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The war has been over for nearly a century now, ever since Avatar Roku rallied Fire Nation rebels along with the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes to defeat Fire Lord Sozin in his attempts to conquer the other nations.

Memories of raids that haunt the old mothers’ minds don’t make relations between the Southern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation easy these days, despite the years that have passed, but a tentative peace rests between the distant nations.

Katara listens to the stories with interest when she is young, huddled around fires in the lodge with her brother and the other children as their elders tell stories on long winter days that are little differentiated from winter nights in the South, and she feels a distant anger thrum in her veins, passed down and perhaps distilled to be stronger in one who has known no war, who has no resignation to its reality or its end to salve her bitterness, who has only the righteous indignation of her youth and her people’s ancient loss to feel.

When her brother and his friends play Fire Nation Attack, she always chooses to play on the Water Tribe side.

Once she learns how to waterbend, her team always wins.

*

She is older, a young woman stepping over the threshold into adulthood who must leave her childhood games behind her, when her grandmother and mother teach her what she will need to know when the time of her betrothal arrives—how to cook, how to mend.

She has been doing all of these things since she was young, because everyone helps, regardless of age, in the Water Tribe, but her grandmother’s words hold less scolding than they did when she was young and her mother’s eyes hint at sorrow mixed with pride.

If she does not marry soon, she will commit her time to the healing huts with Pinga and the other healers she has studied with since she was twelve.  (She also knows combative waterbending, a harder-won skill, but there is no war to fight, not now.)

Katara does not mind waiting to marry.  She’s not sure she wants to be tied to a cook-fire just yet, but there are expectations of community, of womanhood, in the Tribe, and she doesn’t want to disappoint her family.

Her great-grandfathers fought against the Fire Nation, after all, and they didn’t sacrifice the warriors of their generation so she could use her freedom to spite the preservation of their people and livelihood, of everything they fought for.

Still, she savors her relative freedom while she can, and sometimes wonders which young man will dare to ask her father—he is no king, but he is the high chieftain, and a strong warrior and hunter—for her hand.

She is out practicing her waterbending on a far crest of ice when she sees the ship with the Avatar’s flag approaching.  Minutes later, she makes out the shape of a flying bison and she runs to tell her father that the Avatar is here.

*

Avatar Aang is a tall, solemn man whose life’s work has been to maintain the peace his forebear Roku established, but Katara remembers when she was young and the Avatar bore a smile more often than he does today.  He would show the children airbending tricks, then, with a wide smile that held a glimpse of what he must have been like as a boy, carefree and playful before the importance of his duties began to weigh on him.

Children who remember him clamber around him, asking for tricks, but the Avatar performs them without his usual smile.  As soon as the council of elders is gathered, he disappears with them into the council chamber.

As the chieftain’s daughter, Katara has a right to sit with her brother by her father’s side, although they must keep silent until they reach majority.  Sokka was able to start speaking in council just this year.

Because of that, she hears the news firsthand—the Fire Nation has suffered two insurrections in recent years, one when Ozai, the second son of Fire Lord Azulon, usurped the throne from his older brother Iroh; a second when Zuko, crown prince under Ozai, took the throne back from his father.

Ozai is dead, Iroh maintains a state of abdication, and the nation that once tried to rule the world—and that holds powerful sway nonetheless—is being ruled by a boy barely old enough to be heard on council, himself.

The Avatar’s purpose in the Southern Water Tribe is twofold.  First, he comes with news of the Fire Nation, an explanation of why trade was severed four years ago, and an offering from the new Fire Lord to make up for what lack the Tribe may have felt without the regular trade of metal to supply their weaponry.

The council murmurs in vague approval.  Reparations are welcome, although the loss had not angered them much (there are older ways of doing things, without other nations’ interference, and they have not forgotten).

Second, Fire Lord Zuko wants to maintain peace in his own nation as well as reaffirm old alliances with other world powers.  He offers gifts to all the nations, but for the Southern Water Tribe, who suffered the most at Fire Nation hands during the war, he looks to older ways of cementing bonds.  He asks for a wife.

The murmurs of vague approval turn to outrage.  Why should the Tribe sacrifice one of its own women to a land of tyrants and unstable politics?  An alliance is not so important; they only wish to be left alone.

The Avatar points out that in shaky political times, no one is safe from opportunistic men who would plot an invasion, and it is a gesture of peace, of stability, that the Fire Lord wishes to wed from within the Southern Water Tribe.

The murmurs quiet, but only slightly, and eyes turn to Hakoda as he firmly but respectfully declines Avatar Aang’s offer.  The older man’s eyes sharpen and he opens his mouth to reply to the chief, but Katara speaks up before he can.

“I’ll do it, Dad.”

The room falls silent and Katara thinks she can hear the wind that blows the meeting fire’s smoke as it exits the top of the lodge.  Her father turns to look at her with eyes that are cold and afraid, but his voice is as strong as ever.

“Do you know what you’re offering, Katara?  What you’ll sacrifice?”

“I know that I want there to be peace.  And I would rather move to the Fire Nation and keep our tribe alive than see us lose more lives if another war breaks out.”  Her hands fold in her skirts to keep from shaking.

The set of her father’s jaw is grim as he says, “Avatar Aang, the Southern Water Tribe offers Katara, first and only daughter of High Chief Hakoda, in marriage to Fire Lord Zuko.”

*

The sorrow that Katara has seen building in Kya’s eyes as she taught her to keep house overflows in tears when Hakoda informs her of Katara’s decision.  Her mother wraps her in a hug like she hasn’t known since she was a small child and rocks her by the fire until her tears are spent.

Katara doesn’t cry, because all she can feel is the heavy dread coiling in her stomach that tells her she has traded an icy cage for a golden one.  But at least in her new cage, she might be able to make more of a difference than if she spent her life mending her husband’s fishing nets.  Even if she holds no power there, her very presence is an act of treaty, an assurance of peace.

But she holds her mother tightly, nonetheless.

*

Before he leaves, Avatar Aang takes Katara aside and gives her a letter from her betrothed.  She is pleased until she opens the parchment and realizes that it is written in a foreign language, one she can’t read.

The Avatar translates it for her, reading it first in the Fire tongue and then in her own.  Her husband-to-be promises her he will take care of her and work hard to keep peace between their countries.  He says the Avatar has told him that she is a waterbender, and he promises to have some of the royal gardens refashioned with additional fountains and ponds.

This comforts her in some small measure.  She asks the Avatar to read the letter again, and she tries to commit it to memory.  Its wording is official, and she hopes the man behind the kind gesture is kind, as well.

Avatar Aang leaves her with the letter and promises to return in the springtime to take her to her new home.

*

Katara spends most of the winter days as she has every other year—with the other women around the fire, mending nets and spinning yarn and preparing the Tribe for another year of life once the storms have passed.

On days when she has a spare minute and the weather is clear enough to see through, she walks the deep snow and stores some of its chill in her heart, for memory in her new home’s near-constant summer.

She keeps the letter from her husband-to-be with her other precious things in a small chest by her sleeping roll, and sometimes she takes it out and tries to read it, to match the blots of ink on the parchment with the words she remembers Avatar Aang reading to her.

Too soon, the Avatar returns on a ship from the Fire Nation.

*

The trip to the Fire Nation passes in slow days that should be quiet.  Katara should have time to mourn her loss, her homeland, her family, no matter that this was her choice.  The days should be quiet, but they are not.  They are loud in a ship that echoes with dozens of voices she doesn’t understand.

And she doesn’t want to.

She made the choice to leave her home, to offer herself in hopes of carving peace out of chaos for a while longer in the world’s history, but she is not Fire Nation, nor does she want to be.  She will marry their Fire Lord, but that does not mean she will be one of them.

The voices that surround her mostly speak the Fire tongue.  Her husband-to-be sent sailors and servants—though she has little idea what to do with the latter.  Their voices speak in a way that she thinks must reflect the voyage’s destination.  It is full of consonants, like her own, but they are different ones, less jagged in the flow of their speech than hers, much like she supposes a land of islands where the sea beckons along beaches differs from one where the sea crashes against crags of ice.

The airbender nuns who stay by her side after the Avatar leaves on other duties speak in their own language amongst themselves, softer still than all the others, and Katara thinks it’s strange, how lands and bending affect language.  She wonders if she will have an accent the next time she goes back home—if she ever gets the chance to go back home—as the nuns do when they speak to her.

It is the nuns who tell her what she is supposed to do with the servants (let them dress her, bring her food, teach her manners according to the Fire Nation’s royal court), and because of those servants, those lessons she has to drink in like the tea they serve her with every meal, her days that she would prefer to spend in solitude pass in company.

The servants teach, the nuns translate, and she listens.  She learns what she can, because she has no desire to embarrass herself or her people, but she refuses to learn any of the words they try to teach her.

She already knows Zuko, the name of her intended, because the Avatar told her that months ago, when she first agreed to this scheme; that, together with his title, will suffice for now.

When they get farther north, the servants begin to insist that she wear the gowns the Fire Lord sent for her.

Katara accepts, but only because the heat is becoming unbearable in the furs she wore from home.

*

Even in silks, Katara spends a good portion of her days trying to surreptitiously bend sweat away from her brow by the time the ship pulls into the large harbor of the Fire Nation capital city.

She hopes her body temperature, if not her spirit, adjusts quickly to living in this climate.

The servants disappear as soon as they disembark, but the airbender nuns stay by Katara’s side as she rides in a contraption called a palanquin to the palace.  She pushes aside the curtains to look at her new city, but the nuns scold her and tell her that royalty is supposed to ride in privacy, except when officially greeting the public.

Reluctantly, she lets the curtain drop back into place when she retracts her hand.

In the sun-specked shadows of the palanquin, Katara stares at her hands and does her best not to fidget her fingers—another thing she’s been told royalty doesn’t do—in time to the roiling in her stomach.

She knows that Zuko is only a little older than she is, and his letter and gifts were all kind, but she doesn’t know him, and wonders if she ever will.  Even when two partners speak the same language, she knows that not all marriages—even chosen ones—end in harmony or companionship.

Her grandmother had told her stories of the Northern Water Tribe, where almost all marriages are arranged, and said that some were happy, some were not, but once a person was committed, there was no use complaining because there was no choice in the matter.

Her mother had clucked her tongue in Gran-Gran’s direction and said that she was sure Zuko would be as kind as his letter had been—but she hadn’t been able to hide the worry in her eyes.

The ride passes quickly—and Katara doesn’t know if it’s because the palace is close to the harbor or because she is preoccupied with her worries—and when she climbs down, she stands, wide-eyed, in front of the largest building she’s ever seen.

She’s going to live here?

Katara stands a little straighter.  It won’t do her any good to have the Firenationers know she’s frightened.

*

It’s a relief, in no small measure, when Katara follows the nuns through what seems like a maze of passageways that alternate between dark shadow and glaring red and gold only to find, waiting in a small chamber that overlooks green gardens—will they become brown, when the full heat of summer comes?—a young man who looks just as nervous as she feels.

Fire Lord Zuko is tall, with the dark hair and pale skin that seem to characterize the people of his land.  His eyes are gold where they blink back at her—everything in this country must mimic the sun, it seems—and his face would be handsome if it weren’t for the mottled red burn scar that coats the upper part of his features like a leather mask.

In her work as a healer, Katara has seen her share of wounds and burns that cause scars among her tribespeople.  Whatever happened to Zuko’s face was no small matter.

She feels a dart of compassion—how long ago did it happen? how? why? a training accident? a battle scar?—alongside a sliver of dread, because she has known hardship and long winters and wild beasts, but her husband-to-be has known war.

Katara wonders what sort of spirit he was given at birth, and how the battles he’s fought have shaped it.  In the shadowed sunlight, Zuko looks…young.  As frightened as she is.  Almost soft, almost nothing to fear on this warm, bright afternoon in a quiet room, if it weren’t for the scar and the harsh angles of his clothing and crown.

He straightens further and she sees a calm slip over his features as speaks to her—he has practice, then, at hiding his feelings—and his voice is quiet but firm with authority.  He is used to being listened to, and listen she does, to this new voice that speaks the syllables that have becomes her constant background noise these past weeks, although she understands none of it.

When Zuko stops speaking, Katara bows as she was taught to do and says the only words she knows in his language—“Fire Lord Zuko.”  She has practiced saying them, out over the ocean where they were carried away on the wind, and still she can hear that her mouth does not form the words the same way his does, and she wonders how foreign she sounds, to him.

He shows no surprise, although he looks at her as though he’s waiting, expecting something more.

The nuns had prepared her for meeting the Fire Lord, lectured her about how she must bow and listen respectfully to whatever the young ruler had to say to her.  They stand behind her now, so still that she wouldn’t know they were there if she couldn’t reach out and faintly feel the flow of the blood in their veins, and their silence offers no guidance as to what she must do now, now that (she assumes) she and her betrothed have been introduced and she’s shown him courtesy, as she was instructed to do.

There are a few people gathered behind Zuko, too, and one of them, an older man, much shorter than Zuko, with grey hair and a kind, round face, comes forward and talks quietly to Zuko, gesturing toward Katara and the nuns behind her.

Zuko’s eyes widen for an instant, and then he blushes and, at his next words, one of the nuns steps forward, listens and then turns to Katara with the invitation to join the Fire Lord for a walk in the gardens.

Ah.  They must not have told him of her stubborn refusal to learn any of his language.  He must have thought she understood at least part of what he’d said, and expected some response.

Zuko reaches a hand toward her, and when one of the nuns subtly pokes her in the back, she steps forward and takes his arm.  He speaks again, possibly repeating his former offer, only this time, her name is tacked on at the end.

She decides she probably sounded as foreign saying his name as he does, saying hers.

*

The gardens where they walk are beautiful, full of greenery and bright flowers Katara has never seen before.

They walk for some time, in silence, with a small group of nuns and advisors trailing behind them.

There are a few gardens that have significantly more water sources than the others, and when they walk through these, Zuko motions toward the ponds and fountains and says, “Katara.”

He’s made good on his promise to surround her with more water, then.  It’s a risk, he must know, because she is a master waterbender who could use the water to kill everyone around her in seconds.

But she is here for peace, and she accepts Zuko’s gesture with a grateful smile.

When he smiles back, his features soften, and even his scar doesn’t seem as intimidating anymore.

*

Their wedding is supposed to take place in two weeks’ time, and Katara spends every day from her arrival until her wedding with even more tutors than she had on the ship.  She is irate when the nuns inform her that they will be leaving after the wedding.

When she demands to know why she will not be left with an interpreter, one of them drily points out that she is the one who refused to learn the language.  The nuns have duties at their temple, and she will be left to her own devices once she is wed.

In what she thinks might be an accurate picture of the rest of her life, she fumes in silence.

She welcomes her afternoon tea with Zuko, because he sits quietly across the low table from her, drinking his tea as she drinks hers, demanding nothing of her in the moment (although her entire present existence could be linked back to his demand—or request—and her acquiescence).

The morning of her wedding, she cries the tears that she could not at the South Pole.

*

During the wedding ceremony, Katara recites the words she memorized at the proper times, and spends the feast afterward thinking that she is now back to where she started, because the only words she knows beyond her husband’s name and title are ones she can use only once, and already has.

*

That night, once she is alone with Zuko in the bedroom that is hers, now, too—the servants moved all of her belongings here sometime during the celebration—her new husband blushes the same pervasive red that fills the palace and stutters half-sentences that end in her blinking at him in confusion and him breathing smoke in frustration.

Maybe Katara should have paid some attention to language lessons, after all, but that thought helps her little now.

Zuko takes in several deep breaths before he walks a few paces to sit down on a low cushioned bench.  He pats the space next to him, and Katara walks over to join him (and she swears his blush deepens the closer she gets).

When she sits down beside him, Zuko takes her hands in his, and lets the soft slide of the pads of his thumbs over her knuckles say what he cannot.  Gold-slanted eyes look at her—her eyes, her hair, her lips—and when Katara looks back, she sees uncertainty and tenderness that even his scarred face can’t erase.

He has seen war, but somehow, she thinks it has not ruined him.

When he kisses her, his lips are gentle against hers, as though she is some breakable thing.  And maybe she is.  Maybe they both are.  Maybe this whole world is destined to break and they’re foolish to think anything they can do will hold it together.

But by the time they move to the bed, Katara has forgotten all about the rest of the world, or the need for words, or anything beyond the immediate of Zuko, with her.

Much later, as the slender moon sends long shadows into the dark, Katara falls asleep with the foreign sensation of a man’s—her husband’s—arm wrapped around her body, and she remembers that another word for many breakable things is treasure.

*

Katara blinks open sleepy eyes in the pale morning sunlight to find that both she and Zuko have shifted in their sleep, and she’s wrapped herself around him now—or sprawled across him, more like.

He makes a good pillow, although she wouldn’t tell him that even if she could.

She lifts her head to look at Zuko, and sees he’s already awake, watching her with quiet interest.

The same blush from last night floods his cheeks when he sees her looking back at him.

She wonders if she should retreat to some other part of the bed that he doesn’t occupy, but he reaches out to her, strokes her hair, and speaks soft words laced with affection.

Katara doesn’t understand him, although she hears her name a few times.  But Zuko’s voice, so much gentler here in their shared morning than in the official speeches she’s heard him make, only settles uneasy dread in her stomach, because everything about this land is strange, still, and the words impinge on her sleep-tinged cocoon of sunshine and warm and husband and comfortable.

So she swallows down the fluttering of her heart that has somehow risen to her throat under his searching eyes and leans up and kisses him, which stops his talk.

It also makes them late for breakfast.

*

The first few days of Katara’s marriage to Zuko pass in the hot, silent glare of sunshine that is muted by thick palace walls when she decides to take her walks inside to escape the heat.  There are still several weeks until midsummer, and Katara almost dreads the moment each day when the sun spreads its fingers of light over the horizon and adds to the already-oppressive heat that lingers, even in the dark.

On the third day of her marriage, she goes down to the gardens by one of the larger, shaded ponds and sits beside it, spinning curls and currents up from the water.  Harmless artistry.  Her fingers itch to truly waterbend, to pull on her element with all of her power and move it with force, but the servant with her is already looking at her strangely, so she sighs into the mottled sunshine and refrains.

Except for the few servants assigned to take turns looking out for her (or at least, she assumes this is their role, since one of them always trails behind her, guiding her back to her rooms when she loses her way, even though she’d been given a tour by the airbender nuns before they left, or bringing her to meals at the proper times), the people she sees in the palace avoid her.  There is no purpose in talking to someone who won’t respond, who can’t even put in a good word with the Fire Lord for them.

Her nights are spent in a different sort of silence, one that is not silent so much as wordless, and full of glances that are becoming less shy and kisses that are becoming more familiar as the days pass.  Zuko is a considerate husband, and in all honesty much kinder with her than her mother had warned her he might be, and she is startled one night when she realizes that she finds comfort in the gentle rasp of his voice in her ear as he talks to her, stroking her hair or the moonlit skin of her arm while she falls asleep curled against his chest.

Katara wonders, during her long days of solitude, if Zuko talks to her every night because he’s as lonely as she is.  Whenever she sees him in daytime, passing by whatever meeting room he’s in as she walks the palace’s corridors during the worst heat of the day, he’s surrounded by older men, talking with a frown about papers spread in front of them.  She has never seen him with friends or anyone close to his own age.

But she’s noticed that whenever he happens to glance up and see her as she passes by, he smiles.

*

Katara waterbends for the first time in her husband’s presence one morning when Zuko joins her for one of her walks in the gardens.  She raises up a column of water from a small pond, then lowers it again, and her heart hammers despite her feigned nonchalance.  Zuko had mentioned her waterbending in his first letter, but she doesn’t know how he’ll react to it now, if it’s something she’ll have to fight to keep or if it’s something he’ll let her have as easily as if she bent fire, not water.

Her husband grins and grabs her hand, leading her to a larger pond with more open space around it.

The sun beats down hot on her head, but Katara glories in the chance to move her element again.  She goes through basic warm-ups, then performs more difficult moves.  Zuko sits under a tree and watches her, amused at first, but his expression becomes increasingly interested as she continues her practice.

Before too long, he stands and walks over to her, and her heart sinks because this is fun and it’s the most like herself she’s felt since she left the South Pole.  She’s not ready to stop just yet.

But Zuko only positions himself a few feet in front of her and raises his arms in a bending stance.  He inclines his head toward her, still smiling.

A challenge, she realizes.

And they spar.

It becomes a near-daily habit.

*

A few nights later, Zuko pulls away from her kisses and sits up in bed.  He looks at her in a determined way that she does not associate with here, with the comforts of their room, although it has become commonplace on the sparring grounds.

She sits up, too, and frowns.

He looks away for a moment, blinks rapidly, and speaks after a deep breath.  “New.  We speak—you—here.”  He gestures a pale arm around the room, then pats their bed.

A tension Katara didn’t know she’d been holding in releases, and she wraps herself around Zuko, holding him tight and burying her face in his shoulder as she cries.  His accent is heavy and his phrases are broken, but he is speaking her language and she didn’t realize it would mean so much, hearing familiar words he’s obviously taken care to learn, just for her.

He pats her back and holds her, too, and she doesn’t think he can tell when her tears turn from tears of relief to tears of guilt because she should have given this to him, too, weeks ago.  Zuko has been nothing but kind to her (he realizes, perhaps, just how much she’s given up to join him here, to take a stand beside him because she values peace), and she has genuine affection for him now.

Katara has so much she wants to ask Zuko now—primarily why? and how?—and when her tears stop, she tries to talk to him.

“How?” is answered by, “Tomorrow,” and Katara bites back impatience at knowing she’ll have to wait for a better answer.

“Why?” is answered with a shrug and a kiss after Zuko’s first puzzled moments of trying to shape an answer in her foreign tongue.

The conversation is stilted—Zuko doesn’t know much, yet, and she sometimes forgets to keep her sentences short and simple so he can understand them—but it is the first conversation they have had, and Katara is happier than she’s been since she left her home of ice and snow.

That night, Zuko says, “Good night,” and when Katara replies in kind, she suddenly remembers the nights at the South Pole when she would overhear her parents exchange the same words from across their home.

Her parents’ words were usually followed by “I love you,” and Katara blinks back another bout of tears, in part because she misses her family and in part because she doesn’t love Zuko, although she thinks she might, someday.  She is fonder of him than she thinks she would have been of any of the men back home who might have asked for her as a wife, and somehow this not-quite-love she feels for the man in bed beside her hurts more than the indifference she had prepared herself to feel, because she can’t decide whether it feels traitorous or not to develop feelings for her husband.

Perhaps not traitorous—even if his people were warmongers long ago, even if turmoil still rumbles beyond the palace walls, he fights for peace.  And so does she.

So it’s perhaps not traitorous, after all.

*

The next day, Katara breaches her self-imposed rules when Zuko shows her the Water Tribe scrolls from which he’s gleaned his small knowledge—scrolls that, as best she can make out from his fumbling explanation, were stored in the Fire Sages’ vaults as war bounty unwanted by the Fire Lord Sozin for his own treasury but deemed necessary to keep, if only to stand as trophies, the last fragmentary memories of a soon-to-be-deceased people.

Katara riles just thinking about it—the audacity, the sheer madness of a man to think it was his within his rights to try to abolish the other world nations, to claim for himself a worldwide throne.

Even now, nearly a century later, remnants of Sozin’s war linger—in the Fire Nation’s recent insurrections, in the tumult that remains beneath the capital’s bright surface.

In the tiredness and tension she sees in Zuko’s eyes every day.

It was his great-grandfather who started the war and his father who tried to resurrect it, but Zuko—Zuko, from what she can tell, is not like them.

If he were, Katara doesn’t think he would have spent time here at his desk, poring over ancient manuscripts, trying to learn enough of her language to say a few words, to speak to his wife.

So she makes her own concession and says, “Teach me.”

*

Zuko leads Katara to a part of the palace she hasn’t seen before, one that is still and empty.

Not dusty, because the servants clean even the unused rooms, but the air feels older, sleepier here.

The door Zuko opens leads to a room full of bright-colored chests, cushions, and cradles.  “Babies here,” he shrugs in explanation as he opens shutters that let in the light and heat.

No wonder the rooms look unused.  If Zuko was the last—was Zuko the last?—child to grow up here, these rooms have been empty for a decade or more.

He looks over the shelves and gathers a small stack of scrolls in his arms, which he brings near a large window.  They sit down together and he hands her the first scroll.

She is curious, and when she unrolls the scroll, she almost laughs.  Here is the same script she first saw on Zuko’s betrothal letter, but this time the words are grouped in sets of one or two, and an illustration accompanies each.

Children’s scrolls.

Katara supposes that’s as good a place to start as any.

*

The days take on a new pattern after that.  Katara spars with Zuko in the early mornings and, if he has time, he will sit with her later in the day as they teach each other their languages.

On days when Zuko’s meetings prevent him from coming to their lessons, Katara goes up to the nursery and looks through the other scrolls there, finding ones with increasingly complicated stories to read.

As summer turns to fall, Katara understands fragments of the conversations she hears around her as she walks through the palace.  Other people still skirt around her with the same distant politeness, with bows of differing styles depending on the giver’s position—she is the Fire Lord’s wife, after all, and that demands respect—but she speaks only to Zuko.

And, soon, to Iroh.  Katara discovers that the round-faced old man who pointed out her ignorance of the Fire Tongue to Zuko on their introduction is her husband’s uncle.  A former general, a willing abdicator, and a tea enthusiast.

The afternoon tea sessions that halted after her wedding begin again, only this time she sits with Iroh, not with Zuko, and practices her Fire speech while she listens to stories of the Fire Nation, of Iroh’s world travels, of Zuko, and of the current state of Fire Nation politics.

It doesn’t take long for Katara to realize that Iroh is perhaps the main reason Zuko is not made in Ozai’s image.

Katara listens carefully, because she is still only a figurehead for peace, here, but she wants to be more than that, if she can.  She learns from Iroh that women are allowed nearly as much political power as men, and in the past, there have been Fire Ladies who ruled in their husbands’ steads if need arose.

(There was also, in particular, one Fire Lady named Mishil whose husband did not wish to rule, so he took all of his political advice from her and acted only as the figurehead, since the position was his by inheritance, not hers.  Iroh’s eyes twinkle with laughter as he tells Katara that, thankfully, Fire Lady Mishil’s politics were sound, although she dismayed most of the courtiers when she instituted the rule that her ostrich-horse must attend all council meetings.)

Katara will speak, she decides.  There are Water Tribe ruling principles that could be put into practice here (although none of the Firenationers needs to know they come from the far, cold south) and there are also common sense principles that could be applied to some of the problems the Fire Nation faces.  She does not know yet if she will ask Zuko for admission to council meetings or if she will simply talk to him and channel her ideas through his position’s power, but she does know that she wants to be close to fluent, if and when she talks to anyone beyond her two current conversational companions.

Now, the times of calm before sleep are less one-sided, because Katara mumbles sleepy corrections to Zuko’s use of the Water Tribe language as he tells her about his days.

She learns about the state of the Fire Nation in this way, too.

When Zuko thinks she’s asleep, he switches over to his own language and keeps talking, his voice barely more than a whisper in her ear.  It is her own sort of lullaby, and on the nights when he falls asleep before she does, she misses it.

*

By the time their first child is born—a daughter, with her father’s hair and her mother’s skin and grey-brown eyes that don’t yet show whether they will be blue or gold—Katara is fairly certain that she loves Zuko.

Even though she knows the words, she doesn’t say them.  She thinks—oh, she thinks she knows he loves her, too (because who makes water gardens and learns a language and offers continual kindness—even in the midst of the strong-willed arguments that have arisen now that they can converse—to someone they despise?).  But when her mother and grandmother travel north for the birth, meet her in her new home for the first time, and spend weeks by her side, Katara listens, half-asleep with her daughter beside her, as they tell stories and offer advice.

Her mother is pleased with the way Katara has been treated, and Katara smiles sleepily, runs her fingers over the baby’s soft, dark skin, and agrees with her.

Gran-Gran sniffs, straightens her stiff spine as much as she can, and observes with her typical practicality that a ruler would do well to treat his wife kindly if he doesn’t want to court the ire of the people he’s trying to ally with, to keep the peace.

So even when her mother sometimes watches the baby between feedings and Katara has time alone with her husband, she doesn’t say the words to Zuko.  She just lets him hold her and savors the closeness as they talk or rest in quiet.

That is enough, for now.

*

Gossip spreads quickly in a palace, and when the princess’ first words are Water Tribe, not Fire Nation, the council is indignant.

Katara is present for that meeting—she has been attending them more often, with her daughter strapped to her hip, when she can—and speaks without thinking about it.

She explains to the council in a tone that leaves no room for argument that she and the Fire Lord have decided to speak Water Tribe in their family chambers, because their children will learn Fire Nation in the wider world where they are raised.

She explains this in accented but fluent Fire Nation language.

The council, who has never heard her speak, is shocked.

Katara counts it a personal as well as a political victory.

*

Seasons of stifling heat blur with those of tolerable chill, and they mix with sleep-deprived nights and exhausting days as three princes, in their turn, join the heir to the throne in the family wing of the palace.

Somewhere between council meetings, stolen kisses with Zuko, late-night feedings with each new baby, and days watching her babies become toddlers and young children, life falls into a pattern for Katara.  She is happy—happier than she thought she would be, when she sailed here on a ship years ago.

The pattern changes with each addition to the family and each change of the Fire Nation’s political environment, but she is a waterbender, so she adapts and evolves like her element and she brings her family with her to a new version of normal each time.

And she knows, without a doubt, that she loves Zuko now.  She knows his secrets, his scars, his hurts.  She knows how to make him smile, even after long days of political squabbling.

She knows how he got his facial scar, and she knows he will never be like his father.

She knows she loves him, but she still doesn’t tell him.  Most days, it doesn’t cross her mind, and when it does, she reminds herself that they’re married for a treaty, after all, and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other how their feelings are involved.  He is devoted and doting, and she can best him on the sparring grounds most days, if she really tries.  He is a master bender, but so is she.

All of this pleases her, so she doesn’t invite change any more often than life thrusts it upon them.  They work well together, and she is content.

*

In the end, it is on an evening with twelve years of shared life between them and four children born of their union before Katara and Zuko talk of love.

They sit in Katara’s favorite garden—the one with the most fountains and ponds—and drink tea together under a moonlit night.

Even in the white-tinged moon, Katara can tell that Zuko is blushing when he reaches over and wraps his calloused hand around hers.  She wonders why—with everything they’ve shared, there can hardly be cause for shyness any longer.

But she smiles, too, because she remembers when almost all of their interactions were like this—tinged with hesitation and curiosity, with her husband shy and eager to please.

Zuko doesn’t look at her, staring out at the sky so that she can see the nervous way he licks his lips before he speaks, but only the moon reads his eyes when his words come.  “Katara, do you love me?”

Of course she does, of course.

She tells him so, and the words she’s been holding back for twelve years, sometimes unconsciously, slip out into the night between them.

It doesn’t feel as strange as she’d sometimes thought it might, when she pondered the subject in passing.  There is no great victory in the moment, only the quiet sort of relief that comes with a secret (or a not-secret) finally shared.

They are far past the stage of awkward tension around each other, but when the air that shifts on the breeze comes in that still moment, it floats in the measured space between their eyes with a subtly greater comfort.

And just like that night, so many years ago, when Zuko first spoke her language and she felt whole like she hadn’t known she wasn’t, he pulls her into his lap and she wraps herself around him in a tight hug.  She loves him, and the reasons she mutters into his collar and he whispers into her ear as to why don’t make up half of it.

His fingers are hot through the fabric of her dress when he pulls her closer and breathes the words back to her, his face buried in the crook of her neck.

“I love you, too.”

Katara doesn’t know why she cries, but she does, and so does he.

Then she laughs through her tears and makes Zuko promise never to tell anyone that the Fire Lord and Lady were reduced to tears over words that are better spun by poets and playwrights.  He laughs, too, and only holds her tighter.

*

There is no great revelation in speaking, nothing they say that their actions haven’t told, in a fashion, for years.  Their days with the children, their meetings with politicians, their nights in solitude together—none of those are altered.

It doesn’t change a thing, love, but Katara smiles when she thinks of it, all the same.