There’s a secret door in the wall of Katara’s room.
“ Secret tunnel, secret tunnel,” she sings under her breath, holding the little lantern she’d found beside her bed, complete with spark-rocks, ahead of her. The tunnel is small and narrow, nothing at all like the tunnels under the mountain, and there won’t be any glowing rocks to lead the way if she gets lost and blows out the light.
She won’t get lost, because she can already see the outline of the door at the other end of the tunnel, ringed in the soft gold of oil-lamp light.
It opens with the slightest press of her hand, and she laughs at that. She’s not sure why she’s laughing, and she stops as soon as the room beyond is revealed.
Zuko is standing in bending stance, his hair soft and loose around his face, wearing only loose, soft leggings, which are sitting low on his narrow hips. He relaxes as soon as he recognises her, shifting to stand upright and smiling.
The lightning scar on his chest is still livid, fitting into the lines of muscle as if Azula aimed it on purpose.
“You look a little lost,” he says, smile fading when he realises she’s only wearing her underthings and the filmy robe his servants left for her. It’s beautiful, pale yellow-gold silk edged with deep navy-blue, and she knows she should be mortified to be here, like this, at this time of the night, but she’s not. She hasn’t been embarrassed around Zuko in years, not since he saw her bloodbend and didn’t say a word about it.
“Why is there a secret tunnel between our rooms?”
He looks embarrassed, even though he’s shrugging and aiming for nonchalance. The whole right side of his face flares deep pink, all down his neck and over his shoulders, and she wonders if it goes around the back, too.
“This is my room,” he says, “the Fire Lord’s room - you’re in the Fire Lady’s room. And it’s a secret passage, not a secret tunnel.”
“Like that makes a difference,” she points out, crossing the room to sit on his bed. The sheets are white cotton, which surprises her - she’d expected red silk, and feels a little silly for it. “Why am I in the bedroom meant for your wife?”
“Because you’re the guest of honour,” he says, “and that’s the best room in the Fire Nation, after mine.”
“Aang is the guest of honour.”
“And he wanted to sleep anywhere but the palace,” Zuko points out evenly.
It occurs to Katara, sitting on Zuko’s bed while he stands over her, arms crossed self-consciously over his bare chest, that she is a little drunk, and it’s making her brave, but Zuko is very, very sober, and is blushing that beautiful pink because of it.
His eyes are trailing up the line of her shin, probably because she has her legs crossed and he’s never seen her bare-legged before. Probably.
“These aren’t guest quarters, though,” she says, lying back on the soft cotton sheets, wondering if they’re really warm under her or if it’s just the wine humming under her skin. “Are Toph and Sokka and Suki roomed up here, too?”
“Toph is,” Zuko says, “but I figured it would be better for all of us if Sokka and Suki were… A little further away.”
Marriage suits them, but Sokka and Suki haven’t quite figured out how to keep things quiet enough to keep from scandalising their neighbours. She can see the logic in Zuko’s decision on that front, she supposes.
“Is there a secret tunnel from Toph’s room to yours?”
“As if she needs one.”
That’s fair, too.
He sits on the edge of the bed beside her, but stays upright. His back is long and smooth and pale, dusted with constellations of peachy freckles, and Katara wants to touch it. She’s wanted to touch Zuko for ages, but hasn’t dared, not in any of her visits here or their shared visits to Gaoling or wherever else.
She’s brave tonight, though, so she sits up, and presses her hand flat to his back, over his heart. His skin is warm, fever-warm but without the sweatiness or claminess she’d expect, and she assumes it must be a firebender thing. She likes it. Likes the way his skin feels under her palm.
“You’ve put on some serious muscle since the last time I touched you,” she says, sitting forward a little and sliding her hand around, under his arm, to press against that pink-white scar. It’s a little cooler than the skin around it, and jumps when she splays her fingers to cover it all. “Is that a firebender thing?”
Katara’s bulked up since then too, hips and thighs and breasts and arms, strong enough to shoulder the weight of their tribe with Sokka, strong enough to bend for the whole South Pole.
“It’s more of an it’s been five years since then thing,” Zuko says, his voice taut and distant. “Katara-”
She’s being brave. She kisses the sharp jut of his shoulder very softly, and then rests her cheek against the thick muscle of his upper arm.
“Katara,” he says, low and sharp. “Please don’t.”
He- surely she hasn’t misread him so badly? He’s never been shy about watching her, not the past couple of years, and he always holds on that little bit too long when they hug goodbye. She’s gotten used to being watched, because she’s the last bender in the South Pole, because she’s her father’s daughter, because she’s attractive - she knows it, it would be false modesty to say otherwise - and because the Avatar wanted her, maybe still wants her.
She thought Zuko wanted her, but maybe she’s wrong.
“Not unless you really want me,” he says, and when she lifts her head he’s watching her, all that lovely flush washed away in pale fear. “Katara-”
She doesn’t have to lean up very far to kiss him, catching him right on the edge of his scar. He goes very still, so still that she manages to catch him right on the edge of his mouth the next time.
He turns properly then, covers the hand over the lightning scar with his own, and slides his other hand carefully into her hair.
“Are you sure?”
She kisses him. It’s easier than finding words.
His hands tighten, drawing her closer, and she’s startled when he sighs against her mouth and kisses her back, slow and careful, as if he’s afraid of scaring her.
“What were you singing, when you came in?” he murmurs, mouth moving against hers as if this is a totally normal conversation, as if she can’t feel the skip of his heart and the race of his blood along his veins.
It’s a full moon, after all.
“A song I heard years ago,” she says, nudging her nose against his just because she can. “From a band of travelling musicians, on our way to Omashu. It’s about the tunnels under the mountain, to the Cave of Two Lovers. I thought it was funny, because I found a secret tunnel, and the song goes-”
“I think I’ve heard Sokka singing it, now you mention it,” he says, voice warm with laughter. “Can I kiss you again?”
She lets him, even tipping up her chin to make it easier for him, and slides her hand up his chest, over the jut of his collarbone, up the line of his neck. His skin is even warmer there, where he’s blushing, and he shivers under her fingertips.
He’s too far away, though, so she moves. She swings her leg over his thighs and settles squarely in his lap, and then she brings her hands up to frame his lovely, stunned face.
His eyes drop closed when she brushes her thumb over and back over the lowest reaches of his scar, his breath shuddering against the palm of her hand.
“You don’t have to touch it,” he says, fingers digging into the meat of her hips. “I know it’s not- that it’s-”
“Part of you?” she asks. “I’m not going to avoid it, Zuko. I never have.”
“It’s ugly,” he says, so quietly she barely hears it. “Katara-”
She kisses him, right on his closed, scarred eye, and he moans, high and keening, and wraps his arms fully around her, pulling her in close. He seems so delicate under her touch, as if he’ll tremble apart in her hands if she isn’t careful. There’s a power in this, a power as brilliant and terrible as bloodbending, and she’ll have to be just as careful about this as she is about that.
“What if,” she says, skimming the tip of her nose over the smooth divide between scar and skin, “we don’t talk anymore.”
He makes another of those desperate noises, and she smiles.
“What if,” she says, waiting until he opens his eyes to look at her. “We promise not to talk at all until morning.”
She’s just a little drunk, and it’s making her very brave. His mouth opens under hers, and she doesn’t need to be brave anymore, not with his hands moving under her filmy robe to touch bare skin, and it feels as if she can’t breathe anymore.
Zuko kisses her awake the next morning, fingertips tracing out over her cheekbone and sweeping down over her jaw to settle, feather-light, against the column of her throat.
“You should go back to your room,” he whispers, “before Toph catches us.”
“She’d tell Sokka,” Katara agrees, smiling when he rolls to settle over her, fitting into the cradle of her hips as if he belongs there. He’s pulled back on those soft, loose trousers, but it won’t take much to be rid of them, if she wants. “And then Sokka would tell my dad. ”
Zuko pulls away from kissing a bruise under her ear, face twisted in open terror, and she laughs, bright and overjoyed. It feels as if she’s been waiting for this for years, and maybe she has. Maybe they both have.
“I think I broke some of your hair beads,” he says, bashful now, pushing her hair back from her face with careful hands. “I can have new ones made for you, if you’d like.”
“I bought a bag of two hundred for a silver piece in Omashu last midwinter,” she assures him. “I have plenty of spares, Zuko, you don’t need to give me new ones.”
That blush flares like a signal across his cheek, and she reaches up to smooth her knuckles over his crystal-sharp cheekbone.
“I’d like to,” he says, gone beyond bashful to embarrassed now. “Give you things, I mean. Not just beads for your hair.”
And isn’t that the problem - if he gives her anything, anything at all, people will begin to speculate and gossip, and there’ll be a new round of attempts on Zuko’s life, because the Fire Nation purists will lose their minds over the prospect of a Water Tribe Fire Lady.
There might even be a new round of attempts on Katara’s life. She hasn’t had to deal with those in years, not since she left Aang.
“You know you can’t,” she says, as gently as she can, and he closes his eyes. At least he isn’t angry, she supposes, but this is almost worse - she’s never seen him surrender before, not like this.
“Doing what I’m not supposed to do is kind of my thing,” he points out, nudging under her chin, then kissing her. “Think about it. I’ve talked to Uncle about it, and-”
“You’ve talked to General Iroh about giving me gifts?”
The weight of that is… More than she can comprehend, really. If Zuko is talking to Iroh about her, he must be serious about this.
She thought he was just lonely, last night, or that he was swept up in the festivities, or swept up in her, the way she so often feels swept up in him.
“Uncle thinks it could work,” he says, looking her right in the eye without flinching. “He thinks that if we frame it as politics, they’ll think it’s just luck if we find happiness.”
“Are you asking me to marry you?!”
“No!” he yelps, firing back, and then he yelps again, scrambling to find her robe and her underthings, passing them to her before she can even get herself covered up with the discarded blankets. It feels so different to be naked before him, in the pale dawning sunlight. It felt completely normal last night, in flickering golden-red lamplight cut through with silver-bright moonshine, but this is not that. “No, I just- I wasn’t trying to- I didn’t mean it like that! I meant, I wanted to know if you’d let me court you-”
“Then why do you need political approval?!”
“Because everything I do needs to be approved,” he says, miserable, and she regrets shouting now. She knows how closely he’s watched, because of his history and because of his father in equal measure, but if he’s talking about officially courting her, well, she doesn’t know everything about Fire Nation social protocol but she knows what that means.
That means either betrothal or disgrace, and Zuko would never disgrace her.
“I’m going back to my room,” she says, finally halfway decent under the covers, “and I’m going to have a bath, and eat breakfast, and afterwards, we can talk about this.”
Sokka and Suki are already in the dining hall when she arrives, and Toph is right behind her.
“You seem tired this morning, Sugar Queen,” Toph says, thumping her in the arm and saying no more about it. Sokka and Suki are too caught up in one another to notice anything, and she made sure there were no visible marks while she was in the bath, so maybe everyone will just think she slept badly, or that she’s hungover.
She’s not even tired, really. She hadn’t wanted to heal away the dull ache in her thighs, had wanted to keep a little piece of the night before as a sort of reward, for having gotten through it without asking Zuko to keep her. She kind of regrets it now, settling to the floor by the table, touching her mother’s necklace and wondering if Zuko will mix up his Water Tribes and give her a replacement if they go through with this, and make it to the end-
“Morning, Katara!” Aang bubbles, dropping down into the empty space to her left. “Did you sleep well?”
“I slept fine, Aang,” she says. “How about you?”
He’s gotten tall, and has to fold his long, skinny legs under himself like a crane. He’s started growing a beard, too, neat and short and close to his jaw, but she thinks he’ll probably only keep it that way until he can manage the long moustache he told her Monk Gyatzo has, in his memories.
He still looks at her just like he did while they were still seeing one another, which is exhausting. She made herself very clear when she walked away, that bright, cool day two and a half years ago, but Aang hadn’t seemed to understand that she meant she was done with being more than his friend permanently.
It was nice, at first. He was so attentive, and fun - that had meant so much, after the time they’d spent together during the war. She’d gotten so used to being sensible and responsible that it had been weird, not to forage and cook every meal, not to mend Sokka’s shirts and Aang’s tunic, not to remind Toph to clean up after her dinner. And then, when Sokka followed Suki to Kyoshi Island and later followed Dad to the South Pole, when Toph made up with her mom and returned to Gaoling, and it was just Katara and Aang… It had been nice, at first.
But it hadn’t been right. Maybe they’d just been too young, and Aang had attached way too much importance to her role in his awakening, in his becoming the Avatar. Maybe they were never compatible, really, and Katara had fallen into being Aang’s girlfriend because it seemed the right thing to do, and she always did the right thing.
Except when she pretended to be the Painted Lady.
Or hunted down the Southern Raiders.
Or threatened Zuko’s life, when he first arrived at the temple.
She wonders what Zuko would think, if he knew she'd posed as the Painted Lady - not that he'd be able to criticise, after his adventures as the Blue Spirit.
Maybe she doesn’t always do the right thing, but she mostly does. And at the time, it had seemed right to kiss Aang. It had seemed right to stay with him when the others moved on, even when it became obvious that he was more interested in being fawned over by the Acolytes than in actually being with her.
That’s unfair, though. He was only thirteen, younger even than she was when the iceberg broke, and he never had to be an adult, not really. Just a soldier.
“I slept really well,” Aang says, stretching his arms high over his head. “Appa’s tail is as comfortable as ever - he really misses you, you know.”
“I’ll swing by and say hi to him before I leave,” she says, helping herself to some of the persimmons and the moonpeaches sitting beside whatever meaty thing it is Sokka’s eating. “Where are you headed after this?”
“Oh, you know,” Aang says, far too casual, “I was thinking of checking in at the South Pole - it’s been a long time, you know?”
She’s spared having to find a polite answer for that - Aang coming to the South Pole will be awkward, because he’ll act closer to her than is proper, now that she’s an adult - by Zuko’s appearance.
He has a fully-bloomed bruise right on the pale notch of throat exposed by the parted collar of his shirt, and she prays to Tui and La and especially to Yue that no one else notices. Tui and La are beyond such things, but Yue might be a little sympathetic, she hopes.
“Hey, everyone,” he says, sitting down at her right hand as if nothing has changed. She might think he was unaffected, if not for the way he brushes the back of his hand against her knee, so softly that she almost missed it, but definitely on purpose. She’d bet that he’s blushing, on his other cheek. “Anyone need a remedy?”
Katara supposes she should be hungover, since she’s always hungover after drinking rice wine, but she’s not. Maybe all that time in Zuko’s bed burned the alcohol out of her system.
“I have all the remedy I need right here,” Sokka says, patting the dish with all the meat and grinning. Suki’s already rolling her eyes, and Katara feels so happy, to be here, with her family-
“ Where is the magic tea?” Toph demands, lifting her head from the table and scowling as only she can.
“Come sit here by me,” Zuko says, patting the floor. “I’ll make sure the tea is hot.”
Toph bumps her hip against Katara’s shoulder on her way past, which is equivalent to a hug, really, and that happiness grows just a little, warm in her belly.
Zuko passes her a cup of white jasmine tea, warmed just as she likes it, and she somehow manages not to blush. She thinks.
“Is this a courting gift?” she teases back over her shoulder, watching in the mirror as Zuko fixes her hair with a beautiful silver clasp, delicate and strong and set with deep blue sapphires that winked in the light when he held it up to show her. “Should I expect there to be a care package waiting for me, when we get home?”
“As if you won’t be writing to ask for more jasmine tea,” he teases in return, slotting the final pin into place and stepping back, satisfied with his work. “Beautiful.”
She blushes, because he means her, not just the hair clasp.
It seems amazing that this hasn’t happened sooner, somehow, because when she looks back at the four or five times they’ve been together over the past year and a half, well, she’s flirted with him, sometimes pretty brazenly, and he flirted back.
He puts his hands carefully on her shoulders, shy of touching her even now, and she covers them with her own - to reassure him, sure, but also just to touch him some more.
“Would it be inappropriate of me to send you things?” he asks, genuinely concerned. “I mean, would your father disapprove?”
“He might,” she admits, “but I’m given a lot more freedom than is normal, given… Everything.”
Being the last waterbender in the tribe has its perks, even if it is sometimes lonely. She really wants some of the newest crop of babies to be benders. Really really wants it .