The headdress was so elaborate Katara was afraid her neck would break under its weight. But once it had been carefully placed on her head, she discovered it was lighter than it looked, and so cunningly balanced that she barely noticed it was there, except for the tassels that swung over each ear and threatened her eyes with every move she made. A hurried conference was held by the women responsible for that part of her wedding outfit—there were only three of them as opposed to the dizzying number of women required to help her with the gown and all its under layers—and the offending tassels shortened by looping them over the protruding whatever-they-were-called thingies that they dangled from.
Everything was off-white and gold, with the exception of the elaborate stitching on the bodice of her over-gown; that was a careful blend of blues and reds. She felt vaguely like a national flag; all that was missing was orange for the Air Nomads and green for the Earth Nation and she could represent every Element. When her slippers appeared, she held back a sigh: there was the green and orange, subtly represented in the laces over the white and gold body of the delicate shoes themselves. No one would see it under the layers and layers of her gown, but she knew it was there, and she knew why. Everyone else in the world got the wedding of their dreams with no political overtones, she grumbled to herself, knowing it was an unfair assessment, but not caring at the moment.
"Lady Katara, please! You must not frown like that!" the woman in charge of her make-up exclaimed, horrified. Katara instantly smoothed her features out to the serene lines required of her, but continued her internal cursing. Stupid, stupid; she and Zuko should have just run off to the South Pole and had their wedding there. Or the North Pole. Or maybe they should have just run off, period, and left someone else to have The Political Wedding of the Millennium.
"It will be over soon, little one," Kanna murmured softly into her ear. Reading her mind again, Gran-Gran was, but this time Katara smiled, quickly removing the expression at the scolding glance she received from the Make-up Mistress, even as she obediently held her arms out so the Wardrobe Mistress and her umpty-zillion assistants could attach the sleeves of her under-gown to its delicately embroidered bodice. Part of that lacy confection would peek out from the lower-cut vest that came next, and part of that, in turn, would show under her heavily embroidered over-gown.
The Wardrobe Mistress and her helpers finished that job, then bustled off to gather up the next pile of frothy fabric. "I feel like an idiot," Katara mouthed sideways through unmoving lips so only Kanna, Toph and Suki could hear her.
"You probably look like one, too," Toph agreed cheerfully, not bothering to lower her own voice. Suki stifled a giggle.
"Well, let's just say it's a good thing you can't see what you look like," Katara muttered crossly. Each attendant wore elaborate gowns based on the traditional wedding clothes of their own nations; Toph in green and beige, Ty Lee in Fire Nation reds and oranges, and Suki in the blues and whites of her adopted Water Tribe home.
Attendants was where Katara had put her foot down, refusing to have more than those three by her side. "I've got someone representing each of the existing nations," she argued. "What more do we need than that? Besides, these are my closest female friends, and I don't want to have a bunch of court ladies foisted on me just because 'it's tradition.' We're starting a new tradition here, and if I really wanted to be stubborn you know I could insist on a lot more Water Tribe traditions." Zuko had backed her up, although she secretly believed it was so he wouldn't have to have more than the Avatar stand up with him as well. If Sokka had been alive…she didn't dare go there. Not today.
So many of their other friends were there, however, taking up the rows of benches behind the family members that it made Katara even dizzier than looking at her headdress to think about them: Earth Benders, master swordsmen, Northern Water Tribesfolk, people from swamps and mountains and Ba Sing Se and everywhere else they'd traveled when Aang first appeared in her life…it was daunting and wonderful and frightening, but all she had to do was think about Zuko and the new life they'd accidentally created and she knew it would all be worth it.
Every layer of the gown was like a layer of her life lived so far, and she suddenly felt less like a flag and more like a representative of how diverse cultures could come together in peace.
That feeling of serenity lasted exactly as long as it took them to finish preparing her and for her grandmother to say: "Well, it's time. I'll see you after the ceremony," and disappear through the door that led to the garden where the altar had been set up.
After that, the whole ceremony passed in a daze until she was kissing Zuko and being crowned Fire Lady, and she had to quiz Toph and Suki and Ty Lee during the feast to get the details she missed.
Zuko couldn't stop smiling. He was married; he was really married. To Katara. He'd made an outstanding political match, and it was to the woman he loved. How could he have born so lucky? The ceremony itself passed in a blur, the words he'd been given to speak coming out correctly, or at least correctly enough that the priest declared them Fire Lord and Lady, husband and wife, bound together for eternity, if he had anything to say about it.
At first he'd been terrified, but once Katara appeared, everything vanished except the sight of her in her gorgeous wedding clothes, gliding so gracefully toward him it was as if she was floating. Floating right into his arms, although he remembered at the last second that all he was supposed to do was take her hands in his and face the priest, not embrace her like he wanted to. The kiss he placed on her lips after the ceremony was almost chaste, but held the promise of something more to come, as did the sparkle in her eyes as she gazed up at him.
The ceremony and crowning were over, the feast was in full swing, there would be speeches and dancing and various forms of entertainment, and best of all, he was married to Katara. Second best of all was the fact that she'd made up with Aang, at least enough not to show obvious resentment at his presence not only at the wedding but sitting next to him at the table while they picked at the food everyone else seemed to be enjoying so much. Zuko could hardly taste anything, and he suspected the same of Katara, although it might just be the baby…that was another blissful thought. They were going to have a baby, maybe a girl with Katara's beautiful blue eyes and dark tresses, maybe a son he could teach to Fire Bend and play ball games with..
"You seem pretty happy."
Zuko came to awareness of his surroundings with a start. It was Aang who'd spoken, and he felt his cheeks redden with embarrassment as he realized he'd been lost in a daydream. "Uh, yeah, who wouldn't be?" He took Katara's hand in his and smiled at her. She smiled back, planted a quick kiss on his cheek, and went back to talking to Suki and Toph, something about "how did I look up there?" and wanting details of how the dress flowed or something like that. Stuff he could care less about, to be honest; it wasn't the dress he cared about, just the woman underneath it. And not too much later, he hoped, he'd be the one removing all those layers and revealing the woman underneath…
He started at Aang's happy chuckle. "Zuko, you are one crazy in love guy," he said when he saw that he'd regained the Fire Lord's attention. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks," Zuko replied sincerely. "That means a lot to me. I know things haven't always been good between us—" Now that was an understatement! "—but we're friends now, good friends, and I'm just happy that all this didn't come between us." He waved a hand, indicating the ceremony, the events of the day, and, of course, Katara. He came to an awkward stop, not sure what to say next, worrying that he'd blundered into opening up old wounds, but Aang just smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.
"It's all right, Zuko," he said softly, so no one else could hear. "I'm finally over her, have been for a while. Now I can see how perfect you two are for each other." He allowed his smile to turn wistful. "That doesn't mean I won't sometimes wonder how it could have turned out for us if things had been different, but it does mean I won't ever resent you two for the love you found." The smile became shy. "Besides, Toph would pop me one if I started mooning over Katara again."
Zuko gaped at him. "You and Toph? Since when? I mean, congratulations!" he added hastily.
"Since we got back from blasting your psycho dad's stupid rebellion," Toph interjected, leaning across Katara to make herself heard. She grinned at their surprised expressions. "What, you thought I couldn't hear you just because you lowered your voices a little?" She pointed to one ear. "These babies are finely tuned instruments." She made a face. "Plus I'm kinda tired of talking about the stupid dresses. No offense, Sugar Queen," she added, patting Katara's hand.
"Um, none taken," was Katara's somewhat taken aback reply. "Maybe you'd like to shift seats so you and Aang can talk better?"
With that Zuko found himself suddenly sitting in his bride's seat while she took Toph's and Toph took his, happily ensconcing herself between him and the Avatar. "Finally," she sighed. "Maybe I can get some sensible conversation now."
Of course that was when the speeches started up, and no one was talking except ambassadors and Fire Sages and even Aang, who had been forced into speechmaking against his will. But knowing that Katara was on the road to forgiving him made it go much easier than he'd feared, and he retook his seat with a sense of relief that no one had visibly nodded off as he spoke.
Speeches, dancing, more feasting, musicians and jugglers and even a small theatrical offering from the Ember Island Players, more dancing after that…the sun was well on its way to setting before Zuko was allowed to rise from his seat to indicate that he and Katara were leaving the guests to their own amusements for the night.
Hakoda and Kanna rose as well, to hug and kiss Katara, and Zuko endured the same embraces from his uncle and mother before everyone changed hugging spots and the whole thing started over again. He endured it patiently, and even watched with some amusement as the relatives then turned to embracing each other.
His mother and uncle shared an especially warm hug and remained with their arms around each other as they waved him and Katara good-bye. Hmm. They had been sitting rather cozily together the entire time… He found himself wondering how long it would take them to decide they'd wasted enough time and have their own wedding, then dismissed the thought as Katara turned her radiant smile on him and shyly took his hand in hers. Everything and everyone else vanished at that touch, there was no one else in the world and nowhere else he wanted to be than with her.
They managed to stay at a dignified stroll until they reached the corridor leading to their chambers; then, with a giggle, Katara tightened her grip on his hand, lifted her cumbersome skirts above her ankles, and took off at a run. For once the guards came in handy, hauling the heavy wooden doors open and closing them after the newlyweds without a single word.
Katara and Zuko barely noticed, too engrossed in each other to spare time for palace functionaries whom they had no intention of seeing again until well into the morning hours, if then. Katara giggled again as Zuko frowned over the various layers of clothing he had to get through, but after patiently undoing the over-gown and its sleeves and bodice and whatnot, he finally gave in and simply ripped through the others, dropping them to the floor as Katara's fingers busily undid his own, less elaborate fripperies.
Finally they stood before each other wearing nothing but smiles; Zuko had impatiently tossed the headdress aside and simply run his fingers through Katara's hair until a shower of hairpins had rained onto the floor, allowing her glossy black tresses to fall to her waist. She spared a moment to wipe away the bulk of the elaborate makeup she'd been painted with, but no longer; then they were in each other's arms, tumbling onto the bed, eager for each other, impatient for each other, drinking each other in.
The first time was quick, because of that impatience, but the rest of the night passed in a series of gentle embraces, each giving and receiving what they'd longed for, Zuko showing and Katara eagerly learning what lovemaking could be.
If the morning had begun with panic and nausea, the night ended with ecstasy and joy.
"I love you," Zuko whispered as the morning sun began to rise.
Katara smiled back at him sleepily. "I love you too," she murmured in reply.
Whatever else the future held, that much could never be denied.
Author's Final Note: Well, here it is. The last chapter of the longest thing I have ever written (including term papers and an undergraduate thesis). I'v actually kinda-sorta started a sequel, but don't want to start posting until I actually have a plot and a couple of chapters under my belt. Please let me know what you thought, and thank you for coming along for this long, convoluted ride. Thank you to everyone for reviewing, and especially those who pointed out my silly mistakes and answered my questions. Bye for now!