Warning! Mature content ahead!

Chapter Twenty-six—

Zuko watched the women coo over the infant, Katara's gaze momentarily lifting to meet his. The serenity he found there eased his worries, and he sipped his tea. "Your daughter is beautiful, uncle."

Iroh, normally jovial even in the direst situations, nodded solemnly in agreement. "Li Lu is blessed with her mother's beauty," the retired general agreed. His graying hair was swept back into a silvery-gray queue, his eyes somber and contemplative. For the first time in his life, Iroh looked his age.

Sighing, Zuko's uncle set his teacup down and walked through the doors and onto the terrace.

Zuko followed, sensing his uncle's unwillingness to speak in front of the women. Azula's veiled threat against Iroh's daughter haunted his thoughts. It had taken him an entire week to interrogate the staff and root out Azula's spy, but the threat of other spies lingered in his mind, as well as Iroh's.

Crickets chirped in the distance, oblivious to the dangers of their delicate environment. The waning moon peaked through lazy clouds. Lanterns were lit, accenting the ascetic beauty of the courtyard below.

Turning to Iroh, Zuko placed a hand upon his uncle's shoulder. "I will not let anything happen to you, Jai Li, or Li Lu. I swear to you, uncle."

Clasping his nephew's hand, Iroh met Zuko's determined gaze. "I know."

Silence descended between the men. The vow need not have been spoken. The Fire Nation's future teetered on a precarious precipice, and its citizens were holding their collective breath. Sometimes gossip was true. This was one of those instances.

Azula, beloved daughter of Ozai, the chosen successor of Ozai, was alive!

The implications of the truth gnawed through the soul of the nation. It wasn't just a question of the line of succession to a powerful throne anymore. It wasn't just an internal struggle for power. It would not just affect the weary citizens of the island nation.

The world would feel the ripples.

"Azula has swayed the Council of Sages to her side," Iroh stated. "She has the advantage. She has an heir. Our fate lies not on this generation, but the next. Should the council renounce you as our sovereign lord, they will appoint her son as Fire Lord. She will rule until he is of age."

"I know," Zuko replied, gazing up at the beauty of the stares.

"You should also know that the council approached me." Iroh shifted uncomfortably.

"Uncle?" The Fire Lord could not contain the surprise in his voice.

"I refused them," Iroh replied quickly. "I have already sacrificed one child for the 'greater good.' I won't sacrifice another."

Zuko stared into the older man's gaze. It would be so easy to step aside and let his uncle take his rightful place. His father had, after all, stolen the throne from Iroh. Like him, Iroh was unwilling to sacrifice his child to the political machine. The royal life held great privileges but included even greater sacrifices.

"We know what Azula's intentions are," Iroh continued. "Once her second child is born, she will invoke the right of succession and challenge you to an Agni Kai."

Zuko remained silent, listening to the strategist.

"We have only one option left to us," Iroh sighed. "I shall challenge Azula to the Agni Kai before the birth of her child."

"Uncle!"

"Please listen to me, Zuko." Iroh grasped Zuko's shoulders. "The Agni Kai must be appeased prior to sunset of the initial challenge. She cannot duel. She won't risk the child she carries. I know my niece. She will not sacrifice the child within her womb. It strengthens her position. It doubles her chances.

"The Sages will call for someone to champion her."

Zuko shook his head, refusing to listen to any more.

"You will champion her," Iroh insisted, shaking him slightly. "And you will defeat me."

"I will not fight you, uncle," growled Zuko through clenched teeth.

"You must!" Iroh protested.

"There has to be another way," he reasoned.

"When I am gone, you will take Jai Li as a wife and reaffirm Li Lu as a descendant of Agni." The resignation is his uncle's gaze was unsettling.

"You're crazy!" the Fire Lord spat. "I will not fight you!"

Un-swayed by his nephew's outburst, Iroh continued. "As Azula's champion, you will name claim JianJun as your heir."

Zuko shook his head, unwilling to contemplate the former general's plan. He felt ill. Panicked tears threatened to spill down his cheeks. "I won't do it!" he reaffirmed with a harsh whisper.

"Look at me, Nephew," Iroh pleaded, grasping the younger man's face and forcing him. "Azula is using her son as a pawn. He is innocent. Left in her care, he will grow to hate and fear. We must protect the future, not just the past."

"I can't," whispered Zuko shakily, managing to break the older man's grasp and stumble away from him. "I cannot fight you."

"It is the only way!" Iroh called out, his voice echoing into the night.

--

There was no gentleness in his touch, only raw need. Katara held him close and welcomed his advances, trying to comfort him the only way she could. The buffeting movement of his aggressive desires sent a spiraling cascade of sensation through her body as her muscles clenched around his shaft.

Zuko's worries were hers. Katara bit her lip, awash in her body's passionate response, momentarily forgetting her husband's drive to rid himself of his demons. He drove into her, spearing his flesh in and out of her welcoming heat and silently cursing his agonized release. He collapsed on top of her, emotionally and physically drained.

Stroking his hair, Katara took solace in the feel of his essence pouring into her and prayed his seed would take root.

The Fire Sages had been right. As a Waterbender, she was able to manipulate the flow of water within her body. In doing so, she had been preventing conception. Zuko's fear had become hers. She couldn't knowingly bring a child into a world that teetered on the brink of another war.

She didn't know about the stipulation to Zuko's rule. She hadn't realized how vital the role of an heir played in his culture. She cushioned the weight of his body and moved her hands over his back. Her husband's torment was all her fault. If she hadn't prevented conception she would most likely be growing round with his child.

She'd overheard his and his uncle's conversation. She grieved for her husband. She grieved for his uncle, but most of all, she grieved for Azula's child.

"Your uncle is right," she said softly against his scarred ear. "Azula's son is innocent. If Iroh were to challenge her to an Agni Kai, only you could champion her. In doing so, you would gain control over her son. She cannot refuse the challenge and you as her champion."

Stiffening, Zuko rolled away and reached for his robe. Katara felt the loss of his warmth keenly and wrapped the blanket around her. "You don't know what you're talking about."

She jumped to her knees and grabbed his arm, furious over his dismissive tone. She was well aware that she had failed the Council's test. They would never recognize her as Zuko's wife. Though they had married privately… Her status was unimportant. She didn't need anyone telling her who and what she was. Damn the customs! "Don't do this, Zuko. Don't shut me out when you need me the most."

"Katara…"

"Please…" she whispered, "…don't shut me out."

Forgetting his robe, Zuko lay down and wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling her ear and licking the lobe. "I-I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

She could hear the self-recrimination in his voice, guilt laced with confusion. Pushing him onto his back, she straddled him. "Do I look hurt?" She took his hands and lifted them to her lips, kissing the palms.

"The only way you can hurt me is to not talk to me." She licked his fingers, sucking them into her mouth one by one. Feeling him grow hard, Katara shifted, rubbing her damp core over him.

Fire curled in his gut, and he felt himself harden. With an upward thrust, he impaled the damp core and groaned, his worries momentarily dissolving as he allowed the sensation of his wife's inner fire carry him away.

Katara rocked back and forth slowly, holding him captive. "How many times must I remind you that you cannot protect me?"

Surging beneath her, Zuko rolled her beneath him. "And how many times must I remind you that I can't stop doing that?" he answered with a snarl. "You may as well ask me to stop breathing."

His wife gasped beneath him, the stormy swirl of blue peeking through her half-closed lids. "Mine," he husked, gently holding her knees and impaling her with a long stroke. "My wife. I shall never take another."

Katara panted, seemingly lost in the pleasure of his love. The sensation of her sensuous cavern milking his flesh pushed him over the edge. Holding onto her hips, he lost himself within her silken depths, the perfection of the moment folding him into a peaceful embrace.

If only it would last.

Rolling to his side, Zuko pressed a kiss upon her shoulder and pulled her close, thankful that sleep had finally claimed his wife.

He watched as the first rays of sunlight poke through the windows, ushering in another day of uncertainty.

Aside from making love to Katara, he had spent the night thinking of his options.

He would never forget the guilt he felt over Azula's "death." He had mourned a sister that never really existed. He knew now that Azula had never loved him. He knew now that there was no one to redeem. His idea of what a sister should be…

Azula wasn't it.

He shuddered, wondering how he had escaped the torments that had twisted her soul. They were both children of Ozai and Ursa. She had been their father's favorite… the prodigy. Perhaps that had worked in his favor. Maybe it was Ozai's influence that had warped his sister.

JianJun… his nephew.

Upon seeing the boy, he had felt the knife of betrayal twist in his gut. He pitied the child, and he knew he could not let the child suffer. There had to be a way. Something had to be done to save him.

Placing a tender kiss upon Katara's sweat-slick brow, Zuko moved out of bed and got dressed. There was only one thing to do.

He would make an alliance with the devil.

--

TBC

Author's Notes—Many "thank yous" to all who have taken the time to review. Reviews really do keep the story flowing. I know you all were expecting Toph's answer to Sokka. It will be in the next interlude chapter. I am terribly sorry to tease like that, but I just couldn't shift their plot line into the main flow of the story. All mistakes are my own. I have no beta reader, so it is difficult to catch the mistakes no matter how many times I read it.