Chapter One: The Duke
Zuko was scared.
Not actually fearful of the six-year old boy persistently tugging on his hand—but perhaps, Zuko thought, wary.
Yes, he decided: he was wary of him.
For when six-year olds are this excited, there can only be something foreboding on the horizon. This, Zuko knew, expertly from encounters with a six-year-old Azula.
But he had to humor the young boy. After all, despite the fact that Zuko was feeling tired, it wasn't everyday one was six.
After a long day of searching for Aang—who had mysteriously and quite opportunely disappeared after the brief argument over dinner last night, during which the group had unashamedly considered Zuko's patricide as they discussed the prospect of killing Fire Lord Ozai—he wanted to find bed.
The group, minus Aang, were presently situated in the hut looking over the Ember Island beach. Lo and Lee had taken the group of Fire Nation nobels to it on his last trip to the Island and he had guessed it to be unoccupied for the use of the Avatar's group. It only made sense to stay closer to shore seeing as they would be headed off on Appa the next day on their search for Aang. Nevermind the irony of staying in their enemy's vacation house.
That was besides the point, though: The Avatar's group just had to make everything so troublesome.
Yet, despite the fact that the main man had disappeared two days before the comet, Zuko still enjoyed some small and unexpected aspects of traveling with them.
Which is why he was humoring the young boy tugging at his fingertips. But he was still tired; emotionally exhausted after spending one entire fruitless day looking for the missing Avatar.
"The Duke—" Zuko protested weakly, falling over his feet as the smaller boy pulled him around the narrow hut hallways urgently, combined with his own weariness.
"SHHH!" the small boy exclaimed loudly, turning back to face Zuko with a serious and admonishing look that was contritely destroyed by the large metal cap unevenly tipping over his brows.
Perhaps if Zuko were still wearing his metal armor, the boy would feel less comfortable as to dare to settle him with a glare, the older boy conjectured. He enjoyed the general amicably of the group, but at times—times like these—he thoroughly wished that they didn't require so much patience. They certainly had... antics. Zuko had realized this fact with great experation after his third or fourth day with them at the Western Air Temple. Eventually, he forced himself to build a veneer—which could, perhaps, more accurately be described as a facade—of nonchallance in order to become accustomed to them.
He is just six though, Zuko warily justified. His hand was feeling oddly detached from his wrist right now and he didn't even know where they were going. His legs were feeling tired.
However, before he could allow his thoughts and ponderings to wander free and engrain themselves in thoroughly grounded and finite doubts, The Duke had suddenly stopped in front of a large wooden door.
Zuko almost tripped over him at the sudden stop, but then looked up. It was one of the hut bedrooms. Ty Lee had used this one, he recalled.
For a moment, Zuko felt remorse running through him for being impatient with with the boy when the Duke had just been bringing them to the bedrooms Suki had assigned them. He subtly supposed that that throbbing migraine was getting the best of him.
Turning down, he aimed a heartfelt smile of appreciation to the boy, which was meant to wholeheartedly portray his gratitude and heartfelt apology, but which he unfortunately suspected came out as more of an odd quirk. Nevertheless, the boy's serious demeanor didn't change. He stared determinedly at the door, as if there was a journey to face inside it.
However, before Zuko could assess the boy's face long enough to wonder about the curious attitude, the prince's body was suddenly thrust harshly into the room by the back of the hips.
The door slammed shut behind him as a bewildered teenager fell straight into the floor behind it.
He recalled hearing a loud, "SHHHHH!" coming from the boy's mouth, before a sudden 'click' indicated that the door was locked behind him.
Brows furrowed in confusion and utter surprise, Zuko turned his head from staring at the back of the door bewilderedly and into the room he was presently in now.
His guess had been right—it was a bedroom. The Duke had just been showing him to the room he had been designated. But then why did he lock it?
And what was with all the shushing?
Turning his head around, the answer to his thoughts hit him in the form of Katara sitting on the bed.
She looked at him in surprise and quirked one of her eyebrows curiously. He was suddenly graced with his own sneaking suspicions as to why he was here.
"Zuko?" Katara asked from where she was sitting across the bed, her legs dangling over the side.
Her upper body was framed by the square window that the other side of the bed was pushed up against. Through the opening, the dark blue, vast sky sheltering the world could be seen. The crescent moon was shining through the opening and the stars looked clearly than on dark night, even though the sky today was a cloudy and dreary, foreboding midnight blue.
No doubt that the sky was heralding the battle that would take place in just a few fortnights' time.
The sky had been like this for a while now, growing darker and murkier with each day coming closer to the fated day.
Katara, who came from a society of people who sincerely lived by the stars and the moons and the night skies, had given credence to this fact: It was the coming of Sozin's comet.
Even nature knew that something significant was about to fall upon them. Zuko hoped that it would be the tides of change; rather than the foreshadowing of a new world order under the reign of a Pheonix King. The night skies were cloudy, and Zuko was used to this visage—had become and been used to it; a current, constant reminder looming over his night each and every day as he'd fallen asleep for the last two months.
What he wasn't used to, however, was sharing this view and these unbidden, tumultuous thoughts with Katara. Yet, he now suddenly was.
Heat began to rise on his face as he suddenly realized the source of the shushing and determinate excitement of the little young boy who had dragged him here.
Wryly sliding his pupils back to his right-hand side, where the door from which he had come from was, he could probably wager a keen bet with Agni that it would not be able to be opened.
He didn't know whether to be relieved, or thankful, or annoyed.
The heat began to rise even higher though, as Katara began to talk to him.
"Um.. Earth to Zuko," Katara voiced, still sitting on the bed and staring at him like he'd grown a third head.
Snapping his head back up to her in sudden realization, his mouth opened, but before he could even say anything (despite the fact that he didn't even know what to say to muster a response with), Katara had posed him with a question:
"What are you doing in my room?"
Katara was utterly oblivious to the fact that at the moment, Zuko, with his tense shoulders and tired back and flustered head, was feeling like a deflated (and quite embarrassed) saggy red balloon. Withering to floor, quietly but gently, slowly yet surely.
"Uhh—I, Uhhh..." Zuko had not ever been the most eloquent with words.
Iroh and Katara, on different occasions, would separately note that this was both serious and a fact to lament, for he was someone detailed to be a public figure as a ruler.
"Um..." he continued, slowly beginning to avert his eyes and feel sheepish, "The Duke—He, uh, threw me in here. I didn't know why. Someone must have given him the idea to."
Katara frowned thoughtfully, a tinge of curiosity etched into in her risen forehead. With a hand awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck, Zuko slowly watched her promptly get up and approach the entrance to the small room.
"That's weird. Maybe he just showed you the wrong one. I'm pretty sure this one is mine—Suki showed it to me herself." Katara paused before continuing, "And she was the one who was in charge of room distributions tonight."
He watched her from his spot off to the side on the floor, the sway of her hips capturing his attention briefly before momentarily returning to her general moving form. She went to the door and experimentally turned the knob, only to find it completely and utterly locked.
Katara turned back to Zuko, who was now awkwardly standing off to side in the room, one hand still rubbing his neck for lack of anything better to do.
"Huh. It's locked!" she exclaimed.
Zuko frowned, with his brows furrowed. "Uh. Yeah."
With another thoughtful frown on her face, Katara returned back to the bed and sat down.
"You don't think they..." she was about to verbalize. But then she stopped.
She waited another moment, before deciding to speak again silently.
"We can always wait for someone else to come by and open it for you," Katara suggested after a second. "It's weird, but I didn't know the doors in this hut had locks on them."
Zuko mentally sighed with weariness. They didn't.
With his tiredness overcoming him and having had enough of awkwardly standing in one place in Katara's room, Zuko got to the floor and sat down with his legs crossed.
Everything ached—he was tired. And he couldn't believe he was being put up to this by... by meddlesome teenagers!
"Why do you think he locked you in here if he thought this was your own room?"
"It was probably someone else. Who thought we would actually appreciate this."
Who thought I would appreciate this.
He turned his head down to stare at the floor even lower, in the hopes of hiding his slowly reddening face and blush from her.
This—This was not the extent of the relationship he presently had with Katara.
Still sitting on the bed, though now she had pulled her legs up to cross them on the edge, Katara raised her brows again in curiosity.
"Why would they think that?" she asked innocently.
Zuko's face heated up so ferociously at the question that he wasn't quite sure he could keep fire from seceding his mouth if he spoke too suddenly.
She really didn't yet realize that they had stuck them in the same room together to...
Because they thought the two of them would like to... Want to... To...
Zuko was having so much trouble forming an perceived thought in his own head, and wondered with mild bewilderment how he could possibly even say it aloud.
To consummate, Katara! Suki thought we'd want to have some time alone at night to have sex! That was the answer.
Zuko groaned lightly and leaned forward on the floor to press his face against his palms.
The Duke, had stuck him here because he thought he'd like to have sex with Katara!
Of course, The Duke was only six. So whomever else was involved in this scheme—a scheme, presumably to keep this information out of Sokka's overprotective eyes and ears—had thought he and Katara would like to have sex!
Sex, because thats what Suki and Sokka did every night and they were a couple.
It was probably Suki. Zuko discombobulated his thoughts grimly.
His face was red comparable to his clothes at this point. He was indescribably embarrassed, mostly because he and Katara were not in that type of relationship yet. And Suki thought he was.
This! This was just ridiculous!
He was expected to sleep with her? He had only confessed to her two days ago!
With a slight groan, which he had unknowingly let out of his lips, Zuko realized that Suki probably believed that they already had sex. Or whatever.
And the worst part of all of this? Katara didn't even seem to realize why they were even put together in this room!
At that thought, Zuko's face retracted from the critical pondering that had distracted him from his utter mortification, and returned to it's brightened red status quo.
"I... I... Um."
What was he gonna say to her?
They expect me to have sex with you because we're a couple, Katara. You know, end-of-the-world, impending-fear-of-dying-a-virgin-type-of-sex?
Nevermind the fact that I'm too afraid to even touch you.
Afraid. There was that word again.
Scared, wary, afraid? Zuko didn't like to call himself afraid.
But the truth was, he was. He was very wary.
After consuming hours and days watching Katara feed their rag-tag group of war-torn child soldiers and teen warriors. Somewhere... in the midst of it all, he had realized he was attracted to her.
He remembered the exact moment. When she was spooning out a ladle of soup to Toph and had seen the motherly, maternal, kind look on her face and realized that that was who she was—not a facade, but a sincerely kind person. She gave him food even as much as she claimed to hate him.
He always watched her carefully, half to protect himself due to her respected and dangerous abilities as a warrior, and half simply because she was... entrancing to him. She was something foreign—emotionally. She was something he could never be, never attain.
He was constantly mesmerized by realizations of how much she cared about mundane everyday things. Much like he did. Not in passionate ways in which his father and sister desired to take over the world. Not in ways in which Sokka liked to always keep his stomach full or how Aang refused to eat meat.
Her's was an intrinsically different, he thought, akin to his own notions of honor maintained in his small vassal for three years at sea. It wasn't superficial. It wasn't self-absorbed.
She was war-torn. And so was he. But she had changed into something different—whereas, he had somehow changed for the worse. She was something he could never be, so he admired her. Mesmerized by her attitude, fearful of her wrath. She was like a storm. It frightened him, but mesmerized him all the same.
All those observations had come together and converged that night she'd fought to avenge her mother. She was a person, all the same. Although she had seemed like such an attainable, ungraspable enigma, she was still human. And her passion, her drive, her gratuity—they were all sincere.
That realization had made all the difference. And with the difference came a flood of a whole new set of tumultuous inner-conflictions: somewhere along the way, he realized he had fallen for her.
Once the realization struck him, he thought back on all the previous inklings of discomfort she'd inspired within him before and exactly why. Why had he been sullen about the fact that she hadn't seemed so impressed by his firebending after he'd visited the dragons? Why it ached in more places he didn't know existed, when she ignored him at dinner time or coldly refused his tea?
Why had he wanted to get to know her more—get closer to her? Strive for her acceptance.
He realized he had been striving for her all this time. The realization had just come too late.
He despaired over it for a while, and then began to lament it.
How could a beautiful water-bender like her, one who intrinsically embodied honesty and grace, return his convoluted affections?
He didn't even deserve to have them. He was the definition, until he'd finally convinced her that he was not the absolute embodiment of evil, of everything she had loathed.
But his feeling were overwhelming him and he couldn't even concentrate on his training.
And as the days wore on, he started to regret the decision to hold it in. It was getting harder and harder to idly watch her walk past him.
As calm as he was, he still had tendencies of her father and sister within him. And those tendencies controlled his impulses to own, to have, to express.
So he told her in the early morning light, before anyone else was up, on the morning prior to the heated discussion they'd had about over glue-bending and the homicide of his father.
He made his speech with great trepidation, emphasizing that she in no way had any obligations him as a result of his confession. Because he just had to let her know.
That, before they die in battle, that he had loved her, once.
That later on, in the future, this love would surely fade away. Or perhaps that this was just merely an intense, intense like, simply amplified by the trials and stress of war.
He lied to her and said that his feelings were very trivial and would pass, but in his mind he suspected that it was something that he would never quite forget.
Nevertheless, he had been quite vehement and insistent upon the idea that she need not feel uncomfortable or obligated to him. That this was merely one-sided and he thought she should know before they find themselves fighting for their lives in a ground of blood and death.
He told her that it was something to be replaced, but that she deserved to know. He had always had trouble lying, anyway. By nature—perhaps because he had grown up beside Azula—he was an honest person, he explained to her.
He had embellished the notion of his feelings passing and fading away very soon once the war was over and they were busy with their own, separate lives. His heart had ached to say the words in the still of the morning light, when the air was still chilly and the sky was clear white.
(He did not mention to her that the only reason he was telling her was because there was a chance that they might instead be gone after the war. Instead he suggested that he would probably forget about her when their group broke off into their separate ways to help reconstruct after it).
He had made sure to tell her that there were no pressures.
It was really just a confession, in the whole and true sense of the word.
What he hadn't suspected was for her eyes to tear up. What he hadn't suspected was for her to suddenly hug him. Amidst the crocodile tears, she told him that she was vehemently sorry about the way she'd treated him at first.
That she had tried to deny it after first, but had too begun to develop feelings that were on a different level from those in the group. It was an enigmatic attraction that she had been utterly bewildered by.
His eyes had widened and his mouth had opened as Katara still hugged him around his neck and sobbed.
What was she sobbing for?
Oh, he realized. Guilt. She was feeling guilty for the way she had treated him.
Slowly, slowly, he lowered his head and kissed her. The two had shared several small kisses following that one, during random sporadic moments that they would find themselves finally free. Each and every one making his heart pound hard in his chest. He couldn't bear the thought of losing her.
Yeah, sure, he liked Katara.
But that didn't mean he was ready to have sex with her yet! He was still to afraid to touch her face!
But, course Zuko, former Crown Prince of the oh-so revered Fire Nation, instigator of the 100-years-war, did not get scared.
No, he was also not simply scared to touch her.
Weary, he decided in his mind. He might be weary of touching her. Not scared.
Not scared, not hesitant, not afraid that she would shun him, and not curious about how the brown skin under her loins would feel like under his skin.
He was not scared.
He was a seventeen-year-old guy. Sex was what he thought about every other second.
Zuko sat on the floor, rubbing the back of his neck wearily, his face flush red.
He stood up suddenly, feeling like he needed to be animate for this and looked back down to the floor, blushing and rubbing his neck before finally speaking.
"They, um... They thought we'd want to..."
He waved his hands in the space between the two in front of him and trailed off, unable to find the courage to say the exact words.
It was silent for a moment longer and then Katara spoke—
The moonlight drifted in and framed Katara's back agains the window, placing her figure in an ethereal light. The hut didn't have any actual lights—the sconces in the hallways were meant for firebenders to light, and the rooms lacked any for the inhabitants of this tourists' house were expected to simply return to it as a reprieve for a sleep.
"That was nice of her, I guess" Katara finished after a long moment.
Zuko felt like, with Katara's statement, the awkwardness in the room had multiplied exponentially. However, Katara seemed to be unphased.
"Here—you can share the bed with me. I don't mind," Katara started as she scooted over to give him space.
Feeling the words he had spend a good 10 minutes trying to muster up suddenly exit his throat, Zuko gulped, his face turning even more red as his gaze moved towards the linens. Was she serious?
Everything looked dark blue in that room, shadowed by the ivory-yellow light of the wide, crescent moon, which fell over them with light. Katara's blue eyes had been brightly staring out at them like in an ephemeral dream, when he had first walked in here.
He gulped, conflictedly considering his option for a moment, before walking over to the bed.
Zuko willed his embarrassment to fade away and hoped that by extension, the blush would as well. He was sure she had no intentions to actually do what Suki had intended for them to do here... considering her carefree attitude to this predicament.
She actually seemed.. thankful?
In his high yearnings, he also hoped that perhaps that his blush would not be visible in the light shade of the moon and the dark blue visage of the whole entire room. The window was wide and the whole room was alighted in the moon's glow, but everything remained a dark hue of blue, a luminescent reminder of the steady and murky, impelling sky above them.
With practiced calm, Zuko walked over to the bed, where Katara had pushed herself closer to the windowsill to give him a copious amount of space on the other side of the bed.
There was a comfortable amount of room for both of them.
His embarrassment had faded and he decided that very well—although they had been put into this room for other reasons, he could effectively ignore it. Afterall, Katara seemed unaffected. So why was he so embarrassed?
He lay down on the bed with tried regality that befitted a king. The non-challance that came with a good 10 minutes of self-assuring decency and a conviction, however contrived it might be.
He took a large, calming, relaxing breath and closed his eyes, before finally turning over to the side to where Katara was.
He opened his eyes gently, feeling a lot more calm, and saw Katara staring back at him in his line of vision.
She smiled at him and then leaned forward to press another chaste kiss against his lips.
He closed his eyes and pressed back, instinctively bringing his hand over to her waist and pull himself closer to her.
Letting go for a breath, he turned and assessed her face.
His eyes followed through the gentle slope of her forehead, down the high cheekbones to the light freckles right below them. The cerulean orbs captured her face. Bright, sparkling, blue eyes stared back and the freshness of her breath wafted across his face.
She offered him a gentle smile when he opened his eyes again, her lips quirking up quietly, and it nearly made his heart stutter in consecutive motion.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he closed his eyes and moved his head forward.
Catching wind of the hint—they had shared three kisses before—Katara, too, closed her eyes and brought her head a few millimeters closer to him.
He quietly placed a soft, chaste kiss on her lips. Pulling back, he offered her a goofy little half-smile, which resembled a grimace so well that Katara had to restrain her giggles.
It was a gentle sort of happiness they shared. The quiet knowledge of knowing that they had someone special. That was the basis of their relationship, as far as it had gone so far.
And so, during the next kiss he initiated, in the back of his mind, Zuko discreetly took back the quiet 10 minutes of cursing he had aimed at Suki's nonpresent figure in his head when he had been back on the floor. Because, after all, it was pretty nice to have Katara's company without any worry of interruptions or Sokka.
Katara opened her mouth wider to capture some air through an opening above her parted lips, before returning her lips to his mouth. She leaned in more deeply upon her return and pushed up closer to him, struggling against his weight.
Zuko felt her wriggling in his arms, and then shifted to lie on his back, capturing her hips to bring hers over him.
With Katara now lying on top of him, they resumed their chaste kisses, reveling in this moment of time that they had never had to themselves before.
His hands found themselves in the dark mane of her hair and he ran his fingers through the strands softly as they kissed, beholden with the affection of a father and the reverence of a teenager.
Katara's slow, sweet, and careful affections slowly dripped away like sliding sandpaper as her kisses began to grow sloppily.
Quietly reveling in the softness of the lavish mattress beneath his back and eyes closed, Zuko tilted his jaw up and Katara's kiss suddenly fell unto his neck instead. Her hand found itself pressing down on his abdomen to support herself.
Oh. That felt good. And scary.
Good, but scary.
He groaned deeply in the back of his throat at the noise before finally lifting his head back up.
And then, suddenly, he realized that Katara didn't know why they were put here together in this room. He had been fooled for a moment... but she had simply thought Suki was giving them some privacy.
The thought suddenly struck him. But he needed to make sure.
He had been pretty sure that they had unanimously decided that they were not going to fulfill Suki's deranged desires. But suddenly, Zuko thought that maybe Katara didn't realize what Suki's deranged desires truly were!
Her hand, unassumingly, kept pressing against his abdominal muscles, with no clue of what it how her actions were making him feel like right now.
His breathing laborious, he stared at her for a moment more; her eyes were closed.
Awareness swept through him.
He took a deep breath. Once she opened her eyes, he searched them thoroughly. He felt his pants straining against him, and then spoke after a silent moment.
"You're younger than me, aren't you?" he asked. "A lot younger."
The realization struck him.
Katara hazily looked up to his half-covered eyes that suddenly seemed to have been replaced with seriousness.
"I'm... um fourteen. Why?"
Zuko blinked in surprise, his bangs falling over his face as he stared at her. Processing this.
She was almost fourteen. The girl he liked—had fallen in love with—was—Fourteen.
Fourteen? He was seventeen.
He immediately got himself up off the bed and sat up, pushing his legs over the edge and sitting up. What was he doing here with her?
"Zuko?" a concerned voice came from behind him, "What's the problem?"
"Katara... you know, I—I. I didn't really know that you were only fourteen," he finally whispered out. He didn't want to admit what he knew he was going to have to. Katara simply frowned even further.
"What's the big deal? Zuko?"
Zuko took a deep breath. He had fantasized about her. Not only recently, but throughout his entire time on that godforsaken ship chasing after the Avatar, when she was 13 and he was 16?
Fantasized... in some serious ways. As any sixteen-year-old would fantasize about their crush. Zuko gulped, looking away from her, before speaking.
"Katara, there are big differences between fourteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds."
She frowned, hesitating. "Differences?"
It would be different if Aang were in this situation.
"Katara... Seventeen-year-old guys.. Have—have certain—urges,"Zuko choked. "That thirteen-year-old boys... don't, really, have."
He really needed to get off the bed because a fourteen-year-old girl had just unassumingly inspired one of those urges. Because he had briefly considered kissing her in all the wrong places and touching her elsewhere.
Caught in the haze of pleasure inspired by her hands on his abdomin, just a few moments ago, he had felt like having sex with her, along in this room with the intention given by Suki.
But he didn't know that she was just fourteen! And he had just been considering have sex with her!
For a second—just for a second—he was freaking out.
Suki had put him into a room to have sex with a fourteen year old girl! He was seventeen! OF COURSE he would want to have sex with her! What the hell was she thinking?
Did she not realize how much younger Katara was?
No, Zuko realized. She probably hadn't. Afterall, he didn't either, until just five minutes ago.
If Sokka had found out, he'd fucking castrate him.
Zuko took a deep, shuddering breath, sitting on the edge of the bed and resting his elbows on his knees, willing himself to calm down.
"But Zuko, you..." a shy voice sounded out from behind him. "You can teach me about those differences."
For a moment, Zuko just sputtered incomprehensibly, and then he found his state of mind:
"NO!" he exclaimed vehemently, his face turning red.
He was not about to teach Katara anything about anything!
"Zuko," Katara's voice came out from behind him seriously. "I want you to teach me."
Undoubtedly, she had put two and two together and realized why Zuko had removed himself from her on the bed: Seventeen year old guys had urges. And they had to do with sex. He thought she was too young for a relationship with him.
With a deep huff and eyebrows furrowed, Zuko lifted his arms up from his knees and turned his head back around, holding every intention to look Katara in the eye and tell her NO—he was not willing to do anything at all with her until he deemed that she, herself, was ready. Never-mind if he was older.
What he saw when he turned his head though, immediately made all the thoughts drop from his head and his mouth jump up and down in his speechlessness.
Katara had just parted the front of her robes and was leaning forward towards him on the bed.
"Show me Zuko."