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September 10th, the 2165th year of the Age of the Avatar

Zuko looked into the faces of his advisors, friendly and foul, and was reminded again about the reality of Fire Nation politics.  Most of this group of men hated him.  They hated that he had ended the war, and they hated all the changes he was making.  He could not trust them, but he needed their support.  Through their estates and assets, they indirectly controlled the Fire Nation, and could bring the economy down around his ears.  Not that it wasn't already in shambles…he sighed wearily.  He had just accepted the post of Fire Lord and he was already weary.

His gaze settled on his uncle, on his right, talking quietly with Jee.  They were the only two he knew for sure he could trust.  He prayed that more would prove to be truly on his side, but for now it was just those two.  Jee, who had watched him grow from a naïve child into a selfish and angry teenager, and had seen him again months later as an adult.  And Iroh, who had been his father for so long.  There was no man in the world he trusted more.  

This would be a war of words, far more complex than any war fought on battlefields.  It would be fought in meetings, with cordial speech, masking alternative motives, and secrets.  And what's more, there would be no winners, only losers and survivors who would continue smiling and warring.

"Fire Lord Zuko."

Zuko turned to the speaker, an older man who had an estate slightly north of the capital.  He had a large family, a coal mine, and lots of money.

"Because you are making such drastic changes so soon in your rule, you should do something to give the people some sense of familiarity.  They need to be reassured that not everything is changing, and that our great Nation will still be the same as the one they've known."

"What do you suggest?"

"Every Fire Lord or steward thus far has had a wife.  There are many eligible young ladies at court—"

Zuko caught sight of his uncle, who was shooting a poisonous glare at the man who was speaking.  Unaware, he plowed on, and every other man at the table was perking up at the possibility of being grandfather to the next Fire Lord.

Zuko scowled.  They were a bunch of power-hungry bastards, searching for favor, and so were most of the girls that were on their minds.  

"Fire Lord Zuko is dealing with more than most new Fire Lords have had to," Iroh was saying.  Zuko heard the dangerous undertone of his voice, which was telling the man to shut up now.  "He has inherited a ruin of a Nation, which has been destroyed by a war it started.  At the same time, he is trying to become accustomed to his new role.  He does not need the stress of a new marriage as well."

"The responsibilities of the Fire Lady have always been in domestic affairs.  She would help by reducing the Fire Lord's list of responsibilities."

Zuko felt like a little boy who watched his parents argue about who he should be allowed to play with.  He listened to them shoot arguments back and forth a few more times before ending it.  "Enough," he finally said.  The lords fell silent.  "I will consider all that you have said, and we shall discuss the matter at our next meeting, in three days.  Now, the matter of how to split the lands of the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation."  The conversation moved away from the Fire Lord's marriage, but his thoughts did not.  
Three hours later, the men filed out of the room, and Iroh and Zuko retreated to the Fire Lord's private study for tea.

"You don't have to get married, Zuko."

"Maybe they're right."

"A new marriage is more stressful than your added duties.  And a harried Fire Lords makes mistakes.  Besides, the two of you would be expected to conceive almost immediately."

"Would it benefit the Fire Nation?"

Iroh considered his answer carefully.  "It would show the people that not everything will change, that is true.  It would give you another trusted advisor, assuming you chose a girl who had the Fire Nation's best interests at heart, not just her family's.  You would have an heir, even if he was just a baby, should something happen to you.  But like I said, an overly-stressed Fire Lord makes mistakes.  Being stretched thin is a part of this life, but add so many things at once and you may break."  Iroh lowered his teacup.  "You have someone in mind.  Mai?"

Zuko shook his head.  "Katara."

That stopped the elderly man dead in his tracks.  "Are you…insane?  Zuko, I knew the two of you were developing feelings for each other, but I assumed you saw the political damage your marriage would cause."

"I love her," Zuko said defensively.

Iroh was sorely tempted to cuff him, as if he was a boy again.  He had thought that Zuko had learned to think, but evidently not.  "You are the Fire Lord.  When you accepted that title, you surrendered all privileges to be stupid and selfish.  Too many people hate you; they say you went to war against your own Nation.  If you marry a foreign peasant, you will be usurped and the war will only be reignited."

"It would solidify an alliance between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes."

"She is a peasant, not a princess.  Yes, I know she's daughter of the chief, but the tribe is so small that it makes no political difference.  And even if it did, it's the Northern Tribe you'd need the alliance with.  They have the political power of the Water Tribes."

Zuko seemed to be out of arguments.  

"Zuko, you'd be putting her in great danger.  Your children would be called half-breed abominations.  They would be constantly targets of traditionalist assassination attempts.   Not to mention that Azula is spirits-know-where, and would enjoy nothing more than to destroy all you love.  We haven't seen the last of her, but your marriage to Katara would only antagonize her further."

"I'm done being afraid of Azula."

"And I'm proud of you for that, but would you knowingly put Katara in harm's way?"

"Katara is the most powerful waterbender in the world.  She trained the Avatar."

"Politicians are a different kind of enemy, ones Katara has never learned to fight.  For that matter, she's never had any kind of political education.  She'd get eaten alive in this snake pit."

"I could teach her, protect her."

"I thought a wife was supposed to take some of the responsibilities that you have right now, not add to them."

Zuko glared at his uncle.  "I love her," he said again.

Iroh sighed.  "My boy, love does not solve everything, although we like to think it does.  And you are only sixteen, she is fifteen.  This decision is for the rest of your life (however short that may be).  Do not be hasty about it."

"I'm not."

The two looked at each for a long time before Iroh shook his head, defeated.  "You are a terrible politician, Zuko.  A good man, but a terrible politician."  

Zuko knew that his uncle was not agreeing him, just acknowledging that he could not change his mind.  "If Ozai and Azula were good politicians, then thank you."

"Sleep on it.  Talk to Sokka tomorrow.  Have the decency to ask his permission."

"Of course.  Thank you, Uncle."

"Spirits help you, son."

xXxXxXx

"What's this about, Zuko?" Sokka asked, inspecting his lunch carefully.  Satisfied that the Fire Nation cuisine wouldn't kill him, he took a bite.  "If you're going to ask for advice on how to balance on this knife's edge you call a life, then I won't be much help."

"No.  It's about this."  The young man drew a gold chain and pendant out of his pocket and placed it on the table between them.  The pendant was a beautifully simple pattern of two swirls, the delicate chain threaded through the top one and a sapphire set in the middle of the bottom one.  

Sokka's chopsticks stopped halfway to his mouth.  Water Tribe engagement necklaces were delicate blue shells, carved and threaded onto soft navy cloth, but blue was hard to come by in the Fire Nation.  Sokka had seen necklaces similar to the one before him on the noble women, though the design was unlike any he had seen and they never had sapphires.  Upon closer inspection, Sokka noticed that the edges were not perfectly smooth, as if made by one who was unaccustomed to shaping gold. "Is that…?"

"Yes."

"For…?"

"Yes."

Both men kept their eyes on the necklace, thinking hard about what to say next.  It sat there so still, as if it knew perfectly well what it stood for.  

"I'm asking your permission, Sokka."

Sokka's head snapped up, wide eyes staring at the man across the table from him.

"Proper etiquette dictates that I ask the father, or if he is unavailable, her closest male relative.  Since your father has returned to the South Pole to help rebuild, that's you."

The Fire Lord was asking the permission of a Water Tribe peasant to marry the girl he loved.  Even in the world before the war, no one would have foreseen this even in their wildest dreams.  If the Fire Lord had desired a peasant, from his own Nation or another, he would have sent his soldiers to take her, kill anyone who tried to stop them, and made her a concubine in his harem.  Unlike them, Zuko wanted to marry her, make her his queen, and love the children they had.  But he wouldn't destroy her family even for her love.

"Why?"  The word came out harsher than Sokka had intended.  He cleared his throat.

"Because…She fascinates me.  She challenges me, and makes me think.  She gets mad at me.  She tells me when I'm being an idiot—"

"You are being an idiot."

"Thank you," the Fire Lord said sarcastically.  "I really appreciate that when I'm baring my soul here."

"Sorry.  It's just…you could marry any Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom noble girl you wanted.  All these princesses and duchesses wandering around, all dolled up and knowing more about politics than a peasant ever will, and you want my sister?  I don't understand."

"Neither do I.  I didn't plan to fall in love with her, but I did."

"Katara doesn't know politics.  She doesn't know how to fight an enemy that looks like her friend.  Will she be safe here?"

Zuko realized that, despite winning a war at her side, Katara would always be his baby sister that he had sworn to protect.  He couldn't (or refused to) see that the sweet, naïve girl who believed everyone was innately good had been changed by the realities of war.  Not exactly mistrustful, but she no longer blindly staked her entire future on anyone she met.  Jet, Hama, and even Zuko himself had seen to that.  It was the thing he most regretted in his three years as a part of the war.  But instead of saying that, he simply said, "She helped end a one hundred year war.  She wouldn't be perfectly safe anywhere."

"Marrying you would only antagonize those that already want her dead.  In the Southern Water Tribe, she'd be safe from politics."

Zuko frowned.  "Katara is not a helpless damsel.  She is the most powerful waterbender in the world and is called the Waterdancer for a good reason.  She has brought down entire warships singlehandedly."

"Who you wish to bring into a war which she has no idea how to fight.  She is a great waterbender, obviously, but she can't just water-whip an important advisor when he makes a threat with a smile.  In the Southern Water Tribe, she could protect herself and those she loves.  I need to know that she will be just as safe here."

"She will be.  I love her.  I will defend her with my own life and help her to learn the politics of this life.  She is a fast learner.  I will provide all that she needs and more.  She will be happy."

Sokka sighed.  "I trust you, Zuko.  It's everyone else that makes me nervous to leave my baby sister here.  I promised Father I'd protect her."

"I would give almost anything to love my sister as much as you love yours.  I never got the chance to learn what it was like to have her come running to her big brother, her protector.  I wouldn't want to give it up either."

The Water Tribe warrior smiled.  "But the job of the protector is to decide who she needs to be protected from, and who deserves to love her and be her new protector."  

"So…is that a yes?"

"Yes.  You have my blessing."

A huge, rare smile broke through the Fire Lord's usually stoic face.  He tried to wipe it off, a survival reaction, but gave up.  "Thank you, brother."

"We both know that Katara will not see this in the same way.  She will say that you are making a politically suicidal move, and try to protect you from it."

Zuko's eyes fell to the necklace, sitting between them.  "I know."

"But I also know that she loves you, and there's nothing she wants more right now than to marry you."  His blue eyes sparked with amusement as an expression that resembled a begging puppy-bunny crossed the Fire Lord's face.  "I'll talk to her."

"Thank you, Sokka.  Again."

xXxXxXx

Katara knelt in the middle of the shallow creek and closed her eyes.  The cool water moved around her legs and torso, each droplet gently pulsing with the strange kind of life that she didn't understand.  Come play, they seemed to be asking her.  She breathed deeply and felt them pulse in time.  Immersed mentally and physically in her element, Katara could think clearer than anywhere else.  There was nowhere else she felt more right, more like she belonged.  The life around her prodded, impatient to move.  There was no stillness in this world.  Katara laughed and took off down the stream with them, playing their game of twisting and spinning, up, down—

"Katara!"

Katara grumbled angrily as she found herself yanked back to her body, sitting in the stream.  She glared at her brother, jogging across the garden towards her.  "Sokka, I was meditating."

"Sorry this is important."

"It can't wait?"

"No."

"Fine."  She stepped out of the water and pulled on the robe and pants that she had folded and set on the bank.  Sokka sat down on a stone bench and patted the space next to him.  

The waterbender frowned.  Sokka was unusually solemn.  "What's this about?"

"I wanted to ask you what's going on between you and Zuko."

"Oh."

"I noticed you two dancing around each other.  What happened?"

"Well…after we fought Azula, I healed him.  And we were both just so happy that we'd survived…um, we kissed.  It was a stupid, impulsive moment that complicated things.  I had thought he had died trying to save me…"

"So what now?"

"Nothing, I guess.  He's going to marry a noble's daughter or whatever.  And we'll eventually go back to the South Pole to help rebuild the city."

Sokka frowned.  "Does he not love you?"

Katara thought about that for a moment.  "I think he does.  But he has a naivety that he needs to lose if he intends to run this Nation.  The people would never accept me as their queen.  The world would never accept a cross-culture royal marriage.  The strongest love in the world won't change politics."

"Katara, don't you think he knows a little more about politics than us?  He grew up here, after all."

"He does know, he's just choosing to ignore.  He's not thinking; he never does."

"Do you want to marry him?"

"That's not—"

"Yes it is.  Listen to me, Katara.  You have put everyone before yourself ever since Mom died.  So many people love you because of that.  But sometimes, we all need to be a little selfish, or we'd all go mad.  Tell me, Katara, what would you do if you didn't marry Zuko?  Would you marry Aang?  A Water tribe man?"

Katara shook her head.  "Not Aang.  I know he thinks he loves me, and he kissed me before the invasion.  But I could never see him as anything more or less than my student, best friend, and little brother.  I would probably go home, help rebuild, and eventually marry."

"And spend every day of your life wondering."

Katara had no response to that.

"Is that how you want to spend your life?  Loving your children, but wondering, in a secret part of you, if you would have loved them more were they Zuko's?  Katara, I'm not going to make your decision for you.  I only want what's best for my little sister, and (as weird as it is for me to say this) I think Zuko might be it.  I want you to think.  Selfishly, for once.  And do what will make you happiest."

Katara sighed.  "But how am I supposed to know?  What if I make the wrong choice?"

"Then you deal with whatever problems result from that.  Life would be boring if we knew how things would end.  If I had known that Yue would die, I would never have enjoyed the time we had.  If you knew which choice was the right one, it wouldn't mean much.  The uncertainty is what makes life worth living."  He caught her crystal blue stare with his own, matching hers, a gift from their mother.  "All I want is for you to really consider this decision.  Allow yourself to be a little selfish.  You'll be living with this decision for the rest of your life, through the good and the bad."

xXxXxXx

"Lady Waterdancer."

Katara scowled at the Pai Sho board, as Uncle Iroh created yet another harmony.  "Katara, please.  I am no lady."

"On the contrary," Iroh said.  "However, lady or not, you have lost."

Katara sighed and stood up from the table as Uncle Iroh swept the pieces into their bag.  "Someday, Uncle."

"Keep dreaming, my dear."

The waterbender smoothed her cotton robe and turned to the maid, who was hiding her amusement admirably.  "Yes?"

"Fire Lord Zuko respectfully requests your presence in his study."

Uncle Iroh chortled.  "The boy finally got it."

Katara smiled to herself.  The servant's quarters would be alive with gossip tonight, with the Fire Lord "respectfully requesting" anything of a peasant-turned-war-hero.  "Can you help me find it?  The corridors still confuse me."

Zuko was trying to persuade his brain to make sense of the endless boring reports and proposals that were piled in front of him.  He'd only been doing this for a few weeks and he already felt like he was teetering on the brink of madness.  He had a whole lifetime of this pointlessness ahead of him…

Someone knocked.  "Come in," he muttered.  The servants were accustomed to finding him in various undignified states, so his present one (sprawled out on the couch, robes wrinkled, and stocking feet) would offer no surprise.

"Hello, Zuko."

He nearly fell off the couch in shock.  He had forgotten about the maid he had sent in search of Katara.  It must have taken a long time to find her.  "Katara!  I…well…"  He tried to organize the scrolls, but settled for moving them around to give her space on the couch to sit.  "Peach tea?"

"Yes, please."

He knew she could simply bend her tea out of the pot, but he wanted to pour it for her, and was glad when she didn't try to do it herself.

He had no clue what to say.  Rather than speak, he busied himself by sipping at his tea and looking at her.  Having refused countless offers of expensive silk gowns and robes, she still wore her blue tunic and pants.  The rough cloth puckered at a dozen places, where she had stitched a tear closed.  Red and black thread adorned many of the repairs, as blue had been nearly impossible to come by in a Fire Nation controlled Earth Kingdom.  Her eyes twinkled mischievously.  She had an almost cruel sense of humor, Zuko grumbled to himself.  She knows why she's here, does she have to look at me like that?

"What are you reading?"

"Mostly economic reports.  The Fire Nation is in ruins.  There is no industry outside war.  Without it, there is almost no economy.  I don't know what Ozai thought he would do if he won.  There isn't enough of anything to support even just the Fire Nation, let alone the rest of the world."

Katara watched him fidget, amused.  He was preoccupied by the economic crisis, but he had not sent for her to discuss that.  She let him shift uncomfortably under her gaze, knowing that he would eventually blurt out the question.  

"Katara, I…I love you.  I know it's crazy and suicidal, but I want to marry you.  And I know that you're going to say this is insane and stupid, but I don't care.  I—"

"Zuko."

He stopped and blinked.

"Stop excusing yourself.  Just ask."

"Katara Waterdancer, will you be my wife and Queen?"

"I still think you're insane and this is the stupidest thing you could possibly do for your Nation and maybe even the world…"

"But…?"

"But I can't say no."
Participating in Zutara Week 2012!!!! WOOT!!!!

This is for the day 2 prompt: Momentous. Sorry it's so long, but the politics were a crucial part in this.

“Waterdancer” is the name that Katara “earned” (for lack of a better word). I've seen in a lot of fantasy-type stories, a character has a second name that was given to them because of something they did, or their appearance, or something like that. Example: Raoul Giantkiller in Tamora Pierce’s books or the Hound in George R.R. Martin’s series. People began calling Katara “Waterdancer” as a reference to her great power and the grace with which she wields it.

Oh, and I made two tweaks to the finale. One is that Azula escaped. No one knows where she is. The other you can find in my story “Alive.”
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:iconterraraptor:
Terraraptor Featured By Owner Feb 2, 2013
I really liked this, I've always been a big fan of Avatar, and this really complements (most) of the characters. I take it your a zutara fan huh? I don't get into the shipping wars myself, I could really care less who she chooses.

My one bit I feel the need to comment on is Uncle Iroh. After the meeting, he advised Zuko not to marry Katara. Its... well, just out of character for him. He always seemed to do the crazy, stupid, ethically good thing, and has never really cared for politcs, as far as I know. I would think he would support this more than anything else.

Other than that, you wrote the characters really well. Zuko, Katara, and Sokka all felt like they were coming straight from the tv. I would have liked to see Aang and Toph's reactions to this, but thats nit-picking. I really enjoyed this, and the rest of your avatar stuff.
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Feb 2, 2013
Thanks!

Iroh has the wit, charm and subtly to be a great politician, he just doesn't want to and more importantly, he doesn't need to. Zuko needs to, for the survival of himself and the Fire Nation, and Iroh understands that. So he is going to help and teach Zuko to be a good politician, AND a good man.

Also, I needed a scene in which Zuko was defending his reasons :iconimblushingplz:
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:iconterraraptor:
Terraraptor Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2013
Your welcome.

I understand where your coming from. Iroh definetly has Zuko's best interests in mind. I felt the need to critique, but don't take it the wrong way. I just feel Iroh was having a serious moment.

I kind of thought Zuko defended his reasons to Sokka. Their interaction, by the way, was the best in the story.
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2013
Oh no, I didn't take it the wrong way at all! I loved the critique.

I agree, their scene is my favorite too.
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:iconmokiolpembroski:
MokiOlpembroski Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2012  Hobbyist
Wonderful story! I didn't want it to end! >.<
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2012
Thanks :) it doesn't, as far as I care
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:iconwondering-wandering:
wondering-wandering Featured By Owner Jul 18, 2012
I'd love to see what happens after this!
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Jul 18, 2012
well, they make a steambaby, of course ;)
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:iconharuko-mizumi:
Haruko-Mizumi Featured By Owner Jul 16, 2012  Student Writer
This was great, very in character and very in depth.
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Jul 16, 2012
Thanks!! I HATE ooc so i'm glad to hear they weren't!
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:iconmel-n-krys:
Mel-n-Krys Featured By Owner Jul 16, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Lovelovelovelove it! I practically eat up anything that has to do with Zuko's proposal to Katara, especially if he has a betrothal necklace.

~ Krys
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:iconyellow-tulips:
yellow-tulips Featured By Owner Jul 16, 2012
Yay!!! I'm glad you liked this :)
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