Zuko lay in bed, fully awake despite the late hour. The palace was quiet, and if he strained, he could almost hear the guard pacing outside his door.
It was driving him mad. He couldn't go anywhere without a contingent of guards surrounding him like a shield. Sometimes it felt like he was living inside a box. Or a cell.
"It is for your own safety, my Lord," his First Minister had told him with some regret.
Zuko pounded the mattress with his fist. He knew that, of course; that it was even necessary in the first place made him want to spit flames.
In the six months since he'd deposed his father and sister and become Fire Lord, the transition had gone smoothly in most respects. His friendship and alliance with Aang had done much to unite the fractured nation, most of whom gratefully embraced the end of the long, bitter war. However, there were those who were unwilling to accept what they saw instead as a bitter, crushing defeat.
Small, scattered bands of men remained, most of them soldiers—including some former high-ranking soldiers—who were still loyal to his father and considered Zuko a traitor to the long-honored traditions of a proud nation. They had been quiet at first, subdued. There were a few rumblings, rumors, veiled threats and protests, but nothing overt. Zuko was assured that things were under control.
Then Aang had left the Fire Nation a month ago to check on how the rest of the world was coping with the end of the war, and not two days after his departure, a small but significant insurgency had begun in earnest. There had been two attempts on his life, both thwarted though not without the price of several casualties, including three of his personal guard.
Though many had since been captured and imprisoned, including one of his High Ministers, small pockets of trouble still caused uneasy ripples of alarm to spread throughout the populace. Ozai had ruled their nation with an iron fist, but his senior officers—particularly the generals, admirals, and ministers—had benefited from the corrupt martial law system. They'd expected to retain such powers, and Zuko was learning the hard way that they were not so willing to relinquish them. Even his newly appointed officers and members of his cabinet, despite their loyalty to him, had certain expectations and ideas that were contrary to many of the policies that Zuko wished to implement.
Peace was far more complicated than he'd imagined.
A sliver of moonlight streamed a milky blue-white through the heavy drapery covering the window, and he glanced around the familiar room. He'd refused to take over his father's quarters and had instead chosen to remain in his old bedroom, though it had been redecorated—a bit too ostentatiously for his tastes, but it was a simple enough thing to accept. Azula's adjoining bedroom was in the process of its own renovations for Mai's personal use after they were wed. He'd wanted to leave it untouched and brick over the door, to hide it from existence, but Mai had dissuaded him. He didn't need another scar to haunt him, she said.
He scowled. He'd wanted a quick wedding, but Mai would have none of that. Perhaps it was a bit of payback for the pain and anguish he'd caused her, though he knew her intentions were not out of revenge on that front. In fact she'd been an incomparable help to him in more ways than he could count. She was his confidant and most trusted advisor, and one of the first things he'd decreed without even asking her in advance was that she would rule at his side as his queen. It was a move that was applauded by a great majority of the public and greeted with suspicion and even repugnance by others, namely those who opposed him now.
He worried for her safety as well, though he knew she was more than capable of taking care of herself. He smiled, thinking of her fierce determination, the smile turning to a slight frown as he thought of himself on the receiving end of her cool condemnation. At times, she did take a little too much pleasure in making him sweat, and he was still smarting a bit from her very vocal and public tongue lashing that morning.
It wasn't as though he hadn't told her on purpose. He had a thousand other things on his mind. Still, it probably would have been prudent of him to mention prior to the arrest that they suspected one of the kitchen workers of spying and possibly trying to poison them.
He loved her fierceness and the fact that she never really lost her temper without good reason. Most of the time she was quite easygoing and she never fretted over trivial, unimportant things. She also happened to be beautiful, but that wasn't nearly as important to him as everything else that he loved about her. She loved him, too, despite his faults, and to his delight, she had agreed to marry him. Their wedding would take place in the spring in a few months time.
Of course the wedding plans were also driving him mad. Did it really matter the cut of his wedding robe and whether there were fire lilies or snapdragon poppies? He couldn't care less if there were two attendants or two thousand; he just wanted to be married already. The only thing he had insisted upon was that Aang should preside over the ceremony, which Mai had agreed to without hesitation, though the newly-appointed Great Sage of the Fire Nation would also be present to deliver the convocation.
At least that was one thing to look forward to, he thought. If he survived long enough.
It wasn't just the assassination attempts. Even within his own ministry, his generals and ministers squabbled over things both petty and significant. On the one hand, shifting from one hundred years of a war economy to a peacetime one was not a simple task. Peacetime also left little need for the large military complex and supporting industry the Fire Nation had amassed. With no invasions on the horizon, there was simply no need for so many soldiers.
On top of that, his attempts to delegate responsibilities to his newly established cabinet weren't going as planned either. Couldn't anyone make simple decisions anymore? He wasn't his father, for Roku's sake! He wasn't going to torture or imprison someone for making a mistake.
He didn't want to rule like his father, nor even as his grandfather or great-grandfather had. He didn't want his people to fear him. In truth, he wanted his people to respect and love him, but he'd settle for an absence of active dislike. He understood they were skeptical, even a bit fearful of change, but he was determined to do right by them and to make the Fire Nation great again through means other than conquest and subjugation.
But that was easier said than done.
"It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale."
Also easier said than done.
Zuko sighed. He had changed much, to be sure, but he still had his pride. He wouldn't go crawling to Aang for help, even though he knew his friend would be more than happy to oblige him. Aang might be the Avatar, but he didn't understand the Fire Nation people. Sometimes, even Zuko wasn't sure he understood them. But he was one of them, and it was his job as leader of his people to take care of these things. If he couldn't find a solution, he didn't deserve to be their leader. Stale, indeed. He needed the kind of advice that none of his subordinates would ever consider providing, and there was only one place he could get it.
He quietly slid from his bed and stuffed some pillows in the shape of a body beneath the blanket. He took the bag he'd packed three days earlier from its hiding place in the secret crawlspace behind his bed and removed the note he'd written, placing it on his pillow.
Evading the guards would be trickier, but they were nothing if not regular in their patrols, and thanks to his mother, he knew more about the secret passageways within the palace than anyone, save Azula.
Zuko paused mid-step, tamping down the guilt that still welled within him when he thought of his sister. He'd tried. They'd been Azula's choices, not his. She had made them of her own accord, and he couldn't do anything more but ensure her continued care. It troubled him more that, even if she had conceded, or if she were to do so in the future, he still wouldn't trust her.
He chided himself. Stop dwelling on the things you can't do, and start thinking about the things you can. He sighed. Yet one more thing that was easier said than done. He felt trapped in a maze of his own making. It was time to do something, he thought, determined. Waiting any longer and hoping his problems miraculously solved themselves was futile, and he needed to do this alone. Mai would understand. He hoped.
Aloft in his balloon, Zuko felt alive for the first time in months. He'd forgotten the taste of solitude, the exhilaration that independence could bring, and more, that solitude and loneliness were not mutually exclusive. The air was cold but refreshing for all that, and he relaxed, almost giddy with excitement as he guided the balloon past the last of the stark, volcanic peaks and out over the moonlit ocean, heading east.
The Earth Kingdom was as busy as ever. Everywhere he looked, construction projects were under way, people congregated in the street markets despite the cold. The buzz of high-spirited chatter reached his ears. Nobody questioned him. He'd been concerned that his scar would draw attention and possibly reveal his identity, but dressed as he was in his modest yet well-cut coat, scarf, hat, and heavy boots, he looked much the same as everyone else. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone would be looking for him. While he was no longer a fugitive, nobody would expect the Fire Lord to travel either alone or incognito.
He'd passed easily through the South Gate with his false papers, just another refugee returning home after the war. The walled city still looked imposing and impressive, but the atmosphere and the triumph etched on the faces of the people were anything but. He boarded the train, gazing out the window as the train zoomed through extensive farmland and approached the Lower Ring.
There were still soldiers stationed throughout the city—a large contingent had been at the Gate when he'd entered—but their bearing was far more relaxed and without suspicion. When the train stopped at a Lower Ring transit station, he saw a soldier helping an elderly lady exit the train, carrying her packages, and another helping to direct the boarding passengers onto the platform in an orderly fashion.
I could do something like that, he thought. Create a civilian-based police force charged to protect and assist his citizens, and even to help enforce the laws instead of the military. Many of his people still feared soldiers, not that he could blame them considering the decades of abuse and injustices they'd suffered at its hands. It would take some thought and a lot of planning, but it could be done, with the right people—people he could trust—in charge. He did not want to create another Dai Li, after all.
The train began moving again. Outside the window, smoke drifted lazily from brick and stone chimneys, young children played in a park, and street vendors hawked their wares, while groups of workers rebuilt crumbled and burnt-out buildings in a section of the city that had been particularly hard hit during the war. He wondered if the Firelight Fountain had escaped the scourge, and an image of Jin flickered briefly before his eyes. It felt as though it had been a lifetime ago rather than less than a year. He hoped she and her family had survived and were able to make a new life for themselves.
He frowned, remembering when they'd first arrived in Ba Sing Se. He'd been miserable, angry, and deeply conflicted. His long journey had been more than a physical venture. It had been a painful struggle, at times so bleak and hopeless it sometimes amazed him that he hadn't self-destructed along the way.
No, that wasn't quite true. It was true that such a path had also lain before him. Even when he'd struck out on his own, when he'd been determined to leave everything behind him in search of his destiny, he'd always found a way to sidestep that path. Part of it had been sheer stubbornness, but there had been another reason as well. Throughout his journey, begun in earnest at age thirteen, he'd never actually traveled any part of it alone. One person had always been there beside him, occasionally to guide him, and other times simply to be and let him make his own way in the world. Always there, whether in mind or spirit. It was that person he had come to see now.
One thing hadn't changed in Ba Sing Se: It was still difficult to gain entry to the Upper Ring without proper identification or an invitation. Once again, he hadn't thought things through. His identity as a refugee had granted him easy access to the city itself, but only as far as the Middle Ring.
"Why am I such an idiot?" he berated himself as he trudged down a narrow street that opened onto one of the town squares. It was early evening, and the temperature had dropped along with the sun. He shivered, huddling into his coat, and adjusted his scarf to block the rising wind more effectively. The winter solstice was tomorrow, so the days were at their shortest. At least the darkness would work to his advantage, he thought, and then stopped short as an appetizing aroma caught his attention, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since early that morning. He rubbed his gurgling stomach and ducked into a restaurant. At least he'd remembered to bring enough Earth Kingdom currency.
A feeling of déjà vu made him pause in the doorway. He'd been here before, and it took him a moment to remember when that had been. The menu board advertising the "unbelievably complex fried appetizer platter" jarred his memory: he'd come here with Jin on their ill-fated date. It was the second time today that he'd thought about her. It wasn't that she was particularly significant to him, but she had shown him kindness and attention at a time in his life when no one else, save his uncle, had. He didn't regret his inability to return her affections, but he did wish he'd been able to give her more than a coupon for free tea. He had fond memories of that night at Firelight Fountain, and even though he had left her there alone after their brief kiss, he hoped she did, too.
He sat down at a table away from the door and close to the fireplace. The place looked exactly the same, except for the heavy wooden shutters that now enclosed what in warmer weather would be an open-air seating area. He didn't remember much about the food, only that Jin had clearly enjoyed it.
He declined the appetizer platter suggested by the overeager server and ordered a bowl of noodles and beef and broth. The restaurant had few patrons, which suited him just fine. He ate quickly, thinking of his best option for sneaking into the Upper Ring. There was no way around it, not without announcing his true identity or causing a scene. He'd have to find a place to scale the wall. He finished his meal, paid the check, and wished he'd been insightful enough to pack a climbing rope.
It had been easier than he'd expected. The calm and orderly atmosphere of the lower rings had extended to even the Upper Ring. He supposed the palace would still have its usual complement of soldiers, but with the demise of the greater part of the corrupt Dai Li, security around the city was lax. He'd found a high-roofed temple that adjoined part of the wall, and once he'd climbed that, the rest was easy enough.
Or not, he thought, sucking on his badly-scraped thumb and rubbing the hip that would certainly have a bruise come morning.
But the point remained: He was here, and that was all that mattered. It took him a while to traverse the city; of course the Jasmine Dragon would be on the opposite side from where he'd entered. His luck, usually bad, would only take him so far.
The shop was closed, but when he peered in through one of the translucent decorative windows, he could see the warm glow of a light flickering somewhere inside. It could be one of the staff closing things up inside, but he knew his uncle well after all the time they'd spent together. He liked to close up himself, usually after indulging in a pot of one of his 'special' teas.
The doors were locked, so he knocked.
"I'm sorry," a voice called out from inside, "but we are closed for today. Please come back tomorrow."
Zuko raised his eyebrow and pounded on the door with his fist. When there was no response, he pounded again.
The large wooden door opened to reveal an exasperated-looking Iroh, and standing behind him, scowling, was another older gentleman with white hair that looked like an angry cloud had settled on his head. Iroh eyed him warily. "I apologize if you did not hear me the first time, but we are clos—Zuko!" Iroh exclaimed, grabbing him in a massive hug.
Zuko struggled for breath and blinked back tears. "Hello, Uncle," he said. He recognized the other gentleman now; it was his grandfather's friend, former Fire Nation Admiral Jeong Jeong. "Hello, sir," he said to the admiral as Iroh stepped back to take in his appearance.
Jeong Jeong smiled and nodded. "Fire Lord Zuko," he said, bowing.
"Come in, come in," Iroh said, ushering him inside and peering around in vain for Zuko's attendants before locking the door behind them. "You are alone?" Iroh asked with some surprise.
"Ah, well, you see," Zuko said, a guilty expression on his face.
Iroh smacked himself on his forehead, shaking his head in disbelief. "No, do not tell me," he said, taking Zuko by the arm and leading him to the rear table where Zuko could see a game of Pai Sho in progress. "I was just going to make a pot of jasmine tea, but this occasion calls for some Bi Luo Chun."
Zuko eyed him warily. "Snails, Uncle?"
Iroh chuckled and ducked behind the curtain into the kitchen. "For the shape of the leaves, of course," he said.
"If you say so," Zuko said and took off his hat, scarf, and coat.
"I'll take those for you, my Lord," Jeong Jeong offered, but Zuko waved him off.
"I'm fine, thank you. No need to stand on ceremony. I came here to get away from that." He draped his things over a nearby chair and sat down at the table, gesturing at the board. "Who's winning?"
Jeong Jeong tugged at his beard. "Your uncle would say that he is at the moment, but I have him exactly where I want him."
Zuko smiled. "I'm afraid I've never learned to play, so I'll take your word for it."
"One is never too old to learn or to teach what he has learned, but there does come a time when one is too old to dance. Not that I have attained such age," Iroh said, setting down the tray and pouring three cups. "I received your wedding invitation a fortnight ago," he said, his eyes alight with mischief. "I shall have to find a suitable date to escort."
Zuko covered his eyes with his hand. "You're not going to embarrass me, are you, Uncle?"
Iroh sat down. "Would I do such a thing?"
"Yes," Zuko said as he lowered his hand.
Iroh shook his head. "All the time you have spent with the Avatar, and he still has not taught you the most important lesson of all."
"And that is?"
Iroh sipped his tea and smiled. "Delicious. Now, where was I?" he said, scratching his head.
"Important life lessons. Don't tell me it's something about drinking the perfect cup of tea." Zuko took a cautious sip, still wary of the snails, but the tea really was delicious.
"Oh, yes. Of course. I seem to have lost my train of thought. Perhaps what I was thinking is the old adage, 'When life gets you down, get yourself up and ride an elephant koi.'"
Zuko stared at his uncle. He'd come a thousand miles for elephant koi and tea? "How is that an important life lesson?" he asked in exasperation.
"It's not," Iroh said. "Well, it could be, I suppose. It does sound like fun, don't you think?" He smiled dreamily, but his expression quickly changed to one of alarm. "Do you suppose I'm too old?"
Iroh and Jeong Jeong both laughed, and Iroh patted Zuko's hand. "Still as irascible as ever, Prince—no, Fire Lord Zuko."
"Don't call me that," Zuko said, scowling.
"Which one would that be? Irascible or Fire Lord," Iroh asked, studying his nephew intently.
Zuko threw up his hands. "Both, either. Argh! I don't even know what irascible means!"
Iroh nodded and took a sip of his tea. Jeong Jeong cleared his throat and stood from the table.
"We can continue our game some other time," he said.
Zuko sighed. "I'm sorry. Please. You don't have to leave on my account."
Jeong Jeong smiled. "On the contrary," he said. "I am leaving on my own account." He patted Iroh's shoulder and bowed to Zuko. "I'll see you again at your wedding, ah, shall I? Safe journey to you."
Zuko nodded in return, the unspoken honorific noticeably absent from the end of Jeong Jeong's salutation. But Zuko was glad for it. It had been a long few days of travel and he was tired. He hadn't meant to lose his temper.
Iroh rose to see his friend out, and Zuko picked up the white lotus tile from the game board, studying it as if it held all of the answers to his problems. For all he knew, it just might. The trouble was that he was probably too foolish to understand it.
He had so many ideas, so many good intentions. He wanted his people to prosper, but most of all, he wanted to them to be happy. To live good and full lives with which to do as they pleased, whether that meant marrying and having a family, studying a field of interest, working at a job they enjoyed and took pride in, as his uncle had shown him, or even dancing or riding an elephant koi if that was what they aspired to. Why was it so difficult to do this for them?
"You look tired," Iroh said, folding the Pai Sho board and putting the tiles back in their velvet sack. He didn't ask Zuko for the white lotus tile when he took the game and the tea tray back into the kitchen.
Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He'd only worked here a short time, but it smelled like home. Comforting, welcoming, safe.
"Still thinking that you have to solve all of your problems on your own, are you? There is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you."
Zuko opened his eyes. The shop was dim; the only light still burning was the candle on the table before him. "I know, Uncle," he said, his voice soft but determined. "That's why I'm here."
Iroh took Zuko's coat and held it out for him to put on. "I see," Iroh said, smiling warmly at his nephew. "Perhaps you have learned after all."