Part I- Purity of Blood
Pain. Searing, hot agony clenched at her entire body, nearly forcing her to curl into a ball. The torment slowly subsided and she relaxed as much as she could, yet her mind knew more were coming. Sure enough, mere seconds later it built again, tightening so hard she was certain she'd break.
Oh, spirits, she had never felt such pain.
A woman in red dabbed a cool cloth on her forehead and she managed a weak smile in thanks. It was the worst possible time for this to be happening: it was the middle of summer for one, and the sun had just risen. And it certainly didn't help that that very evening would be the night of the New Moon- everything was conspiring against her.
She was in trouble, that she knew. She recognized the looks on the women's faces and they weren't good. If only she'd managed to summon one of her friends in time… It had been so long since she'd talked to any of them, even her brother. Where was he, even now?
Biting back a rather heated oath, she winced as her body constricted again. Would it never end?
"It's time, my Lady," one of the women murmured, helping her to sit up. She opened her eyes wearily and gasped. The foot of her special bed was completely covered in blood. Lifting her eyes to the woman beside her, she saw the worry and concern therein. They both knew so much blood was not normal- or safe.
"Remember to breathe, my Lady," the woman- Hana was her name- said as she gently rubbed her back.
She knew the routine. She had assisted dozens of women back home, and even more since coming to live here. Focusing her breaths, much like her husband did when he was meditating, she followed Hana's instructions, determined to end her torment.
Hours she labored, fighting with her determination and stubbornness to be relieved of her burden. So focused she was on her task she missed the frightened looks of her maids.
It seemed like days to the rapidly weakening woman, but finally, finally her long months of waiting and hoping were over. With a final loud groan, partially from frustration and partially from the mind-numbing pain, her miracle was born, sliding easily into the midwife's arms, bloody and red-faced, but whole.
The shivering thing was wrapped in a clean towel, the maids scurrying to and fro to take care of the new arrival. It was placed in a basin of warmed water for bathing- and let out a howl of indignation.
The women all smiled at each other. The child obviously had a healthy pair of lungs. Much like both its parents.
The maids and midwife all jumped as the doors to the birthing chamber slammed open- and in walked the proud father himself. His eyes first found the gaggle of women surrounding a wailing newborn and his face turned from one of intense worry to absolute wonder as he slowly walked over to them.
One maid lifted the now-clean infant from the tub and dried it off quickly, swaddling it expertly in a dark red blanket. Turning to him, she bowed, holding the bundled baby out to him to take.
"Your son, my Lord."
His eyes widened slightly before filling with tears. A son. His beloved wife had given him a son. Reverently he took the offered newborn, holding him close as he looked him over. His son sprouted a bit of black fuzz on his scalp, the same color as his own hair. Dark eyebrows, so delicate on such a tiny face, bunched together every so often as if he were aware he was being evaluated- and he was not pleased at such. A little Lord already…
The joyous father turned, looking for his wife. He found her on the far side of the dim room, lying in the birthing bed- and his heart lurched as he saw all the blood on the sheets and floor. He moved with graceful swiftness to her side, taking her hand in his as soon as he was close enough.
Her hand was ice cold, even for her. She turned her head ever so slowly towards him and his chest clenched as he realized how pale she was. How much blood had she lost in order to bring their son into this world?
"What… is it…?" she whispered, obviously exhausted. As well she should be- she'd been in labor for nearly a day, her pains having started the day before.
"A son," he replied, his voice all choked up. "A beautiful son. He's got my hair."
"…And your temper," she replied, managing a ghost of a smile. "I heard him yell… when they put him… in the water."
He tried to laugh, but the concern in his heart wouldn't let him. "Are you sure he's your son?" he joked weakly.
"He'd better be… after all that," she retorted, that spark he so loved faint in her voice. She blinked slowly- so slowly, he thought she was about to fall asleep. Which she deserved, of course.
"I'm sorry," she said in a faint voice.
"Why? I'm the happiest man in the world. That's twice now that you've done so- and knowing you, you'll be rubbing it in my face for the next fifty years. Probably sixty."
She shook her head wearily, as if she hadn't enough strength for even that. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice growing even softer, "…that I won't… see him… grow into… a fine man… like his father."
His heart stopped. No. No, no. She was just talking strangely from the loss of blood. "What are you talking about? You'll be by my side every step of the way. We'll raise him to be the pride of both our nations."
Her eyes- her beautiful blue eyes that he always felt he could drown happily in- closed again, a small smile on her sweet lips. "…I… love you both…" she breathed, her normally outspoken tone now reduced to a mere feather of sound. Her eyes did not open again.
He placed a hand on her shoulder, wanting to shake her awake but knew that in her exhausted state, she needed her rest.
But her words haunted him.
He put his fingers against her throat, feeling for her heartbeat. It throbbed once, shakily, then again. He let out a soft breath of relief, holding his son closer.
Then it stopped.
He froze. Shifted his fingers. Maybe he had the wrong spot. He tried again, but there was nothing. Leaning over, he put his ear by her nose and mouth, listening for her steady breath.
Horror clutched at his heart, his soul. He gripped her shoulder, shaking her gently. "Wake up. Come on, don't play around with me," he pleaded, sounding like a child. A woman came up next to him and tried to touch his arm and he jerked away. He shook his wife harder, determined to wake her. "Wake up! You can't leave me! You promised me you'd never leave me!"
Still the new mother lay unresponsive, the peaceful, contented smile on her lips.
His son began to cry loudly, as if he knew something had happened to his mother. The young father held the newborn close to his heart with one hand, his other hand touching his wife's cool cheek. "Agni, no," he sobbed, realizing what had happened to his beloved, his true soulmate. Falling to his knees by the bed, his son in his arms, he let out a scream of heart-wrenching agony that echoed in the room, bouncing his pain back at him tenfold.
She had been given the grandest of funerals, as was befitting the wife of the Fire Lord. Mourners from every nation came to pay tribute to the compassionate, caring, oftentimes quick-tempered Waterbender who had helped save the world five years before, and had done everything in her power to help bring peace back to the broken people.
The Fire Lord stood silently at the pyre that had been built to cremate her body, as was the custom in the Fire Nation. Knowing her as well as he did, she'd be irritated with him for burning her body rather than returning it to the ocean like her people did, but he had already made arrangements for her ashes to be scattered at sea. Tomorrow… he'd take her home. For the last time.
No tears filled his eyes anymore. He'd simply cried himself dry. Now he was a hollow shell of a man, existing but without understanding how.
A wail sounded behind him and he turned, seeing the wet nurse approaching with his son. He shook his head, informing her he didn't want to see him. The babe was barely a week old and yet he had been to see him only once since he'd been born. Only once since his son's mother, his only love, had been taken from them both.
He'd ventured into the nursery, needing to see his last link with his wife, their only precious son. But the boy had blinked up at him with familiar ocean blue eyes and he'd been unable to stop the tears once more. He'd fled the infant's room as if pursued by the hounds of Hell and locked himself in his office for the next two days. He wouldn't go to his bedroom- too many memories there, of his strong, independent wife, of the love they had made there. Of the son they had conceived there.
"My Lord, I hate to intrude," the wet nurse said quietly, respectfully, "but there is a minor matter we need to take care of, and soon."
He wanted to sigh, but couldn't work up the emotion to do so. "What is it?"
"Your son, my Lord. He needs a name."
Turning, he gazed at her, confused. "He… doesn't have a name?"
"No, my Lord. Lady Katara… passed before she was able to name him."
Hearing his wife's name caused his hardened heart to throb painfully. "I don't know what to name him," he said stiffly.
The wet nurse stepped closer, a sympathetic yet irritated look in her eye, as if he were a disobedient child. "You are his father," she reminded him tersely. "He is the Crown Prince. He cannot go nameless forever."
He turned, looking at the flames that were consuming his wife's body.
She blinked. "I beg your pardon, my Lord?"
"His name is Katon. For his mother."
The wet nurse bowed, taking her leave. "Very well, my Lord. I shall inform the Sages."
He didn't respond as he was left alone to contemplate the flames.
"It's because she wasn't strong enough," came a voice from behind him.
The Fire Lord turned, narrowing his gold eyes at the intruder. "What did you say?" he growled.
The Chief Advisor from the Fire Council stepped out from the shadows and regarded the young man. "Water and Fire don't mix," he continued, gazing at the funeral pyre. "That is why she wasn't able to survive childbirth. The strain of giving birth to a child of mixed blood, especially one born in Fire's season, during the time of the New Moon? Any Waterbender would normally have difficulty with the timing alone, but a Master? And with the added mix of her elemental opposite? It's no wonder she died."
He grabbed the short, balding man by his robes and pinned him roughly against the wall, his golden eyes glowing as the flames roared behind him in anger. "You will speak with respect about my wife," he hissed, smoke trickling from his mouth. "Or you will never speak again."
"I am merely saying, my Lord," the Chief Advisor said, seeming unconcerned with the Fire Lord's ire. "If you were to take a Fire Nation wife, she would not falter under the strain of birthing an heir- a full-blooded heir, no less."
His eyes narrowed- and the fire behind him grew exponentially. "Are you saying that my son is not legitimate simply because he is half Water Tribe?"
"The citizens may view him as such," the Advisor replied. "Especially with those blue eyes of his. Why, he could be a Waterbender- and no Waterbender will ever be allowed to sit on the Dragon Throne. Regardless of his royal blood."
The infuriated Fire Lord took the man and tossed him effortlessly across the chamber, breathing fire as he did so. The twisted expression of pain and wrath on his face was illuminated by the veritable column of fire the pyre had become.
"You cannot even look at the boy without being reminded of his mother," the older man continued, forced to yell over the roar of the flames. "Send him away and choose another wife, a Fire Nation woman. Sire another heir, one fit to rule."
He swung his fist at the man and an arc of nearly white flame shot towards him, forcing the Advisor to duck quickly or be flayed alive.
"My Lord! My Lord!" He turned to see a young woman, one of Katara's maids, running towards him, a look of pure terror on her face. "He's gone!"
He paused for only a moment before the horror overtook him like a wave. "Katon?"
"The wet nurse took him back to the nursery, but never came back- so I went to check on her and I… I f-found her on the floor. Sh-she… she was…" The maid started to cry hysterically.
The Fire Lord wasted no more time. He ran out of the cremation room and raced across the palace, his robes flapping like huge dragon's wings behind him. His hair slipped from its usual topknot, the Fire Crown dropping to the floor with a clang- and he paid it no mind. He reached the family wing and sprinted for the nursery. Slamming the slightly ajar doors open, he saw the wet nurse on the floor- in a small puddle of blood. He knelt by her side, checking her for a pulse…
…And found one, thank Agni. He called for the guards, who had followed him when he had passed them in the corridors. They, in turn, called for the healers as he straightened and moved toward the crib on the other side of the room.
The crib was painfully empty. Only a pale blue blanket, made by Katara herself, lay on the pristine white sheet.
He picked up the blanket, bringing it to his face as the reality of the situation started to sink in. A white sheet of folded paper slipped out of the blanket and he quickly opened it, his heart dropping to his stomach.
"A Water Tribe peasant will never sit on a Fire Nation throne. By nightfall, all remnants of your mistake will be gone, burned to ash and scattered to the seas."
First his beloved wife, now his newborn son. Agni must be angry with him indeed for taking a Waterbender as his soul's partner, to take all that he ever wanted away from him and leaving him with only the bitter memories that froze his heart from that day on.
The cloaked figure raced with his stolen bundle down the hillside, constantly looking over his shoulder at the looming palace behind. The thief was getting paid a lot of money for this job, and although the thought of killing a baby, a newborn at that, turned his stomach, the money was needed in order to keep his family from the streets for at least another couple of months.
He paused, listening for pursuit. So far, nothing. He had knocked the wet nurse unconscious, inadvertently cutting her scalp in the process, which created a rather bloody mess on the floor. He felt bad for the woman, as she had done nothing wrong either, but his orders were clear. Take the infant, kill it, and burn it to ashes before scattering it to the wind.
A shadow dropped down beside him and he jerked, surprised. Before he could move, several quick, precise jabs in his arms and neck had him crumpling on the ground in a heap. The child in his arms was snatched before he finished his descent onto the mossy soil. A large bag of what sounded like coins landed beside him and he glanced up in confusion at the slender figure now holding the infant.
"Sorry, mister," a decidedly feminine voice apologized, "but this little one's coming with me."
"You're not the one who hired me, are you?" he asked, unable to move much more than his eyeballs.
"Hired you? Agni, no." She patted the baby's back soothingly. "I don't know who hired you, but I won't let you kill this child."
"I didn't want to," he confessed. "But my family…"
"I understand. That's why I'm giving you that." She nudged the money bag with her toe. "Don't take jobs like this anymore, okay? Go to the Earth Kingdom if you have to, but get a real job."
She turned and jumped lithely into the trees, leaving him lying paralyzed on the ground. Soon her blocks would wear off and he'd be fine, but she planned on being far, far away by then.
Katara's son needed to live- even if it was away from his father.
The grand gong sounded, indicating someone was at the door. Toph turned her head ever-so-slightly. "Fuzzy, can you get that? I'm a little busy here."
"Fuzzy," or better known as Ren to the rest of the Bei Fong family and their servants, didn't even blink at his mistress's nickname for him. "As you wish, my lady." He turned away, his long green robes barely stirring with his steps. Sokka looked up from his latest technological invention's blueprints and made a confused face at the retreating man.
"Toph, why do you insist on giving everyone such bizarre nicknames? Ren doesn't even have any hair- why did you decide to call him 'Fuzzy'?"
"Because it fits him, Snoozles," the Earthbender replied, leaning back in her chair. "Even with my limited senses I can tell that guy has some impressive eyebrows."
Sokka shook his head. "I'll never understand you," he muttered, looking back at his plans and making a quick adjustment.
"Then why do you stick around here all the time? Go back to your frozen wasteland and bother the penguin-seals. Them I'm sure you'd understand."
"You entertain me," he replied without looking up. "And maybe I've discovered there's more to the world than ice and snow."
"Gee, glad to be of service. I live to amuse you."
Ren reappeared, guiding a young woman wearing a dark green cloak. In her arms she carried a small bundle.
Toph was on her feet in an instant. "Stretch?"
"Hey, Toph. Cutie." She winked at Sokka. "Sorry for barging in like this."
Sokka kept his distance. He knew all too well Ty Lee's strange interest in him- and it could lead to pain, immense pain later. "Why are you here? You bring another of Suki's hate letters?"
She shook her head. "Haven't been back to Kyoshi Village in a quite some time. Besides, I'm pretty sure she's gotten over you. I heard she was starting a new regime in the village, utilizing not only Waterbending moves but all the bending forms. I've never seen her this motivated."
Toph crossed her arms. "So why'd you bring us a baby then?"
Sokka's blue eyes flew wide. "I swear to Tui and La that it isn't mine."
Ty Lee's normal smile faded to a pained, sorrowful one. "He is… and he isn't. He's… he's Katara's son."
The Water Tribe Warrior's expression was one of complete and utter shock. "My sister… had a baby? When? Why wasn't I informed?"
"No one knew where you were. Your father hasn't heard from you in months, and Avatar Aang has been secluded at the Eastern Air Temple with that Guru guy for nearly a year. It was only by luck that Jun had seen you in the market the other day when I had asked her about you."
Sokka stepped closer. "But… why do you have Katara's baby? Where's Katara? Where's that jerk she married? Why don't they have him?"
Ty Lee's grey eyes were filled with intense sadness. Sokka's stomach turned to ice. "She… Katara… died. In childbirth. Zuko nearly went mad with grief. He… only went once to see his son after that."
Toph took the child from Ty Lee's arms, seeing him with her special ability. "He's probably barely a month old," she said, surprised. "What do you want from us?"
"He was kidnapped from his crib the night Katara was… cremated," Ty Lee told them hesitantly. "Someone ordered him dead. I've been staying as a guest for the past month or so, so when I heard, I went searching- and found the kidnapper. He was very reluctant about his job- so I paid him off and took Katon."
Sokka looked up from his nephew from where he stood by Toph's side. "Katon?"
"…Zuko named him. In honor of your sister."
Emotion filled Sokka's eyes. He walked over to a nearby wall and punched it hard- so hard, his knuckles bled, staining the stone. "Katara," he croaked, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Dammit, why did you have to go off and marry that fire-blooded bastard?"
"Sokka," Toph said, using his actual name for once, "this is not Sparky's fault. Do you believe that if he thought for even one second that Sweetness would die giving birth that he would've risked knocking her up in the first place? He loved her more than anything in this entire world- and I'm sure he'd give up his own life to bring her back."
As usual, such frank and to-the-point words from the blunt Earthbender pierced his guilty heart. He should've been there, he should've had Water Tribe healers there…
"Katon needs protection," Ty Lee continued, glancing at him sympathetically. "He's your sister's son- won't you take care of him? He might even grow up to be a Waterbender like his mother."
"Or a fucking Firebender like his damned father," Sokka growled.
"Watch your mouth, Snoozles," Toph muttered. "There's little ears around."
"He's too young to hear me!"
"Do you really want to risk it?"
Sokka made a frustrated sound. He turned on Ty Lee. "How am I supposed to take care of him? I'm not even married!"
"Marry Toph and pass Katon off as your son," she replied, gazing at him levelly.
Toph snort-laughed- but her cheeks were pink. "You're joking right? Snoozles would never marry me. I'm not his type. He likes girls who can see."
"Toph, not now." He focused on the former acrobat. "What makes you think that could even possibly work? How can we pass off a gold-eyed child as ours?"
"You haven't even looked at him, have you?" She rubbed Katon's cheek and the infant stirred, yawning. He blinked sleepily before gazing curiously at the two new faces before him.
"He's got blue eyes," Sokka breathed, stunned.
"And black hair," Ty Lee added. "He could easily pass for your child- if you marry someone with black hair. Which Master Toph has."
"How convenient," the Earthbender drawled. "So if I had brown hair, I'd be out of the running, huh? Thanks."
"I have no problems marrying you, Toph," Sokka said offhandedly, still staring in shock at his nephew. "But that's not my concern. Won't whoever ordered him killed come looking for him?"
"That's why I suggested you marry Toph and present him as your own. He looks kinda like you- he shares your blood! Just pretend you got Toph pregnant by accident, so you got married in secret and had the baby in secret. No one will know!"
"Unless he starts burping fire," Toph observed, her heart still skipping erratically from Sokka's nonchalant acceptance of Ty Lee's bizarre suggestion.
"I overheard the Fire Council saying that his blue eyes probably indicate he's more Water Tribe than Fire Nation," she said quietly. "So he'll probably be a Waterbender, if anything. And if he doesn't bend at all, then all the more to convince everyone he's Sokka's!"
Sokka glanced at Toph. She seemed to be taking all of this exceptionally well, even for her. "No protestations from the peanut gallery?"
"It's a logical plan," she said, shrugging. "But we don't have to actually marry, do we?"
Ty Lee scratched her head. "Well, you'll be living together, sleeping together, and keeping up the semblance of a married couple with a child. Why wouldn't you get married?"
"There's a little thing called love," Toph said dryly. She pointed in Sokka's general direction. "Snoozles doesn't love me."
"Hey, now. Don't put words in my mouth."
The dainty Earthbender jerked slightly, confused. "Huh?"
"I don't hang around you simply for my health. It usually seems like the opposite, actually." He rubbed his shoulder, which was still sore from the last time she got irritated with him and bent him thirty feet in the air. "You're how old now?"
"…Seventeen. I'll be eighteen this spring. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Well, then. You're well past the age when you should've married. At least if you were Water Tribe."
"Which I ain't, thank the earth."
"We're not all bad, you know."
"I don't care- I can't see on ice and both of your crazy tribes live on solid ice. I am never going there."
"Didn't ask you to. But I will ask you- do you want to marry me and help me take care of my nephew or not?"
She scowled, ignoring her rapid-fire heartbeat. "How romantic. However could I say no?"
"Toph, I'm serious. I would've gotten around to asking you sooner or later- but the situation kinda calls for sooner." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I… even tried carving you a necklace, but it… kinda stinks."
She blinked. "You what?" She tried not to get overly excited. He was probably just playing around again. "Do you have it? With you?"
Sokka stared at her. "Well, yeah. It's in my room. But it looks awful- you wouldn't want it."
"You always forget, Snoozles- I'm blind. I don't care what it looks like."
"So… you want it?"
"Didn't I just say that?"
"Then… you'll marry me?"
"I suppose that's what that means, doesn't it?"
"And we'll raise Katon as our son?"
She didn't want to say that she didn't believe he'd really marry her- or consummate the marriage- so her chances to have a child were limited to this one opportunity. "Better us to do it than Stretch," she replied with a shrug, obviously trying not to smile and reveal her indescribable joy. She had a reputation to uphold, after all.
Ty Lee beamed. "I knew you two would work it out!" She gave Toph a hug, much to the shorter woman's mild annoyance. "I'll try to come by every so often to check on you three, but the less I'm around Katon, the better, probably. If whoever wanted him dead found out I took him, they could follow me to you."
"We get the point," Toph said with her usual smirk. "Get out."
Ty Lee waved farewell as she let herself out, leaving the couple together with their "son" for the first time.
Toph couldn't keep the blush from her cheeks. After all these years, Sokka finally chose her? She was completely baffled. "So… how do we feed and clean that thing?" she asked him. "Seriously."
A/N: "Katon"- Japanese for "Fire Release"