*Sorry for the delay in posting. I was away on vacation without internet access. Yikes!
Thanks CharlieRoz, Tenshi Yami-Angel of Darkness, DeathsHeadMoth, Calenture, cassy1994, NJay-Ficilist, and child who is cool for your support!
"Dad, I wish you didn't have to go yet," Sokka said, hugging Hakoda tightly.
"I've been here far longer than I expected, Sokka," the Chief said.
"I know. But I got used to you and Katara being here. I'm really going to miss you."
Katara put a hand on Sokka's shoulder. "At least I'm sticking around a little longer."
He smiled at her.
"I wish I could stay, too," Aang said. "But I've got to go to Republic City." He turned to Toph. "Do you want a ride home?"
"It's a little out of your way," Toph said. "Besides, I've decided to stay and hang out with Katara for a few days more."
Zuko watched as they all hugged again, and said more tearful goodbyes. Though he knew Sokka was sad to see them go, Zuko was anxious to get Sokka alone to discuss Mai's offer. He waited for an opportunity to say his own goodbyes.
He and Aang embraced briefly. "Thank you for checking up on the new city."
"I'll send word about the progress," Aang said. "Congratulations, again." He lowered his voice. "With any luck, someday we'll be brothers in law."
Zuko smiled. He knew Aang had been in love with Katara forever. And while they were still too young to consider marrying, Zuko had a feeling Aang was right.
"Chief," Zuko nodded and held out his hand for Hakoda.
"Son." Hakoda pulled Zuko into an unexpected squeeze. "Thank you for doing the right thing by Sokka," he said. As they pulled away, he added, "But my warning still stands."
"Dad, you can't go around threatening the Fire Lord. Even if he is your son-in-law," Sokka rolled his eyes.
Hakoda boarded a ship headed for the South Pole, and Aang climbed on Appa. The rest of them headed back to the palace.
"So, what should we do now?" Sokka asked.
"Ooh, let's go to Ember Island," Toph suggested. "We could go kick some butt in Kuai Ball."
"Or see the Ember Island players again," Katara said.
"Or the Arcade," Sokka said excitedly. He glanced at Zuko. "Um, actually, we don't have time to get away right now. There's a lot going on."
"Sokka, you can go with them if you want. I'm busy with meetings for the next few days."
"I'm not going on vacation without you, Zuko. Besides, I'm still on the Council of Advisors, and there's work to be done," Sokka told him.
"But you're the Fire Prince now. You have other duties. You can't be on the Council, too."
Sokka frowned. "Why not? I like being on the Council. They respect me. And my opinions are taken seriously."
"Because . . . you just can't. The Fire Lady arranges social events and entertains dignitaries, and acts more of an ambassador."
Sokka clenched his fists and waved his arms angrily. "I am not the Fire Lady!" He stormed off leaving Zuko feeling confused.
"Not cool," Toph said.
"Yes, Sokka needs to control his temper," Zuko muttered.
"Not him," Toph clarified. "You."
"Me? What did I do?"
"You kind of treated him like, well, like the wife of the Fire Lord."
Zuko frowned. "Well, that's basically what he is. Except that he's a man."
"Exactly," Toph said. "So treat him like a man. What makes you think he suddenly wants to throw tea parties and all that fluff?"
"But that's what the wife- spouse of the Fire Lord does. I didn't make up the rules," Zuko almost whined.
"No, but you've broken so many already, how can you expect Sokka to know which ones to follow and which ones to bend?" Katara asked.
"Or break?" Toph chimed in.
"If the Fire Lord was a woman, did her husband have to do all the girly stuff?"Katara asked.
Zuko scratched his head. "I don't know. Probably not," he admitted.
"Then why does Sokka? Why can't he stay on the Council?"
Zuko couldn't think of any good reason why not, other than that was the way things were. But Katara was right, they'd already changed so many of his nations practices, why should Sokka have to follow that one?
Zuko sighed, "I guess there's no real reason. I don't want him to regret marrying the Fire Lord."
"I think that's part of the problem," Katara said. "He didn't. He married you, his friend Zuko."
"But I am both." Zuko closed his eyes. "I want him to be happy. But I want my nation to be happy too. How can I please both of them when they have different expectations?"
"I don't know. You should talk to Sokka, though, before either of you make any decisions."
Nodding, Zuko thanked Katara and Toph, and left to find Sokka, his ever present shadow in tow.
"Kudan," Zuko stopped mid stride. "I'd like to talk to Sokka alone. You don't need to follow me everywhere. Especially in the palace."
"My job is to protect you."
"I'm in my own home, with guards all around. I'm safe."
"But there have been threats made against you," Kudan countered.
"There are always threats against the Fire Lord. That's why we have guards in the first place. Please, just leave me alone for a little while!" Zuko took two steps, then bellowed, "That's an order."
Sokka wandered into the gardens toward his favorite hidden spot under the willow tree. He plopped down and grumbled to himself.
"How am I supposed to throw stupid parties? I don't know anything about that stuff."
He picked up some blades of grass and threw them.
"I'm gonna be a lousy Fire Lady."
"Yes, especially considering that you're a man," a voice answered.
The willow branches parted and Iroh walked in. He grunted as he sat down next to Sokka.
"I am no longer a general," he said. "You can call me Iroh, or Uncle if you prefer."
Sokka smiled. "I'd like that, Uncle."
Iroh smiled too. "I'm curious though, why you would call me General Iroh."
"Isn't that what the Governors and military leaders call you?"
"Yes. However, I am retired. I have not performed the duties of a general for many years. So, I wonder why they still refer to me that way," Iroh mused.
"They respect you," Sokka said. "And you earned the title."
"A sign of respect, yes. That's it Sokka. You've figured it out," Iroh smirked. "It's simply a title, even though I don't perform certain duties."
Sokka looked over at Iroh. "I see what you just did there. I guess you heard me complaining about not being a good Fire Lady."
"It's simply a title, a term of respect. Although, I think Fire Prince suits you better," Iroh laughed.
"What's the difference? I'm still expected to do things a certain way. But I don't know anything about having tea parties and all that girly stuff."
"Girly stuff?" Iroh feigned insult. "Do you think planning and making tea is only for girls? I'll have you know I make the finest tea in Ba Sing Se. And I throw the best tea parties."
"Uh, er, no. I mean . . . sorry, I guess I wasn't thinking. When I think of the Fire Lady having tea, I imagine a bunch of women dressed up with big hats and pretty gloves sitting around talking about fashion and shopping." Sokka paused. "Well, I don't mind the shopping part. Or the fashion part," he chuckled.
"Some tea parties are exactly like that," Iroh said. "But they don't have to be."
"I guess not."
"How would you have one?"
Sokka shrugged. "I don't know. I'd have men there, too, so I wouldn't be outnumbered. And real sandwiches, not those tiny little things you could fit five of at a time in your mouth. We could still dress up a bit." Sokka blushed. "I do enjoy being fashionable."
"There, it sounds like you've just planned your first tea party, Fire Prince."
"Thanks Uncle Iroh." Sokka leaned over and hugged him. "Maybe I can do some of this after all."
"Sokka? Are you here?" Zuko's voice called.
"That's my cue to leave," Iroh said, and grunted as he stood to go.
Sokka joined him and the two emerged from the shelter of the willow. Iroh bowed shallowly, smiled, and left the garden.
Zuko stood, paper in hand, looking contrite.
"Sokka, I'm sorry. You don't have to do all that Fire Lady stuff. You can stay on the Council of Advisors. I still value your input there."
"I shouldn't have yelled at you. It's not your fault."
Zuko hugged him. "This is all new. We'll figure it out together. But there's something else I want to talk to you about."
He held out the contract Mai gave him.
"We don't have to decide anything right away. And we won't do it if you don't want to."
Sokka began to read, while Zuko chewed on his thumb nail. He watched as Sokka's expressions changed from frown to surprise and what appeared to be confusion.
"You've signed it already."
"Uh, yeah I know. But it doesn't count unless you sign it too."
Sokka shook his head. "I don't know if I'm ready to think about kids yet. Everything is happening so fast."
Zuko took the paper from him. "I told you, we don't have to decide anything now. And if Mai has moved on by the time we're ready, then we'll figure something else out. I just wanted to show you. I don't want there to be any surprises or plans made without us talking about it."
Smiling, Sokka said, "Okay. I might need a couple of years to decide about this one, though."
"There you are," Katara said. "Everything okay?"
Sokka nodded and looked at Zuko. "Yeah, everything is great," he said a little starry-eyed. He and Zuko kissed, ignoring the giggles of Katara and Toph.
Mai, along with Lin Lu, stepped through the garden gate, noticing the document in Zuko's hand. "Oh, have you talked about the contract? Did Sokka say yes?"
"Um, we haven't decided anything yet," Zuko said, glancing at Katara and Toph, hoping he wouldn't have to explain.
"What contract?" Katara asked.
Toph, sensing the tension, put a hand on Katara's. "We should let them have some secrets."
"Some secrets? They've been keeping tons of secrets," Katara complained.
"We're not ready to talk about this one," Sokka told her. "But I promise, when we are ready, you'll be the first to know."
Katara crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh, all right," she grumbled. Movement caught her eye bear the rose bushes. "What's that?"
"I don't know, but I'm ready for lunch," Sokka said.
Before any of them could make another move, three figures dressed in black and wearing masks emerged from various parts of the gardens.
Toph was the first to spring into action. She took out the assailant by the rose bushes with earthbending, knocking him cold. The second attack came from above. A man scaling the building threw a fireball at Sokka. Having no weapons on him to defend himself, Sokka was vulnerable. Zuko threw himself in front of his husband, prepared to take the brunt and try to fight back, but Katara was quicker, extinguishing the fireball. It gave Zuko the opportunity to strike down the second attacker, who fell into a crumpled pile.
A third masked man took advantage of Zuko's concern for his husband, throwing several small knives. Kudan, who had been outside the gardens despite Zuko's wish to be free from him, rushed in with some of his guards. He shouted a warning to Zuko.
The Fire Lord was able to duck the first two blades, but the third caught his upper arm.
"No!" Kudan yelled. He generated a bolt of lightning that instantly killed the assailant.
"Zuko!" Sokka called out.
"Stay down," Zuko called back.
With everyone's attention on Zuko and Sokka, none of them expected the last attack. Seemingly out of nowhere, a swordsman in a mask thrust at Kudan with his broadsword. Kudan was taken by surprise and slashed the length of his abdomen and his left forearm. As he fell, Zuko blasted the swordsman, and Toph hit him with a few rather large rocks, leaving him unconscious.
Zuko rushed to Kudan's side. He knelt and pulled Kudan up, cradling him.
"You are injured," Kudan said hoarsely. "I have failed to protect you."
"It's nothing," Zuko replied. "You are bleeding badly, though." He shouted to the others in the garden, "Get help. Get the healers now!"
Mai and Lin Lu ran out as quickly as they could.
Kudan reached up with his uninjured arm. "Zuko, this is why you cannot be left unattended. I will no longer be able to protect you."
"Katara, can't you do something" Sokka asked frantically.
She dropped down next to Kudan and lifted his tunic to see the wound. "It's pretty bad," she said. "But I'll try."
Katara used some water from the pond nearby to try and heal the long gash in Kudan's abdomen. The sword had gotten him from his sternum down to his right hip.
"I must tell you," Kudan whispered, for it was all the effort he could make.
"Don't talk," Zuko said. "You're wasting energy."
"I've wasted much more time," Kudan said. "You . . . have become . . . great man, unlike father."
"Stop, Kudan. You can't even speak in complete sentences. Save your strength while Katara heals you."
Katara looked up at Sokka, a grave expression on her face. He knew it meant that she wasn't sure she would be able to heal him before he bled to death.
"Where are those fucking healers?" Zuko called out in frustration.
"Fire . . . Prince," Kudan looked up.
Sokka knelt down. "Zuko is right. You shouldn't try to talk," he said.
Kudan's eyes closed slowly.
"Stay with me buddy," Zuko said. "Hold on, they're gonna save you."
"Sokka, put your hands on the middle of his wound and press down," Katara said, determined to do all she could until the real healers arrived.
"I don't want to hurt him."
"You have to try and stop the bleeding while I close the gash."
Sokka did as he was told.
Kudan opened his eyes and looked directly at Sokka. "Please take care of him. He must lead the world to peace."
"I promise," Sokka said.
"Stop talking like that," Zuko cried. "Stop talking like he's going to die. You're not going to die." Tears filled Zuko's eyes so that he could barely see anything but a blur.
"I'm sorry, my brother," Kudan mouthed, his eyes closing again.
Sensing that he was running out of time, Zuko told his faithful companion. "You have been like a brother to me. Kudan, I don't know what I would have done without you by my side. You've been my protector, confidant, an advisor, and . . . a friend."
Two healers, carrying bags rushed into the garden. Though it seemed as though hours had passed to Zuko, in reality they had arrived only three minutes after Mai and Lin Lu left to get them.
One of them took Sokka's place, holding the wound shut, while the other one used waterbending to heal the opposite end of the laceration that Katara was on. They hoped, between the three of them, they would be able to repair the injury. Another healer joined them and took Katara's place.
"I'll take over from here, Master Katara. Perhaps you could tend to the Fire Lord." The healer understood that Zuko's cut was not deep and didn't require the extensive knowledge of a professional healer, as Kudan did.
Katara nodded. "Zuko, let me see your arm."
"I'm fine," he muttered.
"Zuko, let Katara see your arm. I'll hold Kudan," Sokka offered. He put his hands under Kudan's head and allowed Zuko to scoot out from his position. But the Fire Lord never took his eyes off his attendant. Sokka sat cradling Kudan's head and shoulders in his lap.
"He'll be all right, won't he?" Sokka asked the closest healer.
"We'll do our best," she replied.
After Katara took care of his arm, Zuko sat down next to Sokka. Toph, Mai and Lin Lu stood watching the scene. Several extra guards had come into the garden. Some servants, including Quan had also wandered in to see what the commotion was. A small crowd had gathered around Zuko, blocking her view.
Katara saw her before she saw Kudan lying on the ground.
She approached the girl. "Quan, you may not want to be here."
"Why? What's going on? What happened?"
"Where is Kudan?" Quan asked, looking around and noticing that the attendant was conspicuously absent among the guards.
She pushed her way through and gasped.
"Kudan, Kudan," she cried, falling to her knees.
"I'm sorry," Zuko said.
"No! He can't be-"
"No, he's only unconscious," one of the healers said. "But he is severely injured. We've stopped the bleeding, however, he's lost a lot of blood. Even when we close the wound, he will still be very weak."
"But he'll make it, right?" Sokka asked.
The healers all glanced at each other. One of them spoke for all. "I'd say there's an equal chance of it going either way."
Quan sobbed into her hands, prompting Zuko to put his arm around her.
"Maybe we should get some of these people out of here," Sokka suggested.
"Got it covered Snoo- um, I mean, Fire Prince," Toph said. She gave a small stomp to get everyone's attention. "All right, give the healers some space. Guards, take those guys to the dungeons."
Katara chimed in. "Healers, what do you need?"
"Some fresh drinking water and clean linens," one of them answered. "We have medicines and salves in our bags."
"Lin Lu, see that the healers get what they need," Mai ordered.
"Okay," Toph yelled. "Everyone else, leave the courtyard."
Iroh had just stepped in. "Does that include me? I heard there were intruders. Are you all right, nephew?"
"I'm fine Uncle."
Iroh looked down at Kudan. "No doubt, he was defending your life."
"I told Quan just yesterday that I thought he would give his life for Zuko," Sokka said.
Quan began sobbing again.
"Will you stop talking that way?" Zuko admonished.
"Sorry," Sokka hung his head. "Is it working?" he asked the healer next to him.
"We've managed to close the wound and stop the bleeding," the healer answered. "He needs to be taken to the infirmary to recover."
"So, you think he will recover?" Quan asked through her tears. "I need to tell him." She picked up his hand and held it in hers. "I love him. I was just too stubborn to admit it."
Zuko gave her a tentative smile. "You'll get a chance to tell him."
The lead healer stood. "We're ready to move him."
"I'll have the guards carry him."
The healers followed some of the guards, while a few stayed behind to secure the courtyard and stand watch. Quan accompanied Kudan, never letting go of his hand.
The rest of them stood in the gardens reflecting, until Toph finally broke the silence.
"So, are we just going to pretend that guy didn't call Zuko his brother?"
"He meant it metaphorically," Zuko said.
"I don't think so," she replied.
"Oh, I thought he meant it as a term of endearment," Katara said. "He doesn't call you that usually?"
"No, but . . ."
"Well, it would explain a lot," Sokka said, scratching his head.
"Explain what?" Zuko asked. "Don't you think someone would have told me if I had a brother? Do you think my father would have kept me around if someone like Kudan was his son?"
"He has a point," Mai said. "No offense, but your father was a ruthless bastard."
"He does kind of look like you, now that I think about it," said Katara.
"So does half the Fire Nation," Zuko replied.
"I agree," Toph added.
"You can't even see," Zuko rolled his own eyes.
"But I can with my earthbending. In fact, I thought he was you one time."
"So what? You're all being ridiculous. He's only my personal attendant. I'm going to check on him."
"Zuko, wait," Sokka called out.
"Let him go, Sokka," Iroh said.
"Uncle Iroh, do you know something?" Sokka questioned.
He shook his head. "No. Nothing really. Only suspicions."
"About Kudan? And you never said anything?" Mai's brow furrowed.
"Not about him, specifically. But I've wondered for a long time about another possible heir."
"Why?" she asked.
"Come, sit down and I'll tell you."
Iroh sat on a bench near the pond. Mai sat down next to him, while the rest of them sat on the ground in front of him.
"A long time ago, about twenty-three or twenty-four years, one of the concubines in Azulon's harem left suddenly. There were rumors that she was given as a gift to one of the Governors. Some said she was tossed out because she was getting too fat and less desirable. Others said the other concubines wanted her gone because they were jealous of her beauty and favor of the Fire Lord's son." Iroh laughed. "Not me."
"What do you think happened?" Toph asked.
"I suspected perhaps she was pregnant, and that someone arranged for her to leave the palace to avoid a scandal. But I had no way of proving it."
Iroh continued. "I eventually forgot about the girl and her possible plight, when no one claiming to be the heir of Ozai came forward. It wasn't until Zuko returned after his banishment that I began to wonder about that woman again. When Kudan showed his firebending power by generating lightning, it made me curious. It is a very rare gift, one that runs in the royal family."
"I did a little investigating about the concubine that left. Her name was Hu," he told them. "One of the concubines was still working in the palace, as kitchen worker. She didn't know for sure, but she said she also thought Hu was with child."
"Is she Kudan's mother? Maybe we could find her and ask if Kudan is Ozai's son," Katara suggested.
"Kudan's mother is dead," Sokka said. "He told me she had gotten ill, and that's why he came to the palace to work."
"Oh, was his mother's name Hu?"
Sokka shrugged. "I didn't ask her name."
"Then we ought to talk to the kitchen worker," Toph said. "Iroh, why don't you take a walk with me." She linked her arm through his and they left the garden.
"I'm going to go check on Zuko and Kudan," Sokka said, giving Katara and Mai a worried look. He was about to tell the guard following him that it wasn't necessary. In light of recent events, kept his mouth shut. He wouldn't have admitted it, but he was a little nervous after the attack.
"How long will he be unconscious?" Zuko asked the healer still in the room.
Quan sat on a chair next to Kudan's bed holding his hand.
"I don't know," the healer said. "He's lost a lot of blood. We've closed the would, but there is a possibility of infection."
"Didn't you clean his would while you were in there?" Zuko asked angrily.
"Yes, of course Fire Lord. I merely wanted you to be prepared for set backs."
Zuko sighed. It wasn't the healer he was angry with. "Is there anything we can do to help him?"
"I've sent the other healers to fetch some special herbs. Some, we'll place over his wounds, others we'll use to make an oral medication. Beyond that, is just waiting to see if he regains consciousness."
Zuko nodded. Sokka walked into the sterile room and went immediately to his side.
Shaking his head, Zuko answered, "He's the same. But at least he's no worse."
"I'm so sorry," Sokka said, taking his husband's hand. "If I had been able to defend myself, you wouldn't have been distracted. Then Kudan wouldn't have been distracted trying to make sure you were safe."
"It wasn't your fault, Sokka. I don't know how those people got past the guards." Zuko looked at the man lying on the bed. "I think he would have protected me no matter what. Don't blame yourself."
The pair stood watching Kudan with Quan by his side for several minutes. Sokka finally got up the courage to bring up the conversation that went on after Zuko left.
"So, how much do you really know about Kudan?"
"Huh?" Zuko frowned.
"Do you know his mother's name?"
"His mother's- what are you talking about?" Zuko let go of Sokka's hand. "You're not still going on about Toph's crazy theory, are you?"
"I don't think it's that crazy." Before Zuko could protest further, Sokka went on. "I mean, he does look like you. More than a little."
Zuko rolled his eyes.
"Okay, so do a lot of Fire Nation people," Sokka relented. "But he's loyal beyond reason. I know your guards are supposed to protect you, but I saw the look on his face when you were attacked."
"His Fire Lord was under assault. I'm sure he was concerned."
"No, it was more than that. It was how Katara looked when Master Piando attacked me. She didn't know he was only testing me, and she was afraid he was going to kill me."
"Like I said, he was concerned. Kudan is not my brother."
"What?" Quan turned to them. "Kudan is your brother?"
"No. I just said he isn't my brother."
Quan looked back down at Kudan. "Why would the Fire Prince think that?"
"He called him my brother before he passed out," Sokka piped up. "And Uncle Iroh told us about a concubine who left the palace twenty-four years ago. He thought someone had her removed from the palace because she was pregnant."
"Kudan is twenty-four," Quan said.
"Uncle is in on this too?" Zuko asked in disbelief.
"I thought he was the Fire Lord," Quan said absently. "Twice."
"And Toph mistook him for you, too. And he can create lightning. Like your father, Azula and Uncle Iroh."
"Well, I can't," Zuko grumbled.
"Kudan was trying to tell you something before he passed out," Sokka said.
"He was becoming incoherent," Zuko countered.
"I think he thought he was going to die and wanted to tell you that he's your brother."
"Would it be such a bad thing, to have more family? More sane family?" Sokka laughed.
"He's not my brother," Zuko said before stalking off.
"What did I say?" Sokka shrugged. He turned to Quan, who appeared to be deep in thought. "He should be happy. He often says that he misses his sister, even though she wasn't always nice to him."
"Fire Prince, if Kudan is indeed Ozai's son, would he not be the rightful heir to the throne?" Quan questioned.
"Oh, I hadn't thought of that. But Kudan hasn't made any claims."
She nodded. "Yet," she clarified. "He could still cause trouble for the Fire Lord."
"Do you think he will?"
Quan gazed down at her newly declared love. Though they had been interacting since she came to the palace four years prior, she realized that she didn't know him very well. It didn't stop her from falling for him. And now, she could very well find herself in the middle of controversy.
"I have no idea," she answered.