Title: Retreat at the Hot Springs
Characters: Katara, Zuko, OCs.
Word count: 4,400 words.
Summary: Coming back from their trip to find the man that killed Katara's mother, Zuko and Katara have to stop to give Appa (and themselves) a break. They find the food and the rest they need, but it comes with a small deception.
A/N Wrote this as a Christmas present for my friend mira_mirth, posting it here in case anyone is interested.
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“We’re flying a bit close to the ground, aren’t we?” Zuko said. “I think Appa needs to rest.”
He held his breath, waiting for Katara’s answer to his suggestion. She was sitting on Appa’s neck, holding his reins, so she had her back on him and he couldn’t read her expression, and Katara’s reactions to him were always a bit of a bargain. She’d been silent and subdued since her confrontation with the man who’d killed her mother. Zuko had judged best to leave her alone with her thoughts, but Appa had been steadily going down for a while and it didn’t look like Katara had noticed.
“Katara?” he risked again. Maybe she hadn’t heard him. “Did you—”
“Yes,” she snapped, although it sounded a tad less harsh than the tone she normally used with him. It could be that she was just tired, so he tried not to get his hopes up. “You’re right,” she added, surprising him. “We pushed him too hard—he can’t keep flying any longer. We’ll stop. As soon as—as soon as we’re far enough.”
Zuko nodded, because it made sense that they needed to put as much space between them and the village as they could, in case the retired Southern Raider recovered from his cowardice and decided to retaliate. Then he realized that she couldn’t see him do it, so he cleared his throat and said out loud, “Yes. Good thinking.”
They landed in a clearing, and Appa fell asleep almost as soon as he touched the ground. Katara looked at him critically, hands on her hips. “We need to cover him while he rests. He’s too noticeable,” she said.
And at this point every one probably knew that the Avatar traveled with a flying bison. Zuko could feel his own exhaustion as a dull pulse of pain behind his eyes, but Katara was right so he started gathering brambles and cutting low leafy branches. The both of them made quick work of covering Appa as thoroughly as they could given his size, until he looked like a suspiciously gigantic bush.
Once they were done, Zuko’s stomach gave a loud rumble. Katara arched an eyebrow at him and he blushed. “Sorry. Do we still have some of that dry meat thing that Sokka likes so much?”
It was a bit salty for Zuko’s taste, but now that he had the opportunity to realize how hungry he was, he felt ready to eat even one of those Water Tribe slimy sea prunes that Aang described with great disgust.
“No, we’re out.” Katara’s gaze turned inward, and she was silent for a few seconds. “We need to get some food. I’m hungry too. But I don’t remember seeing any villages when we were flying…”
“I could try using firebending to hunt,” Zuko said.
He’d made a few attempts, back when he was wandering the Earth Kingdom famished, and he hadn’t exactly been successful at it, but it couldn’t hurt to try again.
“Too bad Sokka isn’t with us,” Katara said, and a smile ghosted on her lips.
“Why? Is he a good hunter?”
Katara shrugged and started walking down one of the paths leading out of the clearing. Zuko followed her in locked step, trying to quell his frustration. He’d thought he’d made some progress with her, but here she was, dismissing him again. He felt like he could never keep up with her.
Katara marched through the forest like she had a destination in mind, even though she couldn’t know where they were going any more than he did. At every turn they took, she broke branches or left piles of stones to mark their way. The forest was quiet save for some furtive skittering noises at ground level, a few intermittent birdcalls, and the whooshing sound of the wind blowing through the trees’ foliage. The weather was pleasantly warm—or, at least, it was to Zuko, because he caught Katara tugging at her collar with a grimace, and the fine hair on her forehead looked darker with sweat.
They’d been walking for a while, and Zuko started to worry that they were getting too far away from Appa. If the bison woke up and they weren’t there, how would he react? Would he start bellowing for them and draw unwanted attention on himself? Would he try to look for them and fly away to find them? If they lost his bison, Aang would be very unhappy. If what Toph had told him about the last time they’d lost Appa was true, Zuko very much wanted to avoid that.
“I think we should—” he started to say, but was interrupted by a strident scream that cut through the air and made a flock of birds fly off.
He drew his swords instinctively, sweeping a look around to spot the threat, but Katara started running in direction of the scream and Zuko cursed under his breath.
He didn’t have any choice but to follow her. Swords in hands, he ran after her through the bushes. Branches whipped him in the face and he cursed again, but they heard another cry, followed by a roar, and it only made Katara run faster.
He managed to catch up with her just as they came in sight of the source of the screams: an elderly woman was backed up against a tree by a roaring armadillo bear. The bear was probably still young, barely even as tall as the woman, but he acted very threateningly and even a young armadillo bear was an impressive sight. Katara picked up a stone and threw it at the bear. It bounced against the shell on its back, but the armadillo bear must still have felt it somehow, because he turned to them, roaring in fury.
“You only made it mad!” Zuko hissed to Katara.
“At least it’s leaving that woman alone!”
It seemed, indeed, that the bear had forgotten all about its previous victim. The bad news was, he was now galloping on all four in their direction. Even Katara paled at the sight of the charging beast.
“Uh,” she said. “Should we run?”
It was very tempting, but Zuko remembered what his mother had told him about armadillo bears: when you’ve made them mad, the only hope you have is to confront them and show them they’re outmatched.
“No,” he said, but the bear was almost on them and he didn’t have enough time to explain. He fell into a firebending stance and made a fist, gathering his chakra to form the biggest flame he could in his current exhausted state.
“Uh, Zuko,” Katara said. “I don’t think that—“
He couldn’t listen to her and concentrate on his attack at the same time, so he tuned her out. When he released the energy, fire exploded between him and the bear in a rush of heat and orange flames. The armadillo bear stopped in its tracks, let out a whimper, and promptly rolled into a ball.
Breathless, Zuko let his arms fall back to his sides. His vision swam for a moment and he closed his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. Something touched his arm and he startled, but it was only Katara.
“Okay, that was impressive,” she said, sounding reluctantly admiring. “But I don’t think that making fire in a forest was the best option here.”
Zuko opened his eyes, and saw that small dancing flames ran over the bushes and lower tree branches. “Oh.”
The woman they’d rescued was jogging toward them, giving the curled up armadillo bear a wide berth.
“I’ll take care of it,” Katara said, pushing him forward. “Go talk to her; distract her. Go!”
Zuko stumbled to meet with the woman. She wasn’t as old as he’d first thought, because her hair was gray but her face was smooth, and she was small but looked strongly built.
“Thank you so much!” she exclaimed once she was close enough for Zuko to hear. “You’re a firebender?” She took his hands, and turned them to examine his palms as though she thought she could find some kind of clue there. “What am I saying, of course you are! I’ve never seen such a big flame in my life. That was amazing. I know I shouldn’t have ventured that far into the woods, but—It’s a good thing you were here!”
“Um, yes,” Zuko said, confounded by this flow of words.
“You look tired! You must have travelled a long time! You were going to the resort, right? No one ever comes here unless they go to the resort. You went a bit off the right path, but I’ll take you and your girlfriend there, don’t worry. I work there. My mother’s actually the owner, you see. You’ll be able to rest—you certainly deserve it!”
The woman made his head spin, but he’d managed to catch a few essential pieces of information among her babble: she was working at a resort, and they’d been looking for something to eat, so this was a lucky meeting; plus, it was apparently a pretty isolated place, so it would look suspicious if they admitted they hadn’t come looking for it.
“Okay,” he said. “Let me call—”
He risked a swift look over his shoulder, and saw that Katara had managed to put the fire out, presumably using her waterbending to do it.
“Katara!” he called her. When she joined him, he gave her a quick summation of what the woman had told him.
“Okay,” Katara said. “But… we don’t have a lot of money.”
“Nonsense!” the woman exclaimed. “My mother won’t make you pay when I tell her you saved me! I’m Mei-Lin, by the way. What about you?”
Katara gave her real name, and when Zuko said, “Li,” she gave him a look.
“Everyone knows the name of the Fire Nation’s prince,” he whispered to her. Mei-Lin had already started walking and was a little ahead of them, rambling cheerfully to herself. “That, plus…” He gestured at his face, hoping not to have to spell it out.
“Yeah, I guess,” she simply said.
They walked for a good half-hour before they saw buildings, and Zuko wondered what Mei-Lin had been doing that far from home. Thin strips of fog were floating over the roofs, and Zuko felt a familiar sort of heat on his face. “Oh,” he said. “Hot springs!”
“Really?” A glimmer of interest flashed on Katara’s tired face. “That’s nice.”
They were welcomed on the porch by an old woman with leathery skin and thick white hair. “Mei-Lin!” she cried. “Why were you gone so long?”
“Oh, Mother, I’m sorry, but so much happened!”
Mei-Lin launched herself into an embellished tale of Zuko’s epic fight with the armadillo bear, miming the action at some points. By the end, Zuko had reddened to the roots of his hair and Katara looked faintly amused. “You wrestled the bear, huh?”
“She’s exaggerating,” Zuko muttered, his cheeks burning.
From the fond look on the face of Mei-Lin’s mother, he could tell that the woman was aware of that, but she still thanked him profusely.
“I told Li and his girlfriend that they could stay here for free, Mother.”
His girlfriend? Zuko caught movement at the corner of his eye: a group of people obviously coming back from a walk and getting into one of the buildings. They were all paired up; some of them held hands.
Mei-Lin had called Katara his girlfriend before, but he hadn’t paid close enough attention. He’d focused on the part where they could find a place to rest and eat.
Katara opened her mouth, probably to correct the mistake, but he grabbed her wrist before she could speak and gave it a squeeze. “Look, Katara,” he murmured. “It’s a retreat for couples.”
For a few seconds he and Katara looked at each other, communicating silently: they didn’t have any excuses to be here, and they hadn’t denied Mei-Lin’s assumption before. It would look suspicious if they did now, and they didn’t need to draw attention on themselves.
“Of course you’re welcome here,” Mei-Lin’s mother said. “I’m Inari. How many nights will you stay?”
“Uh, just the one,” Katara said. “We didn’t plan to stay long, and people will be expecting us.”
“All right,” Inari said, although Mei-Lin looked disappointed. “You both seem tired. Maybe you’d enjoyed some time in the hot springs before dinner?”
Katara perked up at the suggestion. “Can we, really? I mean, yes, that would be lovely.”
Mei-Lin disappeared to do some chores, and Inari led them inside. The entrance hall was large, and there were couches and chairs everywhere, occupied by couples talking in low voices, some of them kissing. Zuko averted his eyes.
“Is it your first time here?” Inari asked.
“Yes,” Zuko said. “But my uncle came here a long time ago.”
It was true, at least if this place was the one he thought: his uncle had told him about a resort for couples he’d taken Zuko’s aunt to, hot springs that were protected by Ama, a fertility spirit. His story had been accompanied by some pretty lewd innuendo, and Zuko felt himself flush just remembering them.
“Really?” Inari said. “When was that? Maybe I’ll remember him.”
Zuko didn’t doubt she remembered the visit of the Fire Nation’s crown prince. “I don’t know. I think it was quite a while ago. Before I was born.”
They went through the building and when they emerged on the other side, the air was hot and stuffy from the springs.
“The cabins to get changed are right there. You can leave your clothes here,” Inari said, indicating benches and hangers. “Here you can find clean towels. There are five different pools, you can choose whichever you want.”
“Okay,” he said. “But, um, which are for men, and which are for women?”
Inari laughed. “Oh, no, we don’t divide by gender here. That would defeat the purpose, don’t you think? But we set up some fences to give couples their privacy.” She smiled at them knowingly. Zuko couldn’t look in Katara’s direction at all, thinking he was about to drop dead from mortification.
Inari left them, and Zuko risked a glance. “Sorry. Maybe we should just leave.”
“It’s fine,” Katara said. She didn’t look as angry as he would have thought. “I’ve been travelling with boys for months, remember? I’ll wear a towel.”
They both went to get changed and then walked down the stone path that led to the different pools. “Maybe we should go to two different pools,” Zuko suggested, readjusting the towel around his hips with one hand.
Katara with a towel didn’t really show much more skin than in her usual attire—just, it felt different for some reason. The last thing he needed was her thinking that he was trying to take advantage of the situation somehow.
“If someone else spots us, they would find it pretty strange that we don’t want to bathe together.”
Among the mist created by the hot water, Zuko could see the shadowed silhouettes of people embracing in one of the pools. Katara was right: everyone here would find it weird to see them enjoying the springs on their own.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “You’re right.”
They found a pool with no one else in it. Getting into the hot water, Zuko felt all the aches and tensions from the trip melt away, and he couldn’t help a moan of bliss, his eyes shutting down in pleasure. He leaned back against the side of the pool and stretched his arms to settle into a more comfortable position, but his left hand bumped into flesh. An arm, probably. It had to be an arm.
“Sorry!” His eyes flew open in panic, but the mist had thickened to the point that he couldn’t see Katara at all. “Are you doing this?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“Maybe it’s not very prudent to, you know…. What if someone notices?”
“No one’s going to see mist at a hot spring and think ‘waterbender’.”
They’d been talking in low voices, and the mist muffled all sounds, but Zuko still shushed her urgently.
“Relax, Zuko.” Katara’s speech was a little slurred, like maybe she was falling asleep. “Let’s just—enjoy this, for once.”
In the end, they both fell asleep in the spring. They were woken up, dazed and confused, by an employee so they could get ready before dinner. They’d hoped they would be able to eat in a private room, but apparently it was tradition here for everyone to gather in the communal dining area at least in the evenings.
“What about Appa?” Zuko asked Katara in a whisper as they were taken there. He’d forgotten all about the flying bison while they were soaking in hot water. “What if he wakes up and—”
“Appa was exhausted. I’ve seen him like this before—he’ll sleep through the night, trust me. We’ll get up early tomorrow morning, and he won’t even notice we were gone.”
In the dining area they had to share a table with another couple, two young newly wed named Jaina and Kuzai. The couple spent a good deal of time making calf eyes at each other, ensuring that Zuko spent most of dinner looking down to his meal, feeling deeply uncomfortable. Fortunately the food was very good, full of tasty spices the way he liked it. They ate in a silence that was only interrupted by their tablemates’ whispered comments to one another, until Kuzai remarked, “You’re not very demonstrative.”
“What?” Zuko said, chopsticks frozen mid-way between his bowl and his mouth.
“With each other, I mean. You’re very young—you can’t have been with each other for long. Don’t tell me the magic has already started to fade.”
“Honey, leave them alone,” Jaina said, poking her husband in the side.
“We—have been betrothed since childhood,” Katara said. She hadn’t been eating much, and Zuko wondered what was wrong, as she’d admitted to being hungry earlier.
“Is that what your necklace mean?” Jaina said and pointed at Katara’s neck. “It’s very pretty, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Katara’s hand went to her neck and she clutched at her pendant protectively. “It’s a family heirloom,” she said a bit frostily.
Jaina and Kuzai shared a look. “Uh, okay,” Kuzai said. Zuko thought they were going to leave it at that, but maybe the couple had tired of each other, because suddenly they seemed to be in a chatty mood. “So, have you known each other your whole lives? I’ve known Jaina since I was a kid, although for the longest time she couldn’t stand me.”
“You were very annoying,” Jaina said, but she was smiling, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Not exactly,” Katara said. “We have known of each other for a long time, but—” She shot Zuko a glance, and for the hundredth time today he blushed, though he couldn’t have said why this time. “We didn’t really know each other all that well until recently.”
Zuko let Katara handle the conversation, as she seemed to easily be able to spin the truth of their relationship into a believable tale of their fake romance. He noticed she’d finished her rice, but had barely touched the vegetables and the meat, and it occurred to him that the food might be too spicy for her taste. He silently pushed his own bowl of rice toward her on the table, and nodded encouragingly when she made a puzzled face at him. She started digging into it with a speed that betrayed how hungry she was.
“Aww,” Jaina said. “You’re so cute with each other.”
Zuko wondered if burning her eyebrows would create too big a disturbance in the dining room to be worth it, but thought better of it: that would be a terrible way to repay Mei-Lin and Inari’s generosity.
When they left the dinner table to be taken to their bedroom, Katara grabbed Zuko’s hand and he felt his heart leap into his chest at the touch. He looked at her: she had her face set into the determined expression he’d come to know well. “We need to look the part,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, feeling a little breathless.
Their room was on one of the upper floors, and by the time they got there Zuko had relaxed to the point that it almost felt natural to be holding Katara’s hand. Then they got to their room and his stomach sunk when he saw that a single two-person futon had been unrolled for them.
“Um.” Zuko waited until the employee had left before he said, “I can—sleep in a corner of the room or something.”
It honestly didn’t bother him; he’d gotten used to sleeping on the ground outside, and he was so tired anyway that he was sure to sleep deeply no matter the accommodations.
But Katara said, “Don’t be silly. There’s no reason for me to have a bed and not you.” She looked a bit more annoyed at the situation than when a similar problem had arisen at the springs, though. Maybe she felt that sleeping together—um, sharing a bed!—was more intimate than sitting in foggy water side to side.
He turned his back while she took off her clothes and slid first into the futon. He snuffed the lamps that were lighting the room, using his bending to do them all at once, and went to join her. They lay together in the dark back-to-back, and even though he was tired, he quickly found that he was having a hard time falling asleep. Katara wasn’t abnormally loud, but each breath she took, each time she shifted her weight, reminded him that this was a futon where couples usually slept in, and he couldn’t get himself to loosen up. This was a mistake. They should have just gotten back to Appa and flown away from here, find somewhere else to rest and get food. The resort was far from everything, so even if Mei-Lin and her mother had found their presence and sudden escape strange, it would have taken them a while to report it. Sure, the hot spring and the food had been very welcome, but—
There was a change in Katara’s breathing, a kind of high-pitched hitch, and Zuko realized that she was crying. He turned on his back but then found himself paralyzed, unable to think of a course of action. No doubt she was crying about her mother, maybe bitter that the trip hadn’t brought her the promised relief. The relief he had promised her. As usual when he was trying to get it right, the only thing he’d managed was to do wrong.
“Katara,” he said, then mentally kicked himself. It was likely that she didn’t want him, of all people, to acknowledge that he’d heard her cry.
It was too late, though. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice sounding a bit congested.
“I’m sorry.” He had said it before and it had never seemed to matter to Katara, so he was taken aback when she said, “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault. It just—it didn’t feel the way I thought it would.”
They fell silent again, and Zuko thought Katara was asleep until she asked, “What happened to your mother? You never said.”
Zuko was surprised to hear her broach that topic, as it was what they had bonded over in the caves of Ba Sing Se right before he turned on her. It wasn’t something he liked to discuss, but she’d never initiated a conversation with him since then, so he answered easily, “I don’t know. She disappeared one night. Just—vanished.” He wasn’t even sure his last memory of her waking him up hadn’t been a dream. Everything about her felt like a dream now. “It happened the same night my grand-father died and my father became the Fire Lord.”
“Do you think that—”
“I don’t know. I know nothing—not what happened, not if she’s dead or alive. I think she’s dead, though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because—” There was a lump blocking his throat and he fought it furiously. He couldn’t start crying too. “Because if she’s alive, why did she never try to contact me? Even when—even after I was banished from the Fire Nation.”
Katara said nothing, didn’t offer her own opinion on whether she thought Zuko’s mother was dead or alive. Instead, Zuko felt warm fingers close over his, and strangely enough that was the thing that helped him relax enough to finally give in to sleep.
The next morning they had to fend off Mei-Lin’s insistence that they stay a little longer.
“You haven’t even had the time to explore the area! It really is beautiful around here. You barely enjoyed the hot springs.”
“Another time, maybe,” Katara said. “But we really have to get back.”
“Have you at least gone to visit Ama’s shrine? If you leave an offering, you’re sure to have your first baby in the next month.”
“Uh.” This time Katara’s cheeks colored as well as Zuko’s, and he felt a shot of satisfaction at not being the only one feeling embarrassed. “We—we’re still a bit young for this. Aren’t we, honey?”
Zuko could only nod vigorously, appalled at the idea. They weren’t even sure to survive Sozin’s Comet, so it really wasn’t the right time for babies. Not that it would ever, not with Katara. What on earth was he thinking?
“Maybe next time?” Katara said tentatively, and that seemed to be enough to appease Mei-Lin.
“Goodbye, then! Be sure to visit us next spring! The blooms are amazing!”
“What’s wrong, Zuko?” Katara asked as they walked away. “Your face’s very red. Too much time in the hot springs?”
“I’m fine. I’m used to hot springs.”
“Then what’s the matter?”
“I said I’m fine!”
“Okay, okay. No need to get snappy.”
It was only when they’d found Appa—who, as Katara had predicted, was still asleep and didn’t seem to have missed them—that Zuko realized that they’d just had a normal, even friendly conversation, the kind of banter Katara shared with her brother, and Aang, and Toph.
He had a small smile on his lips for the rest of their return journey.