Aang hopped down from Appa's head and took in a deep breath, a grin plastered across his face. "Ah! Fresh Fire Nation air, just like I remember it!"
"You know…" Sokka spoke as he climbed down the bison's side. "It's really ironic that the Air Nomad thinks air that smells like smoke and sulfur is 'fresh.'" On the ground, he pinched his nose and pulled a face.
"Sokka! We're guests here, remember? Try to be polite." As Katara reached the ground and took a good look at her brother, her frown deepened. "…to the best of your abilities."
"Hey, I'm perfectly capable of being polite if I have to. Check this out!" He reached up towards the saddle, where Suki was leaning with her back against the edge. "Suki, my love! Might I assist you in your angelic descent to Earth?"
Suki, however, was distractedly talking with Toph about the latest Earth Rumble Tournament. She peered down at him briefly and smiled. "Sure, Sokka. Here, help me with the luggage."
With that, she began tossing cases of clothing down to him. Sokka began grumbling, but, with a surreptitious glance at his smirking sister, he forced a large grin and began energetically stacking things off to one side. "Anything for you, sweetest blossom!"
Katara and Aang shared a quiet chuckle at Sokka's expense, but the laughter died as their eyes met. Their journey together had been brief, this time, but it had not been without tension. It had only been a few days since Aang flew Appa to the South Pole to collect the siblings and the stops at Kyoshi Island and Gaoling had been brief, just long enough to collect everyone.
There had not been time to talk.
Katara looked away first and scanned the courtyard in which they had landed. It was a lovely space, with manicured flower beds and a few elegantly twisting cherry-willows that draped bright red fronds into a natural rock fountain. An emissary was approaching from the closest building, his dark red robes oddly out of place in the bright colors of the garden. He was a thin, dry-looking man, around her father's age, with a look of constant worry written in the lines of his face.
"Avatar – and companions – the Fire Nation is honored to receive you!" He bowed as soon as he was close enough and spoke quickly, as if he had practiced these words. "I am Hau, your guide. I would have been here to greet you sooner, but we did not expect you until later in the week."
Aang, grinning once more, returned the bow. "Don't worry about it. We're kind of surprised to be here so early, too. Favorable winds, I guess." He shrugged, still looking wide-eyed and innocent, and Katara was struck by how easy it had become for Aang to lie. After all, he had rushed each departure and had summoned that 'favorable wind' to speed their progress. She had watched him do it and, because he was her friend, she had not asked why.
Now, though, she began to wonder.
Not that she let it show. "We are honored to be received."
Hau turned his bow to her and his thin lips cracked into a smile. "Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. The importance of your return does not go unnoticed. It is my responsibility to ensure that the trust you have shown for the Fire Nation is merited. If you have any need at all, you have but to ask."
Her brow furrowed slightly at this special attention, but she went on smiling. A glance at Aang revealed nothing; he watched, his expression cheerful. "I'm not sure I understand…"
"You were the only one of your companions to do battle on Fire Nation soil, Master Katara. Not only that, but you defeated the Fire Lord's sister and defended the then-future Fire Lord. Most of my people consider you a champion of our country."
"Wow… that's news to me…" Katara leaned back and crossed her arms, trying to absorb that technicality. Distracted as she was, Hau's use of the word 'most' almost slipped her attention.
"Speaking of the Fire Lord," Aang shouldered in, "Where is he? Not that I don't like you, Hau, but I kind of expected to see him."
"I am afraid the Fire Lord is busy today with preparations for the diplomatic meetings and celebrations as well as his usual duties. He has scheduled a meeting with you tomorrow afternoon, at three hours past noon."
"Alright!" Sokka punched an arm up in the air. "Night on the town in the Fire Nation Capitol!" There was a moment of silence, in which he realized he was being stared at by everyone.
Except Toph, of course, who snickered and said, "Boy, I bet you look stupid right now…"
Sokka let his arm drop. "What? Don't they have fun in this town?"
Katara sighed. "Sokka, it's the capitol. This is where all the nobles and government officials live and work. I really doubt they have the kind of entertainment you'd enjoy… right?" She turned a raised eyebrow to Hau.
The emissary cleared his throat. "It is true that most of our theatres show works of high drama…" Katara nodded at Sokka as if to say so there. "But… there is a traveling carnival outside of the city this week…"
Sokka pointed at his sister, victorious. "Ha! How does it taste, Katara?"
She rolled her eyes. "How does what taste?"
"Your foot! You know… since you kind of just put your foot in your mouth?"
Katara heaved a sigh and rubbed her eyes with one hand.
"Actually…" Hau spoke up, his voice polite but also insistent. "I would recommend that you not leave the area of the city regularly patrolled by the Fire Lord's guards."
"Why's that?" Aang chirped.
"There have been… some attacks in the poorer districts. Some of the guards have suggested it is rebel sentiment – a supporter of the Fire Lord's sister. It would be most unfortunate if-"
"A supporter? As in one?" Suki dropped down from Appa and crossed her arms.
"He wears a mask, so it is possible that there are multiple brigands behind the attacks, but only one appears at any time."
Toph, who had begun climbing down after Suki with slow deliberation, laughed. "Then what's the problem? One guy in a mask, one pounding – the math is sound." She reached the ground and wiggled her toes in the grass with a sigh.
"Yes, well, until he is captured, it would put the Fire Lord at ease to know that his guests are safe. Now, if you do not mind, I will show you to your rooms. I am very sorry for the lack of servants to carry your bags, but, between preparations for the imminent festivities and the Fire Lord's wise decision to reduce the household staff, no pair of hands can be spared at present." Hau cut off the conversation and stood waiting while Sokka, Suki, and Toph began reaching for luggage.
Katara took a step in their direction, but paused long enough to ask a question. "Hau, what makes the guards so sure that the masked man is a supporter of Azula?"
Hau frowned. "His mask is blue, like her fire."
A few steps away, Aang paused, but then went on to help with the bags. Katara's eyes followed the stiffness of his narrow shoulders. "That seems like some pretty thin logic to me."
"They are afraid of him. Fear and logic do not combine beneficially." Hau carefully laced his fingers before him and went on in a low voice. "Master Katara, I would urge you, even more than your friends, to remain on the palace grounds."
Katara frowned. "Why?"
"While it is true that we do not know the political motivations of the masked man, we do know that there are those in the city who do not think of you as a hero. There has been much turmoil here, since the war's end and some – not many! – still believe that Azula should sit on the throne. If the vigilante is one of them…" Hau paused and gave her a penetrating look, his yellow eyes concerned. "The guards are wise to fear him – and you would be, too."