I BRING FIC
(and now I can join communities and look at wikipedia pages and stuff wheeeeee)
Title: An Immodest Proposal
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Summary: His second official act isn't as well-received.
Rating: Very very G.
Author's Notes: A little scene I imagined as the last episodes approached. Something to flesh out the denouement, for the incorrigible multishipper in me. Spoilers for the series.
Fire Lord Zuko's first official act after his coronation is to declare the war at an end. His audience of thousands cheers as one.
His second official act has only one witness, and her reaction is not nearly as enthusiastic. In fact, there's violence.
"What did you just say?" Katara shouts, and Zuko's pretty sure she isn't asking him to repeat it.
"I--" He winces, physically, unable to stop himself. "I just thought it would be a good idea. You know. Fire Lord. Waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. Harmony. Stuff." He winces again. Why did he think he could handle this as a dignified negotiation? He'll never be able to pull that around Katara.
Katara's snub little nose is flared like she's the one about to breathe fire. "That--that is the worst, the dumbest--you can be so stupid, Zuko!"
As if he doesn't already have acres of proof of that. "Look, I was trying to make a sensible plan. I think it would go a long way to making peace between the nations. It's not as stupid as all--"
He doesn't finish; his words turn into a strangle as Katara hurls a nearby wine carafe at him, the liquid in it surging into a whip-thin line which hits him, hard, on the right cheek. "Ow!" He has to catch himself from falling with a hand against the wall. "You trying to scar me on the other side to match?"
The wine arcs back toward Katara, forms a sphere and hovers over Katara's shoulder like a parrotmonkey. She folds her arms. "It isn't the idea that's stupid." Some of the anger leaves her face. Only some, though. "As ideas go, it makes some sense."
"It does? I mean--yes. Yes, I think it does." He pushes himself to a standing position, wondering if his crown is crooked, wishing for a mirror. Wishing to be out of the room altogether, truth be told. "It would show how serious the Fire Nation's wish for peace really is. Does--does it really make you that angry?"
"I thought you and I were starting to be friends." The wine sphere twitches in response to her agitation. "And then you pull that, 'As Fire Lord, I make a formal request of the Daughter of the Southern Water Tribe' garbage. Did that crown heat your brains when they put it on you?"
He can't keep from touching the crown. It is crooked. Great. "I--"
"That has to have been," Katara huffs, "the worst marriage proposal on record. Could you have acted as if you cared about me even a little? Called me by name, even?"
"Oh." The syllable is startled out of him. He really has been an idiot. "I'm sorry. You're right. I'm never good at these things." He thinks back to his moment of Hiya, guys, Zuko here and decides this one might have topped it.
"Zuko." Her remaining anger fades from her face, from her posture. She separates the sphere of wine into sections, lets it flow into the empty goblets on the table. When it's done she looks back at him. "You don't love me." She says it sadly, but not with regret. It's a sadness of having to explain something to a fool.
He meets her eyes, gives her the truth. "I could." And it is the truth. "I could learn to. You're smart, you're clever--"
"'Clever' means smart. You could try to come up with different compliments, at least."
He's floundering. "You're pretty--"
"Not in the way Mai is," she says without anything like jealousy.
"Let's not talk about Mai, okay?" He doesn't want to think about Mai now. Really doesn't want to. He takes a breath, an act so difficult he feels it should count as airbending. "You're caring. And you're good. I feel...I feel as if just by being with you it could be easy to be good." Her eyes haven't changed, and he lets that breath go. "I'm sorry. I'm still making a mess of things."
But she steps closer to him, close enough to touch his arm. "Actually, you're doing a lot better. You sound like the Zuko I know." She doesn't smile, but her eyes are kind. "Thank you for not pretending you're already in love with me."
For that statement, for her kindness, his heart does go out to her even a little more. He knows it's still not love--not love in the way a marriage proposal should have it--but it feels just as important. "If I'd said it this way from the first, would it have made you say yes?"
She drops her eyes. "I...don't know. I think...I think you don't want me to, and maybe that's why you said it in a way you knew would make me angry. So that I wouldn't say yes."
"What? Katara, I'm not that smart!"
She hides the start of a smile behind her fingertips. "I wouldn't put it past you."
He groans, but the knot in his gut is loosening.
"Zuko..." Her face sobers again. "I could say the same things about you. I could learn to love you, if it came to that. If it were necessary."
He's still very young. Both of them are, and so he's neither so bold nor so cynical to suggest, even to think, that love isn't important in a political marriage, if it really were that necessary. "I thought it would have helped things." He hears himself speaking in the past tense and feels the knot loosen completely.
"You have all the help you need." She stands a little straighter. "I'm your friend. Toph is your friend. Sokka, Suki...we're all going to stand beside you because we're your friends. Not because we're bound by duty in marriage."
"Yeah, Sokka's probably glad he wasn't in the running for that."
Katara smiles only a little, refusing to stray from her point. "And you have the friendship of the one person in the world who makes any kind of diplomatic marriage shallow by comparison."
He knows what she means, but wonders if she might think he's dumb enough not to get it, so he says it out loud. "Aang."
She nods. "With the Avatar at your side, you'll hardly need anything else to convince the rest of the world that the Fire Nation is sincere in its wish for peace."
Now he smiles. "I'm betting Aang doesn't want to marry me either."
He does capture Katara's smile this time. She laughs. Then she pinkens. He doesn't miss that. "That's part of why you won't marry me, " he says, and when it doesn't hurt him at all to say it aloud, he's glad Katara is so wise. So glad of it that he loves her even more...but still not in that way.
Katara tries not to turn from him, but he can see the struggle. "The Fire Lord...doesn't need me." Her voice breaks on the last part of it.
"But the Avatar does." He's right. Hanging around Katara does wash off on him a little. He's found a little of her wisdom.
Again she colors. But she looks him in the eyes, and says, "Aang saved the world, not because he put himself above the world but because he tied himself to it. Even if I didn't love Aang...I would stay with the Avatar."
If he speaks it aloud, and he's wrong, he doesn't know what he'll do. So he doesn't say it, coward that he is. Instead he asks, "Are you the only one who's going to practice duty around here, then? Just leave the rest of us to run wild?"
She looks distressed for a moment, and he's sorry he teased her, but more sorry that this might mean he actually is wrong. Then her eyes narrow, and a grin creeps into the corner of her mouth. She swats him on the shoulder. "Don't do that. The Avatar is one thing." Her mouth softens. "But Aang is Aang."
Zuko breathes, and it's easy, easy as life. "Oh. Oh, good. I was worried--maybe--"
"I was confused, there, for a while." Her hand goes to her necklace in that unconscious gesture. "But I'm not anymore. Thank you, Zuko. I think you helped."
"Oh." He thinks he sees it. "You mean, you realized that if the Avatar had proposed to you in the formal way I did, you'd have accepted him but not me?"
"Nah, I'd still have decked him," she grins. "But now I can always tell myself that I was this close to becoming wife of the Fire Lord. And that I turned it down for the something I really wanted instead. Kind of a neat memory, you know?"
"Are you going to tell Aang?" His mouth is dry. "Please don't tell Aang. No, forget that--you can tell Aang. Just please don't tell Mai."
"I won't tell Aang," she says. "Don't you tell Mai." And she leans in and kisses Zuko, not quite on the mouth, but nearly. "Some secrets you keep for love's sake."
He watches her go, taking a small piece of his heart with him, but in the way that leaves his heart feeling fuller than before. Friendship does that.
He wonders how he'll propose to Mai. Definitely nothing formal; she'd hate that just as much as Katara had, more. He'll take her on a picnic, tease her until she throws leftover dessert in his face with her deadly accuracy, and he'll pronounce himself defeated. And then he'll ask. She'll probably tell him to clean himself up and not to assume she's that desperate, which for Mai will mean yes.
He wouldn't have it any other way.