A/N: This takes place during and after ep 317, "The Ember Island Players", and was my winning contest entry for the Zutarotica LJ comm Summer Smutfic Challenge (see the link in my profile). Rated M for Mature. ^^
Update: it has also won 2nd place in the UFO awards in the ATLA category! So thank you!
By the end of the second intermission and the beginning of the last act of the play, Sokka had somehow procured a couple of bottles of rice wine. He passed them around within the group, as they watched the final invasion scene play out before them. "This is it! The finale, you guys!" he exclaimed excitedly.
At least the wine will numb the pain of watching this disaster, somewhat, Katara thought, and took large gulps of it on her turn, shuddering a bit as she did as it stung her throat on the way down. She watched furtively out of the corner of her eye as Aang finally reappeared and took his seat, and she felt as though she wanted to will herself to shrink into the wooden bench below her. He had just tried to kiss her outside on the balcony, after she'd just explained to him how confused she was and how complicated the entire thing between them was and the fact that she'd needed some time to think—and now, to her embarrassment, she found she couldn't even look at him. She stared at her feet instead as she passed the rice wine to Zuko sitting next to her, and felt his eyes on her before he drank, gently roving and curious.
The last part of the play was even more atrocious than what they'd been subjected to earlier. The portrayal of the Day of Black Sun invasion was largely uneventful; Katara grimaced with guilt as her actress told Aang's actor—actress?—that she loved him like a brother. There was even a handshake exchanged, and behind her Katara heard the Avatar's head thump against the wooden rail in frustration.
Zuko's actor, still with the silly-looking scar mask on the wrong side of his face, was shown joining the group—whose collective reaction was largely a nonchalant shrug, followed by, "…I guess we have no choice. Come on!" Katara rolled her eyes, and Zuko snorted next to her. The rice wine had made its way back to him in the reverse direction, and he tilted his head back to take a large swig.
"If they only knew the real way this had all played out, they'd be shocked," Katara whispered to him, and he nodded. "They'll never know the real truth of what happened."
Zuko appeared to mull it over. "…That may not necessarily be a bad thing," he offered. "Remember, this is the troupe who butchers 'Love Amongst the Dragons' every year."
"But they should at least be told what really happened and what didn't!" she insisted. "Like Jet flooding the village, he didn't actually kill anyone…and how your sister shot your Uncle with lightning, they didn't even show that…and—"
"And underneath Ba Sing Se?"
Katara froze, but then nodded—perhaps too quickly. "…Yeah! Right." His mouth turned down slightly at the corners—only briefly, she noticed, before he took another long pull of wine to cover it.
Just when they had thought the play was over, the events depicted having caught up to the present, they were shocked to discover…that it wasn't. "We're going to be watching events from the future?" Sokka exclaimed, with obvious glee.
His enthusiasm was short-lived. The entire gang watched in abject horror as Fire Lord Ozai appeared on stage to the delight of the audience, summoning power from Sozin's Comet. Azula appeared next to him, crowing, "Zuko and Aang are at the palace and are trying to stop you, Father!"
"Azula, you will face down your weakling brother," Ozai sneered, and Katara risked a glance at Zuko beside her, who was watching intently, "and I will face the Avatar."
Ozai fell away into the backdrop, and suddenly Zuko and Azula's characters were facing off with one another in an Agni Kai. Azula pointed a finger at him, her mouth turned downward in a scowl. "You are no longer my brother…you are my enemy!"
"No," Zuko challenged, "I am the rightful heir to the throne!"
"We will see!"
They dueled with red and blue ribbons, representing their red and blue flames, and at first the match seemed to be a dead heat. Then suddenly Azula's character flicked her wrist, and pillars of bright red fire—waves of ribbons, shooting up from the floor—engulfed Zuko's actor completely. His silhouette waved and danced behind the red curtain as if he were burning alive.
"HONORRRRR!" he screamed with his last breath, falling dramatically. The crowd cheered and roared at the Fire Prince's defeat.
Gasping at their cruelty, Katara reached to cover his hand at his knee with her own. She risked another glance at him, and Zuko seemed made of wood—only his good eye betrayed how stunned and wounded he was at the crowd's jeers. She tried not to give herself away by startling when she felt his hand turn into hers and grasp it, squeezing her fingers, but her stomach flopped over and fluttered in her belly and a warmth spread through her that had nothing to do with the rice wine.
Ozai and Aang reappeared next. "So," Ozai sneered, standing from his throne and approaching the Avatar, "you have mastered the four elements."
"Yeah!" Aang's quirky doppelganger chirped. "And now you're goin' down!"
"No," Ozai replied, his regal face twisting into something demonic. "It is you who is going down!"
Aang's actress spun and whirled, but within minutes was overcome by a giant ball of fire—which was actually a long, red curtain of material designed to look like flame. "Noooo!" the Avatar's actress shrieked, collapsing on the floor; again the crowd cheered loudly. Katara saw Aang's defeated look before he dropped his head below his shoulders, dejected.
Azula returned to the stage, and before her Ozai gave a gallant speech. "We have done it!" He addressed the crowd as the platform he was standing on began to rise higher with his words, majestic red tapestries falling down from the backdrop behind him bearing the Fire Nation crest. "The dreams of my father…and my father's father…have now been realized. The world…is…mine!"
The crowd was on its feet this time, giving the players a standing ovation, amongst yells and hoots of "Long live the Fire Lord! Long Live Ozai!"
Zuko released her hand to bury his head in both of his own. Katara felt tears of hurt and disbelief threatening the corners of her eyes at the crowd's reaction. How can they cheer for a dictator like Ozai? How can they applaud Azula murdering her own brother? …I won't give them the satisfaction of seeing me like this. She angrily willed them away, not wanting to reinforce her stupid character's stereotypical 'tearbending'.
But a look around revealed her friends huddled into their own chairs, their faces ashen-white and eyes suddenly sobered and somewhat fearful.
"That play sucked," Toph stated, not one to mince words. "Even if my character was the most amazing and most manly out of them all."
Outside again behind the playhouse, the effects of the rice wine were in full-swing again; Sokka had regained some of his former cheer after such a ghastly ending. "At least the special effects were kind of cool," he noted, and Suki playfully punched him. "And you know, once I gave my actor some suggestions, he wasn't half-bad with the jokes!"
The group began to disperse for their long walk back to the Fire Lord's beach house. Katara blearily noticed that Zuko was missing, and waved Sokka and the others on without her. "I'll catch up to you guys," she offered, and they nodded and half-drunkenly began trudging down the path. Aang looked back longingly at her, but Toph pulled him along tenaciously.
"Come on, Twinkletoes."
Katara walked a bit unsteadily to the other side of the playhouse; in the shadows underneath the balcony Zuko was leaning against a wood pillar, his arms across his chest and his head bowed. In one hand he held the last remnants of the rice wine.
"Hey." She approached him warily, and he looked up with slight surprise. Even with her own senses somewhat muddled, she noticed his eyes were glassy.
"What are you doing out here? Everyone's…" She trailed off vacuously as she saw the wine. "Ooh, is there any left?"
He handed it to her without another word.
Katara took a large gulp from the bottle, no longer wincing at the slight burning sensation on its descent. Her throat had long since gone numb. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, and noticed for a split-second that his gaze was momentarily focused on her lips before it skipped away again. "It was a terrible play, Zuko," she reassured him hesitantly, uncertain if it was the reason he was upset. It upset her to watch such a disgraceful spectacle—surely that was what was bothering him. "Things aren't going to end that way, I promi—"
He put up his hand as if to stop her; it worked. "Don't say that," he said lowly, his bad eye glittering in the shadows. "Don't make a promise you're not sure you can keep."
Her shoulders fell. "But I will keep it," she insisted, with quiet solemnity. "I'm not going to let that happen, to either you or Aang."
"Hm." His head bowed again thoughtfully over his chest. She thought she could detect a trace of doubt lingering in his single syllable.
"And anyway," she continued, slipping easily back into her irritated state, "that play had so many errors in the storyline, it was ridiculous. It was a travesty…we shouldn't have even watched it."
"Was the thing with Jet an error?"
She flinched, unable to stop herself. "…The what? What thing with Jet?"
"You. With Jet."
Katara looked studiously down at the dirt by her sandaled feet. Then, emboldened by drink, she raised her eyes slowly to meet his. "…No. It wasn't."
Zuko was looking at her intently now—not the sidelong glances she'd grown accustomed to receiving from him that night. "I met him, you know," he offered softly after a moment.
She came closer, as if drawn magnetically, to lean against the pillar directly across from him so that she faced him head-on. "He had a vendetta against the Fire Nation…he figured out that you were a firebender, didn't he?"
He nodded. "He nearly gave my uncle and I away as Fire Nation to the Dai Li. They—" He paused, as if unwilling to divulge everything. His good eye widened. "…Did he really die?"
"He was…they brainwashed him," she said quietly, rubbing her arms slightly, her head lowered. "He attacked Aang beneath Lake Laogai. He managed to snap out of it in time, but then the Dai Li…" She looked back up at him and met his expectant gaze, and then her words poured forth like a flood of torrential excuses and she was powerless to stop it. "…They crushed him. When we left to escape, he was badly injured. I should have healed him, but at the time I didn't think I could do it—I was still learning what I could and couldn't do, and I didn't want to leave him there, but we had to escape—I didn't think I was strong enough, I didn't—he wasn't a bad—"
"It's okay." She hadn't even realized that the tears were forming at the corners of her eyes until he broke her reverie, and she brushed them away with the inside of her wrist. His voice had softened again. "I'm sure you would have healed him then, if you'd known how to, Katara."
Now it was Zuko offering comfort to her, when she'd meant it to be the other way around. Maybe I really am a crybaby who makes long and unnecessary speeches about hope, she berated herself, thinking of the Ember Island Players. He's probably bored to tears with my rambling and blubbering and thinking that to himself, right now—
"Did you kiss him?"
Once again, his question caught her completely by surprise. "Kiss…?" Her eyes went wide.
"Jet." He looked at her pointedly, and then appeared slightly uncomfortable by his own words. "Before he…" She nodded quickly, and Zuko's expression slowly changed to betray a faint hint of amusement.
Katara folded her arms over her chest protectively and gave him a stern look—or at least as stern as she could manage. "…What."
"Nothing. You're just not as…innocent, as I thought you were, apparently."
She made a face. "Oh, and I suppose you were just the picture of princely propriety, this whole time," she sneered. Talking about kisses—especially after what had just occurred during the play's intermission—had unnerved her. That plus the alcohol had sharpened her wit to a fine razor's point, and it appeared that Zuko wasn't yet immune to it. He blushed and looked down.
"…Not if you count stealing for food instead of begging, or running off with the ostrich-horse of a girl whose family took you in for dinner," he replied gruffly, "or betraying everyone under Ba Sing Se, especially your Uncle, who has stuck by you faithfully since you were a child after your own father all but disowned you." She saw that his eyes were hard, gold glass, and felt instantly remorseful for having made him browbeat himself.
"…I'm sorry." Her voice softened. "We've all done things we aren't proud of, Zuko," she said, coming closer to rest her hand on one of his arms laced across his chest. "The past is the past. You've made up for some of the things you've done already, by just joining Aang and helping him…" She tried to meet his eyes, ducking her head to do so. "…And I'm sure your Uncle Iroh will forgive you, once he sees how much you've turned things around."
He didn't seem placated. "There's something else I did that I'm not proud of," he told her solemnly, and Katara was a bit surprised. Something else? After all of that? She wasn't sure what else could have possibly been on such a list, but she braced herself to hear it, nevertheless.
When she stayed silent, indicating she would listen, he raised his eyes to meet hers. "I left my ex-girlfriend, Mai, imprisoned at the Boiling Rock after I freed your father and Suki."
Katara's face went blank. "You…you left your ex-girlfriend? In prison?" Then her expression turned incredulous, as the full weight of his words sank in: "…Mai is your… ex-girlfriend?…"
"…Yes?" Zuko responded carefully, eyeing her.
She suddenly sputtered loudly with laughter, her hands coming up to belatedly stem the noise and hide her smile behind them, but they weren't fast enough—he was already bristling with irritation, his good eyebrow furrowing into a frown. "What's so funny? I'm telling you something I'm ashamed of!"
She was laughing now, outright. "…I don't…I don't know which is funnier…" She leaned back against the wooden beam again and guffawed, all sense of modesty lost by the wayside. "The fact that your girlfriend was someone like Mai, or that you left her in jail, on the Boiling Rock…boy, that relationship must've really ended badly…"
His frown had lessened a bit and he was looking at her now with an expression she couldn't quite place, uncrossing his arms and then crossing them again over his chest. It didn't help that his eyes were partially shadowed by the balcony above them. "What exactly is wrong with 'someone like Mai' as my girlfriend?" he asked, neutrally.
She laughed again. "Well, for one, she's way too gloomy for you. I mean, her face is a completely expressionless mask most of the time. Even when she's fighting she doesn't seem to have any passion behind it. It's like nothing is important to her at all!" She didn't notice the way he cocked his head to watch her as she gestured wildly with her arms. "I mean, she's—she's just a big blah!"
"…I see." Again he was unreadable, at least to her rice wine-laden senses. "Well, maybe she was too gloomy…but at least she wasn't a terrorist who tried to wipe out a village full of innocent people, just because they were Fire Nation."
Katara's jaw dropped. The comment stung, even though she had been just as furious with Jet, if not more so, when she'd found out. "He was sorry for that." She frowned and added quickly, "—And he wasn't my boyfriend, if that's what you were insinuating. He's not the only person who's kissed me, you kno—" She scowled as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Oops.
"Oh?" Zuko was interested again. "It must be Haru, then."
Evasively she answered, "No, it's—"
His face drew a grimace. "—Teo?"
"—No! Are you cra—"
"I don't want to talk about it!" She bit her lip and slid down with the wood beam against her back to sit on the sand, crossing her arms over her knees protectively.
Zuko looked instantly remorseful. He approached and squatted down on his haunches, trying to look into her eyes. "I'm—I'm sorry," he faltered uncertainly. "I didn't mean to push you about it. I was just giving you a hard time, like you gave me." She averted her gaze, and he dropped to his knees in the sand and crawled up to sit beside her against the wooden beam, shoulder to shoulder.
They sat together like that for a moment in companionable silence, and Katara was briefly reminded of their co-imprisonment underneath the crystal caverns of Ba Sing Se. In her peripheral view she saw that he was looking at her searchingly again. "…Was it someone in the Water Tribes that you had to leave behind?"
"No, it's…it's not someone from the Water Tribe," she replied, her voice as soft as his, and sad. She closed her eyes. "…It's Aang." When she opened them, she saw that both of his were wide in surprise. "He kissed me, during the Day of Black Sun…and then again tonight, during the intermission…"
Zuko put his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. He let out a soft groan. "I don't believe this…"
His response confused her. "What?"
"Nothing," he answered quickly. He looked over at her again, next to him. "So what are you going to do? Do you—"
"Do I care about him?" she finished for him, staring straight ahead of her. "Yes, I do. I care very much about him."
"But…not in that way," she continued, oblivious to his startled glance. "And at the same time—I can't hurt his feelings. He's in such a vulnerable place right now, right before the Comet's arrival, and before he has to face the Fire Lord…and I don't know that telling him the truth about how I feel is such a good idea." She blinked slowly, feeling her eyes droop. Suddenly she was tired, so very tired. She could feel the press of a thousand expectations bearing down upon her shoulders, or maybe it was a thousand lifetimes—not her own, but she felt the weight of them just the same.
She felt Zuko shift beside her, and then the feeling of his hand enclasping hers again, as she'd taken his in the darkness of the playhouse's upper balcony. His hand was warm, the skin soft, despite the small and nearly indistinct callouses she felt at the edges of his palm—probably from his swordplay—which she traced absently with the pad of her thumb.
She turned her head to glance at him, surprised, when he took her captured hand and pulled it closer to his face for inspection, playing gently with her fingers and winding them around his own. He seemed to be studying it raptly, looking at her smooth palm, the shape of her nails, the delicate skin of her knuckles; and Katara let him, the wine saturating her blood making her feel as though she were dissolving into the ether at the gentle touches. If he'd asked, she would have given him her entire arm, maybe even all of her limbs, to examine and scrutinize as he saw fit.
Then he turned his head and their eyes met, and the moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. Dimly she was aware through one of his hands that he was faintly trembling. Her nostrils flared; she felt her breathing narrow.
He broke the spell and got to his feet with some effort, pulling her gently up with him. "Come on. Let's go back." He brushed himself off as he stood upright and said enigmatically, "I want to show you something."
"Show me?...What do you want to show me?" Katara asked, her brain sleepily muddled but curious; swaying slightly on her feet, which did not go unnoticed by him.
He paused. "…Maybe I should…carry you back home," he offered. "It's a long walk, at least a few miles, and it looks like you had a bit too much of the rice wine…"
"I'll be fine," she insisted, and began walking to prove it, albeit somewhat wobbily. In her peripheral vision she spied Zuko walking beside her, eyeing her with concern. "Hey, you know—you know what we need? An earthbender."
He looked confused. "…Why?"
"So they could cut out the part of the island between here and your parents' house," she explained, complete with sloppy arm gestures, "and then sew it back up together, so that we'd only have to take a few little steps!"
Zuko stopped walking. "…Okay, that's it. I'm carrying you the rest of the way." He approached her, hands open, and she backed away out of nervous habit.
He turned and presented her with his back, hunkering down on his knees slightly in invitation, hands ready as stirrups. "Hop on."
She did, climbing aboard his back somewhat awkwardly, and he lifted her up and began walking. She held onto him with her arms around his neck.
"I've seen you carry Toph and the Duke like this," she said amiably. "You're right—this is a lot better than walking. You're like my personal ostrich-horse."
"Yeah…you're a little heavier than they are, though," he replied just as jovially, and she laughed in surprise at his impudence.
And then she slapped him on the flank, not one for propriety. "Faster, you bad ostrich-horse!"
He startled at the slap, which had been dangerously close to his ass—but then proceeded to playfully attempt to buck her off, as though he were skittish. She shrieked and laughed, holding on to him tighter. "S-stop…stop!" He settled down, and she relaxed against him once more.
Katara tucked her head into the crook between his neck and shoulder, on his scarred side. "You're teasing me," she observed astutely, her words slurring a bit, and dazedly she thought she could feel his cheek becoming warmer against hers. "You never used to do that to me—only when we were fighting. Why're you doing it now?"
"Because you react so strongly to everything," he responded, his face straight ahead as he trudged onward on the dirt path before them.
She mulled this over. "I guess I am kind of volatile." She could feel his grin.
"Understatement of the season."
"See, there you go again." She mashed her face against the side of his neck, and felt him shiver. "So what are you going to show me, anyway?"
"You'll find out," he replied mysteriously, and she began rattling off guesses.
"Is it back at your parents' house?"
"Is it something you can only show me in private?..."
She grinned to herself. "Is it your dancing dragon?"
Zuko stumbled in surprise, but caught himself before both of them fell crashing down into the dirt. "—What?"
"—Oh, wait, I think I've already seen that." She giggled mischievously.
His own chuckle was snarkier. "Trust me—you'd know if you'd seen it."
"Oh, is that so?" she laughed, unable to help the blush in her cheeks from his response. In the back of her mind she wondered dimly who'd been privy to such a display; she considered asking him about it.
But the question was eclipsed by the vision in her head of Zuko, naked, with a serpentine dragon—or something that resembled a miniaturized version of the Unagi—dancing wildly between his legs. The Unagi had an enormous shark-toothed grin on its face, in contrast to Zuko's scowl. She snorted to herself and began to laugh raucously again.
Zuko scowled. "Hey, it's not that funny," he grumbled, lumbering on beneath her.
By the time they reached the beach house, everything was dark—save the outdoor torches, flickering lowly under glass hurricane lamps. Everyone had presumably gone to sleep, in the hour that it had taken them to get themselves home.
Katara found herself plunked down unceremoniously in a darkened hallway. She startled, having been lulled into a light sleep on the last leg of the journey while being carried on Zuko's back, and shook herself into awareness. "Are—are we home already? Why is it so dark?..."
He shushed her impatiently, taking her hand as he did. "We don't want to wake the others. They're already asleep." He lit a small torch of fire in his other hand, and began to lead her. "Come on. This way."
The rice wine had nearly worn off, and Katara felt her mind slowly clearing. She spoke in hushed tones to placate him as they maneuvered quietly down the seemingly-endless hallway, turning corridors right and left, their path lit only by Zuko's firelight. "Where are you taking me? Are there some top-secret plans of your father's, that he might have hidden away someplace, in here…?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he whispered back, but she thought it only sounded like a half-hearted denial. "No one in my family has been back here for years, not since my mother was gone." She closed her mouth and kept walking, led by his sturdy hand.
They finally came upon a remote corner of the house, before two very large wooden doors with metal locks and hinges on them. "…What's this?" Katara breathed. "It's something important, right? It requires a key." Across the door handles, there was a metal chain with a sturdy lock on it.
"Why use a key, when you have a perfectly good waterbender?" he asked in reply, and stepped gallantly aside from the doors to allow her to stand directly in front of them.
She looked at him uncertainly. "…Do you think I should?"
He didn't even hesitate. "Definitely."
Katara summoned her water from the skin she kept hidden underneath the red Fire Nation sarong she wore. It trailed up to her wrist and along her forearm like a slinking, shimmering glove—and then she slung it, whip-like, into the chain clinging to the door's handles. The metal split at a single link, and the rest of the chain fell away uselessly.
Zuko pulled the doors open, revealing blackness. Instantly his fire lit the room's far corner lamp lights, and with lighting she saw that it was an entire opulently-furnished, ornately-designed room. The walls and curtains—covering a boarded-up window—and tapestries were rich tones of dark blood red and mahogany. Framed pictures and mirrors and elaborate candelabras decorated each wall. There were several separate adjoining rooms—probably lavish bathrooms and parlor rooms and additional rooms—but this, this was his parents' private suite.
She stood at the doorway, gaping, as Zuko went inside. Much of the larger furniture was covered with cloth tarps, and he went about the room removing them, one by one. Couches and loveseats and tables and chairs sprang to life, their conditions protected from dust and years of disuse.
Katara followed him in, trailing her hand absently along a mahogany wood end table not far from the door. It had a lacquered finish; she'd never seen a single piece of furniture so beautiful. It must have been expensive.
He was moving on through an adjacent door, and motioned to her. "Come on." She followed without another thought, and when he'd lit the room with his firelight, she gasped at what she saw.
The Firelord and Firelady's master bedroom suite.
There was a beautiful vanity set, complete with dresser, standing mirror, cushioned bench, and dozens of toiletries, perfumes, brushes, combs—all the fineries and luxuries that one would expect a woman of regal stature to own. At the end of the room but visible from the mirror's view was a large, opulent poster bed, that when uncovered she saw was done all in red silks and satins. More silks—clothing, robes, dresses—were hanging through open closet doors.
"These…these were your mother's?" she asked, awed by the sight, and she moved to sit down on the cushioned bench before the vanity and stared into the dusty mirror at a reflection of herself.
"…Yes." He was still uncovering things, pictures on the wall, some of them giving him pause as he stopped to look at them. "This was my mother's private room." He lingered over a particular portrait—she couldn't see what it was. "She used to let me sit in here sometimes with her, when I was a child."
She rose again to study the dresses and robes hanging from the open closet, fingering the material gently, reveling in the soft and delicate textures. "They're exquisite," she breathed. "I've never seen material like this."
He was back at the vanity, and waved her over again as he opened a drawer in the dresser. Before her was displayed an array of beautiful hairclips, combs, and pieces of jewelry—mostly made of gold, most of them with fire or flame-styled emblems on them.
"Wow," she gasped quietly.
He raised his eyes to meet hers, flicking them briefly down to the accessories. "Try one of them on."
She looked at him archly. "…Are you sure?"
In response he moved slightly behind her and raised his hands to her hair, as though to remove the band holding her topknot. "May I?" She hesitated, before nodding uncertainly.
Gently he removed the band, crested with a tiny red flame, and held her topknot in place while he selected a gold hair comb from the drawer and buried it carefully in her hair. It held the knot securely, and when he took his hands away she could see the design in the mirror; it looked as though a golden sunrise was taking place over her dark head, studded with red rubies and dark orange-gold stones that shimmered when they caught the flickering firelight.
"Fire opals," he told her softly, watching her look at them through her reflection. "They're said to have been made by the Dragons superheating the interior of the earth with their fire. They're one of the most valuable gemstones in existence, and they come in all sorts of colors—even green and blue, sometimes…I've heard."
"It's lovely," she whispered, uncertain of whether the compliment did the jewelry justice.
"You should have it. It suits you."
Katara turned to him in surprise. She reached up to her hair to remove the comb, pressing it back into his hand. "No, I—I can't take this, Zuko, it's your mother's…it belongs to her, and you said…" her voice grew uncertain, "…the Fire Nation took her from you…"
"She didn't die," he interrupted, moving away slightly and averting his eyes. "I learned on the day of the eclipse that she's alive, somewhere."
"Then all the more reason you should keep them here, for her…" She trailed off as her eyes crossed the room and fell on the portrait of a beautiful woman, dressed in the red silks that adorned the closets and wearing the jewelry she saw buried in the drawer. "…Is that her?"
Katara approached the portrait to examine it further. His mother had fine, delicate features, like Zuko and his sister, but her eyes were gentle, so much more gentle than even Zuko's single good one; they belied a melancholy that came through the hand-drawn portrait. She must have known sadness, she thought, even though she was probably the richest woman in the world. "She looks very beautiful." She bit her lip. "And also very sad."
She could feel Zuko standing behind her, feel the soft gusts of warm air on her back from his breath, and she felt him gently rearrange the gold and fire opal hair comb back into her topknot. "I think," he said slowly, "if she were around and she met you, she would like you, very much…" He stood back, to admire it again. "And I think she'd want you to have it."
She reached up to touch it gently in her hair, feeling the smooth gilded edges, the rough outlines of the cut gemstones. She turned to face him fully. "When I was young, my mother gave me a hair comb. Not like this, of course—we didn't have any gold," she laughed lightly, and his lips curved, "but it was made of whalebone ivory. I lost it one day on the ice, exploring with Sokka. I never forgave myself for losing such a precious gift." She looked back into his eyes for a long moment, holding his gaze. "Thank you."
He was the first to pull his eyes away, but she dropped hers to the floor soon after. "…But I don't have a gift to give, to you."
Zuko flushed a bit. "It's all right. You don't have to give me anything…I didn't give it, expecting anything."
"It's a Water Tribe custom," she insisted gently. "Gift-giving is always reciprocated. I can't—it would be an insult if I were to take this, without giving you something of equal or greater value in return."
He shrugged slightly. "Well…what do your people usually give, to each other?"
"Not much," she laughed. "Food, drink, clothing…sometimes a song, or a dance, if the person is talented enough." She smiled to herself, recollecting her tribe.
He grinned widely in response. "A song and a dance might work."
Katara decided she definitely liked the reappearance of his disarming grin. "Oh, no. I don't know any good ones, and I'm really not that great at dancing," she confessed, shaking her head. "Sokka can attest to that." She conveniently neglected to mention the dance she'd shared with Aang—she was already forming an idea in her head.
Zuko's smile deflated. "Then...I can't really think of anything else, though."
And that was when she boldly stepped closer, raising herself on her toes slightly to lean in to him, and gently pressed her lips against his own.
His lips parted under hers obediently. Zuko's mouth was soft and silky, and tasted faintly of the rice wine they'd both drank. When she pulled away he was flushed, eyes closed.
He opened them, clearing his throat before speaking in a harsh whisper. "…Would you like another comb?" he asked, as she broke into a smile. "There are lots of them, you can have as many as you li—"
"I'm not done yet." And then she was pressed against him again, lips meeting, and his arms went around her. His response was decidedly less gentle this time, more focused, and one hand cradled the back of her head and held her securely as his tongue slipped between her lips and stroked the inside of her mouth.
She gasped between his lips and tried to speak his name; he pulled back instantly. "Did you like that?" he asked, breathless. She nodded insistently, moving into him once more, and he backed up, pulling her with him to the bed a short distance away. He sat on it as the back of his legs met the silk duvet, and he pulled her into the space between his thighs, bringing her close once more.
"I didn't think…" he started, and stopped, panting slightly; he started again when she looked into his eyes, prompting him. "I didn't think you could feel this way about me, after…what I did…"
Katara shook her head gently. "It's not what you did," she whispered. "It's what you didn't do." Zuko looked confused.
"You didn't ever hurt me with your firebending, even when we fought so many times," she said. "You didn't run away from making a painfully hard decision about something, even if you'd done things wrong in the past." She looked into his eyes with studious conviction. "And you let me make my own difficult decision, with Yon Rha, when it came down to it—you didn't tell me what to do, or what to think, or how to feel." She cupped his cheek. "You…you didn't judge me. You just helped me, without another word. That…was the most thoughtful thing that anyone's ever done, for me."
He must have decided she'd done enough explaining, because the next thing she knew he had pulled her down to him again for another kiss. Even so, he punctuated small kisses against her mouth between his own words. "That's not…half…of what I'd do for you…if you let me…"
She pulled back, arching her brow again. "Show me." And so he did.
It involved long, drawn-out kisses, which she eagerly surrendered to, drawing her knees up onto the bed so that she was effectively straddling him. It included kisses pressed to her chin, and below her jawline, and her neck, and her shoulder. It developed into his absurdly warm hands roaming over her, stroking along her collarbone, brushing over the valley of her bared stomach, slipping beneath her sarong to stroke behind her knees and along the muscular length of her legs. She began to shiver uncontrollably.
Katara buried her hands in his soft, thick hair, burying her nose in it soon afterwards to breathe him in—smoke and tea and sandalwood, and underneath, at his hairline close to his neck, the tangy, musky scent of his sweat. His skin felt feverishly hot.
He pulled her even further onto the bed, stretching himself out on his back, still with her over him. Her eyes widened as she felt herself seated directly over the prominent source of his excitement—suddenly the Dancing Dragon and Unagi jokes didn't seem quite as funny in that moment. What she felt moving firmly between her thighs seemed ten times more exciting, and a hundred times more dangerous.
He was sighing, giving soft groans as she shifted and moved against him in her indecision. His hands, already having traversed every inch of her uncovered skin, now began seeking out her sheltered curves, curving up around the swell of her breasts, his thumbs brushing her hardening nipples through the top part of her wrap. At the touch she moaned and arched her back, her pelvis rocking firmly against his, and he bit his lip to prevent the groan escaping from being too loud.
Zuko slid one of his hands down into the valley between her thighs, underneath the sarong, right above where they met—and his thumb worked at her gently through the short, thin breeches she wore under the sarong as underwear, circling and teasing the flesh there, stroking it until she felt it swell rapidly in response. Her panting breath became choked and hitched.
"You're so hot, here," he whispered. "So hot…let me see it, I want to feel you." Without another word he turned them both over, she on her back, and lifted her sarong as he spread her legs slightly.
She made a soft noise of protest, more unsure than negating, and he leaned in to kiss the inside of her knee in response. Her uncertain whine became a moaning plea. "Zuko…"
"Please," he whispered, and this time leaned in, lifting her sarong over his head and covering himself with it, before swiping his hot tongue along the cleft between her legs, through her underwear. She gave a sharp shout as her hips flew off the bed.
"Shhhh." He took another long lick through her clothes, wetting the material further, as she could feel how wet she already was, and her hips rolled impatiently against his mouth. She looked down the length of her body only to see his head buried under her sarong—but in the mirror over by the vanity she could see the reverse angle, her legs over his shoulders, his head between her thighs, and she gasped as she felt another surge of excitement.
He raised his head, pushing her sarong out of the way, and grasped the waistband of her underwear. "…Yes," she whispered, not even waiting for him to ask, and she lifted her hips so he could remove it, so he could push it down the length of her legs.
And then his tongue was at her clit, scorching hot, lips sucking—and one of her hands fisted in his hair as she let out a yelp, her sounds settling somewhere at a cooing whimper. Between his tongue and the suction of his lips, she felt one of his fingers slide inside her tight, hot channel—to be quickly joined by another one when he felt no resistance. Katara's breath hissed slightly and he faltered only for a moment until he heard her whisper it's okay…
Zuko resumed his activities with fervor, his fingers pumping her in a slow, steady rhythm that matched his mouth, alternating between licking and rubbing his wet, slicked lips over and over the swollen flesh above his fingers. Katara bucked against it, moaning steadily, her body unable to take much more—and in another moment she felt her muscles locking up, her entire body freezing as if her veins were turned to ice—only it was hot, so hot, and not cold—and then the rush of blessed release that followed. She felt herself clenching and spasming around his fingers. He withdrew them and sucked at them greedily.
She panted helplessly where she lay, arms splayed and legs akimbo, watching him as he unfastened his pants and pushed them impatiently down his legs with one hand. She saw the purplish head of his cock, swollen with excitement, a bit of clear fluid leaking from the tip. It actually looks nothing like an Unagi, her pleasure-addled brain concluded.
He settled into her embrace half-undressed, still in his tunic, and lifted one of her legs over his arm. "Slowly," she asked—she didn't have her maidenhead, but she was still a virgin—and he did as she requested; he aligned himself, melting his body into hers, and bit his lip in concentration as he slid into her carefully, agonizingly slowly. They both held their breaths in collective increments.
Zuko bowed his forehead against hers, fully sheathed in her heat. "…I'm not going to last very long, I'm sorry," he whispered, trembling, "…but I promise you we'll do it over again tonight until I get it right."
She grinned up at him. And then he moved, and she with him, undulating her hips in a way that made him visually unravel before her eyes. He buried his face in her neck and gasped her name, whispered her praises, moaned aloud his devotion to ensuring he was going to keep her up all night doing this activity. In an effort to stem his own excitement, he rolled them over so that he was on his back, she over him—but he had underestimated her flexibility and physical prowess, as he always had during their bending battles with one another, and it ended up being his undoing. She flexed her hips over him, snapping them with her increasing pace as she worked again towards her own release. It was all he could do to hold on to her. When he came, clenching his teeth, his fingers leaving white marks against her dark skin, he cried out so loudly that she had to silence him with her own mouth.
Their pleasure finally fading, they lay against one another, still joined, the evidence of their enjoyment of each other sticky and fluid between them. He cupped a breast lazily underneath her thin halter top, his fingers still stroking, and her hand slid along his lower back above the swell of his backside. He couldn't stop kissing her.
"…So that's what you wanted to show me," she whispered teasingly inbetween kisses, and he grinned before he reached over to nip her ear playfully. Katara squeaked.
"Care for an encore?"