To any lovely new readers: this fic is the third part in a series and I highly recommend reading Stalking Zuko, then Not Stalking Zuko first – as I will reference occurrences from those fics in this one.
Sensible things to say.
Gran Gran used to say that it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that if you want something done right, you cannot leave it to the menfolk. She is so right! I have been at the water-tribe house all day, doing things right for the menfolk. There is much that needs to be done now that Iroh has given my Dad control of one of the firenation navy vessels. Most of the warriors are really keen to get back home to their families as soon as possible. My Dad has enlisted Sokka and I to help with the preparations as he wants us to all spend "time together as a tribe".
What my Dad really wanted was to spend all day with Sokka and I. Dad came over early for breakfast. He and Iroh got chatting, and Iroh has been able to procure a decent size boat for Dad, so that all the warriors who want to go home can set sail immediately after Zuko's coronation, which is in a few days. I wanted to hang out with Zuko today and Sokka wanted to go and check out the metalworkers and how the airship is going. But Dad gently overruled these plans in his Dad way. My Dad is in an odd mood. We have spent nearly all day together in enforced family time. He wants to remind us that he is a "cool" dad and we can "tell him things". He wants to "know what is going on with us".
Our family day got hijacked when my Dad announced to the menfolk that most of them could leave the firenation soon and go home on the new boat. The menfolk were overjoyed with the prospect of returning home. Dad, Sokka and I have been working together to make preparations for the journey. Kukan, as Dad's third in command, is in charge when the ship departs. But there were many shenanigans and arguments about that.
The ship needed to be renamed and there was a spirited discussion about this. Renaming a boat is a big thing in our tribe and there are many superstitions about boat names. Sokka said in a quiet voice that he thought Yue would be a good name for a boat. Dad heard him and overruled everybody else and said that the boat would be renamed Yue – no arguments.
There were many shenanigans and arguments about who should stay with Dad and go to Ba Sing Se to help negotiate a peace. Bato volunteered to stay immediately and Dad gave him a stern look. There were many unsavory comments from the menfolk about the reason Bato wanted to stay so eagerly. Bato let them all slide good naturedly, but he did blush a little and look embarrassed. Dad changed the conversation and stopped the teasing and called for a few more volunteers and the discussion moved on.
It is the dinner where we all get to meet Ming tonight and Bato went off to fuss in the kitchen. Because he wasn't leaving, he didn't need to pack. The other menfolk did and there was much frantic running to and fro and organizing. I was once again given the mending I hadn't finished the other day, as it should be fixed before the menfolk depart. I hadn't done it on principle. I wanted to see if the menfolk would do it of their own accord, if I just never did it. They did not. It had been left in a big pile waiting for when I was feeling more reasonable. I was once again furious. If I were a firebender – I think the pile of clothes would have burst into flames in my hands right then.
I decided that now was as a good a time as any to give them my speech about women's rights. I was cross. I already knew what I wanted to say. I had been given the friggin mending again. I tried to get their attention, but everyone was too busy with departure preparations and they ignored me. Being ignored made me even more cross. I felt incandescent with rage. I was just about to climb on the table and demand their attention when suddenly someone took the clothes from my arms and surprised me.
It was one of the servants of this house. I didn't know her, but she knew of me. She bowed deeply and said softly Lady Katara, you shouldn't be doing this. She said that she could "see to it" for me and Sir Bato wanted to speak to me in the kitchen. Then she bowed again and scampered away, before I could even say thank you or ask her name.
Bato was having a bit of trouble in the kitchen, because he can cook for small groups of people, but he'd never done a big dinner. Neither had I, but Bato seemed to think that I would be better at organizing it that he was. I am a good cook, I knew all the recipes and I was in my element in the kitchen – bossing all the servants about and telling them how to make everything properly.
We had to substitute a lot of ingredients and it was hard to get the balance of flavours just right. The water tribe feast actually resembled the one I had made with Hama. Sokka was with me in the kitchen. But he was making a nuisance of himself. He had volunteered to "help me out" and "taste test for me".
Bato had been telling us happily all about Ming and how much we were going to love her when we met her. Sokka and I have always seen Bato as an uncle, as part of our family and he felt the same about us. He was a bit nervous about tonight. He really wanted everyone in the family to like Ming. Especially my Dad, who has views on their relationship. Contrary to my Dad, I think that if Ming makes Bato this happy, then she is alright in my book.
Ming was at work today until seven. I asked how she was finding it. Azula had been moved to the convalescent home yesterday. Both Zuko and Ty Lee had wanted to see her in the evening, but Dr Yang had said she was too fragile right now and they needed to give her a day or two to settle in. Bato got a bit shifty because he didn't know if he was allowed to talk about it or not – but he told us anyway, because he is a gossip, like all people in the watertribes.
Ming actually really liked it. And it was much easier now that she had a few more guards to help her. She had hand picked guards with reputations for competence and kindness from the various prisons. It was a great promotion for her. But princess Azula…Bato trailed off here and then just said that she sounded like a very sick girl. But Ming had told him that she had been both better and worse these last few days, but Bato didn't know what she meant by that.
I asked how it was going with the rest of the tribe and how they were reacting to Bato's relationship with Ming. We all know my Dad's position. He thinks that it is a passing fling and both Ming and Bato will come to their senses soon. Dad doesn't think it'll last. The tribe, for their part, tease Bato and make ribald comments at every opportunity. Bato looked a bit uncomfortable and said that they were just joking and having some fun and he wasn't going to take it seriously. There was something else in the way he said that. It bothered me. What was going on? I hadn't spent much time at the house and I was behind on the gossip.
Sokka told me, while Bato looked a bit embarrassed, that since Bato had taken up with Ming and my Dad hadn't outright forbidden them from seeing each other, the other warriors thought that it would be okay to have a passing fling with firenation ladies too. They all thought that if Bato got a chance to…. (here Sokka looked at Bato and then diplomatically chose the politest euphemisms that the menfolk use)… dip his wick and sow his oats - then they should as well. They had ample opportunity because firenation girls are much more up for it and they also found the watertribe men to be "exotic". According to Sokka, the menfolk had been at sea a long time and fancied a good fu- I cut him off with a dismayed Sokka!
Bato said that it wasn't just a fling for him, quietly but very firmly. Sokka gave him a clap on the back and offered that he shouldn't let it bother him. The menfolk gave him heaps about dating Suki. They'd teased him non-stop about being Suki-whipped and being "the girl" in their relationship and said that Suki had bigger balls than him and all that sort of thing. At least they weren't calling Bato a girly-man. Bato said they probably would after today – because he'd spent so long in the kitchen fussing like an old grandma.
The girl who had taken the clothes for mending came back and gave me the pile again, with everything done. I tried to engage her in conversation and asked what her name was and she seemed a bit startled. She'd been serving in the house for ages and I was the first water tribe person who had spoken to her, much less asked her name. Her name was Izi. She was a chambermaid, but she assured me she was a good at mending too. I thanked her sincerely and she bowed at me and gave me a shy smile, and scampered away again.
She'd done a good job. Everything had been fixed with neat, even stitches. I handed the garments back to the menfolk. I hope I never have to see these again! One thing bothered me. If Izi had been here and willing to fix these the whole time, why did I still get the mending?
I asked Kuba when I gave him back his tunic and he said that none of the menfolk trusted the firenation servants to do anything properly. They knew things would only get fixed properly in the hands of a watertribe woman. He showed the mended sleeve to Hasa and said you can tell Katara fixed these, this is way better than any firenation stitching. I took a bit too much glee in telling him that it was firenation stitching and I had just handed the mending off to one of the servants. I told him in part to see the expression on his face and in part because it didn't seem fair to take credit for someone else's hard work.
Zuko, Toph, Aang and Iroh arrived first, just after seven. I could actually hear them coming along way away. Zuko was saying something like Okay we are all going to try and behave ourselves tonight because we are Sir Hakoda's guests. Zuko wanted to establish a few rules (no hedgehog song was his first rule) but Iroh made a dismissive noise and said he was too serious and tonight was meant to be a party after all and Iroh's only rule was that Zuko should try to have some fun. Then he knocked on the door and I let them in and gave all of them a hug in turn. After a day with just my tribe, I couldn't be happier to see the four of them.
Sokka and I welcomed everyone and there was much hugging and much exclaiming of We've missed you and oh it's been too long! (It has really only been one day of enforced tribe/family time.) Aang and Iroh got amongst it straight away. They have both already spent a night getting terribly wankered with my tribe and knew everyone pretty well. The menfolk made a great fuss over Aang's arrival. Hasa picked him up and gave him a noogie said well well well if it isn't my favourite airbender! Hasa is a giant bear of a person and Aang looked tiny in his arms. Aang struggled joyfully and Momo came over to try and "save" him from Hasa's clutches.
Aang had brought Momo along because Momo 'got lonely' if he was left behind with no one to play with. After Aang had been released by Hasa, Momo took to running amok and chattering at various warriors. Sorrak – possibly the biggest and meanest looking warrior ever –picked up Momo and started cuddling him like he was a small child and talking to him in a baby voice. Momo would chatter back. This was quite sweet.
I was chatting with Zuko and Toph in the corner, because neither of them knew the warriors very well. Iroh joined us and would surreptitiously try to top up Zuko's sake constantly. Zuko caught on pretty quickly. Iroh explained that it had been such a long and stressful day and he just wanted Zuko to relax a little bit. The watertribe house was safe and everyone needed to let off some steam after what happened today. Why? what happened? Zuko gave me a rueful look and said he'd tell me later. I nodded, satisfied.
I tried to introduce them around to a few of the more friendly warriors, but that all ended in tears when I introduced them to Kuba. He very fascinated by Toph. Toph's shortness and blindness confused him. He had heard so much about her, but he couldn't believe that she was so small. He had been expecting someone taller and more badass. Toph bristled when her badassery was called into question.
Kuba, made the erroneous assumption that because Toph was a small blind girl, she should be treated delicately and taken care of. Toph crossed her arms and looked exceptionally pissed off, while Kuba continued with his well-meaning but ill-founded point. She was tiny, she was blind and she was a girl and she should have never been in a war zone. Kuba had fought the firenation and they were tall people -what would tiny Toph do if one of those tall bastards came at her?
Oh this was so bad! Zuko, Iroh and I started edging away from Kuba like he was on fire.
Toph said, in a sweet voice, that she would show him what she could do and she said that he should try to hit her. Kuba was shocked at such a suggestion. He would never hit a girl, much less a tiny, blind girl. Toph called his masculinity into question, most rudely, and said that he was probably too scared because Toph would kick his arse to next Sunday.
The surrounding menfolk went OOoooherr. Kuba was indignant. There was an audience and he didn't like his masculinity being called into question by a tiny, blind girl with an audience. Eventually he accepted Toph's challenge. Toph said that she wanted him to try and punch her and Kuba did so, half heartedly. Toph dodged easily and said don't insult me. She asked him to really try this time. He did so… with predictable results.
Two seconds later, he was lying winded on the ground, and a small crater was in the tiled floor next to him. Toph wandered over and sat on his belly and said in her badass sarcastic voice in answer to your previous question, what I would do if a big bastard came at me - that's what I'd do. Then she patted his belly, got up and came over to me and said in a much different tone of voice Katara I'm thirsty after all that arsekicking. I got her another juice, chuckling to myself the whole time.
Suki came not long after and nearly fell in the small crater that Toph had made. Toph explained the crater's origins and got a high five from Suki.
Ming and Bato arrived not long afterwards. Ming was very pretty, in the firenation way. She was tall (nearly as tall as Bato and he's one of the tallest in our tribe). She had black hair and copper eyes and a nervous smile. I welcomed her as warmly as humanly possible and said I was thrilled to meet her and all that sort of thing. I smiled at her a lot and tried to put her at ease. She smiled back at me and said that she had heard so much about me from Bato that she felt she knew me already.
Bato introduced her around to all the warriors who didn't know her. Some of the warriors did because they'd been in "her section" at prison. But these warriors all seemed actually pleased to see her. Many jokes were made about whether or not she had some pickles hidden up her skirt for them tonight.
Apparently Ming knew how much the watertribe warriors in her section loved salty food and she took to smuggling them in pickles whenever she got the chance – to cheer them up and remind them of home. Which strikes me as a little unusual. I mean Suki and Zuko certainly didn't have any of their guards at boiling rock bring them tasty treats.
Iroh made a big show of greeting Ming and saying how radiant she looked and kissing her hand and doing all that stuff, until Ming smiled at all the flattery and called him a cheeky old flirt in a friendly manner. There was a slight awkward moment when she met my Dad (evidently Bato has told her my Dad's position). But Dad smiled at her and said sincerely that it was very nice to meet her at last. Ming glowed in response and said that she was delighted to meet him too. I felt myself give big sigh of relief. I didn't even know I was holding it in.
Dinner went well, for the most part. Aang (as the Avatar) has position of honour at the head of the table at one end and my Dad sat at the head on the other end. Iroh and Toph sat near Aang. Iroh had quietly whispered to Zuko that he would watch out for 'our young friends' and make sure that they didn't get drunk and that inappropriate things were not discussed in front of them. I don't know how well he succeeded in that endeavour because there was much hilarity from that end of the table. All the warriors got a bit sloshed and a bit rowdy and many of Iroh's more bawdy jokes were told. However it seems like much fun was had by all and that is the most important thing.
I ended up sitting near Ming, because I was so curious about her. She was sitting on Dad's left with Bato. She was trying to make a good impression on Dad and kept smiling nervously at him. Zuko and I sat on the other side with Suki and Sokka. Dinner actually went well, conversation flowed freely and smoothly. At one point Dad ended up telling Ming the story of the great blubber fiasco, much to Bato's dismay. Sokka and Dad made many terrible jokes – which they both found hilarious. Suki made many terrible puns, which she found hilarious. Suki and Zuko also took to subtly playing an extremely immature game with watertribe food that I can only describe as I double dare you to eat that.
After dinner and before the desert Dad asked Ming how she liked watertribe food so far. Ming had gamely eaten everything in front of her and had kept her horrified facial reactions to a minimum. For this she gets extra kudos from me. Ming said diplomatically that while she enjoyed it, that much salt was probably an acquired taste. But she had been expecting the food to be a little salty, judging from the way the menfolk could eat jars and jars of pickles in one sitting.
A curious look came over my Dad's face and he asked her about it. The pickle smuggling that is. It was a bit unusual. He tried to make a joke about how he had been to several firenation prisons and no one had ever brought him a pickle after all. He had many questions for Ming. Why was Ming so good to her prisoners? She didn't seem like the prison guard sort, so why had she gone into guarding anyway? Ming looked a little shy and glanced at Bato and said it was a long story. My Dad said he was very interested in hearing it (as he is terribly curious about Ming and what Bato actually sees in her). Dad gave Ming a persuasive look. Ming nodded and said okay, but she'd have to start right at the beginning for the rest of the story to make sense.
Ming explained that she'd been brought up by her Dad, after her mum died in the battle of Wide Island when she was only young. Because he was a single father with four kids (Ming was the oldest), he was allowed into the home guard, rather than sent to the front. But when Ozai rose to power (she gave Zuko an apologetic glance here – he gave her a nod in response) he dramatically increased the conscription quota and changed the exemption rules – and then you had to be a single parent of five children to be exempt. So her Dad was called up and sent off. His division was a division of newly conscripted recruits and was used in that terrible strategy that Ozai was so fond of. Dad asked what terrible strategy? but I had an awful feeling I already knew which one it was. Ducklings and Hawks.
Ming explained that Ozai and all his buddies that he had promoted to top ranks, especially general Bujing, were fond of using newly conscripted recruits as diversions. She had been so pleasant and polite all night, but when she said diversions her face pulled into a horrible, disgusted expression. She explained the barebones of the strategy as she understood it and how it was one of the worst kept secrets in the firenation. Everyone knew that if your loved one ended up a conscripted recruit under Bujing's command, then you'd probably never see them again.
As she was talking, Zuko's face took on this odd, almost pained, expression. I reached for his hand under the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He squeezed back and then gave me a little glance. I gave him a comforting smile and nodded at him and he looked calmer. I didn't let his hand go and he didn't let mine go. We didn't say anything about it later, but we ended up just holding hands under the table throughout Ming' story.
Dad was disgusted with the strategy and was pretty upfront about what he really thought of it. My dad loves all the men under his command and he couldn't get his head around why a commanding officer would be so cavalier with the lives of his troops. Ming agreed with him vehemently. Ming explained that battle went predictably terrible and her dad's division had been left for dead where they lay.
My Dad looked really awkward then and offered his condolences. Ming said that her dad hadn't died, he was a tough as an old boot. She smiled gently when she said tough as an old boot. Then she looked sad and said that he had been terribly wounded, but he hadn't been killed. His legs had been crushed by an earthbender under several boulders.
Sokka asked what happened next? in an apprehensive whisper, like he was speaking in a sick room or something. We were all hanging off her every word now. Ming said that her dad had managed to blast himself out of the boulders with his firebending – but he'd been bleeding terribly. Though he didn't know it at the time, his legs had been crushed beyond repair. Her Dad would tell her when he got home that there were only two things that kept him alive – the thought of getting back to his kids and an Earth Kingdom healer.
This Earth Kingdom healer was in charge of a small field hospital nearby, and he had ordered that all the wounded be brought back to the hospital – including her dad. The Earthkingdom healer had done what he could for her Dad and the other four firenation soldiers still alive from the division. My Dad looked a little skeptical at this and asked why? He was a bit incredulous that an Earth Kingdom healer would take in firebenders. Ming explained that her Dad was later used in a low level prisoner exchange. Five firebenders for one earthbending boy from the village (the healer's son). The boy was on one of those prison barges nearby and her dad was effectively kept as a prisoner of war in the hospital. The firenation captain in charge had agreed to the deal because five for one it seemed like a "fair trade" to him.
Ming didn't care why the healer had done it anyway, because he had done it with grace and benevolence. Her Dad had nothing but kind things to say about this healer. Even though her Dad was a prisoner of war, he was always well fed, and well cared for. He'd been really confused at first, but this healer had explained the situation and how he just wanted to see his son again. And her Dad had told the healer about how he just wanted to see his kids again too. They had a quick chat about their kids and the healer had said something that Ming's father never forgot. He said that war always has a funny way of distinguishing between the things that matter. The healer said that he thought that people mattered, but where they were from did not.
Ming said she knew that her dad was alive because of that man, and she'd never be able to thank him properly. She decided that if she couldn't thank him properly, she could at least emulate his example and be decent to people, regardless of where they were from. Her first group of prisoners of war had actually been from the region of the earthkingdom near where the hospital was. Ming tried to be good to all her prisoners, but she always made extra effort with the prisoners of war, because they hadn't committed any crime, save being from somewhere else and that wasn't a crime in Ming's book.
My Dad was a bit skeptical and said that he was surprised that she lasted long in the firenation prison system, if she went about being extra nice to the prisoners of war. Ming said she might be "nice" but she was also an elite grade firebender (she said this with a sly arch of her eyebrow) and besides most people who became guards were dumb as a box of hammers and just had mediocre firebending. Ming could outsmart them and outbend them if they gave her any trouble, but she tried to avoid trouble in general. That was why she sneaked the pickles in, rather than just brought them in openly. She hadn't ever been caught, but the other guards did think she was weirdo.
Bato put his arm around her and said that he didn't think she was a weirdo, in what he must have thought was a sweet voice (smooth Bato – real smooth). Ming gave him a big cheeky smile and said that is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me. And I couldn't help but snort back a bit of laughter.
Dad was still surprised that someone like Ming could exist in the firenation prison system, he agreed with Ming's "most guards are as dumb as a box of hammers" statement. Ming said that because my dad was "The Blue Wolf" and he scared the shit out of most thinking people in the firenation, he would have gotten only the extra dumb male guards.
My Dad nodded happily at being called the Blue Wolf. He hasn't said, but I think he secretly loves his badass, scary nickname. Every time someone calls him the Blue Wolf, he gets this smug look across his face, almost like he is thinking to himself Oh yeah! That's me! I'm one Badass dude!
Ming added that he probably only had male guards and Dad nodded in confirmation. Ming said that the female guards were much better. The guys who went in for being guards were often on a bit of a power trip, but most of the women were there for a different reason – to dodge conscription. That was the reason Ming became a guard in the first place. Being a prison guard was one of the least popular jobs for women, but there was such a high demand for them. Firelord Azulon had made female prison guards exempt from being conscripted and so Ming had signed up because it seemed like the easiest way of getting out of having to go to war. Ming pointed at herself and said I'm a lower-class, elite grade firebender – I knew I had catapult fodder written all over me!
Ming said there were only two ways out of conscription for women. Being a prison guard or being a single parent of five or more children. Ming had opted for prison guarding because life as a single parent with five or more children seemed like a lot more hard work.
Ming said that everything had worked out for the best in the end, because if she had never become a guard, she would have never met Bato and would have never got the chance to sit round a dinner table with us. She raised her glass in salutation to us and we returned the gesture.
After dinner, there was a bit of drinking and a few shenanigans from the menfolk (but there always are, aren't there). Zuko was a bit keen to have a chat to Ming and I tagged along. She was chatting to Suki about the Boiling Rock in hushed tones when we interrupted. Zuko asked if he could have a quiet word with her, about Azula. Suki bowed out of the conversation at this point, but I stuck around.
Ming brightened and said that she had been meaning to chat to him about her all night as well. She launched right in with what's her favourite food? Zuko was a bit thrown by the question and thought for a bit and said it used to be cinnamon and vanilla cream puffs – but Azula'd probably lie and say she didn't like them. She always said that she didn't like them as a kid, but she would always unfailing eat them in large quantities when she thought no one was looking. She had once eaten eighteen of them in one sitting and still wanted more. Ming nodded and said cinnamon and vanilla cream puffs to herself.
Zuko asked her how Azula was really going. Ming said gently that Azula had her good days and her bad days still. She had convinced herself that she couldn't bend and Ming felt that all that pent up fire wasn't helping, because Azula was a little eccentric to begin with. Ming would later tell me that eccentric is the proper word for describing royalty who had gone off their rocker, because they go crazy better than the likes of us.
Zuko wanted to know if she thought he could visit her soon. Ming said gently that she knew it wasn't her place to say, but she thought it would be better to wait a little while before visiting her. Zuko looked a bit sad and Ming offered, in a kind voice, that she thought Azula was getting…not better exactly, but calmer. Ming hoped it wouldn't be too long before she was back on her feet. Then Bato came over and whispered something in her ear and she smiled widely. She excused herself and went off after Bato with a little spring in her step.
To cap off the evening, the hedgehog song was sung in full by Iroh and the menfolk (deary deary me, it is a cheeky song) and dinner wound down. Bato walked Ming home. Zuko collected Toph, Aang and Momo. Momo was the trickiest to extricate because Sorrak was most reluctant to part with his new friend. He pulled his Uncle to his feet and announced that they should probably go too. Sokka and I left with them, because both our beds are at their house and Watertribe house is full to the bursting until all the menfolk depart. However Dad promised to come and collect us so we could spend "more time as a family" tomorrow. Sokka and I exchanged a glance that said again?
Dad did not actually show up early in the morning, as he was probably feeling a bit under the weather. He had sung the hedgehog song too (the mental image will stay with me always). Uncle was also in a similar boat this morning and had not yet emerged from his room. Aang had been dragged off by Jeong Jeong early for firebending practice. Aang protested the whole way down the stairs, in a sleepy voice. Toph was still abed, but that was normal for her. Zuko and I were sitting in the comfy chairs, having a conversation about whether it is harder to get used to spiciness of flireflakes or the saltiness of seaprunes – as an outsider.
Sokka had tried to sneak down the stairs. He told me last night that he was just going to check out the airship in the morning and if Dad came, I should 'stall' him. I assume that's what Sokka had in mind now, but it really is pointless, trying to sneak anywhere with a cast that big. I told him there wasn't any point in sneaking and Dad wasn't here right now.
Sokka came over and flopped in the other comfy chair in relief. He put his foot up and asked Lenka to bring him many breakfast items. Zuko looked between us and asked why Sokka was sneaking out and what my Dad had to do with it. Sokka explained about my Dad's new obsession with being "the cool dad".
Sokka said that he really loved our Dad, but he also really wanted to spend some time with Suki today and he wanted to check out the airship, but he didn't know how to say that without hurting Dad's feelings, now my Dad was so intense about "family time." Sokka felt that we would have nothing but "family time" back in the South Pole and he wanted to spend as much time with Suki now. He also wanted to play with metalworkers and all their cool gadgets and work on his favourite invention while he could. Zuko looked a bit surprised and said quickly and with some alarm wait, you guys going back to the South Pole?
I was actually wondering the same thing. Dad hadn't said a word to me about going back to the South Pole yesterday. Sokka said that he and Dad had a quick chat yesterday, and Dad wanted to go after the Peace Negotiations in Ba Sing Se. Zuko looked sad and a bit worried at the same time. I said nothing had been decided yet and Dad hadn't even talked to me about it.
Sokka and I used to talk about home and going home, back in the middle of the war when it was just such a far off distant dream. Intangible and as distant as the moon. I tried to picture home, but the picture was fuzzy. I could hardly remember what home actually looked like, but for a brief second there I felt a longing for the smell of snow and carved wood.
Sokka interrupted my thought and said that he wasn't sure how keen he was to race back home, but he hadn't said as much to dad yesterday. Sokka had seen so much of the world, he wanted to get amongst it and learn things, and build things and invent things and be with Suki. He couldn't do much of that at home and he didn't know how he would tell Dad that. But Dad was our Dad. How could we not go back with him?
I didn't have an answer for him
Toph woke up and joined us and munched on pastries and Suki wandered over looking for Sokka. Suki was looking a bit more serious today. She sat with us for a bit but then she whispered something in Sokka's ear. He nodded at her and then got up. Suki stood up with him and said that they were going to go off and "have a walk together". We all knew that they weren't really going to have a walk together, because Sokka can't walk very well right now. And also, nobody says they are going to "have a walk" like that if they are actually having a walk. We all knew having a "walk" really meant having a "talk".
Toph told Suki to wait a second. Then she poked Zuko with her foot and said have you asked her yet? And nodded very dramatically at Suki. Zuko hadn't. Toph gave him a light poke with her foot and a big frown. All our curiosity was piqued! Zuko looked a bit awkward and demurred that he still didn't think it was necessary and Toph and Uncle were just overreacting. Suki asked what he wanted to ask her and all our eyes focused on Zuko.
He hated all of us starring at him. He said Fine! Okay! I'll ask her to Toph. He started rambling that Toph and his Uncle both thought that…and Suki could totally say no if she wanted….and Zuko would totally understand if she said no and if she thought this was ridiculous, because it really was…. Suki crossed her arms and gave him a perplexed look. Eventually he asked if she and the Kyoshi warriors would like to "temporarily" act as body guards whenever he went out in public. Because something had happened yesterday…but that wasn't important. (What happened yesterday?)
What was important was that they had to imprison all the imperial firebenders in the dungeons. The imperial firebenders normally served as the firelord's bodyguards for public appearances. Both Toph and his Uncle had been quite keen on the suggestion that the Kyoshi Warriors act as bodyguards in the interim period until Uncle and Zuko could figure out a plan of action.
Zuko was very insistent that it wouldn't be forever and Suki was more than welcome to say no etc. She waved him off and said that she would love to agree. She said he knew she'd always have his back. However she'd need to discuss it with the other warriors first and get back to him. Zuko was cool with that but asked her to tell him by the end of the day so that this one (he pointed to Toph) and that one (he pointed in the direction of his Uncle's room) didn't get their panties in a bunch. Suki nodded and then she and Sokka went off for their "walk".
I waited possibly half a second and then I demanded to know what happened yesterday! Zuko looked sheepish and said that it wasn't a big deal and Toph and his Uncle were…Toph interrupted him and said that if he said she was overreacting again, she was going to punch him in the face. Then she bluntly announced to me that a few of the imperial firebenders tried to kill Zuko yesterday.
I was gobsmacked.
She turned to him and said that even though only a few of them tried, all of them wanted to do him in. She thought that was a big deal. She didn't think wanting Zuko to take extra security measures was an overreaction when a squad of elite, ruthless, trained killers wanted him dead. Zuko argued with her and said that all of the elite, ruthless, trained killers were in the dungeons now and he was perfectly capable of taking a walk without needing a babysitter.
I couldn't believe how casual he was being about this. I flicked him in the head at that point and said what the hell was wrong with you! I was beside myself with worry and anxiety and anger. He was trying to pretend that having a force of elite, trained killers after him wasn't a big deal. I was not having a bar of that. I gave him a long, worry fuelled ranty-rant. I ranted that he was being ridiculous and people wanting to kill him was a really big deal! Toph was right! Toph crossed her arms and gave Zuko a smug look at this point (I actually don't think I have ever said Toph is right with this much vehemence before). I asked her if she could "give us a minute" and she got up to go and "wake Uncle".
My stomach was wrenching itself into anxious knots. Someone had tried to kill Zuko and I hadn't known, I hadn't even been anywhere nearby. If something had happened, I would….Gah! How could he not tell me this last night! This was really big and important and he hadn't told me! He said that it was meant to be a fun night last night. Also he hadn't wanted to worry me and it wasn't a big deal anyway. I told him that I agreed with Toph. If he said it wasn't a big deal or said that anyone who was worried about his safety was overreacting again – I would smack him. He gave me a surprised look. I amended my statement. I wouldn't smack him but I would be very cross with him. Zuko looked a little shamefaced. I asked him what had even happened yesterday?
Zuko said he'd tell me, but I had to promise not to get mad(der). I will make no such promises. Zuko told me anyway, even though there was potential that I would still get extremely mad. He explained that they'd had to lock the imperial firebenders up – because they were all still loyal to his father. But that wasn't surprising because they had all been handpicked by his Father to begin with. Ozai had found some way of communicating with them from prison. Because Ozai has various strong feelings on the matter of Zuko becoming firelord - he had ordered his "squad" to kill Zuko. I made a dismayed face. It worried me about how he could talk so naturally about people wanting to kill him. It worried me that people wanted to kill him at all.
He said reassuringly that none of them had gotten anywhere near him. Toph had been with him and she'd felt them coming a long way away. She'd kicked all their arses before he even knew someone was there. They had been in one of the boulevards near the palace. The squad thought that it would be easier to attack him when he was with "a small blind girl" than when he was with his Uncle. Toph soon set them straight on that erroneous notion. Toph had spent most of yesterday lunch demanding that they praise her badassery. But she was fine, and he was fine and Uncle was fine. And in some ways, this was a good thing.
I did not follow the logic there. How could this possibly be a good thing! I was quite vocal about this point. Zuko shrugged and said that they knew a little bit more about how his father went about all his underhanded deeds now. They also knew that they needed to tighten security around Ozai even further and that Ozai had a way of communicating with his followers from prison. And they knew who the people in Ozai's "squad" were.
His Uncle had interrogated some of the imperial firebenders yesterday, after they had been thrown in the dungeons. A picture had emerged. The imperial firebenders had all killed for Ozai, but there was a select group that referred to themselves simply as The Squad. The Squad were responsible for delicate matters. When Ozai needed someone to disappear completely and without a trace– it was the squad that made that happen. Zuko said that they hadn't given much away yesterday, but now there was a chance at finding out what happened… to all the people who "disappeared" during Ozai's reign. He didn't say it, but I knew he was thinking about his Mum.
I couldn't help myself – I hugged him right then. He hugged me back but said that it wasn't just about finding her. At least 200 nobles and politicians and generals had disappeared during Ozai's reign. Zuko planned to set up an investigation into The Squad and find out exactly what they did to those people. 200 people couldn't just vanish without a trace. Those families deserved to know what had happened. They deserved to have some closure, so that they could move on. Because not knowing was the worst thing in the world. I hugged him tighter when he said not knowing was the worst thing in the world.
We broke apart. Zuko said in a brisk tone of voice that now I knew what happened and I didn't need to worry about him. I said that I always worried about him. I added that I was still a little miffed that he tried to brush off the squad trying to kill him like it was nothing and if I had my way, I would go everywhere with him now…. just in case. Zuko smiled at me for a flash, but then he said sardonically that I sounded like Toph and Iroh – as they were both being such fusspots about security now too. I said that they were right and they meant well.
Zuko looked down and said I know. He confessed that he knew what a big deal it was and how serious it was– but he just hated the big fuss that Toph and his Uncle kicked up yesterday. Zuko didn't want to think about how much people wanted to kill him at all – who would want to sit around dwelling on that? And Zuko had shit to do – if he spent the whole time worried about people trying to kill him, then nothing would ever get done. Toph and Iroh had driven him crazy yesterday and treated him like he was some delicate flower and nothing annoys Zuko more than being treated like he's a delicate flower. Zuko is very adamant that he is not at all delicate. Or a flower.
Zuko said that I should keep this on the downlow – because he didn't want everyone being weird about it. He'd had to plead and bribe and cajole Toph and Iroh all morning yesterday- to get them to agree not to tell Aang and thankfully when Aang had returned from firebending with Jeong Jeong, they had managed to keep it to themselves.
Wait...He hadn't told Aang?
Zuko said that he hadn't. What could Aang do, really? It would only upset him and I knew how Aang got about everything Ozai related. Zuko was sure that telling Aang would be too much trouble. Aang would probably have himself a small freak out, then need to be encouraged down with fruit pies, then he'd espouse some temple wisdom.
Zuko did not want to hear any temple wisdom about how his dad was actively trying to kill him again. He was very adamant about this.
Zuko didn't think his brain could cope with Aang talking about two-headed vipers and telling him to forgive his dad right now. It was possible that such an utterance from Aang would cause Zuko's brain to implode in on itself and then we wouldn't have to worry about the squad because Zuko would have died from frustration. I said that it wasn't possible to die of frustration, but agreed to secrecy.
Toph and Iroh came out and joined us a little later. Iroh wanted to do some 'organizing' of the various government ministers. He wanted to look at who he thought they could trust, who they definitely couldn't trust and who was a bit more mysterious. Iroh is planning on doing more interviews of the ambivalent people with Toph present so she can tell him who is a liar liar, pants of fire. They have worked out a system of gestures which they are most proud of. Now they can communicate anything with something as subtle as a little flick of the wrist – and no one will be any the wiser.
They demonstrated this for us. Toph then brushed some 'lint' of her shoulder, scratched her nose and then nodded at me and Zuko. Uncle laughed and then sniffed, blew on his tea and tapped his foot in a pattern. Toph cracked up next to me and said good one Uncle. Zuko was looking apprehensively between the two of them and asked what they had just said to each other. Toph said that was the beauty of their gesture system – no one could crack their code and he'd never figure it out. Then she adjusted her hair in a way that was obviously meaningful to Iroh, because Iroh giggled a little. Zuko looked between them again and said oh this isn't going to get annoying at all.
I stayed and ended up having lunch with them. There was much firenation-y political talk over lunch. Iroh said that they need to get competent people in various crucial administrative roles before they leave for Ba Sing Se. things were all a bit of a mess at the moment. He had a list of all the ministers currently in the crucial roles and where they likely stood on certain issues and how close to Ozai they had been under the previous regime. We went though the list together. Iroh was fairly certain that most of the women in government would be on his side. Zuko gave him a look and said that his Uncle shouldn't be so sure. Zuko still remembered the scandal with Lady Rika after all. Uncle looked wistfully off for a second and said something that sounded suspiciously good times.
Uncle amended his statement and said that most of the ladies in government will be for peace. There are ladies in governing roles? I was a bit surprised. Iroh said genially, well what would be the sense in keeping them out, now? He said that he was of the opinion that a day without conversing with a fascinating and intelligent woman was a day wasted. Zuko muttered that Uncle did a lot more than just 'conversing' with the ministers. I didn't want to hear any more about what Uncle did instead of conversing. I was just surprised that there were women who held official governmental offices. That was all. Iroh explained that there had been a big uprising among the women of the country around fifty years ago. He'd only been young then, but he still remembered it.
Conscription for women had first been brought in. Women proved that they had equal courage and intelligence to men, but they had been unfairly paid and received much less than the men. Many of the female soldiers, upon returning home had protested for not just equal pay, but equality in all things. It was apparently a long (but interesting) story and Iroh promised to tell me another time. But if he were to cut the long story short, he would say that the female soldiers won their fight for equal pay. And from there a great many other changes had happened – and now at least one third of the current governing officials were women.
The after we had gone through the list, there was a small group of people who remained that Iroh had no idea about. He used a peculiar phrase and said that he didn't know which way their cookie crumbled. Iroh said that he would go call on them this afternoon – to see which way the wind was blowing with them. He was taking the delightful Miss Bei Fong with him, because her services are invaluable. Zuko wanted to come too – But Iroh thought he should stay here. For his own safety remained unspoken, but we all knew that's what Iroh meant.
They had a small argument, which Zuko lost. His Uncle suggested that he should have a go at writing a coronation speech in the meantime and Zuko reluctantly agreed. Uncle was about to leave, but then he seemed to have second thought. He strode over to Zuko and gave him a huge hug and squished his face a little bit and said I'll be back before you know it.
They left and it was just Zuko and I. As soon as they had gone, Zuko got restless and wanted to escape. Zuko can be quite contrary sometimes. As soon as you tell Zuko he cannot do something, he immediately wants to do it. Because Uncle had made such a big song and dance about Zuko staying put and not leaving the house – Zuko now wanted to do nothing more than escape it.
We had a small (ridiculous) argument. I pointed out that there were elite, evil firebendery people out there who might try and kill him. Zuko said that they were all locked up now and his Dad wouldn't try again so soon after the first attempt anyway. I said that he was still recovering and had to take it easy and shouldn't be absconding/doing anything strenuous. Zuko claimed he felt fine and walking wasn't strenuous. I said that he should stay here and write the coronation speech. Zuko, in a rare act of procrastination, said that the coronation wasn't for a couple of days and he still had time. He was going to assert his own independence without needing to get his Uncle to sign off on it.
Zuko said that he was just going for a walk and surely I did not think he was incapable of going for a walk. I said it wasn't so much that I thought he was incapable….I abruptly stopped. His face was set in a determined expression. In the end, I could see that all my arguments and pleas for common sense were going to be in vain. So I declared that if he must go for a walk, I would just have to come with him. I said this with a big faux-put-upon sigh, but really I was quite pleased. He smiled widely at this.
We snuck past Lenka and it was a bit like old times – what with all the sneaking. We made it outside the gates pretty quickly. Zuko asked if there was anywhere I wanted to see? I was confused. Zuko pointed out that I hadn't actually gotten a chance to explore most of the capital yet and he offered (while blushing a bit) that since we were going for a walk anyway, he could show me around. I accepted. I have now seen many temples and gardens and boulevards in the city – and the big craters that Toph made in one of the boulevards yesterday.
It was nice just wandering around the city with Zuko. It was almost like a date.
Zuko and I had a great chat. I was intrigued by the idea of women leaders. I asked if one third of the government ministers were really ladies. Zuko looked confused. It became clear that he had misunderstood the question because he started saying that he was pretty sure they weren't men in dresses – but he'd never asked any of them directly. How could you ask something like that without sounding impertinent? No, it would be better to find out unobtrusively. Maybe if someone lifted the skirt up - but that that would be rude and silly and disrespectful. But maybe….. I cut him off here and said I didn't mean that!
I just meant that there were no women in governing positions in the water tribes. He and Iroh spoke like having women in positions of authority wasn't that unusual. Zuko nodded in comprehension. He said that yes, approximately a third of government officials were women. I was a bit fascinated. Zuko said that it wasn't that fascinating to him because he didn't know anything else. I said that it just seemed so different to the water tribes. My Dad had gone on about how different the firenation was- like it was a bad thing. But not all differences are bad, in my opinion.
Zuko asked me how everything worked in the watertribes? He asked who administered all the health programs and that sort of thing – because in the firenation that had always been a more 'girly' job. Surely ladies were in charge of the health and education side of things. I said that teaching the kids and tending the sick was a woman's responsibility in the tribe, but we weren't "in charge" of anything.
I explained that in the Water tribes, there was a chief. The chief was the head bitch in charge of everything, but the chief always had a few really close friends, or warriors who had bravely fought who served as his advisors. If women wanted a say in the running of the tribe, they would have to have a quiet word to the chief's mother. But Gran Gran normally deferred to my Dad about most things, in my experience, anyway. Women didn't get a say in the real running of things. If women in the water tribes did, I doubt any of us would have agreed to the menfolk leaving for so long. When they had all left, Gran Gran had sort of being in charge, but whenever there was a major decision, she would defer to Sokka (something which always vaguely annoyed me).
We'd ended up in a park that had a few small lakes dotted about the place. Zuko asked if he could ask me something and I got a bit excited. He hadn't wanted to ask me the question I hoped he'd ask me. Instead he stared at the water for a beat, before he asked quietly if I was really thinking about going back to the South Pole.
There was a long and slightly awkward pause. I didn't want to face the apprehensive look in his eyes and I ended up turning away from him and starring at the water as well. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to say no, of course not. But I don't know that for sure. I have missed Dad so much, and Dad wanted us to go back with him. We had only been separated because of the war.
The war was over now.
The truth is, I haven't thought that much about it at all, and I have been deliberately avoiding thinking about it lately. I have no idea what the future will hold really. I said as much, because it seemed dishonest to claim otherwise. Zuko nodded, but still looked a bit perturbed.
I tried to explain better and said that both Sokka and I were in a bit of a spot – because our Dad wanted to go home, and he was Dad. But I didn't know if I did. I also knew that Sokka wouldn't want to go back without Suki, but Suki didn't want to go, if the attitude to women didn't change. And I couldn't blame her. Since I had travelled all over the world, I'd gotten such a different perspective of home. I thought about a few things differently now.
Zuko asked me what sort of things and the conversation moved on from that little awkward moment. I said that the sexism really did bother me now, so much more than it used to. It annoyed me that even though I am a great speaker and have lots of sensible things to say, what I had to say went ignored by the menfolk. The firenation seemed a little better in that respect.
Zuko snorted and said hardly. I made a face. He explained. Zuko said that no one could accuse really Ozai of sexism because he oppressed everybody equally and Nobody who had something sensible to say got listened to when Ozai was in power. Even though the lady ministers had some power in their region – the Firelord was still the boss. And a lot of their recommendations had been just ignored by his father anyway.
I asked him how things worked in the firenation, because I didn't understand all this talk of ministers and regions and recommendations. I had explained the water-tribe system, but I didn't really know that much about how the firenation worked. The firenation political system is a bit incomprehensible to me right now.
Zuko tried to give me a really brief explanation. It was brief because I told him to explain it in language even the turtleducks swimming in the lake could understand. I have seen Zuko launch into lengthy three-hour-long explanations back at the Western Air Temple about this subject, and though I love him -my concentration span is not that long.
Zuko said that the country had been divided into regions, each region had a minister (usually a popular member of nobility from the region) that would represent that region in the firenation parliament. Currently there were a fair few female ministers who had inherited the positions from their fathers. Their main job was to represent and argue for the region. If there was a problem or a particular need in the region, the minister had to petition the firelord for action and provide a recommendation. I said that didn't sound too hard. He said there was a bit more too it than that, but that would require a much longer and more detailed explanation and he didn't want to bore me…or the turtleducks.
Zuko explained that there had been an initial 'purge' in the first few months of his father's reign. At the start of his father's reign, he had either fired, threatened or 'dissappeared' most of the ministers who did not agree with him. They were such public figures and the fact that they 'dissappeared' made everybody nervous. Some of the missing people, who had been delicately handled by the imperial firebenders, were fairly well known ministers who had openly disagreed with Ozai's ascension.
Ozai had then filled their position with cronies and yesmen and people he knew would be loyal to him. These people who were often ill qualified for the job and then proceeded to do only two things: Kiss Ozai's arse and cock everything up royally in their region. And now the whole thing was in a big old mess.
The big problem for Zuko was figuring out what to do with the other ministers. All the yesmen were out, but there was a large amount that had retained their positions throughout Azulon and Ozai's rule. These ministers were all nervous about the change in leadership; especially in light of what had happened when his father was first in power.
Zuko would never 'disappear' anyone, but he didn't know how to reassure people of this. And he was also a bit apprehensive of all the ministers in general- because it was so hard to tell where people really stood. Some of them had been in the jobs for over twenty years. They had obviously been good at them at one point, but either through fear, or silent agreement, they had gone along with all of Ozai's shenanigans.
I thought twenty years, schmenty years and if Zuko couldn't tell where they stood, then he would be better off dismissing them and starting from scratch with people he knew he could trust. Zuko made a rueful smile and said that'd only leave….like five people! Was one of them me? Zuko said of course one of them was me.
Zuko didn't want to just fire everybody and start again from scratch because replacing everyone would be impossible right now. Also firing everyone was a bit horrible. Some of the people who just went along with things, could still be good at the jobs and probably still wanted to do right by their region. Zuko didn't want to judge them for keeping a low profile and going along with things, because he had kept quiet in that war meeting hadn't he?
I demurred that was an entirely different situation. Zuko disagreed. He knew what his dad was saying was evil and really bonkers, but he hadn't said anything against it at the time. His father had controlled the country by fear and Zuko didn't want to do that. And he thought that starting off his reign by firing everyone would be a poor beginning. He was going to try and work with people, rather than just control them.
I said that it was a nice idea. Zuko smiled uncertainly and said we'd have to wait and see how it worked out in practice. He didn't want yesmen to just smile at him and say everything was fine; when everything was shit – because a system like that was no use to any one at all. He wanted the people to know that he really was different from his father and he thought the best way he could show that was by being willing to listen to them. He said that he wanted to make sure that all the clever people with lots of sensible things to say got heard. I gave him a big smile at that.
We'd gone the long way round the city and it was just at this point that we emerged near the Palace and I was greeted with the most unusual sight. A big crowd of floozies were gathered around the gates. Most were dressed a little sluttily. Some of them were peering through the gates. Some of them had signs. (ugh the sighs!) All of them were looking for Zuko – or at least that's what I assumed they were doing. I admit I only gathered this information from the bawdy, lewd and cheeky signs.
What the fresh hell was this?
Zuko blushed and said oh bollocks, not this again and darted back into the alley. I followed. When we were around the corner I raised a questioning eyebrow. Zuko said that maybe we should go the long way round back to the house. That wasn't answering the question posed by my eyebrow – so I asked it regular style. I asked what the hell was that? and nodded towards the palace and the mob of floozies.
Zuko blushed and said that last time he'd been home at the palace, they'd gathered every morning and they must have thought he was staying in the palace now. (He's not, he's been putting off moving in until after the coronation, because the he finds the villa cosier – whatever that means.) He explained, with awkward embarrassed shuffling, that whenever he'd left the palace through the front entrance, he'd had to walk through them.
They'd go bananas whenever he did that. If he ever waved at them – some of them would like…. faint and shit. So he stopped waving pretty quickly. The floozies weirded him out a little and he didn't know what to do about them – so he just let them be. He didn't know what they wanted from him. I crossed my arms grumpily, and leaned my head out a bit to get another look at the crowd of floozies. I said with some sarcasm that judging from the signs, I could tell that at least eight of them wanted his sexy body, six of them wanted kiss him all over andfour of them wanted his babies. Zuko groaned and said oh no – is it that bad?
What? That bad?
He leaned back against the wall and looked acutely embarrassed about the whole floozy thing. I was a little taken aback. I had been maybe, just a smidgen….jealous. Well not…. jealous exactly. More resentful. I was resentful of the floozies, because Zuko is mine and I don't want them floozing onto him with their floozy wiles. I was also resentful of the crowd of floozies because of what I assumed would happen to Zuko's personality after he encountered them.
Aang always gets dreadfully bigheaded when there is a crowd of floozies following him around. Sokka too, had a mob of girls from some poetry class in Ba Sing Se, who used to titter and wave at him coquettishly. He always got ridiculously smug whenever we ran into his fanclub in the street. I didn't tell him, but Toph took to tripping all the girls over with her earthbending whenever he wasn't looking – in an effort at discouraging them. I had approved of this and we'd high-five in solidarity. I was used to Aang and Sokka being dickheads whenever there was a large group of girls vying for their attention. Neither Aang nor Sokka would hide in alleys and groan in embarrassment – if such a crowd of floozies was waiting for them.
But Zuko's not like the other boys I know. He has always been a bit shy and self-conscious about this sort of thing. Ever since I've know him, he's never struck me as a "smooth" sort of guy. He looked like he'd rather sit through another awkward man-to-man talk with my Dad, or eat seaprunes, or listen to Aang's temple wisdom than deal with the flooozies. I was kind of glad that he wasn't into the crowd of floozies. Still I couldn't help but test him a little, because Aang used to pretend he didn't like the attention when really he just loved it.
I asked Zuko, in a teasing tone, if he wasn't pleased to know that – (I peered round again and looked at another sign) - at least one girl thought he had the most lickable body in all of the firenation. It was one of the more ridiculous signs. Zuko made a face and said Lickable? with some confusion and panic. I looked around the alley again and then nodded in confirmation. I told him that's what it says.
Zuko looked a bit disconcerted and said I mean it's nice that they think I'm… lickable…I guess. He still seemed a bit freaked out by the lickable thing. He said he was a bit uncomfortable with all the attention and found it a bit unnerving. He wanted to be polite to them, but he didn't want to encourage them at the same time. He certainly didn't want to make any of them faint -because things always got really awkward when one of them fainted. The first time one of them fainted he had tried to help but that made it so much worse.
He had no idea what to do with a flock of girls who thought he was lickable. I said no idea at all, eh? A little cheekily. He blushed and said oh, you know what I mean. He gestured towards the Palace and said All that…it's not about me at all. I corrected him and said that judging from the signs, it really was all about him. He said okay, it was about him because he was a prince, but it wasn't really about the real him. None of those girls knew who he was, really. And all that attention was a bit shallow in the end. Zuko hoped they'd get over it soon and find someone else to go bananas over.
I glanced one more time at the flock of floozies and said I didn't fancy his chances right now. They all looked like pretty determined floozies to me. I was suddenly struck by a horrible thought. What if some of them were so determined that they took to stalking him? I warned Zuko of this possibility.
Zuko looked at me with a rather incredulous look on his face. He made the face that Sokka does when he thinks he's got a really tremendously hilarious joke up his sleeve. Zuko bit his bottom lip for a second. Then it seemed like he just couldn't contain himself any longer. He asked me, just for clarification, if I was warning him about girls stalking him? I made a very flabbergasted face at him and he just cracked up laughing. I gave him a light thwack on his shoulder (sometimes I really miss the commonsense stick) and told him to shut up affectionately.
He didn't shut up.
Judging from the guffaws and chortles and sniggers that followed, this is the funniest joke Zuko has ever made in his whole entire life. Possibly the funniest joke anyone has ever made in the history ever. It's hilarity will, in fact, never be repeated. He laughed till he snorted gracelessly – then it was my turn to laugh at him.
It was nice to see him so gleeful, after everything that happened yesterday. He's so serious all the time. He's so stern with other people and he's so intense about things. I think I am the only person in the world who gets to see Zuko laugh till he snorts, and that thought makes me happy.
Rambly author's notes follow.
Welcome lovely readers to the first chapter of Not Stalking Firelord Zuko. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it! There were a few little references, and if you spotted them -you get a million virtual high fives from me. The opening line : it is a truth universally acknowledged…. Is a shameless nod to Jane Austen and "Pride and Prejudice". In many ways I think that Zutara, had it been canon, would have had a lot of similarities to Pride and Prejudice – but that is a rant for another time. War has a way of distinguishing between the things that matter – is from the new series of "Downton Abbey" – which is just a fabulous slice of britishness, if you haven't seen it. I will make no such promises is a little nod to the brief snippet I have seen of "Legend of Korra".
I am currently unable to watch Korra and have just seen little snippets. I'm waiting for it to show on normal TV in Australia or I can get the DVDs– whichever happens first - we are a bit behind the rest of the world in our land down under.
YMMV on anything and everything lovelies!
So in first half of this chapter, Hakoda wants to spend lots of time with his kids and with his tribe. Hakoda has missed out on a lot with his kids because of the war. Three full years at least. His recent spats with Katara and Sokka's preoccupation with Suki would have re-inforced for him the need to be closer to his kids. He's realized that he doesn't actually know what is going on with them right now.
They have both grown from the children they were when he left into adolescents that he loves, but he doesn't know very well. His kids adore him too, but in some ways, having Hakoda around permanently would be a hard thing for them to adjust to. They were so free before and now they are faced with his firm parental expectations for the first time in years. One of these expectations is going to become an issue. Hakoda just expects and assumes that they will both be happy to come back home to the South Pole with him after the peace negotiations.
This whole going back to the South Pole issue is a bit up in the air at the moment, for both Katara and Sokka. Katara wants to stay with Zuko, she doesn't want to be separated from her father again (though they've had spats recently – she does love him). She hasn't quite figured out what she'd do in the firenation if she were to stay (that'll come later lovelies), whereas she knows exactly what she'd do and what would be expected of her at the South Pole. While she doesn't like the sexism, the comfort and the lure of home and the familiar would be strong. So she doesn't really give Zuko an answer when he asks her directly, because she doesn't have an answer herself yet. But her lack of answer will make Zuko nervous. And it will also play a part in his decision when you-know-who comes back. (ps it's not Voldemort.)
Iroh has bequeathed Hakoda the ship that he mentioned in the last chapter of NSZ. This ship, which will be repainted with SWT emblems and renamed, will ferry the homesick Water Tribe Warriors home. Some of these men have family waiting for them in the South Pole, some of them are just plain homesick and all of them would want to go home. Realistically, Hakoda probably only needs a small handful of other warriors with him during the negotiation process – to serve as advisors. Bato, as his oldest friend, and also because he doesn't want to leave Ming – immediately volunteers.
I also floated the issue of post-war sexual relations, when I mentioned that some of the water tribe warriors would begin looking at firenation women as the source of a quick f**k . After the relationship between Bato and Ming is revealed and Hakoda's tacit approval, it is 'acceptable' for the men to think about 'sowing their oats' etc. Hakoda does not explicitly forbid the union afterall– but simply thinks it will not last. For warriors just searching for a fulfillment of their needs, the fact that the relationship will not last will actually be an incentive. All sorts of power and gender dynamics come into play with this issue - but at this point I'm not sure how far I'll pursue it. This topic can lead to a bit of a dark place. On the whole, while I'll try to tackle a few more 'serious' issues in this fic, I will try and keep it on the lighter side.
A few other things come up at the WaterTribe House and during dinner. The infamous mending makes a reappearance. We get to see how Bato and Ming are as a couple and get to know more about Ming as a character. While Bato has a whole episode about him, Ming is only in brief snippets of the show. I wanted to flesh out her character a bit more. She was a bit of a puzzle to me – because she was so decent and kind and those are two adjectives that are not normally associated with firenation prison guards. She clearly disapproves of how the other guard treats Iroh and goes a long way out of her way to bring Iroh some comforts.I thought about why someone like Ming would become a guard in the first place and her whole back-story grew from that.
There are two people who I would classify as 'good guards' that we see in the series. Ming and the Woman from Boiling Rock. If you think about it, that Lady Guard's actions are very noble. She sees a male guard loitering in front of a cell in the female block. Think of the conclusions she must have drawn! This guard does not turn a blind eye to it. She actively intervenes when there is the possibility of sexual assault. And she does this to protect Suki- a prisoner of war. Lets face it, prison was never going to be a pleasant experience for female prisoners of war. While this woman did arrest Zuko – I think she deserves some kudos for intervening on behalf of a prisoner, when there is the possibility of abuse to the prisoner and when I don't think such an action would win her any friends in the guards lounge.
So the two nice guards we see are fairly kind, forthright women. The male guards all either seem a touch sadistic or dumber than a box of rocks. To explain this disparity in the caliber of guards – I decided that there had to be some sort of additional incentive for female guards. Something that could explain why someone kindhearted like Ming would want to be a guard in the first place.
I think that there were be a great need for female guards, but the position would not be highly sought out. There would also be the problem that because most guards came from the lower classes, they were all eligible for conscription. Because it seems like guards must be benders, benders would be called up first. So even if you could attract and train female benders to prison guard positions, there a good odds that they could be called up. So I think Azulon would have made female guards exempt from being conscripted.
This action would actually attract the sort of women who would be less inclined to be cruel to prisoners in the first place. Women looking to dodge conscription would be women who didn't agree all that much with the war and women who had heard the rumors about how General Bujing and his ilk planned battles and decided that they want to live.
I think that Ming and possibly many other lower class people, would be in the same boat, secretly disagreeing with the war, in their heart of hearts. But not really having much of a choice in how the war is conducted. The firenation might not be that sexist in comparison with the water tribes, but it is definitely elitist and classist. The conscripted recruits would be primarily from the lower classes (because there would be many more loopholes available to members of nobility - Ozai never served active duty now did he?). The lower classes are seen pretty much as cannon-fodder in that war meeting that Zuko attends when he's 13. I think that the way General Bujing and his fellows conducted the war and saw the newly conscripted recruits as disposable and used them as diversions – would be one of the worst kept secrets in the firenation.
Ming has also been influenced by the experience of her father, who was injured as a new recruit under General Bujing (the only general who Zuko challenges initially). When I first wrote the chapter about Ducklings and Hawks and the policy of intentionally sending new conscripted recruits to their death in NSZ, I wanted to bring in someone who was a survivor of that strategy later. Ming's father knew that his life was disregarded by the Generals – but found himself the extremely surprised recipient of some earth kingdom hospitality.
I do think this sort of situation was rare. I don't think prisoner exchanges were that frequent. I don't think a man like general Bujing would have agreed to it – so this one was only a low level prisoner exchange, that would have only needed the division's captain's approval. Nevertheless the earth kingdom healer who treated Ming's father would have left an enormous impact on him and he has told his kids all about the experience. he found mutual common ground with this man (their love for their children). When you realise how much in common wou have with an 'enemy' - it becomes harder to see that person as an 'enemy'.
I also detail a little of how I see the firenation internal, domestic political structure. The part about regions and ministers would apply to the domestic day-to-day running of the firenation. I will do a bit on the organization of the military later. Anyway some things like education, health and transport would be somewhat centralized and other things like home guard forces would be localized with a central overseeing body. Most changes would need approval from the firelord. One of the big differences between the firenation and the Earth Kingdom is that the firelord is not just a figurehead. The firelord actually sets the agenda and the political landscape for the country. Because Zuko and Ozai are so vastly different – and change always makes people nervous – a lot of the ministers are going to be nervous about his rule in the early days. Especially because they don't know that much about Zuko and don't know if he will take after his dear old dad and 'disappear' people and do other dastardly things.
Some of these ministers are puppets of Ozai and while Zuko doesn't want to start by firing everyone, he will have to trim away some of the deadweight. These people are out and they know it - and some of them will be unhappy about that. The rest of them…well I'm not sure how far along the evil spectrum I would put them. They are probably just pragmatic public servants. If Ozai could make Ursa, a very public figure and member of the royal family completely disappear then I can imagine how apprehensive that would make people. I can't blame them for keeping a low profile and going along with things. I don't think it would be feasible, at this stage in his reign for Zuko to just fire and then replace everybody. I think the firenation is too big and complex to be completely overhauled in one fell swoop. Even Ozai would have disappeared/fired/killed people in stages. Anyway, I think that to show how drastically different he is from his father, Zuko wants to take a more co-operative approach and work with people – rather than just dictate to them. Bless his cotton socks, he is being rather idealistic here. We'll see how that pans out for him over the coming chapters.
Toph and Iroh are a bit of a dynamic duo themselves and have quickly become fast friends and developed their own code of symbols. They were gossiping about Zuko and Katara through gestures - but Zuko and Katara will never know! (they will probably guess pretty soon - because Toph's not into being subtle.)
So there was also a bit of talk about assassinations, "the squad" and disappearing people in this chapter. Most of the post-war fics I have read, have people trying to assassinate Zuko. Katara wasn't present for this attempt, but has herself a small freak out when she hears about it. I honestly think that Zuko would try and downplay it. He's had people try to kill him before after all. He's not pleased about it at all and he knows how serious it is, but he doesn't want to dwell on it overly – because that leads to a bad mental place and he has stuff to do. He also doesn't like being coddled and while he loves Toph and Iroh, their concern is grating on his nerves. I think that an outside force like the Kyoshi warriors would be a better bet for Zuko in the interim, than some of the domestic firenation forces - because they are still not quite sure how far Ozai's influence stretches.
Ozai was behind the attempt – because I do think that just because he's locked up, doesn't mean he still can't cause trouble for Zuko (and he will). The Squad would be his most loyal imperial firebenders, they would have been hand picked by him, and had their positions elevated by him and they have done a lot of Ozai's dirty work for him, quietly and efficiently.
I hypothesize that Ozai wouldn't have had a qualm with disappearing people. The investigation into the disappeared people/ The Squad will be something that niggles at Zuko for all kinds of personal reasons. I have my own theory about what has happened to Ursa, but you will have to wait to find out what that is (But I promise you I will answer it – either in this fic or at the very least a one-shot set later in the stalking universe).
Zuko and Katara have a nice not-date and a chat about their respective countries. I think Zuko would be genuinely curious about how the other nations are run/regulated. Katara wants to understand the firenation better. I also wanted to flag that while I think the water tribes are exceptionally sexist – the firenation would not be perfect either. The sexism in the water tribes is explicit. Women are not allowed to do this. I think that the sexism in the firenation would be more implicit. There would still be something of a glass ceiling and traditionally assigned gender roles are still in play (eg Zuko remarks that health and education are seen as more feminine areas of expertise in politics). I think that the firenation is much further ahead when it comes to gender equality now. But the women of the country would have still had to fight for it bitterly (eg the fight over equal pay for soldiers 50 years ago got the whole ball rolling.)
There is a crowd of floozies, waiting at the palace gates, for a glimpse of Zuko – much like there was in canon. Zuko did not seem into that at all in the show and it is one of the areas where he differs greatly from Aang and Sokka. (Aang is like tinkerbell – he needs applause/attention to live!) I actually think the floozies/fangirls would freak Zuko out a little. They certainly annoy Katara a great deal. And she makes an unwise comment about their potential to be stalkers. Zuko cannot resist the juicy bait just dangled in front of him then (could you?) I just wanted him to talk the piss out of Katara – just once- for her stalking behavior at the start of this fic series.
Next chapter: a coronation speech will be practiced and a speech about women's rights will be given and there will be shenanigans!
Til then lovely readers….