Title: Borderlines - Part One
Series: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Word Count: 6,456
Summary: Three years after the war, the work still isn't quite done and the Gaang is scattered across the continents in their efforts to help the world recover. When Aang and Katara pay visit to the Fire Nation where Zuko is Fire Lord and Sokka acts as Ambassador for the Water Tribe, sparks fly between the siblings over Sokka's life choices.
Authors' Notes: We've recently gotten into the habit of writing Avatar fic reletively casually, just for kicks with no intention of posting it. However it seems every time we do this, it spirals into some stupidly long epic story which we show to a few friends who then convince us that we need to post it. That's exactly what happened with this fic which we started writing right about when TWAT came out (keeping ourselves busy while waiting for more Sokka/Zuko interraction until Boiling Rock FINALLY appeared). We want to point that out, since it was written pre-Boiling Rock, there'll be some details that don't quite match up. However, if you do see anything just glaringly wrong unrelated to late season three changes, please let us know -- just take this fic with something of a grain of salt since we really just wrote it for kicks. :D
Somehow, it wasn't so strange living in the Fire Nation anymore. He knew the land, he knew the culture and though he never quite understood everything, he no longer hated it. The country was still undergoing a huge change with the guidance from their new leader, and while Sokka never would have expected to end up an ambassador to the nation he'd once planned to destroy, he was happy with how things had turned out.
Perhaps more significantly, he never expected to work so closely with the young man for whom he'd held such animosity. Perhaps if he hadn't been contemplating all this, he wouldn't have tripped when the throne room doors were opened for him, ushering his presence with rolled papers that flew out in front of him and scattered the floor.
"Who decided to put a step THERE?!" he crowed, face down on painful marble.
Zuko chuckled as he stepped forward, the heavy robes of the Fire Lord sweeping out behind him. "I did," he confessed, eyes sparking with badly concealed, if gentle, mocking, "Just to see if you were paying attention." The guards politely averted their eyes, disapproving as their lord stooped to gather a scroll or two, tucking them under an arm as he waited for the young Ambassador to compose himself once more.
Sokka gathered himself and sighed as he dusted off, then offered a playful sort of glare at Zuko. "I should get my sister to freeze shut your chamber doors," he threatened as he retrieved his plans. He cringed when he saw the guards draw themselves up with angry eyes. "Kidding! I'm kidding!" he yelped.
Zuko waved them down with a vaguely annoyed flick of the wrist and turned to lead Sokka toward the center of the room. Gone was the lone, ornate chair set high above the rest of the chamber. The flames still flickered along the far wall, but a low, welcoming, rectangular table occupied the previously imposing space between supporting columns and carefully placed cushions adorned the reed mats that helped warm the marble tiles.
Zuko set the scrolls down gently and indicated a seat for Sokka to occupy before turning back with a heavy frown to the armored guards who had followed his steps. "You may go," he instructed simply, fighting a rising sense of irritation when the men hesitated, not bothering to conceal their mistrusting glances toward the young Water Tribesman. "That -wasn't- a suggestion."
Sokka sat up straight and looked at them quite imperiously -- probably not helping change the fact that they hated him, but it was just so satisfying. He ignored their warning glares as they bowed and stalked away.
"Was it this bad when you were just a prince?" he wondered, glancing at the Fire Lord.
Zuko seemed to consider this for a moment. "No," he had to finally, admit. "My fa-- Ozai ruled with fear and intimidation. And... in a lot of ways, it worked. It's easier for a soldier to question his Lord's orders when he knows he won't be instantly killed." He shook his head, the lingering traces of annoyance mostly fading when the room was clear and the door shut tight once more. He allowed himself a breath of relief. "I never thought I'd miss traipsing about the muddy back woods with no servants, little food, a rickety tent and only my uncle for company," he added, thoughtfully.
"I don't miss it!" Sokka laughed. "But then again, I grew up in an igloo so this is still pretty novel." He tossed a hand at the opulent surroundings. "We could always take a vacation to the South Pole if you get too comfortable," he snickered.
"The South Pole is -cold-," Zuko pointed out. "I'm not that desperate," he added with a sideways glance to the other young man as he began to unroll one of Sokka's scrolls.
"Hawkie brought in reports from Ba Sing Se this morning," Sokka reported, turning to the business at hand since Zuko seemed interested in it. "The good news is, the repairs to the outer wall are almost complete there."
Zuko managed to keep a straight face at the mention of Sokka's prized messenger hawk. For all the young man's military genius and strategy planning, Sokka's creativity when it came to simple things like naming a pet was... somewhat lacking.
He turned his attention back to the paper laid out in front of him. "And the Kyoushi warriors?" he asked. "At the time of your last report, they had not yet pulled out of the city, per the acting Earth King's request. Have they since returned to their village?"
"Not exactly," Sokka replied and there was some hesitation in his voice. "There's been some... civil unrest in the city and the Kyoushi stayed to offer protection to the Fire Nation relief troop camp. Somewhat reluctantly."
Zuko said nothing for a moment; he wasn't exactly surprised at the news; after all, he knew maybe better than anyone how difficult it would be for some --even most-- people to embrace the idea that the Fire Nation was no longer their enemy. After a moment, he sighed and stole another glance. "Did Hawkie tell you that? Or Suki?"
"Hawkie told me that through Suki's nasty letters -- I mean -reports-," Sokka corrected with his lips pursed. "I don't know how much longer they'll agree to stay as guards. We may want to see about sending some discreet protection for the relief."
Zuko considered this for a beat, elbows against the tabletop, chin resting on threaded fingers. He nodded slowly. "Given what you've told me, you may be right. Maybe a small group of Toph's disciples?" A pause, an odd, quiet chuckle. "Do I need to send you to Ba Sing Se on a short vacation?"
"Oh jeez -- no, please. Work me to death instead, I'll be much happier that way." He laughed, sort of. But it was an unpleasant and stupid-sounding noise. He paused and scowled, then sighed. "Besides, Hawkie brought me a letter about... I guess a month ago. From Suki. Saying that we were, you know... done." He did his very best to sound casual and shrugged.
The young Fire Lord blinked, having clearly not expected such news, though in retrospect, he supposed he shouldn't have been entirely surprised. Still, he couldn't manage to still his tongue from asking, "Why?" The single word was immediately followed by a flinch, and Zuko fought the urge to slap himself. He'd thought after three years that he'd have grown slightly more skilled at conversation than that first awkward day he'd joined the Avatar's coterie.
"Oh, you know..." Sokka was making a face. It was the face kind of face like he'd drank sour lizardgoat's milk. "A lot of things. She got so... -demanding- all the time. She wanted me to go back to Kyoushi with her or at least move further south. And then I told her about some of the stuff that happened between our meetings, while we were traveling... and she liked to throw that in my face every possible time she could. Because, you know, I ever expected to see her again after we left Kyoushi." Bitter? No, never. "All she did was criticize and try to convince me to leave here. But you know Earth people... so stubborn." He sighed. "Anyway, I'm not exactly broken hearted."
There were, clearly, more important things that warranted their attention, specifically the half dozen scrolls still laying unopened on the table before them. But Zuko frowned and looked away from them, fixing his gaze to an indeterminate spot on the far wall. "She probably didn't approve of everything you were doing for the Fire Nation" me "either, hm?" Zuko lost his gaze in the faint tracing pattern of marble as he reflected. He wasn't exactly pleased to hear that his influence, no matter how circumstantial, had played a part in the... romantic strife between Sokka and the Kyoushi girl; he sometimes regretted the new sense of morality he'd developed during the time with his Uncle and the Avatar. And yet... he couldn't honestly say he was, exactly, sorry either. What was that about?
"Well... obviously," Sokka muttered. "She didn't disapprove of the end of the war but she thought I was too close to things, staying here." He snorted. "It doesn't matter though -- I didn't agree then, I don't agree now. I'm doing important work with you -- and I like it here." The last part came out a little oddly, as though he stumbled over the words in his own head.
Zuko turned then, just his face, just to catch a glimpse of the expression that went along with the other's awkward, yet somehow endearing speech. "I too, value your companionship-- assistance," he corrected himself, frowned just a little. He moved on, too quickly to appear eloquent. "Maybe one day you two... will be able to reach an understanding."
"Nah," Sokka said with a shake of his head and a sigh. His luck with women was less than impressive. One was the Moon and now... "GEEEH--" Sokka mussed his own hair furiously. "Politics is much easier than women. Let's stick to those, right? HAH." He fell to the table with his cheek against it and looked up at Zuko with a pained expression. "Sorry I didn't mention it sooner. I was embarrassed."
"What?" Zuko smoothed the edge of a scroll with idle fingers. "Why would you be embarrassed?" The situation seemed perfectly understandable, and after all, it wasn't as though Suki had called it off because of anything stupid or embarrassing that -Sokka- had done. And he said as much. "Right?"
"I guess," Sokka said slowly and his brow furrowed. He found the dignity to sit up again, propping his chin on a fist. "It's just... I guess I just didn't want you to think that I'm a loser. Like if Suki didn't think I was worth her time, then neither would you." That had come out ENTIRELY wrong.
It was providence that kept Sokka staring hard at throne room doors, allowing the deep flush that stained Zuko's cheeks to go unnoticed. After a rather extended period of very awkward silence, the young Fire Lord finally cleared his throat. "You aren't a loser," he began, amended quickly with, "At least not for -that- reason." Oh good job, Zuko, make him feel even worse with your failed attempts at humor. "I mean, frankly, if you did all the things that would have made that... woman happy, I wouldn't like you at all." ALMOST what he'd meant to say...
Sokka paused. Considered. And then he laughed, turning back to Zuko with a grin. "Guess I made the right choice then," he said, punching the Fire Lord's arm in a fashion that would have had him beheaded were the royal guard still present. "You're more interesting than Suki anyway. And you've never made me wear a dress."
His face still hadn't completely lost its pink tinge, but the fire's light was orange and flickering and probably hid it mostly. "You looked -awful- in those Kyoushi robes," he commented lightly, then paused. "Unless you meant a -different- time she managed to force you into woman's clothing?" A faint, upward arching of his intact brow and Sokka became aware that we was being made fun of.
"I thought they were very slimming," Sokka pouted and then stuck his tongue out at Zuko, ever his age. "And there was only one other time, but there was a bet involved."
Mischief sparked in Zuko's eyes and a small quirk tugged his mouth. "A bet, hm? Sounds like... fun." The business at hand lay forgotten to the side as Zuko turned and faced the young Ambassador fully.
Sokka eyed him with suspicion and then grimaced. "I shouldn't have brought this up at all. I knew it was just going to give you evil ideas. Aren't we supposed to be working? I came here to work, you know." His voice was starting to take on that whining, complaining tone that made him sound ten years younger.
Zuko rolled his eyes, scoffing. "I wasn't expecting any of these reports until tomorrow anyway," he pointed out. "It was at your request that we meet early. We'll finish here with plenty of time to send off your hawks." Now that Sokka was an Ambassador, Hawkie Two, Hawkie Three and Hawkie Four had since joined the young man's little family of winged messengers. "Besides, if all you wanted to do was work, then why did you bring your sword?" He glanced down pointedly at the blade still slung on Sokka's hip, an allowance it had taken months to convince the rest of his guard and advisory was acceptable.
"I have a training session this afternoon, if you must know," Sokka said, lifting his chin haughtily. But then his eyes sharpened and he grinned faintly. "Your guards would skewer me," he pointed out with some idea of what Zuko was thinking.
"The walls are very thick," Zuko smirked.
Sokka lifted a brow. "Lord Zuko... do you want so badly to see me in women's clothes that you would endanger your very life for it? Because if it's that important to you, you just have to ask." Now who was teasing?
For a moment, Zuko's eyes widened but he was able, somehow, to recover quickly enough, and offered, instead, a rather evil-seeming grin. "Ah, but that would take all the fun out of it. And I do so love a challenge. Besides, if I win... I would much rather see you don your formal occasion robes --all 9 layers, yes-- and jump into the pond out front."
"And if -I- win..." Sokka drew himself to his feet. "You have to wear Water Tribe garb for a day, in court. I have an outfit from when I was fifteen that I bet you could just squeeze in to." His eyes were dancing as he drew his sword.
"Agreed," Zuko nodded and stood, turning with a flourish to retrieve his own weapons from their display nearby. They were meant to stand as a symbolic display of peace, but due to the Water Tribe Ambassador's visits, there hadn't been much opportunity for them to gather dust. Today's spar was different, though. There was a charge in the room, and the added incentive of the bet laid down urged extra energy to both players' movements. Zuko cocked his head, pointed a single blade at Sokka's throat, then grinned. "Come."
Sokka's faithful heavens-wrought blade flashed dark and weapons clanged. The sound echoed deliciously on the stone walls and fueled their spar, all thoughts of plans and scrolls vanished. "Is that throne making you rusty yet, Zuko?" Sokka baited with a grin, steps measured and calculated.
"Ha!" Zuko countered, spinning and parried Sokka's next lunge easily, despite the heavy robes that dragged at his limbs. "Only as much as does the time you spend shopping for birds and purses!"
"It's not a purse!" Sokka countered, offended in a way that made his voice lift an octave. "It's a BAG!"
Zuko's movement was impressive -- Sokka had the advantage, his clothes much more conducive to movement and not quite as formal as the Fire Lord's fine robes. But Zuko was nonetheless artful in his steps as though he'd learned the art itself in such wear and instead of hampered, they seemed ceremonial, beautiful even. Distracted by the fact, Sokka dodged only at the last moment out of the way of the arc of a blade.
A ripple of laughter followed his stumbling dodge and Zuko pressed forward, emboldened by the near strike. "Looks like a purse to me." A shrug and a backward hop put him out of reach of Sokka's blade, but Zuko had overestimated the effect that his teasing would have. A quick scowl later, the Water Tribe boy was rapt with concentration once more, lunging and dodging in a series of fluid movements that loosened his hair but accentuated the stretch of muscle down bare arms, tanned and smooth with only a hint of sheen to show he was employing any effort at all.
Sokka's grin returned as he managed to force Zuko back a few steps. There was a familiarity in their dance, bodies and blades that had met many times under these terms. He knew the expression that came with Zuko's right feint and Zuko knew his habitual opening when he swung low. They knew the right point to strike on each blade to buy a moment's time.
"It's really too bad you're Fire Lord," Sokka mused, blocking a high strike.
Zuko spun away, swinging and dropped low to take a swipe at the Water Tribe man's knees. "And why is that?" he asked, catching Sokka's knuckles with the flat of his second blade as the other parried his first.
Sokka shook his hand -- Zuko was good. If this had been a true battle, he would have lost a few fingers. But then, Zuko also had -two- swords which Sokka frequently whined about. Not today, though. The Fire Lord blocked a strike aimed for his chest and they backed away, rounded, waiting. "Because otherwise we really -could- go on a vacation," Sokka grinned. "Since Suki's out of the picture."
This casual pronouncement was enough to make Zuko stumble just briefly, barely avoiding a blow that would have struck his ear hard enough to deafen him. Instead, Sokka's blade caught the shining ring of gold that circled the Fire Lord's top knot and knocked it free to skid across the marble with a metallic clatter. Zuko's loosed hair fell around his face, just barely touching his shoulders and framing his jaw in fine black fringe. "I thought you only wanted to work, work, work," Zuko sniped back, punctuating the repeated word with a series of quick blows.
It was a struggle to block the passionate stab of Zuko's blade but Sokka managed, barely, dropping down to avoid the final one. He laughed as Zuko's blade fell on him and he caught it over his head and they held. Swords shrieked softly. "I can make an exception," he said, grinning up at Zuko. He was panting softly -- it was a good fight. "If it's for something special."
Zuko frowned suddenly, not in anger, but perhaps just the faintest wave of discomfort, as though even with the other pinned and panting, it was he who was losing this fight. "And where would this 'vacation' take us?" he asked, as haughtily as possible, using the leverage of Sokka's upstretched arm to propel backward, landing lightly, squaring off once more.
Sokka's grin widened and he was on his feet again, advancing on Zuko with a sense of excitement. "Where ever we wanted!" he replied. "The fire islands in the south sea or the mountains in the western Earth continent or the hot geysers at the North Pole!" He was striking with every suggestion and though Zuko blocked him each time with a resounding clang, he was driving the lord back. "Away from work and guards and prying eyes!"
Zuko knew he was losing ground, but he found himself laughing nonetheless. "In disguise," he prompted, caught up in the other's energy. "So no one would know who we were! No guards, no royal advisors, no preening supplicants, no prying women!"
"Brilliant! I'll have to find my beard." With a shriek of metal and a shove, Zuko threw him off and back and for a moment, Sokka was crouched. He was still grinning and his eyes were dancing and a bead of sweat or two had found its way to his brow. Zuko saw the tension that rippled through him and Sokka pounced like a wild boarcat, sword over his head -- and then there came a cry, but neither from Sokka's lips nor any human's.
The Water Tribesman was blindsided, and he screamed like a little girl as he was thrown to the floor by a wildly flapping bundle of feathers. The hawk seemed to be attacking him, but mostly it was just pulling at his hair and beating him about the face with its wings now that it had Sokka on his back on the floor. Hawkie Four wasn't very good at his job.
"How did you even get in here?!" Sokka shrieked as he tried to extricate himself from the overly enthusiastic bird.
Zuko stopped, frozen in mid crouch as he watched the clumsy bird slap its wings against Sokka's face. With the other swatting frantically and shrieking in octaves that should have been illegal, the young Fire Lord allowed himself a good laugh before finally crossing the space between them and shooing the hawk from Sokka's person. The creature protested, but hopped away, still warbling, as Zuko offered a hand to the prone swordsman.
"Does this mean I win?" he asked, that spark of mischief back in his eye.
"No!" Sokka protested in his pouting way as Zuko helped him to his feet. "It means we're going to eat hawk for dinner." He shot a glare at Hawkie Four which cocked its head at him, looking about. He sighed and bent to remove the letter from the tube strapped to its back and cursed the hawk as it struggled and squawked like an angry chicken. Sokka wiped his brow with the back of his arm as he straightened to read the note and his eyes lit up again, a huge grin on his face.
Zuko sheathed his swords, only a little reluctantly, as he stepped up beside his sparring partner and peered at his ecstatic profile. "Good news?" he asked, brow raised.
"Katara and Aang are coming to visit!" Sokka told him with a joyful laugh. "They're a week's travel away. They're going to start from here and travel through the Fire Nation!"
While Zuko didn't quite share the exuberant joy that Sokka displayed, he did find himself pleased to hear that the Avatar would grace them with his presence. It was gratifying to hear that he was still, even after the war's end, taking his role as mediator seriously. Zuko suspected that as long as Aang stayed attuned to the rest of the world, he would continue to uphold the peace he'd fought so hard for. And as the new Fire Lord, Zuko intended to help as well he could.
"Good news, indeed," he nodded. "Is there an indication of how long they will stay before beginning their survey of the Fire Nation?"
"It doesn't say," Sokka said with a shake of his head and handed the letter over to Zuko. "It's been nearly a year since we've seen them!" Sokka was grinning like an idiot. As good a companion as Zuko had turned out to be, his sister and Aang were different, incomparable.
"Mm," Zuko scanned the letter briefly before handing it back with a pensive smile. "Well then. I suppose we both have preparations to attend to... and you don't want to be late to your training session..."
"Yeah." Sokka hesitated, noticing the Fire Lord's shift in mood and wondering over it but not sure what to say. Was he not happy to see the Avatar and Katara? "Sorry about delaying our meeting like this..." he said unnecessarily, glancing at the scrolls on the table, most of them still bound.
Zuko shook his head. "You can leave the rest of your reports here," he suggested, "I will look them over. In the mean time, please send a hawk to Toph requesting that she spare a small group to be sent to Ba Sing Se? I'd like to prevent that disaster before it happens, if at all possible." Back to business, the young Lord was focused once again.
"Of course," Sokka nodded quickly but he hesitated again, finding his chest to be strangely tight. His own jubilant grin had faded with the concern over Zuko's sudden severity and he reached, paused... and then placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder, giving it a brief but tight squeeze. Then, embarrassed, he hurried to gather the rest of his things. "Same time tomorrow?" he asked as he coaxed Hawkie Four onto his shoulder.
The young lord struggled against the urge to shrug away from Sokka's touch, however brief it was; Yet, he had no desire to offend the man he considered to be a friend. So he nodded, a formal sort of smile on his mouth, in answer to the other's question. "Tomorrow."
When Sokka left with an awkward goodbye, he had an unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach that stayed with him for the rest of the day. It distracted him through his training session to the point that he had to apologize to his master under the man's suspicious gaze. The hawk was sent to Toph (not Hawkie Four -- not with an important message like that) and his afternoon was spent in his office in the palace working through endless plans and communiques and trying not to think about the formal, tight-lipped smile the Fire Lord had offered him.
The next few days passed uneventful and impersonal. There seemed to be no time for friendly sparring once the reports had been taken care of and various hawks sent. Toph's grudging reply hadn't been explicitly refused, and Zuko knew she would look after the situation in the Earth kingdom despite the complaints that her students could hardly afford such a break in their training. Zuko and Toph both knew her Earthbenders were the best in the region --maybe the world-- students or no.
In the meantime, preparations were underway for the arrival of the Avatar, and Zuko himself was overseeing every arrangement from the furnishing of the guest quarters, to the meal planning, to the readying of the stables for one large flying bison.
When they day arrived and the hulking form of Appa appeared as a speck on the horizon, great horns were sounded at the palace to welcome them and to announce the arrival of the Avatar. In the city's streets, there was a mixture of cheering and apprehension, the Fire Nation still somewhat divided in spite of three years of peace. But there was more welcome than not, even among the people and it was heartening.
Appa's feet landed lightly in the courtyard of the palace and Zuko and his guard were waiting for them. An enthusiastic grin was broad across the sixteen year old Avatar's face as he waved to the Fire Lord -- though Aang had grown and matured, his enthusiasm for life and fun had not at all been challenged. More subdued but still smiling as he offered his hand to assist her down, was his female companion. As recently as the last time they'd seen her, Katara was still a girl. But now she was clearly a woman -- she had grown an inch or two and she carried herself differently now. Her hair fell nearly to her knees. Her lovely face fell a little as she scanned the courtyard and did not see her brother though.
It was difficult to maintain a rigid, formal, appearance when Aang jogged forward, and Zuko found his own smile to be genuine as he reached out and clasped the boy's shoulder tightly. "It's been far too long, Avatar," he spoke, waving back the guard who hovered too close to comfort. Did they think the Avatar would cause him any harm?
Aang though, was far less reserved than even Zuko's smile and he threw his arms around the young lord's shoulders in a tight hug that alarmed the guards. The Airbender was tall now, approaching Zuko's height despite their age gap and he was lithe and wiry, shown off by the fact that he wore the Air Temple robes that his masters had once donned.
"Forever!" Aang agreed enthusiastically when he pulled back to hold Zuko at arm's length, releasing him only that he might greet the other guest.
"Where's Sokka?" Katara asked after she'd exchanged polite bows with the Fire Lord.
"I'M COMING!" came a yell from within the palace and they saw the aforementioned Ambassador racing past a window, heard him plow down some stairs and then the massive door behind them was creaking open and he stumbled out of the palace, panting.
Zuko raised an eyebrow in an amused expression he couldn't entirely conceal before turning back to Katara with a nod. "Ambassador Sokka," he greeted, the teasing evident in his voice. "Fashionably late as usual."
His gaze met Aang's for a brief moment, as they shared the joke, both parties more than familiar with Sokka's habits.
If they'd been alone (and not overlorded by Zuko's men) Sokka would have countered the comment with a playful knock on the head. As it was, he just laughed sheepishly and rushed to his sister to envelop her in a tight hug, heart brimming with a joy that was reflected on his face. "You made it!"
The polite nod that Katara had offered the Fire Lord dissolved into a wide grin as she grappled with her brother, arms locking tight around his neck, surprised to find she had to stand on tip-toe to pull off the maneuver.
A spare moment later, Aang crowed happily, disturbing the familial reunion by leaping on Sokka's back and digging his fingers roughly into Sokka's hair, pulling it lose from its tight knot and generally ruining the work he'd put into making himself somewhat presentable.
Zuko couldn't help the chuckle that rose in his throat as he watched their antics, and did well to ignore the faint tug that came from somewhere in his middle. He was no longer their enemy, but there were still some moments that he knew he couldn't be a part of, no matter how many years passed of atonement.
The laughter was explosive and Sokka was slapping Aang's bald head with a wide palm as he wrestled the younger boy off of him to instead wrap a squeezing arm around his shoulders. "You both look great!" he exulted. "Are you protecting my beautiful sister from all the ruffians out there in the world, Avatar?"
Aang grinned rather stupidly and Katara blushed, ushering in her first irritated utterance of, "Sokka!" The young man just laughed again and led them back to Zuko with an arm around each.
The Fire Lord turned, bid them follow, and as they moved past the onlooking crowd of palace workers, Zuko ushered forth a young boy. "Aidon will look after Appa," he explained with a nod and the boy ran off, pulling a piece of fruit from his tunic to offer the gentle beast. "Now, you must be hungry. Sokka can show you the rooms we've prepared and afterwards, when you are feeling rested, perhaps you'd like dinner?" He turned his head just enough to catch Sokka's eye, looking for agreement.
Sokka smiled at him and gave a tiny nod and addressed the guests as they stepped into the palace, "Zuko has made great arrangements for you, you'll be very comfortable!" He sounded proud.
"I wish we had this kind of treatment when we were traveling before!" Aang laughed and Katara joined in agreement.
But Zuko could feel her eyes on him, suspicious instantly. The young woman had mostly overcome her difficulties with the idea of Zuko being their ally, but she had never been able to -completely- set aside their differences. Even with the coaxing of their shared companions, there was often an underlying watchfulness to her.
"In the next day or so, the Avatar would like to speak to the people of your nation," she spoke up before they parted ways. She was formal, respectful in a way that, ironically, relaxed the guards around them. She wasn't as overly familiar as her companions. "Can that be arranged?"
Pausing on the steps before the heavy palace doors, Zuko turned, head inclined in a shallow nod. "Of course. I'd expected he might. I'll take care of it personally." A brief hesitation, then his eyes sought the attention of the Avatar himself. "May I ask how long you will be staying before your travels recommence?" His gaze flickered briefly toward the young Ambassador, the movement quick enough to escape notice.
"I'm kind of playing it by ear," Aang admitted, a little bit chagrined. "No more than two weeks at the very most, though, if it's not too much trouble."
"It depends on the city," Katara clarified. "We expect that the feelings about the world here may be a bit different since your citizens have the example of yourself and Sokka and the goings of the palace as an example of peace. More outlying citizens may not feel the same."
It took a valiant effort not to bristle at the girl's words. Zuko knew her to be correct; there were some who still quietly cursed his ascent to the throne and those who still remained uncertain, having lived for most, if not all of their lives being fed the same lies that Zuko himself was taught growing up. It was a difficult lesson to learn, that the truth was not only something different, but could be spoken about freely, without fear of reprisal. There were others who were simply bitter about the amount of food, technology, equipment and handiwork Zuko regularly sent out to the other nations, people who saw not reparations, but a weakening of their own resources.
Still, this knowledge did not make Katara's words rankle less, nor entirely mask the critical eye with which the young woman surveyed both his nation and his person.
"You are always welcome here," he addressed Aang, "For as long as you need. I think Sokka will agree, it's no trouble at all."
"Of course!" Sokka piped up, seeming for the moment to be oblivious to the tension between his sister and his friend. He was too distracted by his own excitement for the moment. "Let's get you guys settled, I'm sure there's an amazing meal in store!" They bowed in parting to the Fire Lord and went their separate ways, Sokka leading them through the labyrinthine hallways that he knew as well as their home village.
When they were a safe distance along, Katara remarked, "It's still strange, thinking of him as the Fire Lord."
"We're lucky he is," Sokka replied with a shrug. "Think about it -- it could have been his sister. Something tells me 'peace' wouldn't be in the fire nation vocabulary if that'd been the case."
"I think Zuko is a -great- leader," Aang piped up, "Way better than his dad," he added needlessly. "Or Azula. She was just... crazy!" As if in agreement, Momo launched from the Avatar's shoulder, spun a circle or two and came down, only a little dizzily in Katara's hood.
The waterbender nodded thoughtfully, conceding at least this point. "Still," she mused. "I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to do away with the whole 'Fire Lord' system, period. It puts an awful lot of power in the hands of one person..."
Sokka looked at her incredulously. "It's the same system that any other country has," he countered. "Whether you say 'king' or 'lord', it's the same thing. Besides, since Zuko took over, he's reformed it into a much more democratic system. He's the Fire Lord but he listens to the people and his advisors. Besides, the country needs a strong figure that they can relate to, these days especially. Oh, we're here."
He'd almost walked past the heavy doors to which he now turned back, leaning his weight against to ease slowly open. A large, ornately decorated circular sitting room greeted them with a fire burning in the center. There were doors on either side of the room, to their separate chambers and directly across from the entry was a tall, wide glass door that led to the balcony.
Aang stepped into the sitting room, eyes wide, near bulging fron his head. "I don't remember these rooms being so -big-!" he gaped.
Even Katara seemed impressed as she took in the rich drapings and marble columns, the firepit that heated the room to a comfortable temperature and the view that she could just glimpse through the closed glass door.
Maybe it wasn't his place to gloat, but Sokka did it anyway, rather smarmy as he watched their faces. "Pretty nice, huh? These rooms were just remodeled, everything's new. There's a bath for each chamber too. Zuko wants you to be very comfortable. My room is in this wing too, a floor up."
A faint frown tugged at Katara's mouth as she explored the room, but she voiced no complaints, happy enough to let their earlier exchange fade into the casual pleasantries of small talk. Arguing before dinner could ruin everyone's appetite.
Aang, on the other hand, was entranced. "It's amazing!" he agreed. "Oh look! There's rolls and rolls of extra bedding here in the corner. We could have a sleep over! Like old times!" Then he spun to the right and threw open the the heavy door he found. "Ooooh, this one's mine!" he called, waving an arm as he entered the righthand bedchamber. "LOOK HOW BIG THE BED IS!"
Sokka laughed - Aang's enthusiasm had always been infectious. "The view from here is incredible at night," he told Katara and himself flopped down on the semi-circle plush couch that faced the windows before the fire. "You'd be amazed how many stars you can see even in the city, here." He paused and offered her a grin. "You really can stay as long as you want, he wasn't just saying that. You guys have been traveling for so long."
Katara glanced toward the doors, but only for a moment and then she was shrugging free of her heavy coat, crossing the room to join her brother on the cushions, leaning into his shoulder as he watched the sky beginning to darken. "It's good to see you," she murmured, and meant it.
"You too," Sokka answered with a soft smile and put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a gentle squeeze. "I'm really proud of you, Katara. You and Aang are doing great things for the world. I know your presence here will help the Fire Nation accept peace."
Katara offered a small smile and a slow nod. "Yes, I really do hope so."
"OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS. DID YOU SEE THE BATHTUBS??"