Book I: Balance
There were two versions of the great noble city of Ba Sing Se. There is the part that is able to attract the most prestigious visitors from all over the world with its picturesque libraries and grand museums that held thousands of artifacts and works from all over. The city's concert halls which have spun some of the loveliest songs ever to grace anyone's ears, to the hundreds of majestic earth bended gardens that ringed around the city displaying rare plants of such beauty that no one would could expect them to continue to flourish any place but the city itself.
Yes, there is the shining front that is the city of Ba Sing Se, but there was also another side, the realm of the lower regions, where the not so fortunate dwell. It's the part that's never mentioned in the fliers, the area where all of the artisans, laborers, and thieves roamed. More importantly it was the realm where the real people of Ba Sing Se lived.
It was here that fallen Prince Zuko had found himself this night. He wrapped himself deep into his forest green robes as a slight chilling wind blew through the streets. Not for the first time did his hand instinctively reach for his hidden dual board swords because he didn't appreciate the scrutiny an onlooker was giving him while he continued to walk. But after some time, they would return to their own devices and then his golden eyes continued to drift back and forth, as the life of the lower city flowed around him.
Despite what he might have told others, he enjoyed this freedom. Life in the Ba Sing Se palace was getting too hectic for his likes. Between Azula's scheming with Mia and Ty Lee, not to mention the former Dai Li's leader Long Feng. His sister and Long Fend, he especially knew were up to something, something they weren't ready to fill him in yet.
His eyes narrowed at the thought as he blew a breath of frustration. It was yet another moment, where he considered his error when he sided with his sister. He then shook his head at the notion. He should be content now. Everything that he ever wanted was finally falling into place. He had taken a shared a part in the conquest of Ba Sing Se, the famous earth kingdom city that even his legendary General Uncle couldn't have brought down. He now, more than ever, was probably on the road to regaining his honor and everything that was lost to him.
…And it only cost him the betrayal of the one person that truly cared about him the most.
Taking another breath, he allowed those thoughts to past as he continued to move through the streets. This wasn't the first time the young man's thoughts strayed to his uncle. There was a hollowness inside of himself now that he recognized. It was a dull ache that seemed to radiate whenever thoughts of his uncle resurfaced. He tried to drown the emptiness with constant drilling and training, but it still remained.
He was well aware of what the ache inside was; he knew where its source lied. But he had yet formed the strength to address it and to seek it out. Instead he had taken to the city streets, hoping the cool evening air would clear his thoughts and his conscience.
A small band of children suddenly appearing racing up the street, they all were laughing and playing as they ran circles around the Fire Nation Prince, then darting off into another direction. Automatically Zuko's hand when to his coin purse, it was well known that the lower crust of the city held thieves in all shapes in sides. It was wise keep your eyes always on your valuables. Finding nothing misplaced, he continued walking.
The young Prince thought's continued to mull and drift over the events of the past week. He especially remembered, the day before when Long Feng stood in front of all the citizens. It seemed whispers of an overthrow or insurgency had leaked to the citizens, and the Cultural Director wanted to put the people's fears to rest and further place the nail in the coffin.
"I would like to address some of the startling rumors that have been cropping up around the city. Of some sort of a hostile take over or rebellion," the older man held a bemused smile.
"Why I was discussing the humorous account with, his highness just this morning and he immediately ordered me to come speak before you all. He and I would personally like to put to rest these allegations." Long Feng took a breath then continued speaking, "Ba Sing Se is just as safe and prosperous as the day it's first opened its doors," a calming sigh seemed to be released from the whole crow. "In fact," he continued, "the Earth King has just now signed a unification treaty with the Fire Nation, so we can both combine our two great Nations under one rule."
This statement was received with mixed approval. The people that had been raised in the city all their lives and had no prior knowledge of the war cheered, while the refugees who knew full well the tyranny of the Fire Nation, felt a cold chill crawl up their backs. "Now, you might notice a few changes in the up and coming weeks, as trading between our nations will start to flourish, but rest assured, the Earth King has all your best interests at heart."
Zuko remembered standing amongst the Earth Kingdom's people then just like now, while hearing Long Feng's words. The Unification treaty was Azula's idea, a pile of bureaucratic nonsense that basically stated that Ba Sing Se was rightfully under the thumb of the Fire Nation. And since Azula was secretly pulling the strings from the shadows, the future looked bleak for the Grand City that for a few weeks the young Prince had found a place in.
He now walked among them, the citizens of a city he helped capture. They were all unknowing prisoners within their city, and none was the wiser. He should have been proud. Azula, as always, planned the city's capture almost perfectly. And now steps were being put into place to silently squeeze the Fire Nation's hold onto Ba Sing Se permanently. He should have been content, but every time he thought he could draw pride with his actions, the emptiness again presented itself.
The young man continued to walk through the city streets. He saw folks haggling with venders, each trying to get the better deal. He saw a young man carefully ushering his wife who appeared to be in the early months of her pregnancy. He saw another gang of children running and playing, kites of different shapes and sizes trailing behind them. The sights and sounds, it couldn't help to continually bring a renewed feeling of home to him. And he couldn't help thinking that he allowed all of this to fall into Azula's hands.
"What have I done?" he whispered to himself, while stopping in the middle of the street.
The dark of night slowly rolled over the city like a deep mist as Zuko continued his traveling. His startling realization from before further darken his thoughts to where he wasn't even concerned with where he went, although he had no real destination to begin with.
After turning one last corner and wandering down an alley, he slowly came upon a well-lit masterfully carved fountain. The fountain held three suspended pools, with an overflowing of water that sprouted from the top that cascaded down into each additional level. The bottom well was surrounded by a several arrangement of candles. There were also a series of lanterns that encircled the whole fountain.
The place brought a feeling of nostalgia to the Fire Prince. It took another second before he realized where he was. "This is the fountain," he said to himself, out loud. He remembered now, his evening spent in the company of one of his Uncle's faithful costumers, a young girl named Jin. Surprising enough the memory brought a warm feeling to his heart, a testament that his occupation as a simple peasant tea server wasn't as unpleasant as he initially thought.
"A penny for your thoughts?" he heard a voice call from behind him. Its sound held a faint hint of familiarity that his memory couldn't pinpoint till he saw its source. It was her.
His eyes fell on her forest green kimono, which was the norm for many Earth Nation girls. It wasn't gaudy or over-elaborate like some of the gowns he seen from his days within the Fire Nation's royal palace, but it seemed to fit her none the less. His eyes then drifted up again, his stern pride and discipline would not permit his eyes to linger on the shape and nice curves of her body, but he did note they were present. He took in her rich dark hair, which was again formed into two braids that fell along side of her face. His gaze then went to her face, staring into her forest green eyes, which he noticed were looking slightly nervous. It was then he realized he spent several moments just staring at her without making a response.
Realizing his mistake he offered a simple bow in greeting to her, which was swiftly met with her throwing her arms around him in a deep hug. Zuko was stunned by the sudden act of intimacy, but he didn't withdraw.
"I missed you guys," she offered sweetly. Her emerald green eyes alight with some inner fire, "You and your Uncle," she stated evenly, "The guy they got to replace to him at the tea shop, is simply horrible," Jin then paused in thought, "Hey, where is your uncle?" she asked her bright eyes looking around, almost if the girl was expecting the older man to pop out from around the corner somewhere.
The inquiry about his uncle took Zuko back a step, he hastily offered a cough, and uneasily rubbed the back of his head as he answered, "Well, we sort of had a falling out," he muttered. Which was to say the least.
Jin's eyes soften, as she frowned, "Oh that's too bad..."a sincere hint of sadness was in her voice. She then quickly brighten as another thought came to her, "Do you need a place to stay?" she asked him. He couldn't help to notice the faint tint of pink that brighten her face. He himself knew he probably was a shade or two brighter from the suggestion as well.
"Oh no," he shook his head fiercely, "I'm staying in the palaaa...Errr I mean the place," he quickly recovered with another set of coughs. He always was a terrible liar. "I mean I have a place," he supplied more firmly.
The girl nodded in acceptance. There was a moment of silence as either fought for another subject to talk about. But once again Jin proved to be the quicker, "Do you think you and your Uncle will patch things up?" her tone suggesting she was genuinely concerned.
Zuko shook his head in earnest, "I don't know..." his gaze lowered.
Her eyes soften again while looking at him; she noticed the slight lost look on his face. "You should go talk to him," she suggested while placing a hand on his shoulder.
His eyes went to the small delicate looking hand that was place against his shoulder. Her smooth cream-colored skin, the small detail of her painted nails, the fact the longer her hand was on him the warmer and slightly uncomfortable he felt. His eyes quickly looked up as what she said finally registered. He wore a dubious look, "I can't do that."
Jin eyebrows forked in confusion, "Why not?"
He sighed, his mind deliberating on how incredible his situation was, "It's...It's complicated," he said finally.
She frowned; remember hearing the cryptic response before. The girl then smiled brightly, "Well let's goes some place that's not complicated," she grinned eagerly, while taking his hand. Not noticing if he actually wanted to go with her or not.
"Do you like poetry?" she asked in an afterthought.
The next three hours, Zuko could only describe as some of the most uncomfortable, unnerving, yet exciting and humorous times of his life. Jin had taken him to a spoken word poetry club. It seemed to be one of the latest raves among the young teen girls in Ba Sing Se, especially, after the antics of one wild boy that came crashing into one of the Five Seven Five Society's sessions. The place seemed to draw in all sorts of newcomers from around the city that wanted to express their more lyrical side.
Even Jin spoke a few poems she had brought with her. Although Zuko hadn't known much about poetry or the power in between the arrangement of the words, he thought she sounded pleasant to listen to. And if he was another person, he might have even admitted that he was having a good time.
When she left from the stage, Zuko noticed a fresh bounce lingered within her step. As if reciting the poems themselves unleashed a part of her soul that she wanted the whole world to hear, and if the way her eyes fell on him while she spoke was any indication, she wanted him to hear as well.
The time was well passed midnight and after the shop had closed, the two were seen walking down, making light conversation. Through it all, Jin suddenly rested her head on his shoulder while talking. Zuko...or Li, who she believed he to be, froze stiff like a board. The girl only laughed from his rigid performance, "Li, you are seriously in need of some affection," she mirthfully stated, her gazing falling up to him again. He nearly deadpanned, from her statement, which had her giggling joyfully again.
"I'm only playing..." she teased, and then her lips pressed together, "Here" and she softly kissed him. The girl thought he was the oddest guy she'd ever met. He held himself very tall and profound, almost regal in a way that made him stand out from all the others. But yet there were moments, rare moments when his proud air cracked and he was like every other young boy she'd meet. It was cute, and she believed she was what she liked about him so much.
Her kiss was just like he remembered it, soft and sweet. He couldn't help to notice an innocence within her, a purity that seemed to aura around her. If she ever found out who he really was or his part in siege of her city… "I'm not who you think I am..." he said suddenly breaking away from her.
From his retreat she merely just smiled softly and gently took her hand to guide him to face her again. "People seldom are," she whispered coyly, but all Zuko could concentrate on was her lips and how full and soft they looked, "Especially cute guys," she couldn't help adding with a grin. She then drew him for another deep kiss and this time he didn't pull away.
The exchange lasted for several long moments and breathless the earth city girl parted, "Tell me you want to see me again…" she whispered to him, her eyes searching his, "Tomorrow… Next week… Just someday," she then took his hand, "Please…?"
"I…I…" his voice was caught in his throat. For the first time in his young life his thoughts were whirling and it wasn't because of some promise for glory or honor. It wasn't for some uncertain amount of respect or approval. He felt so unsure about himself because this girl was slowly unraveling all his resolve, all his many years of discipline.
She was opening something with him that was exciting and frightening at the same time, and he didn't know what to do. But that look, that pleading look in her green emerald eyes that was just waiting for acceptance, a moment later Jin received her answer when he pressed his lips against hers.
Zuko noticed something within him as well, that just for a moment, that emptiness inside of him went away.
There are a lot of things to consider when you've contained in a room of pitch-blackness for twenty-four hours a day, because honestly what else can you really do? Some would consider these thoughts doubts or reservations, when one comes to reflect upon the doings of their life. Iroh has come to call these issues his failures.
Failure is a concept that comes to everyone that has learned and survived as long as he has, because it is through failure that one truly learns. Some failures are acceptable loses and consequences, chain reactions to events one has triggered. They can make the sufferer stronger and better prepared in case the event should arrive again.
And then there are some loses and failures one can never recuperate from. Through his history of successes and failures, Iroh has believed himself to be severely lucky. He's came into his age rather coolly, learned to value fine assortment of teas, a force to be reckoned with on the Pai Sho table, and he's fairly talented firebender master.
Although with his successes there have been failures. Many were trivial, his losing the throne to be the Fire Lord, his defeat at the city of Ba Sing Se. These events he can live with. But there have been two detrimental events in his life that even he couldn't recover from.
The first incident was the lost of his beloved son, Lu Ten. His son was his replica to the world. The one thing he could say in all his year of warmongering, his son was the one true victory in his life. When he was taken from him, it shook the core of Iroh's being. He questioned his destiny, he questioned his faith, and he even questioned the spirits themselves. But time provided the cure and Iroh regained his faith in himself and the spirits. He remembered that the life cycle is continuous and even though there are moments of darkness eventually the light will shine though.
But recently it has been so hard to remember that.
Being cast in continuous darkness in a foreign city's dungeon, wounded in pride and in heart, because he was betrayed by the one he held such hopes for. Iroh can only wonder. He sits and questions his actions. How could he have error so greatly? He remembers his lessons on fire…
Fire is the element full of life. It is wild, free, untamed. It burns fast and long, and if bright enough, there are some flames that burn forever.
But fire is unique in its appeal, as former General Iroh has learned, because not only can it scorch and burn its opponents, if not watched carefully, fire can also burn the user as well. It is that reason now that he sits in the black.
Almost immediately he cuts his mind off from those dark thoughts. There would only be continual sorrow if he continued. So instead he leaves this place. His body rests along the floor, but his mind is at another place. Cool, at ease and at peace, he is able to travel outside these walls, above his ceiling, rising higher and higher outside of time itself, to when all he can see is green sun lit fields and a young boy and his father playing endlessly.
But soon he returns, because he senses that he has a visitor.
The door to Iroh cell crept open with an unnerving high-pitched screech that only metal against metal could provide. The old man's eyes then adjusted as the first traces of light he's had in day's hits him. The images are blurry at first, leaving him with only basic shapes, but he soon makes out his nephew's appearance.
For a long time no words were spoken between the two men, Iroh's thoughts whirling. Where did I go terribly wrong? He continually asked himself. Iroh understood the day that his son passed away, that he would no longer be a father, that there would be no one to carry on his name, no one to call him dad, and eventually granddad. It took him so long to come to this conclusion but he did eventually.
But here there was another young boy that desperately needed someone. Iroh knew he could never take the place of his own son, but the old General would stand by this boy, his nephew to the very end. So he sailed away with Zuko on his red herring quest for the Avatar, to adventure and uncertainty. He never knew in a thousand years that the events of that day would eventually lead to his banishment from his own country and being imprisoned.
Iroh couldn't believe that his nephew, the one he'd journeyed with, fought alongside with could betray him so truly. He tried so hard to live a good life, and to show his nephew how to forge a path of his own choosing, not what someone else said his future to be. But his actions, his sacrifices, and words fell on the ears for a foolish young man that wasn't able to see the world outside of his own two eyes. There were very few things that could shake Iroh's faith in the Spirits. But his nephew's acts, made him again question their motives.
This was the second greatest failure of Iroh's life, his inability to open the eyes of his troubled nephew. But unlike the lost of his son where depression and sadness crept into his heart, the betrayal by his nephew, by the one he taken under his wing, left only burning swell of anger within Iroh's heart.
It was this that he met his nephew's stare with burning, unflinching anger. But to his surprise, instead of face full of malevolence to meet his own, or a look of contempt, instead Zuko, his nephew wore a mask comprised of confusion, not to mention a few servings of wonderment.
"Uncle," he said in that same lost little boy voice he had, that Iroh always recognized as his true nephew, "I think I have a girlfriend…"
Till this day, Iroh never lost faith in the spirits again.
End of Chapter 4
A/N: I have to say this has been one of the more challenging chapters I've had to write for this story. Namely because it involves so much of Zuko and I hate to say it, Zuko has always been very boring to me while watching the show. I mean sure he's an ok fighter, not the best, but he's always been two dimensional to me. I mean the traditional proud, loner, with the bad boy attitude and a tragic past, it gets kind of old after seeing it reincarnated a dozen or more times.
Also I wanted to add apparently this will have a bit of a Zuko/Jin in there as well. I won't get into the whole debate of if Zuko loves one girl over another. From what I've seen in the show, Zuko hasn't shown any real interest in anyone outside his Mother, so I'm not gonna go into that whole thing. I picked Jin, merely from convenience sake. She was still living in Ba Sing Se, so it wouldn't be impossible for Zuko to run into her again. And since she was bold enough to go ask him out the first time, I didn't see why she wouldn't try for a second time, especially if she liked him that much.
So we'll see how that goes.