He didn't understand why he was doing this again, donning the all black attire with the hood and the blue mask, but it just felt right. There was an itch in his palms that begged him to grab his swords and swing out of his window, scale the side of his apartment building and search for a fight. Maybe it was his insistent need to feel something, even if it was as simple-minded as throwing a punch at a stranger or threatening another pimp, but the nagging in the back of his mind said it needed to be done.
The first thing he noticed about Ba Sing Se at night was that the city never slept. Even in the later hours, lights filled the streets and the muted sounds of buzzing crowds filled his ears. People strolled together and raved about a new dish at the local restaurant and the attractiveness of the serving staff, or how a place called a 'club' was pretty busy that night.
To Zuko, this walled city was always busier at night.
He silently swooped into an abandoned alcove near the firelight fountain he had been brought to a few weeks prior, noting how the lights were once again out and had given the open square an unwelcoming vibe. Just the kind of place he wanted to be.
Usually he would perch here for about an hour and then move on to one of the more shady areas of the lower ring if he couldn't find a pervert or thief he could rough up. But something about tonight beckoned him to remain in his spot for another five or ten minutes.
And he wasn't disappointed.
There were shouts coming from the building across the courtyard, one sounding feminine and a few others sounding like males. His eyes narrowed and he sprang down from his spot, landing in a swift roll on the cobblestones beneath his feet. He moved like a ghost across the fountain, not being spotted by a soul, and slid up against the building that housed the shouts. Peering through the holes of his mask and into the open window, he saw the back of a woman- no more like a girl on the verge of womanhood based on the small muscles and the budding curves of her hips- and what appeared to be her captors. One was in the process of tying her wrists above her head, while the other two were murmuring to themselves, glancing at her every time she thrashed. The girl was struggling against her bonds, cursing at the three men with a colorful vocabulary even Zuko hadn't even heard from his crew in the years on his ship.
This strange girl had an awful lot of fight in her when she was completely helpless.
There was something familiar about her voice, something Zuko couldn't put his finger on. Her wavy brown hair fell down her back and touched the top of her tailbone, almost covering the scraps of a green robe that had been ripped off her body and fell haplessly at her sides. Her skin was like mocha, going well with the shade of her hair. From behind, this girl was quite a sight.
And Zuko knew why these men had tied her up.
He gulped and grabbed the joint handle of his swords, preparing to jump in and take these men out when the opportune moment rose. His palms were starting to sweat and his mouth dried, just like they always did before he fought. He was always like this. And he loved it.
"Let go of me!"
Something clicked in Zuko's mind and he felt his jaw tighten and his heart to hammer in rage. He knew that voice. He knew the girl it belonged to. Given, she was an enemy, but he could never forget someone like that.
He gritted his teeth and went to jump in and save her, but he froze when one of the men stepped forward and struck her hard across the face. She fell limp in her bonds and Zuko knew right then and there that the man had knocked her unconscious. His vision went red, for reasons truly unknown to him, and he unsheathed his swords right when he spotted one of the others stepping forward and reaching forward to touch her.
He swung through the window and kicked the closest man in the head, hearing a dull crunch when the man hit the floor. He spun around and charged forward towards the man that had hit Katara, too stunned and slow to fight, and skewered him with one of the broadswords. The last man lifted up his arms away from Katara and Zuko had to refrain from smirking when he pulled his blooded sword out of the other man's torso and squared himself towards his last obstacle.
Things were a blur when he lunged forward, dodging a single hook from the man, and slit his throat. The man fell to the ground with a gurgle and his blood began to pool underneath him.
With a sigh, Zuko shook his head then turned to Katara, shocked upon what he saw.
Her robes were almost completely shredded away from her upper body, revealing her bare breasts and stomach. Zuko had to fight a blush and the almost instantaneous twitching of his dick when his eyes went to her dark nipples. He cursed himself for the reaction, for it made him just as low as the perverts who had tied her up. He gulped and took one of his swords and slashed the ropes above her head, then caught her body as she fell against his. He rolled his eyes and with one arm still around her waist, he sheathed his swords. He didn't think that part through.
Together, they sank to the floor in an unceremonious heap and Zuko had to struggle with what to do next. Should he take her to his apartment? Then what? Was she hurt? Based on the appearance of her clothes and lack of blood on her skin, he would guess that anything she would take out of this situation would be psychological. He couldn't just take her back to wherever she was staying because he had no idea where that was. Probably in the Upper Ring, especially if she was here with the Avatar, which would be more likely than not. And he couldn't just carry her around the Upper Ring searching for her home, not in her state of undress.
He'd have to take her back to his apartment and lend her some clothes for when she woke up.
She began to stir in his arms and he knew it would be a good time to get her out of there, lest her see the bloodbath behind him. Quickly, he took the sash from around his waist and tied it around her breasts to at least cover her nipples. He knew he'd face her wrath if he went outside without at least protecting her modesty as much as he could. Standing up, Zuko hoisted her into his arms, one behind her back and one under her knees, and stepped through the window and out into the courtyard. He was so thankful those lanterns weren't lit tonight, because if someone were to see him carrying a half-naked girl through the alleys he'd be in deep shit.
With her in his arms, surprisingly heavier than he would have thought, he moved a little slower than normal. He was risking being caught by the Dai Li, more so tonight than ever before. And wearing a mask, draped in black, and holding the Avatar's waterbender while she was in such a state would be enough evidence to lock him away for life. He needed to get home. And fast.
Zuko had slunk in the shadows of a nearby alley when Katara groaned and opened her eyes. She blinked a few times, the brilliant blue clouded by confusion and muddled from unconsciousness. He saw her look up at him, so he slowed his pace.
"What's going on?" she asked, voice heavy and slurred. He didn't answer. He couldn't give away his voice, knowing it would be completely recognizable to her. So in his silence, she asked again, "Did you save me?"
He nodded once and stopped in the center of the alley, far enough from both the courtyard and the nearby road to not be seen by anyone passing by. He looked at her through the holes of his mask, praying she couldn't see his eyes in the darkness and through the screens that covered them. She stared at him before he lowered her legs to the ground. Katara seemed to almost stumble for a split second before righting herself.
She murmured her thanks as she looked to her chest and shamefully wrapped her arms around herself. Looking away, red flaming on her cheeks, she asked , "What happened to those men?"
Zuko paused for a moment, then gripped the handle of his swords. He unsheathed them enough for her to see the blood that he hadn't removed from the blade, her eyes widening at the sight, before he pushed them back down and took a step back. He knew it would be best for him to retreat, to get out of the gaze that has been floating around his mind for months. But she held him in his place, unspoken words anchoring him to his spot.
"I've seen your wanted posters," she said suddenly. "I wouldn't have expected a thief to come in and save me."
"Why don't you speak?"
He dipped his chin. He knew he was casting her an annoyed glance, but she wouldn't be able to see it through the wood of his mask. If she could, she'd know who he was. And so far, she wasn't running.
"Can you speak?"
He nodded, slowly, then took another step back. She followed.
"Then why won't you talk to me?"
He tilted his head to the side and crossed his arms, as if to say 'Why do I need to talk?'
She shrugged and answered his unspoken question, "I don't know, I just want to know why you saved me."
In the driest, and most polite, gesture he could manage, he pointed to her chest and motioned at her body. She looked down, blushed again, and frowned.
"So you just did it because I was naked and you could have me after you saved me?"
Inwardly groaning, he shook his head and palmed the mask against his forehead. Instead of shouting at her, calling her a stupid peasant and cuffing her across the back of her head with his hand, he gestured around his waist, then to her chest. She looked down again, then to his clothes, then back to her chest.
"This is yours?"
He rolled his eyes and nodded.
She plucked at the fabric experimentally, then crossed her arms over her stomach to try and hide the skin that hadn't been covered by the sash. "I guess I should thank you, then. Those men had caught me with my guard down. If I wasn't being so careless, I would have been able to fight them off."
Zuko tried not to roll his eyes for what felt like the hundredth time and just leave her here, but something deep inside of him - the same urge that kept him in that courtyard earlier - begged for him to stay just a little longer. There was a conflicting voice inside of his head, however, that sounded a lot like Azula saying, "Just leave the peasant here. She can find her way back. I'm surprised you even rescued her in the first place. She's filth, and you're royalty. There's no point in sticking around anymore."
He wanted to spite that little voice more than anything.
"Where exactly are we?" she asked, causing Zuko to blink out of his brooding. He gestured the best he could, facing his palm towards the ground and lowering it, then touching his forefinger and thumb together to make a ring. The intended message was clear and she dropped her gaze sadly. "The Lower Ring, then. I won't be able to get home until the morning."
He shrugged. Unless she scaled the walls or bribed the guards at each gate, she truly was stuck. He doubted the papers she needed to get through the gates to the Upper Ring were in the shreds of what was left of her robe.
"I suppose I couldn't go back with you to wherever you live, huh?"
Zuko froze and stared at her with disbelief. Was she serious? She had no idea who he was! Just because he saved her from being raped didn't mean she could trust him implicitly! Is that how she came to be so close with the Avatar? Because she trusted so damn easily? It would prove to be her death, someday.
It would be one thing if he took her there while she was unconscious, but willingly was a different ball game.
Her hopeful face dropped and she murmured, "I'll take that as a 'no.' Thanks for saving me, though. I'll make it home on my own."
As she turned away to walk back out towards the lit streets, Zuko panicked. She couldn't walk all the way back to the Upper Ring by herself, not like that! She would likely be flagged down by a guard because of her attire, or lack thereof. Or more lustful men would eye her and try to snatch her off the street again. With no water or weapons, she was completely defenseless. He reached out and snatched her wrist in his hand, causing her to still and look at him with suspicion and a little fear.
"Do you want a payment of some sort?"
He snorted and shook his head. She surely was something else. Zuko held up his finger in a gesture to tell her to wait, and he quickly climbed up the building behind them. He heard her hiss out a question on where he was going, but he ignored her.
He couldn't let her stay with him, but he couldn't likely let her walk back alone and half naked without some sort of protection.
The apartment was close-by, close enough that he could dart in, grab an extra shirt and a waterskin, and dart out in less than three minutes. When he returned to the alley, Katara was leaning against the wall with her arms folded across her chest, in the only beam of moonlight that reached that alleyway. He refused to acknowledge the way her breasts look pressed together and how her nipples were poking against the fabric of his sash, or how the moonlight made her look like some sort of goddess.
He shouldn't be noticing those things about her in the first place.
Zuko landed in front of her in a crouch, startling her completely, and he straightened as he handed her the shirt and waterskin. Katara's eyes widened with disbelief again before tentatively reaching for the items.
Katara took the waterskin first and unpopped the cork, then looked in to see it full of water. She eyed him again, skeptical now, before taking the shirt and tugging it over her head. Now she was completely covered, save her arms, and he ignored the way she inhaled the smell of the shirt as it went over her head.
He had to reprimand himself at the impure thoughts that raged through him at what was under his shirt.
Her unnaturally blue eyes looked up at him, glowing in the single sliver of pale moonlight, and she smiled - actually smiled - at him as she asked in the sweetest voice he had ever heard, "Surely, I have to thank you. And return your things to you after I get home safely. Can you meet me in the Upper Ring tomorrow night?"
Zuko's heart surged into his throat and all he could do was nod dumbly. This girl, this admittedly pretty and sweet and sexy waterbender was looking up at him with mystified eyes and a hopeful smile, as if she was entranced by the thought of being saved by some masked hero and the desire to thank him for all he did.
He had to swallow past ache that settled in his stomach. She had no idea...
Katara took a hesitant step towards him and into the shadows, her fingers outstretched towards his mask. He thought of how as soon as the moonlight left her skin, the mystical quality didn't leave it, as well. It was a troubling thought.
Zuko took a staggering step backwards, only stopping when his back hit the wall.
"Are you so afraid of me seeing your face?" she whispered, her confusion and hurt clear in those eyes.
He nodded again.
"Can I at least thank you for what you did for me?" Her voice was soft and borderline sultry as she took another daring step forward. Zuko couldn't quell his racing heart, and he turned his face so his left cheek was practically pressed against the wall. He heard her huff of disappointment, but she still reached forward. Her fingers pushed back his hood just enough so she could touch the mask and lift it up to reveal the smooth skin of his right cheek and jaw. He squeezed his eyes shut as she moved closer. Her scent wafted up into his nose and he fought the urge to shudder as her smooth lips pressed against the curve of his jaw.
Luckily he was tall enough that she couldn't reach any higher. Agni help him if she did.
Too soon, she stepped away and put his mask back in its rightful place, and Zuko had to take a deep breath and straighten up as best as he could. He couldn't let her know how much her little gesture affected him, let alone admit that she had somehow turned him into putty with that one trusting look and soft kiss.
"Thank you," she murmured, her eyes taking on that sultry look once again. "Meet me up at the northern bridge near the creek and willow tree in the Upper Ring tomorrow at sunset. I'm sure you'll be able to find your way back without getting caught after that, right?"
Zuko nodded again and she smiled. Without another word, Katara waltzed down the alley and back onto the lit street, where people were starting to file out from the bars to go back home after their nights of drinking. As soon as she blended into the thin crowd, Zuko slid down the wall and planted himself on his behind. He cradled his masked face in his hands in disbelief and tried his best to calm his breathing.
It was a miracle he didn't combust at all of the intimate touching that went on that evening.
How on earth would he be able to face her tomorrow?
Katara's fingers splayed against the shirt on her tummy, reveling in the texture and smell of the cloth that the Blue Spirit had lent her. The familiarity of the smell tickled at her subconscious, begging her to find out who the masked man had been and why he would save her tonight. She had to know why his smell and his touch was so familiar in her mind.
Which had been full of those thoughts the entire trip back to their Upper Ring home.
It took her almost the whole night to get back, most of it spent at the gates in each ring convincing the guards that she was the Avatar's waterbending master and she didn't have her papers. A little show of advanced waterbending stopped any protests, and by the time she arrived back at the house, she was surprised to see Toph sitting in the living room, waiting for her right at sunrise.
"Where were you?"
Katara shrugged indifferently and replied, "I got caught up in the Lower Ring. Nothing crazy."
Toph's eyes narrowed as if she was going to call out Katara on her lie, but the waterbender quickly turned on her heels and marched straight to her room to prevent any confrontation. Luckily Toph wouldn't be able to see the state of her clothing and both Sokka and Aang were asleep and wouldn't be able to, either.
When her door was shut, Katara locked it and gathered the Blue Spirit's shirt in her hands to give it one long sniff.
Orange blossom and spice, like a cup of herbal tea on a crisp and cool autumn morning. Her heart stirred with recognition at the scent, but she ignored it in favor of stripping herself of the ripped clothes she wore underneath and tossing them in the waste basket near her dresser. She was left with just the sash and the tunic the Blue Spirit had given her, and in a rush of brazenness, she used the sash as lower wrappings and kept the shirt on as a top.
Just for sleeping, of course.
Not because her heart was swooning for the man who saved her from being raped and in the process ensnared her with his fit body and noble actions.
He went to get her a shirt and a waterskin so she could be covered properly and protect herself! That fact alone made her heart flutter. Not to mention his warm hands, which had held and touched her reverently, as if he respected her despite not knowing exactly who she was, made her think of how they would touch her elsewhere should she let him.
He had every opportunity to take advantage of her, instead he covered her exposed breasts and carried her away from the carnage of the men he had killed because they had taken and hurt her.
The Blue Spirit wiped away all thoughts of the dirty men who had swiped her off the street, who had threatened her and ordered her to tell them about the Avatar and of where they lived so they could get some fast money. When they had ripped open her robe and wrappings and groped her chest, she had cried and screamed and promised to murder them, but all they did was laugh.
When the man who groped her first had slapped her, it was so hard she had blacked out. Her head spun and she could have sworn she heard the enraged screams of an enemy of the past, but she chalked it up to her delirious mind and trauma from being molested by a rough stranger. By the time she came to, she was blessed with the cool night air and the sight of a familiar, if not frightening, blue demon mask.
The Blue Spirit, the vigilante who rescued Aang from Zhao and was wanted by both the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Benevolent enough to rescue her from her would-be rapists and whisk her away to safety.
Her heart - and admittedly her center - fluttered and her fingers flexed on her tummy again. He had gone out of his way to save her, to ensure her safety and comfort even though he was a criminal. He protected her, avenged her, unintentionally opening her heart to him because of his selfless actions.
Katara smiled to herself and swore up and down that she would repay him for such a deed when she saw him that night.
With a locked door and shut blinds, she coaxed herself to sleep with the thoughts of the man who saved her and the way his smell somehow made her dream of golden eyes.
When she woke up mid-afternoon, Katara's heart lurched again and she sprung out of bed. Too quickly for her own good, she darted to the attached bathroom and washed up, using extra soap in her armpits and between her legs, and she quickly washed the grime and sweat out of her hair before pulling all of the water off of her body and back into the tub. The clothes from the Blue Spirit were folded and tucked into a little shoulder bag and she dressed herself in just her blue Water Tribe dress, and some flat boots. Out of an impulsive urge, she kept her hair loose this time.
Once she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, noting the slight flush in her cheeks and the brightness of her eyes, she smiled and hustled out the door. She ran down the hall, not stopping when the others shouted at her, and she flew out the door as if she was an airbender like Aang.
The walk to the bridge was long, long enough to last until sundown when she told the Blue Spirit to meet her. In fact, the moment it came into view, she could see the sky was starting to turn the oranges and yellows of twilight.
He should be here soon.
Her fingers fiddled together on the strap of her bag and she gnawed her lower lip between her teeth. It was still light out, so she doubted he would come out in plain sight with his mask. He could be anywhere, watching her and waiting until it was dark enough to emerge from the shadows without being caught. Her stomach flipped at the thought of him watching her walk, keen in anticipation of meeting her again.
Would he be as anxious as she? After all, he seemed as startled as a catdeer when she approached him once they were away from danger. Maybe he wouldn't come because of that very reason... Katara shook her head and tightened her grip on the bag as soon as she stepped onto the bridge. He promised he would be there.
Though, she really couldn't go by the word of a silent man.
The sun was dipping below the horizon when she heard someone clear their throat. Lost in thought, Katara hadn't heard anyone arrive, so she straightened up and looked around for the source of the noise. Spotting no one, she frowned and went back to slowly feeling let down. Then, the throat was cleared again and she looked down into the water that ran under the creek.
She scowled and snapped her head back up in frustration. The first of the stars were starting to pop up in the darkening sky, and she was sure the Blue Spirit would not be coming. With a despondent sigh, she turned on her heel and marched back down the bridge to head back from where she came.
Another clearing of a throat hit her ears and she glared behind her, only to almost be hit by a pebble. It landed on the ground right by her feet and her gaze moved up to the willow tree in the grove near the creek. There, between the parted branches, was a strikingly familiar blue mask with white markings. Her grin was almost as wide as his as she bounded over, her previous disappointment forgotten, and entered the sanctuary under the canopy.
The Blue Spirit watched her as he backed up towards the trunk of the tree. He seemed reluctant to be here, sensing the implications of meeting her after dark in the Upper Ring where he likely wasn't allowed, but he was still here. Katara smiled and met him as he sank down against the tree and folded his legs, sitting next to him and waiting for a long moment.
Now was as good of a time than any other.
"Here," she said as she took her bag off her shoulder and handed it to him. "Your shirt, sash, and waterskin, as promised. Thank you for all you did for me yesterday. I don't know what I did to deserve a savior like you, but I'm glad you rescued me. If you hadn't shown up, I don't know what I would have done."
She imagined him smiling as he thumbed the sash and then looked back up to her. In the better - but not ideal - lighting here, she could see that his eyes were blocked by some black screen, so she wouldn't be able to see their color even if she tried. His hands were even covered in black gloves and his neck and the top of the mask covered with some sort of loose hood attached to his shirt, so she wouldn't be able to tell the color of his skin or hair unless he or she pushed it back.
His broadswords were still present, and she could see a small dagger was sheathed on his hip, as well.
Her mind went back to the night before, how he had the blood on the swords from the men he had slain to protect her. She had no clue why he would have been so protective of her, but it made her head spin and heart thunder loudly in her chest. The thought of him going out of his way to make sure she was protected when she walked home as well was dizzying.
He even gave her a waterskin full of water, as if he knew she was a waterbender and would need it to protect herself.
That thought made her frown.
She could see the Blue Spirit fidget under her scrutinizing gaze and he turned his head away so their supposed eye contact was broken. Her mind may have been playing a trick on her with this lack of light, but she could have sworn she saw a mangled ear under the darkness of his loose hood. Her stomach tightened and she felt herself get bold.
All of the clues were starting to add up, and if her suspicion was right, this could change everything.
After all, there was only person who smelled like spices and knew she was a waterbender, and the Blue Spirit fit his build.
"I have a question," she started softly and calmly, betraying her sudden anxiety and causing him to look back to her. She met what she suspected was his golden eyes and asked, "Why did you save me?"
The Blue Spirit did not move for a long moment, likely debating in his head whether or not he should vocalize why he had done it. She would be able to tell if he was him by the sound of his voice alone.
Unfortunately for her, he just shrugged and dropped his gaze to his lap.
"You don't know."
Katara sighed and shuffled closer to him. Their knees touched and she saw him lift his head minutely to look at where they touched. "Can you please speak?"
He shook his head.
"Is it because we know each other?"
His head lifted and she felt like she was melting under his hidden gaze. His nod was slow, deliberate, and it made her heart hammer even harder. If this was him, she had to find out. He was here, in Ba Sing Se, likely with his Uncle. They were here, and she had to find out if he was hostile or not. Well... if he had saved her from being raped, she doubted that there was any ill intent anymore. After all, they hadn't seen either of them in months. For all she knew, they could have given up on their hunt for Aang and decided to hide in the Earth Kingdom.
The hostility of the woman in that deserted town clued her in well enough that he was no longer welcome by his people. Maybe he was done fighting for the wrong side. His heroic actions last night proved that much to her.
This was a better time than any other. It could truly test his change. Her heart swelled in her throat and she tried to swallow it down as she murmured, "If I kissed you right now, would you stop me?"
The pause was deafening and agonizingly long, but when he slowly shook his head, Katara abandoned all reservations and crawled over to him. She swung her leg over his and straddled his hips, causing him to gasp and his warm hands to plant themselves on her hips. They seared her, even through her dress, and she fought the shiver that rushed through her body.
Slowly, cautiously, Katara lifted the bottom of his mask up with both of her hands, revealing inch by tantalizing inch of his sharp jaw. Her eye flickered to the left side of his face, where she spotted the edge of a dark scar that she knew took up the rest of his cheekbone and eye socket. His hands snatched her wrists again, stopping her, and she was thrown back to the beach and the pirates that had surrounded her there.
"I'll save you from the pirates."
His breath came out of his parted lips haggardly, but so did hers. So she silenced it by kissing him.
He immediately sighed and his hands trembled as they tightened their grip on her wrists. She moved them back and cupped the exposed part of his face, and slowly he let her go and placed them tenderly back on her waist. His lips were a little dry, but not rough, and so timid it made Katara's heart surge. With shaking hands, she pushed his hood back as she deepened the kiss and her fingers tangled with the short strands of black hair that jutted out from his scalp and between the cloth straps of the mask. Her tongue dragged against his lower lip, eliciting a gasp. He responded by sliding his hands up to her shoulders blades to pull her closer to his chest. Then, one arm mirrored hers and his fingers threaded themselves through the loose waves that had curtained around them.
He tugged slightly, and she opened up. Slowly, as if he was unsure, he slid his tongue into her mouth and grazed hers with the tip. She shuddered at the sensation that swept through her, causing her hips to bear down on him. A gravelly groan was her reward, as was the pawing his hand started doing on her back as it headed down towards her butt. He palmed her entirely, causing her to rock down against him again and something hard grazed against the most sensitive part of her, causing her to break the kiss and cry out in surprise.
"S-sorry," he murmured as he planted his lips on her neck. It was the first thing he had said to her during this entire tryst. The first thing since she last saw him in the abandoned desert town and he shouted at her. Hearing him so... unhinged in the good way thrilled her all the way to her bones. She pulled his face back up to hers and kissed him hard again, quickly taking his lip within hers and giving him a slight suck. It earned her another low growl from deep in his chest.
Katara grinned against his lips and finished pushing his mask up all the way, opening her eyes right as his were revealed. After she pulled out of the kiss, they held their gazes for what felt like ages. She could see the uncertainty in the dark, molten gold, hesitant and afraid, but she did not falter. This may be the same boy who had relentlessly chased them from pole to pole, fighting to capture Aang and bring him to the Fire Nation, but he had also saved her life from a fate worse than she could ever imagine. He had never seriously hurt her, other than when she got knocked out in the Spirit Oasis, but she got her payback soon after.
The most harm he had done to her was keep her necklace and taunt her with his miniature conquest.
But here he was, eyes dark but oh so bright as they took her in without the obstruction of his mask. Her fingers trailed down the side of his unblemished cheek, marveling in the smoothness while the other, much more slowly, trailed down the scarred side. His eyes fluttered and she could practically feel his frantic heartbeat thrum under her fingertips, but she did not stop. When her palms came to rest on his jaw and her thumbs grazed the opposing sides of him, she leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his lips.
"Zuko," she whispered against him, causing him to visibly shiver and tighten his arms around her.
His eyes closed entirely and he kissed her back, lips moving in a caress as he said, "Katara."
Another kiss, this time more drawn out and heated. She fought the thunderous beating of her heart as she broke away to murmur again, "Zuko..."
His hand swept her hair to the side and he held it against her scalp, his blunt fingernails scraping against her. He licked his lips and breathed, "Katara..."
They met again, pushing and pulling like tides, until they were both panting into each other's mouths and desperately clawing at the other's body to relieve some of the tension that was steadily building under the privacy of the willow branches. An ache settled deep in Katara's belly, one she knew was from arousal and stimulation, and she could suspect Zuko was feeling the same ache, based on how his hands were flittering between her ass and her ribs, right beneath her breasts as if he wanted more.
She wanted more.
Boldly, she bore herself down and ground her center against him. She could feel a solid heat underneath her, what she knew was his erection, and she felt her face flush at the implications. She did this to him, just like he had done this to her, and she reveled in it.
He let out a soft moan, low and deep in his chest, and he flexed his hips up to meet her, thrust for thrust. Right where his head was grazed against her at just the right angle that she was seeing stars, and her gasps and keening whines filled the air as she crawled closer and closer to climax.
Suddenly, Zuko stiffened beneath her and she heard him inhale sharply. For a split second, she thought he had already came, but when she broke away from the kiss she could see a fearful and concentrated look in his eyes as he looked over her shoulder towards the branches that kept them hidden.
"Shh!" he hissed as he pulled his mask back down and started to lift her off of him. "Someone is coming."
Scrambling to her feet, Katara took his hand and stopped him from completely fleeing. "Who?"
Even though the mask was in place, she knew he was staring at her with that penetrating gaze that rocked her to her core. She ignored the throb of want between her legs as he muttered, "Don't know. I have to go."
As he made to flee, Katara tugged on his hand and kept him from leaving. "Please, can I see you again?"
Zuko froze and she could see his chest rising and falling with trembling breaths. She had done this to him, unraveling him and making him this mess of a man. Quickly and quietly, he rounded on her and lifted up his mask only enough to sweep her into a searing kiss, holding her close as he dipped down and poured everything into her. Katara was lost in the moment, her breath stolen as he tightened his hold on her.
They broke apart and Zuko lowered the mask as they turned to whoever had entered their sanctuary, only to see Aang, Sokka, and Toph standing there, all three of them stunned at what they had just witnessed.
Like the wind, silent and swift, Zuko vanished from behind her and fled into the night, leaving her with the accusatory and disbelieving gazes of her friends. As Sokka gazed upon her in shock, Toph stared at her with what she could only pinpoint as confusion and understanding.
While, Aang... well his face could only be described as crestfallen and disappointed.
She had a long night of explaining ahead of her.
Zuko leapt over the last of the buildings in the Upper Ring before reaching the wall, his heart hammering up into his throat and racing so fast he was sure that if it had wings it would carry him over the wall and straight down to the Lower Ring where he belonged.
Or right into hell. That would work, too.
The clandestine meeting with Katara under the willow tree had been improvised, almost entirely. He had fought with himself for the whole night and most of the morning about whether or not he should go sneak into the Upper Ring and meet with her. After all, she was the Avatar's waterbender, and at that point in time, his enemy. He was still a Prince of the Fire Nation, and although he was banished and living in squalor in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, he was still the Crown Prince and Heir to the Dragon Throne. He couldn't be melting into putty in the arms of a peasant girl who was on the opposite side of the war as him.
Not when he still wanted to go back home.
But her eyes, oh her damned eyes, they saw right through him. Pinpointing every single weakness that he hid deep down in fear that they would be exploited. But she didn't do that, no. She coaxed them, nurtured them. Made him feel like the honor that he swore by was good, not weak or inferior to the blood lust he was raised to believe was right. Just one simple kiss undid him, broke down those walls that he so meticulously built up to prevent himself from failing and getting hurt again. She did that to him, and now he couldn't get enough.
He slid down the sloped roof of a home and crouched right on the gutter. Below was an unassuming cellar door, which he knew housed an ancient secret passage between the rings that he had used to get here and will be using to get back home. After all, how else would he have gotten up to the Upper Ring without being detained?
Once he was inside, he tore off his mask and scrubbed his face with his gloved hands. How on earth did that escalate so much? He never intended to let things go so far. He glanced down at himself and shivered when he remembered the weight of her body as it straddled him, how her womanhood had surrounded him so intimately without them actually touching. He groaned and felt himself twitch again.
He had to do something about it.
But not here.
Zuko raced through the tunnels, cutting down his traveling time in half at his break-neck pace, and soon arrived at the opening that led to the Lower Rings, right around the corner from his apartment. He panted as he pulled himself out of the hidden opening and out into the alley, and by the time he reached the balcony of their little apartment, he was dripping with sweat and his stirring arousal from earlier had vanished almost completely.
After taking a quick, freezing cold bath, he tip-toed to the kitchenette and grabbed the bread to make up for the meals he skipped throughout the entire day due to the anxiety over meeting Katara again. He took a few bites and chugged a bit of water, bitter at the fact that he was washing away her taste.
It had vaguely reminded him of peaches and mint, a strange combination if he thought about it. Though, Uncle would say it would be a great tea flavor, but he didn't have time for that. Her smell, however, was what he hated washing away the most. Whatever soap she used before meeting him, it was delightful: a light scent of jasmine and bergamot. He admitted begrudgingly to himself that it reminded him of the soaps he would use when he lived back in the Fire Nation. Even the clothes he had lent her had vaguely smelt of her mixed in with his own familiar scent -
Suddenly, he spit out all of the food into their little sink and slapped himself in the forehead. He left the bag of his things under that tree.
"I can explain-"
"Then you better start talking, missy!" Sokka exclaimed as he stomped his foot in a manner that Katara could only describe as condescending.
She sighed and rubbed her face, wondering if that was what she looked like when she scolded Aang or Toph for misbehaving. It was odd being on this side of the lecture. "It's not what it looked like, I promise."
"Oh, really?" Sokka scowled. "Because it looked like you were sucking face with a known criminal. Katara, I thought you knew better."
Her frown was just as deep as she replied, "I'm allowed to make my own decisions. I don't need your approval."
"I'm not saying you need it," Sokka countered, his voice starting to soften slightly, "but you can't go running off without telling any of us where you were going and not come home for hours. We were worried."
Katara's heart fell at the truth in his words and she dropped her gaze to the lush grass beneath her feet. "I'm sorry. I didn't think it would be that big of a deal. Or that I would be gone so long-"
"That explains why you were acting so weird earlier," Toph cut in, causing Katara to look up at her blind companion. Toph frowned and she cupped her jaw with her knuckles. "Your heart was racing like a mess when you got home this morning. And you smelled like sweat and dirt and someone else's clothes. I thought you got in a fight or something, which explains why you met up with that guy. You were giving him his stuff back."
Katara flushed, eyes darting to Sokka's paling face and Aang's even more upsetting expression. She didn't expect Toph to have been so observant, and her spot-on assumption made the situation seem worse than she thought.
With a sigh, she explained everything. How when she had been walking back from helping out in clinics in the Lower Ring, she had been caught in a scuffle with some thugs and they were trying to steal her money. With no water and her exhaustion from healing all day, they had easily taken her down and stole her off of the street. When she was being held in their apartment, the Blue Spirit came in and rescued her. In the fight, her clothes had been ripped up so he gave her a shirt and sent her on her way with a full waterskin.
How she wanted to repay him for saving her and give him back her stuff.
She left out the crucial details, like how she had almost been raped and he killed the men that touched her. How his burning touch made her yearn instead of squirm like those dirty men's had. How she found out that the Blue Spirit was Zuko all along and how they kissed and clawed at each other's bodies like desperate teenagers thrown into a century-old conflict they had no business being in.
How she asked to see him again.
Her eyes went to Aang and she whispered, "Aang?"
His frown deepened and he turned on his heel before marching out of the hidden grove beneath the tree. "Let's just go home."
A tear fell out of Katara's eye - when had she started crying? - and she nodded as she made to follow the other's out of the sanctuary she found in the arms of her enemy. With one last glance to the tree, her heart stopped at the sight of the bag of his belongings still sitting where he had set it down.
Guess she had a legitimate reason to meet up with him again now.
Morning came and Katara was flustered to find out that Sokka had slept outside her door all night, as if he was afraid of her sneaking out again. Not like she couldn't climb out her window or anything.
"It's not like I know who he is or where he lives to go find him, Sokka!"
"You made out with a complete stranger?! That's even worse!"
Katara growled in frustration as she snatched the bag and a coin purse before stomping out of the house to go to the market. "You all are on your own for food today."
Their protests were met with a slammed door that she froze shut. She didn't want any of them following her today.
She made her way to the market, the need for retail therapy itching her all the way down to her bones, and she stopped at the closest cart that touted daggers and knives. She eyed the wares, not seeing any style that she would like or knew how to use. All of them were fancy, decorative knives that would fail catastrophically in battle. She had no use for them, so she moved on.
So much for therapy.
When she reached the produce area of the market, she was flagged down by a courier with a note. He handed it to her, then waited for her to read the message. She asked him why, and he said that the sender was waiting for a response.
So Katara opened it and was surprised to see her name in elegant, slanted letters.
Apparently, he worked in a tea shop. And he was offering her a free cup during his afternoon break.
She sent back a response, plus a tip for the courier, and made her way down to the Lower Ring. By the time she would make it there, it would be close to his break time and they could talk.
Hopefully somewhere private.
Luckily for her, the tea shop was rather quaint and nestled in a quiet street. Unluckily for her, the place was full of people clearly from all three rings. From behind, she could clearly see General Iroh serving a table while Zuko was at the register ringing up another customer. She had to suppress the giggle at the sight of him in an apron.
As the door closed behind her and the little bell above it rang, Iroh turned around to give her a greeting, but was stopped short when he completely took her in. His shock, however, was short-lived and his grin spread from ear to ear.
"Hello! Welcome!" he beamed as he approached her and took her hand. He led her to a booth near the register as he said, "It is always nice to see old friends. Why don't you take a seat and Li will serve you in just a short moment."
He met her eyes, a warning and a jest simultaneously in the golden depths, and she nodded as she slid into the seat. Katara watched as he shuffled to the counter, whispered something to Zuko, who then perked up and snapped his head over to her. She waved with her fingers, an awkward smile on her lips, and she was stunned to see his good cheek go a little pink before he ducked his head and hustled to the back room. Iroh looked over to her and gave her two thumbs up before following behind his nephew.
She couldn't contain the giggle this time.
A few minutes later, he came out sans the apron and beckoned her to follow him. He led her to a door on the side of the building that fed into a deserted alleyway. There, she saw a table that was already set with a pot and two cups, plus a little plate of tea cakes. Her smile at the gesture was hard to contain as she sat across from him.
Here, in the light of daytime and the lack of disguise, Zuko seemed very different. She could see he had lost weight, but that was noticeable back when they last clashed in that desert town, and his hair was grown out even more. Still short, but not sticking out like he had been electrocuted or something. His eyes were softer, but still wary as he took in her appearance in the sunlight, as well.
"So..." she trailed off and her fingers fidgeted on the bag on her lap again.
Zuko silently went to pour their tea, his actions fluid and practiced. She watched with intrigue when he finished pouring it without a drop falling out of either cup, and she wondered if he had practice pouring tea before his days as a server in the Lower Ring.
Her eyebrows shot up with confusion and she replied, "What?"
Zuko sighed and pushed her teacup towards her. "I'm sorry. For not telling you who I was. I thought you were going to run away and report us, so I thought it was better to keep my identity a secret."
Katara frowned and she cupped her hands around her cup. "You're not going to try to kill me, are you?"
He scowled and shook his head.
"And you're not going to try to capture Aang again?"
He looked away and his fingers drummed on the table. "I have no method of returning him to the Fire Nation, so there's no point."
She frowned as she went to take a sip. As the surprisingly tasteful tea slid down her tongue, she remembered how he had tasted, too. Her cheeks warmed and she fought to not choke. After swallowing quickly and setting down her cup, she grabbed the bag and handed it to him. "Don't forget it this time."
Although he kept his eyes away from hers, Katara could see Zuko's lips pull up into a wry smirk as he took it from her, his fingers grazing against hers in the process. "I'll try."
The silence stretched on for longer than Katara felt his break would last. But then again, it seemed like Iroh had a good handle on the customers up front and appeared to encourage them in sitting down and talking, so she figured they could be out here all night without interruption.
"Can you tell me now why you did it?"
She saw his good eye widen and he finally met her gaze, swirling and molten gold bright in the afternoon sun, and he nodded slowly. "There's... there are horrible people down here. I go out and let out some steam by roughing them up, stealing back the things they stole and stopping people from getting hurt. It's the only way I can survive down here without bending or blowing something up."
He inhaled heavily and dropped his eyes to the cup in front of him. "That night... I couldn't sit by and watch you get... tarnished by some grubby men with no morals. I would have done it for anyone, but since it was you I felt more... driven... to hurt them."
Katara couldn't help the frown that pulled at her lips when she set down her cup. "I don't understand. We've been enemies for as long as we've known each other."
Zuko rose his eyes to her again and he pinned her down with that simple stare. "That doesn't mean I can sit by and watch a good person get hurt. And even then, you've still shown me kindness and mercy, even if I rejected it. You wouldn't have let me save you if you knew who I was, so that's why I didn't want to reveal myself. You're smart and figured it out, so I couldn't deny it anymore."
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "We're done chasing the Avatar. After we were declared fugitives, it's become futile to even try. We're trying to make a new life here, and I'm trying my hardest to keep it that way. He deserves it more than anything, after all I put him through."
Katara nodded in understanding and reached across the table to take his hand. "I won't tell the others that you're here. I promise."
Zuko turned his hand over and wove their fingers together. This was the first time she felt them without the barrier of clothing, and she was a little surprised to feel that they were warm and a little rough, calloused from gripping his swords and living off the land since the beginning of the season. Though they were still soft as they held her as reverently as he did the other night. The gesture made her heart flip as that wry grin spread on his lips again when he replied, "The Avatar already knows who I am, so he knows we're here now. Just tell him we won't bother him if he doesn't bother us."
That admission came as quite a shock and she'd have to confront Aang about that later, considering it explained his behavior the night before. But that wasn't a priority in her head right now. The man in front of her and his open honesty was. Her smile spread as she gently squeezed his fingers. "I can do that."
There was a genuine look of relief when he met her eyes. "Thank you."
She reluctantly removed her hand from his and went to take another drink of the tea, all while keeping an eye on him. This was a whole new territory, like treading in waters that had once been infested with tigersharks. Zuko's teeth weren't as sharp, but he could be just as ruthless.
No, not this Zuko. This Zuko had soft eyes, albeit a little haggard and still angry and tired, but when he looked at her it was a complete change from the hard fire she had seen there in the North Pole. Underneath the anger and bitterness was a teenaged boy who yearned to be touched, just like the teenaged girl in her.
"I know you have to go back to work, but what time do you get off?" she asked, causing him to perk up and raise his lone eyebrow in a silent question. She squirmed under his intense piercing gaze. "I want to see you again."
Zuko swallowed and blinked a few times, the darkening of his eyes either a trick of her mind or the light. "I should be off around sundown. I can escort you back to the Middle Ring then, if you'd like."
She shook her head and braced herself. This was why she came back down to see him, drawn in by the touch of his hands and lips and yearning for more. With a resolute shake of her head, she replied, "Actually, I was hoping to pick up where we left off last night."
The way his face reddened was admittedly adorable, and Katara embraced the boldness she felt around him and stood. As she rounded the table, Zuko kept his eyes on her, wide and sharp, until she extended her hand to him. "Tonight?"
Zuko took her hand, slow and careful, and he stood. Now, in the light of the setting sun, Katara could see all of the similarities that made Zuko and the Blue Spirit one and the same. It made her heart rush.
Without warning, Zuko swept her into a fierce kiss and spun her around so he could press her back against the wall. He trapped their clasped hands between their bodies and his free hand planted itself against the wall right next to her hair. Katara clutched at his shoulder, desperate to ground herself, and shuddered into the kiss when he pressed his hips against hers.
As if they had quite literally picked up where they left off, Zuko hoisted her up so her legs were wrapped around his hips and he pressed himself against her suddenly aching center. She gasped against his lips and he quickly silenced her by thrusting his tongue into her mouth. Katara shivered at the sensations coursing through her body and clawed at his back.
One of Zuko's rough hands palmed her through her shirt, brushing against her stiffening nipple and she choked on the moan that erupted through her. Every sensation had been heightened, spinning out of control as he stimulated every single nerve ending that would bring her to a climax.
Though she could tell he was going purely by instincts at this point. The way his hands shook and his closed eyes still revealed some sort of confused desperation clued her in.
Slowly, Zuko began grinding himself up into her, a little jerky and still unsure but hitting the right spot nonetheless. Katara felt the sparks dancing through her skin at every thrust, starting at her center and branching out all the way to her fingers and toes every time his erection pressed against her.
His lips tore away from hers and latched onto her neck, biting and licking and kissing in time with his rhythmic grinds. As her arms wrapped around his shoulders and she exhaled unevenly, Zuko untucked her dress just enough so he could slide his hand underneath her wrappings. He cupped her breast and his thumb dragged against her nipple, causing her to sigh his name and drop her head back against the brick of the building.
She rolled her hips in time with his, causing him to bite down and gasp against her skin. His grip on her waist was starting to get harder and he sped up, then he soothed the bite with a roll of his tongue.
Katara thought vaguely to herself that Zuko's teeth definitely weren't as sharp as a tigershark's, but they were just as dangerous.
Zuko's thumbnail dragged over her nipple and she let out another cry. He used his free hand to cup the back of her head and force her to look down into his eyes. Dark, glowing gold filled her vision, overwhelming every other color until it was all she could see. They kept up their grinding, rough and fast, and Katara started feeling the inevitable tightening in her lower abdomen that told her an orgasm was near.
Her small cries and moans spurred him on, their tempo quickening and becoming more and more frenzied.
But her eyes did not leave his.
Zuko took his hand out of her shirt and palmed her ass, guiding her so she could speed up as well. The cool air hit her chest and she shivered at his touch. He surrounded her, encased her with his entire being, and she was lost in those eyes as he ground against her in just the right spot and she tumbled over the crest and came.
He silenced her cries with his lips, speeding up to prolong her orgasm just enough until he hit his peak and groaned into her mouth.
Slowly, he sank to his knees and brought her with him. They both caught their breaths, foreheads pressed to the others shoulders. Katara wound her arms around his neck and pulled him close, ignoring the throb between her legs when he brushed against her again. He sighed and nuzzled his face against the juncture of her neck and shoulder, his breath as hot as the hands that rubbed her back affectionately.
Vaguely, Katara realized that the sun was starting to set as the sky turned those magnificent colors that reminded her of his fire. Zuko must have noticed it too, because he sighed and pulled away from her embrace with a grimace and guilty glance towards the tea shop.
"Uncle is going to kill me," he muttered, mostly to himself. Then, he brought his gaze to her and lowered his voice a pitch more, "Or maybe not."
Katara frowned and played with the hairs at the nape of his neck. "Why would you say that?"
Zuko ran his hands up and down her sides as he cast his gaze back to the entrance of the alleyway, conflict clear in the scarred eye that she faced, and he sighed, "Uncle has been wanting me to consider my stance for a long time. I suspected it back when he tried to teach me how to bend lightning, and he keeps subtly hinting that we should seek you all out. I've been against it."
"Why the change of heart?" she couldn't help but ask.
Zuko leveled his eyes with hers and rose his single eyebrow, silently conveying his reasoning. At her own silence, he sighed again and dropped his hands to her hips. She tried not to memorize the way they fit against her so easily and listened to him as he spoke softly, "It's not a change of heart, just... a change of circumstance. I can't go home unless I bring the Avatar with me-"
She scowled and he gave her a quick, reassuring squeeze before continuing, "But I have no means nor drive to do it. That or I can defect entirely and fight against my father and sister and all of my people, which I'd prefer not doing. Staying here with Uncle is the only option I have, so I'm dealing."
"You can do so much more than just deal," she plead softly, causing a troubled look to cross his face. She cupped his jaw in her hands, carefully laying her fingers against his scar. "Aang still needs a firebending teacher-"
Zuko's eyes widened and he looked like he was about to adamantly deny and refuse, but she silenced him with a soft kiss. When she pulled away, he pulled his lower lip between his teeth and she took that as her cue to keep talking.
"He's still working on earthbending and waterbending, but eventually he will need to learn firebending in order to fight the Fire Lord."
A dark look crossed Zuko's face and he muttered, "My father. Do you really expect me to aid some kid in defeating my father?"
Katara frowned and removed her hands from his face, settling them on his shoulders as she retorted, "The same father that apparently has to restore your honor in order for you to go home? All I have heard about you is that you're banished and now a fugitive. Do you really want to aid someone who willingly cast away their child?"
She noticed a little too late that her hips were getting abnormally hot and his face had contorted into the look of rage she saw when they fought. Fear suddenly gripped at her heart and she sat back until she hit the wall, then her hands went to her waterskin on her hip.
"Calm down, Zuko."
He blinked a few times before jerking his hands away from her like she had burned him, then looked down at his palms like they had acted on their own. For a long moment, the silence was tense and Katara almost completely forgot about what they had just done together moments ago. It wasn't until Zuko sighed again and slouched, his forehead dropping onto her shoulder, and he loosely wrapped his arms around her waist. Katara hesitantly let herself relax into his hold, shoving aside the knee-jerk reaction to his fire, and rested her arms gently on his shoulders.
"You don't have to make a decision right now," she murmured against his hair. She took in the smell of his shampoo - the source of the orange blossom, she realized - and pressed her cheek against the crown of his head. "We're going to be in Ba Sing Se until we find Appa. And who knows how long that will take. But if we leave, I'll come find you. And figure out what you want to do."
When he didn't reply, Katara made to stand. He followed her, adjusting himself and covering up the wet spot from their tryst, and sighed when they both straightened entirely. He kept his eyes averted, but he did take her hand and lead her back inside to the tea shop. Iroh had already closed up and was sweeping, his head rising and a grin forming when he saw the two hand in hand.
"I'm going to walk her home," Zuko declared softly, surprising both Katara and Iroh. "Will you be alright closing up on your own?"
The seasoned general merely smiled and nodded before replying, "Of course, my nephew."
Zuko made to lead Katara out of the shop, but Iroh stopped her and handed her a little slip of paper. On one side, a coupon for a free pot of tea. On the other, was an address. When she met Iroh's eyes, he smiled again and went back to his sweeping without any explanation.
The irritated look on Zuko's face told Katara that he would be telling her the significance once they got outside.
The walk to the gates at the Middle Ring was long and tense. She would have been eager to speak with him more, but he was hellbent on remaining quiet until she reached the gates. By the time they loomed in front of them, the sun had dipped beneath the horizon and stars were starting to pop up in the sky like little fireflies.
It was crazy to think that two nights ago she had thought of Zuko as her enemy still and she had almost been raped by some thugs.
"It's Li, now," he cut in softly, his eye flashing over his shoulder as they slowed down near a fountain by the gate. When he turned around, he still kept his eyes averted, but now they were pinned on the paper in her hand. "The coupon is only good if you have a full table."
That wry grin returned - oh, how handsome he was when he wasn't scowling and raging - and he said humorlessly, "Four people is a full table."
Understanding swept through her and she looked back down at the coupon. Iroh wanted all of them to sit down and have some tea, and discuss some things. Her eyes lifted back to the firebender's and she then asked, "And the address?"
Even in the lessening light, she could see Zuko's cheek turn a little red. He rubbed the back of his neck and replied, "My... apartment. If you want to visit and we aren't working."
Katara couldn't help the smile as she stood on her toes and gave him another soft kiss. The stunned look on his face was enough to settle her dreams for the next week and she passed him to head towards the gate. Over her shoulder, she called out, "I'll come find you. I promise."
A soft smile, just for her, came from the banished Fire Nation Prince, and he placed his hand over his heart as if he was giving her a private promise, as well. She beamed back to him, then finally turned away as she headed towards the gate and flashed her papers to the guards. After she passed through, she turned to give Zuko one last lingering look, and was unsurprised to see he had already vanished.
Such was the nature of the Blue Spirit.