The Island That Cleanses
All Standard Disclaimers Apply: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it.
She stopped in her tracks, the sound of her heels coming to a halt as her body stiffened. Did she hear what think just thought she heard? Those were the last words she expected to hear on the night of her birthday, after a nice dinner and a long anticipated movie, with her boyfriend of four months.
"Sorry, Katara," the brown-haired man sighed heavily behind her. He ran his hand through his thick, bushy hair and lowered his head. He meant to sound apologetic, but to her, he didn't sound the least bit regretful.
"What did you just say?" Katara asked as she turned around and faced him. Her eyes narrowed as her nails dug into her clutch. Today was her birthday, what kind of joke was this?
Jet's eyes rose and met hers. He had the gall to offer her a small smile. "I want to break up," he repeated. He watched as her shoulders began to shake and brown face began to flush with fury. Quickly, he lifted his hands to try to placate here. "Now, calm down, Katara. No need to make a scene."
The corner of her eye twitched. Did he just say 'make a scene'? Is that why he decided to break up with her in the middle of a busy sidewalk? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain still and think about the scenario logically.
"Alright," she began as calmly as she could. "Would you at least let me know why we're breaking up - and on my birthday, nonetheless?" she asked, trying to control her scathing voice.
Jet assessed her carefully. She looked angry, and honestly, who could blame her, but she didn't look like she was going to start screaming and attacking him like his last girlfriend anytime soon. He gave her a sheepish look and shrugged his shoulders.
"I just got to thinking, you know," he began as he remained several paces away, still close to the movie theater doors where they had just walked out of. "Since it is your birthday. I mean...you're one year older now."
Katara's eyes crinkled up as she looked at him incredulously. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"You don't need to deny it," Jet told her. "I mean, I totally get it. Your clock's ticking. One year older...you're getting closer to 'that age'."
"My clock is...?" Katara demanded. "What are you talking about?"
"Okay, I'll be blunt," Jet stated. "You're pushing 30." She was 26 that day. "And I know and you know that the closer you get to 30, the more you're starting to look at marriage and having kids."
She stared at him, dumbfounded that such idiotic words could come from his mouth. "What."
"And I thought about it. I like you, Katara, but I don't think I can live up to your expectations," he continued on.
"What expectations!?" she demanded. Honestly, she didn't have any expectations other than not picking up other women while they were together.
Jet took a deep breath. "I wanted to break this off before it got too serious," he told her. "I'm not ready to be married yet."
It took everything in her power to keep from hurling her clutch at his head. "What are you talking about? Who is talking about getting married?" she choked.
Jet signed heavily, once more, as if it were straining him to explain. "Come on, Katara. We were dating for a few months. I think we both know you expected our relationship to lead to marriage."
"Oh my God...," Katara muttered. She actually hadn't. In fact, when she started going out with Jet, she just thought it was one of those fun, casual dating things that her friends thought she needed to try. She didn't think they'd even last four months, especially considering who she was dating, but she never gave serious thought to marrying him. "I've never mentioned a single thing about getting married!"
"Maybe not now, but it was going to come up," Jet asserted. "This is for the best."
"I can't believe this..." Katara muttered as she shook her head.
"But we've had a good time, though, right?" Jet offered hopefully. "We had lots of fun. The boat house, the lodge...hey, we even got to see that movie you wanted to see!" he added, motioning to the marquee behind him. "You can't say we ended on a bad note."
He was breaking up with her. After taking her to dinner and a movie, he decided to publicly break up with her as if he were doing them both a favor. On. Her. Birthday.
And he had the nerve to suggest that it wasn't ending on a bad note.
"Good-bye, Jet." Katara dug her heels into the pavement of the city as she scowled and stalked towards the nearest light rail station. There was no way she was going to sit through a car ride with him.
"Hey, Katara!" he called out behind her, forcing her to stop. "We're still good, right? We can still be friends!"
She grit her teeth. Katara took a deep breath and turned around. Pasting her best smile on her face, she met his eyes once more. "Hell no."
She didn't cry on the train. She didn't cry as she walked the block to her condo. She didn't even break down into a depressed pool in her tiny foyer once the door closed behind her. The fury wouldn't let her.
Of the the stupid things she has had to put up with since she started dating Jet, one of the guys from where she worked, this had to be at the top of the list. How dare he make such a statement based on stereotypes and, worse, a complete misunderstanding of his own girlfriend?
Marriage? When had she had time to think about marriage? She was working full time for the Northwest Earth Kingdom Academy of Science since she graduated college. All she was focused on was creating a comfortable life for herself while trying to preserve the health of marine environments. Sure, she had been attracted to Jet when he first showed up, but he was ridiculously charismatic and, she now begrudgingly admitted, good looking.
Half the department she worked in found him appealing. She never really thought they'd even cross paths, as she worked in a research department, focusing on water care in the poles while he was in marketing. Then, one day, he came with a group of photographers to get some photos of their lab and the researchers for an upcoming exhibit and the next thing she knew, she was having dinner with him.
For a while, she didn't even think of him as her boyfriend. He was just 'Jet - that guy I'm dating, kind of'. It wasn't until she over heard him turn down a co-worker, stating that he was taking his girlfriend out that night that she finally considered the idea and went with it.
That had been a few months earlier and up until that point, she had no idea that he had been concerned that she wanted to marry him.
Katara kicked her shoes off and marched to her bedroom. She never mentioned marriage at all! She had articles to write and was focusing on a research trip to the arctic that coming spring. It was of huge importance to her. If he had broken up with her because he felt neglected, she could understand that, but to put false expectations on her and then use them as an excuse? Her face reddened once more.
"I don't even think he'd make a good husband," she snorted as she tossed her phone across her bed and began tugging at the pins in her bun. "Never even bothered introducing me to his friends..." Katara looked at herself in the mirror as the pins landed on the table top.
It wasn't as if she didn't want to get married. She always figured that one day it would happen, and even if it didn't, she would be fine. She squinted at her reflection. Pushing 30...she hardly looked like it. Age did not necessarily equate to desperation to get married. And if she did get married, it would be to someone better than Jet!
A buzzing came from her clutch and Katara turned her head towards the bed. She walked over and began to fish her phone out, half hoping it wasn't Jet and half hoping it was, just so she could yell at him now that her thoughts were clearer. She looked at the screen and wasn't sure if she was relieved or not. Sliding her fingers across, she answered her phone. "Hi, Sokka."
"Hey! Happy birthday! How is my favorite little sister!?" a cheerful voice greeted on the other line.
"I'm your only sister," Katara sighed as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "What's up?"
"Whoa...," Sokka frowned on the other end. "That doesn't sound like the happy voice of the birthday girl! What? Did my card not come in on time?"
"You sent me an ecard this morning and I replied with a thanks," Katara rolled her eyes. "Didn't you check your email?"
"No, I've been busy," Sokka replied . "Seriously, though, for a birthday girl, you don't sound too excited. What, did Mr. Poofy-hair boyfriend forget?" he chuckled.
Katara felt it coming. The pressure in her sinuses, her chest clenching, the tears getting ready to come. Mentally, she told herself to stop and hold back. She would not cry in on the phone to her brother. She would not -
"Jet broke up with me!" She held it in for an hour and suddenly, it all came out. She was angry, she was frustrated. It hurt to be rejected, and so unexpectedly by someone she did sincerely care for, even if she hadn't seriously considered marriage with him. Her voice cracked and her sobs choked as she tried to explain how the breakup happened to her brother.
To his credit, Sokka seemed to have been paying attention and interjected at appropriate moments with 'uh-huh' and 'what'. Despite breaking down on the phone with him, at least she had held herself together when the idiot broke up with her after watching a movie for her birthday.
"Why would...on your birthday?" Sokka scowled. "What kind a as-"
"I know!" Katara choked back. "I didn't even expect it. We went out to dinner, we went to watch a movie," she recalled. "And it came out of nowhere!" She chastised herself for thinking of something so naive. If didn't just come out of nowhere, at least not to Jet. He had probably been thinking about it for some time, which made the whole thing worse, as it meant he planned to break up as they did.
On the other end of the line, part of Sokka wanted to cheer. He never liked her boyfriend, anyway. The guy seemed too smug and arrogant for his own good the few times they had met. Sokka just didn't trust those types. Regardless, he bit his tongue, not wanting to upset his sister and make her birthday worse.
"Did he say why?" he offered, letting his logical side come forward.
"Something stupid about getting married -"
"Married!?" Sokka cried out, horrified. "No! No! You can do better!" he insisted. "That guy's a jerk, Katara! He's a stuck up, self-absorbed -"
"He didn't want to marry me, Sokka! He broke up with me because he wanted to avoid getting married!" Katara shouted into her phone. "He said that I was getting older and was expecting him to propose to me!"
Her brother's voice was fearful. "Were you?" he asked quietly.
"No!" Katara cried. "I didn't mention anything about that! I never even thought about it! I just..." She covered her face with one hand as she slumped forward. "How can he tell me such a thing? Does he think I'm desperate?" She never thought of herself as such.
Once more, Sokka held back retort about if she was dating Jet, she must've been. Instead, he silently asserted that Katara dodged a bullet with Jet and that him breaking up with her - although Sokka felt it should've been the other way around - was a good thing.
"Hey, calm down," he told her. "You're not desperate. You don't even need a man," he asserted. "Jet's no good, anyway. You're better off without him."
"I'm so angry and hurt...I don't even know if I want to cry or punch him in the face," Katara admitted as she wiped at her eyes.
"Why don't you cry and I'll punch him in the face?" Sokka offered.
"I'm kidding!" he laughed. "But the offer still stands..." he added quickly, in a low voice.
Katara sniffled and reached for a tissue on her night stand. "Sorry about this Sokka..."
"What are you talking about? I'm always here for my little sister," Sokka assured her. She smiled lopsidedly, thankful he was.
"Anyway, why are you calling?" she said as she wiped her eyes and nose. "I thought you were on a train from Ba Sing Se tonight."
"Oh, I'm on the train right now. We have a brief stop over after the Si Wong Desert. I should get back sometime tomorrow, mid-afternoon," Sokka reported.
"That's great," Katara replied weakly. "Did you need me to pick you up at the station?"
"No, no, I can take the subway to my place," Sokka asserted. He paused for a moment. "But I do need a small favor."
"I knew it," Katara chuckled weakly. "I knew you wouldn't call just to say happy birthday, especially sent you sent me an e-card."
"Hehehe...but I did remember!" he beamed. "Anyway, I need a ride to the airport."
Katara drew her head back. "The airport? When?"
"In three days," Sokka told her. "I got a job!"
She couldn't contain the surprise in her voice. "A job?" she asked, somewhat disbelieving. "Really?"
"You're being rude," he told her. "Yes, a job. Someone saw the photos I did for Village Resort - you know, the one on the waterfalls outside of the city? They really liked my style and contacted me to take promotional photos for their shop in - get this - Ember Island!" His excitement culminated in a gleeful yell before clapping. "Ah...sorry, I'll keep it down...," he laughed nervously afterwards. "Forgot I was on the night train."
The other passengers had probably glared at him. Still, Katara smiled softly. Sokka had been a struggling photographer for a while. To him, it was 'his calling', despite him having studied natural sciences throughout his oddly illustrious academic career. He was better known in the science circles for his thought essays on waterway regulations, but couldn't seem to get any breaks in photography, even after he moved from their home in the South Pole to bustling city in the Earth Kingdom's north west.
He was a landscape and nature photographer, but it wasn't until their step-grandfather, Pakku, asked him to take photos of his family's ancestral home in the Northern Water Tribe for local historians did his work begin to get acknowledged.
He did several shoots for some Water Tribe nobles and well-connected Pakku put him in touch with some people in the Earth Kingdom. While he wasn't a high profile photographer, yet, Katara acknowledged that he had the ability and unique creativity to become one.
"That's great for you, Sokka, I'm really happy," Katara said sincerely. She tried to focus on her brother's good news and be supportive. "You've worked really hard for this."
"Thanks, Katara," Sokka replied. "I almost couldn't believe it when I got the call, you know? I'm kind of nervous."
Katara chuckled slightly. "You'll be fine. It's just a promo shoot."
"Yeah," Sokka snorted. "It may be 'just a promo shoot', but it's a promo shoot for the Jasmine Dragon."
Katara sat up straight, her eyes wide. "The Jasmine Dragon?"
"Yep," Sokka drawled, relishing how impressed his sister sounded.
"Owned by the abdicated Fire Lord Iroh?" she asked.
"Yeah, you may have heard of him," Sokka smirked. "Former Fire Lord...Lord of the Fire Nation...father of that guy you had a poster of in your bedroom when you were twelve. What was his name? Prince Lu Ten?"
"He's Fire Lord Lu Ten now," Katara flushed. In her defense, many girls from all four nations probably had crushes on the former prince. "And I only had it up there for a few months!"
"Sure...," Sokka grinned. "Anyway, Iroh - he's having me call him Iroh, by the way - called me personally to tell me he liked my work. That was a week ago and now I have a contract with him to take the promotional photos of his new shop opening on Ember Island."
She'd heard about that. Several of her co-workers had mentioned that the famed Jasmine Dragon was opening a new location on the popular resort island. It would be one of what would be three locations worldwide. In fact, she heard that you had to reserve three months in advance to have tea at the Ba Sing Se location!
"And did I mention that it's connected to a five-star resort overlooking the gorgeous black, volcanic sands of a private crescent beach?" Sokka bragged. "And that I'll be staying in a guest suite while I'm there? The entire thing hasn't opened, yet by the way, all the other guests are personal guests of Iroh."
Katara groaned and fell back on her bed. "Not fair, Sokka." The reclusive resort was exactly what she needed. Come Monday, she'd have to return to work and it wouldn't take long for news of Jet's break-up with her to take over the academy gossip. She could only imagine all the questions that awaited her. "I wish I could go, too..."
"Heh...I don't blame you," he grinned. He waited for her to respond, but nothing happened. "Katara?" he asked carefully. "Um...are you there? What about my ride -"
"Bring me with you," she suddenly demanded. She sat up on her bed, a sudden determined look on her face.
"What?" Her brother sounded confused. "What do you mean?" To be honest, she wasn't completely sure why she wanted to go so badly, either, but her mind was set.
"I want to go. Bring me with you," she repeated. Sokka blinked. That wasn't like her constantly planning sister.
"Listen, I know that Jet dumped you, but don't you think this is a bit impulsive?" Sokka asked carefully. "What about work?"
"I have a ton of vacation time saved up and there are people who can cover for me while I'm out," Katara said as she stood up and walked across her bedroom, to a little corner where she had her laptop. "I'll pay for my flight and lodgings, just bring me to Ember Island."
"Sokka, please," the brunette said as she hunched over her laptop and began to look up flights. "I just need a change of scenery for a little bit." When was the last time she had gone on vacation, anyway?
She heard her brother hesitate and then finally let out a heavy breath. "Let me make some calls," he told her. "I'll get back to you soon."
"Admit it," Sokka said as they stood on the bow of a large boat ferrying passengers to the island. He was dressed in a blue tank top over some loose cargo pants as he stood by the railing, grinning proudly. The wind rushing past them felt nice against their skin as the boat sliced through the water. The moment they had landed in the Fire Nation, the heat and humidity had immediately assaulted them. Katara was relieved she had bought a light, blue collared crepe dress to change into before they stepped outside to get on the ferry. "You doubted me."
Katara rolled her eyes and sipped on her coconut beverage. Her hair was pulled back, keeping it away from her face, but she wished she had brought a hat. When Sokka had hung up after insisting that he'd get back to her, she had taken it as a sign that no, he was not going to bring her to Ember Island.
Which was why she was surprised on Saturday night that she got a call from her brother to "put in her leave" at work, because they were going.
"You hung up on me, so I thought you didn't want me to come," Katara pointed out.
Sokka chuckled as he leaned forward and braced his elbows on the railing of the boat. He held his camera up and took a few photographs of the island they were fast approaching. "You rarely do stuff like this, you know, impulsive stuff," Sokka said over the sound of his shutter. "You're always stuck in that lab, playing with test tubes of water," he snorted as Katara released a heavy breath.
"You're the one who got me into it," Katara pointed out. "You wrote that thesis for your masters degree that people at work are still referencing. Every time someone new comes, they ask if I'm your sister and why you stopped doing marine research."
"It's hard being a creative genius," Sokka sighed. "The art calls to me, Katara. There is no stronger calling to me, no matter how many others I am gifted in."
"Anyway, I read your latest paper. Not bad," he praised. "Although, I'd take into consider weather patterns on the other side of the world. Everything is connected and what happens one place can affect the environment of another."
"I know, I know," Katara sighed.
"You can't just cancel!" an voice exclaimed suddenly. The loud noise drew the sibling's attention away from the island in front of them to a man standing a few steps away, pacing the top deck with a phone pressed against his ear. He turned around and the siblings noticed a large red mark across one eye. "Do you know how long it took me to book them!?" The tall, black-haired man looked frantic as he ran a hand through disheveled hair. His suit was wrinkled and the red tie around his neck was hanging loosely. "Uncle!? Uncle!?"
Sokka snorted and shook his head. "Suits needs to relax," he said as he turned his attention back to the island. "It's too hot to get riled up."
Katara turned away from the scarred man. "I hope you'll be taking your job a bit more seriously than 'relaxed'."
"Don't worry," Sokka said reassuringly. "I've done my research and have ideas."
"Anyway, shouldn't we getting ready to disembark? My guidebook says that we need to get off the ship quickly in order to get one of the taxis. They run out quickly."
"Taxi?" Sokka scoffed. He lifted a hand gave her a dismissing wave. "How plebeian, Katara. We're not getting a taxi. We have a chauffeur waiting for us!"
Katara's eyes widened. "What? Lord Iroh is really sparing no expense." Sokka merely puffed up proudly. "Are you sure it's okay for you to bring me?"
"He extended the invitation. I was originally planning to come in earlier than scheduled so I could scope out the place and plan the shoot, and told him I'd be bringing you for a bit. He was excited at the prospect of another guest," Sokka told her. "That's why you now have your lodging taken care of for you."
"I can't believe I'm staying at the Ranshao before it even opens to the public," Katara muttered. From what Sokka told her, aside from him, there would be staff members who were training, as well as various personal guests of the former Fire Lord. Once the vacation season in the Fire Nation started, the doors would be open and apparently, there was already a wait list.
The closer they got to the island and then to the resort, Katara found herself growing more and more excited. They were picked up in a dark red SUV by a driver and all of Sokka's equipment was loaded in the back. Katara perched herself by the window, watching the town pass by as the driver pointed out important locations: the local market, where to get surf lessons and snorkel gear, and the famous Ember Island Theater.
They began to ascend a hill and at the top, Katara could see the upper levels of resort. A giddy feeling reached her as they rolled to a stop in front of the doors.
As they waited for their bags to be removed, the glass doors of the resort lobby slid open and a beaming, rotund man in a red shirt lined with white flowers came out. With his straw hat and his sandals, Katara couldn't really place him as the former ruler to the powerful island nation. As he rushed over to greet them, several men dressed in beige, short sleeved suits and wearing sunglasses followed behind him, most likely bodyguards.
"Sokka!" he greeted warmly. "Welcome to Ember Island!" He held his arms out open for an embrace as the bodyguards casually circled around them, wary of anyone threatening their liege.
"Iroh!" Sokka smiled back and allowed the older man to hug him. Katara could only blink. Her brother was hugging royalty so casually. "Thank you for having us!"
"It is my pleasure," Iroh said. He released Sokka and looked over his shoulder, at the dumbstruck brunnette now staring up at the intricately carved details of the ceiling above them. "And this must be your lovely guest!"
"Huh?" Katara snapped out of her thoughts and looked back at the old man. Her eyes widened as she looked at the man who she'd seen on television and on magazines, and quickly bowed her head. "Your Highness! Thank you very much for letting me stay here!"
Iroh laughed and gave her a small bow in return. "Such formalities are not necessary. I am no longer Fire Lord. Please call me Iroh."
Katara lifted her head and nodded it dumbly. Sokka chuckled and slung his arm around her shoulders. "Sir, this is my little sister, Katara," he formally introduced. "Katara, this is-"
"Uncle!" They didn't notice another car pull up behind theirs. The door to the back passenger's seat had been flung open before it had stopped and a man in a dark suit and undone tie was rushing out. "Don't try to avoid me!" The siblings recognized him as the man with the scar on the boat. Meaning, the 'uncle' he was arguing with was...
"Ah," Iroh began, looking pleased to see him despite the frantic, irritated look the younger man had. "Sokka, Katara, let me introduce you to my nephew-"
"Uncle," the breathless man said as he reached them. "What is the meaning of this!?" he exclaimed as he held his phone. An email seemed to be on the screen. "Why didn't you tell me you canceled the contract with Warden Media!? I had to find out through Azula!"
"Warden Media?" Sokka's eyes were wide. He glanced from the owner's nephew to the former Fire Lord. His eyes crinkled up unsurely. "Iroh-"
"Don't tell me this is them," the nephew scowled as he narrowed his eyes and assessed the brother and sister. "Two people? Really, Uncle?"
"Now, Zuko -"
"A team of two people to take the promotional shots of the Jasmine Dragon?" Zuko rambled. He looked near pulling his hair out. "I got you the best marketing photographers in the Fire Nation -"
"Instead, you hire some no-name photographer because you liked his pictures!?" he concluded. "Do you know how much I had to apologize to Warden Media?"
Iroh looked unperturbed. "Zuko, you're being rude," he stated simply, making his nephew deflate almost immediately. Katara bit her lip to keep from laughing. That's what he got for saying such a thing about her brother. "And in front of our guests. Sokka, Katara," Iroh continued, turning to the two blue-eyed brunettes. "This is my nephew, Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation, but commonly goes by his title, the Duke of Shu Jing."
Flustered, Zuko found himself automatically straightening up and bowing. "Hello, Your Highness," Sokka greeted warily as both he and Katara offered him bows.
"Zuko, this is Sokka, the photographer I choose, and Katara, his sister," Iroh introduced. "And I must correct you, nephew. It isn't a two person team."
"It's not?" Zuko asked, looking somewhat surprised.
"It's a one person team," Iroh beamed. "Katara is only here to visit." Zuko groaned and grit his teeth.
"Uncle," he began again. "I think we need to talk about this."
"One second, Zuko," Iroh said. "Qin Li, please escort my guests to the lobby for their keys and then have their things brought to their suites at the top floor," he instructed one of his body guards.
"Yes, General Iroh," the guard said before he quickly bowed his head and moved towards where the bellman was loading Sokka's equipment and their luggage onto a cart.
"Hey, hey! Careful with that!" Sokka exclaimed as he scrambled over. "That's delicate equipment!"
Katara began to follow them, when the prince pulled his uncle aside. "Uncle, it's not too late to rehire Warden Media. I can just contact them -"
"Zuko, I made my decision," Iroh began. "When I saw the photos taken by that man for the Village Resort, I felt relaxed. It conveyed the feeling the Village Resort wanted to convey and that's what I want for the Jasmine Dragon."
"But Warden Media already took the photos of Ranshao," Zuko insisted, motioning towards the sprawling, hilltop resort right behind him. "What if the styles don't match?"
"I would prefer that they don't," Iroh huffed. "I saw the photos they took. The place looks cold and sterile. I wanted it to be taken as a warm, family oriented place. Like our own family villa, where a said family can relax. Those photos captured none of that!"
"Then they can re-shoot it," Zuko countered. "I'm sure they can do a better job than one guy with a DSLR," he added, earning him a frown from Katara. "Who knows! maybe the Village Resort photos were just a fluke!"
"Zuko," Iroh told him firmly. "I appreciate what you are trying to do. However, this my resort and my tea house," he reminded him. "I will hire who I want."
"I understand that, Uncle," Zuko asserted. "However, I'm just concerned that you chose some sub-par photographer for this. It was your dream to open this place up! None of us want it be ruined because of some no-name, inexperienced, most likely just lucky, would-be photographer -"
"My brother is not just some lucky, would-be photographer," Katara suddenly interjected angrily. The two men turned towards her. Zuko scowled and shot her a glare. Katara met his defiantly with one of her own. "He's an amazing photographer and if you took time to look at his photos, not just the ones for the Village Resort, you'd see that!"
"This conversation does not concern you, Miss," Zuko said as he turned his attention to her. "You're not even part of his photography team, if I recall."
"He's still my brother and I can more than vouch for his abilities," Katara insisted.
"Do you expect me to take seriously the words of his own sister?" Zuko asked as he stalked forward, never breaking their eye contact. "If he's such a great photographer, why is he here on his own? Where's his crew? Does he even have an assistant? Just seeing him makes me think he's ridiculous, unprofessional -"
"He's being unprofessional!?" Katara scoffed, standing up straight and nearly forcing him back as she stepped forward. "You haven't reviewed his entire portfolio and just met him, and you're already denouncing his ability!"
"I know quality when I see it!" Zuko retorted.
"Then you must be blind!" Katara snapped back.
The sweat was trickling from their brows as their chests rose and fell with uneven breaths. Neither seemed to move from in front of each other as their hands clenched into fists at their hands.
Iroh barely held back his chuckle. He leaned back and whispered to one of his guards. "I think this will go very well."
Katara grumbled as she brushed her hair in preparation to tying it up. Iroh had invited both her and Sokka to dinner to tell them more about the resort, the Jasmine Dragon, and his dream to open the place. Unfortunately, he was bound to be at dinner, too. It was still a few minutes before dinner and Katara paced her room.
It was far nicer than she would've imagined and actually a separate room that connected to her brother's villia suite. Ranshao was several stories tall, built in tiers, with each "suite" actually being a sort of miniature villa for the guests. And each room had air conditioning - something both siblings were relieved to find.
Even with the balcony doors open and the sea breeze gently floating in, it was still hot and humid. Iroh said that once the sunset, the heat would lessen and become a 'more pleasant warmth'. Katara stood at the edge of her balcony and wiped her brow with her hand. She couldn't wait for that.
Honestly, she didn't know how all the Fire Nation citizens could walk around in long sleeved robes when it was that hot back in the olden days. Even Iroh's jerk nephew was wearing a suit and sweating, but didn't seem put out by it at all. Meanwhile, already dressed in thin clothes ready to take on the heat, she and Sokka had already professed 'melting' several times.
Katara snorted to herself as she rested her hands on the wooden railing and looked down. Her balcony opened up to the ocean and she relished the sound of the waves. Several tiers below her, on the ground level, there was an long infinity pool that had been calling her name since they passed it earlier.
She couldn't wait to dive in there later that night and feel the cool, clean water against her; washing away the sticky residue the heat and humidity had left behind.
A splash broke her concentration and she squinted in the setting sunlight just in time to see someone dive into the water and then break the surface. Katara raised an eyebrow as she leaned forward. A man had been the one to dive in and from what she could see, it was a very nice view.
"Not bad...," she mused to herself. He must've been a good height, thick black hair, pale skin and a nice, athletic figure - most likely another of Iroh's special guests. His swimming ability was up to par, too.
Part of her reminded her to feel at least a little bad that she was checking out a random stranger just a few days after her ex-boyfriend dumped her, but another part scoffed at the thought. She could admire who she damn well pleased. It wasn't as if Jet would care.
Satisfied with that answer, she looked back at the pool as the man reached one end and flipped over to begin a backstroke. Katara nodded appreciatively at first and then suddenly sucked in a sharp breath as soon as she saw the scar across part of his face.
A disgusted feeling filled her stomach as she realized she had just been ogling the former Fire Lord's nephew.
"But you can't blame yourself," her mind pleaded. "Look at him... look at him."
Katara inwardly groaned. No, she refused to look back at him. That man had insulted her brother with his dismissing accusations and she would not stand for it! She was sure they had almost come to blows had Sokka not paraded back outside from the lobby and seen them standing in front of each other, glaring as if their looks alone would make the other concede.
"Whoa, whoa!" Sokka rushed out, horrified as he wedged himself between the two of them and pulled Katara back. "What's going on here!? What are you doing to my sister!?" he demanded of Zuko.
The royal blinked and jerked his head back. His eyes widened as he looked at Sokka. "What?" he choked out, shocked. "I haven't done anything -"
"Listen, she may be here on vacation to get her mind off her boyfriend who just dumped her," Sokka began, absolutely serious. Katara snapped her head towards him and paled. "And on her birthday, I may add." Katara's jaw dropped. This wasn't happening. "And she's on the rebound and single, but that isn't an open invitation to hit on her!" She wanted the ground to swallow her up immediately. Sokka didn't seem to notice her horror at all. "I don't care if you're some duke or prince or my boss's nephew," Sokka continued. "Don't you dare take advantage of my sister!"
A pained groan escaped Katara as she raised her hands over her face, mortified. Across from them, a flush filled Zuko's face, completely taken aback by the order.
It seems that only Iroh noticed Katara's discomfort. He placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder and ushered her towards the lobby. "Ask for the Peony Villa at the front desk, Katara," he urged her. "We'll have your things brought to you."
Too humiliated to even mumble her gratitude, the woman rushed through the glass doors, making a beeline to the front desk. Iroh sighed as he turned back to the two younger men, informing Sokka that Katara had already gone inside before pulling Zuko aside to speak to him.
The last she had seen of him, he was red faced and looking away, embarrassed as Iroh seemed to have been lecturing him. Silently, she had hoped that he wouldn't see the unpleasant man again.
Her eyes were drawn back to the figure as he reached the other end of the pool. A woman in one of the hostess uniforms had approached him and stopped by the edge of the pool, bowing respectfully to the royal. She kept her position as she spoke to him. The man frowned and shook his head. He pushed away from the edge of the pool and repeated his answer before the woman nodded and shuffled away.
Katara narrowed her eyes, subconsciously keeping them on him until his back and forth movement stopped towards the edge of the pool.
Zuko drew his arm over his head, counting his breathing carefully as he crossed the pool. Admittedly, he may have overreacted when he rushed to the resort to confront his uncle about the contract with Warden Media, but he had good reason to. The advertising company was the best in the Fire Nation. Their photographers were all award-winning, highly sought after contractors. They were an excellent company to be on good terms with, as they often covered royal events, including charities and one-on- one interviews.
He couldn't fathom why his uncle would suddenly call them to cancel the photographs that were to be taken of the Jasmine Dragon in favor of hiring that guy with the disagreeable sister. Zuko couldn't help but scowl even as he was swimming.
To think that he'd actually be accused of taking advantage of a woman. Who did that man think he was? He was a Fire Nation prince and had a reputation to uphold! He couldn't cause a scandal. His father would kill him. His uncle would be disappointed. And his poor mother would wonder where she went wrong raising him. She'd raised him damn well, he always thought.
He reached the end of the pool and caught a figure against the light in one of the top villa suites. She was several floors up, but he knew who she was just from knowing the photographer and his sister had the top floor. He stopped what he was doing and sent her a glare.
Katara jerked her head back. She lifted her nose and turned her head away in distaste. How dare he give her a glare! It wasn't as if she was looking! Was he so arrogant to think that she was?
She'd probably been watching him the whole time, Zuko thought to himself. He snorted as she turned her head away. Well, if she reacted that way, she must've definitely known who he was and watching.
"What's her problem...?" he mumbled to himself. He pushed himself from against the wall and began to backstroke to the other side of the pool, intent on completely ignoring her. Except that his eyes kept being drawn up to her room. "You're just attracted to the light," his mind convinced him. He focused his eyes up, at the darkening sky in an attempt to stop himself.
Something went out from the corner of his eye and he found himself swimming to a halt immediately in the center of the pool. He treaded water as he lifted his head and noticed that her light had gone off. Her door had been closed and and she was no long standing there.
He remained in the pool, wondering where she had gone or if she had gone to sleep - it was far too early for that, for a few more seconds before he realized what he was doing. Mentally, he slapped himself and dove back into the water to clear his head. He allowed the cool liquid to calm him as he held his breath and made his way to the edge of the pool once more.
As he broke the surface, he let out a breath and rested his arms on the low wall overlooking the ocean. He leaned forward and closed his eyes. Royal family member or not, he had a busy schedule. He'd had three meetings the day before at the capital regarding international relations with several Earth Kingdom city heads and all three had gone longer than expected.
He was supposed to arrive at the resort the night before, as his uncle wanted him there to look over the resort before it opened, but had missed his flight. Zuko opted to reschedule and instead waited for the next flight. Which was delayed. Twice. Then canceled.
He hated planes. He should've just taken a ship. There were several private cruisers that family owned - surely, he could've gotten permission to use one from his cousin. Then again, Lu Ten would've offered the royal jet, but Zuko didn't want to use it, in case Lu Ten needed it. He almost always went by commercial flights, though in first class.
The next flight left early in the morning and after he landed, he had to wait to take the first ferry to Ember Island. He waited for four hours. It was no wonder that when he arrived, his hair was a mess, his suit was wrinkled, and he was just a tad bit on the edge.
After Iroh spoke to him, he sent Zuko to one of the private villas disattached from the main resort to rest. He'd slept through lunch and hadn't woken up until one of his uncle's men informed him he was to join them for dinner. Zuko had refused.
He escaped to the pool, only to have one of the resort hostesses repeat the order. He had refused once more. He didn't feel like dealing with an easily irritable woman and her brother, who couldn't even read the atmosphere correctly. Didn't he see how mortified his sister was after he told them she had just been dumped?
Zuko almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
"Ah! Smell that fresh salt air!" a male voice said from one of the verandas not too far away. Zuko snapped his head to the side as he heard it and immediately tensed.
"It is relaxing, isn't it?" he heard his uncle sigh. Zuko felt his stomach drop as he realized his Uncle was there. If he saw him, he'd make Zuko join them. "Thank you for joining me for dinner tonight."
"Thank you for having us, Iroh." She stepped out into the veranda and Zuko ducked into the water. He hoped that the potted plants and the low wall surrounding the veranda would keep him hidden as he tried to sneak away. "I didn't know this was part of the restaurant."
"Only for dinner," Iroh replied. Chairs scraped against the tile floor. "I've arranged for you to try several of our restaurant's signature, traditional Fire Nation dishes."
"They're not all spicy are they?" Katara asked. Zuko braced himself against the side of the pool. He was close - almost to the end. He just needed to get out before his uncle saw him and -
"Zuko! There you are! I was beginning to think you weren't going to join us!" Iroh's voice filled the area and Zuko internally groaned.
"I was just taking a swim, Uncle," he said as he lingered by the steps. He turned and gave them a bow of his head as a greeting. "Don't mind me."
"Now, Zuko, you missed lunch," the elderly man frowned disapprovingly. "And with your schedule, I doubt you had much to eat for breakfast. Please have dinner with us." His concern was Zuko's defeat. Nodding slightly, Zuko took and released a heavy breath.
"Yes, Uncle," he conceded. It was always difficult saying no to the man. He'd always been close to his uncle, perhaps even closer to him than his own father, who had always seemed to favored his younger sister, Azula. "Just let me get changed."
"In this heat? You'll just dry off," Iroh urged. Zuko really had no escape. He climbed out the pool and headed for the chair that had his towel. Iroh, pleased that his nephew was joining them, turned back to the other two. "I hope you two don't think badly of him from this afternoon. He's very stressed, you see. Since his father had that heart attack, many of his royal duties fell upon his children."
"I heard about that," Sokka nodded. "How is Prince Ozai?"
Iroh smiled happy. "He's on a cruise with his wife. Ah, I kept telling him to take it easy now that he was older, but no...he didn't listen. Always strict with his lifestyle, that Ozai. Then he goes and has a heart attack at his age. So young."
"You have to keep things in balance, as I always say. Right, Katara?" Sokka waited for her to answer. He looked over at her and elbowed her. "Katara?"
Curious, both he and Iroh followed Katara's line of vision. Zuko was rubbing a towel through his hair not too far away and the Water Tribe woman's eyes were locked on to him. Sokka frowned. Iroh looked pleased.
"Ahem," Sokka said as he elbowed her again. "Katara!"
"Yes!" She jumped in her seat and turned around to look at her brother. "What is it?"
"Are you even paying attention? Iroh is talking to us!" he whispered back in a low voice.
"I am!" Katara whispered back. "What do you think I'm doing?" Sokka scoffed. He was about to point out where she had been looking with a chair was pulled back across from her. She snapped her head forward and saw the prince give a small nod of thanks to the attendant who had pulled his chair out.
"Sokka, when you have a moment tomorrow, might you be able to show Zuko some of your other work?" Iroh asked. "I hate to say it, bit it seems he needs some convincing of your ability."
Sokka looked thankful that the man had faith in him. "Of course, sir. I'd more than happy to."
Zuko was still doubtful. A server brought them some drinks and as he stirred his, his glanced at Sokka. "So, how long have you been doing promotional photography?"
"Three years now," Sokka reported. "I started off with landscape and nature photography."
"And I must say, I love your work in those fields as well," Iroh asserted. He looked over at Zuko. "I don't know if you've seen it, but I've had some of the photos framed back at the palace."
"I'm glad you like them. I think that photography is a constant learning experience," Sokka said. "Every shoot brings something different." Katara nodded in agreement.
"Have you ever entered any contests with your work?" Zuko asked.
"When I was younger, yes, but I'm afraid my work wasn't that good. After I began focusing more on my craft, I've not entered another contest," Sokka admitted. "Plus, with the business starting up, it's been quite busy."
"Why don't you hire a crew or an assistant?" Zuko asked coolly. Across from him, Katara frowned. She didn't like where this was going.
"I've had an assistant for more complicated shoots, such as in the Northern Water Tribe when the lighting is not optimal for weeks," Sokka explained. "But for the most part, hiring a full crew on the permanent basis isn't very cost affective right now."
Zuko looked displeased with that answer. "And you really think you can get through all the photos and editing by yourself?"
"Wait just a minute," Katara piped as she moved her drink to the side. "I don't see what that has to do with anything."
Zuko looked back at her and frowned. "It has everything to do with everything. I want to make sure that the man my uncle contracted is capable."
"He is more than capable," Katara replied sharply. "Otherwise, your uncle would not have hired him."
"This is the first time I've seen a photographer for this sort of thing without any sort of crew," Zuko told her sternly. "You'll forgive me if I expected a bit more than a man with a camera."
"So what are you saying? That all that fancy equipment and people are necessary to take a good photo?" Katara demanded as she shot up from her chair.
Zuko slammed his hands on the table and rose to his feet. "I'm saying that this is a professional job and I expected an actual professional!"
The sound of a chair being pushed back sounded and attention went from Zuko and Katara to Sokka. He rose from his seat, his eyes downcast.
"Sorry, everyone, I just remembered I had something to do," he said solemnly. "Just have the meal sent to my room, please."
"Sokka," Katara called out as she turned towards him. He didn't answer as he headed back inside. "Sokka!" She tossed her napkin on to the table, turning back once more to give Zuko a deadly glare, before running after him.
The veranda was now quiet and all Zuko could hear was the sound of the waves crashing behind them. Across from him, a heavy, disappointed sigh sounded.
"Nephew," Iroh's gentle voice asked as he looked at the man before him. "Why did you have to say that?"
Frustrated, Zuko tossed the towel that was around his neck onto the chair. "I just wanted to make sure that he was a competent photographer."
"By making him feel inferior?" Iroh asked.
"I was just doing a small interview on his abilities and processes," Zuko insisted. "You wanted me to come and look over the resort, so I'm doing that. I want to make sure everything goes well."
"Zuko, I didn't just ask you to come to look over the resort. I wanted you here because I was worried," Iroh told him. "Lately, you have been doing nothing but working, even on your off time. It's not good for you and I fear that you'll have an early heart attack like your father because of it."
"I'm not...," he trailed off guiltily. "Uncle, I'm not going to have a heart attack any time soon."
"But I still worry," Iroh said. "This island cleanses, Zuko. It straightens out your thoughts and eases your heart. Renews you. That is why I wanted you to come. You cannot continue dwelling on the past and forget about the future and the present. Do not worry about the photography or the opening. That is for me to worry about. You've already helped enough and I appreciate it more than you'll ever know. Instead," the old man almost seemed to plead. "Use your time here wisely and recharge yourself before you are completely burned out."
Zuko couldn't help but feel guilty for worrying him. He lowered his head and nodded. "I just don't want your dream to fail, Uncle. I failed Father. I don't want to let another person down like that."
"Zuko, you didn't fail your father," Iroh assured him. "It was an accident. And Ozai didn't have the heart attack because the car he had spent so much time and money on was in an accident - he had the heart attack because for a moment, he thought he lost you. You were lucky to get out with just a scar."
Zuko pursed his lips as he mulled over his Uncle's words. "Do you really believe Sokka can photograph the Jasmine Dragon the way you want?" he asked. The subject was changed, but Iroh understood. He nodded and smiled warmly.
"I have no doubt in my mind," he said. He patted Zuko on the shoulder. "Now, I believe you should apologize to them. Both of them."
The man nodded, seemingly determined to. "When I see them tomorrow, Uncle," he said. "And I'll take a look at Sokka's portfolio."
"Thank you," Iroh smiled. Zuko gave him a respectful bow before turning around and heading down the path back to his villa. He headed down the steps when he saw the hammock he had passed earlier swinging lazily. He could see someone sitting in it, but they were facing the sea instead of the pathway.
He looked over his shoulder and furrowed his brow. Aside from him and Iroh, no one else had one of the outlying villas, nor could they, as there were only two. Assuming it was someone else from the main resort building, Zuko continued down the path, his footsteps sounding against the steps.
"If you're here for the hammock, there's another one further down!" Zuko stopped in his tracks. He turned back to the hammock and saw one arm lower.
The prince stood in his spot, wondering if he should keep going wait for a better time or go and apologize now that he had the chance. Let's just get this over with. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and marched back to the hammock.
"Excuse me," he began as he rounded one of the metal poles it was hanging from. As expected, the photographer's sister was sitting on the hammock, legs hanging, and surprised to see him.
Surprise quickly turned to irritation as Katara's hands dug into the fabric of the hammock, as if claiming it as hers. "I'm sorry if you didn't hear me earlier, but I said that there was another hammock further down," she said behind gritted teeth. "This one is taken."
"I know," he replied evenly. "That's why I came."
She scowled. "What? Now you want my hammock? First you want to take my brother's job away -"
"I didn't mean to -"
"And now you want to take my hammock?" she demanded.
"No, I just wanted to talk to you," he answered, barely keeping himself from shouting back at her. He took another deep breath. "I wanted to speak to you about earlier."
Katara's contemptuous look didn't falter. "You pretty much laughed in my brother's face when you told him he wouldn't be able to do the job because he lacked a crew. You implied that he wasn't good enough to photograph Iroh's tea house when Iroh was the one who personally hired him. You basically said that he wasn't good enough. Do you have any idea how hard he's worked?" she asked scathingly. "How much he's done to even get this far?"
Zuko looked away, unable to meet her gaze. "I'm sorry -"
"I don't want your apology!"
"I know it's not Sokka who is the problem right now, alright?" Zuko asserted. "It's me! I know I'm unfairly irritated with him and putting the blame on him when it was my uncle who made the decision. It's just that I had my reasons for wanting this resort to have the best promotional photography done. You can't blame me for wanting my uncle to have the best!"
Katara huffed. "I can't blame you for that, but I can blame you for taking it out on my brother! That was unnecessary and you know it!" He knew it was true and shrank back. Katara crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. "I bet Lu Ten wouldn't have done that," she muttered under her breath.
He ran his hand down his face. "Alright, I admit," Zuko offered. "We got off on the wrong foot. I was tired and irritable and I'm still upset by my uncle cancelling Warden Media. It was wrong of me to say those things about your brother or even blame him for that. This is all my fault and I do apologize for that."
"Your apology goes to him. You insulted him, not me," Katara stated as she remained stubbornly sitting on the hammock.
Zuko took a deep breath. She was being obstinate on purpose. "I'll apologize to him when I see him next," he assured her. "And will thoroughly look through his portfolio."
"Good," Katara said, still swinging and clearly not going to leave any time soon. Zuko remained standing in front of her, also not ready to leave.
"And I'm sorry if I insulted you by insulting your brother and I'm sorry for raising my voice to you," Zuko concluded. "It was rude of me, especially to someone I've just met. This really is all my fault." His voice trailed off and he lowered his head shamefully.
Katara felt her shoulders slump. She had wanted to hold a grudge, but he was trying. For the first time, he sounded sincere when speaking and she had to at least give him credit for that. It was better than some people.
"Apology accepted," she said, finally letting her arms rest at her sides.
"Then, I suppose, we should start over. Let me properly re-introduce myself," Zuko stood up straight and gave her a formal bow. "I am Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation, son of Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa, First cousin of the Fire Lord." He continued on and Katara furrowed her brows. How many titles did he have? "Duke of Shu Jing, Duke of -"
"I get it!" Katara cut him off quickly. He lifted his head and looked at her, confused. "Prince Zuko, right?" she suggested warily. "Can't I just call you 'your highness'? Or maybe just 'Prince Zuko'?"
"I'd prefer it if you don't," he stated. "It draws too much attention and whenever someone hears 'prince', the media rushes over to see what I'm doing. I don't know how Lu Ten handles it so well," he said as he ran his hand through his hair and looked away, seemingly drained.
Katara narrowed her eyes slightly. Her mind replayed Iroh's words earlier; on how Zuko was highly stressed and it wearing him down. He had sounded so worried about his nephew. For her host's sake, she could at least be civil. In addition, she wanted to expose him to her brother's skill and driving him off with insults wouldn't help. That couldn't be good for Sokka after he worked so hard and what did she have to gain from being on the bad side of a Fire Nation royal?
Resigned, Katara asked as she placed her feet on the floor. "Then, what should I call you?"
He straightened up once more and met her eyes as she stood in front of him. This time, instead of bowing, he extended his hand. "Zuko."
Her eyes glanced down at his hand. Slowly, she brought her own up and carefully grasped it. "Katara." He offered her a smile and lowered his head. Her eyes widened as he lifted her hand and brought it to his lips. In the back of her mind, a small voice told her that Iroh had been wrong.
After the sunset, it didn't cool down at all.
Zuko lifted his head, her hand still lingering on his. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Katara."
If anything, it had gotten hotter.
A.N. - Hello! Thank you for joining me for another Zutara Week! Due to a prior engagement, I will be unable to do all of next week's days, so I've decided to start a few days early, as I'll only be able to update until the 17th.
This year, I've decided to go in pretty much the exact opposite direction as last year's plot and do a Alternate Universe Modern Day Romance type story. I hope it won't get too dramatic, but I do plan on making it 7 chapters - one per day, per daily theme - and the chapters will make up one story.
In addition, as this is a romance sort of deal, I contemplated bumping up the rating to M for later chapters, but I'm not sure. If you have any questions or are confused, as this is an AU and Modern Day, please let me know and I'll try to answer them in the Author's Notes of the next chapter.
I'm sorry, I have no idea what I'm writing.
I really hope to finish this on time, as I'm a bit busy with various writing and art projects right now. I'll definitely aim to complete this, though. Thank you very much for reading! I hope you enjoy the fanfic.