The Fire Nation ship came steadily closer to the docks. Katara watched its lumbering approach, her hands tightly gripping the balcony railing in front of her. Behind her, she could hear her father and brother arguing over who had to go down to meet the delegation, but she knew that when the time came, it would be neither of them.
Black smoke pumped out of the Fire Nation ship, its metal body scarred and weathered from its many voyages. It was hard to believe that it was the official vessel of the Fire Nation's most important ambassador but the man enjoyed his creature comforts and this old ship happened to be one of them. As Katara traced its familiar lines with her eyes, she was reminded of another time when a Fire Nation ship had attacked her village and thought to herself that the times had changed indeed.
Now, the icewall that protected the city where she lived was a great deal bigger than the ship and two gigantic doors kept unwanted visitors out. It wasn't the same design as the icewall in the North Pole for this gate could be opened with a simple push of a button...or the offending ship could be sunk by one of the nearby icebergs. It was yet another of Sokka's brilliant designs and saved them from the inefficient method of lining up Waterbenders by the dozens to get it done.
"I'll go," she said to her father without turning around. "I'll go meet him, Dad."
"Thanks, Katara," Sokka said. "I really have to get back to the workshop and..."
"Yeah, yeah," she said, waving a hand at him as she gathered her skirts.
It would have been short order to request a sled but she preferred to walk, taking her time to greet and peruse some of the market stalls as she did. She also knew that the ambassador would like to walk back to the residence as well for he was a man who delighted in taking his time. She picked up a bag of sweets that she knew their guest would enjoy and by the time she reached the harbor front, the ship was just finishing its docking procedures. Hands clasped in front of her, Katara watched as the metal doors at its bow opened and a grizzled old general stood, flanked by his honor guard.
"My, it's colder than I remember," were the first words Iroh said, a puff of mist coming out of his mouth.
"I hope you brought the proper attire, Ambassador Iroh," Katara said, walking forward to meet him. "I don't think we have fires big enough here to warm you."
Iroh came down the gangplank, his arms open before he even reached her. Smiling broadly, Katara returned his embrace, not at all surprised that the man was as warm as a fresh cup of tea. It had been a little over a year since they last saw each other and Iroh had aged greatly in that time. Katara was afraid that her old friend wasn't long for this world and wondered at the wisdom of the Fire Lord for sending him around the world at his age—but then again, there was no one else who could do it. Iroh was the only member of the Fire Nation's royal family who was respected enough to get anything done and when he was gone, Katara was afraid of what would happen next.
But she pushed that thought aside and focused her attention on the ambassador. She put a steadying hand on his arm as they started walking towards the Chief's residence.
"It's good to see you again, Katara," he said, patting her cheek when they parted. "You're looking better and better every time I see you."
"You, too," she returned.
Iroh laughed, patting his belly. "I see your tastes run towards quantity rather than quality. What's that in your hand? Tell me it's..."
"Jasmine Ice Candies," she said, handing them to him. "Your favorite."
Iroh dug into the bag with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old and Katara laughed. An expression of bliss crossed his face as he popped one of the round candies in his mouth. It was as if he hadn't had one in years, but in fact, Chief Hakoda had sent him a great many for his birthday present that year. It was moments like this that Katara found it hard to believe that he was Fire Nation royalty.
"What brings you back to the South Pole, Iroh?" she asked, tucking her hand into his proferred arm. "You were just here a couple months ago to smooth over the trade negotiations and I didn't think the talks were going so badly that you had to come back again. Although, you could have a little talk with your trade councilor because he just doesn't understand..."
"I didn't come here to play referee, Katara," Iroh said gently. "Actually, I've come not only as an ambassador, but as a special envoy for Zuko—I mean, Fire Lord Zuko."
Katara's expression darkened at the mention of the Fire Lord. While Zuko was certainly a more benevolent ruler than his father, he still routinely used the heavy-handed tactics that his family was known for; while he had Iroh acting as an olive branch, he also had Azula readily destroying whatever gains Iroh managed to make. At the same time, there were murmurings of dissatisfaction coming out of the Fire Nation about his rule and a faction was trying to place his sister on the throne either at his side or instead of him. He certainly had his hands full and Katara was sure Iroh was playing a big role in keeping Zuko in power. The political machinations of the Fire Nation had always been beyond her but she knew enough to disapprove of it.
"What's he got up his sleeve now?" she groused.
Iroh patted her hand and Katara thought he suddenly looked a little weary. "Now, now. I know you don't like my nephew, but he's done many great things for the Fire Nation. He is in a very difficult position and not everyone will be happy with his decisions and his actions, but he is strong enough to stand up to them. It's just that...well, he has a special request that he'd like to ask your father and I'm here to be his voice in the matter."
"You'll find out soon enough," Iroh said with maddening patience. "Is your father expecting me right now? I wanted to browse around the marketplace for a toy for Maiko. She wanted something to replace the Water Tribe doll her brother broke."
"You can take a little time," Katara said. "How old is the Princess Maiko now?"
"A rambunctious three and Lu Zuo is one."
"How have they been since the Fire Lady passed?"
Iroh's face grew grave. "It was hard at first, especially since Fire Lady Mai was sick for so long, but things are getting better. Zuko spends a lot more time with them and they enjoy that."
"It's hard for me to imagine him as a father."
"Believe me, I still find it hard to believe he is one but it's funny how life works out. Ozai was not exactly a paragon of fatherhood but Zuko somehow learned how to do the job a hundred times better."
Katara smiled down at the old man. "Somehow, huh?"
Iroh didn't appear to hear her as a toy vendor caught his eye. Katara stood by and watched him haggle with the vendor, tucking away a smile at the picture he made. Twelve years ago, it would have been impossible to see a man in Fire Nation robes doing something as common as shopping in a Water Tribe city, but here he was. The ordinariness of it tickled Katara and she grinned when he triumphantly held up the doll, paying almost half the initial price.
They went on to the residence and guards opened the front doors for them. Hakoda was in his study looking over some documents when they were shown in. He stood up and clasped Iroh's hand warmly.
"It's good to see you again, Ambassador Iroh," he said. "So I understand you have some important things to talk to me about."
Iroh's expression was pleasant but guarded. "That I do."
"Would you like some tea and refreshments before we get started? You've had a long journey and I don't want to rush you. If you would like to rest, Katara can show you to your rooms."
"I'm fine, Chief Hakoda, but I will take some tea. If you don't mind, I would like our talk to be...private."
Katara frowned but gave them a bow before leaving the room. Iroh threw her an apologetic smile and she nodded in understanding. She shut the doors behind her and went to her own study. She was sure her father would tell her what it was about.
When she opened the door to her private study, she was surprised to find her brother there. Sokka crawled out from under her desk and she winced in sympathy when he hit the top of his head. He muttered a curse and sat on the rug, rubbing his head.
"Thought I'd fix that jammed drawer while I was here," he said.
"Maintenance would have taken care of that. Don't you have more important things to tinker with?"
"More important than a tribal councilor's desk? Hardly."
"You want to know why Iroh is here, huh?"
"Don't you? Do you know?"
Katara grinned at Sokka. Cities may rise or fall but her brother remained the same. His hair was longer now, his warrior's wolf tail a distant memory, and he was almost half a head taller than their father with the muscle to match. She, on the other hand, could not boast such an achievement, having grown only another inch or two before stopping. She found comfort in the fact that Sokka had to contort himself into ridiculous and uncomfortable positions when he fiddled around with his inventions.
"Don't hold out on me, Katara," he said, wagging a finger at her. "What Sokka giveth, Sokka can taketh away. This drawer could find itself in the bottom of the ocean if I find out you're keeping secrets."
With one finger, Katara bended the water from the moon lily vase on her desk and had it dance in front of Sokka's face.
"It wouldn't be alone down there for long," she retorted. "But save your threats for something else, Sokka. Iroh didn't tell me anything. Just that he's here on Zuko's behalf to ask Dad something important."
Sokka threw himself on the room's single couch. "What the hell does that jerk want now? You know the Fire Nation wants to be able to use Water Tribe designs without paying the patent fees? Something about freedom of information or something since we live in an open and peaceful world now. I'll show them open and peaceful. No one's going to steal my designs, especially the Fire Nation."
"That sounds open and peaceful alright," Katara said dryly, sitting behind her desk. "Have you heard anything new about the Fire Nation lately? Some Fire Lord news that could give us a hint about what Iroh wants?"
"The usual," Sokka said with a shrug. "Azula smiles in front of his face but then swings a really big, fiery sword at his back. Their last rice crop didn't do as well as expected so the farmers are grumbling about him even though he controls fire, not weather. The negotiations over textiles with the Earth Kingdom fell through so they have to start from scratch."
"Sounds like he's getting hit on all fronts."
"Except from the Water Tribe. We seem to like him just fine...so to speak. Then again, everyone loves us. What's not to love?"
"We really should send you around the world, like what Iroh's doing," Katara said, laughing. "On the sides of your ship, you can have big banners that say: 'Water Tribe—What's Not To Love?'"
"Can't have a workshop big enough if I'm on a ship," Sokka said wryly. "If only Aang would come back from his meditative journey already. Zuko could use some of his help."
Katara rested her chin in her hand. Their old friend had been burning the candle at both ends since the end of the war and had recently decided it was time to take a step back from it all. Surprisingly, he and the Fire Lord had become close allies and worked well together. Katara couldn't honestly say that they liked each other but there was a great deal of respect there and Aang didn't like it when she spoke ill of the Fire Lord. She supposed she'd be as forgiving as he was if she'd opened up all her chakras but that wasn't happening anytime soon so she was perfectly happy to hold on to her grudges. Aang had saved the world from the Fire Nation but was now having to save the world from itself. He rose to the challenge eagerly, negotiating agreements from the warring nations and extracting peace from the remnants of war.
But he was only one man.
Nearly a year before, a weary and jaded Aang had confessed to Katara that he was losing perspective and needed to center himself again. He'd hugged her goodbye, patted Sokka's back, shook Hakoda's hand and disappeared high above to Appa knows where. Since he had left, things hadn't unraveled as everyone feared, and slowly they were all getting used to life without the Avatar—but that didn't mean he wasn't needed.
"You can't rush the Avatar," she said thoughtfully. "Besides, he's been working nonstop and even he needs a break. The last thing we need is for him to lose his temper and wipe out something important. I do miss him though."
"He'll probably fly through a window in the nick of time to save us from the evil clutches of Prince Zuko and his powerful but kooky uncle...oh wait, I'm traveling back in time again," Sokka said idly. "Actually, he'll be saving us from the evil clutches of Princess Azula and her powerful but incompetent brother."
"Oh if Zuko only knew what we really thought of him," Katara chuckled.
"Imagine his embarrassment," Sokka said as he straightened and stretched. "Alright, well since you're completely useless, I guess I'll make better use of my time in my workshop. Call me the second they come out."
"Yeah, that's the first thing I'm going to do after Dad drops a bomb on me," Katara said with a big smile.
"Atta girl," Sokka said.
Long after her brother left, Katara still had a smile on her face. She knew she could be too serious at times, but Sokka knew how to get her to loosen up and she knew it made her better at her job. Being on the tribal council at her age was unheard of before the end of the war, but she'd proven that she belonged there. She'd worked at this same desk for too many nights for that not to be the case and as she eyed the pile of papers sitting in one corner, she knew she was in for another long night if she didn't get started on them now.
Pushing thoughts of the Fire Nation out of her head, she got to work. Her focus was such that she didn't realize someone was at the door until her father opened it and knocked again. With blurry eyes, Katara looked at him, disoriented. He smiled fondly at her and she thought a little sadly.
"Katara," he said. "I have to talk to you."