“I will not hear another word,” Zuko said, doing his best to mimic the kind of tone his father would use. In any other situation, he’d be ashamed to follow such an example. This, however, wasn’t up to him. This was urgent.
“There’s not much you can do if you don’t have another option,” someone voiced. He turned his head to see who dared to use such strong words, only for Aang to stop him in his tracks as he blurted out a rebuttal. Zuko hadn’t even once considered Aang’s motivation in refusing until he saw the sadness in Aang’s eyes. He loved Katara. They’d only just started their lives together. Zuko had seen their bond. It was real.
This would wreck all of his friends with one swift ceremony.
It only motivated him to fight more, now for all of the team and not just for her. But he couldn’t help thinking about how Katara would never forgive him if this went ahead. She’d never forgive any of them. His eyes moved to Katara’s father as Aang cried out for him to stop these talks.
“Aang, I’m sorry,” Hakoda pleaded knowingly. “It’s up to Katara. I can’t stop her from having the option to choose. I promised her that kind of freedom long ago when I left home. She’s not a child anymore. She has to make her own choices.” Turning to the others at the table, Hakoda also pushed for them t to change their minds, though his words were soft. “Could we take the time to reconsider? Maybe find another option.”
“Time? That’s it? I have to get Sokka,” Aang proposed. “Maybe he’ll do what you won’t.”
Hakoda huffed. “And then what, Aang?” Aang let out a heavy, pained grunt.
“You know she’ll say yes. She’ll do anything if she’s told it means peace.” Aang finally turned to Zuko, looking as if he really believed this was all Zuko’s fault. The thought that ran across his mind caused him great pain: Was this his fault?
Zuko pulled away from his chair, marching around the table. He was proud at least that some of the attendees, world leaders, at the table stiffened a bit as he passed them. “At my coronation, I stood before the leaders and friends that fought with us. Many of you in that crowd. This was just months ago. You graciously accepted my position without a counter, without defiance, without question. Now you’re telling me you’ll take action without security that I will keep my word? Why can’t that faith be given just to my word.”
“Word isn’t enough anymore. It can’t be.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Simple care-” one of the elders started only to be interrupted.
“You lost your sister,” someone answered quietly.
“Who said that?” Zuko demanded in a raised voice. Some of them flinched.
“Sadly, we’re all thinking it,” Hakuro admitted.
“Zuko’s mistake shouldn’t be costing Katara,” Aang argued, as he visibly clenched his fists. Zuko passed behind him before returning to his seat and sitting down, conflicted. So this really was his fault.
“We are not asking for anything drastic or unreasonable. They’re a decent fit. Loyal friends already, in her you’ve already found a trusted advisor,” said one of the wise women who’d barely said any words since they proposed the idea. “You’ve gone to her for many matters already. She was at your side at the agni kai with your sister. You saved her life and she helped you take her down. She’s been at your side for how long now?”
“And she can stay at my side - as an advisor ,” he said, hoping his tone commanded an end to the conversation.
“I won’t hear another word,” Aang supported. In the back of his mind, Zuko fondly appreciated the way the avatar’s tone hardened ever since he’d achieved his destiny. He sounded like the kind of man the world would happily bow down to. However, it did little in the way of politics. Zuko had come to learn that the hard way.
“Think of the harmony, avatar Aang. Fire and water ruling the most stable kingdom of the moment while the world repairs, leading the world’s return to a state of peace. That kind of balance is something the world sorely needs today. She is the closest thing we have to a princess.”
“That title doesn’t mean anything. If it weren’t for today, you would all consider her no more than a peasant and you know it. She deserves better than to be used as a pawn!” The elders bowed their heads to the avatar slightly, but Zuko could tell the proclamation was being heard like the cry of a young heartbroken teen. Because it was, Aang could not see past his loss enough to help Zuko find a solution.
Head turned down to the table, Zuko was sure his neck nearly cracked when it snapped up at the sound of a familiar voice at the door.
“Hello everyone,” she greeted with a short bow of her head. “I’m sorry I’m late.” She looked around for a seat and saw none. Before she could ask, she decided to prompt them to give her an explanation. “I heard yelling.”
“Katara, I told you you didn’t have to come,” Hakuro insisted immediately before anyone could beat him to it, almost hoping that she would turn around and walk out.
“I wanted to,” she insisted.
Once of the wise women gestured at her. “Let’s ask the girl then.”
“No!” Aang insisted, only for everyone to stare at him momentarily, silencing him as Katara’s eyes glanced over.
“We have something for you. A question. It won’t be easy, but questions of duty and sacrifice never are.”
“I’m prepared,” Katara said, quickly understanding the severity of the woman’s tone. She raised her chin and straightened up. Zuko hated how much he could tell she would only serve to convince them.
“If we told you there was a way to reassure all of the kingdoms, more surely guarantee political harmony, and put our minds at rest for the sake of your friends- or for the sake of the world’s peace, what would you say?”
Aang looked desperate for her to refuse. That was how she knew this was serious.
“I’m prepared to do anything that was asked of me if it was necessary,” Katara answered without hesitation. “It would be my honor,” she said, her tone noble and strong. Zuko wished he could smile with pride, the way he would have if this had been about anything else.
“This isn’t sacrifice. This is your mistrust taking over,” he corrected, staring down everyone at the table. “This is negligence for our bonds and this is an act of misgivings against me.” They all stopped to look at him before looking back to Katara. None of them would explain to her, not even Aang. They just stared. Zuko looked to Hakuro. He was also quiet. “You cowards can’t even say it,” Zuko said finally, losing his temper as he looked to Katara for some kind of sympathy. He needed someone to understand the position he was being put in. It wasn’t his burden to share but he wouldn’t keep her in the dark any longer.
“Zuko, don’t,” Aang asked weakly. It was too late, the words were practically spilling out of him.
“They want us to get married, Katara,” he announced bluntly, exasperated and then speechless as his anxiety got the best of him while he waited for her reaction.