Inhaling through his nose and exhaling slowly through his mouth, Prince Zuko began the Firebending kata slowly. He didn't start off using his element, instead, he practiced the form in combination with his breath. Slowly he went through the forms, counting as he did so.
Ichi. A forward punch towards an imaginary opponent's center.
Nii. A follow up punch with his other hand and traveling of his center.
San. Following the momentum of the punches, Zuko followed with a forward kick.
Yon. A set backward with a swipe of the hand to deflect the opponent's attack.
Go. Another step back with a defensive kick, usually used to create distance rather than injure.
Roku. A final block, then steady.
Nana. A counter swipe, followed by a punch.
Hachi. A snapping sidekick, turning the body sideways.
Ku. The closer leg swooped up in a circle, snapping down on the invisible opponent.
Ju. Zuko leaped up, kicking out with his far leg in a roundhouse, ending back at his original stance.
He breathed in again, this time, there would be no pause, and this time he would call upon his element. After breathing through his nostrils once more, Zuko opened both eyes, one normal and the other squinting due to the burn that covered a considerable portion of his face, and began the kata once more.
The counting was no longer slow, instead each count served as a beat for Zuko to act on. With each strike and block he performed, he called upon his Firebending to bear as he did. He made sure to control the blasts to make them not too strong, but good enough for him to hone in on in an actual battle. Almost like a dance, the Prince flowed in the kata, exhibiting both power and grace in the fluidity of his movements. One movement flowed to the other without fault or pause, to those unpracticed in Firebending, it truely looked like an organic and ever flowing act of nature. To those practiced in Firebending, it was still an impressive and well performed rendition of the basic katas. In fact, it was one of sets that set the foundation for all Firebending forms, and Prince Zuko was masterfully demonstrating it.
Zuko finished with the aerial kick and ended up back into his original stance, holding it for a moment, he stood up straight and clasped his fist in his palm and bowed as was the signature bowing form. The Prince then focused on his breathing, the exercise wasn't quite enough to make him lose his breath, but as a Firebender it was something he had to keep in check regardless.
The outdoor training circle was silent allowing Zuko to focus on his calming breaths...That is until a slow clap was heard at the edge of the circle. The Prince turned to see a staunch man smirking at him, mischief was in his brown eyes.
"Lu Ten," Zuko greeted, a smile on his face, "When did you get back?"
"About an hour ago, not sure how you missed it. Big parade, cheering women, and absent of my favorite cousin!" The Crown Prince smiled widely, matching his father's own grin as he pulled Zuko close in a deep hug.
Despite being happy to see his cousin, Zuko didn't return the hug, in fact, he had trouble breathing as Lu Ten crushed the life out of him. Thankfully, he was set down, lungs intact.
"How are the colonies?" Zuko asked once his breath returned, he picked up a cloth and began to wash his sweaty skin.
"Doing pretty well, surprisingly. The Earth Kingdom is healing, and there's talk of forming a new nation from the colonies. All in all, we're building bridges and foundations for a long lasting peace," Lu Ten said, while he remained lax and casual about it all, Zuko knew he had been working himself to the bone to maintain the peace.
"That's good, how is Avatar Aang fairing?" Zuko asked.
"The old man is working on restoration of the Air Temples currently, as well as spending time in the colonies. Still has time to play with the orphans though, hell, he's adopted so many for the Air Temples that problem might disappear soon enough."
Zuko frowned, "I don't think giving orphans to the Air Temples is the best way to solve the problem of the orphanages."
Lu Ten shook his head, "I was kidding, dear Cousin. I know it won't solve the problem, but thankfully people are starting to get past the memories of the war. I have a plan for the orphans right now, hopefully, it'll ensure all above the age of sixteen with work to keep them clothed and fed."
Zuko put the towel down, picking up a cup of water that had been set by a servant, "What would that be?"
Lu Ten smiled like a mad genius, "We're going to make a road linking the west and east of the continent together! There'll be a road from Ba Sing Se to Omashu, to Gaoling and so on. No more Serpent's Path for road travelers."
Zuko nodded, "Sounds promising," the Prince frowned. "But why are you here then? Did something happen?"
Lu Ten's grin vanished, "Wait, you mean you weren't told?"
"Told what?" Zuko asked.
"The Southern and Northern Water Tribes are at war," Lu Ten said, all cheer and mischief gone from his tone, replaced with the expression of a reserved Crown Prince.
"What?" Zuko asked, unsure of what else to say. The thought of the Water Tribes at war seemed ludicrous, they were on the opposite sides of the world, what reason would they have to fight?
"My father has summoned us both, he'll explain the rest there." Lu Ten said, tossing Zuko his shirt, gesturing out of the training circle.
Wordlessly Zuko walked in pace with Lu Ten to Firelord Iroh's private office. With the weight of what had been told to him on his mind, the Prince found himself wondering where this would lead.
"Sokka, you’ve had plenty terrible ideas over the years, but this..." Katara found herself barely able to control her anger at her brother, the image of Yue under a thick cloak in the hold was a moment that gave the Southern Princess equal parts dread and anger.
"Katara let me explain," Sokka said as he followed his younger sister to the fore of the ship, many of their tribesmen seeing the argument ensuing and quietly leaving the royal siblings alone. "I just couldn't leave Yue there, you saw the way Hahn treated her, how could you expect me to-"
Katara wheeled on her brother, blue eyes burning with fury, "No Sokka, you don't get to excuse yourself on this! By now, Hahn has probably declared war on the Southern Tribe. War, Sokka. With our sister tribe no less."
The younger of the two groaned in anger, leaning on the railing of the ship, staring out at the sea. They were already halfway home, going back would likely end with Sokka getting cut down on shore, and there was no telling what Hahn would do to Yue. Idly, Katara twirled her finger, creating a small whirlpool in the calm waters below her. She was aware of Sokka still behind her, likely trying to formulate one way or another to appeal to her caring and motherly nature.
"Katara, I know what I did was wrong. But I love Yue and she loves me. And I couldn't leave her with Hahn, if you want, we can turn back. But if Yue goes ashore, then I'm going with her," Sokka said determinedly.
"They'll cut you up the second they see your face," Katara growled, "And I wouldn't blame them." Internally the Waterbender winced, her temper only served to cut with words.
"Katara, you know the North. They don't let women bend outside of healing. Hell, they don't have the choice to pick their partners!" Sokka argued, his voice showed he was stung by her remark.
"I know Sokka," Katara said, whirling on her brother. "But that doesn't mean you can just take the Chief's wife and not have repercussions! Dad worked hard for peace and recognition from the North for years, and you've probably just undone all of that with one blow".
Sokka, to his credit, met Katara's stare with his own, not backing down. Wolves like them never lowered their gazes to opposition.
"You know as well as I do that Hahn would have done something to get at us anyways," Sokka said steely.
"You don't know that, Sokka. I don't like Hahn any more than you do, but he is chief of the Northern Tribe, and he has full rights to attack us now that we've taken his wife," Katara said.
Sokka furrowed his brow in confusion, "You mean, when I took his wife."
Katara growled and brushed by him, "No, I mean we. Because I'm not letting you go back to get yourself and Yue killed."
Sokka watched dumbfounded as Katara approached on of the tribesman on deck, telling him to get her supplies to write a letter. While the Southern Tribe Prince felt exceptionally guilty for what he had done, he also knew it was the right thing to have done in the moment. Hahn had only been using Yue for political power, and if rumors in the Northern Council were true, he had more than one mistress.
Sighing, Sokka went below deck where Yue sat, her head low.
"This was a mistake, Sokka. I should never have left," Yue said. Sokka instantly was at her side, hand cradling hers.
"Hey, we said before we did this that we would have no regrets, right? So, we can't let this hold us down, if Hahn comes for us, we can run, I can fight, we'll figure it out okay?"
Yue shook her moonlight locks, "Sokka, you can't fight a whole Water Tribe just to keep me safe."
"Yue," Sokka said, placing a hand on Yue's cheek and bringing her gaze to his. "Listen, no matter what happens, I'm sticking with you. I'm not letting anyone, especially Hahn, get to you. I don't care if I have to fight the Avatar himself to keep you safe. I will do anything for you. I love you."
Yue smiled at Sokka tenderly, resting her forehead against his. Both were prepared for what fate threw before them.
"They took Princess Yue?" Zuko asked, dumbfounded.
"Yes, it seems the young Princess eloped with Prince Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. Chief Hahn has declared war on the Southern Tribe for this offense," Fire Lord Iroh explained, taking a sip of Jasmine Tea.
"And as allies of the Northern Water Tribe, we are obligated to aide them," Zuko finished.
"Yes, this is a most precarious position we've found ourselves in," Iroh said with a thoughtful stroke of his beard.
"What's our next move, father?" Lu Ten asked, the paragon of attention.
Iroh thoughtfully drank his tea, "I did not fight a civil war only to get the Fire Nation involved in more wars. However, our treaty with the late Chief Arnook obligates us to help our ally. The Northern Tribe risked much to help us defeat my brother."
"We can't just mobilize our armies to fight the Southern Tribe because our allies feel offended," Zuko said, crossing his arms. "Uncle, I do not mean to go against your decision, but I don't think we should participate in this. Alliance or no, this isn't our fight."
Iroh nodded, "I thank you for speaking your mind, nephew. While I agree with you, at this time, the Fire Nation is still paying for both the hundred year war and the Phoenix War. If we break an oath we made to the Northern Water Tribe, what good will we have made with the other nations will be for naught."
Zuko frowned, but remained silent.
"If we need to go and aide the Northern Tribe, how should we proceed? Mobilizing the whole army isn't going to do us any favors, father," Lu Ten said.
"Indeed, it won't. However, the treaty with Arnook said we must aide the Northern Tribe, but nowhere does it dictate the number of soldiers or resources," Iroh said with a sly smile.
"Then?" Lu Ten asked, mimicking his father's smile.
"I will send a fleet under Admiral Zhao south, it will be large enough to be a worthy force to aide our allies, but small enough to not risk incident with any other nations," Iroh said.
Zuko voiced his distaste for the mentioned admiral, "If you're trying to avoid disrupting the Fire Nation's reputation, you should send someone other than Zhao."
Iroh sighed wearily, "It is true, I do not trust that man. But it was only with his fleet in the Phoenix War that allowed me to defeat Ozai's fleet. Without him, it is likely the war would have ended differently. Besides, General Jong Jong is in the Earth Kingdom clearing out the last of Ozai's insurgents in the mountains."
"I still don't trust him, Uncle," Zuko said.
"That is why I want you to go with the fleet south, Prince Zuko, keep an eye on Zhao and avoid any bloodshed if you can," The Fire Lord said simply.
Zuko's good eye widened, "Me? Uncle, why? Lu Ten is the Crown Prince, he has the respect of the whole army and merits the Southern Tribe could trust."
"Unfortunately, I need Lu Ten back in the colonies, despite our progress there is discontentment that must be seen to. And the only one they'll listen to is either myself or Lu Ten."
Zuko sat in thought for a moment, he knew Zhao couldn't be trusted, and no one outside of Lu Ten or Iroh had the status and resources to keep the admiral in check. However, there were more reasons than that. And his Uncle spotted it immediately.
"Lu Ten, leave us please. Meet me in the dining room this evening."
Lu Ten stood and bowed to his father, leaving through the door swiftly.
Zuko sat in silence, keeping his head slightly bowed to the Fire Lord.
"Prince Zuko," Iroh began delicately, "I know you suffered too much in the war, and I know you have been trying to leave that part of yourself behind. But I need you to do this, nephew. If I leave Zhao unsupervised, there's no telling what could happen to the Southern Tribe when he's finished. If he will honor my commands or the Northern Tribes’. He has always harbored aggression towards the Water Tribes.”
“Then send someone else, Uncle,” Zuko said. “Anyone, promote Commander Jee if you must, but don’t send Zhao. It’ll end in more blood than good if he’s allowed free reign.”
Iroh considered his nephew’s words carefully, stroking his beard in thought. He sighed wearily, declaring his answer.
“I have no experienced officers to oversee this, none who could command the respect or influence that Zhao has anyways. And you have no experience in commanding armies, Prince Zuko, I must have Zhao as the admiral in charge,” Iroh paused to drink from his cup. “That is why I need you to go and oversee him and his actions. Remind the soldiers who we are now, who they answer to, and what example we must set.”
Zuko frowned, considering, he didn’t trust any bit of Zhao, his defection in the Phoenix War was too good to be true, coming at the right time to defeat Ozai, after being summoned by him. Iroh and Lu Ten had been grateful for the assistance in the final battle, defeating Ozai and legitimizing Iroh’s claim as Fire Lord. But Zuko knew Zhao, he had been hard pressed for his promotion to Admiral when fighting the united Avatar forces, as he couldn’t find a way to win when against the united might of the Earth Kingdom, Air Nation, and Water Tribes, so jumping ship to Iroh’s court was a logical step. And he got promoted to Admiral for it.
The Prince sighed, and nodded, “I will do as you ask, Uncle,” He said. Iroh smiled tightly at this.
“I appreciate it, nephew,” He said. “Is there anything you need?”
“Shadow company, Commander Jee, and my own ship,” Zuko listed.
Iroh chuckled deeply, “Granted, you may take the Dancing Dragon, I believe it will have people loyal to you and me on board.”
“When do I leave?”
Returning home was not as happy or relieving as Katara would have liked. The Tribe had been a small settlement a hundred years ago during the Fire Nation’s initial attacks. Now it was thriving city, Annakpok, not as impressive as the Northern Tribe’s capital, but certainly second to it. The city had been moved inland, because of the threat of invasion to make it more defensible, also giving them access to the water through floe holes in the event of a siege. Katara considered grimly that they might have to see how well they worked in the coming months.
They were welcomed back warmly enough, Sokka and her riding polar bear dogs into the city, many of their tribesman called to them and greeted them as they passed through the ice city, many from nearby villages and ports having come to see the young princess and prince. Katara wasn’t sure if she had ever considered herself a Princess, having lived humbly like the rest of her people until her father was elected Chief with the death of the previous. She and Sokka were moved to the capital where they were treated as royalty; organizing hunting parties, dealing with raiders and slavers who came this far south, fighting off any angry spirits from the south pole. Both siblings had earned praise for their combative and leadership skills, Katara being the only Waterbender to learn all Waterbending styles when they traveled to the Earth Kingdom for diplomacy, she met Foggy Swamp benders and learned from them.
Even as they cheered, she saw many things in the faces of those riding next to her, suspicion, fear, outrage and confusion. She followed their gaze to see Yue riding the polar bear dog behind Sokka, arms wrapped around his middle and hair hidden by her hood. Many in the crowd were women who were fiercely disappointed, hoping Sokka would carve them a betrothal necklace, and looked upon the new woman with disgust and envy. Unfortunately, Katara also felt unwanted gazes from several men in the crowd towards her, many likely wondering what she’d look like riding behind them on a polar bear dog, to have her betrothed to them. She shook her head, and considered what she would say to father and mother when they saw them.
It didn't look like a city ready for imminent war.
They eventually arrived at the palace where they disembarked. Hakoda and Kya stood out to meet them, Bato, Kanna and Pakku stood behind them, the sun causing their blue eyes to shine brilliantly. They wore welcoming smiles, although Katara could see the sharp look in Hakoda’s eyes.
Kya didn’t hold onto formality, she rushed down the ice steps to hug her children, a wide smile on her face.
“I’m so glad you two have returned,” Kya said, kissing both her children on the cheeks. “We’ve missed you so much.”
Hakoda followed his wife, pulling Katara into a hug first, all smiles, but his muscles were tense. “Head inside, and give me a few moments with Sokka. We all need to talk.”
Katara nodded against him, while he pulled away and did the same with Sokka, the look on her brother’s face said he had the same message.
Wearily, and outside of the view of the citizens, Katara went up a flight of stairs, onto a balcony until she was called to meet with her father. She waited, hearing footsteps behind her, she turned to see Pakku standing there, grim as her gramp-gramp ever was.
“So, my grandson brought back the Chieftess of the Northern Water Tribe back?” He asked, standing next to Katara on the balcony. “Stupid of him, no question, took some nerve though. From you and him.”
“You mean I should’ve sent them both back?” Katara asked in disgust. “Hahn would’ve killed them both, might’ve tried to kill me too.”
Pakku let out a bitter laugh, “Hahn kill you? As if he knew how to use a weapon correctly! You’re a master Waterbender, he couldn’t touch you.”
“I’m sure some of his loyal Waterbenders would pitch in, if not because of loyalty to him, then because I’m a woman.”
Pakku smirked, “And I thought I was the stubborn one,” He said affectionately, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You should check with your father; your brother is going to need you.”
Katara nodded, steeling herself for what was to come. Father’s office was quiet, Hakoda stared out his window at the low-hanging sun, Sokka sulked in a corner, eyes glaring into the back of their father’s head. Yue and Kya were nowhere to be found, hopefully they were doing something more productive and pleasant. Katara shut the door behind her, she noticed Hakoda had a scroll in his clenched fist.
“How bad is it?” She asked.
Hakoda exhaled, still too stiff to talk.
“We’re at war,” Sokka said from his place.
“Northern Tribe?” Katara asked.
“And the Fire Nation,” Hakoda said, turning around, and placing the scroll down on the table in front of him. “Fire Lord Iroh is obliged by the treaty signed by him and Chief Arnook to give the Northern Tribe troops and supplies in the event of an emergency.”
Katara blanched, “The Northern Tribe and the Fire Nation?!”
Hakoda nodded stiffly. Sokka chose this time to push from the wall.
“We don’t need a war,” He said. “Yue and I can take a ship, go somewhere else, write to Hahn and Iroh, tell them we’re not here.”
“That won’t work, Sokka,” Katara and Hakoda said together. Their father looked at her wearily before continuing. “Even if you’re not here when they come, Hahn will assume you’re in hiding on the continent, and that we’re hiding you. He’ll tear apart every village and port until you’re found. When you’re not, he’ll destroy us anyways.”
“Hahn hasn’t exactly been subtle in his intentions to forcibly unite the Southern and Northern Tribes,” Katara commented. “He’s been wanting to take us over for years.”
Hakoda nodded, “So you and Yue leaving aren’t going to change anything,” He said. Standing wearily. “Now you two retire, I have some work to do.”
Sokka blanched, “You don’t mean?”
“I do,” Hakoda said. “I’m summoning our allies; the Southern Water Tribe is going to war.”