A/N: 1. You don't have to understand much of Firefly to understand this, which is why it's not listed under crossovers. If you've never seen the show, in this universe, there are Companions, which are more or less Geisha, only sex is a more prominent part of their job. They are very high-class. 2. This is my first time writing smut, so concrit is very, very much appreciated. 3. I have a lot of ideas swirling around in my head for this 'Verse, but I'm not planning - at the moment - to add to this. If I do continue, it will be after I finish or at least get very much work put into all of my other lingering WIP-s.
compatibility of spirit
Katara heard the news at quite possibly the most inauspicious time possible, from the doctor whose head was, quite literally, currently between her knees.
"Have you heard?" the gynecologist asked, and Katara blinked awkwardly.
"About what?" she replied, trying to be game.
"Apparently, the Madam got a request today from the Capital of the Fire Nation!" the doctor exclaimed. "Wanted to arrange a meeting with the very best Companion at the House. Isn't that exciting?"
Well, yes, Katara thought, but not at the moment. "For the prince or the princess?" she asked, choosing to follow her learning rather than her (admittedly powerful) instinct to lecture the doctor about "appropriate times for discussion and why this is not one of them."
"The request came from the princess," the doctor said, "but apparently it's for the prince. I suppose she thinks her brother could use a little loosening up."
"That seems to be the consensus about him," Katara replied absently, and then winced as something cold touched a place she would really rather not have anything cold, ever. It was Guild Law that every active Companion see a gynecologist at least once a year (more if anything seemed wrong) to make sure that she was clean of all sexually transmitted diseases, not pregnant, and generally healthy. While Katara appreciated the law and understood its function, she really, really hated her yearly appointments.
Would it kill them to use instruments that weren't freezing?
Also, while she generally liked talking and usually had no problem with chatty doctors, this one was making her distinctly uncomfortable. Maybe, she thought, next year, she would request someone different. Perhaps a mime?
"Well, all right, Lady Katara," the doctor said, standing up and removing his gloves, "everything seems to be in perfect order. You're free to go."
"Thank you," she replied as warmly as possible, and dressed herself before leaving the little office. Outside, waiting in the antechamber to go in for her own appointment, was Mai. "Mai!" Katara cried, stepping forward and hugging the woman. "It's been too long! You're here for your appointment, I take it?"
"Naturally," Mai replied, smiling slightly. "You just had yours?"
"Yes," she said, and rolled her eyes. "Fair warning: the doctor likes to talk. A lot."
Mai winced. "How awkward."
"I know. So, how are you doing? You're still on that ship, the, uh...?" she trailed off, unable to remember the name of the ship Mai flew with these days. About a year ago, Mai had decided that staying in the Core wasn't really her thing, and had signed on with a shipping vessel to "see the 'Verse" as she said, but Katara had always suspected that there must be more to it. As a friend, though, she had never asked - after all, Mai had never probed her about her past, so she could do the same for her. Possibly out of gratitude for her "no questions asked" policy, Mai had stayed in touch, and they often talked over the Cortex, trading stories about strange clients and Mai's ever-fascinating Captain.
It wasn't quite the same as having her old friend, there, though. Mai had joined the Training House only days before Katara herself had, so they had trained together and helped each other learn the ropes and even, at one point, shared a room. From the day Katara had walked into the Training House, she and Mai had been friends and had kept no secrets from each other, so the place always felt empty whenever Mai wasn't around.
"Freedom," Mai supplied, rolling her eyes. "The Captain is such a sap."
They both laughed - Katara had heard all kinds of stories about the strange Captain Jet who ran around the 'Verse, taking jobs as they came and fancying himself a great man of legend. Most of the stories involved Mai making fun of him, but Katara knew that she was fonder of the Captain than she would ever let on. "You never finished telling me about that last job," she said, hands on hips, voice lightly accusing. "I was waiting on the edge of my seat for the conclusion to the Wobbly-Headed Doll Caper!"
Mai snickered into her hand. "He succeeded in getting past the checkpoint by pretending that the boxes were all filled with food for orphans on Santo."
"No!" Katara cried, laughing outright. "He didn't!"
"Oh," Mai replied, laughing herself (although less openly than Katara), "he did. He was so proud."
Once she stopped laughing, she remembered what the doctor had been talking about. "Oh!" she said, "Have you heard about the request that came in today?"
"No," Mai said, tilting her head. "I haven't. I only just got in," she added, as explanation.
"Apparently, the princess of the Fire Nation wants the best Companion in the House to arrange a meeting with her brother." She raised an eyebrow, and nudged Mai, smirking, "Lucky on you, eh? The best Companion in the House just happens to be visiting!" Mai rolled her eyes; when they had first met, Katara had thought that Mai was already an experienced Companion, and had always told her how much better Mai was at the job than, well, any of the rest of them. Mai had never agreed with her, but then, Mai had never thought much of herself.
"You flatter me," she replied. "Anyway, I can't take it. Jet wants to be done with the Core as soon as possible," she said, rolling her eyes again. "Apparently, he thinks that the police will just swarm his ship and steal it away from him if he takes his eyes off the planet for even a moment. Why don't you do it?"
"Me?" Katara repeated, and laughed. "I'm hardly the best!"
"You don't give yourself enough credit," Mai said seriously. "You're an excellent Companion. Everyone agrees."
Katara blushed. She'd been complimented by other people, and often, but it was different to hear it from the person who had trained alongside her and knew her better than anyone else in the entire 'Verse. "Now you're flattering me."
Mai smiled. "I think you should take it," she insisted, and Katara was just about to come up with a reason why she actually shouldn't take this job when the nurse walked into the antechamber.
"Lady Mai?" she asked, and gave the two a strained smile. "The doctor will see you now."
Mai gave a short bow. "Well, Katara," she said lightly, "it was good to see you. Maybe I'll see you tonight, after your appointment with the prince."
Katara huffed. "That was low, Mai."
Mai just smiled.
Katara decided, out of sheer curiosity, to speak to the secretary who fielded all of the requests and find out who actually was taking on the job of meeting with the prince. The secretary, usually composed beyond the limits of human sanity, looked plainly frazzled.
"Suki!" Katara exclaimed, aghast. "What's wrong?"
Suki groaned, and let her head fall onto the desk. "It's this stupid request from the royal family. Everyone in the whole guild is scrambling over each other to take it, and I can't explain to them that the princess is personally screening every applicant and you have to wait your shee-niou turn!" she all-but shouted the last into an open 'wave, where Katara could see a younger Companion glaring at Suki.
"Can you get help from anyone?" she asked, and Suki rolled her eyes.
"I tried. Ty Lee, you remember her?" She did - Ty Lee had joined up to become a Companion, but hadn't really been suited to the lifestyle, so she had stayed on as a coach and a teacher to the younger generations. "I told her that I needed help, but she swears that she has a full roster of classes for today." Suki glared into nothing. "That liar. She just doesn't want to do any real work."
A laugh bubbled its way out of Katara's throat. Suki really shouldn't be surprised: everyone knew that Ty Lee had a nearly supernatural ability to avoid doing anything she didn't want to do, and fielding hundreds of requests to meet with one surly prince was certainly one of the last things Ty Lee would ever want to do. "Of course not! I'd do the same thing, if I were her."
Suki growled, and then sighed. "So, are you applying for the prestigious position?" she asked, injecting a healthy dose of sarcasm into the last two words. Suki didn't think much of the royal family - in fact, Katara was reasonably certain that Suki had sided with the Independents in the war, but that was a well-understood taboo among the entire House. No one, no matter how high-ranking or senior, mentioned the war.
Companions, Katara had learned early on, were meant to be escapes from the real world. As such, they had no opinion on politics or religion or anything. If a client asked, they were to figure out what the client thought and agree wholeheartedly with him or her.
"I don't think I really qualify," she replied thoughtfully, and Suki snorted.
"Right, sure," she said, "I'm putting your name in."
"You can shut up. I'm doing you a favor. Do you have any idea how sexy the prince is?"
"I thought you didn't like the royal family," she replied coolly, and Suki laughed.
"I really don't, but that doesn't mean that he's not a gorgeous hunk of man." At this, Suki tapped the keys on her computer and brought up a picture, then picked up the screen to show Katara. On it was a picture of a stern-faced young man with a nasty-looking scar over the left side of his face. Even so, he was quite handsome, with ink-black hair and fair skin and piercing gold eyes - pure Fire Nation royalty, to be sure.
(In fact, Katara thought, peering at the picture, he shared a vague resemblance to Mai.)
"He's not bad, I guess," she said evenly, and Suki rolled her eyes, bringing the screen back down to her desk.
"You're just saying that because you can't see his body." Suki groaned, and Katara snickered.
"I'm sure he's attractive. Still, it's not really about looks."
Suki rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes, you have to look for, what is it? Compatibility of Spirit? Is that the line they feed you guys?"
"It's important," Katara huffed. "A person may be beautiful to look at but completely wrong within."
"Why does that matter? You're just there for dinner and sex."
Katara perked up at this. "Dinner is involved with this meeting? That's new."
"Oh, yeah," Suki said, "you didn't know? The meeting is at Shinbou's."
"Shinobu's?" Katara repeated, surprised. "That's fancy, even for us."
"No kidding," Suki replied. "If you ask me, that's why half these girls are dying to get this job. Forget the sexy prince, they just want an excuse to eat at Shinobu's, without getting disapproving glares from the Madam."
All of a sudden, the door opened and Katara turned. A woman swept in, dressed in clothing that almost put her own wardrobe to shame, with most of her hair pulled up into a topknot and - she drew in a breath - a golden, flame-shaped crown placed perfectly in her hair. The princess. Behind her, she heard Suki gasp, and she almost forgot to bow in her surprise.
The woman looked at the two of them critically, but paid special, and unsettling, attention to Katara.
"Your Majesty," Suki said, voice tight. "What brings you here today? The Madam set up a meeting with you on the cortex for later to - "
"I don't care about the Madam," the princess replied sharply. "I'm looking for a Companion to take my brother out for a night. What better way to find the right one," she started, waving a hand, "than coming down and looking at them myself?"
"Of course," Suki breathed, and Katara heard the light tapping of her computer keys, undoubtedly sending an urgent OH GOD EVERYONE GET READY THE PRINCESS IS HERE LOOK ALIVE message to the whole House. "Uh, Princess, this is one of our best Companions, Lady Katara."
Katara froze. Utterly and entirely. A small part of her longed to turn around and lunge for Suki's throat because, honestly, who does that to one of their friends? Instead, she stood stock-still like a scared animal for the longest second ever, and then her mind snapped back into place, and she bowed. "Your Majesty," she said quietly. "I would like to welcome you into our home. Is there any sort of person in particular you had in mind for this meeting?"
The princess gave her a critical look, and then crossed her arms. "I don't know. It's not like I pay any attention to the whores my brother likes." Katara bristled at the word - the princess undoubtedly knew how nasty an insult that was, especially to a Companion. Katara had been called a whore before, but she never got used to it; she made a mental note to talk to Mai about it later tonight. The Captain that Mai ran with had the tendency to call her a whore, and Katara wanted to know what Mai did to handle it.
"I'm afraid there are no whores here," she replied, with as much deference as she could manage. "This is a Companion House. The red-light district is on the other side of the city."
Suki gasped, and she bit her tongue - that had come out without really stopping by her brain. The princess, however, laughed. "Of course. The lights here look a bit reddish, though, don't you think?" she asked mockingly.
"I'm afraid I don't see what Her Majesty is referring to," she answered, trying to rein in her panic. "The lights I see are all white."
The princess smirked. "You know what?" she asked, glancing to Suki. "Tell the Madam not to bother arranging her girls. I think this one will do just fine for dear Zuzu."
Katara went white.
Shinobu's had a reputation for being the best restaurant in the best city on the best planet in the entire 'Verse - and it was certainly expensive enough to have earned that. Katara, even for all of her training as a Companion, still felt overwhelmed when she walked into the magnificent building. It had once been a temple (in fact, the lower levels still functioned as one, although the monks and nuns had decided to open up gift shops and rent out their empty rooms, taking advantage of the restaurant that inhabited the upper level; Katara thought that it was really wrong and not at all in keeping with the proper Buddhist traditions) and was thus stationed on a high mountain.
The restaurant took full and unabashed advantage of the placement of the temple, with less wall and more window, letting in blinding light from the White Sun and showing off the sparkling rivers and waterfalls that surged just past the temple's walls. The mountain outside the windows was dotted with a few uneven plains near the rivers and various animal life often visited the area, wandering around right outside, near enough to touch.
Right now, it was sunset, and the view was more than breathtaking. The setting sun glowed red in the western window, turning a sparkling waterfall all the colors of the rainbow, and a mountain goat with her calves stood lazily by the water, grazing unconcernedly. Inside, the restaurant was crowded with people in all sorts of silks and high-class dress, sitting at elaborately decorated tables, far enough from each other to grant plenty of privacy. Katara looked around in awe - she'd never been to Shinobu's before, but she could certainly understand why all the other Companions talked about it with a sort of reverence usually reserved for the Buddha.
"Is it just the one, Madam?" the host asked, and she turned, fighting a blush. She'd been so absorbed in the setting that she'd forgotten all about the fact that it was a restaurant.
"I'm here to meet with someone," she replied, adjusting her wrap a bit self-consciously. She'd been doing this for years, but she still got a little nervous before meeting with a client for the first time. Mai insisted that it was perfectly normal, but Katara couldn't imagine Mai being nervous over a client. "Here," she said, pulling out the card that the princess had given her, and handed it to the host. He took it, and his eyes went wide before he nodded.
"Of course, Lady Katara. The prince is waiting for you, right this way."
Katara started internally - she had gotten here early on purpose, since she doubted that it would be a good idea to leave the prince waiting. Why was he already here? Had the princess lied to her about the time to make her look foolish?
The host led her through the maze of tables (she was slightly gratified to note that many of the women were eying her outfit with more than a little jealousy - she had pulled out all the stops for tonight, and Mai had even let her borrow her favorite necklace, so she was glad to see that it had all paid off) and then past a gauzy curtain to a small, raised platform where a single table was stationed, right in the corner of three windows exposing a gaspingly beautiful countryside - the VIP area.
At the table sat the surly prince from the picture Suki had shown her, and when the host coughed slightly he turned and looked at them, seemingly unimpressed. He stood up politely as she took her seat and then sat back down, brooding at the menu and ignoring her entirely.
She had plenty of training in this, though. Dealing with nervous or shy clients was practically the first lesson in Companion training.
"I can't say I've ever been here before," she said, smiling, and the prince glanced at her, his one eyebrow raised.
"Why is that?" he asked, sounding utterly disinterested.
"Most clients don't take us out to dinner," she replied, still smiling benevolently, but he winced when she said the word "client."
"Clients, huh?" he muttered, and then fell silent.
Katara wasn't entirely sure what to make of him - perhaps, she thought, he didn't like the thought of being just one of a million other men and women she had serviced, which was certainly common enough. She'd had several men (and a couple of women) beg her to convince them that they were either the first or one of only a few, which she had always done with as much tact as possible. She wasn't in the habit of lying to her clientele, but she didn't share anything more than was absolutely necessary either.
The waiter came up with a bottle of wine that the prince had evidently ordered before she arrived, and poured out two glasses for each of them. It was a rich, dark red, and a quick glance at the bottle told her that it was Piandao's Finest - an expensive, but supposedly excellent, wine. Of course.
The prince seemed determined to ignore her, so she made it her duty - right then and there, with a full glass of wine in hand - to pull him out of his shell. Mai had always told her that her infuriating ability to get others to open up was her greatest strength, and she was fully prepared to use it to the absolute best of her ability tonight.
"You don't seem happy to be here," she said conversationally, and received a glare. "I thought as much. Do you think me a whore?" she asked bluntly, remembering his sister's words. The prince started at this, and finally looked up and met her eyes.
"I - " he began, and she shook her head.
"I understand if you do. Believe me," she added, with a little smile, "I've heard it all before."
He looked, she thought, about the same way that she must have when the princess had walked into the Companion House earlier that day - absolutely shocked and completely at a loss as to what to say or do. "I'm sorry," he said gruffly. "My sister set this up without my knowledge."
"I did get that impression," she said lightly, and sipped her wine. It didn't taste very good, but then, she'd never had a taste for wine. "But that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy ourselves."
He colored slightly at this, and then turned abruptly back to his menu. "It's a little... weird," he muttered.
"If it helps, I'm nervous as well."
He looked up suddenly, and then raised his eyebrow skeptically. "This is your job, isn't it? Why would you be nervous?"
"Well," she replied airily, "I'm wearing an uncomfortably tight dress," she started, and, as expected, his eyes flicked down to her chest and then back up immediately, and he blushed a little, "and borrowed jewelry. I'm on a date with a man I've never met but heard many stories about, who also happens to be the prince of the country I live in. Not to mention the fact that all of my coworkers are desperately jealous of me because they wanted to be the one on this date - oh! And I'm still uncomfortable from the, ah, doctor's appointment I had earlier today, with the rather chatty doctor who thought that it was the most appropriate time to talk to me about this possible meeting that had the whole House in an uproar."
He smirked a bit at this, and she smiled internally. "Dare I ask what kind of doctor?"
"It isn't exactly proper table manners," she replied, answering his question, and he snickered into his wine.
"That seems... awkward."
"Believe me," she said fervently, "it was."
"So," he said, after a moment, "you've heard stories about me?"
"Oh," she replied, nodding, "all kinds."
He looked at her critically, and then seemed to hesitate. "What... exactly... have you heard?"
Now she was starting to get somewhere. He was uncertain - probably desperate to know what his subjects thought of him - and this was where she could either mess everything up, or finally get under his shell and get him to open up. The truth was that she had heard a wide array of things about him, many of which totally contradicted each other and generally had more to do with his looks than his policies. But she hadn't trained for most of her life in how to charm a man for nothing. "Well, generally, people don't know what to think of you. They're afraid of your sister," this, she hadn't heard, but had been able to infer from her own meeting with the woman. "But you're an enigma."
"An enigma," he repeated, caught on her hook exactly as she'd hoped.
"Yes," she replied. "When you give speeches, they like what they hear, but then there are all kinds of rumors that fly around. Most of them contradict themselves," she added apologetically, "but it serves to confuse the people."
"And you?" he asked, voice purposefully light. "What do you think?"
That took her off-guard a bit - she didn't expect him to care about what she thought. She took a sip of the wine to stall for a second, eyes locked with his startlingly intense ones. "I think you're quite a bit more than what people think of you. You're clearly smart and, I would guess, quite honorable, or you wouldn't have been uncomfortable with this meeting." She tilted her head and smiled. "And you arrived here before even I did, so I suppose that means you're nervous, but like to make a good impression. I think you'll make an excellent Fire Lord," she added, before she could catch herself. She knew it would sound falsely flattering, but it wasn't entirely untrue. Although she didn't know much about him, she did know that he would be a far better Fire Lord than his sister.
He seemed unwilling to accept her words, and this struck her as sad, reminding her suddenly and forcibly of Mai, who refused to accept compliments and always assumed the worst of herself. "Really?" he asked flatly, as though trying to call her bluff.
"Really," she replied warmly. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," she added quietly, sympathetically. His eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and she thought - for just a moment - that she saw a deep vulnerability there, but it was gone before she could be sure.
Like Mai, she realized, who always hid herself behind layers of forced apathy and Companion training.
"What makes you think I'm hard on myself?" he challenged roughly, taking a too-large gulp of wine to hide his discomfort. She decided to withdraw, for the moment, to make him more comfortable with her.
"Just the feeling I get," she answered. "What were you planning to order?" she asked, and he looked grateful for the change of subject.
"They say the lobster here is good," he said a bit too quickly.
"Or the oysters," she added lightly, watching him out of the corner of her eye. Sure enough, he blushed - the prince did, in fact, know about the reputation oysters held in this part of the land. She suppressed a smile.
She watched him grow steadily more awkward and uncomfortable as they neared the end of dinner, and it was almost amusing, really. By the time they left the restaurant, he was being absurdly formal and stiff, the specter of the rest of her job lingering in the air above them. This, however, was just another part of her training.
She took his arm while they walked through the temple grounds to the waiting taxis, and began to talk about the landscape and the architecture and the temple's past. It turned out that he was well-versed in history, and talking about the history of the temple-turned-restaurant soothed his nerves somewhat.
Still, when they arrived at her room, his expression was wooden.
"Come in," she said gently, and gestured to the bench and table on her right. "I'll make tea. Do you have any preference?" she asked, and he looked confused.
"Uh... Jasmine?" he replied uncertainly, and she nodded, setting about making a pot of jasmine tea for them. Into her cup went the special herbs that were part of the Companion's lifestyle - birth control, which she really wasn't so fond of because it made her tea taste especially bitter - and then a healthy spoonful of sugar to cover up the herbs' taste.
"Do you want any sugar or honey?" she asked, as the teapot hummed. He blinked.
"Honey would be... nice."
She tried not to laugh. "The Companion's tea ceremony is part of the tradition," she explained, and then the teapot whistled, so she pulled it off the little burner in her room. "You enjoy history - it's descended from the ancient traditions of the Geisha. Our ceremony is less formal than the historical ones, and, if you ask me, the tea is better."
He laughed a little at this, although she suspected it was more from nerves than humor. "I've had traditional tea," he said, voice strained. "It's... not very good."
"No," she replied, "it isn't. I never thought I would have frothy tea." She smiled brightly, and brought the tray over to the table. He was, she noticed, extremely tense, and she thought that perhaps they could start with a massage to loosen him up.
(Besides, Suki hadn't been lying about his body. Getting her hands all over those muscles would certainly get her in the mood.)
He stared intently at his cup with an expression not unlike that of a cornered animal. This, Katara decided, just wouldn't do. "I have a friend who travels with a shipping vessel," she said abruptly, and he glanced at her in confusion. "She just decided, about a year ago, that she wanted to see the 'Verse. Anyway, her captain is... a handful, to say the least, and she tells me stories about him all the time. He's convinced that he's the most suave man in the whole system," she added, with a light laugh. "I got the chance to meet him once," she told him conspiratorially, "and he couldn't even string two words together. He was so nervous and so uncomfortable that he actually tripped over his own feet and my friend had to catch him."
He laughed a bit at this - good, she thought.
"I told my friend that she could never let him live that down," she said, and poured the tea into the cups, stirring both of them until their contents were dissolved (his first, of course), and then handed his to him, allowing her fingers to linger under his for just a fraction of a moment longer than was strictly necessary. She knew he had noticed - his breathing sped up a bit - and she couldn't deny that her own heart was hammering in her chest. Suki could mock her for searching for "compatibility of spirit" all she wanted, but Suki had never experienced it firsthand.
Prince Zuko wasn't the first man she'd found who fit her spirit well, but he was certainly the most handsome. And she wanted, powerfully, to help him with his unspoken problems, the way she had managed to (however minimally) help Mai. Perhaps, she thought, he could become a regular customer, and she could coach him through the maze of politics. Although politics weren't her specialty, therapy was, and anyone trapped in the suffocating royalty of the Fire Nation - and with the kind of sister that he had - certainly needed a kind, unaffiliated friend who would talk to him and never judge him. And - judging from his tension and discomfort - he could probably use the sex, as well.
"I'm sure she doesn't," he said quietly, making a vague effort to be involved in the conversation.
She sipped her tea, suppressing a wince at the bitter aftertaste. Some traditions really ought to be done away with, she thought - Mai kept telling her that she should just get the pills that she herself took, rather than indulge in these ancient herbs. After all, Mai insisted, how good can a few leaves be at staving off pregnancy? Although they were actually quite effective, Katara really wanted to take Mai's advice, because pills couldn't be tasted.
Still, tradition held that they were good for cleansing the spirit as well as the body, and while Mai rolled her eyes at all the spiritual things, Katara followed them religiously.
"Have you ever been to the palace?" Zuko asked her abruptly, and she shook her head.
"I can't say that I have. A few of the more senior Companions have, for, ah, the nobility," she said, catching herself before she got into a discussion about his father's sex life - a massive turn-off, if she'd ever heard one. "But I haven't arranged any meetings there."
"Is it because of your heritage?" he asked, and she almost spilled her tea all over herself. She hadn't thought he would have noticed - although, really, who in the Fire Nation had her dark skin and blue eyes? - and she was surprised to see that he was more observant than she had thought.
"I don't think so," she replied. "I've just never had the occasion to."
"So, it's true, then?" he said eagerly, leaning forward. "You are from the Water Tribes."
She tensed a bit, but didn't show it. Her past was taboo, and most people knew that. Yes, she was from the Water Tribes, which had been famously decimated in the war for their vocal support of the Independents. She had watched her mother die at the hands of a crew of Alliance soldiers at the ripe old age of eight, and since then had harbored a secret hatred of all things Alliance. But Zuko wasn't, strictly speaking, one of them. He was Fire Nation, yes, and the Fire Nation had supported Unification, but that didn't mean that Zuko was responsible for her mother's death.
When it had become clear that the Alliance would win the war, she had left home - left her grieving brother, who swore that Independence was a thing worth dying for, left her father, who still sought revenge for his wife's murder, left her grandmother, who had looked on her with sad eyes - and hid away in a smuggling ship, buying her freedom with every penny she had spent her life saving up, finding herself on Sihnon, alone. So she went to the Companion's Guild, hunting for a job, hoping for work as a maid or a cook, but the Madam had taken one look at her and proclaimed that she would make an excellent Companion.
And so she had become one.
But her time before the Companion House was a secret - no one, not even Suki, not even Mai, knew about it. And no one had ever asked, beyond a cursory curiosity about where she was from (to which she usually answered Sihnon, but her mother was descended from the Water Tribes, explaining her coloring). And, of all people, the prince of the Fire Nation had guessed at it and hit the mark.
Compatibility of spirit, she supposed, worked both ways.
"Originally," she replied, taking an overlarge sip of tea to hide the shaking in her hands. "But now I'm from here."
"What happened?" he asked, looking genuinely curious. "No one ever talks about the Water Tribes."
A pang went through her heart at this - he was asking because he didn't know. His nation had been instrumental in their demise and no one had ever even thought to tell him. But then, she supposed, it had happened in the war, and that was the past now - and had never been the prince's concern anyway. "That's because there isn't much to say, I'm afraid. There aren't many members left."
Something flickered in his face at this, and he looked down at his tea. "I'm sorry," he said. She hesitated - her training insisted that she tell him that he had nothing to apologize for, but her blood told her to scream at him that a mere apology could never be enough.
She took the middle road. "It's in the past now," she replied gently, and placed her teacup on the table, reaching over and taking his hand. "Let's leave it there."
He looked at her hand and swallowed visibly, before looking up to meet her eyes. She smiled, and pulled him to his feet, directing him toward the bed. He moved stiffly, uncomfortably, so she took the lead, unbuttoning his shirt (he blushed and refused to look at her) and pushing him down onto her large bed. She ignored his confusion - after all, how was this supposed to go anywhere if he was still wearing pants? - and began to massage his shoulders with one hand while reaching for the least flowery body oil she owned (it smelled of sandalwood) and poured a small amount onto his back.
She knew she had him in the palm of her hand when he groaned and buried his face into her pillow. She smiled. Massage therapy wasn't necessary to Companion training, but they did offer classes in it, and she had decided to take them out of little more than sheer curiosity - and they had paid off generously in the past few years. She was known throughout the Guild for her "magical hands" as they called them; a few people insisted that she had secret healing powers or something, because there was no way that any one person could do so much with just a few little hand movements and a bit of body oil.
She was right about his tension, though; his muscles were almost solid under her fingers, and there were all kinds of knots that she had to work her way through. But it was quite worth it because... Well.
She imagined the envy that Suki was certainly feeling right about now, and suppressed a grin.
Once the massage was finished, she moved away from the bed and began to undress, knowing what he would do - confused about the sudden end of the massage, he would look around, and, if she had played her cards right, spot her just as her dress was falling to the floor. There were few things more alluring than watching a beautiful woman undress.
Sure enough, when she turned back around, he was staring at her. He jolted when she turned, like he was ashamed to be caught watching, but she merely smiled and joined him on the bed. He tensed slightly (she almost sighed; all that work on the massage, wasted because he was shy!) and started to say something, but she cut him off with a kiss.
Some of her coworkers swore that a true Companion should never kiss a man on the mouth, but Katara wasn't one of them. It was an intimate gesture, to be sure - that was why, sometimes, it was the right one. A man like Zuko wasn't used to intimacy, was shy and reserved and sheltered, so reaching out and kissing him fully would make him feel more special.
As expected, he tensed at first, but quickly relented - she tasted the jasmine tea in his mouth and hoped idly that he didn't taste the bitter herbs in her own - and allowed her to take the lead. As gruff and sharp-edged as he seemed, the glimpses of vulnerability she had seen had made her think that he would probably be quite submissive as a lover, and she wasn't wrong. He seemed almost afraid to touch her, so she guided his hands over her body, bringing him up to meet her and straddling his hips.
Permission granted, he moved forward with more than a little hunger - had it been a while, she wondered? Or was he just that attracted to her? - running a hand through her thick hair and clinging to her tightly. It was almost like the way he had asked her what she thought of him, uncertain and eager and desperate to be loved.
His other hand was on her waist, and it was startlingly rough, warm, and pleasing, as he moved it lower over her stomach and down, down - she was almost startled at this. She was a Companion, it was her job to make sure that he had a good time. Her pleasure was irrelevant.
No one had ever bothered to do anything for her.
She gasped involuntarily as his rough, warm finger slid inside of her and she felt him laugh a little against her mouth. She ran a hand through his hair, unceremoniously pulling it out of the topknot - it wasn't long like most nobles', but it was soft and thick, and her fingers tightened against his scalp as he brushed a finger against her clit.
This was nothing like most of her appointments. She arched her back as he moved to kiss her neck, and then he shifted, turning so that she was no longer on top of him - his fingers disappeared for a moment as he readjusted, and then he was on top of her.
All of a sudden, like a flash of lightning, she remembered that he was still wearing pants, and she almost laughed out loud. Usually, she was much more attentive to her clients, but then, none of her clients had ever... She pushed him away lightly - he paused in confusion and dismay - and then began working at his pants. He was blushing brilliantly, but in the low light, she was able to pretend that she hadn't seen anything; she doubted he would want her to know exactly how shy he really was.
Once his pants were loose enough for him to just shuffle out of, she looped an arm around his neck and pulled him back into a deep kiss that had more emotion in it than was strictly proper. He kissed her eagerly, desperately, and she wrapped her legs around his hips, letting him in.
She could feel his heartbeat pounding in his chest, powerful and quick, and she hoped that hers didn't give herself away so clearly. It was bad enough that she liked him more than she should; it would never do for him to know that. She knew he wouldn't last long - as tense as he was, she was sure he'd come quickly - but that wasn't really the important thing. It wasn't about getting off, it was about the touch and the emotion and the intimacy.
Sure enough, after only a few minutes of thrusting, he came, crying out into her shoulder, fingers clutching her breast and the pillow by her head. She expected that to be the end of it, but even though he pulled out, he continued to kiss her shoulder and breast slowly, moving down her stomach like his hands had earlier.
Part of her - the part that had been trained for years to do this - told her to stop him, to tell him that he didn't have to do this, but when his tongue flicked over her clit, all thoughts of being a Companion vanished, and she grabbed the pillow behind her head to steady herself. He looked up at her from where he was, almost amused, and she arched against her bed. This wasn't exactly familiar to her, and somehow, she thought that maybe he knew that.
When she came, she couldn't quite contain the cry that exploded from her throat. Protocol said that she should be quiet during sex, but protocol didn't matter much when the Prince of the Fire Nation was giving her oral sex.
He moved around so that he was laying beside her, rubbing gentle circles on her stomach, kissing her shoulder lightly.
Once she had calmed down enough that she trusted herself to speak, she glanced at him. "You didn't have to," she said softly.
"Neither did you," he replied.
He watched her intently as she pulled her robe on and prepared a new pot of tea (vanilla and apple this time), arm behind his head, hair still down and messy from where she had been running her hands through it. She knew he was watching because she could feel his eyes on her as she moved, and, for the first time since she'd been a Companion, she felt naked, like he could see straight through her.
That wasn't normal. Usually, she was in control of every facet of her meetings, but something about him twisted her world around. She'd been vaguely vulnerable in meetings before, when men had looked at her with big eyes and seen more than she strictly liked, but even in those situations, she hadn't felt like this, laid bare and transparent, with all of her secrets exposed.
"Why did you become a Companion?" he asked, apparently apropos of nothing, and she glanced to him. His face was unreadable.
She could lie, but she could also still feel his touch on her skin, so she told the truth. "I didn't have many other options. I spent all of my money on passage to get to Sihnon, and when I got in the city, I was poor. I thought that one of the Companion Houses might have a job for me, as a maid or a cook or a dresser, so..." she shrugged. "The Madam told me that I should be a Companion, and, well, the rest is history."
He finally got up from the bed, and she looked respectfully away, focusing instead on the tea. A lot of her clients didn't like to be seen naked; it made them feel vulnerable, and she knew they weren't supposed to feel vulnerable with her.
She poured the boiling water into the teapot and stirred it a couple of times before she turned, and when she did, he was sitting at the bench in only his pants, watching her with that same calculating, intense look that made her feel so exposed. "But why Sihnon?" he asked. "You could have gone anywhere, why a core planet?"
"I'd always wanted to come to Sihnon," she answered, although that wasn't the whole truth. In reality, she didn't have a choice. The ship she bought passage on was going to Sihnon, and it was the only one leaving the planet for days, so she'd agreed to go then, before she lost her nerve. "I'd heard stories about how beautiful it was." She smiled. "They were wrong. Sihnon is more beautiful than words can say."
It was true, but it wasn't everything. Some days, she still longed for the bitter cold of her homeland, for the ice floes and the auroras and the smell of a maktaaq fire - Sihnon was beautiful, but it wasn't, and never would be, home.
"The Water Tribes were aligned with the Independents, though," he said. "Why not go to a border planet with fewer Alliance?"
"Just because my people were aligned with the Independents doesn't mean I was," she replied, smoothly disguising the truth. "And it's safer on Alliance planets. They say that there are Reavers out in the border worlds."
"Don't tell me you believe that," he said, sounding skeptical. She shrugged, pouring tea into the cups.
"Not really, but why risk it? Here, I know I'm safe."
He took his teacup and looked at it as though it owed him something. "You don't have to do this," he said quietly, and her heart leaped into her throat.
"Hmm?" She didn't want him to answer - she knew where he was going with that (he'd hardly be the first), and she didn't know what to say. She didn't want to tell him no, but she was also comfortable and happy in her life, and she knew that ex-Companions weren't thought of so highly. Oh, officially, they were still just as high-class as any other Companion, but if she thought that dealing with the people who called her "whore" under their breath were bad as it was, she didn't even want to imagine what would happen if she left the Companion lifestyle to be the prince's concubine.
"I could..." he started, and she refused to look up from her tea. "Never mind," he muttered. She tried to ignore the sound of her heart cracking, just a little bit. "I should go," he said abruptly, standing up, leaving his tea untouched on the table and gathering the rest of his clothes from her floor with sharp movements. She stayed very still, forcing her breathing to calm down, and then finally stood to bid him farewell. It was only right.
"Our time was too short," she said, a little thickly, and he tensed again.
"Yeah," he replied uncomfortably. She wanted to kiss him goodbye, but years of training made her stand her ground.
"You're always welcome here," she told him, the closest thing she would ever get to asking him to return. Maybe he noticed, maybe not. Either way, he looked her straight in the eyes, and for one second, it was like he was seeing straight through her again, and then he nodded curtly and walked away.
With a sigh, she collapsed onto her bed.