Disclaimer: Neither Avatar: the Last Airbender nor its characters belong to me, nor will they ever
Katara made her way down the plank, determined: shoulders squared, jaw set, head held high. But on the inside, she was a mess. Her mind had gone from processing a thousand different thoughts a second to completely blank. She had stopped fighting as soon as they had left port, and she had stopped crying halfway through the voyage. No, she wouldn't shed one tear in the Fire Nation; she had promised herself that.
An entourage and a palanquin awaited her upon her arrival and, though instincts itched for her to refuse it, she didn't. Incensed that he was not there to greet her himself, she nearly boarded the palanquin without seeing Iroh.
"Lady Katara. My, you look lovely."
She hoped her smile didn't look like the grimace it felt like. "Thank you, Iroh. But please, call me Katara. I am not a lady." Yet.
He looped her arm through his. "It is 'Uncle' then. You must be fair. Now, I don't know about you, but I was never one for riding in these contraptions. I have two working legs, don't I?"
For the first time in nearly a moon, Katara smiled. "I'm with you there."
Iroh waved a hand at the armed guards. "I will be escorting Lady Katara to the palace. You are dismissed."
One brave soul stepped forward. "But the Fire Lord—"
"You can tell the Fire Lord that the Dragon of the West is escorting the lady. I believe he is quite capable of protecting her, don't you?"
The man swallowed. "Yes, general."
Iroh nodded and began to lead Katara up the busy streets that made the Fire Nation capital city. He pointed out various vendors and shopping districts and particularly good fire flake kiosks, no doubt to welcome her to the city in his own way. Yet despite his comforting presence, what awaited her at the palace ebbed at her mind, keeping her distracted.
She started. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I asked if you'd like to get some tea before we return to the palace. I know the nicest little place—not as good as The Jasmine Dragon, of course—"
"Tea sounds wonderful," she interrupted with a sigh of relief.
Once they were seated and served, Iroh noticed Katara had touched neither her tea nor her pastry. "I am sorry about this, Katara," he said, patting her hand. "If I'd had a say—"
She shook her head, feigning a smile. "It's fine. I'm fine, really. It was a long journey, that's all."
Iroh pursed his lips as he searched her face. "I do not believe you," he said finally.
She shrugged but could no longer meet his eye. "I will do what I must for my people."
Sympathy filled the old man's eyes, and he squeezed her hand gently.
Observing that he had finished his tea, she rubbed her palms over her knees nervously. "Shall we go?"
"There's no rush—"
"I think," she said, "I'd rather just get it over with. If you don't mind, that is."
Iroh stood, again offering her his arm as they made their way down the last stretch of street to the palace. The large gates of the entrance opened at their arrival. Guards, lining the path and stairs, bowed as they passed. She suddenly felt as if she needed the support of his arm as he shot a stream of fire into the pneumatic pipes that kept the palace of the Fire Nation sealed.
"You're to see the Fire Lord in the throne room before you settle in your rooms," he said, almost apologetically.
She nodded, afraid of what might come out if she opened her mouth.
"Shall I accompany you?" he asked as they stood outside the golden doors of the throne room.
She began to shake her head, then hesitated. "If you could just…not leave."
He patted her arm before releasing her. "Of course. I'll be right here when you're ready. Remember, his council is with him at the moment. Try to forgive him if he treats you with…offhandedness."
Katara bristled. She did not come all this way to be treated with "offhandedness." But she asked, "What am I to do?"
"Do not look around as you walk in. Kneel and bow to the Fire Lord, but do not press your forehead to the floor—you are considered royalty and therefore more of an equal than a lesser. Then you bow respectfully to the council, who will bow in return. The Fire Lord should instruct you from there."
"Are you all right?"
No. "I will be."
Iroh gave her a sad smile. "I'm so sorry, child. You are very strong."
Not strong enough to get myself out of this mess.
He opened the throne room doors for her and she walked in alone. In her peripheral, she could see the council of about twenty men seated on cushions on both sides of the dais, looking down their haughty noses at her; but she kept her eyes on said dais and the man seated on it. She was somewhat relieved that the wall of flames was up; she didn't have to meet his eyes. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she knelt, and did everything exactly as Iroh had instructed. Then she waited…for what felt like forever.
Finally, she felt the flames before her recede and heard footsteps as the Fire Lord stepped down the raised dais. A hand was put in front of her face and she grabbed it, allowing him to help her to her feet.
"Lady Katara," Zuko addressed her, kissing her knuckles and bowing. "Thank you for coming. I trust your travels were comfortable?"
"They were, thank you."
She thought she heard him sigh. "Good. I'm glad."
She finally looked up to meet his gaze and found the look they held hesitant, wary, and guarded.
A member of the council spoke up. "And where is Chief Hakoda?" Another member nodded in accordance.
She saw Zuko's jaw clench before she answered. "My father was making last-minute arrangements when I left. He wanted everything in order but thought it best for me to arrive as scheduled. He, and the rest of his party, shouldn't be too far behind me."
"This is…very unexpected. His arrival should have been—"
Katara barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes. Politics, she could deal with; politicians, on the other hand….
"Enough," Zuko barked. "Lady Katara has had a long journey. She can answer any remaining questions you have later. You have seen she has arrived safely and in good health; I know this was, of course, your main concern. That should ease your worries for now, at least. Besides, you were all given notice of her party's delayed arrival when her letter came, informing us of this occurrence. And the letter from Chief Hakoda himself that affirmed her claim and sent his apologies."
None of them refuted his claim. Zuko seemed satisfied with their silence. "You are dismissed."
Mumbling under their breath, the men of the council shuffled out, and the grand door slammed loudly behind them.
An awkward essence filled the air and she hesitantly turned toward Zuko. Immediately, she was struck by the memory of the last time they had seen each other: she had laughingly rushed across the room to greet him, throwing her arms around his neck.
How times had changed.
Zuko seemed just as uncomfortable, rubbing the back of his neck nervously.
"Thank you for coming," he said quietly after too much silence had passed.
She bit her cheek. "You said that already."
He dropped his hand. "Yes, well…."
"So, is there a schedule for this week?" She blurted the first thing that came to mind. "I know my family is not here yet but—"
"There is, but you have time to settle first."
She swallowed. "I don't know your traditions," she said, jumping right in.
"I'll make sure you receive instruction. Should I…would you like me to escort you to your rooms? I'm sure you're tired after your long journey."
She wasn't, not really, but she didn't want to waste her time with more uncomfortable small talk. "Please." She hesitated. "Um, before…before we procede…what should I call you?"
He angled his head.
"I mean…I've always just called you…you've always been Zuko."
His brow lifted in understanding. "Well, Fire Lord in public. Zuko in private is fine."
Katara nearly choked as she processed the word "private."
Zuko looked away and cleared his throat. "I'll show you to your rooms."
They walked across the palace in silence, Katara keeping her head down, avoiding the eyes of guards and servants. Finally, they arrived at a set of double doors and he pushed them open.
She stepped into the room, trying to mask at least some of her awe.
"I hope it's suitable."
"It's beautiful," she said. "Thank you."
He hesitated. "These…are only temporary."
"Temporary?" she echoed, her brow furrowed.
He struggled to hold her gaze. "Until the wedding," he proceeded cautiously.
Katara still had to think for a moment before she realized what he was saying. "Oh," she whispered.
He nodded, but it seemed like he wanted to say something more.
"What is it?"
He sighed and ran a hand down his face. "I…really don't know what to say to you."
"'Thank you' isn't nearly enough. I mean—"
"Maybe we could discuss this later…at length," she suggested. "There are still details that haven't been clarified."
He nodded. "Dinner. Tonight."
"We can…catch up, as well."
"It is good to see you, despite the circumstances."
She looked up at him earnestly. "It's good to see you, too."
"Make yourself at home. If you need anything, and I mean anything, it's yours. Just ask a servant. You'll meet your ladies-in-waiting soon, but until then there will be a servant posted outside your door.
"I've got work to see to; I must go. I'll see you at dinner, then."
"Zuko, wait. Do…do they—the servants—know?"
"That…that I'm…we…I'm going to be…."
Realization dawned on his face. "That you're their future Fire Lady? Yes, they know."
She nodded and hugged herself.
"Again, I'm sorry about this, Ka—"
She held up her hand. "I know you're busy. We'll talk at dinner."
He seemed to hesitate before he nodded and left the room—her room.
Katara could only stand in lonely silence, staring as the doors closed her into her new life.
Zuko, sorting through endless piles of paperwork, was fighting a headache when his uncle strode into his office.
"Where is Lady Katara?"
Zuko set down his pen. "I took her to her rooms."
"You 'took' her?" he asked disbelievingly.
"I escorted her, all right? I was the perfect gentleman."
"I can be civil, you know."
"You need to be more than civil to that young woman."
Iroh seated himself across from Zuko and reached to pour himself a cup of tea. "You're handling this better than I expected."
Zuko pushed his papers aside with a grunt; Uncle wouldn't be leaving any time soon.
"Do you disagree?"
"How am I supposed to be handling this? A month ago, I wasn't even…. I mean…."
"What is wrong, Nephew?"
"She's my friend, that's what's wrong. We're not supposed…she's not supposed to be my…."
"Your wife?" he offered.
Zuko stood abruptly and turned to face the window. "Yes," he said quietly.
"Zuko, you are the leader of a great nation. As such, it will require you to make sacrifices."
He scoffed. "Sacrifices? Haven't I made enough sacrifices? And what about her? It's not her country and yet she is making sacrifices for me."
"Katara is making her own sacrifices for her own reasons, not yours. Maybe you shouldn't view this as a sacrifice at all, if that's how you truly see it. View it as an opportunity; or, better yet, a blessing."
Zuko turned, a skeptic lift to his eyebrow. "A blessing? How can forcing myself and one of my best friends into an arranged, political marriage be a blessing?"
"For that reason exactly: she is your friend, not a stranger or a women you would not be able to get along with. And you could do a lot worse than Katara; you know it's true.
"Nephew…do you know what this marriage will require of you—of the both of you?"
"Are you speaking of an heir?"
Iroh seemed to squirm under the directness of his response. "Among other things, but yes."
"Yes, we both know what is required of us."
"I don't want to discuss sleeping with my wife with you, Uncle, I'm sorry. Let's not go there."
"That's not what I meant—"
"I know!" Zuko sighed and leaned against his desk, holding his face in his hands. "I know."
Iroh let Zuko compose himself before he spoke again. "I know this is not an easy decision, but I think you are handling yourself admirably. I am very proud of both you and Katara, and I can only pray your marriage is filled with happiness."
"Thanks," Zuko said dryly.
"Uncle, if you don't mind, I'd really just like some quiet for now."
Iroh pursed his lips, hesitating. "All right."
Zuko sighed and sat back down at his desk. "Thank you."
Iroh stood to leave, but stopped, not uncharacteristically, to pass on a last piece of sage wisdom before leaving. "This will all work out. You will see. You cannot always see the sun, but you always know it's there."
He found the strength not to roll his eyes until after his uncle had left him alone in his office. "Sun," he muttered to himself, reaching for a pile of papers. "Too bad I'm marrying the Ice Queen."
Zuko stood as Katara was escorted into the dining room, and sat as she did.
She looked about nervously. "Where's Iroh?"
"He was supposed to join us, but I was informed he retired early for the evening."
Katara nodded but muttered, "Convenient."
Zuko barely hid his smirk. "My sentiments exactly." He set his wine glass down. "I think there are a few things we need to discuss."
She looked at him. "You don't want to eat first?"
"I thought you'd appreciate getting this over with. If not, we can—"
"No, I do. I just thought I'd at least…try to be diplomatic."
"The effort is appreciated."
"You're welcome. I should start practicing, shouldn't I?" she asked wryly.
He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand. "Wait, before you start, let's agree to this: no apologizing. I know this is not the ideal situation. I know that this is something we wouldn't have chosen for ourselves. But it is what it is. We both know what we have to do, and we're both willing to do it. So do not tell me you're 'sorry' for 'getting me into this.' I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be."
Zuko stared at Katara as she became the hardheaded, stubborn Water Tribe girl he had always known for the first time since her arrival. He nodded. "I can agree to that."
She nodded. "Now…you may proceed."
Quirking a brow, he barely restrained himself from sarcastically thanking her. "Well, I didn't know how much of the, um, contract that was drawn up you were aware of, so I had a copy compiled for you."
She took the proffered scroll. "Thank you."
"What else should I know?"
"Tomorrow, you'll start lessons on traditional Fire Nation etiquette and marriage rituals. Around noon, we're going to be introducing you to the city. It's a large affair, but all we have to do is show up; I give a short speech; we stand together, wave; and then we leave. Three days before the wedding, we won't be permitted to see each other."
He cleared his throat. "It is thought to bring bad luck upon the impending marriage. Also…reasons of duty and…virtue."
Katara's face flamed and she looked away. Even though virtue wouldn't be a problem in this situation, she could not prevent her reaction. "Oh." Distractedly, she unfurled the scroll and began reading over it. "This…is a lot," she stated, her eyes growing wide as they scanned the small script.
He leaned back in his chair and somehow managed not to sigh. "I know."
She snapped it shut, lacking the effort or desire to roll the parchment back up. "Can you give me some of the important details, at least?"
He started to reply, but she continued to speak. "I resent the fact that I've been traded so flippantly and have remained pointedly left out of the arrangements involved. I feel like—"
"Like an animal being sold at market? I can't imagine what that feels like."
She looked up and found his gaze cold and sober. Shame washed over her. "I'm sorry. That was insensitive of me."
"Um, so…the contract?"
He drummed his fingers on the table. "We're to get married. Since the cultures are different, they're sort of…blending them for the marriage arrangements."
"For instance: your family will be giving…I guess they'll be giving me your dowry, but in exchange your family will be receiving a bridewealth. It kind of…cancels all that out. That's the most significant 'blending' occurring, and believe it or not it took my council and your tribe a week to come up with the exchange as a solution. The contract outlines the specifics of it all. It will be, however, a traditional Fire Nation wedding ceremony." He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand as he thought. "You're given full title of Fire Lady at the time of our marriage and you'll be crowned at the conclusion of the ceremony."
"Is that all?" she asked when he stopped.
"No. With the marriage, the Fire Nation will sign a new peace agreement with the Water Tribe—both the Northern and Southern tribes. However, we could not leave the Earth Kingdom out of the whole arrangement—they are already incensed enough with a unification that excludes them—so we will be signing a peace agreement with the Earth Kingdom, as well. It's all outlined in the contract. Also…we're…to have a son within the first three years."
Katara started and stared at him with wide eyes. "W-what?"
He wouldn't meet her eyes. "Consider it an improvement. The original contract had us providing an heir within the first year, but it was decided that a male heir would be best. So we were allotted an additional two years."
She was baffled. "It was decided…? And what if our first child isn't a boy? Am I just expected to give birth—are we expected to just turn out children—until we have a son?"
He was clearly uncomfortable with this line of questioning, shifting in his seat and avoiding her eye. "I think it's more of a suggestion than an actual demand. There's nothing they can do if a son is not produced."
Katara was getting lost in her emotions but managed to catch herself before she could put her foot in her mouth and assure him that she would give him a son. What am I thinking? Spirits, I'm about to marry Zuko. I'm to give him a son. That means…. She hoped her face wasn't as red as it felt. Her elbow on the table, she rested her head in her hand for a moment before finally speaking. "I'm sorry for overreacting. It's—"
"A lot to process, I know. It's all right."
She stared at her plate of untouched food, willing the tears stinging her eyes to go away. No, it wasn't all right. "Is…is there anything else? Anything else major?" she managed to ask quietly.
"No. The rest is just political formalities."
Zuko watched her push her food around on her plate aimlessly and bit his cheek to keep quiet. He wanted to say something—she had been burdened with too much this day, thanks to him—but what would he say? There was nothing that could be said. There weren't enough "thank-yous" or "I'm sorrys" in the world to express how he truly felt; besides, they had agreed not to apologize anymore.
"Is the food not…suitable?" he asked.
She started, as if snapped from a reverie. "What? I—No, the food…it's fine. I'm just…not hungry, I guess. I kind of…. Would you mind if I turned in early? Today was long, and I'm really—"
He shook his head and placed his napkin over his plate. "Of course not. I will escort you to your rooms."
She sighed and smiled slightly. "Thank you." She stood and took his proffered arm, following him out of the dining room. They walked down the quiet halls in silence. The palace seemed empty, but she knew better. The palace was never empty.
Zuko cleared his throat, as if slightly uncomfortable. "I was thinking…tomorrow, I could give you a tour of the palace, if you'd like. I should have done it earlier today, but I didn't think about it."
"Oh, well…you don't have to. I know you're busy. Besides, I remember the palace from before…sort of."
"There have been some renovations over the past few years. I'd be more comfortable knowing you were familiar with the layout of the palace. At least the important parts."
She nodded. "All right. I'd like that."
The uncomfortable silence settled upon them again as they made their way to her rooms. Her hand was still in the crook of his arm, and his skin was hot beneath her fingers, even through the thick, expensive material of his robes. She could feel the heat rolling off him as if he was the sun itself.
She tried to memorize their path, so he wouldn't have to "escort" her after every meal, but the palace was bigger than she remembered; after rounding a few corners, she was already lost. Finally, though, they arrived at the familiar doors of her room, and she extricated her hand from his grip.
"Will you join me for breakfast tomorrow?" he asked her.
"Of course," she replied without hesitation.
"It will be in the same dining room. Uncle usually joins me, but we'll see if it fits into his schemes tomorrow."
She allowed herself to smile slightly. "Well, there are two things you can always count on: Uncle's schemes and his tea."
Despite himself, Zuko smiled, too. "Yes, well…that is true."
She glanced at the floor nervously before looking up at him. "Well…goodnight.
"Goodnight, Katara. Sleep well."
"You, too, Zuko."
They stood there together, engulfed by an awfully uncomfortable silence. Finally, he just inclined his head in a respectful bow, and she took that as a sign that she could retreat into her room. "I'll see you in the morning," she said.
He nodded and waited until she shut herself into her room before he turned on his heel and headed to his own. His uncle met him in the hall halfway there.
"Ah, there you are, Nephew!"
Zuko sighed. He was too tired to put up with Iroh's antics tonight. "You knew where I was, Uncle. Besides, I thought you'd turned in for the night."
"Oh, well, you know how it is…too many things on my mind to sleep."
"I'm sure," Zuko mumbled under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Look, Uncle, I have a very long day tomorrow, and I'm very tired. Whatever it is you need from me, it can wait till tomorrow. You can meet me at breakfast?"
"Will Lady Katara be joining you for breakfast?" he asked, a curious brow lifted.
"Uh—" Zuko hesitated before swiftly lying, "No. No, she will not. She's meeting with her ladies-in-waiting."
Iroh's frown of disappointment was immediate. "Oh. Well then, Nephew, I will see you at breakfast."
Zuko had difficulty hiding his smirk. "Sleep well, Uncle." He watched the older man retreat towards his room, a plot obviously still fresh on his mind, before he, finally, reached the solitude of his own room. Sleep had never sounded more promising.
Unfortunately, his mind was alight with thoughts, preventing sleep. He tossed and turned for nearly an hour before he rolled out of bed and alternated between pacing, push-ups, and meditation. Nothing seemed to help. He could feel the sun begin its ascent when he sat on the edge of his bed, pressing his fists to his eyes.
At times—times like this—he truly believed a democracy would be a much better method of ruling than a monarchy or oligarchy—for he believed the government of the Fire Nation fell into both categories at times. So much pressure on one person is perhaps what had driven past Fire Lords into war-crazed fits; it was too much for one mortal being to handle. Not only did he have the responsibility to his people, but he also had to maintain the façade of fearlessness and supremacy. In theory, he was to be god-like—untouchable. But he was just a man, just one man, no greater than any other. He had just been born into his position; it had purely been a matter of chance, a random choice of the life-granting spirits.
Yet here he was, having another responsibility being thrust upon him: a wife. And, soon after her, children. Dear Agni. Was he really expected to rule a nation, command an army and navy, maintain peace between three untrusting, unstable nations, and take on a wife, all the while keeping his topknot kempt and his crown polished? Was that even possible? His father hadn't been able to do it, not without banishing his own wife, scarring his son, and driving himself as well as his daughter into irreparable madness…not to mention the fact that his nation crumbled beneath his feet. What made him think he would be any different? Could do any different?
As the day's first light crept into his room, he supposed only time would tell.