"I still don't fully understand why you're doing this," Izumi muttered.
Her father, Lord Zuko, retired Firelord and hero of the Hundred Year War, was lugging a sack into his pet dragon's saddle bag, about to ride off on his long planned 'vacation'.
"Keep that crown on your head for a few decades and you'll understand," he answered.
"But so soon. It's only been three months since my coronation. I could still use your help here."
"From what I've seen already, I know you'll do fine," Zuko turned back and planted a kiss on his daughter's forehead. "Besides, if anything goes wrong, you know where you can find me. We've gone over the plans at least a dozen times."
"Yes," Izumi answered, "And you're just great at following plans, aren't you?"
"Is that sarcasm I hear in your voice, dear?"
She smiled, though worry returned as her father readied the final straps of Druk's saddle. "I really expected you to spend your retirement lying around on Ember Island. This trip seems… a little extra if I'm honest."
"I am going to Ember Island, and this isn't even a real retirement."
"Ah, yes, Mr. Ambassador of Peace. I forgot."
"Despite your poor memory, Firelord, you are right. It is quite the journey."
Creases cropped up on her forehead, just as they did when Zuko had first announced the trip to her. "Three weeks, maybe more. All the major cities. Days on the open road. Alone."
"I've been through worse, dear," he said, "I need this more than you think I do. I'll be back before you know it. Take care."
"I'm the one who should be saying that to you."
He wrapped Izumi in one last embrace before climbing onto the dragon's saddle. A last goodbye, and Druk launched into the air, beginning day one of a long, long journey.
It was a short trip to their first stop. Druk slipped from above the clouds and landed on the beach with a soft thud, where Ember Island welcomed them with its salty breeze and rowdy sea ravens. Tucked away between a grove of unkempt palms was a lone beach house. It used to be the only building on that stretch of beach, but the city was slowly creeping closer, and was now easily within earshot. He supposed it was a good thing. He wouldn't have to walk too far to get to the broadwalk.
He dismounted, saddle burned and stiff necked. It was probably bad news that his bones were already this tired after barely a day, but he didn't exactly have control over his body at this age. He'd just have to rub some ointment on it and hope he would adjust.
"You go curl up in the courtyard, old boy." He patted the dragon's neck, and Druk slithered up the path to the beach house. It would be awhile before Zuko made his way towards it as well.
He fished out a key from his pocket and opened the door. The scent of wood that had been left to fester in salty winds stuffed his nose. The darkness hurt his eyes, but Zuko knew there wasn't much to see anyway.
He took a step inside, and already something caught his foot. Zuko looked down, spotting a crisp white envelope sealed with red wax that must've been slipped under the doorway. It was a letter from his daughter. From the date inscribed on the top, he could see that she'd sent it a few days ahead of time. Zuko chuckled. It was just like his daughter to get things right in order long before they needed to be. It read:
I hope you're doing well. I know you don't like having this place disturbed, but I sent a few people ahead to clean up the main rooms a bit. I didn't want you sleeping on a dusty mattress on your first night away. I told them to keep everything else in place.
Please, take care. Eat well. Sleep early. Stay close to Druk; he'll have to be the one looking out for you while I can't. Write to me when you reach Gaoling
He smiled. Her words were short and forward; it reminded him of her mother. He laid the letter gingerly on the coffee table, whose surface must have been cleaned of dust just a few days ago, as Izumi had suggested in her letter.
Despite the dusting, the home still had a musty, stale aura to it, the feeling of a house that hadn't seen a visitor in years. It must've been what? A decade or two since he'd been there? A mere fraction of his almost 90 years of life, but a long stretch by any means.
The furniture was luxurious - the house belong to royalty after all - but sparse. There was little in terms of decor, with vases missing flowers and hooks nailed into the walls where pictures once hung. That was just the front room, but he knew most of the house was more of the same - too many rooms with not much fill them with.
He hadn't come here often. Zuko had vacationed notoriously little throughout his years, and when he did take a break he spent it visiting friends or showing Izumi and his grandchildren the world. His visits to Ember Island had been few, far inbetween, and short.
He'd always wanted this place to feel like home again - like those early, early days when he'd visited with his family as a child - and he'd come close to that when he and his friends had hid there before the comet, but but it never truly happened. There was just never the time or reason. No one ever had the same connection with this place that he had - it was always just another house to them. And as time went on, the house just made him feel wistful, keening for a time and for people that had long passed.
Zuko tried to brush the thoughts away. Staying in the beach house was doing nothing to up his mood, and Zuko had promised not to tangle himself in angsty thoughts on this vacation. Or at least, not this soon.
Zuko threw open the windows and took in a lungful of ocean air. This was his vacation, he told himself once more. His break, his time to walk unburdened after 67 years on the throne, without obligations, without a thought of what duties tomorrow would bring - and by the spirits, he was going to enjoy himself.
Zuko sat inside a beachside cafe, hiding away from the midday sun. Light poured through the windows, a breeze tinted with the scent of spoiled fish waltzed in from the open doorways, and in the background, soft jazz gurgled from a hidden jukebox. Zuko was stuffing his face in a newspaper, trying to phase it all out.
A waiter strutted up to him, notepad in hand. "What'll it be?"
"A cup of jasmine tea, please," Zuko muttered.
He could hear the order being scribbled on her notepad. For a few moments, the waiter stood still, and Zuko knew she was squinting in his direction, trying to peek behind the newspaper.
"I said a cup of jasmine, please." He straightened the back of his newspaper again and coughed into his hand. The waiter waited for another second, but eventually walked back to the counter.
A sigh escaped his throat. He was in no mood to be recognized on his first day out of the palace.
It had been alright so far. From staring at the Ember Times for a good ten minutes, he could confirm that there were no headlines about a dragon - and by correlation, a certain ex-Firelord - making landfall last night. He'd left the house dressed as inconspicuous as possible to try and keep it that way.
He'd let his hair down from its usually topknot, trimmed his beard a bit shorter and rougher, and wore simple red traveling clothes that could honestly use a wash. He'd also bought a very touristy straw hat, flower print and all, because his skin had been itching up under the sun. On the brightside, it did a decent job of covering his scar. On the downside, it looked absolutely horrendous. All in all, he looked like the generic retiree that had saved up their money to spend their golden years at Ember Island, and was sorely regretting it.
A steaming cup of tea was placed on his table. Zuko gave his thanks and took a sip. It wasn't bad, but there was a splash of Ember Island's classic spice that made him wrinkle his nose. He left the half-full cup still steaming on the table.
Another sigh escaped his throat. Lounging in cafes wasn't as cracked up as the dramas had made it out to be. He slipped a gold coin on the table and stood to leave.
Outside, the broadwalk was humming with life. Teens dashed by flaunting bright colors and high spirits, families picked their way through arcades to stands to roadside shows, and storekeepers called out to anyone who passed by. The beach was speckled with color and noise, which glared white hot to Zuko's weakened senses. He doubted wading through the broadwalk crowds or taking a dip in the ocean would be pleasant, so Zuko settled on finding somewhere to rest. He walked along the shore until he found a spot that wasn't taken - a seaside bench a few feet away from where a flock of sea-ravens feasted on a spilled bag of fire-flakes. It wasn't like Zuko had any better company.
Zuko squinted at the red blot of a sun, leaning in his seat with a sigh. The romanticism of a beachside life had really sloped downward, he found. Without an able body to enjoy it, all the beach meant was sand, sun, mosquito swarms and loud tourists. It shouldn't have been a surprise. He was 84 years old for crying out loud - it was time to accept that he wouldn't be getting much more out of life at this point.
So why'd you even go? his sore body whined. You're tired, lonely, and nothing's going to change. Why'd you even bother starting this?
The wind picked up, cool against his body, and Zuko leaned into it, letting it ease him.
The days to come will be better, he assured himself. You'll see Gaoling and Ba Sing Se and Republic City. Things will pick up later.
A warning voice answered. Too many laters. You've been putting all your hopes into laters your entire life and look where it's gotten you.
Zuko sunk even lower in his seat.
That's where all the problems were, weren't they? The laters. If he hadn't waited for the laters, he might be walking the boardwalk with friends who all had a spring in their step - caroused the arcade with Toph and Sokka, watched a play with Katara and Aang, even just walk the beach with his wife. He'd saved that all for laters, but like fruit left too long on the vine, those laters all turned to nevers.
Enough laters. The wind spoke to him. What about the nows? You're not in Gaoling or Ba Sing Se or Republic City right now. You're in Ember Island.
The sun felt warmer on his skin, even though it was setting. I'm on Ember Island, he resolved. He was going to take a vacation, and he was going to like it.
It was time to stand up, brush himself off and wander through the broadwalk, taking in the art and music at his own pace. It was time to gaze up at the paper lanterns that hung like glowing, mystical fruit above the walkway. It was time to buy as many damn fire flakes as he wanted. It was time to stand in the crowd of a street show and watch as the bender sent a fiery dragon weaving in the air above their heads.
The crowd kept thickening even as the night had crawled higher and higher. Albeit, the darkness made the flames nothing short of enchanting, even to him, who'd dealt with fire long enough for it to have been as enrapturing as dirt under his shoes. It was as another wave of watchers had joined them - the night showing of The Boy in the Iceberg had apparently just ended - when there was a tug at the hem of his shirt.
A golden eyed child stared up at him. "You're Lord Zuko."
He said it as a simple fact. No question or afterthought in the way only a child could say. A part of him said that he should have been deflated at the fact that he had been found out, that what he knew would inevitably happen had happened. But he couldn't bring himself to worry. He'd had a good night, and that was enough, even if he hoped it could last a little longer
"I am," he answered, placing a hand on the child's shoulder. "Now let's not spoil the night."
By the grace of some spirit, no one seemed to hear them, and the kid didn't seem keen on shouting out his company to the world.
They turned back to the show, but the bender had already taken her bows and disappeared, leaving behind a dark stage. The square had descended into that state of murmurs that came after applause and the glare of the show had made the street seem hazy, when a high pitched screech split the sky. It was just before the first golden burst of light streaked through the dark that Zuko remembered that at the end of every week, Ember Island hosted its famed fireworks show.
The boy hung on his leg as the sky exploded in color. The light made white spots in his eyes, but above all the smoke and noise, Zuko found it quite beautiful.
The windows of the old house store out into the night like the eyes of a giant cat-owl. Dazed from the lights and worn from the walk, Zuko made his way up the path and in through the door.
He tread through the hallways with light feet, as if he were a child sneaking around after bedtime.
He opened the door to a small guest room, one of the rooms they'd used while hiding from Ozai before the comet. He took a short walk inside, rifled the drawers of desks and dressers, most of which were empty. Then he walked back into the hallway, shut of the lights, and left the room to rest again. It'd be left like that for oh, who knows, maybe another few decades.
Zuko kept exploring, ducking into rooms as if he'd expected the house to have changed in all this time. He'd had it cleaned up, fixed the one hallway he'd burned down and had the building wired up, but never cleared it out. Things had been shuffled around, touched up and wiped down, but the house for the most part was the same as it had been 70 years ago.
His family rarely came to visit, and even then, they never truly stuck their roots in and called it home. It was just another house, another vacation spot, they'd been to plenty others all around the world. So the house stayed unpersonalized, unrenovated. He'd always wanted to do something with it, turn it into somewhere he could call home, but that time never came. At some point, the place had turned stale. Perhaps it was when family vacations had begun to stop including him. Or perhaps it was when his friends had started to pass away.
The fact stood that the beach house hadn't been used for over two decades. Zuko kept it solely as a momento, like a high upkeep souvenir of a time long past. Once he passed, the sentimentality of this place would be gone. But he was 84, he was stubborn, and perhaps he deserved to be a little selfish.
The time to do the things he wanted was now. There was no guarantee of 'later' anymore. And the first thing he wanted to do was get this place out of limbo. Zuko scourged up a sheet of paper and wrote:
Be a dear and get the beach house cleaned up for me. I've decided where I'll be staying once I get back. Love and wishes till then. Try not to worry about me too much.