Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender and I make no attempt to claim it. This story is written entirely for entertainment purposes.
Author's Note: This plot tiger-bunny bit me on the tukus and wouldn't let go. I intend to follow up on it, but I'm not sure just how fast.
Fire Lord Zuko sat on his throne, the flames flanking it burning low. He had to keep them going – it was part of the mystique of his position – but he didn't have to keep them burning high and hot, especially not in the heat of midsummer. He didn't much care for the intimidation factor either. He was not his father or grandfather, keeping the nobility and bureaucracy in line through fear. He was more interested in working with his nobles, not going through them.
It got tiresome at times, keeping the engine of empire running smoothly, and doing so without it creating another military juggernaut or even letting another rogue general or admiral do a runner with his unit to go raise havok on the mainland. It had been easier with the navy. Most of them had stayed employed, as the Fire Nation's Merchant Marine absorbed their numbers and ballooned into a massive surface-carrying fleet.
In those first few years, it had helped with the rebuilding, the efficient industry and metallurgy of the Fire Nation's main islands funneling their production into those efforts. The industry itself absorbed a goodly number of the Army's drawn-down strength, keeping those hands as occupied as possible. In the early days, their production went to the Earth Kingdom at a fraction of cost. But the Fire Nation's industrial might had only grown, and while the Earth Kingdom was undoubtedly richer in absolute terms, in individual terms the Fire Nation was far wealthier, her trade fleets plying every sea and river across the world.
Of course, keeping it all together took far more time and effort than he liked, and he got far too little time to spend with his sons and daughter. Lu Ten, Tomak, and Ursa wouldn't be young forever, and they seemed to grow so fast. Still, this day was almost done, and then he would be able to lay aside the Fire Lord for a few hours and simply be the father.
Ozai was a good example: if he would have done it, don't.
Face impassively Imperial, he listened as Minister Zoum finished his report. Nothing he hadn't really expected. Nothing that needed a decision right away. And nothing so urgent he'd spend the night thinking about it. He'd let it wait for morning.
He stood. "Very well. Is there any other business this day?" he asked the assembled ministers and nobles.
There was a slight hesitation from the Master of Ceremonies, then "Nothing of any import, Fire Lord."
I don't like that hesitation. "What is it, Minister Sough?"
Another hesitation. "A messenger from the Water Tribe." A pause, and some quiet murmers. The Water Tribe's position in the Avatar's favour was known, but they were not well thought of in the Fire Nation. "He does not bear a message with the seal of one of their chiefs or of the Avatar."
And therefor he couldn't possibly give Aang a message of you insulting him. Idiot. I thought I got all the racists out of my immediate councils... "If he has carried a message here from the poles, I think I can listen to it. Send him in."
"Fire Lord, with all due respect, the barbarian is not worthy of your urgency. Not even of your attention, but he refused to give his message to any lesser person than yourself or the Fire Lady." Distaste filled that last, at the presumption of a foreigner demanding to speak to one of the two most powerful people in the Fire Nation. "Let him wait a few days, on your pleasure. Teach him his place." There was a pause as another, less happy murmer passed through the room. A few functionaries, familiar with Zuko's attitude about this sort of thing, edged slightly away from the Master of Ceremonies. They did not fear to catch the scatter of a fire blast – not from Zuko – but association could be just as bad...
A message for my ears only. Or Mai's. "I will speak to him now. Show him in." Zuko's tone was almost as arctic as his guest.
As the Master of Ceremonies left the room to get this messenger, one of Zuko's aides moved close enough for a whisper to carry. "Am I correct in assuming that you'll want a new Master of Ceremonies?"
"Yes. Make sure this one knows not to insult outsiders unless they give actual reason for it."
"Very well, Fire Lord. Where should we post this one?"
"Somewhere very remote." That would make things unpleasant for a creature of the court like Sough. A small smirk threatened to break onto the Imperial mask, but he schooled his features.
The Water Tribe messenger was shown in, his weapons pointedly taken from him by one of the guards. Straight sword, club and.. a boomerang? Don't tell me...
He squinted at the figure. Tall and broad of shoulder, in the usual way of the Water Tribes. Dark skin. Hair kept in a wolf-tail, and that damnably familiar smirk. How did Sough not recognize him?
Another glance answered the question. The man wore plain leathers, the dyed blue fading. A day or two's worth of beard stubble. No badges of office or insignia, just plain, simple, hard-worn clothing with the occasional stain of food or other, less savory things. Just an ordinary, simple man, surrounded by the trappings of the noble, rich, and powerful. Yes, definitely need to replace my Master of Ceremonies. He looks and does not see.
The man bowed, in the Fire Nation style, as deep as the commoner he appeared to be would do in the presence of the Fire Lord. Laying it on thick. You haven't changed, old friend. "Greetings, Fire Lord Zuko, Son of Ursa. I come bearing news of great urgency."
Zuko stood, took a step forward. "Rise, Sokka, son of Hakoda, brother of the Avatar. It is my honor to greet you in the name of the Fire Nation."
Where he stood near the door, Sough stiffened and went completely ashen. This time, Zuko couldn't stop himself from smirking.
Murmers swept the room again as nobles – most of whom had also dismissed the plainly dressed warrior as the simple messenger he looked like. A few, he could tell from their own smirks and smiles, had seen Sokka for who he was at once. He made a mental note. He liked it when his people payed attention.
Sokka spoke again, his tone a little more formal than Zuko remembered. "Fire Lord Zuko, I bear news, and it is only for the ears of yourself and Fire Lady Mai."
I know he can be formal and serious, but this seems... unlike him. I'm not sure I'm going to like this. Zuko gestured, a sweep of his arm that encompassed all the gathered officials. "Leave us." A few of the guards hesitated. He shot the lead guard a lookthat said, I'm a master Firebender and he's not only my friend, you took his weapons away already.
The guard replied with a look that said he thought his Fire Lord was being headstrong and foolish, but on his head be it.
As the officials started to file out, he gave Sokka a measuring look. The younger man – only slightly, having seen thirty winters compared to Zuko's own thirty-one – was looking somewhat nervous now that he was no longer acting the simple messenger. Definitely bad news. He caught the eye of one of his aides. "Please tell Fire Lady Mai that her presence is requested. And have some refreshments sent in." The aide nodded.
Finally, they were alone, a small tray of fruits and a bottle of summer wine brought in. Mai would be along soon, he hoped. "What's happened, Sokka? Where's Aang, what news are you bringing from him?"
The taller man – damnably annoying, how much bigger the men of the other nations were – gave him an almost guilty look. "Aang should be in Omashu, officiating the contest Bumi wanted to choose his successor." A pause. "He doesn't know I'm here."
That rang alarm bells. "What's wrong? What's happened?"
"It's... It's not something that's happened yet, it's something that's gonna happen. Once he finishes in Omashu, Aang's gonna come here himself. He said he'd some straight away, but you know him, probably get distracted by something on the way, go riding animals or playing with spirits..." Abruptly, Sokka stopped himself. "Sorry. Rambling."
Agni, but he's nervous. "How bad is it?" He heard a trickle of concern in his voice.
"I... I don't know yet, but it's probably pretty bad. It should probably wait 'till your wife's here. It affects you both."
Zuko let a little grumble into his voice. "I don't like the sound of this, Sokka."
"I don't either," said the blue-eyed warrior, shooting him an apologetic look.
"I... see," he said, eyes narrowing. "Well. At least I'll have some warning." A pause. "But you know word that you're in the capitol is going to get out. By this time tomorrow, everyone in the Fire Nation's going to know you showed up."
Sokka nodded glumly. "And by next week they'll be talking about it in Ba Sing Se. I know. I'm betting on Aang not getting too annoyed with me for going behind his back." A shrug. "I considered sneaking in as Colonel Wang Fire, but you guys changed the insignia since the last time I was in the Fire Nation. Wasn't about to mug an officer to get myself a better cover."
There has to be a way to prise some kind of information out of him... "Last time you were in country was, what, two years ago now?"
"Little over. For your-" His words chopped off abruptly, and he glanced away. "For your daughter's eighth birthday celebration."
Zuko felt the blood drain from his face. Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph had been visiting for other reasons; the party had simply been the cap on a fruitful month of negotiations and visits. That Sokka had identified the visit by the party and not the business... This involves my kids.
He didn't consciously remember lunging forward, one hand wrapping around the Water Tribesman's throat; he was simply there. "What. Is. Going. On?"
A familiar laconic voice came from one of the side doors in a tone of gentle rebuke. "Are we skipping straight to frying the messenger?"
Zuko glanced back to his wife as she walked towards them, one hand hidden up a sleeve, as always when she suspected violence would be immanent. He made himself let go, made himself step back. "Sorry," he muttered.
"No blood, no foul, Zuko. Believe me, I know this sucks." He gave Mai a bow, took a deep breath. "You know how Aang still loves to think everyone's decent at heart and nobody ever really means to hurt anyone else? And if they put it in a really happy and reasonable way, they can convince him that lots of crazy things are good ideas?"
Zuko nodded. "What did he get talked into this time?"
Sokka sighed. "You have to understand, this is one of the areas that he's really, really Air Nomad about. Family, I mean. I think he understands it intellectually these days, but he has trouble shaking the 'a mentor is the most important thing' mindset he grew up with..." Another breath, and Zuko could tell from his wife's rigid posture beside him she didn't like where this was going any more than he did himself. "There's a really old tradition in the Southern Water Tribes, from back before we sort of unified a century ago." The in response to Sozin's war went unsaid, but it would have been even more unneeded than gauche among these three. "The Earth Kingdoms had it to, with all their little city states. They called it 'fostering' a child. It was a sort of peace bond, where the ruler of a powerful city would take in the heir to another city, to use as leverage against that city to make sure they behaved themselves, didn't start anything. Officially, of course, they'd couch it as being about cultural exchange and gestures of good faith, but..." Another deep breath. "In the Water Tribes we called it Kin Holding, and we didn't mess around with the fancy words."
Zuko almost didn't recognize his own voice, so strangled was his tone. "We had something similar before the Island Clans banded together. Someone wants to take my son as insurance?"
"A bunch of Earth Kingdom nobles are the main drivers behind it. They talked to him about it in our last visit to Ba Sing Se. The Northern Water Tribe is backing them hard. Dad isn't. He doesn't trust it, and neither do I."
"How did they convince the Airbender to go along with it?" asked Mai in a very flat tone.
"They couched it in the 'cultural exchange' and 'seeing new places and things while meeting new people' version of the tradition. Made it sound like some big vacation." A pause. "And Pakku told him it was a good idea, and he still listens to that dried up old sea-prune." Sokka sighed. "For what it's worth, he didn't ask me, or Katara, or Suki. They sprung it on him while we were dealing with some other stuff." A mutter about scheming politicians. "He doesn't get why we don't like it. He's real good friends with some of those nobles. Most of the ones behind this, at least the ones who talked to him about it, were the governors who stalled the Earth Army when they were gonna throw your colonies into the sea, gave him the time to shut them down."
"So he thinks they're all peaceful and kind like he is, because they tried to keep the war from restarting." Zuko fought down his temper. "And he thinks we'll agree to this?"
"Again, Air Nomad think. He figures it'll be a good experience for Lu Ten." A pause. "And at the risk of playing Koh's Advocate, it is possible that at least some of them really do see this as a way to make things easier on the next generation. If the next Fire Lord learns about how the Earth Kingdom works, and has friends there and such, he'll be less likely to try and start the war again next time the Comet comes around."
Never going to be out of that thing's shadow. "Do you really believe that, Sokka?"
"Kuei's too nice to be malicious about this. He's sincere about it, at least."
"Kuei is an idiot," Zuko ground out.
"He's getting better but... yeah." Another shrug. "Some of them want you to explode about this, I think. They want you to throw the Avatar out and get all mad and militant."
"...They want me to buck the Avatar and give them an excuse. Agni. Between the water and the ice."
Beside him, Mai found her voice. "I am not letting my son be used as a bargaining chip."
Sokka recognized the danger in her tone, raised both hands, open, fingers spread wide. "I'm not asking you to. Look, I'm trying to help here. I got some ideas."
Sokka is good at ideas... "I'm listening."
Aang gave full throat to his laughter as Appa descended through the cloud layer and the Fire Nation's capitol city came into focus below winds had been behind him for most of the trip, even without his intervention. Looking to the harbor, he could see the Earth Kingdom ship that Kuei's representatives were using to travel. None of them had wanted to join him on Appa. Their loss.
He'd learned a measure of patience in the years since the war's end. He didn't mind flying at a pace the ship could match without endangering itself, and it made things easier on Appa. It had been a productive summer trip so far. It had been a little lonelier than he'd wanted, mind. Katara had decided to head back to the South Pole after their visit to Ba Sing Se, and Suki to Kyoshi Island. Neither of them liked the plan he'd come up with in his talks with the Council of Kings, but that was okay. He knew that it was a great idea and, well, Chief Hakoda himself had told him, a decade ago, the night before the young Airbender married Katara (The Water Tribe customs and ceremonies, of course, as the Air Nomads hadn't really had an equivalent), that a married man would seldom be in agreement with his wife in all things. It was something to strive for, but few could achieve it... which made it seem like an odd thing to strive for, but he'd learned many a time that the other nations had very strange customs and ideas.
He knew Lu Ten fairly well. The little guy liked meeting new people, and he'd probably love Ba Sing Se. It was so much better these days, without the Dai Li. It'd be a great experience for the young Firebender. Kuei wouldn't let anything happen to the kid, he was a very good king now.
A big squad of Imperial Firebenders stood at attention on the docks as Appa came in for a gentle landing at the end of a pier. He jumped down, still spry enough to land it even without his Airbending, and gave his oldest friend a scratch behind one ear as the Earth Kingdom ship pulled in. He waited for the nobles and their own honor guard disembarked, then walked as a group to the shore, the Earthbender's armor, with its inserts of jade and brass, gleaming every bit as bright as the lacquered red-and-gold of the Firebenders.
At the head of the Fire Nation delegation was Zuko, wearing with Aang still thought of as the Prince Face. Mai was beside him, looking as dour as ever. He respected the woman, but she really needed to learn how to have fun. The look she was giving him was... huh. Not good.
A glance around, and he saw a small splash of blue a ways back. So the rumors about Sokka coming here are true... Why...
They still had a few steps before he'd need to be all official, and the Earthbenders were moving slowly along the wooden dock. The Airbender's mind raced. He wouldn't do something to mess this up, not deliberately. Not Sokka; he's a good guy. Maybe he figured they'd think it was a bad idea, the way Katara and Suki did, and he wanted to ease them into it? But he didn't like it either...
His eyes narrowed for a moment. I am gonna have to have a talk with my brother-in-law.
"Greetings, Avatar Aang; Governor Meng," began Zuko when the emissaries stopped, a few yards between them. Each group bowed to the other (well, the diplomats and nobles did, the guards just sort of politely glared at each other.) "Welcome to the Capitol. I hope your voyage was a pleasant one?"
This last was directed at Meng, who nodded. "It was indeed. Clear sky, fair winds, and your navy has done an admirable job of cleansing this region of ocean of pirates."
Zuko's smile turned razorlike for a moment. "We don't like pirates around here. It's our pleasure to deal with them." Then it went Princelike again. "If you'll come with us, we have some refreshments prepared for you at the Palace."
The moment Sokka had been quietly dreading for the last few weeks was about to come to pass. Aang had been patient enough to wait until they made it to the palace proper to corner him, and he'd even coached it in terms of 'a quick word with my brother-in-law' rather than anything angry. But the Airbender had gotten good at hiding it when he was pissed, and Sokka had had weeks to worry himself up...
Out of earshot and line of sight, Aang finally spoke up. "So... I thought you were going to Gaunyin. Why're you here?"
"I changed my mind on the road. Look, I know you think this is a great idea, Aang, but you also know that most of us not-Airbenders have our own ideas about family." He raised a hand to stop Aang's reflexive protest that he did so understand families, and continued. "One thing I've learned about the Fire Nation? Most of 'em are really big on family, almost as much as we are in the Water Tribes." And hadn't that been a bone of contention between the two of them on and off over the years – Aang may have been father to two children, but he wasn't much of a dad to them, preferring to let Bato or Hakoda or Pakku teach them the things that a kid ought to learn from his father, and didn't think anything of vanishing without warning for days at a time... because there were plenty of mentors back home, even if he was away.
"Zuko especially cares about family. His dad was, well, Ozai. He's trying not to be like that. He cares about his kids. He spends as much time as he can with them, teaching them, helping them with their Firebending, everything. Asking him to send any of his kids away is a really big deal for him, and I figured he deserved a little warning."
Aang looked thoughtful for a moment. "But Governor Meng and Earth King Kuei are the good guys! Do you think they'd do something to hurt Lu Ten?"
"I don't know, Aang. Zuko sure doesn't, and he's a little paranoid about this kinda thing, after how his own childhood went."
Another thoughtful look. "Wait, how mad was he? When you mentioned it?"
"Really, really mad. Like, his temper back when we first met him mad."
"Okay, that could have looked bad, if that had happened." A pause. "An Avatar and a Firelord fighting... that's Roku and Sozin all over again. That's the last thing we need, with Governor Meng here." Then the shorter man glared up at his brother-in-law. "But you should have told me what you were up to."
Sokka shrugged. "Maybe so. But you wouldn't listen to Katara, didn't think you'd listen to me, either. Anyway, they have a counter-proposal."
"...We think it would grow the peace, much like the trade agreements we already enjoy have grown the peace, Fire Lord Zuko, and it would be an excellent opportunity to see the world for the young lad."
Zuko nodded slowly, took a moment to stroke his short, neatly trimmed beard, looking thoughtful. The beard had first been an unconscious effort to ape his Uncle Iroh, but it had become a genuine habit over time, as had general fiddling with the thing. It made a nice cover for the bit of mummery involved on his part here. Oh, that he'd had some warning was certainly something Meng had figured out shortly after spotting Sokka – they had enough reports about him to know he was a bright enough administrator – but they'd all observe the forms, and like any well done political knife-fight, they'd ignore the blood hitting the tiles. To do otherwise would be simply gauche.
"An interesting proposal, Governor Meng. The idea does have some merit, and I will not try to deny that." A pause, and he gave his beard another stroke. "I wonder... I know Earth King Kuei has a child, young Prince Tsai, and that he is a wonderful heir for his kingdom. Do you think he would be amenable to a similar arrangement?"
Meng was a good actor, but he stiffened as Zuko spoke their little counter-proposal. Beside him, Mai smiled very faintly. Finally, the Governor found his voice. "Ah, I do not think that would be acceptable... The Earth King's heir..."
"Why would it not be acceptable? As you said yourself, the chance to travel and immerse oneself in another culture is a rare thing, and a valuable one for a monarch." A pause. "And does not Earth King Kuei himself often lament that he never traveled until he was a man full grown?"
"He'd probably like that idea," said Aang with his usual enthusiasm. "In fact, I kinda wonder why he didn't mention it... Tsai loves stories about the world beyond Ba Sing Se..."
Agni bless you, you scatterbrained little Airbender.
Meng shook his head, looking slightly flustered. "The situations are not equivalent, Fire Lord... The Earth King's bloodline makes up the spiritual heart of Ba Sing Se; of the very Earth Kingdom itself. There is great danger in removing even a part of that..."
"The traditions hold that the Fire Lord's line is tied tightly with the spiritual health of the Fire Nation, Governor. We are still healing; if we are asked to lend a part of our spirit to another nation, it seems only fair to ask for a similar gesture." Gotcha. And the Avatar is right here, and he knows that Kuei would probably be happy to let his son travel somewhere, and if you start getting really worked up he'll wonder why, and my wouldn't that just frost over your plans...
Sokka was a magnificent bastard, and Zuko was quite grateful that, these days, they were on the same side. Coming at the idea cold, he wouldn't have been nearly clearheaded enough to play this little scenario to the point where it would neutralize itself so neatly.
Meng's mouth was working up and down like a landed fish, and it was clear that his plan was turning to ash before his eyes.
Aang glanced around the group, shot an accusing look at Sokka, and then piped in, "Well, if you'll agree to an exchange... why not of daughters? My daughter Yangchen is an heir to the Southern Water Tribe, and she enjoyed the short visits she's had to the Fire Nation. I'm sure she'd be happy to live here for a while, and the South Pole would be a great experience for Ursa..."
Sokka choked on the wine he'd been sipping; looked at his brother-in-law with an expression of horror. Zuko himself froze for a moment, and he felt his wife stiffen. Meng looked wide-eyed at the Avatar for a moment.
Inside, Zuko cursed Sokka for not anticipating this. Cursed Aang for trying to hard to make a plan whose proposer was abandoning work. Cursed himself for letting things carry through to this point.
Because the dance of politics and face-saving meant he couldn't, at this point, say no with any dignity.
"Aang, little buddy... You're explaining this to Katara."
It was a compromise that none of those involved were happy with. Aang, in his attempt to salvage what he still thought of as a great plan, had failed to think through what his wife might think of it. With Sokka categorically refusing to talk to her ahead of him, well, the wrath of wife would be landing squarely on his own tattooed head.
Sokka was kicking himself for not seeing this possibility. He really, really, should have. And even if Aang was going to be the first to stick his arm into the beartrap that was Katara's temper, he knew damn well that his sister would be taking a chunk out of him soon thereafter.
Meng had allowed himself to be maneuvered and manipulated. He'd been played for a fool, and only blind luck (Gaunyin be praised for the Avatar's timely intervention) had he been able to avoid being the only one made to look foolish. The Fire Lord had been just as adroitly polite and reasonable as can be, about the same way he and his compatriots were when they'd proposed the idea in the first place.
Zuko and Mai were stunned. They'd had no intention of following through with this arrangement, hence their plot with Sokka to torpedo it. That plot backfiring(as only the Avatar could backfire it) had come unexpected, and they were loath to send any of their children away.
The sun was setting over the harbor, and Sokka watched it from a palace balcony, lost amid his own thoughts. All in all, it probably could have gone worse, but the situation was plenty bad enough. His niece, going to spend at least a year living in the Fire Nation – in the heart of the snakepit itself; their very capitol.
He had a pretty good feeling, now, that he had a rough understanding of what Zuko was feeling, and it wasn't even his own kid. His own kids weren't terribly likely, not in the near future... He'd tried to make an honest woman of Suki, but she wasn't interested in marriage just yet. She had her responsibilities to Kyoshi, and she would fulfill them. Didn't stop the two of them from, ahem, enjoying their occasional visits, but she wasn't willing to take on another commitment, and he loved her too much to try and force it just yet. He, too, had responsibilities, to the tribe and to the world. Lots of travel with Aang, helping to keep the peace.
Not the result they'd wanted. But, some small corner of his mind insisted, something they could work with. They could hash out some details and set things up properly...
He saw motion out of the corner of his eye, whirled. Zuko'd managed to sneak up on him; into arm's reach. I'm getting rusty, he thought sourly. "Zuko."
"Sokka." He took another step himself, to the balcony rail, and watched the harbor for a long moment. "Ursa's agreed to go. She thinks it'll be an adventure."
"Aang'll manage to convince Katara, somehow."
A long moment passed as the two watched the sun paint fire over the water, then, "In a lot of ways, we're actually getting the better deal. I know I can trust you, and your father, to make sure she stays safe. And your tribe is smaller, tighter knit – less factions, harder for some outsider to infiltrate... This will be less a 'Kin Holding' and more a real exchange."
"Oh, yeah. We'll teach her all our bad, barbarian habits. She'll scandalize the court when she comes home."
"We'll keep Yangchen safe. The Fire Nation may be more... fractious, but I've ridden this tiger-dillo this long. I know how it works."
They shared another silent moment, then shook hands, wrist to wrist. "Who knows? We might learn a thing or two ourselves from it."