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Chapter Twenty-Five

Gradually Progressing

The warm energy of the dawning sun gently roused the young Fire Lord from his light slumber. The chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects reached his ears and he slowly opened his eyes to the new day. The firebender blinked a couple of times to get rid of the haziness from his eyes. As he moved to sit up, he paused when he felt a light weight on his chest and something solid and warm pressed to his side.

Raising his head slightly, Zuko noticed that Katara's head was resting on his chest, her long hair falling around her shoulder and down onto his stomach. One of her slender hands was clutching his tunic while he had his arm wrapped protectively around her waist. Zuko smiled at the sight as a warm feeling spread from his chest and throughout his entire body. His already semi-erect manhood hardened further and he groaned softly. Ignoring his state for the moment, he pressed Katara's curvy body closer to his and sighed contentedly as he ran his fingers gently through her chocolate tresses.

He remembered their confessions from the previous night and his smile broadened. He could not believe that Katara returned his feelings, that she loved him, loved him for such a long time. He also could not stop thinking about how stupid he had been for not noticing it before, for ignoring the many hints his uncle, his mother, and Toph had thrown his way. If he had not been such a coward, Katara and he could have been married by now! That thought brought warmth to his heart and he tightened his hold on her.

Katara sighed and rolled over to lie on her back. She moved closer to him before she settled back down with another soft sigh. Zuko smiled at her as he wrapped his arms around her and gently kissed her head.

Now that he had her, now that he knew she loved him as well, and after his fright at her…death, he would not wait any longer to tell her that he wished to take her as his wife. That he wanted her to be by his side for the rest of their lives. He knew that there might be some problems with the Court Council, but he did not give a damn about what they thought. His arms tightened protectively around the young woman sleeping next to him.

Zuko looked at her lovely face, a subtle sleepy smile on her lips, and he sighed softly. Thin rays of light spilled into the dark cave as the sun rose higher in the sky, effectively catching Zuko's attention and causing him to look over at the curtain of flora at the entrance. He knew that they needed to head out soon and keep on walking before Jianguo learned of what he had done, but he could not wake Katara up yet. She needed all the rest she could get since she had lost so much blood when Feng wounded her.

A dark look settled across Zuko's face as that thought caused him to remember seeing Katara's blood spreading on the forest floor, her skin losing color as her body weakened, and her eyes closing before she stopped breathing…

Heart constricting in pain, Zuko squeezed his eyes shut to block out the images. He buried his face in Katara's hair and wrapped his arms tightly around her to bring her even closer to him. He would never let her out his sight for he never wanted to feel such pain ever again. He knew she could defend herself, she was, after all, a master waterbender, but he would feel less afraid if he were there by her side. He pulled back slightly and firmly pressed his lips to her soft, plump ones, to reassure himself, while his hand gently touched her cheek.

He froze when he felt soft fingers touch his own cheek while the lips beneath his pressed back and he pulled away slowly. Zuko watched as Katara eyelashes fluttered, revealing her sparkling blue eyes. She blushed slightly before she gave him radiant smile.

"I didn't mean to wake you up," he told her softly as he returned her smile.

"It's alright. We need to leave anyway," Katara responded as she ran her hand down his cheek before she touched his lips with the tip of her fingers. "Besides, with that kiss you gave me I can't possibly go back to sleep now."

Zuko chuckled and he pressed his lips to her fingers before he leaned down to give her a soft kiss on her lips. He meant to give her one kiss and then move away, but Katara weaved her fingers in his hair and moaned. He gave a low growl in response and began to kiss her more eagerly, pressing her to the ground beneath him. He heard Katara gasp and he immediately pulled away, but not before he pressed a quick kiss to her lips when she frowned at him. Katara sighed and smiled at him.

Zuko felt his heart begin to pound in his chest at the way she smiled up at him and he felt his erection throb with need, so he sat up and moved away before he did something to scare her. He stood up, willing his arousal to subside, and cleared his throat before he helped her to her feet.

"We should eat before we set out," Zuko told her huskily. He cleared his throat again and smiled at her.

"Okay," Katara agreed as she walked over to the bag of food Zuko had brought.

She pulled out the rest of the dried meat and a piece of bread she found at the bottom of the bag while Zuko added more wood to the fire and raised it higher with a deep exhale. With a smile, Katara handed him his share of food when he sat down beside her. He thanked her and they began to eat quietly.

"Zuko?" Katara spoke up after a moment of comfortable silence.

"Yeah?" Zuko responded as he lowered the water canteen from which he was drinking from.

"How are we going to find a village?" she asked.

Zuko frowned pensively into the fire.

"I don't know. We have no maps to tell us where we are or to guide us on where to go," he began. "But we need to find a village soon and warn Uncle before Jianguo sets out with his plan. I have a feeling that he will send word to the Fire Nation that they have us as hostages while he continues to look for us."

Katara saw the concern beneath his impassive expression and she laid a reassuring hand on his arm. She gave him a small smile when he turned to look at her inquisitively.

"Don't worry, Zuko," she told him. "Uncle Iroh and Chao will stop him and the Fire Nation will be safe."

Zuko grabbed her hand and pulled her to his side so he could wrap his arm around her.

"I know that, Katara, but…" he paused and sighed as he gave her a small squeeze, "I'm also worried about what would happen if Jianguo catches us…what he would do to us." He clenched his hand tightly as he looked away from her to stare at the fire before them.

"He would…hurt you to get to me," he told her quietly.

He looked at Katara and saw her grow pale and her eyes widen. He swiftly pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his arms protectively around her while she buried her face on his neck.

"I swear to you that I will not allow anyone to hurt you ever again," he whispered fervently in her ear as he ran a hand up and down her back to soothe her.

Katara raised her head to kiss his cheek before she wrapped her arms around his neck and snuggled closer to him with a soft sigh.

"I know," she told him sincerely before her voice grew hard, "and I will not let myself be caught off guard ever again."

They remained in each other's reassuring embrace for a while before Zuko pulled away. He looked into her eyes and ran a hand through her tangled hair.

"We need to leave," he reminded her before a small frown settled on his face. "Do you feel well enough to walk?"

"Of course! I feel much better now," Katara told him with a grin.

Zuko nodded and smiled at her. With another squeeze, he let her go. Katara climbed off his lap and they both stood up. He began to gather their meager supplies while the waterbender picked up the blankets and the rest of the food and stuffed them into the bag.

Once he extinguished the fire, Zuko turned to look at Katara as she finished tying the water canteen to her hip. He was about to call out to her when he caught sight of the dried blood on her blue shirt. The sight of it clinging to her slightly torn blouse disturbed him so much that he remained standing, frozen in shock.

"I'm ready to go," Katara told him as she slung the small bag of food over her shoulder.

When Zuko did not reply to her, Katara looked up to see what he was doing. She saw that his face held a troubled expression as he gazed at her and she frowned in concern.

"Zuko? What's wrong?"

Zuko snapped out of his daze at the sound of her voice. He quickly looked away from her bloody shirt, only to see her looking at him with worried eyes.

"If I had protected you better, you wouldn't have been hurt," he whispered sullenly.

Katara saw him look down at her stomach and she knew he was affected by the blood that had dried up on her clothing. She wished she had another shirt so Zuko would not be tormented every time he looked her way.

"It wasn't your fault, Zuko," she told him firmly. "You did everything you could to keep me safe, and besides, such things happen and you won't always be able to stop them."

"But because of my distraction and overconfidence you died! You died!" Zuko rasped chokingly.

Katara rushed over to him and embraced him tightly, running her hands soothingly along his back. Zuko hugged her firmly to him and buried his face in her neck. He squeezed his eyes shut to bear the pain, sorrow, and remorse that coursed through him.

"Everything's fine now," Katara soothed him gently, "I'm alive and I am fine."

"The times we ran across each other during the war, I was afraid of getting to know you," he admitted quietly, "When we were at the Western Air Temple, I was afraid of hurting you. And now that I love you, I'm very afraid of losing you."

Zuko pulled back slightly to gaze intently into her eyes, his golden orbs almost burning in their intensity. Katara was surprised at the intense way he was looking at her while he held her tightly to him.

"But now that I have you, I won't let you go. Not even death will take you away from me," he told her in a fierce whisper.

Katara felt her heart skip a beat and a tingle ran down her spine at the power in his promise.

"I will stay at your side as long as you want me," she whispered breathlessly at him as she stared into his deep, golden eyes.

"Then that means forever," Zuko growled out.

He placed his hand at the back of her neck, curling his fingers in her hair, and tilted her head back before his mouth met hers in a deep and yet gentle kiss. Katara moaned at the sensation of his warm and firm lips touching hers and she wound her hands around his neck.

Zuko groaned at the sound she made and he pressed her closer to his chest. He wanted more, he wanted to taste more of her in order to calm his anxiety and fear, but more importantly, he wanted to be closer to her. He opened his mouth slightly and gently traced her lips with the tip of his tongue, while he ran a hand down her back.

A tremor went through Katara as she moaned in pleasure at the new sensations. She felt his warm tongue begin to probe at her lips, and through the fogginess in her mind, she knew he was silently asking her for permission to enter her mouth. She hesitantly opened her mouth to him, shyly granting his searching request.

Zuko groaned triumphantly when she parted her lips for him, and without hesitation, he plunged his tongue inside her hot oral cavern, touching her smooth teeth, prodding the inside of her cheeks, tasting every inch of her delicious mouth. She moaned softly into his mouth and he experienced an amazing sweetish sensation in the back of his throat. His hold on her became tight and his fingers became tangled in the mass of brown that was her hair. Lifting her up, he crushed her smaller body to his tall frame and moaned when her soft breasts pressed closely to his hard chest, heat and warmth surging through every nerve of his body.

Katara felt like her heart was about to jump out of her chest as an almost familiar yet still strange heat pooled in the pit of her stomach. She whimpered softly at his heated embrace, but she grabbed hold of his short, dark hair and held onto him for dear life as pleasant and powerful sensations assaulted her entire body, as his tongue continued to invade her mouth. She could barely breathe, but she felt like she was in heaven as Zuko skillfully explored her mouth without leaving anything uncharted. But when his tongue made contact with her own, she jumped as though she had been struck by a thunderbolt.

Zuko felt her jerk against him when their tongues met, and not wanting to overwhelm her too quickly, he reluctantly wound down their incredible kiss. He had lost his control for a bit and he hoped that he had not frightened her with his fervor since he knew she was not ready for such ardent displays of affection. He had never thought kissing could feel so good. The only other women he had kissed before were Jin and Mai, and those uninspiring kisses had never produced such powerful, amazing reactions from him as Katara's innocent yet passionate kisses did. Pulling back slightly after licking Katara's bottom lip, Zuko looked down at her with heated eyes as they both panted hard against each other. When Katara opened her eyes, they gazed at one other and Zuko was relieved to see no apprehension in those sapphire depths. He smirked smugly at her dazed look, flushed face, and swollen lips while her small hands continued to hold onto his hair as if to help keep her from falling.

"As much as I would like to spend the day kissing you, we have to be on our way," he told her with a small grin.

Katara wanted to pout and tell him that she was not feeling as well as she had said she was, so they could remain in the seclusion of the small cave and perhaps share more wonderful kisses. But she knew that was a selfish wish that could endanger their lives as well as the world if they did not stop Jianguo. Reluctantly, she slowly disentangled her fingers from their grip on his short, black hair and she smiled at him in what she hoped was an understanding smile.

"Okay," she replied, though she was unable to curb the disappointment that came over her when Zuko lowered her down to her feet.

Zuko grinned at her pouting face and he placed a light kiss on her lips.

"Don't look so sad, Katara," he teased lightly. "I promise that we'll find plenty of time to kiss each other until our lips fall off."

Katara blushed at his words before she giggled at him, moving away so she could compose herself while Zuko gathered his things. Inwardly she was already eagerly waiting for such a time to arrive. She never thought kisses could feel so good and she had never been kissed so passionately before. The times Aang had kissed her, they had been light and mildly pleasing, but when he tried to go a bit further, she would panic and immediately pull away. His hurt and slightly irritated expression would make her feel guilty, but she just could not help it. It unnerved her to even think about it.

But now it seemed like she could not get enough of Zuko's kisses. She could not describe the amazing sensations she felt at the feeling of his warm and firm lips on hers, the way his taller frame seemed to surround her smaller body in a protective way, and of his hands touching her in such a gentle manner despite his intensity. Katara was surprised to find herself craving more of what he had to offer, she wanted more, and although she did not know what that more was, she just knew that she wanted it from Zuko. She felt herself getting warm and her breathing became a bit erratic as she lightly touched her still tingling lips. She felt her cheeks burn when she noticed the wetness between her legs.

"Katara?" Zuko's confused voice reached her ears.

The waterbender jumped slightly and a deep blush spread across her cheeks and the tip of her nose as she realized what kinds of thoughts she was having about Zuko, despite the fact they had just confessed their feelings the day before. But that was normal, wasn't it?

"What is it?" she replied quickly.

She busied herself by tying the water canteen more securely to her hip so she did not have to look at his handsome features and so he would not notice her blushing face. But her efforts were in vain for she felt Zuko walk up to her and place a finger under her chin, lifting her head so she could look at him.

"Are you sure you feel okay?" Zuko asked with a worried frown. "Your face is a bit flushed. We could start searching for a village tomorrow so you could rest a bit more."

"I told you that I am feeling better," Katara sighed at him before she patted his hand. "But thanks for worrying about me."

"Of course I worry about you," Zuko responded to her as he released her chin so he could caress her face. "I love you, Katara, and your well-being and happiness is important to me."

At his words, Katara's stomach did a flip and she flashed him a bright smile as she wrapped her arms around his middle and snuggled into him. She felt him wrap his arms around her and she sighed contentedly.

"I love you too, Zuko," Katara replied softly. "And I worry for your safety as well."

Zuko smiled at her words. After his exile all those years ago, he had told himself that he needed no one, that he was fine being alone, and he had gotten used to the thought of having only his uncle worry for him. But knowing that Katara cared so much about him made him realize that he could no longer bear the thought of being alone, of not having her by his side, and that he needed her so much. He watched as Katara raised her head to look at him and he felt his heart skip a beat when her shiny, blue eyes stared sincerely into his golden ones. She cupped his cheek and he leaned into her gentle touch with a soft sigh. The way she smiled at him made him want to kiss her breathless again, but instead he settled for a light peck on her lips before he gently pulled away from her embrace.

"We should get going," he reminded her. "As we find our way to a village, we need to be constantly alert for any sign of Jianguo and his men."

Katara's face hardened and she patted the water canteen at her hip with a fierce grin.

"If we do come across them again," she began with a gleam in her eyes, "this time I won't be so easily distracted. I will show them that they shouldn't have mess with us."

Zuko smirked at her approvingly.

"I'm sure you'll make them regret it," he told her with a deep chuckle.

"You got that right," Katara responded with a large grin.

They smiled at each other for a moment longer before they adjusted their belongings over their shoulders. Once ready, they stepped out of the cave through the green curtain of flora with one last glance at the place where they had finally revealed their love for each other.

Small animals scurried away and birds flew up from their nests, as Katara and Zuko made their way through the thick forest. The day had progressed well into the afternoon and it was getting a bit more difficult to see in the darkness that the large trees produced. They came across a part of the forest where the trees and other flora grew so tightly together that it plunged them into near darkness despite the fact that the sun was still up in the sky. Zuko had summoned a small flame in his left palm to light their way while he slashed at the branches and leaves with the small sword he had acquired. Katara had offered to help and had slashed the vines and branches from their paths with a sharp water whip, but to her dismay, she was unable to keep it up for long as she began to get tired and a little dizzy. Zuko had reassured her that she just needed a bit more time to regain all her strength and not to let it bring her down. She had given him a small smile, but had remained silent as they continued walking.

Zuko hacked though another thick and thorny bush and paused to take a break, rotating his shoulder to ease the ache. He glanced back worriedly at Katara. She seemed to have sensed his stare and she looked up to give him a bright smile. Zuko returned her smile and resumed his task of clearing a path for them. He would occasionally ask her how she was feeling and if she wanted to take a rest, but she would stubbornly tell him she was fine and that she was not some weakling. He would just shake his head at her; he was concerned that he was pushing her too hard.

Katara sighed and realized that Zuko was worrying too much about her when she caught him looking back at her. She decided to reassure him by filling up the silence with idle talk which would sometimes shift into bringing up events of the past few months and what they went through when they thought the other would never reciprocate their feelings.

Katara frowned as she looked ahead to stare at Zuko. She noticed his slightly torn clothes and could not help but be reminded of the beating he had to endure by Jianguo's men in order to keep her safe.

"Back in Jianguo's camp, when they…" Katara paused and swallowed hard, "when they h-hurt you…you said it was not the first time you've been severely injured and that you've been through worse. Were you referring to what happened with…Azula?"

Zuko looked back at her before he shook his head.

"Actually, I was referring to the time, before the siege of the Northern Water Tribe, when Zhao had some pirates blow up my ship so he could get rid of me," Zuko explained. "I was barely able to escape. Uncle had thought I died." He sighed.

"What?" Katara exclaimed in horror. "You were in a ship when it exploded? You really could have died!"

"But I managed to survive," Zuko reminded her as he gave her a small smile before he let out a wry chuckle. "You know, the pirates that destroyed my ship were the same ones that I hired to try to capture you."

"Hmm…then I can't say I feel sorry for you now," Katara mused before she let out a laugh when Zuko turned to give her a hurt look. "I'm just kidding. But Zhao was such a coward for having those pirates do his dirty work."

"Yeah, but I was able to shock him when I appeared before him alive in the Northern Water Tribe." He smirked. "He got what he deserved, though."

Katara hummed before something dawn on her.

"Wait. So that's why you had all those cuts and bruises when you arrived at the Spirit Oasis," she stated before she narrowed her eyes at him. "And then you attacked me and carted Aang's body away while he was in the Spirit World."

Zuko turned to frown at her.

"I thought you said you have forgiven me for the wrong I did in the past," he told her.

"I have forgiven you," Katara reassured him with a smile. "I was just figuring out what happened, though you did knock me out pretty hard."

"I apologize for that," Zuko told her regrettably. "I didn't actually mean to hurt you that badly, but back then I was more concerned with other things."

"Yeah, I know," she said with a nod before a grin spread to her face. "But I did knock you out pretty hard too when Sokka and I caught up with you."

"You got lucky. I was injured when trying to escape from an exploding ship, after all," Zuko replied nonchalantly.

"Oh, sure," Katara said sarcastically and laughed, "You keep telling yourself that."

She laughed harder when Zuko smirked and replied that he would.

Time passed as they continued in their search, but they only saw more vegetation and no signs of a village or any kind of civilization anywhere.

Katara was beginning to feel lightheaded, but she did not say anything about it for she did not want to worry Zuko more than he already was. She knew he was concerned for her and she was grateful that he tried to make the pace comfortable for her while helping her without making her feel like she was weak and useless. Now she could recall all those times Zuko had been there for her. How he had always tried to help her and save her, such as that time when he threw himself at her before she was crushed by falling rocks at the Western Air Temple. Or when he accompanied her to confront her mother's killer. Or when he stepped in front of Azula's lightning bolt. She could not believe how blind she had been for not recognizing the depth of his affection for her.

She still found it so surreal to think that Zuko loved her, had loved her for such a long time, and it made her heart grow warm at his confession that their separation had grieved him as much as it did her. But what was their new relationship called? Where was it going to lead? She wanted to marry him, she wanted to be his wife and be by his side forever, but what if that was not what he wanted?

Sure she knew he loved her, if by all the ways he had demonstrated it to her was any indication, but that did not necessarily mean he wanted to marry her. She knew the Fire Nation Council and his Royal Court wanted him to choose a Fire Nation noblewoman as his Fire Lady. She was just the daughter of a chief whose country had just recently begun to prosper. Zuko had told her that he was going to make sure she was going to be by his side forever, but did that mean as his mistress, or as his concubine? Katara felt anger, indignation, and pain at the thought.

Even though she loved him more than her own life, she would not become that for anybody. She was worth more than that.

Katara shook her head and frowned at herself as they continued to walk. Maybe the loss of blood had affected her brain. Zuko and she had barely confessed their love for each other and she was already thinking of marriage! She should not get ahead of herself, get herself worked up, or start imagining things. For now, she would just enjoy her time with Zuko while they walked through the fresh forest and then she would have a talk with him.

She was brought out of her thoughts when she felt Zuko's warm hand grab hers tenderly and she looked up to see him gazing at her over his shoulder.

"What are you thinking about that's making you frown like that?" Zuko asked her with a raised eyebrow.

Katara berated herself for thinking so poorly about Zuko for he would never hurt her or do anything that would reflect badly on her. She looked back at him when he squeezed her hand at her lack of response.

"It's nothing. It's just me, worrying needlessly," Katara replied vaguely as she tried to give him a smile.

Zuko frowned at her and he found that he did not like how that smile she gave him did not quite reach her blue eyes. He brought them to a stop under a canopy of leaves and turned to fully face her, frowning deeply when he noticed the worry in her eyes that she could not hide.

"Katara, you know you can tell me anything," he told her. "I will always try to help you."

Katara felt her heart warm at his words and she squeezed his hand as she, this time, gave him a genuine happy smile.

"I know that, Zuko and I thank you," Katara replied warmly. "But it's nothing, really."

She could still see that Zuko was not convinced, but she did not know what else to say to him. She could not tell him about her insecurities and fears about what their new relationship meant, she did not want to cause him any more concern or upset him. She squeezed his larger hand again and smiled gently at him before she moved to continue on their walk only to gasp when Zuko pulled her back toward him and kissed her before she could wonder what was happening.

Again, that electrifying spark flared through her at the feeling of his firm yet soft lips on hers and Katara quickly returned his affections by opening her mouth to him and wrapping her arms around his neck. Katara felt her doubts scatter into the wind as she took comfort in Zuko's gentle kiss.

When he felt Katara relax against him, Zuko pulled back slightly and stared at her soft eyes as he brought his hands up to cradle her face and stroke her cheeks with his thumbs.

"I don't know why you don't want to tell me, but I want you to know that I will always be there for you when you need me," Zuko reassured her firmly.

Katara covered his hands, which were caressing her face, with hers and she nodded at him as a bright smile adorned her face.

"And I'll always be there for you, too," Katara told him softy.

They remained staring at each other for a moment before Zuko smiled at her. He gave her one chaste kiss before he moved away from her to resume their walk, but not before he grabbed her hand and gently pulled her after him. It felt so good to be able to express his feelings for her, now that they have confessed. It was especially amazing being able to kiss her whenever he wanted. The trees seemed to have spread out the farther they went so they had no difficulty picking their way through the forest, hand-in-hand.

Zuko glanced at Katara again and frowned. He knew that there was something that was worrying her and he wondered what it was that had her so pensive and quiet. He hoped that she would tell him soon, but he decided not to press the issue for the moment since they had more pressing matters.

They kept silent for a few hours as they made their way around trees and through bushes, but soon the silence became too oppressive and they once again resumed sharing memories. Sometimes those memories would make both laugh and other times they would open wounds that they would then work together to mend.

"I just remembered our time in Ba Se Sing a few months ago," Zuko spoke up. "Were you really avoiding me because of what happened when I came upon you at the lake?"

Katara felt heat rush to her cheeks and she averted her eyes when Zuko gazed at her more intensely.

"No," she muttered softly.

"Then why were you avoiding me?" the firebender asked as a deep frown settled on his face.

"I…I had an e-erotic dream about you…and I was embarrassed," she admitted as her blush deepened.

Zuko stopped in his tracks to stare incredulously at her. Katara stopped as well and lifted her head bashfully to look at him. Zuko let out a small chuckle before he wrapped his arms tightly around hers.

"Oh, if only you knew about the many erotic dreams I had about you since you arrived at the Fire Nation, you would be shocked," he growled out huskily.

Katara's eyes widened before Zuko swooped down to kiss her. They moaned against each other's lips as pleasure rippled through them. Zuko pulled away when he felt his groin twitch. It was too soon for him to give in to his desires. He kissed her softly one more time before he took her hand and continued on their walk with a change of subject.

There was a comfortable lull in their conversation and Katara took the time to try to untangle a twig from her hair that had gotten stuck there when they passed through a thick shrub. She growled when it did not budge and she glowered at Zuko when he started to chuckle, which he quickly covered up by coughing. Katara fought with the insufferable twig for a long moment and was contemplating asking Zuko to cut that piece of hair off with his sword, when Zuko finally took pity on her and moved her hands away so he could help her. He managed to easily disentangle it from her hair and with a smile, he gave her the twig. With a huff, Katara snatched it from his fingers, threw the stick far away from her, and rubbed at her aching scalp while she mutter a thanks to Zuko.

"I really want a bath!" Katara complained as she pushed her long hair away from her face.

Zuko chuckled under his breath at her pouting expression as he grabbed her hand again and began to walk once more.

"You'll get to enjoy your bath once we are farther away and can find a lake or pond," Zuko told her.

"I could just waterbend some water to make a small pool, but I guess you're right about covering more distance," the waterbender said and pouted. "It's just that my clothes are all dirty and itchy and I can't wait to get out of them!"

At her words, Zuko faltered in his steps, but he quickly recovered his composure before Katara noticed. He knew she did not mean anything by what she said, but Zuko could not stop the pictures her words created in his head. The images were more realistic because they were created from memories that had surfaced in his mind. Visions of a young woman with drenched brown hair clinging to her tanned body, graceful limbs glistening with moisture, clad in a small white towel that hugged her curves. Zuko could not stop thinking about the time he had accidentally come across Katara while she bathed and it was a while before he was able to calm himself sufficiently enough to be able to speak without sounding like he was growling.

The sun was setting, and before they could be plunged into complete darkness, Zuko and Katara decided to settle down for the night. The Water Tribe woman took out the thin blankets and spread them on the cold ground before she rummaged around the bag for the remainder of the food Zuko had taken from the rebels' camp, while the firebender looked for branches and leaves to start a campfire with. Once they had a strong and glowing fire going, they sat close together on the blankets and eagerly began to eat the salty dried meat and the last pieces of bread.

Katara was chewing thoughtfully for a moment before she turned to Zuko with a frown.

"How much longer do you think it will take before Jianguo realizes that we escaped and starts looking for us?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," Zuko began as he paused in his eating to think it over as a solemn expression crossed his face. "Jianguo had only been gone for about a day when…when everything happened." He cleared his throat and shook his head to keep the dark memories away. "Ping already had a head start before we set out, so perhaps he is getting close to them or maybe he has already caught up with them and has told Jianguo about what I did."

A dark look settled on his face before he shook his head and frowned.

"If that is so, then we will need to travel faster and for as long as possible," the young Fire Lord said. "We'll need to be careful in case they catch up with us. They have more knowledge of this terrain than we do."

Katara nodded and scooted closer to him. She hoped that they found help before they came across those men again. They were silent for a moment before Katara looked up at him with a worried frown.

"Zuko, we need to warn any villagers that we meet about the raiders. They need to be prepared for any attacks," she told him firmly.

"Yeah, I was thinking of that, too," Zuko agreed as he looked at the blazing flames before them. "I just hope that Jianguo doesn't cause too much damage to any village he comes across in his pursuit of us."

"But we're no longer anywhere close to the Fire Nation colonies and any village we find now is going to be under the reign of the Earth Kingdom," Katara spoke up. "From what you've told me before, Jianguo has only been attacking the Fire Nation's colonies."

Zuko nodded gravely.

"Yes, but there's no saying that he won't attack the Earth Kingdom villages in his quest to capture us," he responded.

A deep frown appeared on Katara's face as she thought over what Zuko had said. They needed to be as discreet as possible so they did not endanger any more innocent lives. Silence fell on them again as they each dwelled in their own thoughts.

Katara felt Zuko reach a hand up to touch her hair and she looked up at him curiously, but she noticed that he was caressing her hair absentmindedly as he stared intently at the campfire. His face was set in an impassive yet hard expression. The fire made shadows dance around his eyes, his nose, along his scar, causing his features to seem sharper and more severe than they actually were. He was lost in deep contemplation and she could detect that he was worried.

"Zuko, is something wrong?" she asked him quietly as she reached a hand out to touch his chest.

The young man blinked and looked away from the hypnotizing fire to stare down at the Water Tribe woman leaning against his side and gazing up at him in concern. He was only mildly surprised to know that she had sensed his disquiet. He continued to stroke her hair as he tried to gather his thoughts.

"I…I'm worried for my mother," he finally admitted.

"Lady Ursa? Why?" Katara asked gently as she ran her hand on his chest in soothing circles.

"I don't know…" Zuko trailed off uncertainly before a frown appeared on his forehead. "I have this feeling that the letter she received after my coronation was sent from the same person as the threating letters that have been sent to me for the past few months."

Katara gasped and her hand paused in her caress as she looked at Zuko with wide eyes.

"Do you think the same person would threaten Lady Ursa again?" she asked.

"I hope not," Zuko responded in a harsh tone before he exhaled deeply. "But I'm confident that Admiral Jee, Advisor Chao, and my guards will keep her safe."

Katara relaxed and leaned closer to him as Zuko wrapped his arm around her and sighed.

"Lady Ursa is well protected, Zuko," Katara reassured him. "And besides, she can defend herself nicely. She has been living on her own for years, after all. Lady Ursa is a strong woman. Not fragile and helpless like the other women in your Royal Court," she ended with a sniff.

Zuko smirked at her tone and reached his hand under her chin to pull her head up so he could look at her.

"Why, Katara, are you jealous?" he asked teasingly.

"No," Katara huffed at him.

Zuko chuckled deeply at her obvious lie and grinned when she turned away from him with her nose in the air. He leaned down to kiss her cheek while he squeezed her waist as he continued to chuckle. Katara grumbled at him, but immediately relaxed in his hold.

"You're right about my mother," Zuko continued after he had calmed down and once again turned serious. "But I'd feel better if I was back in the Fire Nation to make sure she is all right. It will also make me feel less anxious if I have you in a safer place."

Katara smiled at him and kissed his cheek before she snuggled closer to his chest. She was beginning to doze off when another disturbing thought crossed her mind and she tensed.

"You told me that it seemed Jianguo was being informed of everything about you, me, and the people closest to us," Katara began.

Zuko frowned as he felt her tense and heard the worry in her voice.

"Yes, and once we return to the Fire Nation I will begin a search to find this traitor," Zuko growled out in a low tone before he frown at her. "Why? What's wrong?"

"What if that same person you think could be threatening your mother is also keeping a watch on my family?" Katara began urgently before a thoughtful expression appeared on her face. "I need to return to the Southern Water Tribe and warn my father."

Zuko felt fear creep into his heart at the thought of Katara leaving him to travel all alone, almost to the other end of the world, and his hold on her tightened so much that it made her stop speaking.

"Absolutely not!" he growled firmly. "I am not going to let you go!"

Katara gaped at him in surprise before that surprise turned into anger. She glared up at him menacingly.

"How dare you!" Katara shouted at him as she tried to get out of his hold. "You're nobody to tell me what I can and cannot do! And if I want to visit my family, then I will! Now let me go, damn it!"

Zuko frowned at her angry words as he tried to ignore her struggling against his embrace. He knew he could not tell her what to do, especially since he was not her relative or her husband. Yet. But he was not about to let her get away from him and get herself hurt or worse. When Katara almost wrenched herself away from him, Zuko pinned her arms to her sides and pulled her so that her back was to his chest and again ignored her indignant shouts.

"Katara," he whispered gently in her ear. "It's not like I want to force you or anything, but I just don't want you to go on a trip to the Southern Water Tribe all by yourself." He relaxed his hold slightly when Katara paused in her efforts to break away. "If we are being watched, they could capture you again, and this time they will succeed in their plan for I will give up everything for you."

Katara's eyes widened as his words sank in. She felt ashamed for how heatedly she reacted when she thought he challenged her independence and hurt her pride; without thinking about the consequences. She slumped against him with her head bowed.

"I'm sorry, Zuko," she apologized softly. "I didn't think about that."

Zuko relaxed his hold completely and turned her around so she could look at him.

"I understand why you reacted like that," Zuko reassured her as he swept her hair out of her face. "I know you just want to make sure your family is safe and so do I. Once we return to the Fire Nation, I'll send Chief Hakoda and Sokka a warning."

Katara wrapped her arms around his neck and sighed contentedly when he wound his arms around her and caressed her back.

"Thank you," she told him as she nuzzled his neck.

A shiver ran down Zuko's spine when Katara nuzzled into him, but he ignored it as he ran his fingers through her tresses.

"There's nothing for you to thank me for," he said softly. "I want your family to be safe as well."

Since they will be my family very soon, he thought with a large smirk.

"I promise I won't get myself caught," Katara spoke up, oblivious to Zuko's thoughts. "I won't let them use me to hurt you or make you choose between the Fire Nation and me."

"But there will not be much of a choice for I will always decide upon you," Zuko told her ardently. "As much as I love the Fire Nation, and as much as it would pain me to hand it over to those bastards, I will sacrifice everything for you because I love you more."

"Oh, Zuko," Katara sighed at him as she reached up to place a quick kiss on his firm lips. "As much as it pleases me to hear you say that, I won't let you do such a thing."

She kissed him again when it seemed he was going to argue with her.

"Let's just not get captured again and then you won't have to make such a decision, okay?" Katara said and smiled when he sighed and gave her a curt nod.

"I'm as eager as you to send word to Uncle Iroh about Jianguo's threat because I know how much you care for the Fire Nation," Katara told him. "So that's why I agree that we should travel faster and for as long as we can from now on."

"I knew you'd understand how important my duties are to me," Zuko told her as he attacked her neck with kisses, causing her to let out a few giggles. "That's why I love you so much."

"Why?" Katara asked in between more giggles as she tilted her head to allow Zuko to continue kissing her neck. "I know how important your duties are for you because I take my duties back in the Southern Water Tribe seriously, too."

"That's why," Zuko told her as he gently nibbled on her earlobe. He smiled when she let out a small moan. "Most women would have been upset to know that their men consider their responsibilities more important than them."

"Well, I'm not like most women," Katara tried to reply with a huff, but instead her voice came out breathlessly.

Zuko pulled away from her soft skin and smirked at her.

"Oh, and don't I know it," Zuko told her huskily as he brushed his lips over hers.

Katara smiled as she basked in the wonderful sensation of Zuko's kisses.

A chilly breeze blew by them, rustling the leaves and branches of the many trees surrounding them, and Katara shivered at the drop of temperature. She felt Zuko press her closer to him and she gasped softly into his mouth when he raised his body heat and made the campfire roar stronger, enfolding her in a warm and safe cocoon. They broke apart as Katara cuddled closer to Zuko in order to soak up his warmth, her gaze focusing on the glowing fire as a warm and happy feeling spread through her. She watched drowsily as the red and orange flames danced before her eyes, but then the fire turned scorching white and behind this white fire was an enraged Zuko. Her eyes widened at the memory.

"Katara? What's wrong?" she heard Zuko ask and she felt him tense against her.

"It's nothing. I was just remembering how…frightening you looked…when you attacked those men back in Jianguo's camp," she spoke up quietly.

Zuko stiffened and he stopped stroking her back. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

"The sight of you…bleeding and dying was more frightening," he replied quietly.

Katara wondered at the change of his mood and shifted against him so she could look up at him.

"It just surprised me that you were able to kill so many men so easily," she said.

Zuko tensed even further at her words as he looked down at her.

"What they tried to do to you and for causing your blood to be spilled was unforgivable. They deserved it for hurting you," he replied darkly.

He looked away from her so he could stare out into the darkness beyond the trees.

"I don't feel any remorse for killing them," he confessed.

He returned his gaze toward her with a well-concealed apprehensive expression. He saw that she was looking at him with wide, blue eyes and his heart clenched in dread.

"Do…do you think less of me?" he asked her in an emotionless tone. "Do you see me as a monster now, Katara?"

Katara's eyes softened at the slight anxiousness she could detect in his voice. When he looked away again, she reached for his face and turned his head so he could see her. Zuko looked into her eyes apprehensively, afraid that he might see her disgust or pity. Instead he was surprised to see her give him a compassionate and understanding smile.

"I would never think less of you for trying to protect me," she told him sincerely. "I admit I was a bit shocked at your ruthlessness, but I understand that you did what you did to avenge me. And in a way, their deaths were for the best for now those men won't be able to hurt anyone else."

She ran her fingers along the scarred flesh on the left side of his face and she smiled gently when Zuko sighed and leaned into her touch.

"I will never see you as a monster, Zuko," she reminded him firmly.

Zuko could not explain the relief and elation her heartfelt words of understanding caused him and he crushed her soft body to him and captured her lips in a fierce kiss that had them both panting in no time. Gods, he could not get enough of kissing Katara. He pulled away from her mouth with a soft groan after a moment and placed heated kisses on the skin of her face until he rested his head on her shoulder while she caressed his hair.

"I knew you would understand, Katara," Zuko whispered into her ear.

Katara smiled before she decided to change the subject.

"I never knew you could bend white fire," she told him in an amazed tone.

Zuko gave her a squeeze of gratitude at the change of topic before he moved slightly away so he could smirk at her.

"Neither did I," he admitted with a quiet chuckle.

Katara looked at him with a confused expression. "What?"

"Most firebenders never reach the level of bending white fire," the young man explained to her.

"Really? Why is that?" she asked as she tilted her head to the side curiously.

"Well…" Zuko began as he tried to remember what he had read about the technique during his studies as a child. "I've only heard of a few firebenders that were capable of achieving such high levels of firebending. I'm not sure how it comes to be, whether from intense years of training or…luck."

"Luck?" asked the waterbender.

Zuko raised his head and gazed out into the trees again. He was silent for a moment before he finally replied to her question.

"Azula…she was able to bend blue fire since she began her first years of training, even though she was a very young girl," Zuko began emotionlessly. "She did not need to try, it came naturally to her."

Katara ran her hand soothingly along his arm since she knew Zuko was still hurt by the preference and praise Azula always received for her ability to master her bending so easily. She also knew that, despite what Azula had done to them, it still saddened Zuko to see his younger sister lost in insanity. Katara looked up at him to give him a large smile in order to cheer him up.

"So then that means that all your years of hard training paid off for you to be able to bend white fire," Katara chirped.

Zuko tightened his hold on her as he looked away from staring into the distance so he could gaze into her bright cobalt eyes.

"Maybe my training was one cause," he began as he gave her a small smile, "but the reason why I was able to achieve the level of bending white fire was because of you."

"Me?" Katara asked skeptically.

"You don't seem to comprehend how much you mean to me, Katara," Zuko said and frowned at her, as his arms tightened around her. "I cannot stand it when you get hurt or are in danger and it always angers me when someone insults you.

"But back in Jianguo's camp, you had been both disrespected and had been…fatally wounded. My usual anger turned into rage, a rage that had festered so intensely inside me that it exploded in white fire. All I thought at that moment was hurting those that had caused you pain and the need to get rid of them as soon as possible so that I could help you, but I…I was too late."

"But I'm alive now," Katara reminded him as she stared softly into his tormented golden eyes. "I'm all right. You need to put that in the past and forget it, Zuko."

She was surprised when Zuko tightly clutched onto her, almost despairingly, his eyes seemed to blaze as he stared intensely into her eyes.

"I can't, Katara! I can't!" Zuko shouted heatedly. "I can't forget the memory of you dying in my arms! Don't you understand? I…I almost lost you…"

His voice trailed off brokenly and Katara quickly wrapped her arms around him to comfort him while he buried his face into her hair.

"You don't need to worry anymore because I will never leave you," Katara promised him fervently. "You don't need to worry any longer because you will never lose me again."

Zuko closed his eyes tightly as he took comfort in the words and loving embrace of the woman he loved above all else. They were silent for a moment as they clutched onto each other before Katara moved away slightly. Zuko wanted to pull her back to him, but he reluctantly let go of her. He watched as a faint blush spread across her cheeks and he raised an eyebrow in curiosity.

"Zuko? Did you really mean…what you said to Feng?" she asked almost shyly.

"What did I say?" he asked her with a frown.

"When the coward was begging for mercy, you told him that he should've thought about that before hurting what…what was yours," she said, blushing more deeply.

Zuko quickly leaned down to press his lips to hers, reaching out a hand to brush the back of his fingers along her cheek.

"You are mine," Zuko growled huskily against her plump lips as he stared intently into her shiny, blue orbs, "As much as I am yours."

Katara felt elated at his fervent words and she allowed herself to get lost in the demanding kiss Zuko was bestowing upon her.

Zuko slowly pulled them down onto the blankets and settled his upper body lightly over hers as he continued to assault her mouth in languid kisses, while his hand gently stroked her side. He licked her lower lip and he smiled inwardly when she immediately opened her mouth to him. Without any hesitation, Zuko slipped his tongue inside her hot mouth, earning himself a low moan from deep within her throat while she gripped the hair at the nape of his neck. Their tongues touched and when she jumped against him, Zuko decided to slow down a bit, so she could get used to the sensations.

Their lips broke apart for a moment so they could catch their breaths before Zuko again leaned down to capture Katara's sweet mouth. He slipped his tongue inside her moist mouth and lightly caressed her tongue, gently coaxing her into reciprocating his actions.

Katara experienced a strange and new level of pleasure as Zuko's warm tongue continued to stroke hers in a soft yet firm caress. She moaned and breathed deeply through her nose as her whole body began to heat up. She tried to follow his lead as the weight from Zuko's upper body touching hers delighted her in ways she had never known. Her tongue touched his a bit timidly and awkwardly at first, but when an encouraging moan sounded from his throat, her confidence flared. She began to taste and explore his mouth just as he had done to hers before. A spicy and smoky flavor covered her taste buds and she found that she liked it very much.

Zuko grinned in his head as Katara learned quickly and picked up the pace as she eagerly explored his mouth. A low and pleased groan escaped him when she wrapped her soft tongue around his while she ran one of her hands down his back. He had never experienced such immense satisfaction from just a kiss and he could not help but wonder how much pleasure he would experience once he actually made love to Katara.

That delightful thought and Katara's current caressing mouth made his blood heat up to such intense levels that it was almost painful. The leisurely pace in which he had started swiftly changed into a frantic and heated kiss. Katara tried to keep up with him, but Zuko quickly dominated her mouth and she surrendered willingly while she tangled her fingers into his short hair. Her leg brushed the inside of his thigh, almost touching the evidence of his arousal, and he growled. Zuko pressed himself closer to her while his hands began to roam over her soft body that lay beneath his hard frame. His desire to shred her clothes away from her body and take her grew to such an extreme level that it almost scared him.

Katara was lost in Zuko's fiery embrace as she felt his large and warm hands caress her body. She gasped as a shot of pleasure went straight to her core when one of his hands cupped her breast and she immediately stiffened as she also noticed something hard poking her thigh.

Zuko noticed her body tense and he froze. He moved his twitching hand away from her breast and slowly released her mouth as he also moved his lower body away from her. He placed his head against her shoulder and breathed heavily as he tried to calm his racing heart, embarrassed that he had lost his control like that. It had never happened to him before. Of course, the few women he had been with before could not make his blood flare up with heat the way just a single caress from Katara did. He pulled back slightly to look into her eyes and he swallowed when he saw her flushed features and swollen lips.

"I'm sorry for being too forward. I didn't mean to overwhelm you," he apologized quietly to her. His voice came out husky and he cleared his throat a few times.

Katara was still trying to take air into her lungs and make her fuzzy brain start working again so she could reply to him.

"I-it's f-fine," Katara tried to reassure him before she looked away from his eyes a bit bashfully. "It's just that I'm not used to such things yet, but I…I really enjoyed it."

Zuko smiled at her shy admission and he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She looked back up to smile at him, but he stiffened when her leg accidentally brushed against him.

"I, uh…" Zuko swallowed as his shifted. "I think it's best that we get some rest now so we can set out at dawn."

He pressed a quick kiss to her lips before he moved away from her. He stood up with his back turned toward her and smoothed his hair back.

"Where are you going?" Katara asked him innocently as she sat up. She blushed as she tried to straighten out her shirt, though her wrappings covered her breasts.

Zuko froze at her innocent inquiry as he was making his way to the trees.

"Um…I…" he stammered before he cleared his throat. "I need to…uh…step behind a tree…for a moment."

He groaned inwardly in mortification at what he said before he looked over his shoulder to see what Katara thought.

"Oh," was her simple reply. "Okay, then. Don't take too long."

Zuko gave her a small smile as she smiled back at him innocently.

"I'll be back shortly," he muttered. He hoped that she did not notice he was blushing. Dammit, he never blushed.

"Okay, I'll be waiting for you," Katara told him before she grinned. "I'll probably freeze without your body heat."

Zuko gave her a quick nod as he strode away. He tried not to walk too stiffly due to his erection. He disappeared in the shadows of the trees, clenching his right hand while his left hand, the one that had cupped Katara's soft breast, twitched.

He sighed.

He could not wait for that glorious day when it would be Katara that would take care of the not-so-little problem currently in his hand.

A/N: Whoa. Is it getting hot in here or what?

Thank you for reading! Please check out the amazing MHBFY fan art on my profile!