Warning: This chapter is rated M for sexual content
Author's Note: Actually, to be honest, I was debating whether to upload this chapter or not. This is meant partly as a romance fanfiction, but for those who like the adventure aspect, you can go ahead and skip this chapter and go onto the next one once it's uploaded (this chapter is all lemon/fluff and not conducive to the storyline). As of late, this will be the ONLY M rated chapter.
The notion of having a lover was to Zuko something like discovering a limb he'd never noticed before. An extra arm. It was unfamiliar, and he poked and prodded it,
That the lover would be Katara reduced his confusion somewhat. It was by thinking of Katara, and not of the notion of a lover, that Zuko became comfortable enough to consider what it would mean to lie in her bed but not be her wife.
It too more than the thinking of one night. They moved through the dense forest, and they talked and rested and made camp as before. But their silences were perhaps a bit less easy than they had been; and Zuko broke off occasionally, to keep his own company and think in solitude. They did not practice fighting, for Zuko was shy of her touch. And she didn't press it upon him. She pressed nothing upon him, even conversation, even her gaze.
They moved as quickly as the road allowed. But the farther they traveled, the more the road resembled a trail at best, winding through overgrown gullies and around trees the size of which Zuko had never seen. Trees with trunks as wide as pillars of his father's palace, and branches that groaned far above them. They had to duck sometimes to avoid curtains of vines hanging from the branches. The land rose as they moved north, and streams crisscrossed the forest floor.
Their route at least provided some distraction for Katara. She couldn't stop looking around, her eyes wide. "It's wild, this forest. Have you ever seen anything like this? It's gorgeous."
Gorgeous, and full of animals fattening themselves for winter. Easy hunting, and easy finding shelter. But Zuko felt palpably that the ostrich-horses were moving as slowly as his mind.
"I think we would move faster on ouer feet," he said.
"You'll miss the ostrich-horses when we have to give them up."
"And when will that be?"
"It looks possibly ten days away on the map."
"I'll prefer traveling by foot."
"You never tire," Katara said, "do you?"
"I do, if I haven't slept for a long time. Or if I'm carrying something very heavy. I felt tired when I carried your uncle up a flight of saires."
She glanced at him, eyebrows high. "You carried my uncle up a flight of stairs?"
"Yes, at Ozai's palace."
"After a day and night of hard riding?"
Her laugh burst out, but he didn't see the joke. "I had to do it, Katara. If I hadn't, the mission would've failed."
"He weights as much as you, and half as much again."
"Well, I'm stronger, Katara."
His mind returned to the matter at hand. As it couldn't help but do, with Katara always before him.
What was the difference between a wife and a lover? If he took Katara as his wife, he would be making promises about a future he couldn't yet see. For once he became her husband, he would be her husband forever. And, no matter how much freedom Katara gave him, he would always know that it was a gift. His freedom would not be his own; he would always belong to someone else.
If katara were his lover, would he feel captured, cornered into a sense of forever? Commitment was to him, more painful than fear. All his life he was committed to his father, he belonged to his father, and now was his chance to manage his own freedom.
They were lying on opposites sides of a dying fire one night when a new worry occurred to him. What if he took more from Katara than he could give to her?
He heard her turn onto her side. "Yes?"
"How will you feel if I'm forever leaving? If one day I give myself to you and the next I take myself away-with no promises to return?"
"Zuko, a woman would be a fool to try to keep you in a cage. I know that…better than anyone."
"But that doesn't tell me how you'll feel., always to be a subject to my whim."
"It isn't your whim. It's the need of your heart. You forget that I'm in a unique position to understand you, Zuko. Whenever you pull away from me I'll know it's not for lack of love. Or if it si, I'll know that, too; and I'll know it's right for you to go."
"But you're not answering my question. How will you feel?"
There was a pause. "I don't know. I'll probably feel a lot of things. But only one of the things will be unhappiness; and unhappiness I'm willing to risk."
Zuko stared up into the treetops. "Are you sure of that?"
She sighed. "I'm certain."
She was willing to risk unhappiness. And there was the crux of the matter. He couldn't know where this would lead, and to proceed was to risk all kinds of unhappiness.
The fire gasped and died. He was frightened. For as their camp turned to darkness, he also found himself choosing risk.
The next day Zuko would have given anything for a clear, straight, path, for hard riding and tundering hooves to drown out all feeling. Instead the road wound back and forth, p rises and into gullies, and he didn't know how he kept himself from erupting. Nightfall led them into a hollow where water trickled into a low, still pool. Moss covered the trees and the ground. Moss hung from the vines that hung from the trees, and dripped into the pool that shone green like the floor of his father's courtyard.
"You seem a bit edgy," Katara said. "Why don't you hunt? I'll gather firewood."
He allowed the first few animals he stumbled across to escape. He thought that if he plunged deepter into the forest and took more time, he might wear down some of his jitters. But when he returned to camp much later with a hound-fox in hand, nothing had changed. She sat calmly before the fire he lit, and he thought he might burst apart. He threw their meat onto the ground beside the flames. He sat on a rock and dropped his head into his hands.
He knew what it was rattling around inside his head. It was fear, plain and cold.
He turned to her. "I understand why we shouldn't fight each other when one of us is angry. But is there harm in fighting when one of us is frightened?"
She looked into the fire and considered his question evenly. She looked into his face.
"I think it depends on what you hope to gain by fighting."
"I think it'll calm me. I think it'll make me comfortable with…with you being near." He rubbed his forehead, sighing. "It'll return me to myself."
She watched him. "It does seem to have that effect on you."
"Will you fight me now, Katara?"
She watched him for a moment longer and then moved away from the fire and motioned for him to follow. He walked after her, dazed, his mind buzzing so crazily it was numb, and when they faced each other he found himself staring at her. He shook his head to clear it, but it did no good.
"Hit me," he said.
She paused for a fraction of a second. Then she raised a wave from the pond behind and froze it, sending claws of ice at him. He raised a fist to block his face, and turned around to create a lash of flames. He would fight her, and he would beat her. She hadn't beaten him yet, and she wouldn't beat him tonight. No matter the darkness, and no matter the whirlwind in his mind, for now that they had fought, the whirlwind vanished. Zuko's mind was clear.
He hit hard and fast, one blast after another. He could see the faintest of smiles on Katara's lips.
"It's a full moon tonight," she said.
Every tree they slammed into, every root they tripped over, centered him. He fell into the comfort of fighting with Katara, and the fight was ferocious.
When he wrestled her ot the ground and pushed his face away, he called out. "Wait. Blood. I taste blood."
She stopped struggling. "Where? Not your mouth?"
"I think it's my arm."
She crouched beside him and took his arm. Taking a breath, a glowing glove of blue encased it and he could feel the drip of blood lessen.
"I stopped the bleeding," she said. "But it's best to let it heal naturally."
He nodded, and she smiled again. "I told you, didn't I? To fight me once on a full moon?"
"It's nothing," he said, jokingly, refusing to accept she was stronger. "besides, it was probably just the edge of your boot that nicked me."
"We shouldn't be fighting in boots," concern arose in her tone.
"We can't fight barefoot in the forest, Katara. Truly, it's nothing."
"There's blood on your mouth," he said in a funny distract sort of voice that made plain how little he cared about his injured arm. He raised a finger and almost touched her lip; and then dropped his finger, as if he realized suddenly that he was doing something he shouldn't. He cleared his throat and looked away from her.
And he felt it then, how near she was. He felt her hand and her wrist, warm under his fingers. She was here, right here, breathing before him; she was touching him; and he felt the risk, as if it were water splashing cold on his skin. He knew that this was the moment to choose. He knew his choice.
She turned her eyes back to him, and in them he saw that she understood. She climbed into his arms. And he held her, as she was crying, as much from relief to be held by him as from the fear of what they were about to do. He held her tighter, and whispered her name over and over.
She buried her face into his shirt and wrapped her arms around his neck. He felt warm in her arms, and calm, and safe and brave. And then she was laughing, laughing at how nice it felt, how good her body felt against his. He grinned at her, a wicked, gleaming grin that made her warm everywhere. And then his lips touched her throat and nuzzled her neck. She gasped. His mouth found hers. She turned to fire.
Some time later, as she lay with him in the moss, clinging to him, hypnotized by something his lips did to her throat, she remembered his bleeding hand and made a point to bring it up.
"Later," he growed, and then she remembered the blood on her mouth, but that only brought his mouth to hers again, tasting, seeking, and his hands fumbling at her clothing, and her hands fumbling at his. And the warmth of his skin, as their bodies explored each other. And after all, they knew each other's bodies as well as any lovers; but this touch was so different, straining toward instead of against.
"Zuko," she said once, when one clear thought pierced her mind.
"It's in the medicines," he whispered. "There is seabane in the medicines," and his hands, and his mouth, and his body returned her to mindlessness. He made her drunk, this man made her drunk; and every time his eyes flashed into hers she could not breathe.
She expected the pain, when it came. But she gasped at its sharpness; it was not like any pain she had felt before. He kissed her and slowed and would have stopped. But she laughed, and said that this one time she would consent to hurt, and bleed, at his touch. He smiled into her neck and kissed her again and she moved with him through the pain. The pain became a warmth that grew. Grew, and stopped her breath. And took her breath and her pain and her mind away from her body, so that there was nothing but her body and his body and the light and fire they made together.
They lay afterward, warmed by each other and by the heat of the fire. He touched her nose an dher motuh. He played with the jewelry in her ears and with his fingers, traced the tattoos patterned down her body. He held her and kissed her, and his eyes flickered into hers.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She laughed. "I have not lost myself. And you?"
He smiled. "I'm very happy."
She traced the line of his jaw to his ear and down to his shoulder, and rested her head in the crook of his arm.
"And Lu Ten thought we'd end this way, too," she said. "Apparently, we're the only ones who didn't see it coming."
"Lu Ten will made a very good Fire Lord," Zuko acknowledged.
"Let's pick up the pace tomorrow," she said, thinking of men who are not good rulers.
"Yes, all right. Are you in pain still?"
"Why do you suppose it happens that way? Why does a woman feel that pain?"
She had no answer to that. Women felt it that was all she knew.
"Let me clean your cuts," he said.
"I'll clean you first."
She shivered as she left his body to go to the fire, and find water and cloths. She leaned into the light, and brightness and shadows moved across her body.
She was beautiful. He admired her, and she flashed a grin at him. Almost as beautiful as you are conceited, she thought back at him, and he laughed out loud.
It struck him that this should feel strange, to be lying here, watching her, teasing her. To have done what they'd done, and be what they'd become. But instead it felt natural and comfortable. Inevitable. And only in the smallest bit terrifying.