Zuko watches his father’s political career come to its inevitably ignoble end with one hand in a bag of fire flakes and the other holding the cheapest bottle of champagne he could find. It’s been a long four years for the country as a whole, but Zuko feels a very personal vindication as he watches the votes continue to tick in on the news, the count swinging further and further away from Ozai’s favor. He toasts the television with his bottle as his home island switches from white to gold, tipping in favor of the Lotus Party. It is a deep and private joy to know that he is one of those tallies in the ever-widening margin. The scar on his face pulls tightly as he smiles, giddy - almost manic - as he realizes that the nightmare is nearly over.
It is that good feeling that leaves him amenable to answering his sister’s call when it comes in, inappropriately late though it is. Azula wins as often as she lies (the correlation absolutely a sign of causation in the case of his father’s rise to power) and Zuko can’t resist the opportunity to hear the fresh and indignant defeat in her voice.
“Hello,” he says, voice as blank as he can manage.
“Zuzu.” Her voice is tight, like it is taking all of her considerable will to produce any sound but enraged screaming. Zuko takes another sip of champagne.
“Zuli.” It’s poking at her, a typically unwise move that tonight probably borders on suicidal, but his sister would never stop below the penthouse unless she was going to the lobby, so he feels pretty confident in his safety on the lowly eighth floor.
“Much as it pains me to allow you any responsibility after your litany of screw-ups,” she leads in, and Zuko is pleased to note that it does sound like she is in genuine pain having to ask him to do anything. “There are simply too many important matters to handle trying to wrangle this sham of an election, so as all great leaders do, I must delegate.” Zuko snorts.
“Okay.” She apparently takes this as acquiescence to the unnamed task rather than the derisive jab it is.
“All you have to do - the one thing you can do for father in this incredibly stressful moment,” she begins to explain, as though talking to a very small and (possibly quite stupid) child, “Is call the Four. Elements.” She stresses the words, then pauses, and he realizes she is expecting him to repeat the instructions back. He rolls his eyes, and thinks to himself zero more years, zero more years.
“Call the Four Elements.”
“Yes. And tell them Ozai’s campaign wants to arrange a press. Conference.”
“Press conference, got it.” More champagne. A hiccup seizes him and he realizes he should possibly be eating more of the fire flakes than he has been. Then Azula keeps talking, and he thinks instead that he may not be drunk enough yet.
“In their garden.”
“In the garden. Got it.”
“The Four Elements in Shu Jing. Not Caldera.”
“I know. We’re in Shu Jing.”
“Can’t be too careful when it comes to you, Zuzu.”
“I can handle it.”
“See that you do.” The phone line goes dead, and Zuko groans loud and irritated into the quiet of his sparse hotel room.
He opens the web browser on his phone and types in “four elements shu jing”. While the page loads, he shoves a fistfull of fire flakes in his mouth. The first result is for the Four Elements hotel, pictures of manicured gardens and opulent rooms popping up above a phone number. He’s still chewing though, so instead of clicking on the number right away and getting this last menial task over with, his eyes skim down the rest of the information and happen across the top of the second entry: “Four Elements Total Landscaping”. He scrolls down. The pin with the business’s location is out by the railyards, barely in the city anymore, and the photographs show that while the yards they care for are beautiful, the business itself is comprised of squat buildings made of corrugated metal and cracked pavement. Zuko is so close to freedom, to the end of four years of awful work, but there is one last blunder to make, the pièce de résistance in his portfolio of errors.
“You’ve reached Four Elements landscaping!” Greets a cheery young man’s voice when his call goes to voicemail. “We’re not able to come to the phone right now, but if you leave your name, number, and landscaping needs, we’ll get right back to you!” Zuko does as the voice instructs, sends Azula a thumbs-up emoji, and returns to watching the vote, chuckling to himself intermittently as he polishes off his snacks.
Aang flicks on the lights at Four Elements barely after sunrise the day after Election Day with a spring in his step. Despite the news that warns of recounts and petty lawsuits, things are looking up in the world. In a few moons, Ozai will be removed from power, and balance will return. Maybe he would go on a trip then. He’s been wanting to take his friends Katara and Sokka hiking at the Southern Air Temple for ages, but the Ozai administration has been so awful about Air Nomad visas that he’s been afraid to leave.
These plans take a backseat when he realizes the voicemail has a message already waiting. Overnight landscaping emergencies aren’t usually a thing, but the owner, an eccentric old man named Bumi, tends to have weird clients, so he presses play right away.
“Um hello.” The voice on the other end of the line says, then seems to realize that there’s nobody on the other end of the line. “Uh, I’m calling from the Ozai campaign. To book space for a press conference tomorrow. Or, uh...I guess today by the time you’re getting this. So yeah...Oh! My number is-” Aang rushes to grab a sticky note and pen and scribbles down the phone number as the guy recites it haltingly. The message cuts out after that, and Aang replays it again, unsure of what to make of it.
Katara is still drunk thank you very much, and she is going to be drunk all damn day if she so pleases. And as she turns her large camping thermos into a bottomless mimosa, she decides that she very much does please. Her rideshare comes when she’s jamming a toaster waffle slathered in jam in her mouth, so she grabs the thermos and goes, hoping she doesn’t look too terribly off-kilter as she hurls herself into the backseat. The driver doesn’t seem to notice, but then again, according to the news, most of the nation is celebrating in some form or other, so maybe he just doesn’t care. In any event, he drops her off at work, and doesn’t so much as bat an eye at the fact that she’s hailed a ride to Fantasy Island at eight thirty in the morning.
Aang hasn’t texted her again, so she goes about her usual opening routine while he most likely tries to get in touch with the Ozai campaign guy who Katara desperately hopes did not realize his mistake and call the actual Four Elements. She’s organizing the stock closet when her phone buzzes, and she immediately sits down on a box to answer.
Katara wiggles gleefully in her seat, only to jump to her feet when the box starts to cave in beneath her. Quickly, she yanks open the flaps to make sure she hasn’t dented any packaging or popped a bottle of lube (wouldn’t be the first time, and it was a bitch to clean up). Instead, she finds an assortment of things she forgot she even still has. It's a box of assorted dildos that Sokka had forgotten in the parking lot the last time she begged him to help bring shipment in. They hadn’t been left out for terribly long, but the it had been a hot day, and the result had been that all of the contents are...slightly deformed. Not unrecognizably so, but there was enough warping and curving that they couldn’t be sold in good conscience. Katara has kept them lying in wait, with vague notions of eventually using them to prank Sokka, but...
Grinning, Katara tosses her giant mimosa into the box, locks the door, and carries her supplies next door. When she enters, Aang is talking to a tall dark-haired guy at the counter, and he widens his eyes at her dramatically as the man hunches over to write something. The message is clear: this is the guy from the campaign. These tools are actually stupid enough to walk in here and pay to hold a press conference in the parking lot of a landscaping company instead of one of the nicest hotels in the city. Not wanting to interrupt the transaction, Katara nods to the box in her arms and heads for the back door. This is going to be good.
Zuko wanders into the back area of Four Elements Total Landscaping with the absolute strongest cup of coffee he could convince the barista to sell him, sunglasses so dramatically oversized they must actually belong to Azula, and a serene smile. He looks around at the trucks and heaps of bark mulch and potting soil on either side of the space the landscaper, Aang, points him towards.
“So, uh, this is it,” he says, clearly still uncertain about why Zuko has apparently not realized yet that this is not an appropriate setting for a major press conference.
“Perfect, thanks,” Zuko tells him. This seems to increase the confusion, but Aang nods and glances to and away from something over Zuko’s shoulder.
“Okay. We actually had a podium and mic kicking around from a couple of ribbon cutting things we’ve landscaped for, so I set that up for you. Just, uh...holler if you need anything else I guess.” Zuko just flashes a thumbs up in response and drops a pin to his father’s driver.
It’s going to be an absolute shit show, Zuko thinks to himself as he surveys the area. He’s got a few little Ozai flyers with him that he figures he’ll stick somewhere, but for the time being, he just wanders, sipping his coffee. Now that he is actually looking, he can see that Aang did actually try his best to make it look like a plausible venue. The podium is set up as promised, with a microphone plugged into a small amp on the ground. The background is a metal garage door, but the white painted surface is the only place he can see that doesn’t involve rust spots or cracked concrete. Some bushes have been dragged over to flank it, even though the root balls are still wrapped in burlap. When he sees a young woman fussing with the microphone, he almost feels bad that so much work is going into something he intends to be disappointing.
He walks towards the podium to tell her she really needn’t worry about doing anything as technical as a sound check, when he is stopped dead by a couple of realizations. The first realization is that the woman is beautiful, with long dark hair and a round face, her full lower lip bitten in concentration as she frowns at the items in her hands. The second realization is that the two black cylinders she is deciding between are a microphone and a dildo. He wonders for a flash if she is somehow confused about which is which, or why they are not the same object. Then he looks around again and suddenly sees them...everywhere.
Dicks. Dozens of dongs hidden in plain sight. They’re replacing the lightbulbs in the sconces, a few suction cupped to the garage door. Several are protruding from the bushes. He has to bite down hard on a laugh at that. It’s crude, certainly, but clever. There’s a mostly empty box a few feet away from her. He looks down into it and finds that it holds the remainder of her decorations.
Now looking between her considering frown and the box, he notices something and reaches into the box. When he approaches her, he hands her a different dildo and says, “This one will show better on camera. It’s veinier."
“Thanks”, Katara laughs, reaching blindly before she realizes that the voice that has spoken is not Aangs’. Hand outstretched still, she freezes and looks up to find the guy from the Ozai campaign standing right in front of her as she is still trying to set up her masterpiece. Then she looks up and gasps because she recognizes the hint of scar showing from beneath his ridiculous shades. She starts laughing, but not like she thinks his weird glasses are funny. It’s a mean laugh because, “Of course the bufoon that set this shit up is Ozai’s incompetent son.”
She’s been reading about this guy for four fucking years, and cackling her way through every article. Ozai’s son had been granted a job as his advisor, as had his daughter. The nepotism would’ve been blatant enough anyway had they both seemed to have a head for politics, but it was made even more obvious as his son kept inevitably screwing up seemingly anything he was allowed to go near. This jackass has broken up renegotiations of trade agreements by trying to sell Whale Tail Island to Kyoshi, killed votes with bizarre and impossible clauses written into legislation, and butt-dialed reporters from evil strategy meetings. He’s such a sheer disaster that jokes have been made on the internet that the Lotus Party should start paying him a consulting fee.
And this guy has the nerve to stare cooly back at her and say, “I have a degree in political science, I know what I’m doing.” She blinks at him for a moment, unsure of what to make of him. He knows what she’s doing, that much at least he seems capable of grasping. What he doesn’t seem to understand, is that this is not intended to be helpful. She laughs harder. She might actually puke from how hilarious this guy is. “Take the dildo.”
The seriousness in his tone makes her stop laughing and look at him, really look. He has pushed his sunglasses up onto the top of his head, and Katara is shocked to find that his gaze is unnervingly sharp. Up close, it doesn’t seem like he could be anywhere near as dumb as he acted. “I’m not incompetent. At anything.” He definitely doesn’t mean it to be suggestive, but it kinda comes across that way when he’s standing so close to her and holding out a sex toy. Considering the fact that her livelihood involves selling such items, she should not be blushing, but she definitely is. Because he is undeniably handsome, even with the scar that had appeared on his face halfway into his father’s term, and because if he isn’t a total stooge…
Suddenly the narrative of the last four years she has heard about Zuko rearranges in her mind. It becomes a son who doesn’t agree with his father’s politics, given a role with lots of influence over the execution of his father’s orders and near constant media visibility. Years of quiet sabotage disguised as humiliating mishandling. A failed summit. An accident on vacation, that was perhaps not so accidental. A slow return to the forefront, and yet more mistakes, culminating in his father losing reelection and appearing on television in the most pathetic press conference in recent memory. Katara wants to give him a hug. Instead, she takes the dildo.
“Much better,” she declares, examining it where it now juts up from the podium.
“Want some help with the finishing touches?” he asks. Katara nods, then holds up her thermos.
“Want a mimosa?”
They work in tandem, passing the thermos back and forth for the last hour or so before Ozai arrives. Zuko seems to be the only campaign staffer that has been sent ahead, and when Katara asks him why, he just shrugs and says, “Probably at the Four Elements gardens with my sister.” Katara grins wickedly, and when Zuko hands her an Ozai lawn sign, she beckons him over to lift her until she can jam it into the top of one of the dick bushes. As she makes her way down the line, she tells herself it is just for symmetry, and has nothing at all to do with how much she likes Zuko’s arms wrapped around her. Or gripping his soft hair for balance. Or the hot puff of his breath on her stomach when her shirt rides up.
By the time the flashing lights signal Ozai’s arrival, Zuko has decided he is half in love with the woman, who has introduced herself as Katara. She hates Zuko’s father and sister and everything they stand for vehemently, but had so easily read in his face all of the work he had done, the pain he had endured to slow the erosion of democracy. The way she fights back, with everything she has, and also with great humor makes his worn rebel soul think it too could keep going. Especially when she sees his expression shutter as his father approaches the podium with his security detail, a puzzled frown on Ozai's face as he takes in his surroundings, and Katara takes Zuko’s hand in hers. She squeezes, and toasts him with her metal cup of mimosa. He clinks his own cup dully against hers. Right on schedule, the press starts filing in and setting up, and Zuko’s phone buzzes in his pocket.
Zuko shuts his phone off then, and tucks it in his back pocket. Katara, who has watched this whole interaction go down, smiles a little dopily and sways into his side, their fingers still laced together between them.
“This is a very good look for you,” she whispers, not very quietly. He feels the tips of his ears go hot, but finds a smile for her. On the other side of town, Azula is about to walk into the bar of the Four Elements to find her father on the television making an inaudible diatribe into a veiny black dildo. Zuko is not even watching his father, not paying attention to the muffled ravings he knows are going on as the press starts clamoring with their questions. He is just watching Katara watch it all go down, committing the gleeful shine of her eyes and the curve of her smile to memory.
A few minutes in, Katara elbows him and points to the conference. Ozai’s staff at some point realized no sound is happening, and someone rushes into frame to adjust the mic. Only when they press the button, instead of making sound come out of the amp, it turns on the vibrating function. Just as they had for Zuko earlier, suddenly the pieces fall into place, and everyone notices, not just that dildo, but all of the dildos. A roar of laughter (the press) and rage (Ozai) sounds, and cameras start flashing madly as reporters scramble to capture the extent of the decor.
Zuko shoots Katara a grin. “I think my schedule is about to open up quite a bit if you ever...you know, want to hang out sometime?” Katara glances at Ozai, whose murderous gaze is now fixed on Zuko. Zuko is pointedly not noticing his father yet, his eyes fixed only on her. She takes his hand and smiles up at him. “What are you doing now?”