Author's Notes: At one point in this chapter, Aang makes reference to an event that didn't happen in the cartoon series, but was portrayed in one of the comics that originally accompanied the first DVD sets. Check out the story "Relics" in the comics compilation, Avatar: The Lost Adventures, for the full story on traps-for-surviving-Air-Nomads.
The lullaby Katara sings is adapted from "Little One" by Sandra Boynton, a song from the seriously silly album Rhinoceros Tap (highly recommended for all ages and species, not counting mosquitoes.)
And many thanks to FairladyZ2005, for letting me use the concept of 'Zuko the Dragoneye' from her most excellent series of short stories, "Zuko: Crown Prince Chronicles"!
Also for those who may be interested, Chapter 6 has been updated, with a few paragraphs added to Aang & Katara's scene just before they leave for the zoo.
Chapter 9: Departures
Yesterday, the Jasmine Dragon had closed its doors for the last time. Tomorrow, the Fire Lord's yacht was scheduled to weigh anchor with the high tide, and start the long journey back to the Fire Nation. The day after that, the two Southern Water Tribe vessels would depart with Katara, Aang and Ty Lee aboard, stopping at Kyoshi Island to drop off Ty Lee before returning to the Southern Water Tribe.
King Kuei's servants and administrators had been doing all they could to ensure their guests' departures would be as smooth and pleasant as their stay had been. Nonessentials and souvenirs had already been carefully packed for travel and conveyed down to the ships waiting in the harbor, which were being well-stocked with victuals and supplies for the long journeys ahead. A small barge had been prepared for Appa's ease and comfort, to be attached to the larger Water Tribe ship by sturdy chains.
The ordinary sack that Ty Lee had used for holding the scrolls of her memories of Mai, had been replaced with an ornate chest inlaid with gold, black marble and ivory. Zuko sent two of his guardsmen down to the harbor with the chest, to be installed in his cabin aboard the royal yacht. Mai's ashes rested in an even more ornate funeral urn, which would be carried down in the royal procession on the day of departure.
The New Dai Li agents that had become part of Zuko's retinue spent the day tying up the last of their affairs in the city, saying goodbye to their friends and families for the next two years. Zuko had offered to bring their spouses and children with them to the Fire Nation, but discovered Toph had selected only bachelors for the extended duty. But one new member of his retinue did have a spouse and children; Roku's wet-nurse, Ojia.
Zuko had arranged for Ojia to have the afternoon off before their day of departure, and when she prepared to leave after making sure Roku had a full tummy and empty diaper, he pressed a scroll into her hand. "Give this to your husband and sister. I've made arrangements with the hawk-tower keepers here in Ba Sing Se; they now have authorization to use messenger hawks for sending letters to you, and vice versa, up to three times a week."
"Thank you, your majesty," Ojia said with a timid smile and a deep bow.
"It's the least I can do," Zuko said with a smile and not-quite-shrug, silently wishing he could tell her to just call him 'Zuko', like his friends did. Ordinarily, he wasn't bothered by servants kowtowing to him and referring to him by his title or an honorific at all times; he'd grown up with that treatment, and accepted it as perfectly normal and even ordinary for most of his life. But when Ojia was holding his son and talking to little Roku, her voice went from subservient to warm and motherly as she called the baby by not just his name, but 'cutie-pie' and 'little man' and 'dear, sweet boy'. He'd come to find it a little jarring when, after cooing over his son like a great mother-substitute while changing or feeding or burping him, she would turn around, see Zuko himself and instantly start talking like a servant again.
He shoved those thoughts aside again as he continued, gesturing towards the door, "I've also prepared a small surprise for your family. The palace kitchen staff has put together a feast for you and your loved ones to enjoy; one of them will go home with you tonight to deliver it. It's the exact same menu that we'll be eating here at the palace this evening; your family will literally be eating like kings!"
But when Ojia opened the door to his guest suite to depart, it was Zuko who was surprised, because Toph was standing there saying, "Hey, Ojia, ready to go? Hiya, Sparky; how's Itty-Bitty?"
"He's fine," Zuko said automatically, while unconsciously touching Roku dozing in his sling. "You're going with Ojia?"
"Yup; figured I'd deliver the goodies and crash the family party so I can tell the kids some of the neat things their mom is likely to see in the Fire Nation. I can give them the tourist's perspective, you know?"
Zuko was touched; it wasn't often that Toph let her sympathetic and considerate side show to near-strangers like Ojia. What Toph hadn't said, but he'd plainly heard behind her words, was that she'd be telling the children not to worry about their mother being so far away and among strangers. The Dai Li, Sokka and Suki would join his guardsmen in not only keeping Roku safe, they'd keep Ojia safe as well for as long as she stayed there. He thanked Toph for her thoughtfulness, wished Ojia a good afternoon with her family, and then went back to his never-ending paperwork, and the latest land dispute on one of the outlying home islands.
Toph knew Sparky had figured out one reason that she'd decided to invite herself to Ojia's little going-away party, but from his relaxed stance and calm heartbeat, he had no idea of the other reason. Which was fine with her; she didn't need him to be freaking out over stuff he couldn't do anything about, stuff that her own people were going to handle anyway.
She'd created a stone sledge to carry all the goodies the palace kitchen staff put together for Ojia's going-away party; once they were outside the palace gates, she lengthened it for passengers and invited Ojia to step on. She set a nice steady pace as they cruised down the slope towards the gate between the Upper Ring and Middle Ring; about half the speed she normally traveled at, to avoid unduly frightening the wet-nurse. Poor woman was going to be scared enough already…
"When you get home, Ojia, you're probably going to find your family a little freaked out," she said abruptly. "That's because your boy Heng was almost kidnapped today."
"Kidnapped?!" Ojia shrieked, as Toph felt every muscle in her body go stiff with fear.
"Yup. Two thugs tried to snatch him right off the street this morning, on his way to the boys' academy. But one of my people stopped them, so your boy is home right now, safe and sound. And he'll stay safe and sound, along with the rest of your family; I already had agents keeping an eye on them, but now I'm doubling the guard detail. My people will be working hand-in-glove with the City Guard to watch over your family, for every day that you're away from them and in the Fire Nation."
Ojia's breathing was so fast and shallow, Toph slowed the sledge's pace to a crawl and created a small chair behind her, so she could sit down before she passed out. "In the Fire Nation… you think the k-k-kidnapping is b-because I'm working for the Fire Lord?"
"Most likely reason for it," Toph said bluntly. "You're not nearly wealthy enough to pay a rich ransom, the usual reason for kidnapping family members, and the pedophiles always go for the easier pickings in the Lower Ring. Someone was hoping to take one of your kids to force you to do some dirty work for them, something like kidnapping or outright killing the Fire Lord's son."
Toph wished mightily that she knew who that 'someone' was. After the would-be kidnappers had been encased from neck to toes in solid granite and given Toph's full personal attention, they had sung like canary-pigeons and told her everything they knew about the stranger who had hired them to kidnap Heng. But everything they knew came to very little at all; the stranger had been masked, stifling their curiosity with piles of gold coins, and given them the address of an abandoned house for a rendezvous point. Toph had agents staking the rendezvous point out even at that very moment, but so far no one had shown up, and she doubted now that anyone would. The mastermind must have heard somehow of the kidnapping being thwarted, and was laying low, probably while planning another attempt.
Instead of voicing those disturbing thoughts, Toph said forcefully, "But that's not going to happen, Ojia. My people are going to be watching over yours night and day, and I give you my personal oath as head of the New Dai Li that no harm will come to your family. And if you want further assurance, we can go straight to the High Commissioner of the City Guard so you can hear his personal oath too. He knows everything I know, and his guardsmen are just as committed to your family's safety, because that makes the Fire Prince-a baby under the Earth King's personal protection-that much safer as well. Do you understand? They may be scared right now, but they're safe and well, and they're going to stay that way for as long as you're away on the most important job of your life."
Toph waited a few minutes for Ojia to take in the new situation and for her bad case of shakes to settle down, while silently wishing that she'd gone along with the High Commissioner's suggestion of letting him break the news to the wet-nurse. She hated to admit it, but people were just more apt to believe in the word of a grandfatherly, stern-yet-benevolent man like the High Commissioner than to believe in the word of a blind teenaged girl, even if that girl happened to the Greatest Earthbender in the World. But finally, Ojia calmed down and said she was ready to greet her family with a smile, so Toph pushed off again and the sledge went sailing down.
Down in the harbor, Captain Bunjiro of the Chihei tried very hard to keep a frown off his face as Dai Li agents brought a large cartload of dirt aboard his good clean ship. Dirt, and rocks ranging from gravel-sized to small boulders. If he'd known beforehand that this was what the Fire Lord's new earthbenders considered luggage…
He suppressed a sigh, and went to greet the New Dai Li in what he hoped was a cordial enough manner. After the initial introductions, he gestured towards the piles of dirt and rocks as he asked dryly, "Making yourself comfortable?"
"Making ourselves ready for combat at sea, if necessary," the senior Dai Li, Agent Huong, told him while flicking a finger to make a fist-sized rock rise up from the pile, and spinning it on his fingertip. "There have been reports of rogue waterbenders coming down from the Northern Water Tribe and turning pirate; if we encounter bender-enhanced pirate crews on the voyage to the Fire Nation, we intend to be ready for them."
"Always a good idea to think ahead," Bunjiro agreed politely, though privately he wondered how ready they'd truly be for trouble at sea, all things considered.
Huong gave him first a searching look, then a resigned-sounding sigh. "Captain, if we're going to be working together to protect the Fire Lord, we need to be honest with each other. Go ahead and say whatever it is you're clearly holding back."
Blunt and to the point without being aggressive; Bunjiro appreciated that. He said aloud, "I've heard it said that earthbenders get weak and seasick when they're on the water, and the stronger the earthbender, the more seasick they get. You'll have a hard time throwing rocks at pirates when you're too busy trying not to throw your latest meal over the side."
Huong frowned. "The saying about seasickness isn't strictly true; earthbenders are more apt to get seasick than non-benders, but not all of us do. I'll admit I haven't gone to sea before, but I've been in boats on lakes without a problem." Another agent piped up that he'd traveled from the city of Gaoling to Ba Sing Se by water, and been fine the whole way.
Bunjiro politely refrained from pointing out that the other two agents, one scrawny-looking fellow with glasses and the other short and stocky, were already looking queasy when the ship was still tied to the docks. It wouldn't be the first time in his career that he'd had seasick people aboard, and the ship's cook and doctor were experienced in dealing with them too.
Huong continued, "As for feeling weak, that's from being cut off from one's element. Which is the other reason we're bringing this along," as he gestured to the dirt again, "to put earthen beds right under our bunks. Don't worry, we won't track it all over your good clean floors."
"And I'll hold you to that promise," Bunjiro said, letting a warning note creep into his voice. "As for the rest… I'll put empty barrels at the bow and stern, and both port and starboard of the main hatch; will that do for handy storage of your rocks?"
"Er…where are those places, exactly?" Huong said, looking about uncertainly.
Bright Agni spare him from complete landlubbers. Bunjiro sighed again, and gave the earthbenders a child's lesson in basic shipboard terms: "The bow is the front end of the ship. The stern is the back end. Port is the left side, and starboard is the right side. And that's the main hatch," as he pointed to it. "So you'll have your rocks at both ends and on both sides of the ship; is that satisfactory?"
Two of the agents had started bristling, as if he'd insulted them somehow, but Huong sent them a quelling glance and they subsided. "That will be satisfactory, Captain. And I trust that, should any minor conflicts arise between my squad and your crew, you and I will be able to work together and resolve them amicably."
Bunjiro nodded. "We should get along well, so long as we all keep our minds on our mutual primary mission; keeping the Dragoneye and his son safe from those who would end his line."
The Dai Li agent in glasses piped up curiously, "The Dragoneye? You mean, the Fire Lord?"
"Of course the Fire Lord. …You mean you don't know the story behind his eye?" Bunjiro asked curiously, as he gestured towards the left side of his own face.
Huong cocked an eyebrow at him. "The story we heard is that he was burned by his father, Ozai the Monstrous, just before being banished from his homeland for three years."
"Aye, he was; Ozai maneuvered his own son into an Agni Kai when he was only thirteen, barely the legal age for it, and substituted himself for Zuko's proper opponent at the last moment. Prince Zuko tried to show respect for his father by surrendering to him, but Ozai already hated his son's pure heart, and hated more the fact that his generals knew his son cared more for his nation and people than he himself did. Ozai ignored the surrender and the rules of the Agni Kai to burn half the boy's face off, including burning out his son's left eye, before banishing him for what he claimed was cowardice.
"But immediately after the boy was banished, before he started hunting the Avatar, his uncle the Dragon of the West took Prince Zuko on a hunt for dragons. You see, it's a dark and terrible truth that slaying a dragon and drinking its blood for a full day and night, increases a firebender's inner fire nearly tenfold to make them unstoppable warriors, almost as powerful as dragons themselves. At Fire Lord Azulon's bidding, General Iroh had done that same dark deed when he was a youthful prince, which is why he's called the Dragon of the West. And the general figured his nephew would need a dragon's strength and power, in order to face and capture the Avatar.
"The hunt was successful, and Prince Zuko found the last two dragons alive. But instead of slaying one to drink its blood, the young prince hailed the dragons as equals, and told them his story. The dragons struck a bargain with him; they would aid him in his search and more, if he would overthrow his father when the time was right and forbid the hunting of dragons forever, so that they could live among men and teach them the secrets of firebending again. Then, calling upon Agni to witness the bargain and aid them in an ancient and powerful magic, the dragons filled the young prince's burned-out and empty eye socket with a dragon's eye-part of the essence of the very dragon that his uncle had slain-before sending him on his way.
"The story goes that the young prince was almost impossible to live with for the next three years, as he adjusted to having not just part of his body but part of his soul replaced with a dragon's essence. He even raged against and insulted the uncle he loved, but the general understood, and stoically endured the insults; he had witnessed the dragons' terrible bargain from a distance, and knew that the anger was from the spirit of the dragon that he himself had slain unjustly. But eventually Prince Zuko mastered and made peace with the dragon part of his soul, and when he had, the dragons whispered to his spirit from afar. They told him where he could find the Avatar, who'd run away and hidden himself in ice for a hundred years rather than face the world at war.
"The prince flushed the child-Avatar out of hiding, chased the boy across the world to spur him into mastering the elements instead of playing all day, and when the boy had mastered all the elements except Fire, pretended to kill the Avatar so he could go home again and uncover the depths of his father's madness. And when he discovered that Ozai planned to burn the entire Earth Kingdom, including our colonies full of citizens loyal to the Fire Lord, he knew the time had come to overthrow his father. He joined forces with the Avatar and taught him firebending, and together they brought down Ozai the Monstrous and the Mad Princess Azula as well.
"Then Fire Lord Zuko kept his bargain with the dragons; one of the very first laws he made after ascending the throne was to declare dragon-slaying a crime on the level of mass murder and treason. He outlawed the sale of all dragon bones, blood and scales as well, with severe punishment for anyone caught with them in his possession. Only after those laws were passed could the dragons freely return to our nation's skies again."
The Dai Li agents listened to Bunjiro's story of his sovereign lord in silence, though two of the four had rather skeptical expressions. When he finished, Huong said neutrally, "That is quite an impressive story. May I ask where you heard it from?"
"From my cousin Hayao, who heard it from a traveling musician named Reijin," Bunjiro admitted. "But the story really came from the dragons themselves! Surely even in the Earth Kingdom you've heard of the time our Fire Lord rode dragonback across the entire nation, a month after his ascension to the throne?" When they nodded, he continued, "While the red dragon Ran carried him on that tour of the nation to show everyone that he had the dragons' support, the blue dragon Shao stayed in the capital to examine the crowd of onlookers, and impart the tale of the Dragoneye to those who had enough gift of spirit to hear their mind-speech. Reijin was there in the crowd, and received the tale straight from the dragon that way… and he saw what happened to two generals who had also received the tale, but refused to accept it or pass it on it to others!"
"What happened to them?" the agent with glasses asked.
"They were eaten by the dragon, that's what! General Mung and General Bujing were both eaten alive, right in front of the palace and in front of hundreds of witnesses, for refusing to accept and tell others the truth. After word got out of just why they'd been eaten, you can be damn sure that everyone who heard the story immediately told someone else about it. I'd be surprised if the true story behind the Dragoneye hasn't reached Whale Tail Island by now."
Bunjiro leaned back against the rail as he continued, "But even before hearing the dragons' story, I'd already wondered if his majesty was… a little more than human. And I'm not just talking about the way his left eye looks—though the shape and the way the scar tissue looks more like reptilian skin closer in should have been a dead giveaway, really."
The wiry-looking agent nodded as he volunteered, "I'd wondered myself how, after a burn that bad, he even still had a working eye on that side. So he had lost it to the fire, but then it was replaced…"
"Aye. But as I said, it's more than just his looks; no ordinary firebender could survive everything that our Fire Lord has been through! Going for weeks on a raft without food or water, and that was after surviving the Ocean Spirit's wrath at the Siege of the Northern Water Tribe. Getting hit by lightning—lightning flung with the power of Sozin's Comet behind it, no less! I know the royal family boasts the world's most powerful benders, but being a powerful bender doesn't account for everything he's done and survived. And there's that habit he has of using swords, when most firebenders don't bother with learning weapons; not when we can always make our own," as he produced a small flame above his palm to demonstrate. "But after I heard the story behind his eye, even that made sense!"
"How so?" Huong asked curiously, as all the agents suddenly looked more interested; perhaps they'd already been curious about their new liege's eccentricity.
Bunjiro gave a small smug smile, as he extinguished the flame in his palm and flexed his fingers into claws instead. "It's the dragon part of him. Dragons have fire, but they also have talons, and those dual swords are as close as the dragon inside him can get to having razor-sharp talons again."
The wiry-looking agent nodded agreement while the others jerked a little at his words in startled realization; as if Bunjiro's words had finally sunk in far enough to dislodge their skepticism. "That… that actually does make sense," Huong said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "Some folks think he uses them to show his support for non-benders, like Sokka the Brave, but if that was the case then he wouldn't do that trick of running fire down the blades, something no non-bender could ever do. There's also no denying that he has some sort of bond with dragons, after they showed up on the Fire Nation palace steps. And we know better than most people, how bizarre things can become when the spirits get involved in mortals' lives…"
The stocky-looking Dai Li agent asked hesitantly, "The Fire Lord really survived a lightning strike? I thought only the Avatar could do that!"
"Yes, he did, and there's no doubting that happened when it was witnessed by one of our Fire Sages!" Bunjiro smiled as he finished, "But that's a story for another time, perhaps after we're underway. I'll tell it at dinner tomorrow while you're eating with my crew; a great true story is always a good way to stir the embers and start a conversation."
That evening Zuko finally, with tired satisfaction, finished off all the paperwork that had piled up in just the two days he'd been helping Uncle Iroh first serve tea and then brew tea at the Jasmine Dragon. He took the twenty-three most immediate and urgent messages to the hawkery for speedy delivery to the Fire Nation, and he put the rest in the lacquered case that would be packed aboard his yacht. He had absolutely no doubt that the pile of work in his office back home was fifteen times worse than it had ever been, because his majordomo only forwarded to him the administrative duties that absolutely could not wait for his return. He idly wondered if all the paperwork was actually waiting for him in his office, or if the volume had grown so great that now it was stacked in piles—no, in bales in the hall outside… Well, he'd deal with that upon his return.
Duties finished for the moment, Zuko went to dine with Kuei's and Hakoda's families, though not with his own. Roku was in his nursery being minded by one of Qingshan's nurses while Ojia was out (after the nurse had sworn of her own volition in front of Zuko and the Dai Li agents that she would care for his child just as she would for the Earth Prince.) And his uncle had said earlier that he'd be dining with Lady Ping, Queen Song's mother, instead.
Iroh had also added that his dinner with Ping would be a private farewell party, and that Zuko shouldn't expect to see him any earlier than breakfast tomorrow. Zuko was sincerely glad that Song made no mention at all of her mother during dinner, because it would probably have started him blushing again.
The Kyoshi Warriors Suki and Ty Lee had been invited to dinner as well, and both had arrived at the last minute breathless, slightly disheveled and grinning from ear to ear. They entertained everyone at the table with anecdotes of what they'd been up to that day; they'd had a "Kyoshi Girls' Day Out", as Ty Lee gleefully termed it, in which they'd done everything from getting pedicures in an Upper Ring ladies' salon to getting into a bar fight in a Lower Ring tavern. "You really should have come along!" Ty Lee said to Katara with a grin. "That one earthbender who called us 'exotic beauties' was fun to flirt with—and even more fun to fight with!"
"I'm not really the flirting type," Katara said primly, though Zuko thought he caught a rather wistful expression before she hid it under the primness. "Besides, I was busy today; Aang and I spent hours down in the harbor waterbending with the barge that was made for Appa. We needed practice in maneuvering and braking it both with and without Appa resting on it, before it's hooked up to my dad's ship for the journey south."
"And then she had to help Appa recover from seasickness when we made some waves out in the middle of the harbor to simulate high seas," Aang added with a worried frown. "I never knew sky bison could get seasick! And when they throw up from both stomachs at once—well, it's really bad! I'd better just plan on taking him into the air whenever the waves get too high."
After dinner, Katara and Sokka walked back to the nursery wing with Zuko, while Aang went to check on Appa again. Zuko heated some water for Katara so she could give Roku another water-healing checkup, then glanced out the door to the balcony and the darkening sky beyond while trying not to frown. Ojia had left to see her family nearly five hours ago. And he knew that with Toph earthbending for her, Ojia's trip to the Middle Ring to see her family would take even less time than before, when one of the earthbending palace servants had provided transportation for her. Nearly five hours now, and Roku was hungry; where was his wet-nurse?
Then he chastised himself for not being more considerate of Ojia. She was about to leave her family behind for at least six weeks, until he found an utterly trustworthy wet-nurse for his son back home; her own children were probably clinging to her skirts even now, begging for just a few more moments with their mommy before she went away! And everyone had told him repeatedly that Roku would not starve to death in less than six hours, or even less than eight hours. If Ojia didn't return for another hour, he would not yell at her; he would be sympathetic, no matter how much his innards were twisting in knots at Roku's hungry cries right now. He would not yell at her, so long as she showed up within the hour…
With a grimace of sympathy at Roku's cries, Katara used waterbending to flow some warm water along her pinky finger as she placed it to his lips. The baby immediately latched onto her finger and began suckling, and she dribbled the water into his mouth as she cooed, "It's not what you're really hungry for, I know, but at least it will be something filling your tummy until Ojia gets here. There, there, little one…"
The water settled Roku for a little while, while the sun sank below the horizon. After a few good-night cuddles and kisses, Zuko put his son in the crib that had been made for him. Katara leaned into the crib to give him a good-night kiss too, and began singing a lullaby to him, one that Zuko had never heard before:
"Little one, little one, nighttime is nearing.
Little one, little one, it's time for sleep.
Little one, little one, stars are appearing,
Silver and gold in the silent and deep.
The roll of the river, the song of the sea,
The hush of the darkening sky,
The rustling snowflakes, the whispering wind,
They all make a soft lullaby
For my little one, little one…"
It was a lovely song, though definitely Water Tribe in origin, with all the water references. Zuko smiled fondly—but then lost the smile when he noticed Sokka out of the corner of his eye. The Water Tribe warrior's eyes were screwed shut, as if he was in pain, and tears were threatening to escape from those tightly shut eyes… but he was also smiling? At least, Zuko thought it was a smile, even if a really pained one… What was going on inside his best friend's head?
When Katara finished singing, she lingered over the crib for just a moment with a wistful smile before turning away. And when she saw her brother's face, she gasped in concern, "Sokka?"
Sokka finally opened his eyes, the tears escaping in trickles down his cheeks, but his smile grew wider. "You really do look at lot like her. Like Mom, Sis. She… it's been so many years since she died, I'd sort-of forgotten what she looked like, but when you started singing… She used to sing that song for us, but I hadn't heard it since she died. And when you sang it just now, I finally remembered her singing it…"
Zuko felt a lump in his throat as he watched brother and sister embrace in shared grief and nostalgia for the mother they'd lost. And he inevitably started thinking about his own mother, and what she'd used to sing to him before he went to sleep at night. He could still hear her sweet voice, echoing in his memory… Poor Roku would never know his mother's voice at all, but at least he would know her face from the palace portraits, and he would find out what she was like from Ty Lee's scrolls and Zuko's own stories about Mai. Roku would grow up knowing his mother had loved him; Zuko vowed that with all his heart.
Roku settled down to sleep, and soon afterwards Aang came in looking for Katara, wanting her to help him with something. She left with Aang, but Sokka stayed with him, and they quietly shared precious memories of their respective mothers while watching the baby sleep in his crib.
Ojia showed up not long afterwards, just before the six-hour mark, and just as Roku woke up and let them all know that he was both hungry and wet below. But although she immediately settled in to feed Roku and make him comfortable again, even Zuko could tell that the wet-nurse was far from comfortable right now; she was barely masking great agitation. He waited until the most immediate concerns were met, but as soon as Roku had been fed and changed, he asked bluntly, "What's wrong? Has something happened with your family?"
At first Ojia tried to deny that anything was wrong, but when Sokka scowled and said in hard tones that it was a real bad idea to lie to the Fire Lord—which mildly bemused Zuko; he hadn't realized that Sokka had finally learned how to be intimidating—the wet-nurse broke down and told them about her own son's near-kidnapping.
Zuko was both appalled and horrified! Not just at the depths that someone was willing to sink to in order to get to him and his son, but at the length of their reach as well, to have agents in the heart of the Earth Kingdom to do their bidding! But Sokka, who had snuffed out the 'intimidating' as quickly as a candle flame, was somehow able to calm both him and Ojia down by reassuring them that with Toph and her Dai Li agents on the case, Ojia's family would be as safe as the Earth King's own family.
"Because I've known Toph for years, and let me tell you, she doesn't exaggerate one bit when she says she's the Greatest Earthbender in the World. If someone ever made a scale for Awesomeness, they'd have to put her right at the top, or she'd just break the scale without even knowing it was there!" Sokka insisted, gesturing for emphasis. "She's so tough that not only do onions not make her cry, she makes onions cry! Let me tell you about this one battle we were in, back during the war…"
One anecdote about Team Avatar's adventures led to another, and almost before Zuko had realized it night had fallen over the palace, and he was yawning fit to break his jawbones. And Ojia was her usual calm, sweet and motherly self again; after putting Roku to bed, she very timidly suggested that perhaps it was time his majesty retired as well. His majesty gravely assured her that he would take the matter under advisement, ruined his attempt at dignity with another jawbreaker yawn, and then left for his suite in the guest wing.
After saying goodnight to Aang, Katara found her feet heading towards the nursery wing instead of her own guest suite. Well, why not look in on him first? Roku was really a darling baby for his age; so long as his basic needs of food, warmth and a dry bottom were met, he hardly cried at all (except for that one first night away from his father, and they'd all been expecting that.) His sweetness made baby-minding a genuine pleasure instead of a chore, and since he'd be leaving with his daddy tomorrow, she might as well indulge herself while she still could.
She reached the nursery just as Sokka was leaving it, saying goodnight to Ojia inside, looking affable as could be… but as soon as he shut the door, he went from 'affable' to downright grim. "Have you seen Iroh tonight?" he asked her, and before she could get past her surprise at the abrupt change to give him an answer, he muttered, "That's right, he's gone off to a last night with his ladyfriend. Slush. Gotta find a… the garden! He said one of the gardeners, the one-"
"Sokka!" she hissed sharply, grabbing his arm to keep him from striding away from her. "What's happened, that you need a gardener in the middle of the night?"
He stopped, sighed and turned back to her. "Not specifically a gardener, but I do need to find a White Lotus agent. We've got trouble for Roku already…"
Katara listened in growing horror as Sokka told her everything Ojia had told him and Zuko about her son nearly being kidnapped right off the street, mostly likely to use as a hostage to make Ojia cooperate with the kidnappers' demands. "Toph told Ojia that the New Dai Li and the City Guard of Ba Sing Se are going to do everything they can to make sure her family stays safe," Sokka finished. "But the problem with both organizations is that they're too well known."
She eyed him curiously as she asked, "How is that a problem, exactly?"
"The problem is that all they can do is react to any threat to Ojia's family by stopping it; they're playing defense, not offense, and that never works well in the long run. To go on the offensive against the people threatening Zuko's family, they need information; who hired the thugs that were caught today, and what else they're planning. But any unsavory characters who see them coming are just going to walk away fast in a different direction, instead of giving them information; you see?"
Katara nodded soberly. "You're right, that is a problem "
"Yeah. But even after 'Camp Old People' freed Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation's control on the day of the Comet, other than the Grandmasters, most White Lotus agents are still unknown except to each other," Sokka pointed out. "They could walk into just about any bar, opium den or gambling joint in the Earth Kingdom, and see and overhear a lot more than Toph's people can. Iroh told me in a letter that he'd recruited one of the palace gardeners into the Order a few months ago; once we get hold of him, he can start getting the word out to every other White Lotus agent working in Ba Sing Se, and they can start hunting for the information we need!"
Katara nodded agreement with his idea, but said, "You'll have to wait till morning to find him; I've never heard of a gardener working in the dark, and it would probably look suspicious if you went around in the middle of the night asking where some palace gardener lived."
"Yeah," Sokka agreed unhappily. Then he followed her back inside the nursery, with his affable smile back on his face, acting like he'd gone out just to find Katara and have her sympathize with poor Ojia.
And sympathize Katara did, remembering how horrible it had been for Aang when Appa had been held hostage for his good behavior in Ba Sing Se; how outraged and helpless he'd felt for so long. Given it was her son in danger, this situation had to be just as hard for Ojia, even if the Dai Li had stopped the kidnapping in time.
Ojia just accepted Katara's sympathy with a tremulous smile, and said she was still worried about her son but she did feel better knowing that Master Toph and her agents were keeping them safe. Katara said she was being both brave and sensible, before going over to the crib to go peek in on Roku. The baby was sleeping peaceably, cuddled under a blanket next to his cloth toy panda, and looking as cute as could be.
The moon rose higher into the sky beyond the balcony, as Katara gave Sokka a conspiring glance before she walked over to the toy chest that King Kuei had given for holding Roku's presents, and after a bit of rummaging, pulled out the toy tiger-seal that she'd put so much work into. Sokka smirked as Katara brought it over to the crib and oh-so-casually dropped it inside, within easy reach of the baby's fingers whenever he woke up.
Then she very gently and carefully stroked a finger down the sleeping baby's back, marveling anew at the little life before her. There was just something so fascinating about babies, so fragile and yet so determined to live, to grow and explore their world… She wondered idly how much his personality would resemble his father's when he grew up; if he'd be just as dedicated, compassionate, determined, serious, loyal and—she smirked briefly—socially awkward, especially at telling jokes. She also wondered if he'd be a firebender like Zuko; was Roku's body temperature already hotter than most babies, just as Zuko's temperature always ran hotter than average, or was that just her imagination?
"N-no. I can't do this," someone whispered behind her. Drawn from her idle musings, Katara turned in surprise to see Ojia rising up from the chair by the balcony that she'd been sitting in. The moon shone brightly behind her, casting her features into shadow, but Katara could still see the rising panic and fear in her face as she repeated, "I can't do this! I can't leave my own children in danger! I can't!"
Sokka did his very best to adopt their dad's sympathetic yet stern tone and stance, the one he used to chide warriors into doing their duty even when their hearts weren't in it. "Ojia, we talked about this. Your children will be safe, now that Toph and her Dai Li-"
It was actually a pretty good imitation of Dad, but it wasn't good enough this time. Ojia's eyes were wild as she clutched at his tunic, hissing, "That's not—you don't understand! They're my children! Everything I've ever done is for their sake, to give them a better life! But even getting the best education, eating like kings and wearing fine silks every day is worth nothing if their lives are in danger!"
Then she burst into tears, and turned from Sokka to grab Katara in desperation. "You understand, don't you? Please, I know he listens to you; please keep them safe! I know I'll be killed for this, but please make the Fire Lord spare my family! I'll suffer his wrath, I know I deserve it, but my children are innocent! I beg you, spare them!"
Utterly appalled by the turn of events, Katara nonetheless assured her, "I swear, Ojia, no one's going to hurt you or your family! I promise! I've known Zuko for years, and he would never-" but she was talking to the wet-nurse's back, as Ojia yanked open the nursery door. She fled the room and the nursery wing in tears, even as both Katara and Sokka ran after her, calling quietly but desperately for her to come back.
Katara grabbed Sokka's arm when he would have chased the wet-nurse down the hall, and sadly shook her head. "We can't make her stay, Sokka. It would be turning her into a prisoner when she's done nothing wrong, and when her own children are in danger…"
Sokka stopped when she'd grabbed him, and lowered his head in defeat. "I know, but…" His fists clenched in frustration as he continued, "Dammit, I thought I'd managed to get her past the worst of her worries; she seemed fine before you came in!"
Katara gave him a swift glare. "If you're trying to imply that this is my fault-"
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that!" Sokka protested as they turned back to the nursery.
Across the hallway, the door to little Qingshan's nursery was open with the daytime attendant and the night nurse standing in the doorway, quietly talking to each other as one shift ended and another began. They exchanged glances and had their own quick conversation while the Water Tribe siblings talked; then the two servants nodded to each other, and the daytime attendant stepped back inside to stay with Qingshan, while the night nurse followed them into Roku's nursery.
The nurse immediately prostrated herself and promised both Katara and Sokka that she would tend the Fire Prince for them that night, just as faithfully as she would tend the Earth Prince, because she knew from what had been said in the royal court the other day that was what the Earth King would want from her. "Thanks; we really appreciate it," Sokka said fervently, and Katara echoed his words.
"However, most regrettably, I can only provide care, not sustenance for the child; I was hired after Prince Qingshan began eating solid foods. I can call my esteemed colleague across the hallway to come in and feed him if he awakens in hunger, but she will not be able to go with him tomorrow to the Fire Nation," the night nurse said very apologetically.
"Understood… but you've bought a few hours to deal with this, and come up with a solution," Sokka said distractedly, while tugging at his wolftail. "C'mon, think, brain, think…"
"Shall we… inform the Fire Lord of the situation?" the night nurse asked timidly.
Brother and sister exchanged a look, then said together, "Not yet."
"Waking him up right now wouldn't help at all, and probably make things worse. He's had enough trouble already; let's not add to that until morning at least. And hopefully by then we'll have a solution for this problem, that we can give him at the same time," Katara said firmly.
"Right," Sokka said, nodding as his face brightened. "And I've got an idea already! Be back in a little while," as he turned and strode quickly out the door of the nursery.
Two hours later, cursing under his breath, Sokka pulled on the lead to the nanny goat-ox's halter; the cursed critter was balking at just stepping through a stable doorway. "C'mon, you stupid beast! And if you head-butt me again I'll… I'll yell right in your big droopy ear!"
He'd love to do more damage than that, but he didn't dare. Not after all the trouble he'd already gone through to get her! He'd ridden Appa from the palace down to the farmlands in the Outer Ring in the middle of the night, pounded on the door to a random farmer's house until he woke somebody up, offered three times the standard price for a milking goat-ox if they sold one to him right then and there, then wrestled the stupid beast up onto Appa with the farmer's help, tied her down and flown her back to the palace.
This goat-ox butted, she bit, and she'd pissed and pooped all over Appa's saddle (and he just knew he'd be the one to clean that mess up, as it had been all his idea), but she was needed. If she could provide baby Roku with fresh milk and keep the baby healthy until they could find a wet-nurse in the Fire Nation, then he'd just deal with whatever else she did, with a smile. A pained smile, mentally tallying up all the favors Zuko would owe him after this, but he would smile.
The palace guard who'd volunteered himself to help Sokka with the goat-ox, after seeing them land in the main courtyard with the stupid beast panicked and bleating to high heaven, chuckled. "Just step back, sir. I've seen how they deal with balky goat-oxen in the marketplace," as he picked a pebble up from the gravel.
Sokka stepped back, but not quite fast enough, as the guard flicked the pebble at the goat-ox's backside. With an indignant bleat, the animal jumped away from the stinging pain and into the stables, head-butting Sokka again in the process. "Ooph!"
Once they were inside the stables, it was another struggle to get the goat-ox penned up in a stall that normally belonged to an ostrich-horse, but one of the stable hands coaxed it inside with a handful of fresh grain. "Thanks, guys," Sokka said as he stepped back, grimacing while brushing at his tunic—eww, forget washing, this would just get burned.
"Happy to help, sir," the guard assured him. "Er… would this be for the infant prince?"
"Yep; the wet-nurse got so scared that she quit all of a sudden, so we need another source of fresh milk for the baby, for the trip back to the Fire Nation."
The guard nodded his approval of the idea, but the stablehand looked doubtful. "Going to the Fire Nation… that'll be by boat, right?"
"The Fire Lord's own yacht," Sokka confirmed. "Why?"
"Well, goat-oxen don't travel well by boat," the stablehand explained. "They're the best source of milk you're going to find around here, but goat-oxen always get… well, seasick, even on the river barges. And when they get seasick and go off their feed, they don't produce as much milk, either. You'll probably need at least one more goat-oxen for the trip."
Sokka groaned aloud, then decided that one was enough for tonight; they'd buy one or two more goat-oxen at the marketplace tomorrow, on their way down to the .harbor.
He stopped by his room to change out of his soiled clothes, then headed for the nursery. "Katara? Katara, are you there? I got us a source of fresh milk," Sokka called out softly as he entered.
Katara wasn't in the room, but the night nurse sitting in the rocking chair by the cradle whispered that she'd gone out to the balcony a while ago. Nodding his thanks to her, with a quick peek in on Roku (yup, still sleeping, still adorable), Sokka went out to the balcony.
Katara was out there, with moonlight shining down on her, and her ever-present waterskin resting on the balcony railing. Sokka lifted his eyes to the moon, remembering the Moon Spirit—sweet Yue, who'd watched over them all for so long; even if he and Suki married someday, he'd always love her too—then went over to his sister. She was facing away from the doors, hugging herself as if she was cold, which was odd; it was a nice spring night for Ba Sing Se, and positively warm for someone who'd been raised in the Southern Water Tribe. Maybe she was hugging herself for reassurance, from being all worried about Roku.
"Katara? Sis, it'll be okay; the baby will do fine," as he laid a hand on her shoulder. "I got us a source of fresh milk for the journey; there's a nanny goat-ox in the stables now, just waiting to be milked for Roku's breakfast."
Katara looked over her shoulder at him, and smiled; a wry smile, but there was another emotion in it that Sokka couldn't name at the moment. "Thanks, Sokka… but you're a little late."
"What? Don't tell me you found a goat-ox in the palace while I was gone! I asked before I left, and they said there probably weren't any in the entire Upper Ring!"
"No, not a goat-ox. All animals do best on the milk of their own species; he'd stay alive on goat-ox milk, but he wouldn't thrive on it. And Mai asked me to take care of him… so I will. Sokka, promise me you won't freak out, okay?"
"Who, me? I'm Mister Calm, Mister Un-freak-able," Sokka said reassuringly as she turned around—
And he promptly freaked out. "Gaagck! What happ—Katara, what've you done?"
"What does it look like I did?" she asked tartly, as she headed for the door leading back into the nursery. "And I asked you to not freak out… so if you did anyway, Dad's probably going to burst a blood vessel. Just great," she groused as she went back inside.
Roku had just woken up, either by hunger or by the sounds of Sokka's freak-out, and was starting to cry. Katara gestured wordlessly for the night nurse to let her have the rocking chair by the cradle. The nurse did so, with a wide-eyed gasp at her new appearance—which comforted Sokka a little, as it proved that this was too worth freaking out over—and she sat down in the chair. "Sokka, go to bed or find something else to do for a while, okay? This'll be easier without an audience, if you get my drift," Katara said as she took Roku into her arms.
Sokka didn't need further urging; he was at the door and out into the hallway, so fast his shadow had to catch up to him. There are some things a guy just shouldn't see his baby sister do. Lots of things, really, but this probably topped the list!
Zuko woke up gasping, reaching out… then, when he came fully awake, he rolled over and sobbed into his pillow. Just a dream, another damn dream… Every time he dreamed of Mai's face, her touch, her smile, he was reminded again of all that he'd lost.
Scrubbing the tears from his face, he got out of bed and put on a robe. After dreams like that, he needed his son. Needed to hold him, to feel his warmth and tiny heartbeat against his skin; to be reassured that some small part of Mai lived on, and he hadn't lost everything good in his life again.
He walked down to the nursery wing, nodding to the guards posted at the double doors to the wing before going through them. But once inside the wing, he paused. Why was Sokka just sitting on the floor in the hallway, in front of the door to Roku's nursery? And with that weird look on his face…
Sokka stopped mumbling to himself—something about his sister, it sounded like—as Zuko came closer, and tried to smile at him. A weird, anxious smile that instantly raised his hackles, something wasn't right. "Uh, hey, Zuko; what're you doing up? Sunrise isn't for hours yet… You know, the whole 'rise with the sun' thing?"
"Couldn't sleep," he said tersely. "Would you mind moving? You're blocking the door."
"Oh, you, uh, want to see the baby? Um, now's not really a good time for that…"
Something was definitely not right. "What's wrong?!" he demanded, stepping closer.
"Nothing! Well, nothing's wrong exactly, but…there's been a change in plans, okay?"
"What change? In our departure time? But the tide will… is Roku sick?" he guessed with alarm as he started to push forward past Sokka, anxious to get to his son
"No, no, Roku's healthy, he's just fine!" Sokka said as he scrambled to his feet, again blocking Zuko from entering. "But listen for a moment before you go in, all right? Just listen… Okay, Ojia quit a few hours ago; she was just too freaked out by the thought of her family being in danger and needing bodyguards because of her taking care of Roku. Don't be too mad at her, okay? She really thought she could do it, but right after bedtime she just broke down; burst into tears and ran out the door."
"She quit?!" Zuko echoed in dismay; dismay that was threatening to turn into panic, though he tried to fight it down. "But… how will we feed Roku?! He's just three weeks old; he can't be weaned yet!"
"Don't panic; we have a solution. Actually, we came up with two different solutions, and mine would have worked but Katara chose the one she came up with, and well, I guess we're going with that one now that she's… oh boy," as Sokka tugged at his own wolftail in distress.
Zuko said firmly, "Sokka. Stop babbling and start making sense."
Sokka sighed. "Just… just go in and see for yourself. But I'm not going in there, and if you're smart you'll tell Dad and Aang that you didn't see anything," as he stepped away from the door.
Zuko stared at him in utter bafflement, then shook his head and went into the nursery.
Katara was sitting in the rocking chair by the cradle, a blanket thrown over her front as if she was bundling up against the cold, and giving him an annoyed look. Uh-oh; what if his and Sokka's raised voices had woken the baby? But Roku wasn't crying yet…
"Sshh, little one," he murmured as she leaned over the crib. Then paused, and reached out to stir the empty bedclothes. "Where is he?!" as he stared at Katara.
"He's right here, and he's fine," she told him with that same annoyed look. And then he heard, from under the blanket… those soft noises, he'd heard them before, he…
Katara heaved a great sigh. "Oh, hells. You're going to see this sooner or later; might as well get it over with now," as she tossed back the blanket.
And there was his infant son, little Roku… suckling at Katara's breast.
Her… definitely larger breasts… wow…
"Yes, they're bigger now," she snapped at him irritably. "That happens to most women, when they're nursing."
Blushing red-hot as he realized he'd been staring, Zuko quickly looked away. His gaze now fixed on the far wall, he eventually managed to say, "You, uh, you, ah, you used your, um, water-healing to… to do that?"
His voice was really too high-pitched, too stutter-y and had far too many stupid pauses in it to be coming from him; what idiot had taken over his mouth and throat? The idiot stumbled on, "I, um, I've never, uh, never heard of, ah, of that being done before."
"Actually… neither have I." Katara's voice softened. "I was standing out in the moonlight, waiting to see what Sokka's bright idea for feeding Roku would be, when… it just came to me. And I knew I could do it." She half-chuckled. "Yugoda told me before I left the North Pole last month, that a healer's life was full of surprises."
"In the moonlight… you think Yue had something to do with this?" as he risked a quick glance at Katara's face, since she didn't sound annoyed with him anymore. Memory came flooding back, of how he and his uncle had survived their escape from the North Pole.
They'd been stuck on a raft with no provisions, drifting with the currents, for nearly three weeks; by all rights, they should have died of thirst, starvation or exposure long before reaching shore. But they hadn't died; thirst had been quenched by regular rainfalls, showers that swept over them just long enough to fill their boots (the only containers they had) before moving on. Hunger had gnawed at their bellies, but no less than five times in that three weeks, schools of fish had passed directly under their raft, close enough to the surface for Zuko to plunge his hand in and grab one. Once even a swarm of flying fish had passed their raft, and they'd managed to snag a few fish right out of the air.
The breath of fire technique that Uncle had invented kept them warm, but no firebending technique could be performed when exhausted. They'd had to do it in shifts, huddling together and taking turns firebending to keep each other warm and alive. But by the time they'd both become too exhausted to continue, they'd reached warmer waters and were within sight of land. Uncle had always said that Yue, the newly ascended/revived Moon Spirit, had been looking out for them; honoring his attempt to defend her from Zhao, and his part in her ascension/restoration. Zuko hadn't believed it then—since when had the spirits ever done him any favors?—but in the years since then, sometimes he'd wondered…
"Maybe," Katara shrugged. "I can't say for sure; it's not like she came down and tapped me on the shoulder, and said, 'Hey, here's a way for you to really do what Mai asked of you!'"
His heart squeezed painfully at mention of Mai's name, as it probably always would, but he focused past that as he asked, "What Mai asked of you?"
"Yes. I guess I didn't tell you before; when she… Mai's last words to me were, 'Take care of him.' I thought at the time she meant just making sure he survived, but that night at the Earth King's party, I'd been telling Mai how much I love children. I think now that she was asking me to truly take care of Roku for her, and now I can honor her last wish."
Zuko turned then to look at her, very carefully not looking any lower than her chin, even if it meant he had to tilt his own chin up a little to be on the safe side. "Thank you. Really, thank you. I… I can't tell you how much this means to me…"
She smiled at him. "It's okay. And you're welcome. Besides, I'm doing it mainly for this little star here," as she smiled down at the infant on her breast, and Zuko tried very hard to not follow her gaze down to wow those were big and beautiful… "How could anyone not love you, hmm? How could anyone not want to do everything they could to help you…"
After a moment of silence in which Zuko very determinedly pulled his gaze back upwards, she looked back at him with worry in her eyes. "Please, don't punish Ojia in any way and tell the Earth Kingdom officials to do the same, okay? She was fond of Roku too, but she just couldn't stand the thought of her children being in danger because of yours. She was crying when she left, almost hysterical, and I promised her no one would punish her…"
Zuko sighed, "That's probably my fault. You were asleep when she was first brought to me, so you didn't hear what I said then. Right after I told her she'd be well paid for her time, I told her that if she ever hurt Roku or betrayed me, I'd incinerate her. And her family."
"Zuko!" Katara frowned at him.
"I know, I know! But Mai had just been murdered, and I wasn't thinking straight! I wouldn't have actually done anything to her family, but she must have felt like she was in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation. If someone got past Toph's people and held any of her family hostage, to force her to betray me… I should have told her later that I hadn't really meant it about her family, but…" He shook his head. "Too late now. I'll talk to Kuei and Song, and let them know there are to be no repercussions for her for quitting without notice. And I'll send her a parting gift of some sort, to show there are no hard feelings."
"Thanks. I knew you'd understand," as she smiled at him again.
Just then little Roku let go of the nipple he'd been latched on to, and gave a tiny yawn. Katara started to stand up with him, but Zuko hurriedly said, "Here, let me do it." He took his son in his arms (and if his hand brushed against Katara's breast in the process, it had been entirely by accident), cradling him close. "Hey, little one… most precious gift from Agni… Ready to go back to sleep?"
Just then there was an unmistakable wet sound from Roku's nether regions, followed shortly by an unmistakable smell. Zuko wrinkled his nose. "Ready for a diaper change first?"
Katara laughed softly as she started refastening her tunic. "All yours, new daddy…"
The night nurse had been hovering silently in the background while they'd been talking, but now she stepped forward, her arms out for the child. But Zuko waved her away; he could do it himself, and just then, he actually wanted to. Not that he still had anything to prove to Katara, really! He just… who cared why he wanted to do it this time?
Zuko took his son over to the changing table, then reached a hand out towards a candelabra nearby. With a flexing of chi, four fire-darts leaped out of his fingers to light the wicks of the four candles, giving him more light to see by than the nursery's lone hour-marking candle had provided. He didn't want to miss a spot while cleaning his son's bottom; Katara had already given him dire warnings about diaper rash.
Once Roku was changed, another flicker of chi extinguished the extra candles, and he carried his son back to the cradle, already nodding off in his arms. "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow. Like fragile, tiny shells, drifting in the foam," he crooned, the only lullaby he knew by heart, as he set Roku carefully back into bed.
"If I may say so, Fire Lord… you're a fine example of fatherhood," the night nurse said to him with a smile.
Startled, he looked at her. "Really?"
Katara smiled at him as she nodded in confirmation. "Really." Then her face split in a yawn. "Sorry," as she tried too late to cover it with a hand. "It's been a really long day."
Zuko found himself yawning too. "Yeah; I think I can go back to sleep now."
They headed for the door together, after Katara told the night nurse to send someone to wake her up when Roku was hungry again. Just before opening it, Zuko paused and told her wryly, "By the way, if your father or Aang should ask, I didn't see anything."
"That's right, you didn't," Katara agreed with a firm nod.
Iroh returned to the palace an hour after dawn, and after a bittersweet parting from Lady Ping. She was such a wonderful woman, with her fair face, her fine figure, her kind but fierce and forthright personality, and her stamina last night…
He thought to himself with a touch of melancholy that it was just as well that Lady Ping had never accepted his proposals; he'd seen over the past summer how that fine lady just withered in the heat like a moon lily, and known that she wouldn't do well at all if she lived in the Fire Nation. But he knew they would always write to each other, about their lives apart and how their children and grandchildren were doing, and perhaps a few diplomatic visits could be arranged in the years to come.
He returned to the guest wing to find the parlor occupied by Hakoda, Aang, Suki and Ty Lee, all of them drinking tea while waiting for Katara and Sokka to emerge from their suites and Toph to arrive as well, so they could go together to breakfast with the Earth King and Queen. "According to the guard at his door, Zuko is down in the nursery already," Aang said to Iroh while considerately pouring some tea for him.
"Naturally," Iroh said with a smile; Zuko still spent most of his waking hours with his son. Iroh certainly didn't begrudge him that, as they all knew the Fire Lord's family time would be severely curtailed as soon as he returned to the Fire Nation and all his duties there. "I'll go in a few minutes and see if we can pull him away long enough for one last meal with everyone."
But while he was still drinking his tea, Sokka appeared in the doorway, blearily rubbing his face and with his famed wolf's-tail hairstyle in disarray. A palace servant followed him, quietly trying to ply him with a facial towel and hairbrush, but he was oblivious to the servant's efforts as he stumbled into the parlor and flopped into a seat. "What happened, son?" Hakoda asked in alarm. "You look as though you've hardly slept a wink!"
"I had a few hours sleep, but yeah, I could use a few more," Sokka admitted. "But I told someone to wake me up now instead of letting me sleep through breakfast, so I could tell everyone the news. Last night was really busy; we had a crisis in the nursery just after bedtime."
"A crisis of what sort?" Iroh asked very calmly. He was sure his words had been said in a very calm tone of voice, even though he found himself on his feet and at the doorway already.
"No, it's okay, come sit down again," Sokka said with a beckoning wave to him, while letting the servant brush and deftly retie the wolf's-tail in his hair. Once Iroh had reseated himself, Sokka began, "Okay, I've got bad news and good news for everyone, but it's really all the same news, just depends on your perspective…"
By the time Katara came to breakfast the next morning, she'd already fed little Roku twice more, and she was still yawning from lack of sleep. It was going to take a while to get used to her sleep being frequently interrupted like that, but even sleep-deprived, she was still a little…what was the word Toph had used once? Buzzed, that was it, when feelings of excitement and wonder lingered and made it hard to sleep or focus on mundane matters.
Katara had used her healing waterbending to do something that, as far as she knew, had never been done before; if it had, Yugoda had never covered it in her lessons. The water-warming technique, then use of bloodbending to create contractions in labor, and now this; that made three new waterbending techniques she'd created in less than a year! And on top of the combative waterbending technique she'd come up with on her own nearly three years ago, even before meeting Master Pakku; shearing razor-thin ice disks off the top of a column in front of her to make rapid-fire projectiles. Four new techniques pioneered and proven effective; now nobody in any tribe would dare claim that women couldn't be waterbending masters! She would need to write up exactly what she'd done very soon, while all the details were fresh in her mind, and send the scroll to Yugoda for educating students in the future.
And more than being excited over having created a new healing technique, she was still in awe of how it had felt, to nurse little Roku. Feeling him drawing nourishment from her, she… she had no idea how to describe it. It had been a little painful at first, but when the pain had passed, she'd felt… There just weren't any words in the language, to describe how she felt then.
She found everyone waiting for her at the breakfast table; all her friends and family, as well as the Earth King and Queen. And from the looks she was getting, everyone knew what she'd done—not that it wasn't kind-of obvious, to everyone who could see how much tighter her tunic fit now. Painfully tight, actually; she'd have to get new clothes, really soon.
Toph cocked her head and 'looked' in Katara's direction as she approached, saying with some concern in her voice, "You're walking like you're still pretty tired, Sweetness. Are you sure you should be up? We could get you breakfast in bed…"
"I'm fine, but thanks for the concern," Katara said, as Ty Lee jumped up from the table and rushed over to give her a hug. "Umph… careful; they're a little tender!"
"Oh, sorry!" Ty Lee said as she hurriedly backed off. "I wasn't thinking; I guess I'm just still amazed. Sokka told us, but… well, it's incredible! And so wonderful of you, to do this for the baby," as she gave a more careful hug from the side.
"Katara's a wonderful person," Zuko said with a smile. The first real, genuinely happy smile they'd seen on his face since… well, that they'd seen in weeks.
"One of the finest in any nation," Iroh said with a broad grin, as he raised his cup of tea to her.
"That she is," Hakoda said. And thank Tui and La, her father was smiling at her, instead of frowning. It was a worried sort of smile, but a smile all the same.
"You're not angry with me, then?" Katara asked her father as she came closer to the table. Sokka jumped up and slid out a chair for her, and she sat down in it, rather enjoying the extra-considerate treatment. "At the very least, this means I won't be going home with you tomorrow; I'll be leaving today for the Fire Nation, instead."
"When Sokka told us, I was surprised at first, and upset… but I was never angry with you," Hakoda assured her. "And my surprise didn't last for long. You're a lot like your mother, ready to help anyone who needs you; she'd have done the same thing if she could have. Now, eat," as he pointed at the heavily laden table. "Nursing mothers-ah, nursing women need to eat more, to keep up their strength and feed the baby too."
"Yes, Dad," Katara said with a smile. Zuko was already passing towards her a bowl of peeled orangicots, one of her favorite fruit. And from the other side of the table, Iroh was passing her another treat, a dish of rice balls sweetened with red bean paste.
"So, what's it like?" Toph asked brightly, as Katara started serving herself from the bounty. "Nursing a baby, I mean."
"Oh, no-no-nooo!" Sokka almost shouted, waving his arms frantically. "Not a suitable conversation for the breakfast table!"
"Why not?" as Toph grinned teasingly, and Song laughed out loud. "It's about Roku's breakfast, isn't it?"
Aang groaned aloud, the first sound he'd made since Katara had walked into the room. He'd been so quiet, just staring at her… mostly at her increased bustline, but she supposed that was to be expected, and boyfriends were allowed to do that sort of thing. "I'm with Sokka on this one. Can we talk about something else?"
"Well, on a related subject…" Kuei pushed his glasses further up on his nose and smiled at her reassuringly. "Zuko told me you were concerned about what would happen to the wet-nurse, Ojia. Rest assured that, given the extenuating circumstances, she won't be punished for leaving her duty without notice. Instead, we agreed that she'll be given two gold pieces for every day she was here to feed him."
Which came to a healthy sum indeed, enough to clothe and feed Ojia's own children for a long time… and likely also a niggling reminder of how much more she could have earned for her family, if she'd toughed it out and gone with Zuko to the Fire Nation. Katara smiled as she decided that was both reward and punishment enough.
"I didn't say anything before, because I knew it would have to be by your own choice, but I'm really relieved that you're joining us in going to the Fire Nation," Suki told Katara while passing her a platter of steamed buns. "Ojia was a kindly woman, but she wasn't any sort of warrior; she wouldn't have been able to serve as a last line of defense against assassins. And your water-healing is another huge asset, considering how fragile Roku's health is right now."
"Hear, hear!" Sokka agreed readily, while snatching a steamed bun off the passing platter. "Suki and I can defend him against nasty people, but without you along, we'd be screwed if he caught a nasty cold."
Iroh agreed just as readily, but then urged them to speak of more pleasant things, so they passed the rest of breakfast speaking of innocuous topics such as the sort of weather they could expect on the way back to the Fire Nation. After breakfast, Iroh and Zuko went off to the nursery, to be sure all the baby clothes, toys and other supplies Queen Song and others had given them were packed before leaving for the ship that afternoon. Katara was about to follow after them when Aang stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Can we talk outside?"
They went out to a balcony, looking out over the rings of Ba Sing Se. Katara sighed as she turned to Aang. "You're not happy about this, are you? I'm sorry, I know this wrecks the plans we made for traveling together after seeing the South Pole again, but… this is what I need to do. Roku needs a wet-nurse, and in Mai's last words to me—her last words to anyone, her dying wish—she asked me to take care of him. Now I can do that for her."
"I… I guess I understand," Aang said slowly. "I just wished you'd talked to me about it, first… Katara, how long were you planning to do this? Until you get to the Fire Nation, and Zuko can find a new wet-nurse there? Or until Roku's weaned?"
Katara admitted, "Honestly, I wasn't thinking that far ahead when I did it. It was just… in the moonlight, this felt so right…"
"And now, in the daylight?"
"…It still feels right. As for how long… Mai asked me to take care of him, Aang. So I'll do it for as long as it takes."
"Until he's weaned, then," Aang said glumly. "Because I know you, Katara; now that you've started doing this you're not going to just hand him over to someone else to nurse, are you?"
After a pause, Katara smiled wryly and shook her head. "You're right, I wouldn't. Even just thinking about it just now, felt wrong." She looked around them both. "Can you see anything, um, spirit-y floating around us right now?"
Aang looked around, then shook his head. "Not right now, no. Why; did you feel something touching your spirit?"
"Maybe," she said hesitantly. Because when she'd thought about just handing Roku over to a stranger waiting in the Fire Nation to nurse him… it felt like something had jabbed at her heart with a sharp No! But she knew well, from more than just her lessons with Yugoda on mental health, that sometimes people blamed the spirits for making them think or feel things that were really all their own thoughts and feelings.
Aang looked around once more, then shook his head and turned away from her to lean on the railing, scowling. "So you're going to be stuck in the Fire Nation for at least a year, until he's fully weaned! That's another whole year we'll be apart, after you just finished your Master Healer training at the North Pole! It's not fair!"
"Aang," Katara said warningly, "You'd better not be feeling jealous of a newborn baby… And besides, who said we'd be kept apart? You told me yourself, you're at Zuko's palace often enough that you have your own set of rooms there, all decorated in the Air Nomad style. There's no reason at all why you can't stay there even more often, now that the last treaty is signed. The Fire Nation colonies should finally settle down and stop rioting, once everyone knows exactly when and how the Earth Kingdom is taking the land back, and just how fairly they'll be treated by both governments. You won't need to keep flying everywhere on Appa to settle disputes and keep the peace, or at least not nearly as much as you have."
"Yeah, but… I was really looking forward to taking you with me all over the world again! There's so much more to do and see, than we were able to do when I was training to master the elements and we were all working to stop the war. So many places that I haven't looked yet, for airbenders in hiding. And so much fun that I was looking forward to sharing with you…"
"You can still look for airbenders even when I'm not there with you. And as for fun, well, we'll just find fun stuff to do in the Fire Nation!" Katara shrugged. "There's always Ember Island; we had a lot of fun there…" she paused, thought it over. "I admit I don't know much about Fire Nation politics yet, but if Zuko tells his court he's taking a few days off to take his family and friends to Ember Island, they should just-"
"See, that's what I'm talking about!" Aang said angrily, jabbing a finger at her. "It's not going to be just you and me; it's going to be you and me and the baby and Zuko!"
"And you're jealous! Jealous of a newborn baby!" Katara tossed back at him. "Do you realize how childish and immature you sound right now?" Then she closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, took a deep breath, and tried a new tactic. "Aang, has it occurred to you that this is an opportunity for me to seriously practice real motherhood, before you and I begin raising children of our own?"
Dead silence. She opened her eyes to see Aang staring back at her with eyes wide as saucers. He finally echoed, "…raising children of our own?"
She frowned. "Don't tell me you haven't even thought about that yet. …You really haven't, at all?"
"Of course I've thought about it!" he said hastily. "I just… c'mon, I just turned fifteen! That's a little young to start raising children!"
She nodded emphatically. "That's right; it should be at least a few years in the future. Why, we haven't even gotten married or built ourselves a home and settled down somewhere to live yet! And of course those have to come first." She cupped his chin and smiled at him. "We have years ahead of us, Aang; plenty of time before we start our own family. I'm just going to get some practice in for later, while helping Zuko and keeping my promise to Mai."
He smiled back at her, or tried to. "Okay."
"Good. Now I need to get to packing," as she turned back to go inside. Then she turned back again to say, "Here's something else to consider, too. I already resigned myself to the idea of having to share you with the whole world, whenever your duties call you away. If I can share you with the people who need you, can't you do the same for me?"
She knew better than to wait for an answer to that, after he'd already been so stunned by just the idea of eventual fatherhood. She went back inside and to her room, to pack what little hadn't already been packed and waiting for the trip back home to the South Pole.
Aang stared after Katara's departing figure, still feeling a little stunned. He could still hear her voice echoing inside his head, "…before you and I begin raising children of our own?" Some part of him knew that he shouldn't be so staggered by the idea, but… raising children was for old people.
You didn't settle down in a temple to stay until you were actually kind-of tired of traveling; until you'd seen enough of the world to give you a lifetime's worth of memories, and had plenty of adventures for making stories to tell children at bedtime. Not a single one of the monks who'd raised Aang at the Southern Air Temple had been less than fifty years old!
Okay, when he'd gone there to choose Appa from the sky bison herd there had been some nuns at the Eastern Air Temple who hadn't been all gray-haired and wrinkled, but… Endless Sky Above, he and Katara were still teenagers! They had their whole lives ahead of them; did Katara really think it was already time to settle in one spot and devote all her days to taking care of children? Weren't there other things she wanted to do first, other adventures she wanted to have or accomplishments she wanted to achieve while she was still able?
Aang knew that lots of ground-dwellers started having families when they were still really young, like Zuko and Mai. But he'd always figured that those two had gotten married and started having babies so soon only because they had a duty to do so, because of those 'rules of succession' that royalty has to put up with. Yeah, over the past year or so there had been a couple of Earth Sages and even Fire Sage Shyu had been hinting about Aang needing to 'do his duty' that way, to start breeding airbenders in order to bring back the Air Nomad culture and restore balance to the world, but…but if he did that, just started breeding lots of airbending babies, that would mean he'd given up hope. And he hadn't given up yet!
Aang firmly believed that he wasn't the very last airbender alive; that more descendants of the Air Nomads still lived in hiding somewhere. He'd accepted now that all four Air Temples had been attacked and the people living there massacred on the day of Sozin's Comet, but less than half the Air Nomads he'd met or heard of had actually stayed at the temples; all the younger adults had wandered as they pleased all over the world, and there's no way they would have all been found and killed in a single day! Okay, maybe some of them had been caught later in traps baited with Air Nomad relics, like that time Zhao had actually netted Aang for just a few minutes in the mountains, but not all of them would have been suckered in that way.
If they grew out their hair, and wore a hat or headband and long sleeves all the time, even a fully tattooed master airbender could blend into a populace and disappear. Airbenders who just weren't that good and had reached traveling age before receiving all their tattoos, would have an even easier time blending in. And even if they'd died sometime in the last hundred years, their descendants would still be airbenders! Most of them, anyway! But after a hundred years of war and hiding their heritage and abilities, they wouldn't just jump up waving their arms and start shouting that they were ready for advanced airbending lessons; they'd wait a while, a few years even, to be absolutely sure the war was really over and they wouldn't be killed or imprisoned on sight anymore.
Now that the treaty had been signed and everyone knew what was going to happen and when, the riots in the colonies should settle and stop. And then Aang would be free again, free to travel the world and search for airbenders; it would hurt to have to do it without Katara by his side for the first year or so, but that wouldn't stop him. And after he found the hidden ones, he'd teach them any or all of the airbending skills they would have lost in a century of hiding, and all about the Air Nomad culture they'd lost as well. The Eastern Air Temple would be a good place for that; the architecture and landscape there were the most hospitable for ground-dwellers and people with poor airbending skills, and Guru Pathik could help him with teaching Air Nomad culture to others.
And after he saw to the restoration and repopulation of at least the Eastern Air Temple, then… If Katara thought they'd be settling down in just a few years but he hadn't been thinking they'd do that for another thirty to forty years, maybe they could, um, split the difference? A compromise of, say, fifteen to twenty years from now; they'd be in their early to mid-thirties then. Still pretty young for it, but given how busy and even crazy their lives were, by then they'd have had so many adventures they'd never run out of stories to tell to children at one of the Air Temples!
Yeah, when they were in their early thirties; that would be a good time to settle down and start raising children. Having come to grips with the idea and resolved it for the moment, Aang picked up his staff from where he'd left it lying against the balcony rail and headed back inside. He paused in mid-step as another thought struck him… and then continued inside with a smile and nod to himself. Yes, it would actually be good for Katara, to nurse and raise little Roku for his first year. Doing that would get her used to raising children who weren't hers by blood, and to saying goodbye to her babies after they were weaned. Those were both important parts of the Air Nomad culture, after all…
There wasn't much left for Katara to pack; most of her things had already been taken down to her father's ship in the harbor. Iroh said at breakfast that he'd already sent messages down to the harbor, to both Hakoda's lead ship and Zuko's yacht, telling the crews about the abrupt change in her travel plans and requesting that her luggage be transferred between the ships.
Katara asked a servant for paper, ink and a writing brush, and after she finished packing, she sat down to write a letter to her Gran-Gran, explaining what had happened and why she wouldn't be coming home with her father after all. It was a hard letter to write; Katara really missed her grandmother, and she knew from their letters over the past year how proud Kanna was of her granddaughter and how much she'd been looking forward to seeing the young woman and master waterbender Katara had become. But Gran-Gran had been the village midwife for years, and knew as well as or better than anyone how important it was to nurture the next generation; she'd understand why it was so important for Katara to do this, even if it kept their family apart for another year or more.
Just as she finished signing the letter, Zuko knocked on her door. "Katara? Will you be ready soon? I don't mean to rush you, but we were thinking of leaving an hour earlier than planned, so we could do some shopping for you on the way down to the docks." She opened the door as he said, "You're going to need new clothes now, right?"
"I sure do," she agreed with a wry smile. "Everything's way too tight now!"
It was amusing to see how Zuko's gaze started to drop down to her chest before he stopped himself, and determinedly brought his eyes back up to her face while his cheeks turned pink. "Song says we'll probably have to go to the Middle Ring for the right clothing; she hasn't seen any shops in the Upper Ring that have nursing robes. I guess because most noblewomen hire wet-nurses from the Middle Ring instead of, er…"
"Right," she said wryly. "Anyway, I've still got some money left from-"
He held up a finger to stop her, saying firmly, "I'm paying for everything. I insist. And even if I didn't, Uncle would. He just sent a messenger down to the Commerce Council's office to get the names of their most recommended clothing shops in the Middle Ring; the runner will meet us at the railway terminal with the information."
"Are Sokka and Suki ready to leave early, too?" Katara asked. Then she reconsidered, and smiled. "For a chance to go shopping again? Sokka's probably already waiting for us."
When the ink was dry, Katara rolled up and sealed the letter to her grandmother, and gave it to her father for delivery. As he accepted the letter, Hakoda said with that same worried sort of smile, "I know she'll miss you as much as I will, but I'm sure she'll agree you made the right decision." By that time, everyone leaving that day was all packed and ready to travel.
Ignoring formal protocol, the Earth King and Queen met them for farewells on the steps of the palace. After saying goodbye, Queen Song pressed a wrapped packet into the Fire Lord's hands. Zuko looked down at it, then whispered just barely loud enough for Katara to overhear, "Roast duck?" Song nodded, smiling. "You're never going to let me forget, are you?" She shook her head, smiling even wider. "Good. Thank you," he whispered, before bowing to her and to Kuei, then turning to go down the steps.
While the Earth King and Queen stayed behind, everyone else came with them to the stone railway station, including Hakoda and Ty Lee. "Will you be leaving today after all?" Katara asked her father.
Hakoda shook his head. "No; the men are enjoying a final day and night here, and I won't change their plans on such short notice. But I'd rather accompany you while shopping and then down to the docks to see you off, than just sit about the palace trying to keep that bear from chewing on my boots again." Iroh overheard them and chuckled, while Sokka grimaced and Katara gave her brother a look of sympathy. No one quite knew why, but Bosco just homed in on Southern Water Tribe-made boot leather.
They made a sizeable procession down to the railway terminal nearest to the palace, where an earthbender-powered train had been reserved and was waiting for them all. After they boarded, Aang sat down next to Katara and said with a sheepish smile, "You were right, Katara; I was being selfish earlier. And not really thinking it through, either… I'll really miss having your company for the first year that I'm searching for hidden airbenders, but you're doing the right thing, becoming Roku's nurse until he's weaned."
"I'm so glad you understand, Aang," Katara said with a relieved smile, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Do you think you'll find time to visit the Fire Nation soon?"
"I was just thinking about that, actually. Since you're not going down to the South Pole with your father and the rebuilding there is already going so well, there's not really any reason for me to visit right now. I think I'd better make another round of the colonies instead, and make sure everyone knows the treaty has been signed and they can keep their homes. But I'll make sure to come to the Fire Nation capital too, nine days from now; Zuko said that's how long it normally takes for his high-speed yacht to get there from here." Aang grinned as he finished, "Maybe I'll meet you on the docks there!"
When they reached the Middle Ring railway terminal, the party split up. Rather than delay their procession with an activity as mundane and trivial as shopping for clothes, Fire Sage Shyu and four of Zuko's guards would be continuing down to the docks with Mai's ashes, escorting the Fire Lady's remains with all due solemnity and reverence aboard the royal yacht. And while they were down there, they'd pay their respects to the Water Tribe ships and make sure Hakoda's men got the message that had been sent down from the palace earlier, and had offloaded Katara's luggage to Zuko's vessel.
As everyone else disembarked from the stone railway in the Middle Ring, they were met by a messenger with a list of clothing shops specializing in maternity and nursing garments. The messenger also had a palanquin ready for the Fire Nation royals to get into, but once someone said aloud the address of the nearest clothier, Toph said, "Why not just walk? The weather's good and the shop's only three blocks away from here."
Holding Roku in his arms, as he'd been doing nonstop since leaving the palace, Zuko hesitated. "There's a stiff breeze, he could get cold…"
Iroh chuckled. "With all the blankets you and Katara have wrapped him in? Not likely, nephew. Now, may I hold him as we're walking?"
It made for quite an unusual procession through the Middle Ring row of shops; Fire Nation royalty, Water Tribe nobility (as Iroh referred to them, and Sokka said it sounded nice) and the Avatar all chatting and walking and window-shopping like commoners, while Earth Kingdom agents worked side-by-side with Fire Nation guards and Kyoshi Warriors as their security force. Ty Lee and the four Dai Li agents fanned out ahead to scout for potential trouble, while Toph and Suki constantly checked their rear to see if anyone was following them with harmful intent. Sokka had been ready to do rear guard duties with Suki, but she told him, "This is your last chance to spend time with your father for a long while; enjoy it." Soon enough they came to Shuma's Clothing for Mothers; one of the most highly recommended clothiers on the list they'd been given.
Once they got over the shock of being visited by foreign royalty, the shop proprietor and all her assistants all but fell over themselves to wait upon their party. In short order Katara was bustled behind a folding screen, divested of her too-tight clothing, and measured and fitted for maternity underclothing. She sighed in relief after they'd helped her don one of the maternal support undergarments they had in stock; so much more comfortable for her current state!
"My own design," Shuma said proudly. "Superior to anything you'd find in any other shop in Ba Sing Se, if I do say so myself. I have another one of this model in stock, if you'd like."
"I'll take both of them," Katara said immediately, rejoicing at the thought of having a spare to wear while the other was being laundered. Then a thought hit her, and she asked, "Wait; how much does one of these cost?"
Shuma quoted a price, and Katara gulped. She'd seen fancy dresses going for less than that! With such a high starting price, there was no doubt that even an hour's worth of bargaining would still leave the price at more than she'd ever paid for anything in her life. "I guess I can make do with-"
Iroh's voice floated over the screen, saying firmly as Katara blushed, "We'll take both of them."
It was normally unthinkable for a man to even set foot inside a clothing store that sold women's apparel of such an intimate nature. But Iroh had walked in and sat down as nonchalantly as if he owned the place, and since his uncle was still holding Roku, Zuko swallowed hard and followed them in, reminding himself that a Fire Lord could do anything (except stop blushing.)
Sokka, on the other hand, balked at even stepping under the awning, instead deciding hurriedly to check out a shop nearby that sold toys for children. Aang and Hakoda went with Sokka, while the Dai Li and royal guards assigned themselves posts outside the shop and Toph and Suki came inside.
Ty Lee started to come inside the clothing shop as well, but then she changed her mind and cartwheeled after the men, announcing eagerly that she hadn't bought a toy for Roku yet. Zuko started to call after her that Roku already had plenty of toys, then stopped himself and shook his head, smiling. He'd never been able to talk Ty Lee out of doing anything before, so why bother trying now?
After they put some new garment on Katara—something she really liked, judging by the happy sigh they heard coming from behind the screen—and the shop proprietor quoted a price for it, Zuko blinked at the high starting price. He had no idea how much maternity clothing would cost in the Fire Nation, but he knew that was almost as much as two weeks' rent for the small apartment he and his uncle had once shared in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se. Then he blinked again at his uncle, after Iroh had said firmly that they'd take both the garments in stock. Without even trying to bargain!
Yes, they could afford to pay all that and more, but normally his uncle loved a good bargain. When Zuko leaned close and quietly asked him why he hadn't even tried to bring the price down, Iroh looked at him wryly and whispered back, "Are you prepared to spend time arguing the merits of women's undergarments?"
Toph overheard that, naturally, and laughed out loud. "Tell you what, guys; let me do the haggling for everything else!"
"Please do," Zuko said fervently, still blushing deep red.
Then Katara started trying on outer clothing. The proprietor (no doubt flushed with victory over the already-confirmed sale of the undergarments) took a fancy green gown from out of a glass-covered display case, a gown that looked fancy enough for a minor court function, and took it behind the screen. A few minutes later, Katara stepped out from behind the screen with the gown on, and asked their opinion of it. Well, it was okay to look if she was asking him to… For the first time in a very long time Zuko let himself really look at Katara from head to toe, and bright Agni she was so beautiful. She'd been beautiful before, but now she was almost glowing…
It was a good thing Toph had already volunteered to do the bargaining, and immediately stepped up to do so. Otherwise Zuko would have just blurted out that they'd take it, at any price. As soon as he could remember how to use words again, that is.
Twenty minutes of bargaining later, the fancy green gown had been bought. In the meantime, Katara began trying on plainer robes for everyday wear…and Zuko couldn't help observing that she still looked beautiful in each one. It wasn't wrong to just notice that beauty, was it? He shouldn't feel so horribly guilty just for observing that someone besides Mai could be beautiful. Because that's all it was, just an observation, nothing more…
After the second robe had been bought and as Katara was preparing to try on a third, the toy shoppers came back. Still standing well outside the shop entrance, Sokka called in gleefully, "Look what we got for Roku!" as he held up a cloth-covered toy animal that looked like a baby sabertoothed moose-lion, Ty Lee held up a brightly painted spinning top, and Aang held up—well, well; now they were making stuffed toys that looked like Appa! A huge one, too, nearly three times Roku's size; big enough that the baby could pretend to ride him, which was no doubt what Aang had in mind.
While Sokka and Aang still stayed outside, Ty Lee just danced right in, tossed the top to Zuko and then bounced over to where Katara was trying on clothing, talking excitedly about how the color of that third robe really brought out her complexion. Hakoda also came into the shop with his gift for Roku; a small wooden rattle. He shook it above Roku's head, and the baby's eyes tracked the rattle with fascination; one tiny hand squirmed out of his blankets to wave in its direction. "May I hold him for a while?" Hakoda asked both father and grandfather.
Zuko readily agreed, as he always had when Hakoda had asked before; the Southern Water Tribe chief had gentle, steady hands and plenty of experience in fatherhood. But the look on Hakoda's face was almost solemn this time, instead of smiling indulgently, as he took the baby in his arms and sat down in the chair Iroh had just vacated. He didn't say anything, just gazed thoughtfully at Roku, with occasional glances at Zuko as well.
But Hakoda's smile returned later, after a few minutes of shaking the rattle for the baby as Roku burbled happily for him. "Strong and healthy," he murmured. "And he shall be well loved…"
Setting the rattle down, he began lightly tracing symbols on Roku's forehead with the tip of a finger; first an arc that connected one wee wisp of eyebrow to the other, then a tiny crescent in the very center. "Roku, son of Zuko. Blessed by the sun soon after your birth; now you are blessed by the moon as well," he told the baby solemnly. "And may the ocean carry you safely wherever your life's journey takes you."
Zuko had picked up the rattle as soon as Hakoda had set it down, checking it over for splinters or poor sealant or anything else that might make it dangerous when Roku inevitably picked it up and put it in his mouth. But it was a good quality rattle (and he admitted to himself that he really did worry too much, like Uncle kept saying, but how could he not worry?) So he hadn't really been paying attention to Hakoda's gestures and words at first, but he began listening when he heard his name mentioned.
Zuko hadn't studied the Water Tribes the way his uncle had, but he knew a ceremonial blessing when he heard one. He decided from the talk about the ocean carrying them safely that it must be a travel-blessing, for the journey home to the Fire Nation. And blessings weren't freely bestowed when people were upset; he smiled in relief that Hakoda wasn't troubled anymore by Katara's decision to become Roku's wet-nurse.
Iroh leaned down next to Hakoda and the older men began talking quietly together, but at that moment Katara stepped out from behind the screen again with the fourth nursing gown, a robe of solid brown suitable for traveling in. "I wish they had something in blue," she said wistfully as she modeled it for them.
"We'll have one made for you in the Fire Nation," Zuko assured her. He told the proprietor, "Write down all her measurements, and all the directions for sewing a good quality nursing gown, on scrolls of paper or parchment no wider than this," as he demonstrated with his hands the maximum size of paper; as much as could be rolled up and stuffed inside a messenger hawk's tube. He'd have the measurements and directions sent straight to the palace, so the royal seamstresses would have dresses in blue ready for Katara by the time they arrived in the Fire Nation. And one or two dresses in red, too; she looked really good in red…
The proprietor smiled at him with her eyebrows raised. "Your majesty wishes me to simply give away, some of my trade secrets?"
In other words, the information wasn't free, and he was expected to pay dearly for that parchment. He sighed. "Toph, would you handle this too?"
"Hmm?" Toph said distractedly, her blind green eyes wide as she seemed to lean in his uncle's direction. "Oh, right; more bargaining. Okay, Shuma; how much do you think it's worth?" as she switched back to full haggling mode. Zuko wondered briefly what she'd been so distracted by, then decided it must have been some noise from outside the store; nothing bad, apparently, because his guards and the Dai Li agents hadn't moved from their posts.
While Toph was bargaining for the instructions, Roku began to fuss, his mouth puckering. "I believe he's hungry again, daughter," Hakoda said with a wry smile.
Katara came over and picked up Roku with a smile. "Well, no better time than right now to find out how well these new clothes will do the job," she said as she took the baby behind the screen. Soon Zuko could hear the faint sounds of infant suckling coming from behind the screen, and Katara's voice saying with satisfaction, "They do just fine!"
"Glad to hear it," Zuko mumbled, blushing again.
Eventually, with a significantly lighter money pouch and their arms full of purchases, the party made their way back to the stone railway station. They'd sent their specially-reserved train on ahead of them with Fire Sage Shyu and Mai's ashes, but Toph said confidently that passenger trains ran down to the harbor all the time, and she was sure the stationmaster could provide them with a private railway car for the trip.
She stone-skated ahead of the party to make the arrangements, and when they arrived they found that the stationmaster had provided them with not just a private car, but a two-car railway train all to themselves. And that one of the three earthbenders assigned to moving the train was their old friend Haru; he personally assured Zuko that their ride down to the harbor would be as gentle as floating.
Everyone boarded, and the railway benders got their conveyance moving just as smoothly as promised. After several minutes of earthbending from his position on the right rear corner of the last car, Haru was surprised to hear a voice coming from above him, saying cheerfully, "Hi! Can you talk and push at the same time?" Haru looked up to see Ty Lee perched on the edge of the train car's roof, as easily as if she did it every day.
Haru glanced at his work partner Mengyao, who gave a why-not shrug back, and then said to Ty Lee, "I don't generally do that, but these are special circumstances, so what did you want to talk about?"
"Oh, lots of things!" Ty Lee said gaily. "For instance, what's your favorite kind of tea?"
"And what's your favorite color?"
"Green; the shade of green you find on new bamboo shoots in the spring," Haru answered her, while trying to ignore the knowing smirk his work partner was giving him. When asked, he also told her what kind of soup he liked best, miso soup, and his favorite type of dumplings.
Then Ty Lee asked him, very earnestly, "Now that the war's over, what do you think of the Fire Nation?"
Haru almost lost his bending concentration, but recovered in time that hopefully the people inside the train didn't notice the slight shudder in their ride. Mengyao dropped the sly smirk he'd been giving Haru, and turned a wary look up at the pretty interrogator for a moment before turning to Haru again, waiting for his answer.
Haru chose his next words carefully. "The fact that the war is over now doesn't erase all my memories of Fire Nation oppression, Ty Lee. They held my father prisoner for over five years, when he'd committed no crime at all; that's hard to forgive. But Fire Lord Zuko is proof enough that not everyone in the Fire Nation is callous and cruel; that many of them are even good people, just like most of us here in the Earth Kingdom. Now that the Fire Nation is making reparations for all the damage they did, I'm willing to accept that they're allies now instead of still seeing them as enemies. After a hundred years of war, peace is too precious to throw away for the sake of vengeance."
Mengyao looked satisfied with his response, but Ty Lee looked a little disappointed. But only for a moment; then she brightened again and said, "Have you ever thought about going to see Kyoshi Island? They've got a shrine to Avatar Kyoshi there, you know; she was the last Earth Kingdom Avatar!"
"So I've heard," Haru said with a polite smile, while inwardly praying fervently to Kyoshi on the spot; asking the past Avatar to give this particular Kyoshi Warrior a spiritual tap on the head or something, and end this increasingly uncomfortable conversation. How many more miles until they reached the harbor terminal? Would anyone inside notice if he doubled their speed?
Ty Lee leaned down towards him, her perch now so precarious that he had to stifle an anxious impulse to grab her and bend open a temporary door so he could stuff her back inside the train. She said earnestly while staring intently at him, "You should really go on a vacation there! I'd be happy to show you around Kyoshi Island; there's lots to see there, and lots of really great people to talk to! And if you ever get tired of big-city living, well, Kyoshi Island always has work for good earthbenders! Think about it, okay?"
And with that, she easily pulled herself back up onto the car roof, and then flipped backwards out of sight, presumably going back to whatever window she'd come out of in the first place. After she left, Mengyao lifted an elbow between their rhythmic bending shoves to give him a friendly nudge, with a smile halfway between a smirk and sheer admiration covering his face. "How do you do it, man? One look at you, and she was all but ready to start having your babies, when you were barely even smiling at her! Not that I blame you for not wanting that one; I've heard some pretty nasty stuff about those she-male warriors, and even worse about the island they live on. But this isn't the first time I've seen girls just about hanging off of you, when you don't even try to encourage them! What's your secret?"
Haru just shrugged. "If I knew what it is that's got the ladies so interested in me, believe me, I'd share it with you! I used to think it was the mustache, but I shaved that off months ago."
But he knew he was lying; he knew why some women made such a point of coming on to him, instead of any guy he was with at the time. It was because he wasn't the one leering at them, using lame pick-up lines or making crass suggestions; he treated them like people, instead of as prospective sex-toys and progeny-bearers. But he'd also learned to keep his mouth shut about that; scolding other guys for how they treated women had never really helped that he had noticed, and it usually led to trouble for him that he just didn't want, not here in Ba Sing Se. This city was supposed to be a fresh start for him, and he wasn't going to screw that up if he could help it, not after what had happened already…
When they reached the harbor terminal and disembarked, after thanking Haru and his fellow railway workers for such a smooth ride, the party found Zuko's royal palanquin waiting for them just outside the terminal. Zuko climbed in with Roku, and Katara handed him the diaper bag, though hopefully he wouldn't need it as she'd changed Roku just before their arrival at the terminal. With her father leading the way, their procession headed down the docks to where Hakoda's vessels were moored.
Katara and Sokka went aboard the lead ship with their father and Aang, so Katara could give the crew her goodbyes and make sure all her luggage had been transferred off. Bato met them at the head of the crew that was aboard at the time, greeting Katara with worried eyes that widened considerably at the sight of her new figure. "The Fire Nation guards told us the palace's message was valid instead of a prank, but… Katara, have you really thought this through?"
"Yes," she said firmly, even if she really hadn't thought it through before she'd begun using water-healing on herself. She'd thought it through since then, and was still convinced she'd made the right decision. She arched an eyebrow at Bato as she said with a warning note to her voice, "You're not doubting my ability to protect a baby from danger at least as well as Sokka, are you?"
"No, not at all!" Bato said with hands raised as if to ward off the very thought, or at least Katara's temper. "But if you intend to stay with the child until he's weaned, well, that will be many months from now, and so much can happen in that time…"
"It'll be okay, Bato," Aang piped up confidently. "Katara can handle basically anything! And we agreed that she should have this experience; it'll be good for us later." Katara gave Aang a grateful smile for his support.
Katara was in the middle of receiving some careful and decidedly awkward goodbye-hugs from men that she'd known all her life, when Zuko's voice carried over from the dock. "Katara? I don't mean to rush you, but I think Roku's hungry again." She looked over to see Zuko poking his head out of the palanquin, looking anxious as Roku's hungry cries emanated from within the heavy silk drapes.
Smiling and waving her last goodbyes to her father's crew, Katara went back down the gangplank and straight to the palanquin. Zuko hastily exited as she climbed in, and firmly tugged the curtains shut to give her privacy for nursing.
She soon had Roku situated and suckling—a sensation that still awed and amazed her; she wondered if she'd ever become so used to it that she hardly noted it anymore, and she really hoped not—but as the baby drew in his nourishment, she listened to the world beyond the curtains. The Chihei's first mate had accompanied the palanquin bearers to the railway terminal, and she heard the man clear his throat before saying hesitantly, "I humbly crave your pardon, Your Majesty, but the tide is turning even as we speak; it would be wise to leave soon, before we lose the tide's advantage."
"Understood, Jian," Zuko said from just outside the palanquin curtains, and then, "Enjoy the ride, Katara," as the palanquin suddenly rose into the air at some unseen signal, startling her a little at the abrupt motion.
But she apparently wasn't as startled as the first mate was; she heard him gasp, like he'd just seen a spider-snake swing down out of a tree right in front of him, before uttering a shocked, "My lord? You—she can't-"
Now Zuko's voice grew annoyed. "Jian, there is a time and a place for protocol and rules about royal palanquins. There is also a hungry heir to the throne in there, while the Fire Lord out here once walked across most of the Earth Kingdom on these same two feet. And weren't you just telling me we should beat the tide out from the docks? So stop looking like you're about to lay an ostrich-horse egg, and get moving! I want the ship ready to cast off as soon as we're all aboard." The first mate babbled apologies before his footsteps hurried away, over the sounds of Sokka's snickering nearby.
It was just a short distance to the dock where Zuko's yacht was moored, and Roku hadn't stopped nursing from her when the palanquin's movement stopped, indicating they'd arrived. Beyond the curtain, one of the bearers said very apologetically, "My lord, I fear that the boarding plank is too steep and narrow for us to bear your child aboard in perfect safety."
Katara started to call out that she and Roku would be out in just a few more minutes, when Toph spoke up instead. "Huong, what's the distance to the deck of Zuko's fancy boat?"
"About thirty feet up and over, sir," Huong responded instantly. "A modified Maneuver Twelve could do it easily."
"Good. Sparky, tell your guys to set the ride down and let Huong and Guoliang strut their stuff!"
Katara felt the palanquin being lowered and set down on the dock, then heard the muffled clacks of stone hitting wood, while Toph murmured, "Slow and steady, boys." And a moment later she felt the palanquin being lifted into the air—and up, and up, much higher than before! Now intensely curious, she poked her head out of the palanquin curtains and looked forward to see Huong gripping both the forward poles, and smiling reassuringly at her—while rising straight into the air! But how?!
Aang's voice came from below, sounding amazed as he said just what Katara was thinking; "How are they doing that, Toph? I thought only airbenders could fly! Well, airbenders and Azula!"
"Not just Azula; that cranky oldster Jeong Jeong flew over Ba Sing Se on fire-jets, on the day of the Comet. Well done, guys!" Toph said with evident satisfaction in her voice as the flying earthbenders finished rising straight up, then sailed over several feet to deposit Katara, palanquin and all, on the deck of the Chihei while Captain Bunjiro and several crewmembers just stood there gaping at the sight.
"And hearing tales of that firebending technique inspired you to you devise a new technique for your own element, eh, Master Toph?" Iroh said, his voice filled with admiration as it carried across the water. "I saw small stone platforms under their feet, Avatar, and they're using their stone gloves to hold the palanquin. Bend the stone into the air with toe and finger movements, and they rise with it, yes?"
"Got it right, Uncle Dragon! The technique doesn't do much for me personally, but some of my guys can get a lot of mileage out of it." Katara smiled to herself as Roku finished nursing and she tucked everything back into place; it seemed she wasn't the only one to have created new techniques after observing benders of other elements.
She stepped out of the palanquin with Roku in her arms, and went to the railing to look down at the dock. Aang and Hakoda were already walking up the boarding plank to her, but Ty Lee remained on the pier and occupied with giving goodbye hugs to Sokka and Suki, while Toph said to Iroh and Zuko, "I'm not big on mushy goodbyes, so… Take care of yourselves and Itty-Bitty, okay?"
"You take care of yourself too, Toph," Zuko said, looking as awkward as Katara had ever seen him.
But for Iroh there was no awkwardness at all; he stepped up and swept Toph into a big platypus-bear hug, while saying gruffly, "I shall miss you greatly, Toph; it has been a true pleasure to see you blossoming into a young woman, and into a great teacher and leader of men."
Then Iroh let go of Toph only to reach a hand back and grab Zuko by the front of his royal robe, and all but yanked him forward. Zuko took the unsubtle hint, and gave Toph the hug that Katara knew they'd secretly both wanted. He muttered something that Katara couldn't hear from on deck, then gave her an extra squeeze before letting her go. Toph muttered something as well, and then gave him a punch in the arm that had him rocking back on his heels and all his guards automatically tensing for combat, before they both grinned affectionately at each other.
Then Zuko nearly got knocked off his feet again, when Ty Lee bounded up and tackle-hugged him. Toph's farewells with Sokka and Suki also involved arm punches and hugs, but Katara paid little attention to them because by then her father and Aang had reached her, and she was involved in giving them one-armed farewell hugs while carrying Roku.
Aang tried to give Katara not just a hug but a kiss as well; she turned at the last moment to make it a kiss on the cheek, acutely aware of her father standing right next to them. Hakoda gave her a fatherly kiss on the forehead, but his hug was both awkward and somehow desperate, as if he thought for some reason that this would be the last time that they'd see each other. She tried to reassure him by saying, "I'll be fine, Dad. I've spent months in the Fire Nation before, remember? If there's one thing I've learned, it's that most of them are good people just like us. And for those who aren't, remember that I'm a waterbending master!"
"And a very powerful one, if I may say so," Captain Bunjiro said as he approached and bowed to her. "Everyone has heard the Fire Sages' tale of how you defeated the Mad Princess in single combat, even when she had the power of the Comet to fuel her bending. Your luggage has already been put in the cabin we'd set aside for the wet-nurse, my lady; directly across from the Fire Lord's cabin."
Katara thanked the captain for his thoughtfulness, and her thanks were echoed by Zuko when he stepped aboard the ship a few minutes later. Katara handed the new father his son, then grabbed her own father's hand and pulled him to the dockside railing, while using her free hand to summon a column of water from the harbor below. She froze the top of the waterspout to ice, then stepped onto it with Hakoda and brought them both quickly down to the dock, where Toph was waiting expectantly. "I knew you couldn't leave without forcing one last hug on me, Sugar Queen," the earthbender said, though her smile belied the grumble in her voice.
"Oh, like you're really complaining about it," she teased as she gave her friend a solid hug, and accepted a punch in the arm—a much softer one than usual—in return. After accepting another careful-but-still-enthusiastic hug from Ty Lee, she created another waterspout and rode it back up to the ship, just as Aang came gliding down to the dock where she'd been standing. Aang gave her a startled look in passing, like he hadn't been expecting her to go back aboard so soon, but Katara remembered the first mate's warning and knew how important it was to take advantage of the tides, especially for a vessel with as deep a keel as Zuko's yacht.
She made a two-point landing on the yacht's deck, neatly bending the excess water back over the side, and then turned to wave to her father, Ty Lee, Toph and Aang as they stood there on the dock. Off to her right, she noticed Captain Bunjiro approach Zuko with yet another bow as he asked, "Your orders, my lord?"
Cradling his son in his arms, Zuko said simply, "Set a course for the Fire Nation. We're going home."
A final author's note: Yes, my unseen OC Reijin the minstrel—the one who first started spreading the tale of Zuko the Dragoneye—took a few stray facts and his people's fascination with dragons, and spun one heckuva minstrel's tale from them. Hey, he got free drinks and eats wherever he told that tale for the next few weeks! But he inadvertently created the ATLA world's first chain letter in the process, with that implied warning that anyone who refused to spread the tale would suffer a terrible fate like the two generals did, so now the story has far outpaced its creator and he's not getting much of anything from it anymore. Not until he sets the whole thing to music, anyway! Or turns it into a script for a play… ;-)