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Rarely pure and never simple

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There was much ado this morning over what to do about Ozai and the possible coup. It appeared that Iroh had not been asleep at all last night – but had been working with the White Lotus members who live in the Caldera. He was very vague about last night's activities – but he is always vague about the White Lotus with us, because none of us are official members.

We were in the big dining room in the house. Books and lists and odd bits of paper where everywhere. There was a veritable flock of hawks perched on the window sill. Piandao and Lady Za Jei were both writing frantically and sending off hawks. Other Hawks returned and Jee quickly read over their contents – and made a few marks on this long list. Hawky gave these, more occupied birds, the stink eye from Sokka's shoulder (where he perched proudly). Iroh had included all of us in the meeting – as what was happening was going to affect us all. It seemed to have the greatest affect on Aang, who after having the situation explained to him, had reverted to a stage of simmering panic. His panic was not very helpful. He was airbending absentmindedly and sending papers everywhere. I sat him down and tried to keep him calm.

All of Zuko's advisors were there (and had been there since before sunrise). They were arguing about what was best thing to do. Many firenation texts had been scanned with a fine tooth comb and a dire conclusion had been reached. All previous firelords and ladies had been benders – but this was tradition and not law. More worrying was the fact that Ozai had not officially abdicated, according to the firenation custom and law. An abdication ceremony was a big deal. Ozai had never actually relinquished his control over the firenation, he had never signed the abdication documents and he had never renounced his claim to the throne. He merely decided that he wanted to ascend to a high level of office. Granted this office was completely imaginary – however this mattered little in the firenation.

So it turns out that the firenation has a history of crazy rulers. There has been an odd assortment of monarchs who were completely off their gourd. Firelady Peizho was, in fact, so barmy that she only talked to pineapples. (She actually made every firenation noble carry a pineapple – so that when she wanted to address them, she could talk to their fruit instead of their faces). She was affectionately called Potty Pei-Pei by the populace. Sokka has made a few choice comments about royal families and the obvious results of inbreeding. These comments were largely unappreciated by Iroh and Zuko (Though Jee did hide a snigger). I reminded Sokka that there is a time and a place. A succession crisis is neither the time nor the place for Sokka's wit.

Being a psychotic nutbag and a non-bender did not automatically render Ozai unfit for the throne. Because he had never officially abdicated, and was only in jail on Zuko's say so, there was now BIG PROBLEM. Aang was most anxious because he thought that taking away Ozai's bending would be sufficient. He got a bit defensive because everyone in the room was criticizing his choice. Most statements were, after all, prefaced with something like if only that psychotic despot had died in the final battle! After Jee said something like that for the eight time, Aang (unwisely piped up) that everyone had to stop saying things like that. He'd made a choice and he was still sure it was the right choice and though he wished that this wasn't happening….at this point Lady Za Jei cut him off. Lady Za Jei was Zuko and Azula's old firebending teacher – but now she was the Chief of Guards in the caldera area. She was one of the most intimidating people I have ever met.

Lady Za Jei soundly chastised Aang. Out of all of Zuko's advisors, Lady Za Jei seemed the most impatient with Aang. She snapped listen Avatar, I don't know if anyone in the land of fairy floss, fruit pies and rainbows ever told you, but this is the real world. Here you cannot just wish away your problems. Lady Za Jei said that if he could not contribute anything helpful, she suggested he hold his tongue. Though the way she said it meant that it wasn't really a suggestion.

I felt bad for Aang. She had been so rude to him. I don't like seeing Aang upset. But then everyone's tempers were a bit frazzled right now and I honestly couldn't disagree with her general sentiment. I disagreed with her mode of delivery – but she did have a point. We didn't really have the time to gently hold Aang's hand and listen to him justify his choice and blather on about lionturtles right now. If that's all he wanted to say – maybe it was better that he kept quiet. I rubbed his shoulder a little bit to comfort him, but said that maybe we should just listen to what was going on right now – so we had a better understanding of the situation. Aang still looked very miffed – but he did stay quiet for the next little bit.

Lady Za Jei said that on the upside, she had a very good idea of who the ringleaders were. This had been backed up by the reports that we were getting back. There were nine of them (she listed some names that meant nothing to me). They had been secretly approaching people all yesterday. She did not know how those meetings had gone – but she did know that all these noblemen had held communication with Ozai. If he had a window in his cell, he could receive hawks. (He had a window because Zuko thought it would be too cruel to deprive him of sunlight.)

Lady Za Jei stated flatly that there was a very obvious solution that was staring us all in the face. However unpalatable it might be to some (she shot Aang a vicious look here), it still wasn't too late to arrange an accident for Ozai. Accidents happened in firenation prisons all the time…. she trailed off here, but everyone got her meaning. She said that we still had the advantage of surprise. It was still very early in the morning – the ringleaders did not yet know that Zuko knew their plan. Some of them wouldn't even be awake yet. If we were quick and decisive – they would wake without a figurehead to rally behind.

Zuko looked torn for a second. It looked like he was considering the most expedient and bloody option. Aang spoke up in shock and horror. He said that Zuko couldn't just have his own father quietly murdered. He couldn't. What about the sanctity of life? Lady Za Jei snorted at that and then said with real anger and indignation the sanctity of life! That is rich coming from you Avatar – you didn't care so much about the sanctity of life when you… Zuko cut her off right here and said that was enough – she'd made her point. Lady Za Jei quelled, but looked a bit unhappy. She looked like she still had a fair bit of point left to make. Aang looked just plain mystified.

Zuko walked over to him and said, with a real effort at controlling his voice and not shouting, that it was probably best if Aang left the room now– he shouldn't have included Aang in the first place. This was just too much for Aang. Aang got a bit stroppy because he didn't want to be the only one left out. He tried to play – I'm the Avatar card as justification for why he should stay and be listened to - but that was it for Zuko's patience. Zuko snapped yes, you're the Avatar! And if you had done your duty in the first place I wouldn't even be in this position and I wouldn't even have to make this choice….he took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down and said in a much more even tone look Aang, I'm not trying to freeze you out, but we don't have much time right now and if you have nothing to offer us but empty sanctimony then you are no help what-so-ever and it would be better if you left so that the adults can get on with handling this. It was a blunt and patronizing thing to say – but it was also true.

Aang did what Aang normally does in confronting situations. He ran away. But this time, none of us went after him. It was unusual for me actually. I always go after Aang normally. But I wanted…needed to know what was going on. I wanted to support Zuko. And anyway, we could all be of more use to Zuko right now. And Zuko's crisis of succession was a little bigger that Aang's crisis of Aangness. Right now I think we all knew how much was at stake.

-o-

A quiet accident for Ozai was decided against.

Iroh said the idea had been discussed in his super-secret-white-lotus-meeting last night. All of Iroh's informants said that Zuko was indubitably popular as a firelord because he was so different from his father. Zuko had always acted with integrity and honour. Arranging a quiet accident was acting with neither. It was also just the sort of thing that Ozai would do in this situation. If Ozai met with a quiet accident now – Zuko would lose the little faith that the other nobles and politicians had in him as a person. A lot of them were sitting on the fence in regards to his leadership skills as he had only been firelord for a few days. However they all considered it a good thing that Zuko seemed like he was above the sordid, bloody tactics that Ozai so frequently stooped to. If Zuko had Ozai killed, he would be seen as no better than his father.

Jee suggested that instead of a quiet accident – they could speed up the war crimes process and have Ozai justifiably locked up for all his various crimes against the firenation. Piandao said that this would incur the same problem as quietly doing away with him. They hadn't ironed out all the kinks in the war crimes process and if Zuko proceeded without the legitimacy of the law on his side - it would look like he was just inventing crimes to punish people with. This was another thing that Ozai was fond of doing.

Lady Za Jei said that she thought we were looking at this the wrong way by focusing on Ozai. Ozai was currently only as strong as his strongest supporter and weak as their weakest link. She said that we knew for a fact that nine noble men were actively plotting against Zuko. What was stopping us from having the nine of them locked up for treason. The war crimes system might not be perfect – but prosecuting people for treason was a well oiled machine in the firenation. She knew one of the noblemen, (She called him Lord Bumface) was a terrible coward. She estimated that it would only take her five minutes with Bumface before she would get every secret out of him. He would turn on the others to serve his own interests surely as the tide turns when it is time.

Zuko listened intently to her suggestion, but then asked what they would do about all the people who had been approached by the nine – all those people might have conflicting loyalties and arresting the nine could make them into martyrs for the cause. Lady Za Jei said that she thought that they should just deal with one problem at a time – right now their biggest problem was stopping a coup. Arresting the nine would effectively do so.

After a long moment Zuko nodded, he pulled out a piece of parchment that had something written on it, signed it, put his seal on it and handed it to Za Jei. He told her to make it happen – but added that she should come back here after she had gotten all of them in the dungeons and take Toph and Iroh with her for interviewing Bumface. Then they could play good cop, bad cop, and cop who knows exactly when you're lying.

Lady Za Jei took the parchment and bowed deeply at Zuko before she abruptly left, with straight posture and a fierce look. She looked like she was made of fierceness, coated in ferocity, with intense filling. She looked like she was ready to break someone in half. I don't wonder that Zuko used to say that his firebending teacher before Iroh drilled him really hard. I am beginning to think that 'drilled him really hard' is one of Zuko's little euphemisms – in the same manner that he says that his father is not a nice man or that Azula is a little unwell.

-o-

While Za Jei was off arresting people, there was more discussion about what was to be done about Ozai and the nine after they were arrested. There was a big problem that they would be made into the martyrs for the cause if this was not handled correctly. Iroh said that if they conducted the trials in a fair and open manner then the martyrdom factor should be limited. If they were given fair and open trials, they would seem less like martyrs and more like the opportunistic bastards they were.

Piandao said that according to his sources – very few noblemen and politicians had committed themselves outright to Ozai's return to the throne. Many were probably just hedging their bets. Most of Piandao's contacts said that many nobles actually thought that they would be better off under Zuko than they would be under Ozai. Ozai had ruled with an iron fist – but he had not been beloved or respected. He was feared, most certainly, but fear is not that motivating when Ozai was currently relatively powerless. Piandao estimated that it would only be a small minority of politicians and nobles who would genuinely support Ozai's return – and they would be doing so for selfish reasons (to avoid war crimes charges and/or keep their fortunes). A man fighting for selfish reasons was an easier opponent to defeat. Though these men were powerful, they were not numerous.

Iroh agreed with Piandao. What Zuko had on his side was the endorsement of the firesages, the moral high ground and the fact that he was actually quite popular as a firelord. A great deal of that was just the 'honeymoon' phase, because he was still a new leader. However the lower classes seemed to genuinely admire him – for stopping the war, ending all conscription and speaking out in their defense when he was just a boy. If it came to civil violence – Zuko would have the numbers on his side. Zuko looked a bit horrified at the prospect of civil violence. Iroh quickly said that he thought it would not come to that.

As he said before, the firesages were on Zuko's side. They had agreed to coronate him and in doing so, they had given him their endorsement and support. They would not like to admit fault and lose face – so they would most likely swear black and blue that Zuko was the rightful firelord. Also they were very afraid of Ozai's wrath and would do whatever was necessary to prevent him from resuming the throne.

The head firesage was a white lotus member. He had informed Iroh that, according to his research, there were only two things that would permanently disqualify someone from the throne according to the law - being caught …err fraternizing with koalasheep (eeew) or committing a grave dishonor. If Zuko could prove that Ozai had committed a grave dishonor, then Ozai would be disqualified from the throne and Zuko would also have legitimate justification to keep him in prison.

Sokka asked what a grave dishonor was. Zuko told him it normally applied to the murder of a Calderian in cold blood. If someone murdered a member of the nobility in cold blood – their entire family would be tarnished for generations. If a firelord murdered someone by their own hand, and it could be proved – it had normally always resulted in that firelord either abdicating (often there was a fair bit of coercion involved in these abdications) or being forcibly removed from office by the next-in-line for the throne. Grave dishonours normally made people angry enough to rise up against the firelord in question – sometimes it even lead to civil wars.

Sokka, ignored the gravity of Zuko's voice when he was worrying about the possibility of civil wars, and said in the distracted voice he uses when he is puzzling out a problem, that it should be easy – 200 people "disappeared" when his dad was in office after all. Zuko said that didn't mean his dad had done it himself. He had to be able to prove that Ozai had done it with his own two hands. Zuko thought his dad might have been too smart to do that when he had a squad of imperial firebenders who were happy to do his dirty work for him. Iroh said that Zuko shouldn't be so sure. Ozai was arrogant, and arrogant people always slip up somewhere – and also, Ozai did….enjoy that sort of thing. (Oh double eew).

It is not surprising that Ozai -the man who kept "people to kill" lists - would have gotten off on killing, but I found myself fervently wishing that he had just shagged a koalasheep somewhere instead. It sounds like sheepshaggers were much easier to deal with. I also found myself wondering what sort of shenanaigans had prompted the sheep-shagging edict in the first place? Who felt that preclusion of sheepshaggers was so necessary that it got enshrined in law? Also, I think it's a bit funny (funny peculiar - not funny haha) the firenation is okay being ruled by a lady who only talks to pineapples, but sheep-shaggers is where they draw their line in the sand.

-o-

Toph said that she could go and interview the imperial firebenders and see if any of them would talk. If Ozai ever did top anyone himself – those bastards would know. Zuko said that before she did that, he would have a talk to Azula. Azula was an expert of Ozai. She the closest thing his Dad had to someone he actually trusted. If Ozai told anyone anything, he would have told her. Iroh thought this wasn't the best idea, because Azula is friggin crazy. But Zuko thought it was still worth asking her. She would definitely know something. Iroh said he wasn't disputing that she would know something, he was disputing whether or not she would want to help them. Zuko said that he was just going to ask her anyway because it could save us all a lot of time. Iroh made a face. A face that said fine, don't listen to me – even though I am always right! I have a feeling that Iroh is well practiced at making this face.

Then Zuko got a bit delegate-y. He was going to go and see Azula and that was that. Iroh should first arrange for his father to be moved the bottom level of Iron Cove. Then Iroh and Toph should interview the imperial firebenders and see if they could help Za Jei interview the nine when she brought them in. Piandao should try and get some more information about The Nine and their resources. Jee and Sokka should research other options in case Zuko couldn't find proof of a grave dishonour. Suki should go get her best warriors ready and help Za Jei with making the arrests. Zuko asked me to go and tell my Dad and the other watertribe warriors, as well as all the earthbenders still in the Caldera, what was going on – so they had forewarning in case we all needed to pack up and get out of dodge quickly. Today could still go badly after all.

-o-

Dad was a bit beside himself when I explained everything to him. Then, quick as a flash, he was getting the others to load up supplies and take them to the airships – just in case. Dad and Sokka have been working on the airships together the past few days. Sokka says that Dad keeps bagging out the firenation design– because he can't bring himself to praise anything from the firenation. But he seems secretly fascinated by all the metal working and engineering and has "borrowed" Sokka's library pass rather frequently. I was actually grateful that Dad had been so occupied – because he didn't notice my absence due to my apprenticeship. I haven't quite got around to telling him about that yet. This was the first proper conversation we'd had in ages. It's a shame it was so dramatic.

Dad came with me to tell the Earthbenders. Haru's dad seemed like their unofficial leader (though there was a fair bit of squabbling when Dad asked who was in charge). The earthbenders were a lot less organized than Dad and my tribe. Dad had to help them all pack up and prepare, just in case.

Dad wanted to help out Zuko if he could, so he came back with me to the main house. We walked back together through the gardens and I saw flash of orange and yellow out of the corner of my eye. It was Aang in the stables with Appa. He had snuggled up to Appa and was clutching his neck and smushing his face against Appa's fur. Oh Aang. I told my Dad that I just wanted to go over and check on Aang. Dad asked why Aang was crying with Appa and not helping Zuko. I explained what happened this morning and Zuko asking Aang to leave. Dad nodded and then said that he would come with me to talk to Aang.

We wandered over. Appa made a growly noise in greeting. I patted his face affectionately and he gave me and Dad a lick. I took a quick moment to bend the slobber off us and Dad shot me a grateful look. I then called up at Aang and asked if he was okay. Aang said he was fine – in that emotionless tone he'd taken to using in those horrible days when Appa had gone missing, when we were going along serpent's pass and everything had looked so dire.

I climbed up so that I could sit with him on Appa's back – and after a bit of struggling, Dad joined us. (Dad is unaccustomed to climbing on and off Appa and so he let out a few oofs and aahs.) Aang curled further in on himself and shifted slightly away from us. I reached out and tried to comfort him and he scooted away even more. He seemed cross and upset and I just wanted to make him feel better even though I didn't know how. It's just habit with me. Aang needs so much encouragement all the time. I didn't think that sitting out here and sulking was the best thing for him right now. I didn't want to leave him feeling sad and excluded.

I guessed Aang was upset about the fact that quietly doing away with Ozai was seriously discussed. He's so touchy about the Ozai subject after all. He's as touchy as Zuko about the Ozai subject and that is saying something. So I tried to explain what had happened in the rest of the meeting. I said everything in the kind and soft tone I normally use with Aang when he is upset.

I told him that a quiet accident had been decided against – and that is what Aang would have wanted. I hoped this news would cheer him up. True it was decided against out of political expedience rather than some greater belief in the sanctity of Ozai's life – but the end result was the same. I scooted closer and Aang let me put my arm around his shoulders. After I had finished explaining what had happened, I started trying to cajole Aang inside. Aang said that he was glad that I agreed with him – and if I agreed with him, he could face going inside.

Err…. I did not, at any point, say that I had agreed with him – but Aang had inferred that I did because I had been comforting him. I felt bad for him when he had been excluded from the meeting – but at the same time, I think the fact that he was left out was for the best. I felt a bit awkward and I wasn't sure how to go about explaining this misunderstanding. Aang kept talking and said that he hoped very much that Zuko would stop being an idiot and listen to Aang… now that Aang had been proven right.

I inhaled sharply. Perhaps it is because I naturally feel defensive over Zuko, but I suddenly felt a wave of anger at Aang. I always want everyone to be happy and to get along – but I couldn't handwave that comment for the sake of Aang's feelings. This was a really intense and stressful day for Zuko and if Aang was going to act smug and superior, it would be much better if he stayed here. I wanted to explain to Aang that he had been very wrong with what he did when he ran away and then let Ozai live.

I wanted Aang to understand that he would be better off if he never advised Zuko about how he thought Zuko should feel and act towards his father. I understood Zuko better that Aang did. I knew how that terrible relationship with his father ate away at him. I knew how much he reviled and resented his dad…but still couldn't quite bring himself to hate Ozai completely– despite what he told himself. I knew how the spectre of Ozai haunted him and how desperately he was trying to be a better person and a better man than his father could ever hope to be. I knew how impossible he found all the choices he had to make about his father's care, and how he still tried to have Ozai treated fairly despite everything (that was why he had first been put in a cell with a window after all – Zuko didn't want to be cruel). This situation was a big fat mess as it was. The very last thing that Zuko needed right now was for Aang to start banging on about forgiveness in a self-justifying manner. Zuko had been right this morning – that sort of talk was just empty sanctimony. It was of no use to anybody.

I was going to say all that (a fair rant was building up to be honest) but My Dad spoke first and I couldn't get my rant in edgewise. He asked Aang (very abruptly for My Dad) why Aang believed that Zuko should listen to him. It was a simple enough question, but Aang seemed rather thrown by it. He looked at my dad in confusion and then said well, I am the avatar. Dad took a deep breath and then asked Aang what he thought being the Avatar actually meant. Aang was dumbfounded for a second. So was I. where was my Dad going with this? Dad filled the silence. Do you think being the Avatar means you get to feel important all the time, be listened to all the time – even if what you are saying is irrelevant or ill-informed?

Aang quickly said that wasn't right at all. Being the avatar wasn't just to make him feel important – it meant he had big responsibilities. Dad nodded and listened. He was looking straight at Aang the way he used to look at me when I was six and had been caught doing something naughty – like he saw right through him. Dad asked Aang what he thought those responsiblities were. Aang replied I'm responsible for the whole world!

Dad agreed with Aang and said that Aang was responsible for the whole world. He then asked Aang how responsible Aang thought he was really being, when he decided to let Ozai live. Aang spouted his usual spiel when this subject is bought up. He had done it for the monks, he had done it for balance, he had done it for the world and because it was the right choice to do. He was sounding a bit miffed and defensive again.

Dad frowned at Aang and said that a key part of being responsible meant being able to admit when you were at fault. Aang needed to stop lying to himself and other people. It was clear to my Dad that Aang wasn't thinking about the whole world when he made the choice to let Ozai live. Dad thought that Aang was thinking of himself and his beliefs alone.

Aang said I have a right to my beliefs! He sounded properly angry now. He is always very touchy about even the slightest criticism of the airnomads. Dad said, in his calm, even listen-with-father voice Yes, yes you do – but you are not the first person who has ever had beliefs. That simple comment seemed to take the wind right out of Aang's sails. Dad said that Aang could not expect the entire world to adhere to airnomad principles, but more importantly Aang had to stop believing that his actions are always right and that he was infallible.

Aang said in an insistent voice, that he was meant to be a leader in the world. He had to be right – because the Avatar had so much power. He said this almost like he was pleading with my Dad. Dad said that leaders were not leaders because they were infallible – no one was infallible after all. True leaders listened and learned, and they understood that the price of greatness was responsibility. True leaders knew that their choices affect so many people – so they took those people into account when making the big choices. Aang looked at my Dad intently and then said that he knew that.

Dad asked if he really did. This question was rhetorical – but Aang tried to answer anyway. However Dad cut him off and said your friend Zuko, who is a new and untried leader, now had the very stability of his country threatened because of your choice. If the firenation crumbles, they will take the whole world with them – all because of your choice. Aang looked very taken aback at having my dad saying something like that so bluntly. I don't think that anyone had ever directly correlated the two things (his choice about Ozai and how it affected everybody) so succinctly for Aang.

Aang was stunned into silence, but Dad wasn't finished. Dad said that instead of taking responsibility for this choice, recognizing fault and helping Zuko, Aang had opted to justify his choice again and then have a sulk because people were not agreeing with him.

Aang said, in a small voice, that he had wanted to help and be a good leader, but Zuko wouldn't let him be a leader, and wouldn't listen to him and asked him to leave. Dad asked, in that same calm voice he had been using the whole time, if Aang had been listening to Zuko? Aang didn't answer, but hung his head sadly. Dad said that this was the firenation and Zuko was the firelord – Aang must learn to listen to Zuko when it came to matters of his own country. Dad would expect no less from Aang if Aang were to have some thoughts about the Southern Watertribe. Aang didn't look up, but nodded faintly.

My dad seemed satisfied that he had got his point across. I was a bit impressed with this – because he had done it without ever raising his voice once or scolding Aang too harshly. But he had also neatly pointed out everything I had wanted to say to Aang (in a much calmer and less shrill manner than I would have gone for) in regards to his conduct today. Dad had been blunt, but not unkind and he had pointed out the realities of Aang's duties as Avatar without resorting to scolding. And Aang had been listening the whole time! When I scolded Aang in the past, I would always try get my key points across in the first minute. After that, Aang's attention would wander. I thought I didn't have much to learn from my Dad anymore – but now I realize I still have a long way to go in the art of the calm-and-reasonable scolding.

Unfortunately this scolding seemed a bit wasted on Aang… because he ran away again. Dad had clapped his hands together and said that now that was cleared up – we should all go and see if we could be of any use. Aang agreed and Dad and I climbed down from Appa. As soon as we were both on the ground though, Aang said yip yip and took off. I have told myself that he is running away to think deeply about what my Dad said – and not sulk again. I will believe this until proven otherwise.

Dad was a bit put out by this response to his well-thought-out and eloquent scolding. I told him not to take it personally. It was just something that Aang did. Running away was his thing after all. It was this thing that he did. He would come back in due time. Besides, Dad was right. It would be better for us to go and see if we could be of some use to Zuko and Iroh. And perhaps, when push comes to shove – it would be easier if Aang wasn't here for it.

-o-

We got back to the house. Sokka , Piandao and Jee were frantically pouring over documents spread all over the table. Sokka told me that Zuko had come back from visiting Azula, but had then gone off quickly looking for me. I was a bit thrilled to hear that – even though I know now wasn't the time and place for me to be thrilled about boys looking for me. I was about to go off and look for Zuko, but Sokka said he thought it would be better if I waited here – so we wouldn't risk missing each other. And we could help Sokka out with all this research.

Zuko came back not long afterwards. He had gotten stuck at the earthbender house and been bombarded with questions. He hadn't been rude enough to just leave when he was asked a direct question – and so he'd been there for what felt like an eternity. He was a bit surprised to see my Dad. The usual sir-Hakoda-ing ensued. I think my Dad has kind of gotten used to being called Sir Hakoda now. He always tells Zuko to just call him Hakoda – but if Zuko ever did drop the 'sir' I think Dad would miss it. Dad quickly assured Zuko that he had come to help out. He said that he wanted Zuko to know that the Southern Watertribe was behind him. Zuko smiled in gratitude and thanked my Dad. He then asked if he could talk to me and nodded at the door and I followed.

We stood in the hall. Zuko said he'd been looking for me earlier. He thought I must have gotten caught up in talking at one of the houses. I said I had actually been caught up talking with Aang. Zuko eyes widened and he ran his hands through his hair with worry and then said fuck, I forgot all about Aang. He asked me if Aang was okay. He didn't have time for Aang right now – but he still felt bad about kicking him out. I said reassuringly that Aang would keep. He could wait until the immediate crisis had passed.

I asked him what he wanted to talk to me about. We normally talk all the time – but this was not a day for idle chit-chat. If he was asking to talk to me, it was about something important. Zuko told me that he'd seen Azula and she definitely knew something. Azula said she knew where their dad kept all his files pertaining to the missing two hundred nobles. She said that she knew Ozai had topped a few of them himself – and she could give Zuko solid proof in those files. If Zuko could find those files, this whole succession crisis would go away. He'd be able to prove his dad was a stone-cold-murderer and that would disqualify Ozai permanently from the throne. Azula had pinky-promised that she would tell him where to find them if he brought both myself and Gloomy Hairbuns to see her. I felt a thrill of nervousness at the prospect. But when he asked if I would come, I said yes quickly and without hesitation.

But I was still a bit confused. Why did she want to see me AND Gloomy Hairbuns? Zuko shrugged and said that he honestly had no idea. Azula had been having an..odd day. She seemed really happy and cooperative, which was weird enough in itself. She'd told him that she had taken a liking to me. I find that idea somewhat worrying.

-o-

Gloomy was not as keen on the idea (no surprise there). We crept around the back of her house to avoid her parents. Gloomy's bedroom window was on the second story and Zuko flung a few pebbles at it. The curtain fluttered a bit. Then a few minutes later Gloomy was in the garden. Gloomy gave me an odd look and asked what I was doing here. Zuko just said oh, she's with me quickly, by way of explanation. Gloomy made a skeptical face, looked me up and down – but didn't say anything else to me. Instead she flipped one of those weird pigtail things over her shoulder and said well what is it then? in a posh voice.

Zuko explained the barest bones of the shenanigans this morning and told her that Azula had promised to tell him vital information if Gloomy would visit her. Gloomy snorted and rolled her eyes and said oh if she promised it must mean she's serious very sarcastically. Zuko looked a bit confused and asked if that was a yes or a no. Gloomy crossed her arms and looked at Zuko like he was stupid. She said of course it was a no – and he knew that before he'd even asked her, so he shouldn't look so disappointed.

He did look disappointed. If I had been Gloomy, I would have caved right then and agreed to do anything...well not anything anything...but most things. I couldn't stand to make Zuko look so sad over something so small – especially today of all days. But then again, I guess visiting Azula is not a small thing to Gloomy. Gloomy is very adamant about her refusal to visit her, after all. But still. I am just so used to helping if I can. Seeing someone just refuse to help was very jarring for me. Zuko didn't seem to know what to say to that. There was an awkward moment.

Gloomy spoke in a flat tone that I think might have been twinged with self-justification (it is really hard to tell with Gloomy, because her voice rarely changes – but I had heard a great deal of self justification from Aang this morning and Gloomy's voice sounded like her equivalent of Aang's no, I never). She said that Azula couldn't force her to do anything…not anymore. She didn't have to go. Zuko said that Azula wasn't forcing Mai right now – Zuko was just asking her.

Gloomy sighed, like this whole conversation was boring her and she didn't have time for this. She asked what made Zuko so sure that Azula would help him anyway. Zuko shrugged and said he wasn't sure – but he thought it was worth a shot. Besides Azula was still his sister and things had been better between them these past few days. Mai scoffed and said things have been better between you? a bit incredulously.

She then pinched the bridge of her nose and really randomly changed topics. She said you know Zuko, there's a fish in nature called the twin-fish. All twin-fish are born with a conjoined twin and for their whole juvenile period they fight and snap at each other -until one of them proves dominance and eats the other...She trailed off here as if her random anecdote about the twin-fish spoke for itself. I wasn't sure what she was getting at – but I know she left me with a stunningly disturbing mental image. Zuko also seemed to be in bad mental-image land and didn't seem to know quite what to say to this random change of subject. But Gloomy filled in the confused silence for us. She poked Zuko in the chest and explicated nonchalantly twin-fish would look at your relationship with Azula and say " oooh, that is messed up" Zuko looked a bit pissed off at that. He took a big step back from her and said fine, don't come a bit crossly. Gloomy also huffed now. She breathed out a long suffering sigh and said no, it's fine – I'll go. It's not like I am "doing anything else" after all.

There was another very awkward silence while they both huffed a bit longer. I couldn't take the awkwardness of that silence so I interrupted in my briskly positive tone. I said that now that that was settled - the three of us better head off. It was a busy day, not much time, coup to halt, bad guys to defeat and we needed some proof from Azula that Ozai was a crazy maniac murderer….you know, the usual.

-o-

Azula was in an oddly good mood. It was freaky and weird and wrong. She was sitting at the table and welcomed us all to her room warmly. Ming ushered us in and took up an unobtrusive post by the door. Azula still called me bossy peasant – but that's to be expected. I think she thinks it is my name. She did seem happy to see me. But then she saw Gloomy standing behind me.

She and Gloomy regarded each other for a second and then Azula smiled at Gloomy too. Gloomy did not smile back. Azula said that she was glad that Gloomy had seen fit to visit her. Gloomy crossed her arms and said dispassionately that she wasn't here for Azula – she was only here for Zuko. Something changed in Azula's face – her nose twisted in anger. It was only there for the briefest flash and then it was gone.

Zuko pulled up a chair and sat next to her. He said okay, so Katara and Mai are here now. he asked Azula if she would tell him what she knew now. She smiled at him again. He said that she should stop smiling at him like that because she was freaking him out. Azula said that she had a reason to smile today. She always knew it would only be a matter of time before little Zuzu got himself into hot water and needed her help. Zuko's good eye twitched when she called him Zuzu (because he hates being called Zuzu as much as he hates being called sifu hotman). Instead he just said Azula...you pinky swore, in a slightly admonishing voice.

Azula leaned back in her chair and looked relaxed and said that I did. I actually had two things to tell you today Zuzu. Which do you want first – the good news or the bad news? Zuko looked momentarily confused and said that she had claimed that she knew where their Dad kept all the files and stuff relating to the missing two hundred – he wanted to know whichever one that was. Azula said not so fast – you are always so impatient! She said he had to pick between good news and bad news. Zuko paused and then said bad news. Their dad being a nutso murderer would definitely qualify as bad news. Azula giggled then. She said that she knew he'd pick bad news – he was so predicable. He always picked bad news first.

She muttered I always want the good news first – it softens the blow mostly to herself. She started muttering to herself about good news and bad news. Gloomy took a step behind me (neither of us had sat down) and looked very disconcerted by her muttering. Zuko touched Azula's shoulder gently and that seemed to snap her out of her muttering. He was looking at her with concern and this seemed to make her cross. Zuko prompted her and said that she had two things to tell him – and she'd been about to tell him the one that she thought was bad news. Azula snapped I know that! I'm not a dum dum like you!

Azula said that she had an answer to a question Zuko used to ask her all the time, when he first got back to the firenation. He always wanted to know how Azula knew so much about his movements in those early days. Gloomy shifted a little and came out from behind me. Zuko said that he didn't care about that now and he didn't want to know about that now (a touch impatiently). Azula disagreed – she thought he needed to know.

She leaned her elbows on the table and rested her head on one of her hands while she pointed at Gloomy with the other. She turned to Zuko and said Mai was spying on you for me the whole time! Then she pointed between the two of them and instructed discuss! very gleefully. It was almost like she was hoping for some explosive and entertaining debate about Gloomy's spying ways to erupt right in front of her.

Zuko tried to brush it off at first. He scoffed then said look Azula I don't have time for your lies right now okay. I know Mai wouldn't do that to me. Azula asked how he thought she knew about him going to Iron Cove every bloody night to see Uncle Fatso? Zuko said quickly that she had said that the guard had told her. Azula corrected him. I never said that – you guessed that and I didn't correct you. Azula added, in an almost gentle tone, Iron cove is a two hour round-trip Zuzu. The guards never go far from the prison with their rosters. She added and you know what my schedule was like then... when would I have gotten time to make that sort of excursion to talk to some random guard?There was a pause while Zuko absorbed this. Then his mouth dropped open in hurt, shocked surprise. Azula clapped her hands and said I love this face you make – when the copper finally drops for you!

He looked so hurt and I wanted to go over and comfort him. But he looked beyond comforting. The grumpy explosion that had been in the works -erupted. He stood up abruptly and the chair clattered back. He looked at Gloomy like he felt so incredibly betrayed. I didn't know how Gloomy could stand it. She fidgeted under his gaze and then said and then said, in a effort at keeping her voice neutral, Zuko, it's not what you think. This statement seemed to have the opposite effect to what she had intended, because Zuko took it as a confirmation, not a denial of Azula's allegation. He breathed oh my agni- it's true, isn't it? Gloomy shifted uncomfortably and then said dismissively look it's not a big deal - we'll talk about this later. Zuko snapped that she shouldn't talk to him at all.

At that point Azula erupted in laughter. Zuko turned on her and just looked so angry at her right then. He spat I can't believe I ever thought you actually wanted to help me! He sounded furious...but also disappointed. Then he turned abruptly and stormed past Gloomy and myself. Gloomy and I both tried to clatter out the door after him. I felt Ming take my elbow gently and hold me back -so that Gloomy pushed in front of me. She whispered, in a firm yet kind voice, that this was between Zuko and Gloomy. I should let them sort it out.

Azula was still laughing like a maniac. It bothered me how much glee she took in upsetting Zuko. I put my hands on my hips and said well I hope you are pleased with yourself in a scolding tone. Azula seemed momentarily silenced. We both heard the clatter of several knives slamming into the wall and then Zuko shouted angrily what the fuck! You could have hit me! It sounded like it was coming from the far end of the hall. Gloomy's reply was more muffled (because she wasn't shouting) and I couldn't make it out. A door slammed once, and then twice and then I couldn't hear either of them. Azula smiled to herself and then said oh yes, I'm very pleased.

I didn't understand her at all. We'd had such an interesting chat the other night and I had thought that she really did care about Zuko. I just couldn't believe that she would take such joy in hurting him. I didn't understand why she did things like this. I ended up just flat out asking her why she'd felt the urge to do that. She leaned on her hands and smiled at me, like a cat with the cream, and said well for a start... it is such fun. And I need all the fun I can get in my current state. I made an unhappy face at her and then she said, very defensively, look, I told him for his own good. He had a right to know and she was never going to tell him. Azula huffed that she thought it was better for a couple to know the truth about each other – then she looked sharply at Ming and snapped don't you agree Ming?

Ming simply bowed at her and said it wasn't her place to say. Azula pestered and said that Ming could speak freely. Ming said, in her firm yet sympathetic voice, that she had no opinion on the firelord's relationship, but she thought it would be better if Azula was kinder to her brother, who loved her. Azula stopped smiling right then, in response to Ming's words and looked faintly abashed.

At that point Gloomy Hairbuns had strode back in irately. She appeared at the door – looking tall and elegant and very cross. It was rare for Gloomy to show emotion, but I could tell that she was really friggin pissed off right now. Her voice was simmering with anger– she didn't shout or yell – but you could tell that she wanted to, and maybe if she was a different person she would have. Instead she gave Azula an icy look and said I just wanted you to know that ...shit like this is exactly why your father told you that everyone you care about will get sick of you and leave you in the end... Azula just recoiled at that. From the look on her face, Gloomy may as well have just strode over and slapped her. Gloomy paused and let that sink in and then she said in her icy tone goodbye Azula, you shan't be seeing me again. Then Gloomy turned on her heel and marched away again.

Azula started breathing in short and shallow gasps. Ming moved from the door and rubbed soothing circles on her back. I realized with some alarm that she was actually crying. She'd been laughing her arse off just moments ago and now she was sobbing with equal gusto. My heart wrenched in pity for her, despite myself. I was so cross at her just moments before and now I just felt sorry for her again.

I'm powerless against crying people. I just want to make them feel better.

I couldn't just leave without saying anything, while she was crying like that. Just leaving would be rude and unkind. So I found myself joining Ming in trying to stop her crying. I knelt next to her and rubbed her shoulder and tried to think of the best thing to say. She looked up abruptly in surprise when I touched her.

I told her that she didn't need to cry. I didn't have much else in the way of comforting things to say. I mean I couldn't say it wasn't her fault- because it was. I couldn't say everything would work out alright -because it might not. In absence of those to things I just settled for am encouraging oh don't cry now. Azula nodded and said in a failed attempt at her normal aloof tone, that I was right. Crying was pointless and useless. She wiped her face ferociously.

Then Azula really surprised me. she grabbed my hand, suddenly, and told me to wait a second. She still hadn't told anyone the second thing and the second thing was important. The second thing was good news for Zuko. She asked Ming to get a piece of paper and a pen – then she wrote something down quickly and handed to me. She said give this to Zuko. If he looks here – he'll find what he needs. I took it from her and was a bit flabbergasted. The note said (in small, impossibly neat writing) :

Dragon catacombs vault: 314.

Firepass: ..- .-. ... .-

She huffed don't read it- you nosy peasant! in an admonishing tone. Then she tilted her head at muttered I didn't know you could read curiously. She sounded a bit more like herself when she was belittling me. She then waved dismissively at me and said I was excused because I probably had many things I would rather attend to. If she were me – she would not spend all day with a crazy girl either. I turned to go, but at the door I stopped and bowed at her (I have never done that before) and said really, thank you for this Azula. There was a pause and then she bowed briefly back at me and said don't read too much into it nosy, bossy peasant.

-o-

I raced back to the house looking for Zuko. Sokka told me that he had come back a few minutes ago, in a terrible mood. Oh Zuko. I wanted to go find him and tell him that despite that whole awful confrontation – seeing Azula hadn't been a total loss. I wanted to try make him feel better, because this day was just ridiculously bad for him. But apparently he had left again with Lady Za Jei.

Lady Za Jei was back from arresting/scaring the shit out of people and had taken Zuko aside so that she could give him a full report and throw fireballs at him. What? Is that how the do reports in the firenation. Sokka said he didn't think so – he thought that Zuko just looked like he needed some sort of stress release – and maybe throwing a bunch of fireballs would help. Sokka thought that they were in the rock garden.

I raced over there and saw their sparring session. It was a very intense fight. Zuko had taken his shirt off for it. mmmmmmmhhh. I had a moment to myself where I got a bit distracted by the shirtlessness. The shirtlessness just melts my brain. Gosh, he is still so incredibly sexy without his shirt on. Even with his new scar. The lightning scar had healed into this big starburst pattern in the middle of his chest. This is the first time I had seen it without the bandages – in the sunlight. It's not an attractive scar … but it's still oddly beautiful to me.

Oh I don't know. I just…I mean he was willing to jump in front of lightning for me… and this scar is testament to that…. and I nearly lost him then and that still hurts to think about. I know I just can't imagine my life without him…and well have all this stuff between us….and all I want to do is help him and support him and make him laugh…but despite all that, he still bagged off with Gloomy Friggin Hairbuns even though she is such a bitch to him. I just don't get it.

Anyway I took a long moment, observing the fight and appreciating the view and thinking all these thoughts. I wasn't as prompt as I could have been with message delivery. But I think that Zuko needed to spar and to let off some of that energy. This fight was probably doing him some good and there seemed to be a real rhythm to firebending duels and I didn't want to interrupt and throw it off. Also Za Jei was filling him in on her activities this morning and all that was important too. So I waited for them to finish up.

Za Jei and Zuko were blasting and dodging and firing at eachother while she gave her report. She had managed to catch seven of the nine members – and she was sure her guards would be able to seize the remaining two very quickly. The rest were all locked up in separate parts of the dungeons. She said that said that she had been right about Bumface. He had turned on the others very quickly and given her everything she needed for a solid conviction for all of them.

Za Jei was very impressed with Toph and sang her praises a fair bit. She appreciated having Toph in the interview room with her. She said that when you had Toph in an interview room – you didn't play good cop/bad cop. Za Jei described what had happened with Uncle Iroh, herself and Toph as good cop/bad cop and tiny, mighty cop who will fuck up your face if you keep lying.

I heard a snigger at that coming from a little behind me. It was Aang. He was back. I waved him over and we had a small whispered conversation. Aang seemed a bit contrite. He said that he was sorry for running away earlier – but he had just wanted to really think about what my Dad said. Now he had thought about things – he wanted to talk to Zuko. I discouraged him from interrupting the firebending practice and told him it might be better to wait until Zuko and Za Jei had finished. Aang nodded.

I tried to discourage him from listening in – because Zuko and Za Jei were dropping the f-bomb a lot. (The actual f- bomb – not forgiveness which is another f-word I have very strong feelings about). But Za Jei started bitching about Aang and there is not a single person on this earth who can resist eavesdropping when they hear their name in conversation. Not even Aang can resist that sort of temptation.

Za Jei said to Zuko you stopped me from reprimanding the Avatar this morning in a disappointed and accusatory tone. Then she fired and enormous blast at Zuko which he blocked easily. Zuko apologized and said that he hadn't meant to offend her. It hadn't been about her. It was just that Aang was just a kid – and Za Jei could be pretty fucking intense. Then he fired a return blast.

Za Jei huffed that "just a kid" was not an fucking excuse. She did a swirl blast and said when you were his age you could take all my criticism… and then some. Zuko said that Aang wasn't used to Za Jei's particular brand of criticism and Aang didn't react well to disagreement or being challenged. Za Jei snorted at that and said an Avatar who doesn't like disagreement? in an incredulous tone.

Za Jei said that dealing with disagreement would be Aang's job as Avatar. He had to get used to criticism and being challenged. Aang couldn't just expect everyone to bow down and agree with him because he's the Avatar. She then said very pointedly to Zuko You shouldn't stop people from challenging him. You're not doing him any fucking favours! She fired a massive blast, which Zuko dodged before returning fire. Zuko said that was her opinion. In Zuko's opinion, Aang just wasn't ready for his Avatar duties. Aang was a very young twelve-year-old. He still believed in unicorns - for fuck's sake. Aang wasn't ready to deal with all this harsh reality. Zuko thought that children should be protected from having to deal with the sort of terrible atrocities that Ozai committed as long as humanly possible.

Za Jei was unmoved. She sounded displeased when she parried back so that's your plan - instead of telling the Avatar about what a fucking hypocrite he is and how much he fucked up and how much harder he has made everything for you– you are going to coddle him like he is a fucking child. Zuko fired back that Aang was a fucking child!

Za Jei caught his blast easily and then dropped her fighting stance. She said firmly that Aang wasn't just a fucking kid – he was the most powerful being in the world. Za Jei thought that Aang was living proof that the spirits had a tremendous sense of irony – to give such power to such a milksop. Then it was like she wasn't just talking to Zuko. It felt like she was talking to me. She said, in a stern admonishing tone, you coddling him is ridiculous at this point! How is he ever going to grow up if he is always treated like a child?

I glanced at Aang to gauge his reaction to this rather frank assessment. This was the second time today that Aang's shortcomings as an Avatar had been bluntly illustrated for him, though Za Jei hadn't softened the blow at all – like my Dad had done. And in many ways, Zuko's defense of Aang and how he frequently said that Aang was just a kid made things worse because it kind of reinforced my dad's point about Aang's lack of responsibility and immaturity. Aang looked at me all hurt, upset and confused. Then he turned around and started running away.

For a flash, all my instincts told me to run after him. Run after him and comfort him and make it better. If it had been any other day – perhaps I would have. But I had an important message for Zuko and he was my priority today…and I couldn't help but think that perhaps Za Jei had a point.

Perhaps it was time that I tried to stop coddling Aang too. I had kept so much from him out of the belief that it was the kinder thing to do. But perhaps it wasn't the right choice in the end. I had rarely ever disagreed with him openly, even when I thought he was wrong – all because I didn't want to "upset" him. But what good had all my constant mothering done for him? Really? I kept treating him like he was a little kid and so he kept acting like he was a little kid. I could see an unfortunate correlation there.

The sparring session was over now. Zuko and Za Jei walking back towards me. They were talking conversationally. Za Jei was talking, in a much softer tone to the one she had been using during the spar. She said I never coddled you. I taught you to never run from or ignore you problems and your many deficiencies – but to work hard to overcome them...and look at you now. There was an odd twinge of pride when she said that.

Zuko was looking down at his feet so I couldn't see his face. He asked her if she ever thought that he might have found it easier to overcome those deficiencies with a little encouragement. There were so many layers to that question. But Za Jei ignored them all and just snorted Encouragement is for pussies! Well that is certainly one way of looking at the world. Zuko made a disappointed face and she said, once again in that same proud voice I taught you to be strong. If there's one thing people in this country respond to – it's a show of strength. Remember that.

-o-

Zuko seemed happy to see me. At first he thought that I wanted to talk to him about Mai and Azula and what had happened back at the convalescent home when he had stormed off. Truth be told, I was dying to know what had happened there. Had he broke up with Gloomy Hairbuns? But then he started nervous blathering about how he didn't want to talk about it at all and he was okay and he just wanted to focus on getting through the day. The subject seemed effectively closed. I wasn't going to pester him about it today. Tomorrow though, I will subtly ask and hint.

Instead I handed him Azula's message and told him that she had asked me to give it to him and she had said that if he looked there – he would find what he needed. Zuko took it and said a little hopelessly what am I going to do with her? It was a rhetorical question, but I shrugged in response anyway. He unfolded the piece of paper and quickly read it and then muttering fucking hell under his breath. He sat down quickly on one of the rocks and looked a bit dismayed. I sat next to him and asked if he was okay – with some worry. Zuko said no, I'm not okay! I just…I hate this day! Now I have to go to the fucking dragon catacombs.

I leaned over quickly and wrapped my arms around him and held him tight. He'd been working so hard at keeping it together in front of everybody else all day. But we were alone in the rock garden now. Everyone needs to have someone they can just let loose around. Zuko is my person for that. I like to think that I am his person too. I am definitely more his person that Gloomy Friggin Hairbuns. I could tell that this whole day was just getting to him. For some reason, whatever a dragon catacomb vault with a firepass was – it was clearly a bit too much for him right now.

He obviously just needed a hug – but he'd never bring himself to ask for a hug, no matter how much he needs one. So I held him as close as I could. He hugged me back tightly and smushed his face into the crook of my neck. I rubbed my hands in big, soothing circles all over his back – which I then very abruptly realized was still bare – because he hadn't put his shirt back on. Oh la la. His skin was all hot from training and I could feel all the different muscles in his back. And then I started to think about how sexy I found his back. I mean I find all of him sexy – but there is just something about running my hands up and down his back. I was actually running my right hand up and down his back while I thought this. But righty slipped a little to low and I ended up accidentally touching arse.

It was an accident!

The mood of the hug changed. Before I had been Katara – his person who was nice, comforting and huggable. Now I was Katara – the person who just wanted to grab some arse. Katara- the arse grabber instead of Katara – the nice hugger. Zuko pulled away a bit awkwardly and I said my hand slipped quickly. He looked down sheepishly and then said oh I'm sorry – I'm all sweaty. And then he started putting his shirt back on. Boo.

And then, just to make this moment even more awkward I said the most ridiculous thing possible…cripes I cannot believe I actually said this… why oh why did I say this? I said it's okay. I like you moist. You cannot unsay something like " I like you moist". Once you put that out there – it is out there.

Zuko popped his head out of his shirt and looked at me with a slightly baffled expression. As if even he – king of the awkward utterance - couldn't believe that I had actually said that. He didn't appear to know what to say in response. He blushed and I blushed and then he said err, okay…. Um… thaaaanks? I guess confused gratitude is the best reaction to a confession of moist-fondness that I could hope for. Look it's not even like I like him moist in a weird way. I like him dry as well. It is just that he was moist at this particular moment.

Moist is a terrible word. I am never saying the word moist again.

I searched around desperately for another topic and thankfully there was still a bit of a crisis going on. I pointed out that we still had Azula's note and dragon catacombs to deal with and we should do that. Zuko stood awkwardly, as if he was galvanished into action. He said yeah, you're right. We should head to the dragon catacombs and investigate and shit. I agreed quickly, even though I was unsure at this point what a dragon catacomb was. I have a sneaking suspicion it will be unpleasant and dank and dark – but if investigating them gets me out of this situation - I am okay with that!

Onwards! to the dragon catacombs we go!

-o-

0o0o0o0o0o0

The rambles!

Lovely wonderful readers! Thanks for all your wonderful comments and reviews and as always, thank you so much for reading this chapter. This whole succession thing is a little contentious – and so naturally YMMV over everything! But even if YMMV – I hope you enjoyed reading all the same. So the title comes from a famous Oscar Wilde quote. He said "The truth is rarely pure and never simple". I dig that. Anyway this chapter deals a bit with the contentious issue of truth – but most importantly the truths that people tell themselves vs the reality. We have a few characters who have been lying to themselves become enlightened.

So the first part of this chapter deals with Ozai and the succession dramas. This is my take and it is based largely on my understanding of English feudal succession and absolute monarchies. The law about grave dishonours is a reference to feudal laws like habeas corpus and magna carta in british history. Absolute monarchs have a lot of power - but when they start actively hurting the wealthy and powerful - the wealthy and powerful always strike back in some way. the law about grave dishonours only applies to the murder of noble caldrrians for that reason. it is also the reason why Ozai dissappeared people in a secretive manner - rather than just challenging everyone to an Agni Kai.

I don't think that Ozai proclaiming himself Phoenix King would count as an abdication merely because he never, at any point, says "I abdicate my position of power over you all!" Ozai's not the type to give up power freely. Abdications are a pretty big deal. There is normally a ceremony and some official documents to sign before it is legitimate. So I don't know if Ozai's phoenix king shenanigans would count as a proper abdication. It's still a mad thing to do – but insanity also does not disqualify a ruler – look at the history of royal families in europe and how many mad buggers there were parading about in crowns. In fact I would say that being a little potty almost seems like a prerequisite for ruling the firenation. Most of the firelords we see in the show are not the full quid in my humble opinion. They are all a bit too acquainted with the fine line between genius and madness.* I would also join Sokka in quiet demurrings about inbreeding*

Ozai letting Azula be coronated doesn't count for that much – because I said in an earlier rambly note - that whole thing with Azula being crowned would have been especially problematic and unusual. Also I think Ozai would have tried to reduce the firelord to a ceremonial role- in the hope that he could retain power over the firenation even while he was pheonix king-ing it up. He offered Azula firelordship to get her out of the way – not because he believed in her capabilities to lead.

I also think that the firesages were bullied and strong armed into all that and were a bit unhappy about all the screwing around with the succession order and normal protocol. So as soon as they are presented with Zuko as a viable alternative – they leap at the chance and give him their full endorsement. They have knowingly crowned Zuko, while Ozai exists in this weird gray area – his claim is legitimate, but he is no longer the sitting firelord. This situation is still a big old mess and it has never happened before so no one is quite sure what to do.

So the movement of the nine nobles is not a people's rebellion by any means. It is an attempted coup arranged by a few members of a powerful minority. Aside from some nobles with very vested interests – I think that most people in the firenation would be willing to let Zuko have a crack at the top job, for no other reason that the fact that he is NOT his father and therefore cannot possibly be as bad.

However the main source of dissatisfaction with Zuko's rule will come from the nobility – because they do stand to lose prestige and fortune under Zuko. The war would have made most of them even richer – and peace will bring about a big economic hit. Nobody wants that. So despite the fact that the nobles would feel a little safer under Zuko (because he is not the type to go around disappearing people) they would also be a little poorer. As a result many nobles will be sitting on the fence and unwilling to commit to either a coup – or to Zuko's leadership. The ones who would have joined with the Nine would be the ones who are pretty sure that they are going to get charged with war crimes eventually. Those people were probably always going to go down with Ozai's crazy boat – and so they want him back in power to save their own skins.

However it is questionable how much better off they would be under Ozai – given his tendency to 'disappear' his dissenters. This is something that everyone was pissed off about and it will bite Ozai in the arse. It will also dictate how Zuko can react to the problem of Ozai.

So I said before that a big source of Zuko's popularity is that he is the anti-Ozai. He is popular because he is as different from his father as possible. The fact that Zuko does not seem like the type to stoop to Ozai's brutal tactics is something that those fence-sitting nobles like about him. He can't afford to completely lose their good opinion now, so early in his reign. So tactics like organising an accident – or bringing his Dad up on trumped up charges are both ruled out. (Any charges of war crimes would be trumped up at this stage because the war crimes system has not yet been developed – and Zuko wants it to be as efficient and legitimate as possible).

Zuko needs to be seen as good and honourable - both by the people in the firenation and by the world, if he wants to change things for the better and be a force of good. But good has to play fair. Playing by the rules limits the options. The best way to interpret those rules becomes the issue for Zuko and his advisers when they are deciding what to do. This sort of battle is new to the Gaang – but it is the sort of fight they have to get used to. It is a diplomatic fight. It is fight with words, laws and precedents not elements or weapons.

Zuko is in a bit of an impossible position with regards to his father. Even though I frequently say that Ozai should have died in that final battle – the manner of his death is important.

If he had been killed by Aang then – he would have been killed by the Avatar, the embodiment of justice and balance in the world. He also would have been killed in battle, by a child who was acting in self-defence. Most people would feel that this is a fair result and Ozai got what was coming to him. This would have been the best result for every single person!

However, because of Aang's choice - now Zuko has final say over Ozai. If Zuko has his father killed , even if he is executed after a fair trial- it is patricide- anyway you slice it. No matter how terrible Ozai was to Zuko – nobody likes patricide and people would feel uncomfortable having someone capable of patricide in charge. I think even if Zuko wanted to have his father done away with - it would result in a PR nightmare. But even the slightest kindness shown to Ozai – such as giving him a cell with a window, so he does not suffer from sunlight deprivation (something which I imagine would be quite terrible for firebender) is something that Ozai twists to his advantage. You can't treat Ozai fairly and have him respond in kind.

But, at the end of the day, Ozai is still Zuko's father and Zuko is a bit stuck with him. Their relationship is just a big old mess. It is too dysfunctional to be repaired – but that doesn't mean that Zuko should be the instrument of his own father's demise. However this is the untenable position he is put in – because something has to be done about Ozai. Aang doesn't quite appreciate how complex this situation he's created actually is.

Aang has a real wake up call this chapter. He is called out for a lot of things. His black and white view of the world and morality is put to the test and found wanting. Realistically Aang's world view would have to start to evolve to encompass shades of moral grey if he is to be any good as an avatar. He has to look beyond his dogma and see other points of view. Aang is consistently proved right in the show and I think it is a necessary for his growth that he experience what it is like to be well and truly wrong.

At the beginning of the chapter he is still clinging to his black and white world view and his belief that his choices, especially with regard to Ozai – are always right. (Aang was so sure in Sozin's comet and ignored or lashed out at everyone who said otherwise.) However Zuko kicking him out of the meeting in response to his sanctimony is proof that he does not actually have to listen to Aang, just because Aang is the Avatar. Aang is used to his opinion holding certain sway, just because he is the Avatar – and he would be very surprised at this. This action also clearly demonstrates how quickly Aang could make himself irrelevant if he cannot adapt. These issues post war issues are not going to be easy and have a clear cut right and wrong answer – if Aang maintains a black and white world view – he will be of little use.

Also, not many world leaders will like having a twelve year old tell them what to do – especially if that twelve year old is unwilling to even look at things from another person's point of view. Zuko would feel bad about kicking Aang out (because of his complicated history relating to inclusion and exclusion from important meetings) but Aang's behaviour would reinforce that he is still very childlike. Zuko thinks that Aang is not mature enough to deal with these sort of problems and it is more expedient to remove Aang from the situation rather than try and explain the situation to Aang.

Hakoda scolds Aang's lack of responsibility and points out how selfish Aang's choice actually was. But he does this in a calm and non-confrontational manner – which Aang responds to a little better. He is not the first person to say this to Aang. In many ways his approach is similar to what Avatar Yang Chen said when she said that Aang had to put the world before his individual needs. However Katara does not know about Aang's tete-a-tete with his past lives.

Za Jei, however, is blunt and direct when she calls out Aang's hypocrisy in the meeting.

I didn't touch much on the seige of of the north, but Za Jei was most definitely about to bring it up before Zuko cuts her off. She is also points out Aang's childishness when she confronts Zuko about it later. She points out that the way the Gaang coddle Aang is actually holding him back and is getting a bit ridiculous. For better or worse, Aang has huge responsibilities – and coddling him is not doing anything to help prepare him for those responsibilities.

I am not saying that all these responsibilities should be piled on top of Aang at once, but he definitely needs to start embracing the less glamorous side of being the avatar and face some consequences for his past mistakes. Getting to the point where he can admit that he was wrong about Ozai and honestly believe it will be a big and important step for him.

Aang is also in a difficult position because in many ways he is still a child – but the role of the Avatar is so demanding. He desperately wants to be a good avatar and to be listened to and treated like a grown-up. But conversely he runs from his duty frequently, does not listen to others and acts childish. He is working towards figuring out how to be a good Avatar – but he honestly doesn't have much idea how to go about it.

The role of the Avatar involves political negotiation and mediation and it seems like Aang politicises the role even further (his face is on the money in Korra). Ultimately – Aang learning to listen and take responsibility and consider other points of view (even if they vary vastly from his own) are the most vital skills he needs to be a better Avatar. These things are just as important as any of the bendings.

Katara, who probably coddles Aang the most, realises in this chapter that her coddling is not entirely healthy for anyone, especially Aang. Katara constantly feels the need to mother and protect people and no one moreso that Aang. In many ways this attitude has shaped how Zuko and the Gaang also treat Aang – with the possible exception of Toph who has always been more no-nonsense. Katara herself needs to be able to step back from the mother role and her not going after him and prioritising Zuko is actually good for both Katara and Aang. Katara needs to be able to step back and Aang needs to start standing on his own two feet.

It is definitely good for Zuko, who is having a horrible, no good, bad day. Katara is his person for emotional supportthe person he doesn't have to pretend in front of. Zuko has taken Hakoda's words to heart about how the first part of leadership is acting like you know what you are doing. He is very much trying to pretend that he has it all together for everyone else. He really did need a hug from Katara – but he is much less expressive about asking for affection for himself. He was raised with certain behaviour expectations and needing/asking for hugs was not one of the things that would have been encouraged.

He also knows that his office comes with certain standards of conducts – such as acting with dignity and not throwing childish tantrums. Zuko can't just fly off the handle over every little thing now that he is firelord. He is making concerted efforts to control his temper in this chapter. But he still needs some stress release big time – so he spars with Katara last chapter and with Za Jei in this chapter.

Za Jei was a very hard task master when she was training Zuko and Azula. She would have been relieved from her post by Ozai when Zuko was banished (but then she went on to become a hardass cop). I think that she is exceptionally old school and is the embodiment of many of those stiff-upper-lip firenation philosophies. She is a good person – but she is not a nice person. She is a realist and has to deal with harsh reality all the time. Zuko respects her a great deal. Zuko would have wanted her approval very much as a child and it would be a surreal experience for him to spar with her as an equal now.

They disagree over the right way to treat Aang – but in many ways Zuko's argument with Za Jei helps him deal with some unresolved resentment he bore towards her for her gruelling training techniques (which would not have been the best thing for lil Zuko's self esteem). That is why he is so adamant that Aang should be treated gently because he is just a kid – because Zuko did not get treated gently by her when he was just a kid. However he also gets to see her side of things and begins to understand that Za Jei did not treat him harshly to be unkind. She treated him harshly because she thought it was the best way to teach him – and she wanted the best for him. Being an unrelenting task master was how she showed care. (she is quite similar to Toph in this respect). He also gets to see that even though they disagree – Za Jei is on his side and is proud of him.

For Zuko , knowing who exactly is on his side is going to be a big issue. Zuko already has massive trust issues and this was something that Azula played upon in this chapter. She tells him about Mai's spying in a way that will cause maximum entertainment for her and maximum embarrassment for Zuko.

I think she does this because messing with Zuko really is just habit with her and she is still clinging to the few old habits available to her. Also Azula does like feeling power over Zuko and is very controlling and possessive over him. She does not want him to have a girlfriend right now (because she thinks that love is finite and there is only so much to go around) – and so she takes aim at the Maiko ship. This is partly to take out some of her anger on Zuko – if she is miserable, she wants him to be miserable as well. But there is the tiniest bit of sisterly concern there. She knows his girlfriend is lying to him.

She also does it to punish Mai for rejecting her, disobeying her and choosing Zuko over her. But in retaliation Mai knows exactly how to hit Azula where it hurts. Mai's final parting comments to Azula are a reference to my oneshot called 'princess of mine.' Mai wont forgive Azula for this or come and see her again.

So Azula getting Mai to spy on Zuko is just a theory that makes so much sense to me – but YMMV. Azula is very controlling over all her friends and this is just the sort of thing I can see her doing. She is very encouraging of the good ship Maiko in the beginning, which seemed a bit uncharacteristic to me when I first watched the show – but then the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Azula knows that Zuko is really unhappy in the firenation and she wants to keep him around (even if only to be her fall guy when shit hits the fan). She also knows that he has a tendency to get up to mischief and sneak around so she also needs to keep tabs on him. Having Mai as a girlfriend/spy was an easy solution. Mai distracts him with her womanly wiles, prevents a fair bit of mischievous shenanigans and reports back to her if shenanigans ensue anyway. I bet you that Zuko told Mai a lot in those early days when he was just desperate for someone to talk to.

Azula just knows so much about Zuko's "secret" movements and activities – and I do not believe some random guard told her. That prison is a fair way away from the castle – and I don't see Azula going there for shiggles. There are hundreds of guards who work there – how would she know which one to interview. I don't think that guard would have come forward himself, given the fact that he had news that could potentially make Azula unhappy. Azula had a tendency to crush/humiliate/intimidate people who told her news which made her unhappy.

When Azula interrupts the sunset-hating picnic and tells Zuko she knows he is visiting their Uncle, there is a pause before Zuko guesses that a guard told her. I reckon that the first possibility which crossed his mind was Mai – but he couldn't bring himself to say it out loud. And Azula never confirms or denies that the guard told her – she just smiles.

Mai would make a good spy because she doesn't give anything away and she is also keenly observant. I can see Azula entrusting her with this because Mai is in her inner circle. She is clever, efficient and already has a crush on Zuko. According to how they meet in the comics – Azula actually forces them to go on their first date together. (gigglesnort – isn't that romantic?). So she is pushing them together pretty much from the get go.

I can see Mai going along with this – she doesn't swim against Azula's currents all that much. Also she does want to go out with Zuko/spend more time with him and this seems like the easiest way – because Azula kicking up a fuss would be a non-issue. (and I reckon Azula would make life extremely difficult for any girlfriend of Zuko's that she did not approve of). And I do think that Mai would be more ideologically aligned with Azula to begin with (She believes the firenation is in the right during the war). She would very much resent Azula's manipulation and control – but being able to spend more time with Zuko was something that Mai wanted anyway. So spying ensues.

Mai cares about Zuko and also wants him to stay in the firenation and not get into trouble/banished again. When he told her he was visiting Uncle Iroh – she would have been really worried. Mai understands politics – she understands just how that would look to everyone. Zuko visiting his convicted traitor Uncle would not have gone over well with anyone and he was always on thin ice. She would have told Azula at the first available moment – because she would have wanted Azula to 'fix it' so that he didn't visit Iroh again. She would have justified this to herself by saying that it is not really spying if it is for his own good and that sort of thing. She would have passed any of Zuko's more troubling activities onto Azula, because they made her worry about him.

But she would have fiercely denied spying when Zuko first asks her about it (he would have asked her after the picnic – because Mai is the most logical solution.) Mai knows that Zuko overreacts and has trust issues – so she wouldn't have wanted him to ever find out. She could easily bamboozle him with her denials (I imagine she would have quickly turned the argument around on Zuko.) If you want that picnic scene again, from the point where Azula interrupts – this theory makes a lot more sense and goes a long way to explaining the glances between Azula and Mai.

Mai's spying is not to make her out to be a horrible person – but it is merely to illustrate how deep the trust issues in Maiko go. Zuko does not trust Mai at all and I think there was a subconscious reason behind that. Deep down he knew he shouldn't trust her. He slowly pulls away from her and stops sharing with her, over the course of their relationship. And it finally culminates with him not telling Mai anything before he leaves – I think this is such a glaring red flag of distrust right there. Zuko leaving Mai the way he does indicates that all trust and communication has broken down. Mai and Zuko don't communicate well with each other. Part of the reason why Mai is so snappy with him at the start is because they never resolved their fight the previous night.

But the scene is more about Azula and Zuko and their weird relationship. Mai's analogy of the twin fish is her way of pointing out that Zuko and Azula have a bad pattern of lashing out at each other. It's a hard thing for them to break out of. They would have had a nice moment in the morning – when Zuko told her that he was starting to looking into the disappeared nobles – and that would have played the mummy-chord in both of them. Their love and longing for their vanished mother is something that they will always have in common.

Azula would have readily agreed to tell him where their dad kept his top secret files. Zuko would have been buoyed by that and the thought that maybe his relationship with his sister was improving...only to then get the metaphorical equivalent of Azula poking him in the eye with a sharp stick. He feels really disappointed in her and in himself for believing in her.

However she does regret it pretty quickly and gives Katara her information to pass on to Zuko as a sort of non-apology. Zuko understands the underlying apologetic gesture in this and it throws him for a loop. He wasn't expecting a gesture of contrition from his sister... much less one that could actually help him. It also proves that he wasn't entirely wrong in his instinct to ask Azula. Azula is helping Zuko because she knows deep down that she is better off with him in charge – and also because she has her own reasons for wanting to keep Ozai from the throne again. These might not come up here – but I will try to work them into a one-shot.

For those of you wondering – a firepass would be like a password, but with firebending morse-code. When Zuko breaks into Sozin's vault to read his papers – he puts his hand on that seal and it glows. I just think that the firenation would have a more complex system of locks than just one simple fireblast for secret information. So a pattern of short blasts and long blasts would have been employed, like morsecode, in my imagination. Ozai's password spells "Ursa" in morsecode. Make of that what you will.

Next chapter the Gaang will poke around the dragon catacombs – Sokka will embrace his detective-mode. Aang will confess something. Zuko will give a speech. And shenanigans will ensue.

Til then lovely readers...