Author's Note: Oh my goodness. I cannot even begin to explain the stress this chapter has given me. I have honestly been in the works with it for at least 8 months. I started off strong...then found myself grasping for inspiration from everything. I had actually planned my revamp around the revival of the series with Korra, but have found even though I do enjoy this new series, it doesn't have the same magic as the original Avatar and have not found anything for it. So I have struggled through this chapter lineit by line-I honestly think I have opened the file up every single day and either stared at the screen or managed to write one sentence-and finally managed to finish it. I have tried to look through it to make sure everything flows, seeing as how it wasn't written in succession, but I have stared at this screen and this chapter for the past 6 hours now and don't have too much of a heart for proofreading it, and am afraid I'll never get this chapter up if I don't do it now, so forgive me if it's a little off. I have tried so hard! Thank you all for reading it, once again, and I hope you enjoy it. Also, what are you all thinking of Korra?
As the World Falls Down
Had she been given an endless amount of ink, a nice, lasting writing utensil, and the world's supply of parchment, Katara could write numerous stories of how horrible the Fire Nation was. The heat was unbearable, and it caused a stench to cling in the air. Everyone felt the need to express emotions by touching each other. There seemed to be a lack of water everywhere. And everything, absolutely everything was red.
Through all of the faults, however, she could never lie and say the place was without charms. It was very obvious as Zuko directed her through his home, that the Fire Nation had a pride for the upkeep of their country that rivaled her own. Flowers, something of a luxury in the Poles, were carefully selected and either kept in vases around the palace or planted around the grounds. The variety of animals were amazing, there were so many breeds and colors! As they walked through the gardens, past a small yet beautiful pond, she noticed the look of affection Zuko held for the small turtleducks that inhabited it. Seeing such a look of endearment on his features was hard to take in.
Katara would never mistake this country as her home, and would never refer to it such. Yet somehow, she found herself content enough to remain there the rest of her life, regardless her feelings of being an outsider.
As the morning faded into noon, Katara found them in the depths of the Fire Nation city, passing by a marketplace. She deeply wanted to leap from the carriage Zuko and herself were in, covered with red curtains and the Fire Nation insignia, to rush to the stands and admire the common people's crafts. It was admiring, nations aside, to see what talents could be put to use, making such beautiful things. She had to keep reminding herself not to pull back the curtains too far, on the chance someone would come to realize who she was.
The Fire Nation royalty was set up differently than in the Water Tribe. Among her people, her family was more like a symbol, respected yes, but the decisions were highly made by the entire council. Here in the Fire Nation, the royalty were looked at with respect, yes, but also were more approachable. She noticed people looking at the carriage with so much affection, not truly knowing who was behind the coverings. Also, the royalty had a much higher standing-their word was law, rather than relying on a group of old men to disagree.
In fact, only two guards were with them here. They had no fear of their own people, and these soldiers were merely there to direct the lizard camels that drew the cart.
As a group of children rushed towards the side of , Katara felt a smile spread across her lips, watching as their little hands waved excitedly towards her and Zuko. She brought her hands up next to the window, waving back through the opaque fabric that would only show the outline of her hand.
Across from her, she heard Zuko laugh slightly, and she turned towards him.
"What is it?" she asked defensively. Outside of the exchange with Ursa, she hadn't known him to smile with any means outside of sarcasm.
Zuko's lips were well kept behind a relaxed hand, although it would have taken more than that to hide the ends as they curled into a smirk. Pulling his hand away, he carelessly draped his arm across his knee, leaning back into his seat as he watched his people from the window on his side.
"You surprise me. I wouldn't have imagined you adapting into a comfort zone as quickly as you did."
Startled, Katara recoiled from him. "What do you mean?"
Laughing again as he shook his head, he turned towards her this time, his golden eyes meeting her blue ones. "You're more perfect for this role than I think either of us could have imagined. Your love for people in general overlaps your prejudice towards my Nation-the look you had on your face as you saw the children. Such adoration. The people will love you."
Katara's next smile was an uneasy one. The idea that she was a perfect fit for a Fire Lady made her sick. She averted his gaze, turning her head to look back out the window, her lips slowly settling into a thin line.
Then there was a whistling sound as something tore through the back curtains before coming to an abrupt halt next to her head with a loud thud. Her cheek stung, and she brought her hand to it in shock. Before she could pull her fingers back and investigate, the Fire Prince had reached out, pulling her down by her arm so she was buried in the lower part of the carriage. He was directing the two soldiers with quiet, calm orders to return to the palace. Outside, everything went on as normal, as if no one had noticed the inside of the Royal Carriage had been in chaos. Glancing up slightly, she noticed a small yet deadly dagger imbedded in the red cushion just before Zuko reached out and pulled it free.
"Are you okay?" he asked in an even whispered, pulling his eyes from the details of the blade over to meet hers.
Katara quickly turned her eyes down swallowing thickly as she tried to calm her racing heart. Looking at her hand, there was a small amount of blood. She could feel more escaping the wound as she finally spoke.
"Yes, I'm fine."
The voice was hardly a gasp. Her hands were shaking and she brought them together to bring a halt to her shaky nerves, tightening her fingers until her knuckles turned white. Without warning, he leaned in and brushed her cheek, wiping at the drawn blood, and she felt her heart jump into her throat before she reminded herself to breath. It was only Zuko, and nervously meeting his eyes again, she could tell this was another instance where touch was okay in the Fire Nation. It was merely a sign of comfort, whereas in the Water Tribe it would be seen as intimacy.
"We were careless today. I didn't think-I mean, nobody knew," Zuko began, and she could tell he was being careful with his words. "We will pay more attention to your safety up until the announcement. I guarantee you after you meet with my people, you will have more who adore you than those who would condemn you. You would be safe to roam by yourself. Until then, I won't overlook it."
She turned her head away, feeling more like a toy than a Princess from a great Nation.
"Hey," he cut into her thoughts, putting his hand under her chin and carefully yet sternly drawing her attention back to him. "I promise you, you will be safe."
This was a promise Katara was certain, no matter how much he believed it, Zuko wouldn't be able to make.
As they returned to the palace, Katara could see Jet at the entrance through the window, rigid and no doubt anxious for their arrival. She sucked in her breath, and if Zuko could tell she was nervous, he didn't mention it. Hastily she pushed the curtains back into place. Unfortunately, the carriage itself was already a dead giveaway.
"About time you got back," she could hear his tone through the wood, and she was certain it perfectly matched the scowl she imagined was on his face. Uncrossing his arms, Jet stormed up to the carriage and opened Katara's door before it had come to a complete stop.
He looked fully prepared to bark another snide comment before he saw her face. "What the hell happened?" he seethed, eyes flying around in a rage before settled on Zuko. "You're supposed to be her beloved , and you can't protect her? Did you touch her?"
As Jet wildly grabbed at the hilt of one of his hook swords, Katara in turn flew out of the carriage, pushing her arms against his chest to keep him back.
"How often must you disrespect me in my own country?" Zuko asked smoothly, dismounting from his seat as he headed over to the pair. "To insinuate I would dare touch Katara without her permission, if you were not such a respected friend of hers I would have you in chains in a heartbeat. However, it is true I was unable to protect her from..."
"The branch." Katara cut in, turning around and giving Zuko a pointed look before returning to face Jet. "We were in the garden and I wasn't watching where I was going and I ran into a branch. Now really, Jet? Are you going to lock me in a glass box or something?"
"Maybe that's not such a bad idea."
Katara rolled her eyes, putting a bit more effort into being angry to get him to follow her. "Let's go."
Moving forward past her guard as she stepped up into the palace, she had to force herself not to turn back and look at Zuko, worried her expression might give something away, and more terrified that he might bring the incident up.
It took a bit of convincing to get Jet to allow her to leave by herself to see Zuko...in the sense that he would have absolutely none of it. Instead she had feigned defeat, getting him to wait in the hall as she changed. Without missing a moment, Katara had darted into the bathroom. Filling her water pouch, she proceeded to the window which she flung open with as much force as she could gather. Rather than being quiet, she was more worried Jet would catch onto her plans.
She needed to talk to her brother, and in order to do that, she had to convince Zuko to give her access to the prison. As terrified as she was to be on her own-the assassination attempt still fresh in her mind-seeing her brother was something she had to do before her announcement tonight. Something she had to do alone.
Thankful her bedroom was on the floor level, she leapt to the ground. Ignoring the grass stains she received, she made her way towards the windows that let light into the East hallway. They were larger than the average door and during the tour that day Zuko had asked a maid to open them to let some air inside. As she approached them, she realized they had since been shut, and a small pull at the handle confirmed they were also locked. Glancing around nervously, Katara pulled the cap off of her water pouch, her only weapon that she was slowly beginning to feel comfortable with. Freezing the water into the latch, she deftly picked up a fist sized rock from the side of the building before bringing it down on the top of the handle. It took three good hits, but when it connected the final time, she heard the satisfying sound of the metal hitting earth.
Stepping over the ledge back into the castle, she found herself thinking about how soon she had become desperate in the Fire Nation. A respectable Water Tribe member, a princess at that, would never be caught dead doing doing something so disrespectful. Somehow, she had stopped caring about her loyalty to her tribe and wanted to hang on to herself as long as she could. That started with making things right with Sokka.
It didn't take long to find Zuko's study-he had preferred an outside tour of the city and it was one of the few indoor rooms he had directed her to, letting her know it was where he could most often be reached. His door was ajar, and in her haste she had almost knocked on the door before she realized someone else was already in conversation with the Fire Prince.
"Does this mean anything to you?" Katara could hear Zuko's voice clearly, and she had to fight back her curiosity to keep herself from glancing into the room.
"It's a dagger, Prince Zuko," a rather bored voice answered.
There was a scuffling sound, and Katara realized that he was most likely sitting up from his chair. "Yes, and can you tell me what it was doing flying through the air into the royal carriage, a hairs breath away from Lady Katara's head?"
"What are you saying, Zuko?" all formality had dropped. "Do you think I tried to kill your precious princess?"
There was a painful pause before the answer followed. "No, I do not. Because you wouldn't have missed."
"How charming of you, declaring my innocence not because you think I wouldn't kill the water girl, just that whoever attempted her assassination didn't succeed."
"You report to my sister, Mai, and I'm certain you know the type of person she is. She doesn't like loose ends. Did she honestly think I believed her little story for the Northern Water Tribe princess and her guard? My sister is unbalanced and dangerous."
"I ask that you don't speak down about the Princess in my presence."
The silence was heavier than before, and Katara held her breath, not daring to breath at that moment. Even though she couldn't see them, Katara could tell just how personal this was between the two of them. The conversation was anything but romantic, yet it felt as if she was eavesdropping on lovers. The idea, however, that they were talking so casually about the death of Yui and her people, as well as the thought that her future sister-in-law wished her dead was a terrible thought to sit on.
"The day may come where you have to decide which side you're on, Mai. Don't confuse loyalty with your conscience."
"I'll do just fine, thanks." The tone was bitter. "I'll be taking my leave, your majesty."
In a panic as she heard footsteps approaching, Katara realized the hallway offered no places to hide, and instead chose to dart for the door, knocking loudly to announce her presence before pushing the door open, hoping they would assume she had just arrived.
"I'm sorry, I just needed to speak with him about..." she trailed off again. She wasn't quite sure about how to request access to the prison, though moments before she had been willing to storm the walls herself as a one-woman army. The idea that it may be Princess Azula herself setting up the assassins rather than a rogue nationalist terrified her to the core. She could have people anywhere, and it made her feel vulnerable.
"It's alright, Princess Katara. Lady Mai was just leaving, you can feel free to talk with me in private," he smiled casually before turning back to the dagger wielding girl. "Thank you for your time," letting her know it was time to go.
Katara braced herself, expecting the girl to make some hostile movement as she passed. Outside of a bored glare, however, she didn't so much as brush their shoulders. She was apparently above petty confrontations she had come to expect from this Nation.
Zuko followed her to the door, eyes on the back of her head until she had left. "May I?" he asked Katara, indicating the door before shutting it after her nod of approval.
"So, what is it you needed to ask? Perhaps something about the announcement this evening?"
"No...you see," her tongue was tied now...between thoughts for Sokka and worries of Azula, she was at a standstill. She wasn't sure if this was something she should admit knowledge to or if she would be better in the long run if she kept it to herself.
Frowning, Zuko caught on before she could make her decision. "How much of our conversation did you hear?"
She exhaled. "Enough that should have been behind closed doors. It could have been anyway walking through the halls, not me. Perhaps even your sister."
"My sister knows what she is."
" How can you sleep at night, knowing what monster shares the same palace? Is my life a toy to you? My people? The people I care about? You promised I'd be safe."
"And what a fine job you're doing, helping me keep that promise by running about by yourself, no guard. I can't babysit you, Katara."
Katara glared, hoping that somehow her soft blue eyes could somehow stir fear into Zuko. "You also promised you wouldn't be cruel."
Perhaps it was the bitterness in her voice that Zuko knew she didn't mean his quip just then. Instead, he appeared more angry than she. Somehow he was now standing directly in front of her, just inches between them.
"How have I been cruel? I have done everything to give you space as you would need, done my best to accommodate someone in a home holding everything they hold spite for. I put up with that foolish guard of yours though he lacks the respect he should hold for the country he is in at a time we're searching for peace."
"You locked my brother up! He is the only piece of family I have not oceans away, and moments after you tell me my sister-in-law has been murdered you sent him to the prisons in this foreign nation. I have already given up so much to you so we could end this war, what more do you want from me?"
Silent pauses were becoming their trademark, and she turned so her back was to him, clenching her fists and fiercely shutting her eyes to keep back the burning, angry tears that wanted to spill forth.
She heard one set of footsteps, knowing that he was just behind her as he began to speak again. "Can you really not see why I did that? Was the display by Mai not enough? Your brother is hotheaded and arrogant," he held up his hand to stop Katara's protest before she could make a sound, "Do not argue, you know this. He is very proud and would do anything for his nation and those he cares about. Had he gone further, I cannot guarantee he would have made it out alive. But I do guarantee, had I instead left him to wander the Fire Nation freely, rather than putting him behind the safety of bars, do you realize how many would want him dead? He killed my father, the Fire Lord, and that puts a large target on his back. Behind bars, he can live."
"I'm sorry?" he asked her to clarify.
"Why do you always have to do that? Turn everything around. You're supposed to be the enemy, I'm supposed to be afraid of you. You're supposed to do things for the wrong reasons, why do you always come out on top?"
"Because you want to see me as your enemy for no other reason than to satisfy your patriotism for your nation. But I'd like to degree. I am not supposed to be your enemy, we're to be at peace. You are not supposed to be afraid of me, because we're a loving engaged couple who would withstand the disapproval of our people to be together. Now tell me, what kind of fiance would I be if my princess is afraid of me?"
At that point Katara found herself unable to tell if he was saying this to calm her worries or to mock her, and knew if she asked he would just repeat something like it. Instead, she turned the conversation to what she had originally come for, choosing not to answer his offhanded question.
"I want to see Sokka. Today, before the meeting. I want to have a chance to explain everything to him-he wouldn't listen to reason back home before I left, and I want that moment."
"Of course you can see your brother. Did you think so poorly of me that I would keep you from him."
"Oh..." Katara was startled. She had expected she would need to beg, perhaps shed a few tears for him to allow it. She still wasn't used to the idea of getting what she wanted in the face of a firebender. "Then I'll just head over there now..."
Zuko reached out and grabbed her wrist, pulling her back to face him. "Wait. On one condition. You go after the announcement. My mother would really like to see you before it, and asked me to send you her way. I was going to go see you before I finished things with Mai." He then pulled a coy smile, "That and I don't have to worry about your brother talking you out of our proposal, convincing you I'm the stereotypical, baby eating Firebender I've always been."
Katara frowned at him. "It was firebats, not babies. That's disgusting."
Zuko actually laughed. "It was a joke, my dear Waterbender. Although I'm sure you've never seen a firebat. Babies look a hundred percent more appetizing."
At her offended look, he shook his head. "Again, a joke. Comedy isn't something you Water Tribe natives are familiar with, is it?"
"Actually, I'm beginning to think you would get along with my brother better than you think."
Zuko just smirked, not taking the sort of bait her brother or Jet would and be offended. Instead, he directed her off. "Go see my mother, she's excited to see you again, and is waiting in her quarters in the West wing. Her staff is expecting you and will lead you from there."
Nodding, Katara started off once again for the door. "Alright, I'll go. But I will see my brother this evening."
"Understood," Zuko called out after her back as she shut the door behind her.
Ursa was the type of woman who could be motherly to anyone. The moment Katara stepped in she had fussed over her, trying to decide how she should present herself to the Fire Nation for the first time, and instead decided that relying on the Water Tribe charm could be key to the start of acceptance between the nations. She had left all these tasks for herself rather than using staff, because she had wanted to talk to Katara about some things that she couldn't risk her handmaidens gossiping.
"Katara, I can tell you're frightened, but your strength is something that you can't realize. You're a very strong, capable woman, and you're going to be just fine," Ursa assure her, "but there are differences in the Fire Nation that will be expected of you."
The waterbender frowned as she tried to think of the differences between the nations, to prepare herself for what she must and mustn't do when the Fire Lady laughed.
"Don't think to hard. It's the way you express your love. It is my understanding that affection is much more private in the Water Tribe than it is here?"
Katara nodded completely, thinking of how open everyone was with their feelings here, their willingness to confidently touch each other's hands. Couple's kissing in the street.
"You mustn't hide affections, the only way anyone will accept you is if they fully believe you love my son. You must look at him in adoration, not be afraid to take his hand if he offers it to you. Our people look to my son with respect, and they will follow his lead, but if they don't believe you care for him, they will not believe in your marriage and see through it for what it is. To make this work, to put all hatred aside, you must find a way to express feelings that you don't have."
Biting her lip, Katara once again nodded. "I understand."
"Good," Ursa smiled warmly towards her. "Okay, let's get you dressed..."
The atmosphere in the Fire Nation was completely different than when the announcement was the be made in the Water Tribe. Everyone looked to Zuko out of adoration rather than duty. She could feel a few stray eyes as they glared towards her, wondering what someone from her nation was doing at this Fire Nation gathering. Apparently any rumors from inside the palace hadn't spread to the people outside those walls, and the announcement was going to be the first word of their engagement. If she was receiving these looks now...well, she wasn't quite ready for the ones later on in the evening.
Jet had been the only one of her guard allowed by her side at the ceremony, more due to the fact that he wouldn't have had it any other way. This was all on the condition that he wore Fire Nation clothing, and he did so bitterly. He stood behind her, more as a comfort than a shadow.
More than likely because she was dreading it, Zuko seemed to breeze through his reports on where their stance on the war was, as as he came to the topic of peace, she realized some sighs of relief, and some snorts of those who doubted such a thing possible.
Zuko held up a hand to silence anyone, but he smiled out at his people with a sincerity Katara was beginning to recognize; something that was once a shock to her.
"Even more, on my trips through the nation, I have found something even greater. I have had much time to think, and in doing so have chosen a bridge. Tonight I will share with you the girl who has stolen my heart."
The roar of cheers rang out to the point where they rattled Katara's heart. How was it possible for strangers to be so happy for someone else's love? Internally she reminded herself that Zuko had set out not to be a stranger to his people, and seemed to somehow be one with them.
Having given them enough time to celebrate, Zuko had turned now to make eye contact with her, extending his hand out as if beckoning her to him.
Stepping forward, she put on the affectionate smile Ursa had told her about, her eyes only for Zuko. She found herself remembering Amorak, the confidence he had, and the way he made her heart race. She used him as her rock for her emotions as she walked into the waiting arms of her betrothed, ignoring the even louder voices of disapproval. While it was meant to show how madly in love she was with him, it was a method to ignore the looks of hatred she knew she was receiving.
Rather than attempting to quiet them down again, Zuko just continued to talk, letting his voice carry out as the jeers brought themselves to an end.
"This war would have us be enemies, would have me strive to end her. Our prejudice would have me deny her beauty, her wonderful nature. It would ask me to deny these feelings I have for her, for our love to be seen as an abomination. That's why I implore you all, whom I care deeply for your approval. Accept this woman I love, Princess Katara of the Southern Watertribe." A loud gasp crept up through the crowd at this, but everyone still managed to remain silent. Slowly, she wrapped her arm around his waist, finding comfort in his side. Pausing amidst his speech, he looked at her with adoring eyes and a smile to match-she decided this would be the greatest love story if it were only true-before putting his arm over her shoulder, pulling her to him.
"Katara has already left the comfort and familiarity of her own nation, giving everything up; everything she knows and loves to follow a foolish man like me. Her nation is willing to forget the past and live for the future. She has already given me more than I deserve out of love, so I ask you again-welcome her not as a new ally, but as my love, and your future Fire Lady."
Somehow, in that small speech, the scoffs and jeers were far outnumbered by the clapping at cheering.
Meeting her eyes again, Zuko glanced down briefly, as if asking her permission. Perhaps knowing it was something the people needed, and swept up in the moment, the broad idea of acceptance and peace between nations, she nodded ever so slightly, keeping up a smile to rival his before he leaned forward, bringing his lips carefully to meet hers, more chaste than passionate. This would be seen as inappropriate amongst her own people. Even so, a large chorus of 'awws' tore through the romantics in the crowd, and the cheers exploded around them.
AN: Once again, thanks for reading! I'm working on getting Zuko and Katara closer and I know you're all anxious but remember, they are being thrown together when they're originally enemies, Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are relationships. Except in Shakespeare. ^^