A/N: This is my first fan fiction. I actually completed this in September 2007 but I've had to make revisions due to FFN's deletion of all the symbols I used to separate locations and time skips. I'm currently in the process of revising each chapter so if you're coming new to this story, please be advised that you might come across a few chapters I haven't gotten to yet. I apologize if it's confusing but I'm revising as fast as I can!!
She's standing at the bow of the ship, the wind whipping her hair like a banner. Tired of constantly refastening her braid, she's left her long hair loose to unfurl in the breeze. Sea sprays her face and she licks the salt from her lips, breathing deeply the warming air that accompanies the Fire Nation's waters.
Volcanos stretch out before her making her stomach feel cold, unsettled. The last time she was here this nation was awash in blood and violence. If Prince Zuko's correspondence was accurate, it had remained a place of fear and death until about two years ago, a bloody insurgency rising up from the ashes of the Hundred Years War. She can almost feel the ghosts crowding her, demanding answers and retribution.
She turns to the helm, waving at Sokka, with a well-practiced smile on her face. Tall, tan, muscular and goofy as ever, he is an excellent sailing man with a loyal crew at his command. Katara thinks of the times he declared himself the leader of their group and chuckles remembering how little respect he was given compared to how much he deserved. The disrespect of the benders could not dampen his pride however, and he continued to declare himself the chieftan regardless of the others sarcastic barbs. In fact he was their leader and they all knew it.
Sokka grins at her, hands over the helm to his first mate and makes his way toward his sister.
"Tastes good, doesn't it?" Sokka notices her licking her lips again.
"Yeah. Who doesn't like salt?"
"You know you could take on the sea life any time..." This is a discussion they've had. Many times.
"I love the ocean, but I don't want to work on it." Katara cuts him off before he can start the lecture.
"You could come aboard the Yue and be my first mate. Kiani's ready for his own ship so I could easily have an opening in a few months." Sokka doesn't give up. He's been insisting that Kiani is ready for a promotion for two years, but the younger man seems not the least bit interested in leaving the Yue.
"No. I miss you when you're gone, but I don't want to work your ship. You'll just have to write me more often, brother." Katara is firm, as always.
"The discussion isn't closed." Stubborn as he is goofy.
"I know. Even if I want it to be, it'll only be closed when you say so."
"Or when you change your mind."
"We'll see about..."
"How does the palace look?" Katara changes the subject abruptly, needing a way out of this perpetual argument. "Last time I saw it I thought it might crumble to the ground before we'd get out the door."
"I've only ever seen the outer chambers, the public areas, the throne room, but they're pretty impressive. Knowing Zuko I'm sure rebuilding the palace was a top priority."
"Unfair Sokka. Remember he saved your life once."
"And I saved his so..."
"Best behavior Sokka. Gran Gran said." Katara smirks. Gran Gran still treats them both like they're 14 and 15 and just leaving to rescue Aang from the very person whose coronation they're traveling to attend.
Sokka laughingly punches her arm and leaves to take his place on the bridge, their journey's end imminent. He guides the ship skillfully into the Fire Harbor and docks without incident. Katara remembers the ice/rock dodging from years ago and smiles at the memory.
As they prepare to leave the ship there is a commotion on shore. A palace guard has come to meet them complete with banner and a half dozen soldiers in formal uniforms. Dock workers and vendors gawk at the royal splendor. This must be an important ship. Good money to be made here!
Sokka's eyes light up. He feels important, which is a plus for the Fire Nation prince - soon to be Fire Lord. Katara bows to the captain of the palace guard, takes Sokka's arm like a proper lady and walks down the pier to the waterfront promenade.
Her stomach flutters up to her chest and her breathing shallows. She feels like fainting. Or throwing up. Or both.
It looks like a normal place. What did I expect? Death and blood and screams and suffocating smoke, that's what. There's not a fire in sight. The only smoke is from chimneys.
The trees burst with red and gold leaves as if to make up for the lack of actual flames in the common areas of the Fire Nation. The volcanic mountains rise up to kiss the sky with stately grace. The palace rises above it all like a beacon with its gold tiled roof and spires of copper.
The Fire Nation wears peace well.
So why the hell am I so damned nervous?
But she knows why. The last time she was here she was reviled, hated, spit upon. Even Iroh, beloved former General and new Fire Lord, was heaped with scorn. She had never before felt that kind of disgust directed at her and it cut her deeply. She casts her eyes downward now to avoid looking at the faces of the Fire Nation. Faces of people who had been so ill informed, so confused that they hated the very people who had risked their lives to save them from a madman. Despised the very General and Prince who had helped to end the lives of their own family members in order to secure a future for their nation.
And the victory was quickly followed by an uprising orchestrated by Ozai's dead enders. The cruel generals and nobles who had made up his administration. Not willing to accept change, they fought it. They killed wantonly their own people as they terrorized town and countryside in a brutal effort to regain the power they had lost.
They had eventually been pacified, but the scars remained. The scars always remain.
Katara hears a shout and sees a flash of pink and crimson. What looks like a pinwheel flips toward them, landing in front of Sokka and squeezing him into a tight embrace. Ty Lee turns to Katara, bows to her and then jumps her as well. Laughing, they part and give each other a long look.
Ty Lee is as lovely as ever. Still looks like a child and seems always on the verge of bouncing away if you don't hold her tightly enough. The one difference is her right hand. She hides it now in the folds of her puffed pants, but Katara knows what it looks like. Curled into claws her fingers, shattered by Azula's cruel vengeance, can't hold a brush with which to write, or a pair of chopsticks and they can't support her in a handstand.
So she learned to write with her left hand, eat everything with a spoon and do a damned fine one-handed handstand.
Ty Lee had been an inspiration to many, especially Iroh in those first years of his short reign. His nephew gone to fight against the insurgents, his country at war with itself, and his palace in ruins, he was perilously close to despair several times. And when those times came, a fluttering flag of pink would appear in the throne room, leaping high in the air as if to capture his heart and infuse it with the buoyancy it had lost.
And he would always smile.
They would have tea and he would laugh.
Sometimes when her crippled hand became sore and her eyes wet with tears needing desperately to be shed, he would have her lay her head on his knee like a toddler while he stroked her hair and told her stories of mischievous clowns and clever spirits and romance. And she would fall asleep like a child. A soft smile would make a dimple appear on her tear-stained cheek while Iroh continued to caress her hair as he whispered prayers for love and joy in her future.
"You look wonderful, Ty Lee." Katara tells her truthfully. It's as if the girl is sent by the spirits to make a terrified waterbender smile.
"Thanks, sister!" Ty Lee had taken to calling Katara and Toph "sister" during the campaign against Ozai. She'd been so afraid of Azula that she was quite overwhelmed by the supportive and trusting nature of the Avatar's small family. "You don't look half bad yourself." She giggles.
"Is Aang here yet?" Sokka asks, wondering why nobody ever notices how good he's looking these days.
"He got here yesterday. He's been in meetings with Zuko and the Frowny Men all morning." Ty Lee answers.
"The Frowny Men?" Katara asks.
"That's what I call the Cabinet. They're always frowning but when the doors are closed I hear them laugh sometimes. I peek in really quickly, but by the time I get there, they're all frowning again. It's a better name than 'cabinet' anyway. That's a place to keep your clothes not a group of people running the government. I'm supposed to interrupt them when we get back to the palace though, so you'll get to see them for yourself." Ty Lee finishes without taking a breath.
"I'm looking forward to it." Katara grins.
Sokka is always reminded of the Earth King's palace in Ba Sing Se as he walks up the steps to the Fire Lord's residence. Not to compare them -- the styles of architecture are incredibly different -- but just to remember that he's actually been inside multiple palaces and broken bread with kings. Some peasant he turned out to be, he smirks.
The giant, dark wooden doors open through the exertions of two large men. It's quite a spectacle as it takes at least a full two minutes for the doors to open wide enough for their entire entourage to enter without walking single-file. Once inside they are surrounded by marble and gold leaf. The entry hall is a gallery of exquisite art and ancient artifacts.
Displays from each of the nations are in evidence and the effect is breathtaking. Especially the exhibit dedicated to the Air Nomads. Aang had painstakingly supervised its construction and had donated artifacts from two air temples. It is a tribute to their existence in the very palace from whence the order for their genocide had come. Incongruous, yes, but Aang couldn't deny the power of the gesture and so he contributed his portion gladly. Iroh and Zuko had wanted the Fire Nation to remember what they had done, even as they tried to keep their people from falling into a malaise, which could ruin them economically and destroy any future toward which they might build. It was a fine-line they were treading. They wished to express remorse without indulging in the crippling effect of guilt and self-loathing.
"It's beautiful." Katara breathes.
"Check out the Water Tribe display. That's the boomerang I hit Zuko on the head with when we first met him." Sokka keeps his voice low. "He doesn't know that though. He thinks it's just a generic, every day boomerang." He chuckles.
"Sokka, you need to move on." Katara smiles.
"The throne room is over here, down this hall." Ty Lee pulls them along. "You can look at that old stuff later."
"Some of that 'old stuff' is priceless." Sokka reminds her.
"And it will still be there when we get back." Ty Lee keeps her patience, "I was told to bring you two right in when you arrive and I'm not going to blow my first task of the day!"
"It's alright Ty Lee, " Katara says comforting her, "Sokka's just obsessed with his own artifacts and wants to worship himself. You understand..."
Ty Lee giggles at this and nods to two more giant door openers as they reach their destination.
The huge doors swing slowly open and Katara and Sokka are met with a cavernous room large enough to fit twenty igloos. It's a nice space. It's been rebuilt since the last time Katara was here. Marble floors, a large stone fire pit and an elaborate, gold and scarlet throne, which stands empty at one end of the room.
They mopped up all the blood I see.
She mentally shakes her head and bites the inside of her cheek to keep herself focused.
The conference table sits at the other end, surrounded by men sitting on cushions. Frowning men. Sokka barks out a laugh before he can stifle it and Katara hisses a smothered giggle as she mercilessly chews her cheek even harder in an effort to regain her composure.
Zuko and Aang stand quickly and simultaneously. They've both gotten taller and stand nearly the same height. As they step forward it's almost as if they've choreographed the move.
"Katara!" Aang grabs her in a smothering hug. He always acts as if he hasn't seen her in years when he makes frequent trips to the South Pole to visit with his "adoptive" family.
"It's good to see you Aang." Katara's muffled voice comes from his shoulder.
"Let her breathe Avatar." Comes Zuko's voice. Prince Zuko. Soon-to-be Fire Lord Zuko. Former enemy to all mankind, now a friend Zuko.
"Sorry" Aang says sheepishly. "I like to hug."
"I know." Three voices -- Katara's, Sokka's and Zuko's --, intone together.
Aang releases his grip and shrugs, grinning like a kid.
"Katara, you remember Prince Zuko," Aang acts like he's introducing virtual strangers rather than former fellow combatants. "He's the one who will become Fire Lord in two days."
"Nice to see you again Prince ... Zuko was it?" Katara jokes.
"Yes, it's nice of you to remember me, Lady Katallah." Zuko smirks, bowing courteously.
"It's Katara" Ty Lee whispers to Zuko wondering how in the world he could have forgotten a name he's heard so many times in the past few days, not to mention the close quarters they shared in combat...she finally gets the jest and laughs out loud.
"Yes, it's Katara, " the bearer of that name reminds him. "And I do remember you. You're the young man who played the sungi horn so poorly on music night."
"Yes, that's me. And I believe you're the young lady who knocked herself into a ravine trying to waterwhip a noisy hog monkey in the middle of the night."
"Yes, yes, the same." Katara blushes, laughing at the memory of her utter humiliation.
Sokka guffaws loudly. "I remember that! Best night of my life!"
"I'm glad you could make it to the coronation, Katara." Zuko holds out his arm for her to take.
"I wouldn't miss it." Katara takes his arm as he walks her to the conference table.
"Katara's the Cultural Heritage Minister of the Southern Water Tribe," Aang announces proudly.
"Also known as a librarian." Sokka pipes up.
"Gentlemen, this is the Cultural Heritage Minister of the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and her brother Sokka, Captain of the Yue." Zuko introduces the siblings in such a formal manner that Katara fears she'll bite a hole in her cheek. Certain that he is joking with his stiff formality she launches a sideward glance at him, forgetting that his expression from the left side of his face is impossible to read, so marred is it by his father's scar. The sudden shock of remembrance puts a damper on her festive feelings and her smile becomes a mask rather than a genuine display of good humor.
The Frowny Men bow and greet and harumph their way out the door and the five -- Zuko, Aang, Katara, Ty Lee and Sokka -- are left on their own. A fresh pot of tea is set on the hastily cleared conference table and the group sits down for a nice, easy chat. Katara takes a deep breath and truly relaxes for the first time since she sent her acceptance to the Fire Nation's very official invitation to the coronation of Fire Lord Zuko.