The ship bumps gently against the dock as the workers moor it, the huge, heavy ropes rasping against themselves. The crew on board wait for the signal before they start to crank down the boarding ramp. Zuko waits and watches, trying to seem more patient and less weary than he feels. The ship bore the Avatar, Iroh, and some number of the Avatar’s army, come to help Zuko reestablish his sovereignty. That help will be a relief. The Fire Nation is divided, some people glad to welcome Zuko and the end of the war, others less than pleased that they’d technically lost the war and are under the “cowardly prince’s” rule. There have been a handful of assassination attempts already, and protests calling for the release of Azula from the palace prison.
Zuko wonders how those people would react to being told that Azula is not in the prison, but rather in a secure ward in the hospital, raving and delusional. It seems that losing the Agni Kai and being deposed had broken something in Azula’s mind. She wasn’t just sociopathic now, she was deranged and a danger not only to others, but to herself.
And yet, there are people calling for her return as the rightful Firelord. It is utterly mad.
The boarding ramp is set and everything triple checked, and Zuko moves forward as figures appear at the rail of the ship. The soldiers—mixed Kiyoshi and Water Tribe warriors, and Fire Nation troops—who have been acting as his personal bodyguards, move with him. Zuko ignores them as he bows, formally greeting Aang as the Avatar steps off the boarding ramp with a wide smile.
“Prince Zuko! Well met!”
“Avatar Aang, welcome to the Fire Nation,” Zuko replies. Aang smiles up at Caldera City, a wistful expression on his face.
“It had been so long since I have been in the archipelago… I believe I was nine the last time,” Aang gives a little chuckle.
“It has not been so long for me,” Iroh says as he joins them, “but I have still missed the Fire Nation. It is good to be back.”
“I’m glad you’re both here,” Zuko says, sincerely but understated. However, the docks are not the place for an emotional reunion. “Your men will be taken care of by Commander Jee; we should head up to the palace now, though. Things are mostly peaceful, but there are a couple factions that have not taken the end of the war well.”
“You’ve been having troubles?” Avatar Aang’s nostalgic smile vanishes, and he looks disappointed. Zuko tries not to take it personally; he’s not disappointed in him. Probably.
Iroh sighs. “I had hoped… Well. This isn’t surprising, though it is disheartening.”
Zuko leads them to the gondola that runs from the docks to the palace complex. The three of them can fit inside with room for five of his bodyguards; the rest will have to walk back.
“It isn’t as bad as it could have been,” Zuko tells Iroh. “I didn’t expect any of them to accept me. But a lot of the non-bender soldiers heard about the 57th, the truth, and they’d been getting tired of being Ozai’s chaff. Most of them are on my side. But… The number of those who aren’t isn’t negligible.”
The air about them becomes grimmer, faces settling into slight frowns, brows furrowing. Silence falls between them as the gondola begins to move smoothly toward the palace.
Katara feels just as uncomfortable in the Fire Nation now, when her husband and her army are in charge, than she had when Ozai had been in power and she had been newly-wed to a stranger. She assumes it is a combination of not knowing what her place here is anymore, and the assassination attempts on Zuko. The war is over, not counting the unrest here in the Fire Nation, and Katara is remembering all of the questions about the future she and Zuko have been avoiding.
They still spend time together every night, once they’re done with their duties during the day. But they still haven’t addressed the cloud hanging over them. They both know that Aang wants Zuko to take the throne, and that his hope is that the Fire Nation would accept Katara as Consort. But the reality is that Zuko is barely accepted as the interim leader, let alone Firelord, and let alone Firelord with a Water Tribe Consort. There is no way Zuko can be Firelord and stay married to Katara.
She’s starting to try to steel herself to losing him.
She’s not really succeeding. Whatever doubts she’d held on the day they’d married have been washed away by Zuko’s words and actions. He has proven himself to be a compassionate man, a mindful leader, someone Katara could fall in love with if she hasn’t already (she has). She doesn’t really want to let him go.
She will, if that’s what the world needs. But she doesn’t want to.
Katara sighs, trailing her fingers through the fountain beside her. Sitting in Ursa’s garden, where she had spent time with young Zuko, Katara misses the older woman’s motherly presence. But as much as Katara wants Ursa’s advice, the wounded left behind in the Earth Kingdom with the bulk of the Avatar’s army need her healing talents more.
Zuko’s wounds from the lightning strike are mostly healed, to speak of it. Katara had managed to fix the internal damage, the tiny tears and burns in his muscles, so that he probably won’t suffer from any lingering issues. But he will always bear visible scars from the strike, the ugly splotchy ones on his chest and the sole of his left foot, where the lightning had entered and exited his body, as well as the strange lacy ones that spread delicately outward from both sites. Katara regrets those scars, not because she thinks they take anything away from Zuko in character or looks, but because he already bears enough scars from his abusive father and sister and he doesn’t deserve more.
For his part, Zuko seems… not upset at the scars, exactly, but more resigned. It’s possible that his reaction upsets Katara more than the scars themselves. It isn’t that she wishes he were more sad or ashamed or anything, but the weary acceptance with which he addresses them speaks of his experience and expectation of being marked, being hurt, by his family. Katara is reminded once again that not all scars are visible, that she will likely be combating the injuries Ozai and Azula had dealt Zuko in his heart and mind for the rest of her life.
She freezes at the thought, appalled with herself. There may not be a ‘rest of her life’ with Zuko, if he has to repudiate her to keep his throne and the peace in the Fire Nation. She has to stop thinking that there will be, if only to protect her heart.
“Countries should not sacrifice to their leaders, their leaders should sacrifice for their countries,” Zuko had said. Never had duty felt quite so much like heartbreak.
Speak of the bear-shark, and he arrives. Katara stands and turns to greet Zuko. Suki, Sokka, and a Firebender whose name she doesn’t know are behind him, apparently his guards for the day. Katara’s heart warms at the sight of her brother protecting her husband, a man he’d started out hating.
She slips her fingers into Zuko’s, because she can’t deny herself that comfort. She sees more than hears Zuko exhale with the contact, always surprised and pleased by the gentle intimacy of her touches. His hand curls around hers.
“The Avatar and my uncle are in my study,” he tells her, probably catching her focus behind him. “I’ll be meeting with them in a moment, but I wanted to see you first.”
She nods. “I’ll be heading to the hospital shortly, but I have a little time.”
He glances at his guards, then leads her a little distance from them, out of hearing but not sight. His hand slips from hers and rises to cup her face. His eyes sweep over her face, searching, uncertain. Katara lets him look, meets his gaze openly, wondering what is wrong. He hadn’t looked at her like this for days, like he’s desperate for her but uncertain of his reception. His thumb strokes her cheek and Katara catches his hand, pressing it closer against her.
“Zuko, what—?” she starts, beginning to worry, but falls silent immediately when he touches the fingers of his other hand to her lips.
“If there were a way, would you stay with me?”
The soft, urgent question makes Katara’s heart leap, and she almost can’t respond with it pressing against her throat. She swallows, hoarsely says: “ Yes .”
Zuko kisses her deeply, uncaring of their audience. Katara clings to him. She is dizzy with it when he pulls back, strokes her cheek once more, and then sweeps out of the garden and back into the palace. Behind him, Sokka is pulling a rather horrific face, and Katara hears Suki say “Oh get over it; they’re in love and it’s wonderful” as they follow after Zuko. Her lips twitch into a tremulous smile that fades quickly. She isn’t sure what Zuko is planning, but it is obvious he is planning something.
“I can’t be Firelord,” Zuko tells Aang and Iroh bluntly. They both immediately begin protesting:
“Nephew, you can’t—”
“No,” he says. They fall silent, and Zuko relaxes a little. They’re going to let him explain. “I can’t be Firelord. And you both know it.”
“The protests and assassination attempts,” Iroh says, face unreadable. Zuko nods.
“Those aren’t going to go away. And there are too many who agree that I am unfit for the throne; I can’t arrest all of them. And trying to do so would make my reign as oppressive as my father’s.” Zuko takes a breath. “And there is also the fact that, by my own words, I am not fit. I told Azula that she was too selfish, that a leader needs to put their country first, before all else. I couldn’t do that. I threw myself in front of Azula’s lightning to save Katara, because I love her. I was willing to sacrifice myself, and I know that I would do the same thing all over again. What if I am Firelord, and someone targets Katara, or my mother, or someone else important to me? I would sacrifice myself for them, potentially leave the Fire Nation without a leader. I can’t put the country before myself, before the people I love. Our people deserve better than that.”
Aang sighs. “You needn’t—”
“Why do you want me on the throne?” Zuko interrupts. He looks from Aang to Iroh and back. “Really, tell me.”
“Why? Because you are of the Blood, it is your right. And you are good, compassionate. You have the right and the disposition to be Firelord. The potential to be a great leader.”
“I am not the only one with those things,” Zuko reminds them, looking pointedly at Iroh, who frowns.
“I gave up my position in the line of succession,” he protests.
“But you can be reinstated,” Zuko says. Iroh shakes his head.
“My son is dead, I have no heirs, and I am too old…”
“If you’re too old, I shudder to think what that makes me,” Aang chuckles. “To be fair, Zuko has a point.”
“You’re only twelve years older than my father,” Zuko says. “And you’re a lot younger than a number of Firelords had been when they sired heirs. Firelord Joizu was eighty when Lady Kinu bore Sozin. Forgive me, Uncle, but you aren’t too old to remarry and have more children.”
Zuko knows the loss of his wife and son had sorrowed Iroh, the latter more than the former. But he also knows that he is right, and that Iroh can see that. Still, he feels a little guilty when Iroh winces.
“No,” he says a little sadly after a long moment. “I suppose I am not. It is only that I feel it.”
“Then, do you think this will work?” Aang asks him, looking interestedly between the two royals. Iroh is silent a while, thinking, stroking his beard.
“I may be the best compromise in this situation. I am an ally of the Avatar, yet I am also a hero to the Fire Nation people.”
“Dragon of the West,” murmurs Zuko. “You aren’t like me; once Father thought you were dead, he didn’t bother to defame your name.”
Iroh frowns. “It should be you. You were always the best of us. I fed this war, for years, I perpetuated the killing, the death. I am a relic of the war. You were always above it. It should be you.”
“But it can’t be,” Zuko says. “It can’t be, not if you want this peace to last. The Fire Nation needs a Firelord they can all follow. They can’t follow me; Father made sure of that.”
Iroh closes his eyes like a man steeling himself for the gallows. Zuko understands the feeling. “Very well. You are right. Very well.”
“Alright,” says Aang very mildly, bringing them back around. “What needs to be accomplished to reinstate Iroh?”
The courtyard is filled once again with masses of Fire Nation soldiers and civilians, faces turned toward the large stone ‘stage’ that had been built against the wall of the palace to provide a venue for speech-making and coronations and other state displays. Massive red banners bearing the black flame device of the Fire Nation hang at the back of the stage, rippling gently in the slight breeze and providing a dramatic backdrop for the finely robed figures standing before them.
Zuko twitches the sleeves of his robe uncomfortably, the weight of the shoulder piece multiplied by the fact that is is the Firelord’s mantle. He takes a couple centering breaths, watching the Fire Sages finish their little ritual on the stage. Azula had forgone the ritual, which is supposed to honor Agni and ask for his blessing upon the archipelago, its people, and the incumbent Firelord. Azula hadn’t liked the idea of anyone or thing that is more powerful than she, so she had bullied and threatened the Sages into skipping that part.
While Zuko is mostly ambivalent on the subject of spirits—if they are as benevolent and caring as people say, then how could they have let a century-long war happen?—he knows that alienating the Sages and all of the people who truly believe is a poor leadership choice.
Even if his stint as ‘leader’ will be short.
He recognizes his cue, even though anxiety is making his ears ring, and strides with carefully cultivated confidence and poise onto the stage. Clearing the pillars and stepping out into the open has his shoulders tightening a little, the knowledge of exactly how many assassination attempts his bodyguards have foiled (one today; they were going to kill him with a poisoned arrow right here, actually) fresh in his mind. But his people have done their jobs well, and he survives his walk across the stage.
Kneeling in front of the Head Fire Sage, he manages to say and do everything he is supposed to, and then he feels the weight of the golden flame ornament slide into the small knot his servants had managed to scrape his hair into. Zuko breathes through the small spike of panic, and stands smoothly, turning to face the crowd. They’re cheering, if a little half-heartedly.
“The future is a delicate thing,” Zuko says, and Aang, standing in the place of honor slightly to the side of the stage, uses his Airbending to amplify his voice beyond what simple pitch and volume tricks can manage. Zuko’s voice rings out above the cheers, which quiet rather quickly as he speaks. “Something that needs a strong, righteous hand to guide it.”
He pauses, looks out over the crowd. Katara is in the front row, with the Kiyoshi and Water Tribe warriors who are not currently on guard duty. They had decided not to have her stand on the stage; her presence there is not necessary and could have caused tension. She doesn’t look bothered to be amongst the crowd; her face is shining, focus unwaveringly on him.
“My first act as Firelord is to reinstate my uncle, Prince Iroh, son of Azulon, and Dragon of the West, to his place in the line of succession. As witnessed and ratified by Agni’s servants on the earth, the Fire Sages.” As Zuko speaks, Iroh walks out, garbed in a similar robe to Zuko’s.
The cheering that goes up at this proclamation is more sincere than it had been before. Zuko takes it as a sign that his plan is going to work. He takes a breath, reaches up, and removes the golden flame ornament from his hair.
“My second act as Firelord is to abdicate in favor of Prince Iroh, who is the true and rightful Heir to the Dragon Throne.” Iroh bows his head to receive the flame as Zuko speaks. The cheering has scaled up into a chaotic roar as people react with shock, confusion, happiness. Zuko steps away from Iroh and says: “Hail, Firelord Iroh!”
He bows low to his uncle. If possible, the cheering gets even louder, and Zuko feels a rush of relief.
Katara is arguing—amiably, but still arguing—with some of her Tribesmen about the storage of cargo in the little cutter that is one of several that will carry them home to the Poles. Zuko leans against a railing and watches, feeling more relaxed than he remembers ever feeling in his life.
“Think you’ll make the tide?” Iroh asks, coming up to the rail beside Zuko. He smiles at his uncle—at his Firelord.
“A ship with a Waterbender needs no tide,” he says easily. Iroh chuckles.
“This is true.” He’s wearing the Firelord’s robes, but he manages to make them look comfortable, rather than stiff and formal. Zuko allows himself a moment of envy, but quickly returns to his relief.
They watch Katara brow-beat the crew into obeying her. She watches them scurry away with her hands on her hips, then turns and walks over to join Zuko and Iroh.
“Hello, Uncle. Come to see us off?” she greets Iroh with a fond embrace, having bowed to his insistence that they are family and she should address him as such a mere week after their second introduction. Iroh clasps her hands, smiling.
“Always a pleasure to see you, my dear,” he says. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay in the Fire Nation?”
“It’s for the best if we don’t,” she says regretfully. “But we will visit… Once things calm down a little more.”
Zuko grunts. They’d finally stopped trying to kill him, but his proximity to the throne makes a lot of people unhappy. It is for the best that he leaves for a while.
“Prince Zuko! Lady Katara!”
They turn to watch Aang Airbend himself up onto the ship from the dock. He lands easily on the deck, smiling at them. He gives a congenial nod to Iroh. “Firelord Iroh. Mind if I steal them from you a moment?”
“Not at all,” Iroh says, then tells them: “I’ll say goodbye again, once you’re finished.”
“Is there somewhere a little more private and out of the way we can go?” Aang asks after Iroh strolls away. Katara nods.
“We can use the captain’s quarters,” she says, and leads them there. Once they’re inside and the door is shut, Aang Airbends himself onto the top of the tiny desk, presumably there for the captain to check maps and write logs. He smiles at them, tucking his hands into his sleeves.
“Everything ready for your departure?” he asks. Zuko eyes him, but bows to the necessity of small-talk before the Avatar speaks of the real reason he’s here.
“Yes,” Katara responds. “We were going to wait for the next tide…”
Aang smiles wider but doesn’t answer the implicit question of whether they’ll have to wait longer. “And your first port of call is Taedong? To see your mother again before you return to Katara’s home at the South Pole?”
“That’s right,” Zuko says, suspicion peeking through his tone. Aang nods.
“Good, good. I have a proposition for you.”
Zuko’s eyes narrow. There it is. “What proposition?”
“Well, I’ve been working with the King of the Earth Kingdom. I’ve been concerned about what would happen to the colonies after the war, the older ones anyway—they’ve been under Fire Nation control for decades, long enough that there are families who think of them as home, more-so than the Fire Nation. And there are Earth and Fire intermarriages, children. Where do they go? So, I was talking to the Earth King, and I’ve persuaded him to deed the land to me. To the remaining Air Nomads. We’ll need—”
“Wait,” Zuko blurts. “Remaining Air Nomads?”
“Yes. The purges killed most of the monks and nuns at the temples, but we are people of the Air. We’ve always tended to blown with the wind. The purges couldn’t get us all, couldn’t find all the Air Nomads who were traveling the world. They got some, but there are a couple hundred of us still around, in hiding.”
Zuko feels a little weak with relief. He’d thought his nation, his people, had irrevocably broken the world—no more Airbenders, the world’s balance tipped and wrong. But they hadn’t. There are still Air Nomads, Airbenders, in the world.
“Anyway,” Aang continues, apparently oblivious to the effect the revelation has had on Zuko. “These people, the Fire Nation colonists, the Earth Kingdom natives, the Air Nomad refugees… They all need a home, one that isn’t the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, or the Air Temples. A place they can all live together, without elemental affiliations. A place to be a beacon of peace and cooperation between all peoples.”
“That is a wonderful idea,” Katara says.
“But where does this proposition come in?” Zuko cuts in.
“Well, I would take it as a great favor if you stopped by the colony on your way to Taedong and… kind of checked things out for me. I still have a lot of work to do here, agreements and treaties to negotiate and sign… I can’t go myself, but I don’t want those people to live with this question hanging over them of what will happen to them, to their homes.”
“Alright, but… Why do you want us to go?”
“You’re like them,” Aang points out. “A union of two elements, a symbol of how this can be successful. And you have both been raised to positions of leadership. Zuko, you were raised as an heir to the Dragon Throne. Katara, after your mother’s death, you helped your grandmother with all the duties the wife of the chief would usually take. And neither of you are the leaders of your respective nations. You aren’t quite affiliated with Fire or Water, you’re outside of both peoples, so you aren’t going to be going in as Prince and Consort of the Fire Nation or as Matriarch of the Southern Water Tribe. You are the best emissaries I could possibly send.”
“I’ll cede you those points,” Zuko says, “but these are Fire Nation colonies. How do you know these people won’t hate me like the Fire Nation does?”
“You’re putting the emphasis on the wrong part. They’re Fire Nation colonies . These people have been coexisting, Fire and Earth, for decades. Their feelings and opinions are very different from the Fire Nation’s. And a lot of Ozai’s propaganda didn’t reach them, or if it did, it didn’t have the same weight as it did in the archipelago.”
Zuko frowns, considering this. It is probably true…
“We can add a stop to our plans,” Katara says. “Is that all you want us to do?”
Aang clears his throat in a way that makes Zuko’s suspicion rise again. “Well… I was kind of hoping you’d take the opportunity to check it out for yourselves, too. Because Republic City will need a governor—I can’t tie myself down, being the Avatar—and I think you two are perfect for the job.”
“You… want… What?” Zuko splutters.
“Republic City?” Katara asks at the same time.
“Well, yes, that’s what I want to name it. Granted, it’s a little more than a city… maybe more like a city-state, but Republic City-State doesn’t sound as—”
“Stop,” Zuko says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You want us to govern this… this new nation?”
“I think you’d be perfect,” Aang agrees.
“You thought that about my being Firelord.”
“Yes, but this is different, like I said. The colonists are a lot more accepting of you than the Fire Nation. Especially since you gave up the throne and stayed married to a woman of the Water Tribe. The reports I get from the White Lotus agents there are all very promising.”
Zuko opens his mouth, then closes it and his eyes.
“Do we need to make a decision right away?” Katara asks, and Zuko opens his eyes to shoot her an incredulous look.
“No of course not,” Aang says. “For now, just go and see the place. See the people. Get a feel for their situation and their opinions. Talk it over between the two of you. It’ll take some time to settle the logistics between myself and the Earth King, to form the actual city-state. You have time to make a decision.”
Katara takes Zuko’s hand. “Alright. We’ll go there. To check on it, like you asked. And we’ll think about the rest of it.”
“Fantastic!” Aang says, Airbends off the desk, and heads for the door. “Send me a message when you get there, and when you make your decision. For now, fair winds and following seas!”
He zips out of the cabin, the door swinging shut behind him. Zuko sits down hard on the narrow bed. Since he’s still holding Katara’s hand, she gets tugged down beside him. She squeezes his fingers once.
“We’ll need to let Captain Aqakuktuq know about the change in heading,” she says. “And send a messenger hawk to your mother and my father so they’ll know we’ll be delayed.”
“Right,” Zuko says a little numbly. Neither of them move.
“You think we should do this,” Zuko finally says, and looks at her. She meets his eyes forthrightly.
And Zuko realizes that, just like he’d followed her across half the world to the Avatar, just like he’d wanted to rise to the expectations she held for him, he is going to do the same thing again.
“Well,” he sighs. “At least it’s easier to appoint a new governor than a new Firelord, if they end up hating me too.”
“You’ll be fine,” Katara says, smiling at him. “I think Aang is right; this will work.”
Zuko hums noncommittally. Katara stands, and pulls at his hand. “Come on, let’s say goodbye to your uncle again.”
Zuko lets her pull him to his feet, but stops her as she begins to turn to the door, tucking her closer to him and tilting her face up for his kiss. “If this works,” he murmurs against her lips, “it’ll be because you made it.”
She smiles into the kiss, and corrects him: “Because we made it work.”