A/N Sorry it took so long for the update guys! I definitely intended to post this much earlier but life just sort of got away from me. I hope you enjoy it!
The door to Zuko's private audience chamber flung open. Zuko and Katara leapt apart like frightened rabbits. A Fire Nation Herald, a plump stout sort of man, waddled in. He was clothed in the red and gold of the Fire Lord's House with the Fire Nation emblem prominently emblazoned on his rather ridiculous hat. The man bowed so low to Zuko that his forehead almost touched the floor.
Katara felt her heart stop at the sight. She was immediately gripped by the icy fear of panic. Had he been standing outside the door this whole time? How much had he heard?
Zuko's reaction to her news had given Katara something she had never expected to find: Hope, hope that maybe, just maybe, somehow everything would work out alright. But that hope was a double edged sword as hope always is and Katara could already feel the painful sting of it slipping away from her.
It was over. It was over before she or Zuko had even had a chance. Within the hour the entire palace would know, and within days the entire city would know. It was only a matter of time now before word reached her father in the South Pole, and Katara was definitely not ready for that.
She knew in her heart that she would have had to face him sooner or later, but right now the thought of his disapproving stare, his disappointment, was sending Katara into hysterics. She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she nearly missed the name of the person the herald had been sent in to announce.
"The Avatar, Aang last of the Air Nomads." The fat little herald bowed again and backed out of the room.
Aang. AANG. Katara could feel her panic disappearing, but something far worse was taking its place: Sheer Terror. As much as Katara didn't want to face Sokka or her father in her current condition, she wanted to face Aang even less.
Aang was the Avatar, the savior of the world. He was one of Katara's closest friends, he was part of her family, sometimes it even seemed as though he were part of her. She knew this would hurt him and it was almost more than she could stand.
Aang loved her. Katara knew that, and in her own way she loved him back. Perhaps if things had turned out differently Katara could have made a life with him. She knew the news would devastate Aang, and the fact that it was Zuko's baby doubly so, better it had been a stranger than a friend. Katara gulped guiltily.
Zuko mirrored her actions unconsciously. Images flashed through his mind, Aang in the Avatar state wreaking destruction on the Fire Nation Navy, Zuko's Ship, Zuko's Father. Zuko did not want the awesome power the Avatar controlled turned against him. But when Aang found out that Zuko had knocked up his girlfriend, well there would definitely be a vacancy in the position of Fire Lord.
At least I'll have an heir to leave behind. He thought without humor.
As Aang bounded into the room, as full of childish energy as ever Katara hissed angrily to Zuko. "Why didn't you tell me he was coming?" She noticed that Zuko looked pale, well paler than usual.
"I forgot!" He whispered back. He honestly had, between his incredibly busy schedule and his short but life-changing audience with Katara the Avatar's visit had slipped his mind.
"Zuko!" Aang beamed running up and giving Zuko a hug.
Zuko quickly schooled his expression, pasting on a smile. Two short months on the throne was more than ample time to train his "court face".
"Aang it's good to see you." Truth be told Zuko was not unhappy to see Aang, not in the least, especially since he had invited the Avatar to the Fire Nation for a very specific reason, it was just the timing of the visit that left a little to be desired.
Katara was torn. Part of her wanted to embrace Aang as well and part of her wished the earth would just open right then and there and swallow her whole. If only Toph were there…
But she wasn't. It was just Katara with Zuko as her only ally. Glancing at Zuko she remembered his words of only moments before, the fire and determination she had sensed in him. She would do what she had to do. Katara squared her shoulders, trying to convince herself everything would be fine, and cautiously cleared her throat.
"Oh hey Katara" Aang waved casually, taking her presence momentarily for granted. He turned back towards Zuko to finish his greeting. When his brain finally caught up with what his eyes were seeing, his neck snapped around so quickly Katara half expected him to get whiplash.
"Katara! What are you doing here? And… Are you crying?" As Aang peered closely at her face, Katara shared a panicked glance with Zuko over his shoulder. There hadn't been enough time to discuss anything, much less come up with an excuse for Katara's presence in the Fire Nation and there was no way in the name of all the oceans that she was going to tell Aang the truth…not yet at least.
Katara could feel her face grow warm, just as Zuko's grew impossibly paler. Her mind scrambled to come up with a reason, any reason at all to explain her visit.
"I er…I just came to make sure Zuko was healing properly after he took that lightening for me" She said at the exact same moment that Zuko exclaimed "Well you see while I was searching the library here I found some interesting water tribe scrolls I thought Katara might like to see-"
Katara's voice sounded falsely cheerful to her own ears. She could tell Aang was unconvinced. He merely blinked in confusion.
"Er right, well Zuko found some interesting scrolls he wanted me to see" Katara hoped desperately that the scrolls existed because Aang would no doubt demand to see them as well. "And I thought it would be a good opportunity to make sure Zuko was healing alright because we can't have a sick Fire Lord now can we." She laughed nervously. It was no doubt her high strung nerves that kept her babbling on like an idiot.
"Because you know he shielded me from the lightening Azula had thrown at me except he couldn't deflect all of it and some of it affected his heart. But I guess I never thanked you for that properly did I?"
"Um…You're welcome?" Zuko offered awkwardly.
"Right" Said Katara, putting on her most cheerful and most innocent smile.
Aang looked back and forth between the two. Something strange was going on between them. Something wasn't right, but he figured his friends would tell him when they were ready. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, for the moment too happy to see Katara to worry about it.
Zuko, deciding he had better intervene and rescue the situation said "Anyways Aang, I believe the Fire Sages are waiting for us in the council chambers. Shall we?"
"The Fire Sages?" Katara asked partly out of curiosity and partly to draw attention away from her recent outburst.
"Yep the Fire Sages!" Aang confirmed. "You remember Shyu?"
Katara nodded, of course she remembered, he was the priest who had helped Aang gain access to Avatar Roku at the temple on Crescent Island. He was one of the only priests to have honored the old ways.
"Well he and the other Fire Sages are here and want my help rebuilding the Avatar Temple on Crescent Island." Aang beamed, pleased no doubt to be seen as an asset in the full office of Avatar at last, but looking at him Katara could only think of how much a child he still was.
Sokka had told her once that Aang was just a goofy kid, and Aang had readily agreed. Even now acting with full authority many adults would never possess, Aang still seemed like that same little boy who wanted nothing more than to go penguin sledding with his friends. He's so young. Katara thought.
The last few weeks had aged her, not physically, but mentally, emotionally. She was preparing herself for the responsibility of a child. It seemed to Katara that the two year age difference between Aang and herself had never been greater.
"Er… Right" Said Zuko "Well we'd best not keep the Fire Sages waiting" He gestured for Aang to follow him. "Um Lady Katara would you care to join us?" He asked only out of politeness, not meeting her eyes. The awkwardness that had stretched between them the moment the door had opened intensified. They would have to address it sooner or later, among other issues, but Zuko had a country to run so he forced himself to push the personal issue aside for now and focus on the task at hand. It was the only way he knew how to cope.
Katara who knew from experience how dull such meetings could be politely declined, "Um no thanks, I'll just um-". She wasn't quite sure what to do with herself.
Thankfully Zuko had anticipated her answer (He only wished he too could skip this meeting!). "Right, Then I'll have a servant escort you to your chambers." Before Katara could ask 'What Chambers?' Zuko had called for a servant.
The man arrived shortly. He was a member of the palace's veritable army of servants, a housekeeper identified by the uniform he wore. He bowed low to Zuko and Aang upon entering, then rose awaiting his orders.
"Please escort Lady Katara to the chambers prepared for her." Zuko commanded, hoping against hope that the housekeeper would catch on to his plan.
Katara knew there were no such chambers prepared, as her visit had been a surprise. Luckily the housekeeper was no idiot, nor was he a stranger to such commands. He served the Fire Lord with loyalty and discretion. He knew from Zuko's tone not to protest, so he simply bowed. "Indeed my Lord."
He bowed again, this time to Katrara, although she noted his bow was not a low as the one he had offered Aang and Zuko.
"Lady Katara if you would be so kind as to follow me to the west wing. I know the palace is often confusing for visitors" He smiled kindly and bowed her out of the room. Katara followed somewhat reluctantly. She knew she and Zuko still had many things to discuss, but she also knew now was not the time. She left the room with a hesitant glance over her shoulder.
Catching her eye Zuko mouthed the word later at her. As he and Aang headed for the council chamber and the waiting Fire Sages Zuko silently thanked Agni for servants who were not idiots. The world really needed more of them.
The chambers the man led Katara to were large and airy. The marble flooring and whitewashed walls kept the place cool despite it being late summer in the Fire Nation. She thanked the man kindly and after he had had shown her the bell to ring if she had need of a servant, he left with a bow.
When he left Katara let out the breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. Now what? She thought as she crossed the floor of the small sitting area to the bedroom. She flopped unceremoniously across the red draped bed and sighed deeply. Left alone with her thoughts Katara could feel her chest tighten as anxiety moved back in.
She was pregnant. She was pregnant with Zuko's child. She was pregnant with Zuko's child and he wanted to marry her. If she married Zuko she would spare herself some hardship, but it would only be replaced with other trials. She would be Fire Lady in addition to becoming a mother, more than that she would be married to Zuko, her one-time enemy and not quite friend. She had grown to trust him, she had even grown to forgive him but that didn't mean she wanted to marry him!
But she didn't have much of a choice. Her other options were far less desirable. She sighed again and shook her head. It was too much for one scared girl of fifteen to deal with. She tried to think of something else.
Aang. Aang was here. Aang was here and he loved her. Aang was here and he loved her but didn't know she was pregnant with Zuko's child. Aang was here, he loved her but didn't know she was pregnant with Zuko's child and would hate her for it.
Katara's thoughts kept going in circles. She ran through her closest friends and family members, but each thought became more depressing than the last. Aang, Sokka, Gran-gran, her father, Pakku, they all would hate her, they all would be disappointed in her.
She could feel the corners of her eyes prickle and sting at the unfairness of it all. She was fifteen! She shouldn't have to be facing this. She shouldn't have to stand to lose so much because of one stupid night.
Katara could barely recall what had happened that night. All she had were thoughts and impressions of thoughts, feelings. There had been heat and fire between them, his amber eyes lit with desire, bare flesh, panting, the room had spun, no other thought in her mind other than self gratification, want, need, an overwhelming sense of rightness.
But it wasn't right, it was wrong, very wrong and now her present self was paying for her past self's mistakes.
Katara thought it was all rather unfair. With a frustrated growl she pushed herself up off the bed and began to stalk around the room. She could sit here feeling sorry for herself, but what good would that do? She needed to calm down. She needed to clear her head, and for that she needed water.
Many times in the past when she had been troubled sitting in or near water would ease her mind. Being surrounded by her element calmed Katara's nerves.
Mind made up, at least for now, Katara exited her chambers and went to ask a nearby guard where the closest courtyard with a fountain was.
"Oh Oceans" Katara breathed upon entering the courtyard the guard had directed her to. Sunset Pavilion he had called it and Katara could see why. It was beautiful.
An obsidian pavilion stood at the end of a long causeway seemingly carved out of one single piece of rock. It overlooked a grand vista of the Fire Nation Capital and surrounding hills. The pavilion itself was artfully designed and well crafted with a flame motif. There was also a large rectangular reflecting pool lying between Katara and the pavilion, along with two symmetrical fountains to either side and a formal Fire Nation garden.
But the thing that took Katara's breath away was how it was all arranged; plants, pool and pavilion situated just so. So that when the sun began its nightly descent below the horizon, as it was currently doing, a line of fire, sunlight reflecting off the pool, stretched between the causeway's end and the area where Katara was standing, giving the illusion that the pavilion was ablaze and each leaf of each carefully selected plant was bursting into flames. The sunlight made it appear that the fountains did not spray water but liquid fire. It was truly spectacular.
Katara simply stared for a while in reverent silence. But in time she recalled her purpose for being there in the first place. She glanced around to make sure there was no one near but her wariness was unneeded. She was alone. She quickly stripped off her outer clothing and wearing nothing but her under wraps Katara dove into the reflecting pool.
It was shallow, as she had been expecting. Had she been standing the water would have only reached her knees, but it was water, wet and cool, and it was just what she needed. Flame colored fish darted out of her way as Katara rose to the surface.
Floating on her back Katara let out a deep sigh. She let her thoughts flow away from her like the water. As she floated in the pool lulled by the slight vibrations of the water Katara let herself think of nothing and of everything. She meditated, striving to find her inner peace.
"Thought I might find you here" a voice startled Katara out of her meditation. Surprised she flailed around in the water accidently swallowing some. As she gasped and coughed she spun around to see who had spoken. It was Zuko with a face she couldn't read.
"Er Sorry I didn't mean to startle you" He offered her a hand. She took it, still coughing as he hauled her to her feet. Out of the water her skin immediately grew goosebumps. The night's air chilled her. Zuko, immediately noticing how scantily clothed she was blushed and looked away.
Katara too realized her lack of clothing as her face too became red. This is ridiculous. She thought to herself. During her travels both Aang and Sokka had seen her dressed this way and it hadn't bothered her. So why did she feel embarrassed and exposed now? Why was it different with Zuko?
She waded over to where she had dumped her clothing and hastily began pulling it on. Another awkward silence stretched between them. To break it Zuko commented "You don't look pregnant" he immediately regretted his choice of words however as Katara whirled around to face him wearing a look that would have cowed Azula.
Too late Zuko recalled a bit of advice his uncle had given him regarding women, You must never comment on their weight! Iroh's voice said in Zuko's head.
He held up his hands in defense. "Sorry sorry, I meant no offense, I just meant- I mean are you sure you are? Pregnant I mean?" Zuko knew he was grasping at straws. He would do the right thing no matter what but he was really hoping he wouldn't have to.
"Yes Zuko. I'm sure." Katara answered flatly as she furiously pulled on her leggings. He hung his head. He knew Katara was not impulsive she would have checked, double checked and probably triple checked before taking any action. The very fact that she had told him she was pregnant confirmed that she was sure. He knew what it had probably cost her to tell him.
To change the subject Katara asked "What's that?" Fully dressed she walked back over to Zuko and gestured to the small basket he was holding.
Zuko jumped as if he had forgotten himself that he carried it. "I brought you some food. You missed dinner."
At the mention of food Katara's stomach gave a loud growl. "Sorry I didn't realize it was getting so late."
Zuko shrugged "It's alright. I know you probably have a lot on your mind. I told Aang you were just tired from your journey. I don't think he believed me." He handed her the basket. Katara eagerly tore it open and dug in.
"I also don't think he believed your story about you being here to check on me." He fixed her with a look. Katara blushed again. "Sworry" She said mouth full. She swallowed "Sorry I didn't know what to say. I just panicked."
Zuko smiled thinly. "I noticed."
A little offended Katara rolled her eyes. "Well it's not like your excuse was any better, 'water tribe scrolls' yeah right!" she huffed.
Zuko opened his mouth to make a nasty retort but thought better of it. "I'm too tired to get mad at you." He admitted. He rubbed his temples. It had been a long and emotionally draining day.
Katara gently touched his arm. "I'm sorry" She meant it too. "I didn't mean for this to happen"
He looked at her sharply. "Neither of us meant for this to happen. It just did." She looked up at him eyes shining with unshed tears. Zuko hoped she wouldn't cry again.
"We have a lot to discuss you and I" He told her. "But it doesn't have to be tonight. I do think that we should at least get our stories straight as to why you are here though." Zuko had been thinking about it all through the meeting with the Fire Sages. It wasn't as though he had a lot to say on the subject of the Temple. He was just there to approve whatever course of action the Avatar and the Sages saw fit.
"Have you-" Zuko swallowed nervously "Have you thought of anything good?"
Katara shook her head. She had been thinking about other things all evening.
"Ok. Well I thought of something, you're not going to like it though" Katara raised her eyebrows at this.
Zuko took a deep breath. "I love you."
Her reaction was pretty much what Zuko had been expecting. Katara's jaw dropped "What?" She demanded.
"Just hear me out" he pleaded. "I love you, and you love me. It explains everything! You couldn't stand being apart from me so you secretly came to visit."
Katara did not like this plan at all. "Are you out of your mind? I'm not some lovesick little girl willing to cross oceans for you!"
"But don't you see Katara? It would explain us getting married. A hurried wedding because of a whirlwind romance-You can't bear to be apart from me and I can't stand to live without you by my side"
"Zuko this is crazy!" His plan made an already difficult situation harder. So much could go wrong.
Before Zuko could say another word Katara added "I don't think we should get married at all" Now it was Zuko's turn to be stunned.
"But-but-before" He sputtered. Katara cut him off. "I know what I said before, but now I'm unsaying it. I can't let you ruin your future for me. I can do this on my own. I don't need your pity."
Zuko's eyes bulged. "PITY?" He yelled "YOU THINK I'M DOING THIS-ALL OF THIS OUT OF PITY?"
Katara was a bit taken aback by this. "You aren't?" She asked timidly.
"AGNI NO! I'M DOING THIS OUT OF-oh I don't know" Zuko searched for the right words "Self preservation maybe." He calmed down and looked at her. Really looked at her.
"Look, you're a strong independent woman, I get that, but try to see this from my perspective. I'm new at this whole Fire Lord business, a lot of what I've done so far is controversial, already there is a faction at court calling for me to abdicate in favor of Azula."
Katara's eyes went wide. She had had no idea that things in the Fire Nation were so unstable.
"If they found out about you, about the child, they would use that against me. I'm just trying to protect my throne, you and my kid alright? Plus I would never be able to live with myself knowing that you were somewhere suffering because of a mistake we both made. Katara" She looked away unwilling to meet his eyes.
"Katara look at me." He gently cupped her face with his hand and turned her face back towards him "We're getting married. I don't care if I have to drag you kicking and screaming down the aisle. We're doing this. We're going to pretend we are in love, hide the pregnancy till the wedding and get married. After that it will be too late" Marriage laws were sacred in the Fire Nation especially among the upper class. There was virtually no such thing as divorce.
Zuko spoke with such authority Katara really had no choice.
"Fine." She snapped. "We'll do it your way but I want a concession."
"A what?" Katara rolled her eyes "Look this is going to be hard, pretending to be in love, and no offense you're not the greatest actor in the world."
Zuko made a strangled noise of protest.
"I'm agreeing to your plan but on one condition." She fixed Zuko with a wicked look in her eye. "I get to pick the nicknames." Seeing Zuko's confusion Katara went on "You know how lovey dovey couples always call each other disgusting nicknames like 'baby' or 'sweetie'. Well we're going to do that, except I get to pick."
Zuko rubbed his eyes. At least she was agreeing to try. "Fine fine whatever. It's late let's just go to bed and we'll talk more in the morning."
Katara yawned and nodded. It was late. Zuko helped Katara gather her things. After making sure she could find her way back to her room he murmured a soft "Goodnight." And turned to leave the courtyard.
He was about halfway to the door when she called out. "Goodnight my studly love-muffin!"
Love-muffin. Agni what was he getting himself into?
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