|Taken By the Faceless Stranger
Author: delectate PM
Season 2 oneshot, between "Zuko Alone" and "The Chase". Katara thinks she knows all there is to know about a certain masked warrior. Bluetara. Written for Zutara Week 2011. Rated M for mature.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Adventure - Katara & Zuko - Words: 11,149 - Reviews: 63 - Favs: 244 - Follows: 78 - Published: 08-01-11 - id: 7240583
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Takes place during Season 2, between "Zuko Alone" and "The Chase".
This originally started out as a Z/K 30_lemons prompt a long, long time ago, back when season 2 of the series aired. (2006 or so. Oh my, I may have just fandom dated myself. D: )
When the series picked up again, I just left the outline and didn't bother to finish it. But now I realize there are far too few S2 Zutara fics, and particularly Bluetara fics…and particularly Bluetara smutfics.
So, I wrote this to fit the ZKWeek2011 prompts, and actually it fits almost all of them: Mask, Legendary, Social Networking, Awkward, Secret and Caught—covers everything but History! (Social Networking could be covered if you squint really hard – maybe their friend Taiji passing on the news/information.)
So…with that in mind…enjoy!
It was, when Katara reflected on the entire experience at length much later on, probably some strange form of karmic retribution for all the times she'd screamed at her brother too often at the South Pole.
She struggled uselessly against her bonds. With Sokka, Toph, and Aang separated from her and being held elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom palace, Katara had little confidence that they'd find their way out of this mess sooner rather than later.
Their travels on the way to Ba Sing Se had ended in failure. None of them could have possibly known that Toph carried a bounty on her head, put forth by her own parents—but at the next city they'd come to, there were men waiting for them; earthbenders, powerful ones. They'd walked right into the trap. Toph had been imprisoned in a crate made of wood and suspended fifteen feet above the ground. Sokka and Katara had tried to fight to free her, but they were no match on their own against the earthbenders. Aang, predictably, had surrendered peacefully rather than see his friends come to harm, and even Momo and Appa had been restrained. The monarch of the province, greedy and corrupt as he was, had decided to turn Aang in to Princess Azula for the reward offered.
After all, he'd told them, his grandfather had waited decades for the Avatar's return to help them when the Fire Nation invaded. No one ever came.
If only we hadn't taken the path through this town, Katara lamented now to herself, bowing her head at the futile attempt to wrest free from the ropes that bound her to the wooden pillar in the center of the room. If only I were just a bit stronger…then they wouldn't have caught Toph, and Aang wouldn't have had to give himself up…
Shame filled her. If only I could have done more. She allowed herself to give in to a moment of despair.
And then she heard a noise above her, and she looked up and saw him.
The mysterious masked warrior, whom Aang had first credited with rescuing him from Zhao's clutches months earlier. He was exactly as Aang had described.
The Blue Spirit.
Katara gasped at the sight of the demonically grinning mask hiding in the darkened rafters above her. He saw her look of surprised recognition, and impishly put up a finger before the mask's mouth in a gesture of silence. She lowered her head and bit her lip as a guard near the open doorway turned in her direction.
The attack was sudden and swift. One moment the masked Spirit was high above her near the ceiling; the next he had moved lightning fast, leaping down onto the hapless earthbender guards, facing off with them, drawing his broadswords from behind his back. The blades whirled and amidst the shouts and war cries of her wardens, Katara held her breath—but she never took her eyes off of him.
His movements were as a dancer's, quick and fluid. He wore no body armor to protect himself, yet his enemy's swords couldn't touch him. Fighting with him, the Earth Kingdom soldiers in their clunky armor seemed clumsy, tripping over their own feet. They took heavy, lumbering swipes at him with their own weapons, only to have him dodge their blows effortlessly and knock their swords away with his dual blades. Katara heard the clinking of metal, and saw a flash of links—he'd bound their arms and legs quickly with ropes made of chain, so that they couldn't earthbend against him.
She couldn't believe her eyes. He'd subdued six guards, in mere seconds.
He turned to face her, then, and again Katara's breath hitched in her throat.
Tied as she was to the pillar, it was rather unnerving as he walked slowly toward her. She knew he was looking at her through the eyeholes of the mask. She could almost feel the weight of his stare, as though he were deciding what to do with her.
"You're—you're the one who freed Aang from Zhao, aren't you?" she asked, a bit uncertainly. She fought to keep the tremor from her voice. "My name's Katara. Are you here to help us?"
He didn't answer; instead he circled around her as she was bound, moving out of her line of sight. She could hear his soft footfalls behind her and she felt a sudden, inexplicable twinge of excitement—it sparked the memory of when Prince Zuko had restrained her, tied her to a tree, and had circled her menacingly while taunting her with her mother's necklace.
…What am I doing, thinking of that fire-breathing, egomaniacal psychopath?—
She barely had time to finish the thought before she heard a swoosh of blade slicing through the air. Her hands were freed. He'd cut the ropes that bound her.
Katara rubbed feeling back into her arms as she turned again to face him, stepping away from the pillar. "…Who are you?"
The masked warrior said nothing—instead he reached behind him and produced her water skin, which had been taken from her by the earthbending guards. He tossed it at her feet.
She looked down at it; in the space of breath that it took her to look back up at him in astonishment, he was gone.
When she'd freed her friends and they were all safely airborne again upon Appa, Sokka and Aang had turned to her unbelievingly and asked her how she'd gotten free. For some reason she kept Blue Spirit a secret; she told them one of the earthbenders had carelessly dropped her water skin within her reach.
As they flew away through the night air, Katara looked back toward land and wondered if and when she'd see him again.
At the next place they touched down, a few days later, they heard rumors.
The village was overrun by the Fire Nation, and troops were stationed at positions all over the city. Nevertheless, Aang had a contact who he knew could be trusted, and after leaving Appa in the protection of the forest, they made their way, in cloaked disguise, to the small humble home of Taiji, the grandson of Aang's old friend. Taiji was a farmer with several acres of land; while the Fire Nation was in control of the surplus, they had mostly left him and his family alone.
Near the end of a generous afternoon meal, Taiji began to tell stories.
"And that," he said after the third drawn-out tale he'd told them, "was how Sung the earthbender found the Fire Nation army's hidden supply of lychee nuts."
Sokka and Toph stifled yawns; Aang stuck his finger in his ear to scratch it, prompting Momo to peer into the other one from where he perched on the airbender's head.
Taiji cleared his throat. "Hey—you've all heard of the Blue Spirit, haven't you?" he inquired, and the group perked up and looked at him quizzically—save for Aang, whose posture straightened from where he sat on the floor, and Katara, who suddenly choked on her soup. Sokka and the rest of her companions turned to look at her in surprise.
She held a napkin to her face, embarrassed. "Sorry," she whispered hoarsely.
"We're familiar with him," Aang spoke up, his voice carefully level.
Sokka put it together, then. "Oh yeah! That guy who saved Aang a couple of months ago. I remember hearing about him."
"He's fond of wearing a demon mask," Taiji went on, "—and folks say it's a pretty frightening sight to behold. Anyway, last night in town, they say he put up quite a fight against some soldiers with those broadswords of his."
Katara spat out her tea.
"He's here? In this town?" she squeaked, her face exploding into a huge grin as she sat up and leaned forward in excitement; she ducked her head self-consciously when her eyes traveled sideways to see Taiji, Sokka, Toph and Aang staring at her in confusion. Oops.
Katara coughed and cleared her throat, trying to dismissively pass off her earlier moment of shock. "I mean—uh—he is? That's…interesting, I guess." She saw her brother's frown and folded arms, and realized he wasn't buying her deception in the least.
Taiji looked at her with mild concern, but shrugged it off after a moment. "Yes…he was spotted in town just last night, defending one of the merchants against a local thief who was trying to steal his wares.
"Apparently he used to be something of a thief himself, traveling alone and robbing both the rich and the poor alike, in different villages," he went on, and both Aang and Katara startled in surprise. "He did this wherever he went; probably already had a price put on his head by the Earth Kingdom for his thievery. Then the word is that about a month ago, he was wounded in a fight with some local thugs here in this town. He got taken in and cared for by a little girl here and her family. They nurtured him and fed him, gave him shelter. I heard he did some work for them or something around the homestead, to pay for their generosity…doesn't seem as though he's been too used to kindness." Katara thought Aang looked slightly discomfited at the words. Taiji went on.
"Unfortunately, the girl's father was to be arrested by the Fire Nation for some offense against them. When they came to the child's house where Blue Spirit was hiding out to arrest him, a scuffle broke out. In the melee, the young girl was killed at the hands of one of the Fire Nation soldiers."
The group's expressions collectively fell, and Taiji shook his head sadly as he went on.
"The Blue Spirit was so distraught and angered by the death of his friend—the youngster who'd been so kind to him—that he became enraged and ferociously fought off ten soldiers single-handedly, wounding them and taking the life of the one that had killed the little girl." Aang ducked his head; Katara's eyes widened appreciatively.
"He's been on something of a crusade from then on, defending the town's inhabitants against aggression wherever he can, be it from our own citizens or from Fire Nation troops. He doesn't stay long in one place, going around to nearby villages, but he seems to come back here fairly regularly."
"Does he—live here?" Aang asked, curious.
"That I don't know, but…he's our protector," Taiji said, a smile lighting his face. "No one's ever seen him unmasked, but he's become a hero in the region; a legend. People repay him with food, hospitality, money in any way they can, in return for his protection. He's also earned himself notoriety with the Fire Nation, because of it."
Katara lowered her eyes. I just can't believe he's here, that he's turned up near us again so soon, she thought excitedly. Is it coincidence? What are the chances? Or is something else going on?...
Aang's question to Taiji broke her reverie. "So…no one's actually seen his face? Nobody knows who he really is?" The young monk seemed anxious about something.
Taiji shook his head. "Only the little girl, and her family, saw him without his mask," he replied, his voice quieter than before. "And the girl's family does not speak of it."
"Well, I for one, feel pretty indebted to him," Sokka blurted out. "He helped Aang escape the Fire Nation's clutches. He's gotta be a pretty upstanding guy. Anyone who's an enemy of the Fire Nation is definitely a friend of mine." He thumped his chest for emphasis.
"I wouldn't be so quick to say that," Toph inserted, turning her head towards Sokka, who abruptly deflated. "Wasn't that guy Jet an enemy of the Fire Nation, too? Aang told me all about him and how he turned on you guys in an instant, when he found out you weren't okay with his plans for mass murdering civilians."
Sokka folded his arms across his chest, waving her away with a hand. "Hush now, the big kids are talking." Toph moved her foot stealthily, and a pebble from a nearby planter pinged the side of his head. "Ow!"
Katara caught Aang lowering his eyes in a mixture of confusion and unease for the third time that afternoon, and wondered just what was going through the young airbender's mind. Aang's discomfort aside, she had already made up her own mind concerning their masked savior, and the news that he was right under their noses once again.
If he is in fact here, in this town, she thought to herself, I'm going to go find him.
Later that day she offered to pick up some food at the local marketplace, to repay Taiji for his hospitality towards their group. Sokka volunteered to accompany her, and to his surprise, Katara turned him down.
"I'll be fine," she insisted, shrugging and showing him the pouch slung over her shoulder. "Don't worry about me; I've got my water skin with me. It'll be faster if I just get the shopping done on my own, Sokka."
Feeling slightly dejected, Sokka watched as his sister departed for the marketplace, covering her suspicious Water Tribe attire with a dark cloak. He couldn't resist calling out after her: "Okay, but be home right afterwards, you hear me? No dilly-dallying!" Katara waved him off impatiently as she strode away.
Once out of eyesight of Taiji's home, Katara removed the hood of her cloak. It was afternoon, and the sun was warm above her; but beyond that, she wanted to make sure she was recognizable.
She entered the marketplace, and began browsing among the vendors' displays of food. She had offered to pick up some lean meats for Taiji and the rest of the group, and while she was at it, she would pick up some vegetables for Aang…and maybe some fruit. She was in the mood for mango, if they had any…
In the bustle of selecting fruits and vegetables, Katara momentarily lost track of her ulterior mission. But as she was inspecting an array of dried meats, she happened to glance upward at the reflective surface of a cooking pan hanging off the edge of the vendor's cart…and a flash of blue-white caught her eye.
A glimpse of the Blue Spirit's grinning mask, appearing briefly out of shadow across the vendor aisle behind her, and then disappearing back into it…
He's here, she thought, her heart leaping into her throat, he's following me! She took a deep breath to calm herself as a mantra started up in her head. Okay. Calm down. Don't look behind you. Don't look behind you. She had no intention of letting on that she knew he was there, lest she frighten him away from his secret surveillance.
Calmly she reached for a selection of dried meat, paying the vendor with copper pieces from her pocket. After adding the purchase to her small shopping pouch, she began removing her cloak, stretching her arms into the afternoon sun as though she were too warm to wear it anymore. She tossed her braid dramatically behind her, revealing her Water Tribe robes. Now he'll know that it's me, without a doubt.
She peeked surreptitiously into the pan once again. There! He was still observing her, ducking in and out of the shadows of the residence across the street. Her blue eyes took on a triumphant gleam as she fought hard not to smile.
Turning back towards the center of the marketplace, she moved on, acting as though nothing were out of the ordinary. With each step forward—knowing that he was following her, watching her, possibly coveting her—her steps lightened and her heart began to beat faster.
Some vegetables for Aang, some mangoes for breakfast tomorrow…smell that fresh air! What a glorious day! She hummed a happy tune to herself, giddy with the prospect of being tailed by a fiercely skilled, probably handsome, definitely sexy, masked vigilante warrior.
Chances are, he's sexy, she reasoned to herself, and not ugly or horribly disfigured underneath that mask—after all, who else would have the confidence to stand up to Fire Nation soldiers, by himself, with no help? Certainly not some guy who was paranoid about his own face. She was pleased with this deduction, and it served to further boost her own assuredness. He was probably so handsome, underneath, that the mask was most likely only half for the vigilante routine, and the other half to keep screaming fangirls from mobbing him at every turn.
Katara sighed. I wish he'd shown his face to me…
She almost stopped in her tracks with her next thought. Wait a minute…I'll capture him, she asserted, her eyes widening with the suggestion; I'll catch him and restrain him with my waterbending, and then I will unmask him! I'll find out why he's following me, and I'll be the first one to see who he really is underneath that mask! She grinned at the exciting prospect.
Another thought occurred: and then what will you do with him?
Katara blinked. She hadn't quite thought it out that far yet.
She turned her head casually, and out of the corner of her eye, somewhere a few steps back, saw that he was still following her in the shadows. Whomever he was, he was the picture of persistence.
With a gentle motion of her hand, an orb of water separated from the rest of the liquid inside the uncapped water skin slung at her waist. She had to wait for just the right moment, not an instant too late or too soon…
And then as if by divine intervention, a vendor's cart ahead of them accidentally turned over, cueing up shouts and hollers from the marketplace shoppers along the street. Glancing over in his direction quickly, Katara saw that Blue Spirit's attention was diverted. She struck.
Her hand whipped out into the air; the water obeyed her command, rushing towards its intended victim. It wrapped around both of his wrists and looped around a wooden beam of a corner shop he'd been standing next to, and froze solid.
Blue Spirit, to his credit, made no noise whatsoever, short of a startled gasp—but he twisted and yanked desperately at his ice-trapped wrists, turning his head to regard her standing in the middle of the marketplace street. Despite the mask's grinning face, still hidden in the half-shadows, she could almost feel the betrayed, accusatory stare he gave her.
Instead of feeling victorious, as she'd thought she would, Katara wanted to shrink into her shoes.
She stood rooted to the spot even as she heard a gruff, low male voice yell out from the other end of the street. "Waterbender! She's with the Avatar!"
Now she turned. It was a Fire Nation soldier, with several others behind him. They pointed in her direction, shouting and demanding she turn herself over to them.
Katara panicked. She didn't have much water left in her pouch, but she saw that she was fortunate enough to be surrounded on either side by barrels of well water. She brought her arms in a sweeping gesture from either side of her, upwards and then lunging forwards; directed by her movements, the water burst free from its containers and formed a towering wave against the approaching warriors. Five of them were taken under, the remaining few utilizing their firebending to burn off some of the water into harmless steam.
Katara stepped backwards, prepared to run—but in her haste, she realized she'd forgotten the Blue Spirit, still ice-cuffed in the corner shadows. Have to free him, before the soldiers…She whirled around to look in his direction behind her, but he was gone.
She turned ahead to see he was already free, facing off with the armed soldiers, drawing his broadswords. They descended upon him as he engaged them, chanting, "It's the Blue Spirit!"
How had he freed himself from the ice, without using his blades? She didn't have time to figure out the answer to her own question, as amidst the metallic clank of sword meeting spears, she heard the next words screamed from the mouths of the Fire Nation soldiers:
Katara's mouth dropped open. Oh, no. The Blue Spirit wasn't a bender of the elements; he had no means to defend himself against fire. The soldiers really would kill him! She could already see the firebenders behind the armed guards, taking their stances once more to call forth their flames.
In an instant she gave a grandiose sweep of her arms, twirling as she did, summoning the remains of the wave that had knocked down the first few soldiers. They were doused from behind, the wave quenching the fire bursting from their fists. As she did she watched as Blue Spirit ducked, taking advantage of the cover she offered him, and kicked the unsuspecting soldiers' feet out from under them. They fell at his feet drenched with water, trying to evade his attack.
His swords flashed above them, the sunlight glinting off metal; the blades sliced through ropes and twine holding displays together on a nearby rooftop. The contents, rocks and boulders, slipped through the broken net and fell on the cowering soldiers, knocking them out as they attempted to shield themselves.
The firebenders temporarily held at bay, Katara realized the Blue Spirit was now advancing quickly and steadily toward her, broadswords still out, chest heaving underneath his earth-colored tunic. She began to back away fearfully. He's come to get his revenge for my earlier stunt—I think I overplayed my hand this time. She didn't have enough water in her pouch to put up an attack. Without looking back, she took off running in the opposite direction.
If she had looked back, she would have seen him instead sheathing the blades behind his back before giving her chase down the middle of the street. He was faster, and seized her around the waist as he caught her, throwing her—screaming—over his shoulder before bounding away once more into the shadows of the marketplace.
The onlooking shoppers stared curiously at the scene, dumbfounded. Eventually they shrugged nonchalantly to one another, as if to say, just another job well done by the infamous Blue Spirit, and resumed their earlier activities as they stepped blithely over the dazed pile of fallen Fire Nation soldiers at the edge of the street.
An old, wizened man, having seen the entire spectacle, pumped his fist enthusiastically into the air. "'Atta boy! Good fer 'im!" he exclaimed, turning to an elderly woman next to him. "That Blue Spirit guy, he needed to go get himself a girl one of these days, anyway!"
The old woman frowned; then, to his mortification, she abruptly socked him hard with her oversized shoulder bag. He cowered at the onslaught. "Ow!"
Katara saw nothing for a brief stretch of time—with the exception of an up-close and personal view of the Blue Spirit's sheathed broadswords, which bumped rather annoyingly against her nose as she was carried over his shoulder like a bag of rice. She had stopped screaming for the moment, more out of realization that he wasn't going to hurt her, and that the screaming would just attract more soldiers; even so, she couldn't help herself from demanding in a harsh whisper, "Where are you taking me?"
He only shifted her against his shoulder in response, his arm across the back of her thighs holding her steady against him. Katara tried her best to bear the indignity of her situation with grace. Another part of her secretly marveled…he's got a nice, firm grip…
Before she knew what was happening next, they were out of the sunlight; they had entered some sort of dimly-lit residence, and he deposited her unceremoniously on a soft piece of furniture. While Katara floundered, attempting to regain her balance, he turned away again and closed the entrance behind them, chain-locking it for good measure.
She was up again in a flash, and made for the door. Blue Spirit held her back firmly with an arm across her chest, shaking his masked head and pointing outside the window next to him.
Katara peeked through the flimsy bamboo window shade. A trio of red and gold-decked soldiers marched by, making their way past the residence. She shrank back from the window, apprehension in her eyes. Blue Spirit held a finger to his grinning mouth in a gesture of silence, before turning back to the window and watching through the shade.
She looked around. The abode was humble, sparsely furnished, dim. "Where are we?" she asked aloud, before it finally registered. This is a temporary safe house, a hideout of sorts…perhaps this is where he lives part of the time.
Why had he brought her here, of all places?
"You can't keep me here as a prisoner," she whispered fiercely, turning to face him again, her hands fisting at her sides. "My brother and my companions will be looking for me…and they're very persistent."
He spared her a glance from the window, but it was a perfunctory sort of glance, one that suggested I know exactly who you're talking about, and I'm not worried in the least.
"And powerful," she added pointedly. "You do know that I travel with the Avatar, don't you?" She scoffed at herself. "What am I saying; of course you do…you rescued him before, from Zhao, all those months ago…" Her voice trailed off as she looked for some response from him, but the mask remained fixed at the window shade; watching, alert, sentient.
She studied him, fascinated.
From the back, as he faced the window, all she could see not covered by the mask was his pale neck, part of his chiseled jawbone, and unkempt, spiky short dark hair. The length looked uneven—almost as though it were growing back in from being shorn—
Something, a half-formed idea, tickled the back of her mind—and then it was gone.
Inching closer to him, Katara noted subtle observations. He was tall; lean, but muscular. He held himself regally. Even while wearing a mask, he seemed to radiate an air of nobility in his stance, posture, the way he used his hands. With the exception of his hair he was well groomed and his hands were smooth, nails relatively unblemished. He didn't have the hands of a ruffian, or someone who had been forced to do hard and dirty work for most of his life.
She moved even closer, slowly and furtively until she was practically upon him, and inhaled deeply. Underneath the earthy scent of the camouflaging olive-green tunic he was wearing, the faintest trace of musk—he must have worked up a slight sheen of sweat during the escape, she deduced—and underneath that, she thought she could just barely detect the slightly acrid scent of wood smoke.
He turned suddenly to face her; seeing her nearly pressed up against him and trying to discreetly sniff him, he backed away—either with caution, or because he thought her insanity might be contagious.
"Who are you?" she asked quietly, holding her ground. "Why are you following us around and helping us?"
No answer. Blue Spirit turned silently back to regard the activity outside of the window.
"Is it because of the Avatar?" Katara went on. Her eyebrows lifted in puzzlement. "If so, why were you following me around at the marketplace? He wasn't with me, today."
A thought occurred; perhaps he thought she was weaker than Aang and the rest, helpless, that she needed defending because she was a woman. Maybe he was a misogynist at heart.
"I'll have you know," she started, in a regally haughty tone—looking down to examine her nails in what she hoped was an authoritative fashion— "that I think it's great, what you're doing, rescuing the Avatar on occasion and all…but I really don't ever need the help, being that I'm pretty much a waterbending master by now."
Blue Spirit didn't seem impressed, still as a statue at the window. Her bravado deflated slightly. He did see me fight, she rationalized. Maybe it was already obvious to him that she was a skilled waterbender; maybe it wasn't out of a misguided sense of chivalry that he'd rescued her, after all.
Maybe he likes me? The thought had already occurred to her, but as long as he was a mute mask-wearing vigilante, it was impossible to tell anything else about him. If only he weren't such a mystery…
She examined him again thoughtfully, her hands on her hips as her curiosity once again reared its head. "I don't get it—why do you hold back from divulging who you are, even to those who you've helped?" she wondered. Blue Spirit remained silent.
"They say you never reveal yourself without your mask," she went on. "Is it because your identity must be kept secret? Because you have something to hide?..."
A moment passed, during which her voice lowered to a whisper as realization dawned on her. "…Because…you're already a fugitive…wanted by the Fire Nation?" At her suggestion, she saw his back stiffen in response.
That's why. He couldn't afford to reveal himself, not even to the people he'd rescued, for fear they or someone else would turn him in. Unmasked, he most likely had a pretty big bounty on his head, and money had a way of turning peoples' loyalties, no matter king or peasant.
How lonely that must be, she thought sadly, to not be able to trust anyone enough to even reveal your true face. No allies, no companions…and the few friends that he did make, he inadvertently put in danger, like the little girl from the village.
He was alone, against the world. Completely and totally alone.
When have I ever known what that felt like? she wondered. Even without her parents, she'd always had Sokka and Gran-gran…and now she had Aang, and Toph, and Appa and Momo as well.
The insight made Katara suddenly ashamed of her earlier behavior in attempting to capture him and expose him. I'm such a fool.
She spoke again, looking at her feet this time, humbled and somewhat embarrassed. "You know, I am a master waterbender, but…I'm still not as strong as I could be when I'm not in my natural element. I needed some help today, I guess," she confessed, quietly. "And…I needed it four days ago, so that I could save my friends."
She recalled the despair she'd felt before he had appeared. "You have no idea how close I was to just giving up—how much I'd lost hope, and then…you brought it back to me, when you freed me."
Unseen to Katara, his profile turned ever so slightly at her naked honesty, the masked face regarding her slowly over his shoulder.
"I put you in danger when I tried to trap you earlier," she went on, "and for that, I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me…I just…well…I wanted to see your face." She looked up, to see his sidelong glance, and it bolstered her momentarily. "I would definitely keep your secret, I promise that I would, but…I understand if you can't afford to risk it. I just…don't know if we'll see you again, and I'd like to know who you are..."
He waited, as though he knew somehow that further confessions were forthcoming.
I would love to know what you look like underneath, to see your eyes, your mouth...even just to hear how your voice sounds. Katara mentally cursed herself for being ten times more eloquent in her head than in speech.
"…I think you're really brave, for helping the people that you do, and…well…" Her voice trailed off softly. "…Anyway…I guess what I'm doing a really bad job of trying to say to you, is…
This time he turned completely around at her softly spoken words, to face her. Clear cerulean eyes searched the blue and white mask, with its demonic grin and its hollowed eyes. She knew he was staring, looking directly at her, but she couldn't see a thing past the mask's dark eye-sockets.
This time, she approached him slowly, arms loose at her sides, giving him time to move away if he was discomfited by it.
This time he made no move to stop her as she reached out to him with her hands, sliding them up his arms to his shoulders, and pressed herself up against him. She stood on tiptoe to level her face with his mask. Then as he stood absolutely still she leaned in, closing her eyes, and kissed the mask's grinning mouth—just the bottom lip—reverently as though it were his real one.
It was just a gentle, close-mouthed kiss, and immediately afterward Katara moved to let go of him and step away. But before she could, his arms came up around her suddenly, holding her to him. She stiffened at first…then relaxed, a gentle smile coursing her features. His arms felt nice; strong, sinewy muscle. And warm. He pulled her closer.
She searched the mask's features for evidence of his identity once more—some betraying eye color, a hint of what was beyond the disguise—to no avail. But her inquisitiveness was rewarded in a different way as she felt his hand come up to her face, cupping her cheek and tracing it gently down to her lips with his thumb. A spark of something unrecognizable jolted through her, and Katara leaned willingly into the touch.
The gesture was so intimate that for a moment she'd forgotten that she had no idea who this guy really was—much less that he barely knew who she was.
She decided to repay boldness with boldness, and indulge her curiosity.
"I wish I could thank you properly, with a real kiss," she breathed, emphasizing the words, "not just one on your mask." She moved her hands to the edge of it to lift the mask away from his face, but he stepped back abruptly, taking each of her wrists firmly in his grip and eliciting a startled gasp from his captive.
Katara was suddenly and powerfully reminded of being in such a position before; someone trapping her, quelling her, preventing her escape…a low, menacing voice in her ear…I'll save you from the pirates…
She dismissed the thought as quickly as it had popped into her head.
Holding her wrists, Blue Spirit shook his head from side-to-side in response to her attempt to remove the mask.
"The mouth," she whispered enticingly, her fear diminishing again, "just the mouth part. That's all, I promise." He cocked his head, appearing to contemplate it. Coyly she half-lidded her eyes, lowered her voice, and pressed her lips together in a subtle pout.
"Do you want me to kiss you?" she asked, demurely. The mask nodded slowly in affirmation. The softness in her features turned into a sultry smile. "Then let me. Please."
He released her hands, lowering his own arms to his sides. He remained motionless as she took hold of the lower edges of the mask and leisurely moved it upwards, only stopping her when his lips came into view. The words were mouthed, barely a whisper of sound escaping. Far enough.
His lips were smooth, his lower lip in particular appearing silky to the touch. Katara understood then that he was suddenly quite vulnerable before her, no longer able to see now that the mask was pushed up because the eyeholes were displaced. She decided she liked the idea that she was now in control of this moment, and he was yielding, waiting, anticipating her move.
She drew it out for as long as she could, reaching out to trace his bottom lip with the tip of her finger and feeling his breath hot against it. How often does he get kissed? she wondered absently. How often does he get this sweet contact, a girl pressing her lips to his? Probably not as often as he'd liked. Perhaps she'd had the opportunity more often than he had.
She had kissed boys before, twice during her travels—the pompous Jet, and the shy earthbender, Haru—but beyond the obvious, they couldn't have held a candle to the warrior standing before her. Jet was a fighter, but morally deficient when it came to protecting those who were innocent; Haru was sweet and kind, but balked at standing up for himself and reluctant to fight. Both lacked the unique mixture of compassion and courage she'd seen in Blue Spirit. Her mind grasped the irony of it. He's more loyal, more honorable than most; and yet he has to hide his face.
She saw his chest rising and falling, more rapidly now than minutes before. Taiji's words from earlier came to her … doesn't seem as though he's been too used to kindness.
I may not be the first to have shown him the kindness he deserves, she thought, but maybe he'll remember this a little more than a hot meal.
She pressed herself up to hesitantly meet his mouth with her own, tilting her face ever so slightly to avoid the edges of the mask, feeling him instantly respond. Her searching hands found their way to his shirtfront once more.
They kissed gently for long moments; just the soft movement of lips against lips, the quiet closeness of breaths mingling between them. Katara was lost in the sensation. So soft, just as I thought they'd be, she realized. She tasted something alternately sweet and spicy on his mouth, and again she inhaled the faintest trace of smoke…
She slowly became aware of something as their lips parted, opening her eyes. "You're trembling," she whispered, with tender incredulity; she moved then as though to pull away, to give him room, and to stand back and glimpse his face. Perhaps she'd invaded his personal space enough for one day…
But apparently, Blue Spirit had other ideas.
She gasped as his arms abruptly encircled her and he pulled her into him again, at the same time moving forward and backing her smaller frame up against the wall behind her. His hand cupped her cheek and he homed in on her lips again with his thumb, diving in for another kiss. This time it was definitely less chaste, more want and need, hot and searching.
Katara was surprised but didn't fight him—she was thrilled that he hadn't wanted to end their contact. Her surprise morphed into ecstatic wonder as she felt his lips part against hers, nudging her own to do the same. She shivered as she felt his tongue probing, soft and wet, tasting her, one of his hands entangling in the mass of wavy brunette hair secured in a loose bun at the back of her neck.
Neither of her prior experiences had been anywhere near as passionate. Not for one moment had she felt as she did now, as though she were going to ignite and spontaneously combust from the feeling that started low in her gut, like a slowly simmering burn.
Absorbed as she was with the kiss, it took Katara a moment to register that he essentially had her cornered, pressing her against the wall. He was at least a good head taller, with muscle and weight advantage. It occurred to her that she probably couldn't escape, even if she tried; fortunately, escape from his sweet assault on her mouth was the last thing on her mind.
On the contrary—she wanted more. She snaked her arms around his sinewy neck, drawing him in further and bringing him into the circle of her embrace. He was so warm that she wanted to melt into him, meld herself into his body.
As if in answer he moved in, only slightly breaking their kiss as he nudged her knees apart gently underneath her robe with one of his own. He shifted his weight, angling the lower half of his body to press even closer against her, one hand cradling her head and the other trailing a stealthy path down the soft slope of her neck towards her collarbone. She had no idea where his wayward hand was headed until it found its destination, his fingers cupping her petite breast and his thumb brushing the nipple through the outside of her robe.
Katara's entire body went rigid in wonder at the sensation, as she felt the nub of flesh harden under his touch. She gasped audibly against his mouth. "Oh!" The sound seemed to encourage him, and he repeated the caress more firmly, swallowing her next gasp with an increasingly demanding kiss.
Spirits above, if Sokka ever hears about me doing this…She put it quickly out of her mind. Katara was sure that her older brother would never want to find out that she had played a very touchy-feely game of kissy-face with a legendary masked warrior, even if he was a Fire Nation fugitive.
And in truth, that was really all she thought it would be. She was under the impression that this would be the pinnacle of their exchange—a passionate make-out session against the wall of an anonymous residence, nothing but mouths, tongues and lips, and stroking hands; something to recollect later with fondness, perhaps even to someday boast to the unsuspecting grandchildren that Aunt Wu had promised her. A long time ago when I was a young waterbender, I kissed the infamous freedom fighter, The Blue Spirit.
So she was understandably surprised when she felt a thick, hard length press up against her lower half, between her legs, its heat making itself known even through her insulating Water Tribe robes. Despite her inexperience, she knew instantly what it was.
It was apparent that he wanted a lot more than just a kiss.
She nearly stopped breathing as his tongue mimicked the movement below his waist, invading her mouth, insistent and demanding. His pelvis pressed into her again, rotating slowly, rhythmically.
Slightly dizzy, her face flushed, Katara whimpered against his lips. She had thought herself completely in control of her own body, but now she felt as though another part of her was awakening, taking over in response to what he was doing to her. It felt good…too good.
His hot mouth moved off from her lips to her neck, teeth nipping longingly at the soft flesh, and Katara gasped at the air like a fish out of water. With the rush of breath, she finally regained partial control over her senses and attempted to push him away. Though he was stronger, he released her without hesitation and stepped back, adjusting the grinning mask to obscure his face once more. They stood apart, regarding one another, panting with the force of their mutual desire; Katara could hear the whisper of labored breath underneath his mask, could see the prominent evidence of his excitement that had pressed against her just a moment ago.
What are you doing? she berated herself as she watched him, you can't possibly be thinking of doing anything more with him. You don't know anything about him—you don't even know who he is.
Although she was of marrying age—now a year past it, actually—it wasn't proper, according to the customs of her tribe. Young unmarried women did not engage in those types of activities with men, much less strange foreign men wearing masks.
Besides, it's not as though we have any kind of future, she scoffed. He and I may never meet again—I'll move on toward Ba Sing Se with Aang, and he'll stay or move on to the next Earth Kingdom town, defending people there. He'll forget all about this, and about me.
The thought made her suddenly, inexplicably sad. Blue Spirit cocked his head, observing her; she wondered if he knew somehow what she was thinking, if he could read it on her face.
And yet, although the thought had made her sad, it also bequeathed her with a glimmer of hope. But…if we never meet again, no one will know…
… I'll never be here, like this again, and neither will he, she reasoned. This one moment here, this sliver of time, won't ever be repeated by anyone…it's ours, his and mine, alone.
And that makes it unique…and special.
The gravity of the moment fell upon her like a lead weight. Katara realized that she did want him, wanted his hands all over her, wanted to kiss him again—she wanted whatever was in store following this, even if it were fleeting. I may never get this chance to act on my feelings like this, ever again.
And suddenly something Gran-gran had told her, years ago when encouraging her waterbending activities, came to her clear as day: happiness hates the timid.
Her eyes fixed bravely and unwaveringly on him, Katara lifted her hand with deliberate slowness and undid the sash at her waist. Her loosened blue and white robe now gaped at the bodice, revealing her white breastband wraps as well as a peek at the smooth dark skin of her stomach.
Blue Spirit was still for a long, breathless instant, during which Katara thought she saw the hint of a shudder run through his entire body. Then with calm purpose he reached up to his shoulders and removed the straps of the scabbard that held his twin broadswords to his back, dropping the sheath gently to the floor as he approached her again.
She remained motionless, doing her best not to appear nervous as he advanced, her eyes widening in anticipation. Then as though someone had wound a clock, time abruptly sped up; one of his hands was adjusting his mask, the other cupping her face before his lips found hers once more. She returned the kiss with willing surrender, winding her arms around his neck.
His hands were on her again, flowing over her as if they were liquid, as his mouth worked at her studiously—fingers cradled her cheek, slipping inside her open robe to caress her bared skin. They curled into the pleat of hair at the back of her neck; she felt him removing the band, the pins that held her hair in place, and he ran his hands through the soft freed locks and loosened the plait into waves with his fingers.
She took his lead and let her hands explore him, moving them down to his shirtfront. He obliged her, even going as far as breaking their kiss to eagerly divest himself of his tunic, his head bowed and his mask askew as he opened the front of it. She had a view of the sleek, pale skin of his chest as he shrugged it off onto the floor.
His physique was perfect. Beautiful, she countered in her own mind. His arms were strong, as well-built as the rest of him. Her hands descended on his torso almost hungrily, sculpting the muscles and definition with her touch, sliding her fingers down his lean stomach—here he jumped, the muscles contracting slightly; ticklish, Katara thought—and feeling it end in sparse wisps of hair right before his pant line.
She was so absorbed with what was before her that she barely took notice of him watching her through the skewed eyeholes of the mask, studying her rapt expression as she touched him.
He toyed with her open robe again and she stiffened as she felt his hands reaching inside, attempting to slip deftly underneath the wrapping fabric covering her breasts. He felt her hesitation and instantly stopped, withdrawing his hands slightly; she could almost feel his puzzlement through his halted fingers.
She exhaled and gathered her wits. "I'm sorry," she said softly, attempting a feeble explanation. "I've just never—no one's touched me like that before—" which wasn't completely true; there had been Jet in his treehouse a long time ago, and his roaming fingers, and he'd even gone as far as grazed her bared nipples with his teeth—"and…it's a little weird—"
As she explained, one of his hands stole back into her robe with slow, stealthy movements, and she felt his thumb brush the nipple through the thin covering over it. She fell again into a languid paralysis from the touch and he increased the pressure with his thumb, rubbing slow circles against the hardened peak. His mouth found hers again hungrily; she groaned between his lips. He reached in and with both hands undid the bindings that covered her, and cupped her naked breasts with warm fingers.
Katara felt herself begin to shake. She broke the kiss to laugh self-effacingly, nearly nose-to-nose with his shadowed face. "…Now I'm trembling."
His fingers gentled once more, his touches becoming more soothing. She wondered aloud, "You don't—you don't do this with every girl you rescue, do you?" The question sounded stupid before it had even left her lips. Of course he didn't—hadn't she just mused earlier how infrequently he must have been kissed?
Nevertheless Blue Spirit indulged her, the skewed mask once more obscuring his face, and shook his head from side to side. He pulled a hand away to take one of hers and placed it on his own bare chest, above his heart—which was pounding out a crazed tempo underneath his skin. He's just as nervous as I am.
His other hand stroked her soft cheek, the fingers trailing along her downy-soft skin from her cheekbone to her jaw and further down the slope of her neck. Katara watched him breathlessly as the hand moved lower, skating across her collarbone, and then to her shoulder where it teased her loosely-bound robe away. She shrugged, helping him, her eyes never roving from the demonic grin, and the robe fell off of her other shoulder onto the floor. She was now completely bared from the waist up.
Blue Spirit tugged her closer and moved to kiss her again. As she parted her lips for him, responding, she felt him guide them both down to the plush loveseat she'd noticed earlier; she felt herself sinking as he pulled her down with him, and realized she was straddling his lap. He shifted beneath her. The friction was tantalizing.
"…Do that again," she whispered. He obliged, rolling his hips against her, ducking his head as he did to hide his face under the skewed mask. His mouth roamed her neck and moved lower, and he bowed his head further as he found the swell of her breasts and then her nipples with his lips and teeth.
It was almost too much to bear. His mouth was so hot, Katara thought she might melt into him. She gasped and held onto him around his sinewy neck as he drew her against him once more, his hand on the small of her back. His other hand curled around her waist moved, squirming underneath her white-wrapped underclothes covering her hips, fingers scorching against her skin.
Katara had no idea how excited she'd actually become from all of their activities—until she felt those fingers dip lightly between the outer lips of her sex, through her long underwear, gliding along the moisture there. A blood-red blush heated her face. …I didn't know I was so wet…
He didn't remove his fingers, instead sliding them tremulously upward to the small nub of flesh at the top of her slit. Katara yelped and nearly jumped as though she had touched lightning.
"—Please," she blurted, not really certain what it was that she was pleading for, but attempting to move against his fingers again.
He turned her so that she was no longer on his lap but on her back on the soft furniture, looking up at him as he hooked his fingers in the waistband of her white long underwear. He seemed to pause beforehand, as though silently asking her permission.
He tugged them off, over her hips and legs, tossing them behind him onto the floor. She felt his fingers between her legs once more, probing gently, rubbing and teasing; she could hear the labored whisper of his breath underneath the mask as he did.
Three fingers stroked her gently, massaging, the touches growing more confident and sure-handed by the moment. She arched her back into it, reaching for him—anything to grasp that she could get her hands on. Her hands settled tentatively on his mask, as one last silent plea for him to remove it; Blue Spirit shook his head, defiant, keeping his focus solely on her.
Katara's hands moved lower down the plane of his chest to his pant line, and then lower still to trace the prominent hardness underneath his drawstring pants. Infinitely curious, she traced it with her fingertips; he stilled instantly, the whisper of his breath even louder than before.
Then he was pushing his pants down his pale and slim hips with his other hand, baring himself to her completely. He took her hand in his and brought it to him, showing her how to curl her fingers around his flesh to his liking, and guiding her soft hand from root to tip. She'd never actually touched one before, not like this—and she was thankful for the brief instruction. This is how he probably touches himself, when he's alone.
She took his lead and moved her hand of her own accord, stroking him firmly, watching and listening for his reactions. She heard him barely suppress a groan through the mask; she shuddered with excitement at the sound of it.
Then he was divesting himself entirely of his clothing, pushing his pants the rest of the way off—and he moved over her once more, gathering her legs and settling his body between them. Katara parted her thighs eagerly, anticipating, her entire body tingling. It was happening quickly, but she was ready for it. She closed her eyes.
A full minute went by…and nothing happened, save again for the whisper of the Blue Spirit's ragged breaths trapped inside his mask.
She opened her eyes, and looked up.
He was poised above, still and motionless as though he were suspended in time, just staring, the demonic mask grinning down at her with its mouth open in a silent rictus of laughter—only, for some strange reason, she sensed he was not at all laughing or even smiling behind it. He had her knees hooked over each of his arms; she was completely bared to him. He was less than a hair's breadth away from pushing himself inside her, of joining their flesh in the most intimate of ways.
Katara's brows knitted together and she wriggled slightly, wondering why he was hesitating now, of all times, after everything they'd done. She'd already acquiesced to him. What is he waiting for?
After a minute that felt like an eternity, he lowered one of her legs. The hand that had previously held it behind the knee stole carefully up to his face.
He moved the mask aside, over his forehead.
Golden eyes filled her vision, as well as his scruffy dark hair, and the scar…that scar…
"—Zuko—" she breathed, her breath hitching in her chest. And then it suddenly, fearfully, horrifyingly made sense. Her face crumpled with disbelief. "Zuko?"
Her body had finally caught up with her mind and she started to struggle against him. It didn't help that they were both naked, her legs spread before him, and oh Spirits help me—how could I have known?—
He held her fast. "Please," he whispered, panting with the force of his desire, "please don't, Katara…don't."
And then he was kissing her again, the taste and scent of him so familiar now and overwhelming her senses. Despite herself, she felt her lips moving hungrily against his. One of his hands was between her thighs, stroking her with his thumb where she swelled in response to his touch, and she gasped again with renewed need.
"Let me," Zuko gasped between her lips, the head of his cock just brushing the wet heat of her sex, "let me, let me, please, Katara, you feel so good..."
And then inexplicably she was letting him press forward, feeling the hard silkiness of him slide up and into the hot core of her, feeling him invade her in all senses of the word. But he was slow, painstakingly so, as to not inadvertently hurt her. Katara knew she had no immediate pain to fear, and in the cacophony of all of her confused emotions—distrust and anger and yearning and impatience—she buried one of her hands in his hair and twisted the short, shorn locks roughly between her fingers, yanking him further into her embrace. This was a battle, too, like every interaction they'd had with one another—and she wasn't going to lose.
Zuko yelped when she seized him by the hair. His discomfort was short-lived, and his bruising kiss swallowed up the groan that had tried to escape from her lips. He pressed on, not stopping until he'd completely sheathed himself inside her, and despite the way her muscles stretched and ached to accommodate him, she felt herself tilting her hips further. There was soreness, but it vanished almost as soon as his pelvis was flush against hers, buried in her to the hilt; after that there was nothing but heat and wet, grappling with one another amidst their combined groans and sighs.
He moved, and then she moved. Instinct guided them, made up for the inexperience of them both. It wasn't hard to learn what to do when he was now so expressive—sighing, whispering nonsensical praises in her ear, the muscles in his arms shaking and shuddering to support the weight of his thrusting hips. It was as though without his mask, Zuko was stripped of the last remnants of his own personal armor. In his whispers she heard his anguish; against his mouth, she felt his desperate vulnerability.
At some point, his mask was pushed completely off of his head; she was turned on her side, one of her legs flush against his chest, his fingers again working at her and stroking her just above where they were joined. In the midst of it Katara forgot completely where she was, and cried out too loudly at her climax. She hadn't meant for him to know she enjoyed it. She doubted he'd heard, though, as he followed quickly down after her.
They did nothing after that for a long moment but stare at one another as if in shock, fighting to catch their post-coital breaths while tangled up in each other.
Then Katara moved away from under him, sliding off of the couch onto the floor where her discarded robe and leggings lay, covering herself with the loose robe and tucking her legs in modestly. Zuko followed but kept a respectful distance on the floor.
Her eyes narrowed threateningly as she looked on him again. She spoke, her voice tight with anger, and he responded so quickly it was almost as though he finished her sentence.
"You tricked me—"
"—I had to, because I wanted you." He continued hastily, as though she wouldn't give him much time to speak. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry I deceived you at first. But…I thought maybe you would be okay with this…" At her infuriated expression, he hurriedly backpedaled in his argument. "…You kissed me first!"
"Well how was I supposed to know it was you!" she cried, indignant. "You were wearing a mask!"
"If I had taken it off earlier," he postulated, and Katara could hear the hint of melancholy behind his words, "would you have let me get close enough to you, to do what we did?"
Of course she wouldn't have. He had to have known the answer to that would have been an emphatic and determined no.
Zuko's eyes—his good one and to a lesser extent, his scarred one—widened and searched hers, thoughtfully. "…You would have let a complete stranger touch you, like that?"
Katara frowned in defiance. "A complete stranger who wasn't my enemy." To her surprise, Zuko looked as though she'd wounded him.
"I'm not your enemy."
"Oh, really?" she drawled sarcastically. "Then you agree that your father's reign needs to be put to an end? Then you're not going to try to capture Aang, any longer? You're okay with all of that?" She summoned up her bristling anger from when he'd tied her to the tree. "But what about your precious honor?..."
Zuko's frustration bubbled up to the surface. "I don't know, okay!" he growled. "I don't know what I think about those things. It's—" He faltered awkwardly, and to her own horror Katara felt a twinge of compassion emerging for him. He took a deep breath and calmed himself before he spoke again.
"I'm just not…I know I'm not the same person you fought at the North Pole so many months ago."
He sounded sincere. She found herself wanting to believe it—that even if he hadn't completely changed, that he was on the verge of doing so, of realizing that the side he was on in this war was the wrong one—but after the events of this afternoon, Katara had lost all faith in her own judgment of character.
Besides, there was Jet. Jet had tricked you too; remember?
Her eyes hardened, and her hand moved in the direction of her water skin, lying on the floor beside her discarded leggings.
Zuko saw it. "Katara," he said sternly, but his eyes were pleading with hers. Don't, she read in them.
Her subtle movements formed the beginnings of a water-whip. His good eye narrowed.
Then he reached forward and kissed her hard, ducking the coiled rope of water that she slung in his direction. Before she could manifest another one, he'd pulled on his pants in haste and leapt out the door. She lashed out with a yell and another whip in fury after him.
Katara held her robe loosely around her naked frame and ran to the door, trying to follow, but there were people on the street right outside of the residence and they looked with eyebrows raised in curiosity at the half-clothed Water Tribe girl. She tugged her robe tighter around her body and watched Zuko escape.
Only now did the full weight of comprehension sink in, and the realization of what she'd done. Shit. Shit! Katara balled her hands into fists and stomped at the ground in fury.
Even her body had betrayed her. When he'd revealed his identity in the midst of what they'd been doing, she hadn't stopped—she hadn't really even wanted to. Of course, he had been more than persuasive…
Still, it was Zuko. Her enemy, who had followed her around the world for months, trying to capture the Avatar. She had a right to prejudge him, didn't she?...
But…Zuko had saved them since then, including Aang, now multiple times. Zuko was actively defending Earth Kingdom villagers against corruption, and rebelling against his own people. And it was likely that Zuko had a Fire Nation bounty on his head. He was certainly more vulnerable now than he'd been before, stripped of his armor, naval ship, and weaponry.
Katara watched after him, and decided she was going to figure out exactly what was going on with the Fire Prince. She would get it out of him, one way or another…
Her perplexed and mildly irritated expression from before was now replaced by a rather sinister smirk. He had followed her this time because he'd wanted her. He'd said it himself; their rendezvous had been no mere accident. And if the spirits would allow her judgment of character to be favorable for just this once, Katara was willing to bet he would follow her, still.
Just you wait, Zuko. I'm not anywhere close to being finished with you, yet.
—you and I have unfinished business
—baby, you ain't kidding