain back down with her and rubbed her belly in a soothing way, and for the first time in weeks she didn't have morning sickness.
He was pulling her on top of him, kissing her in a determined manner, when suddenly the door to her room swung open.
They scrambled to cover themselves – completely panicked. But then Katara saw who it was.
Toph dropped her heavy bag to ground and threw the door closed behind her. Wordlessly she went to the other sleeping mat in the room and flopped down onto it.
"We're roommates sweetness. Sparky can stay but you can't have sex while I'm here. Ok?"
"Oh, uh," they shared a look. "Ok."
"Great... I'm exhausted," she said and almost immediately fell asleep.