Zuko paced his Throne Room slowly and deliberately. What on Earth was he supposed to do?
The finest caricaturest of the Fire Nation would arrive at the Royal Palace in less than an hour's time. And while the Fire Lord made arrangements to meet with her months ago, he still was not ready.
A loud knock echoed around all four elaborate walls of the room. Zuko's head whipped towards the door as he simultaneously eased into a sharp battle stance. His security force was more skilled than the Dai Li; no guest could simply be allowed to knock on his door without an announcement or careful screening. As a matter of fact, the door was three stories high. It must have taken a numerous amount of power to produce such sound. His security must have been wiped out completely. Out of all days-
"Can I come in?"
All at once, the air in Zuko's lungs retreated his form. That voice had left him breathless too many times to count, so he relaxed his stance. An excited yet conserved grin graced his lips as he moved towards the doors.
"Please, Katara, come in."
The extravagant double doors opened slowly, revealing the young woman behind them.
It had only been about one year since they all had defeated Ozai, the first step in restoring balance to the charred world he left in his wake. But since then, Zuko had grown pitifully lonely. Iroh settled down in Ba Sing Se to tend to his tea shop. Aang had Avatar duties to take care of. Sokka was helping to rebuild the Southern Water Tribe alongside his father. And Toph just opened her own metal bending academy. Him and Mai were perfect for a month or so, but their relationship returned to the dull, repetitive cycle of fighting and misunderstanding. She was just as tired he was, so they agreed to part ways for good. The only person that he had a real desire to see had been on a tour of the four nations, healing as many people as she could. Maybe she was here to heal him too.
Her long brown hair cascaded down her back and framed her face perfectly; her light blue Water Tribe garb matching her eyes. Although her skirt was long, it was thin to accommodate the Fire Nation's heat, and a slit ran up from her right ankle to her lower thigh. He gave her credit. She combined practicality and class with a dash of style, but none of it could touch that smile of hers. She sauntered down the long crimson carpet that stretched on for yards.
"The guards informed me that you were meeting someone soon."
"But we couldn't turn her away, sir," one of the aforementioned guards admitted as he helped close the doors again.
Once the pair met halfway on the carpet, it was clear that neither of them knew what to do. Zuko cleared his throat and before he could debate shaking her hand or bowing to her, Katara bridged the gap between them in a secure hug. Her arms went around his neck and he found himself enveloping her. His hold around her slender waist was instant; he hadn't realized how much he missed her touch until he was able to sample it again. It was soft, kind, and simply Katara.
She seemed to enjoy the hug just as much as he had, squeezing tighter for a brief moment before pulling away and eyeing him from head to toe. A small laugh bubbled from her lips and Zuko's mind went into panic. He glanced down at himself and sighed in relief that there were no stains or outstanding body parts to bring him shame or embarrassment.
"What's so funny?" Zuko asked worriedly.
Katara patted his cheek gently and walked around him, skipping toward his throne and plopping down gleefully. "I really need to visit you more often, Zuko. You've grown at least another four inches and your muscles are starting to become intimidating."
Zuko's cheeks were dusted a fair rose color but he overpowered it with a smirk. "Intimidating?" He echoed.
"Only a little. I'd still be able to beat you in a spar, but now you'll be able to put up a better fight." She kicked up her feet on one of the arms and laid back in his throne, sighing contently as if she hadn't had a break like this in months. Zuko chuckled under his breath and moved towards her, leaning against the enormous chair that symbolized his sovereignty. He took note that Katara had grown as well. There was no doubt that she was an even more stunning young woman now, and a visibly powerful one at that.
"What brings you to the Fire Nation, Water Bender?"
She looked up at him and smiled sincerely at the name. It wasn't an insult anymore. "I've helped so many people since we brought peace back to the world. I've gotten to heal so many physical wounds that I could see the emotional wounds starting to heal as well."
Zuko was watching her face light up like a lantern. She was so passionate about helping others that he knew she's part of the reason why he switched sides so long ago. "But I decided to take a rest for now. I'll start another tour when I've restored my energy and visited all the people that are important to me."
Zuko sat on one of the throne arms then, careful not to disturb the comfortable position she was in. "That's really sweet, Katara. You have no idea how much I appreciate you coming to see me."
"Of course I'd come to see you, you're the first person on my list! I haven't even gone home yet."
It was almost as if he felt a flutter in his chest. Like a small circuit of electricity. He brought his fingers to brush over the spot gently and he remembered. Lightning had passed through him already, nearly killing him, all for the girl sitting on his throne. He didn't even need to verbally respond. She saw it in his eyes, how touched he was that she thought about him first. What she didn't know was that he always thought about her first, too.
"You're free to stay here at the palace for as long as you'd like, Katara." He reached for her hand and squeezed it affectionately. "There will always be a place for you here."
Katara squeezed back in turn, thanking him with the twinkle in her eyes. He couldn't tell if she understood what he said in its full capacity, but he left it at that.
One of the doors opened slowly then, a guard stepping inside the room and almost dropping his serious façade at the sight before him: his Lord was sitting uncomfortably, hardly on his own throne as he held hands with the esteemed water bending master-whom was sprawled out on the Fire Nation throne as if it were hers to keep. The thing that caught him off guard the most was the fact that he supported this; whatever this was. As quickly as he dropped the ball, he picked it back up again. His posture went rigid once more and he cleared his throat.
"My Lord, Un Dao has arrived."
Zuko stifled a groan as he stood, straightening his robes and lifting his chin high. "Thank you, Di Zhu. I will be ready for her in ten minutes."
Di Zhu nodded dutifully before stepping back and allowing the door to close once more.
Katara begrudgingly rose from Zuko's throne, adjusting her skirt and inquiring, "Who's Un Dao?"
"The best caricaturest around." The answer came out as a mumble.
"She's been trying to meet with me since my coronation." Zuko sighed and walked over to the small pond he had installed to the room, glancing at his reflection in the water.
Katara followed him to the corner, resting her hand on his shoulder. "That was well over a year ago, Zuko. Why have you been putting it off for so long?"
He glanced over his shoulder at her and focused his eyes on the water again, chewing on his bottom lip. She responded to his silence by stepping closer, gazing into the pond as well and following a baby Koi fish with her eyes.
"I understand that it's standard to have an official depiction of me out there as Fire Lord. No more wanted posters or drawings of me as a banished prince. But this caricature will be published everywhere, Katara."
A frown tugged at her mouth and she looked into Zuko's eyes through the reflection. "What's wrong with that?"
Zuko drew in a deep breath, ripping his gaze from the water and meeting the icy blues right next to him. "Posters, portraits, newspapers, calendars, you name it. Everything will be accessorized with my face." His voice hushed to a whisper. "My scar."
Katara cupped the healed flesh softly, stroking his left cheek with her fingers. Their stare was broken as Zuko gulped and bit back his insecurities, tensing slightly under her touch and relaxing once again.
"This mark," she started firmly. "Shows the entire world that you were good from the start." Zuko closed his eyes and leaned into her palm, resting his hand over hers.
"That you knew what was right from the very beginning, and paved your own path out of the darkness that Ozai, Azulon, and Sozin brought to the whole world." A smile subconsciously graced his face as he opened his eyes slowly, cupping Katara's cheek as well. He could have sworn he felt the electricity again and hoped that, just maybe, she felt it too.
"That path would have been broken if weren't for you, Water Bender."
Zuko leaned in slowly to rest his forehead against Katara's, and when there was no protest or signs of discomfort, he traced the fingers on her cheek down to her neck.
"Stay with me when she comes. I'd feel much more relaxed with you there."
Her breath came out in tiny puffs of air that brushed along his face as she nodded happily. It was cool, like a fresh ocean breeze.
Just as she was about to move closer, the grand doors slowly began to open. The two sighed and made space between them as tangible disappointment lingered in the air.
"Presenting Un Dao, my Lord and Master Katara."
Zuko forced a diplomatic grin and thanked Di Zhu again before making his way towards the frail, aged woman that entered the room. His eyes caught Katara's once more and he knew, for sure, that she felt it too.