"You're sure you don't need help?"
Zuko held open a cabinet door as Katara loaded the pile of dishware safely inside. (After hearing about the tussle she and Zuko had had there previously) Toph had hired a professional crew to complete the repairs and cleaning prior to Katara moving back in and Katara was aching to get herself resettled.
"Zuko, one thing you need to learn is that most women like to be nested; we enjoy adventures but at the end of the day we need a place to call our own where we call the shots," she nodded at him to move again. He obliged. "I need to get things unpacked and as much as I lo—like having you around, I think you'd be in the way," she admitted, catching herself as she stumbled over her words for a second.
"Not deliberately in the way of course, but I'd probably better do this myself."
"And you need space," he stated.
Her busy hand stilled for a moment before she turned and looked for the next pile of dishes to put away.
"I just need some time to myself to take everything in. We have this afternoon together—I just want to put things in order first. You know?"
Both were silent then as her words sank in. Deliberately she turned to get another box, her knuckles white as she carried it to the counter.
When she glanced over her shoulder to look at him again though, their eyes met and her breath caught in her throat at the emotion he withheld.
"Yeah, I know," he said, voice heavy with meaning.
It hit her then that of course he knew about putting things in order; he had spent the past century and a half putting himself through Hell for it. And here she was, asking him for more time. He was holding back for her again. And he was not pushing for more. Katara was amazed he had not let even a hint of this longing leak through to her via their bond; he really had been working on their autonomy… for her.
It was when he smiled at her, both gentle and heartbreaking and above all knowing, that she felt more than heard his response.
Inside her, Katara felt her heart move; her spirit rise; her mood soar in a mix of yearning, anticipation and sympathy.
He loved her enough to wait.
"Thank you," she whispered, finally calming.
Leaning against the doorway, he nodded, still smiling sadly.
He made to take a step towards her and she reciprocated on instinct; but then he pulled his hand back and his expression turned rueful.
"I'll let you get back to work. I'll just be downstairs with Suki and Sokka at the coffee shop if you need me. Okay?"
Trying to relax her racing heartbeat, Katara smiled brightly. "Sounds good," she tried to be enthusiastic.
Then he leaned down just enough—
"Until this afternoon," he whispered, his lips brushing sweetly against her ear.
With a deft squeeze of her hand, he left.
Alone, her hand still warm from his, Katara stared at the ceiling and took a deep breath before focusing back on her 'resettling' in more ways than one.
When Zuko arrived at the coffee shop Suki and Sokka were already waiting for him; they waved him over like an old friend.
For the first time in a long time, Zuko did not hesitate to wave back.
He joined them.
From outside the small bakery café, a pair of golden-brown eyes blinked as they noted the encounter before turning their nose up in the air and scenting their prey.
"Nowhere to go but up," the spy thought to himself with a feral grin.
With a last glance at the trio at the table, he looked down at his cell phone and sent his message.
On my way up, it read.
As he exited the 'borrowed' car, he felt his phone buzz against his thigh. Message received.
Finally, it was time to collect what was his.
"—so that's what we've come up with. We were wondering if you had any idea who else could be part of The Five, or trying to stop you, or get Katara, or—"
Sokka broke off as he watched Zuko's face go pale.
"You don't know?" the vampire breathed, incredulous.
"No, that's why we're asking you—" Sokka said impatiently, as if Zuko was an idiot.
But Zuko was shaking his head.
"No, no, I mean you didn't know who it was? I thought it was obvious." He turned to stare at Suki. "Kiyoshi's Warriors didn't know?"
"Know. What?" Suki repeated and stared at him intently.
"The one who's been trying to get Katara. For my father," said Zuko, volume and anger rising. His fingers clenched around his cup, and Sokka eased back in his seat in caution.
"I knew we should have brought you in sooner," growled Sokka in frustration. "Damnit!"
"Sokka!" chastised Suki, but Zuko was shaking his head, rising from his seat. A bad feeling had risen in his chest making it tighten to the point of pain. Through the bond he reached for Katara.
"No, he's right, you should have involved me sooner!" Zuko glanced up at Katara's apartment; and realised then that the weather had turned for the worse and he could barely see across the road.
"This isn't a normal storm," he suddenly realised aloud.
The three looked at each other.
Then without a word they shoved their way out and made for the door.
There was a hum of recognition, which was quickly followed by her reply.
Yes? Oh, hold on a second, there's a neighbour at the door.
Zuko's eyes widened as he sprinted for the café door, ignoring the call from the cashier to pay for his coffee.
Don't! Katara, it isn't your neighbour!
The private hangar at the airport that morning displayed an eye-popping array of flashy luxury imports awaiting their master's arrival. While the sleek chopper landed and was escorted inside the bright building, the occupants looked out of the windows at the dreary weather with a variety of reactions.
"Look at all the snow!"
"Tell me again, why did we leave your family's resort villa for this?"
"Girls, girls, the villa is so last week. We need to explore more of the world and expand our horizons," lectured the leader as the vehicle came to a halt. From her breast pocket she pulled out a vibrating smart phone and sent a quick reply. A hint of a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth, chilling to behold. "Besides, wouldn't you say it was getting boring, Mai?"
"Boring is better than cold," sulked the jet-haired woman.
"We can build forts and have a snowball fight!" crowed Ty Lee, her avid face pressed up against the glass. "And go sledding, and skating, and make snow angels…"
At the last suggestion, Mai and Azula's gazes crossed and the two snickered. Angels indeed – but only if they got to add hints of icicle fangs to the frozen imprints thereafter.
"Of course, Ty Lee, we'll all go make snow angels together in the park," Azula assured her friend with a patronizing pat on the arm. "But first, we should go greet our family in the area. It's only polite."
Ty Lee looked back at Azula curiously, just as the door to the chopper slid open and a porter came to help them out; later, he would transport their luggage to the awaiting car of their choosing. Later still, he may end up as a snack, not that the man was fully aware of any of the goings-on.
"You have family in this area? I thought everyone you knew was at the villa?"
Ty Lee's eyes widened slowly and she glanced at Mai who in turn watched Azula intently.
"Well, not quite everyone," the confident woman smiled, baring elegant, nearly translucent white teeth. "I thought we'd go visit with poor, abandoned brother dearest. It's been nearly fifty years – surely he's missed his only sibling?" Heaving a melodramatic sigh through her full, blood-red lips and shrugging her shoulders for effect, Azula turned her head almost sadly towards the automobiles. Her 'hurt' act slid away seamlessly, and her eyes hooded deeply in appreciation at the sight—her minions had followed her instructions to the letter.
The other two followed the direction of Azula's focus. The luxury cars gleamed under the bright lighting of the private hangar and beckoned to be taken for a test drive.
"We need at least a three-seater," remarked Ty Lee thoughtfully with a hand at her chin, her other hand supporting her elbow.
"Ooh!" she exclaimed, suddenly pounding her fist into her hand. "What about three cars that match!"
Bypassing the Ferrari, the Maserati and the yellow Porsche (it looked too much like something a woman would drive maniacally through a walled Italian city), Azula stopped in front of the more practical option. It would handle the icy, snow-packed roads outside the airport's parking lot like they were an English country road in spring.
"Ty Lee, keep that idea in mind," ordered Azula, her lips curling into a shark's predatory smile. "We may need it later. In the meantime, pile in."
Still not having any fun Mai caught the keys Azula tossed her and settled into the driver's seat.
"So," sighed the maussade vampire. "Where are we going?"
A custom-tuned and modified engine growled to life as she turned the key; Ty Lee bounced into the back seat while Azula smartly clicked the door shut beside her.
"Hmmm, if I were a Zuzu, where would I be?" mused Azula pleasantly.
Mai pressed the hangar door auto-opener button on the remote in the car's ceiling. As soon as the gates had opened far enough for them to squeeze through, Mai floored it and the car leapt forward, feasting on the slippery conditions.
"Whee!" cheered Ty Lee.
"At least the car's not boring," said Mai with something akin to a smile, e-braking through a corner and controlling the resulting fishtail before setting off again at a leisurely eighty miles per hour.
"You always were a cherry-red-BMW-in-winter gal, Mai!" the rear passenger leaned forward to grin at her chauffeur. "But your Jaguar definitely suits your aura in the summer," she added, nodding solemnly.
"If we were at the villa, I'd be out in my Jaguar now," complained Mai. She hated leaving her baby in the care of others. No one treated it like she did.
"I'm sure your servants are taking marvelous care of it after what happened the last time," soothed Azula. "For now, take the next left and we'll see if anything interesting is happening downtown."
"Yay! Party time!" Ty Lee leaned even further forward and turned the music on. The best club beats in the country flooded the car.
"I love the Blind Bandit!" she shouted to her friends over the thump-thump-thump of the surround sound speakers. Flashing lights appeared and reflected inside the car a moment later, adding to Ty Lee's rave-tastic mood. The young woman started flowing with the music, dancing in her seat.
"I can tell," Mai murmured back. With a direction in mind, Mai dropped a gear and overtook the police car that had so rudely tried to steer her into the guardrail. Ty Lee leaned forward again and turned her favourite club music up louder.
"Mai, could you do something about our admirers, please?" inquired Azula, glancing at their unwanted uniformed escort.
"Whatever you say," Mai replied tiredly and directed their Beamer into the downtown core to shake off the trail of police, Marshals, and—she was certain—at least two Feds who had all taken up the chase.
"Hold on, Ty," she said, and the car shot forward like a bullet, catching air over a small hill before landing with a smooth whump and speeding away again.
"We're down to two," sighed Mai. "Okay, I guess we'll have to do it again. Hold on again, Ty, this one'll be faster."
Completely at ease, Azula rested her hand in her chin and gazed out the window serenely.
"See you soon, Zuzu."
Already opening her door, Katara automatically tried to slam it shut when she heard Zuko's panicking instructions.
—But her visitor was quicker.
Her pulse raced as she felt it ripped from her hands and burst open, a tall, sickeningly familiar presence filling her entryway.
His claw-tipped fingers shot out to grab her around the throat, choking off her words and air. Instinctively Katara's hands grabbed his and tried to pull him loose as she reached mentally for the dishwater still bubbling in her sink.
"Honey, I'm home," Jet sang, eyes blazing hot and gold like a runaway sun.
Her eyes broke from his gaze and she focused on the sink.
'Come to me, now!' she commanded, and felt the water immediately swirl and rise.
'Now freeze! Spear! Nownownow!'
The sound of the water cracking instantly as it froze caught their attention. Jet's gaze followed hers and his mouth curled in a snarl in realization. He leapt out of the way but Katara's strike still caught him in the shoulder, making him flinch and his grip tighten further in anger. Her ocean-blue eyes bulged in pain and fear.
Zuko! I'm sorry it was too late—please be careful!
Already she was readying her next strike, but it was difficult to waterbend, speak to Zuko and still remain aware as her oxygen ran low.
Katara's heart beat loudly in her ears then began to fade. She tried to send a final message to Zuko in desperation.
Inches from her face Jet's teeth lengthened and pressed into his lower lip. Furious with her attack and sensing her preparing another, his next words were accompanied by narrowed eyes and an ugly lisp.
"That's no way to greet your mate, Katara!" Jet snapped and without another word smashed her into the nearest wall.
Then everything went dark.
AN: Thank you, renagrrl7, for working your sweet, sweet beta-magic on the Ozai's Angels portion of this chapter (when it was originally written, in 2008).
AN2: Last update for 2012—please enjoy another delicious cliffhanger. See you next year—happy 2013! -mm