Disclaimer: Don't own.
A/N: Written for the Zutara Secret Santa over on lj. This is for jesterry who is an amazing artist and everyone should go find her work on deviantart. Thank you to Incognito for betaing!
Zuko reads the name on the list of former prisoners who still need medical care before they can be released. He's stunned. If his subordinates are to be believed, this soldier has to be quite the fighter to have survived this long.
He leaves his office and changes into plain clothes (being the Fire Lord does have its benefits but lacks subtlety). He goes to see the healing soldier, who sits up straighter, despite the raised position of his leg. Zuko's face always precedes him.
He asks the prone man "you're Sensu, son of Gansu?"
"Yes, ah—" the man hesitates.
Zuko can see the indecision on his face.
"Sir is fine. I'd say Zuko is fine but I don't think others would agree." He's used to titles of respect but having to explain what he has to be called is awkward. "You have a little brother named Lee, correct?"
The man's eyes go wide. "How do you know, sir?"
Zuko's not exactly sure how to answer. "I, well, your family is very kind." He's going to have to get better with words very quickly if he wants to be a good Fire Lord.
"Especially to travelers, sir," Sensu adds, and Zuko's notes the accusation in his tone.
"They are," Zuko agrees, "much more than they should be. I want to thank them for that but, well, I didn't have anything to give them." He doesn't mention that his gift was returned.
"I'll bring them anything you want to give."
"Thank you," he rubs the back of his neck. After a short pause he asks, "How's your leg?" gesturing to the injury. He can hear his uncle groan at how awkward Zuko's voice sounds.
"Had to be re-broken. It didn't set right the first time, sir." Unspoken is thebecause I was healing in prison part of his story.
Zuko nods and abruptly exits; his conversation skills are still lacking.
Back at his office he writes to the only person he can think of who would want to help him with the insane idea that's forming in his mind.
She arrives a week later; much sooner than he thought a reply from her would come.
"I was already in the Fire Nation," Katara tells him after drawing him into a hug.
"Did Aang come with you?" he asks.
Usually the Avatar blows through the halls to make his grand entrance. There hasn't even been a breeze since Katara arrived.
She looks everywhere but at his eyes. "I came by boat. It's amazing what you can do with a letter that bears the seal of the Fire Lord and his request for a visit."
"I didn't really ask you to visit. I asked for your advice and medical opinion."
"How can I accurately give that without seeing the patient? Your lack of details on the matter would make any advice I'd give be meaningless. Besides, you were going to ask me to visit in your next letter anyway."
She's right. He didn't want to ask her flat out to visit because he thought maybe his idea was too insane.
He waves a hand, gesturing her to take a seat while his servants take it as the order to leave. She looks at him questioningly.
"I really did want your medical opinion," he says.
"Both your legs look fine," she says as he sits down beside her and glares. "You know this will be easier if you just tell me everything now."
He sighs and runs his hand over his jaw. "Before Uncle and I went to Ba Sing Se, I did things that were necessary to survive."
He watches her eyes go wide.
"Did you kill someone?" she accuses.
"What? No. I stole an ostrich-horse, among other things." She narrows her eyes on him. "Well, the ostrich-horse was from someone who didn't deserve to be stolen from—, everything else was from people who could handle being without—-""
"What did Iroh say about this?" she asks through clenched teeth before crossing her arms.
"Everything you're thinking right now. I went off on my own and ended up staying with a family for a night."
He then tells her about Lee and the adoration he received from him. He also tells her that Lee's brother is the one with the leg Katara needs to take a look at. What he doesn't expect to tell her is how he wants to repay this family's kindness with a healthy son returned and a set of Dao swords for Lee. When he finishes his tale, he notes that her face has softened and her arms have gone slack.
"You want to ask forgiveness?"
"I'm already doing that on behalf of the Fire Nation."
She doesn't question.
He takes her to see the wounded. After looking over the more seriously injured—and grumbling about not being asked to come sooner—she meets the person she came to help.
"This is Master Katara," Zuko introduces Sensu. "She's going to take a look at your leg."
It's obvious that the man has never met a waterbender before; Zuko is sure of it. Sensu can't take his eyes off of Katara's water-gloved hands. He follows her every movement.
She clicks her tongue as she moves her hands over Sensu's leg. "I can feel the previous time this healed," she murmurs as the glow of the water intensifies. "I can repair it now but I have to say I think you're going to have a slight limp. Can you earthbend?"
He shakes his head.
"I can show you some stretches to help after I'm done." She smiles at the prone man, and Zuko feels something twinge inside him that he could almost call jealousy.
He decides to ignore it.
"We'll need three ostrich-horses and supplies," he tells her over dinner that night.
"Are you taking any guards with us?" she asks while picking through her noodles.
He smiles. "It's you and me; I think we can handle anything."
"All the same you might want to think about it. You're not the most popular person in the Earth Kingdom."
He knows this but thinks a large retinue would hinder rather than help.
"We'll take a Messenger Hawk with us then. There are still active colonies close to where we're going so I can message them if it looks like we'll need help."
The look she gives him tells him she disagrees but won't question him. They eat in silence until she asks the question he's been waiting for.
"She's visiting her parents again." This has become code for their break ups. Usually Mai comes back two weeks later. She's been gone for two months.
"Do you know when she'll be back?"
"No, I haven't even heard from her since she left."
"She sounds like Aang."
"I thought everything was good between you and him."
She keeps her head down and focused on her food. "Things haven't been good between us for a while. We were at the Western Air Temple cleaning it up and I suggested we stay there for a little while. He started listing all the other things we had to do and where we had to be and I, well, I kind of snapped and asked why we couldn't stay in one place for a bit and maybe go out on a real date and I don't know what else I said. We both just kept yelling at each other. I finally told him to drop me off in the nearest town and I'd get myself home. The whole ride on Appa was uncomfortable and I haven't heard from him since. That's why I was already in the Fire Nation when I got your letter. I've been working in the town since then."
He doesn't know what to say but his first thought is that Aang is a fool for letting her go.
"Katara and I are going with you," Zuko tells Sensu, as the man prepares to leave.
Zuko can see the hesitant movements of the staff and guards. They're all waiting for his reaction to the lack of respect.
"Because I have something I want to give your brother."
"I can take whatever it is for you."
"I guess you could but I want to go in person. It's something I have to do." He watches Sensu look him over. Zuko feels like he's being judged. Finally, the other man nods; there's nothing he can really do to stop Zuko.
"If my family doesn't want to see you, you have to promise to leave, no matter what."
"You have my word."
Later he tells Katara of his promise, and she assures him that everything will be all right.
The threesome takes a modest ship to the Earth Kingdom. There are a number of other soldiers on board as well, all desperate to go home. Zuko's not really sure specifically how these men are returning home but he knows there's something besides passage home that his nation is providing. It's times like these he wishes Sokka, Toph and Suki hadn't destroyed all those airships; flying these men home would be faster.
Katara charms her way into the kitchens. Zuko learns this when the cook tells him she's planned the meals for the rest of the trip and told him exactly how to stretch the food out in case of a serious delay. He's not sure whether to be impressed or to tell her she doesn't have to interfere. He decides to thank her for her concern and explain to her that her help isn't exactly needed. His argument dies in his throat when he finds her giving everyone a bending demonstration on deck in her wraps.
The pang inside him intensifies, and he convinces himself it's from something he ate.
Disguised as three travelers dressed in plain clothes of brown and green, they set out from one of the few remaining Fire Nation ports in the Earth Kingdom. Each has a bedroll attached to the saddle on his or her Ostrich Horse, as well as a supply of food. What else they carry varies: one has a crutch tied to his saddle, another has two sets of Dao swords—one on his back and another set on his hip—and wide hat covering his head. The third has water pouches crisscrossing her back, and a hawk discreetly follows them.
Katara is the one to suggest they stop before sunset to set up a camp for the night. Both the men agree—Zuko because he knows she has more experience with this than he does and Sensu because he genuinely wants to stop. As soon as they dismount Katara sets about assigning jobs: Zuko is to gather firewood and start a fire (easy enough); Sensu is to secure the ostrich-horses; Katara prepares the food.
After the fire is lit and tents erected, Zuko makes tea. He's better at it now than before and he actually kind of likes making it. It reminds him of Uncle.
He pours each of them a cup and serves them. He likes the look of surprise from Sensu because the Fire Lord is serving him tea. When he hands Katara her cup, his fingers linger a little longer on hers.
He tries to ignore Sensu's second look of surprise.
After a few days, their stops are routine. Zuko makes a fire and the tea, Sensu tends the animals (including the hawk), and Katara cooks the food. They share stories over dinner: Katara about growing up with Sokka, Zuko about some of the stranger customers in Ba Sing Se, and Sensu about how to care for the various kinds of pig hybrids his family raises. They're comfortable with each other now, so much so that when Katara leaves them for some "personal time" Zuko and Sensu find they can talk without her there.
"Did you always want to join the army?" Zuko asks after they sit down for tea.
"Not really. It never crossed my mind. I liked the farm and the animals. But the recruiters came through and I felt like I had a duty to serve." He sips his tea. "Everyone was so proud of me and Lee kept telling me how he couldn't wait to join as well. I spent the rest of the day trying to talk him out of it."
"From the little time I spent with him, I think he could do well in the army," Zuko says. "He's clever, stands up for what he thinks is right, and has a talent with swords. Or he can at least take directions well. He needs to work on asking too many questions though."
Sensu snorts. "He's always asked too many questions." They pause to drink more tea. "Did you ever want to be anything else than Fire Lord?"
Zuko doesn't answer right away. "I never even considered there would be a possibility I would be in this position until I was ten. Before that I always assumed my uncle would be next Fire Lord and then my cousin, and I'd either be a general in the army or an admiral in the navy."
"You had a choice?"
"Whichever my sister didn't want."
Sensu raised his eyebrows.
"She always got what she wanted, and it didn't matter that I'm older. I think the navy wouldn't have been half bad, though. Looking back, I didn't really mind living on my ship for three years, just why I had to in the first place." For a second Zuko is grateful Sensu doesn't ask about why he spent time on a ship.
"Being in the navy would be perfect for your waterbender."
"She's not my waterbender."
"Of course she's yours. You asked her to come take a look at me and come on this trip and she left her life to follow you."
"But she doesn't belong to me!" he yells. "She…she's supposed to be with Aang. She can't be mine."
"She can if you want her to be."
He doesn't know how to respond to that. They finish their tea by the time Katara comes back. He's silent the rest of the night; the other two don't seem to notice.
Zuko spends the next day's ride going over all the reasons why Sensu is wrong about Katara belonging to him. First, Katara can never belong to anyone; suggesting she could would get a person locked in a ball of ice. Second, she came to help him because he asked and they're just friends. Good friends. She's probably his best friend, if he were to admit it, but friends nonetheless. You can't own your friends. Third, he has no right to want her; he doesn't want her.
He tries to convince himself of the last part all day.
By late afternoon they've reached Sensu's town. Zuko keeps his head down as they take the road around the town and pulls back from the group. He's not sure how the family will react to him.
The ruckus that announces them brings the family running out. Their faces light up when they see their missing son and brother and run towards him. Sensu dismounts awkwardly and embraces all of them at once.
Zuko's sure this is how a family should react but knows only his uncle is ever happy to see him.
"I've brought some guests with me," Sensu announces, and Zuko tenses when the family look up at him.
It's Gansu who first speaks: "Thank you for bringing my son home, Fire Lord."
"Zuko," he says, "just Zuko. The ostrich-horse is yours, if you want. Oh, and these—" he takes the set of swords attached to his waist and offers them with outstretched arms "—are for Lee." Sela opens her mouth to object, and Zuko quickly adds, "When you think he's old enough for them, that is."
Lee smiles at the gift, and Sela nods, her shoulders relaxing.
"I'm about to start dinner. You and your girlfriend are welcome to join us and stay as long as you need."
He doesn't correct her and neither does Katara. Something inside him purrs at the thought of her being his girlfriend.
They leave after two days of Katara helping out with last minute checks on Sensu, as well as demonstrating Waterbending. It's two days of Zuko trying, once again, to help repair something. He's still useless at it.
When they get back on the road, his mind begins to wander back to Katara. She's practical, fierce, protective, stubborn and kind. She'd make a good Fire Lady. Or wife of the Avatar, he amends.
"It smells like rain," she comments casually. "We should camp now."
He nods and they both dismount to set up camp. He trusts her judgment explicitly. They get about halfway through setting up the first tent before it starts raining. Once they put up the rain tarp, they both take cover. Katara bends the water from the tent and their clothes and hands him some fruit before eating some herself. He smiles in thanks, and, after a while, she begins to shiver.
"Come here," he offers.
She hesitates for a second before coming over and snuggling into his right side. She smells like slightly like ostrich-horse, rain, and something he knows is only her.
It's a very pleasing scent.
He wakes the next morning to Katara curled up on his left side. Immediately he tries to think of ways to move her to his right side. He doesn't like people on his left for long periods of time and he knows she likes to sleep in late. He hates how her small complaint about a rock got him to move her across his body.
The part of himself that he's been trying to ignore warms the pit of his stomach because she's resting over his heart. That same part tells him he could get used to waking up like this. He wants to keep her.
Suddenly she stirs and opens her eyes, looking up at him. He hopes she'll kiss him. Instead she strokes his right arm. He's never known how sensitive his arm is.
"I've been thinking—"
That I should come live with you in the Fire Nation, Zuko adds in his head.
"—Did you do anything for the people you stole the ostrich-horse from?"
"I sent them a new one and some gold for their troubles."
"Good." She continues to stroke his arm, and he wants to keep her there forever. "I should apologize to Aang."
He stiffens. There's the reason why he can't have her. She's Aang's, if she belongs to anyone at all.
"I should apologize to Mai too." He feels her stiffen slightly.
"It's the right thing for us to do." She moves in closer, her leg curling over his.
His senses are filled with Katara.
"Yeah," is the best response he can come up with.
"Maybe you could invite him to the Fire Nation, you know, so I can talk to him in person."
He dares to hope. "You're staying in the Fire Nation?"
"I kind of like it. I think I'll stay for a little." She smiles at him. "Plus you have a whole hospital full of patients I can help."
He smiles. "I'll have to warn the doctors that you're taking over."
"I think they'll manage."
"We all will." And maybe he'll get to keep her.
A/N: Reviews are awesome, especially because I have to work retail today and it was my birthday last week.