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The Warrior's Gambit

Chapter Text

Date: Night of the Palace Attack

Location: Deep in the Swamps of the Earth Kingdom

The windchimes tinkled lightly, and then a gust of wind swept them around with a gale-wind force. The trees around the windchimes, however, were still.

Below the deck of the shanty house, a Fire Nation girl sat with a basket held against her hip, one hand facing out toward the windchimes. She was grinning widely and flexed her fingers again, sending a second breeze through the windchimes.

She'd never tire of their sounds.

"Dhakiya, have you fed Appa yet?" Her father called from inside the house. "I can hear him complaining all the way from in here."

"Not yet, dad," Dhakiya sighed, pushing her fingers through her hair, wishing that the swamps didn't have to be quite so humid. She was used to heat, coming from the Fire Nation. The heat combined with the wetness here? It was a little overwhelming, but she'd gotten used to it. She pressed a sticky strand of hair behind her ear, fanning herself.

It was stupid to be using her airbending skills for something so trivial, but it was in moments like this she was glad for her abilities.

She tilted her head and, over the ringing of the fire bugs and the swamp creatures, she did indeed hear Appa moaning for his dinner.

She hastened through the vines to his stable, where he was dramatically laying on his back with his many legs splayed out, his tongue lolling as he made low keening sounds. When he saw Dhakiya approaching, he stopped for a second before resuming his moaning in a more dramatic way.

"Appa, you big lout," Dhakiya said, rubbing his nose. "You're acting like you're withering away! It's only half an hour past when we usually feed you. And, if you really wanted to eat, there are vines right there."

Appa rolled over, glaring at Dhakiya for even suggesting such a meal.

"I know, too slimy," she said, flopping the basket of straw and fruit in front of him. "I'm just saying."

Appa nudged her with his head affectionately, but since he was so large, Dhaikya lost her balance and stumbled into the marshes behind his hut. She spat out river water, picking a leech from her skin.

She got up, drying herself off with a gust of wind. She saw Appa looking at her with a sense of longing. Until she met him, she'd never met an animal that could emote eloquently.

"I know, bud, I know," Dhakiya said, feeling a little bad for airbending in front of him. "You miss Kuzon, er, Aang."

She'd never officially met Aang, only seen him at dinners or in the palace halls. Zuko had never attempted to introduce her, and she wondered now if that was intentional? However, she'd never given him much thought, in fact, nearly none at all...until the night she'd left. Zuko had explained everything on their last date, in hushed and frantic whispers and he told her how she was going to stay alive. Finding out that the kid who had hung around Prince Zuko was not his cousin-third-removed or whatever lie they had spun, but was instead the Avatar had been a shock of a lifetime, only second to the shock of her own powers manifesting. She hadn't been used to calling him by his real name and still slipped up in front of Appa.

Appa had taken to Dhakiya instantly when she arrived at the swamp; she figured he could sense her airbending genetics. But that didn't mean that he didn't terribly miss his original owner. At this point, it had been years since they'd seen each other. Appa was miserable without Aang, but what could they do?

"I'll be back tomorrow with a huge plate of fruit for breakfast, how's that? And, maybe we can take a ride?" she offered.

Appa's eyes glimmered at her suggestion, and he responded by licking her face. Dhakiya shrieked, but she was laughing.

She had found herself quite taken with Appa soon after her arrival, months ago. She was well aware that he wasn't her Air Bison, but Air Bison weren't around anymore, so despite them being a hallmark of an airbender, she would likely never get her own. She was aware that one day, she'd have to give Appa back to Aang.

Dhakiya knew this. Didn't mean it didn't hurt, just a little.

She hugged Appa's snout one last time before bidding him goodnight and leaving his stable.

Outside, she worked to shuck the Air Bison saliva from her skin before returning inside.

Her father stood over their tiny kitchen - a dinky and worn set that would be more likely to set their hut on fire than cook anything good – as he prepared dinner. The catagator they'd caught was roasting in a pan, spitting oil everywhere.

"Hey, hon," he greeted, going over and kissing her forehead. "I just got news. I have to leave again tomorrow."

Dhakiya tried not to let her utter disappointment show and forced a large smile on her face.

"That's okay, dad. I'm perfectly capable out here," she assured. "I'm sure mom misses you."

Ever since Prince Zuko had smuggled her out of the Palace and officially released her from the competition, she'd been living out here in the Foggy Swamp. Her father came whenever he could, with food and supplies and letters from her twin sister, Alcina, but he had to go home to keep up appearances every so often. Dhakiya hadn't been out of the Swamp in months, but she'd grown used to it.

It was worth it to keep herself safe; so far, besides Aang, she was one of the only airbenders around. She knew that if Ozai found her...she shuddered at the very thought. Suffice to say, it wouldn't go well.

Dhakiya opened the cupboard that held her food. "When you come back, bring Fire Flakes. We're nearly out," she said, shaking the can. Most of the food she ate was taken right from the Swamp, and thus a wide variety of spices were necessary to make it palatable. Only the fruit was sweet and flavorful, but that could be found few and far between. She knew that it was the Airbender way to only eat veggies, but she just couldn't support that lifestyle out here, not now.

And even when things were good, could she really go there? Yes, she was an airbender...now. However, she'd grown up as a Fire Nationer, as – she had thought - a late blooming firebender. She was more firebender than airbender in her temperament, so which way to go?

Luckily, these were questions that she didn't have to consider for a very long time.

Her father flicked his fingers, producing a flame to purify the water for their meal. Dhakiya continued going through the pantry, taking some parchment from his bag and making a list - encoded - of what to bring back for her.

Realizing she was an airbender and fleeing the Royal Family, sans Zuko, of course, who was helping her father hide her, had been a tumultuous chain of events. The Dhaikya who resided in the swamp, keeping Appa safe, was wholly a different person than she even was three months ago. The Dhakiya who had entered the Prince's Choice was the quieter of the twins, the softer one. She had only ever worn nice clothes and couldn't remember the last time she was barefoot. She had only eaten things that other people prepared for her, and the thought of any confrontation had her quaking before it happened.

The Dhakiya now nearly never wore shoes and had developed a nice hardened layer protecting her feet. She had scratches and scars all over her body, from learning how to survive the hard way. The Dhakiya now had killed that catagator herself and was wholly self-sufficient when her father left. The longest she had gone without seeing another person was two weeks. The Swamp Benders came by when they could; they'd shown her the ropes of living in this difficult environment. She knew how to make a trap, how to sharpen sticks into weapons, how to lose any enemy - animal or human - in the deep vines, and which plants would kill her in seconds.

The Dhakiya who existed now was someone who had only existed in stories before. She was a person she was proud to be now, a person who she was sure could take whatever life threw her way. She wouldn't go back to the old Dhakiya for anything, even if it meant being unable to marry the prince or having to sleep under a net to keep the mosquitoes out.

One day, when this was all over, she might thank Prince Zuko, she often mused.

She ate dinner with her father quickly, as he would need to get to bed early for the journey out of the Swamp and back to the Fire Nation tomorrow. As her father began to clear the plates, Dhakiya jumped up.

"No, dad, you get to bed. I'll finish these."

"Sweetie, it's fine. I can," her father insisted. "I'm the one leaving, I should do it."

"Nope!" Dhakiya argued back with a soft smile. "Do you want to know what's on my schedule tomorrow? Make another basket of vines, maybe try to catch a possum-chicken to-"

A blinding pain rocketed through her whole body, causing her to drop the plates. They clattered onto the wooden ground as Dhakiya clutched her head, falling to her knees. Outside, Appa began to emit a low moan, and all the screeching birds in the trees flew up at once, as though there'd been a grand disturbance all across the swamp.

Faintly, she heard her father calling her name, grabbing her arms. Dhakiya shook, gasping for breath as she slumped against the wall, unable to talk.

She'd felt this one time before - this pain, this searing, this change within her body.

She'd been 13 years old. It had been a day like any other day. Alcina and Dhakiya were at their bending practice and Alcina, of course, was so much ahead in her training. Dhakiya had never even gotten a rotten puff of steam and was losing hope fast that she'd ever firebend. She was, in all, feeling pretty crappy about her self-worth. Alcina, seeing her doubt, had tried to pass off he own firebending as weaker than it was, but had been yelled at by their master.

She remembered that Alcina had taken her to a lake outside their village, and the pair floated in the cool water, watching the clouds pass by.

"You'll get there. Dad didn't firebend 'till he was 12," Alcina had tried to comfort her.

"Yeah, but I'm nearly 14," Dhakiya said sourly. "I don't think it's ever gunna happen."

"The fortune teller has never been wrong!" Alcina screwed her face up. "And there hasn't been a non-bender in our family in generations!"

"Is that meant to make me feel better?" Dhakiya turned on her stomach to swim away from her sister.

"No – arg – I didn't mean it like that! Look-"

Whatever her sister was going to say was cut off, as Dhakiya was suddenly gripped by a pain so intense she thought she might pass out. Her limbs felt heavy and her head pounded. Before she knew it, she was sinking deep into the water, her sister frantically screaming her name.

When Dhakiya woke up, she was at home. Alcina was sitting next to her, sobbing. She'd nearly died, Alcina had said.

According to the physician, there was nothing wrong with her that could have caused such pain. There was no reason to why she lost her breath, why she couldn't move her legs, or where the headache had come from.

Dhakiya didn't believe that, though, because she felt different. She couldn't put it into words, but something about her had changed.

It wasn't until two days later, when her mother deemed her well enough to get out of bed, that she figured it out, when she got into a fight with Alcina, threw her arms toward the door, and closed it with a gust of wind.

She was an airbender now.

At the time, she'd thought that her near-death experience had triggered it. In fact, up until this very moment, that's what she'd assumed. Her parents had leapt into action, realizing how dangerous it was to have an airbender in their family, a race thought to be extinct. They were under no illusion that the Fire Nation had likely had a hand in the extinction of the Air Nomads, even if they had simply not offered help when the illness swept through. Dhakiya, feeling a little wiser, had a feeling it was much more than that.

Whatever the case, she was told to keep up the firebending classes, so no one would have a reason to point her out. As they grew up, Alcina became even bolder, and Dhakiya was always her shadow. Her whole family transformed to make sure that no one would ever find out Dhakiya's secret. Until she told Prince Zuko, when she deemed him to be a man of good morals, and if she were to continue couldn't imagine keeping this from him. And, not long after, Zuko had explained to her that if she vauled her life, she needed to leave. She had been so excited to get her picture drawn with him, so excited when he asked her to stay after, and that was all shattered. In that moment, she recalled that she had wanted to just lay down and sob. It had all felt so unfair. She had wanted to marry Zuko, had wanted to be normal.

But that was in the past. She had thought that the pain had been something strange: a food past its date, a sudden cramp, a bug that had bitten her wrong.

In this moment, she knew that all to be false.

As her vision wavered back into view, she looked up at her dad. She was panting hard, the ripples of this event still echoing in her limbs, in her heart that thumped as fast as a jackrabbit.

Before saying anything, she raised her fingers, creating a gust of wind. She let out a sigh of utter relief; if something like that pain could once gave her powers, she had worried that it could take her bending away, too.

Huu burst into their hut. "Y'all okay?" he asked, his spear raised carefully.

"What in the world is going on? Are we under attack?" her father sputtered, looking out of the window as he helped Dhakiya to her cot.

"No, it was a spiritual change. It was a tremor that the entire tree system felt." Huu looked halfway between scared and ecstatic about this. "I only felt this once before...years ago."

"Nearly five years ago, right?" Dhakiya asked, finding her voice. Huu lowered his spear. He scratched his head.

"How'd ya figure that out?" he asked.

"Because I felt it too five years ago," she said, swinging her feet over the side of her bed, hunching her shoulders and groaning.

"Well." Her father paused his fussing with his daughter, considering what Huu said. "If it was spiritual...then...where did it come from?"

"Somewhere deep in the spirit world. It was angry, ya'll," Huu confirmed, rubbing his chin. "I pity wherever it came from."

"Do you think it's the Avatar?" her father asked in a hushed tone. Dhakiya grabbed the pot of sanitized water, drinking it straight from the tin as she rubbed the back of her neck. She could hear Huu and her father theorizing in front of her.

"It for sure is," Dhakiya broke in, "I just know. And I know something else, too."

Her father and Huu turned to her, looking at her expectantly.

"Dad, get ready to send more people here. The Spirit World was accessed, opened, just for a second. And you know what it did the last time? Made me an airbender," she said firmly, meeting her dad's soft light brown eyes. "So take a wild guess what it's going to do this time?"

Understanding dawned on her father. "Make more airbenders," he said. Dhakiya, despite feeling a little woozy still, got up and started examining the space critically, knowing that her day - and the days to follow - were about to get a lot busier.

"Exactly. A whole lot of people are about to be in a lot of danger."

Chapter Text

Out of all of the issues flitting around in Prince Zuko's mind - and, there were several, some very pressing and of great concern - there was one that managed to wriggle its way to the forefront just about every second he let his mind wander.

An itch he could not scratch.

A ringing in his subconscious that never faltered.

A metaphorical fly that could not be swatted away.

Katara.

What to do with a girl like Katara?

Marry her, but she said no, his inner voice would remind him.

She said no...for now, he would reply to his own devil's advocate. But a part of Zuko always knew she'd say no. She wouldn't have been Katara if she hadn't. He had faith that one day, she'd say yes, but it had sprung up out of nearly nowhere to ask her this time. In his wildest dreams, the competition would be over by now and he'd be preparing for his wedding, something he had previously been less than enthusiastic about. Katara made him want it all; a large ceremony, a quiet life, children...

He would have been thrilled, obviously, if she had said yes, but he may have been concerned for her safety.

Zuko knew the dangers of the palace, and he knew them well; that much was not something he felt right to argue with her about. He would, however, rebuff her crazy idea that the safest place wasn't at his side as the Fire Lady, a woman who held the near entirety of the world in her palm. He was sure that if he ascended to the throne with Katara at his side, he already would have won half the battle. He could sway the council, expose his father...make sure he could never hurt her.

But, Katara persisted.

Marry someone else. He recalled what she'd urged him with a mildly uncomfortable rock forming in the bottom of his stomach. His chest had dropped when he'd heard that.

Maybe it would have been smart.

Maybe...but lately, Zuko found his common sense being chipped away at an alarming rate.

He filed through the remaining girls in his mind as though he was looking through a folio, considering and weighing each girl very carefully, as he'd been doing for the last few days. Examining them. Scrutinizing them. Trying to imaging marrying one within a week, if things went really south.

Not long ago, Toph strangely would have been his first choice, if he were so pushed against a wall. Not because he held any romantic affections for the girl, but because he did not. He was absolutely sure that they could work out an agreement to benefit everyone. Toph would not have to return to her shitty family, and she would not have cared if Zuko continued to see Katara. He could convince Katara to stay on as a representative in some capacity, and as the years grew on, at least he knew he'd always have a friend in his wife. Sure, the idea of producing an heir with her wasn't the most appealing, but he'd do it to hold onto Katara. This idea, of course, hinged on Katara also being okay with this. As it was, that idea was no longer viable, because he doubted he could get Toph on board anymore. So.

Mai was the girl that many Fire Nation officials were rooting for. She had the poise and grace that they thought a Fire Lady should possess. Zuko wasn't thrilled with the idea of marrying her, at least, not as their relationship was now. A small part wondered if he managed to get Mai alone again, if she'd become more like the friend in his childhood years. She'd never been overly chatty, looking back, but she had been a companion.

Yue was soft-spoken and just as poised as Mai, but much nicer. If he considered his future children in the mix (which he had to), Yue was a more appealing choice. They sometimes had awkward moments of silence, but he figured that could be fixed with time.

Suki was also on his list of people he could see himself marrying, at least, in another life in which Katara had never come to participate in the Choice. A lot of what he liked about Suki was what he liked about Katara - her strong will, her sparring abilities, her political interest - so he worried if he married her, it would always be a competition between her and a girl that he couldn't have chosen if he wanted to-Katara. All things came back to her.

It was all rubbish anyway, every girl he considered just felt so lifeless next to Katara. Katara and her waterbending. Katara and her inquisitive eyes, which held the ocean. Katara and her warm, earth-toned skin. Katara and-

"Zuko." His father's velvet voice purred over the table. "Would you kindly come back to join us?"

Zuko lifted his chin from where it rested on his fingers. Had his Uncle called him out, he would have apologized for his absent mindedness. However, since it was his father, Zuko would not give him such satisfaction.

"I haven't left, father," Zuko said shortly. "We were discussing the reparations to the Hall of Histories, were we not?" he countered. He'd learned since he was a very young boy that not listening could sink him deep into trouble, so as much as one part of Zuko's mind whirled around the Southern Water Tribe girl he was besotted with, the other part listened and digested whenever his father opened his lips.

"Just checking." Ozai raised an eyebrow.

"A future Fire Lord shouldn't need to be 'checked'," Azula threw in. "What could be more important than these meetings, Zuko?"

If they were children, say even the ages of fourteen and twelve, Zuko would have heard a teasing tone in her voice, and he would have replied back that Azula had no to right to tease him, when she was burning her notes at the edges or ripping tiny holes in her stockings in boredom, too.

But they were not children, and there was only malice in her tone.

"Now is hardly the time to be attempting to undermine your brother, little cousin," Lu Ten said, a warning in his tone. "Isn't there enough upheaval without so you so gaudily attempting to steal what your brother has? You are like a child, taking Zuko's toys just because it so displeases you to not have something also."

"The Throne is not a toy! We've all accepted that things are changing after the attack, so why not a change in the lineup for the ruler, as well? It's been done once before," Azula added, staring down Lu Ten with a wicked smile.

"So it is not just to do it again." Uncle Iroh frowned. "Azula, your comments have been noted but have grown tiresome on all of our ears."

"Let them," Azula barked out. "He is hardly acting as a prince, did you see the way he was kissing Lady Katara-"

"Princess Katara. As is his right," Ozai broke in, but Zuko wouldn't say his father was on his side. He wasn't sure that he was on Azula's side though, or else she would have been given the throne months ago. Ozai was on no one's side but his own. "It is his prerogative, may I remind you – daughter - that Zuko may kiss whomever he pleases, if they are in the Prince's Choice."

Azula was not dumb. Whenever Ozai stepped in, she would shut up. Also, as there were only immediate family members sitting at the table, there were not many minds to enchant with her poisonous words. Her family had heard them all, and most of them could spin words as skillfully as she, so they knew her silver tricks. Zuko had never had that skill, but he trumped her in just about everything else, he liked to think. Maybe not firebending, either, but that was a work in progress.

Zuko shot an appreciative glance toward his cousin and uncle. He was especially glad that there were no hard feelings about the fact that their lineage's birthright had been removed. As it was, Zuko did not care much for the throne. It may have sounded awful to say, but he thought that Lu Ten would have made a fair and just Fire Lord. He was absolutely sure, with every fiber of his being, that Uncle Iroh would have been a better Fire Lord than his father. Had the hands of fate swung the other way, Zuko could not have been upset.

But that was not so. Zuko was the heir apparent and this left him, more times than not, very much alone in the world.

He was thrown back to an event, years ago, but a moment that has never left him.

He recalled being young, hardly thirteen, and Azulon was beckoning him to his bedside with a spindly and wrinkled finger. He'd swallowed down his terror at being called to face his very imposing grandfather alone, and bravely approached the bed, his shoulders squared.

At the time, his grandfather had been gravely ill. The Fire Sages had warned the family that he could go any day, so Zuko was told very firmly not to do anything to upset his grandfather. He'd gotten a murderous look from his father when Zuko has responded, "Do anything to upset him? He's likely going to upset me!' Azulon did end up biting the bullet, a whole year later, but remained in a state of perpetual sickness up until the end of his days. Zuko thought this was only fair.

He recalled the smell of something smoldering, something burning. Azulon always smelled like that, and not a pleasant fire smell, but a noxious one. When Azulon had grasped Zuko's wrist with a startling strength, Zuko had nearly cried out.

Azulon pulled Zuko down to his lips, his breath coming out in rasps and his whole body quaking with sickness.

"All living things die alone," he'd said, forcing the words from his lips, "And so shall you."

Then, he released Zuko just as suddenly as he'd grabbed him and turned over. Zuko had stumbled out of the bedroom and into the gardens, where he'd heaved his stomach, but only brought up bile.

Something about his words had been so prophetic, so startling. The words of a very ill elder shouldn't have shaken him so much, but truth be told...it did. It was the certainty with which Azulon had said it, the near smugness in his voice. The way he'd said it would never leave Zuko.

Even at that age, there had been discussion of Zuko ascending to the throne instead of Lu Ten. Zuko, at that point, had thought his father's plight near impossible. It was in the moment that Azulon told Zuko this, and no one else, that Zuko knew deep down one day he would rule. It felt like his grandfather's words went without saying, but that promise weighed heavier on Fire Lords than anyone else.

And so shall you.

And so shall you.

And so shall you.

A part of Zuko had prepared himself for this, for this loneliness, for this gripping coldness. Azulon had died in his sleep with not another soul around. And, even if someone had been in the room, he was so estranged from any other person that he would have died alone anyway, dying alone in the spirit of the sense. Azulon -better than anyone - would know this truth.

Then, he'd met Katara. For a wild, fledgling second, he'd thought that the few and final words his grandfather had ever spoken to him would never come to pass.

Still, now, he wasn't so sure.

He knew that as an adult - as the future Fire Lord - he should not let such things bother him in the present. He had the ability to forge his own destiny, and further than that, he had the ability to ask anything of his people. It would be for naught if he forced their love, and he wanted to be a better Fire Lord than his three predecessors - though he was sure his father would tell him his plans would make him worse, would make him weak.

Frankly, Zuko did not want to be the Fire Lord if it meant ruling through tyranny and fearmongering. And, since he was about to inherit the throne all too soon, he was in a position to be deciding such things.

Zuko turned his focus back to the meeting. Uncle Iroh was going on about the crown molding in the Hall of Histories and arguing that maybe some mirrors would be a nice addition, and Ozai was waving his hand in a firm dismission. It was nothing exciting (this whole meeting hadn't been 'exciting') but Zuko was semi-glad he didn't need to focus on it, anyway.

The door opened and Aang appeared, itching the fingerless gloves that covered his arrows. While the rumors had been spread to the public, through no effort of the Royal Palace, that Aang was covered in horrid burns, Zuko's family believed otherwise. He'd managed to convince his father that the sect that Aang, er, Kuzon had grown up with had been very religious and very covered, and it would offend the old gods to show an abundance of skin. He'd been able to find an old Fire God somewhere that had believed the sweat built up from uncomfortably heavy clothes was spiritual and it was apparently enough.

It, so far, seemed to work. Kuzon didn't go out of his way to have times in which Ozai would see him other than required attendance.

"Great Uncle." Aang bowed respectfully in Ozai's direction. Zuko could see the way that Aang's jaw clenched, how he forced the words out with some difficulty. Aang had been unsettled since the discovery in the caverns, to say the least.

"Kuzon, I take it that classes have concluded for the day?"

"Yes, sir." Aang sat next to Lu Ten, where he was instructed to sit during family meetings. His presence had grown over time. At first, Ozai hardly took note of him. But, slowly, as his stay in the palace had extended, his participation began to be more of a regular occurrence, because let it never be said that the Royal family did not honor the covenant of blood.

"How is your training going?"

"Fine," Aang answered stiffly. After the attack on the palace, Ozai had insisted that Aang start taking part in military training. Zuko found it hard to disagree, especially since Aang could only whip out his firebending in a pinch. Having other skills would be most valuable.

They'd tried to keep Aang out of the military as long as possible. Having him in a situation in which he would have to train shirtless was obviously a problem, not to mention that Aang was a pacifist by upbringing.

Zuko could not budge his father on this decision, however. Aang was funneled into the sessions. Iroh had noticed Aang's unease and convinced the Junior Captain to allow Aang to remain covered, as long as it did not hinder Aang's learning. So far, so good. However, that didn't mean it wasn't difficult for Aang to acclimate to this lifestyle. The military was structured and taught with an iron fist. It had adopted an 'eat or be eaten' mentality that related not only to training, but how they should approach undesirables in the field. Ozai was the one to thank for that, Zuko thought with frustration.

It was what Ozai did when backed into a wall: respond with war and violence. It was all he'd ever known. He was hailed as the one who revamped the entire military structure as Zuko was doing with the trade routes. He knew the military better than any living man.

It had made the Fire Nation an impenetrable nation, until the Equalists. In response, Ozai was just throwing more violence at the problem. While Zuko highly doubted that if they threw daisies and banjos at the Equalists they'd surrender, his father was taking things to maniacal levels by demanding every son over the age of 12 should go into the military training.

"Oh, Kuzon is too humble," Iroh said at Ozai's less-than-pleased face. "He is a rare find. He already shows restraint when needed, but is able to hold his own swimmingly."

Aang blushed at the praise, however he still looked upset. Zuko knew that Aang would hate to be known by a military status one day, if the whole affair with his true identity lasted longer than anyone expected.

"I'm glad to hear that. I cannot afford in another attack for you to be undefended, Kuzon. While Guardsman Shoji has shown great initiative, we must always expect the worse," Ozai said. "I am pleased you are here for the last bit of the meeting, nephew."

"Oh?" Aang asked, shooting a nervous look to Zuko, but Zuko had no idea why Ozai would want Aang around.

"We have a matter of grave importance to discuss, for the moment family and need-to-know only, and I wish not to repeat my suspicions…" He paused for a second. "I believe the Avatar has returned."

Zuko choked on his own breath, managing a strangled, "But it's been 104 years, Father." He covered his horror with faux disbelief.

"I know, quite a time for the spirits to be quiet." Ozai was stroking his beard. "And I hadn't thought it possible until very recently."

"It is not possible," Uncle Iroh insisted firmly. "Whatever you have heard-"

"It's not what I've heard, through the whispers through the palace are suffocating," Ozai cut him off. "It's what I've seen. The day of the attack, the idols of the past Avatars lit up with a brilliance that cannot be explained away. We all must assume that the Avatar is the number one enemy of the Fire Nation and is working with the Equalists to disassemble us as we know."

There was a stunned silence. Zuko scrutinized his father carefully, trying not to let his internal thoughts show on his face. He'd assumed his father was puppeting the Equalists. Was he still, and this was his way of creating an excuse to kill the Avatar if he found him? Or, were his father's thoughts genuine, and he had nothing to do with the Equalists?

The sureness in his father's voice made him actually think the latter, which would do him no good to have his suspicions back to square one. He decided his father was a master manipulator and he should equally be prepared to believe either one of the two options.

Belatedly, he thought of Aang. He resisted the urge to swing his head to his friend too sharply, but instead looked at Lu Ten and Aang as if to ask 'do we believe this?'Aang's face was as white as a sheet, and Zuko wasn't sure he was breathing. He seemed frozen in the spot, until Zuko caught his eye.

Aang slowly morphed his face into one of half-concern, half-interest. Zuko had spent years with Aang practicing his poker face and today - more than ever - it was a necessary mask.

"Okay, so…" Lu Ten licked his lips nervously, frowning. "104 years? That's what, three generations? So, it's back to a Firebender now?"

Sweat beaded on Aang's head. It seemed if Ozai believed this, and it was a fair assessment, then Aang was still in the danger zone, since his cover was as a firebender.

"Actually, I have reason to believe it's still the same airbender." Ozai leaned back on his grand chair, pressing all his finger together at the tips, a rather pensive look gathering on his face. "And if that's true, then this Avatar is a master already and our most important mission."

"There are no more airbenders, Father," Zuko attempted to scoff out. "They all died a long time ago."

"So I thought too, but I have gotten rather disturbing reports that their kind are popping up, one here, one there." Ozai waved his hands to indicate 'here and there'. "And we can only assume that any airbender is going to side with their leader, or have information about where we can find him or her."

"You can't be serious!" Lu Ten argued. "Implicating an entire race to the same crimes, the crimes you claim?"

"Son," Iroh whispered sternly, "Be cautious of what you say next."

"I knew you'd see the logic, my brother," Ozai said, nodding.

"Logic? You misspeak, brother." Iroh's face was furious. "You are speaking of blind hate and fear."

"Father fears nothing!" Azula snarled. "How dare you insinuate-"

"Azula, please," Ozai said softly, and she sat back, frowning and glaring down her Uncle. "I do fear for the safety of my family. These airbenders are dangerous, make no mistake."

"What?" Aang finally spoke up. "They're peaceful people! Pacifists, if I recall my history correctly," Aang added on as casually as Zuko would have.

"The old Air Nomads, perhaps. These are Air Nomads born of years of feeling repressed, feeling anger for a sickness that nature deigned them to have. They are not like what we remember."

Zuko had to grip the handles of his chair so he didn't spring up at the way his father pretended that nature had anything to do with the massacre of the airbenders.

Or, perhaps he truly did not know.

There was a lot he was questioning of his father lately.

Either way, Zuko was disgusted at what his father was suggesting. It sounded too good, it almost sounded reasonable. Ozai was able to twist his words all too easily, and Zuko could see how the average lay person would just feed right into the picture of terror and suspicion his father painted.

"So what do you say we do with these airbenders?" Azula asked, a malicious glint sparkling in her eyes.

"We treat any airbender found as a traitor, first off." Ozai had had time to think of this. He answered without hesitation. "We question them and if they refuse to comply, we dispose of them. They'll be useless to us anyway, and we cannot risk them escaping a prison."

"We could send them to the Boiling Rock," Zuko pressed his father. "That place is secure!"

"Zuko, you don't to be painted as an airbender sympathizer, do you? As an Equalizer sympathizer?" Ozai asked, eyes wide in faux horror.

"Asking for mercy is not the same thing." Iroh was staring at Ozai like he never really saw his brother before now. Maybe he had always clung to some desperate hope he would mend his ways or be a better person than they expected.

"And risk them poisoning the minds of other inmates? Of escaping? Of letting their cancerous ways grow like fungus? I think most would agree with me there is only one way to deal with their kind," Ozai said, throwing the blame off of himself, as he always did. Zuko knew he could bend the council to his will to make this whole thing seem like the people's wish and not his own.

"I have decided this matter must be handled with utmost care. I have called in an old friend and a formidable ally to spearhead this movement." Ozai looked to the side, waving a hand to a guard. The pair opened the grand doors to the war council room, and a man waltzed in, his military boots making sharp clacks on the floor and his medals of honor and accomplishment tinkling against the polished metal of his uniform.

"Captain Zhao. I would say I was surprised, but there are few as...determined as you," Uncle Iroh said, eyes narrowing with clear displeasure. Zuko locked his jaw. On the few occasions he'd met Zhao, he'd disliked him instantly. His uncle's attitude toward the man did not encourage him to budge such sentiments.

"General Iroh, haven't you heard? It's Commander Zhao now." Zhao set his helmet on the table, bowing deeply to Ozai.

"I had not, considering all military rank changes go through me, do they not, brother?" Iroh raised an eyebrow to Ozai.

"Yes, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I officiated it. I thought I'd save you some paperwork," Ozai dismissed it simply.

"Thank you," Iroh replied, but Zuko had a feeling his uncle was feeling anything but thankful. He watched the sizzling tension between his father and his uncle for a hard moment before Iroh blinked, breaking it. Zuko wondered, if the paperwork had come across Iroh's desk, if maybe he would have denied it.

"I'd hardly say these are desperate times," Lu Ten said, speaking when his father would not.

"I disagree, young Prince," Zhao crooned, turning to Lu Ten, his tone belittling despite the fact that he was only a handful of years older than Lu Ten; ten, if Zuko recalled correctly. "Wouldn't you say that any assault on the Fire Nation and its Lord calls for a state of emergency?"

Lu Ten licked his lips, but stayed quiet. However, his eyes remained narrowed with heavy suspicion.

"Commander Zhao, what are your plans to deal with these rebels?" Azula asked, leaning forward with a glee that sickened Zuko.

"Well, we take any whisper of an appearance much more seriously. Now that I am a Commander, there will be a task force of guards who will follow me to wherever we hear of an airbender showing up. No corner of the globe is too far to eradicate the vermin they are." Zhao took a seat at the table, which usually would be considered an affront on the most dire levels, but Ozai didn't seem to mind. "We take the ones that seem to know anything. We stop at nothing to learn what knowledge they possess, and then we finish what the plagues failed to do 100 years ago."

"You're still talking about the eradication of a whole group of people," Lu Ten whispered quietly, shaking his head.

"A war always has casualties. However, think of it as...a generosity I'm giving them." Zhao titled his head. "If we allowed them to live, no doubt there would be assassination attempts on their lives for endangering the throne. We will do it humanly."

Zuko bit back the question of how killing anyone could be considered doing something 'humanly'? And, further, did they think the plague was a softer way to go? Did they know the horrors of what the 'plague' had done to the airbenders years ago?

Suddenly, Zuko felt an even stronger urge to dispose of the journal in his trunk. He itched to go find it now and make sure that it never fell into the hands of Zhao or the likes of him.

"In all, the plan is simple, truly." Zhao was still talking. "But no doubt will it still be difficult on many levels. Lord Ozai has already agreed to allow me to take some of the training guards for my platoon, to teach them in the field, which is much more to truth than training against dummies or stick figures. Master Kuzon, I hear you've recently joined the training ranks, no?"

Zuko breathed in hard, trying not to let his heart hammer.

"Yes." Aang's answer was sharp, resounding.

"Well, how about you come with me? It would surely raise your status."

"A marvelous idea. Having a member of the Royal Family on this expedition will show the people that we stand behind it, as well as broaden Kuzon's abilities," Ozai said before Aang could decline or come up with an excuse.

Zuko, with everyone else, turned to Aang. He could see Aang very desperately trying not to break face, trying to even look excited. There was a pregnant pause in which Aang said nothing at all, and Zhao frowned.

Under the table, Zuko kicked Aang's shins. If Aang didn't speak up now...well, Zuko disliked this too, but Aang had to agree. Ozai had played his hand.

"I would be honored," Aang finally managed, grinning at Zhao. "If possible, perhaps we could push it back? I just began, and to be honest, I still need to master a few basics."

"Well, the airbender factions have been quiet," Zhao said. "So, we won't be shipping out tonight." He seemed genuinely upset about this. The relief from not just Aang, but from his Uncle and cousin as well, was palpable.

In his head, Zuko was already running through scenarios to get Aang out of his, rapidly shoving away the ones that would not work, not even considering those that would lead to Aang being discovered, and entertaining a handful. He wondered if his uncle was doing the same logistical equations too, though he figured it was because his uncle could not approve of this mission.

"Yes, a shame. A show of force would be quite what we need right now," Ozai sighed, stroking his beard.

"Ah, the unsettled few," Zhao said, and for once, Zuko felt very out of the conversation.

"They're just idiots, hardly a concern," Azula laughed. "You can't seriously think they're a danger?"

"Excuse me, what are you all discussing?" Zuko asked, deciding that asking now rather than waiting until it was far past the time to admit ignorance was better.

"I suppose you've been busy with the Ladies, haven't you?" Ozai just blinked at Zuko. "But I find it hard to believe you haven't heard about the few Earth Kingdom leaders that are considering an attack on us, since we've been 'weakened'."

"Oh," Zuko frowned. "Those."

He would have to be deaf not to hear about it. First, the Earth Kingdom leaders who discussed this were not as quiet as they thought they were. Second, when you had loyal serpents at your beck and call, few conversations were truly ever in confidence. Third, it just made political sense that there would be some people begging for thread after such an upset.

"You don't seem worried."

Zuko rolled his answer around his tongue before he spoke. "For once, I agree with Azula. I don't think it's a concern. None of the Earth Kings have the power to overthrow us, even if they tried. Plus, I hope we wouldn't need to remind them what would happen if they made an attempt."

Not that Zuko wanted that to happen, or thought fear was the right way to go. Nevertheless, his father did manage to keep a firm grip on his colonies.

"Shame," Zhao chuckled. "A public treason beheading can be quite the event."

Zuko felt ill just looking at Zhao. If he considered an execution a fun family event, Zuko loathed to think what he'd do to any airbenders to get the information he thought they knew.

"Brother, look at the time," Uncle Iroh said after a tense moment. Ozai gazed out the window.

"I see what you mean. Dinner will be ready shortly and we've been in here much too long. I think we've made a good dent in the list," Ozai said, leaning forward to examine a list of topics he'd written out, mostly on certain restorations of the palace. It was dry as hell, but it wasn't murderous rhetoric, so Zuko much preferred it.

Aang was out of the hall first, just a smidge too fast for normality. Luckily, anyone who would have reason to worry about why seemed preoccupied. Ozai had broken off to speak to Zhao and Azula hung around, like a puppy, eagerly waiting to hear anything of the plans.

Zuko felt torn. On one hand, he felt a certain responsibility for any airbenders out there (adopt one, adopt them all), and lingering may shed some more light on Zhao's plans, but after today, Aang was no doubt in a bad place.

Zuko picked his option without a second thought. Katara had told him once he was a bad politician, but a good person. Of course he'd go see if Aang was okay.

xXxX

Aang stumbled through the doors of his personal quarters, beelining for the bathroom. He felt his knees buckle and before he knew it, his forehead was pressed flush against the toilet, his whole body shaking. Deep ripples passed over his shoulders like an earthquake and he felt his lunch come up violently. He coughed until it was just bile, and then coughed some more.

He was being told to go and murder his own people. The thought made him feel ill again, but his throbbing headache took precedence now that his stomach had been emptied.

He fell back on his haunches, wiping his hand across his mouth. The headache had been unending, honestly. Ever since the night of the attack, there had been a blinding pain in his temples that hadn't subsided.

"Shut up, shut up," Aang commanded in a hushed, but furious, whisper. Alas, it did little to help.

He'd heard the whispers. Not the whispers everyone else was talking about, the whispers of more airbenders, miraculously, or the whispers of some foolhardy Earth Lords planning a coup (or, theorizing and dreaming about staging one). No, Aang was hearing whispers that only existed inside of his head.

Now that the Spirit Link had been established a second time, the Avatars of the past were crawling out of the woodwork of his mind, assuaging him at every second with past memories as well as ongoing commentary.

It was enough to drive anyone freaking batty.

They had a lot to say about Commander Zhao's announcement.

Sometimes, an Avatar must be a warrior, before anything else. You are less Air Nomad than you are the Avatar-

That was Kyoshi, who had one of the more militant perspectives.

Ozai will make a mistake, have no fear. It will not be long until my kin take the throne, Agni willing. In the meantime, I'd suggest-

Ah, don't listen to Roku! What does he know of modern day Fire Lords, since he thought he knew Sozin so well. If you ask me-

"I haven't asked you," Aang snapped to empty air. "So please, just please, go away."

Nothing, but, it was worth a try.

He wondered if he'd accepted the spirit link earlier if this would have been more gradual. Or, was it always like this, a room of too many people?

The Avatars have always held a place inside the current Avatar's mind, however, this is a special circumstance you have in all areas.

Agh, even his thoughts were not his own anymore.

Technically Aang, these are our thoughts too, since we are all the same person. We are like your conscious, but a bit more formally present.

"A lot more present!" Aang shoved himself up, leering his elbows fall on his vanity as he splashed water onto his face. Luckily, Roku was the main 'speaker' if you will, who he preferred to the others. It was the 'him' before him, after all, which probably was why. He didn't think he'd ever get used to his mind feeling so...full.

"Kuzon?" There was a gentle rap on the door, accompanied by the nervous shuffling of Zuko.

"Yeah, come in," Aang sighed, wiping his face off with a rag.

When Zuko entered, there was a moment of silence. Then, gingerly, Zuko reached inside of his armor and pulled out the journal that made Aang's head swim and his vision blur.

"I was keeping it in my chest of drawers, but now I think I shouldn't let it go." Zuko was the first to speak, switching to the Nomadic Tongue. After Sozin's conquest, he switched all of the nations he ruled to a common language, something that was an amalgamation of mainly Fire Nation words, with some Earth Kingdom roots. Nearly everyone spoke this tongue now, and only smaller communities held onto their native language. The surprise that the Southern Water Tribe had learned it too was staggering, but Sokka had explained it to Zuko, pointing out that it would have been foolish not to learn the enemy's language. At this point, it was just convenient. Aang knew every language, even the obscure ones, if a past Avatar had known it. Early on, in their travels, Aang had taught Zuko how to speak Nomadic, and it was coming in handy now more than ever. It wouldn't be odd for Zuko to know a dead language, since the study of dead languages was a Royal habit, though his sister learned languages like Old Fire Tongue and The Language Before Bending. "And we should get rid of it as soon as possible, with what Zhao is suggesting…"

Aang didn't answer, not at first.

"I just, I don't know how much longer I can do this, Zuko." He crossed his arms, sighing. Zuko pulled out a chair for him, and Aang sat down next to someone he considered to be his brother.

"I know."

It didn't need to be said that Aang was referring to literally everything. The military training, during which he was just waiting for a slip up, causing everyone to know everything. Masquerading as Kuzon, as while he'd grown used to living in the Palace, it didn't mean he'd grown comfortable. Even being the Avatar, specifically an Avatar in hiding, felt like a bit too much to handle sometimes.

"We all know," Aang grumbled. "I'm failing, Zuko. And these voices…"

"Voices?" Zuko jerked his head up.

Aang bit his lip. He'd forgotten he hadn't gotten around to telling Zuko about that yet. "Yeah. Voices. Past Avatars, giving unsolicited advice...all the time."

I'd hardly say my advice is unsolicited! If you think a question, how can you expect no answer!

"Shut up, Kuruk."

Zuko was staring wide-eyed at Aang. "You mean, you hear all of them, all the time?"

"Yeah. It's giving me a headache the size of an air bison. I think I need a spiritual teacher too, someone to guide me through this. The past Avatars couldn't have survived like this, they'd never get anything done!"

Zuko was biting his nails. "We have a lot of problems."

Aang's shoulders deflated. "Yeah. I don't know how I can go and do that to my kin."

"Well…" Zuko began with a slowness Aang did not enjoy. "Maybe it's not the worst thing?"

"You're joking."

"No, I mean, you'd be right at the center of information. I mean, if you get in good with Zhao, get him to trust you, you can learn where these airbenders are. And maybe, they all just vanish or go underground before you get to them, or you find ways to 'kill them' without doing so. They wouldn't pop up again, that's for sure, because I'd send them to Dhakiya and-"

Aang broke through the voices that were telling him how sound Zuko's plan was to squint.

"What does Dhakiya have to do with anything?"

Aang vaguely recalled the dark-haired, quieter twin that had been sent home a long time ago, under very abrupt circumstances. However, he failed to see how she connected to any of this. Frankly, Aang had hardly given her a second thought when she was in the palace, much less since she'd left.

Zuko clasped his hands in front of his face, inhaling. "Aang. I'm going to tell you something and you have to promise not to get upset."

"Oh, that's always a merry old way to start something," Aang scoffed, looking at Zuko with an irritated glare. "But now you've caught my attention."

"Dhakiya...she was an airbender. She is, I mean. I sent her away for her safety. She's with Appa."

At the mention of his beloved familiar, Aang's heart constricted. He shoved away questions he had about his pet to focus on what Zuko had just told him.

"And when, Zuko, were you going to tell me?" he asked, voice dangerously low. He rarely used such a tone, but he figured right now was a good time.

"I'm not sure." Zuko's face was red, and Aang knew that he knew how shitty it was to keep this information from him. "It wasn't...I didn't want to upset you."

"And you figured I wouldn't be upset now? Agni, Zuko...that's the first airbender other than myself I would have actually met! I know there have been whispers, but we haven't found any of them."

"I know. That's because the Equalists are disposing of them. I think they're looking for the Avatar too." Zuko's shoulders slumped low. "I think they might be working with my father. Admittedly, recently, I'm unsure. It wouldn't make complete sense, but it would clear up a few things."

"This day just gets better and better," Aang groaned. "You'd better have a damn good reason for not telling me." he glowered, with a venom in his hissed words.

"I thought you'd go into the Avatar state," Zuko said simply, which wasn't unreasonable to assume.

"And what, now that I have-"

"Yeah, now that you have, cat's sort of out of the bag anyway. Small miracles that it happened in a metal, underground bunker," Zuko said, missing the acerbic way Aang had begun his previous comment. Or, he'd heard it and ignored it.

"I'm pissed at you," Aang said, almost as angry at Zuko right now as he was at Ozai. He couldn't believe he'd been left out of his own people's strife. He shoved Zuko. "Get out."

Zuko got up, sighing hard. "I knew you would be angry. So, take a day. After that, we can't afford to hold grudges when there's so much at stake." He left Aang in his room. Aang slammed the door and threw his scarf off in frustration, looking at the blue arrow peeking past his hair, feeling betrayed and stupid. He hated that Zuko had been handling him like a child. He hated he was just finding out now. He hated that he could have done something.

"Not hold a grudge, the gall," Aang muttered, trying to work through these emotions.

He's right, you know.

"Go walk off a cliff, Yangchen."

Chapter Text


"Wait, what? Prince Zuko proposed to you and you said no? Please, oh please, describe his face."

"What part of 'sworn to secrecy' do you not understand, Toph?" Katara asked, throwing a handful of grass at her. "And that's just mean. Heartbroken, as you can imagine." Even thinking of it now caused a lump to grow inside Katara's chest. She'd replayed that moment in her head a million times. And, in at least half of those times, she'd said yes. She had jumped up and down with joy, thrown her arms around Zuko and accepted. In the other half, it had gone the same way, Katara turning him down. And, if anything, those moments were winning by sheer logic of the situation at hand.

Oh, if things were so simple that she could have just said yes.

But they weren't.

"I understand it perfectly. It means don't go gabbing to Avizeh - who we all know is a nasty gossip - about it," Toph said, throwing a whole chunk of earth back at Katara.

"I think it also means not yelling it to high heavens," Suki added dryly. "Because, you know, I think with that tone, Katara's family in the South may have heard you."

"Ach, you two take away the fun. Besides, I would have found out eventually," Toph said with a wicked glint to her milky eyes. "I know everything."

"Which is why I thought I'd tell you first, get any mix ups out of the way," Katara said. Also, frankly, she'd needed to tell someone. Well, she'd told Aiga - of course she'd told Aiga - but Katara wanted to tell her other friends too. She wished she could tell Eva, but she didn't feel comfortable writing it in a message to Eva, along with her other messages. She'd written Eva five times since the announcement and Eva's leaving eight days ago, wanting to make good on her promise that she was going to continue being Eva's friend.

Last she heard, Eva had mentioned that they were going to try to go to the Moon Spirit Pool to see if the holy water could regain her sight, although Yue - who also had been informed - seemed less than optimistic about it.

"The water can't do everything," Yue had said. "It has limits, you know."

'It saved your life,' Katara had wanted to argue back, and saving a life seemed like the biggest 'everything' there was. Katara would be royally miffed if the reason Yue's life was saved but Eva's sight could not be was because Yue was a Princess, but Katara also admitted that the spirits may have saved Yue for reasons beyond any of their control or knowledge, that Yue may be a piece on a larger board they didn't have the height to see.

Katara got the feeling of late that there were a lot of Pai Sho pieces in motion that she was not privy to, of a larger game brewing on the horizon. That the Equalist attack was just the first move of a long, long game. It frustrated Katara.

However, that also meant that the time she had with the girls here was fleeting, and a part of Katara wanted to retain the simplicity of the reason they'd all come; to win Zuko's heart. This was just another reason why Katara felt obliged to share what had happened with Suki and Toph.

"If things were different," Suki said slowly, and although there was no question in her exact words, Katara understood her imploring and slightly pitying gaze. Katara would have been offended that Suki felt sorry for her, but Katara felt sorry for herself. She swallowed hard, and waited. After a couple moments, Suki dropped her look, perhaps thinking Katara wouldn't answer. In reality, Katara was just trying not to be sad all over again.

"I wanted to," Katara said after a second. She was twirling a grass blade between her forefinger and thumb, focusing hard on it, like it held all the answers she was looking for. "I really, truly wanted to."

There was a silence that followed, as though Suki and Toph didn't know how to respond.

"Well, I'm glad you didn't," Toph said flopping back on the ground with a wide grin.

"Toph!" Suki gaped. 

"Oh, don't be so high and mighty. You're glad too. I can feel it," Toph said smugly. "Because, well, of course we want you to be happy Katara, and we want Prince Zuko - who can throw a helluva tantrum - to be happy too. However," she said in a grand and slightly nagging voice, "It would just be done. Poof. Nothing more. Suki would have to return home, the rest of the girls would be scrambling for marriages, and I would have to...I dunno, take off into the night. 'Cuz, I'm sure as hell not returning home! My parents probably have eight dignitaries lined up for my hand, all at least two decades older than me," Toph finished, breathing hard. She grimaced, collecting her thoughts. "Point being, Sugar Queen, one way or another you're gunna marry Zuko." She held up a finger at Katara's affronted expression. "But to have maybe another couple months to get our turtle-ducks in order is a blessing."

"Well, maybe Zuko could let you remain on as some sort of...emissary or something?" Suki offered up. "He loves you, as a sister."

"Unless it also comes with a marriage offer from someone of importance, I doubt my parents will go for it," Toph said glumly. "Because, well, who'd it be? Lu Ten? Well, I mean, I could marry him but it wouldn't be any real fun. Kuzon? Ha."

She seemed to brush the issue away, as easy as clearing dust from her plate. Katara wished she had the mental ability to do that. "Anyway, at least now I know this has an expiration date."

"It always did?" Katara asked, confused.

"Well, sorta, but like...this is for real. Zuko is such an awkward person that I could have seen him unable to make any real decisions and just stretch this out to infinity," Toph explained. As much as Katara wanted to protest that, there was a kernel of truth to it.

Suki reached over for their plate of finger cakes, which was far away from Toph ruining it with dirt. Toph had argued that dirt was healthy for everyone, and frankly, they should all try to incorporate it into their diet. Unsurprisingly, there were few takers on that.

"So, what now?" Suki asked.

"What do you mean?" Katara said, her eyes looking out over the other sets of girls dotted on the lawn, trying to enjoy the quietness of this moment.

"So, he proposed to you. That's huge. You said no. Do you, ah, stay? Leave? Do you continue on like it just never happened? Pull back on affections? Give more?"

Leave it to Suki to ask the hard-hitting questions, the ones that Katara did not want to answer.

She pressed her lips into a thin line.

"I stay, we discussed that much, at least," she began carefully, unsure how much she wanted to share with them. However, since she'd already dropped the big thing, everything else seemed so little in comparison. "I, well, I'm not sure what's going to happen with us. I really like him, and I want to continue seeing him but…if it makes it easier...I told him to ask someone else. Anyone, even Nadhari." She dropped her voice down to a watery whisper.

"Holy shit," Toph said, covering her mouth.

"Oh, wow," Suki agreed, her brow creasing.

"It might not matter," Katara continued. "It's not safe here anymore. We know Ozai is out for me, and this whole big competition might be just an excuse to get rid of me. It might be already decided, my fate. I can't win against someone like him, no matter how good my bending is!" she said, her voice reaching a slight hysterical tone.

"Yikes. I mean, you're right." Toph sat up, looking serious for a second. "You can't win if Ozai somehow worms his way into fighting you. No one would. Not even me."

Katara's jaw hung open to hear Toph admit such weakness. Suki looked just as unprepared.

Toph looked between them, her face reddening. "But if you ever repeat that, I'll deny it!" she snapped.

"Ozai doesn't care about you, no offense." Suki waved her hand.

"Good," Toph sniffed.

"So, chances are, you'll fight like Kuzon or someone. Someone we know you'll beat. But for Katara..." Suki swallowed. "He said to prove your worth. The worth of fighting to General Iroh is going to be different than to Ozai or to Azula. To them, Agni Kai is usually to death or disfigurement. Are you sure you want to chance that? Wouldn't it be easier to give up now?"

"I'd hate myself if I did." Katara pressed her forehead to the V between her knees. "If I didn't even try. I've been told I'm too stubborn for my own good."

"Yeah, I think I told you that verbatim once," Toph said.

Katara didn't look up, but she gave a half smile. "Yeah," she said, her voice muffled, "You wouldn't be the first."

"Well, first, you need to get lessons from Master Pakku. And, I could teach you some Kyoshi moves, something he wouldn't expect," Suki began in earnest.

"She still would need something else! If she goes against Big Daddy Evil, there's no telling what he could throw at her…"

The voices of her friends faded out as Katara let the sound of her blood pumping through her ears overcome her.

Blood.

Her head snapped up. She heard Suki and Toph still waffling between different options. Katara thought about Toph and metal bending. About the flower. About the fly.

"Guys," Katara whispered.

They didn't hear her.

"Guys," she said more forcefully. They looked over, as though forgetting that the person they were talking about hadn't left. "There's something I could do."

"Well, c'mon, lay it on us!" Toph said.

"I'm not sure if it would even work. If I'm strong enough for it...mentally or physically," Katara began. "Toph, remember when we were at the Spa and I was asking you about metal bending?"

"Yep."

"I can't describe it, but it's something that I've been thinking about in theory for a while. It could be game changer. However, I'm not sure if it can be done, or how ethical it is."

"Katara..." Suki began with a slight disapproval. "Cheating?"

"Yes, please tell!" Toph was far too excited. "Lay it on us."

Katara tried to explain the idea of the blood bending to them. About how she'd realized that living things were made up of liquid, themselves included. How when she tested her theory with the flower, she'd ruined it. About how she'd felt that resistance with the fly. All of it. She tried not to look at their faces, sure they'd call her a villain, be disgusted.

"I haven't tried again," she murmured after a beat where neither of them spoke.

Suki looked deep in thought. Toph looked a little uneasy.

"I've heard of that," Toph said, "but only in stories. Nightmares." Her pale eyes locked with Katara's and though she couldn't see, Katara felt like she was looking right through Katara. "Horror stories. Things to keep kids in their beds at night. The Monster of the South."

"What?" Katara said, shocked she'd never heard a peep about this.

"It's an old one too, I never thought any of it was real. I mean, it makes the person who uses it out to be a...a…" Toph gave a pained look, "You know."

"A menace," Katara bit out blithely. "A scare tactic. A savage Water Tribe beast," she said.

Toph looked down. "Yeah."

Katara quelled her anger, just for the moment. "Well, most myths are based in truth. Which means, there's a good chance this entire theory isn't just in my head. It can be done. Now, trust me, it makes me feel weird and squicky to imagine doing this to any person, to basically take away their free will, but with Ozai…" She trailed off, biting her lip.

"You're not a bad person, we know that, Katara." Suki gave her an encouraging smile.

"I haven't been able to find something, anything, to practice on. I mean, I guess I should be happy there are no mice running around the palace, but that would have been my first choice," she said, trying to insert even a modicum of humor into it.

"Well, do me." Toph stood. "Katara, I am giving you explicit and verbal permission to attempt to control my movements," she said firmly, "so no bad feelings."

Katara hesitated, still unsure.

"Okay," she said softly. "But, if at any time and I mean it feels bad or strange or anything, you tell me," Katara added firmly.

"Let's look at it this way, you can heal me. So, if things go south, you can stitch me back together!"

"Not funny, Toph," Katara mumbled. Toph stood, arms out, tilting her head in a 'come and get me' sort of motion. Katara sat on her knees, tucking her long dress underneath her and shoving her sleeves up to her shoulders. She breathed out slowly, trying to slip into a quasi-meditative state, because this wasn't easy. It wouldn't be easy.

Katara decided just to try to move Toph's arm. She imagined all of the veins and vessels in Toph's arm, and she tried to feel where they were. She had a thought; maybe, if her hands were wet, it would be easier. She had to wet her hands to heal someone, so maybe blood bending was just a different step away from doing that.

She dipped the tips of her fingers into the tea cup next to Suki, sending her an apologetic half-smile, but Suki wordlessly pushed the entire saucer toward Katara for her needs.

She looked back at Toph. Having water, some sort of conductor, seemed to help. There was that resistance, but Katara could almost feel it move.

"Are you gunna-" Toph began.

"Shush! Let Katara concentrate." Suki quieted her with a glare. Toph raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything more.

Sweat beaded on Katara's forehead. She breathed in harder, trying to force the will of a power she hardly understood. Her arms ached, though she'd only been holding them in the air for a couple minutes.

"Just a twitch," Katara murmured, "Please."

If she couldn't use blood bending at all, she had to know now, so she wasn't spending her time on a fruitless endeavor and could bulk up on other skills.

But if she could do this, make it move at all…

Just when Katara was going to give up, Toph's arm flailed. It was ungraceful, and Katara found she couldn't much control it, but it did move. As soon as Katara got it, it was like the cord that connected her to Toph's arm snapped back on her, sending Katara falling back hard on her shoulder blades. Toph stumbled, as though she was shoved by an invisible force. She grabbed her arm, holding it firmly at her side, her eyes wide with shock.

"Woah," she breathed out.

Katara sat up, brushing away her slightly damp hair from her forehead. She felt utterly drained. It felt like she'd finished a bending match that had been going on for hours. She downed Suki's tea, trying to catch her own breath.

"Well, you did it," Suki said slowly.

"What was it like?" Katara turned to Toph. "Did it hurt?"

"No, not hurt." Toph was rubbing her arm. "It was totally crazy. Like, one second I can move my arm on my own terms, right? Next moment, it's like I just couldn't feel it at all. Or, I could, but my ability to move it took a back seat in my mind, and I couldn't connect to it. And my arm moving without my precise thought? Totally batty. Like, a bad cactus juice trip or something. It sorta stung when the connection snapped, and now my arm's asleep," she finished. "But, I can move it myself again." She wiggled her fingers.

"I don't think I can do that again today," Katara muttered. "I need to work up my ability, somehow."

"At least we know it can be done," Suki said, placing her hands on Katara's shoulders. "If you get kicked out because you lose this fight, I'll be so upset. We all will. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a riot on the hands of the capitol." Suki offered a kind look.

"Suki!"

Maiha came to stand above them. She was wearing a skirt that was much shorter than anything Katara had ever seen her in, and her hair was pulled up and out of her face.

"Hello, Maiha," Suki greeted, and Katara echoed with a wave. Toph didn't really acknowledge her at all.

"Hey, so," Maiha chewed on her bottom lip, "I'm sorry to interrupt your tea time, but uh, I wanted to ask if you'd show me some moves. You know, as a non-bender. For the thing," Maiha said, twirling a stray piece of her updo in a finger.

"Of course. I'd be happy to," Suki said. "And we were just about done, right girls?"

"Yeah. Have at it. Knock her out. Literally," Toph said, showing her teeth in a grin. Maiha looked a little green.

"She doesn't mean literally," Katara scolded. Suki brushed herself off, leaving to go across the green with Maiha.

"It's crazy to see everyone so worked up about this fight," Toph commented. "It will surely cull some girls. I mean, Maiha's never gunna win," Toph said dismissively.

"Shame, because she's perfectly nice. Sad that the thing that would take away that chance are these matches," Katara commented.

"Tough nuts," Toph snorted.

"Well, everyone's super understanding about helping each other. I mean, I think we want to win because we're the best, not because Zuko's real choice got cut in a stupid Agni," Katara said.

"Not Nadhari. She's practically giddy about this turn of events."

"Most," Katara amended. "It makes me think we should help how we can."

"Teaching bending? I mean, what Waterbenders are there? I would offer it to the Earthbenders, but they're not at my level, doubt they could keep up," Toph said a little haughtily.

"There's something to discuss. Yue has the literal spirit of waterbending in her. I think it just needs to be opened or a switch turned or something. If we can, should we?"

"How?" Toph frowned.

"Aang," Katara whispered. "He's the Avatar. He could absolutely do it. And then she'd have a fighting chance, because we both know that without it, Yue can't fight. She wasn't raised like that."

"We can't help every poor sob story out there. That would mean telling her he's the Avatar," Toph hissed quietly. "Can we trust her with that?"

Katara paused. "Yes. I think so," she said quickly.

"Nuh-uh. You paused. You have to be unwaveringly sure, Katara," Toph said. "This isn't getting the Prince's hand in marriage, this freaking life and death."

Katara hunched her shoulders. "Yeah," she sighed dejectedly, "I know."

"It's a nice thought. If Yue knew, I'm sure she'd be grateful you spared her a spot in that mind of yours. But realistically, Katara, the fewer people who know about Aang, the better."

Who would have thought Toph would be the voice of reason?

Katara didn't reply.

"I can see you still trying to figure it out," Toph said. "Well, not literally see, but you're giving off major thinking vibes. Did you know that when you think it feels like someone's shaking a can of tea leaves? Fun fact."

"What if Yue didn't know? Like, she didn't see or experience it?" Katara asked.

"What? We knock her out in the night, drag her though the Palace, have Aang do his unlocky thingy and then drag her back and act surprised when she can waterbend?" Toph snorted. At Katara's silence, she ran her hands down her face. "Awe hell no."

"Well, do you have another option? I will feel guilty forever If I don't try!" Katara snapped back.

"I say we put a pin in it. The fight's not for a while. Think hard about what you'd risk for one girl. Think, and I demand this of people very rarely," Toph said.

"I-"

"Everyone!" Whatever Katara was about to argue was cut off as Caecillia strolled into the garden. "Everyone, come here! I have news."

The girls got up, eager and nervous, especially after the last 'news'.

"What is it, Cillia?" Anasemla asked, biting her nails.

"I've managed to get the exact, written out, binding rules of this supposed fight. So we know exactly what this is. No surprises, no shocks. It's all in a legal document now," Caecillia said with a tinge of pride. Katara blinked; never would she have thought to procure such an item. From the looks on the girls' faces, it seemed most had similar thoughts.

"Where'd you think to do that?" Jin said.

"I don't know. I mean, I've just grown up around this Royal Family stuff my whole life. Nothing is set until it's in writing. It matters," Caecillia said, kneeling down and rolling out the scroll she carried. She read it over, skimmed it, nodding to herself. "Okay. So, each girl will randomly have to fight one Royal Family member. The 'random' choice will be determined by the Royal Family picking names out a vase with a Fire Sage watching their every move. Each family member will be going up against three girls. The order will be put in place by the Fire Sages, as so that each member of the Royal Family gets at least one match after they've just gone to cool off. As for us; we just have to 'prove the worth of the individual's battle skills to the discretion of the opponent'. Ugg, that's vague as hell, crap. However, that means that we don't have to 'beat' them in order to pass, we just have to prove ourselves."

"How will we know if we don't pass? Can a member of the Royal Family just cut it off right away and say 'nope, not worthy'?" Toph asked.

Caecillia continued to scan through the very long parchment.

"Nuh-uh. You choose when you tap out. It's up to you to give up, though it comments that being knocked unconscious also constitutes as being disqualified. However, this wording means that if you lose an arm - extreme case - and want to keep fighting, seems like you can."

"They could cut off our arm?" On Ji squeaked.

"You'd probably want to fold before it got to that part." Ty Lee patted her shoulder.

"Oh, okay, it talks about what's allowed in the ring as a contestant here, for the girls. The Royal Family is allowed only one weapon, bending included. I mean, that makes it fairer for us, in a way. That's good," Caecillia said. "For us on our end, we can bring up to three weapons into the ring with us, and bending counts as a 'weapon'. They even wrote in something for you, Toph: metal bending vs earthbending is two different weapons, so if you wanted to use both, you'd have to write them down."

"That's utter bullshit," Toph swore, causing a couple of the girls to look uncomfortable with her language, "Absolute fucking stupid! I just knew they'd screw us over one way or another." She crossed her arms, scowling, "Guess it doesn't matter, though. I'll win this with one 'weapon', thank you very much."

"What happens if Toph didn't write down metal-bending, and then she used it anyway?" On Ji asked, looking warily at the pissed-off Earthbender.

"If you use a weapon that is not on the list that you'll give to the Fire Sages, you will be eliminated," Caecillia continued.

"What about Mai?" Alcina jerked a finger toward her. "She has like, twenty knives on her body at all times."

"Twenty-two at the moment," Mai agreed. Katara, as well as many others, tried to covertly look Mai up and down to figure out where she was squirreling away all those items. A part of Katara didn't want to know all the places Mai was hiding them.

"Uhm, yeah, good question," Caecillia said, going back in. "Okay, so with weapons, what counts as (1) weapon is however many are conventionally sold in the Fire Nation together. Like, you buy a sword by itself, but buy double swords obviously in doubles, so you can bring both in and have it count as one. It has a super long list for our convenience, but, hmm…" Caecillia looked Mai up and down. "I see you have throwing knives. Those are sold in sets of three, so you can bring three in that counts as a single weapon. And shurikins are sold in six, and you get the idea."

This sent the girls into a twitter, wondering about, if they wanted weapons, how they could go about getting them.

"Weapons must be purchased by the individual," Caecillia said. "Or gifted. No borrowing, basically, so they can log each one. We have to log our weapon choices no later than four days before the fight."

This was problematic to Katara. If she wanted to use blood bending, she had to tell someone. And, if she wasn't able to use it or master it enough, she would have wasted a spot on her list where she could have put another weapon she could use.

"Will the family know?" Killee asked. "Like, if we're logging it, then they could prepare, whereas we don't know what they're using! How is that fair?"

"I mean, it's not hard to guess," Mai said cooly. "They'll all be using firebending."

"Still," Kilee said, looking red in the face.

"Lemme see…" Caecillia held up her finger. "Nope, nope. Stays between the Fire Sages, it's for their benefit. Because, if anything goes wrong, they have the final say of whether a girl passed or not. Not Prince Zuko, not Fire Lord Ozai."

"Like that's actually gunna happen," Top snorted under her breath.

Caecilla rolled up the scroll. "There's a bunch of other caveats and stuff. I'll try to compile a list of what's important, but if anyone has questions about a specific thing, I'll keep this with me. It can be confusing wading through the proper jargon used, but I'm quite used to it."

"Thank Agni we have you!" On Ji looked completely overwhelmed.

"How do we know you're not making this up?" Avizeh asked suspiciously. "That you're not telling us all the wrong stuff to throw us off and make us lose?"

"You can read it yourself, or someone who also knows all of the terms could, like Ty Lee or Mai." Caecialla tipped the scroll toward them. "I know there's no reason to believe me, but I think this whole affair is just stupid, so."

Ty Lee grabbed it out of her hand. She read the first foot. "Well, everything Cilla has claimed is true." She squinted, scratching her head. "I'd believe her. Plus, her aura is as clean as snow."

"Thanks?" Caecilla laughed uneasily, since Ty Lee was a person who was hard to respond to sometimes. "Anyway, I know a lot about weapons too, and I'd be willing to take you through the basic things sold here, or what you could have your handmaids get. We had to learn it all in Fire Military Training."

"You were in the military?" Suki sounded shocked. Caecillia, who wore the frilliest dresses and the softest makeup, who never wore pants and always had the poise of a future princess, who knew what cakes to eat at dinner with which utensils.

"Mhh. My parents figured that if I wasn't going to marry a Prince, I was going to claw my way up the military ladder. Of course, then the Choice started up again, and I was plucked out of my station," Caecillia explained. "I didn't like it, but I was good at it."

"I knew that's how I recognized you!" Ty Lee gasped. "I talked to you like two years ago, when you were in the Chin province."

"Yep, yeah, that was me," Caecillia sighed. "Well, at least it's coming in handy now. I don't really like talking about it," she said, clearly wanting the matter in general to be dropped, apart from what she was more willing to share.

Luckily, the girls seemed to get the memo.

"Anyway, tonight come to my bed area and I can sort of show you some weapons. Tomorrow, we can practice with them. I'm going to go and study this," she said.

About five or six girls followed after her to ask specific questions they had thought of, and Caecillia left with her nose buried in the parchment and fielding questions.

Toph let out a breath through her nose. "This is going to be much different than I thought," she admitted.

"Different hard? Different bad? Different…?" Katara fished, glancing down at Toph. Toph gathered up the last two finger cakes from the blanket they had spread out, shoving them both in her face.

"Different. Just different."

XXxxXX

Zuko was anxious.

Even if Katara had not seem him of late, she knew this to be true. When she caught a glimpse of him, he always seemed to be ringing his hands or answering eight different people's questions at one time. Most of the girls assumed this busyness was due to the recent attack. Many things needed to be fixed - from the small items such as the broken dishware up to the large items like a chaise lounge burned in two - and beyond that, plans needed to be made so it would not happen again. Many girls also did not bother him in that first week or so after. They understood that he was seeing no one, so they could hardly feel like they were being treated unfairly.

This bothered Katara.

She had grown used to their clandestine meetings, even when no one else got them. In the months she'd been here as the favorite of Zuko's, she'd become accustomed to preferential treatment. Now, in the wake of everything, it seemed even she was unable to catch him.

A part of Katara wondered if he was avoiding her after she rejected his proposal.

Still, she wished she could help with his nervous frown, the one that seemed perpetually plastered on his face these days.

Even if the restorations to the palace were not what troubled him, the battles coming up were sure to. This, very carefully, was going to cut a great number of girls whether Zuko wanted them to go or stay. After that, there would only be a handful left. This meant that Zuko would have to pick very soon who he wanted to be his wife, someone other than Katara.

So, Katara felt bad, since she was sure that part of his anxiety was caused by...well, her. Caused by her because she said no and forced him to have to consider someone else. Caused by her because she remained, giving him the slightest hope. Caused by her, because frankly, why else would Fire Lord Ozai command such a spectacle if not in the hopes of eliminating Katara in such a way that even Zuko could not save her? In other words, if she wasn't here, if Ozai had been able to get rid of her, maybe they wouldn't be parading through this circus they were pretending was to vet everyone.

She told three people her final theory, because it gnawed on her like nothing else. It wasn't fair that girls like On Ji, who could make a great future Fire Lady, would be culled only because a lack of warrior skills, which most high-class women weren't taught anyway. It was like asking a fish to walk on land and being upset when it couldn't.

The first was Aiga. Aiga just paused her brushing of Katara's hair when she heard and gave a quiet laugh.

"Katara, even if it were true, I doubt Zuko would ever be upset that you're on his mind. He loves you," she said simply.

It was nice to be reminded. After the whole palace was thrown upside down and Katara had been lumped in with the remainder of the girls while things were settled, it was easy to forget that moment had happened. But, out of everyone in the palace, Zuko was ready to marry Katara with no reservations.

Hearing Aiga confirm it made her feel better, for a day.

When she told Toph, she laughed. "Oh, gosh, Sugar Queen. Must be nice being you. Strange, though, because I thought you were a waterbender," she replied.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Katara scowled, hearing the heavy sarcasm in her friend's tone.

"Well, you just basically insinuated the world revolves around you, right? So that must mean you're the sun, which is basically the root of being a firebender and all…" Toph shrugged. "At least you're always gunna be warm."

After Katara got over her offence, that was also nice to hear. She would never tell Toph that, because her ego was big enough as it was, but she could do with someone telling her that it wasn't all about her. She didn't want it to be all about her. She just had a sinking feeling it was.

So, she told Suki. Suki, who wasn't as loyal to her as Aiga nor as blunt as Toph. Suki, who walked the middle of the line, usually, and always had given Katara sound advice in the past.

"I think it's a mixture. I think Fire Lord Ozai wants Prince Zuko to pick someone fast and this expedites the process. I think he wants you gone. I think he's playing some entirely other game we couldn't guess if we had a thousand tries. I also think worrying about it is playing into exactly the trap he wants us to fall into," Suki said after Katara told her the fears she held.

Yes, leave it to Suki to put things in a perspective that made sense. Katara agreed that it was all of those things, and many more.

If she was freaking out about this, she could only imagine what Zuko must be feeling.

There was one day, in which Katara saw him through a crowd between her moving one way and him another, that he sent her such a look of longing that Katara felt as though she'd already lost him. That in denying him, she'd signed her own release statement.

This was not what she had wanted at all.

Her attempts to reach him were all thwarted; she could rarely catch his eyes long enough to tug her necklace (and, when she did, he just gave a sad frown back and held up his long sheet of things to do), all missiles to the Prince were paused while he got his footing, and it had been days since a meal with the Royal Family.

In her loneliness without him around, Katara had time to truly think. After her own revelation of her feelings, she imagined a world where they'd met under different circumstances. Maybe he wasn't a Prince or maybe she actually was a Princess. Maybe it was in the past or in the future. Maybe their love story wouldn't be so filled with other issues. Katara thought of all the different scenarios in which she simply loved Zuko and he loved her in return and there was nothing else to say about it.

However impossible, it was a nice dream.

XXxxXX

Ty Lee was all alone.

Katara noticed this on her way to the bath house to soak away a long day's practice in the gardens, battling against Alcina and Suki. It was late in the day, far after dinner, but the air outside was still warm despite the darkness of night that had drifted upon the city. Kartara was surprised to see anyone still outside, since most of the girls had retired for the day, and were enjoying after-dinner tea and quiet activities before bed. The gymnast was over in a smaller Zen garden, twisted into an impossible knot that made Katara's bones ache just looking at her.

Seeing Ty Lee alone, in itself, wasn't a strange event. It was that Katara realized, as she passed, that she'd been seeing Ty Lee increasingly alone.

Ever since the attack, Ty Lee had been apart from the group more often than not. Before the attack, Ty Lee was almost always attached to someone, usually Mai. In fact, Katara could count on one hand the amount of times she'd seen the pair separated. And, an even lower number, that in the instance Ty Lee wasn't with Mai, she was with someone else, like Azula or Caecillia. In fact, Katara could only think of two singular times before the palace attack that Ty Lee had been all on her own.

Now, it seemed like this was the norm, not the exception.

This in itself stopped Katara and caused her to divert her bath, at least for a little bit, to investigate.

"Ty Lee...erm, are you okay?" Katara asked.

"Oh, this pose is hardly a problem. I learned it back when I was like seven," Ty Lee said, untangling herself. "But thanks for the concern. I could show it to you if you'd like." She seemed all too eager to have someone to talk to. That wasn't strange, Ty lee was always outgoing.

"No, I meant…" Katara wondered if maybe she was making up this issue in her mind. She hadn't been friends with Ty Lee before the attack, and hardly was now, so maybe Ty Lee spent a lot of time alone and Katara had just never noticed. Then, she saw the look in Ty Lee's eyes, the absolute relief to be talking to Katara. "I just noticed you weren't hanging out with Mai or Azula as much anymore."

"Oh, well." Ty Lee tried to force a smile, but it seemed pale and shallow. "I didn't think it was obvious."

Katara didn't really know how to respond to that. Ty Lee seemed to admit it so freely, in such a melancholy way.

Ty Lee pulled on her long braid, thinking.

"You haven't-" Katara began.

"No." Ty Lee interrupted before she even asked. "I guess that's part of it. Katara, can you answer a question honestly?"

"Uhm-"

"Your aura is mostly clear. I suppose that's a yes," Ty Lee said, patting Katara's shoulder. "How did you do it? Keep it a secret? And when did you find out about Kuzon?" It was the unspoken agreement that, when in public, they would all continue to call Aang 'Kuzon', just for pretenses.

"Oh." Katara was expecting something much more intrusive. "A long time ago. Months, I think. But it was an accident, much how you found out. I told Zuko Toph had to know right away too, because she was going to figure it out herself if we didn't come straight out and tell her. I guess...how did I keep it a secret? Well, I could talk to Toph or Kuzon or Zuko. Plus, I knew how grave the secret was to keep. It was bigger than anything else I may know."

Ty Lee nodded in thought. "I suppose that's the hard part. I can't tell Mai. She knows there's something I can't tell her, and that I'm not. I've been told I'm not a good liar, which I always thought was a positive." She sighed.

"Could you trust Mai?" Katara didn't like the idea of letting another person in on the secret, however…

"No." Ty Lee looked terribly guilty to admit it. "She's very adamant about her beliefs, one being that the Royal Family is never wrong. I have many things to be thankful for in regards to them, since they treated me better than my own family did."

"They do?" Katara tried not to look too surprised.

"A story for another day. Anyway, if she knew what Kuzon was...she'd feel obligated to tell. Plus, she doesn't know him personally, like we do," Ty Lee said carefully. "But even if he was a stranger, I couldn't. Telling Azula or Fire Lord Ozai is just as good as kill…" She choked a little on a small sob. She couldn't even get the word out. "I've tried to live my life with no blood on my hands. I've tried to be a better person than the way I was born, the way my parents were. Katara, it's just gotten so hard. It all matters so much now," she all but wailed.

"I know, Ty Lee," Katara said, rubbing her back. "And really, you have the strength of a lion-bear for staying so steadfast. No one ever thought it was easy. And you'll always have a friend with me."

"Really?"

"The secret brings us together," Katara insisted in a hushed but firm tone. "And the only way we're going to survive whatever happens is if we trust each other. No one was meant to protect the world alone."

Ty Lee wiped her tears on the back of her hand. "You're so wise, Katara. No wonder Prince Zuko practically adores you." She sniffled. "Have you seen Kuzon at all? Do you know how he's coping?"

"I haven't." Katara was flustered to realize she'd given Aang a smaller part of her thoughts than she likely should have. "Maybe we should go find him together?"

Ty Lee brightened, nodding with vigor.

The pair set out through the halls of the palace that were fit to travel. Ty Lee was a never-ending stream of words; mostly nothing important, usually about food or music or dance. Katara just nodded and told herself that Ty Lee had practically no one, and that she could be her friend with all things considered.

"Lady Ty Lee, Princess Katara." A familiar warm voice came from behind. Both girls turned to see Prince Zuko, a soft smile on his face at the sight of the pair. Or, Katara, since he was looking mostly at her.

"Prince Zuko." Ty Lee bowed.

"Princess Katara, ah, can I borrow you for a moment or two?" he asked, rubbing his neck. Katara felt a flash of relief overwhelm her. She looked back guiltily at Ty Lee.

"We were looking for Kuzon, so-"

"Oh! No, you go with him!" Ty Lee practically shoved Katara forward. "I guess I should get used to being alone," she said with a slightly sad smile.

"Kuzon is in the Royal Study, Ty Lee. I'm sure he'd be glad of your company," Zuko supplied. "So, if you want to, Princess…"

He held out his hand.

Katara took it.

Chapter Text

"You seem happier tonight." Katara breathed in the night air of the Royal Capitol. The air at home always tasted like 'cold.' Sokka claimed that cold doesn't have a taste, but Katara always disagreed. Cold tasted sharp, like fresh snow. The air here didn't taste just like 'warm', but it tasted like 'city'. It tasted like smoke and Fire Nation food and summer breezes. And, up on the roof, she had a good inhale of it.

Zuko had brought her up here with a small basket, and the pair sat staring at the stars. Zuko had offered her a sweet rice ball with a sticky fruit sauce that clung to her fingers.

"I'm happiest when I'm with you," Zuko admitted frankly, shoulder to shoulder with her.

"I had thought you were mad at me," Katara admitted in a rush, "After...well, after."

"I'll admit I was upset." Zuko titled his head. "But it's fairly impossible to stay mad at you."

Katara nodded to herself, licking off the sauce between her fingers. She realized after a second that Zuko was watching her tongue flicker in the folds of her digits, his pupils darkened and bleeding out into the golden flecks in his eyes. Katara felt a warm blush come all over her body, a shiver that sent her hairs standing upright.

Zuko noticed this and laughed to himself, looking away. Of course, it wouldn't be proper to launch herself at him on the roof, as much as she wanted to.

She looked up, gnawing on her lips. "I haven't had much time to stargaze since I came here," she said out loud, more of a thought than a comment. "It's familiar to do this."

"You study the stars a lot?" Zuko tilted his head.

"We have to. To travel anywhere by sea, I mean, once you're on the waves there's no land masses at all to tell you where you are. It was used a lot more when we visited the North, but we brought it back into use when we started having to go farther out to find fish." Katara gnawed on her nail. "You know them?"

"A bit. I spent a lot of my formative years in military training on the Navy ships with my Uncle. It's when I found Kuzon, remember?"

"Of course, right." Katara laughed to herself. "What's your favorite constellation? Mine is Kaguyagat."

"What? Was that a sneeze?" he said, trying not to sound rude.

"Kaguy…" Katara started again, but saw his blank stare. "You know, the fox. Right there." She pointed up.

"Oh, you mean Hoki Hosi… we call them the brush stars. Like, flickers of ink across the sky," Zuko said.

Katara laughed out loud. "I like mine better."

"I do too," Zuko agreed.

They spent the next hour comparing constellations. Katara realized that of course they'd have a totally different views on the stars, despite looking at the same constellations. It was a weird feeling to think that when her mother was teaching her how to chart the choppy dark seas using The Caribou stars, General Iroh was teaching Zuko the same thing but with a different name. In the beginning, had they this conversation, it would have reminded Katara about how different they were. Now, it just made her smile. She was glad to find out this information.

"Prince Zuko? Prince Zuko…?" A guard called for Zuko from below.

Katara looked down, but Zuko pulled her back against his chest, and a half-giggle, half-shriek erupted from her lips. He put his hand over her mouth, and she could feel his own chest quaking with laugher.

"Shh," he said. "Just for a little longer."

"What if it's important?" Katara sighed, knowing their stolen time was at an end.

"It probably is." Zuko dug his nose into her hair. "But let me just have this moment with you. I don't know when we'll get time alone again."

Katara's giggles ceased at the severity in his voice. She stilled against him, just felt the steady thump of his heart in his chest. The heart that pounded for her. She curled into him, sighing in quiet resignation.

"Prince Zuko?" The guard seemed panicked now.

"Spirits, they watch me twenty-four / seven," Zuko whispered. "Although, after the rebels…"

"Yeah." Katara focused in on the delicate embroidery on his robes. "You should probably let them know you're alive before they wake the whole palace looking for you."

Zuko didn't answer, but began to detach himself from her. Katara felt the lack of warmth immediately and something clenched inside of her.

"I had fun, though. I hope you did too," she whispered, helping him pack up his things.

"It was nice to forget about it all," Zuko said, his voice taking on a subtle change. However, Katara felt like she knew him so well that she noticed. "The attacks, the things that need to be fixed, the competition…" He trailed off, leaving Katara feeling a little strange. Like her stomach was being swirled about.

He took out his top knot, sighing. "Sometimes," he began, the word stretched out like he was still considering if he was going to continue with his next words. "Sometimes I wish it was all easier. That it was more normal."

It was very close to Katara's own thoughts. She swallowed hard. "What is normal, though?" she proposed, not wanting to let him wallow. "Zuko, you're extraordinary any way you look at it."

"You know what I mean. If I were normal, if we were...maybe you would have said yes."

The theory hung between them, as vast as the stars above. Zuko looked upset, like maybe he hadn't meant to have said it. Katara curled her knees to her chest.

"We're not, though," she replied a little too hotly, angry at the situation - not at Zuko - but unable to express it. "And maybe we would have never met at all or you wouldn't be proposing. Maybe we would just 'be'. Maybe you'd be married to Mai or Yue by now," Katara also threw out. "Maybe we should be happy with what we have. And I didn't say no completely. I'm still here. It just wasn't the right...time."

She hated giving him hope like that, but it killed her to see those sad puppy-dog eyes turned her way. And it was 'time', for lack of a better word. Time to figure things out, time to have him pick someone else, time for Ozai to mysteriously bite the bullet (one could hope). Time for any number of impossible things to happen.

Zuko gave a laugh, one that was a little more lighthearted than Katara expected. "Kat...I would give you anything in the world if you asked. You want a diamond as big as your face? I'll have the Earth Bending Brigade dig up every rock if they have to. You want a falling star? I'd go to the end of the earth and learn off the edge to grab it as it passes. You want clothes made from the finest silk in the country? I'd make you a whole room full of it. The one thing you ask of me, time," he added with a slight grimace, "is the one thing I fear we do not have."

"I know," Katara whispered to herself, feeling awful for asking it of him. He caught her face and rubbed his palm over her cheek, sighing.

"But, because you want it, I will give as much as I can," he added. "And I will do it happily."

"You're far too good of a person, Zuko," Katara murmured, kissing his fingertips. Zuko let out a quiet groan and took his hands away. Katara was worried she'd done or said something wrong, until he grabbed her and pulled her up into a kiss. It was a slow one, and she felt her whole body light up as she relaxed into it.

After much too short of a time, Zuko pulled away. Katara found herself following forward, wanting more.

"This is probably a bad idea," Zuko said quietly, his breath hot against her neck. Katara wasn't sure if he was referring to taking the kiss farther or the simple truth that kissing on a roof probably was bound to end in a broken bone somewhere.

"Yeah," Katara agreed to both counts.

"Prince Zuko!" The guard sounded close to having a heart attack. Zuko pinched his nose.

"I really must go. But we have things to talk about."

"We do?" Katara felt her heart thump. She thought it was all squared away. What did he mean? Was her position not as secure as she thought. Was-?

"Yes, we haven't had a time for all of us to come together and truly discuss the fact that many people are in on Kuzon's secret."

Oh, right. Yes. The issue that was much bigger than their own confusing emotions.

"So," Zuko continued, "Can you get everyone to the kitchen tonight? I'll bring Kuzon. We need to all be on the same page."

"Of course," Katara agreed, pushing down her childish glee she'd see him again tonight. "In three hours or so?"

Zuko leaned forward and gave her a small peck on her cheek, a domestic gesture that was so unexpected. "Until then."

Then, he disappeared over the side of the roof.

XXxxXX

Come on, boy, you need to memorize this! Knowing military positions of the past will help you in your future endeavors.

"I'm trying, Gopan, but not all of us were librarians and scholars our whole lives," Aang murmured, flipping back to the last place in the book that he recalled absorbing information from. Which was, he was horrified to find, pretty far back.

Technically, you were.

"Thank you, Yangchen. I can always count on you to state the obvious." Aang rolled his eyes, propping his elbow on the long table to support his head as he blinked wearily.

I say you've been hanging around too much with my grandson. Zuko's sarcasm has been rubbing off on you.

"You know what?" Aang snapped, standing and rubbing his eyes. "This would be a whole lot easier if all of you just-"

"Oh, ah, are you busy?" Aang spun on his heels to find Ty Lee staring unexpectedly into the library, looking around. "I heard you talking to someone…" she said.

"Lady Ty Lee." Aang fumbled to bow to her, and suspiciously, all the voices in his head went quiet. At least for a second.

Ty Lee chuckled behind a hand. "I think I'm supposed to bow to you, Master Kuzon. You're part of the Royal Family, after all." Her eyes glimmered with mirth, since obviously, she now knew he wasn't truly.

"I wasn't talking to anyone, not really. I was just…" He lifted the title of the tome, Historical Victories and Militant Accomplishments, for Ty Lee to see, giving a weak smile. "Doing some homework, I guess."

"Sounds, uh, exciting."

"No, it's really not." With a decisive flip of the cover, he closed the book, forever losing the page he'd been on. This got the attention of the past Avatars.

The fate of the world rests on your hands-

She's a fine girl, child, but there are more important things to consider-

The Avatar can continue his family line in due time, but it's quite irresponsible-

"Aang?" Ty Lee asked quietly, looking up at him.

"Sorry. I don't mean to be elsewhere, but my mind is a little full," he said.

"Prince Zuko mentioned something about that. I can see it in your eyes, all your past lives fighting for their voice to be heard," she said, gazing at him with a thoughtful hum to her voice.

"You can see it?"

"It clouds your true self. It's muddy. It must be difficult, I'd imagine, to know what parts of you are you and what parts are your past lives," she said, raising a philosophical question that Aang had battled with many times. He was surprised that Ty Lee offered such a thought, since any intelligent ideas she may have had were usually overshadowed by Mai or Azula. She'd never been dumb, though, he realized. She'd always stayed near the top of the Royal Lessons and picked up on theories and equations quickly.

"I guess I'm all of them and none of them, all at once," Aang said. He rubbed his head. Avatar Suluk was arguing with the seated group that Aang should be allowed a moment of fancy, since he realistically couldn't be saving the world every minute of every day. Kyoshi was arguing that he'd have plenty of time for that after, and that every moment he wasn't focused on the war at hand was a moment he was losing. And Kuruk, poor Kuruk, was just in the corner all weepy about his lost love, reminiscing that Ty Lee's smile reminded him of his late wife.

"Arguing again?" Ty Lee guessed when he dazed out for just a moment.

"Yeah."

"Here, lemme just…" She leaned around, and Aang jumped as she touched the back of his neck. He laughed uneasily as she let him settle back down. She rubbed a spot just where his neck met the spinal cord. There was a strange feeling, like he'd shocked himself, and then it was still. It wasn't painful as much as it was a shock, a minor discomfort that only lasted a moment.

All of a sudden, it was just silent in his brain. Not the silence in which no one was talking for a rare moment, but a silence like he had before the attack, when his brain had been his own.

"What did you do?" he asked in absolute awe.

"I had a theory," Ty Lee shrugged, leaning back onto a cushy chair, "That your connections to the Avatars were using spiritual chi. I can block chi. I mean, fill in the blanks from there." She laughed her bell-like laugh, which Aang had always found so enchanting.

"Great Agni, it's incredible!" Aang let out a sharp laugh, almost unbelieving. "I can't...spirits, Ty Lee!"

"It will wear off in about two hours, I think. I mean, I can teach you how to do it. You probably shouldn't do it all the time, but every once in a while shouldn't be too bad. Just until you get it under control," she said.

Aang opened his mouth to nearly argue 'but I like it when you did it', and he waited for the onslaught of Avatars telling him otherwise. Blessedly, none came.

"You okay?" Ty Lee asked worriedly. "No weird side effects from it? Oh, Agni, I didn't muck it up did I-"

"Ty Lee, hey." Aang leaned across the table. "Really. Thanks," he said. "I'm just not used to it, that's all."

Ty Lee relaxed. She sent him a smile that made him feel a little dizzy. "Anything for you, Aang."

XXxxXX

Zuko shuffled through the files profiling each Choice contestant on his desk. He flipped half-heartedly through the top five or so, wondering if his emotions had shifted enough to change his personal ranking system. While he'd done some real soul-searching and changed around a lot of the order in the past week or so, the number one seed had stayed the same.

Katara, as always.

He leaned back in his chair, just on the edge of tipping it, recalling the moment he'd claimed with Katara on the roof. He'd slipped away from the guard for some 'personal time' and had gotten sorely reprimanded afterwards, since a missing Prince in light of recent events was never a good thing.

Agni, it was worth it though.

The image in his mind of Katara lapping up that sauce with no idea how she was affecting him would both be the bane of his existence and his most satisfying memory for weeks to come, if that was all the time he was going to get with her. And, frankly, if she'd asked, Zuko would have gone farther.

Putting them in a precarious position on the roof hadn't been his plan, but it had worked out in the favor of the situation.

A part of Zuko, though, also was angry at himself. If the situation demanded it and Katara truly could not be budged on her opinions, Zuko was going to walk out of this married. And, with the little time he had, he should be spending quality time with the other girls, seeing if any of them could fit so perfectly the way he knew Katara would with him. Instead, what was he doing? Giving everything away to Katara and falling deeper in love with her than he thought possible, putting distance - mile upon mile - between Katara and even his second choice.

"I'm an idiot," he murmured out loud, feeling another migraine creeping up.

"Yes, but what else is new."

Zuko snapped his eyes open, slammed his chair back onto the ground, and hastily threw his arms over the files. He glared at Azula, who sat on the edge of his desk, perched while she enjoyed a piece of chocolate she'd chipped off his personal supply, looking almost bored. She'd slipped in without him even hearing.

At his murderous gaze and the way he hoarded the papers to his chest, Azula snickered. "Spirits, you're so...dramatic. You think I haven't seen your little ranking of the girls?"

"Azula-" Zuko growled warningly.

"Oh, I won't tell a soul," she said, going back in for another piece of chocolate. "A lady's honor," she said, crossing her heart. "Cross my heart and hope to die."

"One, you're a lady? Two, you have no honor. Three, you have no heart," Zuko said, leaning back, but still shuffling the files into his lap, just in case.

"Sibling honor then." Azula shrugged, unconcerned. "It's nothing anyone couldn't guess. It would do you good to be a little less transparent."

"Are you here just to lecture me on something you know nothing about?" Zuko asked, standing up with the full intention to drag his sister out of his room.

"You think I want to be here?" Azula gave him a long side-glance. "Zuzu, I'm here for you." She flaunted a scroll around, which she had pulled from her lap. "This, dear brother, is the exact set of rules the ladies have gotten on Father's little scrimmage. Caecillia got the sages to write it down and sign it. I think you should move her higher up frankly, she's got something there. She should be at least above On Ji, who has the disposition of a kitten." Azula made a face like she'd just seen a bug.

"Most people enjoy kittens," Zuko said, not surprised that Azula actually did know the order he had the girls in currently, just honestly a little tired.

"Mhh. Still. I mean, you can really see that good military training coming through. She's precise, she's not too much of a beauty, but makeup can fix anything, and she's a girl who doesn't like surprises," Azula said out loud.

"How do you know about her background?" Zuko furrowed his eyebrows. Caecillia didn't like talking about it much, and Zuko was under the impression that it was a carefully guarded fact.

"Well, I read it in her entry bio, of course." Azula laughed like it was obvious. "Oh, you think I haven't vetted each and every girl too?" she said at Zuko's surprised expression. "I mean, this is going to be my sister, so I wanted a hand in wading through the thousands of applications that were went in. Father was all too happy to agree."

The idea that Azula, in any way, had been instrumental in bringing the girls in that had arrived sickened him. That she knew them in the slightly intimate way that their bios had given, all had to be laid out, so there would be no nasty surprises like a hidden child or a history of arrests. It felt like an invasion of their privacy on some level, because he'd been under the impression that only his father and the Sages had seen the applications.

A part of this made sense, though. It's how Azula knew how to get under each girl's skin so easily.

A slim smile crept on his face.

"What?" Azula narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"Nothing," Zuko chuckled. There was one girl Azula had a preoccupation with to the point of mania: Katara. But, Katara had been a last moment find, a bargaining chip, and so she didn't have an application. All the things in her file were accumulated after the fact, as stories were published and documents were charted. Azula couldn't glean information beforehand, she had to take what was thrown at her like everyone one else. No wonder Azula was so consistently frustrated with Katara.

But, Zuko doubted Katara could be summarized in a simple bio, anyway.

"Is that all?" Zuko said, slipping the scroll to his own lap. "Or, are you just going to sit here and eat my entire chocolate stash? You could also just get your own like that." Zuko snapped his fingers.

"Ah, but it is a universal truth that chocolate is much better tasting from your sibling given unwillingly," Azula said, taking the last piece and hopping off his desk. She left without a closing remark, and Zuko considered that if the price he had to pay for an unexpected visit from his sister was just his chocolate, he'd gotten off easy.

He was about to put the bios back in the locked drawer that he usually kept them in, but in light of Azula's taunts, he hesitated. He shifted them between two or three places, finally settling on his pillowcase.

And, his pillowcase reminded him of another obligation. He patted his chest, still feeling the journal there, and fished the wrapped fabric ball of poison dust from a deep trunk.

The night waited.

XXxxXX

The store-room felt cramped with the whole group sitting around. Shoji, in the corner, was yawning into his helmet. It was past his time off, and usually he'd be sleeping, had this not been of such importance. Aiga was leaning against a wall, looking a little tired too. The handmaids had been doing double the work with helping the palace staff repair anything that needed fixing if they were available, as such was their extended jobs. Ty Lee was in the corner, sitting on a sack of potatoes, but her leg was bouncing up and down. Toph and Sokka were milling around, just...waiting.

Everyone was just waiting.

The door opened to the kitchen and everyone jumped, as though all six of them would fit behind sacks and shelves if someone other than the Prince were to arrive. Luckily, Aang came first, followed by Zuko. He very firmly closed the door behind him and Shoji stepped forward to light a lantern Zuko had brought with him.

By the light of the flickering flame, the eight all sat in a circle, unsure of where to begin.

"We need a name." Sokka broke the silence. "Something cool, something snazzy."

"How about 'Let's Not Get Killed For Treason' and make this quick," Shoji offered, glancing nervously at Zuko. Katara saw him give a slight smirk, but Shoji's joke revealed a very ugly truth.

The knowledge they all had could not only get Aang killed, but could cause each of them in turn to die a horrible, horrible death.

"We need to make some rules, be telling the same story." Zuko took charge, since he was the one who gathered them. Katara got the sense he had taken it upon himself to be the unofficial leader, but he was still trying not to step on Aang's toes. Avatar trumped future Fire Lord, Katara guessed. He was glancing at Aang every so often, trying to read the cues of the sixteen-year-old.

Aang just looked overwhelmed.

He'd gone from having no one in his corner to seven people, but at the same time, not much to do with it.

"Okay, but what about the death dust?" Sokka held up a finger. "Where's that?"

Zuko placed a ball of fabric in the center of the circle. Meaning to or not meaning to, everyone flinched back at least an inch. Sokka scooted back a full foot, shaking his head in a clear 'don't you dare get that near me' sort of way.

"We need to get rid of it," Aiga whispered. "Soon. The journal too."

"We need to move it to somewhere not in the palace. I don't trust people," Sokka agreed. "Er, sorry Zuko."

"No, none taken." Zuko raised an eyebrow. "I don't either, most days. I don't trust anyone outside this circle anymore, if I'm being honest." And, though maybe he didn't want to say it, his list of people he trusted might be even smaller, Katara wondered.

"Well, it's probably safest with Sparky, eh?" Toph shrugged. "I mean, until we can get out of the palace."

"I don't know." Zuko scowled. "I learned today that my sister has been snooping in my stuff. If she were to see this…" He swallowed hard.

"I don't think I could. Between my training and the meetings with the family, I undress and redress twelve times a day it seems," Aang bemoaned.

"I'm blind," Toph said, which was in itself a good enough reason.

"The guards can search our rooms anytime," Aiga twittered nervously.

"And the guards don't have their own room," Shoji sighed.

"Well...I guess I could," Sokka said, realizing the options were limited.

"I'm not sure. I mean, we don't want this falling into the wrong hands, obviously. Keeping one person on it seems bad, strategy wise," Katara said, something that no one else had brought up.

"I should be the one." Aang shook his head. "It's mine. This stuff is about me, when it comes down to it, and my legacy."

"Which is why you shouldn't!" Ty Lee broke in, looking horrified. "Aang, we're expendable. You, the Avatar, you're not."

The idea that the rest of the group was 'expendable' had Aang looking ill.

"Maybe we all share the burden," Zuko sighed. "Yes, even you Toph," he added when she opened her mouth. "Switch off every day. Until I can get us out of the city, or even a small group of us. And split it up, minimize the fallout."

"How soon will that be?" Shoji ran his fingers through his hair.

"I wish I had an answer," Zuko said rather honestly. "In the meantime, no one congregate in a group larger than three of you at one time. No reason to give anyone suspicions. No one talks about it. No one uses code-words or whatever to refer to it, because you're probably not half as smart as you think you are. Also, does anyone speak Old Nomadic?"

"I studied first lessons of it," Ty Lee spoke up. "But I don't recall much."

Everyone else basically just looked at Zuko rather blankly. Katara had never even heard of it before now.

"Great," Zuko sighed. "You're going to start learning it. It's a dead language, which means no one knows it. That's how, if we really have to, we can communicate about anything involving us or him or the book." Zuko held up the journal. They'd discussed just burning it at the palace, but if any pages were to be seen, or survive, or if someone were to find out what they were doing, having seen the smoke...as dangerous as it was to have it intact, it wasn't worth risking it yet.

"Yes, sir." Toph saluted him. "I don't know anything about anything."

"Lose the sarcasm, keep the idea," Zuko instructed, holding back a groan.

"I'll take one first," Sokka said when no one moved to leave the room nor take the items. "Tui and La, protect me," he murmured to himself, gathering the power wrapped in fabric delicately in his arms. There was another pause, and no one moved again.

"Fine, I'll take the journal." Katara finally said.

"Water Tribe coming in clutch," Sokka raised his hand to high-five it. Katara gave a low, angry scowl.

"Right, we should scatter," Shoji suggested, "or else people are going to notice our absence, and more than that, our combined absences."

"True. Dismissed, uh, team."

"See? We need a cool name." Sokka said.

"For a club that's not supposed to exist?" Ty Lee tilted her head. "Might be better it doesn't?"

"When it requires a cool name, we'll get a cool name," Zuko said with slight aggravation. "Now, seriously. Scat, all of you. Shoo. No, not all at once." Zuko dragged a hand over his face as everyone went right to the door. "Hasn't anyone a lick of espionage in them?"

"Right, um. Maybe those two first." Sokka laughed nervously, and Katara knew he felt stupid since he was smarter than that. He was pointing at Aang and Shoji, who had reason to be seen together. "Then Katara and Aiga." Katara was a little disheartened to not have a chance to catch Zuko alone again, but it made sense. "Then...where's Toph?"

"Already gone, I think. Through the ground." Shoji pointed below his feet. Sokka scowled.

"Fine, for the best, I guess. Uh, Ty Lee after, then me, then Zuko. Sound good?" He looked at Zuko. The prince shrugged, not seeing a flaw with it. Aang and Shoji ducked out first, and then, after a respectable amount of time, Aiga tugged on Katara's arm.

Katara slipped back into her bed, and it seemed no one was none the wiser.

XXxxXX

Aang took a deep breath outside the doors to Zhao's suites.

The conversation last night in the small and cramped store room had put a lot of things into perspective for Aang, most notably, that many people were willing to practically go to war for an Avatar who, so far, hadn't done anything to earn their trust or their loyalty.

All the years before, since he had moved into the Palace, it was so easy to tell himself that this was the way to fix things, by learning the Palace language and becoming one of them, so that when he pulled the rug out, no one would be any wiser. And Zuko having his back and teaching him this world, telling him he'd surely be killed if he came forward with his true identity, doing so much to keep his secret a secret...well, it would have felt dishonorable to spit on all that the young Prince had done.

But now he couldn't pretend any longer. Even if the voices were not in his head reminding him daily, the world had forced its hand.

The Avatar's return was whispered. Airbenders were on the rise, just as the horrible monsters who killed them the first time were peeling themselves up from the ground.

Aang paused, tilting his eyes upward as the Avatars mumbled in his mind.

Ty Lee's trick had given him nearly six blessed hours of peaceful mental space that was all his own. After, however, the Avatars had returned to his mind groggy and disoriented. They sounded as though they were drunk, like they'd all gone out for a grand ball and returned worse for the wear.

Aang had gotten drunk once, and he had hated it.

Passing himself off as a vegetarian in the palace wasn't hard. With all the fruits and veggies they imported from Earth Kingdom, there was a growing faction that only ingested leafy green things, as compared to meat. And, if he was being honest, the Fire Nation had more to offer a vegetarian than the Air Temples even had. Refusing alcohol, however? Silly to say, but that would have blown his cover.

So, Aang drank in small quantities, when it was appropriate. It had been early into his guise as Kuzon when Zuko had given him a little too much and the pair had gotten roaring drunk. Aang didn't really remember much about that night, but it was enough to know that he never wanted to get that way again.

He was getting side-tracked, though.

"Can you take over, Kasata?" he whispered. "I can't do it without you…"

Lately, Aang always felt like he was fighting for headspace, for his own voice to be the most present one. It was always a battle. It was only when there were no voices around, and Aang had just sat on his bed and thought about it, that he considered maybe there was a way to release his own dominant voice and let one of the other Avatars take over. They were loud enough and boisterous enough to tell Aang that they had full personalities, each and every one of them. And, they'd retained all their memories from past lives. While Aang could tap into the knowledge base containing all of Gopan's musings on bird migrations or Kyoshi's lessons on fan fighting, to actually use it was something entirely different, that often Aang fell short on.

But, maybe, if he allowed a different, specific Avatar to use his body as a conduit for just a moment…

Now, more than ever, he needed Kasata, one of the previous Fire Nation Avatars, to help him. Kasata, who had dealt his whole life with two-headed snakes like Zhao and was raised with the military in his bones. Avatar Roku was just too kind, and there was no room for kindness in these matters.

Aang needed Zhao to trust him. He needed Zhao to see him as his apprentice and take him everywhere there were airbender sightings, so Aang could finally do something. He didn't know what, but something. He needed to be able to be as ruthless as Zhao and not let his emotions override him.

"Please, if you can, now would be the time." Aang screwed his eyes shut and knocked twice on the door.

For a moment, it seemed like Kasata especially was silent, and Aang feared he'd be standing in front of the terrifying man and start blubbering incoherently. Then, it was like someone had just...shoved his consciousness back a couple paces. Aang could see exactly what was happening, but he found he couldn't move his arms or legs. He was just a voice, thoughts, floating in nowhere while someone else puppeted his body.

"Now you know how we feel," Kasata said out loud. It was Aang's voice, Aang's own lips moving, but the way he spoke was no longer his own, replaced by Kasata's curt and sharp tone. It was unmistakable and more than a little eerie.

The door swung open. Zhao blinked at the young student in front of him for a second, unable to hid his surprise to find Aang standing outside his door.

"Master Kuzon, or...should I call you Guardsman Kuzon? Which do you prefer?" he said, his voice calm as though it was a simple question.

It's anything but, Kyoshi murmured, and Aang could only agree from his backseat position. Luckily, Kasata knew exactly how to navigate it.

"Guardsman, if I must. I'll respond to either. Service has been different, eye-opening. Alas, I feel guilt for not signing up previously." Even if he had supposive guilt, his words were delivered an with even-tempered drawl, something nearing emotionlessness.

"What kept you, if I may ask?" Zhao turned his gaze down on Aang. Not on him, per se, but down as he straightened to appear taller.

"Many things. It was never quite so necessary. I was a little older than Royal Family members usually are when they begin, and I also wanted to get to know the Palace before diving in. Know what I was protecting."

"And now it's necessary?"

Kasata laughed, but it was neither warm nor full of humor. "As you said, Commander Zhao, it is a dangerous time we enter." He paused, waiting. When Zhao did not invite him in, he continued, "I came to apologize. The other day, I may have seemed a little unwelcoming toward the idea of bringing me into such an important campaign. I did not mean to sound ungrateful. I was just surprised that anyone would consider me important enough to be considered, because I am, after all, a distant cousin." Something about Kasata seemed so sincere it made Aang feel sick. He was playing it perfectly though, because Zhao seemed to relax. Just a millimeter, but it was something.

"Guardsman Kuzon, Ozai is fond of you, and his son even more so. You are family, you do realize. Blood is terribly important," Zhao said, like he was teaching a lesson.

"I do realize. I wanted to come to express my gratitude in person that you'd consider me for this. I want to make sure that I am still considered a candidate to join you," Kasata continued.

Zhao blinked. "Ozai is very firm, so there was never a question. However, I am pleased you are showing such a renewed interest."

"These airbenders are a danger to us all, sir. As you said, this is my family, and I will do anything to keep them safe. I was more surprised we weren't leaving immediately. If you would be so kind, I would be honored to learn under your tutelage."

There was a pause, but then, Zhao smiled. It was just as awful as it usually was, but now, Aang saw it was genuine, and that made it worse.

"Guardsman Kuzon, I see a great deal of myself in you."

That's all he said, before closing the door.

Aang suddenly sagged as he felt Kasata lose the grip of the reins on his body.

"What's that mean?" Aang whispered, feeling dizzy and disoriented. Kasata sounded apologetic.

It means he's accepted you. You're going to be his new student, he's going to groom you to be a monster.

It is the way we will win., Roku assured Aang, who felt ill to hear Kasata confirm such horrors. Aang felt nothing rise up his stomach, like before. He was then even more disgusted that he wasn't going to vomit after all was said and done.

As he walked back to his chambers, legs feeling like lead, he couldn't help but think that in the pursuit of peace, he'd just signed his life to the war. That while he was trying to wipe clean the slate of the world, he was going to end up with a blackened heart. One for the many, he whispered to himself, one for the many. He felt like this was a sudden insight, and he'd just stepped over from childhood to what it meant to be an adult Avatar. Even if he realized this, he hated it.

Roku's long sigh was cryptic.

We all must sometimes do terrible, terrible things to make things good. But the worst travesty is that one day, this will fail to make you ill like it once had.

Chapter Text

Katara hit the dusty floor of the training ground, her chin smacking against the ground. She tasted copper in her mouth and reached a finger up to feel a small cut on her lip where her tooth had gnashed against her mouth.

"If that's the best you can do, Fire Lord Ozai will send you back to the Southern Water Tribe in a Pai Sho tile box," Master Pakku said dismissively. Katara felt the aching in her bones and stood, despite how much she wanted to remain on the ground just a few moments longer. Her bones felt like jelly and her whole body quivered, but deep down she knew Pakku was correct. If she went up against Ozai or Azula in the competition, at this stage of her training, she would hardly last past a minute. She needed to train. She needed to be ready.

Pakku turned back around, his head tilting as he watched Katara steady herself. She ran her thumb over her forehead, gathering the sweat that pooled there, and pressed it to her lip for just a second. Not long enough to heal it completely, but enough to stop the bleeding, clot the blood, and encourage the start of scabbing.

"Again," Katara asked, her voice rough.

Katara was pleased when Pakku looked at her with approval.

"You have the fortitude of a warrior." Pakku nodded to her, pleasure in his quirk of a smile. "At least, for now."

Pakku held little back. Of this, Katara was eternally grateful. She didn't need someone like Zuko, who was worried about hurting her all the time, she needed a teacher that was honest with her about the brutality of Agni Kais, or other matches she might go up against in the future.

She only had to bother Pakku about eighteen times before he caved, giving their first lesson a little over three days ago. He'd declared Katara not completely incompetent, which for a girl was an over-the moon compliment, and said they'd meet daily until the competition. Katara was thrilled.

She learned very quickly that while Pakku was indeed a master of his bending, his teaching style was unexpected. It was complete, and Katara felt like she'd gleaned more from him than she would have gotten by herself in years of fumbling, but a straightforward teacher he was not.

What he preferred to do was scrimmage and have Katara watch him to copy his movements mid-battle, to take the information and internalize it. There had been no 'step one, step two, step three' and so on about how to produce a proper water whip, and he hadn't started out by seeing what Katara already knew. He only ever stepped in to correct a stance if Katara was really and truly failing, but he almost never said anything otherwise.

The first day, he'd had a comment. "You fight like an untrained penguin-seal. Your movements are hardly graceful, and you attack like someone is going to steal your last leg of meat."

He'd said it with a such a pretentious sneer that Katara couldn't help but take offense.

"Well, I've never had a teacher," she'd snapped back. "Everything I've learned I've done myself, so if you have a problem with it-"

"I never said it was a bad thing." Pakku had cut her off with a smirk. As Katara had been left with her jaw hanging open, trying to figure out what this meant, he'd simply moved on.

Three days in, Katara wasn't sure she completely understood, but she thought maybe she was starting to get the idea. While there was a grace and perfection to the way that Pakku waterbended, Katara's movements were unexpected and hard to predict. He'd shown her this when he'd begun to use Katara's own movements against her. Katara had been waiting for the proper waterbending moves, and though she recognized the hobbled-together foot dance of her own style, she was still unprepared to face it. When Pakku had knocked her off her feet (a phenomenon that was happening a lot lately) and she'd gotten back up with a grin, she knew that Pakku realized she 'got it'.

He was a man of few words, other than drawled jabs. She could appreciate this. Every insight she herself made just made her feel so much more adept, since Pakku had yet to spell out anything for her.

"Well, again," Katara said when Pakku did not move for a moment. She was about to start this herself, until a strike set her off balance. She managed to freeze it, wiggling out of the way, and sent the icy sphere back at Pakku. All of this took place within a second, as this was a high-paced spar they took part in.

Back and forth it went. Pakku never went easy on Katara, especially not when she was hurt. In fact, he seemed to up his game even more. Or maybe Katara was just utterly exhausted? Yes, it could be that too.

It went on for what seemed like eons, but was likely hardly longer five minutes, until Katara was knocked flat on her ass once again. At least nothing was bleeding this time.

She got up, despite her feet swaying beneath her.

"Again," she nearly begged.

"No," Pakku said with a cool tone. "We meet again tomorrow around-"

Katara threw a water whip at him. He managed to deflect it easily. She was just trying to get his attention anyway, so she wasn't upset that he was able to just wave it off.

"I can still go," Katara insisted firmly, wiping her hair back from her face.

"Maybe so," Pakku said, sighing, "But exhaustion makes mistakes. Part of being a warrior is continuing to fight under the worst of circumstances, but being a better warrior is knowing when to stop."

"I'm not too good at that," Katara said, crossing her arms, but readying herself for a sneak attack. Pakku saw her stiff posture and almost smiled.

"I can see that. Truly, Princess, we are done for the day. Go do whatever frivolous things princesses do. Bathe in rose water. Eat a good meal. Go to sleep early in a bed made of goose feathers."

While it sounded like a list of insults, Katara almost guessed he was encouraging her to take care of herself. Of course, Pakku couldn't be caught caring, especially not about a female warrior.

Letting her guard down just a little - but never fully - she walked over to the water bins where they summoned their weapons from. She splashed the cool water onto her cheeks, thinking that maybe a nice hot bath did sound like just the ticket. Oh, yes, food too. They were serving some peppered steak tonight, if Toph's information was correct. As there was nothing Toph loved more than food, usually it was.

She blended the water off her face and turned toward where her accessories lay on the bleachers to see Pakku holding up her grandmother's necklace, a soft look on his face, far softer than she'd ever seen on him.

Ever since Zuko had used her necklace for his proposal, Katara had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it did make the jewelry so much more meaningful. However, whenever she thought about wearing it, she just got a dull ache as she remembered she'd turned him down. She found herself unable to wear it, at least in his vicinity, but also unable to let it out of her sight ever again. Thus, there it had laid, waiting for her to finish.

"I'm glad I didn't have to write to my grandmother and tell her you still are refusing to train me. I think she would have sailed back across the sea to make you." Katara didn't know where it came from, to talk about her grandmother, but the words just tumbled out.

"I don't doubt it." Pakku still hadn't put down the necklace. "You and she are very much alike. In more than just your face," he mused. "She was far too headstrong for her own good."

"Or just so. Maybe too headstrong for your good," Katara said, which she wouldn't have said if Pakku wasn't so blunt back to her most of the time. She got the feeling that Pakku was a man who appreciated honesty.

"I suppose." Pakku finally put the necklace down. "The world seems to think of me a cosmic joke. Training the granddaughter of the woman I loved. And, despite a rocky start, a waterbender with so much potential. One that makes me wonder…" He tilted his head.

"What your children would have been like?" Katara finished with a low chuckle. "What kind of waterbending masters they would have become?"

"Perhaps. In all, it's a shame your grandfather could not have lived to teach you. I've heard it's easier to teach family. Perhaps he would have been able to put up with your stubbornness, even found it enchanting."

Katara blinked once. "Waterbending? He wasn't a bender," she said.

Pakku frowned. "And your father was not, nor your mother?" he asked.

"Nope. I thought I told you, I'm the first waterbender in, well, since GranGran's childhood friend left for Iroh's choice. But, even then, there weren't a lot of us." Katara rubbed her arms.

"Impossible, child. Bending is obviously an inherited trait. Just look at the Royal Family," Pakku scoffed.

Katara shrugged uncertainty. Once, this very question had bothered her, but it was something she hadn't thought of in a long time. Bringing up it now seemed pointless. She was a waterbender who was learning and all, what really else mattered? She once thought it was a dormant gene, lying around the people of her tribe, but she did find it strange that no other children in her generation were waterbenders, if that was true.

"There has to be a waterbender in your tribe, some blood line-" Pakku was continuing on.

"I don't know," Katara snapped at him. "What I do know is that most of the refugees that left the Northern Water Tribe to form our society weren't benders, and back when things were good, even then, there was only about eight benders and most died out before I was even born. Does this even matter?"

Pakku blanched a bit. "No, I suppose not.," he murmured after a moment. "Knowing one's lineage, with bending, can sometimes shed light on how powerful a person's to become. It could have told me how far I could push you, how much training you can take. If it's even worth it to prepare you for a battle, if you are always going to lose it."

"I think that's bull," Katara said, and then blushed at Pakku's stern expression. "Sorry, that's just not true. Excuse my language. Neither of Toph's parents nor any of her grandparents were benders. She was taught by badger-moles, and she's the strongest Earthbender I know."

"She was taught from the original masters, of course she's powerful," Pakku dismissed.

"But if she didn't have it in her, it wouldn't have mattered," Katara stressed.

There was a beat of silence. Katara wondered, after all that, if Pakku was just fishing for information about Gran Gran. Had she gone off and married a someone just like Pakku, or had she found the polar opposite of him? Katara didn't know what happened with them after the revelation in the garden, but she couldn't say she wasn't horribly curious.

How could her grandmother have loved such a man once? She knew she loved him, from the way Gran Gran's eyes had been sad. There was a startling realization that his gruffness reminded Katara very much so of someone close to her...of Zuko. Was this what Zuko was destined to be without Katara? Spirits, she hoped not. However, it seemed Pakku never remarried, whereas Zuko would be taking the hand of another lady.

"Maybe there's something to be said. They always said my father would have been a bender, in a different life. He was born on the Winter Solstice, when the moon is in the sky the longest."

"I know what the Solstice is, my child," Pakku grumped.

"Right. Well, Gran Gran had only been in the tribe less than a year, arriving that past end of winter and married the current chief not soon after, so they said it solidified my father's future as a leader."

Pakku squinted. "Don't you mean she arrived in the summer? Right after the Summer Solstice?"

"I know my family history," Katara retorted hotly, not liking the tone Pakku was taking.

"Child, she could not have arrived before the Summer Solstice, for she left on the first day of the celebrations at the North. I was set to marry her on the third day. You think I wouldn't recall the day she just vanished into the night?" From the anguish in his tone, Katara knew that he couldn't be lying. Or, at least, he had convinced himself of this. "Perhaps your father was born later. Or he was a premature child."

"Well, then the whole story about the moon wouldn't make any sense, would it? And I've delivered babies; I know what an early child looks like. They raved about how big my father was too, so there's no way, unless he's a god on earth," Katara said, trying to keep as much sarcasm out as possible.

Pakku frowned. "Then, Princess, something is not adding up."

Katara was smart enough to realize this too, however she wasn't sure how to reconcile it.

"Well." She licked her lips. "I mean, logically she had to arrive late winter, to have my father near nine moons later, so…" The answer was on the tip of her tongue, but she could not put it together.

Pakku, however, turned abruptly and began walking away.

"Hey, are we done?" Katara called, but from the urgency in his steps, Katara doubted he could hear her. He always set up their next lesson, so for him to forget was very unlike him. Something was plaguing his mind, something that made him abandon all other pursuits.

Katara put her dress back on and walked through the palace in a near daze, forehead burrowed in deep thought. She arrived at Sokka's door, shaking her head half in awe, half in disbelief. She knocked twice, but he did not answer.

This sharpened her mind. She knocked again. "Sokka, I know you're in there, I can see your shadow moving under the door." She rolled her eyes. "I'm coming in, in one...two…"

Sokka hastily opened the door, sliding himself to the other side of it. He shut it behind him, back pressed against the wood. "Hey, sis. Sup?"

"What's up with you?" Katara crossed her arms. "Oh, La, don't tell me you have, like, a handmaid in there with you, or a dignitary's daughter." Her face reddened at the obvious. His shirt was a little wrinkled and he seemed nervous. Plus, his breathing was short, like he'd been running. And, he was making a big deal of holding the door closed. Well, frankly, Katara didn't want to see a half or fully naked girl next to her brother, so perhaps she should be glad.

"No, not that." Sokka's neck was red, but he seemed to recoil at her suggestion. On another day, Katara would examine this more, but for right now she had something else on her mind.

"Sokka...I think Pakku might be our grandfather."

XXxxXX

"-and as you see here, smaller-sized Equalists were able to squeeze through this hole here, which seems to have been made over a long period of time."

Zuko ducked as he stepped into one of the mostly unused areas of the bottom of the palace, swatting away a cobweb. As his slippers walked over the ground, he kicked up a cloud of dust, causing him to sneeze.

The gathered group turned around: one of the repairmen, his father, Azula, and Lu Ten, who was standing a good foot away from Zuko's direct family.

"Zuko, how kind of you to join us." Ozai's voice was crawling with acerbic purrs. "That you would take time out of such a busy day to join us for this bothersome and insignificant moment. Since you were summoned an hour ago, I must only assume that you placed this farther down on your list than whatever you had been in the middle of. It's only our safety at stake, of course."

"I would have loved to join you, father." Zuko shivered only because of the chill from the air that whipped around the room. "Had I actually been informed."

"Well, perhaps you should be easier to find."

"I'm sure it was merely an oversight, Uncle. A harmless mistake." Lu Ten stepped in, trying to breathe evenly. Zuko snorted, doubtful, but he was glad for the backup.

"I only found out when a passing foot soldier told me of your location. Have I missed much?" He turned to look at the repairman who was practically sweating at the tension between the family.

Just an average day, Zuko wanted to tell him. It's Tuesday? Time to give Zuko a vague and slightly threatening comment. Oh, it's Wednesday? Time to remind Zuko of what a failure you think he is. A Friday? Guess what, it's Azula, vying for the throne, on time like clockwork. Speaking of Azula...don't look her way, Zuko.

From the way Azula was examining him, Zuko was sure if was her fault the message wasn't passed along, whether she had been told to do it herself or she'd threatened the person Ozai had instructed. Either way, she was probably looking for him to accuse her, and then she'd bat her big eyes at their father, and it would just lead to Ozai scoffing at Zuko. No, he wasn't going to give Azula that sort of satisfaction.

"Uhm, not much, your highness." The repairman bowed twice to Zuko. "I was just explaining that the holes that were made in locations like this that allowed the Equalists to get into the castle. As we fix the palace and find them, your father requested we keep tally of them…" He trailed off nervously.

"I've kept a log of them, Zuko, don't worry," Lu Ten said, relaxing now that his more favored cousin had arrived. Frankly, Zuko was glad that Lu Ten was there, too.

"As the Fire Lord, you should know these things, Zuko," Ozai said. Zuko was unsure if Ozai was offering a piece of advice for the future (unlikely) or scolding him for not magically knowing how hundreds of insurgents eked their way into the palace.

"If I could be in eight places at once, I would." Zuko gave an apologetic smile. "Which is why we have other people to do our work for us. Delegate, and read the reports, right?"

It was a tactic his father used very often. His father just hummed, folding his arms into his sleeves. "Continue," he told the repairman.

The next hour or so was spent with the repairman dragging them deeper into the underground palace, showing in the hidden corners all the ways a human could have slipped inside, and likely had. It was staggering, to be honest. They'd likely covered their holes with boxes or crates, making them inconspicuous, making them easy to pass by. There was no one and everyone to blame.

"We're, of course, sealing off any passageways found that are of this nature," The repairman said. "But that's just if we come across them. Unless you managed to capture one of these spooks and get them to fess up, sir-"

He looked down at his feet.

The palace was huge. There could be thousand more spots where they slithered in. They could be working on new ones now, knowing their plans were being fixed. It also gave the sense of familiarity of the palace, something that twisted Zuko's stomach deep within him. He looked at his father; he'd been non-reactionary toward this whole tour.

As if he already knew they were there. Zuko furrowed his brows. It had been a passing theory with Katara before, but now Zuko was doubting his father more and more. As much as Zuko really hated his dad, was he ready to come to terms that his father might have brought such horrors upon the palace? To further his airbender-killing narrative? Maybe he'd known for ages that the Avatar, an airbender, had returned and he'd been planning this for months. It wasn't the most outlandish scenario.

So what would he do now?

"The flaws in the security must be dealt with," his father was saying as he led them back to a main hallway. "Zuko, you'll handle this," he said casually, nodding to him. It was an impossible task he was giving Zuko, because he'd continue to sneak more and more Equalists in, or he'd play it some other way.

"I have much going on with the Choice, father. Why don't you let Azula handle it?" he asked, because his sister had begun to pout at his father's decision. Azula brightened. She looked gleeful at the thought of this task, of killing trespassers, or torturing them, or something equally grim.

"Father, I will make any Equalists rue the day they were born, just you wait-"

"No," Ozai shot her down. "Zuko will be the Fire Lord one day. Security of the Palace is a Fire Lord's job, for it translates to how you protect your country."

"I understand that." Zuko breathed in hard. "But Azula is fairly free with her time. If this is such an important matter, someone who has the chance to give it their undivided attention should be at the helm."

Zuko sure as hell wasn't going to let his father puppet him around, not if he could help it. The look his sister gave him was one of awe; probably because he hadn't been on her 'team' for eons now. Plus, Azula was scary enough that maybe she was the sort of person who should be dealing with this.

"My word is final," Ozai said and when he turned his glare on him, Zuko couldn't help but flinch. "Is that clear? Azula is not to help."

"Father." Azula's voice was almost heartbreaking in a way. "You haven't allowed me the opportunity to do something meaningful in a while, and I just think…"

"You haven't been given a job in a while because you will be married off soon enough, Azula, for whatever political ally we decide worthy. It's worthless to have you start projects you will not finish. I perhaps have let you alone far too long, and you've become over-confident in your place here, as made obvious by your dissent toward your brother, the heir. I expected more decorum of you, but I see I was mistaken."

It was like Azula had been slapped in the face. She grew stony, cold. Zuko truly felt bad for Azula in that moment. Father had never been so short with her. Zuko was used to it, but Ozai had always had a soft spot for Azula, and Zuko couldn't recall a single time when he'd ever been so cruel to her.

"I see," Azula said, taking a step back. "I suppose in that case, father, I will take my leave." She turned around, her steps wobbling. Zuko wanted to go after her like he did when he was a child, ask if she was okay, risk a burn or two. However, his father's gaze fixed only on him kept him here.

"Have I made myself clear, son?"

I am no son of yours, Zuko wanted to snarl. you have always made me feel like a mistake, an embarrassment.

However, Zuko could not say that. So, he clenched his fists twice and nodded hard.

"First, I will choose my own generals to be in charge of the palace guards," Zuko said. The current generals were his father's, and Zuko didn't trust them, as they'd been in his father's back pocket since he was a young ruler.

"Only expected," his father said, more amiable to it than Zuko would have thought.

"I also want to bring Lady Bei Fong in, and give her free rein to anywhere in the palace. Get her expertise," he added.

His father frowned. "A contestant? A noblewoman? Whatever for?"

"Her blindness is unique in that she feels with her feet. While we see a wall here." Zuko knocked on the wallpapered hall. "She can feel all the rooms behind it. If there's passage that we missed, Lady Bei Fong will find it."

"Are you sure?" Ozai questioned.

"Yes," Zuko said immediately. Ozai was silent, but nodded.

"It's your call now. Stick to your choices." He patted Zuko's shoulder as he passed, such an unexpected gesture that Zuko couldn't help but startle. Was he trying to show pride? Trying to psyche Zuko out? He honestly couldn't tell. "Do not feel the need to inform me. You do have the power. Just record it in reports, should I feel the need to check in."

"Uncle Ozai never fails to make things go from bad to so much worse," Lu Ten said dryly when Ozai was out of earshot. Zuko had thought for sure his father would want to know all his movements to be able to counteract and aid the next Equalist attack. Maybe he had little birds everywhere, so it didn't matter?

He brushed that aside. Now he had this assignment, and it was hardly something he could shirk off. He had to do a good job. It would severely cut into his time with the ladies. Maybe that's what his father wanted, less time he could spend with Katara?

"Lu Ten, do you know where Admiral Jeong-Jeong and Lieutenant Jee are stationed?" Zuko turned to his cousin.

Lu Ten smiled, shaking his head.

"No, but I'm sure my dad does."

XXxxXX

The letter the Water Tribe siblings sent home had been re-written about six different times. They sat in the library, hunched over the scroll, nitpicking wording and smearing their fingers across the ink if they were displeased. If they'd been writing individually, the letter likely would have been much curter, much more 'Gran Gran, what the hell', but together they tempered each other until the letter seems much more polite. Then, they'd sent it off with a messenger hawk and waited.

"She might not even answer us," Sokka said, watching it fly away.

"If we know, Pakku knows. Cat's out of the bag," Katara pointed out. "Might as well come clean on her own now."

"Think Pakku would drag her through the snow like that?" Sokka frowned.

"No, but the one thing I've learned about secrets….when one person knows, it's a secret. As soon as more than one person knows, it's going to come out, eventually. It's inevitable."

"So what does that say about our secret?" Sokka rubbed his neck, eyes cast back toward the door, as though he could see all the way back to his room as he was one of the the 'persons of the day'. Katara had yet to have either items fall to her hands, which was for the best, as of right now.

"Well, it's not really a 'secret', because we want people to know about Kuzon, eventually. Gran Gran would have taken this to her grave, if she got the chance. We're just trying to prolong an omitted truth."

Sokka snorted.

"I guess I have to admire that about you. So full of hope, always." Sokka said, patting her head like she was a seal-cat.

"You don't have hope?"

Sokka weighed it. "I'm realistic. I hope for the best, but a good soldier has to be able to see every outcome. All the best, all the worst," he said, puffing out his chest.

After that, Sokka returned to his room. Katara had nearly forgotten that he may or may not have a woman in there, but she wasn't looking to find out. She returned to her own room. Or, her current space. 'Own' was possibly an overstatement.

As most of the girls' chambers had been utterly destroyed in the attack, and not just Katara's, it was unsuitable for them to return. Their bathhouses had been smashed, furniture had been burned, and their beautiful little garden was just a square of upturned earth and charred trees. The girls had been allowed, with a guard envoy, to go back one by one to save what could be saved, but the general idea was that they wouldn't be returning.

For the time being, they were all squished in barrack-like conditions. The ballroom had been used for overflow bedding, but pretty much the only people left were the contestants. They each were given a trunk to keep belongings in, but many didn't have enough to fill even one. There was a changing area, and they could use the bathrooms. A lot of girls stored items of importance in their handmaids' rooms. Some went as far as to displace their handmaids from their room and force them to sleep on the cots while they used the tiny servant's halls. Aiga had graciously offered, but Katara wouldn't hear it. She used the room just to sleep, anyway. Plus, even the rolling cots were more comfortable than the beds she had at home.

Zhi had tried to keep the group positive on their temporary space.

"You'll be getting bigger, better rooms soon, ladies," she had assured them. "We're not just going to place you in a generic guest room, because we are preparing the best for you all."

According to Mai, as Katara overheard, they moved rooms twice throughout the competition. They were supposed to have moved at 20 girls, but things had just gotten in the way. With that, luckily, they were closer to being done with the new suites as compared to not. When it was whittled down to just five left, they'd move again. These suites would be like small apartments inside the Royal Family's doors, and none would be too far from Zuko's room. Whoever won would retain their room at this point. Some ladies, like Ursa, used it as a personal sanctuary. Other winners who were less interested in love had historically remained living in there, only entering the Fire Lord's personal chambers to produce an heir.

Either way, they were promised that their time living like cattle in a small pen was coming to an end soon. Some girls, like Nadhari, asked Zhi every day if they'd be moving. Zhi always responded with a forced smile and said, "When the Royal Family deems it appropriate, dear," and then would usually follow up with an overly-cheery, "Patience is a virtue!" or similar mantra.

Inevitably, little pockets of beds had begun to form, little clusters of girls who shoved their beds into groups.

"It's just like a sleepover!" On Ji had bubbled, trying to brighten the mood. Nadhari had heard the comment and been nasty about it.

"Yes, but you usually go home the next day after the sleepover," was one of the least cruel things she'd thrown On Ji's way. Apparently, corralling Nadhari with a whole host of others was not the way to make her nicer. Not that Katara was sure there was a way…

Katara's own bed was near Suki's, Toph's, and Alcina's. Smellerbee's cot had worked its way over toward her, through the encouragement of Toph, and Katara didn't mind. She'd never gotten a chance to speak in length with the short-haired girl, but Toph seemed to have given her the 'okay', so Katara couldn't complain.

Next to Katara's section, but still a little displaced, was Yue with the other two Northern Water Tribe girls that remained. As Katara looked out at their little group, she felt a deep pang. She wondered if Eva was still around, would she have moved her bed next to Katara's? It felt silly, to worry over beds, but it just reminded Katara how much she missed her, wished that something could have been different. Maybe if she hadn't been hiding. Maybe if she'd gotten there, to pull Eva back. Maybe if she'd been found sooner. The thoughts, questions, plagued her.

On Ji, Maiha, Ratana, and Jin were the next group over, all perfectly nice girls.

Next to them was the pair of Anaselma and Avizeh, but Katara wondered if they'd banded together more being the odd ones out than anyone else.

And then, far over in the corner, was Mai, Nadhari, Cillia, and Ty Lee. Well, saying Ty Lee was with them was perhaps overstating it. Those first couple nights, her bed had been pushed firmly next to Mai's. Mai, when she thought no one was looking, had seemed to comfort Ty Lee. But, of late, Ty Lee's bed was wheeling farther and farther away. Whether it was intentional or not, it broke Katara's heart a little. Every time she saw it, she had more than half a mind to invite Ty Lee so move near her group. The thing stopping her was that this might seem weird, since on the surface no one knew she was friends with the group, and Katara told herself that they were bound to be moving any day.

What was truly strange was Mai and Nadhari 'bunking up' together. It didn't seem like they were friends at all. Cillia, who was far nicer than either, was on a noble level to Mai or Yue, so that was hardly surprising, but still made Katara wish she'd become better friends with Suki or Alcina or someone. No, the one that mystified her was the pair of Mai and Nadhari.

"Maybe they're both in 'We're Horrible High-Class Snots' Club," Toph had snorted, and while Katara hadn't meant to put it indelicately, she'd had similar thoughts. The only thing that seemed to separate them was the fact one was Fire Nation and one Earth Kingdom. The climate of late was one in which it was nearly imperative to have an ally, at least somewhere.

A part of Katara was horribly curious to know what they whispered about, when they were, since Mai was such good friends with Azula and was appreciated by Ozai - if he could choose a wife for Zuko, it might be Mai. In fact, Nadhari was also a favorite of Ozai's. She was only here because he was strong-arming Zuko on it. A part of Katara hoped that was the only reason Mai was here too.

She shook out her thoughts as she pushed open the gilded doors to the ballroom. She saw a commotion of handmaids helping tidy things up and girls shoving things into trunks.

"What's going on?" Katara asked, holding the door open as Mai shoved past her with a whole group of maids following.

"Princess Katara, we could not find you to give you the good news!" Zhi smiled at her with a sense of relief.

"Oh, I was with my brother, in the library," she said. "Good news?" Though, she could have guessed.

"We're getting our new rooms, finally," Alcina finished for Zhi, grabbing Katara's arm and pulling her to their bed square. "I'm so excited to see what they look like! Aiga has been here since mid-morning, gathering your things for the move. I'm just about done too. Want to go with me?" she asked, her friendly exuberance a warm gesture. She knew that she and Alcina were friends, but it was still sometimes nice to have that reminder.

"Aiga, thank you so much," Katara said, a little red that she hadn't been around to help at all.

"Not a trouble, Princess. I know that you've been keeping yourself busy," she said. Her breath was a little short, though, and her eyes were a little too wide, a little too placid when she had no reason to be looking so oddly forced-serene.

Oh, she had the other item today.

And, if Katara had to bet, it was on her, for that in itself was the safest place. Or, the journal, at least. Would she really risk moving around so much with the powder, lest it tear open and kill everyone? However, from the slight tip of Aiga's head to Katara's chest near her cot, she understood. While she didn't like the idea that the power - as well wrapped as it was - was near her own things, it was the safest place. That meant Sokka had the journal.

"You okay, Katara? You can't tell me you're going to miss this," Alcina teased, nudging her. Katara realized she'd been scowling hard.

"No, no. Just thinking about something my brother said," she replied, lying easily.

They followed the convoy of girls and handmaids, finding the new suites with little trouble. They were closer to the Royal Family's quarters, somewhere in between where they put the regular visiting dignitaries compared to where they put up extended family members when they came to stay. The message was clear, they were starting to all be important to have made it this far. They were also on the second floor of the palace, a change to pace, since Katara really didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the multiple floors.

The area was once again sectioned off with a pair of guards and doors, although the doors were wide open to allow them to move in. It brought Katara back to those first days, when she'd been unsure who to trust and she'd heard things about Zuko, like that he was 'strangely handsome', or 'pensive', but not much else.

"It goes alphabetical instead of by nation," Alcina noticed immediately. "They probably want to promote more intermingling, now that we're getting whittled down and such," she said with a shrug. She was the first room, on the left. The doors were a little bigger, a little whiter. Instead of their names hung from a sign tacked onto the door (albeit, it had been in an impeccable font), their names were now on little stained wood signs drilled into the wall. A deeper sign of permanence. The hall itself was even bigger, Katara noted. And, it seemed that instead of looping around in a square shape, there were 11 doors down one long hall, mirrored on each side. There were also things hung on the walls, like it was an actual part of the palace, and not just an assembly of rooms in a convenient spot. At the end of the hall was a smaller doorway, and Katara was curious to see where it would lead. A couple other girls were eyeing it and blushing. Agni, did they think it was something stupid like an entrance into Zuko's suites? Spirits, that would just be an all-around bad idea.

Katara noticed as she passed that the first door from the front had no name, but she was reminded that they were supposed to move in at 20 people. It seemed each group of five rooms had a bathroom, though with only 17 girls left, it was three groups of four and one group of five at the end.

Katara's room was in second grouping, so near the middle. The girls' names went alphabetically back and forth, so while her name actually fell in between Jin's and Kilee's, her left door-mate was Avizeh and - she resisted a shudder or horror - to her right was Mai. This was the second worst combination that Katara could imagine, which could only be topped if it was Mai and Nadhari sandwiching her.

Being next to Mai was a nightmare for obvious reasons. And Avizeh was an incorrigible gossip, who would give her left foot if it meant being the first to spread around news. If she were allowed, she might make a fair journalist, Katara thought. And, when it was a slow day, she'd been known to amp up the truth. She didn't lie, but her word was always taken with a grain of salt. However, this meant any illicit meetings in Katara's room were going to have to stop; between Zuko sneaking in for kissing or for Blue Spirit meetings and she and Toph planning things, or any other secrets of the sort. This did put Katara out.

She saw Mai exiting her new suite and from the frown, it was clear that Mai was just as displeased to be saddled next to Katara as well.

Nadhari had left her room, a little down and away from Katara. "Where's Zhi?"

"Here, Lady Nadhari," Zhi said, sounding very tired.

"Are you who we talk to if we are displeased with our room?"

Katara could see Zhi's jaw twitch, probably holding back a string of cuss words. "The Royal Family has worked hard to make this exceed expectations. It's not even a day in. What could possibly be wrong?"

Katara never heard what vexed her so, because Nadhari dragged Zhi into her chamber. It was probably something stupid, like the paint color clashed with her eyes, or something.

"At least it's not Nadhari next to you," Aiga whispered when Mai was out of earshot and Nadhari's door had closed. Katara covered up her laugh with a cough.

"You're right, of course," Katara amended. She'd take Mai over Nadhari any day.

Aiga opened the door, and Katara couldn't help but be blown away. She'd gotten used to the very elaborate and superfluous rooms of the palace, or so she'd thought. Maybe the fact that this was hers was something different, or maybe Katara would simply never be used to the extravagance when all her lif,e she'd been raised to be pleased with anything the gods sent their way.

It was still just one room, but Tui was it a large single 'room'. A whole family in the South could fit in this one room. And, it was sectioned off to make it seem like there were separate spaces. A grand bed in one section, slightly larger than the previous one. An area dedicated to a desk with a couple book cases. A small sitting area, complete with a tea set waiting to be used. A space for putting her makeup on, complete with a new mirror and cushy chair. Katara didn't see a place to put her clothes, but was sidetracked by a window directly across from the door. There was a balcony with heavy curtains, and when Katara opened them, they revealed a sizable porch with a pair of chairs. They looked out onto a small sitting area that was probably hardly used, but well maintained. It seemed that they could not get down there directly, however. A part of Katara was already examining the walls to see if she could scale it down.

When she came back inside, Aiga was nowhere to be found.

"In here, Princess," Aiga said. There had been a door other than the front door that Katara had missed. So, not a single room. She opened it to reveal a closet with a full mirror. Aiga was putting her dresses that had survived, plus some she'd clearly spent time re-making, onto the hangers.

"What do you think?" Aiga said, holding up a pretty lilac dress.

"In general? Err, beautiful?"

"Oh, I suppose you didn't hear," Aiga said, pleased with Katara's reaction as she laid it across Katara's bed. "For tea time today, you've all been asked to meet with Lady Ursa. She wishes to talk to all of you."

"About what?" Katara asked, allowing Aiga to begin to undo Katara's current dress.

"I could not say, Princess." She patted Katara's shoulder. "But Lady Ursa is kind, of course."

Katara gave a short, slightly forced laugh. Somehow, talking with Zuko's mother was nearly as intimidating as going against Ozai. But, Aiga was correct. It couldn't be that bad.

Chapter Text

But of course, Ursa wasn't meeting all seventeen girls at once. So, even after Aiga had gotten Katara dressed and put on her makeup and jewelry, there was still a lull in which the girls waited to be summoned. Aiga suggested they go visit Toph, something Katara was very much agreeable to.

Toph's room was near the end of the hall. Katara came to her door and paused, turning to Aiga. "You sure she's in here?" she asked. Toph always answered the door before Katara even got a chance to knock, and she enjoyed yanking the door open and giving Katara a mini heart-attack.

"Oh, for the love of-" Toph growled, throwing open the door. "I hate this."

"Hello to you too, Lady Bei Fong," Aiga said, bowing and attempting to keep her smile from breaking across her face.

"Yeah, yeah. Felicitations, what a fairy-tale day and all that yuck," Toph said, waving her formality away as she encouraged the pair inside.

"What do you hate?" Katara asked, sitting on Toph's bed. It pretty much looked the same in here, except for much of Toph's fabrics and details were in browns and greens whereas Katara's were blue.

"Being on the second floor! Obviously," Toph huffed like it was the clearest thing in the world. She held up her foot, scowling at it like it had betrayed her. "I mean, I can still feel things, but it's like I'm getting it second hand, as though it's a friend of a friend trying to recite shit to me. First chance I get, I'm gunna have words with Sparky."

"Oh, you think he'll just move you down?" Katara crossed her arms.

"It's either that or I tear up this carpet to feel the stones underneath. Or, he brings me slabs of metals and I get to redesign it."

"Zhi would have an aneurysm if you did that."

"Tough nuts," Toph said, flopping face down on her bed.

"Hey," Katara said, standing, "Is this...is this from Sokka?"

Katara had spotted a picture on the wall, an ink drawing so horribly done that it could really only have been made by her brother, bless his heart. And, if she wasn't mistaken, it seemed to be of Toph...except, it was hung upside down.

"Is it supposed to be that way?"

"What way?" Toph turned her head, tilting her ear up to hear Katara's voice better.

"This picture. It's of you, I think, and it's the wrong way," Katara said. Maybe Toph wanted it that way, stylistically. Maybe Sokka had, and it was art 'she just didn't understand', something he'd said to her on more than one occasion.

"It probably is. I tried hanging it. Can't blame a blind girl." She shrugged.

"Why would he make you a painting if you can't see?" Aiga frowned, rubbing her chin.

"Sokka tries to pawn off his drawings on anyone that will take them," Katara replied, for she had a stack of drawings from him she'd taken. In moments when she had missed her family, she'd taken them out.

"Actually, I can feel the raised ink on the paper, so I can sort of feel his drawings," Toph corrected.

"Huh."

"Speaking of your brother, did you see that we have these locked chests for our rooms, with like, super intense locks? I mean, they're metal so I can get into them, but I bet the average lady can't. Might be a good place to...hide something of importance. Something I know a certain Ambassador currently has."

Katara hadn't noticed. "Wait, how do you know Sokka has half of the items?" Toph blinked, and for a second Katara thought maybe she just wasn't going to answer.

"Easy. I can always tell," she said slowly. "Heart-rate. Aiga has the other half," she said breezily, "But the point is, maybe we don't have to do this back and forth thing with them. Maybe we can just...keep them in one place."

"That still seems dangerous." Aiga hushed her tone. "We shouldn't even be talking about this," she added in a near furious reminder.

Toph looked ready to fight her back, but reeled herself in.

"You're right," she agreed, which was the closet Katara had ever heard Toph come to apologizing. "I just want to get rid of it all fast."

Katara didn't answer, but sent a look, something she hoped conveyed 'Toph, we all do.' Then, of course, she realized Toph couldn't see her and said it out loud.

"You know what else sucks about this room?" Toph said after a second, rolling around on her nicely made bed, probably just out of spite.

"What?" Katara deadpanned.

"The rest of y'all only have three other people to a bathroom. I have to share it with four people. What kind of shitty luck is that?" she asked. "I mean, it's me, Saoirse, Ty Lee, Suki, and Yue," she listed, holding out a palm, fingers outstretched to represent five. Frankly, Katara thought, that sounded like a great group.

"Maybe I'll have to kill one off." Toph was still talking. "Ty Lee used to bother me, but she's-" Toph made a weird hand motion where she just waved her hands around in the air, but Katara got the gist. It was meant to represent 'part of the group', "-now, so can't get rid of her. Suki's boss, Yue is nice to everyone and somehow it works for her. So, I guess it's going to have to be Saoirse."

"If someone hears you talking like that, they may think you're serious!" Aiga chastised.

"You hate bathing," Katara also added, "Fine layer of dirt and all?"

"I dislike it due to the principal of it all!" Toph said, which Katara took to mean she was just looking for things to complain about.

"Oh, two of you!" A handmaid that Katara had seen around before - she thought maybe she was Anaselma's - was at the door. "Lady Ursa will see you now. Please, follow me."

The girl nodded to Aiga in the way that two people who were on the same level of importance did, acknowledging the other. Aiga followed respectfully behind. Toph's handmaid was nowhere to be found, but that was hardly surprising. Katara wondered how long it would be until someone got wind of it and told Toph that even if she didn't need a minder, she did need a handmaid. Or, maybe there were just bigger fish to fry than a rebellious competitor.

"Lady Ursa is taking groups of six, but rotating them out," the handmaid explained. "Two by two. She alerts me when it's time to switch, but it seems most girls stay around an hour and a half."

Katara wasn't sure how far Ursa's cunningness went, but if this were Katara and she was thinking about these girls in a very political sense, this was a stroke of genius. She made it seem like the girls were special and loved, but at the same time she could chart how they responded to different girls. Nadhari, for example, was probably pleasant around Mai but couldn't help being nasty to other girls, which she hoped Ursa would see.

The handmaids didn't bring the girls into Ursa's private chambers, as Katara was sure many of the girls were expecting and hoping. None of them had ever actually seen inside the Royal Family's rooms that stood behind the two golden doors. Well, except Katara. She wasn't supposed to have, however, so she wasn't about to offer up what Zuko's room looked like, even if the satisfaction of watching Mai's or Nadhari's face at the news was tantalizing.

Instead, they were brought to some of the many, many fancy rooms of the palace, near where the grand balls were held. When they'd met General Iroh for tea, the room had been a little stiff feeling. She never thought of Iroh as a staunch type of person, but he was a general and the brother of the Fire Lord, talking to a group of young girls, so the slight barrier had felt reasonable. Ursa's tea room was small and comfortable and seemed like something a mother would share with her daughter. It gave the idea that this wasn't Ursa the Mother of Zuko talking with the girls, but Ursa, A Fellow Female.

As they were being shuffled in, Maiha and Jin were being escorted out. They nodded in a friendly way to Katara and Toph, but both were holding onto a sheet of paper and seemed deeply engulfed in whatever it said. This did make Katara wonder where they'd gotten it and what it said.

"You're either very lucky or very unlucky," Anaslema's handmaid prefaced before they entered, as a couple other handmaids came around to clear the previous two girl's places and set fresh tea cups. "For you're the last two. Which means you'll leave with the two that came before you and get less time with Lady Ursa, or you'll get to talk to her alone."

She bowed, slipping inside to speak to Ursa for a moment.

Aiga had become adept at reading Katara's expressions.

"You were probably difficult to find. I do not think it was on purpose," she said, but Katara could never be sure of anything anymore.

"It's no matter to m.," Toph almost wiped the gloss Aiga had convinced her into wearing off, but Aiga grabbed her arm at the last second. "But I do have other things to do today…"

"Like what?" Katara snorted.

"Well," Toph's grin was feral, "Sparky asked me to meet him. Dunno what about...but that's sure interesting, eh?"

Although it did pique Katara's interested what business Zuko had with Toph, she also knew that Zuko saw Toph as nothing more than a sister, so she didn't linger on it, as Toph clearly half-hoped she would. She knew Toph well enough to say that Toph was the sort of person who liked setting fires, sitting back, and watching the world burn. Usually, it wasn't done out of malice, but Toph also wasn't being super careful to not hurt feelings. So, Katara was not going to react.

Instead, she shrugged.

"Have fun I guess?"

Toph almost pouted, but realized Katara wasn't going to play. "If I said that to any other girl, they'd be begging me to tell why and offering their firstborn child or something to change places."

As the door re-opened and Katara caught a glimpse of the other girls sitting around the table, she snickered. "Well, Avizeh is here, so don't let her hear. Or, next thing you know, there will be five witnesses coming forward saying that they heard Prince Zuko announce his undying love for you, two articles in the news, and one ring maker on hold to make the royal engagement ring."

"There might also be a rumor you're pregnant," Aiga added in.

Toph tilted her head. "Maybe I should. Some chaos is always fun."

Before Katara could argue, Ursa was waving them inside.

Both girls bowed before Ursa.

"Princess Katara, Lady Bei Fong, please take a seat," she said. Katara took a set at a rich red cushion, sinking blissfully into the feathers. Toph hadn't moved.

"Aren't you going to help me, or ask handmaid to, Lady Ursa?" Toph asked in a small and helpless voice.

"Lady Bei Fong," Ursa sipped her tea with a sparkle in her eyes, "We both you know are more than capable of finding the place yourself. Your tricks that my brother-in-law finds so hilarious will not slip past me here."

There was a scattering of giggles from the remaining girls. Toph seemed stunned for a moment, a look rarely worn on her face, before she nodded twice.

"Yep, you're just like Sparky," she said, doing away with any sort of formalness and plinking down next to Katara.

The others at the table, besides Avizeh, were On Ji, Besu, and Ty Lee. Katara was sure her sigh of relief to not be seated with Nadhari or Mai was very visible, but she was too relieved to care.

Besu and Toph did a funny movement in which they knocked their fists together in greeting, and Ursa seemed enchanted by it.

"Please, help yourself to the snacks. Attendants will be coming around with my favorite teas, if you so wish to try them," Ursa said.

"No need to tell me twice to eat," Toph said, fingers wiggling as she filled up her plate like this was dinner instead of a mere tea meeting. Katara took some cookies and some spicy looking meat on a stick, finding the spread of food in front of her unusual, but welcome.

"All my favorite snacks as well. I could have gone more traditional, with dainty finger cakes or fruit, but I want to feel comfortable, just as I wish you all to do too," Ursa said. Katara's fingers jerked back to her. She had not expected Ursa to be so perceptive.

Ursa met Katara's eyes with a knowing look, something near a smile, and suddenly Katara was burning to ask her a thousand questions. She hadn't had an opinion, much like Toph, whether they were going to be alone with her or not, but Katara found herself so hoping that she'd even get a moment alone.

"We were just talking with Ursa about her Royal Wedding," On Ji interjected in a dreamy voice. Katara tried not to let her lips pucker. They had Ursa right in front of them, who seemed very willing to answer anything, and they were asking about trivial things like what colors she used in her wedding?

Katara paused before saying something unkind.

These girls had just survived a battle that left people dead. This was more action than they thought they'd ever see here. They were forced out of their rooms, had lost important items and their clothes alike, and were still around. So, for an average girl like On Ji, was it really so bad to talk about things like this? Normal things? Lighthearted, un-scary things?

Katara, and even Toph, decided not. Katara let herself sink into the conversation. She tried to summon the way she talked with the girls back at the start of the competition, but she'd found friends in Toph and Suki quickly, and had mostly talked them. She tried to think back to even the girls on the tundra, but Katara hadn't had many female friends.

So, instead of trying to be someone she wasn't, Katara decided she wouldn't make an overly large effort to join in, but merely listened and sipped on mango-lemon green tea.

"As I was saying, I only had two ladies standing up with me for my vows," Ursa said.

"Can you only have two?" Avizeh sounded a little frazzled. While Katara wasn't up to snuff on Fire Nation wedding customs, she imagined that they were talking about something like a witness or someone to sign a document, like they did in her tribe...or had, when they still had paper.

"Girls and boys often stand by one pair of the intended when they wed, as a symbol that the bride and groom respect what they've done for them to get to that point," Ursa cut in for Katara. "You know, I can't say I know many Southern Water Tribe customs regarding matrimony."

Katara realized that the gaze had turned to her. She was about to decline, until she saw that Ty Lee and On Ji looked actually interested.

"Well, it's not much. It usually begins by the male giving gifts to the female. Then, to prove his worth, he will usually help the bride's father for about a year, doing various things from joining in hunts to building a shelter for himself and his future wife. Then, sometimes couple will just go off and that will be it. I wish that it could be as romantic as this all is, but when you're nearly starving, having lavish ceremony to an event sometimes is unneeded. You make a pact with another person to love them and to care for them and that's how it is. But-" She realized how small and unofficial this all felt. "If someone really wanted to prove to the tribe that they were taking under a true vow of love, there's a small ceremony. We have witnesses for the sides stand up, and the wife will weave a blanket for the pair. A part of that blanket will be wrapped and tied around the couple's hands, to signify an unbreakable bond. To cheat or leave a union after this would be…" Katara shook her head. Luckily, the group seemed to gather the meaning.

Ursa looked thoughtful. She wondered if she was going to tell this information to Zuko, or if she actually was genuinely curious? Maybe both?

"Thank you, Katara. You never have to share if you feel uncomfortable," Ursa reminded, "But to answer your question, no, Lady Avizeh. I only wanted my childhood best friend and my other closest friend that I had made during the competition. I didn't need any more support than that."

"I have so many friends, I don't know who I'd choose," Avizeh whispered in a quiet laugh.

"Some do have many. Nia, may she rest in peace, had twelve girls," she said. Some girls looked confused, but Katara took a guess that it might be Zuko's aunt. The name sounded familiar too, she was nearly sure of it.

"I want a big wedding." On Ji gave a star-eyed smile, setting her elbows on her folded legs. "Can't you imagine?"

"I'd like it to be a big deal too," Besu added with a small smile, and Katara jumped, having rarely heard her talk. "I just...I dunno. Like the idea that so many people would be happy to see it, to be there."

"If my son picks you, your wildest dreams could come true," Ursa said. "No expense will be spared."

"If I get married, I like how Katara's people to it. No fuss, no drama. If you love someone, why do you need all that anyway?"

Ursa laughed. "I'm somewhat inclined to agree. However, it's more for everyone else than it is for you. I think I loved Ozai enough I would have married him in servant's clothes in the desert, if we needed to."

Now this was interesting. That Ursa had even once loved Ozai. She wasn't sure about currently, but even to have once loved that man...now Katara had more questions than ever.

Ty Lee gave a quiet coo, a small 'aww'. Katara had never thought to ask Ty Lee, who saw their domestic life more than Katara did. Maybe she'd have to later.

"What about you, Katara? What sorts of things do you want at your wedding?" Ty Lee said, turning, smiling as she encouraged Katara to add in.

"Uhm," Katara frowned. She'd never really romanticized a possible wedding. "I guess...well, I don't need to do it the whole way my tribe does. I like the betrothal necklace, but that's more something in the North. I guess I'd just really want my family to be there."

"A very sweet thought." Ursa nodded at her.

"I've heard that in some places, like the Earth Kingdom, the father gives the bride away. I guess I really look up to my dad, and I like that. I'd want to know that he approves of the marriage." Katara looked at her hands, saying much more than she had ever intended to.

"I can't imagine your father would ever disapprove. You have a good head on your shoulders, Katara. I can't imagine you would ever pick a future spouse lightly."

Did Ursa know that she'd turned Zuko down? All of a sudden, Katara wasn't sure that she didn't. That she might even...respect Katara's choice to say no? Or, Katara was just reading into it. Damn it, Katara truly couldn't tell.

"Lady Ursa." On Ji suddenly looked very red in the face. "Can I ask...a well, more personal question?"

"My dear, I would never want you to feel uncomfortable to ask me anything."

"I've just heard…" On Ji frowned, swallowing. "It was a myth of sorts in my town. We weren't as big a part of the Fire Nation as other cities, but...well...no, never mind," she squeaked, covering her face, her skin as red as the cushion Katara sat on.

Toph coughed into her tea, trying to hide a laugh. Whatever On Ji was about to ask was apparently setting off Toph's sensors on something.

"Oh," Avizeh realized and grimace, looking at her tea though it displeased her. "I think I know the rumor. On Ji wants to know, and I guess I do too...I hear that on the night of the wedding, there's uh, people watching to be sure the union is...consummated."

Toph burst out laughing, covering it up by shoving more chicken in her mouth.

Katara recoiled back. People watching while you had sex? Spirits, and they called the South archaic!

Ty Lee played with her braided hair, her cheeks a little pink as well, and Besu's eyes just widened to nearly comical lengths.

Usra gave a heavy sigh. She set down her tea, something she hadn't done with such ceremony since Katara had arrived, which told her that this was a slightly tense question.

"In short, yes. Spirits knows I've been trying to convince Ozai to abolish that darn rule since he took the throne, but the Fire Nation prides itself on tradition, if you cannot tell."

"Oh, gosh." On Ji looked terrified. Katara wondered if she'd ever even kissed a boy? It did seem awful for someone's first time, which Katara was sure was many of the girls' experiences, to be viewed and charted.

"They attempt to make it less awkward, but nothing much can change it, if you really think about it," Ursa said, patting her hand across the table. "They just want to be assured that the event of an heir will come as soon as possible. The Fire Nation has had two or three examples in which a Fire Lord has died without a son or daughter and it has not been pretty. So, the Fire Sages are overly nervous, and did this to combat that, or at least to give it the best chance. They have very heavy curtains up and the lights are very dim. After, the next morning, they check for blood. The maidenhead."

"Not every woman bleeds her first time," Katara couldn't help but blurt out. She didn't dare ask what if a woman wasn't a virgin, because she wasn't sure she'd like the answer.

The girls were looking at her with mild surprise, and Avizehs' eyebrows were raised in a 'oh, you know from experience?' sort of way. Which, no, she didn't...at least, not that sort of experience. She had just helped deliver enough babies that Katara knew the whole process, from sex to baby.

"Very true," Ursa said, "which is why they require to see the act. And a handmaid checks. To be honest, most are loyal enough to their ladies that they'd say there was blood even if there was none, just because it can be hard to convince old Fire Sages of such things, as if-" Ursa paused, biting her lip. "Excuse me, I didn't mean to speak badly."

"If they've ever been a woman, you were about to say, right?" Toph guessed. Ursa did not confirm it, but her gaze did turn to Toph, which Katara took as a 'yes'. However, she continued talking.

"You can pick who you want in there, if that helps. Three people. One Fire Sage, one male representative, and one female. Non-handmaids, royalty."

"A little," Besu agreed that it was a benefit, settling back. It seemed like most the girls were circling through who they'd ask, or who they'd want.

Katara couldn't help but wonder. Frankly, she didn't want anyone hearing or seeing the union, but...well, not her brother. Ugg, gross. Not Aang, since she thinks this might horrify him. But Zuko would theoretically pick the male. Who would he pick? Maybe Lu Ten? At least she knew that Lu Ten would be respectful about it, and he wouldn't derive any pleasure from it. So, on her end, females...well, maybe Toph or Suki or Eva, all people who she felt close with. Maybe not Toph. Toph may spend the night critiquing Zuko's form or something.

"I didn't want to end on that note, but perhaps it's best you all know. Feel free to pass this along. Now, as for your two assignments." She nodded to On Ji and Avizeh and they joined Ursa in a small side-chamber.

"She'll explain in a moment," Ty Lee said, smiling at the pair. "How are your rooms? Definitely different, huh?"

"You're probably used to it, though," Besu said, "Being a noblewoman and all."

"Not like this. Not something just for me," Ty Lee admitted.

"It's, uh, different. Scattered," Katara said. "Like, scattered around. Not like before. And on the second floor."

"Such astute observations," Toph drawled.

By this time, Ursa had returned.

She bowed goodbye to the two girls, and they both had a paper too.

"For Toph and Princess Katara, as you're both wondering what is happening, the purpose of this meeting is twofold. One, to get to know you all a little better. But today, I am also facilitating an outreach program, to assure the people of the capitol that not only are we strong after the attack, but we are there for them. Being a mother to the nation is a very important part of being the Fire Lady. It's not just dresses and makeup, of course. So, to lead you into this role, I set up different programs to be happening today and I am placing each girl where I feel they would be most useful."

"Clever," Toph breathed under her breath. "I'm sure the papers will love that."

"Perhaps." Ursa stirred some honey into her tea. "But the people we're helping will love it more." In that moment, Katara sort of loved Ursa. Even if she'd grown used to underhanded ways, at her core, she was just a good person.

After the pair left, it was just four. They continued to talk about trivial, fun things. Besu took reign of the conversation, maybe feeling a bit more at ease, and asked about any mistakes Ursa had made as a young Fire Lord's wife. It was a fair question, and Ursa regaled them with tales of her missteps and things she learned the hard way. She was a good storyteller, and funny too. Katara would have never guessed that without this meeting. She had all the girls nearly snorting up their tea in laughter as she talked.

"-And then, I was so nervous to go to my first ball after Ozai picked me. All my formal training, all that etiquette that my parents had taught me and that I had learned here went right out the window. I remember that I had opted to wear gloves, since my hands were sweaty and I didn't want the people I shook hands with to know. But, he'd commissioned me this gorgeous ring when he proposed, that I couldn't not wear it to show off. As I was waving when we walked in, as everyone was bowing, I suppose I waved my hand a little too violently and the ring came sailing off and hit one of the dignitaries square in the forehead. He said he was honored to be hit by it, but spirits, I was so sure that that was it. I'd be out of here that night." She laughed, shaking her head. "I suppose it goes to show as put together as you think I am, every young wife starts out nervous and unsure. It's something you grow into to."

After that, she collected Ty Lee and Besu. Since she did not grab Toph or Katara, Katara wondered if that meant they were on the lucky side. Neither of the girls leaving seemed upset to see the pair alone with Ursa.

When she returned, she poured herself another tea.

"I won't keep either of you long. It would be terribly unfair, and I don't want to upset the other girls. But, I admit, it would be equally unfair for you both to not get the full time. Still, I know you're antsy to get out of here, Toph, so I might just give you your assignment now."

"Please, respectfully," Toph grumbled. "Look, I love tea as much as the next...well, I love tea more than the average lady. But all this wedding talk makes me gag a little."

"Fair. It's not everyone's cup of oolong. You will be going down to the servants housing structures. There's still a fair bit of rubble there from the attack, and I figured no one would be better for clearing rocks quickly."

"Sounds fun. I'm on it, Mama Sparky." She winced, realizing how informally she'd called her. Ursa just patted her shoulder.

"I'm honored to have a nickname, though I request you use it in small company with me only," she assured kindly.

Toph all but ran out.

This just left Katara and Ursa.

"Any questions before I send you off too, m'dear?"

Katara hesitated. Yes, she had a million questions. So many. In the end, two seemed to cover almost all of her worries.

"Did you ever love Fire Lord Ozai? Did you know when you married him that he'd be...this?"

Ursa didn't seem shocked or offended. She nodded, thinking. This question led to so many of Katara's others. Was evilness learned or bred? Would Zuko be like this one day? Could Ozai be redeemed? Could you see it and stop it before it bloomed? Was this love, whatever it was, doomed to repeat itself?

"May I first begin by stating that Zuko is not his father. I have made sure of that," Ursa said, her forehead crinkling. "But even at birth, he was different. But for the actual questions? Oh, my dear child, I did love Ozai."

She motioned for Katara to sit back down, indicating this might be a story. Katara settled herself, nibbling on a slice of flatbread with herbs and cheese and fireflakes.

"I was always going to be in a Choice, what with the fact I was Roku's granddaughter. They'd had their eyes on me since I was born, the Fire Sages. I just happened to be too young for it to be acceptable when Iroh went through his, though I think I could have loved Iroh. He is kind too, as you already know. I did not want to come. I had a boyfriend in my hometown that I thought was my forever. My parents would never dishonor a direct request from the capitol, so I went. I didn't try to win. I knew my old flame would wait if I wanted him to. But Ozai, as a young man, not much older than Zuko? He was...enchanting. He was suave, clever, intelligent, and handsome. When he said he loved you, even if it was all a lie, you felt like he did. I perhaps foolishly thought he held some tender emotions towards me. Maybe he did, but it's so hard to see that today. But if I think back to when we were all in the competition, and when we were first married, I thought it would all be alright. He dazzled me with gifts, called me sweet names, wrote me letters...he can be romantic if he so wishes. Once it began clear he intended to choose me - though I'll never know how much his father was encouraging this - I knew I had few choices. I wasn't going to go back to my hometown, to my boyfriend. I was going to marry Ozai and bear his children. So…" Ursa drew in a near shaky breath. "I worked with what I had. I picked myself up from that sadness and decided that I was not going to be unhappy in this life. That would feel like they won, you see, if I was morose about it. I looked at what the spirits were handing me and I did everything in my power to make it into a life I woke up to that I was happy with. You understand, Katara? I don't know if my love for him was all a lie too, or if I convinced myself into it, or anything. All I know is that I wasn't going to wish for things that weren't there. And I have found happiness. My children. I love them more than my own life. I would do anything for them," she said sternly, in a terrifying sort of tone that Katara knew she meant it with absolution. Katara nodded in agreement, getting her words.

"As to the second part? I saw it. I was more observant than most, or more in tune with reality. He had a temper. He would get upset over small things. He could be unbelievably cold and cruel, especially to handmaids or guards that displeased him. He spoke of ambitions that were...terrifying. And still a part of me thought that maybe if he was shown love, a love his mother - who was cold and detached - and father - who saw his sons more as chips on a board than children - never gave, I could have fixed him. I suppose I was naive. I suppose I should have known. His older brother would have given all the love in the world, but that still hadn't done anything. For years I labored under that thought, until there was something else worth working toward. Now...well, can someone really be forgiven for doing atrocious things? I doubt I'm in the position to be making such calls, but I wouldn't have the answer anyway."

"I'm sorry." Katara's voice was raw, despite having spoken very little.

"I didn't have to answer. I wanted to," Ursa assured. "These are most things you could have figured out yourself, in due time. I'm not going to paint Ozai as a better human being than he is. He has brought the Fire Nation much celebration, made us strong. At what cost?" Ursa shook her head. "Do you have any more questions?"

Katara locked her jaw, firmly shaking her head. She felt a little ill, a little faint. She'd already dug so personally into Ursa's life that she couldn't imagine wanting more out of her.

"In that case, I will just tell you where you'll be going." Ursa stood, motioning toward the door.

"Don't I get a paper?" Katara asked, frowning.

"Some jobs need more instructions than others. This one is more feelings-based, you see. More instinctual." Ursa motioned for the handmaids to start cleaning. "Some of the girls are talking to those affected by the attack, asking what we can do to help. Guards and maids whose houses were destroyed or family slain, dignitaries that were injured, delivery people who got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, healers who worked double to make sure those who could be saved were. A lot have family they couldn't just leave alone, so I've set up a daycare in the gardens. While we have some workers watching, it always goes a long way for others - more important members - to come by. If you wouldn't mind, I'm sure the children there would be happy to have you."

"Of course, Lady Ursa," Katara bowed. She wasn't upset to be placed with children. She missed how many there once was in the tribe, or from the stories she heard of her grandmother, back when things were a little better. She knew she was good with children too.

"It is located in the gardens in which we had the small fair of the dignitaries. Do you need an escort?"

"I think I can find it again. And, thank you. That was...enlightening." Katara struggled to show her gratitude about how open she'd been.

"You deserve only truths, Princess Katara."

xxXXxxXXxx

Katara did manage to find the gardens easily enough. She heard the laughter long before she saw it, which was a good sign.

When she came under the awnings, she saw a sea of small heads running around in the grass. Compared to their parents or guardians, and what they were doing here, they seemed extremely care-free. Some had balloons, others were painting with watered-down ink, and most were playing games with only their imagination. She spotted Shoji with a couple other guards, and figured Aang was in the fray (or, worse, he was with Zhao somewhere). Shoji was doing more playing than helping to guard. Small kids, six and younger, were grabbing onto the long handle of a spear, and Shoji and his guard partner were lifting it up, holding it horizontal, and letting them dangle before they fell back onto the ground in a fit of giggles.

She caught a familiar set of robes near the back and paused completely. Zuko sat with a group of small kids around him, grinning and making animals out of the flames on his fingers. From the way that the kids' fingers waved in the air, despite being unable to hear him, she guessed they were calling out animals to do, for they'd all quiet and Zuko would make another ethereal flame creature, leaping from his fingers before sizzling on the ground, leaving behind only embers and slightly blackened fire.

He looked like he was having fun too. He looked relaxed. There was no one here to monitor his actions other than the guards, who had their own hands busy, so he was himself.

At one point, a small toddler tripped over his own feet and fell face first into the grass next to Zuko. Zuko paused his magic tricks immediately, kneeling down to pick the boy up. He set the boy on his leg as he sat back down and made a ferocious tiger right near the boy's face. The toddler's wails stopped as he watched, enchanted.

Even after the boy had stopped wailing, Zuko continued to let him sit there. He seemed so small, in comparison to Zuko. Yet, there was a care to the way that Zuko handled him, a gentle hand on his back, a quiet muss of his hair here and there, a watchful eye in case something happened.

Katara's first thought, though she realized only later his practice might have been from being an older brother to Azula, was that one day he'd make a good father.

Her next thought was a confusing one. As much as it hurt to imagine Zuko marrying someone else, it was a hurt she could withstand. The idea that Zuko would be a father one day to someone else's children? That was almost unbearable to Katara, though she didn't know why.

Third was that it was weird to think of Zuko having children, though by their ages and expectations, it wasn't too strange at all. There were many boys in her tribe that Katara thought were not ready for parenthood in the near future, one of which being her brother, but she admitted to herself that Zuko could probably step into that role tomorrow and be brilliant at it.

And a part of Katara hated how cliché it was, how much of a typical girl this probably made her but...seeing Zuko with a child, imagining all of that, it did things to her.

"Request a royal picture. It will last longer."

Katara nearly jumped out of her skin, as she turned to see Hahn carrying a large piece of wood, his beady eyes watching where Katara was hovering. Katara wondered how long she'd been standing here like an idiot.

"Sod off," Katara snapped, shuddering.

"Yeah, c'mon, this thing is getting heavy." Arrluck complained from the other side. Yue came from around the corner, reading a list of things, nearly colliding.

"Come on, let's keep going. Oh, Katara!" she waved. "Did you get assigned? We're helping to build a new temple area, since some of the smaller gods' offering sites got destroyed in the attack," she said, motioning to the log.

"I'm, uh-"

"She's watching the prince and thinking about making one of those herself." Hahn's voice was utterly creepy. Katara stiffened, despite his observation being not too far off.

Yue struggled for a way to yell at him, horrified.

"Let me," Arrluck said, being more forward than Katara had ever seen him. He dropped his side of the log onto Yue's shoulders, grabbed her papers, and whacked Hahn over the head with them. "You're an ass. Let's keep moving," he said, re-taking his place.

Katara had stayed away from the North Water Tribe representatives, mostly because Hahn made her skin crawl and Arrluck always seemed mousy and quiet when he spoke. Hahn seemed to be the same. Arrluck? Was his newfound confidence because he was on his own and had grown out of his family's teachings, or was he always like this around other Water tribesmen?

Before she could think of it more, Shoji noticed her and waved to her. This caught Zuko's attention. Hahn might have started to make another comment, but Yue urged him forward, sending an apologetic look back in Katara's way.

Katara stepped onto the grass.

"Princess Katara!" one of the girls squealed, no more than ten. "I'm playing princess with my friends. Will you tell me what it's really like? Will you be our queen?"

Although Katara had wanted to say something to Zuko, she found it hard to resist the pleading faces and the crowns made from the weeds and wildflowers that grew in the area.

"Of course," she said, letting the girls take her hand and lead her away to their imaginary kingdoms.

Although Zuko didn't stay as long as Katara, likely could not, she caught him looking at her often, stealing glances that were soft but also willing and intoxicating. She had a feeling he was thinking similar things as she'd been thinking about him.

Katara wasn't ready to be a mother, she knew that much, no matter how adorable and pudgy-faced these kids were. In a not-so-distant future, with the right person? Katara put a pin in that thought.

She didn't actually get any chance to talk to Zuko before he had to bow out for other duties, but she felt like they'd gotten a chance, from how much she knew her mind was drifting to him. How good he was with these kids, how patient and thoughtful. No other ladies from the Choice came out here. Did Ursa know that Zuko would be here, or was it extreme luck?

Either way, Katara stayed until almost all of the children had been collected by parents, and only left once one of the older maids gathered the remaining children into her care, since it wouldn't be long now and it was nearly dinner.

They wouldn't be dining with the Royal Family tonight, but the girls around the table hardly seemed to care. It was very lighthearted, as they all talked over each other to share about their day assignments and what they ended up doing, or about what sort of things Ursa had revealed to them in the tea time. Katara couldn't remember a time that there was so much conversation buzzing around.

As they retreated back to their new rooms, Katara found a missive slipped under her door. She waited until her door was closed completely to read it.

It was simple. But Katara could glean a whole lot from it; probably because she was thinking and feeling the same. Uneven lettering; distracted - probably thinking of her. The nib making deep imprints in the page; frustration - sexual in nature, she had to bet. Short; saying what needed to be said in fear of putting too much out there, things that shouldn't be said on page.

Painted Lady tonight? If yes, return to me a slip of parchment with black ink on it only.

-Z

Grinning, Katara took out a scrap of parchment, smoothed her ink-stained fingers across it, folded it, and sent it off with one of the guards near the doors right away.

Chapter Text

She realized immediately after that there were more than a few problems with her plan.

First, Katara strode over to the balcony and threw open the doors. The night was just slipping into dawn, allowing Katara enough light to see how high up she truly was, and how few footholds there were to shimmy down. She also realized how turned around she was; she had no idea how to get to the kitchen passageways if she wanted to, let alone the kitchen itself.

She left the balcony door open as she slumped in one of the many chairs that now adorned her room, scowling and tapping her foot.

Two, she realized, did she even have her outfit? Most of her things were destroyed in the attacks, and worrying about a costume get-up wasn't high on her list of fears. She supposed she could scrounge together a black ensemble, like when she started, but Katara was used to the Painted Lady now. It was hers. She didn't want to slip backwards.

She yanked open the drawers of her make-up counter noisily. She was pleased to see a new assortment of cream paints; red, white, black...everything she'd needed for her face.

Well, one problem down.

She went into her closet next, turning in a circle. Aiga had begun to refill it, already flowering the racks with long and frilly dresses. She spotted her fisherman's hat on a high shelf and jumped for it. It was dusty and gritty, and the edges were singed, but it had survived. Katara felt a warm glee rise inside of her. It was stupid, but her first thought was that she was a fighter and her alter-ego and costume was an extension of her too, and therefore more durable than collapsing during a rogue hit.

The chiffon that flowed from under her hat seemed to have mostly survived, too. Once she took it out to her porch and gave it a few good whacks against the railing, the dust poofed off, leaving it presentable.

And finally...her dress.

She could manage in one of the plainclothes dresses that Aiga made sure she had a couple of. They were a little ordinary looking, but with the makeup, Katara could elevate them. She was fingering through her choices when a box in the bottom of the closet caught her eye.

She opened it and found a brand-new Painted Lady dress, perfect and pristine and white like fresh snow. It was made of a heavy-duty fabric, one that could withstand her jumping on buildings all night and still flow around her like a goddess.

Confirming a theory, Katara checked the hemlines. Uneven.

A grin bubbled in her chest, one she couldn't help but release with a breathless laugh.

At least half the battle, her outfit, was sorted.

Like an anxious child, Katara waited in her room until near nightfall, when Aiga came in to brush out her hair and help her wipe the makeup from her face. Katara spent her free time trying to get through one of the novels on her shelf, but with little success.

"Aiga," Katara asked once Aiga was settled into brushing out her hair. While Katara abhorred most of the handmaid's jobs, having someone run their fingers along your scalp was enjoyable, and therefore Katara allowed this. "You wouldn't know a thing about that dress, there, would you?" Katara pointed to where her Painted Lady dress was on display.

She could almost feel the smile Aiga was so desperately trying to hold back.

"I wouldn't," Aiga said, her voice vibrating with a sense of glee, "But, if I did, I would say that the people need heroes to look up to."

"Heroes, eh?" Katara raised an eyebrow at Aiga in the mirror.

"Good people. It's hard to conceptualize Royals being so, when they are so far away. Of course, they would not know that it's one in the same, however...people want something to believe in," Aiga explained softly.

"Have you heard things?" Katara didn't know how to phrase the question another way, but Aiga seemed to catch on.

"The Painted Lady has already gained quite a cult following, Princess. The Blue Spirit was appreciated, but there's a…oh, and don't take this the wrong way…mothering, that the Painted Lady possess that calms people. As though she's caring for the whole Capitol."

"I didn't," Katara assured. "A female giving literal sustenance is quite evocative. If this Painted Lady did want to, tonight, she may be concerned with how to, uh, find her away around with the new set up. Since, though a goddess, she cannot fly." Katara's head tilted toward their second-story accommodations.

"Well, I can't help the Painted Lady," Aiga said matter-of-factly, "But I can invite Princess Katara to join me in my room, because I believe I may have left her favorite hair oil there, and it's best to put it on right after the braids are taken out."

Katara hummed, pleased. She knew how to find the kitchens from Aiga's room.

Aiga had a drawstring sack that she carried around, usually to take Katara's laundry from her quarters at the end of the night, but on this moon she only took the dress, the wrappings, the hat, and the make-up there. It made a semi-funny shape, but Aiga carried it like it was a totally usual thing to be ferrying. There was a quiet confidence about her, one Katara hadn't noticed. The confidence to be invisible, if you will. Aiga could walk into any room pretending like she belonged there, and since she was the help, most would not take notice and if they did, she could spin her tale week enough to slip into any scene.

"This isn't a long-term solution," Katara stated.

"No," Aiga scoffed, already realizing this. "But tonight, it will do. It will do."

She realized the time was drawing near to meet Zuko, so Aiga helped her get dressed. She also acted as a look-out, allowing Katara to slip into the storerooms unseen.

At the threshold, Aiga hesitated.

"There's a house, near the fourth quad. I do not think so highly of myself to ask anything of you, Princess, but even if you may just look upon them, see they're doing okay, will you? It's a house that always has a candle for the Dragon Gods in the window. If it's out, it means...well, just can you?"

"Aiga, of course," Katara grasped her hands. "Is there something else you wish to tell me about this house?"

"Not right now, Princess." Aiga's smile was tight.

Katara was not going to push.

As Aiga exited, Katara heard the crinkle of her outfit as she bowed and the sound of the gate being shoved over the cobblestone floor. It meant Zuko had arrived.

Aiga clicked the door closed behind them.

"Katara, hi." Zuko waved, his voice muffled by his mask.

"Dork." Katara laughed, lifting it over his head. She leaned up, but Zuko stopped her.

"Will this smear makeup all over me?"

"You're in a mask," Katara whispered, "So who cares, anyway? If my face is smeared, well…" Well, Katara didn't care.

"Good point," Zuko growled, grasping her arm and tugging her against him. She squeaked as he spun her around, pushing her against one of the shelves.

He didn't give her time to stop him, not like Katara wanted to. He hungrily kissed her, pulling the mask up over his head, dropping it with a clatter on the flagstone. Katara sucked on his lower lip, causing him to grunt as he angled himself to be closer against her.

Yes, Katara's instincts about the short note had been correct. This was, she realized, the only short thing about it.

Having only one layer of clothes between his warm flesh and her hands gave Katara a very clear idea of the parts of Zuko she rarely got to feel or see, for usually it was covered under heavy traditional robes. Katara thanked Agni above for his black ensemble, deciding this was her second favorite outfit of his.

His first, and she was only guessing but had a feeling it would top, would be him with no clothes at all on.

There was a clunk from the kitchens, reminding them of where they were.

Zuko leapt back, snatching his mask from the ground. He rubbed his thumb over his lips, chuckling as it came back with red paint. Katara found a dingy mirror and saw the area around her mouth was now a pinkish hue, from the mixture of the red and the white.

Using a rag, she cleaned up the best she could, feeling acute embarrassment. Zuko, if he felt any, hid it well. He only looked pleased with himself.

"We do have a job tonight," he said, but sounded like it was the last thing he wanted to do. Well, not the last thing. Zuko was a gold-hearted boy at the end of it all, so she was sure helping villages was on his list. It just was not quite as high as what they'd been doing.

"We should, yes," Katara said. "Aiga asked us to go to a specific area." She explained best she could where the location was.

"Ah, we can hit that last," Zuko nodded. "Any idea why?"

"She didn't want to say."

There wasn't a reason not to go there, for Katara trusted Aiga, and all conversation ceased as they scurried up and over the tops of roofs.

Their usual route, over the garden pass of their previous rooms, was mostly destroyed. They had to do a route around it, and Katara could still see the devastation that had befallen the courtyard, the tops of the gilded awnings. She hadn't thought about her first room here, but it

was special to her, in a strange way.

In the South, they may need to re-set their house up every six months, with the weather. Therefore, Katara had never gotten too attached to one set up, one configuration. It was the people that mattered. To miss a room felt strange, felt foreign.

And still, Katara did.

"Aiga covered for me tonight." Katara was the first to talk, once they were on a part of the roof that was familiar again. "But she can't indefinitely."

"I agree." Zuko's voice was muffled, but she heard the frustration in his tone. "I had specifically asked for the suites to be elsewhere, but the attacks left much of the palace unsuitable."

"Toph is upset she's on a higher floor. No dirt."

Zuko snorted. "You know, she could cover the floor with soil and it might be an improvement."

"Tui, don't give her ideas."

"I'll need to assess what passageways are still in use. There are a few near your quarters, so if you can use them to get out the rooms at night, and get to a hinged door, we can figure it out that way. That means finding guards, aside from Shoji, who will be on our side." He went to rub his chin.

"Tahoe. That's Aiga's boyfriend, I believe." Katara snapped her fingers. Realizing her mistake at once, she covered her lips.

She swore that if Zuko could be rolling his eyes at her, he would be. "Aiga's one of us now. I think she can have a boyfriend. I'm not in the business of cutting fingers off for fraternizing between staff, in fact, all power to them. Also, It's rather obvious. You're not subtle."

"Oh. Right." Katara felt her face blush.

"It's my job, Katara," Zuko pointed out, helping her off the high walls that held the royal palace.

"What, to know when maids and guards are breaking stupid rules?"

"That, among other things," he agreed, though he was laughing. "In general, to have a sense of the Palace...and not just the diplomats, is essential...to know that Shei always will shove shrimp down his shirt for later at dinners or that Lady Mantress is sleeping with an ostrich-horse stable boy when her husband isn't looking, but that's okay, because he's sleeping with Lady Antons, and so on. And, the staff are people too- just like the visting guests, with their own torrid dramas."

"Aiga's in a torrid drama?"

"No, she's reasonable. I like her," Zuko said. "So, four houses?"

"Lead the way."

XXxxXX

The night, in all, was successful. The first two drops went off without a hitch. They were patrons of the palace that had given their last dollars for the reparations to the halls, giving more than the ladies and lords who had never-ending pockets. In between the second and third house, they caught and bagged for the local police a man attempting to steal from a little old lady. The third house was like the first two.

It was the fourth house that threw everything for a loop, or at the very least, changed the mood of the night.

"That it?" Zuko asked.

Katara checked the window. On the right, with a green curtain, was a candle. She was sure if she got closer, it would be the only golden item this family owned, and she'd be staring at the bust of the Dragon God from the window.

"Night's waning, let's be quick. It's still half an hour back, and that's if we don't stop for any more mangos."

"I was hungry, and it seemed wrong to take it from the food we're giving to others, when I can very well buy it from the vendor."

"You also made him think he saw a spirit, so."

"Okay, fine. No more mangos for me."

They skirted across the empty, darkened streets.

As Katara carefully arranged the basket on the porch, Zuko knocked on the door. Usually, they'd make themselves scarce, long gone by the time someone answered, but the figure who awakened caused Katara pause.

Zuko realizing Katara was not directly behind him, turned to see her staring wide-eyed on the stoop.

"Katara, come on!" he hissed. He darted forward, tugging her right behind a pile of wood near the door right as the door opened.

There was a coughing sound in the back of Zuko's throat when he saw it too.

There weren't many siblings born in the South. With such poor food and conditions, most families were lucky at this point to have one child. And, people had commented that Katara and Sokka resembled each other. However, it wasn't until Katara had come here and met Zuko and Azula that she truly understood family resemblance. The siblings looked startling alike, to the point that if their personalities were more similar, the only difference would be their gender.

And now, it was like Katara and Zuko were looking at Aiga, but as a man.

His entire face structure was the same, down to the doe eyes and flushed cheeks.

There was zero point in denying it; this man and Aiga were related.

As soon as he shut the door, Zuko was breaking one of their first rules: don't creep on the families.

Their faces were in the shadow of the window, watching with confusion and surprise as they spied a whole host of Aiga look-alikes in the room. Far too many people for the small house, Katara decided. Mother. Father. Grandmother. Siblings...baby cousins or, very young siblings.

Katara swallowed. She vaguely recalled that Aiga had been hired due to her poor status, but Katara forgot just how poor one could be, and she was from the South. Still, this was almost too much for words. The gauntness in their faces and how their fingers shook as they opened the food. Aiga had asked for a report.

They were starving.

Maybe, Katara considered, that the moment she had told Aiga her true intentions for being here, she'd made an ally. That this moment had cemented that Aiga would do anything for her, because she understood Katara.

They were often far more alike than Katara cared to think about.

But, on the other hand, there wasn't much Katara truly knew about her handmaid. She made a promise she'd change that.

Zuko was halfway between fuming and horrified when he finally tore himself away. When they were safe on a roof, high above the city, Zuko ripped his mask up.

"Why didn't she ever ask for help?" he questioned. He sounded shocked, guilty, and sad all at the same time.

"I think, this, was that." Katara said, bringing her knees in close. "But Zuko, you have to figure most of the staff's extended family is dying slowly. Why else chose to work at the palace?"

"But it's Aiga." Zuko's eyebrows knit. "She's not just a face, she's-"

"I know. But she'd probably dislike us for ever thinking so. She just got dealt a slightly better hand. Any of the girls could have been my handmaid."

"But it wouldn't have been anyone like her," Zuko said. "I can't do nothing, now that I know. It was a mini Aiga. Do you know how unnerving that is?"

"Yes, I was there. I saw it too."

"Right. Yes." He rubbed under his eyes. "I'll give them some assistance. That, along with other workers. Maybe I should…" Whatever Zuko's thoughts were, he mumbled them to himself. He was distracted all the way home, giving Katara a quick kiss before he was gone.

Katara didn't take it personally. He had more on his plate than anyone else here.

XXxxXX

"You seem tired, my Prince."

"Time never stops, especially not for Royalty." Zuko gave a kind smile to the server at the table the next morning, the one he had in his rooms, pouring over eight different maxims and proclamations at once.

"Permission to speak?"

"Granted," Zuko said absently, sipping his tea as he scribbled out a wording on one of the parchments, amending it to be less vague.

"I worry you're spreading yourself too thin. Like ink on a brush, too watered down across a page or over too many pages will just be illegible, and therefore useless."

Zuko glanced up, a smile twitching on his lips.

"Let me guess, you're usually my Uncle's server."

"He's just worried, my Prince."

Zuko leaned back, stifling a yawn. It wasn't just that he'd gone out last night with Katara, it was that he hadn't gotten a proper nap in...well, too long ago for Zuko to remember, which was probably not good. However, it wasn't as though the palace's problems would cease if he took eight hours to himself, and therefore sleep would just have to wait its turn.

"I appreciate the effort. You can tell General Iroh that the message has been received, but also tell him that if he would like to take over some of my work, I'd gladly take a nap."

Probably a lie. Even if he roped his Uncle or cousin into some of the many projects he'd taken on by choice or by his father's command, he'd use his free time just to focus on something else, or...if he could have the perfect moment, with Katara.

"I will be sure to do so." The server bowed. "More tea?"

"Yes. But, follow me. Bring the platter with us. If you're going to be my server today, you'll be on your feet. If I wasn't walking the length of the palace daily, twice daily even, I may be better rested." Zuko gathered a couple papers in his fingers, ordering them against his chest. These three had to be dropped off with the Fire Sages. This one Lu Ten had offered to proofread. This one he needed outside knowledge, and would spend some time in his library or call in an expert.

"Sir?"

"I would carry the teapot myself, but my hands are rather full. Are you following?" he asked, glancing behind to see the server following dutifully after him. He held out his emptied cup as they paused at the doors to the Family's quarters, nodding to the server as he filled the cup.

"Just, do this," Zuko held up the cup, "Until my hands are less tied up." As it was, one hand held the tea cup, the others held the papers. Or, they were shoved under his arms, as he started going through the maze of the palace, attempting to plan his day's journey.

And thus started Zuko's very busy day, or rather, an average day for him.

The closest location was the library, but he didn't intend to utilize it until last. He wanted to be able to devote as much time as needed to researching his topic, and it would be best to do that after the rest of the day's adventures were done. He did, however, stop by and find a Master, and asked him to pile up some books on economics as well as studies done in the last decade, so when he sat down to research it would be very easily found.

Next, he needed to drop some charters off with the Sages. He had his tea servant do so, since Zuko wasn't overly fond of the Sages, and he'd either get roped into a conversation about duty and honor or get nagged about taking so long with the Choice, topics Zuko didn't have time in the day to sit through. And, if he did have time, he wouldn't spend it trying not to set a Fire Sage aflame.

Lu Ten was not in the war office, but Zuko set the papers on his desk anyway. Azula was there, however, but she didn't seem to be going over some papers and schematics. A part of Zuko knew to be wary of her reasons, but he didn't have the time to mull on it. Instead, it was pinned to the back of his mind for a later thought.

He still had a stack of papers to distribute and people to talk to, but took a 'break', insofar as tracking down Toph Bei Fong. Although they'd set up a meeting, Zuko hardly expected she'd show up on time, which was true. Perhaps it should be said that Princes should not be chasing down contestants, but Toph was a rare breed of...of, well, anything. Zuko had almost thought 'woman', but Toph would probably take offense to that, just for the sake of taking offense.

Still, he allowed Toph a sense of freedom that reminded him that he put he and Toph in this weird power balance in the first place. Also, claiming that he was going to another meeting gave him an excuse to not talk with a governor or lord…even if he was unsure of where that meeting may be.

He found Toph in one of the topiary gardens. She was knee-deep in a mud crater the Equalists had left behind, looking perfectly happy. He was glad he'd instructed his waiter to go and make him lunch, or fetch it, for he was sure a proper servant would be horrified by Toph's behavior. Zuko was merely used to it. When he didn't think too much about it, it was almost funny.

"You're a hard person to track down."

"Not really." Toph was bending the mud ever so slightly, just enough to mimic a ripple in a pond. "There are only so many green spaces in the palace. Also, now that all the servants keep an annoyingly close eye on any hall that has an item of value, outside is more exciting."

"Right. So." Zuko decided Toph would appreciate it more if he got straight to the point. "The Equalists had multiple passageways to get in. While I think I know most, having grown up bored and lonely in my younger years, there are probably passages that I haven't even come close to stumbling upon. At the moment, they're a liability, as anyone who knew about them could sneak in at any moment."

"I have a guess where this is headed."

"If you were to guess that I want you to find any passageways a person could fit through in the palace, you'd be correct," Zuko said, crossing his arms.

"Seems like a lot of effort."

"Well, one, I can just command it of you," Zuko pointed out with a dry tinge. "But c'mon, to say this doesn't tempt you? To have unlimited access to hidey-holes all over? To poke your nose in places you otherwise would never be?"

"You drive a hard bargain, Sparky," Toph said, considering. "And, after I find these passages…?"

"The ones that pose a danger, such as ones that lead outside, we seal off. Some passages are there to make the servant's lives easier, I wouldn't want to get rid of those-"

"And some lead right up to your bedroom, and Agni forbid Katara couldn't sneak in," Toph snickered. Instead of denying it, though his face was flushed, Zuko coughed.

"Well, yes, that too. And, I want a map of it. So, I have a list, you see. In case this happens again, we know where to check."

"Yeah," Toph got out of the mud pit, not bothering to wipe her legs off, "That seems like a no-go for me."

"Well, take someone with you."

Toph bit the inside of her cheek. "Sokka has a lot of free time-"

"And his maps would probably resemble a blob of ink over anything substantial." Zuko has seen Sokka's efforts with an ink and brush. Much to be desired. "Someone else. Someone we trust. Someone with art skills."

"Oh, yeah, well, I have a huge list to pick from, so let me just go down it." Toph snorted.

"Fine, I'll find you someone. I'll just do it all, why not," Zuko bit out, not the first time he'd started to lose his temper around Toph. Toph, either oblivious or uncaring, patted his cheek as she left.

"You're a gem, Flinty."

Zuko hardly had time to stew about the frustrating meeting with Toph (though, he knew she'd do as he asked and do it well) because he was whisked away to his office for a lunch and meeting combo. Thankfully, it was only Ru, which relaxed Zuko.

To say it was only Ru was maybe rude. He was thankful it was a friend and not a dignitary, and Ru always brought a bottle of whatever was popular in the rings. He didn't spend nearly enough time with his reporter friend outside of business, a constant irritation whenever he did end up seeing him, but one that was hard to avoid.

"All I want is for you to keep an ear to the ground," Zuko asked of him in between eating their noodle soup and partaking in a bubbly drink Ru had brought to share between them.

"I always do, Prince Zuko." Ru shrugged.

"Yes, but," Zuko struggled, "I feel now it is more important than ever to chart reactions and rumors. Nothing should be taken lightly."

"If I hear anything I think is troublesome, you'll be the first to know, before any headlines," Ru promised. "In general right now, people are shaken after the attack. Concerned, of course. The palace is putting on a good show, which eases the public. You'd better hope another attack isn't on the heels, because I worry that a public panic is just this close to exploding out." Ru held his fingers together. "And, nothing is worse than a million worried, frantic people who have abandoned good reason."

"Noted, though if it were anyone's choice, the Equalists would be already gone from my mind." Zuko rubbed his temples.

They didn't have the luxury of a long break, as soon enough Zuko was back to check up on some papers he'd dropped off yesterday or two days ago or a week ago. He spent a good part of his afternoon going in with red ink and making changes to charters and bills, before sending them back to the desks of the men associated with their plight.

In between a few other tasks, Zuko figured out who to send with Toph into the tunnels. His first instinct had been Aang, since the boy had spent his younger years at the Air Temple doodling on sheets, and his formative years here in calligraphy training. This idea was quickly nixed because he was just too busy. It did, however, remind him of another high-trained person at their disposal...Ty Lee. She had as much training in the arts as Aang, plus she would be invaluable for squeezing into small areas with Toph. Besides that, Zuko was not blind. He had noticed her adrift of late. She was, for better or worse, in this crazy mess with them. It would do her good to have a reason to bond with a member of their group.

He took a moment to send a missive to Ty Lee. She could reconvene with Toph on her own. Zuko, despite his quip, was not going to do everything. That would defeat the purpose of deferring this to Toph.

Closer to dinner, it was announced that an invitee of Zuko's had arrived, and was waiting for him in his personal antechamber. Zuko had a fairly good idea of who it would be, since he invited few people to the palace directly that would be as confident as to wait there instead of the very
nice waiting accommodations.

"Admiral Jeong-Jeong, sir," Zuko said, bowing back as the older man gave Zuko a respectful, but stiff, bow. "Tea?" he asked, motioning for the servant - he had learned throughout the day his name was Atsushi - to come forward. He'd been able to keep up with Zuko all day. If Zuko liked his uncle less, he might be inclined to steal Atsushi as his own liege.

"If you are offering." Jeong-Jeong watched him carefully. His hands were covered in scars, just like his face. This man had seen things. As soon as his tea was in his hands, before Zuko could say anything else, Jeong-Jeong was interrupting. "I have come to decline your very illustrious offer, My Prince."

Zuko frowned, totally unprepared for this.

He took one inhale. Regroup, he told himself. Re-think and regroup before speaking.

"You came all the ways to tell me no?" Zuko asked, feeling an itch in the back of his mind. "Surely a letter would have sufficed."

Jeong-Jeong gave another tiny bow. "I live to serve the Fire Lord dutifully."

Nothing in his voice indicated anything but truth. No sarcasm, no biting tone, not even a hint of bitterness.

Zuko, however, had spent years perfecting his speech around his father so that he would not find himself in trouble for a reply with an edge. He had just learned to express his true colors with other parts of his body: his gaze, his clenched fists, his smile, his posture...this is what tipped him off when he saw the telltale signs of Jeong-Jeong doing the same thing.

He examined the weathered man before speaking again. He, like a detective, took stock of what the man had with him. A large duffle bag, much bigger than the usual military standard. There was a bed-roll on top of it. His shoes were filled with muck and grime that he surely hadn't just picked up from town. He spied Jeong-Jeong's military badges in a bag, not on his person. Finally, Zuko searched his eyes. The answer became obvious after a second of contemplation.

He asked Atsushi to step out of the room, for the next words he spoke of were treasonous.

"This is just a stop along the way, a stop in a plan set into motion long before I summoned you. You're deserting."

Jeong-Jeong held his face incredibly well, but Zuko saw the surprise of being figured out in the way he held his palms against the teacup.

"I'd imagine you are because you hate my father and his way of commanding the military. You probably hate yourself too, for what it's made you do. I know the name you've acquired, it's not a nice one. You're a terror, the most brutal out there...well, before your prodigy Zhao came along. I imagine you heard what he's been tasked with currently and that was the last straw," Zuko surmised swiftly, standing between Jeong-Jeong and the door. "You don't have to confirm it. I see it now. I am disappointed, Admiral, that you did not see the same in me? Your eyes gave you away. They are the same ones that look back at me every time I look in a mirror, can't you see?"

Jeong-Jeong's fingers rubbed over the chair back, the smooth wood, as he stood firm. "Will you have me killed, my Lord?" His voice now had a dark edge to it.

"I want to offer you the opposite. Live, and help me. Be loyal to me, not my father," Zuko said. "But, if you cannot bear to live with the person you are now, I will not stand in your way. You're free to throw yourself into the wind and never return."

"What drives you, Prince?"

"I'm sorry?" Zuko frowned.

"What drives you as a leader?"

The answer took little thought. "The people. My people, as well as the people of the Four Nations not within my command." He thought of Katara. "Not to conquer them, but to make a world of compromise. Honor. Safety. Family, blood related and not. Truth."

"Even if the answers are damning, the answers to this truth you so promise to uphold?"

"Especially if they are," Zuko said.

Jeong-Jeong gave a small smile. Well, it was more a smirk, but it was a movement. "I will follow you, Prince Zuko, because I can see that you and your father are driven by two very different ends. However, the moment I see you sink a foot into power, greed, and hysteria, I will protect the most important thing to me - the good of the people - and will not hesitate to kill you. And then, before anyone can find me, I will be gone."

Zuko swallowed hard, not for fear of slipping up, but having one's life threatened was always a little alarming. Still, after a second to contemplate, he replied, "I would wish nothing less."

Chapter Text

Katara was often told she did not know how to let a matter drop. She considered this, as she went in search of Tahoe.

Aiga had been less than forthcoming about the house and the people that looked startlingly like her. Katara had realized she really knew very little of substance about Aiga's family, about her life.

"You can always tell me," Katara had asked. Aiga had just continued to set out her clothes for the next morning.

"Not today, Princess. Please."

So, Katara had stopped asking...her, at least.

Tahoe was on rotation near the Royal Solar, or as Katara had learned from Zhi that this just meant a big fancy private room, which Ursa was in currently. She was happy to find him at his post alone, though another guard sat not too far away.

"Tahoe, may I ask you something about Aiga?"

"Has she done something wrong, Princess?" Tahoe's face switched to horror. "Is she in trouble?"

"No, no, nothing of the sort." Katara patted his arm. "Do you know much about her family?"

Tahoe tilted his head, frowning. "Not more than you, I'd think. I know she came from the lower sectors, as most of us did."

"Would you know anything about a house near the fourth quad, red shingles, with a lot of people that look just like Aiga?" Katara asked. From Tahoe's face, it was clear he hadn't.

"Princess, what is this about?"

"I just...I think she wants to talk about it, but as close as we are...there is a divide. If you may find the time to get her to open up…I know what it's like to hold things inside until it's too painful." Katara rubbed her arms. "I'm just worried, is all."

Tahoe threw her a soft smile. "Of course, Princess. I'll be sure to talk with her."

"Right. Thank you. Erm, carry on?" Katara rarely knew how to end conversations with the help here. Most just left without saying anything, but Katara felt weird doing that. Not to say her current way wasn't equally as awkward.

She saw Sokka waiting outside her room when she returned to the Ladies Rooms. He had a handful of rolled scrolls in his fingers, his thumbs and face smudged with ink.

"I need you to draft these better," Sokka said, holding up the papers, causing half to lose their precarious position and tumble to the ground.

Katara welcomed him into her room. Taking only one look at Sokka's near illegible notes, Katara knew he'd been having the same thoughts that she had been.

That, each day that went on, was one more day of Zuko and Katara stealing time that wasn't theirs. That it was one day closer to a Fire Sage commanding Zuko to pick a wife and Katara having to say goodbye. One day nearer to the inevitable end. One more day that their people reaped the benefits of her presence in food, supplies, and other goods, but one day of become more reliant on this. Even with the promise of a trade set up, they had become woefully used to the thrice-weekly shipments from the Fire Nation.

Her people were enjoying the food as it came. And Ozai wasn't the sort to encourage them to go out on their own. He sent food that would spoil if not eaten quickly, leaving them dependent. They needed to be looking toward the future, to surviving on their own. There would come a day that the shipments would no longer come. They'd have to trade their own wares, prepare. Or, worst case scenario but hardly an impossible one, there may come a day in which Zuko was captured or overthrown or killed, and Azula took the throne, and the Southern Water Tribe would get nothing but soldiers and weapons and shackles on their arms.

The first parchment: a green house. Sokka had also grabbed a Farmer's Almanac and the pair scoured through, looking for the most resilient plants for their climate. They bounced ideas off of each other to make it useful in the winter as well; harnessing the little sun they got to bounce off mirrors, heating it with ever-going fires, building an igloo around it to build up heat...all good ideas, but none that could be confirmed until tried.

They drew up plans for smoke-houses and pickling cans. They looked at how to dig stores underground that would not collapse.

They discussed how to make better houses.

Hours into their talks, with Katara's fingers just as dirtied as Sokka's, she gave him a soft, sisterly smile.

"What? I have something on my face or something?" Sokka said. He did, but that's not what caused her expression.

"You're going to be a good chief one day," Katara murmured.

Sokka punched her arm lightly. "You will too."

It wouldn't be the same. She'd be a chief like her mother or Bato was. Sokka, though...he was always meant to lead.

Sokka got up, stretching his arms. In his clumsiness, he knocked the papers off Katara's desk. He leaned down to shuffle the papers back into groups of her things versus their things, but became drawn to one sheet. Katara peered over his shoulder to see her notes of possible weapons she could use in the upcoming match, and if it would change if she could know who she'd be up against. What weapons would work best across the board, since she would not know.

"Oh, yeah, that," Katara said, trying to grasp the sheet from his fingers, but he held tight.

"Katara," Sokka sighed. "When you were born, I promised dad I'd protect you. That's what brothers do. You know you've made that unbelievably hard?"

"Like you run away from danger. You're no better than I am." Katara rolled her eyes.

"I'm serious." Sokka's voice was quiet. "You've probably had the same thoughts about this whole thing. That you can't just let things go and Ozai knows this and he'll use it against you. He could kill you, and no one would blink an eye, if done in the sham of his completion."

"Yeah." Katara's fingers twirled around her hair loops. One word, that's all that she needed to say.

"I," Sokka's finger's ripped through the parchment, "Is it worth it? This? For him?"

"Sokka-"

"If I don't say this now, I'll hate myself. You'll hate me for saying it, but at least the thought will be there. If you get called and it's against someone you know wouldn't hesitate to kill you, throw the fight. Don't engage. Let them win and walk away alive."

"You're right, I do hate you for saying that," Katara snapped angrily. "I wasn't taught to just back down from a challenge, and neither were you!"

"I was taught when to know that a battle isn't worth it! Dad told me that not every battle is worth your life, most aren't! I was taught to stay alive!"

"But what if this is the war?" Katara asked, her voice growing near frantic, "Because, if I throw it, I know I'm going home-"

"How is that different than now?" Sokka demanded. "How is that any different. You know how this ends. You know it."

Katara stood, biting her cheeks to hold back her tears. "You don't get it. If I throw the match, that's a day on the calendar. A date of the end that I'm just waiting up to, dreading. Knowing my time is up. It's like if we were told what day we'd die on, we'd all spend our whole lives worrying up until that point. If I win it, there's more time with him, I don't know how much, but it's more time. You don't get how badly I want that time."

A flicker of something across Sokka's face, like a pain that she knew well. "Katara, I...I get it. Not just saying it to say it. I know what you mean."

Katara's whole tirade dropped, just for a second. Sokka's face was red, and his fingers ripped apart a tiny piece of parchment. It was the same nervous tic that Katara had. Understanding, at least in one way, flooded her. How had she not noticed her brother falling in love, with someone Katara couldn't guess, right in front of her?

"You don't mean-" she began. "Who?"

Sokka gnawed on his lip, and opened his mouth.

"Sokka? Katara?"

Zuko tapped on Katara's door. Sokka seemed all too pleased to be saved by his interruption, practically sprinting over to open the door.

"Hey, Zuko. What's up, man?"

"Glad you two are together. I have a little surprise," he said.

Sokka grasped his chest. "For me? You shouldn't have, darling. But I thought we weren't going tell Katara, she's the jealous type, you know," he said, giving Zuko a saucy wink. Zuko just snorted, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, ew, stop." Katara shuddered.

"Not that sort of surprise." Zuko looked equally horrified. "Katara, I wanted to tell you that I've secure and hired a master swordsman to aid you for the match, to teach you sword fighting. I've been saying for a while that you should learn a secondary skill, since bending is a weapon that - as Ty Lee has shown - can easily be taken away."

"Awesome!"

Katara's eyes shone with excitement, until she truly thought about it. "Wait, just for me? Zuko, I'm concerned that the other girls will realize this is blatant favoritism for you to just give me lessons. I know our affections aren't exactly hidden, but this goes too far, no matter how much I appreciate the sentiment."

Zuko just smirked. "What do you take me for? A fool?" He turned to Sokka. "Sokka, I've hired you a swordsman. I do expect you to attend, not just for show, but because I also think it would be good for you to learn this as well. So, here I am, giving you – Sokka - the paper that officially has your name on it."

"Oh!" Sokka said, nodding. "Sneaky, sneaky." He laughed.

"What?" Katara stood, coming to stand by the pair of boys.

"It's why I was glad you two were already together for this," Zuko said, tilting his head toward Sokka.

"Because, dear sister, if you were to accidentally see the time and location of my first couple lessons with this master dude, and were to show up in the annoying way you happen to do, and you were to happen to learn a few tricks during my lesson, well, who could call that favoritism?" Sokka explained with a wicked grin.

Katara felt a smile curl over her face.

Zuko gave a sigh of relief, patting Sokka's shoulder. "I think I might love you, Sokka," he teased, clearly pleased someone else ran on his level of cleverness and strategizing.

Sokka rolled up the lesson plans, wiping away a fake tear. "Right back at you, bud."

XXxxXX

That was not the only surprise that Zuko had in store for the Water Tribe siblings, as it would come to be. He hadn't wanted to say anything then, in case his second plans fell through, but two days later, Katara got a message delivered on a silver platter, with all the pomp and circumstance of a usual Royal Missive.

Princess Katara,

As our efforts to broker a trade agreement between your tribe and the Fire Nation progress, it has been brought to my attention that it may do me well to become better accustomed with some of the traditions of your tribe. Specifically speaking, to experience a fishing expedition through your eyes, as to better understand the ways of your people going forward. Therefore, today you and your brother-the Southern Water Tribe representative-will be accompanying me on a Fire Nation fishing boat for a very educational day. Expect to be gone a full day. Food will be provided, so only bring anything you think would aid my teachings.

Cordially,

Prince Zuko

Katara had a feeling there was more to this, but she couldn't figure out what. If it had been just her, she would have chalked it up to a creative date. The combination of her and her brother? Not exactly romantic.

Still, she arrived at the front gates to the palace early the next morning in her traditional fishing garb, or the closest approximation due to her lack of usual outfits and adjusted for the humid temperature. She was happy to see Sokka wearing a version of his traditional garb too, so she didn't look completely out of place. He was lugging behind him a basket where they often kept fish clean and cold.

What was even more hilarious to her was that Zuko was decked out in a similar look, except in the rosy colors the Fire Nation so seemed to favor. It was laughable, but also strange, because there were things that were markedly Southern Water Tribe to his outfit. Katara wondered where he found that on such a short notice. Or, she reasoned, this had been in the works for longer than she knew (which, that did upset her a little).

Either way, it was about an hour down to the docks, just like when she'd arrived. She had not been so far out into the city since coming here all those months ago. She hadn't been on a boat since she arrived, which may have been the weirdest realization of them all. As a child, and growing up, she'd spent more of her life on fishing canoes than she had on ice.

The talk from the palace to the wharf was safe; although they were alone in the palanquin, there were guards riding on ostrich horses close enough by to overhear. So, they talked about the weather of late (wet, hot, nothing new), of the new teas that General Iroh had been passing around during meal times, and of the colors that the Hall of Histories may be painted, and if either of them had strong convictions toward or against a truly obnoxious yellow shade that apparently Iroh had chosen.

Once they arrived at the harbor, Zuko was quick to get rid of the guards. When they protested, he asked Sokka if the Southern Water Tribe fished with guards, which was met with a derisive snort, and that was the end of that argument. Plus, he argued, he'd spent more than a few years on a boat himself. He was very well versed in sailing jargon, and did know how to man a Fire Nation vessel, especially one as small as the boat they were taking. It was larger than any of their fishing canoes or even war ships, but against the largeness of the ship Katara had been brought here on, it was in fact laughable even.

They also didn't have time to talk once they were maneuvering out of the harbor. Zuko seemed to have planned this precisely, for the ship needed no more than three people to run it. Once they were safely out of sight of the shoreline - or any ships for that matter - and the anchor had been dropped, Katara came up to the top decks.

"Okay, are we actually fishing?" she asked, crossing her arms.

"Don't see why not," Zuko shrugged. "But no, it's not the primary reason for this trip."

"It sure is a good cover though, eh?" Sokka was preening. "Brilliant, don't you say?"

"I take it this was your idea?" Katara snorted. Then, she frowned. "How often do you two talk?"

"I am actually the Southern Water Tribe representative and we are actually trying to work out a reasonable trade deal, so more than you think," Sokka pointed out. "But no, this little brain child of mine...ingenious."

"Yeah, yeah. Off your high horse. I may have thought of it too, had I had time to breathe and think properly of late." Zuko shoved the basket across the wooden planks to Katara. Cautiously, she opened the top of the lid and felt a mixture of relief and terror at all one. The journal was staring back up at her. Which meant the powder wasn't far beneath it.

"Oh."

"This way, we have a paper trail. A reason to go out to the middle of nowhere on the water," Sokka explained, kneeling.

"I am also going out tomorrow on a different boat with Yue, Arrluck, and Hahn to make this whole excursion even more believable." Zuko grimaced. "Also Sokka's idea. A good one, I can't deny."

"Well, you like Yue." Katara played with her fingernails. More than 'like,' she reminded herself. She had a feeling Yue was on the shortlist of Zuko's choices.

"Yeah, but add Hahn into any situation and it just makes it so much worse," Sokka reminded her. "Thank La I don't have to go out tomorrow. And, to think, you'll probably actually have to spend a full day learning about Northern Traditions. We'll give ya a crash course, in case someone asks, but let's be real."

"I'm just glad we're putting this whole matter to rest. It gave me anxiety to have it around all the time," Katara said decisively. "So, what's the plan?"

"We rip each page out of the journal and dip it in water to make the colors bleed. Then, we burn the pages to dust and spread it out over the lake," Zuko said, holding the journal.

"And the powder?"

Sokka lifted out a gigantic metal ball, likely what was making the basket so heavy.

"Toph wrapped the sucker in twelve sheets of metal. Nothing's getting out. With Zuko's help here, they carefully covered the original dust in molten metal, just to be super-duper safe. We sink this to the bottom of the ocean, never to be seen again. And, if by some bizarre chance it does wash up, no one's getting inside of this," Sokka said, holding it much more casually than he ever had in his life.

"Well, let's get to work, team." Zuko clapped his hands.

"See? That's why I think we still need a cool team name!" Sokka whined.

Both Zuko and Katara ignored him.

They all took to their jobs. Sokka filled a bucket with water and started ripping the pages and gleefully dunking them into the water. Zuko burnt each soaked page handed to him in a small basin. Katara was passed the ball, and she went over to the other side of the ship, dropping it into the bay. The splash of water was satisfying.

She was able to waterbend, feeling the sea part as the metal ball sank farther and farther down into the depths of the water. It was extremely deep, thank Tui and La. She maneuvered it to the bottom, and then pushed and pulled the water currents to her best ability near the ocean floor, covering the ball until it was buried a few feet down. It was tedious work, since controlling water so far away was not an easy task, and it was quite the strain to cover it. Katara didn't want to do anything about this job half-assed.

She finished just about the time that Sokka and Zuko were done too. The last thing to do was to spread the ashes around the boat. And, silently, they did, as though paying tribute to all the airbenders and citizens alike who had been killed by these monsters. Then, no one spoke as they watched the blackened dust sink deeper and deeper until it was gone.

"Well," Katara's voice was unexpectedly hoarse, "It's done."

"Finally!" Sokka's voice was much brighter. "I think we deserve a job well done," he said with a smirk. He went back into the basket.

"Sokka, you don't mean-"

"Of course, sis." Sokka pulled out a jar of clear liquid. "You may have your sake and fancy alcohols, Zuko, but in the South, we have Pearl Algae. It's shared by comrades after a good hunt or fishing trip, a job well done, and I would say this qualifies as a job well done."

"Where'd you even get that?" Katara asked, sighing.

"Dad."

Sokka unscrewed the bottle, taking a swig. He smacked his lips, grinning, holding it out to Zuko. Zuko raised an eyebrow, but lifted it to his lips. He took a much larger drink than anyone ever should, and immediately began to cough.

"You find that enjoyable?"

"Burns, right?" Sokka's eyes were glittering. "Puts some hair on your chest! Makes you a man, er, warrior," he added at Katara's disapproving frown.

"Burns, sure. Burns like it's trying to kill me." Zuko was still sputtering. "Let me try it again."

"Atta boy!"

"Oh, stop it!" Katara said. "It's gross and after a fourth of that jar, you won't know up from down. Plus, it has zero taste."

Zuko took a much less generous sip. "Well, that's for sure. What is this made out of?"

"Algae. And Katara's just a spoil-sport." Sokka waved her away. "It's traditional."

"It's for getting smashed quickly," Katara argued. "And I swear, we do have better drinks. This is not all we have to offer."

"I hate to say it, but this would sell well here." Zuko waved around the jar. "Especially in bars."

"Ha-ah!" Sokka waved a triumphant finger at Katara.

She rolled her eyes, leaving the boys to their drinking. She went and sat on the top of the boat, staring out at the vast expanse of the sea. If she ignored the heat, it was so barren that she could almost pretend she was home.

Zuko came and found her after a while, bringing sandwiches. She gratefully took one.

"No more Pearl Algae for you?"

"Someone has to be sober to drive the boat back. At this point, I don't think it will be your brother." Zuko laughed. "That's quite something. Enjoying the view?" he added, sarcasm heavy on his lips.

"Beautiful," Katara breathed, but she meant it. There was something utterly enchanting about a view of just nothing for miles and miles.

"Well," Zuko settled himself down, crossing his legs to eat with her, "If you go back this way, that's the Fire Nation Harbor. North takes you to Ember Island, a beach city. South, to the Black Cliffs, which are really volcanoes. If you keep going straight, you'll hit the Earth Kingdom. Well, first you'll probably nudge along the Crescent Islands, but eventually, you'll likely hit Pirate's Pier. Named because of the Pirates that trade there. Or, some of the other endless shores of Earth Kingdom."

Katara was rapt with attention. "Really? You seem to have a great handle on navigation."

"You could say that."

"Is the rest of the Fire Nation like this? Or, is it hotter the farther you go? Colder?"

"The Beach Town gets really hot, but the seas are calm and soothing, thus a popular destination. The Crescent Islands are about the same temperature, but mostly built on rocks. The Volcano lands, near the base, are a little colder. They're not usually active, so you don't have to worry about that. You don't-" He began to ask, but then broke off, looking embarrassed.

Katara knew what he was about to say. "No, of course I haven't a chance to go elsewhere. The South and here are the only places I've ever been. Even as a Princess." She leaned back on the hull of the metal ship, enjoying basking. "Though, to be honest, when I talk to the other contestants, it's not unusual. Most girls have never been outside of their own cities before the Choice."

"You're joking."

"No, truly. Even when suitors were being paraded around, it's a man's job to travel. Men are warriors. Men go out on the road. Women learn how to tend to the house. Why would they ever need to leave?" Katara sneered with a tinge of anger. "You, of course, spent your whole life traveling. I'm sure it doesn't feel foreign to you. But, truthfully, has Azula traveled much?"

Zuko quieted, answering her question by saying nothing. Oh, she was sure Azula had hit up some of the Fire Nation cities, but she had her confirmation that outside of their own nation, she had not the opportunities Zuko had.

There was silence. Katara sat up, shielding her eyes.

Zuko had been...off. At first, she'd thought it was about the whole business with the journal and the powder. He was still nervous now, so it couldn't be that.

"What?"

"Huh?" Zuko asked, a little distracted.

"Something is eating you, and you don't seem like the person to bang back shots of basically cleaning alcohol. What's wrong?"

Her mind leapt to the worst; that he was about to tell her that tomorrow it would be up. He'd be picking someone else tomorrow. She'd be going home. He'd be marrying someone else.

Zuko's eyebrows knit together. "I just heard from my Uncle. Zhao thinks he has a lead, out somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. He's taking his troops - Aang included - tonight."

Oh. This wasn't the worst she had thought, but this was undeniably the worst of things. So much worse than her own love problems.

"No," Katara breathed. "Does Aang know?"

"I'm sure he's being told now."

"What do you think will happen if they find someone?"

Zuko dropped his head into his knees. "Frankly, I don't even want to know. I just don't."

Katara, quiet for a second, just pursed her lips. Then, tentatively, she nudged Zuko's arm with her shoulder. Without thinking, Zuko moved her arm to pull her next to him. If either noticed about how domestic and comfortable the motion was, neither spoke. Instead, they just enjoyed the magnificent view of endless sea.

XXxxXX

The day was hot and dry, and the only relief was when the water splashed against the docks, showering the gathered men in sea salt. When Aang inhaled, it felt like he'd stepped onto the sun, and his Fire Nation standard uniform did little to offset the immense heat. He would take this over the Fire Nation weather, still, since if he were in the Fire Nation, he'd be sweating profusely.

"Think we'll find 'im?" one of the recruits asked, scratching underneath his helmet. "The tip seemed sketchy, at best. None of the others have panned out..."

"I hope so!" Aang winced at the enthusiasm of the second person's response. "We don't want those sorts alive. Gotta get rid of them right away, before it becomes a problem. Like weeds."

"I guess so," The first one sounded a little unsure. "I just don't want my family in no danger. If they are dangerous, like Fire Lord Ozai says."

"Of course they are!" The second huffed. "I wanna look these terrorists in the face. When Commander Zhao smokes them out, I'd kill to be in the room with him."

"I didn't meant to say Fire Lord Ozai is a'lyin, I just-,"

"Commander Zhao will pick whoever he feels is most correct to be in there, if he wants anyone at all. I think we should stop talking about it, lest the vermin overhear and escape," Aang said in a controlled voice, trying not to stumble over 'vermin'.

Very good, very logical, Kasata purred in his mind, cunning.

"Oh wow." The first soldier's eyes widened underneath his helmet. "You're right. You're right."

"No wonder Commander Zhao prefers Guardsman Kuzon," A third voice whispered, but this did effectively manage to quiet any talk about killing airbenders. Aang was of a mixed mind to be recognized as a favorite; on one hand, he did need to have a direct line from Zhao about the comings and goings. However, to be the favorite, meant to be appealing to this devilish figure. No matter how much you tried to keep your pretend life away from your real life, eventually, the two mixed. Years living at the Royal Palace taught him that.

"They got him! They found him!" a recruit called, running fast toward the milling soldiers, panting. He approached the docks, throwing off his helmet and running his fingers through his hair. "A real honest-to-Agni airbender!"

The bedlam that occurred was monumental. Aang was shoved aside by the stomping of soldiers and townspeople, to see the first actual airbender that he'd seen in over 100 years. Well, Dhakiya was an airbender, but he hadn't known, so that didn't count.

He had a horrible fear that this would be Dhakiya, because Zuko had been extremely tight-lipped about her current location. However, it was not a young girl at all that they dragged out, but a weathered man. He was already bleeding from a couple places, and he seemed to be more of a bag of bones than anything else. He stumbled over the cobblestones, and his clothes showed a man of little wealth. He was roughly shoved by the two guards, while Zhao paraded behind like a proud father.

Did any of his comrades honestly think a man that already looked an inch away from death posed any threat at all? Even if the airbenders were dangerous (which, surprise, they weren't.)

Aang positioned himself near Zhao.

"This really the airbender?" Aang knew he should have perhaps thrown in an insult, but he couldn't bring himself to, not at the ragged look on the man's face already. Sunken in brown eyes, light brown hair. He looked nothing like the airbenders of old, those that had coloring much like Aang's.

"Aye, son," Zhao said, kicking the man's legs as he hobbled to stand. "Coward was hiding out in some woman's potato cellar. Everyone gets what's coming to them eventually, though."

"I sure hope so," Aang said truthfully, looking at Zhao. He hoped this man would miraculously be let free, and he hoped Zhao was eaten by a moose-bear.

"Good townspeople," Zhao announced, tugging the man to his knees in front of him. "We require a location to interrogate this dangerous man. If one of you would be so kind to offer up a location, perhaps a boat, we will make sure your town is safe from his kind and any others who may think they can outsmart the Fire Nation."

There was an uncomfortable murmur that rose through the townspeople. Despite being commanded by the Fire Nation, none of the Earth Kingdomers seemed overly excited to offer up their place.

"We would, of course, be willing to give compensation," Zhao added after no one came forward.

A man with a full white beard edged his way forward. "How much are we talking?"

"Dear!" Assumedly his wife, a petite woman with gray hair pulled into a bun, a decorative stick through the middle, pulled on his arm, casting not quite a sympathetic look toward the airbender, but a look more than nothing.

"We need the money," the man said firmly. "We have a boat. It's not much, but it's what I can give."

Zhao threw a deceptively friendly arm over his shoulder. "I'm sure, sir, a proper price can be worked out…"

Hours later, Aang was sitting at a restaurant near the boat, legs bouncing with anxiety. They'd set up quickly. Zhao had taken some of the older military members on board. It had been hours; Aang was horrified to think of what they were doing to that poor man. His mind was whirling with ways to possibly get onto that boat, to fix this.

"Gonna eat that?" the soldier with the family nudged Aang. He looked down at his plate of rice, raising his head from his palm.

"Hmm? Oh, no…" He trailed off. He couldn't imagine eating. His stomach felt like someone was shaking it violently. This man could be dead already, and his whole reason for going along with this charade would be for nothing. What good was he as the Avatar if he couldn't save one old man?

"It is not going to rain!" The same old couple who had sold their usage of the boat to Zhao walked by the harbor restaurant. The man pointed to the clear as clear skies. The woman was arguing furiously with him.

"Well, if it were, you gave our boat away, so we can't get to those buckets aboard anyway."

"I leant it out, for this!" The man held the bag of money aloft. "And it's a perfect day. Not a cloud in sight," he said. The woman threw up her hands, stalking away.

Aang frowned, standing up, his helmet cradled under his arm.

"Ugg, no more rain," the guy who took his rice moaned. "The Fire Nation is floodin' enough without it."

Aang shot a near-friendly smile (no use alienating his fellow guards quite yet) but was asking the round table of voices. Gopan was offering his wisdom on weather patterns, but nothing conclusive could be made. Gopan bemoaned the fact he was only watching, claiming he used to be able to 'feel it in his bones'. Aang wasn't about to go through the exhaustion of switching minds to confirm this.

Still, Aang, ever-looking for a window, silently slinked aboard the fishing vessel, staying out of sight.

Within the hour, the skies darkened and the rain began to pitter-patter onto the deck. The town itself nearly cleared out. Aang saw most of Zhao's men gathering under awnings, using their capes as shields. Aang pressed himself against the side of the shack on the boat, inhaling.

If there are any Gods listening, now would be the time to really help your favorite Avatar out… Aang prayed in his mind. This was, of course, met with some responses and offended scoffs about being the 'favorite Avatar of the Gods' but eventually Kyoshi shut them all up.

Whether his pleas had been answered or the storm rolling in was set to be terrible either way, soon the rain was like tiny arrows on his skin and the wind howled like a dying polar bear-dog. The ship rocked like someone was playing with it, despite still being very close to the safety of the docks. Men rushed to tie it down more securely, but before anything could be done, a bolt of lightning lit up the sky like the sun, before cracking. The next thing Aang smelled was burning wood, and as he peered around the hut, he saw with glee that the ship had caught fire.

Talk about divine intervention, he thought with a sigh of relief.

He saw Zhao come up to the deck to see why they'd begun slowly sinking, and was preoccupied with a whole very uneasy crew. Aang wasted no time. He, light on his feet, tiptoed down to the lower decks.

There was only one room, so it was easy to find where the old man was being held. One guard was left to guard it.

"Commander Zhao says to go up on deck!" Aang tried to sound commanding.

He was a carpenter before this, Yangchen spoke evenly. I made sure to remember things like this.

"Part of the hull is blown out," Aang continued. "He sent me down because you'd know how to patch that. Go, now!"

Apparently, knowing the bit about his former occupation and that he might be well fit to help with such a disaster caused him to move.

This just left a door between Aang and the prisoner. It was locked, but one swift airbending blast (after making sure no one, and absolutely no one was around) opened it quickly.

Aang shut the door behind him.

"Ohh, no more…" the man moaned. Aang knelt next to him. His head hung low and his arms were tied behind a chair. His whole face was either covered in blood or bruises.

"Hey, hey, can you just hold on a little longer? I'm going to get you out of here," Aang whispered.

"Cruel tactic," the man wheezed. It sounded like a lung was punctured. "Too cruel…"

"It's no joke," Aang said frantically. "I'm here to save you."

The man lifted his head a little, breathing hard. "I'm sorry, but after today, I'm not inclined to trust anyone."

"Would you trust the Avatar?" Aang whispered. He very slowly lifted up a tendril of water with his hand, while making a flickering flame in his other. And, just to really drive the point home, he unlaced his ribbons on his fingers just enough for the blue arrow to peek out.

"Oh, spirits, it really is you." The man's eyes widened. "Am I dead?"

"No, still alive. You're going to stay that way." Aang rose. "I can't take you out now, but I wanted to give you hope. I'll need to find a reason to take you out of here, people would see if I tried to do it now. If I play my cards right, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to save you, still. If you can just hold out a little bit longer-"

"Avatar, please," the man said, his voice pausing Aang. "I don't have longer."

"Well, Zhao wants you alive. For information. He wouldn't kill you," Aang said slowly. The man gave a toothless grin, but it wasn't a kind one. Aang was sure some of those missing teeth was Zhao's fault.

"That's my fear. I am near the end, my friend. I know that keeping quiet is imperative, but the pain...forgive me, but there is not much more I can take before I tell your leader all that I know. And, if I do so, other, younger lives will be lost."

"More of us?" Aang echoed in horror.

"Near here. But I'm about to break. It's too hard."

Aang swallowed thickly. He could hardly blame the man, for he'd already endured so much. He had never asked for this. He'd never trained as a soldier. He was just an everyday merchant. This wasn't fair.

"Okay, okay." All the avatars in his mind were talking at once, and he tried to wade through their thoughts. "We need to get you out now. I guess I can-"

"You're undercover?" the man asked.

"Yes," Aang said, a question he could answer right now.

"Then you cannot risk blowing it. I am an old man. My life was near its natural end anyway," he said, a certain resolution settling over him. A peace that Aang didn't think he'd see.

"What...what do you mean?"

"Avatar, you need to kill me. Kill me so that I do not reveal where they are and more lives are not lost. We both know as soon as your leader gets what he needed, he'll kill me anyway. It is not unreasonable to think my heart gave out or the wounds were too severe." His smile was brighter now. "I will lay down my life for theirs and for the Avatar."

Aang stumbled back against the walls of the small room. "No, you don't understand! I can't! I'm...I'm an airbender by birth. We're pacifists."

"And, I mean no disrespect, but that may have gotten you killed 100 years ago," the man said. "There's eight of them. There is a girl who's only ten. These men cannot get her."

"No, there has to be another way," Aang argued.

"There isn't," The man said, which deep down, Aang knew to be true. He refused to admit it. He turned around, fingers in his black hair, panting as he frantically raced through options. Options that would get this man out of the ship and out of this town alive without blowing his cover or endangering the lives of the other benders…

"We need you, Aang."

Aang inhaled hard, like he was sucking in sea water. All of a sudden, he wasn't in the tiny boat room, he was on Appa. The storm, very much like this one, raged around him. He couldn't control Appa, the winds were too ferocious. He was falling, falling...Appa was trying to regain flight, but his fur was far too wet. He hadn't meant to end like this, he'd just meant to go out to clear his head, to visit Kuzon or Bumi and figure all this out. The Fire Nation had been coming closer and closer to their home. He was only 12!

Then, he crashed into the water. He could feel the dark, black sea swallowing him up as he swallowed more of it. It burned in his chest, and he had one thought; this is how he died. No one would ever know. Gyatso would never know. And Appa, oh, spirits, he hadn't meant to do this to him. He didn't mean to. He needed to save Appa…

We need you...we need you...we need you…

The voice in his head was not one of the Avatars, but Gyatso. It was more than a memory washing over him, it was the feeling of absolute guilt and anger and fear he'd managed to shove down for the past 4 years, ever since waking to see Zuko over him.

Why'd you disappear?

He was back in the boat, just like that, sling-shot back. His hand was against the wall, and when he picked it up, he realized he'd burned his imprint into the wall. His whole body was covered in a cold sweat.

"What," His voice was rough, "Did you just say?"

"I said...I need you, Avatar."

For once in his life, without Ty Lee's aid, his mind was silent.

This man needed him. His job as the Avatar was to save lives. And, he was going to save eight, and possibly more. There was no other way out of this.

"Okay." Aang swallowed, near tears. "Before I do it, what's your name?"

"Roddon, Avatar."

"Roddon, the spirits will welcome you. And I'll never forget you."

Three minutes later, Aang slipped back out and into the heavy rain and forced himself to make it back to shore and talk with the other recruits, per Kasata's instructions to have an alibi.

Twenty minutes later, when the ship's hole would be patched and everything would be back in order, and two minutes after Zhao and one man would go back in to continue the interrogations, the man would die with a smile on his face. Official cause of death, whispered amongst the men? Injuries during interrogation got the best of him. Zhao would punish his supervising interrogator heavily, but Aang couldn't feel bad about that.

He had figured, as an Avatar, if he could heal with waterbending, could he also kill?

The confirmation made him feel all sorts of uneasy.

They stayed in the Harbor Town one more night. Aang, having gotten instructions right before he left the room from Roddon, went to a small inn for dinner called 'The Weary Traveler' and turned off the lanterns in the third window from the door. This was a message to the other airbenders that it was not safe, if they hadn't already figured it out, and to continue on further into the Earth Kingdom, and above all, to trust no one.

They would travel back to the Fire Nation in stony silence, none as scarily quiet as Zhao. It was to the point that no one met his eye and everyone scurried around him like he might throw a man off a ship at any moment, which is not an unrealistic thought.

And Aang?

He felt as though he'd collapsed into his own mind, letting autopilot (or, more accurately, another Avtar) take over basic interactions, because he couldn't be bothered. If anyone noticed, they didn't say. Or, perhaps they were all considering their own necks and how much they enjoyed them being attached to their bodies to care.

Back in the Fire Nation, Aang found his feet taking him to Ty Lee's door late into the night, far later than it was acceptable by any means for someone other than the Prince to come calling at a lady's room.

He realized this, only after he saw the name near her door, and saw where he'd ended up. Frowning, he turned to leave, but the door opened suddenly.

Ty Lee was on the other side, her hair out of her braid, her eyes wide.

"Oh, Kuzon," she crooned, "Your aura is black."

He expected revulsion, horror. Instead, her eyes turned liquid as she pulled him into the room. "Are you okay?"

The question was so unexpected, so kind that it broke Aang out of his walls. He gave a hard shake of his head, and let Ty Lee wrap her arms around him. He hugged her back, burrowing his head into her neck, holding back sobs.

He did not speak a word the entire night, but somehow, Ty Lee still knew it all.

Chapter Text

"Well, go on, pick one up," Sword Master Piandao instructed. "Attack me."

Katara sat on the pile of cushions a maid had taken care to drag out to the zen garden where Sokka would be meeting his instructor. There was an array of swords shoved into the sand, and Sokka wound around their hilts with a careful examination, wiggling one or two there, flicking one here. Katara resisted the urge to roll her eyes; she knew exactly what sword he'd go for. This was all for show, to act like he was some great connoisseur of metal weapons.

Katara, of course, was not allowed to formally take part in these lessons. She was left to sit against the wall, in the shade, sipping iced tea while attempting to soak up any and all information she could. It would only be later, after the official lesson, when she could pick up a sword of her own to spar against Sokka. This way, Piandao could examine Sokka's stance as an observer, and correct to the best of his ability. Katara, however, was going to learn despite the hoops she had to jump through to even be here.

As it was, she was fairly sure Sokka was ignoring her.

She had thought, once they'd disembarked from the ship, that drunk Sokka was the best Sokka to ask about that 'girl' he'd almost told her about. However, at the very mention, he'd clammed up. Katara had pestered, to little avail. He'd lied (very unconvincingly) that it didn't matter, that this girl didn't like him anyway, that he was already over it. Then he'd barfed on her shoes, and that had pretty much ended that sisterly confrontation. She still wasn't sure he hadn't done it on purpose.

Since then, since Katara smelled bullshit a mile away, he had been harder to pin down than Toph usually was. This should have given her an indication that whatever, or whoever it was, it was dangerous. But weren't they all playing with danger, even knowing who Aang was? What was one more ticking time bomb of a secret to add to their ever growing collective list?

She would edge it out of him sooner or later. She was his sister; she knew exactly which buttons to push.

Case in point; Sokka finally settled on a sword near the back of the sand bowl, one that resembled a Southern Carving Axe most prominently. The one Katara knew he'd gravitate toward. Southern Carving Axes, while mostly used to cleave off meat from the carcasses of whales and seals, made terrifying weapons in the heat of battle nonetheless. This wasn't exactly one of their axes, but it was shorter than a traditional sword and curved a little in the blade.

Sokka picked it up, switching it between his palms to work out the equilibrium, before looking at Piandao.

"Please," he repeated, "attack me. I'll even give you a leg up and turn around."

Sokka gave a haughty chuckle. "Okay, but don't say that you didn't ask for this…"

Sokka raised the sword above his head, gave a battle cry that would make the spirits quiver before him, and ran right at Piandao. Katara watched as Piandao, moving lightly on his feet, easily side-stepped Sokka. Before Sokka could turn, Piandao had hooked his heels with the hilt of his own sword, sending Sokka face-first into the sand. Sokka lifted his head, shaking the particles from his hair and wiping them from his tongue. He went to grab his sword, but Piandao put his heel on it, shoving it just out of Sokka's reach. Piandao drove his own sword inches away from Sokka's head, and knelt down. His whole face was bright with amusement.

"How'd I do?" Sokka asked.

"Dismal," Pinadro said, grinning. "But not hopeless."

"Hear that, Katara? I'm not hopeless!" Sokka said, puffing out his chest as he sat up.

"I do have some preliminary notes that I can give you, right now." Piandao helped Sokka into a standing position. He kicked the sword Sokka had picked with the heel of his foot, handing it back out to the young warrior.

"Okay, lay it on me."

"It may serve you well to not scream prior to attacking, thus alerting your opponent, the rest of the opposing force, and any dogs of your presence."

"But...it's tradition. The wolf's cry." Sokka scratched his head. "To terrify, you know?"

"Very well as that may be," Piandao tilted his head, "May I offer you this to think about? In a whole group, it might be terrifying. One on one? Less so. It also does little to dispel the rumors of the Water Tribe being savages, with their guttural un-human cries. Also, while I don't mean to disparage the Southern Water Tribe's way of fighting - you have managed to stay autonomous - the method in which you wage war, on flat ground and cold temperatures, is to your benefit, but the world around you has progressed. You will find that fighting in a war now is very different. Much more tactical, if you will. So, I will not stop you from your traditions, but if you learn from me, you will be learning the Fire Nation way. Is this something you can accept?"

Sokka swallowed. "Sir, yes. I mean, to say, I didn't-"

"No offence taken." Piandao patted his shoulder. "Let's just move forward, shall we?"

And so they did. Piandao was far less morose than Pakku, Katara noted. He joked around with Sokka, he willingly and often gave advice to correct his technique, and he just overall seemed like a more pleasant person. He commented that he'd been the Royal Swordsman for both of the Royal Children, and he also taught Mai how to use her shirkins. Anyone who had been the master of those three was someone truly terrifying, at least in Katara's mind. Zuko's double swords skills were nearly better than his firebending, and he was indeed a bender that had a strong teacher. Azula, well, Katara had never seen Azula use anything but bending, but she was sure to be horrifying. And Mai? Mai was arguably the one that, out of the three, Katara wouldn't want to meet alone in a dark alleyway.

The first day was instructional, in the way that Piandao took care to go through and discuss all of the swords in the ground. Katara had the forethought to bring a piece of parchment and some ink and furiously took down notes one each of the weapons, knowing Sokka was just going to 'commit this to memory' and likely forget it in a week.

"Each sword or weapon here has a story. A different use, a different history. To pluck a sword from a pile randomly will only take you so far. It is up to you to pick the sword that best fits your needs. Who you are, who you want to be, what you want to use it for. At the end of this session, we will make you your own sword, to all your own qualifications. In the meantime, though, I encourage you to play around with the ones here. Prince Zuko has been so kind as to book this garden patio for the extent of my stay. No one will disturb the swords or training figures set up here, and you will be welcome as you come and go." Although he spoke to Sokka, he looked at Katara, at least fleetingly. She nodded; this is how she'd practice.

The lesson ended after the descriptions of the swords. That, in itself, had already been about two hours. Sokka was gone like a jackrabbit, before Katara got a chance to grab him.

XXxxXX

It seemed impossible to Katara, that with everything going on, that the ladies were still expected to attend meals with the Royal Family as they had before the attack. Or, possibly, the Royal Family was doing this to restore some sense of normality.

Some of the girls, like Maiha and Anasemla, breathed a sigh of relief to be able to return to 'sensible' and 'logical' things. Which was funny, for Katara personally thought that getting entirely dressed up for one meal- food that was usually a little bit too ridiculous for her taste- was the antithesis of sensible. It was downright crazy, and something that Katara would not miss once she left the Palace.

At home, meals were a group event, yes, but it was so much more casual. There wasn't the air of stiffness that seemed to linger here, the baited questions from Ozai or the intense glares from Azula.

Zuko was the only thing that made these meals bearable, but more often than not, he was skipping meals to keep up with the insane amount of work his father expected of him.

Katara thought they'd be dismissed on those days, but instead, they were told to sit through meals with some of his less desirable family, trying not to answer anything wrong. It felt like a test that Katara was never prepared for.

A few girls liked the challenge of impressing Royal Family members. They thought that, maybe, if they made a good enough impression on Ozai, were able to form a daughterly bond with Ursa, or charm Lu Ten, that their rank would shift. Katara thought that was stupid, but all power to them.

The groups had been shaken up once again, and this time, Katara's group was much better. Toph certainty got the short stick, having her designated meal time with Mai, Nadhari, and Avezieh. Smellerbee joked there was some god out there that really didn't like Toph.

Katara was with Suki, Maiha, Ratana, Jin, and Soairse. A respectable, albeit quiet, group. She was grateful Suki was there, otherwise she didn't know who she'd talk to. Well, she'd make friends with others, she reminded herself, as she'd done with all of her other companions here.

She was picking through her lunch, talking to Suki about something sort of silly- the history of tea in the Earth Kingdom- and not something fun like swordplay or fighting stances, ready to accept that it would be another meal without Zuko in attendance. It was the norm, recently. Katara knew she wasn't even the only one to feel this disappointment. In fact, she had less reason than any to feel so morose about it, considering she saw Zuko much more regularly than anyone else, but Katara was so selfless sometimes she allowed herself to be selfish with him.

"I apologize for my tardiness, ladies."

Katara choked on her soup, which was the average response from around the room. Zuko hadn't been to a meal in days.

"Of course not, Prince Zuko, no need to apologize," Suki spoke up first, a sigh of relef escaping her shoulders too, "We know how much you have to do of late."

"Still, I had not wished to have been ignoring any of you," Zuko replied. When he smiled, it really did feel like he was smiling at all of them.

"Why don't you sit, dear? You've only missed the appetizier," His mother said, coming to kiss his cheek. He smiled and blushed a little at her affection, the red on his cheeks such an adorable softness that Katara thought she'd never tie of seeing. The love for his mother was refreshing, comforting.

Zuko rubbed his mother's hand as his eyes gazed around the table, trying to find a seat. There was only one seat left, one next to his father and far away from any of the ladies.

"I can move, of course," His mother offered. Katara tried not to look too excited; Ursa was sitting on her other side, which would mean that Zuko would sit next to her.

"No, that's quite alright," Zuko said. Katara ran her nail across her palm under the table, "Lu Ten, do you mind?"

"Of course not, cousin," Lu Ten said, bowing. Katara sipped her water, hiding her face. She couldn't help it. She felt sort of tossed aside, a little forgotten or unwanted. Which, she considered, is what she told him he should do, not to draw attention to them.

It still hurt.

Lu Ten wasn't a long way away, more or less across and to the left of her seat. Far enough away so that his dismissal to sit next to Katara was still...noticed.

Suki, under the table, patted Katara's leg comfortingly. Jin sent her a winsom smile. Maiha looked pleased, and whispered something in Soaire's ear, who had a grin that Katara had never seen on her face, one of vicious glee.

Luckily, just as Zuko was sitting, the salads were arriving, meaning that there was a flurry of maids and servers, letting the burn settle and ease on Katara's mind.

Zuko talked with almost everyone, except Katara. It almost seemed like he was going out of his way to snub her.

No, snub her wasn't right. He still would glance over to her, like when he was talking to Suki, and he'd get a warm look in his eyes. It was obvious he cared. This was just...strategic. Something Katara repeated to herself over and over.

It was nearing the end of the meal, when a fruity dessert was served, that Katara felt it.

At first, she just thought it was Suki's long dress robes brushing against her leg, and she ignored it. It was a mild tickle, a slight touch near her ankle.

However, when it happened again, it was much more forceful of a touch and ran up the length of her leg, under her dress, from he ankle to her knee.

Katara yelped, thinking it was a spider or a bug, grabbing her leg...nothing was there.

"Princess Katara?"

"I just...poked myself on the knife, my Lady," Katara said, looking to Ursa.

"Are you bleeding?" Azula seemed much to excited at the idea.

"No, it just startled me."

When the feeling occurred yet again, Katara bit her lip to keep from crying out. She felt it rise up higher, on the upper part of her thigh.

She was ready.

Her hand clasped the foreign object under the table and found it...foot-like?

She ran her fingers across what felt like a sock, trying not to frown or make a face. She chatted with Suki, trying not to draw attention to whatever was occurring under the tablecloth.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zuko give a nearly unnoticed shiver.

She would bet all of her fancy jewels she was drowning in who was on the other end of this mystery foot.

Zuko glanced up her way only as Suki asked him a question.

There was clear amusement, boy-like enojyment, in his eyes. Behind his hand, a shit-eating grin.

His foot rose higher.

Katara startled again, unable to help herself, as his foot went dangerously high. Her face was as hot as the soup they'd been served earlier. Zuko's foot retreated.

"Princess?"

"Knife, again," Katara muttered sourly.

"My, my, you're just an accident waiting to happen today," Lu Ten laughed, completely unaware.

"Something like that." Katara said.

Zuko got up a moment later, apologizing for his early exit, claiming he had some papers to look over. Katara wondered if this was true.

She was a little irked he'd gotten the best of her.

As she watched him leave, she knew it was on. She was absolutely going to find a time to make him as red as he'd made her.

"Katara, you fine?" Suki asked kindly, "You have a war look on your face."

"I'm fine," Katara agreed, but her mind was already forming a game plan. If there was one thing that could be said of Katara, it was that she never quit. Katara liked winning things.

XXxxXX

As it turned out, she'd have a reason to find Sokka later, what with the arrival of a certain letter from GranGran addressed to not just Katara and Sokka, but Pakku as well. Apparently, Pakku had also sent her a letter after the sparring lesson, though perhaps a little more colorful than her grandchildren's. The letter paused all thoughts of how to devilishly get back at Zuko.

She went and banged on Sokka's door.

"Seriously, it's important! GranGran sent me a letter. Stop ignoring me!" She pounded on his door with each word.

"You're not kidding, are you?" He creaked the door open.

"Is this how to get you to pay attention to me?"

"I'm not ignoring you," Sokka muttered sourly.

"Oh, you so are, but we're not going to bicker about this now. We have important family revelations to read," Katara said. She held the letter away from him. "It's addressed to Pakku as well."

"That doesn't bode well. I mean, 'spoiler alert' much? He's totally our grandfather," Sokka said.

"Shh!" Katara shushed him. "Not so loud."

He ran his fingers through his hair, at least looking a tinge embarrassed. "I'll meet you in the arena in like five while you go find Pakku."

And so they met. Three Water Tribe members, all staring at the letter in Katara's hand like it was going to bite.

"Well, get on with it," Sokka urged.

Carefully, Katara broke the seal.

The letter was more like a novel, but perhaps they'd finally get some answers.

"Dear loves; Katara, Sokka, and Pakku," Katara began. Both her and Sokka looked up at Pakku. He did look a bit more flushed than Katara had ever seen him.

"Well, get on with it," he grumbled.

"Right. Uh, okay. By now, it seems you've already guessed a secret I only thought I'd be revealing on my deathbed."

Once again, Sokka and Katara looked to Pakku to see his reaction.

"We're going to be here all night if you two look up at me like damn meerkat-seals every half a sentence!" he griped.

"Well, he's right." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck.

"Fine. I'll read it straight through, no stopping." She stood up on the arena seats, turning her back toward Pakku so as not to be tempted to see the faces her mentor was making. She cleared her throat, and began to read.

Dear loves; Katara, Sokka, and Pakku.

By now, it seems you've already guessed a secret I only thought I'd be revealing on my deathbed, if at all. I should have foreseen it; Katara and Sokka, you two are far too intelligent for your own good. And, as soon as I saw Pakku, a part of me knew that this was not going to stay buried for long. So, I've had time to think of how I wanted to write this letter. With that being said, I think I have re-written the letter itself time and time again, never quite finding the right way to explain something that, frankly, has no valid explanation.

But I owe it to all of you to at least try.

I suppose the beginning is a good place to start.

When I was betrothed to Pakku in the North, I was young. I was 16, and he was a good match for me, considering his family was in the upper class of citizens, whereas my family - your ancestors - were in the poor class. I was told I was lucky to have such a match. But, even more unique, we were in love.

I was set to have it all, or at least all that most girls could have ever wanted. A husband who would care for them, security, their future children's lineage set...yes, it seemed to all be set perfectly. Except, it wasn't.

I was very much like you, Katara; too stubborn for my own good, and worldly. I was not blind to the ways that the North was that was so antiquated, so backwards. I was enraged often and dismissed even more so. Among the many, many issues within the North, one that I recognized was that I - as a woman - would always be a second class citizen. My greatest achievement would only ever be the children I bear and I would fade into the background, a faceless and nameless generic woman, despite having so much more to offer. I was interested in politics, in health, in weather, in astrology...and, as soon as I became of marrying age, I was told to put these 'silly things' aside, whereas the men were only encouraged of this.

Pakku and I would fight constantly over this. Of all the wedges in our relationship, this was the biggest. He had no reason to see my views. He was who the system supported, who the system was built for and by. I knew that as much as he loved me, and I never doubted that, I was not going to change his mind.

And that was a life I could not live.

At this point, the North had a new and burgeoning relationship under the Fire Nation rule. We'd cut off communication from our sister tribe nearly eight years ago. I managed to find some letters kept that described the South as a more welcoming society, one in which women were treated the same as men. I had no way of knowing if the South still acted as such, or if the plan forming in my mind would end in disappointment, but I knew I would hate myself if I never tried.

There were some women who were, like me, disenchanted about the way the North was, but too scared to try to leave. They were instrumental in helping me leave, however, and I'll always remember them. Even if they did not think themselves to be brave, they were, more than they gave themselves credit for. One woman stole food for my journey, another a boat. One planned the route I would take. One listened in on her husband's lessons and then taught me, in secret and against the law, how to navigate by only the stars and the wind. My best friend sewed me the warmest parka I've ever put on to this day, so I would not freeze on the journey.

On the first day of the Summer Solstice, I left. I knew the festivities would give me the best chance to leave without any notice, as most people would be starting to get drunk and feed on the year's harvest. I was also set to marry Pakku on the third day, and I was terrified if I waited any longer and married him, I would convince myself into living this life, as so many other women before me had done. That I would be charmed by him, that he would give me all the reasons in the world to stay.

It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done, but I pushed myself out into the sea and sailed to the South. I kept the betrothal necklace, because despite it all, I still loved Pakku and knew it was unlikely I would ever love someone as much. He was not a bad person; he isn't. He may be grumpy, but he was just a person who grew up in a way that he was taught to be normal. I knew I was breaking his heart. My heart, as I went farther and farther from home, was breaking too.

Arriving in the South just days after the Summer Solstice, I was met with enthusiastic warm welcomes. I was put to work immediately, and taught along the way all the things the North would have never allowed; hunting, battling, ship mending, astrology, sailing...my gamble had paid off.

During this time, I became close friends with the chieftain, Kesuk. He was not much older than I, having taken over the majority of the tribe along with his younger brother after the passing of his father in the battles against the Fire Nation. He was actively looking for the third addition to the trio of leaders, a partner.

I look back onto now and think that it was kismet. So many things just fell into place for me. I was already giving him council on a variety of things two weeks into our stay, and we were simply inseparable. He was my best friend and I was his. Thus, when I realized the state I was in, he was the first person I told.

If I had known then that I was pregnant, would I have left the North? It's uncertain. I hate that I took away Pakku's opportunity to know his future child, but this life was already so much better, so much fuller for me, that it's hard to regret too much. It's something that would keep me up at night, as I wondered, what sort of father you'd be, Pakku. I know in my heart you'd be a good one, but maybe it only brings you pain to hear such things. I never wanted this to happen. I had thought I had watched my moon cycles better, so for this not to happen. Especially because if the North had knowledge about what Pakku and I had done prior to our marriage, they would have been horrified and we could have been punished. But alas, to be young and in love and have far too many emotions and hormones...well, I won't horrify my grandchildren any more than that.

It was the day that I told Kesuk my secret he told me his...he did not favor women, but men. This in the South, in itself, was not frowned upon. It was that he was expected to further the line and find a third council member, as his brother was merely 10 and years away from even thinking about his future like that. It was then a plan was hatched, one mutually beneficial. We would marry, I would help as the third council member, and this child - boy or girl - would give the South the heir they so desperately needed after losing so many members and so much hope in maintaining their independence.

Most of the members of the tribe were young. There were only a few elders around, and they agreed that this solved more problems than it made. It was easy enough to lie from that moment on that I had arrived after the Winter Solstice the year prior, repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until that's what the tribe itself believed. It helped that your father was born wailing, and strong, on the Winter Solstice six months later. A true leader, they said.

By the time that your father was sixteen and starting to like Kya, everyone believed without question I had arrived about four months earlier than I actually had. No one questioned that your father was not Kesuk's. Of course, there were whispers as to why we never had another, or that he seemed to linger too long sometimes on a particularly hearty warrior, but it didn't really matter, not with a strong heir to bring them into the future.

I loved Kesuk, not even as a brother, but as something hard to describe. I love Pakku in a romantic way, but my love with Kesuk was none less real because it was built on friendship. I miss him constantly. We were well matched. Had I been a man or he liked woman, we would have been perfect together. The day he died still stands out in my mind as one of the darkest days of my entire life.

And oh, did he love your father, children. Hakoda was the light of his life. I have no doubt had he lived to see the birth of the two of you, he would have cared just the same. I know he's watching over both of you. Even if he was not biologically your grandfather, he is still your family and will always be there for you.

I never intended to tell anyone. Or, at least, not now.

In all, it's out to the people that matter now. I sat down with your father yesterday, for he deserves the truth too. He's hurt, but I know he will come through it.

There are a few positives, or so I hope, to this. One, that I do not have to hold such a lie in my heart anymore. And, two, that you two may get to know your true grandfather. He may seem grouchy, but deep down I know he's a man that has much love to give. And Pakku, I pray you do not hate me too much.

Forever yours,

Kanna.

Katara finished reading. She licked her lips, turned, looking hesitantly at Pakku. She'd known, somewhere, but hearing it out loud was just…

"Grandpa!" Sokka said, breaking the tension. "Or would you prefer Grandfather? Or maybe Grandpappy? GrandPakky-"

"I'd prefer Pakku," Pakku broke in cooly. "And you will not refer to me as your grandfather again."

"Ouch, man." Sokka looked a little crestfallen.

"You childish boy," Pakku snapped. Katara raised an eyebrow, re-rolling up the letter. She knew somewhere, deep down, Pakku was showing love. "You are referred to as a Prince and Princess due to your lineage. Have you no forethought to what would happen if they found out you are not from the chieftain's line?"

"But, GranGran married Chief Kesuk." Sokka scratched his head. "So, I mean, technically…"

"The Fire Nation cares little about technicalities. It's blood itself that matters. Your father's claim to the nation could even be argued. If there is any weakness…" Pakku pressed a finger to his temple. "It would have been better for this secret to stay buried. Kanna had the right idea. You understand?"

"Yes," Katara said, "We do."

There was a flash of pride on Pakku's face, so fleeting Katara thought she might have imagined it. Sokka, however, was not done and wanted to argue.

"So, what? We just go on like we never heard any of that?" Sokka asked, slouching low, clearly hurting a little bit.

"For now, yes. My interactions from here on out with you will be strictly professional, so I will take this moment to say that, you are - despite it all - intelligent young children who I am not completely horrified to be related to," Pakku said. Katara knew this meant that he loved them already. Sokka seemed to realize this because he looked almost angry.

"Until when?"

"Until…" Pakku paused. "Until things are better."

XXxxXX

"He hasn't said a thing since he returned."

Aang could hear Ty Lee talking to Zuko in a hushed whisper, just outside his door to his room. Ty Lee shouldn't even truly be in here, but she had very adamantly refused to leave his side since last night.

"Do you know what happened?" she finished. "His aura is black. Like-"

Whatever comparison she was about to make she cut herself off from saying, ending with a small cough.

You did your best.

No, Aang though back angrily to Suluk, I refuse to accept that! I could have saved him.

Aang, dear, your friends are worried.

The soft voice was the one of Udaya, one of the kindest Avatars, whose voice often was spoken over by other, more aggressive Avatars. In fact, it seemed only Suluk and Udaya were comforting him now, after Roku's and Katsata's stern 'pull yourself together's seemed to do nothing but cause Aang to recede further within himself.

"Only that it was not good," Zuko replied to Ty Lee. "Which I hope means that they did not succeed. I'll try to find more out. Perhaps Uncle Iroh will tell me. I'll be back later. In the meantime…" Aang could hear Zuko breathing behind the door. He sounded tired. "In the meantime, make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."

"Stupid?" Ty Lee echoed. Aang could imagine her eyes widening in confusion. They were probably a warm hazel-brown right now. Ty Lee's eyes were so expressive, taking on the color of whatever shade was around her. Whenever they were around Aang, they were a soft gray color, just like his.

"You'll know it if you see it," Zuko huffed.

Ty Lee hesitated outside the door. Aang could just see her now, bottom lip between her teeth, fingers playing with each other as she decided what to do, and maybe she'd trail her left hand through her long braid, tugging on it when she reached the bottom of the twist.

Finally, she seemed to decide, because she entered through the secondary door, breathing deeply.

"What is Zuko afraid you'll do?" she questioned, unable to keep her curiosity settled.

Aang, who found it difficult to not answer Ty Lee, turned toward her with a blank look on his face.

"Go into the Avatar State. Kill Zhao. Recede so far into my mind that the other Avatars will have to take over."

Ty Lee's fingers clasped around his wrist. Her skin was so warm, so soft.

"You're not actually thinking of those things, are you?" Her eyebrows knit looking at him.

"They've crossed my mind," Aang replied dully.

"Aang, please, tell me what happened," she tried again.

He gave her a sad, quiet smile and shook his head. He couldn't speak of it. He wouldn't.

Ty Lee didn't pressure him, which was absolutely something Zuko would have done. He was pleased about this, and she let him just drag his knees to his chest, considering all the ways he'd already failed the world.

When Zuko returned later that night, he wasn't alone. At first, Aang just thought it was a servant pushing food into the room, food that admittedly smelled divine, from the second shuffle of feet. Then, Zuko asked them to leave, and the movement of feet multiplied.

Aang lifted his head to see the whole group staring back at him.

"Why are they all here?"

"He speaks," Zuko said dryly, shoving the cart on wheels toward him. "Eat," he commanded sharply. There was an undertone of care and of worry.

Aang rubbed his hair, scowling. The aroma of the rice and vegetable dishes were too tempting, and he angrily grabbed a bowl, trying not to make an expression of pleasure as he took his first bite.

"Why are they here?" he repeated again, mouth full of food.

Sokka sat next to him, reaching over his arms to take a dumpling and pop it into his mouth. "Because. We're all in this now, bud."

"I got the story from my father, of all people," Zuko explained, motioning for everyone to sit. Sokka scooted over to make room for Shoji and Aiga to sit with him on the chaise lounge. Ty Lee balanced on the arm, closet to Aang. Toph leaned against the wall. Zuko sat on an oversized chair. Katara, seeing no other places to sit, blushed momentarily before settling herself on Zuko's lap.

Zuko's whole face went red and Sokka made a string of noises in the back of his throat of displeasure, waving his hands.

"Do you want to sit on Zuko's lap, Sokka?" Katara shot back, crossing her arms, any trace of embarrassment she might have momentarily felt overridden by her desire to set her brother straight. Aang raised an eyebrow at the Water Tribe warrior, who just continued to gesture helplessly.

"Can't you sit on the floor?" he whined.

"Okay, okay," Zuko said, shaking his head, but his palm tightened around Katara's waist. "Can we get back to actually important things?"

Aang shot Zuko a small smirk. He knew his quasi-brother well enough to see that he clearly wanted Katara to remain there. Luckily, his distraction wasn't without merit.

"Fine," Sokka huffed.

"What did Big Bad Fire Dad have to say about Aang's torpedoed mission?" Toph threw out, head slightly turned in curiosity.

"Apparently," Zuko said, staring straight at Aang, "They found one single airbender hidden in town with a family. The family has been…" He made a face of displeasure, choosing his words carefully. "Dealt with."

The family helping him! How could I forget! Aang's eyes widened as he felt his despair start to spiral again. They were killed. I know it. Zuko just doesn't want to say it in front of me. I should have thought of that! I should have realized that-

Ty Lee brushed her fingers over his shoulder. Not enough for it to be a straight-up touch, like the way that Zuko's fingers were on Katara's side, but a comforting motion. He breathed out hard.

You'll just have to be aware of that, for next time. No one expects you to know it all, Udaya murmured in his mind. That was true. There would be a next time. Aang was sure of that.

"Damn," Toph said, raising a single eyebrow.

"The airbender, though Zhao told my father he was very careful to keep him alive, somehow still died during interrogation, before anything useful could be found out," Zuko said. He wasn't quite grinning, because a man's death was never worth a smile, but he did look almost pleased.

"Aang?" Ty Lee asked.

"I had to," Aang said firmly. "He asked me to...he asked me to kill him, so he wouldn't talk."

"Aren't airbenders all love, peace, zen, and no violence or whatever?" Toph frowned.

"Toph!" Shoji choked.

"Usually," Zuko answered smoothly. "But Aang clearly made a difficult choice. It was, I believe, the right one." Hearing Zuko on his side made things a bit better. Just a bit.

"How did your dad just offer all this up?" Sokka leaned forward with suspicion.

"Well, I might have overheard the fallout between my father and Zhao." Zuko shrugged. "Since it was clear I wasn't getting it anywhere else. Azula...erm, she was the one who told me that they were fighting."

Aang snapped his head up. He'd never liked Azula.

"Why would she care?" Aang asked carefully.

"Azula is always looking for a good fight, she likes drama." Ty Lee laughed uneasily.

"Yes, obviously, she's psychotic," Sokka snorted. "Why'd she tell you?"

Zuko gave a helpless shrug. Sokka began to theorize with Zuko, but Aang more or less tuned it out. All he thought about was Roddon's face, and the relief he expressed when Aang agreed to help him. But, if Aang had been doing his job, he would have never been in this situation.

"I should have found him first," Aang said firmly, speaking over his friends.

Everyone quieted.

"What?"

"Roddon, that's his name. I should've...I should have found him, and the other airbenders, before. I mean, Zuko managed to get Dhakiya to safety, so clearly there are options and...I just...I feel sick imagining having to make this choice again when I need to be getting ahead of it!"

"Well, it's easier said than done," Toph said, in one of the rare moments she was completely serious. "You couldn't have guessed where Roddon was gunna turn up, or where any airbender would turn up, to be honest! Seems sorta like a blind girl throwing darts at the wall and seeing where they hit."

"Is that true though?" Katara rubbed her chin. "I mean, Pakku told me that all bending his hereditary. You had to have the gene somewhere. Maybe it's not...awake," she struggled for a way to describe it, "But it's still there, like in my father."

"You know, that's not totally ridiculous," Zuko said, eyes brightening.

"Erm, thanks?" Katara said.

"No, gah, that came out wrong. What I'm saying is at first Dhakiya thought it was just a gift from the Gods that gave her her bending, that it was all random. However, her father researched his family history, and while we can't confirm it, because it's not like airbenders were painting themselves bright blue and announcing their location to the world, but the location of his mother's side of the family is fairly close to where Airbenders might have come from, if they were just off from visiting a Temple."

"So, it's not random, who had these powers 'woken up'." Sokka did air-quotations. "It's trackable."

"Not in the sense that our records are precise, but it's not nothing to go off of," Zuko said. The group fell quite for a second.

Suddenly, Aiga took a sharp intake of breath that whistled through her teeth, standing up. "The reports!"

"What reports?" Katara asked, blinking at her handmaid.

"The reports! The census reports! Oh! Remember when we were in the hidden room, during the attack? I was looking at census reports about big groups that suddenly migrated to the areas nearest to Air Temples? I'd bet you anything that those were Airbender Refugees going under the radar. They probably took on Fire Nation last names, to stay undetected, but they are there!"

Aang was on his feet at once, pacing.

"You really think we can find them?"

"We can trace lineages," Zuko said, and Aang could see his mind racing too fast for words. "And it will give us ideas of descendants about who possibly could have inherited airbending. I mean, we could start to cross reference it, see if any of those descendants in the family line have gone missing, run away recently. And, you could hit up cities where people are before Zhao gets wind of it. I mean, you're the Avatar, people will trust you. Even if they don't know, likely Air Temple communities still stick in touch, culture, so they might be aware of who-"

"Woah, Sparky, take a breath there," Toph said, eyes wide. Aang realized he hadn't actually paused or inhaled the entire time he was talking.

"I just...we can really make a difference," Zuko said, meeting Aang's eyes. He looked more excited about politics than Aang had seen him in years...no, in forever.

"How did you get Dhakiya to the safe house?" Shoji asked.

"A lot of friendly helping hands. Food merchants, friendly houses, boats...people that didn't mind smuggling her away, keeping her hidden. Her dad went with her. Sometimes, she'd be stuck at a place for days, waiting for a contact, but they always came through," Zuko explained.

"A route of safe passage," Katara echoed, eyes wide. "Do you think they'd be willing to do it again?"

"Some, because they're good people. Some, if we pay them right," Zuko responded. He nudged Katara for her to get up. "But, first, we need some documents. Toph and Aiga come with me; you'll need to open the secret room again, Toph, and Aiga knows what we're looking for," he said, motioning. "Shoji. Go into my room with Aang. You two have the most reason to be in there. The very bottom left drawer of my desk is a fake-out. Lift up the fake bottom and you'll find my scrolls about how I got Dhakiya out. Bring them back in here and we'll start going over them to figure out who we can trust, who we can pay enough to trust, and who we might need to replace. We'll come back with the census reports."

"This is going to be a whole lot of paperwork we have to wade through, isn't it?" Sokka complained.

"Unfortunately." Zuko didn't sound sympathetic though. "And, since you are the Water Tribe Representative, you probably have the most reason to be in the Royal Libraries and Records Center, which means you'll be doing a lot of it."

"Oh, wonderful."

"Sokka, we're saving lives!" Katara hit his arm.

"I get that, I get that." Sokka did look like he didn't mean it. "It's just...well, things are sort of serious now. I don't want to screw up."

Aang found it in himself to smile.

"Hey, at least you'll know that that first mission I did was rock bottom. Nothing we do from here on out could be any worse, bud," Aang said, and Ty Lee grinned broadly at him, clearly pleased he was able to put aside his worries, temporarily.

The groups split up. Aang easily found Zuko's hidden drawer, perhaps too easily. He made a mental note to make a better hiding place for that. Aang had been hiding for years. He knew a thing or two about secrets.

He spread the maps and notes all over the floor of his room, and immediately the group started pouring over them. Zuko was meticulous, at least, years of careful Fire Nation schooling meaning his notes were all flawless and ink-splotch free, as well as thorough. It was all too easy to start organizing his thoughts, as though he was in the room with them.

Katara and Sokka began listing off people who had helped, as well as discussing ways to contact them again, and then ways to keep them safe. Or, was that even a possibility? Anyone who leant them a hand was putting themselves in grave danger, and short of getting the people themselves out of the system forever, they were risking everything.

Shoji was studying the map with a concentration Aang didn't dare break. He saw his finger flit across the surface, and when Aang gathered the courage to ask, Shoji explained he was mentally trying to map different paths the airbenders could take. It would make them sitting turtle-ducks if everyone took the same route every single time.

By the time Zuko, Aiga, and Toph returned, Aang made sure to pull Zuko aside to ask how many people the safe house that Dhakiya was in could take. Would they have to find another one? How were they being fed? Somehow, Aang had fallen into a leadership position with this whole thing, albeit unexpectedly. Zuko didn't seem like he was ready to take that away from him, in fact, he looked relieved.

This was Aang's mission after all, to save these people. The rest of the group looked to him, the Avatar, for guidance.

For the first time since Aang found out he was the Avatar, he had the feeling like he sort of knew what he was doing and where he was going to go from here.

Chapter Text

As Zuko paused to mark some of the parchment against the wall of the palace, Lu Ten slapped the brush from his fingers.

"You got ink everywhere," Zuko said, jumping back, watching as the brush skidded across the ground.

"I'm," Lu Ten said, reaching down and picking the brush up very purposefully, "Confiscating this from you."

"But I just-"

"The motion draft is fine, cousin," Lu Ten said, holding the brush high above his head as Zuko tried to reach for it. "Better than fine. As close to perfect as it can be. Dad wouldn't let you ask Uncle Ozai with anything less.

Zuko pulled a frown. It was only in moments like this that it was obvious how much taller Lu Ten was than him. Lu Ten was stringy and built like a tree. Zuko wasn't short, but when Lu Ten had the brush balancing on his fingertips, Zuko was still a foot away from grasping it.

"As close to perfect, exactly," Zuko argued. "Which means there's room for error." Nervously, his fingers picked at the edges of the parchment.

"Well, as dad would say-"

"Don't," Zuko groaned. The last thing he needed was a vague life affirmation.

"Nothing in life is perfect."

Zuko locked his jaw. It had been less philosophical than he was expecting, but it didn't irritate him any less.

"Look, just one more note, so I don't forget," Zuko begged, jumping to grab the brush. Lu Ten just stood on his tip-toes.

"No! Because after that, it will be another, and another, and another-"

"I'm the Heir Apparent!" Zuko didn't like pulling title often, but in times like this, he felt it was necessary. Lu Ten just laughed.

"No, you're little Cousin Zuzy to me, face smeared with jam and trying to eat dandelions," Lu Ten teased, rolling his eyes.

"Just-give-that-to-" Zuko began, hopping, waving his hands, and trying to get Lu Ten to yield. Lu Ten waved the paper around, and at this point, Zuko wasn't sure if he was doing it for the stated purpose, or just to mess with him a bit. It didn't matter. The door flew open, unnoticed to both, until Ozai's dark voice crept over their skin.

"I must be dreaming, for I can't possibly be seeing two members of the Royal Family hopping about like a pair of brainless Hog Monkeys, or worse, plebeian children."

Immediately, all joking ceased. Lu Ten dropped into a bow on the floor, and Zuko knelt, swallowing hard.

"Dad," he murmured, face blushing bright scarlet.

"Uncle Ozai," Lu Ten said respectfully, his voice quivering, just a bit. When Ozai only frowned at him, Lu Ten inhaled, saying even quieter, "My Grace."

Seemingly pleased with making his nephew grovel, he turned his attention to Zuko.

"If anyone had seen the pair of you," he began to bite out, his displeasure abundantly clear, "You, of all people, my son-"

"It was me, Uncle," Lu Ten said, standing. "I was the one that caused him to act in such an unrefined way. My fault."

Lu Ten, when push came to shove, would always have Zuko's back. He'd take the blame, without fail, even if was Zuko's blame to shoulder. He looked after Zuko like that, and the thought that Lu Ten would stand against Ozai for him every time, let the consequences pile on himself, caused Zuko's heart to hurt.

"You're both grown men, and I should hope that Zuko can tell right from wrong himself, Lu Ten," Ozai said swiftly, his icy-cold gaze still fixed on Zuko.

"Of course, sir," Lu Ten said, and Zuko could see him hold back a long sigh. It was exhausting to navigate what Ozai expected you to say. But, Zuko thought, part of his father's whole...thing might have been to never be pleased with anything ever.

"Father, as Iroh may have told you, I have a proposal for you," Zuko said, rapidly rolling the sheet up, "If you'll hear it?"

"We should have time at the end of the meeting," Ozai said, and Zuko may have imagined it, but his tone picked up a little. "Come, you're making all of us wait."

'All of us' was a little extreme, Zuko thought, since this was a Royal Family meeting, which only meant that his mother, his uncle, his father, his sister, and Aang were sitting inside. Ozai made it seem as though Zuko and Lu Ten had kept hundreds of eager Lords and Ladies waiting.

Zuko bit back a snarky reply, wiping a smudge of ink on the back of his hand as he followed his father inside. Once both men were sitting, Ozai firmly shut and locked the door, usual per meetings.

"Zuko, it's impolite to keep us waiting," Azula snipped.

"I'm pretty sure that the day runs on the Fire Lord's schedule. You're all just early," Lu Ten said with a grin. Aang laughed. Thank Spirits, he needed to laugh more.

"While that may be," Azula didn't miss a beat, "He's not the Fire Lord."

"Yet," Zuko growled out, for it didn't seem like that fact had gone without saying, but more that Azula had purposely left the thought out. "Not the Fire Lord yet."

"Children," Ozai said once, and Zuko sat up straight. "If we may?"

The first part of the meeting, as it had been of late, was unbearably boring. The family talked about money, costs, and account issues. Iroh and Ozai argued about what things were worth re-gilding in gold, and what things could perhaps just be painted a shiny gold color. Iroh was petitioning quite heavily for jade handles on the new doors, to which Ozai was less than enthusiastic, and was partial to a warmer-colored stone. The meeting, in all, discussed things Zuko really couldn't care less about, and he was pleased to see even his mother trying to hide a yawn behind her hand.

After the reparations and costs of reparations, the talk slid into the report that the highest butlers and handmaids had drawn up. How many Lords and Ladies were staying with them, who was set to leave and arrive, who was the most important out of the list, what the chefs were planning on making for meals in the next week, and so on. Details that Zuko realized were the very structure of the palace, and therefore important, but details nonetheless that Zuko found drier than the deserts in Earth Kingdom. Things that, like his father, he'd assign to others to deal with on a day to day basis, and sign off on the sum of the ideas at meetings like this.

Finally, the review drew to a close.

"Zuko, apparently, has written up a proposal for us to hear," Ozai said, as though Zuko was about to give a 'show-and-tell' presentation.

"Oh, this ought to be good," Azula said with an exaggerated eye roll.

Zuko's eyes flickered nervously to Iroh. He gave his nephew a warm smile, and that gave Zuko the courage to stand.

He'd been sitting on this idea for a while now.

No, that wasn't quite right. He'd been sitting on this frantic worry for a while now, ever since the palace attack, that the idea that his beloved home was not as safe as he thought it once was. But, it hadn't been until two days ago, on the boat with Katara and Sokka, and yesterday, with Aang, that all the pieces he needed to do something had fallen into place.

He'd left Aang, Aiga, and Shoji to their own devices last night, all but running to his uncle's room.

Once, as a very young child, he'd been under the illusion that there was no safer location anywhere in the world than the capitol. It seemed laughable to think otherwise.

And, if he was being honest, this belief held within him up until the attack on the palace. He was becoming more aware of the different cracks in the system as more responsibility was given to him, but still, he'd never imagine the death and destruction that his home could have ever weathered.

As much as his father may try to pretend like they had it handled, they didn't. Anyone that was so lucky to look at the reports would see that. It was all one big farce.

Most of Zuko's family could handle themselves. Lu Ten, Iroh, Aang, Azula, Ozai...they were all gifted benders and better fighters. It was only his mother that he worried for, but he knew his Uncle would never let harm come to her.

His key concern was the ladies here.

Even if some of them were gifted in battle, many were not. It was wildly irresponsible to keep the ladies huddled here, like turtle-ducks in a barrel, just waiting for another attack, which could happen when they were less secluded, or it was daytime, or they were the focus of the attack.

Keeping them all in one big group, in a palace that had already proven that it was not impenetrable, seemed like they were just asking for the Equalists to really make a statement by slaughtering the entire year's Choice competitors.

And, after everything, this had been a worry that he hadn't seen a logical end to, or one he liked, at least.

The most logical solution was to pick a lady, marry her, and send the rest away.

Zuko didn't want to do this, since Katara wasn't agreeing to marry.

Plus, it seemed rude to make a hasty choice - of the future Fire Lady - out of fear, and he was gripped with the terror that he'd pick wrong. Someone who wouldn't be a good mother of the people, someone he'd grow to hate, someone he didn't know enough about.

But then...then on the boat, Katara had stated that most of the ladies had only ever been to the Capital, apart from their own cities. He recalled it was common for the Prince to take the ladies on a trip to one location outside of the Palace.

At the time, it had just been...a flutter in the back of his mind. Transporting the group as one large sum to another place was as foolish as keeping them here. Plus, staying there for a long time as was common would create the same issues as the Palace.

It wasn't until he'd been with Aang, pouring over maps, and trying to discuss how to make this trail for the Airbenders, to get them from wherever they were to the Swamp or other strongholds.

That's what had sparked it, this idea. An idea that would kill two birds with one stone.

He'd gone to Uncle at once.

There were, of course, things he couldn't say to his father about the plan: Father, I want to do this to make sure the Ladies stay safe because I don't trust you, nor your men. Even beyond that, there was the undercut that he couldn't say directly to his Uncle; While on location, I want to try to build up this underground passageway, so I can knowingly aid Airbenders and procure safe passage for them.

Still, his uncle seemed to know, and together, they spent the entire night working to perfect this proposal. There was no time to waste.

"Most Honorable Fire Lord," he said, bowing to his father, per custom. "I wish to begin a tradition that is built upon a common Choice occurrence, but make it my own. As you know - both you and Uncle - it is expected that the Ladies visit with the Prince to a location to get a wider appreciation for the land, and stay there for a moon or two. I propose something different, but I feel, more applicable."

He paused, trying to gauge his father's face. His father's only reaction was a raised eyebrow, but this in itself was unexpected enough to give Zuko the courage to continue to speak.

"In a time of such unrest in all of our territories, it is imperative for the Royal Family to have a strong presence across the land to set the people right. To let them know that despite the minor inconvenience of the attack, we will not allow anyone to walk over us. I know you had been in discussion over who to send; yourself? Lu Ten? I would like to offer myself, along with Kuzon when his travels permit. Kuzon is a good diplomatic, you can't deny that. As I went out with Uncle so many years ago, I would like to do so again. But, since I realize I do have a competition to honor, I want to allow the ladies to come with me."

"What? Pick up the whole competition and just send them to spirit's knows where?" Azula snorted.

"No, not all of them," Zuko said, shaking his head. "Small groups. Each lady would submit applications to which locations they wish to travel with me to. There is no limit to how many they can choose. There's no limit how many I would take. I anticipate we'd maybe take three or four per location. We would make it clear that we'd expect work from them, nothing past what we'd ask mother herself to do. It will be good practice for the future Fire Lady, as well give me a chance to observe them in this role. We would pick who we feel would be the best fit, or who has the best reason, for each location, and we'd be accompanied by a convoy of guards wherever we went. Also, having Kuzon there would ensure that, well, no honor codes are broken."

It would be, he reasoned, easier to protect two or three ladies at any given time than nearly twenty.

"It would send a message to any location we visited, one that will be seen two different ways; for those that are thinking of a coup, to show that we will not allow that. For those that feel neglected, it will be an honor for the Crown Prince and a possible future Fire Lady to visit and help in small ways."

And, he thought, with Aang there, we can be slyly looking for merchants, people with transportation, those willing to help, as well as looking for Airbenders. It's perfect!

Silence.

Zuko coughed, looking over his notes, making sure he got everything.

"It's good of Zuko to take the initiative, brother." Uncle Iroh was the first to speak.

"Or is he just reading your fine writing?" Ozai accused.

"While it is true that I helped him refine it, the ideas, the language, the intricacies are all Zuko," Iroh said, a tinge of annoyance in his voice. "You should not think so low of your own son."

It was true...mostly. Iroh had this annoying habit of asking very leading questions and never giving a straight answer about much of anything. Of course, it led Zuko to coming to the realizations that were necessary himself, and thusly writing them, but the night may have gone a lot faster if Uncle had just told him what he was thinking. Still, it made him overly prepared for this morning.

"I think he should go," Azula said after a moment. "The girls are getting so tired, being kept in here like cat-mice in cages."

"I didn't know you cared, Azula," Aang said with an even face.

"About a few, sure," Azula shrugged. "But father, you must admit, it is not nearly the worst plan he's ever had."

Zuko tried not to send an incredulous look Azula's way. Why was she helping him?

"And what if there is another attack here?" Ozai asked.

Zuko tried to look as terrifying as Ozai did. "Do you expect there to be another one, father?"

"Oh, Ozai, it would also be different for the girls," Ursa urged. "It would be good for them to see territories beyond what they're used to. You recall that on my first year as Fire Lady, I didn't know the difference between Northern Earth Kingdom customs and the Southern, and a trip like this would save the capitol and the Royal Family embarrassment."

Zuko could have sworn his father nearly blushed. He tucked this away to ask Iroh later. He'd never heard of this, but from the frown on his father's face, apparently it had been a big faux pas on his mother's part.

"I have compiled a list of locations that I feel most need our attention, father," Zuko continued. He wasn't going to let his father make a fool out him at any point in this, he'd told himself. He had mountains of research and late-night markings to prove how much he'd thought about this. Nearly seven straight hours of making sure this was unflappable. "As well as a hesitant plan of when we would go to them."

He flourished a secondary, smaller, parchment from in front of the one he was reading off of, handing it to his dad.

Ozai accepted it. His face was still thoughtful, which Zuko thought maybe he'd won him over.

"Do you have the full proposal too?"

"Yes, of course, here," Zuko tried not to stumble over himself to give it to him.

"I will read this over, although I cannot find much fault in it currently," Ozai said, which to Zuko meant that he was pleased. A weird feeling filled his chest. He should have been feeling relieved and happy; this was high praise from Ozai. Instead, the compliment felt twisted, dark, and unsatisfying.

Zuko shoved it down.

"If there is nothing else to discuss," Iroh began slowly, "I would very much like to go to lunch. This meeting has been long and dragging."

"Quite." Ozai waved a dismissive hand. "Zuko, I will read through this tonight and have a reply back to you soon."

"Oh, yes, thank you." Zuko was still feeling caught off-guard. For all his planning, for his father to have been...pleased or receptive to this was the one thing he wasn't expecting. He was expecting that he'd have to fight with Ozai for any sort of allowance on this front. To have near respect given to him was, frankly, the most startling thing he could imagine.

Azula was hanging behind. He didn't imagine she helped him out of the goodness of her own heart.

Aang must have seen his expression, for he came up close to Zuko.

"You know, with you out of the palace so often, it would be easier for her to drum up support to have you cast aside," Aang said, causing Zuko's stomach to clench.

"Damn," he hissed. "I wonder if I could convince Father to have her come with me on some of the longer missions, ones where I may be gone for a week at a time."

Aang gave a tired-looking shrug. "Worth asking. Maybe Uncle Iroh can help convince him again. Your dad's been tough on Azula lately, maybe he'd be just as glad to get her out of the palace."

"Yes, but that means we'd have to deal with her," Zuko groaned, wincing as they exited the meeting room to walk to the lunch location.

"Sure, but it's easier to keep an eye on one person in a group of like six than in a palace of thousands," Aang said wisely.

Zuko rubbed his chin, biting the inside of his cheek. "I hate how you're right," he muttered. "I will bring it up with Iroh if my father approves this. Keeping Azula here in the palace, practically alone, is no good either."

He nodded to Shoji as they passed him standing, and Shoji peeled off the wall to walk with them.

"Were you up late last night? Did you...find what you were looking for?"

"We began to, yes," Aang confirmed. "But there are no guarantees to any of our traces. Katara, she…"

Aang looked around, before furtively pulling the pair into a small closet.

"Cozy," Shoji said dryly, which was an understatement, considering the closet was maybe fit for some buckets and soap. Three grown men squished in the closet basically meant they were chest to chest. If anyone opened the door, it would be impossible for courtly gossip not to come of it. Oh, the whispers would be wild. Zuko, in a tryst with not only a distant cousin, but a guard too? Or, maybe just the guard. Maybe Shoji was with both of them?

It didn't matter, but Zuko still thought about the impossible scenario anyhow.

"Katara asked me a bit ago if I could open Yue's waterbending abilities, since it stands to reason that she has them, but they are blocked somehow. At the time, I thought it too risky, since I fear I'd have to go into my Avatar State. I still think it's risky, and I'm not planning to do that, but I don't want to go into the state for nothing, if I can't do it anyway, or if Katara is wrong and there are no abilities to be had."

"What are you thinking, then?"

"Well, there has to be a way for me to feel her powers, to know if they even exist. Katara's been showing me water-healing. I may be able to tap into it without going into the Avatar State, just to see. And I feel like I have to, because then, I could perfect it to know if someone's an airbender just by touching them, if I get good enough at reading the powers, if that's a thing that happens. It would make it easier to find them. Or, to know who might be next up for a...metamorphosis…" Aang's forehead was deeply creased.

"Are we telling Princess Yue about this?" Zuko asked.

Aang's wince said it all.

"Oh, great. So you're just going to touch her - not weird at all - or sneak into her room while she's asleep, even better. She wakes up to you above her and-"

"Shush!" Shoji slapped a hand over Zuko's lips. "You're getting loud!"

"Toph knows an herb that causes heavy drowsiness. If we put it in her tea at dinner, she'll fall asleep for the whole night, unable to wake even if there was a hurricane coming through," Aang said hurriedly. "Toph's room is right next door. I'm going to...hide in her room until night falls, and then just go right next door. Yue is trusting enough that she never locks her door, so." Aang seemed nervous. Rightly so. "And I'll just see. That's all I'll be doing."

"And if she does? WIll you switch it?"

"Yes. No. I don't know. Not tonight, for sure. Maybe later. But maybe she has the choice, or she should." Aang picked at his nails. "I just thought I should tell you."

"Damn right," Zuko said. "Spirits...okay, yes, I get why. Fine. Just be smart about it."

He carefully unlocked the door, peeking out. No one was around. Three teenagers stumbled from a very small closet.

Aang wiped the wrinkles from his shirt, Shoji fixed his helmet, and Zuko just ran his fingers through his hair.

"If Toph is wrong and this goes south, even I don't think I could save you, if Yue wakes up to 'Kuzon' creepily standing over her," Zuko warned him a low hiss.

"I get that," Aang snapped back. He inhaled. "I know," he said quieter, "It's not a perfect plan-"

"An awful one, actually."

"But it's what we got."

Zuko winced, thinking of all the half-baked ideas he'd taken on in just the last half a year or so. "Yeah. There are a lot of those going around."

XXxxXX

Sometime in the middle of dinner-time, when a third of the girls were with the Royal Family and the rest were most likely to be seeking their own food elsewhere, Toph let Aang, Shoji, and Sokka into her room. At first, Aang had just expected it to be himself, however Sokka and Shoji were adamant about being 'in' on this.

It seemed like the only one who wouldn't be participating was Zuko, but he couldn't very well vanish for most of the night, hiding out in a contestant's room. Zuko wasn't supposed to be in any of their rooms.

Aang was sure Zuko had been to Katara's room for multiple reasons on multiple nights, but that was neither here nor there, and too much for Aang to judge anyway.

As it was, the trio was banished to Toph's closet, where they leaned against the walls, trying not to disturb the dresses she never wore and waited for night. Sokka had the foresight to bring a small chip game, made out of painted slices of shell. He taught the boys a couple variations and they just waited, and waited, and waited.

It was cramped and uncomfortable, and soon Shoji and Sokka were deep into a strategy game, something Aang had never been good at. He was good at speaking of peace and finding the best in people. Strategy and subterfuge just frustrated him, as well as frustrated his lack of understanding of it. Why couldn't people just be…good?

For as many places we find light, it cannot exist without dark too, Yangchen spoke quietly, and Aang batted the air as though dismissing the spirit of her.

He'd turned away temptation his whole life. Sure, he was the Avatar, but was he a good person because he was the Avatar, or was he the Avatar because he was a good person? People had the ability to do great things, he mused, if they let goodness guide their hand. And, not just goodness, but traits like honor, trust, love, restraint-

Restraint and temptation, huh? Kyoshi said, her tone almost teasing as an image of Ty Lee flooded his brain.

Aang ground his teeth, pressing his palms to his eye socket and blowing air through his nose hard in frustration. That was hardly fair of them. He was, despite his mental wisdom, in the body of a sixteen-year-old boy.

"You okay?" Sokka looked up.

"Fine," Aang snapped, probably doing a poor job of convincing them, dragging his hand to his chin but keeping his eyes screwed shut.

"Uhm," Shoji snorted.

Aang flopped backwards, the skirts of the dresses softening his fall, groaning. "You remember when your parents gave you the talk?" Aang asked.

Shoji made a noise in the back of his throat. Sokka seemed to give a full body shiver.

"My dad showed me. Ew, not like that! He showed me seal-elk mating season. So much flub, so much moaning. It for sure made the idea of any sex at all very unappealing, let me tell you!" Sokka explained. "But don't monks…"

"I knew the vague details, but it was Zuko. It wasn't comfortable." Aang rolled on his side to face his companions. "But point being, even with meditation, I'm a guy and these Avatars…"

"Oh." Shoji was looking at Aang with horror.

Sokka tugged on his wolf-tail.

"Well, maybe we can turn it into a positive. They must have mad skills, you'd think. Like thousands of years of practice. Maybe they can give you some pointers." Sokka shrugged.

"I do not want to know that stuff. It's like finding out about your parent's sex lives," Aang said firmly.

"But they're you?" Sokka pointed out. "I bet you five golds, Shoji, that Aang's like some sex god."

"Forget I said anything!" Aang said loudly, realizing that this was bound to go downhill with Sokka here.

"Do'ya think they'll give him the room when he finally gets a moment? Or will they just be giving him pointers in his-"

"Stop it, seriously! And no one up here answer," Aang said. Spirits. It was much easier when he was 12 and he liked girls but he didn't like the idea of doing anything past kissing with them.

"I-"

"You boneheads are so loud," Toph said, throwing open the closet door. "You all ready?"

"Are you sure it worked, Toph?" Aang hurried up, glad for a distraction. "I mean...that you put the right dosage in, because you're…"

"Aiga did it, ye of little faith," Toph said, offended. "She's in there now. Yue is out like a light. And I seriously mean O-U-T."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Shoji asked.

"Where's Ty Lee?" Aang was glad that Sokka asked, so he didn't have to.

"On the way out, Mai cornered her. Asked her for...well, girl talk is probably a stretch. Ty Lee couldn't very well say no," Toph said.

"Ugg. Good luck with that," Sokka winced. No one really liked Mai. Aang wasn't even sure Ty Lee, who was the nicest person around, actually did.

"What time is it?" Shoji asked. Toph's room was usually dark, obviously, as things like candles were just useless to her.

"Maybe two or three hours to moon high," Aang observed. "So, likely, not many will be awake."

"Are we going?" A new voice whispered from near the door. Katara. "Or are we just going to sit around and gossip about the time like old ladies?"

Right. This whole mission was better to be done quickly and efficiently.

Aiga was standing with Katara. She was slipping a small key back into her bun, hiding it effectively, in the case that the door had been locked.

"Oh, wow, it is open," Shoji murmured as Yue's door swung in. Katara and Aiga herded everyone inside, before closing the door. Aang threw a look across the hall to Ty Lee's room, wishing she was here too. Sokka took a chair and placed it under the handle, after manually locking it.

"Don't want to leave anything to chance," he hissed when Katara rolled her eyes at him.

"We sure she's asleep? Like, really asleep?" Aang asked nervously. Toph stomped over, waved her hand over her face a couple times.

"Yeah, I think she's out."

"You're blind," Shoji snorted.

"But I can hear her heartbeat. Totally calm, even. No changes. Asleep," Toph shot back.

"Okay," Aang whispered, motioning for them to stand down. "So, uhm." He fidgeted at Yue's bedside.

"Agni, you don't know what you're doing, do you?" Sokka whispered, dragging fingers down his face.

"Sorta! I mean, vaguely. I mean…" Aang winced. "It's a mixture, I figure, of water-healing and chi-bending," he said, looking to Katara. The spirits in his head were offering no help, as no one had ever had the need to find this out before, or even attempt it.

"Ty Lee had showed me something a while ago, thank Agni, since she's not here," Aang spoke again, recalling how she'd pressed two dainty fingers to the hollow of his neck, and how at the time - back when they were on the cusp of children to adults - he hadn't had a reaction. Now, even just thinking back of the memory made his blood warm.

"I can, well, feel her soul. Ty Lee called it my aura. In the neck hollow."

"There?" Katara asked. She took a tendril of water from the bedside water cup, placing it over the area that Aang was gesturing to. It began to glow. "Take over, Aang."

Aang stood beside her, coating his fingers with water and pressing into the warmth of the healing. He took two fingers, just as he'd watched Ty Lee doing, pressing lightly to her neck, just the lightest amount. At first, he felt stupid just sitting there, just pressing her neck. He almost pulled back, he almost called it quits, thinking that maybe this wasn't going to work and they had to just call it a day. Then, it's like Yue's soul- awake, even if her body was not- was pulling him through here. He could feel his physical body still above her, pressing down, but his spiritual self was dragged to where her soul resided.

It was like he was in the backseat of Yue's body, such as when he let another Avatar take over. He didn't have any access to her arms to move them, and he couldn't read her mind, but he was sitting in front of every other part of her. It was like he was in a great white expanse, and echoing around him he could hear her heart thumping. In front of him was a slightly glowing blue ball. He walked toward that, reaching out.

He felt many things. He could feel her blood under her skin, like how one would go about healing. He could feel her heart beating. He could feel her inhale, the exhale.

And, beyond that, he could feel something else. It was so faint, that at this point, he couldn't quite reach it.

He pressed a little harder with his physical fingers. Inside Yue's soul, his fingers brushed over the glowing ball.

Yes, it was power. It was hard to catch, for he didn't want to choke her, but he dismissed all his other thoughts and went into a quasi-meditative mode. The sensation became sharper, now. Not complexity clear and readable, but sharper.

Aang tasted fresh snow. He tasted summer rain, pattering on a tin roof. He tasted a babbling stream, chirping as it glided over mossy stones. He tasted the water in all things. He tasted coolness that lingered over his whole body.

What he felt, too, was a thread, tied to it. If he pulled hard enough, he wondered, maybe he could…

Like someone clapping their hands loudly over his head, he was shut out without warning.

Aang stumbled back.

"Well?" Katara asked nervously.

"I...I think..I need to…" he said, struggling to form words. His eyes snapped to Katara. He re-wetted his fingers, going to try to feel Katara's throat too. She, understandably confused, stumbled back a bit, knocking into a piece of furniture.

"Sorry, I just, I need to feel someone else's to-"

"Oh, yeah, I was just startled," Katara blinked.

"Let's move this party back to my room, eh?" Toph suggested. "We don't want noise in here. But bumping and groaning coming from a blind girl's room? Per the norm."

Sokka gave a strange cough, but Aang hardly thought about it. Aiga looked curiously at Sokka, a small grin widening across her face. Sokka shot her a dark look. He looked to Katara, and then shook his head. Katara didn't see the exchange.

The group hustled back into Toph's room. When there, Katara emptied a water skein into a bowl, holding it out to Aang.

He gratefully dipped his hand in.

When he did the same experiment to Katara, he had the same exact emotions overwhelm him. The same thread, though he dare not pull on it.

He pulled away, flicking one hand, watching the water fall onto the carpet.

"I'll need to try this to all of you," he murmured. The Avatars were rushing in his mind to make sense of the information, though no faster than Aang himself was.

"Aang, what's going on?" Shoji looked concerned.

"I just need to...let me try it on at least Toph and Aiga right off, and I'll explain," Aang said.

As soon as Aang pressed his fingers to Toph's neck, applying pressure, she giggled. "Kinky."

"Ack, Toph!"

"Sorry, sorry. I'll be good, Twinkle-Toes," Toph promised.

When he delved in, at Toph's core, he tasted upturned earth warmed by the sun. He tasted red clay, malleable in someone's palm. He tasted slick mud, underneath the foliage in a forest. He tasted cool stones, laying under the shade of a mountain cliff. He felt the string.

He spent less time at Toph, fearing another comment.

Aiga was waiting patiently.

When he delved into Aiga, he felt...nothing. Not a complete absence, not a desolate wasteland, but no strings and no tastes. Just her body, human, average.

Not average in the sense that she wasn't entirely instrumental to helping them, to helping him. For that, he was eternally grateful. He knew Aiga was not one to be underestimated. But when it came to powers, she was indeed average.

"Aang?" Katara prompted.

More used to the feeling, and the process, Aang slicked his fingers for Shoji.

"When I went into Yue's soul, I guess, I could feel waterbending," he explained.

Shoji tasted like burning embers. Like a warm fire. Like lava smoldering as it crept along. He wondered if he felt Zuko's soul, for instance, it would be more overpowering. Shoji was a good firebender, but he wasn't a great one. Katara and Toph's souls were strong. Toph was a master bender. Katara had the potential. He considered that for as much as Shoji may practice, perhaps his soul wasn't built to be more than a slightly above-average bender? "And I felt a...well, like a piece of string, tied to it." He stepped back, wiping his hands on his pants. "When I started tugging, I was more or less shoved out. I didn't have enough power."

"So you do have to go into the Avatar State to access her waterbending," Katara finished, frowning and nodding to herself.

"Well, yes. No, because…" Aang chewed on his lip. "I think it's already...been accessed."

There was silence.

What?" Katara finally sputtered, "But she told me-"

"I think it's new. It felt new. I can't describe it, other than 'new'. Your soul and hers felt the same, at least with bending, Katara. Yours felt like a familiar song, whereas her felt more unsure. I think she doesn't even know it's there. It probably happened during the attack," Aang rushed to clarify.

"And feelin' us all up?" Toph prompted.

"I wanted to make sure there was a difference between the elements. There is. With Aiga? I mean, nothing. Just...no bending anywhere."

"None of my family, at least in five or six generations, were benders," Aiga confirmed.

"What would you feel with Sokka, then? Because my parents weren't benders, but they gave birth to me."

"It would probably be faint, or just not there. Not at his soul," Aang said, "Because, well, he's not a bender."

Aang looked at Sokka, who shrugged, pulling down his shirt. "I like not being a bender. No magic for me, you know," Sokka said cheerfully.

Aang pressed in.

"Yeah," He said, about to withdraw, "Like Aiga. Noth-"

But it wasn't nothing. He could taste water too. At first, he thought maybe Katara was right, and it was just buried for the next generation, but then he realized he also felt a thread.

It was at this moment he realized everyone else's threads had been on his right. Sokka's was on his left. As he began to tug at Sokka's, the water became a clearer feeling, like he was tugging back a curtain and letting light shine in. The sense of the spirits started swimming through him, in Sokka.

He felt the tension and pulled himself out before he was shoved away, as in Yue.

"Oh." That was really all he could say.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sokka demanded frantically.

"You're a waterbender."

"What? No, I swear, I'm not." Sokka looked so taken off-guard that it sort of terrified Aang.

"That came out wrong. You could be. Bending is like a switch, I think. Tug it off or on. Yours is just...off. Katara's is on. It could be turned on."

"Holy shit," Katara whispered beneath her fingers. She was shaking.

"So." Toph clapped her hands. "What we've learned today is that Yue already is a waterbender and Sokka could be one. Did this actually do anything except show us none of us know anything?"

"Yes," Aang nodded, "Because now I can feel who is an Airbender. I can refine it, so I don't have to do it through the throat. And, I can see who might become one next."

"What do you mean 'next'? Children?"

"No, them. I think every time I go into the Avatar State, strings are tugged over. I mean, it makes sense. I'm connecting to the Spirit World, bending is spirit gifts in human bodies...so…" Aang gave a shrug.

"Makes sense, I think." Shoji scratched his head. "Are we...uh, flipping his switch?"

Sokka's eyes swung to Shoji, wide as the moon.

"I don't think we can risk going into the Avatar State again." Katara luckily spoke up as Aang fumbled for some explanation. "It was too dangerous the last time, as it was!" She seemed just as spooked and unsettled about Sokka becoming a bender. She was looking at him with guarded eyes. Aang knew a large part of her identity had been the fact she was the only bender in the South. If that was taken away...

Aang just have a nod.

"Yeah, she's right," Toph said. "We don't want to draw attention to Twinkie's true self. Er, sorry, Sokka."

"Fine, yeah, nope, that's, nope."

Aang had never heard Sokka quite so inarticulate.

"What now?" Toph asked.

"Well, I guess we go about our day," Shoji said. Toph flipped him off, which Aang though was an extreme reaction. Then again, she was an extreme person.

"No, literally, I mean what right now. Aiga and Sugar Queen here go back to their rooms, but you three?" She spun to Aang, Shoji, and Sokka.

"Damn, we didn't think about that," Shoji winced.

"Back into my closet you go until morning, I suppose," Toph said, and Aang groaned. That sounded awful.

"I'll bring over some extra pillows from my bed," Katara said, casting the trio a sympathetic look.

"It will be fun," Toph said, sniggering, "Like a slumber party."

"Or, you'll all just go to sleep," Katara corrected with a narrowed look.

"That sounds fine to me," Aang admitted.

As Aiga collected Katara's bedding and Shoji started arranging it, Katara gave Sokka a deep hug. He hugged back, a tender moment that Aang looked away from. He wanted to say something to the Southerner, but frankly, didn't even know where he'd begin.

Chapter Text

Katara was scribbling away in the gardens when Zuko found her. She was consolidating the knowledge from the morning lesson with Piandao, having found that manually scribing it helped to secure it in her mind. It was hard to write what Sokka was learning in his classes, since a lot of it was doing instead of 'knowing,' but she managed. She had gone up against Sokka once, and he won.

She was happy for him. He needed a good weapon, something other than a boomerang.

Her mind continued to wonder to Zuko. She was contemplating how to get back at him for that stunt at lunch.

Sitting on his lap in the meeting was her original idea, but upon consideration, that had been among friends. It wasn't the same was Katara spitting up her soup in front of the whole Royal Family and her competitors. Plus, she got the feeling that Zuko enjoyed her action. He probably wasn't even all that upset about it.

Katara needed to up her game.

It needed to be something public, but not something she was obviously trying to do. Part of the reason why the dinner thing had worked so well was because no one knew that Zuko was doing it.

It needed to be something that would cause him mild embarrassment, but nothing that would get him in trouble with his father.

It needed to be simple, or else it would just be obvious how much effort she'd put into this.

Why was thinking of anything within these parameters so difficult?

"Princess Katara!"

Zuko's voice was light, despite the formal title. It was tinged with a humor that made Katara's cheeks blush and her heart race at how glad he was to see her, how the smile on his face seemed to brighten the nearer he got to her.

"Prince Zuko, hello." Katara set her quills to the side, standing up to greet him. He lifted her fingers and gave her a soft kiss on the back of her hand. It was hardly the most scandalous thing they had done. They'd been together in ways far more intimate than something as silly as his lips pressing to her warm tanned skin, but the zing of electricity it sent up Katara's back reminded her of their first kiss. There was something very quiet in the motion, something far more personal than one may think. Katara liked it. She liked kissing him more, but it would hardly be proper in a garden so public, so this would have to do.

She wasn't complaining.

He looked around, and she could see his shoulders relax when he realizes they are more or less alone.

"Katara, I," Zuko was still holding her fingers. "I was looking for you."

"And you've found me," Katara purred. "Should I maybe reward you for that?" she asked, blinking up at him innocently, but her lips curling tell a different story.

She had stepped up close to him, enough so she could see his adam's apple bob as his brain worked through her words.

"Kat." His breath hitched, and he seemed ready to pull her against him, into a small alcove or a forgotten meeting room, but he placeed an inch of space between them. "I wanted to talk to you. I have managed to carve out some space in my schedule, so I will be continuing on with dates with the ladies in an effort to...well, to do as you wish me to do."

"Oh." Katara frowned. Her brow knit. She wasn't sure why this seemed to catch her off guard. It was what she told him to do. "I mean, okay? You didn't have to tell me," she assures, because it would be crazy of her to expect him to inform her before every moment with another girl, not when she knows he's still supposed to be choosing one of them.

"I know, I well." He bit his lip. "I thought I should be the one to tell you, unlike the last time. The first girl I'm taking out on another date is Mai."

Katara thought that there were two ways she could take this info. The first, and the one she wanted to do, was to cuss a little and get angry. He was coming to tell her in a motion of good faith, but it didn't mean she liked Mai. Hated her, really.

The second option, the one she knew was better to go with, still took a second to fully form. She paused, making sure she wasn't going to say something that would get her into a fight with Zuko.

"You couldn't take Suki or Alcina out first?" she asked, attempting to put a tinge of humor into her voice.

"I have to take her on a date eventually, or cut her," Zuko pointed out. "And, despite your opinions - the one written all over your face - I actually...well, like her."

Katara was silent. So, Zuko kept talking. This hadn't been her intention, but she didn't mind the next words.

"Of course, it's hard for me to compare her to you, because you're...well, up here, and the rest are way down here." He makes a motion with his hands. "But Katara, we're...we used to be friends. I'm confident that maybe we can be friends again."

Katara pushed herself up on her heels, cutting him off with a quick kiss. "Zuko, it's fine. You can do on dates with whoever you want. And, I guess, I'm glad you told me."

Zuko relaxed. "Okay."

"However…" Katara raised an eyebrow. "I still think Suki is your best choice after me."

"I haven't forgotten," Zuko clipped, and she couldn't tell if he was upset with her interference. "And I will consider it."

Katara wanted to say more, but in the end, she could not think of anything that wouldn't lead to a big blow out. So, she just played with her fingers. She was a little upset Zuko said nothing else either.

"Enjoy your date," she whispered.

"Do you really mean that?" he asked.

Katara held back something between a laugh and a cry. "Don't ask questions you wouldn't like the answer to."

XXxxXX

Zuko attempted to shake off his frustrations with Katara as he walked to his date with Mai. A part of him wished he'd never even told her, since he sort of knew how it would end. Another part was glad he got it out of the way, because his ribs still ached from the fallout of the last time he went on a date with Mai and specifically hadn't told Katara.

He didn't want to admit it to Katara, but a part of him was...well, excited for this date with Mai. He could have put it off until he'd cycled through the girls again, but he and Mai had been friends once. He was very much interested in seeing if they could be friends again.

On his way from stopping at his room to grab something for Mai, Azula slid out of the shadows.

Her eyes flickered to the item in his hand. She snorted.

"Going on a date with our darling Mai?"

"Uh, it's not a secret. Any of my attendants could have told you where I was set to be," Zuko said, trying to slide past her. His hands were itching after his minor quarrel with Katara. Oh, did he ever want to fight Azula. Or maybe just punch her. That is, if he found it honorable to punch girls, which he did not. Was Azula truly a girl, though? Or more of a cryptid? Answer unsure.

"Do you think you'd marry her?" Azula asked, coming into step beside Zuko. Zuko gave a shrug that told Azula nothing.

"Well, if she's still here, you have to like her-"

"Did Mai set you up to this? I thought Father strictly forbade you from interfering or trying to bend the competition in your favor." Zuko gave a shake of his head. "I know she's your friend, but honestly-"

"I think we're far past me 'interfering'," Azula pointed out, laughing. "And no, she doesn't have a clue. This is just for me."

"Oh?"

"Actually," Azula said, patting his arm in a motion that made him jump away from her, just out of practice. "I was going to say that I'm not sure Mai is the right one for you anymore."

"Really." Zuko said, absolutely dumbfounded. "But, as children you were impossible when it came to the two of us. I can't count all of the crazy plans you had for us to 'accidentally' get locked in closets together or 'accidentally' have to sit next to each other at dinner. It drove me mad."

"What can I say," Azula said innocently, "People change."

"Uh-huh. And what has caused this drastic shift?"

"Just...oh, intuition. I was actually going to ask what you think of Ty Lee."

"Ty Lee?"

"You know, as a wife."

Zuko held back a laugh. It ended up sounding more like a choking sound. Azula raised a single, manicured eyebrow at him, but waited for him to catch his breath. How kind of her.

Zuko imagined liking Ty Lee like that. Ignoring the fact that he knew how much Aang, his adopted kin, liked her, it was still almost laughable. Plus, Aang may be a pacifist, but he thought he might whoop Zuko's ass, or punch him, if he tried to corner in on Ty Lee.

But even from the beginning, there had never been much there.

It hadn't been like with all the other girls that he'd had an immediate reaction to. In those first brief interviews, if they hadn't interested him (among other key warning flags) he'd sent them home right away. He couldn't say Ty Lee had, but he'd kept her in from their friendship and history. She was also just so nice and Zuko had wanted a kind soul around the palace. He'd, in the beginning, had the hope that perhaps he could grow to appreciate Ty Lee in a romantic way from her caring personality, but it hadn't happened. Plus, Aang had made pretty clear - as much as he tried not to - that he cared for her more than normal.

At this point, the only reason he wasn't sending Ty Lee home was because she was entangled in the mess of the Avatar and there wasn't a reason to make her leave. She seemed to know - although he admitted he'd never asked her - that her fate did not end with Zuko.

"Do you think I'm stupid, Zula?" Zuko questioned. "All that reverse psychology. Just stay in your lane, huh?" Of course, Azula had to be pulling his leg. Getting him to think that Mai wasn't tangled up in Azula and then pick her. It would probably make Azula gleeful to see Mai on the throne.

"Zuko, truly, I am just looking out for you. Do you not trust me?" Azula gaped dramatically.

"No."

Azula laughed to herself. She patted his cheek.

"Probably wise. Except I'm being honest now, dear little brother."

Zuko didn't think it was worth pointing out he was older than her.

"Mhh. Well, I have a date to get to. Please, make yourself useful and…" Zuko frowned. He couldn't actually think of something useful Azula could do. "And just...scram."

"Ohh," Azula said, but started to slow her pace to let Zuko hurry away. "You're just a master with your words, Zuko."

As soon as she was out of sight, Zuko kicked a wall.

"Dammit, Azula!" he cussed under his breath. He left a little scorch mark on the wall. He felt a little bad about it, but he owned the wall, technically, so…

He shook his head out and told himself he was going to enjoy this date.

But what if Azula was telling the truth, and she knew something he didn't, and she was actually looking out for him?

Azula always lies.

Arg, she'd gotten in his head!

He stopped in an alcove, breathing in hard. He meditated for ten minutes, wiping away his worries. When Uncle had insisted that he learned proper meditation, Zuko had thought him mad. It was proving to be more useful than he'd ever guess of late, however.

He met Mai outside of the tea room, as they'd agreed.

She saw the bouquet of foxgloves in his hand, and for just a second, her eyes softened.

She offered up a quirk of a smile as she accepted them, her fingers rubbing over the petals.

"You remembered," she said.

"Considering when we were ten and I gave you roses and you set them on fire in front of me, I'd be crazy not to."

For all the fronts Mai put up, Zuko knew that - on rare occasions - Mai liked feeling girly and loved just as much as anyone else. It was probably the only romantic gesture he'd manage the whole date, but he was glad this one made her so pleased.

"You're late," she said, her face turning back to a frown. She punched his arm. Not lightly, either. When she punched, it was painful.

"Azula ran into me. Or, came looking for me. I don't know." He decided to test the waters. See if she'd react at all to Azula, if there was truly something that Azula could use to kick her from the competition. Instead, her face stayed impassive. Mai was nothing if not a good warrior. Of course she'd stay impassive.

"Oh? What did she want."

"Nothing important," Zuko said, telling himself Azula was just trying to get under his skin.

"So, where are we going?" Mai asked, walking respectfully next to Zuko. Close enough to indicate they were going somewhere together, but not touching him or his arm, like a good proper highborn lady. Zuko placed her hand on his arm; it was tradition for him to make the first move. She allowed it to stay there, but he could feel her relax just an inch as she moved close enough so her robes brushed his.

"I would say it was going to be a surprise-"

"But I hate surprises," Mai said, her voice devoid of any emotion. Sill, her eyes had a quiet glimmer to them.

"Exactly." Zuko rubbed his fingers over his remaining eyebrow, wincing even though the event they were both thinking about was six years ago and his eyebrow had grown back just fine. Mai noticed and tilted her head.

Zuko found himself wishing for more emotion. It was hard not to compare her to Katara, when all Katara often was was overpowering emotion. Even if she tried to quell it, often it still seeped through. If one didn't know Mai better, they'd think she was bored with the entire world. Well, she was a lot, but Zuko knew that she enjoyed certain things. She'd once even laughed with him.

This date was important in a lot of ways. Zuko was getting to the point where he needed to really examine all the girls carefully. If there wasn't any hint that they could return to the friendship they had as children, Zuko was sorry to say, but he'd have to let Mai go. He wasn't going to marry a girl he would feel estranged from.

"So?" Mai quirked an eyebrow.

"Shooting range on the first level of the city. I heard you've been practicing archery."

Mai tilted her head. "I've mastered throwing knives. I figured it was time for me to expand my skill set."

"Very logical," Zuko nodded. He helped her into the palanquin. It was maybe a twenty minute walk away. If he were with Katara, she'd insist they walk, to the horror of the guards. He didn't have to ask Mai. He knew she'd prefer to be carried.

"Is this acceptable?" Zuko asked.

Now that they were inside, alone, Mai sat right next to him instead of across the way. She nodded, letting herself grin a bit.

"Very much so."

Zuko let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding.

It was difficult, he wasn't going to lie. There was a lot of Mai to chip away, the Mai that had been raised to be dutifully married off to a highborn Lord, the Mai that her parents had molded her to be. Many Lords may find that more than agreeable. Zuko didn't want that. He wanted a friend in his wife.

He didn't want to overwhelm her, because he knew it was hard to shake the teachings that had been pounded into someone their whole life, but Zuko kept at it with small jokes and soft nudges to her arm, hoping he'd get her to reciprocate.

It was near the middle of their date, after Zuko managed to get a bullseye after a couple of very horrendously aimed arrows, that Mai actually giggled.

"There's hope for you yet," I'd say," she said, arming up again. Zuko had ensured that the range was empty except for them and the waitress bringing them fresh tea.

"Do I hear a joke?" Zuko asked, going over to the sheet and wrenching his arrows from it.

Mai gave a casual shrug, but he could see her usually porcelain cheeks reddening.

"A small jest," she said quickly. She knocked her arrow, but didn't raise it. She tried to, but then looked back at Zuko.

"Stop looking at me like that," she complained, but Zuko wondered if she was enjoying his quiet smile.

Zuko raised his hands in a 'not me' sort of way and purposely looked the other way. He watched her raise the bow out of the corner of her eye, but then she put it down.

"Do you remember," she started slowly, her words never raising above the soft lilt she had used her entire life. "When we were kids and Azula got in trouble for attacking that guard that 'looked at her weird'?"

"Agni, how can I forget?" Zuko barked out a laugh. It had been the first time that Azula had bled as a woman, and she hadn't quite figured out how to control her emotions. "My dad blamed me for it somehow, as though I was supposed to jump in between Azula and the guard and stop Azula. As though someone could stop Azula." He scratched his head. "It would be a bad memory, had you not intervened."

"It wasn't fair," Mai said. "Plus, I don't think your father truly knew what he was getting into."

"You told him that your cycles were synced and you were tempted to give your attendant an unexpected haircut at lunch," Zuko recalled. "My dad had no idea how to handle that admission, nor you talking so plainly about 'woman things'."

"Well, I had to do something," Mai said, and he saw a wide grin slip onto her face. "But, we both know that guard was completely looking at Azula weird."

"Well of course he was! Azula was burning all of her food to ash and then eating it. It wasn't normal," Zuko said.

"I got in so much trouble for that," Mai recalled. "My dad was furious. 'Mai,'" Mai mimicked in a low voice, "'It is unladylike to talk about your monthlies, in front of the Fire Lord, no less! I am completely horrified.'" Mai shrugged. "But, of course he said it with a completely straight face, and followed it up with saying, 'Can't you see how upset I am.'"

Zuko laughed so hard he snorted. This caused Mai to dissolve into laughter herself, forgetting everything for a second.

"Man, it's good to see you laugh," Zuko said, wiping his eyes.

Mai clammed up. Zuko tried not to wince.

She patted her cheeks, inhaling. Then, silently, she raised the bow and hit the target with scary accuracy.

As she returned from grabbing the arrow, Zuko sighed.

"Mai, you're enjoying this date, right?"

Mai frowned, looking upset. "Well, of course I am. Is that not obvious?"

Zuko considered what would be the worst option; lying or telling the truth. He was the Heir Apparent, he decided. Truth it was.

"Honestly? No. You're so hard to read these days. I hardly know if you even want to be in the competition or if it's your parents who want this."

Mai's frown deepened. At least she wasn't throwing knives at him yet, which maybe meant he hadn't horrendously screwed up.

"I want to be here, Zuko," she said slowly, as though he was a child, like it should be so clear. "Very much so."

"Oh."

"I...I hadn't not realized...it's…" She struggled against all of her professional teachings. "I would think it would be unbecoming of me to show my emotions so clearly. Crass."

"When have I ever cared about that?" Zuko asked, tilting his head. Mai seemed to be considering his words carefully, digesting them. Zuko had no idea what her next response would be. Instead of all the things he'd predicted, it was a soft string of four words.

"No, I suppose not."

XXxxXX

Katara didn't want to think about what his date with Mai was like. Was Mai tenderly holding his hand? Was she staring longingly into his eyes, while he stared back? Were they kissing?

Okay, all of those things seemed extremely unlikely to Katara, but she couldn't help thinking of them. Even imagining Mai doing normal Mai things with Zuko, like practicing her aim with her shierkins or painting happy things black grated at her mind, leaving Katara unable to do anything other than obsess over this damned date. Maybe it would have been better to just find out later, instead of him telling her beforehand.

She found herself aimlessly wandering around the castle, hoping to stumble upon something worth the effort or for an event to take her mind off things. She considered finding Sokka and challenging him to spar with some of the weapons, but she knew she was very distracted. It would be dangerous to be around sharp pointy things with her mind halfway somewhere else.

"Katara, hey!"

Katara blinked as Suki jumped in front of her path, wearing a casual dress.

"I was calling your name for like the past five minutes," she teased. "You were somewhere else entirely."

"I guess." Katara winced. "What are you up to? Practicing for the fights?"

As she'd walked around the palace, she'd run across a large number of girls practicing different fighting methods, reminding Katara of the steadily approaching date in front of them. Katara was nervous about that, but less so than most of the girls. A lot of these Palace ladies had never done anything violent in their lives.

"Oh, ha, no," Suki shrugged. "I mean, I'm concerned, but I'm also confident," she said. "Kyoshi prepared me for something like this."

"They prepared you for the day you'd have to fight one of your possible future in-laws?" Katara asked, a sly smirk creeping onto her face.

"Not that exactly, but for something like an Agni Kai," Suki said. She steered Katara off the path to a blanket where it seemed she'd just been enjoying the sun. There was an open ink pot and some parchment rolled, telling Katara she'd been writing home. "But to be honest, I don't know if even fighting in this will help me win this."

"Oh, you mean, Zuko." Katara said. It was easy to forget with her friends, such as Yue or Suki or Alcina, that they were all here to win Zuko's heart too. What once had been a commonality between the girls just left a bitter taste in her mouth. She doubted they'd step aside to allow Katara to win, as kind as they were, if the Prince proposed to them.

Maybe that's why she'd become so close with Toph of late. She knew that Toph had zero interest in Zuko at all.

Still, she didn't want any awkwardness between her and Suki. She genuinely liked the warrior.

"I told Zuko to marry you."

She wasn't sure where the words came from. Maybe, had she not been so distracted, she would have thought it through before blurting them. Or, maybe not.

Either way, the words tumbled out in a rush in some attempt to make sure that there wasn't any weirdness in their friendship. She wasn't sure it achieved that effect.

Suki snapped her head up, eyes widening.

"You...oh…"

At first, she just seemed shocked. Then, her whole face creased, like a parchment in someone's fist, as she just stared at Katara.

"I have been, since he proposed to me. I told him that I think out of everyone, you'd make a good Fire Lady. Fair, nice, kind...I know you'd treat him right. He deserves someone who really will. Not someone who just wants the throne. I don't think you do. I think you like him for who he is. He's so much more than just a title, and I think that at the end of the day, you could be the person he's real with. Ground him too. He can fly off the handle a little, needs someone earthy," Katara continued. "But, I'm sure you've thought of all this about yourself too."

"Well, I suppose, yes." Suki was still looking at her with a face that told Katara maybe she'd said the wrong thing.

"I didn't mean to overstep. Tui, I just...I wanted you to know that while we're both in a competition I don't want any of that cattiness. That, in truth, I'm gunning for you."

"I'm touched. Honestly." Suki seemed finally able to shake her head of that look. "I...thank you."

"I don't know if he'll listen," Katara whispers.

"He seems to listen to you a lot," Suki considers.

"Not about this. He'd only choose a wife he really likes."

Katara can see now why it might have been ill-advised to say something. She wouldn't want Suki to think she's been picked as a second choice, just Zuko listening to Katara.

"Katara, it's clear you care about him." Suki laughs a little. It seems a little forced. "The way you talk about him…" She shakes her head. "Can I...be frank?"

"I guess, since I was just maybe a little too honest with you, it's only fair."

"Zuko proposed to you. You denied it. He's head over heels for you, you're in really deep…" She seemed to be considering her next words very carefully. "You have to be prepared to lose him."

"I am!" Katara argued, "I told him to marry you!"

"You're not," Suki said sharply. "And I get it. Feelings don't just vanish. But I know that he's currently on a date right now with Mai, and I'd bet my place in this competition that's what's got your head so far away. You can't not think about it. Is this how you're going to spend the rest of your life if he really does marry me?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Katara scoffed, a little angry with her.

"Is it really, though?" Suki muses out loud. "You don't get to play with his feelings-"

"Hey!" Katara stood in a huff.

"That was maybe a little harsh, but damn it, Katara!" Suki grabbed her arm, forcing her to stay put. "You declined his proposal and you're still here. You think that any of the rest of us could get away with that? For as much as you're telling him one thing, your actions are saying another."

Suki's grip loosened and she sighed, tilting her head and looking at Katara. Katara bit her lip, trying not to get over-emotional about this. Somewhere, she knew Suki was right.

"Maybe," Suki whispered, "The best thing to do for him and his chance at truly loving someone else is to leave?"

Katara wanted to hate Suki. She wanted to shove her, fight her, make her recant all those words. But she couldn't. Not when Suki said it so delicately, not when she looked so pained to say it herself. Not when, deep down, they were the same thoughts that had been swirling around in her own mind.

"I'll think about it." It seemed like too little to say, but in reality, Katara would. She also needed to be alone. Suki's eyes searched hers before the girl gave a sharp nod.

Once her arm was free, Katara fled.

She found a space inside, near a closet of some sort, and she pressed herself against the wall, breathing hard. She didn't feel like crying, but something in her chest was constricting.

She wanted Zuko so badly. She didn't think it was possible for her to cut him away, not when he still wanted her here.

But a part of Suki had been right. She wasn't sure he'd ever be able to look past her to other girls when she was still around. A part of her hoped he wouldn't, that spiteful part of her that had gotten her in trouble so many times in the past.

But Katara was selfish. She wasn't sure she could take herself out of this game quite yet. Not until something else forced her out. If not Zuko, then Ozai, or losing the Agni Kai, or something she couldn't yet guess. At that point, she'd go. She'd go without a fight, she promised. She would leave so Zuko could move on, and maybe she too. She'd return home and rule her land and maybe cross paths with him once in a blue moon.

She felt better, even with this 'plan' that, in reality, was not a plan and was pretty vague.

Still, it felt like there was more of a moment she was hurtling toward when her time here would be done.

So, she had a choice.

She had - at the very least - maybe a couple more weeks here. If she somehow won her Agni Kai, maybe a couple months at best. In that time, she could go about her way two options.

One: she could pull back, restrict her interactions with Zuko. So that, by the time she left, he'd hardly notice her presence gone.

Two: she could be greedy of every part of him, soaking in the last time she'd ever get with him.

Would that be cruel, she wondered, to spend every moment with him, enjoy kissing him and dressing up as the Spirits with him, only to leave abruptly?

But, she argued, if she wasn't enjoying her time with Zuko now, why was she even still here? If she went with plan one, what was the point? Wouldn't it just be better to leave tomorrow if she intended to hardly speak with him above the minimum and not touch him?

Katara dropped her head into her hands and groaned. Things would be so much easier if he hadn't proposed and they could have just carried on without that milestone being...jumped over. If she was still just a constant, her presence wouldn't be such a difficulty.

She laughed, and considered that she might be going batty, and then laughed a little more.

She might be the only girl in this history of The Choice to be upset over a proposal from the Prince.

XXxxXX

"Did you kiss Mai?"

Zuko pulled back, frowning.

"In the middle of our make-out session, you're seriously wondering about me kissing someone else?"

Yes, when he put it like that, it did seem a little ridiculous.

Katara gave an uneasy chuckle, her fingers curling in the hair at the nape of his neck.

They were currently in one of the still-rubbled rooms from the attack, a room that had yet to be fixed and repaired, other than clearing out the debris. It had been Zuko's idea, or maybe Katara's, maybe both. Either way, it was a spot where they were unlikely to be interrupted.

If Katara was a better person, she'd encourage Zuko away from meeting her in secret shadowy spots, but in truth, maybe she wasn't.

And, she reminded herself, she might be a bad person in general, since she'd clearly been unable to enact option one for more than ten seconds after Zuko asked to meet up with her in the night, placing her in option two.

And, oh, was Katara enjoying him…

"Call me crazy, but I just have to know," she shrugged.

"I think you're a little jealous," Zuko whispered, nipping at her neck, his tongue flicking out to lick over the area his teeth had grazed. "And I guess I'm equally as crazy, because I'm liking it far more than I should."

"Zuk-oh!" Katara's tone pitched as he found one of her sensitive spots, biting it a little bit harder than before. She quivered, hands grasping at the stiff material of his robes, nails ranking on his shoulders.

"No, I didn't," Zuko breathed, panting. "And to be honest, my date with Mai isn't what I want to be talking about."

Katara just managed a hum, cut off as his lips dragged upwards, back to her own. She was sort of sitting in his lap right now, facing him, as he sat on a nearly un-destroyed couch. There were a couple scorch marks on it, but other than that, it was in good condition, enough for a pair of lovers to utilize for the hour they had.

Katara lifted her hands to his hair again, scratching his scalp as she tried to press herself closer to him, desperately. She was wearing one of her under-clothes sets and he still had on his day's outfit, and Katara wanted to reduce the number of clothes they were wearing to zero.

In a flash of a moment in which her hands were not connected to her brain at all, it seemed, her fingers began to fumble for the clasps of his ornately embroidered jacket. Zuko's response was to gasp a bit, and trail his hands down to the area right above her lower back, pressing his palms against her. It caused her to rock forward a bit, sending a shiver up both of their spines.

"What would you rather be talking about?" Katara asked, tearing her lips away to focus on the tiny and difficult sewn buttons. She managed to get them. Zuko seemed all too pleased to shrug off his jacket. He was still so warm underneath, but it was one step closer to his bare skin against her own.

"I don't really want to talk at all," Zuko admitted, his left hand tracing at the laces on her back, the ones that were really the only thing keeping her dress on her at the moment. She wondered if he was gathering the courage to yank it, but one look into his gold eyes told her he was more or less teasing her.

In the end, his fingers strayed back to her front. She wondered if it was truly because he liked to watch her squirm, or if he hadn't been ready for that yet. She certainly knew that from the pair of them, she was the more sexually advanced. Even if he was a boy, he could still be unsure about certain steps. Katara would never want to rush him. She enjoyed this just as much.

Zuko seemed to enjoy it as well; she knew how she affected him. She wanted him to be the one pushing the boundaries, though. She'd let him take the pace.

She'd pretty much agree to whatever he wanted to do, however far he wanted to go.

"Let me…" Zuko mumbled, and before he could finish his thought, he was flipping them so that she was now laying on the couch. He hovered above her for just a second before diving back in for more contact, his mouth frantically seeking hers, his hands gripping her waist. Katara wrapped her legs around his, sighing in bliss as she felt his hips thrust forward just a little bit, enough to give the ache she was feeling a momentary respite.

"Oh, gods," she whispered.

Zuko's nose nudged her jawline, when he exhaled, steam left perspiration on her skin.

"Mhh?"

"I just...I lo-"

Katara paused. She started, so suddenly that Zuko sat up off of her.

It had been like her lips hadn't been connected to her, either. It seemed, in general, when she was around Zuko, her body parts seemed to work without consulting her. She hadn't even known what she was about to say.

That's a lie. She did sort of know, even if she wasn't sure where the declaration was coming from.

"Katara." Zuko pulled her up to him.

"I...whew, can we go back to kissing?" Katara asked weakly.

His fingers laced with hers.

"Please finish that sentence. Please."

He was flat out begging. The desire and want in his voice overwhelmed her. Not the sexy type, but the desire for her, as Katara, and her emotions to be voiced. She hadn't ever considered until now the weight of any word, but this tiny four-letter one had Zuko completely unraveled, even if it was half-said.

Katara dragged her legs underneath her, clasping her palms over her lips.

"It's not fair to you," Katara argued weakly. This, though, wasn't fair. This whole situation. Nothing was. She didn't need to make it worse.

"I don't care," Zuko said heatedly. "Katara, please."

"You know this will end." Katara motioned between them. "It would be easier if we didn't."

Zuko was silent, his gaze fixated on her with such pain that it nearly caused Katara to say it, just to see his face brighten.

"Why," she asked in a low, quiet voice, "does it matter so much? Do you really want to hear it, even if it will just hurt you?"

"It matters," Zuko replied softly. "I would rather hear it said once, and know that I did hear it, than let you go without ever hearing it at all."

Katara's heart hammered.

"And, look, I'll...the last time, it all came out and we brushed it away, but I think we both knew. I love you Katara. Please, please, can you say it back to me?"

Somehow, Katara felt her emotions overwhelm her.

Maybe it was hearing him say those words so easily, when she was stumbling over them herself, that made her brain jump to an imagined scenario where they were married years down the line. She imagined he'd say that to her as they woke up in the morning, snuggling closer to her, and she'd be able to say it back as easy as breathing.

She didn't mean to cry. Agni, she hated crying, but this entire scenario was really frying her wits.

Zuko's eyes immediately widened in panic.

"Hey, hey!" He shushed and patted her arm gently. Seeing Katara cry must terrify him, she figured, since she was usually such a strong figure. "Look, I didn't mean to…pressure you...damn it. Look, you don't have to say it. You never have to say it, if you don't want to. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

He was so concerned, Katara couldn't help but laugh a little.

"Oh, Zuko," she breathed out, wiping her cheeks. "I'm not ready, but that's not why I was crying," she assured, and was relieved to see his shoulders sag.

"Then, what?"

"I was just...imagining this...us," Katara whispered. She didn't say the truth. The truth being that she didn't want to leave him. But it wasn't just him. She didn't want to leave her friends, or Aiga, or Aang, or the people of the town, or her Painted Lady costume. The world had become so much more full since arriving here. "And how hard it will be to leave." She decided this was the softer way to phrase it.

"It grows on you, I guess." Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "Despite annoying sisters and scary fathers. But, the palace is pretty. It has its perks."

"It's not even that, it's you," Katara said, feeling like Zuko deserved something. "I think, had we met differently, I still would be drawn to you. If we were two peasants or if I were an actual heiress and you were the commoner or any other worldly incarnation."

"We do work well together," Zuko said, and as his fingers led a trail up her arm, she considered how electrifying he always felt to her. "We make a good team."

"Us," Katara rephrased, "We make a good us."

That was the crux of it, wasn't it? Take away everything and she wanted Zuko, the person. Not the Fire Nation, not the politics, not the competition or the money. Just him. If there was any way this world could be reversed or she did not have to choose between her people and Zuko, she'd pick him. Without question.

"I think the hour is up," Zuko said, sighing. "I...thank you, Katara."

"I didn't say it," Katara said, frowning. Or, she hadn't said what he so wanted to hear.

Zuko re-buttoned his jacket. He gave a little shrug. "You said other things that mattered. So, maybe, you didn't have to."

Chapter Text

"I wonder what this big announcement is going to be," Saoirse twittered quietly to Yue as all the girls gathered in the sitting room they'd first filed into on their first day.

It had felt so crowded then, Katara mused. Of course, they were a good number of girls down from the original complete set, but the feeling of being alone in a difficult new setting had also made Katara feel very alone, even with 35 girls always around. There were still a lot of contestants - more than the Fire Sages would prefer at this stage - but it didn't feel like as many because Katara knew all these girls. She might not like all of them- she'd readily admit she disliked a handful - but the fact that she knew weird intimate details about all of them made the group feel smaller. More compact.

She gazed around at the girls sitting in their large skirts. Of course, Zhi had taken out the unnecessary chairs, but the places where friends had once sat still felt like they lingered. Like Eva, Katara thought with a depressed sigh. The letters between her and her Northern friend had been slow coming. She was blind now, so she could hardly blame her. Still, she was biting at the bit to make sure Eva was okay.

"Something huge, or else it wouldn't be so formal," Yue whispered back logically. It wasn't just the girls sitting here. The room was packed all around, even if the girls were sitting up front. Sokka was leaning on a back wall, having given up his seat for an elderly delegate from some tiny Earth Kingdom town. Hahn and Arrluck had been seated, but as soon as they'd seen Sokka graciously offer to stand, had jumped up to find an older and more in need delegate to offer their chairs to. Or, at least Hahn had. Arrluck had given his chair to a middle-aged woman, and Hahn had whispered angrily about something to him. Everything was a competition between the two Water Tribes. Katara would call them childish, but she also knew that if provoked, she would be just as determined to show Hahn up.

Point of the matter, this was a wide-reaching announcement, one that required everyone's attendance. Many of the delegates were in the room here. It did point to a large sort of event happening.

From across the room, Toph sent Katara a raised eyebrow look. It seemed to ask 'spill the beans, sis'. But Katara just shook her head back, hoping Toph picked up on it. She had no idea what was happening. Zuko had not given her any cues to what this was.

As Katara thought back, the only thing she thought of was how Zuko had suddenly left the room when they'd been pouring over the census reports. He had a funny look in his eye, that of a man who was planning something some might call mad, but he'd left so swifty that Katara had been unable to pick his brain. In the following days, she'd simply forgotten.

Until now.

She crossed her arms, sliding low in her seat. She was glad there were so many ladies, for if they were alone, Zhi would have been appalled at her posture, commanding her to correct it at once. Zhi was flitting around doing something else, something probably related to this, but Katara couldn't be sure. Zhi always seemed one task away from a colossal anxiety-driven breakdown, but that was just what Katara saw.

So no, she wanted to tell back to Toph, she had not the foggiest what was about to be announced.

There was a table set out in front, one that had been brought in for this. It was scattered with sheets of parchment and Katara wished she could peer up at what they were, but a set of guards stood stoically beside it, only allowing the Royal Family to view the sheets. They seemed to know what was about to be said.

Ozai didn't linger on it long, which soothed Katara's nerves. Anytime Ozai gave an announcement it always turned bottom-up. His track record with 'surprises' made Katara nervous whenever he was the one reading the proclamation.

"What's your wildest guess?" Suki asked Katara, nudging her shoulder. "The most ridiculous thing that you think they might say right now."

Alcina, on Katara's other side, laughed sharply, drawing the attention of a couple delegates two rows behind them. She stifled her amusement, trying to sober.

"Great fun! Hmm, lemme think…" she said over Katara.

"The sad thing is," Katara let a smile curl upon her face, "Is that with how ridiculous things have been, the most ridiculous guess may end up true."

"It is." Suki raised a finger. "If any of you manage to guess right, I'll convince the Warriors on Kyoshi to train you in our fighting style. Full out. Not many outsiders get that."

Katara admitted this was a good prize. Alcina's eyes were gleaming with excitement.

"If you get it," Alcina offered, "You can come train with the Fire Masters in my town. They're looking into how to incorporate other styles of bending into Firebending and currently they're studying old Airbending movies. It's very hard to get into these classes. My father helped start the school," she preened. Katara also agreed this was a good prize for Suki. She wanted Suki's more. She could simply have Aang teach her moves if she so wanted.

"Okay, best and most unimaginable guesses, go. I don't want something semi-plausible, I want 'never in a million years,'" Suki said, clapping her hand once.

"I think," Alcina swiveled around in her chair, humming, "That the Fire Sages have decided the competition is drawing on far too long and they've decided that the next Fire Lady to be named will be the most beautiful turtle-duck in the pond. They've decided that the rest of us will be paired up with the single delegates, lottery-style. I hope, if that happens, I get that silver-fox right over there. The Fire Nation dude that looks seriously ripped."

Katara and Suki dared a look behind them. Katara blinked, having never seen such an attractive older man before. Suki fake-fanned herself.

"You know, if he is single, perhaps Prince Zuko could make introductions for you," Suki winked. "You should get something nice out of this, eh?"

"I'm just saying..." Alcina rubbed her neck, blushing a bit.

"Okay. That was good. Me next," Suki offered up. "Hmm, I think they are going to announce that along with the fights, they'll be hosting a talent show to go along with it. Fire Lord Ozai will be performing with ribbons and ballet, Princess Azula will do a surprisingly moving and heart wrenching interpretive dance about a fire lilly caught in a sea storm, General Iroh and Prince Lu Ten will just get up there and make tea, Ursa will shock us with her abilities to play an instrument with her toes, Kuzon will read his erotic poetry he works on in his spare time, and Prince Zuko will do magic tricks."

Katara and Alcina were in stitches. Katara was laughing so hard, or attempting to stifle her laughter so much, that it hurt. The fact that she had to keep quiet just made her laugh even harder. Alcina's eyes were watering.

"Oh, Agni, I hope you're right!" Alcina breathed. When they managed to get their laughter down, the girls looked at Katara.

"I don't know if I can follow that up!" Katara sighed, shaking her head at Suki.

"Oh, come on! I'm sure that there's a thousand more impossible things out there," Suki urged. Katara held up a hand, considering it.

"Fine. Uhm..." Katara scratched her head. "They're announcing Azula's betrothal. To a lower-ring peasant. The wedding will be held tomorrow, everyone will be barefoot, and there will be traveling bairds playing quaint folk music. The food will be just bread. Nothing else. Just bread. Azula will give up all of her worldly possessions to make homemade jewelry as her career while her husband plays in a semi-competent all-flugelhorn band. And here's the kicker; she's madly in love and won't complain at all about it."

Suki snorted hard into her hand. "You're right, that is completely unbelievable. Perhaps even more so than mine."

Alcina was about to add something on, but Zuko walked into the room. Immediately the conversation ceased. Alcina sent a smile to her friends.

"Here's to hoping I'm right," she mouthed to them, sending a thumbs up.

Katara raised an eyebrow; crazier things had happened.

XXxxXX

Zuko stood in front of the gathered people, probably 100 in numbers. His uncle had pointed out that instead of doing three to five small explanations, it may be more efficient to do one large one. It seemed logical, though he wasn't sure why he hadn't thought of it. It had created quite the buzz in the room, however.

His family was already sitting for the announcement. He'd been surprised about how willing his father had been to pitch in in helping him with this. It was almost...kind?

A part of Zuko thought that he was just doing it because it would be easier for Zuko to have some tragic accident abroad. He'd get the Equalists to do it. It would be the perfect crime.

Maybe he shouldn't be so jaded. Maybe his dad truly wanted to help.

Zuko doubted it, though.

He needed not to quiet the room. They had fallen silent as soon a he'd walked in.

While he was confident in his ability to say what this new plan was going to be, he realized with a sense of horror that he had no idea how to start this speech.

"Hello, all," he said brightly, like a tour guide or something. He immediately regretted it. He tried not to wince. Damn it, he'd blown it. Can't restart it. Urg. He'd almost waved with it. Thank Agni he hadn't.

"As is tradition, usually there is a location that the Prince and his remaining ladies will visit outside of the palace, and do some charity work while there." Zuko decided to dive right into it. The more he talked, the less nervous he felt. "And I do realize that those of you who have been around for a Choice know the timing of this is strange. Yes, usually it is not until the top five are present that we do this, and let me assure you, I do not intend to cull it down to five right now." Around the room, more than one lady let out an audible sigh of relief. He probably should have started with that.

"I have talked with my most venerable Father, and we have decided that the Future Fire Lady would benefit more from going to a variety of places. Our reach is wide and diverse, and it is impossible to give the ladies just a taste of what they may one day rule by going to one place. So, in the upcoming moons, will be taking small convoys of girls to different locations all over the map."

This did sent the room into a tizzy. From what it seemed, a positive excited one. Well, there was that.

"You are all in here, because up at front, I have a list of the cities and territories we wish to visit. If you're sitting it here and not a contestant, that likely means your city is on the list and I wish to speak with you about housing arrangements and any jobs that will need to be done in the city. As for the ladies; you may submit an an application to go to as many or as few locations as you please. Zhi has lists for all of you with her at front. She also has tomes on the regions, and you have the delegates sitting here now to ask as well. We will pick the most convincing essays. These will be due in three days time."

The girls started looking around, murmuring to each other. He saw Katara even was smiling. He was happy she was happy. If she was unhappy, well, he wouldn't cancel this whole thing, but he'd be less excited about it.
He hoped she put her application in for all of them. He knew her to be a talented writer. She might just manage to get on all the trips, if she put her mind to it.

There was a long pause. His father nodded to him to continue. Zuko stifled a groan, swallowing it deep.

"Also," He plastered a fake smile on his face. "Tomorrow, all the ladies and I will be going to Ember Island as a taste of what is to come. Arrangements and travel has already been set. Zhi will tell you all what you'll need to pack."

He saw the girls' faces light up, but he was not thrilled.

Firstly, taking the entirety of the convoy of participants was exactly what Zuko had been looking to avoid. Picking them up here and taking them there, wherever there was, didn't help them at all, except make them more likely to be attacked, as they would be in an unfamiliar group and it would take 50 guards to safeguard them at the beach.

Secondly, he just hated Ember Island on principal. His family's summer house, surprisingly, wasn't big enough to fit the necessary girls and guards, so they'd be staying elsewhere. That made it a little bit better, but a lot of dark memories still hung around from the beach in the fact that they were good memories. It was backwards, yes but something so good had to be fake. He hated that there was a time he'd believed in the goodness of his father, in the pureness of Azula, for he now knew those thing to be false.

Lastly, Zuko just did not like any sort of beach. Ember Island specifically, but all beaches were pretty bad in his opinion. But girls loved beaches. It wouldn't be a vacation for him, not with all of them vying for his attention.

Ugg.

But, as Ozai had pointed out, there were a few girls here who did not possess good rhetoric and may not make the cut for any locations. Or, they may be homebodies. Frankly, Zuko thought that if you didn't like traveling, trying to be the future Fire Lady was the wrong business for you. But the girls deserved something good.

Zuko had no such illusions his father was altruistic. There was some other plot there, though of what, Zuko could not imagine.

XXxxXX

Zuko left right after he finished his speech, probably to avoid the hoards of questions coming his way, or girls trying figure out how to sneak their way onto all of the trips. He went into a room and called in delegates one by one.

Katara didn't know if she wanted certain ladies to come to the South Pole. Why else would Sokka be there? She hoped Sokka could pick the girls going to their home. Someone like Nadhari would not be welcome there.

The girls were handed the list of locations and immediately they all began pouring over the lists of places. It was split into regions, but the dates near it showed that Zuko intended to have this continue into many moons.

"Great spirits, he doesn't think he'll have picked a wife by then?" Jin murmured, frowning at the lists. Katara actually wasn't aware of how how long the other girls thought this would go.

"Maybe this is just in case. Obviously, at the point he's made a choice, he'll stop the trips," Maiha theorized.

From the other side of the room, Katara heard Nadhari snickering.

"I don't even like traveling all that much and I don't really want to go," she was saying to no one in particular, "But I know I'm a skilled writer and I'm not going to say no to spending quality time with the Prince. It seems it will be small groups. Maybe even...one on one?" she was purring.

Katara gagged a little. She hoped Zuko saw right through her.

Katara was unsure if she wanted to go on every single trip. While she was curious about the world abroad, she also knew this was a lot of time spent in carriages or ships. She tapped her lip, humming and sighing as she stared at the list. The South wasn't planned for later down the line, far later. She did have to wonder if he anticipated having picked a wife at that point, and would be visiting Katara married.

She pushed away that thought.

"How many will you be going on?" she asked Suki.

"I hope to get on at least half," Suki said. "I think that staying here will also have it's benefits. Sure, no Prince Zuko, but perhaps we'll be given more responsibility here while he's gone. More chances to prove that we can make choices when he's away. The lady picked needs to hold her on in the partnership, of course."

"Do you think if it's your own town you're automatically added in?" Alcina asked, tapping where 'KYOSHI' was written.

"I'd imagine if you wanted to, yes," Suki laughed. "It would be weird to leave you."

"Hey," Toph said, plopping in a free chair, twirling it around to face Katara, sitting on it completely the wrong way, as only Toph could. "Does this seem weird to you? This seems weird to me."

"Not weird," Katara decided. "Just...I think we're not getting all the information, you know?"

Why had this plan come to Zuko in the middle of trying to look into airbenders? Were the two connected? Katara decided she needed to think about that one more.

"I have no desire to go any place." Toph scrunched up her nose. "Because I have a certain degree of freedom here, ya know? Out there, I have to put back on bad makeup and act all prissy again."

"Oh, come on, not even your home?" Alcina asked.

"Especially not there!" Toph sounded horrified.

"What about Kyoshi? That might be fun," Katara said, grinning at Suki. Sokka had wandered over to sit, trying to answer the girls coming up to quiz him about the South in answers somewhere between serious and joking. Katara could tell he was torn between wanting to give the girls information that was true, since much of the reports about the South were just straight up wrong, and not wanting to encourage too many people there.

"Well," Toph paused. "Yes, that."

Not soon after, Zhi had found an aid to write for Toph.

"That's not fair!" Nadhari threw a fit. "We have to write our own, she shouldn't get hlep! For all we know, that aid is making it sound way better!"

"I'm blind, you walnut," Toph snapped back, which was probably the least offensive phrase in her possession. "So, unless you'd like to give me your eyes, be my guest. Or, to make it fair for all of us, you all could pen yours blindfolded."

"Lady Bei Fong is not getting any special treatment. The aid is writing verbatim what she says." Zhi sounded exhausted with Nadhari.

"Ugly sea-cow," Sokka muttered in Nadhari's general direction under his breath. Toph high-fived him.

XXxxXX

The ferry with the girls moved at a brisk pace, enough to cut through the waves and send salty mist from the breaking waves onto the faces of girls leaning over the railing. Some were pushed out as far as they could so that when the vomited it wasn't on the desk, while some girls were wide-eyed with enthusiasm, having never been near water before. Those that came from the Earth Kingdom had to, but some of the girls surrounding the capitol probably just traveled on roads and horses.

Katara looked upon the girls before her with a half-smile on her face. The energy was so palpable that it was hard not to be in a good mood. She was glad those that had never been on the water were so interested and she felt awful for those whose stomachs did not agree with the sea.

Not many in the South got sea-sick. Katara was unsure if it was an inherited trait or if their vessels were not big enough to cause such illness, but she'd always felt more comfortable on boats and ice than on dry land. She had crawled up on top of a metal box, legs dangling precariously over the side of the ship, right near the front. Zhi was attempting to sooth the sick girls, so she hadn't a chance to demand Katara down from there.

"Is this where the cool kids sit?" Sokka asked, tapping his knuckles against the metal. Sokka, Hahn, and Arrluck had managed their way onto this trip, along with Azula and Kuzon. The extra teens were - to most- not an unwelcome addition. Katara could have only done with Sokka and Aang, but she knew Aang was miserable on this trip too. Sokka at least seemed excited.

"Yeah, but I don't know if you qualify," Katara teased. Sokka sent her a dirty motion, shaking his head. Katara rolled her eyes and helped him up, scooting over. It was only a moment later before Zuko appeared.

"Make room," he said firmly. "Spirits...I already regret this."

The area where Katara had found was relaxing to her for the very reason it was hard to find and mostly only where the crew walked between. A perfect place to hide away from the group of girls. They had a good view of the main decks, and the sea-wind carried conversations to Katara's ears, but unless you were searching hard, you likely wouldn't have found Katara.

"Toph is for sure regretting it," Katara winced, pointing to where she was sitting with her head in a bucket, moaning.

"We'll be there soon," Zuko said, more automatically than anything, and Katara got the feeling he'd been asked this more than once in the last hour. It took about six hours to get to Ember Island...just past the point where people started getting antsy.

The pair of siblings moved so Zuko was the most out of view, both wanting to protect him from annoying girls. The crew raised an eyebrow at the trio, but didn't give up his location. Jeong-Jeong, a newly minted member of Zuko's personal guard (if Katara was recalling his name correctly) noted Zuko, for he always was watching Zuko, and was asked where the Prince was. Zuko tensed, but Jeong-Jeong just shrugged.

"I couldn't possibly say," he lied convingly. Katara smiled; Zuko needed loyal men, even if it was allowing their prince a moment to breathe.

"I can't stay forever. Soon, they'll for sure all notice," Zuko grouched.

"You know, for a man going on a vacation, you sure seem...grumpy," Sokka observed.

"Forced vacation. This wasn't my idea." Zuko threw his arms out.

"A lot of the girls are looking forward to lounging on the beach, doing nothing," Katara said, having picked up those sentiments.

"Now is not the time for nothing!" Zuko angrily shook his head. "Agni, I-" He punched the metal box, his fist heating it. Katara scooted over to not burn her dress. "There is far too much going on for me to just be doing nothing right now. I want a break, trust me I do, but not at the expense of people who could die while we're building bonfires and suntanning."

Katara liked both of those things as much as the next person, but Zuko said the activities like there was nothing more disgusting and appalling. But Katara understood, in part. She didn't understand all of these trips, but she gleaned enough that it was more or less a cover. Ember Island was strictly a vacation house, therefore, useless.

"I feel like a child, still being pulled this way and that way by my father. He insisted on this. He...he wanted all of us out of the palace, though I don't know why," Zuko murmured softly. Katara didn't even have a guess.

"Remind me to never complain about our father again," Sokka nudged Katara. "Even when he yells at me for something that's not my fault."

"Oh, because it's never your fault," Katara snorted.

"Well, hardly my fault. But, you get the point. Yeesh, Zuko."

Zuko gave a quirk of a smile. "Yeesh is right. He's a monster."

He said it so plainly that it quieted the siblings. They sat in blessed silence until a high-pitched tone pierced the air.

"Prince Zuk-oooo!"

Zuko cussed. "That's Zhi. Sounds like my time is up."

Katara squeezed his hand quickly. "You'll know where we are if you need to escape for a second again."

Zuko crawled down. "You two have the right idea. There's a reason I like you both."

After Zuko left, there wasn't much for Sokka and Katara to talk about. So, they instead leaned in toward the sound coming from the main decks, listening to the snippets of conversation floating their way.

They found out that Zuko had been called away because On Ji had fainted on the decks, right where their view cut off. They heard Toph cuss many times in between vomiting. They heard Ratana speaking a mile a minute about how the water here was so much better than her water at home. They heard Ty Lee sliding up near Mai, trying to engage her in a friendship that they once had.

"Do you remember when Azula and Zuko used to come here every summer? And how we wanted to go with them so badly?" she asked, twirling her hair.

"Yes," Mai replied in a monotone voice. "Though that was their personal house. This will be different."

"Everything's different now," Ty Lee sighed, trying not to have her tone darken too much. Sokka sent Katara a half-way worried frown. Katara, having gotten closer to Ty Lee, almost wanted to comfort her. But that would seem strange. To outsiders, their friendship was that of just two fellow competitors. But Ty Lee was not so much someone in need of defending. She was strong, and Katara often forgot that. Case in point; she forced a bright lit to her voice. "They used to have so much fun. I'm sure we will too."

XXxxXX

Debarkment was a nightmare. There were girls like Nadhari, who, though she was well aware that they were only going to be gone for two days, seemed like she'd packed her whole room in six oversized bags. None of the handmaids had been brought (much to many girls' dismay) meaning that Nadhari had to cart the six bags up to the house herself, and this was just unacceptable.

"Oh, Arrluck, you're a strong man, aren't you?" Katara overheard her croon to the Northerner. Arrluck looked momentarily taken-aback to be spoken to by such a pretty lady.

"I, uhm, well-"

"Nice try," Hahn said, steering him away. "But Arrluck wouldn't be carrying your things. He's above you, don't you know? The only person worthy is Azula...speaking of which-" Hahn then tried to flag down Azula to ask if she needed help with bags, looking not dissimilar to a pelican-mouse in mid flight.

This was, of course, just a handful of the interactions all happening at once on a very small dock. Katara wouldn't have been surprised if someone took an early and unexpected dip into the ocean.

Katara had brought one very manageable bag, thank you very much. And, if it had been bigger, Katara could have carried it with ease.

"Feel better?" she asked Toph.

"No, I'm on a dock. This is worse," Toph snapped back, clutching Katara's arm for dear life. She sniffed the air, "Ugg, who're the corpses?"

Katara shushed her, turning to see a pair of very old ladies walking up the gangway in matching outfits. Outfits that, perhaps on a twenty-year-old may have been appealing, but were just wrong-looking on them.

"Welcome to Ember Island, kids," the pair said in unison, catching most people's attention.

Zuko strode forward, bowing respectfully to them as they bowed low. "Li and Lo, thank you so much for allowing us to use some of your many properties on the island for our use."

"Anything for the Fire Family," one of them said. Katara couldn't tell who was who. She supposed it didn't matter.

"The ladies in the choice, along with the guards and their minder, will be at one of the inns. The Prince and Princess - as well as the other distinguished guests -" The left one looked at Sokka, Kuzon, and the Northerners. "Will be staying at our personal home."

"How very gracious," Azula said dryly.

"Hear that? I'm distinguished," Sokka whispered to Katara.

"Yippie for you," Toph snapped. "Can we go? I'm really hating being blind. Like legit blind. Koh, how do actual blind people live ever?"

They were already being herded off in separate directions. Sokka gave Katara a salute and stuck his tongue out before throwing his arm around Aang as they were pointed in a different direction.

Katara thought that the ladies were getting the better end of the deal. Li and Lo's house, while perfectly fine for two people, was less ostentatious looking. The hotel they were being guided to, on the other hand, was white and shining like polished stone. It reflected so much that it almost appeared to be glowing. It was the definition of Fire Nation opulence.

The girls were assigned to pairs, which went over with Nadhari about as well as Katara predicted.

"Oh, rooming with another girl, the horror," even Jin snapped uncharacteristically. Katara took some strange pleasure in knowing that Nahari ruffled the feathers of such a sweet girl as that.

Katara was put up with Yue; not a big deal. She would have prefered Toph or Alcina or Suki, but it wasn't the worst match-up.

"Get your suits on, we'll be going down to the beach promptly," Zhi said. Probably best to set them loose as soon as possible, Katara thought. An hour into the trip and Zhi already looked far too pleased to be 'rid' of them.

XXxxXX

"It smells like old lady in here," Sokka side-whispered to Aang.

"You're surprised?" Azula asked, running a finger along the cabinet, frowning as a thin layer of dirt came back on her finger.

Aang frowned, wishing he could have gotten out of this. Beach = swimsuits. Swimsuits = showing skin. That equaled bad since Aang had some specific tattos he'd rather no one see. But alas, it hadn't worked. Aang nearly went as far to wish for another assignment with Zhao, but that was really wrong, and he quickly corrected his thoughts.

"This is...uhm, quaint," Arrluck said, wincing, forcing a smile and Li and Lo.

"It's been in our house for nearly 100 years," they said in unison, just as creepy as when they'd done it the first time.

The group of teens began to wander around the living room half-heartedly, waiting to be assigned.

"Look at those two babes," Hahn said, grasping Arrluck around his neck, pulling the scrawnier man next to him. Aang turned to see Hahn pointing at a portrait of two identical young girls, back to back in skimpy swimsuits.

"They've gotta be these two crone's granddaughter's, or one of them, eh? Think they'd be interested in the two future rulers of the Northern Water Tribe? Maybe a foursome, hmm?"

"I don't-I'm not-" Arrluck flushed bright red, unable to reply.

"Fine, I'll take a threesome, better for me," Hahn said, flicking his tongue out and licking his lips lavisciously. Aang shuddered.

Li and Lo noticed Hahn staring at the portrait.

"Who are these two lovely ladies?" Hahn asked with an arrogant grin. "I'd love to meet them."

"You can't tell?" Li asked.

"You already have!" Lo added. At Hahn's blank, confused face, the pair of older women turned and mimicked the picture perfectly.

"Can't you see the resemblance?" they asked together.

Understanding dawned over the group. Next to Aang, Sokka visibly shuddered. Zuko groaned, dragging his hand over his face. Arrluck turned even brighter red, if possible. Hahn turned an acute shade of green.

Those two are still kicking? Great spirits, Roku commented, now that Aang had turned attention enough on the pair to really look at them. Aang held back a sound of surprise. Somehow it didn't shock him these two had been around at Roku's era.

Logically speaking, they're probably not too much older than you, Aang. Maybe only by ten or so years, Kyoshi threw out, ever making connections. Aang's eyes widened.

Imagine if you'd come out of the ice looking like that… Gopan stuttered.

It really just weirded Aang out to think that he was actually, literally, the same age as these two. Or close. It was a reality he didn't enjoy thinking too hard about, that he was 116.

Lo and Li turned to Zuko to discuss rooming arrangements, and Hahn promptly threw up in a very expensive and ancient looking vase.

Azula let out a bark of laughter. She wiped a tear away from her inner eye.

"Oh, wow. You've made me laugh, Hahn. Consider yourself lucky. If Yue does end up winning, and Arrluck takes over the North, we could always keep you around in the palace as a court jester," she added cruely.

With Li and Lo's back still turned, Hahn grabbed a bottle of what looked like expensive alcohol off the counter, chugging it to get the taste out. He was immediately spitting, gagging.

"Perfume," he managed to get out with a strangled sound in the back of his throat. "Fuc-" He threw up once again, this time in an already sad-looking fern.

Azula was cracking up. Aang didn't think he'd ever seen her truly laugh and he'd come to a decision. He hated it.

"Oh, my, I might just have to undermine your ascendance to keep you around," she said, composing herself.

"Let's just get into the rooms," Zuko muttered, waving the group on.

It was set up that Zuko and Aang were in one room, the Watertribe men in another, and Azula in a third. Sokka desperately tried to move to Aang's room, but no luck.

They were showed the first room; the Water tribe one. It was vividly decorated in seashells, ugly pinks and greens, and overall just a lack of interior design. It looked like Toph had decorated it.

"It's quaint," Arrluck repeated, voice shaking.

Azula turned to look at him.

"Are you just a simpleton that lacks the vocabulary for anything else, or...actually, there is no 'or'," she said, shoving through the boys to go to her room.

"It looks like the beach threw up," Sokka groaned.

"I'm going to get dressed for the beach," Zuko said in an authoritative tone. "The ladies will meet us down there." He said his next words through gritted teeth like it was almost painful. "We're all going to have a good time this weekend, okay?"

Aang followed Zuko to their shared room.

"That really wasn't convincing."

Zuko purposely ignored him.

Chapter Text

Once in her room, Katara set her bag on her bed. She went to the bathroom, and when she came back out, Yue was carefully folding her clothes into a chest on the left side and hanging some dresses. Katara was glad for the cue; chances are, she'd have just left it all crammed in her basket had she not seen Yue unpacking.

As it was, it took far less time for Katara to organize her things (and re-organize them, frankly) than it did Yue. She, besides Toph, had probably packed the least extensively. She was beginning to wonder if perhaps she should have brought more.

"Yue, we're here for two days. You have four dresses hanging up." Katara frowned, peeking inside the cabinet. She knew there were even more clothes in the drawers, and to be honest, she was worried she'd misheard Zuko. Maybe they were supposed to be here for a week and two days, not just two singular days.

"Oh, I know," Yue sighed, sitting back. "But I couldn't decide what I might want to wear. And Prince Zuko was a little...vague." She frowned. It was perhaps the meanest thing she'd ever said. "Which is fine, I like surprises," she amended swiftly. "But I don't know what to expect."

"Beaching, probably," Katara said, shrugging.

"Yes, we should get changed," Yue said, perking up, opening a small drawer. Katara simply shucked off her dress, but left on the wrappings that were underneath her three layers. She took care to slip her beads out of her hair, pulling all of it into a bun on her head.

Yue vanished into the bathroom.

"Are you nearly ready?" Yue asked when she returned out.

"Uhm, I'm ready now."

Yue blinked at Katara, as though she didn't understand.

"Princess Katara, you're in your underclothes," she said slowly.

"Yes?"

"I just," Yue cut herself off, studying Katara, "Did you forget your swimsuit?" she asked in a near pitying tone.

"What do you mean?" Katara frowned, crossing her arms, feeling embarrassed but she did not know why. "This is my swim outfit."

Yue frowned, pressing her hand over her lips. "Princess Katara, you can't wear your undergarments in front of the Prince and the other ladies!" She sounded scandalized. "It wouldn't be...it wouldn't be right."

"Well, I mean, I usually take this piece here off when I sleep." Katara tugged on a knotted end of the fabric. Yue was still staring at Katara like she had just announced she was marrying Ozai.

"What do you wear when you go in the water?" Yue asked in a different way.

"We don't," Katara said flatly. Until recently, she hadn't even been aware that people went in the water for pleasure, at least not prolonged amounts of time in the water. Swimming in the South was basically suicidal. The most people ever did - and it was idiots like her brother - was dare each other to dive into the ocean and then get out very quickly. They warmed water for bathing, but that was done in the nude, and Katara had never lingered in the bath, knowing others needed it and it was a process to re-warm the water. The closest approximation they had were the sweat huts, but people just wore...well, what Yue was calling undergarments. There really wasn't room to be shy about one's body. Besides, the huts were always separated by gender.

So truly, the concept of swimming for pleasure and having a separate outfit just for this seemed really wacky to Katara.

"But surely…" Yue was very much struggling. "We have hot steam pools in the North, like spas. Don't you have that?"

Katara gave a firm shake of her head. It would be so much firewood wasted to be continually warming a pool of water for someone to just splash around in. She was starting to feel like the Katara that had first arrived: savage, stupid, and unaware of the way the world worked. Maybe Yue saw the way her lip trembled, despite Katara telling herself she wasn't going to cry over this. She knew Yue wasn't trying to make her feel bad, but well…

"I have extras. I brought four suits," Yue whispered. "You can have one of them," she said, rushing over to the drawers, holding up different variations of what she was wearing.

"Thank you," Katara breathed out. "I'll have Aiga clean them and-"

"You can just have one, Katara. I have plenty," Yue insisted. Katara didn't like taking things like she was some poor little untaught Southerner.

"Until Aiga makes my own," Katara said. Yue offered her up a warm smile.

"Well yes, of course," she said, realizing that this was the only way Katara would take it.

It was in two pieces, and made of weird stretchy fabric. Katara had never touched anything like it.

"And this is just for when you go in the water?" Katara asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, or beaches, like today," Yue said. "It's new in the North too. My father's generation was the first to hear about these," she admitted after a second.

The garment was made in Water Tribe colors, small miracles, since Katara recognized the stitch work as culturally Fire Nation. It was just a band on the top with a small skirt on the bottom. Yue's was very covered; one piece in all, except for the big 'v' down the front of it.

"Seems, uh, like it's missing some parts," Katara said blankly.

"It's the style. You'll see other girls wearing far less. I'm not a fan." Yue scrunched up her nose.

"I'll just change then," Katara grumbled, closing herself into the bathroom. The suit seemed to fit her well, but she felt really...strange in it. But, if this is what she was supposed to wear...well, Katara trusted Yue.

Yue handed off a lightweight kimono, motioning for Katara to put it over her shoulders. Katara shrugged, taking all her cues from the Northern girl at this point.

"I have a bag of things for us," Yue announced, patting a woven tote that was under her arm. "A pair of towels for the beach, some water skins in case we feel dehydrated, and wide hats to protect our faces from the sun. We probably need it less than others, but it's good to avoid sunburn."

Katara wouldn't have thought of any of that, despite being told by Sokka continuously she was the 'mom friend'.

"Thank you," Katara said, and she meant it.

Down in the lobby, most of the group had already gathered. Zhi was counting heads as they came down the stairs, using her handy clipboard and ink pen, which Katara thought might be glued to her hands.

They were some of the last pairs, which was fine. The absolute last to arrive down were On Ji and Ratana, who were slowed down because the pair was lugging a huge parasol down the stairs.

"I have very sensitive skin," On Ji said to Zhi, who just ticked off their names.

Most of the girls were covered in lightweight kimonos or blankets and scarves, as Katara and Yue were, so at this point, Katara couldn't see their entire outfits. Most of the girls were carrying totes as bit as Yue's, if not bigger. Katara wondered what they possibly could be bringing down to the beach?

"Before we head down, girls, I just have a few things to remind you all of," Zhi started, but was easily drowned out by the chatter of excited girls. "We won't go down until you all quiet," she said, raising her voice above the noise. Quickly, a hush grew over the crowd. Toph, next to Katara, opened her mouth like she was going to be loud, and Katara sharply jabbed her side. Toph pouted, like Katara had just rained on her parade.

"This is a very popular beach for young people all around your age. I am sure there will many handsome and strapping men on the beach. On one hand, I must remind you that while you are a contestant in this competition, you are the property of the Fire Lord." Katara remembered that rule and winced. It really, still, rubbed her all the wrong ways. "And thusly it is considered treason to be with any other men romantically and," Zhi inhaled, "Sexually." Katara looked around; pretty much all the girls would give their left leg to be with Zuko, she doubted anyone was going to ruin their chances by cavorting with a guy. "However, many of the young men around on the beach this weekend are the children of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom officers and loyalists, very prestigious pedigrees. It would not be completely unwise to befriend them. Often, it is tradition that Prince Zuko will help secure worthy betrothals and marriages for the top ten girls, and I'm sure if you had a preference, he would one day not be opposed to hearing so. Keep both of these things in mind, ladies!" Zhi finished cheerfully.

"I'm so confused," Alcina murmured to no one in particular. "Does she want us to be friendly toward the guys here or not?"

"Yes and no," Suki said. "I think she's saying that we should find our second choice, but not to cross the line anywhere." She snorted.

"Think guys here really want a near-princess?" Alcina said.

"I think they want girls with boobs and father-in-laws with money and power," Toph said bluntly, "Which means that girls like Ty Lee should pretty much be getting marriage offers by the end of the night!"

Ty Lee, who luckily didn't overhear, did fit that criteria.

"Toph!" Katara said, shaking her head.

"You're not too bad yourself," Alcina said with glimmering eyes. Katara often forgot she was a true Fire Nationer, but when she was smirking at Toph, she had a little bit of Azula in her. "Well-proportioned and a palace to your name," she said, motioning to Toph. "Plus, the rest of you is dainty. I'm surprised you're not swimming in suitors."

"If they try to touch these," Toph said, motioning to her chest, "I'll break their goddamn arms. I keep forgetting I have these. I was flat-chested up until a year ago, looked sort of like a boy. Wish I would have stayed that way," she pouted.

"I really doubt that any girl ever bemoaned the fact her woman figure arrived," Suki said.

"Ugg, don't call me that. A girl. Yuck." Toph shook her head.

"But you are."

"Unfortunately," Toph said. "I rarely like to be reminded."

The walk down to the beach was quick. It was right near the hotel, and already swimming with people roughly their age, just as Zhi had foretold. And, yes, a lot were men. Men that Katara could understand some girls would find attractive, but they all just reminded of Hahn. She knew she shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but honestly, none of these men seemed like boyfriend material. That is, if Katara wanted a boyfriend...besides Zuko, who was sorta her boyfriend. In the way that he was everyone's boyfriend right now.

She did not.

"Where is Prince Zuko?" Avizeh asked Zhi, turning around in a full circle.

"The prince and the others will come down shortly. Right now, I think you should set up. There seems to be some open space over there. If anyone needs me, I will be at the hotel bar.

The girls, now alone, all stayed in a close pack for just a second, shuffling over to the pointed spot. There was a pause, as though everyone was unsure how to proceed, before Suki unfurled her towel, laying it down.

Immediately, everyone else jumped to work.

More than one person had brought an umbrella, but On Ji's was the largest. Katara watched Yue jump into action, trying to encourage the umbrellas be spread evenly, so that everyone had a little bit of shade.

"Always the peacemaker," Azula said, seemingly arriving from nowhere, causing Katara to jump out of her skin.

"Where's Prince Zuko?" Ty Lee asked, frowning.

"Agni, like I care. Doing something stupid, I'm sure. Work." Azula rolled her eyes. She put her hand on her hip, scanning the area. "Now, who can I get to set my things up?"

"I can, Princess," Hahn jumped to offer.

"Oh, well, if you insist," Azula said, hardly needing much to be swayed. Aang, who had lingered for a second, turned. "Where are you going, Kuzon?"

"I have some things that Zhao asked me to do," Aang said carefully. However, Katara expected he was looking for an excuse not to take off his clothes.

"Oh, come on, it's not like he'll know," Azula said, grabbing his shirt. "I don't know if I've ever seen you have fun. You sully the Fire Nation Family history with your stuffiness."

"Cousin," Aang said through gritted teeth, indicating to Katara how frustrated he was. He didn't often like reminding Azula of their kinship, specifically because it was fabricated. "You want to tell Zhao when I come home empty handed why it was so?"

Azula made a sound in the back of her throat, releasing Aang. "Yuck, fine. But you will have fun this weekend," she said firmly, pressing his chest.

Aang rolled his eyes. "Fine."

He caught Katara's eyes, rolling out his shoulders. That whole encounter had obviously ruffled him. He then looked to Ty Lee, his face staying exactly the same, which also told Katara how hard he was trying not to smile her way.

He turned away to leave.

Ty Lee gave a halfway sad smile, but shrugged it off as she pulled her lightweight dress over her shoulders. Katara immediately understood what Yue had been talking about when it concerned swimsuits. It looked like she was just wearing three small scraps of fabric. Katara was glad Aang was turned around; surely, he'd be bright scarlet if he saw her.

The boys that had been lingering, watching the large convoy of mostly girls settle up, immediately swarmed Ty Lee.

"You need help unpacking?" one asked, making heart-eyes toward Ty Lee.

Ty Lee frowned. "I think I can manage."

"A girl as beautiful as you shouldn't have to lift a finger," the boy continued, reaching for her bag.

Aang paused, turning back. Katara closed her eyes.

Don't, Aang, don't, she silently prayed, don't show your hand and give Azula something over you, over us.

After a very prolonged moment, Katara watched his fist unclench. He inhaled sharply, angrily, turning away. Thank spirits.

"Don't be rude, Ty Lee," Azula said. "Let them help you."

Ty Lee frowned at the group of boys, clearly unsure. She stuttered a little bit, her eyes sliding to the left, not exactly toward Aang, but close enough. She clutched her bag to her body. Azula hadn't given the words as a playful encouragement, she'd demanded it of Ty Lee.

"We got it," Katara said firmly, coming over to Ty Lee. "Imagine that boys, we're both beautiful and smart enough to put an umbrella in the sand," she said sarcastically.

"Oh, hello," a boy purred, eyes switching to Katara. "You're not like the other girls, huh. Little bit of that exotic beauty."

Katara wanted to barf. "Not interested," she said, rolling her eyes. "Really, shoo. I think some of those girls would be elated to have your help." She pointed to where Nadhari and Avizeh were milling.

Once they left, Azula shook her head.

"They were just being nice."

"Oh, sure." Katara let out a bark of laughter. "And they didn't totally want something in return. A kiss, at the very least." She began to help Ty Lee dig the umbrella into the sand and flatten her towel. "Just bad news."

"You have such experience?" Azula asked suspiciously, a devious grin appearing slowly.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Katara asked, tired of her games. "To smear my name and tell Prince Zuko I'm impure or whatever bullshit. No, I just have an idiot brother. You do too."

"I sincerely doubt you should be calling the Prince "stupid," Katara," Azula said, as though personally offended.

"I'm sure you've called him worse." Katara knew she had. "And not that he's an idiot. Just that he's a boy. And boys think with their…" She raised her eyebrows, motioning downward.

Azula broke a smile. Whether it was genuine or not, Katara didn't know.

"Well, that's just common knowledge," Azula said.

"Look, if you were so concerned about my virtue, obviously you should be concerned about Ty Lee's as well. You can't be naive enough to think that they were honestly flattered by personality - no offense, Ty."

"Oh, I know it all," Ty Lee assured, "Not offended."

"Whatever." Azula pinched the bridge of her nose. "You don't seem like the type of girl who wants to sit around making childish sandcastles. Do you want to play a round of kuai ball?" She motioned to the set-up net.

"You want to play with me?" Katara guffawed.

"I want winners. Fighters. As much as I hate you,"

"Gee, you're really making me want to play a game with you."

"-You are both of those things, irritatingly. I pick the best for my squad," Azula said. "Ty Lee, you're playing. Mai...if Zuko ever arrives, he'd be a good addition. If not…" Azula scanned the girls gathered. "Suki. One more...Katara, do you think you could convince that dwarf of yours to play?"

Katara stared at Azula, uncomprehending. "You mean...Toph? Not if you call her that."

"Fine, the short angry one. Better?"

"Maybe. Let me ask her. You go claim the next game. Spirits," Katara grumped. Why was she even agreeing to this? Maybe the idea of seeing Azula act like somewhat of a normal teenager was too tempting to pass up.

She shook it off, sharing glances with Ty Lee.

"Thanks," Ty Lee said quietly.

"Don't mention it. Truly. I have your back," Katara said honestly, and then turned to find Suki and Toph. "Yo! Toph! How do you feel about being a winner?"

XXxxXX

Zuko walked down to the beach. He could not pretend to have pressing work to do any longer, and his absence would soon cause a hoard of girls to come looking for him. He'd stayed in his room at Lo and Li's house as long as he possibly could, but alas, it was time to hit the beach.

If his plans had gone like he'd hoped, he would have enjoyed coming down here with just two or three select girls. To try to spend equal time with all of them? Spirits, it seemed like an easier task to figure out the whole situation with the Airbenders!

Sokka had stayed with Zuko, while the rest had gone down about an hour ago. Aang had popped back in to say he was going into town and would reconvene with Zuko before nightfall. He'd mentioned that Azula had seemingly been in good, playful spirits...and this deeply concerned him.

If Aang hadn't passed that along, Zuko might have convinced himself to stay hidden for another half an hour. But he didn't trust his sister.

It was a little silly, huh? Hiding from girls like they were rabid moose-bears or something, and not teenage ladies.

He'd admitted to Sokka as much why he hung back.

"Yeah, let me just say that I feel for you, bro."

"All the girls in the South want you, I take it?" Zuko asked, trying to resist adding in an eyeroll.

"I don't like that tone. I'm the son of a chief, and look at these!" Sokka flexed his arm proudly. "Plus, not a lot of options, if I'm being honest. I mean, I guess it's nice to know that I won the popularity contest against the boy that licks icicles or the boy that lost three toes because taking his boot off to put socks on was too much of a hassle."

"Has your dad started mentioning marriage?"

"Not as aggressively as putting together a competition to pick a wife." Sokka laughed dryly. "But I'm 20. My dad had picked my mom out when they were ten and married when they were sixteen. So yes."

"Does he want you to pick a Southern wife?" Zuko asked, genuinely curious, and noticed the wince that Sokka tried to stifle. "Do you want a Southern wife?"

"I…" Sokka suddenly lost his voice. "I guess...well, you have to imagine if that's the boys for husband choices, there's not a ton of girls either." He tried to play it off with laughter, but there was a raw, pained sound. "Okay, we need something for this conversation."

Zuko was at first confused about what that 'something' was, until Sokka vanished into the kitchen. He could hear him asking Lo and Li something, and a moment later, he returned with two jars.

"To take with us to the beach. Very slowly," he offered, handing Zuko the glass. Once in his hand, Sokka clinked his glass against Zuko's. Zuko sipped it. Sake.

"I think he'd prefer a Southern wife, since she'll be part of the council for our tribe. He's had a lot of reasons to be untrusting." Sokka pointed out as they gathered their towels for the beach. Zuko latched the door behind them.

"Does he...does your dad wish the same of Katara?"

Sokka took a big gulp of his glass. "That's where this is going."

"Where what's going?" Zuko asked defensively.

"You're asking if my father would approve of you," Sokka replied back with a smirk. "And to be honest? Well, I don't know. My dad has always been super protective about Katara. She's his baby girl, you know? And she's always been his favorite. Not that my dad doesn't love me, but there's something between them I never had. I think…" Sokka chewed on his lip. "He'd want her to feel safe, wherever she ends up. I think he'd want a relationship where Katara is in charge. Spirits knows it wouldn't work the other way around," Sokka laughed. "And while I could vouch for you, Zuko, you're a prince. I don't know if Katara would ever be in charge."

"I take it she hasn't told you about the first time we met, huh?" Zuko said before he could think about it.

Sokka snapped his head toward him. "No."

"Erm, never mind." Zuko drank deeply.

"You're blushing! Now you have to tell me, bud," Sokka encouraged, "C'mon!"

"Okay, fine," Zuko snapped, only because he knew Katara would gleefully tell Sokka if he did not. "She mistook me for a burglar. That's too much to get into, but she knocked me off a roof and tied me to a tree. And then the first time I tried to kiss her, she broke my nose," Zuko added.

Sokka snorted so hard that the sake came up his nose. "You're joking! Oh, well, that does sound like her."

"I don't think I'd lie about something so...horrifyingly embarrassing." Zuko replied stiffly, but when Sokka threw his arm around him, he felt a little bit better about it.

"Well, I feel a lot better about you liking Katara knowing that she can just break a bone whenever she feels like it," Sokka said honestly. "She's a force."

"I don't like recalling those times," Zuko mumbled.

"Everyone has an embarrassing story with a girlfriend," Sokka assured. At Zuko's dubious face, he sipped the glass. "Okay, okay. Take me. First time a girl went down on me, my dad walked in on us. I guess we don't really have doors, so maybe I was asking for it but," Sokka shrugged. "At the time? I thought I was going to die of embarrassment."

"That happened?" Zuko said. "And you're just...telling me?" he added, a bit more unsure.

"Well, yeah," Sokka shot him a weird look. "We're bros, right?"

"I just...I guess I haven't had a friend like you before," Zuko said honestly.

"Obnoxious and different?" Sokka punched his arm playfully. "Someone who forces sake on you?"

"Someone not looking at me as a way to climb the social ladder," Zuko said bluntly.

"Oh. Yeah, I don't give two shits about that," Sokka said as they approached the beach. "Gee, I wonder where the contestants are," he said.

Zuko shielded his eyes with his hand. There was a large group of girls...and a larger group of boys milling near them. He chuckled.

"We're not inconspicuous. However, I don't think I see Katara…"

"Oh! There she is! Playing some game or something with your sister."

"Har-har," Zuko shoved him playfully.

"No, seriously," Sokka dragged him to the right, the opposite direction. Indeed, as they approached a kuai ball field, Zuko realized that Katara was one of the competitors...along with his sister.

"Oh." Zuko blinked.

"Ah, look at that, Suki...Ty Lee...Toph...Mai's playing too," Sokka said, a tinge pink. Zuko raised an eyebrow. This seemed like a worst nightmare; his sister playing a sports game with all the top choices for his hand in marriage.

As they got close enough to see individual figures, Zuko was caught off guard by how little Katara was wearing. He'd seen girls in swimsuits, but seeing Katara in a swimsuit?

They approached just as the game was ending; clearly in the favor of his sister and Katara's team. In fact, he and Sokka had come just in time to see Katara serve Azula a perfect airborne ball, just for his sister to strike it ruthlessly onto the other team's side. They attempted to block it, but it went careening down into the sand.

"Victorious!" Azula crowed, holding up her hand. To Zuko's surprise, she allowed Katara to high-five her. What sort of alternate world had they entered? Was he dreaming?

"That's hot," Sokka said simply, sipping at his drink. Zuko really didn't want to ask to whom he was referring to.

"Oh, Zuzu, nice of you to finally join us," Azula said, catching her brother's eye. "We've already played two rounds of kuai ball. I would have asked you to join, but I think that this girls team is more ferocious than you could be."

"Uhm, thanks?" Zuko tilted his head.

"Whatever. Mai, you thirsty? I'm getting a drink. Ty Lee, you too." She snapped her fingers. Mai joined her without a beat, but Ty Lee hesitated. Less than a year ago, Ty Lee wouldn't have thought twice, Zuko considered. Now, she hung back, just for a beat, before following.

Suki and Toph were shaking hands with the other team, chatting them up casually.

"You were playing a game with my sister?" Zuko asked, raising an eyebrow as Katara came over to them. She looked at the two glasses in the boys' hands before taking Zuko's and taking a drink of it.

"You know, she's actually being nice. As nice as she can be, that is," Katara snorted. "She's very...strategic. She noticed that one of the girls had a limp on her left, and we served there. It was all very military, but we won. I mean, there were times I was a little scared for their lives, like when your sister said 'We defeated you for all time. You will never rise from the ashes of your shame and humiliation', but you know, other than that…"

"Oh, that." Zuko rolled his eyes. "I'm pretty sure that's how Azula expresses she's having fun."

"Mhh." Katara sipped more of the glass. "Well, we did win, and that's Azula's favorite activity."

"Kuai ball?" Sokka asked.

"Winning," Katara corrected.

"Hey, so," Zuko said, taking his glass back, "Look, I should probably spend the day hanging out with the other girls...I don't want you to feel…"

"Offended?" Katara tilted her head. "It's fine. Seriously. Go and make some girls giggle. Azula told me I didn't seem like the type who wanted to build sandcastles, but joke's on her, because Toph and I are going to make the most epic sandcastle. We still have tomorrow." She shoved his chest goodnaturedly, "Seriously. I'm fine. Sokka, you wanna help?"

"I mean," Sokka puffed out his chest, "I did make that guard tower out of snow, and how different is snow and wet sand?"

"Yes," Katara replied deadpanned. "Exactly. C'mon!" She tugged him to where Toph was stomping down a good flat area with her feet.

Zuko looked back at the gaggle of girls. Sighing, and wishing he could spend the whole day with Katara, he undid his robes. As he tucked his robe into his arms, showing off his chest, he heard a great many girls - and not just the ones in the competition - give a sigh.

He turned back and caught Katara looking, if even for a second.

Turning back, smirking, he felt a lot better as he walked over to the rest of the girls.

XXxxXX

The rest of the day lazed by beautifully. By the time the group started walking back to the hotel, Katara considered it a very full and fun day. She hardly saw Zuko, apart from the moments she saw him switching between girls. It sort of seemed like he was just going along with the day. Anything that they asked him to do, he agreed...within reason. It was the easiest way to please everyone, but it had to be taking a toll on Zuko. She truly felt for him.

She, Toph, and Sokka were making good work on their sandcastle, which was quickly sprawling into a sand fortress. Toph was practicing ways to just make the sand do what she wanted, but if there was a lot of water in the sand, it became difficult for her. So, it was more that Sokka and Katara and Toph were making warring cities. Toph, trying to create models of her hometown, had encouraged Sokka and Katara to make a sand version of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara hoped it would still be up the next morning.

Most girls were so exhausted from the long day in the sun that after dinner, they just went to bed without fuss. Katara herself, her skin warm and face sore from smiling, fell into bed without complaint.

XXxxXX

Where Katara was sleeping soundly at night, Zuko was up whispering with Aang, who had only arrived back at the house an hour ago.

"There aren't any airbenders around here," Aang reported back. "This town is full of Ozai sympathizers. If there were any, they wouldn't be caught dead."

"Yeah, I worried about that," Zuko whispered back. He was careful to keep their voices scarcely above a whisper.

"Plus, it's all riches here. People aren't desperate, aren't without means to get out," Aang continued.

"Anyone that may help us?"

Aang furrowed his brow.

"There's a lady...when I brought up airbenders, her face flashed, just for a second. I bet she had a relative that was one, and they got out. She seemed worried for them. She might be willing to help people through the area." Aang sighed. "But she might be the only one on the whole island."

Zuko nodded to himself. "Work on her tomorrow, as much as you can. We don't want to leave it hanging before we go back."

Aang paused. He seemed unsure. "You, ah, you said your family has a place on the island that you never use. Do you think-"

"No," Zuko replied flatly.

"But…"

"It's out of the question, Kuzon," Zuko hissed. "Besides, it's just full of empty memories anyway."

He rolled over.

"Zuko, I-"

"Just go to sleep," Zuko said without turning. "The whole weekend is giving me stress. Don't give me anymore."

XXxxXX

Their second day on the island was to be much of the same, as Katara was told. The girls had a painfully long breakfast. By the time they were gathered with their things to go down to the beach, it seemed that half the day had already been wasted.

Not that Katara had anything she particularly needed to do, but the general slowness of the girls bothered her. She could tell it bothered a few others, such as Suki and surprisingly, Nadhari. Girls like Avizeh took their dear sweet time with everything. It was almost painful.

This time, the group from the other house met up with them to walk down, still sans Aang.

Katara saw a flash of disappointment on Ty Lee's face. When Katara patted her arm in understanding, Ty Lee shrugged.

"It's for the best," she said, but her smile didn't quite fill her face.

Down at the beach, most of their sand castle creations were still standing. There was a group of young children gathered around Toph's, staring in amazement at the intricate details.

"Did you make this?" one little girl asked Toph.

"Yep, what's it to you?" Toph said, tying back her long hair into a high bun.

"It's incredible! How did you do it?" she breathed.

Toph blinked. "Earthbending," she said after a long moment. The little girl squealed.

"I'm an earthbender too! Show me, show me!" Katara entirely expected Toph to brush off the young girl, but to her surprise, Toph just grinned, cracking her knuckles.

"You won't ever find a better teacher," she insisted. Then, Katara worried she'd be harsh on the girl, until she saw Toph helping her build her own tiny towns. Not with a whole lot of love, but not meanly. Toph wasn't a jerk enough to hurt an eight year old's feelings, at least.

"Hey!" Sokka choked out. Katara turned to see a boy with a toy Fire Nation Navy fleet ship shoving it through the sand, like it was the sea, into the guard tower closest to the water. Sokka's muddy guard dower flopped and fell.

"Aha! Attack of the Fire Nation! Pew pew!" the boy cried.

"It's a sand castle, we can rebuild," Katara said, waving to the boy who gave a floppy, but friendly, wave back.

"But that took me all day," Sokka groaned. Katara watched him go over to try to convince the boy to stop attacking their sand city. He became momentarily distracted watching Toph with the young girl, a weird look in his face that Katara couldn't quite place.

"Can I help you?" Suki asked, tapping Katara's shoulder. "Looks like fun."

"Yeah, we're just making the South here," Katara said. "Here's my house," she added, pointing to a pile of sand she hadn't yet shaped.

"Just tell me how to help."

XXxxXX

"I should get going," Zuko said, trying to sound apologetic as he nudged Saoirse.

"C'mon, can't you stay longer?" Saoirse pouted, crossing her arms.

"It wouldn't be fair to the other girls," Zuko said, pausing before wrapping an arm around her waist.

"I won't tell anyone if you don't," Saoirse smirked, tilting her head. Zuko laughed.

"If you don't think a girl wouldn't notice I spent an hour longer with you than anyone else, you clearly haven't been paying attention."

Saoirse shrugged her shoulders in defeat. "I just always want to spend more time with you than I have," she pouted quietly.

Zuko swallowed nodding. "I know the feeling," he said. He did feel bad at the way that Saoirse instantly brightened, maybe thinking he was referring to her, but in reality, he was thinking of Katara.

It wasn't fair to Saoirse; she was a very nice girl. She'd take him on a walk down the beach, away from the group, and they'd picked up interesting seashells along the way. It had been fun, it had been enjoyable, and Zuko had forgotten how much he liked talking to her.

"Are we going to get another date soon? You know, more than just this?" Saoirse questioned, motioning to the beach.

"Of course. Things are settling down after the attacks and soon I'll be doing dates regularly again."

Saoirse pursed her lips. "I can't wait."

Zuko offered back a slight smile in return. He turned them back to the main beach, finishing their hour and a half together with a kiss to her forehead, which seemed to please the Northern Water Tribe girl enough.

As soon as Saoirse was waving to Zuko, returning to find Kilee with her palms full of brightly colored shells, Zuko was scanning the beach for Katara.

He found her exactly where she'd begun the morning; at the sand castles.

"Hey, Kat, Sokka," Zuko nodded to the pair of siblings. "Toph."

"Oh, Zuko," Toph teased in a sing-songy voice. "Are you here for our date?"

Zuko groaned. "Do you want one?"

"Naw. I'm just messin' with ya." Toph came up, slapping his arm. "Don't look so depressed at the thought though!"

"I wasn't depressed, I was-"

"You can't hide from me, remember. I know when you're lying," Toph teased. "Besides, I still have more to work on here."

"Uh, looks pretty complete to me," Zuko said, eyes widening in surprise at the complexity of her work.

"So you'd think, so you'd think," Toph just replied cryptically, shaking a finger.

Zuko blinked, rolling his eyes. "Katara, so...do you...can we...maybe…"

"Yes," Katara laughed. "Sokka can finish by himself, right?"

Sokka, who was currently precisely measuring twigs to use as flags, startled. "What? Oh, yeah, whatever. I'm busy." He waved them away. "Wait!"

Zuko bit his tongue to groan in frustration as Katara turned back.

"If you find any more of this seaweed - the green stuff, not the brown gooey stuff - bring it back. We need it for the walls. Gotta make my city more impressive than Toph's," he added, sending a narrowed glare her way. Toph sent him back the middle finger, which three young children immediately tried to copy. Zuko groaned and dragged his hand down his face; he was going to be scalped by parents for one of his contestants teaching their children dirty words and phrases before the weekend was up.

"He's lying, we're just doing it for fun," Katara said, bending down to pat a wall back into place.

"That's what you think," Sokka said firmly.

"Right," Zuko said, since there was a clear difference in skill level between the two.

"We'll look our hardest," Katara said, winking to her brother.

Once they were a few feet away, Zuko resisted the urge to twine his fingers in hers. "What do you want to do?"

"Have you been in the water yet? I'm covered in sand and could for sure use a good wash," Katara said, patting off her arms.

"Not further than a few feet. Most of the girls asked me to put lotion on their backs or read with them or find shells," Zuko said.

"Have you been having fun?"

That was Katara, always looking out for him.

"Of course," Zuko said, and he meant that almost-completely honestly.

"We can do something else," Katara said, picking up on that small unsureness in his tone.

"No, that sounds great," he assured, pointing to the sea. Katara grabbed his hand to pull him to the waves. "I should have guessed the waterbender would want to go in the water."

Katara, running her fingers through her soaked hair to shove it back, blinked innocently at him. "Maybe I should be more unpredictable."

"Oh? I'd like to see you try." Zuko said.

Katara shrugged, at first seeming to brush his words off as she led them deeper and deeper into the sea, until they were almost treading water.

"How's this for unpredictable?" she asked. Zuko frowned, not understanding. As he was opening is mouth to ask what about this was something strange, Katara tackled him under the water. Just as he was getting his bearings under the waves, she kissed him. He opened his eye to see her hair floating out behind her like she was a sea goddess, tiny bubbles escaping her lips as she laughed.

Zuko dove back up for air.

"I could have drowned," he said, though he wasn't as upset as he pretended to be.

"I wouldn't have let you," Katara said firmly. She flashed him a white smile. "Are you properly wet?"

"Yes, my hair is soaked," he said, pointing to his locks, shaking his head like a dog to try the tips.

"I am too," Katara said.

"Yeah, you dove in right away," Zuko agreed.

"No," Katara said, coming up right next to him. He was just hardly touching the bottom flat-footed, so he was sure Katara was on her tiptoes, and grasping his arms to keep herself steady. "I'm soaked,"she breathed in a husky tone.

"You…" Zuko breathed out, but it sounded like a pained wheeze. About a thousand neurons all lit up at once in his brain...and then went right from his brain downward.

Katara used the weightlessness of the water to push herself up far enough to wrap her arms around his neck, kissing his neck, curling a leg around his own legs. She wasn't going to kiss him in public, not on the lips, but even just the hot kiss to his collarbone had him groaning and his hardness straining at his bottoms. Something about her doing this so openly, when she probably definitely wasn't supposed to be doing this, drove him even crazier than if they were alone.

"Katara, you-" Zuko started to protest, hands gripping her arms, until he wondered why he was protesting? This was, actually, sorta great.

"Mhh? What's that?" Katara tilted her head.

Zuko shook away the water in his head. This was bad. As much as he wanted this, it was bad. They shouldn't be doing this right now. They couldn't be doing this now. The rest of the competition was just lounging on the beach, definitely in sight. He let Katara's fingers trace his stomach, hard as he flexed as he tried not to move, until they got a little bit too low.

"Katara, you are not helping," he hissed.

Katara took her hand away. He expected her to be offended. Instead, she looked up at him with slightly confused, liquid eyes. Did she truly not-

She leaned up, kissing him chastely on his neck, before flicking her tongue over his earlobe.

"This is payback for dinner, Zuko," she murmured against his warm skin.

Zuko cussed in his mind. The foot-on-leg thing had been a spur of the moment thought, something he hadn't thought through other than that he'd enjoyed seeing Katara's ears redden. He hadn't thought she'd retaliate, and not so deftly!

Katara stood back, stretching. "Well, I think it's just about time for dinner. We should probably get out of the water, hmm?" she teased.

"You go," Zuko said, gritting his teeth.

"Aren't you coming?" Katara asked, smirking.

"No," he replied shortly, trying to think of all the least sexy things that he'd ever seen, to little help.

Katara flashed him a grin before swimming back. Zuko closed his eyes; if he walked out now, surely, everyone would see his tented pants. Think of Ozai in a bathing suit...think of Lo and Li in bathing suits...think that dead owl-cat he'd poked when he was eight…

"Zuko! Come inside! Dinner's soon!" Sokka called, wading into the water. "And you know me, I'm starved."

"You're always starved," Zuko snapped out. While he could tell Sokka his predicament, and for any other girl who had caused it he would, he wasn't about to admit he'd gotten hard while in the water with his sister.

"Well, hurry it up," Sokka encouraged.

"I just...I want to enjoy the water a little longer." Zuko forced a smile.

"The beach will still be here tomorrow."

"Yes," Zuko breathed out, willing himself to relax, trying not to catch sight of Katara in that swimsuit, knowing she'd still be wearing it the next day. "That might be exactly the issue."

Chapter Text

Aang watched the robe saleswoman from his spot at the cafe with careful scrutinizing attention.

"Sir, your honor, would you like more tea?"

Aang startled, glancing up at the very nervous owner who was offering out more from the tea cup. Aang wordlessly accepted, nodding his thanks. The man left, stumbling over reverent thank-yous, retreating back.

Yesterday, Aang had worn his military uniforms for his recon work. It had been his intention to be invisible, to be forgettable. Fire Nation military were as common as mouseflies here, and even one with light gray eyes was easily forgotten once out of sight. Today, however, he was wearing his family robes. It had been Kyoshi who had pointed out that flaunting his fake ancestors would allow him prestige and encourage people to listen to him.

As it was, as soon as he'd stepped into the tea shop, the owner had been falling over himself to offer Aang any table and tea on the house. He'd taken up a spot out on the patio, in perfect view of the woman of his watch as she sold her robes to passersby.

He'd gathered that she was the owner, but still worked the shop herself. She had scant workers, and it seemed to be mostly tourists who stopped in, the locals avoided her shop tactfully. She was marked by some invisible taboo, something that was known but not talked about at this point in time.

Her figure was lithe, and when she stepped, there was a spring to it. Her shoulders were small. Her eyes, not quite grey, but somewhere between a murky blue and true slate color all indicated to Aang that some of her ancestors had to be airbenders. He doubted she herself was an airbender, but it was somewhere in her family.

He hadn't had proper time to research Ember Island and the census reports. As it was, this town was very changed year to year. It was built up for the tourists, and the actual people who lived here were probably few. It was also a hot spot for all types of high-ranking Fire Nationers. Chances are that someone wouldn't have come here unless you didn't know about your airbending ancestry until it was too late.

When the owner came back over a second time, Aang motioned him down.

"That woman there?" he asked, pointing, "What do you know of her?"

The man poured Aang's green tea, frowning. "Lady Tuan? What does the Royal Family care of her?"

"What do you know of her?" Aang repeated, recalling how Kasata had told him to be aloof and cold, someone imposing.

"She's hardly anyone, m'lord," the man said carefully, "And, if I may...a disgrace to the town."

"Oh?"

"She's vocal, sir," the man said distastefully. "Or, she was. She had a son, you see, and he was always a little off. He vanished a year or two ago. Since then, she's always had opinions, and will tell anyone them. Mostly about the soldiers that come through here...which we are always pleased to have, of course," the man said quickly.

"I take it she doesn't?"

"In more words or less," the man said shortly.

Aang sipped his tea, nodding.

"The Royal Family thanks you for your generosity," he said, dropping a handful of gold coins in the man's hand.

Then, he strode across the walkway.

"Lady Tuan?" Aang said in an even tone, "May I have a word?"

"Lord Kuzon." The woman bowed immediately, as did everyone else in the general vicinity. "I am humbled you would choose to visit this small store, I am-"

"Lady," Aang said, resting a hand on her shoulder, "If there is perhaps somewhere we could talk?"

"Yes, let me just...I will...come in," she said. She was middle-aged, wrinkles creasing her face, hints of silver shining in her dark hair. She brought Aang to the back storeroom, filled with bolts of fabric and thread yarn. She hustled around, clearing off tables.

"Your son. He was an airbender." Aang got right to the point. He saw no other way around it. The woman's back stiffened.

"My liege, you-" she began to scoff, but Aang raised a hand.

"I'm sure others assumed, but no one would be so bold to say. And, he's gone now, so it doesn't matter. You overplayed your hand," Aang said, but it was Kasata's voice in his head telling him the words.

The woman's lip trembled.

Aang pursed his lips as the Avatars warred inside his head.

He needed this woman, the first part of his masterplan, to cooperate with him. Kasata was telling him to blackmail her; threaten that he'd turn her into Zhao if she didn't do as he asked.

Aang needs her to agree; that seems counterproductive, Yangchen said evenly, and the Avatar should not use war tactics!

An airbender, maybe, Kasata spit back. But we are at war! The ends sometimes justify the means!

Aang swallowed hard. What sort of precedent would he be setting if he bullied her into agreeing with him?

You have your information! She could just as easily turn you in, Kasata continued, and all this secrecy would be for nothing.

"Are you here to take me in, my Lord?" Lady Tuan's voice was fearful, but strong.

"The opposite, actually." Aang shushed the voices best he could. He was an airbender, and he was peaceful. He would do a great many things for his people, but this was not one of them.

Honey catches more mouseflies than vinegar, Yangchen agreed with a hint of pride.

"I wish to...I want to…" It was the first time, apart from talking to Zuko, he'd had to describe his crusade. Aang breathed in deeply, centering himself.

"I am trying to help airbenders escape danger," he said frankly, but spoke quietly and swiftly. "I mean to get them out of cities and towns, away from those who wish to hurt them."

The woman narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"How do I know you are not trying to goad me into a confession?" she asked with a hint of bitterness.

Aang was not going to bring out his airbending, not again, for it was a kept secret now. Too many people knew, and soon, it wouldn't be a secret anymore. Still, he would rather err on the side of caution while he still could.

"I have nothing, I suppose, other than asking you to look into my eyes and believe that I want to help keep people alive. That I think it's wrong to kill airbenders," Aang said honestly. "And that you can take this information if you so please, take it straight to the Fire Lord. But, I think we share a similar desire to see them helped, to do what it takes," he said. "Believe it because I come to you with no guards flanking me, nothing but my words and a plea."

The woman jumped forward, jerking Aang's eyes up. For a second, her grip on his chin was firm, and she looked at him like she was staring all the way down.

"Your eyes," she said after a moment, voice rough. "They are the same hue as my son's were…"

Aang bit his lip cautiously. Let her believe him another nameless airbender, not the Avatar.

Perhaps, if that's what it took, it would be better.

She drew back. "What do you ask of me?"

"Safe passage. That, if they come through here, you keep them safe or give them food and shelter until they move to their next spot. You clothe them, care for them as though they were your son who died," Aang said.

"You are asking me to defy the Fire Lord. That treason is punishable by death," Lady Tuan said simply.

"I realize."

She crossed her arms, face unreadable, staring Aang down for a few minutes. Aang waited for her, knowing that this was not something he asked of anyone lightly. While he'd be disappointed if she refused, he would understand.

He saw a small smile curl across her face, and that's when he knew.

Aang opened his lips, speaking with a careful annunciation. "Are you a friend of Rodden?"

Despite the phrase itself being spoken for the first time, and unfamiliar at that, the way that Aang spoke it to her, and the fire that lit in her eyes indicated that she understood.

"Aye, I am a friend of Rodden."

XXxxXX

"What's Prince Zuko doing still out in the water?"

Katara gathered her hair into one palm, using the other to draw the water from the tendrils as she glanced at Kilee.

"You know," she said, trying to keep a straight face, "I'm not really sure."

"I'll get him," Sokka announced. "My stomach is rumbling! You hear that?"

"We all can. It's like you've never eaten," Suki laughed.

"Katara! Can you help me?" Ty Lee called, and Katara turned to see Ty Lee struggling to fold down her parasol as the wind battered the fabric.

"Of course," Katara said, bounding up to grasp onto the thick material as Ty Lee did her best to beat it down so she could tie it.

"Need help ladies?"

The same two goons from the previous day suddenly materialized. Like magic. Like they were bloodhounds to ladies in short skirts struggling with something.

"We're fine," Katara said shortly.

"Looks like you're having a bit of trouble," the second one said, but he was eyeing the two girls with a wandering gaze.

"If we were, we wouldn't ask you," Katara said. "We'd probably ask Prince Zuko," she added, batting her eyes.

"He seems a little...distracted," the first one said, glancing out to the sea. "Look, anyway, I'm having a party tonight. You all should come by."

Katara paused, turning to cross her arms. "All of us?" she asked, motioning to the group at large.

"Well, we'd prefer just the girls-" the second boy started, but the first elbowed him hard.

"If that's what it takes to get you to show up," the first said.

"You do know who we are, don't you?" Azula asked, sneaking up on Katara so stealthily that she nearly jumped.

"A caravan of nearly 20 girls and a kid with a scar. You're not exactly inconspicuous."

"Big words there," Katara said dryly.

"Hey!" the second boy snarled. "Don't they teach you manners on whatever ice cube you come from? Don't you know who we are?"

"Are we supposed to?" Azula asked, examining her nail bed.

"We're Chan and Ruan-Jian!" the second one squawked indignantly. Azula looked the pair up and down. Katara saw Azula's gaze linger just a second too long on Chan, and that there was almost something like approval in her eyes.

"Oh, of course," Azula said with faux recognition.

Chan looked directly at Katara.

"Look, some of the most influential Fire Nation families will be there, so maybe if you didn't act so…" He made a weird hand gesture. "Just be normal."

"I'll be on my best behavior," Katara said sweetly, and as soon as they turned, she rolled her eyes.

"This will be fun," Azula said to the girls who had gathered. "I've never been to a real party."

"What if Prince Zuko-"

"My brother has little reason to say no," Azula cut off On Ji. "He can schmooze with some sons of important people, and we can enjoy ourselves. This is what teens and young adults do, or so I've heard," she added, tapping her chin. "For some reason, no one ever really invited me or Zuko to parties…"

"I wonder why," Katara heard someone mumble as they tied their kimonos. By this point, Zuko had exited the water.

"Prince Zuko! We just got invited to a party tonight!" Avizeh gasped, running up and pulling on his arm. "It's going to be so much fun!"

"What?" Zuko looked right at his sister. "Azula-"

"Oh, pish. Live a little, Zuzu," Azula said, grinning and showing her teeth bared. "I think tonight will be smashing."

XXxxXX

"No, no," Arrluck was sighing hard. "From dusk till dawn doesn't literally mean that it starts at dusk."

Zuko glanced over his shoulder to see the Water Tribe boy sitting across from Azula, trying to explain the concept to her.

"It's just an expression," he added at Azula's very dubious face.

"But I overheard him saying they'll be partying from dusk until dawn," Azula argued firmly, using her hands to indicate the two marks of time. "Why would he say that if he did not mean it? The Royal Family is never tardy."

"It's fine to be slightly tardy at parties." Zuko was unsure how Arrluck had somehow been conscripted into explaining this to Azula. Well, better Arrluck than Zuko; Hahn was taking a very long time getting ready doing Agni knows what and Sokka was having a post-dinner snack. "It's normal, even."

Azula leaned forward, smiling. "If you are incorrect, Arrluck, I will come into your room at night and wax your whole body using day old wax. Trust me, it will hurt."

As she stood, Arrluck sent him a 'what the heck' sort of look, to which Zuko only gave a tired shrug. It was per the norm for Azula.

Aang walked through the door right as Azula was going to her room.

"You!" she said, pointing at Aang.

He sent Azula a bewildered look, wordlessly pointing to himself.

"Yes, you. We were invited to a party tonight. We're going," she said, with all of the authority in her voice she could muster.

"I don't think-" Aang begun.

"You are teenager, are you not?" Azula asked.

"Erm, yes," Aang said, but there was a tinge of nervousness in his reply. Zuko stifled a laughter.

'Are you a teenager' was a pretty loaded question, considering that he was sort of 16 and also sort of 116.

"It's what teenagers do. You're going."

Zuko didn't think he'd be able to persuade Azula out of going, and Aang seemed resigned to it. He plopped down next to Zuko on a weirdly lump armchair.

"Did you have a productive day?" Zuko asked.

"Actually," Aang's face brightened. "It was."

He glanced around, realizing that there was only so much that could be said between the pair of them without giving too much away.

Zuko gave a satisfied nod.

Aang took out a tiny slip of parchment. "Maybe going to this party won't be the worst thing," he admitted. "I was given a list of people – teens - that might be...helpful to us," Aang said, sharing the list with Zuko. There were three names on it: Bahuo, Rasra, and Aden. "They were, well, friends with a...a...fallen family member of mine." Aang decided his words carefully, dropping to a scarce whisper.

Zuko wasn't sure if he totally understood Aang's meaning, but he understood enough. He looked at the three names, memorized them. There were no guarantees they'd be at the party, but at least it would give some purpose to this otherwise rather odious night Azula had agreed to.

XXxxXX

The group walked over in a massive hoard. Katara tugged at her dress, unsure if she was underdressed or overdressed. She'd anticipated some fancy dinner, and had the forethought to bring a nicer dress. However, she had little experience with teen parties, and what was the proper dress code for one.

Some girls seemed to be wearing as little as they had on the beach, while other girls were dressed like they were preparing for a big important dinner party. Maybe what mattered was effort; whatever effort meant to everyone individually.

Yue had brought a similar dress to the one Katara was wearing, and this made Katara feel much more settled in her choices.

Chan's house was situated on a cliffside, and by the time they arrived, there was lights flickering on the inside of the house. Azula had muttered something about being late, and Ty Lee had bounded over to her friend, explaining that parties were really more of a 'come and go when you please' sort of thing.

At the door, Azula shouldered her way to the front, rapping three times with the exact same pressure.

Toph grasped Katara's arms.

"You ready for this?" she whispered excitedly.

"Toph, you hate parties."

"Wrong. I hate balls," Toph said, raising a finger. "Parties though? I can hear it from here: music, dancing, drinks, food, sin. I can't wait," she explained, rubbing her hands together deviously.

Chan answered.

"We are here," Azula said. "It is not in my nature to be so late, I'm usually a perfect party guest, and-"

"Yeah, yeah, come in," Chan said, cutting her off. "So; my dad doesn't know that I'm throwing this party. Don't fuck it up. I don't care if you're the Royal Children, okay?" he said.

Ty Lee inhaled sharply, eyes bugging. Azula just breezed on in, smiling as she did so.

"Usually Zula would have killed him for a comment like that," Ty Lee said to Mai. "I don't…"

"It's obvious," Katara heard Mai say to Ty Lee in a bored tone, "She likes him."

Ty Lee was so shocked that it took until most of the group entered for her to shake herself out of her expression. Katara nudged her elbow, and the pair went inside.

The girls dispersed quickly, like mist evaporating on a sunny day. In every corner that Katara turned toward, it seemed a girl she knew had taken hold, giggling with Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation boys who fawned over them. Sokka had found the food, once again, and was chowing down while telling some over-exaggerated story to a couple of girls. She saw Toph only in brief moments; the first time, she was shoving some dude, though it seemed nothing came of it. The second time, she was dowing shots like there was no tomorrow. The third time, well, she was still taking shots.

Katara hovered unsurely for a little bit, gliding through the throngs of people without any effort to talk to anyone. She was very grateful when Aang joined her in a corner.

"Having fun?" she asked.

Aang scowled, tilting his head. Katara looked behind him to see a whole group of boys making fools of themselves around Ty Lee. Ty Lee was walking a thin line, trying not to be rude, but also trying very hard not to encourage them.

Katara instinctively looked around for Zuko. She found him facing a similar issue with non-Choice girls, but he was managing to elude them a little bit more effectively. Still, girls mooned over him with stupid smiles on their faces. They probably wouldn't ever get this close to the crown prince again.

"Look, we're looking for some people. If you find any of these three people here, come find me or Zuko," Aang murmured quietly, slipping a thin sheet into her hand.

"What is this about? Are they for sure here?" Katara said, clasping her fingers tightly around it.

"Later and no," Aang said shortly. "But it will give you something to do other than just stand around." He offered a thin smile.

"You're one to talk."

"You two need drinks," Azula commanded, pointing at them both. "Agni, you two are so depressing over here. You're being bad guests." She snapped her fingers, and someone was offering the pair a beverage of some sort. Azula seemed pleased and moved on, only because she spotted Chan.

"Oh, Chan! I forgot to tell you before that you're wearing a sharp outfit. If you're not careful, it could puncture a hull of an empire-class Fire Nation battleship, leaving thousands to drown at sea. You know, because it's so sharp." Azula's voice faded as she followed after Chan, but Katara still heard the whole compliment.

Katara snorted so hard it hurt. She pressed the pads of her finger to the glass cup, wondering if it would be rude to pour this out.

"Think she's trying to poison us?" Katara asked, looking hard into the glass.

"She's trying to get me drunk for spirits knows why," Aang said. "Bottoms up?" he said, clinking their glasses. He drank half of it before Katara could argue, wincing. "Start talking to people," he said, sending one last longing look back at Ty Lee before plastering a fake smile and gregariously inserting himself into an ongoing conversation.

Katara shielded herself against a wall to unfurl the slip of paper. She got the impression that she was not to let these names fall into the wrong hands. After memorizing the trio of titles, she stuffed it down her shirt, between her breasts.

No one would be trying to reach there besides herself. Or Zuko, if he was feeling frisky, but she got the feeling he knew about this.

She pushed down her unsureness and social anxiety, smiled warmly at a nice-looking boy and girl, and forced herself to walk over to them.

XXxxXX

Katara didn't talk to her friends for most of the party. She slipped between groups of strangers, putting forth a more talkative and friendly version of herself, one that charmed and amazed easily. She hadn't found any of the names on Aang's list, but the night was still young, and people continued to pour in through the front door.

Most people weren't quite as awful as the two hosts, and were actually nice to talk to. Most were amazed by her Water Tribe heritage, but there had only been one or two people Katara had stopped talking to because of stupid comments.

As she passed by the food table, Ruan-Jian caught sight of her in the mirror he'd been using to fluff his hair.

"Hey there, tiger," he said, coming up next to her.

"If you're not careful, I'll eat you. Better scram," Katara said, trying not to punch him.

"You know, I'd be nicer to me," he said, cornering her.

"How do you figure?"

"Only one of you all is going to win this thing with the Prince," he said, waving a hand around. "And the rest of you will need a man to marry anyway. Not everyone would be willing to handle someone as...difficult as a Southern Water Tribe bird, but I'm open to the challenge. I've heard you're a little rough around the edges; Prince Zuko can't possibly be expected to properly train you with all the other girls he's handling, but I'd fix that easily. Just need a strong hand to lead you, you know? If you're nice to me, I'd consider asking my father to broker an agreement between us."

Katara took a step back, teeth bared, fury twitching her hand. She was a second away from slapping him, but she kept her fingers twitching at her side. She hated him more than she hated Hahn. Hahn was an asshole, but he hadn't tried hitting on Katara in moons, and was more akin to an irritating insect. He certainly hit on other girls, so it's not as though he was absolved, but he seemed to have a type: girls that could defend themselves as aggressively as he pursued them. She got the feeling Hahn might not actually like a girl who was declawed, where as this fucker seemed like he wanted nothing more than to leave his poor wife defenseless and depend upon him.

Ruan-Jian seemed to be looking for a meek girl, wanted someone to control. She wasn't going to make a scene right now, not when this wasn't her party and others were enjoying themselves. She could deal with an idiot. She'd dealt with worse.

"That's sweet," she said with as much sarcasm as she thought she could get away with. "However, I think I already had some other prospects lined up. I'm sorry."

Ruan-Jian blinked. "Shame. I think we would have had fun together," he said lazily, plucking a rolled finger-food from Katara's plate.

"Maybe," she said. Ruan-Jian sent her one last disappointed look before stalking his next prey. She saw him head for Kilee next. A girl like Kilee might actually enjoy a man like him.

"He thinks he's so great," Zuko growled, his presence shocking Katara. She'd been so focused on not killing Ruan-Jian she hadn't noticed him sneak up. At Katara's lack of a response, mostly just because she hadn't fully processed his first words, he added with a lot of jealousy, crossing his arms, "You liked him, didn't you?"

"I find him abhorrent, but I can't just say that in the middle of his party," Katara hissed angrily. "I'm not looking for a husband! I wasn't even looking for one in the first place," she added, the words falling out of her mouth before she could stop.

Zuko straightened his back. "You hardly let me forget that," he said crisply before turning away.

Katara wanted to scream. What was suddenly bothering him? It's not like she'd been in the corner making out with that idiot, in fact, she'd been trying to shove away his affections as best she could!

Katara snatched her plate off the table, intent on finding a quiet place in the middle of nowhere where she could eat her food and stew.

"Ruan-Jian comes on a little strong," a boy said as Katara passed him, "Sorry."

Katara paused, inhaling. "You shouldn't have to apologize. It's not your fault."

"I know. Still." He frowned. "It's not polite, and honestly, I don't think his heavy-handed tactics have ever worked."

Katara paused, smiling thinly at him. She felt Zuko's eyes on the back of her head. For Agni's sake, she wasn't discussing a marriage with this guy, she was making polite small talk.

"So, what's it like being in The Prince's Choice?" he asked.

"How do you know I am?"

"You're Katara. I've seen drawings of you in the papers," he said frankly. "Plus, the Southern symbol on your bracelet is a dead giveaway. There's only one Southern girl that's anywhere near Fire Nationers."

Katara absently rubbed the bracelet that Shi had made for Katara with her family's symbol.

"You got me," she said after a beat. "It's exhausting."

This was, entirely, the truth.

"I guess you know my name." Katara extended her hand.

"Rasra."

Kara blinked, her grip on his hand a little lackluster.

"Let me just…" She held up a finger, pulling the sheet from between her breasts. "Ah. Yes."

"Uhm-" Rasra blinked, averting his eyes. Katara grabbed his arm, pulling him through the crowd. "Where are we going?"

"You're meeting the Prince tonight," Katara said.

"Why?"

Katara spotted Zuko sulking near the back. "No idea. If you find out, let me know."

XXxxXX

Aang watched Katara drag some poor soul through the party to Zuko. The only explanation he could think of was that it was a name from the list. He wondered which one it was?

"-those boys won't leave me alone, they all like me too much."

At Ty Lee's voice, Aang switched his attention. He saw Ty Lee rubbing her arms, standing next to Azula. Behind Ty Lee was a whole host of boys who were bickering over which one Ty Lee liked more.

Aang leaned more into the wall, trying not to be obvious that he was eavesdropping. He also tried not to glare at the gathered boys. Ty Lee was a catch; of course other people were taking notice of her.

Azula looked Ty Lee up and down, her expression darkening.

"Come on, Ty Lee, you can't be this ignorant," she said, raising her chin.

Ty Lee frowned, tilting her head, looking back at the boys. When they noticed her looking, they all waved exuberantly and called her name.

"What do you mean?"

Azula leaned in, her razor cut hair falling over her shoulders. "Those boys only like you because you make it so easy for them. You're not a challenge. You're a tease, and they think they're going to get something from you. It's not like they care about you as a person."

Ty Lee gaped for a second, floundering for words. Aang saw tears forming on the edge of her eyes. He thought she might lose it on the floor, in front of everyone. Maybe even a year ago, she would have.

Now, however, Ty Lee managed to pull herself together enough to scowl at Azula. Azula looked surprised she wasn't a blubbering mess on the ground.

"That was mean, Azula. I think you're just jealous. I feel sorry for you," she said simply, turning around.

"Ty, wait," Azula said, realizing her folly a second too late. Ty Lee smacked her hand off.

"Leave me alone. Please."

Go to her, Aang, Kyoshi whispered quietly.

But she wants to be alone, Aang frowned, swallowing. Kyoshi replied back immediately.

From most, true. But not from you.

Even her fanboys had enough sense to give her distance. She walked out onto the patio, leaving Azula halfway between contrite and fuming. Aang watched as she stood motionless for a couple seconds, her face rapidly switching between emotions, before she squared her shoulders.

"They do just want sex," Azula muttered to herself. "Can't help it if Ty Lee is too naive to see that."

As soon as Azula was preoccupied, Aang peeled himself from the wall, with every intent of finding Ty Lee.

She was underneath the porch out back, hiding in the shadows, sitting in the sand. She was sobbing.

That's your descendant, Roku! Gopan hissed angrily, By the spirits, she's a monster! This girl is pure! Like a dove and-

Azula is all Azulon's family, Roku replied back tersely, I only take claim to Zuko. There is nothing of me in Azula.

Poor girl, poor girl, Suluk crooned.

"Ty?" Aang asked softly, wondering if he would be told to go away. Maybe he should have just let her be?

"Aang," Ty Lee breathed out softly, her eyes glimmering with wet tears as she lifted her head.

"She's wrong, you know," Aang said before Ty Lee could say something else. "About all of it. You're not a tease, you're not easy. Boys don't just want one thing...I care about you. I could care less about 'getting something' in return and-" He paused when he noticed Ty Lee smiling. "What?"

Oh, to be young and stupid once again, Suluk sighed. Aang didn't understand.

"I know she was just saying that to hurt me, Kuzon," Ty Lee said, reminding herself of his cover. "I didn't think it was true. I'm crying because I hate how mean Azula can be, how she can have so little care for anyone but herself."

"And you're smiling because…?"

"Because you're you," Ty Lee was still hiccupping, but her sobs were quieting. She lifted her hand as an invitation. Aang sat beside her. "And this is the nicest thing anyone has done for me. I do know that I'm often overlooked. No one cares about Ty Lee."

"You couldn't be more wrong," Aang choked out, horrified she'd think that.

"I'm used to it. Did you ever know I was one of six sisters, all who looked exactly the same as I did? That I ran away to the circus at the age of five, until Azula tracked me back down and invited me to the Palace as her esteemed friend?"

"I knew about the circus." Aang furrowed his brow. "But I had no idea about your family."

"I don't want to talk about it all now, but I'm just very used to being one of a group. Maybe I do try to get noticed, a little too much," she said, looking out at the sea that bashed up against the rocks, a faraway look in her eye.

"You're noticed because you're incredible," Aang said. "And kind. And caring. And funny."

Good job, Aang! Most effective! Gopan cheered him on. Okay, he was doing something right.

Ty Lee turned. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead to his. There was a moment, one moment where Aang was sure she was going to kiss him. Instead, she just softly ran her fingers over his cheek, up into his unruly black hair. All at once, the voices were silent. It was as though it was just him and Ty Lee.

"I wish I could," she murmured, and he knew what she was referring to. "But if we were caught-" She bit her lip.

"Treason. Not even a fake relation to the Royal Family would save us, huh?" Aang agreed, knowing full well. Perhaps it was for the best. He imagined if he kissed her even once, he would find it impossible to be near her without wanting to do it again, without wishing they could be open about all of it.

"Yeah," Ty Lee whispered back, ever so softly, so that her answer was carried away on the wind.

Aang was about to stand, but Ty Lee jerked him back down. She motioned to stay silent, pointing above.

Now that Aang tilted his head, he heard a pair of footsteps.

"Is this your first time on Ember Island?"

Aang mouthed 'Chan' to Ty Lee, who nodded. She mouthed back, 'Azula', which Aang wasn't expecting.

"No, I used to come here years ago," Azula said. Aang frowned. He'd never heard Azula sound...so soft.

"It's great if you like sand," Chan said, throwing a pebble off the porch. It clattered near Aang's foot.

"Not a fan?" Azula asked.

"It gets old after a while. Do you ever get tired of the capital?"

Azula scoffed. "Never. It's mine."

"I was born here too, but…" Chan trailed off. "You're really pretty." There was a sound that happened next that Aang didn't recognize, not at first.

"Did she just giggle?" Aang whispered in mild horror. Ty Lee's eyes were as wide as Aang's.

There was a pause, before Azula continued. "I'm going to be honest. I'm not looking for a guy to tell me I'm pretty and bring me flowers, even if the sentiment is appreciated. I have big plans and I need someone to stand by me. Plans that would make lesser men weak at the knees. Are you that man Chan?"

Chan made an audible gulp. "That's, uh, a little intense…" he trailed off uneasily.

"I know what I need. If you aren't that, your loss," Azula said flippantly, confidently, before walking off. Aang counted her steps above them.

"Wait! Princess!" Chan called after her, running after her.

"Well, that was something," Aang said dryly. He wondered if Azula was talking about taking over the throne, the same drone threat she'd been peddling for years on end now?

Ty Lee just smiled, "Let's re-join the party."

 

Chapter Text

Walking up to the Royal Palace late in the afternoon the next day, Katara nearly expected it to be burned down, or to find out that Ozai had done something really crazy in their weekend gone, like invited the Equalists to live with them or culled half the girls himself and thrown their items onto the lawn.

The palace, however, looked exactly as it always had, perhaps a missing spire or two from the attack. Overall, it was familiar. Familiar enough that when they pushed the grand doors open, the scent that was kicked up from the carpet and the walls felt homey. It did disturb Katara slightly to have such a pleased unconscious response to the burning smell of incense and cloves.

Behind Katara, the whole caravan of girls and others followed, some stumbling slightly or wincing at the bright sun.

If Katara asked Toph, having half of the group hung over was a mark of a successful party. Katara wasn't sold on this.

She did consider the party a success on a much different scale; Ruan-Jian had kept away from her the rest of the night, no one made too big a fool of themselves, and the party didn't end with Azula burning the place down. She'd heard stories whispered among other girls about certain events that Katara assumed were true that indicated most other people had equally as good a time.

Maiha apparently found her 'back-up' suitor, and he'd professed he'd wait for her, because Maiha had said she was '98% sure she wasn't going to be the winner'. Ty Lee sent warm smiles to Aang when no one was looking, which made Katara sure something had happened, though she was unsure what. Azula had finished the night with a scowl, and whoever made her so unhappy, Katara wanted to high five them.

She'd heard some other tall tales. Arrluck had been found at the end of the night half-naked with an Earth Kingdom girl, because surprise-surprise...being the possible future leader of a nation was a turn on to a lot of girls. Hahn had struck out horribly with everyone he tried to charm. Ruan-Jian had set his sights on Jin after Katara, but Jin was more tight-lipped about her opinions. Nadhari had apparently gotten so drunk that she became, arguably, nice...but this was one rumor Katara thought was totally ridiculous. She doubted any amount of spirits could make Nadhari a pleasant person.

Aang and Zuko, and whatever their secret plan was, had gone well. Zuko had sat talking to Rasra in the open for about ten minutes before taking him somewhere private. Katara hadn't been stalking Zuko's every move (but then again, she sort of had) and they had been out of the view of the party for at least half an hour, if not more. After they'd exited, Zuko had seemed a mixture between even more wound-up but also pleased? Katara hoped he was planning on telling her, or the group of the secret-keepers soon, because Katara and secrets being kept from her never went well together.

"Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the beach, ladies," General Iroh said, greeting the group as they arrived, a smile on his face. Katara smiled back. She may not be pleased to be in the same house as Ozai again, but she'd always look forward to the gentleness of Iroh.

"It was a blast!" Toph said honestly, her grin a little bit more mischievous. "Look at how all those girls are stumbling around."

General Iroh laughed. "Lady Bei Fong," he said in a half-serious and half-teasing manner, shaking his head at her.

Zhi elbowed her way to the front, corralling the girls before they could return to their rooms. Zuko, Azula, and the others were able to slip past her. Iroh followed behind Zuko, clasping his nephew on the shoulder, gleefully asking about the weekend.

"Ladies! I know that it's been a long day already, but please quickly drop your items off and meet me back in the Ladies' Area," she said. There was a string of groans that followed, which made Zhi look more frustrated than usual. "Let me remind you all that none of you were forced to partake in alcohol last night, so the fault is merely your own. Perhaps this will be a lesson in decorum and consequences for the future. Now, swiftly!" she said, clapping loudly twice. The sound echoed around the chamber. Nadhari rubbed her temple, sighing loudly at the noise, and Kilee, who had certainly had too much to drink, winced very visibly.

"Consequences for the future," Alcina parroted jokingly in Katara's ear, putting on a ridiculous accent, once Zhi was gone. "Agni, she's serious."

"Well, she is sort of right," Katara said. "On the other hand, it was a party, so…" She made a weighing motion with her hands.

The girls did not hasten swiftly to put their things away. The sober ones deposited their things and walked at a semi-leisurely pace to the Ladies' Room. Those who were less fortunate took their dear sweet time. As she passed one of the bathrooms, Katara spotted Kilee with her head in a basin, moaning.

It was nearly an hour before everyone made it to the room.

"I have made notes of those who were tardy and how long," Zhi said in a clipped tone.

"The horror," Katara side-whispered to Alcina.

"-but moving on, the schedules for the remainder of the trips have been decided. I will be handing out to each of you the trips you have been chosen to attend, so that you can properly plan and make choices about your upcoming time here. Some of the locations may have a project to work on, and you may need to start brainstorming right away." Zhi motioned to Wei, who began to hand out individually scrolled parchment.

"Having your name listed for a future location is not a guarantee of your presence. The Prince may choose to cut any one of you at any time. This is just a best-case plan, pending your continued participation," Zhi added when a couple of the girls began to whisper that they were settled for a location nearly six moons in advance and that had to be near to the end of the Choice.

"Zhi!" Nadhari raised her hand. "What happens if someone, and oh, let's just pick someone randomly, On Ji," she said all at once, which told Katara On Ji had not been targeted randomly, "gets sent home and had dates still listed. Would another girl be put in the place?"

"I cannot confirm or deny that. That is up to Prince Zuko if he wants to fill the roster to capacity again," Zhi said.

Katara unraveled her roll. She wasn't exactly sure, but from the chattering, it seemed like four girls were picked per trip.

Before she could read her own, Toph was waving her sheet in front of her face.

"Sugar Queen, be a dear and read this to me?" she said, not so much a question as much as a command.

Katara rolled her eyes, but unfurled it.

"Just give me the ones that will happen in the next two or three months."

"You don't think you'll be here longer?"

"Okay, hm, it says you're going on two: the trip to Gaoling and the trip to Kyoshi. The Kyoshi one is soon; leaving tomorrow. Then the one to Gaoling is next week. After that, you're good for a while."

Toph frowned. "Ugg."

"Wish you were on more?" Alcina asked.

"Less. I wish I was on none," Toph said, slouching low. "This is hell. I've decided just now."

Katara threw Toph's sheet back at her, sighing. Her friend could be so melodramatic sometimes.

Katara finally unrolled her own sheet. She counted off the number of times she was listed, and eventually switched to the number of trips she wasn't on instead. It seemed that, by and large, most girls were placed on 4-5 trips on average. Katara was on so many more; eight or nine that she could count, just in the 'near' future!

Almost guiltily, Katara folded the slip into a tiny square and wrapped her palm around it. Her first trip was early next week, and then she was going pretty regularly from there. Eventually, the other girls would realize that she was going on a disproportionate number of trips, however, Katara wasn't going to announce it right now.

Not like Nadhari, who was boasting about the numbers she had on her sheet. It ground Katara's teeth to imagine someone like Nadhari nearly matching her numbers, especially since chances were their trips overlapped often. If it was that Nadhari would be gone all the time and Katara here, she could have spun that for herself to be a plus. No Nadhari would be like a vacation in itself. She seemed to be not so lucky.

"Katara, did you notice your final trip?" Ty Lee asked, scooting her chair between Katara and Alcina, shielding her body away. Alcina was talking with Anaselma, and didn't seem to notice.

"Huh?"

"I bet Toph has the same one too," Ty Lee said, tapping Katara's fist. Katara un-creased her paper, looking at the very bottom. She then grabbed Toph's from the floor, holding it close an out of views of others. While most of the writing indicated that someone else had written this, probably Wei, Zuko had managed to grab Ty Lee's, Toph's, and Katara's for a final note at the bottom.

Midnight.

Nothing else needed to be said. It was understood.

XXxxXX

"Every time that we all meet, shit goes down. Expectations are shot out of the water. Truths are brutally revealed," Sokka said as he settled himself on a sack of potatoes, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Shoji snorted, Aang glanced his way and gave a shrug, and Zuko kicked his shin, hoping to wake him up a bit more.

"It's because we're always discussing things that could very easily get us killed," Zuko said in a tight voice. "We're not a group of old men sitting around playing Pai Sho," he added with a scoff.

"Yeah, well," Sokka opened one eye to send a half-glare at Zuko, "This 'Group Without A Snappy Name' gives me anxiety. Guhwasen."

"Gesundheit?" Shoji said, scratching his head.

"No, it's the acronym of the title. GWASN!"

"That's awful," Aang winced.

"Hey, Mister, I don't see you offering up any better solutions!"

"As I said before, a name isn't exactly on our lists of concerns," Zuko snapped.

Sokka just regarded Zuko for a moment before nudging Aang. "Zuko is grumpy," he muttered in a stage-whisper that Zuko could absolutely hear.

Zuko turned away. He had been more irritable of late, and a lot of it was coming from that damned party last night. Yes, a tiny part of it was because he was still hung-over, but a larger part was why he'd drank at the party at all. Seeing those boys fawn over Katara had been infuriating.

It's not that he actually thought Katara liked Ruan-Jian, that had been stupid of him to even ask that. He knew Katara to be of sound enough mind to find him annoying...but a part of him wondered if maybe she didn't? Totally without cause, true, but there was so much Zuko didn't know about her preferences. Was Zuko the norm of who she liked or the antithesis? And, even more than that, it was the first time that Zuko had to watch Katara and imagine she might marry someone else.

And that infuriated him.

He didn't think he owned her, but Zuko knew that he would love her and care for her and give her the entire world if she asked, so it was crazy to him that she'd settle for some asshole who would treat her like a doll or an interesting pet.

It was the first time that he really thought about how after all this, after how much he loved her and how his heart bled at the thought of being without her, he might never actually have her. And worse, she may sail home to the South and he might never see her again.

He was angry when he thought about this.

And he knew, he knew, it wasn't fair to take it out on Katara, or on Aang, or on Sokka. But great Agni, he was young and he didn't claim to know it all or be a perfect master of his emotions. It was the Fire Nation way to hold grudges, lash out, and push everyone else away until it was just you, sitting alone on that cold stone pillar high above everyone else. As much as Zuko fought against this, blood history was hard to shake.

The door opened and shut nearly silently. Zuko glanced and bit back his frustration; it was nearly half an hour past midnight. There were a number of reasons the girls could be late, however, and it would do all of them no good for him to stew about it.

"We're here," Katara whispered silently. "Zhi was patrolling the halls tonight," she said by way of explanation.

As always, it was more than a little cramped all together.

"As well as a name, I think we need a more convenient meeting place," Sokka said as he hauled himself up onto a shelf, ducking his head awkwardly between his shoulders.

"Once again," Zuko exhaled out, "Not our biggest concern."

"I'd hope not! We nearly got caught!" Toph said, crossing her arms. "And you!"

Zuko startled, realizing that Toph was angrily pointing at him.

"Yes, you, Sparky! What's the deal, sending me to Kyoshi and Gaoling?" she said furiously.

"Aren't you from Gaoling?" Shoji asked.

"Shut it, Embers," Toph held up a hand, "I'm talking with the Prince right now."

"You have to go to Gaoling. I know, I couldn't get you off that list," Zuko said. He knew that it would be no fun for him or Toph, but spirits he'd tried. "And I thought you might actually like Kyoshi...you know, it's only the women there who are the warriors."

Toph cracked a knuckle. "Yeah, well," she sniffed, "One place is doing something right I guess."

"It's only for a short trip," Zuko said. "And then, after those two, I believe you aren't on the sheet to go for at least two moons."

"Well okay." Toph crossed her arms. "But don't ask me to like it."

"Noted," Zuko said, letting out a small smile. Toph was furious at him, he should be terrified. Something about her anger relaxed him, even made him laugh.

"Can we get to the actual reason we're here?" Shoji asked, and Zuko realized he'd been furtively checking the entrance every couple of minutes. Every second they all met as a group they were one second closer to being found out.

"Yes. Right." Zuko rubbed his hands together. "I guess I'll come out with it. Aang and I are trying to make some sort of system to sneak Airbenders through wherever they may be - Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom - to a safe place where they cannot be killed. We're not just trying to identify them before Zhao does just to talk to them, we're hoping to make them vanish completely. An underground chain."

Toph brightened. "Underground?"

"Not literally," Aang threw out. "Although…" He rubbed his chin. "Remind me to talk to you later, maybe."

Toph tapped her head. "Noted."

"This won't happen without help," Zuko continued. "Aang and I have been talking about finding like-minded people who aren't in danger themselves to help us smuggle them out. People who will let them stay in basements overnight, let them hide on ships, give them food, give them clothing…" Zuko trailed off. "We need them in a lot of places. We don't want to send the people the same way every time, in case one way becomes compromised."

"Is that why you were looking for that kid? At the party?" Katara asked, understanding dawning. Zuko felt a warmth in his heart. Katara always figured things out quickly.

"Yeah. I'd talked to a shopkeeper on Ember Island who lost her son because he was an airbender, who probably was turned when Dhakiya was. She gave me a list of his best friends who might be willing to help. Obviously, this is always a gamble, because if we get one person who isn't willing to help...or worse, has turned their loyalties…" Aang stared at his hands.

Shoji made a cutting motion across his throat. That summed it up.

"And?" Katara's voice trembled.

"He's in. He thinks he convince his other two friends on the list," Zuko said. "It's in the very early stages, but now that it's been started, we realize it's so much bigger than two people."

"Yeah, sounds like a ton of shit to do," Toph said. Ty Lee was nodding quietly.

"What do you need us to do?" Aiga spoke for the first time.

"Listen," Aang said. "Listen and report back to us. If you hear anything about people who go in trouble because they spoke against Zhao and his crusade, or someone who might have an airbender in the family, let us know. We'll determine if they can help us. No person whom we can have help us is too small of a task. We don't need everyone to throw away everything; if someone can only give food from time to time or donate toys to the children on the run, or even be an ear themselves, that in itself is enough."

There was a silence among the group, a somberness that was not touched by jokes.

"This weekend," Zuko broke the silence, "We think most of the Kyoshi warriors may be able to aid us. I know we've said before that Suki is a person who we could bring into the fold, or maybe on the outside, but having the support of an island would be incredible. While we're on trips, also keep an ear open, since these are all locations that would make sense on the way to take people. I didn't pick them for their natural beauty or food scene."

"Where would they go?" Ty Lee asked.

"Only Zuko knows." Aang shrugged. "But it's safer that way. He had someone to help even before I knew what was going on. It's where Dhakiya is."

"It might not be worth it," Katara spoke slowly. "But the South would always be willing to hide refugees. It might be too hard to get to, or they might notice if ships are going there all the time, but," She exchanged a look with Sokka. He nodded, "My parents would never say no."

"And, pissing off Fire Lord Ozai would probably make my father giddy," Sokka added.

"While we're gone the next two days in Kyoshi, Aang and Zhao don't have any plans, though that may change," Zuko said looking right at Katara. "If it does not, we need to start teaching him waterbending. Earthbending too, but I feel he'll find waterbending easier than earthbending. He's nearly mastered firebending. It's dangerous to do it in the palace, but we can't put it off any longer."

"Of course," Katara agreed immediately. She shared a look with Aang, smiling softly at him. "We'll figure it all out."

Of that, Zuko could be certain. He wracked his brain, and found nothing else he needed to speak to everyone about. He motioned to the door.

"Meeting adjourned. But Aiga, before you leave, can I talk with you?"

XXxxXX

"I'm surprised you managed to get us out of the Palace," Katara said, waving to some townspeople as she walked beside Aang.

"Being a member of the Royal Family has its perks," Aang said, smiling at Katara, "As well as being part of the military."

"Maybe Ozai figured it would be easier to assassinate me away from the palace and had no reason to say no?" Katara offered with a shrug. Aang gave a choked laugh.

"I really shouldn't be laughing, but spirits, Katara."

Zuko had left that morning for Kyoshi Island, along with Suki, Toph, Anaselma, and Maiha. For as much as Toph flopped around and complained about it, it wasn't the worst group to be lumped with. Aang had knocked on her door early that morning, asking if Katara would be open to a trip down to the city with him. As Katara didn't have any previous engagements, and she loved the city, she readily agreed.

"Oh, you know he'd love to get me out of the competition," Katara gently shoved Aang's arm.

"Yeah, like just have you cut." Aang rolled his eyes.

"I think you severely underestimate him," Katara said, but at least she could laugh about it now. "He hates every inch of me."

"I'd say we should toast to that," Aang said quietly, keeping his expression bright as he waved to some more gawking common people.

Katara understood from last night that this was not just a cute little trip to the shops in the middle circle. It was more, but to what extent she didn't know. It wasn't exactly safe to talk about, however.

Their day could have been split into three distinct parts, Katara would later consider.

The first; Aang led Katara deftly through the maze of streets with a familiarity that Katara was honestly surprised to see. It was the sort of confidence that Zuko had here from his nights of the Blue Spirit.

"When I first came, the palace was stifling. I wasn't the crown prince, so I was allowed outside often," Aang said.

They went to three doors, one in each of the levels. At each one, Katara and Aang were invited inside, but Katara was left out of the main conversation. She made polite conversation with whoever was left behind: a wife, a brother, a young daughter. She accepted tea in whatever form they were offering.

In the high level, the wife boasted about how specifically curated the tea leaves were, how delicately they were wrapped, how flavorful every mouthful was, to which Katara had no disagreements about. It was quite good tea.

The brother in the middle level had a standard tin of oolong, nothing special added in, and packed in bulk. He had a teacup that was mostly clean, while he himself drank from one with a small chip on the rim.

The daughter in the lower rim offered, but Katara graciously denied. Their tea was in a box, a box not meant for tea at that, and as the daughter made herself some, she used a quarter of what was usually used in a medium-strength brew.

Katara had a feeling what was happening behind those doors, but a part of her wished to join. She didn't want to be so arrogant to talk ad nauseum about her skills in politics and handling different people, but she did feel as though she was specifically qualified for helping get this secret passage off the ground. She was more than a pretty face in the competition, which Zuko knew, and she was almost sure Aang knew.

This wasn't her project, so Katara said nothing, despite how desperately she wanted to be in the room too.

"Success?" Katara asked when Aang announced they were done for the day, "All?"

"Of sorts." Aang rubbed his neck. "I didn't want to push my luck, although there's about eight more people either Zuko or I need to try to talk to. Three was ambitious enough as it was."

"And?" Katara pressed. If Aang was going to use Katara as his excuse to get out of the Palace, she wanted to know what he was doing.

"The first family was very willing. They were friends with Dhakiya's father, you see. He gave us their name specifically. They have houses - two vacation houses - they are willing to let us use, as well as their location in the city. The people we just visited were going to give me anything I needed for the cause, but I haven't decided to what extent I'll use them. They have so little to begin with."

"And the middle people?" Katara asked, recalling that the brother had been kind.

"Afraid, rightfully so." Aang knit his eyebrows. "They did not...they didn't say no, not exactly. They just asked that they be a last resort, not a common contact."

A part of Katara flashed in anger. They had so much to give, and were willing to only give on occasion? Poorer people would give Aang anything, as it should be! But, after a second, she relaxed her shoulders. It was easy for Katara, who already hated Ozai and whose tribe was autonomous, to offer help, but it was harder to rebel against the man who could very easily have you killed for sneezing his direction.

"We should get lunch. Shop," Aang suggested.

"As a cover?"

"Because I want to," Aang chuckled. "Not everything is always so...calculated." She forgot she was not talking with Zuko or with Sokka sometimes. Aang was much simpler, a refreshing perspective.

They ate lunch at a place that served mostly Northern Water Tribe cuisine, chatting lightly about a lot of things that were safe and unconnected to any of their looming issues at hand, and mostly that ended up being about the other girls in the competition. Katara wasn't looking to be catty, and that wasn't in Aang's nature, so it was honestly about the weekend they'd just had and what ones Aang had started to become friends with.

Then, they started meandering through the shops.

"I'd like to, if possible, stop at a weapons store."

"Why?"

"Well," Katara crossed her arms, "We only have an all-important duel coming up against the Royal Family in 12 days...where you will also be participating."

Aang blushed. "Yeah, that, right."

Waterbending was a given for her, and Katara had done enough with fans to feel like she might write that as a secondary weapon. Suki had already offered her a gilded pair, saying that Kyoshi Island would be honored to have Katara practice their form.

She wanted something else though.

Sokka's lessons were still continuing, and Katara was still sitting in the shade and taking notes. Sokka was much better with swords than she was, but Katara was learning. She knew that Sokka would get his own at the end of this, but Katara had to find one for herself. And, if bloodbending was not going to be her third option, she needed a sword. She couldn't put something down that may not even work the day of. No, better to stick with things that she knew would work. She may not be a master at a sword, but she knew what end to stick people with, and she knew that they consistently did cause damage.

The shop they found was mostly empty. The store manager bustled right up to Aang first, until Aang explained with a small blush that it was actually Katara who was interested. The man blanched a bit, but then noticing her nice clothes and how she politely stood by Aang's side, decided she was still worth the money to be welcoming to.

Katara would have gone elsewhere, had there not been such a wide selection for her.

She took her dear sweet time weighing swords in her hand, testing out pommels and cutting small fruits that were brought out to test the sharpness. She probably could have gone a bit faster with her selection, but Katara first wanted to be absolutely sure this was her weapon and secondly, she enjoyed seeing the manager check the time thrice.

By the time they left, Katara had chosen a rather pricey, but very well-made, sword that had sapphires inlaid on the hilt. It wasn't necessary for her to have the glamour of gemstones, and would have been happy from a standard metal handle, but it did remind her of her home. The sword itself had been the most balanced in her hand, and while was a smidge shorter than what she'd seen Sokka swipe around, would suit her better.

Twelve days. It seemed so far away, yet so close at the same time. In that time, she'd practice relentlessly with this, along with her waterbending, so she at least had two weapons that she had no fear in using.

Aang carried her sword for her, like a gentleman, and also because he had an open sheath. He'd opted to leave his own weapon in the palace, for Katara knew he hated ever having to use it.

Katara was talking on about the competition, and how her and Suki had been preparing, when suddenly Aang was no longer beside her. She turned once and saw him vanishing into a store a couple of feet behind her.

"Kuzon!" she scolded, "Tell me before you just vanish! You step so quietly I didn't even notice you were gone." She sighed, but Aang wasn't listening anymore.

Katara took a chance to look around. It was a high-end pet store, and the scent of animals hit Katara all at once. She sneezed, wiping her nose. She hadn't really taken Aang as a person who liked pets, considering he was anti-meat. As it was, he was looking at the cages the animals paced in with a mixture of displeasure and sadness.

She wondered if he had the urge to free them all, as Katara did.

Something had to have caught his eye, as this was hardly the first pet store they'd passed.

Katara felt her eye wandering around. She saw a couple animals from the Water Tribe, including an Arctic Hen. She snorted.

"You know we eat these in the South, right?" Katara asked the woman at the register, pointing to the beady-eyed bird.

"Yes! But there are a great many nobles who enjoy a pet that's a bit more...interesting. While we have your average pets, we specialize in ones that are harder to find," she said with a broad smile.

Katara bent down, eye to eye with the Arctic Hen. Those things were, by far, some of the dumbest animals Katara had ever met. Far be it from her to stop an uppity Fire Nation noble from purchasing an animal no smarter than a pet rock.

She straightened, following Aang farther into the store.

He was standing in front of a cage of an animal that was making a lot of noise. Katara wasn't sure what it was. It had a lean body, sort of like a cat or ferret, but the coloring - cream and brown - was strange. Its ears were also humongous, fit on an animal twice its size. And, as it moved its little arms, she saw wings bridging from its arms down to its body.

"Kuzon?" Katara asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. Aang jumped, as though he hadn't completely been there, mentally, in the shop.

"This winged lemur," Aang said, spinning around, a desperation in his eyes Katara had never seen. "How much."

"This?" The shopkeeper asked, patting the bottom of the cage. "He is very expensive-"

"How much?" Aang said, snapping her off uncharacteristically.

"1,350 gold."

Katara blew out, coughing hard as she inhaled dust. "Are you crazy?" she asked, "For a...flying house cat?"

"Winged lemur," both Aang and the shopkeeper corrected together.

"He is, as of right now, the last of his kind," she said simply.

"Where did you find him?" Aang asked, eyes shining with hurt, reaching out. While the lemur snapped at the woman, he seemed to move toward Aang, reaching out his little paws for his finger.

"Near Whale-Tale Island. It took me months to classify him, as no one has seen these lemurs in nearly 116 years."

Katara felt sick looking at the animal. She couldn't confirm it, but she felt deep in her heart that this animal had to have been at the air temples, and most of its kind was probably wiped out with the people. If that dust could kill people, it likely killed all the animals too.

"I'll take it," Aang said. Katara's eyes bugged.

The woman looked at Aang dubiously.

"Sir, are you sure?"

"I will take him. Today." Aang's voice, while even, was burning with an anger that Katara had only heard when he talked about the slaughter of his people.

Aang took out his money and began to count. When he did not have enough in his pouch, and refused to leave without the animal even to return to the palace for more, he began taking off pieces of jewelry or prestige from his person, and gave them to Katara, instructing her to go and barter them away.

"Are they yours to give?" Katara asked, running her finger over a golden dragon ring.

"Yes, Princess Katara, and please hurry."

In the end, Aang walked out of there with that lemur, after selling nearly every item worth anything off his body. Katara would have sold a necklace too, and her sword back, but Aang insisted this was his to take care of.

"Will you be wanting the cage, sir?"

"Cage? Of course not!" Aang replied, horrified.

"He is a little...well, he's tried to escape every time he's out of it," The shopkeeper said uneasily. "I would not suggest-"

The words died in her throat as Aang unclasped the cage and the lemur jumped onto Aang's shoulders. It would not be budged.

"We will not be needing the cage," Aang all but spat.

Outside, Aang rubbed under the chin of the animal, offering it some nuts he had in his pocket.

"He's from an Air Temple, isn't he?" Katara asked quietly.

"He is. I thought them all dead...like the world probably thought me," Aang whispered.

Katara hesitantly reached out to pet the animal. It seemed to recognize Katara as a fellow friend, and allowed her to rub its soft ears.

"But there's more of you," Katara said. "So, I wouldn't count out more of him quite yet. Do you have a name?"

Aang held out his arm, and the lemur skittered around his clothes, before settling out the outstretched appendage.

"Momo."

Katara smiled. "Well, hello there, Momo."

Momo blinked at her, making a small chirping noise, before crawling back up to Aang's shoulders.

Aang squinted at the sky. "We have one more place I have secured for us. We'll still have time today, I think."

It was an empty room near the docks. Aang explained that areas like this could be rented out for anything: storage, wild parties, a secret rendezvous...but Zuko had had the idea to buy it for them to practice bending, at least for the next two moons.

Aang set Momo down near the door, along with a bag of fruit he'd bought along the way, and helped Katara drag in a tin of water.

"Before we begin, can I try something on you first?" Katara asked.

"That sounds weird."

"It's not." Katara paused. "Okay, it is. It doesn't have a name, I don't think, but I've been trying to bend blood…" She began to ramble a little bit, she admitted, to Aang about how she'd realized blood was a water-based liquid and if she could manipulate it, just if, it might swing her win in the competition.

She'd been practicing in her room, late at night, at flies and spiders on her porch. It was easy for her to control a small insect now. Humans? Much harder. If she could control a whole hoard of flies to sicc on Ozai, that would be one thing...as it was, she wasn't even sure she could control more than one fly! She would need intense practice, but she wasn't sure she could pull it off in the time left. Since, well, it sort of needed a secondary participant.

Aang's face darkened.

"I dunno Katara," he said, shaking his head. "That seems a little...bad. To control other's arms and legs and everything? It leaves a weird taste in my mouth thinking about it."

"But think, Aang! I could win the fight like that," Katara snapped her fingers, "And neither me - nor whoever I fight - would need to get needlessly hurt! In battle, I could save people by disarming fighters! I could-"

"Probably make someone turn their own sword on themselves if you wanted, make someone's hand slit their own throat," he snarled furiously.

Katara broke off, taking a step back at his harsh words. "I would never!"

"You say that now." Aang squared his shoulders. "But a power that strong, that intoxicating, will ruin even the best of people."

"And you're exempt from that?" Katara threw out her arms. "You, who will one day master all four elements? That's more powerful than bending blood!"

"Do not be so ignorant to think I am not tempted! Avatars have wrought awful things for what they thought was right!" Aang replied back with the same tone. "I spent my entire life learning how to mediate, learning how to keep my emotions in check, and there are times I still am almost overwhelmed! Never think it is easy for me."

"I didn't say that!" Katara said, seeing for the first time how much he acted like Zuko.

"I won't let you. I cannot help you with that," Aang said resolutely, shaking his head.

Katara clenched her fists. The barrels overflowed onto the ground.

"Fine," she bit out, "I won't force you."

There was silence. Katara snapped her wrist, lifting most of the water from the ground and back into the buckets.

She exhaled hard.

"Okay, do you know any waterbending?" Her voice was soft, because after all, she had asked him his thoughts on bloodbending. He had the right to disagree. She disliked his implication, but there was little she could do about that right now.

Aang blinked, wincing. Katara moved to help Aang into the first stance.

Chapter Text

Aang scratched Momo's ear as they wandered around the palace.

"-And you see here, buddy, this is a picture of Avatar Roku. The only one that I think is left of him, anyway. He kind of…" Aang sighed. "Well, Fire Lord Azulon and he had a falling out."

A falling out? Roku's voice was scathing, furious. You call leaving me to my death a falling out? That pompous little-

"Right, he's talking a lot right now," Aang whispered under his breath to his new familiar, in reference to Roku's ranting. "But...shhh...that's me...before." He knew that Mono didn't have the ability to hear inside Aang's very crowded head, but Momo also didn't have the vocal cords to talk like a human, so Aang wasn't concerned about sharing his little secret. Even if Momo wasn't hearing what Aang was hearing, Aang could give a play-by-play. It felt good to unload his constant stream of consciousness onto someone else. He'd feel bad if he sought out Ty Lee all the time. Even Aang felt as though he could use a break from this. Since that did not seem like it would be happening soon, Momo as a confidant was the best new choice.

Aang stretched his arm out, and Momo scurried to the edge of his outstretched hand, his little black nose inches from the canvas. It was an old picture, hidden in the depths of the palace, in a place where not many would see it.

"I think Ursa insisted on keeping it," Aang said, smiling softly. Ursa had always made him feel so welcome. The truth was, at this point, Aang no longer recalled his mother's face. He wasn't even sure if the name he had was her real name. He recalled the name 'Liyah', but that didn't mean it was actually hers. It could have been the name of any female Air Nomad who showed him kindness. Sure, he'd left her when he was hardly weaned, but he still thought that maybe she would have came to him in dreams. Maybe it had, 100 years ago.

By this point, he couldn't recall. Whenever he tried to think of his mother, Ursa's face would morph onto the body of an Air Nomad woman instead.

She may be quiet and reserved, but Aang knew that she would protect him as fiercely as though he were her own fire-cub, just as she did for Azula and Zuko. He couldn't imagine her renouncing him if the truth ever came out. Maybe, because he was connected to her grandfather in a way, she'd enjoy it even more.

Momo placed a tiny paw to faded paint, before turning to Aang. Aang had only had this little guy for about two days, but already he was starting to feel slightly unnerved by him at some times. Not that he didn't adore this animal to bits, but there were times he was absolutely sure that Momo...was looking at him. Really looking at him, as though he understood everything.

But he was just a lemur, right?

…Right?

"And, that's basically my family, I guess. Like you, I uh...don't have much. Or not my people anymore," Aang said. "We're similar in that way, huh?"

Momo made a chirping sound, something that Aang interpreted as sympathy. Momo rubbed his head on Aang's shoulder.

"Anyway," Aang said, trying to brighten. "You must be hungry, little guy. It's been hours since breakfast. We'll go into the kitchens. I'm sure they have some fantastic fruit already cut. Sometimes, being a Fire Nation Royal Cousin has its perks," Aang said, winking.

Momo crawled onto Aang's head, which seemed to be his place of choice. Aang liked to think it was because Momo enjoyed watching everything and needed a good vantage point. It was also the easiest leaping place, though Momo had clung close to Aang since arriving back at the palace, which was for the best, truly. Aang was more than a little protective over him.

As far as he knew, Momo was the last flying lemur around. He was tempted to add on, like himself, but then recalled he wasn't the last airbender out there. He was the last one that hailed directly from an Air Temple, but that was just semantics. An airbender was an airbender.

Nature always has a way of balancing itself, Yangchen reminded him gently, Whenever there is an absence, something else will spring up. It may not be the same, but the spirit of it is. The Avatar cycle should have taught you that.

Her tone was not scolding, but a reminder. While each Avatar was, physically, a different person, they all had the same literal spirit within them. It made even Aang's head hurt if he thought about it too much!

Aang thought about this as he walked through the halls, watching Momo's tail swish in front of his face. He had never thought there'd be more airbenders, unless he created them himself. Maybe there would never be this exact lemur again, but who knows where a similar flying marsupial would return? The world was always changing. Always in motion, never stagnant.

Aang waved to the chefs in the kitchen, who smiled jovially at him and waved back in between flipping noodles and chopping meat.

"There he is! The little creature that the whole palace is talking about," the lead chef said, reaching out to scratch Momo's chin.

"The whole palace?" Aang wasn't sure if he liked that.

"Well," The chef rested the fist holding his oversized knife on his waist, "Besides Lady Ursa's turtle ducks, the last actual Royal Pet we had was...oh, was it the racoon-collie? Back when the Royal Children were six and eight?" He scratched his chin.

"No, no," a line-worker piped up, "Remember? Princess Azula had the mouse-canary when she was twelve!"

"That one, yes." The chef furrowed his eyebrows. "I can't believe I forgot about that adorable little thing."

"Well, it didn't stick around very long. Or should I say last very long," a different line-chef snorted, "Because-"

Whatever he'd been about to say was cut off quickly, like something had choked in his throat. Aang was almost sure that he could feel the air being sucked out of the kitchen, like some evil spirit had crept through the walls.

"He was a sickly thing, tragic," Azula's calm voice seemed to cut through the area, despite the hissing of the food, the noises from the pots, and the squealing of the kettle. When she spoke, it seemed even inanimate objects quieted.

The head chef made a face that showed he didn't think that was quite it, but changed expressions before Azula saw. Aang wanted to stuff Momo in his shirt, away and safe from Azula.

"Well, we don't pay you to just stand there," Azula said through a narrowed glare. The kitchen burst back into work, double-time, to show the crown Princess that they deserved their jobs. The workers were still silent, sans the necessary noises from their preparing.

Aang grabbed a bowl with an assortment of fruits, hoping to make a quick exit. Unfortunately, Azula had no such plans to allow him to do so.

"Come, Kuzon? Aren't you going to introduce me?" she asked, blinking at him.

Aang weighed his choices quickly and carefully. After a long moment, he outstretched his arm, but Momo refused to budge. In fact, he stayed close to Aang, hissing and chattering at Azula. If an animal could express disgust and hatred, he was pretty sure Momo was doing it.

"Sorry, he's been like that with everyone. I think he has a natural distrust of most people," Aang lied quickly. He had horrible thoughts of Azula killing Momo in the night for the pet's insolence, or something equally as terrible.

In reality, Momo hadn't been like this to all. In fact, when Iroh had bustled into Aang's study to meet the newest member of the Royal Family, Momo had climbed over Uncle Iroh like a tree, poking and prodding every bit of him. At first, Aang had been tripping over himself to apologize, but Iroh had just laughed.

"He's just curious, and it's likewise," he had said, patting Momo's ears. "We find each other quite the fascinating species."

If Momo were giving out seals of approvals, Iroh was one of the recipients. Azula was clearly not.

Many animals can sense goodness in people, Gopan said, And I would trust an animal's instincts over humans. Like crows! Did you know that crows-

No one wants to hear about your blasted birds, Gopan, Kuruk groaned. But I have to agree. We would be wise to take cues from the world around us. It's usually telling us something important.

"Of course." Azula pulled back, trying not to look offended. Still, Aang could tell she was frustrated. "Well, I'm sure in time it will come around."

"Yes, absolutely," Aang said, another lie. He never lied as much as when he was around Azula.

Azula hesitated. No, she lingered. Aang looked her up and down; she had a letter in her hand. His own curiosity won him over, plus the fact he was almost sure Azula wanted him to ask.

"What's that?"

"Oh, this?" Azula raised the letter like she'd somehow forgotten it was there. "I was just picking this up from the Royal Post. It's from Chan."

"From Ember Island?" Aang wracked his brain.

Azula brushed a piece of her bangs from her forehead with two fingers. "Yes. He's absolutely besotted with me." To someone who hadn't spent a great deal of time getting to know Azula - and most didn't - they may have interpreted her expression as disinterest. However, Aang knew that if Azula was even making a point to not burn his letter immediately, there was a genuine interest on her part.

Plus, he'd also overhead that moment under the porch.

Aang nodded, offering a true smile.

Aang hoped for goodness for and from everyone. He hoped that Chan made Azula happy, made her feel completed. He hoped that she got the opportunity to enjoy falling in love with someone that truly liked her, and he had to admit Chan did.

Azula - much like Zuko - had grown up far too fast, the weight of a whole world on their shoulders. In this, Aang felt a kinship. He didn't think that there was much else he shared with Azula, but on this, he understood. He knew how it felt to be expected to be an adult when you hardly knew how to be a kid.

To be honest, this was something he shared with everyone in his put-together little group. Katara and Sokka had been fighting a war against the Fire Nation since they'd been born to protect their own people. Toph had had to advocate for herself and her blindness without her parents. Ty Lee left her own family to find her own path. Aiga had to step up to provide for her family by working at the Palace. And Shoji did something similar, but by starting at the fighting pits…

That was perhaps why they were so closely-knit. They all knew what it meant to have stress and responsibility much bigger than any one person. Aang considered, briefly, that in another world, one where something had gone differently, Azula might have been a fantastic addition to their band of misfits. But Aang wasn't sure if there was anything in the world that could have changed Azula's personality. Maybe if everything had been different, everything would have still been the same. Some people just...just were.

"He's written twice already. What can I say? I guess I just...enchant people." Azula waved the letter around. Someone in the kitchen line made a sound that he covered up with a cough. Aang internally winced and hoped he wasn't about to lose his job over that. However, Azula didn't seem to notice.

"Are you going to write him back?" Aang was almost sure that Azula wanted someone to talk to. He wondered why she wasn't talking to Mai. Aang knew her friendship with Ty Lee had been flagging, but there was still the surly sharp-thrower left, wasn't there?

"I haven't decided," Azula said, and Aang knew she meant that.

What was Azula looking for in someone, other than...oh, what had she said? 'Someone to stand by her?' That surely couldn't just be it. Chan didn't seem like the best guy Aang had ever met, but maybe Azula needed someone a little slower, a little less ambitious. Someone to temper her.

"Kuzon?"

"Hmm?" Aang asked absently, holding out a handful of grapes and orange slices for Momo to choose from.

Azula leaned over the prep table, examining Aang. Her face was soft, just for the quickest flash of a second. Aang didn't shiver, though that was his gut reaction. Then, it was the usual calculating coolness that she was so well known for, the look she got when she was about to kick Lu Ten's butt at Pai Sho or the tilt of her head when she was finding someone's biggest insecurity to knock someone down a peg.

"How closely related are we?"

Aang snapped his fist shut, swallowing once. He stopped himself from jerking back, but couldn't stop the frown that came over his face.

Careful, young one, Kasata hissed in his mind, This has to be a trap.

Yes, Aang knew this, but he wasn't sure how.

"You know this, Azula," Aang said first, trying to buy himself time to figure out where this was coming from.

"Oh," Azula sighed, twirling a strand of her hair around. "Remind me?"

It hit Aang with a burst of clarity: she had to know something. She had to be questioning his fabricated lineage, trying to trip him up, prove he wasn't really who he said he was. This was a test.

This is very important, Katsata said, as though he needed to be reminded.

Aang leaned forward too, placing his hands in front of him on the table, twined.

"Fourth cousin, once removed," Aang replied softly. "We share a set of great-great-great grandparents. Fire Lord Tai."

Azula held his gaze for a second. Aang wasn't wrong. He knew he wasn't wrong. He could recite the whole darn lineage. He knew every weird cousin squirreled away, every illegitimate bastard, every strange ancestor, every stitch in the tapestry.

Azula chuckled. "Yes, that was it. Of course." She looked away.

"Uh-huh," Aang said, still not sure if he was out of the woods with this.

"I suppose calling you 'Fourth Cousin, Once Removed Kuzon' would be a bit of a mouthful, right?" she continued, standing and rolling out her shoulders. "Thank Agni you're in the military now, so we can just call you Guardsman Kuzon, if one is so inclined."

"You can just call me Kuzon," Aang said softly.

Kasata was still rambling on about watching oneself, about traps and pitfalls, and while Aang wasn't ignoring him, but he also wasn't paying attention. Azula was absolutely expressionless as she gave Aang one final look-over.

"Yes," she said simply, "I know."

XXxxXX

At the arrival of the docks to Kyoshi Island, Zuko wasn't sure who sprinted off of the ship quicker; Toph or Suki. Had it been a race, it would have been neck and neck. Toph may have won out by a smidgen, though. Suki's desire to hug her family again was no match for Toph's intense hatred of boats.

Zuko hung back until it was just himself and his crew, allowing the other two ladies, the servants, and guards to disembark first.

There was a sizeable envoy waiting for him at the edge of the island.

Toph had already flung off her slippers, holding them in her fingers but looking like she'd like to chuck them far into the sea. Maiha was standing obediently in line. Anaselma stood next to her, but her eyes were darting all over, as though trying to absorb every inch of the area. Suki had been engulfed in a group hug, but managed to detach herself reluctantly to come by the Prince.

From the gathered people, a withered but stern looking woman approached them.

"Honorable Prince Zuko," she said, bowing. Not all the way down, not as far down as his father would have liked if he were here, but enough to show an acknowledgement.

"Governor Riki," Zuko bowed back. He'd only met the woman once or twice in his lifetime. She disliked leaving the island and often only sent missives with her opinion, something he knew his father usually burned. He laughed at the 'silly Islanders', with their female-chosen leader. Zuko thought it was often irresponsible of Ozai to discount her; Riki was an imposing figure, no matter her gender.

"If you are not too weary from your travels, I figure we may as well get this political fuss out of the way." Riki waved a hand.

Zuko gave a firm shake of his head. "I am quite able to discuss right now. My ladies might want to settle a little...erm, some of them," he said, catching Toph's roll of her eyes.

"Of course. We have set up a very lovely set of rooms for the five of you, and of course your workers. If you please?" She led them through the fields that was the outskirts, into the heart of the village.

The city looked clean, though Zuko was not sure if it was kept to a usual status and shine or they had cleaned it for his arrival. In the middle of the city was the towering statue of Kyoshi. Zuko wished Aang were here; he knew how he would adore this. Kyoshi was one of his favorite past selves.

Zuko also wished Katara was here, but he was trying not to think about that.

He'd originally had her on this trip. He knew that she'd be enchanted by the female warriors and would have taken to the culture with gusto. It was only when Lu Ten examined the list and pointed out that Katara was on many more than the others that Zuko had been forced to cull her trips a bit.

"Your preference is showing, Zu," Lu Ten had said, a long sigh, but yet a hint of a smile.

It was difficult. The truth was, Zuko could easily imagine Katara on his arm arriving to all of these locations. There wasn't a single place on the docket that he thought she'd turn her nose up to or find boring. Even if it wasn't the fanciness of the Palace, Katara would probably still feel fine there, unlike certain girls, who he was unsure couldn't survive without a private bath.

Of course, if Katara just said 'yes', she'd be coming on all these trips as the Fire Lady.

Before Zuko could ruminate more on Katara, a lithe figure broke from the villagers.

"Oh! I'd wanted to meet you down at the docks, I'm so sorry!"

Suki went to hug Andica first. She embraced the younger warrior in her arms, smiling into her head. It made sense that the two had bonded at the Palace, perhaps more than if they'd both remained here.

"Andi!" Maiha cried, pleased as punch to see one of her close friends. It wasn't just Maiha's new interest in non-bending fighting techniques that had prompted Zuko to put her on this list. Zuko took pride in the idea that he knew the girls fairly well.

A couple of the villagers were motioning for the rest of the group to follow them. Andica was talking a mile a minute to Maiha about everything that had happened since she returned home, and Maiha was clambering over her to do the same. Just before she turned to leave, she looked at Zuko.

"Awe, come here," Zuko broke down, opening his arms.

Andica came to his embrace easily, hugging him firmly around the center.

"Don't get me wrong, I've missed the palace, but it's also nice to be home," she assured Zuko. Zuko grinned.

"I miss you as well. It's a bit quieter without you there."

"Andica!" An older Kyoshi Warrior sharply called her. She blew a quick kiss to Zuko before bounding off. She may be dressed as a more seasoned Kyoshi now, but Zuko was pleased to see the bounce in her step had not been left behind.

It was just Governor Riki and Zuko at the doors to the Village Hall now. Riki was giving Zuko an absolutely judgmental look, one Zuko saw on Azula often.

"You claim to have missed her, yet you sent her home?"

Riki had offered two of her girls for the competition. She was as interested in the outcome as anyone.

Zuko watched the young girl go.

"I did. We were simply not compatible, but I do care for her." He thought adding 'as only a sister' wouldn't have helped him, so he kept it out. He truly did want to see Andica thrive, grow up. He had considered that even with maturity, she wouldn't have been the girl for him. He was sure that one day she'd find someone wonderful, but they both knew by the end that it wasn't him.

Riki led him into the conference hall. A server near the door offered him tea as he approached. Zuko nodded his acceptance, waiting to see where Riki would sit before choosing the seat across from her.

He took out his little scroll, which tallied the exact imports and exports from Kyoshi Island. They hadn't been able to meet the standards of grain that they'd set forth; however, it seemed like fish was plentiful. He wondered idly if Riki intended to negotiate some sort of agreement concerning this? While the Fire Nation had their own fish in the sea, there was a particular one that only swam near this area, so Zuko was positive he could convince his father that it was a worthy trade.

"So, your corn…" Zuko began, but broke off uncertaintly when Riki began to laugh in the corner. He looked up; first of all surprised that anyone would be laughing at the dauphin, but secondly just straight-up confused.

"Forgive me, my prince, but I...you imagined I wanted to talk about crops?" she said, fixing Zuko with a look that made him feel like he was in front of the Royal Tutor and he'd given a horribly erroneous answer.

"What do you want to speak of, then?" Zuko recovered easily enough, setting down the scroll.

"Why, the most important export thus so far," Riki said like it was clear. After a beat, a withered smile. "Suki, my boy."

"Suki, as in, the contestant?"

"Would you not say she is an export?" Riki questioned quietly.

"I would say she's a person," Zuko snapped, furious at her nonchalance toward admitting to utilizing Suki. He was half-convinced, in that moment, to find a way for Suki to remain at the palace so that she would not have to return to a land where it thought so little of her!

Riki hummed. "My, yes, I had forgotten how emotional you Royals were. You may think it heartless of me, I think of it as pragmatics," Riki said. "And before you burn down this very hall we sit in, let me riddle you this. Why would I send a girl who, admittedly, didn't have much going for her, except for her looks - but I see now that did not work. Why would we send one of our most formidable girls to this circus your father calls an Illustrious Competition if we did not expect something in return? So she could have a 'good time'?" Riki scoffed. "You must not be as intelligent as they claim if you think anyone sent a girl out of the goodness of their heart. Everyone wants something."

"What do you want, then?" Zuko asked bluntly.

"For Suki to win, of course. Shall we discuss how to best make that happen?" Riki said. Zuko felt uncomfortable shift in his stomach. He hated talking about Suki, or any of the girls, like they were tagged cattle. Suki was so much more: strong, intelligent, kind.

"That is a choice for me to make myself. But rest assured, Suki is in no danger of being cut anytime soon," he said. He was walking an impossible line here. On one hand, he didn't want to give Riki any information. But on the other, he did not want to dishonor Suki by pretending as though she wasn't as high up in his thoughts as she truly was.

"And yet, once again, you have not picked a wife. Curious," Riki said slowly. "Is there anything she could do to perhaps make the choice a bit more clear?"

"Suki would never-"

"Suki would do what it took to win. That's why she was chosen," Riki said, waving a tired hand. It put a doubt in Zuko's stomach. For every moment that he felt a true connection with Suki, had she just been playing him? Reading him and doing exactly what she thought he wanted? Wouldn't Katara have warned him of that? If Riki thought she was doing the girl a service, how wrong she honestly was.

"I can see I've darkened your mind," Riki said at once, her face frowning with a hint of true emotion. "That had not been my intention. I am asked to guide my people, and sometimes that has made me hardened. Suki does care for you, make no mistake there. While she is a warrior with a cause, she is also a girl with a heart and while you may be a bit... softer," Riki said after a moment of deliberation over the word, "of a man than I imagined her to marry, I also would not have been opposed."

"She keeps you well-informed of her plot, then?" Zuko couldn't help but spit out, feeling angry and tricked.

"Has she never told you? I'm her godmother, and her sole guardian now that her parents are dead."

Zuko inhaled, but he couldn't suck in air enough. Suki was an orphan? Riki was her godmother? In all of the times they'd talked, it had never come up, not once. And she'd spoken about her parents - but now that he thought about it, there had always been a hint of wistfulness tinging the edges of her voice, a longing and a soft remembrance. True, she'd never said it out loud, but she'd said it in her own way. And, the information was most assuredly on the info packets of the girls, but apparently Zuko had never taken the time to commit such a thing to his memory. Had he always just been too busy with Katara to notice Suki, a quiet girl alone in the world, probably mourning deeply at times, and he'd never even thought to ask?

"It was unexpected to be asked to godparent her, at first, but she has been a true light in my life," Riki said, a smile glowing momentarily on her face. "And my husband adored her, bless his late soul. Suki was named after him. His name was Suko."

"Was it?" Zuko managed to choke out, still reeling.

"Extraordinary how close your names were, is it not? Just one changed letter." Riki's fingernails tapped on the table top. "And how melodic your name and Suki's name sounds when they are said together."

"Governor Riki-" Zuko began, trying to hold back a groan.

"Do you believe in fate, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko was once again thrown off. If meeting with dignitaries was usually a calm boat ride, as he had perfected the careful art of it, meeting with Governor Riki was like trying to guide a dingy in a raging, unforgiving storm.

"Do I believe in…" Zuko gave a quiet laugh. It was such a change of pace, difference of topic. "I don't believe so, not quite," he said. If fate were truly kind, his father would be kinder. The airbenders would not have suffered such a horrendous end. The world wouldn't need to be balanced, fate would have done so. "I mean, I believe in spirits and their strange connection to the world. What I don't prescribe to is some red string connecting individuals or a path pre-laid out for us. I like to imagine that I choose my own path as I walk it, that I'm not just ordained to go somewhere from the beginning," he explained hastily, now that he was asked, unable to stop talking.

"Well, I most certainly do," Riki said.

"And you believe it fate for me and Suki to marry?" Zuko raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "Because two names happened to share two letters, when both names are not uncommon to begin with? If that's true, I should be having a Prince's Choice only with girls whose fathers have a grouping of similarity to my name. I assure you, I would have more girls than I would know what to do with."

"Maybe I'm an old romantic," Riki informed him. Zuko stifled a snort. Yeah. He doubted that.

"Governor, you said that Suki was at the Choice specifically. Would you be at liberty to share why?" he asked, inserting as much sarcasm as he could entirely manage.

"There is a need."

"And what...what precipitates this bad of a need?"

Riki got up. She walked along the collection of pictures on the walls, intricate and brilliantly-colored ink drawings showing Avatar Kyoshi. Zuko knew the stories of her, through Aang. Aang adored his Earth Kingdom past-self, and in the early days had chatted nonstop about her. Kyoshi was nowhere to be found in the Fire Nation curriculum, but that didn't surprise Zuko.

"We have nearly always been a sovereign island, even slipped from under the thumb of the Earth King. One does not create an entire island if they wish to follow the rules of others," Riki said with a darkened scowl. "And we lived that way for hundreds of years. Until your ancestors came," she said, glowering at Zuko as though it had been he who had stormed the banks of the village. Zuko felt himself slipping down his chair. He knew enough from the history books that the conquering of other cities was never as simple as just coming in and winning. There was always bloodshed, looting, pillaging and other extremely disgusting things that made his stomach crawl just thinking of it.

"We are good fighters, some of the best," Riki continued, her fingers gingerly touching the glass panel in front of the portraits. "But even we know when we had lost. We were no match for your people, so nearly eighty years ago, we surrendered. Live to fight another day, as it were. I was hardly three years old at that time, so I don't recall it firsthand. My husband was eight, so he recalled little snippets. I do remember how it was directly after, how my family mourned for years. Not for dead friends, but for our freedom taken from us."

Zuko did not dare speak. He imagined that trying to suss out her meaning, to put words in this woman's mouth, may be a bad idea.

"If we could have Suki win, we would be back within our own means again. A true Kyoshi, ruling us, is what we've always wanted. And, she would have signed a decree to release us back to ourselves again as soon as she could manage it."

"You have to know that plan wouldn't have ever worked," Zuko said slowly. "The Fire Lady has unimaginable power, yes, but there's still a checking system. None of the council would have gone for it."

Riki was quiet. Even if she knew this, Zuko saw a person who had thrown out a last-ditch effort when he saw one. Sending Suki and Andica for this very goal had always been a longshot, but it was what they had left.

Zuko moved up to the pictures on the wall too, but not toward the portraits. He instead moved to a detailed map of the island, complete with the rolling hills and hidden passageways. He looked at how far it was from the mainland, ghosting his finger across all the space unused, all the way to the tiny gathering of houses and huts that made up the singular town.

This was apart from many other places, as well as situated right on the edges of the Earth Kingdom. It was a spot not easily seen from boats, once you turned around a corner. In short, it was ideal.

Aang romanticized the work they were doing and Zuko would enjoy if it could be kept that way. Let Aang remain bright-eyed and warm-hearted. The world would surely be a sadder place if he was not. Zuko was entirely prepared to carry the darkness upon his shoulders, take on the things about this upcoming war - the one that he could feel brewing under the ground as sure as a storm rolling in from the North - that would leave his blood-brother shaking.

Not everyone would do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. Most people were jaded and desperate. Most people lived in a world where food wasn't handed out for free, you had to trade something for it. This bartering system was how most people saw their universe so why treat anything they come across differently? The effort to hide and save airbenders would be a business transaction.

Aang may blanche and be horrified, but this gave Zuko hope. Not everyone could be swayed by pretty words and the prospect of peace or because they were golden at heart. Everyone, however, could be bought. It was just a matter of finding out what they wanted most in the world and being able to unequivocally provide it.

And Riki had just given Zuko this exactly. She could not have presented it prettier if it were given to him on a silver platter and adorned with moon flowers.

Zuko had no use for conquering the world. His ancestors' desires were not his own. Spirits knew he had a hard-enough time imaging he was just going to be in control of the Fire Nation. Some may claim the deal he was about to make was foolish. To Zuko, it was an asset he was willing to let go.

"My mind is not yet made up on who I will choose," Zuko said evenly, "But I have a different proposition for you. If you swear on your life, on Fate, which you put so much stock in, right now to never divulge anything I'm about to tell you and agree to my terms, we can certainly work something out."

Riki examined him. "I'm not one to agree blindly to anything, sir."

"Some of the most legendary agreements take a," Zuko gave a quiet chuckle, "leap of faith."

Riki sat back down. She clasped her hands in front of her, staring straight ahead. Though she said nothing, Zuko could see that behind her eyes, she was whirling through possibilities.

"What is it you promise to give me?"

"Your freedom back, once my end of the deal has been reached. I'll sign the papers, have you come out, make an unquestionable show of it," Zuko said.

Riki was silent a little bit more. Finally, looking at Zuko with a mixture of respect and wariness, she relented.

"And we are to do…?"

Zuko knew he had her. He let out a breath of relief; the airbenders were one step closer to being safe. He knew there was no one in the world that could give Riki what he was offering, so his agreement was air-tight.

"Have you heard anything about the new airbenders?"

Chapter Text

Katara wouldn't say she was counting down the hours until Zuko returned, but she sure as heck missed him. And those that he'd brought away with him too. Without Suki or Toph, her two closest friends here, Katara felt more than a little adrift. It did encourage her to spend more active time with some friends that she didn't hang out with as much, like Alcina or Yue, and she was given time to write letters to her family and to Eva. Still, she would admit freely that she really missed him.

There was no exact guarantee on when he'd return. She knew the date, but what time was a little unclear. On the day that the Royal convoy was set to return, Katara felt antsy. She had not realized how pathetic she was, she berated herself mentally, for feeling such a need to see Zuko again after only three days! It was preposterous. She had gone months without seeing Sokka and she hadn't missed him nearly as much.

Sokka was grumpy too, which Katara didn't even want to touch. When Sokka was in a bad mood, everyone was in a bad mood. Unlike Katara, who usually excused herself from activities to pout in her room, Sokka actively sought others to share in his woes...whatever the heck they were. She wasn't really sure what ailed him. He insisted on bugging Katara but refused to tell her why.

After managing to escape Sokka after breakfast, Katara locked herself in the Women's Hall, knowing full well that Sokka couldn't follow her there. To her surprise, it seemed most people were down in the gardens. Katara stripped herself of some of the layers she'd worn to the Royal Meal and stepped lightly down the stairs to the first level gardens.

The first thing that she saw was Avizeh sobbing, with Jin and Ty Lee attempting to comfort her.

"You'll get it, Viz," Jin said, patting her back. "You nearly had it that time!"

"What's going on? Are you okay?" Katara asked, hastening across the grass to the trio of girls. As Avizeh blubbered, trying to formulate words, Nadhari gave a disgusted noise and rolled her eyes.

"She's disturbing our practice, that's what. If she wants to be melodramatic, she could do it over in her own room," Nadhari said, pinching the bridge of her nose as she glared. "Do you think that we want to hear your pitchy wailing?"

Katara opened her mouth to snap at the dark-haired girl, but someone else beat her to it.

"Nadhari, shut up."

To Katara's great surprise, and everyone else's, it was Mai who had spoken. Mai was a foot away, her bow notched but waiting between her fingers as she turned toward the commotion with something a step above apathy in her expression.

"I'm just saying-"

"Then don't." Mai cut her off with a narrowed expression. "No one really cares about what you have to say anyway. I'm managing to shoot just fine. It wasn't until you started talking that my head began to hurt."

The entirety of the girls just stood there in silent shock, staring at Mai. Nadhari, more than anyone, was nearly bright scarlet for being snipped at like a child. Avizeh hadn't gotten a hold on her crying, but hardly anyone noticed. Mai turned back, aligning her arrow and shooting with grace and precision.

This snapped everyone back to what they'd been doing. Nadhari stormed off, furious, sending murderous looks to Avizeh.

"Perhaps we should move," Katara suggested quietly, herding the girls over to a shaded area near the edge of the gardens. Avizeh filled a cup of water, holding a small sword in her fingers. She stared at it dejectedly.

"Are you feeling...better?" Katara asked, unsure.

"No," Avizeh said emotionlessly, now that she had dried her tears. "I just have to accept it, though."

"Accept what?" Katara asked, sitting next to her.

"That I'm not going to win any of those stupid fights, even if I'm put up against Prince Lu Ten or Cousin Kuzon," Avizeh mumbled, her voice quiet and faint.

"But you were doing really well with the knife," Jin said with a bright, slightly forced smile. "I wouldn't give up hope."

"So I nearly hit a tree that's unmoving and five feet wide. Big whoop. Let's just face it...I'm never going to be good enough by the time the competition turns around." Avizeh sniffled. "And it's just so...unfair. I love Prince Zuko so much, and he might come to love me too, but we'll never get the chance. It's so tragic!" she cried, throwing herself onto the tabletop as her sobbing resumed.

While Katara thought her dramatics were a bit much, the heart of her problems truly hit hard. Katara was as unconcerned as they came about the fights. She had reason to believe she'd come out as a winner, whatever that meant. Or, she wouldn't. To worry about it seemed so stupid, compared to the real atrocities that Katara knew lay at home or in the cities around them. To Avizeh, this competition wasn't so simply put aside. Avizeh annoyed Zuko thirty percent of the time, but he was fond of many girls that Katara knew couldn't have a chance in hell at winning a fight against a Royal family member. It did seem terribly unfair that he'd never get to explore that further with them, and that these girls would be put through the stress and rigor of this stupid rule just to fail.

Katara rubbed Avizeh's back comfortingly. There wasn't much she could say. Avizeh, by her own announcement, was correct. She wasn't going to win one of these. She could hardly hold a spoon without it quivering and she screamed for ten minutes when a bug flew into her mouth once.

Looking out on the girls, who she now realized were all practicing some form of defensive or fighting techniques, Katara truly did wonder how many would be packing their bags. Maybe Avizeh had it right. Maybe letting the pieces fall where they were now, realizing that her chances were slim, was the right way to go. She'd at least spend her time doing things she'd prefer instead of trying to become a seasoned warrior in less than a moon. As it was, Avizeh's days here were set to expire.

Jin's face was set into a worried scowl. Katara had a feeling that, unless Jin pulled something extraordinary out of her, she would lose this fight too. Yue as well, she realized, looking at her light-haired friend.

While Avizeh's possible departure was met with a small hint of sadness, Jin's possible departure was a bit more depressing, and the thought of Yue having to go because of something so stupid made Katara equal parts angry and sad.

Katara could manage without Avizeh or Jin in the palace. Letting go of Yue, when she knew how highly Zuko regarded her?

It may be completely stupid, but Katara could not idly sit by.

"Hey, can I talk to you?" Katara murmured to Yue once it seemed Avizeh had calmed down enough to be left with just Jin. "Maybe...in your room?"

"Is something the matter? Can I help with anything?" Yue asked, immediately concerned.

"No, not really. I just…" Katara was unsure how to phrase it. "Please?"

There must have been some sort of desperation in Katara's voice, for Yue nodded twice. She hugged Avizeh and promised that she'd be back down in just a moment before leading Katara upstairs. Yue's room was washed in the same blues as Katara's, but more muted, like the view outside during a blistery snow-storm.

"Would you like anything?" Yue asked, clasping her hands in front of her. "I have some candies from the North, or I could always summon a maid to make us some tea. My father just sent the most aromatic brew. I believe it's made with-"

"You can waterbend," Katara blurted, wincing hard at her shit handling of the matter. "Erm, sorry."

Yue blinked at Katara with wide, liquid eyes. Not confused or disbelieving, but also without any sort of reaction. She was just looking at Katara like she had been moments ago, as though these seconds had not elapsed.

"You can...waterbend…" Katara echoed a bit more unsure. "Please, don't ask me how I know," she said, closing her eyes, trying not to imagine how furious everyone would be with her. "Just believe me. I want you to stay. I want to help you win the fight."

When she opened her eyes, Yue's delicate brows were creased and her head slightly cocked. Katara's fingers fumbled as she grasped for a water jug, pouring a sloppy tea-cup.

"Just try it!" Katara said, "And you'll see that you can."

Yue fixed Katara with an infinitely deep gaze for a few quiet moments before she said, ever so softly, "I already know."

The teacup slipped from Katara's fingers, as though it had transformed into a slippery fish, smashing on the floor. The delicate pottery shattered and the water seeped into the rug, growing wider between her and the woman standing in front of her.

"But I've never seen you practice it! And you can't just…" Katara broke off as Yue gave an expert flick of her wrists, picking up the water from the ground effortlessly. She wiggled her fingers, configuring the water into brilliant mid-air shapes - galloping ostrich-horses, leaping koi, soaring eagle-cats - before she dumped the water back into the bin. "I've been trying to do those sorts of tricks for ages," Katara murmured, licking her lips self-consciously. "And you just...did them."

"I'm not using waterbending in the fight," Yue said decisively, smoothing her dress front as she sat on a chaise lounge.

"Yue!" Katara choked, "How can you not? You're a natural!"

Yue looked at her hands, deep in troubled thought. "Katara, have you ever stolen something from a family member or a friend, even just to borrow it?" she asked.

"Well, sure." Basically, the entirety of having a sibling was stealing and re-claiming cool things back and forth. It used to be a game in her youth to see how long she could get away with sneaking Sokka's boomerang and throwing it at icicles hanging from caves.

"Back when I was eight, my father had this pen that was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It was a gift from the Earth Kingdom King, but it was carved in seals and snow flowers. I took it, just wanting to write to one of my friends, just to see what it would feel like to use it. But even as I had the ink in front of me and the pen between my fingers, I could not use it. Even though I had it in that moment, it was not mine to use. It would have been wrong," Yue explained, settling herself in this choice.

"You can't possibly be equating-"

"This waterbending is not mine to use. I was not born with it, it was shoved into me. It belongs to the spirits," Yue said, her tone hardening enough to show that she wasn't in the mood to argue about this. Unfortunately, Katara very much was.

"It's not like it's a spirit who can come and go! If the spirit leaves you, you die. I'd say it's pretty intertwined with your being." Katara made a vague motion with her hands. "And honestly, I don't think it would complain!"

"I've spent many nights debating this, ever since I woke up a couple weeks ago in the palace with this ability. It was opened, though I don't know how," Yue said, trailing off and sighing.

"So by that argument, the Avatar should not use the elements, since he is a mixture of a bigger spirit in the body of a boy...er, or girl?" Katara quickly covered.

Yue laughed. "Well, don't be silly. The Avatar was created especially for that. I was a byproduct, an unintended mistake."

"I don't think a spirit enters a dying body by any mistake," Katara muttered.

"It's quite final, Katara. While I understand waterbending with a brilliance I could have never imagined, I am quite content to just experience the knowledge," Yue said, smiling warmly at her.

Katara huffed. She had never realized it before, because Yue was always so cordial and kind, but Yue was unflappably stubborn. She wondered if it was a Water Tribe trait, or born of being the daughter of a leader?

"You'll have to leave." Katara decided to try one last time. "And I know Zuko...he cares for you. You'll have to return home and marry-" Katara could not stop the shiver that ran through her body. "-Hahn."

"Katara," Yue reached out, clasping Katara's fingers in her own. They were just as cold as Katara's usually were, now. "I am honored and warmed to see you worry so for me. But if Prince Zuko's adoration is as pure as you claim it, I could not imagine that he would allow me to leave because of something like this."

"You underestimate this, I think," Katara said, shoulders falling.

Yue pulled Katara an inch closer, looking at her with a gentleness that was almost criminally unfair. "Have faith, nayak," she advised. "I trust that everything is going to happen exactly how it should."

Katara, on some small level, wanted to agree that things happened in strange and mysterious ways. She didn't know how to convince Yue, though, that sometimes effort was required on the part of the person to achieve what one wanted.

But, she realized there would be little budging her. Yue hugged her, thanked her again for looking out, and then said that she figured it would be best she go back to check on Avizeh.

Katara wandered back to her room, feeling more than a little defeated and disappointed. She should start preparing herself for those that would lose now, so it was easier to accept that they would leave.

The door was open and Katara was a figure in the shadows. Her heart leapt as she opened it with excitement. It must be Zuko, waiting for her back in her room!

The door hit the wall as she paused, realizing it was not.

"Pan?" she asked. She hadn't seen her advisor in quite some time. "I didn't mean to keep you waiting…" Aiga was probably looking for her right now to tell her of the man's arrival.

"I've hardly been waiting," he assured away with a wave of his hand.

"Usually, it's something incredibly good or incredibly bad when you see fit to visit me," Katara observed, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I'm not sure what you would classify this as. You're being summoned by the Royal Court of Justice."

Katara felt her heart nearly jump out her throat. Oh, fuck, they knew, didn't they? About Aang, about the airbenders, about the Avatar...she was so in trouble. Still, she kept her voice level. "Oh?" She couldn't manage more than that.

"About Bahiravi, and the attempted poisoning. They'll bring in Lady Bei Fong when she returns."

Katara relaxed. Oh, right, this was only about the person who had tried to kill her. Funny, with all that was going on, that this was literally the least concerning thing. Obviously, it was meant to be a very trying experience, so Katara put on her best serious face for her advisor.

"Of course. I assume they wish to hear my statement?" she asked.

"Indeed so. I'm sorry to dredge up such awful memories, Princess…"

"It's fine." Katara's smile was tight. In truth, she'd more or less put it behind her. It was something that was being pulled from the deep pools of the back of her mind. "She should be properly tried." Katara believed strongly in giving everyone, even awful offenders, a chance.

"You'll be asked to come in tomorrow. Does that work for you?"

Well, it certainly wasn't like Katara had a choice. Pan bid her goodbye and Katara put the notice on her desk.

While it's true that so much had happened that this seemed very inconsequential, now that Katara was being forced to think about it again, and she was looking at it from a non-emotional viewpoint, there were things she hoped would be answered.

Bahiravi was crazed, this was true, so how did she manage to think up a highly eloquent and sophisticated plot? To poison someone wasn't new, but to use that specific poison? It was odorless and would have killed Katara hours after tea, which would have made sure that nothing was tied to that place and time. It was unlikely that anyone would have figured out what the culprit of her death was, meaning that Bahiravi would have gotten off scot free. It was far too organized for her, Katara realized, it just seemed strangely out of place.

And how did she manage to get the poison to begin with? It wasn't a common poison; rather, it was one of the most obscure ones out there! Katara could hardly recall if Bahiravi's family was wealthy, but even so, she'd have to have some shady connections to buy it. Once again, the ability that Katara felt Bahiravi possessed didn't indicate a possibility to orchestrate such careful transactions.

Katara had little doubt that Bahiravi had attempted to poison her and Toph. What she wasn't sold on was that the entire plan had been thought up by the delusional contestant.

More than ever, Katara hoped the trial would shed some light upon her musings or, even better, prove Katara wrong.

XXxxXX

Zuko was the first one through the doors. He thanked each girl for accompanying him on the trip but made himself scarce quickly. It was right around lunch time, so with any luck he could slip right into the end of the meal. He felt like he was drained, and what he needed to see was Katara's smile. It was a little silly; he'd hardly been gone three days. Still, since realizing and pursuing his feelings for her, it was the longest he'd gone without physically seeing her and it was difficult. Even if they couldn't talk, Zuko was very single-mindedly determined to sooth his mind and his aching heart.

As he turned a corner, he saw his mother. She smiled warmly at her son and Zuko kissed her cheek as he passed, murmuring a quick greeting.

"Oh, actually, I was wishing to talk to you."

Zuko turned on the balls of his feet, resisting the urge to groan.

"I was actually about to pop into lunch, so-"

"We can have food brought to my room, it's no bother," his mother said, grasping his hand and patting it.

Zuko inhaled. He didn't know if his mother was trying to annoy him, or if she did so unknowingly. That was maybe the bane of a mother, though, wasn't it? Not that he didn't adore her, but she often seemed to want to chat about his life at the most inconvenient of times.

"Actually, you know the girls in the competition haven't seen me in quite a few days, so…" He trailed off, hoping that his mother would understand and encourage him. Instead, his mother studied him.

"You mean you wish to see Katara, who is currently in that dining room?" she surmised. While Zuko may be sufficient enough at lying to fib to most others, his mother was one of the few people he knew better than to even attempt it with. His mother watched the changes on his face and hummed. "Yes. I see. Even more so that I wish to talk to you, then," she announced.

It was a tone he knew well: an 'end-of-discussion' sort of tone. Zuko may be the heir apparent, but his mother still wielded a great amount of power over him and Azula, far more than either would like to admit.

Defeated, Zuko tore himself away from the dining hall door. Ursa stopped a passing servant, requesting whatever was being currently served to be sent to her study.

Once inside, Zuko sank down onto a red cushioned chair. As a child, it had swallowed him. He'd often found himself in this office with her, scrawling on bits of parchment or setting paper airplanes on fire while she worked. It was the right size for him now, but he felt like a child from the way his mother commanded the room, and he felt so small. Instead of sitting behind her desk, his mother sat on a chair next to him.

He wasn't sure what to expect.

She chatted quietly with him about how Kyoshi was until their food arrived. He could tell that this wasn't why she'd stopped him, so it aggravated him even more. The food was delicious, he was sure, but he couldn't recall the taste at all. He was just anxious. He wanted to see Katara, he wanted a moment alone, he wanted to decompress and talk to Aang about what he'd just acquired for their cause. While he adored his mother, now was not the opportune time.

"Zuko, you have not yet picked a wife," she finally said, as suddenly as a flash-flood, in the middle of Zuko explaining how the Kyoshi fought in their ceremonial dresses.

"No, well, yes...I…" He was flustered, caught off guard.

"I would have expected you would have asked Princess Katara by now," Ursa continued, frowning slightly. "It is obvious to me – and most others – that you are completely enchanted."

Zuko leaned on the arm of the chair, resting his elbows on the velvet as he placed his fingers over his lips while he scowled. He considered playing it off, until he saw his mother's kind face. His mom had only ever wanted the best for him, supported and loved him all his life. She had the sort of face that made people confess, even without meaning to.

And so he did. He knew that she'd take the fact that he'd proposed to her grave if he asked, and it felt nice to tell someone other than Aang. His mother listened without interrupting once, her face expressionless as she sipped her tea and watched him try to work through his feelings about the whole affair.

"-and she says she just needs more time, and I do believe that. Which is why she's not…" Zuko finished awkwardly, licking his lips self-consciously. "I know in my heart of hearts that she cares for me and wants to be here."

"But does she not love you?" Ursa asked, her first comment since he'd begun talking twenty minutes ago.

"I...not yet maybe. She's not like me. She doesn't just…" Zuko made a waving hand motion. "Fall into feelings."

"This is a little distressing to me," Ursa admitted. "I quite liked Katara. I had begun to imagine her as my daughter-in-law."

"It's not over yet," Zuko reminded, sinking lower.

"No, but-" Ursa started to speak but stopped herself. Zuko saw her stare down into her tea-cup and sip almost angrily before she looked back up. "I adore her. I think Katara is a warrior and a fine young woman. I do not even hate her for denying you, which as a mother, I was sure I would."

"But?" Zuko knew that tone too, and she was not done talking.

"But as a mother, my first priority is to you and your happiness."

"I am happy," Zuko defended. Stressed as hell? Yeah. A little tired? Sure. But depressed? No, he didn't think so!

"I'm not sure if I believe that. I see a boy who is head over heels for a girl who he's waiting on to love him back. It's draining you. More than that, others are beginning to notice how much you're favoring her. The people are wondering why you haven't proposed? If this continues and it gets out that Katara said no…" Ursa scowled, putting down her cup. Zuko winced. He hadn't even considered that. It would be a fiasco. Katara would be ridiculed and shamed in public, and the Fire Sages may call for her removal. It was unprecedented that a contestant had denied a proposal and remained to tell about it.

"Spirits," Zuko hissed under his breath, rubbing his temples as he dropped his head.

"But more than that," Ursa continued, taking only a small breath in. "You are denying yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone else. I want to see you married with children, living a good life, and you're never going to get there like this."

"I've tried," Zuko groaned. "There's just no one like Katara, mom!"

"I don't think you've tried," Ursa snorted. "Not an honest attempt, anyway. But I can see your issue. If every time you try to eat brussels sprouts immediately followed by chocolate, it would be hard for you to like eating brussels sprouts, wouldn't it?"

"And Katara's chocolate," Zuko said dully. "Uncle Iroh knocked, Mom. He wants his ambiguous and indirect philosophy quotes back."

"She is," Ursa said, face stony. "So I think we both know that the only way to truly give brussels sprouts any fighting chance is to stop eating chocolate."

Zuko stood up, furious. "I won't send her away! You cannot make me, Mother. This conversation is over!" he snarled, ready to slam the door.

"Zuko, come back," his mother snapped. "I'm not advocating to send Katara away at all." Zuko paused by the door, turning around. "Come, please, sit and finish your tea."

He hesitated, but knew that he couldn't disobey his mom. With his father, he'd gladly do so, but it was different with Ursa. Grumpily, he returned to his seat.

"I'm asking you to try something, my son," Ursa said, patting his cheeks lovingly. "There are only a few weeks before the tournament. In that time, I would like you to spend less time with Katara and spend more time with other girls. Whenever you have the urge to speak to Katara, try to talk to someone you haven't talked to much. This will help you narrow down who you truly do want, as it's been a while since a culling. Sometimes, when we stop gorging ourselves on that which we feel we cannot live without, we find we can," she said quietly, almost sadly.

"And if I can't?" Zuko asked, swallowing. "If I do this and I still can't get Katara out of my mind and I've tried as hard as I could?"

"Then we will visit other options," his mother said. "Including, possibly, a long betrothal or stopping the competition. But, before we do that, I need you to be sure that she is unquestionably the one. Which means you need to give the effort to this competition that you haven't been giving," his mother lectured sternly. "Will you promise me, Zuko?"

Zuko swallowed hard. His chest ached at the thought, but like usual, his mother's sage wisdom was undeniable. It wasn't that he couldn't see Katara at all or talk with her, but he needed to treat her like any other contestant. He needed to give Katara the same sort of attention he gave Kilee or Suki.

Which, he could now see, would be incredibly difficult. And he could see as an outsider, in that moment, why his mother was asking this of him. It seemed impossible now, but to prove to his mother that his love for Katara was unquenchable, he had to do this.

"Yes," he said after a long moment, "I swear to you that I will."

XXxxXX

Zuko sat in his room in the worst mood he could recall in a very long time. He was trying to read and re-write some edicts his father had insisted he looked over, but he wasn't getting very far.

He swirled a small glass of amber liquid, tilting his wrists as he stared down at the parchment with a mixture of frustration and resignation.

It wasn't the legal document that was the source of his anger - the title being 'New Proposition on Housing in the Middle Circle' - for that didn't sway his emotions one way or another, but it was a piece of paper slipped right underneath it. Taunting him.

A letter sent via Aiga from Katara asking if they could see each other tonight.

For a second, he'd forgotten his chat with his mother and gone to eagerly reply. As he was just about through, he recalled.

And then he burned his own reply with a slam of his fists.

He'd then had to write another letter replying that he was busy. He was, but not busy enough he would usually deny her. However, would he have met with any other girl after hours? No, he wouldn't have.

He knew he should probably explain it to her, but that seemed worse.

Hey Katara, I let my mother convince me how to play this competition, but I swear I can make choices by myself!

So, Katara, since you won't give me an answer, I'm going to play the field and see if I can fall in love with someone else. That cool?

It was mere hours into this agreement and already it was killing him.

But, somewhere deep down, the fact that it was doing so told him that he needed to see it through, as difficult as that was going to be.

There was a knock on his door. At first, he ignored it. He wasn't the mood to have a tête-a-tête with Azula, nor talk to his father, or get weird advice from his Uncle.

"Uhh...Zuko? You in there?"

Aang. The singular person that he realized he might be able to stand right now.

"Door's open. Come in," he grumped, not getting up.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when Aang entered and there was something attached to his shoulder. At first, Zuko almost though it was a rat or a chipmunk-hawk, until he saw its wide ears. He groaned; he'd nearly forgotten about Aang's new pet, the most whispered-about topic among the maids and servants right now. And, honestly, everyone else.

"You couldn't have gotten something a little less obvious?" Zuko hissed, waving a hand to the wide-eyed monkey creature. "Fucking spirits, if you wanted a pet, I would have suggested something very Fire Nation. Like a flaming lizard or something."

"What? Oh, duh!" Aang hit his head. "You haven't met Momo." Momo hissed at him, chittering angrily. Aang petted Momo's head. "Shush, Zuko's sometimes mean, but he doesn't really mean it-"

"I do," Zuko growled.

"I didn't go out intending to get a pet," Aang said, shrugging his shoulders down so Momo could explore Zuko's study. "But I had to get him. He's the last of his kind!"

"And you don't think that this was a bad idea for you, specifically?" Zuko narrowed his eyes, "An Air-Nomad animal?"

"Look." Aang waved his hands. "It's done now, okay? And yeesh, I guess, well never mind. I wasn't going to leave him. Besides, there's little talk of that. I ranked to be 'More Fire Nation' on the Royal Family Poll than Lu Ten did two years ago. I eat, sleep and breathe Fire Nation-ness."

"I guess it can't be stopped, we'll have to watch for damage control. What did you want?" he asked.

Aang snorted. "Why are you so grumpy?"

"I'm not!"

"Riiiiight," Aang stretched out his word. "Uhm, well, I was going to show you this letter, thought it might make you happy, but now I'm just thinking that it might make you angrier or more stressed…" Aang was creeping back toward the door. He gave a whistle, calling Momo. "So I'm just gunna-"

"Kuzon. The letter," Zuko said, holding his hand out. Anything worth bothering him with this late at night had to be important.

Aang hesitated but finally handed it over.

"It's from Rasra. You know, the guy from Ember Island."

"Yeah, I know who that is," Zuko said with a roll of his eyes. He realized that he was probably being unnecessarily cruel, but Aang just rolled his eyes back. It was only his good-hearted nature that kept him from flinging Zuko's attitude right back at him.

He flicked the seal, which had partially re-melted to the letter, to read it. It was folded from where Aang had creased it as he read it.

To whom it may concern,

We wished to thank you for taking the time to visit our little island! We are so honored and hoped you had an enjoyable time.

As a token of our appreciation, we have a few gifts for the Royal Family. I have just recently acquired them and thought it would be best to send them your way. Three buffalos. One filly, aged 10. Two males, 17 and 29.

What would be the best course for these three?

I look forward to your reply.

Ever grateful,

a fRiend of roddEn

Zuko read the letter twice, frowning at it.

"See," Aang leaned over, pointing to the two strangely capitalized letters in the signature. "Rasra...his last name begun with an E, but I've forgotten it." He was speaking in old Air Nomadic. Zuko switched over fluently.

"I take it that the three 'buffalos' are-"

"Yeah."

Zuko weighed the letter, rolling it up.

"I suppose we're in business now, aren't we?" he said, taking the letter and moving to his desk. With a wave of his arm, he cleared enough space away to see the map that was laid out. "I procured Kyoshi for our cause, by the way, but…." He looked at the Earth Kingdom. He needed to find a way to get them to where Dhakiya was, and it was a long journey.

This would take some careful planning.

"It's a clever letter. Most wouldn't think twice about it, though they might be disappointed that we aren't getting actual buffalos," Aang said, leaning on the other side, his finger tracing near Ember Island. "I'm just glad Azula didn't see it."

"Hmm?" Zuko asked, his attention half-way on Aang but mostly on the map.

"Well, she was around the post. She got a letter from Chan on Ember Island too. This letter was postmarked to Shoji, but I have a feeling if it was to me or you she would have opened it without a doubt."

"It was smart of him to address it to a guard," Zuko nodded in agreement.

"Actually," Aang made a tiny coughing noise, "We sort of had a weird moment."

"You and Shoji?" Zuko mumbled.

"Me and Azula."

Zuko snapped his head up. Aang bit his lip, wincing.

"What sort of moment?" he asked cautiously, his full attention now shifted to the young airbender. Aang gave a great, long sigh. He explained the whole exchange in the kitchens, about the letter from Chan and her weird attitude toward it. Then, he came to the point where she'd asked about his ancestry and how she'd gotten soft at the end.

"I usually can't figure out what's on her mind, but this morning?" Aang huffed. "I'm worried she's unraveling my...you know," Aang said, scratching his wrappings that hid his tattoos.

Zuko had another thought, one that made him feel vomit rise in his throat. He coughed on the bile, shuddering.

"Arg! Ew! Damn her," he said, reaching for his whiskey to mute the taste on his tongue.

"What?" Aang asked. "I feel like I just missed something."

"Yeah! She's not interested in how well you know our family tree, she's 'interested' in you! Not romantically. Well, quasi-romantically. My dad told me that she needs to be married off soon, so she's been pushing for an advantageous marriage, one where she can weasel her way back into power here. You know, important sons of lords who would be worthy of being Fire Lord if something 'tragic' happens to me. She was seeing how closely we're related so that she can…" Zuko felt ill again. He couldn't even finish that thought. Aang looked a little green at the thought too, but looked unsure.

"I dunno...she's smart…" he said, but shuddered too. "Is it weird that I'd rather that be the case?"

"You might be my brother, but dude, I don't want you as my brother-in-law," Zuko said, trying to banish the idea from his mind.

"Uh, me neither," Aang guffawed. He scrunched up his nose. "That's...hmm. Maybe I shouldn't be so nice to her."

"I dunno…" Zuko raised an eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure being mean would turn her on. I'd say be as nice as possible and she'll be absolutely disgusted with you." He took a long drink. "And as much as I wish that were the most pressing issue, it isn't. We have three pieces of delicate cargo that we need to get from here -" he tapped Ember Island "- to somewhere here." He tapped the Earth Kingdom. Aang nodded resolutely.

"I hope you got a nap today." Zuko cracked his knuckles. "Because we aren't leaving until we have it figured out."

Chapter Text

By the time Katara woke up the next morning, the chatter was revolving entirely about the trial. It seemed that not only Katara and Toph were being asked to talk about the incident. They may have been the only girls required to go before the jury and give detailed reports of their incidents, but almost anyone who had so much as passed Bahiravi walking in the halls was being questioned in a tiny, private room by the Grand Judge. As Katara ate breakfast and got dressed for the day - Aiga had picked something out that was more frilly than usual and a clean white color - most of the girls had been called to testify one-on-one.

Bahiravi had poisoned contestants. This was a most egregious sin, and her trial was not a small affair. If the tournaments had not been fast approaching, Katara would have been sure that this would be the event of the season, chattered about for months to come.

Katara had not thought of the girl with sharp, cold eyes for a long time. While some of the girls were whispering that Bahiravi was someone like Azula, Katara found this incredibly untrue. Azula rarely did anything without careful, specific forethought. When she looked at you, you could see a hundred queued insults in Azula's eyes, a burning flickering flame that would not be stifled. Katara realized whenever she had looked at Bahiravi, her eyes had been blank and emotionless. It was as though there was hardly any light left. They were like those of an animal. Driven purely by instinct and savagism.

Unbeknownst previously to Katara, the trial had officially begun a week ago, but it was only now that they were getting around to the witnesses. Katara was slated to talk today, Toph tomorrow, Iroh and Lu Ten the next day, and Zuko as the last 'big' account.

Aiga was allowed to attend as Katara's 'support friend'. Pan, among other officials, as they led Katara and Aiga all the way across the grand palace grounds to the Courthouse, kept looking at Katara like she may break at any second.

Maybe it would have been smart to pretend. For any normal girl, an attempt on their lives would have been traumatic. This would have been an awful, cruel experience and they would have been close to shattering. Katara was not a stranger to near-death. Her childhood, while it had been good overall, had also been hard. Living on a piece of floating ice was not for the faint of heart. Starvation near-misses were about once every three years, but Katara could count on her hand the number of other times she was sure her time was up. There'd been the one time she'd accidently sliced her leg open with no one around and it wouldn't stop bleeding, and it was only her shoddy waterbending healing skills that kept her conscious long enough to limp back to camp. There was another time a bear had ran after her and if she'd just tripped, she would have been the animal's lunch. There were other times, when she was younger and her waterbending was more unrefined and uncontrollable, where she'd fallen into the water in her furs or when she'd gotten trapped under snow.

This was the first time someone actively tried to kill her, though. Well, as far as she knew about it. Even still, she'd just gotten sick - thank Tui - so it was a hard time equating her sickness to death after all this time.

"Pan, would I possibly be allowed to ask Bahiravi some questions?" she asked as they stood, waiting to be announced and called into the room. The jury and the judge were recounting the trial's history thus far.

"You survived her attempting murder. I think you'd be allowed near anything. A few questions are hardly an issue." Pan coughed. "Though, I'm not sure if she'll answer you. If she can."

Katara hummed, frowning. Bahiravi had a right not to answer any questions she had but Katara would still try to unravel the poison conundrum she'd been thinking about non-stop.

She was seated at the top of a dais, near the Judge. Katara and Aiga had curtsied before settling to sit, waiting. Zuko was here, as well as the entire Royal Family. Katara looked to him. She had been disappointed about his reply last night, but understood. He'd just returned from Kyoshi, so there was much to do. She hoped that perhaps he would offer something else, such as a lunch or a walk about the grounds after this was said and done. Or maybe a sparring match. Katara knew she'd have some rage to free.

Zuko gave her a comforting smile, until he looked away, his face pinching. Katara frowned, opening her mouth to ask Aiga if Zuko was okay, but a scratching noise distracted her.

A door near the left opened and four guards entered, shuffling someone in between them. Bahiravi.

Katara stretched her neck up to view her, sure that Bahiravi would be close to spitting at Katara or smiling at Zuko, but she was doing neither. It was hard to see her at first, but Katara did realize her head was down and she shuffled along.

She looked pretty worse for wear. Her hair was unkempt and ratty and her skin was pale white. She was wearing long and baggy black robes that covered her entire body and when she walked, she was sluggish.

Then, she lifted her head and shifted, and Katara held back a noise of shock and dismay.

Pan's strange 'if she can' reply stood out starkly in her mind.

Bahiravi's skin was deathly sallow, her hands bony and her flesh hanging limply, illustrating her bones inside. Her face was blank; not of someone who was trying to disassociate with the proceedings, but of someone who was not there at all. A dribble of saliva dripped from her lips but she didn't seem to notice at all. When she shifted, it was jerky and uncoordinated, and Katara would bet money that underneath her robes she would have ugly black and blue bruises blossoming over every inch of her.

She was so caught up in this shell of a person sitting in front of her that Katara nearly missed the Judge's first inquiry.

Through the proceedings, which took Katara the better part of the day, it became increasingly more obvious that Bahiravi was not in that body anymore. Her soul had been broken, taking flight and moved on, leaving behind just a dull girl that hardly had the ability to keep herself upright anymore.

They'd broken her. Whoever had been watching her at the prison had destroyed her being so completely that her will and fight had been long gone. She shouldn't have felt bad about this turn of events, but she was unexpectedly sickened by this revelation. She could not imagine the horrors that they'd done to her to leave her so empty, but Katara was reminded that under Ozai's reign many men were encouraged to act like monsters. And although Bahiravi had previously been Fire Nation, she was now stripped of any title but a traitor to the crown.

Katara's retelling of the incident was stifled and stilted. The onlookers, and even Aiga, surely assumed it was because she was in such horror to re-imagine the event. It was rather because Katara was consistently tripped up; she couldn't help but have her eyes fall on Bahiravi's hunched shoulders and fumble her words, the proceedings dying in a quiet whisper on her lips. How was it hardly fair to hold a trial when the accused was not in any mind to defend herself?

As it was, there was no one going to bat for Bahiravi. Even if Katara did not think she deserved freedom, even if Katara did not think that she deserved a good life after this, Katara did strongly believe that she deserved justice.

She felt as though all of their accounts were just a farce. The Grand Judge had made up his mind about Bahiravi anyway. Katara could sit there spinning a ridiculous tale that the spirits had come in and puppeted Bahiravi's body, and the Grand Judge would probably find a way to find Bahiravi at fault. Katara could claim that she asked to be attempted to be killed and the Grand Judge would have likely told her that it was in no way Katara's fault.

Still, they dug into her story with frightening detail. It was obvious they wanted as much cannon fodder against Bahiravi as possible, all the sordid, illegal details.

Katara attempted to recall it the best she could without her judgement being clouded. Not by her shock for nearly being killed, not by her anger about the trial proceedings, not about her pity for Bahiravi. It took a person truly desperate to feel as though killing to win was the right answer.

The trial drug on, the heat of the crowded room heating her cheeks and forehead. During this time, the Royal Family sat with apt attention. Ursa and Iroh looked concerned and horrified. Ozai watched with unreadable eyes. She did have the passing thought that Ozai had put Bahiravi up to this, but killing off Toph too made little sense. Azula sat with her fingers clasped, but it was obvious from her eyes she thought Bahiravi to be an amateur. Aang had been present during the first half, but got called away by Zhao a quarter through.

Katara had spared a sorry look his way, pressing her lip as Aang left. She did not wish to know what horrible things they would be talking about.

She sort of expected Zuko to be looking at her, most of the time, with encouraging soft eyes, like he often did. She was surprised to find at every moment he was looking away from her, his eyes firmly focused on Bahirav, his face in a deep-set frown. She wished that she could see inside his mind, know what ailed him, know why he was giving her such an unexpected cold shoulder.

It was Lu Ten who was encouraging Katara on, taking the role of his cousin in an unexpected sort of way. She did not need such prompting, but to know that she hadn't been written off by the entire family was a relief.

By the end of the session, Katara's undergarments and petticoats were damp with a mixture of her own sweat and her nervousness and confusion around the entire proceeding. As there was a great noise as everyone got up at once, Katara nearly jumped over the dais to get to Bahiravi.

"Pan," she reminded in a small shout, nodding toward Bahiravi. Her advisor nodded, going and speaking to the Royal Guards, gesticulating something. They were shuffled to a small side hallway, out of the hustle and bustle of the courtroom. The attendants were too busy overwhelming the judge and making their decisions about Bahiravi's poor behavior to notice Katara and Aiga slipping away, following the traitor.

Out in the hall, Katara shuddered to stand in front of the girl who tried to kill her.

"Princess," one of the guards said uneasily. She recognized that it was Tahoe. Aiga blushed, but did not stare openly at him, nor did he look at her.

"I'll be fine," Katara nearly spat. "I don't think she'll be doing anything now, hm?" Katara asked, holding his gaze with an accusing tone. If the guard had been the one who did this and felt any guilt, he sure as hell did not show it.

"Princess Katara!"

Katara heard Zuko's voice slide through the air and she spun to see Zuko marching up to her.

"What are you doing?" he asked as they stood face-to-face.

"I have some questions for her," Katara said, crossing her arms.

"Great Agni," Zuko muttered. "Shouldn't there be a glass between the pair of you?" he asked, looking above her head to the guards.

Katara felt bile rise in her throat. "I fail to see how she's capable of even lifting a spoon now," Katara said sourly, spinning back around. She did not know how much longer the guards or the judge, or even Zuko, would entertain her inquiries, so she was determined to get her time.

" Bahiravi, it's me...Katara," she began uneasily, waiting for some flash of recognition in her eyes. Even a look of hatred and fury, she was pleading for something.

Bahiravi lifted her head from the place where her chin was against her collar bone. It was a start. She looked up, though Katara was unsure she was looking at someone, but the eyes were now trained in Katara's general direction.

" Bahiravi, I need you to listen to me. Where did you get the poison? Whose was it?" Katara asked hurriedly. Beside her, Zuko stiffened. The guards turned to Katara too. Katara ignored all of them, even Aiga's tiny hands pressing against her shoulder.

Bahiravi did not answer. She tilted her head, though it may have been more about gravity than a purposeful action.

"Did you bring it in? No, it had to be someone else...who was it?" Katara asked hurriedly, eyes wide as she inhaled. "Please. I know you have no reason to like me, to want to help me...but perhaps they could lessen your sentence." she tried.

Bahiravi did not make a motion.

Katara reached into her dress, pulling out her skein of water, uncorking it. Before she'd gotten a step more forward in an attempt to heal her, thinking that perhaps if she helped her, maybe Bahiravi would be more willing, it was as though many things happened at once.

Zuko jerked her back and the guards all shouldered together, separating them. Pan made some noise of disapproval and Aiga gasped.

"Let me go!" Katara snapped, trying to snatch her arm from Zuko's firm grip. "I just-"

"You will not touch the prisoner," One of the guards said in a firm monotone.

"Perhaps we should-" Pan started nervously and Katara saw her window closing.

"No! Just, please! I need to know."

"Princess Katara," Zuko said slowly, "She admitted to poisoning you and Toph."

"Yes! But did she claim to bring the poison in? Did she say where she got it? How she planned it?" Katara asked, and felt a minor glee at the blank look on Zuko's face. She managed to break from his hold and got as close to Bahiravi as she could manage.

" Bahiravi...who was it...it wasn't you, was it?"

There seemed to be a gleam in her eyes, a flash of something, as though what Katara had just said something that piqued her interest. Hope grew in Katara's chest, fluttering for just a second.

Bahiravi opened her mouth. This must have been quite the unexpected spectacle, for everyone present stared as she prepared to speak. Katara wondered how few words she'd said since her imprisonment.

Her lips began to move and Katara strained to hear the words. She picked up on a few wispy sounds, but was unable to properly hear what she was saying. Everyone in the hall was silent. Hope blossomed in Katara's chest as she leaned in closer.

"As the years go by, give me but peace, freedom from ten thousand matters. I ask myself and always answer: What can be better than coming home? A wind from the pine-trees blows my sash…"

The hope deflated as quickly as someone turning on a lantern in a darkened room. Once Katara heard the familiar folk song that she was singing to herself, so did everyone else.

"She's mad." Pan shook his head. "A child's tune," he sighed, but looked none too surprised.

Katara held back her disappointment, staring at Bahiravi with the sinking realization that she'd never be able to tell her again, perhaps even if Katara healed her skin. Katara was unsure even her own powers of magical healing could mend a broken, shattered mind.

"It's time to bring her back," Tahoe said, his voice markedly more sympathetic than the other three guards. Katara stood back, watching her leave with a sense of despair growing in her stomach. Was it possible that the culprit was still in the palace, waiting to strike again, or do something worse?

"It was unlikely she would have answered at all," Zuko said quietly, though Katara was not sure if this was meant to comfort her.

Katara rounded on him.

"Your guards destroyed her!" she seethed, "Don't you see what they did to her?"

"Princess Katara," Zuko said evenly. "She tried to kill you and Toph."

"So that's justified?" Katara demanded, waving a hand. "To hollow her out until there's nothing? That's not justice, that's revenge. That's sadism."

"Wait a second now," Zuko said in a darker tone. "You'd prefer she be let go? Free to live out her days without any repercussions?"

"To lock her up forever would be a repercussion. I cannot believe how you can't see how what we just saw was...was...torture! How that wasn't right!"

"Maybe things are different on the tundra," Zuko began, crossing his arms, eyes cold. "But we treat our prisoners as dangerous people here."

Katara stared at him, open jawed. "Well, of course we handle our prisoners with care!" She threw her arms up. "But the fact that you're not seeing the issue here, the way that your father runs his prisons, sickens me!"

"Well, it sounds like your mind has been made up," Zuko said. "Before I even spoke about how you, esteemed Princess Katara, feel as though we should be treating our Fire Nation traitors. I'll be sure to ferry it up to the Grand Judge right away."

"Why are you being so bull-headed?" Katara asked, shaking her head. "You're being impossible."

"I'm being the Prince," Zuko said crisply.

"So you're okay with this? With that?"

"They did it for you, Katara," Zuko snapped, "They did it for the injustice served against you."

Katara's stomach rolled, "I never asked anyone to do that," She felt ill. She felt it rising in her like the tide, pushing against her chest. Had she really invoked such violence, such depravity. Then, however, she thought of all the articles fawning over her, of the people pushing for an interview or for a picture. "And let's not mince words. They may have done it 'for me', but only because as part of this competition I'm yours. They are responding as though she tried to break a favorite toy of yours."

"Why do you have to act like that?"

"Why do you have to let that happen?"

"I'm just trying to keep my people safe!" Zuko clenched his fists, his face turning redder and redder the more they argued.

"She is part of your people too! A person's worth does not vanish the moment they do something bad!" Katara backed away. "You know what? Just...urg!" She began to turn away.

"Princess," Zuko said and for a second she thought he was going to apologize. He licked his lip, looking almost contrite. "Perhaps we could...talk? Later today?"

"Is it about Bahiravi?"

Zuko exhaled hard. "I have no more to say upon the matter of her."

Katara clenched her jaw. "Then, I find I don't have anything I wish to speak with you about, Prince Zuko," she said stubbornly.

Zuko inhaled once and she could almost see the steam exiting his nose. "Very well," he replied, his voice tight and devoid of any niceties. "Princess. Advisor Pan," he said quietly, bowing. Katara gave a curtsey back, feeling anger and fury and despair cling to her chest.

"Princess, you've missed lunch. Shall I ask the kitchens to make you something?" Pan asked in the wake of Zuko's departure.

Katara found herself unable to speak for a moment. When she did, her throat was raw and close to something she thought might be tears, though for who (Zuko, herself, Bahiravi) she was unsure.

"That would be excellent. Thank you, Pan."

XXxxXX

"You seem distracted, Prince Zuko. Are you okay?" Zuko turned in the palanquin to Alcina, shaking himself out of his thoughts.

"I just have a lot on my plate," he said, which was not untrue.

Alcina nodded with understanding. "With the tournament approaching, and of course picking a wife...well, I'd be distracted too."

"It's no excuse however. We're on a date," he said, trying to banish his upsetting argument with Katara earlier today.

And to think, he'd gone through the entire trial knowing how difficult this had to be for Katara, thinking about how he hated Bahiravi for nearly taking Katara away from him, and finally having come to the decision that he'd tell Katara about his mother's promise.

Well, if she didn't want to talk to him, he certainly wasn't going to bend over backwards for her!

"We're traveling to the date," Alcina pointed out, pushing aside the curtains with her nimble fingers. "We have not arrived. We could have gone separately, but it made more sense to only request one palanquin," she continued, "Therefore, you are free to worry over whatever concerns you now, until we reach the location."

He let out a sigh of relief. He liked Alcina. It did sting like a thorn in his side a little because he knew this was one of Katara's closet friends, but he'd been planning this date for weeks. Still, the girl's forward and easy-going nature was the reason he held onto her. She was louder and more outgoing than her sister, though Zuko was sure with time he could have brought Dhakiya out of her shell.

He'd never know now, though, would he? Hiding the Avatar, a practiced bender, within the Palace was one thing, but trying to pass off an unseasoned and overwhelmed airbender? No, it would not have been safe for her.

"That's kind of you, but I have much time in my office specifically for those thoughts," he said. "Err, have you been enjoying the palace?"

He longed for Katara, who he rarely felt like he was forcing conversation with, though tried not to have it show.

Soon enough, Alcina had taken charge and steered him into a conversation that came easier, a discussion about the literature to offer in the Royal Palace Libraries. It was something fairly safe, but gave them enough to talk about without fear of running out of topics. By the time that the palanquin paused, they hardly had touched the tip of the amount of things to speak on. It was an ingenious thing to choose to speak about, something Alcina had assuredly chosen with that in mind.

Zuko leapt up so that he could part the palanquin's curtains for her, offering her his hand as they stepped outside.

"Ooh! How magical!" Alcina breathed.

Zuko had brought her to an underground grotto near the edge of the city. He recalled that she enjoyed swimming, having spent much of her time at the beach in the water, and realized that she would very much appreciate this location. Katara probably would too, but he had to go on dates with others and it was a relief not to have to do something generic and basic with Alcina

"But, Prince Zuko, I haven't…" Alcina began.

"While we're on a date, it's just Zuko," he said, blushing red. "And I had your handmaid procure you a suit for the day. In here."

Alcina squealed, hugging Zuko as she jumped back into the carriage to get changed.

Most of the day was spent with the pair splashing around in the cool water before having a picnic on the shore. Alcina was like a fire-fish in the sea, her long black hair spread out around her and taking to the natural dip and lull of the waves with a seasoned practice. Zuko couldn't help but find her joy and exuberance contagious and soon found his mind was not drifting to Katara for the time being.

"Alcina," he said after a few hours, "We have to get back soon." He sighed.

"I understand. It's been quite a day," she said. "And I am grateful for it anyway."

"Before we go, perhaps we should go into the caves one more time?" he asked, motioning to the cave opening that was only accessible by swimming under. Alcina's eyes brightened and she dove under. Zuko followed a second later, rubbing his hair back from his face.

"I could stay here forever," Alcina said with a girlish giggle.

"I, er, well I wanted us to be out of earshot," Zuko admitted. Alcina's face sobered immediately as she turned to him with curious eyes. "There might be a chance for you to contact your sister again. A letter, I should think, so...if you wanted to write one...pass it off as something innocuous...I'd get it to her."

Alcina frowned, and for a second he thought he'd displeased her. However, after a moment, he realized she was trying to keep from crying. "I haven't heard a thing from her...she's still safe?"

"Most assuredly."

"That is far better than even this," Alcina waved a hand around. "I will, yes." The cave's bottom was shallow enough so they could stand and did not have to tread water. The sea water was up to her neck, but lapped at Zuko's chest. "Zuko, can I ask you something?"

He nodded.

"Would it be...oh...I know you and Katara...I hate to be that girl...but I would be lying if I pretended like I didn't have feelings for you too," she admitted. "And I love my friend Katara, but if I am to play with my heart," she blubbered, looking terribly torn. Zuko had a feeling where it was going and felt warmed that she was so concerned. Others girls would not have cared, friends be damned.

Zuko leaned in, stopping her with a quick, chaste kiss.

"You were not the one who did it," he said when they parted. "It was me. Katara shouldn't be angry at you. If she wishes to fight with someone, let it be me," he said kindly.

Alcina's whole expression slackened. "Oh, thank you. That was quite...wonderful," Alcina admitted, blushing hard.

Zuko, who knew his mother would be pleased at his attempts, nodded. "Indeed, it quite was."

XXxxXX

The next two days passed in a haze for Katara. She was almost sure that Zuko was ignoring her, though it was hard since it seemed he was also just incredibly busy.

She was sure he was upset with her in some backwards way, since after his date with Alcina, Alcina came back looking red and a little guilty. She couldn't quite figure it out until Zuko informed her, over a message sent with Aiga of all things, that he'd kissed Alcina on the date and not to be upset with her.

Katara wasn't upset with Alcina, not entirely. She was upset that he couldn't face her like a man and tell her, and that he was trying not to glare at her during meals, which was indication enough.

Sure, they could fight (and she was still mightily angry at him) but now there where whispers she'd be kicked out soon because of his clear displeasure with her. The questions about when she'd be packing her bags, mostly from Nadhari, that she was now fielding were ridiculous.

She had almost forgotten about the next upcoming trip until she was reminded via letter that she was on the docket to go to Makapu Village in Earth Kingdom.

Alcina would be there, which she wished she were more excited about.

The other two girls would be Besu, who Katara hadn't gotten time to learn much about, so perhaps she should, and Ty Lee. Thank Tui for Ty Lee, who Katara was planning to cling to. She'd be fine to not see Zuko at all.

Still, she wished more of her comrades were joining.

"I thought you were leaving tomorrow as well?" she asked in confusion when Aang announced he was not going.

"Zhao is tapping me for a mission," he said darkly. "I also have to courier something," he said, which Katara did not entirely understand what he meant.

"Will you be okay? Mentally?"

"I'll do what I need to do. Hopefully save some more lives," Aang said with a sigh, but he did not seem convinced he'd be able to do so.

She went to Sokka next.

"C'mon, don't you want to come along and spend some quality time with your favorite little sister?" she begged.

"Uhh...no?"

"Sokka!"

"I have stuff to do here! Don't hurt me!" Sokka said, cowering dramatically as he saw Katara's scowl. "It's like a day. You'll survive it. I thought you'd be excited to be all kissy-kissy smoochy-smoochy with Zuky," he teased.

"Only you call him that." Katara said, not wanting to let on to her brother that they were in a minor spat right now. "I swear you two are like secret lovers or something. Does he have a pet name for you too?"

"I was just making fun of you." Sokka patted her shoulder. "Stop changing the subject."

"I just...I dunno, I miss you." Katara said, putting on her best innocent face. Sokka snorted.

"Aww...how cute. Yeah, I don't believe you a bit. Well, anyway," Sokka shrugged, "You'll survive. It will probably be fun!"

Miraculously, she still managed to pull a string or two and got Sokka on the trip as an assistant to General Iroh, who would be coming as well. He seemed pleased as punch to have the Water Tribe Warrior at his side.

Their first part of their journey was via boat at night, which they all slept through. By the time Katara woke up the next morning, there was a convoy of animals and carts for them to load up on. Katara stretched out, eager to try to make the best of the trip, but saw the faces of her friends and Zuko and knew it wasn't going to happen.

The carriage ride was a sullen affair. Zuko choose to ride out on his ostrich-horse, away from the contestants, though Katara swore to Tui it was only after he saw Katara in the cart that he chose this. Katara tried to get out of the stifling suffocating little square box to do the same, but was told by Zuko it would be 'improper' for her to do so. Since when did Zuko care if she did the proper actions?

Uncle Iroh was also riding with Zuko, ignoring everyone's concerns for his age, hopping upon his ostrich-horse with ease and comfortability. It left the four contestants plus Sokka jostling in the covered chart, all sulking or in a strange mood.

Katara, sulking because of Zuko's weird mood and her own frustrations directed at him. Ty Lee, no doubt, was upset to be away from Aang. Alcina was uneasy still and sending Katara careful looks after her date and kiss with Zuko. Besu and Sokka? Well, she didn't know why the two of them looked so nervous (Besu) or grumpy (Sokka), but something was biting at both of them as well.

Wonderful. This was set to be an extremely long and silent ride.

The hours ticked by as agonizing as ever. Whenever someone attempted to bring up something to talk about, even if one person half-heartedly answered, it was quickly killed by the mood.

"Lots of sisterly-brotherly bonding we're doing," Sokka grumped to her sourly.

Near the last hour of their trip, Iroh managed to convince Zuko to allow the ladies and Sokka to ride into town on extra ostrich horses. He argued that it was a beautiful day and they should be allowed to enjoy it, plus it would give the dragon-moose a break from dragging them half-way across the forests.

"Uhm…" Besu looked pink. "I'd rather...walk. I'm not too good with big animals," she said, eyeing the ostrich horses with trepidation.

"Nonsense! These are calm and gentle creatures," Iroh said. "You'll be fine, Besu."

Besu looked ready to make a break for it. She'd been eyeing the forests with a sense of longing all day, but she begrudgingly let Iroh and Zuko help her onto her horse. She sat on top of it, clutching the reins with her face pale.

Sokka, although he'd never ridden an ostrich horse, had spent his childhood days chasing after polar-bear dogs in an attempt to ride them, so this was a much calmer ride. Katara, Alcina, and Ty Lee all seemed to have little issues too.

Katara in fact felt a breath of relief escape her. She didn't have to sit aside the frowning faces of her friends in silence, instead she could listen to the chattering of the forests.

The convoy of the ostrich-hoses trotted along at a brisk pace for most of the time. Besu's legs were pressed so firmly against her animal Katara was sure she'd squeeze it to death if it were smaller. Iroh was riding next to her, giving her quiet affirmations about her progress and the animal was being well behaved for her.

Katara understood they were nearing the village as the trees began to thin and the path grew more worn. She strained her eyes to see the entrance, but all she could see was a massive volcano shadowing the earth in front of her.

There was a bend in the path ahead of them. Katara was bringing up the rear in a staunch stubbornness to be as far away from Zuko as possible, plus she enjoyed having the time to soak in everything the Earth Kingdom forests had to offer. It was, after all, her first time in the Earth Kingdom.

There was a frantic buzzing sound and from out of the forests broke a man with a swarm of hornet-birds after his head. He stumbled in front of the caravans, right before Besu's ostrich-horse. One of the pesky avians stung her horse and all at once there was a loud noise as the animal bucked. Besu was unable to reign it back in, trembling and squeaking as the animal began to thump on the ground hard, its talons digging hard into the ground.

The poor man, who was caught underfoot, seemed to be one second away from being speared by the ostrich-horse's claws, as he waved his arms to try to get the hornet-birds away.

Zuko swung his ostrich-horse around, leaping off and jumping in front of Besu's horse. He waved his arms, petting its beak as he eased it back to normal. Iroh had waved a sweet floral scent around, drawing the hornet-birds away. He threw the flower in the river, sending the vibrating creatures after it.

"Are you okay, sir?" Zuko breathed, turning to the man, who seemed shockingly chipper about the entire interaction. The rest of the ostrich-horses had pulled together, forming a semi-circle. Besu was near inconsolable, but scared stiff and unable to get off her horse.

"Oh! Quite well Prince Zuko!" The man said with a jovial grin. "Isn't the weather lovely today? We're lucky for such tolerable sun."

"Lovely weather?" Sokka all but choked out, "Dude, you were nearly killed and you're worried about the weather?"

"Not worried at all! More just commenting," the man said. "There's no reason to worry."

"Right," Zuko said with a raised eyebrow. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Peacy! One hundred percent," the man said with utter confidence.

"Erm, okay…" Zuko looked unsure. "I'm sorry about this ostrich horse. I didn't expect her to be so skittish."

"I was in no danger."

"Well, actually," Zuko looked ready to argue, but the man cut him off.

"It was all under control, Your Majesty," he continued with an equally bright grin.

Sokka snorted. "You were being attacked by hornet birds and you nearly got squashed flat. I wouldn't call that under control."

"I would. Aunt Wu told me I'd have a safe journey back to the village and I have."

"Aunt Who?" Zuko echoed.

"No, Aunt Wu!" The man smiled. "She's the fortune teller from my village. Always nice to know your future."

"That sounds interesting," Katara said, but noticed that Zuko looked dubious. Sokka outright laughed, a sort of choked sound of disbelief. Ty Lee sighed longingly and Alcina looked intrigued. Besu was still too frightened to show much emotion.

"But you didn't have a safe journey! You were nearly killed...twice!"

"But I did," the man insisted, "I'm alive, aren't I?"

"Because of us!"

"Because Aunt Wu knew you'd be here."

Sokka looked ready to implode, staring at the man with such a look of abject frustration it was palpable.

"Can we offer you a ride back to the village, sir?" Zuko asked, clearly dropping any reservations he had to what the man was claiming.

"I was planning on it! Aunt Wu said a ride would be coming for me any time between dawn and dusk to take me the final leg."

"That must prove it!" Alcina whispered to Ty Lee, who was staring at the man with starry eyes. Even Katara felt impressed. Sokka slapped his hand against his forehead.

"Well, duh! Everyone knew that we'd be arriving today. It's not exactly a fortune that we'd be on this road. He could have just been waiting at any time for us," he argued. "That proves nothing!" he snapped, turning to Alcina.

"How did he happen to be right here when he needed it, though?" Alcina argued.

"Because...I...you all are far too gullible," Sokka growled.

By that time, the caravan was ready to move again. Besu sat back with the man in the carriage, since no one wanted any more hiccups. As they started moving again, Katara caught Iroh's quiet musing.

"I think I'd quite like all of us to meet this Aunt Wu!"

Chapter Text

Katara missed Toph. She missed Aiga. She missed Zuko, and he was here in Makapu with her, though you would never be able to guess that they had some wild romance from the way he was treating her.

As soon as they had set their items down in their rooms, General Iroh was asking about this mysterious Aunt Wu, and Zuko was finding a reason to avoid going to see her.

"Oh, she sounds fascinating, she really does...but I think that I need to meet with your Mayor...yes, well, maybe tonight…but everyone else should absolutely go! We don't want to offend our hosts!"

Sokka had tried to jump ship with Zuko, with little success.

"Prince Sokka, you're my assistant. You go where I go," Iroh announced jovially, dragging Sokka back to the convoy that would be going to Aunt Wu's shop in the middle of town.

Prince Zuko had said good-bye to each of the four girls, kissing their knuckles and wishing them a good trip. When he came to Katara, however, she saw him redden and kiss her knuckle like he was licking General Iroh's shoe.

The motion was not missed by anyone.

"What in the world did you do to get him to act like that?" Besu said, snorting.

"Did you two get into a fight?" Ty Lee asked, eyes liquid with worry and sympathy.

"No! We're just…" Katara struggled, "You know how it is sometimes." She flailed helplessly for an explanation. Only Uncle Iroh gave a knowing hum, patting Katara's shoulder comfortingly.

"Do you think this might stay between us?" Katara thought to ask. "If his displeasure is so overwhelming, I'll be gone soon anyway. If not, there's no reason to send certain girls into a tizzy," she said, wincing.

"Certain girls," Alcina hmphed. "You can say Nadhari. We're all friends here," she said, winking. Ty Lee quirked a smile and Besu cackled, nodding. She seemed to be doing much better after the whole ostrich-horse incident. Now that she was on solid land, of course.

"Right?" Alcina prompted, uncertainty coloring her tone.

Katara gave her a smile. She might be on the outs with Zuko and his ultimate bull-headedness right now, but there was no reason to hold a grudge against Alcina. It's not as though Zuko was off limits to her. She was only doing what she was supposed to be doing.

"Of course," Katara said, clasping her fingers. She cared about her friendship with the fire bender far too much to let Zuko come between them.

General Iroh enthusiastically led the way to Aunt Wu's. Katara hung back, having a feeling that Sokka was going to try to slide away from the group, as he was walking slowly near the edge, eyes flashing all around.

"Oh, come on. It might be fun!"

"I just think it's all mumbo-jumbo," Sokka said, "and a waste of time. We could be eating, Katara. Eating." He nearly tripped as his nose followed a scent wafting from the food carts near the square.

"So," Katara started dryly, "Your sister can manipulate water, and your other two best friends can manipulate earth and fire, and you've seen signs of spirits, but you draw the line at fortune telling?"

"Exactly. A guy's gotta make his stand somewhere, or else he'll believe anything," Sokka said, puffing out his chest.

"Or are you afraid to have your future told?" Katara teased.

"What? No. No! I'm not afraid," Sokka waved her off, "I doubt I'll believe anything she says to begin with."

"Then what's the harm of just going in there?"

"Because it's against my morals!" Sokka objected. "The ones that, albeit, I just discovered, but I'm strongly against it."

By this point, they had reached the entrance of the fortune house. The girls at the front were talking amongst themselves. Katara turned to go back to them, but caught Sokka trying to scoot into a side alley.

"No you don't!" she said.

Iroh, at the front, was looking around. "Prince Sokka? Prince Sokka! Oh, there you are! Come up here, right in the front by me," he said, grinning. Katara almost wondered if he was doing this intentionally, bothering Sokka, but General Iroh was more refined than that...right? Sokka cussed, holding up his hands in a defeated motion.

Katara made sure he went to the front. He was as slippery as a whale-eel when he was skiving off doing something he didn't want to do.

Ty Lee spun to the girls, tapping her chin.

"What do you all want to know? Is it silly for me to want to know about love?" Ty Lee asked, sighing.

"Not at all," Katara said, although Katara knew that Ty Lee would not be asking about Zuko, as the rest may assume she was. To the point, Alcina was looking at her warily, sure she was trying to get a leg up in the competition. Besu…Katara couldn't tell if she cared one way or the other. She seemed aloof concerning most things. No, driven. Focused. On winning Zuko's heart? Katara was unsure.

"I'm torn. I'd like to know about that, but there are other things I'm worried about," Ty Lee admitted. "What about you, Besu?"

"Nothing specific," she said, but it absolutely sounded like she had something specific she wanted to find out. "Alcina?"

"Oh, spritis...just about everything." She gave a creaking laugh. "I guess that my sister is…" She trailed off. "Just that she'll find happiness."

"Oh, right," Besu said, looking sympathetic, "How's she doing since she was kicked out?"

"Sent home," Alcina corrected sharply. "Fine," she added, but her confidence was only surface-level.

"What about you, Katara?" Ty Lee switched swiftly.

"I'd be happy with anything," Katara said. "The world is unpredictable. Even knowing one thing may be helpful, whatever category it falls into." She wasn't sure if she could hear a truthful fortune about her love life right now, Tui and La!

"Ah! Aunt Wu has been expecting you all," a tall, thin man said, greeting them at the doors with a bow. Alcina's breath increased, her eyes sparkling. Sokka saw and rolled his eyes.

"Well, duh! Everyone in town, once again, knows we were arriving. Plus, someone could have ridden ahead…"

"Or she saw it in the future!" Alcina argued.

"Fine! Look, I can make a prediction." Sokka coughed dramatically. "In the next minute, the six of us will walk through that doorway. Oooh, spooky, I can tell the fuuuutuuureee toooo," he said, wiggling his fingers dramatically as the six started through the door. When Alcina moved toward the door, though, she suddenly squeaked right outside.

"Ouch!" she moaned, holding up her foot to show a large thorn stuck into her heel. She sniffled, carefully extracting it as Ty Lee twittered next to her.

"Can you walk on it, Lady Shen?" Iroh asked.

"Yeah, darn, that just really hurt," Alcina said, limping through the doorway.

"Hey genius," Besu said, grinning at Sokka. "It was over a minute. You were wrong. Only five of us went through the doorway in a minute."

While Sokka was sputtering incoherent arguments, Ty Lee just kindly patted his shoulder. "Some people just don't have the gift, Sokka. Don't take it personally."

Katara did wonder what Ty Lee thought about all of this. She could see auras, or so she claimed. Was seeing the future on the same line of deeper thinking?

There were six cushions inside. Sokka sat on one immediately, drawing into himself and crossing his arms. Iroh started talking to Sokka about something, drawing his attention away from the gilded room.

There was a yelp of joy from the door to their left. A woman in green came out. "Oh, thank you! I just found out the love of my life is going to give me a rare panda lily!"

Ty Lee gave an 'aww'. Sokka either was trying to ignore this entirely or didn't hear.

"I'm happy for you! I hope we'll be getting an invitation to the wedding," a second voice said.

Sokka whipped around so fast that Katara was almost sure that he almost snapped his neck.

"Woah, where's the fire?" Alcina giggled.

"I just…" Sokka said faintly, eyes scanning. Something about that voice had sounded familiar to Katara, too.

The lady in green waved to the sitting six, a grin as wide as her face stretched out. Following her was a petite girl with unruly hair, likely sixteen or seventeen. She wore a traditional kimono, a deep purple shade that glimmered in the light.

"Welcome, Royal Palace Friends!" she crooned, and Katara blinked in surprise. If she closed her eyes, it sounded like Toph. A much nicer, less swear-prone Toph, but Toph nonetheless. Sokka was scrutinizing this girl too, probably wondering what Katara was, if this might be a long-lost cousin or something. Or, logically, there had to be people that sounded similar to one another out there, right? "Would anyone like some tea or food while we wait for Aunt Wu?"

"Tea!" Iroh said enthusiastically at the same time that Sokka asked for food as though he'd been starving for a week.

The Toph-not-Toph girl vanished and reappeared a couple minutes later with a tray of puffs and a large teapot.

"What's your name, child?" General Iroh asked as she handed him a steaming cup. Sokka attacked the bowl of food.

"Meng. I've been Aunt Wu's assistant for years now. You're in for a real treat."

"So she tells your future?" Ty Lee asked, looking thoughtful.

"Bits and pieces. To know too much is to obsess over it. She tells me what she thinks I can manage to know," Meng said sagely, "and it's always been enough for me."

"So, she's not a fraud?" Sokka asked, mouth full of food. General Iroh sent him a disapproving look and Katara elbowed him.

"You're hardly the first to question it," Meng said. "But nothing we say will convince you. You'll just have to go in there yourself," she said with a casual shrug and a wide, welcoming smile.

Iroh distracted Meng with questions about the tea in the area while the girls nibbled on the food. It seemed like in no time at all, an aged woman was parting the curtains at the doors, coming out.

"Ah, so good to see your faces all in person finally," she said. "Who would like to go first? I can only have one at a time, or else I begin to get mixed signals from your spirits."

No one rushed to offer. Katara wasn't sure if it was because no one wanted to seem too eager, or because they were suddenly caught with a little fear of the future.

"Well, I will. I didn't want to let these lovely ladies feel unimportant, but since no one else is offering…" Iroh said.

"General Iroh, please follow me."

They were gone for maybe ten minutes. In that time, the girls broke out into nervous laughter, unable to contain themselves. Sokka rolled his eyes, continuing to stuff puffs into his mouth.

"These are great, Meng," he said. "So, uh, you've lived here your whole life?"

"Far as I know," Meng said.

"Right, right, cool…" Sokka swallowed. "You...a bender at all?"

While Sokka tried to engage Meng in conversation, Katara curled her legs underneath herself. What did she want to know about her future? Well, perhaps right off, knowing that she wasn't going to die some tragic death would be a fantastic start.

She could ask if she was going to marry Zuko, but she feared the answer. She feared a yes as much as she feared a no.

She still hadn't figured much out by the time Iroh returned.

"I hope that this settles you, General Iroh," Aunt Wu said brightly. "It was a pleasure to look into your future!" She scanned the group. "You next, dear," she decided, pointing to Besu. Besu scurried up, nearly tripping over her pillow.

Katara could tell the other girls were dying to know what Iroh found out, but they stayed quiet. Meng continued to serve them while Katara sighed. If Zuko was here, what would he ask the fortune teller? Would it even be about her?

When Besu exited, she looked exactly the same.

"What happened?" Alcina asked as Ty Lee was led away.

"She was a little vague, but I think I got the answer that I was searching for."

"Of course she's vague! She's just throwing things at the wall and hoping one will stick!" Sokka said, waving his hands around. "That's not magic, that's guessing."

Ty Lee looked brighter when she returned. She gave a thumbs up the group.

"She probably hasn't ever told anyone a bad fortune," Sokka hissed under his breath. "Then she wouldn't have any customers."

"Visiting Aunt Wu is completely free," Meng said. "She always uses her vision for the good of the community!"

"Me next?" Alcina said, starting to stand.

"Dear girl, your question is overwhelming my senses," Aunt Wu laughed. "And I have an answer; it will be a noble year for twins."

This seemed to ease Alcina, who let out a long breath. "Thank you so much!" she said.

"That's all you need? Don't you want a full reading?" Sokka asked, shaking his head, as though someone disappointed in her.

"I guess I really only had one overwhelming question and she just answered it." Alcina said, "Nothing else matters as much."

"If there was more to say, the spirits would have told me to bring her back, but as it is, they were resounding about that," Aunt Wu agreed.

"Katara, you next," Sokka said.

"Actually, boy, I'll take you." Aunt Wu said.

"Uh, no. I don't need my fortune read," Sokka shrugged.

"I think you might want to hear what I have to say."

Sokka exchanged a weird look with Katara but followed her nonetheless. Katara sat back down, already having been ready to follow her.

"Princess Katara, that's your name, right?" Meng questioned, "More tea?" Katara hadn't even realized that she'd had all of hers until she was staring at the bottom of her cup.

"Sure."

"Look," Meng started uneasily, "You can tell your brother I'm flattered but-"

"What?" Katara blinked.

"He's been flirting with me this whole time. Asking me questions and stuff," Meng said. Katara frowned. He had been making a big effort to talk to her. "Aunt Wu told me I was gunna marry a guy with big ears, and no offense, your brother's ears are average."

"Erm, thanks? I'll let him know," Katara said, blinking at the interaction that had just occurred.

Sokka was in with Aunt Wu the longest, nearly fifteen minutes. When he reappeared, he looked sallow.

"So?" Katara prompted.

"It's not true. She's just...she's not…" Sokka spat out. "I stand by it. Fortune tellers are all phonies," he said firmly, but seemed unwilling to share what he'd heard or explain his sudden caginess.

"Princess?" Aunt Wu waited for her at the door.

Katara gathered herself, still unsure what she wanted to know, if anything at all.

The room was cozy. There was a scent of burning incense lingering and a warm fire. It made her outfit feel a little too heavy and she wished she could strip her layers. As it was, it was unlikely she'd be in here for a long time. She fanned herself with her fingers the best she could, wishing she was an airbender so she could do something as stupid as cool herself off.

Katara sat on a bigger, softer cousin that was in the middle of the room. Katara mused upon the methods that she'd seen in their short time.

"You're wondering how I see the future, dear," Aunt Wu said.

"A little, but well, everyone must...don't they?" Katara asked, craning her head up to the cloth-covered ceiling.

"You'd be surprised. Many are simply complacent with their place in the world, wondering no more or no less than what's outside their doors each day. They are pleased with simple predictions; if it will rain tomorrow or if they'll have a safe journey in three days. Very few question things and seek deeper truths."

"So I'm different?" Katara raised an eyebrow. "So...I ask a question and you...magic the answer somehow? Bring it forth?"

"No. There are many ways to divine the future or deeper truths. Ty Lee sees people, I see time. We are not dissimilar. Rather, the truths to the future exist around everyone. They are not something I am pulling from the bottom of a lake, but we are swimming in, at any moment. I have just learned how to best interpret the answers and sharpen what you seek," Aunt Wu said. "It's like a swarm of bees above your head. I just find the exact bee you have a question about, but all the other bees do not fail to exist."

"Ah," Katara said absently. "What if I have no question that I wish to ask?" she asked in a soft voice.

"That is fine, Princess. You are open to any sort of response from the spirits, that is good." Aunt Wu held out a basket of animal bones. "These will help me seek through your spirit aura. Choose one and throw it on the fire," she instructed.

Katara felt her fingers draw her to a long, curved one. She looked at Aunt Wu, who only gave her an encouraging smile. Katara threw it onto the fire. It crackled and sizzled, until Aunt Wu fished it out with a pair of tongs.

"Mhh, so, I see you're a native-born Fire Nationer. Water is important to you," she began, looking over the bone's crackled edge at Katara.

"One out of two." Katara couldn't help but wince. It was pretty obvious she was Water Nation, wasn't she?

Aunt Wu looked deeply distressed. She looked at the bone again, then back at Katara. Katara half expected her to fake some reason why she'd flubbed her original reading, but she instead just ignored it and moved on. Her face was set into a frown, like she couldn't make sense of something.

"Okay, well, you made a great sacrifice for your town, did you not?"

Katara felt uneasiness settled over her, "Tribe, but erm, well, yes I suppose I did."

Aunt Wu looked more relieved that she'd been able to see that, though Katara wasn't sure it made her feel okay.

"And would you say that you are a voice for those who did not have a voice? That you performed a selfless act for your people?"

"In a way, perhaps," Katara said, gnawing on her lip.

"Also, did you-" Aunt Wu broke off, face pale.

"What?" Katara asked, breath increasing. "Tell me, what do you see?" she asked, leaning forward nearly over the fire, desperate to know what caused such a paleness to the woman's face.

"It says here you died."

"I'm going to die?" Katara echoed, her voice cracked in terror and anguish.

"No, that you did. Have you ever had a near death experience?"

Katara thought back. "Well, I mean...another contestant tried to poison me. Unsuccessfully, but I suppose…" Katara swallowed hard. "Would that count?"

Aunt Wu did not look convinced. "Yes, yes. That must be it."

"Oh, well, that's a relief...I guess…" Katara tried to ignore the urge to get up and leave now. "Does it say something about my future?"

"It seems to be intertwined with your future, your past that is." Aunt Wu turned the bone every which way. "It's hard to untangle the two from each other. This, Princess, is not something I've come across before. It's most peculiar…" she said, "But...yes, I think this is part of the future, your future," she added, which Katara found a weird thing to specify.

"Yes?"

"You will be in a fight. It will have a great sacrifice, but your rewards will end up being exactly what you seek. You will find your companion where you least expect it. It will be a child of a dark dragon and humble girl. "

Katara thought back to what Sokka had said about Aunt Wu just throwing out phrases with the hope one hit home. She couldn't help but feel a little let down.

"It's not more clear?"

"I'm sorry, Princess, but this is a very strange bone reading," she said. "I wish I could be of more assistance."

"No, no." Katara felt her hands shake. "I suppose you've been most helpful."

She stood, bowing to the elder. She couldn't help but feel like her legs were shaking hard as she walked outside.

It had to be talking about the tournament. What sacrifice would be made? And what was that she sought after the tournament? Zuko? Her people's salvation? Both? How did Aunt Wu know the answer to that if Katara herself did not even know?

Or maybe the spirits knew and Katara did not!

And the comment about her companion. Did that mean romantic love? Best friend? Partner in crime? But it sounded an awful lot like Zuko and his parents, did it not?

Spirits, Katara had more questions than she did when she walked in!

"Hey Kat. Were the answers of the universe unveiled to you?" Sokka asked sardonically.

"Maybe," Katara replied tightly. "I guess it's a lot to think about."

"Everything...okay?" Sokka asked, realizing she wasn't hitting him or yelling at him.

"If I choose to believe it, it's just a lot to take in," Katara said, unwilling to share her concerns with him. "What now, General Iron?" she asked, specifically turning around to their leader.

"Well, Meng was just telling me about the most wonderful little tea shop near a market! If you ladies would like that, we might as well make the most of our day while Prince Zuko handles some boring meetings…"

XXxxXX

"Can't believe that we lost those airbenders again," Aang overheard one of the other soldiers grumble.

"Well, they're literally light on their feet," another whispered in the darkness of their camp for the night. "And now they have to know we're after them."

"Yeah, but what about good ole turning on thy neighbor? I'm surprised we haven't had better luck."

"Zhao's pissed," a third voice said, shuddering. "If we don't find at least one soon…"

"Where do you think they're going?" the first voice asked again. Aang rolled himself more snugly in his night furs, trying not to be obvious he was eavesdropping, but terribly curious. His fingers played with a long roll of fishing twine, distracting them from shaking.

"Airbenders?"

"Well, they could be anyway. They can fly," the second whispered in awe.

"No, they can ride the wind, idiot," the first said, and Aang heard a thump as they hit him across they head. "But they can climb things easier, I'd bet. Maybe we just need to start looking in the trees," he laughed, the joke funny only to him.

"Little vermin," the third one spat. "I hate having to hunt 'em like this. Who thought they'd be so intelligent?"

Aang tried not to inhale too sharply, too angrily.

Calm, my brother, Kuruk intoned, Do not let them see your anger.

Aang pressed his lips together. The handful of airbenders that Rasra had managed to find, the five that Zhao had originally gotten the tip about, and three today that Aang had managed to intercept before Zhao and the soldiers found them, and apparently a few more they picked up on their own. Nearly twelve airbenders, all hopefully on their way to the safe-house Zuko had set up.

But it still wasn't enough. If there was still one singular airbender out there that Zhao could kill and torture, Aang's work was not done.

We are walking a thin line, Kasata whispered to the group sitting in Aang's mind. Save too many groups that Zhao was actively hunting and he'd start to wise up that someone was funneling information. They needed to be just getting the word out, somehow.

"Whatcha got there, Prince Kuzon?"

Aang nearly jumped out of his skin. One of the guards near Aang's sleeping furs had noticed what he was braiding in his fingers. The voices of the three whispering guards that Aang had been listening to fell quiet.

Aang did not correct him. Many people assumed he was a prince or a prince-adjacent. It was fine. Aang was so used to being called faux names that it hardly registered as strange at this point.

He sighed. "Nothing much," he said, looking down. It was a simple necklace, braided from a roll of fishing line he'd found near the sea today. There was a soft pink flower in the middle of it. He hadn't realized what he'd done until now...but yes, Ty Lee would like that.

"Ooh, is that for a girl, sir?" the guard asked, eyes glimmering. "Is there going to be another Royal Wedding soon?"

"What? No."

"So you're just casually making your casual hook-up a casual necklace," the guard said, snorting. "Suuuureee."

"Well, I-" Aang turned bright red. "We're not...we haven't even...it's very complicated."

The man shrugged, rolling back. "Did she tell you that? That's what my wife said. One day we were 'complicated' the next day we were 'married'." He laughed. "So watch out, I suppose."

"Do you miss your wife?" Aang asked, realizing he knew very little about all the guards Zhao had tapped for this mission.

"Of course I do. Drives me nuts, but I still love 'er," he said, staring up at the stars. "She's always worried about me. I know it's just airbenders and they used to be all love and peace and all, but we're fighting a new war. Who knows what might happen."

"You'd die for Zhao's war?"

"It's Fire Lord Ozai's, isn't it?" The man frowned. "But what choice do I have? If he says it's for the good of the nation, well, I'm not a Lord so I couldn't know."

Aang was silent for a very long time.

"I think she'll really like it."

"Huh?"

"The girl you're not making it for. I think it's sweet, kid."

XXxxXX

Katara paced in her room that night. Aunt Wu's predictions swam in her head, unable to let her close her eyes for even a second before she was jumping back up, trying to unriddle them.

A great sacrifice; did this mean she was going to lose? Win? Would someone die? Was she going to be horribly injured?

It was all too much for her mind to handle.

"What does she know?" Katara hissed to herself, rubbing her arms. "You are the master of your own fate, not...whatever she sees…" she tried to tell herself, looking out onto the balcony.

She found a tin of water near her bed in case she got thirsty. Katara raised her fingers, lifting the water from the barrel. She started simple, molding the water into soft circles and a long whip, cracking it at a flower pot in the corner, slicing off a petal cleanly.

She made it into a spear in her fingers, feeling the water harden to ice. She made it into a dagger, into a sword, into a great big sphere that rumbled around the room.

Katara made the water dance like a bear on display, sliding her feet along the wooden floor of the room, twisting her wrist and ankles as she swung around. She made an impenetrable shield in front of her, wide and thick and glistening, ready to catch anything that came her way.

She went through all the motions of the waterbending stances over and over and over until she felt the sweat drip down her back.

But she still was not satisfied.

On the railing outside was a turtledove.

Katara cautiously opened the double-doors, letting the cool summer's air whoosh over her flesh. Goosebumps rose along her arms as she dipped her fingers into the now-dirtied water from her practicing, letting it coat over her fingers and palms as tight to her skin as a perfect glove.

"Hey, there," she cooed at it softly. "Just...I'm not trying to hurt you, okay?" she asked.

Her last animal to practice on had been a hummingbird. An actual bird was a great deal larger, but Katara felt the desperation freeze her veins with worry.

She stepped into her third stance, sliding her fingers out, trying to reach into the bird to feel the blood that pumped under the feathers.

It was there, like she was trying to grasp a thread billowing in the wind. She clenched her fingers harder, and like lightning hitting her, she was connected.

The bird began to fuss, no doubt feeling its will being taken momentarily, and Katara could feel the animal fighting against her.

"Shh, shh," Katara tried to calm it. "It's okay. Just...move...over...there…" she urged. She could feel it fighting back, but slowly she was able to bend the blood to its foot and make it hop to the other side of the balcony. She could feel its little heart fluttering frantically, terror gripping it.

"I know you're afraid," Katara said, "I'm not going to hurt you. I just need to practice. I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "Okay...let's take flight?"

She cracked her knuckles as she expanded the wings, lifting her fingers as the dove leapt into the air. She made it fly in place for a second.

But, like a rope vine stretched too far, she could feel the connection was close to snapping. Before she could stop the whiplash, the connection broke apart. Katara stumbled forward, spilling her water out the balcony and slamming her lip against the doorframe. The bird made scared trills as it flew far away.

"Awe, crap…" Katara muttered. She raised her fingers to her bottom lip, feeling it bruised and split open. Droplets of blood dribbled onto the floor.

All her water was gone.

Her own blood was water, sure, but she wasn't ready to try that experiment yet.

Sighing, she threw on a robe, careful not to stain it, and creaked the door open to the hotel they were staying in.

It was past moon high, so most were asleep. There was not a single person awake, sans the guards, and Katara recalled where she saw the kitchen was. She would just pop in quick, grab some water, and heal her lip before anyone was the wiser.

She pushed the door open, spying a water pump at the edge of the room. Katara felt some residue of water in the pipe, not wanting to wake anyone by creaking the handle, and pulled it into the basin. Cool water rushed out with a splatter, spraying her hands.

She scooped her fingers in, pressing it against her lip and sighing as the cold water numbed and healed.

Someone grabbed her wrist.

Katara spun to find Zuko, seeming thoroughly exhausted, staring at her hand in the dim light. He looked sooty and weary, wearing just a pair of light shorts and a white cotton undershirt. His uniform was rolled under his arm.

"Why is it that whenever I find you, you're bleeding or about to make someone else bloody?" he asked, spying the smudges of her injury on her skin.

She snapped her hand back. "I see you're talking to me now."

"If I recall," Zuko said hotly, baring his teeth, "You were the one who refused to speak to me."

"You deserved it," Katara said, bending some of the water into a glass with every intention of going back to her room.

"Did you find out your fortune from the seer?" Zuko asked, but there was a hint of malice in his tone. Katara paused, turning.

"You don't believe? How original," she said, in a crappy mood as it was.

"I don't, no," Zuko confirmed, "Not in the way you girls seem to fawn over it."

Katara clenched her jaw, trying to keep from trembling. "Did you just get back?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Yes," he said, yawning. "The mayor took me up the volcano. It's not close to erupting, but I still spent the day helping them fortify the barricades, in case it does." He gave an emotionless laugh. "Had I been smarter, I would have brought you."

"Me?" Katara asked, bewildered.

"Yes. It would have been better if you'd been there to help. I was bending the lava, no small task mind you, and we were just waiting for it to solidify as a barrier. If we could have had someone dousing it with water, it would have hardened faster."

"Sounds like a lot of work," was all Katara could think to say, "Dangerous."

Zuko huffed, shrugging, as though this was per the norm.

"I suppose I didn't quite know what I'd be doing today," Zuko finally said. "And I wouldn't have wanted to put the girls in harm's way," he said, lifting his arm to show a pulsing, oozing crackled wound. A scorched burn. "The lava…." he trailed off, though it needed little explanation.

Katara considered all he'd said. She thought that if she hadn't gone to Wu's, perhaps they could have mended this argument together. Maybe she would not be worried by empty words, as it seemed now, or strange predictions.

But, as it was, Katara was still pissed at him. Sort of.

"So you're willing to risk my life, but not the others? Glad to know I'm expendable," she sighed, motioning for him to come to her. He narrowed his eyes, no doubt wondering if this was some sort of trap until Katara held up a glowing set of fingers wetted with water.

He came toward her, tripping over his feet as he did so.

"It's not...you could handle yourself. I know that well," Zuko said. "I wouldn't be fussing over you like I would be for Lady Besu, for example," he said, seemingly too exhausted to argue or having reached a point in which he did not want to.

Katara hummed in response, grasping his underarm to twist it upwards, giving her better access. As soon as she ghosted her fingers over the wound, both of them winced. It was no small thing to heal someone, and it produced an intimate reactionary feeling if you let it. Zuko stayed silent as Katara healed him. She wasn't about to let him go walking around with such a bad open blister, not when it was such an easy fix for her.

There was nothing she could think to say, not until she finished and he pulled back, rubbing his fingers over the newly stitched skin, shiny and sore.

"You look tired."

"You'd be right," Zuko said, leaning against a countertop. "I...I got these for each of you…" he said, pulling a leather square from his rolled items. He unfurled it to show four flowers. "Rare fire lilies. They only grow on the edge of the volcano."

"What a thoughtful and non-personalized gift," Katara said, but took one from the group anyway. Zuko shook his head, about to say something, but he licked his lips and kept it back.

"I'm trying Katara," he finally settled on, a soft whisper.

"Trying to do what?" she asked, halfway in the hallway to her room already.

"Find love," he said, sounding broken. His tone nearly shattered her, but she thought of the past few days between them, and then Wu's prophecy.

She gripped the stem tighter, keeping herself from saying something that would start a fight or make him want to kiss her. Still, it was not within her nature to leave a room utterly silent.

"Goodnight Zuko. Thank you for the flower."

Chapter Text

Lieutenant Lee met Zuko at the palace doors upon their arrival from Makapu.

 

"Your highness, your father said that he wanted to call a meeting as soon as you arrived."

 

"At this hour?" Zuko growled.

 

"Unfortunately."

 

"Look, our little family get-togethers can wait until tomorrow," Zuko said. "We're all exhausted. It's been a very long day of traveling, you see."

 

"No." Lee had a wild, fearful look in his eye. "A meeting for you and all the Contestants."

 

"Great." Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "His last 'group meeting' went over so well."

 

"That's what I'm afraid of, sir," Lee said with a long, exhausted sigh.

 

"And you have no idea what this might be?" Zuko asked. "The tournament's in what…" He counted off on his fingers. "Eight days? What could my father possibly have decided that will upend these girls again? And why am I just hearing about this?"

 

"Well, I think you're hearing about it now," Lee said, wincing.

 

"I...arg...that man," Zuko kicked the wall.

 

"Sir, are you okay? You seem more angry than usual."

 

"I'm fine," Zuko snapped, though he did have to admit he was angrier than usual. Not only was the tournament fast approaching (and Zuko had thoughts about that; mostly he hated his control about the future of his wife being so easily taken away, but he had considered this was the punishment for dragging his feet), but Katara seemed out to get under his skin. Well, she usually did, but before it had been with cute and sexy teasing things. Now, she just seemed like she was a thorn in his side. Whenever he thought he was making headway on her iciness towards him, something else would get her angry again.

 

"Stupid father, stupid tournament, stupid announcements…" Zuko grumbled as he shucked off his traveling clothes, throwing them in an untidy pile at his feet. "Lee, find my hand servant. How long before this 'meeting'?"

 

"Now that you're here, likely an hour to gather and sit everyone."

 

"Perfect. Have my hand servant draw a bath. Scalding. With any luck, I'll fry before I have to sit through whatever brilliant idea my father's about to announce."

 

He paused in the doorway, thinking of something suddenly.

 

"Yes, sir?" Lee said, seeing him stop.

 

"Is my cousin Kuzon back yet?" he asked, inhaling.

 

"Not yet, sir."

 

"Let me know when the second he's returned."

 

XXxxXX

 

Katara tried to hold back her fifth yawn, with little success. She covered her mouth, shuffling to the meeting space with the rest of the girls.

 

"Gee, Katara, why so tired?" Toph said, punching her shoulder, "Is it because you and the Prince were up to naughty, naughty things on your trip?"

 

"Ha, hardly," Katara said, blinking back her dreariness. "We'd have to actually be talking for that to happen."

 

"Ye-ouch." Toph raised her eyebrows. "That tone could cut steel, Sugar Queen."

 

"It's the truth. Try, rather, being shoved into a tiny, bouncy box for eight hours and being expected to get any sleep at all."

 

"So the trip sucked?" Toph surmised, scratching her ear, but she didn't sound surprised.

 

Katara gnawed her lip, thinking of Aunt Wu and her predictions. Of bloodbending and splitting her lip open. Of the feelings that swarmed her mind as she stitched Zuko's veins back together, how connected she felt delving inside of his body. Of the flower pressed between one of her books, a flower that she felt like a lovesick fool for holding on to.

 

"Yeah, it sort of did."

 

"A damn good reason to not want to travel," Toph said, crossing her arms.

"And here?" Katara asked. Toph made a 'neh' sound.

 

"Same old, same old."

 

"Don't undercut it, Toph," Suki said, coming up from behind and slinging her arms around the pair of girls' shoulders. "The reading room with all the plants and greenery got new curtains. That's something novel, wouldn't you say!"

 

"Ooh," Katara said, acting far more interested than the topic demanded, nodding dramatically. "Are they green again? The last curtains really looked awful with all the trees."

 

"No, no," Suki patted her heart. "They did us proud, Katara," she said, faking a sniffle, as though these curtains had brought a man back from the dead. "They're ...a light beige now!"

 

"You two are ridiculous," Toph said.

 

"You've got to enjoy the little things," Suki said, "or else we'd all go mad here."

 

"Who says we aren't already?" Toph shot back.

 

Katara tapped the side of her nose. "She's onto something, Suki."

 

"Oh, totally."

 

Katara's wide, genuine smile could not remain. As she stared at the pair of her friends, she realized that she wasn't sure anyone would win the upcoming tournament, and - for as good of warriors as these two were - there was still the small chance that they'd be leaving. Or that Katara would leave and they would remain here.

 

As much as they joked about the palace feeling droll each day here, at least it was consistent. There hadn't been a girl cut in weeks and things had fallen into a safe, familiar pattern. Katara would have never thought she'd be the one to like 'safe' things, but now...now she was beginning to find solace in the same people and the same things. Change meant saying goodbye to those she loved, one way or another.

 

If she were smarter, or if she were someone of more conviction, she would have never made these connections here. Not with Zuko, not with Aang, not with Aiga, not with the girls. She would have done what she came to do and would be back in her village losing no sleep over stupid, sexy princes.

 

But would that be better? Was it better to care so deeply for him than never at all? That was the question that she was still wrapping her mind around.

 

Zuko was already sitting, though Aang was not in attendance. Ozai's insufferable guard dog, Zhao, was still absent too, so Katara could only assume he was still off being a reprehensible person.

Zuko looked tired. If Katara had imagined him able to catch any wink of sleep, she was mistaken. It was late and all any of them wished to do was go to bed. Even the girls who had spent the last few days in the palace looked tired, with Jin stifling yawns like Katara was and Kilee halfway dozing off on Saoirse's shoulder.

 

"This cannot be good," Suki whispered. Even her joking tone had vanished, realizing that the Fire Lord didn't call a late-night, all-contestant meeting for no good reason.

 

"Ladies, why the tired faces?" Ozai purred, as though he didn't know it was nearly midnight. He and Azula were possibly the only ones who did not look absolutely knackered, though it wasn't by much.

 

No one had the courage to answer. Katara would have, had she been awake enough to think of a clever answer in reply. She would have delighted in seeing that look on Ozai's face like he'd just sucked on a lemon. The way she saw it, she was halfway out the door anyway.

 

Katara couldn't help but look at Zuko. She knew his tells well at this point. While to most girls, it may seem as though he was sitting dutifully, she could glean from the slight shift of his posture and the way his eyes stayed focused unflinchingly on Ozai that he had no idea what his father was about to say either. That did not bode well.

 

"As many of you are aware, the tournaments are in just a few short days," Ozai continued. This got everyone's attention, whether it was to send some girls into a moment of panic or to cause others to fall into a sad resignation. "And I couldn't help but feel as though we are not properly marking the occasion."

 

"What does he want? A commemorative plaque?" Toph muttered.

 

"It was brought to my attention that despite the pomp and circumstance we've been expressing, the matter of the situation seems to pale in comparison. And, it has been expressed that perhaps you all deserve a day of celebration too. With these tournaments, we will be one step closer to finding Prince Zuko a wife. However, many of you will probably be going home," he added, much to many girls' horror, "And yet, you are all very agreeable brides."

 

"Gee, now I feel like my life is complete, knowing that," Toph said. Katara shushed her, not because of her comments, but because she was close to bursting out laughing. The idea of Toph being an 'agreeable bride' at any time was preposterous.

 

"The day of the tournaments is the day after the Summer Solstice, which was not entirely unplanned. We usually have a small celebration for the spirits, but we have decided to make the celebration an event this year. The day before the tournament, we will hold a Masquerade ball in honor of the spirits! All will be invited; parents, family, other possible respectable matches...a thank you, to all of you, for doing your duty to your nation by being here."

 

The mood shifted instantly, mostly to glee or excitement, sans a few. Toph gave a groan like she was dying, muttering something with a lot of swear words and finishing with 'another ball', Suki pulled back as though unsure on how to respond, and Katara instantly went into a panic. Or, her brain was kicked into overdrive.

 

She did not believe for a second that Ozai did anything 'nice' for anyone. Food, marriage prospects, fun, celebrating? There had to be a catch – other than distracting the girls the day before the tournament – something far more dastardly. She just did not know what yet.

 

"Shi will be around tomorrow to speak with each of you and find a spirit for you to masquerade as. She and your handmaids will be fashioning costumes and masks for all of you. I know that this competition has been weighing on everyone," Ozai said, with a look of sympathy (fake, Katara thought, obviously). "So, we wanted to alleviate this issue in other ways. We know the hour is late, but we thought it best to let you know immediately, to give you the night to sleep upon it. Tomorrow and the day after, you will be allowed to make a list of all whom you wish to invite as well as give Shi some ideas of what sort of costumes you may desire. Tomorrow, we will also be around to collect a list of your chosen weapons, but that is less important. I think we all can agree that we need this sort of break."

 

His eyes were like a wolf's: glittering gold, cold, and calculating.

 

"Goodnight, ladies."

 

XXxxXX

 

"Ty Lee," Zuko said, catching the girl's attention as she exited breakfast. He waved her over.

 

"Hello, Zuko," Ty Lee said, one of the few girls that could get away with publicly dropping his title, seeing as she'd lived in the palace for a long time and was more preferable than most of his family.

 

"It's, uh, been a while since we went on a date. You have any afternoon plans?"

 

Ty Lee scrunched up her nose, half in confusion. "No, I suppose not. Are you talking about right now?"

 

"If you'd be willing."

 

Ty Lee gave a short chuckle. "If the Prince is asking, I don't see why not."

 

Zuko resisted rolling his eyes at her minor cheek and offered her his arm. The girls that she'd been exiting with were whispering, no doubt trying to analyze this as they did everything else he did. Some of the girls were sending snooty glances at Ty Lee.

 

Zuko felt like guffawing. If only they knew.

 

"Where are we going today Zuko?" Ty Lee asked, tucking a strand of her bangs behind an ear. "Or is it a secret?"

 

"Just…" Zuko was reticent to speak too openly about where he was bringing her. Ty Lee seemed to understand and she quieted or at least switched to asking him non-probing questions. Things about how he was enjoying traveling or about his excitement for the upcoming ball, which he volleyed back in polite answers. He took the long way around, bringing them outside to the Royal Maze.

 

"Thought it might be fun to attempt it," Zuko said. It was a lie; they both knew their way in and out of the hedge maze, having memorized it in their younger years. However, it was a location without guards or followers or ears on them, something without fuss but still in secret.

 

They made a few wrong turns, dragging themselves deeper and deeper into the maze. They continued to talk about non-essentials until they were both content with how far they'd gone.

 

As they walked, though, Zuko turned to really look at Ty Lee.

 

When his father had told him, rather point-blank, that Mai and Ty Lee would be joining the competition for his hand, he'd been unsurprised. At that point, he and Mai hadn't had things to talk about in years, so a part of him had been cautiously excited to get to know Ty Lee better. You'd be a fool not to notice her kind nature, her gentle soul, and her amazing abilities. A part of Zuko had wondered if his love had been right under his nose his entire life and he'd just never known it.

 

Now, having seen sides of her he'd never considered before, he knew how wrong he was.

Ty Lee was like a sister to him, one he most fervently wanted to protect at all costs. It wasn't dissimilar to how he saw Aang, so perhaps it should not surprise him so about their connection.

He should be furious. Instead, he was just pleased they found one another.

 

Still, it made for an awkward situation here.

 

"Is Kuzon back yet?" Finally, Ty Lee could resist no longer. Her voice was timid, near afraid.

 

"He was meant to return last night." Zuko frowned. "Alas, Zhao had written ahead saying that they're chasing something down near the Earth Kingdom."

 

"You're worried," Ty Lee observed. "Your aura is...full of it. That's near…" She trailed off, swallowing. Zuko nodded but would not say more of it. He could not allow so many people to be aware of the location of the airbenders, even someone like Ty Lee who would rather die than give it up.

 

"Oh, no," Ty Lee whispered softly, "That's horrible."

 

"Yes." Zuko agreed, unsure if any other words could convey the horror and anguish he felt about the murder of the airbenders and anyone who stood with them.

 

"I hope he's okay."

 

"He's probably better than before, having people that care about him," Zuko said. Ty Lee, trailing her fingers along the vines and leaves, hummed.

 

"This little group is good for him."

 

"You know that's not what I meant," Zuko coughed. Ty Lee turned.

 

"Will you have me...killed, Prince Zuko?"

 

There was true fear in her voice, something she couldn't mask if she tried. And, her fear was entirely justified. If he were a different ruler, a different man, a woman in the choice falling for someone else was a sign of a traitor. It was punishable by the deepest degree.

 

"Of course not," Zuko spat. "I'm happy for both of you. Honest. It does, however…" He scowled, "You'll probably win your fight, you know."

 

Ty Lee wrapped her arms around herself. "Do you think Azula would still wish me to remain here even if I were to leave the Choice? Then I could...foster this. With Kuzon, of course," she asked.

 

Zuko grimaced. "I don't know."

 

"I was thinking of throwing the fight(?) anyway," she admitted in a quiet, near-hurried whisper. "I'm sorry, Zuko, I just-"

 

She sniffled.

 

"Hey, hey," Zuko said, always unsure of how to deal with crying girls. "No, it's okay. I don't think we'd work as a couple anyway," he added with a laugh. "I could see you becoming a fair Fire Lady, of course, and a good partner."

 

"But there would be no spark," Ty Lee finished. She gave him a hug, tight around his waist. "I tried. I wanted to fall for you, however I…" She shrugged, shaking her head. "Fate had other plans, I suppose."

 

"Fate," Zuko snorted. "Azula may be upset. She was actually hoping I'd marry you, to be truthful."

 

"Me?" Ty Lee stepped back, frowning. "But what about...Mai? She spent so much of our childhood orchestrating the two of you that I was sure…"

 

"So was I," Zuko admitted. "However, last I talked to her, she didn't seem to think that Mai was the best choice anymore. I can't say. Who knows though?" Out of all the crazy things Azula was up to lately, her weird wishy-washy feelings about his bride were the least of his concerns.

 

"I hope I haven't given her any indication I liked you, other than what was expected of me," Ty Lee said, now seeming very concerned about it all. "Though, I guess, we haven't talked much lately."

 

"Look, I'll keep you on. I'll find something," Zuko said firmly. "One less girl would probably - never mind. He really likes you, you know?"

 

"I have a feeling, though it's difficult." Ty Lee rubbed her arms, as though catching a chill. "I've been careful. We haven't done or said anything that could...well, you know."

 

"Not even a chaste kiss?" Zuko said, deeply surprised. From how Aang looked at her, he would have been sure that they'd done at least this, but perhaps Ty Lee was more virtuous than he imagined.

 

"To be safe," Ty Lee said, "Honestly, I'll be glad to leave. It's suffocating at the worst of times. Until you get down on one knee, the girls will be ruthless and all. Well, some. Some I think have seen the writing on the wall. I've heard the talk a few will just opt out of the fight, as they doubt they'll win anyway."


"So I've heard." Zuko was not unaware of the cattiness of some of the contestants. "Ty Lee…?"

 

"Mhh?"

 

Zuko was deeply curious to ask about Katara, but he restrained himself. "Just, thanks. For being my friend."

 

Ty Lee put a hand on his arm."You're like family to me."

 

Zuko couldn't help but snort. "You might actually be soon enough."

 

Ty Lee's blush was something that he couldn't help but smile wider at. She hid her face, shaking her head, but found she had no words to speak anyway.

 

XXxxXX

 

"This has to be a trap! The ball, the masquerade, the whole thing!" Katara paced, throwing her hands up. "He just...it's...arg! Toph? Toph!"

 

"Huh?"

 

"It's a trap, right?"

 

Toph was absent-minded. Katara could tell that much. It was so unlike her to be staring out windows with a misty expression, yet here she was. Admittedly, she was staring straight at a wall, but the comparison is still apt. Wherever she was, her mind had just been a thousand miles away. Katara loved her friend, but she doubted Toph would ever offer up what was clearly getting to her.

 

"Maybe Ozai just likes balls. He seems to throw a lot of them," Toph offered, scrunching up her nose. "Maybe, it's been his lifelong dream to be a party planner but boo-hoo, he had to be the Fire Lord."

 

"Toph, be serious!" Katara snapped, spinning around.

 

"I am."

 

"Hardly," she said, "Aren't you concerned, like, at all?"

 

Toph didn't answer. She was staring off again.

 

"Toph." Katara snapped her fingers to get her attention. "Tui, what is up with you?" she demanded.

 

"I just have a lot of shit going on, Sugar Queen," Toph said, crossing her arms sourly.

 

"Like your family?" Katara sighed, looking at her still-unpacked bags and checking the sun. Soon, someone would be collecting Toph on her trip to Gaoling with the Prince and a few other girls, the second-to-last travel destination before the ball and the tournament.

 

"Yes, my family, what else would it be?" Toph was quick to fire back, her tone touchier than usual.

 

"Sorry, geez...I'm only trying to figure out a madman's plans, but fine," Katara said.

 

"You're in a mood too! Didja ever think that Ole Mr. Sparks is just doing it to actually be nice? He has to know a lot are going to leave and it's not exactly a nice exit."

 

"No, I don't think he has a genuine bone in his body. Maybe he's planning on distracting us the night before. Or...or poisoning the food and drink so we perform worse! Or-"


"And yeah?" Toph said, closing her trunk with a snap, foregoing any more effort on sealing it nicely. "Okay, so maybe he is. What are you gonna be able to do about it?"


Katara opened and closed her mouth, unable to reply. Toph grumbled, stuffing her clothes into her bags without an effort to fold or preserve them.

 

"Unless it's something you can fight, you're SOL, sister. You can't very well go around the ball karate-chopping shrimp cocktails out of people's hands," Toph said, lugging the bags off her bed. "C'mon. Let's just walk downstairs anyway."

 

Katara helped Toph bring her things down to the area where the carriage was waiting to take the girls on their trip. Since Toph was blind, Katara was allowed to remain with her, though they both knew Toph needed zero help. Katara's mood was sour, mostly because she knew Toph was right. She couldn't do anything, other than tell people. The worst of it was that this probably was some big trick and there was nothing she could do. No more than she could do about the tournament, which was blatantly dangerous, but hardly anyone but her seemed to care!

 

"Ah, there you two are!" Shi popped her head into the waiting area. "Mind if I catch you before you leave, Lady Bei Fong? I need to get some ideas for your masquerade ball costume and about your fighting preferences."

 

"Might as well," Toph sighed, obvious she'd been attempting to avoid her. "I imagine my family wouldn't be happy if I did anything less than my family's crest, or something to that approximation."

 

"The winged boar?" Shi said, scribbling something. "There's a myth about a princess, isn't there?"

 

"Yep. Prissy and pathetic and all. But it will look good for a mask. Not as though I'll see anyone anyway."

 

Shi seemed to pointedly ignore Toph and turned to Katara.

 

She had been thinking about this a lot. A part of her wanted to dress as the Painted Lady, as she'd taken it on as a symbol, a personal connection to her soul. She felt like she understood this spirit in a way unlike anything else.

 

Still, three things kept her from immediately speaking this.

 

One; she feared someone making a connection with the town's Painted Lady and getting caught because of this.

 

Two; it was sort of her and Zuko's thing and she wasn't sure she and Zuko were a thing anymore.

 

Three; on that note, if Katara was going to be gone because of this damned tournament, she wasn't going to go around as a Fire Nation spirit, appeasing Ozai. She wanted to be as obviously and obnoxiously Southern Water Tribe as possible.

 

"I'd like to fashion mine as my tribe's ancestral woman, The Cougar Daughter, Nukilik." Katara said, knowing that there was no one she'd rather be associated with right now, and also bringing forth her given 'Mark of the Brave' titles. "I could meet with you later today to go over the myth. If you make the base of the dress, I'll sew all the beads onto it. I'd like the monotonous activity, honestly."

 

"But, Princess," Shi frowned. "Wouldn't you rather a different inspiration? We have a whole host of beautiful goddesses and spirits! Whole books that-"

 

"No," Katara replied curtly. "I would very much like it to be her."

 

Shi sighed, nodding, realizing there would be no budging her. The other girls from the Water Tribe may try to assimilate to the nation they hoped to marry into, choosing spirits of Earth or Fire, but Katara was going to go out as she came in: a controversy.

 

"Onto the weapons," Shi said, shifting her papers to pull out a second sheet. "So, just because a few other ladies have been asking...you are allowed three weapons. Firebending counts as just one, a type of bending that is different counts as another-"

 

"You can just say earthbending and metalbending," Toph grumped.

 

"Or, like that," Shi said, acting as though the rule wasn't made specifically for Toph. "You will get a list tomorrow of what the Royal Family will be using, but they will not get a list of what you have chosen, just to try to give you an edge, as these are seasoned fighters. On the day of the tournament, the Fire Sages will draw random names as a match up. They will schedule the matches so the Royal Family members get a reprieve between their fights, but no one will know who faces who until you both walk out to meet each other. They will line up the three girls in a queue behind the scenes, but otherwise, you will be allowed to watch. All of the Royal Family participating - Fire Lord Ozai, Prince Zuko, General Iroh, Prince Lu Ten, Princess Azula, and Guardsman Kuzon - will be behind the scenes the entire time, as so not to see who we are calling out, and to take breaks between rounds."

 

"Yada-yada, lots of boring stuff," Toph said, yawning.

 

"It may come in handy for you to know this," Shi said, slightly miffed.

 

"Whatever. I'm using metal-bending and earth-bending."

 

"And a third?"

 

Toph gave a wicked grin. "I won't need one."

 

"Princess Katara?"

 

Katara hesitated, scowling hard. She stared down at her hands, seeing the veins on the arms pumping blood. Did she write down bloodbending? Did she dare? Was she competent enough?

 

"Waterbending, sword, and…" Katara inhaled hard, "A small dagger."

 

She couldn't risk it. She might not be as well trained in daggers, but in a pinch, she could throw it across the area and hopefully hit a target. She could not rely on her bloodbending to work in the most perfect, controlled conditions...ignoring completely the fact that it would be the opposite of desired environments.

 

"Thank you, ladies. Princess Katara, shall we meet for lunch tomorrow to speak more upon your dress?"

 

After confirming this, Shi left. Toph opened her mouth to say something, but the sound of footsteps quieted her. Zuko walked past the entrance of the room, as though about to enter. He saw Katara sitting, turned red, and swiftly continued walking, snapping his eyes forward.

 

"Ouch. Do you want some ice for that burn?" Toph asked.

 

"You can't see Toph," Katara sputtered, "How do you know what happened?"

 

"'Cuz I can hear. His footsteps and his direction. Plus, I could just feel it. A mixture of anger, confusion, hurt, and lots - I mean lots - of unresolved sexual tension."

 

"Thanks," Katara growled. She had half a mind to run after him and ask what the hell that had just been about, but before she could, another set of footsteps turned the corner. Within a second, Nadhari turned into the room, about five bags being dragged by her handmaid and a few other servants behind, as though she were traveling for years, not a handful of days.

 

"That's my cue," Katara said, hitting her legs as she stood. "Nadhari," she said in a forced tone. Nadhari just narrowed her eyes at Katara, offering no such niceties.

 

Katara wanted to evacuate the area in general anyway before she had another awkward run-in with Zuko.

 

She ran nearly smack-dab into Sokka.

 

"Where are you headed?" she asked.

 

"The convoy, has it left yet?"

 

"Ah, plucked to be Iroh's assistant again?" Katara asked.

 

"Uhm, well, I was actually hoping to get on the trip," Sokka admitted.

 

"You fought tooth and nail to get off the last trip and now you're trying to hop onto this one?" Kara asked highly suspicious. Agni, she was in a cynical mood today, she considered with an inward snort.

 

"I've seen the error of my ways."

 

"Huh."

 

Sokka sighed, pulling Katara into a room near them, unused and empty.

 

"Look," Sokka said, "Zuko was going to try to get me there to connect with Kuzon. We've only heard through Zhao, who knows how Kuz is doing or what the sitch is? He wasn't sure if there would be room, or if he really needed me at all, but still…"

 

"And then you would, what?" Katara nearly choked. "Going to go off into the woods looking for them? They may not even be near Gaoling!"

 

"Yeah, but we got to help him, don't we?" Sokka asked, eyebrows knitting. "He can't be handling this all well. Especially if they do find any...any well, you know," Sokka said, showing a maturity beyond his years that Katara so rarely saw.

 

"They haven't left yet. You might be able to catch them," Katara said. "I hope you can help."

 

Sokka blinked. When he spoke, it was as though his words were far deeper than Katara understood, though she couldn't decide in relation to what. "If there's something I can do, I have to do it."

 

XXxxXX

 

The next night, Katara found herself in her room with a carton of beads and an impressive collection of disconnected dress pieces strewn about. Next to her sat Aiga, who couldn't make clean hemlines to save her life, but could sew beads in a line, if given a direction and a pattern.

Katara wondered what would happen to Aiga when she left. Would she continue working in the palace as a general servant? As the competition continued on, would she be assigned to another girl in a team of handmaids? Would she be out of a job, forced to find another way to make money…

 

If that were to be the case, Katara would take her with her. She'd offer for Aiga to come to the South. She wasn't sure the petite girl would enjoy the snow and ice, but she'd be loved and cared for as family there. Katara was tempted to offer this anyway, as she couldn't imagine leaving her behind.

 

"You're staring at me," Aiga said, using her teeth to bite off a line of thread.

 

"Sorry, I just…" Katara frowned. "Just considering the future."

 

"That's what most are doing these days. I think you'll make it," Aiga said. "There's not a fiercer warrior around."

 

"You're too kind. And even so…" she shrugged. "Zuko may be done with me anyway."

 

"Stop being ridiculous, Katara," Aiga said. "That boy is stupidly in love with you."

 

"He has a weird way of showing it," Katara muttered. She shook her head. She was tired of re-hashing her feelings about Zuko currently. "How's Tahoe?"

 

Aiga ducked her head, blushing. "Perfect. Of course. Sometimes, I think he's too good to be real."

 

"Oh, now who's being silly?" Katara laughed out loud. "You're fantastic, Aiga! Why wouldn't any boy want you?"

 

Aiga shrugged, clearly not believing Katara, her cheek still splattered with the hint of redness. "He's just...well, everything I wanted. It's like someone made him for me. I'm ever so lucky to have found him."

 

"You deserve it," Katara kicked her foot softly, "Honestly."

 

Aiga licked her lips, a small smile on her face as she went back to the stitching. There would be enough beads on this dress to cover it, basically, and create a representation of a cougar. It was ambitious, surely, but the time was better spent than Katara staring out windows and wondering about Zuko, about her future, about everything. It was far easier in many ways to numb her mind with the methodical patterning of this dress.

 

There was someone running in the halls. Katara frowned; who was up at this hour, making such a ruckus? She stood to see if everything was fine (she prayed they weren't under siege again), and as she opened her door, she came face-to-face with a red-faced guard, about to knock on her own door.

 

"Princess Katara," he said, greeting her as only to get it out of the way before he pushed into the room. "Aiga! There you are!"

 

"Is everything all right?" Katara asked, worry clenching deep in her stomach.

 

"Your family," he said, still only focusing on Aiga, wiping his forehead, as his whole body shook. "They've been attacked!"

 

 

Chapter Text

At first, there was just silence. The only sounds were the panting guard and the needle that dropped from Katara's fingers onto the ground. Aiga stared at the guard, as though he was speaking Ancient Air Nomadic to her instead of the common tongue, frowning as her lips parted softly.

 

"What?"

 

Her voice was more confused than fearful or sad than anything else. It was a sign that something had not connected, something was lost in translation, not alighting all the many things in Aiga's brain. Katara's mind was whirling and screaming and shouting, but Aiga was just staring.

 

And, after Aiga murmured that scant question, she would be quiet for a long time after.

 

"Your family. Lady Ursa…" The guard was puffing. "A neighbor found me. I came to inform you."

 

"Lady Ursa wants us to come," he finally managed, unable to articulate anything else yet. Katara grabbed a soft blanket from her bed, threw it around Aiga's shoulders, and led her outside.

 

She thought that the young girl may be in shock.

 

Ursa was waiting for them in a small meeting room, wrapped in a night robe, her hair pulled back from her face. She looked deadly serious.

 

"Have some tea. You look frightfully pale," Ursa said, handing a steaming cup to Aiga, who was still just staring ahead, the color completely drained from her face. "Thank you, Princess Katara, for bringing her."

 

"What happened?" Katara asked for she felt that Aiga was in no position to be asking any sort of questions.

 

"The Equalists came into her house," Ursa began, "An Uncle found a guard and thought Aiga should be notified." 

 

"Are we sure it was them? There are quite a lot of other nefarious groups lurking around that area…" Katara realized her folly immediately. "Or, erm, so Aiga's told me," she lied quickly.

 

"They left a calling card," The guard said, chugging a glass of water and sinking into a chair, "They wanted us to know."

 

"Unfortunately." Ursa's face was pinched. She looked at Aiga. Aiga was staring right at Ursa, frowning, waiting. Ursa closed her eyes, a pained expression crossing her face. "Out of the family and relatives in the house - and we went in to find twelve living there - three were killed. Four, I personally escorted to the hospital on the second circle, and the rest are waiting there too."

 

"Who died?" Katara pulled back the memory of all those who looked like Aiga from when she and Zuko had gone to her home. It seemed like ages ago.

 

"From what I understood, her grandfather, one of her aunts, and a…" Ursa swallowed hard, and Katara saw a glimmering tear in the corner of her eye. "…a six-year-old nephew."

 

"Spirits," Katara choked out, "Were there other attacks?"

 

"As of now...I don't believe so. We have not gotten any word of other family attacks from the Equalists unless my guards have not had a chance to report it back. Or, perhaps, people are not willing to admit to such things. However, I doubt it. This seemed…"

 

"Specific," Katara finished. Her mouth went absolutely dry. "But...why?"

 

"I do not know. I was hoping Aiga may help?" Ursa asked gently. Aiga just kept staring at her, her face now twisted. Her lip trembled.

 

"Maybe tomorrow?" Katara whispered as her heart was breaking. "I think that it's a lot to take in right now."

 

Ursa looked like waiting was the last thing she wanted to do, but finally gave in to the mental argument swirling in her head. She nodded.

 

"You're right," she agreed, "Why don't you bring Aiga back to her room, Princess. She really could use a rest. I asked the cook to bring her some food, however, in case she's hungry."

 

"Of course." Katara bowed her head. "I'll stay with her tonight if that's alright."

 

Ursa waved a hand and Katara helped Aiga to her feet. She was shaky, like a newborn foal, and with each step, Aiga seemed like she was crossing a great divide. It took a long time, but finally, Katara clicked her door open.

 

There was already a steaming bowl of rice and some fruit awaiting her, along with a tea-cup.

 

"Are you hungry or thirsty?" Katara asked, turning around to pour her a cup. She found that her lips were disconnected from her brain and any thought she had spilled forth from her mouth, "Agni, why would they attack your house? Your family? I should find Tahoe. I wonder if he's-"

 

Her stream of consciousness monologue was broken by a whisper from Aiga, something so quiet that at first, she missed it. As it was, she could not pick up what she'd said.

 

"Huh?" Katara asked, turning around.

 

"Who did you tell where I lived?" Aiga asked in a bolder voice. She was standing now, chest to chest with Katara, shaking with a fury Katara had never seen in her. Katara had seen Aiga through a great many emotions, but the sheer wrath that painted her expression was foreign. Katara would have never imagined the diminutive woman to be intimidating at all, but as she shoved Katara hard, there was a moment of panic as Katara stumbled to the ground.

 

The savageness of Aiga's face made Katara lose her breath.

 

"Who did you tell?" Aiga repeated a third time, shaking hard, face twisted into a snarl.

 

"I-what?"

 

"No one knew. No one here. I lied on my papers about where my house was so that even they would not be aware. I've never told anyone, except for you. Not the Fire Lord, not my friends, not even Tahoe. Who did you tell, Katara?" Aiga demanded with a frantic hush to her voice, though the lowered decibel did nothing to make it less terrifying. If anything, it made Katara realize how unhinged Aiga seemed right now.

 

"Only Zuko!" Katara blubbered, "But he...he wouldn't tell anyone. You have to know that, you know him! You know me!"

 

Another thought hit Katara and she frowned. "Why...why would you keep it such a secret, Aiga?"

 

"Zuko must have told someone. He must have. Or he-"

"He wouldn't. He knew it was a secret. He knew that you were very vague about it. He's not someone to go around blabbing about it." Katara rushed to defend him. "Aiga, why would the Equalists attack you?"

 

Katara stood in one fluid motion, grabbing Aiga's arm. Katara's touch seemed to break something in her. Her rigid, vibrating form collapsed, as though the ground beneath her moved. Katara rushed to catch her and then Aiga just let out a wail of anguish.

 

After that, Aiga just cried.

 

At that moment, Katara realized how closed-off Aiga was. Katara only recently knew her family's location and even then, there were so many secrets surrounding it. And now, a million more have been opened. None, Katara understood, she was going to have answered tonight. Or, possibly, any other time soon.

 

And Katara understood, in a sense, her flash of emotion. She did not feel upset that Aiga had pushed her or accused her, she just felt a sisterly pain for her handmaid.

 

Katara sat with her on the floor of her room, whispering lullabies in Southern Water Tribe mother-tongue, rocking her and petting her hair, and Aiga clung to her, impossibly small and broken.

 

XXxxXX

 

"Clear the carriage, please," Zuko commanded in a calm voice, "Except for Lady Bei Fong."

 

"Where are we supposed to ride, then?" On Ji asked, furrowing her brow. She didn't ask snidely but in a genuinely confused way.

 

"The soldiers have prepared some horses for you, just for a bit. It's good to get some fresh air," Zuko said with a slightly forced smile.

 

"And what will the two of you be doing in here, Prince Zuko?" Nadhari questioned as she gathered her skirts, raising an eyebrow. "And will we all get the same such...opportunity?" She batted her eyelashes, smiling with an unmistakable intent in her eyes. Zuko swallowed a bit, always a little overwhelmed with such bold advances, trying to find his voice.

 

"It's not quite as scandalous as you imagine. I must talk to Lady Bei Fong about our arrival since this is her hometown. I would place her on a horse and ride ahead, but…"

 

"I prefer to be as close to the ground as possible, thanks," Toph cut in, crossing her arms.

 

"It will only be for a little bit," Zuko said apologetically to the trio.

 

"That's fine," Yue said, always polite. "I think he's right. We've been cramped in here for hours."

 

Zuko ducked into the carriage, looking back to where the soldiers were helping the girls mount ostrich-horses. Sokka helped Yue on to hers, glancing backward toward Zuko.

 

His offered assistance had been a surprise, yet not an unwelcome one. Zuko hadn't considered fully yet how he'd navigate trying to help airbenders escape while simultaneously managing the high-brow, courtly dances of wit and politics. To have Sokka to run errands for him was a weight off his shoulders.

 

One of them at least.

 

He closed the carriage door behind him, sitting across from Toph. She was wearing a fancy dress, though no make-up yet. She complained that in the heat, it would melt off anyway, and she promised - grimacing - to apply once they were closer.

 

"Two days," Zuko murmured under his breath. That's how long the trip here would take.

 

Zuko was not disinterested in Gaoling. In fact, he'd heard a great many things about it.

He would be far more interested if Toph was not in attendance.

 

Oh, he'd tried to get her out of this trip, but everyone had looked at him so strangely when he'd argued against it. Of course, to everyone, they were still under the impression that Toph saw Zuko as a potential marriage match and vice versa.

 

In this assumption lay the problem…

 

"I know, two days too long," Toph grouched. She'd rather not see her family at all. Zuko was aware of their troubles. He could sympathize. In terms of sort of shitty family, he and Toph understood more than most of their group. Well, Aang didn't really have parents to speak of, but absent parents were different than straight-up bad ones.

 

"We have to...we're going to…" Zuko didn't know how to delicately explain this. "I don't want to be accosted like...last time." He winced, recalling the way Toph had thrown herself at him for a 'surprise' kiss in the gardens.

 

"I'm still coughing up fire flakes, yech," Toph agreed with a shudder. "But we have to sell it. My parents smell one hint of doubt, they'll have me back with at least twelve old men lined up as a potential husband!"

 

"Ground rules," Zuko said. He knew that this weekend would test his patience and acting skills to the limit. Not only did he have to act like he was, in some way, besotted with Toph...he had to act like she was near the top of his favorites list. At least, whenever they were around her parents.

 

"First off, know anything I do is to save my own skin," Toph said. "That covers any...uhm...things I might be compelled to do. An apology upfront."

 

"Oh, joy. Enlighten me, please?"

 

"Kissing, hugging, pet names...you know, stuff that makes me sick to my stomach."

 

"Same," Zuko said, narrowing his eyes. "Not that romance makes me sick, but I don't want you to feel as though I'm taking advantage or crossing a line or-"

 

"You aren't. You won't," Toph confirmed. "You can bed me as long as it keeps me out of my home-town, auctioned off to the highest bidder!"

 

Zuko's mouth felt dry. "Well, I hope it doesn't come to that."

 

"Me too, Sparky, me too." She bit her lip, scrunching up her nose. "It will all be over soon," she said with a long sigh.

 

"Two days," Zuko agreed. "Forty-eight hours. Hopefully, significantly less we'll have to...mhh," he grimaced, trying to prepare himself. He stared at Toph.

 

"You're looking at me all weird," she complained, "I can feel it, creep."

 

"Trying to, uh, find you attractive."

 

"Ouch. That's a low one."

 

"Not that you're not…" Zuko threw up his hands. "You know what I mean. Trying to recapture the same feelings I sort of had for you back when you started. I can't look at you this entire time like I'd look at a younger sister. People can tell those sorts of things."

 

Toph turned her face toward him, her green eyes were bright with a hint of mirth. "Want me to take my top off? Would that help?"

 

"Agni, no!" Zuko said, all but throwing up his hands and hiding under the seats. "No, that won't be needed, Toph," he added, coughing.

 

"Your pulse! Oh, it's fun to mess with you," Toph snickered. "And I wasn't really gonna. These puppies aren't for your eyes, mister."

 

"Great. Now that you've had a laugh at my expense, do you think we're on the same page?"

 

"We'll put on the best goddamn show. Anything you do is forgiven, anything I do is forgiven, right?" At Zuko's nod, Toph spits into her hand. "Shake on it. Like real men."

 

"That's now how-"

 

"Shake, Sparky. Or else it doesn't mean anything."

 

Zuko paused, spitting into his palm. He felt his body give a full shudder at the contact. Toph, at least, looked satisfied. She started giggling, which turned into laughter, which turned into maniacal cackling that had Zuko fearing for a life a bit. Not his own life, but someone's...whoever Toph decided it was, spirits help them.

 

"My parents won't know what hit 'em. We'll be the most in-love couple they've ever seen!"

 

XXxx

 

Fixing his clothes in the mirror of his bedroom, Zuko gave a long exhale. "Nearly one day down," he muttered to himself.

 

They'd arrived close to dusk last night. The girls had been shepherded away to rooms after a quick greeting, with Lao, Toph's Father, declaring that 'women should have no need to be up so late'. Though Zuko didn't agree, he was grateful he didn't need to act like he was in love with Toph right that moment. Lao had invited Zuko to stay up with him. He'd been given sake mulled in the region, sweet and smooth.

 

Most of the night had been 'talk between two men'. Sokka hadn't been invited, but he seemed none too upset about it. Instead, he'd just shrugged and let a maid lead him to his room. Sokka probably thought it would be boring.

 

He wasn't wrong, but at least it was easier to relax than if the whole group had been in attendance. Apart from an introductory comment about how pleased Zuko was that Toph was part of the competition, he seemed excused from having to make a big show of it. Most of the night Lao talked about the mechanics of the city that he supervised and how the Fire Nation had helped them. It seemed in general he was kissing up to Zuko, but it was sprinkled with informative tidbits between his near-pandering.

 

There were a few scant mentions of Toph.

 

"I'll admit, I was afraid to send my daughter," Lao mentioned off-hand. He mentioned how delicate Toph was ad nauseam. That she was so small and so helpless that she could hardly do anything for herself. If Lao had mentioned one time that Toph could not exist by herself, he'd mentioned it three million times.

 

It was a wonder Toph even knew how to use a fork from the way her parents had pampered her! And it was a bit insulting. Sure, being born blind wasn't a great start to life, but plenty of people survived just fine. Zuko was offended on her behalf!

 

"Toph manages," Zuko bit out. "She is very...motivated." Zuko knew better than to mention that she'd sooner kick Zuko or anyone else that tried to help in the balls than be tugged around like a dainty pet on a leash.

 

"She has an issue with not asking for help when she needs it," Lao said, which perhaps was the singular closest thing to the truth he'd said all night. Zuko sighed but almost laughed.

 

"Yes, that is indeed very true," he murmured. She hated to be seen as weak, so Toph nearly never admitted she was ever struggling with anything. Zuko could admire someone who did things independently, but he did know that sometimes everyone needed a little help.

 

And, just as quickly as he'd considered his daughter, he was talking about something else. 

 

Zuko nearly made one slip-up that night. He wasn't sure what led to it, but somewhere he off-handedly said, "Oh, and well, there's Toph. She's a fantastic earthbender."

 

Lao had guffawed, setting his cup down.

 

"That's kind of you to bolster her, Prince Zuko," he'd said, his eyes dubious, "But we can admit freely here that she is simple at it, at best."

 

"Simple?" Zuko echoed. "Toph's the best earthbender I've ever seen, sir."

 

Lao looked troubled. "I don't think that's right, your highness. When Toph left here, she had hardly finished her stage 1 training. Because of her blindness, we doubt she'll ever progress farther, you see."

 

Zuko bit his tongue, wincing. He wished Toph had written to him, or told him, a list of all the things that her parents didn't know about her. No, it would have been easier for her to compile a list of what they did know.

 

"So, while I appreciate your attempt to honor me, she simply is just not capable," Lao finished.

 

Zuko took a big swig of his drink. "Of course, sir. You saw right through my compliments," he finished weakly, unsure how to backtrack now. Lao nodded as though he accepted this, but was looking at Zuko with curiosity, a look that meant he didn't quite believe Zuko.

 

Damn it. Zuko hoped he hadn't already mucked everything up.

 

They retired not long after.

 

The next morning, the girls were sent out on an assignment to do some service in the city. They would also be eating breakfast there, so there was no need for a group meal. Nadhari would be assisting at the Earthbending Academy. Yue would be visiting the orphanage. On Ji would be helping at a school. Toph was spending a day with her mother, and she acted like it was the end of the world.

Zuko met Poppy in passing. The diminutive woman could hardly meet his gaze, quaking like he was some great war-lord. Meeting her had left Zuko at a loss.

 

He'd thought that perhaps Toph's mother was a little snappy since her father was so unlike her. However, after meeting her parents, Zuko was wholly unconvinced they were actually biologically related. Where did this girl full of sass, naughty words, and strong opinions come from? He wondered if there was some uncle in the family tree that had been disowned that was out there, a male-version of Toph or something.

 

Zuko sent Sokka off on assignment early in the morning. His singular goal was to make sure the airbenders made it into the swamps, where Dhakiya should be waiting for them. This last part of the trip was not any more treacherous than any previous location, despite the feeling that they were just so close with this first group, and that if something went wrong…

 

No, Zuko could not think like that.

 

He hoped Aang was keeping Zhao away from this area, wherever he currently was.

 

XXxx 

 

Zuko was to spend the day out and about checking up on some of the Fire Nation Guard camps: schmooze the soldiers far from home, shake hands, bring up morale. That sort of thing. And so he had, quite successfully.

 

His work, along with the other girls' jobs, had taken up until dinner. This meant he'd successfully avoided having to pretend to be in love with Toph for nearly half of the trip.

 

It wasn't that he thought he couldn't do it. Zuko was confident in his acting. It was more that Zuko was afraid of what Toph would do to him to convince her parents.

 

"Are you ready for dinner, your highness?" A servant knocked on his door to escort him.

 

"Yes, yes, I'm ready," Zuko said, reminding himself that Toph had already kissed him, so they'd already gotten the worst out of the way. He doubted there'd be any kissing at the dinner table, as it simply wasn't polite and Toph knew better (even if she pretended she didn't).

 

The dining room was set to impress. Only Toph was there, her face painted like a little doll. The other ladies had not arrived yet. Zuko was there first, as was customary. Toph had been granted special allowance because obviously she couldn't possibly find her way to the dining room in a reasonable amount of time...in a house she literally grew up in.

 

The first thing that truly hit him about Toph, though, was her expression. It switched as soon as he walked through the door. Something full of unbridled devotion and affection, something he'd never seen on Toph's face before. She looked at him like he was her whole world and she couldn't imagine another moment without him.

 

He tried not to react negatively to it, but his face must have still shown something, maybe unsureness, because Lao nervously came to his side.

 

"Is there something displeasing to you, sire?"

 

Zuko ducked his head, trying not to let his face redden or admit that he'd been thrown off by Toph's expression.

 

"I, uhm, where is my aid, Sokka?"

 

The fact Sokka had not returned did vex him. He had thought he might be back by lunch at the latest. It did not bode well for the mission that he had not made an appearance yet.

 

"I'm unsure, Prince Zuko," Lao said, though he hardly sounded upset. "We can keep a seat for him if it would please you."

 

Zuko nodded once, steeling himself for this dinner. As he was moving to find a seat, Toph piped up.

 

"Oh, Prince Zuko, won't you sit by me?" she asked in a pleading, hopeful tone. "I haven't been around you all day!"

 

She sounded positively depressed at that thought. Zuko paused, unsure until he remembered his goal.

 

"Erm, sure, Lady Beifong."

 

Toph laughed behind her hand, batting her eyelashes at him. "Oh, Prince Zuko, it's so virtuous of you to refer to me in such proper terms. My parents wouldn't be upset if you refer to me like you usually do, though," she said.

 

"Like I usually…" Zuko started, his hair prickling as he considered how uncomfortable he felt. 

 

"Sparky, you're so silly."

 

When Toph usually called him Sparky, Zuko got the feeling she was using it in place of a more offensive term, or that it was synonymous with 'an utter idiot'. When she said it now, it sounded like they'd been using cute pet names for months with each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Poppy smiled and whispered something to her husband. Zuko took this as a good sign and gave a laugh.

 

"Just didn't want to be inappropriate…" His mind whirled as he tried to think of any nickname for her, and focused on the green of her dress robes. "...Melon-bear."

 

As Toph's parents turned to talk with a server bringing out a dish, Toph dropped her expression for a fraction of a second, glaring at him.

 

"Melon-bear?" she hissed.

 

Zuko gave a helpless shrug. He'd been forced to think of a nickname basically under duress, what else did she expect?

 

Toph switched back to her placid and infatuated expression as her parents took their seats. She very obviously slapped her hand down on his leg, very far up his thigh. Zuko truly tried not to jump out of his skin at the contact and instead choked on his water. Poppy almost looked pleased that her daughter was feeling up a prince in front of their nice mahogany dinner set. 

 

He detached her hand as On Ji entered. On Ji noticed the encounter, her eyes narrowing with confusion. Agni, he'd forgotten that the other girls would find this weird. He hoped no one said anything. They should have discussed this before...the fact that the other girls might be confused by their amorous connection. 

Shit, shit, shit. He hoped that no one was going to say anything. Jugging Toph's wandering fingers would be enough to deal with right now. 

 

It seemed that Toph's parents were pleased with what they'd seen so far, enough so that Toph backed off an inch for a bit. The other girls came in and found their places, but Sokka still did not appear.

 

Most of the dinner seemed to go fine. Toph was sitting closer than normal to him, but she didn't try to feel him up again. Zuko foolishly thought he'd be lucky enough to get through this dinner, a whole day, with no incidents. He should have known better.

 

"We are so happy about our daughter's inclusion in your competition," Poppy said as they were bringing out dessert. "I doubt you could tell us, but as a mother, can we expect a wedding any time soon?"

 

Zuko drank water before answering. "You know it wouldn't be fair to admit anything," he said, "But, uhm, certain girls in this room are quite within my favor." He hoped that was vague enough to please them. He would consider Yue pretty far up on his list and he did find favor with Toph as a friend, so no lies here.

 

Poppy clapped her hands, smiling.

 

"I'm sure you are all lovely girls." She turned to the remaining trio. "But I can't help but hope that my daughter will be asked for her hand quite soon," she said as a near-apology.

 

"Mother, oh, stop," Toph actually blushed. Zuko wondered if she could do it on command at this point. "He'll ask me when he finds it appropriate," she said, giving Zuko moon-eyes. Zuko smiled at her, having found it less strange to look at her with such tender affections. He could admit from a purely platonic point of view she wasn't unattractive, plus he knew her to be a strong, independent, funny person. If he focused solely on her positive attributes, yes, it was easy to pretend to find her completely enchanting.

 

He found her hand, intending to touch it for just a moment, but Toph took it a step farther, lifting the back of his hand to her lips and placing a long kiss on it. It was not nearly as shocking as a kiss on the lips, but the intimateness of the gesture was not lost upon her parents. It was as close to scandalous, perhaps even more so than the leg touch, as one could get.

 

From down the table, Nadhari muttered something under her breath.

 

Zuko held his breath, hoping no one heard her. Rather, he hoped Poppy and Lao did not.

 

"Pardon?" Lao said, blinking at her.

 

Zuko stiffened, grinding his teeth. Shut up, shut up, shut up...whatever you said, don't say it again, he pleaded inwardly, glaring at her. Agni, how he wished he could just get rid of her.

 

"I just was thinking," Nadhari said, placing her hands in her lap and turning to Toph's parents with a completely innocent look, though Zuko expected what she was about to say was anything but. "It seems strange to me that Prince Zuko is so partial to Lady Bei Fong when at the palace, he hardly interacts with her or seems not to care about her."

 

The silence that followed was icy.

 

Zuko clenched his fists under the table, trying not to say something he'd regret, whether it be a bold lie or to snap Nadhari's head off. Nadhari looked smug. On Ji and Yue looked at each other with wide eyes, though they were sharing an expression that was close to 'well, I wasn't going to say it, but she's right.' Toph looked pale and furious, a sharp departure from the dewy, soft expression she'd had the entire dinner. Poppy and Lao were just whiplashed, confused, trying to glean what this meant.

 

"I do not think it is polite, Lady Nadhari, to make such assumptions about something you know nothing about," Zuko finally settled on, spit through gritted teeth.

 

Nadhrai didn't so much as blink at his tone. "It's merely an interesting observation."

 

Zuko was about to bite something back when On Ji started speaking in a quiet, warbling tone. "I mean, it is a little odd…" she said, swallowing. Even Nadhari looked shocked she was speaking up. "And I get that obviously you know more about it, but you never do seem romantically close to Toph."

 

Toph set down her fork. Zuko pre-winced, expecting Toph to drag one of the girls over the table with her bare hands, especially now that Lao was looking at Zuko and Toph with deep distrust.

 

"There are many things that happen behind the scenes that you may never see," Zuko nervously spoke over her. "What you might see as disinterest day-to-day may be different during other times."

 

"Behind the scenes?" Nadhari echoed, "Why, Prince Zuko, you wouldn't possibly be doing anything...untoward with Lady Beifong?"

 

Before Zuko could put the kibosh on that innuendo, Toph was grinning.

 

"Well, Nadhari, you said it yourself. We get along on a different level, something that's hard to express with all the ladies present. It's easier in a small group in front of my parents to show the truth."

 

Nadhari now looked unsure. Toph's tone sounded real enough and she said it with utmost belief, so much that Zuko was now wondering if he and Toph had a romantic connection that he didn't know about.

 

"So you...you two…" Nadhari faltered, eyes flickering between the pair.

 

Toph gave a small shrug and then, very slowly and very specifically, as she held the attention of the room, she placed her hands flat against her stomach.

 

Poppy gasped out loud. "My baby is having a baby?" she blubbered. Nadhari was nearly purple with fury, Yue was bright red and staring down at her uneaten dessert, and On Ji was white.

 

Lao strode over to Zuko and pulled him up firmly. There was one tense second in which Zuko was sure Lao was going to punch him for 'sleeping' with his daughter. He admitted he was more surprised when Lao began vigorously shaking his hand.

 

"A wedding is for sure to come then!" he crowed. "Ah, fortune on you, good sir! What a turn of events! Our daughter, The Fire Lady!"

 

"Yes, a surprise for all," Zuko said loudly, trying to regain the room. "Well, in light of...Toph's condition," he said sharply, trying not to glare at her, "Perhaps she should retire for the night. Perhaps we all should. It has been quite an illuminating dinner."

 

The other girls wanted nothing more than to be scarce after this, and Toph's parents fussed about her all the way out of the room. Zuko declined sake again, saying he had some work to do.

 

Back in his room, he kicked a chair.

 

Hah, and he thought this ruse would be manageable. The spirits loved to laugh at him.

 

"So, am I a good actress or am I a good actress?"

 

Zuko cursed as he jumped around, finding Toph standing at his door, closing it behind her.

"You!" Zuko sputtered, "One, you shouldn't be in here. Two...what the hell was that?"

 

"I just touched my stomach. Indigestion. Everyone else assumed shit," Toph said, as though she had no plot in place to make everyone think just that.

 

"You have basically just created a Royal Scandal," Zuko said dryly.

 

Toph grinned. "Cool."

 

"No, no! Not cool!" Zuko grasped his hair. "Agni, this is going to be a nightmare to fix. I hope you found it worth it!"

 

Toph just gave him a sly grin. "Immensely. My 'rents believed it! Hook, line and sinker, Sparky." She teased, her acerbic tone taking the same adoration when she used his nickname. He shuddered at the use of it now, a ball of anxiety growing in his stomach to even imagine what his father would say about this. Agni, Azula didn't have to underhandedly try to take the crown, Toph did it for her! He'd be a pile of soot when he returned home! 

 

Before Zuko could dive into what he was queueing up his mind to be a devastating and furious lecture, the door next to his bedroom opened and closed. He paused, brows knitting.

 

"Sokka," he murmured, standing and leaving Toph where she stood. She jumped in line behind him. Zuko eased Sokka's door open and the pair slipped inside.

 

Sokka was illuminated by the flickering candlelight in his wash-room. He was dunking a cloth in and wrung the water out, droplets slipping down his arms. As he turned, Toph sniffed the air and stiffened a second before Zuko saw it.

 

Sokka was covered in blood.

Chapter Text

Dusk fell upon the city.

 

Aang breathed in the dry air here, pinching his collar between his fingers and lifting with the hope of some much-needed airflow. It was silly. He was an Airbender, he could cool himself down easily if he were permitted.

 

He scowled, thinking of air benders.

 

The group that Zuko had been moving along was growing in numbers. Every day, it seemed more airbenders arrived, hoping that they would find safety -- which they would if they could just get through the city.

 

He'd spent a scant few minutes with Sokka earlier today, explaining the issue, and the sharp-minded Water Tribe boy proclaimed he was on the case. Spirits, Aang hoped by this time of night, they were all settling in at their last location, which even Aang did not know.

 

There were times he was dreadfully curious, but he trusted Zuko's militaristic planning. It was far better for Aang to be as far away from the knowledge as possible since he was already so interwoven.

 

Zhao's army was far past its promised trip time. It had been days since any of the men had gotten a proper shower and most of the military kits were starting to smell. While the men here followed Ozai without question, and by extension Zhao, it was clear some were getting uneasy by this prolonged expedition.

 

Day by day, Zhao was getting closer to frying someone as each day brought them no closer to dead airbenders. Aang, as well as the cast of previous Avatars in his mind, took pleasure in seeing his plans so foiled, but Aang was concerned about his mental well-being. He knew Zhao was not someone who would so easily give up. Something drastic, and most likely horrid, was going to happen soon.

 

The avatars were mostly silent in his head most days. He was unsure if it was because they were starting to trust him more or if this activity was so against everything they stood for that it was hard to be present for it. Either way, the silence was new. Aang almost wished they were back sometimes, just for someone to talk to.

 

Aang shook his head, looking at the men scuffling about. Morale was low and Aang felt a pinch of pity for them. Most were sort of bad people or people that had no qualms about killing airbenders, but that didn't mean that Aang thought all of them to be like Zhao.

 

In particular, the man who had noticed him making Ty Lee a necklace was someone Aang had begun to see as a friend. He was far less violent compared to most of the others, here because he thought it was his duty as a Fire Nationer. While Aang couldn't be sure that he was displeased with the actions they were asked to take, there were times when some of the younger men were discussing how they'd kill airbenders that Aang saw the man's lips turn down and his eyes darken.

 

His name was Hivri, and he had a wife and two kids back home, not much older than Kuzon, he'd explained. When he wasn't in the military service, he was a woodworker. His favorite things to make were animal carvings, and at night, he'd been showing Aang how to make little whittled creatures from fallen logs with their issued knives. It was incredible how, with just a few quick movements, a log of wood could turn into an ostrich-horse in his hands.

 

Aang liked to listen to him talk. He had a quiet, even voice. It soothed him when he was at his most anxious, during the nights he was sure Zhao was going to find someone and Aang would be forced to intervene. Aang's only job right now was to keep Zhao away from any areas where Aang thought airbenders might be, to continually send Zhao on a wild goose chase. That alone was enough effort.

 

Hivri often ate with Aang. He too preferred veggies to meat, and they often made a stew together with things foraged in the forest. The rest of the men ate their jerky and killed animals, and while Aang had eaten meat in the palace before, he still did not fancy the taste.

 

It was nearly dinner and Hivri was nowhere to be found.

 

Aang stood swiftly, walking over to a group of men arriving back from a patrol. They all stiffened at Aang's presence, bowing to him. Though Aang had been a guard for far less time than any of these members, the fact he was a Royal gave him a status above almost all of the other soldiers. 

 

"Where is Hivri?" Aang questioned, raising his chin.

 

"Still on patrol," one of the patrol leaders responded, "Said he had an inkling. Near the east. Old man's insane, but hey." The man shrugged. "We're all going a little stir-crazy here."

 

"And no one stayed with him?" Aang asked, frowning.

 

"Look, dude, we're starved," one of them said petulantly. "And tired and exhausted. If he wants to go chase shadows, let him."

 

"You don't think there's anything out there?" Aang asked, tilting his head.

 

"Not whatever Zhao thinks there is," someone spat and was quickly elbowed.

 

"Ah, right. Commander Zhao wanted to see you, Guardsman Kuzon," the patrol leader said, snapping his fingers. Aang resisted the urge to look surprised or horrified. Instead, he puffed out his chest, nodding. He hadn't spoken directly with Zhao in days.

 

Inside of his head, Kasata was blinking awake, slowly coming to consciousness, as he always was when Aang went head to head with his leader. Aang felt less alone, feeling the soft fiery presence of Kasata now taking it in with him.

 

Zhao's tent was set up in the middle of the camp. As Aang entered, his feet crunched over rolls of maps haphazardly strewn about the floor. He tried to avoid them until he realized that the entire tent was filled with crumpled maps.

 

"Sir?" Aang asked uncertainty, a pit gathering at the bottom of his stomach.

 

"Kuzon, there you are," Zhao said, turning. He was less put together than usual. His hair was unkempt, and his shirt was half-way unbuttoned, showing his undershirts beneath. Aang offered no words, just came to stand at Zhao's table, staring up at a man who he so vehemently hated.

 

"What am I not seeing?" Zhao demanded, shoving the map riddled with marks toward Aang. He hesitated, glancing upward at Zhao.

 

This could all be a trick.

 

While it was clear Zhao was losing some sense of sanity, the light had not completely died from his eyes. He was still sharp, though a little unfocused on the right thing perhaps, and Aang knew he would never get away with a flat-out lie.

 

Zhao was still far too clever for that.

 

"I will admit that this is deeply troubling to me too, sir," Aang said, licking his lips, drawing his fingers absently across the map. "But, perhaps...we are just worn out?"

 

"What?"

 

Aang thought about his next words carefully. "An unfit crew does no good," Aang said slowly, "And it's nearly the tournament. Ozai'll be expecting me back. While it is frustrating that they are slipping through our fingers, a half-dead battalion will make more mistakes than a fresh-faced one."

 

"We cannot retreat," Zhao slammed his fists upon the table, "With nothing in our fingers. Not a single airbender dead. Can you imagine telling our revered Fire Lord that? No, of course not," Zhao muttered to himself, carding his fingers through his hair. "We cannot go back empty-handed."

 

Aang sighed. "When was the last time you slept, sir?"

 

He was not concerned for Zhao's mental health. It could fall away for all he cared. What he was concerned about, however, was what rash actions Zhao might make. Plus, any soldier would be concerned for their leader, and Aang had a role to play.

 

"That is not a question for you to be asking," Zhao's voice was sharp, warning.

 

"Ozai will call us back," Aang said slowly. Ozai would never miss a chance to parade the Royal Family around, not when he had been building toward this tournament with such strange glee. "And you can either be mindful enough to explain why you deserve a second chance or be half-crazed and babbling in the Throne Room, sir." Aang narrowed his eyes. "I think you know what you'd prefer."

 

He turned without being dismissed, leaving Zhao somewhat taken-aback in his tents.

 

If he could convince Zhao to sleep through the night, there was a far better chance he could move the airbenders.

 

Agni above, he hoped this worked.

 

"Kuzon…" Zhao opened the tent and Aang gulped, for a second thinking he was about to be killed for overstepping. Instead, it was a rare moment of humanism that had Aang fumbling. "I perhaps do not say this enough, but I am grateful for your input."

 

"Of course, sir," Aang finally croaked, unsure how to tackle such a lofty measure of gratitude, since Zhao rarely showed this side to anyone. Aang had been convinced that Zhao had simply skipped the day in childhood when one learned how to thank people. "I'm just doing what I can."

 

xxx

 

"Sokka-" Toph's voice broke, her end tone something of horror and panic.

 

"It's not mine." Sokka's voice was rough, agonized. "It's not mine, but shit, I just…" His hands shook as he tried to wash the blood off. As a beam of moonlight cut across his washroom, Zuko noted how pale he looked, how much he was quivering.

 

"Why do I get the feeling this is bad?" he asked.

 

"Since when is anyone covered in blood a good thing?" Toph said, but she was still staring in the direction of Sokka, though unmoving, as though her feet were rooted to the floor.

 

Zuko glanced at her, frowning. "I'm surprised you couldn't tell that it wasn't his," he commented lightly. Toph practically bristled.

"What do you think I am? I can sense a lot of things, but I'm not a magic seer!" she said, her defense more venomous than Zuko would have imagined.

 

Sokka was still scrubbing the blood off with a great sense of hurry, swallowing and breathing hard.

 

"Sokka, what happened?" Zuko asked, dropping his voice to a quiet, encouraging whisper. He took two steps, taking the cloth from Sokka's hand, pausing his movements. "Are you going to be okay?"

 

Sokka took a step backward, his feet stumbling beneath him. Zuko managed to catch him before he hit the floor hard, helping him sit on the edge of the tub.

 

"Toph, keep an ear open for any...eavesdroppers," Zuko commanded, and Toph nodded firmly, though she was focused on the pair of boys. Sokka dropped his head into his hands. He switched to Old Air Nomadic, though it was broken, unskilled. Zuko knew him better than that; he had a knack for languages, and he had picked it up faster than his sister. Whatever had transpired was truly getting to him.

 

"We'll be fine in Common," Zuko offered quietly. He couldn't be sure, but he needed the details. Sokka nodded, but it was half-hearted.

 

"I met up with our favorite cousin," Sokka said, regaining a bit of sense as he attempted to speak with a hint of subterfuge. "Just briefly. He's okay but exhausted. And worn out. He's not sure when Zhao will bring them home."

 

"Well, at best, we know it has to be before the tournament," Zuko said. "Father would be furious if Kuzon missed the matches since he's supposed to participate."

 

"Right, I suppose," Sokka nodded. "Anyway, Aang informed me of a group that was stuck on one side of Gaoling. The swamps, that's the goal, but they've been stuck just outside Gaoling for days."

 

"I had wondered," Zuko said quietly. He'd been expecting a missive from Dhakiya for a bit now, but had been increasingly worried when one hadn't come.

 

"They've just been collecting, their numbers are growing. It's harder and harder for them to pass because there are guards everywhere. So I went to try to guide them through, as you said, but Zuko…" Sokka swallowed. "It's impossible. And I don't use that word lightly. I don't know how to smuggle all of them through the city. Every cart is checked. Every house is watched. All the alleyways have guards passing through and there are rewards posted everywhere. Zhao's closeness and frustration about his lack of catches have made everyone here super vigilant for them. I spent most of the day trying to figure it out, but I…" Sokka bit his lip furiously. "I hate the idea that this is a puzzle I can't solve."

 

"That still doesn't explain... " Zuko trailed off, waving a hand toward Sokka's soiled clothes.

 

"At the end of the night, six more had arrived. There's nearly thirty at this point. Thirty. If Zhao found even one of them…" The silence that followed felt heavier than before, an understood terror gripping all three of them.

 

"A guard saw. As I was trying to get some through. He saw everything, too much. And he would have told. I guess I just wasn't thinking, so I just…" Sokka's fists clenched and unclenched. "I've never...never before…"

 

The word he left out did not need to be said. Sokka may consider himself a Wolf Warrior like the other men of his tribe, and he had been trained by his father and Bato, who were two terrifying warriors, but he was lucky enough to have never seen war. The tribe had brokered peace long before he was born and he'd never been in the middle of a true battle.

 

Taking a life was not something anyone should do lightly, but there was little choice, it seemed.

 

It did not make it easy.

 

"We buried him deep, no one will find him," Sokka finished, shoulders slouching completely.

 

"But someone might notice his absence. Fuck." Zuko pinched his nose. "There wasn't any other solution?"

 

"I could not see one. He would have told. We couldn't move the entire group. We didn't have the means to keep him as a prisoner and as it was, I didn't even think I'd hit him that hard until he...made this noise and just fell over…" Sokka said, his eyes glassy and a thousand miles away.

 

"Fantastic." Zuko knew sarcasm was not what Sokka needed right now, but he was in a bad mood before this, and with this information, he was in a worse mood, which he hadn't thought possible. "Just another thing on my plate."

 

Sokka raised his head. "Why, what happened today?"

 

"Oh, you haven't heard the happy news?" Zuko asked, throwing out an arm. Toph made a noise in the back of her throat, one of a warning, but Zuko couldn't stop the grim smile from landing on his face. "Apparently, Lady Bei Fong and I are expecting."

 

Sokka shot up. "What? How? You're joking, right? I'm gone for twelve hours...tell me what the hell you mean, buddy."

 

"I cannot believe I'm saying this right now," Zuko said, thinking back over the last few hours, "But your situation seems a tad more pressing than that. Forget I brought it up."

 

"Forget that you-"

 

"Calm down, it was just...my parents…" Toph was floundering for words, something she rarely did. She always seemed completely confident in her own voice. "It's nothing."

 

"Well, it's not nothing," Zuko muttered. "It's a big freaking issue, but hardly the worst in comparison to this news. Imagine that," he added with a sardonic huff.

 

"I should get rid of these," Sokka said, looking down at his clothes. He was starting to regain a bit of color and he seemed more level-headed. "No one saw the event, it was near the edge of town. He was sniffing around far past where he should have. Not even sure how he knew to...wish he'd just stayed back," Sokka added.

 

"That's step one," Zuko agreed. "We should burn them. Destroy them. I don't think it will lead back to you, but we do need to move those airbenders fast. I don't like them sitting like turtle-ducks in a barrel any more than you do."

 

"I might have a solution to that," Toph said, tilting her head.

 

"By all means. Please, fix something tonight," Zuko said, still glaring at her, furious.

 

"Well, they can't fly over the city, that would be a huge red flag. They can't go through the city for reasons stated by Sokka. So it's clear, isn't it?" she asked, though both boys looked blankly at her. "They gotta go under."

 

XXxxXX

 

If Zuko could have his way tonight, creeping down miles under the city would not be his choice of activity. It would be sleeping. Sleeping peacefully, might he add, with no snafus in moving the airbenders nor any gossip about bastard children being freed upon the world.

 

Zuko rarely got what he wanted.

 

"This is all fine and dandy," Zuko said snappishly, "But unless the airbenders magically know where to go, it's useless. This tunnel system is nearly impossible, not even a map would help."

 

"Hush, would ya?" Toph said, navigating the turns with ease. "I have a solution to that too!"

 

Sokka was now in fresh clothes and all of the blood had been washed away from his skin, though his face was still haunted by the event. Zuko couldn't blame him. However, Sokka had refused to be left behind, despite Zuko's worry for his sanity, and apparently this wasn't something Toph could just explain.

 

No, she had to show.

 

"Hood up, and don't be obviously Fire Nation," Toph warned Zuko for the umpteenth time. He'd been told to switch out of his red and gold outfit and to put on something more earth-toned. He couldn't imagine why, but Toph was adamant this was a viable solution.

 

It would really make him feel good to have one less worry, so Zuko did as she requested. Now, coming to a fork in the road, it seemed they were close to...wherever she was taking them.

 

Zuko heard it first. It was a roaring sound, and he originally thought it was an underground waterfall. As they got closer, he realized there were distinct tones making one unrelenting sound. It wasn't a waterfall at all. It was a crowd of what seemed like thousands of people.

 

As the trio turned the corner, Zuko gazed upon an impressive dueling ground, raised high above his head. They entered near the bottom of the high ring, millions of stadium seats above them, filled with people yelling and screaming. As they skirted around the edge, a contestant yelped, careening off the side and landing with a crunching sound in the earth.

 

"Uh, is he okay?" Zuko asked, seeing the feeble twitching.

 

"Yeah. These idiots have thick skulls," Toph said with a shrug. She had switched into an outfit that allowed her to move freely. It was the most dressed-down he'd ever seen her, even when she was in more comfortable things in the palace.

 

"Who are these idiots, exactly? What is this? Why is this?" Zuko hissed as Toph scampered into a set of seats.

 

"Hush, just enjoy," Toph said, patting Zuko's hand. "Patience is a virtue."

 

"Once again," an announcer crowed, running out to an impressively-built man, "The Boulder reigns supreme! Now, attempting to take him on, The Gecko!"

 

The crowd screamed as a gangly thing scuttled onto the arena floor. As a piece of sheetrock connected with the dude's chin, Zuko winced.

 

"Toph, what is this?" he asked.

 

Toph sighed, rolling her eyes. "You spoil all the fun. Welcome to Earth Rumble VI, Sparky. Earthbending competition. Now shut up and watch the fun," she commanded.

 

"Six?" Zuko echoed. He wasn't sure how he felt that this was the six iteration of this. It reminded him of something Katara had told him was happening in his own city, though this was different in many ways. Where the underground ring in the Fire Nation Capital seemed keen on the most blood and near death, this one at least had a code of conduct. Err...sorta.

 

They watched The Boulder plow through about eight contestants with an ease that was impressive. He truly was a Master Earthbender. It wasn't just his size; it was the way he seemed to predict everyone's moves before they could do them. Zuko rarely got to see earthbending, at least not combat earthbending. There was an appeal to it that he found interesting. He wondered how his firebending would react if he tried to mimic some of the stances here…

 

"And, like every other night, The Boulder is the undefeated winner! All of this could be yours if you're brave enough to take him on...and win." The announcer was holding a sack of cash and a huge belt, but the crowd was utterly silent. Not a single soul moved, no one dared offer themselves up.

 

Zuko turned to Toph...to find her missing.

 

"What the-" he muttered, until he saw a green dot approaching the announcer. "She wouldn't…"

 

"It's Toph," Sokka said, "You know she would."

 

"I'll take a crack at it!" Toph said, her voice echoing around the arena. There were whispers all around.

 

"Do my eyes deceive me or is it...yes, it's the Blind Bandit! Oh, you're in for a show tonight, folks! We haven't seen this competitor for nearly two years! Let's give it up for the former supreme champion of Earth Rumble VI!"

 

"Get 'er, Boulder!" Sokka yelled, standing up. "Beat her!"

 

From across the arena, Toph flipped Sokka the bird.

 

"Dude, shouldn't we be cheering for her?" Zuko demanded, yanking Sokka down by his shirt.

 

"What can I say? The Boulder has a new fan," Sokka shrugged, "Plus, it's not like she needs it."

 

It was true. The crowd that had once been going wild for The Boulder was now basically falling over themselves screaming for Toph.

 

"But you don't think-"

"That she'll get hurt? She'll lose?" Sokka squinted at Zuko. "She'll probably win. However, she deserves it. Royal Baby with you my ass…" Sokka muttered to himself.

 

Zuko wasn't so sure. He was positive that the fight would be over in seconds and Toph would have to be scraped off the bottom of the arena floor. He knew her to be a good fighter, true, but this guy...this guy was something else. Plus, it had been a while since Toph had practiced, he knew this much too.

 

The fight was over in seconds, but it was The Boulder who took a nose-dive off the edge. All it had taken was one swift slide of her foot, and just like that the match was over.

 

The crowd was foaming at the mouth at this.

 

"Come back to mama!" Toph cheered, holding the belt above her head, soaking in the adoration towards her.

 

"You think she dragged us all the way down here to win back a stupid title?" Zuko asked. Sokka thought for a second before shaking his head.

 

"As frustrating as she is, she seemed sure she had a solution. I think we're getting to it...slowly."

 

It became clear that no one was going to challenge Toph, and the tournament was adjourned. Toph motioned to the pair of boys to follow her as seas of people streamed out, back up to the city. Zuko and Sokka hopped onto the walkway to the dueling ground and behind it, where all of the contestants were nursing injuries.

 

"The Blind Bandit! Awe, I thought I was dreaming. C'mere," one of the men said, pulling Toph into a sweaty hug.

 

"It's great to see you too, Gopher," Toph said, punching his chest.

 

"Fucking good show, man," The Gecko said, "Though it always is."

 

"You're a little shit though," a third man laughed. "You had The Boulder practically quivering when you walked on stage!"

 

"The Boulder does not 'quiver' at the sight of a small girl," The Boulder stated. "Though, The Boulder had hoped to hold out a bit longer."

 

"Two more seconds than the last time we went head-to-head," Toph teased.

 

"The Boulder says fuck you."

 

"Who are these two?" one of the men asked suspiciously, poking at Zuko.

 

"My guests. Be nice," Toph teased. "Fellas, meet the group. While the Badgermoles might have taught me to bend, it was these assholes who practically raised me. This is where I learned all the good shit."

 

"Makes a lot of sense now," Zuko mumbled to himself.

 

"What does?" The Gecko asked. Zuko smirked.

 

"Where she got her abhorrent potty mouth from."

 

"That's our girl!" Gopher slapped her shoulder. "Who knew that the little eight-year-old that wandered in here all those years ago-"

 

"You started here when you were eight?" Sokka made a choked sound. "And you all...fought an eight-year-old?"

 

"The Boulder was momentarily conflicted about fighting her," The Boulder said, crossing his arms, "But The Boulder got over that pretty quickly."

 

"I broke his nose," Toph said in a stage-whisper, making a splat sound as she slapped her hands together.

 

"Ah, Blind Bandit," a new voice said. His was silky. There was something dangerous about him, something that Zuko did not entirely trust. Sokka seemed to feel the same way, for he moved closer to Toph, as though in a protective stance. "I believe that this is yours."

 

"Xin Fu, pleasure as always," Toph said, but her voice was tight. "I actually don't want it. Keep it. I'd prefer to talk about a trade."

 

"A trade? Whatever could you want?"

 

"Toph…" Zuko hissed out of the corner of his mouth. She was not going to do what he thought she was, wasn't he?

 

"I'mma level with you all. Things are shitty up there and these tunnels are the solution. You all know these tunnels as well as I do, especially the ones that exit near the Swamps," Toph said, striding forward and ignoring Zuko's frantic expression. "You've probably heard that there are airbenders again. That's true. And they're being hunted like doe-foxes. Slaughtered like animals. And they need to get through the city, guided, to safety."

Toph looked in the direction of each of the men. "You all know me. You know I very rarely ask for something and that I'm generous with the winning pot. Know when I say that this is bigger than any of us. I am requesting that you assist these airbenders through the maze of tunnels and deposit them safely at the entrance to the swamp for the foreseeable future. For not just me, but for the fate of hundreds of innocent lives."

"What are you doing?" Zuko said, grasping her wrist tightly, his mind in a whirl of panic at how they were going to fix this.

 

"Anything for The Blind Bandit!" The Boulder said firmly.

 

"We can trust them," Toph said, waving a hand at everyone. "They're like older brothers to me. They have my back like I've always had theirs. Plus, they're good guys. Most, at least." She turned to Xin Fu. "Except for you. But, in addition to pissing off some Fire Nationers," she said, which did cause a slight smile on Xin Fu's face, "We are willing to pay you handsomely for your silence in this matter."

 

"How handsomely?"

 

"You'll be the belle of the ball," Toph said flatly. "Four times what any poster is offering for information on airbenders."

 

Before Xin Fu could open his mouth, Zuko dragged Toph aside, out of earshot.

 

"Are you mad? We can't trust that guy! He even looks shifty!"

 

"Not everyone is gonna be changed by the goodness of their heart. But everyone has a price. His is just actual money," Toph said, rubbing her fingers together. "Trust me. You pay him enough, you got him. He's not gonna be stupid enough to take away his cash cow."

 

"And if you're wrong? And he turns all of us in?"

 

"I know the boys would go to bat for me," Toph said firmly. "And plus, who's gonna believe him over the word of the Fire Lord Heir Apparent?" Toph asked. "Plus, he is also running a rather illegal fighting ring. I don't wanna shut this place down, but for the cause, I would."

 

"I don't like this," Zuko said with a furious hiss.

 

"Look, Zhao's a big bad, right? Xin Fu is a little bad. He's pretty shitty, not really good boyfriend material and you probably don't want to leave him babysitting a child, but he really fucking hates the Fire Nation. He lives his life by spite. We had him halfway just at that."

 

Zuko breathed out through his nostrils, puffing out hot air. "You'd better be right about this," he warned.

 

Toph stalked back over to Xin Fu. "We have a deal?" she asked, spitting and holding out her hand.

 

Xin Fu shook.

 

"Everyone see this?" Toph said. "Now, if he goes back on the promise that he will keep these airbenders safe…"

 

"The Boulder will gladly smash your skull in."

 

"The Hippo will join!" an oversized man said.

 

"I'll bury your body so far down no one will find it," The Gopher added.

 

"That will not be necessary, as long as there is a continual allowance left for me. I swear upon my mother's grave," he said, meeting Zuko's eyes. Zuko gave a terse nod of agreement. He didn't like it, but coins were a small price to pay in comparison to the lives of the airbenders.

 

"I'm not sure I approve of all these homicidal declarations," Zuko hissed to Sokka. "But I suppose I appreciate the honor and loyalty."

 

"Sokka. Where is the first group? We'll get them through tonight," Toph said, turning.

 

"Up near the entrance to the city. To the east," Sokka said.

 

"The Boulder will gladly assist! The Boulder likes the idea of doing something good," he said.

 

"Buddy, hey, before you go," Sokka said, fishing an ink-pot from his bag, "Will you sign my bag?"

 

XXxxXX

 

Katara's fingers couldn't quite finish the beading.

 

She was usually more skilled, but ever since the news about Aiga, she'd found herself too distracted to do something so tedious. Especially so, now that her maid was gone.

 

Thrice she'd messed up a line and had to snap off the entire thread, pooling the beads into her palm and noisily dropping them back into the ceramic bowl.

 

Aiga was down visiting her family. Katara had offered to go with, but Aiga had quietly rebuffed her. There wasn't the same fire burning in her eyes anymore, but the slight had still hurt Katara's feelings a bit. Katara didn't know how to explain that she hadn't told anyone, but Aiga did not seem to be in the mood to hear her.

 

She'd never seen this side of Aiga.

 

She was still respectful, almost alarmingly so, but there was something growing between them that Katara was trying to stay ahead of but feared she would not be able to cross.

 

How could Katara worry about something as stupid as a ball when her friend's family was being attacked? How could she rightfully focus on beading to please a thousand wealthy families when the poor were being killed off below her nose?

 

With a frustrated huff, Katara set aside her dress.

 

She pulled out her suitcase.

 

She had promised herself she wouldn't pack until she'd finished her dress, but her second trip was on the horizon. She knew Zuko would arrive home soon – in only a few hours, since it was past noon now, and not long after, she'd be off. Then, once she returned, there would be practically no time before the ball, so yes, she really needed to finish this dress.

 

However, it seemed her fingers were being purposely unskilled, and she was fearful that she'd break away entire sections if she tried anymore.

 

She flopped the suitcase on her bed but found herself totally uninspired to pack, too.

 

She decided to go and fetch herself an iced tea.

 

Usually, Aiga would do such things, so over-eager to please her and to do her job, but Katara could handle this herself perfectly fine. Plus, she didn't know how to call her replacement handmaid currently...

 

She nodded to the guards as she passed, making her way to the kitchens. She wasn't sure if she could go into the back areas, but maybe she could snag a passing maid to grab it for her?

 

She noticed that there were pools of women gathered among the halls.

 

As she passed the women's room, she noticed Kilee crying.

 

Katara stopped, changing her path, and going inside.

 

"I'm just repeating what I heard," Avizeh was saying, waving a hand around. "There's no need to call me names."

 

"You could have announced it more tactfully," Saoise snapped at her.

 

"Oh, and I should have just waited for the official Royal announcement?"

 

"What announcement?" Katara asked, frowning. Spirits, had Zuko chosen a wife while he was gone? Out of the convoy, Yue seemed the most practical. She could almost see that, she thought bitterly. Do it while he was away so he would not have to deal with the rest of the girls, just send them away.

 

"Distressing news. What is the standard?" Ratana stage-whispered. "Has this ever happened?"

 

"Has what-" Katara tried to ask again, but was interrupted.

 

"Did you know?" Avizeh asked, zeroing in on Katara. "You were in his favor for quite a long time."

 

"I don't even know what I might or might not know!" Katara threw up her hands.

 

"Lady Toph is...is…" Kilee hiccupped, trying to dry her eyes, but failing. "Pregnant!"

 

Katara almost laughed, until she realized the group of girls was serious. Then, her mind whirled.

 

"By...the Prince?" she asked, which seemed equally as laughable as the first bit.

 

"By who else?" Avizeh questioned. "It's all anyone's been talking about! She told her parents during dinner. We should pack our bags now, I reckon."

 

"Toph is pregnant by Prince Zuko?" Katara repeated.

 

"Yes, spirits, try to keep up," Avizeh huffed.

 

Katara blinked. "That's impossible. They're not...he's not.." she struggled. "That can't be right."

 

"Well, I have it from a very reputable source," Avizeh said, blinking. "My maid heard it from her cousin, whose best friend is the younger sister of a girlfriend of one of the cooks, who overheard it during the dinner there just a few hours ago."

 

Katara opened her mouth to tell Avizeh that clearly the information she had was wrong, but faltered.

 

Zuko and Toph both had been weirdly distant lately. Maybe there was something? And maybe neither wanted to dare tell her? Maybe it was all an accident, or one night, or something more?

 

Maybe Katara was closer to leaving than she thought.

 

"I'm sure we'll get a confirmation when they arrive back," Katara said, though her breath felt short. "I can't imagine something like this will simply be ignored."

 

Chapter Text


Zuko arrived back at the palace with a headache the size of the Northern Water Tribe. The ride home had been silent, to say the least. Toph was given so many fluffy things to rest upon that the other girls nearly hadn't been able to fit into the carriage. Zuko noticed Toph wasn't setting the record straight, annoying little imp.

The girls were in a pissy mood. Sokka was in a pissy mood. He was beyond a pissy mood; he was ready to bite the head off of the next person who asked him about the Fire Nation's next little pride and joy.

He hadn't heard anything else from Aang either, and that was frustrating.

The girls scurried inside the doors of the palace, sending hateful looks toward Toph. He was pretty sure he heard one girl mutter something in a mean tone, but he actually couldn't tell who it was between the three, so he let it go.

"You," he said, pointing a finger at Toph, "My office. Now."

"Sure we should be meeting alone?" Toph teased.

"You are this close to getting cut," Zuko growled, and it seemed that for the first time the severity of the situation dawned upon her. She gulped.

"I was just...I didn't…" She began to bluster. "Look, man, you gotta-"

"You're lucky I'm even looking at you right now. Yes, you were instrumental in our issue last night, but spirits above, Toph," he snarled, "You're nothing more than a child sometimes!"

"Hey!" Sokka said, trying to step between them. He was glaring at Zuko, as though he was the bad guy!

"I can handle this myself," Toph said, wrenching out of Sokka's light touch. "Say that again, I dare ya."

"You have no care about anyone but yourself. No sense of the wellbeing of the rest of us. You do whatever the hell you please and leave me to pick up the pieces! Give me one good reason you should be allowed to stay by my side. Give me three good reasons to convince my mother or father of that once this whole mess is sorted out!" Zuko thundered, fists clenched, and steaming.

"I can't go back there! You saw my parents!" Toph threw out her hands. "Sorry if I thought quick on my feet. It worked, didn't it? Shut Nadhari's trap up."

"At the expense of a huge deal! Toph, you just...you…"

"Look, maybe we shouldn't be doing this out here," Sokka said, forcibly shoving himself between the pair. Zuko retreated, realizing he was still on the steps of the palace. Though the guards would not talk, he knew that they were one slip away from saying something truly incriminating.

"Lady Bei Fong," Zuko said, summoning a tone, not unlike the one his father used. "My office. Now."

Toph had the good sense to vanish in front of him.

Jee was waiting just inside the doors.

"An eventful trip?"

"Like you don't already know," Zuko groaned. "Why is it whenever I return, things seem awful?"

"I cannot say, sir." Jee blinked. "My Lord...it's not…"

"No. It was something that got away from the truth. Far from it." Zuko was short to cut him off.

"Right. I just…" Jee coughed. "A missive came for you. Well, quite a few...as you can imagine."

"Oh? And what's special about this one?" Zuko questioned.

"It was one of the few not asking for your head. I cannot for the life of me figure out the contents, so I figured you might want to read it," Jee said, handing him the letter. "It came via a Swift Hawk, so I was surprised it seemed like...such an insignificant letter."

Zuko thumbed under the cracked seal, reading the contents.

Hi Zuko,

I just wanted to write and thank you again for your generous donation of fifty-two air-fans for the Society for Women And Men Performers. Although the shipment came later than expected, it arrived alright this morning, not a single one damaged!

I will assume more will be coming via the same delivery service.

Your help has been monumental,

Dai

"Hmm, I have not a single idea." Zuko said, shrugging, "Perhaps it was something one of the Ladies was doing in a village and put in my name? Nothing to concern myself about, though, I'd imagine."

"I'm sure, sure," Jee said. "I just found it odd."

"Hardly worth getting excited about," Zuko said. "I assume my parents wish to see me?" he asked with a wince.

Jee flinched. "Yes, sir," he said.

"Fan-fire-tastic."

As Zuko turned away, he flipped the post-card. Postmarked from Omashu, but closer to the other end of the village. Smart girl. Despite what he told Jee, he could not stop a smile from rising within him.

One less issue to concern himself with. A million more to go.

XXxxXX

Zuko pushed open the door to see Ru waiting for him. The young journalist was sitting, picking absently at the threads on the lounge chair, his scroll, dip pen, and ink set out waiting for Zuko.

"Agni, we need to meet outside of this. Remind me of that. Sit down and talk without this desk...this competition between us," Zuko said, startling the younger man. Ru turned, a crooked grin on his face.

"No, mate, this is perfect. You keep me in business," he teased. "The Prince's Choice has been my most profitable year yet!"

Zuko sighed deeply, trying to ease his nerves. He was glad Ru was able to come on such short notice. He'd gotten read the riot act from both of his parents, but nothing was as awful as the disappointed look in Uncle Iroh's eyes. Somehow, that cut the deepest.

Luckily, being able to go and yell at Toph was pretty therapeutic. He'd feel worse about it if he didn't know that Toph would be able to throw it back in his face like she often did. She was choosing to stay silent, very smart of her, and allowed him to get his frustration out. If she'd really been bothered by it, she would have been up in his face, snarling back. Toph being afraid to say exactly what she felt was not an issue of hers.

He'd managed to save Toph's place here, but damn, it was by the skin of his teeth. They both agreed to chalk this up to a major misunderstanding that grew out of control before either knew what was being gossiped about. This wasn't untrue, but he did not believe for a second Toph did not carefully engineer that whole fiasco.

Toph even got off without a stern talking to from his father, which was a miracle. Though, his father's gaze of fury had been worse as he'd said, "Well, I suppose we'll just have to see how she fares in the competition."

Great, now she had a target on her back. She should have known that no one makes a fool out of a Royal.

Sometimes, he swore she didn't think before she acted. In moments like this, her youth compared to others was dreadfully obvious.

There was a very large part of him that wanted to send her home right now. To show that consequences happened, that actions had actions that happen back upon them. He hated how he'd been used as a pawn in her own game, one he was not privy to, and something they hadn't agreed upon. More than anything, he hated that dumbfounded feeling he'd felt as she'd so easily lied and carved out this fantasy.

It reminded him of all the things his father and sister were, and those were the things he swore never to be. As ingenious as it might have been to sell the fakeness of their love, at what cost?

At what cost...that was a phrase that was uttered far too little by those in charge. It was one he now kept in his mind most firmly.

But no, Toph would remain...for now. He didn't think he could keep her very much longer, so hopefully, things figured themselves out quickly. One way or another.

"Glad I could be so of help," Zuko said, but his anger faded. Ru was not who he was angry at. Still, Zuko stalked over to the cabinets and pulled out a deeply-aged bottle of whiskey and poured two small glasses. He downed his immediately before turning.

"Want some?"

"I'm technically on the job," Ru said, looking torn. "Maybe after...but…"

"Mhh, right," Zuko said and drank Ru's portion too. Then, he poured a third glass to sip on.

He felt better with some drinks in his system. Agni knew that he'd need it to get through this day. "So…" Zuko said, sitting across from his friend, "You know?"

Ru gave an uneasy laugh. "Who doesn't?"

Zuko groaned. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. It was just a comment...taken completely out of context! And then, what, I was supposed to awkwardly say no right after her father was congratulating us and everyone was making a fuss?" Zuko asked, noticing that Ru was writing things down. "I mean, I guess, yes, but it seemed like the wrong time. I was still reeling from this new information I was going to be a father."

"Uh-huh," Ru said, scratching his cheek as he scribbled, an ink-smudge appearing on his skin. "You say it was...taken out of context? How?"

"I mean, Toph - err, Lady Bei Fong, was just saying it to shut Nadhari up. Spirits, I was a little glad. She's so fucking annoying." Zuko realized what he'd just said and how the drinks were making his tongue loose and winced. "Uhm, can you not-"

"Yeah, that was off the record," Ru snorted. "I'm here as a friend to help you. I wouldn't put something like that in the official write up," he said. "Honestly? I can see it. She seems…" He thought for a second. "Needy. Extreme. Fake. She's not my favorite contestant."

"No kidding. She's still here because….another time, as friends," Zuko rubbed his temples, "Toph only patted her stomach. She had indigestion. Everything just went sideways from there," Zuko said, making a turning motion with his hands, as though he needed to use a diagram. "Right. And now it's all just blown up in our faces." Zuko gave a rough laugh. "You know what the really ironic thing is? I've never even had sex. Yeah, I know, me...the Crown Prince. Agni."

"Wait," Ru's fingers paused. "You've never-"

"I know, I know," Zuko felt a blush rise to his cheeks. He hadn't meant to let that slip. "I could probably have any girl, but sue me! I want it to mean something and I just haven't...you probably think I'm crazy." He sat back, thinking about how incredibly messed up everything was in his life right now.

"No," Ru said with an excited tone, "That's fantastic!" He paused as Zuko shot him a half-furious look. "I mean, that sucks, but on the bright side...I think we've hit our angle!"

"Of...the article?"

"Well, there can't be any discussion or questions about cover-ups if you've never had sex to begin with."

Zuko threw back the rest of the whiskey and slammed the glass on the table. "So let me get this right," he said, pointing at Ru, "You want me to announce to the entire world that I've never been laid?"

"Yes, basically."

"Oh, absolutely not."

"Hey, we won't make it sound as bad as it seems." Ru's eyes were twinkling like it did as he crafted a masterful article, something that spun words and truths into something nearly like art. "We'll remind people about how virtuous you are, about how humble and pious of a Prince you are. We'll use all the good things and really push the whole 'waiting for the right girl' thing. People will dig that. It won't be so much of a 'look at this poor schmuck of a prince who's never seen boobs' but rather 'this oh-so-respectful heir to the throne is waiting for his heiress'."

"If you're sure…" Zuko said uneasily.

"Completely. This should fix most of your issues, Zuko," Ru said, and then chuckled. "Every time I think I've written my best piece yet, you swoop in and make things challenging again. You keep me on my toes!"

Zuko huffed. "For once, I'd prefer to keep all our feet firmly on solid ground. I doubt that will happen, though."

"You can't say you don't live an exciting life."

XXxxXX

The news that Toph was apparently not pregnant spread just as quick as the rumor that she was. Katara heard it from her replacement handmaid, who was assigned to her at least until Aiga felt up to the task of working again. Perhaps there was some goodness in distance, especially after the tense moment when she'd accused Katara.

Katara did not hold it against her. People did crazy things when told horrible news. Katara hopping a boat to the Fire Nation was just one of a million other examples, so she couldn't hold it against her.

Katara was nearly finished with her dress. She'd been glad of something to distract her fingers while her mind whirled about the news. She couldn't say she was surprised at the quick reversal, but some small part of her had been sure it wasn't fake.

The other big news that dropped? An article that denied the pregnancy, explained the situation, and almost proudly announced that Zuko was a virgin. Which was something Katara knew, but it was like tinder to a flame of hot gossip for the other girls.

As Katara passed the ladies' hall, all she heard was the girls talking about how they could easily fix that issue for the Prince, if he so wanted.

"He's not a piece of meat and he'll sleep with who he wants to when he wants to," Katara said before she knew what she was doing. Some part of her cared for him, deeply and painfully, and she was not about to let the ladies giggle and gossip about him like this! It was frankly insulting.

"What if it's not you?" Nadhari asked, crossing her arms.

"Then fine," Katara grit out. "But it's objectifying to be talking about him like this."

"Oh, like he doesn't do it behind closed doors about us!"

"I'm unsure," Yue broke in, a frown creasing. "He does seem respectful, abundantly so. Not all boys are...like Hahn," she said, which was the aptest comparison.

Whatever Katara was going to argue was cut off by a shriek. Katara turned to see Toph coming down the hallway, her expression wild as Avizeh grasped her into the room.

"Oh my god! I don't know if I should be furious or impressed that you created the best gossip of the century!"

"Thanks?"

"You're not pregnant, are you?" Katara asked, and she couldn't help it. Even if that's what Zuko said here. Even if she doubted it. Even if a thousand things, she had to ask. Plus, if Toph wanted to stay, she could very easily find a way to get pregnant and attempt to pass it off as Zuko's...

Toph opened her jaw, staring at Katara incredulously.

"Really?" she said, as though understanding Katara differently.

"It's a fair question! Answer it," Mai snapped coldly.

"Well," Toph said, crossing her arms, "Naw, I don't think I am." She shrugged, as though casually discussing if she were joining the girls for dinner.

"You don't think so?" Nadhari circled her like a shark. "You know it's against the rules to be having a dalliance outside of the Prince. And if he's saying he's never lain with you-"

"That's why I said I don't think so. Short of spiritual intervention," Toph said, pulling an innocent face.

Someone harrumphed from the back corner.

"So it's a lot of drama for nothing." Saoirse threw her hands up. "Great. You…" She broke off, unable to articulate. Katara could feel the frustration ebbing from everyone it seemed. Katara had previously been one of the least liked girls, but it seemed now Toph had that position.

"Look, I don't appreciate the third degree here," Toph growled. "It was a comment that went way out of hand and look, I've already heard it from everyone. I'm going to go to bed. If that's okay," she asked, glaring at Avizeh, who still had her in a tight grip. As though realizing for the first time, Aveziah let her go like Toph had burned her.

The room was silent as Toph stalked off.

Katara was tempted to follow her, but she had nothing more to say to her right now.

"I don't know what she thought she'd gain…" Besu sounded incredulous. She was one of Toph's closer friends, besides Katara, but she seemed similarly thrown by this entire situation.

"She's fucked herself over, that's for sure," Ratana said, as though it was obvious. At a few blank glances, she shrugged. "I mean, okay, some people believe that she's pure and it's all a big misunderstanding. It's going to be hard to trust her again. Still, there will be some that don't believe the Prince or Toph and think she's been used. As stupid as it is, that matters to some." She bit her lip. "I'm pretty sure her after-marriage prospects have gone from here," she placed one hand over her head, "to down here," she dropped it below her navel. "She has to win the Prince's heart for any good match at this point, or come right damn close."

Katara was gripped suddenly by a fury she was not expecting.

Toph was a mastermind, something Katara was only realizing now.

All the other girls were looking at this drop in suitors as the worst outcome, which was totally a valid point as most of them wanted that 'after.' Katara was not going to call a girl stupid for wishing for this, but she wouldn't be surprised if this was part of Toph's master scheme – that she would be labeled as an issue as give her parents a hard time lining up a husband after this.

Katara understood her frantic desire to never return home, nor to be under the thumb of a stuffy lord or general who would treat her like a china doll. She sympathized with Toph's plight and felt it was so unfair. She knew her parents were overbearing, to say the least. She got all of that.

But to use the Prince like this? It left a bitter taste in Katara's mouth. She did not like how Toph used him for her own gain, disregarding his feelings or any other person in the equation. It felt as dirty as Nadhari's shameless flirting.

But are you not doing the same thing? a voice inside of her head whispered You came to use him too. For food, for protection, for your tribe.

"That's different." Katara narrowed her eyes, mumbling to herself as she slipped away from the room. "That's for others, not for myself."

But isn't it?

The question lapped at her mind and she found it hard to shake.

XXxxXX

As Katara dragged her suitcase down the hall to leave for the last trip before the ball and tournament, she found Toph waiting in the luggage room.

"You're not on this trip," Katara said shortly.

"No, but I needed to talk to you," Toph said, blinking at Katara as she entered. "I...I feel like…" She pressed her lip, frustrated. "Did you honestly think I slept with Zuko?" she asked, sounding frustrated and a bit offended.

"Well, I…" Katara wished she could have said that she never believed it for a second, but her words failed her.

Toph sucked in her breath, her expression hardening. "I wouldn't. Not with how you feel about him-"

"I don't even know how I feel about him!" Katara snapped back. "Look, I just…" She wondered how she could explain everything she was feeling all at once, but found it impossible, so she never finished.

"Sugar Queen," Toph said, sounding worn-down, "You're one of my best friends, and I don't give that title out lightly. I wouldn't ever, never, hurt you like that." It was one of the rare moments Toph was truly sincere in every word she said. "Actually, can I-" Before she could say anything more, the other three girls that would be coming to Jang Hui - Ratana, Jin, and Avizeh - carried their bags into the room. As far as travel partners went, Katara was happy with the group.

"We need to talk before the tournament when you get back," Toph said cryptically, starting to slide out of the room. As she did, Zuko swept past her.

"Lady Bei Fong, stay a moment," he said, his tone even, but Katara watched his eyes burn. She noticed he also moved out of his way to stand at least six feet away, as though the mere closeness of their bodies would incite another rumor.

"Ladies, I have just been informed that you will be traveling alone for most of the trip," Zuko said, frowning apologetically.

"But why?" Avizeh pouted.

"My father wishes me to hand-deliver some ball invitations to some important allies of his, and time is something we do not have much of. You will spend the first two days and nights there yourselves, with plenty to do, and I will join in on the last night. The trip is also being extended a night so I do have a chance to spend time there. If you need to grab any more clothes, a maid will run and fetch them now," Zuko said, standing back to reveal four maids patiently waiting. Avizeh threw open her luggage, calling to her handmaid, and trying to decide what to bring in addition. Ratana conveyed a short instruction to hers. Jin shrugged, deciding she was fine, as did Katara.

As the girls repacked their bags, Katara saw Zuko turn to Toph.

"Lady Bei Fong, while I am gone, best behavior," he said in a low tone.

"I got you Spark-err, Prince Zuko," Toph said, correcting herself at the last moment. Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I am serious. You cough on the wrong portrait, someone will know and it will be reported back to my father and myself. In light of this, you'll have your handmaid follow you. Everywhere."

Toph's respectful expression dropped.

"You're giving me a handler again?" she hissed, "Awe, c'mon, don't be like that!"

Zuko shrugged in a 'you did this to yourself' sort of manner. "Take it or leave it."

Toph seemed to pull herself together, biting her tongue. "Of course, my Prince," she said, sarcasm heavy on her voice.

"I like the words, but drop the attitude," Zuko hissed. "You're really not doing yourself any favors."

"Oh, don't worry," Toph muttered as he swung around and left. "I seem to be perfectly capable of fucking things up myself…"

XXxxXX

The girls in the carriage deferred immediately to Ratana for information on their location, since she was a native from the small town that most had never heard of. Katara recalled a few things she'd discussed, such as the legend of the Painted Lady, but not everyone had been present.

"It's really cool," Ratana said, her eyes bright. "It's a structure of a village built entirely on the water. The houses all float."

"So, how do you get around?" Jin asked.

"Well, on boats. I've been sailing since I was three," she said with a small giggle, and despite being a Fire Nationer, Katara thought once again that she and Ratana were not so different. "It used to be really beautiful."

"Used to?"

Ratana's expression darkened. "Fifteen years ago, the Fire Nation army set up a weapons factory, and it's been destroying everything ever since." She swallowed hard. "When I was ten, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt and Uncle in a different town. I think they were worried I would not survive. Many are starved and dirty and hungry. I'm lucky...my parents are nobles there. The only reason they refuse to leave is that my family has lived there as far as anyone can recall." Ratana smiled out the window, but it was a sad smile. "Perhaps we'll do some good when we arrive there. That's why we're being sent, aren't we?"

"I hope so," Jin said sincerely, placing a hand over Ratana's. "That sounds awful."

"I've made it this far in the competition, so my village is getting food, but that doesn't fix everything."

The girls took up most of their time by playing group games between them. They were all relatively friendly and nice, and it was much easier to play with all four than only three or two. They also discussed the upcoming fights, since it seemed difficult to imagine much else.

Avizeh had already accepted defeat, Katara knew.

Jin said she'd try, but it was clear she wasn't sure she'd prevail.

Ratana was a bit more hopeful. "I may not be the best fighter, but I've been fighting for what I want or what I deserve my whole life. This will be no different."

Katara eventually just read a book of poetry as the carriage rumbled on. It hardly felt awkward for there to be silence, everyone doing their own thing. Jin looked out the window and tilted her head, frowning.

"I thought you said that the town is on a river," she said.

"It is."

"Well, was there a drought? All I see is a dusty road." Katara tilted her head out her window to see a wide, barren road at the bottom of the ridge they were on. But no, was it...moving?

Ratana nearly upended the carriage, throwing herself to the windows to see. When she pulled back, her expression was pinched.

"That is the river."

Her words chilled Katara's body, as well as the other two girls'. In a flash, everyone understood.

Ratana switched places with Jin. "Down there...there's my village," she said, her voice breaking as she motioned to a tiny collection of what looked like sticks in the middle of the brown river.

"We're not going down there," Katara said.

"Well, there's probably not any good lodging there," Ratana spat furiously. "I'm sure that we're staying up near the factory. There's a place for families to reside in when they visit. I'm sure that's it."

Indeed it was. It was hardly an hour later that they were pulling up to what looked like a posh resort, so markedly different than the town below them, even from what Katara could see. If someone only saw a drawing of this building, they'd never guess it was next to a factory or a river that was more dirt than water.

"Welcome, welcome, ladies!" a man said, "I am sorry to hear the Prince will not be joining us for a few days, but I can assure you that you will be well cared for. I am Jhon, and I will be your host!" he said. "Oh, someone can take your bags to your rooms for you," he added as Katara tried to grasp hers.

"Oh, are we going right down to the town?" Jin asked, tilting her head. She was already tying up her hair, ready to work. Everyone was. No one in this group was cold-hearted and it was clear the town was in need. Even Avizeh, who perhaps had an issue keeping things to herself, was not a malicious person at heart.

Jhon laughed until he read the faces of the four. "Why in Agni's name would you go down there?" he asked.

"I just...I thought we…" Jin said, frowning, looking back at Ratana helplessly, "Aren't we doing service in the town?"

"No!" Jhon seemed horrified. "That's hardly where your services are needed. You'll be spending the time boosting the moral of the factory workers! Many of them come and serve our Fire Lord diligently and rarely get time to go home. I'm sure that many will be very pleased to see such lovely faces and enjoy your presence," Jhon said, completely serious. "You'll also be helping make some tokens that the Fire Lord is giving out at the ball this weekend, a remembrance of the Choice."

"So...we're not going into town at all?" Avizeh asked, breathless and confused.

"You don't have to worry about that, my dear," Jhon replied, as though lifting a great weight from their shoulders.

Jin and Avizeh exchanged worried looks but started to follow Jhon. Katara clenched her fists, looking back at Ratana. She was glued in place, her cheeks red with fury and embarrassment and tears gathering in her eyes.

Zuko was not here to help. Katara knew she had little agency as a woman, and just one of four here at that, but she could not stay silent.

"Lady Ratana is from here," Katara said, intercepting Jhon, crossing her arms. "Surely it would be cruel to not allow her to go down and visit her flesh and blood?"

"We can bring them up here-"

"Sir, just as your factory men no doubt long for their houses, I'm sure Ratana does too. She has not been home since she was ten. Are you truly going to refuse?"

Jhon hesitated.

Katara smiled widely at the remaining girls. "I am positive that the factory men will be just as enchanted with my fellow ladies here. We will be up later tonight, fear not. It just seems unnecessarily strict to not allow Lady Ratana this."

"Well...you..."

"We will be back before sun-down, of course," Katara said with a gracious smile, turning around and grasping Ratana's arm before he could stop them. "Ta!"

Once they were on the path down to town, and Ratana had found a boat to take them in, she burst into tears.

"How could Zuko be so mean to not allow us to help?"

"Zuko is kind," Katara said, and she knew this without question. "I doubt it was his choice," she said, patting her back. "As soon as he arrives, I am positive that we can persuade him that we've spent two days with the factory workers."

"Okay, okay," Ratana said, wiping her eyes. "Oh, I don't want to look like a mess to see my family again."

"You look beautiful," Katara said earnestly.

As soon as they reached the town, Katara saw that she had been entirely misguided with how badly gone the town was. She'd thought it to be on the level of her tribe before they'd left, however, it was worse in a totally different way.

Most people only had the strength to lift their heads as Katara passed through with Ratana. She saw so many sick, so many starving that it tore her heart to pieces. The entire town stunk, and most had a cough that would not leave.

"It's worse than my parents let on," Ratana inhaled hard, her shoulders slumped and her whole expression utterly defeated.

Ratana's home was by far the most well-groomed, though not by much. There were only tattered curtains in place of shutters, while most houses had none, and the door was partially broken. There was an attempt for furniture, though it was dusty and unrepaired. It had once been beautiful, Katara was sure, but age and sickness had taken its toll.

"Mom? Dad?" Ratana asked, turning around. She waited for three beats. "They're not here."

Ratana made a beeline for the kitchen. Katara followed, feeling as though she was walking over ghostly remains.

"My mom is a medicine woman, she's probably helping," Ratana muttered to herself. "And my father is just a good person."

Ratana opened the cabinets and icebox. The items looking back were few and far between, nothing worthy of a full meal. Most of it was rotten too. Katara coughed at the stench as Ratana furiously threw them out.

"Come, we're going to get them some more food," Ratana said.

Katara followed her through the town a weird daze, just so overwhelmed by the poverty and lack of fight of the entire village. Even at her tribe's worst, they'd always had hope and pride and the love of their people. This town looked on the verge of sinking away altogether, metaphorically and literally. As Katara walked over the planks, she could feel them hiss under her weight, sinking a bit more into the muddy river.

At the town center was a little rickety hut.

"We used to sell many fish," Ratana explained. "I doubt there have been good catches of late." She paused a few feet away. "Err, so, there's a man we're about to meet. His real name is Dock. He's friendly and harmless, but also a bit unstable."

"Unstable?"

"Mentally," Ratana said. "He's so nice, so don't fear. However, his two brothers - Xu and Bushi - died not long after the river was polluted. He didn't fare much better. He survived his illness, but it's messed some things up. He believes himself to be three different people. In a sense, he's taken on his brothers' spirits. So right now, we'll meet Xu, the store owner. Dock works on the docks and Bushi works in sanitation. He switches between the three."

"And you let him?"

"Why break his heart?" Ratana asked softly.

She left Katara, flabbergasted, and walked up to the counter. She tapped twice and an older man popped up.

"Lady Ratana, do my eyes deceive me? Oh, you look exactly like your mother!" he said, leaning over-enthusiastically to hug her. "Me and my brothers haven't seen you since you were, oh, this tall!" he said, holding out a hand below the counter.

"Xu, how are your brothers?" Ratana asked kindly, kissing his cheek.

"You can ask them yourself!" Xu said. Katara watched him pop below the counter's view and come back up with a different hat on.

"It's been tough on the river without many people needin' rides, but I'm doing okay. It's sure good to see you, Ratana. You know, Bushi would love to see you," Xu, err, Dock, said.

"Can you grab him?" Ratana said.

"Of course!"

Xu reappeared with another hat on. For a bit, Katara watched Ratana interact with the 'three brothers,' never letting it slip that she did not believe them differently. Katara wondered if this truly was the kind thing to do?

Finally, Ratana looked at the sky, scowling. "Can you fetch Xu again? I'd like to buy some food."

"Course!" Bushi said though Katara at this point was a bit confused about who was who.

"This is what we have today," Xu said, dropping a crate of odious smelling fish on the table, most that were double-headed or similarly disfigured. All were oozing with gray sludge. That could not be healthy.

"Isn't there anything else?" Ratana asked, horrified. "What about the food shipment? I know that one just arrived here two days ago. Or do you all distribute that freely?"

"Err, that…" Xu rubbed his neck. "That goes up to the factory."

The color drained from Ratana's face. "What?" She seemed almost ready to fall over. Katara took a step next to her, just in case she fainted. "But that's for the town!"

"They argued that the factory is part of the town," Xu said. He swallowed. "They give us some money for it. Since no one is making anything, we can't really say no...need it to get medicine from the next town over."

"But...that's...it's…" Ratana seemed like her brain had stopped working. "No!"

"Have you sold all of it yet?" Katara asked, "To the factory?"

"Someone's meant to come down tonight to get the rest of it." Xu rubbed his neck. "I'm not sure that-"

"Whatever they're paying you," Katara growled, reaching inside of her pockets. "I will make it more worth your while."

All girls were given a stipend to spend and Katara was not about to worry about using it now. There was nothing more worthwhile she'd want to spend it on. Then, she took off her rings and necklace, all baubles from the Palace, and dropped it soundly on the counter.

Xu hesitated, but could not resist, and pulled out a few crates of vegetables, rice, meat, and soups. It was meager but more than nothing. Katara was sure she had overpaid, but she was not going to care about that. If this is what it took...this is what it took.

"The factory might be a bit mad…" Xu said, still uneasy. "They don't have good food either."

"Then they shouldn't be poisoning their one food source," Katara spat.

Ratana sectioned off a small portion, holding it to her chest as though she were afraid it would slip into the water, before pushing the crate back to the shopkeeper. "Can you and your brothers give the rest of this to those that need it?" she whispered.

"We'll do what we can."

Ratana led Katara to the town center. There, in the middle, was a statue of the Painted Lady, though it was horribly dirty. The paint on it was chipped, parts of it were gouged out, and in all, she looked more dead than alive.

"Lady of the River, please, please," Ratana whispered fervently, dropping to her knees. "Your people won't survive much longer."

Katara watched silently as Ratana prayed, tears spilling over her cheeks. Her whole body was shaking with silent fury, sometimes she was so overwhelmed she was unable to speak and just clutched the bottom of the idol's feet, wishing that someone would help them.

It was a sobering sight.

As it crept into half-an-hour of prayer, a slight woman who looked like Ratana joined in. Behind her stood a man who had Ratana's kind eyes.

"Mum!" Ratana cried, throwing herself into her mother's arms.

Katara studied them. Their robes were made of fine fabrics, but they were patched and dusty. They both looked better fed than most, but they were still gaunt. Ratana's mother turned and coughed and a sick feeling sank in Katara's stomach; they could not sustain themselves like this. Her parents were going to run themselves to their death trying to help their village.

Katara sat in the shadows, letting Ratana have a moment with her family.

"Oh! This is Katara," Ratana said, "She's the one who bought the entire village food. And convinced that idiot from the factory to let me come down here."

"The Southerner," Ratana's father said. "We've heard much about you."

"Probably not all good," Katara sighed.

"It hardly matters what they all say," Ratana's mother said, pulling Katara into a hug. "Your actions, from what Ratana has said, mean you are a kind person with a good heart."

Ratana's parents tried to argue that the food they still had should be given to others, but Ratana would not hear of it. She made them a meal, and despite their reservations, they both tore into it hungrily as soon as it was placed in front of them.

They told Ratanana about all the sick, ill, and dying as they ate.

It sounded so familiar to Katara's own family she could not stop her eyes from misting. Ratana listened, absorbing it, but was unable to do anything.

When they had to leave, Ratana nearly could not.

"What if this is the last time I see you?" she asked. "I'm going to leave the competition. I can't! I can't."

"No, my sweet," her father said firmly. "You will see us again. And I will not allow you to throw away this chance."

"I don't want it without you."

"We are strong. We will prevail," her mother said. "Now go, before you get in trouble."

Outside the doors of the factory, Katara turned. She put Ratana's hair back into a braid, wiped the makeup that had messed up her face, and helped her dust off her robes. They both knew Ratana would not be allowed a moment to collect herself, or a night alone.

They were led into the main mess hall, where the factory workers gathered and had music nights after long days of work. Avizeh and Jin were already being friendly, playing board games or talking to different groups.

Ratana forced a bright smile and greeted a group that called over to her. Across the way, Katara saw Avizeh and Jin turn in question, about to ask about their little trip, but one firm shake of Katara's head sobered them.

Katara feared if Ratana were asked about it, she'd break down in tears and be unable to pick herself back up.

The night dragged on. It felt so stupid that Katara had to sit there doing little waterbending tricks for these villains while people were dying down in Jang Hui. She was itchy and distracted most of the night, despite her best efforts. When they were finally brought to their rooms, Katara muttered 'finally' out loud. Jhon, if he heard, ignored her.

Once in their rooms, Katara leaped on her suitcase.

She now knew she could not wait for Zuko's arrival. She couldn't wait two days for him to fix things. She had to do something immediately.

When she'd been packing, her fingers had grabbed something she'd almost forgotten. It was like there had been a fog around her mind, concealing this from her until this very moment. It was the oddest addition to her suitcase. She could not explain in any words or gestures what in the world had possessed her to grab her Painted Lady costume to bring.

Though, as she laid it out, it felt like kismet.

The real Painted Lady wasn't going to help her town? Fine, Katara would do what she could. She was never going to turn her back on those that needed her.

Chapter Text

Katara yawned widely the next morning, shuffling her feet as the girls walked to the dining hall. They'd be having all their meals with the factory workers.

 

While Katara knew that all these men individually were not bad people, she still could not help the feeling of anger that was growing, festering, inside her stomach as she looked at them. Her hatred for this entire factory made it difficult to focus on much else, but at least it distracted her from how weary and exhausted she was.

 

She'd spent the whole night healing people and separating out mud from water, leaving buckets of clean water at doorsteps. Her fingers were aching and her head was pounding. She was starved.

 

Luckily, Ratana was also yawning so no one assumed anything amiss. Though, from the dark circles and her puffy eyes, Katara knew she'd likely been crying all night.

 

They got in line for food, and as Katara was waiting for some coffee, there was a commotion down the line. One of the factory workers was arguing with a cook.

 

"What do you mean there are no scrambled eggs, man? I always eat eggs!" he cried petulantly.

 

"I don't know what to tell you," the cook said tensely, rubbing his face. "We don't have any."

 

"But, you always have some!"

 

"Not today, alright? I must have misplaced the batch of eggs that we got the other day and some jerk down in town bought all the rest from that batshit insane man. No eggs today," he said firmly. "We're also out of lettuce if you're going to make a fuss about that."

 

A factory worker near Katara snorted, "Baby."

 

Katara got her food and sat at a table with some of the workers she'd 'befriended' last night.

As they were chatting lightly over their morning sustenance, a man tiredly slumped into a seat.

 

"Oh, he's one of the watchmen. His shift just ended," A worker informed Katara. "Anything good?" he teased, "Or boring as usual?"

 

"Actually," The watchman frowned, "It wasn't a usual night. There's some activity going down in that stinky little town."

 

Ratana perked up two tables over.

 

"Oh, really?" Katara said, encouraging him on, giving him a wide smile.

 

"Yeah. Don't know why they decided to get off their asses today, but it seemed like they were cleaning that old statue of their stupid goddess or whatever. Lots of people seemed...healthier." he said, shaking his head. "Like something just came in the night and healed a bunch of people. It's insane."

 

Ratana dropped her mug. "She heard my prayers!" she said.

 

Jin jumped up, grasping her mug from the floor. As she stood, she hugged Ratana and placed her head on her shoulder for just a second.

 

"Thank the spirits," Jin murmured, a soft smile bobbing on her lips. Avizeh was pleased too, and while it was clear the factory workers looked uneasy, no one dared argue with these beautiful girls in front of them.

 

Katara tiredly sipped her coffee, trying to hide the grin on her face.

 

XXxxXX

 

The day's activities took the girls on a tour of the facilities with an in-depth explanation of how the weapons were made. If Katara were not so put out with the entire factory, she'd find it terribly interesting. She tried to remember a bit of it, knowing that Sokka would have been like a kid in a candy store here. He'd always discussed wanting to make his own weapons, and he would have asked a million questions. There were times that Katara almost forgot she was supposed to be hating the factory, such as when they got to see hot steel being poured into the molds and Katara was asked to use her bending to help by pouring hot water over the steaming molds and it made such a satisfying sound, but she regained her stony composure when she saw how much waste was poured down the drain.

 

She knew where that drain went.

 

After the long tour, the girls were split off with some of the more artistically-talented members in the factory to create little metal coins for each of the remaining girls in the competition. From what they explained, it was Ozai's idea. The girls would receive thirty of these at the start of the masquerade and give them out to whomever they wanted, such as if someone managed to guess their identity beneath the mask.

 

At that moment, Katara understood what Ozai was doing.

 

The ball wasn't a scheme to get something in or out of the palace, but rather, it was one big smokescreen. For as much uncertainty as there was surrounding the airbenders, Ozai was throwing this on as a sort of 'look, how could we be near war or a revolution if I'm still throwing balls' sort of action. To give a token would encourage those that wanted to collect. It was just another chance to rub elbows with the truly rich and forget about all the other issues, and they were using the girls as centerpieces.

 

It wasn't as though that was different from usual, Katara considered.

 

Still, she was the least excited by this idea. The other girls seemed cautiously optimistic. It was innovative and unique and it gave some amount of power to the girls at the ball. They'd choose who they gave the tokens to, not the other way around.

 

The girls would sit with an artist and try to come up with tokens for each lady. Then, each of the four designs would be put in front of the one who was making the molds, and he'd choose the best (easiest, Katara understood) one to create. He did have to go about making eighteen of them by the ball's start, which was not that far away.

 

They were encouraged to think of an animal or a flower or something girly that described each contestant. Sometimes, it was easy for Katara to think of an idea. She may hate the people and the institution making these coins, but for most girls, she wanted them to have a good design. She wanted to honor her friends.

 

The easiest by far was Toph's, since her family had their own animal.

 

As the man Katara was bouncing ideas off of began to sketch within the small circle, he cleared his throat.

 

"Can I ask you a question? Is Lady Bei Fong-"

 

"No."

 

"No I can't ask you?" He looked up. "Or no as the answer?"

 

"Both."

 

"You don't even know what I was going to ask," he said, scoffing.

 

"Oh, but I do. It's a no," Katara bit out. She might be a bit annoyed with Toph presently, but she would still defend her honor.

 

"Hmm," the factory worker said, but Katara got the feeling he did not believe her.

 

The rest of the day was spent playing board games or playing instruments with the workers again. Katara stayed her time, and tried to be less obvious she was displeased.

 

As night fell, Jin revealed she was given a bottle of sake by one of the head factory workers and she invited the girls to her room. While part of Katara longed to be able to sit with these women and giggle about their days and get drunk from the sweet intoxications, she had a job to do.

Last night she'd done the easy sort of healing; broken bones, bruised ribs, collapsed lungs. She'd had plenty of practice with those sorts of things before. Plus, to encourage muscle or bones to stitch back together underneath skin, while unpleasant for the receiver, was not a difficult task. She just needed to focus her water there and it was simple.

 

You know what was harder? Healing illness and fever. There wasn't anything for Katara to latch on to. It was untouchable. Illness was an overall feeling and it was something she was not used to healing. However, this is what ailed most and she'd be a pretty shitty spirit stand-in if she couldn't do that.

 

She was not about to admit defeat.

 

Her first patrons would be Ratana's parents. Those two, who gave themselves to their town tirelessly, deserved to be able to continue doing so. Depending on how the night went and how confident Katara was, she even wondered if she'd be able to heal Dock. Was it possible for her to fix a brain that was shattered, the most abstract of illnesses there was?

 

She brushed the dirt off of her robes and painted her face, and as she slipped out onto her patio, she heard the girls laughing from one room over.

 

Ratana deserved some happiness. Let them have it, she thought. She did this so others did not have to.

 

XXxxXX

 

"You okay, Princess Katara? You look a little pale."

 

"Just tired," Katara said firmly. "Sorry, what were you talking about?" she asked, putting on her most interested face and leaned in, taking another gigantic drink of coffee.

 

Last night had been more exhausting than the first.

 

There were many times she'd wanted to give up. Times when she thought that maybe certain illnesses just could not be fixed or that she'd done all she could do. Times when she imagined she was not skilled enough and would have to leave the job half-done.

 

That was not in Katara's personality, however.

 

She was not sure if she'd healed everyone, but she knew she'd given her everything. It was clearly affecting her – she felt ill herself. Of course, she did; she'd spent the entire night using a lot of energy and had maybe nabbed an hour of sleep at the end of it. She was looking forward to the ride back to the Palace tomorrow, where there existed all the time in the world and it was as dull as Earth Kingdom mathematical presentations, so Katara could just sleep it off.

 

"Maybe if you're lucky, the Painted Lady will come and visit you tonight," the watch guard said with a hint of humor.

 

"More activity?" One of the workers turned to the guard who'd sat with them yesterday, surprise coloring his face.

 

"Yeah, I think she healed most of their sickness last night. Or the rest of 'em. They're practically ecstatic. They're throwing a festival, last I saw."

 

"All because of a spirit?" one guard said, scrunching his nose. "No one actually believes they exist...right?"

 

A few of his comrades around the table gave half-hearted shrugs. Katara scowled at him. Those who denied the existence of spirits were looking for bad accidents to befall them, or for a spirit to leave him out in times of need.

 

"Can you believe how much an entire village can be affected by one lady - I mean, spirit?" Katara asked. "I think it's fantastic."

 

"Sure," one of the guards said unsurely, "I mean, that town needs it. I hope she's around to stay."

 

"Huh?" Katara blinked.

 

"Well, the place will go right back to how it was if she skips a night of her voodoo," the guard said in a factual tone.

 

"You...they…" Katara floundered. "But look how much happier they seem!" she argued sharply.

 

"Yeah, today. Tomorrow it will be right back to how it was. People will continue to be sick. They can't afford food or water, no more than we can. I mean, seriously, this is just like patching a hole with tape. It's bound to come undone eventually."

 

Katara seethed in her spot.

 

As much as she wanted to punch this guy, he was right. She could fix to her heart's content, but without food or without water, and not a single delivery but something sustainable, it was all for naught.

 

"Maybe she'll use her spirit magic to make them immortal or something," the non-believer teased, wiggling his fingers.

 

"Spirit magic doesn't work like that, Chen!" the logical worker said, hitting him on the back of the head. "I think it's more like this," he said and waved his arms around. The pair broke into sniggers.

 

Katara stood up abruptly.

 

"Where are you going, Princess Katara?"

 

"I think perhaps I'll go see the infirmary," Katara lied, but in truth, she could not stand another second.

 

"That's for the best. You look awful."

 

In her heart, she knew that making everyone immortal was illogical. That couldn't be done. She had to protect these people after she'd left.

 

It was clear where the issue was stemming from, even as all the workers skirted around it. The factory was the root of the issue.

 

Which meant, simply, it had to go.

 

Before Katara could exit, there was great fanfare. Katara watched as Zuko came in, smiling and waving.

 

Ratana slipped up behind Katara, grasping her forearm hard. The other girls joined Katara's side, watching silently as Zuko said a few words and shook a few hands.

 

Soon, he'd turned his attention to the girls waiting.

 

"Prince Zuko, I need to talk to you alone," Ratana said. "Or, err, Katara can be there too. I want her there," she said, linking her fingers into Katara's.

 

"Later tonight-"

 

"No." Ratana might have a sharp wit, but she'd never used it on the Prince, nor taken this tone with him. "Now."

 

Zuko was so shell-shocked that he just blinked and nodded. "Alright...I uhm, follow me."

 

Katara would let Ratana talk. This was Ratana's town and her fight, even if Katara was aiding. Zuko led them to a meeting room. Katara sat silently and watched as Zuko motioned for her to speak, worry creasing his forehead.

 

Ratana started but immediately started crying.

 

"Should I-?" Katara started but Ratana shook her head.

 

"No, no! I can do it," she said and managed to take a few deep breaths.

 

The next half an hour was spent with Ratana describing in horrifying detail the state of her hometown. She spared no ugly truth from him, and Katara watched as Zuko's face grew clouded and dark as she spoke. Many times, Katara wanted to add something in, but that would mean admitting to Ratana that she was masquerading as the Painted Lady, as well as telling Zuko of her nightly trips and activities, some of which were illegal.

 

When Ratana had finished, Zuko sat for a moment. "I'm glad you told me about this. I'm quite disturbed by this account."

 

"What are you going to do?" Ratana asked. Zuko offered her a handkerchief and she accepted it, dabbing her eyes.

 

The answer was obvious, Katara thought.

 

But, Zuko shook his head. "I will have to think about that. But I assure you, something will be done."

 

Ratana seemed pleased by this, but Katara hardly was. The pair were excused back to their activities and Zuko had other things to be doing. After making sure Ratana really was fine, Katara doubled back to catch up with Zuko.

 

"Zuko!" she said, storming after him.

 

"You were unusually silent during that meeting, Katara," Zuko said. "I am surprised you had no opinions to add."

 

"You have to close down this factory. Now," Katara said firmly, pressing her hand into her fist. Zuko gave a light laugh.

 

"Ah, there it is."

 

"Is this a joke to you?" Katara demanded, "Something funny?"

 

"No! Spirits-" Zuko backtracked, eyes wide. "It's not that easy-"

Katara felt her mouth go dry. She pulled her emotions back in. She could stand there and fight until she was purple in the face, but Zuko was not going to listen or do anything worthwhile. He'd send them some food, maybe, and an apology.

 

If you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself.

 

"Of course, Prince Zuko," Katara said, lip quivering, "May I be excused from the day's activities? I'm feeling a bit ill."

 

Zuko inhaled, eyes concerned, and stepped forward to place a hand on her forehead. He rested it a moment longer than needed and seemed regretful when he pulled back. The feeling of his warm hand stayed in her memory.

 

"You are quite hot," Zuko said, then choked. "I mean...warm...ill...sick. Sickly," he said, nodding once. "Yes, go and rest in the hotel, please."

 

She felt her heart flutter at the tone underneath his attempt to be cordial. It was fear, for her, for this sickness.

 

She bit her lip, wanting to say more, but unsure what to say. Besides, she needed to go and rest up.

 

She had big plans tonight.

 

XXxxXX

 

Katara sliced across the padlock with her waterbending, catching the chains before they clattered to the ground. She hid against the wall of the factory as a searchlight roamed over the uneven grass, highlighting the space an inch away from her toes.

 

Silent as a feather falling on snow, she slid into the factory.

 

The steam caused her to sweat immediately. She knew that they warmed and heated the metal during the night to pour during the day, with only a skeleton crew around to make sure there were no accidents.

 

There would surely be a few tonight.

 

She came to the first vat, her plan being to flood the entire factory. Destroy their material. Mangle it, make it unusable and completely unfixable.

 

She pulled water from the damp air, making it a sharp water-whip. Just as she was about to create the first blow, righteousness digging deep in her heart, there was a low laugh.

 

She spun, furious and terrified, just as someone said:

 

"I knew it."

 

"You!" Katara hissed, storming up to Zuko, pressing an ice-knife against his throat. "What are you doing here?"

 

It was only as she focused on him in his entirety that she realized he was not wearing nightclothes or Prince clothes, but his Blue Spirit ensemble. The mask was pushed upon his head, his swords dropped by his feet.

 

"Are you going to turn me in?" she asked in a cold tone, tilting her head, "Or just here to watch?"

 

Zuko's eyes flickered to the knife as though to say, 'so we're threatening princes now', but he did not resist her. She knew he could. This in itself made her release her grip, just an inch.

 

"Well," Zuko said in a low tone, "When I arrived, the first thing I heard from the head of the factory was about some odd things going on in the town below. About how their sick were being healed, how they now had food and water, and how they were praising the Painted Lady. Funny how she appeared right when we did?" Zuko said, raising an eyebrow. "And I had the thought...hmm, that seems like something Katara would do. Then, after you and Ratana talked to me, you gave up your argument much too quickly. Suspiciously quickly. And I thought, damn, she's not going to something stupid and illegal, is she? But, here we are."

 

"More than you're doing," Katara spit, stepping back. "You're going to let those people down there die to protect your precious metal workers!"

 

"Despite what you think, I cannot just snap my fingers and close down a factory!" Zuko said. "I'm not the Fire Lord, I don't have that sort of power! Did you honestly think I'd do nothing?"

 

Katara did not want to think so, but she gave a grumpy shrug.

 

"Katara...I was finding a solution. The people down there aren't just my people, so are the people here. I'm not trying to choose one over the other! Most of these people are just workers. Low-class, pay-day to pay-day workers with families they haven't seen in years! They aren't choosing to purposefully do this, they don't have a choice!" Zuko said. "I have to do the best thing for both groups."

 

"One group is inches from death!"

 

"So, what, you're going to…"

 

"Destroy this place," she said.

 

"You know what happens if you break that there?" Zuko asked, pointing to the steaming tank, "It spills down, probably through the floor. Do you know what's below us?"

 

Katara blinked, unsure.

 

"Bunks. You'd be killing hundreds of innocents and yes," Zuko held up a hand before she could argue, "They are innocent."

 

"So you're going to drag me away then?"

 

"I'm here to help. Prince Zuko cannot destroy a factory, but the Blue Spirit can," Zuko said, grinning.

 

Katara stared at him, flabbergasted. He saw her face and laughed. "You thought you'd get all the fun, huh?"

 

"But you just...said…"

 

"I was going to suggest you're not so obvious about it," Zuko said. "I mean, c'mon...you steal a crate of eggs and a crate of eggs arrive in town? I'm surprised that you haven't started a civil war, Katara," he said, a hint of aggravation in his tone. "You destroy this in a clearly obvious way, who do you think the workers will blame? A spirit?"

 

He shook his head, pulling his mask back over his face. He motioned for Katara to follow. He led her to the boiler room and picked the lock with his swords and the door swung open. He confidently walked over to one of the pieces of machinery that kept half of the foundry chugging away.

 

"If we corrode the pipes away here and let water in, it will fry the mechanics and it will shut down all of the machinery. It would take weeks to fix, but I'll have a solution by then." He shrugged. "It's not boom-flashy, but it works. It will work," he said, nodding to Katara.

 

Katara wasn't sure she believed him, but she focused on the water inside the pipes. She worked to freeze the water, making it push against the metal pipes. She could feel the resistance and tightened her grip. She was shaking by the time she burst the innards, and she released the water back to liquid form.

 

There was a spark and a hissing noise as smoke rose from the machine. The sound of the factory lessened; Katara ran back out to the walkways to see one-quarter of the factory cease to move. It was like someone had just paused it.

 

"One down, three to go," Zuko said.

 

Katara nodded, throwing herself back into work. By the time she was finished, all the machinery in the building had stopped its movement and the temperature had dropped twenty or so degrees, the fires having snuffed out and the metal cooled. Katara made sure to internally fry a couple other pieces of equipment, but it was much easier and more effective than her original plan, she was ready to begrudgingly admit.

 

"Now, nothing will tie back to you," Zuko said teasingly, poking her shoulder. "And tomorrow the factory will close. I just had to figure out a reason. The cost to fix this place will be astronomical and I'm sure my father will see the logic in shuttering the doors. Plus, I've lined up jobs for the workers, so they're not out of a job."

 

He led her to a trap-door. She followed, up onto the roof with him. Now, as the smog from the factory was disappearing, Katara could see the hint of a full moon peeking out behind the clouds.

 

"You didn't really do much," Katara said, "I believe I did the heavy lifting."

 

"I came early and looked up the schematics of the machinery to make sure it would work! I had to break into like five rooms." Zuko made an affronted nose. "Plus, I had to make sure you weren't about to be tried for treason."

 

He leaned against a smoke-stack. He lifted his arm, inviting Katara to sit next to him.

 

It was hard to pretend she was still completely mad at him, and hard to ignore this night, where things seemed like they might just be alright.

 

She slid into the space he offered.

 

"And the town?" she asked. From their vantage, it was a speck on the brown expanse.

 

"I figure that you can go down tomorrow and teach the people how to clean the rivers. With the factory gone, it will be easier. It will take time, but soon they'll be able to fish from there again. Build an economy. In the meantime, the Fire Nation will provide aid. They'll be alright," he assured, leaning against her so that his head rested on the crown of hers.

 

"Good," Katara said softly, "That's all I wanted."

 

"Oh, come on, you liked it," He teased. "You like the thrill of it all."

 

Katara sat her hat to her side and lifted his mask off, noticing how his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were darkened. "It doesn't just seem to be me," she said, fingernails trailing lightly over his cheek. "Prince Zuko, does destruction of property, breaking and entering, and criminal activity turn you on?" she asked, moving so that she was kneeling in front of him, her legs over his leg that was stretched out.

 

Zuko laughed, trailing the edge of his tongue over his teeth. "Kettle black, Katara," he said, but did not deny it. He leaned in, digging his black gloves into her hair, pulling her in to kiss him. He did so hungrily; as though he were starving and she was an apple in a desert. Katara pulled herself onto his lap, pushing herself closer to him, refusing to have an inch of space between the pair.

 

One of his hands dropped to her thighs, digging into her skin and shoving up the fabric that pooled around her. Goosebumps raised on her leg as it was exposed to the cool night air.

 

Zuko leaned back against the smoke-stack, moaning as he bucked up into Katara. His breath was warm as she nipped his lips, a shiver running down her spine, need coursing through her.

If she were going from the competition soon, shouldn't she go out in a bang?

 

As she was about to lift her dress over her head, the moon revealed itself completely from the clouds.

 

She froze, pulling back and breathed sharply.

 

It was very obvious in that moment where she was and what she was doing; about to disrobe on top of Prince Zuko on the edge of the roof of the factory they'd just destroyed. The terrifying thing was that the moon, as it often did, urged her on and made her feel like a different person. Like a person who would do this.

 

Zuko's face was smeared with white and red paint. He seemed to realize where the pair was, as well.

 

"Uhm…" he said, the fog clearing from his gaze.

 

Katara sat back on her haunches, breathing heavily. She'd begun to pull up his shirt, or it had rolled up in the mess of hands traveling all over, and his stomach was on display. She swallowed hard, looking down.

 

She'd of course seen Zuko shirtless before, and knew that he had more scars than just the obvious one. She had really only ever asked about the one on his face, all the others fading away into obscurity. There was one that she'd unearthed, near his rib-cage, and the puckered edge of it was illuminated by the moon's beams.

 

Katara touched it gently and she felt Zuko's abs harden beneath her touch.

 

"Where, uhm, what was this from?" she asked, trying to find a reason to stop what they were doing. And, she was actually curious.

 

Zuko covered his hand with her own, his fingers trailing the length of it.

 

"I'm not sure, to be honest," he said, blinking. "Well, I mean...it's been there for as long as I can recall. Never healed exactly right. My mom says when I was three I was playing with some swords left out when my dad was in a meeting and managed to get myself good."

 

Katara grinned at the idea of it, chuckling. "Ouch."

 

"Yeah. Luckily I guess, I don't remember it happening. I've always just grown up with it there," he said. "None of my scar stories are that exciting, not battle-worthy. Just stupid shit."

 

"Even that one?" Katara asked, her gaze flickering up to his facial scar.

 

Zuko winced visibly and Katara regretted even bringing it up. "That one especially," he said, his voice low and gravelly, "Stupid, but worth it."

 

Katara pressed her lips together. "Are you going to tell me one day?" She wasn't trying to press him, but she was curious since he'd said it wasn't how she imagined it. Her curiosity was piqued even more so. However, she understood that this was delicate, more so than recalling an incident with a katana in his youth.

 

"I hope so," Zuko said honestly. "We should probably sleep. In our own beds. Right now," he said, quick to clarify. Katara swallowed, knowing it was best.

 

She let Zuko walk her back to her hotel room. But, she was not ready to sleep.

 

She was itching in a way she couldn't describe. It was partially from Zuko and from that want, but there was something else bothering her.

 

Why had the real Painted Lady forsaken this town?

 

She did not know what she planned on doing, but Katara was pulled out of her bedroom window for the second time that night.

Chapter Text

The night was foggy, as though the moon was pushing up dust from the ground and freezing it in time, sending silvery beams to illuminate it.

 

The previous nights had been calm. Tonight felt charged with an energy Katara could not quite place but felt in her bones. The air outside reflected how she was inside; anxious, and walking like an invisible voice spoke to her.

 

It was eerie.

 

It felt unreal, as though she were trapped between the edge of reality and fiction. Almost dream-like, she considered, in the way that as she walked. She could not hear the crunch of her feet nor hear the crickets chirping far away.

 

There was no noise, she came to realize.

 

There was nothing except the deep fog that rolled around her, obscuring her vision on all sides.

 

She did not know where she was going. She did not know if she was walking on land or water or air at this point, but some invisible string tugged her around, bringing her deeper into this state.

 

She exhaled and saw her breath, as though the temperature dropped from almost comfortable to the chilling numbers she'd expect from the Southern Water Tribe.

 

Yet, despite this acknowledgment of the coldness, and that she could realize that yes it was colder than usual she herself was not cold. She wasn't warm either.

 

She just felt...felt as though she were existing at this moment. An interloper where she shouldn't be. Someone teasing the seam between real and unreal, somehow crossing and existing in both while also not existing in either.

 

The answer came to her with startling clarity; she was in the Spirit World.

 

Or, perhaps the Spirit World was in her world. She could not be sure, but the lines between the area had been blurred to the point where Katara was unsure if she was alive.

 

As she touched her heart beneath her costume, she could feel it fluttering.

 

That had to be a good sign, didn't it?

 

She took a step and heard a splash. She looked down to see she'd reached the water.

 

She took another step, and another until she was up to her waist. The moon's reflection rippled in front of her but distorted enough that Katara reached out to touch it.

 

She felt a chill immediately, but nothing like the cold from the wind. It was sort of that unearthly, cosmic feeling, something she did not think she had words to properly explain.

 

She blinked and there was nothing in front of her one moment, and then the next, there was a woman standing there.

 

She was dark in features and in clothes. Her eyes were a warm amber color, one that despite her chilly appearance, made Katara feel safe like she was a mothering figure. She was eternally dripping with water, and it ran rivers down her face and hair, coming from nowhere to vanish back into the sea without a trace, no ripples emanating from her figure.

 

It took Katara a second but she realized that this spirit almost looked like...like Azula, at least in the face. They had the same pointed chin, the same calculating gaze, the same hair...though this spirit's hair was as black as night, almost with a purple hue shimmering beneath it. She was ethereal and beautiful and terrifying all at once, all the things Katara thought a spirit would truly be.

 

"The town thanks you, Katara of the Water."

 

Katara found her voice, as though it had been shut off before. She would partially regret what she did next, but she would argue that her brain was fried from meeting a spirit, so she wasn't thinking right.

 

"The town thanks me? What about the Painted Lady?" Katara snapped, horrified at once that she was arguing with a goddess who could smite her to dust. At the small smile on the face of the spirit, as though the spirit was humored by this human in front of her, Katara felt like she had to continue. "Why is it that I had to come and save them when they've been praying to their goddess for years? Doesn't she care at all?" Katara asked, shaking hard.

 

"The people prayed to their goddess and she delivered," the spirit said simply.

 

"No. I arrived and saw that something needed to be done so I did it. That wasn't…" She frowned, unsure why the spirit did not understand. "It feels as though the Painted Lady has forsaken her people."

 

"The people prayed and you came. You always come back," the spirit said, "Even if you do not remember."

 

Katara frowned, her brain frantically trying to process what the spirit meant. Katara looked down and saw her reflection; her paint-stained face rippled. Then, just for a moment, in its place was the face of a woman with no paint on her face but the same markings, but she was wearing Katara's clothes.

 

Katara startled and this time there was a splash in the water. Katara heaved, unable to catch her breath, snapping her head up. "I don't...I do not understand…"

 

The spirit began to fade into the mist. Katara leaped forward, her limbs not working quite right, as she noisily splashed through the water. "Where are you going?"

 

"Do you not want to know?" the woman asked.

 

Katara followed.

 

As far as they went within the water, Katara never went under. Her clothes and hair were not wet. She walked through the river as though she were walking on the path.

 

The spirit led Katara to the town.

 

It was cast in shadows, and the lines weren't quite meeting up. It was a reflection of reality, this one paused. As they walked, Katara knew no townspeople would notice them at all.

 

"You do not recall. I suppose I should not have been surprised. I had wondered when you donned that...it felt like kismet, I believe?"

 

Katara nodded uneasily, recalling how it had fit her soul when she'd first slipped this costume on. It had felt more than just a costume, it had felt like an identity.

 

The woman led her to where the shrine for the Painted Lady had been, but it was not here now. Katara walked to it, confused.

 

There was a bloodstain on the wooden planks.

 

Katara looked back, but the spirit just floated in the mist, face unreadable.

 

Katara knelt down, reaching out to touch the space.

 

She was bombarded with memories. They weren't her own, but it felt as though they were. She was having a hard time separating them from her mind, as though she was recalling in vivid detail something that has never happened.

 

She gasped, and her skin burned with agony. She stretched out her arms to see claw marks scarring up and down them.

 

And her head! It hurt like...like...spirits, she felt so woozy. She couldn't even think. She slumped forward onto the wood, her head lying right where the bloodstain was.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pool of blood creep from beneath her head. She reached back to touch it, and as she raised her fingers to the pale light of the moon, she saw the sticky wetness of blood on her fingers.

 

Someone was standing over her. It was not the spirit. It was a man, wearing Fire Nation clothes, but they looked ancient, like the paintings she'd seen in the study from hundreds of years ago.

 

"Where are your spirits to save you now?" he sneered, spitting down on her. "Why would a Water Spirit save a Fire Nation town? It's the sort of people like you that sully our bloodlines."

 

Katara was yanked from that body. She was staring at the pair on the outside, an observer to this moment.

 

She started at the face of the man, this murder, fury lighting in her veins. Her gaze cast down to the woman, wearing a white dress that was torn and dirty. She saw the scar marks on her arms from where this man had wounded her.

 

She knew that this girl was dying.

 

As she traced up to her face, Katara could not breathe.

 

It was her face on the woman. Undeniably, it was her.

 

And though it went against any logical form, she could only murmur one quiet phrase, "That's me…"

 

She blinked and the shrine was back. The woman was gone. There was a smaller shrine in her place.

 

Not the one that was built today. It looked newer.

 

Katara touched her fingers to the newly painted wood and she was overcome by a thousand voices, all the villagers praying. Praying to her.

 

Praying to Katara.

 

But that wasn't...no, not to Katara...but also, simultaneously, to her.

 

Katara stumbled forward, the shrine now the current one. She touched the back of her head, the memory still fresh, and her head felt tender where she placed her fingers.

 

"I don't know what you mean," Katara said, tears burning on her eyes as she turned.

 

"Oh, but you do," the lady said gently, clasping her hands around Katara's. "You have returned to your village, even just for a time."

 

"But...I...I'm not... " Katara shook her head. "I'm just me, Katara."

 

But she at the same time was not. She knew, at her very core as it burned in protest, that she was the Painted Lady.

 

She shook hard. "I'm like Aang?" she questioned, her voice tiny and confused, "Or am I…"

 

"Your friend is a human with a spirit inside of him," The woman said, crouching down and petting Katara's hair. "You are completely human, make no mistake. Simply, a human that has lived thousands of lives, including one that was once a spirit. And though it's hard to hear, we often make the same circles, seek out the same things, live for the same reasons."

 

"I'm the Painted Lady," Katara echoed dizzily, "I was...I am…" She inhaled. "I was killed. I sacrificed myself for this town."

 

The goddess laughed, nodding, and her smile made Katara feel a little bit better. If even for a moment.

 

"What do I do now?" Katara asked. "If I'm...her...shouldn't I...but my tribe…" She felt torn in two. She was remembering living here now. She remembered how it was hundreds of years ago. She remembered her mother and father and a sister. She had a faint recollection of hundreds of lives in between, though none were as clear as that first one.

 

"You have done your part. Do not feel like you cannot live your life. It's what she wanted after all; to be human once again, live different lives. You have saved them. You have done your duty."

 

"Oh," Katara said, unable to say much else. "I was a goddess, but I wanted to be…"

 

"Human. Thus, you are, Katara."

 

"My name's not really Katara, then." She gave a dry laugh.

 

"But it is," the spirit said. "Mortals have a hard time understanding this, I do realize. You are Katara, just as you are also the Painted Lady. The essence of her, but not the literal spirit. Your souls are the same, but you are still you."

 

"Easy for you to say," Katara snipped, then flinched. "Erm, sorry."

 

The dark spirit chuckled. "It's fine. You've said worse to me. I suppose it comes with the territory sometimes."

 

Katara squinted at her. Another memory bobbed to the surface.

 

"You're...my mother-in-law. Or hers." She scowled, thinking. "The Dark Water Spirit. From Alcina's town."

 

The spirit dipped her head. She could feel the memories coming, like a wave rolling in, and she thought she'd be more prepared for it now.

 

Katara touched her own chest, gasping as she was overwhelmed with a love so vibrant it felt like she could think of nothing else. She cried for her love, the image of him just out of reach.

 

"Your son. My husband. I'm surprised he let me choose mortality again," she said. "Why would he not come to speak to me?"

 

The Dark Water Spirit blinked. "My dear, despite knowing the hurdles, he joined you in mortality. And has been, year after year. Sometimes, you find each other. Sometimes not." She turned to the sky, sighing. "You should be returning."

 

Katara nodded, unable to find a reason to argue, despite the questions swimming in her mind.

The spirit held out a hand. Just as Katara was about to touch it, the spirit pulled back. "Please, give my son my love."

 

Katara opened her mouth to ask who he was, but just like a flash of lightning, the face of her lover - the Blue Spirit - burst into her mind.

 

And Katara understood.

 

Just as she was the Painted Lady, Zuko was the reincarnation of the Blue Spirit, son of the Dark Water Spirit.

 

She touched the woman's hand.

 

When she blinked, she was sitting in her bed, her heart still pounding wildly in her chest.

 

XXxxXX

 

"Katara, may I speak to you?"

 

Katara blinked, hand tensing on the handle to the carriage.

 

"Oh, uhm, sure."

 

The other girls settled themselves inside as Zuko led her to the tree line.

 

The entire day had been a haze for Katara. It seemed each time she blinked she was somewhere else, her mind having completely taken over, putting her on auto-pilot.

 

That morning, the girls had awoken to the foundry in a tizzy. Zuko had announced, regretfully, that the best option would be to close for the moment and they'd do a full investigation on what caused the breakdown, though he suspected it was merely overworked machinery. He was completely ready with a list of locations that would take the men, as well as some apprenticeships, and informed the workers they'd have three days to gather their things and a week of paid vacation before they started their new jobs.

 

Most seemed not to care one way or another. A few were excited; they'd be moving closer to home. The general feeling was that one place couldn't be too dissimilar than another.

 

Zuko announced that Katara and Ratana would be helping the village today and the pair were sent down to the gleeful villagers, who believed the Painted Lady had helped close the factory.

 

Well, she had, Katara had thought almost sourly.

 

Each time she saw one of the villagers praying to the Painted Lady idol, Katara felt the strangest twinge inside of her. It was a flinch mixed with pride and joy. She wondered what they would all say if they truly knew their savior, the one they thought lived in some realm beyond them, walked amongst them?

 

Katara tried to keep her mind on the task of cleaning the water and teaching the villagers how to do so without waterbending or earthbending, as this was going to take months of cleaning, but whenever she had a free moment, her mind slipped.

 

The villagers had made good progress by the time they were called back.

 

Ratana paused at the gigantic statue they'd re-erected. Katara stared up at it too, her jaw clenching and her heart quickening.

 

That was her, hundreds of years ago. She had memories, some, at least. The ones from her first life, the one where she'd become a spirit, were the most present, as well as the years as an immortal. The other lives she's supposedly lived were less clear, hidden, dream-like.

 

It was all for the better.

 

Katara knew that reincarnation was a popular theory, but it was best that for most it was never confirmed. Having hundreds of years shoved into your brain was overwhelming.

 

She'd have to talk to Aang about this. He was the only other person who would understand, though their situations were entirely different. And her and Yue too! It was hard to imagine that there were so many forms of spirit possession, and yet, here they were.

 

There was Aang, who was one spirit that inhabited different bodies. He was timeless and unchanging, but with each new iteration, there was a new piece to his soul that made up one spirit bridge. He was not mortal, by all accounts. Yet, if you took the spirit away, Katara wondered if he could still survive?

 

There was Yue, which was more or less a spirit puppeting a body. It was impossible to tell where her spirit started and she ended, or if there were any remnants of Yue left at all. She was completely mortal, but could not live without the spirit.

 

And then there was Katara, who was formerly a spirit but was now an essence that jumped from one body to another. Though, she was unsure if she could be separated out, such as Aang was with his past selves. She imagined that when she'd die, there would not be a Katara in this state any longer.

 

It was a lot to wrap her presently very mortal mind around.

 

A part of Katara wondered how many people she passed were remnants of spirits who had done the same thing The Painted Lady had done? Then again, not many immortals gave that up, she reckoned. Perhaps she was unique.

 

Of course, there was one person who would understand...Zuko.

 

But should she even tell him?

 

She ran the risk of sounding insane if she did. She couldn't prove it, not by any real proof. There were only the images and the knowledge she held deep inside of her. She now looked at that scar they'd discussed and wondered if it actually was from a play fighting incident like he claimed, or if it was the wound that had murdered him in his first form.

 

Katara reminded herself to ask Alcina to retell the myth to her, which was now incredibly and startlingly relevant to her life.

 

More than that, Katara did not like the implications. She knew Zuko, who had loudly and clearly proclaimed he did not believe in fate, would like it even less.

 

What if the only reason they were meant to be together was that their souls demanded it? Was it real love if that was the truth or some fabricated idea?

 

The little incident last night did not mend all bridges. There were still issues and Katara was still unsure of her place, and of her safety, and of the next moves within the Palace. If she elected to tell Zuko, it may sound like a frantic last-ditch attempt to stay and all of it might be brushed away.

 

It was hurting her head and making her question every move.

 

If she could be spared of that...she might take it.

 

So, no, part of herself had made up her mind. She would not be telling Zuko about his past lives. There were so many reasons it was a bad idea.

 

But, most of all, if she were truly leaving...she wanted Zuko to be able to love someone else, not be thinking about if fate decided him to be with her. She didn't want that hanging over his head like it now hung over hers.

 

She was sparing him, she decided.

 

"You've hardly looked at me," Zuko said quietly. Katara bit her lip. She hadn't been able to meet his gaze, because when she did, she was seeing flashes of the Blue Spirit. Not his vigilante alternative, but of his prior life. The immortal side.

 

It was jarring, to say the least.

 

"I realize that last night...we...I'm so sorry."

 

Katara pressed her lips together.

 

"Don't apologize for that. I don't regret it," she said honestly, "It's not you. I'm just...it's something that's my own issue."

 

"Can I help?" Zuko asked. Katara sighed, forcing herself to meet his gaze.

 

"I don't think so, but thank you."

 

Zuko almost seemed like he was going to lead her back, but instead stood firm. "When we get back home, can we talk? Properly? Whatever is going on between us...I want to fix it," he said. "Just tell me how. I miss you. I miss being your partner in crime, I miss talking to you, I miss being your friend. Can we try?"

 

Katara's heart fluttered, though there was a seed of doubt of her own affections deep down. Still, she could not deny that her feelings felt real right now, and did anything else matter? If they felt true, they had to be, surely?

 

And he wasn't asking for her hand in marriage again. No, he was simply asking for an attempt. If he was willing to see where he'd gone wrong, to try to gain better conditions for Bahiravi and listen to her, if he wanted to talk…

 

Katara found no good reason to deny him.

 

"I've missed you too," Katara admitted softly.

 

Zuko pulled her into a tight hug. Katara's eyes prickled with tears as she pressed her face into his shoulder, wondering if they were already too late, what with the ball approaching in no time at all.

 

She hadn't gone on this trip expecting any clarity, but she'd gained far more than she'd been looking for.

 

Too bad it hadn't made anything easier.

 

Zuko stepped back, smiling, his whole face golden. He led Katara back to the carriage and opened the door.

 

"What was that about?" Avizeh asked, jumping onto the gossip, per usual.

 

"He wanted to make sure I was feeling better. I think it was just a one-day chill," Katara said.

 

As the carriage began to move, Katara watched out of the corner of her eye as Ratana took out a tiny carved Painted Lady.

 

"It was my mom's. She thought I might like to have it with me," Ratana said, reverently rubbing the old paint on it. "I'm glad things worked out. I like to think that The Painted Lady really is hearing me."

 

Katara gave a soft, kind smile, reaching across the way to hug her friend. "Trust me, she is."

 

XXxx

 

Aang dragged his feet through the palace, his legs stumbling and tripping over the expensive carpets that he bunched up as he shuffled. He was so exhausted. He could fall asleep against an ornamental vase if that's where he decided to lay his head.

 

He was filthy, worn-out, and mentally spent.

 

The Airbenders had made it to the location fine, he'd gotten word (and while he didn't know where it was, he had a pretty good idea forming, as did every Avatar in his head), but it was at the cost of Zhao's complete unraveling madness.

 

As it was, they had to come home for the competition, thank the spirits.

 

Something that was pressing on him heavily was the fact that Hivri had never returned back.

"Probably deserted," one of the troops had sneered, "He always seemed soft-bellied."

 

Oh, in his heart of hearts, Aang hoped this was true. Or maybe Hivri did abandon. Maybe this was the better option for his vanishment. He would have spent time looking for his companion had time not been pressing, and Aang did not want a reason to have to stick around.

 

It seemed as though there was some form of luck on his side today because the first person he ran into in the palace was exactly the person on his mind. Or, rather, this person flew into him.

 

"Kuzon!"

 

Aang had to blink three times to realize that Ty Lee had thrown herself around his neck, clutching him tightly.

 

"Ty Lee, it's three A.M and I smell like death," Aang said, pulling her off of him gently, though he hated doing it.

 

"I don't care. I'm so glad you're safe," Ty Lee sighed, a hand still on his shoulder, refusing to leave.

 

"That still doesn't answer what you're doing up at this time."

 

Ty Lee frowned, rubbing her neck.

 

"Are you okay?"

 

Stupid boy, of course, she's not okay! Kyoshi muttered in his head, Men…

 

The Avatars were quieter with exhaustion, as though his brain space didn't have the capacity to keep their dialogue running. Still, Kyoshi was very able to add that little snark.

 

She was right, however. There was no way Ty Lee was fine.

 

Aang swiveled his head around and saw not even a guard in the hallway. Before Ty Lee could protest, he opened his door and dragged her inside his room.

 

This got the attention of a lot of the Avatars. Most of them, not exactly in the way Aang was intending.

 

"Shut up, it's not…" he muttered to his mind, blushing hard, "We're not doing that tonight!"

 

Ty Lee giggled, a hint of a smile on her lips, and though Aang blushed hard, he was glad he was able to make her smile. Even at his expense.

 

Ignoring the voices in his head, he turned to Ty Lee. "We're free to talk in here. What's the matter?"

 

"Oh, Aang." Ty Lee flopped on his couch, shaking her head. "When you didn't come back, I was so terrified. I spent each day, just imagining you were dead and that we...that I…" She bit her lip. "It was the most awful thought in the world."

 

"I'm sorry to have worried you so," Aang said honestly, sitting next to her. A respectable foot of space stayed between them, though he was aching to be closer.

 

"It made me realize something…" She was playing with the end of her braid. "I'm not...usually in this position. I'm on the other side of it and it's weird for me."

 

"What position?"

 

"The one where I realize I'm in love," Ty Lee said honestly, meeting his gaze. She was fearful, but there was strength. "I just kept thinking about how it would kill me if you didn't ever return and I couldn't bear it. I'm not used to being the one with feelings."

 

"Ty, you don't have to worry about me not reciprocating," Aang said, shocked she could even think he didn't hold the same affections for her.

 

Ty Lee smiled broadly, but her smile faded, just an inch. "I guess I've come to realize that it's selfish for me to stay in the competition when I don't have any intention of becoming Zuko's wife. So, whatever happens at the fights, I'll be withdrawing my position."

 

"Well, why don't you just announce it before? Not even go through the fights?"

 

Ty Lee gulped nervously. "There were a lot of strings pulled to get me here. I'm not Mai...I don't think I'd just be able to leave by my own accord. I'm going to throw the match as best I can. I'm meeting Azula for tea tomorrow," she added in a tiny voice.

 

"And?"

 

"I hope she'll understand. Oh, I mean, I'm not saying specific names, not you, but she's my best friend." Ty Lee frowned. "Err, she was once. I feel like I should tell her. I'm also hoping she'll extend a royal invitation for me to remain here, even after I'm gone from the competition. I suppose I'm just anxious about that. That I might have to leave for real and who knows when I'd see you again."

 

"You know," Aang said, tilting his head, "I'm a Royal Family member. I could just extend the invitation."

 

"Oh, and it wouldn't be obvious when there's a wedding announcement in a month or two what's been going on," Ty Lee giggled, poking his arm. She balked a little. "I didn't...I don't mean to presume…"

 

"You want a wedding?" Aang asked though the answer didn't surprise him.

 

"A big one." Ty Lee's eyes glimmered. "With glitter and lights and dancing and laughter. Do you?" Her question was more unsure.

 

"Well…" Aang furrowed his eyebrows. He'd never thought about that before, being a monk. But he wasn't anymore. He was Aang and Kuzon and the Avatar. He had a duty to help repopulate the air benders. But beyond duty, he hadn't given it much headspace.

 

But he'd do anything for Ty Lee. And, somehow, the idea of marrying her made him feel all bubbly inside. Lighthearted. He understood, just for a moment, the infectious feeling of glee that she so associated with that.

 

"Yeah, I can say I do," he finally answered.

 

Ty Lee wiggled in her seat, pure joy filling her face. Sure, this wasn't an official proposal, but it was a talk about the future, something they'd never dared before.

 

"Oh!" Aang said, jumping up and grasping his bag, which he'd left at the door of his room. He rummaged until he found a cloth square. "I made this for you."

 

Ty Lee opened the cloth to find the flower necklace nestled inside.

 

"Aang, it's beautiful," she whispered. She put it on immediately, tucking it beneath her collar. "See? No one will know. Except us." She winked. It made Aang proud to know she was wearing it, thinking of him.

 

"I hope Azula does agree," Aang said, "Because just think, if so, in a couple of days...we won't have to...be like this," he said, fingers trailing across space between them. Ty Lee leaned in, humming in quiet, excited thought.

 

"It will surely be a weight off my chest," she agreed, "And I can't wait to be able to be affectionate with you in public."

 

"I just want to kiss you," Aang admitted since they hadn't even gone that far, not wanting to break any rules or jinx anything yet.

 

Ty Lee kissed her fingers and then pressed the tips to Aang's lips. "Just a few more days."

 

Aang tilted his head. "Why were you up at this time of night?"

 

Kyoshi groaned in his mind. Ty Lee, however, didn't seem offended he'd asked again.

 

"Worried about you. Couldn't sleep." She sighed. "Sounds stupid, but my feet kept bringing me here. Guess the universe was telling me something before I knew it. I'm glad I got to see you tonight."

 

Aang yawned.

 

Ty Lee stood. "I should probably be getting back. You need to sleep, eat, and take a bath." She winced. "Maybe not in that order."

 

"Mhh, right," Aang said, stumbling to his washroom and turning the faucet on, "I need to get this grime off me."

 

"I haven't asked yet. Are you okay?" Ty Lee questioned, her fingers seeking the necklace as she leaned against the wall. Aang used his firebending to light the box underneath the tub to warm the water.

 

"I'm still here, and we didn't catch any," Aang said shortly. "It's, uhm, not something I want to talk about, though."

 

"You know you can tell me anything," Ty Lee said. "I've been told I'm a good listener."

 

"I know," Aang assured, not wanting her to think that he didn't feel comfortable telling her. "I just don't want to think about it right now. Another day, maybe. I think I just need to remind myself who I am," he said, his honesty flowing from his lips before he could stop it, one hand in the bath to check the temperature.

 

Ty Lee frowned. "You're Aang. I know who you are. You are a good person and kind, gentle, and caring. That person you become out there? It's an act. I can see your aura, don't forget, and it's still as brilliant and white as the day I met you."

 

"Thanks," Aang said and truly meant it. It was nice to have someone believe in him so entirely. "I just need to remind myself that, I guess. Uhm, think you'll make it back unseen?" It would be the newest scandal if Ty Lee was seen leaving his room so late at night.

 

"Aang, I practically grew up here," Ty Lee scolded. "I know all the secret passageways. Goodnight. I'll see you tomorrow?"

 

Aang smiled warmly at her. "Of course you will. Save me a dance."

 

XXxx

 

They got back around 4 AM if Katara was reading the position of the moon correctly. She was so tired on her feet, despite the long ride home, that by the time she'd slumped through the doorframe of her bedroom, all she could really manage to do is unlace her dress and leave it in an untidy lump on the floor. She slipped under her covers and fell asleep in an instant.

 

Thankfully, she was not plagued with the memories, or rather the mocking, of her supposed former life.

 

She awakened to the smell of Oolong wafting in the air. She smiled as she opened her eyes.

 

"You have talked to…" she began to say to her new handmaid, but when she saw the familiar face at the edge of her bed, brushing off her dress from last night, she momentarily forgot everything and could not help but smile. "Aiga!"

 

She should have known. Only Aiga knew that the trick to getting her to wake up on the right side of the bed on truly difficult mornings was a cup of tea waiting for her.

 

She threw off her sheets, hugging Aiga tightly.

 

"Why aren't you at home?" she asked after a moment. "You shouldn't be here!"

 

"I'm here in solidarity for you and your hatred of balls and events," Aiga said. "The dress truly is stunning, Katara," she added, motioning to where she'd already laid it out with Katara's mask for the night.

 

"Aiga," Katara clicked her tongue.

 

"I couldn't sit there any longer." Aiga shook her head. "I thought coming back to work would ground me. Plus, I left things unsatisfied…" She sighed. "Katara, I must apologize."

 

"Don't think of it," Katara cooed. "You had just learned of your family. It's completely understandable. I don't blame you at all."

 

"No, don't let me off so easily," Aiga huffed, "Ignoring the fact that I shoved you, a competitor, and you could have my head if you were a worse person, I am horrified I could ever imagine that you would set out to hurt me."

 

"I wouldn't, but I cannot accept your apology. There is nothing to forgive."

 

"You must."

 

"If you are insisting…" Katara rubbed her tired eyes and picked up the steaming cup of tea. "You know why you were attacked, don't you?" she asked.

 

Aiga stiffened where she was putting Katara's dress on a hanger.


"Well, I wouldn't…"

 

"Aiga, you know you can trust me."

 

"And I do," Aiga assured, her voice quiet as she turned, "But it's not for you to know. It's not for anyone to know."

 

"So there is a secret!" Katara gaped at her.

 

"I suppose, a kind," Aiga's lip quirked, though Katara was unsure if it was in a frown or a smile. "But I know the price I paid. That was a warning."

 

"Just a warning?" Katara sputtered, "I don't want to imagine what they'd do if they were truly angry."

 

"I have an idea," Aiga said, and even though her voice quivered, "But I will not be scared away. It's too important."

 

"What is?" Katara asked again.

 

Aiga almost looked like she was going to answer, but snapped her lips shut, shaking her head. "Just know that if things ever go sour, there are safeties in place."

 

"But what if they go bad for you?" Katara whispered. "I would hate for you to die. Or your family."

 

"I am merely one of many. Faceless, nameless. Nothing special. Invisible," Aiga said carefully. "And I would die for the cause. Without saying much more, do know that it's not dissimilar to your own efforts."

 

She got the acute feeling that Aiga would not say a word more. She could attempt to order her handmaid, and while Aiga would do nearly anything, Katara understood that she'd die with this if she had to.

 

But what was she referring to? Katara's plight to save her tribe? Her work with Aang? Her worries about Ozai and his steadily maddening grasps for power?

 

"I assume the day is cleared?" Katara asked, deciding to put a pin in this line of question for now.

 

"Yes. What are these?" Aiga asked, dumping out Katara's makeup bag. In the middle of it landed a heavy bag of little coins.

 

"Oh, that." Even seeing them left a sour taste in Katara's mouth. "Uhm, all the remaining contestants get like twenty of them. They're collectibles for the guests at the ball. It's up to us though. We do hold that power; we can choose who we give them to and who we don't. Some might use it as a hint to who they are behind the mask. Others might give it to boys they fancied. I'm not sure what I'll do if anything."

 

"Intriguing," Aiga said, holding one of Katara's to the light. "Ah, a little wolf mask. For your tribe? I'm almost surprised you didn't choose something related to the Painted Lady."

 

"Well, I'd have to explain that," Katara said, her voice dry. Aiga had no idea, of course.

 

"Just teasing," Aiga giggled, motioning for Katara to sit in the chair. "We do need to start soon to have you ready for the ball. I allowed you to sleep in. Let me brush through your hair and then we'll wash it, alright?"

 

Katara nodded, her fingers rotating the little coin in her hands, staring herself in the mirror. It was the same face that had always stared back at her, but when she blinked or focused too hard, it shivered and the face of the Painted Lady stared back at her.

 

Tui, she was going insane.

 

She made a mental note to talk to Aang about this. He had to be able to confirm it somehow, didn't he? She wasn't about to call a goddess a liar, but she also wasn't unsure it hadn't just been a bad case of undiluted cactus juice.

 

Her fingers ran over the groves of the Wolf Mask on her coins. Something that had once given her great strength now felt cold and foreign in her fingers.

 

Being part of the Water Tribe now felt unsure of her. She knew she was born into it, but some part of her wondered if she was doomed to walk the same loops as the Painted Lady did? Both her and her first life - if she believed that, and she was almost sure she wanted to convince herself that she did not - fought for their tribe. Violently. Desperately. Before, Katara had been more than willing to die, if that's what it took.

 

Her fingers reached back to touch her scalp and Aiga apologized, thinking she'd snagged too hard. Katara's answer was airy and far away.

 

She was recalling the blood that had oozed from there.

 

Would she die for her people yet again?

Chapter Text

5:30 PM

 

As Zuko stood in front of the mirror, he couldn't help but feel like he was thirteen again. He remembered that day vividly, as though someone had dumped it into the forefront of his mind just now, and let it settle.

 

 

 

Zuko looked at himself in the mirror in the crown prince regalia. It hung off his body, not quite fitting right. He seemed gangly and uncoordinated, like a child playing dress-up with his father's robes for a festival. It did not seem like these clothes were made for him. Right now, at the tender age of thirteen, his body was somewhere on the edge between that of a man and of a child. He toed the line, though he knew that his childhood was gone. Eradicated. Strangled and choked away, and he was left, still trying to gasp for air.

 

In a few years, his shoulders would fill out the space, his legs would grow, he'd shoot up a few inches...but for right now, he felt like an intruder in such robes. He felt like he did not deserve to be allowed in on the war meeting that day. He wished he were still just the cousin to the heir, but all that had changed. The shift had been sharply noticed, like shards of broken glass cutting against his skin.

 

His face burned. His jaw locked as his eyes – fuck, no, eye – traveled up the length of the mirror, trying not to make a face of displeasure at his clothing that fit so strangely, but he could not help but feel ill when he saw the gauze over his left eye.

 

The skin beneath was tender, almost painfully so, so that even as Zuko touched the wound, it felt like his world burst with pain. Perhaps it was the pain of knowledge, that weighed so heavily upon him, something he would never be able to unlearn. He did not think he would ever grow used to this sight. It would be a reminder; constant and twisted.

 

The healer said she could not fix this. His mother had cried when Zuko had been told he'd wear this mark forever.

 

Azula was sitting behind him. She was still wearing her girl's clothes. She would not have a wardrobe fit for a lady for a few years still, but she too seemed to have shed her childhood innocence (if she had any, to begin with), and to see such a look in her eyes fit jarringly with her ruffles and pink. She had just about thrown a fit that she was not allowed in the meeting, and it had been all Zuko could think of to let her sit in on this fitting. It satisfied her for now, or at least, she was quiet.

 

She was watching him. Glaring daggers, more like.

 

Ever since the event a few weeks ago, Zuko could not figure out what Azula thought about it. He knew better than to ask her. It had been years since they laughed as siblings, and now their relationship was icy. It had been icy before the...well, just before, but it was worse now. It had been days since she'd talked to him. Even Mai had written him with some sort of apology and asked how he was doing, whereas Azula has not offered up any comment on it.

 

He thought that perhaps he preferred it this way.

 

Ozai was a shadowy figure behind him. Zuko was not even sure he'd noticed his daughter in the room with them, poised on the red chair. If he did see her when he arrived, he's made no acknowledgment of her presence. His entire focus was on Zuko, and he regarded his son with a sense of pride, though through his smile, it seemed twisted and black.

 

Zuko could not help but to jump entirely when Ozai places a hand on his shoulder. He felt ill now, and not because he did not want to be in these clothes saved for the prince. He was not sure he wasn't going to hurl right now. Ozai's grip tightened and Zuko forced himself to stop shaking.

 

He wondered if he was ever going to be able to be in the same room as his father again without wanting to scream or cry or kill him.

 

Oh, the dark things that went through Zuko's mind terrified him sometimes.

 

Ozai nodded, finding his appearance acceptable. Zuko dropped his head, biting the inside of his cheeks so hard he tasted blood.

 

What his father said to him next was something he'd always said. It wasn't an uncommon phrase, though whenever others said it, it always seemed so comforting. Whenever his father had said it to Zuko – and it was indeed something Ozai seemed to like to say specifically to Zuko – it had always seemed vaguely like a threat. Zuko was always left wondering if there was a shadowed part to it that he'd picked up on, or if he was simply imagining villainous things where there were none.

 

Now, however, Zuko was absolutely sure that Ozai was capable of such awful things, and when he spoke this commonly-used motto, it was not meant to comfort Zuko.

 

It was a chilling reminder.

 

Ozai's warm hand, much too warm, was at his throat.

 

"Chin up, son, or your crown will slip."

 

The memory was corrupted. It wasn't Ozai's voice that spoke, but Sokka's.

 

Zuko was thrown back to the dressing room. He was not thirteen and scared anymore, he was nearly twenty-one and fit his costume perfectly. And Sokka was physically lifting his head up.

 

"What did you just say to me?" Zuko hissed, sure that someone put him up to it.

 

"I said 'chin up', dude, or I can't finish your coat," Sokka said, entirely unaware of the phrase he'd just uttered. And why should he be? It was perfectly innocuous.

Zuko swallowed hard and raised his chin, allowing Sokka in. He trusted Sokka, more than he'd ever trusted his father. When Sokka's fingers brushed his windpipe, he did not feel the quickening fear and his thudding heart like he did in his memories.

 

"Damn, this is tight. How do you Royals even breathe?" Sokka laughed, pinning the last bit at the top of his neck.

 

"We don't," Zuko deadpanned, but he couldn't help but smile a bit. Zuko's costume for the masquerade was not his choice, though he was mostly neutral about it. It was modeled after a black dragon, specifically, so he did not match nor clash with any of the ladies and their costumes. It was heavy and very ceremonial, to make a statement, and Zuko supposed that he looked fine enough in it.

 

His fingers brushed the mask lying on the table beside him. He didn't think he was fooling anyone in terms of his identity with this, but then again, perhaps that wasn't the point.

 

Sokka, Hahn, and Arrluk were all in the dressing room, too. Hahn was much too smug about the fact that he was allowed to be there, while so many other boys were told to wait in their rooms. He got to get ready with the heir apparent, as he told any lady who would listen. He was a step above the rest, having lived at the palace for months on end. If Zuko could choose, he'd throw Hahn to the patio. Arrluk, though still a bit jumpy, was nice enough. He could stay. There were some other sons of dignitaries from Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom also floating around, but none that Zuko had made such close connections with. However, they were all good people to keep in his back pocket, and most of them were at the far side of the room, partaking in the drinks and food for the pre-party here. 

And Sokka, of course, whom Zuko was grateful was there, was also present. Sokka stepped back and Zuko hoped that the boy didn't see how hard he'd swallowed.

The three boys were all wearing costume variations based on Water Tribe animals. Arrluk's leaned the most toward subtle, toeing the line of Fire Nation influence. He was a good diplomat, Zuko considered, playing both sides. Hahn had tried to be as intimidating as possible, while it looked like Sokka just wanted to look cool.

 

Zuko turned, still looking at himself in the costume, a part of him terrified he'd blink and be thirteen again, or that all night he'd be swimming in memories...

 

"Damn, you look a bit scary."

 

Zuko spun and grinned immediately as Aang unlocked the door to the room, slipping in, fully in costume already. He'd known that the troops had returned, having seen Zhao skulking about the halls, but he'd figured that Aang was exhausted and it was best to leave him to sleep.

 

"Buddy!" Sokka went for him with wide, open arms, giving him a huge hug. "You're a sight for sore eyes."

 

"Hey, Kuzon!" Arrluk said, high-fiving him. The other boys in the room patted his shoulder or gave welcoming sounds, waving. Even Hahn smirked and greeted him.

 

Aang was easily liked. He had trouble making enemies. His presence was just infectious, addictive, in a way that Zuko's never had been. While Zuko had questioned every step he'd taken his whole life, and often put his foot in his mouth, Aang seemed to attract companions. People just wanted to be around him.

 

Perhaps that was why he had slid into the Royal Family so easily. If anyone had any doubts about his lineage, he was just so damn likable, which was rare in the Royal Family, that most just let it slide. He won people over from the first time they met him. It was a shame...if Aang truly was part of the Royal Family, he might have been able to do some good. He surely had the influence.

 

Aang was a dragon tonight too, as everyone in the Royal Family would be. Zuko could not help but snort when he realized that the colors in Aang's costume were mostly golds and oranges. Yes, they were the colors of fire, but they were also the colors of air benders. It was subtle enough that probably no one would notice, but Zuko wasn't sure if he was pleased by this silent 'fuck you' to Ozai or worried by it.

 

Aang collapsed on the couch, crinkling his costume. It was a good thing he'd have a mask on, as there were huge bags under his eyes. He yawned.

 

"Think your dad will notice if I slip out early? I'm still basically dead on my feet," Aang moaned. "And there's the tournament tomorrow…"

 

"C'mon, half the fun is getting wasted tonight," Hahn ribbed him. "And preferably, ending up in bed with a lucky lady…"

 

"No!" Zuko growled, "No more Royal Scandals."

 

"Well, it wouldn't be a Royal Scandal for Hahn, not really." Arrluk's face slipped into an unusual vicious grin. "Besides, the girl he wants to bed won't even look at him, much less sleep with him."

 

"Who...ack, ew, no!" Zuko wanted to leave the room. Very badly.

 

"It's true!" Arrluk said, ignoring the fact that Hahn looked as though he wanted to punch his face in right about now. "Besides, Azula invited her boyfriend here tonight."

 

"Boyfriend? I'll show him-" Hahn cracked his knuckles.

 

"Why are you bothering?" Sokka squinted. "Firstly, I do not understand the appeal. Let me just get that out there. But more so, you have zero chance. The only way you'd be allowed to go for Azula is if Yue won the competition and Arrluk took the Water Tribe throne. But at that point, Yue would be married to Zuko, so an allegiance with the Fire Nation would be pretty useless."

 

Zuko turned around to hide his laugh. Though Sokka was only being logical, it was simultaneously hilarious. Hahn looked near furious.

 

"You just don't understand!" he spit, "She'll realize-"

 

"Dude, seriously, you don't want to go there," Zuko said. He really didn't like Hahn, but Agni, no one should have to put up with his sister.

 

"Haven't you ever heard the old saying, 'Don't stick your 'rowing oar' in crazy'?" Arrluk pointed out.

 

"This conversation is finished!" Zuko announced before anyone could say anything else. "Besides, it's nearly time for our arrival. Masks on. Let's just get through this night with no issues, please?"

 

He wasn't sure who he was praying to, but if there were ever a time that a god or goddess thought about giving him such a boon, now would surely be the time.

 

 

6:00 PM

Katara stepped out of her bedroom into the anxious, meandering queue outside. The world was splashed in color and movement, texture and light, a mixture of old faces, and new shifting beneath masks.

 

She had thought her own costume would be a centerpiece, to say the least. And it was, there was no denying that. It had taken the entire day to assemble this, one last hurrah in the palace before she was sure to go. Even if she fixed things with Zuko – but alas there'd been no time today – she was unsure how long she could continue on like this.

 

Her whole dress was strung with beads. With every step, she jingled, and the noise rolled around her. It was impossible for her to step quietly in this dress.

 

Her mask was tied into her hair ribbons and her hair...by Tui, Aiga had done it again. Early on, Katara had described how she wanted her hair to look like she'd been caught in a frost. She wanted it glimmering with frozen light. Aiga had found little reflective beads and diamonds and woven them into her hair. When she caught the light just right, it seemed as though her entire head was covered in frosted finery.

 

But she was hardly the only girl who had made a spectacle of herself. Most of their faces were entirely covered as they stood in the hallway, sans a few who were adjusting their masks, or had pushed them up to talk with friends.

 

Katara could guess most by this point; she knew the girls well enough that she could assume from posture or nervous tendencies who was under each fake face, if not taking a guess on their appearance altogether.

 

There was one person who surprised her, however, and it was not until she realized she was staring openly and the person turned that the realization startled her.

 

"Yue?" she asked, coming up to the figure. "Did you…wow."

Yue giggled behind her mask, a delicate shape of a two fish swimming together, as she touched her hair, which was now jet-black. It ran down her back in waves, much more unrefined than it had ever been, taken out of her delicate braids.

 

"Well, it would have been painfully obvious would it not? White hair is rather a giveaway," she pointed out. "It's only temporary, of course, but it's a good show, wouldn't you say?"

 

"I hardly even recognize you." This was the truth. It was almost a little unsettling to see her like this, to imagine that perhaps if she had not been ill, this is what she would have looked like. She was just as pretty with her dark hair as she was with her startling white.

 

Across the aisle, a person with a wide straw hat caught the corner of Katara's eye. She swallowed, turning to see Ratana wearing the ensemble of the Painted Lady. Katara felt unsure how to proceed; she stared at her elaborate and rich finery and felt self-righteous anger in her bones. Even in her first life, even as a spirit, the Painted Lady had always worn what the people wore. She understood that this was in honor of the Painted Lady, a thank you, but it felt wrong to see Ratana wearing something embroidered in gold and silver threads, something that her people or the people Katara had watched would have given their right leg for.

 

"I didn't know you were…" Katara said, waving a hand toward Ratana's outfit. Ratana touched the brim of her hat.

 

"It wasn't the plan," she spoke from behind her full face-mask, "But after the trip, it seemed dishonorable. It changed quickly but I was pleased my handmaids were able to accommodate it," Ratana said, her voice full of joy and radiating respect.

 

Katara swallowed hard.

 

"You look...nice," Katara finally choked out, unsure how she'd act turning at every moment and seeing a fleeting ghost of herself in the crowd, as though taunting her.

 

"We all look fantastic, sure, yeah," a half-disgusted voice said, and Katara would have been able to guess who said it just by reading the words on paper. 

"You can't see any of us, Toph," Ratana said, frowning. She clearly hadn't picked up on Toph's sarcasm. Before Toph could reply, and Katara was half-afraid what she'd say with the sour mood her friend was in, a shrill voice with a vulgar laugh broke through the crowd.

 

"Are you...a boar?" Nadhari sneered at Toph. "I mean, I guess a fat pig isn't too far off."

 

"Are ya looking for a broken nose?" Toph snapped, lunging forward, only inches from her as Katara and Yue pulled her back. "Or maybe I should wipe that little smirk of yours off your face by punching in a few teeth!"

 

"It's the sigil of her family line," Mai's cool voice interrupted, "Which you should know, Nadhari."

 

"I'm well aware." Nadhari crossed her arms, and even through the slits of her mask, Katara could see her eyes lit with fire as she stared down Toph.

 

"Perhaps you're merely jealous," Mai continued, the entire hall deadly silent as they watched the two most intimidating contestants square off, "That your family isn't so prestigious to have an animal as your spirit guardian. I wouldn't go offending those who so highly outrank you."

"I would rather die than have a smelly pig as my family's sigil," Nadhari said, refusing defeat. "But whatever, to each their own."

 

"She'll get her due, but you'll be thrown out if you started something," Katara reminded Toph, hissing in her ear. "Best behavior?"

 

Toph backed off, swearing up a storm and sending murderous looks around the room, as though hoping it would land magically on Nadhari on one of her swings.  Katara followed her, as did Smellerbee and Toph's handmaid, who followed a bit too close for comfort. Toph grunted, "This night is already off to a truly amazing start." She turned her milky gaze toward her maid. "Can I at least get plastered tonight?"

 

The handmaid gave a regretful smile. "The Prince has capped you at two drinks."

 

"Sadist," Toph muttered angrily. "How am I supposed to get through this night if I'm not so out of it that I can't remember who I offended?"

 

"I think that's the point. Not to offend anyone tonight," Katara said carefully. "Right, Toph?"

 

"Sure, Sugarqueen," Toph said, her shoulders dropping at once. "We'll, uh, see how it goes."

 

It was as good as Katara was going to get from her. Also, by this time, Zhi was gathering the girls for their grand entrance. They lined up in no particular order. There was a lot of bustling and bumping to be closer to the front. Katara couldn't care less; she let herself be shoved near the back with Toph and Smellerbee.

 

"Smile, ladies!" Zhi said enthusiastically. "And really, try to enjoy tonight." Her second command was laced with sadness. She stared at the group, likely knowing that many would not win the fights tomorrow. There was the general idea amongst some that this was the last chance they had to bathe in this luxury or find a husband if it were not to be Zuko. The excitement that buzzed through the line was palpable, so strong that Katara too almost wanted to have a good time tonight.

 

They walked through the halls in a line, the girls all giggling and waving their fans already, as though overheated, through the night had scarcely begun. Katara was confused when she realized they were not being brought to the usual front of the ballroom, where there was a wide reception hall. Instead, they were being brought around the back. They were asked to merge into the group of people waiting, all of them clustered like cattle here.

 

Two thoughts hit Katara instantly:

 

The first was that it was clear now why the girls had fashioned coins to hand out. Because many high-powered men had been encouraged to bring their eligible sons, they had thought the same with their daughters. This was practically a speed-dating ball for the high and wealthy! She'd wrongly assumed the ladies in the competition would be the only young women in attendance, but she saw miles upon miles of frills and fabric. It was like a game, perhaps to some, that they'd try to suss out who was vying for the Prince's hand and who was not.

 

Secondly, she felt a stab of fear. Was this part of some overarching plot? Was Ozai stuffing them into a room where there was little movement and only two doors – the way in and the way out – to dispose of them all?

 

"Not everything is a plot, not everything is a plot," Katara tried to remind herself under her breath, but it was hard. Still, it would be in really bad form for Ozai to murder all the other party guests just to get to her, right?

 

Well, as it was, they were in such close quarters that a well-trained assassin could slip in and kill someone without anyone noticing. She pressed closer to Toph and Yue, not liking this thought at all.

 

There were so many more people already than there were at the first few balls. As she thought more people could not fit in this small antechamber, more kept pouring in. There were many that were out in the gilded halls, spilling in wait, and Katara wondered what the heck they were all doing here. Surely the ball wasn't being held in this closet-sized space? That would be stupid...right?

 

Spirits, Katara didn't know anything about the procedures or crazy plans anymore. For all she knew, this was some new 'thing' that everyone would be lauding over.

 

Just when Katara was really starting to feel claustrophobic, a tall man in a dragon mask stood on a small platform. He had nothing to enhance his voice, but his very actions quieted the hundreds (if not thousands) of people milling and waiting.

 

With a delicate flip of his wrist, he lifted his mask to reveal Ozai underneath.

 

"I am so glad you all could make it to celebrate this event with us," Ozai said, his voice hardly above his normal tone, and yet every word bounced off the walls. "It is a momentous occasion. Not only are we celebrating the solstice, but we are also very anxious about the upcoming tournament tomorrow that our ladies will be participating in," Ozai said. "I suppose you all are wondering why we are out here? Well, usually, there would be a party in the city streets to celebrate the solstice, a day where the spirits are said to walk close to us. Since we did not feel as though we could bring you down to the streets, we tried to bring the streets to us. I hope I might be the only one unmasking tonight; keep up the fun and keep your identity hidden. Who knows…" Ozai said with a grin that Katara would say was genuine, if she thought that Ozai had a bone in his body that enjoyed 'fun' in any sense," Perhaps a spirit will grace us and walk secretly among us tonight!"

 

Though it was said in good-natured fun, and the people around all laughed at the idea, Katara felt something quake in her bones.

 

"You okay?" Toph asked, nudging her.

 

"Wh…at?" Katara answered back breathlessly.

 

"You just had the legit weirdest reaction to whatever Ozai just said. Like, seriously, I don't even know how to classify what I just felt from you," Toph said. Katara cursed inwardly. She hated how Toph could feel emotions. But to be fair, she wasn't even sure how she felt about the knowledge that weighed upon her, or how truthful Ozai had unknowingly been. What would he say if he truly knew what Katara was? Or, spirit above, his own son? Or fuck, even Aang...or Yue…

 

"I just don't trust or like Ozai."

 

"Join the club," Toph muttered, sending a suspicious side-eye to her aide.

 

"He's…" the maid said cautiously, "Intimidating."

 

That seemed promising enough to Toph that she wouldn't be squealed on. Luckily, the doors to the back of the ballroom were opened and people were pouring in to see what Ozai had been hiding.

 

Katara felt her breath catch. Though she hated everything about the idea of his ball, she could not deny that the masquerade's setting was the most incredible thing she'd ever seen.

 

They'd lined the entire ballroom with shops and stores, making it look like streets. It spilled out into the waiting-chamber of the ballroom, which was why they had not gathered there. Above them, lanterns sat on strings that tied from one roof to another. The ceiling had been covered in a dark navy-blue fabric, making it appear as though they had stepped into the streets below.

 

There was the main square where people were to dance, but the rest of the large ballroom was filled with food, clothing, and other sorts of stands. Katara felt overwhelmed in the best possible way, as she had when Zuko had taken her out to see the town. She was so interested in exploring every inch of this that the magic of the ball night seemed to make her forget her bad attitude.

 

"Okay, uhm, this is pretty cool," Katara said out loud, to which Yue gave an enthusiastic nod.

 

"Lots of people, lots of things," Toph said, tilting her head, toes gliding across the ground. "Hmm. Whatever."

 

Suki breezed by, in full Kyoshi wear, though it was obvious she was trying to look more like Avatar Kyoshi than just a standard warrior. She grasped Katara and Toph by their wrists.

 

"Come on!" she giggled, "Let's take a walk on the town, shall we?"

 

It was not like the previous balls, where there had just been everyone in a big, wide circle. Katara wouldn't have known who was who anyway, but it made it harder to find specific people. Namely, Zuko. She was looking forward to that talk. Speaking of which…

 

"Toph, you said you wanted to talk with me?" she asked as Suki pulled them to a fried food stand. The thought had hit her at once. It seemed like a while ago that Toph had talked to her, but in reality, it had only been before going to the town previously. Still, she'd recalled literal lifetimes between those two moments. 

"Later," Toph said, but looked uneasy, "Let's uh, just enjoy this."

 

There was something more to her tone, but Katara wasn't sure what it was. Besides, Suki was already beckoning.

 

6:30 PM

 

By the time they found a place to sit, their plates were doing a balancing act with all the mesmerizing, mouth-watering food that had been offered. Suki pulled them around until their plates were full of street-food and they found a place near the main 'square' to sit and eat. The mood in the room was much more carefree and there was an element of whimsy. This ball didn't feel stuffy or like it had a lot of rules; the opposite. This ball seemed like the entire idea was to forget who you were for a night or where you were, physically at least.

 

"Is that...Andica?" Katara asked, squinting across the ballroom.

 

"Possibly. Lots were invited from Kyoshi, so I heard," Suki said. "I'll talk to her later."

 

"There's a dude from the Kyoshi group that's staring at you, Suki," Toph said. "I can feel his intense gaze."

 

Toph pointed, to which her maid batted her hand down saying it was impolite to do so, but Suki followed her gaze and sucked in hard.

 

"Oh." She winced. "That's, erm, my ex."

 

"You sure?" Katara asked. He was dressed in a generic masked costume.

 

"Well, just as I know all of you in your costumes, you just...you know someone well, right?" she said, sounding completely embarrassed.

 

"Who broke up with who? Give me the juicy details, sister." Toph encouraged.

 

"Me," Suki said. "He's nice, he's just a little…" She trailed off.

 

"Just a bit what?"

 

Suki looked around, as though to make sure that no one was watching. "When he gets excited, he tends to get really excited."

 

"Oh!" Toph said with a suggestive tone.

 

"No, not like that. He usually faints and sort of...foams at the mouth?" Suki said.

 

"What?" Katara snorted on her spicy chicken, the peppers running up her nose. Agni, that hurt.

 

"You're joking." Toph was wearing a full-mouthed grin. "And how can I get him to do it here?" She was already standing.

 

"Toph, don't make a spectacle," Suki groaned, "I feel bad. But, c'mon, he might be one of the wealthier villagers, but…"

 

Katara made a hum of agreement. For a while more, the trio sat and talked about the masked people walking among them. They had no idea who anyone was unless they were to be recognized, but that was doubtful. Katara knew no one from her tribe was coming, but she vainly hoped that perhaps the Northern Water Tribe would send more people. She was itching to see Eva, but it seemed there were no other Water Tribe members here.

 

Logically, a newly-blinded Eva and a ball was not a good combination, but she was still a bit disappointed.

 

Soon, a group of masked boys, about their age, came up and asked them to dance. Toph gave the politest 'fuck off' she could manage with her handler present, but Katara couldn't think of a good reason for herself to reject offers other than just hating dancing. She knew none of them were Zuko, but she wasn't looking to stir up trouble currently, so she graciously accepted as Suki did.

 

This led to a few rounds of dances from a few boys, only two of which guessed that she was in the choice. One smelled of bad fish and the other seemed polite enough, so Katara relented and gave him a coin. None were particularly memorable, she had to say, each out of her mind as quickly as they entered.

 

After this, she made her way back to Toph.

 

"I need some water."

 

"Or a strong adult drink," Toph suggested with a waggling eyebrow. At this point, Alcina had found them.

 

"Oh! I tried the best one from a shop...erm, well, down this way?" she suggested. Suki was still dancing with various boys, but Katara knew that they'd find her again.

 

Alcina brought them down one of the paths that had a lot of 'events' going on. There was a place to get beautiful henna up and down your arm, a place to try on other masks or costumes, a place to get your picture drawn...Katara had not explored this area yet. As she passed a little curtained off area, she caught a pair of pig-tails.

 

She paused in the walkway, and the other two with her.

 

"Fortune teller?" Alcina said, a bit quietly. "Oh, look...it's Aunt Wu's."

 

"Her?" Toph said, bending over, "Uchk!" She made a barfing sound.

 

"Oh, come on," Alcina batted her shoulder, "You weren't there."

 

"But I know her." Toph scrunched up her nose. "She's famous and shit. So, my parents invited her to our estate and she read my fortune. It's a load of bullshit, that's what it is," Toph said loudly.

 

"What did your fortune say?" Alcina asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

"She told my parents I was 'destined to marry a prince'. Exactly what they wanted to hear. Easy money. The stupid paper about this stupid competition was received two days later. My parents thought it was a 'divine sign' and are convinced I'm gonna marry Zuko. She's the reason I was sent here in the first place!" Toph said. "Oh, I'd like a word with her-" Though, as she spoke, she clenched her fists. Katara knew to replace 'word' with 'fight'.

 

"Uh, no," Katara said, holding her back. "That's a bad idea. No punching people at balls!"

 

She hadn't realized until now that keeping Toph out of trouble was basically a full-time occupation, thus the handmaid, who she hoped was being paid well. It was also amazing how much Toph had gotten away with before until she was put under the 'best behavior' threat.

 

"Why don't you get me my drink? Alcina will show you," Katara suggested.

 

"Didn't like your fortune?" Alcina ribbed playfully.

 

"Something like that," Katara said, gazing into the purple fabric that the tent was constructed out of. "I guess I just feel like we aren't quite finished."

 

Toph was more than happy to practically run and Alcina promised to return with the best drink Katara had ever had.

 

Katara slipped inside, the familiar scent of burning incense hanging in the air. It seemed exactly like the inside of Madame Wu's shop in her home village, having just been picked up and brought here.

 

"Kat?"

 

Katara turned to see someone lurking in the shadows. After a long moment, she realized it was Avizeh.

 

"Oh, hi. Are you getting your fortune told?"

 

"I'm just relaxing here, listening," Avizeh admitted. "Hiding from a boy who's sort of in love with me." She gave a shudder. "He's literally known me for like half-an-hour! And like, I love being worshiped, but he's a little bit intense. Ugg. But, hearing the fortunes of people is really fun."

 

Katara sighed. She didn't want to get into the fact that this was probably rude and an invasion of privacy, but leave it to Avizeh to find the one place where the gossip was sure to be hot.

 

"Anything interesting?" Katara asked, because well, she was curious too.

 

"It's hard to interpret," Avizeh admitted. "A few girls have come through here. Saoirse's wasn't really exciting. I'm pretty sure she's going to marry some guy she had a crush on back in her village. Guess that means she'll be leaving eventually. Nadhari was here."

 

"Really?" Katara took a step forward. "Did you hear her fortune?"

 

"She was foretold...oh, what did Wu say?" Avizeh rubbed her chin under her mask. "She would have to make a difficult choice. That she couldn't walk both sides forever. She said that she foresaw her choosing the side that would show her true colors."

 

"Oh," Katara said, a bit disappointed. There was hardly enough there to glean anything important from.

 

"Mai keeps edging around here. Didn't take her for the type. Maybe I'll hear her fortune before the night is up. Didn't you already get yours?" Avizeh asked after a moment. "In the village?"

 

"I just...needed to confirm something. Or...sort of." Katara said, unsure even now what she was doing standing here. "I guess if you hear anything really juicy from Mai, I'd be interested."

 

"Next!" Meng called from the next room.

 

Katara parted the curtain and found Aunt Wu sitting in front of her pile of bones. Katara lifted her mask partially up her face so that Wu could see her. Meng bowed to Katara and backed away.

 

"Sit, my child. I think that perhaps this time I could give you a clearer fortune," Wu offered. "I apologize for last time. I'm not sure what happened. I've never been so...wrong before."

 

"Uhm, there's no need. I just wanted to tell you that you weren't wrong," Katara said, the words catching in her throat. "We just didn't know it. You got me right." Or, rather, she had been reading the Painted Lady's fortune, intertwined with Katara's.

 

"Oh?" Wu said, examining Katara curiously.

 

"I'm not sure why I'm here. I just wanted you to know," Katara said, "And I guess maybe it warned me. Or maybe I sought it out." She gnawed on her lip. "But the truth is there. You weren't wrong."

 

"I might be able to see more, now that I know this," Wu said, motioning. Katara got the sense that even with Katara saying nothing, Wu knew more than she was letting on.

 

Katara gave a dry laugh. "That's fine. I think I've found out enough earth-shattering revelations about my life to last me, well, my entire life," she said. She knew her entire past. Some part of her wanted to keep her future shrouded.

 

"I see." Wu nodded sagely. "Thank you for coming back, Princess. You have given me much to mull over."

 

Katara slipped back out, and though she couldn't see Avizeh's face, she was sure the girl was confused. She didn't stay around long, though, because she could see Alcina lingering near the entrance with something fruity in her hand.

 

Chapter Text

7:00 PM

 

Katara sat on a fake 'park bench' near the edges of the shops. In her hand was something that tasted like lychee. It was such a shame, she considered. She could (and very much would with her never-ending stomach and fantastic metabolism) try every food from every stand here, even if that was a momentous undertaking in itself. However, she certainly could not try every alcoholic drink there was on the menu, and there were nearly as many as food options. Each sounded just as delicious as the last, but she could only pick a handful if she was being careful. It wasn't even for lack of trying – if she had every option on the menu, she'd surely kill herself!

 

The one Alcina had brought tasted almost sugary sweet, like strawberries. The one after was bitter. This one was somewhere between, and she had to admit she enjoyed it the most.

Someone flicked their hand over her shoulder and, quicker than she could blink, the mystery arm had snatched her drink out of her hand. She hoped, just for a second, it was Zuko being flirty, but she spied him far on the other side of the room. It was not hard to guess which 'dragon' he was.

 

Also, he was being careful to not be too...overly romantic with any of the girls, sans some dances (which, she was well aware he had not asked her yet.) She wasn't upset, at least, so she told herself. He was currently dancing with Yue and he did look...happy. Though he was wearing his mask, his shoulders were relaxed and she could see Yue's shoulders quaking with laughter. She might have felt a little sad in that moment if not for the most grating sound of sucking liquid.

 

She spun and found Sokka. He'd taken the bamboo straw and stuck it through his mask's mouth hole and was slurping obnoxiously.

 

"That hits the spot."

 

"You know, there are like two hundred stands where you could have procured your own drink," Katara said in annoyance, trying to grab it back. She wasn't short but compared to Sokka, she was short enough that she couldn't reach when he held it high above his head. She kicked his shin and as he crumpled, she took it back. "And what if that hadn't been me?"

 

"Oh, it's obvious which one's you," Sokka said, gasping like she'd broken his leg. "Yeah, there are a few Water Tribe ghoulies here, but you're the only one who is so obnoxiously Water Tribe."

 

"Awe, real love for our nation there, bro."

 

"No, I think it's fantastic," Sokka said and she knew he was smiling widely under his mask, "You look freaking awesome."

 

Katara rolled her eyes as she sipped her drink, but inside was pleased. She remembered always wanting Sokka's approval as a child, whether it be in mimicking his fort building skills, or mastering his aim with a boomerang, or taking him on in a tussle. Sokka had been a good older brother, allowing her to win maybe 10% of the time. As she grew older, she realized that he absolutely should have always beaten her, so it must have been out of kindness. She didn't think that his approval now would feel so warm.

 

"What have you been doing this whole time?" Katara asked.

 

"Oh, you know, breaking hearts," Sokka said with a casual shrug.

 

"What? I haven't seen you dance with a single girl," she said, but out of the corner of her eye, a trio of non-contestant ladies was staring at the pair, eyes mostly on Sokka.

 

Sokka gave a wry laugh. "How do you think I'm breaking those hearts?"

 

"None are pretty enough to tempt you?" Katara said, finding it hard to believe that he couldn't find a single girl he wanted to dance with.

 

"I think the girl I want to ask would sooner stomp my toes," Sokka said, apparently more buzzed than he initially let on. Katara tilted her head, feeling like perhaps he'd just said a great deal and too much for his own sake because of how he stiffened up, but they were rudely interrupted by Nadhari as she appeared, it seemed, out of nowhere.

 

She was dressed as the Mother of Faces, her face the goddess and a whole large tree curling up her frame, hugging her body tightly and almost obscenely. It left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

 

"I think you're lost," Katara said shortly.

 

Nadhari pressed her shoulders back, her chest jutting out as she hopped on to the table next to Sokka. Too close.

 

He scooted an inch closer to Katara. Nadhari followed.

 

"No, I'm right where I want to be," she said, then turned all her attention to Sokka. "So, you're a Prince, aren't you?"

 

"Not really. I live in a snow hut," Sokka said, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. "I'm sure you'd hate it."

 

"Oh, let me be the judge of that. You haven't danced yet." Nadhari flicked a finger up his arms. "What can I do to get you out there?" she purred, "I don't think I've ever told you how handsome and strong you are."

 

Katara sipped her drink, unsure what to even say. Tui, how pathetic and desperate. Oh yes, she hated Nadhari. She had no qualms about sharing her opinions, so she said it out loud.

 

Nadhari turned, giggling. "Now, Katara, let's not be so mean on ourselves," she said, hardly ruffled, as though Katara was stupid or emotional enough to call herself those things. "But then again...Prince Zuko hasn't even looked at you, whereas you're doing a pitiful job of pretending like you aren't always looking for him. He's danced with me already, twice."

 

Katara wished Toph were here to confirm or deny it, but from how boldly she proclaimed it, Katara had a feeling Nadhari was right. Though she was sure there were reasons for Zuko's behavior, she found her throat dry and unable to speak.

 

"Well, you sure as heck aren't going to find something here," Sokka said at once, finding a firm tone laced with harshness. "Get lost or I'll tell Zuko you were trying to kiss me. That's treason, isn't it?"

 

Nadhari startled back as though she'd been slapped. "But I...I was just-"

 

"Who will he believe?" Sokka growled, stepping forward. "Want to test that? Your funeral."

 

Nadhari pulled up the hems of her dress and left with a huff. Katara had retreated back into a seat. She could no longer see Zuko in the crowd.

 

"Kat, you okay?" Sokka's voice was unspeakably gentle. It reminded her of when she'd nearly cut her hand off when a fishing expedition went wrong and he'd be so worried but had tried so hard to not let Katara see it as he walked her through patching herself up.

 

"She's probably lying," Katara said, though her voice faltered.

 

"What's going on with you two? Not Nadhari, but Zuko? I would have thought by now you'd be planning a wedding," Sokka said, sitting next to her. He blocked the ballroom from view, giving Katara a moment to feel as though they were the only two there.

 

"I don't even know. He started pulling back and I thought maybe I just imagined his affections, or that it was all just a momentary obsession. We had a huge fight...I know I'm right."

 

"You're stubborn at the worst of times," Sokka agreed.

 

"I just feel like I can't move forward unless we come to common ground. Then things just got so icy between us that it felt like every step we took was backward. Then, yesterday, he said he missed me and he would do what it took to fix us. I thought he meant romantically. Perhaps he just sees me as a friend and he's found who he really was looking for. I do miss him even as that, but it would be hard to…" She could not find the words. "I don't know if I could stay."

 

"Then marry him."

 

"I don't know if I want to stay here forever. I don't mind the Fire Nation, but it's not home. My home is the South. Plus, well, he hasn't danced with me...so…"

 

Sokka looked back, sighing hard. "I hate to see you hurt. And I get it. But, have you ever thought that home isn't a place, but a person?" When Katara didn't respond, Sokka touched her shoulder. "You know you can still talk to me about anything. I can't promise I won't punch Zuko, but I'm always here for you."

 

"You know the same goes here, right?"

 

Sokka pulled her in for a short hug. "Yeah, 'course," he said, but she got the feeling he was holding back.

 

He paused, sniffling.

 

"Are you...crying?"

 

"No. I smell something meaty and juicy, ooohhhh boy," Sokka said. She pulled back and could see Sokka's eyes shimmering under his mask.

 

"Go, you glutton," she teased and watched him lop off into the crowd.

 

7:30 PM

 

There was a table that people were altogether avoiding, Katara realized. People seemed to move around it, like oil and water. A lone participant sat there, seemingly amused by the revulsion that people felt, and Katara got the sense that she very much puppeted the control of this area without lifting a finger.

 

It was only on Katara's second pass by the table that she focused on the woman's dress enough to make a small gasp.

 

She'd recognized it as a Water Tribe from the moment she saw it, but she'd thought it was a Northern Water Tribe, and that perhaps this woman was a healer of some sort. She was very elderly, but did not seem frail. Even though her hands were gnarled, she looked like she could out-dance anyone here.

 

It was only on the second time she passed that she saw the curled design upon the bottom.

 

Undeniably Southern Water Tribe.

 

Katara stood there dumbly, trying to figure out which elder this was and how much of an idiot and incredibly rude tribe woman she'd been to not realize, nor to properly pay respects yet. She knew that the trip had taken a lot out of her Gran-Gran, so she was searching frantically through her mind to figure out who, besides her grandmother, could hold a space so easily and would have been well enough to make the trip?

 

But, the longer she stared at the embroidery from across the room (she did not want to be caught gawking, that would be far worse), she realized why it looked so off to her. It was the sort of embroidery her grandmother did, not the modern style or adjusted patterns she had been taught. Gran-Gran always laughed and said that old habits die hard; she'd been taught this way as a young adult girl and it was hard to shake her childhood method.

 

In an instant, Katara was sure she knew who this was.

 

Katara walked confidently to the table, ignoring the harsh whispers as people watched her do it. No one got more than a yard closer to the table, retaining a distance like she was some caged animal. Something feral and dangerous. She picked up on that sort of tension that rippled through the crowd.

 

"You knew my grandmother," Katara said in a rush at once, "You were her best friend."

 

Her grandmother rarely spoke of her time near Katara's age. The fact that she'd come from the North had been as much a shock as anything; plus, waterbenders had been slain all too quickly. She knew from her father that there had been one waterbender who had been taken for Iroh's choice, but no one had ever heard from her again. At least, no one in the South, that is.

 

Katara lifted her mask, holding in a breath as the masked woman turned to her. She gave a small smile.

 

"You look just like her," the old woman said simply, "I was wondering when I would meet the only other Southern contestant in 60 years. As it seems, we Southerners like to cause trouble."

 

She motioned for Katara to sit.

 

"Hama, aren't you?"

 

"So Kanna has spoken of me?"

 

"Not much. She's very closed-lipped about her past," Katara admitted. "But I know how much she misses you. Why did you never come home?"

 

"There was so much to do here. Time just...got away with me, I suppose," Hama said, tilting her head. "I always intended to, of course."

 

Katara rolled her thumbs. "It would have been nice to have a water bending teacher. A true one. I heard you were good."

 

"From what I hear, you've figured quite a lot out yourself." There was a calculated pause. "How are you feeling about the fights tomorrow?"

 

"Confident," Katara said, but her face must have betrayed her for Hama gave a quiet sigh.

 

"Well, I'm not sure it would help this late, but I doubt Pakku knows anything of Southern Waterbending Tradition. I'd like to at least pass along the knowledge so that one day you can teach the next Southerner that appears."

 

Katara nearly knocked over her drink as she stood. "Oh, my spirits...that would be...yes! I mean, no he hasn't. But yes, please, teach me!" she gasped. "I've never found any mention about Southern Traditional Style anywhere...I thought maybe It just didn't...exist," she admitted.

 

"Well, I discovered it, you could say," Hama hummed, "But it's part of our culture now. I think you'll understand why."

 

Katara heard a whisper to her left. She snapped her head around in time to see someone glaring obviously at Hama, as though this old woman had three heads. Katara stared them down through her mask until they looked away.

 

"Why are they...why does everyone look at you like that?"

 

"Both things are better talked about outside. Come," Hama said, beckoning for her. Katara followed through the crowd, uncontrollable glee filling her. What a rare opportunity!

 

"Why haven't you been to a ball before?" Katara felt a little upset she was just meeting her now. "Does the Fire Nation not like you?" She knew there were other former Choice contestants from both Ozai and Iroh's competitions who floated around at the previous events, though Katara had never talked to any of those women.

 

Hama barked. "They'd have to admit that they made a mistake, and they're too proud to admit such things. No, I tend to stay away from here. Too many memories. My curiosity got the better