A Cursed Blessing

BY : Yaoiandcoffeeaddict
Category: Avatar - The Last Airbender > AU/AR - Alternate Universe/Alternate Reality
Dragon prints: 6482
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar Last Airbender or profit from this story... damn.

THE DOMINO EFFECT, STANDING TALL UNTIL THE WORLD FALLS DOWN

The soft gold of the voluminous fabric glittered in the small rays of sunlight coming through the small window of the Jade Suite's sitting room as Iroh gently lifted the garment from its box for inspection. A servant had just delivered it along with a copy of the flyer the Dai Li were posting to announce the engagement and the garment Zuko was to wear at some type of engagement festival.

The custom-made attire was heavier than the wedding robes he was accustomed to in the Fire Nation and would undoubtedly dwarf his nephew's slender form. Small, creamy pearls lined the collar and hem of the dark gold part of the sleeve. Poking through the intentional slits on the long sleeves and at the end of the sleeves was a soft green fabric and below that fabric was a dark golden color that was almost orange- the perfect color choices for a wedding that would take place at the end of summer or beginning of fall... that is if the wedding were actually to take place then. He did not know too much about Ba Sing Se culture to say accurately if the color choice reflected the seasons.

Iroh carefully watched his nephew's reaction to the robe as he hung it on a hook on the wall where it floated on the sea of green wall. Zuko simply stared at it as Iroh poured them tea. The stare reminded Iroh of the many times Zuko would gaze at the ocean when they had been searching for the Avatar, only that gaze had been filled of determination. This gaze was filled with resignation.

After several minutes of drinking tea is silence, Iroh assured him, "I'm sure it will look beautiful on you, Prince Zuko." He knows that is not what his nephew wants to hear when he's already having problems with his masculity but Iroh knows Zuko needs to give some type of response or things are going to build up inside.

Zuko remained silent for several more moments before responding, "It's… It's really happening…" He paused as though debating as to whether he wanted to clarify what he was trying to say to his Uncle. "I'm getting married."

Iroh took a small sip of tea before replying. "Yes. Yes, you are." What else was there to say? That he wished Long Feng would allow his nephew a few more years before he was married? That he wished Zuko didn't have to go through this at all? Those types of answers would only make this situation harder on Zuko. "Nephew, remember that no matter what happens I am always going to be here for you."

The golden gaze shifted to Iroh. "I know Uncle. I know this is all to keep me safe." It was then that Iroh realized something about Zuko's responses since he came to the palace. The way Zuko had handled the young child's questions, the recognition of his short temper, and now this rationality… his nephew was burying everything inside of himself and was becoming a walking body devoid of spirit. Zuko's mother Ursa had done the same when she had married Ozai, trapping her feisty personality inside until she had become pregnant with Zuko. Then she had only shown glimpses when Zuko or Azula had been hurt in some way.

Iroh watched sadly as Zuko walked to the large glass window to the private garden, hating to see history repeating itself but powerless to stop it. "I love you, Zuko."

"I love you as well Uncle," came the flat response just before the boy… no, the man left the suite.

Iroh sighed and raised his eyes upwards and prayed. "Spirits, please let my nephew find happiness in his marriage." Only silence was his answer.

Sneaking into the warehouse had been surprisingly easy for Jet. Because the guards also worked a shift at Lord Mori's main house, all Jet had to do was tell them he was sent to check the animal's water and he was allowed into the white building without a second glance.

At first all he saw was a big white hairy back and a large beaver-like tail. Matted brown fur created an almost arrow-like pattern along the spine. The animal obviously needed a bath as the smell of smoke, animal droppings, and sweat clung to its dirty fur.

Then there was the sound of clanking as the creature turned its massive head towards him and Jet had to catch his breath in shock. He'd seen a creature like this before in his dreams and it was far more terrifying in person. Beady black eyes in a dark grey face watched him from behind white bangs with an almost knowing look, as if it recognized him. Jet's shock was broken as it gave a soft yawn and turned back to the other wall just as the sound of Lord Mori's voice came from behind him.

"…to do?"

Jet's heart began to beat erratically as his eyes quickly searched for a good hiding spot. Faster than he thought himself capable of, he had dived into a pile of hay in the corner of the warehouse just as the door opened to reveal Lord Mori and a man in high quality clothing trailed by two Dai Li agents. The large animal ignored them all and chewed on some hay from the pile next to Jet's.

The man regarded the creature with a disgusted look, his nose wrinkled as though he smelled something unusually bad. "It does not matter what I do with the… animal. The important thing is to lure the Avatar out of the city. When any of your employees ask tell them the bison was taken to Whale Tail Island."

The Avatar? Jet's attention was caught. Now this was interesting. What did the Avatar have to do with the animal?

The large creature stopped chewing its hay, turned its head and belched in the man's direction. "Disgusting creature," he commented as he raised his sleeve to fend off the smell.

Lord Mori stepped in-between the man and the creature. "What does this have to do with the Avatar?"

"You do not need to know. Just do what I tell you. Or was I wrong to trust you with this in the first place?"

Lord Mori, the weak man that he was, immediately crumbled. "No." Jet knew Lord Mori was a whiny brownnoser.

The bison bared its teeth at them as the man continued to intimidate Lord Mori. Jet noticed one of the metal chain links attaching the bison to the wall was loose. "Remember, Mori, you may be my cousin but I will not risk all the hard work of our family because of your mistake." Jet definitely did not like this guy. Not because of how he was treating Lord Mori- he could care less about that arrogant brownnosing noble- but this guy was definitely up to no good. "Leave this matter in my hands and call someone to clean the warehouse tomorrow."

"As you wish, Long Feng." Mori then bowed and left the warehouse as quick as he could without running.

The doors of the warehouse shut. The man then turned to the Dai Li agents behind him. "Secure the animal. Take it to Lake Laogai."

"Lake Laogai?" Jet repeated to himself, something clicking in his brain. His head felt like it was about to explode and he bit down a scream. That man… he knew him. He could clearly see him on top of the still blue waters of a lake, beckoning… actually ordering Jet onto the lakes surface. Jet refused and a metal chain ensnared him and pulled him onto the water.

He saw four figures reflected on the lakes surface before he found himself pulled beneath the water and gasping for air- the same four figures which usually haunted his dreams. The small shaggy-haired girl in boyish armor with a tall serious boy had been the clearest in features. The features of an old, fat man and a straight-backed boy with a scar were rippled and blurred. He barely had time to notice the hazy figures before the water swallowed him.

Then there was light. It was a bright gold against the darkness, becoming bolder and clearer only to fade again and repeat the process. It had been moving in a circle.

Jet's eyes snapped open. There was one word.

One forbidden word.

What was that word?

His head was splitting open.

There is no… what…

The bison roared in protest just as the two Dai Li agents took positions on either side of it.

There is no… what…

The ground was beginning to shake.

War.

War…

War… with the Fire Nation. Blood. Death. Smoke. Laughing. Horrifying Laughter.

Jet's scream was drowned out as the bison roared again as the Earth began to trap him…. Appa… the bison's name was Appa. Why wasn't he with the Avatar? Because of Long Feng. And Long Feng had done something to Jet…

Without even realizing why, Jet stood up from his hiding place and yelled, "HEY!" The three other human occupants of the warehouse were briefly distracted and Appa was able to break the earthwork off as Jet grabbed the nearest sharp object- a pitchfork. "Let the bison go."

Long Feng's expression went from surprise to fury in the blink of an eye. "Get him you fools!"

Suddenly, there was the sound of a chain snapping; then the sound of crumbling concrete as a wall of the warehouse gave way as the chain was jerked by Appa's teeth. The two Dai Li tried to use quick earthbending to stop the bison from taking out the remaining chains but one of the six legs kicked one away one agent and the other scrambled to help his friend.

"You idiots!" Long Feng yelled just as two more chains gave way and the warehouse shook. Only two more were left.

Jet saw Long Feng turn from him and take position to earthbend some type of containment for Appa and made the quick decision to throw the pitchfork at the outline of Long Feng's legs in his robe. The pitchfork hit. Jet wasn't sure where but the pain knocked Long Feng to the ground just as the last of the chains on the bison broke free from the wall.

Before he knew it, Jet had climbed onto the bison's back as it lifted off the ground and broke through the ceiling. Jet ducked his head into the dirty white fur just as the ceiling debris began to rain down on the three figures left in the remains of the warehouse.

When they had reached about thirty feet from the ground, Jet glanced down and saw from the air Lord Mori's shocked face. Well, that was one way of quitting his job.

Zuko watched the koi fish blankly. He just shut down as he watched them swim up and down, their calm actions sending him into a meditative state. It had been so long since he had been able to just forget, having focused for so long on his problems since his banishment, and he was so tired now- so tired of pretending to be the polite little princess for Long Feng so Uncle would remain safe, so tired of trying to appease his uncle's guilt for allowing their capture, so tired of trying to ignore the voice of his sister in his head mocking him, so tired of seeing his father's and mother's disappointed faces in his dreams, so tired of judging servants, so tired of stressing over whether he would like his future husband,… and tired of trying to forget that little bundle on the counter. He needed to forget everything or he would give himself an ulcer or something. Lu Ten had always said when he was little that worry eats the soul alive and now he understood what his cousin had tried to tell him.

Now, he just needed to focus on the fish and his breath. The orange koi swims to surface, breath in. The orange koi dives back down, breath out. The white and orange koi rises, breath in. The white and orange koi descends, breath out. Up, in. Down, out. He was not Prince Zuko now or the peasant Li or Consort Zuko. He was simply Zuko who just wanted... What exactly did he want?

The black koi swims to the surface.

What did he want?

The black koi descends.

"Is it not such a beautiful day, Prince Zuko?" came a soft voice from behind him.

A small smirk graced Zuko's face. "Yes, it is Kuei." A large brown head began to nuzzle his and Zuko breathed easier as he wrapped his arms gently around the bear's neck.

There was the sound of crunching grass as the man sat down beside him. "Are you alright, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko turned and looked at the man's calm and relaxed face and could not help but be honest to his only friend. "No, I am not." He looked back at the water. He sat in silence as he half listened to Kuei talk at length about different types of local animals.

Before he even realized he was saying it, he suddenly and softly declared, "I wish I were born a peasant."

Kuei looked taken back, clearly startled and confused with the concept. "Why?"

"Less obligation and expectation," Zuko responded as he released Bosco's neck.

Kuei's face still looked deeply disturbed. "I understand the customs of Ba Sing Se are tedious…"

Zuko snorted, "Tedious does not even begin to describe it." With a sigh, he elaborated, "But I experienced similar traditions and customs when I was a child. I think the problem is I've always had expectations to meet and then I was banished and I was only needed to live up to mine and Uncle Iroh's expectations." The orange koi had risen close to the surface again. "All Uncle Iroh wanted was for me to be happy and all I wanted was to go back home and my father to love me. Now, I know I will never be able to gain my father's love… I never thought I would miss the life of a peasant."

Kuei still had a confused expression on his face. "Are you saying a peasant has greater freedom than a noble?"

Zuko was surprised Kuei hadn't thought of the freedoms afforded to the classes, being a servant to nobles and seeing the two worlds. "Yes." Perhaps servants of Ba Sing Se's nobility were from specific families and that was why Kuei was confused by his statement. Maybe catering to nobles all his life had not allowed him to reflect on his freedom.

"I had never thought of that," Kuei remarked. "Perhaps your different perspective will make you the greatest Queen to rule over Ba Sing Se in many years. Now that I think about the subject, I find the many different customs too confining."

There was something about those statements that struck Zuko as odd for a servant to say. Who exactly was Kuei? He suddenly looked at his friend with a suspicious eye. "Kuei, you've never told me exactly what you do here at the palace."

Kuei lost his confused look and acquired a guilty one. "I'm sorry for deceiving you, Zuko, but I wanted to get to know the real you without all the double talk of the court."

A feeling of deep betrayal flooded his being. Zuko rose to his feet, naturally falling into a defensive stance. "Who are you?" Zuko demanded, his genuine anger rather than irritation flaring for the first time in many days. "Did Advisor Long Feng tell you to spy on me?" He could feel his inner fire ready to come out after weeks of neglect. He had thought Kuei was his friend.

Kuei rose slowly to his own feet and brushed some of the grass off his clothing. "You know, you're really cute when you're angry," Kuei remarked off handedly, smiling calmly and causing some of Zuko's anger to be replaced with embarrassment. "I'm Kuei, Earth King of the Ba Sing Se."

Zuko's feeling of betrayal increased tenfold. He could hear his sister's voice mocking him in his head. 'You always were a fool ZuZu. So absorbed in yourself you do not pay attention to your surroundings. You've always been naïve. You're a fool.' Bosco tried to nuzzle his legs and he pushed him away. He remembered the year after his mother had left and he tried to make friends with the son of one of his father's generals, only to have mud dumped on him when he went outside to play Pai Sho. His sister, her friends, and the boy had been there laughing as he dropped the Pai Sho board and pieces in the mud. 'To think anyone would want to be your friend, ZuZu. You've so naïve to trust so easily. You're such a fool.' He felt tears prickle at the back of his eyes. 'You going to cry now, ZuZu?'

Zuko swallowed his tears and turned his back on his future husband. "I hope you had a good laugh," he spat out. Then he walked away, ignoring the King's calls for him to wait.

It was getting late in the afternoon and after a day of doing nothing but laying on a soft futon it seemed like everything was just dragging on. The inactivity of it all was so irritating to Toph. She felt useless. It was like being home all over again.

Toph heard Aang sigh once again as he fiddled with something in his hands. From the vibration it made when he placed it on the ground, she knew it was his bison whistle and a little flash of guilt ripped through her. If she had been on a stable earth when Appa was kidnapped, she not only could have stopped them but could have felt them coming. She'd walked around the city poor parts of the city too many times to count, trying to find Appa's heavy vibration and while she'd found several well fed moose-bears and skunk-duck-bears, she couldn't find him.

Toph rolled onto her stomach and buried her face in her arms just as Katara walked through the door carrying something that crinkled, most likely groceries for that day's dinner. "No luck?" Katara asked Aang.

"No. Trying to find information in this city is like trying to find a penguin in the desert," Aang said as he returned to fiddling with his whistle.

Katara set down the bag in the kitchen. Toph had been right- groceries. Toph listened to the clinking of the opening of cabinets and the clinking of pans, then the sizzle of meat on the pan and the sound of Katara chopping up vegetables for a salad (mainly for Aang).

Heavy, irregular footsteps at the door signaled Sokka had just come home as well. "Mmmmm. Meat!"

"Yeah, I got a good deal on ostrich-horse meat at the market," Katara commented as she kept chopping, ignoring the choking sound Aang made when she revealed the source of the meat. "I would have bought fish but prices for them skyrocketed this week."

"That's weird," Aang noted. "Considering Ba Sing Se is so close to a large ocean."

"There is probably still Fire Nation activity outside the outer wall," Sokka said as he collapsed on one of the dining mats.

Katara stopped chopping and everyone was silent for several minutes, the air thick and heavy with implication, until Toph spoke up. "Katara, the meat's going to be overcooked on one side if you don't turn it over."

"Uh… yeah, right. Thanks, Toph," Katara babbled as she momentarily abandoned her vegetable chopping for the pan where she quickly flipped the meat over to brown on the other side.

Suddenly there was a rumbling roar from outside. It was familiar and for a second everyone tensed, trying to place the sound. It came from outside again and then they realized why the sound was so familiar.

"Appa!" Aang cried with joy as he literally flew to the door.

Dinner momentarily forgotten, everyone rushed outside. Toph smiled as the big lug landed and everyone grabbed the nearest part of the bison's body and hugged it.

"I'm so glad you're okay, buddy," Toph hear Aang mumble into the dirty fur. "Man you need a bath."

"Are you the Avatar?" came a new, male voice Toph had never heard before she felt the vibration of the unknown male jumping down and everyone tensing. "Wait… do I know you guys?"

"Jet," Katara hissed in a manner Toph only heard her speak to Azula before she pounced and knocked the confused male to the ground. Toph felt Sokka move a few steps forward and arm himself, ready to take on this newcomer as Aang shifted into a fighting stance, one hand remaining on his beloved bison. "What are you doing here, you murderer?"

TBC

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Nashmina: Thanks for the complements on my writing style! I have been thinking of becoming a true author after graduation.
Lady Hoshi: glad you like it!
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