"Yes, my lord?"
Zuko cast an evil eye over the hellish pile of documents on his desk and looked back up at his secretary. "I want you to find me a big piece of broken machinery."
"All right, my lord." Zhou looked a little perplexed. "What sort of machinery do you have in mind?"
"Large, maybe some kind of engine, from an airship or a tank or something similar. A project that'll take some time to figure out." Zuko rubbed his forehead. "Have it on the South Pavilion as soon as possible. And bring a box of tools, too."
"Yes, my lord."
"Oh, and cancel everything for the rest of the day. Reschedule all my audiences."
Zhou looked slightly pained. "Of course, my lord."
The days were packed. Private audiences in the morning, large meetings with generals and dignitaries and nobles and sages and everyone else in the afternoon. He took every meal with people who might want to poison him; the mere sight of food was starting to make him anxious. Then there was still more talking over wine in the evening, and by the time he finally managed to escape, his head was spinning with all of the honeyed rhetoric he'd heard dripping from forked tongues throughout the day.
Zuko had reached his limit. He'd never been good at discerning what that limit was, but he was certain now that if he didn't take a break soon, he would end up under his desk with his chin on his knees.
Zhou left and closed the door behind him with a click. Zuko was not just tired, he was weary from long days and nights and the uncertainty and stress and the unending pressure to not make everything worse than it already was. He lifted his hand to his face, took off his glasses, and tossed them on the desk with a look of contempt.
His work could wait for a day. It was slow and ponderous at the best of times. A few precious hours off would not cause a national disaster.
Zhou had certainly delivered by the time Zuko went outside, dressed in his plainest clothes with his hair tied back in a careless ponytail. The workmen were just leaving, having carted in a rusty, sticky-looking tank that leaned to one side on the stone pavilion.
"Good work," Zuko said. "No interruptions for the rest of the day. Unless it's a true emergency."
"Yes, my lord."
Zuko knew what the man was thinking just by looking at him. He had that look again. I didn't survive Ozai's purges and keep my job when he was overthrown to give up now that my new Firelord is a lunatic. The look had been there for almost ten years now. Zuko wondered if he'd ever get used to it, but then… there were some things that he couldn't get used to, either.
When he was sure that he was alone, he walked in a slow circle around the tank, assessing the obvious problems. The counterbalance had been destroyed by a waterbender, and the tank had languished in a scrapyard since then. It must have been fairly recent, during one of the skirmishes, not during the war itself. The whole tank would have been a rusted lump otherwise.
The counterbalance alone would have been a serious project if it had been fresh, but there were any number of problems that came from age and disuse that he would also have to deal with. The whole thing was so dirty that simply cleaning it up enough to repair might take hours, or even the rest of the day.
Most people would have pulled it apart without a second thought and used the pieces for something useful. Not Zuko. He was going to get it running again, just to prove that it could be done. Who knew what he would use it for after that.
Keeping the toolbox close at hand, he slid underneath the tank. With a wrench he unscrewed the panel on the underside of the vehicle and tossed it aside with a heavy clank. Years of accumulated dirt, soot, cobwebs, and rodent droppings came out of the exposed pipes in a thick shower. At any other time, Zuko would have minded. But now he just wanted to get working on those pipes.
The nuts and bolts were, for the most part, rusted in place. But generous attention from the oil can and determined twisting with the wrench loosened them all up, and soon he was so involved in his work that the outside world might have not even existed.
Zuko turned his head to see two little feet fidgeting about on the ground next to the tank. Her shoes were scuffed and she had grass stains on her knees, as usual. She crouched down and peered underneath the tank, eyes wide as she took in the mass of pipes and valves on its underside.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm fixing this tank."
Her brow furrowed and she pushed her lower lip out, and for a moment she looked just like Mai at that age. "What's a tank?"
Eventually she would have to learn about the war. Someday, Zuko would teach her about the responsibility she had to continue to rebuild the world after he was gone. Someday. But for now, she was an innocent. And he would keep it that way for as long as he could.
"A tank is a machine we used to use in the other nations when I was a little boy," he said. "Do you see the spikes on the wheels?"
"We could drive up the sides of mountains because of those. Or we could drive in deep snow without getting stuck."
"Why were you driving in the snow?"
Questions, always endless questions. These were mostly harmless, but there were so many things he dreaded having to explain to his daughter. He was already running out of stories about how he got the "big owie" on his face.
"A lot of different reasons."
Oh, for the love of— "Do you want to hear a story?" A toothy grin and a nod. "Okay. Come under here with me. Careful, don't get your dress dirty. Ready?" Another nod. "Okay." Zuko put his wrench down and wiped his oily fingers on the front of his shirt. "When I was younger, I didn't live in the palace. I lived on a ship."
"Because I was looking for Uncle Aang."
"Because no one had seen him in a very long time and I wanted to meet him."
It's not lying, he said to himself. It's only lying if you don't plan to tell the truth later.
"How did you know where he was?"
"I didn't. I looked all over the world for three years before I found him. And it was sort of an accident that I found him at all/" He took a deep breath. "But that's a different story. I lived on this ship for three years and it was always getting broken. Sometime things would just stop working, but sometimes they would catch on fire or explode."
A quick bubble of laughter, and Zuko smiled.
"When things broke, sometimes the crew would find me and ask if I would help, because I could fix things in tight places where the other sailors couldn't fit."
"Because I was smaller than they were."
"Because I was only a kid, and some of them had little boys and girls of their own."
Thankfully, she didn't ask why again, but looked up at the machinery above her. She put her hands behind her head as if planning to stay a while.
"Was Mom there?"
"Oh. Were you sad?"
"A lot of the time, yes."
"Grandpa was there, and he helped me not be so sad."
Another giggle, and Zuko smiled wider. Every time Iroh visited, he spoiled his only grandchild rotten, and it would never matter to either of them that they were only uncle and niece. And it made Iroh so happy to be called "Grandpa" that Zuko couldn't bring himself to correct her any more.
"But this isn't a ship," she said after a few moments.
"How do you know how to fix it?"
"It's just like the engine on my ship, but smaller. Do you see this pipe?"
"This controls how much air goes into the furnace. The tank goes faster if you put more air into it. It was the same on my ship. But some of those pipes were big enough to crawl through. And the whole engine gets so hot that if you touched it, it might burn all the skin off your hand."
"Yeah. But it's not hot now. You can touch it if you want."
A little finger gingerly poked the metal and came away covered in soot. "Daddy, my finger's dirty."
"It's okay. I'm all dirty too."
She gave a little secretive chuckle, as if by getting covered in grime from the engine they were doing something forbidden. It was forbidden, in a way. The Firelord was not supposed to have the sensibilities of a mechanic, even though no one said as much. It just… didn't happen.
"Can I stay and watch you fix it?"
"All right, boo-boo." He handed her a screwdriver. "Maybe you can help. Can you find a screw to take out?"
The sun climbed higher and higher in the sky and eventually started its descent, and Zuko did not once leave the tank. It wasn't a hot day, but the metal was warm from the sun and the air was still and heavy, and more than once Zuko had to wipe the sweat from his eyes, leaving black streaks on his skin in return. Eventually the little princess got bored and went to find something else to do—probably transfer her layer of soot to one of the sofas in Mai's parlor.
The South Pavilion was then silent but for the sounds of birds in the orange trees and the Firelord clanging away at obsolete machinery.
He knew what people said about him, both inside and outside the palace. His subjects were divided in opinion—half thought he was a traitor and a usurper, and the other half thought he was a loose cannon. He didn't begrudge either party their opinions. They might both be right. He just wanted to do what was best for everyone.
Inside the palace, however, the gossip was not political but personal, and therefore much more interesting.
Everyone agreed that their new boss hadn't been quite right since he returned from his banishment. Not in the same way soldiers returning from the front weren't quite right, for whom it seemed the war would never end. But Zuko was a little off in ways that only those close to him could see.
His loathing for pomp and indifference toward protocol made him eccentric and almost a bit of a bumpkin, like he didn't even know how this was supposed to work. His unmistakably sincere concern for the lives of his servants was met with discomfort and bafflement. Everyone remembered a goofy boy with an ear-to-ear grin, but the new Zuko was scarred and tattooed and swore like a sailor when he thought no one was listening.
Just when they thought they had him figured out, he did something like order a broken-down tank to fix instead of holding audiences.
Well, he didn't know what everyone was expecting. He'd been a little twit when he left. It was only natural that he'd have that beaten out of him after three years at sea.
The sound of two heavy boots and a cane approached from the direction of the palace. Zuko unscrewed a valve. The footsteps stopped, and he looked left to see the boots and cane right next to the tank.
"Making any progress, sir?" Captain Jee sounded amused.
"I don't know. It's hard to tell, with all this rust and soot."
"It must be familiar, then."
Trust Jee to get it. "Yeah. It is."
There was a very long pause. Jee shifted his weight to his good leg and adjusted his grip on his cane—Zuko had it made for him, actually, to fit his new station: it was carved from handsome dark wood, with a wolf's head on the handle.
"…Is everything all right, sir?"
"Yeah. Everything's fine."
It was a lie, and they both knew it. Zuko hadn't developed streaks of white in his hair at twenty-two because everything was "all right." He hadn't started biting his fingernails again or pacing the halls at night because everything was "all right." And that was without mentioning the tank in the middle of the pavilion.
Another long silence. Jee stayed put.
"Do you ever think about our old ship, Captain?"
"Occasionally. It's hard not to."
"A man's time at sea always stays with him, sir. It's all right to remember." He nudged Zuko's arm gently with the end of his cane. "But it's all right to think about other things, too."
When Zuko closed his eyes, it was not the Captain of the Guard he saw, but the captain of his ship. He walked without the assistance of a cane, but he had not yet won back the right to wear a topknot. He wore the dark iron-and-leather armor of a common soldier, not the red and gold of a royal guard.
"I never thought I'd miss it," Zuko said.
"Do you really, sir?" What he didn't say was as clear as anything: or do you just hate your new job that much?
"I liked the work."
Zuko wiped a drop of oil from his nose. "Did you want to ask me something?"
"Only how you're getting on, sir."
A pause. "All right. Good luck with the tank, sir."
"Thank you, Captain."
The boots and cane retreated. Once again Zuko was alone with the tank and the quiet background of the garden and trees around him. He was thirsty. Or rather, his mouth was thirsty and his mind was ignoring it for now. The maze of pipes, caked with dirt and befouled with rust, came first. A crowbar to lift away a useless, dented wheel rim. A pipe wrench to turn the steam pipes in place so they would fit properly. An auger to clear the water pipes of dirt and debris.
He remembered scraping accumulated salt from certain pipes back on his ship. Salt was everywhere, even more pervasive than coal dust or soot from the smokestacks. His skin was rubbed raw with salt, and his eyes stung constantly from it.
By the time the sun dipped low beneath the trees, sending long shadows over Zuko and the tank, he was finally certain that the tank was salvageable. For most of the day, he'd been cleaning and poking around without even knowing if the thing could be fixed at all. Either way, he wasn't giving up until he'd done all he could do.
He didn't mind that everyone in the palace, servant and courtier alike, was gossiping more and more furiously the longer he was out here. All of that had moved to the back of his mind while he worked.
If only everything made as much sense as an engine.
Sometimes he wondered what he would have been if the stars had aligned just a little differently, and he had not been born to a prince and princess, but… someone else. He could be a shopkeeper or a fisherman. He could have died in the invasion of the capital or the Siege of the North. He could have been one of the soldiers that he threw over the walls of Pouhai Stronghold. He could have not even been born in the Fire Nation at all. He could have been a Ba Sing Se legal clerk or some sort of Waterbending shaman.
But he was Firelord Zuko, privileged and cursed by birth alone. He could never give that up and trade it in for something else.
The copper engine casing was punctured in several places. He would need some scrap metal and a proper welding torch to fix that. And the clutch appeared to have a small nest wedged inside, though the animals must have left a while ago. The counterbalance would be another issue entirely.
Mai. Of course it was Mai, kneeling next to the tank and leaning so far down that the long tails of her hair tickled the ground. She smiled slightly, and laid a cool hand on his forehead.
"How are you doing?"
Zuko closed his eyes. "I'm… really tired," he confessed.
"Yeah. So am I." She moved to stroke his cheek, ignoring the gritty later of dust on his skin. "Why don't you come out, and we'll talk about it."
"I don't need to talk about it," Zuko said automatically. Mai's smile melted into a look of displeasure and she withdrew her hand.
Zuko picked the wrench up and went back to work. Mai didn't leave, but simply settled into a more comfortable position and waited. Zuko frowned and unscrewed an exhaust pipe.
"I have to get this running before it gets dark," he said finally.
"I won't be able to see."
"No, why do you need to finish it today?"
One of her long, exasperated sighs. "Zuko, you don't have to fix everything in one try. You do it a little bit at a time and come back to it after you've done something else. No one expects you to fix it in a single afternoon."
Zuko wondered if she'd had tea with his uncle lately.
"I like working with my hands. I should have been a machinist."
"Well, you're not. And your tank will still be there the next time you need it." She tugged lightly on his sleeve. "Come on, I brought you a sandwich."
Actually, he was hungry. Maybe it would be good to take a break.
He rolled out from under the tank, spotted with filth from head to toe. Mai hugged him tight around the neck with no regard for her own clothes. When they finally pulled apart, Zuko had left two large, sooty handprints on the middle of her back.
"You should try to pace yourself more," Mai said. She took a handkerchief-wrapped sandwich out of her sleeve and gave it to Zuko. "I've been taking a few hours off here and there. It might make it so you don't have to completely snap and spend a whole day playing with machines to recover."
"It's hard to stop working once I start." Mmm, crab and cucumber. "And what's wrong with playing with machines?"
"Nothing. It just seems weird, is all."
"I like machines. They remind me of when I was a kid."
Mai snorted. "Now you're telling me you actually liked being banished?"
"That's just nostalgia for the past, nothing else." She squeezed his knee.
"Maybe we should take a family vacation. Just for a few days." Mai brushed a little dirt from Zuko's forehead. "Freshening up the old beach house might be something we can all do together, if you really must fix things in order to relax."
"I don't know. I kind of like it all broken-down." He swallowed the last bite of sandwich.
"Whatever. I just thought that someday we should take the kids somewhere that doesn't have bat-snake nests in every room."
Zuko's eyes bugged. "Kids? You… you aren't—"
"Someday, Zuko, not right now." She gave him that little smile, the one reserved for him alone, the one that told him he was overreacting about something again. He seemed to be getting that look a lot lately. "You need to relax. Everything's going to be fine."
"I'll tame a yeti before I can relax on my own."
"I know." She leaned in and kissed him softly. "That's why you have me to help you."
She always seemed so cool and confident all the time. He didn't know how she did it, especially when he was a neurotic mess almost every day. He still felt like a kid who had been shoved into an adult's shoes before his time, even now that he was a man and had a child of his own. "What if it isn't fine?"
Her hand tightened on his. "Then we'll be in it together." A true smile, one that made her eyes crinkle ever so slightly. "We've done it before, and we'll keep doing it as long as we need to. I promise."