Notes: This fic would not have been possible without Moonsheen being AWESOME. Thank you, Moonsheen!
The hardest part about reforming the Fire Nation and restoring the balance was everything.
Fire Lord Zuko's complaints changed daily. He hated his council - though all loyal to him they were pompous and arrogant and understood nothing about how the peasants lived. The Earth Kingdom was upset because he wasn't withdrawing Fire Nation troops fast enough, and his military said they were withdrawing too quickly. The Northern Water Tribe wanted reparations for the damage done in the invasion a year previous. Both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom were in danger of economic collapse, trapped in an incestuous relationship of forced trade, halted invasions, and dependent infrastructure. People were protesting that Azula was the true heir to the throne despite her mental state. Nobles invested in the war effort were making pests of themselves. Commoners who wanted their loved ones to come home were also making pests of themselves.
Zuko hated everyone - Mai excepted, and while his betrothed often expressed the same sentiment, she probably did not comprehend to what extent, at this very moment, Zuko hated everyone.
It was a bad sign when he started hating Aang.
(Of course he had spent a good deal of his life hating Aang, but more as the nebulous notion of him being the current incarnation of the Avatar and a slippery one at that. To know Aang really was to love him - the kid was so cheerful and his good mood tended to be catching. And he depended on Aang, who as the Avatar gave Zuko political clout outside the Fire Nation, and as a friend gave him someone to vent a bad mood on. But then there were times ...)
"You can't divert that river," Aang said again, patiently. He wore Air Nomad colors in the drapes of ancient sages, his skin pale and bald but for the blue tattoos that stood out all the more in the redstone of Fire Nation chambers, and he stood serene before the council table. The effect was that of a thousands-year-old spirit taken human form, until he opened his mouth and his voice did that annoying cracking thing Zuko remembered from his own puberty.
Zuko drew a deep breath and let it out. He did not, proudly, breathe out so much as a wisp of smoke. "And why is that?" he asked in a controlled tone.
"Well, the river spirit chose that path for a reason. I'm sure it's a good one," the Avatar replied.
The river in question was not a major one. It wound down out of the mountains that made up the majority of the Fire Nation's eastern banks and lazily emptied into the Great Ocean. A few small villages dotted its path but it was south of where the Fire Lord's engineers had proposed a ten-mile-long diversion. Zuko had been rather proud of the plan, in all honesty - the diversion itself would create jobs, and the metal factory there would be able to more efficiently use the water as it was shifted to private ownership under a minor noble in the region for building infrastructure rather than war machines. It was a good, peaceful plan and would actually improve the lives of the commoners that used the river for their livelihood - but apparently the spirits wouldn't be happy with it.
"The river spirit?" asked Councilman Kitaro in a scathing tone. He was short, balding, and a decent man, but like many noblemen younger than fifty in the Fire Nation, he was a grand skeptic. Fire Lord Ozai - and Azulon, and even Souzen in the latter half of his rule - had not been kind to the mystical knowledge of their homeland.
Aang was not as naive as he pretended to be, but he gave Kitaro a quizzical look. "Of course. I can go talk to it, if you want." He smiled, honest and open.
"Avatar Aang," Kitaro said, infuriatingly patronizing, "The proposal in question is mine. I assure you no one will have their lives aversely affected by this diversion. I believe even the river spirit will be pleased with how it improves the wellbeing of--"
Aang began to develop a tiny frown here, and Zuko interrupted. "Councilman," he snapped, "do you really think you know more about the spirits than the Avatar." He did not make it a question.
Kitaro stuttered, more cowed by his Fire Lord than by Aang. "M-my Lord," he began.
"Do you know what being the Avatar even means?" Zuko asked, cutting him off once again.
What Aang may or may not have realized was how much the legend of the Avatar was a diminished thing in the Fire Nation. When Zuko had been banished and sent to 'find the Avatar', it was largely considered a wild goose chase. No Avatar had been seen for over a century, after all, and it was the grand might of the Fire Nation under Souzen's Comet that had somehow defeated the all-encompassing spirit of the world. The Spirit World was considered little more than a legend, and while the Fire Sages had continued to commune with the sun they were isolated from the general population and banished from the Fire Lord's court. The fact that the Avatar had deposed Zuko's father meant the nobles feared him as a powerful bender, but respected him as a sage representing the balance of the nations and the world itself? Not quite.
Before Kitaro could make more of a fool of himself, Zuko waved his hand. "Get out." His councilmen shifted, more surprised by the sudden dismissal than reluctant to obey, and when Zuko sat stiff and silent with his good eye narrowed they began to depart, backing out the door while bowing to both their Fire Lord and the Avatar. Aang, ever polite, folded his hands into the native form of Zuko's homeland and bowed in response. The doorman shut the door behind them, and Aang turned to face Zuko.
"You know, it's really okay," Aang said.
Zuko rubbed a hand over his face. "Unless you're going to say it's okay to divert the river ..."
Aang shrugged his shoulders with a disarming smile. "Well, that's not okay."
The Fire Lord grit his teeth.
"The river spirits in the Fire Nation aren't very happy. They chose their paths to bring the most life and sometimes when they're diverted they start to die," Aang explained. "The waste from the factories kill the fish and poison the trees."
"I know!" Zuko snapped. "But I have to do something with the factories! If I just shut them down than hundreds of people lose their jobs, and then what happens to their families!?" He got to his feet and began to pace.
(Once upon a time, he would have gone out and let off his rage in fire, leaving him feeling empty and cold. Since the Dragons bending had a different effect; it left him calm and comforted. Unfortunately the tapestries in the council room were still flammable.)
Aang had the grace to flush a bit. "If you let them, the river spirits will take care of your people."
"What do you want me to do, force everyone to go back to farming and herding?" Zuko glared at Aang. "Everything is industrialized! Raaugh! Damn my father!" He swept a hand out in front of him; hot air made the air waver before his eyes. "It's all right for you to go around talking about the spirits; you're not the one that has to figure out how to make both them and my people happy!"
Aang refused to rise to the bait, much to Zuko's disappointment. "I can help you find another way," he suggested in a hopeful manner.
Zuko responded with a twisted smile; he slapped a hand down on the large map of the Fire Nation that covered one wall. "Can I divert the river further downstream?" he asked.
"Ah, no," Aang said sheepishly.
"Can I divert the river through this mountain?" Zuko pointed to the mountain in question.
"I ... don't think so."
"Can I divert the river in any way that will give me access to this land?" Zuko demanded, swiping his finger in a circle around the demilitarized factory in question.
Aang raised his eyebrows and smiled in a helpless manner.
"Then you can't help me find another way," Zuko hissed. "Aren't you supposed to help find balance between the spirit and human world? All you're doing is advocating their cause!"
Aang frowned, and for the first time since he arrived his serene attitude broke, but not in the way Zuko expected. "Well, I tried talking to the spirits about it, but they're just as angry as you!" He threw out his hands. "And some of them are only trying to help! When you force them to move they can't help you!" His voice cracked and spiraled up into a squeak on the last word; Aang self-consciously cleared his throat, and Zuko couldn't help a snort of amusement. "Don't laugh," Aang accused him.
Zuko smirked at him. Aang was the youngest (or, technically speaking, oldest?) age that any Avatar had assumed his role as mediator of the world. "No wonder the Avatar doesn't find out their destiny until they're 16. Your voice ruins the whole effect."
Aang scowled genuinely at the Fire Lord and Zuko almost forgave him for coming in and ruining a project that had taken at least two months to get to proposal. "That still doesn't solve my problem," he continued, sobering.
Aang softened as well, glancing away from Zuko. "Yeah, I know. It's really hard, this balance stuff." He grinned abruptly. "You know, back when it was just Katara, Sokka, and me, we had to travel through this big canyon with two feuding families. They were really angry with each other over something that had happened between their ancestors a hundred years ago, so angry they were hurting each other and almost got us all killed."
"Wait, you had to travel through a canyon?" Zuko asked, allowing himself to be distracted by the story. "What about Appa?"
"Oh, I asked him to carry the sick and elderly people," Aang said dismissively. "Anyway, I was thinking, you know, I'm the Avatar - I should be helping people solve their differences. But even though I got them to work together long enough to save everyone's lives, I couldn't get them to stop arguing."
"What happened?" Zuko wondered.
Aang's grin turned pure mischief. "I lied." Zuko raised his eyebrow and Aang shrugged. "I made up a story so they could realize that just because they were different, the original wrong didn't matter any more." With a sigh, he continued, "Too bad it's not that easy with everything else."
Zuko could definitely sympathize with that. "Do you think you could tell the Northern Water Tribe a lie that would get them to stop asking me for money we don't have to recompense Zhao's invasion?"
"Sorry, Zuko," Aang said, shaking his head and offering a lopsided smile. "But I could try talking to Katara about it."
"You do that," Zuko said, turning back to the map. "You just threw two months of engineering work into a volcano, you know."
"Sorry." Aang did sound genuinely apologetic. He crossed the room and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the taller Fire Lord, looking at the part of the map where the diversion should have gone. "Is that the factory you were going to convert?" he asked, pointing.
Zuko nodded. "The water would have been used to power the factory instead of for dumping waste; the diversion was to run it through a mill."
At this Aang inexplicably brightened. "It runs straight under the factory right now," he said. "That's perfect!"
"No it's not. If I can't divert the river I have to just shut down the factory," Zuko snapped. "That's the whole problem!"
"But what if instead of using the river to flush waste, you used it to clean up waste from the factory up here?" Aang pointed at another building further up the river. "I mean, the river spirit is probably really not happy with that factory either but it's kind of a compromise. Then people could have jobs purifying the water and you don't have to divert the river."
"How would you purify water?" Zuko asked, incredulous. "In case you've forgotten, this is the Fire Nation. We don't have a whole lot of Waterbenders."
"Well, I dunno, but I'll bet you can hire people to figure it out," Aang suggested brightly.
Zuko grudgingly admitted to himself that it was a good plan. Aloud he complained, "That could take months. That's months of people without jobs."
Aang touched Zuko's elbow, drawing the Fire Lord's attention; the Avatar beamed at him. "Don't worry; the river spririt really will take care of them, you know."
Zuko believed in the spirits - Uncle Iroh had instilled such beliefs in him. He had even believed in the Avatar because of Iroh, and Iroh's wisdom had led him to where he stood today, at the Avatar's side with the crown of the Fire Lord in his topknot. To know Aang was not to believe in Aang; having the legend in front of you as a fifteen-year-old boy with a cracking voice tended to take some of the glory out of it. But he had seen his father, stripped of his bending and his pride broken; he knew Aang's power and he knew Aang's faith.
"All right," he said begrudgingly.
"You won't regret it," Aang promised, delighted.
"I already do," Zuko shot back.
"Are you going to reconvene the council?" Aang asked. "I can stay and support you."
Zuko thought about it. "I think I'm taking the rest of the day off." 'The rest of the day' consisting of maybe another hour of sunlight before a formal dinner with the noblemen of the south and then a long evening of replying to diplomatic letters with equally diplomatic answers. (Mai kept him informed of the real meaning of the letters he received; Iroh practically dictated the responses to keep Zuko from sending back death threats.)
"Great! Because there's a horse-dragonfly in the woods just south of here with our name on it," Aang told him.
"No," Zuko snapped.
"Come on! I haven't ridden once since six - I mean 106 years ago!"
"No! I listened to you on the river thing so you have to listen to me on the riding wild animals with you thing," Zuko demanded.
Aang deflated slightly and let out a sigh; the tapestries on the other side of the room rustled. "All right. What do you wanna do?"
"Fry something," the Fire Lord grumbled.
Aang rolled his eyes skyward. "We could go do forms."
The suggestion was charitable; Aang found his center through meditation, not bending. Zuko let it slide. "Okay."
As they turned to leave the council chamber together, another smile graced the Avatar's face. "You know," he said, "sometimes this whole balance thing isn't so hard after all."
"Sometimes," Zuko agreed, and the doorman closed the chamber behind them.
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