Summary:

After the betrayal of Jet, a polished rogue in the King's Guard, Katara of the Watertribe refuses the affection and offer of any man. Due to rising rebellion in the Earth Kingdom's Island Colonies, and its capital of Ba Sing Se, Chief Hakoda strives to protect his daughter and his people's way of life. Firelord Iroh pushes his nephew to marry Katara, whilst they struggle to have nothing to do with the other. Meanwhile Jet comes to win Katara to find an angry Waterbending Master, that refuses his lies and casts his true self into the light in the high society of the Earth Kingdom. Humiliated he seeks his revenge on not only his parent's murderers, but the country of their origin, and a prize he failed to gain, a blue eyed waterbender called Katara.

A.N

Hi? Um....Yeah.....What can you say when there is no excuse for something to be this late? Oh well..... In a lame attempt to explain, I shall observe to you my reasons for not updating.... My laptop decided (near the end of november) To stop working. And I just had time to get it fixed last week. Other than that, its mostly been my insane schedule with school and being named a director for my school's Winter Show. I want to thank all of you for your patience with me, as well as for your concerns on the chronic abdominal pains I've been having. I have been tested for several different things, and none of the tests have given insight to my condition. My last bloodtest was screwed up because the hospital sent it to the wrong research center, and I was informed it would have to be redone. They have yet to return my call. But other than all that, I had lost my confidence in this story. However, the other day I had the urge to pick it up and read it, and I realized, that yes, this chapter is good! So it has now been betaed and I'm posting it for y'all! So this is only the first half of the chapter because I realized it would be too long otherwise. (it was already pushing 30 pages) Questions and comments welcomed and adored!

Thanks to my fabulous beta, LostInLalaLand0820

Enjoy.

REVIEW!

Disclaimer: I do not own avatar, nor do I make any profit from this story

Arc III

Rating: T

The Last Chapter Part I

Chapter 39: Left in the shadow of a teacup

Katara, Zuko, Toph, Sokka, and Aang


Previously:

"What if she's been taken?" Katara suddenly voiced her biggest concern.

Zuko tensed and this time, did not relax.

"It's possible," he intoned lowly. Both their minds flashed to the bloody pink ribbon in their wash room.

Katara shivered and drew his arms tighter around her.

She could be anywhere. Toph could've been snatched from the ship (much more likely considering her bending prowess), the road, or even inside Ba Sing Se.

"There's a chance she's where we're headed." Zuko wasn't much one for hope, but he tried to give it to her as best he knew how.

Katara sighed again, hands settling protectively over her abdomen.

"Perhaps."


Many theories have been circulated on the creation of a good thought.

Some suggest it takes a careful motivation; others speak of it as merely directed pondering. Fewer believe that it escapes from the hidden recesses of a mind, unconcerned of the current thoughts at the forefront of it.

Still, a wise old man once stated that good thought is born of good struggle. Whether he meant the struggle to obtain, or the fight to defend, is unknown.

When asked, the man only sipped his tea and moved an ornate gambit with white petals painted upon it forward.

Skin glistened under the lukewarm moisture of the bath.

A hand moved across another whilst waxy soap glided against callous and silky epidermis alike. Brown hair swirled with the motions of the contained water, following the shifting weight and movement of its occupant.

Arms tucked under knees, fell towards ankles, and raised her element over her head and bosom. Beneath mahogany locks sat the thoughts of a trapped woman, fighting against both kinds of struggle.

Revenge to be obtained and a dear sister to recover.

A child to defend, as well as a family.

Conflicting interest in both fights.

The hands strayed to the silk of her stomach, feeling the small hill that sat beneath her breasts. Like a lotus that had barely opened, this too would blossom and grow.

Fingers spread across the sprout, observing the new contours in detail. There had been far too much rush for this; for a silent catalogue of every flattened fold of muscle that now stretched over the little bulge.

The slender appendages rose to her neck, missing the weight of the fine chain that normally sat there. The necklace and its dagger lay across a stack of towels only inches from her right hand.

Katara sighed.

Her husband had gone to spread the news of Aang's missive along with the speculations concerning Toph. He had brought her tea first. To calm her, he said. The untouched cup sat next to the pile of towels.

It was this thought that beat against her skull, chasing through her memories and foresight or anything remotely ringing of the earthbender that shook continents.

It was becoming increasingly certain in her mind that Toph had been captured, relating to the assured conjectures of her husband concerning his sister.

The Blind Bandit had been out of her element, limited to nails sprinkled across a wooden deck. Her lack of sight or feel left only the faintest chances for defense and attack.

She only needed to know where Toph was, and then no one would be able to stop her; or Sokka, for that matter.

Zuko had spread the word to the others, but Sokka had stopped by her door to inquire about supper. He had been concerned that she hadn't been eating enough.

Katara had told him immediately. After all, he and Toph had been very close.

'Are very close,' she scolded herself.

Sokka had gone uncharacteristically silent. He held his hand out for Aang's note and then took his leave.

Hearing the door to the bedroom shut, Katara stood and reached for the linens to dry herself. True, she and her husband had been intimate more than once, but she was secure enough in her modesty to keep herself covered from his eyes out of bed.

Wrapping a robe around her nude form and drawing the water off her hair, she tucked the dagger into her robe after securing the chain around her neck.

The door between the washroom and bedchamber opened easily, but Zuko's shoulders tensed, then relaxed suddenly upon recognition.

He stared at her for a moment. Katara quirked a brow at him, but he shook his head. Zuko flicked his fingers and the candles set in their stands went out instantly.

She heard his footsteps and he paused before her, setting a hand against her waist. The sash pulled away easily. Katara didn't bother retrieving it. She couldn't see anything, so it was doubtful he could.

His hands brushed her bare shoulders as the robe slid down. Katara shivered from the cool breeze that swept through the drafty ship.

Zuko pulled her hands to open his robe. It whispered against the floor. Hands held her own and pulled her forward.

Their figures sank unto the bed.


Zuko swept his hair away from his eyes.

They led the horses quietly down the ramp of the docked ship, hooves clipping the wood and steel.

The only harbor close enough to the foothills was a private, industrial port, not meant for pleasure craft nor accustomed to the light, shifting shape of a watertribe ship.

With the horses and the close proximity to the hills, reaching their destinations would be simple and quick. They'd be back tomorrow, with any luck.

Of course that is, if his sister surrendered immediately and no one had to relieve themselves upon the way.

Zuko sighed, nodding to the shadowy figure as he passed it. Suki sat on the rail, spare fans tucked into her sash and watching the near silent procession.

He had left his wife with a note upon his pillow. Short and direct. She knew their plans already, so it fell upon Suki to keep her contained. Though the sedative might help.

His hands tightened on the reins of his steed. They were not yet riding, leading their rides by their reins.

Zuko had inquired about the powder with Hakoda's physician aboard the ship, with the odd balding man called Patik that passed for a medic with the White Lotus, he'd even approached Kanna.

Kanna had been the most helpful, being a midwife. She suggested the small powder into tea. It was used commonly to help expecting mothers rest. That helped clear his concerns for the child. Now all that remained was the guilt.

Katara would be furious, upset, and frustrated. He'd be lucky to gain an embrace upon his return. Very lucky.

And foolishly optimistic.

Katara's master patted his shoulder upon seeing Zuko's tight face. Pakku would travel with him to find the source of the river. Then he'd force the water to flow, increasing the size and sound. The others would have a much easier time following the tributaries after that.

Zuko kept his breath calm, determined to think on the practical logistics of their mission. The inflection of emotions were only a distraction. Focus was the hold that kept his mind clear and efficient.

The sword master kept pace with Sokka. Neither were benders, but both true warriors in their own skills. He had suggested it as a peace offering to Sokka, who'd been eyeing Piandao's blades reverently. Perhaps he'd learn something.

The disgruntled old firebender called Jeong Jeong journeyed with Hakoda to search for Bumi. From Aang's missive, they knew he'd delivered his plea for help successfully. Omashu sat to the east of the forest. They planned to take consul with Bumi.

In essence their goals were simple. Split and search.

In essence.

More importantly, in appearance.

They were looking for the camp. Toph and Ty Lee needed to be recovered, after all. But the main plan was to draw out their enemies.

Zuko turned back. His window was visible from the earth where the docks ended. The lights were off. Suki would go to Katara as soon as he and the others swept into the forest.

Azula had always been a fan of divide and conquer. However her greatest chance for error came in her own arrogance. She'd be waiting for him, yes. But she'd underestimated him. Their enemies would have only the smallest warning as to their true strength.

Typically, he'd storm in alone, nobly. Azula would count on that. But with him were warriors, Hakoda's men marching with their chief, and masters, split into teams.

It was guess and attack as soon as they entered the forest.

Knowing Azula, she'd wait at the back lines, if only for the satisfaction of killing whoever made it past the rest.

But she'd know her miscalculations as soon as they entered the forest.

They'd split.

There was Long Feng, Azula, Jet, Zhao, and his father at the most. All masters in their own fields.

Ideally, the teams would take down the bigger players whilst Hakoda and Bumi's men would swamp the hideout.

He and Pakku would cut hard North, angling for the river's start using the pre-made (and thus faster) trails as long as possible. Sokka would go south along the hills, keeping west and allowing his father to go east towards Omashu. All but Sokka would keep to the same path at first.

The shadows of the trees towered above, sweeping their steeds in a cloak of perpetual forest darkness. Zuko took a last glance toward the water, where the ships bobbed within the tide's influence.

I love you.

The hazy figure of a woman slipped beneath the deck as he watched.

Sokka's eyes met his as they both turned from watching Suki. Katara's brother hesitated, then nodded his head stiffly. Zuko returned the gesture. Hakoda had already started into the bow of the trees.

Zuko steadied his mount before hoisting himself up, sliding a leg to the opposite side of his stallion's flank.

Dirt chipped from the sudden gallop of a multitude of hooves.

In a washroom aboard Hakoda's ship, a full cup of jasmine spilt with the motion of a sudden wave.


Toph clicked her heels against the wood floor, listening to the humming vibrations that came with the movement.

The mere fact that a simple tap gave out a hollow thud against her heels led Toph to believe she wasn't on the ground.

Obviously she wasn't merely suspended in thin air, as the cage did not rock. But for the floor to be hollow, there was either a chamber beneath her, or the cell was on stilts.

Either way, though, there was no sound betraying supports beneath her. She had amused herself by annoying her guards, tapping out tunes and melodies, at the same time assessing her environment.

She smirked.

"This rope is starting to chafe. Perhaps if you'd gotten higher quality," she sighed innocently as the guards scoffed.

There was a low whistle, and the guards startled to attention.

Toph pricked her ears up in attention. Rarely did she get visitors. She'd been in this new setting nearly a week with only her 'attendants' for company. The silken snake had avoided her after the rock cuff incident.

The rustling of cloth betrayed movement outside her door. The crick of the wooden shaft being slid away (no metal lock, these people were smarter than she'd hoped), and the distinct sound of friction as the door dragged against the floor.

Toph immediately stood, turning in the direction of the door. She tensed, ready to rush her guards, but hesitated at the memory of her early guess that she was above ground. Falling wasn't a pleasant sensation, and there was no giggling Katara to catch her as she slipped from the garden wall again.

A high pitched whimper met her ears, and she lifted a brow.

"I have to kill my own food now? Barbarians."

"Shut it!" Imbecile number one snarled.

From the clash of metal, Toph could only assume the other had clipped the man on his armor.

A bundle was thrown to the floor. It shook the entire cell before it suddenly went still.

A whoosh of air and a grunt of pain were Toph's only clue as to what followed. The door slammed shut, shaking the little room once more.

Toph approached the mass upon the floor cautiously, reaching out with a foot to jab at it. She yelped when her foot was grabbed and she was pulled to the floor. She kicked blindly (no, really?) and the thing shrieked.

A human shriek.

A female shriek.

"That was really mean!"

Toph sat where she'd landed, jabbing forward with her foot suddenly. The girl caught her foot again.

"Will you stop?"

Toph poked her finger rudely in the direction of the voice.

"Alright, skirt. Why am I so rudely forced to share my palace?" Her voice was loud and obnoxious, as much to irritate her shadows as much as to get answers.

"How am I supposed to know? My hands are tied and I have a blindfold on!" Toph noted the voice was particularly girly, indignant in a pouting sort of way.

"You can't see? How awful!" Her sarcasm obviously wasn't thick enough, as the voice chirped up at the 'sympathy'.

"I know! How dare they!"

"Injustice!" This was the most entertainment she'd had in a while.

"And they've been so rough! They wouldn't even let me have a coverlet!"

"Terrible!"

The girl seemed to be beaming. If Katara had been there, Toph would've asked her to check. The new voice seemed to have warmed considerably to the idea of company and sympathy.

Pathetic.

"Can you untie me?" She asked.

"'Fraid not. I can't see either," Toph held back a snicker. She'd already untied her own bonds and then tied them up again. She could only imagine the heart attack she'd give her guards if she was unbound. As much fun as it was to torture them, she couldn't imagine bringing their superiors down upon their heads...

Yet.

The voice huffed.

Toph smiled.

"I miss home," the voice said suddenly.

Toph didn't really agree. She missed her friends (only a tad), but perhaps her parents were fretting over her absence. Serves them right.

"I miss tumbling."

Tumbling? Toph blinked. It was an odd thing to say. The girl shuffled and sighed.

"Zuko better be so nice to me after this," she mumbled to herself.

Sparky? Toph considered the voice again.

She started laughing, loudly.

The girl huffed, thinking she was being laughed at.

But Toph just smirked at her own slowness and the idiocy of her captors. The girl wasn't a bender, but from what she'd heard, she didn't need to be.

"Hey," Toph said.

"What?" Still pouting then.

"Are you Tey Lin?" That sounded wrong even to her own ears.

"Excuse me?" She sounded confused. Fabulous. She wasn't too bright then…

"You know," Toph began impatiently. "Sokka's stalker?"

"Sokka!"

Toph sighed. Finally.

She made a note to herself that the girl responded to comments about males.

"You're her!" The girl ( My Jee?) continued. "Sokka's lover!"

A loud sputter met that exclamation.

"WHAT?"

The girl giggled.

"I am not that wuss's lover!"

"Oh."

"Glad we got that straight."

The girl sighed in apparent disappointment.

"But he was with you the entire ball!"

Toph growled. She knew that, damnit. And he still chose Captain Fan.

"You're thinking of Suki," she said stiffly.

"Oh."

"Yes."

"I'm Ty Lee."

"That's it!"

"What is?" Dear HeiBei this girl was easily confused.

"You, skirt." Toph pointed toward her, forgetting she was blind folded. "Zuko's looking for you."

"Really?" Immediately the perk was back in her voice.

"Yup."

"Good. He should be. Can't keep his hips away from his wife's."

Toph chuckled. Good. They could avenge themselves on Zuko after they escaped. It would only be too easy with the help of a seeing pair of eyes.


Sokka glanced at the tall man out of the corner of his eye.

Piandao was straight in his saddle, naturally swaying the slightest bit with the rhythm of his steed.

His blade was set upon his back, the same place it had been ever since Sokka first met him. He seemed pleasant enough, but spoke little.

Piandao turned his head, acknowledging Sokka's curiosity with a level stare.

They were riding at an easy canter, their pace set for speed and stealth. They would stay south until they could see the edges of the Great Divide, from there their course turned back east, following a parallel.

Sokka ducked is head sheepishly. The older man chuckled.

"So tell me, young one, have you ever held a blade?"

Sokka shook his head, not letting his eyes stray back to the magnificent sheath of the master across the way.

Piandao murmured to himself before nodding.

"You are in line for your father's chiefdom, yes?"

Sokka started at the sudden inquiry, but answered.

"Not for a good while, hopefully."

Sokka turned his head slightly. Piandao nodded in approval.

"Wise answer."

Sokka looked at him in astonishment. It hadn't been a suave or brilliant response at all.

Piandao chuckled at his open shock.

"It doesn't do to thirst for power, nor to dwell in despair that may come."

"Course." Sokka was proud that his chest only extended forward the slightest bit. The same could not be said of his height. Katara would have likened him to a peacock.

The forest was old, and Sokka hadn't been there since the death of his mother. The trees leaned over their steeds, an arch of ancient wisdom that was weary of growing. Their bows intertwined, branches tangled into a single organism. Their bearing was as one instead of many. The strength of a great forest lies in its unity more than what it encompasses.

Men feel small, are small, in that shadow. They have no bearing against the ancient presence of a living thing that shames whatever mark they left against the changing dusts of the earth.

They had followed steadily against the edge of the wood, barely inside the towering mass. The sky was still visible, the dusky blue that came with false dawn.

The stillness kept Sokka on edge, paranoid of his position. Sokka was a cynic if nothing else and he kept firm in the belief that their journey would not continue in such little strain; Piandao seemed at ease in comparison, straight,but keeping a pleasant mien of casualty.

Piandao noticed the younger warrior's tense and frequent glances at their surroundings.

"Are you quite alright?"

Sokka nodded tersely, not turning his eyes from their periodic scan of the east edge of the forest.

Piandao chuckled at his antics, shaking his head.

"May I request a favor?"

Sokka glanced at him quickly.

"Of course."

"Good, good," the sword master affirmed pleasantly. "What do you see, Sokka?"

Sokka looked at him in some confusion.

"Trees?"

Piandao shook his head to himself. Odd boy.

"True. Now, what do you hear?"

Sokka pondered this for a moment, halting his breathing to pay attention to the quiet life of the forest.

"Nothing," Sokka concluded.

"Alright then." Piandao faced forward on his steed once more.

Sokka waited for the next odd question. It didn't appear to be forthcoming.

"That's all?"

Piandao looked over at him, a humorous quirk set to his lips.

"All what?"

"The questions? I doubt you'd ask anything without a reason."

Piandao nodded to himself.

"You make a fine point lad. Very well then, what do you smell?"

Sokka was taken aback for a moment before he deliberately turned his nose high and took an enormous waft of forest air.

"It…"

PIandao cocked his head in anticipation of an answer.

"It smells like forest."

Piandao barely refrained from smacking his forehead.

"Excellent." Things would have to be spelled out for this one.

"Truly?" Sokka was ever ready to be assured of his abilities.

"….No."

Sokka's face fell, slipping into disappointment

Piandao glanced at him at the corner of his eye. Sokka remained facing forward, silent.

"But what matters now is what you gain from these observations."

Sokka spared him a curious glance.

"Such as?"

Piandao smiled fully, showing even well cared for teeth.

"The sight of trees tells you that cover is easy to find, but that we may have a disadvantage under people who know the forest better, and that, if necessary, shelter and provisions are available." He continued, oblivious to Sokka's look of shock.

"The stillness of sound betrays the fact that, for now, we are alone, without animals or enemies nearby. No matter how quietly they creep, the forest creaks and there is a disturbance in its silence."

Sokka strained his ears in the brief reprise from speaking, reaffirming the absence of hazard.

"The smell of forest is harder. What particularly catches your attention about the scent?"

Sokka knew the answer to this at once.

"It's wet."

Piandao looked pleased.

"Exactly."

He looked lightly at Sokka before finishing his explanation on the values of observation.

"The moist smell shows that the ground is wet. It has rained recently. All the moisture will make it difficult to keep your footing, as well as making it child's play to track you."

Sokka gaped at him. Piandao smirked before turning his steed's head to the front, squeezing lightly at the mare's sides to speed her walk.

Sokka stared after the man's figure. While every warrior knew to be aware of your surroundings it had never occurred to him to invoke all of his senses in such a way as to tie it into the picture the sword master had painted.

He had cultivated his skills in the barren Arctic (with the exceptions of the brief stints with Suki), where any intruder was detected, miles off, by sight, a tiny blip in the horizon of white.

Sokka pulled up his ride besides his. Piandao seemed to be considering something. He looked at Sokka steadily, calculatingly.

"Perhaps…"

The far off braying of many horses cut through the silent wood, shattering the peace with echoes of a great multitude. Whinnies braced the echo, supporting the cacophony. With such a silent situation before, the noise was all too noticeable.

It cut down from northwest of their position, betraying some unsuspected sentiment that had met some great number.

They both turned their steeds to the sound, listening hard. Piandao's face was stone and Sokka's had set into a terse frown.

It was the dull clang of metal striking metal that had them kicking their mounts into a cantor, one word left behind them by the younger.

"Father…"


It's really easy to forget the chaos that comes in large numbers.

The clamor before him was interesting to say the least, but his Earth Sifu would have hated the mess of men's steps mixing with the press of hooves against the dirt.

Bumi sat atop his….unusual mount, a rather large Goat-Hare. Aang sat lower, missing Appa, who easily equaled 'Flopsy's prominence. Damn pregnant ladies and their 'needs'.

'A stable, gentle ride that won't buck!'

Toph hadn't shut up about that one for weeks.

The continued thoughts of Toph twisted painfully in his gut. If he'd gotten attacked, there was only the slimmest possibility that she hadn't.

Zuko had sent a response at once, disclosing all the information necessary to unite Bumi's and Hakoda's forces, but with none of the personal inflection Katara would've added, nor the half-wit jokes of Sokka, even though it followed a code that would have been meaningless to their enemy. In fact, though the script was informative, there was a snide undertone that proved the Firelord was not just a bit smug about who he got to hold at night.

Confirmed, Sifu is hiding in a hole. Date at the riverbed, My Father in law and Uncle's Pai Sho buddies. Don't make a big ruckus at your party.

The one you're jealous of.

Or perhaps the ending line made it all too clear…

Aang shook his head. He hadn't been able to stop the comparison between himself and Katara's husband. He really wasn't accustomed to the insecurity that came from a threat to his interests.

He hadn't been near to Katara during the 'Jet' phase, and he'd been overjoyed that he'd been one of the few trusted males that were allowed within her affection after it.

But Zuko was above Aang himself, perhaps not in power, for it was he who was the avatar, but his solemn drive and his intensity seemed to make Katara incapable of resisting.

The Firelord was powerful without the arrogance of Jet, and wise without the philosophy of his uncle. He clearly cared for Katara, who was in appearance only too happy to reciprocate. It was Zuko whose child she carried, and Zuko she curled into at night.

That knowledge didn't hurt with the precise sting of a blade into flesh, but with a throbbing ache that reminded him of a burn.

Aang shuddered to himself in recollection of the time he'd followed Sokka's unnecessary (though not entirely unwanted) advice on the efforts of romancing. Toph had nearly split the floor with the force of her laughter when he'd entered breakfast with his chest out and his voice pushed so deep it cracked as he spoke.

Toph was forever laughing it seemed, ready to point out observations at other's expense, but too proud to turn the same wit upon herself.

Aang sighed. It was nearly terrifying to think that not only the woman he loved was in jeopardy, but so was his greatest mentor.

Bumi snorted, rather closer to his ear than Aang expected.

He let out a unmanly yelp and tried to glare at the chuckling elder, but it was impossible. It was hard to take Bumi in offense when he couldn't even take himself seriously.

The old king softened at the little sigh from his companion.

"Worry not, little arrowhead. Appa will see you soon." Bumi smiled and snorted again at his own thoughts.

"And the little master, too."

Aang blushed to down to his neck at Bumi's insinuation. The old coot adored Toph in all her disdain, and had done everything he could to foster a match between his pupil and his fellow master.

Aang shook his head at him, and Bumi only laughed all the more.

A dull echo of sound broke through, making the King of Omashu desist immediately, his ear cocked outrageously far from his head to catch the far off clamor.

Aang titled his large ears forth as well as a horn blasted through the carrying stillness of the wood. The shouts of men were loud despite the distance.

"I think we have a date to meet, Master Nomad."

Aang smiled and flashed Bumi a smile.

Finally.

Something he could do.

Bumi winked at him before squeezing Flopsy's sides with his eerily strong legs.

"Who makes the best rum, men?" He shouted to the multitude, which at once reacted with delight and speed.

Bumi chuckled as the unquestioned reply shot back at him;

"Gran Gran!"

Aang laughed loudly as the men broke their places in record time to march forward. Kanna was known for her strong brews, huskier than nomad wine, and slicker than the burn of Fire Nation liquor.

Bumi winked once more, then charged forward, his enormous hat held in front of him like a scepter.

"To the fair Lady, then, men!"

Aang shook his head.

Bumi's men could not be matched for enthusiasm, and were only bested in respect for their leader by Hakoda's own men.

But Bumi had always had the charm to encourage the best work. The old king snorted wildly, followed by rows of horses, ostriches, and footmen.

Aang clicked his heels firmly into the sides of his beast, watching the distance growing between himself and Bumi's teal plumage.

"He really is a mad genius."


Katara stirred beneath the light coverlet, her eyes fluttering and clenching from the ray of sun that crossed directly upon them.

Suki watched her from a shadowed corner, surprised. She wasn't supposed to have awakened for hours to come. Surely even if she did awake now, disorientation would be the word of the day.

Katara stretched an arm to her side, brow furrowing as parchment slid against her hands where the head of her husband should have rested. Blue eyes snapped open in surprise. The recent past had left her constantly wary, and she lurched upright quickly, putting a hand to her skull as it pounded.

Suki noted the grimace upon the Fire Lady's face, waiting to see if Katara would notice her.

She didn't seem to, staring in shock at the small sheaf of paper. She laid her hand upon the bed. It sat cold beneath her touch.

At once she sprang forth from the bed, the note clutched in her fist.

"I," she said, gritting her teeth, "am going to SLAUGHTER HIM!"

It was fairly obvious why he wasn't with her to cuddle. If he had just been training he wouldn't have bothered with a note. Wise Firelord he may yet be, subtleness was a talent beyond his scope.

She angrily tore into the note, which had been folded once and bound with a simple seal, surprisingly not the official seal of his office. It was only a simple mask set against a wax of deep blue, small swords crossed beneath the mask.

Katara, already set in her mind to kill the father of her child (if he survived), failed to catch Suki's gaze, who watched her closely for any signs of confusion or fatigue.

Katara,

By now I am most likely on the way back to greet you. I beg your forgiveness, but I feel no need to explain my reasons, as you know them well. Please stay, rest. I shall hold you tonight if you permit and use every talent at my disposal to win your forgiveness. Pardon me, my lady, but I want to be able to watch our son's first steps. And to do so is to protect you, his mother.

I…am sorry.

She slumped against her seat.

Katara had thought he might….but….

Her brow furrowed in bewilderment as she scanned the passage again. 'By now I am…on the way back.'

She switched her gaze to the window, where weak, yellow light skipped in with the grey light of after-dawn. Even if Zuko trudged out late last night, he wouldn't have been able to get her brother to forgo sleep. So he must have left only two or so hours ago, long enough for cold sheets, but still accommodating to the telling light of day.

"How do you feel?"

Katara jumped as the unnoticed figure in the shadowed corner came forward. Suki's face was unpainted, her robes a dark grey rather than the deep green she normally sported.

Suki didn't smile as she might have on a different day.

"I'm fine," Katara murmured suspiciously. Her husband's replacement being Suki made her the slightest best out of sorts.

"That's…good." Suki said haltingly, as if truly having to think about the implications of the Fire Lady's health.

Katara nodded, then when a nice breeze came through an open window and brushed chillingly across her chest, she realized she was nude.

Katara gasped and Suki finally cracked a smile, laughing slighty at Katara's beet red face.

"Right t-then," Katara stammered, "Did you need anything in particular?"

Suki shook her head, smirking, "Not at all." She crossed over to the foot of the large bed, seating herself upon the mattress with grace that Katara envied.

"Busy night?" Suki questioned, an eyebrow raised. She only started laughing again when Katara's blush went past scarlet, and she buried her head into a pillow atop her knees.

After Katara had taken a few deep breaths, and Suki had stopped laughing, the Fire Lady poked her head up from the pillow.

"Suki," she began, "Where is my husband?"

The Kyoshi Warrior flinched.

"Surely you know," she said weakly, waving her hand at the note resting beside Katara's knees.

Katara smiled grimly.

"True, but I need to know how far along he is, and," she continued when Suki's eyes wouldn't meet hers, "why you seemed so surprised that I woke."

Suki shifted uneasily.

"Well…you weren't supposed to have awoken yet."

Katara's brow furrowed in some confusion.

"I've always woken an hour or so after dawn."

Suki shrugged.

"Suki, what is going on?" she demanded.

"Zuko wanted to make sure you slept well."

Katara tried to catch her eyes in question, but her eyes were snagged by a discreet clay pot sitting atop a stool near the door.

It hadn't been there before.

Katara stared at her in horror. "He drugged me?"

Suki flinched, then outstretched her hands pleadingly when Katara began to tremble, hands on her stomach. "He only wanted you to be safe."

Katara slapped her hand away.

"Do you know what he could've done?" she shouted, panicked tears in her eyes. "Our child is in enough danger without needing to be born stillborn!"

Suki looked shocked. "He said he checked."

"With who?" Katara demanded. Navy doctors were hardly experts in pregnancy!

"The doctors of course."

Katara almost started sobbing right then, adrenaline and hormones terrifying her thoughts of the babe.

"And with your grandmother."

Her head snapped up from glaring at the pot.

"Really?" She hardly dared breathe. Gran Gran had been the village midwife for over forty years, she wouldn't have let Zuko give Katara anything dangerous; she most likely would've scalped him for suggesting it.

"Truly." Suki gave her a cautious smile, wary of the sudden turn in temperament.

"Alright then," Katara said simply. "That's fine."

Suki nodded, anxious to have Katara appeased. A master waterbender was a foolish thing to anger aboard a ship in a harbor.

Of course, even if there was no harm to the babe within her womb, didn't mean she wasn't angry. That man wouldn't be sharing her bed for a very long time.

Katara nodded violently to herself and cast her memory back, trying to recall an opportunity her husband might've had to drug her.

"How did he…?" Katara spoke aloud, not really expecting a response.

"Tea." Suki provided nonchantly inspecting her fans. Katara stood and retrieved a robe, placing around herself tightly.

Then she frowned.

"I didn't drink any t-"

A whistling sound, high and sharp cut her off, before an explosion rocked the boat. Suki flung herself at Katara pressing her against the soft bed.

The smell of smoke rank in the air.

Suki jumped up, already pulling Katara toward the window and the relative safety of the harbor.

Katara pulled away. "NO!"

Suki hissed at her and snatched the back of her robe. "Come on!"

But Katara tore away, racing to the door. Suki groaned and followed her. Zuko would destroy her if Katara got hurt.

Katara pounded up the stairs as fast as she could, ducking beneath smoke and listening to the somewhat distant sound of catcalls and jeers. She turned into a door a floor above her room.

Appa was stamping his feet in terror, nostrils and eyes wide. Katara held her hand out and approached his side slowly, well out of reach of his legs.

"Hush," she cooed, grasping his mane in her fingers gently. The enormous steed swiveled his head to stare at her and she stroked his forelock.

"Calm down, boy." Katara continued to stroke him until Suki burst through the door.

"They're coming aboard! We need to get off, NOW!"

Katara clicked to Appa to follow her as Suki wound her way back to Katara's room. It had the biggest window, after all.

Suki smashed it with a few forceful slashes of her fan. She turned to Katara. "Let's go."

Katara nodded, glancing around her room quickly. She snatched her water pouch as a last thought. Appa whinnied at the window, spurning her to go faster. His stronger senses felt the heat surrounding them, and the smoke was getting far too thick to breathe.

Suki pulled Appa straight out the window, where he began to kick his powerful legs to stay afloat. Katara brought herself down with a wave, wary for the baby.

She turned to look at her father's vessel.

Men were clamoring upon the deck, snatching things that pleased them and laughing when barrels of rum exploded. Katara reacted immediately as she saw them head toward the side of the ship where they floated.

Pushing her hands outward quickly, she brought them together over her head to form an air pocket before she pulled them down together, bring the pocket underwater. Appa snorted at a fish that wandered to close to their sanctuary.

They made it to the shore farther north that way, hidden by a tight cluster of trees.

Katara watched the smoke curl and rise to hand above the trees like a disease. Suki shook her head sadly.

Katara turned to Appa and the Kyoshi Warrior.

"He said," she began and had to stop to cough. "That she couldn't be expecting us."

Suki nodded. "True, but she would've expected him, Zuko said so himself. But he had to get here by ship. They've probably been watching the harbor for weeks."

"Then why," Katara murmured, "Wouldn't they have attacked before? We were docked for hours."

Suki looked pensive for a moment before her eyes darkened.

"They would've waited for a report to bring to Azula."

Katara tensed then nodded in agreement. "Zuko said she'd want to destroy him herself." Suki sighed but quickly snapped her gaze to the woman clamoring atop of Appa.

"Where are you going?"

Katara gave her a pointed look.

"If Azula knows our forces, then she'll be expecting my father. And Zuko."

Suki caught Katara's leg in her hand. "She can't possibly know about Bumi, though. You have to give them a chance."

Katara glared at her. "I'd never thought I'd see the day when a Kyoshi Warrior stayed away from battle like a homely little wife."

Kicking in her heels after pulling her leg from a stunned Suki, Katara urged Appa into a gallop. The hard riding shouldn't harm the child yet, as her stomach was barely showing.

She steered the massive beast into the direction Zuko had planned to ride with her master, refusing to glance back at Suki. Her father would be fine; he was a seasoned warrior and a tactical genius. Her husband was rash and foolish.

'Besides,' Katara thought, 'Azula isn't out for Father's head.'

The sounds of battle thundered in the distance.


Zuko idly stared at his reflection in the quickly paced stream.

It had taken two hours of hard riding up the foothills to find the river's mouth. Thankfully, Katara's master had quickly found a tributary to follow. After that it was a mere matter of staying by the stream.

He was alone now.

Pakku had forced all the water down the river bed. The root route of the water was now a massive, dry ditch. They had split to search a separate tributary each. As powerful as the old man was, Zuko wasn't terribly disappointed by his leaving. He was a pompous, arrogant, old ass.

The Fire Lord had chosen to stay in the hills, taking a small stream that led West once more toward the coast. If he found nothing, he would double back and begin anew.

Pakku had expressed a feverish obsession to make his way back to Hakoda's host, and thus, Kanna.

Zuko only wished he could assure himself of his beloved's safety.

He immediately shook himself of such thoughts. He had given her the tea, and she had taken it to the bath with her to drink. She wouldn't wake till the next day, in the deep, darkest part of morning.

Zuko's eyes scoured the surrounding forest and occasionally the ground, checking for tracks, signs of human habitation or other such clues.

The foothills were becoming steeper as the stream wove through them. Soon, his mount would be useless. Birds were still in the autumn trees, without the flurried movement of their usual activity.

The stream curved along in the near distance, making it impossible to see where it led after the next twenty five yards. Still the Firelord kept to, more cautiously now.

He slowed to a walk, descending from his steed silently. The horse flicked its ears and paced to the stream for a drink.

Zuko followed the horse's stead and bent over, cupping a handful to his mouth. He had a water pouch, but why waste its supply when the soothing drink was freely available?

As he greedily swallowed the cold water, a flash of bright blue snapped at his vision, winking at him from under the edge of a stone in the stream.

The Firelord leaned forward to pluck it out, nearly losing the small, slippery object.

A small shard of crystal sat in his palm. It gleamed with the sunlight, but it had lost the glow that had first caught his attention.

Zuko raised his head, standing with his palm outstretched.

Crystals were particularly common in and around caves. It wouldn't have surprised him if the stream he'd been following went underground at some point.

Clicking his tongue softly, Zuko led his horse towards the bend in the water, tensing the entire way. He prepared himself to fight and defend in an instant, one hand on the sheath of his twin dao; the other rose for faster bending.

The blind spot approached until, just before the bend, the Fire Lord tensed and sprung.

A twinkling creek ran across the ground above a cave in the side of the mountain.

"Well, well. We should end this quickly. Far be it from me to detain the Fire Lord."


"You know you really should try to be subtle."

Toph smirked. "Whatever for?"

She turned her face back to her two guards, lying in a huddled mass and cuffed in rather….awkward positions by stone enforcements.

"They knew this was coming."

Ty Lee shook her head before snatching Toph's wrist and grabbing onto the rope that raised and lowered their assailants into their lofty prison.

The rope snapped quickly through the pulley, unaccustomed to the weight of two at once.

Their descent was silent, the forest around them almost eerily still.

Then Toph's ears pricked at the twang of a taught bow.

"DROP!"

An arrow sliced through the rope where Ty Lee's hand had been naught two seconds before Toph pulled her hands away.

Ty Lee landed perfectly on her feet while Toph slammed into the ground, creating a crater that sent aftershocks rushing through the tangled roots of the forest.

Several more arrows were released, but with a swift upward thrust of her hand, Toph brought a wall to catch the wooden shafts.

Ty Lee kicked off easily from the trunk of a tree to gain altitude and swing to the branch where a solemn-face archer sat.

He pulled a dagger quickly from his belt, but the acrobat ducked his thrust and jabbed once to the arm that held the dagger and then to his solar plexus, winding the teen, who made no sound of complaint, nor expression at all.

Ty Lee giggled as the boy's arms fell to his side before she pinned his dagger through his shirt to the tree.

Toph had her hands to the forest floor when Ty Lee touched the ground once more.

"What is it?"

"Hush," Toph whispered harshly.

Ty Lee watched her intently for a moment, before executing a handstand, her attention lost as she sought to observe the Blind Bandit through a more…interesting perspective.

Toph swore, before standing, fists clenched.

"He can't take care of himself for even a day of two!"

Ty Lee watched Toph's nostrils flare in frustration. "Who? Sokka?"

Toph gave her an odd look.

"No."

She faced west, a frown ripped across her lips. Harsh vibrations pounded through the earth, a result of animals fleeing…something.

"Skirt."

Ty Lee flipped over again.

"Hmm?"

"Is there smoke coming from the east?"

Ty Lee turned sharply, sucking in a painful breath.

"Azula."

Toph shook her head.

"There's someone else, too. A lot of someones."

Ty Lee watched Toph carefully.

"West then?"

Toph nodded once before sliding one foot behind the other.

"Can you keep pace with me?"

The littlest Bei Fong did not wait for an answer before pushing her feet back and forth, hands following the motion. The earth slid to her movements, carrying her quickly forward.

Ty Lee stared aghast. It really was difficult to imagine this one the girl that all called 'sightless'.

Shrugging to herself, she failed to notice the sound of horses approaching from the south.


Sokka urged his steed faster, breaking toward the echoing sounds of battle.

Piandao kept pace with him admirably, dodging trees that Sokka barely brushed past, caught in a daze of his own concern.

His father had rode straight west, above their position in a perpendicular direction. Normally Sokka's concern would have been nagging, but he would've held his place. But an overwhelming since of dread had settled on his head.

"Sokka stop!"

Piandao reached forward and jerked the reigns of Sokka's mount, causing the horse to veer left dangerously. Sokka glared at him.

Piandao glared back before pointing above the trees.

It was then that Sokka noticed the acidic smell of smoke that wafted upon the breeze.

"Damn it all!"

"Sokka," Piandao began firmly. "Your father is surrounded by some of the most able fighters the world has to offer. Think clearly lad! What will happen to your friend in enemy hands if they fear the tide of battle will not follow their favor?"

Sokka glared at him, smelling the smoke and waging with his reason and his instincts.

Piandao did not budge, tethering the horse's reigns in a tight grip.

"She can't bend, lad. She's surrounded by enemies. Your father has the avatar close at hand. She needs you."

Sokka swore once before nodding and Piandao grinned and released him.

"North then."


A.N: Thoughts? Please Review