Fall Of The White Lotus
Chapter 47: Harmony
Music: Descendant Of The Sun, Two Steps From Hell
It was a colorful group of people that assembled in the War Room in the aftermath of the battle in Capital City. Zuko had called the meeting to debrief him about the rebels' movements during his absence and to decide upon a course of action. The grim atmosphere was reminiscent of those first days after Zuko had risen to power when there had been the same sense of urgency to stabilize matters as quickly as possible.
Flanked by Katara and his mother and with Chief Hakoda casually sitting down next to Fire Lady-Mother Ursa, Zuko invited his prime minister, War Minister Jeong Jeong, Admiral Jee, Master Piandao, Master Pakku, Sokka and Suki to follow their example. Their faces all reflected a mixture of relief, weariness and worry when they looked at the Fire Lord to address them. The battle was won but it was hard-won and the damage to the city was considerable. The night falling over the proud Fire Nation Capital covered the scars to the streets and the plumes of smoke under a merciful blanket of darkness.
Taking a seat among his party Zuko naturally ignored the Dragon Throne behind him, and Katara stifled a quiet smile. One of the visions of the future had told her that some day they would be sitting on the prominent seat, her hand in his, with the enormous bas-relief image of a dragon breathing fire behind them and the wall of fire blocking their view on the black pillars with elaborate gold bases upholding the black and gold arched cassette ceiling. That future was theirs now. Some day she would be able to look up and see the tender expression in his amber eyes reflecting the wall of flames, but today was not that day. Today they sat amidst their family and friends who had just spent a day and a night defending the throne against those war mongering nobles.
Faces looked drawn as everyone sat down and silently looked at Zuko, waiting for him to begin.
Routinely he opened the meeting with a concise statement of its purpose and a brief outline of what he and Katara had come to know while they'd been away. He then respectfully asked the foreign head of state present, her father, to speak before taking the other people's accounts, quickly gathering the information he needed as he listened and made sure to ask the right questions.
It was the first time Katara witnessed him leading a meeting as the Fire Lord and despite the gravity of the situation she was fascinated by the natural authority with which he took to the task. Gone was the awkward boy who had once sought them out in the Western Air Temple, having been replaced by a confident ease and expertise. Over the past six weeks she'd seen glimpses of it whenever circumstances had called for it but now she witnessed Fire Lord Zuko taking back the reins of government. And it suited him. Very much. She only took her eyes off of him when she caught Ursa's amused gaze.
It appeared that the blue dragon had also taken the unconscious body of Admiral Chan with him when he'd saved Zuko and his egg from the active volcano and the rebel leader had been captured and transported to the Capital City Prison sickbay where they'd tended to his wounds. He'd been kept apart from other prisoners but on the authority of Chief Hakoda Chan had been allowed to see his father.
Zuko gave a grateful nod and inquired in a subdued tone, "I hope this confrontation didn't go too bad for them?"
Several gazes in the room softened. This man, Admiral Chan, had tried to take his throne and his life and his son had almost succeeded in getting him denied the love of his life but he still felt anxious for their relationship surviving this rift between them. They knew that it was this compassion he'd famously inherited from his mother who was now smiling quietly that would eventually snuff out all opposition against his reign. This and Katara by his side.
Hakoda folded his arms before his chest. "Well, I would say they still have a long way to go, but I won't be surprised if Chan will eventually be able to convince his father of the error of his ways."
"That's good," Zuko said thoughtfully before turning to War Minister Jeong Jeong. "I take it that he will be located as far away from my father as possible?"
The former admiral nodded grimly and Zuko averted his gaze to Hakoda, taking a deep breath. He seemed nervous all of a sudden.
"Before we wind up this meeting, I would like to take this moment to assure Chief Hakoda of my deep love for Katara- "
He shot Katara a quick glance and her heart skipped a beat as she understood where he was going with this. She wasn't the only one. Warm smiles broke through serious expressions when the truth came out.
"- and I would like to ask for your blessing of our marriage."
Wordlessly Katara took Zuko's hand and together they closely watched Hakoda, with tense features. His initial surprise made place for an amused smile.
"Well, I believe your esteemed prime minister here has already introduced Katara as your fiancée to all of the Fire Nation, didn't he? So, I don't believe I have much say in the matter anymore-"
A slight blush crept to Zuko's cheeks and Katara rolled her eyes at her father.
The prime minister smirked knowingly. His move had effectively killed any possible resistance against the marriage. Which had been his intention exactly.
"- but anyone can see how happy you are together and I can only be grateful for that."
Hakoda's gaze trailed from one Young War Hero to another.
"All of you young people, you've dared to look past the boundaries that divide us and find love on the other side. Your example broadens our views and inspires us to be open to the other too."
He shot a quick glance at Ursa but no one but the Fire Lady-Mother seemed to notice as Katara gave her father a quick hug, pulling Zuko with her.
She brushed away a stray tear when Hakoda sighed, "Now we only have to convince the Council of Elders."
Katara looked at her father in sudden alarm. "The Council of Elders?"
"Yes, did you not know?" Hakoda frowned and Sokka added flatly, "You'll need their permission to marry Zuko. Suki and I had to ask them too."
"What?" Katara cried, her voice shrill, but then Master Pakku interfered.
"Stop teasing my granddaughter, Hakoda," he grumbled. "It's not funny. Katara, sit down. There's nothing to be afraid of. You'll only need the Council of Elders' permission if you want to retain your claim to the throne."
"I forfeit my claim," Katara responded heatedly. She had enough of old dignitaries getting in the way of her and Zuko being together. But Master Pakku shook his head and cast a sharp glance at Zuko taking her hand to calm her down. The look on his face showed that the young Fire Lord, as opposed to Katara, already understood what the stern Northern waterbender was going to say next. Three years of being a head of state had taught him a thing or two about politics. It added to his mounting appreciation for the young firebender.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Katara, but the decision is ill-advised and not thought through. You say this now because you expect the throne to go to Prince Sokka and his children after him. But what if for some reason this isn't going to happen? You'll need to understand that until a child is born to Prince Sokka and Suki and the child is either a waterbender or a non-bender, the Council of Elders will want you to retain your claim to the throne, so any child of you and Zuko that isn't a firebender will be able to succeed Sokka on the throne if necessary. As a member of the Council of Elders I know they'll most likely agree to your marriage for the reasons I just told you. They just need you to put in an official request."
'The child is either a waterbender or a non-bender...'
A shock went through Katara as the words echoed inside her head. She cast a quick glance at Suki and her grim expression told her all she needed to know and which Master Pakku had discreetly left out. No earthbending child of Sokka and Suki's would be eligible for the Southern Water Tribe throne. It felt as if she were back hiding in the secret corridor behind the prime minister's office, overhearing old men ruling out the possibility of any waterbending child of her and Zuko's ascending to the Fire Nation throne.
The four Young War Heroes exchanged a dark and dismayed look, although Katara noticed the hint of acceptance in Zuko's gaze. More so than the others he was already resigned to this dynastic responsibility and Katara could tell he was fiercely grateful that he could share it with her. He mostly seemed to feel for Sokka and Suki at the moment, with the old dignitaries painting this bleak future of the two of them without even acknowledging their presence.
"This is a quite thought through reasoning by the Council of Elders, Master Pakku," War Minister Jeong Jeong remarked a bit sharply. "Apparently the Council of Elders must have had reasons to discuss this matter beforehand."
Zuko and Katara looked from War Minister Jeong Jeong who suspiciously eyed Katara's grandfather to Master Pakku, whose face darkened. The tension was palpable. What would the old waterbender say? That he'd helped them getting together so his Order could be saved?
Master Pakku seemed to realize the dubiousness of this truth because after a moment of contemplation he took a safer route.
"I'm a member of the Council of Elders and during the Young War Heroes' short stay at the South Pole we observed enough reason to discuss this matter. The love between the Fire Lord and our princess was obvious."
A fierce blush rushed to Zuko and Katara's cheeks but now it was the prime minister's turn to slightly lean forward, put his finger tips against each other and look at the Southern Water Tribe delegation with a wary expression in his wrinkled eyes.
"What the esteemed War Minister is trying to verify is if the Council of Elders is simply providing children born from the marriage between the Fire Lord and the Water Princess with the opportunity to ascend to the Southern Water Tribe throne, but that they will not be claimed. They will first and foremost be heirs to His Majesty the Fire Lord, which means that in the unlikely event that only one non-bending child is born to the Fire Lord and the Water Princess, while no child or an earthbending child is born to the Water Prince and the Kyoshi Warrior, the Southern Water Tribe will have to look to other ways of succession."
These were potentially explosive words but the prime minister was an experienced negotiator and his quiet way of speaking took the edge of what he was saying.
After a long moment of silence Master Pakku responded gruffly, "Of course, and I like to stress that other heirs will always have the opportunity to refuse and I don't believe the Southern Water Tribe would be in favor of a union of the crowns either. But what will the Fire Nation do if their only successor will be a waterbender?"
Zuko decided he'd had enough. When had this meeting turned into this ostrich horse trading with his and Katara's future children? Although he knew this discussion was necessary and would have had to take place sometime it still made him feel sick to the stomach.
"Gentlemen, if I may have your attention, please."
Everyone turned to look at him, expressions displaying several degrees of wariness and relief. The Fire Lord was intervening.
"I'd like to emphasize that I want nothing more for Sokka and Suki than for them to have a wonderful big family-"
Suki sent him a particularly grateful look and Sokka nodded, looking a bit pale. "Appreciate it, Hotman."
"And before this discussion delves any further into eventualities that will not even occur I believe now is good time to announce that born to Katara and me will be at least two children, a boy and a girl, and they will be a firebender and a waterbender respectively."
Katara put her hand on his and nodded as they underwent the stares of disbelief and astonishment with pounding hearts. Only Master Pakku combined the expression with a fixed look that warned them not to say anything about the White Lotus.
"With all due respect, Your Majesty, how can you possibly know?" Admiral Jee finally asked the question that was on everybody's lips.
Zuko glanced at Katara and nodded at seeing the look in her eyes. She would take care of this.
"When we were in the Spirit Oasis the Spirit Gate opened and we were shown a vision of our future," she told the admiral, slightly bending the order of events, which earned her a covert glance of approval of her step-grandfather.
Her words had the desired effect. With the exception of Master Pakku everyone present was awed into silence. They began to see the couple affectionately holding hands at the head of the low table, in a different light. It somehow felt as if the elemental spirits endorsed their marriage beyond their petty squabbles about succession and even Master Pakku suddenly felt a bit ashamed.
"It can be verified with the Fire Sages. They will confirm it to you," Zuko added curtly and the prime minister nodded respectfully.
"That's good news indeed, Your Majesty."
Zuko cast a stern look across the people around him. "All of you present here should appreciate the fact that Katara and I have hardly thought about things like parenthood since we're only barely together for two days-"
Katara grinned inwardly. This was very technically speaking but it was clear he wanted to bring a warning across. "- but I think I can speak for the both of us when I say that we will raise any children the spirits bless us with in both traditions with all the added knowledge of the Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads, too. If it appears that the Southern Water Tribe will call upon our daughter to become their Chiefess we will make sure she will be ready for it, like we will prepare our son to become Fire Lord one day as well. In the end, we can only do that - give them the best preparation possible, because ultimately it's up to them to decide if they accept the burden that comes with the station. For either one of them. It's their decision and theirs alone."
The other people around the table were impressed by Zuko's little speech, Katara could tell. War Minister Jeong Jeong, the prime minister and Master Pakku lowered their gazes while Sokka, Suki, her father and Zuko's mother smiled in approval. Admiral Jee nodded, his gaze fierce.
"I believe we can consider this topic closed then?" Zuko's tone of voice was quite peremptory and he looked at Katara who nodded grimly. "I'll make the request."
The meeting was followed by a quiet dinner and after that everyone was so tired they all excused themselves to bed.
Of course, Katara been given a separate room, an impersonal guest room where she would be staying until their marriage, upon which she - or at least her things - would move into the chambers next to Zuko's, which traditionally belonged to the Fire Lady. She couldn't have expected the Lord Chamberlain to understand their situation and let her stay with Zuko instead. So, when all sounds had quieted down outside her room, she'd hopped out of the large bed, gathered her clothes, quietly slipped outside and tiptoed towards the corridor where the bedrooms of the Fire Lord and his family were located. Only one of them was in use at the moment, which happened to be the room the most ornately decorated door led to.
Quietly she'd opened the door on a chink and slid inside, her boots dangling painfully from her little finger as she closed the door behind her. Then a surprised expression had flashed across her features.
The majestic canopied bed that occupied most of the large space was empty and at the foot stood Zuko, robes draped over his arm and boots in his hand, looking at her with wide eyes. Apparently she hadn't been the only one who'd come to the conclusion that the Lord Chamberlain's sleeping arrangements wouldn't suffice.
A nervous giggle escaped her and the next moment she found herself in his arms, his sheepish grin fading with his lips capturing hers in a fervent kiss. Katara's clothes fell from her hands and her fingers reached up to cup Zuko's face instead. All of her emotions streamed into the deepening kiss as she tugged him closer and a pang of want shot through her stomach at feeling firm, warm lips welcoming hers and then his tongue searching for hers.
But now that they were finally alone in his quiet room she noticed the shivering of her own body, the burning behind her eyes and the lightness in her head that didn't come from Zuko's hands pulling her close. So much had happened in those last hours of autumn and first hours of winter. Suddenly it all came crashing down on her. And judging by the way he was holding on to her this was the same for Zuko. All of his strength seemed to flow from his limbs and his feet yielded to Katara being pressed against him until his back was against the nearest bedpost supporting him.
Their bodies felt that it was finally safe to break down and decided they'd had enough.
Succumbing to exhaustion Katara broke off the kiss and returned Zuko's regretful smile as he reached behind her and turned back the blankets. Silently they slid under the covers where Katara nestled against Zuko, putting her hand over his scar like she always did. He gave a subconscious sigh in contentment and nuzzled her hair.
"You did well today," she said drowsily as he snapped out the candles.
Her hand registered the jolt of his heart at the unexpected compliment. "What, with the meeting you mean? You think so?"
Smiling against his skin she hummed in agreement. "Do you think I could do it too?"
For a moment he was silent, seeming to contemplate his reply, then he'd offered genuinely, "I think you would even be better at it."
Contently she closed her eyes. "Well, I am your fiancée, so I'm right here if you'll want to call upon me."
The last thing she'd registered was an arm tightening its hold on her and an intent voice promising, "You bet I will."
Waking up the next morning was absolute bliss. During the night the last remnants of the anxiety of the past few weeks had flowed from Katara's body leaving only a heavenly peacefulness. A slight stirring of the body holding her a in comfortable embrace gently pulled her from her dream.
It was a strange but tranquil dream, not at all like the one that had been plaguing her for the past weeks. In it the spirit of Agni with the face of Zuko's prime minister had given them his blessing, while the spirit of La with the face of her father stood smilingly to the side. From the corner of her eye she saw him reaching out to take the hand of the Spirit Princess appearing next to him but then she woke up and all that remained was a lingering, inexplicable feeling of surprise, the reason why having already slipped from her grasp.
Katara slowly turned in the arms holding her close to a warm body, a soft purr escaping her as a lazy kiss was pressed to her forehead.
"Good morning," a husky voice whispered above her head, the sound reverberating through the smooth chest supporting her cheek.
"Is it morning yet? I can't tell," she murmured, refusing to open her eyes just yet. She'd woken up to a heavenly peaceful feeling and longed to relish in the sensation a little while longer.
Like always, her awakening brain was a bit confused as to where she was, knowing only Zuko's arms around her to be not out of the ordinary. But her eyes told her she was in a lavishly decorated, somewhat sombre bedroom with red silk wallpaper and gold-plated ebony beams supporting the ceiling and slowly the events of yesterday trickled back to her subconscious. Honoring their promise to Master Pakku back at the South Pole they'd decided on practicing their bending just before and after sunrise so each of them would have the benefit of each of their celestial bodies supporting their powers.
A warm hand stroked her hair in response. "It's almost dawn. By the time we're at the training grounds we'll have about an hour before sunrise."
Katara sighed and drowsily opened her eyes, stealing one more moment of snuggling into him before he untangled himself from her grasp and with a light kiss on her nose pulled her up straight.
"Come, I need you to do that octopus move again."
She went easy on him. After all it was only yesterday that he'd been balancing on the still smoking volcano in the distance, getting wounded while fighting the rebel nobles as he'd constantly been breathing in toxic gases. He needed time to recuperate, even though she'd been able to heal his wounds and the light concussion. She on the other hand had mostly been sitting still in the Spirit Oasis and savored the energy flowing through her as the moon guided her bending at the palace training grounds. The training grounds were surrounded by grass sparkling with dew and there was a small pond nearby but this morning she didn't bother with the water stored in her surroundings. Instead she simply pulled out her bending water and took a stance.
Zuko's lips curled in a soft smile. For years he'd been out on the training grounds alone but now Katara had been walking next to him and tenderly brushed his arm before positioning herself on the other side of the square. She'd looked glorious the way she was standing there under the moon with her water flowing around her. There was a certain calm and lack of ferocity to her bending that betrayed she was careful of him, but this time it didn't bother him. He knew he was still healing. He felt it in the stiffness of his limbs and the healer in Katara would never allow them to interfere with his recovery process.
Katara's training consisted of them circling around each other, their elements merely tracing each other while they relied solely on slow waterbending moves, which gradually sped up with Zuko making Katara ward off attacks based on earthbending moves.
When Zuko's firebending sparring partners arrived the first rays of sunlight peeked past the horizon and Katara used his temporary distraction to douse him with her bending water. Her eyes were sparkling with mirth and Zuko could only smile resignedly as he wiped his face.
The other firebenders bowed when they discerned the future Fire Lady at the training grounds, blushing a bit when laying eyes on her bindings but that was soon forgotten when Zuko took a stance. Stepping aside she allowed them to work through their normal routine, watching closely as they circled Zuko, trying to attack him.
The last minutes of his training session were almost drawing to an end when Katara beckoned one of the firebenders and whispered something to him.
Zuko's eyes narrowed as he followed the man returning into the ring. What had Katara said to him?
He found out very quickly when the other firebender took a stance, fell into the attack pattern and suddenly linked his fire with the others to effectively trap him. In a split second Zuko threw a blast of fire onto the ground and used the air current to lift himself in to the air, landing graciously before Katara.
Recognizing the move she smirked and brought in her bending water. But he only bowed to her and then to his sparring partners and then smiled when she pulled him against her.
"I thought I would be marrying the firebender, not the airbender," she commented amusedly, her fingers lingering on his arms reaching out to hold her.
"It is important to draw wisdom from different places. Understanding the other elements will help you become whole," he observed tenderly and vaguely registered that his sparring partners retreated respectfully.
"Unquote Uncle Iroh," Katara smiled before leaning up to press a light kiss to his lips.
"And have you become whole?" She asked softly, her hands sliding up his sweaty chest and shoulders towards his hair, burying themselves in the damp strands.
Zuko's eyes involuntarily fluttered closed at the sensation and he let out a trembling breath.
"The spirits seem to believe I have."
"And what do you think?"
His hands slid up her sides, tracing her glistening tan skin as his hands felt their way into her hair.
"I still can't believe you're standing here with me," he murmured. "Loving me back. All these years I have been incorporating waterbending moves in my training sessions, not realizing what it meant. My uncle once told me I would find my destiny one day. It took me a while to understand it's you. My sparring partner for life."
Katara's lips curled in a happy smile.
"Well, a fortuneteller once told me that I was going to marry a powerful bender and have a great romance."
She leaned up. "I obviously should have known that my hoping for another firebending lesson was my heart trying to tell me that this bender was you."
Zuko smiled against her lips, causing a shiver to run down her spine.
"I will give you all the firebending lessons you want, for the rest of our lives," he mumbled and let himself be pulled down, slowly kissing her back as the sun rose behind them.
It felt strange for Zuko to pick up the thread after having spent so much time away from his desk, his files and his responsibilities. But the disheartening pile of scrolls on his writing desk and his crammed agenda brought him back to reality soon enough.
By his own request Admiral Jee had left the Fire Nation Capital again, stating that much still needed to be done to guide Senlin Harbor back to normality and he wanted to be there to oversee the process. After expressing his gratitude to the former captain of the small vessel he'd spent his years of exile on, Zuko had granted the admiral permission to leave, asking him to make sure the Herbalist got her door back.
Zuko and Katara stood at the quay as the mighty Empire Class warships put out to sea, lifting the blockade of the harbor they'd put in place when following Chief Hakoda's fleet past the Great Gates of Azulon.
"You should start thinking about a new position for Admiral Jee once his job with Senlin Harbor is done. I don't think he will survive simply patrolling the seas very long," Katara said thoughtfully as the last ship steamed up for the open seas, leaving only Hakoda's fleet of agile warships and a varied collection of trade vessels from the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom and the Northern Water Tribe to admire for the royal couple.
"My thoughts exactly," Zuko nodded as he turned towards the palanquin waiting for them and took Katara's hand. "For the past three years I've been reorganizing the Fire Nation military to a more compact and effective force. I believe Admiral Jee will be just the person to build and lead that force."
In General Bujing's quarters they found all kinds of documents on the rebellion, including the letter Dai Li group leader Weiting had forced Zuko to sign, which contained a list of nobles supporting the cause. After being informed about it by his prime minister Zuko decided that they should be transferred to the Dragonbone Catacombs. It was part of Fire Nation history and should be treated as such.
The rebel leadership had consisted mostly of people who had considerably lost in wealth and influence after Zuko had withdrawn the occupying forces and the Fire Nation had become a nation amongst others. They had been recruiting followers among families who had lost family members during Fire Lord Ozai's reign, capitalizing on their grief as they held out the alluring and poisonous prospect of the Fire Nation's new rise to power so that their deaths would not have been in vain. And after a hundred years of indoctrination this message still fell on fertile ground.
When Zuko spoke about it with Katara she immediately understood.
"It's a mourning process and you'll have to address it somehow to follow up on your promise at the Plaza. It will help them to accept the Fire Nation's new place among the other nations."
Zuko stayed silent, knowing that this was important, but also very aware that this would strain his already overloaded agenda.
He raised his eyes when he felt Katara's hand on his. She was looking at him with an encouraging gaze in her blue eyes.
"You're not alone in this, Zuko. Not anymore. Your mother and I, we can help. If you'll let us we can organize meetings across the nation as well as in the colonies and talk to people. And if you'll attend only one of these meetings it will be enough."
Her words slowly sunk in and Katara smiled when an expression of utter relief and gratitude lit up his troubled features. The next moment Zuko pulled Katara in for a fiercely grateful kiss and rested his forehead against hers.
"I love you, Katara," he finally said hoarsely. "I love you so much."
One of the first things Zuko did upon returning to office was writing a letter to the Earth King, explaining to him about the descendants of the lost city of Taku wanting to settle in the nearby Fire Nation colony. To his surprise he received a letter back within a week of sending away the messenger hawk. Though formally the Earth King hadn't changed his position Zuko noticed from his mild response that somehow Taiko's story had had him thinking. Quietly Zuko began to hope for a peaceful resolve of the matter and he resolved to talk to Aang about it, feeling that the Avatar was part of the solution to this problem.
Zuko's return to office however started with a lengthy conversation with his prime minister, in which Zuko learned that he and Katara had misinterpreted the old man's response to the rebel leaders informing him about Zuko's feelings for the Water Princess. It hadn't been this love which the old dignitary had rejected as a major problem but the untimely getting around of this specific piece of information.
"My Lord, when you and the Water Princess left Omashu overnight, I received a letter from General Iroh in which he asked me to give you and Princess Katara time to find the long lost Fire Lady-Mother and... find each other, for the sake of our future."
The prime minister took a sip from his tea and his lips curled in a small, knowing smile at seeing the slight blush on Zuko's cheeks.
The letter from General Iroh had explained a few things the prime minister had not understood before - like the Fire Lord's reluctance to propose to the Lady Mai or his fascination with all things waterbending and the Water Tribes. He'd realized that subconsciously the Fire Lord had been searching for the love of his life.
Having never been a conservative man the prime minister had actually been rather charmed by the idea of having a waterbending Fire Lady but he'd also known that some powers within the Fire Nation would be less than thrilled at the prospect. The Fire Lord probably knew this too as he'd been balancing between those forces for the past three years. And acting from his incredible sense of duty towards the Fire Nation the Fire Lord would try to resist his feelings for the Water Princess until he simply couldn't anymore. And then it would probably too late.
Since the Fire Lord had ascended to the throne and had asked the former governor to come out of retirement and help leading his new government the prime minister had witnessed from up close the drive with which the young man tirelessly worked for the Fire Nation people and to lead them towards this new balance in the world. With his compassion and odd affinity for the weak he was a breath of fresh air after his tyrannical father and the ruthless and power thirsty Fire Lords before him. Never having had any children himself, the prime minister had secretly taken the young Fire Lord to his old heart.
Following General Iroh's letter the prime minister had announced to the Council of Ministers that the Fire Lord would be on a six-week working visit to the Earth Kingdom, while he'd also put the intelligence service on his trail. He'd rather not done that but he'd felt that the situation forced his hand when information had reached him about a few high ranking nobles planning to use the Fire Lord's working visit to the Earth Kingdom to their advantage.
When Zuko and Katara had spectacularly ended the criminal leadership in Senlin Harbor the Council of Ministers had been absolutely blown away by the Fire Lord's strength and courage. And for one blissful moment the prime minister had thought everything was going to be fine until he'd received intelligence that someone had broken into the royal beach house on Ember Island.
"The afternoon General Bujing and Admiral Chan visited me in my office, was the first time they'd openly admitted to their leadership of this rebellion. Had I known that Your Majesty and the Water Princess had been listening at the door…" He sighed. "I could have explained all this to His Majesty. It would have been a relief to see His Majesty and Princess Katara alive and well. We were becoming increasingly worried about your well being after the intelligence service lost track of His Majesty in Jang Hui."
An amused smile was drawn to Zuko's lips. The villagers must have done all that was in their power to throw those poor agents off their scent. The old ferryman would have had a field day.
"Well, I believe we have some work to do," Zuko finally said. With Admiral Chan imprisoned and the rebel nobles' organization rounded up the Fire Lord was able to return his attention to the matters he'd dropped when he'd up and left more than six weeks ago. "I finally finished reading this proposal for a rearrangement of province borders I started seven weeks ago and I have some questions about it."
He opened one particularly thick scroll and the prime minister allowed himself a small smile when a drawing of a white lotus, bearing the symbols of he Fire Nation and the Water Tribe in its heart appeared on the well-wrought report. Whatever the future may hold for the Fire Nation in this new era of peace and harmony, it would include a legendary love to cross all borders and that knowledge alone filled the prime minister's old, romantic heart with gratitude and joy.
When Zuko finally wound up the meeting and the prime minister started to assemble his scrolls, the old dignitary's eye fell on one small scroll that had been hidden underneath thick policy documents and reports and suddenly he remembered a topic he still had to address because it needed the Fire Lord's seal of approval but which he knew Zuko was reluctant to discuss.
The prime minister inclined his head.
"Before I leave, I need to remind Your Majesty that the design for Your Majesty's statue is still waiting to be decided on."
As he'd expected Zuko's face fell and the annoyed sigh he let out bordered on a groan. Not the statue again.
Over the last year he'd seen and rejected hundreds of designs, one even more megalomaniacal than the other. He didn't even want a statue, feeling that his government should stop encouraging the personality cult revolving around the Fire Lord, but the Council of Ministers had pressed him into accepting at least one. He'd agreed on one condition - that he would have a final say in the design, which had led to the endless stream of horrifying proposals appearing on his desk.
"In His Majesty's absence we've finally come up with a design I believe will have Your Majesty's approval."
Respectfully, the prime minister slipped the Fire Lord the modest scroll and the young man shot him a dark look.
"What? No perfumed silk paper this time?"
Ignoring the Fire Lord's sarcasm the prime minister nodded at the scroll.
"This design is made by a young art graduate from Ba Sing Se University. She grew up in the colonies."
That was quite unusual. Previously, the Council had only presented him with proposals from renowned all male mainland sculptors.
He lifted his one eyebrow. "My uncle's suggestion?"
The prime minister nodded in confirmation. As always the Fire Lord was quick to understand.
Zuko opened the scroll. The drawing inside was barely more than a sketch, unlike the detailed proposals he'd seen before. He opened his mouth to say something but then closed it again as a pensive expression appeared in his eyes.
The prime minister's gaze softened. He knew why the young Fire Lord had stilled and was now looking at the drawing more closely.
This was the first proposal not depicting him half naked and all fearful and intimidating or dauntingly regal in exaggerated ceremonial robes doing something ridiculously aggressive with fire.
The sketchy drawing saw him standing on a raised platform, his stance poised but not imposing. Exuding a quiet dignity and strength his modest appearance was subtly supported by his close-fitting, unassuming uniform and unadorned topknot. The expression on his face showed a thoughtful determination and his pose suggesting a slight movement forward naturally emphasized the gentle flame in the palm of his raised right hand. Instead of aiming to inspire fear with the onlooker he seemed to be lighting the way for his people to travel on this new path, holding out the flame like a beacon. There was something quite hopeful and inexplicably serene about the image that should appeal to the young Fire Lord. This statue would stay true to who he was and what he stood for.
The prime minister, taking the Fire Lord's continued silence as a good sign, finally suggested, "Perhaps His Majesty should show the drawing to Princess Katara and ask her what she thinks?"
Zuko nodded thoughtfully. "I will."
The next day he approved of the proposal with the stipulation that if in due time more statues should be erected in his honor they should follow this design.
Life had changed drastically for Zuko since he'd returned to Royal Caldera City with Katara as his fiancée. Suddenly his dining hall was filled with talking and laughter and behind his reserved exterior he enjoyed every minute of it. And although Katara's family would eventually return home, with Katara and his mother staying by his side he would never again feel as if the ornately decorated walls were pressing down on him as he sat to dinner all by himself.
Before Katara's arrival most of Zuko's lunch-breaks had been a lonely affair too. But when the prime minister left his office on that first day he'd returned to work he found a small note between piles of bills and policy documents politely informing him that his lunch would be served by the turtle duck pond.
Zuko lifted his eyebrow at the message. This was the first time he was being told where he would be having his lunch instead of the other way around. He wasn't used to receiving instructions by anyone else than Katara and this certainly wasn't her handwriting. He shrugged though and following the note he went to his mother's garden and paused in his steps when his eyes caught the slender figure of Katara sitting by the waterside, carefully bending the water to amuse the ducklings. Her blue skirt was draped in a pretty way across a plaid and next to her sat a full tea basket.
The whole morning she'd been wandering around the palace with the Lord Chamberlain, meeting with staff and receiving additional information about the palace. Apparently the Lord Chamberlain had dug up an obscure introductory instruction for future Fire Ladies and he was resolved to following it down to the last syllable even when Zuko had pointed out its limited approach to the Fire Lady's position. The instruction was clearly conceived when Fire Ladies were expected to merely become matrons of the royal household and Zuko was horrified by the prospect of Katara being tied to the palace like that. She was much too talented and valuable for that and they needed to be visible if they were to lead the world by example.
But the Lord Chamberlain had looked at him disappointedly, stating that he considered it an honor to introduce the future Fire Lady to the household and Zuko, seeing how much this meant to the old man, had given in, shaking his head.
Thankfully Katara had looked at it from the bright side.
"This will give me a chance to meet all the people who take care of the Royal Family," she'd mildly commented, adding teasingly, "and maybe I'll learn things about the palace even the Fire Lord doesn't know."
Now a happy smile lit up his features and his heart skipped a beat when her face brightened when she spotted him. Of all the things he cherished about Katara loving him back this was the thing he cherished the most- the happiness that shone in her eyes upon seeing him.
"Did you arrange all of this?" He asked as he pressed a light kiss to her crown and in a flowing movement went to sit by her side, opening the basket.
She looked puzzled. "No, I just received this note… I didn't recognize the handwriting but I thought it was from you."
Their gazes met over the picnic basket and then realization dawned on them. Zuko sighed and rolled his eyes at Katara.
"The Lord Chamberlain. Of course, I should have known he's behind this," he grumbled, but with a hint of amusement to his voice. "He's even worse than Uncle."
Katara chuckled. "He likes taking care of you… and now me, too."
She blushed at the happy gaze he gave her.
"Ah well, now that we're here-" Zuko began to unpack the basket, "-we might as well enjoy it."
And to the Lord Chamberlain's silent satisfaction it was the start of a loving habit for them to have lunch together by the waterside of the turtle duck pond.
A/N: This chapter title is a prompt I took from the 2016 Zutara Month on Tumblr.
And since I love Princexuko's meta post on Tumblr comparing Zuko's statue in Republic City to Ozai's in Fire Fountain City I incorporated a sequence where Zuko has to approve of a design for his new statue.
Next chapter Iroh, Aang and Toph will arrive from Ba Sing Se.
Thank you very much for reading!