bleeding gold






If Zuko hadn’t already known her name, he would have completely missed his grandfather’s announcing it. Usually one to pay careful attention to whatever his elder said, to better try and please his own father, it fell to a distance collision of syllables as he found himself transfixed. She sat directly across from him, and had exchanged her heavier Water Tribe clothes, for a sinh his mother had suggested he had sent to her rooms as a gift. Her advice had been excellent, because Katara looked lovely in it, and for the first time, he felt something strange catch in his throat.

He’d seen pretty Fire Nation girls before, of course, but there was something different about her. He didn’t think it was her eyes; though their blue was startlingly clear, he’d seen plenty of pretty Water Tribe girls, too. The families of Northern dignitaries often accompanied them, and he’d been called on to entertain a good number of them as part of his duties as a Prince.

Was it the way the pink of the flower complimented her dress and brought out russet warmth in her cheeks? Was it how surprisingly good the red of her sabai looked on her? Was it—

His mother’s nudge cut through his thoughts, and he tore his gaze away from Katara, feeling heat flood his cheeks. Despite his embarrassment, Zuko mustered a small smile for her, even though he didn’t really feel it. All this was too overwhelming, all at once. He’d been warned by his mother to expect this, but even so he wasn’t truly prepared. It was all he could do to find his voice to speak.

“I—-would like to humbly offer a bowl of dragon sake,” Zuko said, remembering what was expected of him to do. He picked up a porcelain flask decorated with gold and copper designs that flashed in the torchlight.

Holding a folded cloth just below the spout, he poured a few ounces of liquid into a bowl similarly decorated. Once he finished and set the flask and cloth aside, Zuko picked up the bowl of sake and held it out to Katara, unable to meet her eyes. He looked at a spot just below the bowl in the air.

It wasn’t a lot of sake, since it was more symbolic than anything else. It was strange, Zuko suddenly thought as he waited for her to take the bowl from him, just how many of their traditions involved water or liquid of some kind. Was because water was such the opposite of fire, that his ancestors had wanted to show respect for such an opposing element? He wondered if the Water Tribe’s traditions involved fire in some way.

After what felt like a small eternity, he felt the weight of the bowl shift in his hands, before being hesitantly removed. Zuko found the courage then to look up at her, and watched her peer into the bowl for several moments, as if unsure what she was supposed to do with it.

Even though he knew it was an archaic ritual, symbolizing his ability to provide comfort—-what the sake represented—-to his intended wife, Zuko’s breath got caught somewhere in his throat. If she didn’t drink from the bowl, could the marriage go forward? That would mean she rejected the comfort he offered, and would therefore reject the marriage, for what was a marriage if not the warmth of comfort between two people?

At least, that’s what his mother had always told him it should be, even if he didn’t see it much between her and his father. Privately, he sometimes wondered if she had wanted to wed his father, or if she had been hoping for someone else to offer her a bowl of sake.

They were silly thoughts, of course. Katara was already here, the contract already agreed upon between their two nations. Her drinking or not drinking from a bowl of sake wouldn’t break the arrangement. He didn’t think so, anyway.

Still, something in him wanted her to drink it, wanted her to accept it. If they had both been commoners, and she rejected his bowl, she would reject him. Since they were royalty, such a simple act probably wouldn’t stop the marriage from happening, but he didn’t want her to reject him. He didn’t want to have a marriage like he feared his parents did behind closed doors.

Finally, though, she lifted the bowl to her lips and drank from it. It wasn’t very alcoholic, and so she drank a sip smoothly, without even a hiccup of a cough. Something in Zuko’s chest released a little tension.

The dinner was then able to proceed as she set the bowl down on the lacquered table between them. Servants came and brought a variety of dishes: fish curries, roasted duck (a favorite of his uncle’s), tangy fruit dishes, spiced vegetable platters, and savory dumplings. Chilled plum wine was set before all of them, and a pot of jasmine tea was nestled in a place of honor nearby his uncle and cousin. Another set of servants brought out more torch poles and lifted up the back end of the silk tarp they all sat beneath, exposing the exquisite view beyond.

Though it had been hinted at through the silk, a large pond was now visible to the dinner party. It was ringed by deep green gardens, rhododendrons blooming pink and white, and jade trees Stone spirit houses dotted the top of the water, each with a different color flame in the alcove, giving the water a bright, somewhat ethereal, glow. Large koi swam beneath lily pads and lotus flowers, their sinuous bodies barely visible shadows in the dimming light.

Zuko watched the fish swim for a few moments before returning his attention back to the table, now filled with steaming food.

“We hope this feast shows our gratitude and welcome to our new extended family,” Iroh said, his wide smile falling on the Water Tribe family seated across from them. “But save some room—-there’s going to be dessert after this!”

Lu Ten rolled his eyes next to his father, but smiled all the same. Zuko glanced from them to his own family, and only his mother was smiling. He let his eyes fall to the plate a servant set down before him. A quiet clacking of chopsticks to his left told him that his grandfather had started to fill his plate, and so everyone else could follow suit.

As he plucked various different vegetables and bowls of rice and fish curry, he watched the family of his bride-to-be. They had picked up on the hint that whatever everyone had been waiting for had passed, and so cautiously filled their plates as well. As a whole, they seemed to shy away from the deeper red-colored dishes, possibly assuming they were very spicy, Zuko thought. There were so many Fire Nation dishes here, which he wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, except that it made him think again that nearly every single tradition their marriage was following was all Fire Nation. He definitely wanted to talk to his mother about changing that. If Katara could come all the way here, to an entirely different land with an entirely different language, and marry him and observe all his customs, surely they could show the same respect in return.

He cleared his throat softly, more so that his voice wouldn’t crack rather than to try and gain anyone’s attention.

“You should try the roast duck,” he blurted to Katara. She blinked blue eyes at him. “It’s… it’s really good. And an Earth Kingdom dish. One of the chefs is from there, ever since Uncle really took a liking to the food and brought her back from Ba Sing Se. So, it’s not… really spicy.”

Realizing all at once that he was babbling, he took a dumpling from nearby to occupy his hand and eyes. There was a pile of food on his plate by now, though his stomach was doing enough flips that he wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to eat any of it.

Mortified at himself for speaking so plainly and out of turn, Zuko kept his gaze firmly on the bowl of rice in front of him.

His mother saved him. “At least it’s not a turtleduck,” she said lightly, nudging him with a subtle shift of her elbow.

Zuko chuckled despite himself. He looked up again to see Katara watching him carefully. She reached out and gently tugged off a strip of the roast duck, as he’d suggested, and added it to the modest foods on her plate. Even such a small motion was performed with a grace most Fire Nation noble girls couldn’t master. She was a waterbender, he reminded himself, remembering the katas he watched her and her sister move through by the turtleduck pond beneath his balcony. And, she appeared to be a very good one, at that. He suddenly wondered if she’d want to spar with him sometime. The prospect of marriage to another bender grew a little more appealing to him. Maybe he could find a time to ask her about it.

For now, the idea building warmth in him like a slow flame growing, Zuko offered her a small smile from across the table.

It took her too long to sort through his intentions—the bowl of sake held out in his hands; then, his words. These traditions were foreign to her, the language unfamiliar. While she could translate slowly in her head, Katara was leagues away from the level of fluency this marriage would require. 

As soon as he smiled, Katara ducked her head, shame staining her cheeks. 

She would be a disappointment to him. It almost felt predestined. By any standards, the Prince was beautiful. He was tall and lean; she could sense quiet power and strength in him. His heartbeat was steady, slow, further hinting at his peak condition and the muscle tone that was accentuated by his tailored clothes. The delicate threading in color matched his eyes, matched the ornaments in his ink-black hair. The honeyed gold was stunning, made more so by pale skin and red lips. 

And, she was dark, curvy, short compared to his sister and mother— a foreigner, a stranger. After just two more nights of wine and dining, she’d be his wife, his lover. She’d be blessed to bring forth children for him, brought to his rooms, and integrated into his life.

If only she could share her own traditions with him. Katara wondered if he’d like any of them: the giving of the stone, like the penguins from home; the perfumed bath before coming together in the marriage bed, to cleanse any history from their bodies and soul. 

But, her father had strictly forbade such talk. She belonged to the Prince; she must act like it. 

Still, Katara knew to thank him for the recommendation of roast duck; she’d been warily picking around the food on her plate, avoiding dishes she suspected to be overly spiced. The sweet, savory meat was delicious, and well-seasoned. 

Politely wiping her lips of any grease, Katara flashed a demure smile and wrapped her tongue around the needed words in An-kadai. “Your taste in food is excellent, my Prince.” If he’d heard it, Sokka would’ve been proud of her pun. “I hope I may learn to prepare such delicious meals for you.” 

As she smiled, Katara felt her father’s eyes on her. She glanced his way, unsure what she read in his expression—had she done something? said something? 

Her thoughts skipped over the brief interaction with Prince Zuko. Quickly, Katara recognized how presumptive her words had been, but she knew better than to correct herself. It’d only draw more attention to her erroneous actions, risking the disapproval of her betrothed.  

Fortunately, her father was quick to smooth over her bold tongue. “While my daughter may be outspoken, she is an excellent cook. Although,” he hummed bemusedly, “I imagine there will no need for her in the kitchens as you have a whole host of staff.” 

Lovely, Katara though. So, she was an idiot on top of being loud.

Fighting the urge to huff, she pulled her attention from the conversation that followed and focused on her food. 

Two more nights ‘til she was the Prince’s wife. Two more weeks ‘til her family departed. She’d miss Takaani, so much, but at least her father would be gone. The only man she’d have to answer to was Zuko… and hopefully, only on the nights he wanted her in his bed. Aside from that, she’d be left alone.

Zuko’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She could cook? His immediate thought was to ask her a flurry of questions—how was it she came to learn? Did she not have her own servants to prepare her meals back at the South Pole? Were things so very different there? Could she teach him something she knew how to cook? He imagined the food tasted completely different, though he’d never had Southern Water Tribe cuisine before. Was it similar at all to Northern Water Tribe cuisine? All at once he wished they had a mixed setting of food. More and more, he wanted to know empirically about her culture, about her life before coming to the Fire Nation. Reading about it in a series of scrolls and listening to a cultural teacher drone on about it was one thing, but he’d never experienced any of it.

But, catching the way her jaw tightened at her father’s words, he began to suspect tension between them, so Zuko said nothing. Well, he thought bitterly, at least that was something they would be able to have in common. The idea of Katara’s father watching silently as she tripped or fumbled, whether literally or metaphorically, before he stepped in with some scathing remark that only made her mistakes burn all the worse made a flame of anger flare up within Zuko.

Before he could think better of himself, he gave Katara’s father his best-practiced royal smile, the motion devoid of any emotion but impeccable in form.

“If the lady would like to cook sometimes,” Zuko said politely, his tone indicating nothing more than light and idle talk, as if he were discussing the warmth of the night or the flavor of the roast duck, “then I will certainly make sure accommodations are made for her. Perhaps she can help our chefs learn a few traditional dishes.”

As soon as he said those words, though he did mean them, he regretted it. He felt his father’s eyes snap over to him, and when he looked, he caught the slight narrowing they did, the barest hint of a frown crease Ozai’s mouth. He’d spoken out of turn—nevermind that it was Zuko’s betrothal dinner. Keep your head down and you’ll be okay, an old mantra warned in his mind. Yet, he couldn’t show to the guests that he was not to be taken seriously. Zuko didn’t lower his eyes or his chin, though the tightening in his chest wanted him very much to do just that.

Surprisingly, it was his uncle that came to his rescue.

“Yes!” Iroh exclaimed. “It has been some time since I last had Five Flavor Soup, and it would be a welcome addition to our menu.”

There were times when Iroh had stepped in, seemingly innocuously, just like that to diffuse a potential tense situation between Zuko and his father. Zuko wasn’t sure if Iroh was aware of it, or if he simply had remarkably good timing. Whatever the case, as with the other times, Zuko was glad for his uncle’s intervention once again. And, there was the added bonus that it also served to bolster what Zuko himself had been trying to do: interrupt the tense situation between his betrothed and her own father. Zuko couldn’t help it—his gaze flicked over to Katara, wondering what her reaction would be.

“I love Five Flavor Soup,” Katara said.  She couldn’t help it, even under the weight of her father’s judgmental gaze. “My grandmother handed down a recipe to me that’s generations old. She’d be thrilled to know I shared it with a Prince of the Fire Nation.” The old man was friendly, genuine. His excitement leaked into his words and only fanned the tiny spark placed behind her ribs my the Prince.

Would Prince Zuko really like to taste her cooking? Would she… would be allowed to carry on remnants of home?

Her chest warmed with new hope, making her smile. Then, blush, when Katara looked across the long table and caught his eye. She quickly looked down, fighting the color pink as it spread all the way across her cheeks.  

Prince Zuko was, as Takaani put so eloquently, dreamy

And now, there was this slightly more tangible wish for a life of partnership. They could begin in the kitchen, with her teaching him traditional recipes. They could move on to the sparring field, with her showing him her abilities. They could—

Takaani’s elbow found her ribs, making Katara start and look down her nose at her sister. The little girl was, of course, smiling with knowing pride. 

“I told you,” she said.

Katara slipped easily into Aisu-kei, laughing slightly. “Told me what?” 

“He can’t stop staring at you.” 

“Shut up, miki. He’ll hear you,” Katara hissed, elbowing Takaani back as her eyes flicked up. 

Sure enough, the Prince was still watching her, but only long enough to see another blush cover her cheeks. Finally–-spirits—his attention averted to something his mother was saying—Katara was too flustered to pick out the words—and the conversation moved on to other things: wedding preparations and the days celebration that would follow Katara and Zuko’s ceremony. 

She ignored a majority of it, as all of it left a stone in the pit of her stomach, making it near impossible to do anything other than play with her food and, when she wasn’t doing that, finger the gold choker around her neck. If her grandmother were here, she’d swat Katara for fidgeting. 

Eventually, to her great relief, the dinner appeared to wrap itself up. The men were dizzy with wine, particularly Iroh, who boasted good spirits and a full belly. He sent a small round of cheers around the table with a well-placed joke, then toasted to the couple’s future happiness. 

Following, Lady Ursa placed her napkin beside her plate, then put her hand over Prince Zuko’s on the table. 

“Perhaps you could take your betrothed for a walk around the grounds, my son?” The woman turned a smile to Katara, extending the invitation to her as well. “We have a lovely array of gardens, and it may help you familiarize yourself with the palace.”

Her stomach leapt into her throat, a part of her excited by the prospect, the other nervous, but Katara ultimately deferred to her father. 

He was eyeing Ursa carefully, until Kya nudged him. “Communication and friendship are important to a successful marriage. You and I would not be so well off had we not been allowed to court prior, my love.” 

“True…” Hakoda inclined his head. “Do you wish to go, Daughter?” 

Sharp blue pinned Katara; she had the faintest sense that he was testing her, showing off how well-trained she was to handle even the slightest pressure. To accept, in an over eager manner, would show ill-restraint and imply a loose nature. To refuse would obviously disgrace the Prince and his mother.

Taking a moment, Katara glanced across the table, then nodded. “I would enjoy the opportunity to see the palace grounds, Father.” 

“Very well.” Surprisingly, he seemed satisfied with that. “So long as you accompany them, Lady Ursa. I will not have Katara taint her carefully guarded reputation.” 

The smile Lady Ursa bestowed on Katara’s father was beatific, and precisely fitting for a lady of the Royal House. “We share a similar disposition about the sanctity of a wedding bed’s tradition,” she told the Southern Water Tribe Chief. “Your daughter is in safe hands with me, and,” the pause here was deliberate, “with my son.”

Zuko, for his part, hadn’t heard much after I would enjoy an opportunity to see the palace grounds. Talking with her with everyone all around was one thing, but to go for a walk with her, (nearly) alone—that was an entirely different matter.

What would they talk about? She seemed fluent enough in his tongue, should he try and speak to her in hers? He wanted to, but he was sure he would say something wrong, or enunciate incorrectly and give a whole other meaning to a phrase than he intended (that was a big problem with many of the Earth Kingdom languages and dialects—so much relied on inflection). He should have practiced it more.

Before he knew it, he was dragged out of his spiraling thoughts as his mother touched his arm, indicating he should stand with her. Somehow, through the grace of ingrained etiquette, Zuko managed to get to his feet quickly and without seeming like he was scrambling. Ursa beckoned with a smile for Katara to join them. Zuko bowed to her father in a show of respect.

His mother motioned subtly for him to take the lead, so he reached out and lightly—so lightly, he was afraid he might do something wrong that would insult her or her people—took Katara’s elbow. Trying not to tremble and to keep his breathing even, he guided her out the opened back of the pavilion, down a burnished set of cedar stairs that took them down to a walkway. His mother trailed a few steps behind them, though the further they got away from the dinner party, the more space she allowed them.

The path forked after a short while, the right leading back toward the palace, and the other to a bridge that arched gracefully over the pond itself. Zuko took them that way, knowing it would lead back toward many of the private walled gardens most of the public didn’t ever see. Once they were on the right path, he withdrew his hand from her elbow, not wanting to linger and upset her, or give the indication that he might do anything to sully the traditions of reputation. Had she been a Fire Nation lady, she would have had a carefully boxed flower blossom to hand over to him before the wedding, but Zuko wasn’t sure if there was anything similar in the Southern Tribe. Not that he could ask her; he was pretty sure that would definitely be a breach of decorum.

He was so lost in thought that Zuko didn’t realize until it was almost too late that they were nearly halfway across the bridge. When he stopped, he also noticed that his mother was taking her time in meandering along the walkway, several steps behind them. Suddenly acutely aware that he and Katara were, for all intents and purposes, alone for the next few minutes or so, Zuko turned and looked out over the water.

It was dark and shimmering in the night, the moon reflected as a graceful rippling curve to the right of where they stood. Little spots of varied colors danced on the surface as well, the fires from the spirit houses almost acting as overly-defined stars in harmony to the moon. He should say something to her, Zuko thought, but his throat went dry, and everything that came to mind sounded silly.

“I… hope you enjoyed dinner?” he finally settled on, his voice just a few notches above a nervous rasp. Like that. That was a silly thing to say to her. Why not ask if her journey was pleasant, or if she was finding the accommodations to her liking, or—even better—if she needed or wanted for anything? Inwardly, Zuko groaned. He hadn’t even seen her face to face for a day, and already he was putting his foot in his mouth. Maybe he could still salvage it.

“And, also, that everything in the guest house is to your liking. If there’s anything you need—or that you want—let one of the servants know, and they’ll get it for you.” There. That was a little better, a little more like a good host should be. Spirits, he was terribly awkward.

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