Author’s note: In which there is damage control, set up for the first half of part III and the closest to lime I dare write on something my mother might read.
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***Meet the Father***
Hakoda had been scanning the horizon for any signs of a flying bison ever since Sokka had left with the Avatar to save Katara. Given the unnatural silence of the Fire Nation in the last days, he had a lot of time to do just that. But it seemed now that his patience had paid off, as a large shadow appeared at the horizon, rapidly growing to the distinct shape of a sky bison. Hakoda quickly signaled the ships to return to the shore.
As they grew closer the Water Tribe chief scrutinized the people that were sitting on Appa’s back. Sokka must have been stirring because he jumped down first, followed by a young man dressed in fancy robes who jumped clumsily off and an animal that looked like a platypus bear. Behind them appeared a young woman whose hair caught Hakoda’s eye because of their unnaturally bright red color. She landed much more gracefully than the two young men and turned to make a signal to those still sitting on the back. An Earth Kingdom girl roughly the age of the Avatar, jumped to the ground and made relatively large platform of earth rise to Appa’s back level. Hakoda guessed she was Toph, the little earthbender Sokka had told him about. The chief couldn’t help but feel a little worried seeing neither the Avatar nor his daughter. Katara stood up then and walked to the platform. Another young man stood behind her, the limp body of a younger boy in his hands. As he handed him over to Katara Hakoda caught a glimpse of yellow. The Avatar. Feeling more alarmed than he had felt in a long time the Water Tribe chief shouted to his men to make the ship go faster.
By the time the ships reached the shore, the children were already halfway through making camp. A tent had been set and Katara had disappeared inside with Aang. Toph had set her own earth tent while Zuko, Sokka and Lia were saying goodbye the Earth King. Finally Zuko decided to break the silence.
“Do you think Aang will be okay?” he asked Lia hesitantly. She gave him a grave smile.
“I hope so,” she said. “But I have a feeling that his connection with the Universe is broken. I can’t sense him in the Spirit World.” Sokka looked at her confused.
“But that’s good right?” he asked. “I mean if you felt him there wouldn’t he be considered… I don’t know. Dead?” he gulped audibly thinking of the prospect. Lia opened her mouth to answer him but closed it again as the Water Tribesmen with Hakoda on the lead approached them. Unconsciously she drew closer to Zuko.
Sokka turned to see what had made her look uneasy all of a sudden and his face brightened with a smile.
“Dad!” he exclaimed as he rushed towards the man. Hakoda smiled at his son and hugged him briefly.
“I’m glad to see you managed to find Katara,” he said Glancing at the rest of the teens he asked his son: “Won’t you introduce me to your friends?”
“Of course!” Sokka beamed. He dragged Toph forward. “This is Toph.” The little girl yanked her shoulder free.
“Greatest earthbender of the world at your service,” she said with a small, mocking bow. “Can I go now Snoozles?” Sokka’s face turned red at the mention of his nickname and the laughs it got out of the men.
“And these are Lia and Zuko,” he said annoyed, gesturing at their general direction. Lia merely waved at Hakoda but Zuko approached him, giving a small bow to the man. It wasn’t just that he was the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. He also happened to be his girlfriend’s father.
It took the sharp intakes of breath from the man to realize his stupid mistake. He had bowed, out of habit, Fire-Nation style. After a short tense silence Hakoda decided to speak.
“I hope there is a good reason that the prince of the Fire Nation is traveling with you,” he told Sokka in a disapproving way. His son frowned and opened his mouth to retort when Katara’s cold voice was heard.
“Because he is on our side,” she said, pointedly standing next to him. Her face was worn and she was tired from the multiple healings Aang’s condition required, but it only served to strengthen her glare. “Besides,” she continued turning her back to her astonished father, “as soon as Aang masters earthbending he will need a firebending teacher.”
After a quick lunch, which Lia had prepared, having all but ordered Katara to rest, and a quick description of what had happened in Ba Sing Se, Hakoda brought a map and together with Sokka they were trying to figure what their next move would be.
“We need to leave here,” the chief insisted, “There’s no point in staying. The Fire Nation is bound to send ships this way. It’s the fastest route to Ba Sing Se.” Sokka nodded.
“Zuko!” he called. Hakoda frowned. He didn’t trust the young firebender, despite the fact that he had turned his back to his family to help the Avatar. As soon as he sat next to him, Sokka asked: “How long do you think we have until the Fire Nation knocks on our door?”
“The Western fleet controls a lot of ports nearby,” Zuko said thoughtfully. “I think we would have a week at most until they arrive at the bay. Knowing Azula she will probably demand the presence of the entire fleet to support the occupation, if only to show off.” Sokka’s hopeful expression fell.
“We can’t pass unnoticed through the entire fleet!” he whined. Zuko seemed deep in thought.
“We don’t have to,” he said finally. Raising a hand to silence any questions he continued. “We can take over a ship, preferably one of the last of the fleet and use it as a disguise.” Hakoda looked at him doubtful.
“And how do you propose we do that?” Zuko opened his mouth and closed it again as if having thought of something. Quickly excusing himself he ran to where the girls were sitting and began a conversation that mostly involved him asking them questions. After a few minutes he returned, a satisfied grin on his face.
“The girls say it’s doable,” he announced. Spreading out a map he pointed at a narrow spot near the opening of the Bay. “An entire fleet will take a lot of time to cross such a narrow point. By sundown or at early night there will still be a few ships left to cross. Katara and Lia can raise a mist and Toph create a few reefs. Fire Navy captains know better than endangering their ships on such occasions. They will stop for the night.”
“That’s when we sneak in and take over a ship!” Sokka exclaimed exited. “That might actually work!” He slapped Zuko in the back, making him wince a little. Still Hakoda look thoughtful.
“Are you sure that three girls will be able to pull this through?” he asked. Both boys looked at him shocked.
“Dad,” Sokka began tentatively, “they are all Masters on their elements. You wouldn’t exactly want them to hear you doubting their abilities. If they say they can, then they can.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence Snoozles,” Toph called from where they were sitting, planning out their attack.
A guard was posted on the highest cliff and the Water Tribe ships were camouflaged safely. It only took five days for the first ships to appear from the horizon. Immediately the whole camp was set on alert. Anything that would be needed was packed and loaded on Appa along with Aang, carefully tucked in Katara’s sleeping bag. The girls had placed themselves on the riverbank, while the warriors remained hidden. They waited all day as ship after ship passed before them. Toph was beginning to feel restless. Finally at sundown the last ship appeared. It was a relatively big cargo ship, able to carry everyone.
Lia and Katara shared a nod before taking their stances. Slowly a mist started to rise from the water. When visibility reached minimum Toph made a few pointed rocks emerge from the water. A few shouted orders were heard from the ship and it slowly came to a halt. Silently the warriors approached them. Moving closer to the ship they climbed from the sides with expertly mastered only after many battles. Zuko followed them with Toph clinging in his back. Earthbending would make way too much noise.
A few hours later:
Hakoda breathed a sigh of relief. The prince’s plan had worked and now the ship was under their command and sailing towards the sea again. None of his men had been injured and it was impressive to say the least seeing a team of Masters working on their respective elements. The children had retreated to their rooms after making sure everything was secure and Katara had given another healing session to the unconscious Avatar.
The next morning came only too early for some. When Hakoda and Sokka stumbled half-asleep on deck the sound of fire alerted them immediately. To their surprise they saw Zuko and Lia wearing Fire Nation armors practicing a few moves. Or more like Zuko doing the move again and again with Lia correcting him. Sokka scratched his head.
“Uh… guys?” he asked hesitantly. They two benders looked at him surprised. “Why are you wearing these things?” Zuko shrugged.
“Just in case we’re intercepted by another Fire Nation ship,” he explained. “It will look suspicious if they see people dressed in Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe clothes, don’t you think?”
“Plus,” Lia added, “I’m sick of green.” She looked at her dark red uniform satisfied.
“Where did you find them?” Hakoda asked thoughtfully.
“On a storage room next to the one with the weapons,” Lia explained. “I think there might enough for everyone.”
Indeed soon enough all men were dressed in Fire Nation armors. Sokka had grumbled on how much they weighed until he saw Lia do a backflip to avoid Katara’s waterwhip (they were practicing) and shut up to salvage some of his pride. The gang had broken now that they were on board. Zuko had disappeared to the coal room and since then they were going steadily faster. Katara was showing Lia some waterbending moves after the Spirit’s request and Toph was practicing on a small piece of scrap metal she had found. Seizing the opportunity Sokka went to the navigator’s room and spread out on the table his plans for the invasion. Without the Earth King’s support he would have to reorganize the whole thing again.
By nighttime most of them were dead on their feet. Katara dragged herself to her room after healing Aang again. She was getting worried that the boy was still unconscious but his injuries were slowly beginning to look better after the multiple healings so she held hope. She paused briefly in front of Lia’s half-open door. The redhead was sitting on the floor writing down something that looked like a very complex diagram. Judging by the amount of parchment around her it wasn’t her first try. Knowing better than to disturb her, the waterbender returned to her room and threw herself to bed. Only to have a very nasty surprise. She couldn’t sleep.
Three nights later Katara was fighting insomnia. She had silently agreed with Zuko to continue letting everyone to believe that they were just good friends. She was beginning to tire of the secrecy though. When they had been traveling together, she could almost always find an excuse to stay alone with him and then in Ba Sing Se they would meet always at the Lower Ring, where Lia and Iroh were more than understanding and left them on their own. She had grown so accustomed to acting as his girlfriend around Zuko, that she was now finding it tormenting to hide her true feelings. The ship was so big, she had been certain they would be able to sneak somewhere and be alone. How wrong she had been… And to make matters worse, Zuko’s room was just at the end of the corridor, very near to her own.
Her thoughts kept going in circles as she tossed and turned on her bed. Finally, frustrated, Katara shot standing. She pulled on a robe over her nightgown and left her room. She was probably acting like some crazed teen girl and not at all like a strong waterbending master, but she felt as if she would burst if she didn’t see Zuko now. Silently she walked through the corridor, debating all the way with herself. However, when she reached his door she opened it without the slightest hesitation, thankful it didn’t make noise. Katara closed the door behind her and turned to face the room. Zuko was lying on his bed, seemingly asleep. She felt her heart sink. But then again, she berated herself, what was she expecting? For him to suffering the same insomnia she did? He was helping around all day, never stopping to take a breath. He was probably dead on his feet by nightfall.
Zuko was lying with his eyes close, trying to get some much-needed sleep. It was the third night he couldn’t sleep. Being around Katara so much, it was almost tormenting for him. He wanted to kiss her, after seeing her almost every day on Ba Sing Se; he couldn’t imagine how he had been able to be for so long thinking of her as his enemy. And now they were together, but he couldn’t embrace or kiss her as he wanted in fear of giving away their secret. All of a sudden he felt another presence inside his room. Sitting up, he saw Katara’s figure half-turned towards the door. He stood up silently, approaching her, feeling a sense of wonder rising through him. Had he finally fallen asleep and now his subconscious was torturing him? He had to touch her, feel for himself if she was real.
Katara felt a light touch on her shoulder and jumped guiltily to face Zuko.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t have bothered you. I’ll…I’ll just go now.”
“You are real!” Zuko whispered, more to himself. She didn’t seem to hear him as she turned to open the door. “Katara wait,” he asked her softly. The waterbender turned slowly to meet his eyes. “Why have you come here?” he asked her. She blushed crimson.
“I missed you,” she tried to explain, playing nervously with her hair. She was suddenly feeling very self-conscious, standing there on her nightclothes. “I couldn’t sleep and…” she stammered again. “I don’t know why I came. I suppose I just wanted to see you.” She tried again to leave but Zuko embraced her tightly from behind, preventing her.
“I missed you too,” he whispered on her ear, making shivers run through her spine. “Don’t leave Katara, please,” he asked her, still holding her close. Katara swallowed. Suddenly her mouth had gone dry.
“I won’t,” she managed to say. She felt his hands sliding down her sides until they reached her waist. Tenderly the prince turned her to face him again, drinking in her features. Katara took a step and felt her back touch the door. She looked up to see Zuko leaning down to her. She didn’t have time to think any more, because now his lips were on hers on a deep, passionate kiss. She kissed him back feeling a fire rising inside her. They broke away only too soon.
“I love you,” Katara whispered resting her forehead against his.
“I love you too,” he whispered back hoarsely. Now that he was sure she was here he felt like he couldn’t stay away from her. “Will you stay with me?” he asked her hesitantly.
Katara blushed furiously. She didn’t want to leave him either, but to spend the night together… She didn’t dare to imagine what everyone would say if they found out. She definitely shouldn’t stay. She shouldn’t have come on the first place. And the moment she raised her head to answer him, she knew she shouldn’t have done that either. There he was, his golden gaze full of emotions. Katara had always found it fascinating to read his eyes. They told her all those things that Zuko was normally too shy to say himself. Right now she saw the hope and to her surprise a little fear. She realised that Zuko too knew how improper this was, but still he needed her. They both needed each other. Her presence there was proof enough.
Zuko looked at the girl he loved hesitantly raising her eyes to meet his. He knew he was probably asking her too much. He searched her eyes. If he saw there the tiniest bit of hesitation, he wouldn’t insist. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked her on the first place. The prince let himself sink on the blue of Katara’s eyes. Surprised he saw no hesitation in them. She needed the closeness as much as he needed it and was willing to accept it. As if to confirm his thoughts Katara told him:
“I’d love to.”
They laid down on the bed, still in each other’s arms. Katara brought Zuko’s face down near hers and kissed him softly once more. Then she rested her head on the crook of his neck, feeling all of a sudden relaxed. Zuko turned his head a little to face her. She was looking up at him, her eyes already half-closed. He also felt the tension leaving his body.
“Good night,” he whispered before falling into a peaceful deep sleep at last.