He hates the whispers, when he hears them. Sometimes he can see them written on her face, a reflection of the doubt weighing heavily upon her on their darkest days. She makes mistakes sometimes. She missteps during the rigid waltzes of the nobility; she misspeaks every once in a while during those dreadfully long council meetings, confusing the history of the Yin family with the history of the Yoon family to the horror of his ministers; she misunderstands customs, though she is as eager to master them as a child determined to walk. Riots continue. Colonies rage.
What was he thinking? Choosing love over his country?
Don’t they know? Can’t they see everything she’s done for them? His people love her on their good days. When money flows freely and their children skip to school humming songs of peace and joy, when hospitals heal the sick and lanterns line the streets with the warm glow of celebration, he hears nothing but praises for Fire Lady Katara.
But on the bad days, the long stretch of them his nation is suffering right now, they turn on her. They despise their foreign queen.
A proper lady of the Fire Nation would never let things get like this. There’s still time for him to come to his senses. The waterbender is a curse to the nation.
There exists the persisting idea among the people that his relationship with Katara stemmed from senseless passion. Two children caught up together in a cause fell in love and believed their love could change the world. He wasn’t thinking as the future fire lord; he was thinking as a lustful young man. It all couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, the first time he thinks of her and what they could mean to each other, it has nothing to do with hushed whispers and stolen moments in the night. There is no torrid affair. And there’s no way to forget about the war.
It’s cold the first time his heart swells for her. Rain falls around them. She’s standing on a sorry excuse for a platform. Her hair is sodden, clothes drenched in her element, but standing tall all the same before the surviving warriors of her tribe. They’re traveling the world, trying to rally all of their allies after the soul crushing defeat of the Day of the Black Sun’s invasion. He’s surrounded by men and women who abhor him. These warriors are home for the first time in months and have no desire to leave again. They wander aimlessly around their village, fixing up their ships, willing the rain to stop on this furthest touchstone of the world. It’s still a dreary block of ice, but even summer’s rays reach all the way down here, and instead of snow, they’re stuck with cold rain and slush. Their shoulders slump with the weight of a war lost, and no man has been able to fill the position of the imprisoned Chief Hakoda.
The Avatar cannot offer hope. The twelve-year-old boy is only a reminder of their defeat. How wrong they were to put so much faith in him. Hakoda’s son looks so much like him, and he’s smart, but to them he’s an unblooded boy, a cheap imitation of the leader they revere so much. Toph has nothing to offer them, and Zuko spends his whole time here wishing he couldn’t see the hate in their eyes but feeling like he deserves it anyways. After all, the last time he was here, he did destroy the place.
But Katara is different.
Her voice echoes around the village, commanding the attention of these hopeless people. “Two years ago, I watched you leave with my father and prayed for you to return safely to me. Two years later, it is I who has returned to you. I return to you a master waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. How long has it been since we’ve had one of those? How long has it been since you’ve seen someone bend our element?” she shouts at them. “The Fire Nation has tried to take it all away from us, but one hundred years later, they still haven’t succeeded. Don’t you see? They haven’t won the war. As long as you’re still standing, as long as we’re still standing, they never will!”
It’s here she stops the rain. Her face contorts in concentration. Her knees bend slightly, and her arms extend to the sky, freezing the downpour in time above them. Beyond them, the rain keeps falling; he hears the droplets hit the sea. He can hear everything now, for no one dares to breathe and miss the beautiful power wielded before their eyes. He’s never seen her bend like this before. Even the avatar has never displayed this kind of control in their training.
“I don’t come to you alone! I come to you at the side of the Avatar, the master of all four elements and restorer of peace! I come to you alongside his masters, alongside the crowned prince of the Fire Nation! Spirits, how long has it been since masters of all four elements stood together like this? We will continue to stand together with or without you, and it is up to each and every one of you to make that choice yourselves, but this war ends NOW.”
She releases her arms. The water pours over them as if they are being baptized in service to this waterbending goddess they see in front of them. Moved by such a display of bending and such words of passion, these previously helpless tribes people fall to their knees with their heads bowed in service to her. Tears of happiness gather in the young woman’s eyes. He’s as affected by it too, what she represents to the world. Everyone’s so quick to rely on the avatar, forgetting that she is the one who found him, forgetting she is the only Southern waterbender left, and the only female waterbender in the world trained to fight. A smile stretches his lips. Spirits, can she fight .
He falls to his knees too, out of respect for her, out of gratitude for letting him witness such beautiful mastery of a culture his people tried to destroy. It’s in this moment he realizes she’s a natural leader. She’s passionate and eloquent, and her fervor catches in the hearts of those around her. It’s so easy to love her. It’s in this moment he realizes how desperately the Fire Nation needs someone like her at its head. A vision strikes through him like lightning, one that he believes to be directly from a higher power, for it is so perfectly clear in his mind, of her in the red robes of his nation, wearing the crown his mother once wore, one of her arms linked in one of his. He can’t shake the picture now, can’t stop thinking of building peace together once his father is defeated and they win this war.
He can’t stop thinking about her. He can't stop thinking about them. He can't stop thinking of what they could do together.
He falls in love with her for his country first . That’s what his people never understand. It’s only later in the celebration that night, when drums beat around them in a cultural celebration, when he watches men and women dance under the light of the full moon in a way that would have his people thinking they’re all savages, that he falls in love with her for him . He’s drunk on the hope around him, not to mention whatever these men gave him to drink. His heart feels light in a way it’s never felt before. The cold is welcome to the heat in his veins as the drums beat louder and louder.
Her cheeks flush from all the dancing, and her chest rises and falls with her heavy breaths. She’s switched partners more times than he can keep track of, but he hasn’t danced with anyone yet. A few of the young women must forget who he is for a moment because they reach for his hand, but he pulls away from their grasp. He’s waiting for his opening. Any second now...yes. A warrior releases her, and before another one can take advantage, he holds out his hand. Their eyes meet. He shivers. He smirks when she does too.
“I wouldn’t think this is your kind of party,” she says.
“Neither would I.”
“So what changed?”
She laughs like he’s being ridiculous and finally accepts his hand. “Oh, yeah? Everything?”
He spins her away and then pulls her right back to him. Her dress fans hypnotically out from her. “You know what I realized tonight?” he asks meaningfully, staring into her blue eyes, tightening his grip around her waist.
“We’re going to win .” At first, he joined them because it was the right thing to do. It was the honorable course of action, and it was the cause he would die for, but deep down he always had his doubts. Master benders they may be, but they are just a band of kids. Now he’s never been more certain of the outcome. Now he knows what hope is.
“Say it again,” she says fiercely. Her nails dig into his skin, but it doesn’t hurt. It makes his blood pump faster. It makes him feel uncomfortably warm.
“We’re going to win, Katara.”
She must be as drunk on all of it as he is because she places a hand to his scarred cheek and pulls his lips down to hers. His fingers tangle immediately in her hair. Drums beat around them, men and women shout joyful cries to their spirits, stars twinkle above, and he’s not ready for the warmth that spreads through him from one perfect kiss.
He kisses her every day after. The warriors of the Southern Water Tribe accept her call. The warriors of the Northern Water Tribe accept her call. Rebels of the Earth Kingdom accept her call. Fire Nation prisoners accept her call. He helps them strategize the battle plan in time for Sozin’s Comet. He helps Sokka free Chief Hakoda. The Chief doesn’t really like him, perhaps because he can’t stop kissing his daughter. He takes Katara with him to defeat Azula. He dies for her, almost. He would have if she didn’t save him.
A scar develops where Azula’s lightning hit. He doesn’t mind. It’s a way to remember that they both survived. He opens his eyes to see his favorite blue ones hovering above his face.
“Why did you do that?” she asks tearfully.
He laughs weakly. “You know why.”
“I’d hit you if you didn’t almost die.”
“Then help me up instead.”
When it’s discovered by the Fire Sages that his father and Azula have been defeated, he’s leaning on Katara. He thinks that’s significant. In the moment he becomes the reigning Fire Lord, he’s only the last one standing because of her .
Mai comes back, but too much has changed. He invites her to stay in the palace as his friend, an offer she refuses.
“The Fire Nation won’t accept her as your wife, you know. It’s too radical of a change,” she says. Is that a hint of resentment he hears in her voice?
“Maybe at first.”
“The nobility will riot. They’ll overthrow you.”
“The Fire Nation needs her. If we’re going to progress, we need her.”
“No, you think you need her. You’re just being selfish.”
She sighs. “I was rooting for you too. I went to prison for you. I didn’t think you’d put your country on the line for a little crush on a waterbender.”
“ I said leave! ”
She bows. “Yes, Fire Lord Zuko.”
Someone knocks on the door as Mai is turning to leave. “Zuko, is everything okay? I heard yelling.”
“He’s fine, Katara,” Mai says, inciting a glare from Zuko. It’s the last blow she’ll ever be able to deliver, so he chooses not to comment on it, but still he knows how deflated Katara must be on the other side of the door thinking that he’s been alone in his room with Mai all this time.
As soon as Mai leaves, she invites herself in. “What was she doing in here?”
“Just making me angry.”
“What was she saying?”
Zuko reaches for her, and she hesitates just for a second, clearly deciding whether she should push the issue or not. She doesn't. She folds into his embrace and changes the subject.
“Are you ready for your coronation?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“You know, I had a dream last night.”
His fingers play with her hair. He can’t will them to stop. “What about?”
“Staying in the Fire Nation.”
His heart leaps happily. “It sounds like a good dream.”
“Do you know something? A political position just opened up in the Fire Nation. It’s yours if you want it.”
She smiles. “Oh, yeah? Which one?”
He drops all pretense of teasing. “Fire Lady.”
She stills in his arms. “Zuko-”
“You don’t have to accept it, but it’s yours. I can’t think of anyone more dedicated to justice and peace. I can’t think of anyone who cares more than you do. You are exactly what my people need.”
“Just your people?” she asks quietly, turning in his arms.
He answers. "I'm lost without you. I don't know what I'm doing."
"I don't know how to lead."
"You've been leading this whole time."
"Not a nation," she protests. "Just a twelve-year-old."
"I love you."
Instead of returning his words, she says, "Your people don't."
"They will once they see what I see."
"You have to help me," she tells him. "You have to tell me if I'm messing everything up."
"The same goes for you. We'll figure it out together."
"I love you," he says again.
She clings to him. "I love you too."
She represents him in peace councils. She oversees the shift from military output to commercial output. She drafts trade deals between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes. She makes the Earth Kingdom nobility laugh with her stories. She meets with architects to discuss building projects in order to employ the soldiers coming back from war. She opens orphanages and visits hospitals. She comes to him with ideas for memorializing the victims of a century-long war. She looks absolutely beautiful with his mother's crown in her hair.
Riots continue. Colonies rage.
He looks at her now from his place in their bed. She sits beside him and offers tea. Their daughters linger in the doorway.
“Come, girls,” Katara tells them. “Your father is going to be just fine.”
“It takes a lot more than poison to take me down,” he jokes. It does nothing to make Katara and their daughters feel better, though. In fact, it makes his younger daughter cry. Great. Little Yuna runs from the doorway and throws her arms around him. Izumi, their elder daughter, does the same, albeit less hysterically.
“Why did they do it?” Izumi asks.
“They’re angry about the colonies,” he tells them. Their children are peacetime children, but they still know about the war, and they know their parents played a part in it. As they grow older, they’ll only learn more. They’ll learn their grandfather was a warmonger, and their grandmothers were victims. They’ll learn their father keeps their mad aunt in a cell underneath the palace. They’ll learn some people hate their mother for the color of her skin and the element she bends.
“Are they going to hurt us too?”
“ No ,” he says firmly. He sweeps the girls into his lap and pulls Katara down with them. He rests his hand on her stomach where a third child grows inside her. She found out a week before he drank the poisoned wine. She covers his hand with hers. Maybe it will be a boy this time. If it is, they’ll name him Kyroh, for her mother and his uncle. He becomes enraged all over again. His attempted assassins almost prevented him from meeting his third child, and now his daughters fear for their own safety. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Katara becomes more determined than ever now that her husband’s been threatened. Security measures increase, punishments worsen, but her dedication to social work never wavers. The people may be angry, but they still need her. Fire Lady Katara doesn’t turn her back on people who need her. Maybe one day they’ll remember she never did.
100 Years Later
Fire Lord Zuko is dead.
Fire Lord Izumi is dead.
Her son, Fire Lord Iroh is dead.
His daughter, Fire Lord Katara reigns.
Katara is the most popular name for daughters of the Fire Nation now in honor of the first Fire Lady Katara, beloved wife of Fire Lord Zuko. Whispers ended a long time ago about the same time the riots did. Now the people remember.
And they know they needed her.