Zuko was fifty miles out from the back of behind, on an island so tiny it wasn't even on the map, and stuck with a Waterbender who hated his guts.
He didn't deny that she had reason for it.
He'd had better days.
"Wash," she said, and threw the towel at him. He restrained himself from scorching it out of the air, and reached out a hand to catch it instead.
"We've only got the sea," he said.
"It's still better than stinking of sweat." She disrobed with her back to him, neatly folding her clothing into a tidy pile. "And oil and hot metal and coal."
He sighed, and turned away from her to remove the remnants of his clothing. The explosion at the end hadn't helped matters. "Oil I can understand, and coal I can understand, but what's wrong with hot metal?"
"Ick." He could imagine her shudder. "It's . . . not a good smell."
"I suppose you prefer the smell of carved ivory and whale blubber."
No reply. He heard the splashing as she walked into the sea.
All right. "Sorry," he said to the air in front of him. "That was childish."
The deliberately noisy splashing stopped. "Did you just apologise?" she asked.
"That one wasn't appropriate." He walked down the beach at a diagonal, draping the towel round him to spare her blushes. "I have plenty of reasons to insult you, but I don't have to be childish or petty about it."
He tossed the towel back up the beach, and ran the last few paces into the sea, ducking into it as soon as it was deep enough. It was cool at first, but the salt stung on the raw wounds across his arms and back.
"I didn't realise you were that badly hurt," she said. Her voice was closer now.
He folded his arms. "It's nothing serious. I've had worse in a training session."
"Can I see to them?"
"You needn't feel obliged."
"Obligation has nothing to do with it. I don't like seeing people in pain, though I wouldn't expect a --" She cut off. "Sorry."
"Your apology is accepted," he said calmly.
"Okay. That's new." She put her hands on his shoulders from behind, and he felt the water wash up over his back and run down his arms like stroking fingers. It was as warm and mild as a bath on a hot day, as gentle as silk.
"There." She let go. "Does that feel any better?"
"It does. Thank you." The words came easily enough. He turned slightly to see his upper arm and shoulder.
"Why don't you look at me?"
"I wanted to spare your modesty. I assumed --"
"You assumed what?"
He shrugged. "You'd prefer me to stare?"
She was silent for a few seconds. "I'm staring," she said, a little shyly.
He turned to look down at her. "Don't be ridiculous."
Her hand drifted out again to brush against his forearm.
"Stop it." He shifted uncomfortably. "I'm in no mood for you behaving like my --"
"We're in the water," she interrupted. "That means you listen to what I say."
He snorted. "Fine. Make a little speech."
She flushed. He kept his eyes on her face and didn't look further down, tempted as he was. "Some men I wouldn't have to talk like this to," she snapped.
"Some men treat girls with respect. Even peasant girls," he retorted.
"Oh, that again."
"Is it my fault if you rub my nose in it every time I meet you --"
"As if you being a prince or your sister being a princess makes any sort of difference --"
"-- throwing it in my face that we're on opposite sides --"
"-- Yue was a princess and she didn't put on airs --"
"-- dancing attendance on the damn Avatar --"
"-- never giving us a moment's peace --"
"-- not even trying to see --"
"-- even trying to see our point of view --"
They stood staring at each other, panting.
"You are totally hopeless," she spat. "You're unkind and you don't think and you don't care about anything or anyone and you are just standing there looking at me as if I'm a child."
"You're no child," he said.
"Oh." Something sparked in her eyes. "Really?"
"Well, a peasant can look at a prince if she wants."
His hand would once have gone to his face, but he'd got past that now. "I've got nothing to hide."
"No. No, you haven't." She looked him up and down shamelessly.
"So this is the modesty of the Water Tribe," he remarked to the air above her left shoulder.
"Oh, for pity's sake, we have communal sweathouses. How much modesty do you think you have in there?"
"Really?" He was curious. "We have bathhouses. My uncle loves the hot springs . . ."
"Will you shut up about your uncle for once," she said, "and kiss me."
Her skin and lips were as cool as the seawater. She let him take her weight and hold her against him, and the rolling of the waves shifted her to and fro against his body, until he thought that he would burn with it.
He broke the kiss. "We have to go back to land," he said with the last of his resolution. "We can't just -- here --"
She locked her arms around his neck and pulled him down with her. The sea retreated around them, drawing back to wash to either side and leave them lying on the wet sand together.
She wasn't modest at all. A Fire Nation woman could have stripped naked to the waist and still carried herself chastely among a group of soldiers, but this Water Tribe girl had been sensual even when she was fully clothed, bundled up in their primitive skins and furs. Now that she was naked and holding him, she was more than sensual. She was perfect. She was the water around them, the endless ocean that he could lose himself in and never have to fear; she could be angry at him but she would not betray him, she would hate him but she would never break him when he reached out to her. In that moment, she was everything that he wanted. He did not understand how she could possibly want him as much as he wanted her, but she drew him down and whispered his name.
The sea began to ripple up around them again as they moved together, running long tendrils of water below her body and slowly rising, drawing her hair out in smooth loose drifts like seaweed. He felt the water coming up over his legs and feet, but he didn't care, it wasn't important, what was important was the way that she said his name, his name, and her cool flesh was hotter than his fire, and he could feel her coming release like his own, running through their bodies . . .
The sand cracked and shattered beneath them, fusing to smooth glass and fracturing in the same instant, as the water rushed over them both in glad freedom and slammed down to the shore. She slid a hand round the back of his neck and kissed him, sharing one last breath as their lips and tongues met.
The sea didn't tumble them shoreward. It wouldn't dare. It rocked the two of them slowly to the land, till the sand rose beneath them and supported them, and the waves stroked him as though she was still holding him, soothing him from all the long years of burning, to and fro, to and fro.