"No! That's my final answer! Stop asking me!"
Crossing my arms, I looked away from my brother and sister immediately knowing they would try to guilt me into going. They'd been trying to for the last two hours. Zuko stood against the wall watching the argument unfold before him anxiously. He didn't want me to go either, but he kept his mouth shut to not make matters worse. Toph and Aang seemed uncertain if they should say anything as they watched the disagreement unfold.
"You're being ridiculous!" Sokka held his hands up in the air in frustration. "It's been three years since we've seen him! You can't skip out on this!"
Darting my eyes to the map that Sokka had set on the table, I saw the black mark where the Southern Water Tribe Warriors were camped by Chameleon Bay. Only an hour earlier I'd woken from my much needed sleep to find the group was rested themselves. They'd returned to the palace last night having successfully shown the king remnants of the war and proof of Long Feng's deception. The King in return had General How search Long Feng's office and find files on everyone in Ba Sing Se. The files he found on all of us had valuable information: Toph received a letter from her mom; Aang received a note from a Guru who wanted to train him; and Sokka, Katara, and I received a map to our father.
"Crys! We have to go together! Dad will be elated to see us!" Katara held her hands together in plea.
Backing from the table and from my family, I stayed firm. "I said I'm not going. Have you all forgotten that I'm a traitor to the Water Tribe? The last thing I want is a scolding from father. Plus…" I cringed as my stomach twisted in a knot. "You and I are sixteen now, Sokka…"
A moment of silence fell over the room as this information sunk in. Sokka was surprised and so were the rest of the group.
Aang was astounded. Once he found his voice again, he asked, "What? When did that happen?"
Rubbing my arms, I answered softly, "The full moon last night marked our sixteenth year."
Aang beamed. "WHAT?! Then we should all celebrate before we leave this afternoon! Let's have a huge breakfast! No! Scratch breakfast! We'll have a huge feast for lunch to celebrate!"
Hanging my head, I thought back to my father's words so long ago.
"It's already been decided Crystal," Father snapped, tying up his bag to head out to the boats for his departure. "I don't understand why you're acting like this!"
"You can't do this to me! I'm not marrying him when I'm sixteen! You can't make me!" I stomped my foot causing the walls of the igloo to shake. Father didn't notice as he was busy trying to avoid my eyes. "This isn't fair!"
"Marriage isn't the end of the world. Your brother and sister will both eventually marry themselves. Besides, you have three years before you have to worry about that." He stood straight and turned to meet my gaze. "Areto is a kind and caring young man though. I see no reason why you should be so against marrying him. He's a handsome fellow too. Other girls younger than you would kill to be his bride."
"I don't care! I already told you yesterday that I don't have feelings for him! I'm not marrying him just because you want to tie Bato's family line with ours. This is madness!"
Father defended himself. "It has nothing to do with that." He tried to take a deep breath and calm down. "I only want you to be taken care of in the future, Crystal… Areto is willing to accept your hand. Why can't you accept his?"
Tears formed in my eyes as frustration filled me. "I don't love him! Mom always said I'll know who I want to be with for the rest of my life. I don't see myself with Areto like you want me to. Why can't you get that?"
The sound of the horn filled the area calling for the warriors to make their ways to the boats. Father turned from me to grab his bag. "You have three years to change your mind. If in that time you find another young man from the water tribe to sweep you off your feet I'll change my mind. That's unlikely though… He's the closest one to your age, and he's been by your side since you were an infant." He walked over to me and gently grabbed my chin to force my eyes on his. "Everything I do is for your own good. You may not believe me now, but in ten years you'll be thanking me. I know you'll come to your senses."
I ripped from his hands and rushed out of our home, shouting as I went, "You know nothing about me!"
"The only celebration I want is to stay here in Ba Sing Se. I really don't think it's a good idea to see dad right now…"
"Crys… Dad's not going to force you to marry right on the spot," Katara tried. "There are other things to worry about. I doubt he'll have that on his mind when he sees us."
Looking over at Zuko, I saw he didn't seem reassured by Katara's words either. He met my gaze, and I could see he desperately wanted me to stay with him. Looking back at my sister, I spoke again with resolve. "The Earth King needs one of us to deliver the plans to him once General How and the others have it written up. Zuko volunteered to stay, and I volunteer to stay with him. I thought this would make you happy? You were already against Zuko being the one to deliver the plans earlier. Now I'll be doing so with him."
"You're being ridiculous," Katara snapped. "And if you think for one second I'm letting you stay here with him then you're crazy!" She pointed over at Zuko still showing spite towards him.
"Toph will be here a good amount of the time. It's not like we're alone," I stated. "And besides… It's not the first time I've been alone with him either." I glanced over at Toph when I heard her snicker and mutter something under her breath. Sokka glowered at her so I knew what she muttered hadn't been appropriate.
"And what am I supposed to tell dad when he asks where you are?" She put her hands on her hips to try and remain firm. "Do I say you're off with the Fire Lord's son avoiding him?"
I frowned in dismay. "Yep… Might as well be honest."
Sokka finally intervened with a deep sigh. "Okay… Let's forget about this. I'll stay too and you can go Katara. Clearly we're going to get nowhere with this."
Katara was surprised by Sokka's words. She frowned, not wanting to disappoint Sokka. "No… That wouldn't be fair…" She paused trying to calm her frustration. "Fine… Crys can stay…" She looked over at Toph. "I mean… Toph will be in the city technically…"
"Chillax Sugar Queen. I'll babysit the lovebirds." Toph stepped over and smacked me on the back. "Your sister is in good hands. There will be a kiss free zone while you're gone."
Rolling my eyes, I said, "You all act like all we do is kiss."
Sokka cringed. "Let's hope that's all you do."
"Wait…" Aang spoke up again. "Are we not celebrating then?" His lips turned into a pout of disappointment.
Katara sighed. "I suppose we could go to a shop outside the palace and grab some grub before we all go our separate ways. It would be nice to have the group together for a little longer."
Aang jumped with thrill. "Yes! Great! I'll let the Earth King know! Maybe he'll have a recommendation!" Aang raced out of the guest room we were all in with excitement.
Zuko stepped over to the group then, saying, "If it makes everyone feel better, I received word this morning that my Uncle has gotten a new Tea Shop in the upper ring. We can go stay with him until you all get back." He looked down at the ground. "He won't mind the company."
His words didn't seem to ease Katara's mind, but Sokka seemed to relax at the thought of a chaperone. "That wouldn't be such a bad idea… The Dai Li still aren't a hundred percent trustworthy in my book, so I'd rather you guys were with someone else…"
Toph smirked. "You just don't want them alone together for too long."
I blushed and so did Zuko.
Sokka grimaced and looked displeased. "You blame me?"
Toph scoffed. "Geez! Chill, Sokka. You know Princess and loverboy aren't like that."
He let out a heavy sigh. "Yeah… I guess so…" Then he looked at Zuko with a hard gaze. "We'll be gone for a week. Make sure she stays out of trouble."
"Hey!" I crossed my arms. "I'm not a troublemaker, Sokka! It's not my fault Long Feng decided to target me the other day."
"Well," Toph began. "You are prone to getting captured from what I understand. First it was Zuko, and then those waterbender dudes. It was only a matter of time you became the damsel in distress again."
With a huff, I snapped, "I was doing just fine on my own!"
"Really?" Katara spoke up. "That mark on your back I healed this morning said different. I was surprised you could still stand after that blow."
"What? How bad is the mark?" Sokka asked with worry. He directed his question towards Katara, knowing I wouldn't give an honest answer.
"She got bruised up pretty bad. Any harder a hit could've damaged her spine. She'll heal, but not right away," Katara answered.
"I'm standing right here," I muttered. "And I can reassure you all that it's no big deal."
"Yeah," Toph spoke, suddenly coming up from behind me. "Princess is great!" She tapped her finger on my back sending a vibration of pain through my muscles. I cringed and jerked away from her, shooting her a glare as I did. She shrugged. "Can't lie to me."
Zuko came to my side placing a hand on my shoulder to force me to meet his gaze. "Are you hurting still?"
I brushed his hand off gently, feeling slightly ganged up on. "Stop worrying about me, everyone. It's just a bruise. I'm already feeling better anyway."
Thankfully Aang came back a few moments later saying there was a restaurant right outside the palace that served delicious pastries and soup. Aang was also thrilled to learn from the king that the place was full vegetarian. Zuko looked dismayed at the thought of a meatless meal, but he kept it within himself not wanting to complain to the group he was trying to become accepted by. The King had kindly given us some money for the meal, saying it was a gift for our service to the city. When we arrived at the restaurant which had female greeters on the outside, and a harp player inside, we quickly forgot about the last twenty-four hours and enjoyed each other's company. Katara still refused to talk or even associate herself with Zuko, but I was relieved to find Aang, Sokka, and Toph were warming up to him.
"So you've really been to the Western Temple! That's so cool! That place housed the female airbenders over a hundred years ago."
Zuko grimaced at the mention of other airbenders, staring down at the table to avoid everyone's gaze. "Yeah… But it's empty now…"
Katara lowered her spoon from her mouth, burning a hole into Zuko's face with her eyes. "Wonder how that happened…"
Looking down at my half touched plate of rice and beans, I defended him. "Katara… That was a hundred years ago. Zuko had nothing to do with the genocide. He wasn't even born…"
Katara scoffed, shoving another spoonful of beans into her mouth. Aang noticed the tension was starting, and changed the subject. "So tell us what it's like to live in a palace, Zuko! Did you get waited on hand and foot?"
Zuko smiled weakly, glad Aang was trying to keep the lunch light. "Not all the time. When my mom was around she tried to make me do a lot on my own. She wanted to teach me responsibility, so I usually was the one to straighten my room and dress myself. The servants only stepped in when a special dinner or party came around… After my mom disappeared though, I turned a little bitter and sought to be spoiled… I suppose I was trying to fill a hole in my heart…"
I frowned remembering the story Zuko told me about his mother. I placed my hand over his own which gripped the table, and he weakly smiled at me in thanks.
"Funny..." Katara spoke up breaking the friendly air again. "Is your mom sob story how you won Crystal over?"
I felt my stomach twist a bit at my sister's accusation. Her blow towards Zuko was uncalled for. Zuko grimaced and hung his head as pain filled his heart from her attack.
"Katara… Knock it off," Sokka ordered, stopping from his next bite to intervene. "That's a little too far."
She shrugged, crossing her arms and sitting back against her chair. "I'm just still trying to understand the relationship these two have with one another. I honestly think Crystal picking to stay with the Fire Lord's son over seeing dad is a slap in the face."
Toph tried to save the meal, but I knew it was already going downhill. "Chill out Sugar Queen. You didn't say that when I chose you all over my parents weeks ago. Besides… I don't see what the big deal is. I've been checking for the last twenty-four hours if he's lying like you wanted me too, and so far he's been a hundred percent honest."
My eyes widened. Looking at my sister with disbelief, I asked, "You've had Toph spying on Zuko?"
She defended herself. "I wanted to make sure Aang was safe! I can't trust him no matter how much you want me to!"
My heart stung. "Then trust me!" I stood pushing my chair back. The room fell quiet as other men and women turned to see the confrontation. "I know him more than you!"
Katara stood also to try and stand firm in her resolve. "You think you know him, but that's only because your smitten with him! If you weren't so taken by him you'd feel the exact same way!"
My fists tightened as her words irritated me. "You don't know me, Katara!"
She leaned forward pointing a finger at me. "I do know you! I've been your sister for almost fifteen years! How could I not know you?"
"Excuse me," a server spoke, walking over to us. "Could you take this outside? Some of the other guests are uncomfortable."
"Sorry, sir." Sokka stood. "We were just leaving." He walked over to Katara and grabbed her arm to pull her out of the restaurant. He used his other hand to grab my arm too. "Come on you two."
As we were jerked out of the room, I could faintly hear Aang ask, "Should we follow?"
Zuko was the one to answer. "No… Give them some space."
Once we were out in the sunlight, Katara jerked from Sokka and scowled. "You left Aang in there with him! He could attack!"
"Toph's in there. It-"
I cut Sokka off snapping at Katara, "He's not like that! He's changed. Why can't you give him a chance?"
"Changed?! The Fire Lord's son doesn't change overnight!"
Sokka let out a deep sigh. "Calm down both of you! There's no reason to be so upset at one another."
"Yes there is!" Katara held up her index finger to count off her list. "First Crys falls for the Fire Lord's son! Then she ends up saving his butt at the North Pole, and when she returns to us she leaves again to go hangout with him in the lower ring! She's completely forgotten her family!"
My heart stung at her accusation. "I haven't for one second forgotten about any of you! I didn't spend days in the lower ring to just be with Zuko! I searched and searched for Appa! I had only one thought on my mind, and that was to find our friend!"
Katara pointed a finger at the shop door. "Yet you're more willing to stay with the Fire Lord's son than see father? Explain that one!"
Tears fell from her eyes, and I knew my own tears were escaping as well. "This has nothing to do with choosing Zuko over my family!"
She shook her head. "No! This has to do with you wanting to rebel against dad! Admit it!"
"If father wants to see me so terribly he can come here to Ba Sing Se! I'm not going to a camp surrounded by members of the council who will seek a punishment for my disobedience and treachery!"
"No one will punish you! They'll understand," Katara snapped. "You're not a traitor!
I shook my head. "They'll never understand. They'll only see me as a problem! They'll send me back home so that I can never see Zuko again! I know father! The moment he learns about my relationship with Zuko, all he'll think is that I've been brainwashed! He'll tell me to go home. I'm tired of him telling me what to do! I'm not an injured little girl anymore! I can handle myself just fine!"
"No one's ever thought of you that way," Katara commented, but her words were a lie to every ear.
"No one, huh? I can name plenty." I pictured the sympathetic expressions from the villagers around me. I imagined Gran Gran and her pain-filled eyes whenever she saw my scar. I saw father and his unmatchable gaze. He would take one look at my face and look away with agony. I knew I was the reason he'd left us in the first place. I was no fool. Looking at me every day reminded him of his failure to protect mom. "Why else would father have been so quick to leave?"
"Crys…" Sokka spoke again, trying to calm the tension and reassure me. "That's not true. He left to protect us."
Shaking my head, I recalled what my father had spoken to my Gran Gran so long ago:
"That scar is a reminder of my failure to protect this tribe and family. It's a memory of the woman I lost… The woman I once loved more than anything in the land. If I stay here and see that mark any longer, I fear I may lose myself to both anger and grief…"
"My scar reminds him of his failure to protect us. The longer he looks at me, the worse he feels about himself."
"Dad loves you!" Katara grabbed my shoulders and shook me. "Bato told us not a day goes by that dad doesn't worry about all three of us!"
I frowned, meeting her eyes which bore into me. As her words sunk in, I tried to calm my nerves. Taking in a heavy breath, I spoke with a leveled tone. "I never said he didn't love me… I know he does…" After a short pause, I spoke again. "But I also know that as long as this scar paints my face he'll always see me as someone who needs constant protection. Why else do you think he wants me married off before the rest of you? Areto's a strong warrior with years of fighting under his sleeve. If father could pick anyone to be my husband it would be him. Having Areto to protect me for the rest of my life puts his mind at ease."
Katara was speechless by my reveal, and Sokka looked to ponder over my words with understanding. As silence fell over us, I looked away from their gaze to stare at the palace walls which loomed nearby.
"Don't get me wrong…" I swallowed to find my voice again. "I do miss dad… Not wanting to see him has nothing to do with hating him or never wanting to see him again. I'm just not ready to fight with him about my own future at the moment." I looked back at my brother and sister with plea. "Just give me some time. That's all I ask…"
Katara opened her mouth to say something, but she stopped realizing she didn't want to argue with me any longer. Letting out a heavy sigh, she crossed her arms and nodded. Dropping her gaze, her face fell with guilt. "Fine…" She met my eyes once more. "I'm sorry I jumped on you like that... I was out of line. It's just been a long time since we've been together as a full family. I guess I miss that feeling."
"We will have that again," I promised. "Just not right at this moment. I swear once all this fighting and plotting ends I'll face father. Just be patient with me."
Sokka threw an arm around me, reminding both Katara and I of his presence. "You got it, sis. We'll let dad know you're okay. He'll probably be elated to hear you actually joined us after being away for so many months anyway. And I'll talk to him about this whole Areto ordeal. He'll come around."
I smiled weakly. "Thanks, Sokka. That means a lot."
"So… You all aren't killing each other I see," Toph suddenly spoke from behind. We looked back to see Aang, Zuko, and her walking towards us with relief. "These two were fidgeting for the last five minutes. They thought you were having a full battle out here." She stopped beside us. "But of course you all are lovey-dovey siblings who work out your problems."
Sokka smirked. "You know Toph… You're also like a little sister to me. Come here, sissy!" He stepped forward, but Toph was two steps ahead of him. She stomped her foot down and the ground shot up around his foot stopping him from his advance. As he stumbled and tried to jerk his foot out with a grunt, Toph gestured for us to follow. "Come on everyone. We should get back to the palace so you all can head off on your journeys."
As we followed Toph, Sokka whined from behind, "Oh come on, Toph! I was only kidding about the hug!"
When we finally returned to the palace, Appa was ready for flight with Momo hanging out on his horn. Servants brought food and supplies for the journey in bags Aang and Sokka could carry on their back, while the King pet Appa goodbye. As I chat with Aang about the temple he was going to visit, I saw from the corner of my eyes Sokka and Katara whispering amongst one another. Zuko, who stood next to Toph, looked over at them with question as well. We both knew they were discussing me again.
"You should totally check it out some time! You would love it! There are so many different plants and animals there," Aang exclaimed.
I smiled. "Tell me all about it when you get back."
Sokka and Katara approached then, and I could see Sokka looked disapproving. "So… There's been a change of plans… Turns out Katara is staying now too."
I looked at my sister with disbelief. "What? Why?"
Katara glanced over at Zuko, and shrugged, "I just don't think it's right to ditch you after just getting back with you. Dad will understand."
Toph approached with Zuko following silently behind. "Did I hear correct? You're not going now?"
Katara nodded. "Crys is right. We'll see dad again in the future. He won't be happy if both Sokka and I left her alone in Ba Sing Se."
Aang frowned. "Aw… I was looking forward to your company."
Katara smiled over at him. "You'll be back in no time."
He rubbed the back of his neck and stepped closer to Katara. He started to whisper something that the rest of us couldn't hear. Sokka didn't get the picture and walked over throwing his arm around Aang's neck, cutting him off.
"Alright! Who's ready to get going on our little men-only man trip then?" He gave Aang a noogie on the head, and Aang cringed from the interruption and the gesture.
The Earth King approached asAang was still in Sokka's headlock. "I wish you good journey." Sokka wheeled Aang around as he still restrained him with his arm. "Ba Sing Se owes you its thanks, and we look forward to your return." Sokka released Aang, and they both bowed with respect.
"Be careful you two," I begged. "Don't take too long."
Sokka came forward giving me a tight hug. "We'll be back in a week. You all keep an eye on one another too." He turned then and headed over to Appa to climb on board. Just as he started up though, a guard approached with some news.
"Your Majesty. There are three female warriors here to see you. They're from the island of Kyoshi."
At the guard's words, Sokka was shocked, "That's Suki!" He fell from Appa and landed on his butt. Scrambling to his feet, he looked over at the King with a grin.
The King raised a curious brow. "You know these warriors?"
"Oh yeah. The Kyoshi warriors are a skilled group of fighters, trust worthy too. They're good friends of ours."
The King seemed pleased with Sokka's confirmation. "Then we shall welcome them as honored guests."
Aang nodded, thanking the king. As he turned to head off towards Appa, Katara rushed over. "Aang! Wait!"
She threw her arms around Aang just as he turned back to her, and then kissed him on the cheek. I was surprised, as were Sokka and Zuko at the sudden affection.
Toph spoke up then, saying as she rubbed her neck in embarrassment, "I'm really going to miss you guys."
I was surprised by her admittance, but nodded in agreement. Katara and Aang agreed too, and threw their arms around Toph to say goodbye. Sokka stood to the side, looking hopeful that he would avoid the hug. He wasn't lucky though, because the three of them stepped over and threw their arms around him. He stumbled from their embrace. As this happened, Zuko stepped over to me and nudged me with his elbow.
He then whispered in my ear, "Your sister really doesn't trust me."
I frowned, knowing that was definitely why she was staying behind. "She'll come around… She just takes a little bit…"
He sighed. "I suppose I can't blame her… I did throw her around back at the North Pole a while ago. It's going to take some time to gain her trust after all of that."
"Maybe some of your Uncle's tea will help to smooth her over."
He seemed to contemplate my suggestion. "Yeah… That's definitely worth a try."
"Bye Zuko! Bye Crys!" Aang rushed over and grabbed us both into a hug. Zuko was frozen in shock at the young Avatar's physical contact. I tried to hide my amusement, but I was entertained by Zuko's flustered expression.
"See you, Aang," I spoke. "I hope the Guru teaches you some valuable lessons."
He pulled away with a nod. "He will! Gurus are wise!"
"Aang! Come on! We have to go," Sokka shouted from Appa's bareback. "The day will be over soon."
Aang nodded, and then with a final wave he raced over to Appa. Jumping up with a blast of air, he landed on Appa's neck and grabbed the giant bison's reins. "Yip yip!" Appa shot off into the sky, groaning as he enjoyed his freedom from the prison he had been in days before. As they disappeared into the light of the sun, the King told us that he had a carriage ready to take us to where we'd be staying for the week. Our original living quarters were still in the process of being repaired, so Iroh had offered us a place to stay at his new home. Katara was completely uncomfortable with the idea, but she didn't argue knowing her only other option was to sleep in a building with three walls. When we got to the carriage which was similar to the one Joo Dee had carted us through the city with when we first arrived, the male driver opened the door for us to enter.
"Nice special treatment," Toph commented. "I like it."
Once Toph got into the carriage, Katara gestured for Zuko and I to go first. Zuko shook his head and gestured for her to take the lead. She narrowed her eyes and stepped back crossing her arms. In disbelief, I shook my head at the scene before me.
"Ladies first," Zuko spoke.
Katara scoffed. "Shouldn't a Prince go first?"
"No. That's not how it works," Zuko muttered.
"Sorry! Don't mean to break your Prince etiquette," she snapped. "I'd rather go last though so I can keep an eye on you."
"There's no need. I'm not going to attack you," Zuko snapped.
"Will both of you just get in!" Toph shouted from inside. "I was first anyway! Princess can be last! There! Problem solved!"
Katara huffed and climbed up onto the carriage. As she got in, Zuko let out a deep sigh and looked downhearted. I could tell he was trying to earn everyone's trust in the group. I smiled at him in encouragement, and he nodded to let me know he wasn't giving up. As he got into the carriage, I glanced back at the direction that Aang and Sokka had taken off towards moments before. I hoped their journey would be safe and smooth.
A few hours later we were in the back of Iroh's brand new giant tea shop. The shop was attached to his living quarters, which turned out to be much larger than the apartment they were staying in at the lower ring. Iroh was thrilled to have guests, and he served us all some tea and pastries for dinner. As he did so, Katara began to warm up some to the man she at first only saw as brother to the Fire Lord. She even started to have conversations with him about his time in battle, which surprised me immensely. Zuko and Toph both seemed relieved to find she was actually settling in instead of complaining the whole time.
While the group continued to converse, I stared down at the small cake Iroh had put before me with distracted thoughts. I worried about the others while they were away on their trip. I didn't know much about Gurus, but Aang was going in order to learn about the Avatar state. I'd seen him in the Avatar state before, and I was worried he'd hurt himself trying to mess with it. Sokka being with the warriors concerned me as well. I knew for him my worries were irrational though. Sokka would never abandon us to stay with the warriors. No matter how much he wanted to be with dad and the southern warriors, he knew getting back to Katara and I was important.
"Crystal… Everything alright?" Iroh spoke from across the table, and I could see he had noticed my mind was no longer in the room. It was when he spoke that I noticed Zuko's hand was on my arm to try and bring me back to present. Looking around, I could see Toph and Katara had fallen quiet with worry too.
"Oh… Yeah… I'm alright," I promised. "Just thinking about Sokka and Aang. They should be at their destinations by now."
Zuko brushed my hair behind my ear suddenly. The gesture was always comforting. "They'll be fine. We'll see them soon," he promised.
I nodded, but there was still a feeling inside me that something was going to go wrong. I hoped I was wrong.
That same night Katara went with Toph to drop her off at the place her mother was staying in Ba Sing Se. While they were gone, Iroh asked me what had happened with the Dai Li. He had been worried sick about me, and was glad Zuko and the others had gotten me back in one piece.
When he heard I found Appa, and that I'd tried to escape only to be apprehended by Long Feng once more, he sighed heavily. "You should not fight when you are outnumbered, Crystal. Although the effort is brave, the risk is far more severe."
I frowned. "Long Feng wouldn't have killed me. And besides… I hate feeling useless. I wasn't giving up for a second. I owed Appa after everything the poor guy went through."
Iroh let out a deep sigh. "I'm just glad you're okay… You're like a daughter to me. If anything were to happen to you, I would be devastated."
I smiled weakly. "Thanks, Iroh. That means a lot." Looking down at the table, I wondered if my father felt the same way.
Third Person POV
The morning sun broke over the eastern horizon, shining gold light on the ripples of the bay. Hakoda embraced his son with strong arms, both of them standing inside the large tent that stood center stage in the southern water tribe encampment. Hakoda was relieved to see Sokka was healthy and strong. He hadn't seen his son in almost three years, and the physical change had taken him completely off guard. To Sokka, nothing much had changed of his father except the length of Hakoda's hair and a few battle scars.
"My son… It's so good to see you. I've been so worried." He pulled away slightly from Sokka, glancing him over one last time just to make sure he wasn't dreaming. "But where is Katara? Why is she not with you? And have you heard about Crystal? Is she alright?"
Sokka had expected to be bombarded with questions. He gestured for his father to sit on the fur pelts below them. As they both sat with their legs crossed, Sokka took in a deep breath. "To answer your first question, Katara is in Ba Sing Se. She chose to stay behind to make sure the war plans are delivered safely to the Earth King. There's an eclipse that's happening, and the eclipse is essential for us. With this opportunity, firebenders will be powerless, and we'll have the ability to attack full on."
Hakoda was bewildered by this information. "How on earth did you discover this? I've heard nothing about an eclipse."
He smiled. "One story at a time, dad. Although you'll be thrilled to find that I didn't get eaten by the giant spirit owl after finding out about the eclipse." Hakoda's jaw dropped as he couldn't find the words to say. "Anyway, Katara stayed behind to make sure all was smooth. As for Crystal, she's with Katara in Ba Sing Se, and she is perfectly fine."
Hakoda was relieved. "So your sister is okay? She's finally come to her senses about the Fire Lord's son being the enemy! That's such good news." He clutched his chin and closed his eyes with satisfaction. "I knew she'd come around. My daughter is no traitor after all."
Sokka cringed. "Well… There are some truths to what you say. But also some errors are in there as well…"
He looked at Sokka with surprise, and then a sense of unease fell over him. "What do you mean? Is she okay? What's happened?"
Letting out another deep breath, Sokka explained, "She's okay… I mean, she had been captured by the Dai Li and got a little bruised up, but she's feeling better…" He rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how to continue. "Actually… The Fire Lord's son joined our group to be Aang's firebending instructor. Crystal and Zuko are still a happy pair. That's another reason why Katara stayed. She didn't want them being alone for the week."
Hakoda stared at his son with utter disbelief. He couldn't believe his ears. The Fire Lord's son, and the very enemy that captured his little girl in the first place, was now allied with the Avatar and still sweeping Crystal off her feet?
"No… It can't be true."
Sokka shrugged. "I'm just as surprised about all of this as you. But turns out Zuko isn't the worse company. He helped me get Crystal back from the Dai Li, and has given us great advice on invading the Fire Nation. Oh, and get this!" Sokka beamed. "The dude's great-grandfather was Avatar Roku. Aang's his great-grandpappy reincarnated. That's so crazy!"
Hakoda didn't look at all amused like his son. Instead, he stood and began to pace the room with wild thoughts. "You mean to tell me that Crystal is still with the enemy's son?" He looked at Sokka with great disappointment. "What is she thinking? He's a firebender! He could hurt her! He's not one of us!"
"Dad!" Sokka stood. "Calm down."
He grabbed his son's shoulders. "This is unacceptable! I'm sending someone to Ba Sing Se right now to bring that girl here! I will not allow this." As Hakoda stormed towards the tent opening, Sokka grabbed his arm to stop him.
"Dad! Stop!" Hakoda came back to his senses, freezing mid-step from his retreat. "I know this wasn't the ideal future you planned for her, but she's happy. I haven't seen her this happy since mom died. Zuko's one of the best things that's happened to her in a long time."
He looked back at Sokka with narrowed eyes. "That girl doesn't know what's best for her! I do! The Fire Lord's son has managed to trick my daughter into believing he loves her, and now he's tricked my son too. I will not allow this absurd relationship to continue."
At first Sokka was close to backing down, but the fact his father was being so stubborn brought out the overprotective brother in him. "So what then? When you get Crystal are you going to drag her here, force her hand in marriage to Areto, and then ship her off back home to live the rest of her days as a pleasant little wife?" Sokka shook his head. "You don't know anything about Crystal. She's not the scared little girl you remember her as father. She's a strong waterbender with more courage than you can imagine. She's wise and her heart is pure. I can't believe I'm hearing so much disappointment from you. The father I remember would at least hear Crys out and give her a chance."
Hakoda was appalled by his son's defense, and he fell silent in speechless wonder. He had never heard such opposition from his son before. Sokka had always taken care of his sisters, but he'd never done so in a way that defied his own father.
Sokka crossed his arms and continued to speak. "Crys was right not to come. She was afraid you'd ignore her and marry her off to Areto on the spot. Now I can see she was right to feel that way. If you love your daughter, then you'll have to accept that the feelings she has for Zuko are real. She hasn't been brainwashed, and she isn't doing this to you out of spite. They both clearly care for one another. I've seen it with my own eyes now."
Hakoda stared at his son in silence, trying to form his thoughts and his words. Then with a heavy sigh, Hakoda spoke once more. "I'm sorry Sokka… You're right… I shouldn't be blowing this so far out of proportion…" He stepped back into the center of the tent and sat back down. Looking down at the maps before him, he no longer wanted to discuss Crystal or the enemy's son. He knew his time with his son was short, and he didn't want the air to be tense. "We'll discuss your sister another time. Let's hear about you… Tell me about your time at the North Pole."
Pacing back and forth, I ran a hand through my hair as impatience fell over me. The morning had come, and then the afternoon, only to be followed by the evening. Toph had been gone a whole day now, and something felt unsettling to me.
"Crys! Stop pacing! We get the plans tomorrow, and then Sokka and Aang will be back in a few days. I don't see what has you so anxious."
Stopping in my step, I glanced over at Katara who was chilling out at the table trying to learn how to play Pai Sho. Iroh stared down at the board contemplating his next move, while Zuko meditated in the corner of the room. For most of the day Iroh kept us all distracted by helping him in his tea shop. Katara didn't mind making tea in the back while Zuko and I served tables up front. Iroh was grateful for the help, telling us that he would hire every single one of us if we ever wanted to work for him. Now the shop was closed for the day, and we were all back in Iroh's new living quarters. Since the distraction was gone, I felt anxious all over again.
"Things are just going way to smooth for us. We're having too much good luck. I just have this terrible feeling that something's going to go wrong."
A deep sigh from the corner of the room was heard. "With that attitude it will," Zuko said. "Do I have to tie you up before you burn a hole in the floor? Sit down."
I grimaced, trying to take his advice. However, sitting wasn't on my mind. Letting out a deep breath, I said, "Maybe I'll go get some fresh air or something."
"And get snatched up by the Dai Li again. I don't think so."
I rolled my eyes. "What could the Dai Li want with me now? We have Appa and the Earth King's trust. They no longer need leverage." Zuko stayed in his meditative pose as if he were ignoring me, but I knew he was listening. "I'm just going to stretch my legs. Maybe find a nice fountain to bend some water at."
As I turned to head out, Zuko let out a deep sigh and spoke again from behind. "I'll come too…" Movement sounded behind me, and the floor creaked as he walked over. "Last time I left you alone in the city you were dragged below a lake."
Hearing Zuko and I would be alone together, Katara panicked and jumped to her feet as well. "I'll go instead!"
Zuko groaned, knowing this was going to turn into a back and forth argument again.
"What's wrong? Upset I don't want you alone with my sister? Don't know why you're so surprise-"
"Hey Zuko," I cut her off, not wanting to hear another ridiculous argument. "Do you mind if I actually do go with Katara? I need to talk to her. We'll only be gone for a little bit."
Zuko was surprised, but he nodded to let me know it was fine. As he stepped back, Katara looked at me with question. Walking over, she asked, "What?"
Grabbing her arm, I pulled her towards the door. "Come on."
Once we were outside, the setting sun was to our backs as we made our way through the Upper Ring. I kept quiet at first, while Katara fiddled with her braid anxiously. She knew before I spoke why I'd brought her out and left Zuko behind.
"I'm not going to change how I feel," she muttered beside me. "I don't trust him."
I'd released her arm awhile back, and we were walking side by side. Looking over at her from the corner of my eye, I could see she was doing all she could to avoid my gaze. "I don't expect you to trust him… But could you at least try and be a little nicer to him? It would mean a lot to me."
She took in my words, and I could see they had brought on a wave of guilt over her. After a moment, she let out a deep breath. "Your right… I'm sorry. I'm being really immature and stubborn right now. First I fight with you yesterday at lunch, and then I behave like a child these last few hours when his Uncle is being so kind to us." She released her braid and stopped in her step, hanging her head in defeat. I stopped in front of her, looking at her with question. "I guess I have trouble seeing him as anything other than the Fire Lord's son."
Crossing my arms, I looked down at the ground with a small smile. "I know it's hard… When he first took me prisoner I only saw him for what I wanted myself to see him as. However, once I got to know him the true side of him began to show itself little by little. He's nothing like the Fire Lord. He cares about others, and he loves his Uncle. He has so much goodness inside him, and I know if you give him the chance you'll see that too."
She nodded to let me know she would try. I thanked her and took her hand in my own pulling her along. After a moment of walking through the garden area of the Upper Ring, we arrived at a large fountain with a statue in the middle of some past council member. Sitting down on the edge of the fountain, Katara sat beside me running her hand in the cool water.
"Enough about me…" I watched her from the corner of my eye. "What's going on with you and Aang? That was some goodbye you gave him earlier."
Her cheeks turned red at the mention of the kiss she had planted on Aang's cheek. She looked up at me with embarrassment. "I… It was nothing." She glanced away, rubbing her neck sheepishly. "I was just giving him a peck for good luck…"
Even without Toph's help I knew she was lying. "You have feelings for him. There's no shame in admitting it Katara."
She smiled weakly, putting her hands in her lap and pinching her dress fabric. "I don't know… At first Aang was just a little brother to me. But he's grown so much over the last few months… He's gotten taller and more handsome. He has such a good heart too, and he's so strong. I think you may be right… I do love him more than a brother…"
I beamed with victory. Trying not to show my thrill at being right, I offered her some sisterly advice instead. "You know, Katara... He definitely cares about you too. I see the way he looks at you." I threw an arm around her shoulders in a side hug. "He's probably happy you were the one to free him from that iceberg so long ago."
Her face lit up at my statement. "You think so?"
"I know so." Staring up at the sky, I saw the sun was lowering more and darkness was starting to cover the streets. "Come on… We should head back before it gets too late."
As I stood to go, Katara grabbed my arm to stop me. "Crys…" Looking back at her in question, I saw her drop her gaze and release my arm. Standing, she took a deep breath as she tried to get the words to form. "I hate to say it, but I can see Zuko cares about you too… I can't understand it, but there's always this look in his eyes like he'd jump in front of a flying boulder for you. You're lucky to have found someone like that."
Her small essence of acceptance made me fill with relief. "Thanks Katara… That means a lot..."