Chapter 1: That's Not Irony, That's Just Sad
"This is archaic!" Katara called out. "Fire Lord Zuko isn't the enemy. Other than the Avatar, he was the hero of the Final Battle. How can you even think to take away his freedom?"
"I will not be quiet! Look at the options you're giving him. Incarceration or marriage. He loses his freedom in both of those and he's done nothing but help end a century of tyranny."
"Avatar, shut your woman up or I will have you both forcefully removed from the room."
"Katara," Aang warned, putting his hand over hers.
She yanked her fingers away from his grasp and glared at him and then at the room in general, but she held her tongue. Reason hit her that Zuko would probably need allies in this negotiation, and she and Aang were the only sure ones he had.
"I have a sister," the Earth King said uncertainly. "She's older than me and unmarried. Has a harelip."
Katara flinched, unable to see Zuko with a thirty-five year old spinster with a clef in her lip. It was just wrong. She couldn't take her eyes off the prince, waiting for a reaction. She almost expected him to jump up, pound the table and shout about the injustice or to rub his face with a hand in resignation and sigh. He did neither.
Zuko was staring straight ahead, not giving any reaction and Katara realized that he was playing the political game and not showing any weakness or his thoughts. So far, she had been able to identify two aspects to Zuko's persona, the hot-headed prince and the earnest pauper. This Zuko was far better at playing politics than either of his past faces had been. It was yet another transformation and it was intriguing.
"Do we have any other candidates?" the adjudicator asked.
"I have a young niece whose betrothed died in the attack on the Northern Water Tribe last year. Unfortunately, as an eight year old, the Fire Lord would not be permitted to take her from her home until her fourteenth birthday." Chief Arnook did not look happy at the idea of his niece marrying the Fire Lord, but even at this distance his ambition was clear: create concrete links between Fire and the North tribe and his people would be safe if the Fire Nation turned.
"Shall we put this to a vote?"
Katara's stomach clenched. A baby. Zuko still hadn't reacted yet, so Katara allowed her gaze to wander around the room, trying to figure out what the other people were thinking. She recognised a few leaders, the Earth King, Bumi, and Chief Arnook among them, but there were other representatives of the Earth Nation she didn't recognise.
This was obviously not a fairly divided and unpartial group. Zuko had tried to explain to her that the purpose of the tribunal was to find a reasonable solution to the necessity of forcing the Fire Lord to atone for his family's sins. He told her that if Ozai had been put in front of them, the rulings would be far harsher than they were, but so far he was forced to pay each nation for his crimes – great sums of money that Katara couldn't even begin to fathom.
Zuko hadn't even blinked.
He had, however, promised to pay the Southern Water Nation an equal amount as he paid the Northern Water Nation, all without her stupid brother there to negotiate.
It didn't come as a surprise to her that Aang, the only air tribe representative, didn't want any reparation money. Zuko promised him a staggering sum, claiming that the damage done to the Air Kingdom was the greatest, and that he realized no amount of money could make up for it, but he also believed that these payments should fairly represent harm-done instead of how many surviving leaders, cities and towns believed he owed them more.
It was a snide dig at the Earth Kingdom, and most of them took it with the grace to look ashamed in the face of the last air bender.
Some of them did not, and Katara found herself memorizing their faces for a later date.
Then came the part of the tribunal that surprised her the most. They were claiming that for Zuko to show continual good-faith to the people of the world, he should marry someone not of the Fire Nation.
And it came down to Zuko against the Earth Kingdom and Northern Water tribe, with no one to speak up for him. Aang's snores were soft as he napped though Katara attempting to gently jar his side, and Sokka hadn't even shown up as he promised.
That just left her.
"Excuse me?" Katara said loudly, interrupting the adjudicator mid-speech. "What about the Southern Water Tribe?"
"There's no representative of the South here," the man responded, dismissing her.
"I can represent the South," she said, her eyes narrowing at his indifferent tone.
"And who are you?" he asked, deliberately questioning her pedigree with that haughty look she was growing so familiar with.
Katara felt her hackles rise. "I am Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, certified Master Water Bender-"
"That title holds no merit here, in a room of noblemen and chiefs," the adjudicator informed her. "All in favour of—"
"I wasn't finished," Katara interrupted in a low voice which carried across the room and had every man turning to stare at her. Including Zuko. "Master Water Bender and Sifu to the Avatar-"
"That's all very impressive, dear. Now if we can get on to the matter at hand."
"Do not patronize me!" Katara growled. "And don't interrupt me when I'm speaking," she chided. "I am Sifu to Avatar Aang, and eldest most honourable daughter of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe." She was furious now, tired of men thinking they were above her just because of her sex or because she was from the Southern, smaller tribe. She was sick of being looked down upon simply because of her age and sex. She had ranking in her own right, and she was damn well going to use it.
This blinding fury and pride was probably the reason for what she said next.
"And as representative of the Southern Water Tribe, I submit myself for candidacy."
The room roared in surprise.
"I second that!" The chief of the Northern Tribe called out, obviously pleased that he wouldn't have to sacrifice his sister's daughter but still marry Zuko off to a water tribeswoman.
"Third!" Bumi called out, cackling in glee. "She's a spitfire alright. Perfect for a Fire Lord."
"Fire Lord Zuko accepts," Iroh said, speaking for his nephew.
Zuko's eyes widened in shock and horror as he stared at Katara, not even noticing the proceedings going on around them. For her part, she was staring back, her world slowly sinking as every new voice added credence to her suggestion.
"Anyone have any issue?"
Katara poked Aang's side under the table, but he just groaned and moved his head to face the opposite direction.
"Motion passed!" the adjudicator called out, pointing at Zuko and Katara in turn. "I now pronounce you man and wife."
Zuko dropped his head into his hands. Katara was still gaping with her mouth open and her face turning an unattractive color of puce.
"What just happened," Aang asked, waking up as everyone started to clap.
Aang wouldn't stop bugging her, rubbing his eyes with his fists like a child before staring up at her, trust apparent in his eyes even as he looked around the room in confusion. The entire assembly weren't giving many hints to the sleepy airbender, and she was sure all he was able to tell was that something big happened.
Katara's stomach turned over in guilt, and suddenly Katara couldn't stand being in this room anymore. She bolted away from Aang, ignoring him as he called her name. She made it up the steps and through the doors of the tribunal room.
The guards straightened from their game of Element Connex and came to attention as she passed. Katara stopped, drawing in a shaky breath as she neared the doors to the outside. Just a few more steps and she would have freedom.
But she should go back and explain everything to Aang. He deserved to hear everything from her, and she had run away. He had looked so innocent when waking up, and even faced with the betrayal she saw his nap representing, she still couldn't crush him like that. When it came right down to it, she had run away to save herself from the emotional breakdrown and the guilt she knew she had to face.
It wasn't anyone else's responsibility but hers to explain to Aang what had happened. She was sure that he had heard by now, the room had been buzzing with the news.
Hesitantly, Katara wondered if she should walk back into the tribunal room and face Aang. That would be the responsible thing to do. By now he must know, and she couldn't face the expression of betrayal on his face on top of everything else. She wasn't sure if she could get through any confrontations without breaking down and sobbing.
What had she done?
In the time since she paused, two guards approached her, blocking her escape.
"Let me past!" Katara demanded.
"Sorry," guard one said.
"No can do," said guard two.
"Oh really?" Katara asked, desperate enough to make her escape that she began searching for a water source. Due to the peaceful nature of the talks she had just attended, all weapons had been left behind due to lawful decree, and bending of any kind was strictly forbidden.
Of course, she technically was no longer participating in the tribunal, and the tall vase of flowers to her left would be an excellent source.
Guard one had the sense to look nervous. Her reputation must have preceded her.
"The Fire Lord asked that we detain you," guard two explained as he opened a door, ushering her inside.
"Fine," Katara spoke, "but don't let anyone else know I'm here."
"Yes my lady."
Once alone, Katara was able to separate the itchy feeling crawling just under her skin that prompted her to flee Aang. There was guilt, of course, and it felt almost unforgivable to think what she had done to him, and was still doing to him by not talking to him in person. But her reaction was not all about Aang, it was also about Zuko and the surprising smugness she felt for being the one to save him this time.
She had done it, Katara reflected, a small smile on her face.
She waited for him, pacing a bit. This marriage to him was a charade at best, and she was sure he would agree with her on that. While they were comfortable as friends, she didn't see how either of them would be able to fake attraction to one another for very long. She could see exactly how they had to handle this situation with clarity. In a few months they could break off any form of engagement or attachment to one another, and he would be free.
And so would she.
It was a good plan. So good, her name deserved an added title - Katara, rescuer of Fire Lords. Really, Zuko wouldn't get anywhere if it weren't for her.
Just as she was plotting how she would tell Sokka of her plan, conveniently leaving out the sham part of the marriage so she could see his eyes bug out of his head, Zuko entered the room. His back was stiff and he barely acknowledged her presence as he made his way over to one of the chairs in the room. His shoulders seemed to droop the further into the room he stepped.
"Aha!" Katara crowed at him. "This is possibly the biggest irony ever. The lowly peasant girl just saved your ass. With her lowly peasant status."
Zuko flung himself backwards into a chair and turned his face up to her, his eyes closed. Katara was surprised to see pity on his face once he opened his eyes rather than disdain or any kind of ire at her words. "You don't understand what you did, do you?"
"I stopped you from having to choose jail," she said simply.
"No," he told her with a sigh. "Oh Katara, what have you done?"
"It's ok, it's ok," Katara intoned as she paced the room. "I have a plan." Zuko was watching her from the chair he sprawled in, his gaze changing from the despair of an entrapped person to one of interest as she continued. "We'll just have a long engagement and after they start to trust you more than they do now, we'll break it off."
"Katara," he said gently. "According to law, we're already married. Any ceremonies after this will simply be to cement public relations with our people."
"What?" she yelled, stopping in front of him. "But I can't be married to you. I don't want to marry you! I don't want to marry anyone."
Zuko's lips twitched. "You're the one who spoke up."
"But I didn't want to MARRY you!" Katara said emphatically. "I just didn't want you to marry anyone else."
Zuko's eyebrows winged up and a smile appeared on his face. "Reeally?" he asked.
"All I mean is that I didn't want you to be forced into some loveless marriage to someone you don't know."
Zuko was leaning towards her now, eying her like a predator spotting weakness in his prey. "So you offered yourself instead?" He reached forward, taking her hand in his and tugging. Katara moved towards him easily, stopping when she was in front of him and he was looking up at her. "Tell me Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, why did you react so strongly against the idea of me marrying someone else."
Katara shook her head in denial. "You wouldn't have been happy with a child bride or a woman almost passed childbearing years."
"No. I wouldn't have been. But why did you think I'd be happier with you?" his thumb gently rubbing circles across her knuckles. He said this so softly that Katara didn't even think to take the words as an accusation.
"We're friends," she told him with a frown, wondering what he was getting at. "Don't think for one second that it's anything more than that. I don't love you. Some days I barely even like you."
"You little fool," he hissed, his eyes suddenly showing the fury she had expected from him during the whole situation. "Do you understand what you've done? The reason they offered inappropriate brides was because they WERE inappropriate, and I was within my right to annul the process after a suitable amount of time. Everyone in that room seemed to know that. Everyone but you."
She stared at him, her eyes wide as he held her gaze. His eyes were forceful as he drilled the point home.
"You've just forced both of us into an eternity in a loveless marriage."
Katara stumbled backwards, completely missing the regret on his face for revealing the information so harshly. He held tight to her hand, coming to his feet and stopping her movements as she tried to get away from him.
"No," she told him, shaking her head. "No. I didn't mean to."
Zuko's expression softened as he drew her into a tight hug. "I know," he said against her hair. "We'll figure something out."
A/N: Oh Zuko and Katara, you guys get yourselves into the worst misunderstandings 3 And you just know by "figure something out" that there will be ninja!Zutara missions in their future.
I hope everyone enjoyed this first chapter. I know we all need some pick-me-ups now that the movie has been released (though I haven't had the fortune of seeing it yet). Has anyone enjoyed it? Are there good Zutara moments? I will totes see it for that. I also encourage spoilers.