Desire and Destruction
Summary: Following the events of the series finale, an inebriated Katara and Zuko spar with explosive results. Shameless PWP with Zutara bonding and banter. One-shot.
It is with our passions as it is with fire and water; they are good servants, but bad masters.
Creams and coral pinks stained the darkening sky as the sun drifted toward the horizon, casting shadows over the soft greens of Ba Sing Se. Katara was only dimly aware of the glowing sunset, her attention focused completely on this moment with Aang. The world could've broken apart, and she didn't think she'd even—
Sokka's unmistakable cry sliced through the tranquility of their kiss. Katara and Aang broke apart, sharing a look that was equal parts happiness and exasperation.
A flustered-looking Zuko appeared in the balcony doorway of the Jasmine Dragon, his gaze still fixed on something occurring inside the room. "Hey, Aang, is it okay for Momo to eat parchment?"
Aang grinned in a way that reminded Katara of the child he'd been little more than a year ago. "Duty calls," he said, turning to face Zuko. "What happened?"
The newly-crowned Fire Lord pinched the bridge of his nose as if disbelieving of the situation. "Um. Momo decided it was a good idea to eat Sokka's painting. Sokka disagrees."
"I see," Aang said sagely, nodding and pressing his palms together as if contemplating the gravity of the situation. The effect of his seeming seriousness was mitigated by his smile and the playful puff of airbending that propelled him past Zuko, into the main room.
"Poor Momo," Katara said. "He was probably sad that Sokka drew him as a strange hippo-human thing."
One corner of Zuko's mouth quirked as he joined her on the balcony. "Or he was just hungry."
"Also possible," Katara agreed. "In any case, Momo's appetite is doing the artistic world a favour."
There was a short, companionable silence. The close-by shouts of their friends – Sokka's exaggerated outrage, Aang's pacifications, Iroh's ill-timed and metaphorically strange advice, and Toph's snorts of laughter – leant a sense of familiarity to the moment.
"You and Aang seem happy," Zuko said finally.
Katara started. Her fingers inched toward her lips, as if to touch the imprint of Aang's kiss, but she lowered them with a soft smile. "We are."
Katara twisted so that her back was pressed against the railing, gaze focused on Zuko's inscrutable profile rather than the sliver of rising moon. "Are you?"
Surprise and the faintest trace of a wince hunched Zuko's shoulders. "Of course I'm glad for you," he said haltingly. "You still don't trust me?"
Colour tinted Katara's cheeks as she realized how her question had sounded. "No, no. I mean, yes, of course I do. I meant, are you glad? Happy. Yourself."
"I know. I was kidding." Zuko offered her a lopsided smile before turning his attention back to the stretch of houses extending over a land that wasn't so different from the one he now officially ruled. A lot of responsibility, Katara thought, sympathetic but also slightly wistful; what would she do now that saving the world wasn't Priority Number One?
Zuko crossed his arms over the railing, expression thoughtful. "I want to be happy." A sardonic smile, more reminiscent of the enemy he'd been than the friend-ally-Zuko she'd come to know, curled his mouth. "It's just that it's been a while. I'm not sure I remember how to just...be. In a happy way."
He glanced at her, then away, and sighed out a breath of steam. "That sounds lame."
"It doesn't," Katara said, patting his shoulder. She marvelled at how her perception of Zuko had changed since those early days, when he'd been the embodiment of everything she'd despised: ruthlessness, cruelty, Fire Nation. She supposed that his all-consuming desire to regain his honour following his banishment hadn't left a lot of time for relaxing and establishing a sense of inner peace. And Katara could only imagine how it must feel to imprison one's own family. "You'll figure it out. You've got Mai and your uncle and Aang by your side."
Zuko raised an eyebrow at her, and Katara added, "And me and Toph and Sokka, of course." She leaned in a bit closer, shoulders just brushing Zuko's, as if sharing a secret. "Don't tell him I told you this, but Sokka is almost as good at cheering people up as he is at annoying them in the first place."
"Yeah." Zuko's shoulders eased up from their hunch, but Katara noticed that his expression remained troubled and distracted-seeming.
"Is anything else bothering you?" she asked, curious but not wanting to pry.
Zuko made an inarticulate noise of frustration. "I know the war is over. It's done. Ozai's lost his bending, and he and Azula are imprisoned. But I can't help feeling like things don't really seem finished, you know?"
"Mm." Katara blinked. "Wait. What kinds of things, exactly?"
Putting her compunctions aside, Katara decided it was a friend's job to pry. "It might help to talk about it..."
"You know," Zuko said, eyeing her sidelong, "before joining the Avatar, I never had to talk about my feelings or have heart-to-hearts with former enemies. I just bottled all my anger up inside."
"And how'd that work out for you?"
"Not so well," Zuko admitted, his grin rueful. "I burned things a lot. Lost my temper...once or twice."
"Temper? You?" Katara said with feigned incredulousness. Her tone softened as she said, "And the talking thing? It's called having friends, Zuko."
"I know that now." Relenting, Zuko squared his shoulders and spoke in a voice so low and gritty that each word seemed to physically pain him. "I visited Ozai after the coronation. He confirmed that my mother's still alive."
"Oh, wow, Zuko, that's—" wonderful, amazing, miraculous – "Wait. That is a good thing, right?"
"Of course," Zuko said forcefully. "She's my mother. And she's alive. I want to do everything I can to find her immediately, but..."
"But," Katara prompted. She could see the conflict of his emotions in his clenched jaw, tense stance, and the narrowing of his unscarred eye.
"I have an obligation to the Fire Nation; they need a steady leader, now more than ever. I can't just abandon my people for my own selfish reasons." The new Fire Lord stood straighter, as if to better balance the weight of his responsibilities. "And it's more than just political responsibilities. There are economic factors to think about, too – did you know that every imported grain of rice has to be taxed and approved. Individually?"
"No, I didn't," Katara said, slightly bewildered by this random shift in topics. The South Pole's method of food-gathering had been much more simplistic: hunt seal; throw spear; cook and eat. Despite the feast they'd recently had for dinner – flaky pau buns, deep-friend pickled radishes, and stir-fried cabbage and roast turkey duck, all drenched in a salty-tangy sauce and nestled in bowls of rice – the thought of Water Tribe food made Katara's belly rumble for some sea prune stew. She cleared her throat, refocusing on more important matters. "What about your uncle? Couldn't he cover for you or something, just until you can find your mother?"
"Being Fire Lord doesn't really work like that." Zuko cast his eyes downward. "Besides, I couldn't ask him to do that. He's already done so much."
Katara laid a hand on his shoulder in mute sympathy, just as she had while they watched Azula strain against her bonds, insanity palpable in her keening sobs.
"I was thinking..." Katara began with forced lightness, wanting to lessen the suddenly gloomy atmosphere. This was supposed to be a celebration, after all.
Katara's eyebrow twitched. She considered splashing him with a bit of water, but it seemed improper now that he was the ruler of an entire nation. Then again, that had never deterred her when he was a prince, and therefore the potential future Fire Lord. Compromising, she bended a few drops of tepid tea from the cup he'd set aside on the railing and splashed them over his nose.
"Not half as dangerous as a Fire Lord with a sense of humour," she said for good measure.
Zuko snorted, swiping his overlong sleeve over his face.
Katara cleared her throat and crossed her arms with delicate primness. "Anyway. I was thinking that you should definitely put Sokka's painting up in the Fire Nation throne room. If it survives Momo's stomach, that is."
A half-sickened look passed over Zuko's features. He let out a low groan and then a laugh. "Just what I want foreign delegations seeing first when they come to meet with the young and unproven Fire Lord."
"Exactly," Katara said, ignoring his sarcasm with a smile. "You could say it was a personal gift from the Avatar."
"With the added bonus of displaying my alliance with the fearsome and awe-inspiring Firebender Suki," Zuko added dryly.
"Of course," Katara agreed. "And the giant-eared creature in the back looks like a pretty powerful ally."
Katara covered her genuine appreciation for the semi-compliment with a smirk. "I am pretty awesome."
"Wanna prove it?"
To Katara's amusement, Zuko seemed almost embarrassed: he twiddled his fingers and the faintest trace of colour touched his cheeks. "I didn't mean for that to sound like a challenge. Old habits, you know?"
Katara snorted. "Right." She gestured to herself with an exaggerated sweep of her delicately-clothed arm. "I'm not exactly dressed for bending practise, either."
"True." Zuko glanced at her, and then quickly away. "You look really...green."
"Wow, thanks," Katara said. What a flatterer. But this was Zuko, so she didn't expect the effusive or well-worded compliments that his uncle would've recited. She giggled. "You sound like Sokka."
Zuko groaned. "Please, no."
As if alert to the sound of his name, Sokka leaned out of the balcony doorway, his expression stormy. "Did Momo fly out here? Possibly with an incriminating piece of parchment sticking out of his mouth."
"Nope," Katara and Zuko said in unison.
Sokka visibly deflated. "The little sneak escaped." He pointed at Katara. "Quick. Distract me from my misery."
"Zuko was just challenging me to a duel," she said with a grin.
Sokka frowned. "Is General Iroh's Tsungi Horn-playing messing with your brains? Because the whole point of peace is, you know, peace and stuff."
"Gee, Sokka, thanks for clearing that up." Katara grin widened as she bended a loose oval of water between her palms. "Peace doesn't mean that I can let my Waterbending get sloppy. What would Master Pakku say if I got lazy and forgot how to make a water whip?"
"Benders," Sokka lamented with a shake of his head.
Mai appeared beside Sokka, her eyes as sharp as one of her throwing knives. Alighting on Zuko, her gaze seemed to soften fractionally. "The Avatar's lemur threw up on the Earthbender," she said tonelessly.
"Toph," Katara corrected automatically, inwardly chiding herself even as she said it. She knew it was wrong to resent Mai and Ty Lee after they'd cut ties with Azula, but she couldn't quite help the bitter feeling that entered her stomach when she focused on them. Something in her mind still whispered enemy and Azula, despite her best efforts to appear friendly. She silently resolved to try even harder.
Maternal Katara took over as she said, "I'd better help her clean up."
"Clean it up?" Sokka said incredulously. "There are probably pieces of a priceless, one-of-a-kind painting in there somewhere."
Katara glanced at Zuko, hoping to share a commiserative eye roll, but the Fire Lord was staring at her intently, a pensive look in his eyes. At her scrutiny, Zuko's expression neutralized, his shoulders rising in a shrug.
Oddly shaken, Katara grabbed her brother by the arm, dragging him with her into the main room. "C'mon, Master Sokka of the Vomit Scrolls. You can help me."
The unofficial party carried on long after the sun had ceded its place in the sky to the soft glow of a crescent moon. Katara had the vague sense that trouble was imminent when Iroh implored Zuko to brew their next batch of tea, and she said as much, her tone joking.
"I heard that my nephew practised his tea-serving skills when he joined your group," Iroh said, settling down beside her with a contented sigh.
"He did." Katara felt the slightest bit bashful, remembering her early hostility. Those days spent in the Western Air Temple seemed to have occurred a lifetime ago. But she'd never forget the tea, or the first time she witnessed Zuko – attempt – to crack a joke. Both overtures of friendship had failed rather epically. She wrinkled her nose at the memory. "It was very...strong. Kind of bitter."
Iroh nodded as if this was to be expected. "Tea is a wonderful drink. Besides its delicious flavour, it has the ability to reflect the personality of the one who makes it." He paused reflectively. "My nephew has a habit of letting things brew too long, but perhaps the tea will be sweeter now, hm?"
"Maybe." Although she appreciated the wisdom of the old man's words, Katara secretly suspected that no amount of personal growth would keep Zuko's tea from tasting like buffalo yak urine.
She was right. Zuko's attempt at jasmine tea was met with grimaces and quick gulps, even by Iroh, who nonetheless winked at Katara as she carefully laid aside her still-full cup. She watched with mild curiosity as Iroh gestured to Zuko, drawing the Fire Lord's attention. Zuko scoffed at whatever his uncle said, but he wore a rueful smile as he disappeared into the back room. He emerged with two tiny clay cups and two bottles that Katara presumed contained some sort of spirits, judging from the label. There was a sense of ceremony to the way Zuko uncapped one of the bottles and poured out measured amounts of clear liquid. Uncle and nephew bowed to each other in the Fire Nation fashion, after which both downed their drinks in unison.
"And now," Iroh said more audibly, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "I think it is time for more music."
While Iroh broke into another rendition of "Four Seasons," Zuko began collecting empty teacups. When he bent to retrieve a cup by her elbow, Katara pointed to the bottle he'd balanced between his elbow and chest.
"What is that?" she asked, regarding the beverage with a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
"Soju," Zuko said. "Distilled liquor made from rice. You wouldn't like it."
Well, aren't you a big girl now?
She knew he didn't mean it to sound patronizing, as he had his taunts at the North Pole, but she felt her lower lip jut out in an instinctual display of stubbornness. Ever since encountering Master Pakku's prejudice against female Waterbenders, it had become almost automatic to challenge people's assumptions of what she could and couldn't do.
"I'll try some," she said, almost haughtily.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Katara gave him a scathing look that prompted Zuko to half-grin as he sat beside her. "It's tradition in the Fire Nation to toast to a new Fire Lord's ascension," he explained, filling two empty teacups with soju.
"Oh. So that's what you and your uncle were doing? With the bowing and stuff."
"Yes." Zuko cast her a wry glance. "Not that Uncle Iroh needs an excuse to drink."
Katara picked up her cup, hesitating before bringing it to her lips. She had left the home of her childhood to travel the world, faced her mother's killer, and fought and triumphed over one of the most powerful and unstable Firebenders in Fire Nation history; after all that, surely one insignificant little drink wouldn't bother her. Confident, she swallowed half her portion in one gulp. Her eyes immediately narrowed as she fought the urge to spit or grimace at the bitterness stinging her throat.
"Gah," she croaked. "That burns. How do you drink it with a straight face?"
Zuko smirked. "Firebender here. I'm used to things that burn."
Katara giggled, mostly because it was cheesy and not actually very funny. Tentatively, she imbibed another sip of soju, allowing the taste to sizzle on her tongue before slipping down her throat. By the time she asked Zuko to refill their cups, the drink had almost become palatable. A few more drinks later, she was feeling lightheaded and pleasantly muddled.
"Zuko," Sokka said, wondering over at the sound of his sister's over-loud laughter. "Please tell me you're not getting my little sister drunk."
"He's not getting me drunk," Katara said before Zuko had a chance to speak. I'm getting myself drunk, she thought giddily.
Sokka propped his hands on his hips, assuming what Katara recognized as his I'm The Older Brother so You Have to Listen to Me pose. "Very convincing. Now say that without slurring your words."
"Don't be a spoil Sokka."
"You mean spoil sport?" Zuko corrected, putting his cup down with a vaguely chastised expression.
"Right. That. You should try this, Sokka," Katara said, so loudly that Zuko snorted. "It's actually really good."
"Riiight." Sokka snatched the bottle of soju from the table. "I'd better confiscate this before Katara starts doing her polar bear dog impersonations."
"That was once! I was eight!"
"It was very memorable," Sokka continued, speaking to Zuko as if Katara were invisible. "She covered herself in snow and ran around naked until Gran-Gran convinced her that little polar bear puppies have to wear clothes to keep warm."
"Hm," Zuko said, and Katara hoped he wasn't imagining the scene Sokka had so vividly described.
Katara spied Sokka sneaking a drink from the bottle of soju as he returned to Suki's side. It wasn't long before he was as wobbly as his sister. Appearing to have fully recovered from the tragedy of his ruined masterpiece, Sokka insisted that Suki dance with him, which she acquiesced to with laughing reluctance.
"Dance with me?"
Katara looked up into Aang's cheerful grey eyes. She accepted his outstretched hand, laughing as he pulled her up off her seat. He swept out his hands in a formal bow. Katara curtsied primly, if clumsily, laying her hand delicately in his.
Their feigned formality dissolved as they began to dance. Their movements were not nearly as graceful or acrobatic as their first performance at the Fire Nation party, but they made up for their lack of elegance with sheer exuberance. Though Aang hadn't had anything to drink, as per Air Nomad custom, it seemed to Katara that his joy was itself a type of intoxication. Only when beads of sweat warmed her forehead did she excuse herself, grinning as Aang sprang up on a ball of air.
A little wobbly, she teetered over to the others. Mai appeared to be teaching Toph how to play Pai Sho, though Katara suspected the finer points of the game were lost on the blind girl. Katara plopped down next to Zuko, who was watching the game with a faintly bored expression.
"Hi. You. How about that duel?" Katara asked, saying the first thing that popped into her brain.
"Right now?" Zuko said, surprise and a bit of a slur in his voice.
"Yup. Unless you're – hic – scared?" Katara propped her hands on her hips in what was meant to be an intimidating pose, the effect of which was slightly lessened by her wavering balance.
"Of a Waterbender? Never."
"Brave words coming from a guy in a dress."
Zuko opened his mouth, a hot retort on his tongue, before glancing down at his attire. "I am not! These are ceremonial robes meant for recreational activities."
"I like them," Mai interjected, her inflectionless voice belying the sentiment of her words.
Toph snorted loudly enough to draw the squabbling twosome's attention. "Sorry, Sparky, but that is definitely a dress. Even I can see that."
"See?" Katara said smugly, poking Zuko twice in the chest with her index finger. "Toph agrees with – hey! Not funny, Toph."
Zuko laughed, inciting Katara to bend a clumsy water whip from the pot of tea near his elbow. At the behest of her weaving arms, the thin length of brownish water slapped Zuko's forehead, soaking his hair and the shoulders of his robe.
"You did not just do that."
"I think I did." Katara backed up, moving closer to the balcony with each step. She waved her arms in wide arcs, bending water into a sphere between her palms. She was the slightest bit dizzy, and more giddy and smug than anything else.
Zuko followed her movements with his eyes before his feet followed. The racket of Iroh's playing and Sokka's stamping feet ensured that their departure went largely unnoticed. Mai and Toph had returned their attention to the Pai Sho board, while Aang and Momo danced through the air.
A fireball sparked into existence over Zuko's right palm. He hefted it, as if testing the fire's weight, before sending it arcing toward Katara. It was a lazy lob, lacking the usual grace of his Firebending form; Katara couldn't tell if the soju was affecting him as much as it was her, or if he simply wasn't trying.
"Hah!" She batted the fireball away with a casual bending gesture, as if shooing away a firefly. She almost tripped on her unsteady footing as she stumbled onto the balcony, but managed to keep herself upright. A silly grin tinged with challenge turned up the edges of her mouth. "Is that all you've got, Fire Lord?"
Zuko smirked. "You asked for it, little girl."
Their pseudo-battle began in earnest. Zuko punched forward, sending a stream of fire jetting in her direction. Steam billowed around the area as Katara called up a water shield. She felt a momentary pang of regret as she doused an errant spark that had singed the edge of her sleeve – the dress was such a pretty, feminine pale green and so beautiful, it was a shame to damage it – but her attention quickly refocused on the Firebender charging toward her with flames roaring up from both palms.
A jutting slab of stone erupted from the floor between them. Zuko skidded to a halt just short of the boulder, his blazing hands pressed against its surface. Toph's raised voice floated over. "Gramps says no bending in the tea shop."
"Technically," Zuko said, panting slightly, "The balcony is outside."
In answer, slivers of stone grew to encase Zuko's arms, trapping him. He wriggled his arms ineffectually. Katara suspected it would be easy enough for him to escape the stones' hold with his Firebending, but the alcohol seemed to have addled his brain enough that he didn't think to try.
"No bending in the tea shop," Zuko said, somewhat sheepishly. "Got it."
"Good Fire Lord," Toph called, releasing him.
Katara stamped her foot with childish indignation. "I was just about to win, too."
"In your dreams."
This set them off again. Katara had a water whip poised between her hands before she could think better of it, while Zuko's breath steamed the air. Their eyes met, and Zuko gestured passed the balcony railing. "Over there."
He jumped over the railing without even glancing at the ground below. Katara peered over the edge just in time to see his smooth landing.
"Jump," Zuko said.
"It's a pretty long drop," Katara hedged, clambering awkwardly over the railing so that her legs dangled precariously in midair. Her fancy slippers threatened to slide off her feet, and she quickly removed them, laying them on the balcony for safekeeping.
Zuko shuffled his feet impatiently. "I'll catch you."
Katara bit her lip, still uncertain. "Promise?"
She jumped. There was a brief sensation of weightlessness. Wind tore at her dress and hair, billowing both up around her face and stealing her breath. True to his word, Zuko caught her with a faint oomph. His arms were much less flat and sturdy than Appa's familiar saddle, but they steadied her gently before releasing her.
"Thanks," Katara said, startled by the realization that he smelled clean and sweet, like lychee tea. Steadying herself, she immediately took advantage of the wide fountain in the middle of the square outside the tea shop. A giant wave cascaded over her shoulders, soaking her opponent and freezing his lower body to the ground. Flames casting light over his features, Zuko raised his single eyebrow in a way that seemed to say, "Really? Not this old trick again."
The ice encasing his feet melted as Zuko lashed out with a series of fire-laced kicks. Katara flowed around each jet of fire, retaliating with a flurry of ice daggers. There was a sort of familiarity to their movements – they'd fought each other often enough when Zuko had been chasing Aang around the world – but Katara hadn't anticipated how fun it would be. Neither of them was at their best, but it felt good to stretch her bending muscles and spar without the fate of the world hinging on the fight's outcome.
Not long after, sweat clung to her skin, a result of the heat rather than any real exertion. The steam from their combined elements had condensed into a mist that dampened her dress, making it seem twice as heavy. Katara had the sudden urge to take it off, wanting to feel cool, moist air on her skin. The idea of her stripping down in the middle of the square was so ridiculous that she giggled – and kept giggling, even after she'd forgotten what was funny to begin with.
"Something funny?" Zuko asked, half-smiling at her slightly maniacal laughter. Wisps of fire coiled lazily around his body, indicating that their impromptu match wasn't quite finished.
"Wet. Naked," Katara gasped between breaths of laughter, as if this was the most hilarious thing she'd ever thought of.
"Because that makes total sense," Zuko scoffed, eyeing her warily. Twisting his body, he flung up his leg in a kick so that the fire circling him skittered in Katara's direction.
"Hey!" Katara said, blinking away the laughter-tears that had gathered in the corners of her eyes. Acting automatically, she bent a wave in front of her, freezing it into a solid shield that refracted Zuko's fire into chaotic prisms of red and orange. She pressed her palms downward almost immediately, letting the unfrozen water splash at her feet. "That's cheating."
Zuko held out his hands, as if to keep her at bay. "You weren't making any sense," he said defensively, still looking amused.
"I'll show you sense." Katara was not so drunk that she didn't realize this was the Lamest Comeback Ever. Fighting the urge to make her palm meet her forehead, she lashed out with a tight chord of condensed water. It hit Zuko's chest with a hard thwap, sending him flying backward into the fountain's hard edge—
—And suddenly she was back in that moment, watching Zuko intercept the attack meant for her, crying out as he hit the ground and bright flashes of lightning obscured her vision.
"Zuko!" Katara rushed to his side, bleary with concern, her hand already gloved in glowing water in preparation for healing.
She knew she was in trouble when she saw the glint in his narrowed golden eyes. Their fights usually occurred with the combatants keeping their distance, each of them countering the other's long-range attacks. So Katara was surprised when Zuko performed an acrobatic twist on his back, scissoring his legs in a way that propelled him in her direction. She solidified the water under her feet into ice, meaning to slide away before he could reach her, but her timing was off. She skidded into Zuko, his feet clipping her stomach as they toppled in a tangle of limbs.
"Oops," Katara said, attempting to disentangle their legs without much success. She clutched her lower stomach, which ached from the force of Zuko's unintentional kick. "Ow."
"Did I hurt you?" Zuko asked, a note of alarm in his voice. He felt for her waist – or so Katara assumed – in the dark, his hands clumsy with inebriation. Katara felt his innate warmth, even through the fabric of her sodden dress, as his hand passed over her left shoulder, grazed her collarbone, and ever-so-lightly skimmed down her body until his fingers brushed her wrist.
Ordinarily, the resultant tingles that crept over her skin would have been cause for alarm, but now it seemed vaguely funny and only slightly awkward. Katara laughed it off.
"I'm fine," she assured him. Already, the dull ache in her stomach was fading, too faint even to need any water-enhanced healing. She pressed her palm against the back of Zuko's hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "I know you'd never hurt me," she said absently, not really aware of what she was saying.
"Thank you," Zuko said abruptly.
"You're welcome," Katara said, an automatic response. "Hold on. Why are you thanking me?"
Zuko paused, as if he wasn't so sure himself. "You were really brave," he explained. "When we fought my sister. And then you healed me, and I just wasn't sure if I'd thanked you properly."
"You did. But thanks. Again." In her mind, he was the one deserving of thanks – he'd thrown himself in front of a lightning bolt for her with no thought for his own safety – but she was reluctant to start another round of redundant gratitude-expressing.
"I'm glad we've become friends," Zuko said with odd formality.
"Friends," Katara agreed.
Their faces seemed to have drifted closer as they spoke – Katara could feel his breath on her nose and, faintly, her lips – and it occurred to her that the others might be wondering where they were. And then he was kissing her, almost by accident, and he was warm and she was cold and – oh. His hand was on her back, pressed firmly against her spine; she was clinging to him without realizing it. Her mind felt slow and hazy, but her body's movements were urgent. It seemed, at the moment, vitally important to feel the wet press of Zuko's tongue against hers, his calloused fingers on her skin.
The kiss ended as abruptly as it had begun. Katara drew back so quickly she nearly fell backward. She blinked a few times, reorienting herself and trying to ignore the way her heart was pounding.
"We should go inside," she said without preamble. Neither spoke as they hastily climbed to their feet. They slunk through the entranceway of the Jasmine Dragon, into the main serving area with its long, dragon-embellished mat and scattering of wooden tables. Unable to see properly in the dimness, Katara jostled her hip against the sharp edge of a chair. She gasped at the spike of sharp pain, drawing Zuko's concern. He turned, grasping her upper arm. A flame appeared in the palm of his other hand, illuminating their immediate surroundings.
"I'm fine. It just...surprised me." It seemed to take an extraordinary effort to speak. She whispered on instinct, her gaze snagging on Zuko's mouth. She swayed forward on the tips of her toes, letting their lips touch so lightly it was more like a mingling of breaths than a kiss. Zuko's grip tightened on her arm, drawing Katara in as inevitably as a ship propelled forward by a gust of wind. It was more aggressive and needy than gentle and persuasive, as Katara's past kissing experiences had been. The buzz that had enveloped her body prompted her to nip at Zuko's lips as he moved backwards without releasing her, deepening the kiss. Zuko pulled her closer, one hand roving over her back while the other tangled in her thick hair.
Somehow – Katara was a little blurry on the details, her attention consumed by a sense of rising warmth and desire – they ended up in an adjoining room, a parlour of sorts. There were few furnishings besides a low table – which Zuko nearly tripped over – and a pallet on the floor. Katara's back hit the wall, a small laugh escaping her as Zuko trapped her wrists with one hand, holding them captive between their bodies. The laughter died in her throat as their eyes met, his burning, hers coldly challenging.
There was more intent in their next kiss, as this was silently acknowledged as another kind of competition, one Katara would never have initiated under normal circumstances. Everything felt rushed and cathartic and wonderful, and she didn't even question it as her hands undid the sash of Zuko's robe, loosening the outer layer. Zuko parted from her briefly to let the fabric pool at his feet, before quickly divesting himself of the tunic he'd been wearing underneath. She'd known, in an abstract way, that he was muscular, but it was never anything she'd let her mind consciously linger on. Now, her fingers explored the contours of his pale skin as they would a Waterbending scroll, learning every scar and twitch of muscle.
"This is..." Katara started breathlessly. Wrong. Amazing. A mistake.
"Yeah," Zuko said, seeming to understand what she meant but couldn't put into words, his voice similarly husky from lack of breath. Katara's concerns barely penetrated the fogginess that had invaded her mind, sweeping away sense. Standing was proving to be too much of an effort, so she drew Zuko to kneel on the mat with her. Zuko uttered a strange noise when her fingers brushed against his ribs. After a brief moment, it occurred to Katara that the noise had been a laugh.
"You're ticklish?" she asked, disbelieving but very much hoping that the implacable Fire Lord could be rendered powerless with the same technique she had used to calm the babies she'd sometimes cared for in the South Pole.
"No," Zuko said, so vehemently that his denial was entirely unconvincing. "Definitely not."
At Zuko's sullen expression, Katara grinned, fluttering her hands over his abdomen in a tickling motion. Zuko appeared to choke with the effort of restraining laughter as she said, "I think it's cute."
"The Fire Lord is not cute." The way he said "cute" implied that it was the most heinous of insults.
"Not when he refers to himself in the third person, he's not," Katara said, trying not to be charmed by his sulking.
Zuko's good eye narrowed with determination. His hand on her shoulder overbalanced her, pushing her back against the mat. Katara felt a spark of anticipatory unease as his weight settled more firmly over her, a predatory gleam in his gold eyes. He kissed her in a way that made her mewl against his mouth, while the hand not supporting his weight stroked her waist. Shivers traced Katara's skin as his fingers slipped inside the opening of her dress, his skin hot against hers. The sarashi she wore as undergarments felt gossamer-thin as Zuko caressed her cloth-covered breasts.
The urge to be free of the heavy fabric of her dress was more insistent than ever, and Katara supported herself on her elbows as she attempted to shrug out of the long sleeves. Rather than helping her, Zuko touched his mouth lightly against her neck and collarbone. When he reached the barrier of the wrappings over her breasts, he regarded the fabric with some confusion.
"The knot is on the side," Katara said helpfully. The last word became a squeak as Zuko's deft fingers unwound the bandages. The urge to cover herself, present even in her state of intoxication, was abandoned as Zuko's hands and mouth continued their torturously slow perusal of her skin, eliciting sensations that made Katara sigh and squirm against the pallet.
"Still think I'm cute?" Zuko drawled, his tongue circling her nipple.
"Yes," Katara gasped, mostly because she didn't want him to stop.
He didn't. While his mouth traced over her breasts, his hands slid over her sides, leaving trails of heat wherever they touched. Katara felt herself dissolving into his touch, back arching in an implicit invitation. Zuko's fingers hesitated as they reached her navel.
"Please," Katara said, unable to express herself more coherently. Her entire body seemed to tighten as she felt the ghost of a caress over her bandage-covered inner thighs, Zuko's exploration of her body growing bolder. Feeling shaky and bashful despite the soju-enabled voice in her mind that repeated don't stop, don't stop over and over, Katara grasped Zuko's hair, pulling him up for a kiss. The chiselled press of his chest against her breasts elicited a feeling that was desperate and primal, and Katara felt her hips buck upwards, almost of their own accord.
Zuko's breath caught, his body grinding against hers until both of them were panting with need. Katara stroked her fingers over the indentations of Zuko's hipbones, feeling brazen as she brushed against the waistband of his pants. She tugged at them slightly, silently conveying her intentions. Seeming to share her wordless urgency, Zuko removed the remainder of his clothing. Katara touched him with renewed curiosity, the reality of a boy's body putting her occasional imaginings to shame. She liked his barely audible groans and nonsensical murmurs. At one point, she thought he might have muttered that she was beautiful, but she couldn't be sure.
When she felt as if she'd implode from waiting, Katara wiggled so that her dress fell further down her hips before sliding off her knees. She undid the complicated bandages that covered her lower body herself, letting out an impatient moan as Zuko tossed them carelessly to the side. She felt Zuko's hesitance as he settled over her, though his muscles and the press of his length against her belly were taut with eagerness.
"What is it?" she breathed, cupping his chin.
"I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't," Katara said with absolute certainty, and those two small, innocuous words seemed strangely huge and important. She experienced a single moment of clear-minded clarity as her fingers traced the length of his jaw before gently rising to press against the ruddy, rough skin of his scar. A pained expression crossed Zuko's face as his eyes closed, there and gone so quickly Katara might have imagined it. He bent to kiss her cheeks, her nose, her forehead, one hand buried in the curling mass of her hair. His hips thrust forward in the space between breaths.
Katara couldn't repress a gasp. It didn't hurt, exactly, but there was some definite stinging discomfort. Zuko held himself unnaturally still as she adjusted; she couldn't even hear him breathe.
"Are you okay?" Katara asked, voice breathy.
"Me?" Zuko's voice was as rigid and controlled as his body, but he made no effort to hide his incredulousness.
"Yes, you. You're not...moving."
Zuko made a noise that was halfway between choking and laughter. "I was trying to be considerate."
"Well, don't try so hard."
"I certainly don't think I could try any harder," Zuko muttered, almost to himself.
As a deep flush of understanding stained Katara's cheeks, Zuko began to move. The initial discomfort gradually lessened, the pressure of his body in and against hers becoming less strange and more promising.
It was a little like Waterbending, Katara decided blearily. The push and pull of their bodies, slickened by sweat and water from their earlier fight. There was awkwardness at first. She didn't know where to put her hands – his waist, his hair, his shoulders? – until a sudden spike of pleasure in her lower body made the question moot; she didn't care where her hands ended up (she was vaguely aware of clawing his back with stubbed nails), as long as that feeling continued to build.
Before long, she was on fire. It was hot. Too hot. Zuko's skin burned her wherever it touched – her hips, belly, breasts, even the heels of her feet, pressed against the hard muscles of his back.
"Too hot," she murmured breathlessly. She pushed lightly at his chest even as a moan fell from her lips, a foreign warmth curling deliciously in her lower belly.
Zuko's face was pressed between the hollow of her shoulder and neck; she could feel the scrape of his rough scar against her skin. His breath came in heavy pants, and his voice was muffled as he murmured, "Is this okay? Do you want me to – ah – stop?"
Did she? Katara tried to consider this question coherently, but then Zuko swivelled his hips – likely unintentionally – in a way that hit something deep and sensitive within her body. She arched her back, drawing an answering groan from Zuko.
"No," Katara gasped.
Zuko boosted up his upper body, muscles chording in his arms as they supported his weight. He appraised Katara with heavy-lidded eyes, their gold colour shining faintly in the darkness. "No, stop, or no—"
"—Keep going. Definitely keep going," Katara moaned as the pleasure centered between her legs heightened and intensified, almost overwhelming her with feeling.
"Good," Zuko sighed against her neck, and there was a world of relief in the word. She felt some tenseness relax from his body, as if he'd subconsciously been holding himself rigid in expectation of her stopping him. "That's really good."
Really good, Katara's mind echoed in agreement. Except that it was still sweltering. She half-feared she might pass out from over-heating and that just wouldn't do, not when her body was telling her she was so close.
"Flip over," she said insistently.
"What do you mean, 'no'? You were ready to stop a second ago."
Zuko's response to her ire was a smile that wasn't quite a smirk. "I'm still willing to stop, if you want me to."
As if to prove the credibility of his threat, the Fire Lord's movements slowed, almost stopping completely. Katara arched her lower back ineffectually, her frustration building at her inability to create friction between their bodies without a little help.
"Zuko!" she hiss-whispered, making no secret of her annoyance.
Zuko's gasps of breath against her ear assured her that he wasn't quite as unaffected and stoic as his control would lead her to believe, and even his soft laugh was almost a groan.
Their bodies were generating enough sweat that it was easy to bend the droplets of water into a cohesive whole. She slapped the length of acrid water against Zuko's chest, off-balancing him, before twisting their weights so that the Fire Lord ended up on his back – all without relinquishing the tight contact of their lower bodies. Zuko blinked up at her, momentarily befuddled, before his attention sharpened at the look of smugness on her face.
"Much better," Katara practically purred, relishing the sensation of cool air on her flushed skin.
"Who knew you were so bossy," Zuko hissed out from between clenched teeth.
"Sokka," Katara said automatically.
Zuko grimaced slightly. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that."
"Me too. Immediately"
Zuko's hands gripped her thighs, anchoring her to his body. His breath shuddered out of him, his whole body seeming to tremble as she slowly wriggled her hips, becoming accustomed to the deeper sensation of this new position. There was an indefinable feeling of power inherent in being atop him, a sense of control she'd never experienced. Katara flexed the muscles of her inner thighs, let her body rise and fall. Zuko's response was more than gratifying: his hands tightened their holds, a gasp was wrung from his throat, and his hips thrust automatically upward, setting off a chain reaction of wriggling and thrusting.
"Katara," Zuko groaned moments later, his eyes tightly closed.
Her name on his lips, spoken like that – as if she was water and he was drowning and thirsty at the same time – made everything real in a way it hadn't been, up until that point. She felt Zuko's stomach muscles contract, his eyes squeezed closed, and in a distracted way she felt disappointment and thought – oh, Gran-Gran said this might happen. But then his fingers were between her legs, stroking perilously close to the point where their bodies joined. It felt good. Better than good. Amazing. Like the euphoria of having mastered Waterbending and the keeling rush of her first breathless flight on Appa mixed into one indescribable sensation.
"How—?" Katara asked, too shy to finish her question and too preoccupied to even begin to think how to phrase it without sounding crude.
"My uncle," Zuko gasped out by way of explanation. A frown momentarily twisted his features, as if he deeply regretted mentioning his uncle – and specifically his uncle's presumed lessons in the art of lovemaking – under the current circumstances.
His apparent mortification was somehow endearing, especially after her own humiliating reference to a family member, and Katara felt a surge of affection for this boy she'd hated so bitterly. It wasn't love or sweetness, but the emotion seemed real and right, magnified by physical pleasure. She let out an "oh" of surprise as she felt Zuko pulse within her. Katara's gasp deepened into a near-frantic moan as her entire body seemed to contract with pleasure under the insistent supplication of Zuko's fingers and hips, a feeling so all-encompassing that her surroundings faded away completely for a brief, perfect moment.
"Shh," she heard Zuko murmur, even as he muffled groans of his own against her shoulder.
Everything seemed hazy and surreal as Katara released her tight grip on Zuko's shoulders, both of them consumed by the process of relearning how to breathe. There were a scant few moments of peace before reality reasserted itself.
At her most romantic, Katara had imagined that losing her virginity would be followed by cuddling and declarations of undying love. She had never pictured how over-full her bladder would feel afterwards, or the awkward necessity of bending seminal fluids from her body in order to prevent pregnancy – a process she'd scoffed at when one of the healing women in the North Pole had slyly mentioned it after seeing Katara's betrothal necklace. Or the stiff, semi-stricken look on her partner's face as he watched her do it.
"I didn't even think," Zuko started, before releasing an explosive sigh.
"Clothes," Katara said. Everything else could wait.
Dressed, she felt as if a barrier had been erected between then and now. She felt awkward and formal and a bit sick as she bended any remaining water from her dress and, after a moment of thought, Zuko's robes as well.
"Thanks," he said with mild surprise.
"Mm," Katara said noncommittally. She sat, her legs feeling tingly and weak. Her chin rested on her knees as she struggled to sort out her jumble of thoughts. Zuko squatted in front of her, expression withdrawn. He made a few sharp hand gestures, and the few decorative lamps arranged on the table lit.
"Are you okay?" he asked, the self-deprecating twist of his lips suggesting that he realized the uselessness of such a question.
Katara thought about Aang, about their sweet kiss on the balcony of the Jasmine Dragon. She recalled his infectious smile and the smooth softness of his skin. The shadows in Zuko's eyes told her that perhaps he was reflecting similarly on Mai.
"I've never...done that before," Katara said slowly, her mouth suddenly very dry despite how sweaty her palms felt.
"I figured." At her raised eyebrow, Zuko hastened to add, "I mean, neither have I. Until now. Obviously."
"I love Aang," she said abruptly, tasting the truth of the words on her tongue.
"And you love Mai."
This was wrong. So wrong. She refrained from saying the words aloud, suspecting that Zuko would offer another inanely short reply. That annoyed her for some reason – why doesn't he sound as freaked out as I feel? – but she forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath. Panic threatened to drown her as surely as water filling her lungs, but she kept her composure through sheer force of will.
"I'm going," she said as calmly as possible, teetering to her feet.
She made it as far as the doorway before Zuko spoke: "Katara."
She paused, but didn't look back. The once-silken fabric of her dress was starchy against her skin. Her head pounded and her toes throbbed and her stomach coiled into tight knots of guilt and nausea.
"I didn't mean to hurt you." Zuko sighed. "I can't seem to stop doing it, even now."
Katara paused, considered his words. "It's not me that's being hurt by this...situation," she said pointedly.
Almost desperately, Katara said, "Can't we just pretend this didn't happen?"
This being the single most confusing, transcendent moment of her life.
Zuko's eyes reflected uncertainty and the hint of a frown pinched his single eyebrow downward. For just a moment, she could see glimpses of the little boy he must have been, one who longed for love that was continually denied him. "If that's what you want."
"It is." Katara infused her voice with a confidence she didn't feel.
She left without looking back. Through the serving area, the hallway, up the stairs, her movements a bit shaky from either the soju or what had happened after its consumption. She could hear Zuko's footsteps following her at a safe distance, but neither of them made any effort to communicate.
In the upstairs room, Aang was snoring lightly on one of the chairs, a plump-looking Momo resting in his arms. The sight was instantly calming, bringing a gentle smile to Katara's face. Though it seemed as if days had passed since she and Zuko had snuck off, Mai and Toph were still bent over the Pai Sho board while Iroh observed the game with a look of intense concentration on his face.
"Look who's finally back." Sokka, his head resting on Suki's lap, leaned back to regard Katara upside down. "Where'd you guys run off to?"
"Nowhere special," Katara said vaguely, fighting the urge to both stutter and blush. "Just...outside. To, you know, finish sparring. I'm feeling kind of sick now, so I think I just might go to bed."
"I told you not to drink that stuff."
Suki laughed, patting Sokka's forehead affectionately. "You should take your own advice, dummy." To Katara, she said, "Your brother discovered the rest of General Iroh's soju stash after you left."
"Ugh," Sokka groaned, rubbing his belly. "I feel like I drank a whole ocean full of cactus juice."
"You, too?" Katara said lightly.
"Your guys' poor decisions aside," Toph drawled, her hands poised behind her head in casual relaxation, "who won the fight?"
Katara couldn't help glancing at Zuko, entering just behind her. He pointedly avoided her gaze. "It was sort of a draw," she said with a shrug.
"Aw, boring." Toph crossed her arms. "Gramps and I had a bet going and everything."
Katara rolled her eyes, but she felt herself smile anyway. "Sorry to disappoint."
"Were there any explosions at least?" Sokka mimed explosions with his hands, holding them aloft while making a boom sound in the back of his throat.
Katara felt a pang of something hot and cloying deep in her chest. Had she not been watching Zuko's face so intently, she wouldn't have noticed him smile, very faintly, as she spoke: "A few."