My Heart Burns for You - Chapter 2

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My Heart Burns for You

by alwaysZutarian

Libraries: Action, Adventure, Angst, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Drama, Erotica, Humor, Romance

Published on / 78 Chapter(s) / 5 Review(s)

Updated on

Four years have passed since the end of the war, but as they meet again and encounter many obstacles, Zuko and Katara realize that what their hearts truly burn for is for one another. Can they love each other knowing they will hurt those that love them? What will become of them when a new enemy appears with a vengeful plot to destroy everything they had worked for to bring peace? Zutara.

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Chapter 2, New Surprises

My Heart Burns for You

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Chapter Two

 

New Surprises

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After his regular morning meditation, Zuko made his way to the training arena, the only place where he could vent his frustrations without breaking something or hurting someone. That someone being Wei.

 

“Good morning, my lord,” Chao greeted as Zuko entered the arena. “I trust you had a good night’s rest?”

 

“Yes, lovely,” Zuko murmured sarcastically as he shrugged off his tunic and threw it aside.

 

Chao was frequently present whenever Zuko practiced his firebending, a favor Iroh had asked of him before he returned to Ba Sing Se. Iroh and Chao had been friends since their childhood and Iroh trusted him with Zuko’s care above anybody else in the Fire Nation. Chao reported all of Zuko’s progress to Iroh, either in his firebending or his Fire Lord duties. Though sometimes it made Zuko feel as if he were a child and he hated that feeling.

 

Zuko made his way to the middle of the small arena. Off to one side were a few wooden logs placed in an organized horizontal line. Each log stood vertically from the floor. The young lord glanced at them briefly as he stretched for a few moments before gracefully moving into a fighting stance. Inhaling deeply, he began to send fire blasts through the air. He moved with great agility, punching out with fiery fists and leaping into the air, sending powerful flaming kicks. For some time he practiced the basic moves, getting his muscles warmed up. Then shifting rapidly into his more complex steps, he created fire whips. He circled them around his form in a series of complicated moves before whipping them down, creating a loud cracking sound that resounded through the arena. Zuko rounded on the logs and with great concentration, he began cutting the pieces of thick wood set up for him in halves. The half pieces of wood fell to the side, without any of them catching on fire.

 

Silently, Chao watched intently as the Fire Lord continued with his daily practice, admiration showing slightly on his face. Through the years, Zuko had indeed become even more powerful at firebending the more he practiced and the more determined he got. He had really gained control of his element, unlike when he was younger.

 

Zuko retracted his fire whips, and without missing a step, he continued to punch fire blasts into the empty air before him. Now he had to practice his firebending alone, since none of his trained men could keep up with his advanced skill. He could not deny that this made him proud since he was much younger than they were, but sometimes he wished he had someone to spar with to make things more interesting…or less lonesome. Mai had offered once, but he did not want her to get hurt.

 

Taking a few deep breaths, Zuko slowed his speed and wound down his steps.

 

“Great move with the fire whips, my lord,” Chao praised him as Zuko finished his last stance. “Your uncle would be very proud of your incredible skill and the way you have greatly improved these past years.”

 

Zuko offered him a slight smile as he wiped the sweat from his face with a small towel.

 

“I’m sure Uncle would be even more proud if I finally learned how to make tea,” he said wryly.

 

Chao began to chuckle quietly when they were interrupted as a guard came running toward them. Zuko frowned and placed the towel around his neck as he waited for the guard to near them.

 

“My Lord Zuko,” the guard got out between huffs as he bowed respectfully, “Your presence is requested urgently in the throne room.”

 

Zuko and Chao looked at each other with questioning frowns on their faces before the young Fire Lord returned his gaze to the awaiting soldier.

 

“Tell them I’m on my way,” he stated as he turned around and quickly made his way to his bedchambers so he could clean up and change.

 

He wondered what the urgency was as a frown settled on his features.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Katara watched the restless children as they practiced, amusement dancing in her blue eyes. It was so obvious they were itching for their lesson to be over already and she decided that she would end their suffering early.

 

“Great job, you guys! That’s enough for today. See you tomorrow,” Katara announced with a smile as she replaced her bending water back into her waterskin.

 

The children bounded out of the area quickly after they gave her small bows and large smiles, their joyful laughter trailing after them as they went. They had been impatient to leave and go play since practice had started late.

 

There had been a tribe meeting earlier that day concerning the exportation of their goods to the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, and as the chief’s daughter and waterbending master, Katara had attended. The Water Tribesmen’s perspective on having a woman in the meetings changed when she proved herself capable of expressing her opinions, not to mention she argued better than anyone else. But that was not to say that they were all accepting or that it was always easy. There were some meetings that she was not allowed to attend, but she did not let that get to her.

 

I used to be so impatient to prove myself, she thought absentmindedly as she made her way toward her house, that I got myself in trouble many times, especially that time when I stole that waterbending scroll.

 

Katara laughed at her own foolishness.

 

That ended with Zuko saving me from the pirates, then capturing me, and finally tying me to a tree. She let out another giggle.

 

Well, it was a good thing I was so impatient to learn since I came across Zuko again…

 

Her cheeks heated up as she remembered Zuko grabbing her wrists and then tying her to that tree. She blushed more fiercely as she remembered his warm breath near her neck and his soft voice close to her ear. Back then she had been frustrated at the thought that she had been so easily caught, angry that Zuko had used her mother’s necklace against her, and afraid of what he would have done to her. But looking at it now, the experience was oddly erotic and the memory made her stomach flutter for some strange reason she did not fully comprehend.

 

She shook her head and shoved those thoughts away.

 

“He was just trying to make me tell him where Aang was,” she said, then smirking she added, “And it didn’t even work.”

 

“Hey there, Sugar Queen!” Toph’s voice cut through Katara’s musings.

 

“Toph!” Katara exclaimed in surprise as she turned toward the sound of the earthbender’s voice. “Aang!” she gasped as she saw them both standing there beside Appa.

 

Had she been so lost in her thoughts that she did not even notice the ten-ton, flying sky-bison?

 

“Hi, Katara!” Aang cried out joyfully as he bounded up to her, his youthful face lighting up in his happiness to see her again.

 

“I wasn’t expecting you so soon. Why didn’t you send a letter saying you were arriving?” Katara asked as she approached them.

 

“I’m sorry, Katara, but I was just so impatient to come,” Suki explained as she appeared and climbed down Appa’s saddle.

 

“Yeah, we were so excited when Aang brought up the idea to visit!” Ty Lee exclaimed as she jumped down after Suki, making a somersault in the process and landing neatly on the ground before her feet sunk a bit on the snow.

 

“Suki! Ty Lee! It’s so good to see you!” Katara exclaimed as she ran to hug them.

 

“Um, where’s Sokka?” Suki asked as she pulled away from Katara. The female warrior looked away as she tried not to blush.

 

“Hmm? I’m not sure…” Katara began as she tried to remember where she had seen her brother last.

 

“Aang, Toph! When did you guys get here?” they heard Sokka call out as he marched up to them. He paused and his blue eyes widened as he spotted his girlfriend standing among his other friends.

 

“Suki!” he shouted out gleefully as he quickened his pace. “You’re here, too! You didn’t tell me you were coming in your letter!”

 

Katara smiled as she saw her brother and Suki run for each other, embracing and kissing one another without even caring about who saw them. She looked away when Aang walked up to her, giving her a hug and a kiss on the lips. She tensed slightly before she relaxed.

 

“I missed you so much. I was so impatient to see you again,” he said softly as he gave her another kiss.

 

Katara gave him a small smile as he pulled her away at arm’s length to grin at her while Momo chattered excitedly on his shoulder. Aang had not changed much over the years, his tattooed head was still shaved and he still wore his monk garb. However, his face did seem a bit more angular and he was taller than she was

 

“Me too,” Katara replied quietly.

 

Momo jumped onto her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek. Katara giggled as his fur tickled her skin.

 

“I missed you, too, Momo,” she cooed and laughed when the little lemur purred at her.

 

“Oh, so I guess nobody missed me. The poor, blind girl,” Toph muttered sarcastically as she stood beside Appa with a deep scowl on her face. The others laughed as they turned to her.

 

“How can we not miss our favorite earthbender?” Sokka said as he and Katara both squeezed the short earthbender in a fierce hug.

 

“Okay, okay! I feel the love already! Let go!” Toph squeaked as she struggled against them.

 

“Group hug!” Ty Lee exclaimed as she wrapped her arms around the three of them.

 

“Great,” Toph grumbled as they all hugged with her in the middle as if they were a bunch of kids.

 

Appa groaned and swished his large tail, causing a cold gust of wind to ruffle the group’s hair and clothing.

 

“We missed you too Appa, buddy,” Sokka told him as he turned and hugged the hairy beast. Appa responded by licking Sokka’s whole head. “Yep, missed that, too.”

 

“Hey, Snoozles, love the hair,” Toph piped up with a grin.

 

“Really?” Sokka began as he touched his slobbered hair. “Well, I wasn’t sure if I should let it grow more or…Hey!”

 

“Never gets old!” Toph chortled as she pointed at her sightless eyes.

 

The group laughed as they made their way in the snow and to the house.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Zuko walked quickly, a dark aura surrounding him, as he made his way to the prison tower.

 

A weary-looking messenger had arrived with an urgent message a few hours ago. News of raids caused by a large group of thieves was reported to have struck some of the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. They not only plundered the houses and stores, but they destroyed the factories that held their manufactured goods, and worst of all, raped the women and killed anyone who came in their path. They were said to be both firebenders and earthbenders causing the trouble. This definitely was not what Zuko meant when he wanted ‘the nations to work together’. And the worst part was that nobody seemed able to find them.

 

Zuko sighed. It seemed that problems were increasing faster than he could solve them.

 

With silent steps, the irritated Fire Lord made his way to the farthest and most secured prison cell with his two personal guards following behind him. The stuffy air and dim light of the halls only added to his already dark mood. As he approached the guards positioned outside the cell, they straightened and bowed to him. He nodded at them before he pulled out a key from within his armor. He opened the heavy door and stepped inside before closing the door firmly behind him. The guards stood attentively outside in case their lord needed help.

 

With a flick of his hand, he lit up the torch that rested beside the door. Zuko blinked as he adjusted his vision to the oppressing darkness of the cell.

 

“Hello, Zuko. Come to pay your father a visit?” Ozai sneered as his son entered the small room. “I feel so loved,” he mocked as he leaned back against the far wall, rubbing his bearded chin with the back of his hand.

 

He sounds more like Azula every day, Zuko thought distastefully as he eyed his father across the divided prison cell.

 

“You know very well why I’m here,” Zuko responded darkly as he crossed his arms over his chest. “I am here to ask you once more to tell me where my mother is. And if you do, maybe I’ll be more lenient on you.”

 

“Oh, Zuzu.”

 

Zuko flinched at the nickname. Ozai laughed sinisterly at his son’s reaction.

 

“Unless you give me my freedom, I won’t tell you where your precious mother is,” he said evilly as he lifted his hand and casually inspected his nails.

 

“Never,” Zuko answered firmly. He was losing his patience, but he decided to make one more effort. “But I can make your miserable life a little easier, if you just tell me where to find her.”

 

“If I cannot have what I want, then you will not get what you want,” Ozai sneered nastily as he flicked his dark, golden eyes at Zuko, “Which does not seem that important to you since you don’t want to compromise.”

 

Zuko clenched his hands. It was always the same thing. He had tried many ways in order to get information on his mother’s whereabouts, but Ozai always refused to tell him. Even though he was impatient and desperate to find his mother, he could not give into his demand, seeing Ozai would probably try to regain the throne from him and restart the war if he were ever released. Even though this man was his father, Zuko despised him greatly.

 

Not only did he have to deal with his despicable father, he also had a handful with his crazed sister. Azula’s state was even worse than before; she cursed loudly and thrashed around wildly, and had even started biting people.

 

“One way or the other, I will find a way to make you to tell me where she is,” Zuko said between clenched teeth.

 

“Well, then, let’s hope you find out how before one of us ends up dead,” Ozai replied with a sinister smile.

 

Leaning close toward the cell bars, Zuko narrowed his eyes.

 

“I will find her one of these days. That I swear upon my honor.”

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Zuko left the prison tower after one last glare at his malevolent sire and made his way back to the palace. As he passed the entrance to the Royal Palace Garden, he turned his head and briefly glanced at the pond that rested in the middle of the luscious green grass. Memories of happy moments with his mother passed through his head. Sighing, he made his way toward his bedchamber, but since he passed Mai’s room, he decided to stop in to see her.

 

“Who is it?” Mai’s monotone voice sounded as Zuko knocked on her door.

 

“It’s me,” he replied, hoping they could talk.

 

He never thought he would become so desperate to share his feelings and troubles with someone else, and since his uncle was in Ba Sing Se, the only other option was Mai.

 

“Oh. You can come in, Zuko,” she called back.

 

Zuko opened the door and went inside. He looked around the slightly illuminated room before he turned his gaze to the young woman that was staring silently at him.

 

“I hope I didn’t interrupt you if you were sleeping,” he said as he closed the door behind him, walking towards her bed where she was reclining. There was a thick book in her hands.

 

“No, I was just reading,” Mai replied as she closed her book, putting it aside.

 

“Oh, so what’s it about?” he asked as he sat on her bed.

 

“The history of shuriken.”

 

“Oh, how…interesting,” he muttered as he looked away to stare at a blank spot in front of him.

 

“Yes. So what brings you to my room?" she asked, smiling.

 

“I just wanted to spend some time with my girlfriend,” he replied.

 

Mai’s smile widened a little, something Zuko never seemed to get used to. It was not as bright as one of Katara’s smiles. Mentally shaking his head of such thoughts, Zuko glanced sideways at the dark-haired woman beside him.

 

“I went to see Ozai again today,” he commented quietly.

 

Mai’s smile faded and she turned away.

 

“Oh, I see,” she replied distantly. “And what happened?” she asked, sounding almost bored as she folded her hands placidly on her lap.

 

“The same as usual, he still won’t tell me where my mother is,” Zuko said angrily. “And that’s not the only problem. We received news of raids going on in the colonies.” He sighed as he lay back on the bed. “Things are getting more complicated.”

 

Mai eyed him for a moment before she moved closer toward him, placing a thin hand on his chest, stroking it as she looked into his eyes. He stared back at her. They had been intimate a few times, but it was not what Zuko had expected. Their first time together—although it had not been the first sexual experience for either of them—was awkward for both of them. He understood that. However, the next couples of times were just…disappointing. In all honesty, it was terrible, completely lacking in passion. She did not do anything to please him, and admittedly, he did not reciprocate either. Not to mention that it never lasted long, so that is why he had not gone to her for the past year. Such moments only made him feel...empty.

 

“I think I know how to make you forget about you troubles. How to get things off your mind,” she whispered seductively as her hand traveled lower down his chest.

 

Forget about them? Zuko thought.

 

Forget about the people who were being hurt? Forget about his mother? Zuko frowned. He should be ecstatic about the offer like any man would, but that was not what he needed from Mai at that moment and that realization made him feel even more depressed and lonely.

 

‘I just asked you if you were cold. I didn’t ask for your whole life story.’

 

He frowned at the memory. It seemed she still did not care about his feelings or his problems. Every time he tried to confide in her, she would ignore him or change the subject. Sometimes, he wondered how she could say she loved him. For this reason and others, he had tried to end their relationship a few times over the years. But she either talked him out of it or he changed his mind because he found it easier just to stay with her. He did not think another woman could come to care for him nor did he think he would be able to care for one of the other women of the nobility.

 

“Zuko?” he heard Mai call out impatiently.

 

Mai paused as he pushed her hand away and moved away from her. A small frown appeared on her pale features as he stood up and walked toward the door.

 

“It’s been a hard day. I think I’m going to bed. Good night, Mai,” he stated impassively as he walked out the door without glancing back at her.

 

With a sigh, he moved away from Mai’s room and silently made his way toward his bedchamber. He greeted his guards that were posted outside his doors as they bowed before he entered his rooms.

 

In his private bathroom, Zuko quickly submerged himself into the tub filled with hot water. He felt miserable. His muscles relaxed a bit as the water soothed the knots in his body. Water always did calm him down, whether it was when he was at sea or just taking a bath.

 

Large, cerulean eyes sprang into his mind as he drowsily thought about the soothing water.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“And then after we helped with their crops, Toph and I decided to visit Kyoshi Island before we arrived here. Then we all decided to come!” Aang smiled broadly as he finished his story of the past few weeks.

 

“Yeah, we were supposed to have stayed longer, but Twinkletoes here was all impatient to see you again, Sweetness,” Toph snorted as she finished her food.

 

“I hadn’t seen her for weeks,” Aang replied with a pout, trying to defend himself. He scrunched up his nose at the sea prunes that were passed his way before he turned to smile at Katara. “I just needed to see you,” he said softly as he placed his arm around her shoulders.

 

Kanna, who sat near the fire, frowned as she listened to the young people. She shook her head as she continued knitting.

 

“I’m glad to know you wanted to see me, Aang, but you have responsibilities and you can’t just decide to abandoned them when you have a whim,” Katara chided him gently.

 

Kanna nodded. It seemed the young monk still needed a few more years to grow up. She smiled wryly.

 

“Yeah, it’s not fair that you should be the only one to do whatever you want. I mean look at Sparky. He’s so determined in his campaign to bring peace and help his country that you don’t see him running off to have a vacation whenever he wants to,” Toph remarked as she picked at her teeth.

 

“Speaking of that hot-tempered guy, I wonder how he’s doing. I haven’t seen him since four years ago,” Sokka spoke up, talking with his mouth full of food.

 

Katara’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of Zuko’s name, as it always seemed to do. She could not explain why it happened, but she had begun to notice it ever since they returned from confronting Yon Rha and she began to spend more time with Zuko.

 

“Oh, I’m sure he’s doing fine. I mean nobody is complaining about his temper,” she laughed lamely as she tried to calm herself down by taking a few more bites of her food.

 

Toph grinned. “Well, Zuko has changed a lot since the last time you saw him. I mean a lot. At least, that’s what I hear from the giggling servant girls.”

 

Her grin grew larger as she felt Katara’s heart race even faster before she felt Katara’s annoyance, probably at the mention of the girls.

 

“I haven’t seen Zuko and Mai for so long I want to cry,” Ty Lee exclaimed as she tried to balance her cup on her head.

 

Katara paused as she was about to sip her tea and became silent when Ty Lee brought up Mai.

 

“It would be nice to have a group reunion one of these days,” Suki spoke up. She paused and her cheeks reddened when she felt Sokka’s hand on her knee. He smiled at her innocently when she looked up to narrow her eyes at him.

 

“Yeah! We should have one when Zuko’s not that busy,” Aang said excitedly.

 

“I want to see Uncle Iroh, too. I would do anything for a cup of his delicious tea,” Katara said as she looked down at her own bland tea.

 

“Anything?” Aang asked almost inaudibly.

 

Nobody seemed to have noticed, but Kanna heard and she hoped she misunderstood.

 

“Huh?” Katara said as she turned to frown at the young airbender.

 

“Nothing!” he exclaimed. He blushed in embarrassment as he popped a slice of an apple into his mouth. Such thoughts were unbecoming of a monk! But he was also a hormonal teenager and he could not help it.

 

“I sure miss the old man. He wasn’t at the Fire Nation Palace the several times me and Aang have gone,” Toph commented.

 

Just then, Chief Hakoda and Master Pakku arrived at the dining room.

 

“Oh, I’m glad we ate at Bato’s house or else we would’ve had to go to bed hungry,” Hakoda remarked cheerfully, obviously having drunk red wine, as he noticed the empty plates of food scattered all over the table.

 

“Yes, it looks like a group of tiger-seals invaded the place,” Pakku remarked dryly, snorting.

 

“Oh, Gran Pakku, always so funny,” Sokka laughed.

 

Pakku crossed his arms over his chest and snorted louder.

 

“But, dear, I recall how much you ate when we were young,” Kanna piped in with a tiny grin.

 

Pakku uncrossed his arms and cleared his throat.

 

“Well, you should see the way your son drinks wine! It seems as if he was dying of thirst,” Pakku replied, trying to hide his discomfort.

 

“It’s not my fault Fire Nation red wine is so good,” Hakoda replied defensively. It had taken him a while to finally accept Pakku as his mother’s new husband, but he respected the old waterbender nevertheless. Hakoda frowned as he added, “By the way, we are running low and the men are anxious for the next ship to come with more supplies.”

 

“You wouldn’t be running low if you men didn’t drink it like it was water,” Katara stated with a roll of her eyes. “You’re just going to have to slow down until the next Fire Nation cargo ship arrives in a couple of weeks.”

 

The men complained under their breaths.

 

“So, what were you young ones talking about before we arrived?” Hakoda asked as he and Pakku sat near the fire with Kanna.

 

Pakku planted a kiss on her head as he sat beside his wife, but he straightened himself and looked coldly around the room when the others giggled at him.

 

“We were talking about how great General Iroh’s tea is!” Ty Lee exclaimed as she now balanced a plate on her head.

 

“I wonder how Iroh is doing,” Pakku mused as he stroked the small beard on his chin. “I have not heard from him since our last White Lotus meeting a year ago.”

 

“Uncle Iroh wrote me a letter saying he went back to Ba Sing Se after seeing that Zuko could handle himself without him,” Katara informed them as she took a sip from her tea.

 

“Oh, so that’s the real reason,” Toph said as leaned back in her seat with a grin. “I knew Sparky was lying when he said Iroh went back because he couldn’t stand another day away from his precious teashop. That Sparky, so modest.”

 

“Yes, Fire Lord Zuko did seem like a formidable young man when I first met him,” Hakoda remarked. “Not to mention he risked his life to save my daughter’s own,” he said as he smiled fondly at Katara who smiled back.

 

“I sure would like to meet that young man again,” Gran-Gran spoke up. She looked up from her knitting to look at Katara, who blushed lightly just like she knew she would. “Of course, this time on better terms,” she added with a chuckle.

 

“Zuko wasn’t always that modest or heroic, you know. He used to be very arrogant, not to mention he always lost his temper,” Aang muttered with a hint of jealousy over Zuko’s praise. Why did everyone start loving Zuko all of the sudden? It all started ever since Zuko became Fire Lord.

 

“Yes, but Miss Toph said he has changed greatly,” Kanna replied as she tried to defend the young ruler she had heard so much about despite the way he had invaded their home once years ago. After all, he had rescued her son from that horrible prison and saved her granddaughter’s life.

 

“Well, he changed when he joined our side. And he didn’t lose his temper that much, now that I think about it,” Suki commented as she tapped her chin with a finger.

 

The younger people seemed to ponder over her words before they nodded in agreement.

 

“Yep, he sure learned a couple of things about being modest and honorable by spending some time with me,” Sokka spoke up playfully as he wiped his mouth almost gingerly.

 

“Oh, yes. I’m sure he learned how to be honorable because of you and not because of Uncle Iroh, and because you are such a good example, ‘Oh Mighty Warrior Sokka,’” Katara teased.

 

“Hey!” Sokka exclaimed indignantly as the rest laughed.

 

Katara smiled as her family and friends continued to banter back and forth.

 

Besides, it’s not like Zuko ever needed to learn about honor, she mused in her head as she turned to stare at the glowing fire. He was just a bit lost, but he always had it with him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“It is said that once the raiders finish causing trouble they disappear without a trace,” the messenger explained as he bowed before the Fire Lord, the advisors sitting in their respective places behind him.

 

“How can that be?” one advisor asked. “Surely the people are so frightened that they started making things up.”

 

“I don’t believe so,” Chao reasoned. “It is said that there are some earthbenders among them, maybe they just go underground.”

 

“But when the guards go after them they lose them easily, and they never hear or feel the earth shake, which is common when earthbenders use their element,” replied the solemn messenger. “Besides, it would take a great amount of effort, time, and a lot of noise for such a large group to be submerged underground in a couple of seconds.”

 

Zuko furrowed his brow in confusion as he listened to what was being said. How can a large group of people disappear out of nowhere?

 

“I tried to tell you, you idiots, we need to send more troops to the colonies,” Wei spoke up gruffly. “It’s probably the neighboring Earth Kingdom villages, helped by the Earth Kingdom residents in the colonies, and they probably bribed some Fire Nation deserters to side with them. I’m telling you we need to control the rebellious Earth Kingdom residents.”

 

“No, we are not sending more troops,” Zuko responded firmly, causing the men to look up at him. “We are not going to war, so there is no point on drafting men away from their families to fight something we cannot even trace.”

 

“Well, we wouldn’t be having this problem, Young One, if you had not made the stupid mistake of calling off the war in the first place,” Wei sneered.

 

“Say that again and you will regret it, Advisor Wei!” Zuko snapped, narrowing his eyes irritably. He let out a breath to control his temper when the entire room became deadly silent.

 

Once he was sure he was calm enough, the young lord continued.

 

“I did make many mistakes in the past, such as siding with Ozai and Azula in capturing and bringing down the Avatar. But fortunately, I caught my mistake just in time and I made up my mind to set everything right when I joined the Avatar and his friends—now my friends also—in defeating my own cruel father and crazed sister. Calling off the war was not a mistake.”

 

The advisors nodded in approval at the way he defended himself against Wei’s taunting, who only sneered even more, though he remained silent after being chastised in front of the entire Council. The advisors had to admit they were impressed on how much the young Fire Lord had progress over the past four years.

 

With one final glare, Zuko turned away from Wei and addressed the other men that were patiently waiting for his orders.

 

“We do need to protect our colonies from these…barbarians, but instead of sending more soldiers we need to set up a stronger protection for the factories and for my people’s homes and safety. We will send more weapons and double the guard duty. We need to set up walls around the cities and whoever enters them shall be inspected carefully. I also think that in order to grow stronger, the people themselves should learn how to protect one another, so we shall set up a training school for benders and non-benders, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom alike. Should these raiders come again they will see that we are not a weak people and we will defend and protect each other.”

 

While the attacks are horrific, I will try to make something good out of it, Zuko thought pensively. Now both Fire Nation people and those from the Earth Kingdom can finally come together in order to protect their homes.

 

The men were silent as they thought about what their lord had said before they turned to each other to discuss the possibilities. Sometime later—after a few heated discussions—they turned their attention back to their Fire Lord in excited agreement.

 

“We will send architects and engineers to build the walls and we will also send instructors to teach firebending, sword fighting, and hand-to-hand combat. I will see if I can find an earthbender instructor as well,” Zuko continued and nodded when they all agreed.

 

“The meeting has concluded,” the young Fire Lord announced coolly.

 

Standing from his throne, Zuko swiftly descended from the dais and parted the fire wall before him. His advisors bowed as he passed them, but he did not pay them much heed as he made his way towards his study a few corridors away.

 

As he entered the room, Zuko glanced around, taking in the large bookcase filled with scrolls and tomes that covered the entire left wall, a large map of the entire Fire Nation and its colonies on the other, before his eyes landed on his large, dark wood desk resting before a great glass window. Closing the door behind him, Zuko made his way across the room and sat down at his large chair with a sigh before he began to rummage through the pile of scrolls on his desk. A few minutes later, he heard a knock at the door, and with a strained command, he waited to see who was disturbing him.

 

“You handled yourself very well back there, my nephew,” Iroh praised from the doorway. “I knew I could trust your judgment. I’m so proud of you.” He beamed as he entered the room.

 

“Uncle!” Zuko exclaimed as he stood up and rushed to clasp the old man’s arm, but Iroh ignored the outstretched arm and hugged his nephew instead.

 

“I didn’t know you were coming,” Zuko continued after his uncle let him go. “Why didn’t you send me a letter? I apologize for not receiving you at the docks. I didn’t even prepare a welcoming reception.”

 

Iroh chuckled at his nephew’s uncharacteristic chatter.

 

“Don’t worry, Prince Zu…I mean, Fire Lord Zuko. I wanted to surprise you. And by the looks of it, I succeeded!” he exclaimed. He seemed proud of himself.

 

“You have no idea how glad I am you are here, Uncle,” Zuko confessed with a small smile.

 

“Ah, you don’t know how happy it makes me to know that someone still cares for this old man,” Iroh said with a mock sad look.

 

“You know there are many who are fond of you, Uncle,” Zuko replied, and then added teasingly, “And I’m sure there are plenty of ladies at Ba Sing Se missing you already.”

 

The old man sighed dramatically.

 

“Oh, yes. I feel so horrible leaving them behind. But making sure my nephew is doing well is more important,” Iroh said warmly.

 

Zuko smiled. He knew he did not have to say much for his uncle to understand how glad he was that he had arrived.

 

“Come. I’m sure you must be desperate to have some tea after not having any for a few minutes,” Zuko said lightly.

 

“A few minutes? It has been hours! Not to mention I ran out of ginseng tea on the ship on my way here!” Iroh complained as they made their way out of the study and toward Zuko’s private quarters.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The snow glistened as the sun’s soft rays struck it. Standing silently to the side, Katara watched as Aang played with the Water Tribe children. If it were not for the fact that he was taller, he sometimes could be mistaken for a child. Katara sighed.

 

“Katara?” she heard her grandmother call from behind her. “Is something wrong, dear?”

 

“No, Gran-Gran,” Katara answered without turning to look at the older woman as she stopped beside her.

 

Kanna’s wrinkled brow furrowed in concern at her granddaughter’s quiet reply. She followed Katara’s gaze and frowned when she saw the young airbender. Then her face darkened as she remembered Aang’s subtle remark at dinner the other day.

 

“Katara?” the old woman began softly, “I know you uphold our rules and traditions concerning young maidens guarding their virtue before marriage, but I am not too sure about Aang.”

 

Katara turned to face her grandmother with a confused expression. Why was her grandmother talking to her about this?

 

“Katara?” Kanna looked into her eyes solemnly as she asked, “Has…has Aang made you do anything you shouldn’t or didn’t want?”

 

Katara’s ears burned as comprehension dawned on her as she stared at her grandmother with a horrified expression.

 

“Gran-Gran!” she exclaimed in mortification. “How can you say that? Aang’s a monk!”

 

“Yes, but he is also a hormone-driven, seventeen-year-old boy. I am not saying that he is a bad young man, but I am advising you to be careful. Do not do anything you will regret later and do not let anybody make you do something you do not want,” Kanna advised.

 

“Don’t worry, Gran-Gran,” Katara replied, slightly embarrassed. “I respect our traditions and I know Aang does too. Everything is fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”

 

“You can’t lie to me, young lady. I know you have something in your mind. So out with it,” the old water tribeswoman ordered firmly as she placed her hands on her hips.

 

Katara suppressed a sigh as she returned her gaze to the playing Avatar and the children.

 

“It’s just that…well, I know I should feel flattered that Aang was so impatient to see me,” Katara began, “but I can’t stop feeling that what he does is wrong, irresponsible.”

 

“I see,” Kanna said with a nod.

 

“Gran-Gran? Am I wrong for feeling this way?” the young woman asked as she turned to look at her grandmother with confused eyes.

 

Kanna was silent for a moment as she regarded her granddaughter.

 

“No, dear. It just shows how mature you have grown. It shows that you put the well-being of the world over your own selfish needs concerning Aang. But you must also try to understand him, he’s still so young,” she said.

 

Aang is a good young boy, but what Katara needs is a man, and she needs one now! Or how else will I get great-grandchildren? Kanna thought.

 

A small grin appeared on her face, causing the wrinkles on her brown skin to seem more profound.

 

“Yes, but he has to learn that he has responsibilities that can’t just be put on hold,” Katara stated and crossed her arms over her chest.

 

“Just like Fire Lord Zuko,” Kanna added, eyeing her granddaughter closely.

 

“Yes, just like Zuko,” Katara agreed with a nod. “Determined, responsible, honorable, dutiful, and…”

 

“Handsome,” Kanna helpfully slipped in.

 

“And handsome, yes,” Katara agreed before she blushed as she clamped her mouth with a hand. “No, that’s not what I—”

 

“So you are saying that the Fire Lord is not handsome?” Kanna taunted innocently.

 

“No, of course he’s handsome…well, actually the last time I saw him I thought he was, but I haven’t seen him in years, so I don’t know anymore, but from what I’ve heard he is…” Katara rambled on nervously before she clamped her mouth close again.

 

Kanna only grinned bigger and she held back a giggle. For some time, she had been suspecting that her granddaughter thought more about the young Fire Lord than she realized.

 

“But that is not the point,” Katara continued as she waved her hand in the air. “The point is that Zuko’s an example of responsibility, that’s all I see,” she finished as she looked back at Aang.

 

“Yes, I’m sure,” Kanna replied with a smile.

 

Growing concerned again she said, “Katara, I’m very proud that you care for the well-being of others before your own, but I want you to know that there are times when we must also think of ourselves, of our own happiness. Even if it goes against the wishes of others, because in the end you will only live with regrets and sorrows that can never be fixed.”

 

Katara did not know what to say to her Gran-Gran’s words, so she only nodded as they made their way back home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“I never thought I would say this, but I sure did miss your tea, Uncle,” Zuko remarked coolly as he sipped the soothing tea his uncle had brewed.

 

Across from him, sitting on a cushion beside the low table in his anteroom, his uncle beamed at him.

 

“Oh, Nephew, it makes me so happy to hear you say that,” Iroh responded with a wide smile. “Chao informed me you have kept up with your training.”

 

“Yes, I promised myself that I would learn everything there is about firebending,” Zuko responded with a nod.

 

“Well, it’s not like you have much to learn. You became a master when you trained the Avatar,” Iroh commented as he took a sip from his teacup.

 

Zuko gave him a small smile.

 

Iroh’s face then grew serious as he looked down at his tea.

 

“Has he talked?” he asked quietly.

 

“No, he hasn’t,” Zuko said darkly, suppressing a growl as his hands clenched around his teacup.

 

Iroh sighed. His brother was as selfish and cruel as ever.

 

“And Azula? How is she?”

 

Zuko let out a long breath.

 

“The same, she hasn’t changed much. I received the monthly report that she’s very aggressive and curses at everyone that comes her way,” he recounted solemnly.

 

Seeing Zuko grow into a dark mood, Iroh decided to change the topic.

 

“Tell me about these raids I heard at the meeting room. It sounds serious,” he said as he poured more tea into his cup.

 

As Zuko recounted the news, Iroh again frowned into his cup. His nephew was so young and he already had so many things to deal with. If only there was a way for him to help Zuko. Before Iroh had time to open his mouth, a quiet knock was heard at the door.

 

“Come in,” Zuko ordered as he took another sip of his tea, knowing full well who it was that stood on the other side of the door.

 

“Hello, General Iroh. I just heard you were here,” Mai greeted in a dispassionate tone as she stepped into the room and sat on the other side of the table.

 

“Yes, I just arrived a few hours ago, and I could not wait to share tea with my nephew,” Iroh told the young noblewoman.

 

“I’m sure you would be happy to drink with anybody and anywhere as long as it’s tea,” Mai replied without really looking at him.

 

Iroh countered smoothly with, “Perhaps you are right about drinking tea anywhere.”

 

But I sure won’t drink with just anybody, he continued mentally.

 

The old firebender eyed the noblewoman impassively as she declined some tea when Zuko asked her if she wanted any. It had surprised him when his nephew had sent him a letter a few months ago saying that Mai had moved into the palace, and he was not sure he liked the idea of her living with Zuko.

 

“So, Uncle, how is the Jasmine Dragon coming along?” Zuko asked. He pointedly ignored the way Mai rolled her eyes.

 

Iroh smiled mischievously as he turned to his nephew.

 

“Oh, it’s going great! I have so many customers that I now have to take reservations. Sometimes the waiting list is so long people have to wait for days, even weeks, to get a seat!” He hid a grin when he saw Mai trying to hide a yawn. “One time I was so enchanted by a lovely lady that I almost burned the pastries! It was very amusing, I tell you. I wrote about it to Lady Katara on my last letter,” he added almost casually.

 

Iroh noticed Zuko perk up at the mention of the waterbending maiden just like he knew he would.

 

“Does Katara correspond with you often, Uncle?” Zuko asked, trying to sound uninterested as he drank more tea.

 

“Quite often! She writes the loveliest letters. And her calligraphy is so adorable. I’ll show you one of her letters later,” Iroh replied. “But her writing is not the only virtue she has. She was always a pretty girl. I’m sure that now she has grown into an even lovelier young woman, her birthday was about a month ago, if I recall. What do you think, Nephew?” Iroh asked innocently.

 

For some reason he could not explain, Zuko felt his body warm slightly as he thought of Katara becoming a woman.

 

“Uh…I’m sure she has, Uncle,” he replied as he placed his teacup down on the table and looked out the window.

 

Iroh had to hide his growing grin behind his teacup as he noticed Mai’s irritation over Katara’s praise. It was just so easy to rile her since he knew Mai disliked Katara—even though she tried to hide it—and so he made it a point to remind his nephew of the waterbender every so often. It may be petty, but he did not like Mai that much. She was a cold woman and she was too serious for Zuko, who was already taciturn in his own right. Iroh thought Zuko could do so much better.

 

“If you would excuse me, I had a long day and I think I will go relax in my room,” Mai excused herself coldly, then in a whisper she addressed Zuko, “If you need anything, I will be waiting.”

 

Zuko nodded, half listening to her as he turned his attention to his uncle as she exited.

 

“So, it seems Mai hasn’t changed much during these years,” Iroh remarked nonchalantly as he sipped his tea.

 

“She has grown taller,” Zuko offered lamely.

 

“Yes, I can see that, but she is still so…serious,” Iroh put in politely.

 

Zuko didn’t reply since he could not argue with that.

 

“So how is your relationship going, by the way?” Iroh asked curiously

 

“It’s going fine,” Zuko replied stiffly, returning to his old withdrawn self.

 

“Have you seen any of your other friends?” the old firebender asked. This seemed to pick his nephew up.

 

“Well, I saw Aang a few weeks ago for a meeting between some Earth Kingdom governors and me. And Toph visited a couple of months ago, since she sometimes travels with Aang in the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko replied.

 

“Ah, Miss Bei Fong. I haven’t seen the lovely lady for a long time,” Iroh mused with a smile.

 

Zuko inwardly grinned as he remembered the little rough earthbender who enjoyed teasing and irritating him. He knew that was just her way for being friendly and it was actually…fun. He sometimes even joined in her little games, though very rarely, mostly so she would leave him alone. That would make her laugh and punch him in the arm as she would say, ‘Not too shabby, Sparky, not too shabby.’

 

“What about the young Water Tribe Warrior and his Kyoshi girlfriend?” Iroh asked again.

 

“I haven’t seen either of them since the time we were last in Ba Sing Se,” Zuko replied. “They are also busy reconstructing their homes.”

 

“I see. So…” Iroh began, trying not to make his curiosity too obvious, “that means you also have not seen the lovely Miss Katara?” The old man could barely hide his amusement as he noticed Zuko flush faintly.

 

“No, I haven’t seen her either,” Zuko responded, quickly recovering his placid facial expression. “Besides, we are all too busy to be having reunions.”

 

I was too busy to even attend her birthday party, he added mentally.

 

Iroh frowned. He began to worry for his nephew. Zuko was still a young man, and instead of having a great time and enjoying his youth, he was burying himself in so much work that even an older man would not be able to handle.

 

One thing was very obvious: Zuko was not happy.

 

Well, I shall fix that soon enough, Iroh mused with a twinkle in his eye as a plan began to form in his head.

 

“So, Nephew, has Lieutenant Jee left to the Southern Water Tribe with the new supplies yet?”

 

“I promoted Jee to Admiral now. He has proved himself worthy of it. But, no, he is departing tomorrow morning. Why?” Zuko asked suspiciously.

 

“Oh, I just wanted to have a cup of tea with him before he left. Well, Nephew, I must be getting old since I can barely keep my eyes open,” Iroh said and yawned loudly. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning for practice. Good night.”

 

Now I need to plan a surprise! he thought excitedly as stood up and made his way to the door.

 

“Good night, Uncle,” Zuko answered as Iroh left.

 

He was a bit puzzled that his uncle had not begged him for a game of Pai Sho.

 

Maybe it’s just the long trip that got to him.

 

But considering it was his witty uncle, Zuko had a feeling he was up to something.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Iroh made his way to the room his nephew had remodeled and had given to him for whenever he visited. There was a huge grin on his face. He told a servant who passed by to ask Admiral Jee to see him. Iroh then entered his room and sat down to write a letter, smiling smugly to himself as he finished and sealed it.

 

There was a knock on the door and Iroh invited whoever was outside to enter. He looked up as the door opened.

 

“General Iroh, it is good to see you again,” Jee greeted as he bowed before he crossed the room to grasp the retired general’s arm.

 

“Jee! You look better than ever,” Iroh chuckled amiably as he squeezed the admiral’s arm. “So I heard Zuko promoted you to Admiral. Congratulations.”

 

He motioned for the admiral to take a seat on the small table and he immediately poured them both a cup of tea.

 

“Thank you. I will always be grateful to Fire Lord Zuko for entrusting me with such an honor,” Jee responded respectfully before he smiled, “and I am very proud to serve him.”

 

Nothing like that haughty imbecile Zhao, Iroh mused.

 

“I’m glad Fire Lord Zuko has proven himself worthy of such praise,” the retired general said, sipping his tea.

 

“May I ask why you have called for me?” Jee asked as he took up his own cup and sipped the hot and sweet liquid.

 

“I heard you also export the Fire Nation’s goods to the Southern Water Tribe,” Iroh began before he saw Jee nod. “So how were you received?”

 

“Well, there was some tension the first day as we disembarked, but Lady Katara stepped in and helped settle the whole situation,” Jee recounted with a smile. “Now she is the one in charge of the Fire Nation imports in her tribe.”

 

“Ah, Miss Katara is such a wonderful young lady. Zuko informed me you are leaving to the Southern Water Tribe tomorrow morning,” Iroh said before retrieving the letter that he had finished writing from his pocket.

 

“Yes, sir, we leave a little after dawn. Do you need anything?” Jee asked as he eyed the letter in the older man’s hand.

 

“Well, as a matter of fact, I do, Admiral Jee,” Iroh replied with a smile. “You see, I was thinking that since my nephew is working so hard, he needs a little distraction. Therefore, I wrote this letter to Miss Katara hoping that she—that they all come to pay a little visit to Zuko. And I was hoping that you give it to her since you were going over there. It will save this poor old man some time.”

 

“Of course, General Iroh, it will be my pleasure. And it will make Fire Lord Zuko happy to be around people his own age, around his friends,” Jee said, almost as cheerful as Iroh, except his facial expression remained calm.

 

“Why, thank you so very much,” Iroh said as he handed the letter to the admiral. “If they accept, I was wondering if you could bring them back with you as soon as possible on your ship since it will be faster.”

 

Jee readily agreed as he tucked the letter into his armor.

 

“Good, but I beg you not to say a word of this to my nephew. I want it to be a surprise.” Iroh grinned.

 

Jee promised not to tell a soul and Iroh nodded with a pleased smile.

 

“Well, now that that’s settled…how about a game of Pai Sho?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Look! The Fire Nation cargo ship has arrived!” one of the Southern Water Tribe lookouts exclaimed.

 

The women sighed with relief at the prospect of more coal for the cooking fires and more fruit and vegetables. The men cheered at the prospect of more wine and metal.

 

“Man, I never thought that wine would make the Fire Nation so loved,” Toph joked sarcastically as she heard the commotion while she leaned on Katara’s arm as they made their way to the docks.

 

“The Fire Nation isn’t loved!” Sokka exclaimed with a sniff. “They’re just appreciated.”

 

“Oh, Sokka, please,” Katara muttered as she rolled her eyes as they arrived at the frozen pier.

 

She stood there eagerly, waiting. She watched as Admiral Jee emerged from the ship, but when nobody else seemed to be coming down after him, Katara was again slightly disappointed, which confused her.

 

Toph, who was hanging onto Katara for support, noticed how the waterbender’s heartbeat, which was previously racing, slowed down dramatically.

 

“It seems it’s only Jee we’ll be entertaining today,” she heard Sokka say. “Good, that won’t be hard.”

 

Toph grinned. So, Sugar Queen was expecting someone else, huh?

 

Katara smiled as the firebender finally spotted them.

 

“Admiral Jee,” she said, bowing respectfully as he approached them. “I’m glad you have arrived. I hope you and your crew had a safe trip.”

 

Jee smiled warmly as he returned the bow.

 

“Yes, thank you, Lady Katara. We brought more of the usual supplies as well as some new things.”

 

“You did bring new weapons to trade, didn’t you, Jee?” Sokka asked as if he were in charge.

 

Jee smiled and nodded at the young warrior.

 

“Well, I’m sure you must be exhausted. I will see that your men are taken care of while we go inside the house,” Katara spoke up.

 

Jee nodded his gratitude before he ordered his men to unload the cargo.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Zuko watched his uncle as the old man smiled to himself while they ate breakfast. For the past few weeks Iroh had been acting strange, such as going shopping more often (which was saying something) and making sure all the rooms were clean and tidy. Not to mention he kept on chuckling and smiling to himself every time an irritated Zuko retired to his room.

 

“Uncle? What are you up to?” Zuko asked as he regarded the old man carefully.

 

“Whatever do you mean, Nephew? I’m just drinking my jasmine tea,” Iroh answered innocently as he raised his cup to show he was speaking the truth.

 

“He means you’ve been acting strange, General Iroh,” Mai spoke up coldly.

 

Iroh stiffened at the hard way Mai always said his name.

 

Well, I guess I had that coming for every time I mentioned Miss Katara, the old man mused with a mental chuckle.

 

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. Don’t mind this old man,” Iroh replied and grinned into his cup when Mai snorted softly.

 

“Uncle, tell me what you’re up to,” Zuko said again.

 

But as before Iroh evaded the question by replying, “Patience is a virtue, my nephew. You will find out soon enough.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Ah, Admiral Jee, you have no idea how glad we are that you have arrived. We were almost running out of wine. Soon there would have been a riot!” Hakoda exclaimed humorously as they all finished lunch.

 

Jee only grinned at him.

 

“So, Admiral Jee,” Katara spoke up, embarrassed by her father’s dumb joke. “How long are you planning to stay?”

 

“I am planning on leaving tomorrow morning,” Jee answered simply.

 

“Tomorrow morning?! But you barely arrived from weeks out at sea,” Katara exclaimed, concerned.

 

“Yes, but I have urgent business to attend to,” Jee responded, though he was grateful for the young water tribeswoman’s concern.

 

“What business is that?” Aang asked as he played with Momo’s tail while the lemur chattered loudly.

 

“General Iroh has asked me to take something important to the Fire Nation Palace as soon as possible,” Jee answered, grinning slightly.

 

“Iroh’s back in the Fire Nation Palace?” Toph piped in as she sat up straight from her previous slouched position.

 

“Yes, and he asked me to give this letter to you personally, Lady Katara,” the admiral said, finally producing the letter from inside of his chest armor and handing it to her. He eagerly waited for her reaction as well as for the others’.

 

Katara took the letter eagerly.

 

What has Uncle Iroh written to me now? she thought as she quickly broke the seal, opening it and reading it out loud.

 

My Dear Miss Katara,

 

I hope you find yourself lovely and well as always. As Jee might have informed you, I am visiting the Fire Nation—or more precisely, my nephew. I found out that a few of your other friends are currently visiting the Southern Water Tribe, and so, I also address this letter to them.

 

“How did he know you guys were here?” Sokka interrupted.

 

“Shut it, Snoozles, let Sugar Queen finish!” Toph hissed and punched his arm, smirking when he yelped.

 

As you all know the postwar events have left us all busy, but I believe it has come harder upon my nephew, Fire Lord Zuko. It has a nice ring to it, does it not?

 

They laughed.

 

And so seeing that he needs a little break, and that he would probably rather play the tsungi horn than admit it, I want to ask you if you could pay a little visit to cheer him up. Besides, you all need a little break yourselves. You may be wondering why Zuko did not send you an official letter and that is because he does not know, and because it’s not an official visit, it’s a surprise reunion! I hope you will consider it, and if you do accept, Jee will gladly escort you to the Fire Nation on his ship. Well, then, I hope to drink tea and play Pai Sho with you soon.

 

General Iroh (Dragon of the West)

 

“Sweet,” Toph said as soon as Katara finished reading.

 

“I haven’t been to the Fire Nation since forever! I can almost taste the fireflakes!” Sokka exclaimed excitedly while drool practically fell from his mouth.

 

“I want to go! I do miss home. I can’t wait!” Ty Lee cried out enthusiastically.

 

Excited chatter resounded throughout the room at the idea of a reunion and a visit to the Fire Nation. But Katara was not listening to what the others were saying.

 

Go back to the Fire Nation? Meet Zuko again? Katara's heart raced at the thought of seeing Zuko once more. Why am I even reacting like this?

 

“Well, I have to see that the ship is ready to depart. We are leaving early in the morning,” Jee told them as he exited with Hakoda, Kanna and Pakku.

 

“Hurry! We must go pack right now,” Suki instructed.

 

They all jumped from their seats and started to run towards their rooms to pack, all except for Katara, who was still holding the letter in her hands.

 

“Katara? Are you all right?” Aang asked as he noticed her sitting there as if in a trance.

 

“Huh? Oh, yes. I’m fine.”

 

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go. I’ll tell the others that we—”

 

“No!” she shouted before she cleared her throat and continued more quietly, “No, I do want to go. I mean…it’s just that I’m excited to see Zu—the Fire Nation Palace again after spending so much time here,” she said, quickly catching her slip.

 

“Oh. Okay then. We should pack now. Jee said they were embarking early. Do you need any help packing?” Aang smiled mischievously as he leaned forward to kiss her.

 

Katara pulled back quickly.

 

“Um…No, I can do it myself,” she said with a small smile as she left the dining room, leaving Aang frowning after her.

 

Katara quickly made her way through the icy corridors of her home in a daze as she tried to figure out what her reaction to the news meant.

 

“So, Sweetness,” Toph piped in as Katara reached her room, making the waterbender jump. “Are you excited to see the Fire Nation Palace again or excited to see something else?”

 

Or someone else? the blind earthbender added mentally.

 

“I’m also looking forward to seeing Uncle Iroh and Zuko again,” Katara answered as she opened her door.

 

“Me too…me too,” Toph said, grinning widely as she left.

 

Katara stared after the grinning earthbender with a confused look, but she shrugged as she entered her room and immediately started to look through her clothes and frowned. Most of her clothes were too warm for the Fire Nation weather.

 

Oh, well. She sighed as she held up a warm parka before she shook her head and placed it back in her drawer.

 

In a few minutes, she had everything packed. She looked around her room just in case she missed something.

 

Then her eye caught the silver rose hairpin resting innocently on the nightstand. She walked over to it and picked it up. Chuckling, she remembered the faces of all the other girls as they saw the hairpin. She could not help feeling smug at the other girls’ envious stares, wishing the Fire Lord would give them such a beautiful and expensive gift.

 

For her previous birthdays, Zuko had always sent a letter and a real rose. She had never seen such beautiful roses before, but she loved them. The dark red flower would always stand out in her white and blue room as it rested in a small vase in her nightstand. But for her nineteenth birthday, he had sent her this rose, one that would not wither away as time went by. One that shone brightly with the sunshine and the moonlight. She did not know why, but after her mother’s necklace, the rose hairpin was her favorite possession.

 

Katara placed it carefully among her other belongings in her pack. She could not leave it behind.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Zuko could not take it anymore. He hated not knowing what was going on, especially in his own palace.

 

“Uncle! I demand you tell me what is going on right this instant!” Zuko bellowed as he stormed into his uncle’s room without even knocking.

 

“Whatever do you mean, Nephew? I told you that it is nothing,” Iroh replied calmly, unaffected by his nephew’s outburst.

 

“Nothing? You are cleaning the guest rooms and polishing the halls! The servants do not need more work piled on them. Not to mention that I found out you ordered more food for the kitchen than necessary. Don’t tell me it’s so I can eat healthier because I won’t buy that!” Zuko barked.

 

Then, lowering his head to face Iroh’s own, he added coolly, “Uncle. Tell me. What are you brewing?”

 

Iroh laughed as he placed down the scroll he had been reading.

 

“Zuko, you make it sound like I’m planning the end of the world! So what if I ordered the rooms and halls to be cleaned, there is nothing wrong with cleanliness. And the food is just in case something unexpected happens. But as I told you before there is nothing wrong, quite the contrary. Now, calm yourself and tell me about your day.”

 

Zuko let out a long breath and ran a hand down his face as his uncle poured him some tea.

 

“I think Azula has gotten worse than she already was. In a way it pains me to see her like that,” he said with a sigh as he sat heavily next to the little table.

 

Iroh nodded sympathetically, Azula was his niece after all, and Zuko’s only sister.

 

Putting his head in his hands, Zuko added dejectedly, “I went to see Ozai again today.”

 

Iroh lifted his eyebrow expectantly.

 

“He still won’t say anything,” the young man growled out.

 

Iroh let out a long sigh.

 

“I feel like I’m running out of time. I don’t know what to do,” Zuko whispered anxiously.

 

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy, Zuko,” Iroh responded comfortingly. “But Ozai will break one of these days. Just have hope and patience.”

 

“Hope?! Patience?!” Zuko roared, slamming his hand on the table, causing the tea to spill. “Dammit! Years have passed, and Agni knows how many more will come and go, before I know where she is! And that…bastard won’t touch his heart to tell his own son where his mother is! His own wife!” Zuko looked down at his uncle, trying to calm himself down, “I don’t know how long I can take not knowing where she is. Without knowing if she is well. Without knowing if she is even…alive.”

 

Iroh saddened at his nephew’s desperation.

 

“Zuko,” he said calmly as he placed a comforting hand on his nephew’s tensed shoulder, “I know how hard it is to lose someone. When I lost my wife and my son, Lu Ten, I felt like my world had stopped. But if I had not kept my hopes and spirits up, I probably would have fallen to despair, and I probably would not be here today, with you. Fire Lord Zuko, do not lose hope. You will find a means that will help you find Ursa when you least expect it. Trust me.”

 

Zuko was silent for a few minutes before he let out another sigh and his shoulders relaxed.

 

“Thank you, Uncle,” Zuko said in a low, sad voice before he straightened himself.

 

Iroh patted his shoulder.

 

“Everything will come out fine in the end, Zuko, you’ll see.”

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