It was late in the evening when the Gaang finally landed on Ember Island. Appa groaned in delight as Aang patted him on the head, everyone else sliding off his back in utter exhaustion. Winning the war and trying to make peace between the nations had taken it's toll on everyone, most of them weighed down by their new responsibilities.
As the last member, Sokka, hopped out of the saddle, Suki wrapped an arm around him and yawned.
"Remind me again why we're here?" Zuko, newly crowned Fire Lord only a short while back, hummed as he stretched his body, arms reaching for the twinkling stars above before falling to his side as he rolled his shoulders and neck. Katara wrapped her free flowing locks up in a large bun before following the same movements as Zuko, giggling when Aang tickled his fingers under her chin.
"We're here because Iroh says someone here is being extremely uptight in the Palace." Katara lamented, shooting a wink to Zuko, who rolled his eyes before crossing his arms.
"I don't know what he's talking about! I'm perfectly fine." Toph scoffed, kicking up a pillar of earth to lean her arm on as she set her milky blue green eyes on the obviously weary and tense Fire Lord.
"Y'know I can tell when you're lying, right?" Zuko growled before stomping off towards the family home. fists clenched and robes billowing. The Gaang laughed together, probably for the first time in a long while, and reveled in the relative freedom they were finally going to have before bidding each other goodnight.
"Oh, and please try to keep it down? The floors have eyes...and ears." Toph cackled as the two couples blushed fiercely, shouting their protests to the quickly retreating yellow and green tunic-clad girl making her way inside. Suki and Sokka eventually brushed her comment off, giggling at each other each other and whispering into each other's ears while stumbling away, completely wrapped in their own world. Katara, on the other hand, turned to Aang and smiled shyly.
They had only been together officially for a few months, and while Aang was more focused on traveling to the major cities to talk peace most of the time, not to mention that he was still only a child, Katara saw a confused but thoughtful look pass over his face. Being a monk, he couldn't possibly know the extent to what Toph had been insinuating, but she wanted to shut him down regardless. No way that was happening, especially with all their friends around, so soon into the relationship, and at such young ages. They were not even going to share rooms during the vacation. The less the others whispered about them, the better.
"Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning, then? Maybe we can go into town tomorrow and get some supplies for our vacation?" Aang yawned loudly, arms stretching out towards the sky before he collapsed in on himself, scratching his chest lazily. He nodded, wide grey eyes drooping down, before he padded towards the house. She couldn't help but feel that motherly surge of emotion, the need to protect him that had plagued her during the war, but she figured that was how Suki felt about Sokka, especially with how reckless her brother was. Shrugging off the creeping thoughts, she looked around herself.
Katara was the last one outside, rubbing her arms absentmindedly as she finally decided to walk towards the beach. The bright light of the full moon allowed her to see easily as she picked through the wooden path, power surging through her veins as her feet touched the sand. Water stretched on for miles beyond her view, and it felt like it was calling her name.
"Maybe just a few minutes. Just to see." And then she was off. Swirling ropes of water above her head and crashing waves into each other, giggling when water sprayed at her, dusting her skin with tiny droplets. She piloted ice shards around the sky, concentrating on moving them around the pitch black sky in a similar way the firebender had done during the festival they had attended so long ago, only he had done it with a fire dragon.
As she was getting the water octopus set up, waving the tentacles around and shooting them into the green screen of trees, a raspy chuckle startled her into dropping the form, wide blue eyes shooting over to the red and gold-clad firebender before her. He was smirking at her, leaning up against a tree with his arms and legs crossed, shadows and hair covering most of his face.
"Not sleepy?" He asked, voice warm with teasing. She lazily raised a hand, water swirling up to meet her twirling fingers as she raised a brow at him.
"I could ask you the same, Zuko." His deep laughter rang through the clearing, arms falling to his sides as he stepped into the moonlight, skin painted a soft ivory and those golden eyes glittering with mischief. Katara twirled a bit of hair that had fallen loose, eyes scanning his face for a moment as he approached. The scar was barely noticeable, she observed, thanks to the thick curtain of hair falling over the left side of his face.
Perhaps done on purpose?
"Well, I was getting ready for bed, about to put out my last candle, when I saw some water twirling across the sky, followed by icy warships soaring back and forth. I was curious to see what was going on." He shrugged, stopping a few feet away from her, feet planted firmly in the sand. Katara briefly wondered when the last time he'd stepped foot in water not meant for bathing was. She supposed he preferred to be laid out sunning himself whenever he visited the beach, rather than splashing about the waves. During the war, he had never even pretended to show interest in the water at the beach.
"Oh yeah. You see, as a waterbender, the full moon affects me the same way the sun does a firebender, as I'm sure you remember quite clearly. But I also can't really sleep. At least, not without bending my energy out first." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully, eyes quickly running up his frame before falling into a combat stance. His brow raised in question, corner of his mouth tilting up a little.
"Wanna dance, Fire Lord?" She had meant to sound playful, trying to tug on his competitive side, but it instead came out a little bit flirty, even to her own ears. She winced internally, though thanking the spirits above endlessly as he seemed to be oblivious to the tone in her voice, pulling his shirt over his head and tossing it carelessly onto the sand by him. Her eyes scanned the newly exposed skin, telling herself she was just taking inventory for their sparring match. And because she had been his healer after the Agni Kai match against Azula.
He seemed more....filled out? The last time she had seen his bare torso had been the week after she'd spent healing him before his coronation. The Palace had been buzzing with anticipation, Fire Lord Ozai locked away at the Boiling Rock, and Azula kept under the Earth in the palace dungeon for the time being per Iroh's request, but she had been glued to his side the entire time. When she wasn't healing him, making sure the damage under the skin was taken care of, she was reading various scrolls in his rooms, giggling at some of the stories he kept there. He had slept for most of her visits, thought thankfully he had been mostly conscious. She'd had this suspicion he was actually fading in and out of consciousness, rather than just sleeping, but he had seemed fine. No fevers or infection. After all that, when he was up and moving around, she had noticed the loss in musculature and weight in his upper body, the way he moved so stiffly as he tried to get right to work. It had been so weird to see him so weak and vulnerable when just a week before that, he'd been at his strongest, matching Azula blow for blow.
Now he stood before her, pale skin glowing under the moonlight, the scar that saved her life and still sometimes filled her nightmares front and center, a stark splash of red against his skin. His arms and abdomen were far more toned and muscular than she remembered seeing (and feeling) just a few months prior. Her eyes skittered up to his face, a blush thankfully hidden beneath her tanned skin, and tried to push away the fluttering in her belly. His liquid gold eyes were narrowed playfully, lips twitched up in a wider smirk.
"I suppose I could use a decent sparring partner. The ones at the Palace are mediocre at best with their bending. I've been severely limited since you all left." Katara watched as he fell into a familiar battle stance, fingers curling in a 'come at me' gesture, which had her blood boiling. What a stuck up smartass.
She'd show him.
"Okay, your Highness. You're on! Don't be too upset when you lose!" She wasn't sure how long they spent on the beach under the inky sky. speckles of starlight fading into a sea of navy blue while steam billowed around them. he kept up with her for sure, even deftly countering a few new moves she'd oicked up from teaching her students.
Just when it seemed there would be no clear winner, the two of them just too perfectly matched, she caught him in an unguarded open stance, apparently not focused on proper form anymore and instead working on countering her attacks. It was strange for him to be on the defensive after all those years of him being the aggressor towards the group, almost strange enough to distract her from the opening he gave. With a flick of her wrist, he was dangling high above the beach, ankle caught in the tendril of water she'd thrown at him. His surprised shout was cut off as the water yanked him into the air, his eyes widening in surprise. the he crossed his arms at her and pouted.
"No fair! I can't pull this kind of move with fire. Put me down, Katara." She grinned at him victoriously, giving him a little bow before gently placing him back on the ground. he sat up, dusting his arms off before setting his gaze on the horizon. She followed his eyes to where the seemed to be about to rise, the sky slowly waking up above them. Soon the others would be awake, demanding food and a trip to town, and she realized then just how exhausted she was.
She hadn't been in a sparring match so intense in so long. As she stared blankly into the quickly approaching sunrise, mind off in wonderland, Zuko turned to her sheepishly, hand at the back of his neck. She startled (again) when he cleared his throat, a sly grin blooming on his face as she huffed at him and crossed her arms. What a funny guy. Not.
"I was going to apologize for keeping you up all night long, but I guess you don't really mind this time. It was a beautiful full moon, after all. But don't forget the others, 'the children' as I like to call them sometimes, are going to be looking forward to the festival this afternoon and evening. You better go rest. It's going to be a long night...again." Katara turned away from the glassy waters reflecting the rising tangerine sun surrounded by fluffy royal purple clouds and fixed Zuko with a hard look. She ignored his quip about their friends being children, and instead narrowed her eyes at him trying to usher her inside for bed. She didn't need to be babied and he should know that. Besides, what about him?? He'd been up all night too!
Just as she opened her mouth to lecture him, he came towards her, arms outstretched and face open for the first time in a long ass time. Being Fire Lord had made him super guarded again, something she'd been very upset over for the first few months of his reign. They had worked so hard on breaking them down, at getting to know the real Zuko, that it was frustrating to see him almost reverting back to his old self right before her eyes. The words died on her tongue as long arms came around her, warm skin tickling the nerves along her back and shoulders. She dutifully ignored his utter lack of shirt and smiled up at him. Maybe, just this once, she could take someone's advice without complaint. And with the way his genuine smile warmed her like the rising sun behind her, ivory fingers dancing across her shoulders and down her arms, it wasn't like she'd have any mind to say anything anyway.
"Go on and rest, Katara. I'll handle them this morning." With a small nudge from his hips, she stumbled dazedly towards the house, cheeks warming despite there being a slight bite to the air. She turned just in time to see him moving into a warm up pose she'd seen many times before, the morning sun painting him in oranges and red, like the fire that pounded under his skin. Stifling a yawn, she leaned against the pillar and observed his technique and power, the ease in which he summoned the flames that crackled in the air before vanishing just as quickly.
Definitely a formidable opponent.
"Ah, back to watching Fire Flakes flex under the sun are we? I miss those days!" Katara jumped again (seriously they all had to stop sneaking up on her!) as Toph greeted her, sleepy smile just a tad bit devious as Katara fumbled for a response. No, she was not creepily watching Zuko's half-naked bending warm ups...like that! She was simply observing his technique, looking for weak spots for their next match. Toph waved her off as Katara went to say just that, content on smirking at her obvious embarrassment. No matter Katara's reasons, she was caught doing something that could be definitely spun into something really wrong.
"It's okay, Katara. I'm sure Fire Lord Grumpyhead is so fun to watch. Firebending actually sounds and feels like it's very exciting and all that. I was totally in no way implying that you might actually fancy the scene before you, even if your heart rate might suggest otherwise. It's not like I can even see what's going on. I mean, for all I know, he might be doing something incredibly dangerous and you're worried." Katara ground her teeth together, eyes squinting shut and muscles bunching up in an attempt to keep her cool. Toph had no idea what was going on in front of them, so therefore she had no reason to be embarrassed...or defensive. It wasn't like she was doing anything wrong anyway.
Though, again, it could so easily be turned into something bad she just thanked the spirits above that it was Toph who had found her, and not anyone else.
"You're up surprisingly early, Toph. You're usually one of the last." The little earthbender chuckled, arms crossed as she leaned against a stone pillar she had pulled up from the earth beneath her. Katara was so obviously trying to change the subject, and the little girl knew it. The waterbender felt a smidge of jealousy towards the girl and the amazing talent she had with her element, not to mention the ease in which she could just know what the others were doing or feeling, using it with such ease it was as if she didn't even need to try, but Katara always reminded herself that she was only fourteen and was a master waterbender, as well as a proficient healer. Katara had her accomplishments too.
"Could say the same to you, Sweetness. Didn't peg you for an early bird." Katara flinched, hand coming up to play with her hair awkwardly. That would be because she wasn't an early bird. In fact, though Toph thankfully couldn't see her, Katara was wearing the same outfit from last night, her hair only slightly mussed. Toph must have sensed her hesitation and fidgeting, because she turned those blind eyes on her, face crinkling in thought.
"Have you even been to sleep yet?" Katara huffed, crossing her arms and returning her gaze to the flames still bursting through the heavy morning fog. She didn't have any reason to defend or explain herself to a ten year old girl who was far too nosy for her own good, no matter who she thought she was. The earthbender probably wouldn't let her off easy, especially since Katara was feeling the weight of last night's waterbending exercise in her bones, weighing her down immensely.
After about half an hour, mostly filled with Toph smirking and Katara pretending she didn't exist, Zuko finally seemed satisfied with whatever he was doing, grabbing his discarded tunic from the stone ground and mopping his sweat slicked skin with it. Katara averted her eyes, suddenly very interested in the clouds clearing away and the blue sky beginning to show. Toph kept busy with some stone she was molding into little statues, a quick glance revealing she was sculpting the Gaang, though how she was able to do that Katara wasn't too sure, chatting away about her school in the Earth Kingdom.
Katara went to ask something, though whatever it was was suddenly burned from her brain when a certain shadow fell over them. She pouted to herself before shooting a look to the person standing before them, one hand on his neck and head tilted to the left slightly. Toph seemed to sense he was there, pausing in her art to look up at him with a beaming smile, but his eyes were on Katara, sparkling mischief in his eyes.
"Thought I told you to go to sleep?" He said it with a hint of humor in his voice, arms crossed and his brow raised as if he were reprimanding her.
Katara knew, logically, that he was in the right. For one, he had suggested, quite a while ago actually, that Katara rest up before the activities of the evening started, and she was pretty tired. But something nagged at her. The way he said it, with just the slightest lilt, as if he were teasing her...or bossing her around in such a dad way she wasn't used to, and never really accepted from anyone who wasn't Hakoda. While it probably didn't help this was all being analyzed by her sleep deprived brain, it rubbed her the entirely wrong way, sending her to her feet and up in his personal space, finger jammed into his warm bare shoulder. His eyes widened at her apparent anger.
"Listen, your Majesty, you may be able to order people around back at the Palace, but I'm not one of your loyal subjects. I am a master waterbender and perfectly capable of regulating my own bed time! Ugh, such an arrogant piece of-" Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose while she spoke, wrinkles appearing on his forehead and his lips forming a tight line. He interrupted her suddenly, arm coming up to knock her hand away from his skin, golden eyes ablaze. She shrunk back as the power of the sun shone through his eyes, images of perfectly aimed fire whips and punches dancing through her mind.
Perhaps she should learn to keep her mouth shut more often.
"Listen, Katara, I'm not trying to order you around. Everyone here is my friend, and therefore not a 'royal subject' or a 'servant' or whatever else you may think. I actually thought I could come over here and joke around while also showing that I care, but clearly the Fire Lord is not allowed to act that way with his friends. I mean, if I had known my teasing would upset you so much, and make you feel like I'm lording over you, then I wouldn't have even bothered!" He stormed past her, shoulder knocking into her slightly. Toph whistled lowly as he slammed the door behind him, tunic forgotten on the ground behind him. She bent down slowly to pick it up, shame and regret eating away at her endlessly. She was such an idiot sometimes, especially with Zuko.
"I don't know what just happened, or why, but for what it's worth, you sounded like a jerk." Katara frowned at the girl, anger falling away considerably as the sun rose in the sky.
"Thanks, Toph." Katara turned to go back inside and nap like she had originally planned on doing, mind still reeling over her confrontation with Zuko. She forgot about the red shirt still gripped tightly in her hands until she was already in her room, so she gently set it on her desk and fell into the soft bed with a groan. Day one of their vacation and she was already mucking it up.