A/N: YOU GUYS ARE THE MOST PATIENT PEOPLE EVER. Insert same old quote over how sorry I am this took so long (I am), I've been crazy busy and it's been a hectic couple of months (it has), how I've sat down and plotted like crazy and I think I can conclude it without looking like an illiterate bafoon (probably) and thank you, thank you, thank you so much for the reviews, the favs, the comments, everything. I couldn't ask for better readers, and once again, this is dedicated entirely to you!
Also Lia aka penguinsledding because I put a snippet in her ask to torment her and she completely missed it. Thanks again everyone! ~TA
The robe stretches tightly across her hips, squeezing her belly uncomfortably, constricting her ribs hard enough that Mai has to take several shallow breaths, lest she pass out. Above the stomach isn't much better: the scarlet silk band that is supposed to demurely cover her breasts has met its match with the two massive knockers that have seemingly sprouted overnight. Mai has never been one to wish her body any different – while other girls wanted to be skinner, or curvier, or have bigger breasts, Mai wished only to be left alone and to practise her knives. The only upside to any of this gross swelling of her body is that Zuko can't quite keep his hands to himself. Even in meetings of state, when they are supposed to be the dignified monarchs, Mai will feel his fingers ghosting on the back of her neck, feel his knee press against hers under the table. No matter how large Mai's stomach and limbs seem to grow, Zuko's appetite for her never seems to diminish, and it's flattering, in a funny way.
There is a hard tug on the fabric across her hips, as Quan vainly attempts to clasp the garment shut, but no amount of pulling or stretching will convince this dress to accommodate Mai's pregnant form. "It won't fit, your Grace," Quan finally admits, exasperated.
The mirror shows a dress ready to burst at the seams, with breasts hanging perilously over the waistband and a belly that defies all conventional form of clothing. "I never would have guessed."
Quan doesn't reply, but a slight twitch in the corner of her mouth tells Mai she looks as ridiculous as she feels. "I'll get you your cotton robe, My Lady," she offers instead, tugging deftly on the waistband and loosening the stays; Mai feels a flood of air rush into her lungs and takes a deep, grateful breath, placing one hand against her belly, as if to ensure the child inside hasn't been squashed. Her limbs are still long and graceful, she notes to herself. Her face has rounded slightly, but it's not much of a difference. Instead of her hair resting in two sleek strands down her back, Mai has begun sweeping the hair off her face, sometimes braiding it, more often letting it hang down her back and fastening it with her royal crown. She hasn't had cravings like other pregnant woman have claimed: she never wakes up and demands sea prunes, she's not like to burst into tears at the drop of a hat. Mai has taken to this pregnancy much like she takes to everything else: with a slight arch to her brow and a comment filled with wit and sarcasm.
Quan appears with the robe, settling it gently over Mai's shoulders and giving the young woman a gentle pat on the back. The handmaiden was a woman of middle-age, with jet-black hair that was already showing grey near the roots, but she had a kind face and a sweet temper, and, surprisingly, a wit that could even on rare occasion match her gracious Queen's. She was the one who rubbed Mai's shoulders when they ached, who combed her hair in smooth, steady strokes, who always ensured there was a set of daggers ready for whenever the young Queen wished to train, who had been the kind, caring mother that Mai had never known. Although they had never had a heart-to-heart (Mai hadn't changed that much), Quan was loyal, and fierce when needed, patient and gentle, and Mai was happy to have her.
"What shall we do with the dress, My Lady?" Quan asked now, as her fingers set to work unbinding Mai's thick, black hair from its braid.
"Give it to Ty Lee, I guess." Mai replied, closing her eyes to enjoy the feeling of her hair being groomed. "She likes that sort of crap."
"It's a very lovely gown, My Lady," Quan said, a hint of reproof in her voice, and Mai hid a smile.
"As are your cheeks in the bloom of happiness, most Radiant Queen."
"Oh, shut up."
There was a knock at the door, two gentle taps that sent Mai to her feet and Quan to her knees, but Zuko took almost no notice of the servant-woman as he let himself into the royal apartments of the Queen. There was a smile on his lips and a spring in his step that Mai had not seen in quite some time, and his mood was infectious – already she could feel herself return his beam, going at once to the familiar circle of his arm. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Quan discreetly exit the room.
"Good day?" She asked, her fingers tracing the outline of her husband's face, smoothing away the tiredness and the stress that he wore like a cloak.
"Productive," he replied, dropping a kiss on her shoulder. "We spent all afternoon on the boundaries of the new city, and we've allocated where the major buildings will go. Sokka already has contacts to drum up investors and Aang is going to the Earth Kingdom to recruit workers. We'll employ refuges who were displaced by the war, give them work and encourage them to move into the city."
"That's good news!" After months and months of fruitless messages and dangerous threats, anything that can bring a smile to Zuko's face is wonderful. More than that, however, is the genuine feeling of pride Mai has in this new city. She's never been bothered by Benders and their abilities, has never felt disadvantaged or resentful. As the daughter of one of the most powerful families in the Fire Nation, Mai has never understood the struggle of division that tore the whole world apart during the war. Her travels, and Zuko's friendship with Aang, has opened her eyes to a history that differed from the official books of the Fire Nation, from the propaganda they preached on every street corner. In the real world, people needed balance. In the real world, they had a lot of work to do. "When will you be going out to inspect the land?"
"Next week," Zuko's hands were already starting to wander, fingers brushing over the soft material of Mai's dressing gown, moving a little lower than propriety allowed, towards the sash that kept the whole ensemble together. "Aang and I will inaugurate the bay. We're naming it after Princess Yue of the Northern Tribe; it was Sokka's idea. Are you sure you don't want to come?"
"Better not," Mai patted her stomach lightly with one hand, the other moving to the lapel of Zuko's fine robe, stroking the soft material. "If anyone knocks me over, there's no guarantee I'll be able to get back up again."
"No one could knock you over," Zuko promised, moving his hands to the base of Mai's head, cradling it with a tender touch. "You're immoveable, a rock no earth bender could change."
"Hard and stiff?" Mai raised an eyebrow. "I don't think I'm the only thing here that matches that description."
Zuko laughed, and the sound was music to Mai's ears.
The sound of the waves crashing against the shore sounded like gods fighting in the heavens, a thousand angry spirits wreaking havoc on the world below. Having grown up by the sea, Suki was used to the noise of a raging ocean, but she had never seen it quite like this. Rain poured in a torrential downpour, waves broke along jagged rocks, and thunder boomed in the heavens, as if the universe was about to be ripped in two, so great was its displeasure. Inadvertently, Suki's thoughts turned to Katara, last seen on a little rowboat going out to sea, with a promise to return safe; Suki wished she could believe her.
Her own craft hit the shore with a hard bump, throwing Suki temporarily off her balance, and she grasped the firm wooden rail of the boat to prevent herself from falling over completely, squinting through the storm to make out the figures on the shore. At first, she thought it might have been completely deserted, but a crack of lightening briefly illuminated the small, cloaked figure, still as a shadow, waiting near the prow of the ship, face hidden from the rain and from Suki's inquisitive gaze. With a word of thanks to the captain of the worn vessel, who looked like he immensely regretted his generous offer of giving the Kyoshi warrior free passage, Suki leapt from the ship to the ground below, slipping slightly on the wet rocks, and quickly pulling her own hood over her face, drawing the worn wool tight about her, already soaked to the bone and chilled. The figure waiting for her said nothing, but simply took off at a quick pace, seemingly unperturbed by the tumult around them; Suki followed, silent and wary.
After a quarter of an hour, when Suki was thinking longingly of fried fish and charred pork and a warm, toasty fire, the shadow took a sharp left turn, onto a path that was more neatly groomed than its predecessor. After another ten minutes, the hard-packed trail became one of cobblestones, and then of paved road; lights emerged on either side, illuminating the way, and houses began to bloom out of the darkness, simple, one-story homes that were nonetheless well-kept and tidy. Finally, the shadow paused at one of these homes, pulling something from their pocket and moving towards the lock on the door; with a click, the house opened up for the two travellers.
Stepping gratefully into the warmth, Suki lowered her hood and took in her surroundings, noting the fine layer of dust atop the furniture, worn but well-cared for. There was a kitchen in the right-hand corner and a bed on the left; A few chairs, a desk, and a cabinet completed the decorations, all of it simple in design, but sturdy-looking and, most importantly, dry. With a groan, Suki sank into one of these chairs, dropping her cloak to the floor with little concern, and smiled up at the shadow.
"It's good to see you, Toph."
"We've had better get-togethers," Toph remarked, dropping her own cloak and giving her head a rueful little shake, like a dog-badger when it comes in from a bath. "We're about six miles from the capital, so get some rest. It's hiking through the mud tomorrow."
Suki grimaced. "Great."
"Yeah, well, try and think about the nice, warm welcome we'll get once we're at the capital." Toph reached into her pocket, pulling out two strings of jerky; tossing one to Suki, Toph tore into her own with an almost savage ferocity. "You know," she added, between bites of half-chewed dry meat. "The one we'll get from the Dai Lee when we break into their ranks and start spying."
"Hey, be fair!" Suki said reprovingly. "Our plan sounds so much cooler than how you're putting it."
A moment of silence, broken only by the dull thrum of the rain on the roof of their new home. After a moment, Suki spoke.
"Are you nervous?"
"C'mon, Toph, it's okay to – wait, really?"
Toph shrugged. "I've seen what those guys can do. I've seen the destruction they've caused. Well," she added, waving a hand in front of her face. "You know, metaphorically speaking."
"We'll be okay," Suki said, speaking more to the room at large, chatting confidence. "We have a plan. As long as we stick to that, we'll be fine."
"You sound like Sokka," Toph took another bite of her jerky. "Now shout at us about getting mud on your schedule and wave a map in my face."
"Ah, I see you're familiar with Sokka's form of foreplay, too."
The resulting laughter nearly drowned out the thunder outside.
For one brief, terrifying minute, the rock under Katara's hand shifts. Tiny grains of sand rain down on her face, and the earth tilts as Katara lurches in the air, stomach heaving and heart hammering.
But the rock steadies, Katara regains her balance, and she climbs on.
How the Fire Nation made it to this temple, situated so high in the clouds, is a mystery to Katara, but she knows better than to question the ingenuity of a nation determined on genocide. Her fingers are bruised, her body is aching, but still she climbs, waterbending occasionally, struggling to make it to the top, if for no other reason than she is tired of waiting at the bottom.
Katara has never been to the Eastern Air Temple. She's heard stories about it, she's had Aang describe it to her, but she herself has never been. She nearly gave it up as a bad decision when she saw the cliff-face, but Katara is not a quitter by nature.
Reaching the top of the summit is both a euphoric and terrifying experience. For one moment, there is nothing to grab on to, nothing to hold, and she wonders if she's about to plummet from her new pedestal. Yet somehow, she holds on to the peak, her fingers sinking into ancient stone and dust, and she hauls herself to her feet, with all the world painted before her as her view.
Breathing hard, Katara lets herself marvel at her climb, not quite daring to believe she just climbed an entire mountain by herself, but something – she's not sure what – sounds behind her, and she's drawn back to her original mission.
She wonders, instantly, if Aang has been restoring the temples, like he's always hoped to, because where Katara stands now is not as run-down and broken as Aang described. The vegetation that had been curling around the carved pillars and the statues has been cleared away; broken marble and support beams have been moved aside, although not removed entirely. Further into the temple, a massive statue of Avatar Yang Chen, clearly damaged, looked to be in the process of repairs.
There were carvings on the walls that were in perfect state, Katara discovered, and she traced the faded edges with her fingers, her eyes taking in the spirals of air and the blue that still illuminated the walls. Was one of Aang's ancestors here? Was it his mother or father, depicted so clearly?
She moved further into the temple, through the dark hallways, past the filtered sunlight of the atrium, her fingers gliding along the carvings of the wall, her eyes taking in the gloomy splendour of everything before her. Everything around her was a world she had never known, a world that Aang had lost.
The sound of moving water drew Katara to a freeflowing little stream. Where it came from, Katara couldn't guess, but the water was pouring down the side of the cliff, off into distance below. Leaning slightly over the edge, Katara let out a soft whistle, marvelling once again at the height of what she had just climbed.
"Remarkable, isn't it?" Said someone from behind her, and Katara nearly jumped straight off the cliff.
An old man, naked but for a loincloth wrapped around his waist, stood before her; he was just barely taller than she was, but his back was straight and his posture good; for all his age, he certainly didn't wear it heavy. A long white beard reached his chest, but his head was completely bald. He wore no air nomad tattoos and, truth be told, he didn't resemble any of the other tribes Katara had seen. On his face was a friendly smile and it was this, more than anything, that made him seem so trustworthy.
"I didn't mean to startle you," The man said now, raising a hand apologetically. "I seldom get visitors this far up. I daresay we both scared each other! Did you climb all the way?"
"I … well, yes." Katara eyed him warily. "You're not going to tell me there's a path I could have taken, are you?"
"There's a path for everything; you only need to look!" The man gave a little chuckle, and Katara found herself smiling in spite of everything. "But I've forgotten my manners. My name is Guru Pathik." Pressing his hands together, he made a little bow.
"Oh!" Katara started. "I know who you are! Aang told me about you! I'm Katara, I travelled with Aang during the war."
There was some element of knowingness in Pathik's smile that Katara wasn't sure how to interpret. "So you did," he said, folding his arms behind his back. "And how is Avatar Aang? I haven't seen him of late; we've been working on restoring the temple to its former glory."
Katara swallowed, hoping the friendly smile on her face didn't look frozen. "He's good. Um, busy. You know, doing … doing Avatar things."
The look Pathik gave her was piercing; it was almost like he was looking down to her bones. "There are a great many responsibilities for the Avatar," he agreed gravely. "It is a heavy burden, especially for one so young. And of course, it must be hard for the Avatar's closest friends."
Her smile was rapidly slipping, but Katara tried valiantly to save face. "It's a struggle, that's for sure."
She thought, now he was going to excuse himself, send her away, return to the sanctity of the temple; she was wrong. With a kind smile, Pathik gestured to the stream. "I was about to meditate when I saw you arrive. Perhaps you would like to join me? I always find I do my best thinking when there's nothing in my head to begin with." He chuckled at his own joke, and Katara found herself laughing, too.
The sound of irritable yelling rent through the late evening air, and Aang hid a smirk as he turned, sweat beading his brow despite the sinking sun. The day had been hot, a break from the torrential rain pour that had swept over from the Earth Kingdom, and Aang, like most of the other workers, had stripped to his loosest, coolest pants, his bright blue tattoos seeming to shine with perspiration. It felt nice to be doing something with his hands, after all the inactivity; Aang rather felt it gave the other workers a sense of pride and respect, to see the Avatar willing to work alongside them. Nevertheless, every bone and muscle was weary by now, and Aang was thinking longingly of a cold bath and a good meal when Sokka started shouting.
Sokka was also in his threadbares, hair tied back and boomerang tucked neatly into the belt holding his pants on; he was striding across the field towards Aang, his great map in hand, and his teeth were grinding together so loudly, Aang fancied he could hear it from across the bay.
"Aang!" With a rather dramatic flourish, Sokka came to a halt next to his friend and whipped out his map. "Did you know the contractors from the Earth Kingdom just cancelled on us? Just cancelled! Something about terrible storms and that it's dangerous to cross the ocean right now and oooh, my wife just had a baby, I can't leave now!" Sokka gave the map a little shake. "We're already behind on clearing the housing site, and we're supposed to have the government building up by next week, how are we supposed to work with all these delays?"
Aang said, simply, "I'm worried about the girls, too."
The angry look was replaced with one of guilt, and Sokka lowered the map. "Shouldn't … shouldn't we have heard back by now?"
"If everything went according to plan, no. They're infiltrating the Dai Lee, it would look suspicious if they were sending letters to the Avatar." Leaning against a nearby wall, Aang shook his head. "The best we can do is finish things here, and went they send us the message, we'll go."
"I just hate leaving everything to chance like this," Sokka said, the crease between his eyes deepening. "I mean, we planned the attack on the Fire Nation with more certainty than this. Suki can't even bend, what happens if she's alone and someone attacks her? Her cover will be blown!"
"I'd be more worried about the guy who attacks her," Aang replied wryly, and Sokka chuckled despite himself.
"Yeah, probably. Look, I'm sorry I was yelling, I'm just freaking out over the girls, and the city, and Katara hasn't replied to my last letter –"
Aang hoped very much his poker face was up to standard.
" – losing my mind over the building permits … but still, things are looking up, right?" Sokka clapped Aang on the shoulder. "I mean, Mai's having a baby, Zuko smiled twice in one week, people are already jostling to come to Republic City … the world is looking bright for the first time in a while!"
"That's the spirit!" Aang beamed. "Besides, if we keep up at this pace, we'll – Sifu Hotman!"
"DON'T CALL ME THAT." Coming to a stop beside the two, Zuko grimaced; less formally dressed than usual, Zuko was still clothed more-so than his friends, and he was already sweating profusely.
"Sorry. What are you doing here? You're not due until the opening."
"I thought I'd come and check on how things are going, see if you need anything."
Sokka nodded wisely. "Mai kick you out for hovering again?"
Zuko scowled. "Yes, and shut up. How're things?"
"Good, so far!" Aang straightened up and stretched his arms over his head, feeling his shoulder muscles pop back into place. "We've cleared the land and most of the debris, and we're due to start building the districts soon. Roads are already being placed, and we've got the government building, court, library, and health clinic already being constructed. Just waiting on some more help from the Earth Kingdom."
"Speaking of the Earth Kingdom," Zuko pitched his voice low, prompting Sokka and Aang to lean in close. "How're things there?"
"We haven't heard anything yet, so we assume they're alright." Sokka gave a helpless shrug. "But time's the only way to tell."
Zuko nodded. "I've got informants working in the court, so if anything happens, we'll known rightaway. Until then, let's have something to eat, and we can figure out the districts tomorrow. I –"
Zuko stopped abruptly, as a liveried servant skidded to a halt before him, panting heavily. The man sank into a hasty bow.
"What is it?" Zuko's voice was sharp with fear. "Is Mai alright?"
"Y-yes, Your Excellency. She just received a message in the capital and sent me to you straightaway. There's been a message from the Earth Kingdom."
He handed the letter to Zuko, but Sokka was quicker; he snatched the letter up and ripped it open, hands trembling slightly. As he read, the colour drained from his face, until he was whiter than the sheet he held.
"Sokka?" Aang asked anxiously. "What's –"
"Something's happened to the girls," Sokka said, his face frozen with fear. "They've been discovered."
She was weightless, airless, floating in space. There was the heavens above her, endless, unreachable, and the earth below her, a beautiful blue marble, bright and tangible. Floating between the two, Katara felt, for one moment, that she could just fly upward, away from her home, from her friends, from everything, and go forth into space, discover the secrets of the universe.
But even as she contemplated this thought, Katara looked down, and she saw Aang. Young, childish, twelve year old Aang, fresh-faced and happy, careless, free. Aang from the iceberg, the little boy she found, the man she saved.
And how could she ever fly away when she was so clearly tethered to the earth?
With a start, Katara broke from her trance, exhaling loudly when she remembered her surroundings. Beside her, Pathik was watching her intently, his wise eyes seeing all, but revealing nothing.
"Something is wrong," he suggested, inviting discussion, but not forcing it.
"It's Aang," Katara said, and although she couldn't explain how, she knew she was right. "He's in trouble. Something's happened and my friends are in danger."
Pathik nodded. "And you will go?"
"Will I … of course I'll go! They need me!"
"They mean something to you," Pathik said, and held up his hand to stave off Katara's interruptions. "They are important to you, so you will fight for them. But if you are so willing to fight for them when they are in danger, why not fight for them when there is peace?"
Katara felt her stomach do a strange flip-flop, and shook her head angrily. "What's that supposed to mean? That I abandoned them? That this is all my fault?" Memories of her last encounter with Aang flashed through her mind, the words she threw in his face ringing in her ears.
It didn't mean anything.
"How is it your fault?" Pathik asked, and again, so calm, so serene, and Katara wanted to shake him.
"Because I left!" She hadn't realized she had leapt to her feet, until Pathik was looking up at her. "I couldn't work past my anger and my hurt and I left Aang, and now he's in trouble and –"
"Anger and hurt are barriers," Pathik said simply, silencing Katara. "They are not faults. You are allowed to feel these things, because you have much to be angry about, much to be hurt about. What matters is how you use them. Don't let your emotions hinder you, let them guide you. Let them remind you of what you are fighting for."
"But Aang –"
"Avatar Aang is afraid of doing the wrong thing. He is blinded by his need to bring peace, and he forgets that he is not saving nameless creatures. He is not among only Airbenders anymore. He needs someone who feels these things, who understands them, who can guide him among the people he seeks to guide and protect."
It didn't mean anything.
"He needs me," Katara said, and it felt so clear, for the first time in so long. "He needs his friends."
"I once warned Aang of the dangers of earthly attachment, of letting go of what he loved in order to control the Avatar State," Pathik continued, nodding. "I was wrong. It was not because of letting go that he achieved power. It was embracing what he has. And even if I was right, even if he had to let go of earthly attachment, he can't. He is here, alive today, because of you, Katara, and your brother, and your friends."
It didn't mean anything.
Yes it did. It meant everything.
"Thank you," Katara said finally, her throat closing under the depth of her emotions. She didn't think it was an adequate enough farewell, but Pathik understood.
Toph couldn't see the room full of guards, the heavy weaponry, the glare of anger and hatred on their faces, but she could feel their feet, tapping anxiously against the floor, could feel the cold, harsh blade pressed against her neck, and could sense the hatred, rolling off in waves. It was freezing in this room, packed as it was; beside her, Suki shivered, but whether it was from cold or from fear, Toph couldn't tell.
"We are humble servants of the Dai Lee!" Suki called out, in one last, desperate effort. "How dare you turn against us?"
"Give it a rest," one of the men said scornfully. "Do you think we're stupid?"
"Independently, or just in general?" Toph piped up, silenced only by a quick blow to the jaw.
"Besides," another man put in, as Toph spit up blood and teeth on the floor; he was a small, slimy slip of a man, and Suki had mistrusted him on sight. "We have it on good authority that you are friends of the Avatar."
There was a general rumble of anger, and the blade pressed against Suki's neck cut into the skin, making her hiss in pain. "Who?" She demanded, seeing no way out of this mess, but determined to go out fighting. "Who's authority?"
From the back of the room, a small figure made its way to the front of the crowd; beside her, Toph let out a gasp, and Suki bit back an exclamation of shock.
"No!" She cried, struggling against her restraints. "This is a trick! We're friends! You fought with us, don't you remember? You helped us stop the war!"
Smellerbee shook her head; her eyes were lifeless, expressionless, dead in the gloom of the room. "There is no war in Bai Sing Se."