Prince Zuko is twenty when he begins his role as an ambassador between the nations, and he does so calmly, in juxtaposition to how he is usually poised. Usually, Zuko is known for his temper. He isn’t like Crown Prince Lu Ten, with his strict confidence, nor his sister Azula, with her calm, deadly smiles.
Zuko has spent years training for this role— as a way to bring pride to his nation, to protect his people, to prevent conflict. And he knows that his uncle and cousin, the true guiding male figures of his childhood (his father rots in a prison cell) wanted him to slide into his role carefully, over time. But when he turned seventeen the whispers of unrest started running through all the nations of the world, and the Fire Nation bore the brunt of the impact. Their politics are layered and uneven— to a point, their interactions with the rest of the world can be seen that way as well.
So Zuko finds himself sent off on a trip; first, he visits the North Pole, and finds himself arguing with Prince Hahn and Princess Yue, yet not in the way he thought he would. He is willing to make exchanges, to barter and trade, and they remain insistent against him, as though his very existence is a mark against their pride.
The Northern Water Tribe exports oil and fish and engineering capabilities to the rest of the world. It can hold its own against the Fire Nation’s new economic advances, the military-turned-civilian contraptions that have adapted since the end of the Fifty Years War. So at the end of his visit, Zuko doesn’t succumb to decreases in tariffs or metals. He signs a treaty in the name of the Fire Lord, a treaty of mutually assured neutrality in war. He knows Azulon would approve, and he feels important for the first time in his life after his name comes off the paper in a flourish.
Then he heads to the Southern Water Tribe. He thinks there will be a similar solution— the South and North are both beautiful cities, built of their own distinct styles in ice. But there is not. The South has an economy built on natural resources which are not-oil rich, and though the nation is proud, they have more to fear than their associated tribe, across the other side of the world, sitting on reserves that will keep them running for years.
Zuko stays on his ship the first nights he arrives, until he is invited to a council meeting of the tribes— there are several smaller ones under an umbrella of a title— and he takes the time to walk through the central marketplace, towards the unique structure built in the center of this homeland, tall and glassy and built in a way that is distinctively Southern Water Tribe.
The icy streets on his path are lined with shops and civilians selling their wares, bartering and trading. He is struck, briefly, with shock at how much differently these people live their lives— different diets, rich in different things. The people of the south are more hardened than their other brethren, and though their lives are advanced in their own way, they are unalike their sister tribe. His heart beats through his chest, and he feels a great deal of guilt when he thinks of why— of the Southern Raiders which had run through these waters half a century prior to this date, who had attempted to find and kill the last waterbenders.
When he was nine years old, he remembered between beams of sunlight and half-asleep afternoon history lessons that he had learned it had been a young waterbender named Hama who had discovered the Avatar in an iceberg all those years ago, who had deposed Sozin in his old age and managed to convince Azulon to maintain peace. Avatar Aang, a firebender Zuko has always admired, a man he has talked to but a few times. Avatar Aang saved the world and lets it be as it is— he had found the air nomads in hiding and brought peace and prosperity to this new world.
Zuko can only imagine what the world would be without the Avatar’s interference. He is ashamed of Sozin’s blood which runs through his veins, and the thought of a world without an Avatar makes him shudder. He does not think he would have survived well, in such a world.
He places his hand across the scar on his face, briefly, before walking into the South’s council. The mark was gifted to him by his father, and now he uses it as a reminder that he needs to be anything but. That he needs to keep his head on straight during negotiations.
Zuko has his father’s face, his father’s temper, but not his father’s malice, and not at all his sheer disregard for the well-being of others. He knew his whole life of his father’s insanity, of his belief in the supremacy of firebenders. It poisoned Azula, too. He has spent the past seven years undoing the silent wounds his father carved down his spine. Those hurt more than his left-side.
(Sometimes he is almost grateful that his twisted, burnt, ugly skin hides his prominent cheekbones and pale features. The older he grows, the more his left side shows Ozai.)
Those aren’t thoughts he wants to keep inside of himself— he has been given the opportunity to heal the wounds the Fire Nation has struck across the world, and to shield against some blows before they even land.
His fur-lined robes are crimson as blood, as his face, and they push against the snow as he makes his way up icy steps to the chambers where he will spend the next few days of his life— where he will find peace with the dirty people his father hated so much.
He approaches a door, its ice body a smooth plane under shimmering sunlight, and something anticipatory runs through his soul as he opens the icy door, melting its handle with his body.
Zuko does not know how to explain, diplomatically, that he knows that the Southern Water Tribe could benefit from trade with the Fire Nation— he does not know how to assure a proud people that he does not think they are lacking or uncivilized. He will give them machinery and they will give him silent allyship for a war which might soon erupt against the Earth Kingdom over the mixed colonies at the border of both nations.
He has spent hours and days with tutors learning the law of the other nations, but Chief Hakoda seems resilient to change— the man does not seem to understand the words said between Zuko’s practiced speeches, what he aims to imply. He sees them at a surface level, and Zuko has to hold back that monster that still rises from within sometimes.
“We are not a charity, nor a place for the Fire Nation to come in and—” he takes in a deep breath, “laughingly imperialize!”
“We would not be sending any Fire Nation—”
“Say what you want,” the chief tells him, standing above him. “Your materials would come with soldiers, and then what happened amongst the colonies—”
“Dad,” a young man, about Zuko’s age, hisses from the corner. “Even you know the situations are not the same. There is a benefit for us if . . .”
“Silence, Sokka,” Hakoda says. Zuko knows who Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe is— the future chieftain, and the one who will likely inherit leadership after his father. These people do not have hereditary leadership, but the eldest child of the first chiefs usually follows to lead the tribe. So Sokka is Chief Hakoda’s child, and the way they speak to each other sends a bolt of electricity down Zuko’s spine. But they do not seem to really be angry at each other— they are speaking in a political context. “Your self-interests should not weigh in for decisions such as these.”
“Self-interests?” Zuko asks, surprised. Hakoda looks almost proud for a moment.
“My son is a great engineer. He has spent time amongst merchants learning the ways of your metal. It is a skill for ours,” Hakoda notes, “but it biases his opinions on matters such as trade.” He turns his attention further out, past where Sokka is sitting. “Katara!”
“Dad,” a girl speaks up, and Zuko turns his head towards the rafters to see her rise up as well. She is seated right to the side and then slightly behind Sokka. Dad— so this is Chief Hakoda’s second-born, a girl. She has a waterskin at her side, and Zuko’s lips twitch, imperceptibly. A waterbender.
“What do you think?”
“I think there is merit to what Prince Zuko is offering,” she says to her father, but her eyes find him across the room. Zuko’s heart stutters in his chest, suddenly, out of nowhere. Her visage, as it meets his, is defined by large blue eyes which shine out, distinctive against her dark skin and the vivid, white wonderland they are all inside. “It would be an offer we should accept.”
Another man speaks up, this time from the rest of the water tribe council. “Chief Hakoda! We won’t take a trade to justify any future atrocities . . .”
“I can tell you—” Zuko starts. His eyes stay glued to Katara before she turns to glare at the speaker, and then he tears himself away to face the chief once again.
“Please, Prince Zuko,” Hakoda says.
“You have no faith in these agreements,” Katara bites out, her hands somehow resting on her waist. Zuko finds himself struggling to keep track of what he intends to say, a defense of himself and his country’s character. Instead he takes in the curve of her hips and the fierce cadence of her words. “There is great benefit in establishing further trade with the Fire Nation— only a benefit . . .”
“Does that not sound duplicitous?”
Katara pauses, and Zuko knows that she must be struggling where he also did. Nobody yet has voiced the probability of another war out loud, but the ruling family of this pole certainly must know what almost hangs on the horizon. The rest of the council may not.
“I vote we table this discussion,” Katara says, suddenly swerving and making unnervingly close eye contact with him. Zuko almost wants to drop the papers in his fist; he ends up tightening his fingers and smirking back at her across the room, making an impromptu show of his eyes tracing her features. “I will personally attempt to converse with Prince Zuko and ensure that we can find the best path for both of our parties moving forward.”
“Katara?” Hakoda sounds confused, and Sokka, who has been sitting and seeming a bit dismayed for the past few minutes, suddenly speaks.
“Seconded. We need to discuss the issue brought to us from the docks— of the ownership of the bison that Anuko of the lower shelf sold . . .”
Zuko knows that his time has elapsed, and he steps down from the platform he had been standing on, careful not to slip on the ice which turns weak beneath his heated feet. The conversation moves away from his proposition, and his aides, sent before him, move to lead him back to their ship.
In the distance, he sees Katara— Chief Hakoda’s daughter— move towards him. He turns his fingers up at his crew, gesturing for them to leave without him, and by the time he is outside the building the girl is right next to him.
(Girl is a belittling word; she is a woman.)
“Lady Katara,” he speaks first, unsure what to call her. Now, up close, this girl is far more beautiful than he could have ever imagined from far away. Her eyes are a clear blue and her features are soft against her face, long, curly, brown waves running like a river down her shoulders. She is dressed in traditional and yet elegant fancy garb, a blue tunic with silk stripes tied around her arms. One of them is white.
“Prince Zuko,” they step forward together until they are out of the city-center and walking the snowy streets of the pole. The ice slushes under Zuko’s feet, and he does not know what to do in the silence that rises between them as they make their way through empty roads. He knows he makes an imposing figure, tall and scarred and garbed in red; and she must make a familiar one, clothed in blue and wearing the face of their leadership.
“So you intended to find the best path forward for both our parties,” he ends up saying, perhaps too jarringly, too awkwardly, as they turn a side-corner.
“I did indeed.”
He thinks they will pause inside one of the greater structures they witness on their path, but Katara keeps going. She is tall and resolute next to him, standing with her spine rod-straight. “Are you leading me somewhere?”
“I thought we could discuss certain matters in private.”
Even amongst ice and snow, a blush rises to Zuko’s cheeks. “Alright.”
A minute later, Katara has led him to a small, rather nondescript house. It seems almost miniscule from the inside, and yet when she pulls open her door, using her bending to aid her, he walks into a dome-like structure lit with a firepit and lined in furs, light streaming through purposeful cracks in the ice. There are cushions next to the hearth, and Zuko lights it up without Katara asking him too. She looks at him out of the corner of her eyes, and he thinks she licks her lips.
“Sit down, please.”
Zuko does. He’s the prince of the Fire Nation— he has honor and dignity and self-respect— but his entire body feels as though it is anticipating something right now. He is not even sure what.
“Relationships between the nations are tentative right now,” Katara says, leaning down and sitting on a fur mat, barely feet between him and her. She is closer, now. She takes off her outer layer and is left in a tighter blouse and loose trousers. Zuko feels uncomfortable too, and sheds his coat to display the sharp shoulders of his armor. “You know this.”
“You are willing to give so much for an alliance with the south?” she frowns. “I could understand perhaps both tribes— but for us alone— I admit, even I am doubtful of all of your intentions with the sum and concessions that you’ve told us.”
“Those of the north did not accept our deal,” he tells her. “These are numbers that are combined— the Fire Nation has already accounted for the loss, and recounting would only harm us. I’d thought it would be appreciated.”
Katara nods, shifting closer to him. The fire illuminates her skin, and she glows— looks truly alight. Zuko holds back a shudder. He knows he is scarred, but he knows that despite his looks and his occasional blunders he is not so ugly. He wonders if she feels what he does.
“In the South Pole,” she says, “and amongst our culture in general, people do not like to owe.”
“You would be giving us far more than we could give you in metal and—”
“Yes,” Katara says. “We would. And that’s why I think, Prince Zuko, that there may be more to give— from both sides.”
Whatever she must be about to say next is greatly interesting to Prince Zuko, Ambassador of the Fire Nation. But she whispers the end of her sentence into his good ear, learning across from him to do so, and her curves press to his shoulder, and Zuko . . . he simply cannot think.
He forgets her words and shifts himself so that his lips are against her ear from where she is almost lying on him. “I think there is a lot I can give you.”
For a pause, and a heartbeat, he’s scared that he may have done something wrong. But then Katara speaks, and her voice is light and husky and deep against him. “You really think so?”
“What do you want?” he asks, because he knows it is the right thing to do. His confirmation comes in a strong push, leaving him laying across soft furs— and then lips covering his and a hand at his hair, pulling at the crown in his topknot. Katara leans onto him and takes it out, letting his locks fall over his face, and then she runs her hands across his jaw, his cheeks, pressure on his scar.
She is cold, and she is icy, and she is the ocean— she tastes like something frozen, and her hands tugging at his armor feel like snow, like the sea, taking him away with her. He knows he absolutely did not come here to do this, and definitely not with the daughter of the ruler of another nation. He knows that no matter how he feels he should get up and walk away and look away and go away but . . .
He feels his hands heat up with the lust of his bones, and as he swallows up her moan as she moves into him, he thinks he can have regrets later.
Zuko wakes up on Katara after what could be hours or days. The sun is still shining above them, but it is the light season at this pole, so that does not mean much. He takes in her, scarcely clothed and against his chest, furs over both their forms, and then the door which stays firmly shut. He assumes nobody has come for them.
And then he finds himself a little cold, so he raises his chest and attempts to breathe out heat. The movement wakes her, and suddenly large, blue eyes are winking up at him, laying across his chest.
“Hey,” he says, unsure what else to do. He knows that they cannot maintain the same formalities of hours prior— he doesn’t know why they did what they did—
(That’s a lie— he certainly does know. The answer is in the waves rolling against his skin.)
But no matter what they did do . . . he doesn’t know if he can find it in himself to regret it.
“Hey,” she says, snuggling against him rather than pulling away. His breathing relaxes— he hadn’t even realized it had been tight— and he runs a hand loosely over her spine. “Aren’t people looking for you?”
“What?” he’s dazed, for a second, as he feels her eyelashes against his bare skin.
“You came on a ship, didn’t you?” she teases. “They’ll be looking for their prince.”
“They can wait,” he grumbles, throwing his other hand up over his eyes. “Their prince is negotiating.”
“Is that what we’re calling it now?”
One corner of his mouth moves up but then drops again, and he moves his hand away to open his eyes— Katara has shifted further on top of him. Zuko uses his core strength to lift himself up and press a light kiss to her mouth before falling back onto the furs. Their lips barely press, but she smiles against him. She looks beautiful— red, flush, and against him.
“Despite this,” he pants, “I do think I should go back having accomplished something . . .” he struggles to find the right word.
“Diplomatic?” Katara supplies.
He shrugs. “I think this can count as diplomatic in a way. Something beneficial for our nations,” he suddenly wants to yawn, and Katara gives up hovering above him; she falls down to his side, his arm still curved around her. “You were saying something?”
“Right,” Katara says, against his shoulder. “We should get married.”
“Absolutely not,” Sokka snaps the next day at Zuko’s carefully concocted proposition. “Can you imagine what Dad would say? We are not our northern brethren. We do not sell our children ,” he mocks in a high-pitched voice, hands moving to imitate mouths.
“It’s not selling ,” Katara speaks up. “It would work— a bride price from the Fire Nation. It’s an honored and respected part of our culture and—”
“And I know,” Sokka bends back on the cushions and scratches his beard. “I know that. I know it would work if you did it right. But Katara, are you . . .” he peers at Zuko closely. “You want to marry this guy?”
“It might be the only thing which works,” she says quietly, looking at Zuko for a moment— as though wondering whether or not she can trust him— before reaching over and clutching her brother’s hand in her own. “You know we need the agreements and we need the truce before Kuei comes . . . and we need the supplies,” she whispers. “The last of the bout didn’t go well. We need access to their medicine . . .”
“So you’re . . . gonna marry this guy?” Sokka points at Zuko point-blank, seeming utterly and completely confused. “You’re gonna marry this random guy for— do you know him? Like, at all?”
Katara shrugs. “In one way.”
Zuko blushes bright red, but Sokka doesn’t seem too shocked by that. “What’s this really about? What happened to that guy? Kanik?”
“What happened to him?” she asks, as though daring him to press further. Sokka groans and then stares at Zuko, who has molded himself to the walls of the other man’s rooms— they’re wooden and metal-lined, unlike Katara’s, and a table at the side is littered with metal parts. Chief Hakoda had not been joking about his son enjoying engineering.
“Fine,” he says. “And he’s . . . cool with all of this?”
Zuko, who hasn’t talked at all since the initial introductions they’d made, shrugs and tries to hide his blush. He’s caught up in a strange swarm of emotions right now; he has absolutely no idea what’s happening other than the fact that he’d woken up with Katara in his arms and then been caught up in her dramatic words, something about marriage and . . .
“Prince Zuko,” Sokka repeats himself, waving a hand awkwardly in front of the other man’s face, “you want to marry my sister? Aren’t you like . . . a big deal, or something?”
“I’m the Prince of the Fire Nation,” he chokes out. Katara sidles up to him and places a light hand around his armor-clad waist. “Not a big deal.”
“Yeah, no. You’re a big deal. Don’t you all have arranged marriages anyway? Royalty-kinda stuff?”
Zuko thinks about Mai, the only girl he’s ever dated, and frowns. “The Crown Prince has an arranged marriage. But I’m not getting a throne. I can marry whoever I want within reason.” The words flow from his mouth even though he can’t quite understand, himself, the sentiment behind them.
“Within reason is a fine justification,” Katara grabs his arm. “See— daughter of the chief. Prince of the Fire Nation. It works.”
Sokka side-eyes his sister, frowning. “Is there something else . . .”
“No,” she smiles at him, grasping Zuko’s hand. He looks down at her warm fingers encasing his and feels a strange sort of peace envelop all of him. “It’s fine.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever,” he ends up grumbling. “Whatever you want to do, ‘Tara. But you’re going to have to work on a timeframe, and it’s gotta go well.”
“The plan,” Sokka slides away from both of them and sits on the stool at his table, packed with scrolls. With a quick flip of his wrist half of them fall to the floor and there’s a new quill and piece of parchment in his hand, and he’s scribbling.
“Uh, plan?” Zuko asks. “I thought we just had to get married?”
“Right. Well, say this works, at all— our tribe is really, really against the idea of this whole arranged marriage thing you seem so cool with. If you propose this plan you’ll get voted down by the council, and my father— not that he’d agree— couldn’t veto that.”
Katara doesn’t look as though she’s thought about this either. “We’ll just tell everyone that we’re marrying for love, then.”
“Right,” Sokka sighs, propping his back up in the air and placing his hands behind his face. “Because you two spent one night together and are now in love. Super, super believable,” he runs his hands over his face and groans. “I really do have all the brain cells around here.”
“What?” Zuko asks, a bit afraid. Sokka leans forward and places a hand on his forearms, smiling almost maniacally.
“If you’re going to marry for love, you’re going to convince everyone you are in love,” he pronounces, scribbling. “And that means planning time, baby!”
Katara suddenly grasps Zuko’s hand. “What’s the plan, Sokka?” she asks calmly.
“You’re going on a date. Several, I mean. Lots of dates. I,” he sighs dramatically, “finally get to set you up, baby sis!”