Chapter 24: Here Comes the Sun
"There's no such thing as 'relationship problems,' or 'marriage problems,' Prince Zuko," his uncle had told him once. "There are just the individual personal problems we bring into our marriages or relationships, and now it is no longer just us handling them, but an entirely new person. Once you have children, it becomes your children and spouse's problem. Remember that."
He spent a lot of time thinking about what Iroh had said, and the more he considered the issues between himself and Katara, the more it dawned on him that... the old man might actually be onto something.
With summer fast approaching, it had become more and more obvious his relatives back home were interested in planning his ceremony in the Fire Nation. The fortuneteller had already set aside an auspicious day for the event and the invitations had been sent out worldwide to anyone who had any kind of weight in the global arena of politics. Which meant the Avatar would be there, which meant he would have to face that nasty early hiccup in his marriage.
The good news was that Katara didn't seem like she was actively trying to sabotage their marriage anymore. Actually, she seemed to be putting in twice the work as normal. She asked about his day, helped him untangle fishing nets, and actually spoke to him as her equal, which was shocking enough. As Toph liked to put it, Katara really let the title of "princess" go to her head sometimes.
Nothing was in comparison to this morning in particular, however.
"Good morning," Suki greeted pleasantly as Zuko stumbled into the dining area. She was growing plumper by the day, her cheeks rosy and glowing, though her belly was covered with the large parka she was wearing. It would be hard to tell how pregnant she was, probably up until the day she was ready to deliver, while she was here in the South Pole.
"Good morning," he grumbled, rubbing his eyes. The end of the polar nights were on the horizon; Zuko was over the moon, no pun intended, at the prospect of sunrises. In fact, he was quite certain even if the sun's presence lasted a grand total of 5 seconds, he would do a backflip of pure ecstasy.
"Ugh," she groaned. "Sea prunes again, Sokka?"
"What? They're even better the second day!" her husband insisted.
"I just don't want them," she said, hopping up and storming out of the room.
"I don't get it. Sea prunes are the best kind of breakfast food there are!" Sokka said, looking at Zuko for support as his wife's figure disappeared down the corridor.
"She's pregnant," Pakku said crisply.
"So? Pregnant women have to eat something. She's eating for more than one, now," Sokka retorted, going to wave the stew spoon about and slinging it practically everywhere.
"Will you cool it?" Katara said, snatching the ladle from her brother's hand after she entered the room and saw the spectacle of projectile stew.
"How can I can get any cooler while I'm in the South Pole?" Sokka replied before cackling at his own joke.
It felt like the entire table did a collective facepalm when Zuko took it upon himself to try to reason with his apparently clueless brother-in-law.
"Well, Sokka, a lot of women are sensitive to particular mood swings when they're with child," he said, a blush creeping up on his cheeks as he said it.
"Oh yeah? What do you know about pregnant women?" Sokka said, plopping down and shoving a huge spoonful of stew in his mouth.
"I help Katara a lot in the healing hut, and many women who are pregnant have this symptom," Zuko answered.
"Well, ladeedah," came from Sokka, which Zuko took to mean his resignation in the debate.
"Shouldn't you check on Suki?" Katara asked, returning the ladle to the pot.
"Oh!" Sokka jumped up and chased after his wife, as if he had forgotten her current predicament.
Katara and Zuko both pinched the bridge of their noses, and exhaled deeply.
"I fear for that child," Katara said. "Suki's great but Sokka... is such a goof."
"Tell me about it," Zuko shook his head.
"Sea prunes?" she asked, holding her hand out for his bowl.
"Oh, thanks," he said, passing it to her. When she smiled and passed it back, he had begun eating before he had realized the exchange that just took place. It was so small a gesture, and so innocuous, he would have missed it if something in his brain hadn't clicked at that exact moment.
Never, ever, had Katara even once genuinely offered to serve Zuko food at any point in their betrothal or engagement. She may have passed the occasional piece of seal jerky, or even served him for ceremonial purposes. Zuko had served Katara food many times. But not once had she done it out of genuine kindness that she would to a friend or family member that she greatly cared for. A lot of the time, she would serve everyone but Zuko and then come up with some lame excuse of how she doesn't know how much he eats so she didn't want to serve him too much or too little.
"Thank you, Katara," he said again, looking up at her.
"You're welcome," she gave a small smile before looking back at her bowl.
"Tell me what your home is like." Katara asked, using her hands to circulate a glowing water around a small infant.
"The palace? It's a palace. There are servants and maids and cooks and really way too many rooms for how many people live there," Zuko said, leaning back against the wall of the hut. Sometimes Katara required help in handling the tribespeople she worked with (especially adult men), and being her husband, he was one of the few men who was able to watch her work after he had finished his chores.
In this case, it was simply a baby, so no heavy lifting required. Those were usually times when Katara and he talked, mostly about unimportant things, but they still talked in a pleasant, non-hostile and non-aggressive fashion. Zuko wondered if this was how most marriages worked - the normal kind, not political ones.
"No, silly. Just... whatever felt like home to you. It can be a place, or a person, or... anything, really," she said.
"There's this place we used to go," Zuko said after a moment of silence. He closed his eyes tightly, as if it helped him focus the memory more clearly. "My mother, sister, and I mostly. Dad came when we were really young... and then he just stopped going, period. But anyway, we'd go and play on the beach all day and swim in the water, make sandcastles, chase the waves. My mom and I would stay up late, reading Love Amongst the Dragons, and she'd make us warm moon peach cider before bed."
"That sounds delicious," Katara said.
"Yeah, it was really good. Azula's favorite, actually. I'm pretty sure she still drinks it before bed to this day," he chuckled a bit, remembering his sister as the innocent four year old child she had been long ago. "But the best part was waking up, right before the sunrise. The sky would glow, this beautiful color. Kind of like hot embers on a fire that was starting to go out. It would just spread across the sky in the most beautiful shades of rose, orange, and yellow. The ocean was calming, and the combination of sound from the waves and birds... that was home."
"I can't wait to see it," she said.
"You'd love it, I think. I hope," he replied, opening his eyes to meet hers. "I haven't been since my mom passed."
"Well, this time you won't be going alone."
"That's right," he said. "I have a wife now."
"And a whole lot of people from the South Pole who want to go see the beach," she teased.
"As if I could forget," Zuko replied.
Katara wrinkled her nose and tapped her finger to her lips as the infant stirred. "I think whatever was bothering his stomach and making him sick will no longer plague him, but there's still the issue of his body temperature."
"Still low?" Zuko asked, sitting up at attention.
"Yeah, a bit," she said, placing a hand on his cheek. "I have an idea."
"I can warm up some blankets?" he offered, trying to guess what her idea was.
"No, something better," Katara said. Lifting the baby up in her arms, and cradling him in her arms, she walked towards him. "Hold out your arms."
"No way," he said, crossing his arms instantly. "I can't hold babies. I don't know how. That's not my kid. What if I drop it or something?"
"Okay, first of all, this is a 'he,' not an 'it.' And secondly, you're not going to drop him, because I'm right here."
"But Katara, I just don't think this is a good idea," he protested a bit.
She gave him a pointed look. "Lo and behold, the mighty Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation can't even hold a baby. What a fearsome warrior you are."
"I'm holding you responsible," he groaned, holding out his arms.
"Remember to support his head," she said gently, placing the baby in his arms.
He fidgeted a bit, trying to adjust his arms and position of his hands to the new figure in his arms. The baby was slightly cold to the touch, but had a sense of peace about him.
"Bring him close to you, it's the best way for us to warm him up," she said, nudging the baby closer to Zuko's core.
It was strange, and yet... comforting. Were all babies like this? To be honest, the only person he had held was his sister and what was with his mother breathing down his neck - in a loving but caring way. It kind of freaked him out holding the infant, and yet it was strangely calming.
"He's... so small," Zuko said, shifting a bit.
"He's only a few weeks old," Katara reminded gently.
"Right," he mumbled.
"You're doing great," she smiled supportively. "Might make a good father one day."
A blush crept up on his cheeks but he frowned a bit, "I don't think being able to hold a baby is the only stipulation for good parenting."
"No, but... it's a start."
"Why do you think you'll be a terrible father?" she asked.
He looked up, "I don't."
"Yeah, you do. You may not say it, but it's practically written on your forehead," she folded her arms and tapped her foot a bit. "Is it your dad?"
"No, I just never saw myself having kids."
"I'm not buying that. Of course you saw yourself having kids. There's no way you'd be getting away with not having kids. Spit it out."
"I don't want to talk about it, Katara."
"I'm your wife, you should talk to me."
"When a few weeks ago, I'm pretty sure you were plotting my demise," he snapped in a hushed whisper.
"Why are you being so defensive?" Katara's shoulders slumped a bit and she looked rather defeated. "I'm just trying to have a conversation."
"About something I don't want to discuss; you can't beat stuff out of people."
"And you can't keep stuff bottled up all the time," she pinched the bridge of her nose and then ran a hand over her smooth braid. "If you want to shut me out, that's fine. But I'm just trying to help."
Zuko turned his attention back to the baby. "I'm not a baby, I don't need help."
"Everyone needs help, Zuko," she sighed. "Just because we can walk and talk and feed ourselves and catch our own food doesn't mean we need help any less than that infant does. We can't handle the world on our own. Why do you think we live in communities and work together?"
"I'm just not ready to talk about being a father," he admitted.
"Well, I'm not exactly pregnant yet, so that's not an immediate concern," Katara replied.
Zuko scoffed, "Yeah, yeah."
"And no one is pressuring you to be a father yet, either," she reminded him, placing a reassuring hand over his. "It'll all be okay."
For a moment, holding that small but precious life in his arms, something inside Zuko felt the same.
Zuko's eyes snapped up from his work in the igloo with the fishing tools in a moment. He could feel it. He jumped up, dropping everything into a giant mess of netting, hooks, and lines, and ran with what felt like full speed with Sokka crying out behind him.
"Heeeey! Just where do you think you're going!?"
Zuko was so excited he didn't even bother to reply, and almost tripped over a small child and his sister running towards the highest point in the South Pole. He couldn't miss it; he wouldn't miss it.
"Woah! Where's the fire?" Suki asked, as he brushed by her, cocking her head to the side.
"There!" he pointed in a general direction, and gave what must have been the first genuine laugh in a long time.
"There? Where?" she looked up, trying to see signs of smoke, then smiled. "Oh."
He picked up the pace as fast as he could, trying not to slip and slide right into the canals or into a huge snow drift. He had been looking forward to this day, and he found himself smiling and laughing louder than he ever had before. It was almost as if some sort of hysterical, happy spirit had just infected his entire body.
"Zuko," Katara said, smiling as he finished climbing to the top of the stairs for the lookout.
"Katara," he exhaled, nearly out of breath. "The-the-"
"I know," she nodded.
And though it was just a small peak of orange, glowering over the horizon, Zuko immediately decided it was the most beautiful sunrise he had ever seen, and that it would be the first of many he and his wife would share.
A/N: Wow. I suck. I'm so sorry. My life just blew up in my face over the past year. I have less than no excuse why I kind of abdicated this story. lol. Long story short, I graduated, some stuff happened, I decided to go back to school because I want to go to medical school, then my grandmother died in July, and a few other crappy things happened, blah blah blah, no one wants to hear my personal drama. Anyway, I'm back, and this concludes Polar Nights. Yes, yes, it's not exactly the big kiss and hanky panky (not that I write smut anyway) a lot of people were expecting, but there's a lot of optimism and hope for Zuko and Katara, eh? There WILL be a sequel called Midnight Sun. I don't have exactly a predetermined release date for it yet (I dedicate an inhumane amount of time towards studying for the MCAT), so I want to make sure that I have enough written ahead for MS before I post it that way in case I fall behind in writing you guys aren't hanging in limbo like this one.
Thank you all for your support; Polar Nights ended up being more popular than I ever expected or hoped it would!