Sorry for the delay guys! But there were a bunch of storms going through, and my dog is pertified of them, so I kinda had to sit with her while my parents were out. Not to mention that I'm not allowed on the computer when there's a thunderstorm going on. And in the brief in between times that I managed to get on the compy, everything I wrote was total crap! So I waited until today and worked extra hard on this installement and the next one. So enjoy!
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender
" So, how are you?"
" Why do you ask?"
" No reason."
" You never do anything without a reason."
" Well, maybe I'm just concerned."
" You're never 'just' anything."
" That's cruel."
" It's true."
" But it's still cruel."
" 'Better an honest bitch than a lying sweetheart', right?"
" Don't quote that crazy witch to me."
" She was very wise, you know."
" She was very crazy, you know."
" With that level of wisdom, you're bound to lose a little something along the way."
" She lost more than 'a little something'. She was tiger-batshit and you know it."
" Is it really alright for us to be talking about Sifu like this, Spirits bless her eternal soul."
" Hey, Sensei would've done the same about us."
" I suppose..."
" You just looked tired, that 's why I asked."
" Before. You look tired. I was just wondering why."
" Oh. Just post-war stress, that's all."
" Post-war stress?"
" My kingdom was overtaken, if you'll remember."
" I remember. Where do you think I was during it all?"
" Getting into pub brawls?"
" So cruel. I was playing errand girl for a while, if you must know."
" And after that?"
" Let's just say I was helping the cause."
" Ah, I see. I thought the death of General Jian-cao was a little...strange."
" Let's just say that the nettle-shrooms weren't poisonous before I got there."
" And you call me cruel."
" You can be."
" I won't deny it."
" ...How's the business going?"
" Well enough. We're still recovering from the war, but it's coming along nicely."
" If you ever need any help..."
" If competition springs up you'll be the first person to know."
" First, and last, you mean."
" I thought that went without saying."
" I guess it does. ...You could help, you know."
" No thank you. I gave all that up a long time ago."
" For love?"
" For security. It's not exactly a safe life you lead."
" It used to be your life too."
" Yes, I suppose so. How's the latest mission coming?"
" Interestingly enough. I managed to scrounge up some very interesting information yesterday, and my girls were spying all afternoon."
" Girls? I thought you only had the newbie on your team."
" There was a last minute addition."
" Oh? One of the older girls, I suppose."
" An untrained scout, actually. I'm thinking of sponsoring her in a few years. She's got talent and spunk. Exactly my type of protégée."
" I thought you were mentoring that Suki girl."
" She's so far along, there's not much I can teach her. She's got infiltration and stalking down to an art form. She just needs to loosen up a little. She can be a bit of a prude when the mood hits her."
" And the other one?"
" More of a 'tell-me-what-I-want-to-know-or-I'll-beat-the-shit-outta-you' type."
" That sounds familiar."
" Oh, one time. ...Twice."
" Oh, alright, three times."
" Fine, almost half the time."
" On every mission!"
" Okay, fine, I was a wild card. Happy now, Lae?"
" Blissfully. I wish you luck with this, by the way."
" Something tells me you'll need it."
" What makes you say that?"
" Nothing just...a feeling. If you ever settle down and become a mother, you'll know what I'm talking about."
" Doubtful. Can't I just gone on looking after your little brat?"
" Now, Jun..."
" Am I her godmother or what?"
" Yes, yes. Of course you are."
" So trust me a little, will you?"
" It's not that I don't trust you, Jun-chan. It's that I don't trust the two of you together. Spirits only know the mischief you'll drum up."
" So you knew then. The identity of the other girl."
" I may be retired, but I was still a member of the Black Lotus Operatives. Not to mention..."
" The best partner I ever had."
" You should've told me up front."
" I wasn't sure how you'd take it. The rumours about the way she was raised...they weren't doing much for your case."
" Irrational fear. It's a mother thing. I'll admit, it wasn't the smartest thing to do, but it served its purpose."
" Did it?"
" Would she have progressed this far if I had just let her go to the Earth Rumble?"
" So you had a plan."
" Yes, and I still do."
" I don't like being manipulated, aikata."
" And I don't like being called foolish, nv wang."
" So, we're even then?"
" I suppose I have no choice. Very well. I'll entrust my little bagermole to you."
" I'm honoured."
Jun carefully set the porcelain cup down on its saucer, the green liquid inside it swishing about. A servant, off to the side, darted forward and whisked the cup away once Jun waved to her. Across from the lounging, black clad woman, Lae-Lia Bei Fong sipped her own tea delicately, eyeing her former partner over the edge of the cup
" Things are going to get very interesting soon, aren't they?" She asked as she placed the tea down. Waving to the servant as well, her tea was pulled away and the servant vanished into the large, rounded archway that lead back into the main section of the Bei Fong mansion, leaving the two women alone. Jun snorted.
" They've gotten interesting already. You've just missed it all, being cooped up here."
" Oh?" Lae steepled her hands and regarded Jun over them. " Have I? What a pity."
" You seem to be missing all the fun these days."
" I seem to remember that the Chun Festival is one right now." Lae gave a secretive smile. " I have missed going to them, and they are such fun."
" Is Lae Belladonna going to go to Be Sing Se?"
Lae Bei Fong smiled.
" Well that would depend." Idly, she twisted her wrist around. The wall opposite the two women spun frantically in one itself until a great gap had opened up in the middle of it. Through the hole Nyla stuck her blind face in, her nose swivelling from side to side to catch the scent of her mistress. Lae gave another flick of her wrist, and the ground beneath their chairs shifted until they were dragged right in front of the Xirxiu, who whined in delight as it got the scent of the Bei Fong matriarch. Absentmindedly, Lae stroke Nyla's head.
" On whether or not Jun of the Dawn will meet her there."
Jun gave a slight grin.
" Welcome back, aikata."
Aang's hand was warm, and his steps were enthusiastic, but Katara felt cold and shaken all the same.
The play had been beautiful, of course (things in the Earth Kingdom tended to be so refined and lovely. The first time she'd entered it, Katara had felt so out of place and rough, with her skin tanned and cracked from constant exposure to the frigid sun and her fingers calloused and hard from a lifetimes's worth of work. The girls in the Earth Kingdom always seemed so delicate and dainty, like they were made out of glass or china, and could be broken with a well placed kick. Then, of course, there was Toph, but she was a league all her own, incapable of being tied down to any one culture or people. She walked like and Earth Kingdom girl, could match wits with the wisest of the Fire Nation advisors, and talked like the hardened, battle scarred warriors of the Water Tribe. Before Toph, Katara had written off Earth Kingdom girls as weak princesses, pretty as pictures but easy to destroy.). It had been moving, as the poet had lamented what she had become and wondered at the mystery of life. Sokka, whom she had expected to be bored out of his mind, was leaning on the edge of his seat, staring transfixed at the woman (with her hair covered in flour and make-up on her face to make her look ancient) on the stage as she croaked her lines out in a perfect imitation of an old crone. Aang, she'd noticed, had drifted in and out, seemingly more interested in sending little earth ripples under people's seats with Toph than actually listening to the dialogue. Katara had reached out to stop him, but a warm hand had descended on hers, and pulled her back.
" Let him be." Zuko's voice had whispered in her ear, the heat radiating off his body and warming her back (she hadn't dared turn around. The memory of his eyes earlier that day had stopped her dead and kept her facing firmly forward.) " If he wants to have fun, let him." He'd squeezed her hand once, and Katara had the oddest impression that she was a wife whose husband had told her to let their child have his fun. The idea had sent a thrill (not an unpleasant one, and that was what worried her) through her. As she'd turned back to the play, she'd caught sight of Ty Lee looking blankly at her, a neither encouraging nor damning light reflected in her grey eyes.
After the play, they'd all been dragged out dancing by a very bouncy Ty Lee to the Square of Granite Maiden (there was a story attached to it, Katara was sure of it) where the dancing had already begun. The acrobat had looked hopefully over at Sokka, who had taken one look at the dancers, swept himself to one knee, and asked Suki (in the most over dramatic way possible- Katara was beginning to suspect that he brother was a closet romantic) if she would honour him with a dance. Giggling, his girlfriend had put her hand in his and allowed herself to be swept off her feet (Katara was beginning to suspect that Suki was a closet romantic as well, and, after years of being a strong, feminine role model on Kyoshi Island, was enjoying every second of being treated like a princess). Ty Lee had stared after her captain and the Water Tribe for about a minute before she'd taken off into the crowd without a word, her eyes hard.
Katara had been about to go after her when Aang had grabbed her hand and pulled her, ignoring her half sputtered protests about Ty Lee, to dance.
" This is fun, huh?" Aang grinned at her as he spun her. Katara shrugged, feeling out of place. The music was strange and her feet felt heavy, and the way Aang was leading made her feel like she was going the opposite direction of everyone else. " I mean, we're finally able to spend time with everyone, you know."
" Yeah." Katara murmured distractedly. Through the crowd, as they Aang whirred them around without purpose or reason, she thought she caught sight of a pair of smouldering gold eyes in midst the hordes of green all around her. Something warm dropped into her stomach, and she tried very hard to shove it aside.
" I'm so glad Mai told us the Chun Festival was coming up." Katara tried very hard not to think about Mai too much. It made her think of the afternoon, and the horrible look in those pale golden eyes. " I've only ever been to one of these things, and that was with Bumi and Kuzon. We stole all the straw-peach fruit pies and threw them at the couples as they passed by, acting all lovey-dovey. It was a blast!" Katara wanted to listen to Aang, but the sound of the music was drowning him out. A steady drum sounded from somewhere off to her left, and she turned her head, trying to find the player. There was nothing. She turned to the other side, and was met with the sight of Ty Lee dancing with three different boys, each one staring at her with a dazed expression. Further on, Suki and Sokka were wrapped up in each other, whispering softly and barely swaying to the music at all, slowly making their way to the fringes of the crowd. Katara smiled at them, but caught sight of Ty Lee seeing her and waving. Katara tried to respond, but the circus performer noticed her distraction, and turned to see what had captured her attention. And the sight of Suki and Sokka disappearing in between the dancing bodies, she quickly turned around, her eyes flashing dangerously. She roughly grabbed the hand of the boy nearest to her and spun him around, sinking deeper into the crowd. Katara looked away, stumbling over her own two feet as Aang twisted yet again.
Through the green, she managed to see two figures, one in dark red and the other in green, pressed close together and dancing to the rhythm. The drum started up again, and this time, Katara realized it was the sound of her own heart, slamming against her ribcage. The red figure pulled back just a little from the green figure (they were too far away; she couldn't make out any features) and leaned forward.
Katara whipped her head around so fast she could almost hear her neck protesting. Trembling all over, she dug her fingers into the cloth of Aang's vest, her eyes wide. The same cold lump from earlier grew and expanded in her stomach, making her whole body feel cold and barren.
" It's great to see them all again." Aang jabbered on, either not noticing her anxiety or ignoring it well. " Toph's gotten a little bit taller, don'tcha think? I have to actually look up if I want to look in her eyes now. And it's nice getting to know Ty Lee and Mai, now that they aren't on Azula's side. Ty Lee is really nice, and she's been really helpful with the Kyoshi Warriors. Zuko's gotten taller too." Katara's breath got stuck in her throat. Aang spun her around, and her eyes sought out the red and green figures without her say so, stalking them through the crowd. " I don't think I'll ever catch up. It's a little depressing. I don't wanna have to look up to him my whole life, you know?"
" Aang." She breathed. " Let's...let's stop for a second."
Aang froze mid step, looking up at her with wide, pleading eyes.
" Huh? Why?" His grip on her hands tightened. " Aren't you having fun?"
" Yes." She breathed, and winced at how fake it sounded. " Yes I...I am. I just..." Her mind went blank. " I'm just..."
" Oh, sorry." Aang grinned at her. " I didn't realize we'd been dancing so fast. You must be thirsty. I'll go get us some straw-peach punch." He led her away from the dancers. Katara, too relieved to protest, merely smiled and nodded and tried not to feel too happy when he took her silence as a sign of dehydration, and scurried off to get refreshments.
Katara leaned back against the wall. Pressing a hand to her thundering chest, she gulped in several deep breaths of air, trying to calm her racing heart. Something hot and searing stung at her closed lids, but she screwed them up tighter. The image of the figures' passionate embrace danced in front of her closed eyes, and the stinging sensation grew stronger, focusing on the corners of her eyes. She reached up to press one forearm against her searing eyes, the cool silk slipping over her skin.
' I'm going insane.' She thought.
" Having fun yet?"
Katara jumped, yelping slightly as Zuko came to a stop, leaning on the wall next to her, stone cup with a red-orangey liquid in it in his hands. He smiled roguishly at her, but his playful tone and boyish charms were undermined by the heat in his eyes as he took her in. Katara shuddered, and tried very hard to hide it.
" Zuko, Spirits!" She pushed a hand against her chest again. He looked at it, no innocent light in his eyes. " You nearly gave me a heart attack."
" Sorry." He kept grinning for some reason. " Didn't mean to startle you."
" Then make some noise when you walk up to a person." She scolded, looking away from him. A flash in her mind, and the couple dancing imbedded itself. Katara but her lower lip and looked to the ground. She could feel his eyes one her, and the swishing sound of liquid being moved around altered her to his movement. He stopped, right in front of her, and held out the cup.
" Thirsty?" He offered.
" Aang...Aang's getting me something." It seemed so very hard to say, especially with him leaning over her like that. Something flashed in his eyes, but she kept looking away.
" He might be a while." Zuko pushed the cup towards her. " Just take a quick zip. You look ready to collapse."
" Where's Mai?" She said quickly. He blinked.
" Mai!" Katara couldn't understand why her head was starting to hurt or how the lump had grown large enough to curl into her chest, dead and heavy. " You know, your girlfriend?" Now her throat hurt. Katara vaguely wondered if she was coming down with something.
" Haven't seen her since the poetry play." Zuko shrugged. Katara whipped her head back up, her jaw hanging open. Zuko looked at her, one eyebrow quirked.
" But you...I saw you..." she stumbled over her words, " ...weren't you...weren't you two dancing?"
" Mai hates dancing." Zuko scowled and looked away. " The second Ty ditched us Mai walked off. I haven't seen her since."
Katara opened her mouth to make a retort, to tell him she'd seen him swaying the middle of the crowds with his girl when her eyes finally traveled away from Zuko's face, and she took in his clothing.
He was wearing a deep dark red shirt with gold trim, much darker than the red the red dancer had been wearing.
Relief burst into Katara's chest, melting the lead lump away.
" Really?" Her tone was far too happy, but she couldn't find it within herself to be upset. Zuko smiled at her smile, clearly enjoying her sudden shift of mood.
" Really." He tilted his head. " Why are you so happy all of a sudden?"
Cold realization spread through her, and she hurried to curb her unexplainable enthusiasm.
" I'm just...I like the festival." She said lamely.
" It's nice, isn't it?" Zuko gave her Toph's 'I-can-tell-you're-lyyyyyiiiing' grin, and Katara felt her cheeks heat up.
" Yeah. Really pretty."
" Are you sure you don't want a drink? You sound a little breathless."
" All the spinning."
" Yeah, I saw that. Aang...he doesn't know this dance, does he?"
" Neither do I."
" I could teach you, if you want."
" Both of us?" It seemed important to get this point across. Zuko froze for a moment, but nodded stiffly.
" If you want."
Katara smiled up at him.
" Thanks Zuko." She eyed the cup. " I am a little thirsty..."
Grinning as though she had told him he was to be worshipped like a god, Zuko pushed the cup towards her. A fruity, sweet scent invaded her nose, and she paused, sniffing.
" What did you say this was again?"
" Straw-peach punch." There was something in his tone, something under the light banter and gentleness. Something dark and intriguing and searing and passionate, that Katara wasn't sure she should acknowledge. " It's a specialty of the Chun Festival."
" Oh." Katara inhaled deeply, bewitched by the pleasant odour of the liquid, and reached for the cup.
You know, lovers often feed each other straw-peach fruits during the Chun Festival. It's a sign that they'll be happy and together forever.
Katara jumped back, looking into his blazing eyes.
" Zuko..." She whispered, her face heating up and her eyes glistening as she took in the tenseness of his body. He followed her, his bangs curtaining his eyes but the golden hue glowing beneath them. The hot thing coiled in her stomach again, and suddenly, she was back in her hotel room, Zuko on the floor before her and looking at her like she was his reason and poison all at once.
" One sip can't hurt, Katara." He purred her name, but his tone made her think of the Wise Ones of the Water Tribe, gathered in a circle in the igloo, sending up prayers to Tui and La for a bountiful hunt. He said her name in reverence, and distantly, through the haze the feel of his heated body always put her in, she wondered what she had done to warrant such devotion.
" Yes." She whispered. " Yes it can."
" Katara..." He reached forward with one hand, gently touching her cheek. She leaned into the touch for half a second, and then pulled back barely an inch, her shoulders shaking
" I...I can't." She looked at the cup. The straw-peach punch churned innocently in its depths. " I...We...no..."
" Yes," he breathed, surging forward, his gaze fix on her face, " we can."
He dipped low.
" Zuko..." Katara whispered, and even she didn't know if it was a plea of protest of not.
" Katara..." He mimicked, but there was a kind of wild, reckless joy and daring in his tone that stopped her dead.
" I have to go find Aang."
And she broke away from him, head down, darting quickly off into the crowd. Her head pounding, her heart racing, and her mind full of confusion, Katara melted into the sea of greens, biting her lip to keep from crying. She headed straight for the refreshments tent at the opposite end of the square, not even noticing the two pairs of golden eyes that followed her, one in hopeless longing, and the other in spiteful anger.
" Quite the show, huh?"
" So, what do you think."
" I think we're in shit."
" I'd have to agree with you."
" I mean, why is she being so difficult? It's not that hard."
" It's in her nature, I guess."
" To be difficult?"
" To spare everybody else pain by taking it on herself."
" Damnit, this is all Twinkle Toes' fault."
" Don't blame him. He's just a kid, you know."
" Yeah, well maybe if the bastard opened his eyes once in a while, he'd see what's really goin' on."
" He'll only ever see what he wants to see, and that's Katara's love for him."
" But it's not even that kind of love! Half the time, she treats him like he's her kid for Spirits' sake!"
" Like I said, he sees what he wants to see."
" So what do you think we should do?"
" Well, first I think we should report to Senpai. And then..."
" And then..."
" And then I think we need to do a little eye-opening."
" Have I ever told you that I love the way you think?"
" On occasion. Have I ever told you that metalbending is the coolest thing I've ever seen."
" You could do it more."
" Noted. Now then, what do you want to do for the rest of the night?"
" You don't want to dance?"
" I told Sokka he should dance with Ty."
" Is that a smart thing to do?"
" She's my friend and one of my warriors. Besides, she always looks so sad when he looks at me."
" You're too noble for your own good."
" If you want, I can ask him to dance with you too."
" Dance with Snoozles? No thanks, I'll take my chances with suitors my father will pick."
" Suit yourself. But you know..."
" If there was ever anyone you really wanted to dance with, I'd be more than happy to help."
" I'll keep that in mind."
" So if you're not gonna dance, what are you going to do all night?"
" I was thinking of interrupting Aang and Katara at every turn.
" ...War Paint, when you and Snoozles get married, can you adopt me?"
" I'll talk to Sokka about it."
I'll bne honest, 'Pretender' works better for the next installement, but I needed things to go in a certain order, and the two prompts ('Pretender' and 'Close You Eyes') can be interchanged in the context of the story. Here, Katara is 'pretending' not to notice Zuko's intentions, and in the next one, Zuko is 'closing his eyes' to the truth.
Now, for a little symbolism and explanations:
Lae-Lia: an adaptain of the names Laelia and Lelia, the first of which means to sweeten, and the second of which means fair speech. It seemed appropriate for Toph's mom, who is actually a very good speaker, but acts sweet and harmless to throw people off. And as for her being an earthbender, read my story 'The Turning Point'.
aikata- means partner in Japanese. Remember, I made Jun from 'The Islands of the Dawn'. Land of the Rising Sun, anyone?
nv wang- Chines for queen.
The one time/twice thing- an Homage to RamysCreator, the abridger who created Yugioh GX abridged, who recently died at age 16. This is my little tribute to him, a person who loved to make people laugh (as evidenced by his series) and made me proud to be a fellow Canadian. R.I.P., Ramys.
What a pity- Aline shamelessly stolen from Jareth the Goblin King of the movie Labyrinth Go watch it, it is awesome.
Belladona is a herb that can be deadly. It symbolizes astral projection, and as you will soon see, Lae-Lia tends to have 'feelings' about things that tend to be right.
Jun of the Dawn- the word I actually used in Japanese was ake, which can mean dawn or beginning, but can also mean end or expiration. A more fitting title for Jun, in this case, would be, The one who is always there, or the One who was at the beginning and will be at the end. This is a reference to how she was 'the first one in the show to see Zutara;, and how, as our patron saint, she will be with us until the end.
Katara and Aang dancing: Note that Aang is leading, and he does know the 'dance'. Katara feels awkward, and like she's going the opposite direction to all the couples around her. Theor dancing is symbolic of their relationship, and how Katara doesn't feel right about it, and Aang actually isn't ready for such a commitment yet. They are both out of place, but while Katara acknowledges it, Aang ignores it and pretends that it isn't there. The true pretender in this installement is neither Zuko nor Katara. It's Aang.
I think that's about it. See you all very soon!