The Price of Peace

Summary – Sozin's War has ended. Five years since the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai, the survivors work toward peace. But diplomacy and progress is threatened by the internal strife of the Fire Nation – a distant relative's claim to the throne. Vicious attacks have been launched against all nations in an effort to discredit Zuko, now Fire Lord. Always shrewd, Iroh convinces Zuko to marry to secure the throne.

A/N – Avatar belongs to Nickelodeon and its creators. No copyright infringement intended. This is my first Avatar fic, so I am learning the ropes. Many thanks to for a resource page. Ships include Zutara, Iroh/OFC, and Aang/Meng.

Warning There is an attempted non-con scene in this chapter only. It deals with the OFC. It is very minimal and not explicit.

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Chapter One --

Reading the report, Iroh ran a hand over his bearded face warily. Qiang's supporters had shown no mercy. Their attacks were becoming more spectacular and more deadly, designed to discredit Zuko and the Fire Nation. The village beneath Mt. Mahaku had fallen victim to his cousin's descendant, a madman who claimed to be Ozai's successor. A memory danced to the surface. He and Zuko had been in pursuit of the Avatar. The old fortuneteller had offered to tell his fortune and he had refused, telling her that there was only one mystery left for him.

The citizens of the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation were restless. The political landscape of their world was becoming increasingly hostile. Zuko had better act quickly. The threat to his throne was very real. The other nations still distrusted the Fire Nation, even five years after the end of the war Sozin had started so long ago.

Iroh closed his eyes and bowed his head. In all his years, he had never known a day's peace. He had been born into war – lived it and breathed it as though it were a way of life. Even now, he had difficulty with the concept of peace. I seemed as elusive as ever.

There were those who did not recognize Zuko as Fire Lord. His banishment along with his subsequent "betrayal" of his nation tainted his rule. There were those of the other nations that would never trust Zuko, even after the generous reparations the Fire Nation had paid. He had turned against his own father and sister, helping the Avatar into the palace and putting an end to the war. The Fire Nations' treasury was near bankrupt, but reparations would never be enough to ease the guilt. How did one pay for a hundred years of war?

The Fire Nation was divided, standing on the brink of civil war. The warmongers, the ones who could not imagine a life without war, rallied to Qiang's cause, declaring him the rightful Fire Lord of a once proud nation. The others stood aside -- too tired to fight any more battles. This generation deserved peace and his nephew had been charged with keeping that peace.

They forgot that he was the rightful heir to the throne. If it weren't for him, Zuko would have been put to death for killing his sister and betraying his father. Iroh had had to walk a fine diplomatic line to see his nephew seated on the throne – his rightful place.

Qiang had been furious, rallying wayward warriors to his cause and carrying out deadly terrorist attacks against the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. They had even targeted their own people.

A great wave of unrest had rippled across the lands ever since the attacks. Qiang had to be stopped. The throne needed to be secured. The people were losing faith. Zuko needed to act.

"No!" a shrill voice cried out.

The unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh followed next. Cruel laughter echoed against the walls.

"I want what I paid for, Earth Kingdom whore!"

Flinging some coins onto the table, Iroh pulled his cloak over his head and walked into the courtyard to find a group of young Fire Nation soldiers standing around.

"Please!" a quivering voice pleaded.

Iroh pushed his way through the crowd, the soldiers so transfixed with the scene in front of them that they did not notice him.

"See how she begs!" a soldier shouted, which was quickly followed by rambunctious laughter.

He made his way to the front and gasped at what he saw.

The woman screamed as her clothing was torn from her body.

The soldier growled and undid his trousers, uncaring and immodest as he exposed his buttocks to the crowd. He had the woman pinned beneath him.

With little effort, Iroh widened his stance and made a subtle sweeping movement with his hand. He watched in satisfaction as the attacking soldier yelped and jumped up, swatting at his ass as though it were still on fire. He smirked. He hadn't actually set the soldier on fire. He had just given him a little shock.

Their entertainment ruined, the soldiers pinpointed the source of energy and immediately started jeering at him.

"Asshole!"

"Bastard!"

"Who do you think you are!" one voice yelled.

He whipped the hood of his cloak back, exposing his identity and the markings of respected rank. The response was immediate. Most of their tanned faces turned a deathly pale, one of the soldiers even passing out.

"Gen-General Iroh!" a soldier to his left gasped. "W-we –"

Giving the lieutenant a stern glare, he took his cloak off and covered the cowering woman. Her dark raven hair shielded one breast as her hand cupped the other. Even bruised and battered, she was exquisite, reminding him of a painting he had enjoyed gazing at as a small boy.

The perpetrator put his clothing to rights and stood at attention.

Iroh held up his hand as the lieutenant tried to explain. "I have seen enough."

All the soldiers stood still and said nothing.

"All of you are guilty of a serious crime," stated Iroh solemnly.

The woman sobbed silently, pulling the cloak tighter.

Iroh sighed, unwilling to cause the young woman more harm. "Report to your captain. I will set your punishment at a later time."

The unit of soldiers hurried away from the scene.

Kneeling next to the woman, Iroh waited for her to stop trembling. "Perhaps you would enjoy a soothing cup of tea," he suggested softly.

Her eyes snapped open as though she had just become aware of her savior's presence. They were the color of a starless night, blacker than any ink he had ever written with. They were wide and swam with tears.

"I find a cup of tea very helpful after I've had a bad day," he said, repeating the invitation to the young woman. "After that and some fresh clothes, I'll take you back to your family."

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The next day –

"I have dispatched relief workers to the village, Lord Zuko. They should arrive by tomorrow. There are few survivors. The insurgents harnessed the power of a nearby volcano to destroy the village."

"And what of the search for Qiang and his followers?" the former prince asked, his tone deceptively calm.

The admiral tensed. "Lord Zuko, surely you realize with the reparations that we –"

Springing from his chair, Zuko slammed his fists on the ornate table. "I want results, not excuses! I am well aware of our nation's problems! I –"

"Lord Zuko," his uncle's calming voice rang out, "I am sure no one is questioning your knowledge, but the military is stretched thin and the aid may be too late. The Earth Kingdom has already dispatched relief workers. The attack happened several days ago. We only heard about it yesterday. There were few survivors. I have even received reports that the Avatar himself is there."

His uncle's words did little to soothe him, but he adhered to the elder's wisdom and nodded his acknowledgment of the information. Nothing could console him anymore. The burden of his responsibilities would break a lesser man.

"Send what aid we can," announced Zuko, waving a dismissive hand. It didn't take long for the room to clear. Everyone was afraid of him -- everyone except Uncle Iroh, who was staring thoughtfully at him.

His silence disturbed him more than his lectures. "What?" Zuko snapped irritably.

"I was just thinking," Iroh replied softly.

Why am I not surprised? Zuko thought as he sat down next to the older man.

"Qiang will not give up or go away. He is a formidable tactician. He works to discredit the Fire Nation, to cast shadows of doubt upon your rule. The other nations are disquieted, concerned about the rumors of Fire Nation soldiers burning villages. You represent stability and peace, something generations have gone without far too long. You walk a precarious line, Lord Zuko." His uncle bowed his head and tucked his hands in the sleeves of his robe, a stance Zuko was all too familiar with.

"How so, Uncle?"

"You must rule with a firm, yet soft grip. The wounds of Sozin's war will echo for generations to come. People of all nations will look to their leaders to heal those wounds. They want security – tangible, visible proof of that security. Qiang's claim to the throne is a valid one. If Qiang staged a coupe…claimed the throne, I shudder to think of what he would do. If you were to secure the throne…"

Rolling his eyes, Zuko stood and started pacing around the table. "Our nation is nearly bankrupt. Our military is practically non-existent. And you want me to sire an heir?" With each word, his voice grew louder. Yes, he had concubines, desirous women that he felt very little desire for. His burdens weighed heavily upon his shoulder. He shuffled from council to council. He barely had time for a decent meal, much less time to enjoy the company of his harem.

"Not just an heir," his uncle continued. "You should marry. Take a bride of another nation, preferably someone of affluence, better yet, a famous war heroine. A dowry would be nice."

He stood there, his mouth slack, unbelieving his ears. He had rarely questioned his uncle's sanity, but he was starting to wonder. Perhaps Uncle Iroh was kidding. Zuko shook his head in disbelief, unable to believe what he was about to say.

"Fine," he stated, eyeing the older man skeptically. "If you find someone who meets those qualifications, I shall marry her. I'll sire so many heirs, they can grow up and stab one another in the back for the throne."

Iroh hid his grin as the younger man walked out. Whereas Zuko thought he was humoring an old fool, Iroh was going to take him at his word. He would present his nephew with a choice he couldn't refuse.

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TBC