Smoke hazed the horizon, as it had for days. Hakoda could taste it as his ships edged past ever-burning fires and the occasional bit of wreckage to ease through the throat of the harbor. Looks like the stone dock came out the worst, he thought, raising his spyglass to eye cracked and seared rock crumbling in various precarious places. I would have thought the wood would fare worse, but somehow they fire-proofed it... Oooof.
The glass let him focus on Suzuran's scarred side; he had to shake his head that the ship was still afloat. "What happened to them?"
"Fire and ice." Iroh settled his hands deeper in red sleeves, eyes haunted. "I have seen such wounds before, on ships of old."
"Ozai didn't send everybody to the North." Aang bit his lip, and gripped the railing a little harder. "You're sure we can anchor out here, away from the dock? I know ships drift a little, and there are all these fires..."
"There are a lot of them." Hakoda took another look across the stretch of water he'd picked as an anchorage. "But they're predictable. We'll have enough room."
"Good. Because... I'm not going on shore."
Iroh sighed. "Aang. The war is over-"
"This doesn't have anything to do with the war." Aang squinted past him toward the charred and green slopes, shaking his head. "I beat Koh by telling him I was going to fix things. And if I'm going to fix things between the Fire Nation and everybody else, I need to make sure people keep their promises. And that means I have to keep mine. Zuko doesn't want me in his domain. I'm staying out of it." He let out a slow breath, ruffling the water. "But if you could give him my regards... oh, heck, I don't even know the right Fire Nationy way to say that. Just - he wants me out, I'm out. I just want to know if everybody's okay..." He brightened, as a shadow moved with the wind. "Appa! Down here, buddy!"
Hakoda shaded his eyes to study the full saddle, and chuckled. "Looks like you'll know soon enough."
"Ooo, why does war have to be so messy!" Fuming, Suyin dunked yet another tunic into the washtub. Shook soapy water off her hands, and heaved a sigh. "Okay, go for it."
Jia rubbed her palms against each other, back and forth. In the tub, a shaped stone spire moved to her will, sloshing water and cloth in a steady motion.
Suyin grinned, and set to work checking through the next load for any spots that needed a little extra soap. No more scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing. This is the best idea ever.
Jinhai flopped down by their garden wall; up, but not shaped and pretty yet, in the wake of putting too many buildings back together. "I'm bored."
"So am I," Jia said happily. "No volcanic rumbles under us, no airships over us, no emergencies in the healing wing, no restless spirits swarming up out of the sea to attack us. Everything's very, very boring."
Jinhai scowled at both of them, and rolled his eyes. "...Girls are so weird."
"Yeah?" Suyin dried off her hands, and picked up the little pile of leather she'd left safely off to one side. One pouch of fern-spore powder to strap to her forearm, under her sleeve. One pair of metal thimbles, for thumb and forefinger.
Puffs of flame, close enough to make her bratty little brother scramble backward.
Suyin grinned. "So how boring is this?"
Jinhai picked his jaw off the ground. "...How'd you do that?"
"Maybe if you ask Mom nicely, she'll tell you." Suyin winked. "Now, how about some hints on how to make this look like firebending, little brother?"
Maybe the war was over. The Avatar was out in the harbor, and nobody was shooting at each other, so with luck it was. But in case somebody hadn't gotten the word...
Anybody who comes after my little brother, has to go through me first.
"Go to your room? Seriously?" Sokka scratched at his hair, watching Aang get buried under hugs. Even Suki got in on the action, grinning like the sun rising. And there was something rattling in a shadowed corner near the railing; maybe hidden in a coiled hawser, even though anything that could be that loud shouldn't fit.
Sokka wasn't going to look that way too hard. No sense asking for trouble.
"It worked on me," Aang grinned. "I thought, why not?" His brows scrunched down. "I'm going to have to go into the Spirit World and visit him once in a while."
...Yep. By the way Sokka's ears were ringing, he wasn't the only one who'd yelled that.
"You don't act like somebody's teacher and then go off and leave them." Aang worked his airstaff around and around in his grip as if someone had carved on the secrets of the universe when he wasn't looking. "If the World Spirit's his parent, then..." The tips of his ears reddened. "Sometimes, when you steal apples out of the orchards, or go out riding after dark - it's because you want to be sure someone's paying attention. And - at least since Kuruk went looking for his wife - the Avatars haven't."
Sokka traded a glance with his sister and girlfriend, and saw Toph clap a hand to her forehead in pure disbelief. "Um. Aang," he said warily. "I know you think somebody ought to feel responsible for this, but..."
"What he's trying to say is, be careful." Katara touched his hand, just above white knuckles. "You just had a big fight with him, right? Then you need to give him some time to calm down and think it over anyway. So get some rest first. Then think about when you should go talk to him again."
Aang's shoulders drooped. "I wanted to talk to him..."
"How about spirit-letters?" Suki put in. "I... well, I don't write them a lot, but every year... you write them for everyone who's passed on, and burn them to send them to the spirit world. Do you think that would work?"
"Huh." The airbender chewed his lip. "But he wouldn't be able to write back. And I want him to understand."
"You can't make people understand anything," Toph shrugged. "Just look at Sparky. He had to beat his head against a stone wall forever before he started figuring things out."
"He sent you a message," Sokka stuck in, while Aang was chewing on that unwelcome fact. "They got most of the pressure out of Asagitatsu. He's not making any promises about walking on shore, but he's pretty sure as long as you don't do anything noisy, the volcano's going to ignore you."
Aang whistled, shoulders thrown back in relief. "Well, that's something. I was worried I was going to have to get off the ship, so Chief Hakoda and everybody would be okay." He grinned. "He sent a message? Awesome! Who knows? Maybe if I'm good enough at keeping a promise, Zuko and I can be friends again!"
Toph poked their airbending buddy with one small finger. "Again kind of implies you were friends before."
Eh, it'd been a long year for all of them. Aang had earned a rescue. "Who knows?" Sokka shrugged. "War's over. Anything could happen."
"Er, let me be sure I understand this correctly." A bit dazed, Earth King Kuei adjusted his glasses. "You want Master Sergeant Yakume to stay?"
Behind him, he could almost feel Agent Bon's carefully hidden amusement. Eshe wasn't even trying to hide her smile, gray eyes dancing as a Lower Ring Guard captain crossed his arms stubbornly - then caught himself, and sketched an awkward, unpracticed bow. "Yes, sir. Your majesty. The Guard's still short-handed and the citizens are cranky and there's no way we're getting the Fire Army out of here in a hurry even if Captain Taka does have orders. We need somebody attached to the Guard who can break Fire Nation heads legally." An Lu-shan cleared his throat. "Besides. We've got almost enough evidence to nail a bunch of smugglers who've been weighting their flour sacks with lead, and I want to catch these bastards. Um. Sir."
The Fire Army soldier was almost smoldering in his armor, knee flexed to take some of the weight off a healed leg. "Don't I get a say in this?"
Captain Lu-shan tried to look innocent. "What, you don't want to catch them?"
"That's not the point!"
Safely out of range of a kick, one of Lu-shan's street guards sighed. "Squadroom's just not the same without Huojin," Officer Yaoju said regretfully. "Your temper's almost as bad, though."
Majestic, Kuei told himself. He had to look majestic. Even if he did want to snicker. "I understand you're from Onsenzakura, Master Sergeant?"
That drew an even darker scowl. "Yes?"
"As I understand the maps, your colony is reasonably close to Dragons' Wings, by the sea route," Kuei said thoughtfully. "Ba Sing Se wants to keep close ties to our relatives there, and to the Northern Air Temple gliders. If we could establish friendly ties to people along the way... I think there's going to be a lot of trade going both ways in a few years."
"Wouldn't know anything about that," Yakume said bluntly. "I'm just a soldier."
"A soldier who's done his best to adhere to the letter and spirit of the law he was charged to enforce. Despite a lot of death on both sides." Kuei folded his hands. No giggling, he told himself sternly. "As it happens, your Captain Taka already provided a list of personnel to help... manage the withdrawal. You and Captain Sanya are on my agents' short list of Fire soldiers we can trust to handle the job. If the Guards of the Lower Ring are willing to put up with you, I'd be happy if you honored their trust." He smiled, just a little rueful. "Or I can have you shipped back to the Fire Army lines in a block with a chisel. A very small chisel."
Silence. For a moment Kuei's heart clenched; hundreds of them had sworn to him, but maybe he didn't know Fire people at all-
A snort of laughter, and Yakume shook his head. "Maybe you can hold this city after all." He inclined his head. "Good luck, your majesty. I'll try to be one less headache for you." He cut a glance at Lu-shan. "Though I can't speak for the captain."
Lu-shan sketched a quick bow to his king, and hared after the man. "Since when am I a headache, you cranky little fish-gnawer?"
"Since always, noodle-slurper..."
Eshe's smile was warm. "Should we invite them to the wedding, my bear-friend?"
Kuei covered a chuckle. "I think that might be too much for a simple soldier."
"Just a soldier," Agent Bon muttered. "Sure he is."
Kuei glanced at his betrothed, and matched her raised eyebrow.
"A simple soldier who reads Earth Kingdom law, and argues it well enough the magistrates even listen," the Dai Li shrugged. "He'll tell anyone in earshot he doesn't like us - but how many people do you know who study Fire Nation law?"
"I do," Kuei murmured, a bit lost.
"...Of course you do. Well." Bon coughed. "At least the Fire Nation is in as much of a mess as we are."
The message was written on plain military paper; not a messenger-hawk's silk or formal parchment. But the precise strokes and careful wording were a dead give-away to anyone who'd suffered through royal tutors' head-pounding efforts at education... and a stark contrast to the quick scrawls of fire-writing appearing in the heat of the flames around the Dragon Throne.
Zuko, Lord of Dragon's Wings, congratulates Lord Azula...
Zuko, Lord of Dragons' Wings, congratulates Lord Azula of Caldera City on her ascension to the Dragon Throne.
(Better you than me!)
I have been reliably informed that Avatar Kyoshi's decree binding great names to the Fire Lord has been lifted. From past experience, descriptions of events in Ba Sing Se, and information gained on the current status of the onmitsu, I have every confidence that you will be able to hold the loyalty of every lord willing to join you. I am also certain that you possess the necessary calm judgment, canniness, and swift ruthlessness of action to keep the rest on their toes.
(Make 'em sweat. They deserve every minute of it.)
You may wish to review Yamanoue no Okura's Ten Thousand Leaves. I know, poetry, meh. But there are some interesting bits in there on distinguishing punishment from consequences. One of them only motivates people for a little while. The other may actually work, long-term, to change their behavior.
(Also, try counting to ten. Backwards. Before you fry things. Anticipation makes frying things better, anyway.)
My domain is currently rebuilding from a mostly contained eruption and battle damage.
(Ask Grandfather for details on Shirotora in a Bad Mood.)
We are currently consulting with the heir of Shu Jing to establish necessary assistance from our allies. I anticipate that some aid from Byakko might be forthcoming if ships currently assigned to the blockade chose to ignore vessels flying certain flags. A repositioning of the blockade might be advisable in any event, given the current strategic situation.
(Aang's not interested in searing the Fire Nation down to the bedrock. And I think we've killed off the real firebrands among the Earth Generals, so he ought to be able to stand his ground with a little help. Think about it.
And no, I didn't say who Shu Jing's heir was. I suspect that's going to be complicated.
Besides, I know you'll get a laugh once you figure it out. I'm not going to spoil your fun.)
It will be some time before we will be in a position to offer coronation gifts suitable to your strength and bloodline. In the interim, I can only offer the gift of counsel. Take it as you will.
I understand you're looking for a consort. Healer's advice: don't worry about firebending strength. Look for a family history of mental stability. And never tell me the details.
(And if a prospective consort's family has a closet full of puppets? Do what you do best.)
"Never tell me the details?" Azula scowled at the paper. "What details?"
Mai raised a skeptical brow.
"...Those details?" Azula shuddered.
"I think we're going to have some long talks with your mother," Mai murmured.
"Mother." Azula looked away. "What am I going to tell him?"
"I'd tell him the truth," Mai said bluntly.
Now Azula raised an eyebrow.
"...We'll do a few drafts, first."
We really did it. Toph wriggled her toes in volcanic dirt, feeling the heat radiating from the ground and air around this one of many, many tiny flame-vents around the caldera. A nice, gentle heat, with earth and rock twitching a little, like a pygmy puma in its sleep. But just twitching. Not the cranky, steam-rattling-pressure-gauges fury Asagitatsu had held just a month before. One volcano, curled up and snoozing. Awesome.
"Dad, did you know the guy who takes care of Suzuran's hawks is from Shu Jing?" Sokka's voice floated over to where Toph was poking at the vent. "That's... wow. I could tell him stuff about his home town, when he hasn't been home in years to see it himself."
Chief Hakoda chuckled; Toph thought it sounded a little homesick. "Sounds like hearing about the ice down south from the army."
"There's a couple people here who probably could tell you a little, yeah," Sokka admitted. "Though Zuko didn't stick around too long- where are you going with that?"
Katara shifted under a heavy weight; pottery jars, from the feel of them. "Asiavik says Yugoda wants Amaya to have these."
"More healing supplies?" Suki whistled. "I thought everyone was getting better."
Katara cleared her throat. "Actually... he said something about seal jerky, weird cravings, and making sure Iroh stays alive."
"Oh?" Suki must have seen something Toph couldn't read through the dirt; she stifled a snicker. "Oh."
Sokka took a wary step back. "Huh?"
She was with Sokka on this one, Toph thought. What was that all about?
"Son," Hakoda said, in the tones of a man about to walk over hot coals, "you're getting to the age where a man needs to know a few things. Before he finds out the hard way."
From the drag of Sokka's heels as the two men headed off, Hakoda's grip on his shoulder wasn't taking no for an answer. "...I am so going to wish I didn't ask, right?"
Silent footsteps came up in their wake, visible by the weight of metal around them. And the snickering.
Toph poked a finger toward armor. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, just wondering how the Water Tribe version of the Talk goes," Teruko smirked. "Probably a little less dangling over open volcanoes from a shovel, and more upset brothers on ice floes in the middle of the night."
"We usually use a harpoon," Katara snickered. "Though, Gran-Gran always said to save that part for when things... well, get a little more serious." She turned, and tapped one hand near her waterskin. "You are serious about my brother, right?"
"Yeah." Suki sounded just a little surprised. "Yeah, I think I am. He's a warrior, and he's brave... and he's funny." She patted the fan in her belt. "My old aunties always said, look for a guy who can laugh at himself. That'll get you through more tough spots than a sword."
"Yeah, it will," Katara said, half to herself. "Spirits don't care about swords."
"Huh. Well, if you are serious about chasing that airbender, you might want to get that story in early," Teruko said practically. "He needs things repeated a few times." She snorted. "Not that different from a singed young recruit, I guess. He doesn't know what he doesn't know."
"Speaking of knowing..." Toph rubbed her chin between thumb and forefinger, trying to look as evil as possible. "I've got a bargain for you, Fingernails."
"Uh-oh," Suki said under her breath.
"Oh, this should be good," Katara snickered.
Teruko shifted her weight as she glanced between them, then focused back on Toph. "What kind of deal?"
"Well..." Toph rubbed her hands together. "I'll do the strap-him-to-a-rolling-boulder version for one Dai Li guy, when you get ready to chase him."
"And?" Teruko ventured.
"When I'm old enough, you point me at some good sake," Toph said firmly. "I've got some ideas for a cord that won't burn, and I'm going to need somebody who can make sure it's red..."
"One of these days," Saoluan muttered, going at her little brother's singed hair with scissors as the three of them sat on his favorite ledge, "you're going to have to tell everybody the story. Tracking down a centuries-old dragon; you're got the best drinking story and you don't even drink-"
"Ack!" Langxue ducked behind a shield of ice, almost stabbing himself on her scissors. "Watch it!"
Agent Shirong blinked blearily. Sniffled, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Was that... sparks?"
Still holding trimmed bits of hair, Saoluan waved the charred ends his way. "Somebody's plotting about you."
"Plotting?" Shirong sat up, instantly alert. "If you know about some kind of conspiracy-"
Saoluan almost stuck her tongue out at him. "Not that kind of plot." Hmm. If somebody finally has made up their mind to go after you... wonder if I can help?
"You've got that evil look on your face again," Langxue deadpanned.
One brow raised, Langxue flicked ice with his fingers, shattering it into drifting flakes he collected with a sweep of his hand. Formed two loose snowballs, and handed one to Shirong. "Here. This should make it a fair fight."
Hefted the other, and gave his big sister a considering look.
Ah, the sound of yelping in the wind. Zuko smirked a little as he leaned back on one of Amaya's garden benches, watching sunlight play through the water in the rebuilt fountain, wondering who'd fallen afoul of Asahi's temper this time.
"My old bones... the wounds of war are always such a trial to mend." Iroh stretched his back with an audible pop, then settled himself on the opposite end of the bench. "One would think you might wish to corral her more thoroughly."
"When the rattle-vipers learn to stop coming into town, maybe," Zuko shrugged, folding the letter in his hand. "Better if she's the one who bites people. Asahi's not venomous."
Iroh chuckled. "Some might say otherwise." He folded his hands in his sleeves. "A letter from our new Fire Lord?"
Oh, this was going to be tricky. "From the Lord of Caldera City," Zuko stated. "She left off most of her titles." Which was an interesting balancing act.
"Hmm." From that twitch of white brows, Iroh was calculating some of the same political considerations he had. "Which allows her to address you as an honorable enemy, or even a potential ally, rather than a rebel domain."
"I don't think she knows what's going to be most advantageous yet," Zuko nodded. "So she's keeping her options open."
Iroh stroked his beard. "She means to be flexible, then? We have not seen that in a Fire Lord in... quite some time."
"Since Kyoshi," Zuko murmured.
"I would not go quite so far..."
"Let's just hope it works." Zuko eyed the paper, trying not to feel a twinge of envy. "She's offering Byakko passes through the blockade for time with Grandfather."
Zuko waved the paper. "The Lord of Caldera City requests that Lady Kotone of Byakko provide access to the valued council of the legendary swordsman and information-gatherer Shidan of Byakko, for our domains' mutual benefit and stability," he stated, in his best court-formal tones. And had to chuckle, despite himself. "In other words, let me talk to Grandfather, and let's find some way to do it that won't get too many people killed. Except the idiots. Who needs the idiots anyway?"
Iroh blinked. "...Oh dear."
"He must think she's better," Zuko said, half to himself. "Maybe it wasn't an act, at Boiling Rock. Maybe she can figure out how to care about people. That would be good." He let out a slow breath. "That would be really good."
"It would, indeed," Iroh said gently. "It is good to be able to care about one's family."
"I'm still sending armed ambassadors, when we get that far. It'll make her feel better if they can snarl back." Zuko gave his uncle a wry look. "What do you think about Jia Wen?"
For a moment, Iroh looked very disconcerted indeed. "She is... young."
"I wouldn't send her alone," Zuko said grumpily. "She is young. But she's got great manners, she knows how to keep her thoughts behind a smile, and she's the only earthbender I've ever heard of who got the drop on Azula. And did it when she was scared stiff. My sister's going to respect that."
"And above all, dragons wish the respect they have earned," Iroh mused. "Even the young ones." He stroked his beard again, looking into the distance. "Your sister appears to have discovered some scruples; something I was not certain my brother's daughter could do. And you, too, have grown, since you first warned me of heating river-rocks. You have become more willing to speak out, in defense of yourself and others."
"Asagitatsu's a really big rock," Zuko said wryly. "I don't know where we'd find enough charcoal to pack around her." He took a deep breath. This hurt. Not as much as finding out from Azula that their mother was in the Fire Nation, and had no intention of leaving, but it still stung. "You were right about the Fire Lord attacking the Northern Tribe."
"Gracious of you." Iroh smiled, just a little. "Right, and wrong. There is no fool like an old fool. I have spent so much time attempting to discern the spirits' will for the future, I sometimes forget the world here and now. A fault I shall have to remedy, to be a proper husband to your aunt."
"I'm sure Master Amaya will appreciate that," Zuko said warily. What now?
"Master?" Iroh waved a scolding finger. "Is that any way to refer to the mother of your cousin to be?"
He couldn't have heard that. He could not have heard that.
And what was he doing on the ground, anyway?
"Oh dear," Iroh sighed.
"Iroh!" Amaya's voice, as if from a distance. "What did you tell him?"
"Er... the good news?"
A rueful sigh, and Zuko heard her robes swish toward him. "You do realize that ever since your disastrous ferry ride into Ba Sing Se, he's been studying up on everything that can go wrong with a pregnancy?"
"Gnmph," Zuko grumbled, waving a hand in protest.
"I'll be fine." Amaya crouched down by him. "I'm a healer, we have other healers and midwives in the settlement, and you're nearly ready to move out of apprenticeship yourself-"
"Arghggsnf!" No, no, no! Don't you dare make this my mastery test!
"It'll be fine." Warm fingers carded through his hair. "You'll see. Everything will be fine."
Oh, no. Zuko closed his eyes, and tried not to groan. You just had to say that...
A/N: Yes, that's it. I have other ideas for things that might happen down the road in this AU, including a certain group of interstellar explorers wandering through a big stone ring down in the ruins, but this is the end of the story I wanted to tell.
...Yes, one of those big stone rings. I know people have guessed it.
(And in case anyone's wondering, Amaya has twin girls.)