Here you go!

Many thanks to PurseMonger

Not mine.

Chapter Thirty-One

Holding Back

The Fire Lord's magnificent flagship glided swiftly through the choppy waters as a light rain fell upon the great ocean. Gazing out into the sea from the small porthole in his cabin, Zuko watched with wary eyes as gray clouds swirled above them and small waves brushed against the side of the metal ship. Flashes of the last storm surfaced in his mind and his expression turned grim. However, once he was satisfied that it was no huge storm that could cause them trouble, he returned to his desk where his uncle was sitting on one of the chairs before it with a deep frown on his face. Zuko sat on his chair and waited patiently as Iroh processed everything he had recounted from the time Katara and he washed to shore, their encounter with Jianguo, having their bending blocked, their escape, the old couple's hospitality, the village, and finally ended with the day Iroh had found them with the help of Jun and her shirshu.

His room had been cleaned and tidied up, one would never have guessed that it once had been a complete disaster due to the last storm. Zuko leaned back in his seat and again glanced at the window were the only thing he could make out was the gray of the sky.

After reassuring the colony's governor about the Fire Lord's wellbeing and paying Jun her reward money so she could be on her way—much to Iroh's disappointment—they were finally on their way to the Fire Nation and would be arriving in a few days. Zuko had sent a message to his Council and a letter to his mother to reassure them that he and Katara were fine. Katara had also sent a message to her family, though she only wrote that both Zuko and she were all right and were on their way to Zuko's palace. He wondered how Katara's family would react when they learned the whole truth.

He was brought out of his thoughts when Iroh let out a deep sigh before taking a long sip from his tea. Zuko straightened and turned back to his uncle who was again frowning into his teacup.

"We should have known a man such as the ex-general would seek revenge," Iroh spoke up solemnly, his usual warm eyes glinting in suppressed anger. "Do you have any idea who the traitor within the palace could be that gave Jianguo so much information?"

Zuko placed his elbows on the wooden desk and rested his chin on his grasped hands as he stared at Iroh pensively for a few minutes before he finally spoke up, his features turning dark.

"I think I know who it is."

"Who?" Iroh asked as he leaned forward curiously, his hands clenching his teacup in anticipation.

"Wei," Zuko spat angrily.

White eyebrows lifting high on his forehead, Iroh leaned back in his seat in surprise as he watched his nephew curl his hands into tight fists. Another frown settled on his aged face as he rubbed at his chin.

"It does seem likely," Iroh commented.

"It's more than just 'likely', Uncle," Zuko growled out lowly. "We all know how much Wei despises me and the fact that I called off the war. Katara, Toph, and I saw him leave the prison tower when we went to see Ozai and I have strong suspicions that Wei may have been seeing him."

"But how?" Iroh spoke up as he settled his cup on the desk. "No one is allowed to visit Ozai, and except for you, the only other person to have a key to his cell is the captain of the prison guards, who uses it when Ozai's meal is brought to him. Do you think the captain could be working for them?"

"I don't know," Zuko admitted darkly as he rose from his chair and began to pace the length of the cabin. "But why else would Wei be in the prison tower?"

He paused again at the porthole and sighed agitatedly as he ran a hand down his face before he turned back to look at his frowning uncle.

"I told you the reason Jianguo was able to capture me was because they knew I would not escape them if it meant Katara would be harmed," the young lord continued as his eyes narrowed. "They knew about my affections for her, they knew what she means to me, and they took advantage of that by luring us both toward the 'infested' colony. During my birthday celebration Wei had been making hints about Katara, so it could have easily been him who told Jianguo!"

Iroh again rubbed his chin and stroked his small beard as he looked at his angry nephew with a pensive frown.

"You make a very good point, Nephew," he began slowly, "but it will be difficult to accuse him without proper proof, especially since he's a nobleman, a Royal Council member, and a very influential person in our society."

Zuko growled as he abruptly moved away from the window toward his desk where he slammed his fist on the hard surface as he glared at his uncle, who, as usual, was unaffected by his outburst.

"I'll find the evidence if it's the last thing I do!" he ground out between gritted teeth before he growled out, "And if Wei is truly the culprit, not even the gods will be able to save him. I swear it, Uncle."

Iroh was intrigued at the murderous look on his nephew's face, but before he could comment on it, Zuko sat back down heavily on his large chair and began to rummage through the small stack of papers on his desk.

"I want to hurry and finish with these documents so we can meet Katara for dinner," Zuko said as he picked one of the scrolls up and began to read.

The retired general was once again curious at the expression on his nephew's face, although this time the dark look had been replaced by a soft one, and if he was not mistaken, Zuko's tone had a hint of longing in it. Unable to curb his curiosity and hope any longer, Iroh cleared his throat to get the young firebender's attention and smiled when Zuko looked up with a raised eyebrow.

"Nephew, I've been wanting to ask," the old man began as he again took his teacup into his hands, "Did anything happen between Miss Katara and you while both of you were traveling…alone?"

Zuko made sure to keep his expression blank as memories of what Katara and he had done so far surfaced pleasantly in mind.

"What do you mean, Uncle?" he asked instead.

"Well, Miss Katara and you seem much more comfortable around each other than before, so much so that you had no qualms in being comforted by her or of you comforting her," Iroh commented casually in order not to make Zuko defensive and in the process close himself off.

"Nothing too drastic happened," Zuko confessed with a small shrug before his lips curled into a satisfied smile. "And if it did, it wouldn't really matter since Katara is going to be my wife soon anyway."

Iroh almost dropped his cup as he stared in wide-eyed shock at his smirking nephew.

"W-what did you say, Zuko?" he asked incredulously as he placed the teacup on the table. He was almost sure he had imagined it.

Zuko suppressed a chuckle at his uncle's skeptical yet hopeful look and he smiled.

"Katara has agreed to marry me," he said, the smile on his face growing a bit wider. "She is going to be mine. She's going to be my wife, Uncle."

Iroh grinned widely as he leapt from his seat with a joyful cry before moving around the desk to grasped Zuko's arm and clap him on the back.

"Congratulations, Zuko!" Iroh exclaimed enthusiastically. "You have no idea how long I have waited to hear such words! Your mother is going to be so overjoyed with the news!" he continued rapidly as he made his way back to his seat where he smiled widely at his amused nephew.

"Thank you, Uncle," Zuko said simply and sincerely.

"You know, Nephew," the retired general began with a large smirk on his face and a teasing glint in his eyes, "I was beginning to resign myself of never having grandnephews and nieces. I had begun to worry at your denseness."

Zuko scowled him, but Iroh just smiled as he took a small sip from his tea. The delighted smile on Iroh's face faded a bit and he frowned.

"But what about Mai and Aang?" he asked tentatively.

Zuko's eyes narrowed before he shrugged.

"I ended things with Mai and Katara broke up with Aang before we left the Fire Nation," he explained in a cool tone. "Now there is nothing to keep me from marrying Katara."

"Well, that does make things easier for both of you," the retired general commented with a smile.

"Somehow, I doubt it," Zuko muttered. "I still have to ask Chief Hakoda for Katara's hand in marriage."

"Don't worry, Nephew, all men have to go through such a thing at one point in their lives," he said amusedly. "Let us just hope Chief Hakoda and Master Sokka go easy on you."

He chuckled when Zuko let out a disgruntled grunt.

"So have you planned on when to have the wedding?" Iroh continued excitedly. "We must start immediately with the preparations! And we must send invitations to everybody! Oh, and you and Miss Katara must have a celebration to announce your engagement! And—"

"Uncle!" Zuko interrupted with a frown. When his uncle turned to him, he leaned back in his seat with a long sigh.

"Please keep my engagement to Katara a secret for now," he said sullenly.

"What?" Iroh spoke up with a confused frown. "But why? Why do you want to keep your engagement to Katara a secret, Zuko?" he asked suspiciously.

"I don't want to keep it a secret!" Zuko growled out. "If it were up to me, I would have announced my intentions to take Katara as my wife as soon as we arrived at the colony! But Katara wants to talk to her family and to…Aang first."

Iroh tried to protest the idea before he relented when Zuko told him firmly that it was what Katara wanted and he would not break his promise to her. They were silent for a moment as Zuko concentrated on his papers while Iroh inwardly mused about the upcoming royal wedding. Iroh just hoped the Court Council would not object to Zuko marrying the Water Tribe woman.

"Zuko, could you answer a curious old man's question?" Iroh spoke up, breaking the silence beyond the sounds of the rain outside.

"Alright," Zuko relented with a weary sigh as he placed the scroll he had been holding aside before looking up at his uncle with a cautious frown.

"What happened to finally make you and Katara confess your feelings to each other?" the old man asked with a large grin. But his curious grin dropped when he noticed Zuko tense and a dark expression appear across his face.

"What's wrong?" Iroh asked in alarm.

"If it wasn't for a near tragedy, I don't know how long I would've taken before confessing my feelings to her," Zuko began with a rough edge to his voice. "Agni, I was so stupid. I was such a coward for not letting her know sooner," he growled out as he clutched his unbound, dark hair with his fingers.

"What are you talking about?" the old prince asked him with a concerned frown.

Zuko glanced at his uncle briefly before he looked down at his clenched fists now resting on the desk.

"I told you Katara and I escaped because I killed the men Jianguo left behind to guard us while he and the rest left toward the colony, right?" Zuko began in a low tone.

"Yes," Iroh said slowly as he eyed his nephew curiously.

"Well, I didn't tell you the real reason why I attacked them without mercy and without caring that it was me against ten of them," Zuko told him as his eyes flashed in anger at the memory before he closed his eyes and clenched his hands.

"They…they wanted to…hurt Katara," he said lowly and nodded when understanding came to Iroh who then gave him a worried look. "I wasn't about to let them touch her, so I fought against the one who wanted to hurt her, but once he realized he could not win against me…he attacked Katara before I could stop him."

Zuko clenched his jaw tightly and his nostrils flared at the memory of Feng wounding Katara before the bastard dared make a joke while she lay injured on the forest floor.

"The sight of Katara's blood spilling around her, of her terrified and pained eyes, I…I just," Zuko growled out as he stared at his hands before he snapped his head up to look at a wide-eyed Iroh with furious features, "I lost it, Uncle! I never felt so much rage in my entire life. I never wanted to kill someone as much as I wanted to kill them for hurting Katara! So I did. I killed them, ignoring their pleas for mercy."

Taking a deep breath to rein in his turbulent emotions, Zuko unclenched his hands and ran them through his hair as Iroh waited for him to continue.

"I wanted to make them suffer before I ended their lives, but the only thing that stopped me from doing so was the urgent need to take Katara to the stream so she could heal her wound. But once I finally managed to place her in the water, she was already too weak…she had lost so much blood." Zuko paused and drew in a painful breath as he glanced down at the desk before him.

"Katara…died," he rasped out and squeezed his eyes shut. "She died in my arms. I almost lost her, Uncle!"

Iroh gasped in horror at his nephew's words laced with pain and remorse, and he now understood the saddened look Katara had and the dark expression Zuko wore when he had asked earlier if they had been hurt.

"But…how…?" Iroh began before he trailed off as he placed a hand over his chest, "Oh, Agni."

Zuko sighed and he slumped in his chair as he once again lifted his head to look at his uncle sitting across from him with a confused and horrified expression.

"I held Katara's cold body in my arms as I raged at the gods to return her to me," Zuko continued, his voice subdued. "I don't know how it happened, or if perhaps the gods took pity on me, but Katara came back to life. She was weak from all the blood loss, but she was alive and I was not about to let her go, so I confessed my feelings to her, not caring if she rejected me."

The Fire Lord let out a humorless chuckle as he smiled at his uncle.

"It really does take losing something important, or having the threat that they will be taken away, to make us understand its worth," he said.

Iroh nodded in understanding as he gave his nephew a small smile.

"I have once before said that destiny is a funny thing," he commented with a low chuckle.

"It sure is, Uncle," Zuko agreed.

"But Katara is indeed fine?" Iroh asked with concern.

"Yes, there is no evidence that she had been injured at all," Zuko reassured him.

Iroh cocked his bushy eyebrow as he wondered how Zuko would know such a thing, but decided he really did not want to know. All that mattered was that Katara was all right. Of course, that did not stop him from asking Zuko how he confessed his love for the lovely waterbender, and of course, his nephew refused to give him any good details except that he had told Katara his true feelings and she had confessed her love for him in return.

"Didn't I tell you to trust me when I said that you had not lost Miss Katara's love?" Iroh said with a cheerful grin.

"Why couldn't you have just told me and saved me the misery of thinking I never had a chance?" Zuko asked with a small growl.

"And what would be the fun it that?" the old firebender commented innocently.

He sighed when his nephew glowered at him.

"I told you it was something that was between Miss Katara and you, and now look! Didn't you find peace and happiness by telling Katara you love her and finding out what her response truly was?"

"I suppose you are right," Zuko conceded reluctantly.

"And you are happy, correct?" Iroh prompted with a grin.

"I am in love and I am loved, Uncle," Zuko answered quietly with a small smile. "Two things I thought would be impossible for me to experience in my life." His eyes narrowed. "And I will not lose them."

An understanding and happy smile stretched Iroh's thin lips as he sat back contentedly on his seat.

"I am happy to hear you say so, my nephew," he admitted, the smile still on his face. "And I am very grateful to Miss Katara for making you this happy."

"I would be even happier if she agreed to allow me to announce our engagement as soon as we arrive at the Fire Nation," was Zuko's muttered reply as he returned his attention to his forgotten papers.

Iroh chuckled loudly at his disgruntled words and laughed more loudly when his nephew scowled darkly at him.

"I am still curious to know how you were able to defeat ten men all by yourself while you had your bending blocked," Iroh decided to change the subject before his nephew kicked him out for teasing him too much.

The old prince was once again intrigued by the smug smirk that appeared on the young Fire Lord's face and he raised a thick eyebrow in interest.

"I was able to call forth a new level of firebending," Zuko replied vaguely.

"And by this you mean…?" Iroh pressed with an inquisitive frown.

His frown deepened in curiosity as he watched his nephew raised his hands and light them with fire before Zuko closed his eyes and relaxed his features and body in concentration, while his breathing became steady and regular. A long moment passed with nothing occurring and Iroh began to wonder what his nephew was up to and if perhaps he planned not to say anything. He opened his mouth to get Zuko's attention, but his words caught in his throat and he choked as the bright red fire in his nephew's palms expanded and then changed into a lighter color.

"White fire," Iroh breathed in incredulity and awe as he stared at the white flames before he raised his eyes to see Zuko's satisfied face. "Zuko, you're bending white fire!"

"I know," Zuko responded with a low chuckle at his uncle's amazed expression. "This is what helped me get rid of all those bastards that wanted to hurt Katara."

"B-but how?" Iroh sputtered before he collected himself and smiled proudly at his nephew. "I mean, the last person known to have been able to bend this high level of fire lived many, many years ago! And it is said that not many firebenders will be able to achieve such a skill. So how did you do it, Nephew?"

"I don't really know," Zuko began with a frown before he clenched his flaming fist. "The rage that consumed me when Katara was hurt was so great that my suppressed inner fire just exploded from within me."

The white flames flared at his heated emotions and Zuko took a calming breath to control the flickering fire before he looked at his uncle.

"But I don't want my anger to control my bending," Zuko continued and they both knew he refrained from saying 'again.'

Zuko could feel himself tiring out, so after a deep exhale, he extinguished the white flames.

"I also can't bend the white fire for too long for I tire too easily," he explained before he asked, "Do you think it takes more energy to bend such fire?"

Iroh leaned back in his seat with a contemplative look as he stroked his chin.

"That is a very good question that, unfortunately, I cannot answer at the moment," he began before he smiled encouragingly. "But I am sure we can find some old scrolls concerning everything there is to know about the art of bending white fire in the palace library."

"You're right," Zuko agreed with a nod. It had been a while since he had visited the library last.

"You'll see that with some practice you will master the white fire as well," Iroh told him confidently. He placed his hands inside his sleeves and his eyes widened when his fingers came in contact with metal.

"Oh! I almost forgot to return this to you," Iroh exclaimed as he extracted his hand from his sleeve and revealed the Fire Lord's golden fire crown.

Zuko reverently took it from Iroh's outstretched hand and stroked the cool metal with his thumb as he gazed down at it.

"Thank you, Uncle," he said as he placed the fire crown inside one of the drawers of his desk so he would not misplace it. He planned to wear it again tomorrow.

"I also have something that belongs to Katara," Iroh continued with a smile as he reached into his other sleeve and pulled out the silver rose hairpin before handing it to his nephew.

Zuko immediately took it before he smiled gratefully at his uncle.

"We should go to dinner now," the retired general spoke up before he chuckled. "I'm pretty sure Miss Katara is as anxious to see you as you are to see her. Am I right?"

"Uncle," Zuko groaned exasperatedly when the old man waggled his eyebrows at him.

It was early in the morning as the Fire Nation citizens crowded along the street that led to the palace, watching a group of guards mounted on komodo rhinos and surrounding their Fire Lord who was riding beside a carriage. If they looked into the opened windows they could see Lady Katara peeking out as she took in the sight of the bustling city. The people welcomed their lord and the master waterbender enthusiastically since there had been rumors that they had either died or had been kidnapped, and although they did not know if the latter was true, they were just glad to know their Fire Lord and Lady Katara were back and safe. The people remained outside the palace walls speculating about the events even after the Fire Lord, the guards, and the carriage disappeared behind the large steel doors.

Zuko breathed a mental sigh of relief once they entered the courtyard. He did not like to be surrounded by so many loud people, especially since he did not know how to react when said crowd was cheering at his return instead of hurling insults.

Riding expertly on his black komodo rhino, the young Fire Lord once again glanced at the window of the carriage and smiled slightly when Katara caught his eye and blushed before she was distracted when Iroh, who was sitting across from her, engaged her in conversion. Zuko returned his gaze back ahead of him and suppressed the smug smirk that wanted to appear on his face. Ever since they had pleased each other on that ostrich-horse, Katara had been unable to look at him without blushing, and every time he saw that lovely blush on her cheeks, he felt his body warm up. He had wanted to ride into his palace with Katara sitting in front him so he could have an excuse to have her lovely body pressed to his, but his uncle had convinced him it would be better if Katara rode on the carriage so as not to start any rumors.

When they arrived closer to the palace, Zuko noticed his mother standing atop the long flight of stairs with Jee standing at her side. The young Fire Lord felt an immense relief wash through him to see that his mother was indeed fine and he pressed his booted heel against his rhino's side in order to increase its pace. He watched as his mother smiled brightly before she quickly made her way down the stairs, clutching her long robe with one hand as she descended.

Zuko dismounted from his komodo rhino and handed the reins to one of the stablemen before making his way to the carriage. He waved away the carriage driver, who backed away with a bow, and opened the door. He smiled as he offered his hand to Katara who blushed as she took it and allowed him to help her out of the carriage.

"Thanks," she muttered once she was standing outside and slipped her hand away from his in order to smooth the dark red dress she had hastily packed when they had first made their way toward the colony.

"You're welcome," Zuko responded with a smoldering look.

Again, Katara felt her cheeks heat up since she could not stop remembering what they had done on that ostrich-horse before she scowled when Zuko smirked knowingly at her. Fortunately, Zuko decided to stop when Iroh cleared his throat as he stepped out of the carriage.

Zuko glanced at the grinning old man briefly before he turned away in order to go greet his mother, who had already reached the bottom of the stairs and was running swiftly toward them. Jee trailed a bit slower behind her. Katara watched with a smile as Zuko quickened his pace and opened his arms so his mother could embrace him as tears ran down her pale cheeks. The guards and servants pretended not to notice the scene and looked elsewhere.

"Zuko, my son, I was so worried," Ursa cried out softly. "I was afraid that I might have lost you so soon after finding you again. I don't know what I would have done if that had been so."

Zuko's arms tightened slightly around his mother before he pulled back to look at her—to make sure she was indeed alright—just as Katara and Iroh approached them.

"I'm sorry to have worried you, Mom," he told her sincerely. "But I'm fine now and I won't let anything take me away from you…and Katara," he added softly.

He glanced at Katara who was blushing again before he looked back at his mother who was staring at them both with wide eyes. Ursa moved away from him and walked toward Katara who smiled at her.

"Katara dear, I am so relieved to know you are well," the older woman told her sincerely as she embraced the waterbender.

"Thank you, Lady Ursa," Katara responded as she returned the motherly embrace. She was reminded of her own mother for a moment before thoughts of her family surfaced in her mind. She hoped she could see them soon.

They pulled apart and smiled at each other just as Jee finally approached them.

"My lord, Lady Katara," Jee began as he bowed, "I am very glad to see that both of you have returned safely."

"Thank you, Admiral Jee," Zuko responded as he graced his admiral with a small smile. "And thank you for keeping my mother safe."

Jee smiled and gave another small bow. The small group finally made their way into the palace while the servants scurried to do their duties and the guards returned to their posts.

"You should refresh yourselves and rest before lunch," Ursa suggested as she turned to smile at her son, Katara, and Iroh. "And then you can tell me what has happened since you left the Fire Nation."

"That is a great idea, my dear Ursa!" Iroh exclaimed beside her.

"I would like a real bath again," Katara chimed in with a soft laugh.

"Then we will meet in my antechamber for lunch," Zuko spoke up as he led them toward the western wing of the palace where some of the guest rooms, the royal family quarters, and his privates chambers were.

When they were standing outside the room Katara had used since her first visit, the two young benders looked at her door before they glanced at each other.

"Uh, well, I'll see you all for lunch then," the waterbender said, though she was staring at Zuko only.

"Yes," Zuko responded without taking his eyes away from hers. His hands twitched at his sides as he curbed the need to tug Katara to him.

They were pulled away from each other when they heard Iroh clear his throat before he chuckled quietly. With a blush, Katara opened the door and quickly stepped inside before she closed the door behind her. Zuko ignored his uncle as he turned away and made his way to his rooms without saying another word.

Ursa watched as her son walked down the golden corridor before she glanced at the closed door where Katara had disappeared to, and then looked at her son's retreating form again before she looked at Iroh with a raised, thin eyebrow.

Iroh smiled widely at her as he said, "I am positive you will hear good news soon, Ursa." He chuckled again as he turned away to retire to his own room.

Ursa watched him go before she glanced at Jee who looked at her with an equally bewildered expression.

Zuko sat on the dais in the throne room with the wall of fire blazing warmly before him. He had just finished a pleasant lunch with Katara and his family and now he was having a much needed meeting with his advisors. Iroh and Jee had decided to accompany him and were sitting off to one side. He had just recounted some of the things that had occurred since he and Katara had left after they received that false message, and now he was silently listening to his advisors tell him how glad they were he was all right and that they had been worried that it might have been true that he was captured for they had been concerned of the right course of action.

"Even though we did not wish you and Lady Katara any harm, we could not release Ozai, not with the Fire Nation prospering so well," Advisor Chao spoke up and he gave the young lord a respectful bow.

Zuko gave him a small nod before he let his eyes wander among his advisors.

"That would have been the best solution and I would have expected such from you all," Zuko told them with a cool tone. "We cannot allow Ozai to escape and cause destruction to our nation and the world."

He paused as the Court Council members murmured in agreement amongst themselves, but Zuko barely heard their words since his attention was focused on Wei who had been unusually quiet since the meeting had commenced.

He is probably disappointed that their plan failed, Zuko thought as he narrowed his eyes at the old advisor.

"You seem strangely quiet today, Advisor Wei," Zuko spoke up suddenly in a deceptively calm tone. "Is there a reason for such behavior?"

Wei raised a thick gray eyebrow before he gave a small shrug of his shoulders, his round belly shaking at the movement.

"Of course not, Young One," the advisor said with a small sneer. "I am just surprised that you managed to escape, after all, you said you were captured by a large group of rebels."

"Is it surprise or disappointment you feel?" Zuko questioned casually.

"My lord?" Wei asked as his eyebrow once again lifted high on his wrinkly forehead.

"I have great suspicions that you are the traitor who has sent all those anonymous letters and the one who made it possible for the rebels to capture Lady Katara and me," Zuko announced with a slight growl.

The meeting room went completely silent as the advisors looked in shock between the impassive Fire Lord and the wide-eyed Wei before they began to murmur quietly with each other. Wei shook his head as he recovered himself, straightened his back and narrowed his dark eyes.

"I do not appreciate being accused of something I had no part in," Wei growled out indignantly.

Zuko's nostrils flared as he swiftly dismissed everybody except for his uncle, Jee, and Chao as he stared Wei down. The other men reluctantly followed their lord's order, though they were curious to know what was going to happen. Once the large doors were closed behind them, Zuko pinned an angry glare at the old advisor who was glaring back at him.

"I have many reasons to believe you are the culprit for what has happened," he said darkly.

"I would like to know what those reasons are for you are wrong," Wei demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"Did you eagerly comply with Jianguo's demands for Ozai's release?" Zuko asked instead.

"My lord?" Chao spoke up quietly and swallowed when the Fire Lord turned piercing, golden eyes on him. "Advisor Wei actually was one of the first to refuse to do such a thing."

Zuko was surprised at Chao's words, but his facial features did not show it as he raised an incredulous eyebrow at him before he turned to glare suspiciously at Wei.

"I find that hard to believe," he said coldly.

Yet maybe not, since Wei has always shown his dislike of me, and if Jianguo's demands were not met I would have been killed, thus getting rid of me, Zuko thought.

Wei seemed to understand what he was thinking for he shrugged as he said, "I know we never got along, Young One, and I never hid my dislike of you, but I love the Fire Nation and I want to keep it safe."

"If you want to keep the Fire Nation safe, then why did you want the war to continue?" Zuko countered.

"That was four years ago and my views have changed slightly," Wei answered smoothly. "Although I still think the Fire Nation has the right to rule the other nations as the superior element," he added with another shrug. "And besides, if Ozai was released he would not hesitate to kill us all for agreeing to be part of your new rule, and I am no fool to think Ozai would spare me, even if I disagreed with you many times."

Zuko was silent as Wei's words reached him. Wei may have argued about his new rule and his decision to end the war, but the advisor had never said that he supported Ozai. Was what he was saying the truth or all lies?

"Besides," Wei continued with a dry chuckle, "Ozai has no army to back him except for a bunch of dirty rebels, so how could he dream of defeating the great Fire Nation Army? I would be a fool to ally myself to the side that will, undoubtedly, lose very quickly."

Though he did not show it, Zuko was confused and irritated for Wei had an answer to everything and it all made sense, but he still had his suspicions and he will not let himself be deceived so easily.

"I saw you leave the prison tower where Ozai is held," Zuko said in the same unaffected tone as if all he heard did not matter.

"I visit my younger brother who was one of the foolish ones who rebelled against your rule when you first became Fire Lord," Wei responded with another casual shrug.

Damn! He had been sure he would have caught Wei with that one.

Zuko glanced at his uncle, who was scowling slightly at Wei, before he glanced at Jee and Chao who were frowning, uncertain of what was happening or what they should do. He took a deep breath to prepare himself for the next reason for his suspicions.

"During my twenty-first birthday celebration, you were asking many questions regarding my…relationship with Lady Katara," Zuko began with narrowed eyes. "Jianguo and his men knew Lady Katara is…important to me."

"I am not the only one aware of the affection you hold for the waterbender," Wei replied with another shrug and a small smirk.

Zuko frowned slightly since he had thought he was being discreet about his feelings for Katara. He was brought of his thoughts when Wei spoke up again.

"Are you done accusing me of such nonsense?" the advisor ground out with an annoyed expression on his round face.

Zuko leveled an irate glare at him.

"For now, you are dismissed," Zuko growled out as he waved his hand irritably at him.

Wei glared indignantly as he stood up. He gave a stiff bow before he made his way to the doors and left once they were opened for him.

The three men who had been silent during the exchange glanced at each other before they looked questioningly at their silent lord. They watched as he stood up from his throne and swiftly descended the marble stairs before parting the fire wall and stepping through. He motioned for them to follow him, and they silently stepped behind him as they left the meeting room. They reached the Fire Lord's study, and once the door was closed, Zuko strode behind his desk where he banged his palms against the hard, wooden surface. He looked up with blazing eyes, and except for Iroh, the other men flinched in uneasiness.

"Who else knows about the anonymous messages, Advisor Chao?" Zuko asked curtly as he sat down on his large chair.

"Except for the other Court Council members and your Lady Mother, I know of no one else, my lord," Chao responded quickly. "Although I did send a message to Avatar Aang—"

"What? Why?!" Zuko asked angrily.

Chao was startled at the anger in the Fire Lord's voice that it took him a few seconds to answer.

"I thought Avatar Aang could help rescue you and Lady Katara if you were indeed being held hostage."

Zuko caught Iroh's disapproving look and he took a deep breath to calm himself down. His confrontation with Wei had not gone as he had planned and it infuriated him. And the jealousy he felt towards Aang at the moment was not making his temper any better.

"That was a good idea, Advisor Chao," he consented.

"Lady Ursa asked me to send Chief Hakoda a message a few weeks ago informing him of what was happening. We received his reply a few days ago saying he will sail to the colony to help General Iroh search for you and his daughter," Chao informed him quietly.

Zuko gave a curt nod. "Lady Katara has already sent her family a message that we were returning to the Fire Nation." He was silent for a moment before he turned to Jee.

"Admiral Jee, could you send for the messenger that arrived with the false missive?" Zuko ordered as he shifted the stack of papers that had somehow accumulated on his desk since he had finished lunch with his family. He looked up with a frown when the admiral did not immediately respond to his request.

"Uh, my Lord," Jee began before he cleared his throat. "The messenger caught a fever from exhaustion and died a few days later after your departure."

"What?" Zuko exclaimed before he narrowed his eyes as he growled out, "Are you sure it was a fever that killed him?"

"That is what the physician's assistant told me," Jee explained.

Zuko frowned.

"It seems too convenient that the messenger who brought a false message died so soon," he said. "Send for the Physician Toshiro. I want to ask him some questions."

"He is not here at the moment, my lord," Jee spoke up. "He received news that one of his daughters has given birth and he has gone to visit her."

"Then send him to me as soon as he returns," the young lord said tersely.

The room was silent for a moment before Zuko finally spoke up.

"Admiral Jee, I want you to send a few loyal men to discreetly spy on Wei and report to me everything they see and hear."

"I will do so immediately, my lord," Jee responded as he bowed and turned to leave.

"Admiral Jee, wait," Zuko called out.

He waited until the admiral turned back to look at him before he continued.

"I know I told you that you would be in charge of my mother's safety until I found her a personal guard, but with the threat of a traitor among us I'd like for you to continue to guard her, for I do not trust anyone else to keep her safe when I'm not around her. I'm afraid you will not be able to return to your duties as admiral to my flagship until we get rid of the problem."

Jee bowed as he sincerely replied, "You are the lord and I will follow any order you demand. I will be glad to act as Lady Ursa's personal guard until you decide otherwise."

Zuko thanked him with a nod of his head, and after another bow, Jee retreated to accomplish his lord's bidding.

After dismissing Chao as well, Zuko slumped in his chair with a tired sigh. Iroh sat on the chair across from his nephew and watched him silently. A long moment passed in which his nephew did not say a word, and Iroh began to wonder if he could ask a servant to bring him some tea while he waited.

"I didn't think Wei would've been able to defend himself and I was so sure I had him," Zuko finally spoke with a growl. "And if everything he said is true, then how can I accuse him? And without any proof how can I have him arrested?"

"Do not despair yet, Zuko," Iroh advised him wisely as he slipped his hands into his long sleeves. "Perhaps the spies will find something useful that will convict Wei of his crimes and signal him as the traitor."

"That could be a possibility, but what if they don't find anything against Wei?" Zuko speculated as he clenched his hands.

"And what if Wei is really innocent?" Iroh spoke up and ignored his nephew's unconvinced snort.

Zuko ran a hand down his face as he let out a frustrated sigh. "Then who could the traitor be?"

Before Iroh could answer, they were interrupted when a soft knock was heard at the door. Zuko glanced at his uncle before he called for whoever was at the door to enter. Both men watched as the door was opened and Ursa and Katara stepped into the room with Jee trailing behind them.

Zuko again felt his body warm up as his eyes landed on Katara for he had been unable to touch her, much less kiss her, since their arrival. He frowned, however, when he saw her look at him with a sad expression before she glanced back at his mother, and he wondered what was wrong. His eyes moved away from Katara so he could look at Ursa and his frown deepened at the solemn expression on the usual calm features of his mother.

"What's the matter?" he asked worriedly as he stood up from his seat and walked around his desk so he could stand before them.

Ursa looked at him silently for a moment before she took a deep breath when Katara gently squeezed her shoulder.

"Zuko…I want to visit Azula," she said determinedly.

"What?" Zuko exclaimed quietly before he shook his head. "You know that you can't visit her," he reminded her gently.

"Please, Zuko," Ursa pleaded, her golden eyes filling with tears. "I was so afraid and devastated when I thought I lost you and it reminded me that I could so lose my daughter as well. I haven't seen her in years!"

Zuko refrained from saying that Azula was already lost to them, but he did not want to distress his mother more than she already was.

"Azula is in no condition to see anyone," he told her softly.

"My daughter has been alone for so long!" Ursa cried out. "I can't stand the thought that my daughter is suffering by herself while I live comfortably in the palace!"

Katara again placed her hand on Ursa's shoulder while Jee stepped hesitantly closer to the crying woman. Katara turned to Zuko who was looking worriedly down at his mother.

"Lady Ursa deserves to see her daughter, Zuko," she told him firmly yet gently when he looked at her.

"If Azula sees our mother, her condition might worsen," he said with a frown.

"Or it might help," she countered.

They looked silently at each other as Zuko debated what to do. He felt warmth spread in his chest at the knowledge that Katara really cared for his mother, for he knew Katara held no great affection for his sister after what she tried to do to them. However, he was also afraid that his mother seeing Azula's condition might hurt her and he did not want her to suffer. His mother had suffered enough.

"Please, my son," Ursa pleaded one more time in a soft whisper.

Zuko looked at her silently for a moment before he let out a reluctant sigh.

"Fine," he agreed with a displeased grunt before he frowned seriously at his mother. "But if anything bad happens, you will never set foot in that place again," he told her firmly.

"Thank you, Zuko," Ursa said gladly as she moved forward to embrace her son.

Zuko did not respond as he returned the embrace. He glanced at Katara who was smiling gently at him and he frowned.

Things were getting more complicated.

Glancing out the carriage window, Katara's eyes widened as she took in the large white stone building that loomed before them, though it probably only seemed that way since it rested atop a large hill. Thick, tall walls surrounded the building where she could see a few sentinels standing guard. It had taken a few hours for them to ride away from the palace and arrive at the place where Azula was being held. She could already see the sun sinking lower in the sky. She would have stayed in the palace if Zuko had not insisted she accompanied him and Lady Ursa, for he did not want to let her out of his sight. She sighed. She really needed to get used to Zuko's overprotectiveness.

Katara looked away from the building and sat back against the carriage wall. She glanced to her right at Lady Ursa, who had been silent ever since they climbed into the carriage, and placed a comforting hand over the older woman's clenched one. Ursa looked up at her, her golden eyes filled with sadness and anxiety, before she gave her a tiny, grateful smile and patted Katara's hand. Returning the smile, Katara retracted her hand and again sat back in her seat as she looked up at Zuko sitting across from them. She frowned when she saw him scowling darkly out the window just as he had been doing since they left the Fire Nation Palace.

He had changed into his dark red and golden armor and his hands were clenched tightly atop his knees as he sat there, silent and brooding. Katara knew he was upset about allowing his mother see what had become of Azula now. Although she would never be able to forgive the fallen princess for all the hurt and suffering she had caused Zuko, her friends, and her, Katara wanted to support Ursa, who had asked for her help in convincing Zuko to let her see her daughter. Katara knew that what the gentle woman would see might pain her, and even though she did not want Lady Ursa to get hurt, Katara thought it was the best way to stop Ursa from wondering and agonizing over what had become of her daughter.

It was a few minutes later when the carriage was let through the walls once it was known it was the Fire Lord and his mother visiting. As soon as the carriage stopped before the building, Jee dismounted from his komodo rhino and opened the door to help his lord and the women descend from it. Just as they were surrounded by Zuko's personal guards, the doors to the wide building were opened and a tall elderly man with cropped, gray hair walked swiftly toward them. He was wearing a simple gray outfit and what looked like a long, thin white coat that reached down below his knees.

"Fire Lord Zuko," the man exclaimed breathlessly as he bowed. He pushed his thin glasses up his nose once he straightened after Zuko gave him a curt nod. "I was not expecting your visit, my lord, so I apologize if you had to wait long."

"Doctor Nao," Zuko interrupted the older man, "we would like to see my sister."

Doctor Nao paused and he looked over the Fire Lord's shoulder as he finally noticed the other people standing with his lord. His eyes lingered curiously for a moment on the caramel-skinned young woman before his eyes widened in surprised when he noticed the dark-haired woman standing beside her who resembled both royal siblings so much.

"My lord," the doctor began hesitantly, "I do not believe it wise for your sister to receive visitors at this time."

"It will only be for a moment," Zuko responded.

The older man hesitated for a few seconds before he bowed his head. Who was he to deny his sovereign?

"If you would please follow me," he indicated as he turned back toward the doors.

Once they were inside with Jee and Zuko's two personal guards following behind them, Katara took in their surroundings curiously. The design of the inside of the building was simple, with no decorations of any sort anywhere except for a few paintings of Fire Nation sceneries. The walls were painted a calming cream color. The doctor led them through different halls where they passed many steel doors. Katara could not help but wonder what kind of place this was for it looked different from any prisons she had seen before. As if he could read her thoughts, the doctor turned to smile at them.

"The patients are given a few hours a day to leave their rooms and walk in the garden. Of course, only those that are of no threat to the others are allowed to," he explained.

"Patients?" Katara asked.

"Yes. This is a mental institute for those who…suffer mental illnesses," Doctor Nao explained in a pleasant tone. "They receive the help and care they need."

Katara guessed he had stopped himself from saying 'who are insane' and now she understood why Zuko did not have Azula locked in the prison tower.

"How is Azula?" Zuko asked quietly.

"She is doing much better these days, my lord," Doctor Nao spoke up with a kind smile. "She has her moments, but she is calmer than she was when she was first brought in. Sometimes she is even allowed to go into the garden and we do not need to give her shots to suppress her bending in fear that she would hurt anyone or herself. She has been calm today."

Zuko tightened his lips as he glanced at his mother before he continued walking without saying anything else. Katara glanced at Ursa who was walking silently a few paces behind her son before she looked at Zuko who was walking ahead of them, his shoulders tense and back straight. Katara wanted to run her hand along his back to soothe him, but she refrained herself from doing so.

She was brought out of her thoughts when she noticed they had turned into a very long corridor where there were fewer doors that seemed much thicker than the others they had passed so far. As they followed the doctor down the hall, one of the thick doors was thrown open and two large men wearing the same gray outfit as the doctor—minus the white coat—stepped out holding a young, burly man between them. The man had a blank expression on his face, but when he spotted the women standing before him he grinned widely and began to laugh deafeningly.

Katara's view was partially blocked from the cackling man as Zuko stood protectively before her and she scowled at his back. She was about to step around him, but she was distracted when she saw Ursa grab tightly onto Admiral Jee's arm who then gently grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She quickly glanced at Zuko to see his reaction, but he was not paying attention as he had turned to glare at the doctor who bowed and apologize as the two other men tried to drag the snickering man away from them.

Finally, the doctor stopped before a door, and after rummaging through a large ring holding many keys, he opened the door and stepped into the slightly dark room, motioning for the silent group to follow him. As they stepped in, Ursa let out a gasp and her hand flew up to cover her mouth.

Azula sat cross-legged in the middle of a cot with her arms wrapped around her chest as she rocked back and forth. They could hear her mumbling under her breath. Her skin seemed paler than usual and her lithe frame seemed thinner than before. Her once pristine obsidian tresses now fell straight down her back and shoulders with a few dark strands covering her face as her fingers clutched at the white shirt she was wearing.

"Princess Azula," Doctor Nao called out gently. "Look. You have visitors."

Azula's head snapped up as she turned dark, golden eyes at those who dared disturbed her before her eyes widened when she noticed that one of them was her brother. A maniacal grin spread across her lips as she glared at Zuko.

"I haven't seen you in a while, dear brother," she mocked as she flicked a long strand of black hair over her shoulder. Her eyes flickered for a moment on the blue-eyed woman standing beside him before she looked back to Zuko. "How nice of you to bring your waterbending wench with you," she taunted.

Katara clenched her hands at her sides while Zuko narrowed his eyes at Azula who had a sharp smile on her face. Before Zuko could respond, his mother stepped around him with her hands outstretched.

"Azula, my daughter," she said softly.

Azula's smile fell from her face as her golden eyes widened impossibly large before she glared at her.

"Go away!" she screeched before she grabbed her head tightly with her hands. "Go away! You're not here, you're not real!" she chanted loudly.

"Azula," Zuko spoke up, struggling to keep his tone calm. "I finally found our mother, Azula. Mother is really here."

Azula raised her head slightly away from her hands to look at Zuko suspiciously, almost as if she were trying to figure out if he was mocking her, before she turned her eyes toward Ursa who had a hopeful expression on her face. Azula looked at her silently for a moment before her pleasant features contorted into an angry snarl.

"Why are you here after you abandoned Father and your children?!" Azula growled out loudly as her golden eyes glinted in rage.

"Is that what your father told you?" Ursa asked with a horrified gasp.

"Father told me the truth!" Azula screeched as she pulled at her hair.

"It's a lie!" Ursa cried out. "I never wanted to abandon you or your brother!"

"Of course you didn't want to leave Zuzu," the deranged princess sneered. "He's always been your favorite!"

"No, Azula! I—"

"You always loved Zuko more than me!" Azula cut her off wildly. "You would scold me for everything I did, while you mothered Zuko for every mistake he made! Every time I tried to ask for your attention you would put me aside because poor Zuzu needed you!"

Katara gasped softly at the pain she could detect in Azula's voice and she turned to look at Zuko whose eyes were wide with shock.

Zuko stared at his screaming sister in astonishment. He had never thought Azula felt that way, since she always seemed so confident, independent, and nonchalant when they were children. She had their grandfather and father's respect and approval, two things he strove to gain when he still believed he needed them. He never thought Azula might have felt jealous because of the close relationship he shared with their mother. He was the one who had always been jealous that Ozai paid more attention to her. Perhaps this feeling of rejection was part of why Azula had lost her mind.

"I'm so sorry, Azula," Ursa exclaimed as tears ran down her cheeks. "I did not mean to hurt you and make you feel as if I did not love you because I do! I love you and your brother the same—"

"Lies!" Azula screeched before she sneered. "You never loved me! How could you love a monster like me?"

Zuko stiffened for it was the same question he had asked Katara a while ago.

"Despite everything, I still love you, Azula," Ursa tried to say as she moved forward with an outstretched hand.

"Don't touch me!" Azula growled as she jumped away from the cot to stand menacingly before a wide-eyed Ursa. "I don't want to listen to any more of your despicable lies!"

Doctor Nao could sense that things were about to turn for the worst and he quickly exited the room in order to call a nurse and some guards.

"Father is the only one who loves me!" Azula stated as her eyes darted wildly around the room. "He was the only one who praised me! He was even going to make me his heir!"

"Azula!" Zuko tried to intervene, for he could see her words were affecting their mother too much.

Azula turned to glare at him before she sneered in that mocking way he had become used to as they grew up together.

"You must be so happy your mommy came back to you," she taunted in a fake sweet tone. "But Father loved me more than you and I would've been a better heir than you'd ever be! I could've been a better Fire Lord if you hadn't saved that stupid Water Tribe peasant who later chained me down! I would've killed her! If you hadn't stepped in she'd be dead by now!"

Zuko's heart constricted in his chest at the painful truth and he shifted closer to Katara who also stepped closer to him as she gaped at the hatred she could see in Azula's eyes.

"And then after the wench lay dead on the ground, I would've killed you next!" Azula continued and laughed maniacally as she cracked her fingers.

Ursa gasped.

"But he's your brother!" she cried out.

"He would've killed me, too!" Azula screamed in rage as she turned to snarl at their shocked mother. "But you care more for his life than my own!"

"No, Azula! That's not true!" Ursa protested loudly.

She moved forward again and tried to embrace her daughter, but she stumbled back when Azula pushed her away from her. Luckily, Zuko was there to catch Ursa before she fell to the floor. Zuko settled her on her feet beside him as he glared at Azula.

"I told you not to touch me!" she shrieked as she pointed a finger at all of them. "I hate you all!" she growled before she turned burning eyes at a crying Ursa. "I hate you!"

Ursa let out soft painful cry as she stood frozen in shock as her daughter's words sank in. She did not even move when Azula raised her fist and shot a blue fire ball at her and her son's frightened shout did not even penetrate her mind. She blinked when someone pulled her back and spun her around until she collided into a firm chest. She blinked again when she realized it was Jee. Ursa looked over his arm and watched as Katara drew up a wall of water to extinguish the fire blast just as Zuko rushed at Azula and pushed her down onto the hard ground.

Azula cursed and thrashed wildly as she tried to dislodge Zuko from her back, but he was holding her too firmly for her to do much. He had grown taller, heavier, and stronger with the years while she wasted her days locked in a cell.

It was a few seconds later that the doctor and a young woman carrying a tray in her hands entered the room with two big men who immediately rushed to pin the crazed princess down. Zuko stood up as soon as the men had a hold of her and he moved aside as the doctor and the woman approached. His mother approached him and he opened his arms to her. He held her to him as he looked up to give Katara and Jee a grateful look for keeping her safe.

The doctor grabbed what looked like a thin glass tube from the tray filled with a yellowish liquid and a long needle attached to it before he pierced the needle into Azula's shoulder as he pulled the edge of her shirt down. They watched as Azula's loud curses quieted and her thrashing calmed down until she lay still as she looked up at them with dazed eyes, giving her the expression of a person with terrible hallucinations. It seemed that reality was lost to her forever. Finally, her eyes closed and her breathing became soft and slow as Ursa continued crying softly while Zuko held her close to him.

Gliding smoothly over the calm water, the Water Tribe vessel sailed swiftly across the grand ocean. Two men with dark brown hair and blue eyes stood silently at the front of the ship as they stared across the sea, watching with grim expression on their tanned faces as the sun began to set over the horizon. The older of the two clenched the scroll in his hand while his other hand flexed at his side.

"First Iroh sends us a message saying that Katara and Zuko have fallen overboard during a storm and could not be found and that the illness in the colony was false," Hakoda began in an angry tone, "and now we receive a message saying that they are probably captured! My daughter is being held hostage because of the Fire Lord!"

He pressed his lips tightly together when he felt his son place his hand firmly on his shoulder.

"Calm down, Dad," Sokka spoke up with a frown as he glanced at his twin daughters who were trying to crawl away from their mother and great-grandparents before he added more quietly, "It's not Zuko's fault, and besides, you know that Zuko would never have put Katara in danger if he could help it. He will always try to keep her safe."

Hakoda remained stiff for a moment before he relaxed and let out a deep breath as he nodded at his son's words. It still amazed him that his son could be so mature when he bothered to be.

"Besides, Advisor Chao said they weren't even sure if it's true that they've been captured," Sokka continued.

The chieftain nodded again just as the sound of his granddaughters' laughter reached his ears. They glanced to where Suki, Kanna, and Pakku sat around the twins who were now playing with small wooden toys their father had tried to carve into animal shapes. Jing squealed happily as she banged the wooden toy against the deck of the ship while Ting giggled as she began to chew on her fist. The twins were oblivious to the worry and fear the adults were feeling at not knowing where Katara and Zuko were.

"If it's true that they're being held hostage, what will we do?" Sokka spoke up as he turned to frown at his father. "We can't possibly let Ozai be set free."

"We will search for them, of course," was the Southern Water Tribe Chief's immediate answer, confidence and determination deep in his voice. "We will rescue them. By rescuing Zuko, I will return the favor to him for helping you break me free from the Boiling Rock, and I will have my daughter back with us."

"I won't rest until my sister is safe with us again," Sokka said solemnly, his usual cocky expression fierce and determined.

They were silent for a moment, each dwelling in their own thoughts, as the setting sun created a golden glow over the water. Sokka was worried and angry at himself for not keeping his baby sister safe as he had tried to do ever since his father left him in charge of protecting her. He should have insisted on going with her and Zuko to the colony, but he had a family of his own to think about now. He just hoped that everything was just a rumor and they were indeed okay.

Hakoda did not bother to wipe away the cool mist that landed on his face as the soft waves crashed against the swift Water Tribe vessel. He remembered the fear he had felt when he was told that his daughter had been lost in a storm and could possibly be in the hands of some damn rebels. His heart still clenched at the thought that she might be hurt or worse. He had been unable to save his beloved wife when their village had been invaded all those years ago and he was not going to lose their daughter as well.

The chieftain closed his eyes to help bear the pain at the memory of losing his Kya, of the memory of holding her burned and unresponsive body in his arms as he cried into her singed hair. She had been everything to him and her death had almost crippled him. If it were not because his children needed him, he might have let himself die along with her. But he had vowed to get justice for Kya's death and protect their children. He had not been there for Sokka and Katara as they grew up, but he would be there for them now and in the future. He would find a way to return his daughter back to them.

"Dad! Look!"

Sokka's voice brought him out of his depressing thoughts and Hakoda opened his eyes to see his son pointing at the sky. Squinting against the sun's rays, the older tribesman watched as a bird flew toward them. His eyes widened when he recognized it as being one of the Fire Nation's messenger hawks. He felt his stomach drop. Was it more terrible news?

He extended his arm and the reddish bird landed gracefully on it, flapping its wings for a moment before it tucked them against its body. Hakoda quickly retrieved the small scroll from the metal tube attached to the hawk's back before he handed the bird to one of his men to feed it. He unfurled the thin paper just as the rest of his family crowded around him.

"What does it say, Hakoda?" Kanna asked with a worried frown.

Hakoda scanned the message quickly and his face broke into a relieved and happy smile before he looked up at his anxious family.

"It's from Katara!" he exclaimed as he glanced back down at her neat writing. "She writes that both Zuko and she are fine and they are heading toward the Fire Nation. She wishes to see all of us soon."

Kanna let out a relieved cry and Pakku held her to his chest and rubbed her back. Sokka let out a joyful whoop and wrapped his arms around his wife and their children that she was carrying at the moment.

"Thank the gods they're both safe," Suki said with a relieved sigh.

She looked up at her husband and they smiled brightly at each other. However, when Hakoda did not say anything else, Sokka frowned.

"That's it?" he asked as he threw his hands in the air. "What about the storm? And the kidnapping?"

"She says that she'll explain everything once we meet her in the Fire Nation," Hakoda responded as he frowned at one particular sentence. "She also says that she needs to speak to me about something important."

"I wonder what that could be," Suki spoke up curiously as she shifted Ting to her other hip when Jing was picked up by her father.

Hakoda folded the paper and placed it inside his shirt as he turned around and began to bark orders for the vessel to be turned toward the Fire Nation at full speed. The waterbenders quickly scrambled around the deck as they worked to turned the ship to the west and toward the Fire Nation.

The doors to the meeting room closed silently behind the Fire Lord as he and his admiral exited and walked swiftly down the hallway. A deep frown marred Zuko's features and he resisted the urge to pull his hair in agitation.

Things were not going has he had hoped. During the meeting, he had discussed with his advisors and generals about the rebels' threat, but they had disappeared once again and nobody knew where they were hiding now. Zuko was concerned that they were planning something and he could not stop worrying over when and how they would strike next. The spies he had sent to watch Wei have not reported anything unusual about his activities that indicated he was really the traitor. Zuko had also confirmed that Wei indeed had a younger brother in the prison tower whom he visited once in a while.

To make matters worse, he received a letter a few days ago from Mai's father basically demanding to know why he had ended his relationship with his daughter and at the same time subtly begging Zuko to reconsider taking her back. Zuko had sent a message in reply, saying he had done the right thing in breaking up with her and did not regret it before firmly stating that he will not reconsider resuming his relationship with her.

He scoffed, causing Jee to look curiously at him, but Zuko just shook his head and continued walking.

As if I would resume my fake relationship with Mai now that I have the real thing with Katara, he thought.

He sighed. He had not spent any time with Katara since they arrived in the Fire Nation, for both of them had been busy. He was either in meetings with his advisors and generals or stuck in his study, going over everything that had been neglected since his absence. Katara had spent her time with his mother, trying to bring her out of her depression.

A week had passed since they had left a subdued Azula behind and his mother was still not the same. As soon as they had arrived at the palace from the mental institute, Ursa had closed herself off in her room and refused to come out and eat. Jee had to stand outside her door and Zuko knew the admiral disliked being idle, though he never complained. Katara had not left the older princess' side since and tried to help her with her dejected state. Her care had paid off, for two days ago, Ursa had finally left the room to eat her meals with her family or walk in the private garden to take care of her rosebushes and herbs, and she seemed more relaxed. Zuko was grateful that Katara was caring for his mother when he did not have the slightest clue how, which made him even angrier at himself.

He had cursed himself many times for relenting to let his mother visit Azula, for even though Ursa had survived and lived by herself for years, she was still a gentle and delicate person, and he had known that if she saw Azula's condition it would hurt her. Although his mother reassured him that she was fine and was grateful that he had taken her to see her daughter, he still felt responsible and guilty for her unhappiness. Iroh had convinced him that it was for the best for both Ursa and Azula to have seen each other and expressed what they felt. Perhaps one day, Azula would become better and be able to talk with her mother more calmly. Zuko was not sure and he did not want to raise his mother's hopes.

He was still shocked over Azula's words and he could not stop replaying them over in his head. It seemed like both of them had some lack of self-confidence about whether they were worthy of being loved. If Ozai had been a different man, a more respectful husband to Ursa and a more loving and encouraging father to Azula and him, would everything be different, better? Would they have been a happier family?

But if that were the case, Zuko would never have been banished, he never would have seen the atrocities of the war, and he would have never joined Aang to end said war. Everything that had happened to them had been for a reason, a part of their destiny, what fate had planned. Perhaps if his mother had never been made to leave, his father would have never burned and exiled him, and Azula would have never lost her sanity, but then Zuko would have never ended the war and many people would have died. But most of all he would have never met Katara, never would have fallen in love with her and known what true happiness and true love really were.

Zuko felt his heart clench at the thought. He may have suffered many things, but he would endure them again if it meant he got to be with Katara. He would not trade anything or wish for things to have been different. Maybe it was selfish of him for thinking in such a way, but such was the way he felt.

His pace increased and he was barely aware that Jee had to practically jog after him to catch up with his long strides. He needed to see Katara, even though he could not touch her, kiss her, hold her, he wanted to see her beautiful face and those bright, cobalt eyes staring at him as she gave him a lively smile with those lovely, soft lips of hers. His feet took him past the guest rooms and toward the Royal Palace Garden for that is where Jee had said Katara, his mother and uncle were last.

His golden eyes scanned the peaceful private garden until he spotted them sitting at the veranda drinking tea. He quickly stepped onto one of the stone paths and made his way toward them with Jee quietly following behind him. His eyes landed on Katara, who had her back to him, and his body heat flared again at the sight of her and at the sound of her delighted laughter caressing his troubled mind.

"Zuko!" his uncle exclaimed as Zuko finally stepped into the veranda. "We're so glad you could join us! Would you like some jasmine tea?"

Zuko felt like having something stronger than tea and he grunted a 'no' before turning to tell Jiao to bring him some wine.

"Right away, my lord," Jiao said as she bowed and hurriedly went to follow her lord's orders.

Zuko watched as Katara turned around to look at him so quickly that her hair even whipped around her, their eyes locked, and they shivered as if an electric current had passed through them. She flushed at the smoldering look he was aiming at her and she looked down to nibble on a cookie as he moved to sit at the head of the low table on her left side. Zuko had insisted that she sit next to him on his right side as was the custom for the Fire Lord's wife to sit, and she had agreed with a pleased blush, especially since they had not eaten with any of his courtiers who would notice the significance. Zuko finally took his eyes off his blushing bride-to-be and looked at his mother who was watching them curiously.

That's right, we still haven't told her, he mused as he gave his mother a small smile.

"How are you feeling, Mom?" he asked softly.

"I am still sad, and it still pains me to know what Azula…feels toward me, but I'm doing much better thanks to Katara," Ursa replied to her son with a soft smile which she also gave Jee as he stood guard over her.

Katara smiled at her after she took a sip of the tea to wash down the cookie she had just eaten to keep herself from staring too much at Zuko.

"I'm just glad to help," she replied.

Ursa patted her hand before she again turned to smile brightly at her son, who was watching their interaction with a pleased expression on his face. It pleased him to know that the two most important women in his life got along so well.

"Katara is such a wonderful woman, Zuko," Ursa remarked just as Jiao finally returned with the wine and more snacks.

"You're right, Mother," Zuko agreed with a small smile before he added, "That is one of the many reasons why Katara will be much help to the Fire Nation in the future."

He suppressed a smirk as he watched Katara blushed deeply. He noticed his uncle grinning widely over the rim of his teacup as his mother looked at him with wide eyes, Jee frowned curiously, and Jiao pretended not to be listening. He wondered briefly if he should dismiss Jee and Jiao from this conversation, but thought that the admiral and the maidservant would find out soon enough, if they already did not suspect something going on between Katara and him.

"Zuko dear, are you saying what I am hoping you are saying?" Ursa asked as she stared at him with hopeful eyes.

"I confessed to Katara and she said she returns my feelings. She has agreed to marry me," Zuko informed her with a pleased smirk as the blush on Katara's cheeks darkened as she smiled at him.

"Oh my goodness! Really?" Ursa exclaimed happily as she got up and rushed toward her son to give him a hug before she moved to embrace Katara before he could react. "I am so happy for you both! Congratulation! You must allow me to help plan your wedding!"

Zuko was a bit surprised at his mother's enthusiasm, but he was glad to see the pain and sadness diminish a bit from her eyes with the news.

"Thank you, Lady Ursa," Katara replied just as happily as she returned the older woman's embrace. "I'm relieved to know that you approve of our marriage."

"And why would I not approve, Katara dear?" Ursa asked with a soft smile as she turned to touch her son's hand. "You are the woman my son wishes as his wife. You are the one who will make him so happy."

Katara looked down in embarrassment at such praise as she mumbled another thank you when Jiao congratulated them in a shy tone. The waterbender glanced at Zuko out of the corner of her eye and saw that he had a smug smirk on his lips. Lips that she wanted to kiss so much…

"Congratulations, my lord, Lady Katara," Jee's words startled her out of her thoughts and she looked up to see Jee smiling at her before he turned to give Zuko a sly grin. "Though I must admit, I did suspect something."

"It seems everybody else knew except for these two," Iroh chimed in with a cheerful smile.

"Uncle," Zuko growled out, but as usual, the old man ignored him and instead took another sip of tea.

"Oh, I cannot wait to hold my grandchildren in my arms," Ursa exclaimed with a dreamy sigh and Jiao placed her hand against her mouth to muffle her giggles.

"Mother," Zuko muttered.

He looked at Katara whose cheeks were a deep red hue as she glanced at him from beneath her long lashes. Well, it wasn't like he had not thought of Katara pregnant with his child. A smirk pulled at his lips.

"Why haven't you announced your engagement yet?" Ursa spoke up with a frown as she returned to her cushion beside Katara.

Katara saw Zuko raise an expectant eyebrow at her and she scowled at him before she turned to Ursa and gave her a strained smile.

"Well, uh, I would like to speak to my family first and Zuko must ask my father for his consent," Katara began as she fidgeted with her fingers. "And even though I already ended things with Aang, I want to tell him the news first."

Ursa frowned and she turned to look at her son who was scowling at the table before him.

"Well, I admit I am not happy for the wait, but I will respect your wishes," Ursa said with a small nod of her head before she broke into a curious smile. "So how did you confess to each other?"

Katara suppressed a giggle when Zuko groaned, and they spent a few minutes telling Ursa a milder version of it. And then the men listened silently as Katara and Ursa enthusiastically went over ideas for the wedding.

The sun had just set and the moon was rising in the dark sky by the time Iroh finally decided to step in.

"My, it sure is getting late," the retired general commented innocently as he gave a dramatic yawn. "I think I will retire to my room."

He glanced at Ursa and Jee and then at the young couple who were eating each other with their eyes, though they were trying to be discreet about it. Ursa smiled once she understood what Iroh was trying to do and she gave a soft yawn of her own.

"I believe I will retire for the night as well," she said.

Zuko looked away from watching Katara's reaction to his smoldering looks and frowned at his mother.

"Are you not feeling well?" he asked with concern since it was still early.

"No, I'm perfectly fine," Ursa assured him as she stood up from the table along with Iroh and Jee. "I just had too much excitement for one day. Jiao, could you help me with my bath? You can clean the table later."

"Of course, Lady Ursa," Jiao replied quickly as she turned to smile at Katara.

"Why don't you keep Katara company for a while longer, Zuko?" Ursa addressed her son. She smiled when Zuko's eyes lit up in understanding. "Good night, dears."

Once they left and only Katara and he remained, Zuko turned to smirk at her. She was blushing at the knowing looks they had received.

"Well, if that wasn't subtle, then I don't know what is," Katara remarked as she turned to grin at him.

Zuko chuckled at her before he took a sip of his red wine. He poured more wine into another cup and offered it to her.

"No thanks," she declined with a small shake of her head.

"Are you refusing to drink Fire Nation wine?" Zuko asked in a mock insulted voice.

"Only because it's late," she replied with a grin.

"It's never too late to indulge in some good Fire Nation wine," he stated with a serious frown, although his lips twitched in amusement.

"I'm pretty sure there are other things better than wine to indulge in," Katara countered as she thought of some of her own tribe's drinks.

She raised an eyebrow when Zuko's lips curled into a devious smile and she swallowed at the smoldering look he was sending at her.

"Really?" he whispered huskily. "How about we test that?"

Before Katara could asked him what he meant, Zuko took her left hand and brought it over to his cup of wine before dipping her finger into the cool, red liquid.

"What are you doing?" she asked with a confused frown.

Her frown deepened when Zuko did not reply and only gazed at her with those heated, golden eyes of his. Katara watched as he raised her hand to his lips and she shivered as he pressed a kiss on her wet skin before she gasped when he opened his mouth and slid her entire finger drenched in red wine into his hot mouth. A shiver went through her at the sensation of her cool finger being warmed by his mouth combined with the blazing look he aimed at her, and she squirmed as the spot between her legs began to tingle.

Zuko watched her wriggle in her spot as she stared at his mouth, and he curled his tongue around her finger. A low growl vibrated in his chest as the taste that was her and the flavor of the sweet red wine exploded in his tongue. He heard Katara let out whimper before she tried to pull her hand away, but Zuko tightened his hold on her wrist and pulled her closer to him until she was almost leaning over the low table.

Katara watched as Zuko's eyes darken into a molten amber color, and she moaned softly as he wrapped her finger more firmly with his tongue as if he were trying to wipe all traces of the wine from her skin, even though she had a feeling there were none left. The amazing feeling of her finger in his warm mouth stirred Katara's arousal and she was unable to curb another moan from escaping her lips. She watched, mesmerized, as he pursed his moistened lips while he watched her with half-lidded eyes before he pulled her finger out, forming a loud sucking sound as he did so. Instead of releasing her, Zuko brushed her gleaming finger along his bottom lip before he gently nipped the tip of it, causing her body to shudder almost violently as she tried to suppress her growing arousal.

"Hm," he murmured and smirked when her dazed, blue eyes snapped to his. "Some things do taste better than red wine. It makes me wonder what else is there that I can indulge my thirst on."

Katara saw him looking at her as if she were an oasis for a thirsting man and she swallowed thickly as her heart pounded hard in her chest when his eyes fell upon her lips and he began to lean toward her.

"I, uh…I think it's best we, um, go to our rooms and, uh, sleep," Katara stuttered as a blush surfaced on her cheeks.

Zuko paused and leaned back with a frown. He wondered if he had overwhelmed her too much, but he refused to part from her so soon now that they finally have some time to themselves. Zuko stood up, and with her wrist still clasped in his hand, he pulled her gently to her feet as he gave her what he hoped was a calm smile in order for her to relax once again.

"I still think it's too early. Will you walk with me in the garden?" he asked, his husky voice from before now soft.

Katara eyed him cautiously for a moment before she smiled and agreed with a small nod. She was still trying to get used to this new side of Zuko—his blatant masculine sensuality—and the sensations he easily evoked in her. Zuko smiled as he hooked her arm under his and led her away from the veranda and into the cool, stone path. They walked around the quiet place, admiring the many beautiful flowers that surrounded them, breathing in the fresh night air, until they finally stopped alongside the serene pond like so many times before. The little white and pink flowers from the cherry blossom tree danced gracefully around them as they leaned over the water and glanced at each other through their reflections upon the clear surface.

"Do you remember the last time we were here?" Zuko asked quietly.

"Yes," Katara responded just as silently and she ducked her head while she fidgeted with a long strand of her hair. "You held me to you as I cried my eyes out," she mumbled.

"That night I…I overhead you and Aang arguing," he began in a strained voice and his hands clenched at his sides.

Katara's eyes widened. "You did?"

"I saw what he did and I wanted to hurt him so badly," he continued and let out a sigh. "But when I saw you crying…I wanted to comfort you, even if it pained me."

"Why would it pain you?" she asked softly.

"Because you were crying…for him," he answered with a growl.

"What?" Katara exclaimed with a frown before she shook her head. "That was not the reason for my tears."

Zuko looked up to frown at her.

"Then what was the reason?" he asked, unable to curb his curiosity.

Katara was silent a moment as she stared at the tranquil pond before them.

"I cried because the words Aang said about your…close relationship with Mai pained me and…because I thought you would never return my feelings," she replied with a sad sigh at the memory.

Zuko's eyes widened at her soft confession and he scowled, berating himself for his foolishness.

"If only I had told you my feelings for you sooner, we could have avoided all these misunderstandings," he said with a deep sigh as he again returned his gaze to their reflections upon the still pond.

"There's no point in crying over it now," Katara spoke in a light tone, trying to dispel the dark mood. "What matters is that we now know our feelings for each other and we are together."

Zuko smiled as he caught her eye from their reflections.

"You're right. We are going to get married and that's what matters," he said with a smirk.

"Your mother was happy with the news of our engagement," Katara spoke up and she leaned back to grin at him.

"I told you she and Uncle would accept you," he reminded her with a small chuckle as he straightened before he quieted down and grimaced. "Now it's my turn to be nervous and wonder if your family will accept me."

"Oh my!" Katara gasped dramatically. "The Great Fire Lord Zuko is nervous?! What has the world come to?!"

Zuko chuckled at her antics and the teasing glint in her blue eyes, but then he let out a deep sigh and his expression turned serious.

"Once they know what happened, that I did not keep you safe, that you…died, they will hate me," Zuko began in a grave tone as he looked across the pond to a point beyond the distance. "They will not allow me to marry you."

A small frown appeared on Katara's brow and she reached her hands up to grab his face and gently turned it so he could be facing her again. She did not like to see the guilt and pain in his eyes.

"I was not planning on telling them about my near death," she said quietly.

"But, Katara, they need to know!" he exclaimed as he brought his own hands to grasp her upper arms.

"And have them lock me away so I won't get hurt again?" Katara huffed before she shook her head when he frowned stubbornly at her. "Besides, what matters now is that I'm alive. You saved me by letting yourself get beat up in order to protect me and you defeated all those men that…wanted to hurt me."

Zuko's grip tightened at the reminder before he pulled her close to his chest and wrapped her tightly in his arms. Katara wound her own arms around him and placed her head on his firm chest with a soft sigh.

"What matters is that you always try to keep me safe," she told him softly.

Zuko buried his face in her neck and breathed in the scent of her hair as he gave her a gentle squeeze.

"Thank you. I really needed to hear that," he told her in a strained voice.

Katara did not reply as she squeezed him in return and placed a quick kiss to his covered chest. They remained in the same pose for a moment before Katara finally pulled away with a blush. She had forgotten where they were and she was afraid that someone might see them. Zuko allowed her to move away and he began to search among his dark robe before he pulled out a small trinket.

"With everything that has happened since we arrived, I kept forgetting to return this to you," he said as he opened his hand to reveal the silver rose hairpin.

"My hairpin!" Katara exclaimed happily as she took it and brought it close to her chest and stroked the smooth blue and red gems. "I was afraid that I lost it. Thank you."

"Uncle kept it safe until our return," he explained briefly as he watched her gaze fondly at the silver flower-shaped hairpin. "It pleased me very much to see you wear my gift to you during my birthday celebration."

Katara looked up at him and blushed.

"I told you I thought it was a good time to wear it so you could see how much I appreciated and loved it," she began before she smiled. "To show you how much I love you even if I couldn't tell you."

Zuko smiled at her as he took the hairpin from her hand and clipped it on her right temple so that her loose hair was up and exposed her face and smooth neck. His fingers touched the trinket before he trailed them down the soft skin of her face and down the column of her throat, causing her to shiver at his warm touch, before he trailed his fingers back up until he glided them against her plump, lower lip. Agni, he wanted to kiss her again, feel those soft lips of hers molding against his, taste the sweet flavor of her mouth. He leaned down to take her lips, but Katara gasped and placed her hands against his chest to stop him.

"No, you can't," she told him nervously. "Someone might see us."

But Zuko did not let that stop him as he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close to him.

"No one is here to see us," he said in a low and husky voice.

He looked around the quiet garden to make a point, and before Katara could protest again, he swooped down and captured her parted lips. He kissed her with all the pent up passion and longing he held within him as he delved his tongue deep within her hot mouth. Katara immediately responded to him since she had missed being close to him as well and she moaned when the sweet taste of the red wine he had consumed earlier hit her taste buds and gave her a heady feeling.

Zuko smiled inwardly as Katara surrendered to him. Agni, how he had missed having her in his arms. His lips teased hers for a while before he gently captured her lower lip between his teeth, that plump and delicious piece of flesh that always tempted him to taste. He heard her let out a soft moan and he again kissed her deeply, fiercely—biting, caressing, and sucking her lips. His hands ran up and down her back before he began to glide his hands down to caress the lovely curve of her waist and hips until he slid his hands over her firm ass. With a groan, he lifted her slightly and pressed her tightly against him.

Katara gasped before she stiffened and quickly pulled her lips away from his hot kiss.

"We can't," she repeated breathlessly as she tried to twist away from his tight embrace.

Zuko became irritated at her resistance and he gave her a frustrated frown before he drew her to him again despite her struggles.

"Dammit, Katara! Can't you see I miss you?" he growled out as his golden eyes flashed in both annoyance and suppressed arousal. "I miss touching you, kissing you, watching you come undone in my hands, and I hate it that we can't be close to each other, hate it that we have to hide our feelings for each other and our relationship."

He pulled away from her and ran his hands down his face with a frustrated growl before he turned blazing eyes at her.

"Tell me, Katara, do you even want to marry me?" he asked her in a cold tone.

"What?! Of course I want to marry you!" Katara exclaimed as she brought her hands to her hips. "You know the reason why we have to keep a distance between us is because I need to speak to my family first and I need to tell Aang that—"

"I know, but I still don't like it," Zuko cut her off gruffly.

He sighed and again wrapped his arms around her luscious form to bring her to his chest. He bent his head down to nuzzle against her throat before he kissed the smooth column.

"I desire to kiss you, to protect you, to take you, to love you," he groaned into her ear before he again brushed his lips along her throat. He nibbled on her skin and she moaned softly before he leaned back just enough to gaze into her conflicted eyes.

"All I want to do," he whispered huskily as he brushed his lips against hers, "is announce to the entire world, to let Aang know, that you are mine and that you're going to be my wife."

Katara could sense his upset, feel his tense muscles beneath her hands, see his frustration in his usually masked eyes, and she felt a twinge of guilt in knowing that it was she that was causing him to feel this way. She reached both hands to cup his face and urge his head close to hers so she could kiss him. She pressed her lips soothingly against his, ran her tongue gently against his lower lip, until he relaxed and returned the slow and gentle kiss.

When they pulled apart to gather some air, Katara raised her head to kiss his jawline which he responded by squeezing her.

"Please be a bit more patient, Zuko," she asked him softly. "I can't have rumors be spread about us, I can't have my family's honor ruined because of me."

Zuko closed his eyes and sighed. It was so hard for him to keep to his word since what he really wanted was to have her as his wife already, but he had to respect her wishes, for after all, she would be sacrificing a lot more than he when she finally married him, she would be leaving her family and childhood home behind. The least he could do was control his desire and be patient.

"I understand, love," he told her quietly.

Katara gave him a grateful smile before her eyes widened at the endearment.

"Did you just call me 'love'?" she asked softly, her heart swelling in her chest.

Zuko stiffened slightly for the word had just slipped from him, it just seemed so natural. Did it bother her?

"What if I did?" he asked warily.

Katara smiled as she noticed the darkening stain on Zuko's right cheek despite the stoic expression on his face and she threw her arms around his neck with a happy cry.

"I love it!" she exclaimed happily before she added amusingly, "It's better than 'pumpkin'!"

Zuko relaxed and let out a soft chuckle. He pulled her back slightly so he could place his fingers beneath her chin to lift her head toward him before he kissed her softly. When she returned the kiss and his body began to warm up again, he wondered if he really could keep his promise and not find a way to seduce her. He moved away from her delicious mouth and pushed her at arm's length in order to regain some of his control.

"I think it's best we retire to our rooms before I try to change your mind," he said huskily with a small grin.

A blush blossomed across Katara cheeks before she smiled at him.

"Okay, my love," she breathed out.

Zuko felt his heart skip a beat at her words and he smiled at her, at the way her cheeks flushed and at the swollen look of her lips, feeling smug at the thought that it was he that caused her to look in such a way. He again grabbed her hand and placed it beneath his arm before he led them back inside the quiet palace. They were silent as they made their way down the semi-dark corridor, and it was not long when they finally reached her door. Wanting to take another sweet gift from her before he retired for the night, Zuko quickly leaned toward her and stole a kiss from her lips, but the sweet taste of her again robbed him of his senses. With a low groan against her mouth, Zuko backed her up against her door and pressed himself against her soft body.

"Zuko," she tried again to protest as she weakly pressed against his chest, even as her lips moved against his.

Zuko reluctantly pulled away from her delicious mouth with a deep sigh and buried his face against her shoulder with a frustrated groan. Damn, his lower regions ached so badly he felt he would explode at any moment. There was nothing to do except for him to return to his room and solve the problem himself. Damn it.

"Alright, alright, I'll leave you alone now," he said with another sigh as he moved his arms away from her, taking a few steps away to put some distance between them so he could regain some control. "Get some rest. I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow."

With a strained smile, the golden-eyed young man with a problem in his trousers turned away from the blue-eyed woman with irresistible curves and began to make his way to his room, but a small hand clutching the back of his tunic made him pause.

"I'm sorry," he heard Katara whisper.

Frowning, Zuko again turned back around to face her, but she was looking down at her feet.

"For what?" he asked.

"I…I know it frustrates you that I keep you at a distance and that…we can't be i-intimate," she said softly. "I'm sorry for making you wait, especially since I know in the Fire Nation it is expected for a couple to—"

She was cut off by Zuko pressing his thumb on her lips as he gently grasped her chin with his fingers.

"We've already talked about this," he said sternly yet gently. "I already told you that I will respect your views and your wishes. Yes, it frustrates me not to be able to make love to you to my heart's content, but for you I will endure it and so much more."

He gently added pressure to her chin to encourage her to lift her head up, and once she was looking at him, he smiled at her while his thumb caressed her lower lip.

"Waiting will create anticipation and once our bodies are finally joined together in the most intimate of ways it will be beyond wonderful," he finished huskily.

"You think so?" she asked softly.

"I know so," he answered just as softly.

He leaned back toward her, but he straightened himself and his face became the usual cool mask he wore, although his eyes continued to burn with a strong intensity.

"Good night, Katara," he said before he added with a soft smile, "Sleep well, love."

"Good night," Katara sighed out dreamily as she struggled for a moment to open her door since she could not take her eyes away from the man before her.

Once she finally had the door opened, she slipped inside the room—their eyes still locked together—until she closed the door and blocked them from each other's view. Katara leaned her back against the door for a moment. She heard Zuko's soft footsteps move away until she could no longer hear them. With a sigh, she slipped down onto the floor and let her head fall back against the door.

She hoped she could talk to her family and Aang soon for she did not know if she would be able to resist Zuko any longer.

A/N: Azula makes a brief appearance for those who were wondering about her.

Thank you for reading!