AN: Written for my little sister's 13th Birthday. Happy Birthday, anime-lovin-freak, and thanks for letting me post this for the enjoyment of other people. That is, if anybody else actually reads this and enjoys it…
I don't think I kept Zuko in character completely… Sorry about that, everybody. And I really do bash Aang, Hura, Jet and Hahn in this so beware!!! Maybe the blatant Zutara-ness makes up for it all? Review and tell me =)
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it except my scary obsession with the show.
The sun was fighting a losing battle against the horizon, and twilight was quickly progressing into evening. There was little wind to rustle the grass on the hills or the leaves on the small, yet dense, clump of trees, and the silence was broken only by their footsteps and muted laughter. The two figures slipped between the trees until they were sure they were well and truly hidden from sight from all sides and then they sank down in the shadow of the largest tree there. Its deep root system made sure there was a relatively large space between it and the next lot of trees, and so they were able to stretch out comfortably in the grass.
Katara touched the tree's massive trunk gently, smiling as she remembered the good times it had brought the gaang for the few weeks they had been staying there. She was glad, however, that this time the tree was less crowded. She glanced at her sprawled-out companion and smiled wider at his dying laughter. Zuko laughing was still a foreign concept to them all, but it was a pleasing one. Seeing her look, Zuko's eyebrow rose in question, laughter replaced by slight curiosity. She just smiled and shook her head, knowing she could not explain the pleasurable surprise his laughter was without sounding strange. She shifted her position and, seeing her move closer to him, Zuko retaliated by moving further away. A pang of hurt and disappointment hit the Waterbender hard, but she bit her lip and stayed silent. For a long while all that was heard were the sounds of the night animals waking up, then she decided to break the silence.
"So. It's been a while since we've been alone, just the two of us."
"Nine days and seven hours," he replied, then visibly froze as he realized what he'd just said.
Katara looked at him hard, trying to read the golden eyes that were avoiding her blue ones as Zuko blushed and fidgeted. A frustrated look crossed her features.
"I really don't understand you," she said, irritated. "You count the hours, but you also make sure we don't have time alone! And don't try denying it: every time we could have been left alone you quickly made plans with somebody else. Fishing with Sokka, training with Aang… Why?"
He sighed and rubbed his eyes before sitting up and angling himself to face her.
"Because your father is here- just around the corner. So is your grandmother,"
"So? Your family arrived at the same time mine did. Your mother is just around the corner with my dad. And so is your uncle. Not to mention your ex-girlfriend, who is still trying to sink her knifepoints back into you so she has someone to kiss again. It doesn't bother me, so why is it bugging you?"
"Look…" He shifted uncomfortably, looking down at his hands as if they would give him the words he wanted to speak. "There's that saying 'What happens in the desert, stays in the desert.' I… think that may apply to us."
Ice water seemed to enter her veins, and she swore her heart cracked, ready to break at one more such word from him.
"S…So it was just… nothing? Desert madness? An experiment that stops when the real world comes back?" She willed herself not to cry.
"No!" His eyes were suddenly big. "No, of course not. I didn't mean… Not for me… I… Those nights… I just thought now that your family is here you wouldn't… want m- it… anymore…" He stared resolutely at his fingers again.
The relief that flooded through her was followed shortly by another pang. He truly doubted himself in this situation; thought he was unable to hold her. She rose to her knees and shuffled forwards, causing his head to jerk up at the sound.
"Well, excuse me for bursting your bubble, but I'm not even going to retaliate to that. It's just going to lead to a long argument, and it's already been nine days and seven hours since I could last do this."
She leant forward and kissed him, thrilling at the sensation she had longed for over the past few days. After only a second's hesitation he kissed her back, wrapping his arms securely around her waist and allowing her to thread her fingers through his hair. Katara let out a sigh of contentment as she snuggled closer, now almost sitting on his lap. His fingers trailed lightly down her neck, making her shiver and play with his hair in return. This is what she'd missed. This is what she wanted. She could stay this way for the rest of the night…
"Zuko! Hey, Zuko! You out here?"
Zuko and Katara broke apart and looked to where the sound had come from, their arms still around each other. Katara's brow furrowed.
"Is that Haru?"
"It is Haru." She scrambled quickly to her feet and Zuko scowled.
"I'm here, Haru," he called back to the Earthbender, still scowling.
"Is Katara with you? Nobody has seen her…"
Katara opened her mouth to answer, heading towards the trees that hid her from Haru's sight, but Zuko leapt to his feet, grabbed her and placed his hand firmly over her mouth, holding her close to him as she struggled.
"No, sorry, Haru. I haven't seen her."
"Oh… Okay… Thanks… I'll… Go look somewhere else…" He called something else, but he was too far away by then to be heard.
Katara glared at Zuko and he let her go.
"It could have been important!" She snapped at him. "What did you do that for?"
He smirked and answered her by grabbing her and kissing her with all he had. She gasped as heat seared through every pore of her body, and then she sighed and melted into the fiery kiss.
"If you feel so strongly about it I can call him back," he murmured in her ear.
"He can wait," she replied a little breathlessly before she dragged his face back to hers.
Katara could feel Zuko smirking at her surrender, but she really didn't care right then. In fact, she was sure she wouldn't care about anything except him kissing her. Her fingers trailed down his back and she felt him shiver for once, the sensation tickling the ends of her fingers. He very gently bit her lower lip, fighting down laughter as she jumped. He loved how she fit into his arms so effortlessly, like they could stay that way forever…
"Yo, fire sc… person! You still out here?"
Zuko growled in frustration and broke the kiss to turn and glare at where Jet's voice had come from.
"What?" he barked back, his teeth gritted.
"Haru said Katara wasn't with you earlier… she there now?"
"No, she's not!" he all but yelled. "And she's not going to be here in five minutes either, so don't bother coming back to ask."
Katara giggled at his expression, putting her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. He got irritated so quickly… He turned to scowl at her as soon as he was sure Jet had gone.
"What are you laughing at?" His voice was grumpy.
"Your expression. You get riled up so easily."
"Look who's talking!" he countered, a little less sullenly. "At least I don't freeze dinner every time I get mad."
She laughed outright and his scowl deepened. Gently she kissed the corners of his mouth.
"Cheer up," she whispered in his ear. "It's not that bad."
Zuko's expression softened under her kisses ad she smiled at her success. Suddenly he leant forward and kissed the tip of her nose, making her blink in surprise. Laughing silently at her shocked expression he continued to tease her by kissing her cheeks, ears, jaw and finally the base of her neck. She thrilled at his teasing, loving his warm breath on her.
"Hmmm… I wonder where the old Zuko's gone… The one who couldn't even talk to a girl without blushing and stammering…"
The Firebender froze and he raised his head slowly, eyes wide and mouth forming words that never left his lips. She could feel his heart begin to flutter nervously beneath her fingers.
"Never mind," she said, amused. "There he is."
"Do you…? I mean I… I don't kn… Uh… I could…?" A warm blush crept over his face. "I mean, if you prefer me being…"
She placed her forefinger on his lips to silence his stuttering.
"Relax. Breathe. I was joking. Just teasing. It's okay; I like you the way you are. There's nothing wrong with you."
He relaxed and the panic left his golden eyes. Katara tried not to laugh: he was fearless in the face of almost anything really dangerous or frightening but show him a girl and he freaked out. Although, she had to admit, his awkward nature was really quite adorable.
"So you don't mind me teasing you?" At the shake of her head Zuko grinned. "Well, then…" He pushed her backwards until she was trapped between the tree trunk and his body with his arms extended on either side of her, palms on the bark. "You won't mind if I do thi-"
"Zooka? Er… Zooka? Are you around- ouch -here?"
Zuko's jaw clenched and he shut his eyes. Katara looked down in alarm as steam began to issue from the palms on either side of her.
"I… I'm… OUCH! Stupid tree… I'm looking for Katara. You know, the Waterbending girl? Have you seen her? It's Hahn by the way. The great Water Tribe warrior."
"Can I strangle him?" Zuko asked Katara, his teeth tightly clenched.
"Even though that will make many people happy it's immoral. So no."
Zuko took a deep, calming breath and unclenched his jaw.
"Hahn, it's Zuko. And no, I haven't seen her. Go and chase after the next influential girl on your list," he added in a mutter, his face dark.
"And I thought Sokka was exaggerating because he was jealous," Katara muttered, shaking her head as Hahn staggered away, swearing at the trees as he went.
"No, he just really is an… idiot," Zuko replied hotly.
She smirked at him as he glared at the trees, obviously listening out for any more intruders. To calm him she stroked the side of his neck until he finally turned back to her, his search forgotten.
"You know, they're all going to find out sometime," she told him gently. "We won't be able to hide forever."
"I know. But I'm going to put off the 'big reveal' for as long as I can."
"Scared of my father?" she teased.
"I'm more concerned about your brother," he replied, but she could see by his eyes that it was just talk.
"And your council members." She was dead serious now.
His face twisted into a deep grimace. "And them."
"Firelord Zuko, scared of a bunch of old people." Katara was trying to lighten the mood again.
It didn't work.
"A bunch of powerful old people that could turn the entire Fire Nation against you and make your life a living misery." His eyes were hard. "Until I'm sure they'll accept you, however grudgingly, I will not expose our relationship to anybody. I won't do that to you."
She touched the side of his face gently, hating the worry in his eyes and feeling it transferring to her. He jerked only very, very slightly when her fingers stroked over his scar.
"What will you do if they say no?"
A slight smirk crossed his face. "Then I'll wear them down. Pay attention to no other girl except you. As the years wear on they'll change their minds."
"And in all those years they're being worn down?" Her eyebrow quirked.
"I'll invent reasons for you to come to the palace and then I'll kidnap you in the halls," he said smugly.
"What makes you think you can kidnap me unseen every time?" she sniffed.
Zuko shrugged, undisturbed. "If I find I can't, I'll enlist the help of some… old friends."
"Who? Combustion Man?" she shot at him.
"I was thinking more along the lines of the pirates." He grinned widely.
She glared deeply. "That is not funny. At all."
He laughed, even as she glared harder. But suddenly his laughter stopped, his face falling. He looked straight into her eyes and she saw worry and despair etched on his face. She longed to wipe it away.
"But… How long will you be willing to wait? For me, that is." Worry clawed in his voice too.
She pretended to think about it; tipping her head to the side, furrowing her brow and biting her lip. Zuko's back stiffened and she saw him ready himself for her answer, saw him yank of the layers of mental armor he'd developed to protect his heart. Her expression turned soft and she cupped his face with both of her hands so he was looking straight at her.
"As long as it takes. I don't care how long that is. I'll wait for you forever, if I have to."
Zuko's guard dropped and a slow, true smile crept across his face. It made him seem much less hard and unapproachable, and Katara's heart throbbed. He leant in, his eyes burning in a way that made her stomach clench and she shut her eyes in anticipation…
"Oh, for Agni's sake!" Zuko swore, jerking his head back and looking murderous.
"Zuko?" This time the call was hesitant. "Er… You weren't meditating, right?"
"No, Aang, I was not meditating," Zuko called back, utterly frustrated.
"Phew, that's good!" The Avatar remained oblivious to his anger. "Hey… uhm… You haven't seen Katara, have you?"
Zuko silently counted to ten to refrain from lashing out at the young boy and Katara pressed her face against his shoulder to muffle her laughter.
"No. I DO NOT KNOW WHERE SHE IS," Zuko roared. "Try asking Haru, Hahn or Jet. They should know by now."
"Oh… Thanks, Zuko!"
Zuko rested his forehead against the tree. Was this the spirits' way of getting back at him for lying? By Agni, they knew about revenge! Katara shuddered with laughter against him and he glared down at her.
"You are far too popular for your own good," he growled.
She raised her head to grin at him widely.
"It makes me interesting."
"It makes your spoilt."
Her eyes narrowed rather dangerously.
"Oh, so now I'm the spoilt one? That is strong hypocrisy!" She gave her a very innocent look and she sighed. A sudden smug smirk crossed her face and she regarded him from under her lashes. "The real question is if you'll fight for me."
Zuko leant in very close so they were just an inch apart.
"I'll take every one of them, beat them to a pulp and then char them so well they will have to be identified by the mass of their burnt pieces," he said in a low, dangerous voice.
Katara snorted. "My chivalrous hero," she mocked, not letting him detect the butterflies his words had created.
He gave her a lazy smirk. "Of course."
She tried to stop the smile creeping across her face by biting her lip, but it didn't help much, especially when Zuko's fingers laced into hers. She stuck out her chin defiantly, but he just grinned and narrowed his eyes, making him look like a predator. He would win this battle of wills for sure…
"It's Zuko, you moron!"
"Whatever. I don't care what he thinks he's called."
"Jet, Hahn, cut it out! You've been badgering each other and Haru since we met up!" Aang sounded worn.
Zuko's hiss sounded loudly in her ear.
"That. Is. It. We are going somewhere else. Right now."
Fuming, he grabbed her hand and began tugging her away from the voices, not bothering to light the path. Katara did not fight him; she was exasperated too by then.
"Zuko? You still here?"
"I'm just leaving!" Zuko yelled back, still marching through the trees.
"Have you seen Katara?" Haru sounded pitifully hopeful.
"Yeah, actually." Zuko stopped so they would hear him, ignoring Katara's looks. "She came past here about three minutes ago. She shad she had a dream that the spirits told her to head down to the river. There her true love would apparently find her."
There was the sound of four people frantically scrambling through the trees, tearing towards the direction of the river. Zuko smirked widely, looking very pleased with himself. Katara scowled at him.
"You are evil," she said, shaking her head.
He just grinned and put his arm around her as they continued to walk away from the spot where they got no peace.
"Hey, you were the one who asked me to fight for you. You never said I couldn't fight dirty."
She couldn't stop her giggle this time as she snuggled into him.
"Do you plan to fight fair sometime?"
"Er… Define 'fair'."
"Sticking to moral rules and tradition."
He grinned down at her, deciding not to tell her about the betrothal necklace he already had waiting in his room.
PS: During those nights in the desert Katara was talking about they did not do anything naughty.