Very Important Author Note: READ!
I probably should have done this when I first posted this, but I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a deal. It's not a big deal now, far from it, but I feel like I should say something, especially on the first chapter, before it becomes a big deal.
1) This fic is Zutara. While most of it right now is dealing with their marriage issues and the strain on their friendship in particular, it is still Zutara. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever when people who support rival ships come and read this fic. In fact, it's actually very flattering and I hope I made at least somewhat of a good impression. That being said, please do not misunderstand this fic's intention. It's still Zutara. I know that it's probably not very obvious right now considering they're not being all lovely-dovey with each other, but it is a Zutara fic.
2) If you are looking for a fic that has hawt romance, steamy chemistry, mind-blowing sexytiemz, and all kinds of other lemony Zutara goodness within the first three chapters this fic is NOT FOR YOU. As of chapter five and definitely for several more to come, Zuko and Katara do not have an obvious attraction for each other. This fic is written for those who want slow-developing romance with plot twists, intrigue, a lot of relationship speculation, action/adventure, and possibly some good ol' fantasy violence. This fic is for readers who want to see Zuko and Katara develop an attraction for each other amidst all the odds pouring down on them, some of which they create themselves. Well, that's the intention behind it, anyway, so please understand this.
If neither 1 nor 2 appeal to you, then I strongly advise going elsewhere. If none of these appeal to you but you want to stick around anyway, you are more than welcome to. 8D
Disclaimer: Avatar: the Last Airbender (c) by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Nickelodeon, and other associates. I just borrow the characters and write for fun.
There was no other way around it. King Kuei did not have any children and King Bumi was much too old to start now providing any now. The Northern Water tribe only had one daughter and, well, she had become a moon spirit which wasn't very helpful. However, it wasn't like Katara had been the last choice. In fact, she had been the ideal choice.
Katara sat in a state of numbed silence as three chambermaids fussed with her appearance, dotting color on her eyelids and brushing through the waves of her dark hair. They chattered with excited, high-pitched voices, most of which Katara kept tuned out. She didn't need to hear anymore about the royal wedding about to take place. She was the bride, after all.
The mirror did not reflect the ecstatic joy she had been certain for the longest time she would be feeling on this day of all days. Her sapphire eyes did not give off the faintest glimmer, her lips drawn lax and thin, and the only rosy hint to her cheeks was due to the powder Maid Number One was currently patting on. This lack of spirit did not get past the maids but they respected Katara's feelings and pretended that nothing was wrong. Besides, it would be a bother to do her makeup all over again if she suddenly started crying.
But Katara wasn't about to cry. She was all cried out. The weeks she had spent in an emotional typhoon of tears, curses, and random flying objects had finally taken their toll on her. Now she was just empty, her wedding day that had finally arrived a dark and frozen day indeed.
"Not since the Fire Lord's mother have we had a princess so beautiful," Maid Number Two sighed as she brushed Katara's hair back.
How many times had Katara heard that since the engagement? The past year had been filled with nothing but the ridiculous populace singing her praises, and Katara had done nothing but get engaged to someone she did not love. Cared about, certainly, he was her friend, but wasn't in love with and never had any intention or desire to fall in love with.
No, that wasn't entirely true. Katara knew what this engagement meant to the people of not only the Fire Nation, but the world. Zuko was in a precarious situation. He was the Fire Lord, but he also had once been the prince who betrayed his country. And then usurped the throne from a man who was both greatly feared and greatly respected. It was one thing to get a small group of determined young teens to trust you. To earn the trust of military and political figures and a populace worn thin from years of oppression was something else entirely. Zuko was struggling in his position. Tradition alone held him there. Sure, Zuko was in absolute power now, but all it would take would be enough people to not like him enough to do the same to him as what was done to Ozai. Many of the Fire Nation's elite were displeased at the idea of having a child run the country. Zuko was only seventeen years old at the time, after all. Inexperienced. Naïve. Hadn't it been his naïveté that banished him in the first place? Amidst Azula's occasional scream echoing from her small room within the mental institution, some whispered if maybe if would be better for Sozin's bloodline to end with this generation and make way for a new regime. Iroh had been Zuko's only hope in keeping his crown. The old general had managed to reestablish a few bonds with some old war buddies in the military, just enough to keep the rocky government from kicking Zuko off the throne.
Then the subject of marriage was brought up.
It was the only subject in which Zuko's youth was favorable. Never mind the fact he was supposedly already promised to someone. Personal feelings had no place in politics. Above all people, Zuko would know that. If they were to rebuild this shattered world and obtain the trust of the other nations and regain the Fire Nation's honor, it would better for Zuko to marry someone from another nationality.
Ideal. The word flashed through Katara's mind once again as she stared back at the miserable girl before her. Yes, Katara had been chosen because Katara had been ideal. For all intents and purposes, Katara was a "princess" - at least, as close to a princess as a chief's daughter of a backwoods tundra village could get - from the Southern Water Tribe. While she wasn't royalty by any stretch of the imagination, she was seen as a representative of the Southern Water Tribe and in the eyes of the Fire Nation government that was good enough. Even better, she was a Waterbender, forever tied to the people of water. She was also considered a hero. All around the Earth Kingdom, and within a small village in particular, the people adored Katara and praised her for the deeds she and the rest of Aang's group had accomplished to liberate the Earth Kingdom from the tyranny of the Fire Nation. The people already loved her, now they just needed to love the new Fire Lord and what better way than to make her his wife? And - not that it matter much but it was certainly helpful - she was close to Zuko's age. The two of them would have a long marriage, their union a symbol of uniting the world. It was enough to keep the old bastards behind the government satisfied with having Zuko as Fire Lord.
But for the two involved, the news was no less than devastating.
Katara's eyes left the mirror to sweep slowly around the room. This room had been hers since she got engaged, forced to live in the Fire Nation palace. One wouldn't think that it had been in shambles just hours ago, the once upturned bed now neatly made without a wrinkle to be seen on the silken crimson sheets. The paintings that had been ruined after getting drenched by an enraged water whip had been replaced with perfect replicas. There was not a hole or tear in the curtains. The canopy stood high and proud once more over the bed. It was as if Katara had only dreamt the misery she took out on her room.
But her hands which she had been trying desperately to keep from shaking for the past hour showed that this was reality.
She would never forget the look in Aang's eyes when she told him that they couldn't be together anymore. They had just gotten started. Almost two years together. Not as much time as one would think, not when spending most of it trying to rebuild the world, but steady all the same. Day by day, little by little, they were growing closer. And then it was broken. Destroyed. Just like that.
It hurt more that Aang had tried to smile. Tried to encourage her. It made Katara want to scream. She didn't want him to make her feel better about it. She had wanted him to go on a rampage, teach them all a lesson Avatar style and then sweep her away just like the hero of an ancient love story.
But where would that leave Zuko?
There was no doubt Aang had been just as upset over the situation as Katara, but one of them had to be the voice of reason in this dark situation and Katara had been struggling to keep from having a nervous breakdown while forcing herself to break up with her boyfriend. Holding her close, Aang had softly pointed out that while the fighting had finally stopped, the war was far from over. To ensure peace and balance, some sacrifices had to be made even now.
What was the point if it meant sacrificing their happiness? However, when the storm subsided and Katara had managed to calm down, she understood that this was her fated role to play in rebuilding this world. Truth be told, she had always understood it. But that didn't mean she had to force herself to be happy about it.
The girl in the mirror certainly didn't look happy.
Ironically, the day was bright and warm, probably one of the clearest days this side of the world had seen this year. Summer was in full blaze, the air radiating passion and harmony. A huge crowd gathered along the road, watching with wide and ecstatic gazes as the wedding procession slowly made its way to the shrine. Katara didn't look at anyone, was hardly aware of Zuko's presence beside her. Her headdress felt heavy and the thick white garments adorned with gold trimming draped over her body restricted much of her movement. To those who were watching, the soon-to-be Fire Lady was breathtaking, from the glimmer of gold in her headdress amidst waves of dark brown hair to her flowing white gown. To them, she was as beautiful as the sun bright with the summer solstice, outshining even the Fire Lord she was marrying. Despite her being a Waterbender from a faraway tribe these people probably never would have heard of if not for the war, the common folk accepted Katara as if she were born and bred Fire Nation royalty.
When Zuko's eyes finally met hers, he gave her a faint little smile, trying to encourage her. Katara appreciated the sentiment, she really did. Zuko had come a long way from the person he had been when they first met almost three years ago. He had become a precious close friend, someone she could always rely on. From helping her gain closure for the loss of her mother and then saving her life from Azula's attack, Zuko proved himself to be everything she could want in a friend.
But not this. So she lowered her gaze and didn't return his smile. The ring on her finger might as well have been made from creeping crystal, tightening around her finger and threatening to consume her whole. Katara didn't move when she felt Zuko's lips on hers, signifying their union, because half of her was trying to refrain from crying and the other half was trying to refrain from punching him in the jaw. Not Zuko's fault, she kept telling herself. Not Zuko's fault. Even if it did feel easy to take her anger and hurt out on him.
The two sat alone during the reception, watching as the guests drank and made merry within the courtyard, and the rest of the city celebrated beyond the palace walls. Fireworks lit the night sky in a shower of bright colors. The sound of drums and flutes drifted along the wind in a playful musical dance. Katara played a little with her food, taking a small bite only if someone passed by to congratulate the newlyweds. Her eyes swept the crowd of special guests dancing in the courtyard, trying to spot the people she knew. Her older brother Sokka twirled Suki around in a dance that was far from graceful and yet looked so much fun. Toph and Ty Lee sat with Zuko's uncle Iroh, chattering enthusiastically about something or other. Aang was at the reception, too, showing off an air trick to a small crowd of curious watchers. He looked… so happy.
Then again, Aang always did like being in the center of attention. Katara knew she shouldn't be staring at her ex-boyfriend while sitting next to her new husband, but she couldn't take her eyes off him. She missed making Aang smile, the way he softly laughed in her ear when they lay under the stars and talked about nothing in particular. His touch, his warmth, everything about him felt like it completed her. Aang was everything to her. She still had it, too, pressed in a book of ancient Water Tribe fairy tales, a panda lily he had given her when they had decided they would be together forever. Every time she would read the story of the handsome prince rescued from drowning at sea by a beautiful water sprite, she would be reminded of their love.
Zuko was just… Zuko. A friend. Another older brother to watch over her and annoy her with his antics. Nothing more than that.
And yet Zuko was the one sitting next to her on her wedding day.
As if remembering he existed, Katara snapped out her gaze and stole a glance at Zuko. He wasn't paying attention. His head was turned away from her, his own gaze locked elsewhere. Letting her eyes follow the direction of his head, Katara saw Mai sitting by herself. Nothing betrayed Mai's feelings in that reserved posture as she ate and whenever someone spoke to her, she would respond with a noncommittal shrug that was so like her no one would be able to tell anything was wrong. Like she hadn't just witnessed her boyfriend marrying someone else. Katara had only been with Aang for a little under two years. She knew that Mai had been in love with Zuko practically her entire life. And yet she remained completely held together. Katara knew that if she were adorned with sharp objects, she would probably stab every single person who dared to smile over this situation.
Katara couldn't look away fast enough when Zuko realized she was staring at him. "Sorry," he muttered, an embarrassed flush spreading across his face. Caught looking at his ex-girlfriend by his wife and they've only been married for a few hours. Not that Katara minded. It was strangely comforting to know that she wasn't alone in this torment.
"It's all right," she replied. She had been doing the same thing, anyway. And then, to ease the awkward tension pressing against them both, she asked, "How's the food?" It was the first thing that had popped into her head, really, but better than sitting here in suffocating silence. Zuko was still her friend even if their situation had drastically changed. Naïve as it sounded, she hoped nothing would change too much between them.
"It's… food," Zuko answered just when Katara noticed the meal on his plate had been picked at as much as her own. What was intended to lighten the mood now just made things even more awkward.
The courtyard exploded in cheers and applause as the last of the fireworks fizzled into the night. The music swelled into a frisky and bouncy beat, and couples began tugging each other onto the floor for a dance. Suki didn't know whether to look irritated or amused when Toph stole a surprised Sokka right from under her nose. Ty Lee laughed loudly as she pulled Mai out of her dark corner and twirled around with her. When Aang tried to rescue Sokka from Toph, it resulted in the two boys looking like they were dancing together which made the girls burst into giggles. A perfect replica of the life Katara used to have before she got engaged.
"When the formal reception's over, we'll be able to hang out with the others," Zuko spoke up. "Just be ourselves and not have to stand on ceremony like this. It kinda sucks, but you'll get used to it-"
"I'm sorry," Katara spoke up so suddenly it even caught her by surprise.
Zuko blinked. "For what?"
At the moment, her untouched food looked really interesting. What was that weird sauce seeping out of her steamed sea slug, this certainly wasn't the same sauce she would find in the shops out in town. Katara sighed, poking at the slab of juicy meat with her chopstick. "I'm not handling this very well," she finally admitted. Tears blurred her vision. Oh no! If she started crying now, everyone will see how miserable she was. Of course, she thought her misery was quite obvious but there was no need to prove it beyond a doubt. Unless she covered it up as tears of happiness but she had no tone of voice to sound even remotely happy to get away with that.
Zuko's next words made Katara stare at him.
"I think you're handling this way better than I am."
Okay, he had to be lying to her. Or something. Zuko's expression throughout the entire ceremony from the procession to now had been immaculate, clear of any emotion whatsoever. And he had pulled it off so elegantly, so expected of a Fire Lord that Katara had been envious. Not the slightest muscle twitch or gleam in his eyes betrayed his true feelings.
The corners of his mouth twitched up in the faintest of smiles. "To be honest, I was half expecting you to bring the wrath of the ocean down on all of us today. I've been tempted to burn this entire place to the ground myself a few times." He scratched the back of his neck, which Katara had learned about a year ago that this was a gesture of his whenever he admitted to something particularly embarrassing or uncomfortable. In a nervous gesture of her own, Katara looked down at her fingers.
"So," Zuko added, dropping his hand to join the other one and play with his thumbs, "you really are handling this well. And besides, everyone expects you to be a little nervous."
Curious, Katara looked at Zuko. She was about to ask why when she noticed that he had froze, even in his thumb twiddling, and his shoulders had tensed up as if he had said something he shouldn't. Then the meaning behind his words occurred to her like being hit in the head with a brick.
Their wedding night.
Oh, oh spirits, it was their wedding night!
"Well," Zuko finally said after a long moment, "at least we won't have to worry about anyone bothering us for about a week. They even built a small house on one of the remote islands close to- Katara, are you okay?"
Katara wasn't paying any attention to Zuko anymore because she was busy downing her second sakazuki of sake. The drink was bitter and burned all the way down to her stomach, but unlike tea, it was a burn that felt like her throat was being eaten away and yet left her wanting more. She would much rather concentrate on the acid sensation in her body that was causing a strange warmth to seep from her stomach to her limbs than the premonition-like images her sick mind conjured up at the idea of spending a night with Zuko. It wasn't that Zuko wasn't attractive - oh, spirits no, the boy was a royal heartthrob if his fangirls had anything to say about that and one would have to be blind not to see it. And he probably wouldn't be a bad lover, either, since Mai had always seemed to enjoy being affectionate with him back in the days when the gang would rendezvous at the Jasmine Dragon for a while and everything felt as it should be.
Katara just had never ever saw, thought of, imagined, dreamt, or speculated Zuko in that kind of way whatsoever even after he turned out to be not such a bad guy after all, turned out to be the kind of guy any respectable girl could fall for, the kind of guy she would be glad to bring home to meet Mom and Dad so long as they didn't mind his somewhat social deficiencies.
And yet… and yet, obviously now that Zuko and Katara were married, the next thing on the anticipation list would be the birth of an heir. And while Katara could fight it for now, at some point she and Zuko would have to-
Down went a third serving of sake. The only way Katara would be able to live with herself was if she didn't remember anything the next morning.
She heard a sound from next to her, something suspiciously like a snort. Zuko looked like he was trying not to laugh and failing. "What?" Katara demanded, feeling strangely self-conscious and lightheaded. How could he not see the severity of this situation? Just what was so amusing?
"There's no need to overdo it, Katara," Zuko said when he managed to get over whatever little giggles had been building up inside. "You have nothing to be nervous about."
Katara stared at him. What did that mean? Did that mean Zuko wouldn't do anything because she didn't want him to? Or was he having similar thoughts and wouldn't do anything even if she wanted him to? Either way, her face flushed. "I'm that easy to read, huh?" she said softly, putting down the sake bottle since she was beginning to feel a little unhinged inside and probably shouldn't drink anymore. It always was difficult for her to keep her emotions in check, and for some reason the more embarrassing ones especially. A part of her was afraid she had just insulted Zuko somehow, though she didn't know why since he was most likely just as attracted to her as she was to him.
Zuko leaned back a little, looking a bit more relaxed. "It's only because I know you so well," he replied. He stared out into the courtyard without actually looking at anything. Mai was gone. As if she had never been there. "I'm not gonna lie, Katara," he said with a soft sigh. "I hate this situation we're in. I hate being away from Mai. I hate the fact that I had to take you from Aang."
"It wasn't your fa-"
"But I know what this means to my people, to the world. So that's why I agreed to it. That's all that's really holding me together right now." Zuko paused, scratched the back of his neck, looked at Katara, flushed a little, looked away. "And, well, also because it's…" - faltered, gently waved his hand as if he could reach out and grab the needed words out of the air, and finally let it drop onto his lap - "…because it's you. Because you're my friend. At least you're someone I like, someone I already know I can trust. That makes this… easier, I guess, to accept."
Still staring at Zuko, the first genuine smile she had made in weeks slowly spread over her lips. Knowing that it must have been difficult for Zuko to be completely open like that made his words mean that much more. She appreciated that he was trying his best to make this whole horrible ordeal, as he said, easier to accept. Leaning over a little, Katara gave him a little poke in the shoulder. "So long as you say on your side of the bed, I'm sure we won't have any problems," she said somewhat playfully.
Zuko did laugh then. "It's a deal."
And you better make good on it. I so much as feel your breath in my personal space, I will strangle you in your sleep. Not wanting to ruin the fragile break from tension by saying such words out loud, Katara merely let her smile widen.