"Wow, who knew?" Sokka leaned over the low wall that framed either side of the covered pathway. He craned his neck out towards one of the numerous gardens within the Fire Palace as heavy droplets fell from the cloudy, gray sky and on to the carefully manicured grounds below.
Behind him, Katara raised one eyebrow and stopped in the middle of the pathway. She looked past her brother and let out a heavy sigh as she crossed her arms. "Who knew what?" she smirked. "That even here in the Fire Nation it rains? Wow...will wonders never cease."
She was met with an indignant snort and a half pout, half frown from her brother as he looked over his shoulder at her. "Funny...I'm just saying. The Fire Nation isn't known for it's...rain. Besides, isn't it supposed to be the dry season?"
"It's the dry season back home, but not here," Katara told him as she joined him. She placed her arms over the top of the low wall and leaned against it beside Sokka. "But it is refreshing."
"Yeah," Sokka took a deep breath of the air. "Smell that? That's the smell of smog getting washed away. Mmmm...."
Katara giggled and punched his upper arm lightly. "Come on, the meeting is almost done," Katara reminded him as she pulled away from the sides of the walk way. She grabbed his arm and dragged him forward. "Dad and the others should be getting out soon."
"Great," Sokka said. His hand fell to his stomach and rubbed it earnestly. "I'm starving! And you know what comes after a big meeting?" Katara opened her mouth to reply, only to be cut off by Sokka's enthusiastic answer. "That's right! A bigger feast! And with King Bumi in attendance, that can only mean that they've laid out an even bigger feast than usual!"
He greedily rubbed his hands together, nearly salivating at the thought of all the food that was to come. Katara sighed and rolled her eyes. "Is food all you ever think about?"
"Katara, what do you take me for?" Sokka asked with mock hurt. He rested his hand against his heart, as if nursing its pain. "I'm not some food mongering nitwit. I've got other things on my mind, too."
"Oh, yeah?" Katara asked, challengingly. She put one hand on her waist and stopped in her tracks. "Name one."
Sokka scoffed and stopped before her in the hallway. He opened his mouth and paused. Nothing came out. Katara gave him a questioning look and he held up his hand. "Give me a second..."
"Listen, I don't have a one track mind. For instance, I think about the tribe or Gran-Gran or-"
"Katara! Sokka!" a female voice called from further down the hall.
"Suki!" Sokka said, immediately pointing down hall. He grimaced and hit his head. "I mean...other groups! Like Kyoshi! Not Suki. Although Suki is from Kyoshi. But I don't spend several hours a day thinking about Suki. Not that Suki is bad to think about. I value her friendship greatly-"
"Sokka, stop babbling," Katara smiled sweetly as she looked past him and at the approaching young woman. "You're embarrassing yourself." Katara relaxed in her stance as she waved at the warrior.
He fumed for a moment as his sister walked around him and greeted the make-up less Kyoshi warrior with a hug. "It's been too long!" Suki gushed as she wrapped her arms around Katara. Katara smiled brightly and hugged her back. She was always surprised whenever she saw Suki without her Kyoshi warrior make-up.
Katara pulled back and Suki raised her ever present fan and laughed as she poked Sokka on the shoulder. He stood there passively, unsure of what to do.
"Well?" Katara asked, snapping him out of his little daze as she tried not to grin. "Aren't you going to say something?"
Sokka blinked and shook his head before turning to Suki and giving her a dopey smile. "Hey."
Katara sighed. "Articulate as always..."
"Hey," Suki laughed as she punched his arm lightly as a greeting. "I'm glad I found you guys. We just arrived and were supposed to go straight to the dining hall, but I said I'd make sure the Kyoshi elders were fine from their meeting and got lost."
"You're heading over to the meeting hall?" Katara asked. Suki nodded. "No problem, we're heading there ourselves. The meeting should be over by now."
"Sounds great," Suki beamed as they began to walk towards the meeting hall. "So, how long have you guys been here?"
"Too long," Sokka grumbled. His shoulders were hunched forward as he trailed a step behind them. "It's hot and dry and red."
"Red?" Suki chuckled.
"Red. Everything is red. It's like these people don't know colors beyond red, black, and gold," Sokka snorted. One of the guards posted along the corridor gave him a questioning look as they passed. "Um...no offense. Red looks great on you, by the way. Heh..." He laughed nervously as the girls giggled in front of him.
"We've been here since the first wave," Katara clarified. "Aang spent a lot of his time here right after Ozai was overthrown, but then he had to go and deal with the issues that came post war over in the Earth Kingdom. He just got back last night."
"No wonder the little guy isn't with you," Suki nodded. "He's probably stuck at the meeting with all those old fogies."
"And bored out of his mind," Sokka agreed. "He barely turned thirteen and just saved the world. You'd think they'd cut him some slack and let him have a vacation or something."
"Nope," Katara shook her head. "Instead, it's been meeting after meeting, travel, peacemaking, and more travel. Even Appa gets a chance to rest while he's at meetings."
"I'm sure after the reparations documents are signed, he'll be able to catch a breather," Suki assured the two siblings. "Besides, he's the Avatar. He can take a lot!"
Suddenly, a crash was heard further down the hallway. The sound of metal falling and a few surprised shouts echoed towards them. On instinct, the trio dashed forward and rounded the corner. They skidded to a halt as they saw a woozy looking Aang swaying back and forth, occasionally leaning against one of the Fire guards as he passed. Behind him, two guards were pulling themselves up after having fallen over. The Avatar took two more steps before his eyes closed and he crumbled to the ground. A guard held out his arms and caught him before he fell on the floor.
"Aang!" Katara shouted. Big gray eyes blinked open slowly as Aang gently pushed the guard's hands away before pushing himself up.
"Hey, guys..." He looked up, a weak smile on his taunt face. "How's it going?"
"Aang, are you all right?" Katara gasped. She darted forward and grabbed his arm, putting it around her neck as she supported him up. "Sokka! Give me a hand!"
The Water Tribe warrior rushed to Aang's other side and helped support the weary Avatar. "Aang, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong..." Aang yawned. There were heavy dark circles around his eyes. "I'm just...a little...tired..."
"He's probably been flying for days straight," Sokka frowned. He looked up at the short haired brunette before them. "Suki, can you help us get him to his room?"
"Sure." Suki said. Katara moved to the side as Suki carefully took her place.
"Take him to his room; I'm going to tell them that he's gone up for a rest." She said as she started down the opposite direction.
"No..." Aang complained weakly. "I can still..." His voice trailed off and was quickly replaced by light snoring.
"Well...there goes his argument..." Sokka sighed. He looked over his shoulder at his sister. "We'll bring him upstairs to his room; you tell everyone the Avatar went to take a nap."
Katara nodded. "Right, I'll be right there as soon as I tell them," She ran down the hall and slid past the meeting room. Its doors had been left wide open and she quickly turned back and peeked inside, hoping to find someone to inform of Aang's situation before she followed the others. Two figures stood at the front of room, right before the massive banner with the Fire Nation emblem. One was an elder man, rotund, with gray hair and dressed in fine reds. The other was taller, younger, with black hair pulled back into a knot and pinned with a metal emblem signaling his rank as Fire Lord. The black hair that had covered his head had been grown out since they took over the capitol and was now held back in a neat top knot. "Iroh, Zuko, I'm sorry to bother you."
Iroh lifted his head from the documents they were going over and gave her a wide, welcoming smile. Zuko had immediately perked up at the sound of her voice and casually glanced over at the doorway.
"Katara, my dear, you missed the meeting!" Iroh exclaimed. "But I don't blame you. The youth should not be stuck indoors working on policy all day." He added, giving a sidelong glance at his nephew.
"I completely agree," Katara nodded as she walked into the nearly vacant room. All across the large circular table that was in the center of room were papers and half empty tea cups. Some still had steam coming from them, signaling that the meeting had just adjourned moments earlier. "This is why we've taken Aang back to his room to rest."
"Rest?" Zuko frowned. "He's supposed to go to the banquet."
"I know that, but he's tired," Katara insisted, matching his frown with one of her own. "He's been flying around this entire time and hasn't had a decent night's rest in days! Weeks even! Surely, he can afford some sleep!"
"Every single diplomat in the world is on their way to the dining hall," Zuko reminded her. "I don't need to tell you how important the Avatar-"
"Aang." she corrected him, again...for the millionth time.
He struggled not to roll his eyes. "...How important Aang is. People will want to talk to him. If he's not there things could get ugly."
"He has a point, Katara," Iroh agreed, knowingly. "Many of the other countries are wary of us and don't trust us yet. If Aang is there, he will provide comfort to the other dignitaries. They won't be so hasty in their words and, Agni forbid, hostility."
Zuko send her a haughty smirk and crossed his arms over his chest. "See?"
"On the other hand, Katara also has a point," Katara smirked back as Zuko's triumphant look momentarily fell at his Uncle's diplomacy. "Aang, despite being over a hundred years old, is still a growing boy. And a growing boy needs his rest. Avatar or not."
"Heh," Katara crossed her own arms over her chest and looked at the newly crowned Fire Lord challengingly. "See?"
"Fine," Zuko snapped. "He'd be of no use anyway. He fell asleep eight times during the meeting today. He'd probably just fall asleep on top of his meal."
"Then it's settled," Iroh said merrily. "Aang will get some well deserved rest."
He walked passed Katara and didn't see her stick her tongue out at Zuko before whirling around and following him. The young Fire Lord gritted his teeth and looked down at the copy of the treaty related documents in front of him.
Peace. Peace. Breathe in...breathe out...Peace...Uncle's right. Even Avatars need their rest.
"However," Iroh's voice sounded from the doorway and the two teenagers stopped and looked up. Iroh had his back to them and was rubbing his beard thoughtfully. "A representative of the Avatar is needed to assure the diplomats and dignitaries that the boy is just resting and not locked up in a jail somewhere."
Zuko frowned. "Who is going to represent him? The bison? It's probably sleeping as well."
"Actually, I was thinking of a human," Iroh turned around and smiled cheekily. "What do you say Katara?"
"What? ME?" Blue eyes went wide as saucers as she stumbled back. "But...I was going to stay with Aang and make sure he's all right."
"Well, if the boy is sleeping, you should leave him to his rest," Iroh assured her. "Besides, didn't you say he needed to rest?"
"Then you would gladly be his representative, wouldn't you?" Iroh asked, putting on an encouraging smile. "It would put the minds of the others at ease if you went and told them yourself."
"That would work..." Zuko mumbled from the front of the room. His eyes were squinted as he mulled over the scenario. "Everyone knows your affiliation with him. They won't dare question you."
Two sets of golden eyes were on her and Katara uncomfortably shifted her weight from foot to foot. "That's all well and good, but the dinner is already starting and...and look at me!" She pointed to her wrinkled blue shirt and grass stained pants. "I didn't think I was going to be put into the spotlight tonight, so I didn't go change. I don't have time to change now! Not to mention that I don't have a dress-"
"Guard!" Zuko's voice boomed over her meager explanation. Two guards suddenly appeared behind Iroh at the doorway. "Fine some maids to help Katara of the Water Tribe prepare for tonight's festivities. Nothing fancy, just make sure she's clean and presentable."
The guards were silent as they bowed and rushed off. Katara turned to glare at him. "I didn't even say yes yet!"
"We don't have time to wait for you to say yes to something you know you were going to do anyway," Zuko told her off handedly. "Your father already mentioned how you and your brother were excited to go to the dinner."
"You were going to go to dinner...in that ?" Iroh gasped, mortified.
"I said I didn't plan on being in the spotlight. I was just going to go, grab some food-"
Iroh was already rushing forward and shaking his head. "Come, my dear, we'll get you nice and clean and ready for tonight in no time."
His warm, calloused hand gently grasped Katara's wrist and pulled her forward. She stuttered with an excuse, but couldn't find a way to say no to the old man who'd been so kind to her and her friends since the beginning.
"But...But I..." She groaned and gave in. She looked over her shoulder as Iroh pulled her forward. "Okay, fine! Zuko! Go upstairs to Aang's room and tell Sokka and Suki that I'll be there late!"
"Are you telling me what to do?" he snarled incredulously. "Who do you think you are-?"
"Zuko, don't just stand there! Get going!" Iroh called out. "The guests are waiting!"
They disappeared out the door and Zuko was left standing alone in the massive meeting room, staring at the doorway. He kicked the heavy table and growled as he stalked out the door. He walked in the opposite direction as Iroh and Katara, mumbling obscenities under his breath as he headed for the Avatar's room.
Stupid little peasant...ordering me around. And Uncle Iroh! Taking her side...I should've known. He'll always take a girl's side. Except for Azula for obvious reasons...but still... He climbed up the stairs, still fuming. This is just great...the great and powerful Fire Lord Zuko...reduced to a messenger boy for the weak and lowly water bender. Mental note, cut off Uncle Iroh's tea supply in half...heh...
Before he knew it, he found himself standing in front of a set of double doors. One of them was open and there were voices coming from inside.
"Sokka, take off his shoes. He can't go to bed with shoes on!"
"Oh, come on, Suki, he won't know! He's dead tired!" Zuko recognized the voice of the Avatar's other companion, Sokka. "Look, see? No response."
"Sokka, stop poking his head!"
He'd seen the blue eyed Water Tribe boy wandering the palace with Katara sometimes. He'd get glances of them wandering around while he was ushered off to meetings by advisors and Iroh. In the last two months, they'd become familiar with the palace grounds, practically living there since they arrived with the first wave of forces to overthrow his father.
After the comet was destroyed and Ozai killed, the Avatar, Aang, had stayed for two weeks helping Zuko regain control of the chaotic Fire Nation capital. The Water Tribe siblings were always at his side, following his orders dutifully. Then, he had left to go over see the cease fires that were taking place all over the Earth Kingdom.
War just didn't stop after someone said it did. It took time to get the word out and even more time to pull back troops. Despite all his efforts to keep the peace, people were still dying. Fire Nation soldiers were being killed by the hate and resentment they had fueled. Fire Nation citizens that had gone to colonize abroad were being harassed by returning natives.
Sometimes he wondered if the war had really ended and not just gone into another type of warfare he was not familiar with.
"Lord Zuko!" His head snapped up as he heard the surprised female voice from inside the room. The brown haired girl he had seen amongst the group of Kyoshi warriors that arrived that morning was bowing her head respectfully.
Zuko gave her a small nod of his head to acknowledge his presence. "Sorry, Zuko," the young man in the room said. "Aang can't talk right now. He's taking a well deserved nap."
"I know that," Zuko replied sternly. "I came to tell you that your sister has told me that. She's going to act as a representative for the Avatar while he is resting," His eyes drifted up and down Sokka's stained shirt and curled his lip in disgust. "I would suggest that you do the same."
"See, I told you," Suki hissed in a low voice. She tugged off Aang's boot and then pulled his blanket up. "I can't believe you were thinking about going to the dinner dressed like that."
"Well, I didn't exactly have a lot of time to change, Miss I-don't-need-makeup. I spent the whole day with Katara at the infirmary." Sokka retorted proudly.
Zuko's expression didn't change. "You have a few minutes to get cleaned up. Don't be late." He added. He turned around and headed back down the hall. He turned the corner, quietly thinking.
Katara, a healer and nurturer by nature, had take it upon herself to help with the infirmaries around the palace. At first, soldiers who were once under his father's orders were hesitant to take the help Katara offered. Others didn't want her help and still others accused her to trying to kill them. Katara returned from her first day at the infirmary looking drained. Her brother had asked her what was wrong while they were having a small, informal dinner.
Pride was very strong within the Fire Nation and Zuko kept his mouth closed as Katara tried to brush off the things that were said to her in the tent. Sokka was already on the verge of marching down to the infirmary tents and inflicting some more damage. Katara probably watered down some of the things she was telling them. Aang had to calm Sokka down, assuring him it was because it was so soon after the war and they had been injured by the forces that Katara was part of.
Zuko understood where his soldiers were coming from. He had once turned his back to her healing skills; his pride overwhelming his beloved Uncle's need for medical attention. Iroh was in pain for weeks after and even now, Azula's shot haunted him occasionally. Whenever he saw his Uncle sitting over a game of Pai Sho, unconsciously rubbing his shoulder, he cursed himself and his pride. Perhaps if he had allowed Katara to heal him when she offered, Iroh wouldn't feel that familiar aching.
He remembered sneaking out of the palace the next morning, following Katara to the infirmary. He loomed in the shadows, listening to the soldiers ridicule her, reject her work, and verbally harass her. She never left. She quietly did her job, healing wounds on patients that were too weak to dismiss her and never once receiving a single thank you. Zuko hadn't said a word, but was furious.
She helped save them from throwing their lives away and there they were, calling her horrible names, demeaning her Tribe, her culture, even her bending. And day after day, she had returned without fail. He could see the annoyance and occasional anger in her eyes at their comments, but she still stayed to heal them. She had snapped several times, telling off some soldiers who were getting on her nerves, but didn't stop what she was doing.
Her determination to help was crazy, by his standards. He didn't think that those who weren't grateful should be healed, but he wasn't the one doing the healing. She was. She was stubborn and proud and determined. And he respected her for it. He assigned two guards to watch over her while she was in the infirmary, just in case anything happened. They were to give daily reports on the situation and he was pleased to discover that over the last few weeks, the harassment had subsided. Fire Nation doctors held nothing but praise for Katara and, in some cases, Sokka, who occasionally went to help.
He made a note to visit the infirmaries one day.
"Zuko, what are you doing up here?" a surprised old voice chuckled. Iroh smiled from where he stood by the door to Katara's room. "Shouldn't you be downstairs?"
A surprised look over took him for a moment as he looked around his surroundings. He hadn't even realized he had walked into another section of the guest wing and was now standing before Katara's bedroom door. "I just came back from the Avatar's room," Zuko told him distractedly. "He is as she said, sleeping like a rock."
"Ah...all that traveling must've worn him out," Iroh nodded understandingly. "Since you are here, will you escort Katara to the dining hall?"
Zuko blinked disbelievingly. "Excuse me?"
"Will you..." Iroh began, speaking slower and pointing his finger at Zuko. "Escort Katara..." He pointed to the closed doors. "Downstairs...to the dining hall." His fingers made little walking motions and Zuko rolled his eyes.
"I understood you the first time."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Ugh!" Zuko growled. "Why do you want me to escort her to the dining hall?"
"Well, it's proper for a young lady to be escorted, is it not?" Iroh told him calmly. "After all, she is doing both you and Aang a favor by acting as his representative."
"Why can't you do it?" Zuko asked in a low voice.
"I'm an old man...and I'm getting tired standing here," Iroh shrugged as he rubbed his shoulder with one hand. "I need to go sit down..."
"Fine, just wait a moment and I'll inform her brother." Zuko began. He turned around and Iroh let out a painful moan.
"Oh...my back!" he moaned. Zuko whirled around his arms reaching out to help his Uncle.
"Uncle, are you all right-"
"Stand here, for a moment," Iroh said as he stepped aside. Dumbly, the Fire Lord took his Uncle's place by the door, ready for any more instructions from his Uncle. "Good."
"Now wait for her to come out and then escort her downstairs."
"I'll see you later, my nephew!" He waved his hand in the air as he turned his back to Zuko and began walking down the corridor, towards the stairs.
"Uncle! Uncle!" Zuko's cries fell on deaf ears as he stomped his feet on the ground like an irate child. All his tea...yes, I shall cut off all of his tea...
Frowning, Zuko crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. His eyebrows were knit together as a scowl graced his face. Every guard that walked by did a double take and for each time they did, Zuko snarled "What are you looking at?"
Ten minutes into waiting, Zuko finally realized something and felt like screaming in frustration. He was the Fire Lord. He ruled over the country, the city, and the palace. He didn't have to wait at some girl's doorstep to escort her downstairs if he didn't want to. If he wanted to, he could just grab a guard and tell him to do it for him. Then again, a guard with Katara would make Katara look like she was under arrest.
Or I can just leave. Who's going to stop me? A familiar smirk crossed his lips as he pushed himself off the wall and took one step forward. But if I go into the dining hall without her, Uncle will know. And then I will have to sit through another one of his lectures... He groaned. Freedom and lecture or escort. Freedom...escort... freedom...escort...freedom...
The door behind him clicked open and a small creaking was heard as it was pulled back. "Iroh, I'm sorry if I kept you waiting..." Katara's voice trailed off behind him. She stopped right in front of her door as it closed behind her and stared at Zuko, confused. "Where's Iroh?"
"What, are you disappointed?" Zuko sneered as he turned around. His sneer immediately fell as his eyes widened. "What the hell are you wearing?"
Katara's face turned bright red as she clenched her fists at her side. "Look, the maids were only able to find one dress on such short notice-"
"It's not even tied correctly..." Zuko frowned. His expression was caught between shocked and disgusted as his eyes roamed up and down Katara's body critically. "And your hair..." He motioned to the out of place tangle on top of her head that was currently coming undone.
He didn't know if he was expecting some ravishing beauty draped in the finest of Fire Nation gowns or something else, but he didn't expect this. Katara had red and white robes over her frame that dragged on the floor. Her sleeves dragged far below her hands and the front was loose. The robes were obviously too big for her. The sashes and ties around her waist were lopsided and twisted in some places and her hair was a failed attempted at the hairstyle the women around the palace wore.
Katara let out a heavy breath and felt her face burning with humiliation. "I know, I know! But a braid wouldn't look good with this-"
"I am not escorting you downstairs when you look like a child who has barely learned to dress herself!" Zuko exploded. He grabbed the door handle and pushed it open. "Get in there and change into something else! I don't care if it's one of those drab blue rags you peasants in the Water Tribe wear. Anything but that abomination you're wearing!"
"No need to yell at me! I'm not the one who ordered maids to bring me a dress!" Katara yelled back. She threw her arms in the air and stomped back into the room, slamming the door on his face. A second later she flung it open. "And they're called parkas, you fashion illiterate freak!" She slammed the door once more and stomped away.
Zuko seethed. "And hurry up!" He slammed his fist against the door menacingly and turned around just as two guards paused in front of him. He scowled furiously. "WHAT?"
"Nothing, your majesty!" They scrambled away and Zuko nodded his head.
"Yeah, I thought so..."
"Sokka...Sokka," Suki whispered in a low voice as she nudged his ribs. "Will you stop shoving food in your mouth for a moment?"
"Suki, please, this is good stuff," Sokka managed to say behind a mouthful of food. "Don't know when I'll get all the delicacies for every single country in one place again!"
Suki sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Okay, fine...but everyone is staring. You're supposed to be representing Aang, not embarrassing him!"
"I'm not embarrassing him," Sokka sat up straight, pieces of food falling from his half open mouth as Suki recoiled with disgust. "What?"
"I'm going to see the other warriors..." she said as she slowly backed away.
"Okay! See you later!" Sokka smiled and waved his hand. He promptly returned to his food.
"Well, well, Snoozles...I guess I should've known I'd find you stuffing your face!"
"Wait...I know that voice..." Sokka said, mouth still full, as he sat up. He turned around and swallowed his food before smiling. "Toph!"
"Nice to see you, too...figuratively speaking. So where's Twinkle Toes and Katara?" Toph asked.
"Aang went to bed early. He's completely worn out from all his traveling and was falling asleep in the halls, so we dragged up to his room. Why?" Sokka grinned. "You miss him?"
"Yeah, as much as I've missed smelling your dirty socks," Toph retorted. "And Katara? Wait..." She moved her feet over the ground. "Never mind, I recognize her steps. She's coming with..." Her blank eyes widened. "No way..."
"I don't care what you say, I didn't look like a melting tomato!" a loud female voice exclaimed from the main hall.
"I didn't say melting tomato," Zuko's voice replied smoothly. "Although now that you say, it seems fitting!"
A low growl echoed and across from Sokka, his father groaned. Silently, he prayed that the growling was from Zuko.
"Well, everyone," Iroh said as he casually made his way to the entrance. "I hope everyone is enjoying the party, yes?" A chorus of pleased voices came from the crowds as cups were raised to the old man. "Excellent! Now, as some of you know, Avatar Aang has been traveling from country to country recently and the exhaustion has finally caught up with him and he will be unable to attend the dinner."
As expected, numerous murmurs began circulating through the crowds as speculation on the where about of the young Avatar were expressed.
"This isn't good..." Toph said in a sing song voice.
"Yeah..." Sokka mumbled, looking down at his plate. "I'm out of sea prunes." She slid her foot across the floor, sending Sokka face first into his empty plate.
"Now, my fellow dignitaries," his father said as he stood up from the table. "I am sure that Avatar Aang is resting well. My son, Sokka, has informed me that the young man has been taken to his room to rest. We should respect our Avatar's wishes and let him get some sleep."
"Yes," Master Pakku said as he stood up beside the Southern Water Tribe's Chief. "We are all indebted to Young Aang. He has been traveling non-stop for everyone's sake, after all."
A few more murmurs went through the crowd. Some were still skeptical while others were calmed by the reassurance of the Water Tribes.
"If you all have any more doubts, please feel free to express them to the Avatar's representative to tonight's gathering." A low, threatening voice sounded from the entrance and the crowd's attention shifted once more. Zuko stood at the door way, a stern frown on his face as a blue clad figure stood by his side. One of her arms was placed over his, a sign that he was escorting her.
In contrast to her scowling partner, Katara beamed a warm smile at the people below and even raised one hand to greet them all with a small, friendly wave. She was wearing a clean blue parka and had her hair pulled back into a ponytail. "It's all right, everyone," Katara announced. Her arm squeezed Zuko's tightly, as if chastising him for his tone. "Aang's doing okay. He's sleeping right now after his overseas flight last night and expressed his wish to come. Please rest assured that Avatar Aang is getting some much needed rest."
The majority of the dignitaries nodded understandingly. Katara was famous for her prowess as a young water bender and her friendship with the Avatar. After all, it was a well known fact that it was she who released him and brought him back into the world. Still, others eyed her close contact with the Fire Lord warily.
Iroh didn't miss a beat. He swept over to the two and held his hands out, taking Katara away from Zuko in once graceful move. "Katara! You didn't wear the dress!" he complained disappointedly.
A slight snicker escaped Zuko's lips before he could stop it and she sent him a deadly glare. "I'm sorry, Iroh, but it just didn't fit. I'm afraid I'm too short for it."
"Well, next time we'll get you a fitted one," Iroh assured her. He looked over his shoulder as he led Katara away. "Zuko, I hope you don't mind if I take Katara away."
Zuko shrugged and headed in the opposite direction. "I don't care. Please, take her away. Far far away."
"Don't listen to him," Iroh patted Katara's hand. "He's just grumpy because he hasn't had any tea." Zuko rolled his eyes as he approached the first set of dignitaries he would encounter that night.
Hours passed and one by one, the guests began to return to their designated rooms. Iroh was gushing about the success of the evening while Zuko gave one last bow to wealthy Earth Kingdom couple that had come to offer their services.
"What do you think, Zuko?" Iroh said as he patted Zuko on the back. "An excellent night, isn't it? No fights. No threats of war. I'd say it went well."
"Yeah...well..." Zuko mumbled. He ran his hand down his face. "Uncle, I'm tired. I'm going to go to bed."
"Master Pakku and I are going to have a nice game of Pai Sho. Would you care to join us?" Iroh asked, as welcoming as ever. Zuko merely sent him a scowl and Iroh raised his hands. "Or not. Next time, then."
Zuko grunted most uncouthly and sauntered out the doors. It was late and he had been up since dawn doing some fire bending practice. Then he had meetings the entire day. Topping off everything was the mentally exhausting mingling he had to do at the dinner. Part of him was jealous that at least Aang had gotten to skip out and get some sleep.
What he would give for some relaxation. Even just a few minutes away from the chaotic mess of his nation's policies would be a welcomed relief. He walked down a covered walkway to the royal family's private quarters. As of the end of the war, only he and Iroh were staying there. Azula was still missing. He didn't think for a second that she had died in the midst of war. He'd been trying since he was a child to lose his sister and he didn't believe that a war would do it.
"Okay, okay...one at a time..." a voice laughed in the darkness and Zuko whirled around. His entire body went tense as his senses went on alert. His eyes scanned the surrounding darkness around him until he caught a movement in the garden. Under the moonlight, he could make out a figure sitting by the edge of the pond. They were half hidden by a tree, but he could clearly make out the lone female figure. A few quacks were heard and then a giggle.
Zuko recognized the laugh and lowered his defenses. He let out a heavy sigh and debated whether or not to go to bed and ignore the crazy water bender who was standing out in the rain or see why she was there. He walked towards the royal quarters determinedly. Her laugh sounded over the sound of the rain. He sighed and looked back at the pond.
Katara felt the little beaks nip at her fingertips as the rain soaked bread crumbled in her hands. She had long stopped bothering bending the rain drops from her body as she knelt down by the edge of the pond. Her boots soaked up the mud beneath her as the hems of her gold guest robe were pulled up on her lap to keep from dipping into the mud. The robe around her body was clinging to her skin as the rain splattered down against her. Her hair was pasted against her head, also waterlogged. Despite it all, she didn't seem the least bit uncomfortable.
She was so absorbed in watching the five turtle ducklings snatch food from her hands, that she didn't hear the sloshing footsteps behind her or notice the figure that stopped behind the tree.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Ah!" Katara yelped as she stumbled back and looked up. "Zuko! Um..." Her eyes darted around nervously. Unconsciously, one hand rose and pulled the top of her robes closer together while she gulped. He had a stern frown on his face and he stood in front of her disapprovingly. She smiled weakly and lifted up a hand full of wet bread. "Want to feed the turtle ducks?"
"It's late and raining," His voice barked behind her. "And you're feeding turtle ducks? I was right. You are insane."
Her eyes narrowed and she turned her head away. "For your information, this is the first time that the mommy and daddy turtle ducks have brought their babies out."
"And how would you know this?" Zuko frowned. Part of him couldn't believe he was even having a conversation, about turtle ducks, in the rain past midnight.
"Because they arrived here around the same time we did," Katara frowned. "I wouldn't accept you to notice since you've been busy. But they're the only turtle ducks in the entire palace grounds. So I've been keeping track of them." She sounded quite proud of that.
"What are you talking about?" Zuko asked indignantly. "There are dozens of mating turtle duck pairs around the palace."
"Oh yeah? Where?" Zuko shrugged and looked around.
"I don't know! Do I look like I spend my time hunting for turtle duck nesting grounds? I have better things to do!" Zuko lifted his chin proudly and turned around, heading back towards the covered walkway.
"Are you sure you don't want to feed them?" Katara offered. He froze in mid step and Katara bit her lower lip. Perhaps she should've just let him go to sleep. Zuko turned around and marched back, stopping just inches from Katara. He held out his hand.
"The sooner you feed them, the sooner you'll get out of my garden." Katara smiled and tore the bread in half, placing it in his hand.
He knelt down by the edge of the pond, ignoring the mud that splashed on his clean robes. He tore pieces from his piece of bread and tossed them into the water. "Hey, what are you doing?" Katara gasped. "They'll never get it if it sinks to the bottom."
"They'll get it," Zuko said. He kept his eyes on one particular turtle duckling as it paddled over to where one piece had sank and then dove in. "This will get them used to foraging for food. Otherwise you're spoiling them and they won't be able to cut it in the wild. Not to mention that if they get used to being hand fed, they'll attack everyone expecting food."
A look of surprise crossed her face as he finished his explanation. She nodded understandingly and looked back at the turtle duck family. "Oh...so...how do you know this?" Katara asked as she crouched down beside him and began tearing pieces of bread and tossing them into the water further from the edge.
"You think you're the first person to feed the turtle ducks here?"
Katara sighed heavily and watched as the turtle ducklings finished off their meal. "So what are you doing up so late?"
"I should ask you that question, but crazy people don't often have answers."
She rolled her eyes and wrapped her arms around her knees. "I came to check on the turtle ducklings. I do it every night."
Zuko raised an eyebrow and looked at if as if she'd truly lost her mind. "Every night? You come here every night to check on animals?"
"I like animals," she shrugged. "Besides, no one ever comes here, so I get some peace and quiet. No guards. No maids. No patients. No Sokka. Just quiet."
I could use some of that... Zuko nodded numbly, ignoring the cool rain soaking through his robes.
"I wonder why no one comes here...it's a nice garden."
"That's because it's within the area of the royal quarters. You're not supposed to be here unless you're Fire Nation royalty." Zuko told her. Katara's eyes widened.
"What? No one told me! I didn't know, I just-"
"Calm down, I'm not accusing you. Besides, no one would say anything or try to stop you because you're one of the heroes of the war. They probably assume you have permission to go wherever you please. You can thank my Uncle Iroh for that."
She laughed pleasantly and smiled to herself. "He's a nice man...you're lucky to have him."
Zuko nodded as they slipped into the comfortable silence. "Yeah...I know..."
"Dad, it's fine," Katara said as she reached up and hugged the man that was boarding the boat back to the South Pole. "I'll head back there as soon as I finish healing the troops that just arrived. Promise."
"If you wish to stay, I won't stop you," he told her seriously. "But I will miss you," Katara smiled and pulled away from his embrace. "Sokka," he said as he looked past his daughter to his son. "I trust you will watch your sister."
"Dad..." Katara mumbled, embarrassed. "I'm almost sixteen..."
"You're not there yet," he reminded her with a warm smile. "Sokka!"
"I know, I know...keep Katara out of trouble, I know the routine." Her sibling assured their father. "Don't worry dad, she'll be well protected."
"Excellent. And Katara," the man smiled broadly as he looked back at his daughter. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. "Make sure Sokka doesn't get into any trouble." Katara giggled and nodded.
"No problem, dad."
"Come on! Let's go! The rest of us want to see our kids, too!" Bato shouted from the boat. He waved at the two as his old friend trudged up the ramp, to the ship.
"Bye, dad! Bye, everyone!" Katara and Sokka waved and watched as the boat pulled out from the dock. They watched as the ship set off into the sunset and disappear on the horizon. A heavy hand rested on her shoulder and she looked up at he brother.
"Don't worry..." he assured her."Just a few more weeks and we'll be out of this oven." Katara chuckled and nodded a she followed him back to the ostrich horses they had rode in on.
They took their time returning to the Fire Palace. By now, almost all of the dignitaries had left for their respective homes. Aang had returned to the Earth Kingdom with Toph to do some more peacekeeping, especially along the villages that were now inhabited by Fire Nation citizens. Only Sokka and Katara remained at the request for Katara to stay until the last of the critically wounded had arrived from overseas. She agreed to stay and help heal the major wounds and get them to a stabilized condition before returning home.
She glanced over at Sokka, who had been talking non-stop about how he couldn't wait to go home and eat his Gran-Gran's stewed sea prunes, and smiled. She shoved down the prang of guilt that had made itself known in the last few days, right after her father had announced that they were returning to the South Pole and wanted Katara to come with them. Healing the injured and sick was her main reason to stay, that was true, but there was something else. Something more selfish.
"So how are those turtle ducks?"
"What?" Katara sat up straight in her saddle.
"The turtle ducks," Sokka repeated. "You know...ducks with turtle shells. They quack and are all cute and fuzzy. You've been talking about them since you saw them."
"Oh...the turtle ducks. They're doing great! I go visit them every night."
"Sounds fun," the male sibling smiled. "Hey, why don't I join you tonight-?"
"No!" Her words came out faster than she wanted. Her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with one hand. Beside her, Sokka's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
"Okay..." he trailed off."I'm not going to steal the turtle ducks from you..."
"I mean..." Katara's mind struggled to come up with an excuse. "It's kind of my...alone time."
"Alone time." Sokka repeated, disbelievingly.
"Yes, my alone time," Katara asserted. "Just me and the turtle ducks. Alone." Sokka sighed and shrugged.
"If you say so...still, I want to get a look at them before we leave."
Katara chuckled and nodded. "Sure," she agreed. "I'll bring you down there one day," She gripped the reins of her ostrich horse and looked forward, towards the palace in the distance. Sorry, Sokka... she apologized silently. But I already share my alone time with someone else. And I think he needs it more than you.
They rode silently into the palace grounds and were met with stable hands to take the ostrich horses back. Katara thanked them and headed into the sprawling palace.
"Oh yeah, don't forget, we have to ask Zuko about moving the critical injury tent indoors before the next group arrives." Sokka reminded her.
"Oh yeah..." Katara nodded. "All right, I'll meet you at the pavilion for dinner. Let me go and find him before I forget." Sokka nodded and walked ahead while Katara turned left. She was heading into his hearing room, mentally going over the list of reasons why it was necessary to move the critical injury tent into one of the palace buildings.
She rounded the next corner and nearly ran into someone. "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention," a kindly voice said. Katara instinctively looked up and saw well dressed man standing there. He wore a concerned look and had worry lines along his face. His eyes carried a sad, tired look to them. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir, I'm fine," Katara replied. She smiled and bowed her head slightly. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, thank you." The middle aged man smiled once more and Katara stepped aside for him to pass.
She watched him walk down the hall. From the looks of his clothing, he was obviously a wealthy man, probably a noble. She tilted her head to the side. He looks...familiar... She shook her head and continued on her way to the hearing room. Reason one...keeping them in one place would be more beneficial to the healing process...
"Yes, I'm sure," Zuko's voice could be heard from the hall and Katara sped up her walk. She wanted to catch him before he disappeared into another meeting. "She'll be placed on house arrest for a month."
"And her weapons?"
"See to it they are all confiscated and destroyed." Zuko ordered.
"Yes, my lord."
Katara arrived at the entrance to the hearing room just as two guards walked out. She peeked into the room and saw Zuko sitting on his throne, behind a low wall of fire. He was leaning forward, his eyes closed, as his hand rubbed his forehead tiredly. Hesitantly, she walked into the room.
His hand lowered as his head rose. His eyes squinted through the flames and shadows that danced across the pillars. "Katara..." he whispered in a low voice."I'm sorry I couldn't give your father a proper farewell. I was indisposed this entire afternoon."
She shook her head and brushed it off with a wave of her hand. "It's not a problem. It was a lot hugging and stuff anyway. You know...not your sort of thing. Anyway, are you busy right now?"
"No, no...what is it?"
Katara frowned slightly and stepped closer to his throne. "Are you all right, Zuko? You sound tired."
"Listen, the sooner you tell me what you need, the sooner I can get some dinner and go to bed." he snapped. Katara sighed and shrugged off his attitude.
"On behalf of the medical teams here, I'd like to request that the critical injuries infirmary be moved indoors, preferably to one of the spare rooms on the southern front of the palace-"
"Now wait until you hear the reasons before you say no," Katara began, holding up her hands. "One, it would be better if we didn't move them so soon after-"
"Didn't you hear what I said?" Zuko shouted over her words, effectively shutting up the brown haired water bender. "I said it was fine! Use the any one of the empty rooms on the southern wing. If you need any more beds or tables, ask the palace staff."
"Really?" Katara asked, surprised. She was sure he was going to say no. "We can use it?"
"Do you want it or not?" Zuko snapped. Katara nodded and he waved his hand dismissively. "Then stop asking questions and go!"
It took her all her strength not to jump up with giddy excitement. Instead, she threw him her best smile as she darted out the door to tell the doctors. "Thanks, Zuko! You're great!" She waved good-bye as she disappeared out the door and Zuko slumped down on his seat.
"Uncle..." Zuko said tiredly, not bothering to look towards the cushion where his Uncle was seated below him. Iroh sat there quietly drinking some tea, hidden behind a pillar and out of Katara's view. "What do you think?"
"I think that it's a good idea to move all the critically injured into a more permanent setting." Iroh mused.
"No," Zuko frowned. "With Mai. This is the third time her father has come asking for forgiveness on behalf of his daughter. He's a good man and I know he cares for his children. But after aiding Azula as she did..." He trailed off, sounding unsure.
Iroh looked down at his cup of tea. "Zuko, you know I believe in second chances. And Mai and Ty Lee were not bad girls, just loyal friends to Azula. You cannot blame them for that."
"I know...I know..." Zuko lifted his head and looked down at the fires before him. "He wants noble status reinstated on Mai and a pardon for her part aiding my sister. But we never found Azula's body and for all we know, she's still alive somewhere and Mai could be helping her."
"From what her father has told us, Mai has spent every day at home and will see no visitors..." Iroh reminded him calmly. "If you are so worried, we can always have guards watching her. You can even bring her into the palace and keep her under house arrest. After all, it would not be fair if you did not pardon her after you pardoned thousands of soldiers and guards who were also working under your father and Azula."
Zuko mulled over situation quietly. He stared down at the flames for a while longer before quietly standing up. "I'm going to...think about it some more..." Zuko silently headed out the doors behind his throne and slipped out of the hearing room.
Ty Lee had been easily forgiven. As soon as Azula fell and Zuko was put into power, she rushed back to her circus. She had been sad at the loss of her friend, but she never wanted to be part of a war in the first place. Mai had joined simply out of boredom. Killing was not her prerogative, either. But when one flings knives, darts, and assorted sharp objects as a fighting style, someone was bound to get hurt. The Avatar and his friends were hardly a match for those three girls.
It was dark now and Zuko headed back to the royal quarters, completely lost in thought. He had to give his decision to Mai's father the next morning.
"Head's up!" He saw something the size of his fist flying towards his head and quickly shot out his hand. He snatched the piece of bread in mid air and blinked blankly at it as he realized what it was. An amused laughter echoed from the pond. "Hey, Fire Lord! Too tired to help feed the turtle ducks tonight?"
The soft material rested in his hands and he looked out towards the pond at the inviting figure clad her usual guest robe and what he assumed were sleeping clothes beneath. Katara stood with her hands on her hips, a ball of bread in one hand. Her hair was down for the night in soft, brown waves around her face. And she was smiling, as usual.
"I'm tired." he stated simply and tossed the bread back. She caught it in her other hand.
"Yeah, you look it."
He let out a low growl. "Listen, I don't have time to feed the turtle ducks tonight. I need to get some rest."
"Rest," Katara repeated questioningly. "I didn't know it took so much out of the great and powerful Fire Lord to sit on a slab of stone and toss bread balls into the water."
He snorted indignantly. "At least you recognize that I'm great and powerful."
"All right...but it's your loss." Katara shrugged. She turned around and headed back to the edge of the pond. Zuko watched as she pulled the hems of her robe up just before sitting on a large, flat stone by the pond. His eyes stayed on the piece of earth he had ordered to be placed there the day right after their first session feeding turtle ducks.
With all the rain, the ground had been soaked and his clothes, as well as Katara's were mud stained. When he complained, Katara shrugged and simply told him that when one put water with dirt, it made mud and thus it was inevitable. The night next when she arrived, he was sitting on the stone slab with smirk on his face, as if he had outsmarted her. However, the moment she sat down beside him and started tossing in balls of bread, he wondered if it was she who had outsmarted him.
After that, every night, around midnight, the two would eventually meet on the stone slab beneath the tree. Katara would always bring bread to feed the turtle ducks. Sometimes they would talk about small, stupid things. Sometimes make comparisons about the South Pole and the Fire Nation. But more often than not, they settled into a comfortable silence with nothing but the sound of water and turtle ducks.
Zuko gripped the top of the low wall. With one fluid movement, he jumped over the side and landed on the grass. Silently, he walked over to the slab. Katara didn't even have to turn around to know he was approaching. Rather, she just scooted over on the stone and lifted up a piece of bread. He took it and sat down beside her, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"It looks like it'll rain tonight," Katara said quietly as she tore off a piece of bread. "Are you sure you want to be out? Your robes will get muddy again."
"I can do whatever I want," he retorted proudly as he mirrored her movements. "Did you find the room for the critically injured well?"
"We found a perfect one. Thank you for that." He nodded solemnly.
Moments of silence passed by as they watched the baby turtle ducks chase each other around the pond. The mother and the father turtle ducks were watching carefully from afar, ready to come in at any moment to save them.
"Do you believe in second chances?" The words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. He heard Katara shifted to look at him, but kept his eyes focused directly ahead of him.
"Second chances?" Katara asked quietly. She smiled brightly. "Of course I do! You never know if a person can change for the better and I think they should be given a chance to try. I mean, you had a second chance and you turned out for the better."
He remained seated and nodded once. "So you would give your enemies a second chance?"
"I already have," Katara reminded him. She tossed the last of her bread into the pond and looked back at him. "You have, too. I think you know that already." She added quietly.
The young Fire Lord let a baby turtle duck eat the remaining bread from his hand. He watched it returned to it's siblings as he pulled his hand back and rested it on his lap. "Thank you."
A warm hand silently slipped over his. Slender fingers curved over his and squeezed gently. "No problem," she assured him quietly. Her eyes remained on the little creatures swimming before them. "That's what I'm here for." A drop of water landed between them and soon, they found themselves caught in the rain. Golden eyes closed tiredly as he shifted in his seat. His hand pulled out from under hers and for a moment Katara felt her heart sink. Humiliation rushed in as a wave of rejection came crashing down. Mentally, she cursed herself for acting impulsively. She had just wanted to reassure him that she was always willing to help.
She didn't mean for a simple gesture to mean than that. Then again, perhaps she had meant it, too. Replaying her movements in her mind, she chastised herself for even thinking that perhaps Zuko wanted her as a good friend and not just a Water Tribe peasant who he had to tolerate for the sake of peace. Had he understood the meaning? Was he disgusted? Angry? Would he stop feeding the turtle ducks with her? She was about to move her hand away when a larger, calloused hand covered it gently. Fingers wove through hers and curled around her hand reassuringly.
He would be there the next night.