The click of her shoes echoed down the corridor of the long hallway. Odd how different it was from the sound of soft crunching snow under boots. The time spent in the great halls of the Fire Nation hadn't made Katara immune to the differences. The council of the Fire Nation was not like the democratic council of her home, but perhaps that was a good thing, all things considered.
Giving a sideways glance to the man beside her, and noting the way his jaw was set, she decided to speak. "You could let me come in with you." It wasn't quite the casual request she had hoped it would be.
The Fire Lord looked down at her with a sigh. Katara knew that he hated diplomacy and frequently would ask her to step in. Together, they were both better at holding their tempers than they were apart. And yet, here he was, about to go on without her. "Why would we elevate their pettiness to a viable level with you there?"
"Then why are you agreeing to meet with them?"
"Unfortunately," Zuko said, glaring at the ornate door, "a Lord needs his cabinet to get things done. When they refuse to do things, like ensure that resources are adequately being distributed, the Fire Lord must step in." The cloud over his face continued to darken.
"Zuko, you don't have to do this alone. In fact, the Fire Nation is exceptionally welcoming to a woman's presence. There are even several—"
"Katara," a hint of a smile twitched across her husband's face as he interrupted her, "If I let you in there, the Fire Lady may just kill her husband's cabinet and she might get locked up next to Azula."
"I—" There was no comeback for that threat. She huffed at him for good measure.
His fingers played with the hair around her face before trailing down her shoulders. The brief look of tenderness in his face was the last anyone would gain from him for a while. "Go make a more glorious fountain while I deal with the tedium beyond this door."
Katara did no more than glare at the imposing Fire Lord. She would swear she saw him swallow a chuckle before schooling his face into nearly impassive stone. As he reached for the door, his scarred side turned toward her and while his face was unreadable, the scar made him fearsome. She watched him slip through the door and heard him say, "Let's get this foolishness over with. I have more important things to do than listen to your whining."
His heavy boots fell across the chamber as the member of his cabinet sent up a protest at their Lord's words. Likely none of them thought they were foolish for continuing to debate the validity of their ruler's marriage. She traced Zuko's path to his chair at the head of the table in her mind's eye. He would not look at anyone on his path, letting them stand and watch him instead. Only before he sat would he take a long glance around, reminding them of his place and theirs.
The door closed slowly, revealing the detailed carvings of the glorious exploits of Roku and Sozin. After hearing the stories, Katara often wondered why Sozin had left it after his hand in his old friend's death. Zuko liked to believe that whatever happened between the two men, Sozin had always loved Roku. They had been brothers once. It was a bond that could not be broken.
The scraping of chairs was met with an elongated silence. Katara leaned against the wall, glad she had stuffed a small wedge under between the door, giving her an opportunity to hear every word. None would notice but Zuko who would understand. She strained to hear what was going on and was met with the faint sound of shuffling papers.
"My Lord," Katara heard Zina, the council's leader, begin, "The council has some serious concerns about the union between you and the Lady."
"She's not a lady; she's a peasant," a mutter came to Katara's straining ears.
The words were too familiar here in Capitol City. She had been a peasant when she'd first come through the Gates of Sozin. Time had passed and Zuko and the Avatar gained popularity in the main seat of the Fire Nation. Zuko had restored the Fire Sages to their rightful place, as his grandfather and great-grandfather likely would have enjoyed. They had taken to her, as the waterbender who had trained the Avatar. When she had stopped following Aang, they'd brought her into their temple and had allowed her to gain an ambassadorship to the Fire Nation.
Which had helped clear the path to her ultimate happiness. Still, many people of the aristocracy thought she was beneath the Fire Lord.
A fist pounded on the table, likely Zuko's. They'd made the mistake of catching his temper early. They might see themselves' cleared out before the hour was up. "My wife is your Lady and you will watch your tongue or I will see you leave Capitol City." She couldn't help the smile that curved her lips as she rested against the cool stone. Katara brought a hand up to rest on her stomach as Zuko's words settled into her heart.
"My Lord, what Shizu means—"
"I know well what he means," Zuko interrupted dismissively, noting the open door from his seat at the head of the table, "don't count me for a fool."
He would need to gain control of the room to prevent an outburst from his lady, waterbending master she may be, Katara had a temper and pride befitting her title. "We have had these debates before. You already agreed to my marriage. The Fire Sages performed it true to the form of our customs and I have seen to quite a few of my wife's customs." He brought to mind the carved stone that lay around his wife's neck. "There is no breaking it."
"An annulment can be had," Shizu muttered.
Zuko's head turned to focus on his least favorite councilor, thoughts of his favorite topic blown from his mind. "Pardon," he said, his voice going icy.
Shizu continued, apparently unaware of the danger he was putting himself in. "She is not suitable. She does not hold herself as a member of the Royal Fire Lord family should. She is frequently interacting with the general population; she is from the South Pole and was once nearly betrothed to the Avatar."
Carefully controlling his breathing so as not to ignite the room, Zuko asked, "Is she a simple peasant from the South Pole or is she the woman once deemed worthy of the Avatar?"
"He decided he did not want her." Chin said with great distain.
Eyes flashed with fire at that comment. "She decided she did not want him." She chose me. It was the one chink that had come in his and Aang's friendship since the days he searched for the Avatar as a way back into these very halls. Aang was not one to hold a grudge for long, however. "Am I so far below the Avatar that a woman he chose is not suitable for me?"
"That is not it, Sir."
"From what I have just heard, my wife is a woman of great distinction whom the people love. What more could you ask for?"
Zina cleared her throat, "There is the matter, my Lord, of heirs."
"Oh, is that all," He leaned back in his chair and looked over all of them, "Heirs." Of all their concerns, the matter of children was the key point they thought they were going to sell him getting rid of his wife on.
"What if they are not firebenders?" Raiko pointed out. " They cannot lead our nation."
"My ancestors are both Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin," Zuko growled at the council. "Do you doubt my linages' ability to lead our nation?"
"Your highness, a mixed ethnicity child could be a grave mistake."
His eyes narrowed and he dropped to the stone voice that he had heard his father use many times, added in a little of his wife's ice. "My father thought me a great mistake and nearly threw me off a wall. You could be sitting before Azula," he added, heat infusing his voice and eyes, "Be grateful."
A few began to open their mouths to speak. Zuko waved a hand to dismiss the voices down his long wooden table. They at least respected him this much. Not quite enough to keep from suggesting that he should cast aside his wife for her inability to bear children. Or her inability to sleep with her husband, it was hard to tell what they thought the problem was.
Luckily, there was no such problem within his marriage. "And there is no need to worry about an heir. My lady is already carrying the next Fire Lord." At their stunned faces, he let his mouth curve into a smirk. "You may congratulate her in three weeks when we hold the announcement ceremony. Until then, steer clear of my wife."
The old ways were something Zuko picked and chose what he wanted to do in this new regime. Neither he nor Katara stood much on ceremony. That being said, his people did. What better way to continue their love for their Fire Lady than with the joyous announcement of the coming of the next Fire Lord? That and it frequently struck the old aristocracy where it hurt.
Seeing that none had recovered their power of speech, Zuko pushed his seat back and stood. He enjoyed watching as the men and women who comprised his cabinet scrambled to catch up with what had happened to their plans to annul the greatest union, in Zuko's mind, the Nation had ever seen for its leaders. "I will leave you to your duties. We will meet tomorrow to discuss the affairs of the nation rather than mine."
A smirk greeted him as he walked out of the chamber and Zuko took a minute to take in her form. How could anyone not see this woman's worth? She was clearly straining not to laugh as he ensured the door shut firmly behind him. As soon as he did, "A man from your lineage," burst from her lips, laughter evident.
Clearly his wife was not thinking as kind thoughts of him. "Katara."
"How could you not produce fine babies!?" She continued to tease, "Why are they worried?"
Zuko nodded at her statement and smiled down at her. "We will make fine babies, and you know it." He dropped his lips to hers. "How could we not?"
Katara's eyes narrowed on him. "You said you."
Her words caused a ripple of pride. Her pride was a compliment to his own and she had been insulted, in spite of her light, teasing nature. "They're not sure you're worthy," he reminded her in a bored tone, tugging at one of her hair loops, gaining a deeper scowl in return. "Had you not been pregnant, we might be getting an annulment right now."
There were times when her husband's humor made Katara want to use her ice bending to chill his Fire Nation blood. Rather than actually injuring him, she went with a chilling stare. "Over your dead body."
Rather than having any ill effects, her husband laughed and kissed her on the mouth. "Your care for my well-being is impressive."
Knowing he was angrier with his council than he was letting on, Katara allowed herself to be taken under Zuko's arm and pulled in close to his warmth. She took his hand from her shoulder and brought it down so it rested around the side of her stomach. Glancing up, Katara caught the smile meant for her as his fingers played over the edge of her belly.
Sometimes, Katara wonders if making the choice to be with Zuko is worth the constant struggle. As easy as it is to be with him when they're alone, the world is far harder to navigate. The prejudices both of their cultures held against one another, the feelings of their fathers (even if Zuko doesn't respect Ozai) and the need to keep the Fire Nation kingdom on their side. Keeping everything in the air became exhausting.
Were they selfish by bringing a child into this tenuous situation? The Fire Lord needed an heir. She longed to be a mother and raise her children as her mother did. Zuko, she knew, felt conflicted. His fears of becoming his father had weighed heavy on him since taking the throne. Not to mention how much she knew Zuko would love this child to be a fire bender.
Once they're safely inside their private wing of the palace, Katara nudged him with her elbow and looked up until he glanced down to her. "An announcement ceremony?" she asked, hoping that he can find a way to take it back. Perhaps she can be 'ill' and need to be out of public sight for the duration of her pregnancy. "Really?"
The sigh is audible and she knows he dislikes these things as much as she. "It is tradition for the children of the royal family to be announced to the nation. We must give the aristocracy something as well as the councilors. Much like the wedding, we cannot shirk all of the ornamentation of the throne."
Katara thought of their beautiful wedding. It had been full of light and a warmth she had grown to enjoy. Cool treats had kept her from overheating in her traditional Fire Nation robes of white and red while they completed the words that had been spoken by so many who came before and danced under the lights of the courtyard.
"Besides, you are much beloved by the people of the Nation for your benevolence and judiciousness. They'll appreciate a chance to celebrate you."
Katara turned to Zuko where he was changing from his formal robes into his more casual tunic. She raised an eyebrow and gaped. "Beloved?"
"The aristocracy is threatened but the rest…" Zuko thought for a moment, then smiled at her gently, "They much enjoy the new world order we're ushering in."
Letting her hair out of her top knot so it lay lose around her face, she glanced him through the mirror. "Do you truly think so?"
He padded across the floor to her and Katara enjoyed watching him make his way to her. Even in the privacy of their room, Zuko was purposeful in his motions. The fearsome Fire Lord, benevolent in comparison to who came before, half of his face burnt into a scar that resembled the layers of a flame, coming towards her against the backdrop of the mural he had had commissioned for them when she'd agreed to marry him. The waves and the shore met with a crash behind him, while the volcano rose out from the island.
Zuko moved her hair out of the way and placed a kiss at the base of her neck. "Have you not heard of the new play coming up that is based on our love story? The Dragon Lord and the Water Spirit. It's supposed to be very romantic."
Poking him playfully, Katara feigned disappointment. "And you've not taken me?"
A contemplative look crossed her husband's face. "I'm not sure it is worthy of our story."
Turning, she smiled at him, thinking of the first play they had attended. "Neither was The Boy In The Iceberg but we saw that anyways."
"We'll investigate," he answered in the tone that lets her know he's already moving off to the next thought. Without fail, Zuko moves back to the conversation they'd already been having. "As I was saying, in a few weeks we will have the announcement ceremony, after we write to Uncle and ensure he will come, and then we will take a trip to the South Pole."
"What?" she asked, trying to understand what was going on.
Zuko frowned at her and she couldn't quite figure out why. "Did you think I would not respect your own traditions regarding pregnancy?" The frown deepened as he continued. "I'm sure there is something that your Grandmother would curse me for if I did not bring you home for a visit."
There likely was. Sending a missive home to her family about the impending child but without allowing them to be a part of her pregnancy or the child's life would break their hearts. It would have broken hers but she did not even have to ask for her wish to be given. Zuko was granting It without a word spoken between them.
The necklace, Katara thought, her hands curving around the mix of blue and red jade with the obsidian bits of rock and steam where the two met and created more than they were apart. He had carved it for her, even melding the different stones together without a word. How her younger self reacted with surprise every time Zuko's true nature surfaced. Would he ever stop surprising her?
"There are several honoring ceremonies and things expected to guarantee a strong baby," she said, thinking back to her days as a midwife with Gran-Gran. Zuko watched her as she explained, and she hoped he didn't find her too provincial. "Herbs and such, a ritual sacrifice and," she paused, unsure of continuing, but forges ahead because nothing ever worked out between them when one held back, "often some bending to help encourage harmony with waterbending."
Zuko pursed his lips and Katara could see the hint of fear in his eyes. "I see."
"But we can skip those," she blurted before he could say anything else. Not wanting to see his relief, she turned to look out the window. Zuko had chosen the region of the palace closest to the gardens and ponds for their personal suites. The turtle ducks waddled towards the pond, turtle ducklings following behind.
Tears pricked at her eyes, thinking of how her own children would be with her, following her just like those turtle ducklings. To her it did not matter what her child could do, but to the nation it most certainly did. To Zuko, she was still unsure.
Hands landed on her shoulders and she felt the strong squeeze before they began to turn her. "Katara, I will love this child no matter what it bends, or if it bends at all."
"Zuko, your council wasn't wrong. The baby will not be a viable leader if he or she cannot bend fire. As a byproduct, we might not be taken seriously either."
He rolled his eyes at her words. "I'm sure the Fire Sages will be perfectly insufferable on the matter of how to improve the chances of birthing a firebender. Agni's sake, if I go to Ozai, I'm sure he'll have the list he used on my mother in her gravidity."
"We'll have to tell Ozai eventually, or he'll find out." The cloud that was often heavy with water and smoke settled over his head for a moment, and Katara paused to see if he needed help muddling through it.
Instead he shook his head and turned to her again, eyes full of purpose. "Katara, we will announce our child to our nation, and we will listen to the oppressive advice of the Fire Sages and you will end up drinking entirely too much of Uncle's tea. Once we've satisfied them, we will horrify them by taking you home to your family." She shared his smile at that prospect, already thinking of Gran-Gran, Sokka and her father awaiting them.
Zuko wrapped her in his arms and put his head against hers. "Then perhaps a secluded vacation at Ember Island before the baby is born. A summer baby," he said almost wistfully.
She leaned back to angle her head and look at his face. "Summer is the season of fire."
Zuko's eyes searched hers, looking for answers. "Who are you trying to convince that our child will be a firebender?"
"You. I'm already fairly certain."
A ghost of a smile turns up Zuko's lips. "Well, only a foolish man doesn't listen to his wife's council. You should take a swim in the pond, and I'll meditate out the energy the council has left me with. Best for the baby if neither of us is bothered."
A breeze ruffled her loose hair as they stepped into their private portion of the garden. In a few months' time, they would be bringing their child out here to watch the turtle ducks and his or her parents bend their elements. Obstacles aside, their private happiness was something none could take from them.