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A Long Time Coming

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Everyone jumped as Zuko slammed his fists into the large, ornate table they were gathered at. Acrid smoke filled the room as his clenched hands burned into the wood, a number of scrolls and important documents catching, spreading the fire.

“She is not an instrument of trade! She is a person! Not some brood mare to be sold for political gain!”

A cacophony of loud, angry voices mixed with the smoke of the room, each person shouting louder than the other in an effort to be heard. The flames that usually divided the Fire Lord and his council shot ever higher. She eyed them silently, knowing they would likely stay at such heights despite the Fire Lord having descended from his dais nearly thirty minutes ago. Rather than reminding the council that The Fire Lord was above them in all ways, separated by a physical barrier that represented his rank and power, it now simply reminded them of exactly who they were angering, and how little it would take for those flames to engulf the entire room.

Iroh silently extinguished the items his nephew had set afire in his outburst. She was aware of how he kept his own thoughts to himself even though she was sure he had plenty to say on the matter. Often the voice of calming reason to his surrogate son’s volatile emotions, she could almost see him biting his tongue as he avoided his nephew’s eyes. As if he wanted to see how things would play out. As if he wanted to see if someone else would speak first. A sneaking suspicion in her gut told her he wanted to hear her opinion on the matter and was just waiting for her to speak up. He caught her eye only a moment later; the look there told her all she needed to know. She wasn’t sure if she was pleased or annoyed at him knowing her so well. One deep breath later, and she gave the old man what he was after.

“I’ll do it.”

Her voice was lost amongst the shouting nobles. Not a single one of them so much as even looked her way. Her temper flared. Defiance and sheer annoyance grew in her as they all continued their arguing. She slid easily into a defensive stance, her chin jutting out and her fingers twitching by her sides.

A layer of frost chilled the room, minuscule icicles hanging off chairs, robes, and various locks of hair. The non-benders in the room were iced over completely, while many of the firebenders melted the thin layer of frost almost instantly. She considered opening her water skeins and freezing them all solid, but a glance around the room told her she had everyone’s attention. No further action was needed. Yet.

“I’ll do it,” she said again, ice in her veins but a deadly fire in her voice.

“Katara, no.” Zuko was the first to speak, his words spoken so softly she could barely hear them. Sadness filled his voice, however quiet he had been.

She turned towards him, readying herself to begin the argument that she knew was coming, but Iroh spoke first. “Nephew, listen to her.” He laid a hand over the Fire Lord’s singed sleeve and a silent conversation seemed to pass between them.

The nobles and various dignitaries in the room began to mutter amongst themselves. Their Lord’s attention elsewhere gave them the courage to begin squabbling again, albeit in hushed, angry tones.

When Zuko looked back up at her she knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Not even his uncle would convince him of this.

That left her. So be it, she thought to herself as she squared her shoulders and steeled herself for what was to come.

“I’d like the room.” Her voice cut through the various arguments in the chamber and this time every single person turned to stare at her. Many of the faces in outraged anger.

One particularly obnoxious face began to argue, “Now just wait one–”

Katara silenced him with a single look, the threat of what she’d do if he didn’t shut his stupid face plainly written across her features. “I said,” she twisted her fingers and curled water around them, “I’d like the room. Leave.”

“Firelord, you cannot possibly expect–”

“Do not make me tell you again, General Taisho.” She crossed her arms and glared, a deadly smirk across her lips. Whether she was actually permitted to command an entire room of people to leave so she could speak to the Fire Lord in private was of no real concern to her. She’d been fighting the system since was fourteen years old, fighting and winning a war that was older than her grandmother. She wasn’t afraid of a handful of bureaucrats or their rules; they should be afraid of her. Part of her wanted him to speak again, just so she could wash him out of the room herself. Her body was already humming as it reached out to find a big enough source of water to do so. Unluckily for the general, it had rained just the night before, leaving her plenty of puddles and drenched earth to pull from. It wouldn’t be hard to call the water to her. Not hard at all. Her smirk deepened at the thought.

Zuko was still standing there, mouth agape, as a battle of wills took place in his council chamber. Katara nearly laughed when she saw him look over at his uncle helplessly, silently pleading for him to neutralize the situation.

Katara’s serious expression did eventually slip, a smile tugging her lips upward when Iroh began to usher everyone from the room. Not a single one of them argued with him, despite the dark mutterings and whispers as they were all corralled through the doors like a herd of unruly hog monkeys.

“Uncle,” Zuko called after Iroh’s retreating figure, pleading him to stay.

"Listen to her, Nephew," Iroh suggested once more without turning around.

Zuko threw up his hands in frustration and a hint of smoke hit her nose once more. Iroh left the room without another word, the large, ornate doors clicking into place as he pulled them shut behind him.

She watched as Zuko began to pace, steam leaving his nostrils with each angry exhale. Dramatic. So dramatic, in fact, that she reckoned he could win a contest against Sokka for the most melodramatic of their friends. She snorted at the thought, and made a mental note to tell Suki.

There was an argument coming, and probably more flamey outbursts, but she was resolved in her decision. Not that she exactly prepared for this, or even had a well thought out justification in her mental armory . No, she certainly hadn’t planned on this particular turn of events when she was asked to join the council meeting this morning. At the most, she expected some mundane request concerning trade routes or maybe even more about her healing lessons. Those, she had conversations for. Those, she expected. Those, she had researched and knew backwards and forwards.

This?

This had taken her completely by surprise. Although, now that she thought about it, she was rather angry at herself for not seeing it coming. Still naive about the world, even after she’d fought a war over it and lived in its aftermath. And yet, it only took her a fraction of a second to decide what she was going to do. Barely any thought at all had went into those three words she’d declared in front of the Fire Lord and his entire council of nobles and various dignitaries.

She’d keep that little fact to herself.

If he found out that she hadn’t even thought it through, he’d never agree. Never see the sense -- the perfect solution she would be providing. Zuko’d turn her down before she even had an opportunity to convince him otherwise. She could only shudder when she thought of what her brother would say if he found out. No; She would take that fact to her grave unless she wanted one of her friends to put her there first for being so rash.

She lowered herself into the nearest chair, crossing her legs and resting her chin in her palm.

Katara waited.

Zuko continued to pace.

If she knew the Fire Lord --and she did-- he’d be beginning his long winded dispute any second now, and Katara really didn’t feel like being interrupted once she began to say her peace. After all, she hadn’t rehearsed this. The least amount of questions he asked while she spoke, the better. So instead she’d let him get everything out of his system first, and then she’d say what she had to say.

Sure enough, “How could you even say that!?” echoed throughout the chamber mere seconds after she settled into her chair.
She held her tongue. While not strictly a rhetorical question, she suspected it was only the first of many. Sure enough, she was right in her assumption once again.

"What were you even thinking?! Were you thinking?" His voice was raised, loud enough she was sure anyone outside the room would be able to hear him as clearly as she did.

And there it was, the question she was absolutely not answering. Not aloud, at least, and certainly not to him. No, she hadn’t really thought about it. She was speaking before she even realized she had opened her mouth. But her heart knew what her brain had yet to catch up to: She wanted this. She wanted him. She wouldn't take those three words back, no matter how much Zuko raved.

"Your brother would murder me," Zuko continued, not even looking at her now, lost in his pacing and ranting.

Katara shot up from her seat. "My brother has nothing do with this!" She rolled her eyes towards the heavens and groaned. What was it with men and their internalized, idiotic notions about anything a woman did needed to be approved of by a male relation? "Do you even hear yourself right now?"

Apparently, he didn't even hear her, as he didn't answer her question or even acknowledge she had even spoken.

“How could they– how could you think that I would do that to you?” He shook his head. His inky black hair, grown nearly to his collarbone, fluttered. When he went to run his hands through it, he let out a frustrated growl when his fingers hit his top-knot and the golden headpiece symbolizing his position as Fire Lord. He pulled his hand away and left his hair alone; a disheveled mess that would likely have his attendants instantly upon him if they could only see him.

Finally, Zuko crossed the room to where she was. He leaned back against the table in front of her, swiping away the papers and scrolls that were behind him.

“That’s not… that’s not the kind of man I am, Katara, nor the one I wish to be.”

She looked up at him, finally ready to meet those golden eyes she knew would see right through her. There was little space between them; She had to fight the urge to close that space and hug him. To kiss away the concern and worry lining his face, the sadness that hung heavy in his eyes. All the worry that he carried with him every single moment of every single day. She wanted it gone, if only for a moment. Maybe kissing him would do that, but she wasn't brave enough to risk the consequences if it didn’t.

Instead, she forced herself to sit back down and ask as calmly as possible, “I’m my own woman, yes?”

That certainly wasn’t what he had been expecting and she could see how it had caught him off guard. Confused, and slightly cautious, he answered her. “Er, yes.”

“I’m capable of making my own decisions?”

Again, “Yes.”

“No one could ever force me to do something I didn’t want to do, correct?”

“Of course not, you’d water-whip them into next week if they tried. But Katara–”

“But Katara, nothing, Zuko!” He huffed when she cut him off, crossing his arms like a petulant little boy that was being scolded for doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. She laughed quietly at the picture he painted, imagining how he must have looked like as a child when he didn’t get his way.

He gave her a look that plainly said, ‘I don’t see what’s so funny.’ and it only made her giggle harder for another few moments.

They were getting nowhere. Nowhere anytime soon, at least, and she really didn't feel like drawing this argument out any longer than absolutely necessary.

“Ask me how long,” she told him, looking up at him through her
lashes. Her heart thundered in her chest and she said a silent thank you to Tui and La that Toph wasn’t around to hear it. Knots formed in her stomach and a thousand thoughts filled her mind as she nearly lost her confidence in what she was about to reveal. Unfortunately, she had no other choice. Not if she wanted him to believe she could be happy doing what the council was demanding.

His forehead creased and his good eye narrowed in utter confusion, his head cocking to the side slightly as it always did when he was trying to figure something out. A few strands of hair slid over his face, but he didn’t move to brush them away. Her fingers twitched, itching to do it for him. Katara bit her cheek and stilled her hands into fits so tightly that her nails dug into her palms.

“How long… what?” He finally asked.

Air shuddered from her lungs as she exhaled the breath she had been holding. She closed her eyes and gathered all her courage, more courage than she had needed when facing down any opponent in their past. Even more than she had needed with Azula.

But, like when facing Azula, he had been at her side. She could do this. She had to.

“Ask me,” she swallowed, looking away from him, allowing herself this small ounce of cowardice, “how long I’ve loved you.”

Her statement was met with silence. She was going to throw up. She should have never said anything. She should have never used this as her argument, should have thought things through more than she had. She knew there were plenty of reasons why this decision was a smart move and she could have kicked herself for not starting with those instead. No, she had to go and ruin the best friendship she ever had–

“How long.” The words were breathy, barely a whisper, but she heard them with a ringing clarity that quieted all her internal fears.

She dug her nails deeper into her palms and bit her bottom lip. She had started them down this path, and knew with a burning certainty that he wouldn’t let them off it until she told him the truth. So much for looking before leaping.

“Since the catacombs, I think. At least,” she paused, shaking her head and breathing deep. Eyes closed, Katara spoke even more of her truth. “At least,” she continued nervously, “that’s when it started. When things changed. For me.” She spoke stuntedly, as if incapable of speaking in full sentences like the intelligent adult she was.

“Ten years is a long time to love someone and not say anything.”

A flush crawled up her neck and her cheeks heated at his words. The edges of panic began to creep into her body; she clutched the edges of her seat to stop her hands from shaking. This had been a colossally bad idea; Rash decisions and rushing in without a plan was more her brother’s style than her own. No, she silently chastised herself. Sokka was a great leader, a great planner. He would have handled this situation with rationality and carefully crafted reasoning. Nothing at all like what she had just done.

She ruined her chances at that, however, and had no choice to continue on the path she’d stupidly decided to go down. She just hoped she could course correct before she crashed and burned.

“Look, Zuko, I…” she trailed off, her courage failing and words escaping her. She still avoided looking at him, afraid to see the look of rejection or disgust that was surely on his face right now. “You’re my best friend. In the entire world. We’ve saved one another more times than I could count; Certainly more times than we tried to kill one another.” She sighed, stalling, trying to figure out a way to spin this so her confession of love was less a confession of love and just a statement of normal, platonic affection. Fiddling with one of the tassels attached to her dress, she pulled at the delicate golden thread until
it began to unravel.

“Toph’s got her metalbending school, Sokka and Suki have the Water Tribe and their kids, Aang has the Air Acolytes and his mission to restore the Air Temples. They all have a purpose that drives them.” Katara rambled, desperately searching for a way to dig herself out of this hole she’d stupidly dug herself. She thought about her time with the Northern Water Tribe and her time at home helping to rebuild her own tribe. All the time she had spent traveling with Aang to help heal the communities that needed it the most. All that traveling, and Katara had never really felt like she was where she was supposed to be.

Which was how she found herself back in the Fire Nation, back on Capital Island, in Caldera City, living once more in the Royal Palace. Back to the place that she began to think of as home all those years ago. How it felt like home now. How he felt like home.

“And you?” Zuko asked casually. Katara nearly looked up to see
how he was looking at her. Nearly. Cowardly as it may be, she still wasn’t ready to face him.

“Me?” Her voice cracked; she cleared it, embarrassment heating her cheeks once more. “I accomplished my missions ages ago. I set out to become a proper waterbender, which I suppose I did during the war. Master Pakku declared me a master before I even turned fifteen. With the war over and the world mostly healed, I didn’t know where my place was. I love all of you,” you most of all, her traitorous heart screamed, “and I’d do anything to help any of our friends if they needed me.”

The chair creaked as she shoved it back, pushing herself out of it and then away from Zuko. She couldn't take being so close to his scrutinizing gaze. Maybe she couldn’t see it, but spirits if she couldn’t feel it crawling over her skin, focusing on her face, trying to coax her eyes to his. She needed to breathe air that didn’t smell like him. Air that was clear of the scent that made her skin buzz and head spin. If she was going to spin this, like she knew she must, she needed clear of him or her resolve would crumble. Otherwise, she’d tell him why she so quickly told the council she’d do it, which would well and truly fuck their entire relationship.

“I love the Fire Nation, did you know? Isn’t that funny? A woman who had her entire life changed when they attacked her village, thrusting her into a war she was barely old enough to fight in, now loving them. But that’s not what the Fire Nation is. That’s not the world we live in anymore. It’s so much better! We’ve made it better.” She turned around and smiled at him. Tears filled her eyes, threatening to fall as she focused on his chest, on the scar hidden behind his crossed arms and layers of clothes. “Becoming your official Water Tribe Emissary six months ago was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m making a difference! I finally found a new purpose, one that doesn’t require sleeping on the hard ground or up in the air on Appa, mind you.” She laughed, only slightly forced, and his warm chuckle mixed with hers.

“My point, Zuko, is that you and I make an incredible team. We always have.”

Zuko nodded and replied evenly, “I never said we didn’t, Kat.”

Kat. He hadn’t called her that since she was eighteen. Not since… her stomach fluttered and her heart began to beat a tattoo against her chest once more as she remembered. Her blood pounded at the memory. The one night they’d made the move from just friends to something that was without a doubt more. But they’d been drunk, liberated by some very tasty wine, and it had never happened again.


“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, Kat,” he had whispered, his breath hot on her face, only seconds before he had kissed her, and kissed her, and kissed her some more. They had been on Ember Island with the entire gang so many moons ago, celebrating Sokka and Suki, and the baby that was growing inside her sister-in-law.

There had been more food than any of them could possibly eat (even for her brother), an abundance of exotic wines and alcohol, and more laughter than she had heard in months. She’d been floundering when Sokka had written her and suggested the trip, which is why she had eagerly accepted and had begun packing for it immediately.

She’d been in the Northern Water Tribe at that point, and hadn’t even realized how miserable she was until she reached the Fire Nation and reunited with her friends and family. The humid air was a welcome comfort she hadn’t known she had been missing.

When it came time to turn in their first night there, Katara had snatched a quilt and pillow from her bedroom and stalked back outside to the beach. She preferred the salty ocean breeze and squishy sand to the four walls she was to share with Toph. Even if she hadn’t of been bunking with the young woman that still snored like a Platypus Bear, she would have still found her way to the beach that night. The ocean called to her, the moon pulling her outside; Yue blessed them with all of her light that night, and the thrumming power that came with it.

She’d been bending when he found her, a bottle of something as outrageously expensive as it was good in his left hand, and two glasses in his right. He plopped down on her quilt without an invitation. The water she’d been bending fell back into the ocean when she noticed him; the waves falling away from her as she waded through them and back to the beach. Back to him. “That’s my quilt, you know.”

“Technically,” he’d laughed, “it’s mine. So’s the pillow.”

Katara couldn’t remember what they had said next, remembering only that she ended up sharing the quilt, and the pillow, with him that night. He was gone when she woke up, the lingering scent of him on her skin the only reminder that he'd actually been there.


She hadn’t thought he remembered. Worse, a part of her believed he had chosen to ignore what had happened -- that he had regretted it.

Katara’s eyes shot up, finally meeting the gaze that she had been avoiding. The truth of it was in his eyes and her heart sank.

He remembered. He remembered and yet he never said anything. Regret, then. Her bottom lip began to tremble and she silently cursed herself. She’d ruined everything, all because she couldn’t keep her damn mouth shut, couldn't lie the one time she desperately needed to. Spirits save her, she’d just ruined things with the one person she loved the most.

Her heart beat so frantically she felt like she was going to pass out. Before she could say another word, could twist the situation into something less embarrassing, could hide the tears falling from her eyes, he spoke.

“I should have asked you then.”

It was Katara’s turn to look confused. With a twitch of her fingers she hoped he didn’t see, she flicked her tears away and bit back the sob that was building in her chest. “What?” she asked, her voice trembling as her body shook.

Zuko crossed the room to where she was standing near the window, nearly backing her into the wall as he did so. She stared up at him with wide eyes as he settled in front of her. So close. Too close. It was beginning to become difficult for her to breathe and she silently wondered if she’d suffocate before her heart gave out.

Zuko raised his hand to her cheek and she stilled, too scared to say another word. “I said, I should have asked you then. I was so stupid to not ask you then.” He thumbed away a tear as it fell down her cheek. “But you never… so I didn’t. I was scared. You scared me.” He shook his head slightly and amended what he just said. “What I felt for you scared me. You’ve always been too good for me, Katara.”

“Zuko, I–”

“No, just. Just let me finish, okay? If you don’t let me say this now, I may go another five and a half years without trying.” She nodded slightly, unable to make herself move out of his grasp. It was all she could do to keep herself from leaning into it, into him. Spirits when did she become so weak?

What he said next broke her resolve and she began to cry in earnest. “It was stupid of me not to ask you then,” he paused while he fished something from his pocket, “and it was stupid of me to not ask you every day since. I, uh, had this made an embarrassingly long time ago, and I’m afraid the ribbon likely needs replacing from all the times I’ve worried it, but we can fix that. If you like. If you want. I mean, that is,” he laughed at himself and Katara gave him a watery smile before looking down at what he folded into her hands.

She gaped at the carved stone, at the betrothal necklace he placed in her left palm, then back up at him. She clutched his fingers with her right hand. Her left hand began to shake, but Zuko gently cupped it with his free hand, brushing his thumb over the pads of her fingers.

“What I should have said all those years ago, Kat, is that I love you. Would you please marry me, become my wife, my Fire Lady? Not because the council thinks I need to marry, not because you want to save your best friend the pain of a political marriage, but because I love you and have wanted to marry you since I was too young and too stupid to realize how I felt about you.”

Those words nearly undid the last of her composure. She was certain that if she tried to speak she'd only end up blubbering. Instead of risking that, she smiled at him again before inspecting the traditional Water Tribe betrothal gift nestled in her palm more closely.

The fire opal that was fastened between the two strands of velvet caught at the light in the most beautiful way. It was truly gorgeous, and she was just about to say so when she blanched, realizing where it had come from. Where it had to of come from. “Zuko," she began warily, "please tell me this isn’t that opal from the vault you showed me back when the war ended.”

Zuko chuckled, the sound nearly enough to make her forget her worry. “I ask you to marry me and the first words out of your mouth are in concern for a rock?”

A rock!” Katara shouted, scandalized. “It was priceless, you said! And really, really, really old Zuko! Ancient! You said there were only two to have ever been found and one of them was lost!” She couldn’t it help when her voice pitched higher at the last few words. Katara’s eyes were wide with shock, all her tears forgotten. She alternated between staring at the betrothal necklace in her hand and at the increasingly wide smile on Zuko’s face.

“Stop laughing! This isn’t funny, Zuko!”

This outburst, of course, only made him howl with laughter, nearly doubling over from it. She stomped on his foot, and he didn't even have the decency to look ashamed. His uproar of laughter increased to the point where he nearly stopped making any sound at all. She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him, careful to keep hold of the necklace he’d placed in her hands, as his body continued to shake with silent laughter.

Finally, he caught his breath and stilled, straightening back up to look at her. When he saw her stance, she could tell he had to fight back another round of laughter so she silenced him the only thing she could think of. Three more words that simply popped into her head unplanned.

“Ask me again,” she said, handing him the necklace back.
He squinted at her, his lips quirked up in a smile that threatened to turn into another fit of hysterics, but took the necklace from her and did as she requested anyway. “Will you–”

She closed the distance between them and kissed him before he could finish, muffling the words “marry me” with her mouth. Her fingers curled into the loose hair around his neck as she pulled him closer. “Yes,” she said as she inhaled a new breathe. She kissed him again as a grin split his lips, and when she tugged him even closer to her he answered her by walking her backward until the carved wood of the walls bit into her spine.

“Yes,” she said as she bit at his bottom lip, her body suddenly remembering every single thing those lips had done to her all those years ago and urging her to make his remember as well.

As it turned out, they did not need telling twice. Zuko growled when her teeth bit into his skin, and as soon as she let go he moved his attention to her neck, hastily shoving her hair to the side. Her knees went weak and nearly buckled when he found the sensitive spot just below her ear. She arched her neck to give him better access and hummed in delight as shivers ran down her spine.

“My wife,” his words sent a thrill through her and a huge grin broke across her face.

“Your wife,” she echoed, the words breathy and satisfied. She tilted her face towards him to nip at his ear before giggling. “My husband," She hummed, "I dare say I love the sound of that.”

“Not nearly as much I love you,” Zuko said, pulling back to look her in the eyes. “I’m sorry I never said so before. It was stupid of me not to.”

Reaching out, she dusted her fingers across his scar, smiling when he closed his eyes at her touch. She was sorry too. Sorry she had never had the courage to spit out what she kept secret for so long. Sure, she had a lurking suspicion Toph had been aware of what happened nearly six years ago, especially after she very loudly told their friends at breakfast the following morning that she wasn’t ever bunking with Katara again unless she stopped complaining about her snoring. Then there was Uncle Iroh, who’d likely been tipped off by Toph, simply because the pair of them were no-good busybodies, entirely too perceptive for their own good. Neither of them ever asked, though, and so she never confessed anything to anyone.

She briefly wondered if Zuko had ever told his uncle, but quickly dismissed the thought. If Iroh had known there would have been plenty of not-quite-so-subtle hints over the years, and unless she had been completely oblivious, she couldn’t remember any.

She leaned up to kiss Zuko’s scared cheek and hugged him fiercely. She was grinning like a fool, ignoring the ache in her cheeks in favor of her happiness. She didn’t know how she’d ever keep this a secret if she couldn’t keep from smiling so.

A bubble of laughter escaped her when Zuko lifted her and spun her around, the bottom layers of her skirts fanning out as he did so. When he stilled he was slow to release her, the friction of her sliding down his body ignited the fire that had been simmering inside her for countless years. She delighted in the way his hands seemed to burn into her, and all she could think about was about how the sooner they were rid of their clothes, the better. His lips were on hers before she could fully enjoy the dark, half lidded look he was giving her, or voice what her eyes must have been saying for her.

She had always imagined the next time they were together it would be in a bed. Whose bed was the only detail that truly changed; the fantasy that plagued her thoughts often took her back to the private beach on Ember Island, but her dreams were riddled with their coupling taking place in various bedrooms as well. Most frequently, his bedchamber here at the palace, a room her mind refused to forget. She'd seen it enough times in the aftermath of their fight with Azula. Zuko had refused to stay in the healing ward as soon as he had the strength to walk out of it on his own. She'd taken to healing him in his private chambers after that, refusing to allow him to brush off her daily ministrations; Despite his protests of feeling 'fine', her waterbending told her differently and that had been that.

There were nights she spent dreaming about laying upon a pile of furs with him, his body heat the only thing she needed against the chill of the South Pole. Her most frequent fantasy, however, was easily in his bed with those ridiculously soft sheets that she could never stop imagining on her bare skin.

She opened her mouth to tell him so, but all that came out was a throaty gasp as he nipped at her collarbone, bruising her skin with his mouth. His right hand trailed down her leg, hitching it up to his waist when he reached her knee. Their movements were fluid. It was as if they'd practiced this over and over so her transition from standing to having both legs wrapped around his waist was seemingly seamless. She said a silent prayer to the woman that had laid out these skirts for her today, eternally grateful for the slit in the side that allowed her such freedom of movement.

Zuko gripped her tighter than was probably necessary, but she didn't dare complain. His palms were calloused and his nails sharp as they dug into her skin, surely leaving lasting imprints for her to marvel at later. He walked them back towards the table that he'd burned in anger earlier, and suddenly Katara didn't mind at all that they weren't in his bedroom. That table would do perfectly fine for her. After all, she thought to herself, they'd find their way to his bedroom sooner or later. And, if she had her way, it would definitely be sooner.

"Nephew, I know you're grown and can make your own decisions, but you both got so quiet I was afraid Katara had frozen you to a... wall." Iroh finished as abruptly as he began. The older man's words froze them faster than her bending ever could have. They were mid kiss when he spoke, hands all over one another, breathy, satisfied laughter escaping them both as they each pulled at the other's clothing.

Katara's eyes shot wide open, taking in Zuko's as they mirrored her own. Even his burned eye was wider than normal. She didn't know what to say, what to do. She silently sent a prayer to Yue, begging for Iroh to be alone, begging all the Spirits to at least grant her that small mercy. She couldn't bare to look, and instead buried her face in the crook of Zuko's neck.

Iroh found his voice before his nephew did. She could tell by his tone of voice that he was smiling broadly, a hint of a chuckle after each word. "It's about time, Nephew. About damn time."

"Uncle!" Zuko chastised him, but it only egged the old man on.

"I'll inform the council the matter is settled, shall I?"

Katara whipped her head around to protest, but the words died on her tongue when she saw that Iroh had tears in his eyes and the biggest grin she had ever seen on anyone in her entire life.

Whether Iroh had known about their one night stand or not, she was now one hundred percent positive that he knew there had been more than friendship between her and Zuko. He had known, and yet, he hadn't meddled.

He met her eyes, then his nephew’s, before bowing his head at them both. He left the room as silently as he entered, the only sound the clicking of the doors as he shut them securely behind him.