Firelord Zuko, reigning monarch of the Fire Nation, narrowed his eyes as he peered around his packed ballroom. He spotted Toph at the refreshments table cackling about something or another, trailed by a much-taller and far-more-muscular Aang (who finally seemed to have hit his growth spurt). He was also laughing and pointing at - ahh. Zuko resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose; Uncle had told him he would develop a permanent frown if he kept doing that. Of course Momo was wreaking havoc near the food table. He should have roasted that little demon-lemur the first time he caught it making a mess at a royal function.
He didn't actually think that, but it was far more entertaining to say that and watch Aang's reaction. The kid still took him so seriously at times. Not that he was a kid any longer… none of them were.
He continued to scan and picked out Sokka in a crowd of international ambassadors and dignitaries, all of whom were laughing uproariously, though whether at Sokka's jokes or the fact that he didn't realize that his tunic was on backwards, Zuko couldn't be sure. Suki was deep in conversation with Ty Lee only a few feet away, and Mei was eavesdropping on the conversation while pretending to look bored. Her eyes met Zuko's briefly, then drifted away with a short nod of acknowledgment. He didn't expect her to smile - he had only been on the receiving end of those when they were in a relationship, and even then only on the rarest of occasions - but he was glad that she acknowledged his presence now.
He still wasn't quite sure how he had managed to offend her so badly, but perhaps one of these days he'd be able to ask her without getting a knife to his throat. Or perhaps not. He sighed audibly, then let his gaze move on.
Hakoda, King Bumi (the man was one hundred and twenty years old if he was a day), Master Pakku and Piandao, and even Katara's grandmother had showed up for the three-day long festival celebrating the fourth anniversary of the end of the Hundred Years' War. And yet the granddaughter in question - Katara herself - was nowhere in sight.
"Look in the courtyard, Nephew."
Zuko jumped, not having noticed his rotund Uncle creeping up behind him. "Uncle! I told you not to startle me like that!"
"Ahh, but if you were able to be more mindful of your surroundings I would not have startled you in the first place," Iroh said contentedly, a twinkle in his eye. "But perhaps your attentiveness would return to you if you took a small stroll out into the courtyard." He gestured to his left, towards the sprawling veranda that the ballroom opened onto and beyond, where a large courtyard allowed party- goers to find more seclusion among the trees and shrubs if they wished. Now Zuko remembered there was also a small pond out there, complete with nests of turtle-ducks.
He stiffened, realizing what his Uncle had said to begin with. "Look in the - I wasn't looking for anyone!"
"Of course not, Firelord Zuko," Iroh said, sipping his tea with calm purpose. "But you might find a walk in the fresh night air would help to clear your mind." He swallowed, then added, "The moon is particularly bright tonight."
The Firelord peered at his Uncle suspiciously, but Iroh gave no external sign of anything other than placid innocence. "You look a little overwhelmed, Zuko," Iroh said a little more gently now. "Take a few minutes for yourself and come back when you are feeling refreshed."
Zuko sighed again. "Very well, Uncle. You'll come get me if anything…"He waved haphazardly towards the milieu of chattering, dancing and ambling guests, and Iroh nodded.
So Zuko set off towards the courtyard, though not walking too quickly lest he attract the attraction of someone who might want to speak with him. He noticed Toph tilting her head in his direction, but he quickly looked away so that he wouldn't see her whispering something to Aang and laughing at him. At least, that's what he imagined she was doing. He couldn't imagine why, really, since he just wanted to get some fresh air. Just like Uncle had said. He wasn't looking for anybody at all.
The moment he stepped outside, even onto the covered veranda, he felt better. The combined noise of music and several hundred raised voices did not feel so overwhelmingly oppressive, and the night air felt as cool and refreshing as Uncle had suggested. He took the steps down the veranda and started along the path, peering up into the night sky at the constellations twinkling overhead. He frowned: it was difficult to see the stars because, as his Uncle had also said, the full moon was extremely bright tonight. He remembered another time the full moon had exerted such power and brilliance, and shivered involuntarily. That night the moon had been bathed in blood, and he found himself pitying the mercilessly driven teenager he had been. Even if he had not struck the blow fatal blow against the moon spirit, the hairs on his arms raised at the thought that without Yue's sacrifice, the world would have been changed irrevocably, and undoubtedly for the worse.
He had not known about Yue until after the end of the war, when he and Sokka and Aang had gone on a "male bonding trip" together, as Toph had called it... There had been many such illuminating conversations over the course of that trip, some happier than others. A smile tugged at his lips as he recalled their arguments and playfulness. He missed being so carefree. (Though Toph and Sokka would both have countered immediately that Zuko had no notion of what being "carefree" meant. He would in turn have argued that they never were around to see him be that way, and that's precisely what he wanted. He got enough of their teasing as it was.)
Zuko continued to walk absentmindedly, gazing up at the moon and trusting that his feet were still following the path. Thus he didn't notice the obstacle in his path until he ran directly into it, with enough force to shove him over backwards.
"Ow! What the - Katara!"
He scrambled to his feet so that he could pull her upright, though his backside ached fiercely from the impact. A small part of his mind noted the irony that it hurt worse to land from an accidental fall than when he was training with other benders. "I'm so sorry! I didn't see you there, I wasn't paying any attention-"
"Yeah, I noticed," she said, letting him tug her to her feet. "What are you doing out here by yourself?"
Looking for you, his mind supplied before he could react. He shoved the thought away.
"Taking a walk. Uncle suggested I get some fresh air."
She smiled, and Zuko abruptly realized that her hand was still clasped in his. "A wise man, your uncle."
Zuko smiled back, and for several long moments they said nothing. The irreverent part of Zuko's mind chose that moment to notice that she was wearing a new dress in a style he had never seen before: shimmering fabric that sheathed her body like a glove, with flowing, translucent sleeves and a train.
"You're wearing red!" he blurted suddenly, then wished he could kick himself. "I mean - it looks really good on you. You look beautiful in red - but you look beautiful in blue too, of course! I just meant that usually you're wearing blue, and especially at diplomatic functions…" He cut himself off. He could already hear Toph laughing at him inside his head.
Katara let out a small laugh. "Oh, Zuko." She embraced him suddenly and his breath caught, though his arms wrapped around her without any hesitation. "Please never change," she said into his chest. "Please always be this adorably awkward."
He scowled, though his heart was thudding so loudly he thought that she must be able to hear it. "I am not adorably awkward."
She laughed again, and he let his chin rest on the top of her head, savoring the feeling of her embrace, her body pressed against his.
Eventually she pulled back, and Zuko let her go reluctantly. "What are you doing out here by yourself?" he said, holding out his arm to her. She took it, and they began to walk in the direction he had been going. "I didn't see you in the ballroom."
"Oh… I just wanted some alone time," she said. If he hadn't known her better, Zuko would have thought she sounded embarrassed.
"Yeah… me too."
She squeezed his arm gently. "I know it's hard to find time to yourself with an entire nation to run."
He shrugged. "Uncle helps out a lot, as you know. I have some decent advisors now, and the ministers are finally starting to take me seriously."
She snorted. "I should certainly hope so! It's been four years since you took the throne."
"Yes," he said, "but it will take longer than that to undo a century's worth of indoctrination and corruption." He sighed. "Sometimes I think your letters are the only things that keep me sane."
"I wish I could visit more often," she murmured. "I don't like the idea of you sitting in the Fire Nation capital with no one to keep you company."
The truth of the words stung, though he had long learned to set the hurt aside. "I'm not completely alone," he said, trying to smile. "Maybe Uncle will get married and I'll have a new aunt to deal with as well!"
Katara swatted lightly at him. "Don't make fun," she admonished him. "I'm surprised you haven't thought about getting married yet."
Zuko groaned and stopped walking; holding on to his arm, Katara was forced to stop as well. "Really, Katara? Not you too."
"What?" she said defensively. "Everyone's saying it!"
"Exactly," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "And it's driving me insane. I don't want to just marry anyone, and I refuse to do so just because 'some people,'" with fingers making quotation marks, "think it will somehow make my life as Firelord easier. It won't."
Besides, I want to marry you, came the unbidden thought. He gritted his teeth. He thought he had put that fantasy to rest before the festival…
"Besides, what about you?" he countered as they continued walking. "Why aren't you getting married?"
Katara gaped. "Are you serious? I'm only eighteen!"
"And I'm only twenty," he said. "And people started suggesting I get married when I was younger than you, so don't try bringing up age as a deterrent."
Now she really was blushing, visible even in the moonlight. "I mean… it's been brought up before…" color flooded her cheeks even more fiercely, "But I haven't wanted to think about it much," she said in a small voice.
"Why?" Genuine curiosity rang through his tone, but he thought that he had suppressed the masochistic part of him reasonably well enough.
Katara blew out a breath noisily. "I mean, if it was the right person… but men in the Water Tribes are so… so…"
"Who said you had to marry someone from the Water Tribes?" Zuko demanded.
"Nobody, of course!" He could practically feel her rolling her eyes. "And I guess for a time…" He waited. "I guess for a time it seemed like Aang and I might… but that's not going to happen, and it's for the best."
"You don't have to convince me, Katara," he said softly, stopping once more and turning to face her. "I just want you to be happy."
She stared at him for a long moment. "Do you really?" she asked.
Zuko stared back, now genuinely confused. "Really want you to be happy? Of course I do!"
She bit her lip, then looked away.
"Katara…" he said slowly, not sure if this was a question he should be asking. "Are you… in love… with someone?"
She blushed furiously, and his heart sank as if it were one of Toph's boulders, his lungs constricting like bent metal. She didn't answer.
He raised his lead- weighted arms and rested his hands on her shoulders. "Katara, look at me." She did so, albeit reluctantly. "If you're in love with someone, then you should tell him. I can't imagine how they wouldn't love you back, seeing as how you… you…"
"I what?" she whispered.
"You light up the room just by walking into it," he said honestly. "You're so full of love, so giving and nurturing and caring that any man given your love would count himself luckier than if he had the Thousand Blessings. A man would be a downright fool if he couldn't look at you and see how wonderful and brave you are."
Zuko nodded, feeling as if his heart were being shredded into a thousand pieces. But if it made her happy… "Any man."
Katara licked her lips. "Well… if you put it that way…"
Then, before he could react or even understand what was happening, she had raised herself up on tiptoe and pulled his head down so that she could press her lips against his.
Zuko was on fire. Not literally - he remembered all too vividly the screaming pain that accompanied the flames against his face, and the lightning that surged throughout his entire body during the last Agni Kai with Azula - but this was a slow, burning warmth that felt invigorating and all-consuming and nearly as powerful as when it had been harmful. His lips moved against Katara's and she responded with equal passion, twining her hands in his hair even as he pulled her tightly against him and cradled her head with his hands. He was drowning in sunlight.
They broke apart with breathlessly, and Zuko touched his forehead to hers. "Katara," he breathed.
"Zuko," she whispered. "I'm sorry if that was forward of me, but I-"
He bent his mouth to hers again, cutting her off. "Don't apologize," he murmured against her lips, then bit her bottom lip gently. She gasped and he pulled back again, breathing heavily.
"I've wanted to kiss you for so long," he admitted hoarsely.
Katara blinked in shock. "Why didn't you?"
He let out a raspy laugh. "I thought you would hit me. Or freeze me in a block of ice. I never thought…"
"And here I thought all my letters had made it horribly, embarrassingly obvious," she mused, pressing her face into the crook of his neck. She kissed his neck softly and Zuko shivered.
"I have been told on occasion that I am completely oblivious to things like this," Zuko admitted.
He felt her smile. "I won't argue with that."
It still felt unnatural and unreal, holding her in his arms and her returning the embrace as tightly as if she wanted to be there. He secretly wondered if he might be dreaming, and he would wake up only to realize that the festival wasn't to start till the following night. He had dreamed of holding her for so long, woken up so many nights feeling frustrated and empty once he realized that his arms were wrapped around a pillow and Katara half a world away.
"I don't understand," Zuko said eventually. "If you wanted to… Why weren't you inside with everyone else? Why were you all alone out here?"
She pressed her face against his neck. "I was being a coward and hiding from you."
He paused. "What?"
"Don't make me repeat it!" she snapped, clearly embarrassed. "I thought I could face you and act like a dignified friend and representative of the Water Tribes, but I just couldn't."
Zuko swallowed thickly. "And here I was terrified of seeing you come in on the arm of some Water Tribe peasant…"
There was a brief pause as Zuko mentally berated himself for speaking without thinking again, until Katara burst out laughing.
"Some peasant, huh?" she snorted, rubbing her nose against his collar bone, making it exceedingly difficult for him to focus on what she was saying. "And here I thought you'd cured yourself of all that classist talk from hanging out with us peasants."
Zuko groaned, his fingers tightening around the shimmery translucent fabric of her dress. "You know that's not what I meant…"
"You said it, not me," Katara snickered.
He pushed her back slightly to see into her face. "Then I guess I'll have to make you forget I said it," he said lowly, and Katara's breathing hitched audibly. He bent his head down to kiss her again, and Katara returned the kiss with abandon, parting his mouth with her tongue and shocking him into momentary stillness. He resumed the kiss with enthusiasm a second later, and they were both decidedly breathless when they resumed their walk several minutes later, their hearts, lips and eyes smoldering.
They made their way around the little pond, catching up on all the details that hadn't made it into their letters, for their were many. They also spoke of some of the heavier topics they had only brushed on in letters, lest their correspondence become as lengthy as the new novels circulating the capital.
They crested a small hill and found themselves returning to the path in sight of the veranda, and just beyond it, the ballroom. Strains of music wafted out even amid the dull roar of chattering conversation and laughter, and Zuko's hand tightened around Katara's.
"I don't really want to go back in," he admitted, hesitating in the shadows beyond the light that spilled out of the ballroom.
Katara squeezed his hand back. "Me neither.
Zuko thought for a moment, then took a deliberate step back, dropping her hand. He bowed formally and held out his hand aloft. "Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, would you honor me with this dance?"
Katara's eyes glinted with amusement but her face was serene as she curtsied and said, "I would be honored, Firelord Zuko."
They clasped hands and Zuko wrapped his other about her waist, though for a moment Katara looked uncertain about whether he actually intended to dance with her.
"You do know the form, right?"
"Of course!" she scoffed. "I learned all the proper dances as befitting an international ambassador."
"Good." Then, without giving her a chance to respond further, he swept her into the dance.
Katara yelped but quickly found her footing as they moved together across the uneven ground. He led her into several dips and turns and she responded with alacrity, even throwing in an extra turn to his secret delight. Dancing with Katara was like training with her in bending - full of the same athletic grace and flexibility that made them work together as such an adept team - yet more intimate at the same time. Thought he would never have tried to guide her bending, in dancing he led and she followed, each trusting the other to respond in movement and intent.
The courtyard and all his surroundings faded. All that mattered was the music and the connection and space between their bodies.
The music came to a close, and Zuko dipped her low to the ground, supporting her head and leaning over so that their noses nearly touched.
"Firelord Zuko," Katara said, her voice uneven from exertion, "I had no idea you could dance like that."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Why not? I told you in my letters that I had to learn."
She laughed softly. "Yes, but I was imagining you stumbling about and dropping your partner."
He pressed a chaste kiss to her lips and then flipped her upright, spinning her away.
"I take offense at that," he grumbled. "I can bend, so why shouldn't I be able to dance?"
Katara opened to her mouth to respond but several pairs of hands began applauding at that precise moment. She and Zuko spun around to find their unexpected audience lounging on the veranda steps in varying states of intoxication.
"I told you!" Toph crowed, lifting a glass into their air in their direction as if toasting them. "Let it never be said that Toph is the truly blind one around here."
Zuko and Katara flushed beet red and looked about instinctively for the nearest escape route.
"Awww, they're blushing!" Sokka called out, seemingly for Toph's benefit, who pumped a fist in the air. He pointed a finger at Zuko. "If you ever hurt her, I'll hurt you."
Suki rolled her eyes. "Stop threatening the Firelord, Sokka. You'll ruin all our efforts at international negotiation."
"I think you'll find that Firelord Zuko will bear no ill will towards Master Sokka for being concerned about his sister," General Iroh said, looking far too pleased with himself. Zuko made a mental note to replace all of his tea with dried weeds. Well, maybe not all of it.
"We were wondering what took you so long," Aang chimed in, smiling at both of them. "So we came to find out."
"I have to say Zuko, I'm also very impressed with your dancing skills," Sokka called out. "Katara needs someone who can lead firmly."
A water whip snaked out from beside Zuko and smacked Sokka across the face, tipping him over. Everyone laughed and Zuko fought the urge to bury his face in his hands. That, or light everyone on fire. Or create a fire wall so he and Katara could escape. Or…
"Come on guys, let the lovebirds enjoy their dance party before they spontaneously combust," Toph said, getting to her feet and brushing off her fancy dress. It was only slightly wrinkled and without any stains, Zuko noticed, and he wondered when even Toph had started caring about things like deportment.
The voyeurs trudged back into the ballroom, ignoring the glares Katara was sending in all of their directions.
Zuko glanced at her, and she glared at him for a moment before her face crumpled into mild irritation. "Come with me," he said before she could suggest any form of revenge on their meddling, eavesdropping friends (and Uncle). "There's a part of the Fire Palace that I want to show you."