title: a garden of weeds
pairing: zuko ო katara.
disclaimer: do not own anything.
Zuko doesn't recognize her, at first.
Katara almost doesn't recognize him, either.
He moves with a distinct lightness in his steps, smiles with some of his teeth. His hair is tousled and boyish and obscures the sharp amber of his eyes; she easily declares it all a ruse—pelting teardrops over the fire and hoping for the embers to whisper away. He looks young and calm, but beneath the muted layers of serenity, she is sure that he is plotting. Positive that the moment he catches sight of her—leaning back in one of the rickety, tea-shop chairs—he will shift back into the Zuko she has come to know, the harsh, relentless boy with a mission set bone-deep.
Zuko strides towards her table without even glancing at her, and she wonders over it. Distantly, she hears him cluck off the day's special, "White jasmine tea, with lemon garnish," in a familiar, raspy tone that really isn't very familiar at all.
She mutters her order under her breath, fan splayed over most of her face, eyes hardened—delicately downcast in a way that the ladies of Ba Sing Se would call demure. He jerks at the sound of her voice, and their gazes trail into one at the same moment.
Zuko stills at the sea-storm of her glare.
"I'll be right back," he manages. He turns on his heel a little too quickly to be deemed polite, but he does not snarl or spit or belittle her.
He only slips away, set off-kilter in the face of her presence, but is still nothing like the scarred, armored boy she had met at the Poles.
"What are you doing here?" he hisses; they are a distance from his Uncle's shop, walking through the lined streets of Ba Sing Se's lower tier.
"I could ask the same thing," she snaps, palm dangling cautiously at the lip of her water-skin. "You followed us here, didn't you? I've been watching you—"
Her mouth clamps shut and she feels red in her cheeks; at the same time, his eyes narrow, and he says, "Uncle and I are refugees. I had no idea that the Avatar was here."
The until you came here is not lost on her.
Katara swallows; he sounds so sincere, so truthful, and it just makes her feel like an idiot, like some foolish, petty girl-child.
But she has seen him in that run-down tea-shop for weeks. He couldn't have been spending the time innocently, free from the clutches of his quest. And she couldn't have stood by and done nothing; her duty was to protect Aang. And If that meant spying at the Jasmine Dragon, wearing lipstick and jade-silk dresses that brushed beneath her ankles, than so be it.
Aloud though, she murmurs a simple, "Oh," before promptly shaking her head. "No—no, I don't believe you. Why would I do that? You're the enemy!"
She expects him to attack, but Zuko only looks like she's wounded him, "Katara—"
Gracelessly, she almost trips over her own two feet; just when did he learn her name? Flustered, she sputters:
"You still want Aang, right? Why else would you still be here? Gods, Zuko, I'm not stupid."
"—I'm not you're enemy."
She stiffens, and finds herself blinking at the change in their surroundings; they are no longer at the heart of the city, but at its outskirts, where there are more trees than roads, the rouge of starlight glimmering over the maps of their skin.
Zuko's gaze is hard and determined; she wants nothing more than to break it.
"Prove it," she says, voice high and breathy, and regrets it an instant later. It sounds too inviting, too much like the hushed murmurs of the women in the romance scrolls she would read on late, lonely nights—
He gets closer, closer, and she shivers when the glow of his eyes trail down to her lips. But then they are steps apart and he stops dead in his tracks, a pained, broken glint to his wide stare.
"I don't—" He pauses, looking anywhere but at her. "I don't know how."
Katara feels something inside of her loosen.
So this, she thinks, is the Prince of the Fire Nation without his mask. He is glass.
"You don't?" she asks, voice soft. "Or can't?"
He's still not looking at her when he says, so quietly that she has to strain against the thrum of the cicadas:
She does not think when she closes the distance between them—
They walk back in silence.
Her eyes are on his lips, which are just as swollen as her own.
Katara visits the tea-shop every day, after that night.
I still don't trust you, her hands say, clamping over his wrist when he pours her drink. Her nails bite into the porcelain-white skin, ruby crescents dotting over the river of his veins.
I'm not asking you to, as he pulls away.
"Sugar-Queen, I smell it all over you."
"I have no idea what you're talking about—"
"I can tell you're lying."
"Just what are we?" she asks him. They are in the same clearing as the first night, and he is trailing kisses down the dip of her collarbone, "We aren't friends. We aren't enemies. We aren't lov—"
"Shh," he murmurs into her skin, because he has no answer to give.
"Please—" she begs, tugging at his bottom lip with her teeth. "—don't..." Don't betray me, she wants to tell him, but she cannot quite shape the words.
"What is it?" he asks, stepping away from her, eyes tender, trilled with gold.
She sees Aang, falling to volleys of garish flames. She sees Toph with singed feet and Sokka being tossed into a knoll of snow and ice in the South Pole and Zuko wide with armor and hatred; and then, after one look at the boy before her, she sees nothing but him—
"It's nothing." She leans into his embrace. "Nothing at all."
They are sitting at the lip of the small, stone-framed pond right outside of the Jasmine Dragon; Katara's feet are bare and dipped into the cool waters, and Zuko is so close to her that their knees touch.
"So, how's that Jin girl?" Katara asks him, unable to hide the bitterness in her tone. "I heard you two went on a date."
He nearly jumps. "Who told you that?"
"Your Uncle," she says flatly. "I went to the shop to make sure you weren't up to anything. When you weren't there, I felt suspicious, but your Uncle was kind enough to inform me that you were out with a nice lady-friend."
"I—" he sputters over his words, hand tangling into his hair. "Katara, it wasn't like that. She tried to kiss me, I told her it was complicated and left—"
"You kissed her?" She clearly didn't hear his qualifier, Zuko thinks glumly. "I cannot believe you."
"What part of I left her do you not understand? It didn't mean anything!" he snaps, ready to just get up and leave, when he catches the bright, mischievous gleam in her bluebell eyes. He feels the anger taper away from him. "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself—"
And then she is kissing him with hot, searing lips, fingers at his jaw, teasing the angle of bone and skin.
"Here, I'll help you forget..."
Skin. Sweat. Salt: on her mouth, on his shoulder, on the valley between her breasts and the bones of his hips.
Their clothes lay in a pile at his bedside, not scarlet and blue but a tower of jades and emeralds, of gold trimming and dull, forest streaks. Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se. Where people forget things like the blood between them and tundra-duels beneath the waning moonlight. Where there are only the holes dotting the bedcovers and the feel of hands and lips and fleeting, half-caresses of a girl and a boy made too old and to untrusting by a hollow war.
He moans, her name drowning in his voice and he rocks inside of her and she wants to burst; this is too much and not enough—and they are so, so close but neither know what it is or what it means because they are young and new to this shade of the stars, this shade of passion, this shade of the heartbeat.
"Does this mean you're giving up on capturing Aang?" she asks him, fetching for her robes. She wraps the jasmine-silk around her form slowly, not as coy as she used to be.
He says it brokenly, lacing the word with doubt. Yearning. Betrayal.
She trembles, tying the sash around her waist with shaky hands and leaning away from him. "You're not the enemy, right? For weeks now... we've been something else. Right? Right!"
Zuko trails towards her, having just shrugged into a pair of pants, his hands moving to cup her face, to trace her lips, but she shies away from the contact.
"I..." He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again like a fish stripped of its water. "I don't know."
I don't know how—the naked honesty, the brittle boy in the starlight, a mosaic of red and white and questions, so many questions, so many things unknown, like a father's love, like acceptance, like a girl's kiss, which she offered him so easily that night, so readily—like it meant nothing. Only it meant everything and more, and here he was, tossing it away for a mission that has blinded him for three years.
"I see." She is still, rigid, a doll with its beauty smeared. And then, she slips to the window, shaking still. "Goodbye, then."
His palm circles her thin arm, the same arm that had been wrapped around him moments earlier—"Katara," he pleads, but she wants none of it.
"Don't touch me!" she hisses, jerking away, ashamed of the tears skimming her lashes. "Don't ever touch me. I hate you, I—I should kill you! Stay away from me, or I will!"
"Please," he begs her. "You have to understand, Katara, this is something I have to do. It's not about me or you—"
"You're right, Zuko," she sneers. "It isn't about me or you. It's about the Avatar saving the world. And you're too blind and selfish and cruel to see that—" The tears are welling again. "This was a mistake. Approaching you was a mistake. I should have turned you in the moment I saw you. You're nothing but a pathetic, heartless Prince, who takes more than he can give! There was a reason why no one has ever loved you."
She is panting, breathing through her mouth, and she knows it is too far, but Zuko looks too stunned to pull her back and he lets her go, sending her towards her freedom, towards the Earth King's palace, where she will inform him of the Fire Prince's presence in Ba Sing Se, where she will clean herself of his touch, his words, will erase the sound of her name in his voice—
"You know nothing," he murmurs to her, as she climbs from his second-story room in the dead of night, with an ache reaching far deeper than her bones.
He doesn't attack her. She doesn't attack him; she knows that she should, that it is really the only way, but she cannot bring herself to do it. He is the enemy—the boy who kissed her first, who held her first, who—
Katara feels a sob wrack her entire form as she leaves, and decides that Zuko is right.
She knows nothing at all.