(A\N: FINALLY! Haha, sorry for the fact that this is so late. It's been halfway finished for a while now and sitting in my documents folder…but I finally managed to finish it! I hope you guys like it. :D)


Chapter 2

An Old Friend


From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me --
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring....
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
...Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.

--Li Bai

"Thanks." Azula muttered as the woman placed the tray of food down in front of her. The nurse smiled brightly, pleased with Azula's reaction, before she stood.

"If you continue like this, Azula, soon you will be able to go outside for small periods of time! Won't that be exciting?" The nurse cooed.

"Oh yes. That would be." Azula smiled tightly, trying not to let sarcasm come through in her voice. The nurse left and the smile dropped from Azula's face to be replaced with a sneer. Damn woman. Who does she think she's talking to?

She merely picked up a piece of bread from the tray and bit into it savagely, eyes narrowed.

Why must I sit here and wait?

Patience, child.

I should not be here. I am the rightful Fire Lord!

In the end…you will be much more than that.

Azula couldn't help but give a sadistic grin. Indeed. When she was finished with all of these pathetic traitors, when she had exacted her plan…she would have everything. The title of Fire Lord was such a small thing now.

But she wouldn't make the same mistake as her father did. She wouldn't openly attack. No…she had to plan these things out, whittle down her enemies until they were horribly weakened. And then she would strike. Her attack would be swift and merciless. All that opposed her would die and she would rule and—

Let us think more of the plans than the outcome.

Yes, Azula nodded to herself, grabbing an orange from the bowl and peeling it absentmindedly. After I escape…who should I kill first?

All she heard was the voice's hollow, malicious laughter.

It does not matter. In the end…they will all die.

Azula grinned.


My friend said goodbye leaving the west from Yellow Crane Tower.
In the patterned mist of the third month, he goes down to Yangzhou.

His lone sail is an image far on the limit of jade green air.
I sense only the Long River's flow, interfacing sky.

-Li Bai

The air was cool as the Southern Water Tribe ship sailed out of their Fire Nation port. Sokka stood at the bow of the ship, eyes closed as he breathed in the scent of the salt air. He had always loved the smell of the ocean. It was in his blood, after all. The Water Tribe always felt more at home on the water than anywhere else.

A soft wind whipped around him, blowing a few wayward hairs from his warrior's mane into his face. One got beneath his nose, tickling it. He sneezed, before pushing the offending lock of hair away.

They had just finished with the Council of the Four Nations the night before, and Sokka hadn't gotten much sleep.

He supposed he should be sleeping right now, but he always found it hard to sleep when he was out at sea. There was too much to do during the sparse hours of daylight. Ropes to be tied off, decks to be swabbed…yes, they had very little time to do it all in.

And Sokka loved helping. While his status permitted him to remain in the cabin and help the captain plan the ship's coordinates, he preferred to remain on deck and help.

He could think better on deck. The air was crisp, and it cleared his mind. He listened to the water lap the edges of the boat as they sliced through it swiftly in their vessel. The sound was soothing, and he closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the railing.

The ocean was truly an amazing entity. The Water Tribe thought of it as a living creature, and Sokka couldn't see how it could be otherwise. It held many emotions, and they changed quickly, but she was also a fair and just creature, whatever she was. One had to respect the ocean, and in doing so, survive upon it. No one could tame it, and those who tried were claimed without so much as a second thought by the wrathful thing that was the living waters they traveled.

Water itself had always been important to his tribe. Some great seers were said to have once been able to see things in crystalline pools. But those were old stories, told to little children before bed. If it had indeed once been possible, the knowledge and ability was lost now. Their blood was thin and weak. There were few enough water-benders left in the world. No one was expecting a seer, even if they believed the old tales.

The Water Tribe had been the wisest, always keeping a clear head, like the water they controlled. But they had also been the least of all. Always they'd had a smaller number of benders than the other nations. The harsh climate was not for everyone, but the Water Tribe flourished in it. But they were few.

And they were growing fewer still.

Now that the lands were at peace, many Water Tribe civilians were turning towards the other nations. They saw promising futures there. No more snow and ice and praying and hoping to survive another winter without starving or freezing to death. They took no pride in being Water Tribe, only in getting away from what they believed to be their chosen hell. It had been better than being in a Fire Nation prison. That's what they said, anyway.

It was the reason his father was trying so hard to rebuild the South Pole. If he could restore it to its former glory, the Water Tribe would grow and prosper. People would see that it was a great and noble land, and that being a member of the Tribe was an honor, not a hindrance.

But few people shared his father's views. Only the elders continued to follow the old ways and traditions. The younger generation was seeing this time as that of opportunity. They wanted to become merchants, or shop owners, or some other job that would get them money, and quickly.

They didn't want to be held back by tradition. They didn't come to ceremonies. They did not view them as sacred, nor honor the passage into adulthood or anything that the Water Tribe had previously revered.

It was a saddening sight.

They did not wish to become warriors. Warriors were needed to fight. There was no need for battles any longer. At his new school, he had thought he would have swarms of children waiting at the gate, ready to become great sword masters.

He had two students.

What was the point in fighting? The others said. Do you want another war?

But he knew another reason for his lack of pupils…was that their parents were afraid. They had seen war and death. They knew what happened to warriors when they were called upon and needed. They remembered the dangerous tasks that must be undergone to be considered a true Water Tribe warrior.

Strong men died in those trials…and now that there was a chance for peace, no parent wanted to risk their children's happiness or safety over something that was quickly becoming less of an honor and more of an abhorrence. Warriors were merely a sign of what had once been. War. Bloodshed. Death.

No one wanted reminders of such things.

Sokka gave a small sigh, before feeling a soft gust of wind upon his face. He opened his eyes, almost allowing a smile to curl at his lips. The wind had been soft, like a caress…like Suki's fingers. If she had been there with him, she would have brushed her fingers against his cheek like that, and told him that everything would be fine. To be a warrior was a great honor, she would explain.

But Suki was not with him. She was back on Kyoshi island training a new set of Kyoshi warriors. The people of that land still seemed to want to continue their traditions. But even there it was becoming harder to find willing pupils.

They'd become so desperate that the Kyoshi warriors were letting men join their ranks. In his younger years, Sokka would have been worried about that. He would have fussed and wrote to Suki daily, silently wondering if she had fallen for one of the male warriors. Were they more handsome than him? Better fighters? But he knew that he loved Suki and that she loved him. He trusted her, and that thought, at least, gave him peace in these troubling times.

I wish you were here, sister, he thought silently, looking out to the horizon. The sun was beginning to set, tinting the sky pink. You always knew just what to do.


It is almost as hard for friends to meet
As for the morning and evening stars.
Tonight then is a rare event,
Joining, in the candlelight,
Two men who were young not long ago
But now are turning grey at the temples.
...To find that half our friends are dead
Shocks us, burns our hearts with grief.
We little guessed it would be twenty years
Before I could visit you again.
When I went away, you were still unmarried;
But now these boys and girls in a row
Are very kind to their father's old friend.
They ask me where I have been on my journey;
And then, when we have talked awhile,
They bring and show me wines and dishes,
Spring chives cut in the night-rain
And brown rice cooked freshly a special way.
...My host proclaims it a festival,
He urges me to drink ten cups --
But what ten cups could make me as drunk
As I always am with your love in my heart?
...Tomorrow the mountains will separate us;
After tomorrow-who can say?

--Du Fu

"Don't forget to restock the kitchen with more oolong tea, Cuifen."

"Right!" The chipper young girl practically leapt down the stairs, taking them four or so at a time. She landed at the bottom before whirling around to face the man who had spoken with a grin, "I'll get on it right away, Grandpa Iroh!"

Really, she made him feel so old. Iroh, who truly preferred being called Uncle, gave a small, dejected sigh as he continued up the stairs that Cuifen had just taken by storm. Why on earth he had hired the little street urchin he was still trying to decide. But she had looked so dejected and forlorn, sobbing on his front steps. How could he have not allowed the girl to stay?

Her family had been killed by the Earth Nation after the Fire Nation had called for their peace treaty. Her family had been one of those occupying Omashu. Her father had been one of the governor's bodyguards. And so, when they'd gotten word in the city that the Fire Nation was no longer in control…the people of Omashu had risen up in rebellion. There had been little time to get the governor out safely. Her family had been killed, but she had managed to escape. She'd somehow found her way to Ba Sing Se and, more coincidentally, to the Jasmine Dragon, which was now famous for its tea.

Here she was allowed to start her life anew. If Iroh hadn't seen the way she had acted during the first week she had arrived, he would have never known she had suffered any tragedy. She was spunky, and sometimes spontaneous, and she always wore a smile on her face. She got along well with the other helpers in the teahouse, and Uncle was glad he could help her find her peace here.

Another one of the serving girls, Huidai, walked by and smiled at Iroh before she headed down the stairs, her gate more sedate than Cuifen's. Iroh made it up the stairs to the second floor of the Jasmine Dragon, in which all of the those who worked here lived, if they didn't have a home anywhere else. Many of them had no families, and so they were content to live beneath Iroh's roof. He went to his own room and slid the door open, blinking, as the smell of hot tea drifted towards him.

Ginseng.

He grinned to himself, seeing the steaming pot sitting on a dainty tray at his desk, which held a stack of letters. Cuifen had most likely put the tea there for him, knowing he always did his reading and paperwork in the early evening.

He sat himself down in the chair, looking over the pile of scrolls with disdain. There was still so much paperwork to be done…

Uncle shifted in the chair, trying to get more comfortable. That was slightly impossible, however. He had specifically gotten the chair because it was hard and made him sore all over. That way, there was no chance of him falling asleep in it while doing the paperwork.

He picked up a scroll and noticed that it was from the White Lotus: no doubt an encrypted message telling him of the goings-on of the last council meeting. He had been unable to attend the last get-together of the White Lotus heads due to his…pressing work at the teahouse. Or at least, that's what he had told everyone anyway.

The real reason…had been the sharp pain that shot through his hip anytime he walked for longer than twenty minutes. He had been feeling the pain ever since the last battle at Ba Sing Se. He was ashamed of the injury the way any good warrior is ashamed of their growing age and weaknesses. While a humble man, Iroh still felt the need to hide this weakness. It would be no good for others to worry about him.

And he didn't want their sympathy.

Besides, the herbal remedy that Cuifen had made for him was working wonders. She had caught him limping and hissing in pain a few months earlier and had immediately discerned what was wrong. After being sworn to secrecy on the subject, she'd given him something to put in his tea when the pain started to build. It wasn't strong enough to stop the pain completely—for one, Iroh didn't think that was possible; and two, an herb or drug that strong could lead to dependency, and Iroh would rather deal with the pain than be dependent on something besides his own will.

"Hm. I seem to be getting too old." He mused aloud, only slightly teasing. It was a depressing thought, though he had known it for some time. But the injury, and its slow healing, was showing him just how old he had become. A fire duel at this point in time would kill him, he knew that.

And deep down inside…he really wanted to be known as the Dragon of the West when he died…not as the Former Dragon of the West. That would just be embarrassing. Especially if it was written on his grave…or spoken at his eulogy. Uncle made a face. Truly mortifying.

He gave a small sigh. There was no point in dwelling on something he couldn't change. Everyone grew old and died at some point in time. He had done everything in his life that he had wanted to do. There was no need to worry and fret about it.

He took a sip of his tea, before reaching for a second scroll, deciding he'd read the one from the White Lotus at another time—when he wasn't quite so tired. He blinked, noticing the seal of the Fire Lord on the scroll in his hand. It must have been from Zuko.

He frowned a little, because Zuko rarely sent him anything—he was too busy to send letters to an old man. He broke the wax seal easily, before placing his cup of tea back upon its saucer. Then he unraveled the scroll and read.

Dear Uncle,

I'm sorry I have to make this brief. The doctors say that Azula is becoming mentally stable. She had some kind of fit earlier on in the week and afterwards she seemed to become the same Azula that we both know only…more amiable. I'm not sure what to make of it. I'm asking for your advice on the matter.

Zuko

Uncle stared down at the letter for a few more moments, before swallowing with a thoughtful frown. He then reached for his teacup and picked it up thoughtlessly. As he did so, the sound of breaking china echoed in the small room. The cup split in two, and the now lukewarm tea rushed down his hand and onto the wooden desk.

A sharp pain in his palm told him that a sliver of the china had pierced his hand. He saw red well up with the murky tea, mixing and turning the liquid a rust color. As he began to wordlessly clean up the mess, his face was set in a stony expression, his wise eyes darkened with worry.

Something was about to happen. He was sure of it.

He would have to send Zuko a letter telling him to have Azula watched carefully.


There are sobs when death is the cause of parting;
But life has its partings again and again.
...From the poisonous damps of the southern river
You had sent me not one sign from your exile --
Till you came to me last night in a dream,
Because I am always thinking of you.
I wondered if it were really you,
Venturing so long a journey.
You came to me through the green of a forest,
You disappeared by a shadowy fortress....
Yet out of the midmost mesh of your snare,
How could you lift your wings and use them?
...I woke, and the low moon's glimmer on a rafter
Seemed to be your face, still floating in the air.
...There were waters to cross, they were wild and tossing;
If you fell, there were dragons and rivermonsters.

--Du Fu

The sun was setting in the west, painting the sky in a myriad of orange, pink, and crimson. Small streaks of violet ran through the fire-like colors, brushing against the edges, encompassing it in the darkness of night. It was a beautiful sight, one that Zuko rarely missed. He always made time to come see the sun set.

It was a tradition for him. The sunset reminded him of a Firebender. Brilliant and full of color and fire and passion…but it could be easily quelled by the deep, dark waters. Waterbenders were their worst enemy, their rival, due to this simple fact. The deep indigo was taking control of the lingering sunset tints, like an ocean engulfing a roaring fire.

He felt the soft tug on his sleeve and looked to the side.

"It's been so long since we've just walked around the garden. It's nice." Mai smiled softly as they walked.

"Mm." Zuko nodded, as they passed by the small pond in the middle of the central garden. Mai stopped, looking down at the water, the edges rippling against the reeds.

"Do you remember when Azula tried to shoot an apple off of my head with her firebending?"

Zuko gave a small snort. "I remember. I pushed you into the water to save you."

"I was furious." Mai drawled, continuing to smile. "Ty Lee and Azula had planned it all along. They knew I had a huge crush on you."

Zuko nodded. "Azula enjoyed tormenting me when we were younger."

Mai became quiet, before nodding. "Yeah." And then she started walking towards the pond, until her sandals began to sink into the soft mud around the bank.

"Look, turtle-ducks." Mai crouched down next to the water's edge. She fished something out of her pocket, a piece of bread from their dinner that night. At the sight of the food the little animals crowded around her, quacking as they did so. She looked up at Zuko, her cool gaze inviting. "Come feed them with me."

Zuko shook his head.

"This is how Azula feeds the turtle-ducks!"

SPLASH!

"Zuko!"

Zuko's hand clenched into a fist, as he stared into the water, at the reflection of the sunset upon it. The colors being consumed by darkness…and he heard his mother's soothing voice in the back of his mind.

"Ow! Why would she do that?"

"That's what mom's do when you come between us and our babies!"

Zuko reached out a hand towards the water, brushing along its surface. He watched the ripples disperse, disappearing.

Mother…

Would he ever see her again? It seemed hopeless. But…he couldn't give up hope. He knew that he would find her, one way or another. He had to know…he couldn't live with the uncertainty.

But every file, every lead…led to a dead-end.


A lonely swan from the sea flies,
To alight on puddles it does not deign.
Nesting in the poplar of pearls
It spies and questions green birds twain:
"Don't you fear the threat of slings,
Perched on top of branches so high?
Nice clothes invite pointing fingers,
High climbers god's good will defy.
Bird-hunters will crave me in vain,
For I roam the limitless sky."

--Zhang Jiuling

"Thank you." Katara whispered softly as she took the cup that Junjie handed to her. She had found out the talking monk's name earlier the day before, when he had taken her to a secluded room where she could sleep undisturbed for the remainder of her stay.

"We will begin after you have eaten." Junjie's gravelly voice was strangely comforting. It was strong and wise, but not overbearing. It reminded her of her grandfather, in a way. But this man was sullen and blunt where her grandfather was stubborn and sharp.

Also, he was as dry as a piece of aged parchment.

She enjoyed his company, truly, but there was only so many blank stares that she could take without screaming. At least Shen didn't look at her like she'd grown an extra head when she made an offhanded comment about something.

Not comprehending human speech might have had something to do with that, though…

Katara merely placed her cup of tea down. "I'd like to begin now, if that is alright."

Junjie nodded, and stood. Katara followed behind obediently. She had already changed into a simple pair of loose pants made of hemp and an off-white cotton shirt that she had to tie with her belt to keep from swallowing her whole. The clothing was simple, but it was easy to move in.

Her hair was tied back in a tight braid to keep it from getting in the way, much like how she had worn it when she was young, rather than how she usually wore it now: loose and free flowing, save for the traditional water-tribe bangs. They walked through the silent halls, and even their swift, bare footsteps echoed loudly. She almost winced with each step she took. This place was far too silent for her. But it was relaxing, and so she decided she could bare the silence for a while longer.

Junjie slid open the door to the outside part of the monastery, and she could hear the thunk of a water clock somewhere in the distance, near a small turtle-duck pond. As they stepped out onto the porch, Junjie slipped on a pair of frayed, but sturdy straw sandals. Katara followed suit.

Junjie pulled out a bucket of water from the well and motioned for Katara to do the same. She could only grin as she waterbended the water into the bucket. She suddenly felt much better about her offering to help the monks with their chores as payment for their hospitality. This didn't seem so bad.

In fact, it was going to be a breeze.


Four hours later, Katara felt like stabbing herself in the foot. Or rather, her feet felt like they had been stabbed. Each step she took sent daggers of pain shooting up her legs. She didn't know how much she had walked that day, only that her blisters now had blisters and she was going to need to soak her poor feet in a tub of hot water later that night.

Scratch that, it would take too much energy to get the water and put it in a bucket. Her arms felt like led weights, and her eyelids drooped a bit as she tried to keep from letting out a frustrated groan. When she'd asked Junjie if there was anything that needed to be done…she hadn't thought he'd have so much for her to do.

He had a hidden malicious streak, for all his appearance of a peaceful old monk. She just knew he was off cackling maniacally at her misfortune somewhere.

She merely sighed, picking up the last bucket of water and hefting the yoke over her shoulders. The air was beginning to cool as the afternoon faded into twilight. A small shiver ran down her back, but she welcomed it. She loved the cold, so the usually muggy humidity of the area had been confining to her. She rather enjoyed the feeling of goosebumps running down her arms. It was refreshing.

"Oi." She grunted, stumbling a bit. She managed to right herself, flicking out one hand to bend the water that had begun to splash out of the bucket back in place. She merely righted herself and continued walking up the path towards the Hanging Monastery's cliff gardens.

The small footpath that wound up the cliff-side, right behind the stables, was narrow and jagged. She'd traversed it at least twelve times throughout the day, bringing water to the monks at the top that were tending the plants. This would be her last load before the monks came back down. It would be too dark up there to continue any longer than that.

She managed to keep herself from toppling off the side of the mountain twice, only through sheer survival instinct. The first time she tripped on a rock—which ripped off her toenail rather painfully—and the pain had made her jerk to the left a little too much. The action had caused her to overcompensate and she'd tumbled to the side. She'd managed to grab a hold of a root jutting from the rock wall and righted herself, breathing heavily.

The second time she'd been inwardly cursing the painful throbbing in her toe—and the fact that the blood was oozing out, coating her foot in the sticky red liquid. She was going through her plan to heal it after she finished lugging the water up the path, and had heard the soft call of a bird—she didn't recognize the type, only that it was usually indigenous to the fire nation. She'd leaned forward to try and glimpse it through the thick clouds—and had barely managed to grab onto the ledge as part of it gave way, crumbling beneath her feet.

So now here she was, with only half the water in her buckets as usual, foot still bleeding, looking like she'd just been through hell and back. She sighed softly as she placed the yoke and buckets down in front of the monks, who regarded her with blank stares. She merely bowed to them before turning to begin walking back down the path wearily.

"You have finished, then?"

She turned tiredly to see Junjie standing to her right. How he had gotten there she wasn't quite sure, but she merely gave a curt nod.

"Come." Junjie ordered softly. "It is time for your meal."

Katara could only follow behind him, trying to keep her eyes open, mentally reminding herself to heal her foot and clean up before she began eating.


Katara woke up the next morning more sore than she'd thought possible. She merely stood and stretched, arching her back as she threw her arms over her head, yawning softly. "Mmm…" She opened one eye to look out the window. The blinds had been pulled back to bathe the room in the soft golden glow of the morning sun.

She stood easily, the pain in her toe gone completely. She'd healed it, but the toenail would have to grow back on its own, of course, so she'd wrapped it to keep the new, tender skin from being irritated.

She threw on her usual clothes provided by the monks and began walking out of the sleeping quarters, intent on doing a little early morning practice before she ate and continued with her chores.

She really would have to be leaving soon, though. Staying in one place too long allowed her mind to wander, and when that happened, she could only think of the past, which was something she was desperately trying to forget.

It was easier that way, and she hadn't tried to pretend to be strong enough to deal with that kind of thing.

So she simply walked out onto the soft grass surrounding the stables, feeling the cool mist cling to her as she began a few simple stretches. The mist was so thick it was hard to see more than two feet in front of her, but Katara hardly saw this as an impediment. If she opened her senses enough, she could feel every disruption in the dense, watery, smoke-like curtain. If someone or something moved in the mist, she would know.

She leaned backwards enough so that her fingers touched the dew-covered grass, before forcing her weight onto her hands, locking her arms and pushing herself into a hand-stand. She stayed that way for a moment, taking in a deep breath, before pushing upwards and twisting in mid air, landing nimbly on her feet.

She did a few more arm-loosening exercises, before she decided that it was about time to actually begin waterbending. So she got into the ever-familiar stance, closing her eyes as she did so.

And she listened.

The silence was defeaning, cut through only by the sound of the animals in the stables, and the monks' soft footsteps in the monastery. A bird cawed somewhere in the distance—that same bird from yesterday, wasn't it?—and a few lazy crickets chirped.

Then her eyes flickered open as she felt a shift in the mist. She threw her arms to the side, making a parting motion. The mist in front of her parted immediately, making a clear tunnel in the otherwise murky air.

And she could only blink, staring in surprise at the person walking up the path.

...

...

...

"…Longshot?"


(A\N: Yay Longshot! He's one of my favorite avatar characters, so he's going to be getting lots of love here. XD Don't worry though, he isn't going to be attracted to Katara in any way. There's already enough angst in Katara's life with Zuko and Aang. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the chapter. I'm sorry it took so long to get out to you guys…but my muse hasn't been cooperating at all. I pomise we'll see Toph and Aang in the next chapter. :) Until then…see ya!

Sincerely, Lady Hanaka)