Aftershocks, Chapter One
Fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
Characters: Sokka, Zuko, Iroh
Rating: PG? If broken legs freak you out
Summary: Although the war has ended, lingering anger threatens the fledgling peace. Predictably, Sokka and Zuko manage to land themselves in a heap of trouble while searching for Ursa.
Sokka was, frankly, thrilled. The adrenaline, worry and anger that had built up for months lay dwindling in his chest, calming, but even two weeks after the war ended they sent up wild flurries whenever he remembered the sensation of falling off of a leviathan airship, and the explosions ripping apart the air. The great plumes of fire that rose up, a scorching wave of rippling heat, the ghastly inferno on the ground and above as he and his little band drove great heaving blows into the unsuspecting fleet. Then, briefly, the sickening sound of something in his leg going horribly wrong. But the rest of it, in retrospect, was really cool.
He was remorseful for the loss of his beloved boomerang and meteorite sword, and determined to make ones even better than their predecessors. It'd give him something to do while he waited for his busted leg to heal. There were some definite advantages to a heroic injury, however: Suki was awfully tender, Toph threatened him less than usual, and he received admiring looks from warriors and giggling girls alike.
At that moment, Sokka was taking advantage of one of many perks. He was reclining in a fine robe, dozing in the sun, with Momo curled near his head and a cup of icy juice within easy reach. A piece of parchment lay discarded on the floor, the result of a painting attempt that even he had to admit had come up short of anything resembling the lemur that lay sleeping beside him. His crutch leaned against the reclined chair, but he wasn't inclined to go anywhere soon. While laying still, the sensation in his leg was reduced to a dull throb that he could ignore if he really put to use a meditative exercise Aang taught him. But Sokka wasn't a guy cut out for meditation. Even at that moment, utterly relaxed, a thousand thoughts and images pinwheeled through his head. And so his leg ached.
Apart from Momo, Sokka was alone. Suki was making up for some lost training time with her crew. His father was directing the Water Tribe warriors' preparations for returning home to the Southern Pole. Toph was probably chatting with the Earthbenders. Aang was off somewhere, probably with Katara—Sokka was still wrapping his mind around that—and Zuko was busy already with lordly duties, which mostly involved soothing inflamed tempers.
Sokka didn't envy him. Zuko had an immense workload before him, several hard long years of repairing the damages a century of war had wrought. There were lords to flatter, rich merchants to placate, and camps to make for countless displaced refugees. The wound was so fresh, still so sharp, that it would be a long time before an Earth Kingdom merchant would dare to cross deep into the Fire Nation, or a Fire Nation citizen to walk unattended through the streets of Ba Sing Se, a place still bristling with indignation over its fall to Azula and its would-have-been victim to Ozai's bright fury.
Considering the poor guy's position, Sokka had only teased him about his Fire Lord's apparel a little. Only a little, but enough to remind Zuko that Sokka wasn't about to treat him any differently now that he wore a crown. Zuko had blushed and rustled uncomfortably in the rich garment, and Toph laughed and took up the game. He left it to her to keep the newly minted Lord on his toes while Sokka was out of commission.
He imagined he could see the Water Tribe warriors busy at loading their ships with provisions for the sail home. A pang of regret made his leg ache more forcefully. His return home would have to be delayed until his leg had healed sufficiently for him to travel. Yet again, he would be separated from his father and his tribe. They couldn't wait for him; now that the Southern Tribe was in no more danger of raids, it was time to rebuild what had been destroyed and restore their home to its former size and strength. He and his father had already said their goodbyes to each other. Hakoda had sensed his son's disappointment and given him a reassuring hand on the shoulder.
“This time it's temporary,” he said, smiling.
“We've said that the last few times,” Sokka pointed out.
Hakoda laughed and hugged him, Sokka leaning forward awkwardly, taking pressure off his leg. His father had stepped back with an indescribable look: it was mingled sadness and joy, but mostly a beaming pride. “Stay off your leg,” he advised. “Get a lot of sleep. Don't sail until you're ready. Be careful.” Under his guise as chief lay the father that he was, first and foremost. Sokka had to smile, and then Hakoda left for Chameleon Bay after parting with Katara.
His sister was not heading to the Pole quite yet, either. Sokka suspected that she had the wandering heart now, a travel bug that would not allow her to settle back home quickly. She'd grown used to the summers and the leaves and flowers, things denied children in the frozen wastes back home. For his own part, Sokka missed glacier hopping and spending long hours just fishing on a meandering boat in the middle of an icy nowhere. His place was with their father, back home. He hadn't yet broached the topic with Suki and dreaded the eventual decision that would have to be made.
He was getting dangerously close to brooding when General Iroh stepped in serenely, bearing a tray laden with tea cups. “How are you feeling?” Iroh asked kindly, setting the tray down and handing him a cup. The tea was a spicy brand, the only type Sokka had yet cared for. He wasn't much more for tea than he was for meditation.
“Thanks,” Sokka inclined his head. “Um, good, I guess. Well—they feed me a lot, anyway. That's good.”
Iroh chuckled at that and patted his stomach, which was not so pronounced as Sokka had remembered from many months before. “A full stomach makes for a happy heart,” he intoned, “and makes other pains bearable.”
“That's smarter than anything your nephew ever said to me,” said Sokka. “All he ever said about food was some junk about silver sandwiches, and he really wasn't talking about eating.”
“Did he really?” Iroh looked pleased. “I admit I had not expected him to remember that proverb. It's good to know he listened to my words. Even if he could not properly repeat them.”
“You should hear his tea jokes.”
If anything, this pleased him more. “Tea jokes?” he asked. “My, how my nephew has changed! Not only did he find his destiny, he has discovered a sense of humor.”
It was a recycled, fledgling sense of humor, Sokka wordlessly reflected, and a poor one at that, but it was definitely an improvement on the old grouchy prince. He was pretty sure. “Well, I've still got time to work on him a little. Then it'll be left up to you.”
Iroh laughed a little and settled back on a chair. A moment later he began to hum, a deep resonance that filled the air pleasantly. Sokka closed his eyes, and tried to think of a perfect material to work with for making a new sword. He sighed, a little wistfully. As Piandao had said, it had become an extension of his arm, an elongation of his mind and strength, and not so easy to let go of. Where was he going to get a substance as impossibly cool as meteorite?
The sword and the boomerang had a certain sentimental value, his efforts and accomplishments manifested in satisfyingly pointy sharpness. He remembered when, what seemed like ages ago, he once was forced to leave his boomerang behind or risk getting roasted by the Rough Rhinos. It had been difficult even then, without the added loss of his fabulous sword. He felt irritated, sullen that his identity could be stripped away so easily, when nothing could take away Aang's power or Katara's waterbending.
As if sensing his unease, Iroh stopped humming to gently chide him. “You should relax, young man. I should think that a warm afternoon nap would relieve a busy mind, but it only seems to trouble yours. Enjoy this while you can; breaks from struggle are short-lived.”
Sokka yawned and stretched. “I guess I'm still just getting used to the idea of—well, you know. Peace.” He looked outside, at the sun and people moseying around, and heard faint rings of laughter. “Maybe I'll go look around a bit.”
“Do you need a companion?” Iroh asked amiably. “I admit, I should like to stretch my legs a little.”
“Sure.” Sokka suspected that Iroh meant to keep an eye on him, but he liked the old general. Kind of reminded him of an Aang that was older, just a little wiser, and not as suseptible to caffeine highs. He let Iroh give him a steadying arm while he groped for his crutch.
The streets were crowded and noisy, descending into the middle rings where the average civilian lived and worked. Some children raced by, fearlessly playing an earthbending game with rocks, with mothers chiding halfheartedly behind them. Vendors were hawking out wares and a gaggle of kids were clustered around some lizard one of their cohorts had discovered under a merchant's stall. Several stared openmouthed at Momo, who was riding atop Sokka's head as he hobbled along. More than a few were staring at him, their eyes wide in recognition.
Excellent aromas drifted to him from potshops and homey holes in the wall. They were a mixture of noodles, rice, steaming vegetables, and—meat, glorious meat. He'd just eaten but the smells reawoke his stomach and it rumbled discontentedly. A moment later he looked suspiciously at a chuckling Iroh, fairly sure he'd heard the old general's belly growl too.
“Who are we to deny ourselves?” Iroh quipped. “Ah, this place is a marvel.” He steered Sokka gently to an indiscriminate shop that advertised a famous meat and bread soup, with sauced noodles. The store owner brightened as they walked in.
“One of my favorite customers!” he said with a wide smile, evidently recognizing Iroh only as an old regular and not as the infamous general. “I'd given up hope that you'd come back! Guo, get them a table!”
Sokka recognized a salesman's sincerity and grinned. Iroh smiled, a tad guiltily. “It would seem I gave this shop custom a little too frequently,” he confided. “But we all like to feel welcomed, do we not?”
A waiter rushed forward to guide them to a table in the midst of talkative eaters, next to some potted ferns, and set down chopsticks and a tea kettle. Sokka picked at the ceramic until some cups were placed in front of them, and Iroh poured them both some tea. “The tea here is good enough, although a little mint would improve this admirably,” he said, tasting it. Sokka decided he really couldn't tell it apart from a thousand other teas, but liked the man too much to say so.
“How's your tea shop going?” Sokka asked. After reconquering Ba Sing Se and settling the minor conflicts thereafter, Iroh had immediately set into refurbishing his shop, clearing out the debris that Fire Nation soldiers had dumped into it and scrubbing the place out. The anticipation for its reopening was felt everywhere in the middle rings, and people passed by everyday looking hopefully at the large wooden sign with “COMING SOON” painted in bright red characters.
“It is going splendidly,” Iroh said happily, adopting the joyful expression he always had when speaking of his beloved shop. “I have some excellent new blends to add to the menu—and new menus, as well! I think Ba Sing Se will find it an improvement over the old one. I am thinking to rename it.”
“Do you think it might be different now, now that—you know, people know who you are?” Sokka asked. “Will it change things?”
“Perhaps,” Iroh allowed. “But it does not concern me. Where there is good tea, there is someone who will appreciate it.”
Sokka had his doubts about that but they were driven from his mind as lots of steaming, juicy, flavorfully fragrant meat was set right in front of him, right there, right where he could touch it and love it and eat it. Iroh's expression mirrored his own and they gazed fondly at their plates for a blissful moment before attacking them energetically.
One of his favorite feelings in the world was having a mouth so stuffed he couldn't possibly manage a word. For a few merciful moments it distracted him from his leg, which up to that point had been insistently clamoring for pained attention. “S' good,” he mumbled. Iroh could only nod, burdened with ballooned cheeks.
A few men were led to a table on the other side of the potted ferns, hidden from sight, but Sokka could hear their chairs scraping against the floor. He paid them no more mind, returning his attention to his meal.
They were finishing up, Sokka looking wistful as his food dwindled, and both leaned back in satisfaction patting their mouths.
A thought came unbidden. He remembered an old Water Tribe tradition that took place when one man asked another into his home, to make a trade or ask a favor. The host set out a feast for the visitor and invited him to eat his fill, and denied him nothing during the meal. It was a gesture of respect from the host for what he was about to ask. Then, after they had finished, he would make his proposition and the visitor would accept—he almost always accepted, as it was rare for a man of the Water Tribe to deny a brother a favor.
Although there was no indication that this meal came with a catch, Sokka felt a little suspicious anyway. Call it instinct. Iroh had already displayed a knowledge of the ways of his tribe.
To his credit, Iroh waited a few more minutes while giving their stomachs a head start on digestion.
“Sokka,” he began.
“Yeah, sure, I'll do it.”
Iroh looked surprised. “You know what I was about to ask?”
“Naw,” said Sokka.
The older man chuckled. “I should have guessed.” And then his smile faded slightly, his face sobering. He took a drought of tea, seemingly considering his words. “Did my nephew tell you that he visited his father, where he sat imprisoned? Incidentally, he is now occupying the cell I once did.”
“He didn't say he did, but I guess we all kind of knew.” Zuko had come to Iroh's tea shop for their last memory all together, melancholy and distracted at the beginning but livening up the longer he had stayed. It was hard to stay somber through Sokka's jokes, Toph's teasing, and everyone's happy relief. Sokka peered at Iroh, who seemed to be waiting for him to speak again. “He asked about his mother, didn't he?”
The old general nodded, and set down his cup. “He told Zuko where she was, at his last knowledge.”
For a moment Sokka couldn't speak. There was an awful feeling in his stomach, something bitter and jealous. Suddenly he resented Zuko more than he ever had when the boy had devoted every waking hour to hunting down the Avatar. And he remembered that there would never be anyone who could tell him wherehis mother was, that she had gone to some place he could not follow.
“That's great,” he forced out. “That's wonderful.”
Iroh regarded him for a brief few seconds. “I hardly need to say that he intends to find her.”
“But he should not do it alone.”
Quickly recovered, Sokka raised his eyebrows. “You don't think he can take care of himself now? Maybe it's something he ought to do alone. I can't think he'd want anybody along.”
“Perhaps not,” said Iroh, looking him steadily in the eyes, “but he is no longer Prince Zuko, a stray young man who had to rely on himself and his own ability. He is Fire Lord now, and he has a responsibility to his people to act safely and reasonably. If truth be told, he ought not be leaving his position at all.”
“He's going to anyway,” said Sokka. “I don't think he'd listen to either of us on this.”
Iroh nodded. “That is why I want you to go with him.”
Sokka sat back in surprise—that had come out of nowhere. He tapped his crutch. “Did you forget about this?” he asked. “And this?” He pointed to his leg, which stuck out awkwardly to the side of the table as though he hoped to trip passerby. “I don't think I'm going anywhere soon—else I'd have left with my dad.”
Draining his cup, Iroh looked at him levelly. “It would prevent you from traveling on a rocking, swaying ship, yes. However, I don't believe an Eelhound would ask much of you.” He set down his cup and lowered his head. “If you do not think yourself able, I understand. Your leg is only beginning to heal. This is not a light favor. It is your choice.”
“I said I'd do it,” Sokka said a little irritably. “I just don't know what help I could be. Katara, Aang, Toph—any one of them's more capable than I am. So are you.”
“By what standards do you judge capability?” Iroh smiled. “Perhaps you cannot run or jump for a long time. Perhaps you don't need to. But from what I have gathered—you are a voice of restraint. Of reason, yes?”
Sokka didn't know what to say to that, and he held on to his crutch uncertainly. “Sometimes?” Reasonable wasn't always the first word someone used to describe him. As often as not, it was an antonym for his personality. “So basically—you want me to keep him from doing something stupid.”
“My nephew is an... intense young man, however else he's changed. I know that you have good sense. Please think about it,” Iroh said gently. “See how you are feeling, and decide from that.”
Sokka shrugged. “I'll go. I owe him one, anyway. Besides,” he said warningly, “I know what you're thinking. You're only as fast as your slowest man—and I'm no faster than a Snailsloth right now, so he won't be either.” Iroh's faint smile told him he was right. “Besides,” Sokka continued, “he and Katara just egg each other on. Toph would too.” A thought occurred to him. “Does Zuko know you're asking me this?”
“Not yet, but I don't think he would begrudge me this one request, do you?” the general said fondly. “I have asked him to see me before he sets off, and then I will let him know.”
“Spring 'im, more like,” Sokka muttered. Laying a surprise on Zuko was approximately as safe as sneaking up on an Armadillo-lion and screaming “boo.” It occurred to him that there was nothing more to eat now that he had effectively demolished his meal, and it depressed him to sit in a restaurant where he wasn't actually dining. He grabbed his crutch when a gravelly voice caught his attention, coming from behind the potted plants that separated their table from the next.
“I heard that old man's reopening his tea shop,” the voice said. “What do you think about that?”
Vague, but Sokka paused anyway, wondering if they were talking about anybody he knew. Iroh, gathering himself to stand, appeared to have not heard them.
“I think it's the most ridiculous thing I've heard of,” said a second voice, deeper and harsher than the first.
Across the ferns, Sokka leaned closer. Iroh looked at him curiously, frozen there with his ear to the plants. He stopped and listened too, and couldn't have missed the next thing said:
“I can't believe that Fire Nation scum is allowed to come live here, and open a business,” said the second man again, his words fringed with disbelief and contempt. “After all he's done? The Earth King is out of his mind. That man—a dragon, they call him, more like a gecko to me,” this was met with a guffaw, “oughtta be punished, not set up in the cozy ring of the city.”
“I heard General Fong's not too happy about it either,” said the first man confidentially. “He was furious. Went right to the Earth King and practically ordered him to kick the dragon out of the city, if he wouldn't take the man's hands off.”
Sokka's eyebrows shot up to the level of his hairline. General Fong? Sokka remembered him. It was a distasteful memory, to say the least, although the warrior smugly recalled clunking him on the head. By nearly smothering Katara Fong had managed the very dubious feat of provoking Aang into an uncontrollable state of rage that culminated in reaching the Avatar State. Fong was lucky Aang hadn't wiped them all out. Almost afraid to turn around although not sure why, he looked sideways at Iroh.
The old general stood there with a tired expression. Then he drew himself up and began to leave. Sokka wasn't so keen to go and hovered uncertainly near the plants, hoping to catch more new of General Fong, who he hadn't realized was in the city and had uneasy feelings about. Lingering alone, however, would only attract attention and so he reluctantly took his crutch and hobbled after the general with a little huffing.
Iroh waited for him outside the door. His expression plainly said that he did not desire to discuss the topic, but Sokka mentally waved the frown aside. Not even the Dragon of the West warranted too much diplomacy from him. Despite his wisdom Iroh was still Zuko's uncle, of the same blood and occasionally the same temperament. Stubbornness was also a trait shared between the two.
“Maybe it's not a good idea to reopen your shop so early,” Sokka urged. “Wait a while, until people simmer down. I didn't like how they were talking."
As he mostly expected, Iroh didn't think much of this. “Angry words are powerless, young man,” he said firmly, “and mustn't sway our resolutions. I do not allow such things to intimidate me.”
The sentiment behind his words was temptingly courageous but Sokka brushed them away. Gallancy didn't outrank reason. “There's courage, and there's sense,” he argued, cringing as he accidentally put too much weight on his leg. “Angry words lead to angry ideas that lead to angry actions. Maybe you don't let them scare you, but don't just disregard them either.”
“My boy,” said Iroh, sounding stern. Sokka wondered how often he'd taken that tone with his nephew. “I thank you for your concern. But the bitter thoughts of a few men do not represent an entire city's mind. I have held my own against somewhat greater threats than some discontented soldiers. I am quite capable of taking care of myself and my tea shop.”
It was a gentle but firm way to remind Sokka of his place, and he hated that. “And you're the one who thinks I'm a voice of reason,” he muttered.
Iroh looked at him in surprise, and then a grin slowly spread and he laughed heartily. After a short hesitation Sokka chuckled too, with a vague uneasy feeling in his stomach. And in the eyes of the people pressing in around them, he looked for anger.
I'll post the next three chapters in day or two intervals, likely, while I'm writing up the fifth.