Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender. I'll take full blame for this plot, though.
Firewater Rose: Recap
When we last saw our friends, Zuko had just ended his father's reign. Sokka had just planted his boomerang in Azula's back. Katara had just given birth prematurely to a daughter she was later told died a short time later. The child was the result of repeated sexual assaults while in Zhao's custody. Pakku delivered said child to the Southern Water Temple and named her, "Kanna." Aang died in Zuko's arms after destroying Sozin's Comet, and the world came to believe that he died in the Avatar State, thus breaking the Avatar Cycle. So far, only Zuko knows that the Avatar will be reborn. And the first chapter is backtracking just a bit, back to the Night of the Comet. On with the story!
Any additional Author's Notes and Special Thanks will be in my profile.
Firewater Rose: Arc 2, Chapter 1
The air was thick with the fumes of burned wood, burned flesh, and everything else in the Fire Palace that could burn as the waterbenders worked through the night to put out the fires. Skeletal fingers of structural beams stood out in stark contrast to the bright orange flames that still burned inside. Numbly, Zuko helped his uncle carry the water tribe warrior down the stairs of the grand entrance.
Slowly, the boy was regaining consciousness. Once they were safely away from the palace and out of the way of the waterbenders, they set him down and leaned him against the wrought-iron fence that decorated the grand entrance. For half the night, uncle and nephew stared in wonder as one of the greatest reminders of Fire Lord Ozai's reign burned away.
When Sokka came to, he stood behind Zuko. "Now there's something you don't see every day," he quipped lightheartedly. Any further comments from him, lighthearted or otherwise, died in his throat when Zuko and Iroh turned cold stares to him.
When the last of the fires were quenched in the early hours of the morning, Iroh tapped Zuko on the shoulder and pointed to a handful of Fire Sages standing on the stairs. The Sages bowed deeply in front of Zuko, prompting him to turn a confused gaze to Iroh.
"Fire Lord Zuko," one began, "we are about to begin removing the dead. I fear there is nothing to salvage within the Palace."
"Come, Lord Zuko," Iroh's voice was stern, "Let us get you to your retreat. There is no need for you to stay here."
"I will stay," Zuko's voice was firm, resolute. Fire Lord Zuko... In all the chaos of the fire, the destruction, in turning his homeland on its ear, it hadn't occurred to him that it had been him that defeated Ozai in an Agni Kai, therefore, making him the new Fire Lord. That realization would have meant the world to him six months earlier. Now, it was a hollow victory.
Slowly, a stretcher bearing a body was brought out. Zuko caught his breath for a moment. The body was too big to belong to a 12-year-old, though. The somber procession stopped next to the Sage that had addressed him, and the sheet was pulled back. Father... Solemnly, reverently, the Sage removed Ozai's crown from his head and wrapped it in a red velvet cloth.
"Fire Lord Zuko, it was Fire Lord Ozai's final wish to be cremated. What are your orders?" the Sage asked.
Iroh stepped behind his nephew, holding his gaze forward, prepared to advise the new Fire Lord if it was needed. It wasn't.
"Cremate him. In two days' time, he will receive his funeral pyre," Zuko ordered. "Here, in the city's central square. Use timbers from the Palace to build it."
As he gazed at the corpse that had been his father, Zuko felt... nothing. No anger, no grief. He couldn't dredge up any emotion at all. Concern reflected in Iroh's eyes as he observed his nephew.
More bodies were brought out one by one, and moved to a makeshift morgue. They all ranged in status from maids to advisors, lined-up next to the former Fire Lord himself. An anguished cry sounded behind Zuko's left shoulder as the last body was brought out. Sokka dashed up the stairs as Aang's body was laid out on the top landing.
Zuko followed him up the stairs and knelt on the ground next to the Avatar's body. Where Zuko had felt nothing for the death of his father, a great swell of grief rose up within him at the sight of Aang's broken body. A shadow stretched across the corpse, it's finger pointing off in the distance.
Zuko looked up to see what Iroh was pointing at. On the far side of the square, Avatar Roku's statue was on fire. Angry shouts rang out in the morning air. A horde of angry shadows railed against the Avatar's likeness.
"Guards!" Zuko called. A half-dozen men in Fire Palace livery immediately appeared at their Lord's side. "Guard this body with your lives."
Zuko stood next to his uncle, leaving Sokka to grieve for their friend in quiet. Iroh spoke first.
"Such anger," he said, his voice marked with calm wisdom as he watched the throng gathered around Roku's likeness, "If there is one mob like this, there are a thousand around the Fire Nation."
"They're just mad that Sozin's Comet's been destroyed," Zuko remarked. "They'll calm down in a few days."
"Do you really think so, Fire Lord Zuko?" Iroh raised one wizened brow to his nephew, "The Water Tribe doesn't have the strength to protect an Avatar. Perhaps it is for the best that the cycle is broken."
Zuko stared at his uncle.
"If the cycle is unbroken, their revenge on the Avatar and his Tribe will be swift and merciless," Iroh emphasizing, "merciless."
One of the Sages nudged his shoulder, but Sokka refused to acknowledge him. What am I going to tell Katara? Images of his sister, laughing at some silly comment the monk had made, or hugging him, or one of a hundred tender moments he had witnessed the two of them sharing flowed through his memory. The sage nudged him a little harder, and he looked up with bloodshot eyes.
"We have to move him, young man. We can't leave him here," the Sage told him quietly.
Sokka looked up to where Roku's statue was ablaze. He nodded his bleary agreement and stood up, giving the Sages room to move Aang's body to a safer spot. A glint of metal on one of the steps caught his eye and he bent down to pick it up. It was his boomerang.
Hmm. Musta fallen off her when they carried her out, he thought. He secured the weapon behind his back and took the longest walk of his life back to where Appa was waiting.
A very tired Fire Lord Zuko gazed coldly at one of three advisors standing in his audience chamber. The rotund man was dressed opulently in gold silks and crimson velvets that dragged on the floor behind him wherever he walked. Zuko was certain that the only combat the man had ever seen was an argument over what to have for dessert.
"Repair it again," Zuko hissed at the man.
"But, my lord, the dissidents will just tear it back down," the pudgy man insisted.
"That statue has stood at the center of the square for a hundred years. I will not tolerate disrespect for the Avatar's sacrifice! Avatar Roku's statue will be restored."
For the last three months, Zuko had been overseeing the rebuilding of the Fire Nation capital. Much of the city was left in ruins after the Comet. Most of its citizens were living in tent colonies wherever there was a spot clear of rubble. Zuko had spotted the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by commissioning artisans to restore the city's most cherished cultural history with funds from the Palace's treasury, pumping valuable coin into the economy.
Still, vast portions of the city were being built anew. The last vestiges of Sozin's reign were burned away. The people were slowly leaving the city's former identity behind, and with it, it's name. Some circles had re-christened it Kuang-feng, "Fierce Wind," in honor of Avatar Aang. The change pleased the new Fire Lord, so it was made official.
There had been nothing left of the Fire Palace to salvage. The debris was cleared away, and the shell of a new palace was taking shape. It would be another month or more before the building would be ready to serve in any official capacity. Until then, the Fire Lord kept court at his late father's retreat north of the city.
The pudgy man opened his mouth to continue his protest, but was silenced by an abrupt motion from his Lord to be quiet.
"You're all dismissed until after lunch. I'm sure the cook has something new and fascinating to eat this afternoon," Zuko released his advisors, all but one.
"Uncle, would you join me for lunch, today?"
Iroh suppressed a chuckle. "Fire Lord Zuko, I was under the impression that the seats on both sides of yours were taken..."
Zuko stood up from his throne with a grumble. At that moment, a chorus of high-pitched giggling erupted from his dining room. The Fire Lord scowled in the direction that the offending noise had come from.
"No, Uncle, I will be dining in my chambers today. Have the cook deliver our meals to my sitting room?"
Iroh repressed a laugh, and nodded. Zuko slipped out of the rear entrance to his audience chamber while Iroh set off for the kitchens. A few minutes later, Iroh led the cook into Zuko's sitting room. The cook laid their meal out on a small table as the two men kneeled to eat.
"So, nephew, which is the lucky girl?" Iroh prodded with a twinkle in his eye. "Will it be Meishi? Or Keiko? Keiko's a very pretty girl..."
"None of them, Uncle."
"None? As Fire Lord, you have a duty..." Iroh fumbled.
"I have a duty to not die and leave my people in chaos because I stupidly married the daughter of some two-bit politician with designs on my throne," Zuko finished. "When I take a wife, she will care more about this nation than herself."
"Surely you're not insinuating that Lady Meishi or Lady Keiko would..."
"I'm not insinuating anything. Their fathers were loyal to my father. I don't trust them," Zuko took a bite of something that looked like fish, but he didn't taste it. "Can we please discuss the business of the nation?"
Iroh refrained from pointing out that a royal marriage was the business of the nation, and opted to move on to an easier topic. "Have you selected your emissaries, yet?"
"One, yes," Zuko began. "You. I need you to go to the Southern Water Tribe."
"Me? Why?" Iroh was perplexed. Zuko pushed the remaining fish around on his tin plate with his fork.
"You're the only one I trust with this mission, and the only one I know who can do it. Once you locate the tribe, look for a waterbender named Katara. She'll be about my age. Ask her to come to the Palace on behalf of her tribe. If she balks, I will provide you with a package to deliver that may change her mind.
"Once you are there, you will be my ambassador to them. I'm sending Shyu with you. He's transporting copies from the library at his temple to the Southern Water Temple. Give him any support he requires."
Iroh nodded his agreement. "Very well, Zuko, if that is your wish."
Zuko smiled. In public, Iroh was an infallible display of decorum. In private, they remained simply, "Uncle," and, "Zuko." The remainder of their meal was spent discussing spending plans and the ongoing restoration efforts. As they prepared to return to the audience chamber for the Fire Lord's afternoon meetings, Zuko grabbed Iroh's shoulder.
"Contact Admiral Jee. I want you to take him, his crew, and his ship on this mission."
Iroh nodded to his nephew. If Iroh was the only man Zuko could trust with this mission, Jee was the only man Zuko could trust with his uncle. As the kitchen aids entered to clear away the dishes, Zuko stopped the one that had grabbed his plain plate.
"Tell your master that his fate is bound to that plate. The next time I find it in the rubbish pile, the Kitchen Master will join it," he instructed the youngster. Iroh looked as if he desperately wished to say something, but Zuko didn't feel like explaining himself to his uncle.