RISES WITH THE HEART

~by Jimi's Little Wing~

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Part I

He had felt rather guilty leaving Toph last night, especially since she seemed to sick and so miserable. But Sokka was right – as the Avatar, Aang had duties that needed to be fulfilled. One of them happened to be discussing current affairs in the Earth Kingdom and newly liberated Foggy Swamp Tribe with Bato of the Southern Water Tribe and Huu of the Foggy Swamp Tribe. The meeting had gone well enough, and he learned of Katara's brilliant politicking at the signing of the Foggy Swamp Tribe Independence Declaration.

There was also a messenger from Katara that evening with Bato and Huu, and she relayed the results of the Blockade Conference of Ba Sing Se. She had been more of an observer, an aid and unofficial politician of the Southern Water Tribe. Master Pakku, after permanently relocating to the South Pole, had been given the honor of ambassador, and had taken Katara under his wing. Granted, Katara's powers lay more in human relations, but Aang thought she could be a brilliant politician. Once the world had been in need of warriors, and Aang and Katara had been happy to fulfill this role. Now the world was in need of peace, and Aang and Katara were trying hard.

Katara reported that a plan had been formed about how to approach the opening of Ozai's Plague Blockade. All the nations would be sending a group of ambassadors to the Fire Nation, and each nation would be represented equally – including the Fire Nation. The Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation would each be allotted three votes, and with those votes issues would be decided fairly. However, as a dead nation (excepting Aang) the Air Nomads would be given four votes – one for each temple. Aang, as Avatar, would be given a vote as well. However, since Aang would be with Sokka, searching for Azula, his votes would be given to his representative, Toph.

The delegation of representatives and diplomats were on their way to the port that Aang, Sokka, and Toph waited at. The delegation would leave together for the Fire Nation in just a few days, and then Aang and Sokka would separate from the delegation and look for Azula.

Katara also mentioned a few things that could not be written (for fear of interception from the wrong people). Aang was VERY interested in what this might be, because knowing Katara it was probably something dangerous and brilliant.

So now all Aang had to do was wait for the delegation to arrive, make a public appearance at the Fire Nation, and then slip quietly away on 'Avatar duties.' He knew he could trust Toph with his people's pride and legacy, and to stand up to all the experienced politicians and ambassadors.

Part II

Bato knew his feelings were inappropriate. Not only was she his best friend's daughter, but he was old enough to be her father. However, she was more than old enough to be married – most girls her age had already given their husbands a child. Two even. But it seemed Katara had been given a higher calling. Helping the Avatar had taken a year of her childhood, but dealing with the aftermath of the war had taken her youth.

Katara's duties to the Southern Water Tribe, the newly liberated Foggy Swamp Tribe, and the war recovery movement on the whole were never ending. She had worked tirelessly – harder than Bato had ever seen anyone work in his life – with Master Pakku and her father to rebuild the South Pole to her pre-war glory. She again rivaled the North Pole in beauty, prestige, and power. The white spires and crescent emblems that made up the South Pole were as much her doing as any of the immigrated Northern Water Tribe members.

Bato, Pakku, and Katara herself were members of the advisory council to the Chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe, Chief Hakoda – Bato's best friend and Katara's father. Not long after the war it had been decided that Hakoda, as the most prestigious, decorated, and wise of the Southern Water Tribe warriors, would be the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. He had no royal ties – all Southern Water Tribe royalty had died at the hands of the Fire Nation more than twenty years ago. Hakoda was perhaps the closest to royalty of any surviving Southern Water Tribe member, and his battle prowess had earned him high standing within the dwindling numbers of the tribe. His children had given him status as well. Katara had played in integral role in defeating the Fire Nation, and she was a principle bender in the Battle of the Eastern Islands. She had even become known as the Beauty of the Eastern Islands. Not to mention his son had successfully made contact with many Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe resistance leaders to tell them of the attack, then later led his own ships into battle when his father became incapacitated.

But Katara wasn't only responsible for winning the Battle of the Eastern Islands, or for rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe, she was also responsible for liberating the as of yet unheard of Foggy Swamp Tribe – a group of water- and plantbenders living in the southwest Earth Kingdom. True the Foggy Swamp Tribe was odd, and a bit embarrassing to the prestigious Northern and Southern Tribes, but they were extraordinary benders. They had discovered how to bend the water within plants, and some could even bend water within the human body. They had also discovered a technique that allowed them to move at extremely high speeds over water, a technique that they had taught generously to the Northern and Southern Tribe members. The Foggy Swamp Tribe didn't have any formal government, but they seemed to be more or less led by a mystic named Huu.

Bato had been the one asked to escort Huu out of Foggy Swamp (though the most difficult part proved to been FINDING Huu in Foggy Swamp) and to the southwestern port where the ambassadorial fleet would be leaving for the Fire Nation. Perhaps, Bato reflected, it had been then in the Foggy Swamp, looking for the elusive Huu, that he had realized his feelings for Katara. According to Huu, the swamp was alive, a being that stretched miles and miles, and touched all life. And from time to time, the swamp was known to send visions of mysterious meaning. What Bato had seen he would never forget…

He supposed he had always known that Katara would be a beautiful woman. Her mother was an exceptional beauty, and it was told that her grandmother was once the most gorgeous woman of all the tribes. Even as a child she had the bluest, calmest eyes, and the smoothest, most unblemished skin. He hadn't seen her for years, until she had ran into him as he recovered in a monastery. Even then she was a child, running around with the Avatar and her brother – who was the spitting image of Hakoda in his youth. He hadn't seen her until months after her victory in the Eastern Fire Islands – many months after. She was almost sixteen, still wearing her grandmother's necklace, still trying to ward off her many suitors. The first thing he'd thought after seeing her was how good a husband he could be to her. He'd drowned the traitorous thoughts from his mind.

But every once in a while he would watch her as she instructed other benders, and think selfish thoughts. Bato was unmarried for many reasons. The first of which being Hakoda, his best friend – no, brother – had married the woman Bato was in love with. Yes, he'd loved his best friend's wife. But also, Bato was not open to marriage in his youth. He believed he would be at war for his whole life, and he had no desire to bring a child into a world when he couldn't guarantee its protection and safety. The war was over though – 100 years and the war was over. And Bato was alone.

He had watched her from a distance as she and Pakku helped rebuild the tribe, and then worked more closely with her when she was accepted onto the Council of Benders and Elders – the youngest member, though perhaps the most powerful. The Council of Benders and Elders served Chief Hakoda, and were the de facto royalty of the Southern Water Tribe, though officially Hakoda had refused any royal titles. At the council, Katara had spoken passionately about the possibility of peace with the Fire Nation, and had been sent with Pakku and Bato to the Northern Water Tribe for a while to discuss this with their northern sisters. She had also been adamant about getting the Foggy Swamp Tribe their independence from the Earth Kingdom – whom they were official members of.

For a year and a half she lived in the Earth Kingdom, negotiating with the King of Omashu and Huu for the independent nation of the Foggy Swamp Tribe. It had been a mixed success, as many Foggy Swamp Tribe members were apathetic to independence, and many Water Tribe members were mystified at their earthbound brothers and sisters. Still, their independence had been of mutual gain for all communities. The Earth Kingdom – in exchange for exclusive shipping rights – had given the Foggy Swamp Tribe independence. Previously, the Earth Kingdom had to completely bypass the swamp to get goods from one side to another. But the Foggy Swamp Tribe knew the ins and outs of the swamp, and could transport goods with speed and efficiency. And, of course, the trading of waterbending techniques between the Water Tribes and the Foggy Swamp Tribe had greatly improved the Northern and Southern Tribe's mobility and speed on open water. The Water Tribe Fleet was once again the strongest in the world.

Bato and Pakku were the ones to help finalize negotiations between King Bumi and the Foggy Swamp Tribe. Katara had effectively integrated with her Foggy Swamp brethren. She ate like them, she could bend like them (she had even learned plantbending), and she dressed like them. Far from prudish – Bato had seen many naked women in his life – even Bato had turned a bit red at the brief clothes the Foggy Swamp women sported. It was Bato's first encounter with the Foggy Swamp Tribe, and he learned they were certainly shaped by their isolation and environment.

There was little notion of property or possession, and there wasn't marriage. Pakku had commented at their departure from the South Pole that there were stories of families migrating from the South Pole, and perhaps the Foggy Swamp people were those families. Their songs were similar at least. But what struck Bato as most unusual was the communal feeling and free love – there was no way of knowing, as a child, who your father might be, as the women tended to sleep with whomever they wanted and vice versa. The women of the Foggy Swamp wore little more than loincloths and cloth wrapped around their breasts. Bato was propositioned several times before he even saw the leader of the group. And Katara had fully integrated with her brethren, taking all but their speech patterns.

To his defense, Pakku blushed as well, seeing Katara in such a state of undress. She more than filled out a loincloth. She'd left her hair loose around her waist, and wore the numerous wooden bracelets and anklets that women of the Foggy Swamp wore. The swamp agreed with her, and she taught Pakku the special waterbending that moved the Foggy Swamp people so speedily. Bato couldn't imagine having more guilt over feeling such lust towards his best friend's daughter, though he justified it by telling himself she was no longer a child.

Still, the mysterious vision he'd seen months after returning her to her home in the South Pole haunted him. Bato had agreed to escort Huu – the official representative to the Foggy Swamp Tribe – to the port where the ambassadorial ships would leave for the Fire Nation. He was the only person available that could find the Foggy Swamp Tribe leader, though it was a difficult mission. Katara and Pakku were busy with other, more important, matters. Katara's close relations with the Fire Lord Zuko made her and Avatar Aang invaluable to the ambassadorial mission. But Aang was too busy with 'Avatar stuff' to accompany Katara and the other ambassadors to the Fire Kingdom, so the burden fell on Katara to be the valuable go-between.

Bato didn't mind the swamps. He didn't mind the heat, he didn't mind the smell, and he didn't mind the strange animals. But he did mind the visions. His first time in the swamps he didn't have any visions – though Huu was quick to tell him the visions only came when you were alone. And the vision troubled him…or did it?

Katara stood in all her glory, arms wide and hair shadowing her naked chest, as she smiled down at him from a raised root. She wore nothing but a blue-green wrap about her curving hips. And she called him by name. "Bato…"

It had been the last 'nail in the coffin' of his conflicted emotions about Katara. He knew then, what he supposed he had always suspected. Bato loved Katara.

It was because he loved her so ardently that it was so hard for him to see her like this. It was a brilliant plan, and it would have suited Bato fine if it had involved anyone but Katara. The problem was this: the only person who was strong enough to do it was Katara, and the only way her closeness could be justified would be for her to play the part.

Bato knew that the Fire Lord could not be killed. There was no clear line of succession after Fire Lord Zuko – save his 'dead' sister. His uncle, General Iroh, had been killed in the infamous duel with Fire Lord Ozai on the night of Sozin's Comet. Now, only Zuko stood between the calamity of civil war and the madness of his sister. Princess Azula had been assumed dead for years, after her fateful trip to the northern reefs around the Fire Nation. But Katara – who was obsessed with gaining entrance to the Fire Nation – had discovered the princess and a plot to kill Fire Lord Zuko. She had been the one that pushed for the ambassadorial trip of assistance.

Three years of famine and plague had pushed the Fire Nation to the verge of collapse. They were impoverished, starving, and in a debt that they would probably never pay off fully. Fire Lord Zuko would be opening his borders for the first time in exactly three years – three years after the end of the war, the Fire Nation's defeat, Sozin's Comet, and the beginning of the Ozai's Plague. On this day, the Earth Kingdom, Northern and Southern Water Tribes, Foggy Swamp Tribe, and even a nominal representative of the Air Nomads would be allowed to enter the Fire Nation, and begin post-war assessments and negotiations for a lasting peace.

Or, at least, that was the face reason why they were here. In truth, the Avatar, and important world leaders, all agreed that the worst thing that could happen would be the Fire Lord's assassination. Katara would be a messenger and bodyguard disguised as a concubine. She would relay secret information about Azula, the peace negotiations, and anything else relevant to the Fire Lord, and any information the Fire Lord had for the ambassadors. No one could know of her true identity, for she was a 'secret gift' from the Water Tribes to the Fire Nation, 'Narya of the Sisterhood of Flowers.' All the ambassadors had brought great gifts for the Fire Lord as a symbol of good faith. But Narya was a woman of the Sisterhood of Flowers, trained from birth to be a royal concubine.

And Bato was sickened by this. The woman he was so deeply, guiltily in love with was going to be thrown to the ruthless Fire Lord she had only narrowly escaped from in her past. Bato hated the Fire Nation. He knew the land needed peace, but he had been brought up to hate them, to fear them, and to have no pity. Nothing could sway him from the fact that the Fire Lord was just as ruthless as his predecessors, and that he would most likely take advantage of Katara's position and good looks.

"What's this?" a stiffly alert Fire Nation guard barked.

Bato went rigid. He knew his part well, and he would play it to success. He gave a look to Pakku, who nodded surreptitiously. "It's a gift," Bato said in a low, secretive voice. He gestured to the men that carried the four posts of the covered carriage. The Water Tribe soldiers set it to the ground and saluted smartly. "A…" Bato paused, giving the Fire Nation soldier a wink, "secret gift. For the Fire Lord…personally."

The Fire Nation soldier smirked. "Well, I have to inspect all gifts to the Fire Lord…personally."

Bato's fists clenched at his sides, knowing what the pompous Fire Nation soldier would find on the other side of the thick drapes. Moving behind the soldier, Bato cringed when the soldier drew aside the drapes. Katara sat on the blue, down pillows, her feet curled under her and her hair shielding her bare breasts. This had been the woman in the blue-green wrap that he'd seen in his visions. She'd called his name, held out her arms, and faded into the heat of the swamp. And now she was off into the arms of the ruthless Fire Lord.

The soldier closed the drapes swiftly. He turned to Bato, his face a little red. "I see. A personal gift. From the Water Tribes." He nodded to the Fire Nation soldiers at the entrance to the royal suites. "The Water Tribes are…very generous," the guard said as Bato and the carriage passed.

He shook his head as they passed flowered courtyards with fountains pumping cool, clear water. This was the paradise that Fire Nation royalty was privy to. While the people were dying and starving in the streets, the Fire Lord was enjoying concubines and the beauty of his gardens. It made Bato want to kill, but he would remember his duty to peace, to the Avatar, and to his best friend. This was a personal favor for Hakoda. "Watch over my daughter, Bato," he'd said softly, eyes full of worry. "Make sure she comes back to me."

Well, Bato would try. He couldn't guarantee Katara's innocence, but he would kill anyone that harmed her. With a sigh, he motioned for the men to set Katara's carriage down. A servant scurried to open the doors of the Fire Lord's bedroom, and Bato tried to look away as Katara parted the drapes. She motioned for him to follow her, and he made sure to close the doors behind him.

Her hands twitched at her sides, and Bato could see every curve of her backside and hips through the blue-green wrap. Her hair fell softly over her back and shoulders, and she turned to him with a small smile.

"Meet me here in two days at noon. I should have an initial report by then."

He nodded, trying not to look at her perfectly formed body, her amazingly full breasts. He just wanted to touch her skin. Shaking his head, Bato replied quietly. "Just be safe, Katara."

She smiled again. "Bato, I can take care of myself. I'm not a Waterbending Master for nothing you know…"

"I know," he replied, looking into her kind, large eyes.

Then he left her. Bato had the distinct feeling of leaving a lamb to a wolf as he exited the royal bedchamber. He closed the doors on her, not looking back. He knew it would be a long time until any of them were truly safe. Wars never really ended…

Part III

Zuko flung his three-pronged Fire Crown to his chief minister, who jumped as it bit into his fair, unblemished skin. Rakun was useful, not a friend – smart, but not a confidant. "I thought I said no more women, worm," Zuko fumed dangerously as Rakun followed the angered Fire Lord down the darkened halls to the royal bedchamber.

"This one is special, my lord," Rakun simpered piteously.

Zuko grunted. 'Special' meaning someone had spent a great deal of money bribing Rakun to plant the wench in Zuko's bed. Why did they always think if Zuko took a girl to bed he was automatically going to tell her all the state secrets? Why did they think a simple whore would influence the way he ran his country? Was it because he was young? Or just unmarried?

"The next time this happens, Rakun," Zuko threatened in a low voice, "think how much you'll miss your hands."

Rakun cowered away into the darkness, and the four royal guards at Zuko's room saluted smartly before opening the doors. Zuko tossed the heavy mantle to the side in his antechamber, flinging the bedroom doors open with a crack as they hit the frames. He barely took a second look at the woman in the moonlit window. She hadn't jumped at the harsh sounds of armor or doors clanking; at this, Zuko raised an eyebrow and took a moment to look at her. She didn't even face him. Most girls were terrified in a corner or posing sensually in the bed. This girl hadn't even given him a look. Zuko couldn't say he cared for this.

The girl – well, woman – had long brown hair, part of which was pulled into a braided bun at the top of her head. Masses of silky hair hung down her tanned back and chest. She had a blue-green, almost-translucent sarong hanging from her full, swerving hips. She wasn't wearing anything else.

"It's been a while, Zuko," she said brazenly.

So they'd sent him a playful one? Well, this was new. Zuko snorted. "Just get naked and get on the bed. I'm not in the mood for games, woman."

The woman chuckled lightly, her voice supple and full. Her hair slid down her back as she tilted her head towards him, the moon glinting off her eyes. "Now, Zuko," she half-taunted slyly, "is that any way to talk to a waterbender on a full moon?"

Zuko felt as if he were struck dumb as the woman turned around. Thousands of thoughts and memories and desires flooded him as her brilliant cerulean eyes met his – her fine, high cheekbones and full plump lips, long neck and naked skin. Only her silky, chocolate brown hair covered her full breasts – though just barely. The see-through sarong clung to her taunt stomach, sinuous hips, and thighs.

She took a step towards him, slowly her eyes clouded. "Zuko," she whispered passionately. Her hands twitched at her sides, then she took his face in them warmly, softly, lovingly. "Why did you send me away?"

Her clean smell filled his senses, intoxicated him. He grabbed her face harshly, pushing her away from him and into the light. It was her, more beautiful, more mature, more powerful than before. But it was her.

"Katara," he said, half-longingly, half-venomously. He released her jaw with a twist, watching her hair shadow her face. She looked disappointed somehow, worried. Disappointed in him? Worried for him?

Her eyes still closed, she took a deep breath and pushed a braided lock of hair away from her face. "Very well then," she said softly. "Straight to business."

Hips swaying angrily, she sat herself at the table across the room, crossing her legs. She was apparently unaffected by her own near-nude state, but after what three years had done to her, Zuko was certainly not unaffected. "I'm here with the delegation," she began, her voice tinged with hurt. Zuko sat across from her, his arms folded against his chest. "But I'm here as Narya from the Sisterhood of Flowers. I'm to be your concubine – for show," she added dryly. How much had she changed? "But really I'm a go-between for private messages between you and the other delegates. And Aang. Don't worry," she said when she saw the disgruntled look on his face. "No one – not even the delegates – know you called on him for assistance. I was the one who initiated the whole business."

"I have my own people for messages," Zuko spat out harshly, trying his best not to look at her perfect breasts or the silky hair that caressed them.

"We know," Katara said, her voice gentle. "That's not the only reason I'm here…" She frowned, and her eyes became distant. "Over the past three years, when I was trying to infiltrate the blockade, I kept hearing rumors of a ghost ship. It was Azula's ship they spoke of, the ship that glowed with blue fire. A witch was said to live on it…it's taken to pirating mostly, but even it couldn't break the blockade. Who'd want to with the plague," she said, her voice half angry. Had she really tried to get to him? "But two weeks ago I saw the ship, and I'd know it anywhere. Zuko," she said seriously. "Azula's alive, and I think she's plotting to kill you and take the throne."

"Azula's dead," Zuko responded, not even trusting his own voice. "She died three years ago; they found pieces of that ship on a coral reef to the north. No one could have survived the undertow."

Katara's eyes were kind. "I wasn't the only one to see it, Zuko. Everyone on the outside who wants to see you succeed here thinks Azula's still out there, still wanting revenge. They sent me here to…" she paused, looking away from him. "To protect you," she finished in a small voice.

Zuko's eyes turned to angry slits. "You must be joking," he hissed in a tone that clearly said he knew she wasn't joking. Katara didn't look at him. Zuko shook his head, his rage barely controlled. "Go back home, Katara. Go back to your ice huts."

Her lips pursed and she glared at him. "You don't have to like it, Zuko, but I'm staying. Aang told me to stay. And…" she paused, then stood and shouted at him. "And I still have a promise!"

In a fit of rage, Zuko flung the table into the far wall – where it broke into several useless pieces. Katara was unmoved by this, her arms crossed against her chest. "A promise?!" Zuko bellowed, the candles in the room flaring dangerously high. "A PROMISE?!" he repeated, fire forming in his palms. "Three YEARS! And you come back here for a PROMISE?!"

"Don't you think that every second I had I spent it trying to get to you?" Katara returned, tears filling her eyes. "YOU told me to leave! YOU set up the blockade! I tried!" she screamed. "I TRIED!!!"

"You can't even imagine what it's been like," Zuko countered, fire dying as he loomed over her. She jutted her chin out aggressively. "Plagues and famines and poverty. And every second I thought of you. You never came back."

"I'm back now," she whispered. All the anger had died in her. Her eyes melted from hard ice to warm water. "I keep my promises, Zuko."

Zuko scowled, a lightning hand reaching out and grabbing a handful of thick, chocolate hair at the nape of her neck. She cringed as he pulled her to him, but only one thing shone in her eyes. His lips crashed down on hers, his kisses anything but gentle or kind. They were searching, brutal kisses that left them grasping for each other, gasping for air, and tangled in passion.

Love. Yes, that was what she radiated with.