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The Warrior's Gambit

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8:30 PM

Suki was lingering near an Earth Kingdom food cart. At first, Katara would have just described her as taking a break, but as she drew closer, she realized it was something more. She was jumpy; not like she'd been threatened, but as though she was avoiding someone...or trying to make herself do so.

"Whatcha doing?"

Suki nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Kat! Don't do that!"

"I can't believe I snuck up on a Kyoshi warrior," Katara teased and it took a second, but she soon heard a quiet chuckle from Suki.

"Yeah, don't tell my mentors. They'd kick me out of the troop for sure," she replied good-naturedly, but something was still off about her.

"Are you okay?"

"Dandy. Pfft. Perfect, even," Suki said, waving a hand, so convincingly that Katara almost believed her. She did, until-

"Liar."

Both Suki and Katara did jump at the unexpected voice of Toph. They spun and saw the diminutive girl standing behind them, grinning wide, with her aide following inches behind her.

"You...how did you...where did you even come from?" Katara gasped out, trying to slow her heart-rate.

"Amazing what people who aren't blind still don't see," Toph shrugged, pleased with herself, "And Suki over here is-"

"Toph," Suki growled a warning.

"Feeling the little oogy butterflies about Anaselma's older brother."

"Anaselma has an older brother?" Katara echoed at the same time that Suki slapped her hand over Toph's mouth.

"That's treason to even joke about! And I do not," she hissed, "It's just indigestion. That's what you're 'feeling' from me."

"Oh, blah." Toph pried Suki's hand off. "You're not in love with him, about to run away in a scandal from the Choice. You just think he's hot and nice and has dreamy eyes," Toph said.

"How would you know he has dreamy eyes?" Suki asked, crossing her arms and muttering.

"You just confirmed it, sistah," Toph said. "See, over there," she said, pointing across a room.

"Uh...where?" Katara asked, scratching her head. Toph was pointing at a very elderly lady. She doubted that was who Toph was referring to. She shielded her forehead against the lights from the room and found Anaselma. Toph's aide did the kind thing and readjusted Toph's arm to be pointing in the right direction, finding her mark. Anaselma was indeed lingering around a man about her height.

Toph was not deterred by her lack of directional correctness, "I can feel how lots of girls are just melting over him."

"Oh, huh, yeah." Katara had forgotten that Anasemla had mentioned him once, along with the fact that she really admired him. It had been her brother and father who taught her earthbending. Apparently, he was as skilled as she was, if not more so. "Habu?"

"Haru," Suki corrected, "And it's absolutely nothing. I danced with him. He's nice. End of story," she said meaningfully to Toph.

"Oh, secret's safe with me."

"There's no secret."

"Great deflection!" Toph said, giving her a thumbs-up, "No one will ever know."

Suki looked about ready to strangle Toph, though Katara wasn't sure if it was because Toph was lying or because she was actually telling the truth. Then, seemingly pleased with this minor amount of chaos she was allowed to create, Toph turned to Katara.

"Should we also talk about your sexy dance partner?" Toph said. She seemed like she wanted to stir up trouble here, having little other places to do so tonight.

"He's not sexy. And I definitely don't have any fuzzies toward him," Katara said firmly.

"It would be more fun if you did."

"I haven't figured him out," Katara said honestly. "He's...interesting to me. A puzzle," she admitted after a moment. "What have you been up to the rest of the dance?" She didn't want to talk about Jet with them, not when she had the feeling that he was someone she needed to think about herself. She wasn't sure what he would be to her, but he did feel significant in some way.

"Avoiding dancing. Nicely turning down gross dudes and wishing I could kick them in the-" Toph began, but her aide gave a cough. "In the...face." Toph finished dejectedly, most assuredly not what she was going to say.

"Having fun?" Suki asked Toph.

"Not nearly as much as I could be having." Toph looked imploringly to her aide, taking her mask off and giving her biggest, most liquid eyed-stare she could muster. "Just one more alcoholic drink? It can be mostly juice."

"Ha. No." Apparently, her aide had been forewarned not to trust Toph, or she was made of stronger stuff.

"Party pooper," Toph growled, sinking into a chair. "Can't castrate guys, can't get drunk, can't leave...it blows."

Suki exchanged looks with Katara. Though Toph's idea of a good time was...not quite what Katara would think was within the reasonable realm to do, she still felt bad for Toph.

"You know what we can do?" Suki said, "Stuff our faces with food. And man, you gotta try this skewered chicken-pig."

They managed to 'cheer' up Toph, or at least get her back to her biting and sarcastic self by eating nearly gluttonous amounts of food. Suki said she'd probably be leaving the ball as soon as they were able, wanting to rest up for the next day. Toph agreed, though only because she was bored to death.

"I'm going to go talk to some of my Kyoshi friends," Suki decided. "Not sure when I'll see them next."

"I'mma go and annoy Kuzon or Sokka," Toph decided. "Which is totally fair game because Kuzon won't fight back and Sokka will," she defended her choice to her aide, who just groaned.

It left Katara unsure what to do, caught up in thoughts of Hama and Lu Ten, and Zuko (still not dancing with her) and- Jet!

She saw him across the room.

Deciding that she didn't have all the info on him, she decided to go try for another dance to see what she could glean. She lost track of him for a couple of moments until she saw a glint of metal, his swords, peeking from a curtained area.

What she didn't expect was to slip into what she first assumed was an illicit meeting between Smellerbee and Jet. She almost turned around, not wanting to see what was happening and strangely feeling a bit annoyed, until she realized Jet was hissing at Smellerbee, up in her face.

"-Do you think that shit grows on trees, Bee? Spirits, it wasn't supposed to be this hard! He was supposed to be rolling in his grave by now!"

"I didn't realize until it was too late! If you get me more, I swear it, I'll finish the job," Smellerbee insisted, though she was clearly ashamed of herself. Katara held her breath, not wanting to be discovered eavesdropping. It was obvious to her that they were talking about an assassination.

"It took me ages to find that. It doesn't travel well and it's expensive."

"But it's worth it, right! To get him gone for good. If we-"

"No." Jet's voice was firm. "We'll find another way. I hope you like playing wife here since your mission is done."

Smellerbee visibly winced, swallowing back tears. "I'm not in this for Zuko, you know that." Katara didn't need Toph here to see that this was a lie. Though it greatly shocked her, she would bet that Smellerbee, in some fashion, had started to fall in love with Zuko like so many others.

"I think you like him more than you want to admit. Prissy palace boy," Jet hissed in a disgusted tone. "You think you'll be allowed to come back to the trees after this?"

All at once, Katara felt like a thousand bits of information crashed over her into one understanding. She exhaled and a small squeak followed it.

Bharvari WAS telling me who it was…

"Katara?" Smellerbee said, and Jet threw back the curtain.

"Ah, what a name," Jet said, a curl to his smile. Katara bit the inside of her cheeks, annoyed that Smellerbee had said it out loud. Something about Jet knowing her name made her feel uneasy. She sent Smellerbee a dark look, on all accounts.

"Is anyone here with no ulterior motives?" she bit out. She was also including herself in this group, but at least she'd been honest with Zuko about it from the start! Between Fidelia planning on a pregnancy, Toph here to ignore her parents, Suki here to bring prosperity to Kyoshi, and now Smellerbee planning a murder...Katara wondered if there was any girl who was here just to be stupidly in love.

"Didn't take you for someone who listened to private conversations," Jet said, his mask over his head. Now that she saw him, there was something attractive about him, though at the moment she could hardly focus on that. She threw her own mask on a cushioned couch, yanking the curtains closed. Before he could make a quip about beauty, she was talking.

"You're the leader of the Freedom Fighters," she said, pointing at Jet.

"I never said I wasn't," Jet said. Katara had heard many differing opinions about the renegade group that caused issues and explosions all over Fire Nation-occupied Earth Kingdom towns. Some lauded them as heroes, others hated their guts.

"You're talking about the poison. You were going to kill…" She took an educated guess. "The Fire Lord. That's why you came to the Choice."

"It was supposed to be a week-long assignment," Jet hissed, "Get it in his teacup at dinner. Done."

"But Ursa sometimes drank from his cup, and I couldn't risk that," Smellerbee snarled back, but Jet seemed indifferent to this possible casualty. "And then it went missing…"

"You're the reason that Bahiravi's in jail. That she's…" Katara stared at Jet and Smellerbee, equally furious and horrified. "She's suffered a worse fate than even death, because of you!"

"Oh, it's not like she was a saint, beautiful," Jet threw up his hands, "From what I heard, she was tryin' to kill you."

"That's not the point!"

"She shouldn't have stolen it if she didn't know how to use it correctly," Smellerbee said, clearly without any shred of guilt over what had happened.

Some part of Katara knew that Bahiravi may have tried to kill her or Toph or any of the other girls in a different way had she not seen the opportunity to use the poison, but Smellerbee's nonchalance and Jet's 'kill whoever accidentally gets caught in the crosshairs' attitude was making her feel sick.

"You gunna turn us in?" Jet asked, coming up to stand in front of Katara, too close for her comfort zone. "Watch us dangle from the gallows? Be the reason we're dead tomorrow morning?"

"I-"

"Your righteousness will be as just as ours. And you'll have two deaths on your hands," Jet said with a tone that infuriated her, mostly because she knew she was right. She hadn't asked for what happened to Bahiravi, not in her name. She knew if she turned them both in, Ozai would not be merciful. He'd make a public, gory example of the pair.

"You can't just go around trying to kill Fire Lords," Katara said, deflating.

"Oh, and you'd like to see him live a long happy life." Smellerbee raised an eyebrow. "I doubt that."

Katara bit her tongue. While she wouldn't cry if Ozai suddenly keeled over from a surprise death, she would feel uncomfortable if she knew how it had happened and if it wasn't natural. She wasn't sure she should be making those sorts of choices, big ones like that, about who deserved to live and who deserved to die.

"Doesn't matter, Smellerbee ruined our best shot," Jet said after a second, glaring hard. "It'll be months before I come up with a better solution. If only I could wring his neck right now…" Jet clenched his hands, "And I'd make him suffer. For every person he's killed or ordered to be killed. It would take all night, but he should feel it all. I'd never get the chance here tonight, though."

Though she really did not trust Jet now, she believed him when he said that he wasn't going to be able to try anything for a while. And, hopefully, by that time, things would be...resolved. She had to hope, one way or another.

"I said I was sorry!" Smellerbee whimpered.

"And how many others will die because of your fuck up?" Jet demanded. "Airbenders. Innocent women and children. Men who defy soldiers," he listed, and Katara felt her throat caught as he turned, staring her in the eye. "Damn, might even be Water Tribe people too."

"If you succeed, you'll die anyway. They'll figure it out, or it would be obvious," Katara pointed out. Jet smiled at her, as though the idea pleased him.

"I will gladly send my soul below to meet my maker as long as I see Ozai there too," he said. "My single death could save hundreds, no, thousands, if need be."

"Sounds like you have a martyr complex," Katara snapped. "You're both stupid."

"Oh, and we're just supposed to sit here and do nothing, like you?" Smellerbee said, turning to Katara with a grin that was not kind, but almost mocking. Yes, how many times had Katara been close enough to stab Ozai with a dinner knife, or convince Zuko to let her into the Royal Family bedrooms and suffocate him while he sleeps? She, perhaps more so than others, had a better chance to do this. Still, though...

Katara opened her mouth to object, and maybe say something completely bone-headed that would give her knowledge of the Airbenders or Aang away, but she stopped herself.

She usually had a thousand words for people who were doing something idiotic, but at this moment, she was completely unsure what to say. Ozai was bad and his death might help, but she would not be caught in this plot. Nor would she stop them? Well, her goodness liked to say she would, but the part of her that knew how Ozai had nearly squeezed the life out of her people caused her to say nothing at all.

"For the record, though I don't agree with your actions, the world needs those willing to fight against what is wrong." Katara picked her mask and readjusted it. "So I hope you can figure something out without giving up yourself too. Both of you."

Then, she left her tent, intent to wash her hands of the entire situation. In a sense, she almost pretended she'd never heard anything.

9:00 PM

Aang pulled at his collar as he stepped away from the lady he was dancing with, under the guise of needing a drink.

All night he'd been kept very busy, on his feet and sashaying with ladies who giggled and tried to flirt. It didn't take many of the more-intelligent daughters of lords and dignitaries long to figure out who Kuzon was compared to the other dragons. And, once that was known, it was like open season on him. Kuzon was, of course, the most eligible Royal Bachelor. Plus, since he was not close to the throne, he would be more allowed to marry someone of a lower rank. Because of this, girls had found him in droves and asked him to dance. They all hoped that maybe they could enchant him within the span of a couple of minutes and he'd whisk them off to the palace.

Aang was far too polite to turn anyone down, even if each dance seemed longer and worse than the last. He'd take anything to be allowed to lurk in the shadows as he was asked to do at the other dances, but with so much going on, he was hardly drawing any attention.

The voices in his head were quiet...mostly. Kasata had blabbered on for the first good hour or two of the party about staying vigilant, but everyone seemed to recognize that this was perhaps exactly what Ozai claimed it was; a night of fun. Even the most religious of militants out of the Avatars eventually stopped trying to bother Aang and, dare he say, started to have 'fun'.

It was hard to describe what it was like having all these voices in his head because they were more than disembodied voices. Aang could almost see them in his skull, little mini spirits, all sitting around. Sometimes one was more present than others, in the front of the ostrich-horse, if you will. Their location changed frequently, and even if Aang couldn't actually 'see' where they were sitting, he always had a weird out-of-body experience in still having the knowledge of it.

As of now, they were all sitting at a long table, eating fire flakes and drinking sake. They were having a jolly old time with themselves by rating each girl Aang danced with, as though he was the one who was the leader of the competition. It was like they all existed currently as miniatures of themselves and his brain was nothing more than a glorified meeting room. They could sort of interact with each other; like a drunk Kuruk could poke Gopan to bother him.

As Aang thanked the most recent lady for the dance and made an exaggerated coughing sound to signify that he badly needed water, he could hear the disappointment in her voice that he wasn't asking her to accompany him.

"Will you dance with me later?" she asked.

"Oh, perhaps," Aang said, though he wouldn't if he could help it.

5/10, Yangchen declared, She didn't know her right foot from her left, but she was more interesting than the girl who wanted to talk about grass.

16/83 for me, Kuruk said.

We're using a ten-point system, we decided this-,Gopan nearly hyperventilated, and Aang knew that Kuruk was doing it just to bother him, You cannot order the data if it doesn't match and-

0/10, Kasata grumped, She wouldn't last a day in a war!

We're not choosing girls for battle, we're choosing them as Aang's amour if Ty Lee were to leave him, Udaya said gently, chastising. Aang winced, hoping that his former selves didn't see something he couldn't.

Nonsense! Kasata, as drunk as a mind-spirit could be, hopped on the table, knocking over the fire flakes. Love IS a war!

While his voices duked out what exactly they were supposed to be grading anyway, Aang took the moment to actually grab a glass of water. It was strange. In a sense, their bickering was like white-noise...comforting, something he was used to enough that he could tune it out. Part of him feared what it would be like to go without them, if they disappeared as suddenly as they'd come into his mind. It would feel so...empty.

He took his drink and began to prowl.

As he passed through the people with the hopes of spying who he most wanted to dance with, he saw Katara exit a curtained off-area with a scowl on her face.

Those curtained areas were for the more...romantic exploits of the guests, so already Aang didn't really want to know what Katara had been doing in there. Plus, if frustration or anger could be felt, Katara would be broiling the entire party.

Aang took a step to go and ask her what the issue was, but he saw a bright pink costume out of the corner of his eye. As curious as he was, he also felt like Katara had a lot of anger about a lot of things. Sometimes reasonable, other times not. She might be pissed at her brother or Toph or Zuko (yet again) and honestly, he had a goal in his mind that he could not be swayed from.

Even costumed from head-to-toe, Ty Lee exuded the same effortless and friendly energy, making her quite a popular choice for dance partner as well. For as much as Aang had been courted, she'd been so twice as much. It seemed whenever he turned around, she was entertaining another guy on her arm.

Aang knew from the way she'd always turn to find him that she was doing this to be nice because that was just Ty Lee. He had no reason to think she was doing this to flirt, but he also was not going to let someone else intercept him before he could ask her for a dance. It was nearly the end of the night, as it were, and he did promise her.

"Care for a dance, ma'am?" Aang asked, tapping on her shoulder.

Ty Lee spun, and though her face was covered, Aang could hear her joy oozing from her tone. "Kuzon! There you are! You've kept me waiting."

Aang took her hand and slid them into the dance group, effortlessly. He'd been drilled with every Fire Nation dance to the point he could do most in his sleep in his early days of training here. It was second nature as soon as he recognized which type of song they were playing. Better for him; he could talk instead of making sure his foot was going left instead of hopping right.

"Well, you're not an easy person to get alone. Fall madly in love with anyone since the dance?" he questioned, teasing.

"Night's still young," Ty Lee giggled back. "I sort of like this one particular guy though."

"Oh?"

"Hmm, he's not the tallest, but he's still growing. He has black hair...gray eyes...sorta cute."

"Just sort of? Wow, insult a man's height and then kick him while he's down," Aang laughed.

Ty Lee's laugh broke off a bit too soon.

"Ty?" Aang asked anxiously.

"I talked to Azula. Not that I was...that we...I just told her that I wouldn't be staying past the fights," Ty Lee said, her chin raised. Aang caught a glimpse of her eyes beneath her mask, shining with pride and conviction.

"Any injuries?" Aang asked, entirely serious.

"She was...I think she's okay with it, actually," Ty Lee said. "No, seriously!" S\she added when Aang gave a long sigh. "She was really confused at first. She told me she still thought there was a chance with Zuko, she'd help me. I told her that my path was taking me somewhere else."

"I mean, maybe she liked the idea of you being her sister-in-law."

"She did seem concerned that I wasn't doing it just because of how he feels about Katara, or anyone else. I mean, she was very thorough. It's a big choice, of course she tried to make sure I was serious and really thought about it."

"You see the good in everyone, even if I'm more dubious," Aang said.

"Her aura didn't show any ill-will. Just sadness, I suppose. I mean, I'll be going home for a bit once I do leave, even if I'll come back for you soon. She's been a bit distant with me when I saw her tonight. I think she's hurt."

"She has feelings?" Aang scoffed.

"That's mean and you know it," Ty Lee hissed and Aang gave a wince. "We grew up together. Azula has just been taught to be reserved, and all. She's strong though. She'll work through it," Ty Lee said brightly, "I feel better about it. Knowing that I have her blessing."

"She told you that she was fine with you leaving?"

"Not in so many words. Well, she sort of did. She told me that if I was dead-set on leaving, she wouldn't stand in my way. She'd even help me. She'll probably help me pack and get the carriage order expedited. We've had our ups and downs but she's still 'Zula at the end of the day."

"Oh. That's nice I guess," Aang said. "Can I write to you until you come back?"

"I'd be angry if you didn't."

9:30 PM

Katara was sulking around in the backroom, mind torn between trying not to look for Zuko at every chance (it was going to be a cold day in the Fire Nation before Katara would ever admit Nadhari's words bothered her, but damn, maybe they did hit something) and considering if Jet was someone she should be more concerned about.

"Ah! Katara, spirits, there you are." Yue came through the crowd up next to Katara.

"I'm not really hiding," Katara said, though she sort of was.

"Well, we're looking for you!" Yue said and grasped her wrist. Before Katara could inquire who 'they' were, Yue was already talking again as she pulled Katara around with far more force than Katara would have thought she possessed. "It's the last dance of the night, you see. There's one more 'big event' right after, but then we're free to leave if we want, to rest up for the battle. The Royal Family is going to, anyway."

"And?"

"And Zuko wants to dance with you, silly."

Katara realized with a sense of embarrassment that the Royal Family was indeed all paired with partners and just waiting on the dance floor. For her.

Wow, she was never going to live this down. This was the sort of embarrassment that would creep up on her for years to come right as she was trying to get to sleep.

"You've just been impossible to find," Nadhari hissed as she was pulled through. "Don't think it means anything that you're dancing for this round. You just were off doing spirits know what for the last three dances when he was looking for you. How shameful."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Katara said tightly, though a part of her was reminding herself not to get too excited about this. It did look like a statement to her, though if what Nadhari said was true…

Ursa and Ozai were paired together. Iroh was paired with Aunt Wu, who was not wearing a mask and looked almost blushingly at him. Lu Ten was with a woman who Katara didn't recognize, but she sensed discomfort in his strict figure. Azula was with Chan, and they were extremely close together, much more so than just a pair of people dancing. It made a statement, surely.

Besides Zuko, Aang was unpartnered too. Katara saw him turn toward Ty Lee, but then switched at the last second. Though it was obvious both wanted to dance again with each other, she knew it probably would make a different statement, and not one that Aang wanted right now, with Ty Lee still part of this competition. Instead, he asked a daughter of a dignitary with a sense of resignation.

Katara took Zuko's gloved hand, trying to ignore how she felt as though everyone's eyes were on her.

Which was actually probably true in this case.

It was a slower Fire Nation waltz, one that left space for intimate slow-dancing. Zuko pulled Katara close, so much so that she caught a hint of his spiced cologne.

"I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get a dance," Katara said after a second, unable to stay silent with him. Then, she added, because she enjoyed shooting herself in her own foot, "Nadhari said you danced twice with her."

She expected Zuko to tell her it wasn't her place to question, but instead, he gave a half-groan, half-laugh.

"You're going to think I'm an idiot," he said, his chest shaking with laughter. "Uhm, well, she was wearing a different dress at the beginning of the dance. And she's wearing a different one now."

On a spin, Katara noticed that yes, it was different. She wondered how she'd missed that.

"And I get it, Mother of Faces, so clever. I'm not even being sarcastic. It's really a cool idea. However-" He coughed uncertainty. "I was just trying to make sure I didn't snub any contestant and danced with everyone and she just grabbed me and I thought that it was Saoirse because their dress colors are pretty much the same - well, her second dress I mean - and I didn't realize it 'till half-way through."

Katara tried to hide her laughter, but a bubble of it escaped through. This was much more innocent than she'd imagined, and something about Zuko's awkwardness and sincerity about it made her fall for him even more.

"You're sort of an idiot, yeah," she agreed, knowing he'd take it well.

"Ouch, yeah, don't tell anyone," he said, and she was hyper-aware of his fingers and how they moved slowly up and down her back. She wasn't even sure he was cognizant of it. "But well, I did it. I danced with all the other girls, and then a few daughters of others my father demanded."

"Oh, so you just didn't have time for me?" Katara said.

"Well, I was trying to wait for yours. Savor it," he said, and all joking tones vanished with something more serious. "I was saving the best for last."

Katara felt her face turn red. "Geeze, wow, uhm, you don't have to...say that. I have a pretty strong sense of ego already."

"What if it's true?" Zuko said. "I haven't...my feelings never...I tried, Katara, I tried so hard." Katara got the sense that she should just be quiet now and let him talk. "To fall for other girls. There are so many wonderful ladies in the Choice, girls I'd be lucky to have a chance with. I looked only at you from the beginning and that wasn't fair. So, if I seemed distant then…" He gave a hiss of frustration, perhaps to himself. "It didn't work, obviously. So, I've still come to the same place I was before, but I don't know if it's better or worse knowing that I still don't want any other girl as much as I just want you."

Katara felt her mouth go dry. Maybe she wasn't going to leave after all. Before she could speak, a memory bobbed to her surface, a moment when the Blue Spirit told the Painted Lady something nearly similar.

"I've only ever wanted you…"

She was torn between crying and laughing at it all and wondered if this was a hint that she should tell him…or if it was a warning.

"So." Zuko kept talking when Katara did not. "How do I fix this? Us? How do I deserve you and your affections again?"

"Deserve me?" Katara choked, "Spirits, Zuko, I feel like you're so incredible and I'm just…"

"Don't you dare say 'just Katara.' To me, you're perfect."

Some part of Katara was thrilled. Some part of her disliked the idea. She feared that one day he'd really see the flaws and his illusion would be shattered. Then what? If he built Katara up to be something she wasn't?

And there was his query at hand.

Sure, this wasn't the setting that Katara wanted to have a discussion about Bahiravi, but she could not see skirting it now.

"What happened to Bahiravi is inhumane and honestly horrifying. I am honored, truly, that you care for me so much that you're somehow okay with it, but you have to see...that's just...she doesn't...no one deserved that."

Zuko was silent for a long while.

"I will admit perhaps I overreacted. She tried to kill you. If you knew how badly I wanted to do awful things to her, you might be horrified by me. Some part of me, that dark part that is my father, was glad to see her like that. And you challenged something I grew up with; I've never considered the other side of it. You must think my stupid, but I was so upset that you couldn't see what I thought I was seeing clearly."

Katara almost pulled back, until he gave a long sigh. "But the parts of me that are my mother and my Uncle realize that you are right. As you often are. I was blinded by my own feelings. I was not thinking of her as a person, which was wrong. This is the goal of having a Fire Lady...to balance out thick-headed dummies."

Katara gave a quiet laugh for a second, rolling her eyes before pulling herself back. "And?"

"I will look into it, fully. I will make it clear going forward that no prisoner is ever to be treated like that, and that anyone who does will be stripped of their position immediately. I will try to find someone to heal her. She will get a fair trial, though…" He got quiet. "She might still be put to death."

"You and your capital punishments," Katara said distastefully. Killing people who did things wrong in the South was not sustainable; they would have killed off their whole population within a few years. They were much more concerned about how to rehabilitate and make sure that their people did not make the same mistakes again, "I don't agree, but I can't change it now. I doubt even your influence could change this. If she must...can it be painless? There must be teas or flowers so that she just drifts off."

"Yes." Zuko agreed, "That is the most humane we can be and I will gladly agree."

He pulled Katara even closer. Though there were literally thousands around them, along with the other family members, Katara felt like they were once again the only couple in the world.

Zuko's nose brushed close to one of her ears, obscured by her ribbon and her hair. "Katara, I want you. In every sense, but mostly, as my partner. But I respect you and your choices and I have to think, somewhere, that your reasons - even those you do not share - are valid and worthwhile. So the option will always, always be on the table, but I will not ask you again. You will have to come to me. Is that...fair?"

He pulled back, and for a flicker of a second, she almost imagined that he hoped she'd ask him right then and there. But she did not, and if he was disappointed, he hid it well.

"That is. Thank you, Zuko. Do know that I think of it, all the time. It's not something I would take lightly, nor ever ignore." For a brief second, and Katara was not sure if it was a past life memory or a vision of the future, but she could almost see the moment of their wedding. The brilliant reds, the shining blues, the flowers, the music...it was just a wisp of a moment, too quick for her to capture, but real.

She let herself fall deeper into Zuko's arms until the song faded away.

10:00

After the dance, after they parted, Zuko could still feel Katara's fingertips burning into the places on his palm where they'd touched. She always lingered, like a ghost of a thought, long after they parted.

Katara, his warrior goddess, as hard to grasp as water slipping through your fingers, or a fine icy mist that hovers but never settles.

He knew the time was nearly over for him, anyway, as well as most of the contestants. He had to fight them tomorrow, though the thought made his stomach churn with regret and anxiety. He didn't want to fight any of them, not like this. Not in this way, in this heartbreaking manner. Still, he had to be in top shape, lest his father accuses him of trying to keep girls in who he had a feeling would not win the fights.

He was grateful his last dance was with Katara. People could say whatever they wanted, but yeah, it meant something. It meant something to him, to Kuzon, to his Uncle and he hoped that Katara understood that. His father could be furious with him tomorrow...tonight, he was going to enjoy these little moments.

His father stood on the grand dais in the middle of the 'town square' close to midnight. He just waved his hand and the band quieted and everyone looked toward him, waiting for him to speak.

"Regretfully, the Royal Family must take their leave soon in preparation for tomorrow, though everyone is more than encouraged to remain and enjoy the food and festivities," Ozai said, causing a few drunk patrons to whoop in excitement. "However, we do have one last show for you...perhaps we should call forward the mysterious ladies that make up our competition?"

There was a grand pause. Zuko caught a few of the girls in the crowd; Yue was fidgeting, Toph was hissing something to Suki, and Mai - even under her mask - looked bored. He could not find Katara and almost kept searching until he pulled himself away.

"Oh, come now, the game is up," Ozai said. "Ladies, forward. You won't want to miss this."

As though pulled by strings, the remaining contestants came to the open circle of the gathering. While the identities were still a secret, they looked like they felt as though they were fully revealed and exposed and Zuko understood. His father had quite a way of manipulating those around him. He now saw Katara, protectively standing in front of girls like On Ji and Kilee, as though trying to shield them from Ozai's devious grin. He wondered if she even realized she was doing that.

His father motioned to a balcony and let the girls forward first, assuring the best seats in the house.

At that moment, Zuko was struck by a mixture of thoughts.

Firstly; he mourned. He mourned for the girls who could have been a fantastic Fire Lady in a different life, perhaps married to him or perhaps married to another, but would not win the fights tomorrow and would be sent home. He mourned for the girls he still wanted to learn more about, even just in a friendly way, that he'd be waving goodbye to. How many would return to unhappy households, or be married off immediately to someone who would treat them awfully, in the way Toph no doubt would be if she were to go home?

Secondly, he noticed a sense of kinship between the girls that he could not have guessed. Someone had gotten a whole bottle of champagne and, quietly, most of the girls joined hands in a long chain of solidarity. They stood shoulder to shoulder, passing that bottle around, giggling in each other's ears, and sharing whispers. Even Nadhari had her fingers linked in Maiha's, which shocked him to no end. He felt as though he was intruding at this moment. This moment was not about Ozai or the grand illusion he'd put on, it was about all of them, one last moment before everything changed tomorrow.

Letting girls go into a competition was no new event, but this? The fights? The circumstances were different and everyone knew it.

He tried to memorize this moment of the girls on the patio. There was such a sense of something he couldn't place that he longed to be able to be part of it, but he knew his inclusion would only be unwelcome. Avizeh tripped in her dress and Yue was there to catch her. On Ji was wearing a different mask than the one she'd arrived in, though he couldn't tell if it was a man or woman's mask. Toph was laughing at something Saoirse said; not a smirk or a chuckle, but a real laugh with a smile that he knew was seldom seen. Mai and Ty Lee were talking for possibly the first time in quite a long time, and he knew that Mai was a little tipsy, and therefore was probably smiling widely under her mask. Anaselma had her heels swung over her shoulder and as she went to sit on the stairs, she took half the line down with her.

It was something nearly unearthly to watch, as though he was catching glimpses of something he didn't deserve to see but was granted this gift all the same.

As the fireworks began, a brilliant exhibit of bright colors lighting the darkened sky for miles around, Zuko realized he hadn't even seen the array of fire in the sky. He was more interested to see that glimmer of happiness as the girls pushed their masks up and the muted gleam of the fireworks reflected upon their cheekbones and in their eyes.

The show might have lasted for moments, or maybe days. It felt apart from the normal existence of the world, somewhere between.

Aang bumped shoulders with him, passing him a glass of dark red wine. Zuko drank half of it in one gulp, hoping it would ease his nerves and put him to sleep easier tonight.

Soon, though probably longer than he thought since he was nearly finished with his glass of wine, the show was over. Zuko expected his father to say some more pretty but rather meaningless words, so he was only half-listening.

"Does the future Fire Lord have any concluding words?" Ozai asked, extending a hand. Zuko realized, belatedly, his father was talking about him. Caught off guard, he stumbled onto the dais as his mind whirled.

Yet, the moment he stood up there, and the moment he caught sight of Katara's wild and untamed hair - teased this way to look like a mane - he knew somewhere deep down what he wanted to say.

"To all you beautiful ladies, this all was for you," he said confidently, "And, to my future wife."

The entire crowd cheered and most of the contestants giggled and blushed, thinking that perhaps he was talking to them. And let them have their fantasy. He tried to catch Katara's face, or at least her mask, but she was shielded by a few other people.

But she had to know...didn't she? He was never surer of anything. It was not just a boyish, foolish, and stubborn hope. It was like knowledge placed in his mind. He knew that somehow, somewhere, he was going to marry that girl.

Even as the thought crossed through his mind, even as the words left his lips, he felt all floaty and light, like something overtook his body for a second. And he swore he saw their wedding, a vision of the future. Katara, blushing, standing on a dock near water. Himself, chin high. His mother, standing behind him. It was as clear as day.

Zuko closed his eyes, letting the sounds of the party wash away, hoping to stay in this vision just a second longer.