Chapter One: lighting the flame
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
The Times They Are A Changin', Bob Dylan
A firm and imperious hand tugging at his robe's collar woke him up at what felt like the little hours of the morning, but what was probably about noon. It jerked at the fabric indelicately, almost choking him in the process, and then placed unexpectedly cool fingers against his face. They rested gently against the slope of his jawline, brushing against his lips.
He, wistfully and on the foggy line between wakefulness and sleep, almost expected his mother's voice. Instead: "Zuko," it was Mai's voice, calm and dry, lower and huskier than his mother's was, soft in his ear. "I don't quite see how you intend to restore the Fire Nation by sleeping on your desk," she said with the casual sarcasm she always had, "Your plan could use some work."
His mouth tasted dry, like sand and paper. This may have been because he'd fallen asleep on a pile of old documents and scrolls, and lately he'd started the bad habit of sleeping with his mouth open. A little too sleep-fogged to come up with a response, let alone a witty one, (not like he was too great with that anyway) he raised himself up on his elbows, feeling his muscles pull at the activity, and blinked blearily around the room.
Sunlight poured through the open windows, lighting the compact office from corner to gilded corner, revealing the candles burned to puddles of melted wax and charred wick. There was no sun-clock here to tell him how late in the day it was, but the sky outside didn't have the 'gold-fingers against grey clouds' look of dawn.
Usually, like most firebenders, he woke at sunrise whether he liked it or not. The first rays of sunlight on the barest fringes of morning would reach into him and tug him out of his dreams, sending him tumbling straight into wakefulness.
Some firebenders did choose to return to their rest. Even so, they were all commanded into alertness by the urgent tugging of the sun's bright energy, stirring the fires inside them and causing their power to swell like rising notes in a fierce song. That he slept through it was testament to the state of exhaustion he'd worked himself into before collapsing on his own desk.
Zuko supposed that was what came of spending night after night trying to make sense of the horror story that had been his father's plans for world conquest, not to mention reviewing and attempting to make a decision on every message from each individual Earth Kingdom city-state.
Speaking of which, there was a meeting scheduled- he jerked forward, suddenly feeling very fully awake. "Did I sleep through anything important?" he asked, scrabbling through the papers in front of him to find the documents specific to this council's meeting, "Please don't tell me I slept through anything. That's all I need. They already call me a traitor and neglectful, all I need is laziness added to the criticism-"
"Calm down," Mai said laconically, "It's not even noon yet. Lucky for you I decided to drop by." Her tone became suddenly more dry, almost biting. "Just save your panic until after you attempt to present the generals and your council your plans for stripping away even more Fire Nation territory."
Before he could snap out a rebuttal that it wasn't Fire Nation territory, it was stolen Earth Kingdom land, she slid her hands down to his shoulder and squeezed. Tightly at first, her strong, long-fingered hands working the tension from his muscles like she was squeezing water from a sponge. Her touch gentled a little after a while and she firmly kneaded at his shoulders with a certain know-how he knew she'd gotten from Ty Lee. He leaned into her touch and sighed, content to stay like this the rest of the morning.
"If you keep this up, I'm going to fall asleep again," he murmured, then his breath hitched as she clenched hard enough to sting, fingernails sharply digging into the skin through his robe.
She relaxed her grip quickly enough, returning to the soothing circles of motion. "I'll try to make it more exciting for you," she said dryly, her low murmur in his unscarred ear followed by her lips finding his own, parting them with a long kiss. She then released him. "But maybe later. Right now, you need to get ready for your undoubtedly busy morning. You seem to have some very agitated servants talking about your outfit for today. Seems like they're trying to have a fashion competition with the outfitters for the earth people's dignitaries."
Zuko, still off-kilter from the heady feelings of the kiss, felt highly unnerved by the fact that his remaining staff were seeing this highly important moment in history as an opportunity to turn him into a clothes horse. Also a little annoyed that they weren't taking it seriously.
"I do have my robes and ceremonial armor," he felt he should mention. "I thought I was going to be wearing those. Or…at least one of those. The robes, I mean. The armor is for the event of a war and, well, that's not what we want to do."
"Oh, you thought it would be the same robe every day?" Mai clucked her tongue in mock-sympathy, "No, I hope you saved some time in that busy schedule for fittings."
Saved some time? Zuko felt the strong urge to smack a palm to his forehead. "Of course I didn't! I assumed I'd be busy talking to the world's worth of foreign dignitaries about post-war construction and reparation and how we're going to make the world right again after a hundred year-long war! Why would I make time for dress-up?"
He probably sounded a lot more irritated than was really warranted, but it had been a long week and really, really long reign- and it had barely just started. Not for the first time, he wished his uncle was here to help this along. Iroh was much more adept at diplomacy than he ever was.
Mai lifted a delicately-shaped eyebrow at this display of frustration. "I was just joking," she said slowly. "Are you sure you have to go through with this meeting of yours today? It's just you going over boring political stuff with the councilors you have left. Can't you delegate those duties to your advisors and just hear what they come up with on their own? After all, that's what you have those people for. Just take a rest for today."
He groaned. "I can't." Tempting as that sounded.
Most of his fathers councilors and advisors had willingly resigned rather than serve under him, and the generals in charge of the war council had been officially relieved of duty and either sent home or back to their troops so they could give the orders to withdraw. The general he'd spoken against when he was thirteen had fled, probably afraid of being punished or executed for being the cause of the current Fire Lord's banishment and mutilation.
Zuko wasn't particularly upset about the loss- he'd had a few edged conversations with the man in that short period of time when he'd been welcome in the palace. He'd been as ruthless and reptilian in his strategies as he'd ever been. Knowing his methods, Zuko wouldn't be surprised if the man had come up with some of the more bone-chilling details of the intercepted raid on the Earth Kingdom on the day of Sozin's comet. All the blame couldn't be directed at his father, after all.
Still, with most of the people who were meant to be helping him deal with matters of state gone, that left him with a severely diminished number of politically-savvy aides and a lot more work. It didn't help that the people who were left behind, although more liberal and open-minded in approach than the others, were still fully in support of continuing their rule in the previously-Earth Kingdom lands they'd conquered during the war and invasions. While they hadn't approved of his father's more merciless approach to warfare, and were definitely not in favor of setting fire to their own people, colonials or no, it didn't necessarily follow that they felt favorably about withdrawing from Earth Kingdom lands and forcing their people there to move.
Some of those lands, they argued, had been Fire Nation for a century, or even half a century. The citizens there were born and bred in the colonies, and forcing them to leave would literally be shoving them out of their rightful home. (Never mind that the Earth Kingdom never had been their rightful home to begin with.) Why not leave well enough alone? Wasn't the Avatar satisfied with ending the war and the bloodshed? Did he have to destroy the entire Nation itself while he was at it? None of them wanted to relinquish 'rightful' lands to the people they'd been at war at.
Bad enough that he'd surrendered to the Avatar, but now he was sure they saw him as more than a traitor, giving away pieces of his country to appease the foreigners they would have won the war against.
He couldn't help but remember that play at Ember Island, and the people cheering as 'he' died in flames.
"…I'm not so sure that delegation would be the best idea," he said finally. "I mean, I'd like to be there to hear it, at least." As he spoke, he adjusted his clothing. He'd fallen asleep in his robes, but since he hadn't been sprawled out on the floor or his bed (How long had it been since he'd seen his bed?) they weren't rumpled. Or at least, they were barely rumpled. Not enough to be noticeable. Weren't they supposed to be focusing on more important matters, anyway?
Mai gestured at his face. "Well, if you're going, you should know that you have some ink marks on your forehead. I think something got lost in translation from the paper to your skin, though."
He tried not to scrub at it with his doubtlessly expensive and impossible to clean sleeve. "What do you mean?"
"Well, either that, or you were looking over the livestock reports all night long. It says 'chickenpig'." She smiled in quiet amusement as he started scrubbing furiously at his forehead with the palm of his hand and his fingers. "So, leaving the meeting to the people you've hired to help you make these decisions and just making the final judgment on the decisions they make is a bad idea because..?" The way she said it made him think she wasn't honestly interested, she knew he'd made the choice and was now just trying to make conversation.
When he pulled his hand away, he frowned at the smudges of ink on his hand. Great. Then he sighed. "I don't know. I just…I feel like I should be doing something. I'm the youngest Fire Lord in centuries, it's the end of a war, and I need to do everything right. Not just right, perfect! My father," he said with the usual dip into bitterness that entered his tone whenever Ozai was mentioned, "My father attended all of his council meetings. I mean, the really important ones. And if he did it- well, I can't be less than what he was. And it is very important, what's happening now. I have to be there to see it all, at least."
Oversee, he meant. Their political views were in question enough that he didn't know what sort of plans they'd set up without him, and the peace between nations was too tenuous for him to be complacent about anything.
While he was sincerely trying to find new members for the council, people who supported his decisions and views were few and far between. Both Master Piandao and Jeong Jeong had turned down his offer, as they were too solitary and independent for the positions. Also, though there may have been other members of the White Lotus more suitable to the jobs, Iroh wasn't in favor of appointing them to the position because of their status as members of the society. Despite the White Lotus's benevolent and peaceful nature, he stated that no society or group should be allowed to sway the decisions of the Fire Lord. Zuko wasn't selecting non-Fire Nation members for similar reasons.
Even if I have no idea what I'm doing sometimes, or what consequences the decisions I make can have. What if I make the wrong choice? The fear curled at the bottom of stomach, cold and weighty.
He thought that was at the root of his desire to be everywhere and have a part of every decision, to accomplish everything at once. Because he felt that somehow, if he was there and involved in it all, if he read and experienced enough, he could somehow just absorb the wisdom he desperately needed to make this work. Like a plant taking in sunlight. Never mind that it was impossible to let a century of war and all its consequences just fall away in the reign of one Fire Lord. So many other impossibilities had happened over the span of this year, people seemed to be hoping for some more.
Meanwhile, Mai looked unimpressed with his sincere effort to work himself to death for his cause. Of course, she usually looked unimpressed, jaded, or various shades of bored.
"Fine," she said, the response sounding too abrupt. Anything else she had to say- and he knew there must have been more than that- remained unspoken.
Mai didn't usually volunteer anything beyond what was expected or required, and she definitely didn't allow for her emotions to creep out beyond the carefully maintained façade of apathy. She'd been brought up too well to allow herself to show that she had feelings. Zuko had to search for signs of her approval or disapproval with only her body language to go by. Sometimes he was spot-on at guessing what she was thinking, and other times met with monumental, explosive failure.
Right now, he thought she could be radiating disapproval- or she could be tired, or bored with the topic, or any number of reasons for her to be wearing that perfectly blank expression. As he tried to divine just what she was thinking, Mai's fingers curled around his shoulders again. They were tense this time, and she gripped a little too hard, as if she needed reassurance of something.
Zuko, deciding that she was just disappointed in the lack of free time he had to spend with her, rested one of his hands on hers. "I'll have some time afterward," he said, "If you wanted to go and-"
"Abandon the Avatar?" she asked, quickly finishing his sentence. He could practically hear the wry quirk of her eyebrow, the pinched twist of the lip as she spoke. "And ruin all your fun?"
He let out a frustrated sound and put his face in his hands. With all the bustle and political business, he'd plain out lost track of the days. Aang was due for a visit that day. "Oh, yeah. Damn. I forgot," he said with a groan. Aang visited regularly- not surprising, since the Fire Nation was still under suspicion, and the turmoil within it didn't help matters.
The continued friendly relationship between the Fire Lord and the Avatar was probably the greatest factor in the continued, of resentful, state of peace between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world. Aang reinforced support of the new Fire Lord through the world, and Zuko did his best to repay that by keeping his country in a state of peace and going through every piece of paperwork he could to bring the soldiers and war machines back home. As it was, the rest of the world wasn't kindly inclined towards them, but they weren't attacking them at their gates, either.
"Well," he said eventually, "I could-"
Mai patted him on the shoulder. "Go on and play with your little friends. I'll see you at dinner- and maybe after."
"You know you're always welcome to come along," he said, trying to gauge the expression that followed that invitation. It showed nothing but her usual quiet dignity: which meant that she was hiding some other, more socially unacceptable emotion. He hated when she pulled the dignitary poker face on him. It made it so hard to guess what she was thinking.
"I'd rather not," she said finally. Her hand withdrew as she spoke, and she kept her arms limp at her sides.
Most people had tones and inflections and voice hints. Mai had consistent monotone boredom. It was a breath of fresh air from the dramatics of family members and friends, but it also made him go slowly insane when he was trying to come up with some kind of judgment on what mood she was in.
"You know, they're fine about everything. I mean, they don't blame you for anything. Well, they aren't going to hate you for it, at least. They said they were fine, I mean, with you. And since Ty Lee went to Kyoshi with the other warriors, there hasn't been anyone here for you to talk to." He didn't mention Azula. Couldn't.
She made a sound that could have been a laugh. "I know. But I'm not exactly the social swan-butterfly type anyway. The Avatar and his friends are too…sweet. You know, too much sunshine for me. You go and have fun with them, and I'll lie here and contemplate my severe boredom while I lay waste to your supply of fruit tarts."
Her expression was still that closed, contained look of polite disinterest, but that rarely changed save for the occasional quiet smile. Sometimes it was frustrating, trying to find thoughts in that mask of society blandness. Zuko gave up trying to find out what it meant and pulled her down, pressed his lips to her forehead and breathed in the scent of leather and polish and something warmly feminine: amber, sweet vanilla. Candles. She shifted in his arms, away from the physical closeness. Not quite stiff, but impatient.
She was getting more quiet after the days past the victory over his father. Sometimes he worried about that.
"I love you," he told her, clung to her tightly for a minute and wasn't surprised when she finally pulled free.
"I know," she replied, brushing her skirt as she climbed back to her feet. "I'll see you later." She walked out of the room, stopping to brush the doorframe with the fingertips of one white hand.
This would be the ninth ambassador to visit the Fire Lord's palace. Out of the twenty still-established city-states of the Earth Kingdom, that seemed like a painfully small number. Few officials of the Earth Kingdom were willing to make the journey to the main islands, either out of fear of assassination and terrorism, or anger at being made to make the journey at all. The Fire Nation had started the war, the Fire Nation had terrorized the world, it was only fair that they should come to them. And usually, Zuko would have been more than inclined to agree. Still, the alternative was to leave his nation in the hands of some people loyal to him and a greater number of people he could barely trust.
With the noble houses at the capital city in such a state of dissent against the newly-ascended Fire Lord, and the people of his nation viewing him as a traitor (they'd cheered when he died in the stupid play, burned to death on stage), his reign was far from stable. The nobility refused to see him. Politely, of course, and he'd never directly ordered anyone to the palace. But they were conspicuously absent from his coronation ceremony and the few public events he'd been at the center of, and he rarely received notice of anything from them.
Mai's family was an exception, and that was only because of her connection to him. She'd told him that her family had been pressuring her to break ties, before she finally put her foot down on the matter with the note of calm, quiet, persistent finality that she had. A few of them seemed to be pushing for Ozai to regain his seat on the throne, (a few less for Azula, since news of her instability had spread.) The political sphere of the Fire Nation was a sand-snake's nest, ready to devour him whole.
He learned that in the few weeks after his coronation, when his father's council was still strong in the palace and the attempt was made to oust Zuko from the throne in favor of his father.
They had been about to charge him with treason against the throne when one of the Fire Sage apprentices who had studied under the Avatar loyalist, Shyu, presented a piece of ancient law that dictated that anyone of the direct noble blood had the right to challenge the present ruler for the throne under the decision of Agni Kai.
Zuko could only assume this law didn't come up with his father because of the political dissent such a battle would have caused. The piece of parchment was taken, studied, squabbled over, but in the end, he came out with his position intact and a lesson learned: he couldn't afford to leave so early in his reign.
And so, a section of the palace had been prepared for the guests from the Earth Kingdom. The help weren't exactly enthusiastic, but years of training and service to the members of the royal family made them less likely to complain. Not so for the ambassadors themselves…but that was another matter.
A scribe in full formal robes came to greet him once he arrived to greet the Earth Kingdom representative and gave him a look of disapproval- which was hastily masked. "My lord," the scribe said calmly, "The ambassador for Gaoling is due to arrive shortly. Her party has just passed the inner gates, and should arrive at the palace very soon. I have stationed a suitable number of servants to attend to their needs, arranged their room, and have made the appropriate preparations for your meeting with them."
He inclined his head, a little too stiffly. The meetings with diplomats tended to be less diplomatic than advertised. The rest of the world was not happy with them, and he happened to be the head of the country and therefore responsible and representative of it, a lot of the ire fell on his shoulders. He understood why they were upset and why they felt the need to show it in their attitude with these conferences, but it didn't make his job any easier.
"We're sending ice up to their quarters right now," the scribe continued, "So, they should be quite cool when our guests arrive."
Ice was precious in the summer months, and since it wasn't available on the islands of the Fire Nation, they needed to import it from the southern poles. Even then, ice-cooled homes were a sign of status. They kept ice in stacks underground, and lifted them out in cubes to rest on short tables, where servants bearing long-feathered fans would use them to fan cold air through the room. They used it also to chill a bath, along with the more common use of cooling beverages.
Zuko often thought about the usefulness of arranging for a few waterbenders in their employ, with their talented ability to freeze water at will, and move it with far more ease.
Lately, their ice stores had been disappearing at a speedy rate, with all the Earth Kingdom residents staying in the palace. Summer had come to the Fire Nation with unmercifully bright sun and humid, tropical heat. Perfect weather for firebenders and the acclimated residents of the islands…but the Earth Kingdom citizens were used to more clement weather. Their visit to the Fire Nation was therefore filled with complaints, frequent requests for ice and cold, sour yuzu-lychee juice, and a definite lack of daytime and afternoon activity. This made the hottest hours of the day a kind of break for him.
"Good," he said, focusing on the visible entourage of people approaching the sprawling stairway, "I will meet the Gaoling delegation when they have been made comfortable." It went without saying that he would be waiting in the throne room. The scribe nodded, performed a perfunctory bow, and made his way towards his duty.
Zuko made his way towards his own.
Gaoling was one of the city-states to surrender peacefully to the Fire Nation rather than have its towns and buildings scorched to the ground, its land ravaged by war. Earthbenders, so attuned to the land, would sometimes fall ill as their body responded to the pain of the earth.
It was part of the reason why the Earth Kingdom had been so difficult to overthrow- these people might as well have been fighting for their bodies and their souls.
Zuko had assured the lands that had surrendered that they had the right to become independent again just as the forcefully conquered ones did, and they seemed more agreeable than the ones that had been beaten back by Fire Nation forces. The lands that fell by peaceful surrender were given more agreeable terms for their conquest, and in some, they had been allowed their earth bending art as long as they built no armies or military forces.
"Mei Yee, ambassador to the city of Gaoling," announced the guard, and stood back respectfully to make way for the guest. It was an interesting thought, that this same guard could have been charged with dragging Earth Kingdom dignitaries here in chains, and would have done so with the same cool professionalism.
When the ambassador glided into his throne room, he was given a shock. Not because of the ambassador herself, but because of who was at her elbow, striding along with no hint of intimidation. A small, sturdy young girl with perfect attire for an Earth Kingdom child of nobility, and completely faultless posture. Her mouth was pulled into a smile that seemed to border on a grin before she adjusted her expression back to a formal mask of polite calm. As a child, the culture dictated it wasn't her place to talk here. He wondered how long that nicety would keep her from speaking her mind.
She and the ambassador both gave the bow that was accepted as a respectful greeting in the Fire Nation: fist resting on open palm, they quickly bent at the waist and then straightened with equally polite expressions on their faces.
Toph Bei Fong had never struck him as a person born into wealth and prestige, as he'd been told she was. Now, with her looking just as respectful and demure as anyone could ask of a person, he could definitely see the results of what must have been a lifetime of refined deportment and social etiquette training. And, to be honest, it was more than a little creepy to see her in that position. The hint of a mischievous smile he saw at the corners of her mouth reassured him that, formal act aside, she was still the same person.
Still, that was definitely a way to further drive home his station. If Toph was paying token respectful society behavior to him, it meant the situation was serious to the point of solemnity. He inclined his head in his own greeting, folding his hands.
"The Fire Nation welcomes you, Ambassador," he greeted in his best polite court voice- something he was steadily relearning after years of frustration and short tempered outbursts. It tended to show in the roughness in his speech, in the lack of his sister's finesse and polish. However, that loss was his gain in dealing with the Earth people, at least: they prized honesty and straightforward dealings.
"I doubt that," the ambassador stated, her voice low, balanced and tranquil. "Your welcome I might believe, teacher of the Avatar. Your country's opinions, however, are suspect. Still," she inclined her head formally, "Gaoling is pleased by your most gracious welcome."
'I doubt that,' he wanted to say in response to her too-perspicacious comment on the feelings of his country's people, 'I think you feel like the weather is too hot, the people are intolerable, and that I or my palace staff are secretly planning to murder you in your sleep.' Iroh's lectures on the importance of diplomacy danced around in his head, making demanding monosyllabic comments like: "honor!" and "patience!" and other such virtues that were meant to be important in a monarch.
Toph's eyes had narrowed at the criticism, her mouth tightening just a bit as she kept up the formal court face and manners. She'd probably been drilled by her parents and everyone on the ambassador brigade that this meeting was too important to compromise with emotional outbursts. Zuko wished he had some way to tell her that she was more than welcome to have a fit on his behalf- honestly, he understood the value in outbursts over what he thought of as unjust. (and he wouldn't burn her face because of it.)
"My servants will escort you to your chambers," he said, fighting the frown that was threatening to break out on his face, "You are free to visit the palace libraries, or gardens, or any other public area you want to visit. I will meet with you and the other dignitaries later this evening, to discuss your business and the requests of other Earth Kingdom ambassadors arriving today."
The other ambassadors. Zuko almost grimaced. If they were going to have a representative from each piece of the Earth Kingdom there, they'd have over twenty. He was almost glad that so few had arrived- it saved him more headaches. Aside from the imperious complaints and obvious contempt they displayed as 'guests', there would be more voices yelling at once in disagreement and more people to try to convince of his noble intentions. More people making requests that sounded even to him like an attempt to shackle his nation into submission, instead of a state of peaceful coexisting .
The Earth Kingdom had been a confederate monarchy at one point, with all the nation states united under the reign of the Earth King in Ba Sing Se. However, after Ba Sing Se closed down security and denied the very existence of the war, it became separate from the rest of the Earth Kingdom, leaving the nation leaderless. They'd split into separately-governed states instead, and now Zuko had to deal with the incoming flow of the dignitaries of the twenty-two remaining cities and towns, the ones who still retained knowledge of their place in the map. So far, only nine had made the journey. He suspected that the rest were had some trepidation about arriving in the land of their previous conquerors. It was a valid fear. If Ozai or Azula were reigning, the leaders and ambassadors of the nation-states would make perfect hostages.
As it was, he had ample space on the palace grounds for the few visiting dignitaries, and all the empty space made it very easy for them not to see each other unless it was vitally necessary. That was all he asked.
Mei Yee performed a formal bow, although he doubted the implied respect, and left with her escorts. Toph stayed behind, looking quietly irate. When the double doors closed, leaving the two of them alone, she slumped back into her usual posture, aggressive, fists at her side, and made a growling sound low in her throat. Zuko could hardly blame her. He'd been wanting to do the same for weeks now, only with more yelling and much more fire.
On the other hand, he'd become very adept at his control. Uncle would be proud. He hadn't breathed fire in a fit of pique for weeks now.
"What is her problem?" Toph grumbled, glaring back at the door. "I mean, I told her you were one of the good guys- as good as you can get, anyway. It's not like you didn't help, um, save the world or anything. It's not your fault your family was screwed up and tried to rule the world and whatever."
Zuko looked at her, feeling some of his own anger respond to hers. "Let me guess," he said sarcastically, "She's usually a sweet loving woman and she just had a bad day."
Toph snorted and gave his general direction a dismissive wave. "She's usually uptight and prissy," she said, "But I thought diplomacy meant saying everything nicely so you didn't tick off the people you were trying to negotiate with."
"That's a common misunderstanding," Zuko said, in tones of bitterness, "It actually means that you get to be as horrible as possible while phrasing it all so you sound nice."
"You sound like you're speaking from experience."
"You have no idea." Zuko spoke the last line through gritted teeth, remembering a few of those so-called 'diplomatic' meetings.
It reminded him somewhat of speaking to a room full of slightly more benevolent Azulas: they weren't actually trying to kill him, but their disdain of his country was made clear enough.
It was true that the Fire Nation had done nothing to endear itself to any of the other nations, but he thought at least the hostility would be toned down for peace talks, and that he would be given a chance as the new ruler of the nation. Being the avatar's firebending master helped, but his reputation as the banished prince who had spent the better part of three years hunting down the avatar for capture tended to weigh in people's minds.
Meanwhile, the somber tone of the conversation looked like it was wearing on Toph. Never one for that level of seriousness to begin with, she looked restless. Probably thinking that there was anywhere she wanted to be at the moment except here, discussing important matters of state with a teammate turned monarch.
She gave a self-deprecating little smirk at some piece of inner monologue, shrugged her shoulders, and looked up at him. "It's weird, you know? I mean, when we- well, not we exactly, since you were kind of evil or something at the time-"
"Yes, yes," Zuko said impatiently, waving a hand for her to continue. Not that there was any point to using hand gestures with a blind person.
"When we were traveling around and teaching Aang stuff, I think we just figured…you know. This is it. We take out the Fire Lord, only we'd assumed he was going to die," she looked as uncomfortable with that as Aang had- both at the fact that their peace-loving friend might have been forced to take a life, and also with the awkward knowledge that she was talking to the son of the man they'd planned to murder. The situation was just entirely uncomfortable all around, but the topic itself did not lend itself readily to easy discussion.
"Anyway," she said, voice lowering into the softness that came with remembrance, "We thought we'd defeat him, and then we'd be done. That was our job. But it's not, isn't it? Not for you, anyway. Not for Aang or even Sokka and Katara."
Toph sounded half-thoughtful, half-wistful, like she wished that she was also tasked with something grand-scale and purposeful, instead of staying at home with a family that seemed to dote on her.
Zuko felt like sighing in response to that question- not so much a question, but rather a realization on her part. "No," he said simply.
Aang was, of course, traveling and aiding people as best he could. From what he'd last heard, Sokka was paying a visit to Suki on Kiyoshi island while his father, Hakoda, joined forces with Katara and her team of waterbenders for the reconstruction of the South Pole. In a short time, Sokka himself would be called over for his part in rebuilding the South to be as populous as the North. Not an easy task, and not one that would be complete any time soon. In fact, they probably had a comparable burden to his own: the rebuilding of a nation.
However, in his case, it was more of a dismantling, much to the outrage of his people. At least the Water Tribe fully supported Katara and Sokka's actions. Every day, Zuko heard of more public disapproval and even rebellion. People refusing to leave the colonies, openly defying the orders from the crown, and even more whispers of rebellion in the streets.
Generally, the situation was pretty simple. The people wanted Azula or Ozai to rule and bring the Fire Nation back to its former glory, they wanted them to return their idea of the country's 'honor' by killing the Avatar for overthrowing the man who'd brought them such power. Any talk of Ozai's insanity, the invasion plan's true purpose, and the genocide of the air benders was dismissed as rebel fantasies and propaganda. In the eyes of his nation, Zuko stood condemned as a traitor prince.
Was that all he would ever be thought as? It was disheartening to think that his father had truly set his path in stone when he brought his burning hand to his face and scarred him.
Too aware of the change in mood, Toph shifted restlessly from side to side. "Anyway. Where's Twinkle Toes? I heard he was going to stop by to talk about politics and diplomacy stuff with the rest of the Earth Kingdom people here. I'm sure he'll fall asleep or eat lychee nuts instead, or something, but before you two get ready for the snooze fest that meeting's likely to be, we should at least hang out. Maybe have some tongue-burning fire cakes, or fire flakes, or fire gummies, or all those other fire snack foods." She made a face. "You people like fire too much. It's kind of sick."
Zuko smiled wryly, sensing the sudden conversation change for what it was. She was still unhappy with the too-solemn topic, and although she seemed like she was upset or worried about something regarding the political state of affairs, it looked like she'd decided to sail them off to safer conversational waters.
"You're jealous because you wouldn't be able to sell dirt flakes as well," he said loftily, and headed off the throne and towards the door. Toph quickly followed, striding behind him with purpose, her firm footsteps as comforting as one of Uncle's vague aphorisms. Moreso, really, since they didn't leave him with a headache and a deep-rooted sense of intellectual inferiority.
"See, right around here," Toph said, "Is where Katara would say something nice and motherly, like: 'how have you been keeping', whatever that means, or 'how was your journey?'"
"How was your journey?" Zuko parroted reflexively, opening the door and ignoring the servants, who went around looking scandalized as a hobby lately. Between his very liberal style of ruling, the diplomats in residence, and his friends occasionally dropping by to make messes of things, their lives were a perpetual mess of chaos.
"I didn't actually want to be asked that, you know. I was just saying it to mess with you. Besides, it's not the same coming from you. No offense, but you're not really the nurturing type."
"No offense taken. I'm really not. Is there anywhere you wanted to go in the palace?" he asked, with the understanding that the question really meant: 'is there anywhere in this place that you haven't conquered to your liking yet, and please don't earthbend the walls this time, it makes the servants jumpy?"
"Good question. You need to tell me more about your house, Zuko. I need details. I mean, I can earthbend and see the place myself, but it's nicer to hear it from somebody and have a convenient tour guide so I don't run into curtains or those stupid wall hangings."
He smiled at the reminder of an earlier trip to the palace, where Toph had wandered into one of the women's quarters in the palace and had ended up entwined in silk hangings, almost suspended from the ceiling-to-floor length lengths of fabric like a fly in a spider's web.
"I'll be glad to come with you, if I'm not busy with, well, business." Zuko followed that statement with a vague hand gesture that was meant to encompass all of his Fire Lordly activities.
Toph nodded her appreciation. Her boyish body language had quickly returned after her chaperone had fled to the cool sanctuary of her room, and the jutting chin and clenched fists were at odds with her elegant dress, neat coiffure, and understated make-up.
The jarring effect of her manners versus her attire was comical, especially combined with memory of her misadventure with his wall hangings. Zuko tried to choke back a chuckle, but his attempt to suppress his laughter was a little less than effective.
"What?" she demanded, stopping where she was and tilting her head to the side. She shifted one bare foot against the palace marble floors, in a gesture that was probably her way of 'looking around'.
"Nothing," he said brightly, not wanting to get on her bad side, as it tended to be painful.
She just gave him a look that indicated that she was unimpressed with his obvious falsehood.
Zuko gave up. He could easily make up a reason, but he was a really terrible liar, and she could sense his lack of honesty right through the floor. That was one side effect of her remarkable bending ability that he could really do without; bad enough that he was cursed with an inability to lie convincingly, but a walking lie detector gleefully calling his bluff every time he tried was way too much. On the other hand, she could really come in handy with solving criminal cases.
He thought of some tactful way to put it, since confessing to a girl that he thought she looked funny when she'd probably put a lot of effort into dressing up to look pretty didn't seem like the best thing to say, even to his socially-awkward mind.
As tact was another area in which he failed miserably, he gave up and just shot it out.
"Uh- well," he started intelligently, "I wasn't expecting you to come- dressed like that." Even in the few riotous celebrations they'd held after his father had been defeated and the world had been more or less freed from danger, she'd stuck by her old outfit- Earth Kingdom green clothes fit for fighting in, sturdy and resilient.
Toph's lips quirked up in one corner in a wry, almost self-deprecating way. "Not used to me looking girly, Zuko?" Her tone was jokingly challenging.
"I'm not used to you using formal manners," he said, knowing her question for the dangerous one it was, as far as girls were concerned. She gave him a halfhearted punch on the arm anyway, (and Toph's halfhearted punches were like anyone else's real ones,) and he felt relieved at the implied lack of an insulted ego.
"I'm not trying offend you or anything," he continued, "But you never seemed like you'd like wearing a dress and being a lady of the court." Zuko used the term sardonically, as anyone who'd been in a courtly setting knew the type he was referring to- the matching set to the noble boys who went around preening an hitting on everything in sight, those 'ladies' were often self-centered and vain to the point of ridiculousness.
She grinned in response. "I like wearing a dress just fine, at least ones that don't make it hard for me to move. One outfit's as good as another. It's just that dresses aren't usually good for the bending stuff I do. Not that I mind the dirt, but," she shrugged, "Something about these things makes them completely unbearable the day after I use 'em. Can't say why." Toph smiled in a reflective, amused way, a quiet reflection of her cocky grin.
"Anyway, I promised my mom and dad I'd be on my best behavior, and of course they stuffed my suitcases full of these kind of outfits, and I even have a couple lady's maids. They just hover around now. I think they're afraid to touch me."
"And you didn't help them with this irrational fear at all, I bet."
Another smug smile. "Nope."
Zuko couldn't help his own smile at the thought of the greatest earthbender in the world terrorizing her ladies maids into submission.
"I should try the proper lady act just once to shock everyone, though," she said, thinking about this, "I'll spend all day fainting over tea and then surprise them all by earthbending a hole in the floor for a trapdoor. I'll chute them right into the pool area, or maybe the laundry room," she said, grinning evilly as she plotted the downfall of his guests.
"Try not to cause a national crisis," he said, "I don't want to hear any diplomats complaining about sudden water slides in the conference room."
"Water slides are more Katara," Toph said disdainfully, "I'd totally do a mudslide. And they'd better like it, earth is patriotic, even wet earth."
Zuko's smile flickered at the corners of his mouth, there and then gone again quickly when he recalled the Fire Nation's pet name for Earth Kingdom people. People of the dirt. Toph turned her head towards him, her brow furrowed and mouth set thoughtfully, like she could hear his thoughts.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"No. Nothing important." Anymore.
Toph expression clearly stated that this answer was being barely passed over, not because it was acceptable, but because she grudgingly understood a need for privacy. At least now. She would totally come back later and try to wheedle and answer out of him.
"So…how is your family?" he asked, bringing the tone of the discussion inescapably to solemnity in his attempt to change the subject.
Unsurprisingly, she didn't seem fond of the change in topics. Toph paused at the sudden question about her personal life, eyes narrowing. "You really know how to ease into these things, don't you?" she said bluntly, "That's what I like about you. You always know just what to say."
He winced. "Bad?"
"No, it's not bad. It's just…" she sighed, and trailed off. "The same. It's different, but the difference is kind of- more of the same than ever. You know?" Maybe it was the make up that was meant to accentuate delicate features, but the look she had was more open, more vulnerable than anything he'd seen on her face before. She didn't look upset, even. Just resigned.
He knew that, before they'd gone their separate ways, she'd spent more than a few nights afraid of returning home, for fear of being locked in their family estate again, or being rejected outright. Zuko, possibly the only member of their group who could understand that kind of isolation, had been the supportive ear she would confide to.
At first, he hadn't taken her complaints about her family life seriously, or even thought of them as problematic or hurtful. His family had shunned and scarred and attacked him, and when he heard of the parents that adored her and kept her safe in a perfect haven of luxury, he felt like she was as spoiled as the wealthy Fire Nation noble brats he'd been made playmates of as a child and didn't understand her own blessings. How awful it was to have parents who would do anything and pay anything to protect her! But that was only his biased first glance at her problems.
After more conversations with her, he began to realize that the troubles he'd been envying and making light of were really an inverse of his own. Instead of being cast away, she was being smothered. And the root of it was the same: Zuko's father thought he was useless and weak because of his lesser skill in firebending, Toph's parents thought she was frail and weak because of her disability. Once he'd realized that, a new understanding sprung up between them.
Besides, he liked Toph. There was something about her prickly no-nonsense attitude and the sheer determination to be independent that he couldn't help but admire.
That sense of understanding and companionship was yet another one of those unlikely, new situations that had continued to come up ever since the Avatar and his friends had taken him into their group. Not entirely unpleasant, but strange, and strangely comforting.
Except the group hugs. Those were just awkward.
Looking at the distant expression on her face, Zuko felt the sudden urge to go visit Gaoling and treat these parents of hers to a regal lecture about the treatment of daughters, especially daughters who could bend metal and defeat armies and generally live a perfectly rewarding life while being blind.
Since a sudden trip out of the Fire Nation was inadvisable at best and suicidal at worst, he resigned himself to concocting really severe letters in his mind. Yes That would show them.
"Never mind," he said, "Let's go wait for Aang in the reception area. He should be coming any time now. If we have time, I think we should test him on his bending," he added in a slightly exasperated side note.
Aang had never gotten around to being truly exceptional at either firebending or earthbending, relying instead on his air bending mastery along with taking an aesthetic enjoyment in waterbending. This was probably due to his continued relationship with Katara, a confusing long-distance affair that involved lots of letters and occasional hasty visits.
Both Toph and Zuko were of the mind that, conquered Fire Lord or no, Aang still had his Avatarly duties to be the best bender of any type there was, and that meant fire and earth, too.
No matter how hard it was, or how strangely un-aggressive their pupil could be. Honestly, Aang would be a brilliant firebender if he'd just take the initiative more and attacked instead of defended all the time. Not for the first time, he cursed the impracticality of the airbenders and their teachings.
"All we have to do," he continued, trying to form a strategy in his mind, "Is to pin him down and keep him from escaping."
Toph smiled widely an turned to him with a truly wicked gleam in her sightless eyes. "So," she said casually, "Wanna jump him?"
Clearly, 'being on her best behavior' had been an outright lie.
Author's Note: To the reviewer who noted a lack of meetings in the first chapter, I admit that might have been somewhat deceptive. However, I would disagree with the idea that Zuko's reign would be devoid of meetings, as canonically, there were meetings of war generals, a meeting at Ba Sing Se about the war, and various other occasions that indicated that meetings would be perfectly acceptable things to have. If they were having such things in a time of war, I certainly would expect them in a time of peace as well. I hope that I described some of the politics so the necessity of these diplomatic meetings would be made clear- the Earth Kingdom is fractured and each surviving city-state counts as its own 'country', hence the need for multiple discussions over a treaty.