Twist of Fate
Chapter 21: Telos
"So… it's a sure thing, then."
The doctor smiled.
"Just as sure as when I told you three minutes ago, yes. Again, congratulations."
His patient sat there in silence, letting the news wash over her for a second time.
"I don't know how this is going to work out," she said at last. "Does that make me a terrible person?"
The doctor arched a slender, white eyebrow, perplexed.
"Why would that make you a terrible person?" he asked. "Allow me to let you in on a little secret, my Lady. If anyone ever tells you they went through what you're about to deal with and felt confident the entire time, they're lying through their teeth."
"But at least they had an idea of what to do," June insisted, standing up and beginning to pace around the room. "I never even knew my mother—what the hell am I supposed to know about being one?"
The doctor sighed, readjusting his glasses with a push of his forefinger that seemed more reflexive than deliberate.
"Fine, then," he said. "Let me ask you this question. Suppose, hypothetically, that your child was in the room with us right now."
"Okay…?" June allowed hesitantly as she stopped pacing, not quite sure where this was going.
"And if I were to try and harm them—"
"I'd snap your neck like a twig," she cut him off at once, her words betraying not even the slightest misgiving.
The doctor smiled, his brown eyes twinkling sagely from behind the glass.
"See?" he said warmly. "You're already getting the hang of it."
Now it was June's turn to sigh, but her expression had cleared up considerably.
"I guess I have to go tell him now, then."
"That would probably be the wise thing to do, yes."
"But what if he freaks out?" June asked, her eyes darkening again ever-so-slightly. "He only just got crowned; what if it's too soon?"
The doctor smiled again, stepping forward and putting a comfortingly paternal hand on June's shoulder.
"You're fretting over shadows, my Lady," he said reassuringly. "I've known Lu Ten since he was a newborn, and I can promise you that no news could possibly make him happier than this. He'll be overjoyed."
June managed a weary smile in kind, nodding once.
"Thanks," she said. "I needed that."
The doctor's smile widened.
"It's what I'm here for."
June left the doctor's office, walking down the narrow corridors with determined strides until the path opened back up into a wide, bustling hallway that ran from there all the way down to the throne room. She turned and kept walking, her pace never faltering.
The Fire Lady to-be could have covered up the tattoo on her shoulder, but she chose not to. The whispers that seemed to follow her as she moved were more amusing than hurtful; the palace busybodies had managed to come up with ways to say 'floozy' and 'gold-digger' that even she'd never heard before… and that was saying something.
Let them call her what they liked. Very soon, she would be wearing a crown and they would just have to deal with that. Ursa had already made it known that she wouldn't tolerate any slandering of the Fire Lord's fiancée, and those who feared the regent kept their lips wisely sealed. But the few who were stupid enough to run their mouths always had the most entertaining things to say, and so June let them ramble.
The doors of the throne room loomed large as ever, and guards stood by its entrance. Imperial Firebenders, going by their armor— which meant that whatever meeting was going on, it was important.
Still not as important as this, though.
"Open this door."
"Do it!" June snapped, her temper flaring. It took most all of her nerve to work up to announcing the news; she couldn't lose her cool now just because some guards thought politics took priority. "If Zuko gets pissy with you, I'll talk to him. Right now, I have something very, very important to tell the Fire Lord."
The leader of the guards hesitated, but only for a moment. Stepping aside, he shot a controlled blast of fire at the door to speed its opening.
"As you wish, my Lady."
June nodded to the guard as she walked through the doors, noticing that all eyes in the room had turned to her. Azula and Zuko sat across from each other at the long Council table, and Hanzo had his place by the side of the princess. The two of them were inseparable — the Dragon and her Hound, she'd heard the whispers call them. Toph and Katara were nowhere to be seen; they were probably out training.
Ursa sat in the regent's place to the side of the throne, and the Fire Lord sat on the throne itself, his crown gleaming in the light of the flames that rose high behind him.
"Lu Ten," June said firmly, making sure her voice was as steeled as it could be. He smiled.
"Yes, dear?" he asked, sounding amused. Part of her really wanted to smack him, but he was too far away for her whip to reach.
"We need to talk," June continued, her eyes narrowing. "In private. Now."
The Fire Lord's smile vanished, but his fiancée could see that the amusement was still lurking in his eyes. What was that about?
"All of you," Lu Ten said commandingly, "out."
The word was as good as law, and the assembled Council members bowed and left without another word. Ursa rose and gave a short bow of farewell to the Fire Lord, before walking out of the door behind her children.
"So," Lu Ten said when the two of them were alone, rising to his feet and walking toward June. With each step he took, a smile slowly grew wider and wider on his face. "Is it a girl, or a boy? I heard they can check that now, somehow. Pretty crazy, huh?"
"I didn't as…" June began to reply, before her fiancé's words sunk in and her voice caught in her throat. Her gray eyes went wide with surprise, and by the time she found her voice again Lu Ten was standing within arm's reach, grinning like an idiot.
"Oh, you asshole," she said lowly, feeling indignation threatening to boil over as she realized she'd been played. "You knew, didn't you?"
"This whole time."
June frowned, trying to stay angry in the face of Lu Ten's elation and failing horribly.
The Fire Lord laughed out loud.
"Are you serious?" he asked, his amber eyes now positively gleaming. "You haven't had a drop to drink for the past three weeks, June. Do you think I didn't notice? That," he added with a small smile, "and every time you had to ask for tea instead, you gave me the most obvious death-glare I've ever seen. It wasn't exactly hard to figure out."
June's frown deepened.
"Then why didn't you say anything?"
Lu Ten just shrugged.
"I figured you would tell me when you were ready," he answered, "once you knew for sure. I didn't want to rush you."
June was silent for a heartbeat, but when she opened her mouth to speak again Lu Ten cut her off, pulling her into a gentle embrace.
"It'll be fine," he whispered reassuringly. "It'll be more than fine; it'll be wonderful. I love you so much."
June relaxed into him with a sigh, but couldn't resist sending just one barb his way.
"I'm giving up booze for nine months, thanks to you. That's one hell of a sacrifice."
Lu Ten chuckled against her.
"Is that June-speak for 'I love you, too'?"
So much for the guilt-trip, she thought as she smiled. For now, at least.
"Yeah," she admitted, "I guess it is."
As they walked down the passage that led out the side of the throne room, Azula looked curiously over at her mother—who seemed to be a moment away from bursting out into song.
"What's got you so pleased?" the princess asked, and the regent smiled down at her daughter.
"The piece of news that June had for your cousin, of course," Ursa answered brightly. "The two of them are going to be parents in a few months."
"She's pregnant?" Zuko asked, shocked, and his mother nodded happily.
"Indeed she is," Ursa said, still smiling. "Lu Ten and I have suspected it for some time… but I guess June wanted to know for certain before she said anything. A wise choice, of course."
"That's great news!" Zuko said with a laugh, prompting a sidelong glance from his sister.
"Don't tell me you're getting ideas, Zuzu."
"O—of course not! No!" the prince stammered, fighting the red down from his cheeks. "Katara and I aren't even married yet." He frowned. "And stop calling me that!"
Azula just smiled at her brother, before turning down a side corridor. Hanzo followed behind her, and the two of them made their way back to their room in companionable silence.
"Hopefully, that'll finally get all the aristocrats to shut up about the Fire Lord's choice of bride," Hanzo said at last as they walked into the room and closed the door behind them. "I hate listening to them blabber on about it."
Azula shook her head, sighing as she took the symbol of her office out of her hair and let it fall loose.
"They'll never stop fuming over a slight like that," the princess replied, placing her general's headpiece on the table by the bed. "They all had their eyes set on a seat next to the throne, and not one of them got it. Nothing unites a crowd full of bitter old men like shared misery."
Hanzo was quiet for a heartbeat, and when he spoke again his voice was hesitant.
"Yes?" the princess asked as she turned to face him. "What is it?"
"Is the Sunstone supposed to be… hatching?"
"Wha—" Azula began to say, before her eyes caught sight of the cracks in the golden object on the mantle and the word died. "What's happening?"
"I'm not sure," Hanzo answered as the Sunstone began to make tiny tremulous movements and the cracks in its surface widened. "But in any case, I don't think it should be up there."
Azula hurried over and lifted the Sunstone up off of its perch, carrying it gingerly as she moved over to sit down on the bed. It had always felt oddly warm to her touch, but now it felt like it was almost too hot to hold. Hanzo sat beside her, eyeing the Sunstone warily as the crack at the top finally split open, and the golden fragments fell away.
A moment later, a scaly, dark-blue, distinctly reptilian head poked out of the cavity. It blinked its large, golden eyes curiously at Azula, and the princess could only stare, dumbfounded.
"I think it's a dragon, Azula."
"I can see that, thank you. Aren't they all supposed to be dead?"
By now, the newborn dragon had worked its way out of its shell completely. It was lying coiled in Azula's lap, looking up at her expectantly.
The princess reached out a tentative hand, letting it come gently to rest on top of the dragon's head. It responded to the touch at once, closing its eyes and moving against her hand. All the while, it let out a low, contented sound that oddly resembled a purr. Hanzo smiled.
"I think he likes you."
Azula didn't say anything in response. Or, more accurately, she couldn't. The dragon's warmth and power were palpable; she could feel the strength of the fire that coursed within the newborn, just underneath her fingers. It was truly astonishing, and the princess knew then why the dragons had always been referred to as the 'Firebending Masters'.
"I wondered why Lu Ten was so insistent that I keep the Sunstone safe," Azula said at last, letting her fingers brush idly along the ridges of the dragon's head as it continued to purr. "He must have known what was inside."
"And that explains why he wanted you to wait a few weeks before we left for the Earth Kingdom," he said. "It wasn't just the wedding he wanted you here for."
The dragon nestled further into Azula's lap, and Hanzo smiled again.
"I guess that makes you the mother, then," her boyfriend said affectionately, his dark green eyes teasing. "Congratulations."
Azula raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if the writings on dragons from Sozin's generation and earlier are still accurate," Hanzo explained as he rose, "then dragons can hear and recognize sounds from as early as two weeks before they hatch. And the voices it hears first are the voices it associates…"
"… with its parents," Azula finished flatly, looking down at the newborn dragon sleeping in her lap. "It thinks we're its parents?"
"I'm afraid so, Azula," her boyfriend replied, leaning down and placing a kiss on her forehead. "But hey, what's the worst that c—"
Hanzo shut up, but an infuriatingly smug smile still lingered on his lips. So the princess decided to look elsewhere before she felt compelled to smack him, which would probably wake up the dragon. Her eyes wandered downwards, and when they came to rest on the dragon in question Azula saw that it had woken up anyway. It was looking at her with its intelligent, curious golden eyes, and the princess found herself fighting against a nagging feeling in her stomach that was steadily growing stronger.
When the dragon opened its mouth and let out a small, happy sound that was somewhere between a growl and a meow, Azula just gave up.
It was adorable, and she was keeping it.
"Not bad; not bad," Toph said with a hint of approval in her voice. "You definitely don't back down from a fight, and that's important. But we're gonna have to do a lot more work on your form before we can start with the difficult stuff. You still move too much like a Waterbender."
Katara smiled as she took a moment to catch her breath, wiping her matted, slightly dirt-stained hair out of her eyes. It had taken her almost three straight weeks of training to earn that compliment, and it felt better than any words of praise her old teachers had said about her Waterbending.
Sweat stung at her eyes as it moved down her face in small beads, and the Avatar bent it off of her with a single flick of her wrist. The ground all around them had been completely churned up and turned over, so Toph and Katara moved over several yards into an undisturbed patch of un-tilled land. The palace gardeners and farmhands had been more than happy to let the master Earthbender and her student do all of their heavy lifting for them—in return, the two girls had eaten like queens when they'd taken snack breaks.
"So," Toph spoke up as the pair approached the middle of their next field, her voice carrying that softly teasing edge that Katara knew so well, "is your boyfriend jealous of me yet?"
"What?" the Avatar asked, confused. "Why would he be jealous of you?"
"You really have to ask me that?" the Earthbender replied. "You've spent almost all your time away from him since we got here."
"That's not true," Katara shot back flatly. "I've been practicing my Firebending—"
"— Which Admiral Frowny-Face has been doing half of, lately," Toph cut her off, unwilling to budge. "You should really think about darkening his door sometime, Katara. The guy could use some attention."
Katara was quiet as she considered her teacher's words, and a mischievous smirk spread slowly over the Earthbender's face in the meantime.
"Speaking of which," she said, "have you two done it yet?"
The Avatar glared at Toph and frowned, not liking the look in her sightless eyes.
"Done what?" she asked pointedly. Her teacher sighed, exasperated.
"I actually need to spell this out for you?" Toph said. "Have you made your engagement official yet?" she asked, putting just enough emphasis on the penultimate word to make Katara's heart-rate go through the roof. Whatever red looked like, Toph was sure it was all over the Avatar's face right now.
"O—of course not! No!" the Avatar stammered at last. "We're not ready for that yet."
"Whatever you say," Toph replied through a chuckle, moving into the Horse Stance and waiting until Katara had done the same before continuing. "All I know is, that guy is a saint… and you are one very lucky woman."
Katara opened her mouth to speak, but the Earthbender across from her had already sent a rock lancing through the air toward her head. The next sparring round had begun, and talking would have to wait. A hasty earthen wall stopped the rock in its tracks, but the Avatar could hear Toph let out a disappointed tsk, muffled as it was by the barrier standing between them.
She had just dropped the wall when a thin column of rock shot out of the ground to her left and punched her in the side, knocking the wind out of Katara and forcing her to stumble as she caught her breath.
"You keep blocking off your line of sight like that," she could vaguely hear her teacher say, "and you're gonna get smashed to pieces. Seeing what the other guy's doing matters just as much as knowing what your own next move is."
Toph sent another rock at her student with an almost lazy flick of her wrist, and was pleased to feel Katara launch a shard of earth to intercept it in mid-flight.
"There we go," she said with a smile. "Now, let's see how well you can keep up."
The space between them was soon full of projectiles, and the two combatants were just as preoccupied with dodging the shards of debris that fractured off in their directions as they were with continuing their offensives. Katara could see Toph beginning to give ground, and smiled wide as she prepared herself to push just that little bit further—
When a wall of fire sprang up out of the ground a heartbeat later, bringing the spar to an abrupt end. Taking a reflexive jump backwards to get away from the onrush of heat, the Avatar shifted her stance and extinguished the flame curtain with a sharp, powerful downward movement of her arms. Without even turning around, she called out to the person who had interrupted the mock duel.
"I had her, Zuko!"
"I know you did," the prince replied as he closed the distance between them, picking his way around the uneven ground. Sokka was by his side, and Katara's brother was wearing a sword at his waist. "But this can't wait," Zuko continued. "We're leaving in a few hours. Toph is coming, too, on the Fire Lord's orders."
"Where're we going?" the Earthbender broke in, and Zuko turned to face her.
"We still need to sign a blanket peace treaty with the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom," the prince explained. "They requested it be done on neutral ground— Hanzo suggested Kyoshi Island during a meeting a few days ago, so that's where we're headed."
"Who all's going to be there for the signing?" the Avatar asked, and Zuko shrugged.
"Apart from your father, the Northern Water Tribe chief and the Earth King, I'm not sure. It depends on how many of the city-states in the Earth Kingdom feel like sending their own representatives, I guess."
Katara knew that, as the Avatar, her role would be to moderate and facilitate the signing of the treaty. She couldn't refuse, but she still didn't like the idea of taking another trip right when this place was starting to feel kind of like home.
"It'll only be for a little while," Zuko spoke comfortingly into her thoughts. "The treaty shouldn't take that long to get finalized, and we'll be back here before you know it."
As Katara looked at her fiancé, a single thought ran through the forefront of her mind.
How did he get so good at reading me?
Toph cleared her throat indelicately, pulling the Avatar away from her question. She looked over at her teacher, and the Earthbender rolled her eyes before gesturing with her head over at Zuko. Katara received the message with a smile, and wasted no more time as she moved forward and drew her fiancé into an embrace, kissing him deeply.
Sokka made a face like he'd just knocked back a shot of lemon juice.
"This is not okay," he protested in vain. "I'm standing right here, you know."
"Not for long, Notches," Toph countered with a smile, grabbing Sokka's arm and hauling him along behind her as she walked away.
Zuko and Katara broke apart a moment later, leaving the prince trying to catch his breath and keep his heart rate steady as the Avatar looked on with a decidedly satisfied smile.
"What was that for?" Zuko asked at last, and his fiancée's smile widened before she leaned forward again and kissed him on the cheek.
"Do I need a reason?" she whispered into his ear, her tone sending a shiver trickling down the prince's spine. He grinned.
"Not at all."
Azula was pleased to see various shades of shock and awe adorning the faces of the people she and Hanzo walked past, their eyes widening as they caught sight of the newly-hatched dragon that had draped himself around her shoulders like an elaborate, scaly scarf. His head rested upon the princess's shoulder and he looked around inquisitively, taking in the open space and grandeur of the palace. She stroked the crown of his head and the dragon murmured appreciatively, letting his golden eyes close slowly in contentment.
"We need to think of a name for him," Hanzo said, smiling to himself as a pair of palace busybodies gawked openly. "Just calling the little guy 'Dragon' all the time would get awkward."
"Good point," Azula agreed, pausing for thought. "What about 'Kaji'?" she said after a few moments, and her boyfriend raised an eyebrow.
"Why not?" the princess shot back, frowning lightly. "It fits perfectly, and it's snappy."
"My name is 'obvious'; do you have a problem with that, too?"
Hanzo frowned in kind, but his eyes stayed teasing.
"Patronymics don't count."
"Yes, they absolutely do."
"Okay, fine," he relented at last. "He can be Kaji. But if he doesn't like it, I'm not taking the blame."
Azula turned to face their dragon, stroking it once under the chin to wake it up.
"What do you think about 'Kaji' for a name?" she asked, and the dragon made a neutral sound accompanied by a movement of his head that almost looked like a shrug. Azula looked back over at Hanzo, triumph in her eyes.
"Looks like I win," she said, and the prince smiled.
"I guess you do," he answered, before leaning in and giving her a quick kiss on the lips. Azula frowned again, but there was no anger in it.
"You know I hate it when you do that."
"No, you don't."
The princess furrowed her eyebrows, and was about to speak again when a new voice interrupted them.
"Oh, so I see it hatched! That's great news."
"My Lord cousin," Azula said with a bow, shifting seamlessly into the formality. As she rose, her expression became searching. "You always knew what was inside the Sunstone, didn't you?"
Lu Ten smiled and nodded, while June and Ursa looked at the dragon in quiet wonder.
"I did," the Fire Lord said. "Figured you could use a companion, once you left for the Earth Kingdom. It have a name yet?"
"Kaji," Hanzo volunteered, and Lu Ten gave a short chuckle.
"Cute," he said, before the five of them continued walking to the wing of the palace that housed the royal port. As they went, Azula gave her boyfriend another look of victory; Hanzo just reached over and petted Kaji along his jawbone, drawing a low purr from the dragon.
"When you're right, you're right."
The princess smiled.
"I'm always right."
Hanzo shook his head.
"I'm not letting you turn this into a competition, Azula."
The two of them continued to walk in silence, but there were smiles on both of their faces.
"My Lord," Ursa broached politely as the three of them walked ahead of Azula and Hanzo down the hallways of the palace, "may I ask you something?"
"Of course you can," Lu Ten replied, mild admonishment in his voice that she'd even asked the question. "I didn't make you my regent so you could stand there and look beautiful all day. Speak your mind, Ursa."
"Very well," she said with a short nod. "Have you reconsidered your punishment of the Fire Sages?"
There was a hitch in the Fire Lord's step, but he mastered it in a heartbeat.
"Why would I reconsider it?" he asked, keeping his tone level. "They earned their places there, and the fate that awaits them once we return from Kyoshi Island."
"Be that as it may," the regent pressed on, undaunted, "you can't let your desire for a vendetta cloud your judgment. You aren't just the Crown Prince any more, Lu Ten. Being Fire Lord is a much greater responsibility than that."
"If I set them free," Lu Ten said, "they will see me as weak and indecisive. I have to send a very clear message, and that message has a cost."
"You're already sending a message to the aristocracy by marrying someone outside of their little circle," Ursa countered. "I approve of it, obviously, and those rich old windbags won't have a choice once June's pregnancy goes public—but you can't risk compounding their dissatisfaction by completely tearing down one of our nation's oldest institutions."
"The institution of the Fire Sages has been nothing more than a political arm since Sozin took the throne," Lu Ten persisted, his amber eyes narrowing as he glanced over at his regent. "Their sacrosanct days are long behind them."
"Think of it as a peace offering, then," Ursa said, putting the slightest hint of a plea into her words. "Your transition into power is going to be your reign's most vulnerable point. Don't give the people who clothe and feed your army any more of a reason to be angry with you."
"She has a point," June spoke up, breaking her silence at last. "An army at war is one thing, but guys who only know how to kill stuff get restless when there's no stuff around to kill. Someone has to keep them under control, Lu Ten. Not to mention that you'll need all the help you can get if Ozai's old troops decide they don't feel like serving under Azula. No offense," the Fire Lady to-be called back over her shoulder.
"None taken," Azula answered, and June turned her attention back to her fiancé. The Fire Lord was tensely quiet for a moment, but then he relented with a sigh.
"You're right," he said at last, "both of you. It's just… I want to punish them. I can't believe they called a vote to overturn my pardon. If they're not loyal to the Fire Lord, how can they be trusted?"
"They don't have to be trusted," Ursa assured him, "only controlled. Leave that to me. Ozai is dead, as are the Imperial Firebenders who betrayed your father. Let your vengeance rest with them, or it will not stop. Iroh would not want his son mentioned in the same breath as his father, or his grandfather. I know that for a fact."
Lu Ten nodded, sighing again.
"Of course," the Fire Lord agreed, before he frowned. "That means they would preside over our wedding, doesn't it?"
"I don't care," June said flatly. "I'm not getting married to 'em."
Lu Ten laughed, and his eyes brightened up again.
"Good point," he said with a smile. They were at the port now, and the ship that would bear them to Kyoshi Island loomed large in front of them. It would take them a whole day's time to make the journey in a ship like that— but as Zuko, Toph, Katara and Sokka saw them and came hurrying over, the Fire Lord realized he didn't mind.
There were no other people he'd rather be with.
The sun had dipped gently down below the horizon, and the only sounds to be heard on the open air were the occasional splash and caw of a sea-raven as it breached the water to snatch up a fish and carry it off for dinner. The stars were starting to come out into the sky, and the night was peaceful.
"Hanzo?" Azula whispered, prodding his bare shoulder with one slender, impatient finger. "Are you awake?"
"I am now," came the slightly muffled reply, followed by a shift in weight on the bed as he rolled over that caused Kaji to wake up with a mildly indignant squeak. "What's wrong?"
"I can't sleep."
Hanzo looked into her eyes and saw a myriad of emotions playing just below their surfaces. He hated it when she played hard-to-get like this; it meant something was seriously bothering her.
"And?" he prompted, forcing down his own anxiety as Kaji moved and coiled himself under Azula's outstretched arm, nuzzling it in a gesture of support. "What else is wrong?"
"I can't stop thinking about this mission my cousin expects us to carry out in the Earth Kingdom," the princess admitted at last. "It wouldn't be a problem if I had command of a different group of soldiers, but these men lived and died for Ozai. And I was the one who killed him!"
The sudden rise in her voice made Kaji whimper in fear and sympathy, so Azula busied herself with comforting the dragon while Hanzo weighed the words of his reply.
"It was an odd choice for Lu Ten to give you Ozai's old troops," he agreed. "Honestly, though, we would face resentment anywhere. No one likes taking orders from someone younger than they are, regardless of how accomplished they might be. It's a pride thing."
"But we'll be neck-deep in hostile territory," the princess insisted. "The last thing I should be doing while we're fighting guerillas is wondering if my own soldiers are going to stab me in the back."
"And if any of them try, I'll cut their heads off."
Azula managed a drawn smile.
"We'd have no army by the end of the first week if you did that," she said, and Hanzo shrugged.
"Anyone who would try to murder their own commanding officer in a time of active duty isn't someone I want next to me on the battlefield."
The princess put her arm around her boyfriend's back and pulled him closer, heedless of the feeling of charred flesh beneath her hand. Hanzo didn't flinch at all this time, and Azula smiled as she kissed him. He had been self-conscious about it at first, but Hanzo was finally beginning to leave the stigma of his brand behind him.
The voice was muted by the wall that separated their room from Zuko and Katara's, but the word and the tone it was spoken in still managed to shatter the moment completely. Azula and Hanzo broke apart like they'd been stung, and waited with raised eyebrows to make sure they weren't going crazy.
The second name came a few moments later, and once again the tone of it left no room for doubt about what was going on.
"I can't believe this," Azula groaned. "These walls are made of steel, Hanzo. Steel! What kind of—" a muted, unintelligible noise cut her off, and the princess sighed.
"There goes any hope of me getting back to sleep," Hanzo groused, before a wicked gleam came into his eyes. "Of course," he added, "we could always give them a little competition, if you wanted to."
"Not now," Azula hissed back, punching him in the shoulder. "There's a child present!" she finished, pointing down at Kaji. The dragon had moved back down to the foot of the bed to avoid being caught in between Azula and Hanzo as they'd kissed, and was looking up at them with those wide, slightly puzzled golden eyes.
"Thanks a lot, little guy," Hanzo sighed, rolling over and getting out of bed. "You're lucky you're so cute."
Kaji made a curious noise at the back of his throat, and Azula just shook her head.
"Don't pay any attention to him," the princess said. "He's ridiculous."
The dragon closed his eyes and went back to sleep, until another muffled noise from next door caused Kaji to lift his head up and stare at the wall in annoyance.
"Unbelievable," Hanzo said with a shake of his head, before looking over at his girlfriend as he shrugged on a light shirt. "Come on," he continued. "If we're going to be awake anyway, I have something I want to show you."
Curious now, Azula got up and put a robe on over her pajamas, before holding out one of her arms. Kaji climbed up it at once, settling into his favorite position of being wrapped around her shoulders. Hanzo walked out into the hallway and the princess followed him, holding a small plume of blue fire in her hand to light the way. Catching on, Kaji reared his head back and let out a small, controlled stream of blue flame from his mouth. Azula was surprised for a moment, thinking that her dragon had just mimicked her— before she saw that the shade of blue was lighter than her own.
The question drew Hanzo's attention backwards, and he smiled as he saw the scene unfolding before him.
"A dragon's fire is different than a human's," he said. "According to the Fire Sages' texts on dragons, the intensity and color of their fire is a pure expression of a dragon's chi, and changes with its mood.
"A fully-grown, mature dragon is said to be able to produce every known color of flame at once… only a few people have seen it and survived, but those who have call it the most beautiful sight in the entire world."
"I'm so glad I got you out of that damn library," Azula said dryly, shaking her head. "If I hadn't come along, you would have turned into one of those scrolls by now."
"Probably," he agreed, before coming to a stop in front of a closed door. "Okay, here we are." The prince dropped to one knee and put his hands on the metal floor. "Could you bring the light a bit closer, Azula?"
The princess did so, and a moment later Hanzo's fingers sunk ever so slightly into the metal.
"Ah; there it is," he said, satisfied. "I found this while I was walking around earlier." The small section of metal lifted up and out, revealing itself as the lid to a small hidden compartment. "Usually, the clatter on a ship like this is so loud that no one notices the sound of steel that's slightly hollow when they step on it. Fortunately for me," Hanzo finished, his voice turning bitter as he reached in and pulled out a small scroll, "That bastard Tariyama made sure I could walk from one side of a room to another without being heard. You notice more in the silence."
Azula tried to speak, but Hanzo busied himself with unrolling the scroll and the unspoken message in his body language was clear: the last thing he wanted to talk about was his memory of the Iron Devil's teachings.
"This," he said at last, holding the scroll up to the firelight, "is my decree of legitimization. You and your mother are the only living people apart from me who've seen it, as of tonight.
"I want you to burn it."
The words caught Azula off-guard, and she looked at her boyfriend in surprise as she knelt to look him in the eyes.
"Are you serious?" she asked. "This is the only thing that proves you're a Prince. Without it, you could never take the throne of Ba Sing Se!"
Hanzo gave her a sad smile, rolling the scroll back up and tossing it at Azula's knees like a piece of common garbage.
"No one ever asked me if I wanted the throne," he said quietly, sounding as vulnerable as he had back when he'd told Azula the story of his childhood. "It was always about what they wanted. Do you think your mother rescued me from Ba Sing Se because she was feeling maternal?"
Hanzo gave a bitter laugh, and his eyes grew dark with anger in the firelight. "She did it because she wanted me to take Kuei's place, once Long Feng put a knife in his heart. She wanted a pawn she could put on the throne, a puppet whose strings she could pull when it suited her. She was using me, just like everyone else.
"Everyone except for you," Hanzo finished, the anger leaving his eyes as the bitterness in his voice was replaced by quiet tenderness. "Once you saw me for who I was, you looked at me like I was a real person. No one else has ever done that for me; not like you. This is my choice, Azula. I don't want to rule the Earth Kingdom—I just want to follow you."
After taking a few moments to calm her heartbeat back down, Azula picked up the scroll and ignited a flame in her free hand.
"You're sure about this?"
Azula touched the fire to the piece of parchment, letting it fall to the floor as the flame greedily consumed it. After it had been reduced to ashes, she offered her hand to Hanzo and they rose together to their feet.
"You won't be following me," the princess said, her hand still entwined with his. "You'll be at my side, as befits a Prince."
Hanzo smiled wide, bowing his head.
"As you wish," he replied, and Kaji let out another small jet of light blue flame. The prince laughed, and Azula looked at him in confusion.
"What does that color mean?"
Hanzo pulled her to him, kissing her once on the forehead before moving his head down to whisper in her ear.
The next morning dawned bright and cloudless, and the kitchen staff even went as far as to include some freshly-caught fish in the spread they laid out for breakfast. In short, it was a fantastic start to the day…
For some of the people at the table, at least.
"So," Azula said curtly, lifting up a piece of mackerel with her chopsticks and feeding it to Kaji, who wolfed it down happily, "I'm glad to see at least some of you slept well last night."
The princess stared daggers at her brother and his fiancée, but said nothing more. The Avatar at least had the good sense to look puzzled, while Zuko was simply wearing a wide, silly grin as he ate through an entire plateful of food.
"What do you mean, Azula?" Katara asked, and Hanzo gave her a smile that was far too polite for the look in his eyes.
"What was that old saying," he answered, "about not asking questions you don't want answered?"
June's mouth curved into a mischievous smile, which only got wider as Katara turned about three different shades of red in quick succession.
"Come to think of it," the Fire Lady to-be said, her gray eyes fairly twinkling with laughter, "you do look different this morning, Katara. Got a kind of… glow about you."
The Avatar looked like she wanted to sink into the floor, but Zuko wrapped his arm around her shoulders and adopted a more restrained version of his earlier grin.
"There's a reason for that," he told June flatly, before kissing Katara on the cheek.
"There is a time," Sokka said from his place next to Hanzo, "and there is a place. This is neither the time, nor the place. This will never, ever be the place, and frankly I don't know if there will be a 'time'. Just make sure I'm not on the continent."
"Sounds like you're just jealous, Notches," Toph chimed in, tone teasing as she ribbed Sokka with a playful elbow. "Don't worry; I'm sure there's a wonderful lady out there somewhere, just waiting for you to sweep her off of her feet— before dropping her flat on her ass a moment later."
"Not helping, Toph."
Ursa, meanwhile, looked like she was about to burst at the seams with delight.
"Well, I think it's wonderful," she said with a wide smile. "To be honest, there were times when I didn't know if Zuko would ever wind up with someone—"
"—so I'm just glad that he finally found a true partner and equal. Does my old heart good to see it."
"Easy for you to say," Azula said dourly, giving a generous bite of salmon to the dragon wrapped around her shoulders. "You weren't trying to sleep in the room next door." A brief rendition of one of their muffled cries of passion followed, and the princess went back to skewering her fish on chopsticks with a vengeance.
Katara blushed, Zuko paled and Lu Ten burst out laughing.
"Really?" the Fire Lord asked, and Hanzo nodded. "Wow. These walls are supposed to be soundproof, you two. I'm pretty sure that sets some kind of reco—"
"Just stop," Zuko said with what dignity he could muster. "Please."
"Did you say 'Please' last night, Katara?" Hanzo volunteered. "We couldn't quite make out anything coherent after three o'clock in the morning."
Before the Avatar could say anything in her defense, a messenger poked his head into the room. Ursa, beet-red from holding in laughter of her own, was grateful for the distraction and spoke.
"Yes? What is it?"
The messenger took in the scene for a moment in puzzlement, not sure how to react. In the end, he gave up trying to adapt and just delivered his message.
"We have arrived, My Lady. The dignitaries from the Earth Kingdom and both Water Tribes are already on the island," he told Ursa with a bow. "They merely await your presence, and the treaty conference can begin."
The regent nodded, shifting seamlessly back into her political persona.
"Thank you," she said. "Please inform them that we will be out presently."
The assembled extended royal family finished up their breakfast, silence hanging over the table that was equal parts strained and sheepish. A few agonizingly long minutes later, they left the dining room in a group and headed out of the flagship. The sun was warm and welcoming as they set foot at last on the tranquil shore of Kyoshi Island.
The first sight that greeted the visitors was a formidable-looking phalanx of armed young women, all wearing dark green kimonos overlaid with plated armor. Their faces were covered in distinctive white face-paint, with red and black accents around the eyes.
"The Kyoshi Warriors bid you welcome to Kyoshi Island, Fire Lord Lu Ten," the foremost of the warriors spoke up, bowing low. "Please, follow me. Yourself, the Lady June, The Avatar, the Lady Ursa and General Azula have been given places at the table. I'm afraid the rest of your group will have to wait elsewhere."
"Of course," Lu Ten answered politely. He walked toward the large building visible at the center of the village, the chosen members of his group following behind him. At the same time, Zuko, Sokka, Toph and Hanzo split off and followed some other Kyoshi warriors to a secluded resting area.
"So," Katara broached as evenly as she could, trying to taker her mind off of Zuko's sudden absence and the emptiness it left at her side. "Who else is going to be negotiating the treaty?"
"From the Earth Kingdom," the Kyoshi warrior began, "Earth King Kuei and his new Grand Secretariat, General How; along with King Bumi of Omashu. From the Water Tribes, Chief Arnook and his advisor Master Pakku represent the North. Chief Hakoda and his wife, the Lady Kya, stand for the South."
Katara smiled in surprise as she heard her parents would be attending. But when she turned to ask Sokka if he'd known anything about it, the Avatar remembered that her brother, too, was somewhere else. Her heart sank.
"Don't worry," Ursa said encouragingly, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, "you'll do just fine. Somehow, I don't think a bunch of politicians will be harder to handle than the Face Stealer."
The Avatar managed a thin smile, feeling some of the tension ease out of her stomach.
"Well, when you put it like that…"
The group reached the entrance to the main village hall a few minutes later, and Azula stepped to the side as the rest of her family and allies entered into the large building. She knew how many eyes would be on her regardless; the last thing she wanted to do was make it worse by appearing presumptuous and walking in right behind the regent. June gave her a concerned glance as she passed through the threshold, but Azula just nodded.
"Pardon me for asking, General," the Kyoshi warrior that had guided them there spoke up, her eyes wide, "but where in the Four Nations did you find a dragon?"
The princess shrugged, a movement that caused Kaji to stir and readjust himself.
"Your guess is as good as mine," she answered, reaching up idly and scratching underneath her dragon's chin. "I just got the egg; I have no idea where it came from." Azula's eyes narrowed slightly as she regarded the young woman, her gaze coming to rest on the sword she carried at her waist. The blade was long and slightly curved, similar to Hanzo's sword of choice.
"I've heard many things about the Kyoshi Warriors," the princess continued, bringing her eyes back up to the warrior's face. "Someone whose opinion I trust holds your band in very high esteem. I assume you're their leader?"
"I am, General," the warrior replied with a nod. "My name is Suki."
"Azula," Ursa's voice called out from within the meeting hall's central chamber, "is everything all right?"
"I'm fine," Azula replied curtly. "I'll be there momentarily." Turning her attention back to Suki, she nodded in respectful farewell.
"I feel fortunate to have met you," she said. "Something tells me our paths will cross again before too long, Suki. Until then, goodbye."
The princess turned and walked into the chamber where the treaty negotiations had already begun, quickly espying her seat next to her mother and settling into it. There was no lack of surprise at the sight of Kaji, who looked curiously around the room at all of the new faces.
"How remarkable," Pakku's dry, cutting tone spoke up as the dragon's golden eyes passed over him. "First the Avatar, and now a creature this world hasn't seen since you killed the last of them… bound to a patricidal young girl, no less. Your arsenal continues to expand, Fire Lord. Should I be concerned?"
"Hold your tongue," Chief Arnook hissed, while Kya took the opportunity to stare down the master Waterbender with seething disgust. "This is no place for baseless insults!"
"No, please," Lu Ten replied, his voice frigidly civil. "Let your advisor speak his mind, Arnook. Clearly, he feels strongly about Azula having a seat at this table. I would hear him out."
Pakku smiled, staring down the Fire Lord unflinchingly as Bumi leaned over and whispered something to Katara. She nodded, her eyes shifting over to Azula.
"I simply can't see the reasoning behind replacing Ozai with someone who so clearly has his blood flowing in their veins," the Waterbender replied. "What exactly did you hope to accomplish with that?"
Lu Ten gave a humorless chuckle, his amber eyes hardening.
"Ozai's blood," he said coldly, "came from Azulon. As did my father's blood, and therefore mine as well. To call my cousin's worth into question based solely on her lineage is an insult to my entire house, Master Pakku.
"But I take it, then," the Fire Lord continued, cruel humor bleeding into his eyes, "that you would prefer it if my uncle were alive; that my father, myself and the rest of my family were all corpses? Would you rather Azula had not intervened, and that Ozai was now wearing my crown?
"If that were the case, I can promise you this conference wouldn't be taking place," the Fire Lord finished. "Ozai would be marshaling his army, and waiting for the Comet to arrive this summer. And once it came, I can guarantee you that he would take the utmost pleasure in burning the Northern Water Tribe to the ground, clapping you in chains and forcing you to watch as he murdered your families. And I would remind you, Master Pakku," Lu Ten added acidly,
"That I speak from experience."
The force of the Fire Lord's words brought a hammer of silence down upon the table, and it took a few long moments before anyone so much as shifted in their seats. Azula rose abruptly to her feet, drawing a surprised squeak out of Kaji as she did so. She was halfway to the door before Bumi called out to her, his voice as level as still water.
"Don't take Pakku's words so seriously, Princess," the Earthbending Master said. "It's an unfortunate side effect of getting old that we also turn indelicate in the process. You've earned your seat among us; it is only right that you fill it."
Azula turned her head back over her shoulder, but her eyes had no malice in them as she regarded the king of Omashu.
"I have no desire to be a hindrance," she said, "and I can see that there are those in this room who will never trust me. I don't care about that, but I do care that this treaty is signed. I have more important things to do with my time than waste it crushing withered ants beneath my heel."
The princess walked out of the hall without another word, making her way in fuming silence back toward the point where she'd seen Hanzo and the others split off from the diplomatic group. Kaji could feel the tension in Azula's muscles, and let the natural heat of his own body flow into the shoulders beneath him. The princess sighed quietly in thanks as her frustration slowly melted away, reaching up and letting her dragon nuzzle at her hand.
"Good boy," she said affectionately, and Kaji purred. Azula moved along the other path until she saw her brother, Hanzo and Toph lounging in a shaded resting area. Sokka was nowhere to be seen at first, but a quick look around revealed that he'd moved out into the open, grassy field nearby and was getting ready to spar with a Kyoshi warrior — Suki, by the looks of her.
"Azula?" Hanzo asked, rising to his feet and approaching her with a light frown on his face. "What're you doing here? Is everything okay?"
"I was getting in the way," she answered with a sigh. "One of the northern Waterbenders couldn't stand the thought of me being at the conference. He started insulting me, and Lu Ten had to intervene…" the princess shrugged. "So I just left."
"Good," her boyfriend replied evenly, and Azula could hear the subtle strain in his voice as he worked to repress his anger. "No point in putting up with someone like that if they can't even respect you enough to be civil. I don't care what Azulon did to the North during the War; just because you were named after him, that doesn't mean you're responsible for his actions."
"I know that," the princess said wearily, sinking down into a chair and leaning back against it as Kaji slunk down to coil in her lap. She was about to say something else, but her eyes caught sight of Sokka and Suki circling each other and she hesitated.
"Sokka doesn't really think he can take her, does he?" Azula asked, getting to her feet again to watch the spar as it unfolded. "He's been training with that sword of his for less than a month. Granted, that's pretty much the only thing he's been doing since he got to the palace— but still."
She moved over to a better vantage point and Hanzo followed her, the pair and their dragon joining Zuko and Toph as spectators to the unofficial duel.
"Oh man, he's nervous," the Earthbender said as Sokka and Suki clashed for the first time, the blunted steel of their sparring blades letting out a muted clang as they connected. "His heart's beating way too fast. I tried to tell him this was a terrible idea, but did he listen? Of course not."
Suki and Sokka traded blows almost coyly at first, each of them feeling out the other's defense and offense for weak points and openings. Sokka's form of attack was more suited to the lunges and stabs of the jian, which were being batted aside with ease by the sweeping, graceful strokes of Suki's katana forms.
"He's not going to get anywhere like that," Zuko admonished, shaking his head. "Sokka fought me once before when I was using a katana, back down South. He should know where to look for the openings in her defense."
Steel clashed against steel a few more times, the pace of the exchanges increasing. It was clear to the fighters observing the match that Suki was trying to wear her opponent down rather than go for a winning strike outright, and the strategy was serving her well. Sokka was starting to flag; his strikes were slowing down, and Suki was routinely breaking through his defense with pinpoint slashes and stabs.
"She doesn't have very many openings that I can see, Zuko," Hanzo chimed in, his dark green eyes intently focused on the ebb and flow of the mock duel. "And Sokka doesn't seem to want to capitalize on the few she does have, either. He could have disarmed her there, but he let her get a solid hit on his dominant arm instead. It's like he's trying to lose on purpose."
Toph cocked her head slightly to the side, curious.
"He doesn't feel flustered anymore," she said, "and usually Notches is furious when Zuko gets the upper hand on him in a fight this badly. He's gotta have some kind of trick up his sleeve."
Suki feigned a strike to the left, fooling Sokka into blocking there before shifting her stance and following up seamlessly with an attack on his right side. The blunted metal hit his side hard, and Sokka buckled. Suki took a few steps back, lowering her blade and arching her eyebrow.
"Had enough yet?" she asked, the ghost of a smile playing around her lips.
"If he does have a trick up his sleeve, Toph," Zuko said lowly, "he's running out of time to play it."
Sokka slowly regained his footing, going so far as to chuckle while he wiped a trace of sweat out of his eyes.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you," he grit out, "never to lower your weapon before the fight's done?"
Suki barely had time to react as Sokka surged forward in a whirl of flashing steel, moving almost as quickly as he had at the beginning of the fight. Pressing a relentless assault with strike after strike after strike, he forced Suki to give ground again and again as he advanced, attacking with a surety of form that Zuko had never seen from his friend before.
"Well, this hardly seems fair," Suki managed to grit out in between dodges and blocks, wondering just how long Sokka's withering swordplay could last. "Letting yourself get beaten up just to get me to drop my guard? That's a pretty cheap trick, Sokka."
"Hey, not my fault you slacked off," her opponent countered with a smile as he delivered a crushing blow, causing Suki's sword to quiver so badly that the shock to her arm made her drop the blade altogether. "That was your mistake," Sokka finished, holding his own weapon up so that the point rested only a few inches away from the Kyoshi warrior's throat.
Suki sighed and dropped her weapon, and Sokka's smile widened—
Only to turn into a pained gasp a few heartbeats later as Suki spun to the left, closing the distance between them as she moved, and slammed her fist hard into Sokka's relaxed gut.
Three more swift, precise punches followed on the heels of the haymaker, and Sokka fell to the ground before he'd even had time to figure out what was happening to him.
"Hey," he barely heard Suki's voice calling down to him through his haze, "not my fault you thought I'd be worthless without a sword. Sleep tight, Sokka; that was fun, after all."
As he drifted blissfully into the waiting arms of unconsciousness, the beaten warrior managed to utter one last word.
The air felt heavy, his jaw was sore and his chest still ached, but Sokka could at least tell that he was lying on a comfortable, down mattress and that he was on solid ground. It was all about seeing the positive.
"You," he heard his sister's voice say sternly from somewhere above him, "are an absolute idiot. How could you let someone thrash you so badly?"
"I wanted to see if I could beat her in a fight," Sokka said blearily, "and she was really cute. Mostly the second one. Where are we?"
"Back in the Fire Nation," Katara answered, sighing. "You were out for the whole trip; Toph and June made a bundle on that betting pool. The treaty got signed just fine, by the way," the Avatar added, "in case you care. Mom and dad have already gone back down South, but they send their love. Oh, and Lu Ten and June's wedding is happening in about an hour— I think that covers everything you missed."
"Awesome," Sokka mumbled, before his eyes caught sight of a scroll sitting on the small table by his bedside. "What's that?"
"A note from Suki," Katara said. "She wanted to make sure that got to you when you woke up."
Sokka reached over and carefully unrolled the scroll, blinking a few times to clear his vision some more before holding it up to the light and reading. A smile started slowly creeping its way across his face by the second line… and when he'd finished, Sokka was outright grinning. Katara arched an eyebrow, as puzzled as she was curious.
"What'd it say?"
"Oh, nothing, really," her brother said, the expression on his face and tone of his voice telling the Avatar that it was, in fact, quite something indeed. "I'll tell you later, after the wedding. Now, it's time for more sleep."
"Don't you want to come to the wedding?"
Katara gave up, resisting the temptation to just read the scroll herself before walking out of the room. The attending doctors and nurses had given Sokka a small space to himself in the private section of the palace's medical wing, at the Fire Lord's insistence. The Avatar moved through the network of corridors and hallways with practiced swiftness, smiling at the feeling of festivity that seemed to linger on the air as she went.
Even some of the people in the palace who might not have approved of their Fire Lord's choice of wife loved the occasion of the wedding itself, and the opportunities for joy and merriment that it represented.
"Katara! There you are! I think my mother needs you for something."
She turned at the sound of Zuko's voice, and her smile widened as she saw him walking toward her. He was dressed in formal robes for the wedding, having been picked by Lu Ten to be his best man. The deep red and black fabrics were chased with delicate threads of gold that were supposed to lend the wearer a heightened aura of nobility without being ostentatious, but all Katara could think was how nicely they brought out the color in her fiancé's eyes.
"You look great," she complimented as he came closer, and Zuko didn't even bother fighting down the tinge of red that came to his cheeks as he smiled right back at her.
"Thanks," he said. "You do, too. How's Sokka?"
"Still sleeping it off," Katara groused, "but he doesn't need me watching him anymore."
"Which is good," Azula's voice broke in smoothly as the princess appeared seemingly out of nowhere, "because you have somewhere to be, Avatar."
"Did mother send you looking for her, too?" Zuko asked, curious. His sister nodded.
"The bride-to-be is feeling…" Azula sighed. "Morning pangs."
"Oh," Katara said softly, her blue eyes widening. "That's not good."
"No," the princess agreed as the dragon draped around her shoulders opened his eyes and looked at Zuko, "it isn't. And she's refusing to drink any infusions the palace doctors are offering, not that I blame her... which just leaves you."
"Let's go, then."
The Avatar gave Zuko a quick kiss before departing, following Azula's lead as the two of them made their way towards June's room. A few moments passed between the pair of young women before Katara remembered a question that had been nagging at the corner of her mind for the past few days.
"I was in the library," she began, "looking for the Airbending Scrolls your mother had told me about when I met her for the first time at the South Pole. But they weren't there—and one of the librarians said they'd seen you leaving with them not too long ago. Do you know where they are?"
Azula tensed, but Katara only knew that because the princess's dragon shifted in response to the movement.
"I was wondering when you were going to ask me about those," Azula answered at last. "I burned all of the ones in the library."
Katara had come to an abrupt stop, and Azula turned to face her with a sigh.
"Look, can we talk about this later?" the princess asked, impatient. "It's not that important, and we're on a tight schedule right now."
"It's not important?" the Avatar echoed, flabbergasted. "Those were the last Airbending Scrolls in existence, Azula! I'd say that you turning them into ashes is very important!"
The princess frowned, remembering that her brother's fiancée was just as stubborn as he was. She wasn't about to let it drop, so Azula just grit her teeth and replied.
"I can't believe I'm wasting time with this," she said. "Did my mother not tell you about Iroh's last will and testament?"
"What?" Katara asked, surprised by the unexpected question. "No; I haven't really seen her since the funeral, she's been so busy."
"And Zuko didn't mention anything, either?"
"No," the Avatar repeated, her confusion turning back into impatience. "Just tell me: what was in Iroh's will?"
"Among other things," Azula answered, "my uncle mentioned that he had made copies of the Airbending Scrolls himself a long time ago, unbeknownst to anyone but him. He claimed that the originals in the library were starting to break down with age, and that they were too precious to be lost forever if something happened to them.
"Zuko probably didn't tell you because he had no idea that I'd destroyed the originals," the princess finished, "on Ozai's orders. But what's important is that copies of the scrolls exist—now, can we please just get to June's room, before she vomits all over her bridal dress?"
Katara said nothing for a few heartbeats, surprised by the unexpected revelation. But she got her bearings again and nodded, continuing to follow Azula through the halls.
"Thank you," the princess said after a few more moments, and the Avatar arched an eyebrow.
"For asking me about it first," Azula clarified, "instead of going to someone else."
"Don't mention it."
Zuko had never been to a wedding before, but he knew he wouldn't mind going to another one after the ceremony had run its course. The prince couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his cousin as happy as he'd been when June had come walking down the aisle, escorted by Ursa and wearing an absolutely beautiful shade of Earth Kingdom dark green.
Zuko, for his part, hadn't been able to take his eyes off of Katara the whole time. As pretty as she was wearing normal clothing, the sight of her clad in a regal, dark blue kimono that fit her form perfectly was nothing short of stunning.
"How do I look?" she'd asked him coyly before the ceremony had begun, no doubt knowing exactly how gorgeous she was. The prince had been speechless, and only a sharp elbow in his side courtesy of Toph kept Zuko from making a total ass of himself.
"Incredible," he'd somehow managed to get out, and his fiancée had given him a deep kiss on the lips in return.
The rest of the wedding had been a bit of a blur after that moment.
"Okay," Lu Ten's voice broke into his cousin's reverie, dragging Zuko back to the present. "People have been making toasts to us all day, and now it's time for me to make one of my own." The Fire Lord raised his cup, taking a moment to glance around the royal table at the smiling faces before continuing.
"To my family," he said, the faintest edge of melancholy in his voice as he spoke. "You're all the greatest people I've ever known, and I could ask for no better gift than sharing today with you."
"We wouldn't have missed it for the world," Ursa responded warmly. "To family."
The rest of the table echoed the toast, and the sound of clinking cups heralded another round of drinking. Hanzo told the story of Kaji's hatching, and it marked the first time Zuko had ever seen his sister blush.
The prince could feel a pleasantly mild lightness rushing to his head… and feeling the constant warmth of Katara leaning against him, one arm around his shoulders as her head rested in the crook of his neck, did nothing to sober him up.
"All right," June spoke up at last, raising her own cup of green tea high. "If the Fire Lord gets to make a toast, then so does the Fire Lady. To the Avatar," she continued, looking in Katara's direction and smiling as she inclined her cup slightly in respect. "Setting aside the fact that her healing talents kept me from making a total mess of myself this morning," June spoke jokingly, before her gray eyes turned completely serious, "without her ability and her guts, my husband wouldn't be sitting next to me right now. Katara saved his life, and I just wish I had the words to thank her for it."
"To the Avatar," Lu Ten affirmed, lifting his own cup, "the broker of our peace treaty, and a true heroine of our Nation."
"To the Avatar!"
The toast was the most jubilant of the night, and Katara had a beaming smile on her face the whole way through. Zuko put one of his arms around her shoulders and leaned toward her, close enough to whisper.
"I'm so proud of you," he said lovingly, and his words were the only sound Katara could hear. "For everything." The prince pulled backwards, giving his fiancée a wide smile.
He didn't let her finish the thought. Shifting forward again, Zuko put one of his hands under her chin and gently tilted her head upwards, a heartbeat before giving her a kiss that was every bit as passionate as the one she had given him earlier.
June let out a wolf-whistle at the display of affection, and a fresh gale of mingled laughter and cheers swept through the table.
"Just get a room, you two," Toph called out, and Katara gave Zuko a playful smile as they broke apart.
"I think I'll take that advice, sifu," the Avatar replied, rising to her feet and giving the Fire Lord and Fire Lady a deep bow.
"My best wishes to you both for the future," she said, before taking her fiancé by the hand and all but hauling him to his feet.
As the prince and the Avatar left the table behind them, the cheers intensified— but the two of them only had eyes for each other. The walk back to their room was a long one, made longer by the furtive kisses, slight stumbles and spontaneous bursts of laughter that marked the trip. Somewhere along the way they'd managed to shed most of their clothing; Zuko felt sorry for whoever would have to pick up all those layers.
The couple collapsed onto their bed in a tangle of limbs, pausing for a few moments to catch their breath. Katara's hand passed over the two scars that Zuko still carried on his back, and she stilled. Zuko felt her tense up against him, and ran a comforting hand through the long, unbound chestnut hair that flowed down her back.
"I'm right here," he whispered soothingly. "I'm right here. I lost you once, and I've never been more scared in my life than I was in that moment. But you brought me back, and I'm not leaving you again."
"I know," Katara said softly, laying her head against Zuko's bare chest and letting the smooth, comforting rhythm of his heartbeat carry her off to sleep.
A/N: And that, as they say, is that. It's been an amazing journey writing this story, and honestly I'm still shocked by how well it's been received. I have nothing but the purest thanks to give to everyone who's stuck with it; your feedback, support and encouraging words mean the world to me. I just hope that this chapter was a satisfying conclusion for you all, and that you've had as much fun reading this story as I've had writing it.
To those of you who might still have some lingering questions (Whatever happened to that sword Hanzo was so fond of? What was it like when Iroh and Ursa went to visit the South Pole? What will Lu Ten and June's kid be like? Will Sokka ever see Suki again?), all I can say is that those are the sorts of plot threads I'll be looking to explore in the follow-up one-shots I'll be releasing, starting at some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future. That depends on how crazy my life feels like getting, honestly. But they are coming, I can promise you that much.
Before I get to the final round of reviewer thank-yous, I must once again offer specific thanks, praise and general adoration to both Masayume85 and Em Dixon for their truly phenomenal help in ensuring that these last few chapters were as good as they could be. I really can't use enough superlative adjectives to express how much their awesome patience, attention to detail and moral support has meant to me over the course of these last few weeks. You're both amazing people, and it's been both an honor and a privilege. Rock on. Also, thanks to Masayume for helping me decide on Kaji's name... it means 'Conflagration'.
As far as new reviewer thank-yous go, there's only one this week: SwimmerGal16. Thanks for chiming in! In addition, though, I'd like to use this final Author's Note as a way to thank the readers who have been among the most consistent reviewers since the early days of this story, because you all are champions. CrazyDyslexicNerd, 321Haruko123, HakushoRurouni, Tenshi no Mugen, ArrayePL, JourneyRocks13, and last, but most certainly not least, badkidoh. This one's for you, guys and gals.
No teaser this week, obviously, so I guess I'll just wrap this up with an explanation of the title: 'Telos' is Attic Greek for 'End'. Seemed fitting.
All the best, and thank you so much for taking the time to read this story all the way through! I hope you enjoyed it!