"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Aang asked as he rose from his seat. He remained in his spot, hesitant to take another step forward before Katara answered. The brown-haired young woman turned around and gave him a soft smile.
"It's not too far, Aang," she assured him with a small chuckle. "I'll be fine. Just sit here and wait for Sokka and Suki to arrive."
The bald young man shrunk back as he glanced over his shoulder. A rotund, pleasant old man was humming to himself as he poured tea at the back counter. A wooden tray already carrying a small plate of fresh pastries and two steaming cups of tea waited beside him.
It wasn't that Aang didn't want to stay and catch up with the retired Fire Nation General; he was more than happy to busy himself with a good conversation with even better company. It was just that he wasn't sure he was comfortable with the love of his young life going to see another man, sort to speak. Especially when the mere thought of that man put her in a somber mood.
Regardless, he wasn't going to stop her. He remained standing as he looked back at the woman waiting for his reply by the door frame of the Ba Sing Se tea shop. "Don't stay too late," he gave her a bright, cheerful smile, hoping to remind her that her kind, loving Avatar was waiting for her to him. "The Earth King is having us over for dinner. Iroh is even closing shop early for it."
Katara smiled once more and gave him a nod of her head. "Don't worry, I'll be back soon."
Aang kept his smile on his face as the blue-clad young woman stepped outside the door and down the steps to the main road. As soon as she was out of sight, Aang let his positive smile falter.
"You seem troubled, Aang," a gruff voice said behind him. "Have some tea. It will relax you after your long journey here."
He could smell the scent of lotus tea before him and turned to the older man with a thankful smile. "Sorry, Iroh," he said as he took the small, white cup with his hand. "It's just been tiring dealing with the southern areas and the decolonization going on…"
"It is understandable," Iroh said as he placed the tray on the table and motioned for the younger man to take a seat. Iroh took the seat across from him before gathering his own cup in his hand. "Some say that the hardest part of the war is what happens afterwards."
"You have idea," Aang sighed heavily as he brought the tea to his lips. He took a small sip and smiled. "It's delicious." He took another sip, longer this time, and seemed to relish the taste. "As always."
Across from him, Iroh chuckled and lifted his tea cup in gratitude. "You flatter me needlessly, but thank you," he smiled. "I am pleased that you decided to stop by before you headed to the palace."
Aang let out a small chuckle. "We wouldn't dream of coming to the city and not visiting you, Iroh. Besides, we haven't seen you in six or so months. Not after Toph's 16th birthday."
"Ah, yes," the old man nodded thoughtfully. "That was quite an evening. I don't think the guards Tyro had been training were prepared for our prodigal earthbender's…er…party."
"You sound regretful," a somewhat displeased voice said behind him. Aang lifted his head and grinned as a lean, tall young woman entered with a white lemur perched on her shoulder. "I distinctly recall you were dancing on that table, as well."
Iroh laughed as he and Aang rose from their seats. "Miss Bei Fong," Iroh said as he bowed. "Welcome back to the city."
"Hey, no formalities!" Toph frowned as she uncrossed her arms. Iroh stood up straight and welcomed the young woman into a familiar embrace. "We missed you, Iroh," Toph said as she gave the old man a squeeze. "Do you know how hard it is to find good tea in the southern Earth Kingdom?"
"I will prepare some extra for you before you three leave this time, then," Iroh smiled as he released her. "Come, have a seat. I will get you a cup."
"Thanks!" Toph beamed and casually took the seat beside Aang's as he returned to his. She leaned back against her chair and stretched her arms back. "Did Sweetness leave already?"
"Yeah," Aang said. "She said she'd be back soon. How did it go at the base?"
Toph let out an unimpressed snort. "If those lousy excuses for benders are going to be protecting the Earth King, then right now he's in mortal danger."
Aang let out a laugh and shook his head. "You didn't give them one of your surprise tests, did you?" he joked. Toph tensed. Aang paused. She was hesitating. His smile quickly melted as he sat up straight in his chair. "Toph…"
"It wasn't a surprise if they knew I was arriving today," she told him. Aang frowned.
"There wasn't too much damage done this time," she insisted. "I mean, if they're even the least bit worthy of joining the royal guard, then they can easily fix a few doors."
"How many is a few…?" Aang asked wearily.
His eyes narrowed, the dread rising in his stomach. "Which two?"
She was silent for a moment longer. "The main gates."
Aang let out a groan. The main gates to Ba Sing Se's main military training grounds were pure, hard stone, and, from experience, Aang knew that only truly focused and strong benders could move them without damaging them or the walls they were connected to.
For him and Toph, it would be as easy as lifting a pinky. For new recruits, it would be as difficult as lifting a pinky with the gates resting on top of them.
"Don't worry," she assured him with a wave of her hand. "Haru was there. He said he'd take care of it before dinner."
Aang let out a breath of relief. Good old, reliable Haru.
"Here go you," Iroh said as he returned with another cup of tea for Toph. "Jasmine, just the way you like it."
Toph beamed and sat up properly to accept her cup. "Thank you very much," she said. She eagerly took a drink and let out a content sigh. "That hits the spot."
Iroh chuckled and nodded as he offered her a fruit tart. "So," Aang said as he picked one up. "How's Zuko doing? All his messages have been about meetings and stuff."
"They sound more like complaints than actual correspondence," Toph piped before biting into a fruit tart. "Mmm…"
"Zuko has his hands full," Iroh sighed. "Part of me wishes I could return, but I know he will protest. He says I deserve some peace and quiet."
"And you do," Aang and Toph chorused.
Iroh smiled sadly. "Perhaps, but it is difficult to rest easy when your nephew is trying to piece together a country on the verge of civil war."
Aang paused. The pastry he was bringing to his mouth hovered before his chin. Toph furrowed her eyebrows and swallowed the food she was eating. "Civil war?" the Avatar asked. "Are you certain?"
"It does not take a veteran of war to know when one is threatening to occur," Iroh admitted. "There are those who had prospered during the war…powerful families who are now on a side opposing Zuko and his attempts to appease the other countries while trying to fix the wrongs that Ozai had done. He has a few good advisors at his side, and Mai, of course, has been more than diligent in trying to appease the other families and the nation, but when half the country doesn't want to change…" He trailed off with a tired breath.
"I see…" Aang frowned. He lowered his eyes.
"What about Lady Ursa?" Toph asked. "Can't she go back? Maybe she can help gather support for Zuko."
Iroh looked pensive. "I do not know," he said. "Azula needs her mother right now, perhaps more than Zuko does. I would not want her to be separated from Ursa during her rehabilitation."
"Don't worry, Iroh. Zuko is one of the most disciplined and persevering people I know," Aang assured Iroh. "If there is anyone who can put the Fire Nation back on to the path of peace it was once on, it's him."
"I do believe you are right," Iroh smiled thankfully. "A man who knows the path should be able to guide others, as well."
"You need to eat," Mai frowned as she stood at the doorway of Zuko's private study, holding a tray of food and some tea.
Across from her, with his pale face illuminated by candle light as he hunched over his desk, endlessly scribbling on parchment, Zuko nodded. "Yeah…" he replied, clearly unsure of what he had just agreed to.
"Zuko," Mai took a step into the room, her eyes crinkling as she looked at him. It was wearing him down; the angry nobles, the displaced returnees, the pride-wounded ambassadors. It was breaking her heart to see him as he was. "You haven't eaten all day."
"I was busy," he answered quickly as he lifted a hand and vaguely motioned to the side of the room. "Just put it over there and I'll look at it later."
She gritted her teeth. "I brought you food , Zuko, not another document," she hissed in a low voice. He gave no response. "Zuko, please!" she snapped. "At least look at me!" She slammed the tray on his desk, making Zuko jump as small drops of hot tea flew up from the force.
Instinctively, he snatched up the scroll he had been writing on and lifted it off the desk, as if afraid that his work would be damaged. His gold eyes settled on the tray and the spilled tea kept inside of it. Pale hands were gripping the sides and as he lifted his eyes, another set of worn eyes bore into him.
"Mai," he said. He gave her a frown. "What are you doing? You almost ruined the proposal for irrigation."
"Irrigation?" she hissed. Her eyes narrowed as she slammed her hands on the edge of the desk. "Zuko, is that all that is on your mind right now!? You haven't eaten all day!"
"All day…?" he murmured. He gave her a questioning look. "What time is it?"
"Look your window," Mai scowled. Confused, Zuko did as he was told and turned towards the open balcony window to his left. The curtains had been open to allow the breeze to enter freely, but past them was nothing but darkness. "You've been in meetings all day and when you weren't in a meeting, you've been here, doing nothing but working on proposals and agreements."
Mai's voice had softened, becoming more worried than angry. "Oh…" Zuko murmured. He slowly lowered the scroll back on to the table. "I...I guess I didn't even realize…"
"Zuko, please," Mai pleaded quietly as she rounded the desk. "At least have something to eat. A meat bun, some rice porridge…you can't work if you're unwell."
"I know," Zuko sighed heavily as he leaned back against his chair and ran a hand down his face. "I know…"
She stopped behind his chair and leaned over it, wrapping her red, silk covered arms around his shoulders. She tucked his head beneath her chin and closed her eyes. "Zuko, please take better care of yourself." She paused. "You're worrying me…" she added.
Beneath her, the corners of his lips lifted in a small smile. He raised his arms and placed his hands on hers. "I'm sorry," he told her softly. "I just…there is just so much to do."
"I'm sorry I'm putting you through all of this," he said as he lowered his eyes. "I have done nothing but bring you frustration and pain."
"Don't be ridiculous, Zuko," Mai frowned. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to. I love you."
He basked in her words for a moment before tilting his head back against her. "And I am undeserving."
"You are hungry, too," Mai said as she lowered her eye shyly and pulled away from him. "Eat. I will get you another cup of tea to replace the one I spilled."
"Jasmine, please," Zuko said as he allowed her to slip away. "Bring the pot and a cup for yourself."
Mai gave him a soft smile and nodded. "Of course." She made it halfway around the desk when she paused. "Oh, before I leave…" she reached into one her sleeves and pulled out a seal skin case tied with blue chords. "A letter from the Southern Water Tribe," she said with a thoughtful smile as she reached across the table and handed it to him. "From Azula."
Zuko perked up and reached forward to accept the message. "Are you sure it's not from my mother?"
"Yes," Mai said as she walked towards the door. "Azula's been writing more frequently lately. This is a good sign."
"Yeah…" Zuko nodded. The door closed across from him and he was left staring at the pale gray case. He seemed to hold it a moment longer in silence before he finally pulled on the blue chords.
The scroll neatly tucked within the case slid out and Zuko carefully unraveled the message from his exiled and 'rehabilitating' sister.
"Azula!" The black-haired princess rolled her eyes. Honestly, how could Gran-Gran love that man? "Is that the best you can do? I expected more from a prodigy. I would think that your upbringing would not have denied you practice in the arts, but I am beginning to think otherwise."
Come to think of it, how did Katara come to love the old man as her grandfather and mentor, as well? Was there something wrong with the women in her family? "Master Pakku," Azula turned around and gave the master waterbender a small bow of her head. "I was unaware you were coming today."
The white haired man's piercing blue eyes looked past her and at the gates of solid ice that Azula was supposed to be engraving using finely controlled firebending to melt and shape the ice.
"Hmmm…" He lifted his gloved hand and stroked his beard. "The detail is exquisite, up close…" he admitted as he studied the door. They were for the main gates that would lead to the still-under-construction Southern Water Tribe city, of which her foster family was the head of. Katara had come down on her birthday and prepared one door, but before she could complete the second one, she, the blind earthbender, and the Avatar were called away. She confidently left the duty of the second door not to a waterbender, but to Azula. It had been both frustrating and yet, flattering.
"I am trying to smoothen out the ice from my earlier attempts using heat rather than full fire," Azula explained.
The old man nodded critically. He continued to study the massive ice door in silence and Azula fidgeted. Ice sculpting was not her specialty and she found that waiting for a critique or correction was rather unsettling. "You have learned something new," Pakku said suddenly. "The best method is not always the most powerful." He turned around and gave her a proud smile. "Excellent job, Azula."
Praise. Oh, how she loved praise, especially from someone as esteemed as Pakku. She seemed to stand up straighter as she gave him a respectful bow and gracefully accepted the compliment. "Thank you, Master Pakku."
The old man chuckled. How different the girl was after spending almost three years in the ice and snow. She had threatened to melt the pole when she first arrived, but now, there she was, engraving a Water Tribe symbol carefully for her foster sister.
"It is coming along beautifully, Azula," a raspy, kind voice said behind her. Pakku's face lit up and Azula tried to keep the pleased smile off her face. "Katara was right in choosing you to continue in her absence."
"Gran-Gran," Azula said as she turned around. The lovely old woman was smiling at her and Azula smiled sheepishly. It was rather hard for her to deny the affection the old woman gave her, as stern as she could be. "I am glad you think so."
"Kana," Pakku said as he approached her. "What are you doing up here? We were going to leave for the day in just a moment."
"I felt like a walk," the elder shrugged. "Besides," she began as she looked over at Azula. "You know how your mother still gets lost. All the bright white snow, she says."
Azula looked curious. "Mother is here?" she asked. Typically, Ursa spent the time Azula was 'working' learning various Water Tribe skills. She had become rather adept at cooking Water Tribe food in the year and a half since she first arrived. "Where is she?"
"We ran into Hakoda," Gran Gran explained. Pakku raised an eyebrow and casually looked away. "She wanted to know when the next messenger ship was arriving."
"Yes, of course…" Pakku mumbled under his breath. "It isn't as if the ship doesn't come at the same time every lunar phase…"
"Oh," Azula nodded. That explained it. Her mother always prepared a letter to send to Zuko. She had gotten her into doing it also. Her lips curled into a small frown. Now that she thought about it, Zuko's letters had been decreasing. She would have to mention that in her next letter to him and in her other letter to Mai. Surely not hearing from her son for so long would put a strain on their mother.
A light, laughter floated through the air and cut through her thoughts. It was sweet and familiar. Azula knew who it belonged to easily. "That's hilarious, Hakoda! Really, you never cease to amaze me!"
A masculine laugh mingled with Ursa's signaling not only her arrival, but his as well. From the lower tier, just before the doors Azula was working on in front of the lodge, a beautiful middle-aged woman wrapped in blue and white, with her hood up, was walking beside the Southern Water Tribe's chief.
"There you all are," Hakoda's boisterous voice greeted them as he reached the upper tier. His eyes rose to the ice doors behind them and gave an appreciative nod. "Azula, you're improving quickly. It's almost as if a waterbender did them."
Azula couldn't help but smile as her cheeks reddened. "Thank you, sir."
"Oh, Azula…" her mother gushed a she gazed upon the doors. "They're love-Oh!" Caught up in her daughter's work, Ursa stumbled forward, her arms flailing as she braced herself for the hard packed snow.
"Ursa, be careful," Hakoda said beside her. She wasn't face down on the ice, but she might as well have been the way her cheeks were warming up with embarrassment. Her hands were clinging on to the furs of his outer coat as he held her steady in his arms. Her face had been shoved against his chest. "You are not completely used to the ice and need to be careful where you step."
"Forgive me!" Ursa gushed as she quickly pulled herself away and straightened herself up. "I will be more careful!" Hakoda kept a firm grip on her elbow, looking serious, to keep her steady.
"Are you alright, mother?" Azula asked, sincerely.
The flustered woman looked at her daughter, touched by her words. The daughter she had left behind cold and wounded was healing and she owed it all to that Tribe and the man beside her.
"Yes, my dearest, I'm fine. I'm getting better, though, you must admit," she offered. Azula gave her a small nod. Ursa was not naturally graceful on snow and ice.
"Well, then," Hakoda said with a warm smile. "Shall we all return?"
"We should before the food gets cold," Kana said. She began to head back, only to have Pakku latch himself beside her and take her arm. "I'm not crippled, Pakku. I can make it down."
"Yes, perhaps, my love," Pakku agreed sweetly, somewhat unnerving both Azula and Hakoda behind them. "But, I would at least like an excuse to hold you."
Kana let out a tired sigh. What was it with the men in her family and their charming personalities? Behind her, Hakoda grinned. He turned to the remaining women. "Ladies? If I may have this honor?" Gentlemanly, he offered one arm to Azula and one arm to Ursa. Ursa giggled.
"Now I see where your son gets it," Ursa smiled as she gladly took his arm.
On the other side, Hakoda motioned his arm once more. Azula let out a visible, heavy sigh, but looked away shyly as she took his arm and tried to fight down her blush. "Let's go."
Ursa chuckled as she allowed Hakoda to escort them back to the main village. "I can't wait until the next mail ship arrives," she told them as they walked down the hard packed path. "Sokka and Suki were heading to Ba Sing Se. I'm sure your Uncle will have them send some of his tea down. He does make the best tea you know."
"General Iroh?" Hakoda asked. He smiled widely. "I hope gets that package we sent with Sokka."
"What did dad send?" Suki asked as they rode along the ostrich horse drawn carriage to Iroh's tea house. "Jerky? Smoked fish?" she guessed. "Some sort of preserved meat?"
"Seaweed," Sokka said proudly. "It makes for a kind of tea. He didn't think that Iroh tried this particular blend yet, so he sent some along since Iroh always sends them tea."
"That was sweet of him," Suki smiled. She leaned back against the seat and leaned her head on Sokka's shoulder. "I can't wait to settle into those beds at the palace. Traveling is always a lot more tiring when you're not a bender or don't have a flying bison."
"You're telling me," Sokka agreed. They had taken a ship from the Southern Water Tribe to the southern Earth Kingdom, then traveled with a caravan to Ba Sing Se. It had taken quite some time, but Suki was enjoying her stay on solid earth and the mild weather. "Not to mention the food! Can you imagine what's waiting for us?"
Suki chuckled as the carriage came to a stop. "We're here, already?"
"Looks like it," Sokka said as he looked out the window to confirm. He hopped out of the carriage and helped Suki out before paying the driver. He and his wife gathered their belongings and made their way up the stairs to Iroh's.
"Snoozles!" a voice shouted before they even made it across the threshold. "Suki!"
"Hey! You guys made!" another voice said.
"Aang, Toph!" Sokka beamed with pride as he dropped his bag by the door and ran into the awaiting group hug. Suki let out a laugh and gently placed her bag beside Sokka before being ushered into the group hug.
"How was your trip?" Aang asked.
"We should ask you the same thing," the female warrior smiled. "Ours was long, but I did miss the Earth Kingdom. Are we ready to go?"
"Wait…" Sokka said as he pulled away from the group. He narrowed his eyes. "Toph…Aang…Momo…" he looked past their shoulders. Iroh was approaching them with a warm, welcoming smile. "Iroh…" He lifted his hand and began to stroke his stubble laced chin. "We're missing someone…" he murmured as he narrowed his eyes.
"Katara," Suki sighed. She shook her head. She looked back at the two benders. "Where is she?"
"She…um…went for a visit…" Aang murmured, unsure of how to end it.
"A visit?" Sokka said before he greeted Iroh and gave him a friendly. "Hey, Iroh! Thanks for having us."
"The pleasure is all mine," Iroh said. He turned to the young woman who gave him a hug. "My dear Suki, you look lovely as always."
"Aww…thank you, Iroh. And I can tell from all the other people here that business is doing well," Suki grinned.
Iroh chuckled. "I'm actually thinking about opening a second store."
"Oh…" Suki's eyes widened. "Wow…"
"Wait, who did she go visit?" Sokka said as tilted his head to the side and scratched it. "Haru? Aren't we seeing him later, at dinner?"
"Actually…" Toph trailed off.
"I hope you like them," Katara said as she stood over the calm waters of Lake Laogai on a walkway of ice. She looked down at her reflection, unable to see the bottom of the lake as she held the flowers in her hand. "Aren't they gorgeous? I remember seeing some bushes of them by the tree camp."
She was silent for a moment, not really expecting an answer. She closed her eyes as she took a deep breath. The cool breeze that came from above the lake caressed her brown skin softly.
She tilted her head back, allowing the breeze to sweep through her thick, unbound hair and lift long strands into the air around her. A small smile reached her lips as tears escaped her tightly shut eyes.
"Everyone is helping in the south," she whispered. "You'd be proud of them…Smellerbee and Longshot…the Duke and Pipsqueak. You'd be so happy to see them now…happy and free…"
She opened her eyes clenched the flowers in her hand. She looked back down at her reflection and for a moment, if she squinted behind the tears, she could almost see unruly, brown hair and a mischievous smile looking back at her.
"It never ends for us…" she said softly. "The end of the war…it was neither victory nor defeat. It was not even the end…" She smiled softly. "At least you can rest. Your country is free." "You are free…"
She knelt down by the waters edge and carefully placed her hand made bouquet beside her. She reached into her shirt and placed the incense she had bought into two little stands she made of ice. Using some spark rocks, she lit the ends and placed them into the stands.
It was a comforting smell. Katara sat over her knees and watched the coils of smoke lift into the air hypnotically. This was how one paid respected in to the Earth Kingdom, she had learned.
After a few moments, she took her bouquet and gentle released it over the water. She watched as the flowers that her hand had kept together separated as she released them.
"…I'm sorry. I never was able to forgive you…Jet…" She bit her lips and closed her eyes once more. "Give us your strength. We will need it…" she whispered as she opened her eyes.
She watched as some flowers began to sink into the water and slowly rose to her feet. She lifted her head. The sun would set soon. She had to leave.
A final breeze wrapped around her and she took a deep breath.
There was still much to do and much more to live. She was sure of it.