Looking around the packed and brightly lit ballroom, Katara felt a little overwhelmed by such outrageous extravagance. Party goers twirled on the dance floor creating a garish maelstrom of brightly colored silks and ridiculous masks. Servers navigated the currents of the crowd with trays of rich foods in miniature form held aloft and jugglers and magicians performed for the amusement of the guests. The entire ballroom held a carnival atmosphere, carefree and juvenile. They may have been gathered for Fire Lord Zuko’s twenty-first birthday, but it was exactly what Katara needed.
“I can’t tell who anyone is in these masks,” Katara said.
“You mean you can’t see anyone’s face? Oh no, how terrible for you!” Toph said, gasping in mock horror.
“Just tell me where everyone is,” Katara said, frowning at her friend.
Toph turned toward the center of the room, listening, and Katara tried to stay as still as possible so she could get an accurate reading in the busy hall. After a moment, she pointed to the far side of the ballroom.
“Twinkletoes if in the middle of that pack of screeching girls.”
Aang, his figure unmistakable after all their time spent together, was surrounded by a small group of admirers who had also guessed at his identity. They had mostly avoided the Fire Nation on their travels together, assuming that it would take time for the Avatar to be accepted after the defeat of Ozai. It seemed that Zuko had made great progress in endearing Aang to his nation. Or perhaps the courtiers were smart enough to suck up to someone the new Fire Lord had defiantly declared a “Friend of the Fire Nation.” Either way, it meant that he was occupied and Katara could pass the evening without a stilted conversation with her ex-boyfriend. A cordial nod at each other across from across the room would more than suffice.
“Good to see he’s enjoying himself,” Katara said, and meant it. The end of her relationship with Aang had been as amicable as possible. They traveled the world together for four years following the war and that had been plenty of time to discover that while they made very good friends and would always support each other, they did not make very good lovers. They had parted on good terms five months prior despite their sore hearts. Aang and Appa had left taken her home to Gran-Gran and Master Pakku and Dad and everything seemed fine. Everything except that Katara was bored out of her skull.
“At least one of you is making an effort,” Toph said with a snort of laughter.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katara asked, hands on her hips.
“Just that we’re at a ball, where people are supposed to dance and have fun, and you’ve done nothing but stand here all night.”
Katara sputtered. “We’ve barely been here ten minutes! And you’ve been standing next to me the whole time.”
“You’re right,” Toph said, squaring her shoulders. “How do I look?”
Though she had always been pretty, the past four years had been more than kind to Toph and she was now a true beauty. It was a pity the masked ball required her to cover her face, but Katara had already noticed that friend wasn’t lacking for male attention. At seventeen, Toph was still petite, but she had filled out and her pale pink gown showed off her new curves nicely.
“You look beautiful. Any man would be lucky to dance with you,” Katara told her.
“I’m glad you said that,” Toph said and set off, determinedly striding into the crowd.
Katara watched her, puzzled at her words, until she reached her goal, a young man who Katara instantly recognized as Sokka. Toph grabbed him by the front of his tunic and marched him out to the dance floor. Katara laughed to herself and silently wished them both luck.
Now that she was on her own, Katara looked around the ballroom, once again at a loss. The only person Katara had actually expected to be there was the only person she couldn’t pinpoint in the crowd. The ornate golden throne on the dais at the head of the room was empty and though there was a young woman Katara thought might be Mai, she stood alone. If Zuko was in the crowd, she couldn’t distinguish him from the rest of the well-heeled nobles in attendance. She’d like to say hello and thank him for not only sending a ship all the way to the southern continent to pick her and Sokka up, but also for sending a seamstress who custom made her dress and mask for the ball, as well as a few other outfits for her to wear during her stay in the Capital. Apparently Zuko was expecting her to stick around for a while. At the very least, she should wish him a happy birthday, but if he wasn’t going to present himself, she could hardly be blamed for overlooking him at a masked ball.
The only thing to do, Katara thought, was to have as much fun as possible on her own. She was young, and for the first time in years, she was unattached. All she was missing was a dance partner. She cast around for a likely candidate and spotted a tall, broad-shouldered man about ten paces to her left, alone in the crush of bodies and staring in her direction. He wore a black tunic with bright, royal blue embroidery along the collar and hem, tied closed over a black undershirt with a blue silk sash. His loose pants were a shade of blue so dark they were almost black and he wore an odd mask in matching colors that covered most of his head instead of just his face. He looked away from her quickly as though he was embarrassed that she had caught him staring, then turned back to her. Katara watched in a detached awe as he squared his shoulders and walked towards her. The man bowed before her and offered his hand and beneath her mask, Katara’s jaw dropped open. She had never imagined that securing a dance partner would be this easy.
His hand was large and warm and held hers surely in his grip as he guided her to the dance floor. The long dark plait of hair that hung down his back gave no further indication to his identity and Katara found herself a little thrilled as he pulled her into the dance. It was refreshing to step away from being Katara the Avatar’s Girlfriend or Katara the Master Waterbender. Her mystery dance partner might have guessed at her heritage from the dark skin of her hands and her neck, which was exposed by the low neckline of her dress, but both of their masks hid the rest of their features too well to discern more.
The band played a fast tune that had them weaving in and out of other couples, only just barely touching hands before spinning away again. The spinning made her feel dizzy and light, but Katara felt the weight of her partner’s gaze no matter how far she spun away from him and her hands seemed to burn every time they made contact with his. The dance ended and they bowed politely to each other. The couples around them dispersed to find other partners, but Katara felt reluctant to move away from the dance floor. The band struck up another song, this one slower and heavier than the last. All around her, dancers moved together in close held embraces, no longer trading partners, but sticking with the ones who had brought them to the dance floor.
Mystery Man held out a hand, silently beckoning Katara to join him for this dance too. Though she was far from an expert in the Fire Nation's courtly manners, Katara knew that dancing more than one dance with the same man was probably frowned upon. Of course, neither was travelling all over the known world with your boyfriend and no one but his pet sky bison to act as an escort. People had been saying terrible things about Katara’s virtue for years. Besides, this was a masked ball. People were expected to act a little wild, weren’t they?
Katara gripped her partner’s hand and was swiftly spun into his arms, her back and his chest making solid contact. Held this closely in his arms, she was surrounded by his sweet, spicy scent. Together they swayed to the music as he smoothed his hands over her bare arms. With a quiet, reluctant-sounding sigh, he spun her back out to face him again, but he still held her close enough that her breasts pressed against his firm chest. Katara let her hands drift over his well-muscled shoulders and touch the silky strands of hair that had escaped the braid at his nape. In response, she felt his fingers twist in the loose waves that fell to her waist. The soft tugs made her scalp tingle and felt just as good as the warm hand on the small of her back. It had been far too long since she had been touched by anyone other than family.
The song ended and now they really would have to part ways if they didn’t want to incur all sorts of salacious gossip. It was one thing for Katara to throw her reputation away, but she didn’t want to drag anyone down with her over a bit of harmless fun. She was saved from having to make her excuses by a short, squat man in Earth Kingdom colors and a smiling mask asking for the next dance. When she turned back to Mystery Man, he had already melted into the crowd.
This new partner stepped on her feet three times and their dance had about the same amount of tension as dancing with her dad might have. After that came a skinny man in purple robes, a giant of a man in a straining yellow silk suit, and a man with narrow, sloping shoulders and slow movements in a dull grey. Even his mask looked depressed. Katara danced with them all, but none started the same fire in her belly as her first partner had.
After the man who resembled a rain cloud left her, she begged off the next fellow waiting his turn and found a quiet spot along the wall. No one was proving quite as much fun as the first man and as she looked around the room, no one else caught her eye either. Maybe it was just that she couldn’t seem to spot the person she was really looking for, or maybe it was the effect of her last dance partner, but Katara felt rather like a rain cloud herself.
It would have been a good time to seek out her friends, but a quick look around the room found them all otherwise occupied. Toph and Sokka flailed around in an approximation of dance near the center of the room and Aang was using his airbending to juggle for a small crowd. Typical. There was still no sign of Zuko and Katara felt more than a little annoyed at that. Why even throw a ball and invite people from all over the world if he couldn’t be bothered to show up?
A small tug on her hair made Katara whirl around to find her Mystery Man standing before her. Her heartbeat sped up and seemed to pound so loudly in her ears that she was certain Toph would be able to hear it from across the ballroom, even over the music and all the guests. Before she could think of anything to say, he bowed and held out his hand. Oh, Katara thought. More dancing.
Katara tilted her head to the side as she weighed her options. She could dance for the rest of the night, most of it spent with unsatisfying partners, for the hope that every third dance or so she might have a few more minutes with this intoxicating man, or she could really throw caution to the wind and seek a different kind of fun.
Her indecision took too long. The man dropped his hand and his shoulders dropped in disappointment for just a second before he drew himself up again and bent his head in a stiff nod. Suddenly Katara knew she did not want this chance to slip through her fingers. She stepped into his space and placed a hand on his chest. He stilled instantly and brought a hand up to cover hers. Just that simple touch made her toes tingle and Katara felt even more sure about her decision. She didn’t know this man or even what he looked like, but his body called to hers. From what little contact they’d had so far, he’d felt strong but lean under her hands and she already knew he was graceful on his feet. Her experience was admittedly limited, but she’d always heard that a man’s ability on the dance floor was a good indication of his ability as a lover.
She let her hand drift down to the silk sash tied around his waist and tugged on it gently. She wished the masks on their faces were gone so she could ask with her eyes what she couldn't say out loud in this crowded hall, but the holes in their masks were screened with dark fabric. She only had her actions to speak for her. Katara turned and headed for the closest exit, turning to look over her shoulder after a few steps to be sure he was following her. She needn’t have worried, he was right behind her, his hand hovering over the small of her back.
The party atmosphere had spilled into the hallway outside the ballroom. Katara was slightly shocked to see that couples had gathered in shadowed alcoves and behind wide pillars, their bodies were pressed too close together to see what they were really up to, but she was sure she could guess. She wasn’t sure if she had overestimated how conservative the court would be or if the nature of the masked ball had emboldened them as it had for her. If the man at her side found it strange that she led him beyond the muffled whispers and giggles of the hallway and headed for the Guest Wing of the palace, he didn’t comment. He followed along silently, his hand now pressed into the curve at the base of her spine. Only when Katara opened the door to her room and went inside did he leave her side, waiting politely (and maybe she was projecting, but a touch awkwardly) at the threshold.
“Will you please come in?” Katara asked.
Even if he was about to reject her advances, she’d rather it happen in private and away from any other guests who might pass by on the way to their own rooms. He nodded once and stepped inside, closing the door softly before stepping back to lean against it.
“I can’t breathe in this thing,” she muttered to herself and reached up to loosen the ties of her mask.
When she pulled it away from her face, she heard a gasp. She looked up to see Mystery Man reaching for the door handle, his shoulders hunched up around where his ears would be if she could see them.
“Wait! You’re just going to turn and run the second you see my face? I can’t be that ugly,” she said. Embarrassingly, she sounded more hurt than angry.
Mystery Man whipped back around to face her and stretched out a hand while shaking his head rapidly, as if he wanted to stop the words from coming out of her mouth.
“So, what then? You were hoping this would be completely anonymous?” She asked.
His shoulders relaxed and he nodded.
“Well, I’ve already taken mine off, so you might as well, too.”
More furious head shaking.
“What?! Why not? I’m not even from here. The chances that I’ll recognize you are--” Not that small, now that she thought about it. While she didn’t know this man well enough to recognize him by his figure, she really had no idea who Zuko had invited to the ball. She hadn’t even known Toph would be there until they bumped into each other in the Guest Wing earlier in the evening. She could have met Mystery Man during the war or on her travels with Aang, or even here in the Capital during her short stay following Zuko’s coronation.
“So is that the problem? We already know each other?” Katara guessed. This would be easier if he would just talk back, but Mystery Man seemed determined to protect his anonymity.
He hesitated, then nodded slowly, taking a small step forward.
Katara huffed out a sigh in exasperation. “Of course. I’m thousands of miles from home, didn’t speak to a single person I knew the entire night, and naturally the man I pick for an anonymous fling already knows me.”
He drifted a little closer, his hands spread wide in apology. It killed her that even through her disappointment, she still wanted to feel those hands on her body. The small taste she’d had of his touch earlier on the dance floor wasn’t enough, she wanted more.
“Okay.” She took another deep breath and blew it out through her nose. “Are you married?”
He shook his head and took another step forward.
“Otherwise promised to someone?”
Another shake of his head, another step forward.
“Well I already know you’re not Sokka or Aang, and I don’t really care how old you are. Nothing else really matters to me either. I just know that I enjoyed dancing with you and I thought we might both enjoy taking things a bit further.” Katara bit her lip and looked away, embarrassed to even be having this conversation. She’d been so caught up in the moment earlier, she’d thought the rest would come just as naturally. There was a pitcher of water on the nightstand. It wasn’t too late to freeze this guy and run away, maybe change her name.
He moved to stand right in front of her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He rubbed his hands over her upper arms in what felt like reassurance and Katara felt the knot in her stomach uncoil a little in relief. At least she hadn’t been imagining the heat between them.
“I’m not looking for anything serious, I just wanted to have a little fun tonight. It’s been a while since I’ve had fun doing anything.”
His hand came up to cup her cheek and Katara leaned into it. She reached out and caught her fingers on his sash and slipped them in between the soft silk and the flat planes of his belly.
“So will you take your mask off then?” she asked.
Mystery man nodded and his hand left her face. Katara grinned widely and reached up to lift the mask from his face, but he held out a hand indicating that she should wait. He untied the sash at his waist and held it in front of her eyes. It took a moment for her to get what he was after, but eventually she realized he wanted to blindfold her.
“Oh!” she said, her cheeks burning. “I don’t know, I’ve never done that before.”
Katara heard his sigh from behind his mask and watched his shoulders droop once more and realized that if this was going to happen at all, she was going to have to agree to the blindfold. It wasn’t a completely terrible idea. Apparently she knew this man and it might help keep things detached if she never knew for sure who her partner really was.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” she said.
He circled behind her and slowly lowered the sash over her eyes. He tied it securely behind her head, loose enough that she could open her eyes behind it, but as she felt around the edges with her fingers, she knew it wouldn’t come off easily if it got jostled during their activities. He pulled her hand away from the blindfold and Katara gasped when she felt his soft lips press against her fingers. If he was really so determined that she not know his identity, being blindfolded did have significant advantages over having him just keep his mask on. A little thrill went through her when she thought about where else that mouth might touch tonight. She leaned towards him for a kiss, hoping he would sense her intention and was pleased when she felt him meet her halfway.
The strangeness of the situation fell away as their kisses slowly built in intensity. His hands combed through her long hair and scratched gently at her scalp. Katara let her hands roam freely over his back and chest and was pleased that he felt so solid and masculine beneath his clothing. His over tunic was easily pushed off his shoulders and fell to the floor. Her fingers deftly untucked his undershirt from his pants, but when she eagerly pushed it up, she found not the skin she was searching for, but another damned layer of clothing.
“Why are you wearing so many layers?” Katara whined against his lips. He carefully untangled his hands from her hair and moved away from her. She could hear the ruffle of fabric that meant Mystery Man was getting undressed. First one dull thunk and then another were probably his boots dropping to the ground. Another ruffle of fabric and Katara took in a shaky breath in anticipation. When he came back to her he would be completely naked and she had yet to take off even a bracelet.
His lips captured hers once more and she kissed him back eagerly. She reached out and when her hands touched smooth bare skin and she couldn’t resist exploring just how much clothing had been removed. She traced swirling patterns all over his back, drifting further and further down until she had two handfuls of his naked behind.
“Oh. Yes, this is much better.” She gave it a little squeeze and was rewarded with a warm and throaty chuckle. It was the most she’d heard of his voice all night and it made her desperately curious about who he really was. She knew she’d be listening carefully to the laughter of any man she crossed paths with after this.
Lips met hers in one last light kiss before moving to her jaw, then her earlobe, and then down the column of her neck. Each new touch made her melt into his embrace a little more and her fingernails scraped down the taut muscles of his back. It was a shame she couldn’t see his body with her own eyes, but her fingers told her that he was just as fit as she had imagined back in the ballroom. She wanted more, needed her own clothes off so there was nothing separating their bodies. She turned in his arms, sweeping her hair over her shoulder to present the row of tiny buttons that would open her dress.
“Come on, Mystery Man. Help me get this thing off,” she said when he only used the new angle to explore the other side of her neck.
A soft sputtering laugh was her only answer, but his hands began to roam, sliding over the swell of her hips and across her belly. She swore she could feel every whorl of his fingertips through the silk of her dress. Katara sent a silent thank you to the dressmaker who outfitted her in such rich fabric and another to Zuko for sending her, though he would hopefully never know exactly why she was so grateful. She still thought it was strange that the Fire Lord had been absent for his own birthday party. She hoped nothing was wrong.
The thought slipped out of her mind when Mystery Man’s large, warm hands cupped her breasts through her dress. She moaned and let her head fall back on his shoulder, enjoying the sensations that went straight to her core as his thumbs circled her nipples. She pressed back against him until their bodies were flush, his erection prodding the soft flesh of her rear. He groaned low into her ear and pulled her hips even closer, grinding himself against her.
“Now will you help me take off my dress?” she teased.
He laughed and let go of her, the loss of his warmth along her back making her shiver. A soft touch of his lips at her nape made her sigh and she smiled to herself as he began to undo the long line of buttons, placing a kiss on each newly revealed inch of skin. By the time he was finished, Katara felt ready to shake apart in anticipation. He pushed the dress and her underwrappings down and off her hips all at once and helped her step out of them. She heard him pad a few steps away before coming back and she frowned in confusion.
“Where’d you go?” she asked.
“Shhh,” he whispered in her ear before dropping a light kiss on her cheek, just below the blindfold.
One of his arms came up to wrap around her shoulders and another behind her knees and suddenly her feet were off the ground. She yelped in surprise and he laughed and nuzzled her cheek as he carried her across the room. He set her down gently on the bed and she felt the mattress dip near her feet.
“Why are you all the way over there? Come closer,” she said, reaching for him.
Mystery Man responded by rubbing his thumb down the arch of her foot and pressing a kiss to her ankle. He repeated the action on her other ankle, but this time moved her foot so that her legs were splayed wide open. Blindfolded, naked, and spread out across the bed, she’d never felt so exposed in her life. She didn’t even know who this man was, except for the fact that she did know him somehow. This was crazy. She’d let the wild mood of the ball take over and now here she was having kinky sex with someone who was not quite a stranger.
His fingers trailed lightly up and down her legs from ankle to knee and she couldn’t help but respond. The tension of oh god what am I doing slowly drained out of her body and she felt her legs relax and roll open just a little more at his gentle touches. He kissed the inside of her knee and a soft whine escaped her mouth. He placed another open-mouthed kiss on the back of her other knee and carried on, mapping out the curves of her thighs with his lips and tongue. By the time he reached the crease of her thighs she was practically crying with need.
The first swipe of his tongue was more surprising than it should have been and she let out a gasp. She reached out to touch his face, but he ducked away. He took her hand and pressed it firmly onto the mattress, squeezing her wrist lightly.
“Okay, I promise, I won’t touch your face. Just please, please don’t stop,” Katara begged.
He pressed his lips to her once more and his quiet huff of laughter sent a warm puff of air across her sensitive skin. He resumed licking and teasing her with his mouth and Katara’s mind reeled trying to figure out who Mystery Man really was. He didn’t want her to touch his face. So did that mean she knew him well enough to identify him just by touch? Could it be Haru? This man was clean shaven, but she supposed Haru could have gotten rid of his mustache. The hair was the right length, but that was easily changed as well and she thought his might be a lighter color. She just couldn’t remember.
She cast about for any other possibilities before she finally let herself consider the one person her mind had been shying away from since their clothes came off. What if the man currently twirling his tongue around her clit so expertly was Zuko? Now that she had entertained the thought, it was difficult to imagine anyone else between her legs. She could practically see those liquid gold eyes of his staring up at her while his mouth worked on her. Katara’s hands fisted in the bedclothes and she moaned at the thought of it. She certainly wouldn’t mind sharing this experience with him.
Mystery Man’s tongue pressed harder against her clit and he pushed two fingers inside of her. Katara’s mind easily supplied her with the image of Zuko, his hands and mouth working hard to get her off, and in seconds she was crying out, her back arching off the bed while he coaxed her through her climax. It wasn’t the first time she’d gotten off to the thought of Zuko using his hands and mouth on her, but it certainly was the most surreal.
He travelled up her body, his erection dragging over her thigh while he teased each of her nipples in turn with his talented mouth. She was ready, so, so ready, for him to be inside of her, but while he’d been generous in his attention to her body, he’d barely let her touch his. Katara hooked her leg around the backs of his knees and quickly rolled so that he was flat on his back and she was hovering over him.
“My turn,” she said with a smirk. She heard his sharp inhale and her smirk widened into a full-blown grin. “Unless of course you think I’ll be able to identify you by your penis?”
He let of a loud snort, followed by smothered laughter. His thumb brushed softly over her cheekbone and she took that as permission to continue. It was a little awkward navigating his body solely by touch, but she swept her hands down over his chest and abdomen and let her mouth follow. She wrapped one hand around the base of his cock and gave it an experimental stroke. He felt thick, but not too huge. She dipped her head and swirled her tongue around the tip while her hand gave him a gentle squeeze and smiled when she heard Mystery Man hum quietly in pleasure.
Katara bent down further, taking as much of his length as she could into her mouth and her hair fell over her shoulders and around her face like a curtain. Mystery Man, (and it wasn’t difficult to imagine it was Zuko in this position either), moved it aside and gathered it all in one fist, resting on her shoulder. He didn’t push down, just let her take whatever pace she chose, his hand a warm and consistent pressure on her skin. She imagined she looked completely obscene right at that moment, her lips stretched tight as she bobbed up and down on his cock and her hand pumping around the base of it. She pictured Zuko watching her mouth and the swing of her breasts as they rubbed against the bed, his eyes drifting over her butt thrust high in the air. She moaned softly at the thought and heard Mystery Man's quiet gasp in response.
Out of practice, Katara’s jaw soon began to ache and her hand and chin were both slicked in spit. She was grateful when he pulled her up the length of his body, but her mouth felt empty without his cock filling it up and she leaned in for a messy kiss. Mystery Man kissed her back eagerly, biting gently on her bottom lip and sucking on her tongue. She rocked her hips down onto his, the wetness of her cunt and the lingering wetness from her mouth on his cock allowing her to slide against him easily. His hands went to her hips and he lifted her up while she guided him inside of her.
Again, he let Katara control the pace, his hips lifting off the mattress to meet every movement of her hips, but only going as fast or slow as she desired. His fingers skimmed up over her ribcage and cupped her breasts, rubbing her nipples in tight circles. She’d never come just from having her nipples touched before, but with the way his touches were shooting straight to her core, she was sure that if anyone could make it happen, it would be this man. This man who may or may not be one of her closest friends. Who may have seen her at her very worst and never judged her for it. Just for now, Katara let herself believe that it really could be Zuko thrusting inside of her.
His hands left her breast, one wrapping around her waist as his cock pounded into her harder and harder, shocking tiny moans out of her with every thrust, and the other dropping to circle her clit. It was too much, she felt like she was falling apart from the inside. Her hands scrabbled at his wrists, not sure what she wanted, just knowing that she had to hold on to something, before she was coming, shaking and moaning so hoarsely it was almost a sob. He pounded up into her a few more times before he too was gasping and gripping her hips as he pulled her down onto his shaft. They panted together, their breathing harsh in the sudden quiet.
I can’t believe how loud I was, Katara thought to herself, hoping whoever had the rooms next to hers was still at the ball. If the ball was even still underway. She had no idea what time it was and no awareness beyond her body, this man, and the bed beneath them.
She pitched sideways onto the bed and crawled until she could feel the soft pillows under her head and collapsed onto her belly. Her companion chuckled tiredly and got out of bed for a minute before coming back with a warm, damp cloth. He cleaned between her legs and laid down next to her, stroking her back with feather weight touches. She felt herself drifting and figured it couldn't hurt to just let herself relax for a while. The last thing she remembered was Mystery Man pressing a kiss into the curve of her shoulder.
The next day, Katara woke to bright midday sunlight streaming in through the large windows. She lifted her head from the pillow, looking around the room in sleepy confusion. Her dress and mask from last night's ball were draped on a chair in the corner and on the pillow next to her head was Mystery Man's sash. Other than that, everything seemed to be as she had left it. She moved her legs around experimentally under the covers (and when had she gotten under the covers?) and was not surprised to find that she felt a little sore. The muscles she'd used last night had been neglected since long before she and Aang had officially called it quits. Still, it was nothing a warm bath and the healing touch of her waterbending couldn't fix.
Katara sat up in bed and tugged off the bracelets she'd been too distracted to remove last night. She picked up the sash, running the smooth silk over her lips as she mentally sorted through everything that had happened the night before. She'd certainly stepped outside of her comfort zone, but she couldn't bring herself to regret one second of it. There was still the potential awkwardness of discovering Mystery Man's identity, but they seemed to be in agreement that it would be an isolated incident between two consenting adults. She would probably never know for sure who he was and she felt surprisingly okay with that. The fact that she had pictured a specific man's face during the critical moment wasn't troubling either. Katara had fantasized about Zuko for years and she had never had trouble looking him in the eye before.
After a quick bath and choosing one of her new outfits, Katara eyed herself critically in the mirror. Her mother's necklace was back in its customary spot around her throat, but she still felt like something was missing. She eyed the pile of silver bracelets she had worn to the ball last night, but none of those were quite right either. Her eyes went to the blue silk sash still laying on her pillow and her lips quirked upward in a small smile. It's not like anyone would know where she got it from. She picked it up and wrapped it around her forearm until it made a bracer. The ends tucked away easily enough and another look in the mirror told her it worked with her outfit, the bright shade of blue matching the edging of her split skirt.
A loud pounding on her door pulled her out of her self-examination and when she went to answer it, she found Sokka standing on the other side.
"Heeey, little sister. Zuko wants us all to come have tea with him. Let's go!"
"Well you sure are chipper," Katara said, blinking at her brother's volume.
"Why wouldn’t I be?," Sokka replied. “I got to do to a royal ball last night and now I get to eat royal food and drink royal tea.”
Katara laughed and nodded to herself as they headed down the long hall back to the main wing of the palace. He had a point and she was feeling rather cheerful herself. When they reached the Fire Lord's private tea room, Toph, Aang, and Zuko himself were already sitting around a large round table laid out with enough food to feed 10 Sokkas.
Now that she was finally getting a chance to see him, Katara realized she never would have recognized Zuko at the ball. The years had made him taller and broader through the shoulders than she remembered. His hair was pulled back from his face in his traditional top knot and he looked happy and relaxed as they all greeted each other. Katara was glad that his role as Fire Lord didn't seem to be stressing him overly much.
“Hey Zuko, where were you last night, buddy?” Sokka asked with a mouth full of cookie.
“Yeah, I looked all over for you but no one knew where you were,” Aang said.
Zuko smiled and gave a rueful shrug. “I was around. It’s hard to find privacy as the Fire Lord. Everyone always wants a moment of my time or a minute to talk and I wanted to have fun last night. So I went incognito. Sort of my birthday present to myself.”
“So you invited all those people and didn’t talk to a single one?” Katara asked.
Zuko met her eyes briefly, but only shrugged and looked away.
“Yeah, you couldn’t even come say hi to your old pals?” Sokka affected a hurt pout. “We wouldn’t have ratted you out, man.”
“I talked to people!” Zuko insisted, rolling his eyes in exasperation. “Just people who had never met me before.”
“And he danced with Katara,” Toph said through the group's chorusing laughter.
The laughter froze in Katara’s throat and she choked on her tea. There was no way. There was only one man she danced with last night that matched Zuko’s build and she had done a lot more than dance with him last night. She searched for some sort of recognition in his face across the table, but his few short years as a public official must have finally taught him how to keep his emotions off his face when he wanted.
“I didn’t really talk to any of the men that I danced with, are you sure?” Katara asked, though she wasn’t sure she really wanted confirmation. It was one thing to fantasize about about having your wicked way with your gorgeous, complicated friend who had been there for you at one of your most vulnerable moments and another to actually go ahead and do it.
“Yep, you know I never forget how people move once I’ve met them,” Toph said. She took a decisive bite out of her pastry as if she was daring them to argue with her.
Katara wasn’t stupid. She had relied on Toph’s superior senses too many times to not trust them now. Mystery Man was Zuko. She had sex with Zuko last night. She had the best sex of her life with Zuko and now she was wearing his sash around her arm like some sort of lovesick little girl. She stared at him in dazed shock, willing him to deny Toph’s statement.
“Sorry, with the masks it was difficult to tell who was who. If we danced together, I didn’t know it at the time,” Zuko said. The corners of his mouth lifted in what could nominally be called smile, but there was no humor in it.
Toph frowned and opened her mouth to say something, probably to call him out on being a damn liar, but he cut her off smoothly by offering her more tea. Her frown deepened, but she accepted the tea and didn’t say any more on the subject.
Katara allowed herself to tune out the rest of the conversation while her friends discussed their favorite parts of the ball and who had the wackiest costume. Every so often she would sneak a look at Zuko from beneath her eyelashes, but he never seemed to look her way. She felt Aang’s considering stare after a little while and she made more of an effort to join in the conversation.
Sokka was finishing off a story about his last visit to Kyoshi Island with, “so then the whole pot tips over onto my head and it took a week to get the ink off of Suki’s skin. I never did get that fly, either,” he finishes with a mournful sniff.
The whole table broke into laughter and through Toph's loud cackling, Katara heard it. That same warm and throaty chuckle from last night. Just the sound of it made her stomach swoop and her muscles clench around the memory of Mystery Man inside of her. Or rather, the memory of Zuko inside of her. What a mess.
An attendant entered the room and bowed low to Zuko before speaking. "Lord Zuko, your meeting with the Council of Ministers will begin soon."
"Of course. Inform them that I am on my way." Zuko gave them all an apologetic smile and rose from the table. "Sorry guys, duty calls. We'll have to finish catching up at dinner."
They all stood as well and began to head out, Sokka and Toph talking about checking out the Capital's markets. Katara followed, not sure whether she wanted to go with them and distract herself from her inner turmoil or spend the day alone so she could think.
"Katara, wait," Zuko called out. "Can I talk to you alone for a second?"
Aang paused just on the other side of the door and gave them both a questioning look. "Do you want me to wait for you?"
Katara shook her head. She had some pretty important questions for Zuko and she didn't want anyone, especially Aang overhearing.
"Go ahead. I'll catch up with you guys later," she said.
"I won't keep her long," Zuko said when Aang looked ready to argue.
The door closed behind him and Katara immediately rounded on Zuko, ready to give him an earful, but was surprised to find the Fire Lord on one knee at her feet, his head bent forward and his eyes on the ground.
"I'm sorry, Katara. I truly didn't know it was you when I asked you to dance, or even when you brought me to your room. You've changed so much since I saw you last. But... I did hope that it might be you without really wanting to know for sure." Zuko shot her a quick look from under his eyelashes and the tip of his one good ear reddened at his confession. "When you took off your mask I panicked. It was just supposed to be a fling, like you said. A harmless way to act out a fantasy. I knew if I revealed who I was, things would change between us. You would never think of me the same way again."
He looked up at her and Katara was struck by the pain and regret in his golden eyes. Damn him and his stupid, handsome, expressive face. No wonder he didn't want her touching him last night. Even without the scar, she would have known it was him in a second.
"Zuko, stand up," she told him and waited for him to do so before she continued. "I believe you. I don't think you would set out to deliberately mislead me."
"I didn't, Katara, I swear." He reached out as though to put his hands on her shoulders, but pulled back before he could touch her.
"I know. And I meant everything I said last night. I was just looking to have some fun and it didn't matter to me who you really were because I was acting out a fantasy too.” She paused and swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, but if Zuko could admit it, she could too. “If I had known for sure that it was you, instead of just pretending it was you... You're right, it would have been different."
Zuko's eyes widened comically and then he smiled shyly. He reached out and ran two fingers down the length of her wrapped forearm.
"Is this mine?"
"Do you want it back?" Katara asked. She felt so silly for wearing the sash on her arm now, but she was strangely attached to it. Like if he took back the only proof of their night together, the memory might vanish as well.
"No, keep it. It looks good on you," he said.
His eyes met hers in an intense look and she knew he wasn't talking about how the sash looked on her arm. Katara felt herself sway towards him, her eyes on his lips, when a knock at the door startled them. They sprung apart as though they had been caught doing something naughty and Katara laughed nervously.
Zuko shot an annoyed look at the door. "I really do have to go, but I'll see you tonight. I mean, I'll see everyone tonight, but you'll be there too. You will be there, won't you?"
Katara laughed at his awkwardness, glad that Fire Lord Zuko wasn't so different from the friend she knew years ago after all.
"I'll be there," she assured him.
The next few hours, Katara spent alone in the palace gardens, trying to untangle her feelings. She felt humiliated and felt unreasonable for doing so. He had tried to leave and she had been the one to insist that he stay. She had readily agreed to everything they did last night. No matter how she rationalized it, though, she still felt regret gnawing at her insides. She felt a little relief when she remembered that Zuko had admitted to wanting it to be her because that meant… Well, it meant something. By the time dinner came, she was no closer to an answer than before.
Dinner itself was pretty uneventful, except for the fact that Zuko couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of her. It made her feel hot all over when she realized he could easily be picturing her naked. She tried to listen avidly to Toph’s description of her new metalbending school, but it was difficult to concentrate with Zuko staring so intensely at her. In retaliation, she stroked the silk on her arm and smiled to herself when he made a small choking noise and then cleared his throat loudly.
“So Aang, will you be going back to Gaoling with Toph tomorrow?” Zuko asked.
“Yeah, we’re hoping that if my name is attached to the school as well, it’ll draw more students for Toph,” Aang said. He cast a grumpy look in Toph’s direction. “And she won’t declare me a master in earthbending until I can bend metal, too.”
“Are you sure you’ll be able to? Maybe not everyone who can earthbend can also metalbend,” Sokka pointed out.
“He’s the Avatar! He can do it, he’s just being stubborn,” Toph said.
Aang sighed, like he had heard that argument from her too many times. Knowing Toph and her own stubbornness, he probably had. Katara pressed her lips together to keep herself from offering training suggestions. She wasn’t Aang’s master anymore, or his girlfriend for that matter.
“So when are you guys going home?” Aang asked, visibly choosing not to engage in another futile argument.
Sokka scratched his head. “You know, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m not all that anxious to get home, though.”
Katara had to agree. It had been nice to be home with her family at first, especially after such a long time apart, but it soon lost its charm. Daily life in the Southern Water Tribe seemed dreary compared to her years of adventure and excitement at Aang’s side. Now the most excitement in her life was the weekly tiger-seal hunt, which she didn’t even get to go on since she was a woman. She had been allowed to sit in on all of her father’s meetings with Master Pakku and the various delegates that visited from their sister tribe to the north, but there was only so much interest she could feign in the revitalisation of the tribe’s trading practices.
“I was actually hoping you guys would stay as my guests for a while,” Zuko said.
He looked at Katara with big, hopeful eyes, and she looked down at her dinner plate. Sokka accepted the offer gratefully, while Katara’s stomach churned at the thought of another week or more in Zuko’s confusing presence.
After dinner, they said their good-byes to Aang and Toph, who were leaving first thing in the morning, and went back to their rooms. Katara stood in the middle of the room and stared blankly at the bed. The sheets looked fresh and everything had been tidied. Even her gown and mask were put away. Still, when she touched the crisp linen of the sheets, she was overcome by intense sense memories of Zuko’s hands and mouth on her body and the feel of his hard length inside of her.
Just as Katara was thinking she was sure she’d never get any sleep in that bed, there was a knock at the door. She opened it expecting her brother, or maybe Toph, but found one of the palace’s ubiquitous servants instead, this one a short and solemn looking man.
“Good evening, madam. Lord Zuko requests a moment of your time, if it pleases you.”
Katara frowned. It sounded like she could say no and shut the door in this guy’s face, but she wasn’t sure. Zuko may be her friend, but he was also the Fire Lord now and she didn’t want to give the appearance of dissent to any of his subjects.
“Lord Zuko insists that if it is not a good time, he will wait until tomorrow, or any time that is convenient for you.” His eyes flicked past her to the empty room behind her, clearly seeing that she wasn’t occupied at all.
She would have said no, maybe she should have, but she suddenly felt anxious to just get everything out with Zuko. Maybe then she could sleep. If nothing else, maybe she could request a different room.
“Alright, lead the way.”
The servant took her to the opposite side of the palace, to what must have been Zuko’s private rooms. He opened the door to a cozy and luxuriously appointed sitting room and closed it behind her as soon as she was inside. Zuko rose from the sofa and took half a step forward before stopping and clasping his hands together in front of him.
“Hi. Thanks for coming,” Zuko said, then winced.
“I thought maybe we should talk.”
Zuko nodded and Katara nodded back, but neither of them said anything. After a long moment of staring at each other, Zuko cleared his throat and motioned to the sofa.
“Would you like to sit down?”
There were other chairs available, but putting space between them so deliberately felt cowardly. She thought she could trust herself not to leap into his arms just because they were alone and in close proximity. It was harder than it should have been, though. Zuko had changed out of his formal Fire Lord robes into a more casual tunic and a loose pair of pants that did a far better job of highlighting his lean and well-muscled form. He’d let his hair down too, so it fell in a smooth black sheet over his shoulders. He looked relaxed, and if Katara was honest with herself, rather dashing.
Zuko poured them each a glass of wine from a bottle that sat on a low table in front of them and she gratefully accepted one. Maybe a sip or two would make this conversation easier.
“So,” she began. “What happened last night… happened. What do we do now?”
“I’ve been thinking about that and I think maybe the best course of action is to just forget it ever happened,” he said and frowned down into his wine.
In theory, this was probably the best course of action, but if today had been any indication, Katara thought it would be next to impossible. For her, anyway. Now that she knew Mystery Man was Zuko, she would never be able to erase that knowledge, just like she would never be able to erase the memory of his touch on her skin.
“Yeah, I guess this sort of thing happens all the time for you. A young, unmarried Fire Lord like you probably has girls falling all over themselves to spend a night in your bed,” she said. She took a gulp of her wine and tried to swallow her bitterness down with it.
“That’s not--” he started. “I mean yes, they are, but--”
“So I was what, just another conquest? Or am I even important enough to qualify as a conquest? Where do Water Tribe peasants rank?"
“This was a mistake.” Zuko said, rubbing his hands on his face. “I can have a ship ready to take you home in the morning.”
“What, so now you’re kicking me out of the country because I’m mad at you?” Katara demanded.
“No! I want you to stay!” Zuko shouted.
“Well good, ‘cause I want to stay!” Katara shouted back.
They were in each other’s space now, red faced and breathing heavily. Katara felt the same pull she had felt earlier in the day, like she couldn’t look away from his mouth, like she was being dragged forward by her own lips.
“You are important to me, Katara, that’s why this was a mistake,” he said, tucking a stray hair behind her ear. “Did you even listen to me this afternoon? I wanted it to be you. I wanted you long before last night. I still want you.”
The intensity of Zuko’s gaze was too much and Katara raised her wine glass to take a drink, only to find it empty. She placed the empty glass on the table and folded her hands in her lap to keep herself from reaching out to him.
“Then why do you want to forget it ever happened?” Katara asked.
“I don’t,” he admitted, putting his own glass down. “I don’t think I ever could. I just don’t want you to hate me. Again.” His mouth twisted into a small self-deprecating smile.
Katara covered his scar with her hand just like she had back in the crystal caves under Ba Sing Sei. He closed his eyes and leaned into it for a second, then turned his face under her palm so that his mouth was pressed to her skin in something that was not quite a kiss until she let her hand fall away.
“I don’t hate you,” she said. “And I don’t want to forget. I don’t think I can. Maybe last night was a mistake on both our parts, but I think-- I think the only thing we can do is fix it, not pretend it never happened.”
“How do we fix it?” he asked, his voice hushed.
She leaned forward slowly, her eyes on his lips so there could be no mistake about what she was about to do. Their lips touched tentatively for just a second before she pulled back and looked at him with searching eyes. Zuko’s eyes were still closed, his mouth slightly parted and tilted up on one corner in a small smile. He blinked his eyes open and smiled wider at her in relief.
“I want you and I choose to share my body with you, not some faceless man,” she said. Her words may have been brave and steady, but her hands shook in her lap.
He took her face in his hands. “And I want you and no one else.”
The kiss began with him this time. He tilted her chin slightly and claimed her lips with his own, softly at first, then deeper, until his tongue was stroking hers possessively. His hands tangled in her hair and they kissed and nibbled at each other’s lips until they tingled from overuse. He pulled back after a long while and Katara looked up at him in a daze, her head tipped back against the back of the sofa.
“We don’t actually have to do anything more tonight. You and Sokka will be here for a while longer and I don’t want something quick and casual with you,” he said, stroking her hair gently.
“Neither do I,” Katara said with a small, giddy laugh. “But we’ll still have to go home in a few weeks. We can’t just lounge around the palace and do nothing forever.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you both about something, but I might as well tell you now,” he said. “I’ve been talking to my advisors and they agree that it would be beneficial on both our parts to have someone on staff who can act as a liaison between the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe. Someone who would travel back and forth, but for the most part, would remain here in the Capital as an ambassador of sorts.”
Katara hummed in relaxed pleasure at the movements of Zuko’s fingers on her scalp. “Sounds like a good idea. Sounds like a kind of boring job, though.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Zuko said with a smile. “Which is why I was going to ask Sokka to take the position.”
“He’d be perfect for that,” she agreed.
“And you don’t have to say yes right now, but I was wondering if you’d consider starting a healing center here in the Capital. You could help a lot of people with your waterbending and while we have some very advanced medicine in the Fire Nation, there’s only so much that our physicians can do.”
The hopeful look on his face was too much, so Katara stared up at the ceiling while she considered the idea. While she would undoubtedly be able to help people here in the Fire Nation, she was also the only waterbender versed in healing back home. Master Pakku had never learned the healing arts because of the old prejudiced gender roles in his home tribe. Katara rolled her head to look back at Zuko, but he was already looking disappointed, like her silence was answer enough.
“I don’t know, Zuko, but I promise you I’ll think about it. For now,” she crawled into his lap and slid her arm around the back of his neck, “I’d very much like it if you took me to bed.”
He held her close and kissed her deeply enough that she barely felt him rise and carry her into the adjoining bedroom. As was befitting the Fire Lord, the room was grand in both scale and furnishing. A huge four poster bed took up the majority of the far wall and a cheery fire glowed in the large fireplace to their left. She bounced when he dropped her onto the springy mattress and she kicked off her sandals and settled back against the pillows while he removed his boots and tossed them aside.
“I never thought this would actually happen,” Zuko said as he stretched out next to her on the bed.
“You mean you didn't throw a ball and invite hundreds of people from all over the world just so you could get me in bed?" Katara asked with a teasing smile.
Zuko rolled his eyes at her. "I'm not that devious. I just wanted to have a good time and to see my friends again. It's been nice having you here."
His fingers trailed up her arm and over her shoulder until his thumb smoothed over the ribbon at her throat.
"You weren't wearing this last night," he said.
"I thought it might be too easy to identify me if I left it on and the invitation did say that we should 'reinvent ourselves for a night of magic and wonder,'" she said with a giggle.
"Maybe you should have," he said with a frown.
"No,” she said firmly. “I'm not sorry last night happened, just that we did things the way we did."
Katara rose up on her knees and stripped off her top and sarashi, leaving her breasts bare. She leaned forward on her hands until her face was level with Zuko's.
"Mostly, I regret that I didn't get to see you the way you saw me," Katara said with a teasing smile.
Zuko captured her lips in a kiss and smoothly sat up while maintaining contact. He cupped her breasts gently in his large, warm hands and she shivered when he brushed his thumbs over her nipples. She untied his tunic and pushed it off his shoulders, pleased that this time there was nothing but smooth skin underneath.
Sitting back on her heels, Katara took in his new body. She'd seen him shirtless many times while he trained Aang in firebending and always enjoyed the view, but he had added several pounds of muscle since she saw him last. The light from the fire danced over the dips and planes of his torso and Katara felt a small involuntary noise slip through her lips at how attractive he was. He chuckled and she blushed, embarrassed at her reaction.
"Now you know how I felt when I saw you last night." Zuko dropped light kisses on each of her cheeks. "You're beautiful, Katara. I've always thought so. I can't believe how lucky I am to see you like this."
Katara kissed him to keep him from saying any more and let him guide her back onto the pillows. They did nothing more than lazily explore each other with light touches and teeth and tongues for a while until the skimming of Zuko's fingers along her waistband finally urged her on. They shed the rest of their clothes quickly until he was completely, deliciously nude before her and she wore nothing more than her mother's necklace and the sash from Zuko's masquerade costume, still tied around her arm.
"You can keep this," Zuko said gesturing to her necklace, "but I don't think I want anything else between us this time." Carefully, he unwrapped the length of blue silk from her arm and tossed it over the side of the bed.
"I thought it looked nice on me," Katara said, calling back to his earlier words with a sly smile.
One hand cupped her cheek, his thumb brushed over her bottom lip and she flicked her tongue out over the pad before drawing the tip into her mouth and sucking lightly. Zuko blew out a shaky breath, his eyes locked on her mouth, and Katara had no trouble guessing which part of their previous encounter he was recalling.
"Better than I could have ever imagined. But I like this better. I like being able to see your eyes," he said.
“It certainly has it’s advantages,” she said, eyeing his nude form with pleasure.
Slow and teasing, she ran her fingers down his chest and over his flat stomach until she reached the soft, dark thatch of curls and the base of his cock. It stood hard and proud after all of their kissing and petting and Katara bit her lip, thinking about how good it would feel to have him inside of her again. She wrapped her hand around him and stroked his length firmly and was gratified to hear his quiet gasp.
He kissed her again and she felt him probe at the slick folds of her cunt, spreading the wetness with his fingers before twirling his fingers in lazy circles around her clit. She hummed happily against his lips, enjoying the sensations as he unhurriedly worked to get her off. His mouth moved, leaving wet, hot kisses down her neck and over her chest until he drew one of her nipples into his mouth. Her breath hitched in her throat and she bucked against his hand, making his fingers move in tighter, faster circles.
She pumped his cock in her hand in time with his fingers and felt him thrust against her hip in small, involuntary movements. Beads of pre-cum collected at the tip of his cock and she rubbed her thumb over it to spread the moisture over the head. His fingers rubbed infinitesimally harder against her and his tongue flicked over her nipple and she was gone, moaning loudly and gasping for breath as he worked her over the edge.
While she got her breath back, he held her close and pressed his lips to her temple, waiting patiently for her to come back to him. After a moment or so, they moved in mutual and silent agreement so that Zuko was above her and Katara’s legs spread wide in invitation. They held each other’s gaze, his piercing golden eyes intent on hers as he slid into her, and she moaned deeply in pleasure at the feel of his thick cock filling her up. She clenched around him and he cursed quietly in response.
“I’m not going to last long if you keep that up,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she said. Her legs wrapped around his hips and she met him with a hard counter on every thrust. “You took care of me, now let me take care of you.”
Groaning low in his throat, he dropped his head to her shoulder, but didn’t let up on his toe-curling pace. She scraped her nails roughly down his back and seconds later he gasped and was spilling into her, quaking in her arms. She held him and stroked softly along the raised lines on his back while he shivered through his climax.
After a quick clean up, Zuko pulled down the sheets and they cuddled close, tangling and untangling their fingers together between them. Katara felt drowsy and content. She wiggled her feet between the cool silk sheets and thought she could easily drift off with Zuko tracing the lines of her palm.
“I hated leaving you last night, but I thought it would be better than unexpectedly waking up next to me,” Zuko said.
He combed her hair back from her face and Katara thought she could get used to this obsession he had with her hair. If he kept it up, she really was going to fall asleep any second.
“Yeah, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. Probably not well,” she admitted with an apologetic wince.
“Will you stay with me tonight?” Zuko asked quietly.
“Wild ostrich-horses couldn’t drag me away,” Katara said, and let his gentle touches lull her to sleep in his arms.