It was when a Fire Nation diplomat introduced her as the Avatar’s wife that Katara snapped.
“My name is Katara. I am the last living waterbending master of the Southern Water Tribe.” She shrugged off Aang’s calming hand on her shoulder, glaring at the official, who now looked like he wanted to flee. “You could at least do me the courtesy of introducing me by my name. Aang and I aren’t even married!”
She had stormed out of the room, ignoring his stammered apologies after her, knowing she was overreacting, and not caring one bit. It had been like this lately. And the worst thing about it was that, in a way, some of it was her own fault.
You are a woman of the tribe, she could almost hear Gran-Gran telling her . You are the heart and soul of the family. They rely on you to put aside selfishness and do what is right.
And she had. For years, she had. Her one act of selfishness had been declaring herself banished to go with Aang and learn waterbending. But their little group had become its own kind of family, and once again, Katara had become its heart and its conscience, caring for them like the mother she had been to her own family since her own mother had been lost.
It had been too easy to fall into that role. It was what she did. Sometimes, she wondered if it was all she knew how to do anymore. Even in her defiance of all the traditions she had grown up with -- leaving her people, traveling the world, loving a man who did not hunt, fish, or belong to her own people -- deep down, she was still following the same old patterns. Being the caretaker, the motivator, the nurturer, the conscience of those around her. No wonder they thought she was Aang’s wife. She acted like she was.
And Aang both was and was not the problem. He had never pushed her into this role. He, as much as anyone, knew that she was not so much a healer as a warrior. Ever since she had taught him to heal, not long after the war, Aang had been defying the expectations of more traditional waterbenders by healing people himself instead of passing the task to Katara. He liked healing. It suited his nature far better than combat.
Yet, traveling with him and working beside him to create balance meant stepping aside again and again as he took the lead, as people sought out and asked for help from him , because he was the Avatar. It meant that she ended up in a wifely role, arranging where they would stay and what they would eat and being at his side to help and consult. For all practical purposes, she was his wife, but without the most important thing she’d always assumed she would have as an adult woman -- her own home that she ruled and could shape to her liking. Aang was happiest on the move, but Katara felt the impermanence and powerlessness of it keenly.
They had fallen into a routine, their relationship shunted aside to spare moments as they tried to keep the world in balance and repair centuries-old wounds. Katara wanted to be with him, wanted to be making a difference in the world, but it felt like she spent most days as something like a personal assistant. And she’d done this to herself. She was not doing a single thing for him that she had not taken on of her own accord because she was there and it needed to be done.
I don’t want to leave him, she reflected, shooing away an innocent badgerfrog who was investigating her boot. But I can’t keep being the person I am when I’m with him.
I have to get away.
It was several days before she had a chance to speak to Aang about this. When she did, he seemed to understand even better than she understood herself.
“We have a word for it,” Aang told her, taking her hands in his and telling her the word in the old language of his people that she could never manage to pronounce right. “When an airbender feels trapped and confused, they go off on their own -- you’ve seen me do it -- and meditate on which way the air currents inside them are blowing. Feeling like this isn’t wrong. It means you’ve been going against a part of yourself. You need a time of freedom to find and follow that part of yourself so you don’t lose it again. It’s not just an airbender thing, either. Iroh did it after Lu Ten died. And when Toph traveled with us, that was hers. You need to do this to honor the needs of your spirit.”
Why do you always have to be so generous? Katara wondered. Why can’t you be selfish and tell me that you’ll miss me, that you need me, that I’m yours? But she was not his. Airbenders … didn’t believe in love that way. There was no possession, no restriction on each other’s freedom or actions. It was so unlike the idea of love that she had grown up with -- you belong to me, we both belong to the tribe, and our duties and the will of the Spirits guide us in a powerful tide that we travel together through our lives -- that she still felt that dissonance in her mind sometimes. What was wrong with her?, Even as she needed time apart, a piece of her wanted him to hold her back so that she could fight her way free, instead of gracefully accepting it and letting her go.
What a twisted-up mess she was. How could he love her so effortlessly when she was such a disaster inside?
Zuko did not realize that Katara had not left for the Earth Kingdom with Aang until he came across her in the gardens, weaving with water in the lantern light.
It was something he’d never seen before. She was controlling at least a dozen streams of water, and holding them separate as she braided and knotted them around each other. It had to be a concentration exercise, he realized, keeping them from flowing together and twisting them in such intricate patterns, and somehow making it almost look easy. He had known she was a waterbending master for years, of course, but watching her, he found himself marveling anew. The light of the hanging paper lanterns was reflected in the water she wove, and it glowed with their prismatic hues like dragonfire.
Why was she here, though? He hadn’t been there to see them off when Aang had left earlier. All day, he’d been stuck in back-to-back meetings with representatives from the former colonies. Wouldn’t someone have told him if she’d been sick or unable to travel for some reason? She didn’t look sick.
He should probably ask her instead of lurking in the shadows, watching her like a stalker.
“Katara?” he ventured.
She gasped and spun around, the water she was working with crackling softly as it froze in midair. She relaxed as he stepped out of the shadows.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I was just here and you were here, so…” Words were not and had never been his friends. He shrugged. “Hi.”
“Hi.” She smiled, and the water hovering behind her turned liquid once more.
“It’s pretty,” he said, gesturing at the shimmering fabric of it hanging over the pond. “Is it a type of meditation?”
Katara nodded and let the water flow back to join the rest of the pond with a graceful motion. “When we went to the North Pole the second time, one of the waterbenders there taught me. It’s not a kata, exactly, but it’s a more advanced exercise. How many strands you can do it with is one of the ways they measure your abilities as a waterbender.”
“So you practiced until you could do it with as many as the masters there,” Zuko concluded, his raised eyebrow challenging her to deny it.
“Of course. We can’t have our sister tribe outdoing us,” Katara agreed, drawing herself up slightly at the thought. “They already have some misguided ideas about the South, but I can at least prove our waterbending is as good as theirs.”
“I don’t think anyone who’s met you would dare claim otherwise.” He offered her his arm and she took it after hesitating a moment. They walked in the gardens for a few moments in comfortable silence.
The two of them, Zuko thought, were really the only members of the gang who were any good at silence. The others would have broken that silence with rambling monologues or snarky comments or something. He and Katara just walked, and he felt some of the tension slowly leave the arm wrapped around his. He wanted to ask why she had stayed behind, but he wasn’t sure if he was already supposed to know. Maybe someone had left a note on his desk and he’d overlooked it, or said something to him while he wasn’t listening.
“Want to get a fruit tart?” he asked instead, because he knew how much Katara liked the Fire Nation delicacy. Sure enough, her face brightened. Uncle was right. When in doubt, offer a woman food.
“Do they have the berry ones?”
“If the kitchens don’t, we can send someone to go buy us one,” Zuko said. Katara shook her head.
“I will never get used to the idea that I can just decide on a whim that I want to eat some particular thing and there will be someone who has it already made and ready to sell to me, even at this time of night. Cities are so weird,” she declared. But she did not argue as he led her back to the palace and got a servant to pick up a berry tart and sizzle-crisps from a nearby restaurant.
Half an hour later, most of the food and a bottle of wine had been consumed, and Katara was pacing around Zuko’s private parlor barefoot. Zuko was lying on some cushions, uncorking a second bottle with his knife. (His servants were always after him to stop doing that as if he was still living on a navy ship and use a corkscrew, but they weren’t here to catch him, were they?)
“It’s so stupid,” Katara was saying, waving her glass alarmingly. “It’s not that I’m not happy with him, it’s just that I’m with him, but I’m not happy, you know what I mean?”
Zuko did not know what she meant, but made a sort of encouraging sound, hoping this was the right answer.
“It’s me that’s the problem! Me and my issues and the way I keep putting myself second to him because that’s all I ever learned to do! Even when I’m not living back home, it’s like I bring the tribe along with me in my head. I just start organizing things for him like his dutiful wife-- damn it!” Katara threw herself down on the cushions beside him. “See? It’s inside my own head. I can’t get away from it. I’m not being dutiful , I’m ignoring what I need and fussing over him as if he’s not a grown man who can see to his own meals and arrangements.”
“I’ve seen Aang eat a pickle sandwich, go to sleep on Appa, and wake up refreshed,” Zuko contributed. “He doesn’t need a lot of fussing.”
Katara rolled her eyes as if Zuko was missing the point. “It’s a pattern I can’t get out of, that’s the problem. We’ve been together for years, and I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late to change. And it’s not his fault. He’s a really, really good person.”
“You look pretty miserable about how good a person he is,” Zuko observed, pouring them some more wine.
Katara scowled. “Well, sometimes it’s hard to be with a good person. It means you have to be a good person too, all the time , to live up to what they expect of you. And I’m not always a good person.” She sipped her wine, stretching out her legs and distracting Zuko as her skirt rode up to reveal the muscled curves of her calves.
He was not always a good person either. He dragged his eyes away, but they wandered right back.
“Where’s Mai these days?” she asked idly.
“On paper and as far as her parents know, she’s a cultural ambassador to the former colonies,” Zuko said. “Unofficially? She’s working with June as a bounty hunter, rounding up the gangs who have been taking advantage of the disorder. She gets to drink in bars and beat up men twice her size. She’s having the time of her life.” He smiled slightly, thinking of her letters.
“Do you miss her?” Katara asked.
“Of course.” Zuko looked away, avoiding meeting those too-perceptive eyes. “I wasn’t right for her, and she wouldn’t have been happy being the Fire Lady. Court bored her. But it was really hard, letting her go.” It had been, even though he’d known by then that she wasn’t the one he really wanted.
“See? That’s a normal answer. You’re still a good person, you’re just not … ugh. Do you know what Aang said?” she demanded.
“He said he’d rather know I was out there finding myself and my freedom than with him feeling trapped. Isn’t that the most supportive and selfless thing to say? I should want him to say things like that. It should make me happy. But… I want him to need me. And he doesn’t need me, Zuko.” She rested her head against his shoulder and his breath caught for a moment.
His friends from other nations were so much more casual with physical affection than he had been raised to be. But he had learned. Gently, he put an arm around her.
“Of course Aang needs you. He just knows that if he asked you to stay, you would.”
I don’t want to stay. I want him in my life, of course. I love him. But who I am with him isn’t who I want to be, and I just … I don’t see that changing. He’s always going to be the Avatar. And I’m always going to be in his shadow. And it feels so terribly selfish to complain about being overshadowed by the bridge between our world and the Spirits because, duh, everyone is.”
Zuko nodded and drank more wine instead of talking. Even if he didn’t completely understand the years worth of baggage under the surface of her and Aang’s relationship, he was sure they’d get back together in the end. She just needed a sympathetic listener right now.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Katara confessed. “I don’t want to think about it. You need to make me shut up.”
He took a deep breath, because he could think of so many ways to make her stop talking and none of them were even slightly appropriate. Zuko swallowed hard. “Um. Pai sho?” he suggested.
… Pai sho, played while drunk, was not his best idea. They were both way too competitive and there were way too many pieces to keep track of and rules to argue over.
“I won, see, I’d just set up my third harmony before you knocked the board over,” she whined as Zuko found the last few pieces under the table and put them back in the lacquered wood box.
“We were playing to five, not three! And you lost a bunch of your pieces to me before that, you do not win.”
“Only because you were cheating! Toph taught me you can’t move the lily in that direction and you did it anyway,” Katara insisted.
“Because that wasn’t the lily, it was the white jade.”
“Yeah, well, we weren’t playing to five, we were playing to three, so I won.”
“You don’t win. I’m the Fire Lord. I win.” Not his most mature argument, but he didn’t care.
“Zuko? What’s being the Fire Lord like? I mean, what’s it really like?” Katara asked, leaning in and distracting him with how blue her eyes were.
“Not much fun,” Zuko answered honestly. “Too many meetings. Not enough money to do the things people need. Lots of stubborn old people. The food’s not bad.”
She made a sympathetic face.
“What’s it like bringing balance to the world with the Avatar?” he asked.
“Too many meetings. Not enough power to do the things people need. Vegetarian meals. Lemurs and sky bison interrupting when you’re trying to get laid,” Katara confessed. Zuko snorted.
“So now we get to the real problem in your rel… alationsip,” he said, struggling slightly with the word but persevering. “Cockblocking lemurs.”
“The bane of the Air Nation,” Katara confirmed.
Zuko’s eyes were drawn to the swell of her breasts beneath the blue fabric of her top. “Can’t believe anyone would let a lemur stop them from having you,” he said, then bit his tongue, realizing he’d said it aloud.
“I know, right?” Katara agreed drunkenly. “I’m very enthusiastic.”
Zuko groaned and buried his face in a pillow for a moment, trying not to imagine just how enthusiastic she could be.
“You can’t just say things like that,” he accused her, slightly muffled. “I’m trying to be a good person here.”
“Wait, are you… “ Katara burst into giggles. “Did you seriously get hard just from me mentioning sex?”
He removed the pillow from his face to glare at her despite how darkly he was blushing. “You’re not supposed to comment on that.” And she was still looking, too! He pulled his robes to cover the crotch of his pants indignantly. “Or stare at it!”
“Poor Zuko, are you that lonely?” she asked, still unable to keep a straight face, which he felt was very unfair of her.
“I’m not the one who just told a man how enthusiastic she was,” he said, his voice rough in his throat. “You sure you want to go there?”
She leaned in defiantly, and his heart stuttered as a couple strands of her hair brushed over his neck and her thigh pressed against his. “Oh, please. You think I’m afraid of you? You couldn’t handle me.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow and reached up to tuck the offending strands of hair behind her ears, then let his fingers trail down her neck and over her throat. He felt her pulse quicken. “Don’t play with me, Katara,” he said softly. “You think I couldn’t handle you? Do you really want to find out?”
There was a long pause as the challenge thickened the air between them. “I’m not always a good person,” she murmured, echoing her words from earlier. Then she closed the distance between them.
Her mouth was hot and sweet and she kissed him like a wild thing. He curled his hand tightly around the back of her neck, anchoring her, giving as good as he got. His heart pounded in his chest as he pressed her down into the cushions, his body shifting to cover hers. One of her hands slid to the neck of his robe, pulling it open to touch battle-scarred, sweat-damp skin, shoving the robe off his shoulders to dig her fingernails into the muscles of his back. He shivered and gasped into her mouth.
Did she have any idea how weak he was for her? Her kisses and her touch washed through him like the tide and he was drawn to her, greedy for every taste, every breath, every sound. Enthusiastic wasn’t the word. Katara was … incredibly, gorgeously uninhibited. When he groaned and arched against her, she wrapped her legs around him. He pressed his mouth to her neck and used his teeth, gently at first, then harder until she was whimpering and rocking against him. Zuko pushed the fabric of her skirt up her thighs, filling his hands with the curves of her backside and tilting her hips to grind against her at a more intense angle.
“Katara.” His voice caught and rasped in his throat, and she caught his mouth again in a hungry, biting kiss that robbed him of words and breath for several long moments. “Katara, oh Agni, I need you. Let me inside you. Let me --” Words deserted him again and he just kissed her deep and rough and filthy.
She reached down and fumbled with her sarashi, tugging the wraps loose and pulling them aside. Zuko made equally quick work of his own garments and then -- oh, Spirits, his cock was pressing against her entrance and she was so soft and slippery-wet that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from whimpering. Frantically, his eyes met hers, and his own desperate need was echoed there.
“Yes,” Katara breathed. She tightened her legs around him and pulled him in. He distantly heard himself cry out as she took him. Intimate muscles flexed and yielded to his cock as in one hard thrust, he sheathed himself in her. Their bodies fit together perfectly. Her head was thrown back, blissful, and Zuko did not hesitate. He moved, taking her with feverish intensity. She met each hard, deep thrust with a liquid undulation of her hips, fingers digging into his back and shoulders, nails scraping his skin. The pleasure was intense, visceral, overwhelming, and he chased it, needing more and more and more of her.
Katara came gasping his name, and that was it for him. He spent himself inside her so hard his vision whited out around the edges. He held her close as he shuddered in the aftermath, his face buried in her hair, not wanting to let it be over.
“Oh, Spirits,” she whispered, sounding blissful. Then, again, in shocked realization: “Oh, Spirits. Zuko, what did we just do?”
“Uh.” He swallowed, skimmed his fingers very lightly down the soft, warm curve of her waist. Of all the unwise decisions he’d ever made, he was pretty sure he regretted this one the least. He avoided her eyes, not wanting to face her guilt or disappointment in him.
Katara shifted beneath him and he reluctantly pulled out of her, a little shiver running up his spine. He moved to allow her to sit up, and watched wistfully as she frantically tugged at her disarrayed clothing and wraps before giving up and putting her head in her hands. Zuko reached for his discarded robe and wrapped it around her shoulders. She sagged against him.
“What can I do?” he asked softly.
“I’m a horrible person,” she told him quietly. “What’s wrong with me? How could I do that to him?”
Stop thinking about him, was the wrong answer to give her, Zuko knew. So was I never want to stop touching you and we could keep doing it, he doesn’t have to find out. Aang was one of his best friends. He trusted Zuko to act honorably. And Zuko had just had passionate, drunk sex with the woman Aang loved.
Katara was right. They were horrible people.