an Avatar: the Last Airbender fanfic
By Kimberly T.
Takes place post-canon series. The war is over, and everyone's doing just fine… Until tragedy strikes, it is revealed that in fact things are far from fine, and people have to make hard choices. Starts with canon relationships, but not all of them will last and others will evolve.
Author's note: I've written a few ATLA one-shots and drabbles series, and the following stories & series can be considered prequels to this fic:
Operational Risk Management
Avatar Drabbles: Missing Moments
Facing Up to It
Drinking Tea and Waiting
New Dai Li
The events of Operational Risk Management occur before the show started, and the Missing Moments are pre-series and mid-series drabbles. But Facing Up to It, Drinking Tea and Waiting, and New Dai Li are all post-series stories, and the events of those stories will be referred to more than once in the first few chapters of this fic.
Also, I'm told that the show creators, when asked how Appa got around so much faster in the latter half of the third season, said that he "flies at the speed of plot." Yup, really cute. But cute's just not good enough when there are incurable nerds like me in the audience! So… my 'headcanon' stretches out the timeline considerably from Boiling Rock onwards. Zuko and Katara's 'field trip' in 'The Southern Raiders' took six days instead of just two, with Aang doing 'more homework' for his firebending under Toph's supervision—you know she wouldn't let him slack off—while they were gone. And Zuko told the GAang about what Ozai planned to do to the Earth Kingdom a full eight days before the Comet, not just three days; a lot more time to go galloping across the Earth Kingdom chasing a shirshu, and clear back to the Fire Nation capital. But even with that stretching out of timeline, Appa flew a lot faster for those last few events than he ever had before; a possible explanation is included in this first chapter.
Chapter 1: Back in Ba Sing Se
(In which there are many, many flashbacks to set the scene; please bear with the near-constant use of past perfect tense for several pages.)
The midday sun shone down on two teenagers as they stepped out of an Earth Kingdom government building in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, stretching and groaning with relief. With them came a dozen more people, four of them trailing a respectful distance behind while the rest fanned out, alertly scanning the streets for trouble; each keeping to their roles as servants and bodyguards for the Fire Lord and the Avatar.
"Ohh, thank you Agni for this glorious sunshine," Zuko sighed, tipping his head back as he soaked in the golden rays. "I was afraid we'd be stuck inside that building 'til nightfall again."
"Fresh air…" Aang sighed, stretching his arms out to feel the slightest breeze. "I am soooo glad that's over. I mean, now it's really over. Finally!"
The battle to defeat Zuko's father, the former Fire Lord and self-proclaimed Phoenix King Ozai, had taken place nearly eighteen months ago. With Ozai defeated by Aang, and Zuko and Katara defeating Azula so Zuko could claim the mantle of Fire Lord, many had thought that the war was over.
And the war had been over, for many people. Hakoda had hugged his children and obtained promises from them that they'd be home soon, then took his cheering Southern Water Tribe warriors home in their newly liberated warships. The Mechanist had been given a war balloon, one quickly painted green and decorated with Earth Kingdom insignia, to return the captured Earth Kingdom warriors to their scattered homes. The citizens of Ba Sing Se had held a massive celebration for the liberation of their city from the Fire Nation; the festivities lasted a solid week (and took nearly two weeks to clean up afterwards.)
The festivities had included a small party to celebrate Iroh's reopening of the Jasmine Dragon, that was attended by all the Avatar's companions (and Mai; she'd never actually traveled anywhere with Aang, but she was Zuko's girlfriend and she proved to play a good game of pai sho). A quietly wonderful time had been had by all, especially Aang when Katara had kissed him for the very first time. But when all the partying had died down, everyone realized that there was still a very large stretch of former Earth Kingdom lands that had long since been claimed as Fire Nation territory and colonized. What was to be done about that?
Aang's initial shrug and suggestion to "Just give the land back to the Earth Kingdom," had made Zuko close his eyes and count to ten, while all the oil lamps in the room had flared sun-bright. Then the Fire Lord and his uncle together had to educate the Avatar and his friends:
The issue didn't involve just the land; it was also about the people living on the land. Some of those regions had been conquered by the Fire Nation nearly a hundred years ago, near the start of the war. Most of the people living in those Fire Nation colonies considered themselves Fire Nation citizens; not only had they been born there, but their fathers and grandfathers had been born there. They were Fire Nation, and they were at home right where they were. For anyone, even the Avatar, to come sailing in and say "This is Earth Kingdom land now; love it or leave it!" would… not sit well with the people, to put it mildly. There were already riots starting up in those colonies, from the fear/anticipation that someone would do just that.
There was also the issue of all the Fire Nation people who didn't think that the war was over at all; that they were just regrouping after the loss of Ba Sing Se and the airship fleet, and would resume conquering the rest of the world as soon as they got that disgraced, ungrateful and usurping son of Ozai off the throne.
The first assassination attempt came only four days after Zuko's coronation speech, just before everyone left for Ba Sing Se and the reunion party at the Jasmine Dragon. Sokka had stopped that one, by tripping a palace guard with his crutch just before that guard could bury a dagger in Zuko's back. It had been entirely by accident, but Sokka always claimed afterwards that his instincts had told him of the guard's real intentions, and his cat-like reflexes had saved the day.
After the party at the Jasmine Dragon, which had reassured Zuko that his uncle would be just fine staying in Ba Sing Se (instead of being surrounded by mobs calling for the execution of the city's old nemesis, the Dragon of the West, Iroh's teashop had been surrounded by eager customers hoping to try the proprietor's new jasmine blend), everyone in Team Avatar had returned to the Fire Nation to make sure Zuko would be just fine on the Fire Throne.
Mai and Toph had immediately started verifying the personal loyalties of everyone in the royal palace. Toph had stood nearby as Mai had interviewed each one, listening to their responses, and together they'd advised Zuko on which servants and guardsmen could be trusted and which of them he needed to dismiss before they conspired to kill him. And since that had resulted in the dismissal of over half of the palace staff, Toph and Mai had spent another few weeks interviewing replacements for essential positions.
While the loyalty interviews had still been going on, Suki had stopped the second assassination attempt, bringing the man down with her fans before he could get within twenty feet of the new Fire Lord. But the third one, just a few days later, had come much closer; when Mai buried a dagger in that assassin's throat, the blood had spattered onto Zuko's robes of office.
Aang and Katara had taken a trip to the colonies, hoping to quell the rioting going on by reassuring the people there that they wouldn't just be abandoned by the new Fire Lord. When they flew back to the capital and Aang found out that there had been three attempts on Zuko's life in less than three weeks, he'd insisted worriedly, "Something has to be done! How can you negotiate with the Earth Kingdom over the Fire Nation colonies when you're too busy just staying alive?"
"Well, short of 'disappearing' the nobles who disagree with me, like my father did…" Zuko had sighed. "If you think of anything, let me know."
"Disappearing? Ozai did magic tricks?" Aang had scratched his bald head for a moment, missing the almost pitying looks Zuko, Mai, Toph and even Sokka were giving him. Then he'd paled. "Oh… No, you can't do that! But, uh… What if I made a few speeches here on your behalf?"
"The Avatar, known for a hundred years as the sworn enemy of the Fire Nation, giving his endorsement of the new Fire Lord. I'm sure that will help a lot," Mai had intoned, with such dry sarcasm that Katara had flinched.
"We need someone that the Fire Nation nobles already respect," Sokka had said, drumming his fingers on the table in thought. "Master Piandao?"
Mai had shaken her head. "He's only a minor noble; his rank isn't high enough to command real respect at court. Also, not a firebender; too many nobles think that firebending is everything."
Then Aang had brightened. "I've got an idea!" And he'd left that afternoon, flying out on Appa at top speed.
During Aang's absence, Katara had gone back to work on Sokka's broken leg to heal it faster, while quietly cursing herself for not staying in Yugoda's healing school in the Northern Water Tribe long enough to learn how they healed broken bones. She had an instinctive talent for water-healing that Yugoda had said was rare and precious, but instincts could only go so far. She had also put more work into healing Zuko's lightning burn, whenever she could corner the Fire Lord long enough for him to admit it still pained him and slowed him down (though he still stubbornly refused to take a day off and actually rest).
The day before Aang had returned, the few guards that had vowed true loyalty to Zuko had stopped the fourth assassination attempt; Zuko made the man that had actually brought the assassin down his new captain of the guard. (It had actually been the fifth assassination attempt; Toph had stopped the fourth one by herself. But Mai and Toph had together agreed to not say anything to Zuko about the fourth attempt, out of concern that he'd develop a fear of toilets as a result.)
Then Aang had returned on Appa; the sky bison had been tired from nonstop flying but the Avatar had been grinning from ear to ear when he'd told everyone who he'd been to see and what was about to happen. The next day, two giant, sinuous shapes had come flowing across the sky. For the first time in over eighty years, dragons were seen over the Fire Nation capital!
An astonished crowd had gathered as the dragons Ran and Shao had danced in the sky above the palace, spouting multicolored rivers of flame. People had wondered aloud what this return of the revered and original firebenders meant for their nation; was it a reminder that Fire was indeed the superior element? Would this signal a return to the old ways and a restarting of the war? Several of the watching nobles had dared to speculate aloud that the dragons were there to oust that disgraced brat from the throne, and put a true leader of the nation in his place.
Then the new Fire Lord had appeared on the palace steps, in full regalia. As if that had been what they'd been waiting for, the red dragon Ran had descended from the sky in a spiraling dance that ended in a graceful landing before the palace steps. The dragon had faced the Fire Lord, while everyone held their breaths (except for the few people buried in the crowd that were quietly chanting "Eat him! Roast him!")
Then the Fire Lord had given a short but respectful bow. In response, Ran had bowed and twisted that long and sinuous neck to put his head next to Zuko's feet, in clear invitation. Unable to suppress his grin any longer, Zuko had climbed aboard, while the assembled crowd gasped in shock and awe. Beating his massive wings, Ran had leaped into the sky to spiral around the capital city, then headed out over the water. Shortly after the red dragon had ascended, the blue dragon had descended in another spiral, to land where the Fire Lord had been only moments before.
While the dragons had danced with fire in the sky, Aang and the rest of Team Avatar had been watching from a palace balcony. As Ran and Zuko had flown away, Aang had cheered, "Have fun, Zuko!" Then he'd blinked and asked, "Hey, what's Shao doing? I thought she'd go flying with her mate… Maybe she's waiting for you to ride her, Mai!"
"I doubt it," Mai had said flatly. "Dragons have never let non-firebenders ride them, in all our nation's history. It used to be a last-resort test of latent ability, to…" she'd stopped, blinked, then grabbed Aang's shoulder in one hand and Katara's in the other. "You two, inside. You're needed to… check the palace plumbing. Toph heard a rumor that someone's going to poison our water supply. Find out where the poison could be added; whether they mean to kill just Zuko, or everyone in the palace."
Aang and Katara had hurried to check out the palace's ingenious plumbing system; Sokka had hobbled after them on his crutch, declaring that his inventive genius could help determine where the water supply might be sabotaged. But Toph had remained on the balcony, as did Suki, who'd glanced at the frowning earthbender and then whispered to Mai, "Why did you really want them to go inside?"
"Because they'd probably try to stop what's about to happen," Mai had whispered back, keeping her eyes on the blue dragon at the palace steps. Shao hadn't been facing the palace; instead, she'd faced the assembled crowd, slowly and gradually extending that long neck to bring her massive head down to almost within reach of a cluster of several nobles, including a few high-ranking military officers. They'd all gulped or trembled but stood their ground as the blue dragon's prehensile whiskers had slowly come forward, to gently touch each man and woman on the forehead. Mai had continued, "The history scrolls stated that when someone failed a dragon's test of either firebending ability or character…"
There had been a sudden lunge, a shriek abruptly cut off, and then a screaming, panicked crowd fleeing the scene as fast as they could while Shao lifted her head and swallowed.
Suki had gasped and drawn back, clutching her fans in a futile gesture of self-defense. Toph had gone almost as pale as Suki's Kyoshi Warrior makeup, but said with an attempt at nonchalance, "Somebody just got eaten, huh? Who was it?"
"General Mung, I think," Mai had said, trembling but keeping her voice steady as she kept her eyes on the fleeing nobles. "And since he was a firebending master, he obviously failed the test of character."
While Mai had still been speaking, Shao had pounced on someone else in the fleeing mob. Moments later, Mai had added, "General Bujing has also failed. Good riddance; he's the one Zuko first spoke out against, in the war room three years ago…"
By the time Aang and Katara had come running back out to the balcony, having heard the screams of the crowd, Shao had spread her massive wings and leaped back into the air, to begin sky-dancing over the palace again. Aang had gasped, "What happened?"
"The blue dragon scared the crowd," Mai had said blandly. "Some people just weren't ready to face dragons up close. Have you finished checking the water supply already?"
The next day, Zuko had returned from his tour of every island in the Fire Nation, exhausted but still smiling. Ran had done close flybys of every major city and even a few of the minor towns along the way, so his people could see that their new Fire Lord was riding dragonback, the first monarch to do so since Sozin.
The dragons had left immediately after returning Zuko to the palace, but their unmistakable approval of the new Fire Lord—and their unmistakable disapproval of two men who'd been among Zuko's most vocal detractors—had a lasting effect on the Fire Nation populace. Before sunset on the day of Zuko's return, another crowd had spontaneously gathered before the palace, everyone there loudly expressing support of Fire Lord Zuko and wishing him a long and successful reign. And there had been no more assassination attempts from that day on through the end of winter; Aang had said cheerfully, "Told you it would work!"
But while the Fire Nation's home islands had quieted down, the rest of the world had still been in an uproar, particularly the Fire Nation colonies on what had once been Earth Kingdom land. So both governments had begun the long and complex negotiations over what would happen to the disputed colonies, as well as what reparations the Fire Nation owed the Earth Kingdom as a whole for all the damage wrought over a hundred years of war.
Officials for the Fire Lord, and occasionally the Fire Lord himself, had sat down at the table with Earth Kingdom officials in Ba Sing Se to negotiate reparations and the fate of the colonies. The Avatar had often been present in his role as Keeper of the Balance, to mediate when the arguing got out of hand… which happened a lot. And not just between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom officials; at the beginning there had been days when Zuko and/or his appointed representatives had just sat back, bemused, while the Earth Kingdom officials shouted at each other.
In theory, the vast Earth Kingdom continent was governed from shore to shore by one monarch, the Earth King that traditionally resided in Ba Sing Se. But since the downfall of Chin the Conqueror, in practice the kingdom had been divided up into city-states and their surrounding territories, each city-state having its own king, such as King Bumi of Omashu. Until someone invented some form of instant long-range communication, the kingdom was just too vast to be centrally governed for day-to-day or even month-to-month affairs. If the situation was dire or one city-state had issues with another, each city-state's king was accountable to the high king, the Earth King in Ba Sing Se. But otherwise, they had pretty much run themselves
When the Fire Nation had begun the war 100 years ago, the city-state and king of Taku had been the first to fall, just a few years after the initial attack that had wiped out the Air Nomads. In the century between the start of the war and Ozai's defeat by the Avatar, five of the eight city-states of Earth Kingdom had been conquered. (King Bumi had insisted firmly that Omashu didn't count as one of the conquered, because he'd only let the Fire Nation forces in until the right moment came to drive them out for good. No one chose to argue the point.) And five (not six!) kings had lost their thrones; one had been taken to safety—Kuei—and two had been kept alive as puppets of Fire Nation governors, but the other two had refused to bow down, and their royal lines had come to sudden and violent ends.
Now, IF the Fire Nation even agreed to return all the conquered lands to the Earth Kingdom, who would govern them? And who would govern all the lesser kings? The 52nd Earth King, Kuei, was still missing. There had been rumors of sightings, but he'd officially vanished after the fall of Ba Sing Se. A full month after the city had been liberated and the war had been declared officially over, there had still been no sign of him.
"For starters, we gotta find Kuei," Aang had said decisively. "Sokka, your leg is healed now, and you're good at tracking…"
"And I was probably the last one to see him off, at Chameleon Bay," Sokka had nodded. "Tracking him down shouldn't be hard, if he's still got Bosco with him; that bear of his really stands out in a crowd. See you in a few days!"
Except that when the Earth Kingdom officials had found out that Sokka the Brave, the famed warrior and companion to the Avatar, was going to begin tracking down the Earth King himself, some of them had insisted on accompanying him. There had actually been arguments between officials about who was going to go look for the Earth King! It had been easy to see why; the officials figured that whoever found the Earth King and brought him in triumph back to his rightful throne in Ba Sing Se would thereafter have some influence with him, though surely not as much as Long Feng had exerted.
So the officials had bickered back and forth, while Sokka had fretted about wasting time and muttered that they should just give him an ostrich-horse and get out of his way. Zuko had come to Ba Sing Se again at Aang's request, in hopes that the Fire Lord's presence would inspire the Earth Kingdom officials to quit their arguing and just get on with what needed to be done; when that didn't happen, he'd shaken his head at them all and announced he had better things to do than sit around waiting, and he intended to run an errand or two while he was in the Earth Kingdom. Then he'd left Ba Sing Se, with his uncle Iroh along for company.
The Earth Kingdom officials had finally gotten the matter settled of who would accompany Sokka, though by that time Sokka was almost ready to bite somebody out of sheer frustration. Then he had flat-out thrown a fit at how long it took the three chosen officials to finally get their mounds of luggage packed for the trip; they ended up requiring an entire caravan of ostrich-horses, as well as a large covered wagon. But just as the expedition had been getting ready to leave, a messenger hawk from Zuko's ship had arrived at the palace.
The message had informed them that the Fire Lord had found the Earth King himself, and that the Dragon of the West had organized a royal procession for the Earth King to travel back to Ba Sing Se. The message included a helpful map outlining the route the Earth King would take. Sokka had shoved the map in the officials' dismayed faces, told them that if they wanted to go meet their king halfway they'd better get a move on, then yanked the saddlebags off his own ostrich-horse and stomped away.
Instead of actually joining the Earth King and his Uncle Iroh in the royal procession to Ba Sing Se, Zuko had taken his royal yacht back to the Fire Nation; he'd promised Mai that he wouldn't leave her in charge as regent / acting Fire Lady for any longer than strictly necessary. (Mai wouldn't have minded the job so much if she'd been allowed to use her daggers and shuriken on a few of the Fire Nation nobles that were still resisting Zuko's changes and making life difficult, but…) He'd sent a message asking Aang to come fetch him on Appa when the Earth King was back on his throne and they were ready to resume negotiations.
A full month after the Earth King's return—which had included an absolutely unprecedented and shockingly fast royal wedding for Kuei and his chosen Queen, a peasant girl named Song that he'd met while living as a commoner—the Avatar had brought the Fire Lord back to Ba Sing Se. On the way there, Aang had told Zuko, "I think Sokka's still a little mad at you for stealing his thunder that way, by finding Kuei first. How'd you find him so fast, anyway?"
"How'd I find you all those times back during the war, Aang?" Zuko had said with a mysterious smile. "You could say I have a knack for finding people." And that was all he'd said on the subject.
The first meeting between the Earth King, the Avatar, and the Fire Lord together had taken place in the Jasmine Dragon, with the Dragon of the West serving tea. The four of them had discussed the overall problem and very broad strokes of possible solutions, and agreed between them on what appeared to be the best solution:
All Earth Kingdom cities that had been occupied for only five years or less would be vacated immediately. Mazu, a primarily agricultural colony on the western coast of the Earth Kingdom and isolated from the rest of the continent by a steep mountain range, would remain Fire Nation territory in perpetuity. Using the terraced farming techniques developed in their own nation, the Fire Nation colonists had done more to develop that land in the last 95 years than the Earth Kingdom natives ever had, and it was now the Fire Nation's leading supplier of grain. Losing that colony would lead to serious food shortages in the Fire Nation, and inevitably a civil war and overthrow of Zuko's reign. All in the Jasmine Dragon were agreed that the Fire Nation needed that strip of land, and the Earth Kingdom could spare it.
All the colonies except Mazu that had been settled for more than five years would continue to be ruled by the Fire Nation for the next ten years. But half of the tax revenue and other income from the colonies would be turned over to the Earth Kingdom, as part of the reparations due. And at the five-year mark the Earth Kingdom would start taking those colonies over in gradual stages, one governing duty at a time, until the official transfer of sovereignty when the ten years were up.
The colonists would be given the option of staying where they were and becoming Earth Kingdom citizens in ten years, or of moving back to the Fire Nation in the meantime. The Fire Nation would provide free transportation back to the homeland (a use found for at least a few of the warships sitting idle) and, upon arrival, ten gold pieces per adult/thirty per family to help defray the costs of resettling, but no other incentive to return; the Fire Lord was already having difficulties just finding work and housing for all the soldiers no longer at war. And Earth Kingdom citizens were welcome to start moving into the colonies immediately, if they signed documents agreeing that they would be treated as Fire Nation citizens and live peaceably under Fire Nation rule and laws for the first ten years. Earth Kingdom citizens were also welcome to move into Mazu, with the understanding that they would then become Fire Nation citizens for good. Kuei and Zuko both hoped that within the ten years' time, the people of two different countries would learn to coexist in peace, instead of the riots that nearly every colony was currently experiencing.
After the meeting in the Jasmine Dragon, the Fire Lord had returned to his country, leaving representatives behind to actually draw up the documents formalizing and detailing their agreement for both monarchs to sign. It was all the polite (and occasionally not so polite) arguing back and forth between the Earth King's officials and the Fire Lord's officials, over every minor detail and all the possible ramifications of those details, that had taken another sixteen months to get to the point of having a treaty ready to sign.
There had been other things going on besides negotiations over the Fire Nation colonies, of course. Everyone had been attacked by the Fire Nation in the war, and parties in nearly every nation had made it clear that they felt reparations were in order.
Actually, the last living member of the Air Nomads said he didn't need anything, even though the Fire Lord insisted reparations were due. "I told you before, I forgave your people for what they did to mine. Nobody who was involved in the massacres is still alive to face justice, so there's no sense dwelling on what happened a hundred years ago, especially since there's so much stuff right here and now to deal with. And what would I do with a huge pile of money, anyway?" Aang had shrugged when Zuko had tried to press the issue. "Air Nomads never kept a lot of possessions; we don't like to be weighed down."
"What about restoring all the Air Temples?" Zuko had suggested. "The Western Air Temple's probably going to need the most money to restore, after Azula's attack; it's going to cost serious money to hire earthbenders to go all the way there to restore the damaged upside-down buildings, at the very least."
To which Aang had looked away before saying slowly, "There's not much point in restoring all the temples. The Northern one belongs to the Mechanist's family now; I'm not going to boot them out of their home. The Southern one… it hurts too much to go back there. And I wouldn't go back to the Western Air Temple now without you guys along; it would be too lonely. …But yeah, I wouldn't mind going back to the Eastern Air Temple someday; Guru Pathik's still there, and he's probably got more Avatar stuff to teach me. Okay, you can, um, set some funds aside for rebuilding that temple later."
"It's going to take some careful budgeting over the next several years, but I'll set aside funds for rebuilding at least three out of four of them," Zuko had said firmly. "It's possible there are other airbenders out there, even utterly untrained airbenders who will need someplace to go for training someday. Think about it, Aang; everyone thought the Avatar was gone forever—and Katara found you. Everyone thought the dragons had been wiped out forever—and we found Ran and Shao. Don't give up hope for the airbenders, because I won't."
Aang had stared at him before muttering, "I never would have figured you for being such an optimist."
"Are you kidding? Hope is all that kept me alive after I was burned and banished," Zuko had retorted before setting his ink brush to parchment, to set aside sums for rebuilding the Air Temples someday.
Reparations for Kyoshi Island were handled separately from reparations for the rest of the Earth Kingdom, since the island considered itself more of an ally to the Earth Kingdom than actually part of it. And to the Fire Lord's personal relief, reparations were handled quite easily. "Nobody died when you came hunting Aang, and the last letter I got from my uncle the headman said that most of the burned buildings have been repaired already," Suki had told Zuko. "Two of my girls will need to leave the Warriors after being crippled while fighting Azula and not treated properly while in prison, but we've gained Ty Lee, and she's agreed to teach us all her chi-blocking techniques; those will be invaluable. So we'll take enough money to pay for two full apprenticeships for the two warriors in whatever they want to do next, another hundred gold pieces on top of that to finish rebuilding, and a personal letter of apology from you, suitable for framing. That'll do."
Arnook, Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, had demanded reparations in the form of a staggering amount of gold, for the damage done to their capital city during the failed invasion. But instead of dozens of barrels full of gold pieces, the Fire Lord sent them a ship loaded with one huge sack of gold coins as well as several ornate statues, fancy paintings, lavish furniture and rugs, and other items fit for a wealthy mansion. Sokka had been aboard the ship, and handed a message directly to Arnook, one written by the Fire Lord himself:
The gold coins are from the sale of the home of Admiral Zhao, the man whose insane ambition to go down in history as a Spirit-slayer was the driving force behind the invasion, which resulted in the deaths of six times more Fire Nation troops than Water Tribe warriors. All the furnishings were taken from his estate, before it was sold to be converted into a home for war orphans, and are yours to sell for more money or do with as you wish. Please accept these as a down payment for reparations.
After Arnook had read the letter, Sokka had said with a sober expression, "Chief, I'm really hoping that you'll send back a letter agreeing this 'down payment' is enough. I snuck through most of Fire Nation before the Day of Black Sun, and Ozai left a lot of it in pretty bad shape; Zuko's got to rebuild his own country in addition to repaying everyone else. Besides—can I be blunt, here? If you don't say this is enough, you're going to look like greedy bastards to the rest of the world, compared to what the Southern Water Tribe is asking for..."
Hakoda, Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, had made his position clear, simple and heartbreakingly poignant. His scroll had read, "Money can not replace what your people took from us. We lost all our waterbenders, many of our warriors and my wife, Kya, in decades of raids. Most of them were killed, and no amount of money can bring them back to us. But many of those waterbenders were taken prisoner instead of killed, and my daughter told me that at least one of them survived. If any others have survived all these years…"
The Fire Lord had ordered an immediate search of all the prisons, but only one living waterbender prisoner had been found: Hama, an old woman who had escaped prison thirty years ago but been recently recaptured, just before the war's end. Upon receiving word of her existence, Zuko had waved aside the prison warden's concerns and ordered her immediate release. And later deeply regretted that decision, cursing himself for not remembering to always be sure of the current lunar phase when dealing with waterbenders. No one had paid attention to the fact that the moon was full…
Two days later, the Fire Lord had sent a message to the Southern Water Chief saying that regrettably, Hama could not be freed at this time. When her chains had been removed, she'd attacked everyone around her in a bending spree that had ended in two men dead and another eight wounded, in body and mind. She'd had to be knocked out and chained up again, for everyone's safety. But if the Water Tribe was willing to send some of their warriors to the Fire Nation, to escort her out of prison, perhaps she wouldn't attack her own people.
Katara had been traveling with Aang in the colonies, helping to keep the Avatar's Peace and heal the wounds of war, when she'd heard about the disastrous attempt to repatriate Hama. She'd immediately had Aang fly her straight to the Fire Lord's palace, and had told Zuko in no uncertain terms, "You can't let her go. She's a monster!"
"My country made her a monster, Katara," Zuko had said with his eyes lowered. "Perhaps once she's at home with her people…"
"Zuko, I faced her—I trained with her!—and I can tell you right now that if I'd told my father all the details of what she did, and what she can do, his next letter would say 'Thanks but no thanks!' We don't want her down there! Once upon a time we would have, but now we… Zuko, she could…" After silently fuming and then thinking hard for a few minutes, Katara came to a decision. "I'm going to send my father a message, that you're releasing Hama into my care. And then I'm going to go to her cell, drug her to sleep, and keep her that way while I take her up to the Northern Water Tribe. Yugoda's a master healer; maybe, just maybe, she can do something about the way Hama's mind has been twisted over the years. If not, then… you won't have to worry about her anymore, Zuko; she's my responsibility."
The announcement had startled everyone, but they had all seen the look in her face and known better than to argue. Aang had tried to get her to explain exactly what she'd meant by Hama being her responsibility, but she'd just said it was a Water Tribe thing and he'd reluctantly subsided. Zuko had given her a ship and an escort, and a grim-faced Katara had gone to the prison where Hama was being held, personally drugged her and taken her aboard the ship. But before leaving, she'd tried to help the eight people Hama had horribly wounded but left alive in the wake of her bending spree.
After seeing all eight of the victims, her face had been even grimmer as she'd told her friends, "When I leave, don't expect to see me back here for a long time. I never learned more than the very basics of water-healing, and I can't fix most of what Hama did. Three of those people will never walk again and two more are probably not going to survive the winter, unless I can persuade them to come with me to the Northern healers. And whether they come with me or not, when I get up there I'm going to beg Yugoda's forgiveness for scorning her healing lessons last winter in favor of warrior waterbending, and ask her to take me on as a student again. Now that the war is over, healing is more important than fighting."
But just as Katara had been preparing to depart with Hama for the Northern Water Tribe, Sokka's ship had returned from there on the same day that Hakoda's ship arrived from the south with the intention of taking custody of Hama; Hakoda had received Zuko's last message but Katara's had passed him in transit. Their little family had met on the docks with surprised delight, which had turned to dismay on Sokka and Hakoda's parts when they'd found out what Katara intended. But after hearing out her compelling arguments, both father and brother had reluctantly agreed with her decision. They'd shared heartfelt hugs on the docks and promises to write each other often; then Hakoda and Sokka had waved goodbye as Katara's ship departed.
The next day Hakoda had headed south again, without Hama but with a very large sack of gold that Zuko had insisted he take for reparations. And with Sokka and Suki aboard, Suki in possession of a much smaller bag of gold and the requested letter of apology from Zuko (already framed, too.) Sokka had a new messenger hawk, which he had promptly named Hawky II, and a scroll on its care and feeding. They intended to make port on Kyoshi Island for a week, staying there long enough for a party or two and for Suki to officially hand command of her warriors over to a lieutenant for a year; then they would continue on to the Southern Water Tribe. Suki had agreed to give living at the South Pole a try, for Sokka's sake, while he helped his dad in rebuilding their home.
After the dragons' appearance and approval of the new Fire Lord had apparently put an end to the assassination attempts, Toph had traveled to Gaoling at her friends' repeated urging, to reunite with her parents. No one knew exactly what had happened there, because she'd flat-out refused to talk about it afterwards. Instead, three weeks later she'd shown up in Omashu announcing her intention to have a showdown with King Bumi, to determine who was really the greatest earthbender in the world.
Bumi had accepted the challenge with delight and started selling tickets, but two days before the great Earth Rumble had been scheduled to go down, Toph had abruptly cancelled the event and told Aang to get her the hell out of the city right away. She'd explained with her blind eyes wide, "I just found out that if I beat Bumi in the Rumble, I'll be the next Queen of Omashu!"
"Really? That's cool!" Aang had cheered. "…Isn't it?"
"Are you kidding? Day after day after week after month of boring meetings with officials and fancy court functions and—guuuhh!" as Toph had shuddered. "Get me out of here, quick! There's gotta be a fight going on somewhere in the colonies!"
So Toph had taken Katara's place in traveling with Aang, helping to quell fighting in the colonies and keep the Avatar's Peace. Then on one of their frequent visits to the Fire Nation capital, they'd found Zuko almost beating his head against a wall in frustration over his country's financial state. Trying to restructure his country's war-based economy into a peace-and-trade based economy was hopeless when none of the other countries would buy anything from them!
"There's so much that I thought we could sell to the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, but I can't even get a trade delegation to come here, and the two that we've sent out were turned back at port instead of allowed to dock!" Zuko had ranted. "I thought about just giving away all the goods as part of the reparations, but-"
"Bad idea in the long run," Toph had said bluntly. "If you just give everything away now, people won't appreciate the real value of the goods and you'll have an even harder time selling them for what they're worth later."
"That's what Uncle said in his last message," Zuko had gloomily agreed. "I can make special deals for a few items for incentives to buy the rest, but first I've got to get the merchants in Omashu and Ba Sing Se to talk to my merchants, and they're not! They're just flat-out refusing to deal with us. I'm doing my best to stimulate my peacetime industries; I've used nearly half the money in the palace treasury to buy goods from craftsmen and non-weapons manufacturers, and filled up every spare room of the palace with their stuff! But I can't keep it up; someone else has got to buy our goods! Toph, your parents are rich merchants; can you help somehow?"
"By asking them for help in setting up contacts and trade agreements?" The frown on Toph's face had been grim. "Sparky, you picked a really bad time to ask that. If I set foot on my parents' estate right now… there'd be an earthquake bad enough to wreck most of Gaoling! Forget it."
"But Toph, Zuko really needs help, and you're the most qualified of us all to do it!" Aang had pleaded, making his puppy-cub eyes at Toph even though he knew they wouldn't help in her case. "Can't you at least try to talk to them?"
Moments after Aang had spoken, Momo had gotten hungry and decided to help himself to some of the food that had been sitting untouched on Zuko's desk (it was normally unheard of for the Fire Lord to eat his meals in his office, but since he was in there from sunrise to well past sundown most days, his servants were getting desperate.) As the lemur had hopped onto the lacquered wooden desk, it had knocked a small metal sculpture off the corner and onto the floor, alarmingly close to Toph's foot. Toph had reflexively earthbent some of the marble flooring in response, which had knocked six more small sculptures of metal and glass set around the office off their wooden stands and bases.
While helping to tidy up the office, Toph had fingered the small metal statue of a dragon and said with her eyebrows rising up behind her bangs, "Is this one of the trade goods you were talking about?"
"Yeah, and so is everything else that was knocked down. Don't move; the glass tiger-dillo figure shattered, and there are pieces everywhere," Zuko had said resignedly as he summoned servants to bring a broom and dustpan.
"This feels… like the way you guys described the dragons to me," Toph had said wonderingly, caressing the statue's sleek body and wings.
"Yeah, it looks a lot like Ran and Shao looked. You should have seen the tiger-dillo; it was awesome, like looking at a spirit of one," Aang had said regretfully, looking at the shattered pieces on the floor.
"So you've got a lot of art you want to sell, huh?" Toph had pursed her lips in thought… then smiled, an expression that slowly morphed into a wicked grin. "I know how to get this stuff sold…"
Over the next few months, the same scene played itself out in Ba Sing Se, in Omashu and in nearly every major city in the Earth Kingdom: Rich merchants riding ostrich-horses and nobles inside palanquins had converged on auction houses, gone inside and taken their seats. They had all received discrete invitations to a very special auction, one that they had been warned to not let anyone from the Fire Nation colonies know about.
Once everyone had found their seats, the auctioneer 'Bonzu Pipinpadaloxicopolis' and his blind granddaughter assistant had started the art auction; art in the form of beautiful paintings, wood and glass figurines, and metal sculptures. All of the art had been found in the homes of colony governors and the tents of high-ranking Fire Nation officers, and (ahem) 'confiscated' when those governors and officers had been pulled back to the Fire Nation by the new regime. Art that those Fire Nation scum wanted back, but who in the room thought that they deserved to get their pretties back, after what they'd done to the Earth Kingdom? So what would be the starting bid for this fine glass work of art in the shape of a snarling lion-dog?
Bidding had been fast and furious for the most spectacular works, and even the less beautiful pieces of art had fetched good prices. And after each auction had been wrapped up, Bonzu Pipinpadaloxicopolis and his assistant stripped off their disguises, and Aang and Toph flew Appa back to the Fire Nation for more goods to auction off in another city.
When Toph had handed over the sack of gold that contained the proceeds from the first auction (less twenty-five percent for their cut), Zuko had been astonished at the amount. "That's at least three times what I thought we could get for that art in fair trading!"
"Sparky, those fat cats aren't coming to the auctions for the art; they're coming to get their piece of revenge against the Fire Nation," Toph had said with a twisted grin. "Anyone can tell you that the biggest money is made on the black market. But give those nobles a month or two of showing their latest acquisitions off to their friends and rivals, and you'll be able to sell other pieces of the same quality. And at the original prices you asked for; after seeing how much those works went for at auction, the merchants will think they're getting a real bargain!"
The auctions had been so popular that Bonzu Pipinpadaloxicopolis and his assistant went back to Ba Sing Se for a total of three times, until Toph had said wryly that there was a limit to how long they could keep this con running; people were starting to get suspicious, and it was time to stop while the bidding was still good. The day after the auction had been the start of the Earth Kingdom's New Year celebration, so Toph and Aang stopped in at the Jasmine Dragon for the festivities and some excellent tea, and to catch up on the latest gossip about their friends; everybody wrote to Iroh.
After some excellent jasmine tea and cookies, Iroh had approached Toph with a fascinating proposition. The Dai Li under Long Feng had been corrupt to the point of evil, but they'd done a lot of the dirty work that was necessary to keep the peace in a city the size of Ba Sing Se. Besides forcefully quelling all talk of war, they'd also fought political corruption that was too hot for the City Watch to handle, taken down assassins and the occasional serial killer, and fought foes the city guard was utterly untrained for and basically helpless against: artifact spirits, and other malevolent or mischievous spirit entities. Iroh and the Earth King had both thought that Toph Bei Fong was the perfect candidate to organize, train and lead the New Dai Li.
To Aang's considerable surprise, Toph had readily agreed to Iroh's proposal. He'd protested, "But Toph, you turned down a chance to rule Omashu; I thought you didn't want to be tied down!"
"That was different; being Queen and having to do royal duties day in and day out would be incredibly boring. I'd go as mad as Bumi from sheer boredom! But this… this is a challenge!" as Toph had cracked her knuckles. "Wanna help me train guys to fight spirits, Twinkletoes?"
Toph had scoured all of Ba Sing Se for suitable candidates for the New Dai Li, and in five weeks had found forty candidates; earthbenders who knew how to listen and wait for the opportunity to strike. Then she'd begun training them in her style of earthbending, and trying to instill at least a rudimentary version of the tremor-sense she used to 'see' the world. While Toph had yelled at her new students as they stumbled blindfolded through obstacles courses, Aang had spent hours in the Ba Sing Se library reading dozens of dusty scrolls, then made a trip to Guru Pathik to get his advice as well; then he had helped Toph train her people in how to fight artifact-spirits.
When not helping Toph with her New Dai Li or mediating the treaty negotiations in Ba Sing Se, Aang had frequently been found in the still turbulent colonies, or visiting Bumi in Omashu and Zuko in the Fire Nation. He had made a trip down to the South Pole in the late spring to see Sokka and Suki and all the progress they were making in rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe, but it hadn't been as much fun as he'd hoped without Katara there.
Aang had gone up to the Northern Water Tribe to visit Katara once, during a lull in negotiations, but hadn't stayed long. Not that he'd been made to feel unwelcome there; far from it! Even if Katara had been given only two full days off from her studies to walk around the city with him, there had been plenty of other people there nearly lining up for the chance to see and talk with the Avatar. But the tribesmen had kept bringing up what they considered his greatest achievement: merging with the Ocean Spirit to wipe out an entire Fire Nation invasion fleet and kill several thousand Fire Nation troops in less than an hour. And even after Katara had made it very clear to everyone that they'd better find something else to talk about, there were displays here and there throughout the city of war trophies: tattered red banners, empty red-and-black helmets, other flotsam retrieved from the drowned ships and men… After three nights filled with resurfacing nightmares, Aang had left four days after arriving, regretfully telling Katara that he'd see her again when she came back south.
Not quite eleven months after Sozin's Comet and the end of the war, the Fire Nation had another, happier event of national significance: the wedding of Fire Lord Zuko to Lady Mai, celebrated as soon as both parties were officially old enough to marry.
Iroh and all of Team Avatar had come together again in the Fire Nation for the happy occasion. Zuko had said that instead of a typical guys-only bachelor party on the night before the wedding, he'd much rather have a get-together of all his friends, and they'd stayed up half the night just telling stories about what they'd been up to for the last year, reviving old jokes and memories of what they had all been through together.
In addition to the happy reunion between friends, there was one more reunion that was possibly more joyous than any other, between Sokka and his weapons! Zuko had sent hundreds of his people to the Wulong Forest in a reforestation project, planting new trees and shrubs to replace what had been burned down in the war's last great battle, and spread the word among his workers that he would pay a hundred gold pieces to whoever found either a metal Water Tribe boomerang or a black-bladed sword that had fallen there. At the same time, Toph had quietly spread word throughout the merchants of Ba Sing Se that she wished to personally inspect any unusual swords or Water Tribe weapons brought into the city for sale, and she would pay top coin to the merchant who brought her exactly what she was looking for.
In the palace's dining room the night before the wedding, Zuko had told Sokka to close his eyes and hold out his hands, and then laid a slightly scorched but still recognizable boomerang across his palms. After opening his eyes Sokka had whooped for joy, kissed his boomerang, kissed Zuko, kissed a serving girl standing nearby, and danced with his weapon all around the dining room. When he'd passed by Toph's chair she'd grabbed him and told him to hold still, it wasn't over yet! Then when she'd pulled his Space Sword out from under the table and handed it to him, he had whooped even louder, kissed Toph a half-dozen times and then started dancing around the room again.
"What, no presents for us?" Katara had pretended to pout, though she couldn't help smiling at Sokka's obvious joy.
"Well, there was that time you received the Spirit Oasis Water from Pakku, I got a bunch of waterbending scrolls and all Sokka got was a 'good luck'," Aang had reminded Katara, while looking at Toph with a little concern; she'd just sagged back in her seat after Sokka let her go, and was sprawled there with a weird look on her face. "Maybe the universe decided to give Sokka some good karma for once."
Watching the way Sokka had kept kissing and fondling his weapons the rest of the evening, Mai had said dryly to Suki, "My sympathies; you'll probably find it crowded in bed tonight."
Suki had just shrugged and said that weapons went under the pillows, while Zuko, overhearing, had turned to his fiancée and said with his lone eyebrow raised, "Excuse me? Who's offering sympathies, here? Fourteen, Mai!"
She'd looked coolly back at him as she responded, "They're much smaller, and all kept in their holsters."
"Fourteen!" he'd insisted. But when Aang had overheard and asked Zuko 'fourteen what?' he'd blushed and said it wasn't important. And when Mai, examining her fingernails, had commented that tomorrow night she might go down to two, he'd blushed even redder and had to remain seated for the next toast.
The wedding the next day had been beautiful, if incredibly extravagant… and, in a few parts, incredibly boring. The five Fire Sages conducting the ceremony together had droned on and on and on, until Sokka had actually fallen asleep sitting up and been poked hard by Suki when he'd started snoring. Other than that, it had all been beautiful; as they'd sat together holding hands and watching Zuko and Mai pledge their lives to each other, Katara had smiled and whispered to Aang, "Someday."
After the wedding ceremony, Mai had been officially crowned the Fire Lady; Zuko had placed the minor flame crown in her hair himself. An extravagant wedding reception had followed both ceremonies, lasting well into the night; Iroh had kept it going with bending displays and musical rounds even after the happy couple had left in the royal yacht for their honeymoon on Ember Island. The next day the rest of Team Avatar had gone their separate ways, by boat or by sky bison.
Six weeks after the wedding came the anniversary of the end of the war. Aang had sent out letters to everyone, saying that he hoped to see them at the Jasmine Dragon that day. But when Appa had spiraled in for a landing on the terrace behind the Jasmine Dragon, only Iroh and Toph were there waiting for him. "Where is everyone?" he'd asked.
"Busy," Toph had shrugged while handing over a small stack of messages, and began reciting what someone else had read to her. "Katara sent a letter saying they're dealing with an epidemic of ostrich-horse pox in the Northern Water Tribe; some merchant must have brought more than trade goods with him. Suki's letter said she and Sokka are about to participate in the Southern Water Tribe's first big whale hunt of the season; Chief Hakoda gave Suki special permission to go on the hunt even though it's traditionally men-only, so they can't refuse it just to come up here. Sokka's letter says he's sorry they'll both miss it but the tribe is having its own end-of-the-war party, and he'll mutilate an ash-banana in your honor."
"…He'll what?" as Aang had blinked at her, then stared at the letter with Sokka's atrocious handwriting.
Toph had shrugged, "That was Iroh's best guess at what Sokka wrote, anyway. He, Longshot and Smellerbee were staring at that letter for nearly an hour trying to figure it out. Anyway, Zuko's letter said that Mai hasn't been feeling well lately, and she's not up to traveling here. Betcha it's morning sickness, but they're not ready to announce yet that they've got a royal heir on the way… Anyway, that's why it's just you, me and Uncle. But my schedule's free for the day; wanna start with some sparring? I haven't given you a good butt-whipping in months; you're way overdue!"
But Iroh had handed Aang an engraved invitation to a much larger party; the Earth King and Queen were also hosting a celebration for the anniversary of the end of the war, and were hoping the Avatar would attend. Aang had sighed, because he didn't like going to fancy court functions any more than Toph did. But he liked Kuei and Song, and Iroh and Toph had agreed to go with him.
It had turned out to be a great party after all, if a little weird for Aang. He was used to being the center of attention at any party he wasn't sneaking into, but at the Earth King's feast Iroh, the Dragon of the West who had spearheaded the battle to liberate Ba Sing Se, was clearly the greater guest of honor. But the food had been great, and Toph had been surprisingly pretty in her fancy party clothes; he'd found himself actually thinking of her as a girl instead of a girl-shaped best buddy, which had been a little unsettling. Song had brought out her and Kuei's two-month-old baby Qingshan in his very first court appearance, to general delight and cooing from everyone. And Bosco had gotten up on his hind legs and danced with Aang! So even though he'd still missed seeing Katara and the rest of his friends, he'd had a really good time.
Over the next six months there had been plenty of other letters sent back and forth, both personal and official, as the negotiations over the colonies proceeded slowly to a final resolution. Zuko and Mai had announced to everyone that they were expecting their first child, due in late spring (and no, they didn't need any suggestions for baby names, thanks anyway.) After the big whale hunt and after spending most of a year in the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka and Suki had left to spend the next year on Kyoshi Island, where it was Suki's turn to try to convince Sokka to resettle. The two of them were clearly in love and both old enough to marry but not officially engaged yet; not until they agreed between themselves on where they'd spend the rest of their lives together.
Katara had continued to send letters from the Northern Water Tribe telling Aang of her progress in becoming a master healer (not nearly as quick as her mastery of combative waterbending, though she was reportedly the quickest study Yugoda had ever taught), and everything else that was going on in her life. Her last letter had complained that so far in her stay she'd whipped the butts of forty-three men of varying ages, all men who had told her it was good that she'd turned from combat waterbending to healing because she had finally 'recognized her place', and if the count reached fifty she would ask Zuko to send Azula up there. Aang had stared at the letter, said out loud that obviously Katara was just kidding, and wrote a cautionary note to Chief Arnook just to be on the safe side.
Now the farmers' fruit trees in the Outer Ring of Ba Sing Se were blossoming, heralding the approaching Spring Equinox. Two days ago, the Fire Lord's royal yacht had arrived in the harbor below the city, so the two monarchs could sign the final treaty documents together. Aang had glided down to the harbor to welcome Zuko and Mai, who had decided to accompany her husband on the trip. It had been a few months since he'd been to the Fire Nation to see them, and his eyes had bugged out as he'd taken a good look at the Fire Lady. "Wow, Mai, you're huge!"
At officially seven-and-a-half months pregnant, her belly great with child, Mai had rolled her eyes and muttered, "Thanks for the compliment. Now, you can go thank Zuko."
"Zuko made me promise that I wouldn't kill the first person in Ba Sing Se to comment on my size now. Lucky you, you're it."
Wincing at the exchange, Zuko had pulled Aang aside and muttered that after the trip up to the Earth King's palace, he would have to brief the Avatar on all his hard-earned lessons of the do's and don'ts for dealing with pregnant Fire Ladies.
The stately palanquin ride up to the train station, the private train to the Upper Ring, another stately palanquin ride up to the Earth King's palace, getting the Fire Lord and Fire Lady settled into the guest wing, an finally an official state dinner to welcome them to the Fire Nation, had all taken so long that Zuko never did get that chance to privately tell Aang what not to do or say around Mai. So Aang had just decided to discreetly avoid her, which had actually been pretty easy; the Fire Lady had spent most of her time with Toph and Queen Song while Aang had stayed in his official Avatar role as mediator for the treaty finalization.
But now the documents were signed, and inside the building they had just left, fifty scribes were busy duplicating the treaty word-for-word so copies of it could be taken back to the Fire Nation capital and to every colony. The Earth King Kuei came out of the building a few paces behind them, scratching behind the ears of his pet bear Bosco, who had been present for the signing (but had not contributed with a pawprint on the documents, despite Kuei's wistful request. Aang had been okay with the idea, but Zuko had firmly refused to allow it, saying he'd been waiting 18 months already and he wasn't going to risk waiting even a few hours more if Bosco accidentally tore the parchment.)
Aang flipped out his glider and prepared to take to the skies, but was stopped by Zuko abruptly clearing his throat. "Forgetting something?" the Fire Lord said pointedly.
Aang glanced at Zuko in surprise, then looked around at the four men scanning the crowds who were wearing yellow sashes over their green uniforms, and gave a little chagrined shrug. "Sorry," he muttered, before tapping the end of his staff three times on the ground. That was the signal that had been agreed upon with the Avatar's assigned bodyguards; it meant 'I'm going for a glide, you're dismissed for now, see you at the Jasmine Dragon.'
Four taps would have the same meaning but a different destination; the guest wing of the Earth King's royal palace, where the Avatar had permanent guest quarters. Aang glided all over Ba Sing Se and landed wherever he felt the whim, but he was seen most frequently at the Jasmine Dragon and the royal palace, so Kuei and Zuko had both insisted he have bodyguards around him at those places. Today, Iroh had told him that if the treaty documents were signed in time, then he'd like Aang to come by the Jasmine Dragon in the late afternoon. Iroh was working with a local baker to add a few baked goodies to his menu, and the baker claimed to have recreated the fruit-filled cakes that the Air Nomads used to bake; Iroh wanted the opinion of the only living Air Nomad on how close the baker had come before adding them to his menu.
"Have fun out there; I'll see if Mai's feeling up to visiting Uncle," Zuko said cordially to Aang, as he headed for one of the two palanquins waiting at the bottom of the steps, waiting to take the royals back to the palace.
"If she's not, will you come to the Dragon anyway? I bet your uncle would love it if you came to see him while the tea shop's open," Aang wheedled.
Zuko snorted. "Yeah, so he can put the serving apron back on me for the general public to see! He knows better than to even suggest it when Mai's with me, but if she's not…" he shook his head. "I've told him I don't know how many times that I'll only serve tea for friends and family, but he thinks I should be friends with all of Ba Sing Se."
"I've actually found it a valuable learning experience, serving tea to my subjects," Kuei said as he walked alongside Zuko to the palanquins. "Though I do it anonymously, of course. It's surprising how few people recognize me if I take off the royal robes and put on a fake mustache."
"I have a harder time being anonymous, even outside my own country," Zuko said wryly, gesturing to the scar on his face. "Between the coronation portraits, the wedding portraits and the old wanted posters…"
Aang snickered as he left the ground behind, and went on a glide over Ba Sing Se. The weather was perfect for gliding; the sky clear, the air warm for spring, the breezes gentle and easy to bend the way he wanted… the only thing that would have made it better would be the sight of another glider in the sky with him.
He sighed longingly, and hoped that now that the treaty was signed and everyone in the colonies knew they were going to be treated as fairly as possible, the rioting and other troubles would go away and he could finally, finally take a good long vacation. A really long one, so he and Appa could go around the world looking for other airbenders, or wild sky bison as companions for Appa.
Appa was nearly a full adult bison now; he'd started getting his adolescent 'speed boost' in the last month or so of the war, flying four times faster than he had when he was just a calf—and showing 'interest' in female creatures that hardly resembled sky bison at all, except for having big broad tails. After the final battle, when his friends had told him about how Appa had been nuzzling the lady bounty hunter's shirshu, Aang had blushed and been silently thankful that Appa hadn't started humping her on the spot. Not just because mating sky bison were really loud and really embarrassing; the thought of blind, meat-eating sky bison hybrids flying around zapping innocents with their paralyzing tongues was not an appealing one.
Aang had never seen wild sky bison back when he'd been traveling the world with Monk Gyatso, but he'd heard from other Air Nomads that they existed; much smaller than the bison that were born at the Eastern and Western Air Temples, not bred over the millennia for size and endurance of flight, but they were supposed to be a lot faster at short distances. He'd heard that catching a wild sky bison was the ultimate challenge and riding one was the ultimate thrill, but that you couldn't do it if your own bison was nearby, because they'd get jealous and start fighting.
After having seen the ruins at all four Air Temples and seeing just how far the Fire Nation's burning grasp had spread across the world, Aang had sadly accepted the fact that Appa was the last domesticated sky bison in existence… but he still held out hope that a few wild bison existed, living on mountains he hadn't explored yet. If the wild sky bison really had been able to outfly messenger hawks, like the stories said they could, then surely they could escape from even Fire Nation troops and find wilderness big enough to hide in. And it was possible that some of his people had also fled into those remote wildernesses to escape the Fire Nation, hiding so far from civilization that they didn't even know the war was over yet.
But Aang couldn't take Appa on that long sky bison-hunting, airbender-seeking vacation just yet; not until he was sure that the worst of their post-war troubles were over and the Avatar wouldn't be needed to enforce or restore the peace again anytime soon. So he determinedly pushed the thought away again, just as he'd been doing for the last couple of years, and started looking for something on the ground to distract him. Ah-ha, there was the zoo he'd helped relocate! He spiraled down to land there, and had fun playing with the panda cubs and rabbaroo joeys for a while.
After that he flew back up to the palace, to check on Appa and Momo in the royal stable; they always enjoyed visiting Ba Sing Se because the royal stable hands always pampered them silly. In the stable, Appa grunted contentedly to him while four young men gave him a thorough brushing, and Momo napped on a pillow with a visibly full belly and the remains of his latest meal scattered on a plate in front of him. "I'll be back tonight, guys," he promised, before leaving for the Jasmine Dragon.
While spiraling in for a landing, he noticed the street outside the tea shop was occupied by a royal palanquin, its bearers and a contingent of Zuko's guards, all standing about relaxed but alert for trouble. That meant Zuko and Mai were inside the Jasmine Dragon! Aang grinned as he privately bet that what had persuaded Mai to come was the mention of fruit-filled cakes; Mai had a real fondness for fruit tarts.
A couple of the palanquin guards were looking up as well as all around; when they saw him, they waved at him in a friendly fashion. That surprised him a little, because they usually insisted on being so professional all the time (though he still didn't understand what was unprofessional about saying 'hi' to people you knew while you were on duty,) but he waved back agreeably before spiraling down further.
To be continued