Thanks to PurseMonger and her amazing Beta reader skills!
AtLA is not mine. I intend no infringement with this story.
Two months. Two months had passed since the last time he had seen her. Since the last time he had spoken to her, since he had heard her voice, heard her laugh, since he had been in her calming presence.
Two months had passed since Zuko returned to the Fire Nation and during those two months he had been unable to forget about her…
The woman he loved.
Zuko closed his eyes and let out a long sigh as the sound of the turtle-ducks quacking in the serene pond in the middle of his private garden reached his ears along with the sound of the rustling leaves from the various trees that surrounded the place. The last few cherry blossoms fell from the almost bare tree he was sitting under and danced their way to the ground, but he barely acknowledged them as they landed on the grass or on his lap.
The young Fire Lord had thought that by being away from the waterbender his feelings for her would stop or at least lessen as time went by, but it was not so. Instead his fervent feelings for her seemed to have increased the more time he spent away from her.
Again, he thought that perhaps he had always had feelings for Katara, maybe not love exactly, but feelings nonetheless. He spent a long time remembering every single moment he had had with Katara since the first day he had laid eyes on her face four years ago, including all the various times she had come across his path in his search for the Avatar.
He recalled suppressing the heat that had wanted to surface on his face when Jun, the bounty hunter, had insinuated that the beautiful, exotic-looking Water Tribe maiden was his girlfriend. He also remembered how he instinctively had steadied Katara when Jun's shirshu had skidded to a stop, placing a hand on her back so she would not have fallen and hurt herself. He was sure he would not have done something like that for anyone else at that time.
He also remembered how he had 'rescued' her from the pirates, how surprised he was at receiving a small shock when his hands had touched the soft skin of her small wrists. He remembered the sight of her tied up in that tree as he circled her, speaking to her in a smooth and almost seductive tone. He would be lying if he said he did not have some naughty dreams about the tree incident long after it happened.
Another thing he remembered was the thrill that went through him as she fought him in the Spirit Oasis in the Northern Water Tribe with her blazing, blue eyes and confident smirk. That was when he admitted he had found a match in his bending skills. He had felt a bit guilty when he had knocked her out and left her all alone after grabbing the unresponsive Avatar. Something he had not felt for a long time.
Then there was the time under the Crystal Catacombs of Ba Sing Se where he had felt guilt, sorrow, and understanding when Katara had told him she had lost her mother because of the Fire Nation, which then resulted in his confession that he had also lost his own mother.
At that instant, Zuko now knew that he had to have developed some kind of connection or feelings for the waterbender in order for him to reveal such a personal thing, which also explained why he had gone through all the trouble of helping her deal with her mother's murderer.
His feelings for her also explained why he jumped in front of Azula's lightning bolt to save Katara without hesitation. Even though he hadn't admitted to himself, he must have subconsciously known how he felt about her. Even then, he valued her safety over his own. Her life over his. It was a choice he never regretted, even as he was laying there, twitching and writhing in pain. He remembered clearly how his heart had beat so quickly when she put her soft healing hands over his wound. At the time he thought it was just adrenaline from the fight, but now he knew it was more, his heart had raced from her gentle touch.
And now he could not get Katara out of his head. Her image accompanied him everywhere, and as much as he tried to stop thinking about her, he just couldn't.
She was there when he woke up, when he looked through his paperwork, when he attended his meetings, when he practiced his firebending, when he talked with his mother, Jee, or Chao, when he retired to his room and fell asleep. And she was also there when he dreamt. And oh, how wonderful was the dream he had the previous night! Even thinking about it made his blood boil and his loins burn! He had been so painfully aroused that he had to take care of his state himself. Again. Self-gratification was something he rarely ever indulged in, because he thought he had more control over his body than that, but it seemed it was becoming a frequent thing since Katara came back into his life.
Zuko opened his eyes and scowled halfheartedly at the pond and at the innocent, little turtle-ducks that swarm near him.
He did not know what to do and he honestly felt pathetic, sighing over a girl like a lovesick kitten-puppy! He did not like it one bit, but there was nothing he could do about it, and a part of him admitted that he would not change it for anything.
'You know what I mean, right?' Sokka's question resurfaced in his mind once again, as it had ever since he had left Ba Sing Se. 'You feel sad and depressed when you're away from your loved one even for a few minutes, that you feel that you'd die if you don't see her face? You know what I'm talking about, right?'
It seemed that Sokka was not exaggerating after all, because he felt just as the warrior had said. Well, maybe not the dying part, but Zuko did feel depressed, saddened, and miserable not being in Katara's presence or looking upon her beautiful face, and there was this strange pain in his chest that would not go away.
The turtle-ducklings quacked at him and swam in circles near the edge of the pond as they waited for a treat, but after the man sitting under the cherry blossom tree presented no food, the little creatures swam away with disappointed quacks.
Unable to suppress the sigh that escaped him, Zuko rose from his place under the shade of the cherry blossom tree. With one last glance at the pond, the young lord began to walk morosely back inside the palace to finish on the paperwork he had been reading before his mind began to wander on Katara, causing him to leave his study. He hardly acknowledged the servants that bowed to him as he passed them by on his way to his study.
"Ah, I see that the Young One also needs his breaks," Wei's annoying voice reached Zuko's ears just as he was about to enter his study. "What is the matter? Is your work too complicated?" Wei asked worriedly, though the smug tone in his voice belied his concerned question.
Zuko gritted his teeth as he resisted the urge to punch a hole on the door in front of him. He was in no mood to deal with the smug, old advisor. Wei had been even more irritating ever since Zuko came back to the Fire Nation that even the other advisors were getting annoyed.
Straightening his shoulders, Zuko turned around and regarded his hated advisor with an emotionless expression.
"Is there something you need, Wei? I have other important things to look into than listen to your taunting," he said coolly.
Wei put on a hurtful expression as he raised a hand to the left side of his chest.
"Fire Lord Zuko, I do no such thing!" he exclaimed.
Zuko was unable to stop the unconvinced snort that escaped him.
A grin appeared on Wei's wrinkled face.
"I met your mother a couple of weeks ago as we passed each other in the hallway. Princess Ursa is such a nice and wonderful woman. I wonder how it was that she was said to have been dead."
Zuko narrowed his eyes at the curious look on Wei's pasty face.
"It's a long story that I have no time to recount at the moment," he replied warily.
"Yes, I'm sure," Wei responded and grinned again. "I do wonder why Admiral Jee seems to be hovering over her, though. Perhaps there is something going on between them?"
Zuko mentally frowned at the insinuation. He did not like having his mother used against him, even if it was just a taunt.
"Of course not," the young lord replied imperturbably. "I placed Admiral Jee to keep her company and safe while I'm not around and until I find her another guard. I guess you could say I'm being overprotective since I have only recently been reunited with her," he said with a shrug.
"Of course, that sounds reasonable," Wei remarked with a nod.
Zuko narrowed his eyes at the older man again.
"Now, if you'll excuse me I have important documents to go through." The young man went inside his study and closed the door behind him before Wei could respond.
Gods, how he disliked that man! He had a hard time enduring the irritating advisor's presence without breaking his neck. Wei always gave him a bad feeling.
Hmm…? Maybe I should keep a closer eye on Wei, Zuko thought, I will also tell Jee to keep him away from Mother.
Sitting heavily on his cushioned chair, Zuko began to sort the huge stack of papers on his large desk. Luckily, the Fire Nation was running smoothly and no problems had arisen since his return. The Fire Nation was doing well due to the new trade agreement with Ba Sing Se and he was pleased when King Kuei sent him word that his city, most importantly the Lower Ring, was thriving because of the trade and the tourists that had flooded to the city of walls.
Leaning back in his chair, Zuko looked up at the ceiling and frowned. He had begun to wonder if perhaps he overreacted to the anonymous letter he received two months ago. There had been no signs of an attempted breakout of Ozai, but it was best to always be on guard just in case.
He opened another letter and sighed when he realized it was from Mai, telling him that she was not going to attend Sokka and Suki's wedding in the Southern Water Tribe because she wanted to spend more time with her family. Zuko had a strong feeling the truth was that she just did not want to go since she really did not like his friends and because she never liked the cold weather. He sighed guiltily when he read the part where she wrote that she missed him and loved him, anticipating the day they would see each other again for his birthday.
Placing the letter on another stack of papers, Zuko opened one of the drawers from his desk to retrieve his ink and brush when a rolled up scroll tied with a dark blue ribbon caught his attention. Forgetting the writing instruments for the moment, the firebender grabbed the scroll and unfurled it, placing another small paper that was inside to the side, and read once again.
It was the official invitation for Sokka and Suki's wedding inviting the Fire Lord and his honored mother to celebrate the marriage ceremony in the Southern Water Tribe that was to take place a few months from now. Zuko picked up the other small piece of paper that came with the scroll, and inwardly chuckled at Sokka's words.
I placed this note without Suki noticing, but can you be a pal and bring me some of those addicting fire flakes with you? Thanks, Lord Hotman!
There was a small picture at the bottom of the piece of paper that Zuko was half certain was Sokka's attempt of a face eating the spicy treats. Zuko grinned at the warrior's drawing; he had always been a horrible artist. Setting both letters aside, Zuko reclined in his chair and looked out the window.
In just a few weeks, he and Ursa, along with Jee, Jiao, and his personal guards will leave the Fire Nation and travel to the Southern Water Tribe to attend his friends' wedding. He had not been to the South Pole since almost six years ago and the circumstances of his first visit had not been pleasant at all. He was a bit uneasy at the thought of what the tribes people would feel at having the lord to the nation that had caused them so much suffering, and the one who had once invaded their home, step into their city.
He guessed it was time that he paid them a visit so they could see he had changed and was different. But most importantly, in just a few weeks he would see her again.
He was both excited and apprehensive at the thought. How would he react to her now that he knew what his true feelings for her were? He was unsure he would be able to handle seeing her with Aang and he did not know if he could even act like he did not love her. Act like he only saw her as his friend.
Gods! Why was life so damn difficult?
He wondered if perhaps he should send a letter to Sokka saying he could not attend the wedding with some excuse about problems within his country, but he quickly dismissed the thought. He was no coward and he promised Sokka and Suki he would be there when they took their vows.
Besides, a part of him wished—wanted, no needed to see Katara again. Nothing would stop him from seeing her once more. Not even the pain that appeared in his chest when he told himself that she could never be his.
Aang frowned and resisted the urge to blow a puff of air of annoyance when Katara did not respond to his had been staring distractedly at the piece of blue fabric in her hands that was supposed to be a part of the decorations for the wedded couple's table for a while. It was the fourth time it had happened that day and he was seriously getting tired of it.
He and Toph had arrived from Omashu a couple of weeks ago in order to help with the wedding preparations—well, he helped, while Toph stayed in the chief's house and lounged around. Ty Lee had hitched a ride with them because she wanted to attend her captain's wedding and since Mai had refused to attend she was happy for the company.
Aang had been anxious to see his girlfriend again. Two months were two months too long. Katara had greeted him happily, but he was able to detect something was off by the way she acted around him. Even though they had spent a lot of time together, she seemed distant. He did not know what was going on, but he reasoned she was stressed with teaching the children waterbending and helping with the wedding arrangements that had her acting oddly. At least, he hoped that was the reason.
Katara's eyes would become unfocused and dazed, then she would sigh loudly with a large smile on her face before a blush would stain her cheeks, and he again would wonder what was going on.
"Katara?" he called again, this time shaking her arm gently.
"Huh? What?" the waterbender said and blinked. Katara's eyes refocused and she noticed that Aang was frowning at her.
Flushing guiltily, she smiled at him as she apologized.
"Sorry, Aang," she said, "I was a bit distracted. What did you say?"
The airbender's frown deepened as he repeated his previous question.
"I was asking if you need any help with setting up the canopy."
Katara looked at the cloth in her hands and then at the ice poles above the table where the married couple was to sit for the feast after the wedding ceremony. The celebration was to be held outside under the blue sky and warm sun—that is if there were no clouds that day.
Four long ice poles rose from the frozen ground and converged in the center with a sparkling ice chandelier hanging in the middle. She had created it after seeing one in the Earth King's palace. Two long pieces of jade-colored and one dark-blue cloth swung from the ice crystal chandelier, each piece twirling down three ice poles. One pole was still bare and she was currently holding the blue cloth that was supposed to decorate it.
"Oh, uh…yes, I guess I do need help with this one," she answered with a smile as she passed the fabric to the young monk. "I'd appreciate it if you helped me."
Aang readily returned the smile as he took the offered cloth and stepped up next to the unfurnished pole, unable to resist her beautiful smile.
As Aang propelled himself upwards with airbending, twirling the blue piece of fabric as he descended, Katara's smile vanished and she looked away guiltily. She had not even noticed his presence or that he had been addressing her as she held the silky cloth in her hands.
Though the material was nothing compared to it, she could not help but be reminded of the silky, smooth feeling of the red covering on Zuko's large bed at his palace, his handkerchief, and the warm cloak Zuko had draped over her shoulders to keep her safe from the chilly air.
A wistful sigh escaped her lips as she twirled a piece of her hair around her finger.
Everywhere she looked there was something or another that made her think about the golden-eyed firebender. Ever since they went their separate ways in Ba Sing Se, Zuko had been constantly on her mind and she would completely space out for minutes at a time, wondering what he was doing and if he missed her as much as she missed him. She was really getting annoyed at her brain for distracting her all the time, making her family and friends question her sanity.
When Aang came back, she tried to pay more attention to him and spend more time with him, taking walks around the city and going penguin sledding, wanting to reconnect with him. She tried to keep thoughts about Zuko and her confusing feelings for him away, honestly she did. But just when she thought she succeeded she would find herself thinking about him again without even realizing it until Aang would call out to her.
'I hope you think really hard about what you truly feel for the young airbender…' her Gran-Gran's words floated in her mind.
Did her grandmother mean to imply that what she felt for her boyfriend of four years was not love? Was she trying to tell her that Aang and she were not meant to be?
Katara mentally shook her head. No, that couldn't be. Aunt Wu predicted that Aang was the powerful bender she was to marry. It was her destiny, wasn't it? They were supposed to be together, right?
Besides, Aang was sure to be good husband. He was so sweet, kind, and peaceful.
Yeah, those are nice qualities, but what about fierce and passionate? her subconscious decided to put in its two cents.
Yeah, those would be nice, too, Katara sighed dreamily.
I can think of someone who has those two qualities in abundance, the little voice continued.
Hm, me too, Katara thought dazedly as she became distracted with thoughts about a certain handsome firebender whose strong, pale body glistened with perspiration as his golden eyes burned with passionate intensity every time he used his firebending.
Her eyes becoming glassy, she replayed the dream she had two nights ago that woke her up with a racing heart, heavy breathing, and an unfamiliar throbbing between her legs...
Cool, soft snow descended from the heavens, dancing its way down to the white landscape below. Instead of being an ominous gray, the heavy clouds were blindingly white and glowed from the light the sun wanted to pass through. A soft wind blew by, but instead of being cold, it was warm.
Katara smiled as she twirled around in circles as the snowflakes danced around her form and embedded themselves in her hair. She had no clue why she was outside the city walls and alone, but it felt so peaceful that she found herself not caring.
She flopped down onto her back and was surprised to find that the snow was very soft and comfortable. Katara closed her eyes as the gentle snowflakes landed on her cheeks before she felt something heavy settle over her body.
Eyes flying open in alarm, Katara tried to sit up and figure out what was going on, but found herself pressed into the soft snow by a large, warm hand.
"Relax, Katara," a familiar masculine voice whispered softly. "It's just me."
"Z-Zuko? Wha…?" was her intelligent reply as her eyes settled on his burning golden gaze that rendered her unable to move, much less think.
Zuko chuckled softly as he brought a hand up to her cheek before he lowered it to run it slowly down her arm, making Katara gasp softly. Lowering his head, Zuko touched her forehead with his lips and then he kissed both her cheeks before he pulled away with a gentle smile on his face that caused Katara's heart to stutter.
Without another word, Zuko brought his hand up to her shoulder, down her side, sliding it painstaking slow to her waist before he settled it on her hip. Katara realized that the clothes she was wearing was not her usual winter wear since the fabric was thin, allowing her to feel Zuko's warm caresses.
Katara shivered at his touch and she let out an almost inaudible moan before a loud gasp fell from her lips as she felt Zuko's hand travel even further down her thigh then past her knee.
Her breath quickened, her skin began get hot, and a blush appeared on her face as Zuko's hand did not stop and was now making its way back up her thigh as he once again pressed his lips to her cheek. She knew she should tell him to stop what he was doing and get off of her, but her mouth refused to say the words and her body refused to push him away from her.
"Katara," she heard him whisper in a deep tone before she felt him place a kiss on the side of her neck, making her let out another soft moan.
She gasped when his hand did not take its previous path up to her hip to her shoulder, and instead, it lingered on her thigh before he began to trail his fingers inward…
The now familiar, but still strange feeling in her lower stomach brought Katara to an abrupt mental stop. A violent blush burned her cheeks that were once cold due to the wintry weather.
Stop it! Katara scolded herself harshly. I shouldn't be thinking about that!
Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how one looked at it—it was just a dream and ended where it did.
Katara looked up as Aang landed lightly on the ground and began to secure the ends of the cloth into a bow. Guilt began to eat at her insides and she had to fight down the urge to run somewhere far away so she did not have to look at Aang's loving and oblivious face.
Aang loves me. Zuko...does not.
That thought sent an unexpected shot of pain to her heart and she winced. The happy mood she had since the morning changed drastically and she had a hard time putting on a smile when Aang grinned at her as he made his way to where she was standing.
"How does it look?" Aang asked cheerfully as he gestured toward his decoration.
"It looks wonderful, Aang," Katara replied, even though it looked the same as the other three pieces of cloth. She had to look away as the feeling of guilt intensified to the point that she actually cringed when he smiled happily at her.
Aang beamed at what he thought was her praising him before he blushed as he rubbed the back of his neck.
"Um… Katara? Can I ask you something?" he began and nervously shuffled his feet on the white snow.
"Sure, Aang," she replied as she pretended to examine their work in order to avoid his eyes. "What is it?"
Aang cleared his throat as he nervously began to stammer.
"I-I just wanted to know…Katara, w-will you m-marr—"
"Katara!" Sokka's anxious voice startled them and they both turned to see the waterbender's brother waving frantically in their direction.
"Katara, hurry up!" Sokka yelled as he gestured for her to run. "Suki's getting pains again and she wants you to help her with your creepy-magical-water-thingy!"
Katara sighed at her brother's words, but let it slide since she knew he was just panicking because Suki was a few weeks away from giving birth. Turning back to Aang, she gave him a small smile.
"Sorry, Aang, but pregnant women get first priority." She grinned. "We'll talk later."
The young Avatar forced a smile and nodded for her to go attend their friend. He watched as she flashed him one last smile before she raced to her distressed older brother who grabbed her hand and practically dragged her to their home where Suki was currently resting.
Aang sighed loudly and ran a hand over his shaved head. He reached one hand into the pocket of his parka and pulled out a necklace he had purchased in a jewelry shop while they were visiting the Fire Nation. It was a gold chain with a topaz gem hanging from a golden string at the center. He stared at the necklace as it glimmered softly under the weak sun for a moment before he closed his hand over it.
Zuko did not know why he woke up in the middle of the night, and he listened intently for any sign that could indicate why. The only sounds that reached his keen ears were the splashing of the waves against his flagship and the low howling of the wind. When he realized he was the only one in his cabin, his body relaxed and he turned onto his back, staring at the dark metal ceiling above his head.
Knowing he would not be able to return to sleep any time soon, the young man rose from his bed and put on a thick robe before making his way to the door. Zuko slowly walked down the silent metal corridors, passing his mother's cabin, then Jee's quarters, before he climbed the stairs that lead him up onto the deck of his flagship. A cold wind bit his face and he shivered slightly before he raised his body temperature slightly and blew warm air into his hands.
They were nearing the Southern Water Tribe and the temperature had dropped drastically. All the crewmembers—except for the navigator and a few guards—were below deck and away from the cold wind and freezing water. Though firebenders could use their inner fire to raise their body temperature, the cold climate was still uncomfortable and they preferred to avoid it.
Just a few more days and they would be entering the wintry southern nation. He wondered how much had changed since the last time he was there, though he had to admit he barely noticed it since he was too busy trying to capture Aang at that time. Katara had told him that Chief Arnook had sent some waterbenders to aid in the reconstruction of their sister tribe and now the city was flourishing. He remembered the way Katara's sapphire eyes would sparkle as she described her beloved home to him and he found himself imagining the ice city with its soft, blue radiance and clean water canals as he listened to her sweet voice. He was curious to finally see the renewed place where Katara had been born and now lived.
But not as much as you wish to see her, right? a voice inside his head piped in.
Zuko sighed and looked up at the night sky dotted with millions of bright stars, admitting the truth with his silence.
Would this need of seeing Katara and being near her ever go away? He hoped it did for he did not know how he would be able to survive when they had to go their separate ways in life; when he had to return to his duties in the Fire Nation while she stayed in the Southern Water Tribe or married and left with Aang.
Jealousy began to spread through him and his hands clenched at his sides as the feeling clawed at his chest. Yes, he admitted it. He was jealous and he could not stop the ugly feeling even if he wanted to. The knowledge that one day Katara would want to start a family with her long-time boyfriend ate at him.
Zuko gritted his teeth so hard that his jaw hurt at the thought that one day Aang would be touching his Katara in an intimate way. Making love to his woman in the way he desired to do with his whole being! With a low growl, Zuko shot a ball of fire at the quiet night sky before it disappeared as it reached the colder air above.
Yes, his Katara! His, damn it!
Two more blasts of fire were shot toward the sea as Zuko raged, his face contorted into a ferocious snarl.
He wanted to be the one to bring Katara much pleasure in the ways of the flesh, to share with her their love and carnal lust as they lost themselves in passionate bliss! But more, he needed her, he wanted her by his side, and he wanted to make her happy! He loved her! And he was not going to lose her without a fight!
Zuko's eyes widened at what he had just thought before his enraged face changed into a contemplative expression. Another chilly wind surrounded him, but he hardly noticed it as he became lost in thought.
He knew Aang loved her ever since he first saw her, but four years had passed since their relationship began and Aang had not made a move to propose to her. Sure, it was understandable since Aang was still young, but he could at least have told her about his future intentions to marry her, right?
A small smile appeared on Zuko's thoughtful face as he pivoted on his heels and began to make his way back to his warm cabin. His footsteps were light and silent even with his heavy boots on thanks to his time sneaking around as the Blue Spirit.
Since Aang had not made a claim on her, so to speak, then that meant Zuko had a chance with Katara. A chance to make her see that he loved her and wanted her as his wife. He was positive she would not agree to it at first, but he would not give up until she at least thought about it. If by some miracle she ever reciprocated his feelings and said yes then he would ask Chief Hakoda for her hand in marriage in that same instant.
A small frown marred Zuko's features as he entered his room and closed the door behind him. He knew he should break up with Mai first and let her know that they could not be together any longer, but he had no choice but to tell her when they saw each other again in the Fire Nation.
Throwing his robe on the back of his chair, Zuko made his way to his bed and sat down with a sigh. Taking his boots off, he lay back and pulled his warm covers over his body.
A deeper feeling of guilt ate at him at the thought that he would be in a way stealing Katara from Aang, but it did not deter him from changing his mind. Aang was his friend and he really did not want to hurt him, but like they say:
All is fair in love and war.
The Southern Water Tribe was bustling with excitement as the last details for the wedding were finished. Everyone was busy greeting the people that had been invited and were arriving from different parts of the world. Chief Arnook arrived in a beautiful and graceful ship and was welcomed exuberantly into the city. At first, Sokka had felt awkward at having the father of Yue, his first love, attend his wedding, but the chieftain had been affable and Suki, the love of his life, had been understanding.
Another ship containing villagers and warriors of Kyoshi Island arrived two weeks earlier and Suki was immediately surrounded by her beloved warriors and friends. King Bumi had sent a letter apologizing that he was unable to attend the wedding since the cold weather was not so good for his health, but he did send large amounts of sugar crystals as a gift for the couple. Haru had also sent a letter with congratulations, excusing himself from the event since he was still busy teaching earthbending in the Fire Nation colonies.
Chief Hakoda's grand home was filled with endless chatter as the important visitors took residence in the guest rooms. Kanna, Katara, and a few other women were kept busy as they accommodated the guests and prepared the meals.
The tribes people had been surprised, and a bit wary, when the Dragon of the West arrived a week ago, but they were quickly won over by Iroh's wise words and charming personality. Especially the women. They all had a laugh when the tea-loving old man began to flirt with Kanna and then he had to reassure Pakku that he was just teasing when the old waterbending master threatened to encase him in ice.
Making her way over to the defensive ice wall with quick and excited steps, Katara smiled and greeted the few people she passed by. Winter had arrived and the fresh patch of snow of the previous day made the city sparkle.
She stopped when she reached the dock and immediately began to scan the few ships that were docked. A disappointed sigh fell from her lips when she realized that no new ships had arrived and that none of the current ships was the one she was looking for in anticipation. With one last look at the docked vessels, Katara turned around and began to make her way back to her home, this time in a more sedate pace.
Her warm boots kept her from sinking into the soft snow that had fallen during the night as she strolled along the clean, white streets of the Southern Water Tribe. A few canoes floated leisurely up and down the wide canals with passengers from visiting cities taking in the sights with awe. Early risers crossed the bridges as they talked amongst themselves.
The waterbender lifted her head as her house appeared before her, but instead of walking straight to it, she turned to her right and made her way down another street until she came upon a small path where few people went. She climbed a small bridge, and with a heavy sigh, leaned against the frozen edge of the bridge carved with beautiful designs. Peering over the edge, Katara frowned into the calm water that flowed under her.
Every day for the past few months, she had made her way to the dock in order to be one of the first people to greet Zuko and Lady Ursa when they arrived, but every day she went back home with a sad and disappointed heart when she realized that they were not there.
What is taking them so long? she asked with a huff. The wedding is tomorrow and they haven't arrived!
She stared at the blue water below her as if it would tell her what was going on before a thought popped into her head that caused her eyes to widen.
What if they're not coming to the wedding? And if they're not coming, then I won't see Zuko!
Katara squeezed her eyes shut as her heart gave a painful clench at the thought. She shook her head.
No, they will come! Zuko promised, and being the honorable man that he is, he will keep that promise.
But that thought did not comfort her like she hoped it would. She had been waiting with eagerness to see him again, to be in Zuko's company again. She had been thinking of him, dreaming of him ever since they left Ba Sing Se and she missed him so much that the possibility of him not attending the wedding upset her greatly.
Perhaps when she saw him again her feelings of longing would go away. She needed to see Zuko again so she could finally understand what it was that she really felt for him, as well as what she felt for Aang. What if what she felt for Zuko was just a physical attraction and nothing else? It would be foolish of her to jeopardize a good relationship just because of lust.
Another frown appeared between her eyebrows at the thought of Aang. The airbender had been constantly proclaiming his love for her while he showered her with small gifts, telling her that he was always happy at her side. She would thank him and blush at his comments and affections all the while ignoring the remarks others made about a second upcoming wedding. A few years ago, she probably would have been happy at the thought of marrying Aang, but now…now she was not so sure. Not until she was certain about her feelings regarding Zuko. It was unfair of her to keep thinking about another man while with Aang.
Katara sighed as her thoughts returned to the young Fire Lord. Folding her arms on the edge of the white bridge, she leaned against it and placed her head on her forearms. Again, she wondered why Zuko had not arrived yet and the uneasiness began to spread inside her.
"Katara, my dear, is something the matter?" Iroh's calming voice floated to her restless mind. "Miss Toph has told me that you've been depressed lately."
The young woman lifted her head when she felt a comforting hand on her back. Katara looked up into Iroh's concerned but kind face.
"I'm fine, Uncle Iroh, really," she replied as she straightened herself out. She tried to smile to reassure him, but the retired general just raised an unconvinced eyebrow.
"I'm just tired from my waterbending lessons and helping with the wedding," she tried again.
"Yes, that must be it," Iroh said, though by his tone he conveyed that he did not believe her.
When Katara did not respond, he decided to change the subject.
"May I ask why you left the house so early in the morning, my dear?" he asked curiously.
Katara looked up into the clear sky and smiled sheepishly when she realized that it indeed was a bit early in the morning to be out. Iroh smiled at her expression before he rubbed his hands together.
"My, it sure is cold here," Iroh commented and chuckled cheerfully, sensing she did not want to answer the question. "I probably would have frozen to death if your lovely, wonderful grandmother had not given me this warm parka." Smiling, he pointed at the red-colored winter wear he had been given when he had arrived.
Katara giggled, wondering if the jolly, old firebender liked to compliment her Gran-Gran so much because he liked to get Pakku riled up.
"Do you think Zuko would be able to stand the cold?" Katara asked with a smirk.
"Of course he will! Zuko's a strong young warrior, he could handle this weather." A grin appeared on his face. "Besides, I'm sure that hot temper that resides just below the surface will keep him warm and cozy," he said and chuckled affectionately.
Katara giggled again before she looked down at her hands.
"That's if he's even coming," she said more to herself .
"What are you talking about, Miss Katara? Of course Zuko's coming, and Ursa as well!"
Katara looked away to stare at the ocean she could see at a distance.
"Then why haven't they arrived yet? The wedding's tomorrow!" she exclaimed in a tone full of exasperation and concern.
"It is unusual that Zuko is late in arriving, but I'm sure there is an reason for his delay," Iroh reassured her.
"You think so?" Katara asked hopefully.
Iroh managed to turn his giddy grin into a small smile at the happy expression that came over the young woman's face.
"I know so." Iroh nodded as he patted her shoulder. "Just you wait." A gleam appeared in his eyes as he smiled at her. "There is something here that I'm sure Zuko is anxious to see again."
And that something is standing before me, the wise Dragon of the West added mentally with a grin.
"Fire Lord Zuko," Jee bowed as he addressed his lord. "We will arrive in the Southern Water Tribe in about an hour."
Zuko looked up from his tea to acknowledge his admiral while Ursa turn around to smile at him. They had been sitting in Ursa's room, enjoying some calming tea when Jee had knocked on the door and entered to give them the news. Jiao sat quietly near Lady Ursa and waited for her lord to speak.
"I'm glad to hear that, Admiral Jee. Thank you," Zuko said sincerely as he placed his teacup down on the low table. "Make sure the crew is ready for arrival."
"Yes, my lord," the admiral answered as he turned to make his way back on deck before Zuko's voice stopped him.
"Oh, and Jee?" Zuko called out coolly as he took another sip from his teacup, "Remind the crew once more that they are to behave properly and civilly when we enter the Southern Water Tribe. Any complaints about their improper behavior will not be tolerated. We are guests, and as such, we will be respectful to our Southern hosts. Understood?"
"Yes, Fire Lord Zuko. I will remind them immediately," Jee agreed as he bowed and left the room. When he did not need to keep an eye on Lady Ursa, which was whenever she was with her son, Jee commanded his crew like he always did as admiral of the Fire Lord's flagship.
"I am so glad that we have finally arrived," Ursa said with a smile as she looked away from the door to where her son sat across from her. "I was beginning to worry that we would not make it to the wedding."
"Indeed," Zuko agreed with a nod.
They would have arrived at the South Water Tribe a week ago had it not been for the wild storm that had appeared out of nowhere and without warning. The storm had lasted for a long time and the wind and sea had been so fierce that when the storm passed the passengers on the ship found themselves off course, thus making their journey to the Southern Water Tribe longer.
"I am excited to see the renovated great nation of the Southern Water Tribe," Ursa commented as she picked up her teacup. "Katara always talked about it with much fondness."
Zuko smiled since he had been thinking the same thing days ago before he looked out the small window with an inaudible longing sigh.
Ursa turned her head to the side where Jiao sat quietly with a smile on her face.
"You helped Lady Katara while she stayed in the Fire Nation Palace, didn't you, Jiao?" she asked.
"Yes, Lady Ursa," Jiao replied with a nod and her smile widened a bit. "Lady Katara is a very kind, friendly, and nice young woman." She inclined her head at them as she continued, "I must thank you, my lord and Lady Ursa, for bringing me with you since I've always wanted to see the Water Tribes, and I do wish to see Lady Katara again."
Zuko smiled kindly at her and acknowledged her gratefulness with a nod.
Ursa patted the young servant's arm and smiled.
"Of course, Jiao," she said as she turned to her son. "But you are not the only one who wishes to see Katara again. Am I not right, my son?"
Zuko suppressed the grin that wanted to appear on his lips and instead answered with a simple, "Yes."
When his mother smiled at him with what seemed like a knowing look, Zuko turned his attention to the young servant girl.
"Jiao, please prepare our belongings for our arrival," he said as he stood up. "If you'll excuse me, Mother, I have some things I need to look after before we arrive."
"Of course, dear," Ursa said with the same knowing smile on her face as Jiao walked across the cabin and opened the steel chest to pack the noblewoman's clothes.
An hour later, the mid-morning sun found Zuko standing upon the front of his flagship as it neared the impressive protective wall of the Southern Water Tribe. A small smirk appeared on Zuko's lips as he remembered the pathetic little wall Sokka had kept vigil at…which had been easily destroyed by his small metal ship.
He glanced at his mother, who was standing beside him with Jiao at her side, and frowned deeply. The heavy robe his mother was wearing was still not warm enough since she kept shivering and sniffling. He knew he should have made her wear another robe over the one she was currently wearing.
A cold wind blew by and he shivered under the robe and armor he was wearing. If he was cold, then he couldn't imagine how his mother and Jiao felt in this weather since both women were non-firebenders. Maybe he could purchase one of those parkas the Water Tribes were famous for once they were finally permitted entrance.
He watched as a lookout spotted them before the man made a signal, which then alerted the other guards to take up posts on the edge of the wall in order to make sure this Fire Nation ship was friendly. Zuko nodded at Jee who then signaled to his men to stop the ship in front of the wall.
"Who goes there?" a deep voice spoke from one of the watchtowers. "State your business."
Jee followed a step behind his lord when Zuko moved forward. The older firebender noticed that a few of the guards recognized who he was since he sometimes brought them goods from the Fire Nation. The admiral glanced at the two women who stood a few feet behind them and frowned at the uncomfortable look on their faces before he returned his attention to his lord.
Zuko held up a hand in greeting as he looked up at the man who had spoken, assuming he was the one in charge of the guards.
"I am Fire Lord Zuko and I have come to attend my friends' wedding ceremony," he stated regally. "I would appreciate it if we were allowed entrance into your great city."
He hid a smile when the man's eyes widened and he gaped as the rest of the guards gasped and began to murmur.
"R-right away, Fire Lord Zuko!" the man croaked before he turned around and shouted, "Open the wall and let them through!"
Those who had not visited the Southern Water Tribe recently stared in awe as the thick frozen wall was split in half by waterbenders before the divided pieces were moved aside to reveal the entrance into the southern nation. With another signal from the Water Tribe guards, the ship started again and made its way through before the frozen wall was pulled back to its original solid state as soon as the ship passed.
Zuko barely noticed the other ships that aligned the dock as his eyes widened in astonishment and admiration as he took in the sight of the city before him.
This sure isn't the same little village I remember, Zuko thought as his eyes darted in every direction.
Instead of a few huts and igloos, there were actual structural buildings, stretching for miles in every direction. They were neatly placed beside each other in a symmetrical pattern, which Zuko remembered Katara had told him had been Sokka's idea, along with the canals and the defensive wall. The frozen walls and roofs of the white homes sparkled under the sun as well as the clean blue water that flowed through the canals. Zuko could see bridges that connected one street to the next. It was just the way Katara had described to him so many times before.
The city was forgotten the moment Katara entered his head, as she took all his focus and attention. Zuko's heart began to pound in his chest in anticipation and he had to clench his hands in order to keep himself from jumping off the slow moving flagship and swim to shore so he could see her already. He wanted to see her so badly, to take her in his arms, to kiss her until her lungs burned for air!
Okay, maybe he was getting a little ahead of himself with the kissing, but that still did not stop him from wishing these things could happen.
"It is beautiful," Ursa whispered softly, making Zuko come back to reality.
"Yes, it is," he responded in agreement.
He glanced to his other side and noticed that Jee was looking over the side of the ship. Zuko followed his admiral's gaze and finally noticed the people standing by the docks. A few of them were actually cheering and waving at them, but most stood stiffly to the side with wary expressions on their faces.
Perhaps they remembered the way he had arrived the last time? The young Fire Lord grimaced slightly.
Zuko scanned the docks in order to get a glimpse of Katara smiling at him with those big, blue shining eyes of hers looking up at him, but as much as he strained his eyes, he could not spot her. He watched curiously as the crowd parted with hushed murmurs before he straightened when Chief Hakoda stepped through the crowd with Sokka and Aang walking beside him.
Hakoda stopped near the edge of the crowd, watching patiently as the large steel Fire Nation ship glided through the water until it stopped near the dock and the crew moved back and forth to secure it. He could hear Admiral Jee's voice barking orders to the crewmembers. He had not seen the young man who had helped his son rescue him from the Boiling Rock since he was crowned Fire Lord and he was curious to again meet the man who was spoken so highly of by his son and daughter…especially his daughter...
Hm…he mentally mused with a small frown. Actually, he had wondered a couple of times if his daughter might like the Fire Lord as more than a friend, but that couldn't be it. Could it?
The chief was brought out of his thoughts when the crowd's hushed murmurs became a bit louder and he looked up just in time to see the steel ramp of the ship being lowered to the snowy ground, a puff of white snow flying to the sides at the impact. His people waited with bated breath for the occupants of the ship to come down for they were all curious to see the leader of the nation that once had been their enemy.
A tall figure emerged at the top of the ramp along with whom they recognized as Admiral Jee along with two unknown women as well as a pair of guards. They watched as the tall man stopped for a moment to take in his surroundings before he began to descend the ramp in a dignified way. A collective murmur escaped from the large crowd at the dock.
The man was wearing shiny, black armor etched in red with black pointed boots. On his right hip was a sword sheath holding two sword hilts glinting under the sun's rays. His raven-colored hair, which contrasted with his pale skin, was pulled into a short topknot where the fire crown rested, glinting brightly to all who saw it.
The Fire Lord arrived at the bottom of the ramp, his booted feet sinking a bit in the snow, but he stood perfectly straight with a stoic expression on his young face on which they could see his distinctive scar on the left side. There was something about him that immediately commanded their attention and respect. Another murmur sounded throughout the crowd at the tall man's slanted golden eyes that seemed to pierce right through them.
Hakoda smiled when he looked around at the shocked expressions of his people and was positive the young Fire Lord had unknowingly stolen a few hearts among the young women. He grinned when said women sighed wistfully with big, adoring eyes and he could have sworn he saw small little hearts floating in the air above their heads. He chuckled to himself at his thoughts before looking back to the Fire Lord who now stood with Jee and two women, and the two guards a few feet behind them. Hakoda smiled as he made his way over to them with an excited Sokka and a silent Avatar at his side.
Zuko scanned the crowd again for any signs of Katara and sighed inwardly in disappointment before he returned his gaze before him as Chief Hakoda began to walk toward them. He smiled when Sokka grinned at him, but quickly averted his eyes from Aang who was also smiling at him, but with less enthusiasm. Zuko moved his eyes back to the chieftain as Hakoda stopped a few feet in front of him. The crowd became silent as their leader began to address the Fire Nation ruler.
"Fire Lord Zuko," Hakoda greeted as he made a bow. "We, the people of the Southern Water Tribe, welcome you to our home."
Zuko returned the bow respectfully as he responded sincerely.
"Thank you, Chief Hakoda. It is an honor to have been invited into the Southern Water Tribe."
Both men straightened and smiled. Hakoda noticed—a bit in displeasure—that the younger man was slightly taller than him before he dismissed the thought as he greeted Jee, who smiled and nodded at him.
"Damn, Zuko!" Sokka exclaimed as he stepped up to clap Zuko's back. "We were beginning to worry that you decided not to come!"
Zuko grinned slightly.
"I forgot that the Water Tribes' weather could be unpredictable at times," he said amicably.
Sokka laughed as he once more clapped Zuko's back. The crowd murmured at the comfortable friendship between their future chief and the young Fire Lord. Aang just smiled and said a quick greeting, but made no move to approach the firebender, causing Zuko to frown, though he understood.
Hakoda watched the interaction between his son and Zuko with interest and was reminded of the time when they had escaped the Boiling Rock on the war airship. Then he looked to Zuko's left where a tall, elegant lady stood as well as a younger woman he was sure was a maidservant. He noticed that both their noses and cheeks were pink from the cold.
"Chief Hakoda," Zuko said as he noticed the man's stare, "this is my mother, Lady Ursa."
"Ah, yes," Hakoda said with a smile and bowed. "My daughter has told me so much about you, Lady Ursa. It is an honor to have you here as well."
Ursa smiled, trying to return the bow under the heavy robe she was wearing.
"Thank you, Chief Hakoda," she replied gracefully when a small sneeze interrupted her. She blushed. "Excuse me."
Hakoda laughed softly and waved her apology aside.
"Ah, please forgive me! What kind of host am I, letting my guests freeze to death?" He laughed again before he motioned for them to follow him. "Let's go to my home so you can all warm up."
"So did you bring what I asked you to, buddy?" Sokka whispered to Zuko when his dad turned around.
Zuko smirked again as he replied in a whisper as well.
"Yes, though I wonder if I should have since fire flakes always give you stomachaches, and with the wedding being tomorrow and all…" He chuckled inwardly when the young warrior scowled at him.
The crowd parted once again as they let the group pass through, their murmurs continued even as they disappeared. Different reactions and feelings—some good and some not so good—were expressed amongst themselves at the appearance of the young Fire Lord.
As he followed Chief Hakoda, Zuko admitted that the buildings were even more beautiful up close since he could see the elegant designs carved masterfully on the surface of the walls and doors as well as on the edges of the bridges.
It's pretty, but nothing can be compared to the magnificence of the Fire Nation's architecture, he thought with a small smirk.
They walked in silence down streets and over bridges, passing more people who stopped to stare or glare at him, but Zuko barely paid attention as he again wondered where Katara could be and when he would be able to gaze upon her face again. He turned to see his mother in a conversation with Jee before he looked at Sokka who was talking to Aang. He wanted to ask Sokka where his sister was, but he kept his mouth shut since Aang kept throwing strange looks at him.
No matter. He would see Katara soon enough when they arrived at Hakoda's home. He just had to be patient…something he still needed a bit of work on…
He watched as Aang left in a hurry after telling them he was going to look for Katara, and Zuko tried to suppress the jealousy that once again rose within him before he was thankfully distracted by Sokka who asked him about the Fire Nation treats again.
Katara laughed when Iroh began to sing some kind of song about love and the seasons as they made their way back to the large house. His voice was not that of a great singer, but his cheerful demeanor made up for it.
They crossed another of the lovely bridges when they noticed a group of people talking excitedly in low murmurs. After looking at each other curiously, both made their way to the small crowd and asked what the commotion was about.
"Why, Lady Katara, don't you know?" a short woman with a baby in her arms asked. "Fire Lord Zuko has arrived."
"He arrived already?" Katara gasped before she looked at Iroh who was smiling at her. She broke into a huge, happy grin.
"Zuko's here, Uncle Iroh! Hurry, we have to meet up with him!" she exclaimed as she took hold of Iroh's hand and began to race toward the grand house, dragging a puffing retired general behind her.
I can't believe it! I was just at the docks a few hours ago and I missed his arrival! Katara huffed mentally as she continued to run on the soft snow with Iroh hurrying behind her as they raced through streets and crossed over bridges.
Her heart began to pound in her chest and it had nothing to do with the running exercise. Zuko had finally arrived and she wanted to see him so badly, to look into his radiant golden eyes, to hear his rare laughs, to feel his warmth.
"Katara, slow down!" Iroh exclaimed as they rounded a corner sharply, almost crashing into the wall of the building. "We will surely fall to our deaths in this frozen ground!"
Katara only laughed.
"Don't be silly, Uncle Iroh. I won't let that happen. I have my waterbending, remember?" she said as she turned her head to smile at him before she tugged at his arm more insistently. "Now come on! I have to see Zuko! I missed him so much!"
Iroh grinned hugely at her confession, although he had a feeling Katara did not even realize what she had said. He smiled at the excited and eager expression on the waterbender's face. Though he still believed that they could crash and he could break some bones with the speed she was forcing them to take.
They arrived just in time to see Hakoda leading the group toward the grand house and Iroh was forced to let go of Katara's hand when her speed increased since he could not keep up with her youthful energy.
Katara's heart raced even faster and her smile widened as her eyes rested on the dark armored-clad firebender, who was talking with her dad.
"Zuko!" she shouted happily.
At the sound of his name, Zuko stopped in his conversation with Hakoda and looked up just in time to see Katara lunge herself at him, the hood of her parka falling back as she wrapped her arms around his middle. Zuko instinctively caught her and was barely able to keep them from stumbling onto the snowy ground as she barreled into him.
"Zuko! I'm so glad you finally came!" Katara exclaimed, squeezing him as she buried her face on his armored chest—a bit disappointed that she could not hear his heartbeat through the armor—and smiled when his smoky sandalwood scent reached her senses.
Her heart slowed down a few beats from the frantic rhythm of before as she relaxed in Zuko's strong arms and comforting presence. The ache that had been present in her chest for the past months disappeared instantly, and instead, a warm feeling replaced it.
Zuko could not understand Katara's sudden reaction and attention and why she seemed so happy to see him, but he sure had nothing to complain about her warm reception. Quite the contrary, he was enjoying having her in his arms immensely, having her petite body pressed to his own larger one just like he had wished every day for the past few months…or maybe even for the past few years.
He pulled her a bit closer to himself and took a small whiff of her unique gardenia scent—made sharper by the frosty, minty smell of the snow—and smiled happily. Gods, how he missed her! His heart seemed to burn at the feeling of having her in his arms once again, of her scent floating to his nose, of her lovely face pressed to his chest.
Sokka had turned just in time to see his sister flying through the air toward Zuko only to be caught by the young Fire Lord. Seeing nothing unusual, Sokka just shrugged and waited for his sister to calm down from her emotional display so they could enter the house so Zuko could give him the delicious fire flakes—which he would have to hide from his pregnant bride if he wanted to even eat one flake. He rubbed his chin as ideas began to form in his head of where he could hide his spicy stash.
Hakoda, on the other hand, stared at his daughter and the young man who was holding her with wide eyes and an opened mouth. He looked between the two and then at his son—who did not seem affected by the scene or was fantasizing about food as usual—with a gaping mouth before he composed himself, a frown appearing on his tanned brow. The Southern Chief stared intently at the smiling Zuko suspiciously, almost as if he was trying to discover the true intentions of the young man currently embracing his beloved daughter, before he shook his head at his overprotectiveness. The young Fire Lord was an honorable man and he trusted Katara to behave herself and look out for men with bad intentions. Yet, this helped him confirm some of his recent suspicions regarding their actual feelings.
Iroh huffed as he finally reached the group, and seeing that his dear nephew was occupied at the moment, the winded man walked over to Ursa who had a hand to her mouth in order to hide her pleased smile. They exchanged a knowing look, and hope and joy gleamed in their eyes.
As for Jiao, Jee, and Zuko's personal guards, they stared at their usually reserved and stoic Fire Lord and the waterbending young woman in his arms with disbelieving looks, but kept their comments to themselves since it was none of their business.
Chuckling lowly, Zuko gently patted Katara's back.
"If I had known I was going to receive such a warm welcome, I would've visited the Southern Water Tribe much sooner," he said with a small smirk.
As if finally realizing what she was doing and how it must look to everybody else, Katara stepped quickly away from him and laughed sheepishly. Her face turned bright red as she tried to avoid looking at anyone, especially her dad.
Zuko scolded himself mentally for opening his mouth since it made Katara move away from him, making him feel empty.
"Heh, sorry about that," Katara muttered as she began to play with the end of her braid.
"No harm done," Zuko reassured her with what Katara thought was an indulgent smile that caused her to blush even redder.
"Why, Nephew, you are such a lucky man!" Iroh exclaimed with a mocking sorrowful sigh, "I wish a pretty, young lady would have received me with such a wonderful greeting. But alas, it was not so."
Realizing that his uncle was there as well, Zuko glanced at Iroh and gave him a warning glare which, as usual, the old man ignored by addressing his former sister-in-law.
"I tell you, my dear Ursa, the world is so unjust," Iroh continued and shook his head sadly.
"Don't let it bring you down, Iroh dear," Ursa replied with a smile as she patted his arm in a playful gesture of comfort.
Zuko rolled his eyes while the men chuckled and the women giggled.
"I'm sad you've already forgotten the hug I gave you on your arrival, Uncle Iroh," Katara teased with a grin.
The old man grinned back even as he let out a fake sad sigh.
"Yes, that was nice, but that was nothing compared to the one you just gave Zuko," Iroh pouted. "So unfair."
Katara abruptly stopped laughing and flushed, not noticing Zuko's smug expression and her father's scrutinizing stare. She finally realized that she had completely ignored the other arrivals because she had been completely preoccupied with seeing Zuko again.
"Lady Ursa!" Katara smiled as she stepped around Zuko—who was a bit annoyed to be ignored for the moment—to hug the older woman. "I'm so glad you made it."
"I am too, Katara dear," Ursa responded with a gentle smile that painfully reminded Hakoda of his beloved Kya.
Smiling, Katara turned to where Jee was standing a few feet behind Ursa.
"It's wonderful that you've come as well, Admiral Jee."
Jee bowed as he returned her smile.
"Thank you, Lady Katara. It is always a pleasure to see you."
"Jiao? Is that you?" Katara asked as she moved her head to the side to see the other person standing silently a few feet behind the admiral. "It's so nice to see you again."
"Thank you, Lady Katara. I am happy to see you as well." Jiao bowed and smiled happily at the knowledge that the young Water Tribe woman had not forgotten about her and still looked at her as a friend and not just another servant.
"Katara," Hakoda spoke up and raised an eyebrow at his youngest child who had also greeted the guards and was now turning to talk to Zuko again. "Since we got the reunion out of the way, why don't we let our guests go to their rooms so they could get out of the cold and rest, hm?"
"You're right, Dad," she answered, blushing once more at her rude behavior as she followed behind her father who again led the group to his home.
Her heart started beating faster when Zuko disengaged himself from Hakoda's side to walk beside her. Now that he was here, she did not know what to say to him. Ever since those dreams, the thought of the possibility that she could like Zuko more than a friend, that she could be in love with him, was making her feel nervous and unsure.
But even if she did feel such a thing for him, Zuko would never see her more than a friend since he was in love with Mai. She mentally shook her head at the thought and at the feeling that suspiciously resembled jealousy that settled itself in her chest.
Zuko cleared his throat lightly as he glanced down at Katara from the corner of his eye. He noticed that she was wearing thick, light-blue pants with a parka of the same color that reached below her waist. Her long braid swished gently as a cold breeze swept by. He wished he could tell her his feelings that instant, but again the fear of rejection took hold of him. How should he go about declaring his love for her? Such displays of emotion were strange and unfamiliar to him, and he did not want to make a fool of himself—especially not in front of her.
"Well, here is our humble home," Hakoda's voice caught both their attention.
Zuko looked up to see the largest house he had seen since he had arrived at the Southern Water Tribe. Two guards posted at either side of the entrance grasped the large steel door handles and opened them for the group to enter. Zuko smiled when he recognized the steel doors he had sent as a present to the Southern Chief almost four years ago.
Looking around the wintry corridor as they entered, the young Fire Lord admired the carvings and designs that decorated the walls. Lines swirled in intricate patterns from the arched ceiling to the bottom of the ice walls. They were even more magnificent and more beautiful than the ones on the other houses and on the bridges. Instead of the ground being made of frozen snow, marble floor greeted their feet. He remembered Katara telling him it had been a gift from King Bumi and that was the reason why Toph spent most of her time inside the grand house rather than outside in the fresh outdoors.
"What a beautiful place," Ursa marveled as she, too, gazed at what could be considered the Southern Water Tribe Palace.
"Thank you, Lady Ursa," Hakoda replied and beamed as he looked around his new home proudly before he turned to address his children, "Why don't you show our guests to their rooms?"
Before both siblings could move, Toph rounded a corner and stomped her way toward them, followed several feet behind in a slower pace by Kanna supporting Suki.
"There you are, Sparky!" Toph shouted with a huge grin on her face as she approached him. "Did you get lost or something?" she asked and punched his arm.
Zuko grinned slightly, discreetly rubbing the place where the small earthbender had hit him. Some things never changed, like the strength of her punch and the fact that she was the only one who could get away with treating him like that.
"No, we just ran into some difficulties on our way."
"Uh-huh," Toph said before she walked to Katara and placed an arm around her shoulders. "See, Sugar Queen. I told you Lord Sparky here was going to make it, so all that mopping of yours was for nothing." She sighed deeply as if she felt some sympathy for the waterbender.
Katara blushed when Zuko turned to stare at her with gleaming eyes.
"I, um…uh…" she stuttered as she turned to glare at the grinning Toph.
She was saved from further embarrassment when her grandmother finally reached them with Suki, who greeted Zuko and Ursa happily, expressing how glad she was they had made it to her wedding.
Kanna stood silently to the side with a pensive look on her old and wise face. As soon as she spotted the tall young man, who was obviously Fire Nation, she never took her calculating eyes off him. She regarded him carefully, from the way he held himself, to how he kept his mother close to him, to the friendly yet aloof way he interacted with his friends. But most importantly, she observed, with great interest, the way the young man seemed to hover around her granddaughter in a discreet way.
After his future bride finished welcoming their friends, Sokka stepped forward and wound an arm around Suki's waist to support her since her lower back had been hurting recently. Suki turned to smile at him gratefully.
Zuko watched with veiled interest as Sokka fussed over his pregnant, future wife. He subtly glanced at Katara—who was still standing beside him, rolling her eyes at her brother—and he could not stop the image of himself in Sokka's place fussing over a rounded belly Katara, her blue eyes shining brightly. He had to admit that he enjoyed the idea and wished that such a scene could become true.
Catching the adoring and longing look the firebender quickly threw at Katara, Kanna immediately knew that the young Fire Lord—whose cold and reserved personality preceded him—was indeed in love with her granddaughter. Not infatuated, but truly in love. Even so, that did not automatically gain her trust and acceptance, nor even her blessing. No, first he had to prove himself the honorable, great man everybody seemed to make him out as.
"Gran-Gran!" Katara exclaimed as she finally noticed her grandmother was still standing in the same spot and had not said a word. What she did notice was the scrutinizing look she was throwing at Zuko and she wondered what the canny old woman was up to.
Zuko watched as Katara moved away from his side and made her way to a short, plump elderly woman with deep wrinkles on her tanned face, a grayish braid over one shoulder, and thin lips on a blank face, staring at him with intense light-blue eyes.
Swallowing lightly, he stood as stoically as ever, though he was shaking nervously on the inside as Katara grabbed the woman's hand and began to lead her to where he was standing.
This was Katara's grandmother, her Gran-Gran, the old woman he had roughly grabbed by the collar of her parka almost four years ago, without considering that he was frightening her since all he wanted to know was the location of the Avatar. And right in front of Katara to top it all off!
Well, he knew Katara had forgiven him for all his past transgressions, but he was positive that the old Water Tribe woman had not forgotten that he had invaded their home and, in a way, held her hostage. And the strange look she was giving him was not reassuring in the least. If this woman did not approve of or like him, then he had a very small chance of winning Katara over.
"Gran-Gran, I would like you to meet Fire Lord Zuko," Katara said with a smile before she directed a grin at the solemn faced Zuko, "And this is my Gran-Gran, Kanna."
Zuko gave a respectful bow as he said, "Lady Kanna, I am glad to finally meet you."
Properly, he added mentally.
Kanna returned the bow before she straightened and she eyed him carefully.
"And I you, young Fire Lord, and in much better circumstances, don't you think?" she asked with a raised gray brow.
Both Katara and Sokka looked at each other worriedly while their father just stood back with a barely concealed smirk on his face. He wondered how the young firebender was going to get out of this one. Ursa frowned slightly and raised a questioning eyebrow when she turned to Iroh only to see him smiling, before he lightly shrugged his shoulders. Toph crossed her arms over her chest and openly grinned since she knew Kanna was not really upset. She vaguely wondered where Aang had wandered to, but shrugged the thought away. It wasn't like she missed him or anything.
Zuko suppressed the urge to shift uneasily and glance away from Kanna's piecing light-blue eyes and instead he straightened himself a bit and slightly inclined his head in agreement to her words.
"I assure you, Lady Kanna, that is what I believe as well," he responded before he gave another small bow at her and Chief Hakoda. "I ask that you find it in yourself to forgive the rude manner in which I behaved toward you and your people the last time I was here."
Both Kanna and Hakoda noticed he had the decency to look ashamed and both approved of his words. Deciding that she had tortured the poor young man long enough, Kanna allowed a warm smile to reach her lips. She inwardly chuckled when the firebender relaxed slightly when she dropped her cold demeanor.
"I never actually held that incident against you," she admitted and smiled wider when her granddaughter visibly relaxed beside her. "You left as soon as Aang allowed you to capture him without plundering and destroying a village made up of only women and children as I'm sure other men would have done. I knew you were a man of honor since you kept your promise not to harm us if we told you the whereabouts of the Avatar."
Waving her wrinkly hands in the air as if to chase away the past, Kanna smiled at the rest of the people who had arrived with the young Fire Lord.
"Oh, my, but where is my head? You all must be cold, tired, and hungry!" Gran-Gran exclaimed, "We will continue with any more conversation during dinner."
She turned to her granddaughter who was again staring at the Fire Lord.
"Katara, you and Toph take Lady Ursa and the young maidservant to their rooms," she directed.
"Yes, Gran-Gran," Katara obeyed dutifully as she motioned for Ursa and Jiao to follow her. Turning back to Zuko, she smiled widely at him.
"Talk to you later?" she asked hopefully.
"Of course," Zuko responded immediately, returning her smile with a more subdued one.
Gran-Gran lightly smacked the back of her grandson's head to get his attention as well as his pregnant fiancée's.
"Sokka, take Fire Lord Zuko and Admiral Jee to their rooms," she told him, "Suki, come with me, the seamstress still needs to put the finishing touches to your wedding dress."
Suki giggled when Sokka sighed almost mournfully before he placed a kiss on her forehead.
"Right this way, gentlemen," Sokka said with a playful extravagant bow that made Jee grin and Zuko roll his eyes.
Kanna stayed behind with Suki and Iroh as the group began to move to their respective rooms. She watched with growing interest when Zuko strained his neck—as discreetly as possible—to follow Katara's retreating form until she disappeared around a corner.
I approve of him, Kanna thought as she grabbed her chin with her fingers. He is honorable, refined, and seems courteous, intelligent, courageous, and respectful. Quite handsome to top it all off! And he is in love with my granddaughter. It seems that this Zuko knows what's good. She smirked smugly. Now, if only Katara would admit her feelings and let Aang down gently…
"By that look on your face, my dear Kanna, I assume that you have noticed something going on between both youngsters?" Iroh observed with a huge grin on his face.
"Hm, yes I have," Kanna confessed as she dropped her hand from her chin to her side. "And I approve if they should take their relationship to the next level."
The old firebender and the old woman chuckled as they began to make their way to another part of the grand house, betting on how long it would take for the young ones to confess their feelings to one another.
Suki followed them with a puzzled expression on her tired face.
What in the world are these two babbling about? she thought.
Her eyes widened. No, they couldn't be talking about Katara and Zuko. They were both in relationships after all...although, admittedly, she wondered at the possibilities as well. She mused for a moment before she finally realized something.
And the seamstress is not in this part of the house!
With a soft glow, the dawning sun made its appearance known to the residents of the Southern Water Tribe, chasing away the dark shadows that lurked around the snow and ice buildings. The light-blue sky was clear and, surprisingly, there were no gray clouds anywhere in sight. It looked as if the Spirits themselves were blessing the event that was to happen on that day.
The energy of the rising sun—though not as strong as it was in the Fire Nation—raised Zuko from his light slumber. Light spilled softly into the room from the frozen ice window as the young man stirred among the many soft, fur blankets he was encased in.
Opening his eyes languidly, Zuko scanned the room he had been given for the remainder of his stay in the southern nation before he sat up on the comfy bed, shivering slightly when the fur blankets fell from around his shoulders and the chilly temperature hit him despite the warm sleeping wear he had been given.
The blue covered bed stood neatly in the middle of the medium sized room, topped with many blankets and furs of varying tones and shades of blue, black, and silver. A low table was placed before the elegant frozen window surrounded with cushions in case he wanted to enjoy a light snack or tea. There was a large pinewood closet off to the side of the entrance that he was sure was placed there recently for his use. Jiao had unpacked his belongings the previous day while he dined with his family and friends.
Lifting the covers from the lower half of his body, the firebender swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up only to sit back down when his feet came in contact with cold marble, and a shiver ran up his spine. Reaching down, he quickly picked up and placed the warm fur boots Kanna had gifted him with on his chilly feet before putting on the parka that was hanging from the back of the chair near his bed.
He smiled slightly when he looked down at his parka that was dark red color with black fur on the inside and edges of the hood and sleeves, before he lifted his foot to see black fur boots that reached his mid-calves. His mother, Uncle, Jee, Jiao, and his guards were also given the same type of red winter wear, except that the fur on the women's clothing was white. Kanna had told them that giving them red to wear instead of the normal blue was a way of showing that their Fire Nation heritage was acknowledged and accepted.
It still made him swallow nervously every time he thought about Katara and Sokka's Gran-Gran and the way her piercing light-blue eyes made him feel like a child again. Luckily, the old Water Tribe woman had forgiven him for his past mistakes and welcomed him and his family warmly.
Maybe a bit too happily, he mused.
Kanna had asked him question after question about the Fire Nation and himself ever since they all sat down to a typical Southern Water Tribe dinner—which was not what he was used to, but was very pleasant nonetheless—with a large smile on her wrinkly face and a twinkle in her eye. The same twinkle his uncle and his mother had as well, he noted. Iroh had joined in answering Kanna's questions, adding and talking about other things that the woman had not even asked.
Zuko did not understand what those two were up to, but he disregarded such thoughts as unimportant for the moment. What he was concerned about, though, was the way Aang had clung to Katara during the whole meal, even after she tried to tell the young monk to stop. The Fire Lord had almost broken and set the table on fire as he had been clenching it with both hands as the jealously spread through him. Luckily, Toph had shoved her way between the Katara and Aang without giving an explanation as to why before she threw a smirk in his direction.
Walking over to the thick window that was shining softly due to the morning sun, Zuko gazed down to the clean streets below where shadows still lingered. He noticed that the streets were empty and he assumed that the people were still sleeping, but he knew the city would be bustling with energy very soon since the wedding was being held later that day.
A sigh escaped him and he pressed his forehead against the cold surface of the window. He was finally in the Southern Water Tribe, the small village that he had once invaded, but was now thriving quickly. It became quite apparent the previous day that many still mistrusted him as he followed Hakoda through the ice city, even though both the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe were in peace and trading with each other.
It was not like the people made it their purpose to show their negative feelings toward him with cruel words or actions, quite the contrary, they were respectful and hospitable, but he could sense their apprehension and uneasiness. Hopefully, during the few weeks that he stayed, they would be able to forget and dissolve such wariness toward himself as well as the Fire Nation.
However, there was a reason he had visited the Southern Water Tribe that was far more important than gaining the tribe people's trust or to attend his friends' wedding.
"Katara," he said longingly and closed his eyes.
She was the reason he had travelled through a freezing and raging sea, the reason he endured the cold climate, the reason he was willing to humble himself before Chief Hakoda and Kanna, and the reason he was willing to confront Aang if necessary.
Katara was the reason he was there, she was the woman he loved, the one he wanted. He needed to tell her how he felt, tell her what she meant to him. But how was he supposed to go about it? Should he spend a few more days with her in order to learn more about her family and culture so she could see that he was really interested in her? Or should he tell her immediately?
The sun had finally risen, fully illuminating the blue morning sky, making the ice and snow buildings glisten brightly. A few minutes later, Zuko moved away from the window when he noticed that the citizens were moving about in the streets to get ready for the upcoming wedding.
Perhaps he would find the courage during the festivities to tell Katara what she meant to him. And hopefully, she would not break his heart…
A/N: Thank you for reading!