AN: 700 reviews.
Have I ever told you guys that my readers are the best? Well, just in case I haven't I'm telling you right now. My readers are the best. I have reached over 700 reviews on my useless drabbles. And, apart for me being ecstatic and humbled and totally feeling like I should gloat my ass off, that number means that I owe another person a oneshot as a prize.
The… er… lucky person this time is KiraMizu08. She was actually reviewer number 701 but number 700 was anonymous so I couldn't get hold of him/her to ask him/her what he/she wanted as a prize. KiraMizu08 asked for "…a Post-War story. I think, maybe about Zuko having trouble finding a Fire Lady. Maybe the council threatened him to finding one. And then Katara comes along to help or to volunteer or whatever...It's up to you." Also, I was told to stick to the prompt and put a twist in the plot. Which, of course, made me stare blankly at the screen for a while: my muse isn't known for being highly accommodating to plotlines. But I think this one turned out okay. Hopefully. KiraMizu08, feel free to ask me to rewrite bits (or the whole thing) if you don't like it. Really.
Thanks to every single person who's ever faved, alerted or read my fics. And to my 700-odd reviewers… I love you guys to the moon and back.
Disclaimer: Avatar is Bryke's. This fic is now KiraMizu08's.
The Manipulation Behind Marriage
After the war ended, Katara's expectations of some normal moments changed a bit. During the war she had never entered a room without a part of her being ready for an attack. She had been cautious when opening doors and her water skin had always been pointed in such a way that she would be ready to bend in a second. But after Ozai fell this habit began to slowly disappear. There was, everybody agreed, no need to be wound up for a battle every time you entered the room.
Or so they'd all thought.
A startled yelp tore its way out of her throat as she automatically dove to the side to avoid the ball of fire sent her way. The flames missed her and instead hit the door, scorching the wood and making the painted decoration shrivel. With eyes spitting anger she spun to face her attacker, hands automatically reaching for her water skin even though she knew it wasn't there. Damn her and her optimistic outlook that all the battles were over! When she saw who had attacked her she only got angrier.
"What the hell?" she snarled at Zuko, standing up and folding her arms furiously across her chest.
Firelord or not, Zuko had just attacked her. And it had awakened the niggling memories of the first few months they'd known him, when they'd fled from him and his fury…
"Sorry. I thought you were one of my council members."
His calm reply shattered the reminiscences and the cold feeling they'd brought with him. That first Zuko had long since died. She felt so foolish that she'd thought he'd revert back to being 'evil' that she forgot to be mad at him. Instead, her gaze turned puzzled.
"Why do you want to kill off your council members? They're here to help you, you know."
Only when Zuko snorted did she realize that his eyes were dark with anger and that the torches in the room were burning far too brightly- a sure sign that he was seething.
"Yeah? Well please tell them that, because I don't think they got that part of their job description."
Katara's arms sank to her sides as she padded softly toward him. She could tell- two years of being good friends with him had made her accustomed to his body language- that it was taking all of his self-control to keep calm. He really just wanted to trash the place, burn it all to the ground. She could almost feel the waves of frustration emitting from him as she walked closer.
"What's wrong?" she asked him gently, coaxingly.
She saw him tense, his chin jutting out proudly as he prepared himself to brush her away. Firelord Zuko needed nobody's sympathy, pity or help. She just stood and waited patiently, keeping his gaze the whole time. She knew he would cave to her eventually. He always did. After a long bout of silence his shoulders slumped.
"They've been at me for the past two weeks about finding a suitable Firelady. They say I'm taking too long, that the Nation needs support and…"
Her brow furrowed again. "Taking too long? Mai only left you last month."
As soon as the words were out she wanted to take them back. Guilt engulfed her as she saw Zuko wince a little at the reminder of his very messy breakup. She wanted to kick herself for not phrasing it better. She of all people should have known to be tactful. After all, she'd practically burst into tears every time somebody had mentioned Aang's name after the two of them broke up. She winced and opened her mouth to apologise for her bluntness, but Zuko was already speaking.
"Yeah, I know. But getting a Firelady almost guarantees that I'll remain Firelord. And that almost guarantees they get to keep their position and their warless existence." Half tiredly and half angrily he ran his fingers through his hair, which hung loose for once. "I don't know what to do. If I get introduced to one more 'wonderful, patriotic and well-rounded woman' I think I'm going to go insane."
She tried really hard not to laugh at the image of one of the old, wizened Fire Nation council members pushing forward a ghastly girl while smiling and nodding enthusiastically.
"They're not… I mean, they're not gonna force you into a marriage, right?"
"No. 'Ultimately the decision is mine', apparently. Although every time they remind me of the fact they say it like it's a curse. I honestly wish, sometimes, that I could just tell them and those girls…"
The torches flared for a second and she winced, backing away from the walls just in case. She then wondered what Zuko had said to his potential wives; he wasn't exactly known to be utterly courteous. Especially not when he was ticked off. She decided she actually didn't want to know.
"Well, maybe you can stop moping and trying to kill your innocent guests and ask Toph for advice instead. She's a genius in all ways of eluding the authorities' wishes."
"She's here?" Zuko sounded a little hopeful.
"Just arrived. That's what I came to tell you."
Whatever Zuko was going to reply to her news she would never know. For at that moment the newly scorched door was flung open and Toph paraded in her usual way; as though she owned the world. Since she'd turned fourteen she'd taken to wearing her long, thick black hair loose instead of tightly wound up. That added to the new curves her body was getting made her seem far more feminine than before. She turned that fact into a very successful trap for her competitors.
"Jeeze, Sparky. I can feel you radiating heat from freaking downstairs. Who's stolen your favourite pair of boots this time?"
Somehow her brash teasing made the Firelord relax some. Katara silently thanked her younger friend for being her usual tactful tactless self. Zuko sighed and told her the story, scowling when she roared with laughter.
"That's rich," she giggled. "The Firelord is being handled by a bunch of old guys."
"Are you going to help or not?" he snapped at her, fuming.
"Jeeze, keep your topknot on." She rolled her sightless eyes in an exasperated manner. "You can't rush genius."
Katara swatted the Firebender on the arm to stop him fro replying. Him and Toph could be at each other all day if they weren't stopped. And the verbal blows usually ended up turning to physical ones. They would never really hurt each other ever but she was not in the mood to break them up and deal with their moodiness afterwards. After a rather long pause that left Zuko shifting agitatedly, Toph suddenly clicked her fingers.
"What you need," she said in a deep voice, pointing to the ceiling wisely. "Is a difficult woman."
"You get other types?" Zuko asked dryly before he could stop himself.
Katara glared at him but Toph grinned appreciatively before continuing in her normal voice.
"Get a girl and tell everybody you're considering getting engaged to her, and therefore she has to go through the usual… 'trial period' of living in the palace and blah blah. But make sure that this girl is so revolutionary and so against what they want as their Firelady that they'll wince just mentioning their name. Then they'll come to you and in carefully chosen words they'll tell you that they'll let you choose your own woman in your own time as long as you get rid of your current one."
Zuko mused about it for a moment. "Will that really work?"
Toph shrugged. "I did something similar when I was younger. Only it wasn't a girl but a snakefish that I used."
"I wanna hear that story sometime," Zuko told her, a hint of a grin on his face.
Toph smirked back. "Sure thing, Sparky. Now that my work here is done and the Fire Nation is safe from their ruler's wrath I am gonna go pester Snoozles and his lover. They're trying to hide from me so they can makeout in dark corners. Idiots."
Katara and Zuko chuckled and then set to work. They drew up a list of all the women they both knew and then began sifting through each one critically. By halfway down they were starting to get despondent.
"How about lady Ai? She'll drive everybody mad."
"Including me," Zuko groaned. "I think I'll smother her after two days."
"That's true," Katara agreed. "I'd probably do the same." She crossed out the name and sighed, moving on to the next one. "Lady Jee?"
"Engaged," Zuko responded, draped across his throne in a very un-Firelord-like way.
Katara gave him a wide-eyed look. "What? How- er… When did that happen?"
Zuko gave her a shrug that clearly said he was as lost to the situation as she was. Katara just shook her head and moved on. After three more names Zuko finally lost his temper.
"Seriously?" he fumed. "It would be a better idea for me to stab myself in the chest than pretend to marry her."
Katara glowered at him. "There's no need to snap! I'm only trying to help." He muttered something under his breath and her eyes narrowed even further. "What was that?" Her voice was dangerous.
"Nothing," he snapped sullenly.
"I didn't think so," she growled.
He glowered even more. "Well if you're trying to help so bad then why don't you…" He trailed off, his good eye suddenly widening.
"You can help."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I've been doing that for the past hour."
"No, I mean, you can help me. You can be the girl." She stared at him blankly, shocked into silence. "All you have to do is stay in the palace for about a month," he hastily assured her. "And just… I dunno… just pretend with me that we're kinda together."
"Zuko, I don't know…" She bit her lip. "I wouldn't mind staying here for a month- I'm in no rush to be anywhere else. But I don't know if I can pull it off."
"Are you kidding? The council will utterly despise you."
Her heart clenched and her faced darkened. "Oh?" Her voice was as icy as her eyes. "And why's that?"
"You're Water Tribe, firstly," Zuko explained, not in the least bit intimidated by her anger. "And you're so set in your ways that they'd never be able to get you to do anything their way. And you also don't believe the Fire Nation is the greatest of the four."
"Well it's not!" she replied hotly. A part of her knew, logically, that Zuko also knew it wasn't. But at that moment she couldn't make herself differentiate between his opinions and the general opinion of his council. And so she was angry with all of them. "The Fire Nation may have the most advanced machinery, but the Earth Kingdom is quickly catching up. And you guys are way behind in-"
She broke off as Zuko gestured to her in a 'see what I mean?' way. He was smirking, and it made her spitting mad. She leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed and hands clenched, but he beat her to it.
"And on top of all that you owe me."
"For what?" she nearly shrieked, on the verge of bending the smug arrogance out of him for good.
"Bumi's hundred-and-fourteenth birthday party? That group of highly esteemed Earth Kingdom guys who wanted to date you and who wouldn't take no for an answer until you proved to them that your boyfriend did exist?"
Her anger died almost at once. In its place was cold shame and a bit of dread. "I didn't ask you to step in and act like my boyfriend," she snapped at him.
"Yes, you did. Maybe not in words but your body language was screaming it. And who else would you have used? Aang was already dating Toph by that time."
He was right, and she knew it. Desperately she tried to find a way out of it, while he smirked like the puma who had caught the cattlebird. Finally she growled, closing her eyes in annoyance and praying to the spirits for strength.
"I hate you," she sulked at him.
She could feel his smirk, even though she couldn't see it. "I know."
Sweat. It coated her ornately done-up hair and her heavy Fire Nation styled dress. Her breath left her in short gasps, her chest heaving from the dancing. For the first time in three weeks she was relaxing. There was nobody telling her how to act. The disapproving stares meant nothing, especially not in the light of the look he was giving her. His spicy, warm breath hit her cheek every second or so, and as it heaved his chest brushed hers. His eyes were wildfire, royally golden and alight.
"They're all staring at us." She had to say something- the silence was too charged.
"They always do." As if she could really forget that.
"I think they're waiting for us to do something else couple-like," she supplied.
"Like kiss," he agreed.
Her breathing hitched more. "Yeah…"
"It's not that big a deal. I've kissed you before."
"At Bumi's party, in front of those guys. Yeah, I remember."
Silence. Heaving. Sweating. Gasping. Burning.
"You don't have to kiss me. I'm not going to make you. It's not part of our agreement or anything."
"I won't make you. You didn't make me at Bumi's."
"So no pressure."
"Yeah… I know."
She leant up and kissed him anyway.
Toph's face was so smug that Katara immediately assumed the worst. She stopped dead in her tracks, her heart leaping to her mouth. The only thing she could think was: Toph knows. How does she know? Can she feel in me that I like Zuko? How? I don't even know if I like him! It was just a kiss… How can she know any way? Oh, spirits, she does know…
But instead of teasing her endlessly about Zuko-related topics Toph tossed her head proudly ad announced, "I was right."
Katara was thrown. "About…?"
"The whole council thing. They practically jumped Zuko in the hall just now. They are so giving him the 'get rid of her' talk. Who's a genius?"
It was probably a good thing Toph couldn't see, or else Katara would have had to explain the movement her mouth made after those words. It was a cross between a forced smile, a grimace and the trembling beginnings of tears. She felt suddenly like she was falling- she didn't know what to feel. Confusion throbbed through her like oxygen or like the blood in her veins. This is what they'd wanted, what they'd expected to happen. She was just helping him out. The kiss had been her letting go of reality and believing the lie they were telling the rest of the country. She didn't feel for him.
Or did she?
Utterly confused, with a raging head and a breaking heart, she returned to the room she'd been staying in and started to pack. As the few possessions she had found their way into her bag she found herself becoming less confused and more angry. Anger was easier to deal with than confusion. And she had a right to be angry. He'd used her. He'd led her on. He'd blackmailed her for his own means and he'd made her put up with him because he knew she was falling for him. Her hurt was all his fault. Yeah, it was his fault.
"There you are." She'd spent so much time with that voice over the past month that she could pick it out even in a big crowd. "I have some news. I just had a talk with my council members-"
"And they told you to get rid of me." She was proud of herself for keeping her voice steady. Showing no pain, no anger, no betrayal. She would not let herself fall to pieces like she had after Ba Sing Se.
"Actually, they said that perhaps rushing into things was not such a good idea. They said they'd been talking and they agreed that finding a Firelady is delicate business and that I should take all the time I need to find one. The perfect one. And they wouldn't stand in my way any longer."
"Which basically means the same thing."
"Yeah it does."
There was a confused note in his voice that told her he was picking up that something was wrong. It gave the non-angry side of her heart grief to know she was going to hurt him a bit. Damn him. And damn her for being able to pick out his moods by just the way he was speaking. Had they really grown that close?
"So. What did you reply?"
She mused that she must have a bit of a masochistic side: she was hungering after the words that, she now had to admit to herself, would hurt her badly. If her feelings for the Firelord were fake delusions, she had a very, very good imagination. Or she had just found something in him that she never wanted anybody else to have.
"Well, I let them have their say. And then I repeated what they'd always said, that it was my decision ultimately. They agreed and then I tol-"
"I don't want to know." She couldn't go through with it. She couldn't hear from his own lips that he didn't want her, that it had stayed a game to him.
She closed her bag with wild movements, nearly entangling the string as she went. Her vision was becoming blurry and she knew she would break into pieces soon. She would not let him see her cry. Not again. He didn't deserve to get a piece of her. She spun around, bag clutched tightly to her chest, and headed for the door. His warm hands pulled her back, spun her to face him. There was something different about his eyes when he looked at her. She hadn't seen it before, so she couldn't name the emotion.
"Katara, wait. Just listen."
She forced her words past trembling lips. "I don't want to hear it."
"Just listen," he insisted, holding on tighter when she tried to break away. "I told them-"
"I don't care! Let me go!"
"I don't care! Nothing you say is going to make me care! Let me go, I want to leave! I don't want to stand in the same room as you! I don't want to be around you! I don't want you! You don't deserve me! Let me go."
She didn't know where the words sprang from. She wasn't even fully aware that it was her saying them. Later, when she looked back, she figured it must have been her defence mechanism to protect her heart from being shattered. Whatever the case, the words came from somewhere and poured out like an angry tidal wave. And Zuko let go of her as though he'd been burned. As though her words had physically slapped him. She didn't see this, didn't take any of it in. All she did was turn and run, crying as soon as she was sure he wouldn't hear her.
The whole world was full of idiots. Toph Bei Fong had known this from a very young age. But the world apparently kept forgetting that she knew, because it made things clearly make that fact clear every now and again. This was most definitely one of those times. They were both a pair of idiots. And, for the umpteenth time, she had to be the one to save them.
Without bothering with the trivial act of knocking she burst into the Waterbender's room. She felt Katara jump at her sudden entrance and spin towards the door. Katara sighed exasperatedly and Toph could imagine her putting her hands on her hips in weary frustration.
"You're an idiot. A complete moron. A slothcricket is smarter than you. Really."
"What are you going on about now?"
"Zuko, you twit. Zuko."
The atmosphere tensed at once. She could feel Katara grow defensive and uptight at once.
"You don't know what you're talking about," she snapped.
"No, you don't know what you're talking about. Because you jumped to conclusions and threw a hissy fit that blew up everything."
"Jumped to conclusions? He was the one who led me on! He let me… he let me… fall for him… and then he just sold me out to-"
"HELLO! Are you listening to me? You jumped to conclusions."
"Please, Toph. Don't give me-"
"His council members did what I thought they would-"
"Yeah, you're a genius. But that-"
"And they told him to get rid of you-"
"Exactly! So my usefulness to him was-"
"And he told them to take a hike."
"And all that time he'd… What?"
"Are… Are you being serious?"
"As serious as I'm the longest-standing Earth Rumble champ, Sweetness. Of course, you'd have known this already if you'd actually listened to him before screaming that you didn't want him and leaving in a rush."
Toph felt Katara sink to the bed and imagined that the Waterbender was feeling all sorts of horrible and guilty and stunned. And happy underneath that all, most probably.
"Are you sure?" she whispered.
Toph rolled her sightless eyes. "No. I came all the way over here to tell you my haunch."
"Oh spirits," the Water Tribe teen moaned. "Oh spirits… The things I said to him…"
"Like I said: idiot. And you were the one who kept going on and on and on about him hurting you when he first joined us. Hypocritical, much?"
There was a long silence in which Toph's frustration and anger gave way a little bit to sympathy for her friend. But how the heck was she supposed to sympathise? She was more on Zuko's side for this one, and mushy feelings were not her thing. She was spared by Katara breaking the silence.
"Did I hash it up completely?" Her voice was very small.
"I dunno. He was bummed for a few days but now he's just mad. I really don't know if you can fix this."
Katara rose with a deep breath and headed straight towards the door.
"I have to try," she murmured as she passed.
Toph smiled. "I know."
She was rooted to the spot by the anger and betrayal she saw in his eyes. She realized he must be feeling close to what she had when she'd left. He must be thinking she'd led him on and then just dropped him. And the things she'd yelled at him… "You don't deserve me." She shuddered at the memory.
It had been near impossible to get him to agree to even look at her, let alone have a conversation with her. And suddenly she realized how it must have been for him when he'd joined the gaang and all she'd been was hostile. How had he put up with it without cracking? He was more patient than people gave him credit for when it came to important things.
"You've said that already." His voice was unforgiving.
"I didn't… I thought you were coming to kick me out. I didn't know you wanted to tell me something more."
"Maybe the many times I said 'Katara, please listen' should have been an indication."
The coldness of his words made her wince and start burning with anger at the same time. It was so hard, apologising to him. Not because of the apology itself but because of the fact that in order to do it properly she would have to admit things she'd kept close in her heart for a long time.
"I don't want to hear it."
She closed her eyes out of frustration. She wasn't going to let him go what she had done. She couldn't allow it.
"I don't care. You are going to hear me out."
He sneered, the arrogant prince with the ponytail back in his features. Without another word he turned around and headed toward the door, his head held high. Desperately she pulled water from the jar on his desk and froze his exit. Without more than a low snarl he began to melt the ice with quick bursts of fire. She used a waterwhip to try and turn him around to face her and he snapped. Suddenly, his fire was aimed at her.
And then she forgot about what she was supposed to be telling him as the battle took over all of her senses. She was dodging and attacking and wheeling around like she hadn't done in two years, feeling the flames too close for comfort. For a spilt second she wondered if he would stop before seriously hurting her, or if he was past the point of caring. She banished the thoughts; she knew the real Zuko beneath the pain and anger and fiery fists.
Desperation drove her forward and helped her freeze him to the ground while she half straddled him, half pinned him down. They were both panting heavily and her new tunic was scorched and burned in some places. She glared down at him, her eyes mirroring the hardness that was still in his.
"Listen to me!" she snapped.
"No," he snarled back. "I don't give a damn what you-"
She leant down and kissed him with everything she had in her. There was no rush, no firework display. All there was was his warm lips and the faint smell of sweat and burnt cloth. But that was enough for her.
"I didn't want you to tell me to go. I wouldn't have been able to handle it. I don't care if your council hates me. As long as you love me, I'll be able to live through anything."
He stared at her silently for a long time. "And if I don't love you?"
Her heart felt like it was crushing under the mere possibility. "Well, then this would turn out to be a rather ridiculous situation."
She swallowed hard, staring him down. Every second that went by made her panic a little more. What if he'd stopped loving her? What if he'd never loved her in the first place? What if…?
"Most of my council members despise you."
"Yeah, I got that feeling."
He nodded slowly, never taking his eyes off of her. "You owe me."
"Attacking me. I'm the Firelord, you know. That could have you thrown in jail."
"Oh please, I-"
"But instead of a jail sentence you could help me out."
She paused. "How?"
"Like you have been. Pretend to be mine. Drive my council insane. Stay with me. For a long, long time."
"You're blackmailing me again?"
"You owe me."
A brilliant smile swept across her face, and she was suddenly able to breathe again. "I hate you."
"I know." He kissed her firmly on the lips. "Me too."