Nearly a month later, on the morning when the first mists of autumn touched Caldera City, Aang arrived back at the capitol.
“I assume Katara spoke to you about what happened,” Zuko said once they were alone.
Aang nodded. “You should know we’re not together anymore.” Aang’s voice sounded calm, but Zuko knew better. He could feel the tense sharpness to Aang’s energy, the energy of a master bender who was keeping deep, violent emotions under control so as not to endanger the people around him.
Zuko swallowed hard. “It was … I didn’t mean anything to her. It just sort of happened. I’m sorry.”
“I think … I think if she hadn’t already known she didn’t want to come back to me, she wouldn’t have let it happen. We talked, and she ended things between us.” Aang looked away. “I still wanted to try to make things work. I always assumed we’d be together our whole lives.”
“We all thought that too,” Zuko agreed. “That you two would get married, settle down together.”
“That’s part of the problem, I think,” Aang said. “Katara says she needs someone who can settle down. The idea of just picking one place and living there forever feels … wrong. Even when I lived at the temple, we traveled all the time, to find fresh grazing for the sky bison and learn about the world and visit friends.”
Zuko supposed that made sense. His people had been called Air Nomads for a reason.
“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust,” he said quietly. “If there’s some way that we can mend our friendship…”
“That’s why I came,” Aang said. “I’m still your friend, Zuko. I need to be angry with you for a while, but … Gyatso used to say that anger is healthy, because it’s the part of you that wants to protect your heart from being hurt while it’s healing.”
Zuko nodded slowly. “I understand,” he said.
“I wanted you to know,” he said with a faded, ironic version of his usual smile, “I’ll still be here if you need me, just … don’t need me for a while, would you?”
Aang stretched out a hand -- a Water Tribe gesture he’d picked up from Katara and Sokka. Zuko reached out his own and they grasped forearms firmly.
“Thank you,” Zuko said, and deep inside, he felt some of the wounds that his own anger had been protecting heal a little bit.
This is Katara, who shared the furs of another man while her lover was away.
This is Katara, who gave her lover the strength and support he needed to save a world that needed saving, again and again.
This is Katara, who left her tribe to learn waterbending from a Northerner.
This is Katara, who helped her father and brother rebuild the South Pole after the war, raising a new stronghold of ice to keep them safe.
This is Katara, whose betrayal and indecision broke the hearts of the Avatar and the Fire Lord.
This is Katara, who healed those lightning-struck hearts years before and pulled them from the brink of death.
This is Katara, who is not always a good person.
This is Katara, who is allowed to make mistakes.
Zuko was lying beside the pond, feeding the turtleducks, when Katara approached. He swallowed, feeling the relaxation leave his body, and stood to leave.
“Please, wait.” She was painfully lovely, standing there in plain travel clothes with the sun kindling chestnut highlights in her dark hair. He was hit by a fierce need to be anywhere but here.
“I have to go. I’ll have the servants prepare a guest chamber and bring you something to eat,” he said quickly.
“Zuko, I have something to say to you. Please, for the sake of the friendship we once had, will you hear me out?”
The friendship we once had, he thought, and managed not to wince at the sting of it. He squared his shoulders and jerked his head in a slight nod.
“I didn’t handle things well when I was here. I know I hurt you with my selfishness. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and figuring out what it is that I want.”
Zuko nodded again, patiently waiting for the polite rejection he knew was coming, hating this.
“And what I want is you.”
He went very still. “What?”
Katara took a deep breath. “I don’t know for sure if I can be everything you need or you can be everything I need. But I want you, and I want to give it a try, if you’ll have me.”
He swallowed. He felt like he was trembling on the inside, unsure whether to flee or go to her. Could he trust that she meant it this time?
Katara stepped closer. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at him. “It wasn’t fair to you, letting you give so much more than I was ready to.”
“No,” Zuko said hoarsely. “It wasn’t.”
“And … I understand if you don’t want that anymore,” she said, looking down self-consciously. “My actions lately haven’t really endeared me to anyone.”
“It’s not about what I want,” Zuko managed to say. “Sometimes I want things that aren’t good for me, and I’m afraid you could be one of those things.” Slowly, hesitantly, he reached out and cupped her cheek. She mirrored his gesture, and his eyes fluttered close as her thumb lightly caressed the edge of his scar.
He had never let anyone but her and Uncle touch it.
Her hands were cool and soothing.
“If I say yes, how much more will that decision hurt Aang?” Zuko asked her.
“He knows,” she said softly. “That I have feelings for you. I told him when we broke up.” She shrugged sadly. “I wouldn’t say we have his blessing. He said some things that … that I deserved to hear, to be honest. But by the time we parted, we agreed that when we had both had some time to heal, we would work on being friends again. We still want to be part of each other’s lives, and I think he still wants to be part of yours as well. There will be challenges, but … I don’t think our little group is broken for good. We changed the world together, and risked our lives for each other. And in the end, that’s bigger than who pairs up with who.”
Zuko remembered a handful of teenagers on the beach, arms around each other, ready to risk everything, and nodded.
“You were always our group’s heart,” he said softly.
“And you were our courage.” Katara’s other hand had come up to rest on his shoulder. He wanted to move away. He wanted to pull her close and never leave her arms again.
“I could use some courage myself right now,” Zuko admitted. “Doesn’t courage come from the heart?”
Katara shook her head. “Courage is like firebending,” she told him with a slight smile. “It comes from the breath.”
Zuko pressed his lips to hers and breathed.
There had been other duties to attend to, and dinner to eat. Zuko had been surprised to find that food had taste again, and instead of eating mechanically as he had been in past weeks, he took second helpings, dragged vegetables through sauces, and savored each bite of the sweet fried sesame cake that was served for dessert. Every mouthful was spiced by the looks he and Katara exchanged across the table. Her smile made his heart pound. Could he really have this? Was it real this time?
He let himself hope, just a little.
Somehow, he never had gotten around to arranging for a guest chamber for her, and she walked back to his rooms with him as if there was no question of needing one.
Zuko closed the door softly behind them.
She had bathed away the dust of her travel when minor state matters had dragged him away from her earlier, and when she took off her clothes now, he could smell the scent of the soaps she had used rising from her skin. He pulled her into his arms, his hands relearning the irresistible curve of her waist and lower back. He pressed his lips to her shoulder and smelled jasmine and sandalwood, dragged her hair over his face and inhaled spice and roses. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
Mine, he thought tentatively, uncertainly. He did not say it aloud.
She felt like everything he had ever wanted.
Together they undressed him, and Katara laid a kiss on each scar as it was bared to the light. When she pressed her mouth to the lightning burn on his chest that he had sustained while protecting her, she did not move away, but lingered there, tracing it with her tongue, caressing it with her teeth. Zuko shivered hard, fighting tears and the urge to crush her to him until she could barely breathe.
His knees felt shaky, and he steered them to his bed. Watching her lie down on his white sheets, all bare curves and shining hair and dusky skin, he tried to pause and memorize the sight. Katara.
Then he lowered his body over hers and they kissed, deep and frantic. Their hands tangled in each other’s hair, and he was caught up in waves of fierce need for her. He had to pull back for a moment, slowing his breathing, tracing the lines of her face, her neck, her lips.
“Tell me what you need,” she whispered, blue eyes shining up at him. “Let me give it to you.”
Words, Zuko thought helplessly. I need words for that. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Show me,” he finally said. “Show me you’re mine.”
Katara’s fingers traced a line down to the twisted lightning scar on his chest again, her touch waking the sensation in his damaged nerves.
“Yours,” she said softly. Their eyes met for a moment before he had to close his, overwhelmed by the emotion he could see in hers and still unsure he was ready to share everything that shone back from his own.
Katara trailed kisses down his stomach, making his breath catch and his skin tingle everywhere her mouth touched. She licked his hipbone, and followed the chiseled indentation in a direct line to his cock, making his mouth open in a silent cry. She took his hands in hers and cupped them around the back of her head, then lowered her mouth over the throbbing head of him, surrounding him in wet heat.
Then she looked up at him expectantly, clearly waiting. It took him a moment, and then he realized-- she had given over control to him, and was waiting for him to move. Carefully, wonderingly, he pushed up into her mouth, only a little at first, testing. The difference … he’d always been conscious, as the receiving partner, of the need to hold still and let the woman take control. To enjoy only what he was offered and ask for no more.
Hesitantly, he pressed down on the back of her head, urging her to take more of him. She did, her cheeks hollowing as she sucked, and his hands tightened, stroking her hair and trying to communicate in touch what he didn’t have words for. He drew back and thrust into her mouth again, gaining confidence, the pleasure of it sharp-edged with the feeling of selfish, disrespectful, I’m not supposed to just ...
But Katara’s eyes were sparkling up at him in encouragement, and he was allowed, she wanted him to. He took a shaking breath and began to move, guiding her head in a steady rhythm, sheathing himself a little deeper with each stroke and carefully watching her reactions. It was a heady feeling. He kept his motions as smooth as he could, one hand caressingly framing her face, the other cradling the back of her head. Her eyes fluttered shut and there was no language beautiful enough to describe the movements of her neck and back as she yielded to his rhythm and took him in.
Fire kindles, flares, and burns.
Her mouth was so wet and soft that he found himself unable to resist the urge to press himself deeper. When the sensitive head of his cock brushed up against the back of her throat and she swallowed instinctively, he had to bite back a groan of pleasure. He could actually feel the walls of her throat closing around him, squeezing him. He pulled back, then repeated the motion, unable to resist feeling that again. This time he slid deeper and she choked. Her shoulders tensed slightly for a moment, then relaxed, and she adjusted the angle of her body slightly, stretching her neck forward, breathing in deeply when he retreated from her throat. A twinge of guilt warred with how indescribably good it had felt to have her throat tense and constrict around him. Zuko pulled almost entirely out of her mouth, searched her face for signs of distress or indignation, found none … and allowed himself to do it again, pushing deep until the back of her tongue spasmed involuntarily and saliva leaked from her lips.
“Is this--” he asked breathlessly, and she hummed her assent. Disarmed by her trust and surrender, he gave in to his instincts and fucked deep into her mouth, crying out as her throat clenched slightly then opened up to him. He kept his next two thrusts shallow to let her breathe, then thrust all the way in again, hands shaking in her hair. When she swallowed around him, her lips almost at the base of his cock, he felt like his spirit left his body for a moment. Zuko felt his heart clench at her utter yielding to him, giving him control of the rhythm, the depth, the very air allowed into her lungs.
He carefully alternated between shallow and deep thrusts, her vulnerability waking a fierce protectiveness in him. He gathered her hair away from her face with adoring care as he guided her, greedy for the sight of her face and of her lips wrapped around him. She slipped a hand between her legs and began to touch herself, and Zuko had to pull her mouth away entirely before he lost all control, breathing hard and fast, his fingers tracing the messy trails of saliva dripping over her chin. Then her other hand came up and wrapped around his spit-slick shaft and she was stroking him firmly and looking up into his eyes, and he could no longer hold it back, crying out and shooting thick ropes of seed onto her face and neck.
He was left heaving, speechless, and he stared wordlessly as she dragged a finger through it, not breaking eye contact, and sucked her finger clean.
“Yours,” she said, her voice slightly scratchy from having just had him down her throat.
Zuko made a broken sound, and slowly, reverently, slid his own fingers along the line of her jaw and into her mouth. She sucked on them. His cock spasmed as if trying to come again, skirting the line between pleasure and pain. She hummed contentedly around his fingers, lips reddened and swollen from wrapping around his cock and her hand still working between her legs.
Somewhere, Zuko found the strength to pull her up beside him and kiss her roughly, heedless of the mess. Then he pulled her hand away and replaced her touch with his own. She ground against his fingers with a sound of pleasure. Something in his chest swelled at how dripping wet she was for him, the way she urged him on with little moans and arches of her hips. He could feel her body tightening with her approaching climax, her voice scaling up, and suddenly he knew what he wanted to do to her.
He pulled his hand away, leaving her hips helplessly jerking, drawing her closer to him but pushing her hands away when she attempted to reach for her clit and finish. She tried to grind against him, but he bracketed her thighs with his own and pressed them together, forcing her to squirm and whimper, so close but not close enough. Zuko used his teeth delicately on her nipples, prolonging the state of almost-climax and drawing the sweetest sounds from her. Her head thrashed helplessly.
“Zuko,” she pleaded, but he was not ready to just give it to her yet. He held her, sucking and biting her nipples, until she subsided into frustrated whimpers.
“Do you want my hands or my mouth?” he asked, letting her choose, and at her reply of, “your mouth,” he moved down her body, spread her thighs, and went to work.
There were words that one rarely spoke aloud in the Fire Nation. Zuko had never heard his parents say them -- in fact, he hadn’t heard them said at all until he was ten years old and watching the final act of the play that told of the romance of Oma and Shu. Unlike in the Earth Kingdom or Water Tribes, love was a sacred thing, too intense to air in everyday conversation. It was a thing to hide in metaphors and glances. It was a thing to whisper to someone while they slept or trace silently over their skin.
And there was perhaps more than one reason that one of the euphemisms for pleasuring a woman with one’s mouth was ‘practicing calligraphy.’
Zuko’s tongue moved over her clit, tracing the characters for words that his lips had never shaped. He told her silently once, then again, more quickly. She shuddered and cried out under him, and he stopped just short of taking her over the edge, pulled away, and plunged his fingers into her. She bucked her hips wildly at the sudden change in stimulation, both wanting him in her and needing more. He curled his fingers hard, making her arch for him, then shifted the angle before she could reach climax.
“Zuko,” she whined. “Please, I need it. Please.”
He shook his head and pulled his fingers out, shifting his focus back to her breasts and pinning her wrists back to the bed when she tried again to touch herself.
“Not yet,” he told her, pressing them into the sheets. “Keep your hands here. Let me take care of you.” He let go without waiting for her answer and teased her hard nipples, rubbing his calluses over the sensitive tips and making her thrash and groan in frustrated need. He could feel his cock slowly beginning to grow hard again and pressed it against her thigh, a wordless promise.
Katara’s hands were fisted in the sheets, and she tried to get around the limits he had set, wrapping a leg around his and trying to rub herself to climax against his thigh. He let her get close before pulling away, spreading her legs, and writing so lightly on sensitive flesh with his tongue that he had to hold her hips down. Wait, he wrote as she cursed and begged. Soon. Mine.
By the time he was fully hard, Katara’s whimpers and moans had turned into full-throated cries that she kept trying to muffle in the pillow. Zuko, wild with triumph and satisfaction, stole the pillow away. He didn’t care who heard. He pulled her onto her knees, knelt behind her, and pulled her back hard onto his cock, wrapping his arms tightly around her and holding her close. Katara made the most beautiful, gratifying whimper when he penetrated her, clenching tight around him. He reached down and rubbed her clit, aimed a thrust just right, and she came apart for him, her whole body bowing and shuddering with intense rippling spasms. Zuko pressed kisses to her neck and held her through it, grinding deep as she clenched around him.
Finally, she melted bonelessly against him, deeply flushed and glowing. Fierce, aching tenderness for her rose up in his chest. He buried his face in her hair and just held her tightly for a moment.
“I feel like I’m floating,” she whispered to him, and he chuckled. He kissed her throat and gently stroked her breasts. She sighed and gasped softly, her inner muscles fluttering around him when he tugged on a nipple. Slowly, he began to move again, rocking into her, bracing her with one hand on her hip and the other spread over her collarbone, arching her back against him, her pulse throbbing against the pad of his thumb. She was so hot and sweet and supple in his hands. She was his . He shut his eyes, pressed his mouth to her neck, and made love to her.
When the tension at the base of his spine had reached the point of no return, Zuko reached down and found her oversensitive clit. He stroked it tenderly, mercilessly, until she sobbed his name like a protest and came for him one last time, her clenching inner muscles milking his climax right out of him. He emptied himself into her, his forehead pressed to the nape of her neck and her name a silent prayer on his lips. Katara.
Some minutes later, when he could remember how to breathe again, he gently lay her down on the bed and stood on unsteady legs to get the washbasin and a cloth. The pillows were on the floor and the sheets in an impossible tangle, the mattress itself at a slightly slanted angle on the frame. The blanket was in a heap at the foot of the bed on top of an overturned chair. The corner of Zuko’s mouth turned up in a slight smirk.
Katara gazed up at him when he returned, looking so radiantly satiated that his heart clenched with an emotion he didn’t have a name for. He focused his chi to bring heat into his hand and warmed the water in the basin, and began to gently run the wet cloth over her face and body.
“Tell me this isn’t a dream,” he said softly. “I don’t want to wake up without you.”
Katara smiled, a soft expression in her eyes. “I don’t either. It feels very real though,” she said, flushing slightly. He brushed his lips over her cheek. She turned her head to catch his mouth with her own, kissing him with a slow intensity that made him melt.
“I’m staying,” she said when their mouths parted. “And I’ll tell you again and again until you believe it.”
Zuko’s throat tightened and instead of responding in words, he slipped back into bed with her and held her tightly. She nestled against his chest like she was coming home.
No, not just like, Zuko realized. She is home. She’s staying.
He could feel Katara smiling against his skin, and then she giggled.
“What is it?” he asked indulgently.
“Nothing,” she said, stroking his back. “Just … happy.”
He stroked her hair. “Me too.”