Sacrifices Chapter 12: Culture Shocks

Author's note: My apologies for keeping everyone waiting all these long months for an update! Real Life was rather brutal for most of 2013, and writing time is even scarcer now that I'm parenting solo. But I assure you that I haven't forgotten this story, or any of my ongoing stories! In truth, there have been times when the kudos and comments I've received from you all were the only bright points of my day/week/month.

Aaannd due to some early comments, I'm reposting this with an added note at the end.

One month after most of Team Avatar returned to the Fire Nation to help out Zuko and his baby boy, Aang flew in to help Katara celebrate her birthday. Birthday parties were still a relatively new thing for him, but the surprise party his friends had thrown for him two months ago had been great, and he wanted to make sure that his girlfriend had just as good a time on her birthday. In addition to making the rounds of all the colonies in the past month, he'd visited a few Earth Kingdom cities too, and while he was visiting Bumi again in Omashu, he'd had a great idea and commissioned a tailor there to make Katara's birthday present for him.

He still thought a baby rabbiroo would make a great present and pet for Katara, but not while she was living in the Fire Nation's royal palace; she'd have to keep it penned up there, and rabbiroos liked wide open spaces. So for this year, he decided that if she thought new clothes for him made a good present, then she should love new clothes made just for her! One of Appa's saddlebags now held a set of Air Nomad Nun clothes, made just the way Aang remembered the nuns wearing them, but in shades of Water Tribe blue instead of the traditional yellow and orange.

He arrived at the palace in the early afternoon, left Appa to much on sweetgrass and cabbages in the royal stables, and told Momo to go with the man carrying his satchel to his permanent quarters in the guest wing. "Just wait for me there, buddy, while I get all the official stuff over with," Aang sighed as he headed for the palace's front steps. He'd been able to arrive without a big official welcome last time, because he'd gotten here the same time as the Fire Lord in mourning, and no one dared interrupt the somber funeral procession for other ceremonies. But he doubted he'd be so lucky this time, and he braced himself for the hours of official rigmarole that usually signaled the Avatar visiting the Fire Lord, when all he wanted to do was see his girlfriend and the rest of his friends.

But he was in luck after all; Zuko was closeted in a meeting with his high council, and the majordomo who'd always insisted that such ceremonies were proper was actually busy with something too, having left orders to not be disturbed by anything less than the Fire Lord's personal summons. When Hoshi, the captain of the guard, said doubtfully that he really should alert the head of staff anyway, Aang shamelessly begged him to let it go just this once. "It's not that I mind there being an official welcoming ceremony, and the official robes you guys made for me to wear each time, even if they are really heavy. It's just that it takes so long! I have to just stand there and wait in that special chamber while Kumo recites every title that's been given to the Avatar for the past umpteen incarnations… and some of them just don't make sense anymore! 'Liberator of Ozango', for instance. I had to look for hours in the royal library just to find out where Ozango used to be! That place was abandoned even before Avatar Yangchen's time!" as Aang waved his arms for emphasis.

Hoshi gave a wry smile of acknowledgement, and then muttered, "Well, the Fire Lord probably wouldn't mind skipping the ceremony either… But I still have to send a messenger to let him know you've arrived."

"Well, of course! I know Zuko doesn't like surprises," Aang said readily. Even before he'd been crowned Fire Lord, Zuko hadn't liked surprises; Aang vividly remembered the one time back on Ember Island when he'd jumped out of a great hiding spot to shout 'boo!' at his firebending teacher. Zuko had instantly set fire to his clothes, bodily tossed him into the fountain nearby to put the fire out, and then both apologized for setting him on fire and threatened to do worse if Aang ever pulled that stunt again.

After waiting a few minutes to give the messengers a little time to spread the news, he made the rounds of the palace's business and family wings, to say hi to everyone and ask how they were doing:

"I think I'm finally getting caught up on paperwork, with Uncle's help," Zuko said tiredly, greeting him as he left the council meeting, while heading back to his office. "The table for waiting documents is only piled two feet high now."

"We're doing well," Iroh said with a smile, while pouring tea in his private parlor. "Everyone misses Fire Lady Mai dreadfully, of course, but life is settling into a comfortable routine again. Would you care to play a game of pai sho later?"

"We're okay," Sokka said as he walked up to Suki, to begin his shift at nursery guard duty. Suki gave him a kiss as her shift ended, shift change being the only time she allowed such public demonstrations of affection. "Everyone's pretty much accepted now that we're here to stay. Now that he's fully recovered, Hoshi has offered to show Suki and me some of the night life here in the capital on our next night off together."

"People are actually pretty nice to us overall," Suki said, giving Sokka's hand another affectionate squeeze before letting go. "Have you been by Kyoshi Island lately?"

"Roku's doing just great," Katara said with a smile as she finished changing the baby's diaper. "He's starting to sleep for longer periods at night, though he's a long way from sleeping clear through… Would you like to hold him?"

"And how are you guys doing?" Aang asked the Dai Li agents when they came together for their shift change. "This is everyone's first time away from the Earth Kingdom, isn't it? I know some people have it hard for their first time away from home…"

"We're all doing okay," Huong spoke for the group with a wry smile. "We're all adults here; we can deal with homesickness. And now that we know which food is too spicy and which is safe to eat, we're even going down into town when our shifts are over. In pairs, of course, but so far we've had no real problems; some folks scowl at us from a distance, but no one's tried to start a fight. A few folks have even been friendly."

Aang said he'd pass that on to Toph and the Earth King next time he saw them, and then went for a glide over the palace, returning in time to join his friends in the family dining room just before dinner was served. He looked at the head of the table, where Zuko and Katara were sitting next to each other with the baby in Katara's arms, and frowned in confusion. "Um, is the baby ready for regular food already?" He would admit that he knew practically nothing about babies, but every baby he'd ever seen eating solid food had been sitting up to do it, and Roku couldn't even roll over by himself yet.

"Of course not," Katara snorted. "I fed him before coming to dinner; he's nearly asleep right now. But I'm hungry, so I'm here to eat, and while I don't mean to offend the loyal guards and the Dai Li agents, I'm just not comfortable leaving Roku in the nursery without one of us nearby."

"It's extremely rare for a child to be brought out of the nursery to this room for meals before he's old enough to learn good table manners," Iroh admitted from where he was sitting. "The first night, I honestly wondered if some of the dining room staff were going to turn in their resignations. But everyone has adjusted now, and so long as Roku is in a good mood, it actually makes for a more pleasant dining experience."

"Besides, this is the best way to ensure Zuko actually leaves his office for a civilized dinner, instead of just wolfing down some fire flakes while working," Katara said, giving the Fire Lord a teasing grin.

"It's true," Zuko admitted with a rueful smile. "About a week after coming home, Katara marched into my office with Roku and said that if I didn't come to dinner and spend a little more time with my family and friends, she'd leave Roku with me but without his diaper, and let him pee all over my desk. I decided it wasn't worth finding out whether or not she was bluffing."

"Ewww!"

"She was right; I do need to spend more time with you all," Zuko said with a shrug as servants began bringing the food in. "Most of you are putting your lives on hold for my sake and my son's; I should never take that for granted. The very least I can do is have breakfast and dinner with my family and friends."

"And import lots of sea prunes for me and Katara," Sokka said with a grin as a big steaming bowl of them was set in front of him. "You want some, Aang?"

Aang repressed a shudder. "Er, I'll pass, thanks."

After they were served, Zuko took several bites of his roast duck, and then set his chopsticks down and turned to Katara with his arms out. Katara carefully handed the sleeping baby over to him, and Zuko cuddled his son with soft murmurs and an adoring look while Katara picked up her chopsticks and began eating. "We take turns eating and holding him," she said in response to Aang's raised eyebrow. "That way there's no problem with him accidentally bumping our chopsticks or something."

"Why don't you just bring a bassiyipes!" Aang yelped as he dodged a flung chopstick before it could hit him right in the forehead arrow.

"Oops, sorry! I thought I saw a fly, and wanted to hit it before it could land on the food," Suki said with a smile as a servant hurried to retrieve her chopstick.

Katara blinked at Suki as she asked, "You've actually done that before? Nailed a fly in midair with a chopstick?"

"Mai did that a few times, when we went on picnics," Zuko said, looking up from Roku with a sad, pained smile of remembrance. "She said it kept her in practice."

As the servant cleaned her chopstick and brought it back, Suki thanked him and then whispered something in his ear. The servant nodded, then went over to Aang and said in a low whisper, "Lady Suki says, no bassinets," before asking a little louder, "Would you care for some more orangicot juice, Avatar?"

Every five minutes or so, Zuko and Katara would pass the baby back and forth, and take turns cuddling Roku and eating. Having already dodged a chopstick, Aang kept his mouth shut about the baby for the rest of the long and leisurely meal. Instead, he talked about how people in the colonies he'd visited were dealing with the details of the final treaty between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, his most recent visit to Bumi in Omashu, and his latest attempt to ride a tiger-dillo.

After they'd all polished off their dessert and gotten up from the table, Zuko to return to his office and Katara and Iroh taking Roku to the nursery, Aang asked Suki, "Why didn't you want me to talk about bassinets? If they brought in a basket for the baby and set it on the floor next to Katara, then she and Zuko wouldn't have to take turns eating."

"Two reasons," Suki said. "The first is that Roku just plain fusses less if he's being held by his father or by Katara. If we put him in a bassinet at mealtimes, he'd be louder and it wouldn't be nearly as nice. The second is that it's better for Zuko this way; having dinner and breakfast with us are pretty much the only breaks he gives himself. If he has to spend half his time holding Roku, it makes for a slower and more leisurely meal."

"Yeah," Sokka chimed in. "That first dinner Zuko had with us, he just wolfed down his food, apologized and left before I'd even gotten to dessert. But for the second time, after Katara basically threatened him into coming to dinner, just as he was about to leave she plunked the baby in his arms and told him to hold Roku so she could enjoy her dessert properly. That made him stay another five minutes, at least; I've never seen my sister eat a sweet bun so slowly in my whole life. I finished my fifth one before she was done! Zuko was kinda antsy at first, wanting her to hurry up so he could get back to work; then Roku patted his chin with one tiny hand and he just sorta melted there," as Sokka smiled at the memory.

Suki finished, "So for our third dinner together, Katara pretended Roku had joggled her chopsticks hand a few times in the first course to make her spill her food halfway to her mouth, then handed him over to Zuko and announced that they'd take turns eating from now on. And that's what they've been doing ever since. I think Zuko now knows she was faking it and that we could bring in a bassinet for Roku, but he hasn't objected; he's figured out that he needs this time to unwind."

After a while Aang went to the nursery and played with Roku for a few minutes, tickling his feet and doing little airbending tricks for him; babies were really cute after they got over that squashed look they had when they were first born. But when he sniffed something bad coming from the vicinity of Roku's diaper, he handed the baby over to Katara for changing and asked Iroh, "Didn't you ask about playing some pai sho earlier?" Iroh smiled and nodded, though Katara frowned at him for some reason. Whatever was bothering her, she said nothing about it as he and Iroh went to the elder's quarters and the pai sho board set up there.

They'd been playing pai sho for about half an hour when Aang cocked his head, listening to the breeze coming in the window. "Shouting… angry shouting, and more than one person, too; something's wrong!"

Aang went out the window with his glider and circled round the palace to the source of the noise, to find all four of the Dai Li agents gathered in a defensive circle right inside the front gates, having a shouting match with a group of royal guardsmen as well as a quartet of city guards. He sent down a blast of air to rattle everyone's helmets and let them know the Avatar was present, then landed to one side and asked sternly, "What's going on here?"

Instead of a calm, reasoned explanation, he got everyone shouting at him at once, waving their arms for emphasis—but luckily, not waving flames or boulders yet. Not yet, but if he didn't do something real quick, the boulders were going to start flying; all the Dai Li agents—Toph's best people; men she'd told him she trusted to maintain their calm under the worst conditions—looked either furious, or freaked to the point of hysteria!

Looked like it was time to use a new trick; he planted the end of his staff on the ground, took a stance and a deep breath, and bellowed "SILENCE!"

Everyone rocked back on their heels, staring at him in shock; absolutely astonished that someone his size could bellow louder than a giant lion-turtle, and probably loud enough to be heard down in the harbor. He had to fight to keep from smirking; it was the Fire Nation's first exposure to an advanced airbending move that he'd figured out just a few months ago, when he'd gotten tired of agitated people shouting over him. Now if only he could figure out how to do it without making his own ears ring, too… After a few more moments of utter silence (except for the ringing), now that he had their attention and respect, he pointed at the city guardsmen and ordered, "You talk first."

But before they could say anything, Sokka burst out the palace doors with his Space Sword in hand, while shouting over his shoulder, "Drag him back to the nursery and sit on him if you have to!" Then he took a fighting stance with his sword, looking around wildly. "Where's the monster?! What bellowed like that?"

"I did," Aang said proudly. "It's a new airbending technique; whaddaya think?"

"I think it's a new send-the-Fire-Lord-freaking technique, is what it is," Sokka snapped, looking pissed instead of impressed. "Zuko was ready to come out here and incinerate what we thought was the latest threat to Roku! Who's now screaming, by the way; thanks a bunch!"

"Oops… Sorry! I did it because these guys were all shouting so much I couldn't understand anyone," as he gestured to the cluster of guards and agents, who were now mostly standing around looking embarrassed at having disturbed the baby. "Now that no one's shouting, let's find out what happened and why they're all out here. You city guards can talk first," as he pointed to them again.

The sergeant of the city guardsmen pointed at the Dai Li agents as he said angrily, "Two of these men utterly wrecked a drinking establishment, the Jade Flute, and put three men in the hospital! Witnesses said they attacked without provocation!"

"The hells we didn't have provocation!" Agent Renshu shouted back. Aang had thought that agent was one of the more level-headed in his squad; it was disturbing to see him looking so shaken. "Those men were trying to—to—they're sick, perverted criminal scum!"

"They were peaceable citizens!" Hoshi, the captain of the royal guards, shouted at him. "If you want to talk criminal, I'll-"

"One at a time!" Sokka shouted before Aang could. "And I have a question for the city guardsmen. The three men in the hospital; how badly are they hurt?"

"One has internal injuries, puking blood; the healers are still trying to save him. Another has a bad head wound, at least a severe concussion, and a broken arm too; the third man has a broken leg. None of them had any weapons or bending ability!" as the city guardsmen glared at the Dai Li.

"Slush," Sokka swore softly, before saying much louder, "All right, all of you stay right there while I get my sister and the Fire Lord. Lady Katara will do what she can to make sure those men stay alive, no matter who ends up standing trial. And this sounds like something the Fire Lord needs to deal with," as he ducked back inside the palace.

As Sokka ran inside, Hoshi sent one of his guardsmen to get a fast palanquin ready. Barely two minutes later, Katara was running out the palace doors, equipped with waterskins. "I'll need someone to show me the way to the hospital," she said tersely, even as bearers brought a palanquin around to the palace steps at top speed.

One of the city guardsmen instantly volunteered to go with Katara, while Hoshi appointed two of his guardsmen to accompany her and ensure she returned to the palace safely later. She balked at getting into the palanquin, but Hoshi said firmly, "Healing three badly wounded men may well tire you out, milady. Take the palanquin, please."

Just as the palanquin with Katara in it left the palace steps at a fast jog, Zuko came out. Or to be more accurate, the Fire Lord came out; Zuko had not only the crown but the attitude firmly in place. This was the Fire Lord, and the Fire Lord was furious. Everyone in the street except Aang either bowed deeply or dropped into a full kowtow at his expression. After a moment of ominous silence he commanded, "The Dai Li, the city guardsmen and the captain of my royal guard will follow me and the Avatar to my throne room. The rest of you, to your posts!" Guardsmen scattered like startled birds, while the people he had listed fell obediently into line behind him as he strode back through the palace doors. Suspecting that part of Zuko's fury was about the way Roku had been scared earlier, Aang prudently brought up the rear of the procession.

Iroh joined the procession along the way, giving them all a raised bushy eyebrow, but said nothing. He fell in behind Aang and trailed them into the throne room, but took a seat behind all the other attendants; wordlessly indicating that he was there strictly to observe, not to interfere in the Fire Lord's business.

Once Zuko had seated himself on the Fire Throne, with the fires signifying his reign blazing red and gold around him, he commanded the leader of the city guardsmen to repeat his accusation. The guardsmen did, pointing at the two agents who'd done the damage and emphasizing that the three men who had been so grievously wounded—and several other men who had been injured, though not as severely—had not been armed nor benders. "Witnesses say that the two Dai Li agents were at the bar drinking, in a conversation with citizens Daiki and Naoto, when without warning they ripped sections of the marble flooring up with their earthbending and used them to viciously attack both citizens, then to attack Riku and several others who had come to Daiki and Naoto's defense."

"We were fighting our way to the door to escape!" Agent Guoliang growled, before the other Dai Li could hush him.

"Silence!" Zuko thundered, and while it wasn't nearly as loud as Aang's airbending bellow earlier, it had the same effect; everyone shut up fast. After another ominous beat, Zuko pointed at Renshu and Guoliang and growled, "You two. Explain yourselves. Start from the beginning; why were you down there in that bar?"

"We were off duty, and drinking to relax and experience some of the social life of the Fire Nation capital," Renshu said respectfully. "The Fire Lord will perhaps recall that it was recommended we do so, to encourage more cordial relations between our nations. We Dai Li had agreed to stay in pairs and stick to just two drinks each when we go out, to keep our wits and senses sharp in case of trouble. Guoliang and I were in that bar because it has marble floors, instead of the more common wooden floors we see in most of the buildings here. It was our second time drinking in that bar; the first time had been without incident. Daiki and Naoto had introduced themselves to us the last time we were in there, but limited themselves to introductions and a bit of small talk. This time…"

"They asked us if we remembered them from our previous visit, which we did. Then they asked if either Guoliang or I were married, which neither of us are; no married men were chosen for-"

"Wait, wait," Zuko interrupted. "Tell me the exact words they used. And the exact words you used in response."

Renshu and Guoliang looked at each other; then Renshu said, "Daiki said to us, 'We noticed that this is the second time you've come in here together. Are you two married?' and I answered, 'No.' then Naoto asked, 'So, you're both single?' to which Guoliang answered 'Yes'. Then I asked them, 'Why do you ask?' to which Daiki replied, 'this may be a little forward, but we're feeling adventurous, and we were wondering if the two of you wanted to go diving with us.'" Then he looked to Guoliang.

Guoliang said, "I used to go swimming a lot in my hometown, so I said, 'Sure, I'll go.' Renshu didn't look so sure, but I knew he can swim too—it's part of the physical exam we Dai Li have to pass—so I told him, 'Come on, it'll be fun!' and then… Your majesty, may I ask why you're shaking your head?"

Aang looked at Zuko to see him not just shaking his head, but pinching the bridge of his nose, as if trying to ward off a stress headache. Zuko waved away the question and said in a strained voice, "Continue."

Guoliang looked even more uncertain than before, but continued, "Naoto said, 'That's great! Come on, our place isn't far from here. I've heard that people from the Earth Kingdom have a lot of stamina.' And then he… he reached over and squeezed Renshu's ass!"

"And that's when the fight broke out," Zuko interrupted, his voice flat. "Because you two thought you were about to be sexually assaulted by perverts. And you never realized you were drinking in a gay bar, let alone that you had just agreed to participate in a foursome!"

"Well, they were all drinking; alcohol dulls the brain and makes people do stuff without thinking it through," Aang said judiciously. "That's why my mentor always said-"

The words of wisdom Aang had been about to relate were drowned out by a horrified chorus of "What?!" issuing from every Dai Li throat, as they stared bug-eyed at Zuko.

"For Agni's sake, didn't you notice that there weren't any women in that bar?" Hoshi snorted. "The Jade Flute is the most famous, high-class gay bar on the island; probably in the entire Fire Nation!"

Renshu was white as a sheet; Aang wondered if he might actually faint. "F-famous… y-y-you mean they do it in public!?"

If Phan's eyes popped out any further, they'd shove his glasses off his nose. He squeaked, "And they're not arrested? Not—not anything?!"

The leader of the city guardsmen looked to his associates and snorted, "See, this is why the war wasn't all bad."

Obviously he'd forgotten just who he was speaking in front of. But he was reminded real fast; the throne's fires surged up to scorch the ceiling as Zuko shot to his feet and thundered, "What did you say?!"

All three remaining guardsmen immediately dropped to a full kowtow, the leader babbling, "Apologies, your majesty, for speaking out of turn! Mercy, Fire Lord, please!"

Zuko sat back on his throne and sighed, rubbing his forehead as he said tiredly, "Mercy is granted. There will be no punishment… this time. But if I ever hear again that anyone in the city guard has been spouting such pro-war sentiment…"

"Never again, your majesty, I swear! Never again!"

"See that your promise is kept." Then Zuko sighed again. "But I believe I know what you were referring to, when you said that. Gentlemen of the Earth Kingdom, it may astonish you to realize this, but behavior that you consider perverted and criminal in your own nation, is routinely accepted here. We do not punish someone for simply preferring their own gender for pillow time."

Hoshi glared at the Dai Li as he growled, "My little brother is gay! And he and his husband are both good and honorable men; they've even adopted two war orphans! If you ever even imply that they're-"

"Captain, there will be no challenges to honor duels tonight!" Zuko snapped. "This is an international issue, which needs resolving before personal honor can be attended to."

"Violence isn't the answer to this," Aang chimed in. "What we need is a better understanding of each other's cultures."

"Oh, we understand quite a bit already," Zuko said darkly, staring at the Dai Li agents. "We understand that people in the Earth Kingdom are routinely forced to hide their true natures from everyone, even their own families. That if their true sexual preferences are discovered, they face being put on trial and imprisoned, or hunted down by lynch mobs and buried alive, for the apparently unspeakable crime of being gay. One of the ways Sozin convinced our people that the Fire Nation should take over the rest of the world, was by publicizing some of the horror stories told by people who fled the Earth Kingdom for ours. Under Fire Nation rule, they're free to be who they are, even openly marry their chosen partners, without needing to fear for their lives!"

Aang peered at the Dai Li as he asked incredulously, "You guys really think liking the same gender is criminal? But…Why?"

"Because it's unnatural!" Phan said promptly.

Aang shook his head. "Um, it's unusual, yeah, but it's not unnatural if it actually happens in nature. When I was a kid at the Southern Air Temple there was this mated pair of winged lemurs, Monk Haisu's pets; they were both males, but they were definitely mates." He gave a little smile of reminiscence as he added, "It was cute, the way they were always grooming each other…"

The Dai Li just gaped open-mouthed at him for long seconds before Renshu insisted with a scowl, "It's still not right! Oma and Shu were man and woman, not man and man!" To which Guoliang added with a glare, "Or man and little boy, or man and cow-pig!"

That got every Fire Nation person in the room glaring at him, even Iroh from where he was sitting, while Zuko said flatly, "You can't have meant that the way it sounded. You can't seriously think homosexuality is the same as pedophilia, or bestiality."

Huong said frostily, "Perhaps the Fire Lord will enlighten us as to the degree of difference between the perversions?"

The throne fires surged again as Zuko snarled, "The difference is mutual consent, idiots! When one partner doesn't freely consent, it's rape, and that's a crime regardless of age or gender! But when both partners are willing and say so, and are legally of age to speak for themselves, then it's neither rape nor perversion! If there's no coercion involved and no marriage contracts being broken, then it's their business and no one has the right to interfere!"

He sat back on his throne and sighed, complaining to the world at large, "Fifteen minutes ago I was rocking my son to sleep. Now I'm not only giving a sex talk to grown men, I'm dealing with rampant bigotry and an incident that could do damage to our treaty…"

All the Dai Li agents looked a little ashamed of themselves at his words. Finally, Aang thought to himself, feeling very disappointed in them. Hadn't they all volunteered to come here to help protect Zuko and his son, not to cause more trouble for them?

"Ahem. Fire Lord Zuko, perhaps you could appoint someone else to deal with this particular mess, while you tend to personal matters?" Iroh suggested from where he was sitting. "I volunteer my own services; I have had decades of experience in dealing with Earth Kingdom people."

"Fine. General Iroh will deal with this, and report to the throne when the issue has been resolved to satisfaction," Zuko declared, as he stood up from the throne. "All yours, Uncle; I'm going back to Roku."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Zuko was still pissed off, both at the Dai Li agents and at himself, when he stomped back to the nursery. Why hadn't he asked Toph if she'd screened her men for that particular flavor of bigotry before accepting their oaths of service? He'd known about Earth Kingdom's barbaric homophobia most of his life; every schoolchild in the Fire Nation had been taught that it was one of the reasons why their nation and way of life were superior to others!

He shook his head at himself, knowing the reason why. He hadn't asked because once he'd realized that the war was wrong, silly little Zuzu who saw everything in black and white, had figured the homophobia was just another lie spouted by that evil Sozin to justify his thirst for conquest. None of his friends and their home countries could possibly have serious bad qualities, oh no, they were all wonderful… And thanks to his stupid assumptions, this was now a wonderful fuck-up.

Having gone back to standing guard outside the nursery, Sokka gave him a raised eyebrow as he approached and asked, "Worse than just a drunken bar fight, huh?"

"Much worse," he agreed morosely.

"Do they all need to be sent back to Toph?"

"Maybe. I don't know yet; right now I just need some time with Roku…"

Sokka nodded to the other guard on duty, then followed Zuko inside the nursery. Suki was rocking with Roku in the rocking chair, humming an Earth Kingdom lullaby to him. It wasn't Suki's watch shift, but she'd come running from her suite with fans out when they'd all heard that palace-rattling bellow, helped two of the palace guards keep Zuko from charging out with Sokka (he was still pissed about that too, but he knew they'd only been following orders), and then volunteered to stay with Roku when Katara's healing skills were needed.

Suki looked at him as he came in, stood up and wordlessly inclined her head to the rocking chair. After he sat down, she carefully transferred his son into his arms. Roku had calmed down from the terrified screaming fit he'd gone into at that palace-rattling bellow, and was looking sleepy.

Zuko made another mental note to himself; tomorrow he'd ask Aang exactly how that stunt worked. Then he would politely inform the Avatar that he'd break that glider staff right over that tattooed head if it ever happened again. But for now he just rocked silently, cradling Roku to his chest; cherishing the weight and warmth of a tiny fragile person, the life he and Mai had made together.

Sokka and Suki watched quietly for a minute or two, with small smiles on their faces. Then, probably sensing he'd calmed down a little, Suki asked quietly, "What happened with the Dai Li?"

"What happened is that two men with severe homophobia walked into a gay bar, not realizing it was a gay bar, and proceeded to attack the patrons and wreck the place after they found out the hard way. Why couldn't they have just said 'no, thanks' and left for another bar? Stupid Earth Kingdom—uh, sorry, Suki. No offense meant," he said belatedly.

"No offense taken, in this case," Suki said with a frown. "That's one of the reasons why Kyoshi Island considers itself independent of the Earth Kingdom. If we didn't have strict controls on immigration, people proving they have skills we need before they're allowed to settle, we'd be flooded with refugees from the cities just looking for freedom to be themselves. That homophobia is actually one of the reasons why we justified neutrality in the war for most of a century."

"Homophobia?" Sokka said, blinking as he looked from Zuko to Suki. "What are you talking about?"

Suki and Zuko both stared at him for long seconds; then Zuko said carefully, "Sokka, have you ever heard of the term 'homosexual'? We use it, and the word 'gay,' to refer to people who routinely seek their own gender for pillow time."

"But that's what you do, when… wait, you mean all the time?" Sokka asked with a finger raised, looking quizzical. "Not just when there aren't any available girls around?"

Zuko nodded. "Yeah; even when there are plenty of girls around, some guys still go to men for sex instead."

"Huh. Okay, homosexual; wonder if that explains why old Tatum never married?" Sokka asked, thoughtfully rubbing his chin.

But the more at ease Sokka became with the idea, the more wide-eyed Suki became, until she blurted out, "Are you saying that in the Water Tribes, it's okay to have sex with both men and women all the time?"

"Of course not! If a guy and a girl are shedding furs together, they'd better be married to each other or they're in deep trouble!" Sokka said indignantly. Apparently forgetting the fact that he and Suki weren't married, but Zuko said nothing as he went on, "But people have needs, y'know? So when hunting parties are out on the ice for days at a time, well, hunters do for hunters. And I guess maybe the women back home do for other women, too, but it's not something we talk about; it's really rude to ask."

Suki's eyes were wide as twin moons as she muttered, probably not realizing she was saying it out loud, "So that's why they got so upset when I insisted on going hunting with you…" Then she asked Sokka, "Have you ever, uh, done for other hunters?"

Zuko interrupted before Sokka could answer her, saying desperately, "Can we not talk about our personal sex lives in front of the baby?!" Ashes, he just knew he was blushing!

"The baby's not old enough to even understand the words," Suki pointed out, but didn't ask again, to Zuko's silent relief; there were some things that should just be kept private.

Then she told Sokka, "Anyway, 'homophobia' is the term used for people who not only don't want pillow time with their own gender, they fear and hate the people who do. And the Earth Kingdom is officially homophobic; gay pillowing is considered criminal behavior. Understand, that policy isn't enforced as much in some regions as in others. There are a few places where partners of the same gender can quietly live together without trouble, though they can't actually get married; the Earth Sages just flat-out won't perform the ceremonies for them. But in other regions… it gets ugly. It seems like the more people are crowded together, the more gay people have to hide what they are, for their own safety."

"And if you had to sum all of Ba Sing Se up in one word, that word would be 'crowded'," Zuko finished dryly.

Sokka shook his head. "Man, that's messed up… So, what happens now?"

"I don't know yet. Uncle volunteered to deal with it, so I turned them over to him. It really depends on what he does with them… and what Katara can do for the three men they put in the hospital. A damaged bar can be rebuilt, and so long as no one's permanently injured, the incident can be smoothed over. But if anyone ends up permanently crippled, let alone killed…" he shook his head.

If any of the victims died as a result of what the Fire Nation would consider an unprovoked attack, his people would demand that the Dai Li responsible be put on trial for murder in the second degree. But if he did, the Earth Kingdom would explode in outrage; thousands of their own people had died over the last century at Fire Nation hands, and he'd only allowed war crime trials for the very worst offenders, the officers who had authorized civilian massacres. For two of their own to be put on trial for what they would see as 'defending themselves from criminals'… That would lead to even more friction, probably to increased attacks on his people in the colonies. He could ship them all back to Ba Sing Se with a note of 'thanks but no thanks' for Toph and the Earth King, and tell his own people that they'd been banished in utter disgrace, but that wouldn't help improve relations between their countries either. Cold ashes, what a mess…

Sokka went back outside to stand guard, and Roku fell completely asleep a few minutes later. Zuko gently kissed his son's baby-fine hair as he gently laid him in his crib, and Suki offered quietly, "I can stay here with him until Katara gets back."

Zuko shook his head. "No, it's okay, I'll stay in here. I won't be able to sleep anyway, until I find out whether or not those men will make it."

Suki nodded, then affectionately stroked Roku's tiny cheek with a fingertip before she left for her quarters. Zuko sat back down in the rocking chair, watching his child sleep as he rocked slowly back and forth. The motion really was rather soothing; he wondered idly if he could get away with replacing the Fire Throne with a rocking chair.

Some time later, his uncle came into the nursery, followed by a servant with a tea tray (of course.) Uncle poured tea for them both as he said quietly, "The Dai Li now understand the seriousness of their offense, and have sworn to make amends as much as they can. The money for rebuilding the Jade Flute will come out of their collective pay, matched coin for coin by money from my own funds; the incident was partially a result of my own error. Nephew, I take full responsibility for their lack of education on the differences they might find in cultures when they ventured into town. I knew Toph had informed them of what they would have to deal with, from people who despise them for being foreigners, but I never thought to tell them what they might encounter from people who are willing to consider them as friends."

"Done is done, Uncle, as you've reminded me so often. But it's going to take more than money to fix this issue. Should they be sent back to Ba Sing Se?"

"Not yet," as Iroh shook his head. "If Katara can't save the victims then it might come to that, but if she can, then I believe what's needed is truly a better understanding. After dismissing the Dai Li I talked with Hoshi, who will talk with his younger brother. We are now seeking volunteers among the gay members of our population; happily married couples who are willing to put their homes and families on display, for the sake of showing the Dai Li that what they consider 'deviant and criminal behavior' is no such thing, but simply another kind of coupling." Iroh paused, then admitted, "I don't expect the educating to be easy, after the first impression they just received."

"Yeah. Why couldn't they have just noticed a couple kissing in a dark corner or something? They said they'd been to the bar once before, and there's probably at least kissing going on there all the time; watching people that you didn't realize are involved start kissing each other, isn't nearly as shocking as having your ass grabbed by a stranger."

Iroh blinked at him for a second, then shook his head as he said out loud, "I'm not going to ask whether or how you acquired personal experience of that. The plan is to make reparations for the damages, and educate them on the error of their ways. And I had words with the city guardsmen as well; I impressed upon them that the Dai Li attacked because they quite honestly feared they were about to be raped, not having understood what 'going diving' meant in that setting. I fear we'll have to paint the Dai Li as ignorant country bumpkins, who had no idea what they were getting into; better to emphasize their ignorance than their homophobia. You may hear rumors of jokes being told that they have 'dirt instead of brains between their ears'."

"Toph's going to hate it if her top men are turned into laughingstocks," Zuko muttered as he took another sip of tea.

"Which is exactly what Aang said when he overheard the suggestion. But people who are laughing aren't afraid," his uncle pointed out. Then he changed the subject, and they drank tea and talked of inconsequential things while waiting to Katara to return.

Roku woke up before she returned, crying for a meal and a diaper change as Zuko lifted him out of his crib. Iroh looked on in bemusement as Zuko whisked him over to the changing table, saying only, "We could summon Yukiko, you know…"

"No, today was her day off. Even if she's back from her trip into town, she's probably asleep by now, and I'm not. Katara says I've gotten pretty good at this," Zuko replied as he took off the soiled diaper and reached for a fresh cleaning cloth.

"Nephew, I believe you are the first Fire Lord in at least a thousand years to have changed his child's diaper."

"I'm the first Fire Lord to have done a lot of things," Zuko pointed out wryly. "At least this one's not related to the war. Hold still, son… Come on, don't be such a wiggly worm… There we go; got a nice clean diaper on you. But you're hungry now, hm?"

"Poor little one. There, there; she'll be back soon," Iroh said as he accepted the baby from Zuko and cradled him close. Then he lifted a bushy eyebrow again as he asked, "What are you doing with the daybed, nephew?"

"Getting some milk. Katara set up an emergency supply for him; she told me about this just a few days ago," as Zuko pulled the daybed out far enough to expose the trapdoor to the storage chamber. He opened the trapdoor, cautioning his uncle to keep Roku away and warm; it was freezing cold down there. He used breath of fire to keep himself warm as he went down into the storage chamber, and came up with a small bottle of Katara's milk.

He rinsed out his teacup, and very carefully heated the bottle of milk in his hands before pouring some into the cup. Then he untied his robes, baring his chest, before sitting down in the rocking chair and gesturing for Roku.

Iroh gave him a strange look instead of Roku. "And the reason you bared your chest would be…? There are some things that no man can do, nephew!"

"I know what I'm doing, Uncle!" he insisted, though in truth he'd never done this before. "Skin to skin contact; he's used to that when he's being fed, and it will make him more comfortable with the change in his routine!" as he gestured impatiently for his son.

Iroh finally handed Roku over, then watched quietly as he held the teacup to his son's lips and, with only a little initial difficulty and coaxing, got him to drink the milk. Zuko exhaled contentedly as he fed his son in small sips, admitting to himself that he'd missed this; missed having skin-to-skin contact with his precious baby boy. Katara had called it essential for the first two weeks of Roku's life, since being born so early had left him more vulnerable than most babies to getting dangerously chilled, so Zuko had carried his son inside his shirt, close to his heart, for most of each day and night. He'd reluctantly ceased the practice when Katara had pronounced Roku strong enough to no longer need the constant warming, because Fire Lords just didn't walk around with their robes bulging or gaping open. But he'd missed it all the same, this simple and blessed human contact… maybe this was why Katara always had that contented smile while feeding Roku, whenever he'd sneaked quick peeks.

Still watching him feed Roku the milk in little sips, Iroh said softly, "I had thought I was an excellent father to Lu Ten, but I believe you have surpassed me, nephew."

"Come on; you know you were a great father to Lu Ten. You have no idea how often I've wished over the years… never mind. I'm doing all this because I have to be his mother as well as his father." After a few moments of feeling again the gaping hole left in his life by Mai, he determinedly pulled himself out of the well of despair. "My son is going to know all his life that he's loved and cherished for who he is. Not what he may be, a firebending prodigy or tactical genius or whatever, but who he is; Roku, son of Zuko and Mai. …In a way, it's actually my duty to the Fire Nation, to spend so much time with him; Roku has to become a good man, before he can be a good Fire Lord." He added lightly, "Thank Agni that Katara's here, and Sokka and Suki too, so they can mind him when I have official duties; otherwise I'd probably cause a scandal by setting up a crib in the throne room. And wearing a baby sling over my robes of office."

Iroh snickered at the thought. "The royal tailors would have fits."

Once Roku's tummy was full, Zuko put the baby to his shoulder and rubbed his back until the air in his tummy was expelled in a resounding belch-the loudest one yet; he wondered briefly if Sokka was giving his son lessons. Afterwards he rocked Roku back to sleep, while his uncle joined him in softly singing "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow…"

Katara finally returned an hour after Roku had fallen back asleep; she opened the door looking very tired and out of sorts. She gave her report in a near-whisper, for fear of waking the baby: "All three of them will live, though it was touch and go for a while with the man who caught a boulder in his guts. And I'm still worried about permanent brain damage for the man who took a blow to the head... Ugh. Never fall asleep in a palanquin; I've got such a crick in my neck! Zuko, I need to go back down there again tomorrow; they're all alive but they're a long, long way from well. Roku comes first, but I can coordinate with Yukiko and try to time it between his feedings…"

"The sooner you can get them all on their feet again, the sooner we can get this whole mess smoothed over. How many healing sessions do you think they'll need?" Zuko asked.

"At least a week's worth; probably more. Broken bones can't be healed in a single session; all I can do each time is take about a week off the natural healing process. I told the healers in the hospital to give them hippo-cow milk to drink and blood pudding, five times a day; that's close enough to what we fed our patients at the North Pole between bone-healing sessions. I don't know if they'll do it, though; even with the royal guardsmen reinforcing that I was there at the Fire Lord's request, the healers looked at me like an intruder."

Zuko huffed in frustration. Didn't everyone know by now that Katara had saved his life with her healing abilities, even before becoming an official master healer? "Come with me to my office, write down your instructions and I'll put the royal seal on it. They'll have no choice but to obey that. Then take some time off every mid-morning for healing sessions, for as long as it takes. And, Katara… I imagine you won't like it, but take a palanquin and royal guards with you when you go, every time."

She frowned at him. "Why? Tonight's healing took hours and so much out of me because I was fighting to get them to a stable condition; other sessions won't be nearly as bad, and it's probably less than two miles from here to the hospital."

I know, and I know you're used to long walks, but there are two good reasons. The first is to make it plain that you're acting on behalf of the royal family; since it was my and Roku's bodyguards that caused all the trouble, it's my responsibility to see it all set right. The second…" Zuko sighed. "Katara, there are still a lot of people who think the Fire Nation should have won the war. You know why Sokka and Suki are standing guard over Roku; there've been seventeen assassination attempts in the last year. And one that succeeded," as his throat closed up for a moment with grief.

"Zuko…" Katara started to reach for him, her eyes filled with sympathy.

He held her off with an upraised hand, so he could finish what he had to say. "But the royal family hasn't been the only targets. There've also been at least four attempts to kill Aang."

"What?!" Katara's eyes were blazing as blue as Azula's fire, as she nearly shrieked in outrage.

Which, naturally, woke Roku up. The next few minutes were occupied in soothing the baby back to sleep, and assuring Sokka that everything was okay when he poked his head inside the nursery. Once Roku was asleep again, Katara continued in a quieter tone, "Four assassination attempts?"

"Four that I can confirm. One attempt here at the capital when he visited five months ago; the chefs had made a tofu dish especially for him, but a guard noticed how nervous the server was acting and 'accidentally' spilled the dish just before it could be served, and we confirmed later that it had been poisoned. There have also been at least three attempts to assassinate him in the colonies. I'm sure there've been more attempts there and elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom, because some of the 'accidents' that I've heard have happened around him have been pretty damn suspicious, but I can only confirm the three."

"And why, I'd like to know, didn't anyone tell me about these assassination attempts before?!" Katara's voice was literally frosty; Zuko could see white specks floating through the fog pouring out of her mouth as she spoke.

Iroh had dozed off in the rocking chair but had woken up when Katara came in, and he hastily stepped in to answer for Zuko, possibly because his studies of waterbending combat techniques had given him much more experience in redirecting attacks. "You should ask Aang himself why he chose not to inform you of the attempts… but perhaps at a more reasonable hour; it's very late tonight," he added before she could stomp out of the nursery to shake some answers out of her boyfriend.

Silently thanking his uncle, Zuko chimed in, "I didn't know he hadn't told you about them." Though he had rather suspected that Aang hadn't said a word of the attempts to his girlfriend, after Katara had repeatedly not appeared on the northern horizon, riding on a tsunami headed straight for the colonies.

"If the attempts were coordinated, the links connecting them are still hidden," he told her grimly. "The first assassin in the colonies actually killed himself in the attempt to kill Aang, and the second escaped before anyone could get a good look at him and was never captured, while the third was killed by the guards thwarting his attempt. The one we caught here in the palace committed suicide while in custody, before he could be questioned. All I've been able to do about the attempts is assign food tasters and bodyguards for all of Aang's scheduled appearances, and beg that airhead to let them actually stay close to him and do their jobs."

He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, having taken the Fire Crown off hours ago. "Katara, the whole charred world knows you're the Avatar's girlfriend. You're a walking target not just for assassins, but for people who'd want to capture and hold you hostage to make the Avatar comply with their wishes. You're the world's greatest waterbender, and you and I both know you can handle yourself in a fight, but… With luck, the royal guards' presence will be enough of a deterrent that there won't be any attempts. And if there is an attempt, hopefully having to go through the bodyguards will slow them down enough for you to beat them with no risk to yourself. We can't risk your safety, Katara; my son needs you to survive."

She slowly nodded and sighed. "All right. Palanquin and bodyguards, every time."

"Thank you. Come on, before we both fall asleep, let's get those instructions written down and endorsed; I'll have someone run them down to the hospital…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next morning Aang came to breakfast, to find the dining room held only half the people that had been there at dinner; Iroh, Katara and little Roku were missing. And moments after he arrived, Zuko finished his breakfast and stood up, muttering a quick apology for his rudeness as he left for his office.

"Katara took a palanquin and went to the hospital again," Sokka explained to Aang while eating, "so Roku's staying in the nursery with Yukiko. And Iroh went down to the Jade Flute, or what's left of it, to find out how much it will cost to repair all the damages."

Aang was a little disappointed at having missed Katara at breakfast, but it did give him the opportunity to ask Sokka some questions he hadn't been able to ask the night before, because he didn't want to risk her overhearing. "So when is Katara's birthday party going to be, and where are you going to hold it? And do you want any help in pulling off the surprise? I can be pretty sneaky sometimes..."

"The party's going to be this afternoon, but it's not going to be a surprise party like yours was," Sokka told him. "There's no way it could be a surprise, with Kumo and the cook asking Katara what kind of food she'd like to have and stuff!"

"They're really making an effort to serve Water Tribe cuisine for the feast, as well as the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation foods that she likes," Suki added with a smile. "Sokka's been called to the kitchen a least a dozen times to taste-test their five-flavor soup, pemmican cakes and assorted sea prune dishes."

"Yeah, they're experimenting on different ways to serve sea prunes," Sokka explained, "trying to come up with a dish that everyone likes. But that's for other meals; I told 'em to not serve any of the experiments at her party." He made a face as he added, "Sea prunes and fire flakes? Absolutely do not go together."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Three hours later, Iroh and Katara's palanquins returned together, Iroh having gone to the hospital after surveying the Jade Flute and questioning its proprietor. Upon their return, they went straight to Zuko's office to talk to him. Five minutes later, Katara went to the nursery, picked up Roku and told the Dai Li on duty there, Phan, "Everyone's meeting in the throne room. Would you go get Renshu? I know it's not his shift yet, but he should be there for this, too."

"He should be on his way right now," Phan said, looking down at his bare-soled feet with a troubled expression. "Huong just sent a short pulse-train through all the marble; the signal we use back in Ba Sing Se for general assembly. …Did one of the men die? Are we going to be put on trial?"

"No one's dead, but I'll let Zuko and his uncle explain the rest. Come on, you too," Katara said to Suki while putting Roku in his carrying sling, and they all went together to the throne room.

The fires of office were flickering, responding to the Fire Lord's presence, but Zuko wasn't sitting on the throne; instead he was pacing back and forth in the audience space below. Iroh did not pace, standing calmly with his hands tucked into his sleeves, but there was a definite frown on his face. As soon as Zuko saw Katara he held his arms out in a wordless demand; Katara immediately handed over his son and Zuko held him close for a few moments, just breathing in his baby scent, as some of the tension left his shoulders.

Once everyone was gathered around him, Zuko said abruptly, "There's good news, and bad news. The good news is, all three men who were injured last night will live, and Katara believes they'll all eventually heal with no loss of function. The bad news is, the whole thing was a setup."

"What?!"

Zuko looked to Iroh and nodded, and the old general began to speak. "I talked to the proprietor of the Jade Flute today, offering to not only repair all the damage done but to remodel it at the same time, if the owner had been thinking of doing any remodeling. I asked specifically if the owner wanted the exact same type of marble flooring installed, or marble of an even higher quality than before. I was rather surprised when he told me he'd rather go back to a simple wooden floor; that the only reason he'd had it done in marble was that he'd recently received a voucher good for free marble floor installation from a local construction company. That company's owner said he was giving the bar free marble flooring as a way of advertising and drumming up more business for his company, and gave the owner several slips of parchment with the construction company's name and address, to be handed out to anyone who liked the new floor." Iroh looked at them all gravely. "I visited that address outside the city, and there is nothing there but an abandoned farmhouse. And I find it very interesting that the marble flooring was installed just the day before the Dai Li arrived."

"Wait a minute; I thought no one knew the Dai Li were coming to be bodyguards?" Sokka said, scratching his head. "The minister that Zuko had as regent sure looked shocked when he saw them there on the docks."

Iroh gave a sharp nod. "That is correct. I deliberately told no one in the Fire Nation that they were coming, not wanting to give enemies forewarning that they would now be facing earthbending bodyguards. But all the nobility of Ba Sing Se knew, after the Earth King's little speech to his court about Roku having his royal protection, and that any hostility towards the Fire Prince would be dealt with as harshly as a threat to his own family. And let us not forget that the pirates we encountered while on the voyage home, had been warned that there would be earthbenders aboard the yacht. It's clear now that word of the Dai Li being assigned as bodyguards reached the Fire Nation well before us; word that traveled very rapidly but not through official channels."

"I talked with the men at the hospital, while healing them," Katara said soberly. "Daiki, the one who had severe internal injuries from a chunk of marble being nearly shoved through his guts," as she looked right at Guoliang, who looked embarrassed, "told me that he and his partner Naoto would not have ordinarily approached strangers so boldly, especially foreigners. But they'd been told just minutes before approaching them, by a stranger they'd never seen in the bar before, that those two had already gone home with another gay couple for some 'international relations'. And that Renshu tops while Guoliang bottoms, whatever that means."

"Uncle can explain that to you some other time," Zuko said hastily as his cheeks colored. "What's important is that it ties in with the sudden appearance of marble flooring in the bar, which is rare indeed here in the Fire Nation, but common enough in the Earth Kingdom that the Dai Li didn't question it when they found a place that subtly reminded them of home. When just being in a gay bar wasn't enough to trigger a deadly brawl, one was instigated with lies from a stranger who no doubt vanished just a few seconds before the trouble started. It's all more evidence of an organized campaign against my reign, by a foe that understands flanking tactics. Someone who knows that earthbenders prefer stone flooring, as well as knowing of the Earth Kingdom's general homophobia, and set up a trap to either discredit the Dai Li and hinder their operation in our capital, or force us to send them back to Ba Sing Se. Dai Li, someone out there wants you either gone or neutralized, and they're using your own prejudice against you."

The Dai Li all exchanged glances, before Huong stepped forward to speak for the group. "Your majesty, the only way we're leaving is if Master Toph recalls us, or you send us back. And I may as well add that Master Toph said if you send us back, she'll just send four more to protect you and your son." More glances exchanged between the men, before Huong took a deep breath and went on, "Your majesty, we request permission for us to visit the hospital and personally apologize to the men who were injured. To show whoever is trying to drive us out, that we can and will do whatever it takes to fulfill our duty regardless of how we may feel."

Zuko arched his lone eyebrow at them. "You do realize, of course, that most people can tell when an apology is insincere. And an insincere apology is the same in this case as no apology at all." After a brief pause to let that sink in, he added, "If you truly regret having attacked and injured two men who were tricked into approaching you, and a third man who was only coming to the first two's defense, then you are certainly encouraged to express those regrets in person. But only if you can look those men right in the eyes before bowing to them in sincere apology."

Aang had come into the throne room as well, trailing in after the off-duty Dai Li, and he said abruptly, "Maybe it'll help if you guys think of it in terms of food."

Zuko rolled his eyes and groaned. "Aang, not everyone here thinks like Sokka!"

"Hey!" Sokka said indignantly. "I don't think about food all the time!"

"That's right," Suki said soothingly. "You think about sex a lot, too."

"Yeah! …Suki!"

"No, just listen!" Aang insisted, thumping his staff once for emphasis. "I'm allergic to tomato-beans, okay? If I eat them, I get really sick and I have to stay within six feet of a latrine for the rest of the day. But Bumi loves tomato-beans, and when he and I were kids together, the second time I visited him he offered me a rice ball stuffed with tomato-bean-paste. I ate almost all of it before figuring out what the taste was, and then I ran outside to try to throw it all up, it was awful and embarrassing, and I still ended up getting sick. But Bumi hadn't done it to hurt me; he just didn't know I couldn't handle something that he loved to eat."

Renshu looked at Aang dubiously. "Avatar, with all due respect, there is a world of difference between being offered a rice ball and having your nether regions fondled by a man."

"Um, actually, I can see what he means," Phan offered. He pushed his thick glasses further up on his nose and turned to Zuko. "Your majesty, would it be acceptable if I went to the hospital and gave sincere apologies on behalf of my fellow Dai Li? I think I can do that; can look them in the eye and be okay with their, um, preference. So long as they don't, er, try to offer me a rice ball, so to speak."

Katara snorted, "The shape they're still in, I don't think they'll be offering anyone anything for a good long while! But they're okay to receive visitors now, and probably okay to receive apologies too. I told them that you guys were in there for the marble flooring, not for the company; they know now that you're not gay, so they shouldn't offer anything anyway. And really, if any gay guy ever comes up to you again and 'offers a rice ball', just treat them the same way I treat guys who try to proposition me."

Sokka arched an eyebrow at her. "What, freeze them to the nearest wall? Or water-whip them into next week?"

"I prefer to use words first, before water," she said firmly with her chin in the air. "If they try to ask me out or make lewd comments, I just tell them I'm not interested. But if they don't take no for an answer or just start groping me, then I'm perfectly justified in defending myself. Without actually trying to kill them, I might add; I just make it clear that when I say no, they'd better take me seriously."

"That's a good policy," Zuko agreed. "Anyway, yes, Phan, the men should be willing to accept your apology on behalf of your fellow Dai Li, if you're truly sincere about it. Hoshi, please show Phan to the hospital and which rooms the men are in. Guoliang, take over the rest of Phan's shift guarding the nursery."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Katara beckoned Aang with by crooking a finger at him as she left the throne room, and he willingly followed her to the nursery. He was hoping that they could do some more kissing and stuff while Roku was sleeping, but after she put the baby in his crib, she rounded on him with that too-many-teeth-showing smile that he'd learned to dread back during the war, because it meant he was in serious trouble. Her voice was just as dangerously sweet as she asked him, "Aang, dear, is there maybe something you'd like to tell me about what happened to you while I was up north for my healer training?"

"I—I—it was totally an accident!" he stammered, blushing clear past his arrow. "I didn't mean to spy on those girls, I was just bringing their clothes back after Momo took them while they were bathing! It was all Momo's fault!"

"I—what?! You were spying on naked girls?! Aang!" as Katara's face went from surprise to a whole new level of outrage.

"Like I said, it was all Momo's fault!" It was also the most recent thing he could think of that Katara might be mad at him about, since it had happened in a southern Earth Kingdom region just before he'd headed north for Ba Sing Se and the final treaty signing. "And what is it you think I should tell you about, anyway? I don't think it's fair that you're asking me to guess, when we were apart for over a year!"

Katara scowled at him, but admitted, "You're right, it wasn't fair. I'm talking about the fact that people tried to kill you, tried more than just once or twice, and you never said anything about it in your letters!"

"Oh… yeah," he said sadly, as a few memories that he really didn't want to remember came flooding back:

The crazy firebender in Pohuai Stronghold's colony who'd jumped out of the crowd at him, screaming something about Agni, with a small barrel of blasting jelly tied to his chest. If sheer panic at the unexpected attack hadn't made his airblast so powerful that it had knocked the firebender back over forty feet, he probably would have been caught in the explosion an instant later, when the barrel went off.

The ninja that had snuck into the guest bedroom he'd been staying in at Gaipan, armed with at least a garrote; that was what he'd glimpsed when Momo's alarmed squawking had woken him up (good thing lemurs were light sleepers with such sensitive hearing!) When the black-garbed assassin had realized that the Avatar was awake and the element of surprise was gone, he'd just dived headfirst out the window, and disappeared into the night before Aang could go after him. After that, Aang took to sleeping on top of Appa for the next few weeks.

The 'minstrel' that he'd seen while passing through a marketplace in Yu Dao, singing an old Air Nomad ballad about the North Wind Festival, while strumming on what had appeared to be a funny-looking pipa. It was a song that Aang hadn't heard since before being frozen in the iceberg, and he'd eagerly scooted in closer to hear more, with the bodyguards that Zuko had assigned by then scrambling after him.

Lost in the music and in happy memories of the good old days, he hadn't even noticed that the short stick lying in the minstrel's lap was actually a crossbow bolt. Not until the minstrel had reached a dramatic pause in the song, abruptly scooped up and nocked the quarrel in the not-actually-a-pipa's thickest string, and aimed it across the instrument's frets straight at his heart—

And was blasted back by a fireball from one of his alert bodyguards, so the bolt was shot off to one side instead, to hit the cart of a passing cabbage merchant. That time had been the worst of all three incidents, knowing that he'd been suckered in by someone using his people's customs yet again, and that the bodyguards had killed the assassin to protect him…

"Yeah, that," Katara said with a biting tone, drawing his attention back to the present. Why didn't you ever tell me anything about them in your letters?"

Aang shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't write about them because I…" didn't want to think about them at all, let alone relive them every time you brought them up in one of your letters, he thought, but instead he said, "I didn't want to distract you from your hard work in becoming a healing master, with worrying over me, especially since you couldn't do anything about them when you were so far away from the colonies. And there was really no need for you to worry anyway," as he dredged up a smile for her, "because all three times, they never touched me; I didn't get so much as a scratch!"

"All four times," Katara retorted, "Zuko told me. And he's sure it was more than that, too; he said there were some pretty suspicious accidents…"

"Four times?" Aang stared at her in shock. "When was the fourth time?"

"It was right here in the palace! Don't you remember when you were almost poisoned? But one of the guards got suspicious, and spilled the tofu dish, and…" Katara's voice trailed off as her indignant glare turned to wide-eyed realization. "And you had no idea it was poisoned, did you? Zuko never told you…" Her eyes narrowed again as she glared off to the side while muttering, "Because if he'd told you about that attempt, he might have had to tell you just why the guards had been on alert for poison, and about all the other assassination attempts going on his home, with him and Mai as the targets! Oooooh, that… that stubborn, stupid…!"

Aang knew he probably shouldn't be glad that Katara was mad at Zuko now, but it was a relief to know that she wasn't mad at him anymore. But he stopped her from stomping out of the nursery to go confront their friend with a hasty, "Look, what's done is done, right? We can't change the past, any of it; all we can do is move forward. And you've got something better than another argument with Zuko to look forward to today: your birthday party!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

As their host, Zuko would normally be expected to be in charge of the party arrangements, but in reality he was far too busy with affairs of state to oversee the details. He'd turned all that over to Kumo, his majordomo, with the vague instructions to make it 'a nice, informal affair, nothing too fancy, and with some music and food that she likes.'

Kumo had done his best to follow his sovereign's instructions. None of the court nobles and officials were invited to the party; the ballroom held only Team Avatar… and the bodyguards, ever alert for danger while the friends relaxed… and a small horde of servants, attending to their every whim… and the entertainment, which included a full orchestra, a troupe of ribbon dancers, and another troupe of circus acrobats…

"This is 'not too fancy'?" Suki said to Zuko in an incredulous aside, while the ribbon dancers were performing in perfect synchronization to the orchestra's grand symphonic melodies.

Zuko shrugged and pointed out, "No mandatory formal dress, no long speeches about the auspicious occasion, no subtle competitions among the nobles as to who brought the most suitable gifts… This is probably the least fancy party that the palace has seen in the last hundred years or more." He added wistfully, "I wish my birthday parties could be more like this…"

Considered fancy or not, there was no doubt that Katara was enjoying the entertainment, leaning forward with wide-eyed delight as the dancers created sinuous ever-changing patterns in the air, while the orchestra alternated between Water Tribe melodies and traditional Fire Nation music. And the huge spread of Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation foods that had been laid out for the party were a big hit as well, especially with Sokka.

In between the ribbon dancing and the acrobats' performance, they brought out the gifts for Katara. As the eldest man there, Iroh gave his present first; absolutely no one was surprised to see it was a lovely tea set, glazed in shades of blue, accompanied by a few of Katara's favorite blends of tea that Iroh promised to brew for her personally.

Then Kumo presented the gifts that had been sent up from the South Pole by Katara's father and grandmother; a set of luxuriously thick furs, and a matching pair of fancy hair ornaments carved from whalebone. Zuko privately thought the furs wouldn't be much use to Katara in the Fire Nation's hot climate, but maybe she could make wall hangings of them, and the hair ornaments were really nice.

Then it was time for Zuko to present his gift, and he tried hard not to show how he was sweating from pure nerves when he handed it to her. It hadn't been his first choice of gift for her; he originally had been planning to present her with a dagger inscribed with Water Tribe symbols, to show his respect for her as a warrior, even though she'd be generally stuck in a nurturing role for her entire stay in the Fire Nation. But now that everyone knew he'd given Mai new blades at every gift-giving occasion, he didn't dare present Katara with such a gift; his friends would think he had no imagination at all for gift-giving, and his court would think he was trying to woo the Avatar's chosen lady!

Katara opened the box, and broke out into a pleased smile. "New boots! Ohh, they're lovely!" as she pulled out a pair of boots that had been made of the softest suede, dyed a deep blue.

The wave of sheer relief that hit him at her pleased reaction, almost made him light-headed. He'd guessed right! …Okay, actually Suki had guessed right that Katara would appreciate a new set of boots because her current boots were getting worn and shabby, but he'd guessed right about who would have the best idea of what to get her!

He dared to tease her as she immediately kicked her sandals off to try them on, "Now you know why you couldn't find your favorite pair for a day last week. I had one of your maids sneak them out so the palace cobbler could trace the soles and make sure these would fit you perfectly."

"They do fit perfectly; thank you!" she said as she came over and gave him a hug, just like she'd hugged Iroh earlier.

"You're welcome," he said softly, hugging her back for just an instant before letting go, so she could open more gifts.

Sokka and Suki gave her a gift together—and their gift to her was a new dagger and sheath, which made Zuko even more glad that he'd second-guessed himself this time. After they both got hugs, it was Aang's turn to give her a present; he zipped out of the room on an air-scooter and came back with a bundle bigger than everyone else's gifts, presenting it to her with a hopeful grin.

"A whole new outfit?" Katara asked with a smile on her face but a question in her voice, as she shook out a set of blue-dyed robes and held them up against her.

"They're traditional Air Nomad nun clothes, but dyed in Water Tribe colors; kind-of like the clothes you gave me!" Aang told her helpfully.

"Thank you, Aang; how thoughtful!" she said as she approached him with her arms full of fabric, to give him a quick kiss on the cheek before nearly skipping off to try on her new clothes.

She came back a few minutes later with her new outfit on, twirling to show it off for everyone's benefit. "How do I look?"

"You look great!" Aang said enthusiastically, with a telltale blush to his cheeks. Privately, Zuko thought the clothes didn't suit Katara; they hung on her like big blue bags, not showing her curves at all, and there was no place for her to tie her new knife sheath to. But he kept those thoughts to himself, knowing from experience with Mai that it was downright dangerous to criticize a woman's new outfit. And besides, if she wanted to carry the blade under her clothes, he knew the armorer that had made most of Mai's hidden weapon sheaths and launchers, and who would probably be glad of some new business.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Over two weeks later, and far away…

"Report." The speaker's tone was not as nonchalant as before; he was not expecting good news.

The helmeted figure made sure to bow very low before speaking. "The Dai Li in the capitol are not being sent back to Ba Sing Se. After issuing a formal apology to the owner and patrons of the Jade Flute, and giving personal apologies to the men who were most gravely injured, they have been seen working alongside construction workers to restore the tavern. A song has begun circulating on the streets that mocks them, but instead of vilifying their bigotry the song emphasizes their ignorance, mocking them as 'country lads with dirt between their toes and more behind their ears', while still praising their earnestness in protecting the newborn heir. The final verse even encourages the listener to be patient with them as they learn the civilized ways of the fire Nation, and worst of all, the tune is … 'catchy'."

The figure concluded, "We believe the song was commissioned by the palace, and is being spread deliberately by hired minstrels as a form of damage control."

"Such damage control efforts can only mitigate so much," the first speaker countered. "Have we no victims of their violence that can be held up as martyrs to the cause?"

The helmeted figure shook his head. "The waterbender living in the palace has become a healing master, and she worked every day on the three victims who were seriously injured in the attack. All three were in the hospital for less than a week before returning to their homes. One of them has even been seen working alongside the bespectacled Dai Li in restoring the bar."

"You had three men hospitalized, but then they all walked out under their own power only a week later?" the speaker said incredulously. "Are you telling me you don't even know how to make an injured man die as result of 'complications to his injuries'?"

The helmeted figure drew himself up and said stiffly, "We had made plans to insert an operative in the hospital staff in due course. However, there was not time to discreetly do so before we received orders to force the trap to spring."

The speaker scowled at the rebuke implied, that the trap had failed due to his impatience. "Any fool would know that a trap should not be declared fully ready, if all its contingencies are not in place yet! I expect both more respect and better competence in the future, or I'll be talking to your replacement next!"

The helmeted figure did not ask how he would be replaced; that was self-evident. Instead, he bowed very low while giving an excruciatingly correct apology, and straightened up from the final bow to ask, "Do you have further orders, sir?"

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The added Author's Note:

I'm a little surprised at how negative the first few reviews on this chapter were, complaining that I was "driving the issue of homophobia into the ground" and etc. This isn't like my Gargoyles series' "Mating Games" story arc, where I wrote entire stories that revolved around sexuality issues such as homosexuality, date rape, conditional love versus unconditional love, and the dangers inherent in the idea of "love at first sight." The Earth Kingdom's homophobia was just one facet of this chapter, and brought up primarily for two reasons: to show that the as-yet-unnamed enemy forces are clever and know a lot about both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom cultures, and to give more background on why the Fire Nation went to war in the first place.

I refuse to believe that the whole Fire Nation Just Woke Up Evil one day, and decided to wipe out the Air Nomads and start conquering the Earth Kingdom just because the Fire Lord told them to. After the century of war, of seeing their young men and women march proudly off and then come home in caskets and urns, the reasons would have changed and degenerated into Get Those Bastards, but why'd they do it in the first place?

People generally go to war for three different reasons: (a) they're desperately in need of resources the other country has, (b) they feel that they've been victimized or oppressed somehow by the other nation (those mindsets start the bloodiest wars, the genocides like the Hutu vs. Tutsi in Rwanda), and (c) they're out to Save the Oppressed, those who are perceived as helpless victims or oppressed in that other country.

Sozin and his war cabinet rigged up a troika of all three reasons to drive the war effort. The resource needed is obvious: the Earth Kingdom's coal, to supply the Fire Nation's industrial revolution. The 'revenge for having been victimized' reason, the one that sparked the genocide of the Air Nomads, hasn't been covered in this story but was featured in chapter 5 of my other story "Promises to Keep." It was actually a preemptive strike instead of a vengeance campaign, but the same principle applies; the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads after Sozin perpetrated a massive hoax that had them believing it was the only way to save all their own children.

(BTW, I use the same comprehensive backstory/world-building setup for Sacrifices, Mismatched, Promises to Keep and even As Crazy As Bumi. So kirins once existed but are believed extinct in present-day ATLA, Air Nomads had the Sending of the Zephyrs ceremony twice a year on the equinoxes, and Sozin had a shadow campaign against the Earth Kingdom's astronomers in the backgrounds of all those stories, whether they're mentioned or not. Pretty much the only details that I've changed in any of those stories, are the details of what happened to Ursa and the personalities of Mai's parents. In this story Mai's parents are male chauvinists who value Tom-Tom more than they valued Mai; in 'Mismatched'… well, we'll get there eventually.)

So what about the third reason, Saving the Oppressed? That was actually ever-so-briefly brought up in canon; Sozin wanted to rule the world, but when he first brought the subject up with Roku, he couched it in terms of "sharing our greatness" with the other nations. If viewers hadn't known already that the Fire Nation was the aggressor in a century of war, that would actually sound like a good thing, right? That's pretty much the same idea behind UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Heifer International, and other international charities and nonprofit organizations.

If the Fire Nation had gone to war primarily against the Water Tribes, it would have been easy to point out the victims that needed saving; the oppressed women. They didn't wear burqas, but their bending was restricted, they were denied any and all warrior training (and everyone knows that bullies and rapists love it when their victims aren't allowed to fight back), and they were subjected to arranged marriages as soon as they came of age; those betrothal necklaces bear a strong resemblance to collars with ID tags carved by the owners.

But the Fire Nation went to war primarily against the Earth Kingdom; except for one division repeatedly raiding the Southern Water Tribe over the decades and one invasion fleet hitting the Northern Water Tribe fifteen years after the war started (hunting for the possibly-reborn Avatar there, no doubt), they committed all their resources to conquering the Earth Kingdom. Yes, the industrialists were after the coal, but what did the average man in the street think they were fighting for? Who was the Earth Kingdom oppressing? It had to be something that didn't contradict ATLA canon in any way, because I'm a stickler for that.

(The post-series comics and Legend of Korra canon are another matter entirely; I had all the worldbuilding figured out and nailed down back in 2010, long before they came out. So yes, I have my own ideas of what happened to Ursa, which you'll be reading eventually.)

In chapter 8 of this story, I gave one of the reasons Sozin used to justify the war against the Earth Kingdom; the practice of footbinding. In this chapter, I gave the other reason: their official homophobia. Both reasons can work within ATLA canon, not contradicting anything we saw on the screen or got from Bryke in interviews back when the show was airing. I spent only about three pages actually discussing homosexuality and homophobia, primarily with Zuko and Suki's "sex talks", and far more writing time on how the Dai Li's homophobia was being used by their unnamed enemy to make trouble for Zuko and his reign.

But while everyone's all hot-n-bothered about sexuality issues: this chapter is titled 'Culture Shocks', plural. What was the other cultural shock in this chapter? And who apparently had foreknowledge of that revelation? Keen observers may draw their own conclusions.

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