Twice a year, Ambassador Katara of the Southern Water Tribe visits the Fire Nation Royal Palace for trade negotiations.
Twice a year, reported sightings of the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit surface across Caldera.
It begins with a late-night discussion over tea that leads to a revelation. These are caged creatures of the night, suffocating under the weight of expectations.
In the darkened streets of the Fire Nation capital, they arrive at a solution. A way to regain some semblance of agency in this post-war haze—something real and tangible. Something they can get up and do. No more sitting around and talking in circles about policy.
Under the cover of night, Katara and Zuko emerge from the boxes they don’t quite fit inside of.
Of course, there will always be talk of policy. When the sun crests the horizon, they are Ambassador Katara and Fire Lord Zuko. Their exchanges are limited to secret smiles as they pass each other and glances during meetings when a counselor’s short-sighted remarks make their blood boil and their skin itch.
These are diplomatic delegations, and they wear the skins of diplomats. The Fire Lord has his days scheduled down to his cups of tea. The Ambassador’s cheeks burn, feigning an understanding of a world that is not at war.
There is no time to be Katara and Zuko—so they make do in other ways. At night, under the cover of mask and paint, they are in control. At night, they remember that the war was real. At night, they fight a new war.
At night, there are no eyes to watch them.
But they don’t talk about that.
They definitely don’t talk about the other comforts of night.
The first time the Blue Spirit fucks the Painted Lady against a wall atop the Hedoya lookout tower, it occurs to Katara that they might have complicated this fragile solace they’ve found in the shadows.
But the Blue Spirit is not Zuko. The Painted Lady is not Katara. And when the only sounds are their intermingled breaths, the only sensations him—around her, against her, inside her—she doesn’t particularly care about the nuances of truth.
Fragile, complicated: Yes. Enough to distort peace, stagger negotiations if this goes wrong. But they do not stop. This is a world that makes sense to them. It is inspired, the ways they find to seek solace.
The Fire Lord is better at this than she gave him credit for.
The distinction is clear. Simple. The Blue Spirit is cool, controlled, efficient. And when she relinquishes her touch to him in those hasty moments of release at the end of their nights of vigilantism, she is at his mercy.
The Fire Lord maintains a careful distance. His smiles are polite, his conversations cordial. He stumbles over cracks in paths and spills cups of wine with overzealous hand gestures. Underneath the imposing mantle is her friend, Zuko. The one who taught the Avatar firebending and dutifully put a nation on his shoulders.
The one who took a bolt of lightning for her.
Sometimes after a long day of meetings, he drops a hand on her shoulder as he passes. A gesture of camaraderie—one that jolts her as if his fingers still crackle with that lightning. One that sends her mind careening into memories of those same fingers sliding between her legs—
His eyes twinkle when he sweeps out of the room, a cluster of attendants at his heels.
Maybe the Fire Lord is better at this than she is.
Until he isn’t.
Katara arrives in early spring for the latest series of conferences. A palanquin takes her to the palace, where the Fire Lord waits atop the steps to greet her—golden crown glinting in the sunlight.
She dips into a bow, perhaps not quite deep enough for what custom demands. “Fire Lord Zuko.”
He swallows audibly, hands fidgeting. “Katara. Ambassador Katara. Can I escort you to your quarters?”
Brow quirked, she reaches out to accept his waiting arm—until a stout, ornately-dressed man seems to melt out of shadow holding a rather large scroll. “Forgive me, Fire Lord, but your meeting with the education minister is set to begin momentarily.”
Zuko huffs, opens his mouth, closes it. Then with a final apologetic glance toward Katara, he turns abruptly to march back into the palace. She doesn’t miss the smug look on the interruptor’s pinched face before he scurries after his Fire Lord.
That night, the Blue Spirit meets her on the balcony of her guest chambers. She follows him to a makeshift hospital by the harbor.
The Painted Lady heals until she can hardly stand. The Blue Spirit watches.
When Katara awakes in her bed the next morning, her only recollection of how she got there is the memory of the Blue Spirit cradling her to his chest as he carried her through the winding streets of Caldera.
A fire lily rests on the pillow next to her.
She doesn’t know when the lines start to blur between Blue Spirit and Zuko, Painted Lady and Katara.
She doesn’t know when Zuko’s eyes begin to linger on her a moment longer than usual, when his smile becomes a bit more genuine when she walks into a room. Maybe something happened between her last visit and this one.
Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe she’s just now noticing.
The Blue Spirit rolls the tension out of his shoulders after their arduous nights of running in the same way that Zuko does after a particularly long meeting.
The Blue Spirit’s silences are as loud as Zuko’s nervous ramblings.
The Blue Spirit moves inside her with all the demand of a caged Fire Lord tasting fleeting freedom.
“And I’ll be submitting a formal request to eliminate tariffs on rice, in exchange for—”
Katara glances up from her notes at the sound of a scoff from the other side of the council chamber.
“Do any of you take issue with my proposal?” she inquires with a saccharine smile.
The room is silent as a tomb. She can feel the heat of Zuko’s eyes on her from his place at the head of the table.
“Forgive me. It’s just—well, we’ve given so much to the Water Tribes already.” It’s the same man—Minister Taomo, she now remembers—that had prevented Zuko from walking her to her chambers upon her arrival. “I’m inclined to believe that the Southern Water Tribe has taken much from us, with little to offer in return,” he continues doggedly, voice dripping with disdain.
Katara blinks once. Twice. “Forgive me, Minister.” Her fingernails bite into her palms beneath the table, but she keeps her voice steady. “Need I remind you exactly what the Fire Nation took from the Southern Water Tribe?”
Taomo holds his hands up placatingly. “I meant you no offense, miss. It’s just—the war has been over for some time now, and we can only be expected to pay reparations for so long—”
Every head in the room whips toward the Fire Lord. He watches Taomo levelly, hands steepled under his chin. But even at this distance, Katara can see a fury that matches hers brewing behind his calm demeanor.
The man’s face pales. “What? Lord Zuko—it is nothing personal. I did not mean your friend any disrespect—”
The Fire Lord speaks with all of the icy precision of the Blue Spirit’s dao swords. “I never want to see your face in this council chamber again. Are we clear?”
Taomo stammers incomprehensibly—embarrassingly—for a few moments before landing on, “Yes, Fire Lord.”
Zuko waits until he has slithered from the room to speak again, and there is something like softness in his eyes when he meets Katara’s gaze again. “Please continue, Ambassador.”
The lines blur a bit more.
After an exhausting day of meetings and an even more exhausting night of staking out a local crime syndicate, the Painted Lady is admittedly a little bit desperate. So when she pulls the Blue Spirit into the remains of an abandoned temple, trails her fingers down his chest, slips her hand in his waistband…
It’s a particularly unpleasant shock when he takes hold of her wrists and gently pushes her away.
The mask’s vacant grin gives her no hint, no sign. Instead, he laces their fingers and begins to pull her in the direction of the palace.
They part ways in the gardens, and the Painted Lady can’t seem to swallow her heart.
Somewhere in the shuffling of all of their skins—Painted Lady, Blue Spirit, Ambassador, Fire Lord—Katara and Zuko get lost in the fray.
Katara attempts to address it with him, but there is no freedom when the sun is above the horizon. She rarely sees him, and when she does, he fumbles his feet and his words. So they spend their days squeezing into their increasingly-suffocating boxes. Only, Katara can hardly fit into hers these days.
The strain of the day has leaked into the solace of the night. The Blue Spirit does not touch her.
The Painted Lady focuses on her work.
Katara fights too many wars.
On Katara’s final night in the Fire Nation, the Painted Lady kneels in an alley next to a crowded tavern, hands pressed against a gushing wound in the side of a young woman’s head. Somewhere in the shadows, the Blue Spirit pursues the woman’s attacker.
The woman is severely concussed. It takes all of her focus to repair the swelling without dealing any further damage. She squeezes her eyes shut in concentration, blocking out the sounds of the tavern and listening only to the roar of this woman’s blood. A faint blue glow seeps behind her eyelids as her healing waters begin to take effect.
The Painted Lady heals. The tavern is loud. The Painted Lady does not hear the footsteps approaching the mouth of the alleyway.
“Is everything alright, here?” calls a familiar voice.
She whips her head around toward the figure, now standing far too close not to—
When the Blue Spirit finds her again, the Painted Lady breaches their unspoken boundary.
“He saw me.”
The mask stares. “Who did?” His voice is muffled, scratchier than usual behind the mask’s smile.
“Taomo, the one you threw out of the council chamber the other day.”
A pregnant pause. “What do you mean, he saw you?”
“I didn’t see him coming. He got too close. He saw my face, Zuko.”
“Oh.” He reaches up as if to run a hand through his hair but pauses when he remembers the mask. “Fuck.”
“He’s going to give me away.”
Zuko’s shoulders heave with a gusty exhalation when he adjusts the scabbard on his shoulder. “We need to get back to the palace. Now.”
They sprint without stopping until they reach the palace gardens, and then some. They skirt around less-than-vigilant guards, dancing the dance they both know all too well. But there is an unspoken sense of finality to this particular performance.
The Blue Spirit helps her up and over her balcony, and before Katara knows it, they are standing in her room, doubled over and breathless.
For several minutes, their labored gasps are the only thing permeating the silence. Or maybe just hers—the Blue Spirit stands tall and still. The sparse, tidy guest-chamber wars with the cacophony of thoughts whirling through her mind.
“What am I going to do?” she pants. “I leave tomorrow, which will only give them more reason to suspect me when there are no more Painted Lady sightings. It’s over. We can’t do this anymore.”
The Blue Spirit says nothing.
Her voice rises. “Taomo’s got to have connections in the palace, right? Surely he’s already told as many people as he can by now.” She can feel the walls of their little comfort bubble begin to destabilize with each passing thought. “I’ll be arrested, or I won’t be able to come back to the Fire Nation. Maybe they’ll trace it back to you, somehow. And then what?”
The Blue Spirit watches her for what feels like an eternity. And she is tired of it.
“Say something,” she finally begs. “Zuko, say something.”
He does, and the mask muffles his words beyond recognition.
“What?” she huffs.
“Stay,” he says, a little louder this time.
“I can’t—what do you mean, stay?”
Katara can almost hear the thoughts whirring in his mind. Behind the mask, Zuko is making a decision—whatever that decision is...it results in his next words. “If you stay, but there still aren’t any sightings of the Painted Lady after tomorrow, there will be less reason to suspect you.”
That gives her pause. Though it’s a relatively simple solution for a complicated problem, there is logic to the words. Truth.
But they hit her ears like a lie. “Stay for how long?”
In answer, the Blue Spirit steps closer. Removes the Painted Lady’s hat and veil from her head, tossing them to the armchair in the corner. The heat from their earlier exertion drains from her face, travels lower.
“…Is that the only reason you want me to stay?” she whispers.
The Blue Spirit reaches behind his head, undoing the ties of his mask. He slips it off and drops it to the floor next to him.
Now stands Zuko, a hair’s breadth away. Amber eyes glazed, hair sticking up everywhere—a little frazzled. But it’s not her friend, Zuko, or the Avatar’s firebending teacher, Zuko, or the Fire Lord, Zuko. This is someone else entirely. And the way he’s—the way he’s looking at her—
Eyes never leaving hers, he takes one of her hands, turns it over in his. Places an open-mouthed kiss to her palm.
Then his mouth is on hers, lips firm and demanding.
Katara responds immediately, threading her fingers into his hair at the nape and slipping her tongue against his. He backs her roughly into the wall, eliciting a surprised huff from her that he swallows eagerly. His mouth moves slowly, caressing her tongue with a patience that belies the desperation in the hands that explore her body below.
He doesn’t break the kiss as he fumbles with the ties of her dress before the scent of singed fabric tells her that he has given up in this endeavor.
The Painted Lady’s dress pools at her feet, leaving her in only her wrappings.
“Stay,” he whispers against her lips. And then his mouth roams lower—peppering kisses along her jaw and into the dip of her neck, nipping lightly at her skin and soothing it with his tongue.
This is nothing like their hurried trysts, using each other as a means to an end in the alleys behind taverns and warehouses. The Blue Spirit never left a trail of sparks like this, with lips and teeth.
He pulls back for a moment, and without the mask concealing him, she has a front-row seat for the lust blackening his eyes, the utter adulation in his expression—sees for the first time exactly what she does to him.
“Lie down on the bed,” he rasps, ducking back down to suck on her collarbone, hands ghosting across her ribcage.
There is something reminiscent of the Blue Spirit in the quiet command, but he is not the Blue Spirit, and she is not the Painted Lady. They are Zuko and Katara.
Nevertheless, she obeys; feels herself float away from his hands and to the bed, lying on her back atop an unnecessary amount of pillows. Her skin prickles under the weight of his gaze. She is not half-dressed in the dark, with a veil to hide her face. She is exposed and vulnerable, laid bare for his gaze to scorch her skin.
Zuko approaches the bed, eyeing her like a predator does its prey. Then shakes his head, a tiny smile stretching his lips. “That won’t do.”
Without warning, he takes both of her ankles and pulls her until her legs hang over the edge, her feet brushing the plush carpet. She can’t help the small yelp that bubbles from her lips, but it becomes a breathy chuckle when he mumbles, “Sorry.”
Zuko wastes no time sinking to his knees, lifting her foot and pressing a kiss to the instep, sending a pulse of heat into the pit of her stomach.
“You’re still wearing your clothes,” she says stupidly, flushing when it comes out more like a whine.
The thin rings of gold in his eyes crackle with mirth as he kisses his way up her calf. “Do you want me to take them off?”
She huffs and averts her gaze. Why is she so flustered? This is routine.
Except, it isn’t. Katara knows the Blue Spirit’s tune well. She is reasonably confident she could pluck the strings of the Fire Lord, too, if she wished. But this vocal, expressive man knelt reverently before her—just Zuko—puts her on uneven ground.
“Tell me what you want, Katara,” he murmurs against the inside of her knee.
Against her wishes, his words cause the thoughts that have niggled in the back of her mind to surface.
I could ask you the same thing.
Why have you been pushing me away?
Why do you suddenly want me again?
But this is not the time for complications.
“You,” she breathes. And it’s the truth.
The firebender rests his unscarred cheek atop her thigh, his hand sliding up to splay across the other. The grin he flashes her is sunshine, warm as his hand on her skin and the wetness pooling between her legs. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that.”
She attempts a glare, but it probably looks more like a grimace. “Stop teasing me and take off your clothes.”
Zuko smirks, but he’s compromised by the blush that rises to his cheeks when he realizes he hasn’t removed the swords from his back. Katara stifles a giggle when he shrugs the scabbard over his shoulders and drops it unceremoniously to the floor—until the urge to laugh leaves her when his tunic follows.
He turns his full attention back to her, eyes wandering over her body before he leans in to press another wet kiss to her thigh, sliding his hand up to her stomach.
Her gaze roves over the planes of his pale muscles. “Pants, too.”
“Mm,” he smiles against her skin. “You weren’t specific enough.” The look in his eyes when they meet hers sends a shudder rippling through her. “And now it’s my turn.”
She swallows. “What do you want, then?” And hates how wrecked she already sounds when he hasn’t even touched her yet.
He plucks at the fabric of the bindings covering her hips. “I’d really like to taste you, if that’s alright with you,” he says between brushes of his lips.
Katara squirms as the prickle between her thighs becomes almost uncomfortable. Zuko drags his teeth lightly across the inside of the thin skin there, dragging a stuttering gasp from her lips.
“Is that a yes?” But he has already hooked a finger into the fabric, has already begun pulling at it.
“Yes,” she whimpers, lifting her hips to allow him to slide the wrappings the rest of the way down her legs.
He groans, his breath hot against her wet center. “Fuck. You smell good.”
And before any other thought can form in Katara’s mind, he dips his tongue between her folds, licking up her slit in a lingering taste. A quiet strangled sound tears out of her throat, but she can’t find it in herself to be embarrassed.
Zuko hums against her, the vibration of it reverberating deep in her bones, setting her alight from the inside. “Taste good, too.”
He adjusts, taking her legs and hooking them over his shoulders to press himself closer. Then he’s kissing her in earnest—the satisfaction at the glaring evidence of her arousal practically radiates from him—and her vision goes dark at the edges as the tips of her fingers begin to tingle.
Katara reaches down to fist her hands in his hair, feeling him sigh when her nails scratch at his scalp. “Spirits, your hair is soft,” she murmurs.
In answer, his tongue flicks up to circle her clit, and that first involuntary clench around nothing draws a choked gasp out of her. Zuko hisses when she tugs on his hair a bit too hard, slipping his tongue frustratingly lower to keep her from reaching her peak.
It’s a punishment, Katara realizes belatedly. “Sorry,” she mutters, not sounding sorry at all.
“Mm.” His hand unwraps itself from her thigh and wanders up toward her breast bindings, fingers leaving trails of electricity in their wake. He pinches her nipple through the thin material; it has her biting back another moan. “Take this off.” He pulls back to look at her, licking her wetness from his lips. “And don’t hold back the noises. I want to hear you, Katara.”
She finds herself obeying once again, arching herself off the bed so that she can reach behind and pluck at the ties securing her wrappings. Zuko uses the new angle to his advantage, tugging her hips until she is flush against his face. He fucks his tongue up into her, and Katara can’t stifle a ragged cry.
“Someone else will hear me,” she gasps, successfully shedding her wrappings and gripping the sheets to avoid pulling his hair again. Zuko doesn’t hesitate to cup her breast, squeezing and massaging and bringing her back to the edge as the prickle of arousal spreads further from the ache between her legs.
The humor returns to his hooded eyes as he looks up at her, and it might be the most attractive thing she’s ever seen. “Well, that’s a pretty good alibi, wouldn’t you say so?”
His tongue swirls her clit again, and a familiar fluttering sensation sends a shiver up her spine. “Zuko, I’m going to—”
Zuko pulls back, and for an infuriating moment, she thinks he’s teasing her again, but then he closes his lips around that sensitive bundle of nerves and sucks. Hard.
Katara screams, every muscle in her body tensing with the force of her sudden release. It clamps down on her like a snare, trapping her under it until she’s quivering and breathless, the tides of it rolling beneath her skin in vicious swells. Her eyes fly open, certain for a moment that Zuko has somehow actually lit her on fire as the sparks of her orgasm spread from the tips of her toes to the roof of her mouth. All she can do is lie there and allow it to consume her.
She vaguely becomes aware of his hands, rubbing soothing circles into her hips as she starts to come down; and his tongue, eager to lap up every last drop of moisture. With each passing moment, she feels herself sink further and further into the mattress.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” she pants as the waves recede and her limbs loosen.
Zuko quirks a brow at her, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “I couldn’t exactly do this with the mask on.”
He nudges her thighs off his shoulders and climbs onto the bed between her legs. Despite the protests of her gelatinous muscles, she takes the hint and uses her elbows to slide backward until she falls into the mound of pillows at the top of the bed. Zuko follows like a moth to flame, eyes locked on hers and wearing that same look that sends something unnameable fluttering into her chest.
“You know,” he whispers, propping his forearms on either side of her head, leaning down until their breaths intermingle. “If you stay,” takes her bottom lip between his teeth, “We can do this every day.”
He kisses her urgently, almost drunkenly. Katara tilts her head to deepen it, tasting herself on his tongue as the embers in the pit of her stomach flare back to life with a dizzying ferocity. She wonders if firebenders feel this way all the time. His erection strains against her thigh, the thin fabric of his pants the only thing separating them now.
Katara runs her hands over his arms, trails her fingers down his chest, feels the gooseflesh erupting there under her touch that contrasts kind of wonderfully with the feverish heat of his skin. He breaks the kiss briefly, pressing his forehead against hers while he catches his breath. A dazed smile lights his sharp features, and she returns it wryly. “So this is why you want to keep me around, huh?”
Zuko freezes, then pulls back abruptly. He is no longer smiling. “No.”
Then he wraps her in his arms and flips them, the suddenness of it knocking the breath out of her. Now he’s sitting up, hitching her legs around his waist so that she straddles him. “No.” And Katara almost has to look away from the intensity of the gaze he levels her with. He kisses between her breasts, unwrapping one arm from her waist to swipe his thumb across her nipple—eliciting another humiliating noise from her. “No, Katara.”
His mouth replaces his hand. Zuko’s tongue is hot on her skin, brands her with a firebender’s heat. His free hand kneads her other breast, makes tingling peaks of her nipples that run on lightning down past her pelvis. Between kisses, he whispers incoherently—she catches only her name, spoken over and over again like a prayer. All she can do is watch, pinned in place by the sensations fizzling through her like falling stars under his touch. Watch the way the stubble on his jaw ripples as he works at her skin, the way he doesn’t seem to care that his hair keeps falling into his eyes.
“You have no idea,” he says, looking up at her through his lashes. “No clue, how long I’ve—” He pauses, squeezes his eyes shut. “Katara, you are…that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
And she does have a clue, but that terrifies her. This is unchartered territory, whatever it is that’s blooming between them here. This is not the sound of panting from behind masks or the smears quick trysts make of her paint.
So Katara does the only thing she can think to do—retreats to safety. She grinds down onto him, lets the head of his cock slide against her through the cloth. Feels her wetness seep out of her and smear across the front of his pants. Listens to the sound of his breath hitching, to the strangled sandpaper groan that rakes its way out of him.
This she knows well from her late nights with the Blue Spirit. This is safe.
She aligns their pelvises, thrusts a hand between them to work his waistband over his hips. Sinks onto him with the practiced ease of the Painted Lady, sighing contentedly at the familiar fullness of him inside her. Zuko’s hands reach around to grip her backside automatically, but he lets her control the pace, rising to meet every snap of her hips.
The only sounds now are his labored grunts, the slap of skin meeting skin. Katara’s eyes fall closed, and she allows herself to relish in the comfort of their routine, allows the pulse between her legs to overwhelm every other thought.
Until he speaks again. “Katara, look at me.”
There is more of that subtle command coating his tone, and she can’t help but yield to it. She does so hesitantly, gasping when his thumb reaches down to rub her clit where their flesh meets. His other hand tangles itself in her hair; draws her closer to his chest. He drives into her at a new angle, and she has to grip his shoulders for purchase as she’s pushed back to the brink, her legs beginning to shake around him.
But she’s looking at him now. At the tightness in his jaw, at the sweaty hair sticking to his forehead. At his eyes, watching her in that way they have all night. And for some reason, in this coital haze, she can finally put a name to what she sees there. She is the sun, and he hasn’t seen daylight in years.
And he doesn’t know it, but he has answered all of her unspoken questions. The Painted Lady was not who he wanted—it was always Katara.
She comes gradually, like warm water trickling over her, rather than the explosions and stars of earlier. It envelopes her like a blanket, and she cries his name in the dark as it drags its way through her limbs. When she clenches around him, Zuko follows her over the edge, his breathing as stuttered as his shallow thrusts.
And when all is still, when he pulls out of her and presses a lingering kiss to her shoulder, when they fall back into the pillows and she settles against his chest, they find a new solace.
Initially, Katara vows to stay until the rumors about the Painted Lady’s identity die down. She doesn’t know precisely when that becomes an excuse. Maybe it was always one.
During the day, she remains Ambassador Katara. But at night, she no longer dons the veil and paint—for now, at least. In the meantime, there are other comforts of night.
The unexpected consequence of the death of one rumor: It breeds more rumors.
Across the Fire Nation, there are whispers about the nature of the relationship between the Fire Lord and the Ambassador of the Southern Water Tribe.
Interestingly, those particular rumors never quite seem to die down.