Author's Notes: This chapter's for the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who are reading this chapter. [/blatant ripping off] But you want to know who's an even heroic hero? My beta, margaritanightly. Still responding to my emails, even though I suck at writing chapters in a reasonable amount of time.
Zuko did his very best to refrain from fidgeting as a young man and middle-aged woman fussed with the new measurements for the hems of his wedding clothes as he watched Katara, who sat behind him, holding their son, having already been fitted for her outfit. She cradled Kavik close to her body, murmuring softly to him as she consulted a stack of parchment on the table in front of her.
He couldn't help but hold his breath as a few pins were inserted into the fabric to denote where a different length was needed, hoping none would pierce his skin. While he could very easily face enemies in battle, there was something off-putting about a sewing needle accidentally being pressed into his leg or arm. He kept his complaints to himself, rationalizing that this process would soon be over, and turned his attention back to Katara when she spoke.
"What are you thinking about doing with policy when it comes to the Earth Kingdom, once the post-war negotiations are all finished and encounters with them become more about trade than damage caused by the war?" she asked, readjusting her hold on their son.
"I was thinking that we," he said deliberately, a smile gracing his face, "might communicate that we hope to have a close, intimate relationship with their country, perhaps by lowering tariffs for very commonly traded goods. What do you think? You would know their country much better than I would."
"I think that's a wonderful idea," Katara said. "But I keep hearing that there are a few provinces in the Earth Kingdom that, because of the war, would like to become their own countries and have their own monarchy. Would we as the Fire Nation recognize these new countries?"
"I've heard that, too, and it's been weighing on my mind," he said as he straightened his posture after a gentle rebuke from the head seamstress. "If their independence is gained fairly, if they win it in civil war or negotiate it with the Earth Kingdom, then we should recognize them and offer to trade with them."
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Katara agreed after a moment of thought. "I know the Earth Kingdom banks, which fared much better than ours over the course of the war, loaned the Fire Nation a lot of money for our rebuilding, and I read that the interest rate is nine percent. I'm more than reasonably sure I could talk them down to five percent. What do you think?"
Zuko didn't have the mathematical skills to calculate in his mind what the difference would be, but over the course of the decade or two that it would logically take the broken Fire Nation to repay the large loan, a decrease of the interest rate by four percent could save the Nation thousands. He hadn't even thought of that, though Tashi had paled when he had projected the cost of the loan.
"Let's compose a letter together tonight," he suggested with a gleam of excitement in his eyes.
Katara beamed at him and felt her own excitement bubble underneath her skin. She was struck with a sense of unprecedented possibility. They – she and Zuko, together – could actually do a lot of good for the Fire Nation. And their experiences and bases of knowledge seemed to complement each other well; he knew the Fire Nation inside and out, he knew its government and its economy, and he knew how to word phrases and suggest things without breaking any social taboos. Katara, while now well-versed in the workings of the Fire Nation, knew the structure of the Water Tribes intimately and was more than familiar with the Earth Kingdom, having spent many months there over the course of the war.
Her wide grin softened to a small smile that she directed towards Kavik.
"What are you thinking about?" Zuko asked as he moved behind a panel to shed the black version of his wedding clothes – the seamstresses would deliver the finished products to him in the color he had requested – and change back into his Fire Lord's robes.
Katara refrained from answering until he joined her, dressed once more in the slightly constricting formal robes, on the couch and took the now-sleeping bundle that was their son. Katara let her arms fall to her sides in relief and smiled at him. "I was just thinking about how I think we, as a team, are going to be very good at ruling. You're brilliant on your own, of course," she assured him with a smirk.
"I believe you," he answered sarcastically. "But I agree wholeheartedly. I can't wait to share the rule of the Fire Nation with you. I trust you, which is something I can't say for the bureaucracy, though they do good work. I trust that you have the Fire Nation's best interests and my best interests at heart. I trust you," he told her, leaning over to kiss her.
Katara kissed him back and didn't say a word about how her heart jumped at hearing him say those words. When she heard him speak about the Fire Nation, complaining about how he was being stonewalled by the nobles, about how their latest economic proposals didn't seem to be working, about how little money was in the Treasury, she could tell how much he loved his country. Even though things were dark and were very unlikely to recover fully in their lifetimes, he put hours and hours of effort into fixing his country and making the lives of all of his countrymen better. He was extremely protective of his Nation and would do anything to secure its prosperity and happiness.
And for him to say that he trusted her to do the same… well, there weren't words in any language to express how it made her feel. She merely smiled with slightly wet eyes and leaned over to rest her cheek on his shoulder and look down at their sleeping son.
"He's beautiful," Zuko whispered into her hair.
"He looks like you," she observed wryly.
Zuko chuckled. "I know."
The door to the private sitting room attached to the apartments of the Fire Lord opened, and the two looked over their shoulders to see who had arrived: Daiki. As was his custom of late, his arms were burdened with parchment, and he looked haggard and exhausted, and his hair was not as well-groomed as it normally was. Zuko wanted to ask his Head Advisor how he had been faring, but Daiki started to speak before he could form words.
"I've just come from the musicians' rehearsal, and they assure me that they will have the piece mastered within the week, plenty of time before the wedding. I spoke to the Head Chef, and he has created the menu for both the dinner before the wedding and the dinner on the wedding day as well." At this, he handed the Fire Lord the mentioned menus.
"Beyond that, the Fire Priests will be present to perform the ceremony, and all of the legal forms are being prepared." Daiki looked thoughtful for a moment and almost seemed as though he had listed everything he had come to say. Then he nearly jumped as he remembered, "But copies of the family recitation have not all been made but will be by the end of the week, I've been assured, but the preparations for your journey to the coast as a post-wedding trip have been started and should be completed the day before the wedding, and I've coordinated the staff in a manner that will hopefully ensure that."
Katara raised her eyebrows. "You've been busy," she commented.
"I'm efficient," Daiki deflected the concern in her voice.
"You look exhausted," Katara observed. "Have you been sleeping?"
"My lady," Daiki chuckled in an awful impression of amusement, "what kind of question is that?"
"Answer my question," she demanded in a level voice.
"No, I haven't," he replied.
Zuko glanced at Katara, and she raised her eyebrows in question. He gave a slight shrug as he watched Kavik slowly begin to wake up from his thankfully long nap.
"Why not?" Katara asked, her voice gentler this time.
Something in Daiki's face looked as though something deep within himself had cracked, a moment closer to absolutely shattering. His face hardened, an attempt to keep himself together. "I can't help but feel like something is going to go terribly wrong," he admitted quietly, "and that there will be nothing I can do to stop it."
"Everything will be fine!" Katara said with a smile, crossing the space between them to rest a hand on his upper arm. "Everything will be fine," she repeated sincerely, with the force and will of a Master Waterbender and the future Fire Lady behind her words.
Daiki nodded sharply but didn't look as though he believed her. Katara comforted herself by telling herself that he was overly tired and the stress of his position without a vacation was affecting him. His words tapped into a fear she'd thought she'd laid to rest, but she looked back at Zuko and Kavik.
No, everything would be fine. It had to be. After all they had gone through to get to this point…
No. Everything would be absolutely fine.
"You should take the rest of the day off," Zuko stated, standing up from the couch, carrying his son. "In fact, that's not a suggestion; that's an order. Relax, spend time with friends, do anything except anything that relates to your official position."
Daiki gracefully bowed and left the room at Zuko's pointed look.
"He works hard," Zuko commented, worry behind his amber eyes.
"He does," Katara agreed. "Do you think that he… that he might be right?" she wondered, reaching over to run her fingertips over the soft, dark hair on Kavik's head. His eyes turned to his mother, and he opened his mouth as her finger trailed down his little cheek. She smiled as she traced his lips and as he tried to catch her finger in his mouth like a pacifier.
"There's always that possibility," Zuko said, his voice brittle at the very thought, "but we have been through a war, we are seeing to the rebuilding of the world, and we love each other. No matter what happens, I can't imagine that it could ever be too bad because no matter what, you'll be there, and we'll have Kavik, and we'll find some way to fix whatever happens."
Katara tilted her head upwards as she brought Zuko's face down to kiss him. There was comfort in that kiss, love and passion, too, a sense of solidarity as well, and when it ended, they merely looked at each other for a moment. Then they looked at their son.
But the fears of the Fire Lord and soon-to-be Fire Lady were forgotten for a moment as Kavik stole their attention just like he'd stolen their hearts, and they were only loving parents for the next stretch of an hour. Preparations for the wedding soon took precedence, but they eventually forgot Daiki's strained, desperate face.
Aiko hadn't exactly been avoiding Daiki for the past week. With the wedding so close, her fears and anxieties were heightened; Haruka was planning something, had been for quite some time, and if there was one thing that Aiko knew about her former friend, it was that Haruka was not the type of woman to allow something like prison to get in her way of achieving her goals. Aiko shuddered to think of what might happen in the next few days, even though it seemed logistically impossible for even the smartest of assassins to get past the heavy security that surrounded the Fire Lord and his family.
She hadn't been avoiding him. But the very sight or thought of him made her want to hide away in her rooms and cry. If she thought too long about him, a heavy stone would settle in her stomach and make it impossible to even attempt to go about a normal day, much less sleep.
She just did the best she could to pretend like he didn't exist.
And he was making it especially impossible in the last five minutes, as he'd written her a letter, dated five days ago, that she'd just gotten the courage to open. It was filled with rather inane talk, details about the wedding, words of his love, and her very existence trembled as the insane gleam in Haruka's eyes flashed in her mind over and over again.
Aiko tossed aside the letter and stood up, her pale green robes fell straight to her bare feet, and she picked up her basket of sewing – an activity that settled both her mind and her hands – and went to one of the larger gardens. She sat by the pond, perching herself on a stone bench, and began to work on the minor repairs that needed to be done to one of her casual dresses. The familiar task was soothing, and her world soon shrunk to the space she inhabited, the grass, the pond, and the fabric in her hands.
Every so often, though, Aiko would look up when the door to the garden from the palace was open. She recognized a few faces, a few nobles, several off-duty guards, even General Iroh and the Avatar's Earthbending teacher who walked to the outdoor Pai Sho board, but they soon faded into the background.
But she looked up again when the door was shoved open forcefully. Her heart jumped into her throat at the abrupt sound, and her stomach clenched painfully when she saw it was Daiki. She made to throw her sewing back into its basket and hide in the nearby foliage, but it was too late. She smiled shakily as he walked over.
"May I sit with you?" he asked, his voice strained and quiet.
"Of course," she agreed before she could even think about it. She saw exhaustion in his eyes, deep tiredness that came from more than a few sleepless nights. Underneath her own fear, her love for him still thrived. "What is it?"
Daiki stared down at his hands. "I am afraid."
"But everything will be alright," she assured him. Even though she hadn't believed it a moment ago, she wanted to believe it because if she believed it, then maybe he would as well. And maybe his burden would be eased, even just slightly.
"Do you still love me?" he asked.
"I still love you, as I have loved you before and as I will always love you," she told him. "I've been afraid, too. I was unkind to you in not seeking you out in these past days. You bear a great weight for our country."
Daiki shook his head, at a loss of words to communicate the despair that grew in his heart with every moment. Aiko wrapped her arms around him and guided his head to her shoulder. He clung to the soft fabric of her robes, twisting his fingers into the excess green cloth, and he took shuddering breaths. Aiko closed her eyes, resting her cheek against his dark hair, and she tried to quell her own fears.
"I love you," he whispered into her neck.
"Agni, I love you," she replied.
Maybe that would be enough.
A guard moved quickly down the corridor in the dungeon, a ring of keys clinking in his hands. He'd made up a lie to get them, something about one of the high-security political prisoners having missed their exercise time, and now, his heart was beating so hard that he could feel it in every part of his body. So close…
He opened up a cell, and Haruka stepped out, looking haggard but triumphant. "Soon," she promised against his lips and then followed him to a second cell where she whispered the same word through the door. A celebratory cackle answered her.
"Tell the others," Haruka bid him. "They should be waiting in the second alleyway from the palace. You will know them by the blue-checkered bands on their wrists."
He ran off to do his lady's bidding.
"I'm so glad he's already asleep," Zuko whispered as he lowered Kavik down into his cradle.
Katara smiled as she adjusted her simple yellow dress. "Despite the fact he wakes up several times a night, he does fall asleep quite early," she agreed, leaning down to press a kiss to Kavik's head.
The door opened, and Xiang, the servant chosen to watch over the Prince of the Fire Nation, stepped in. She bowed and quietly waited for the parents to finish bidding their son farewell for the night.
"Thank you, Xiang," Katara said as she and Zuko started towards the door.
"It is a pleasure and an honor," she assured her future Fire Lady.
Once the door to their son's room was closed, Zuko wrapped his arms around Katara and lifted her up into the air, spinning her around in the wide hallway. Katara laughed as she held on tightly to Zuko's shoulders.
"Let's go celebrate the fact we're going to get married soon," Zuko suggested with an uncharacteristic boyish grin. Katara felt something in her begin to float at the unedited joy in Zuko's eyes.
"Good idea," she agreed, linking their arms.
It didn't need to be said that Zuko and Katara had ensured only the best guards were stationed around the prince's room.
There was something different in the air when Katara walked into the silent ballroom with Zuko, something that hadn't been there the few times they had done this before. Though the crowd was significantly smaller than the one that had been present at Zuko's birthday celebration, the prestige was greater, and the pressure to perform her role should have been greater. Logically, that seemed to be true. But with Zuko's hand in hers and the knowledge of how to act in her mind, she recognized the 'something different' as comfort.
It was new, absolutely unprecedented. But she was starting to feel comfortable in her new position. She could put more names to more faces, she was familiar and was starting to love Fire Nation dishes, and she didn't get lost anymore in the palace. And it was such small, limited things that made her call this place home.
While her love for Zuko had done that to some extent, it wasn't enough to make a completely foreign place home. But now it was. She could live here for the rest of her life and be happy. Everything was going to work out, she now believed. She smiled and gave Zuko's hand a gentle squeeze.
Soon, she and Zuko were surrounded by nobles and their chatter, and Katara struck up a conversation with one of Tashi's lower secretaries as they made their way to the table for the beautiful meal that was the pride and joy, she had heard, of the Head Chef.
All of the gathered people waited until Zuko and Katara were seated to find their own seats, and the food was brought out with great ceremony, the Chef detailing the nuances of each dish as the crowd murmured in appreciation. Even the drinks had been experimented with; the wines had been flavored as much as wines can be, and each pitcher of water even had slices of different fruit bobbing around with the ice. Music played in the background, compliments a few talented musicians in the corner, and as was Fire Nation custom, letters were passed to the couple the night was honoring, and each was filled with praise and good wishes for their married life.
Zuko opened one and held it in front of him so Katara could read it as well as he sunk his fork into the delicate greens of his salad. Katara paused to sip on water with sugared orange slices as she leaned over, breaking in the middle of a sentence to kiss Zuko. He grinned at her.
"Katara! Zuko!" Aang caught their attention by loudly projecting his voice over the table. He beamed when they stopped paying attention to each other and turned to see him. "I just wanted to say that I think you guys are really great for each other, so I'm excited that you're going to get married!"
"Thank you, Aang," Zuko said, somewhat uncomfortable with the kind words. As the Fire Lord, he was adept at accepting compliments with grace, but as the somewhat awkward eighteen-year-old, he wasn't so used to it.
Katara, however, grinned at her friend. "Thanks, Aang. You're sweet."
A few others, mostly nobles, offered their same sentiments and compliments, but as Zuko was laughing at a joking censure from one of the more sympathetic noblemen, Kanna rested her hand on Katara's arm. Katara looked at her Gran-Gran.
"I love you, Katara," was all the elderly woman said.
Katara could only smile back and say in return, "I love you, too, Gran-Gran," before Sokka seemed to be trying to find out how many rolls he could shove into his mouth while still appearing as polite and high-society as possible. She choked back a laugh and shook her head. At least he was trying.
"Sokka, you're impossible," Toph stated.
"What?" Sokka asked after a struggle to swallow all of the food. He washed it down with a quick swig of chilled water.
Katara smiled and entwined her hand with Zuko's on top of the table as she unfolded another letter, this one written in neat, legible script. Before she read anything, she looked to the name at the bottom: Liarae. She met the other woman's eyes over the short distance between them and smiled brightly. She told herself that she would spend time with the other woman soon; she was far too good of a friend to neglect for too long.
"I would like to drink to the health of our Fire Lord and his Fire Lady," Ursa said to the entire group, holding her glass with practiced ease and elegance, "because it is not often we are blessed with such individuals, and it is even less often that we are blessed with such rulers."
Murmurs of agreement filled the air as everyone took solemn sips and inclined their heads to Zuko and Katara. All was quiet and calm and peaceful, here on the evening of celebration of an impending marriage. Though it was the Fire Lord's marriage was certainly a factor and everyone felt the difference in the ceremony, it was still a marriage, and two people were soon to be tied together for time unending, and there was still reason for simple, uninhibited happiness.
But instincts honed in war are not ignored so easily. Somewhere in the palace, somebody screamed, followed by screams and shouts from outside, and Zuko and Katara were out of their seats within the space of a heartbeat. The world seemed to explode with the sound of running feet and clanking armor and the sounds of firebending.
"What's happening?" Katara demanded of one of the Fire Lord's personal guard as the man ran into the room.
"A battle has begun outside; Captain Ji is with the soldiers. And there have been reports of commotion near the residential part of the palace."
"Kavik!" Zuko and Katara exclaimed at the same time.
There was no time to think or wonder. Zuko and Katara dashed out of the room, leaving frightened, terrified guests behind as they went to save their son.
Iroh led Sokka, Toph, and Hakoda outside to join the soldiers as the guards watched over and protected the dinner guests inside. The younger officers deferred to the Dragon of the West, and the disorderly resistance to the energetic attack was soon snapped into Fire Nation precision. Sokka and Hakoda were armed, and Toph began to level the rebels with large chunks of Earth alongside the blasts of fire.
Any worry that may have churned in the minds of the four was soon forgotten; there was a battle to fight.
Iroh ordered several of the more powerful Firebenders to the top of the walls surrounding the palace, hoping that fire blasts would keep the rebels away from the walls and away from any chance of actually breaking through further than they already had.
He had a fleeting thought for his precious grandnephew, but he turned his focus to stopping enemies from attacking the government he loved.
Iroh felt a brief brush of wind and looked up. He saw the Avatar flying with his staff through the air and watched as Aang landed and began to confuse the ranks of the insurgents by swirling around them on his air scooter. Iroh watched as he began to move to the left and urged his soldiers to attack once more.
Author's Notes: We're getting close! What do you think of this chapter and what's going to happen? ^_^