A bored sigh accompanied the creaking of a chair across from where he sat. Zuko didn’t look up from the spread of scrolls and letters before him.
The quiet rustle of cloth followed not to long after, and slender taupe fingertips slid into the edge of his view. He ignored the urge to look up at her and ignored the little wiggling of her fingers to try and get his attention.
He scratched out a few notes on a slip of paper. One of Katara’s fingers reached and stretched and tapped the end of his writing brush just ever so lightly. He closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes again, only to refocus them–very obviously–on the work in front of him. “Mm,” he said, trying to sound busy.
If he had a good, solid hour to work on this, he could probably get his outline done. One of the toughest things he’d run into after taking up the full mantle of Fire Lord after reaching his majority was reestablishing a solid foundation for the economy. Being at war for a century meant that they didn’t really have to worry about trade agreements or import taxes or selling their exports. Now that the war was over, however, those were all things they desperately needed. Of course, none of the other nations were offering any kind of leeway or help, either. The Fire Nation had been doing just fine during the war, after all, why should they need help now? Except--they hadn’t been doing fine. War benefitted those in power and those who already had money who weren’t in danger of losing any. The poor who didn’t have much to begin with far too often lost what little they had, and the gap between his poorest citizens and the nobility had grown frighteningly during the last few decades--
“Zuko.” Katara’s voice was much closer to him, this time--right beside his ruined ear, in fact.
He blinked at the scatter of rice paper across his desk, then lifted his chin and tilted his head a bit so he could just see her blurry outline in his periphery.
“Are you trying to sneak up on me?” he teased her.
She laughed, one of her hands sliding across the line of his shoulders. He imagined he could feel the cool of her fingers even through the layers of his robes. Leaning over him, she peered down at the notes he’d been taking and the old, dusty scrolls he was using for reference. It was such a small, innocuous thing, but the way she pressed against him in doing so was intensely distracting.
“The Chun Tai Restoration?” she asked. It took him a moment to understand what she was talking about.
“It’s just a name I’ve been toying with,” he said. “I know the Sages are technically the ones who name when a new era starts, but it felt fitting. I really want to phase out as much of the military presence as I can.” Zuko frowned, his own gaze falling back to his notes and scrolls. “It’s proving a lot more difficult than anyone anticipated, though. Soldiers are usually really good at being soldiers, but not much else, and a lot of them are having trouble reintegrating back into non-war life. On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of jobs we can try and move them into. Too much of the economy’s old foundations have been let waste away. Did you know we used to be the primary exporter of specialty spices and top quality ceramics? I didn’t know that.”
Katara moved around him so that she was leaning back against the table, facing him. Amusement was bright in her eyes and tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I’d say you’ve been working on this a lot, but I think that might be the understatement of this century.”
He leaned his head against the back of his chair with an exhale. “I’ve got to get this outline done.”
“Well,” she said, straightening and smoothing out the front of her patterned, cobalt ao dai. Ever since she’d taken to wearing Fire Nation styles but in Water Tribe hues, Zuko often found himself losing the trail of his thoughts whenever he caught sight of her. She was stunning in the bold, contrasting colors amid a sea of reds and maroons. “I suppose I should let you get back to it, then.”
Zuko wrested his attention back to what she was saying. It didn’t help his concentration any that the close-fitting silks of the dress highlighted just what physical changes she’d gone through the past few years. “You could help,” he suggested.
She feigned indifference, turning her head to look off to the side. “Oh, I’m not sure just how much help I’ll be with all that right now.”
Now it was Zuko’s turn to laugh. “Katara, please. You know I’m always happy to hear your thoughts on everything.”
The curve of her mouth shifted smoothly from nonchalance to arch, and she tilted her head just so, giving him the graceful line of her neck and a glimpse of collar bone. Her eyes were hooded when she sent her gaze back to meet his. He felt a plume of heat blossom and curl beneath his ribs. “I’m afraid my thoughts are about as far from spices and quality ceramics as you might imagine.”
The heat pooled downward, and the drop in his voice indicated yes he very well might imagine. “Come here, why don’t you sit on my lap until I’m done working?”
Her ao dai’s silk was just as smooth beneath his hands as it looked when she pushed off the desk and slid onto his lap. Her hands found his chest and shoulders; his found the lines of muscle at her waist and back.
Zuko had always believed one of his greatest assets was his ability to focus wholeheartedly on the tasks set before him, and to overcome whatever challenges he had to. He knew proper ao dai had several hidden ties that held the intricate squares of fabric into place so the wearer could move without fear of any slipping. Where those ties were hidden depended on the tailor, and he had the feeling Katara would keep those secrets to herself, as well. His palm pressed against her back, while the one at her waist began the slow, wandering challenge of discovering where each tie was.
Scrolls and policies were left forgotten on the desk behind Katara. They had quite a lot of work to do before getting back to them.