"Maybe if they spent less than fourteen hours of their day meditating they'd actually have the time to install a stove in a few rooms," Mai said, half into a scarf. Zuko only slightly suspected that the scarf was concealing something sharper than her tongue. "God forbid a boiler."
She was folded against the plain wooden headboard, not shivering in a way that bothered him acutely.
"Then they'd have to import from the Fire Nation," Zuko really couldn't say he hated what that would mean for their economy. "And besides that, it would taint their ascetic lifestyle. As I understand it, they thrive on being as cold, hungry, and close to death as humanly possible," he grumbled, face buried in an awkwardly placed arm as he lay in an even more awkward position, simply because he was too annoyed with the universe to move from it.
"Maybe it's part of their meditation practices," Mai mused. "Eating raw roots encased in permafrost and sitting out in the freezing rain for twelve hours straight has to make it remarkably easy to pass out and have a vision."
Zuko smiled honestly for the first time that day, even if it was half into his arm.
They didn't hate the people of the Air Nation, nor their way of life. That much. Really.
This conversation was solely the best way to vent all the things they weren't allowed to say during a very long day of meeting and greeting. Sometimes one just needs a break from all that rampant.. multiculturalism.
A few months back, Aang had drifted (literally, his feet had not been touching the ground) into the Fire Nation palace and while staring dissatisfiedly at the heavy architecture and rubbing his arrow, casually invited a Fire Nation delegation to the event. Zuko had been dubious.
Aang had then attempted to break the tension by making a pun about the peace summit being at the most peaceful summit he knew, and while he was laughing awkwardly and pulling at his collar, Zuko had told him, just "No."
This would have been the end of it, had it been anyone else. As it was.. Aang had gathered up his drooping face, given his former nemesis a calm, accepting look, and then proceeded to make himself pointedly at home.
Now it wasn't like Zuko couldn't have sicced the guards on him. It would've been terribly satisfying, too, as there was a dozen or so, at least, standing achingly still and pointy-looking at their posts in front of each of the hall's obsidian black pillars. Just waiting for a flick of the Fire Lord's finger.
But eventually someone might have figured that out. Probably. It wouldn't have been a gigantic leap of logic. What with the Avatar's sudden disappearance during his visit to the Fire Nation, and the entirely incidental number of times Zuko had tried to kill him before.
So, instead of the guard flicking thing, Zuko had sat, hand on his chin, tapping a finger on his scar, listening to the surprisingly long list of Avatar Aang's favorite sight seeing spots in the Fire Nation. While babbling, Aang had interspersed various subtle suggestions that "if he was here a while", Zuko would get to personally show off each and every last one.
It was five minutes later, when the be-arrowed teen had suggested behind a very surreptitious hand that they go check out the Sozin's crater site to see if they could find anything "interesting" that Zuko had abruptly agreed to attend and stormed off to burn something really dry and combustible looking.
"And that is the reason why we're never having children," Mai had called to him, still on her throne, before giving the (now practically glowing) Avatar a sidelong glance and following her husband.
Zuko stared at their offensively small room's lone window (the one they'd slammed the rickety, paintchipped shutters on and barricaded with pillows) still unsure whether it had really been worth it. The Northern Air Temple had managed a brief moment of beauty as they were ferried up through the cloud cover, high flowing structures nestled among mountaintops, sparkling in the morning dawn. That had been the one and only second of their visit that the sun had given the fucks necessary to keep the cloud cover down where it belonged, beneath the ridiculous milehigh mountains Aang thought made a good living space.
And, in the end, it wasn't like he had to deal with Aang any less here. Not to mention all the other vaguely distasteful people that seemed to follow him around near constantly.
They'd been blissfully absent during Aang's Fire Nation visit. ..And at least there they had basic amenities. And, you know, the sun.
He glanced at Mai who gave him a look that directly intimated the fact that she was not sharing one bit of the bagsful of outerwear she'd been pessimistic enough to bring.
Zuko frowned, pushed himself up on the terribly small and hard but heavily layered bed and scooting his way over managed, with some amount of diligent effort, to stick his head up Mai's parka, overcoat, shirt, and undershirt. Collectively.
Four shirts – he didn't care what they were called, they were clearly all shirts – had never seemed like a good idea to Zuko, and he had informed her of this fact when she had dressed that morning.
"Yeah, now you've changed your tune, haven't you?"
"My ears may have. The rest of me has not."
Having gained a sixth sense for where she kept weapons over the years, he was relieved to find her blade-free as he pushed his face into her unfairly warm stomach.
Mai squirmed, "Mmgh, your nose is cold." She pinched him.
He breathed out, and it was just this side of preternaturally hot.
Okay. Maybe she could go a few days without a furnace.
"Subtle," she informed him. "I don't know why diplomacy is such a reach for you."
"This is purely for warmth purposes," his voice came muffled.
"Mm-hmm.." her tone was unconvinced.
A second later he bit her.
"You still sticking with that story?" her stomach pushed at him a little seemingly of its own volition. "Maybe you could try: you got hungry?"
"Increased blood flow is the best way to stave off frostbite," the curious moving bulge under her various shirts and other shirts said, very practically, she thought.
"And it's in no way motivated by an urge to taint one of their ascetic beds."
"I'm sure they were planning to burn the sheets after we leave, anyway," the bulge dismissed. This was, of course, practically tradition in the Fire Nation.
"...There is no way I'm taking any of this off," she gave one stipulation, squirming again for a different reason, as she pulled at his thick but singular shirt, cold slender fingers skimming up his back.
He gave a noise of protest, pulled his head out and licked at her veritably icy fingertips.
Purely for warmth purposes.
"Then why do I have to?" he asked grumpily, her ring and pinky fingers still curled into one side of his mouth.
"Because Agni likes you better."
This was a running joke. Mai had always been just a little resentful of her lack of bending abilities, and would only admit such a thing, and only under guise of being ironic, around him.
As far as Zuko was concerned, Agni could go find himself some other girl.
She nudged her scarf down, navigated herself on top of Zuko, and them both under the covers so he wouldn't whine so much.
"My ears are cold," she admitted, after a moment. Zuko grinned and obliged.
"So, I had a thought," said Sokka with just enough Don't even think that just cause we're not at war anymore means I'm not gonna totally bust your balls in his voice to make Zuko's brain start to throb, and most everyone else at the table all look at the ceiling and purse their lips. Katara was giving him a dirty look from the Air side of the table but he just went ahead and said it anyway, "Reparations."
Both Zuko's chin and eyebrows very slowly and noticeably settled farther down and to his right as he worked out all the ways that was so very wrong.
"…Is this what we came here for?! We stop just short of sole ownership of a power capable of decimating every other nation on the globe out of-"
"It kinda seems to me you already did a bang up job of that!"
Zuko spoke over him, "Out of the goodness of our hearts, and at immense personal risk to every citizen of our great state, and now you want us to empty our coffers so this moron can get the rest of his armor gilded?"
Iroh, were he not keeping track of domestic affairs while Zuko was away would have, at this point, suggested tea. Zuko kind of wished he was here, actually. For once in his life, he felt like some tea. And, well, the extra company wouldn't have been awful. As nice as it was to have Mai next to him, simultaneously thinking all the sarcastic thoughts he wanted to say aloud, she just didn't have that eccentric, old tea-pusher thing going on.
Sokka meanwhile was about to pop one or both of his eyes right out of his skull. What Zuko had been referring to was Sokka's helmet. It was, admittedly, a bit much for a peace conference. Though the long, winding sea monster engravings were surprisingly tasteful, for that sort of thing. The thing was, neither Sokka nor any member of his tribe had ever had the resources to own a piece of armor that was made entirely of actual metal before, whereas every last recruit of the Fire Nation got at least a helmet, and therefore this was a matter of symbolism and patriotism, and the resilient spirit of Sokka's tribe, and the fact that they'd always been better than the Fire Nation would ever be and were just now finally getting some material acknowledgement of that simple truth.
Sokka, therefore, took some offense.
His teeth grit hard, and he said very slowly, "It's clearly bronze, you hypocritical fucker."
"And I'm sure it'll do a much better job of protecting your brain than the eight inches of skull you've been blessed wi-umf-" Mai didn't so much jab Zuko's foot as lazily grind it into a paste. If she didn't get to say it aloud, neither did he.
Toph sat, her face a mask of complete lack of surprise, on the Earth side of the square table. She had already surreptitiously enclosed Sokka's feet in some of the ornate tiles that had been under them, the moment they all sat down. She'd never be able to get them back in the right places, but she judged stopping another global war to be worth the vandalism of some mindbogglingly priceless Air Nomad art.
When Sokka discovered the fact that he could not move his feet, his glare went straight to Toph, despite there being at least a dozen other earthbenders in the room. She waved cheerfully, not even bothering to turn her head towards him, instead grinning and shooting him a pair of thumbs up to indicate he was doing well on that winning a Peace Prize she had assured him would be a result of his attendance of the conference.
"Ass. Doesn't even know his metals," Sokka muttered in Zuko's general direction, trying to console himself.
Aang had already been up on the table neatly in the way of any sort of violent action before either party had thought to rise out of his seat.
Zuko glared. What is it with him and walking on all the furniture? I thought kids were supposed to grow out of that. I'm surprised he didn't try to climb up on top of the dais during his visit.
Zuko hated him. All war and past business aside, the kid just bothered him - like an itch somewhere along his spine, one he usually associated with unlit kindling.
Aang lifted his hands requesting attention much too politely for Zuko's taste.
"May I have the floor for a few minutes here? Uh, let's just try to think about any sort of reparations deal practically for a second, okay?" He was not met with resounding agreement, but didn't find that to be any sort of impediment as long as there had been no actual physical violence, or if worse came to worse, physical evidence of violence, as of yet. He laughed awkwardly, "Okay. Now, I am aware of and completely understand the resentment coming from pretty much this whole area over here," he waved generally away from the Fire Nation side. "But Fire Lord Zuko, despite making some mistakes, in the past," he looked at Zuko, apparently to make sure this was still true. There was always the possibility that he had incinerated whatever members of the three other nations happened to be closest and most convenient while Aang didn't have an eye on him.
Zuko didn't help the situation any, meeting his gaze at an angle, aiming his scar at Aang as an intimidation tactic.
Aang rolled his eyes very subtly, "..has proved to be an advocate of peace, and cooperation between the nations, yes, at great personal risk to himself, his family, and his subjects. We need to remind ourselves what was actually responsible for the last war, and we should take comfort that under current leadership, the Fire Nation's militaristic days are over. We don't need to put the past behind us," he waved his hand for emphasis, without thinking, and all of the delegates hair flew back a little. Aang frowned then pretended not to have noticed. "..but we do need to try for a better future. So…" No one was killed in that moment, and that encouraged Aang. "Let's just look at the present information, alright? The Fire Nation was just as depleted by this war as the rest of the nations were. Not to mention that they never had a lot of suitable farmland in the first place."
"Watch yourself, Avatar," Zuko warned, barely even giving the younger man a glance.
He didn't appreciate such things being broadcast to the three other nations so bluntly. Sure they probably had that general idea, but it was different when someone just came out and said it. At least they weren't aware of the more recent details concerning the Fire Nation's food situation.
"It's relevant, and I'm playing your advocate here, just bear with me…" All Zuko heard was 'devil's advocate'. "From what I've been hearing, what farmland they did have was made completely unusable by the effects of the destruction of Sozin's comet. None of the other nation's are suffering that fallout, which is a blessing."
Zuko forgot all pretense and his eyes shot straight to Aang's. They would have been blazing if they'd had any sense of dramatic irony. Aang stared back at him calmly. Righteously.
How could he possibly know? That little... floating... son of a...
Aang knew that the new Fire Lord would never, ever ask. That was why he had decided to bring the rest of the world to him. As an olive branch, so to speak.
Zuko briefly considered the option of turning the Avatar into ash right there, but he knew he wouldn't get anything better than second-degrees before Katara had dished up all the water in the nearby fountain to simultaneously put her betrothed out and sent an icicle right through the more necessary regions of Zuko's brain.
Aang broke the staring contest first, "Now they are going to have to start importing food and other agrarian goods to support themselves in the coming months. They have an excess of other very valuable resources to offer, things the other nations both want and need, as a result of shortages caused by the war. Every kind of ore is in short supply, even in the Earth Kingdom… But not in the Fire Nation. The whole place is practically made out of metal, and coal. Coal especially. Not to mention..." Aang glanced at Zuko, considering his next words carefully, "That the actual Sozin debris is an even bigger resource. I don't know what was in that thing, but I do know it burns ten times as hot as coal. And, strangely enough it doesn't make half the mess." Aang was especially worried about that lately, seeing the state of the Fire Nation's lakes and rivers as of late. Even the still living fish looked charred. The coastal fishing industry wasn't going to be doing any better, soon enough - the stuff was quickly making its way downstream.
A better question occurred to Zuko's mind: Where the hell did he get a sample? Diplomats were observed carefully. Aang had been watched from the second he set foot on Fire Nation shores, even the seconds he'd been anywhere above them. He'd never gotten close to the crater.
A glance was exchanged between Aang and Sokka, which made Sokka grin for some reason or other, and Zuko had wild fantasies of Sokka in some lab at BSSU blithely grinding the stuff with a mortar and pestle and giggling over bubbling test tubes and heat measurements.
"And the Fire Nation has smelting techniques for stronger metals, not to mention precious metals and precious stones unavailable in any other place in the world, a number of extremely practical, useful and completely nonviolent technologies. Combine those with some of the things the new Air Nation has been working on, and the help of an army of waterbenders out of hiding and looking for work in the big wide, world," he gave Katara a little smile, "nautical travel will be faster and safer than it ever was before, and the costs of international trade will go down tremendously. If we can just set up some even half-decent trade channels, all four nations will prosper." Aang looked giddy. "This is actually a huge opportunity for the four nations to work together to overcome the obstacles this war has created. And the only way we can do it is to rely on one another."
"Well, I'll admit I didn't see that coming," Mai pursed her lips, not looking entirely displeased, but mostly just confused.
"Him knowing about it, or him using it as some sort of strange leverage to get us all to make nice?" Zuko spat.
Mai rolled her eyes. Leave it to Zuko to look a gift ostrichorse in the mouth. Or take it out to the pasture and shoot it just for the statutory crime of being briefly owned by someone he disliked on principle.
"If he were smart he'd have called the other three nations here to set up a trade embargo. Starve us out, then just crush what was left and take the stuff," Mai said, subtly trying to point out that it was okay for him to accept a gift given out of sheer stupidity.
"Oh, he's smart," Zuko assured her. "How else could he convince them to save their mortal enemy? With moral platitudes?"
"Mm. Maybe he could get the governments with that, but they don't control the merchants."
"Exactly. No, he knew that peppering in a little enlightened self interest would be the only way to really get them behind this."
"That doesn't explain why he would bother in the first place."
"No... it doesn't."
So Zuko, given the opportunity for it during the recess (the one for careful deliberation, and also lunch), decided to go stick his finger in the Avatar's face for a while. He found Aang meditating on the rail of a balcony and not eating.
What do you know? said an unsurprised, imaginary Mai in his head.
The gray sky was sullen. As were the clouds settled beneath the mountain peaks. And Aang looked skinny. He'd always looked skinny, but he looked older skinny. Hunger strike skinny. Gaunt eighty year old skinny. Walking dead skinny.
Sitting dead, said the Mai in his head even drier than actual Mai could have.
It was obviously too cold to meditate or to make accusations, but neither Aang or Zuko really noticed.
"You're a liar," Zuko made his pithy argument.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Aang, sounding quite smug to Zuko's ears. "Right Speech is my most disciplined spoke of the Dharmic Wheel. Ask anyone."
"The other nations don't need us. If they thought about it for more than two seconds, they would realize it. They're just too busy fawning over the fact that the Avatar is actually talking to them."
"That would make things so much easier for you, wouldn't it? Not having to deal with your enemies showing you actual consideration? Even with your explanation of the situation, you've still got to deal with the fact that I'm just being nice."
Aang's eyes were still closed and his legs still crossed.
"Please, can you even hear yourself? You're loving this. You couldn't solve the war for yourself, so now you can save the defenseless Fire Nation in an act of unqualified compassion and make up for it."
"Alright, yes, okay," Aang finally opened his eyes, turning his head a little, but never actually looking at Zuko, and lifting his hands, conceding, but barely, "there is a selfish element to it." He reformed them in proper meditative position. "There's a selfish element to every good act. Ever heard of karma? It gets around.." Aang fidgeted then resettled and closed his eyes again.
"Don't dodge the issue." Zuko gave a snort and shook his head, "You know, you talk just like you fight. You may have mastered all four elements, but you're still an Air Nomad, through and through."
Aang blinked. Which had a little more meaning, when he had to open his eyes first to do it.
"...It's not like anyone else is gonna do it for me," Aang said quietly, unmoving.
Zuko narrowed his eyes, crafty plans and evil deeds welling up in them eagerly.
"...Speak up. No one likes a mumbler." He was just itching for a fight.
A frustrated breath escaped Aang's mouth, but he managed to hold his tongue, if only for a second more. His fingers tapping. He broke. "...I said, it's not like there's anyone else who can be an Air Nomad for me," Aang said, turning one eye on Zuko. His left eye.
"The Fire Nation made sure of that," Zuko encouraged him, helpfully.
Aang finally turned on him, almost laughing because he just wasn't willing to believe Zuko'd actually said that. It was just so ridiculous. And corny. And...
Zuko faced him head on. "You heard me. And you know why they died? It was because they didn't have the guts to fight back.."
And... "God, you can't even be a clever asshole!" Aang burst out, fire popping, crackling into his hand like it'd just been waiting for its chance.
A moment went by, in which Aang was torn between sending Zuko back to bald (and completely eyebrowless, that also sounded fitting) and wondering why Zuko was suddenly looking so... happy.
It was creepy.
Zuko managed to mostly hold back a smile. "Alright... fine, you can have your damn treaty." He walked off, stopping for just a moment to mention over his shoulder, "I just wanted you to know you still hate me. It's reassuring. For both of us."
When Zuko got back to the main hall, various young ethnically diverse children had been trundled out in native dress with some ragged hippies where they had all proceeded to jar the dignitaries various sensibilities with some creepy song about a secret love cave.
Mai gave him a suspicious look.
He hadn't managed to get the happy off his face. Even with the hippies added in.
"Did you incinerate the Avatar? Because I'm warning you right now, I am not helping you get the remains out of here incognito." She fidgeted with her various articles of clothing, "I don't have space in here for knives, much less the sizzling, charred bones of the Bridge Between our Worlds. Agni knows what would get that out."
Zuko pursed his lips. "Think you can manage the helmet?" he nodded at Sokka, who was glaring at the hippies. ...At least they could agree about one thing.
"...Isn't one of our bags just about that tall?"
Zuko tilted his head, analyzing. "More or less."
"Maybe before we leave," Mai shrugged one shoulder.
The hippies were dancing in a manner even the little children seemed frankly uncomfortable with.
"So... just how did the Avatar get that sample?"
Mai sighed. "...It wasn't me."
"No, but you know who it was." He wasn't angry. He just felt... like he was his father. For the first time in his life, honestly. But now... it, for some reason, didn't sit well.
Even if, in the end, they had parted well. No... well wasn't quite the word: his father bloody and blackened, out and out sobbing over the daughter he'd killed in a fit of rage. Not that she hadn't given as good as she got, before the end. Oh, she'd died with a smile, like Zuko had always known she would. "I knew you were still strong, Father," she had said, so... proud.
Even if a good quarter of Ozai had been streaked along the shiny black floor.
Their faces had looked alike, his and Zuko's. Puffy. Wet. Lots of veins. Over the same thing, no less, the ball of supernatural flaming gunk descending inexorably on their homeland. Inhuman muscle had bubbled across his father's body, as seconds ticked by and the comet came closer. Burns, almost smoking burns, everywhere, the smell was unbearable, his queue was all stuck together. Father had been alive, quite clearly alive and Zuko didn't even think that would've changed any time soon, but the look in his eyes had said differently. He was hollow, the fire burned hot on nothing, every thought empty violence and self-inflicted agony. He swore, without dignity, oddly like the deck hands that had taken it upon themselves to raise Zuko, in his father's place. The very floor beneath Ozai melted for no other reason than that he was laying on it. Zuko couldn't even touch him, for fear his hand might burst into flames. This had always been the price of their power.
That was when Ozai had set his son a final impossible task: To fix his mistakes. And Zuko had done it, not for the Avatar, not for the world, not even for his country, but for his limping, half-dead, half-melted house, to regain just a little honor, once and for all.
It was true. Every good deed was selfish.
"I may have seen an envelope," Mai offered.
She glanced to one side and admitted, "There may have been a tea stain on it."
"..So that was why he didn't want to come."
"He never was much good with confrontation."
"Kinda like someone else I know," Zuko replied, one side of his mouth drifting up. "Should've been born an Airbender."
"People are born what they're born. Life's boring, that way."
(A/N) Written because the thought briefly wandered through my mind that some Dai Li brainwashers had gotten ahold of Zuko during Lake Laogai, when he was all happy at the start of the season finale. Admit it, it was creepy. Now sure, he's still a teenager, and theoretically he's still working through identity, which was very well represented in the next episode (especially the "how drunk was I when I picked out the arrow tattoo" moment), but it's not like you can just drop all the crappy bits of your childhood on a whim. Thus, the choosing evil, which I was a little too pleased with.
I am firmly convinced that some people are just different. And no one's ever gonna totally get everyone else, cause if that happened, then they would literally be everyone else, and everything would get screwed all to hell. Or something. Aang and Zuko alone in a room for five years would equal a decidedly embittered Aang, and a slightly more tolerable Zuko. Or two dead bodies. Neither seems right. Osmosis is not ideal. Neither is polarization. Somewhere in the middle is probably plenty toasty. Which I think was what I was trying to go for in the fic.