Katara looked out onto the open sea and breathed in the strong smell of salt. The water was entrancing, sparkling under the sun. She tried to take it all in while she could since she knew they'd be docking in just a few hours. Reaching into her pocket, she took out the letter and read it one last time.
I am sorry all of our correspondences are work related lately. I’ve been overwhelmed by new business and I’ve reached a point where I'm desperate to surround myself with people I trust.
I’m sure you’re far too busy with your own nation’s restoration, but I am hoping you’ll be able to send an ambassador to help with things, especially trade and international initiatives.
Someone who is familiar with these topics would be ideal. But most importantly, someone you trust. If they come with your recommendation, then I’d be wise to listen to their council.
Hope all is well with Sukki and Katara.
Fire Lord Zuko
Fire Lord Zuko. Still such an odd concept to her after all this time. Hopefully, Zuko wouldn’t mind that she was Sokka’s recommendation. He had mentioned her in the letter, but hadn’t addressed the possibility of her joining him. They'd corresponded over the years, but lately their letters seemed more and more impersonal.
Katara sighed. She knew overthinking would only give her a headache.
Six years had passed since the war ended and Katara had spent the last four almost exclusively in the South Pole. There had been so much rebuilding to do, but she knew she’d really made a difference.
There was a lot of new infrastructure (bridges and dwellings and even a small palace for political proceedings) that she’d constructed with Master Pakku, who had become considerably nicer since getting back with Gran Gran.
There were also new systems she'd helped Sokka put in place for education and trade, but Katara used most of her time training the benders that had come from the north to rebuild. And after one heated conversation with his new amor, Pakku had started helping her to enforce the more feminist values of the south in a much less optional way. There were still stray sexist comments muttered under breath, but the majority of transplants seemed to actually respect her to some degree. Or maybe it was just fear. They’d all seen her crush challengers, after all. In the past mostly, since no one had challenged her in quite some time. No one besides Pakku was even close to her level.
Maybe that’s why she was starting to feel a little stagnant. Or maybe it was because, even though she was happy with what she and her family had been able to accomplish, this new South Pole was feeling less and less like home. Rebuilding meant change. There was no way around it.
That’s why she had jumped at the chance for something new. Besides, a long boat ride where no one was trying to kill her sounded like paradise..even if it did take her to the fire nation.
She’d guessed Zuko wouldn’t be there to meet her right at the docks. There was probably some stupid fire nation code of conduct preventing it. Plus he didn’t even know it was her that was coming. Still, she hoped it wouldn't be too long before she was reunited with her old friend.
After arriving, she was taken to her new room by a servant and told to prepare herself for a short briefing with the Fire Lord within the hour. She’d taken a bath, changed, and only just begun to unpack her things when someone came knocking on her door.
“Hello Ambassador, the Fire Lord will see you now.”
A young woman with sleek black hair dressed all in red bowed to her so deeply it actually made her feel a bit uncomfortable.
“Please follow me.”
“Of course,” she said. “Thank you very much.”
Katara kept close as she was led from her room. The palace felt like a maze. With no fewer than 12 twists and turns, they finally made it to Zuko’s office.
The servant knocked and a gruff, but not entirely unfamiliar voice replied, “Come in.”
“Fire Lord Zuko. The Southern Water Tribe Ambassador has arrived.
“Thank you, Su, that will be all.” The servant disappeared and after a moment Zuko finally lifted his head.
His jaw dropped and the papers he had been shuffling tumbled onto his desk.
“Katara?,” he sounded shocked. “Wh-What are you doing here?” Katara tried not to frown. It’s not like she was expecting a grand welcome. But he didn't look happy to see her at all. She hoped she was imagining it.
“Well.. you asked for a trustworthy southern water tribe ambassador..so ..ta da?”
“Oh.. I just.. I didn’t expect you I guess,” he mumbled, half under his breath. Katara flushed and felt an angry heat start to coil in her belly.
“Look, if you don’t want me to be here—“
“—No! I do! It’s just.. you just surprised me“
“No kidding.” He looked down and rearranged the papers he had dropped and she took her first good look at him.
Cheekbones so deflated he was almost gaunt. Bags under his eyes. What looked like a permanent frown pasted on his face.
“Zuko, you look terrible!”
“Wow Katara, tell me how you really feel.”
“No, I’m serious, have you been eating properly? How much sleep are you getting? Are you overworking yourself?” Zuko smiled and she shot him a look.
“I was just thinking that it’s been a long time since you nagged me like that.”
“I’m not nagg—“
“You are,” he smirked. “But it’s nice to know you care.”
A moment passed before he added, “I really am surprised you’re here tho. I thought surely you had other plans for your future.”
“Not really.” She chuckled with a bit of self deprecation. “I guess, if anything, I was actually looking to settle down about now.”
“Oh,” he frowned slightly. “Then, I’m sorry for interrupting.”
“Oh, no, not at all. I’ve been told you actually need to find someone to settle down with first. So it’s more of a goal than a plan.”
She was hoping for a laugh, but Zuko just frowned deeper.
“Oh, sorry, it’s nothing”
Katara gave him a withering look and he conceded.
“It’s just..I thought you and Aang..”
“Not anymore. Not for a long time.”
Zuko hummed in response and she appreciated it when she realized he wasn’t going to push for more information.
“You know, I’m actually getting married soon.”
“Oh, wow, I hadn’t heard! Congratulations! I’m glad at least one of us has had success with relationships.”
“It’s actually an arranged marriage. Apparently, a lot of people in the fire nation care whether their leader has a proper wife.”
“A proper wife?”
Zuko blushed redder than she’d ever seen him. “Oh you know, just Fire Nation things. It’s nothing.”
“You know, for a politician, you really are an atrocious liar,” Katara smiled at his awkwardness. It was so beautifully familiar. It reminded her of how much she’d missed her old friend.
“Ugh, fine. You'll probably hear about them anyway. Apparently, there are some...rumors going around about me”
Katara grinned ear to ear, “Ooooh, what kind of rumors?”
“Well, since I’m Fire Lord. But I haven’t taken a wife and I’m not seen dating…uh..”
“Well apparently there’s a history of past Fire Lords ..keeping ..uh..collecting women for…for harems in the palace. But I swear I would never—
Katara cut him off, bursting with laughter, barely getting words out. “They think..They think YOU…oh spirits..they think YOU have a whole harem of women around you??”
Zuko huffed, looking slightly offended. “Oh, come on. I know it’s not true, but it’s not that hard to believe. I mean, I know what I look like and I know it’s not like women are lining up over someone with..my kind of face. But I am the Fire Lord, you know. It’s not like I couldn’t get a woman on my own if I wanted.”
“NO! No, that’s not what I meant at all!,” Katara backtracked quickly. “I’m sorry if it sounded— I just meant…I mean,” at this she could help it and giggled again and Zuko looked at her indignantly. “It’s just..you have so few people you actually like. And I can’t imagine you being able to fill a whole harem with girls who wouldn’t drive you completely insane. Especially if someone like Mai is still your type. If you had a harem of Mais, they would refuse to fight for your attention, judge you for keeping them there, and make you miserable on purpose for their own amusement.”
“Oh,” Zuko’s face softened. “Well, that’s actually a fair point,” he agreed, the ghost of a smile gracing his lips.
She paused a second, thinking about how he’d taken what she said. About what he’d just said. “..Do you really think you’re not attractive because of your scar?”
“Oh come on, Katara. Don't lie to me and don’t pity me,” his voice had an edge, but to her it just sounded sad.
“I wouldn’t..and I don’t.” He looked at her and almost replied, but seemed to think better of it.
There was a silence that followed she didn’t dare interrupt, so she used the opportunity to look at him again. He really does look worn out. Hmm..But his body has filled out even more than when we were teenagers. He must still train regularly. She tried to look away without staring, but she could feel a small blush creep up her neck anyway. I wonder if he still trains without a shirt. OH, LA, Change the subject. Change the subject.
“So what are you hoping for in a potential Fire Lady?” OH SPIRITS. NOT TO THAT.
Zuko smiled, just the slightest upturn at the corner of his mouth. He looked so tired.
“Honestly, I feel like I'm not asking for much. But everyone around me is so.. calculating. I can’t live with someone like that. And there's all this pressure to marry outside of the fire nation because of the trust issues, but it's not like I know that many women. Apparently my advisors are putting together a list of eligible ladies. I can only imagine.” Zuko rested his face in his hands and Katara sympathized.
“Well if you need any help, I'd love to give you an assist. At least one of us is settling down.”
“Katara,” Zuko looked right at her and she couldn’t help but be taken by the way his eyes sparkled under the candlelight. “You'll find someone perfect. I'm sure of it.”
She smiled at him, trying not to feel sad about her own lack of prospects. “How do you know?”
“Because you deserve to.”
She looked away. The blush was back full-force. This time strong and hot and spread thickly on her cheeks.