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Thread: The Price of Peace (Rated M for violence and mature content)

  1. #1

    Default The Price of Peace (Rated M for violence and mature content)

    I've taken some advice and finally made a good Avatar fan fic (hopefully...)

    *****

    The Price of Peace

    Summary – Sozin’s War has ended. Five years since the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai, the survivors work toward peace. But diplomacy and progress is threatened by the internal strife of the Fire Nation – a distant relative’s claim to the throne. Vicious attacks have been launched against all nations in an effort to discredit Zuko, now Fire Lord. Always shrewd, Iroh convinces Zuko to marry to secure the throne.

    A/N – Avatar The Last Airbender belongs to Nickelodeon and its creators. This is my first Avatar fic, so I am learning the ropes. Ships include Zutara, Iroh/OFC, and Aang/Meng.

    ***Warning*** There is an attempted non-con scene in this chapter only. It deals with the OFC. It is very minimal and not explicit.

    *** *** *** *** ***

    Chapter One --

    Reading the report, Iroh ran a hand over his bearded face warily. Qiang’s supporters had shown no mercy. Their attacks were becoming more spectacular and more deadly, designed to discredit Zuko and the Fire Nation. The village beneath Mt. Mahaku had fallen victim to his cousin’s descendant, a madman who claimed to be Ozai’s successor. A memory danced to the surface. He and Zuko had been in pursuit of the Avatar. The old fortuneteller had offered to tell his fortune and he had refused, telling her that there was only one mystery left for him.

    The citizens of the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation were restless. The political landscape of their world was becoming increasingly hostile. Zuko had better act quickly. The threat to his throne was very real. The other nations still distrusted the Fire Nation, even five years after the end of the war Sozin had started so long ago.

    Iroh closed his eyes and bowed his head. In all his years, he had never known a day’s peace. He had been born into war – lived it and breathed it as though it were a way of life. Even now, he had difficulty with the concept of peace. It seemed as elusive as ever.

    There were those who did not recognize Zuko as Fire Lord. His banishment along with his subsequent “betrayal” of his nation tainted his rule. There were those of the other nations that would never trust Zuko, even after the generous reparations the Fire Nation had paid. He had turned against his own father and sister, helping the Avatar into the palace and putting an end to the war. The Fire Nation's treasury was near bankrupt, but reparations would never be enough to ease the guilt. How did one pay for over a hundred years of war?

    The Fire Nation was divided, standing on the brink of civil war. The warmongers, the ones who could not imagine a life without war, rallied to Qiang’s cause, declaring him the rightful Fire Lord of a once proud nation. The others stood aside -- too tired to fight any more battles. This generation deserved peace and his nephew had been charged with that task.

    They forgot that he was the rightful heir to the throne. If it weren’t for him, Zuko would have been put to death for killing his sister and betraying his father. Iroh had had to walk a fine diplomatic line to see his nephew seated on the throne – his rightful place.

    Qiang had been furious, rallying wayward warriors to his cause and carrying out deadly terrorist attacks against the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. They had even targeted their own people.

    A great wave of unrest had rippled across the lands ever since the attacks. Qiang had to be stopped. The throne needed to be secured. The people were losing faith. Zuko needed to act.

    “No!” a shrill voice cried out.

    The unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh followed next. Cruel laughter echoed against the walls.

    “I want what I paid for, Earth Kingdom *****!”

    Flinging some coins onto the table, Iroh pulled his cloak over his head and walked into the courtyard to find a group of young Fire Nation soldiers standing around.

    “Please!” a quivering voice pleaded.

    Iroh pushed his way through the crowd, the soldiers so transfixed with the scene in front of them that they did not notice him.

    “See how she begs!” a soldier shouted, which was quickly followed by rambunctious laughter.

    He made his way to the front and gasped at what he saw.

    The woman screamed as her clothing was torn from her body.

    The soldier growled and undid his trousers, uncaring and immodest as he exposed his buttocks to the crowd. He had the woman pinned beneath him.

    With little effort, Iroh widened his stance and made a subtle sweeping movement with his hand. He watched in satisfaction as the attacking soldier yelped and jumped up, swatting at his *** as though it were still on fire. He smirked. He hadn’t actually set the soldier on fire. He had just given him a little shock.

    Their entertainment ruined, the soldiers pinpointed the source of energy and immediately started jeering at him.

    “assh*le!”

    “*******!”

    “Who do you think you are!” one voice yelled.

    He whipped the hood of his cloak back, exposing his identity and the markings of respected rank. The response was immediate. Most of their tanned faces turned a deathly pale, one of the soldiers even passing out.

    “Gen-General Iroh!” a soldier to his left gasped. “W-we –”

    Giving the lieutenant a stern glare, he took his cloak off and covered the cowering woman. Her dark raven hair shielded one breast as her hand cupped the other. Even bruised and battered, she was exquisite, reminding him of a painting he had enjoyed gazing at as a small boy.

    The perpetrator put his clothing to rights and stood at attention.

    Iroh held up his hand as the lieutenant tried to explain. “I have seen enough.”

    All the soldiers stood still and said nothing.

    “All of you are guilty of a serious crime,” stated Iroh solemnly.

    The woman sobbed silently, pulling the cloak tighter.

    Iroh sighed, unwilling to cause the young woman more harm. “Report to your captain. I will set your punishment at a later time.”

    The unit of soldiers hurried away from the scene.

    Kneeling next to the woman, Iroh waited for her to stop trembling. “Perhaps you would enjoy a soothing cup of tea,” he suggested softly.

    Her eyes snapped open as though she had just become aware of her savior’s presence. They were the color of a starless night, blacker than any ink he had ever written with. They were wide and swam with tears.

    “I find a cup of tea very helpful after I’ve had a bad day,” he said, repeating the invitation to the young woman. “After that and some fresh clothes, I’ll take you back to your family.”

    ***

    The next day –

    “I have dispatched relief workers to the village, Lord Zuko. They should arrive by tomorrow. There are few survivors. The insurgents harnessed the power of a nearby volcano to destroy the village.”

    “And what of the search for Qiang and his followers?” the former prince asked, his tone deceptively calm.

    The admiral tensed. “Lord Zuko, surely you realize with the reparations that we –”

    Springing from his chair, Zuko slammed his fists on the ornate table. “I want results, not excuses! I am well aware of our nation’s problems! I –”

    “Lord Zuko,” his uncle’s calming voice rang out, “I am sure no one is questioning your knowledge, but the military is stretched thin and the aid may be too late. The Earth Kingdom has already dispatched relief workers. The attack happened several days ago. We only heard about it yesterday. There were few survivors. I have even received reports that the Avatar himself is there.”

    His uncle’s words did little to soothe him, but he adhered to the elder’s wisdom and nodded his acknowledgment of the information. Nothing could console him anymore. The burden of his responsibilities would break a lesser man.

    “Send what aid we can,” announced Zuko, waving a dismissive hand. It didn’t take long for the room to clear. Everyone was afraid of him -- everyone except Uncle Iroh, who was staring thoughtfully at him.

    His silence disturbed him more than his lectures. “What?” Zuko snapped irritably.

    “I was just thinking,” Iroh replied softly.

    Why am I not surprised? Zuko thought as he sat down next to the older man.

    “Qiang will not give up or go away. He is a formidable tactician. He works to discredit the Fire Nation, to cast shadows of doubt upon your rule. The other nations are disquieted, concerned about the rumors of Fire Nation soldiers burning villages. You represent stability and peace, something generations have gone without far too long. You walk a precarious line, Lord Zuko.” His uncle bowed his head and tucked his hands in the sleeves of his robe, a stance Zuko was all too familiar with.

    “How so, Uncle?”

    “You must rule with a firm, yet soft grip. The wounds of Sozin’s war will echo for generations to come. People of all nations will look to their leaders to heal those wounds. They want security – tangible, visible proof of that security. Qiang’s claim to the throne is a valid one. If Qiang staged a coupe…claimed the throne, I shudder to think of what he would do. If you were to secure the throne…”

    Rolling his eyes, Zuko stood and started pacing around the table. “Our nation is nearly bankrupt. Our military is practically non-existent. And you want me to sire an heir?” With each word, his voice grew louder. Yes, he had concubines, desirous women that he felt very little desire for. His burdens weighed heavily upon his shoulder. He shuffled from council to council. He barely had time for a decent meal, much less time to enjoy the company of his harem.

    “Not just an heir,” his uncle continued. “You should marry. Take a bride of another nation, preferably someone of affluence, better yet, a famous war heroine. A dowry would be nice.”

    He stood there, his mouth slack, unbelieving his ears. He had rarely questioned his uncle’s sanity, but he was starting to wonder. Perhaps Uncle Iroh was kidding. Zuko shook his head in disbelief, unable to believe what he was about to say.

    “Fine,” he stated, eyeing the older man skeptically. “If you find someone who meets those qualifications, I shall marry her. I’ll sire so many heirs, they can grow up and stab one another in the back for the throne.”

    Iroh hid his grin as the younger man walked out. Whereas Zuko thought he was humoring an old fool, Iroh was going to take him at his word. He would present his nephew with a choice he couldn’t refuse.

    *****

  2. #2

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    Summary – Aang arrives at the village of Mahaku and finds survivors.

    Interlude One –

    The volcano had left little in its path except bits and pieces of the lives that had once been there. Stepping on the newest layer of hardened earth, Aang winced. It was still warm. With little thought, he cooled the black rock and made his way into what remained of Aunt Wu’s village.

    Few had survived. Those who did were huddled beneath an outcropping of trees that had miraculously been untouched. There were few patches of untouched earth, verifying the rumors of Firebenders.

    Aang frowned. There were so many questions. How had the Firebenders manipulated molten rock?

    “Aang!” a familiar voice called out. “Over here!”

    Looking over his shoulder, the Avatar waved at Sokka. In a way, he envied the tall Water Tribe warrior. He still wore the traditional garb of his people, his warrior’s tale having grown wild. Unlike Katara, Sokka had stayed with him when he had decided to return to the Southern Air Temple. Katara had returned to the Southern Water Tribe in an effort to help rebuild their village.

    After the war and the four years of peace negotiations, Aang had returned to the Southern Air Temple – truly the last of his kind. Sokka had followed him, staying remarkably quiet and out of the way. When Aang had first arrived at the temple, he had gone to his old room and had slept for three days. Harnessing the Avatar spirit always left him exhausted. Sokka had looked after Momo and Appa for him.

    He knew he was searching for something. Perhaps it was purpose. He may be one hundred seventeen years old, but he felt seventeen.

    Kicking a loose rock, he walked toward Sokka and the villagers. Sokka was standing by a small group, trying his best to calm a wailing baby. As he drew nearer, Aang recognized the voice before he saw her.

    “Don’t hold her like that,” Meng, Aunt Wu’s assistant instructed sternly. “Hold her like this.”

    Aang smiled, genuine relief flooding through him. Her robe was tattered and smudged with soot. Her pigtails were gone. In their place was a wild nest of black hair. When her eyes met his, she smiled, revealing the wide gap between her two front teeth.

    “Aang!” she cried, shoving the baby into Sokka’s arms and running toward him. Instinctively, he braced himself as she flung herself into his arms. There was no decorum, no attempt at maintaining a “proper” distance. The hug was an affirmation – an affirmation of life.

    Wrapping his arms around Meng, Aang held her. Her hair tickled his nose. He couldn’t understand anything she was saying because she was mumbling against his chest.

    A discreet clearing of Aunt Wu’s throat finally broke the two apart. “I told you he would come back,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eye.

    Sokka rolled his eyes and handed the baby to its mother.

    “I see you are still in anguish.” The old fortuneteller sniffed with indifference, remembering the Water Tribe warrior’s skepticism over her powers.

    “And just what am I supposed to be in anguish over?” snapped Sokka defensively.

    Aang rolled his eyes.

    “Just wait,” Aunt Wu answered.

    Meng stepped away hastily. “Aunt Wu said you would come back.”

    “I’m sorry about your village.” Aang glanced at the people around him, seeing their hopeful expressions.

    Meng giggled nervously. “It will be okay. Aunt Wu predicted –”

    “Oh really?” Sokka questioned.

    “Sokka…” Aang said in warning. Now was not the time to argue about fortune telling.

    “It was the oddest thing, Avatar Aang,” Aunt Wu stated, staring at the dormant volcano. “They came in the night, dressed in Fire Nation uniforms, but they weren’t Fire Nation soldiers.”

    “What do you mean?” The strange feeling in Aang’s stomach grew.

    The old fortuneteller’s eyes were sorrowful. “Look around. The earth has changed.”

    Unnatural rivulets of cooled magma covered older patches of soil. “That’s because they weren’t Firebenders! They were Earthbenders!” he exclaimed, answering his earlier question.

    Aunt Wu nodded in agreement. “That is the same conclusion I came to, young Avatar. Firebenders create and use fire. They would not need to harness the heat of the volcano.”

    Looking around worriedly, Aang bowed his head and tried to make sense of the information.

    He had isolated himself from the rest of the world for a reason. He had been so tired. He had needed to attend to the burial of his friends and loved ones. He had withdrawn from the world and all its problems – just as he had so long ago. The balance was tipping. He could feel the elements struggling for dominance. He needed to do something to steady the balance soon. Of that, he was certain.

    --

  3. #3

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    sorry I haven't been posting.....

    Summary -- Katara reminisces and receives a letter.

    Chapter Two --

    Kicking the snow from her kamiks, Katara smiled. Her home was just that – her home, well actually, it was her father’s home. The Southern Water Tribe would never rival the grandiose of the Northern Tribe, but it was still growing. It seemed that there were more supplies than there were people, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was just odd.

    She had returned to help her people rebuild, to help them heal. Though she had very little training in the healing arts, she could not ignore the gift. Her father had traveled to the Fire Nation capital for the summit, fostering the fragile diplomacy that had settled between the four nations – actually three.

    Aang was the last Air Nomad. No amount of reparations could make up for the genocide against his people.

    Sitting next to the fire pit, Katara stoked the glowing embers, her thoughts teetering on the edge of youthful memories. The long journey from the South to the North Pole, their pursuers – first Zuko, then Azula.

    She shook her head, clearing her thoughts and trying to bury them deep. She didn’t want to think about him. She didn’t want to think about the uneasy alliance between the banished prince and her best friend. Together, they had defeated Ozai, Zuko bearing the brunt of his father’s wrath. She had exhausted herself, healing the festering burns, ensuring that he lived to take his father’s place.

    Iroh had never left Zuko’s side, watching in anguished silence as she used the healing water. She had summoned a reserve strength she hadn’t even realized she had possessed. Only later, when Sokka had tended to her, did she find how tenuous a line she had traveled. She had touched the spirit world, channeling the Water Spirit and healing Zuko’s fatal wounds.

    The dreams still haunted her, the fortuneteller predicting her marriage to a powerful bender, her journey alongside her mother in the spirit world as they looked for the path back to her body. There was another entity, someone she had never met before – a spirit with such sorrow that it permeated the fabric of time and space.

    Knowing the struggle would take its toll, she closed her eyes and succumbed to the memories.

    “It isn’t your time, Katara,” her mother chanted as if it were a mantra, guiding her to the portal that would carry the young Waterbender out of the spirit world.

    “But I don’t want to go,” Katara pleaded, clutching her mother’s intangible sleeve. “I want to stay.”

    “There is much to do,” her mother replied sternly. “You must heal the people.”

    Feeling the overwhelming sorrow press upon her, she shuddered. “I can’t! I won’t! I don’t want to! Please don’t make me go back!”

    Her mother solidified before her, grasping her shoulders and shaking her gently. “I know life is painful, but you mustn’t give up! You will heal him.” She looked around, her eyes wide with fear. They were being followed, by what she wasn’t sure.

    A young Fire Nation soldier appeared behind her mother. He had a stout build and a round face, his eyes somehow familiar to her. “You must hurry! They are coming!”

    “Who is coming?” Katara asked as her mother pushed her toward a swirling pool of light.

    “It isn’t your time,” was her mother’s only reply as she forced Katara into the pool.

    She had woken several days later, Sokka softly snoring next to her.

    There were cots all around the room, a makeshift hospital of sorts. Soldiers and civilians moaned. The war had not discriminated. Chaos still reigned. The scent of death still lingered in the air.

    She was powerless to stop the tide of tears as they spilled onto her cheeks. She had wanted to stay with her mother. She had wanted to leave the ugliness of war behind.

    “I am glad you found your way back, young Waterbender,” Iroh whispered above the sounds of suffering. “I thank you for my nephew’s life. He is destined for greatness, work I would not be able to complete before I return.”

    Still groggy from her long sleep, Katara could only stare at the old Fire Nation general. “What?” Then her eyes fell to Zuko, taking in his sleeping form. Only his old scars remained.

    “Don’t get me wrong,” Iroh sighed. “I look forward to seeing my son again. He is the one who sent me back.”

    Katara stared at him blankly. “I don’t understand.”

    Reaching out, Iroh touched her hair. “You were in the spirit world. When you were healing Prince Zuko, I watched as you touched his soul. Tui, the Ocean Spirit took you, encasing you in its beautiful light. It protected you, watched over you as you traveled through the other realm.”

    “The spirit world?” Her eyes widened as she looked at the silvery-white strand of hairs that now mingled with her dark brown ones.

    “Relax, young one,” he replied, his tone oddly calming. “The Moon and the Ocean Spirit are safe in their northern oasis.”

    She wiped the tears away. “I s-saw my mother.”

    “Katara?” Sokka’s voice was groggy on the other side of the bed, her brother’s hand grabbing one of hers.

    “I’m okay, Sokka,” she said, and turned toward Iroh. “I didn’t want to come back, but she kept saying it wasn’t my time.”

    “That is what is what my son, Lu Ten, said to me when I journeyed to the spirit world. He told me that I had to return to help Zuko. He was a selfless warrior.”

    The vision of the Fire Nation soldier flashed in her mind. It was Lu Ten. It had to be. He looked just like his father, only younger. “He was there! He had a sword. He told me to hurry. The others were coming.”

    Iroh bowed his head. “Even in the spirit world, my son knows no peace.”

    Katara shuddered, listening to Iroh’s words and remembering the great sorrow that surrounded her. Perhaps wanting to stay there wasn’t such a good idea after all. “There was someone else too. Someone, I couldn’t see. But I could feel her. Yes, it was a woman. I know it was.”

    Sighing, Iroh cleared his throat. “That is probably Zuko’s mother.” He leaned closer to her, looking over his shoulder to make sure his nephew was still asleep. “The palace is rife with rumors. Some say she killed herself. Others say, Ozai had her executed. Either way, Ursa’s spirit surrounds Zuko. Her love for him keeps her trapped between the realms. I suspect she is waiting. She is waiting for Zuko to find happiness.”

    A shiver ran up her spine. “How do you know all this?”

    Stroking his beard thoughtfully, Iroh leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “It is merely speculation.”

    “Katara?” Gran Gran’s soft voice broke her reverie. “Are you well, my child?”

    “Yes, of course.” She gave the older woman a weak smile and sat up.

    “You received a letter today,” her grandmother announced softly, handing the letter to her. “It came by special courier. He is waiting for your reply.”

    She ripped it open and unfolded the parchment with shaky hands. A letter was unheard of in these parts, even in summertime.

    Dearest Daughter,

    I hope this letter finds you well. I wish I could say that I was writing with good news, but I am afraid that is not the case. New threats have arisen. The stability of a strong nation hangs vicariously in the balance. The peace we have worked so hard to maintain unravels in our hands. I need you. I need your strength and wit, dearest Katara. I hope for no reply, only to hear your laughter soon.

    May blessings follow you,

    Father

    Wasting no time, Katara gathered few items for the journey to the Fire Nation capital. Her father’s letter was cryptic, causing her worry to grow. Was he ill? Was there a plague? Question after question tumbled through her mind as she readied for her journey. No matter what the answers, she knew she had to go.

    *****

    A/N – Reviews are the food for starving fan fiction authors. Constructive criticism is always welcome. Better yet, a beta reader would be greatly appreciated. Anybody want to volunteer?

    Kaniks are Inuit boots.

  4. #4

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    I haven't been posting because I did a couple chapters at one time, I will post each chapter on a different post.

    Summary – Aang ponders the mysteries of women and what happened at Mt. Mahaku.

    Interlude Two –

    Bowing to the old fortuneteller, Aang backed out of his former mentor’s room. “Goodnight, Aunt Wu.”

    The move from Mt. Mahaku had been exhausting, some of the villagers becoming ill from the difference in elevation. It had taken only one trip from the burned village to the Southern Air Temple. Appa had handled it with ease. After all, they had only the clothes on their backs.

    Walking down the long hall, he paused by Meng’s room. To say she had changed would be an understatement. She has bumps – girl bumps. Just as he was contemplating Meng’s bumps, the door opened and wide brown eyes went wide with surprise.

    Her hair was piled high on her head, resembling some intricate nest. She was dressed in a traditional monk’s robe that was two sizes too big for her. This was a monastery after all. He’d grown up here. He had never been around girls…ladies…much.

    “H-hi, Aang!” she greeted him with a warm smile, tugging on the robe in an effort to protect her modesty. “What are you doing here?”

    Aang was speechless. In moving the material, she had given him a glimpse of her bumps! “I uh…”

    She stumbled past him, trying to walk, but her feet kept getting caught in the material of the long robe. Grabbing his shoulders, she steadied herself. “I’m sorry,” she huffed, gathering the layers around her and lifting them up.

    Her feet were small, encased in white slippers. Her ankle was slender. Her calf was bare and curved into the hollow of her knee. Once she collected the material she walked past him and smiled. “Thanks, Aang.”

    He watched her walk away, his eyes drawn to the slight sway of her hip. His mouth was dry, and he felt as if he had airsickness. Aside from Katara, he’d never seen so much skin on a girl before.

    He had been delivered to the monastery when he was very young. He had vague memories of his mother.

    “I am not sad,” she had told him. “It is a great honor… a time for joy. It is the way of our people. All boys must be sent to the monastery. When the time comes, you will choose.”

    He had never taken the vow of chastity. He hadn’t been old enough. According to Monk Gyatso, he would have taken the vow on his sixteenth birthday if he had decided to seek the path and become a monk. But now it seemed pointless.

    “What are you standing around for?” Sokka asked as he walked up behind him.

    Aang jumped. “W-what?”

    “You’ve been standing there like a lump,” Sokka replied. “Are you okay?”

    “Uh, yeah!” stammered Aang as he blushed. “Yep, I’m fine.”

    Sokka’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I see!”

    “What?”

    “You’re standing outside Meng’s door!” The Water Tribe warrior wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

    “So.” Aang was reminded of the time when Sokka teased him about his crush on Katara. A blush crept up his neck and settled into his cheeks.

    “You should go for it,” Sokka suggested, slapping him on the back. “She certainly has filled out.”

    “What do you mean?” Aang would have scratched his head, but he was too busy studying a spot on the floor to manage such a complex move.

    Sokka gave Aang a strange look and walked off. “You have got to get out more.”

    His frustration getting the better of him, Aang ran after his friend. “Where should I go?”

    Stopping, Sokka turned and stared at his friend as if he had something strange on his face. Then he shook his head. “Even though we’ve lived here the last few years, I keep forgetting that you were raised in a monastery.”

    He stared at Sokka as if the young Water Tribe warrior had all the answers in the universe.

    “When a girl gets older she…uh…her…” His voice cracked. “Well…um…we have a huge library! There’s got to be a book in there about women!”

    Soft giggles sounded at the end of the hall as two women walked past. Blushing, Sokka grabbed Aang by the collar of his robe and pulled him in the opposite direction.

    Remembering the last time he had accepted advice from Sokka, Aang tried to back away. “Uh, never mind.”

    “Do you want to know about girls or not?”

    Rolling his eyes, Aang started to walk toward the library. “The last time I listened to you didn’t work. Katara didn’t even know I existed?”

    “Huh?” Sokka sounded perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

    “You told me to act aloof, as if I didn’t care one way or the other and Katara didn’t even bat an eyelash!” Aang scowled as he jumped onto a teetering plank that connected the library with the living quarters. There were still some parts of the monastery that he had yet to repair.

    “You were after Katara!” Sokka asked incredulously as if the thought of anybody with his sister was distasteful. “Hey, wait a minute! I thought you were after Meng!”

    “I am!” Aang shouted across the bottomless chasm, wincing as the echoes of the conversation carried on the wind. Sokka was standing across the way, scratching his head and looking perplexed. It would be like the blind leading the blind if he asked him about ladies.

    Pushing the large library door open, Aang stopped in awe as light spilled into the vast room. There were wall-to-wall shelves, which were covered in old books. The spiraled ceiling climbed as high as the eye could see and, as far as he could see, the walls supporting the ceiling were lined with ancient volumes.

    His shoulders slumped in defeat. By the time he read all these books he would be another century older. Then what good would it do him?

    “…Have to fix the walkway,” Sokka’s voice carried into the library. “I almost fell trying to cross the plank. You could have… Oh wow!” He had obviously seen how extensive the library was.

    “We’ll never find a book on girls in here,” Aang said, all hopes of successfully courting Meng quickly deserting him.

    Sokka walked farther into the room and approached a stack of books on a table, which had been left there as if the person who had been reading them would return soon. Flipping through the dusty pages, he squinted to read the writing. “Tactics of War.”

    Aang ignored him, walking through the large maze of shelves.

    “Whether it be for spite or for personal gain, deception heralds the arrival of doubt. With doubt comes resentment. Through resentment come harsh words. Words are a double-edged sword. They are the weapons and tools of the diplomat. Used wisely, they heal all wounds. Used in vain, they wound deeply.” Sokka’s reading stopped and Aang continued to meander through the shelves, lost in thought.

    A picture of Fire Nation soldiers harnessing lava flashed in his mind. Earthbenders! Why would Earthbenders be dressed as Fire Nation soldiers? Why would Earthbenders attack an Earth Kingdom village? The Southern Air Temple was like a self-contained world, its isolation often lending to the illusion that he was alone. Sometimes he forgot the other nations beneath the clouds.

    Aang scowled, a bad feeling dampening the thrill of his current predicament. He was the Avatar – master of all four elements. The balance of those elements was the basis of life. No matter how much he wanted to, he could not ignore the other nations. They were key to everyone’s survival.

    Could he survive another war? Could they? The balance between them was fragile – the peace between them tenuous. Sokka’s reading summoned a memory from long ago. Monk Sai had returned from a meeting of some sort, informing the others of the withdrawal of ambassadors. The road to war had been paved.

    “Sokka!” Aang called out in a panic.

    “What?” he replied.

    “What day is this?” Aang ran toward the warrior’s voice.

    “I don’t know,” Sokka mumbled into the desk as he tried to nap. “The days all blend together up here.”

    He had missed so many already – the summits between the Air Nomads, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Water Tribes. He couldn’t miss another one. What if the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom started going at one another again? One thing was for certain. He couldn’t miss another meeting. He needed to make sure that the other nations knew what happened at Mt. Mahaku.

    ----

  5. #5

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    Summary -- Zuko and Katara learn of their fates...

    Chapter Three –

    Zuko watched as the various representatives took their seats around the table. The Earth Kingdom delegate, Princess Wan, surrounded herself with advisors, each advisor representing individual provinces. She was older than everybody in the room combined, excluding Uncle Iroh, and had great difficulty hearing the quarterly council meetings. She was just a figurehead with no real decision-making capabilities. The Earth Kingdom royal lines had been so diluted with common blood that their idea of royalty was an actual *******ization of the idea.

    Having meditated before the meeting, he felt prepared for her upcoming censure of the Fire Nation’s inability to control Qiang’s rebels.

    Two delegates from the Water Tribe sat between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation -- Pakku, the Waterbending master from the Northern Water Tribe and, Hakoda, a warrior of the Southern Water Tribe. Both men were dressed in the traditional blue anorak and trousers. Unlike its sister city-state, the Northern Water Tribe had suffered little damage and was well on the road to recovery. Most of its aid was being diverted to the Southern Water Tribe.

    Hakoda and Pakku talked quietly, the older of the two men’s ice-blue eyes occasionally darting toward Zuko.

    Iroh cleared his throat and handed Hakoda a scroll. “I sent a delegate to the Southern Air Temple to see if a representative for the Air Nomads would be present. I do not think he will be coming.”

    Zuko rolled his eyes. He would never forget the time the Avatar sent his pet lemur in his place. He rarely came to the summits.

    “He is helping the people from Mt. Mahaku,” Iroh continued unperturbed by his nephew’s disrespectful expression. “He has been gracious enough to offer them refuge at the Southern Air Temple. Perhaps he will be kind enough to send his pet lemur again…”

    Zuko cleared his throat, motioning toward one of his ministers to start the proceedings for it was the Fire Nation’s honor to do so as the host nation. The last thing they needed was to start off on one of his uncle’s tangents.

    As his minister drew breath to start the beginning of a long-winded speech, a large wooden door opened and a courier hurried toward his Uncle Iroh. The messenger was covered in dust and obviously had an important message.

    With a curt bow, he leaned over and whispered in Iroh’s ear.

    Studying his uncle had become an art. He had done it for so long it had become second nature to him. Iroh was no longer charming host. His attention was elsewhere, the look on his face stern and determined.

    “It is of the utmost importance that I speak with you, Fire Lord Zuko.” His uncle’s use of his entire title did not go unnoticed. “Princess Wan, please forgive us. A delicate matter has come up. Esteemed members of the Water Tribes. We must delay for a few hours.”

    The courier stepped away and positioned himself behind the Water Tribe delegates.

    The princess crossed her arms over her generous chest. “Please send a messenger when you are ready,” she replied haughtily.

    “Of course,” Zuko stated, growing more confused and concerned by the second and hoping that Qiang had not attacked another defenseless village.

    Iroh nodded to Pakku and Hakoda, who stood and left the room, followed closely by the Earth Kingdom delegation and the courier. Only he, his uncle, and the sentries remained.

    In his typical way, the old Firebender put his hands up his sleeves and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the back of the chair and closing his eyes. This was the posture he dreaded. His uncle was contemplating something – something that was either going to upset him or not particularly please him. He loved his uncle, the only person besides his mother who actually loved him back. But he despised the way his uncle treated him at times. “Well? Am I going to have to read the bad news in a report or are you going to tell me?”

    Brown eyes snapped open, but Iroh remained in a relaxed pose. “Your bride has arrived.”

    “My what?”

    “Your bride.”

    There were times in life that were etched in memories for all eternity – memories that no matter how hard one would like to forget, one never could. It had been almost a month since the attack on Mt. Mahaku, almost a month since his uncle had mentioned the need for stability in his nation – a month since Iroh had suggested an advantageous marriage. If he thought his uncle mentally unstable before, he was having serious thoughts of calling the palace physician now. “Have you lost your mind?” Zuko regretted the question as soon as it passed his lips.

    “Yes,” replied Iroh solemnly. “Long ago.”

    “I’m sorry,” Zuko murmured softly, realizing that the comment was once spread amongst the military.

    Iroh sat up in his chair, his warm eyes sparkling with purpose. He was intent on changing the subject. “I had hoped your bride would arrive before the meeting, but they ran into bad weather on the trip.”

    Zuko raised the scarred flesh that had once been his left eyebrow, saying nothing.

    “I am sure she is as beautiful as I remember.”

    His uncle seemed caught in the memory of imagined beauty. He had learned early on never to underestimate Uncle Iroh. When the Fire Nation general wanted something, he usually got it. But Zuko would not be bullied into accepting someone he had never laid eyes on. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful she is, send her back. I won’t marry her.”

    “But it is all arranged,” Iroh stated, having the audacity to look offended by his refusal. “Her father has promised a modest dowry. She is respected by all nations. She has refused other offers, you should feel fortunate that she has accepted you.”

    Zuko snorted in derision, unwilling to acquiesce.

    “She is very beautiful,” Iroh continued, ignoring Zuko’s displeasure. “Her eyes make the bluest sky weep with envy. Her hair is finer than any silk you have touched. She has many other fine qualities…qualities that will make her a fine queen. She can heal with the merest touch. Even her soul is beautiful. ”

    Staring at the older man, Zuko listened to the clues as to the woman’s identity. Influential father. Blue eyes. Nice hair. Healer.

    His uncle was staring at the door leading to an antechamber – the one Pakku and Hakoda had walked through. “Oh no! No! No! No! No! Not her!”

    Iroh grinned, the gleam in his eyes dancing with mirth. So his nephew had finally figured out who was talking about. He needn’t know that her father and former Waterbending master were in the next room trying to convince Katara to accept the proposal.

    --

    The journey had been long and exhausting, but she wouldn’t change this moment for all the jewels in the world. Her father held her, squeezing her and raining kisses along her forehead.

    “My beautiful daughter,” Hakoda murmured against her cheek, running his hands down her arms as if touching her to make certain she was safe and real.

    “Let the girl breathe, Hakoda,” Pakku said, a look of veiled disdain for such affection etched in his features. “She should go to her quarters and rest. The journey was long and undoubtedly tiring.”

    Somehow she kept from rolling her eyes. Her Waterbending master’s opinion of women had not changed. He still thought of them as the weaker sex. Pulling away from her father with a reassuring pat, she bowed to her former master and grinned. “It is good to see you too, Master Pakku.”

    In his usual condescending way, Pakku nodded to the young Water Tribe woman.

    Her azure eyes shone wide with concern. She had prepared for the worst and hadn’t expected an escort to the palace. There were so many questions that she didn’t know where to start. “I came as fast as I could. We ran into some bad weather.”

    Hakoda grabbed his daughter’s hand and kissed it. “Perhaps you should rest.”

    “I’m fine,” she assured her father. “Your letter… Tell me, father. What is it? What is wrong? Is someone ill? Is there a plague?”

    Leading her to a bench, Hakoda sighed. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

    “Then what is it?” Katara scowled and looked at Pakku. Her father looked worried, almost afraid.

    Warm gray eyes bore into hers. “Several weeks ago, the village at Mt. Mahaku was attacked by Fire Nation soldiers.”

    “Oh no!” she gasped, her eyes moist with tears. “Where there any survivors?”

    “A few,” her father replied solemnly. “They have relocated to the Southern Air Temple.”

    “Is there…a list?” her voice cracked as she closed her eyes and tried to recall names and faces she had met on her journey with Aang. She wanted to weep -- the ugliness of conflict marring the perfection of the reunion with her father.

    “An envoy has been dispatched to gather a list of the living.” Her father patted her shoulder reassuringly, saddened to burden someone so young with the ugliness of war. No one should have to live through two wars in one lifetime.

    “What else is there, father?” Katara asked the question with conviction in her voice. She could see the sadness in her father’s eyes. The burden of peace haunted the shadowy lines of his face. “There is something else. Something you are afraid to tell me.”

    Her father turned away.

    Pakku stepped between them, giving his former pupil a stern but wary look. “The reports from Mt. Mahaku said it was Fire Nation soldiers who attacked the village, but we have reason to suspect otherwise. Fire and Earth are so similar, often blinded by their own shortcomings to see what is right in front of them. They compliment one another, just as Air is part Water, Fire molds Earth.”

    “I don’t understand.” Katara sat down, feeling as though she was in for one of her former master’s long-winded speeches.

    Pakku ran a hand over his face, trying to gather the patience and the right words. “The attackers harnessed the power of the volcano to destroy the village.”

    Frowning, Katara tucked one of her legs up under her and wondered when Pakku was going to get to the point.

    “Think logically Katara,” he heaved a sigh of frustration. “Firebenders harnessed the power of a volcano to destroy a village.”

    She looked to her father for the answer, too tired to comprehend the meaning in Pakku’s speech. He kept his back to her. Firebenders used the lava to destroy the village. She tossed the thought around in her muddled mind, rearranging the puzzle and searching for clues. And then it hit her. “Firebenders can’t move rock!”

    Her father turned around and stared at her as if her outburst was something he had not considered.

    “If Firebenders didn’t do it, then who did?” she asked herself more than the men in the room. “Why would Earthbenders attack their own village?”

    “They are trying to cast doubt upon the Fire Nation,” her father stated. “They are picking at the healing wounds across the lands, dishonoring the Fire Lord and spreading malicious gossip that the soldiers attacked on his order.”

    “Zuko would never do such a thing!” She shouted, feeling her blood boil as the unscrupulous plan unfolded before her. Yes, the former prince was an ***, but he wasn’t a cold-blooded murder.

    Pakku and Hakoda exchanged a knowing glance.

    A muffled “No! No! No! No! Not her!” could be heard from the next chamber.

    Hakoda looked panicked. “I am glad to see that you are quick to defend the Fire Lord, Katara.”

    Her trip, coupled with lack of sleep and Pakku’s convoluted riddle, had set her on edge. She was happy to see her father. She was even happy to see Pakku, but the urgency in the letter had her thinking the worst on her journey here. She was happy to hear there was no plague, but she was still befuddled as to why her father had requested she come. Had she misunderstood the letter? She could hear a muffled voice in the next room – one that was older and obviously trying to calm the other. It sounded strangely familiar.

    Shaking her head, Katara pushed at her braids irritably and tucked them behind her ears. “You’re letter was so cryptic,” she addressed her father. “I don’t understand why I am here.”

    Hakoda looked at Pakku pleadingly but the Waterbending master merely studied the fingernails on one hand.

    Her father sighed, clutched her upper arms, and looked into her eyes. “My dearest Katara…”

    This was not good. The only times her father used that tone with her was when he wanted her to let Sokka have his way. “Yes?”

    “I have had a request for your hand in marriage,” he said softly.

    Her eyes widened in surprise.

    “Send her back!” echoed from the other room. “I won’t marry her!”

    Katara broke free from her father and strode toward the door. With a mean shove, she pushed the heavy door open and stepped into the main council chamber.

    --

    A/N -- Insert evil cackle here. I couldn’t resist leaving this chapter here. It was getting a little long and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t rush what was coming up.

  6. #6

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    Summary – Aang, Meng, Aunt Wu, and Sokka journey to the Fire Nation capital.

    Interlude Three –

    “Nice and slow, boy,” Aang cautioned the flying bison as he held the reins. Everything would be okay. Appa knew how to fly so his passengers wouldn’t get sick. He knew not to ascend or descend too quickly.

    Anxiously, he looked over his shoulder at the two passengers. Meng and Aunt Wu were huddled together, the younger of the two holding on to the saddle’s edge with a death grip. She was oddly pale. Sokka was sitting next to them, his head bowed and seemingly asleep.

    Sokka had grown so used to sleeping on Appa that Aang often found the young Water Tribe warrior asleep in the stable with the flying bison.

    “You can let go, Meng,” Aunt Wu’s voice carried over the sound of the wind. “We are beneath the clouds now.”

    “W-what if I f-fall off?” the young apprentice stammered, obviously frightened.

    Setting the reins down, Aang walked across the saddle gracefully. “Don’t worry, Meng. I will catch you if you fall.”

    Her eyes snapped open. “You can’t fly.”

    “You’re right,” Aang replied. “But I can glide…and I would definitely catch you.”

    A blush tinged the young Earth Kingdom girl’s cheeks. “Thanks, Aang.”

    “Just wait.” Aang took Meng’s hand in his. “We’ll be at the Fire Nation capital before you know it.”

    Looking at her small hand in his larger one, Meng’s blush brightened. “I was happy at the monastery. Why do I need to go to the Fire Nation capital?”

    “Because you must tell the others what you saw,” Aunt Wu replied, patting her shoulder reassuringly.

    Meng shook her head. “It was dark. The uniforms looked like Fire soldiers, but…I’m not sure.”

    “Avatar Aang thinks that what you saw is important.” The old fortuneteller tucked her legs underneath her and fussed with her robes.

    Folding his other hand on top of hers, Aang smiled. “I just need you to tell them about what you saw them do, not how they were dressed.”

    Meng closed her eyes, tears shining in the corners. “Everything’s gone. Why did they do it?”

    Aang searched for an answer but found none. Taking her other hand in his, he rubbed them over hers for warmth. Hopefully, an answer would be waiting for them at the Fire Nation capital.

    --

    A/N - Sorry I made this one short, I was rushed.

  7. #7

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    Summary – Katara listens to the plan.

    --

    Chapter Four –

    The door from the council chamber to the antechamber opened with such force it shuddered as it bounced against the wall. He had not been prepared for the sight that greeted him. But there she was, standing before him – Katara of the Water Tribe. Her father and Waterbending master moved behind her. Uncle Iroh was at his side.

    “This is not going as smoothly as I had hoped,” grumbled Iroh under his breath.

    Closing his eyes, Zuko shook his head as if trying to rid himself of the vision of her. She was here, just as his mother so often whispered in his dreams.

    “She will come to you,” his mother had said. “Let her in. Let her heal you.

    Zuko shivered with the memory of his dreams. He hated dreaming about his mother. The rumors had to be true. She had disappeared so long ago. It seemed like a lifetime ago. She was dead, trapped in his dreams, unwilling to move on because of him. But her words were always the same – always about Katara of the Water Tribe.

    Katara stood before him like a fallen spirit -- her boots and clothes caked in mud. Her hair was wild and loose, trailing down her back to her waist. The braids on either side of her face were peppered with silvery-white strands and tucked behind her ears, framing her face. Her tanned face was such a contrast to the color of her eyes, the color of which he was constantly reminded of whenever he looked up at the sky. The one woman he wanted that he could not allow himself to have.

    He would never allow her goodness to touch the ugliness of his life.

    “What is going on?” Katara asked, looking from Iroh to Zuko, and then to her father and Pakku.

    Grasping her elbow, Iroh guided her farther into the council chamber and motioned for all the servants and sentries to leave. “Welcome to Wuhan. Would you care for some tea?”

    Eyeing the Fire Nation general warily, Katara followed him. She could feel Zuko’s eyes following her.

    “I was just explaining the advantages of marrying someone of your standing to my nephew,” Iroh replied as he pulled a chair out for her.

    “This is a preposterous idea,” Zuko retorted, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against a pillar.

    “Be quiet!” Katara snapped at him, tired and intent on listening to the older man. She sat down, grateful for the small comfort.

    Zuko made to reply but was stopped short by the steely glares of the two Water Tribe delegates. He looked to Iroh to reprimand the impudence, but was surprised to see the old man smiling and playing gracious host as he hurried about pouring tea.

    “Since I can remember, there has always been a struggle for the throne. The Fire Nation’s history is littered with civil wars, coups, and assassinations.” Iroh set the teapot onto the table and sat next to her. “I deserted the siege of Ba-Sing-Se once I learned of my son’s death. His death ended my line of succession and Ozai seized the opportunity to claim the throne.”

    Bowing his head and forgetting his immediate problem, Zuko listened to his uncle’s narration. The pain in the old man’s voice was thick -- Iroh’s mourning a continuous reminder of the nature of their relationship.

    “I don’t understand,” whispered Katara.

    “My cousin, Qiang, is plotting against Zuko,” Iroh continued solemnly. “With Ozai dead and Zuko still banished, the line of succession was broken. The war was lost. The Avatar had restored the balance. Our nation lay in ruin -- a victim of Sozin’s ambition.

    “What was left of the War Council appointed me de facto Fire Lord. I hid Zuko away for those few months. He needed the time to heal, to come to grips with what had passed. We surrendered unconditionally, one of two official acts I took as Fire Lord.

    “Weeks turned into months and all nations started the painful process of reconstruction. The Avatar retreated to the Southern Air Temple. The Water Tribes followed the currents to their homes. The Earth Kingdom reclaimed their occupied lands. The Fire Nation…well, we will never be what we once were.”

    Katara cleared her throat as Iroh paused. “I still don’t understand.”

    The old man patted her outstretched hand reassuringly. “Qiang came to me months after the surrender and demanded that I name him my successor. I named Zuko instead. Ever since then, he has launched attacks against unsuspecting villages. Mt. Mahaku was the latest. I fear that he may be in league with factions of the Earth Kingdom. This latest attack would not be possible for Firebenders. We cannot bend rock.”

    “Do you think it was Earthbenders who attacked the village?” Katara looked between her father and former Waterbending master for they had already told her of their suspicions, but she asked the question of his uncle.

    “Yes,” answered Iroh. “Just as the elements are intertwined, so are the royal bloodlines. I fear that the Earth Kingdom has ambitions of placing their own puppet on the throne.”

    Katara’s gaze captured Zuko’s.

    “People are wary,” the old general sighed. “They look to their leaders for hope and stability. If Zuko were to marry…if he were to produce an heir…”

    “…Then he would secure the line of succession and Qiang’s claim would no longer be valid.” Katara finished the thought with a weighty sigh, her gaze never wavering from his. He looked just as she remembered. The amber flecks in his eyes flashed as if daring her to look away. His brow was knitted in a scowl as if it were a permanent expression. His hair, no longer cropped close to his head, was tied back in a topknot. His arms were crossed over muscles his royal robes could not hide.

    “What my uncle has conveniently forgotten to tell you…” Zuko murmured, the timber of his voice sending jolts of awareness up and down her spine. “…Is that if you agree to this hoax, you will become a target more so than me.”

    He left his place against the pillar and walked up to the table, leaning over it. “The child would be a target as well. More than one child… Well, I murdered my sister for all this.” Zuko slammed his fist on the table in emphasis.

    Katara did not flinch. She knew his history. “You did not murder your sister. You defended yourself.”

    Zuko scoffed. “Either way, she is dead by my hand. Can you honestly sit there and tell me that you would agree to lie with a man who has his own family’s blood on his hands?”

    The question lingered, the syllables of his words echoing in the great room.

    “I –,” she whispered, choking on her words. His pain was raw, something she knew she could never walk away from.

    “Go home, Katara of the Water Tribe.” He straightened, standing tall and glaring down his nose at her. “Forget the deranged strategies of these old men. They would sacrifice your youth and beauty on old traditions and parlor tricks. Go home and live your life in peace.”

    Zuko started toward the door and turned to his uncle. “Even if she did agree, send her home. I will defend the throne by myself. I will never marry.” And with those final words, he left.

    Watching his retreating figure, Katara shuddered as a chill ran up her spine. She tempered the compulsion to follow him and stayed in her seat. Her father’s hand covered hers, gently squeezing it in silent apology.

    “He is young and foolish,” Pakku stated, breaking the unpleasant tension. “And noble.”

    “Yes,” Iroh agreed softly. “But not immortal.”

    Her thoughts ambled not on the exchange of words between her father and the others, but on Zuko’s absence. Her mother’s words spoke softly in her mind. Heal the people. Heal him. Now she knew. She knew where she belonged. The few years spent at the South Pole paled in comparison to what awaited her.

    “I thought you had spoken with the Fire Lord, General Iroh,” Hakoda murmured softly, a slight censure in his inflection. “I did not call my daughter this great distance for this rejection.”

    “I have spent years taming Zuko’s impetuous nature,” Iroh replied and sipped his tea. He set his cup down. “He has not rejected your daughter. He has rejected the plan. He seeks to protect her.”

    “He seems determined,” her father murmured. “Katara will return to the South Pole as soon as she is rested.”

    “Do not act in haste, Hakoda of the Water Tribe.” Iroh smiled beneath his beard and mustache. “Trust your daughter into my care. I will prepare her for the role she will take as Zuko’s bride.”

    In a rare burst of temper, her father shot out of his chair. “She has not accepted him. She has a choice! That was the agreement.” His hand on her shoulder trembled as if he were poised to snatch her and run away.

    “Your love for your daughter is admirable.” Iroh bowed in agreement. “Her answer –”

    “Is yes,” Katara blurted out, patting her father’s hand and standing.

    Her father looked shocked and worried, whereas Iroh looked pleased. Pakku, in his usual stance, looked smug. “This is where I belong,” she explained, turning to her father and running her hand over his weathered features. “Mother’s spirit has guided me here. I must stay. I must marry the Fire Lord.”

    --

  8. #8

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    Summary: Iroh relaxes in the bath, contemplating the events of the day and is interrupted.

    Interlude Four –

    Sinking into the tub, Iroh tried to soak his troubles away. If only it were that easy. Zuko’s stubbornness had not only postponed the summit, but the plan as well. He had not foreseen this complication. Zuko would never yield. The scars of his life ran deeper than the one on his face. Katara was their only hope.

    He closed his eyes and sighed. The young woman of the Southern Water Tribe could withstand the bluest fire and walk away unscathed. She was strong, intelligent, and passionate – qualities greatly needed in the future queen.

    Holding his breath, Iroh slipped under the water and continued pondering recent events. Qiang would never stop. The Earth Kingdom had had designs on the Fire Nation’s throne since before Sozin’s War started. It was the way of things, the natural political landscape of favors and debts. It was an old rhythm, one that mimicked the inherent way the elements shaped one another.

    Qiang was a descendant from one of his father’s concubines. He was the ******* son of a ******* son. For him to make claim on the Fire Nation’s most honorable title… His claim was like a death knell for his nation. It was up to Zuko to carry the noble blood of his family forward.

    He came up for air, somewhat bemused by his thoughts. Nobility had been lost on his family for some time now. Sozin’s beliefs had corrupted so many generations. He would never know how the misshapen philosophies of his father and grandfather had skipped him, but he was thankful that they had.

    Climbing out of the tub, Iroh grabbed a nearby towel. A soft gasp caught his attention and he dropped the towel and crouched into a fighting stance. “Show yourself!” he growled, his inflection promising swift retribution.

    Steam from the bath clouded his vision and a shadow moved behind a screen.

    Inhaling sharply, Iroh swept his arm toward the paper-like material and grinned as it caught fire. He didn’t know who was more surprised, him or his supposed assailant.

    As she jumped away from the burning screen, the woman tripped and fell at Iroh’s feet. Stepping away, he grabbed his robe and put it on, quickly extinguishing the fire with practiced ease.

    The woman cowered, poised to receive punishment or death. Her raven hair was tied into a loose braid, which was touching the floor. Her clothes, borrowed from a servant, looked threadbare and loose on her slight frame. In the weeks since he had plucked her from the street the “Earth Kingdom *****” had not uttered a word. It had been difficult to take her home when he had not known where to take her.

    Fearing reprisal from the soldiers who had attempted to harm her, Iroh had handed the woman to his head servant with instructions that the woman was not to leave the compound. The soldiers would be looking for her. They would be looking for revenge against the woman who was responsible for their comrade’s severe punishment.

    Busy with matters of state, he had seen little of her, forgetting that she was even here.

    “Please,” she whispered to the ground.

    She was mumbling something, whimpering and begging.

    Iroh took a step toward her and she scampered toward the nearest wall. Her face was caked with dirt and tears. He could see the fear in her eyes. That was an expression he was familiar with. He had witnessed it too many times in his life. Walking to a table, he took a towel and approached her with it.

    “So,” he said in a non-threatening voice, “You are able to speak.”

    She regarded the offering before accepting it. “Yes,” the woman murmured, every line of her body poised to run.

    “What is your name?” he asked, readjusting his robe. He stepped behind another screen and gathered his clothing.

    “Jia Li.” Her reply was muffled as she wiped the dirt from her face.

    Iroh smiled as he got dressed. “Where are you from?”

    “Ba-Sing-Se,” she replied, watching him as he came out from behind the screen.

    “Then you know who I am,” Iroh stated as he walked out of the room and into his bedchamber.

    She hesitated and followed him. “Yes, Dragon of the West.”

    He smirked. “And how did you come to live in the Fire Nation capital?”

    “I was captured during the cave-in near the north wall,” answered Jai Li. “Captain Tan took me as his concubine.”

    Iroh’s smirk turned into a smile. “Ah, yes! The famous supply tunnels that were running underneath my feet during the entire siege. I had not considered the possibility of Earthbenders digging secret tunnels to run supplies. Very ingenious! And where is Captain Tan, now?”

    She lowered her head and mumbled her answer. “Dead. He died from the fever several years ago.”

    “I am sorry to hear that,” Iroh stated solemnly. “The war has been over for some time now. Why haven’t you gone home?”

    “I bore Captain Tan a son.” Her voice quivered with tears. “After he died, his family took Hui from me. They tossed me aside, telling my son I was in the spirit world. I went to my family for help. They said they had no daughter. They said I should have killed myself rather than lie with a Fire Nation soldier.”

    Iroh watched her tears fall and listened to her sorrow. She was too young to know this much sorrow. She was only half his age.

    “Hui… knows who I am,” she stammered. “They keep him from me, trying to poison him against me. But he knows me. They keep him in the family compound, never letting me in. They raise him to be his father.

    “Every year…at the Summer Festival, we meet in secret,” cried Jai Li. “My son says he will know when I enter the spirit world. I will not be there. That is how he will know. I beg you…

    “Please release me!” she kneeled at his feet, clutching his robe. “Please let me go! You have plenty of servants here! I am worthless! I am nothing to you!”

    As he listened to her pleas, Iroh stiffened. She had lost her son…just as he had. A child who knew his mother one day out of the year, due to the cruelty of those who supposedly loved him. Iroh embraced memories of Lu Ten, his beloved son. In time, they would be reunited. For now, he would help this woman.

    Touching her hair, he moved the thick braid off her shoulder and cupped her chin in his hand. He hated seeing the fear and desperation in her eyes. “You are not worthless,” he murmured, his inflection low.

    “You may not leave my home,” he declared softly. “You are under my protection.”

    --

  9. #9

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    Summary – Zuko seeks peace, only to find Katara in his way.

    Chapter Five –

    Climbing the rocky path, Zuko exhaled. Excitement grew. For a few hours, he was free – free from responsibility, from politics and palace life. As he ascended the steep path to the hot springs, he smiled. He lived for these moments of solitude, where he could slow down and mull over the events that were bothering him.

    This had been his mother’s refuge and now it had become his. She had brought him here when he was a small child, coaxing him into the warm water with treats and cookies. At first he did not care for the hot springs. But, over time, he grew to love them.

    The rocky path turned into a smooth, worn trail. The full moon provided light for his way. Zuko came to a grouping of trees that bordered the natural haven. Swiping the lush, green branches out of his way, he pushed onward. He was almost there, grunting and sweating with the effort of his journey. He could hear the bubbling waters and the cool wind blowing across the springs. But there was something else.

    Singing! The melody reached his ears on the breeze, freezing him in his tracks. Only one layer of bushes remained between Zuko and his goal. Methodically, he moved the foliage to the side and crouched low. His euphoric state came crashing down around him as he discovered who the interloper was.

    “No, no, no, no! Not her!” he growled under his breath as he watched Katara partake in the pleasure of the hot springs. She was humming a melody he had never heard -- the notes of it strangely calming, until she hit the high notes. Her voice cracked as she strained to hit the notes, but she merely cleared her throat, unperturbed as if it happened every time.

    As she bathed in her element, Katara smiled. Her lips curled and she laughed softly, amused with her own thoughts. She looked like a carefree water sprite, like the ones in the stories his mother used to read to him. Her dark skin glistened as if it were just another part of the water.

    Closing his eyes, Zuko envisioned the flesh that he knew to be under the dark water. He had pictured it so many times in his dreams, having seen her in her under clothes during the perilous journey to the Fire Nation.

    He had not wanted to listen to his uncle back then. To betray his father and nation had never entered his thoughts. His search and pursuit of the Avatar had blinded him to everything greater than his own pain. Through his uncle’s teachings he had come to realize the delicacy of the balance between the elements. Taking the side of the greater good had been a slow and painful process.

    Zuko had sat on the sidelines, bemused over Aang’s first attempts of learning Firebending. Ironically, his uncle’s patience had worn thin, and Zuko had ended up teaching Aang. It had been the time between travel and training that he had come to know Katara. She had been the buffer between him and her brother and an Earthbender named Toph.

    As long as Sokka had been annoying Toph and vice versa, they had left him alone. Not that he had gotten along with Katara. He hadn’t. She had argued with him continually, championing Aang’s efforts and belittling his. On day she had pushed him too far.

    He didn’t know who had been more surprised, him, her, or those watching the fight.

    Katara had been pinned beneath him and he had kissed her, effectively shutting her up and subduing her.

    Lost in the memory of their first kiss, Zuko paid little attention as the wind howled through the trees, frightening the birds to flight.

    Stooping low in the water, Katara turned toward the noise. “Hello?”

    The trees swayed, dancing with the wind. Realizing it was just the wind, Katara chuckled. “Silly wind.”

    “Isn’t it fortunate that I am not an assassin?” a snide voice commented from behind her.

    She spun around in a striking stance. “Zuko!” she gasped in relief. “What are you doing here?”

    “I could ask you the same thing,” he retorted, an irritated edge in his voice. He approached the spring, dropping his towel on a rock. “Why haven’t you returned to the South Pole? There is nothing here for you.”

    “I am waiting for my betrothed,” she replied, swimming away from him. “And yes, it is fortunate you aren’t an assassin. If you were, you’d have an icicle driven through your heart.”

    His eyes narrowed as he watched her play in the water like a mischievous turtle duck. She had on a white halter-top and bottoms, but even those left little to the imagination. Whipping his robe off, he looked smug. “You’re a healer, Katara, not a warrior.”

    Blushing, she averted her eyes and turned away from him. “Would you care to test that theory, Zuko? It’s a full moon tonight.”

    He eased into the hot water and sighed. “The sun always rises,” he retorted, splicing through the water toward her.

    She kept her back to him. “You would be dead before that happened.”

    Closing in on her, Zuko felt as though his blood was on fire. He would teach her a lesson she would never forget. He was behind her now. All he had to do was reach out and touch her. “You’ve always been so sure of yourself,” he murmured next to her ear. “I’m almost envious.”

    Heat curled in her stomach, an unfamiliar awareness prickling her skin. “That’s rich!” she joked halfheartedly. “You envious of a ‘little peasant.’” She threw the hurtful words back at him that he had uttered so long ago.

    His fingers caressed her shoulders and she turned around. Her eyes widened and her hands went up to his bare chest. He was trying to intimidate her and it was working.

    Zuko sneered, grabbing her wrists and trapping them between their bodies. “Your arms are trapped. How would you defend yourself now, little Waterbender?”

    Struggling to break his hold, Katara hissed, “Let me go!”

    He tightened his hold, lowering his head to hers. “You know.” His breath swept across her face as he licked his lips. “Perhaps I spoke in haste. You should stay.”

    She could feel her heart hammering against her ribcage. Her gaze lingered on his thin lips as they descended to hers. Closing her eyes, she readied herself for his kiss.

    “With the proper training, you…” He touched his lips to hers. “…Would do well as a concubine.”

    Opening her mouth to protest, she moaned as he kissed her. She couldn’t move. She was pinned between the edge of the pool and him, feeling sensations she’d only ever heard of. The intimacy startled her, but she held on to the shreds of her dignity and continued to struggle against his invasion.

    Zuko broke the kiss, trailing his lips along her jaw. “Yes,” he murmured, his voice thick with desire. “You will do very well as my concubine.”

    He still held her wrists, but her fingers were free and he was wet. Wiggling her fingers, she exhaled sharply, turning the droplets of water into ice.

    Yelping as the ice encased his stomach and chest, Zuko jumped back.

    Katara swam to the shore, escaping him and temptation. Climbing out of the pool, she huffed. “How dare you!”

    Squatting in the water, he glared at her and rubbed the ice from his chest. “You little –”

    “I am no man’s *****!” she railed, grabbing her clothes and jerking them on. She would not be secondary to anyone. “You are a selfish, spoiled, arrogant…child!”

    He moved closer to the edge, his intentions clear.

    “Don’t you move!” Katara was poised to strike, as she backed away.

    “You little witch!” Zuko seethed with anger, the water and his rage melting the last of the ice from his body.

    Katara smirked. It was a full moon and he was in a pool of water. “Some Fire Lord you are,” she taunted. “You wallow in self-pity, holding it like a shield. You use it as an excuse. No one can get close to you. You won’t allow it. You are friend to no one and loved one to all. You’re alone, Zuko, even when you surround yourself with people.”

    She paced in the clearing, searching for words. “You can’t defend the people of your nation by yourself. You can’t…”

    He stared at her -- his amber eyes flashing with promised retribution.

    Throwing her hands in the air, Katara exhaled. “This is like talking to an iceberg. Pointless!” Her frustration getting the better of her, Katara gathered Zuko’s robe and towel and threw it at him. “I’m going home!”

    Zuko eyed her retreating backside and quelled the desire to go after her. She may be of the Water Tribe, but her spirit was pure fire. He shivered, hunkering down in the water and contemplating his next move.

    He would have her, even if he had to take drastic measures to do so.

    --

  10. #10

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    Summary – Toph makes her way to the Fire Nation capital.

    Interlude Five –

    She hated it when it rained. The infinite drops of water overwhelmed her tactile senses. She was truly blind when it rained. She was drowning in vibrations, sick to her stomach and dizzy with the noise. The carriage lurched as one of its wheels dipped into a pothole. Toph grabbed the seat to keep upright and grunted with the effort.

    “Are you all right.” A firm hand settled on her shoulder.

    Shrugging it off, Toph glared in the direction of the bodyguard. “Yes,” she seethed, making no effort to mask the contempt in her voice. After all, the man was just another one of her father’s stooges.

    “We’ll be there, soon,” the bodyguard stated.

    She scowled. Of all the idiots her father could have sent to the summit, he had picked this one. Soon? It was at least another day’s ride to the capital of the Fire Nation. Mongi, her bodyguard, truly was the village idiot.

    Closing her eyes, she let her mind wander. She still had difficulty believing that her father had capitulated so easily. But he had had to accept her ultimatum or suffer the consequences. Toph wasn’t above running away again even if it meant the emotional upset of her father.

    Having known freedom with Aang, Sokka, and Katara, it had been difficult for her to return home. But she had, only to find her mother dead and her father mad with grief.

    Her father had changed since the death of her mother. Whereas he had always strove to protect her, it was his obsession now. Everything had changed when she had returned home.

    She was more a prisoner now than ever, her father’s frailty feeding her ever-present guilt. Their parting argument echoed in her mind, her harsh words wounding him.

    She hadn’t needed to see his expression. She had heard it in his voice.

    She now traveled with several bodyguards, burdened with the trappings of wealth and an overprotective father. She had to get away. She could feel herself dying behind the high walls of her family compound.

    They had traveled by coach, then by water. Now they were on the last leg of the journey, bumping around in a carriage. They had probably missed the summit, not that she really cared.

    She was going to Wuhan to see if the rumors were true. Servants were horrible gossips. Their whispers were her entertainment. But their recent gossip seemed preposterous. Zuko and Katara! Married! She had to see it with her own eyes…er…feet.

    --

  11. #11

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    I'm going on vacation from school and stuff for a week, so exspect major updating!

    --

    Summary – Katara reconsiders her decision. Appa arrives with wary travelers.

    Chapter Six –

    Gazing into the pond, Katara watched the Koi dance in the water, their colors enchanting her troubled thoughts away. Some were gold. Some were white. Most were multicolored, purposely bred to enhance the beauty of the murky depths of the pond.

    On the other side of the pond the caretaker sprinkled food in the water, calling them to the surface. A sea of red and black dominated the turbulent frenzy of feeding.

    Seeing the irony in the scene of nature, Katara scoffed. “They are just like Zuko – a bully to the bitter end.”

    What had she been thinking? The plan bordered on insane. It was insane! Perhaps she hadn’t thought things through. Perhaps there was another way to do some good here.

    Katara shuddered as she contemplated her hasty decision. She should have never agreed to marry Zuko. Now she needed to tell her father that she had changed her mind.

    The sound of firecrackers sounded in the distance. The citizens of Wuhan were getting ready to start the Summer Festival. Apparently, it was a big deal around here. Her tribe celebrated the Summer Solstice by washing their heavy parkas and slopping the mush out of their homes.

    She must have been drinking cactus juice when she had agreed to marry Zuko. In marrying Zuko she would become what… Queen? Fire Lady? She knew nothing of this foreign land. Her home was made of ice, comforting in its simplicity. She looked at the ornamental roofs of the royal courtyard, their grandeur harking back to their rich history.

    She was in way over her head, her brush with the Spirit World steadily losing its influence over her. “It was probably just some strange dream, anyway.”

    A Koi, bright with metallic blue gills, jumped from the water, capturing Katara’s attention. It was not feeding like the others. It swam to the shore, begging for the young Waterbender’s touch.

    Taking a piece of stale bread from her traveling pouch, Katara placed it in the water. It nipped her fingers, greedily ingesting the offering. A large shadow danced along the surface of the pond, distracting Katara.

    Looking up, her breath caught in her throat and the warmth of joy jumped in her heart. “Appa!”

    --

    Taking Aang’s hand, Meng could not help the blush that suffused her cheeks. When his hands circled her tiny waist as he helped her off the bison’s platform, her embarrassment grew. “Thank you,” she replied breathlessly, thankful to be standing on solid ground.

    “You’re welcome,” replied Aang, still holding onto her as she wobbled on her feet. “Are you going to be okay?”

    Unaware of her tangled, wind-swept hair, Meng tilted her head back and stared at his lips. “Y-yes. I think so.” The thrill of being close to him took the chill of their journey away.

    “Sokka!” a shrill voice screamed on the other side of the giant bison.

    “I can’t believe it,” Aang murmured, releasing Meng. He walked around Appa and scratched the sky bison on its forehead.

    Meng scowled, feeling neglected and uneasy. There was something familiar about that voice.

    “What are you doing here?” Sokka questioned, his voice somewhat muffled as though someone were hugging him.

    Holding on to the fur of the groaning beast, Meng made her way around him to what sounded like a happy reunion. She stopped in her tracks, wary from the trip. She didn’t want to believe her eyes, but there she was -- Katara of the Water Tribe…the floozy…the other woman!

    Katara was hugging Aang and Sokka. Aunt Wu was watching the reunion with unshed tears in her eyes. A wave of jealousy swamped Meng, but she let her tears flow freely. Any hopes of capturing Aang’s affections were shattered.

    “Aunt Wu!” Katara cried, embracing the old woman as her brother and friend looked on.

    Meng leaned against Appa who crawled away from her as if saying, “enough was enough.” She lost her balance and fell on her ***.

    “Meng!” Aang shouted and hurried to help her up.

    She batted his hands away and stood up, swiping the tears away with the sleeve of her simple orange robe.

    “What’s wrong?” he asked, befuddled over her behavior.

    “Nothing,” she snapped, pulling the hem of the robe up and walking toward Aunt Wu. Katara’s gaze settled on her and she cringed. The Waterbender was a woman, not a girl. Her heart sank and new tears prickled her eyes.

    “Meng?” Katara looked over Aunt Wu’s shoulder. Releasing the old fortuneteller, Katara ran to assist Meg and wrapped her arms around her slim shoulders. “Thank goodness! Thank goodness both of you survived!”

    Katara pulled away after practically suffocating her. “Hello, Katara,” she greeted, her voice colder than any ice the floozy could bend.

    Missing the cold welcome, Katara rubbed the young girls shoulders as if she were still ascertaining if the young teenager was real. “Look at you! You look…er…wonderful,” she said, staring at her tangled hair.

    Sokka cleared his throat. “What are you doing here?” he asked, demanding the answer to his earlier question. “We thought you were at the South Pole with Gran Gran. Oh no! Is Gran Gran –”

    “She’s fine,” Katara responded, taking one of her brother’s outstretched hands.

    “What are you doing here, Katara?” This time Aang asked.

    Looking to the ground, Katara tried her best to stop the blush that crept up her neck and into her cheeks. “Well, that’s a little difficult to explain.”

    “She’s here to find a husband!” a disparaging voice called out from the sideline of the reunion.

    “Huh? What? Really?” Aang, Sokka, and Meng’s voices rang out in unison.

    Out of habit, Sokka reached for his boomerang and stepped back.

    Aang put his fists together and bowed in respect. “Fire Lord Zuko.”

    Hands at his side, Zuko returned the gesture and greeted the young man. “Avatar Aang. It is lucky the summit was postponed. You have arrived just in time. It starts tomorrow. Welcome to my home.”

    Aang scratched his head. “It sure has changed since the last time I was here.”

    “What do you mean you’re here to find a husband?” Sokka gaped at his sister.

    “Have you picked out a dress yet?” Meng grabbed Katara’s arm as she stumbled over her long robe. “When are you getting married?”

    “I – no – I,” Katara huffed, glaring at Zuko. “I’m not here to find a husband. I had agreed to marry Zuko, but he’s decided that I would be better suited as a concubine, which is not going to happen.”

    “What?” Sokka growled, reaching for his boomerang again.

    Meng’s hopeful expression died and she walked to Aunt Wu who was watching the interaction with amusement.

    Aang watched the group with growing apprehension. It was always the same. They were always fighting – first words, then fisticuffs. “Look –”

    “I put up with a lot of your garbage when we were trying to defeat your dad, but I have had enough.” Sokka’s voice increased in volume with each word. He brandished his boomerang in a threatening manner and glared at the Fire Lord.

    “Sokka –” Katara tugged on her brother’s arm.

    “No, Katara!” he barked.

    “Sokka!” Aang warned, eyeing the gathering Fire Nation guards who stood poised to strike.

    “I’ve beaten you before,” Zuko stated calmly, taking a fighting stance and waving off his guards.

    Katara released Sokka’s arm and opened her water pouch, pouring it on the ground between her brother and the Fire Lord. They circled one another, oblivious to anything around them, especially the mud they were stepping in.

    As if reading each other’s minds, Katara and Aang turned the water into ice, effectively trapping the two posturing dolts.

    Aang stepped between them, glaring at both. “Will you two stop it? This isn’t the time for petty squabbles!”

    Sokka snorted, chipping away at the ice with his weapon. “He insulted Katara’s honor!”

    Zuko rolled his eyes and worked on melting the ice that encased his feet. If the idiot only knew…

    “We have more important things to deal with.” Aang held his hand out to Meng who hid behind Aunt Wu. “Come on, Meng. Don’t be frightened.”

    The young Earth Kingdom girl shook her head, looking from Zuko to Sokka.

    Aang glared at Zuko. “The attack at Mt. Mahaku… It wasn’t Firebenders. It was Earthbenders who attacked the village.”

    “We know that,” Zuko replied softly.

    Walking toward Meng, Aang coaxed the reluctant girl from her hiding place. “But do you have an eye witness?”

    Zuko shook his head and forget the earlier challenge. “Either way, the Earth Kingdom is going to believe what they want to believe.”

    “B-but, I saw them,” stammered Meng, emboldened by Aang’s touch. “They—they were dressed like Firebenders, but they moved the lava around like Earthbenders.”

    “I don’t see what difference this makes,” Zuko replied, crossing his arms over his chest and adopting a petulant pose.

    Helping her brother from the ice anklets, Katara rolled her eyes. “You have an eyewitness,” she retorted. “The Earth Kingdom can’t ignore Meng’s testimony. When the summit starts, have her address the council.”

    Aang nodded his head in agreement and squeezed Meng’s hand reassuringly.

    “Aunt Wu, did you see anything?” Katara asked.

    “No, I did not,” replied Aunt Wu. “There was too much smoke. I am lucky to be alive.”

    Zuko watched the interplay between the people before him, almost envious of their easy camaraderie. Katara’s brother stared at him with hatred in his eyes.

    “I don’t know what the Earth Kingdom is up to,” Aang announced solemnly. “But I’m not going to stand by and watch another war.”

    --

  12. #12

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    Summary – Iroh schemes. Toph arrives.

    Interlude Six –

    She paid little attention to the fireworks outside her window as she wept by the locked door. “It is for your own good,” the Dragon of the West had said.

    The attendant stared at her with unsympathetic eyes as Jia Li banged the locked door with her fist. The silk of her robe was dirty and wet with tears – a gift from him. She was not naďve. She knew what the old man wanted from her. She was too old for romantic notions.

    When her previous husband had succumbed to the fever she had mourned. Kalid had shown her kindness. He had wanted to make her most honored wife, but he had been unable to due to the prejudice of war. After all, she had been his prisoner. And prisoners of war did not become wives. They were conquered.

    But it had never been like that with them. He had wooed her, broken down her defenses and won her heart. But fate had other plans.

    Now she was common flesh in the brothels, selling her body to survive for one night a year – the opening of the Summer Festival.

    “Please!” she whimpered, her voice raw from earlier shouting. “Let me go. I must go!”

    The Dragon of the West had taken her as his concubine, offering his protection and locking her away. That had been two days ago. Her pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

    --

    Iroh moved swiftly through the streets…at least as swiftly as he could, given his age. There was much to do and so little time. The royal feast had already begun. He could hear strained laughter from the confines of the compound.

    Making his way through the streets, Iroh looked up to the sky. The fireworks were lovely this year, heralding the arrival of the Fire Nation’s season. Summer belonged to the Fire Nation, just as winter belonged to the Water Tribe, autumn to the Air Nomads, and spring to the Earth Kingdom.

    Personally, he preferred spring. Summer was much too hot.

    Mentally, Iroh chastised himself for letting his mind wander. He needed to focus. He needed to find the Tan family and recover the child. Revelers crowded the street, singing merely and forgetting their daily woes.

    His daily woes were just beginning, judging by his nephew’s attitude. Zuko skirted a very dangerous edge – one he could no longer go alone. It looked as though Zuko’s stubbornness would have to be overcome with old-fashioned treachery. Of course, he would need to speak with Hakoda before he arranged the trap. After all, he would be playing an integral part. If only he could give the young Waterbender’s father some acting lessons…

    Tracking his way through the maze of streets and buildings, Iroh looked at the familiar landmarks and got his bearings. He chuckled, chastising himself for letting his mind wander again. He needed to get back to the task at hand – finding the Tan family compound.

    Although it was unlikely he would be able to reunite Jia Li with her son tonight, he could at least start pouring the foundations. She did not understand, of course. He’d had little time to explain and had had to take drastic measures to keep her inside his home. The streets were thick with soldiers…drunk soldiers, and he could not risk her safety.

    He would not risk her safety. He frowned as he remembered Jia Li’s words, her pleas of grief. He was not used to explaining his actions to anyone, much less a woman. Between this plot and the other schemes he had little time.

    He stepped into the street and quickly stepped back as a processional of carriages with the Bei Fong family crest made their way down the street. “Another late delegate, no doubt. It really is fortunate that the summit was postponed.”

    --

    The carriage hit a bump in the road and Toph winced. Her *** was so sore, just like the rest of her body. At least it wasn’t raining anymore. Hearing the sounds of fireworks in the distances, she turned her face toward them.

    “Wow! Did you see that?” Mongi asked, his voice filled with awe over the display.

    Rolling her eyes and waving her hand in front of her face, Toph “accidentally” kicked him. “Uh, no I didn’t. Blind, remember?”

    The uncomfortable silence stretched between them. She didn’t know which she hated worse, the silence or the apology that was coming next.

    “Oh, yeah. I forgot. Sorry.”

    Gripping the cushions of the carriage, she leaned toward him. She was tired and sore, and her temper had always been short to ignite. “What are you sorry for? For me being born blind? Don’t be. I like being blind. It allows me to see things others can’t – like how I’m going to kick your *** when this carriage stops.”

    The bodyguard snorted loudly.

    Toph grinned, able to feel the mountains in the distance. “Just wait.”

    --

    Stifling a yawn, Iroh made his way past his guards and to Jia Li’s bedchamber. The night had been very productive. He had wheedled an invitation to the Tan family picnic and had met Jia Li's son, Hui. Through much flattery and libations, he had convinced the family of Hui’s potential and had offered his services as tutor.

    Hui’s grandmother had been wary, but his grandfather had been flattered. After all, it wasn’t every day that a member of the Royal Family paid such respect to a family of the merchant class. Sure, he could have taken Hui from the Tan family, but he had enough enemies and did not need any more.

    When Iroh had had a moment alone with the ten-year-old boy he had explained his mother’s absence and that he would be with her soon.

    “She did not arrive in the garden this evening,” Hui whispered, tears swimming in his eyes. “She is not in the Spirit World?”

    “She is very much alive, aggrieved that she cannot be here with you tonight,” Iroh replied. “You will come to my home as my student. You will see your mother then. But you must keep this secret from your grandparents.”

    Unlocking the door to Jia Li’s chambers, Iroh pushed open the door and found a very drowsy attendant. Jia Li was in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Her fine silk robe was soiled. There were dark circles under her eyes. If one could will themselves to death, Iroh had no doubt that she would. Iroh winced. He had not meant to cause her such distress, but he’d had little time to explain things to her.

    “Leave us,” he commanded the attendant, who quickly scurried away.

    Removing a yellow orchid from his sleeve, Iroh placed it on the pillow beside Jia Li’s head. “I am sorry,” he mumbled, searching for words. “I am sorry that I have distressed you.”

    Jia Li’s gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. If he weren’t seeing the steady rise and fall of her chest, he would think she was dead.

    “Hui is well,” Iroh continued. “He sends this flower and his love. He will arrive in a few days.”

    Her eyelids fluttered. Turning her head, she gazed at the flower.

    Tired, and desperately needing some sleep before the summit, Iroh left the room.

  13. #13

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    Sorry I haven't been posting, I've been SUPER-busy with school, I completed 2 chapters this time.




    Summary – Zuko meditates and recalls events from the previous night. A decision is made.

    Chapter Seven –

    Sitting in one of the antechambers near the main council chamber, Zuko closed his eyes and centered himself. At least he tried to center himself. Every time he tried to meditate he thought of Katara.

    Last night had been an ordeal. He’d had to play host to all the delegates and honored guests, people he’d never met before.

    Standing at the entrance of the grand room, Zuko welcomed an Earth Kingdom delegate halfheartedly as he watched Katara’s movements around the room.

    She did not cling to the ornate trappings of his culture or that of the Earth Kingdom. Instead of flowing silks, she wore the traditional understated blue robe of the Water Tribe. She flowed between people, easily conversing with total strangers. Smiling, she touched her choker and fingered it out of habit – a habit he was all too familiar with.

    He grinned, mumbling something he hoped was the correct response to the person standing in front of him. Katara used that choker to keep people at bay. Yes, she wore it as a reminder of her mother, but it served another purpose. It discouraged the men of her tribe from approaching her.

    “And just where is your uncle, Fire Lord Zuko?” Princess Wan asked, approaching him, the feathers on her headdress reminding him of a deranged bird.

    “I wish I knew,” Zuko replied with a respectful bow, wincing as his uniform shifted uncomfortably on his body.

    “Please point him in my direction when you see him,” the old peacock requested.

    “Of course,” he stated with another bow, hoping the woman moved on quickly. His gaze settled on Katara again, observing the subtle scowl of disapproval to the conversation she was taking part in. He was all too familiar with that scowl.

    That was another reason he shouldn’t marry her. They did not get along. They came from totally different worlds. She had no place in his life, other than in his bed. His reverie was cut short as another Earth Kingdom delegate stepped before him.

    “Hey, Z,” an annoyingly common voice greeted him. “Sorry I’m late, but I had to show my bodyguard slash Bei Fong family rep what a helpless little girl I am. He and his buddies are currently digging him out of the hole I put him in.”

    “Toph?” He couldn’t believe his eyes or ears. It sounded like her, but it looked nothing like her. “Is that you?”

    “And here I thought I was the one that’s blind,” she retorted jokingly. “Of course it’s me.”

    “You’re wearing a dress!” Zuko scratched his chin as though he were trying to solve some complex puzzle. He sniffed the air around her. “And you don’t smell…bad.”

    “Wow!” Toph quirked an expressive eyebrow. “It’s amazing Katara ever agreed to marry you! So when’s the big day?”

    With a reaction time that would have surpassed Azula in her heyday, Zuko grabbed Toph’s wrist and pulled her into a nearby alcove, heedless of the curious stares and the sudden lull of noise in the room.

    “What are you talking about?” hissed Zuko, turning his back on the curious onlookers.

    Scowling, Toph yanked her wrist from his grasp. “Unless my household servants are dipping into my father’s liquor cabinets again, you and Katara are getting married. And easy with the whole touchy-feely stuff! I’ll bury you the next time you do that.”

    Zuko shook his head in disgust and frustration. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Who else knows? Have you told anyone else?”

    Toph squared her shoulders and knocked his hands away. “If the servants know, everyone knows.”


    Staring at the flame before him, Zuko sighed in resignation. Toph was right. Knowing the gossipmongers, Katara and he were not only married, but also planning the arrival of their firstborn child. Either way, his uncle’s plan had put her danger.

    The only door to the antechamber inched open slowly, putting an end to his attempts of meditation. With a huff, Zuko extinguished the flame as the shadow of a feminine figure crept into the room.

    Stepping into a shadow, Zuko grinned as he watched Katara fumble around in the ill-illuminated room.

    She cursed as she stubbed her toe on something. “Times like this. It would be nice to be a Firebender.”

    With a concentrated effort, he lit the candles that were closest to him. “Like this?”

    Katara jumped, catching her balance on a nearby table. “You startled me! What are you doing here?”

    Approaching her, he shrugged. “I live here. What are you doing here?”

    She edged along the table, trying to put distance between them. “I-I was looking for the kitchens. Your uncle gave me directions, but I must have remembered them incorrectly.”

    “Go home, Katara,” Zuko commanded softly, giving her a last chance to run away from this madness between them. Iroh was scheming. He didn’t need an advanced education to see that. The old man had sent her down here as a sacrifice. “It isn’t safe here. Go back to your simple life.”

    “I’d like to see you live in the Arctic!” she spat. “If it weren’t for Aang, you’d be dead! He’s the one who saved you at the North Pole. If it were up to Sokka and me, we would have left you! Our lives are not simple!”

    Smirking, Zuko circled the table. She was not meek. She would fight him every step of the way. “My apologies, Noble Water Tribe Maiden,” he offered. “I meant no offense.”

    Scoffing at his apology, Katara countered his move around the table. As he moved left she moved left, an eternal circle of pride and fortitude. She could read the intent in his amber eyes. If he caught her, she knew she would be lost.

    “Why were you looking for the kitchens?” He pursued her, running his hand along the tops of the chairs that lined the edge of the table.

    “Because I’m hungry,” she retorted irritably.

    He laughed. He’d never been to his own kitchens. The servants would probably panic if he went there. He wondered how they would receive Katara. “Why didn’t you just send for food?”

    Hands on her hips, Katara scowled. “Because I can get my own food.”

    “You would upset the servants if you went to the kitchens,” he warned, stopping the dance around the table. “They aren’t used to their superiors in common areas.”

    “Well then,” she sighed, leaning over the table. Her blue robe gapped open, giving Zuko an enticing glimpse of her collarbone. “Isn’t it fortunate I am not their superior.”

    Zuko moved slowly, unthreateningly. “You’ll grow used to it.”

    “There is nothing to get used to.” She straightened, like a wary animal poised to flee at the first sign of danger. “I’ll be leaving as soon as the summit is over.”

    He stalked her, biding his time and edging his way to the end of the long table. “That may prove more problematic than you think.”

    “No it isn’t,” Katara replied slowly, dragging each syllable out. “I’ll be leaving with my father.”

    He was within striking distance. All he had to do was reach out and touch her. “Not if you become my wife.”

    As if realizing his proximity, Katara tried to move away from him. But it was too late.

    With the speed of a tiger pouncing on its prey, Zuko grabbed her wrist. She looked stunned and tried to twist away, but he turned her movements against her, pressing his body flush to hers.

    “I w-won’t marry you,” she stammered, shadows of doubt playing across her face. “Please let me go.”

    Her earlier words came back to haunt him. “Friend to no one and loved one to all.”

    She did not struggle.

    “What did you mean?” asked Zuko as he nuzzled the delicate shell of her ear and lost himself in her fragrance. “If I am loved one to all, then that would mean that you love me. Why not marry the man you love?”

    Raining gentle kisses along her jaw, he was pleased when she titled her head back and permitted him greater liberties. He exploited her decision, pressing his lips against her pulse and feeling her heartbeat race.

    “I don’t love you,” she denied breathlessly, wiggling against him in an effort to gain her freedom.

    Her struggle only heightened his desire. Opening his mouth against the skin at the column of her throat, he tasted her. Her taste, forever engraved in his memories, was refreshing. Zuko shifted, trying to get closer to her and only tormenting himself more.

    Their legs were intertwined and he had her bent backward onto the table. Her hands were trapped between their bodies, her fingers splayed against his chest. He would not make that mistake again. Knowing Katara, she would freeze his blood -- assuming the rumors were true about Waterbending capabilities.

    “Then why allow my affections?” he whispered against her lips before claiming her answer.

    There was nothing tender about the kiss. He was taking her, staking his claim. It was for her own good. She would be safer in the palace than anywhere else. By now his enemies knew of their “marriage.” So why not make it real? Why shouldn’t he reap the advantages of having her close by, warming his bed…and life?

    “You dare deny my daughter and dishonor her in such a manner!” a low growl was heard from the doorway.

    Katara pushed against his chest with a startled gasp. Reluctantly, Zuko released her, straightening and holding his fists at his sides. “She has accepted me, and I have accepted her. There is no dishonor here, Father of My Intended.”
    Last edited by flannery lover; 9th November 2006 at 1:52 PM.

  14. #14

    Default

    Summary – Katara recalls a conversation between herself and her father. She and Toph relax.

    Interlude Seven –

    “Trust me!” Katara called out to Toph as she climbed the steep trail to the hot springs. “This is just what you need. A nice long soak.” It’s actually just what she needed after yesterday.

    “But you said I had a choice!” she entreated, following behind her father.

    Hakoda entered the garden, making his way toward the serenity of the Koi pond. “You do.”

    “I do not want to marry Fire Lord Zuko,” Katara affirmed sharply. “I want to go home.”

    Walking onto the bridge, her father stopped and searched the water. “Do you love him?”

    Katara blushed. Not only had she been caught in a compromising situation, she had enjoyed Zuko’s attentions. “I-I admire him. He was horrible at first, but he kind of grows on you.”

    “You haven’t answered the question.” Her father reached into his pocket and produced a pouch of fish food. He sprinkled some onto the water, calling the Koi to feed.

    Studying her hands, Katara bowed her head. “I don’t know.”

    “An honest answer,” Hakoda whispered, “is better than no answer at all.”

    “I don’t belong here,” she confessed as she leaned on the railing of the bridge and watched the Koi.

    Grasping one of her hands, Hakoda pointed at the waterfall in the distance. “Look at the water. Watch the way it moves. It falls into the pool and waits.”

    She listened to her father’s words, hoping for some of his strength to rub off on her.

    “It waits for the sun,” he continued solemnly. “The sun calls to the water, carrying it into the sky. The water, too heavy for the air to hold, falls to the earth. It is the natural way of things, Katara. Water can go anywhere. It can be anything, liquid, solid, steam…

    “Just like you, my daughter.” He squeezed her hand reassuringly. “You belong everywhere. Do not be intimidated by the trappings of this nation. Its people may have technology and science, but their souls are adrift. They float in a sea of uncertainty, wondering what each day will bring.

    “Fire Lord Zuko is a noble leader, but nobility only goes so far.” Her father sprinkled more food on the water and sighed. “He has isolated himself, afraid to let anyone get too close to him. The people look to him to carry on the once-proud traditions of long ago. Marriage and procurement of an heir is… Well, you understand what it is. I am surprised he has not taken a concubine for this task.”

    Inwardly, Katara cringed. The thought of him with another woman stirred jealousy within her.

    “When General Iroh approached me with this…idea he was painfully honest. He told me of your travels, their pursuit, and the eventual alliance between Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang. He told me of the begrudging ‘respect’ that was forged between you and Fire Lord Zuko.”

    Katara blushed, hoping that Zuko’s uncle had skipped the part where they had kissed for the first time.

    “He also cautioned me before…encouraging you to accept.” Hakoda’s solemn gray eyes met his daughter’s. “He warned me of the threat to the throne. ‘How the shadows conspire against the light.’ It has been that way since the rising of the sun. You will have comforts beyond the wildest imaginings of our people, but you must constantly be on guard.”

    “I understood all of that when I agreed,” she mumbled.

    A companionable silence settled between father and daughter. Hakoda tossed crumbs into the water and they both watched the Koi.

    “When you were born your mother cried. Her tears were what she called bitter joy. She loved you and was happy to have you. I asked her why her joy was bitter and she said it was because you would leave us. Not only have I lost my wife to the Fire Nation, I have lost my daughter as well.”

    Wrapping her arms around him, Katara squeezed her eyes shut to stem the flow of tears. “You haven’t lost me.”


    Brushing the thick foliage out of the way, Katara shoved her worries to the back of her mind. For now she would enjoy the hot springs and Toph’s company.

    “I can see it!” Toph called out excitedly, running her hand along a large boulder next to the edge of the steaming pool. “It feels like a big bowl of jelly.”

    Katara smirked as Toph described how she “saw” the hot spring. Stepping into the water, she hissed. It was hot and a little on the uncomfortable side. She cooled the water with her bending and eased deeper into the pool.

    A large splash disrupted the surface of the water as Toph jumped in. The young Earthbender came up for air with a sour look on her face. “The bottom is all mushy. It makes things look fuzzy.”

    “You don’t need to see anything,” Katara sighed, leaning against the edge of the hot spring and closing her eyes. “Just relax and enjoy.”

    Toph puffed her cheeks out and dog-paddled in a circle, trying to find her way to ground.

    Katara stifled a giggle. Her friend looked like a deranged Koalter. “Over here, Toph. Swim toward the sound of my voice.”

    Instead of doing as Katara said, Toph swam away. “I know where I’m going. I just thought you could use a good laugh.”

    Katara tossed her head back and giggled. “Thanks, Toph.”

    The water settled around them, soothing aches and pains away and lulling them into a lazy silence. Worries and fears melted away as steam rose from the water.

    “So,” Toph sighed. “When did you and Zuko hook up?”

    “W-we haven’t,” stammered Katara.

    Kicking off from her perch, Toph swam to the middle of the small pool and floated on her back. “Yeah right. You’re marrying him and you’re sitting there telling me that you haven’t had sex with him.”

    Taking a deep breath to answer Toph, Katara gasped as something grabbed hold of her ankles and feet and yanked her beneath the water. Darkness surrounded her. There was no light. The moon was new. She could not draw on its power to defend herself.

    She struggled to breathe, exhaling precious air as she cried for help. Clawing at her ankles, she tried to free herself. She was immersed in water, clawing the liquid and slicing through it angrily.

    Katara barely heard Toph calling for her. Trying to call for help, she expelled more air. Her lungs burned. With the last of her air, Katara focused on the water surrounding her. Someone meant it to be her grave. She exhaled sharply, turning the water into an icy slush.

    In freezing the liquid around her, the muddy earth cracked and released her. She broke the surface of the water, gasping and dragging precious air into her aching lungs.

    “Katara! Katara!” Toph cried, her teeth chattering as she crawled out of the icy water. “Are you okay?”

    Managing to swim to the edge, Katara collapsed on the shore and vomited the water she had swallowed.

    “I heard them!” Toph exclaimed, feeling her way to her friend and making sure she was okay. “I heard them bending. I couldn’t find them! I tried, but I couldn’t see in the water.” She threw a handful of dirt into the water to emphasize her frustration.

    Rolling onto her back, Katara looked at the stars through the thick fog. She wheezed, tears of fear and anger rolling down her cheeks.

  15. #15

    Default

    Summary – Plans are made.

    A/N – Some chapters are easier to write. This was one of them. Enjoy!
    Warning -- Some non-descriptive nudity ahead!

    Chapter Eight –

    Clutching the crimson robe around her body, Katara shivered as she met Zuko’s furious gaze.

    “You are not to go anywhere without a guard,” the Fire Lord commanded softly. “Is that understood.”

    “Agreed.” Iroh nodded his head as his sovereign dictated to his bride-to-be.

    “She won’t leave my sight.” Sokka stood rigid in the corner of the bedchamber.

    “Nor will she leave mine,” her father growled lowly, his fists clenched at his sides.

    “She won’t leave my sight either,” Toph affirmed next to Katara.

    “This isn’t a joke, Toph!” her brother warned caustically. “Someone tried to kill Katara! You were there, and yet you did nothing!”

    The Earthbender jumped to her feet and pointed a finger mere inches from the Water Tribe warrior’s nose. “And just what is that supposed to mean?” she growled.

    “Toph,” Katara said.

    “The bottom of the hot spring was mush and silt. I couldn’t see them!” she railed, waving her hands in front of her eyes in a rare display of frustration. “I could hear them! They laughed!”

    Sokka batted her hand away. “What good does that do us?”

    “Sokka,” Katara whispered, fingering the pendant on her necklace nervously.

    “Alright, Boomerang Guy!” Toph poked him in the chest. “Let’s take this outside!”

    “Okay –” Sokka retorted.

    “Enough!” railed Katara. “Nobody is taking anything outside! And nobody is going to be watching me! And I will go where I please, when I please…and without guards!”

    “Leave us,” Zuko ordered to everyone in the room, circling Katara.

    Iroh followed the order quickly, pulling Sokka and Toph, who were still growling at each other, with him.

    Hakoda stood next to his daughter, his hand on her shoulder.

    Seeing her father’s resolve, Zuko bowed to Hakoda. “I mean no disrespect, Hakoda of the Water Tribe. Please allow me time alone with my betrothed.”

    Hakoda kneeled next to Katara and cupped her chin in his hand. Katara returned the gesture, patting his angular jaw. “I’ll be fine.”

    Reluctantly, her father straightened and walked through the door, closing it softly behind him.

    Zuko paced the length of the room, running a hand through his already tousled hair. His robe, loose and hanging on his shoulders, billowed behind him.

    Averting her gaze from his naked chest, Katara braced herself for his wrath. After several circuits of the floor and no words, she sighed. “Why are you angry with me?” she asked, breaking the silence. “It isn’t like I asked for someone to try to kill me.”

    He stopped in mid-stride and stared at her. “I am not angry with you!” He swiped the air in frustration and approached her.

    She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. “You could have fooled me!”

    The flames in the fireplace danced higher, mirroring the Fire Lord’s anger. Grasping Katara’s shoulders, Zuko resisted the urge to shake her. “How could you?” he rasped, his voice thick with emotion.

    She shook her head. “How could I what?”

    “How could you take such a risk?” He lowered his voice, rubbing his hands along her shoulders and arms.

    The concern in his eyes rivaled her father’s and she could no longer keep from crying. “I didn’t,” she sobbed. “I didn’t take a risk! I went to the hot springs with Toph. She was sore and I just wanted to relax.”

    Zuko wiped the tears away with the pad of his thumb, softly cursing his handling of her feelings. He kissed her forehead and pulled her into his embrace. Amazingly she did not resist him. “You are no longer free to do as you please.”

    She went rigid in protest.

    “Do you purposely misunderstand me, Katara?” He stilled her movements with a gentle squeeze. “You are mine. You belong to the people now.”

    Zuko sighed in frustration as he tried to explain the hardships she would endure as his wife. “We have not even announced the engagement yet,” he stated with a shudder. “Yet, they know. They will kill you to harm me. I tried, Katara.”

    She peered into his tormented eyes.

    “Agni preserve me!” he mumbled, crushing his lips to hers.

    “I’ve tried…” Zuko peppered her face with kisses. “I’ve tried to protect you, but you won’t let me. She said you would come. She said you would bring happiness.”

    Katara stilled. She was confused as he kneeled before her and worked the knot of her robe open.

    “She said you would heal us,’ he groaned, peeling the red and yellow material from her skin. His eyes searched restlessly across her feminine curves.

    Somehow she resisted the urge to cover herself. His gaze was more intimate than his touch. “W-who?”

    Zuko rested his scarred cheek against her midriff and shivered. “My mother. She is trapped. Her soul lingers in my dreams, whispering to me at night. The rumors…” his voice caught and he could not continue.

    Katara threaded her fingers through the strands of his dark hair, unsure if she could comfort him.

    Clearing his throat, Zuko pulled her closer. “The Fire Sages tell me her soul is trapped between this world and the spirit world. That she killed my grandfather to…save me. She sacrificed herself to save me! They say the only reason her soul lingers is that she seeks to continue to protect me.”

    She could feel moisture against her stomach.

    “The Fire Sages tell me that Yama judged her crime accordingly,” whispered Zuko. “I’m sorry, Katara. Uncle Iroh had no right to summon you. Your life is now tainted with the ugliness of mine.”

    Katara dropped to her knees, gathering her hands in his. “No –”

    “I killed Azula,” he confessed with a shuddering breath.

    “And saved me in the process,” she reminded him, pressing her lips against the jagged tissue of his scar. “If Yama judges you, he will have to judge me too.”

    He closed his eyes and reveled in her gentle touch. No one dared to touch his scar. But Katara was always the exception to the rule. The gentle kisses she placed on the sensitive flesh were like a healing balm. She made him feel whole.

    Her gentle lips nibbled the corner of his mouth, hesitantly exploring and seeking permission. Instead of giving into the temptation, Zuko grabbed the material of her robe and covered her. Words would do her no justice. The vision of her draped in the colors of his nation would be forever in his dreams.

    He could see the confusion in her eyes. “I want you too much to dishonor you in such a manner, Katara. I burn for you.” For emphasis, he guided her hand to the evidence of his need.

    “We will be married before sunset tomorrow,” Zuko decreed, his breath hot against her forehead. “Until then, you will not leave my sight.”

    “And what if I have to relieve myself?” she murmured, trying to lighten the mood.

    “Then I will stand outside the door,” he retorted, arching the damaged flesh of his eyebrow. He guided her toward the bed.

    She gasped as he pulled her down and into his arms.

    “Try to sleep, Katara,” he mumbled softly. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

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