Ziggy's corner: This story is a second Avatar Story, and this time it is a romance.

A MIDWINTER'S ROMANCE

The sun was shining just below the horizon as Appa, the flying bison, landed onto the soft patch of dirt near the ocean's waves. Aang was the first one off, and naturally back flipped into the icy cool waters, sighing with relief. The day had been hot, unnaturally hot for a winter's day, but the Avatar and his friends were too busy trying to soar through the clouds to evade detection from the Fire Nation to worry about anything else.

Katara was the next off the large white bison, and quickly began gathering what fruits and berries that she could find, for their dinner; glaring with blue eyes icier than the ocean's waters, at her brother, Sokka, who was the last to depart Appa's back.

During a very tense situation, when – as he tried to distract Prince Zuko's forces – he tossed all their food they had into the waters below, which were quickly consumed by hungry oceanic crocodiles. Luckily the beasts were overzealous to protect their newly acquired breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and blocked Zuko's ship from coming any nearer to the Flying Bison.

"Oh come one, like it was my fault that we lost all the food," her brother snapped, his own blue eyes shining with just amount of bitterness.

"Actually it kinda was," Aang said, grabbing onto the fin of a nearby fish and surfing on its back.

"It so was not," he screamed, stomping a booted foot into the sand, and struggling to pull it from the surface as it clung to the boot.

"Did you put the sack of food near the back of Appa's saddle?" Katara asked, not bothering to look at her brother.

"Well, yes I did, but --," he began, still trying to pull the sand from his boot.

"Weren't you the one playing with your boomerang, trying to act so macho?" she interrupted him, grunting as she pulled a stubborn string of berries, off their branch.

"It's called training," he snarled, finally freeing himself from the dirt.

"And wasn't it your boomerang, that it the Fire soldier on Zuko's ship in the head, giving off our location?"

"Well, yeah, but it's not like I planned that, and besides, it was a Fire Nation soldier, he kind of deserved it, don't you think?"

"Right, let's not wait for Zuko to actually find us," she said her voice laced with sarcasm, "let's just put up a great big sign that reads, 'Hey Hot Head, look above you, the Avatar and his friends are right up here!'"

At the statement, Aang leapt off the fish and started cackling, "Good one, Katara," he said with a grin.

"Oh come on," Sokka wailed. "How is that my fault for losing the food?"

"Who's the one who started screaming, 'The Fire Nation's found us, hit the deck,' the minute Zuko's ship started firing at us, and knocked the food out of Appa's saddle and into the water?"

There was an uncomfortable silence for a long time, and when Sokka finally managed to open his mouth, it was shut tight as his sister tossed a few bits of timber at him. "Okay 'great warrior' go and get us some fire wood for our dinner tonight."

Sokka looked at the food she had gathered and back at her. "Berries? You're going to roast berries?"

"They're Bartram berries," she snapped. "They have to be cooked, or otherwise they can't be eaten. Trying to eat one raw is like biting into a rock." She turned away from him and smirked. "Honestly Sokka, I would have thought that such a glorious 'soldier' like you would have known that."

"Oh come on, don't you think you are getting a little too overdramatic?" he asked, walking up to her and snatching a berries form her hand.

"Um, Sokka," Aang, started, but he hesitated as Katara held up a hand, with a smirk. They watched him lick his lips and open his mouth wide. Aang couldn't watch anymore than that, and put his hands over his eyes, but the loud crack and Sokka screeching like a banshee told him all he needed to know.

"Told you," Katara snickered, "they need to be cooked." She picked up the timber and handed it back to him. "Now if you don't mind?"

Sokka scowled at her for a moment, and seized the wood from her, piling it into a perfect circle away from the water, but not to close to the woods either, and headed into them, holding a painful cheek and moaning the whole time.

A few hours later, the three friends had eaten their fill, along with Appa and Aang's pet lemur, Momo. Aang and Sokka put out the fire and lay on the beach staring up at the stars. "Tomorrows the Solstice," Aang said lost in thought.

"Yeah it is," Katara said, seeming looking into the sky as if it could show her the past.

"I nearly forgot about that," Sokka said. He smiled and blinked his turquoise eyes. "You remember when we were kids and mom and dad were still around, how excited we'd get when the first day of Solstice."

"Yeah," she sighed. The food, the friends, and once in awhile, when they could afford it, the present each one would give, or get. But that was before their village got involved with the war, and they lost their mother, their father somewhere off fighting the Fire Lord somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, if he was still alive that was.

"In the Air Temples, we used to have large feasts, and a party, and even wonderful game," Aang said, sighing, his eyes glazing over at the thought of the memories. "Even the sternest and crabbiest of the monks would have a great time. And then we'd decorate the air tree, and its lights could be seen for miles, and miles." For a moment he stopped and thought, and then pulled himself to his knees. "But maybe that's what helped the Fire Nation find the Temples, and destroy the air benders."

"Aang, you shouldn't say things like that," Katara snapped, pulling herself up and dusting off her light blue robes.

"The Fire Nation started the war after the comet came, right?" Sokka said. "Well, that was in the summer, so they probably found the temples right after that --," two things stopped him from continuing, one; realization of what he was saying, and two, Katara's own evil glare in his direction.

"Thank you mister sensitivity," Katara snarled. Using her mind she grasped a thread of water from the Ocean and whipped it at his head, knocking her older brother back to his back. The young girl edged toward the twelve year old avatar, and gently put her hands on his shoulders. "Aang, there was nothing you could do; there wasn't anything anyone could do to stop them. I know you miss them but," she stopped and looked at his sorrowful grin.

"Thanks, Katara, but if you don't mind, I think I'd like to be alone right now," he eased away from her and stood up, straightening his orange and tan air bending monk's uniform. Before either of them could stop him, Aang used his powers to create a ball of wind, and road off on it, into the woods."

Katara called after him, but there was nothing. Her heart began to pound, and she looked at her brother, who sleepily looked at her and the woods. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she shouted. Katara tore to her feet and began racing into the woods.

"Hey, wait a minute, he said he wanted to be alone, I don't think --," the South Water Nation teen and warrior pulled sleep from his eyes and unsteadily rose to his feet.

"That's just your problem," he heard her hiss with venom from just outside his vision.

Sokka picked up his boomerang, thankful that one of Zuko's guards had tossed it back at him in disgust, and that he had caught it. "Stubborn, pig headed, know it all, girl," he hissed. "Thinks she's so much better than me." He groaned, looking at his match and sighed. No sense in letting them both get into trouble. Aang could probably get out of it, he said he knew the island, that he'd visited it over a hundred years ago, but Katara, she was strong, but sometimes as blind as a mule. With sleep vanished, and his muscles flexing on adrenaline, Sokka raced into the woods.

/

Elsewhere in the woods, a small battalion of Fire Nation Warriors were camped, along with them, the Prince Zuko, the son of the Fire Lord, and one time Heir to the Kingdom. Zuko had a sense of pride and devotion to his nation, not so much his father anymore – though he would give anything to reconnect with him. And that devotion was only overshadowed by his zeal and fanatical intentions of capturing the avatar, and bringing him back to his father. Only once the avatar was caught, would he be allowed back into the ranks of the royal family, only once caught could the Fire Nation win the hundred year war they started without fear of opposition.

True, the Earth Nation had stymied them for a long thirty-five years, but their forces were growing thin, and even their capital, a massively built walled city that looked like it sat on four mountains, looked strained under constant assault. The last true time they had managed to forced any Fire Nation army past the borders of its city limits was over ten in a half years ago. A year ago General Tzu Indicia died of pneumonia, and the morale of the Earth Nation soldiers began to drop ever since. Then the damned avatar returned and they began reclaiming hope!

The prince stalked toward a lonely stump and scowled at the cold, lifeless earth beneath his feet, away from the gaiety and laughter of his men, and the warmth of the bone fire they had created. His scar over his left eye began aching, and he reached up to soothe it, but then let his hand drop. It was his father who gave this to him, a reward for defending his father's soldiers, speaking out against use fresh recruits against well trained men in order to create a distraction; and then refusing to fight his father in the arena for his speaking out against the devious plan.

Am I truly as weak as he says? Uncle says I am one of the strongest men he has ever seen, and yet, the ruler of our own kingdom disputes him. Zuko groaned weakly, refusing to let himself cry.

"What are you doing here, Prince Zuko, when you're men are celebrating by the fire?" a warm and aged voice asked. His uncle had known the boy had heard him approach, as his body had tightened and relaxed as he realized who had been coming his way.

"I wish to be alone, uncle," the teenager said, under his breath.

"Come now, Prince Zuko," his uncle tried again, placing a warm hand on his shoulder. "It's nearly Solstice."

"You're point is?" the prince roared, ripping away from his uncle's grasp. "I don't have time to celebrate silly holidays when the avatar is on the loose, and Admiral Zhao keeps hounding my efforts to catch him." The boy spun on his heels and looked at the sad and elderly eyes of his uncle. The boy's chest rose and fell, and he narrowed his eyes, before he blew out a puff of flames, and sat back on the stump, putting a hand on his chin.

"But you used to enjoy it," his uncle said. "And you've been working too hard."

"None of us have been working hard enough," the prince growled, turning his nearly bald head back and forth, his brown hair he had tied in a long pony tail upwards. "I don't even remember the last Solstice I enjoyed."

"It seems to me that I do," his uncle said tenderly, stroking his gray hair.

"If you are going to bring up, what I think you are, don't waste your breath," the prince hissed. He rose to his feet and flexed his fingers. "I'm going to bed now. Tell the men they may have one day off, but then we are going back after the avatar."

He began to stomp to his tent when a flash of motion caught his eye. The prince stood motionless for a moment, and narrowed his eyes. There was something in the wood, or someone. A small figure, probably around ten or perhaps older, but not nearly a teenager, and the prince caught his breath, arching forward for a better glance. The figure was riding on something, pure white and cold blue. A moment later, with a snarling smile he recognized it, and turned to his uncle.

"Rally the men, uncle. The avatar is in the woods," he spun on his heels, and began racing into the woods, after the boy.

"Prince Zuko, really I think you truly have been working too har--," his uncle began, when he heard a young girl's voice call out to the avatar. "Then again, maybe not."

If it had been up to him, he would have let bygones be bygones, and let the avatar celebrate the Solstice for the night, or perhaps longer; as well as his men, but the prince had too much of his father, in him to let bygones be bygones. Reluctantly he turned to the camp and shouted out a command. Instantly the Fire Nation soldiers grabbed their weapons and followed the elderly man after their prince, to try and catch a prize.

/

"Aang," Katara called out. She had followed him and called his name for the last half hour so much, that the avatar began meditating to drone her out. It was only after he heard the desperation in her voice that he began listening again, and the words that he realized what they now meant.

"Aang, its Zuko, the Fire Nation is here!" She cried.

He spun around on his air ball, and watched as she and Sokka turned to confront their opponents. The first thing he saw, was Prince Zuko, sword drawn rushing toward the two Water Nation warriors, and of course, to himself. Sokka had already raised his boomerang, and Katara was slowly backing up, pulling her water jug from her belt. Then twenty well armed Fire Nation soldiers ran up the hill, and slid to a stop as Zuko raised his arm.

"It is over Avatar," the prince snapped with a smug grin. "You're closed in, there's no where to move, and you can't use your glider to escape, not with all these trees overhead, and even if you could, my archers would bring you down faster than a rock."

"Why don't you just leave us alone?" Aang snapped. "It's Solstice."

"Yes, and you will be the perfect gift to my father," the prince chuckled. His men began to creep closer to the three, their weapons gleaming in the starlight.

"Don't you even have a heart?" Katara cried. "What would your mother think of you?"

Gone was the sure smug of Zuko. Replaced was a shocked grimace, and then absolute rage. "Don't you ever mention my mother," he snarled under his breath. The teenage prince lowered his arm and rushed at the three, followed by his men, howling with carnal frenzy.

The battle had begun, and Aang knew it would end just as fast at it had started. The three of them might have had a fighting chance in an open space, but closed in like this, there was not much to do but dodge, use air bending – water bending in Katara's case – and hope that they could cause enough headaches before being overwhelmed.

Aang would have sworn, if he hadn't been brought up by a group of men who had devoted them selves against such a sin, and if he hadn't been only twelve – well technically he was one hundred and twelve, trapped in ice for over a hundred years, but as far as he was concerned he was still twelve. He knocked over four soldiers rushing toward him, and flung another into the air with a tornado. Sokka had managed to drop two of Zuko's archers, and Katara was doing pretty well herself, but somehow for every soldier dropped, ten more took his place.

And then there was Zuko himself. No matter how many times Aang managed to dodge him, or block his blows with his air staff, he was right back there, right in his face. Aang managed to take the fight to the trees, hoping to leap up high enough that he could blow his bison whistle, and have Appa hover over head, so they could make their escape, but Zuko somehow managed to anticipate that, and blocked him off each direction he went.

Finally both of them knew weapons would not be enough. Fists and legs began to fly, streaking out beneath a midnight sky. Aang hit Zuko straight in his chest, and then used his air bending to launch himself into the air, to perform a back brain kick. Zuko dropped to the ground, face first, and it looked as if the battle had ended right there. But the crafty prince rose to his feet yet again, rubbing the back of his head.

At least I gave him a headache. Aang leapt into the air, and was halfway up the woods, when a splinter of fire slammed him in the back, and the prince leapt from tree to tree in a zigzag motion, finally catching the boy in between his legs, and dropped him down to the ground. At the last minute, Aang managed to hold out an arm, to block the blow to his head. And it worked, except for the river of pure agony that raced from his wrist all the way down to his elbow, and the sickening sound of a crack.

He felt woozy, and could hear both Katara and Sokka call his name. He could taste blood ooze from his nose and trickle into his mouth, filling it with bitter irony distaste. Aang's chest hurt and he didn't doubt that he had probably broken a rib or two, but the main concern was his right arm. If there was any doubt that his ribs were broke, there was completely no doubt about his arm. It hung by his side as he pulled himself to his feet, like a rag doll, swinging in the gentle breeze like a snapped branch, still clinging to a tree. His eyes though, there was nothing broken in those. They were filled with sorrow for Zuko's rage, but also determination not to let his friends down.

"Why. Won't. You. Stay. Down?" Prince Zuko snarled, digging his nails into the palms of his hands.

"Probably for the same reasons you won't," Aang responded with a deep, dangerously low tone.

That was too much for the prince. In an insane act of fury, flames burst from his hands, and before his uncle could warn him, he slammed them into the ground. It protested for a moment, before groaning, and splitting in two. The next thing Aang knew, he was dropping, falling off a cliff that he had no idea was even behind them, so caught up in the combat. He heard his friends call out, and spotted them tearing away from the enemy lines, racing toward him. Sokka had leapt over the cliff, soaring toward him, and Katara was gaining towards the end of the line. Below him he could see the dark waves of the ocean, and right above that a pretty cloud, just hovering there.

Wait, a pretty cloud? With horns and a big black nose, and an air bender air painted on its forehead? Appa! Aang could hear the prince order his men to follow them, to get to the ships; that was good, it had to mean his friends were safe. And they'd all fly away on Appa, and get far away from the island. Aang smiled, and felt darkness caress him as he closed his eyes.

/

She was almost there; she could see the edge of the cliff. Zuko roared in outrage looking down where Aang and her brother had either dropped or jumped, paying absolutely no attention to her at all. One more step and she would join them. It was a step she was not fated to take.

A strong hand clutched her arm and spun her to the ground, refusing to let go. The girl screamed, and tried to pull away, but the fingers tightened around her arm. Katara used water bending, but was blown away with a hot gust of wind. She looked up, expecting to see Zuko staring at her, but in truth it was far worse. Admiral Zhao looked down, and then off into the distance, as Appa flew toward the moon, both Aang and Sokka lying motionless as the bison soared away. A lesser woman would have cried out to the animal, to come back and help her, but Aang was hurt, and was in no condition to continue to fight, and Sokka didn't look any better.

At least they got away, she thought.

The admiral watched the bison disappear into the darkness and turned to her with a smirk. "Well, not the Solstice gift I was hoping for, but you'll do, for now." The girl looked into his deep, dark eyes and felt a fear that she had never felt before.