Title: Midsummer Madness
Summary: Katara learns that there are both advantages and drawbacks to being a female water bending master, and pays back a favor to an old friend.
Pairing: Zutara, though there is a bit of Maiko and Kataang at the beginning, so prepare yourself mentally. Steel yourself, my friend!
Beta: MusicIsLove, Sword-On-Fire
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar. If I did it would have been considerably less awesome, but Katara and Zuko would have totally gotten together, so I guess it's a toss up.
Ba Sing Se was finally starting to look like its old self again. The breeze that cut through the buildings was cool, gentle, and smelled of earth. The moon was rising, and Katara could feel it pulling gently on her; it made her whole body tingle.
Katara was frustrated.
She wondered briefly if her brother would be angry if he knew what the moon, his ex-girlfriend, did to her. Not only did it amplify a waterbender's power when full, it also had a rather maddening effect on the women.
And Katara blamed the feelings she has started having, and more importantly, the curious events which followed, fully on the moon.
Chapter 1: Moonstruck
The trouble all started when she got her moon time. It was two months after the comet had flown, the war had been won, and peace had been established. Katara, Aang, Toph, Suki, and Sokka were visiting the Northern Water Tribe to celebrate Kana and Pakku's wedding. The sky was dark as there was a new moon, and a troop of firebenders had sent explosives up into the sky that showered colors in the most beautiful fashion. Pakku's students bent water that had been dyed different colors, and everyone drank a great deal of sea prune and clam wine.
Katara had fallen into bed around the time that the sun had started to rise, and woken up later that day with a horrible hangover. Usually, she showed more discretion when drinking, of the opinion that it wasn't suitable for a fifteen year old. Unfortunately, Sokka had kept refilling her cup, and calling her an penguin chicken if she protested. Anyway, after the third glass, Katara had stopped protesting. It was likely that her brother's hangover was even worse than her own.
Rolling onto her side and sitting up was enough to make the room spin. Katara had to reach out and clutch the fur covered ice slab next to her bed where she usually left her mother's necklace before she slept. The room pitched forward, then back, then after she closed her eyes and breathed for several seconds, dropped back into place.
Not only was her head throbbing with every thump of her heart, her muscles had cramped as well. Gingerly, she placed a hand on her abdomen, wondering at the strange both dull and yet cutting pain that radiated outward, across the planes of her hand and into the cold of the arctic morning. The waterbender decided to visit Yugoda, to see if the healer could bend away some of the discomfort. she Katara had never had a hangover before, and she wasn't sure what was normal.
After an uncomfortable walk to the healer's house and a long wait for the woman to finish her class with the youngsters, Katara finally caught the older woman. The whole time she described her symptoms, Yugoda listened attentively with a twinkle in her eyes that suggested she knew exactly what was wrong. An ungloved hand pressed first to Katara's head, then her parka covered stomach was all the medicine woman needed for a diagnosis.
"Ah, so your body has finally caught up with you!" the old woman congratulated her. "You're becoming a woman. I was actually beginning to worry for about you; all that stress and running about in the warmer countries has turned you into a late bloomer. You're going to notice some interesting changes within your body."
"Yes, yes," Katara said irritably, "I grew up in a tribe full of women, I know what's going to happen. Spirits know they had little else to gossip about." Apparently, what Yugoda called 'stress and running about', Katara called 'saving the world'.
"No, you misunderstand me," the old woman scolded. "You're going to notice some interesting changes in your body, yes, but you are a waterbender as well, and the moon, the water, and womanhood have a very close connection. You will see, your body will react in its own way."
The irritability and discomfort of her combined afflictions had kept Katara in bed until her courses stopped. Much of the time she spent sleeping, or reading through her favorite scrolls, waiting for her body to adjust. Aang came to visit her often, though all she dared tell him was that she felt unwell with a cold. She wasn't sure he even knew about women and their cycles, in fact, it was very likely he did not, and she did not want to be the one to explain it to him.
Luckily, he didn't ask many questions, not because he wasn't concerned, but rather that he knew that she knew what she was doing. He knew her judgment was far better than his own in matters of her body. Instead of fretting, he fussed over her, bringing her hot tea when she wanted it and sitting at the foot of her bed telling her stories when she wanted company.
In the days that followed, Katara had not worried much about Yugoda's warnings until she had woken up at midnight on the day before the full moon with a feeling like her entire body was on fire. She could find no way to get comfortable, and took to pacing back and forth in her room. It felt like her skin wanted to crawl off her muscles, like there was something that kept tugging on her lower stomach. Finally she had to strip down to her tunic and pants, even in the arctic temperatures, and the cold air on her hot skin granted her some relief.
"What's wrong with you?" Suki had watched her boyfriend's sister with interest as she paced about their common room, picking up things and putting them down, and cleaning imaginary dust. Once the clothes started flying, the Kiyoshi warrior decided it was time to intervene. "Aren't you cold?" It had been so frigid some days that applying her makeup was impossible. The moisture in it froze on her skin and then flaked off as it melted.
"I just have a lot of – I don't know – pent up energy."
"Come on Katara, you have been distant since yesterday morning, we have all noticed." Suki grabbed the girl's light blue sleeve and pulled her down onto the pile of furs, wrapping her parka covered arms around her so she couldn't squirm away. "What's bothering you? Did Aang do something stupid? He seemed to be behaving himself last time I looked, but, I've been wrong before." She squeezed. "Come on, out with it!!"
"Maybe you should worry about your boyfriend first!" Katara grumbled, putting on a show of being angry. The cuddling seemed to be helping, even if it was with someone she wasn't attracted to. It seemed the mere closeness of other bodies offered her refuge.
Katara blushed and pressed her face into her gloved hands, laying back on the skins. Quickly she scanned the room for the boys, and Toph, then, finding it empty, decided to share. Suki was one of the most mature of her friends, and the oldest, if anyone had any advice, she would.
"Well, I'm really excited . . ."
"You mean about your new grandfather? We all are, and to think-"
"No," Katara cut her off, motioning for silence, "I'm really, you know, excited."
"What- OH!! Oh . . . Now?"
"Umm, well, that's perfectly normal, everyone feels that way sometimes." Suki stiffened, patted her on the shoulder briefly, and then leaned away. For a minute, things were awkward, then, Suki sighed and leaned back in, whispering with a wicked twinkle in her eye, "You do have a boyfriend, Katara, it doesn't have to be a problem. I could loan you some herbs."
"Really? Wait, I mean, no! Well, I don't know, Aang ... he's just a kid." Katara stood, pacing across the room. Her legs had begun to prickle and itch, making her feel restless. She crossed the room and for the hundredth time, straightened the candles burning on the ledge.
"Do you want to do some drills? It'll be hard in the snow, in our mittens, but we can try."
"Don't bother," Katara winced and touched the back of her head. She had tried that earlier, finding a nice spot to practice near the barracks where the warriors trained. Unfortunately, she had picked a time very near to when the morning lessons ended, and before she had even finished her warm up, she had been engulfed by a horde of first year warriors, who didn't take kindly to women practicing on their play field, and decided the best way to shoo her off would be to start a 'friendly' snowball fight.
"Well," Suki teased, "You could always go visit Haru, we all know he-"
"Toph is a total liar!" Katara whirled around, barely resisting the urge to follow the children's lead and throw a snowball. "I didn't have a thing for him!"
"-had a thing for you," Suki finished, holding up her hands to shield her face, as though she knew what the waterbender was pondering. "He definitely isn't a 'kid', and I'm sure he'd love to do you a favor by helping you out."
"I'm only kidding, Katara."
"Well, I'm not!" It was embarrassing enough having to admit her private feelings, it was humiliation to have them thrown back into her face as thought they were a big joke.
"Oh, you're not." Suki sobered, realizing she was out of line, "Sorry, Katara, I forget not all women come from Kiyoshi Island."
"Hm." Katara rolled her eyes to that, whatever that meant. She wasn't some sort of country peasant who didn't know anything about being a woman. Maybe she wasn't the best informed in the world, but she had been busy!
"Look," Suki put an arm around her shoulder and drew her close, practically whispering in her ear, "You don't need a man, just, you know, take matters into your own hands."
"Thanks for your advice," Katara muttered, sulking as she grabbed her parka and fled the room.
As the night wore on though, crawling slowly into the early hours of the morning, Suki's foolish advice was starting to look more and more tempting. With every breath she could feel the moon pushing and pulling on her nerves as though she was part of the tide. There was only so much a girl could take.
She is right, I have a boyfriend after all, she rationalized, standing and pulling on her overcoat before stealing down the hallway. It wasn't like she planned to do anything to him. If laying next to Suki in the fur helped, laying next to Aang would hopefully let her sleep, and by the time the city rose, it would all seem like a bad dream. It took her only a few moments to reach Aang's room and let herself in. It was sparse, as the Avatar didn't have much need for worldly possessions. He was curled up on top of several woolen blankets and a tarp, with many more drawn up over him. He shunned the traditional furs that everyone else slept among, and Katara had not pressed him. She had a feeling he used firebending to keep himself warm.
She stole over to the bed, and she reached down to shake one of the more prominent lumps in the blanket. "Aang, wake up and shove over!" she ordered, pulling her coat off and adding it to the top of the pile protecting them. Momo, who had been invisible in the darkness, chattered at the sudden weight dropped on him and scrambled off the bed, looking for a place to hide.
"Hi Katara!" Aang smiled, then frowned, "Is there something wrong? What time is it? What are you doing here?"
"Nothing's wrong Aang, I'm just cold, now shove over!" Luckily, he moved without further inquisition, and she climbed into the bed, wrapping her arms around his smaller frame, and propped herself up on her elbows over him.
"So, why are you here?" he tried again, now that her immediate need for warmth had been filled.
For answer, Katara leaned down and pressed her lips to his. Aang submitted to the kiss for several long moments, even opening his mouth to her, but when Katara began running her hand down his side, he caught it and moved them back to his shoulder.
"Katara what are you doing?" He looked at her anxiously, scooting an inch out from under her.
"What do you mean, what am I doing?" She stared at him through the hazy darkness, trying to figure out if the question was literal or rhetorical. Could he really not know what came after kissing? He must know a little right? Sokka must have pulled him aside and talked to him about it, right?
"I . . ." Aang blushed and looked around the room, his mouth opening and closing helplessly.
"Aang, I want, I mean, we, as in, you and I, er..." She trailed off, looking into his face and seeing a nervous thirteen year old, and she immediately felt guilty. What kind of pervert was she, sneaking into a child monk's room in the middle of the night for a few stolen caresses? She knew better. "...I mean, we should cuddle a little bit or something, I couldn't sleep,"
"Oh." Aang looked relieved, and excited, and cuddled up under her chin, a big goofy grin on his lips, "Alright then." Cuddling he understood. He cuddled with Appa all the time. Katara put her arm around the boy. He felt small in her arms, having only recently started puberty, and although his voice cracked now and then, he had not hit his growth spurt yet. On the other hand, Katara had been growing the past few months, and those few inches she had on Aang had doubled, not to mention that her chest and hips had filled out nicely, though they were nowhere near finished.
It was making it hard to find him attractive, she realized. She loved him, she truly did, but sometimes she felt like she wasn't in love with him. He didn't do to her body what Jet had, and it frustrated her. He had been a great friend to her for the year and a half they had known each other, and she wanted to feel chemistry with him. She wanted the thought of him to make her body throb instead of a fluke of the moon triggering it in her and forcing her to his room. Sighing softly, she put her head down on the pillow. Having another body in her bed was a little help, and she relaxed as sleep finally found her, but her frustration was quickly turning to anger.
That morning, when the Gang had gathered together in the common rooms, they planned to figure out their next steps. Toph had sprawled herself out onto one of the larger seats, her feet resting where a person's head traditionally went. Sokka sat across from her, Suki leaning against him, one gloved hand resting on his thigh. Although she tried not to, Katara couldn't help but steal glances at them, feeling jealous. She had no cause to be, they were diplomatic with their affections in public, so as not to make anyone, uncomfortable. It was probably mostly for Toph's benefit, who everyone knew was still nursing a crush on Sokka.
Aang, who was seated next to her, kept glancing at her then following her gaze to her brother and his girlfriend. He nudged her softly with his elbow, then when she looked at him, raised his eyebrows in a question. Katara shook her head and looked away, now was not the time or place to discuss the things their relationship lacked.
"I'm going back to Omashu!" declared Toph, petting Momo where he curled up on her stomach, "King Bumi wanted to try to learn the metalbending technique from me, and he offered to teach me facial bending."
"The Northern Water Tribe is sending a few ships of waterbenders to the South Pole to help rebuild," Sokka announced. "Suki 'n me were going to ride with them as far as Kiyoshi Island and stay there for a little while until she picks a new head of the Kiyoshi Warriors, to take over for a few months, then we're going to follow them, and help with the rebuilding." Sokka gave a shrug, as though he didn't really want to be back at the South Pole. "You could ride with us and we'll make a stop on the way in Omashu."
"Ride in a boat? That sounds slightly more awful than riding on Appa. You should come, Twinkle Toes. He said Jeong Jeong, that crazy firebender guy from the White Lotus, is staying with him for now. You could finish mastering earth and fire since Sparky is too busy to teach you anymore."
"Are you saying that because you want me to come or because you get seasick?" Aang asked, smiling. Then, it was Katara's turn to nudge him, Toph probably didn't want to ride with Sokka. She knew that it was an exercise in futility keeping up hope for him.
"It can be both," Toph told him defensively.
Suki smiled, "I think after all this excitement, Hakoda wants to retire early and make you chief, Sokka" she teased, leaning in and rubbing noses.
"What about you, Katara?" Aang asked. "You're going to come with me to Omashu, right?"
Katara shook her head, pulling a hand written letter from her pack and unfolding it on the table for all capable of seeing to read. "The Earth King requested that a group of water benders go to Ba Sing Se. He wants to formalize some treaties and he said something about draining Lake Laogai and flooding the prisons beneath. Chief Arnook requested I go with them to represent the Southern Water Tribe."
"Why didn't he ask me?!" Sokka asked, affronted, then suddenly added, "Wait, never mind." Arnook had not taken to Suki, none of the Tribesmen had. The chief however, was especially offended, perhaps because he felt Sokka should mourn his daughter longer.
Aang looked torn. "Maybe I should go to Ba Sing Se too," he mused. He looked up at her, and saw she was once again sneaking a look at Suki and Sokka. He frowned, trying to figure out what was so interesting, she seemed to be looking at Suki's hand, so, Aang tentatively raised his own and placed it on her knee. The gesture made her jump several inches in the air, as though she had forgotten he was sitting next to her.
"I don't think you have to." Sokka grinned and gave Aang a friendly slap on his back. "Katara knows what she's doing. She can handle a few stuffy council meetings and such, she's done it before."
Aang looked doubtful, but before he could protest further Toph cut in, "Besides, these three get a ship to chauffer them. You need to loan me Appa."
"You can borrow him," Aang said absently. He was too engrossed in the horror of spending several long weeks without Katara, even if she had been acting oddly lately.
"Umm, hello?" Toph waved her hand in front of her own sightless eyes, "I can't steer him, I don't know the way to Omashu unless I'm in the Earth Kingdom with my feet on the ground!"
"Alright, alright!" Aang caved. "You, me, Appa and Momo will go to Omashu!"
Aang and Toph left that afternoon, as Toph was eager to get back to her homeland. Suki, Sokka and Katara stayed for a few more days, waiting for their respective ships to organize, and to help Kana and Pakku pack. Food needed to be inventoried, weight calculated, staff hired, and equipment mended on board. On land, Pakku had to pack up his few belongings from the barracks and, with the help of several of his students, supposedly volunteers, haul everything down to the harbor.
Even with the commotion, in what felt like no time at all, Katara found herself on the high Seas with Chief Arnook and twenty men, half warriors and half benders. She spent most of her time on the stern, bending the water to make the ship move faster on its course to Chameleon Bay.
"Oi Katara, won't you give us a lesson?" one of the sailors called teasingly, they had gotten more and more bold as the days wore on. It was easy to see how the snowball wielding youngsters could mature into such bawdy teenagers. They seemed to care little for her rank and accomplishments, unable to see past her gender.
"Hajar! You're not even a waterbender!" another scolded the first; they were both on their knees scrubbing the floor of the deck.
"I never said a lesson in bending," the first retorted in a way that made the other dissolve into chuckles. He muttered something else, too quiet for her to hear, and another round of sniggering soon followed. Katara felt her cheeks flush, and she dropped her stance and turned her back on the men. Somehow, this seemed only to rile them further.
"I got something that needs a good bending!" another laughed, walking over with a fresh bucket of rain water. He was the heaviest of the bunch, and the brashest.
"Caubvic, she is a Master Bender, you have to talk to her on your hands and knees like we are," the first one informed the newcomer.
"Right! Apologies, Master Bender, I have been a bad cabin boy! Please, give me a severe tongue lashing!" The last dropped to his knees with the other two, making a big show of being embarrassed.
Katara rolled her eyes; more and more men of the Water Tribes had been flirting with her lately, if it could even be called flirting. It was more like a never ending stream of catcalls, probably because she was the only woman on board the ship.
"You made her angry! She'll use the water whip on us for sure, I-"
"Back to your work, men!" Arnook barked, suddenly emerging from below deck. The boys wasted no time in finding dirt on the deck to scrub, and, they did not look up again. "They're just teasing you because you're old enough to marry. Boys will be boys."
He didn't seem annoyed that their behavior was offending her, but rather that it was keeping them from their chores. Katara pressed her lips together, unsure of why the father of a daughter was so oblivious to his own sexism, but, she brushed it aside. Like he said, boys would be boys.
"I won't be sixteen for several months."
Arnook shrugged, "Eh, sixteen is a guideline, you're on the market, just not up for anything official. So, are you planning to marry that young Avatar? Everyone knows that you two are quite fond of each other."
That stopped Katara short.
Would I marry Aang? she thought. He's a kid, he is way too young to get married.
"I don't know," she said, frowning. "No. At least, not for a long time."
"Really? Hakoda has mentioned that he hopes you do, he seems pretty convinced you will." Arnook suddenly became interested, and Katara had the feeling he was running down a list of names in his head of all the young men he could betroth her to up north to forge a strong relationship between the sister tribes.
Katara looked out over the water, "Well," she said a few moments later, "after all that has happened, I don't think I would be happy just settling down and having kids right away." As soon as the words were out of her mouth she realized that they were true. When Aunt Wu had told her her fortune, she had been excited by the prospect of having kids and a family, but now that she had seen and done so much, she wasn't sure anymore. Things were no longer simple.
"Well, if you do end up on the market, I know some very well bred warriors that would pay a hefty bride price for you." So he had been laying plans out. It was a little unnerving he was so nonchalant about it.
"Thank you, Chief Arnook, I will keep that in mind," Katara replied curtly. She had never really got used to the gender roles in the north. Arnook had a very specific idea of what was politically correct for Katara to do, and choosing her own husband was not necessarily one of them.
Zuko was listening carefully to the testimony of one of his father's generals who was rumored to have wiped out several Earth Kingdom towns on a mad rampage because someone had stolen his favorite komodo rhino. The man had pleaded his case and was escorted out with several guards, and Zuko and Mai sat alone together. He was carefully rereading the testimony of a witness when he felt a soft jab in his ribs. Normally, it wouldn't have bothered him, but with his still healing chest, it felt like a kick from a soldier, and made him grunt and drop his papers. One scroll unraveled and fled away across the floor, the lower half and rod disappearing into the dais fire where it was instantly consumed.
"When is this going to be over?" Mai complained to him, staring at the ceiling, her usual expression of disinterest playing across her features.
"Mai, I'm trying to read the witness reports!" he hissed back, hoping the roar of the fire along the dais covered his voice. He doubted it, the acoustics of the room made even the slightest whisper ring in everyone's ears like a shout.
"We all know he did it. Just throw him in the dungeon for fifty years, problem solved." Mai stood up, stretching her legs, which had cramped from kneeling for an extended period of time. It had felt like weeks since she and Zuko had actually spent time together in a setting that didn't qualify as 'work', and she was anxious to get out. Zuko stood up as well and pressed a hand into the small of her back, guiding her off the dais and into the shadow of one of the columns. Mai resisted just enough to remind him that she was stronger than him and that she was only letting him do it because she felt like it. The scar was still healing and since it was dead in the center of his chest, he had been unable to keep up his firebending during the time it took to heal, and had lost much of his former strength.
"Mai! You can't just sentence someone to imprisonment! Even if he is a murderer!" Zuko glanced at the guards posted at intervals along his throne room. "We have to present a united front. Many of the governors are still loyal to my father, and I need their support."
"I don't see why I even have to be here. It's so boring, and you never ask for my help!" Although she had never particularly liked it when Zuko lavished his awkward affections on her, now, she was finding she rather missed them. More than that though, she felt like an ornament in his public life. He didn't give her the responsibilities of a Fire Lady or the attention of a sweetheart, and it hurt. She felt – what was the word that the earthbender girl would use? Shafted. She felt shafted.
"Well," Zuko pinched his nose in frustration, "I thought as my girlfriend, you would be interested in my life and what I do as Fire Lord! I thought you wanted to be with me no matter what I was doing!" Mai wasn't happy, but she would never outright tell him what the problem was. She was too well trained by her aristocratic mother. All she did was sit quietly in public, then withdraw in private.
"That's not true." Mai turned her back to him to gaze at one of the tapestries on the wall, her voice never showing any emotion. Zuko didn't say anything, he waited for her to counter, but, she said nothing.
"Mai, what is making you unhappy?! How can I fix it if you never show or tell me how you feel! Please? Give me something to go on!" He knew that relationships with partners that couldn't communicate with one another always failed, and it stung. He knew that opening up didn't come easy for Mai, that it was so ingrained in her to be a proper lady and do as she was told, but he felt that if she didn't explain herself to him soon, he would go mad from guessing.
She gave her standard answer: "Nothing."
"Look, I'm sorry you've been bored, but as my girlfriend and as the future Fire Lady you have certain obligations." He placed a hand on her cheek, trying to convey how serious he was about her. He wanted to let her know he had every intention of marrying her. Apparently it was the wrong thing to say, as usual.
"All you ever care about is your people!" she said, then bowed her head. I'm your equal, she wanted to scream, I know as much as you! In the time you were banished and wandering I studied economics, protocol, law, honor, and society! Unfortunately, her mother's reproving voice in her head was stronger. "May I be dismissed now, Fire Lord?"
They had not even fought, and yet, she felt defeated.
"Spirits damn you, Father!" Zuko yelled, kicking the curved steel toe of his boot into the bars of the cell. "Where is she?"
"Bring me silk pillows and a concubine, Prince Zuko, and then perhaps I'll tell you." Ozai grinned, stroking his long beard. It had grown longer and more patchy as time wore on. Incarcerated as he was, he had relaxed his personal hygiene regimen.
"It's Fire Lord Zuko, and the last concubine I brought you, you almost strangled." Zuko seethed, his patience running thin. First he had tried giving Ozai everything he asked for, then nothing at all. He supposed it was technically possible to torture his father for the information, but, he knew he could not issue such an order. It would make him into something dark and twisted like his sister.
"Fetch me a roasted chicken pig with glazed potato roots," the broken man demanded from where he reclined on the floor. "I've had nothing to eat but bread and water for days."
"No!" Zuko crossed his arms. "Now tell me where my mother is."
"I summon my daughter, where is she? Fetch my daughter, Prince Zuko. She is the one child of mine who still walks with honor; we have both scarred the unworthy Prince."
"Again Father, It's Fire Lord Zuko, and Azula didn't mean to scar me." The young man dropped to a crouch to be on level with his father, "She was trying to hit something that would cause me much, much more pain than simply my heart."
"What was that?" Ozai looked up, interested, "How did it happen?" The gleam of interest in his gold eyes betrayed him. It was the in Zuko had been waiting for.
"Tell me where my mother is and I will tell you about our Agni Kai!" he bargained.
"More pain than your mere heart? Did she try to geld you?" Ozai laughed cruelly at the idea. Zuko was somewhat less amused at the possibility of losing one of his favorite appendages.
"Shut up!" Zuko knew his threats were empty, "I'll have you flogged for insolence."
"Why don't you have me beaten? Would you like that? To see your father chained and whipped? Make you feel more like a man? Pathetic little boy!" Ozai leaned in close, nose to nose with his son. Had he been able to bend, Zuko knew his father would have decapitated him then and there with a breath of fire.
"Very well then, have it your way." he turned and stalked out, not giving his father the satisfaction of taunting him more. The wretch of a man knew that as long as he knew where his mother was, he had the upper hand, and the Zuko wouldn't hurt him. The Fire Lord paused at the doorway as he always did and looked back. Ozai had already turned his back to his son and faced the wall.
It took several minutes for the young man to escape the confines of the Prison. He didn't like keeping his father so close, but, had decided it was better for him to be near, where he could keep an eye on him, than at the Boiling Rock far from the palace. At least, not until the reports of rebel factions died away.
He slipped into the veiled carriage waiting, a guard and his steward already seated. Immediately, his steward began reading him a letter of complaint from the governor of the North Peninsula territory while the guard remained alert, hand on his sword. The Governer seemed to be displeased with the influx of retired soldiers settling in his area and demanded more funds from the treasury. Zuko had received four other nearly identical letters from the Western Archipelago's governor, the Southern Peninsula's governess, the Eastern Coast's governor, and the Earth Kingdom ambassador. Opportunists, all of them.
Zuko held up his hand for silence. "When we arrive at the castle, tell the engineers to ready an air balloon. I am going to visit my uncle."
"Are you sure that's wise?" his steward, Malu questioned. He would never contradict the Fire Lord directly, but would give him ample opportunity to change his mind. "We still have to set a new budget for the Army, Navy, and Special factions, not to mention that you wanted to begin hearing cases from the prisoners from the Boiling Rock so you could sort out the menaces to society from those who opposed your father."
Zuko sat silently for a long time, most of the way back to the city grounds, warring with himself. His desperation for family, however, won out in the end. Most of his work was tedious paper pushing and budget meetings, things that would be argued about for weeks before a resolution was reached.
Somehow, things always felt more productive when he was a child and his father was on the throne.
"Very good, Chief Arnook, and what of the Southern Tribe, Katara?"
"Well," Katara said, "fewer than a hundred men survived the war, and there are only a handful of women and children. So far we have had twelve elderly refugees, all benders, trickle in from the Fire Nation prisons, but still not enough of a population to begin exporting goods and establishing trade routes."
"We are hoping some of my tribe from the north might move to the sister city in the south as well." Arnook added. It was true that many were interested. Pakku had moved there, and, those of his pupils who were dedicated benders planned to follow him.
The king mused it over. "Very well, as a thank you for your help restoring my throne, I will personally finance a vessel to bring goods monthly to the South Pole for one year. After that, we will reconvene and decide what our next move should be. What are your village's greatest necessities?"
Katara sat back and thought about it, it had been a long time. "Wood, medicines, thread, vegetables if they'll last in the cold, I could make you a list," she offered.
"Make sure to include estimates of quantities," the King said. "We'll reconvene tomorrow morning at tenth hour, shall we say?"
"That's fine," Arnook said, and Katara nodded in agreement.
Humming to herself softly, Katara walked along the cobblestones of the Upper Ring towards the Jasmine Dragon. She had a pen, paper, and a bottle of ink in her satchel, and used her free hand to tug her skirts up off the ground. If she had known it would be this muddy, she would have changed into her more comfortable traveling clothes. It took her about half an hour to make the trip from the palace to the shop in the ridiculously ornate slippers with high wooden soles, and by the time she reached it, the sun was high and she was hot and sweating.
"Katara! Welcome!" Iroh called from where he was sweeping the stairs, "I heard tales that a beautiful Water Tribe woman had washed ashore, I should have known instantly it was you. Come in, come in, I have a new creation brewing, and I would love for you to try it for me!"
Katara grinned, "Really? I'd love to, Iroh!" she walked up the steps and peered inside, "Not as busy as it usually is," she remarked at the empty chairs. One pair of older men played pai sho in the corner, while a third man scrawled onto a parchment
"Ah well, it is a bit hot today for tea, I'm sure when it cools off in the evening, I will get more company," Iroh said in his usual cheerful tone, "Now come in!" He showed her in and pulled out a chair for her in a cool corner of the shop. The breeze came in through the east facing window, bringing with it the smell of flowers from the garden.
"I'm sad to see my favorite scarred waiter isn't here today," Katara joked as Iroh brought her a napkin, mug, and sweets.
"Ah yes, he is busy at his new job. I have been thinking of hiring a replacement." When she reached for her purse, he waved her off, turning serious, "You cannot be serious, after all you have done for my nephew?"
After that, disappeared for several minutes, then returned with a steaming pot. Gingerly, he poured the liquid into her mug, and as he prepared the drink, he told her about it. "I got this beautiful recipe from a wonderful lady in the southwest. I had to wade through the Foggy Swamp to get a lot of the ingredients- oh! Don't worry, it does not taste like swamp water."
"What is it called?"
"I have not named it yet, perhaps as my tester, you would do me the honor of selecting one?" Iroh poured again, this time into his own cup.
Taking a tentative sip, Katara let the flavors settle on her tongue. "It's good, I might want a dash of honey in mine . . . ."
"I'm glad you like it, it's a fine mix of herbs..."
Katara took another sip.
"...mostly rumored aphrodisiacs."
Katara suddenly succumbed to a coughing fit, and she felt Iroh pull the mug from her fingers so she wouldn't scald herself with the liquid it contained. He patted her gently on the back, waiting for her to catch her breath.
"I wanted something romantic that one could order on a date. Don't worry!" Iroh smiled reassuringly, "you haven't drunk enough of it to feel any effects! I just wanted a taste test."
"Well, it's not just that," Katara started, then thought better of it. Whatever weird fluctuations of desire she felt were due to the moon, her courses, and her bending. To think one sip of tea would defeat her was silly.
"Very well, you think of a name, do your writing, and I will bring you another pot of tea. What would you like?"
"Ginseng, please," Katara ordered as she unfolded her paper and opened her bottle.
"Ah! My favorite!!" ...
Thank you all so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed the chapter! I never thought that this story would become as popular as it has.
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