Six months later
Katara was the first representative to arrive in the Fire Nation.
She was a whole three weeks early before the very first meeting of the Council of Nations, but no one questioned it. She was one of the founders, after all.
Zuko was the one who came up with the idea to establish an international committee that would maintain peace, respond to any threats to the four nations’ security, and make sure no person in positions of power would abuse their influence. Katara and the others simply helped him execute it. After all that mayhem with the Red Lotus, it was easy to convince other world leaders to agree to it.
Katara had hopes for the council to be more than just a safeguard against threats; she wanted it to encompass all the pillars of peace and balance, to extend its efforts to humanitarian causes as much as it would with peacekeeping. This was mainly why she accepted the position as the Southern Water Tribe representative. The post was supposed to be Sokka's, but since he was completely absorbed by the work that he and Aang were doing in the former Fire Nation colonies with Earth King Kuei, the offer fell to her.
She couldn’t remember a time in her life where she felt this much personal purpose. During the war, she had fought for her family and her friends, fought against Ozai’s iron grip in the world. But she had been born into that fight, was shaped to face it by loss and love. Now, she was doing something she chose to be passionate about. This time, Katara wasn’t the chief’s daughter, her tribe’s prodigious bender, or one of the Avatar’s companions. She was just a young woman carving her own place in the world while trying to make it better. So far, it suited her well.
Katara was apparently an important enough guest of the Fire Nation to warrant a welcoming entourage. As her ship docked at the harbor, the hour already late, there were Royal Palace staff and guards waiting to escort her. She was taken to the Royal Palace on an ostrich horse-drawn carriage, and Mai met her by the palace doors. Her previous visits had never been this formal, even with Aang around. Perhaps being ambassador changed things a bit.
“Zuko sends his apologies for not meeting you personally,” Mai told her as they walked through the grand high-ceilinged hallways of the palace. The two of them had always been civil towards each other, but she noticed a slight change in how Mai interacted with her recently. It probably had something to do with the fact that she was one of the people who rescued Zuko. “Unfortunately, he’s still stuck in a meeting.”
“That’s okay. I understand,” she assured Mai. “Besides, I didn’t come for business. Not yet, at least. I’m just visiting.”
Mai nodded and they settled into a stiff yet comfortable silence. The hallways and corridors twisted and turned before them, but Mai navigated it with ease.
Mai spoke again when they finally reached the Guest Wing. “Azula’s here, too, by the way. Though she’s in the meeting with Zuko.” Katara thought she caught a hint of a smirk in her face, though she could never really tell with Mai. “It will probably go on for a while longer. The minor lords have been dying to harangue Zuko since he left on his little field trip with Azula. They don’t seem to want to let him go so soon.”
“Are they allowed to do that? I mean, he’s the Fire Lord.”
Mai shrugged. “Zuko’s too patient with them. Azula has to step in sometimes.”
Katara let out a small laugh and shared a secret smile with Mai. She had heard stories about the Fire Lord’s new advisor, who sometimes verbalized Zuko’s anger on his behalf through precisely worded insults and thinly-veiled intimidation. Stories the advisor herself told her through letters. It had become a weekly source of amusement for her for a couple of months, despite how she disapproved with some of her methods.
Two months. It would seem short if she only considered time in numbers, but it felt longer to her.
They arrived at Katara's quarters, which was different from the one she used to stay in during all her previous visits to the palace. When Mai led her inside to give her a tour, she noticed it was also far bigger. It was an entire living space, actually. Complete with multiple rooms and a study. She even had her own personal group of servants, who Mai introduced to her by their names after they brought Katara’s things inside.
It all seemed excessive to Katara, who grew up sharing a tent with her family, and whose own house back in the South Pole was just a little bit bigger than her new quarters’ living room.
“I know it’s far more lavish than your old rooms, but all representatives are assigned to similar chambers,” Mai informed her, having interpreted the expression on her face accurately. “Feel free to redecorate, if you want.”
Katara perked up at that. “I can do that?”
“Sure,” said Mai with a half-smile. “I've already acquired some genuine water tribe decorations for you to select. I think some of the hangings would suit your quarters.”
That was a relief. Katara was sure she'd end up wanting to gouge her eyes out if she had to stare at nothing but red, gold and black for the entirety of her time serving as a representative.
It was also a relief to hear another evidence of her tribe's growing economy with trade between the South Pole and the Fire Nation going well enough that Mai could just arrange orders of authentic water tribe wares easily. Economic growth and expansion were things that her father and Sokka had always pushed for, and now with her position in the council she could nurture the progress they had planted to bear more fruit.
After Mai left, she dismissed her servants and told them to rest for the night, assuring them that she would simply call if she ever needed help with anything. The way she told them this was somewhat awkward, though. She never had to deal with personal attendants before.
There was a canopy bed befitting royalty in her bedroom. She collapsed into it, relished in its softness despite knowing full well that her back would ache the next day, having been accustomed to sturdier surfaces. Katara lied to Mai when she said she already had dinner back on the ship. The truth was that Katara felt jittery ever since the Fire Nation came into view, which only got worse the closer she got to the palace. She didn't think eating would be a good idea with how her belly was flipping all over. Some minutes passed and she realized that another thing she couldn't do was sleep, apparently.
She sat upright and rose from the bed. There was a smaller room attached to the bedchamber, separated by a deep red curtain. Katara swept it aside to find a freestanding bath full to the brim with warm, steaming water. It beckoned to her, so Katara took off her clothes, and sank into the water with a pleased sigh. The water sloshed along the rim as she settled herself into the bath and Katara played with a few drops, suspending them in the air for a few seconds before letting the droplets trail her face soothingly. As soon as the water started to cool, she gingerly got herself out and bent a coil of water to reach for a towel. She could've called for a servant, but she still wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of having other people help her with something as menial as taking a bath.
Katara put on some clothes but kept her hair out of its braids and loops, letting it drape loosely down her back. With nothing else to do, and no desire to sleep, she decided to walk about her new living quarters. The place that would become her home for the foreseeable future while she served as a representative of her tribe.
Katara was skimming through the spines of the books in her personal study’s bookshelf when she heard a knock.
She didn’t run towards the door, but she might as well have with how quick her strides were. When she reached it, she took a moment to briefly examine herself before opening it slowly. Azula was on the other side, and Katara tried to tamp down her smile so as not to look like a lunatic.
Azula rolled her eyes. Opening her arms slightly, she said, “Alright, come on. I know you’re itching to do it.”
The last word was barely of Azula’s lips when Katara pounced on her friend, trapping Azula in her arms. Azula returned the gesture albeit with less gusto. “I didn’t think you’d miss me.”
She pulled away quickly and fixed Azula with a hard look. “I haven’t seen you in two months and that’s how you greet me?” She tried not to laugh as Azula raised her brow. “Of course, I missed you.”
“That's good to know." Azula took one of her hands in hers. Katara was struck by how far they have come. There had been a time when Azula wouldn't have allowed Katara to step into her personal space, or the idea of threading their fingers together without so much as a thought just because they wanted to seemed like such a laughable notion. Azula tugged at her hand. "Come on, I want to get some fresh air."
They walked hand in hand through the hallway. This, too, was normal now. If anyone caught the two of them like this, they wouldn’t bat a single eyelash. Everyone knew the formidable princess was close friends with Katara.
Still, casual or not, Katara felt her breath expand in her chest and a prickle of warmth from where their skins touched. She tried to look just as unaffected about it as Azula seemed.
“Mai told me you were in a meeting with Zuko,” Katara said.
“Don’t remind me. Talk about something else.”
Katara shook her head fondly. “How was your trip with Zuko, then?”
Azula didn’t answer right away. Katara started to regret asking when they neared the royal gardens and she was still quiet. Some time ago, Azula had written to Katara about traveling with her brother. She didn’t say where they were going, and Katara didn’t push her for details.
At length, Azula finally spoke. “We went to see my mother.”
She glanced at Azula but didn’t say anything. They walked some more until they reached the gardens, the cool air in her face giving her the sensation of being lightly splashed with water. They stopped at the edge of the large pond.
“She has her own family now, apparently.” Azula’s voice was pointedly devoid of emotion. “Zuko found her a long time ago but didn’t bring her back home. She was happy where she was, he said. He would visit her sometimes.”
She was quiet again after that. Only the moon and the stars above could see them now, and they blanketed them with their pale light. Katara kept close to Azula, close enough that she could count her lashes despite the dimness. She waited for her to finish.
“When I saw her first, I nearly… I almost slipped again. Zuko was there and he helped me through it.” Azula’s grip on her hand tightened. “I don’t hate my mother. Not anymore. I don’t think hate was ever the word for it, actually. But I couldn’t look at her or be near her without feeling some old resentment rise up again. I don’t even think I could look at my father now without… I'd end up maiming him, I'm sure.”
Azula paused to wipe her cheek. “I managed to hold a few conversations with my mother before we left. The first few ones were... hard, but it got less difficult eventually. Hindsight cleared my mind, I guess. It helped me realize that my mother was only human, and she had her own set of scars from Father. Still, it felt more like a closure. I think Zuzu's a bit disappointed about that, but it's something he'd never understand.” Azula leaned her head against Katara's shoulder, her topknot brushing against her cheeks. Katara felt the weight of the contact, the intimacy of it. In times like these, Katara knew that what Azula needed was for her to listen. To be there for her, assure her wordlessly that she wasn’t leaving, help her carry whatever burden she was struggling with.
The first time Azula opened up about Ursa to her was when they were in the South Pole on an evening not so different from this.
After their bold rescue, they had split off from their group to help the Northern and Southern Water Tribes while the others went to the Earth Kingdom. Hulranoq and the rest of the Red Lotus put up a fight, but ultimately Azula and Katara triumphed over them. When they reached the South, the remaining Red Lotus forces surrendered as soon as they saw Lan and Katara was reunited with her father. At some point after the celebrations that followed, when Katara took Azula to one of her favorite quiet spots where they had a vast view of the stars, Azula asked about her necklace. Her friend wondered why a lot of women seem to wear the same ones, varying only with their shades and carvings. She told Azula that they were betrothal necklaces, but hers used to belong to her mother. The conversation that followed was painful for the both of them, one that lasted until their eyes were heavy. A girl who saw lost her mother so young and another who felt like her own mother never loved her.
She was stirred from her thoughts when Azula raised her head from where it had been resting on her shoulder. Katara mourned for its absence. “We went to Ome’s tribe after that,” Azula went on. “Zuko’s been there once, so they didn’t mind.”
“Wait, Zuko’s been there?” she interrupted. “To Ome’s super-secret tribe that you won’t even talk to me about?”
“It’s a long story.” Azula laughed breathily. “I’ll take you there soon, don’t worry. Ome wants to meet you. She even asked the chief for permission.”
Katara's eyes stung. She felt like crying, but Azula would make fun of her for it. Instead, she poked Azula on the cheek and laughed at the affronted look it elicited. When she spoke next, her voice sounded genuinely touched. “You talked to Ome about me?”
She delighted at the color that rose to Azula’s pale cheeks. “Cut it out or I’ll feed you to Lan.”
Katara held back a smirk. “Speaking of Lan, where is he?”
“He’s just flying about. You know how he gets.” Azula waved her hand to gesture at nowhere in particular. “Can’t stand to stay in one place for very long.”
“Too bad. I hope he comes back soon—I miss him,” Katara said with a sigh, then lightly nudged Azula when she added, “Not as much as I missed you, though.”
Azula didn’t say anything, but Katara saw her blush deepen. She savored each time she could break Azula’s composure like this, at how easily she could ruffle someone whose default façade was as cold as the ice back in the poles and could make men cower simply with a sharp glance.
Silence fell over them again but even that didn’t feel empty. Standing so near Azula, she could smell her familiar scent of soft sandalwood and fire that made Katara feel heady and awake all at once.
“I still have trouble letting people in,” Azula admitted suddenly, taking Katara slightly by surprise. Her voice just a touch above a whisper. “It even took me a very long time before I opened up to Ome about who I really was. About what happened to me.”
Azula turned until they stood face to face. There was an earnest look in her eyes, one that still managed to stun Katara to silence. She waited, aware that Azula could feel the quickening of her pulse from where their hands and wrists were entwined.
Azula’s words came out in a sudden rush. “I’ve come to realize though that it somehow comes easier to open up to you, that it doesn’t scare me as much.”
Katara knew what it was like to drown. The feeling in her chest as she stared wide-eyed at Azula was not so different. Whether she would end up floating or have the air leave her lungs hinged on what Azula chose to say next.
“And whatever this means, I’m not scared to find out either.” Azula continued to tell her. “I want to find out. With you. If you’ll have me.” Azula’s face was open, bare of all the masks she had acquired over the years. “I know that I’m far from perfect, and I don't think I could ever change some broken parts of me. I know I have a lot to make up for.”
As Katara reached out to take Azula’s other hand she remembered the broken, defeated young girl all those years ago. “You ceased being the enemy when the war ended, Azula. And you’ve more than made up for everything. The way your people love you can attest to that.”
“The world can despise me for all I care. It’s your opinion that matters to me.”
That robbed Katara of all the arguments that were about to spill from her mouth.
When words fail her, she turned back to the language of movement and action. It was something they were both well-versed at: in battlefields, in the sharing of warmth, in glances and embraces, in the push and pull of unseen energies guiding them through this world. She trusted in that shared language now as she reached out to Azula. Her fingertips traced Azula's jaw like a question, and the answering gaze she got in return was everything she hoped for.
She abandoned all her inhibitions, angled her face just so, and kissed Azula.
The way Azula’s lips were softer than she imagined was the first thing she noted despite the kiss being far from it. It was all grasping hands and desperate clashing of lips, but Katara wouldn’t have it any other way. There would be time for gentleness later.
The kiss deepened and she felt a tingling from her head down to her toes, as if Azula had just sent a lightning bolt through her. She could feel Azula’s warmth seep into her own skin, felt it in the lips touching hers, the small of her back where Katara’s hands were twisted in. Slender fingers in her hair, then suddenly she felt more of Azula against her own body.
It was over too soon when Azula pulled away. She stayed close enough, her breath billowing around Katara’s face. “You keep surprising me.” Her voice was low and breathy.
Katara smiled at her. “Get used to it. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.”
“That’s a relief.” Azula pulled Katara’s head down to rest against her chest. Katara closed her eyes, allowing herself to be held. She found that she felt right at home in the warmth.