A/N: Takes place during-and-post-episodes 314-315 (The Boiling Rock). Zuko ups the ante of their little sex-and-punishment game, and Katara has to find a way to deal with the new development between them.
It is very easy to forgive others their mistakes; it takes more grit and gumption to forgive them for having witnessed your own.
"Do you guys want to hear Uncle's favorite tea joke?"
The group was around the campfire again, having already finished their evening meal. To nearly everyone's amusement Zuko had insisted on pouring tea for them—"I did this with Uncle in Ba Sing Se for a while," he'd reminisced, prompting Katara to suddenly and vividly recall his green and beige teashop apron, his scruffy hair, his sad, sorrowful eyes in the cavern—and was serving it to each of them on a serving platter.
"Sure, I like jokes!" Aang encouraged, and the others made small, amiable noises of assent.
Zuko became unexpectedly self-conscious and stammered a bit. "…Okay. Well…I can't remember how it starts, but…the punchline is, 'Leaf me alone, I'm bushed!'"
He was met with dead silence. In the distance somewhere in the temple, a badgerfrog croaked.
"…Well," he continued quietly, his bravado deflated, "…it's funnier when Uncle tells it."
He resumed serving, handing a hot teacup each to Toph and then to Teo before moving on down the circle and approaching Katara. She wisely lowered her eyes as he knelt and she took the proffered cup of tea, feeling his gaze searing her skin. After his failed joke and obvious embarrassment she was torn between comforting him—where did that come from?—and snickering heartlessly, finally settling on something between the two.
"…Right. Maybe that's because he remembers the whole thing."
The entire group laughed at her sarcastic barb. She sipped her tea, nose in the air; out of the corner of her eye she could see the dismay flit briefly across his features. But slowly then his expression began to change, his disheartened look replaced by a devious one, and a small smile formed at the corners of his lips. It was gone just as quickly as it had appeared, and Katara was sure it was meant for only her to see.
She felt herself shiver imperceptibly in response, knowing what it meant—a secret code between them. He'd find a way to repay her in private for the taunt he'd received in public.
He was serving tea to her brother when she overheard Sokka suddenly turn to the firebender and ask, "Hey—can I talk to you, for a second?" Zuko nodded, slightly confused, and followed Sokka when he got to his feet and left the circle around the fire. They went to the edge of the temple's balcony away from the light of the group's camp, and spoke in hushed tones in the shadows.
"Boy it sure is nice to relax for a while after all of that fighting we were doing," Toph noted, sipping from her cup. Katara frowned and cocked her head in the direction of the two in the corner; she strained her ears as unobtrusively as she could, but she could hear nothing.
"Yeah…I just wonder how long it's going to last," Haru replied quietly.
Their quiet conversation continued. Katara was deep in thought. What could Sokka possibly want to talk to him about? she wondered. Had he seen something? Did he know? It was conceivable that Toph had blabbed to him about their recent 'escapades', and he was now probably cornering Zuko to warn him about keeping his evil Fire Nation clutches off of her.
Either that or he was bartering a trade deal, knowing Sokka. My sister for international ambassador rights to the Fire Nation! Katara grimaced in spite of herself.
She ignored the thought and tried to focus on the look Zuko had let slip, that subtle glance that had sent her blood racing, implying he knew what she was up to and was silently plotting out his revenge—but when she turned her head, she saw only Aang across the fire in her field of vision. He was looking at her intently, his big gray eyes solemn and sorrowful.
All thoughts of delicious retribution vanished; Katara felt a tremendous wave of remorse. She knew the young monk adored her, wanted to be close to her, and ever since his awkward and faltering kiss on the day of the eclipse, she'd been avoiding him. Not quite intentionally—after all, her attention these days was quite occupied by the firebender's skillful fingers, mouth, and other parts of his body—but not accidentally, either. It was…complicated.
She loved Aang, but it was not as he loved her. It was as a doting mother cared for a son.
With a sigh she rose and began collecting the dishware from dinner to clean it, her head bowed. Predictably enough, his young voice piped up: "Hey Katara, do you want any help with the dishes?"
The rebuff was gentle. "No, Aang, I'm fine. Thank you." She risked one last glance at the two young men in the shadows—they were still talking, Zuko gesturing animatedly and Sokka folding his arms across his chest in a decidedly Katara-like manner, the picture of obstinacy. Finally Sokka turned on his heel with a few choice words and returned to the camp's circle, leaving the Fire Prince still brooding and sulking in the corner, hands clenched in fists.
Toph had made a makeshift sink out of the temple wall for her days earlier, with easy access to the runoff of one of the nearby water fountains and a waist-level shelf of rock separating it from the rest of the temple interior. Katara stood behind it now and went about cleaning the dishware quietly, her mind wandering as she watched the rest of the kids talking and giggling around the campfire.
If Sokka were to find out about what Zuko and I have been doing, would he tell Aang? she wondered, with a pervading pang of dread. Such an admission would surely devastate him. Eventually she was going to have to confront the young airbender regarding his feelings for her, but there was too much at stake now. He had to gain confidence to beat the Firelord. There was no way she could outright reject his advances and not throw a koala-wrench into his precarious emotional state before the Comet arrived.
Lost in her own thoughts, she didn't hear Zuko stealthily approach until she felt him nudge her—bodily but gently—from behind, his hot breath tickling against the shell of her ear. "Need some help?"
She stiffened. "Not from you."
Zuko chuckled quietly as her grip tightened on the dishware in front of her. "Amazing how someone so fastidiously clean can be so dirty at the same time," he whispered in a low rasp.
"Shut up. I'm not dirty," she hissed back between her teeth, elbowing him sharply in the ribs for his impudence. Blood blossomed unwillingly in her cheeks.
His hands, below the view from the other side of the shelf of rock, curled around her waist, his fingers digging into her hips and pulling her more firmly against him. "Denial is the first step towards acceptance," he chortled into her ear.
She elbowed him again harder, feeling her body start to respond to him. "Stop it…don't stand so close to me—they're watching!"
"So? Let them watch."
But Aang had turned back to their corner of the temple, always a keen eye on Katara, and seeing Zuko with her had driven him to get to his feet to approach them. Katara began to panic, not the least bit ready for such a confrontation. He can't see us together like this…
"Zuko!" she hissed fiercely under her breath, admonishing him to leave.
She couldn't afford to turn around to berate him further, because Aang was almost upon them—but she could no longer feel his presence behind her, and she assumed he'd made himself scarce. She continued to calmly wash the dishware with her bending, holding her breath to control her racing heartbeat.
"Hey, Katara," Aang prompted cautiously, looking about. "Um, I thought I just saw Zuko here…where did he go?"
"Oh…him?" she asked, her voice much too high-pitched and chipper, as though he were someone she hadn't seen in years. She made a dramatic look of shrugging and sweeping her eyes around the area. "I have no idea! He was just here a moment ago and then he vanished…you know him, he likes to wander around…I wonder where he could—"
A quick pinch to the back of her thigh told her his proximity was closer than she thought. Katara squeaked in surprise, eyes wide as teacup saucers, and then clamped down on the sound when she realized Zuko was behind her, crouching so he was beneath the shelf's—and thus, Aang's—line of sight.
Aang's eyes boggled at the noise she made. "…What was that? Are you okay?"
Katara nodded fiercely and laughed it off. "I'm fine! I just…uh…hiccupped." She did it once more intentionally to demonstrate, but the look on the young monk's face suggested he knew enough to know what a hiccup was, and that hadn't been one.
Down by her feet, Zuko was touching her, now—she could feel his hands holding the backs of her thighs through her robe, and then as they slipped underneath it to stroke the inside of her knees. Katara shivered surreptitiously and tried to ignore what was going on beneath the visible part of the shelf.
"The reason I was asking you about Zuko is," Aang was speaking again and she turned her attention to it, "well…I just noticed lately that he's been a lot closer to you, since we got back from the Sun Warrior ruins."
"Closer?" she replied, attempting to push and kick the firebender in question away with her feet without drawing Aang's attention. The irony of the topic of conversation didn't escape her. "…I wouldn't say that." She focused on keeping her voice nonchalant, continuing to dry the dishware in front of her.
Aang was persistent. "I see you talking to him more often," he ventured, and she could see he was trying his best to not be petulant and keep the conversation light.
At her feet Zuko was refusing to budge, and in fact had begun moving his hands further up under her robe, slipping along the leggings and sliding around to the front of her thighs. She glanced down for a quick beat and saw that he'd slid his entire body around to kneel in front of her, and was opening the lower part of her robe to insert himself bodily between her legs. She clenched her thighs together. "Not any more often than I talk to anyone else, Aang," she tried to reassure him, gently. It was getting progressively more difficult to not get distracted.
"…I guess that's true." The airbender seemed placated, finally, and his tentative smile returned. "You talk to everybody—you're the one who's always looking after us, after all."
"Yes, and…sometimes looking after everyone can be a big responsibility," she emphasized, as she gave Zuko a vicious forward kick underneath the shelf. Unfortunately her aim was better than she'd thought, and this time it was hard enough to make him let out a yelp; Aang looked concerned, his eyebrows skyrocketing. Katara quickly covered the sound with loud, harsh coughs.
"Hiccups, again?" he asked hesitantly, and she nodded through her coughing fit.
"Well, I have to say…I am glad that you've started to accept Zuko as part of our group," Aang continued. "I'm sure it must have been really hard for you to do so."
Katara wriggled as she felt Zuko grasp her thighs even more firmly than before, pinching a bit as he slid his hands up her hips. What is he doing? She had half a mind to grab him by the hair and start yanking tufts of it out. "Believe me, it wasn't easy," she replied, gritting her teeth. "He has a way of making everything ha—" here she caught her breath, as she felt his hand suddenly slide between the junction of her thighs, hot fingers pressing against her core through her leggings, "—ard." She swallowed awkwardly over the end of the word. Oh.
"Yeah, he's a very tough firebending trainer," the airbender agreed in a lamenting tone, as Zuko's hands resumed their task of moving up over her hips, and this time she didn't move to stop him. His fingers hooked themselves at the waistband of her leggings and long underwear, and suddenly Katara was undoubtedly, undeniably aware of what he was about to do. She held her breath as she felt him start to pull them down, first at the front, then moving one of his hands behind to slide the material over the curve of her ass. "He's been making me work non-stop," Aang went on.
"Mmm." She didn't dare trust herself to speak; her leggings and underwear were pushed down and bunched around her knees, and she knew then that she was growing increasingly wet between the thighs. She gripped the dish still in her hand tightly.
"And he's really mean about it, sometimes! He gets mad at me so easily when I mess up on something." Now she felt his hot breath on her bared skin, his exhale just barely tickling the brush of hair covering her sex, and Katara tried very hard not to shake in anticipation.
"He really should…be nicer," she said softly, biting her lip and fighting with every ounce of her will not to look down at what was—or, more infuriating, was not—going on between her legs. "It's not nice of him to…treat you that way."
He pressed his mouth against her and licked her then, parting the seam of her outer lips with his tongue and probing deeper, and Katara blinked a few times in rapid succession. Her breath hitched.
"He should! Maybe if you talked to him about it, he would listen to you," Aang suggested hopefully.
Zuko licked again, holding her steady by her thighs. He was nuzzling at her with his mouth, trying to get to as much of her as he could; she tossed her head helplessly with the feeling even as she tried to spread her legs wider. "I—I don't know that he'd listen to me," she answered. "Maybe…you just need to…" Zuko was lifting her knee slightly while trying to free it from the constraints of her leggings, "…um…be more honest with him?"
"…Maybe. I should at least try it, right?"
Katara parted her mouth slightly to breathe as the firebender, having successfully freed one leg from the tangle of her pooled leggings and underclothing, repositioned himself under her and buried his face again between her thighs, his nose flush against her flesh. His tongue worked at her in a studious rhythm, hot and wet, covering every inch of her slit—paying special attention to the swollen nub at the forefront, going over it slowly and repeatedly several times before diving back down to her musky center to begin the process all over again. She felt herself growing dizzy with lust.
"Mmhm," she responded, trying her best to keep her expression neutral and remain sturdy on her feet. Despite the fact that her blood seemed to be rushing everywhere else in her body at once, it still managed to rush to her face as well, and she was sure Aang could see it. This was torture in its purest form.
But Aang was busy watching her hands' movements; she'd been cleaning the same dish for several moments. "Do you have a lot more to do? Because I can still help if you wa—"
Zuko took advantage of the stiffening of her back, and shoved his tongue roughly inside her before withdrawing it again—a quick, stabbing tease. "No! No, Aang," Katara gasped suddenly, and gave a short laugh to cover it. "I'll…I'll be fine…really." She fought to disguise how quickly her breath had started to come.
Aang paused. "Okay." He turned as though to leave her to the rest of her work.
Katara allowed herself a glance downward to meet a motley pair of slitted gold eyes staring back up at her, mouth latched on to her like an eel-leech. Holding her gaze, he resumed his rhythmic licking and sucking and she closed her eyes and bit her lip to keep from making any sound.
"On second thought," Aang piped up, turning back to her, and her head snapped to attention once more, "um…there's one more thing I wanted to ask."
She tried her best to smile, forcibly pulling her lips into a grin when they would rather have hung open and slack with pleasure. "…What is it?"
"On the Day of Black Sun," he began, as Zuko rubbed his slickened lips against her sensitive clit and she felt the pad of a finger stroking her wet entrance right below it, "what do you think about…what happened?"
Katara shut her eyes momentarily. Of course. Of course Aang was going to ask about this now, while she could barely breathe in a regular pattern, while simply managing to stand upright was a heroic effort, and as the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation was on his knees between her legs, licking her greedily and preparing to impale her on his fingers.
"Aang, I—" Ohh. She gasped—the tip of his finger entered her to the first knuckle. "—I just…it's a little confusing…right now." Postpone. Divert. Zuko sucked her swollen flesh, drawing wet circles around it with his tongue and then lapping with earnest, and pressed the digit in just a bit further. She shuddered. "It's—"
"—It was like a rush of feelings, wasn't it?" Aang replied dreamily, apparently on a completely different wavelength. "I felt the same way. It was hard to believe it was actually happening."
She grimaced in an attempt to conceal her pleasure; Zuko slid his finger in all the way, crooking the end of it slightly to rub against the inside of her. He withdrew and then slid it in again, pumping it in and out slowly in time to his mouth's attentions. She was sure the facial expression she was making was the same as when she'd eaten something undesirable, and she gulped. "…Yeah," she replied uncertainly.
But Aang noticed. "Katara…are you all right?"
Katara put a hand to her chest. Now was her chance to make her dramatic exit. "Actually, Aang, it's too much," she whispered. Which really wasn't a lie, when she thought about it; the present situation was definitely too much to take. "My thoughts are all jumbled up…it was such a…an unusual experience—" she saw him visibly puff up with pride, "—that I just don't think I can talk about it right now…"
As if to punish her for her words, Zuko introduced a second finger, his mouth never missing a beat. She felt it stretching her slightly in combination with the first, moving steadily as he stroked her from the inside out. The added pressure and stimulation made her gasp, and she writhed, nearly bucking as she arched her spine. He pursed his lips around her and sucked hard on her swollen clit.
Katara felt as though she'd lost the bones in her legs, and she raised her eyes pleadingly to meet the airbender's, trying her best to hold herself back while on the brink. "…Can we talk about it later?"
Aang finally seemed appeased, for better or worse. "Wow…I had no idea it had affected you so much," he said, shaking his head slightly with wonder. "All right. We'll definitely talk about it later, then." His smile was innocent and full of hope as he turned to leave.
It was when he was far away enough out of earshot that Katara allowed herself to fall forward on her arms against the shelf's countertop, bracing against it as she surrendered completely to sensation. The only reason she still stood somewhat upright was due to Zuko's hand at her hip—her legs were trembling like leaves in a storm, and about to give out beneath her.
"…Don't stop," she hissed authoritatively under her breath, fingers of one hand reaching down underneath her and fisting in his hair, her hips jerking against his mouth helplessly. "Zuko, don't stop…" She felt his hold on her hip tighten, his tongue's strokes keeping the rhythm steady, and she bit her lip viciously as her sounds came, willing herself to hold back and choking them in the recesses of her throat as she shivered through her climax. For several long seconds she was pinned face down amidst the piles of dishes, trying desperately to catch her breath, his fingers still pistoning inside her. They slowed gradually as he took his mouth away.
She felt him take one final, lingering taste, and then he withdrew his fingers—not easily, as her convulsing muscles gripped him tightly—and slid away behind her on his knees. Katara turned her head to observe him, panting. He made a show of wiping his mouth, her juices evidenced on his sleeve, and then eyed her appreciatively; she was still bent against the sink with the lower part of her robe pulled to the side, legs spread, her underclothing pooled around one ankle. She saw the conflict in his eyes as desire and caution warred with one another.
Then without another word, Zuko decisively cleared his throat, adjusted himself and stood with a fluid motion to walk calmly around the other side of the shelf—back toward the group around the campfire, as though nothing had happened. She heard him make some excuse to Aang and the others for his absence and looked on as he crossed his legs and sat down, immediately rejoining the conversation which had turned jovial and light again.
She watched him smile and laugh; the part of her that wasn't still reeling from physical satisfaction seethed with annoyance. How easy it was for him to pretend in front of the others, and especially in front of Aang—as though just moments earlier he hadn't been orally pleasuring the object of Aang's affection, in plain hidden sight, right under his nose.
Of course it's easy for him, she reminded herself bitterly. He's Ozai's son; a born liar.
She didn't want to reflect on what exactly that made her, though, having deceived Aang as well.
Still and now more than ever wet between the thighs, Katara performed some discreet maneuvering, working to pull her leggings and underclothing back up over her hips behind the shelf as she cursed the Fire Prince's nonchalance under her breath. He'd made good on his retribution, all right. He was probably giving himself mental back-pats at that very moment. But, she thought, smirking wickedly and already plotting, there's still tonight.
She woke abruptly. There was light in the sky, and it was not Yue; the sun had been up for at least a couple of hours. Katara blearily assessed herself, blinking the sleep from her eyes to get her bearings and wiping the spot of drool from the side of her mouth. She didn't recall the last time she'd slept so deeply, or so soundly. I suppose I have him to thank for that.
But in her deep sleep she'd missed the opportunity to wait for him, or to go to his room herself to exact more penance—their every-few-nightly ritual that was becoming a steady habit for both of them. It was a bit surprising that he hadn't come to wake her up, as well—she'd seen the look in his eyes the night before, after he'd finished her off, and she'd known there was a round two forthcoming later that night. After all, Zuko wasn't one to ignore his own needs…at least, not for very long.
So what had happened?
In the center of the temple, the kids were already up but still yawning and stretching. Toph and Aang were in the midst of a mild argument, and she overheard it as she came closer.
"I can tell you now, I'm pretty sure there's no meat for breakfast," Toph grumbled. "I have the feeling that Snoozles ate the last of it."
"That's no concern of mine," Aang retorted. "I don't even eat meat for breakfast!"
"You are missing out so hard, and you don't even know it."
Katara gently cleared her throat. "Has anyone seen Zuko yet, this morning?"
"No," Toph punctuated irritably, "he and Sokka are both missing. So is Zuko's war balloon. And they left this." She shoved a piece of paper with handwriting on it in Katara's direction, and the waterbender patiently took it and looked it over. "I can't read it, 'cause…well, you know."
"I can't read it, either," Aang lamented. "If that's Zuko's writing, it's like picken-scratch!"
Katara turned it upside-down, this way and that, and squinted. "…I think I can read it," she murmured.
"What does it say?"
" 'Need meat. Gone fishing. Back in a couple days. Sokka and Zuko.' "
"Well, at least they've got their priorities straight," Toph noted, obvious approval in her voice. Already bored, Aang strode away yawning.
" 'A couple more things,' " Katara continued to read. " 'Aang: practice your firebending while I'm gone. Do twenty sets of firefists, and ten hotsquats every time you hear a badgerfrog croak.' "
A telltale croaking sound erupted from somewhere inside the temple, and Aang's face pinched as he whined to himself miserably from where he lay face down on his sleeping bag. "Nobody else has homework."
"That's not true," she admonished, and kept reading. " 'Toph: make sure Aang does his firefists and hotsquats. To ensure he gets the most out of his workout today, pummel him with some boulders at the same time he's doing his firebending exercises.' "
Toph's face lit up as she cackled, and Aang's grew even more furious. "What?" he demanded. "That's so unfair!"
" 'And lastly, Katara,' " she read interestedly, her lips quirking into the beginning of a smile, " 'next time, w—' " She stopped abruptly, her eyes scanning the note, a heated flush suddenly rushing to her cheeks.
"Next time, what? What does it say, Katara?" Toph asked.
"…Nothing," she muttered, face sufficiently reddened, folding the note up carefully and tucking it away in an inner pocket of her robe.
Next time, wear your sarong while you're washing dishes instead of your leggings, for easier access. Just a suggestion. —Zuko.
The next two days droned on endlessly. To his credit, Aang worked diligently during the sunlit hours at the tasks that Zuko had assigned to him, and both Toph and Haru took on the responsibility for keeping him on his toes. They hurtled boulders several times his size at him as Aang successfully dodged and returned the barrage, punching volleys of fire from his fists between each assault.
Katara kept herself and the other kids busy with chores and activities, but at night found her mind wandering yet again. Zuko had been reckless to do what he did, in front of everyone, especially Aang; if they'd been caught, the results would have been devastating.
Just what was a suitably serious punishment for him, when he returned? The obvious answer was to deny him their ritualistic every-few-nightly reenactment of his penance, seeing as he had all but admitted he enjoyed it, but that prospect was quickly negated when she thought of her own needs. No, she needed to humiliate him, somehow; she needed to remind him that he still owed her, that she still deserved much more from him, and that she was the one who would determine when sufficient penance had been made.
Binding him and teasing him mercilessly would work; she envisioned tying him up as he'd done to her (both months ago to the tree, and again in her recent thoughts) so that he was helpless, and tormenting him in various ways. He would definitely have to be gagged—fire-breathing would be off-limits. Maybe she would go about undressing him partially, through the bindings, baring parts of his skin that would be vulnerable to her touch…letting him know that she was in control, and she would dictate how things would go between them. Katara felt a thrill as she imagined him helpless under her, begging her for leniency, begging her to respect his dignity—and eventually giving in to her the way she gave in to him earlier.
She smiled to herself smugly, anticipating his return.
Then on the third afternoon, the group was brought to the outer edge of the temple by a strange noise—the moaning and creaking of wood and metal straining together. It was something enormous, and the sound was increasing as whatever it was made its way toward them.
"It could be Azula in one of her airships," Aang noted quietly, and Katara noted the hint of fear in his voice. "They might have found our location." The sound grew louder, nearly deafening in the echo of the temple's hollowed-out valley, and Aang readied the staff of his glider to fight.
At the very least, she thought, he might be able to push them out of the valley with his airbending, before they get in a good shot at us—
But when she saw Zuko's telltale red and gold tunic at the bough of the ship on its descent, his loose hair whipping on the wind, she put a restraining hand on Aang's shoulder. "…Wait. Don't do anything. It's them!"
The wood of the airship creaked and groaned as the dreadnought slowly docked against the temple's balcony. Eventually the plank was lowered, and Sokka and Zuko stepped out into the afternoon light, to the mild surprise of the small group gathered to watch.
Katara stepped forward and addressed Zuko without having given the motion a second thought, as though it were perfectly natural to look to him as the leader of…whatever they'd been doing. She attempted to not over-analyze her own response to seeing him, but the gesture was futile—she always had a response to seeing him. Half the time she just didn't know whether the response merited violence, or sex, or a combination of both.
"…What are you doing in this thing?" she demanded, her voice disbelieving. "And what happened to your war balloon?"
He grinned, with something reminiscent of a feral smirk. I'm glad to see you too, she thought it read, and her face felt suddenly and inexplicably warm. "…It kinda got destroyed," he replied.
"Sounds like a crazy fishing trip." Aang laughed beside her, and Katara was quickly yanked back into her surroundings. She laced her arms over her chest protectively.
Toph groaned with impatience. "Did either of you at least get some good meat? I'm starving!"
"I did," Sokka announced with a smile. "The best meat of all—the meat of friendship…and fatherhood."
And without preamble, Hakoda emerged from the shadows of the airship's interior and walked down the plank, followed by Suki and someone else, clad in prison clothes.
Katara broke out into a smile, but it was faltering behind the tears that had begun to swim in her eyes. Her heart suddenly plummeted to her feet; she felt the rest of the world quickly drop out from under her as well.
"…Dad." She ran forward to meet him, launching herself directly into her father's arms. "Dad!"
Hakoda embraced her, smiling, and spoke over her head gently. "Hi, Katara."
She pulled back from his embrace, sniffling and trying to make sense of it. "But I don't understand—how are you here? What's going on?" She turned to face her brother and Zuko again, her tears evaporating in the wake of the sudden happiness flooding her veins. She was trembling. She felt as though she were awash in sunlight. Her heart had resumed its rightful place in her chest and was beating madly with joy.
She was struggling to make sense of it, but part of her already understood—he did this. He did this. "…Where did you guys go?"
Sokka looked vaguely sheepish as the firebender smiled behind him. "We…kinda went to a Fire Nation prison."
Katara wasted no more time in yanking her brother forward by the arm into their family embrace, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Zuko's grin widened somewhat wistfully as she did.
"…Okay," Toph broke the silence, waving her small hands, "no, seriously…did anyone get any meat?"
Fortunately for the World's Greatest Earthbender, Hakoda and Chit Sang were quick to point out to everyone that aboard Azula's dreadnought there was a more than ample supply of foodstocks—meat, produce, and dried fruits. The goods were unloaded from the ship after Chit Sang's introductions were made, and the group gleefully began unpacking the food. There was more than enough to cook for everyone, and to still have plenty of supplies left over for later.
In addition, there were also several cases of some kind of Fire Nation liquor aboard the ship. Katara had been curious enough to try to open one of the bottles, which were handspun red glass with ornate fire and comet emblems etched in gold—only to be quickly thwarted by Zuko, who assured her that the drink was too harsh and too strong.
"Huo shui," he called it, taking it abruptly from her hands and recorking it. "Also known as 'Lick of the Dragon'. And it's meant for only the roughest of warriors. It'll burn your throat something awful if you try it." Katara frowned and obstinately set her hands on her hips.
Sokka had one arm looped about Suki's neck, and Katara noticed her father eyeing the display with subtle interest. "On the one hand, Zuko knows what he's talking about. He used to travel with the Fire Navy." He held up his free arm. "On the other hand, Zuko, you obviously don't know my sister." Suki laughed behind her hand. "She's more than able to partake of a little 'hair of the polar rat', you know what I'm sayin'?"
"No, she's not," Hakoda inserted, his voice stern, and Katara's pout deepened before she hid it away. Her father lifted a red glass bottle to examine it. "I don't think any of you kids should be drinking this stuff." He opened the cork and emptied the entire contents of the bottle onto the temple floor. Sokka let out a pathetic mewl at the sight of the wasted liquor.
Zuko's expression looked as though he were considering the possibility of eating his earlier words, as he watched the highly-prized brandy drain away on the ground. "Well, it's…it's not that bad for you…I'm sure the older kids could try it…"
"Yeah," piped up Toph with a smirk, "it's not as though that's the worst thing they've been doing lately!"
The entire congregation turned to look—curiously and fearfully—at the blind earthbender.
"Um…Toph," Katara began sweetly, nearly perspiring with anxiety as she felt her father's eyes on her, "I think it's about time we started getting some of this food prepared…our guests must be hungry."
"Right now." Katara fisted her hand in the earthbender's tunic and dragged her away towards the temple's interior.
Out of earshot, Toph shrugged out of her vise-like grip. "Hey, Fussybritches, just cool it, okay? I think after everything I've been through in the last week or so, that I'm entitled to give my opinion about what's been going on around here."
Katara turned on her. "Not anymore," she seethed quietly, pointing back to the group at large still investigating the dreadnought. "That's my father out there, Toph."
"So, if he even finds out an inkling about what I've been doing—what you think I've been doing—or whatever it is that you seem to think is going on, he's…he's going to be really mad." She frowned. "You saw how he won't even let me have a single drink of that huoshui!"
Toph was nonplussed as she waved her hand in the air. "So why should you care what he thinks about what you do? You're old enough to make your own decisions, aren't you?"
That was true enough. "Well, yes, but—"
"And besides, Sokka told me once before that you'd taken on a lot of family responsibility when you were young, right?" Katara's eyes widened. It wasn't often that Toph put things so…delicately. "So you have an added maturity for someone your age that most others don't have. Your dad should respect that. Don't let him boss you around so much, Sweetness."
…Whose side is she on, anyway? Katara folded her arms across her chest, the irony of the advice given not lost on her. "You seem to know an awful lot about this kind of stuff, for someone who basically ran away from her own family."
Toph sat back in a self-made rock chair and put her hands behind her head, ticking an invisible mark in the air before doing so. "Point taken. But let's not forget; I solved my own family problems. I'm not the one with the moral dilemma, here. You are." She breezily picked at her torn and jagged fingernails.
Katara refrained from grumbling out an answer, and instead set about preparing the food.
It wasn't long after that when she felt a nudge at her arm as she was slicing the vegetables, and when she turned—expecting it to be Toph—she gave a short shriek of surprise at who was next to her. "Zuko!"
"I thought I could be of some help," he answered quietly, and then held up his hands at her expression. "No, I mean seriously. Just help, this time. I swear."
"You—" She bit her lip, remembering the last time he shared kitchen space with her, and she felt herself turning several uncomfortable shades of scarlet as her eyes flicked from him to her father, and back again. "Just stay over there," she ordered, pointing to the other end of the rock shelf. "That's your side."
"…Got it." He took a selection of vegetables and began peeling and dicing, focusing on the task before him and keeping his eyes straight ahead. Katara continued her own work, but could not keep from subtly stealing glances from time to time at the Fire Prince an arm's length away.
Sokka's voice carried through the temple's interior, as he, Suki and the others made their way in. "Come on in, take a load off," he was saying, gesturing to the group's meager blankets and mats spread out on the ground surrounding the fire pit. "We don't have much, but whatever we have, it's all yours, too!"
"You must have had an amazing adventure at this Fire Nation prison," Aang prompted Hakoda with a smile, sitting lotus-style on the ground before the unlit campfire. "Tell us all about it, and what happened that led to your escape? How did Sokka find you?"
Hakoda gave an audible sigh as he lowered himself to the floor, crossing his legs as well. The others followed suit, and Katara's ears pricked to hear from behind the rock shelf. "Actually, Aang, Sokka said it was Zuko who was instrumental in enabling my son to find me."
She stole another glance at the firebender beside her. She saw Zuko's good eye flick to look at her from his peripheral, and then turn back to focus on the vegetables once more.
"Without Zuko's war balloon, they would have never been able to land on the Boiling Rock undetected by the Warden and his guards. And apparently his firebending came in quite handy."
"It's true," Sokka inserted, his arm still about Suki; to Katara they seemed attached at the hip. "Zuko was the one who offered to be thrown in the cold locker so that we were able to try our first escape attempt, using one of the cold storage units as a boat to cross the boiling lake." He managed a grin in Chit Sang's direction. "Of course, that didn't go over so well…"
"I almost got poached, literally," Chit Sang grumbled.
Katara found herself leaning into Zuko's workspace. "You were thrown in a cold locker?" she asked, her voice low and whispering. "As punishment? What was that like…?"
He turned his head and gave her a wry smile. "…Cold." When she looked exasperated, he went on. "Biting, stinging cold. Colder than I've ever been, even at the North Pole."
She bristled. He just had to bring that up. "You wouldn't even be able to survive a week at the Northern Water Tribe."
Zuko fixed her with a scowl, speaking lowly. "Be thankful that was the case ten months ago."
When he was last there. As if he thought he could have beaten her after all, even when she'd pummeled him in the snow and had nearly left him for dead, if not for Aang's intervention.
Katara fumed, biting her lip, and shoved the unwrapped pork shoulder toward him authoritatively. "Cut that up," she seethed. "And then go serve them some tea."
Zuko bowed his head in acquiescence. Wordlessly he edged closer and moved behind her, reaching around her other side to get another knife for the meat, and she stood perfectly still; she could feel his breath on her shoulder, intentional or otherwise, and at that single, simple gesture she felt herself shudder.
He returned to his side of the shelf, and she thought she spied the corners of his lips turned upward.
The group around the fire pit was continuing with storytelling time. "So we were able to get all the prisoners out and into the courtyard," Sokka went on, "and then we knew we'd need a diversion. That was where Chit Sang came in and offered up his powers of persuasion by starting a prison riot."
"We were planning on escaping over the lake using one of the gondolas during the riot," Suki interjected, picking up effortlessly where her boyfriend had left off—and Katara found herself vaguely jealous of how easily they cooperated, contributing to both sides of one story—"but we needed a hostage, to make sure they didn't cut the line while we were getting away. So we decided to take the Warden himself hostage."
"And Suki was the one who did it!" Sokka crowed happily, bussing her loudly on the cheek as she laughed.
Hakoda's eyebrows lifted at the noisy kiss, but he bestowed a warm smile on them both as he spoke again to the group. "You should have seen her. I've never seen a woman scale a wall like that, and take out so many guards with only her bare hands and feet." He bowed his head lightly in Suki's direction. "You do the entire village of Kyoshi credit with how well and bravely you fight."
Suki ducked her head modestly. "Thank you, Chief Hakoda." Out of the corner of Katara's eye, Zuko's head snapped up as he readied a platter of teacups.
Chief Hakoda. It occurred to her that Zuko hadn't known her father was the leader of the Southern Water Tribe.
"Oh please, just call him Dad already," Sokka grinned, and Suki laughed again. "Or 'Chief Dad'."
"Sokka, is there something I should be officially informed of?" Hakoda asked pleasantly, a teasing tone to his voice as he accepted a cup of steaming oolong tea from the Fire Prince.
The teenagers snickered to themselves. "Nothing yet, sir," Suki replied politely, recovering her composure. Sokka nuzzled her again affectionately, and it was then that Katara noticed a flicker of something strange cross Zuko's features as he glanced at the canoodling pair around the fire pit. It took several moments for her to recognize the look as wistful.
She spent another several minutes still absentmindedly chopping vegetables and trying to absorb what the look had meant.
Zuko continued to serve his tea, as Sokka took up the story once more. "So anyway, then it was apparent that we had real problems. Zuko's sister, the Princess, and her two friends suddenly showed up at the prison, and they started making trouble." Sokka stopped to rub his chin thoughtfully, almost murmuring to himself. "Come to think of it, how did they all seem to converge on that spot at the same time? Kind of a strange coincidence…"
"—Obviously I was still wanted by Azula, and someone at the prison had seen the posters somewhere and recognized me," Zuko quickly pointed out. Sokka nodded, but he still looked slightly baffled, as though his question hadn't been answered to his satisfaction.
"Again, we probably wouldn't have made it as far as we did by that point without Zuko," Hakoda spoke up again, and Katara's eyes widened. "He fought off his sister's fire attacks on the roof of the gondola."
"...While it was in motion?" Seconds too late, Katara carefully snapped her lips shut after her outburst.
"Yep!" Sokka chirped. "And then when they stopped the gondola to cut the line, I fell off the roof and would have fallen into the boiling lake, if Zuko hadn't grabbed my arm!"
Toph's mouth dropped open, and the rest of the group made startled sounds of awe. "I knew it was gonna be a great rescue story," Aang beamed, his young face flushed with excitement from the thrill of the tale.
"But they didn't cut the line—right?" The Duke asked, fearfully.
"They tried to, but they were stopped by somebody still on the ground. Right, Dad?" Sokka turned to Hakoda with a quizzical look, and squinted. "Who was it again?...The knives and needles girl?..."
"Mai," Zuko answered abruptly, having served the last of the tea cups to Toph. The earthbender wiggled her toes happily as she received it.
Katara's interest was piqued again. Something about that part of the story didn't make sense to her. "But, wait…why would Mai do something like that?" she asked slowly. "Isn't she—"
"—It looked like there was some kind of internal uprising going on," Zuko interjected again quickly. "She must have been part of it." He gave her a brief nod and expertly steered the conversation away from the prison break. "Are the vegetables done? I need to start cooking if we're going to feed everyone soon."
"Finally," Chit Sang groaned, rubbing his stomach. "I'm starving! What's on the menu?"
"Right—umm," Katara hemmed, hastily assembling the vegetables and spices as Zuko took their wok (an old iron one that had definitely seen better days) and the plate of ingredients over to the fire pit. "We're having…pork with onion and preserved turnip in lettuce cups, and spare ribs in black bean sauce with chili paste, and rehydrated cuttlefish with peppers, and bok-cabbage with ginger, and picken meat on skewers with peanut sauce…and then we're having mango sticky rice for dessert." She managed a quick smile. "And of course vegetarian versions for Aang."
Toph laughed gaily. "Wow, we haven't eaten like this in weeks! You went all out, didn't you, Sugar Queen?"
"It's Zuko that's doing the cooking, though," Aang pointed out, and the group watched as the fire pit suddenly flashed to life by the firebender's hand, and the wok was settled over it. The food and spices leapt in the pan with his movements, and already Katara could detect the scent of cooking pork wafting through the air.
"Do the picken skewers at the same time, Zuko!" the Duke crowed excitedly, and Zuko obliged, holding the skewers a short distance from his body and blowing a mouthful of fire over them. The entire group oooohed and clapped with delight, and Katara wondered to herself—not for the first time—how, in the space of only a little over a week, the Fire Prince had managed to charm and win over almost everyone in her circle of friends and family.
Dinner served the dual purpose of satiating everyone's appetites and further loosening tongues. Chit Sang and Hakoda revealed more stories about their experiences at the Boiling Rock, while Aang, Toph, Teo, Haru and the Duke asked incessant questions. Zuko was quiet, stirring the remainders of his food absently and barely saying a word.
Suki, meanwhile, did very little more than manhandle Sokka during the entire time. Katara noticed her discomfort increasing with each passing moment as she furtively watched her brother with his girlfriend. Why isn't Dad saying something? Does he condone teenagers hanging all over each other like this? Darkly, she wondered what her father's reaction would be if she dragged Zuko out into the middle of the campfire circle and started suggestively groping the son of Firelord Ozai in front of everyone. I doubt he'd be so nonchalant about it then. She rose grudgingly to her feet and began collecting the evening's dishes to clean.
Aang began to stretch and yawn, and Toph, Teo and the Duke began to follow suit. "As awesome as this night has been, I think I'm about ready to head off to sleep," the airbender noted blearily. He looked to Hakoda and Chit Sang. "Does everyone have their sleeping arrangements worked out? We have extra rooms, so everyone can take their pick."
"I'll take the empty one down at the end of the hall, next to the Avatar's room," Chit Sang announced, before he suddenly looked stricken. "Oh, unless you wanted to take that one, Hakoda—"
"Don't worry about it, Chit Sang," Hakoda noted. He nodded briefly toward the Fire Prince. "I'll take the spare bedroom next to Zuko's."
Katara, hovering over Toph to collect her bowl and chopsticks, froze in mid-step and slowly raised her eyes across the circle. A pair of gold irises met hers, and both simultaneously relayed the same message to one another.
Out of her peripheral vision she spied Hakoda looking in their direction, and Katara hurriedly looked away as she finished gathering the dinner plates.
Sokka made an overly dramatic show of yawning, while Suki tried hard to hide a smirk behind her hand. "Wellll, we're getting really tired ourselves, too," he announced to the group at large, and Katara bit her lip to stop a snarky reply from escaping. "Long day, long day. Man, just where does the time go?" Suki giggled and clung to him around the waist, and he slipped his arm around her as they got to their feet. "'Night, all."
"Keep the funny business to a minimum, Sokka," Hakoda's voice rang out pleasantly, with a tone of amusement rather than paternal disapproval. Katara could still hear the couple's giggling and whispering as they headed out of the main temple room and into an adjacent hallway.
Oh, how unfair this was. How could her father have such a double standard when it came to them? Nevermind the Fire Nation issue; she knew that no matter whom she was involved with—earth or water or airbender—her father would have never approved of her sneaking away and spending the night in a boy's room, ever, while Sokka was free to explore the wild and debauched world of teenaged sex with completely free rein.
But it was a moot point, anyway; they weren't going to have any sort of chance to enact any penance now, not with Hakoda sleeping in an adjacent room.
Haru was busily chatting with Chit Sang, and Katara overheard snippets of their conversation as she passed them on her way to take care of the dishware. She stopped in front of Zuko and bent at the waist, holding her hand out to take his dish; he handed it to her but didn't relinquish it, his lips parting as though he were about to say something.
Hakoda, from across the temple room, called and waved him over. "Zuko. Come over here, for a minute."
Again their eyes met, gold and blue, and Katara saw his throat move with his heavy swallow. He was nervous. …What do you think he wants?, she read in his gaze, and she widened her eyes and gave a slight shrug.
I have no idea, but you'd better go with him. She motioned with her eyes.
He half-shook his head. …I'm not sure I want to.
Hakoda cleared his throat, goading both of them into action—he rose to his feet, she tightened her lips together and took his bowl as he let go. Katara glanced back to see him make his way over to where her father stood. The meal's dishes now seemed far less interesting than what was going on at the other side of the temple, and she frowned minutely to herself as she tried to think of an excuse to get close enough to eavesdrop.
…The idea suddenly hit her like one of Toph's boulders. I could pretend I'm feeding Appa!
Under that premise, she gathered a plate of the night's leftover vegetables and rice and made her way nonchalantly over to the other side of the temple, purposely looking anywhere but at her father and the Fire Prince still a fair distance away. She set the plate down in front of the woolly bison, and Appa grunted contentedly before his enormous tongue snaked out and licked the plate clean in one swipe.
It wasn't enough for him, she knew. Well, as long as I'm pretending it, I may as well perform the task for real. She set about unpacking some of the extra straw and hay they used to feed him, tossing it in front of the beast before glancing back at the two men deep in conversation. Hakoda and Zuko were sitting across from one another on stone benches, face to face, yet both with their postures stooping and elbows resting on knees as they spoke. At least they looked somewhat relaxed.
Zuko ducked his head from Hakoda's gaze as her father said something, and again Katara was overcome by the insatiable urge to know what was being said.
She looked around and discovered a stack of discarded crates not far from where they sat; ducking behind Appa at first, she made her way over to it slowly and quietly, staying just out of their peripheral vision until she was completely hidden behind. Seated this way with her back to the crates, she couldn't see, only hear voices.
Hakoda was speaking. "—you never met Bato, of my tribe, during your travels, did you?"
"No, sir." Zuko's reply was reserved and polite.
"Hakoda is fine," her father gently corrected. "Anyway, when Bato met with them, he was to deliver a message to my children for me. Aang intercepted it and hid it from them, when he realized it was going to call them away from him."
This time it was Katara who ducked her head, remembering. Aang had been so frightened that Sokka and Katara were going to leave him. She'd been furious with him when she'd found out he'd hid the letter, but at the same time his desperation at being left alone again had moved her, and she hadn't been able to stay angry.
Zuko snorted softly before replying. "That does sound like Aang."
"…I should expect by now that he's taking his responsibilities a little more seriously, now that Sozin's Comet is on the horizon," Hakoda went on, sternly.
"I believe he is, s—uh—Hakoda. He's been working very hard at his firebending." The Fire Prince strengthened the sincerity in his voice. "I think he's realizing lately just how important his actions as the Avatar really are."
"I hope so. Because our future in this war depends on it." He paused, before exhaling a soft sound of amusement, and Katara could almost see her father's rueful smile in her mind as he said his next words. "To be honest, I never thought in a million eons I'd be sitting here, like this—discussing the Avatar, with the Prince of the Fire Nation, of all people."
There was a hesitant lapse from Zuko. "…I never thought I would be talking to the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, either," he admitted.
"No—but you've visited our Tribe, or so I've heard from Sokka."
Katara's lips pulled into a grimace. Oh yeah. She'd almost forgotten about that.
"Oh…right." A sheepish pause, as Zuko cleared his throat. "About that—I'm really sor—"
His voice trailed off; Hakoda had apparently stopped him with a gesture. "Zuko, from what I understand, you are not the same person you were back then. Sokka was apparently more miffed about the destruction of his shoddy little watchtower at the Southern Tribe, than anything else that day. Anyway, regardless, it's in the past, and he's forgiven you." Her father paused. "And after what you went through to help spring me from prison today, so have I."
She could hear both the surprise and relief in the firebender's voice. "Thank you…"
Katara folded her arms across her chest. Well, I certainly haven—
"…but Katara hasn't." Zuko spoke fast and maybe a little too roughly. Despite his truthfulness, she hadn't expected to hear him say it. Her eyes widened.
"Hmm." Her father hummed thoughtfully. Then there was a rustle of clothing as he stood, then— "…You know what? Let's you and I have a drink. Man to man."
Now she felt her mouth drop open. What?
Zuko was apparently just as flummoxed. "Um…"
But Hakoda was already making his way over to Katara's hiding place among the crates, headed towards the containers of the liquor they'd investigated earlier—she froze, holding her breath, as her father rifled through a nearby one to produce a clinking glass bottle. He popped the cork before returning to his seat. "Have a sip, son, it's all right," she heard him say, presumably offering it to Zuko.
Son? This was getting weird. Her dad was now drinking with Prince of the Fire Nation. And had just referred to him as 'son'.
"So, what does a member of the Firelord's royal family think about a girl from the Southern Water Tribe, anyway?" Hakoda asked amiably, and Katara thought she could detect a smirk in his voice. She raised her eyebrows. That was certainly a strange question, but she was even more surprised when she heard Zuko start to cough. Apparently the stuff was really as strong as he'd said it was. Either that, or…
"What's that? I didn't quite get that, son. Speak up."
"I-I'm sorry, I…" Zuko sputtered, still coughing, "…I don't really understand the question? …"
Hakoda's voice was as even as the undisturbed surface of a pond. "What do you think of her?"
Katara simultaneously flushed deep red, from what felt like the roots of her hair to her toes. She strained to hear Zuko's feeble response over the sound of rushing blood in her own ears.
"Somewhere between 'amazing' and 'terrifying'?" Hakoda offered, amused, and Katara felt a simultaneous burst of both pride and shame. She'd thought that description had only applied to Toph.
"…Something like that."
She bristled, folding her arms over her chest. What did Zuko know, anyway? Just because they'd had sex didn't mean anything; he barely knew her at all. And she was more than content to keep it that way.
Her father chuckled. "I thought as much."
There was silence, and then a moment after that the sound of the liquor sloshing in the bottle again. It sounded to Katara as though it'd been an awkward quiet, but she supposed the huo shui was helping to resolve that problem.
"I'm sure you already know by now," Hakoda prompted thoughtfully after the lengthy pause, and she leaned in to listen, "that Katara takes grudges very seriously."
Her brows puckered as Zuko snorted in reply. "…I've noticed."
"You may think that it's completely because of what you did or didn't do—this or that." She could see her father in her mind's eye, waving his hand in the air nonchalantly with his words. "And partly it is. But what you don't know, is that it's also because she has an extremely difficult time forgiving people for their mistakes…"
Katara seethed. He's the Fire Prince. I'm supposed to just forgive him, just like that? …
"…because she can't forgive herself, for what she perceives as having made her own." Her mouth went dry.
Zuko was silent. Hakoda continued, his voice dropping lower. "When she was a child, something…horrible happened to her mother."
Oh no. Not this…he's not going to—
"…I know," Zuko responded, his voice low and deliberate. "She told me—"
"But I'm sure she didn't tell you that she harbors her own guilt, over it."
There was a pause on the firebender's end. "…Why?"
Her father sighed. "She stumbled upon the Fire Nation soldier confronting my wife. My understanding is that Katara thinks it's somehow her fault that her mother was killed. That if she'd done something, instead of run away from the scene as she'd been told to do, she could have somehow prevented it."
The words stung; Katara shut her eyes against tears that threatened behind her lids.
"She was just a little girl; five years old." Hakoda's voice was simultaneously rough and sad. "There was nothing that she or anyone else could have done to save her mother's life. No one is to blame—except for the monster that did it."
She bowed her chin against her chest. She'd heard it so many times before—from Dad, from Sokka, from Gran-gran. It's not your fault. You were just a child. You couldn't do anything.
The fury of her emotions made her tremble. But I'm not a little child anymore, she if it had happened now, with what she knew she could do, she could have saved her mother. I could have encased his head in ice. I could have stopped his heart. I could have burst every blood vessel in his body, I could've torn him apart by his veins alone, I could've—
…There was no use in even thinking about such a thing. She hadn't known who the man even was, and she would never be able to find him to enact any violence that she could think of. Against her will, the tears behind her eyes slipped down her cheeks, and she rubbed them away impatiently.
Zuko had been quiet the entire time; she heard him finally speak, his voice still hushed and low but with a new level of solemnity. "Why are you telling me this?" Something she wondered, as well.
"Maybe because I think you, yourself, might understand a little bit about broken families." Katara envisioned Hakoda's shrug, very similar to her brother's. " …And how hard we can be on ourselves, because of them." There was another pause as Zuko presumably digested the words.
"And, just maybe…" Hakoda's voice trailed off, ambiguously; to the untrained ear it would have simply sounded thoughtful, but Katara could detect the underlying hint of curiosity beneath her father's words. She could almost see his lips quirking, eyes crinkling at the corners as he regarded something interesting. What was he looking at, at that moment? …
"—Nevermind. Another time." The firebender must have met his eyes, questioningly. She heard the liquor slosh in the bottle; Hakoda was raising it once more. "Do you want another drink?"
She heard the sound of Zuko taking sips from it, and for a few moments all was quiet again before her father broke the seemingly comfortable silence between them.
"Someday, in the not-too-distant future, you may end up being Firelord." Hakoda spoke lowly, and Katara again had to strain to hear it. "Not all of your father's former servants and profiteers will agree with a regime change. You're going to need all of the allies you can get, in a post-war minefield of spies and possible revolution. You're going to need people that you know you can count on to stand by you, when it seems as though the rest of the world is against you."
His voice became fond again, wistful. "She's a strong girl, my Katara," he said, and again she felt hot tears gathering at the corners of her eyes from his praise. "A fierce nemesis if you get on her bad side, like a terrible storm wreaking havoc on everything around her.
"But if you become someone she trusts, no one will ever be more loyal to you than she will." Now it had turned firm. "On that, you have my word—from one leader to another."
She brushed the moisture from her eyelashes. Why would her father tell him that?
Zuko was silent for a long moment. Then, "…Thank you, Chief Hakoda." Katara thought his tone sounded different than it had before, as though he were grateful for some sudden insight given to him.
"You're welcome…Prince Zuko."
Their conversation changed once more, the topic spontaneously shifting to outlying Fire Nation strongholds within the Earth Kingdom, and Katara soon found her interest in their dialogue waning. The new topic wasn't nearly as intriguing as listening to them discuss her.
Still discomfited by what she'd overheard, she crept away from her hiding place behind the crates shortly afterwards.
It was bad enough that her father had said what he had—the last thing she wanted was to have the Fire Prince, of all people, pity her. But now they'd somehow developed a rapport between them, Hakoda and Zuko, and it made Katara even more uncomfortable than overhearing her father spilling her own secrets. Because bit by bit it seemed as though everyone, even her own flesh and blood, thought that he should be pardoned for what he'd done.
In light of that, she'd decided what course of action she would take later that night.
She would go to him after everyone was asleep, and simply chastise him for his earlier behavior in front of Aang, without giving away too many sordid details for someone in the next room to hear, and then leave him alone to stew in his regret. It wasn't the elaborate punishment she'd envisioned days ago—restraining him and making him submit to her, a potentially thrilling exercise—but it would at least show him that his actions at the Boiling Rock hadn't completely absolved him. It would remind him that he hadn't been forgiven yet.
…Because he hadn't. She was sure of it.
Everyone had been in bed for at least a few hours when she finally made her way to his room.
It was dangerous to do this while Hakoda slept next door—not to mention foolish. Her father had the ears of an arctic puma-wolf.
Zuko's door was ajar, with a sliver of light showing underneath it. When she pushed it open slowly, careful not to make it creak, she saw that he was seated on the edge of his bed, his posture slouched thoughtfully, elbows resting on his knees. He'd been waiting for her.
He looked up as she entered and closed the door quietly behind her. The look in his eyes was difficult to identify—was it remorse, or guilt, or compassion? Was it happiness to see her? To Katara the expression seemed to be a strange concoction of all four. She forcibly kept the look on her face neutral.
Zuko turned his head, reaching a bit to pick up a porcelain teacup that sat on the nightstand table by his bed before extending it in her direction. "I brought you something."
More gifts. Was he trying to bribe her into forgiving him? Well, it's not going to work. She covered her chest with her folded arms, her tone frosty. "I didn't ask you to bring me anything."
"It's the huo shui," he explained, his expression faltering, obviously expecting her to have been thankful. "I thought…you'd want to try some, since your father wouldn't let you." He held out the hand offering it to her, steadily.
She ignored it and tried to appear indifferent. It was better to pretend she hadn't overheard a single snippet of their conversation. "…So what did the both of you talk about, anyway?"
But if Katara thought she was transparent, Zuko didn't detect it. He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug, lowering the teacup. "We just talked about a few things. A little bit about you." She startled; she hadn't thought he would be so honest. He replaced the cup of liquor back on the nightstand table. Then, in a soft voice, almost admiringly: "He really loves you, you know."
"…You think I don't know that?" she snapped, her voice inadvertently rising, and he shushed her as he glanced nervously at the wall. His reprimand only served to infuriate her further. "I know my father loves me, I don't need you to tell me that—"
He grimaced, whispering. "He'll hear—"
She put as much authority in her voice as she could muster, lowering it despite herself. "I know what it is that you're trying to do, here, Zuko." She set her jaw, stubbornly. "And it won't work."
Now he blinked, all traces of former concern lost to confusion at the change of topic. "…What?"
"…You know what I mean. Why—" she floundered a bit in the face of his innocent expression and threw up her arms accordingly, "—why are you doing this?"
"Why am I doing what?" he retorted in a fierce whisper, his single brow knitting. He looked as though he wanted to throw his arms up as well, in frustration. "I thought you just said you knew what I was doing—I don't even know what I'm doing!"
Well, that's refreshing. This honesty of his had a way of catching her off-guard. It was so unlike him—or at least, what she'd thought she knew of him.
"I mean," she bit out angrily, "rescuing my father from prison. Why are you making this—this thing, between us—personal?"
Perhaps it was the way she'd said thing, as though the very idea of it was distasteful; she saw Zuko's face fall from confusion into something resembling stony disappointment.
His voice was hard and low. "I rescued your father from prison because it was the right thing to do."
"Oh, as if you've always cared about 'doing the right thing'," she scoffed. "You didn't have to go with Sokka—you could have just told him the way, and given him your war balloon."
"Yes, I could have done that."
"So, why didn't you?" Katara demanded. He stayed silent.
She hated it when he didn't give her the answers she wanted—as though he knew she'd use them as something else to hold over his head.
"Zuko," she said, steeling herself further, "you and I both know that this—" she gestured between them impatiently, "whatever it is—it's just a game. You owe me, and I get to have the satisfaction of knocking your ego down a peg every day. That's it."
Zuko snorted. "Right," he scoffed, still holding her gaze. "Maybe if you keep telling yourself that, Katara, you'll actually start to believe it."
"You really think you know me that well, to tell me what I do and don't believe?"
That appeared to shut him up for good. He remained mute, watching her intently. The moment stretched out into another, and still he said nothing; it became a battle of wills between them as they stared one another down, both refusing to submit.
At last, Katara broke the silent skirmish. "Fine," she ground out reluctantly. "You know what? I'll just get to the point, since you're being so disagreeable—I came in here because I have something important to say to you. And that is, don't ever do what you did the evening before you left, while I was doing dishes, in front of Aang, ever again."
"You didn't enjoy it?"
She felt her cheeks flushing dark red at the sarcasm; he enjoyed putting her on the spot and getting unwilling admissions from her, far too often. "Of course I enjoyed it—that's not the point. We can't have Aang knowing about…what we've been doing."
"…Because he kissed you, during the eclipse." Now his tone held a hint of the accusatory.
"It has nothing to do with that." The lie rolled off her tongue smoothly.
"—Fine," Zuko interrupted, scowling as he mirrored her words from a moment earlier, "you've made your point. I got it. End of story. I won't do it again. If that's all you had to say to me, then I'd like to go to sleep, now."
"Fine!" she hissed. She turned and moved quickly to the door again, prepared to open it, but stopped before she did and angled her head slightly to see him in her peripheral view. He was still sitting on the edge of the bed, head bowed.
The conversation still felt unfinished. Almost against her will, she let the words slip quietly through her clenched jaw. "You didn't have to do what you did, you know."
"…So I should have just left your father to rot in prison? Is that it?"
Katara turned fully to face him. "No, I mean—you could have just helped in other ways. You could have just given Sokka your balloon, but you went with him." She blinked, still frowning, as if in sudden understanding. "You didn't have to get yourself punished by the warden, or put your life in danger to protect my father and brother, but…you did."
He watched her evenly, unmoving.
It was increasingly hard to stay angry at him. He hadn't needed to accompany Sokka—in fact, knowing her brother, Sokka had probably insisted on going alone and Zuko had refused to allow it—and he hadn't needed to get himself nearly frozen in a cooler, involved in a prison riot, and then almost burnt to a crisp by his sister. He'd done all of those things with the full knowledge of the danger involved…and he'd done it to protect her own family.
She paused and lowered her head, somewhat grudgingly. She couldn't in good conscience ignore what he'd done.
"Whatever your motivations were, even if they were to try to get me to feel something different…you were there for them, both of them, when they needed help. I love my father, very much, and I missed him, and worried over his safety…and as much as I hate to admit it, you brought him back."
Hesitant, she approached again; he remained sitting on the edge of the bed, his good eye widening in a mixture of surprise and wariness. When she stopped before him she lowered herself onto her knees, folding her legs underneath her and sitting on her heels, head ducked and hands twined in her lap. She didn't look up to see his expression, but she doubted it had changed.
Her voice was quiet. "I owe you my thanks."
She waited, as was Water Tribe custom, for him to acknowledge her formal expression of gratitude in the proper manner—a brief touch on the shoulder or verbal confirmation to let her know the thanks was accepted—but for a long moment, he apparently did nothing. Katara realized, perhaps too late, that of course his own culture would act differently for such a thing, and that he was at a loss. Perhaps they press their foreheads to the floor, in the Fire Nation…she'd heard of a depiction of that, once…
But her thought was short-lived as she heard him stir, sliding off the edge of the bed onto the stone floor—and before she could look up he was on his knees as she was, and his fingers were tilting her chin upwards so their eyes met and locked.
She searched his eyes and there was no smugness, none of the haughtiness or gloating she'd thought she might see; his gaze was gentle and bright by the light of the candle at his bed. The fingers at her chin moved to thread themselves at her hairline, palm cupping her cheek.
"…You're welcome," he whispered huskily, and leaned in to kiss her.
It was a soft, chaste kiss—not like what he'd given her that first night, alternately devouring and teasing; nor was it demanding and heated, like the second night. This one was tempered and unhurried, almost careful. It felt as though he were holding himself back.
Katara hadn't thought restraint could ever be a forté of his.
Both still on their knees, she slowly let herself melt into the kiss—realizing he hadn't held anything she'd said in the last ten minutes against her—and in a stroke of daring she parted her lips between his to encourage him further. Zuko was gentle but he was still Zuko, and he cupped her face greedily as he deepened it, tongue caressing the inside of her mouth in hot, wet strokes. He tasted sweet from the liquor. She felt him press forward to embrace her and she pulled back slightly.
"We can't do this, here…my dad," she whispered against his mouth, even more quietly than before. "He'll hear us."
Zuko's mouth moved across the line of her jaw, and down her neck. "No, he won't."
She frowned. "How do you know? He's really good at listening."
"And there's something you don't know about me," he argued back in a whisper. "I'm really good at being quiet and stealthy, when I have to be."
He shook his head and silenced her with a kiss, pulling away to mouth the words after he did so. No more sounds.
No noise? While she didn't think long and drawn-out discussions were necessary, Katara didn't think it would be possible to engage in those kind of activities while being completely silent. Nevertheless, his lips and hands were quite convincing, appealing to her to at least let him prove it, and she let him pull him towards her again as his mouth claimed hers.
And then, just as she was falling into a delicious paralysis from the touch of his hands, she felt him pinch her nipple sharply through her robe. She squeaked—and then clamped down on the sound abruptly.
She pulled back to look directly at him, bewildered and maybe even a little bit pissed; he smirked back triumphantly. Katara returned the smug gaze with lowered lids and a quirk of her own lips. The game was apparently on.
She put her arms about his neck then and crawled into his lap, essentially straddling him with his back against the edge of the bed, and with one smooth motion she sank deliberately down against that hard and insistent part of him, feeling his desperate struggle to try not to gasp aloud against her mouth.
Feel like making some noise? Two can play at this game, Zuko.
Then his hands were under her thighs, supporting her and keeping her legs locked tightly around him as he got to his knees. With the momentum he turned them both around, this time pressing her back against the edge of the bed. Katara let out a soft chuckle under her breath, and he quickly chased it with a kiss. She closed her teeth on his bottom lip, not painfully but none too gently, and worried it a bit. A low groan partially escaped from his throat.
The frustration of the past couple of days must have gotten to him then, because before Katara knew what he was doing she found herself being lifted up once more—he rose from his knees to his feet, still cradling her—and she was deposited unceremoniously on top of the bed, her legs still linked around him and pulling him down on top of her. She started to giggle at the clumsiness of it as she bounced slightly against the mattress, but Zuko's hand quickly stifled the sound before it erupted.
He shook his head, insistent despite the amusement dancing in his good eye. …Stop laughing, he mouthed silently, and when she had calmed herself sufficiently he took his hand away and ducked his head to gently replace it with his own lips. Her eyes closed; arms sliding around his neck, legs falling akimbo on either side of him, she felt herself yielding again like a flower bathed in sunlight. His warm hands slid down the length of her body, fingers slowly tracing the contours of her curves through her robe.
There was something drowsily calming and yet at the same time thrilling in the way he touched her. This time there seemed to be no hidden motive, no malice, no punishment he had in mind—only a fumbling but endearing exchange of pleasure. For some reason she was reminded of the expression on his face when he'd spied Sokka and Suki together around the campfire, that wistful look of his at the time that she couldn't quit fathom; now she thought it might have had to do with this tenderness he demonstrated.
When had the dynamic between them changed, into this?...
She didn't have any more time to ponder those thoughts. Zuko shifted his body forward and his lips and teeth found the smooth skin of her neck. Her breath hissed slightly as she felt how hard he'd remained. He pressed himself directly between her legs, first only a shallow thrust but then a longer, deeper roll against her body, and Katara tenaciously fought the urge to groan out loud, settling instead for a silent, open-mouthed gasp.
He took that as encouragement and pulled himself back, briefly sitting up on his knees above her on the bed. Off came his tunic over his head, tousling his hair in the process. She had a moment to appreciate the sleek paleness of his chest once again, until her focus was interrupted by his impatient hands working at untying the sash of her robe; belatedly she realized she could be helping him, and she tugged impatiently at her leggings, twisting out of them and shucking them down her hips and legs.
Once this was accomplished, baring her white wraps that served as underwear, she helped him shrug herself out of the sleeves. As he tossed her robe to the floor she took opportunity while he was distracted and moved her hand down the plane of his stomach, feeling the muscles underneath his skin and the sparse hair below his navel, traversing it further south just below the drawstring of his pants. Hovering over her and supporting himself on his hands, Zuko stilled when he felt her fingers reach her destination; she watched him bite his lower lip as she gently traced the hard outline of his flesh through his clothing. He let out a hissing breath—almost explosive—when she curled her fingers around him firmly, grasping him.
Sshhh, she mouthed, pursing her lips around the word. Katara decided she liked the half-glazed, half-pleading look in his eye when she touched him. She felt powerful at being able to make him react. Slowly she continued her exploration, lessening her grip again, drawing her fingers along his length. He ducked his head and kissed her again longingly; she gave him a small squeeze as she stroked in response, listening to his breathing lose its tempo and become more erratic.
Zuko's arms trembled a bit from holding himself upright, and she felt him relax his body as he lowered himself beside her, curling against her on her left side and encouraging her to turn toward him as well so as to not break her hand's contact with the front of his pants. He continued his slow kisses as they turned, biting her lips lightly as she'd done to him earlier. She strengthened her fingers' touches again, and his lips gaped helplessly between hers.
His fingers moved restlessly over her exposed skin, shifting eventually to her wrap-covered breasts and circling the nipples through her bindings with a feathery-light touch. Katara shuddered pleasantly but continued stroking him, feeling his fingers worming their way inbetween the fabric covering her and underneath, and eventually tugging it away so that her breasts were bared completely. He caressed her nipples lightly with his fingers and thumbs as they kissed, alternating between rough flicks with his fingertips and soothing rubs; she gasped as she felt them quickly harden under his insistent attention.
As if in retaliation, she had another moment of boldness and reached into his pants, over and under the drawstring, seeking out his smooth, hot flesh. She fit her hand around it and watched with a sense of satisfaction as he seemed to nearly fall apart; body going rigid, eyes fluttering shut, his neck arching with pleasure. It made her want to do more.
She rose on her knees and climbed over him as he lay prone on the bed. Hovering above him she tugged gently at the waistband of his pants, pulling them down part way over his hips. Zuko was momentarily stunned into immobility, but quickly recovered and lifted his hips to help her. She looked down at the bared flesh before her and took him again in her hand, sliding her gaze up once more to watch the hunger in his eyes as she did. She stroked him firmly, and this time she knew he could see as well as feel it—and she knew he was doing his best to hold back sounds.
Then she leaned down toward it, moving her hand lower to steady him, and took him slowly into her mouth.
Zuko's eyes squeezed shut and his teeth clenched together to stifle a groan unsuccessfully, his head thrown back against the bed. Katara was caught between gloating that she'd wrestled another sound out of him, and continuing her activity—but with a mouth full of him, there was no room for reveling in her authority.
She experimented a little bit with movement and pressure; speeding up the tempo and then slowing it down, pressing her lips and tongue tighter against him and then releasing, all the while listening to his labored breathing and sighs that he tried his best to keep quiet. One of his hands tangled in her long hair, trembling with the effort it took not to tug too tightly on it , as the other sought aimlessly for something to do—grabbing the headboard, fisting in the sheets, throwing his arm over his face to cover his eyes. She could almost hear his heart pounding—probably deafening, in his ears—and she could feel his pulse racing between the salty taste of him on her lips.
Katara wondered as she sucked him how he would possibly be able to keep a straight face if she'd been doing this to him in front of but out of the sight of the others, as he'd done to her in the kitchen behind the shelf; from the look of it, he wouldn't have lasted a minute before giving himself away.
Just as she'd thought that, he suddenly curled his body upwards, bringing his other hand to her head to stop her and gently pull her away. She spied a look at his face, and he was flushed, panting—nearly undone. He had to have been close.
He pulled her up beside him and rolled them over on their sides again to face one another. This time he kissed her and simultaneously slid one warm hand down the front of her long underwear, fingers finding her hot and wet, and began stroking and teasing her flesh. She squirmed with pleasure and set about pushing the material down her hips, with his assistance.
Then it became a quiet war of wills to see who would dominate. She was already slightly atop him, and had an advantage; but he had the greater height and weight, not to mention muscle mass, and he wrestled her over with ease to lie under him. Grinning and completely silent, they tussled with one another, flipping each other over again and again on the bed.
Finally, the struggle ceased when Zuko managed to turn her over on her side, her back faced to him, and pulled her up against his chest. Her thrashing and resisting stopped when she felt him nip the back of her exposed neck, his bare cock moving slowly against the curve of her ass and pressing downward at the junction of her thighs. She stilled, wondering in the back of her mind if he was able to slip himself inside that way. Lying on their sides like this would be comfortable.
As if in answer to her unspoken question he slid a hand along her thigh and lifted her leg just slightly, tilting his pelvis downward so that the head of him just barely brushed her wet sex. "Like this," he spoke quietly, barely a whisper, into her ear. Katara pressed back against him excitedly and felt his cock sliding against the moisture between her lower lips.
She turned her head to whisper her own encouragement to him, arching her back and lifting her leg higher. "…More."
He did as she requested and angled himself, keeping one arm holding her thigh and the other wrapped around her waist underneath—and then he slid inside, slowly and carefully. She was hot and slick, and although she already knew it he told her so, muttering it in her ear so quietly that it almost sounded like breathing.
So much for the no-talking rule.
She couldn't help but groan softly as he entered, and he quickly used the hand around her waist to reach up and cover her mouth. Katara wanted to argue that she wasn't able to do that to him, but her mind was blanked when he shifted inside her and began to leisurely move, pumping into her in an unhurried rhythm. The angle of their joining only allowed for such slow movement, but the feel of it was enough to make her moan underneath his hand; she felt his lips and teeth at the soft part of her earlobe and down the sensitive line of her neck.
He picked up the pace, adjusting his upper body slightly away from hers to do so, but moving his hand from her thigh to tease and pinch each of her nipples. As pleasurable as it felt, it wasn't enough for her; boldly, she took his hand and brought it down between her legs, and without any further encouragement he stroked her tender flesh with his fingers, massaging her already-swollen clit in time to his thrusts.
Katara felt herself clenching around him, felt her muscles contracting, and knew her orgasm was already approaching. She wanted to hold out as long as she could—it felt amazing this way, more intimate, almost like cuddling—but she knew she wouldn't last. The buildup of waiting three days after their last encounter was too much.
And then he bit down on her shoulder—hard—to stifle his sounds, and she knew it was all over for both of them. The bite brought her over the edge and she stilled as the orgasm took her in its grip, gasping under his hand. She felt him pulsing into her, his body shuddering with the force of it. She wondered vaguely if his teeth had drawn blood.
His hand fell away from her mouth. They held the position for several moments, breathing fast, and Zuko nuzzled her neck affectionately until their combined panting lessened a bit. Finally Katara turned over to face him—wincing as the action pulled him out of her, but too flush with pleasure to ultimately care—and he cradled her face in his hands reverently as he kissed her, soft close-lipped kisses that helped to soothe and calm her still-racing heart.
"…Stay with me here, tonight," he quietly implored, pausing in his kisses to hold her gaze steady with his.
She shook her head and returned his soft whisper—even as she smiled a bit, sorely tempted to give in. "You know I can't." Her eyes flicked toward the wall. "What would he say if he saw me leaving your room in the morning?"
Zuko was unrelenting. "I'll wake you up at sunrise, then. I always wake up a little bit before, anyway. "
She knew it was true, and she grinned and threw a dark leg over his pale hip, enjoying the visual contrast of his skin against hers. He pulled it over him more securely, running a hand along the soft inside of her knee.
"Why…is there a particular reason you want me to stay?" she whispered coyly.
"…Maybe." He moved his hand up further to stroke the inside of her hip gently, a small smirk playing on his drowsy features.
"'Maybe'?" She dramatically feigned insult, and then rolled over on her other side again away from him, presenting him once more with her back. "You'll have to do better than that, I'm afraid."
He shifted in the bed so that he molded himself to her back, arms around her as he spooned her against his chest, and lazily he began kissing her exposed neck beneath her voluminous hair. She shivered surreptitiously.
"'M sorry, you'll have to forgive me," he murmured, his words slightly muffled. "I'm having a hard time matching wits with you, right now."
"Too tired?" Katara smirked in spite of herself.
She felt his head shake against her neck, and he sighed in her ear. "No. Too happy."
Her eyes went wide and her smile waned. While she hadn't expected that reply, strangely she felt something warming in the pit of her stomach at his words. "…I thought you were never happy," she retorted, trying to disguise the nervous tremor in her whisper.
He nuzzled her. "Stranger things have happened."
You mean, like this? was Katara's vague thought.
As if he'd magically heard her thoughts, he went on, "Who would have thought I'd be here with you, like this, right now…after everything we've gone through?"
"…Yeah…who knew?" she asked hesitantly. Her throat managed a heavy swallow. This was a distinctly uncomfortable conversation.
"…You know, I'm just glad everything turned out okay with the prison escape," she said after the short pause, trying hard to sound nonchalant and ignoring the part of her brain that questioned the change of topic. "It sounds like there were so many things that could have gone wrong."
Zuko seemed perplexed by the divergence, and she felt him loosen his hold a bit. "…Yeah," he said, with a hint of uncertainty. "I guess so."
She turned over to face him again. "I mean, it sounded really dangerous. You could have become hypothermic from the cold locker…and starting a prison riot is just asking for trouble…"
"I did a lot of things that were asking for trouble that day," he confessed, smirking again slightly, and tucked a stray lock of her hair behind her ear.
Unsuccessfully, she tried to ignore the affectionate gesture; instead she found herself leaning into it. "Like what else?"
"Even before all that, I attacked a guard and got myself arrested and brought before the warden, just so that your brother could have a visit with his girlfriend in her cell."
"You did that for Sokka?"
He nodded. "It was stupid of me, though. If I'd known that the warden was Mai's uncle, and that he would recognize me, I would've—"
Katara's mouth gaped, and she pounced on the statement. "—Wait, Mai's uncle is the warden of the Boiling Rock?"
Zuko suddenly looked distinctly uncomfortable, as though he'd let loose a secret, and his hand fell away from her hair. "Uh, yeah…"
"And Mai's uncle…recognized you?" she asked, something clicking in her brain.
He frowned as though he didn't like the new line of questioning. "Of course, he—he knew who the Firelord's son was."
Okay, that was reasonable. But something still didn't sit right with her. She began working the specifics of it out in her head as she spoke. "But he wouldn't have expected you to show up there, in a prison. That's why Mai and Azula and Ty Lee showed up there, isn't it? Because Mai's uncle told them you were there. It's not as though they were following the Avatar this time."
"Well, no, but…"
Her brow knitted into a frown, blue eyes narrowing. "And you said that Mai…she helped you escape. Even though you had her uncle captive in the gondola, with you? Why would she help you when her family member's safety was at risk?"
Zuko's discomfort seemed to increase. "I told you, there was a rebell—"
"—You're important to her, somehow; really important to Mai. Aren't you?"
He sighed and rolled over onto his back, and was silent for a long moment as Katara lay still next to him, practically holding her breath.
Finally he spoke to the ceiling. "…She was my girlfriend, back in the Fire Nation."
"Your…" She couldn't even finish the question; her mind was already spinning in circles, the truth crashing down like a wave over her head. Zuko turned again to look at her wordlessly.
She slid off the other side of the bed and rose quickly, gathering her clothing from the floor.
"I don't want to hear another word."
It was seethed quietly through clenched teeth, but the expression on her face—flushed with anger—must have been enough. He was silenced immediately.
He reached for her from the bed, and Katara viciously smacked his hand away as she fastened the ties on her robe. The wounded look on his face would have moved her, given what they'd just shared not twenty minutes earlier—but her heart was too encased in ice already by that point for her to care. A girlfriend. A girlfriend…and here he was, playing at being contrite, fooling her into sharing his bed as penance for what he'd done, pretending he was happy, of all things, here with her. He really did know how to lie like his life depended on it.
And the worst part of it all was that she had almost believed it.
She finished dressing and turned back to face him as she marched for the door. He was still on the bed, unmoving, guilt radiating from his gaze.
"Just do me a favor, Zuko…and stay away from me." It wasn't a whisper; her father would hear it and know then that there was definitely nothing going on between them, at all.
Katara left his room, shutting the door tightly behind her in her wake. This was the last time she'd let him play her for a fool. She would see to that.
A/N: Sorry it ends on kind of a downer, and after all that lovely smut, too… _; But remember, I have to set the stage for Katara's righteous anger in TSR. XD So I will be working on that ASAP…and fair warning, it's gonna be quite angsty and dominating, esp. from Katara's side. :D Stay tuned!