posted April 25, 2010
A distant noise and the slight change of pressure warned Katara that the front door had opened, waking her from a comfortable doze. She stirred and felt Zuko rouse behind her.
"Kids are home," he murmured, and kissed her bare shoulder.
He kissed her shoulder again, then rolled away as the basement door creaked open and Xumei clattered down the stairs. "Daddy!" she shrieked, and threw herself onto the bed – then sat back, eyes wide with surprise as she saw Katara. "Are you sleeping with Daddy now?"
Katara struggled to keep a straight face as beside her Zuko made a strangled noise. "I did last night, honey." Technically true, she thought, and wished she could see Zuko's expression. "And maybe in the future, too, if you and Zhang don't mind."
Xumei smiled shyly. "I don't mind."
Katara couldn't help but grin in response.
Zuko cleared his throat. "We'll be up in a couple minutes, sweetie. How about you go show your mother the chickens?"
Xumei's smile widened. "Okay!"
Zuko flopped back against the mattress after she scampered back up the stairs, threw one arm over his eyes, traced his fingers over Katara's back with the other.
"That went well." She kept her voice light, hid her smile when he snorted.
"Xumei likes everyone. Zhang won't be so easy. Takes after his father."
"I know." She rolled over to face him, trail her fingers across his lips. "I think I'm up to the challenge."
Zuko ignored Mai's knowing look as he opened the basement door, stepped forward to greet his children. He pulled both Zhang and Xumei close, but overheard Katara's awkward greeting. "You'll stay for dinner, right?"
Mai paused and when she spoke her voice was equally awkward, but her answer filled Zuko with relief. "Of course."
Later, the doorbell rang as Zuko worked in the kitchen. "Can anyone get the door?" he called, but no one answered. Playing on the damn swings, he thought affectionately. He wiped his hands on his apron and opened the door. "Uncle?"
"Forgive an old man his whimsy, Zuko, but I took the liberty of inviting myself to dinner." Iroh paused, peered around the corner. "Is there a hostess I can give my greetings to?"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "I'll introduce you to Katara. I'm making dinner though. Did you drive all the way here? For dinner?"
"Ah, nephew – when you are my age, you will understand. Now." Iroh clapped his hands. "I believe introductions are in order?"
"Oh my god, Sokka, that's like half a cow – let Zhang serve himself!"
"We're men, Katara, and we require meat. Right Zhang?"
"More wine, Iroh?"
"Please. It is a fine vintage, Hakoda – and such a fine setting to enjoy it in."
"What agency did you say you worked for?"
"I didn't." Mai glanced coolly at Suki, then smiled. "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
Suki laughed, no trace of tension in the sound. "I'll keep my guesses to myself, then."
"This isn't chicken, is it? I don't eat chicken any more, Daddy."
"I know, sweetie. It's not chicken."
Mai tucked both children into bed that night. Her face held love and pride and sadness as she descended the stairs, but Zuko found his own heart clear. Where once he would have said "Leaving?" in an acid tone, now he simply waited.
"Thanks for being there for them, Zuko. And… for being there… for me."
Her face held regret, now, and part of him still wanted to reach up, smooth the expression away with his fingers. Instead, he lay his hand on her shoulder. "I think you've demonstrated you're here for us, too." He arched his brow, tried to make his voice light, and she smiled, lay her hand on his for a moment. She squeezed it once and her eyes glimmered in the dim light, then she dropped her hand and stepped away. Zuko crossed his arms and waited.
When she spoke, her voice was all business again, but for the first time the shift didn't leave him angry and hurt. "I'm sure you've heard by now that your old department will be extending their offer of a promotion to you." He hadn't, but he wasn't surprised. "The police department in this… municipality will also prove interested in hiring you, should you so wish."
"Will they, now?"
She shrugged, then grinned, so quickly he barely saw it, but he smiled. "Thanks, Mai." She responded by hugging him briefly.
"Take care of them, Zuko." She nodded towards the kitchen. "And let her take care of you, sometimes." She smiled, then, a real smile. "I like her. I almost envy her." She patted his cheek and Zuko scowled. "I know where to find you." He opened the door for her, then watched as she walked down the drive, waved before she pulled away.
Katara soon found him. "Did Mai leave?"
"What were you talking about?"
Zuko shrugged. "The future, I think."
"What'd she say?"
"Not much." He stepped forward, slid his hands along her waist. "I think she told me she approved of my choices."
"I don't know yet." Zuko returned her scowl with a smirk. "Well… maybe there's one."
"Good." Katara leaned into him. "Me, too."
Author's note: Good gods, I finished a mult-chapter fic. That's right baby – fifteen chapters in fifteen days. I should buy a lottery ticket while my luck holds.
I hope to have more detailed author's notes up in my LiveJournal soon, but for now I'm going to go play in my garden.