The palace staff was a-buzz with chatter over the confrontation at the gates. As the man was ushered through the servant's entrance and told where to go to find his new supervisor, he couldn't help but chuckle to himself. Noblemen were all too predictable. Though it had barely been over a week since he'd received his contract, they were already getting impatient. The demand for the Fire Princess' eradication was proof of their discomfort. He knew what they either did not or refused to see – if they had been granted their demands, his presence would not even be necessary to bring down the current political regime. If the Fire Lord had acquiesced to the execution of his own sister, the people would have rejoiced at first, but then the wondering would have started. If he was willing to kill his own sister to secure a more firm footing in ruling the nation, it wouldn't be too much of a jump to see that he might view other threats with the same casual disregard. And if that were the case, then one by one people would lose faith. They would begin to feel less safe and secure. They would doubt and they would talk, because people always talk. Either the new Fire Lord was more intelligent than his predecessors, or he was more lucky. The man thought it likely that young Zuko was a little bit of both.
His musings had kept him company until he reached the eastern fields. The Head Gardener was easy to spot, and he walked up to the older man and waited patiently to be noticed. After a moment of giving directions to a pair of young-looking apprentices the gardener turned.
"You must be my new recruit," he said pleasantly.
"Yes, sir. My name is Khafu." It wasn't, but no one here would know that. And as names went, it wasn't bad. Definitely better than some he had taken in the past.
"Always pleased to have more help. Especially since the Fire Lord has ordered that the fields be planted and tended to their full extent now. It's the first time in generations that all of the fields have been prepared for planting. You have any experience with growing things?"
"Some. However, I was born and raised in the Earth Kingdom, so I may be unfamiliar with techniques specific to Fire Nation growing conditions."
"Earth Kingdom, huh? That's something. Never thought I'd have an Earthy working in my fields. 'Bout damn time someone pulled all the nations together again. Well, Khafu, come with me. We'll get you started." The older man walked off, adjusting the broad-brimmed hat he wore on his head and talking while they walked.
"First thing, you're gonna want to get a hat. We've got spares you can use in the second tool shed right over there -" he pointed a callused finger and the man called Khafu nodded his understanding. "Most people want their own hat, though. Make sure it's comfortable. The heat can be tolerated, but it's the direct sun that's a killer.
"Now, we're starting you off with wheat. We have nineteen full fields and each one grows a different crop, and if you stay long enough we'll see you get rotated through all of them. I want as many well-trained workers as I can get. Word is some of our new agreements with the others are agriculture-based, and I won't have it be said that the Fire Nation isn't holding up its end of the bargain, ya know what I mean?" As they walked, the Head Gardener pointed out this field or that worker or some other point of interest. The man called Khafu nodded and spoke when needed, with the end result being that the supervisor seemed fairly pleased with his new hire's comprehension and understanding. Soon enough they reached the wheat field and Khafu was introduced to his fellow workers – his team, as it was called – and began working with them. He was a hard worker, and a fast learner, and this job was more repetition than anything. Khafu found he barely noticed the passage of time, allowing his mind to wander as it would while he worked to prove himself a good employee. Good employees were hard to come by, after all, and if he was to become the up-and-coming Fire Lady's personal assistant he would have to start at the bottom. But he was patient.
While Zuko and Aang were having their chat, Iroh had caught up to Katara, clearing his throat slightly to get her attention. When she turned to look at him, he spoke without preamble.
"One of my associates may have been able to get her hands on the recipe for the tea you were seeking."
"Really?!" Katara's eyes lit up with happiness. "Oh, La, that would be so wonderful! What's in it? How is it made? Are the ingredients ones we can get locally or – sorry, Uncle." She sputtered off into embarrassed silence, realizing she'd been giving him no chance to answer, and he laughed and shook his head.
"I understand. Excitement has a way of making one's mouth run away without one's express consent. I am afraid I don't know the particulars just yet. I had simply let it be known amongst some colleagues over a game of pai sho," he winked and Katara nodded, "that I had an acquaintance that was looking for an old recipe. My friend sent me a message this morning, but she is understandably hesitant about letting it be known that she has access to knowledge that was outlawed over a generation ago. She wanted to know exactly who my acquaintance was and why they wanted the recipe. I thought it might be a good idea to bring her here to speak with you personally." Katara was nodding her agreement before he even finished talking.
"Absolutely. Let me know when she wants to meet and I'll make sure I'm available."
"I will contact her this afternoon. I'll let her know the Fire Consort would be most pleased to speak with her whenever it is convenient."
The two walked for a few more moments, behind the group that consisted of an increasingly rambunctious Sokka as well as an indulgently amused Suki and a still quiet Toph, but in front of Zuko and Aang who were conversing in low tones. After a quick glance behind her, Katara hummed under her breath.
"Something else, my dear?" Iroh asked easily. Katara glanced once more at the duo bringing up the rear, then looked back at the older bender.
"Uncle Iroh, would you...I mean..."
"I want to see Azula," the blue-eyed girl blurted out quietly. "I want to see her for myself. And I know Zuko would take me but I...I don't want him to go. Not yet. He's still so hurt by everything, though he won't show it, and I..." She trailed off with a sigh.
"I would be happy to escort you," he agreed without hesitation. "Simply let me know when you would like to go."
"I was thinking maybe...after breakfast? Zuko has a meeting with my father and some of the other tribesmen concerning collaboration on seagoing vessels for trade and distribution purposes, but I've got nothing planned until our conference after lunch. I was hoping to talk to Warden Jeou as well, and then sit down with Sokka and Toph to hash out some preliminary designs for the hospital and Azula's new quarters."
"Make sure you two take some time for yourselves as well, Katara. The strongest tree in the world can still be blown over by wind if its roots are not secure." The contemplative, calm tone made her laugh quietly.
"We will. I..." She caught herself as she was about to speak, but at the bright red that painted itself across her cheekbones Iroh immediately became curious.
"I apologize. I didn't quite catch what you said," he teased.
"That's because I didn't say anything and you know it!" she retorted, and he laughed out loud at the mock sternness in her expression. About that time they had reached the dining hall and Zuko had stepped up beside her. One look at her blushing face and he turned to Iroh.
"What did you say, Uncle?" he asked with a playful growl. The older man held his hands up in a placating move.
"I said nothing, Nephew. I was simply allowing Katara to speak and she seemed to have swallowed wrong. You might want to get her a cup of tea for her throat." The Dragon of the West grinned and patted Katara on the arm before turning and leaving. Zuko eyed his fiancee askance.
"What happened?" he asked. She just chuckled and turned to face him, her eyes gleaming with amusement.
"I almost told him that I'd tricked you into my bed last night."
"...oh." He seemed to be speechless with lack of knowledge of what to say in response. Or it could have been the open regard and love in her eyes that rendered him mute. Either way it wasn't until she leaned into his arms and wrapped her own around his waist that he felt his voice return.
"What were you two talking about, anyway?"
"Uncle Iroh said he found someone who might know more about the sedative tea."
"That's wonderful!" Zuko said happily, his arms tightening around her. "So what is it? Where do we get some?"
"The woman wants to meet with me and find out why I'm looking for it, since it's dangerous in the wrong hands and has been outlawed for so long. Uncle didn't tell her who he was asking for, just that he knew someone who wanted the recipe. So he's going to send her a message and whenever it's convenient for her I'll be there."
"That's perfectly okay. Even if you have to skip a meeting or whatever."
"I figured so." She sighed and nuzzled her head against his shoulder. "So what were you and Aang talking about?"
"He wanted to apologize. And so did I."
"And?" She asked, standing up straight so she could look him in the eyes, her fingertips gently resting on his scarred cheek. A part of him was amazed at how easily she would caress his disfigurement. He figured he would always be startled by her easy acceptance.
"Okay." Her hand found his own, held it, and they walked to take their seats at the table with their friends to enjoy their breakfast – finally – before the day got any more crazy.
Author's note: It's a little bit of a shorter chapter, I know, but the next one is going to be fairly large and I haven't found a way to break it anywhere without jacking up the flow completely. So bear with me for a little bit. We're about to get into some of the bigger plot hubs, and I want to make sure it all comes out as well in print as it's lining up in my head. :-D