AN: And by god I meant it! This is it! The last chapter! I worked hard on this ending and I hope that, after reading all these chapters, it delivers for you!
The Nobles' District was quieter than Katara had ever seen it. The occasional patrol of guards clanked through the smoothly-paved streets and a few carriages arrived home, passing through high iron gates to the big lit houses beyond. Sounds of drumming and wild music rose up from the poorer districts, punctuated by the occasional pops of fireworks.
Katara followed Zuko through the tidy streets, on edge. The sun had baked away all the rain of a few days previous so that there was now little moisture on the ground. The waterbender felt it as an itch beneath her skin, a tightness in the motions of her body. The distant throbs of drums rattled some empty part of her. The stars swarmed like bright flies around the fat, waning moon.
Zuko darted across a street ahead of her and Katara let the distance build between them as they entered the merchants' district. The streets here were quiet as well. The shops were closed for the holiday and though the hour was still not terribly late, no lights burned behind windows of either shop or apartment. Everyone was out.
Katara watched the shadowy masked figure ahead of her dart around a corner but, as she hurried to catch up, she caught the sound of singing. Where the alley intersected with a wider street, she peered down toward one of the middle neighborhoods where bright fires were burning and banners were being waved on the ends of long poles. She peered toward the turn Zuko had taken and, figuring she knew the way to Scorch Street by now, slipped off toward the party for a look.
Fireworks sparked overhead in shades of red, purple, and blue and Katara ducked behind an empty fruit stand so she would not be noticed watching. The crowd was composed of people of all ages and their voices were raised in a tune she thought she recognized. A man in an odd hat juggled fire with his bending. A giant dragon puppet swept around, dipping its fringed whiskers to the uneven paving-stones, then hopping and twisting away. Children shrieked and laughed in its wake. A group of men slung their arms around one another and shared a bottle of something strong, belting out the song slightly off-key.
Katara peered over the fruit stand to watch all of this, her heart quickening to the tune. It was a Water Tribe weaving song, common enough. Kana used to sing it. How it had come to be in the Fire Nation, sung on the day of her wedding, Katara couldn't guess.
"…Through and through, separates make a whole. Aqua, blue – waves curl in the folds…"
Katara thought about her gran-gran sitting in the tent at home, thought about her fleeing an arranged marriage so many years ago. She wondered what Kana would think when she heard the news of Katara's marriage, the political flavor of it all.
She felt a tug on her elbow and, startled, turned to find the Blue Spirit watching her, crouched beside her in the shadows there. He didn't speak, but he reached out with a gloved finger and gently wiped the wetness from beneath one of Katara's eyes.
She scrubbed her face with her sleeve, smearing the red paint. "Nothing. It's nothing."
"It isn't nothing," Zuko said. His voice was soft but Katara could hear the tension there. "You're really upset with me."
"Wow, you must be a real expert on my feelings since you picked up on that one."
Overhead a firework exploded. The sound made Katara's bones rattle. Zuko was just staring at her. With the mask on, she couldn't tell whether she had hurt his feelings or made him angry. She told herself it didn't matter.
"Let's just get this over with," Katara said. "I'm tired." She slipped back down the alley and had turned down one street and then another before his hand fell on her shoulder and she stopped. Katara shrugged off his touch as she turned to face him. "What?"
"I just-" He peered at her through the mask and raised a hand to rub the back of his neck. "I don't understand. I thought you liked doing this."
Katara huffed and waved an arm. "Running around the city in disguise isn't the kind of thing I imagined doing on my wedding night, Zuko. Excuse me if I'm a little disappointed to find myself in a marriage of convenience after all."
She turned to continue on toward Scorch Street. Zuko stepped quick to stay beside her. "Hey! What about this is convenient?"
Katara stopped and turned on him, jabbing a finger into his chest. "You think we can just get married and go take care of business. That's pretty convenient."
"I don't think it is," Zuko said. Katara wanted to turn away, wanted to keep on walking but something in his voice made her hesitate. She watched the hitch in his shoulders as he went on. "I would rather be home right now, too. I would be if I didn't feel like it was my duty to check this out."
Katara went on staring at him, watching for some deeper proof. She couldn't see it. All she saw was a mask over the face of her young husband. She saw him offering the first placation for the first wound, the first really bitter hurt. Katara felt the tide in her chest again, the hammering love and sizzling pain.
Technically, she could still leave him in accord with Water Tribe marital traditions. But Katara knew she would not go. She loved him. She was devoted to him already. Zuko felt it was his duty to see to his secret plots before he saw to her and Katara hated that. It also was a part of what made him the man she loved.
It was true what he had said earlier in his room, though. She had known it would be this way. Knowing simply had not prepared her for the sting of it.
When the silence had stretched on too long, Zuko lowered his face and spoke. "It's probably nothing, anyway."
Katara was tough. Katara would get through this and they would find happier times. She huffed and blustered as if she had forgiven him, as if she could. "Oh, it'd better not be nothing," she snapped. "If it really is nothing, I'll make Chu-Tan a bow string with his own guts."
He did not laugh like she had hoped he would. Zuko wasn't fooled. Instead, he just went on staring at her through that mask, unreadable. Katara turned and hurried ahead toward Scorch Street.
The twists of the Lower District were packed with celebrants. There were no paper dragons here and there were no colorful fireworks, but the poorest of the poor still rejoiced. The drums beat wild and quick here and people danced in the streets. Horns, usually kept hidden with a few other treasures, had emerged to trumpet and lull through the tight turns of Scorch Street.
The clear notes seemed to pass too high over Zuko's head to really touch him, though. He crouched with Katara in the alley outside The Jade Cup and was sure he could feel the warmth of her body just inches away from his. She would not touch him, though. She was angry. And maybe sad. It was really hard to tell.
Zuko clenched his jaw and fixed his eyes on the back door to the tea shop and tried not to think about exactly how he had screwed up. He had to stay focused. There was no room for error, here. The best he could do for Katara was get this over with and hurry back to the palace. They would work it out, then. He would figure out a way to make it up to her.
Katara poked him in the back and Zuko realized that a skinny young man had emerged from the back door and was presently shaking out buckets of used tea leaves onto a heap of refuse nearby. The waste hit with a wet splat and filled the alley with a smell that was half-herb, half-decay.
How had he not noticed Chu-Tan come through the door?
Zuko darted out of the shadows to cut between the youth and the rear entrance to the Jade Cup. He did not have his weapons bared, but Chu-Tan still squeaked and dropped into a full kowtow when he turned and saw the Blue Spirit. His buckets clattered across the cobblestones. Katara, standing at Zuko's side with her hands on her hips, spoke.
"I hope you have a good reason for sending your little message, Chu-Tan. And I mean a really good reason."
Chu-Tan wouldn't even look up. "I'm so sorry to have disturbed you," he said. His bent back quivered. "I would never dare! But I- This morning he was in my house and he brought fresh turnip-chokes for my sisters and he made me swear to get it to you but I couldn't get past the guards and-"
Katara waved her hands. "Woah, woah – slow down. Get what to us? Who are you talking about?"
"Here! I have it here." Chu-Tan dug inside his tunic and pulled out a tiny wooden object, a disk. He offered it up with both hands.
Zuko knew what it was before he stepped forward and took it. He didn't need to look at it to know the design on the Pai Sho piece was the white lotus. Katara was squinting and leaning close as Zuko turned to watch Chu-Tan.
"Was there a message?" he asked.
Still on his knees, the youth shook his head and didn't look up from the ground. "No, my Lord. Only the tile. Oh – and he gave his congratulations- to you both."
Katara was staring back and forth between Zuko and Chu-Tan. "Wait," she said. "Are we talking about Iroh? Iroh was here?"
Zuko placed the lotus tile in her hand. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry, so he shelved the issue for later consideration. "He was supposed to be transported to a coal mine at dawn. I guess he missed the boat."
"I guess so." Zuko inhaled the scents of the hot old tea leaves, at once soothing and sickening.
"Well?" Katara was watching him. There was a worried tilt to her brow. "What do we do?" she asked.
Zuko wanted to slip his fingers through hers where she clutched the lotus tile. He wanted to hear the wooden piece clatter on the stone or splat into the refuse, but mostly he wanted to hold her hand. He was afraid she would pull away, though, so he did not. "Go home," he said. "Wait for the guards to notice and report it."
They left Chu-Tan there – with instructions to pass messages on through Lin next time – and made their way back toward the palace. The large parties were beginning to break up but small groups of citizens still lingered, singing or toasting. Most were staggering home. The children had all been whisked off to bed.
Zuko was scaling a wall into the Nobles' District when the last of the fireworks were set off. He helped Katara up onto the wall, not that she seemed to need or even want his help, and then pointed back the way they had come. She turned and watched as a thousand lights burned and smoked over the city. Her face was attentive but blank and she maintained the inches between them with care.
"It's beautiful," she said.
Zuko dipped his mouth closer to her shoulder. "We should have stayed home."
"This was important." She still stared out over the city. "News about your uncle. Family business." Her short words felt sharp despite her soft tone. Zuko wanted to bleed if that would sooth her.
"It could have waited. It should have. Listen, I'm sorry I brought you out here."
Katara turned her bright eyes on him then. "Don't apologize to me if you don't mean it, Zuko."
"I mean it. I'm sorry."
"But that won't stop you from doing it again. This is going to happen. You're going to put your Nation first and I'm going to learn to live with it like I said I would."
Zuko again envisioned himself sitting on the throne. He envisioned his kneeling family, Katara blank-faced and submissive. Chilled, he snatched up her hand and clutched it to his chest. "Agni, please don't."
Katara stared at him like he was crazy.
"I know," Zuko said, scowling down and to one side. "I said pretty much those same words before we left. I was wrong, though. I made a mistake. This was a special night and I ruined it because I couldn't just- just-" He bared his teeth behind the mask, seething in search for the words.
Zuko shrugged and nodded, then tightened his fingers around hers. They were cold through her glove. He wanted so much to warm them. "Katara, you're the Fire Lady and you're my partner. Unfortunately, I make mistakes." Zuko frowned off to one side again, then looked back to her. "Sometimes really bad ones. You have every right to call me out when I'm being stupid, Katara. I actually need you to. We may come from different cultures, but we both want the same thing together – love in our family. I'm just- My family didn't exactly set a firm foundation for me when it comes to balance and compromise."
Katara was watching him. She raised her empty hand toward the mask, but then stopped and lowered it. "Yeah, I guess you don't really know what you're doing."
Under the mask, Zuko smiled. It faded quickly, though. Katara turned away. The light flashing against her painted profile made the red appear purple, orange. Her scrubbing had wiped it away in places, leaving patches of her bare skin visible. There, the colors in the light were brighter and more varied.
"At least we got to see the fireworks," she said at length. There was a mild smile in her voice, a calm that had not been there all day.
Zuko leaned closer and, still holding her hand to his chest, eased one arm around her waist. "That's nothing. I could show you better fireworks." It was an uncertain combination of a growl and a plea.
Katara raised a painted eyebrow at him but did not lean away. "You could have if we had stayed home. Now I think I'm too tired for any more fireworks." Her blue eyes were sparkling, filled with twinkling lights.
"What if I carried you the rest of the way?" Zuko asked with his chin near her shoulder. "Do you think you could stay awake for just a few firecrackers?"
"I guess it's worth a try," Katara said. She was smiling at him. He could see it in her eyes.
They climbed down from the wall and Zuko bent so that Katara could hop up onto his back. Her weight was just right against him, her arms fiercely twined around his shoulders. Where he gripped the backs of her knees, he felt her softness, her flexing tendons. A wave of heat filled him. Zuko couldn't run fast enough back to the palace.
His torso was hot and surging between her legs and Katara couldn't wait to get back to the palace. Despite her complaints of weariness, sleep was the last thing on her mind.
She had thought Zuko would brood about his uncle all the way home and forget about her disappointment. After all, even she wasn't sure how to feel about Iroh's escape and she hadn't been half as close as Zuko to the man before his betrayal. Or mock-betrayal. Real or not, it had shaken her and she knew it had shaken Zuko, too.
Still, it was difficult to swallow her own hurt so that she could be there for Zuko in what was probably a moment of crisis. It had felt dishonest, like telling Sokka that she enjoyed stitching up his pants to make him feel better for having ripped them. Still, Katara had watched Zuko's tense shoulders closely, had waited to see if he would say something or just go on stewing.
And then he had said what he had said and it hadn't been at all what she expected. Katara still wasn't exactly ready to forgive Zuko for bringing her out on the street on their wedding night – in fact, she intended to bring it up whenever necessary in the future. She was, however, ready to salvage the evening.
It was awkward, clinging to his back the way she was, and Katara felt like she should be too heavy to be carried like this, but Zuko went on tirelessly. His footsteps were louder than usual with her added weight and she could hear his breath coming heavy through the mask, but he only ever slowed to be sure the street ahead was clear. The heat of his body was a furnace against her breasts and belly and thighs. With every step, she bounced against him.
Crossing a courtyard in the nobles' district, they almost came face-to-face with a unit of night watchmen. Zuko darted into a shadowed doorway set into an alley. They weren't seen. Releasing her knees, he let Katara slide down his back to her own feet. Her legs felt a little rubbery and she kept her hands on his back as he craned his neck to peer out into the courtyard.
"Great," he said softly. "They're waiting to meet another patrol. We're stuck."
Katara wasn't really listening, though. She was focused on how hot his skin felt through his sweat-dampened tunic. As if by magnetic forces, her hands slid across the hard ridges of his back, around to his firm chest. She pressed her body against his, huffed the scent from the back of his neck. Soap, musk, Zuko.
"Katara," he growled. It almost sounded nervous. "They're right there, Katara."
"Shy, turtle-duck?" Her hands ventured over the folds of his sash, lower.
"You know I'm not." Zuko stood frozen, braced against one side of the doorway and still peering out at the guards. Katara could feel, through the fabric of his pants, the loincloth stretched over his hipbone. He turned his head to look over his shoulder at her and shifted his hips to one side.
Katara gave a little gasp as her fingers came across his hardening organ where it tented out against the fabric. It wasn't that she was surprised to find it, but the feeling was like slipping into a charted current that yanked the boat harder than she had expected. She settled her hand over that arch of stiff flesh and squeezed. Zuko grunted softly through his mask and looked back toward the guards. Behind her fukumen, Katara grinned and whispered against the back of his neck.
"I hope you haven't forgotten your promise," she said.
He moved so fast she barely restrained her squeak. Suddenly, Katara found her back pressed to the side of the doorframe that Zuko had only just been leaning against. He faced her, his hands hot on her shoulders and his body mere inches away. For a long moment, he stayed that way. His only movement was his chest, swelling closer with each breath.
Finally, Zuko slid his palms slowly down her arms. "I thought you were too tired for fireworks, waterbender."
Katara let her eyes flick downward, let her hands slide over his hips, his belly. He shuddered but stilled his touch above her elbows and made no move. The eyeholes of the mask were dark, unchanging. "I just want to keep the Fire Lord honest," Katara said at last. Her voice was a delicate whisper, light as her fingers tracing his nipple through his tunic. "It wouldn't do for you to go back on your word to me on the very day of our wedding."
"I see." Zuko closed his hand over hers where it touched his chest so lightly. Then, he leaned fractionally to one side, peeking past her toward the courtyard.
Katara tried to turn and follow his gaze – could the guards really be doing something all that interesting? – but then Zuko was lifting his mask and pressing against her and kissing her full on the mouth. It was urgent, breathless. His teeth were on her lower lip, nipping and tugging until Katara moaned and opened to him. Tender, the tip of his tongue penetrated, brushed against hers.
Zuko's body was all planes and hardness. His tunic steamed against his skin. In the dry air, that moisture tickled the edge of Katara's senses, at once soothing and enticing. She became very aware that her hands were pinned between their bellies, one caught in his. Even as she kissed Zuko back, she pulled and squirmed against him. He eased away just slightly, just enough. Katara burrowed one hand to grasp his swollen organ through his pants. Zuko groaned and kissed her more deeply.
"They're gone," he said against her mouth. "We should get home." He didn't move away.
Katara squeezed and ground her palm down the length of his shaft. Zuko grunted and set his mouth against her neck below her ear. She felt the sweep of his tongue, the twitch of his cock. Katara dropped her head back and forgot about words and discussions.
Zuko sank his fingers into her hair, further disarraying the elegant braids that remained. Still trapped between them, his other hand squeezed hers, then let go. It slid free, tracing down her body to clench on her hip, then tug against the back of her thigh.
Katara didn't hesitate. She hugged his shoulders and hitched up her legs around him. Zuko gripped her bottom in both hands and pressed her to the doorframe with his hips, pressed his bulge against the aching place between her legs.
Katara fisted her fingers in his tunic and gasped, moaned. She was not thinking about their first time happening against a wall in an alley and all the things that were wrong with that. All she thought was how right he felt against her, how heavily he breathed against her neck. All she thought was 'more.'
"Ah, please," she said, twisting her hips. "Please."
Zuko groaned and rubbed against her, a slow and hard thrust that made Katara's back arch and drove the breath from her mouth in a mirthless 'hah.' She looked into his eyes and found them on her lips, hungry as a wolf-bear's.
Suddenly, the door swung in and open and Katara and Zuko found themselves awash in lamplight. They fell to scrambled motions, replacing masks and regaining their feet. A middle-aged woman in a servant's patchy dressing gown appeared from inside the building, shaking a broom.
"Shoo! You hooligans stay off my lady's-!" She stopped, catching sight of the Blue Spirit mask. Her work-worn hand rose to pat at her chest. "Oh my!"
Katara stood there, feeling as frozen as Zuko seemed to be as the woman's eyes gave them both a quick once-over. Zuko made a strangled sound and dropped both hands to cover his still-tented pants.
The serving woman was a little pink in the cheeks, but she still raised her broom. "Now, is this any way to behave in public? It may be a happy day, but that's no excuse to set such a shameful example! Have a little self-control, for Agni's sake! And you!"
Zuko took a half-step back to avoid being prodded with that broom. The woman gave it a shake for good measure. "I heard what you did on the night of the ball, ruffian! You stay away from Fire Lady Katara! Saving her life doesn't give you the right to get all handsy! You!" The broom swung toward Katara and she, too, hopped back a step. "You keep your eye on this one. Now both of you stay away from my lady's house!"
Zuko snatched up Katara's hand and pulled her from the alley at a run. His fingers were hot even through his glove. Under the shadows of the far side of the courtyard, he released her and stepped back, put a little distance between them.
Katara peered back toward their former hiding place. "Did she recognize me?"
"I don't think so," Zuko said. "Come on."
They raced back to the palace and, after wriggling through a narrow window near the guests' wing, scurried through the quiet corridors. As they passed the ballroom, they found that the reception had not entirely wound down, but was well on its way. They continued on toward the royal wing but came across a pair of drunken Water Tribesmen who had apparently gotten lost. Zuko and Katara ducked back into a curtained alcove. The two men passed, arguing good-naturedly if a bit more loudly than was necessary.
When they had gone. Zuko didn't move. Katara touched his shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
"No." He rubbed the back of his neck absently. "What did I do to you on the night of the ball?"
Katara peeked around the curtain to be sure the coast was clear, then braced her hands on her hips and stuck her nose in the air. "You let Laotsu see you holding me like a lover, ruffian. There's a rumor going around that I was torn in choosing between the Blue Spirit and the Fire Lord."
He stared at her through the mask and she couldn't quite restrain her chuckle.
"And another rumor that the Blue Spirit serves the Fire Lord because he has fallen in love with me and wants me to be happy. And a competing rumor that he serves the Fire Lord because he's waiting for me to tire of royalty and run away with him."
Zuko shook his head. "Where did you hear all this crap?"
"Seamstress Yun's assistants. Their voices carry more in the sewing room than they think." Katara grinned and then turned to check the corridor again. Zuko's hand on her arm stopped her.
"Which would you pick?" he asked.
From far down the corridor came the faint clicks of fine shoes. They were distant, still, and Katara paid them no mind.
She was more interested in the heat of his palm at her elbow. When she turned back to face him, she found the mask turned down as he watched her. Katara didn't really think about it. Silently, she lifted the Blue Spirit's face.
Beneath, Zuko was smiling faintly, his eyes mellow in the faint light of the alcove. With a pluck of finger and thumb, he tugged down her fukumen to bare her lips. He leaned closer, turning his head so his good ear was near her mouth.
Katara breathed against that ear. "You." Then, gripping his chin, she turned his face and breathed against his other ear, the burned ear. The flesh of his scar was tough and warm against her cheek. She felt his arms come up around her, his chest firm against hers. She felt his breathing hitch when she licked the cup of his ear and took the lobe between her teeth. She stepped into him to feel his arousal grow against her belly.
"Katara," he said.
It occurred to her that Zuko had whispered more loudly than he should have, but she was still shocked to hear the prim footsteps stop on the other side of the curtain. She was still horrified to hear a silky throat being cleared.
"Ahem. Fire Lord Zuko?" inquired Lord Laotsu.
Katara hissed a curse against Zuko's shoulder. His voice almost sounded like he was smiling. "I am busy, Lord Laotsu. Go away."
"Yes, of course! I would not dare disturb His Majesty's… activities," Laotsu said. "However, I promised an old friend that I would deliver a message as soon as possible and, fate having led me to cross your path one final time this night, I feel I must do so."
There was a sound of something small and wooden hitting the floor, then lightly scraping. From under the curtain came the curled toe of Lord Laotsu's dainty shoe, pushing a small wooden disk. Katara didn't have to pick it up to see it was a Pai Sho tile.
"My friend says he is enjoying the hospitality of the Chong Family."
In her arms, Zuko stood perfectly still, staring at the tile where the light from under the curtain cast it into a crescent of shadow.
"My Lord, my Lady," said Laotsu, "the Gaka Family is always listening. As it has always been, the best of rumors we reserve as gifts for our sovereigns."
"Yes, Laotsu," Zuko said. "You honor your Family's old vows. You may go."
Katara took a deep breath and, at the first click of a receding shoe, let it out. "Thank you, Lord Laotsu."
His steps paused. She could almost hear him bowing. "It is my pleasure to serve you, Fire Lady. Good night."
His footsteps faded and vanished. In the silence, Katara finally sighed. "You could have mentioned those old vows, you know. It might have saved me all that time I spent being suspicious."
Zuko pulled away to rub the back of his neck. "There's actually a lot going on around here. It's hard to keep track of all the details."
"No kidding." Katara bent and picked up the tile. "Huh. This one isn't a white lotus, either."
"It's a wheel tile. And the one from Chu Tan was a curling serpent tile. See?" She dug the other tile from where she had tucked it in her sash and handed both to Zuko. He peered at them for a long moment but didn't say anything. "So, what does that mean?"
The expression on his face told her that he had no idea. Zuko's shoulders heaved with a sigh. "The game goes on? I think it means he's investigating the Chong Family, which would make sense."
"Ah," Katara said. She tugged idly at his tunic, straightening a wrinkle. "Does that mean we need to-?"
"No," Zuko said. The mask slipped down his face but he pushed it back up and placed a hot kiss on her cheek. "I promised you fireworks."
When they came at last to the secret door, Katara let out a tense breath she had not realized she had been holding. No more obstacles. No more interruptions. Zuko opened the door and ushered her inside. She stood in their bedroom, gazing at the giant bed and the many, many candles. Each candle stood or floated in one of several wide, flat bowls of water. The air felt faintly humid in this room.
Behind her, Katara heard the door shut and lock. When she turned, she found Zuko peeling off his mask. His eyes had a ready glimmer in the candle light and, as he stepped toward her, Katara felt her heart leap into her throat. Zuko stopped a few paces away and furrowed his brow.
"You look nervous," he said, holding out a hand to her.
Katara stepped forward and laid her fingers in his palm. It was dry and warm. "I guess I'm kind of waiting for the next thing to go wrong."
"Nothing else is going to-" Zuko cut himself off and Katara could tell by the widening of his yellow eyes that he was thinking of things that might still go wrong.
She began fiddling with the front of his tunic. "It was a joke. I guess I am kind of nervous."
Zuko peered down at her and she saw the worry fade from his eyes. He smirked at her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "You should be nervous."
Katara made a face at him. "And why's that, exactly?"
"Because I've spent years preparing for this encounter. Training. Meditating. You don't stand a chance." He began tracing tiny circles on her shoulder with his fingertips and drew her hand gently to his chest.
"My element makes me a master of adaptation." Katara turned her shoulders just so, simultaneously guiding their joined hands to her chest and sliding the fingers of her free hand along Zuko's trim waist. She grinned at him, tipping her chin up cheekily. "Your training is no match for my instinct."
"We'll soon see whose technique is more powerful," Zuko said. With a single fingertip, he traced the ridge of her bindings across the top of her chest.
Katara shivered and splayed her fingers against the heat of his chest. "You're probably pretty uncomfortable in all this damp clothing. I wouldn't want to take an unfair advantage."
Zuko smiled crookedly and stroked the side of her neck. "Stand back. I want to show you a cool trick."
Katara raised an eyebrow and took a few steps back, then crossed her arms over her chest.
"Farther," Zuko said. "Go sit on the bed."
She laughed but did it, leaning back on her elbows and crossing her legs. When she looked up, she found Zuko was tugging off his boots. She grinned. "Alright, Master Hotman. Let's see this trick."
Katara watched the way Zuko schooled his expression with a calming breath. He dropped into a firebending stance and began working through a set she had never seen before. It was odd; there were none of the fierce punches or kicks Katara was familiar with. Instead, the motions focused on slow rises and falls with the breath. Two stances in, wisps of steam began to rise off Zuko's clothing. Katara smirked and barely restrained a comment about how impressive it was that he could dry his own clothes.
Then, his shirt flamed up and began disintegrating in a faint puff of smoke. The fabric blackened and curled away from his pale skin, leaving his torso bare, muscles flexed at the moment of peak inhalation, highest tension.
Katara could only stare. She was unaware of her mouth hanging slightly open. Zuko continued through the set, muscles bulging and softening with every slow breath. His socks vanished in quick bursts of fire, then his pants began to smolder.
Katara knew something had gone wrong the moment his yellow eyes widened and his smooth breathing stuttered. It was also the moment his pants burst into flames. She leapt to her feet but Zuko was quick. He extinguished the flames with a smooth shift in weight and posture. The charred remnants of his pants hung from the intact sash. Beneath, Katara could see faint pink burns across his upper thighs.
"Too close," he said through gritted teeth. "I let it get too close. I really can do this. Let me try one more time." Zuko assumed one of the stances, expression terse.
Katara had already pulled water from the nearest bowl of candles and gloved her hands in it, but she nodded and sat back down.
Zuko took another calming breath and picked up the form. His motions were even slower, the flex and slack of his muscles more pronounced with every breath. The sash and last shreds of his pants sparked, flashed, and burned out of existence. Then, clad only in his slightly-singed loincloth, Zuko closed the set and crossed his arms over his chest. He was not quite scowling, but he certainly looked unhappy.
Katara rose again and came to him, hands already glowing.
"I don't need-" Zuko stood as if frozen while she knelt before him and smoothed the healing water over his burned thighs. He was right. They were only singed. It must have stung, considering the location, but the damage wasn't really enough to worry over. Katara healed him anyway, soothing away the redness.
Then, she looked up at him. Zuko was frowning still, his eyebrow tilted back in what might have been uncertainty.
Katara stroked his knee and smiled. "That is a cool trick."
"It's a lot cooler when it actually works."
"Oh, I think it worked pretty well," Katara said. She slid her fingertips up his lightly-haired thigh. He shuddered and caught her hand just below his hip.
"No sensations that tickle," he said. Looking down at her, though, he seemed unable to hold a stern expression. Abruptly, he lowered himself to kneel with her. "I'm sorry nothing is going smoothly tonight."
Katara pulled her hand from his so that she could stroke both sides of his face at once. So that she could feel the roughness and smoothness of him all at once. She met his bright eyes and kissed him lightly, chastely. "Come to bed, Zuko."
He blinked at her as if shocked and Katara pulled him to his feet. She led him along by one hand to the edge of the bed, then had him sit before her. Zuko peered up at her and settled his hands on her hips. Katara stroked the hair from his face.
Then, she patted her hand over her mouth and mocked a yawn. "Oh, I'm just so very tired. I don't know if I can even make it out of all of this clothing on my own."
On her hips, Zuko's fingers flexed. "I think I could probably help you with that."
"Could you?" Katara fought her smile and raised her arms straight over her head.
Zuko peered up at her, half-smiling. With deliberate slowness, he unraveled her sash. His fingers grazed her back and belly with each pass until the length of cloth fell loose to the floor. Very slowly, he pulled her shirt up from where it was tucked into her pants. The fabric rasped against her belly and, when it came free, Zuko bent closer. Meeting her eyes, he placed a tender kiss against her skin.
Katara gave a little gasp at the shock of that tiny contact. Unwittingly, her fingers tangled together where they waited above her head.
Zuko went on pulling out her shirt, placing soft kisses all across her belly and breathing his hot breath against her. The shirt finally came free, but Zuko went on, raising the fabric only a few inches at a time and kissing her ribs, kissing her bindings. It almost tickled, but in a dizzying way. Katara's fingers clung to each other and she began biting her lip.
His fingers dragged against her sides as he lifted her shirt, a warm glide that made her skin prickle all over. As he began lifting her shirt up her arms and over her face, Katara gasped, temporarily blinded and bound by her own clothing. His mouth came up her neck by inches, licking the base of a tendon, popping a tiny kiss against her throat, sucking the side of her jaw.
Zuko kissed the corner of her mouth first, a tiny blink of a kiss. Then, he drew back somewhat and released a soft growl. "You're at my mercy, waterbender. Still nervous?"
Katara shut her mouth and swallowed. She licked her dry lips. "No." Her breathing didn't slow. "Not even a little."
"Hmm, I'll have to try new tactics," Zuko murmured as his mouth settled against hers. Katara had only just begun kissing him back when he pulled her shirt the rest of the way up and over her hands. She immediately threw her arms around his neck, pulling him deeper into the kiss. Zuko made a soft sound and wrapped his arms around her, splaying his hands flat on her back. His belly was firm and warm against hers and his stiff organ felt hot even through the last layers of their clothing.
Katara broke away to breathe and Zuko began kissing her neck. She slid her hands across his shoulders. He began picking pins from her hair, unraveling her many braids. "You're still overdressed," he said.
Katara set her teeth against the muscle at the base of his neck and nipped him. He groaned and began grappling with the ties of her pants. Katara, smiling, soothed the bite with soft, damp kisses.
No sooner had her pants dropped away than Zuko tugged the hidden knot of her upper bindings. They fell apart around her, snagging between their bodies, but the strips fell away as Zuko pulled back. Katara watched his expression, his yellow eyes on her breasts like a physical contact. He ran a single finger down the center of her chest, pushing away the loops that were caught on the swells of her breasts. They tugged her nipples gently in passing.
Katara made a soft noise at the darts of pleasure. Zuko's gaze sharpened as he took in her expression. His hands were perhaps a little jerky as he tugged the knot of her lower bindings apart and guided them down her hips with gentle strokes.
As he knelt before her, untangling her feet, Katara smirked. "Now you're overdressed," she said.
Zuko ran his palm up her leg, gliding over the curves of her calf, her thigh. When he met her eyes, she thought she could see fire sparking behind them. "Get on the bed, Katara." It wasn't exactly a command – more like a dare.
Katara stroked his hair and stepped around him. She peered back as she began climbing onto the huge bed. He was standing, staring at her, and his loincloth was distorted with what it concealed. Katara smirked and crawled toward the center of the bed, watching him over her shoulder all the while. His eyes flittered all over her, resting again and again on her bottom.
Katara stopped and laid back on the pillows, arms outspread and legs crossed just so – the way that felt best. Zuko still stood there, staring. She arched an eyebrow. "Are you coming?"
It took a lot of self control to not make a dive for her and Zuko stood rooted by the side of the bed, his mind awash in visions of all the things he would like to do. To Katara. Immediately.
But this was the first time and he had done pretty much everything wrong already so far. Zuko didn't know all there was to know about sex, but he knew the first time could hurt for a girl. No matter how badly things had gone so far, he didn't want hurting Katara to go on his list of screw-ups for the evening. He'd already made her cry once.
So, his underwear were staying on until the proper moment. It would be challenging – especially with Katara staring at his hard-on the way she was – but Zuko was determined. He would not fail.
He climbed onto the bed to follow her, moving at the same slow pace she had and coming to kneel at her feet. Her eyes flickered like choppy waves in the candlelight.
Zuko bent forward and very lightly kissed her knee, kissed down the angle of her shin. When he slid his fingers around Katara's ankle, she raised her leg for him, let him kiss the tender flesh above the knob of bone in that joint. He began kissing up the inside of her calf, relishing the cool tenderness of her skin. She sighed and Zuko smirked against her knee.
Then Katara began sliding her soft foot up his thigh. Zuko shuffled around a bit, leaning forward on his arms to divert her path. He caught a glimpse of her frustration, but focused on kissing up from her knee, licking and biting very gently. She gasped and seemed distracted enough. With just the tip of his tongue, Zuko licked the seam between her thigh and the plump outer lips of her sex. He watched her brow furrow, watched her breasts heave and shiver with every breath. Gently, he parted her flesh and dragged his tongue up the slick petals beneath until he found that certain bump, the place his Uncle (in a discussion that Zuko never remembered intentionally) had called the Ember.
Katara made a desperate sort of sound and tangled her fingers in his hair, twitching her hips under his mouth. Zuko glanced up her body again and saw her other hand clenching white-knuckled at the pillows. He slid one hand around her thigh and let his eyes shut.
There was something in the smell and taste of her, something deep and fierce that drew him closer like a moth to a light. It made him hungry in a complicated way. He wanted to kiss her, to hear her sounds. He wanted to press deeper into her, to find the source.
Katara's thigh quivered, pressed briefly inward. It was silky where it brushed the undamaged flesh of his jaw. Against his scar, her skin felt distant and cool as the sea. The contact came again, then stayed. Zuko looked up and met her blue eyes, now unfocused in her pleasure, and realized she was doing it on purpose. She wanted to feel his scar on her leg. He turned his face slightly, rubbed against her. Katara's eyes narrowed to slits as she hummed her pleasure.
"Mm! Zuko, please, your fingers."
Still swirling his tongue around her Ember, Zuko traced her wet opening with the tips of his fingers. Katara squirmed under his grip on her thigh. His cock throbbed where it was pressed to the bed. Zuko struggled with the urge to grind his hips. Control. He had to stay in control.
He groaned as he sank one finger inside her. There were her muscles, squeezing against his invading finger in that way he'd begun to fantasize about. He tried not to think that he would soon know how those muscles felt around his own sex, but failed. Zuko rubbed his still-clothed hips just once against the bed. Just once. Then, he added a second finger and she moaned, quivered. There was a tiny flutter inside her that was nothing beside the crashing orgasms he had given her before. He didn't even pause.
"Zuko," she said, and her voice was so clear and forceful that he had to look up, had to meet her eyes. She was sitting up on one elbow, panting, wild-eyed. "I want you. Right now."
A part of Zuko (he could not then decide whether it was the good part or the evil part) wanted to say no, and that he wasn't done here just yet. That part of him wanted to go on playing with her for hours, drawing out her climax again and again for as long as he could keep her in this bed.
The opposing part of Zuko won. Almost before he fully realized he was doing it, he had crawled up Katara's body, kissing her belly and her soft breasts and her open, gasping mouth. Holding himself up with his hands, he felt her touching him. He felt her stroking his sides and back and buttocks, felt her rip apart his loincloth. Then, her hands were around his shaft, squeezing, pumping, guiding. Her legs were around his hips, her opening slick against the head of his organ. Her eyes were deep enough to dive into.
Groaning, Zuko sank into her slowly, every muscle in his back taut in the strain of the moment. He felt the barrier. Half an instant later, he felt it break. Then, he was submerged, his entire length encased in Katara's tight channel. She stiffened and gasped out a harsh breath and he dropped his face into her shoulder to try and regain a little composure.
It was better than he had imagined it would be. Everything was slick tightness and pulsing muscles and heat. Zuko wanted to move, was dying to move, but fear held him still. He was ashamed to be enjoying this so much when Katara was probably in pain. He had gone too quickly. He just knew he had. There was nothing good in Zuko's life that he did not find a way to ruin.
"Are you okay?" he asked against her shoulder.
"Ah," she breathed. "So full."
Zuko raised his head to look at her and found her eyes half-lidded, her lips parted. Katara squirmed under him experimentally and his hips instinctively withdrew in a short thrust. She made a squeaking sound and Zuko stopped himself immediately "Did it hurt? Are you okay?"
Her eyes cleared and she stroked his face. "It stung, but that's gone now. It just feels… really good." Katara's arms slipped around his back and he could feel each finger where it gripped his flesh. Her legs pulled at his hips, drawing him down. She still wanted him, he realized, even after everything that had gone wrong tonight, she wanted him. The knowledge made a banked part of him blaze.
It took a lot of restraint to keep the motion slow as Zuko sheathed himself in her slick depths. He couldn't hold back his groan at the sensation, at the sight of Katara biting her lower lip. Carefully, he settled over her on his elbows and began a slow rhythm that immediately had his heart racing.
Zuko may have felt desperate to move faster, but it was Katara who squirmed. She pulled her legs up to a higher angle and Zuko felt her passage shift inexplicably. Then, he was somehow penetrating deeper and Katara was moaning and gyrating under him and he thought he was going to lose it, he was pretty sure he was about to lose it, so he stopped.
He rolled to his back, pulling her with him and hoping another position would delay the end. Katara made an annoyed sound and for a moment just straddled him, searching his face and running her hands over his heaving chest. His eyes were drawn to her exposed breasts. Maybe this position had been a poor choice.
Katara wasn't moving though. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, just-" Zuko could feel his face getting hot. "Just kind of excited."
She smiled at him and stroked his hands where they were locked on her hips. "Well, since you need a break, I'll just keep myself entertained."
Wide-eyed, Zuko watched Katara slide her hands up from her hips, trailing the tips of her fingers against the faint outlines of her ribs before fluttering along the soft creases beneath her breasts. Her nipples tightened, darkened, and her fingers twirled and pinched and tugged.
Zuko knew he was breathing through his mouth but he did not care. His hips twitched upward almost involuntarily and Katara's eyes rounded as she bounced a little. The sight made him smirk.
"You're getting cocky, waterbender."
"And you," Katara said, "must have been born cocky, turtle-duck." Then, she swiveled her hips and clenched her muscles and Zuko, grunting, gripped her a little harder and began pumping up against her.
He watched her mouth form into a pretty 'o.' "And for good reason," he managed.
Katara didn't reply, too focused on meeting his motions with her own. Her hands dropped to the flexing muscles of his belly and Zuko had a fine view of the way her breasts swayed with his every thrust. Gasping, racing closer and closer to his end, he trailed one palm down her belly until his thumb parted her downy woman's hair and settled on her Ember. In a last surge of focus and coordination, he managed some quick circular strokes.
Katara dropped her head back and her hair was a wild brown sea around her shoulders and looking at her that way Zuko lost it. He moaned and felt his organ reach its hardest, felt the quick tumble over and the surging, surging, surging through his loins, through his entire body. Atop him, Katara shuddered and he could feel her inner muscles twitch and flutter, but when his climax settled, she was still rolling her hips against him, biting her lip, looking frustrated.
This was not happening.
Though he was still panting and drained from the force of his orgasm, Zuko rolled Katara onto her back and settled between her legs, kissing her heatedly. When he pulled away, she watched him with those huge blue eyes and he could see her already forgiving him as he softened and grew tender inside her.
But no, this was not happening.
Zuko kissed swiftly down her body and returned his lips, his tongue to her Ember. He tasted himself there and it was strange but he ignored that and kissed and sucked and licked and with his fingers stroked her slick folds.
She felt different there, like a flower having bloomed, and his fingers sank easily, too easily. Her hands were in his hair, tighter than was comfortable, but Zuko ignored this. Katara was crying out and grinding her hips against his face and she had slung one leg over his shoulder.
When Zuko slid a third finger into her clenching sex, she erupted. She pulled his hair and dug into his back with her heel and said his name like she was shocked, like she hadn't expected to see him here.
He withdrew while she shuddered in the wake. Her eyes were shut, her arms flung out to either side as if abandoned. Zuko smiled and lay at her side with his mouth near her ear and one arm below her breasts. One of his legs rested between hers.
"I admit," he panted, "that your style is quite powerful. Next time, I will be better prepared."
Katara opened one eye and looked at him from its corner. She was trying not to smile. "Be sure that you do." After a moment, she turned her head and looked him full in the eyes. "Goodnight kiss?"
Smiling, Zuko kissed her. Then, because that kiss had not seemed fully relaxing, he kissed her again, very slowly drawing her tongue into his mouth. After perhaps the fifth goodnight kiss – at which time Katara had begun sucking the side of his throat – Zuko smirked against her ear and said, "Rematch?"
Katara got up on her elbows and peered down at him and he could see all the crashing tides in her eyes, all the tumbling love. He could see it, and he could feel it.
"You're on, turtle-duck," she said.
The Blue Spirit and the Red Demon made fewer appearances after the week of negotiations came to an end, but petty crimes and corruption in the Fire Nation Capital diminished anyway. Some said that because the Fire Lord had proven himself willing to make personal sacrifices in the name of justice, the vigilantes were no longer needed.
Fire Lord Zuko encouraged this impression by ruthlessly hunting down his traitorous uncle. The old man was crafty and had many allies and so eluded the Fire Lord for long months. Still, the young ruler struck down his uncle's supporters with brutal justice. One by one, the old empires of corruption collapsed. The Chong Family, then the Kogi Family, and so on until all the High Houses of Fire Nobility had fallen into line.
The traitor Iroh, however, was never caught.
Of course, there were rumors. Years later, some said the Fire Lord's uncle had finally grown weary and fled to the Earth Kingdom. One much-scoffed-at cabbage merchant reported seeing him with a pretty blind woman in a teashop in Omashu. (After "The Boy in the Iceberg," most Fire Nation citizens were suspicious of information gleaned from cabbage merchants.)
It was most widely believed, though, that Iroh was still hiding somewhere in the Fire Nation, drinking tea and playing Pai Sho and biding his time for the perfect moment to strike. The people were not afraid, though, for their Fire Lord was competent and just, their Fire Lady was diplomatic and compassionate, and the Princes were both born healthy, ensuring the continuation of a stable monarchy in the Fire Nation.
And, besides, the Blue Spirit and the Red Demon still roamed the streets of the Capital from time to time.
AN: Holy cow, what a ride! A part of me (the evil part?) will miss writing these chapters. I miss the cliff-hangers already! The other part of me, the part that is eyeball-deep in grad school, is relieved to have finally made it through. And now the evil part of me wants to work on that Simple Misunderstanding while that other, practical part of me is facepalming and flailing in equal measure.
Point being, thank you, dearest readers, for making this such a worth-while endeavor. I'm so grateful to everyone who has read and especially to those who have reviewed. This has been an incredible learning experience for me as a writer and I have appreciated every word of praise and criticism I have received. I'm also extra-flattered that even some non-Zutarians took a chance on my story. Thank you! And again, thank you! Stay flaming!