Disclaimer: I dont own Avatar: the Last Airbender

Sorry for the delays in getting this done. I started writing it… forever ago then I realized that I hadn't seen Return to Omashu, so I had to hold on to it until I saw that episode. Then life happened. Chapter 11 is at the beta now.

Firewater Rose Arc 2 Chapter 10

Zuko hoped that the unusual procession of firebenders, Water Tribe, and an earthbender made their convoy an unappealing target to brigands. For the remainder of the journey, the siblings glanced periodically above them, but neither mentioned hearing any more unusual sounds. Thanks to Akaj and that darned sedan, the column moved much more slowly than he wanted. His options were to add another day or two to the journey, or continue each day for several hours after any normal entourage would have made camp.

Rather than insulting King Bumi by delaying the summit, Zuko opted for the latter. This meant setting up camp by torchlight - a job much easier for firebenders than the others since they were their own torches. The first time he approached the water tribe siblings to help, he was surprised to find their shared tent already set up. Being from the South Pole, theyd become accustomed to going months with little to no sun, so moving around in the dark was not such a hardship on them.

The mornings werent much better. The extra time it took to get the rhinos rigged for the sedan added another hour onto their morning preparations. Katara had taken to using the delay to practice her waterbending. Zuko had to admit that she was becoming quite good at it. She was gaining conscious control over the water temperature. She still hadnt managed to duplicate the boiling point temperature of her first success, but when it came to bending, she was the most tenacious person hed ever met. Like him, it didnt come easy for her, but she never stopped until she got it right.

The final day of their journey had finally arrived. The city of Omashu had been sighted in the distance the night before. Today, the company would line up two-by-two and descend upon the gates of Omashu as honored guests. As the entourage approached the city walls, he was puzzled by the smooth exterior of the wall, completely lacking a gate.

Of course! he realized in wonder, Theyre going to earthbend it open!

And what, exactly, were they going to find on the other side? Rubble, or restoration? How was the Earth Kingdom faring after a year of relative peace? What rebuilt wonders would they find inside? More importantly, would he find the meaning of the old fortunetellers words on the other side?

What was he seeking, anyway? Lasting peace? Yes, he might find some direction for that in Omashu, but that was no revelation. Security and prosperity for his people? Again, not really an epiphany there. Someone to share his throne? Laughable. As if any Earth Kingdom woman would be willing to give as much of herself to his people as he would.

The column halted at the base of the wall. Papers were displayed to the guards posted on the road. In an impressive display of earthbending, the guards forced the stubborn rock apart, revealing the impressive thickness of the wall, and the city beyond.

It had not taken long following the death of Ozai for the city to discard its Fire Nation name and most of the alterations made by the family that had taken over the governorship. Of Mai and her family, nothing was known. Mai herself had followed Azula into the final battle in Sozen, but her parents and younger brother had simply slipped away from the palace in the middle of the night.

"Wow," Sokka gasped behind him, "Bumi sure knows how to fix a place up fast."

Katara gazed silently at the buildings as their entourage filed through the various levels of the city. Some buildings held her gaze longer than others, but she kept her thoughts to herself. In the market, a cabbage dealer scrambled to seal his merchandise within his cart. The group was greeted with a mixture of stunned silence at the presence of the Fire Nation within their midst, and curiosity at the presence of the Water Tribe within the Fire Nation.

The procession halted at the foot of the entrance to the palace. Zuko was surprised to see that like the outer wall, there was no portal through which to gain entrance to the palace. There was merely an Earth Kingdom symbol carved, or more likely, earthbent into the wall.

In front of the symbol, an unassuming hunchbacked figure waited. The man looked for all the world as if hed been dressed by a blind gypsy. His headgear was a bizarre contraption of feathers and shockingly white hair. His robes had ruffles where they should have belts, and belts where there should be hems, and they were the most blinding teal color Zuko had ever seen. It was only through years of discipline that he maintained his composure enough to not fall off his rhino from laughter.

"Fire Lord Zuko, I presume?" the old man cocked one bulging eye in his direction. The other eye seemed to focus on something in the sky above him. The effect was unnerving because Zuko wasnt sure who or what the old man was looking at.

"King Bumi," he bowed reverently.

The aging king stepped carefully down the few stairs between himself and Zukos party, much to his guards chagrin. He scanned the group. His smile turned to an unabashed grin when his eyes alighted on the Water Tribe siblings.

"Well now," Bumis voice creaked, "since were all here, lets all go inside and get comfortable. After you." The old man gestured toward the solid wall.

Zuko stared at the unmovable wall for a moment, then glanced at his host. Bumi burst into howling laughter. He crept up back up the stairs one at a time, howling with each step.

"You want I should get the door for you?"

Zuko heard a pair of barely stifled giggles behind him. He twisted around in his saddle to glare at Sokka and Katara, both of whom were covering their mouths with their hands.

"You'll get used to it," she said to him between chortles. "Its nothing personal."

"Come!" the old king shouted from a bent gap in the wall, "The guards will show you to your rooms."

The entourage dismounted and the rhinos were led away. Despite arguments from Akaj, his daughter was assisted out of her sedan and it was carried away in the same direction that their mounts had gone. For all her father's blustering, the girl didn't seem to mind the open air one bit. A loud rumbling and scraping of stone on stone erupted in front of them, and the entrance to the palace slid open.

The interior of the palace was airy. While his own palace was decorated in rich crimsons, blacks and golds, Bumi had understandably chosen tans, browns and greens for his décor. An elaborate parquet floor extended the entire span of the entrance, and down a pair of opposing hallways. Directly in front of them, a pair of gold-inlaid heavy wood doors blocked their entrance to the throne room.

A stern-faced earthbender stepped in front of his guards and gestured down the hallway to the right. Quickly Zuko turned to glance at Katara, who was being led down the opposite hallway. He signaled for the company to halt before he attempted to follow Katara. Sokka stopped him.

"She said she'll meet you here thirty minutes after dinner," her brother said.

The stone-faced guard led them to their suites.

Zukos suite was acceptable. He was very pleased to discover a real door at the entrance. He and his personal guards had the suite at the far end of the eastern wing. As his captain interviewed the staff that would be loaned to him, he examined the suites security with one of the lieutenants. With a few considerations, he determined that the accommodations were very well-suited to his needs, and began to settle-in for the week of negotiations.

"I want answers!" a thin, middle-aged man in rich green silks demanded.

"Well," Bumi scratched idly at his chin, "I want my lunch, but the cook isn't done cooking it yet. I guess we'll both just have to wait."

From Sokka's point of view, Bumi had come through his ordeal unchanged. He was still as unconventional as ever. And as amusing. His current exchange with the patriarch of the Bei Fong clan had been going on for ten minutes. Toph's father had brought an entire phalanx of allies and nobles with him to protest Bumi's apparent lack of action regarding the attacks on trade caravans. There was apparently another garrison of merchants and nobles in Omashu poised to… well, Sokka wasn't sure what they were there for, but they lined up on the opposite side of the dais from the Bei Fong contingent like an opposing army. Mentally Sokka had taken to calling them the Bei Fong Army and the Anti-Fong Squad.

"Jet," Sokka said. Every pair of eyes turned to him. Well, except for Bumi, who turned one eye to him. He exhaled slowly. "His name is Jet. Earth Kingdom, about my age, a little shorter than me. He and his so-called Freedom Fighters have been attacking convoys and trade ships for the last six months or more."

One of the Anti-Fong Squad, a balding pasty-faced man, spoke up, "How can you be so sure? You didn't see the attack on Lady Toph."

"I didn't have to. It stinks of Jet. He's been sinking ships off your coast for at least three months now. I know that because he sunk mine."

Sokka thought that would shut pasty-face up, but it didn't.

"If you were attacked on the ocean three months ago, and Lady Toph was attacked on the road three months ago, how could it possibly be the same bandit? No one can be two places at once."

Both armies erupted in loud and vociferous ranting, each one vying for Bumi's attention. Bumi ignored them both, focusing his stronger eye on Sokka. Sokka remained quiet. His only communication was a slight nod in Bumi's direction.

"Sokka and Toph will meet with the Captain of the Guard. They will share what they know and we will get to the bottom of this. Or the top," Bumi's voice rang out over the din. The Bei Fong Army looked mildly satisfied. The Anti-Fong Squad fell silent.

"Ooh," Bumi piped up, turning toward the senior Bei Fong, "Is that the lunch bell I hear?"

Captain Lei Jing was a veteran in dealing with the Fire Nation, but the Water Tribe warrior was something else. The young man had dragged an artist and the youngest member of the Bei Fong clan into Jing's office six hours earlier with an incredible tale. If it weren't for Bumi's seal on his orders, Jing may have been inclined to throw the Water boy in jail just for the fun of it.

Even with the seal, it was tempting after listening to him argue with the artist for ten minutes over whether or not to include a piece of hay in a drawing of a bandit. The artist thought it would interfere with identification, the Water Tribeling insisted that it was crucial to the problem. After looking at the end result, Jing had to agree with the boy. They hay definitely added something to the image.

The Captain gathered up the first twenty copies of the drawing – wanted posters with the biggest reward since the Blue Spirit – and tucked them under his arm. Outside his office, he handed them off to a junior officer with a copy of Bumi's orders to place the posters outside the various bars and houses of negotiable affection in the city.

With that chore taken care of, he unfurled a second scroll. This scroll carried a slightly different seal. It was from the Minister for International Affairs, but it had absolutely nothing to do with international relations as far as Jing could tell.

"I'm off for the evening. Leng, I'm leaving you in command. I'll be in my quarters in an hour. Don't need me until then, that's an order."

Leng nodded an acknowledgement of the order as Jing carefully draped a cloak over his uniform. With his affiliation completely concealed, he set off toward the seedier part of Omashu.

Along the outer wall he found what he was looking for. It was a run-down bar known for rough whiskey and rougher patrons. The guard didn't even bother trying to patrol the area around it. No one wanted the duty, and none of the denizens wanted them. It was one of those denizens, though, that Jing wanted now.

For six months now they had been in possession of something very valuable to her. It had torn down the first three stalls they put it in, killed two of the people assigned to handle it, and sent five others to the infirmary. Until her debts were paid, it was theirs. Perhaps they thought they might be able to sell it off to some collector, some rare-creature aficionado, or a zoo, in payment of her fines. So far, no one wanted to risk their lives with the beast. That may well turn out to be in their favor.

He stepped inside the bar and immediately noted the foul stench that usually indicated patrons so inebriated and uncouth that they had no care for where they relieved themselves. He glanced around the dimly lit room. She was slumped against the far end of the bar. He knew her by the coiled viper tattoo on her right arm, but nothing else about her was familiar. Six months without work could do that to a woman, he supposed.

He kicked her stool out from underneath her. The bartender lunged for him, but stopped short when Jing flashed the second scroll with the seal facing his attacker. The black-haired woman was on her feet before he turned back around, her whip at the ready.

"Well, well. If it isn't Mr. Law-and-Order. What do you want from me, now?" she scowled.

"I have an offer for you. This is from the highest levels, so don't think you can simply accept and disappear…"

"I'm listening," she didn't move a muscle.

"You get your beast back. We'll be contacting you shortly with a job. You will take it, no questions asked."

"Why should I do your dirty work?" she sneered.

"I said no questions. Do you want your, 'sheer-shoo,' back, or shall I tell the warden to put an arrow through its skull?" he glared at her.

She straightened up and coiled her whip at her waist. "Deal. Where's my xirxiu?"

"I'll have it brought here by the end of the night," he deliberately didn't mention that it would be heavily sedated, and she would get to spend the next several hours watching over the beast while it slept the drugs off.

Akaj studiously maintained an impassive face during the first day of negotiations. For the most part the Fire Lord was quite capable of weighing the gravity of his decisions without much input from his advisors. There was the occasional opportunity to add his two copper pieces worth to the discussion, but he spent most of the afternoon observing the competition gathered about King Bumi.

Most of the retainers and advisors surrounding the old man seemed benign, but Bumi's Minister for International Affairs was cut from a different cloth. The man's hairstyle marked him as an eastern Earth Kingdom man, perhaps from Ba Sing Se itself. He had no facial hair, and the hairline at his forehead was shaved until it made an even arc with his ears. His voice was smooth, confident and aristocratic. Even the man's name sounded like a threat: Long Feng.

His own agents, his Kasai-Tsuchi, were reporting clandestine activities of an organization called the Dai Li. It was paramount that Akaj identify the leadership of this Dai Li and eliminate the opposition through alliance or other means. Long Feng was at the top of his list of who could be their leader.

Akaj glanced over the Fire Lord's shoulder to read the document being offered for signature. This one had direct financial ramifications for the Fire Nation, so it was quickly passed to him for review. A handful of locations conquered by Ozai were being returned to the Earth Kingdom. It was fairly straight-forward, and the timeframe was appropriate, but these locations were important strategic positions.

"And what of reparations?" Akaj asked.

An Earth Kingdom general stood so fast his seat fell backwards.

"Reparations?! You want money?" the man fumed.

"My Lord," he turned to the boy-Lord, "Reparations are traditionally required of the defeated at the end of a war. I propose that you sign this document once the Earth Kingdom has granted the Fire Nation amnesty from reparations."

King Bumi began to laugh out loud. "Your advisor is astute. The Earth Kingdom will concede."

Akaj checked Long Feng for a reaction, but the Minister had none. They were evenly matched when it came to hiding personal thoughts. Several other documents passed back and forth. Most involved the release of ranking military officers and political prisoners. The few remaining financial issues to be discussed on the first day were blessed by both Akaj and Long Feng before being signed by their respective monarchs.

The rest of the afternoon did not offer Akaj much insight into the workings of the Dai Li. He would have to wait for a report from his agent tailing Captain Jing to get a better look at the Dai Li's plans.

Dinner had ended nearly an hour earlier. Zuko paced the length of the entryway, listening to his impatient footfalls echo off the cavernous walls. A second, lighter set of echoes accompanied his own, and he turned to find Katara had appeared in the hallway behind him.

"Sorry I'm late. Toph and her maid had this argument about her feet and, well, it's a long story," she sighed.

"Apology accepted," he smiled, "I was beginning to think you had forgotten."

She blushed.

"No, I," she started.

"Do you want," he said, then he realized she was talking. "Sorry."

"You first," she giggled.

Suddenly it was hard for him to speak. It was all in his head a moment ago, then everything he had thought he was going to say just disappeared.

"I forgot what I was going to say," it was his turn to blush. "What were you going to say?"

"I was wondering," her voice wavered just a little, "since we're in Omashu now, did you still want to spar in the mornings?"

That's what it was he was going to say! All the little words that escaped him moments before fell down around him to be conveniently plucked back up.

"Actually, I was going to ask you the same thing."

"I can understand if you don't have time…" she said, her eyes downcast.

"I know you're going to be busy…" He said.

"Why don't we meet in the courtyard before breakfast?" she offered.

"It's a date," he responded without a thought. When he realized what he had said, he stammered out, "Goodnight, Katara."

"Goodnight, Zuko," she whispered.

The morning breeze was cool on his bare chest as he finished his warm-up exercises. A whistling in the air was the only warning he got. He ducked just in time to avoid the waterwhip.

"Too slow, waterbender!" he taunted.

"I could have had you any time!" she fired back at him. They faced each other with stances wide, ready for whatever the other one would send their way.

They chased each other in close circles. She would fling a lance of water at him and he would duck underneath it. He would fling a strand of flame at her, and she would bend backwards to avoid it.

She closed the remaining distance between them. In such close quarters she knew she had the upper hand on him. His control of his element was powerful, but even with his degree of control, having the target so close meant taking extra precautions. Her element in the quantities that she was wielding was far less likely to escape her control at any range.

He flung a short flame whip at her left hand, and she didn't pull it back in time. She winced and instinctively pulled her injured arm to her torso. For a moment, he thought he may have done real damage to her. He dropped the whip immediately and gently wrapped his right arm around her shoulder, trying to coax her into letting him get a look at her arm.

He didn't realize his mistake until it was too late. They were still sparring, and she was as determined to win as he was. The water whip was around his ankles almost as soon as his right hand settled on her shoulder. As he fell back, he reached out for the nearest thing to steady himself – Katara. The ground knocked the wind out of him the first time. Katara landing on him did it a second time.

"Hey!" a voice shouted from the palace doors, "You pervert! Get off my sister!"

"Technically, snoozles, she's on top of him…"

"Whatever, the point is," Sokka never got to finish what he was saying. The ground beneath him shot several feet into the air, launching him at his prone sister and Zuko, who wrapped his arms around Katara and rolled them out of the way. Toph didn't try to stifle her laughter.

"Is this a private party, or can anyone join?" she assumed a defensive stance.

The three on the ground stood and dusted themselves off. The battle was on when Sokka ran at Zuko, boomerang poised over his head. He flung it with all his might, only to watch it be intercepted by his sister's whip. In a flurry of hand-waving she diverted the boomerang into a tree trunk and froze it in place, leaving her brother to stare in slack-jawed horror.

It was that moment that Toph launched her attack at Katara. The earth-wave knocked the waterbender off her feet, but Toph never got a chance to capitalize on the advantage. Zuko had her spending all of her time dodging his onslaught. Finally a break came as Zuko was preparing a fireball. Toph leaned forward to stomp the earth and summon a boulder, only to discover her feet frozen to the ground.

"Do you yield?" Katara was grinning where she stood over the fallen Toph.

"Yeah, I yield. Let me up."

Katara released Toph and Zuko rushed over to Katara to take another look at her injured arm.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," he said quietly.

"I know," she smiled. The water that had been restraining Toph drifted up to Katara's good hand, encasing it in a glowing glove. Gently, delicately, she ran the hand over her left arm until all traces of the burn were gone.