On the longest evening of the summer, Zuko walks alone to the dock at the far side of the harbor.
It’s a secluded place, no longer used after the war; there’s no need for it now, and the iron warships hulk like rainclouds as he passes them, the wood of the gangplank rocking gently beneath his feet. The sun, in the distance, has just begun to set; it won’t be dark for a few hours more. In his childhood, Zuko had never liked this time of day, but now he finds himself looking forward to it. It’s the only time he can grasp a moment of peace outside of the havoc of the palace.
When he’s passed the last of the retired warships and turned down the little empty jetty at the very end of the dock, Zuko stops to look out at the waves, glittering under the orange rays. A sea of fire. He closes his eyes and takes his first deep breath of what feels like all summer.
At this point, his nightly pilgrimage to the dock is little more than a meaningless ritual. Katara had never said this is where she would land, or that it would be in the evening, or that she would even return this summer at all. Even so, there’s something about the hope that one day she’ll appear on the horizon, hair streaming in the wind, that keeps him coming back.
And besides, it’s not as if he grows bored of it. He finally has time to think.
Zuko leans against the piling, the rough ropes pressing into his skin through the thin material of his tunic. The breeze feels impossibly good against his skin after spending hours in his stuffy Fire Lord robes, boiling in the heat of the Fire Nation summer. Something about it reminds him of another time, a younger version of himself—more anxious and endangered, yes, but freer, too.
He had been leading his country for three years and he still feels like an impostor.
Zuko’s not sure the feeling will ever go away. Aang had told him he’d grow used to it eventually, and he’s much younger and more important than Zuko is, but Aang had also seemed to slip into his role as the arbiter of the world’s balance as easily as a new robe. Zuko, instead, has to work for it every day, has to remind himself just how many people are depending on him, how delicate everything still is.
It would be easier if she were here.
He’s thought it before many, many times, but Zuko’s never said it to Katara. It would be unfair. Just because he’s bound to his role in the heart of the fire doesn’t mean she should be, too. Zuko would never force that on her. She’s worked so hard for years on end – there are so many people that need her.
Zuko does too, of course. Maybe more than all of the rest of them combined. But he won’t tell her that.
She had promised, in her last letter, that she’d return this summer. Ever since, he’d waited at the dock when his meetings were over, every day without fail. Zuko has no idea where she is – not even which continent. It’s not unusual for him to not know her exact whereabouts, but this had been the longest he’s gone without seeing her since she left to travel the world a few months after Sozin’s Comet. He’d been on the verge of sending Fire Nation scouts out to seek her (just to make sure she’s alright, he had told himself, she would never even know they were there, he just had to make sure), until her letter arrived two weeks ago, the falcon landing on his windowsill just as he was about to douse the lanterns in his bedchamber. It had been short, her handwriting sloppier than normal:
I’m coming home. Keep the candles lit for me.
All my love,
She wasn’t usually so cryptic. Zuko has a trove of letters from her under his bed, many of them spanning multiple sheaves of parchment, each one filled with her script, looping bubble-like across the page. She sends him so many stories and yet, every time when she returns, seems to have so many more to tell in person. Zuko, in contrast, feels awkward returning her missives; his days are so much emptier on the page, even though he feels as if he’s always rushing from meeting to meeting in real life. It’s just that in comparison to liaising with the king of Ba Sing Se and moonlighting as a benevolent spirit helping to rebuild the outlying Fire Nation islands, his description of yet another discussion about trading rights with the Earth Kingdom sounds embarrassingly dull.
He envies her. Of course he does. He wishes more than anything he could be out there with her, roaming about the world and stopping wherever he’s needed most. He’d told her that, once, on one of her earliest visits, when he was fed up with the constraints of his life in the palace. “You are where you’re needed most, Zuko,” she had told him, brushing his hair back from his eyes. But she’d sounded sad as she said it, her tender smile not quite reaching her eyes. The world needs them in different places; that usurps their need to have each other wherever they are. He knows this, and he knows Katara does, too.
Zuko thinks, fondly, of the Western Air Temple, the nights they spent on the terrace under the stars sharing their dreams for peace with each other. They had been so naïve, thinking they’d be able to do whatever they wanted. The world had never waited for them before, not when they were rushing to save it, and of course it wouldn’t now. Still, he can dream.
That’s what he does now, watching the waves lap against the worn wood of the post. Zuko dreams. His mind slips serenely into the same vision he imagines most evenings. On the horizon, a dark spot appears, barely visible against the dying sun; it grows larger as the waves roll on and on, red as flame, and she rides the ocean of fire right into his arms.
He blinks, and she is gone.
Zuko waits, watching the waves glitter and crash for a few minutes longer. He’ll leave when the sun goes down. Usually, by the time he returns to the palace, he’s content; today, though, he can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. She’d made no allusions as to when she would return, Zuko reminds himself, only that it would be this summer. Still, he had hoped he could be with her for her birthday.
When she’d first told him, a few weeks before she turned sixteen, that it fell on the summer solstice – one of the most important holidays in the Fire Nation calendar – Zuko had chuckled at the irony of it, even more so considering that his is in the dead of winter. She hadn’t spent a birthday with him since – seventeen and eighteen had rolled away for her somewhere across the ocean. So when the letter had arrived, he’d hoped he would finally be able to share it with her again, to make her feel special in a way that words in letters and jewels in boxes couldn’t convey. The palace would be full of people celebrating the solstice; Aang would be there, and Sokka and even Toph. It would be so easy to turn their minds to celebrating her the way she deserves, as well. But the chances had grown slimmer and slimmer with each evening spent waiting at the dock, and now the solstice is tomorrow and he’s all but lost hope.
Zuko slips his hand into his pocket to rub his thumb across the stone there, feeling the still-rough edges of the etching press into his skin. He makes a wish on it.
He’s turning to go when the waves change. It’s the subtlest shift, one Zuko would never have noticed if he hadn’t been alone and attuned to their sound for the past hour, but it’s there: the slap of the tides is coming more quickly against the dock. It’s harder, too. Somewhere out in the bay, he hears a splash.
At first, he thinks he must be so wistful that he’s conjured up the sight of the little ship pushing against the wind. It’s no more than a dot against the dying sun, but Zuko can make out the silhouette: one billowing sail, a low-slung bow cutting across the water. Loose hair flying in the breeze.
She is hanging onto the mast by one arm, leaning out over the water and bending with the other. Zuko blinks, rubs at his eyes, but she doesn’t disappear the way his daydreams do. Instead, she grows bigger. He can make out details now – her outfit, a forest-green top wrapped about her torso, her expanse of tanned stomach, her leggings. She’s barefoot. She’s smiling.
He wants to throw himself into the water and swim out to meet her, clothes and propriety be damned. Instead, Zuko plants his feet to the wood and waits.
Katara maneuvers her ship into the dock with seamless ease. It’s no more than a skiff, really, certainly not big enough for more than two people; she looks at home on it. Her skin has been weathered by the sun since the last time Zuko saw her. Against it, her eyes look impossibly blue, so blue he could drown.
He wants to reach out for her as she steps onto the dock but suddenly, he’s frozen. He’s aware that he isn’t breathing. Katara smiles, and Zuko is drenched in warmth, as if the sun had just come out from behind a stormcloud. It radiates through his body.
“Hi, Zuko,” she says.
Her voice breaks the spell, and he rushes forward, gathers her up into his arms, and holds on tight. She laughs against his shoulder. Her hands come up to rest at the small of his back, pressing into him. She’s still warm from the sun, her long hair tickling his bare arms, and she fits into his chest so well, better than anyone else ever has. Like she was meant to fit there.
“I missed you,” he says.
She pulls back just enough to tilt her head back and look into his eyes. “You’ve gotten taller,” she answers. And then, just before she presses her lips to his, “I missed you, too.”
The halls of the palace feel warmer with her voice there to fill them. Katara didn’t bring many things with her from the Earth Kingdom – her possessions are scattered at her many homes around the world, enough of them in Zuko’s chambers that she can slip back into her life with him with ease. She dances away from him when he reaches for her satchel; she’s begun a habit of bringing them all presents from her travels, and the ones she picks for Zuko are often inside jokes and references to their months spent crisscrossing the world. Once, it had been a bag of gourmet rock plums from an abbey high in the misty mountains above Ba Sing Se; another time, it had been a scroll depicting the northern lights in vivid, abstract color, and it still stretches above his bed in ethereal shades of green and purple. He lets her hold her secrets for a few more days, smiling fondly.
Aang and Sokka are due to arrive the next day, tied up in their busy lives as Avatar and heir to the Southern Water Tribe, but when he leads Katara to the hall for dinner, Suki and Toph are both waiting, matching expectant smiles on their faces. Katara falls into them in a tangle of arms, their laughter filling up the huge hall, and Zuko watches them, feeling his heart swell. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s close. It’s getting near to it.
They’re all bubbling over with questions – so many that it makes it hard for them to eat, even Toph, who normally can scarf down anything on the plate put before her in the amount of time it takes Zuko to pick up his fork. Zuko’s got his own questions, plenty of them, but he waits until after the first course, gleaning Katara’s general whereabouts over the past year from her answers to Suki and Toph’s questions. He’s content to sit back and watch her.
“I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since last winter. If you hadn’t sent Sokka that handful of letters, I think we would have all thought you were dead,” Suki says.
Toph nods. “I think some of us would have sent out search parties.” Nobody misses the pointed stare she throws at Zuko, and he flushes. “Really, Katara, I kinda thought you were a goner. Sparky was losing his mind for a while back there.”
“He was,” Suki says, and beside him, Zuko can feel Katara tense. Beneath the table, he lays a hand on her thigh.
“I owe you all an apology,” she says. “I was…overwhelmed. I went to spend some time in Ba Sing Se – I needed some space.”
“But what were you doing?”
“Living.” Katara shrugs. “I got a job helping at a healing clinic for a few months, and Iroh let me stay in his old shop. I wanted to know what it was like to be normal for a little while.”
“Uncle Iroh knew where you were?” Zuko splutters.
Katara turns to him, looking genuinely apologetic. “I made him promise not to tell anyone. I’m sorry, Zuko.”
He’s about to press her on it, but the serving staff arrives to whisk their plates away and when they disappear, Katara and Suki have moved on to some sort of all-consuming conversation about the Kyoshi Warriors’ new role in the Fire Nation palace. Zuko fights back his discomfort to turn to Toph, who is watching him with her unnervingly large eyes.
“Does she know?”
“Know what?” Zuko asks, more for his own sake than anything else.
“Don’t be dumb, Sparky. About that.” Toph jerks a chin in the general direction of his waist.
Without consciously meaning to, Zuko slips a hand into his right pocket, running his thumb over the stone, making sure it’s still there. “No, Toph. She’s been home for all of two hours.”
“Are you gonna do it tonight?”
He groans. “I don’t know, Toph! I have to wait until the time is right!”
“But you are gonna do it soon.”
“I wish I never told you.”
“You didn’t tell me,” Toph says, looking entirely too gleeful for the topic at hand. “I figured it out. It’s a little rock you’ve been carrying around in your pocket for the better part of a year, Sparky, it’s pretty damn obvious.”
“What’s obvious?” Katara asks. Zuko goes completely stiff, sirens blaring in his ears.
Toph shrugs. “Nothing much. Just that Zuko’s real glad that you’re finally back.”
“Oh.” Katara smiles, suddenly coy, and slips a sideways glance at Zuko. “I’m glad I’m back, too.”
The hour is much later than Zuko’s accustomed to when they finally disperse, first Suki, then Toph yawning pointedly before saying goodnight and leaving Zuko and Katara alone in the echoing hall, the fires burning low in the braziers. Zuko finds himself filled with the sort of hesitant excitement he’d felt so often when they were still learning to know each other, and it brings him right back to the sandy dunes under the stars, the tiny apartment with the twin beds in Ba Sing Se, Kanna and Pakku’s icy hut. He hadn’t felt shy near Katara in a very long time – he thought he’d moved past that – but the weight of everything he wants to say, all the questions he has, compresses his anxiety into a tight little bundle of nerves that sits in the pit of his stomach, burning stubbornly.
Katara stands, stretching. “Should we go up?”
“Oh,” Zuko says. He glances around, double checking that the hall is empty. It’s no real secret that Katara doesn’t have her own chambers at the palace when she visits – she’d brought her things right to his rooms when she arrived, anyway – and he’s sure all the servants have noticed already, but he can’t help the nervous motion. “Yeah, I bet you’re tired.”
“Are you okay, Zuko?”
When he stands, he feels her hand slip into his, cool and soft and familiar, and he relaxes.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Well, we’ve got all night to talk.” She winks at him, and Zuko chuckles and squeezes her hand. Being with her, touching her, it’s like a salve for his nerves. The very air feels lighter. He can breathe more deeply than he has in a year, at least.
In his bedroom, the lanterns on his walls are lit, sending warmth cascading across the wood. The curtains and balcony doors are open, and beyond, the moonlight glitters on the bay.
Katara heads straight for it, leaning both forearms on the balcony railing and closing her eyes. “I missed this.”
“What?” Zuko comes to stand behind her, wrapping his arms about her. She leans back into him, and he savors the feeling of her body against his, her hair tickling the underside of his chin.
“The air smells different here. It’s so rich. Even at home in the South, it’s never this humid.”
Zuko had never liked the humidity of the caldera as a child, but he’d found himself appreciating it more often as of late, the beautiful irony of being inescapably surrounded by water in the heart of the fire.
“And the stars,” Katara continues softly. She tips her head up, and Zuko follows her gaze to where they shimmer over the city. “No matter where I was in the world, I would look up at the stars and know that you were looking at the same ones. Whenever I missed you, I would think of that and I wouldn’t feel so lonely.”
Zuko presses a kiss to the top of her head. He doesn’t pull away when he asks his next question, so his words are muffled in the thicket of her hair; he’s half-hoping that she wouldn’t hear.
“Why did you stay away so long? I – I needed you.”
She sighs. “I really am sorry, Zuko. There are so many things I should have said before I left.”
“It was so sudden. And right after…”
“I know. Right after we found your mother. I just – it stirred up a lot of emotions in me.” She speaks slowly, as if she’s carefully selecting each word before it leaves her mouth. He remembers a time when she had been nowhere near so careful, when she’d shared every angry and impulsive thought with him. She’d grown so much since then. They both had. “I was so glad we found Ursa, for your sake, but I was so sad and jealous too, knowing I would never have that. And she was so kind to me, and then when we came back here to the palace with her, she was treating me like I was – “
She breaks off, but Zuko can guess what she was going to say.
“Anyway.” Katara clears her throat. “I needed some time to think on my own. And I was curious – I wanted to know what it was like to live at peace. Live a normal life, not as one of us. I had to make sure that I knew who I was outside of all of this.” She waves a hand around her, at the palace and at the bay and the stars.
“And?” Zuko asks. His voice is gruff. “What did you find out?”
Katara says, “I found out that I know where I feel at home. It’s with you.”
Zuko’s breath catches. He can feel his heartbeat in his throat, and Katara’s against his stomach, both of them beating the same rapid, syncopated rhythm.
“I could never make you stay here,” he says. “You deserve the whole world. To do everything you’ve ever wanted to.”
“I have.” She turns in his arms and lays her palms against his chest. Her smile is gentle, her eyes the clear blue of the waters of the spirit oasis.
“I’ve spent four years exploring every corner of this world, Zuko. I’ve been a waterbending master and a shop girl, an assistant in an abbey and an advisor to the Earth King and a whole bunch of people in the Fire colonies still think I’m an actual spirit. I think, now, I just want to be Katara. And that means being here.”
She presses a kiss to the base of his throat. “With you.”
Zuko cups her face in both hands and pulls her to him. Katara melts, her arms fitting around his neck, and there is nothing else he could ever want but this. He knew it before, and he knows it now.
His hand twitches toward his pocket.
Something stills it before he can pull the necklace out. A shift in the breeze, maybe, or the way he doesn’t want to pull back from Katara for even a moment. And he wants to be sure. He wants her to be sure.
Soon, his mind whispers. Soon.
By now, Zuko should be used to addressing crowds of people, but he still finds his heart racing.
Beside him, Aang and Toph giggle over something together, sneaking furtive glances at Katara on the other side of Zuko. She’s oblivious, caught up in watching the crowd seethe beneath them, royal reds mixing with cool blues and forest greens and a whole spectrum of other colors. Tonight, she is wearing silk of such a pale shade of blue that it’s icy, small flowers embroidered carefully into the neckline that drapes across her shoulders. He’s told her already how beautiful she looks, but he can’t help saying it again, unable to tear his eyes from her.
She just laughs. “Later, Zuko. You’ve got a speech to give.”
Stepping onto the dais of the Fire Nation throne next to Aang is a break with tradition. Not even Roku had been allowed to take that position with Sozin a hundred years ago, and he was the Fire Nation’s own Avatar, but Zuko and Aang had agreed long ago to appear together in public as much as possible, to remind everyone, everywhere, that they were a unified force now. And besides, Zuko is glad not to be alone. The younger boy’s presence is comforting.
Before she leaves to join the crowd with Sokka and Toph, Katara leans over and presses a kiss to Zuko’s cheek. The scent of jasmine and pine overwhelms him.
“Good luck,” she murmurs. “I love you.”
She’s gone before Zuko can say it back. He does anyway.
Aang cuts a sideways glance at him, grinning. “Did you ask her yet?”
“What?” Zuko whirls on the Avatar. “How do you know? Did Katara say something?”
Aang laughs. “Relax, Zuko! Toph told me. But even if she hadn’t, I figured it was about time.”
“Toph. Of course.” Zuko silently curses at every spirit he can think of.
“Have you talked to Sokka?”
Zuko nods. He’d written a stilted, overly formal letter to Chief Hakoda, inviting him to the palace for a diplomatic summit, only to receive a brief note in return:
Fire Lord Zuko,
Thank you for the invitation, but it’s really her brother you should be asking about this subject.
Best of luck,
Zuko couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than having to face Katara’s intimidating father, but once he started talking to Sokka about it, he realized rapidly that it was much, much worse.
“How’d he react?”
“Exactly the way you’d expect,” Zuko sighs. “He wouldn’t stop making jokes about…you know. Well, once he got over the shock, that is.”
Aang tuts sympathetically. “Yeah, sounds about right. But he was okay with it?”
“After giving me the whole ‘if you do anything to hurt her there will be a boomerang in your neck faster than you can say turtleduck’ speech, yeah, he seemed happy.”
Belatedly, Zuko wonders if he should have asked Aang, as well. It had been so long ago that they’d all nearly forgotten it, and Aang had never brought his history with Katara up, save one of their guys-and-Toph nights on Ember Island a couple years back where he’d had a little too much cactus juice to drink. But even then, he’d ended up tearily declaring how perfect Zuko and Katara were for each other, and Zuko knows he’s had more than enough fun exploring his single-and-suddenly-buff savior of the world status in every nation.
Plus, there were the glances he’d sneak at Toph when he thought nobody would notice. Everyone notices, of course. Especially Toph.
“Hey,” Aang says gently, and places a hand on Zuko’s arm. “They’re waiting for us.”
Zuko takes a deep breath of humid summer air before drawing himself up to his full height. He’ll never get used to Aang being taller than him.
“Let’s do it.”
It’s a good speech. Suki had helped him draft it – at least, the first part of it, the one updating the assembled politicians and representatives on the restoration plans after the upheaval of the Hundred Year War. Aang is the one to reveal the night’s main revelation, since it was his idea: the new city they would begin building, together, in the heart of the world, for people from all four nations to gather and live in harmony. He holds his breath as Aang speaks, feeling the Avatar vibrate with nerves beside him at the thought that all of their hard work might be dismissed or laughed at, but before he’s even done speaking the crowd breaks into raucous applause.
From the first row, he can see Katara’s smile shining up at him.
When the excitement is dying down, Zuko lifts a glass from the table beside him. Its contents sparkle in the warm firelight. The moment that he locks his gaze with Katara’s, she begins to blush, but he forges forward, fighting back the impudent grin pushing its way onto his face.
“Tonight is not just a celebration of the seasons and our progress,” he says, and a hush falls over the room, faces turning back toward him like flowers to the sun. “It is a celebration of a woman without whom none of us would be here. She has saved my life more times than I can count.”
Sokka whispers something in Katara’s ear, but she doesn’t tear her eyes from Zuko’s. As he speaks, he feels the rest of the throne room fade away, leaving them alone in the echoing space, a world of their own.
“Four years ago, she spent her birthday preparing to save the world, and she didn’t tell a single person because she didn’t want to detract from the task at hand. Katara, the world is at peace now, and it’s because of you.”
Zuko thinks he can see tears shimmering in her eyes. He can certainly feel them just behind his own.
“So I raise this glass to you, Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. Thank you for all that you’ve done and will continue to do.”
I love you, he mouths as the room fills with cheers. They’re even louder than they were for the announcement of Republic City – he forgets, sometimes, how so many people love her as much as he does, or close to it. Even in the Fire Nation, she’d attained near-deific status among some of the colonies once Zuko ascended the throne, as if it had been cosmic will that put him there instead of Azula and not simply Katara’s bravery.
When he descends the steps into the crowd, her arms around him are the first thing he feels.
“That was very unnecessary,” Katara whispers in his ear, just loud enough for him to hear it over the chatter. Zuko laughs.
“I think it was absolutely necessary, and I have a feeling most of the people in this room would agree.”
“You’re too much.” She rolls her eyes, and then she kisses him right there in the middle of the revelry. It’s quick, no more than a brush, but it still sends thrills cascading through Zuko.
“Can I push my luck a little further, then?”
“Dance with me.”
“Hmm.” She looks out at the crowd, pretending to consider it, though Zuko already knows what her answer will be. “Well, if you insist.”
“Oh, I do.”
Zuko isn’t usually one for party planning, but this one time, he had made sure every detail was perfect for her, just in case. One of those was making sure the orchestra set off to the side of the dancefloor was trained in both classic Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe songs as well as Fire Nation ones, and as he takes her hand in hers’ and leads her to the middle of the throng of swirling figures, it’s a vaguely familiar tune threaded through with heavy drums and swirling flutes that begins.
Katara audibly gasps. “Is this…”
“Ba Sing Se,” Zuko answers. “The harvest festival.”
She closes her eyes, swaying to the beat for a moment and smiling blissfully to herself, before wrapping her arms around Zuko’s neck.
“Let’s see if I can still remember the steps.”
The answer is not quite, but they make a valiant effort anyway, dodging around the other graceful couples and laughing all the while. Sokka shoots by with Mai in a twirl of black and blue; across the room, Zuko can see Aang attempting to coax Toph into the throng. Katara’s eyes are sparkling. Her laughter is effervescent, her skin impossibly soft beneath his hands, and in the half-light, she looks so much younger than her nineteen years. She looks like a girl again. The girl he had fallen in love with to the same song so many years ago.
This is the moment he’d been waiting for.
Still, Zuko dances one more song with Katara, half to be sure and half because he can’t bring himself to stop quite yet. She’s slightly out of breath when they spin to a halt, and he lifts her into the air, just because he can. Katara laughs, squirms, protests ineffectually.
“Don’t you think we’re too old for that?”
“Never,” Zuko says breathlessly. “Come on, let’s get some air.”
The balcony above the palace’s courtyard is dotted with people when they emerge from the throne room, but they scatter quickly once they see who’s arrived, leaving Zuko and Katara alone in the night air. Below them, the Capital City is lit up in warm shades of gold, blazing against the darkness like embers clustered at the bottom of a hearth. Katara stops to observe it, smiling softly.
“It’s so beautiful from up here. It looks unreal.”
“Much prettier than being in it,” Zuko agrees, joining her at the railing.
“I don’t know. There’s something about being down there, among all the people, that’s special, too. It’s easy to forget how many people there are from up here.” She hums dreamily. “Just think, every single one of those pinpricks of light is a person, with their own life and their own dreams.”
“What are your dreams?”
“My dreams?” She leans into him, resting her cheek on his shoulder. He has always loved the way her head nestles perfectly into the crook there. Made to fit.
“Do you remember what we talked about at the Northern Air Temple?”
“You said you wanted to explore the world,” Zuko says. “You said you wanted to help everyone who needed you. And I don’t doubt that there will always be people that need you, Katara, but you’ve seen the world now – is that all you want to do?”
He can feel her breath reverberate through her body, her exhale tickling the exposed skin at his throat. His heart could beat its way out of his chest.
“I don’t know,” she says simply. And then, “no, I think that I do.”
“Republic City,” she says.
Zuko blinks bemusedly. It isn’t that Katara hasn’t taken an interest in the city’s development before, it’s just been that he and Aang and Sokka and even Toph have had so many endless summits and meetings about it while Katara was away helping rebuild the world brick by brick that he’d assumed she felt her talents could be used elsewhere.
She shrugs. “We’ll have to see when it’s built, I guess. But it’s an amazing idea, Zuko. People from every nation, all living together in harmony, in the same place? It’s everything we’ve been striving for. We could reconnect with our sister tribe there, help the Water Tribes grow.”
Republic City. It’s a damn sight nearer than the Southern Water Tribe is to the Capital. An idea begins to form in Zuko’s head, the missing piece to the puzzle he’s been constructing ever since he made up his mind and got to work carving the stone in his pocket.
It’s not traditional, but nothing about their life is anymore. It’s their world to rebuild now, and they can rebuild it like this.
“You know,” Zuko says slowly, “as Fire Lord, I would be spending quite a bit of time in Republic City. It’ll be where most of the diplomatic meetings are held.”
Katara picks her head up off his shoulder to look him in the eyes. He can hear her breath hitch. “Oh?”
He nods. “A lot of time. And even when I’m not, it’s a short ride away by boat. Or by dragon. And I never did like this palace much, anyway. Too stuffy.”
She’s smiling now, not just with her face but with her whole being, radiating warmth through the cool night air.
Yes, Zuko thinks. This is right.
It’s the surest he’s been about anything in his entire life.
“Last night, you said you feel at home with me. And I want you to know that I do too, no matter if it’s here or in Republic City or the middle of the damn desert. I will do whatever it takes to make this last, I promise you. And so I wanted—”
In his pocket, the ribbon slips through his sweat-damp fingers, and he curses under his breath. Katara giggles breathlessly.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he finishes, and pulls out the engagement necklace.
Sokka had explained the tradition and significance of the Water Tribe necklaces to him, and Suki had helped him with the design, offering advice on countless rough sketches that are still crumpled under his desk, abandoned, but Zuko had carved it all on his own. He’d traveled back to the northern shore of the Earth Kingdom for the pearly bits of shell inlaid into the rock in the shape of a three-pointed flame, a crescent moon curving above it and waves surrounding the edges. In his palm, now, it looks so small. Not nearly big enough to contain the depth of his emotion for the woman standing in front of him.
But Katara’s eyes are shining as she looks between the necklace and Zuko’s face, and if he had any doubts what her answer would be, he doesn’t now.
“Katara,” he says, “I once made two very confused old people a promise that I would give you a real engagement necklace one day. A lot of things have changed since then, but my feelings for you never have. Not once. I love you. You are the better part of me.”
“We make each other better,” Katara murmurs. She brushes her thumb across Zuko’s cheek, over his scar, and he feels dampness. He hadn’t realized he’d let a tear fall.
“Whatever comes next, I want you there. We can do this however you want – it doesn’t have to be now, or soon, and you don’t have to be Fire Lady if you don’t want to. I don’t care what people think. I just want – I know – that I can’t lose this. Lose you. Ever.”
“You still haven’t asked me a question.”
He laughs, then, his tension melting away. “Alright, here it is. Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, will you marry me?”
For one agonizing moment, she is silent, and Zuko wonders if he’s somehow miscalculated. But then she takes his face in both hands, palms pressing into his cheeks, and he’s falling into her eyes and there’s no end in sight.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” she answers, “I would love nothing better.”
When they re-enter the ballroom, his hand firmly clutched in Katara’s and a new ribbon of braided blue and red about her neck, Toph winks at him from across the room and mouths ‘good job, Sparky.’
Everyone begins to notice, then, and he can feel the clamor spreading across the room, the rumor mill already churning. And maybe it will be difficult, this new turn in the history of the Fire Nation, but nothing in his reign as Fire Lord has been traditional and he would dash every tradition in the world to the ground if it would keep Katara by his side and happy as she is now.