The pavement shook beneath their feet as the sound of ten thousand cannon blasts echoed through the urban canyons. A wall of pinkish-purple light ballooned down the street toward them.
“What in the…” Varrick managed to get out, before Zhu Li dragged him inside the nearest doorway. They embraced one another tightly, heads tucked together as the howl of the explosion tore past them, expanding to its maximum limit, then doubling back in on itself. In its wake, dust, rubble, and bits of paper blew about the street as if a gale-force typhoon had just passed.
Zhu Li leaned her forehead against Varrick’s and breathed deeply. For better or worse, it seemed Kuvira’s weapon had been destroyed. It was the only thing she could think of that would cause such a blast.
“The light,” he said in wonder. “Did you see the light, Zhu Li?”
She had, for only a moment, before shielding her eyes from its radiance. She shuddered against him. His arms wrapped around her more tightly.
“Do you think the Avatar managed to… Or did…” He left the questions unfinished, but she knew exactly what he meant.
Her hand slid into his. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Stepping out into the street, they paused and craned their necks to look at Republic City’s brand new spirit portal. It was even more beautiful than the ones at the poles, with green and golden strands of light twisting round one another at its core.
Silently, Varrick squeezed her hand, and they started walking toward it.
Suyin was the first to spot them, on the rim of the giant, vine-entangled crater. “Varrick! You’re alive!” She hugged him tightly, a relieved look on her face.
“Glad to see you too, Su,” he said gently.
Lin Beifong nodded to Zhu Li before her sister pulled her into an embrace. As Su dropped the hug, her hands skimmed down Zhu Li’s arms and grasped her fingers. She glanced at Varrick, about to say something, then frowned and turned back to Zhu Li. Su experimentally squeezed her left hand, feeling the solid band around her finger. “Zhu Li! Did you…? Did he…?” Her grey bob danced as her head whipped between the two of them. “Finally?!”
Varrick put a hand on his hip. “I mean, it seemed to work for you…”
“Congratulations!” Su hugged Zhu Li again, before returning to Varrick and planting a sisterly kiss on his cheek.
“Okay, okay,” he said, a little embarrassed, but smiling nonetheless.
“Hmph,” said Beifong, digging into her uniform and handing fifty yuans over to her sister.
Varrick frowned. “What is that for?”
“I told Suyin I was sure the two of you were together back when I arrested you.” She raised an eyebrow. “I never would have put you in the same cell together otherwise, contract or not!”
Varrick looked at Zhu Li. “Told you we should have made relationship betting a thing.”
After a tense twenty minute search, during which more of their numbers converged on the spirit portal or crawled out of the wreckage of the mecha, the spirits had returned to Republic City. They flashed into the mortal world along the edge of the crater and soared around the beam of light. Moments later, Avatar Korra emerged, supporting Kuvira with an arm under her shoulders. For one tense moment, it seemed the remnants of her troops would continue the fight, but Kuvira herself strode forward and commanded them to step down.
“I’ll accept whatever punishment the world sees fit,” she had finished, lowering her eyes to the ground. Standing nearby, Su fixed her with a green gaze, furious and heartbroken all at once. As Beifong snapped platinum cuffs on Kuvira’s wrists, she apologized. “Su - I’m sorry for all the anguish I’ve caused you and your family.”
“You’re going to answer for everything you’ve done,” Su had replied. Varrick watched them go, a regretful look on his own face. Slowly, the closest members of the team turned to the Avatar, embracing her. Varrick and Zhu Li stepped forward and joined in. Somehow, in the last week, they’d become… maybe not members of Team Avatar, but extended family at the very least.
Zhu Li thought she’d enjoy the role of fun aunt.
While most of the team returned to Air Temple Island, Zhu Li and Varrick snuck away. As wonderful as being part of a group was, they both had some definite non-group activities in mind.
Varrick opened the door to the Republic City penthouse. It was a disaster.
“What a mess.”
Zhu Li started for the closet off the kitchen where cleaning supplies were kept; he grabbed her hand to stop her.
“Zhu Li, we’re not really going to spend our first evening - after I proposed and you accepted and we both almost died - cleaning, are we?”
It was a very good point.
“I never want to see a broom in your hands again,” he muttered against her lips, hands cupping both sides of her face.
“That seems a little unrealistic, dear.”
Dear was such an easy substitute. She should have been doing it for years.
“Why do you think I bought Varri-Vacs from your ex?” he growled.
She had given this question a good deal of thought, actually. “To test his feelings for me with money, and then to test me to see if I would leave you if he had it, and then to selflessly give me a safety net if I decided I truly wanted to be with him. ...I would imagine?”
He shook his head, staring at her in awe. “I never even stood a chance, did I? How are you not in charge of everything by this point?”
“It’s a mystery, dear.”
“So, by distracting you from your ambitions of world domination, I may be one of the good guys after all?”
“We’ll never know.”
He set his hands on her shoulders and opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly wrinkled his nose. He ducked in the direction of his armpit and made a face.
“Zhu Li, I smell awful. Why didn’t you say anything?”
He definitely smelled sweaty, but she wouldn’t have called it awful. “I don’t smell very fresh myself,” she admitted.
He looked her in the eyes. “We should do something about that.”
They opened the door to the master bedroom to discover the roof had a large hole in it, a gigantic spirit vine winding its way through the ceiling and piercing the canopy of the blue, emperor-size bed.
“Let’s worry about that later,” Varrick said, tugging her into the bathroom. Mercifully, it was still intact, if a little dusty.
“Wow, I sure hope the plumbing still works.”
She peered over his shoulder and held her breath as he turned the knob. There was a gurgling noise, as if the contents of the pipes were fighting gravity, and then a torrent burst forth.
“Ha! Haha!” As Varrick celebrated, Zhu Li lifted the cowl from her neck, folded it over once, and set it neatly aside.
Varrick was having a little more difficulty. “Who designed these suits?!” he asked, angrily, as he struggled with the cowl. Then he paused, the tan fabric halfway over his head. “Please don’t say it was me.”
Zhu Li smiled and helped him slide it off. “No - you can blame Asami for that one.” She leaned against him and unsnapped the brass button on the left side of his waist, the top of the suit falling open.
“Seriously?” he deadpanned. “It was that easy?”
“Why don’t you test it yourself?” she asked, guiding his hand to the same spot on her flight suit. He did so and she shrugged out of her top. The boots and pants were much simpler to get rid of, both sets getting hurriedly kicked into a corner.
As the bathroom began to steam up, Zhu Li reached behind her, unclasped her bra, and let it fall to the floor. His eyes widened, taking her all in, and he stepped forward to place his hands on her waist. Gently, she reached down and took one of his hands in her own. Kissing his knuckles, she placed it on her breast. His breath hitched as his thumb ran across her right nipple, making it slowly grow hard, skin around it pebbling.
“You are… so beautiful,” he said, lowering his mouth to her chest.
She was sure she smelled of sweat and tasted of salt, though he didn’t seem to mind as small, wet noises came from his lips, brushing against her dusky peak. She closed her eyes and reminded herself to inhale. Unlike him, she couldn’t hold her breath for five minutes at a time. His tongue traced the bottom of the bud of delicate skin and the feeling shot straight down her center, settling directly between her legs.
“I’m a little worried we’re going to run out of hot water.”
“Good call, darling.” He spun her around by her waist, lifting her off her feet, and set her directly under the spray.
“Why… you…” She stood there spluttering, underwear going wet and see-through in seconds. She blushed as water trickled down her glasses, fogging them up. He stepped into the shower next to her, removed them from her nose, and set them safely aside on a high ledge.
She put her hands on his hips and tugged at the sides of the wet fabric of his boxers. He hissed. “Careful there,” he said, giving himself a bit of space in the front as he pulled them down and slung them aside. They landed on tile somewhere across the room with a wet plop. He traced the lacy waistband of her underwear. “So are these coming off too?”
She put her arms over his shoulders and intertwined her fingers behind his neck. “A little help?” she asked, innocently. He ducked out from under her arms and down to his knees in a flash, much faster than could be considered safe in such slippery conditions. He slowly, reverently, peeled her clinging underwear down the sides of her legs. She carefully stepped out of them, a hand on his shoulder for balance. He was now eye-level with her naked crotch, and despite herself, she blushed again. He leaned in until his forehead rested against her lower belly, nose pressing into sensitive territory.
“Varrick,” she uttered, fingertips brushing against his scalp.
He gently pressed a kiss between her legs. “I’ll see you soon,” he said, before springing back up to his feet. He examined the many shampoo bottles lining the ledge by the tub. Finding one that seemed to be to his liking, he poured a bit in his hand and sniffed. “Ahh…” he closed his eyes. “That’s the one.”
Zhu Li closed her eyes as he cupped his palm over the crown of her head and gently but firmly scrubbed her scalp. The shower filled with the scent of lavender. Wordlessly, she held out her hand. He poured a bit of shampoo into it, and she reached up, lathering his head, smoothing wet hair back out of his face, making sure the suds stayed away from his eyes. It was so much harder than doing it for herself, but so strangely satisfying.
Choosing from the arsenal of bath products available to them, they scrubbed each other clean. As Zhu Li’s hand slicked down his stomach, he caught her wrist. “Best not, quite yet,” he chuckled, though a current as dangerous as a live wire ran through it. “We would definitely end up running out of hot water then.”
She bit her lip and helped him in his search for one very particular bottle of conditioner.
After getting out and drying off with some plush towels that had been hiding safely in the linen closet for the past three years, Varrick stepped into the veritable room that served as his wardrobe and emerged with a single set of blue pajamas. Zhu Li raised one eyebrow. “And what am I supposed to wear?”
He tossed her the top. She slid her arms into it as he wriggled into the bottoms. Tossing his damp towel aside, he stepped forward to help her button it up.
“Ugh,” he said, leaning in close enough that she could feel his breath on her face. “Do you know how long this has been a fantasy of mine?”
She thought back. “Since you offered to share your pajamas with me in prison, I’d imagine?”
“Nooo, long before that. That was just about the only time I thought I could get away with suggesting it.”
She shook her head. “And I turned that opportunity down.”
“Well, yeah, but you were also about to quit on me. Figured I might as well give it a shot, not too much to lose.” He hugged her tightly. “I was such a jerk. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s water under the dam, dear.”
He kissed the tip of her nose and squinted. “I don’t think that’s how the saying goes…”
“Glasses?” she reminded him.
He reached back across the shower to the ledge, then slid them into the breast pocket of the pajama top. She propped them on her nose and they stepped into his bedroom and examined it critically.
"I always wanted a skylight,” he mused, examining the hole in the ceiling.
“Varrick.” She crossed her arms and gave him a look. There was no way she was sleeping next to a giant spirit vine.
"No, it'll be fine - we can stargaze as we fall asleep."
"It's too cloudy for stars tonight."
"We can imagine koala-sheep drifting by!"
No sooner had he closed his mouth than thunder rumbled and the skies opened up. Zhu Li led him out of the room, closing the door on the deluge behind them.
"Where are we going?" he asked her.
"The guest room." It was where she’d slept some nights when he kept her till a ridiculous hour. She opened the door and was relieved to find the room entirely as they’d left it.
"Why is the bed so tiny?" he scoffed, poking it with one finger.
"A double bed is a perfectly reasonable size for one person, sir." She grimaced at the slip. He noticed, wiggled his eyebrows at her suggestively.
“Shut up, sir,” she said, pulling him back onto the bed and pressing her mouth to his.
His knee dug into the mattress, beside her hip, as he shifted into a better position. She grabbed his leg, running her hand up the back of his thigh as she leaned in. The noise he made melted into her mouth and she broke away for a second, smiling.
“Are we doing this thing?” he asked quietly. “Right now?”
She looked directly into his eyes and nodded.
“Do we need protection?” Under the pajama top, his fingers lightly brushed against her belly, making her shiver. “It’s taken me so long to get here, I really don’t feel like sharing you with anyone else.”
She felt exactly the same way. “I’m on it.”
“What about your glasses?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I want to remember every detail of this. I’ll take them off if it becomes vitally necessary.”
He nodded and swallowed. He was more nervous than she was, she realized with glowing fondness. She curled her hand around his ear, brushing his hair back, then glided it over his cheek, her fingers coming to rest underneath his chin.
“I love you so much, Iknik.”
He inhaled, a deep shaky breath, and lowered his lips to the dip between her collarbones. Slowly, he kissed his way down between her breasts, undoing the buttons he’d fastened only minutes ago. The lock that always fell over his forehead bobbed a bit and she curled her hand into his damp hair.
She loved his dark waves so much. It was the first thing she remembered finding attractive about him - the first of so many.
The last button slipped open beneath his fingers and he paused for a moment, lips pressed to soft, pale skin just above the small patch of deep brown wisps below. She let out a little gasp as he lifted his mouth and moved down further.
Huang had attempted this a few times but had never been fully into it, and therefore, Zhu Li had assumed she wasn’t a fan. Now, with a partner who was fully committed - even enthusiastic about it - she was discovering she had been entirely wrong. His tongue darted into her before returning to slick between the folds, then lathed flatly against her eager bundle of nerves. Meanwhile, the ends of his moustache tickled the delicate skin of her inner thighs and she instantly set a rule that he was never allowed to shave it off, ever again. As he dipped in once more, Zhu Li balled the sheets in her hand and was exceedingly grateful the city had been evacuated as she cried out in bliss.
She’d often wondered who the Pearl Diver, one of his first ships, had been named for. She was starting to think it had been for himself.
He slid one long finger, then two into her, not neglecting her with his mouth, and she came moments later in a feverish series of spasms.
Her glasses had found their way into her hand after all. Shaking, she placed them flat on the bedside table, glass tapping unsteadily against the surface.
“Again,” she breathed, “but all of you this time.” She spread her legs wide and scooted down the pillow a little further as she followed the thin trail of hair from his navel down to touch him. His eyes closed and a whispered hiss escaped his lips as she lazily stroked her hand up and down his quickly hardening shaft. She slid her thumb over the tip, then darted her fingers away for a moment, dipping into her own wetness. As her hand returned to him, he groaned.
“Zhu Li.” Her name came out like an oath, like a prayer, like the climax of a 1,000 page novel...
He adjusted himself over her, elbows digging into the mattress on either side of hers, palms flat by her shoulders.
“Are you ready?”
One arm lifted from the mattress and a moment later, she let out a small gasp as he pushed into her, shifted her hips to get a more comfortable angle. Oh, there… there it was. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Like that?” he asked, before pushing a little deeper.
Her legs spread even wider, inviting him in. “Spirits, yes.”
He sunk into her, almost flush with her body. Her legs trembled and her heartbeat sang, feeling him there, where he was always meant to be. And then he started moving.
Varrick, for all his bad posture, could do unimaginable things with his hips. It was as if his spine, used to years of ignoring the rules, had decided human anatomy and physics were mere suggestions rather than hard and fast laws of nature. His rhythm was new and surprising, in the best way possible, and within seconds, she’d fallen into it. She felt her shoulders lift slightly from the pillow, her neck strain and her head fall back, as she gasped for air. He panted into her shoulder, planting messy kisses on her collarbone where she felt beads of sweat starting to gather. She couldn’t tell if it belonged to him or her, nor did she care.
She felt him tensing slightly and reached up to touch his sides, not quite there yet. He seemed to understand, slowing and changing the pace fractionally. It was enough. Within seconds, Zhu Li knew she was at the precipice and allowed herself to go falling over with his next thrust. As she contracted around him, one wave after the other, his movement stuttered and he came inside her with a strangled groan.
He sank onto her body for a moment, both of them drenched in sweat. Then he gently pulled out of her and rolled onto his back.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“You said it,” he choked out. Was he… crying?
“Come here,” she said, gathering him up in her arms.
“I promise I’ll never do this again,” he sniffed. “Just this one time. It’s just… I thought you’d gone for good and I’d never be able to see you again, and now you’re here and we’re…”
“I know,” she said, leaning her cheek against the top of his head. Softly, she ran her fingers up and down his back.
“I love you,” he murmured. He burrowed his cheek against her ribcage, ear on her heart.
“I love you too,” she whispered.
A tiny snore escaped him.
He’d fallen asleep. She couldn’t blame him. This day had been…
This day had been everything.
She drew her right hand up the smooth, tan skin of his back and gently twined her fingers in his thick, silky hair. Her left hand remained on his shoulder blade, tracing absent-minded circles. She noted, with some concern, that he was even thinner than before. She'd hoped Bolin's appetite and Asami's good sense would have counteracted his tendency to forget to eat when he got carried away with other, more exciting activities, but it seemed they hadn't.
Twisting her neck to look at his profile, she also noticed his moustache wasn't as neatly waxed as usual - one side curled up more than the other - and he'd missed a small patch of stubble when shaving. She glided her hand along his jaw, feeling the slight friction against her palm. Both of them had promised that Zhu Li's responsibilities would be greatly reduced, or rather, redirected toward more useful tasks going forward. It was for their mutual good, but that didn't stop her from yearning to take care of him.
As his partner. Equals.
She was looking forward to this new chapter of her life.
Zhu Li woke to sunlight streaming across her pillow and a blurry set of blue eyes watching her. She felt on the nightstand for her glasses, squinting as she put them on.
“What time is it?” she asked, stifling a yawn.
“Not a clue,” Varrick replied.
“We should check,” she said, reluctantly.
He wrapped his arms around her. “Oh, you’re not going anywhere.”
She let out a happy little sigh. He rested his chin in the crook of her neck.
“Y’know…” he said in a low voice, “every morning when you’d come to wake me up and I’d beg for another hour, it was because I was dreaming of you.”
She recalled a good month where he’d done such, and blushed.
“So dream me is better company than actual me?” she murmured, glancing at him sideways.
“Dream Zhu Li was in no danger of leaving if her employer made a pass at her. No, that’s not true - sometimes she would, but all I had to do then was wake up and wait for the next dream Zhu Li to be more accommodating.”
“No, not like that!” he replied, sounding incensed. “Well, usually not like that. I’m talking picnics, and cuddling, and inventing incredible things together that made us crazy rich.”
“You’re already crazy rich, dear.”
“But now I have you,” he pointed out, tapping her nose.
“Yes,” she sighed, scrunching it up. “You do.”
She intertwined her hand with his. Rubbing his thumb over her ring, he looked down at it, as if he still couldn’t believe his luck.
Her eyes crinkled up, drawing their hands up to rest on the sheet directly above her heart. “Is this from…”
“That rock that almost murdered me? Yeah, it is.”
“I still can’t believe you remembered jade was my favorite.”
“It may have come up the first time you came barging into my room in the middle of the night,” he said, leaning in to kiss her. “It was a memorable occasion.”
After breakfast, she looked around the disaster area that was the penthouse. He followed her gaze.
“Don’t even think about it, Zhu Li. The building is obviously going to be condemned anyway… huh. I guess we should call the insurance agency, get a jump start before everyone else files a claim. Anyway, why bother wasting our time cleaning?”
“Because, in the meantime, we have to live here.”
“Not for long! I’m going to call Shesh this afternoon, ask him to bring the boat back into harbor.” He looked around. “But I will miss the old place.” He patted the arm of the plush blue sofa.
“We can store the furniture until we find a new place in Republic City.”
“You can do that? Reuse furniture, I mean?” he asked her, lifting one brow.
He was so hopelessly clueless about so many things. If he hadn’t been a certifiable genius in other areas, Zhu Li wouldn’t have known how he’d survived so long without her.
She still didn’t understand how she’d functioned before him, before chaos and madness and pure joy had entered her life. She decided to look up Ms. Mu and send her a lovely gift basket.
"Right. Where do we keep the brooms?" he asked, with a sigh.
Wordlessly, she showed him to the closet.
“Aah!” he scolded when she attempted to grab one of her own. “You,” he said, taking her by the shoulders, “are going to relax for a bit,” he led her back out to the sitting room and gently but firmly guided her to the sofa, “while I take care of this mess.”
He was about five minutes into cleaning when he glanced up and noticed the expression on her face.
"What?" He looked oddly guilty and his shoulders slumped. "I'm doing this wrong, aren't I?"
Zhu Li allowed herself a smile. "No. You're doing it just right."