“Please tell me you’re not going to marry her.”
I hope this works for you, Anon!
A bored sigh accompanied the creaking of a chair across from where he sat. Zuko didn’t look up from the spread of scrolls and letters before him.
The quiet rustle of cloth followed not to long after, and slender taupe fingertips slid into the edge of his view. He ignored the urge to look up at her and ignored the little wiggling of her fingers to try and get his attention.
He scratched out a few notes on a slip of paper. One of Katara’s fingers reached and stretched and tapped the end of his writing brush just ever so lightly. He closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes again, only to refocus them–very obviously–on the work in front of him. “Mm,” he said, trying to sound busy.
If he had a good, solid hour to work on this, he could probably get his outline done. One of the toughest things he’d run into after taking up the full mantle of Fire Lord after reaching his majority was reestablishing a solid foundation for the economy. Being at war for a century meant that they didn’t really have to worry about trade agreements or import taxes or selling their exports. Now that the war was over, however, those were all things they desperately needed. Of course, none of the other nations were offering any kind of leeway or help, either. The Fire Nation had been doing just fine during the war, after all, why should they need help now? Except–they hadn’t been doing fine. War benefitted those in power and those who already had money who weren’t in danger of losing any. The poor who didn’t have much to begin with far too often lost what little they had, and the gap between his poorest citizens and the nobility had grown frighteningly during the last few decades–
“Zuko.” Katara’s voice was much closer to him, this time–right beside his ruined ear, in fact.
He blinked at the scatter of rice paper across his desk, then lifted his chin and tilted his head a bit so he could just see her blurry outline in his periphery.
“Are you trying to sneak up on me?” he teased her.
She laughed, one of her hands sliding across the line of his shoulders. He imagined he could feel the cool of her fingers even through the layers of his robes. Leaning over him, she peered down at the notes he’d been taking and the old, dusty scrolls he was using for reference. It was such a small, innocuous thing, but the way she pressed against him in doing so was intensely distracting.
“The Chun Tai Restoration?” she asked. It took him a moment to understand what she was talking about.
“It’s just a name I’ve been toying with,” he said. “I know the Sages are technically the ones who name when a new era starts, but it felt fitting. I really want to phase out as much of the military presence as I can.” Zuko frowned, his own gaze falling back to his notes and scrolls. “It’s proving a lot more difficult than anyone anticipated, though. Soldiers are usually really good at being soldiers, but not much else, and a lot of them are having trouble reintegrating back into non-war life. On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of jobs we can try and move them into. Too much of the economy’s old foundations have been let waste away. Did you know we used to be the primary exporter of specialty spices and top quality ceramics? I didn’t know that.”
Katara moved around him so that she was leaning back against the table, facing him. Amusement was bright in her eyes and tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I’d say you’ve been working on this a lot, but I think that might be the understatement of this century.”
He leaned his head against the back of his chair with an exhale. “I’ve got to get this outline done.”
“Well,” she said, straightening and smoothing out the front of her patterned, cobalt áo dài. Ever since she’d taken to wearing Fire Nation styles but in Water Tribe hues, Zuko often found himself losing the trail of his thoughts whenever he caught sight of her. She was stunning in the bold, contrasting colors amid a sea of reds and maroons. “I suppose I should let you get back to it, then.”
Zuko wrested his attention back to what she was saying. It didn’t help his concentration any that the close-fitting silks of the dress highlighted just what physical changes she’d gone through the past few years. “You could help,” he suggested.
She feigned indifference, turning her head to look off to the side. “Oh, I’m not sure just how much help I’ll be with all that right now.”
Now it was Zuko’s turn to laugh. “Katara, please. You know I’m always happy to hear your thoughts on everything.”
The curve of her mouth shifted smoothly from nonchalance to arch, and she tilted her head just so, giving him the graceful line of her neck and a glimpse of collar bone. Her eyes were hooded when she sent her gaze back to meet his. He felt a plume of heat blossom and curl beneath his ribs. “I’m afraid my thoughts are about as far from spices and quality ceramics as you might imagine.”
The heat pooled downward, and the drop in his voice indicated yes he very well might imagine. “Come here, why don’t you sit on my lap until I’m done working?”
Her áo dài’s silk was just as smooth beneath his hands as it looked when she pushed off the desk and slid onto his lap. Her hands found his chest and shoulders; his found the lines of muscle at her waist and back.
Zuko had always believed one of his greatest assets was his ability to focus wholeheartedly on the tasks set before him, and to overcome whatever challenges he had to. He knew proper áo dài had several hidden ties that held the intricate squares of fabric into place so the wearer could move without fear of any slipping. Where those ties were hidden depended on the tailor, and he had the feeling Katara would keep those secrets to herself, as well. His palm pressed against her back, while the one at her waist began the slow, wandering challenge of discovering where each tie was.
Scrolls and policies were left forgotten on the desk behind Katara. They had quite a lot of work to do before getting back to them.
@te-al-latte this is what happens when you goad me with amazing art okay, i am blameless
Zuko is a prince from a country far to the west, who was banished from his home after being cursed by an angry spirit that threatened his people. He stood up to the spirit and got an angry mark on his face where the spirit touched him as he tried to stop its rampage. He managed to drive the spirit away, but was unable to stop it entirely. The elders of his people told him the spirit fled east, toward the vast expanse of the Earth Kingdom. He decides to follow it and stop any more destruction it might cause; he has nowhere else to go. He cannot stay, cursed as he is. His journey takes him to Makapu Village, where a firebending woman named Aunt Wu has rallied the people into making the most of the rich resources the volcano overlooking the town provides. She meets with him, sees his cursed face. He tells her he has been spirit-touched, that an angry spirit attacked his home and cursed him, and he had followed it all this way. She tells him when she first arrived to this village, the people here were appeasing the spirit of the volcano so that it would not destroy their village. She liberated them from that burden, she tells Zuko, by casting the spirit out with her riflemen so that the villagers could improve their lives with all the resources the volcano provides. It turned out that the land around the volcano was rich with akome ironsand, and Aunt Wu had the villagers work on clearing out the forest to collect more iron to smelt and sell. The only problems are the less powerful spirits of the surrounding forest, who have a strong ally in a young waterbending girl. This girl has been trying to sabotage the work Aunt Wu has set up, and rally the rest of the minor spirits of the forest to fight back against Makapu Village.
~5638 words; inspired by this amazing fanart
“She’s coming again!” someone shouted from the eastern lookout tower. “Everyone get ready!”
There was a sudden flurry of activity throughout the dirt streets of the village. People grabbed whatever was handy—pitchforks, spears, hoes, anything—and ran toward the open square before Aunt Wu’s machiya household, all necks craned to watch the wall surrounding Makapu Village. Zuko’s scar filled with a brief warmth that had nothing to do with the furnace of the tatara forge behind him and his heart ricocheted in his chest. It wasn’t Ozai come back, was it? In the dense of the forest surrounding this area, he’d lost the trail of the spirit he’d been tracking. There were no paths of scorched earth or woods around here, and Zuko had found himself wondering if he’d come to the right place. That was before he learned what Aunt Wu had done to anger the volcano’s spirit, that had sent Ozai rampaging from here all the way to where he’d fought and been burned by the enraged spirit.
He jogged toward the square with everyone else, eyes scanning the wall. She, the villagers had shouted. Zuko sucked in a breath. It must be the waterbender Aunt Wu had talked about. The one working in league with the spirits of the forest to try and take the land back from the villagers. Unsure what he wanted to do—what he could do—Zuko ran faster, breath coming quicker as he tried to see where she was coming from.
A flash of movement caught the corner of his eye. It was someone dressed in blue, darting along the top of the wall. That had to be her. Surging into motion, Zuko sprinted through narrow alleys, heading in a straight shot toward the incoming waterbender.
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
It Wasn’t Just a Choice
The Eastern Temple sat before him, the bases of its three great pagodas shrouded in clouds. Aang stood for a while on the cliffside of the mountain facing the temple, as if studying it, though his eyes did not quite focus on the slanted rooftops or overgrown gardens.
Aunt Wu had once told him he could shape his own destiny like he had the clouds. If only life worked like that–at least, his life. No matter what he did, it seemed like he ended up walking in the grooves laid out for him, anyway. She had just told him that to make him feel better about not hearing what he wanted. Embarrassment rolled in his chest like an iron marble, cold and heavy. A hundred years ago, the monks planned to send him here, to the Eastern Temple, and he’d run away that night. When he’d come to meet and learn from Guru Pathik during the war, he ended up running from that, too. All the times he tried to subvert his destiny of learning to control a power he had never wanted to be saddled with, and he was back again.
Aang let out a lengthy exhale. How much time could have been saved if he hadn’t tried to force things? How much frustration could he have avoided if he’d listened, instead of just heard?
I actually don’t usually go for modern AU for Zutara for some reason (Perfect Places is an exception, obviously), but I will do my best for you, anon
He was always there in the mornings.
She’d first noticed him a few weeks ago, after the start of the semester and her somewhat questionable choice of an early class every Tuesday and Thursday. Katara had never quite been a true morning person, but with the help of some coffee to spur motivation, she got into the swing of it without too much difficulty. Not like her brother, whom she was fairly certain could sleep through a helicopter landing outside his window if it was before nine a.m.
The first time she saw him, she’d really only been killing time until her next class, wandering through the sections of the library with her coffee without really perusing. There wasn’t anyone else on the floor aside from one wayward librarian all the way at the other end, so Katara was a bit surprised to see someone sitting with a stack of books on the table. His dark head was bowed over a notebook–another surprising thing to see. Most of her friends used their laptops for everything, but here this guy was, sitting with a couple books open and overlapping one another, hand writing everything out.
She’d paused for a moment, watching him and listening to the quiet scratching of his pen across the paper, then continued on her meandering.
Somehow, every time she walked the library in the morning after that, she always came across him.
After a few more times, she made it into a little game with herself. Would he be there today? How many books would he have stacked up this time? Would he be at the same table, or the one a few shelves down?
When it continued even after that, she started to feel a bit weird about it. Had he noticed her at all? Would he think she was stalking him or something? Maybe she should say something.
But how would she even start that particular conversation? Hi, I’ve been watching you take notes for a couple weeks now, what’s your name? Yeah. She rolled her eyes at herself. That’d go over well. She should just mind her own business and let the poor guy study. Midterms were quickly approaching, anyway, so she should take a page out of his book and focus on her own work, not some stranger in the library. Even if he did seem pretty handsome.
Katara was a Health Sciences major, but had recently been thinking about different possible career options in it, and as such had started picking up a few International Relations classes. She though she might double major eventually. For now, though, she had picked up an armful of books based off of the extra readings suggested in her classes. Her brother ceaselessly teased her about being a workaholic, but she really enjoyed and took pride in her ability to dedicate herself.
Walking on autopilot through the rows of shelves, Katara deposited her books with a loud exhale on the first table she reached. She straightened, standing above her haphazard pile and grinned determinedly at the top book, The Great Transformation.
“Alright, Mr. Polanyi, let’s spend some nice quality time–” With a sudden, audible gasp, Katara cut herself off, eyes wide and hands flying up to cover her mouth.
Sitting two seats down from where she had unceremoniously dumped her books, sat the young man she’d spied several times hunched over his own notes. He was staring at her, wide-eyed and nearly gaping.
“Oh–I–I’m so sorry” Katara stammered. “I didn’t know–I didn’t see you there.” When he didn’t immediately say anything, she blushed furiously and looked down at her stack of books. “I’ll just grab these and go.”
His voice was a curious rasp, and it stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her gaze to his face and found she was instantly caught by the bright honey gold of his eyes. Her heart leapt to her throat, then plummeted immediately to her stomach, where it fluttered like a cluster of moths.
The man’s face softened from surprise to an amused smile. He motioned to the book she’d previously been addressing. “That’s a good read. Are you PoliSci?”
Katara relaxed and returned his smile, though her stomach did a few more flips in the process. “No. I’m actually majoring in Health Sciences, but I’m interested in International Relations, too.”
The single lampblack eyebrow he had lifted with what she suddenly and desperately hoped was interest. “That’s not a usual combination.”
“Well,” Katara began, leaning her hands on the back of a chair and resisting the urge to drum her fingers along the edge of it, “I’d like to try and do something with both of them, eventually. Maybe something with the WHO eventually.”
“That’s quite a goal,” he said, leaning forward to rest his chin on one hand.
“Yeah,” she agreed, feeling a little awkward. She drummed her fingers a bit along the edge of the chair’s back. “Are you an International Relations major?”
He shook his head. “Nah. I’m breaking away from family tradition and going into Political Science.” At her questioning look, he added, “My family owns a couple of businesses, so it was kind of always expected of me to eventually take over. I’m not particularly interested in that, though.” His smile reached his eyes and warmed them. “I’m Zuko, by the way.”
Her stomach fluttered again. “I’m Katara,” she said, a little breathlessly.
It was surprising how easy a conversation they fell into after the initial awkwardness of her unintentional intrusion passed. She learned he was in his senior year, that his uncle had a cafe not too far off campus, and that he worked part-time as a teacher at a local gym. She’d finally sat in the chair and told him about all the things she’d like to have a chance to work on–primarily access to education starting at the grade school level, and initiatives to help people connect with better access to health care regardless of age, financial status, or pre-existing conditions.
It was… nice. Katara hadn’t really voiced any of her ideas out loud to anyone, for fear that they’d think she was too idealistic, or that they’d tell her there was no way for her to do all the things she wanted to do. Zuko seemed not only genuinely interested in all she said, but asked pertinent questions that made her consider details she hadn’t before. He seemed to take her passions seriously.
Before she knew it, the entire morning had gone by between them talking. His phone buzzed and he took it out of his pocket to peer at it. She caught sight of the time on the screen and balked.
“Shit! I didn’t know it was that late!” Katara’s eyes flew back up to his. “I didn’t mean to keep you like that.”
Much to her surprise, he slipped his phone back in his pocket and laughed softly. She felt her heart skip a beat at the sound of it, how it was somehow sweet and rough at the same time.
“Hey,” he said instead. “You want to grab some lunch with me?”
Heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I… sure. I’d like that.”
He stood and held out his hand. She took it, a delightful tremor rippling through her chest at the warm strength of his hand. Her blush deepened and she tried to hide it by glancing down at her pile of books. “Uh… should I just leave these here?”
“I’ve got some copies you can borrow,” he offered.
There was nothing she could do to hide the color on her cheeks when she turned back to him, but he had a dusting of pink across his own face. Giving his hand a little squeeze, she grinned up at him.
“I’d like that, too.”
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
It Was Just Simple
The sun bore down on her relentlessly; no clouds marred the sky and its light bounced back up from the crest of the waves surrounding them. Sweat beaded across her forehead and down the line of her spine. She grinned.
There was no way he was going to defeat her, even in with the sun at its apex.
Across the deck from her, Zuko slid into an easy stance, hands raised toward her as if he could keep her at bay with that simple motion. They both knew better.
Reaching out with the smallest curling of her fingers, Katara pulled at the ocean on either side of the ship, and drew up two slender streams of water, sending them directly for him the moment the streams breached the top of the hull. Zuko glanced at them, and dodged out of the way at the last minute, both of the streams narrowly missing him and crashing instead onto the deck itself. He came up in a fluid roll, fire following his momentum and curving toward her in a vertical arc from a sweep of his fist. She tugged up the water that remained on the deck and extinguished the arc into nothing more than steam. But, she knew better than to stay in one place, and using the sudden steam as a cover, she raced to one side, pulling up again at the ocean water, this time in small parcels that she brought to ring her in undulating globes. Zuko came at her through the steam, cutting through it with his body like a knife and jabbing several bouts of flame at her from his fists.
Katara was anticipating something like that, and with each fire burst he sent toward her, she wove out of its reach and sent one after another of her globes of water to engulf the flames. As she extinguished the last of his jabs, however, she almost didn’t turn in time to avoid him leaping straight at her. She turned the moisture on the deck into ice and used the momentum of her dodge to slide out of his way, while also hoping the ice tripped him up and gave her more time to counterattack. It was his turn to anticipate her move, though, and he landed with flames beneath his feet, melting her ice almost instantly.
With a fierce grin, Zuko spun to face her as soon as his feet touched solid ground after his leap and he went on the attack again—only he was a hair too slow. Katara had already drawn up yet another arcing stream from the ocean and sent in spiraling his way, dousing the flames even as he summoned them to his knuckles.
“What’s the matter, Zuko, can’t keep up anymore?” she taunted, grinning so hard her face hurt.
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
With Just the Company of Dawn
He woke up over water.
The sun was still low on the horizon, glittering pale gold over the bay waters. For a moment, Aang didn’t remember where he was. He shot up with a gust of wind beneath his feet, staff ready in his hands. Then—he remembered. He dropped his staff and sat back down, a small cloud of dust rising around his legs.
It was an impulsive thing to leave in the middle of everything like he did—impulse bolstered by a tugging sensation deep within him that pulled him eastward. He’d flown through the night, not even stopping long enough to retrieve Appa. The compelling urge to just go was too strong. When he’d finally collapsed, exhausted, onto a narrow outcropping overlooking Chameleon Bay, it was deep night. The only reason Aang woke now was because he’d felt the sun rise and stir his qi, something he began noticing after learning from the dragons.
Now that he wasn’t caught up in the urgency he’d felt last night, driving him back to the Eastern Air Temple, Aang couldn’t stop his mind from trying to sort all the things reeling within him into some kind of order. The hurt from Katara’s choice to abandon traveling together resurfaced again, keen as ice biting against bare skin. To entertain the thought that she would no longer be there for him to reach out for comfort or even simple conversation settled gloom around him like a shroud. No small part of him wondered how long she’d been wanting to leave, if she had ever really wanted to go with him to begin with.
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
With Just Waves as Witness
Salt spray coated her face and threaded her hair, and nothing had ever felt or tasted so good. She wondered if this was what freedom tasted like, or if she was being dramatic about it.
Katara stood on the prow of the Fire Nation ship and stared out across the undulating blue horizon. They had left the Earth Kingdom just under a week prior, and it’d been four days since they last saw land of any sort. It would be at least another week or so until they saw the first of the Fire Nation islands, and even longer than that before they reached the capital. For now, blue stretched out all around—scattered across the sky were a few clouds, and the sea was deep and clear. In talking with the captain, she’d learned that there were several sea lanes that followed strong currents between the nations, and the Fire Nation had many of them mapped and regularly utilized them to a ship’s advantage.
It felt like they were making good time, but from what Zuko told her, they were actually sailing leisurely. It was so different from a cutter ship, where they might make this kind of speed only for a short while if the winds were very kind. Her mouth pulled into a frown and she leaned on the rail. It felt like a long time since she’d traveled by sea, with as much time as she spent on Appa after the war was over; with as much time as she spent traveling with Aang.
A pang of guilt and disquiet twisted in her stomach. Was this the right choice, what she was doing? She knew she could help—she wanted to—but was going to the Fire Nation as ambassador from the Water Tribe enough to outweigh her accompanying Aang as he did his work? Her frown deepened. It felt a lot like running away.
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
POV: Yon Rha
Yon Rha recognizes him immediately; he was the leader of the Southern Raiders for years, how could he not recognize his (former) Crown Prince?
He’d heard the rumors.
Exile had made the Prince devoid of empathy; he’d gleefully watched Zhao fall to his death at the North Pole so now he was once again the only one searching for the Avatar. He’d sail his crew past the point of exhaustion and into danger after danger with no regard for their safety. Yon Rha had never been a stranger to pushing his sailors hard, but even he knew when to let them rest. But the exiled Prince was said to have killed a man in a duel himself for demanding rest for the crew. He’d even battled his own sister and uncle to ensure he would be the only one to secure capture of the Avatar—the young man’s obsession had clearly consumed his mind.
And now here he was, standing with the last waterbender of the Southern Tribe who’d grown so powerful she stopped the rain around them entirely in a dome graceful as gossamer and as terrifying as drowning.
It was then Yon Rha knew he was going to die.
Chapters 2, 3
fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
POV: Zuko, Aang
Just Two Words, Just Begin Again
Zuko’s head reeled.
Something was going on between his friends, and it wasn’t the thing that everyone assumed it was. Well—maybe not everyone. He cast a glance to Sokka, who was definitely watching his sister from a few tables away, clear concern in his expression. There’d been a few things that the Water Tribe warrior had mentioned to him during their walk to the ballroom earlier that hadn’t made much sense to Zuko then, but in retrospect made him wonder. You know my sister, he’d said. She’d cut off her own arm before risking a friendship. Or, you know, a whatever.
But, the way Katara had tensed against him when he mentioned her helping Aang, the way Aang had tried to guilt her and caused an almost imperceptible shudder through her frame had him remembering Sokka’s words in an entirely different light.