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!”
This was going to be a 20k oneshot but I wasn't physically capable of doing that, so instead we're going daily updates till the 31st. I'm going to be honest, this Holiday Exchange has thrown me for a major loop-- I rewrote this so many times, I started on about a million different ideas because I didn't know what quite to do, and then about two days ago I threw all my eggs into this basket and told myself I just had to write it.
Is this super trope-y? Yes. But. But.
I might go back after a few months and consolidate this fic back into a oneshot-- it's not meant to be read in chapter form, really-- but we're just going with this right now because I said so K.
Thank you to @my-bated-breath for being the best friend (she spent literal hours trying to help me figure out what to do for this fic, and of course helped with making my writing a little less awkward, because I'm kind of on a block right now) and nire and nooneslittlegirl for helping me with ideas.
Happy Holiday Exchange! I hope you're having an awesome time, @sunmoonturtleduck-- writing this really is fun :D
Chapter 2: Ex-Somethings
“I feel like there’s something I’m not really getting at here,” Zuko murmurs into the icy air as they step outside of Sokka’s quarters. He finds himself reaching for Katara, a beacon of warmth, something solid in the ice and snow.
“Is it Sokka?” she asks. “I think Sokka is just— not someone who’s easy to get.”
“Did he just— you told him we . . . and he just . . .” Zuko wants to scratch the back of his neck like he used to do as a child— it was a habit his tutors had mostly run out of him at his father’s insistence, but this situation is making it come back, full force. “Is that normal?” he squeaks.
“Ah. We have drama. When we were kids I set Sokka up on a secret date with Yue— you know, the Northern Water Tribe Princess? That . . . . didn’t really work out. And his current girlfriend is a Kyoshi Warrior who I knew first.”
“So he wants to play a part in your . . .” Agni, he cannot use words right now. Zuko is calm under pressured political situations— he thinks this might be able to qualify as one, but it’s also decidedly personal. “Who’s Kanik?”
“Oh,” and luckily Katara, for once, looks flustered at that. “My last boyfriend. It didn’t end very well.” Zuko almost wants to press on that more, but then her expression turns horrified. “You don’t have a girlfriend or anything, right?”
He and Mai have an on-and-off relationship, but he thinks the last time they broke up was about six months ago— so he doesn’t think he does. “I wouldn’t have agreed if I did.”
“Are you . . .” they’ve been walking the streets to a part of the city center, where Sokka had directed them after he’d finished scratching on his parchment, “Are you okay with this? Really?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Zuko says, tensed up inside his coat. He tries to smile a bit, but it comes out as awkward, and he knows Katara can see. “I agreed, right?”
“Yeah, well,” she sounds nervous again, stopping him from where he’s almost walking ahead of her. They both turn to face each other underneath the sun’s rays, “I was a little unfair when I asked you— or told you— of my proposition. Especially because of the activities we did before,” Zuko coughs, “and after. I don’t want you to think that I was manipulating you while you didn’t have . . .”
“A clear state of mind?” They both wince, and Zuko’s light cough devolves into a series of them. Katara reaches out to pat at his back. “I mean, I didn’t really. I think I need some time to think about exactly what we’re doing, and there are some nuances I’m sure are going to come back to bite me, but this is fine.”
“I’m sorry,” she says after she pauses for a moment. “I’m sorry I sort of just— threw that at you. I honestly haven’t thought about it that much either, and I definitely don’t know about Fire Nation customs, let alone those that royalty has to follow.”
Zuko shrugs and turns slightly so that they resume their pace towards the city center— he knows abstractly where it is, and he’s hoping she’ll guide him the rest of the way. “Don’t worry. It’s pretty simple— nobody really cares what I do as long as I don’t try to usurp my cousin’s line of succession,” he frowns. “With my grandfather as Fire Lord and my cousin just having his firstborn, I’m something like fifth in line to the throne. Just far away to be irrelevant— even more now than when I was a child, because my cousin has secured an heir.”
“Oh.” She stops at the sound, and after a second of silence Zuko turns his face— the non-scarred part— back to her. He wonders when she’ll ask about the burn mark, or if she knows already— it isn’t something easy to hide, and neither was his father’s prison sentence.
“Any questions?” he mumbles awkwardly.
“It’s a clinical procedure for you, isn’t it,” he bites his lip and she clarifies. “So you weren’t going to marry for love no matter what happened, even if we hadn’t, uh—” she runs over her words, “slept together and I hadn’t woken you up and asked you if you wanted to marry me for political gain or whatever—”
“I might have been able to marry for love,” he says, “particularly now, since the line of succession is fine. But I don’t really care about that.”
“What does that mean? You don’t care about— about falling in love?”
“I don’t think the best marriages are built on love,” Zuko shrugs. “Especially when you’re royalty. There are always politics built in. The more I think about it, marrying you doesn’t seem too bad.”
“That’s what every girl wants to hear,” Katara teases as she leads him to a small shop in the city— it’s a structure built of ice and held up by metal, and he thinks it might be a tea shop from the smell of jasmine in the air, reminiscent of his Uncle Iroh. He takes a seat on a cushion in the corner while Katara goes to the counter and tells the women there something he can’t comprehend.
When she comes back she gestures for him to move to the center of the shop— “More visibility,” she explains quietly when he asks why. “This way people can see us. Exposure, like Sokka said.”
When they settle down and they’re brought tea on a short metal tray, Zuko holds the cup in his fingers and lets Katara keep asking questions. “So, Prince Zuko, tell me why marrying me doesn’t sound that bad.”
He finds one side of his lips moving up as he takes her in— radiant in her furs, the steam from the cup rising up through the cold air to frame her face, the riotous curls which he can still feel across his chest.
“Well, mutual benefit. This trade deal— works for you, works for me.”
“Yes,” she takes a sip, and he does too. “And?”
“I’m a simple man,” he admits. “You seem intelligent, and you’re beautiful, and I certainly . . . he leans into her, about to tell her what he feels, but he loses his nerve and just keeps the pose, awkwardly. Katara laughs.
“I’ll have to admit, last night convinced me to ask,” she says, sounding shy and confident, somehow, at the same time. “I wouldn’t mind a married life like that— you’re very warm, Prince Zuko.”
“You’re terrible,” Zuko gasps out in an awkward flush as he moves back, and Katara laughs. “But yes. I don’t think conception would be an issue, nor . . . bloodlines.”
“Oh, right,” she sobers up, taking another sip. “Do you have rules about not marrying . . . inter-nation? I know your system is far different from ours, with our chiefs and . . .”
“Perhaps it would be a question of that if my cousin didn’t have a child,” Zuko says, “but no, I think this will be met with only positive reception. Besides . . .” he suddenly chokes, thinking about Azula and his father and that conversation, and Katara pats him on the back.
“Besides?” she prompts.
Zuko looks into his tea. “This is my first date with my future wife,” he murmurs. “Perhaps we can get to the rougher parts later?”
“A speed-run of a relationship,” Katara grins at him before staring outside through glass windows and drinking up the rest of her tea. “Actually, I’ve got to train some of the kids right now— before it gets too late,” she frowns apologetically.
“I’ve got to check up on my crew,” Zuko rises and stands in front of her, suddenly bouncing on the balls of his military-grade boots.
“Perhaps we could meet for dinner?” Katara asks hesitantly. “For our . . . second date? Sokka said that more than once a day in public was sort of odd, but just for us to know each other . . .”
“Yes,” Zuko flushes. “We should get to know each other. Would you like to come to my ship?”
“Sure,” Katara places a piece of hair behind her hair and looks down. “I’ll meet you there in a few hours, then.”
They stand in awkward silence for a moment— Zuko doesn’t know what to do. Should he kiss her? He has, and he remembers her lips— her taste and their softness— and he surely wouldn’t mind kissing her again, but then again they are making an awkward debut in public— the lady at the tea counter is staring at them obnoxiously over a kettle— and that last time they’d kissed it had been— after the marriage proposal, but still while they hadn’t had their heads on straight, and—
Katara reaches forward and wraps herself around him for a moment. He’s reminded of his mother— reminded he still needs to write to her— and then reminded of last night as he feels her body against his. Then she pulls away, cheeks bright, and turns and leaves. “I’ll see you tonight, Prince Zuko.”
He turns and watches her leave. “You don’t have to call me that, you know.”
She just winks at him, and dragonflies flood his stomach. The tea shop lady giggles behind the steaming pot, and Zuko glares at her performatively before stalking out of the shop in the general direction of the docks.
His eyes do not trail Katara’s figure disappearing into the horizon.
“What are second date conversations?” Katara asks through a mouthful of noodles. Zuko had asked his chef to prepare his favorite Fire Nation foods for the evening— and more, just in case Katara ended up not liking any of it— but she happened to love spice, and he found himself wrapping that tiny fact into a little tiny box in his chest, the place in his heart that suddenly had her name carved over it.
He’s only known her for one day.
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is very good at commitment— it’s something he’d picked up in his youth, when his hours toiling before dawn used to be equivalent to Azula’s nonchalant progress. He knows that, for some reason, he has found himself unreasonably committed to Katara and her brazen questions and her . . . loyalty to her country.
She has a sense of honor, and he doesn’t think he has ever seen a more attractive trait on anyone.
“Honestly, I don’t quite think I’ve been on a real second date,” he tells her. “I’ve only dated one girl, my entire life, and I’ve known her since we were children. It developed into a relationship, but it was always just . . . childish.”
Katara smiles around her chopsticks. “We can talk about our former relationships.”
“I might not have experience,” he asserts, “but even I know those are usually saved for later dates.”
“We’ve only got a few weeks to convince the council,” Katara winks, “so speed-run, remember?”
“If you’re going to propose it you’ve got to go first. Who’s Kanik?”
“He wasn’t the first,” Katara leans back and winks again— heavily, in an overexaggerated fashion, and the gesture makes Zuko feel strange inside, melting and jealous and exhilarated at the same time.
“We’ve got all night,” Zuko gesticulates in some random direction, not even sure what he’s doing, but Katara doesn’t giggle at his wild hand motions, and he’s grateful for that. “Start from the beginning.”
“Hm,” she says. “Well first we had Inulaq— he was my first kiss, when I was nine. He was eleven, and I actually liked him— as a crush. You know how nine-year-olds are. He caught a fish for me.”
“Romantic,” Zuko nods. “And how did that relationship end?”
Katara twists her mouth at him, as though she isn’t certain whether or not he’s joking. “Sokka beat him up with a boomerang.”
“You know what?” Zuko chokes, “Sure. I hope Sokka got all the aggression over with Inulaq, then . . .”
“Sokka can be overprotective,” Katara notes as she eats a piece of fire-chicken. Zuko suddenly feels very tense, and the restrictive material of his armor is all that keeps him upright as his muscles clench together, thinking about what contraption that man could come up now—
“And then when I was sixteen and went to Kyoshi Island— when I met my brother’s current girlfriend, actually— there was this guy named Jet.”
“Jet,” Zuko frowns. “Earth Kingdom?”
“Yeah,” Katara laughs. “Very Earth Kingdom. He taught me quite a bit about a lot of things, and he was a nice guy at first but also just . . . kind of an asshole. Not an asshole to me, but just in general. He was nice to me,” she almost looks out into the distance. “And he was really good with kids.”
“Which date is that conversation?” Zuko asks nervously.
“How about . . . not this one,” Katara laughs. “Anyway, that ended when I came back after doing some combat training there, and it was a needlessly violent break up. Teens will be teens, and I almost regret that, but it’s fine— we were too young to last.”
“And how old are you now?” he asks, suddenly very, very scared. She takes a bite and chews through it.
“I’m almost nineteen.”
“Nice, nice,” Zuko swallows. “So, Kanik?”
“Kanik,” she sighs and then reaches over for the glass of water at her side— Zuko thinks she might wish it’s something a bit stronger. “Kanik is an asshole.”
“Is that recent?” he asks, and her nod confirms it. “Oh. I’m sorry if you— if you just broke up, or if you want to get back together . . .”
He’s suddenly very scared that this entire proposition is reactionary. Katara laughs and puts her chopsticks down.
“Don’t worry about that. He cheated on me twice. The last time was a month ago, and I just left.”
“I’m sorry,” he winces. “Does your family know?”
“I didn’t want to get too into it,” she looks into her glass. “Because my family does have influence around here, and Kanik’s family does too, and I didn’t want to start some kind of proxy war, or anything else of the sort, because he broke up with me. It’s usually fine, but my parents and Sokka did really like him, and I know they want an explanation I’m honestly not ready to give.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats, not quite sure what else to say, or what to take out from that, and she saves him.
“So tell me about this girl you’ve been dating your entire life.”
“Oh, yes. Her name is Mai, and she’s the daughter of one of the governors, and she and her friend Ty Lee are best friends with my sister Azula, so we grew up together. And then she had a crush on me when I was younger, and it made political sense and my sister was a terrible wingwoman, so I woke up one day when I was . . . sixteen, maybe, and realized I was dating her.”
“That’s sort of funny,” Katara giggles.
“Maybe in retrospect,” he allows and lets himself smile. “But that realization sort of ruined it. We spent the new few years breaking up all the time— over stupid things, like one of us being jealous, or not being able to spend enough time with each other.”
“That doesn’t sound super healthy,” Katara leans in. “Why did you keep getting back together, then?”
He shrugs. “Mai was safe— she was nobility, so it made sense to be in a relationship with her, and marry her someday, and even though her parents obviously liked the idea of her marrying a prince it didn’t seem completely . . . manufactured, I guess. Didn’t seem very fake. I think that was because we’d known each other for so long. It felt safe, and I . . . there aren’t very many happy relationships in the Fire Nation,” he admits.
“When was the last time you broke up?” she asks. She’s moved closer to him— she’s finished eating though he hasn’t— and he can feel the warmth of her breath.
“About half a year ago.”
The way she’s staring into his eyes is . . . uncanny. “Do you think you’ll get back together?”
“I’m done,” he decides, finally, right then and there. “I am— I’m really, really done with the games we’ve both been playing.”
For a moment, he thinks Katara might be about to kiss him, but then she’s back in her seat, almost looking put-off. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“If we’re going to get married and go wherever . . . stay here or on your ship or whatever . . . I don’t know. I feel as though I’m going on a date with someone’s boyfriend.”
“But we’re not dating—”
“But if you’re on and off she probably doesn’t think that the last break-up was permanent, does she?”
“I . . .” Zuko feels as though he’s messed something up. “But it’s never been this long, and we really did break up.”
“Zuko,” Katara looks into his eyes. He notes that she’s using his name— just his— and it feels distinctly different, more than it was this afternoon. “I’m not blaming you, or anything, but Mai probably thinks that she’s going to marry you one day anyway, and I don’t want to get in the way or that, and it just feels,” she shudders, “it feels wrong.”
Zuko pauses for a moment, tapping his hand against his armor, and then breathes out through his teeth. A small puff of smoke comes out of his mouth, and that makes him feel young and out of control all over again. “Okay. I’ll send her a letter, right now, to confirm that— that we’re done.”
“What if she . . .” Katara trails off, and Zuko shrugs.
“I’m sorry I don’t think . . . I can do more than that. Not here.”
“Okay,” she swallows, “that’s cool. Do you think you could maybe go do that right now?”
“Oh. Right now?” she’s leaning in again. “Do you want me to help you out?”
Katara chuckles. “No, I like it here— it’s warm. Do you think you could show me to your room?”
“Yes,” Zuko says. “Yes, I can definitely do that.”
The next morning, they separate early— Zuko wakes up with the early sun and drags a sleepy Katara out of his bed; not because he wants to, but because she’d insisted on him forcing her to do so before she’d slept.
(It had been the last comprehensive thing she had told him— and it’s a memory he can barely grasp now, almost overshadowed by what followed it.)
Zuko won’t have his second audience in the chamber for a couple of days, so he takes the time to check in on his crew— who all tease him about the pretty waterbender who left his room in the morning— and then heads to see monuments and learn about the culture of the Southern Water Tribe. He’d learned a lot about all the world's cultures when he was growing up— a requisite part of growing up as a prince— but he wants to know as much as he can about Katara and her culture.
(He wants to know as much as he can about her— because of their arrangement, of course, but also just because he wants to be able to find ways to make her smile; he wants to understand her.)
He ends up finding his way back to Katara— albeit unintentionally. Or perhaps not. Maybe his heart is a compass, skewed south, tugging at him.
The winding, icy streets lead him to a large ice building, jets of water coming from the top of it. He reads the inscription on its side, written in a language foreign to him, but still practiced. A training school for waterbenders.
He dallies in front of the door for a while. He wants to go in but isn’t sure if he should; the Northern Water Tribe hadn’t been receptive to his curiosity about their bending styles, and had perceived him as a threat, in general. Zuko is not the strongest bender, but he’s worked hard to get to where he is today, and he's gone to meetings with the Avatar and the White Lotus with his uncle and cousin. He understands the importance of learning from other bending styles— not to work on base form, but to make yourself stronger, more receptive to the world. The Avatar is the strongest bender amongst all the nations, of course, and he only favors his own element.
Then the door melts, and of course . . . he really cannot escape Katara. Zuko is faced with a small girl who raises her hands and then widens her eyes as she accidentally destroys the tall, icy entrance Zuko is standing in front of, bringing it up in a glob of water which hangs in the air for a moment before falling onto him. The cold sinks into Zuko’s bones and runs up his spine, and he feels— himself— like a giant brick of ice.
“Naida!” Katara calls out, and then she’s rushed to the entrance, face to face with him. Zuko wants to greet her and say something about how surprised he is to see her here— he doesn’t want her to think he’s been intentionally stalking her— but he’s stuck into place, frozen in himself.
There’s an easy solution here; he’s a firebender, he can warm himself up. But he doesn’t remember that as he stares into Katara’s bright blue eyes, loopies framing her face and bandages strapped across her arms. She looks like she could kick his ass. It’s very attractive.
“Oh my Spirits, Zuko!” she gasps when she sees him, and if there was any blood left in Zuko’s face it would have all rushed to his cheeks. “I’m so sorry. Naida is still learning . . .”
She reaches a hand out and pulls the water out from his soaked clothes, and a second later he’s dry but shivering. “It’s alright,” he says. “Better wet than burned.”
“Ouch . . .” Katara’s eyes drift up to his scar for a brief moment— he barely notices, and by the time he’s comprehended the motion she’s looked down again. It’s okay— that’s a conversation they can have on their next dates. There’s a different one to have today, and that’s about culture. He can anticipate it.
“Looking for me?” she teases in an effort to move on from the awkward moment.
Zuko finally summons warmth inside of his cloak, and he uses the sun around him to gather enough energy to shake off the residual cold, a small puff of water vapor erupting from his coat.
He hears a squeak, and looks down to see Naida staring at him and then back at Katara, curiously. “I wanted to look at some bending practice, if that’s alright. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the styles of all the nations and how they come together. And yes,” he finds confidence somewhere within himself and grabs her, bringing her waist lightly towards him, just out of hearing range of the child. “I was looking for you.”
His romantic efforts fall short. Katara leans away from him and studies his face, eyes meeting his. “How they come together,” she breathes, then winks. “White Lotus?”
“Don’t tell me— oh, Agni,” Zuko lightheartedly groans as Katara’s eyes light up. “Have you been initiated yet?”
“Go back to Kirima, Naida,” she calls out before turning around and taking his hand, leading him into the compound. “And tell her you need to focus on holding ice. I’ll rebuild the door and come back.”
The little girl seems as though she’s almost about to leave, but then her dark eyebrows furrow and she leans up to Katara on her tiptoes. “Is this your boyfriend, Master Katara?”
(And that is a loaded question, one he wants to control the answer to.)
Katara’s mouth opens, but Zuko takes the bait. “I am,” he tells her.
Naida only seems more confused. “He looks different.” Zuko almost puts a hand to his scar, but her next words clarify what she means. “How did he make the water come off him? He’s not a waterbender, is he?”
“He’s a firebender,” Katara says. “He heated himself up and made the water vaporize.”
“But how did—”
“You’ll learn about it in school eventually,” she chuckles, giving Naida a light shove. The girl runs down the hall and Katara moves to replace the missing door at Zuko’s back. He turns and sees her stepping back, curling her fingers together and fluidly taking a step forward again, back to him. The bands around her arms flex as she condenses water and ice from the snow outside and creates a door, building up and pushing the liquid together.
Zuko’s bending comes from the breath, and it’s somewhat helped along by a strong strance. When he was a child, his father had constantly demonized him for being weak, for being a terrible child and a worse firebender. Then, he’d bent through rage.
But Lu Ten had taken him to see the dragons, once, when he was fourteen. There, he’d learned the truth of firebending, and that his father was wrong.
(Firebending is not about destruction nor supremacy. It is not about luck, nor about power. It is about hard work, and communication with the spirits. It is about balance—)
It is about peace and calm, and life.
Seeing Katara waterbend makes him think that it, too, can be described like that. That all bending is life, that it is a tie that binds them, somehow.
He doesn’t want to disturb her, so after she builds the door back up into all of its former glory— accentuated with glass-like patterns— he asks her again. “Have you been initiated?”
“No,” she says, and he feels a little relieved. “Have you?”
“I haven’t,” he shakes his head. “I think they want proof that I’ll be good at my job first.”
“You’ll get there,” she clasps his shoulder and starts guiding him back down the hall where she’d sent Naida. “I’m not really surprised. Fire Prince, Chief’s daughter, it all comes together.”
“Do you know Avatar Aang? Has he . . .” he knows the Avatar through his uncle and the White Lotus.
“Yes,” Katara nods. “My grandmother is one of them, and she’s taken me and Sokka along to a few meetings. But they were all when I was much younger. I don’t think I’ll be initiated soon, though. I don’t know if I’ve done much worth that.”
They stop outside a glassy ice wall, and Zuko can see children practicing their bending through it. They’re all young, less than ten or so years old, and masters, Katara’s age and above, are watching them, commenting and correcting stances. He sees little Naida out of the corner of his eye, trying to freeze a ball of water in midair. She makes it into some sort of slush before it falls back down to her feet, and the middle-aged woman at her side touches her shoulder in support and gestures for her to try again.
“You’re a young master,” he realizes, looking at all the others. “When did you become one?”
She blushes. “When I was twelve?”
Twelve? He wants to laugh. He became a master at sixteen; even Azula, a poster-child prodigy, only became one at thirteen. “That’s incredible. You must have been the youngest one in a long time, weren't you?”
They stare out at the practicing children; he thinks the ice might be one-sided, because the practicing waterbenders don’t seem to notice either of them. “I was,” Katara blushes, and Zuko feels a strange sense of pride.
“And you’re a healer, and you help these kids with their waterbending, and you’re a leader— there’s a lot you do here. They’ll definitely initiate you—” he rambles . . .
“Zuko?” he’s been looking out at the bending children, and he moves to face her, now. Katara is blushing. “We need to talk.”
If Mai had said that, he would’ve been concerned. But they do need to talk— about a lot of things. About everything. “Yes?”
“How would our living arrangements work? When— if— when,” she stutters, “we get married.”
He thinks about that, because he hasn’t yet, not really. “What do you want them to be?”
They’re standing alone, under an ice dome, and yet he knows the conversation's sound isn’t carrying. “That’s not fair,” Katara admonishes.
“Fine,” he laughs a little. Zuko wants to lean up against the wall, but he’s scared he’d slip off. “Let’s both say one limitation we have. And we can decide, together. I’ll start,” he takes in a deep breath. “I know this is odd, but I would prefer . . . not living somewhere year-round. Obviously, I’m an ambassador, and we don’t have to stay together if we’re married, but . . . I like living on the ship. It’s as comfortable as the palace, and I get to see the world.”
He doesn’t know how she’ll take that, so he exhales heavily when Katara reaches out and intertwines his warm hand in her cold one. “I don’t want to stay here my entire life,” she admits, “and I definitely don’t want to just . . . live in the Fire Nation. I want to come back here. But I don’t know if I want to live here.”
“Are you sure?” he asks. “If that doesn’t work for you, we shouldn’t . . .”
“You’re doing a lot, Zuko. You’re doing a lot for the world— and you’re so close to being initiated. I don’t think I ever will, staying here. I can be a waterbending . . .”
“Prodigy? Young master? Genius?”
“. . . I can be a waterbender,” Katara blushes, “but there’s only so much I can do down here. Nothing I’m doing is irreplaceable. I want to see the world, make a change. I want to do what you’re doing.”
“Okay,” he nods. “Okay, that’s cool.” Hope is blossoming in his chest, the scary and amazing revelation that they may be able to make this work. “I don’t really want to stay in the Fire Nation for an extended period of time, but I do have to see my mother and uncle and cousin from time to time— like you’ll want to see your family.”
“So we can go back and forth,” Katara smiles up at him, large and radiant, as though this plan has sparked something within her, and her next sentence confirms why. “I want to see the world.”
“I’ve been to Kyoshi Island,” she shrugs, “but I want to see so much more of the world. It’s not that I’m stuck here, or that I’m ungrateful, or that I don’t love my family. But it’s why my grandmother was allowed to join the White Lotus— she changed the world and helped the Avatar and Hama when . . .” she stutters out and looks at him nervously. “She made a change in the world. I can’t do much more than I am here.”
“Ambassador Katara,” Zuko smirks. “We could be the Ambassador—”
“Ambassador couple,” she laughs. “And that flows so smoothly. It feels different, to orchestrate a relationship like this, so openly. There’s no guessing and overthinking and anything— it’s about honesty. It feels different. It feels nice. I’m not the best at being subtle.”
“Me neither,” he says, and pulls her hand further into his own. “I think there would be political implications to it, though, especially against the Earth Kingdom . . .”
“The Southern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation are staunch allies. Maybe I could take a few waterbenders along too,” she thinks aloud. “A traveling delegation.”
“You’ll commandeer my ship out of my control from right under my nose, Master Katara,” Zuko smiles so large it hurts his face, but he can’t stop.
“I will. The only thing then is the politics of separation. Particularly if I’m a delegate from the Southern Water Tribe and you’re from the Fire Nation— not all of our interests are going to align, certainly not at a surface level.”
“Yes,” Zuko says simply, and Katara’s eyes crinkle as she smirks under the ice, reaching out to lightheartedly smack him.
“Care to elaborate, Prince Zuko?”
“No, no,” he leans back slightly before sliding a bit on the ice floor, ending up resting himself on the ice. The bottom of his pants feels a bit wet, but his long overcoat will hide that. “You’re doing well, Ambassador Katara.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“I speak only truths. Go ahead.”
“It’s a political marriage,” she breathes. “That means some walls around us are going to be political. We’ll need personal boundaries.”
“I have one. No politics in the bedroom.”
Katara nods. “In any context.” Then her head tilts and her lips quirk as she seemingly reconsiders. “Actually, in a certain context . . .”
“Yes,” Zuko reads her mind and looks up at her almost reverently, not sure if he should (or can) blush, feeling as though he should almost bow to this girl who’s starting to understand every aspect of him so well. “And no blatant lies about politics— and we can’t bring up personal conversations in any sort of political atmosphere,” he rushes to make the conversation serious.
“Agreed,” Katara smiles. She reaches a hand down to lift him up, and though he has to carry most of his own weight as he stands again— he’s much larger than her— the gesture feels new and incredible.
They stand across from each other in the training building, surrounded by children and master waterbenders who can’t see them, and simply look at each other. Zuko doesn’t know what his own expression puts across, but in Katara’s eyes he sees understanding, a kind of clear honesty he’s never had with anyone else.
“I know you have to go,” he blurts out, “but what’s your love language?”
“Love language?” she exclaims, thinking for a moment before her eyes light up. “Oh! Like in the romance scrolls—”
“— about ways we show affection?”
“They’re not romance scrolls— they're theories on the scientific workings of relationships.”
“I’m going to check out your library one day,” she teases him, before leaning in very, very close— closer than they just were, standing barely apart— and wrapping her arms around his neck. “Mine is affection. Physical touch. Lots of physical . . .”
“That makes sense,” Zuko thinks back to lazy morning kisses as he awkwardly moves his hands across her waist and pulls her into him, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder. He’s in a heavy cloak and she’s just wearing strips of cloth wrapped around her, likely because she’d been warm when she was exercising. But she hasn’t in a half-hour or so now, and she’s a little cold. He raises his body temperature a bit, and she molds herself into him. “This feels nice.”
“Yours isn’t touch, is it?” she asks, muffling herself into his robes. “You don’t feel very comfortable.”
“I’ll learn to be,” he chuckles. “I like gift-giving. Just . . . I should probably warn you about that. I really enjoy sentimental objects. I’ve never admitted that out loud because Mai— she didn’t really like that. But just . . . taking care of other people. I like that.”
“That sounds nice,” she whimpers into his body heat. A second passes, and then Katara asks another, low-voiced question. “Zuko?”
“Why are we talking about love languages?”
“Because . . . we have to pretend we’re in love, don’t we? For the council . . .”
She’s not looking at him. He can feel her, pressed against him, but she’s not looking at him. “That’s what we told Sokka. Pretend.”
“Pretend is amazing. Terrific. But do you think . . .”
He waits a second, and then speaks into your hair. “Do you want to finish that sentence?”
“No?” she says, uncertainly. “I don’t know . . . if I can.”
“Do you want me to?”
“That would be nice.”
“Ambassador Katara,” he kisses her forehead between the words, “let’s give this a real fighting chance. And maybe someday . . .”
“Love,” Katara whispers. “Not now, but someday.”
They're Dorks, Your Honor. One of my favorite parts of the Zutara dynamic is the brash honesty and understanding, the way they don't mince words. Hopefully that's coming across here in a wholesome way :D