Notes: This takes place in the same universe as "One Night in Ba Sing Se" and "Two Nights in Republic City". This is how Zuko and Suki hooked up. ;) I have had this story in my head for a while, but I've never had an excuse to write it out before, but it fit the prompt so well that I couldn't resist. As a result, it's wordy. I did some fast writing this evening.
Music crashed around them in a cacophony of sound, battling with the hum of a thousand excited voices. The little village of Akahana was alive with people, art, fireworks, flowers and food. The smells of mulled wine and cooking food filled the air, delighting the senses. The scent of flowers threaded through everything. Red and white flowers draped the village square, the stalls and the people of Akahana. Women of all ages wore flower crowns and the men wore them upon their lapels, giving everything an earthy, yet ethereal feel.
Everything was a riot of color, a feast for the senses. Joy seemed to thrum through the crowds like a living thing, infecting everyone as the music swelled and crashed.
A small army of children rushed through the crowds, dodging legs and skirts, laughing as they tossed tiny paper pouches on the ground. Where the pouches hit, a sharp pop! exploded, making the festival goers jump and laugh from the harmless fireworks.
Zuko watched them go as he walked through the bustling crowd. His head swiveled this way and that as he stared at everything beneath the hood he'd pulled on to cover his famously scarred face. For the past month, he'd been touring the Fire Nation in secret. He'd been attending the myriad of festivals held every summer in the smaller villages and islands, visiting the hospitals and army barracks, and holding Royal audiences with the peasants too poor to travel to the capitol to bring him their grievances.
For years now, he'd felt cooped up at the palace, under heavy guard, watching his people from afar, just as his father and his grandfather had done when they'd been Fire Lord. He wanted to be a different kind of Fire Lord though, one who connected to his people, who listened, who understood their ways and cared about them. What better way than to become one of them, even for a short time?"
His advisors had not been happy about his decision, but being the Fire Lord had its perks, and there had been very little that they could do about it. The only thing they'd insisted on was that he take at least one armed guard with him. There'd only been one person who had sprung to mind at that suggestion.
Zuko turned to watch the finely muscled woman threading her way through the crowd a few steps behind him. Dressed in Fire Nation red, with her ruddy brown hair flowing down her shoulders in waves—longer than he'd ever seen it—and minus her usual dramatic face paint, Suki looked just like all of the other women here.
Except that wasn't strictly true. She currently was the only one without a flower crown, and, he noted with a hot swooping sensation in his stomach that circled lower, she was also the most devastatingly beautiful woman there.
He'd known Suki for years now, as a friend, as a bodyguard, as his friend's girlfriend. He'd always thought that she was beautiful, intelligent, graceful, kind, and funny, but ever since she'd stepped off of the boat that had taken her from her home on Kyoshi Island to the Capitol, he'd been utterly blindsided by how attracted to her he suddenly was.
A lot had happened to Suki over the years. She'd resigned from being his bodyguard two years ago and moved back to Kyoshi Island to train the other warriors. Her relationship with Sokka had been a tumultuous on-again/off-again thing for years now. He knew from his many late night conversations with Sokka that Suki had wanted to get married and have children, and that Sokka hadn't been ready.
Nearly a year ago, Suki and Sokka had broken up, and it looked like this time the break up was permanent. Since arriving in the Fire Nation, Suki had pointedly not spoken about Sokka, but he knew that she was still dealing with the breakup. She'd had her heart completely broken, which made Zuko's sudden attraction to her absolutely inconvenient and completely hopeless.
They'd been traveling together for a month now, staying in inns and a few of the country estates of the noblemen and women of his Court. Even though he could still see the lingering sadness clinging to her, he was enjoying her company more than he'd ever thought possible.
Face it, he chastised himself, and not for the first time, as he saw her smiling at a man wandering through the crowd, exuberantly playing a fife, you're falling for her.
The fife player jumped and spun, nearly colliding with him. Zuko stepped back to avoid being knocked over. Somewhere above them, a firework went off with a loud whiz-bang! causing him to glance up at it.
"This is amazing!" Suki shouted over the noise, a grin splitting her face as she took in the Flower Festival around them. "Reminds me of the Unagi Festival back home on Kyoshi!"
"Oh? Is it as loud as this?" he called, leaning toward her to be heard.
"Not nearly! But there is a gigantic Unagi puppet that rides through the streets and devours naughty children!"
Zuko pulled back, making a face. "Spirits! Is it any wonder I tried to burn the place down?"
"Very funny!" Suki smacked his arm and then nearly fell into him when a little boy wearing a mask collided with her. He caught her easily, his arms going around her waist to keep her upright. "Ooof! Bit crowded!"
He set her back on her feet and glanced around. "Come on!"
He took hold of her hand and tugged her down the crowded street and into the wider, less congested square. Once there, he pulled up short, staring at the 20 foot tall dragon effigy made of wood and decorated with red and white flowers. He knew from his research that tonight the Mayor of Akahana would set fire to the effigy. As it burned, all of the villagers would light torches from the blaze and carry the fire back to their homes and hearths to symbolize the ending of summer and the coming of autumn.
"That's beautiful," Suki said, awed as she tightened her hand in his. He glanced down at their twined fingers and stifled the flash of heat and longing twisting through him.
"Very beautiful," he said softly, staring at her profile. When she turned to face him, he noticed a soft blush to her cheeks. Immediately he wanted to kick himself. Had he let on too much? Did she guess what he was thinking, and had been thinking since she'd stepped off that boat, the sun shining on her hair, those gorgeous violet eyes dancing with happiness to see him, and that sadness lurking in her smile?
"Flowers for the happy couple?"
Zuko started, staring at the hunch backed old woman who had appeared at their side. She was holding a basket in one hand and a flower crown and a single red flower in the other hand. A flower crown of her own wreathed her wispy iron-gray hair. She looked expectantly at the two of them, still holding hands.
"Umm…we're not…" he started, dropping her hand, but Suki merely smiled and took the flowers from the old woman.
"Thank you!" she said to the old woman, who nodded and disappeared back into the crowd. He watched as Suki pulled the crown down over her head. Their fragrance was heady and it drew him toward her. When she looked up and met his gaze, he felt that deep-down tightening in his guts again. "Come here."
He stood still as she put the flower's stem through one of his buttonholes, and then smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of the front of his hooded tunic.
"How do I look?"
"Like a local."
"Good. I don't want anyone to recognize me. I just want to blend in," he said, glancing around. No one had really tried to look past the shadowed overhang of his hood so far, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before someone did; someone always did these days. Being the Fire Lord had completely ruined any chance at anonymity he'd ever had.
A series of loud pop-pop-pop's to their left made both of them turn, startled at the nearness and by the jarring chorus of laughter and taunts that accompanied it, along with the wailing sound of distress that struck Zuko right in the chest. He knew that sound, and he didn't like it.
A pudgy little girl of about seven years old was cringing against the wall, her feet dancing in place as the same unruly band of boys that had been racing through the crowd threw fireworks at her feet. Another one was tossing berries at her, leaving purple smudges on the little girl's skin and dress and on the wall at her back. A flower crown had been ripped off of her head and had been smashed beneath one of the boys' feet.
"Dumpy Du-Ji! Got a fat toooshy!" they all chanted in a nasty chorus as the girl pleaded with them to stop, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Oh, fuck no," Suki said immediately, charging across the square. She didn't hesitate as she grabbed one of the boys, hauling him back by the scruff of the neck. She stepped past him and put herself in between the little girl and her tormentors, pulling out her fan and whipping it open at the same time. She knocked a berry aside with the fan, her eyes blazing. "I believe she asked you boys to stop!"
"Who are you?" their ringleader, the boy with the berries, sneered at Suki.
"My bodyguard," Zuko said, coming up behind them. They whirled on him, their eyes widening as they took in the sight of him, tall, muscled, the hood throwing his face into menacing shadow.
"You need a bodyguard? She's just a girl!" Berry Boy exclaimed, spitting the word girl like it was a dirty word.
"She's not just a girl. She's a dangerous woman and a fierce warrior and she doesn't like bullies. Neither do I. Now apologize."
"My dad's the Mayor! I can do whatever I want!" Berry Boy announced imperiously. Zuko snorted.
"I don't care who your father is. Apologize to her, now."
"No way! What are you going to do about it, old man?" Berry Boy snapped.
Old man? OLD MAN?! That little shit…
Zuko bent down, pulling his hood back at the same time. He got into the boys' face, his eyes narrowing as he lifted his hand and let fire leap into his palm. The boy started, eyeing both the fire and the scar on his face "I'm going to do what I do to all of the bullies I come across. Now apologize to the girl or you'll find out what that is the hard way. That goes for all of you."
There was a mumbled chorus of "Sorry, Du-Ji." Even the ringleader mumbled it, only grudgingly, with a mean look in his narrowed eyes.
Zuko nodded in satisfaction. "Good job, now if I catch any of you messing with her again, trust me…I won't be happy. And as for my bodyguard? You really don't want to see her angry. She's meaner and tougher than I am."
His gaze met Suki's and he saw mirth twinkling in her eyes as the boys turned to stare at her in sudden fear. He nodded imperceptively and Suki lifted her arms over her head, letting out a loud, "BWAAHAHAHAA!"
The boys jumped and took off across the square immediately, leaving the three of them standing there. Zuko grinned as he saw Berry Boy glare back at them before disappearing into the crowd. Suki laughed and put her fan back onto her belt.
"That was fun."
"I really don't like bullies," he said, glancing around Suki at the little girl, who was now sniffing back tears. He noticed that her nose had started to run and he fished into his pockets, pulling out a handkerchief. He crouched down in front of her with a soft smile as Suki did the same. "Hey, you okay? Did they hurt you?"
Du-Ji glanced at Suki and then shyly back at him. "I'm okay. They just scared me s'all. Thank you for stopping them. Most people don't bother, cuz of Kaji's dad."
"Do they do that often?" Suki asked gently, taking the handkerchief from him and gently dabbing at the girls' cheeks.
"Yeah. They're always makin' fun of me cuz I'm fat and ugly."
"Hey now, don't say that. Don't you listen to them! They're just dumb boys who want to pick on someone," Suki said, pulling her into a hug.
Du-Ji shook her head. "I'm not pretty, though. Everyone at school says so. I'll never be pretty. Not like you are, lady."
"Oh, I think Suki is very pretty…but not as pretty as you," Zuko said, catching her attention again. He noted the way her gaze went to his scar and stayed there. He guessed that it probably made him look pretty intimidating to a child.
"You're just sayin' that so I'll stop cryin'," she sniffed.
"No, we're not. I think you're very pretty too." Suki slipped the flower crown off of her own head and put it gently over Du-Ji's hair. "I think those boys are just mean and dumb. Next time they try and tease you, you just ball your fist up like this and then you punch one of them straight in the mouth."
The girl's eyes widened. "Hit them?"
"Right in the mouth."
"Suki…" Zuko started, but she ignored him.
"Trust me, they won't mess with you again if you show them you're not afraid of them."
"I can't do that! Kaji's dad is—"
"ARE YOU THE MAN WHO THREATENED MY SON?" an imperious voice boomed across the square, making all of the festival-goers stop and stare at them. Zuko stiffened, realizing that he'd put his hood down. He met Suki's gaze and she winced.
Well. There went his anonymity.
Zuko stood up and turned to face the man who had charged across the crowd towards them. The man, wearing the red sash of the Mayor of Akahana, a flower pinned to his lapel, was red-faced, his mustache bristling with rage. Berry Boy—Kaji—was stomping along behind him, looking triumphantly smug.
"Yes, sir, I am," Zuko said clearly and was unsurprised to see the Mayor's face blanch as he immediately recognized him. The scar was unmistakable, after all.
"F-Fire Lord Zuko!" the Mayor said, his mouth falling open before he hastily dropped into a lumbering bow. Kaji's mouth dropped open in shock as his father yanked him down into a bow. All of the other villagers within earshot also bowed, ramping up Zuko's irritation. He hadn't come here to be genuflected.
"Please, stand," Zuko said, lifting his hands to indicate that they should rise. They slowly climbed to their feet, looking at him in awe. He doubted a Fire Lord had made an appearance in Akahana for several hundred years. If ever. As with all of the other places he and Suki had visited on this trip, he felt a little like a sideshow with all of their eyes on him.
"Your Highness, if I had known you would be attending the Flower Festival, I would have welcomed you with a great feast and all of the pomp and circumstance a visit from the Fire Lord demands," the Mayor said eagerly.
"Which is precisely why I didn't inform you. I'm just here as any other reveler. I'm not looking for special treatment. Frankly, the pomp gets a little wearying after a bit," Zuko said honestly. "And I believe you came over here to talk about your son?"
"Oh!" The Mayor's face went bright red as he glanced back at his son. "Oh, that. Youthful exuberance, you'll have to excuse him. Boys will be boys and all. I'm sure you had your reasons. Water under the bridge, as they say."
Zuko glanced at Suki, who was holding Du-Ji's hand, and saw her eyebrow go up. Amusement ran through him.
"It's not water under the bridge, actually. And boys should be held responsible for their actions just like everyone else," Zuko said sharply. "Your son and his friends were taunting this little girl, even though she repeatedly asked them to stop. My bodyguard and I stepped in to stop it. When your son refused to apologize and was rude to me and my bodyguard, that's when I threatened him."
The Mayor glanced at Du-Ji in recognition, telling Zuko everything he needed to know. The man was well aware of his spoiled son's antics and of the fact that poor little Du-Ji was usually the brunt of it. Dislike for the man welled in him and he couldn't help but let it show on his face.
"Did he…ah…did he apologize to her?" the Mayor asked carefully, probably very aware that more than a few of his constituents were listening in on this interesting conversation. In fact, they were starting to gather a crowd.
"Yes," Zuko said, nodding. "But if I hear of your son and his friends bullying her or anyone else in the future, I assure you, both of you will come to regret it. I take the happiness and safety of all of my people very seriously, Mayor. And I really don't like bullies."
He let ice creep into his voice, the threat there for all to see. He honestly didn't know what he was threatening, but that hardly mattered. The Mayor understood him completely.
"Of-of course, Fire Lord Zuko. I'll have a talk with the boy. I assure you, no further instances will occur."
"See that they don't," Zuko said, putting one hand on Du-Ji's shoulder protectively. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Mayor, I'd like to enjoy the rest of your beautiful festival."
He turned his back on the Mayor, dismissing him as rudely as possible. Suki's face was blank, but he could tell she was trying not to laugh as the Mayor hesitated, and then walked away, dragging Kaji with him. As soon as he was out of earshot, Suki burst into laughter.
"Oh, you enjoyed that, didn't you?" she giggled.
"Maybe a little," he admitted and then glanced down at Du-Ji. "Those boys won't be bothering you again, okay?"
Her eyes were huge as she looked at him, probably as intimidated by him as the Mayor had been. "Thank you. Are you really the Fire Lord?"
"Yeah, wow," Zuko said with a laugh and then glanced around. "Where are your parents?"
She gestured down one of the stall-filled side streets that jutted off of the main square. "They have a food stall down there."
"Come on, we'll take you back to them, okay?" Zuko said, taking one of her hands as Suki did the same. Together they walked her back to her parents, swinging her between their hands as she giggled. Her parents, who had been looking for her for some time, thanked them profusely for returning her. Du-Ji hugged them both as her father gave them free food. He had a feeling that the man recognized him, but was too polite to ask after his identity.
After giving Du-Ji one last grin, he and Suki wandered off down the rows of stalls, eating and shopping, and taking in the sights. They watched a puppet show, a man painted to look like a living statue, and a woman dancing with nothing but red scarves on. Suki had to pry him away from that performance, laughing at the glazed look on his face.
When Zuko saw the old woman with the basket of flowers again, he went over to her and claimed another flower crown. He brought it back to Suki, slipping it around her head as she studied a display of decorative knives. She started and turned on him, reaching up a hand to touch the crown.
"You gave your other one to Du-Ji," he explained as she smiled up at him.
"Thanks," she said, reaching out and touching the flower on his lapel. He caught her fingers, holding them to his chest. Without thinking, he lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the backs of her fingers. Suki's cheeks turned a warm pink.
"You know, you probably shouldn't have told Du-Ji to punch anyone," he said amusedly, drawing her a little bit closer to him. She went willingly.
"Hey, I've always found a punch in the mouth works best when diplomacy stops working," she said, watching as he rubbed the backs of her fingers with his own.
"I'll have to remember that next time I get into an argument with one of the Earth King's ambassadors," he said warmly.
"Oh sure, start another war," she teased lightly as he grinned down at her. "Come on, let's go see the jugglers."
After that, they walked hand in hand through the stalls, neither one of them verbally acknowledging it, but neither of them letting go either.
Night fell and gigantic iron torches were lit around the stalls, streets and the square. The late summer air was crisp and decadent with the scents of wine and flowers. He and Suki made their way into the square again, only to find that a band was now playing lively tunes in one corner of it, and that people were dancing around the flower-dragon in the center of the square.
Suki glanced at him, that mischievous light back in her eyes again.
"No!" he said, letting go of her hand and waving her off.
"Come on! It'll be fun!"
"It'll be humiliating!" he insisted.
"Please dance with me, Zuko!" she said, grabbing his hand and tugging him forward.
"I…I don't dance…" he stumbled.
"Fine! You can watch me have all the fun then!" she said, sticking out her tongue at him. Then she spun away from him, dancing into the crowd as they started forming some sort of intricate formation where they all touched hands in a circle. He didn't know how she knew the moves. Maybe she was just a fast learner.
He watched from the sidelines as she ducked and spun, clasping arms, laughing as the music rose and fell with a jaunty crescendo. Her hair caught the firelight, turning it red in streaks as her exertions made her cheeks turn pink.
When the dancers suddenly paired off, Suki was scooped up by a brawny young man with jet black hair and thick muscles. She grinned at him as he spun her around. Zuko started forward a step, not even realizing he'd moved at first. He stopped though, swallowing hard as jealousy reared in his guts.
"Oh, she's a beauty, that one," a man at Zuko's elbow said and he didn't have to follow his gaze to know that he was looking at Suki. "She here with you?"
"Umm. Yeah. No. Sort of," he mumbled. The man clapped him on the shoulder.
"Well, if she were here with me, I don't think I'd let another man dance with her. You're a brave sort."
Not brave enough to make a move, he thought to himself. That steeled his resolve. Setting his jaw, he lurched into the sea of dancers, catching hold of Suki's arm as the brawny youth spun her away. Suki looked startled as he turned her, clasping one hand to her back, the other looping his fingers with hers.
"Thought you couldn't dance?" she said over the music, moving with him as he haltingly followed the other dancers in a tight spinning circle around the dragon.
"I said I don't dance, I never said I couldn't!" he said through clenched teeth, even as he stepped on her foot.
She threw her head back and laughed. "I wouldn't say you could either. Here…follow me…"
Suki guided him through the steps and he followed her with his face glowing bright red. The dancers spun and jumped around them, but all of that seemed very far away. Nothing else seemed to matter except the feel of Suki's hand in his, and the warmth of her in his arms.
Finally, the music stopped, leaving them standing awkwardly in each other's arms, breathing hard, sweat glistening on their skin.
"See? That wasn't so bad, was it?" Suki said softly, her fingers sliding into the hair on the nape of his neck. He swallowed and gripped her waist a little tighter, bringing her lower body into contact with his.
"I could learn to love dancing," he said, as his gaze flicked to the lush swell of her lip. "Or at least…dancing with you."
Suki's gaze was soft and seductive, as she glanced at his mouth. "Zuko…"
Kiss her. Kiss her dammit!
Zuko bent toward her, instinct demanding that he close the distance between them. He didn't care that they were standing in the middle of the town square, that anyone could be watching the Fire Lord kissing his bodyguard. None of that seemed to matter.
His mouth had barely brushed hers though, when a familiar, obnoxiously obsequious voice interrupted them.
"OH! There you are! Fire Lord Zuko, may I have a word with you?"
Suki immediately pushed herself out of his arms, looking as if she'd been caught with her hand in a cookie jar. Zuko turned on the Mayor of Akahana with a barely contained snarl.
"What you do want?"
The Mayor stopped short, eyebrows going up in surprise. He glanced from Zuko to Suki and back again. "I'm sorry to, er, interrupt, Your Highness, but I have rather an important favor to ask of you. Now, I know we didn't get off on the right foot earlier this afternoon, and I know you wanted to enjoy the festival without us making a to-do about your appearance. But—"
"Spit it out."
He was being rude, and didn't care in the slightest. The Mayor's lips tightened, but he held up a golden crown.
"Every year at the Flower Festival, before we burn the dragon, we have one of our most distinguished citizens choose a Queen of Beauty from among the womenfolk of the village. We would like you to choose our Queen this year, Fire Lord Zuko. You would honor us greatly by doing so."
Zuko glanced at the crown, and then back at Suki, who was still looking at her feet.
"Then I accept the honor. What do I do?"
"In a moment the trumpets will sound and all of the women who wish to be judged will enter the square. I'll make the announcement and then you may walk among them and choose the Queen as you see fit. All of the women who wish to vie for the crown will be in attendance, from babes in arms to grandmothers."
"I just pick whomever I want?"
"Doesn't sound too hard," he mumbled, taking the crown. He glanced back at Suki and was startled to see that she'd disappeared. The next instant, trumpets blasted the night apart. He wanted to go look for Suki, but the Mayor hauled him up in front of the flower dragon as the women of the village came into the square in droves. There they lined up in a ring around the dragon, with the menfolk standing behind them, watching avidly to see who would be picked.
He saw teenage girls fighting for position, the better to be seen. He saw grannies grinning toothlessly at him, and adorable babies gurgling in their mother's arms.
Eventually the streams of women stopped, and the crowd grew restless, waiting for the Mayor's announcement, which came swiftly. Zuko barely paid attention to him; he'd been sweeping the crowd for some sign of Suki, but he couldn't find her anywhere.
"Please, choose our Queen of Beauty for us, Fire Lord Zuko!"
Startled at the end of the Mayor's speech and the round of applause that followed it, he realized that every eye was now on him, and that he'd have to make his decision.
He held the golden crown to his chest as he moved across the circle of women, meeting all of their gazes in turn, watching them preen at him like peacocks. Who was he to choose? He didn't want to offend any of the women here. They were all beautiful, in their own way, even the most wrinkled of grandmothers. The crowd seemed to be holding its breath as they waited for him to crown one of them.
Finally, he came full circle to where he'd started, no closer to choosing than he had been. He supposed he'd just have to pick someone at random and hope for the best. Maybe the sweet old woman who had given him and Suki the flowers? He'd seen her standing at the raggedy edges of the crowd…
He saw movement out the corner of his eye all of a sudden, and a familiar figure stepped out of the crowd, gently tugging on the hand of a plump little girl in a berry-stained dress. A look of fierce determination was in Suki's eyes as he turned toward her.
A hot swoop exploded in his chest and trickled downward, igniting the fires in his belly and arousing everything else. The firelight was shining off of Suki's hair, turning it a red that perfectly complimented the flowers in her crown. Her expressive eyes, with their violet color, was enticingly exotic in a sea of Fire Nation hazel and topaz. His gaze flicked down her body, not for the first time admiring the swell of her breasts, the bare expanse of her tightly toned midriff, and the powerful elegance of her legs.
The almost kiss after their dance seemed to haunt him, teasing him mercilessly.
He found himself walking toward her without thinking, his heart pounding hard in his chest. There was no doubt in his mind who was the most beautiful woman in the crowd. There hadn't even been any competition, really.
Suki must have seen his intentions, because the look of mischief on her face turned into startled shock. Her mouth opened for a moment as he stopped in front of her, clutching the crown. The crowd seemed to draw in an expectant breath, waiting for him to place it on her head.
They stared at one another for a long moment, Suki's gaze hot on his, desire racing through him. Then, as if catching herself, Suki took in a deep breath and pointedly flicked her eyes down to the right of her.
He swallowed his every impulse and glanced down at Du-Ji, who was watching him with one chubby fist stuffed against her mouth, her eyes huge as she gripped Suki's right hand. A slow smile of understanding spread over his lips as he glanced back at Suki, who nodded at him almost imperceptibly, that look of fierce determination back in her eyes.
Now he understood where she'd disappeared to the minute the Mayor had made his intentions known.
Zuko let a look of pure delight cross his face and then he dropped to one knee in front of Du-Ji, who gripped Suki's hand harder, dropping her other one from her mouth.
"Du-Ji, you are definitely the most beautiful girl in the village. Would you do us all the honor of being the Queen of Beauty and wear this crown?" he asked her softly, so that only Suki and those villagers standing closest to them could hear.
Du-Ji's eyes widened in shock, and then she glanced up at Suki, who nodded at her, a smile tugging on her lips. Du-Ji, bolstered by Suki's encouragement, nodded her head at him.
He grinned and immediately pulled the flower crown off of her head, replacing it with the golden one.
"I crown Du-Ji as the Queen of Beauty!" he announced for all of the villagers to hear. A rousing chorus of cheers went up from the crowd and the band immediately started playing again, filling the air with their tumultuous sound. Two of the villagers picked Du-Ji up and sat her on their shoulders while everyone cried out her name.
Zuko watched as they carried the little girl around the square. People threw flowers in her wake as she shyly waved at everyone, her face bright red. He couldn't help but notice Kaji and his band of miscreant friends watching her with shocked expressions on their faces. A smug satisfaction welled in him as Suki stepped up beside him. He felt her hand touch his. On instinct, he curled his fingers around hers and held on tightly.
She didn't say anything. She didn't need to, and neither did he.
The rest of the night passed in a blur of flowers, fire and wine. After crowning Du-Ji, the Mayor lit the flower dragon on fire. Its blazing roar filled the air with heat and the scent of burning roses, ushering in autumn and ending the reign of summer.
After eating their fill of food, and drinking far too much wine, Zuko and Suki watched from the sidelines as the villagers lit their little torches from the flaming effigy, and carried them solemnly back to their homes. The streets glowed like they were filled with mating fireflies, giving the whole thing an air of somber beauty after the rambunctious revelry of earlier that day.
They walked aimlessly through the little streets of Akahana, watching the square empty out, and the vendors closing their stalls. Suki held onto his hand as they eventually ambled back to the little inn on the edge of town where they were staying.
"That was fun."
"Yeah," he said softly, thinking that it had been one of the greatest days of his life. He couldn't remember when he'd had more fun. "I had a wonderful time."
"Me too," Suki said, and then she grabbed his arm, slinging it around her shoulders as they walked.
"No, but it is getting a bit chilly," she said wistfully.
Zuko smiled to himself, holding her close. He couldn't seem to forget that near-kiss, and the way her whole body had seemed to yearn toward his…
He wanted nothing more than to kiss her again, and not stop there. Something had happened between them today, and he knew it. Things had progressed from the agreeable companionship they'd shared so far on this trip, to outright flirtation…and something more. He knew that he wanted her, but how did she feel?
He almost afraid to ask.
The downstairs of the inn was empty, save the fire flickering in the hearth. Everyone else had gone to sleep. Or, from the suggestive remarks he'd heard from the villagers about the unofficial traditions of the Flower Festival, they were in bed, but most definitely not sleeping. He had a feeling a lot of babies would be born at the end of next spring.
Zuko grinned to himself. Akahana certainly had a lot of traditions he could begin to admire, that was for sure.
After climbing the stairs to their floor, Suki stopped at the door to her room, leaning against the frame with a thoughtful expression on her face, the flowers in her hair filling the hallway with their heady, fragrant scent. He stood there in front of her, a million words tumbling around on his tongue. He wanted to say so many things.
Instead, he awkwardly reached out and touched the door. "So here's your room."
"Yep," she said as the corners of her lips quirked up a little bit.
He rapped on the wood with his knuckles, mentally screaming at himself to stop being an idiot. As usual, he didn't listen. "We should, uh, probably turn in if we're going to leave for Pi Jong tomorrow morning."
"That's the Lava Festival, right?"
"Yeah, think so."
He met her gaze as she stared at him with an inscrutable look on her face. Her cheeks were still flushed from the dancing, and there was a hazy softness in her eyes that he put down to the wine. Or maybe it was something else.
"Sooo…. I'll just…uh… I'll see you tomorrow morning?" he said, dropping his hand from her door and lightly smacking the curl of his fist against his thigh.
"Yeah," she said and he nodded at her. You blew it. You freaking moron. You completely blew it. Walk away before you do something really stupid, like tell her how much you want her. He started to walk away, but her voice stopped him. "Zuko?"
He turned back around to face her, and was startled when she stood up on tiptoe and landed a soft kiss across his lips. He caught her by the waist, his eyes closing as rockets went off in his midsection, filling him with an intense, ravenous need. The taste of wine spilled across his senses and he drank it in, along with the wonderful scent of her.
She pulled back too quickly however, dropping her hands from his shoulders and biting her lip as she took one step backward, out his arms.
His heart was hammering so hard that he had a hard time finding his voice, but he managed it after a ragged, shaky breath. "W-what was that for?"
"For choosing Du-Ji. That was incredibly sweet of you. Thank you."
"I…umm…" he said, not sure how to respond to that. Suki looked up at him from beneath her lashes, the expression startlingly seductive.
"Night," he said through numb lips as she opened the door to her room. She was nearly through it when the words came bursting out of him, unbidden. "I…I wanted to choose you."
Suki turned in the doorway, and pushed her hair back behind one ear, looking at the floor for a moment, and then back up at him.
Somehow, he found his courage to go on, walking back toward her. He leaned against the doorframe, lifting one hand and running his fingers through her flower-draped hair. Suki met his gaze with a burning intensity he felt scorching him all the way to his toes. "You were the most beautiful woman there, Suki. Everyone thought so. I thought so. I've thought so for a long while now."
"Since when?" she said teasingly, but there was a heat and eagerness to her words, and it gave him the courage to say exactly what he'd been trying so hard not to say for weeks now.
"The moment you stepped off of that boat I knew that I wanted you."
The words hung in the air and refused to fall into nothingness. They remained, filling the space between them with their weight and presence. Suki's lips parted, her breath coming a little harder than before as she met his gaze.
"I…I thought the same thing about you, but I… I don't know if…if this is a good idea, Zuko."
"What's not a good idea?" he mumbled as his thumb stroked along the hollow of her throat. Suki's eyes fluttered closed for a moment.
"I'm still on the rebound and…I don't know if I'm ready to move on, but…"
"But if you keep looking at me like that then I'm definitely going to pull you into this room and rip your clothes off and I'm just not sure if that's—"
He cut her off with a groan and a kiss, his hand sliding around the back of her neck as he half-pulled her toward him, half bent over her. Suki didn't seem shocked. Instead her arms went around his neck and she pulled herself up, her mouth hot and hard against his. He kissed her with all of the banked ferocity he'd been suppressing over the past few weeks. His hand cupped her waist, bringing their bodies flush as his tongue pushed into her mouth.
Suki made a shivery little moan at the contact, the sound roaring through him, igniting every nerve and cell with the need for more. Suki's hands clenched up in his shirt and with a hard wrench, she pulled him into her room.
He barely managed to close the door behind them as he stumbled along with her, still kissing her. Spirits, she tastes so good…
"This is a bad idea!" she panted against his mouth as her hands fumbled with the ties on his shirt. She ripped it open and he immediately pulled her against his warm chest again.
"Tell me to stop and I will," he moaned, burying his face against her neck. Suki gasped, the sound filled with pleasure so intense it made him groan into her.
"Don't you dare!"
Her fingers dug into his hair as she arched her neck into the rough drag of his mouth along her pulse point. She cried out his name when he gently bit down on the join of her neck and shoulder. Their bodies rubbed against one another in obvious invitation for more.
Suki eagerly pushed his shirt down his arms. He let it drop to the floor and then reached for her shirt. He pulled it over her head, scattering flower petals everywhere in his haste. Some of them rained down across her bare breasts like specks of snow and blood, contrasting against the pink peaks of her nipples. Suki met his gaze again, a look of heated determination in her eyes.
Zuko reached out and grasped her toned upper arms, pulling her back to his mouth. She kissed him harder than ever, wrapping her arms around his neck as her nipples dug into his chest.
It was only a few short feet to the narrow bed, and he spun them toward it unerringly. They fell onto it together, with her beneath him. Her legs hooked around his hips and she lifted herself into him, rubbing against the hard bulge his cock was making in the front of his pants.
His mouth left hers, trailing along her neck and down to her breasts. He brushed away the flower petals, gently kissing each of her nipples before drawing one of them into his mouth. Suki's whole body arched into the heat of his mouth, a moan erupting out of her as she slid her fingers into his hair.
She tasted sweet and salty at the same time, and he groaned around the pebbled flesh that hardened in the swirling heat of his mouth. He looked up at her, watching her watching him. Her mouth was open in a wet-lipped pant, her eyes soft with need. It was the most erotic sight he'd ever seen.
When he released her and then took her other nipple into his mouth, his hands smoothed down the hollow of her bare stomach, catching hold of the waistband of her pants. Suki lifted herself up, allowing him to pull them down her hips. He let her nipple go and trailed his mouth down her stomach, gathering her flesh in little nips, his tongue following with a wet rasp. Suki's cries told him everything he needed to know.
He'd pulled her pants and underwear down to her thighs, but instead of pulling them all the way off, he dragged his mouth to apex of her thighs. Suki's hand pressed his face to her, not that he needed the encouragement; he'd wanted to do this for weeks now.
His hand dug beneath her thighs, pushing up between her bound legs. He spread her lower lips open as far as he could and then he looked up at her. Suki was watching him with avid need, practically panting.
Their gazes were still locked when he lowered his mouth and gently flicked his tongue along the salty pink flesh that opened up to him like a flower. The tip of his tongue dipped and dived over the mound of her clit, and then flattened along her seam, pushing down into the wet, clenching heat of her.
"Unnng…" Suki's head went back, her hips rocking up to meet his tongue as it slipped in and out of her. She was wet, exquisite and, in that moment, utterly his. He slipped his tongue back up to her clit, strafing it with deadly accuracy, teasing her. Her hand tightened in his hair, little shivery cries escaping her with each lick of his tongue.
When he eased two fingers inside of her, he felt her whole body convulse beneath his. He groaned, rubbing his erection against the mattress, savoring the flavor of her body, the way she moaned his named, the scent of her, mingled with the flowers in her hair.
He couldn't believe this was happening. And he wanted more.
Her body was warm and tight around his fingers as he slowly opened her up to him. He sank inside of her to the knuckle over and over again, his other hand pressing down on her lower stomach as he suckled on her clit. Suki's hips rose up off of the bed in little waves. Her inner walls clenched around his fingers, her wetness coating him.
"Zuko…please…" He lifted his head, panting, tongue sliding along his wet lower lip as he stared at her. Her stomach muscles quivered. "Make love to me…"
Oh yes. He wanted that more than anything.
He pulled his fingers out of her gently, sucking them into his mouth. The honey of her body was thick and sweet and he groaned as their gazes connected again. Then he dropped his hand and grasped her pants again. He pulled them all the way off of her, stopping only to slip her sandals off.
His pants and shoes followed and he felt himself blushing as her eyes flicked over his cock. The nervous expression on her face turned into excitement and he felt an indecent surge of pride in him at that. When she pulled him down into her arms, he went eagerly, settling in between her thighs like he belonged there.
He kissed her again, the feel of her hands on his skin scalding him with their need as she explored every inch of his body. When she gripped his narrow hips and lifted her pelvis against his, it was all he could do to keep his control. He wanted her. Spirits, how he wanted her.
"I'm ready," Suki said into his ear a moment later, her hand encircling him with a squeezing pressure that made his eyes slam closed.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. It's all I've wanted all day."
He pushed forward, entering her with a hot, wet slide that pushed a moan out of both of their mouths. "Ohhh… Suki…"
Her thighs tightened on his hips as he slowly rolled his pelvis against hers, taking her in shallow thrusts. His mouth sought hers and he kissed her, pressing her into the bed beneath him. Her hands gripped his lower back, fingernails digging into his ass as he ground into her.
It felt too good. Perfect. Like ambrosia and warm honey. She gripped him, squeezing a soft moan out of him that couldn't be contained. Slowly his hips quickened against hers and he plunged inside of her deeper, harder, and fuller. Suki's body arched again, gasping into his ear as his mouth scraped her neck.
His hand scooped up beneath her, pulling her up to meet each of his commanding thrusts, his other hand bracing against the bed. Suki gripped his arm and hip, drawing her knees up as he thrust into her, fast and deep, the little bed bouncing beneath them with a loud squeak.
Pleasure spiked and looped along his nerves, yanking him toward orgasm before he was ready for it. There was no going back though, not when the sweet wetness of her body seemed to send electric shocks along his spine, spiraling him into bliss with a hot, hard clench.
"Yes…yes…" Suki panted, reaching up to cup his face as both of their bodies quickened past the point of no return. Suki stiffened, lifting herself into him, taking his full length with a hard, pumping squeeze as she came with an exultant cry.
It was more than he could handle; he pulled out of her at the last second, cuming onto her lower belly with a harsh cry of his own. Spent, he hung his head, shaking and shivering as little aftershocks quaked through his system.
When he opened his eyes, Suki was smiling up at him sleepily. They stared at one another, the full weight what had just happened falling between them. He slowly smiled at her and then sank down into her arms, kissing her deeply, with no less intensity than before. He could already tell that once would not be enough, not with her. His hunger for her had only grown.
He eventually rolled to the side, panting, trying to catch his breath. He felt like he was going to have a heart attack. Or maybe it was just the feel of Suki, naked, post-coital, sweaty and smelling of flowers as she cleaned the traces of him from her body with her discarded pants. She tossed them across the room when she was done, and then curled up along his side.
"We need to talk about this," Suki said softly after a few minutes, her fingers lightly skimming across his chest. He felt a hot swoop in his guts, and it wasn't from her touch this time. Or at least not mostly.
"Please don't say you regret it," he said in a tight voice.
Suki laughed a little. "That's not what I was thinking at all. I think that I needed that. I needed to feel desired again. I haven't felt that way in a long time."
He reached out and cupped her face, sliding his thumb along her cheekbone. Her kiss-swollen lips looked enticing and he found himself kissing her again. When they finally pulled back, he whispered, "Trust me, Suki. You're very desired."
She blushed and turned her head, gently nipping his palm. "Thank you, Zuko."
"It's my pleasure, believe me."
"I…I don't know what this is, if it's anything at all," she started, caution and embarrassment dripping from her voice. "But I just got out of a really long, really messed up relationship and I don't know if I'm ready for anything more than…than…"
"Than casual sex between friends?" he suggested, even though he was cursing inwardly. That wasn't exactly what he'd wanted from her, although the prospect didn't leave him cold. Just being with her was enough for him. For now.
"Yeah. Is that… I mean, is this a one-time thing or?"
"It can be if you want, but I hope it's not," he said honestly.
"I just don't think I can…can give you anything more than that. I mean, I like you, Zuko. Really, really like you, but there's a part of me that feels really guilty about that, which I know is totally messed up, and basically I'm not ready for a relationship again."
The specter of her messy breakup with Sokka seemed to flare up between them. He brushed it aside, feeling a confidence he normally wouldn't. She wasn't ready for a relationship yet. But eventually she would be. Until then, he'd be anything she wanted him to be. Lover, friend, it didn't matter, so long as he was there for her.
He said slowly, "You know, we don't have to label this. We can just…enjoy each other's company. It doesn't have to be complicated if you don't want it to be."
"You'd be okay with that? Just sex and friendship?" she asked as she nibbled on her lip.
"Whatever you need, I'm here for," he said and pulled her down for another kiss that grew heated almost instantly. He rolled over top of her again, feeling tingles spreading through him as her fingers pushed through his hair, tangling as her whole body seemed to come alive beneath his.
Maybe he hadn't captured her heart yet, but he'd learned how to wait patiently for the thing he wanted most years ago. Until she was ready to let go of her past hurts, he'd be there for her, in whatever way she needed, because there was one thing he now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.
He'd fallen in love with her, fast, hard and irrevocably.
Maybe eventually she'd fall for him too. He couldn't wait to find out.