A knock at her bedroom door makes Katara turn in the middle of unpinning her hair. A servant peers inside, wearing the fine but understated red robes all the servants wore, hair pulled back into a nondescript top-knot, golden eyes cast down. Katara is about to ask him what he wants...then she blinks. No, it's a woman, slender and young. The Fire Nation is frustrating that way; the men and women wearing the same uniforms and the same hairstyles... Katara is all about equality, but it would be nice to tell them apart.
“Master Katara,” the servant says, and even the voice slips between masculine and feminine without definitively staying in one or the other. It's...oddly alluring. “I came to brush your hair and prepare your bed for the night.”
Oh, so she is a girl. A manservant wouldn't come to brush a lady's hair.
That's another thing Katara never gets used to here, having the sheets turned down, her nightgown laid out, and her hair brushed for bed as if she is still a child. Not that she slept in sheets as a child, but she's been cleaning the furs and blankets her family slept in since she was eight years old, when her mother...
Anyway, the daily presence of servants performing the most basic of tasks for her still disturbs her. Once on a previous visit she brought it up to Zuko and Mai. The latter raised an eyebrow, and the former questioned, “But isn't it nice to be waited on?” Ugh, royalty.
Still, the servant looks new and anxious to please, so Katara just sighs, “Sure,” and sits on the little stool in front of the vanity table.
The girl picks up a brush that has been laying on the vanity next to Katara's necklace and applies it gently to the waves tumbling down the waterbender's back. With her this close, Katara notes a faint scent of something sweet, like peaches.
The repetitive strokes of the brush soothe Katara into a little daze and her mind drifts to Aang, likely already asleep in the next room. Despite the fairly egalitarian mindset of the Southern Water Tribe and the wink-wink nudge-nudge attitudes about sex, Katara and Aang agreed to wait. Neither had elaborated on their reasons. Katara found—still finds it difficult to share the deep seated, private dream she had, but it's one she clings to passionately: her parents' love for each other and their strong union. Katara wants that and nothing less.
But it's still another year or more before marriage is an option, given Aang's age, and sometimes fantasies fall short of satisfying a young woman's curiosity. Katara knows her boyfriend sleeps without a shirt in this hot country, and once or twice she tiptoed over to his room and peeked in just to look. His shoulders had broadened since they met, the muscles of his chest had become more defined, and the smooth plane of his stomach was lit by the moonlight coming in the window...
Her cheeks flush scarlet. She shoots a guilty glance at the reflection of the servant in the silver mirror hanging above the vanity, but the girl's eyes are down, focused on her task.
“You have such lovely hair, Master Katara,” she breathes in that low voice, and Katara feels something heavy growing deep in her belly, reaching tendrils out to her groin and making her thighs feel all trembly. She hopes that the growing blush on her cheeks will be passed off as a reaction to the heat. The servant then sets the brush down and goes to the wardrobe, removing something scarlet and flimsy and holding it up. “Would you like my help with this?”
“No, thank you,” the waterbender replies weakly, feeling foolish and confused without being able to say why.
After spending a few more minutes turning down the sheets and fluffing the pillows, the girl demurely asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, I'm good.”
She bows, one of her hands in a fist underneath the open palm of the other, and leaves. Katara lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding, removes her usual clothes, and slides the night dress on. The feeling of the silk on her skin is unexpectedly arousing—she's worn silk nightdresses before when visiting the palace, but they've never made her feel like this. Her entire body throbbing, she curls up on the bed.
The scent of peaches lingers in her nose, and it occurs to Katara that she forgot to ask the girl's name. She does not notice that her necklace is no longer on the table next to the brush.
Zuko is poring over a scroll in his huge bed when the servant comes in. He gives him only a cursory glance before returning to the report. Next to the Fire Lord his wife is also reading, but upon seeing the servant Mai lays the scroll down in her lap and studies the boy for a minute. He's awfully feminine looking. Something about the cheekbones, or maybe the eyes. Striking eyes, those. Servants didn't usually have gold eyes; those tended to only run in noble families, and even then only in certain bloodlines. Has she ever seen this servant before?
The tall boy glances at her briefly under long, dark lashes and something about that look makes Mai suddenly damp between her legs, though her face betrays nothing. She returns to the scroll, painfully aware of every graceful move the boy makes as he goes around the room cleaning, preparing their clothes for tomorrow, and placing glasses of water by the lamps on their nightstands. By the time he's done her entire body is thrumming like the notes of a tsungi horn. Some sweet scent fills the air, but Mai is too distracted to place it.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” the servant asks. His voice is honey and fire and post sex afterglow. Mai now notices how tense her husband is beside her. She's positive that he's no longer reading the scroll that's arranged over his lap just so.
“No,” Zuko coughs out. “The Lady Mai and I will be fine for the rest of the evening.”
The servant bows and leaves. No sooner does the door shut than the couple tosses aside their reading materials and starts tearing off each others' nightwear. Neither notice the carved pendant on the dark blue ribbon laying on the shelf across the room.
“Where's my necklace?!” comes Katara's distressed shout from her room. It echoes down the hall, causing heads to turn.
Pulling on his yellow tunic, Aang hurries over and pokes his head in, but anything he's about to say dies in his throat.
She's standing in front of the vanity, lit by the morning sun coming in her window. The light turns her hair almost golden at the edges and illuminates the curve of her hips and legs through the shimmering red silk. A surprising amount of tan skin swells gently above the neckline of the gown, and her distress serves to make her more beautiful. Aang feels like the arrow of a Yu Yan Archer, ready to be fired. He considers proposing on the spot.
“Are you going to stand there with your mouth hanging open or are you going to help me?” she demands.
“Uh, sorry,” he manages to get out despite a tongue that feels three sizes too big, and comes into the room the rest of the way. “Where did you leave it?”
“Here,” she says, pointing at the vanity, but doubt crosses her face. “I'm pretty sure I put it there. Maybe I wore it to bed after all and it fell off.” She bends over to search through the tangled sheets and Aang has to forcibly tear his gaze away.
“Maybe it's underneath the table,” he says to distract himself, and gets down on hands and knees to peer underneath.
“I already checked there,” she replies with a huff. “I think someone took it.” Before Aang can answer that, she's running out of the room, forgetting to change. Aang gives a little sigh and keeps looking, sure that the necklace just fell somewhere by accident.
Katara doesn't even notice the figure sweeping the hallway floor as she storms by. She's about to turn the corner when she nearly crashes into Zuko, who's been up and dressed since the sunrise. In his hand is her necklace.
“Oh thank you thank you thank you,” she says all in a rush, her eyes shining as she takes the necklace. “Where did you find it?”
“In my room,” he answers. “Don't know how it got there.”
“Huh,” she says, puzzled. She hasn't gone anywhere near the room he shares with Mai. Her fingers fumble as she tries to tie her necklace on. “This stupid hair,” she fusses. “It's getting in the way.”
“Want some help?” he asks. It's completely innocuous, the question, and so is her acceptance. But when he steps behind her and pushes the curtain of her hair aside, his fingers brush her skin. It tingles where he has touched, warm like the touch of a flame, and she goes rigid. That feeling from yesterday is back, twice as strong. Thinking about Aang that way is fine, he is her boyfriend after all. But that servant girl, and now Zuko? What the heck is wrong with her?
She chuckles nervously as Zuko brings the pendant up and gently pulls the ribbon taut around her neck, suddenly remembering. “This is familiar.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, his voice unusually husky even for him. He becomes painfully aware of how thin her nightgown is and how close their bodies are, even with his thick Fire Lord robes on. “It's tied. You probably should go get dressed now.”
“Oh.” She holds a hand to her mouth, once again turning bright red. “Yeah. I'll go do that. Right now.” She covers her chest with her arms as she backs up, then pivots and flees. Zuko watches her go, wondering what she and Mai would look like together, pale skin against fawn, gold eyes and blue, covered only by a crimson sheet. The thought shocks him—Katara is one of his best friends, dating another of his best friends! And his wife of less than six months would surely never go for that kind of thing. Zuko doesn't go for that kind of thing.
But the mental image digs into his brain, persistent and tantalizing.
Aang's still on his hands and knees when a flustered Katara re-enters the room. He's about to stammer out an excuse for why he's still in her bedroom when she flings herself on him and crushes her lips to his.
In the hallway just beyond her door, a broom rests against the wall. Lingering in the air is the faint smell of peaches.