Chapter 1: For the Love of Tea
Zuko knew he could trace events exactly to where everything went wrong. It all started when he tried to avoid responsibility, when he thought he couldn't take the pressure and decided to use someone else as a crutch. In other words, it all went pear-shaped when he lacked confidence in himself.
But, well – just between you, me, and the fire-post, you understand – that's not really true.
Zuko actually had lots of self confidence. Oodles of it, even. It's actually what made several similarly self-confident girls (Toph and Mai, for example) like him so much. He was a boy who had the guts to brave a whole world while under disgrace, never giving up until accomplishing what neither of the two previous generations could accomplish: locating and capturing a twelve-year-old boy raised by flying monks. He even did it, too, twice: once at the North Pole, though Zuko lost him again, and halfway at Ba Sing Sae when he assisted Azula in bringing Aang down in his Avatar state. And one-and-a-half generally can be rounded up to two. Don't be so stingy, really.
But anyway, confidence was not what brought Zuko to this mess. It actually might have been his genes.
You see, Zuko had type A blood. He got this unfortunate trait, surprisingly, from his mother. She had A negative, while Zuko had A positive. He got the positive from his father, who had B positive, which of course caused lots of medical complications, making him "lucky to be born" as the Fire Lord reminisced. Regardless, as everyone knows, those with type A blood are generally cast as perfectionists, or at least rather driven individuals. Actually, I don't know if this is true or not, but in Zuko's case, he never could leave well enough alone. If something was going wrong, it was up to him to make it right; if something was going right – wait, that's not possible, it's actually wrong, and it's up to him to make it right. There are lots of examples in his past that attest to this; I don't think I need to point them out here. Just keep that in mind, when considering how this fiasco came to be.
It all started on a deceptively calm day, with the hot, dry weather befitting a Fire Nation summer, just a few days after the passing of Sozin's Comet. The Aang Gaang was present, along with Suki, Mai, and Uncle Iroh. It was the end of a long day of setting things right in the Fire Nation – one of a string of several – and Zuko thought he could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It felt good at the time – but with hindsight and perfect vision and all that; one thing for sure, he knew now that he wouldn't be feeling that way again for a while.
"You've done a good job, Zuko, in determining who to trust among the administration. I'm happy that you didn't become fearful and just banish everyone like Azula, but could recognize true loyalty to country when you find it," Uncle Iroh praised him.
The resident professional complainer, Sokka, couldn't help but add, "Pity, that there weren't any in your Fire Council, Fire Lord Zuko." He paused scratched his head, and added as afterthought while inspecting his nails, "Sir."
"That's okay, you don't have to call me that," Zuko replied, trying to hold on to his humility during his sudden rise to power. Of course, if he could have seen into his very near future, he would have been grasping any vestiges of authority and respect from the Water Tribe warrior that he could get, but naturally he didn't know that. "I'm grateful that there are some still among the staff that I can rely on, even if they're not on the Council, and that there is at least one I can trust implicitly within the Fire Nation nobility." The last was directed with a warm smile at his patient, wise uncle, who was noticeably touched. "I'm looking forward to learning about my role with you at my side," he added.
This last bit is where Zuko later determined he had blown it. But I have to disagree.
"You are learning just fine as you go, Zuko. You are careful and have gained much patience, and have found several knowledgeable and conscientious teachers here in the Palace. And I have my tea shop in Ba Sing Sae to get back to," Iroh reminded him gently.
"But please Uncle – I'm not ready. I need you here, just for a little while. And I place all my faith in you, since I know you won't lead me wrong. See?" With his heartfelt plea, Zuko held out his insignia ring - the seal of the Fire Lord.
Well, that probably is a good example of not leaving well enough alone, or at least not taking a hint. But I don't think that gesture sealed the catastrophe. Not yet.
Former General Iroh, Dragon of the West, considered the seal with hooded eyes. "Just how long, Zuko do you mean by 'a little while'?" he asked finally.
Left hanging, Zuko spluttered, "Uh, I, uh, don't know. Maybe four or five years?"
See – that's what I'm talking about. Really, the kid is so honest. He could have left it at "I don't know." But instead he went and told his uncle that he'd probably have to wait for his tea shop for five years. I mean, of course Iroh would understand his unwillingness to assume the throne with insufficient guidance. I'm not sure what Zuko expected, but there are two things he should have learned over the course of his travels.
The first is not to assume the Avatar is down for the count, even if he lives 112 years or is electrocuted beyond human limits. Unless, of course, you actually find a new Avatar. Then it's a safe bet, but you still shouldn't assume the old one is done interfering with your or your world's destiny.
The second is not to underestimate the power of pi sho, the White Lotus or any of his uncle's other interests, including tea. In fact, later on Zuko would extend this lesson and wonder if perhaps neglecting the state (and smell) of his shoes was also secretly some important aspect of wisdom and good leadership, since it was a clear divide between his uncle and his maniac sister and father. After listening to the emphatic disagreement of his friends, advisors and those unfortunate enough to clean his rooms with shoe closets during that time period, he eventually discounted this theory.
With all that in mind, perhaps the results of Zuko's admission will be a little easier to understand.
"Very well, Zuko. I'll assist you for a little while, but I expect it to be rather less than four or five years," Iroh said mildly, accepting the ring.
"Thank you, Uncle," Zuko replied gratefully. If they both discovered he was ready in three and a half years, that was fine with him too.
"Then let us get started. Scribe, please record what I dictate," Iroh instructed the Fire Nation official.
Oh, there was a Fire Nation official in the room as well. I didn't mention him before because I didn't think you would be interested then.
"First, in order to strengthen the ties between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe which have become so strained lately, with the authority of this seal, I decree that a union shall be hereby declared between Fire Lord Zuko and Katara, last of the South Pole benders." Iroh intoned.
"Wait, what?" answered pretty much everyone else in the room. Yes, even the scribe. But he asked as he was writing it down, since that was his primary job there.
"But I already have Mai!" Zuko stated. It wasn't a vehement response; he was more shocked and unsure if he heard right than anything else. Yet.
"Yeah, and Katara has me!" Aang was pretty sure he had heard right, so his reply was a little more heated.
"But have either of you made any sort of binding promise?" Iroh asked sharply.
"No…" Both boys looked away shyly, blushing. Wimps.
"Then that's alright, then. Next!" Iroh turned businesslike towards the scribe, ready for the next proclamation.
"Objection!" Sokka interrupted, finger pointing. "I don't really care that much about what you do to Zuko, but you can't just marry off Katara! She's not even part of the Fire Nation! And she's my sister!" Naturally, the last point made little difference to his argument (except in his own opinion, where it mattered a lot), but at least he had the presence of mind to make one.
"Oh?" Iroh raised an eyebrow scornfully. Without breaking eye contact, he swept up a thick tome from the bench behind him. "It's clearly recorded in the section regarding the treatment of foreign personages visiting the Fire Nation; such persons place all their rights in the hands of the Fire Lord."
"That seems rather harsh," Suki observed.
"Oh, that's much nicer way to put it than I was thinking," Katara nearly snarled.
"Yes, well, we haven't had any foreign visitors other than war prisoners since this version was compiled, and there has been no time yet to modify them," Iroh explained.
"You seem to know it rather well," Mai noted evenly. She may have been beginning to wonder if perhaps Iroh had been hoping for such an opportunity to break up the Fire Lord and kunai wielder, and was not happy with such a prospect. At all.
"Well, there wasn't much other light reading available in the prisons," Iroh answered with a wry smile, hoping (fortunately correctly) that May would wait to extract revenge – ehem – remedy the situation until more was revealed. "Anyway, now that Aang is available, I also want to heal the rift between the Fire Nation and Air Nomads."
"Are you saying, you're putting me and the Avatar together?" Kunai tips glinted dangerously from under Mai's sleeve.
Iroh managed to control a nervous gulp from escaping. "Actually, I declare a union between the Avatar Aang and Azula, sister to the Fire Lord."
No one else in the room could suppress a small scream.
Elsewhere, I'm not sure where, Azula may have screamed too, but no one really knows.
"Speaking of Azula, where is she right now?" May asked coolly, now that she was free of any unwanted entanglement.
"I'm not actually sure. I probably should look into that," Zuko apologized rather dazedly. Poor boy.
Sighing contentedly, Iroh rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. "Now, to round things up, to ally ourselves with the Earth Nation…" he looked around the room.
"Ha! There's no one else for you to manipulate, old man!" Sokka crowed.
"On the contrary, with Katara joined with the Fire Lord, that would make you brothers. So I declare a union between Sokka, South Pole Water Tribe warrior and future brother-in-law to Fire Lord Zuko, and Toph Bei-Fong of the Earth Kingdom."
"WHAT?" shouted Sokka and Suki. But not Toph. She remained strangely quiet. That should have concerned the others, but they really were rather overwhelmed at the moment, so I suppose they can be forgiven.
"You've pretty much married off everyone in the room except me, May, and you!" shouted Suki.
"And me!" added the scribe. But no one listened to him.
"Well, I am a little worried about the Dai Li, so if you don't mind Lon Fang…" Iroh began.
"No, I think I'm fine, thank you, forget I said anything," Suki amended quickly.
"I think it's time this game was over, Iroh. What are you really doing here?" Aang demanded quietly.
Iroh sighed. "You're right, Aang." He turned to Zuko. "I just wanted to show you that you shouldn't doubt yourself. (And not to come between me and my tea shop dream, he may have added internally, but I can't prove it.) You know better than to rush into things and interfere when you shouldn't, and that you should never depend on others to make your decisions for you. Do not hand over your authority to anyone! It is your responsibility." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and quietly commanded, "Strike all that took place from the official record."
"Actually, sir, I can't do that," the scribe responded.
"What do you mean?" Iroh asked sharply.
"You see, sir, decrees issued with the authority of the Fire Lord's seal can only be negated by a two-thirds majority rule of the Fire Council, not even by the Fire Lord himself," he explained.
"Then let's just gather them together and get them to vote this down!" Zuko yelled, already moving toward the doors.
Iroh pinched the bridge of his nose, hissing through his teeth. "You just dismissed them all this afternoon, Zuko."
"Then you can just appoint new ones, right? Just make us your Fire Council for five minutes, and then dismiss us and appoint real ones," Aang suggested.
"Actually, the process for installing new Fire Council members requires at least three months, and agreement between several other officials besides the Fire Lord. It's a much longer process than dismissing them," the scribe elaborated.
"And I don't suppose you could just change the rules as Fire Lord, right?" Katara asked, voice hollow. From hopelessness or suppressed rage was anybody's guess.
"No, that requires the Fire Council. I guess the laws weren't really written for a situation where you dismiss the whole Council in one go," the scribe opined cheerfully.
"Three months?" Sokka whispered.
"Why didn't you know this?" hissed Mai.
"I guess I didn't get that far in the book before I broke out?" tried Iroh.
"I want to abide by the rules," Zuko muttered, trying to muddle his way out of the mess. "It's only three months, right?"
"So you're okay with this situation for three months?" demanded Mai.
"What? No! I don't want to be with her!" Zuko shouted back, jabbing a finger towards his new fiancé.
Said fiancé promptly twisted the finger backwards. "What do you mean, you don't want to be with me?"
"Well, I don't! I love Mai!"
"You were supposed to say that, not imply that you can't stand her," Mai remonstrated, leaving the "stupid" at the end unsaid. After all, she was addressing the Fire Lord, and that scribe was listening. Maybe if she somehow eliminated him, all their problems would be solved…
"Argh, why can't I get anything right in my life?" Zuko moaned.
Well, maybe not.
"Guys, maybe if we all work together and make the best of it, we can hold out for nine months," Aang reasoned.
"That sure is brave, coming from you. I really respect you for that," Sokka offered, clapping a hand on the young Airbender's shoulder.
Said Airbender delivered a slap to his own forehead. "Oh no! I forgot about Azula and me! I was only thinking of Katara when I said that!"
"Everyone, I will try my best to fix this as soon as possible," Iroh promised.
"I sure hope so," Katara and Suki answered, stalking out. The boys right behind them were too busy biting their nails in concern. Toph and Mai just watched Iroh and the scribe walk off to do damage control before exiting themselves. While Toph silently strode after the others, Mai sat down on a railing overlooking the palace grounds.
"Pretty much everyone else is paired off. What am I going to do with myself now?" she wondered listlessly.
The Duke was trundling after a hoop on the grounds below. Hearing her voice, he looked up at the morose girl.
"Well, if you're lonely, I'm always available," he informed her.
"Oh brother," Mai muttered tonelessly, letting her head fall on her knees.
Chapter 2: Anger Management, Water/Fire Style
Walking through the Fire Palace gardens the next day, Katara heard plaintive strains of music floating through the surrounding windows. Most of the other occupants of the water garden were content to let the notes wash over them, transporting them to a place far away, even if solitary and slightly melancholy, just like the sounds of the horn playing. But Katara judged that would be because they weren't forced into a commitment beyond their control. And she was wrong. In fact, six of the seven others would have been more than happy to abandon their positions within the Fire Nation political state and take up cabbage selling (despite the drop in cabbage prospects ever since the Avatar reappeared – funny coincidence, that). The seventh was The Duke, who would probably have laughed in all their faces if they told him about their issues. However, like the others, he was content to sit back and let the day just pass him by as long as possible. Most people confronted with a choice between relaxation and exertion are like that. I am, anyway.
However, this particular Waterbender wasn't.
Finally pinpointing the source of the sounds, Katara threw open the ornate double doors of the enclosed gazebo by the little lake. She narrowed her eyes at the sight that confronted her, and loudly proclaimed, "Aha! I've found you, Zuko!"
Fire Lord Zuko let the interrupted piece fade into silence as he looked up at her listlessly. "What do you need, Katara?"
She faced him, hands on hips. "I wanted to know the latest news on finding new Fire Council members, and see if there's anything I can do to speed things up."
Zuko sighed, resting his forehead against his folded hands. "Unfortunately, there's not really anything you can do. Uncle's been trying hard too, and we interviewed twelve people already today, but all I've been able to find so far is maybe May's uncle, who wants to retire from the prison system. And I'm only considering him because May brought him. Honestly, he scares the daylights out of me."
"Well, if that's all you found so far, maybe you should still be out there instead of cooped up in here playing that… thing," Katara ended uncertainly.
Zuko opened one eye and considered the instrument in his lap dispiritedly. "I always practice my soonghi horn when I need some time alone. It helps me organize my thoughts." He closed his eyes again and buried his face in the crook of his elbow, making his voice muffled. "May knew to leave me alone when I played my soonghi horn."
Katara drew herself up, enraged. "Well, excuse me! I'd leave you alone much longer if that message didn't get in yesterday appointing me official Water Tribe ambassador to the Fire Nation. I can't help it if I'm completely useless here until this whole mess is straightened out except to remind you how much more you like your old girlfriend!"
Finally pushed passed his limits, Zuko shouted back, "Well, this situation's not my fault either! I'm not the one who made the stupid engagements! And I can't help it if you're not as sensitive as May either!" As a final act of defiance, Zuko turned away from Katara and raised the soonghi horn back up into position.
Katara huffed in sheer rage. "Well then, don't let me interrupt your practice any longer, Fire Lord Zuko." With a small flick of her wrist, she slipped out the door.
Zuko would have yelled a parting shot if he hadn't found his lips frozen to the soonghi horn mouthpiece by his own breath's moisture. It actually changed what he would have said if his face were free, as it reminded him that May's first response to his solitary horn-playing actually was remarkably similar. It was a little comforting, but also gave him a very unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach. He began to realize this probably wasn't the last time he would experience that sensation.
Elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom, earlier that day, a platoon of green-enshrouded warriors trudged along a sandy embankment. As they jogged along, one slowed down: the last in line, one who moved more like a dancer or circus performer than a martial artist and whose green robes hung on her just a little more awkwardly, like she was still unused to how she should compensate for their added weight and restriction.
Ty Lee had slowed because she had seen something glinting in the dune to her right: a small winking glint, shining and dimming like the ebb and flow of a well-executed series of jabs, rather than the steely sheen of flying kunai or steady stream of bright blue fire. It seemed comforting somehow, so she decided to investigate without alerting her new sister warriors of Kiyoshi.
What she found was a sword in the sand, all but buried except for the eensiest teensiest bit of the tip which had caught the light. As she lifted it, she could feel its balance and heft, and had just enough experience to know that they did not match its appearance and size.
Now, Ty Lee wasn't stupid. She may take orders like a loyal guard dog, prattle on about pink auras, and have a penchant for walking on her hands, but she wasn't an idiot. In fact, if I met anyone with those characteristics myself, I wouldn't underestimate their abilities (except that bit about pink auras. I still have no idea what Ty Lee was on about with that). As a matter of fact, Ty Lee had heard Sokka moaning about losing his "space sword," and knew the airship battle had taken place rather near this patrol area, and she could add two and two together quite nicely. So she grabbed the sword and raced to rejoin the warriors, planning to tell them about her find at the next stop.
However, that occurred much sooner than she expected. Just as she caught up with them, the leader of the platoon signaled a halt with her upheld closed fist, extending it suddenly to allow a harnessed hawk to land smoothly on her gauntlet. She rubbed the bird soothingly, extracting a scroll from the cylinder on its back. "The Bei Fong must have sent you on ahead with the latest news from Suki. You know, I think I've heard of you. Hawkie?"
The hawk shrilled once in recognition.
"Wow, that Sokka sure has boundless creativity," one warrior snickered.
"I think it's a cute name!" Ty Lee defended her crush indignantly.
The previous speaker just patted her back soothingly.
"Listen up, girls. This is big news. There was some sort of fiasco on the political scene, and now there are three new sets of couples to promote alliances: Fire Lord Zuko and Katara, Avatar Aang and Princess Azula, and Sokka and Toph. You can see how this affects our chief. Fortunately, they're only temporary, but Suki sounds concerned anyway."
"I still don't really get the last one," another girl said.
Ty Lee agreed silently. However, with this latest development, she got the feeling that maybe she should keep her little discovery to herself. As she hitched the sword under her armor backplate, hoping it would go unnoticed, she heard the leader speak up again.
"We've got a call for at least one of us to head up to the Fire Nation, in order to keep an eye on things there while the Chief travels back here. Are there any volunteers?"
Before she knew it, Ty Lee had her foot raised high in the air as she stood on the tips of her fingers in the sand. "Oooh! Pick me!"
The leader considered her thoughtfully. "Well, you are familiar with Fire Nation customs, and you have picked up all the Kiyoshi Warrior stances very quickly. I think it would work, since you're so enthusiastic about it." She smiled at the handstanding girl. "Very well, warrior. You may set off whenever you're fit to travel."
"Oh, I'm ready now!" With the last echoing cry, Ty Lee raced impulsively to the south.
"Doesn't she need any supplies or anything?" asked another warrior concernedly.
"She'll be fine," their leader answered dismissively, scanning the letter again. "Though maybe I should have told her that Suki's coming here with Toph and Sokka, who's the Water Tribe's new Earth Kingdom ambassador. Oh well." She rolled up the scroll and replaced it into its container. "Time to move out, girls!"
Chapter 3: Anger Management, Earth/Sword Style
Fortunately for Zuko, the next big vexation did not arrive until the day after Katara's confrontation. Also, it came in a smaller and less high-strung package, namely, the friendly international Avatar.
Aang actually didn't know about the fight between the newly betrothed royal couple, but related concerns made him hesitate to bother the Fire Lord. Not for Zuko's sake, mind you. It was more for Aang's own skin, and the danger his maniac fiancé posed to it. Aang had decided before Iroh's series of disastrous pronouncements that the best course of action would be to take Azula's bending away just as he had done to her father, but he was not looking forward to it in the least. As afraid as he had been of Fire Lord Ozai, he still maintained a healthy apprehension of the girl who had managed to kill him, nearly permanently. Anyway, though he knew the best way to neutralize the princess bloodlessly, he wasn't eager to request permission from her brother to perform the action. Aang figured it would be a fight for his identity on a level with his defeat of her father.
Fortunately for everyone involved (except maybe Azula, depending on your point of view), Aang was completely wrong.
Still, it was a good thing he came prepared. Zuko immediately agreed to his proposition and located where his sister was kept (a strange oversight on his part, he admitted. Somehow his coronation, catching up with his uncle and new friends, and checking on his imprisoned father had seemed more pressing matters. Now that he reviewed his actions, he shuddered to think what might have occurred if she hadn't been held securely through his soldiers' initiative. It really seemed like ridiculously poor planning somewhere). They found her glowering behind a sturdy cell door, looking much as she did on the day of her defeat by Katara, hands and feet securely cuffed to prevent her bending with them. Naturally, her mouth couldn't be cuffed, and every breath she took was laced with blue hellfire as she glared at her visitors.
"Wow. That doesn't look like much fun. But weren't you afraid of getting burned when you fed her?" Aang asked, turning to the warden who accompanied them with a small detail of guards.
"Well, yes, especially since she wasn't constrained like this until we found out you were visiting. But we figured out if gave her food and water with this –" here the warden picked up a ladle with three meter long handle, with a ninety degree bend in the middle – "she couldn't spit fire at us through the door."
"That's pretty smart," Aang complimented.
"If you were to just let me out of here, I wouldn't burn you either, and there would be no need to be so clever," Azula finally spoke, each word punctuated by blue flames.
"I think you know why we can't do that," Zuko said quietly, his face drawn at seeing his little sister in such a state.
In a strange role reversal, Aang's face hardened when Zuko's softened. "It's time, Fire Lord Zuko, warden. Please set what I asked for here by the door and move your men away from the cell."
They swiftly complied, dropping off two large jars by the door before inserting the key. "Good luck, sir," encouraged one jar bearer before hastening to rejoin his detail.
"Oh, so you're going to take me on now that I'm finally just a poor girl trapped in chains? Bring it on, then!" Azula snarled at the opening door, a jet of pure fire bursting from her mouth.
However, the Avatar was not standing behind the door. He slipped through just under the lintel on a bed of air, inches above the stream of fire, and used one free hand to propel a blast of water from one of the jars towards Azula. She wasted no time in surprise under the cover of the ensuing fog, but immediately sucked in more oxygen to restart her fire. Her intaken breath was heavy enough to be heard over the circling wind quickly dissipating under Aang.
Before she could rekindle her flame, the hand Aang had used to stir up the wind snatched up a large glob of dirt and rock from the second jar and plastered it over Azula's mouth. She stared at him, her outraged cries muffled by the mud mask, breathing heavily through her nose. Fortunately for Aang, while she was a fire-bending prodigy, she was not yet a Dragon of the West, and no fire came out of her nostrils. With her hands and feet securely bound and a heavy concentration of water in her mouth covered by a protective layer of earth, she watched wide-eyed as the Avatar approached her.
After placing a finger over her head and heart, Aang's head snapped back and emitted a piercing blue glow from his eyes and mouth, soon matched by deeper orange beams from Azula's. They were still surrounded by a mass of fog, as the second-long confrontation had not allowed any time for it to dissipate. Nevertheless, the brightness from the proceedings reflected enough from the solid metal cell to temporarily blind the watchers in the hall. By the time they had regained their vision a scant three seconds later, it was all over.
Though Aang couldn't begin to imagine how Azula felt as she silently slumped in her bonds, her bending gone forever, he didn't think she was as surprised as he was. He had felt a near-indomitable will fight within him as he withdrew the bending of Fire Lord Ozai, and while he would be the first to admit that he didn't particularly know either of the two insane despots that well, he had expected the same if not a stronger will from the princess. And while it had indeed possessed great vehemence and power when he first threw his own against it, the fight didn't last. Almost immediately, he forced her will to submit to his. He just couldn't figure it out. "Maybe I'm getting better with experience," Aang reasoned aloud, as the glow faded from his Airbender tattoos.
"I certainly hope we won't have to find out," Zuko observed, stepping carefully toward the open cell, trailed by a retinue of guards.
"Now that you've made me completely harmless, you shouldn't have any trouble disposing of me. What are you waiting for, Zuko?" Azula snapped, her voice filled with the futile indignation of a straggler surrounded by wolves.
"Actually, we're just here to talk. And maybe let you out too, depending on how you take the news," Aang explained.
"News? What news? Do you mean that my bending is gone? I knew that without you telling me. I rather think you do too, since you're no longer cowering behind the door," Azula sneered at the guards.
"No, I figured you'd already heard about what happened to father, and that you'd know what was happening to you right away. What Aang is talking about is something else." Zuko paused, waiting for Aang to speak. When he didn't, the Fire Lord turned to the Avatar, and was surprised to see the boy waiting for him to continue with the exact same expression on his face. "Come on, Aang, go ahead and tell her," he urged, exasperatedly.
Aang's face fell. "Oh. I was hoping you'd tell her and I wouldn't have to," he said resignedly.
"Just hurry up and spit it out!" Azula snapped.
"Okay." With a deep breath, Aang knelt in front of the Fire princess. "It is with deepest regret I must inform you that I am your fiancé, Princess Azula. Well, for three months, anyway."
Said princess just stared at him. "Is this your idea of a joke?" she asked finally.
Aang scratched his head and laughed nervously. "Er, ha ha, I wish it was. But I was hoping that maybe, since we're supposed to be engaged and all, there'd be some way to get you out soon on good behavior so that you can pick up where you left off. Uh, I mean, where you left off before you tried to kill me and become Fire Lord."
"But why are you engaged to me? Leaving me aside, I thought you were infatuated with that little waterbender peasant."
"How did you know that?" Aang asked suspiciously.
Azula sniffed. "It was obvious."
Aang threw his hands up in exasperation. "Then why didn't Katara see it sooner?"
"Don't ask me about the stupidity of others," Azula reprimanded him sternly. "Anyway, is this some scheme of yours, Zuko? Are you binding me to this incurable pacifist hoping that he'll rub off on me? It won't work, you know. I'm pretty stubborn."
"He just took your bending away by willpower," Zuko reminded her.
"No, it wasn't Zuko's idea. It was a mistake, actually, but it's official for three months at least. There's got to be parties and other fun stuff in the meantime. I thought you might feel better out there rather than in here," Aang trailed off, glancing around the dingy dungeon.
"Hmm, well, I do enjoy parties," Azula answered dryly. "Very well. I accept. I promise good behavior for the duration of my engagement."
A familiar face popped up behind a guard. "Just because you promise doesn't mean that they trust you, Azula. You're going to be watched, you know." The white paint and ceremonial robes and fan of Kiyoshi couldn't disguise the round face, wide eyes, and acrobatic stance of the girl before her.
"I didn't expect to see you here, Ty Lee. Not from this position, anyway." Azula shifted a leg, clinking the chains attached to it. "Doesn't that uniform make your aura greener?"
"Don't worry, it's still perfectly pink," Ty Lee assured her with a smile, secretly securing something hidden in the back of her robe.
"Now that's all settled, how about we head outside?" Zuko suggested, wishing to be away from there.
He observed his sister's face carefully as she ascended the stairs, flanked by the guard detail and trailed by her former schoolfellow. He observed very carefully, but he didn't catch even a flicker of deviousness in her demeanor. It was like it had all been sucked out of her along with her bending.
But Azula had not been lying when she claimed she was a good liar. Behind her poker face there could have been thirty schemes brewing, or none at all, and Zuko could never tell. If he could, he would've definitely had second thoughts about letting her out of the prisons' darkness. But he still probably would have let her go. He's such a softie, that big brother.
Chapter 4: Anger Management, Air/Fire Style
Elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom, a certain mismatched couple were having problems of their own.
"I still think it was perfectly natural to ask your parents if we were having flying pigs for dinner," Sokka groused, stretching in the privacy of his new apartments on the aforementioned estate.
His privacy was curtailed as the heiress of the estate followed him in. "Yeah, you would. I can tell you're going to be quite a hit around here, new ambassador."
The water tribe warrior frowned. "But it's right there on your flag! It's basically synonymous with the Bei Fong! I mean, you see it every day!"
Toph's face mirrored his own. "No, I don't."
Sokka slapped his forehead at the sudden reminder. "Right, blind, I knew that. But everything else I said was true."
The barefoot noble blew at her overgrown bangs in exasperation. "I can't believe you believe that flying pigs exist. Or that we'd keep and eat them. I mean, all you water tribe warriors have ponytails, right? Did I ever ask if you eat horses?"
Sokka turned on her indignantly. "This, young lady, is a wolf tail, a symbol of a warrior's mastery of our tribe's skills. And before you ask, we don't eat wolves!"
"I wasn't going to. I can figure things out on my own without asking questions all the time. Though one thing I can't figure out is why you're tapping on all the walls of your room."
Sokka paused in the aforementioned activity. "I'm trying to find the best place in the wall to hang my sword. I've never gotten to hang up my sword on a wall before and I always wanted to try it. I think it would rip open a hole in the tent if I hung it up at home."
"Yeah, that makes sense. Anyway, you should stand aside for the expert. Where exactly do you want your sword?"
Sokka tapped a space near the side of his designated bed. "Right here's fine."
"Okay. Let's see how tough this baby is." Cracking her knuckles, Toph drew back a clenched fist and let it fly. It hit the wall with a soft wumph – and continued through a half meter on the other side.
"I guess not all that strong, then," the earthbender diagnosed calmly.
Sokka was not so laidback about the new paneless window in his living quarters. He flailed around ineffectually, grasping his head in desperation. "Argh, what am I going to tell your parents? They already think I'm an idiot for asking about flying pigs. How are they going to take a hole in the wall for no good reason? My first official night as an ambassador to the Earth Nation is a total disaster!"
"Relax, spaz. Earthbender, remember? Metalbender, too," Toph added, as she closed up the hole and modified a nearby mounted candleholder to serve additionally as a sword mount.
Sokka cocked his head at his new functional décor. "Now that I think about it, you've been the most relaxed out of all of us after this whole engagement fiasco."
Toph turned her head away slightly. Though she couldn't ever see herself blushing, she could tell when she was by that supremely uncomfortable prickly feeling she got all over her face. She had noticed that in recent months, she felt that sensation almost solely when thinking about the goofy, clueless, but brave and kind-hearted warrior in the room with her. She knew she hadn't done the best job of hiding it on a few previous occasions, like when she teased him about not caring about his absence during his sword training. From his words, he must be finally realizing her feelings.
"I guess it's because you're not in love with anybody!" Sokka declared, fully confident in his deduction.
Toph grit her teeth. Apparently, she was wrong.
"Well, I guess you won't let this small predicament put a hole in our friendship! Get it? Because you just fixed that hole you put through the wall?" Sokka elaborated, nudging her as she remained unresponsive after the punchline.
"Oh, I get it. It's hilarious. As a matter of fact, why don't I fix that big hole in your face you call a mouth?"
"Wait, what did I say?"
Fortunately for the obtuse boy's personal features, Toph's vengeful right hook was stayed by a servant's arrival at the guest house entrance.
"I have a message for – um, is everything alright?" the servant questioned, raising an eyebrow at the violent tableaux.
"Perfectly, absolutely! Ambassador communications already?" Sokka reached for the letter eagerly, extremely grateful for the interruption.
"Er, no, it's actually for Miss Toph," the servant answered, holding out the letter to the named girl.
"Thanks for bringing it here. You can hand it to Sokka anyway though," Toph answered politely but dismissively.
Sokka glanced at her, hesitant. "Are you sure? Don't you want to look at it first?"
Toph just glared at him.
"Oh, right," both he and the servant sighed with realization. Sokka finally broke the seal as the servant slipped off, glad to escape the awkward encounter.
"It says Katara invites you to a girl's night at the Fire Palace in one month. It's for you three girls with the forced engagements, so Azula's going to be there too, I guess. She must be out of the prison, then?" Sokka surmised, glancing at the letter's contents.
"In a month, huh? I hope there's not more of that girly stuff like mud or seaweed masks and steam saunas. I could take it for a couple of hours, but if I have to spend a whole night…" Toph trailed off, dubious.
"Actually, I bet she's planning something. She's probably thinking that all you guys together can come up with a way to get out of these forced engagements faster," Sokka surmised, stroking his chin wisely.
Toph nodded. "That makes sense, actually, knowing Katara. I'm impressed you figured it out so quickly though."
Sokka smirked. "Actually, I pride myself on my intuition with the ladies. I don't mean to blow my own manatee-walrus horn, but I knew Yue was in love with me before she even knew it herself! Having been in two relationships already, just remember, you can come to me when you find your own special someone, right, Toph?" He reached out an elbow to nudge her, but instead only nudged new Toph-shaped hole in the wall.
He peered out of it into the night, shivering in the chilly breeze. "Toph? You know the guest house door was in the opposite wall, right? You're going to close up this hole too, right? Ugh, it's cold out tonight…"
Elsewhere in the Fire Nation palace, Azula had the invitation delivered to her too – by Ty Lee.
"Well, this is interesting. You'll probably be there too, as my personal guard, so you better know as well," Azula commented, inviting the girl over to read the missive.
"Actually, about that whole deal," Ty Lee hedged, shuffling her feet shyly. She held her breath for a few seconds, then let it all out with the entire story of her predicament. She made sure to include all the important information, such as her possession of Sokka's space-sword, her rampant crush on him, her disappointment a week ago that they had passed each other by like ships in the night (well, not quite literally, as she had sped on an airship to the Fire Nation while he had meandered by boat and land to the Earth Kingdom, but you know what she meant), and the various hues this stress colored her aura. She eventually concluded by begging for Azula's advice.
"So the way I understand it, the best way to, erm, keep your aura pink is either to make Sokka choose you and Aang choose me when this all blows over naturally, or to make the declared union between that Water Tribe peasant boy and the Bei Fong girl change to you and him, but otherwise, leave all the unions in effect," Azula mused.
"That… sounds right, except about Aang choosing you. I don't actually care either way about that. But how can I get everything else to happen?" Ty Lee asked, eyes imploring.
"Yes, well, that is the question. Either let this run its course, prevent the Fire Council from ever forming, or somehow persuade them not to veto the unions. Those seem to be the only ways," Azula decided.
"Oooh! I'm really good at persuading!" Ty Lee volunteered, hopping up and down on one toe and raising her hand.
Azula glanced at her scornfully. "By 'persuade' I really meant 'force or blackmail'. Honestly, this is ridiculous. Why didn't Uncle just use the signet to banish himself from the Fire Nation or something? He wanted to leave anyway, and it would have made an interesting conundrum for the politicians."
Ty Lee shrugged. "How should I know?"
"Yes, how should you know," Azula deadpanned. "Regardless, I think I can see a way to accomplish this. The only difficulty is how to make it benefit me as well. It will be troublesome and maybe a little too direct for my taste, but I think I can manage it." She stood, dusting herself off. "Ty Lee, I have a few errands for you to run."