I am so sorry it has taken so long. I lost my muse, and even this chapter was hard to force out. I will try my best to get another chapter up quicker. Again, I am very sorry.

Disclaimer: If only I COULD own Avatar… Zuko…

The day dawned somberly grey and sunless on the fourteenth day, the day a prince was forever banished from his only home, and a loyal uncle would follow his nephew anywhere. A warship was docked in the Fire Nation's capital city, and its crew was quietly loading the supplies into the ship's hold. Two captains were overseeing this affair.

"Captain Zhong, Captain Longwei, good morning." Retired General Iroh greeted them gravely.

The two bowed respectfully. Zhong was the first to speak up. "Where is his Highness?"

"I am here, Captain Zhong." The prince's voice was quiet and defeated. It was as though he simply did not feel as though he needed to speak. He had been several yards behind his uncle with his guard, his legs not cooperating him as he dealt with the reality of what had happened. He was coping with the idea he had bandages on his face because his own father had injured him. "How long until we depart?"

Longwei answered. "It will not be for a few hours, for we have some matters to close before we leave, but your quarters have been prepared…" He had no time to finish, as Zuko had already started up the ramp to shut himself away. Longwei looked towards Iroh, at a loss for words.

"This is the first time he's been outside since the Agni Kai." Iroh sighed.

Zhong nodded. "Ah. Yes." He glanced around to make sure they were alone, and then turned his attention back to Iroh. "Zhao will be here soon to see us off. He's been beside himself." He nearly flinched when one of the Fire Lord's top commanders strutted by, obviously to oversee the departure of the prince, and continued confidently. "With glee. He's been beside himself with glee."

"Ah. Of course." Iroh was quick to play along. There wasn't much else he could do if he wanted to protect his nephew and the conspiracy against the Fire Lord. A part of him mourned for his brother, and always would mourn. There had been a time when Iroh was the more aggressive of the two, but life changed people. Iroh knew the cost of his actions; Ozai simply didn't care, as long as he got his way. Iroh sighed, shaking away the grief. There was nothing else to be done, except leave.

"Captains," Lieutenant Ji approached his commanding officers. "If I might be relieved of duty for a time?" He asked respectfully.

Longwei raised an eyebrow. "Why, lieutenant?"

"I thought the prince might appreciate some… younger company?" He chose his words wisely and tried to sound confident, but his statement ended up sounding like a question. "I mean no disrespect, General Iroh, but you must understand, he is still very young and will not listen to you…!"

Iroh had to take several deep breaths to keep himself from laughing at the nervousness apparent on one of the Fire Nation's most eminent, rising officers. The retired General nodded and bowed. "I would be most pleased if you could find some way to help my nephew."

Captain Zhong exchanged a glance with Longwei and without words, they had a decision. Zhong smiled grimly and nodded. "Go, Ji. But I expect you to be at my side with word of the prince's plans and directions within an hour!" He snapped off in a commanding fashion.

Ji saluted quickly, and headed back onto the ship, his feet making little noise from years of firebending. The two captains turned back to Iroh. The three men, so different in age and backgrounds, had similar thoughts. They were filled with trepidation, their fears stemming from a lack of knowledge of the future. Military rank was nothing compared to crown princedom, so Zuko was completely in charge of the expedition. He was prone to be irrational and emotional, and those character flaws would only be magnified by the recent trauma. Iroh sighed, tucking his hands into sleeves.

"I will go onto the deck so I might enjoy the view of the city before we leave. I will miss it gravely." Iroh intoned quietly, and the two captains followed him to finish their necessary duties. They still had inventories to oversee and sign off on, and there was a pot of tea in their joint quarters that had been prepared for their arrival.

XXX

Ji knocked lightly on the prince's door, and then stepped back, his hands clasped behind his back. Though he was fraught with so many conflicting emotions – he wished he could be with his wife whom he might never see again, but he knew he was needed on this mission – he understood that a young man who had lost much and would be tortured by what might have been needed to hear that there were those around him who still respected him. Above all, Zuko needed to hear that there was still a possibility of hope. Ji had no idea how he would teach Zuko about hope, as he felt none himself, but he needed to try.

Zuko pulled the door open, and because of the flickering light, Ji was disturbed by the prince's appearance. Pity quickly too the place of whatever fear had afflicted him, and he bowed. "Prince Zuko, might I speak with you?"

"No." Zuko replied harshly and made to close the door.

Ji stopped the door from closing with his hand, and stepped aside when Zuko tried to blast him. "Prince Zuko, I must insist-!" Zuko cut him off.

"Let go of the door." Zuko snapped. "I do not wish to speak with anyone."

Ji understood how angry Zuko was; like Zhao, Ji was certain his father had been killed by the Fire Lord. Zuko was angry at the world and at Agni for taking away everything he had ever wanted. Zuko believed no one would ever believe in him again, and he was struggling to cope with his entire world changing. Though their circumstances were nothing alike, Ji felt for the young boy, and sought to help him in some way.

Ji let go of the door, but Zuko did not slam it in his face. He looked up at the lieutenant, strangely fascinated for some reason Ji couldn't understand. They merely studied each other's face for a long moment, until Zuko's posture slumped and he stepped to one side. Ji nodded, his silent thanks, and entered the prince's room. Ji didn't comment on how the Fire Nation tapestry had been ripped from its mounting on the wall and charred into a crisp, and how its remains were in one corner. He also didn't point out how the table had been picked up and smashed against the wall. He thought it was best if he allowed Zuko to initiate conversation.

"Would you like something to drink?" Zuko's dead voice asked.

Ji shook his head. "No, thank you." He inclined his head, and lost any confidence he had. "Prince Zuko, I felt a need to speak with you about… what happened." He stumbled over how to phrase his sentences, and felt like a fool. "My prince, I know I am not the most eloquent person, but I must let you know there is still reason to hope."

"That my father will love me? Is that what you want to hear, Lieutenant?" Zuko spat out his title. "Do you want me to break down and cry about how my father will not accept me, and has sent me on a fool's quest to find the Avatar, who has not been seen for a hundred years? Please, do not patronize me. I am well aware that I will never return home. I do not want one of my father's spies to rub that into my face!" His voice had changed rapidly from its emotionless state until Zuko was screaming at him.

Ji, although taken aback, did not move. "Prince Zuko, there are more things to hope for than for the Fire Lord's favor." He pointed out. "I, along with the rest of the crew, have no desire to see you so traumatized."

Zuko scoffed, and then walked to the door and threw it open. "Leave, Lieutenant. You have mocked me too much in the last several seconds, that I feel I would have reason to execute you. LEAVE!"

Ji bowed, and left, feeling as though he might have pushed the prince over the edge, to the point he could never be saved from his emotions. He was also humiliated, and vowed to never look the prince in the eye again. He sighed, and went to speak with the captains.

XXX

Zhao finally escaped the sweltering War Room, and rushed to see the ship off. He began weaving through the crowd, as was his natural instinct, and then remembered himself. He shouted a warning to the nearby people, and they bowed as they scurried to make a path. He threatened a terrified old man when the poor elderly man had to lean heavily on his daughter to move, and as such, was not moving quick enough. He walked at a faster pace after that, as though he could outrun his guilt as such actions. However, it was necessary, and they, the conspirators, had already come so far that he was not willing to give them away with a break in character.

He came to the docks and boarded the ship. He acknowledged General Iroh, and sought out the captains. Zhong and Longwei looked up when he entered their planning room, and Ji, who had been speaking, paused. Zhao gave them a smile and closed the door behind him.

"How are you fairing? Shall you be leaving soon?" He inquired pleasantly as he took a seat and allowed Ji to pour him a cup of tea.

"We are fairing well, and yes, we will leave within the hour. Is everything in place?" Zhong asked as he leafed through a bundle of papers, looking for a map of a few islands on the Earth Kingdom coast.

"Yes." Zhao answered shortly, but Ji looked curious.

"What do you speak of? I was not informed of anything else." He was offended that something had been planned behind his back. He had expected better of Zhao.

Zhao took a sip of his tea, appreciating the smooth taste, and shook his head. "No, do not trouble yourself, Ji. Zhong is talking about how we need to watch the Fire Lord's every move. We have no way of getting to any sort of schedule, as he keeps that between himself and his closest attendants, so we must watch him and look for a pattern. Shirong and I have worked out a schedule, and we both will soon become known as the most loyal servants to the Fire Lord." He ended his statement with another sip of tea.

Ji nodded, but still appeared uneasy. Zhao noted this, and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I would not turn on you, Ji, and neither would I place you in danger by making a risky move you had not approved of. We are all equals in this endeavor."

"How long will it be until we have a chance?" Ji asked, assured by Zhao's words.

Zhao looked to Longwei, who nodded and took over the conversation. "As you know, Ji, there are too many variables in such a plan as this to name, so we will wait for at least two years. Then, we will have much knowledge of the Fire Lord's habits and where he will be and when he will be on foot in the palace. We will also give the Fire Lord time to become lazy in his ways. It will be a long wait, but when the time comes, we will know it, and we will return." The captain smiled, and charted a route he planned to propose to the prince.

A member of the crew knocked on the door and walked in. "Captain Zhong, Captain Longwei, we are ready to depart at your earliest convenience."

Zhong nodded, and stood up. "Yes, thank you. We will leave in five minutes." The crewmember left to spread the word.

Zhao stood up and shook the hands of his three fellow conspirators. "Send as many letters as you can, through my secure network. Here is a list of names that would be safest to send your correspondence through." He handed Longwei a piece of parchment, and then nodded to the three men. "I hope to see you soon, if our paths cross."

Zhao left the room and walked back out onto the deck. Iroh was still at the railing, and Zhao went to his side. "General."

"Zhao." Iroh nodded. "How good to see you." He kept his voice low in case it carried over the water to the people on the dock.

"And you." He quirked a smile at the general. "All things are set in place, and I will try to keep you as updated on what we have learned beyond that which is commonly known about the Fire Lord's day, like the fact he spends his afternoon in the War Room." He sighed. "It will be a long road."

Iroh placed a hand on Zhao's shoulder. "I am assured you will do what is best for the Fire Nation, and for my nephew. Now go, I hear we shall leave soon."

Zhao met the old general's eyes, and suddenly felt stronger to continue this journey he had set out for himself. He felt confident that he was doing the right thing, and that his actions would help his people to live better. He hoped so, he thought as he walked off of the ship and watched it leave moments later. He turned around, and headed to speak to one Lady Peizhi.