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Warfare at Dawn

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It isn’t supposed to be like this.

The Blue Spirit pins the Painted Lady against a wall atop the Hedoya lookout tower. Her hands grip his arms tight, her nails leaving imprints through his shirt. Her bending thrums against his flesh as if calling for his blood.

He moves inside her with precision, with rhythm, with the ingrained knowledge of how she moves in combat, on the dance floor, at court. He listens to the staccato of her breaths, the little gasps, the muffled moans. Her veil, askew on her head, hides her face from his gaze.

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

In darkness, the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit fight a familiar war, an endless war. They fight as one, protect as one.

In the daylight, the Fire Lord and the Ambassador dance the dances of court, learning and re-learning the ever-changing steps.

This dance she leads him in happens at the brink of dawn; the building pleasure feels like a losing war.

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

 


 

They meet by the gates of the outer palace. He arrives first, hiding in the long shadow cast by the tall wall, pressed to the stones so closely that no patrolling guard can see him. She arrives a little later, landing neatly and quietly next to him, her veil and dress ruffling in the night’s wind. She looks like a proper spirit, like a dream.

Her lips quirk up in a greeting, but she’s otherwise silent.

Wordlessly, they take off into the night.

 


 

Later, people will claim to have known all along that Fire Lord Zuko was in love with the lady Ambassador.

Zuko will not dignify that with a response, but—

They’re all wrong.

Zuko had no idea until now, and even with her all around him, against him—with her face pressed to the side of his mask, with her hands clutching at the back of his shirt, with the way she keens, quiet and restrained into his ear—he cannot begin to understand this newfound discovery.

 


 

It begins with a loss of control. He doesn’t know when the night had gone sideways, only that it did—and now he stands over a city guardsman, his swords edged red with the man’s blood. The Painted Lady hovers over the dead guard, one hand on his neck; after a few moments, she stands and shakes her head.

The Blue Spirit is unmoving. Under the mask, Zuko is cold.

One of his own. One of his own men had been a monster, had escaped the Fire Lord’s justice, and the Fire Lord—no, Zuko—no, the Blue Spirit—had killed him.

The man had deserved to die. He had abused those he’d been charged to protect, and if the matter had been brought to court, he would have been hanged.

But it hadn’t been brought to court. He’d been free to terrorize the citizens, and when the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady had tried to stop him from assaulting a lone girl in the streets, he’d fought back, and somewhere between the first strike and the last, blood had been drawn, quietly, easily.

The human body is a soft, fragile thing. Zuko’s dao swords had been forged by a legend, and are now wielded by something not quite human. Flesh is no match for the blade.

The man had deserved to die, but not like this. Not like this. The Blue Spirit binds and gags and drops criminals at the bottom of the hundred steps that lead to the courthouse. The Blue Spirit sometimes maims, but never kills. Zuko’s father had executed his own people, assassinated his opponents, without due process, but Zuko cannot become his father.

The Painted Lady looks up at him. Reaches for his hand, fingertips ghosting over his straining knuckles. He eases his grip, shrugs her comfort away. Takes a step back. Flicks the blood off his blades, then sheathes them, the sliding sound of metal against metal too loud in the darkness.

Zuko looks down at the body, the oozing blood a puddle on the dusty cobblestones. Should he leave the body here, let the nocturnal animals have their way with it? Should he carry it to the courthouse like he would a living criminal? The air tastes like dust, the smell of blood creeping up his nose, clinging to his lungs.

The man had deserved to die. Zuko believes it a little less every time, so he keeps repeating it.

The Painted Lady stands, reaching forward before dropping her hand. Her stare is sharp even under the dark shadows cast by her hat, even behind the gauzy veil that obscures her features.

And then, she starts walking away. One step, then two, before she stops ever so briefly to beckon him with a tip of her chin.

He follows, a compass to her lodestone. She doesn’t look back to check on him, but doesn’t run, either. Her strides are long, steady, and it’s only a brief walk to the dead guard’s abandoned lookout tower. The next shift will not arrive until sunrise, and no alarm has been raised.

She looks up to the pinnacle of the looming tower, then to him, before she starts climbing.

And again, he follows. Quiet, unquestioning. He’s not calm, yet. There’s still a tangled mess of regret and anger and grief in his chest. But he can breathe, in and out, and with each exhalation he gets on the next rung. The climb feels endless, but he knows that while the lookout towers are tall, they’re not so tall that it wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to climb. Guards are supposed to be quick, after all. Responsive.

The one he’d just slain had been quick and responsive, but not to help. He’d been a viper-bat, ready to swoop its prey.

Zuko reaches the lookout at the top, directing his gaze out the window to the sprawl of buildings below, which grow smaller and smaller until a line of rooftops kiss the sky. A perfect perch for a viper-bat. How many had fallen victim to the man, before tonight?

His hands grip the wooden fence, tighter, tighter. It gives. Singes in a flutter of smoke and char and crumbles into charcoal, blackening his palm. Another loss of control. He snarls, almost a curse. The Blue Spirit doesn’t curse. Doesn’t speak. Zuko strains against the mask and wishes he could scream profane fire into the night sky, but he cannot, so he whirls around to the last thing that tethers him to sanity and finds her as she finds him, her arms looping around his middle.

He folds himself around her and breathes her in and finds an entirely different kind of ache in his chest.

The Painted Lady, like the Blue Spirit, doesn’t speak. For Zuko, however, Katara hums. It’s a nonsense melody. Her hand runs up and down his back, and she is so overwhelmingly gentle with him that he shoves her away, pinning her shoulders to the wall behind her. The force of it makes her gasp.

He lets her go as if she’s burned him—no, as if he’s burned her, he’s hurt her, why did he hurt her—but her eyes are wide behind her veil and she catches his hands and pulls them back to her shoulders, tugging. He doesn’t understand, but then she moves one of his hands down, to her upper arm, and squeezes so his hand grips her. So he does, firm enough to hold an opponent.

She shakes her head and squeezes over his hand again. He tightens his grip; her breath hitches.

Oh. He thinks he’s starting to understand, but he needs more to be sure, more… her.

With his free hand, he cups her chin and tips her face up until the veil parts and he can see her clearly, all wide eyes and parted lips, her stuttered breath as she peers into the dark holes of his mask. Can she see his eyes? Or does she only see the Blue Spirit, only want the Blue Spirit’s dark silence?

She bites her lip, teeth against plump red lips, and her hand finds his crotch, palming it. His cock hardens almost as if on command, his hips bucking against her touch; her mouth splits into a grin. A challenge. It doesn’t answer the questions in his head, but he knows challenges, knows how to meet them. This is familiar, known. Just like their sparring sessions.

He releases her arm. Her brows furrow, a question held between the crinkles of her forehead, then she sucks in a sharp breath when he holds her breast in his palm. He learns a few more new sounds—all quiet, all different—as he explores the shape, as he squeezes it, as his fingers find her hardened nipple from outside the thin silk of her dress and pinch it.

Her head falls back, throat bared. Zuko wants to kiss the bob of her pulse and lick a path down to the dip of her clavicles.

He doesn’t. The Blue Spirit does not kiss.

Instead, he slips his leg between hers and she cants her hips to find purchase, find friction, skirts bunching against his pant leg, and she makes a little disappointed huff when her efforts prove to be lacking.

So, Zuko kneels. He looks up to her, trying to seek—what? Permission? Rebuke? He finds neither. Her face is obscured by the veil, from this angle, and she seems more spirit than human.

The sages in charge of his education had taught him to venerate the spirits, and so he worships at the altar of her feet, his hand creeping up from the straps of her sandal around her ankle, to her calf—corded and taut—the dip behind her knee, her thigh, and—

The strip of fabric between her legs is damp. Once again, he marvels at the knowledge that she wants him, staggers at how normal it feels to want her. How it is only one step forward from the way he feels at her smiles, at the comfort of her hugs, at the brush of her hand over his.

Now here she stands over him, wet, waiting, wanting.

What sort of supplicant is he, to make his goddess wait? He presses a fingertip lightly against her and she makes a low, impatient sound as she presses back, seeking contact. He obliges and presses another finger against her, his thumb tracing around the shape of her clit through her bindings. Her breaths quicken, quicken, but a thought interrupts his ministrations, harsh and unwelcome: it isn’t supposed to be like this.

No, of course not. She deserves more than some clumsy rubbing through her underwear, so he lets her go—the sound of her disappointment sends another jolt of arousal through him—and moves to take her bindings off. He wishes he had the luxury, the patience to peel the long strip of fabric from her, unwind it like he unfurls her long, wonderful letters, but no. Not with dawn quickly approaching, not here atop a lookout tower where they could soon be discovered.

Here and now, he tugs, harshly. She’s wrapped them well enough that they don't immediately give, but she shimmies as he tugs a second time and the bindings give, loosen, enough to let him ease them down her legs.

And then, she is bare to him, her skirts ruched up, her legs apart. A patch of dark hair, and then her—her, right there where his face is... he could just—

No. The mask stays on.

The longer he stays on his knees, though, the stronger the temptation is to lift it and put his mouth on her. But then, he would be Zuko again, and it isn’t Zuko that she wants. So he straightens, and she watches him, as if she can see his shameful face behind the mask. He resists the urge to look away from her and instead pushes her shoulder until she is flush against the wall. Takes her leg in one hand, pulling up, and she willingly lifts it and hooks it over the crook of his elbow.

And with his other hand, he fucks her.

It’s a crass word, he thinks, but there’s no other word for the way his fingers thrust into her, the way he slides back and forth in time with her breath, the way he listens to her quiet gasps and discovers the right speed, the way—as tension builds in her frame and her fingernails press into his shoulder blades, the pain exquisite—he grinds his palm against her and crooks his fingers inside her and she surges forward, her head falling onto his shoulder, her mouth open in a scream that is mostly muffled by his shoulder.

She slumps, catching her breath, and in him the thought still rebels: it isn’t supposed to be like this.

He hates it, the judgement of his own mind, the truth of it. So he retreats, pulls away from her. Maybe it’s not too late yet. Maybe he can still—

She takes his wrist, loose enough that he can shake her off, but clearly a plea to stay. Her eyes are heavy-lidded, her lips half-parted. He imagines the spill of her hair against his silk bedsheets, imagines this face under firelight, imagines the flush of her cheeks after she comes. Here is the reality: the moonlight washes them dark and grey, and he can see no flush. Dawn is coming soon. A wooden splinter has worked its way into the hand he’s using to brace himself against the wall. His face is covered by a lacquered mask, one that’s set in a permanent sneer. He’s no Fire Lord, now, nor one of her oldest friends. He is the stories told by scared children on hot summer nights. He’s a vigilante and a murderer, and she wants him right now.

He wishes he could talk. Katara always knows what to say to soothe his nerves, to ease him out of an awkward situation. Nothing makes sense, right now, and it all feels as easy as falling into a trap. If they could just talk… But the mask is a muzzle and her veil is a wall and the whole point of this, of these excursions, is that they don’t have to talk through their problems. They’ve talked enough in meetings and trade negotiations and court.

Nighttime is the time for their bodies to speak without words. Is her hand around his wrist not loud enough?

Here is his answer to her question: he steps forward, crowding her against the wall. He tugs at the strings at his waistband, freeing his cock. She tips her gaze down and he thinks he sees her throat bobbing from behind the veil. She reaches for his cock; he bats her hand away. Instead, he takes her leg and hooks it over his forearm, aligns the head of his cock with the heat of her opening, and enters her.

Suddenly, he doesn’t want to talk anymore. What can he say, anyway, that could adequately describe the lifting of her other leg to rest in the crook of his other elbow, her weight in his arms, the movements of her hips and his, a dance, a spar, a rush and a race, pushing and pulling like the tides, like monsoon windstorms? Already, the metaphors in his head are all jumbled up. Let them never speak of it, because otherwise he’d choke on his own tongue trying to do her justice. Let him only be lost for a moment here, in her, around her, where nothing else matters but the slide of his flesh against hers.

It isn’t supposed to be like this, but this is the only way it can be, and isn’t that enough? Can’t it be enough?

It’s not long before he comes. It’s a pleasure so sharp and intense, leaving a heartache he didn’t know was possible, and he knows for certain now that he’s beyond help.

They don’t have the luxury of privacy, of a slow day basking in the sunlight and in each other. Soon, the disguises must come off, replaced by their robes of office. He knows it, and she does as well. Light starts to limn the edge of the sky when they untangle their limbs and swiftly and efficiently straighten their clothes, as if it’s just another task. He tucks his cock back into his pants and she bundles up her bindings and pockets them. He retrieves her veiled hat from the floor; it must have fallen off somewhere in the middle. Her face paint is all smeared, as if they’d been in a particularly grueling fight. Maybe they had.

Their return is as it is supposed to be: they leap from rooftop to rooftop and part ways when they near the palace. He’s to circle the complex and sneak into the inner palace while she makes her way to her assigned guest quarters. He doesn’t acknowledge her when he turns, doesn’t look back to see if her eyes follow him.

He doesn’t know what he would hope to see, if he did.

 


 

Zuko arrives mere moments before his attendant knocks on his door. He stashes his mask under the tatami, tries not to think about the red face paint smeared on its lacquer, and strips off the rest of his clothes. He musses up his hair and tries to look bleary before silently slipping into his bed and calling the man to come in.

Later, as he’s dressing, Zuko catches sight of the bruises she’d left on his back in the mirror. They’re small, crescent-shaped, and gone unmentioned by his attendant, though most likely not unnoticed.

The splinter in his palm itches.

 


 

“Good morning, Fire Lord Zuko.” Katara looks about as rested as she usually is at this hour, which is a feat considering she couldn’t have had more than a few minutes of shut-eye.

Zuko smiles. It’s usually effortless, smiling around her, but today it’s harder to do. “Good morning, Ambassador.”

“Something wrong?”

“No! Nothing. I mean—” He flounders and, eventually, offers his hand to her, palm-up. “I seem to have gotten a splinter from my bed frame, last night.”

She doesn’t tease him about the shoddy excuse. Every single piece of furniture in the palace is sanded and polished and varnished, or even lacquered, to the point where one can see their own reflection in any surface. There’s no way he could get a splinter from his own bed frame. But it’s not hard to guess where—and when, and how—he’d gotten the splinter. That might be why she doesn’t say a thing as she eases the shard out of his skin and heals the wound left behind.

“There,” she says, with the satisfied expression of a job well done. “No boo-boo anymore.”

He pulls his hand away from her touch, and mock-offended, he says, “You wound me, Ambassador Katara.”

“I would never!” she exclaims, and then they move on to other things, important matters of development and economy and diplomacy, and if his palm throbs from the absence of the splinter and its needle-thin wound, he doesn’t comment on it.

 


 

That night, they fuck again. He thinks about his silk bed and the royal hot springs and flowers and impassioned letters and an official courtship as she puts her mouth on his cock.

One day, he'll ask her if she wants him without the mask. He’ll reach for her hand in public and ask for it over a private dinner. He’ll make love to her in his bed. He’ll say her name as loudly and as many times as it deserves to be said.

Pleasure crests within him and his hand fists into her hair. He swallows back her name from the tip of his tongue and spills into her mouth.

She looks up at him, her self-satisfied expression exactly like this morning after she’d healed him.

He closes his eyes. One day, he’ll be brave. Until then, his mask will have to be enough.