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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. 

Greetings Sokka,

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.  

Best,

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. 

He looked..sick.

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. 

“What?" 

“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.

“What?”

“Oh, sorry, it’s nothing”

Katara gave him a withering look and he conceded. 

“It’s just..I thought you and Aang..”

“No.”

“No?

“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.”

“No.”

“No?”

“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..”

“Yes?”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

Two weeks had gone by and Katara had already adjusted to her duties as Southern Water Tribe ambassador quite nicely. She sat in on the trade commission and in most meetings related to treaties with other nations and she kept up communications with active trade routes and with the South Pole. She wished she could do more but ambassador or not she was still Southern Water Tribe, and a lot of the Fire Nation representatives still treated her like an outsider. 

It might have made her upset if Zuko hadn't taken to treating her as one of his closest advisors. She did a lot of drafting and research with him and she could tell how much he trusted her opinions. It meant a lot to her to feel so useful and depended upon.

They were in his office one night, discussing a new proposal, when a servant came in with a sealed scroll. 

“This just came for you from the counsel, Fire Lord.”

“Thank you. Dismissed.” The servant bowed and closed the door behind him. Katara took the cue and started to follow.

“Where are you going?” 

Katara blinked. “Well, it just seems like it’s some urgent, secretive matter. I didn’t want to impose.”

Zuko smiled crookedly. “You could never.”

She had been getting better at taking Zuko’s sweet comments for what they were: confirmations of a close friendship. But since it was new, it was still a bit of a challenge. 

“It actually is an urgent, secretive matter.” His smile turned bitter. “My suitor awaits.”

“Oh! The list! I forgot you were waiting for it to come.”

“I didn’t,” he sighed. She waited for him to open it, but it didn’t seem like he had plans to.

“You know, it won’t go away just because you’re glaring at it."

His glare shifted to her before he pinched his nose and sighed. “Alright, alright.” He took a deep breath and broke the seal. 

He looked at all the names with the same carefully measured frown until..

He froze.

“What? What is it? Is it someone you hate?,” Katara’s eyes widened. “Do I know her?!” 

Zuko just stared at her blankly, now white as a ghost. “I..,” but he seemed completely incapable of finishing that thought.

“Oh, just hand it over.” She pulled it from his hands and scanned for anyone that sounded familiar. 

When she saw it, her jaw clenched and her voice came out dark and dangerous.

“..is this a joke?”

“What? No! Katara, I swear—“

She felt like she was gonna burst.

“—Why is my name on that list, Zuko?!!” 

“You know I didn’t have any say in this list—“

“—SHUT UP!” She knew she shouldn’t yell at him but she couldn’t help it. “I open up to you and start talking about how I’m having trouble finding someone and out of nowhere some member of the Southern Water Tribe—I believe your Nation’s term for us is peasantsI’m on your list of approved women to be Fire Lady? I'm a water bender. Are you making fun of me? What kind of game is this? Why—“

“KATARA!”

She inhaled sharply. His voice was so much lower and more powerful than she'd ever heard it. 

“The Southern Water Tribe was brutalized by the fire nation--”

“--I KNOW what the fire nation did!” She clutched the necklace around her neck. “You don't need to remind me!”

Zuko sighed, voice strained, “Katara, please let me finish.”

She let out a breath and looked up into his eyes. She could feel his sincerity, so she did her best to let him speak.

“The Southern Water Tribe has a lot of reasons to mistrust us. A treaty between us in the form of marriage would be a huge vote of confidence for the fire nation. The war is over, but there's many who are still rightfully weary of us. This would be a very beneficial alliance. There is a lot of pressure for me to marry outside of the fire nation and having a marriage alliance with the Southern Water Tribe would keep either the northern tribe or earth kingdom from feeling out-maneuvered. And you are not only the daughter of a chief, but a leader in your own rite. You’re a master Water bender who has helped your nation rebuild. The Southern Water Tribe is becoming a significant political presence thanks to your brother, and your own work as ambassador has already made a huge difference in how you are being perceived as a nation.”

“But how can you be sure this isn't some joke?,” her voice still came out harsh, but she’d calmed down substantially.

“You're a war hero and the master who taught the Avatar how to water bend. I don't think anyone would risk joking around about someone like that.”

She chuckled in spite of herself and couldn't help but notice that he described her as the avatar’s master, and not just his ex. Hardly anyone did that anymore and it made her feel appreciated. It made her feel seen.

.. It made her have a thought. 

She looked at him and it felt like time had stopped before she got the courage to voice it. 

“You know.. you’re right”

“About what?”

She held her breath, looking straight into his clear, golden eyes. “It would be a very beneficial alliance..,” she said hesitantly, trying to convey what she meant without having to say it out loud.

Zuko looked back at her with an emotion she couldn't possibly name.

“Katara—“

“Not just for you,” she rushed out. “I mean, we're still so isolated from the rest of the world. I'm glad our culture has been preserved to an extent, but having stronger ties to the fire nation would facilitate us in sharing that culture. Having an ambassador is a great start, but I still feel like there’s only so much I can do. If a Southern Water Tribe woman were Fire Lady, there would be so many opportun--”

“--Katara,” his brow furrowed and she couldn’t help but find it adorable. La he’s handsome.

“I wasn't trying to convince you.” 

His words hit her like freezing rain. Katara felt her chest ache and all she wanted to do was hide in a hole.

“I'm so sorry. You were just so .. convincing, I guess,” she tried to laugh it off. “I got carried away.” She muttered under her breath, “Of course I'm not a real option.”

“Oh come on it's not like you're not--"

"--Not what?”

She looked at him again and saw that strange emotion was back on his face.

“It's not like you wouldn't make a good Fire Lady. But you're my friend and I could never force you into something like this."

“I just told you it’s mutually beneficial. I'm just..I’m at this stage where I’ve done so much, but it feels like there's still a lifetime ahead of me. I never want to stop doing good. I don’t think I could. But I haven't been able to figure out what the next step for me is..maybe this could be it.”

She looked at him carefully. He was so much taller and his jaw so well defined. His long, black hair framed his face in a way that was downright regal. He really looked like a man now. But she could still see the clumsiness in his affection when his eyes met hers. 

She'd always felt such a connection to him. But she never had a chance to figure out her feelings. ..Aang decided they were together before she could even try to and she was too confused about what she felt to put herself out there about it. This might not be the best idea she’s ever had. To agree to marry someone while those feelings were still unresolved. While she didn't know his feelings. But she couldn't help but think of all the good she could do as fire lady. And if she was honest with herself, she didn't want to resolve those feelings. She didn't want to be rational or reserved. She wanted something new, even if it was dangerous.

“How about this? You look through the list and if there's a woman you think would make a better fire lady, let me know. But if not, I'm here. You don't have to count me out." She maintained eye contact as long as she could before turning on her heel and practically flying out of his office.

 

***

 

A few days had gone by and they hadn't talked about the list at all. Katara had assumed Zuko crossed her off and that that was that. 

She had just joined him for breakfast and she saw he hadn't put on his crown yet. She noticed he liked to leave it off when he could get away with it. He probably didn't have any meetings today.

“La, he’s handsome with his hair down”

“Wh-What?” Zuko sputtered.

Oh Spirits . She had not meant to say that out loud. 

“Your hair,” she focused really hard on sounding like she wasn't embarrassed by the words that had slipped out of her mouth. “I just meant it's a good look for you. The ponytail was a bit eccentric and the scruffy look was hot, but it didn't feel like you. The long hair makes you look..” incredibly sexy “..powerful.”

Zukos eyes shot into his hair line “You thought I was hot?”

Katara groaned. She really couldn't think right around him sometimes. “I don't know. Maybe. A little." 

Zukko smirked, "hmm..good to know"

She hid her face in her bowl of rice with hot flakes, knowing her skin must've matched the color of the spice by now.

“You know, I did too.”

“Did what?”

“Well, I always thought you were beautiful.”

“You don't have to lie to make me feel better."

Zuko smiled softly, “I wouldn't.”

They finished their breakfast in silence but Katara couldn't stop grinning the whole time. 

Maybe he was still thinking about it. 

 

***

 

Over the next week or so, Katara felt that something had shifted between them. 

Their talks were longer and less work oriented. They discussed fire nation music and how Zuko hoped to bring back the artistic traditions of the fire nation that had been all but lost over the last hundred years. They talked about how there had been a few elderly prisoners of war that had made their way back to the Southern Water Tribe and how much it had meant for Katara to be able to learn and connect to her culture the past few years.

They talked about Zuko’s mother and his half sister and how even though he felt beyond blessed to have them in his life, he knew he'd never stop wishing that Azula could recover. Apparently, she was doing better. She no longer tried to kill the staff at the hospital that was now her permanent residence, at least. It was definitely a start.

“Hey, Katara?” They had been sitting in the garden one day, one of Zuko’s favorite places in the palace, talking about work. But the conversation had long since shifted and Katara was now catching him up on what was happening with their old crew.

“Yes?”

“It's just. I'm curious about something. But I don't want to pry.”

“What is it?

He hesitated,"I don't want to overstep.”

“Just spit it out, Fire Lord ,” she teased. She had gotten used to calling him by his title in official settings, but when it was just them there was no need for procedure.

“If we're really considering being together for the rest of our lives, I want to know something.” Katara froze. She had been pretty sure that he’d been considering her in theory, but to hear him say it out loud like that made her heart flutter. It even sounded kind of romantic.

“What happened between you and Aang?”

Aaaand so much for the romance.

She frowned, “..I kind of hate talking about it.”

Zukko raised his eyebrow. "That bad?"

"No, not bad," she chuckled sadly. "Just.. depressing." 

She stared out into the garden. "I probably should have known we'd be better as friends. He was my first crush but I never felt like I needed him, you know? And I knew he felt like he needed me. Honestly, it was really nice feeling so wanted, but I think we were imbalanced in a lot of ways. It's not like I regret being with him. He was good to me and in the beginning we'd felt so in sync. But after a few years together, something started to feel.. not right.”

She wandered over to sit on a stone bench and trained her eyes on the turtle-duck pond.

“Aang would leave when he needed to and come back when he wanted to.. but how could I blame him for that? He's literally an air nomad for crying out loud. I knew I could always go with him. But I wasn't actually needed by his side. I was never there as Katara. I was there as the Avatar's girlfriend. That's not the kind of life I wanted to live. So I stayed back in the South Pole more and more, but it felt like I was the only one affected by our time a part. And after a while, even when he was with me, I felt so ..”

"Alone?"

She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes. “How did you know?”

Zukos sighed and joined her on the bench.

“It was like that with Mai at the end. I felt so disconnected to her that even when we were spending time together I felt like she was worlds away. She's so strong. And it's pitiful for me to hold that against her. But I got to a point where I felt like if I died, she wouldn't even cry about it. Like she would mourn an appropriate time and then force herself to move on. And I'm just not like that. I couldn't understand her and it was making me miserable. Then I let it go on too long because I felt guilty. It was a complete mess.”

“Well I'm glad we both have such good track records”

“Katara.” He reached for her hand and rubbed circles onto it with his thumb. Katara was suddenly very aware of how their knees were touching “I need you to understand that I'm really considering this.” 

Katara nodded, not trusting her voice to sound anywhere near normal. He put his arm over her shoulder and she was happy to share his warmth. It felt so intimate and after a moment, she had a surge of courage and found herself nuzzling into his chest. When he pulled her even closer, she felt overwhelmed with joy. 

“I'm glad.”

They stayed just like that for a long time until they both decided it was getting late. Then, the Fire Lord held out a hand and offered to walk her back to her chambers. 

When they reached their destination, Zuko slipped her hand out of his and kissed it and she chastised herself for blushing so hard over something so small.

“Goodnight, Katara,” he whispered so close to her ear it made her skin prickle. 

She fought to keep her voice steady as he walked away. “Goodnight, Zuko.”

 

***

 

“Uncle I have to talk to you about something. You'll probably hear about it anyway, eventually..plus..I need advice..”

Zuko had requested his uncle take some time off from the Jasmine Dragon to visit him, attached with the promise of an imported ginseng tea from the forest above the Western Air Temple.

Iroh smiled, "Of course I will do my best to impart wisdom, but remember that your choices are always your own."

Zuko sighed and led them to a table set with tea and small cakes. Once they sat down, he told his uncle about the list of candidates. How Katara was on the list. How they'd been getting so much closer lately. And how he didn't want to force her into something she would regret for his own gain.

Iroh chuckled warm and low, “Do you believe Katara would ever let you force her into something like this? I am not going to claim to understand what she’s thinking. But if you both trust each other, well, I must say you could do much worse.”

“Oh ha ha,” Zuko rolled his eyes.

“No, truly. Don't overthink, Fire Lord Zuko. You are her friend. She knows you and I'm sure she knows exactly what she's agreeing to” 

Zuko sighed. He was still wary. But how could he possibly turn down that kind of opportunity. Especially the other options being what they were.

"Thank you Uncle. I have a lot to think about."

"Of course. But just so you know, you don't need to bribe me into visiting with my favorite nephew. Although this tea is quite lovely, I hope you know you can contact me anytime you want."

"Uncle, I know you're busy with your own life--"

"--Never too busy to help you," Iroh's voice turned slightly serious. "Please remember that."

Zuko's good eye crinkled and the corners of his mouth rose up. "Thank you, uncle."

 

***

 

It was just starting to get dark when there was a knock on Katara’s door. She hadn't seen Zuko all day and couldn't believe she was already missing him. She tried not to think of how scary it was that she had already become so dependent on his presence. 

“Come in.”

Zuko opened the door and closed it behind him. She felt relieved and anxious all in one.

“Do you still mean it?”

“What?”

“What you said before, not to count you out?”

Katara's heart was practically beating out of her chest. She really hoped this was what she thought it was. “Of course I do.”

“I need to know why.”

She looked at him, bemused. “I already told you why. It's a mutually beneficial alliance.”

“No.” Zuko sighed. “Katara, I need to know why you would marry someone you weren't in love with.”

Katara took a deep breath.

“I want to do what's best for my tribe. And marrying one of my best friends, romantic love or not, seems like an easy concession. You know, I really do want to get married and have a family."

"But that doesn't mean you have to give up on--"

"--I'm not giving up on anything! I want to raise a family but I also don't want to stop being useful and helping people. You make me feel needed without asking me to change who I am and that combination is really hard to come by. I want to settle down, but most opportunites to do so come with me giving up a huge part of myself."

She didn't want to say it out loud. She didn’t even want to think it. But the truth was she didn't just want to settle down anymore. She wanted to settle down with him .

"Alright then." Zuko reached into his tunic and pulled something from his pocket. “I know you might still want to wear your mother's. But I thought..just so you could have it..”

He handed her a round carving. It was a relief of flames melting into a wave and she noticed that the hand holding it was bandaged at the fingers. He actually made it himself. She could feel her tears straining to stay in her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I know it's not that good. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“Im not crying!”

“Yea. Sure. Well..I didn’t mean to make you ..water bend out of your eyes.”

She laughed and could feel a few tears break free and roll down her cheek.

“Thank you, Zuko, I'm so happy." She ran her fingers over the carving. "And this means so much to me."

He wiped away a tear from her cheek, pulling her into a soft embrace.

“I thought it might.”



Chapter Text

Katara had written letters to her family, Sukki, and Toph about what was going to happen. But she hadn’t felt right about doing that to Aang. Instead, she just wrote to him that she had something to talk to him about and asked him to meet her in the fire nation when he had a chance.

To her surprise, it only took two days before she was spotting Appa in the sky. Her chest felt tight. She hadn’t had time to prepare. How was she gonna tell him?

“Katara!” Aang gave her a hug and pulled away with a huge, lopsided grin. “How are you? I was so happy to hear from you!”

She tried to smile back but it came out small and weak. He frowned.

“Katara? Are you alright?”

“Aang I have something I need to tell you.”

...

“Wait! I don't understand! Why are you really doing this? If you're really not in love with him then why are you marrying him?!”

“Because I want to help my tribe.” Katara had tried to explain the best she could, but he just looked at her as if she'd grown a second head.“This is too good an opportunity to pass up.”

“I’m sorry Katara, but that sounds like a load of horse-bull to me. Tell me why you’re actually marrying him.” 

Katara sighed, trying to figure out how to say this. She finally settled on one of the few reasons she had actually been able to admit to herself.

“Because I think we could make each other happy!”

Aang furrowed his brow, his voice softening. “Didn't I make you happy?”

“Aang..I will always care for you.” She took a deep breath. “But when we were together, you actually made me feel really lonely--”

“--Is this because I was away too much?” Aang looked devastated. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

”I didn’t want to get in your way..but honestly, did you really not notice at all?

“That's not fair! Maybe I could sort of tell something was different, but I'm not a mind-reader, Katara! If you had said something I would have tried to go on fewer trips—“

“—You’re the avatar! It’s not like you can just quit!”

“No, but I could’ve at least tried to change. If I had known!”

“But that’s just it, Aang. I don't want you to change.”

“No, you want him,” he spit out, bitterly.

“It's not like that,” she tried to convince herself, guilty heat creeping up her neck. Fortunately, Aang didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m sorry. I know. Look, I'll do my best to adjust so things aren’t awkward. But please don't hold it against me if I don't come to the wedding. I need some time.”

He glided away before she could think of a reply.

 

***

Zuko made sure that everyone Katara had wanted to attend the wedding had the time and resources to do so. Hakoda, Batto, Gran-Gran, and Pakku had come first, so that they had time to rest from the journey. She had missed them all so much and once she had finally convinced her dad that she was sure about her decision, he had smiled and reassured her that she had his support. But he still insisted on having a little chat with Zuko.. alone. She wasn’t sure what he’d said but Zuko’s new habit of nervously adding “sir” when he talked to him amused her to no end. She had to remind her dad that Zuko was the leader of an entire nation and it might be a good idea to treat him as such, at least when there were other people around. But Hakoda had just grunted ..and if she hadn’t know any better she would’ve sworn he muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “that fire nation punk better watch himself...”

When Sokka came, he insisted on giving Zuko a similar heart to heart. But when they were done talking, Zuko just came out looking annoyed and it looked like Sokka had a lump on his head from being smacked. 

Katara was equally amused. 

Sukki spent most of her time trying to get Katara to 'dish about her new beau'. Katara tried to remind her that it was still technically an arranged marriage and it ‘wasn’t really like that’, but Sukki just rolled her eyes sarcastically. "Sure, sure. Of course it isn’t.”

Finally, two days before the ceremony, Toph came in. She had taken to making fun of them every chance she got, embarrassing them as much as she possibly could with rude comments and innuendos. And honestly? Katara was relieved. She hadn’t realized how anxious she’d been that their engagement would change the dynamics of her other friendships. It gave her hope that with time, even Aang would come around.

 

***

 

The big day finally arrived, but most of it passed in a blur. The ceremony felt endless and by the end of the day they were both exhausted. By the time they reached their new quarters and shut the door behind them, Katara felt like she would collapse.

“You weren’t kidding when you said it would be a long day.”

His mouth twitched up into a sheepish smile. “Yea, sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. At least I had you suffering right there beside me.”

He was still smiling at her. A few seconds went by before she realized how quiet it was. Just the two of them in such a big room and oh, suddenly she was feeling very warm. Her heavy clothes were definitely not helping. She had conceded to a traditional fire-nation silk wedding dress in red with gold sleeves and embellishments, and an a-line skirt with a thick white sash. But she had insisted on wearing jewelry and accessories passed from her mother and gran gran. Her hair was up forming a bun to hold up her crown, with beaded braids framing her face; revealing ivory earrings. She wore thin silver and thick, carved ivory bangles on each arm and had strung Zuko's carving on a longer, beaded necklace so she could wear it beneath her mother's.

“I’m gonna go change,” she mumbled. 

Her belongings had been taken up and she quickly grabbed something nondescript to sleep in. Going into the bathroom, she found that one of the servants had apparently had the foresight to prepare something for her. A very sheer camisole and matching shorts, in fire nation red of course, were laid out for her beside the tub. She blushed at the implications before taking down her hair, washing up, and joining Zuko.

She was in her own light blue sleep shirt and pants, but was now very aware of how dowdy the outfit must’ve looked. La, maybe she should have worn that set after all. She shuffled in shyly and sat beside Zuko at the side of the bed.

He sucked in a short breath. Spirits, she must look —

“You're so beautiful.” She was about to question the truth in that, but her words got stuck in her throat when she saw the warmth in his eyes. So she just smiled.

He caressed her cheek and placed a hand gently in her hair.

She knew it was their wedding night and even if she refused to wear that sorry excuse for an article of clothing, she knew what that meant. In truth, she’d been bouncing erratically back and forth between trying not to think about it and not being able to think of anything else. She was grateful she didn’t have to wait any longer, because the anticipation was driving her crazy.

She closed her eyes and leaned in, her heart thudding in her chest. His breath was so hot and when their lips finally met she could’ve sworn she felt a tiny pulse of electricity run through her. Their lips continued moving together seamlessly. She moaned softly and his tongue dipped inside her mouth, swallowing the sound. 

When he finally pulled away, she looked into his golden flecked orbs and saw him smiling wider than she ever thought he was capable of. I wish he’d smile like that all the time.

Zuko took his hands out of her hair and trailed them down to her hips. He rolled them on to the bed fully and straddled her thighs as he reconnected their lips. His hands traveled up her body and she gasped softly when they reached the bottom of her shirt, teasing her middrift with their warmth.

“Katara,” he husked out coarsely. His voice shot through her and she could feel her  temperature rise. “Can I..?”

“Of course you can,” she replied, breathlessly, and then she smiled. “You’re my husband now.” 

She thought she saw his eyebrow twitch. But she must have imagined it because soon he was taking off her top, revealing mocha skin and chocolate colored nipples. He took off his shirt and pressed himself into her. Heat radiated from his skin and she moaned again as she felt herself melt into him. She moved her hands to his shoulder blades and pulled him even closer, bucking her hips into his. He groaned deeply and the sound made her quiver.

He pulled back just enough to peel off the under-wrappings from her hips, warm hands caressing every inch of newly revealed flesh. Her skin felt like it was on fire in the best of ways. His hand finally made it’s way down to approach her center. 

“Is this okay?,” his voice was gravely and low.

“Zuko,” Katara slid her hand forward to his cheek and smiled softly, trying to reassure him. “This is our wedding night.”

She thought she saw him frown slightly, but he was rolling off of her before she could be sure.

She shivered slightly at the loss of contact. “Zuko? What is it?”

“I’m sorry, Katara. Do you mind if we stop for tonight?” Katara tried not to look as disappointed as she felt.

She sat herself up beside him. “Why? Is something wrong? Did I do something?”

He smiled that little barely-there smile of his and kissed her once more, but much too quickly for her taste.

“Everything is fine. I’m just really tired.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but a yawn popped out instead of words. She would have laughed if she wasn’t feeling so frustrated. 

She sighed, “It really was an incredibly long day.”

“Thanks for understanding.” He took out the candlelight with a swipe of his hand. “Good night, Katara.”

“..Good night, Zuko.”

***

After a couple more days celebrating andd sending off their guests, the new couple found themselves falling into a fairly steady routine. Zuko always woke up before her to do light training in the morning. Then they would meet for breakfast, after which Zuko would go to his meetings. By the time he was done, it was usually late afternoon; and he finished his day by doing paperwork in his office. Meanwhile, Katara would start her day by completing her duties as Southern Water Tribe ambassador and when she was finished, she now had work to do as Fire Lady. There were classic responsibilities that came with the role like helping with national educational programs. But she’d taken it upon herself to become involved in a whole slew of initiatives and had even started a brand new project herself. It was an environmental proposal focused on keeping industrial factories from affecting local water and food supplied. She still helped Zuko from time to time when he asked. But when he didn’t, she found her own work often kept her occupied. Plus, she liked spending her extra time before dinner doing her own training.

Over a week had gone by before she knew it and she was trying not to feel disappointed that nothing new had happened between them. After all, by the time they made it to their bedroom, one or both of them was usually beyond exhausted.

Nothing seemed wrong, so to speak. But she found herself becoming more and more frustrated and was just thankful there was a nice training ground to practice her bending and get out some of her pent up energy.

She wasn’t sure how to bring it up but she’d sort of assumed they’d pick up where they left off at some point. This is so silly. Why am I waiting for him to make a move. Katara stood up tall with her hands on her hips and decided it was time to devise a plan.



***

 

“What are you wearing?”

Katara had just entered the dining room for breakfast. 

“I thought it would be fun to wear some of my old fire nation clothes. You know, from the last time I was here”

She had picked out a top that stopped right under her chest and drew attention to her cleavage with a lining of golden embroidery. Her skirt was full length but was tight enough to highlight her curves. Both were in a light burgundy that complimented her skin tone and she’d let her hair fall down in wavy locks she'd spent extra time and care to tame.

“The last time you were here you were 15. Those clothes are barely covering you,” he snapped.

Katara blushed. That is not what she was expecting. She was trying to get him to feel bashful or embarrassed or hot or just AWARE of her. But if anything, he sounded angry.

“So? What’s the big deal? It’s warm here. Most of the girls I’ve seen in the fire nation dress like this.”

“You’re not most girls” 

Katara smiled despite herself. 

“You’re the Fire Lady!” 

The smile disappeared. 

“What? So I have to wear a uniform or something?”

“Well, yes, actually. Or at least you’re supposed to. It’s not like I would ever ask that of you.” He paused, looking a bit sheepish all of a sudden. “However, I have been meaning to tell you that there’s a royal tailor that I would like you to see at some point. Of course, you have the final say in what you wear day to day, but she can give you options and she can make sure you’re not violating any customs for more formal attire”

“So no uniform , but I do have a dress code,” she said bitterly.

Zuko sighed, “It’s not that bad. Please trust me.”

Katara huffed indignantly, but gave in anyway.  She wasn’t gonna fight with him. “I do.” 

 

***

 

Zukko was blushing..which would be amazing news if Katara wasn’t blushing just as hard because of how uncomfortable she was in her new sleep set.

But she wasn’t going to stop now. She had been taking every chance she could to try to get this man's attention, but it was like he was avoiding her. They barely even made eye contact these days. He hadn't wanted her help with any of his projects and he was always asleep by the time she came to their chambers. They hardly talked at breakfast and he had even taken to eating lunch and dinner alone in his office. A whole week and a half had gone by and it was starting to drive her crazy. 

But she refused to give up without a fight! She had hurried to their room right after finishing her dinner alone, and prepared herself for his arrival. She was feeling worse and worse about herself with every rejection, but she knew he had at least been a little attracted to her at some point and she was determined to exploit that.

“What is that?,” he asked, looking anywhere but her direction.

“One of the servants left it for me on our wedding night and I thought it would be nice to sleep in since it’s so light.”

“Oh,” he looked down and away. “It has been very hot lately.”

Oh, spirits. Do I have to spell it out??

She stepped closer to him and let her voice get low, “That..and I was hoping you would like it.”

He was trying to look casual but she could tell he was being affected. At least a little. “What? Why?”

She stepped right into his space and their eyes met. But she still couldn’t read him. Is he really that naiive or is he.. just not interested at all anymore? Do I even wanna know? Dammit, I'm gonna find out anyway at some point. She searched his eyes for an answer. There were so bright and intense, but didn’t give her an ounce of insight. She took a deep breath and let it out, willing the next words out of her mouth to be sultry and even.

“Because I was hoping you could help me take it off.”

“Oh.”

Oh?? What the fuck does Oh mean? He looked down.. What the fuck does THAT mean??

“I’m sorry, Katara. I’m just. I’m really tired.” He turned away and walked to their bed without a second glance. 

oh.

“Okay, sure, no problem,” she somehow managed to say without her voice cracking. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes but she refused to let them fall. He laid down, keeping himself turned away from her.

“Goodnight, Katara.” He sounded so far away. 

“Yea..Goodnight, Zuko.”

Katara got into bed and looked over at her husband, and a feeling shot up from her stomach through her chest like a freezing arrow. The familiar sensation of loneliness: overwhelming and inescapable.



Chapter Text

Zukko woke up and found Katara was missing from their bed. He decided to wait until after breakfast to try to find her. Maybe she just needed her space. 

But as he made his way to the training grounds, he saw she had beat him there. He also saw she was in just her wrappings, her dress folded to the side. He tried to look away from her, but was caught by the way her body swayed to the rhythm of her forms. 

“Good Morning” she greeted, with all the affection of a rabid Boar-Q-Pine. 

He looked away, swiftly.

“Good Morning… uh..”

“What? Do you have something to say or not?”

“..would you mind getting dressed first?”

“This is how I dress when I train,” she scowled. Zuko was lucky looks couldn’t kill.

“I’m sorry, it would just make me more comfortable if—“

Her eyes snapped up to meet his, wild and hurt and before he could move an inch she had water whipped the back of his neck. Hard.

“What the hell, Katara?!”

“What are you playing at?,” her voice was sharp and pained.

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean I tried very hard to believe that you’ve just been tired. But you’ve made it impossible. You avoid me all the time. We don't even talk anymore. Even you can lie better than this.”

He gave a guilty look. “..I wasn’t trying to lie to you..”

“But you did lie! You admit it!” She gathered up all the water she had been training with and pushed it toward him in a powerful gush. He managed to avoid it but before he could steady himself she’d pulled the water into another jet, pushing him against a wall. She turned some of the runoff into ice restraints. When she was satisfied that he was locked in, she sucked the water back into the air and formed sharp ice quills, punctuating each sentence by throwing them around his head. Her hair had come loose and her voice was starting to break. 

“Why did you even marry me in the first place?!” The first quill shattered to his right.

“KATARA! WHAT ARE YOU—“

“—Is this some kind of joke to you?” Another on his left. “Do you”— he could see she her choke up —“do you still Hate me?” She let the rest of the quills crash down around her “Oh, La, is this Payback for something?”

Her tears were openly streaming down her face, but she didn’t care. She didn’t care anymore.

“KATARA! How could you even THINK that.“ 


“—HOW COULD I THINK THAT? You’ve rejected me in every way possible! I thought everything was going so well and I thought got felt the same and you seemed interested enough with me the first night. But you haven’t even touched me since. At all! It’s not like I don’t see you. You have to make an effort to not have any physical contact with someone you see that much. I thought maybe it was just an adjustment period to the amount of work we had. But you seem perfectly capable of rejecting me in an environment where work is not an excuse. Seeing me in wraps makes you Uncomfortable ?? I’m your wife ! Why did you agree to this if you aren't going to treat me like I am?! Spirits, Zukko. What am I doing wrong? Why are you doing this to me? Is there something you need from me?”

She felt so pathetic. So vulnerable. In the back of her mind, she knew that she would have never let anyone besides him see her like this. Not even Aang. 

She choked up again, feeling like all her pride had been washed away by his continuous rejection. “Please,” she begged. “Just tell me what to do!”

“You’re not doing anything wrong! You don’t have to do anything!”

“THEN WHY DID YOU MARRY ME IF YOU’RE NOT EVEN ATTRACTED TO ME,” she screamed.

The words hung in the air, echoing through the arena. Oh La. She sounded so ugly, even to her own ears. She let herself drop to the floor, covering her head in her hands.

“I’m sorry Zuko. Just ..let me calm down..“ The tears left in her eyes were starting to sting and it was getting hard to breathe. Zuko looked down at her, shocked.

“You think I’m not.. attracted to you?” His voice was so low it was practically a growl. 

She looked up to see that his eyes had narrowed. Something about them looked almost…dangerous.” 

Zuko shot fire through his palms so hot his restraints burst into steam. He walked toward her and knelt beside her on the ground. He took her hands in his, away from her face. They were warm to the touch, but not uncomfortably so. He leaned over and came so close she could feel the heat behind his breath. He stared into her eyes, molten gold meeting icy blue.

Then, he dug a hand into her hair and covered her mouth with his own. She opened up and soon his tongue was busy tasting her. This was so much different than their last kiss. Rougher. Dirtier. Her hands rested on his chest. Spirits, she wanted to take him in. She tugged at his shirt and he flung it off and away. He rolled them over so she was on top, gripping her hips and digging just hard enough to make her gasp. She took the opportunity to drag her mouth down his neck. When she reached the base of it, she bit down gently. Zuko groaned.

“Katara,” he whispered, coarsely. “You need to stop.” She froze.

“It’s not that I don’t want you,” he tried to explain himself. She looked at him, slightly less pained but still unconvinced. “I swear!”

“Then why do I need to stop?”

Zuko dragged her backside into him till she was sitting firmly on his lap. 

She blushed to her roots. She could feel his stiffness, hard as a rock.

“That’s why,” he said, smirking slightly at the sight of her blush.

Katara wanted to tell him that she still didn’t want to stop. 

But she didn’t think she could recover if he rejected her again. As if reading her mind, he added, “I want to. Just..not like this.” He touched her cheek and wiped a tear away with his thumb. “Not when you’ve just barely stopped crying. Especially since it was my fault. We’ll figure this all out tonight. For now, lets go get some breakfast. Okay?”

“..Okay.” She stood up, reluctantly, but was satisfied by the promise that they would be talking about this soon.

 

***

 

The rest of the day lasted a lifetime. After she realized there was no hope of her concentrating on work, she decided to cancel her meetings and continued practicing her forms until dinner. But apparently Zuko had still requested dinner in his office, so she just ate in silence before anxiously making her way to their shared chamber.

When he finished work soon after and joined her, she didn’t hesitate to let out the question that had been burning a whole in her.

“Zuko. Did I do something wrong on our wedding night?”

He looked taken aback. “What?” 

Katara sighed, “It felt like everything was fine before that. And then it wasn’t. All at once.”

“No! You definitely didn’t do anything wrong.”

She took a deep breath. This was harder to talk about than she thought. “.. Then why did you stop?”

Zuko sighed. He looked like he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. After a long pause he answered, “Because you only wanted to be with your husband and I wasn’t ready to accept that.”

“But you are my husband?,” she replied, confused.

Zuko looked like he was getting frustrated. “But I’m not a regular husband! And you still wanted to have sex with me just because you’re my wife!”

A moment passed and Katara felt a raging heat bubble inside her. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Zuko’s eyes shot up at the sound of Katara’s voice so dangerously low. 

“Did you actually think I didn’t think about us having sex before I agreed to MARRY YOU?? I KNOW WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR, YOU ABSOLUTE IDIOT

“OKAY, Katara, well excuse me for interrupting you from the list of obligations you ‘signed up for’”

“AGNI ZUKO, do you think I would actually be doing it if I didn’t want to.”

“Honestly?? Maybe I do! If it was something you decided on and you were too stubborn to change your mind about it, then yes.” He let out a breath. “I know that you want to feel wanted. But that doesn’t mean you have to do anything that you don’t want.”

Katara couldn’t believe how stupid he was being. 

“You're literally insufferable! Just. Just answer me this. Why the hell are you so convinced I wouldn’t want to have sex with you even if we weren’t married?”

Zuko blushed, his voice cracking slightly. “Wh-What?”

“Well, that’s what this is actually about, right? What makes you think I don’t want you?”

He stuttered, “That’s—That’s not it?” He tried to recover. “I know you chose to be married to me. I know this was your decision and that you wanted to be Fire Lady.”

“No.” Katara tried to strip the impatience from her voice. She knew he was trying. She spoke again, soft but deliberate, “Zuko. Why do you think I don’t want you.”

“..I ..uh…. huh ?” Zuko looked surprised at the turn the conversation was taking.

“Because I do.” 

She waited for him to respond. But when he didn’t, she slowly closed their distance and sat beside him. He continued to stand still, so she reached down to his thigh and let her hand travel all the way up, painfully slow. Zuko’s jaw dropped. “I want you.” She couldn’t hold back anymore. She pushed him down onto the bed, straddling his hips, and nipped his earlobe before whispering into its shell. “I really, really do.” His eyes widened and he looked like he couldn’t believe what was happening.

Zuko faced her, in awe, as he looked her in the eyes. 

The next few seconds lasted a lifetime. But then, he smiled. It was a small smile but, to Katara, it was absolutely perfect. 

“Well, I definitely want to give you everything you want.”

She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. He rolled on top of her and looked at her again, with wonder. She would have been amused if she hadn’t been waiting for this moment for so long. Instead, she roughly grabbed onto his robe and pulled him down into a kiss. She opened her mouth and they moved together, languidly. This one wasn’t rough. It was just warm. She felt like she was being consumed by it. 

His hands found their way to her waist and he was soon tugging at her dress. He took it off with her help and she did the same with his tunic. La, she wanted to lick those perfect abs. She wanted to taste him. His mouth found hers again but his hands were already at work removing her top wrappings. As soon as her chest was free, his mouth left hers and turned its attention to her nipple, letting it harden in his mouth. He gave it a nip and she moaned softly. He took the encouragement and worked on the other as her head dropped backward in contentment.

He unwrapped the rest of her body and Agni, was she a vision. He gave her breast one more nip and then led a trail of hot open-mouthed kisses down her stomach, leading to her center. When he reached it, he made straight for her small cluster of nerves, sucking gently. She struggled to keep from bucking against him. He sucked on harder and had her practically mewling in bliss. After a short while, he moved his hand to her entrance so he could crook a finger inside her and she moaned, “Zuko…ah..” He added another finger. “Zuko..AH..Zuko please!”

He kept up with his hand but released the rest of her. “Zuko please what?” He picked up the pace and angled his fingers deeper inside her.

“AH..Zuko…please…I want you!” 

He smirked, “Well, since you asked so nicely.”

He peeled off his pants and under things and abandoned them on the floor and suddenly she had a thousand dirty cravings involving the length that had sprung up between his legs. She reached down to grasp it. Her other fantasies would have to wait. She needed him inside her now. He hissed slightly at the contact but she ignored it and continued to position him between her lips. He groaned softly, slowly and carefully filling her up. 

She shuddered at the feeling of him inside her. She gripped his shoulders and dug her nails in just slightly. He took the cue and started to move. He pumped himself inside her, mouth finding its way to hers to swallow her moans. Then he pulled out almost all the way. But before she could contest, he slammed back inside her as hard as he could and she nearly screamed at the sensation. His mouth made its way to her ear.

“You’re so tight. So good for me, Katara,” he whispered. She was obsessed with the way he said her name.

He continued building a rhythm as she bucked her hips in time. Soon she was throwing her head back and panting. A few more thrusts and she was starting to shake.

“Cum for me,” his voice tickled her ears and sent a fresh wave of heat to her core.

Four more powerful thrusts and a convulsion ran through her. Zuko barely groaned out, “Katara” before he was cumming alongside her. She was still seeing stars when she felt him pull out of her. 

“I’ll get something to clean up.” 

“No need.” Katara looked around the room until she saw a pitcher of water on a tray. She bended it fluidly around them both till they were completely rinsed off. “Perks of a water bending wife,” she smirked.

He smiled back at her and pulled her into his chest. Nuzzling his face into her hair, he wrapped his arms around her waist.

“I can’t wait to discover them all.”