JakShattered Fates: Alpha
Chapter Three: Into the Fire
Zuko walked towards the door with sudden mirth, a light grace kindling in his footsteps as he smiled rather pleasantly, for once in his life. Today had been a good day, after all. And now that it was well into the evening, there was nothing else that really could go wrong with the day. It was also something to be proud of—tomorrow would be his seventeenth birthday, and that was always something good.
It would also be his two-month anniversary with Katara, but that celebration he could keep to himself.
Two months of sneaking away in the night to go see her. Two months of secrets, two months of lies. Two months of small, brief kisses that made his heart pound. Two months of holding hands and laughing. Spirits knew how long it had been since he just laid back and laughed, but with Katara it seemed so easy, so natural, as if laughing had been something he had always done, and always knew how to. When he was with her, it was sudden easier to laugh, to smile and to just be happy. He had forgotten how to, really, but it had gotten to the point where the mere thought of Katara could make a shy smile appear on his face, a rosy tint appear on his face that had nothing to do with the heat, and thoughts, awful, wonderful thoughts would enter his mind along with her.
It most certainly was a good day for Zuko.
At least it was, until fate decided to show up to prove a point.
"Grandmother," Zuko said with a scowl as he kneeled before the two old women now onboard his and Azula's ship. "Great Aunt Zhi. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Grandmother, the High Fire Lady, Zara, lifted her nose to her grandson in spite. "Where is Azula?" The old bat barked. "I expect to be greeted more like royalty and less like an exile--" she spat the word out towards Zuko with such nastiness it tainted the very air around her "--next time, Zuko." She did not bother to hide her shame and obvious dislike for her grandson as she strutted past him, head held high and nose soaring up into the air.
"My apologies." The Prince answered, with all the fake sincerity he could muster. "But may I ask why you are here?"
Zhi looked down at him coldly. "It is Azula's seventeenth birthday tomorrow!" The croon snarled. "We have come to make sure she has a--" she bit her tongue as she spoke "--proper birthday."
Zuko ignored the fact that they had forgotten it was his birthday, too. He was all too used to the two gargoyles to be offended by them much more. "I'm afraid Azula is ill, Great-Aunt." He answered plainly. "So you've come all this way for nothing." It took all his patience not to smirk at the two women at their horrified looks.
"She is ill?" Zara gasped, holding a hand to her chest in fright. "What ails that sweet and innocent child?"
"Better yet," Zara's twin scowled. "Where is the doctor? Who is looking after her?"
"I am looking after her, Great-Aunt." Zuko answered, sounding rather frustrated at the moment. "And she is not so terribly ill, just unfit for company."
Zara's eyes narrowed. "We are not company. We are her family."
"Important family, though, and I think Azula would appreciate it if you just went home." Zuko commented with a wry smile.
Zhi held a look of contentment, as if she was about to agree with her grandnephew before she stopped herself. "Perhaps we should stay and look after Azula ourselves, seeing as you aren't doing all that fine of a job."
Zuko's jaw dropped. "What do you mean, I'm not doing a good job? Who else do you see here looking after her!"
"Then why did you just now arrive home, if you are taking such good care of your darling sister, hmm boy?" Zhi clicked her tongue with all the demeanor of a snake that had caught its prey between a rock and a hard place. "Where have you been?"
"Great-Aunt, Grandmother—" A quiet voice, so unfamiliar that it caused the whole family to turn and look to the source, called out.
It was Azula.
Her cheeks were pale; her gold eyes flickering and her body covered by a mountain of blankets and robes. Zuko hoped his relatives could not see through the pile of clothing, for there was a round lump in Azula's center that held a child—an innocent babe, all things considered.
Zuko let out a sigh of relief. At least his sister had the sense to hide herself before showing up before their relatives.
"Azula!" Zara cried out, running to her granddaughter. Her sister was not far behind. "My goodness, what is wrong, child? You are so pale…" In truth, she was no paler than she usually was, but her disheartened face and downcast eyes made her look pale. "And so cold! Warm yourself up, Princess! I know I've showed you how--"
"Can't. Doctor said not to use my bending." She said easily, wrapping the blanket tighter around herself.
Zhi clicked her tongue. "Poor girl. Here, sit down! You need to rest." She wrapped one arm around her grandniece and escorted her to a convenient chair. "Did the healer say what was wrong, dearest?"
"Mild case of pentapox." Zuko interrupted when he saw Azula at a loss for words. "She got off lucky—usually it can get pretty bad, but she has a rather mild case of it."
"Pentapox!" Zara screeched, holding her hands up to her mouth. "I know I've heard of that before…"
"Didn't Jen's son die of pentapox?" Zhi added, sounding worried. Zara gasped.
"Your right! He did! My goodness, child, and Zuko left you by yourself?" Zara snapped, turning her attention back to the Fire Prince. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, boy, leaving your poor little sister here alone while she was sick!"
Zuko was about to bite back a reply when Azula interrupted. "I told him to go, Grandmother." She lifted her hand, waving it in the air in a dramatic fashion. "It's his birthday tomorrow, too. It's no fair that he has to stay and watch over me on his birthday, especially since he's been taking such good care of me." She said the last few words with extra emphasis, as if she was actually being honest in her retort.
Zara scowled. "Well, he won't have to worry about that anymore, because you are coming back to the Fire Nation with us immediately."
Azula's eyes went wide. "Grandmother, I can't, I—" But Zara brushed her off.
"Azula, I don't think you realize how serious pentapox can be! That can last years, darling,"
"At least another five months, according to the doctor." At least that part wasn't a lie; the baby would be born in five months, then they could both go home.
"And I don't want to see you ill for that long!" Zara continued, ignoring Zuko's commentary. "If we take you back to the capital, then you'll be treated by the best and will be better quicker."
"No, Grandmother." There was a sense of finality, an aura of power in Azula's voice as she spoke these words. "I promised my brother I would help him capture the Avatar, and I intend to do so." There was darkness in her words, a sense of shame of having to sink down so low. But if she wanted her child hidden, her name left untainted, her honor kept, then she would have to help Zuko.
Reality is a bitch, isn't it, 'Lula? He wanted to smirk, and it took all his willpower not to do so. Welcome to the real world.
Zhi's eyes narrowed softly. "The Avatar—you mean you still have not found him yet, boy?" Her eyes peered around the ship closely. "I should have known. Without Iroh to guide you, you are a mess, aren't you? I bet you haven't a clue where he is, do you?"
It took all of his strength not to throw a fireball right in the old woman's face. How dare you speak about Uncle! "I've been too busy looking after Azula to look for the Avatar, Grandaunt."
"Well then it's a good thing we're here now, isn't it!" Zara shrieked. "Now you can continue your search, and prove you aren't so worthless! We'll look after Azula now." She wrapped her arm around Azula protectively, shielding her away from the rest of the world. "Come along now, child, you need your rest." She crooned, steering Azula back to her room.
"And Zuko?" Zhi stopped following her sister and grandniece, turning her attention again to the boy behind her. "You will capture the Avatar, very soon. Either you will," Again her eyes darkened, a sense of hatred boiling deep within them, "or Zara and I will. And if we capture the Avatar," She spoke the next few words barely above a whisper, but Zuko heard them loud and clear.
"You will never return home."
She then clicked her heels and left, leaving Zuko alone in the room.
And the day had been going so well, too.
"Zuzu, you still awake?"
"Yes, and don't call me that." He whispered to his sister, opening the door to his room to allow her in. She walked in rather gracefully for a woman who was four and a half-months pregnant, her stance still as elegant as ever. She sat on the edge of his bed; her knees curled up towards her chest to the best of her ability. She sighed in exasperation before continuing.
"We need to talk."
"You think?" He whispered harshly as he shut the door, throwing his thumb over his shoulder where the two old croons were resting.
Azula bushed him off. "Don't worry about those two—I drugged their tea, they'll be dead asleep by now."
"Do they know?" He asked cautiously, taking a step forward. "Do they know about the baby?"
Her eyes widened in shock. "Of course not! Don't be ridiculous! I told you, you were the only one who I told. No one else knows." She rubbed her stomach carefully, her eyes filled with concern. That in and of itself was a strange sight to see on Azula; the Fire Princess usually cared about no one outside of herself. "I would be banished—executed if Father ever found—if he ever…" Her breath hitched slightly; she did not need to continue. Zuko knew well the matters involved with banishment and exile. He did not need Azula to explain it to him any farther.
Which explained how Zuko was involved in this little predicament in the first place. Honor and marriage took high, high priority in the Fire Nation. A woman with child who was not married was considered lower than dirt in the Fire Lands. They were to be scorned, not pitied, not helped. The bastard child, too, would be considered an abomination, the pure and final result of sin itself, and would be executed upon birth, if not before. The mother would be killed as well. Only in extreme cases, such as Azula's, would the mother be allowed to live, and that would only be because her rank or title would save her from death. Save her from death, perhaps, but not from ridicule or exile.
Zuko did not care much for his sister, let alone her unborn child, but he did not know if he could live with himself if he let them die, either.
"You never did tell me who the father was, you know." Zuko commented lightheartedly, willing to change the subject to best of his ability.
"I told you enough." She smirked.
Zuko scoffed. "Barely. You said he was a Firebender and he was dead now. That only leaves, what, half the world?"
"I told you enough." She spoke again, her voice softer than before. "Besides, that isn't what I wanted to talk to you about, anyway." She crossed her legs in lotus position so that Zuko could also sit on the bed across from her.
"What did you want to talk about, 'Lula?" He addressed his sister by her nickname in retort.
She ignored him. "The Avatar. I agreed to help you capture him, so long as…"
He waved her off. "I will keep my end of the bargain if you keep yours."
She nodded. "I know that. I was just saying." She let out a deep breath, getting off of the bed and walking around Zuko's room. "It seems our plan is going to have to be put in action sooner than we thought."
He raised an eyebrow. "Do you really think we'll be able to hold the Avatar captive for another five months, at the earliest?"
"Of course not, don't be foolish!" She snapped at him. "But having him here will prove we aren't worthless and will get Grandmother and Great-Aunt off our backs until the baby is born. More than likely they'll head home, thinking that we'll be there shortly after them. And they're right. We will go home, Zuko." Her eyes darkened at the word home. "You, me, and…" She rubbed her stomach tightly. "…And the baby, too. We'll all go home with the Avatar in tow. I'll make sure of it."
"If we set the plan off early, it won't work again. They aren't so gullible, you know. Some of them are actually quite clever." He thought of Katara, but shook the thought out of his head. Soon, that wouldn't matter anymore. He just had to be patient.
She scoffed at him. "I realize that. But I have a better plan." She snapped her fingers coldly, a blue fire igniting between them. Even though she was across the room, Zuko could feel the heat of the small flame flare throughout the room.
He stared at her callously. "I thought the doctor said not to use your bending, Azula."
She laughed. "The doctor doesn't know what he's talking about!" The fire in her hand grew larger by the second. She smiled; it was a harsh, wicked smile that carried with it all of Azula's hate. "My child will be a bender." She whispered, more to herself than to her brother. "I can feel it. I can feel the heat in my stomach, I can feel it add to my own flame."
She held out her palm and closed her eyes. Little by little the blue flame grew and grew until it became so bright and warm that Zuko had to shield his eyes away from it.
Azula gave him a small smile as she opened her eyes. "Did you see that? Did you feel that?" She laughed, an uneasy sound to Zuko's ears. "That wasn't me. That was the baby." She chuckled. "That was my child." She laughed again, this time louder and with more power. "That was my child! Oh spirits, feel it!" She grabbed her brother's hand and placed it on her round tummy. "Do you feel it?"
Indeed, he did feel it. The heat surrounding the lump was warm, too warm, and with it came a sharp kick that had Azula near tears.
"Oh Zuko." She whispered, the tears now steadily flowing down her face at a growing speed. "Promise me, promise me! That when you're Fire Lord, you won't—you won't let them take him away! That you won't let them kill my baby. Don't let them kill my son, please?"
Zuko did not answer with words, only held his sister tightly as she cried against his shoulder.
"Whatcha doing, Katara?" Aang asked softly as he watched Katara bend the water back and forth, sweat trailing on her brow. She stopped what she was doing to breathe, turning to Aang with a smile.
"Hello Aang. I'm just making a present for Dante. You know, my boyfriend." She said the last word with a little lovesick sigh, and it was all Aang could do not to cringe. "It's his birthday tomorrow, and well," She wiped the sweat off of her face before bending down to pick up what she was shaping with the water. In her hands was a small dragon, a tiny ice sculpture so crystal clear it looked as though it could have been made out of glass rather than ice.
"It took me a while to figure out how to get the ice so that it wouldn't melt, but I think I finally got it down right. What do you think? Do you think Dante would like it?"
Dante had been her made-up name for Zuko whenever Sokka had questioned her about him. ("Well, what's his name, at least?") Aang didn't know where she got it from, but she had, and with it came a whole fabrication of lies about this 'Dante'. He came from an earthbending family, but wasn't a bender himself. His family was in the spice trade, and they traveled around a lot. As it was, they were heading to Omashu as well to deliver a batch of rare tealeaves, so that was how she was still able to meet up with him on their way. He went to the Fire Nation a few times with his family, so that was why he had a Fire Nation jacket. As far as looks went, he had long dark hair that he kept back in a ponytail, and a pleasant smile that could warm the room. His eyes were large and green; so green, in fact, that if you looked at them in the sunlight they would almost look gold.
"I think he'd like it." Aang smiled at her. "He'd be silly not to."
She returned the smile graciously. "You think? I hope so." She twirled the water around the small dragon figurine, adding a few last-minute touches to the small dragon.
"Do you love him?" Aang asked curiously. Katara almost dropped the figurine.
"Do I…what?" She asked, sounding shocked.
"Do you love him?" Aang repeated, genuinely amused at Katara's reaction. In the past two months he had managed to convince himself that Zuko wasn't all that bad of a guy—after all, he had been the Blue Spirit and had rescued him once, so he couldn't be all bad, right? Besides, Katara had yet to come back injured or afraid; in fact, she seemed truly happy whenever she came back from seeing Zuko, and while it broke Aang's heart to admit this, he would rather see her happy and with Zuko than miserable and with him.
Besides, there were other fish in the sea. He was only twelve, almost thirteen. He would meet other girls. He was almost sure of it.
"I don't know." Katara finally answered, her eyes fixed on the dragon statue. "I mean, I like him, but love him? I don't know…that seems too serious, almost. I'm not sure what to say."
Aang grinned, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Well, you'll figure it out, I'm sure. Now, aren't you suppose to be meeting some birthday boy soon…?"
Katara looked up and gasped. "My goodness! I'm late! I said I'd meet him—Oh no, oh no, here Aang, hold this—where are my shoes?"
For five minutes she ran around like a possum chicken with it's head cut off, looking for shoes, a jacket, a hairbrush, occasionally stepping on Momo and priding herself on only tripping over Appa once.
"Forgetting something?" Aang asked, bemused as he handed her the figurine. She smiled.
"Thank you so much Aang. You're a lifesaver. SOKKA, I'M LEAVING NOW!" She yelled, hoping to get through to her brother, who was currently sharpening his boomerang by the riverbank.
"BETTER BE BACK BY NINE-THIRTY OR I'M COMING AFTER YOU!" Sokka yelled back, reminding her of her curfew. She rolled her eyes. "AND DON'T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME! I CAN STILL SEE YOU, YOU KNOW!"
She rolled them again for good measure, causing Aang to laugh. "I'll see you later, Aang. BYE SOKKA!" She waved towards her brother before turning away from the two and leaving.
"HEY, SEE IF YOU CAN GET SOME MORE TEA OFF THAT GUY! THAT STUFF WAS GOOD!" Sokka added from his place by the river, a good few feet away. Far enough that they had to yell to hear one another, at least.
"I WILL, SOKKA, GOOD-BYE!"
And so, she left.
A pair of arms wrapped around his shoulders tightly from behind as he turned around and returned the favor generously. A light kiss woke his from his daydreaming, and he smiled widely at her before kissing her back.
It would be the last time he would get to do this; best make the most of it.
"Happy birthday." She whispered, her arms still entwined with his own.
His eyes widened in pleasant surprise. "You remembered."
"Of course I did." She said off-handedly as she untangled herself from his arms. "I got you something. Close your eyes."
He did as he was told, tapping his foot patiently while he waited for her.
"Okay, you can open them now." He did, and was surprised at what he found.
In her hands was a small crystal dragon statuette, but it was beautiful. The glasslike markings were so realistic it looked as though a see-through dragon was napping in her palm.
She placed it in his hand gently. He was astonished to find that it was cold.
"It's made of ice, not crystal." She explained at his shocked look. "I made it myself—don't worry, it won't melt. I think you could light it on fire now and it wouldn't melt."
"I'll keep it away from the heat just in case, though." He laughed as he admired the small dragon in his hand. "It's beautiful—and you made this yourself?" She nodded, sounding genuinely pleased at his reaction. "I'm impressed. How did you know I was born under the Dragon sign?"
She blushed. "I didn't. I just knew that the dragon was a common Fire Nation animal…it is, isn't?"
He nodded. "Yeah, but they aren't that common. I hear you have to be a really powerful Firebender in order to have one come to you. Avatar Roku had one, but I don't know of anyone recently who has."
She smiled as she closed his palm around the statuette. "Well, now you have a dragon all of your own, don't you?"
A horrible feeling in his gut began to shake him, one that made him feel sick as guilt began to plague him like nothing he had ever felt before. He shouldn't be doing this. He shouldn't be here, with her. He didn't--it was wrong, so very wrong, and yet…
"What wrong?" She asked softly. His sudden guilt must have showed on his face, because her concern was nearly instant.
"I don't deserve you." He spoke delicately, honestly. She surprised him again with her answer.
"I know you don't." She leaned in and gave him a quick peck on the lips. "But you got me anyway, so just be happy." She ran her hand through his hair, causing him to smile.
Here goes nothing.
"I got something for you, too." He lied, pulling her away from him temporarily. He bent down and went through his bag, looking for something.
"Here," He said, handing her a box of tealeaves. "Do you want this? I don't drink the stuff, and Uncle," he winced inside as he spoke "Uncle loved it. Had a ton of it all over the ship. You said your brother and the Avatar liked it last time. I figured someone might as well enjoy the stuff."
She took the box out of his hand and lifted the lid, taking in the smell of jasmine and ginseng. "It smells delicious, thank you."
"I wouldn't drink it until you're about to go to bed. The stuff is pretty strong…it will put you right to sleep."
"Alright. I'll try some tonight. Thanks again, by the way."
"Don't mention it."
"You're late. Again." Sokka muttered, tapping his foot impatiently. Katara only smiled at him.
"Don't complain too much. I got you some tea."
Sokka grinned. "Why didn't you say so? Grab a pot and let's boil this stuff!" Aang tossed him the pot lightly through the air, and Sokka caught it with ease. "What flavor is it this time?"
"Ginseng and jasmine mixed." She read as she tore off the top of the box. "It smells good."
Aang bounced over to the riverbank and bended some water towards their campsite ("Try to keep your arms closer together when you bend!" "Katara, I'm not even practicing!") while Sokka poked and prodded the fire into a blaze.
"When I was at the Temple, we use to drink stuff like this all the time. Jasmine was always my favorite." Aang noted as they poured the leaves into the boiling water. He lifted his nose up carefully to the pot, taking in the scent. "Huh? It smells differently than I remember."
Sokka pulled out a ladle and began to pour the tea into the three cups. "Might just be a different blend." He took a large sip of the tea and almost gagged. "This is strong…much stronger than the other kinds. Tastes good, though. It's just strong."
Before, Aang would have been suspicious about the tea, knowing it came from Zuko's hands. But the Prince had given them the tea before (almost once a week) and it had never had any harmful effects on the trio, so Aang assumed that what Zuko said was true (Aang only spied on them three more times—honest!): The tea had belonged to his dearly departed Uncle, and the Prince, having no use for the tea, had simply wanted to get rid of it.
Aang believed it. Katara believed it. Sokka probably wouldn't believe it, but Sokka rarely believed in anything.
Katara blushed before she took a sip of her own. "He warned me that it was stronger than usual. I guess I should have told you guys."
Aang smiled. "It's okay. Besides, it is really good!"
None of the trio saw the Fire Prince watching them from a hidden spot beyond the trees, and as they drifted into a deep slumper, it was probably better that they hadn't. Sleep and broken dreams don't mix well.
"You two, grab the Avatar." Zuko snapped in a hushed whisper. There was no reason to whisper; the poison-laced tea would have the trio in a deathlike sleep until this time tomorrow, at the earliest. But it didn't hurt to be careful. "I want at least five of you to drug and carry the Air Beast. Grab the small one, too."
"What do you want us to do with the two Waterbrats, sir?" One of the soldiers whispered, gesturing towards the sleeping pair.
Zuko's breath hitched. "Leave them. They are of no use to us."
"No." A quiet and delicate female voice called from behind. "Take them as well." The dark-cloaked figure stepped out from the shadows, holding the cloak tightly around her body.
"Azula, you should be back at the ship, resting." Zuko glared, while the soldier's gaze went back and forth, unaware of which sibling he was supposed to listen to.
"I have rested enough, brother, and trust me when I say I am fine." She glared at him. "Take the two Waterbrats with us. Put each of them in separate cells, as far apart as possible. I will tend to them myself personally in the morning."
Zuko returned the glare, but Azula did nothing. Zuko knew it would do him no good to argue with his sister; she was far too stubborn, much more so than him. Still, he wished she would listen to him, if just this once.
As the soldier reached down to pick Katara up, Zuko stopped him. "I will carry the waterbender. Tend to the boy and the Avatar, or the two Air Beasts." He ordered.
The soldier nodded and did as he was told, grabbing Momo by the tail and stuffing him in a bag, and despite the lemur's loud screeches of protest, the trio did not stir one bit. It was the bison they were having difficultly with, for the large animal required much more of the poison to subdue him and was much harder for them to carry.
Zuko lifted Katara easily, as though she was as light as the iced dragon she had made him. He held her body tightly as though he feared she would shatter in his arms under his touch, carrying her lightly through the forest.
Azula gave him a curious look. "Why are you carrying her?"
Guilt. "Because I do not trust the men with her."
She raised an eyebrow. "Why, is she important?"
Very. "No sense in seeing another innocent life hurt."
Now Azula was really curious. "Do you plan on keeping her as a concubine when we get home?"
No, never. "I don't know. Maybe."
Her face softened, almost with pity before she held her head up haughtily. "If you must, brother."
Will you ever be able to forgive me, I wonder? He asked himself as he looked down at the sleeping girl in his arms. She had an innocent smile pasted onto her face, as if there would still be happiness, still be hope, come morning.
I'm sorry, Katara.
But not sorry enough, as he carried her into the fire.
Well, that was a doozey to write! Sheesh!
Next chapter I'm looking forward to.:) Rating may have to go up and everything. It will be dark. This chapter will look like cotton candy compared to next chapter, if everything goes according to plan. (Which it might not. This chapter certainly didn't.)
And before anyone has to ask: Zara and Zhi are the two old croons that hang around Azula in season two. At least my interpetation of them. And Zhao is the baby's father, only Azula doesn't want to have to admit that.