Because it has to be said, I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender, or any of the names or characters of the show. I merely control them for my own twisted pleasure from this point in my story on.
Conquest: Part 32
The dream simmered somewhere beneath the haze of sleep and awake. He could see it hovering there, waiting.
It was a vision of the perfect world. A world where they were leaders of the people: they were respected and feared. It was a world where the Firelord ruled with an iron fist and where his people were supreme, as they should be. There the weak Tribes and the idiotic Earth were no more than servants, a great world built upon their backs.
It was what Dizon wanted more than anything. He wanted it more than compassion, more than understanding, more than freedom. He wanted it because it was his lord's dream that glimmered in the wings of Dizon's subconscious.
But things had to be done first. Revenge, he remembered, was a dish better served scalding hot in the Fire Nation.
A rough hand dislodged his half-asleep thoughts and pushed him fully into the world of awake.
"Sir!" a frantic voice yelled at him. "Sir!" Each exclamation was stressed by another push. It was freezing as Dizon fell out of his cot, trying to stand on legs that were stiff from exhaustion. Hands helped him off the ground as he used the shaky bed as leverage.
"What?!" Dizon snarled, looking up at the young officer who stood above him. The boy still wore his night clothes and his eyes were full of fear. The look on his face screamed desperation.
"Y-you have to help, sir," the teenager sputtered. "He's going to kill him!"
Dizon stared at the boy for a split second before rushing out of his tent and right into the middle of chaos. There were only about 200 people in his lord's army and they were all right outside his tent. Bodies blended together as excitement slashed through the air. Everyone was yelling, shoving, pushing at each other's shoulders, vying for a better look. It appeared they were all focused in the same direction.
Dizon pushed his way through, intending to break up the scuffle himself. As he burst through to the center of the crowd, Dizon hesitated for only a second as he took in the fighters. The aggressor was straddling a scout they'd sent out the night before: he had the boy's neck wrapped tightly in his hands, a chilling look in his eyes. Throwing himself on top of the struggling pair, Dizon used the element of surprise to pry the boy's neck from their leader's hands.
A mad scramble ensued as another body was added to the mix and the man beneath his arms struggled furiously to get free. "Somebody get the boy out of here!" Dizon ordered, not paying attention to whether or not anyone listened. Something had snapped his lord's temper and there were only a few minutes to get it under control before the man thought enough to use his bending to set the whole damned forest ablaze.
Dizon used every bit of strength he had to drag his struggling friend through the crowd before finally throwing him into the nearest tent. It took mere seconds before his lord regained his composure, rushed Dizon and hit a brick wall. He fell to the ground on his backside and glared angrily at his comrade. Dizon regretted being the one to stand between his lord and what he wanted, but this was ridiculous.
"Move, Dizon," the leader ordered furiously, one hand rubbed the blood gushing from his injured nose. The other hand was a steaming fist at his side, proving he was now coherent enough to use bending. Dizon wasn't a strong bender but he knew how to defend himself; he'd rather not have to against this particular man.
"Not a chance," the lower ranking man shook his head as he stared, disheartened, down at a leader he'd come to respect, but now simply pitied. "Not unless you can give me a valid reason why that boy deserves to die by your hand."
When an answer was not offered, Dizon took a breath. Temper, that's all it had been. His lord demanded respect in court, earned his salt on the open ocean, in battle, in the war room. No one had considered stopping him because they too respected the man enough to assume the boy had done something wrong. But Dizon had the authority to question, and so he'd been awoken. Dizon had known him for years, had been the man's best friend since childhood.
Knew the man had a temper to rival his father's.
Thank the Spirits he did know.
Dizon sighed, bending at the knees and laying a gentle hand on the man's shoulder, meeting his furious eyes. "What did he say?"
"A wedding," his lord spat. Dizon furrowed his eyebrows, confused. "He said they're preparing for a wedding!" The man screamed in fury and threw a blast of fire at a nearby chair. It burst into fiery pieces, but Dizon didn't flinch.
Oh, he thought. It was a smart move. A very smart move.
The small army that swore loyalty to his lord had obviously made it clear they were here to stop such a joining between Fire Nation and Water Tribe. They'd given the village three days to comply. Hold a wedding on the first day to draw an attack. An attack that would end in ambush.
It was designed to make them angry enough to do such a thing blindly. Stupidly. Looking down at his very angry leader, he knew it had almost worked. If he hadn't taken out his anger on the messenger, an order to attack might have been issued before Dizon had been awake long enough to talk him out of it.
And right now, talking him out of it was all he had to do.
"My lord," Dizon whispered, getting the man's attention by raising his chin with a firm hand."You have to listen to me: I know you're upset, but it's a trap."
The other man furrowed his eyebrows tightly. "A trap?" the man repeated. His eyes showing less anger and a glimmer of understanding. Dizon saw the information sink in slowly, and breathed a sigh of relief.
"It was intended to anger you." he said matter-of-factly. "You can't let them win, not this early in the game."
"But, the wedding..."
"What wedding?" Dizon asked softly. "It's a backwater town in the middle of the Earth Kingdom. I doubt any ceremony held here would be worth much." It was the right thing to say, under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, he hadn't foreseen the level of rage this had caused in his lord– a rage he saw now, burning deep within the amber of the other man's eyes.
"No," the other man replied quickly: strength was returning to his voice. Dizon saw both his lord's hands curl into fists. "We wait, but not two days. We attack early," he growled, looking up at his friend. The murder Dizon saw in his eyes sent a small chill down his back. "We make it so that there was no wedding."
Midori didn't know what was in the box, but it was heavy. He balanced it on one knee and finally grasped that the damn thing was as big as he was. He'd spent the morning supervising the steady flow of cargo and decorations on and off the Red Rain, before he finally grabbed something too big for him to safely carry on his own and proceeded to do so.
The dock creaked underneath his feet, and he made a mental note to take a good look at it later. He knew that if his mother or wife saw him carrying this massive box the least he would get was a tongue lashing. He didn't care at this point. Manual labor took his mind off of yesterday: took his mind off of his mother's tears, off his village's predicament. It let him exist with physical pain instead of mental for once.
The box teetered and Midori knew he'd drop it, most likely breaking everything inside. As he braced for the object to fall it caught on something and stayed. Surprised, he set the box on the ground and looked up into his brother-in-law's eyes.
"You okay?" Rin asked, out of breath. He had a small smile on his face and Midori's pride took only a slight hit.
"Fine," Midori answered shortly, bending at the knees and grabbing the box to try again. He noticed Rin was edgy, but thought nothing of it. They were all a little edgy at this point.
Rin nodded, looking around before questioning some more. "Do you know where the Admiral is?"
Midori paused, wondering why the man would ask, and looked up at him. "With the bride and her maids," he answered, managing to get the box off the ground and back on his shoulder. "Why?"
Rin swore softly. "I must have missed her." He looked back in the direction of the flower field and hissed in frustration.
Midori stared at him. He set the box back on the ground, deciding that whatever was wrong with Rin was more important than the box. "What is it?"
Rin looked at him for a split second, and nodded to himself. He sighed and stepped a little closer. "The girls were being watched in the field," he answered quietly. "There's a good chance whoever is after Katara knows about the wedding."
The blood drained from Midori's face and he took a step in that direction. His wife and daughter were out there! his mind screamed. He knew he should have gone with the younger men to help protect them! Midori stopped, took a deep breath and locked eyes with Rin.
"And the women?"
His brother's eyes went a little soft and he shook his head. "Didn't even know he was there."
Midori breathed a sigh of relief and let the news fill his mind once again with possibilities. He looked out over the town; he saw the people and the sad smiles on their faces. They too were using the work ahead to forget the immediate past.
This was really happening. But there was nothing they could do but wait.
"Here," Midori pushed the box into Rin's stomach. The man caught it with an "oof" and gave Midori a surprised look.
"There is nothing we can do about it right now," Midori said, a knowing look in his eyes. "Knowing about it isn't going to stop it from happening. Besides," he said with a sly smile, "your admiral knows what she's doing."
Rin nodded absently, before catching Midori in a displeased look. "Akemi told you, didn't she?" he demanded a few seconds later, his cheeks alight.
Midori shrugged and evaded. "The girls are safe for now, so, make yourself useful."
Hanae followed the old, worn trail deep into the forest. It had been argued over, heatedly, whether or not to allow the women to go out so far, and in the end her opinion hadn't counted for much. It had been Akemi's decision to travel so far out and it had been Akemi that the village had listened to.
It didn't hurt Hanae's feelings that much: this wasn't the Fire Nation and it wasn't her family. She would still protect these people for all they'd done, hurt feelings or no. They'd given Katara a safe place to stay and taken both herself and her crew in with open arms, despite the bad blood between them and the Fire Nation.
It was strange to meet a secluded town of people who had managed to get past the "mob" mentality of paranoia and hatred that always followed a war. She had contributed that to Dilou's leadership and had feared things would take a turn for the worse after his death. But that had been before Midori stepped in: the younger man was exactly that – young – but incredibly smart, with his father's knack for leadership.
Walking at a slow pace through the dark green of the pine trees, Hanae allowed their crisp scent to clear her mind of agitation. She kept her head up and her eyes forward because though she was trying to relax, she wasn't stupid. An attack would happen today, she was sure of it, however, there was no way to tell when.
A feeling made her look up, and she caught the gentle smile of a younger man from town, hidden rather well in the tree limbs above. He nodded in acknowledgment before melding back into the branches and Hanae smiled to herself. These people were well trained in guerrilla warfare, Hanae noted. It was an invaluable asset in this time of coming battle. The boy's position told her she was close to the field, and she wasn't looking forward to being that exposed.
Her fears were proven pointless when she heard the troupe of women walking her way down the trail long before she saw them. Their matching outfits and veils were silly looking, but Hanae was never one to question tradition. She'd found nothing but bad luck and even worse relations when traditions were meddled with.
The thought had her haunches up over Zuko. The nerve he had, sneaking into Katara's room like that! If she hadn't been worried about his role in the ceremony later she would have torn him a new one right then and there. She sighed and stopped walking to wait for the girls to reach her: she'd have to deal with Zuko later.
"Hanae!" came Katara's voice from one of the shapeless figures near the back. The other women nodded at her as they walked past, and two of them stopped, one holding a much smaller version of them in her arms.
"Akemi, Katara," Hanae stated, nodding to them both.
"Good morning, Admiral," Akemi's voice come from the woman on the right, a smile in her tone. "What brings you out here? We offered to take you with us, you know." She was trying her best to tease Hanae, and the Admiral played along.
"I didn't like the pre-qualifications," Hanae answered half heartedly, motioning to their outfits. "I merely came to escort you back. 'Any extra protection is well worth it', my father said."
"Something tells me Uncle just wanted you to come spend some time with us girls," Katara said smartly. Secretly, Hanae agreed, but she'd never let on to it.
She started walking and the two younger women fell into step on either side of her. Little Aki was half asleep in her mother's arms, the only one of them who'd taken off her veil. Hanae couldn't see Katara's face but she knew the girl well enough, or at least thought she did, to tell when she was distracted. She put a comforting smile on her face when she asked, "Are you feeling alright, Katara?"
Katara jerked her head up to look Hanae in the eyes. "Hmm?" she asked.
"Oh yeah, I'm fine," she answered after another second, waving her hand dismissively. "I'm nervous," she paused and then sighed. "I'm probably being silly, but I feel kind of torn about this whole wedding thing." She stopped, and Akemi put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Katara shook her head and started again. "I want to be excited!" she exclaimed, opening her arms wide. "I want to run around and scream because I'm so happy that it's finally happening! Zuko and I will be joined together forever..." she paused and Hanae felt her insides ache.
Hanae had known this was going to be hard on both Katara and Zuko, but the sadness in Katara's voice hurt her much deeper than it should have: she too feared for their most sacred of days.
"But I'm scared," the girl continued, wiping at her eyes through the veil. "I'm scared that it's gonna be over before it can even begin. That I'll lose all the people that are important to me: my family. My new one."
Hanae found herself at a loss: she didn't know how to comfort her, and was thankful when Akemi stepped in.
"Katara," the woman said in a very maternal voice, "this day is important. You can't fear it will be ruined. The Spirits have always been strong in this village, and would never let anything happen." Akemi then pulled Katara close and hugged her tightly. "We will get through this. Besides, you still have a honeymoon to attend, and I don't think Zuko would let anything ruin that."
Katara chuckled through her tears. "I don't think he'll mind, " she said happily.
"What?" Akemi asked, the teasing back in her voice. "Wear him out already?" She laughed when
her friend shushed her. "Oh, come on," Akemi said, pushing at Katara's shoulder gently. "I told you before: sneaking into the bride's room is practically a requirement; how do you think I got pregnant?"
Though amused, Hanae felt her anger rise and squashed it. This was Akemi talking and she knew her traditions far better than Hanae: the admiral simply had a pet peeve about them. There was no need to get upset at Katara because she doubted it had been the waterbender's idea in the first place.
Katara scoffed in response to Akemi's teasing. "I'll never live that down will I?" she sighed, the tears gone from her voice.
"Yeah, well," Akemi shrugged, "you have Rin to thank for that." The girls shared a giggle.
Hanae stopped dead in her tracks. "What?" she asked quietly as she turned to look at Akemi directly, trying to keep the death in her voice from laying heavy in the air. Katara recognized the tone almost immediately and stopped as well.
It took Akemi a few more seconds to realize she was alone. "What?" she asked as she stopped, looking back at them. "What'd I say?"
Hanae felt anger rise up and didn't keep it back. "Rin?" That bastard was making her life so hard to live these days. She'd woken up that morning only to be greeted with a all-encompassing panic when she couldn't find Zuko, and now she had someone to blame for it that she could actually harm in some way.
"Uhh, yeah. He told Zuko about the whole blindfold-rule-exception...thing." Akemi stalled, obviously not understanding what she'd just done.
Finally understanding where the awkward Zuko had gotten such a clever idea, Hanae set her mind to preparing a list of punishments she fully intended to exact upon Rin the very first chance she got.
"Did I just get my brother in deep trouble?" Hanae heard Akemi ask her Water Tribe companion.
"Yep," was Katara's knowing reply.
"My ship looks like a giant flowerpot."
A chuckle followed her words.
The complaint had been spoken in a low tone to her companion as the speaker stood tall and regal in the early morning light. Admiral Hanae's waist and proud shoulders were adorned in full armor but her ship was full of flowers. For now, she was only slightly miffed at the scented display: her love of tradition kept her from saying anything further.
Inside her heart beat slowly, her mind keeping busy. This wedding had her acting strangely and she didn't like it one bit. She looked out over the water for any signs of company not invited to the wedding about to take place. People were standing around them, noisy, excited, chatting, but she recognized all the faces and didn't worry about their intent. Zuko stood in front of her, nervousness written all over his face.
She couldn't blame him.
Closing her eyes, Hanae allowed herself to think about Lu Ten, and the excitement she'd felt at learning they would be married.
"My father tells me we're going to be married when we grow up," the preteen prince told her as the water of the palace pond reflected the moonlight in a dark rainbow of shimmers across the lawn.
The younger Hanae considered it: he'd never really thought about growing up or getting married or having children. She looked into the eyes of her best friend and he looked into hers. Suddenly, she blushed and turned away, covering her mouth with a hand. "I guess if I had to get married, I'd want it to be to you, Lu Ten."
Iroh stood beside her, quite comfortable in his best event robes. The crimson, silken fabric stood out amongst what the crowd wore, though none of the attendees noticed. He wouldn't show it, but he was excited. Ever since the Firelord and Katara had become friends he'd hoped this day would come. The two were well suited, he knew: the world was full of opposites, Zuko's hot temper, and Katara's cool one. Katara's need to show affection and Zuko's need for acceptance.
Most of all, the two just fit.
The old general smiled as he took a look sideways at his daughter and saw the tears glimmering in her eyes. He'd been very surprised when she agreed to be the leader of this ceremony, but he was also happy. It showed her internal wounds were healing, having never really even become scars. The wedding about to take place was a trap, but that didn't mean it wasn't a wedding.
He made sure those who were guarding were in their proper place, understood the men standing with him at the head of the ship were there for protection, as he was. The open space on the other side of Hanae was for the women who would accompany Katara down the aisle.
Iroh let his eyes follow Hanae's and he watched as Zuko wrung his hands together. The smile on his face widened. It was a long time ago that the general himself had been married, but he still remembered it being more nerve-wracking than any battle he'd ever faced before or after.
Zuko couldn't get his heart to stop pounding. He was stepping into a future he thought he'd be ready for, but now that it was staring him in the face he was terrified.
Would he be a good husband? Would he be able to pay enough attention to her while being the Firelord? Would Katara be happy as the Firelady? Would she be okay living in the Fire Nation?
Stupidly, he realized these should have been things he'd asked her before this whole thing started.
A hand grasped his shoulder, and Zuko looked into the eyes of the only man he'd ever trust to answer the most important of questions.
He'd been evil, though he hadn't realized it at the time. He'd been the bad guy, the enemy. He'd hurt Katara and her family, her friends. They'd been in battle, and suddenly, he wasn't sure anymore.
"Am I good enough for her, Uncle?" Zuko asked, desperately. Just then, everyone got quiet.
Iroh's smile made the fear in his stomach loosen a little bit, but his words tightened it three times over. "Why don't you ask her yourself?"
Zuko froze, took a deep breath and followed his uncle's gaze toward the crowd.
Music came from somewhere but the notes faded into oblivion as he watched the group of women come down the aisle.
Though the others were designed to hide Katara, Zuko found her among the other bodies easily. He couldn't see her face, but he recognized her walk, her shape. Katara's father walked in front of them, and he eyed Zuko with a hard look.
It took them forever to get to Zuko, he thought, but when they did, the girls grouped together, Katara hidden among them, but not obviously in the middle.
"Do you, Zuko, take responsibility to protect my daughter with your life?" her father asked. The words were said at every wedding here, Zuko remembered from the explanation, but Hakoda meant it. Every father did when he asked that question.
Zuko choked, found he couldn't speak and nodded furiously in fear his silence would be taken as a no. He found his voice, and said a little too loudly, "I accept the responsibility."
At those words, the girls split and Katara was presented. Hakoda bent down, lifted her veil just high enough to kiss her on the check, cupped her face gently, and walked to take his place beside the other girls.
Suddenly, Katara and Zuko were alone.
They were surrounded by people, and the danger that awaited them was still real, but they were alone.
"Hi," Katara said softly, and Zuko stared at her as if she was a spirit.
"Hi," he said in return and reached out only to remember he wasn't allowed to touch her until the ceremony was over. Instead he fisted his hand and tried to smile at her.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Hanae's strong voice flowed over the two, pulling them forcefully back into the real world. All eyes were on her and she didn't seem to notice as she continued.
"Today we take two souls, separate as we all are at birth, and ask to Spirits to join them together in a state of being called Marriage. In this state, it is the responsibility of both parties to care for the happiness, the health and quality of life of the other."
She looked down at them and Zuko gulped. "Join hands please," the admiral said.
The couple reached for each other quickly, and it felt like they hadn't touched in days.
"Do you, Firelord Zuko," the man twitched at the sound of his name, his eyes never leaving the girl opposite him, "take this woman into your heart, to love and care for her until a time when the great Spirits decree it is your turn to leave this world?"
Zuko looked at Katara, wishing he could see her face, knowing she was watching to see his reaction. He had doubts, but they were his own. He shouldn't be freaking out like this, because even he knew deeply that he wanted her for the rest of his life. He may not be good at anything like this yet, but he would. He'd do everything he could to be.
"I do," Zuko said, talking to Katara in every way and not his cousin.
Katara's heart leap high, and she tightened her hands in Zuko's. He smiled weakly at her, and she knew he'd felt her reaction. She knew this as the right thing for them both. And even if this wasn't a real wedding, it was real to her. Katara knew it was real to him as well.
"Princess Katara of the Southern Water Tribe," Hanae's gentle voice spoke to her next, and Katara took only slight notice of the murmur that ran through the crowd, "do you accept this man into your heart, to love and care for him until a time when the great Spirits decree it is your turn to leave this world?"
Zuko faces grew a nervous look, and he mouthed the words, "Do you?"
Katara's eyes were wet with happy tears when she nodded. "With all my heart, I do."
The smile that filled Zuko's face was the brightest Hanae had ever seen.
Holding back her own tears, Hanae took a steadying breath. "By the power vested in me, by my right as captain of this great ship, I now pronounce you man and wife, for the entire world to know and see."
When neither Zuko nor Katara moved, Hanae bent low to whisper into Zuko's ear, "You kiss her now, you silly boy."
Zuko jumped as if someone had pinched him and moved to do just that.
Katara waited as Zuko lifted her veil, and looked him in the eyes when he held her face lightly with his hands, and put his nose on hers. "I will be a great husband to you," he promised, unneeded.
"Just be yourself, Zuko, "Katara responded happily, "That's all I ever wanted."
When their lips met the crowd behind them burst into cheers.
Iroh was too busy watching the happy couple to see Hanae turn away. She wanted to stay, but when tears threatened to spill from her unwanting eyes, she had to run.
Hanae was known across the nation – the world – for being the most fearless and steadfast of soldiers. As she had barked at Katara's father in the midst of the frozen north, she was mistress of the Red Rain and the daughter of the Dragon of the West: she never ran from anything...
This is where my author's comments go! Enjoy!
Well, there it is: the one you've all be waiting for!
I hope you liked it ^^
Wanted to thank Chii for her help with this one: seems I just can't do anything without her.
(Chii's the same muse I've been talking about since WTMCO)
Already have some of the next chapter written, so, here's to hoping it comes out of my head soon!