Aftershocks, Chapter Two
Characters: Sokka, Zuko, Iroh
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.
It would be a long time before Zuko would be capable of being angry at his uncle again, if it ever happened at all. He settled for being merely annoyed but even that was drowned in guilt and a faint, niggling sense that his uncle may have the right of it in this case as he had in so many others. Still, it would have been nice if he hadn't waited until the feast to break the news that Sokka would be accompanying him on this journey.
He supposed he ought to be grateful that it was Sokka, and not Toph, Aang, or maybe even Katara. They were all well meaning enough, but it was a tricky subject and the water tribe boy was the only one who understood his feelings and was conscientious enough not to figuratively step on his emotional toes. Truthfully Zuko was fortunate that he didn't have an honor guard in tow wherever he went, as the new Fire Lord of a nation beginning its rise from turmoil. One temporarily lame young warrior was a small price.
He looked sideways, down the dais where Sokka was busy shoveling food into his mouth as fast as politely possible. His metabolism was a marvel. He sat several places down, in a spot of high honor that was not so elevated as to offend any of the officials who deemed themselves worthier to share Zuko's side. These men he ate with were lords and generals. Although Sokka had played a valuable role in the defeat of the Fire Nation airship fleet and showed undeniable skill, he was still only the son of an isolated village's chief and to sit him at Zuko's side would have been a slight to the honor of men whose cooperation Zuko absolutely needed to restore peace to the beleaguered Earth Kingdom. Even his presence on the dais was treated as a light affront.
Toph sat with several ladies, looking thoroughly bored. It was strange to see her draped in expensive and fashionable women's clothing when she normally tried her hardest to look and act like a boy. It was funny too, but he dared not tease her about it. She'd threatened to give a solid crack for every crack made about her, and Sokka had already earned himself a few.
To Zuko's left sat the Earth King, newly returned to Ba Sing Se and sporting a tan that bespoke his recent travels. Bosco was basking in a corner, loudly enjoying the fish some nervous servants were tossing to him. King Kuei was in fine spirits, obviously thrilled at the turn of events that had been taken in the last few weeks. A feast had been scheduled for when Zuko returned to the city briefly, before moving on to 'settle outstanding business' elsewhere. Sokka had snorted when he heard that.
If he recognized the faintly distasteful looks directed at him every once in a while, he gave no sign of it and instead scarfed down his food and talked cheerfully to General Xue, who genuinely seemed to like speaking with him. From time to time Sokka would gesture wildly with his hands and General Xue would listen raptly, occasionally interjecting with a question. From Sokka's illustrative motions and the grudging interest of lords and generals seated around the water tribe boy, Zuko gathered that he was describing the execution and planning of the failed but infamous invasion attempted on the Fire Nation capital.
Through the jokes and the strategic accounts Sokka wove together seamlessly, Zuko did not miss the bright blue glare he turned on a particular general every now and then. He didn't recognize the man, who seemed sullen and untalkative throughout most of the meal and sat at the very end of the dais. Zuko leaned slightly and quietly asked King Kuei who the man was.
The king gave the general a cursory glance. “General Fong,” he answered promptly. “An excellent soldier; he's served us well. Not high-born, but his audacity won him a great deal of honor and his title as general.”
That might explain any animosity directed at Fong from other soldiers and lords, as Fong was lowly born, but didn't account for the irritation on Sokka's part. Zuko would have liked to observe further, and it was a testament to his trust in Sokka's judgement that already he felt a disliking for the sulky general, but a Fire Lord is incapable of eating unbothered. Questions and praises were shot at him constantly, some catapulted from several seats away. His answers were carried from diner to diner in a weird version of the children's message game.
Aang was absent from the table. Where he would have sat next to Zuko, one lord or another occupied the place and seemed thrilled to be there, preening and sharing looks discreetly with others. Zuko was thankful that his queen mother had instructed him in social graces; otherwise, his boredom and discomfort would have been crystalline clear. He wished he was sitting near Sokka. Wherever that boy sat seemed to be a place of energy and good humor. He was even winning over some of the diners that had initially been wary of his presence at the table.
He scanned the tables for Suki and her group. He saw them seated together in another place of honor, Suki at the head and resplendant in her traditonal warrior's garb and facepaint that seemed as natural to her as her own skin. Even Ty Lee looked utterly at home in her costume and place around her new friends. She had always been too good-natured to remain at Azula's side forever. Sometimes Suki and Sokka met eyes across the space. He had likely already told her about his little trip.
They'd leave later that night. Zuko's stomach dropped uncomfortably.
Iroh sat a few places down, close to Sokka. Zuko wished he'd been seated nearer but bit back the urge to ask for a reordering that might disrupt the fragile egos of the men he was dealing with. His uncle was fully engaged in Sokka's recount of his adventures. The words “my sister had a fit” and, a moment later, “the ice started to glow” drifted back to him, and he had no doubt that Sokka was telling of his first encounter with the Avatar. He wondered how Sokka would address Zuko's involvement in these stories.
At last the feasting was done. Zuko had eaten sparingly from each course but his robes still felt uncomfortably tight. He rose as graciously as he could. The night was not yet over. In the tradition of a great feast, music and dancing proceeded the meal. Already musicians were plucking beginning notes on their harps and a great brassy sound came from a Tsungi horn. Zuko didn't know any dances but he figured he'd be busy speaking with pressing lords and ladies the whole time anyway.
Sokka hobbled over while the servants were clearing away dishes. He was wearing clothes of the Water Tribe that Zuko hadn't seen before, something left to Sokka by one of the departing warriors. It was about as close to “dressing up” as the Southern Water Tribe got. In the way that dragons often snarled on Fire Nation clothing in bright red and gold threads, a white wolf prowled the front of his shirt. A line of fierce-looking teeth was strung loosely around his neck and white animal skin lined his waist. It was a stark contrast to the elegant patterns and cuts around them, and people took notice. Sokka either didn't see it or ignored it.
“Katara always says I've got two left feet,” he said brightly. “But it looks like I don't have any tonight.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Zuko mumbled, suddenly unsure that he wouldn't be called upon to dance.
The other boy looked around. “This kind of dancing's weird, anyhow. It's all—orderly.”
“How is it in the South Pole?”
“Wild,” Sokka confirmed. “People think that's because we're uncivilized, but really we're just trying to keep warm.”
Zuko laughed. “So what kind of animal's teeth are those?” he asked, gesturing at Sokka's necklace.
“Seal-bear,” said Sokka, pointing to one. He tapped another. “Bear-wolf. Hare-fox. And Bato swears this one came from a mirka but I don't believe him.”
They all looked the same to him. “I can't tell the difference,” Zuko said. “What's a mirka?”
“Mythological snow beast,” Sokka said dismissively. “Something told to frighten the kids around the fire. Gran-gran says they're angry spirits trapped in monster bodies. There aren't any real ones.” He inspected the tooth closely. “I can't tell exactly what it really is. Probably a misshapen seal-bear.”
“I'd like to visit your home some day,” Zuko said, looking around at all the pageantry.
“You'd better. It's a gesture of reconciliation they probably expect from you.”
Zuko turned back to look at Sokka, whose expression was now frank and watchful. “I will,” he promised. “Soon.”
Sokka smiled and shrugged, turning to look at the room full of dancers. “It's funny. I haven't seen my home since you last saw it. Are you ready for this?” he asked suddenly.
“What?” said Zuko, surprised.
“To face your mom. I mean—to find her. She might not be the person you remember. You're definitely not the same son she left behind. Have you prepared yourself?”
Zuko looked at him closely. He was serious. “What's there to prepare?” he asked a little defensively. “I go there, I get her and bring her back. That's all there is to it.”
Sokka rolled his eyes. “That's never all there is to it. Forget it. You'll deal with it when you get there.”
The new Fire Lord was annoyed now. “What's that supposed to mean? Why should it matter? Why would anything have changed?”
“You changed, about a thousand times,” Sokka shot back, quickly exasperated. “Look, I just don't want to have to go through another round of you bellyaching about the person you've been. It's over, that stuff is done with. If she's the mother you remember, she won't care, I don't care, and the only person who will be interested in hearing it is you. I'm not going to get saddlesores on an Eelhound for several weeks just to listen to you angst about a reunion with her.” His blue eyes drifted over Zuko's shoulder. “Some peacocks headed this way. I'll see you later tonight.”
He limped away in the direction of Suki, presumably to say good-bye. Zuko frowned at his back, wondering why it surprised him whenever Sokka's words turned biting, and turned back to force a smile at one of the wealthy lords sweeping his direction. He spied Toph at his uncle's side, looking desperately bored.
The night passed agonizingly slow. He tried to keep a mental clock running in his head. It'd been a few hours; surely the night would be ending soon? But there seemed no end to the nobles who wished to present themselves to him, or the women who hinted at the attractiveness of their respective daughters. He wasn't sure what Mai would have to say to that, although it made him smile to think of.
“And this, your Grace, is General Fong,” said one lord whose name he'd already forgotten, but had taken it upon himself to acquaint the young lord with everyone of importance. He lightly drew forward the large, bearded man that Sokka seemed to have a problem with at dinner. The general bowed stiffly, and Zuko inclined his head.
Fong was powerful-looking, with the characteristically strong features of a capable Earth Kingdom soldier. It was a face that might smile for friends and sneer at enemies in equal measure. His clothes were elegantly militaristic. His hands were the size of dinner plates, and he kept them at his sides now. Zuko imagined he could see them twitching with a desire to clench. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance,” he said in a deep voice with booming potential. It lacked any warmth. No smile even attempted to curve his mouth; it was as stony a face as he'd ever seen.
Across the room, in the corner of his eye, he saw Sokka staring hard at them. He wished he'd thought to ask him about the general.
“And yours,” Zuko returned dutifully.
The general nodded again, looking strained. “Will you be staying with us long?”
“No,” Zuko answered, hoping he managed to disguise his relief. “I mean to journey south to see to relations there.” Specifically, his own relation. They needn't know the details; it was a matter intensely private and he had no desire that anyone should know until he'd brought his mother back to the capital. He didn't like Ozai being so near her, though. Perhaps he'd send him to the Boiling Rock.
“How long shall you be away?” the nameless lord asked.
Zuko caught himself before he shrugged, a distinctly ignoble gesture only lowborn used. “Some weeks. There's a lot that has to be done.”
Fong glowered. “So much has been done already.”
“General!” said the lord, shocked. His hands fluttered like white birds, wringing and then flying into an appeal for grace from Zuko. “Your Grace, he means no offense—he is recovering from this war, as are we all—please do not—” He sputtered to a stop as the Fire Lord held up a hand.
Zuko lowered it, looking Fong into the eye. Somehow Sokka must have anticipated this. Even now, he saw the boy edge away from Suki and watch intently. “General Fong has a right to be angry,” he said as graciously as he could. “Were I in his place I might feel the same.”
This didn't placate Fong but instead appeared to antagonize him. With a pronounced sneer he exaggeratedly bowed his way out of the cluster of men. Turning his back, he pushed roughly through the crowd, his fists truly clenched now. Sokka watched him like a hawk, and Uncle Iroh had adopted an expression that Zuko knew well—feigned disinterest. He had no time to dwell on it however; his attention was immediately called back to the men around him. Here was his battle now, only with words.
Lord Whats-his-name was beside himself. “Your Highness, do disregard him, he hardly knows better—common born, you see—hardly educated...”
Zuko had suddenly had enough. “I'm not going to declare war all over again, just because of one man's words,” he said scornfully. The abashed look on the noble's face betrayed his worry. “He's only saying what a lot of people have to be thinking. It's not a big deal.”
“As you say, Your Grace,” the lord murmured.
“I have a long trip ahead of me,” Zuko said. He could feel a headache starting, surrounded by the music and talking and subversive grumbling. “I should go prepare. Thank you for your assistance tonight.” He tore himself away from the disappointed nobles and made his way for the exit, willing himself to walk slowly and purposefully and not run like he really wanted to. Was it always going to be like this, smiling through insult and patronization?
He approached his Uncle, Sokka, Toph and Suki. Iroh and Suki looked wary. Sokka was scanning the crowd; Zuko guessed he was keeping an eye on Fong. The water tribe boy scowled. “He's lucky he got off so easily,” he said angrily. “Don't think I'd have been so lenient. I hope I gave him a concussion. Who's that he's talking to?”
They turned to look. Fong was speaking heatedly to a man in a green coat that was unfamiliar. “Don't know,” said Zuko, turning to narrow his eyes at Sokka. “What do you mean, he got off easy? You gave him a concussion? Is that why he hates me, because I'm with you?”
“No, Your Worship, that was all you,” Sokka shot back snidely. “Never needed me to make your enemies for you. And it happens he doesn't like Iroh either.” He jabbed his thumb at the old general, whose face was carefully serene.
“What? Did he threaten you?” Zuko demanded. “Who is he?”
“General Fong,” the other boy replied promptly.
“I know that.”
Sokka raised his eyebrows. “So did you even pay attention when you were learning the trade from Dad? You know your own generals, but nobody else's?”
Boy was he short tonight. For a second he hoped Sokka's leg was really sore that evening. But he was right. “No,” Zuko admitted. “Not really. Tell me about him.”
“He commands a large regiment not too far away from Ba Sing Se. We met him before we knew Toph. We thought he could help us...he convinced Aang that instead of training in each element, he ought to try and master the Avatar State. He tried everything he could to trigger it.”
“This is already sounding really stupid,” said Toph laconically.
Sokka grinned faintly. “You haven't heard the worst of it. Nothing he tried worked, and Aang let slip that he had only ever managed to reach the State when he or someone else was in genuine danger.” Zuko had a bad feeling, and Suki looked incredulous.
“He didn't,” she said, awed.
“He did,” Sokka confirmed. “Attacked Aang, and when that failed, he practically—he sank Katara into the ground and almost smothered her, he would have—bastard,” he bit out savagely. “Aang glowed it up and nearly destroyed the whole place. Fong magicked Katara back out of the ground and tried to say it was only a trick, he wouldn't really have hurt her, but it was too late. He's lucky he wasn't killed.”
“How'd it end?”
“I whacked him on the head with my club,” Sokka said a tad smugly. “Should have hit 'im a little harder.”
Suki shook her head, though she was smiling. “You do have a way with people.”
“Hey!” he said defensively. “Fong started it. I don't know why he's here. Zuko, tell your uncle it's a bad idea to open his tea shop.”
Iroh looked amiably stubborn. “Zuko, do not presume to tell your uncle what he will or will not do.” He gave Sokka an amused smile. “You insolent young pup. Don't you know I'm old enough to do what I want?”
Sokka made a beseeching face at Zuko, who held up his hands in a gesture of noninvolvement. “What, you think I'm going to give him advice? It's his decision. By royal decree,” he added with a grin.
The boy sighed in frustration. “Iroh was right. I am the only one here with any sense. You ready to leave?” he asked, eyeing the ruler.
Zuko's mouth turned dry. “Yeah,” he croaked. “I'm ready.” He was not ready.
While Sokka kissed Suki goodbye and joked with Toph, at one point landing himself a punch in the shoulder, Zuko stood in front of his uncle, with his eyes lowered and his heart heavy. “What will I say to her?” he asked softly. “How can I explain to her what I've done?”
“If your mother is the strong, good woman I remember,” Iroh said, taking him by the shoulders, “you will not have to. She is your mother and she loves you, so very much. What transgressions you have made are overshadowed by the good things you have done. You are more her son than your father's, and she will know that immediately.”
“Thank you, Uncle.” Zuko smiled, and hugged him gently.
Then he and Sokka left the group to the food and dancing, music and gossip. The halls outside the throne room were oddly quiet by contrast, although echoing mutters were hearad from cooks and servants scurrying about their business. A few looked curiously at the two but raised no questions, for which Zuko was grateful. They were silent as they stopped at their respective apartments and gathered their things. Both had packed lightly, but Sokka still struggled with the pack on his shoulder as he leaned heavily on his crutch. Wordlessly, Zuko took it from him and the water tribe boy nodded his thanks.
“How's your leg?” he asked after a while.
Sokka slanted him a sly look. “Not broken enough to beg off,” he assured.
“I didn't mean that. I don't mind you coming with.” It was a strange thing to admit.
Evidently Sokka thought so too. “You don't?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “In that case, it hurts, thanks for asking.” He said it with a grin.
Zuko smiled. “Uncle told me the healer said it was broken in three places.”
“Did your Uncle also tell you I was lucky it was my leg that broke, and not my neck? Or back?” Sokka looked disturbed at the prospect. “What a thought. Let's drop it.”
Among his possessions, Zuko felt, was a long, wicked knife. He peered at it. It was fringed with what looked awfully like human teeth, and he decided not to ask about that. “What about your boomerang?” The incredible sword, he knew, was lost somewhere in the forest lining the shore of an ocean. He hadn't heard about Sokka's boomerang, a wickedly sharp thing he distinctly remembered snapping at him from behind and sending stars into his head, a long time ago when things were very different between them.
“Gone,” Sokka said morosely. “The one time it didn't come back. Must've flicked my wrist wrong, or miscalculated; I didn't think the soldier would have changed the trajectory that much...” He sighed as any other man might mourn for a lost lover. “But—” and here he drew glinting metal from a pouch at his side—“Dad gave me another before he left. It might even fly faster. I haven't had much chance to try it out yet.”
It certainly looked vicious. Zuko was growing used to the feral nature of Water Tribe weapons, but this one had a barbaric quality he hadn't encountered before. Its ends were chiseled to a point and the sides were sharpened to the keenness of a knife. When he looked closer, he saw serrated edges along one side. “How are you going to catch this?” he asked, indicating the serrations.
They came to an exit out of the palace. Outside the air was crisp and pleasant, losing the humidity that it had swelled with during the day. An Eelhound, the same that Sokka had ridden on with Suki and and Toph to catch the airship fleet. It snuffed at them when they approached. A palace servant stood by with the reins in his hand, and helped them load their scant possessions onto the beast. Zuko clambered up easily and reached down to grasp Sokka's arm to the elbow. The other boy grunted with effort and considerable pain, but with the servant's help they managed to get him up to sit in front of Zuko. He leaned over awkwardly and tied his crutch to the saddle, then took the reins from the servant.
“Good speed, sirs,” the man said politely.
“Thank you,” said Zuko, and with a lunge and a whuff of air they were off.
Comments appreciated. :) Although the next couple chapters have been written already, I am always willing to revise in accordance with suggestions.