Fire Lord Zuko gazed out over the crowd, taking note of the many familiar faces. The turnout for the twenty-year celebration was far greater than he had expected, and the palace servants were currently dashing to and fro, trying to find enough seating for all of the honorable guests.
Zuko spotted Katara and Aang, standing in a group with Sokka, Suki, Toph, and a few others, and he raised his hand in acknowledgment. They waved up at him, grinning as if they were all young again.
The palace steward stepped forward and bowed to Zuko, who motioned for him to commence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please," said the steward, his booming voice echoing around the great hall and silencing most everyone's conversations. "Before the twenty-year celebration begins, Fire Lord Zuko will say a few words." Zuko nodded to the steward, and he bowed again before taking his leave. Zuko cleared his throat and stood up to face his audience. He was older now, with slight frown lines on his face and a scar that had faded somewhat with age, but he still struck an imposing and powerful figure. Any whispered discussions that remained were immediately put on hold.
"… It's been twenty years to the date," Zuko began, "and still I have trouble delivering speeches." A ripple of laughter travelled through the crowd. "People of the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribe, and beyond… I would like to thank you all for coming here on this important date, although I'm sure it means just as much to you as it does to me." As he said this, the Fire Lord was struck with a sudden realization. Today was not just the twenty-year celebration. He quickly pushed the thought aside and continued with his speech.
"Someone once told me that wisdom must be drawn from many sources. He said that the only way to become whole is to understand and obtain wisdom from others. At the time, I did not comprehend what this meant." Zuko paused, trying to collect his thoughts. "Now I do, and we have done exactly that. By uniting our kingdoms together in peace; by understanding each other instead of seeing the differences… Our world is now whole. We are whole." Cheers and applause assaulted the Fire Lord's ear, but he held up a hand and quiet was quickly restored.
"It has been twenty long years since the downfall of my father," Zuko continued. "The first few years were difficult ones, but we all persevered… And look at us now. We sit side by side, with no regard for the background or ethnicity of those beside us. This is what peace truly means, and you have all had a hand in it. I congratulate you all." There was silence for a few moments, and then the guests leapt out of their seats and into a wild standing ovation. Zuko smiled and nodded again to the steward, who had appeared again by his side.
"Let the twenty-year celebration begin!" the steward bellowed.
In all the excitement and commotion, no one noticed as Fire Lord Zuko quietly exited the room.
"Zuko, what are you doing?"
The Fire Lord spun around to see Mai standing in the doorway, hands on her hips. She wore her hair differently these days, and rarely complained about trivial matters like she used to, but in truth she had hardly changed in the past twenty years. Zuko grinned sheepishly at her, a worn Pai-Sho board under one arm and a steaming pot of tea clutched in his other hand.
"Err… Nothing, Mai."
She raised a thin eyebrow. "Really? What in the world do you need a Pai-Sho board for? You don't even know how to play."
"I… Well… You see-"
She cut him off. "Forget it, Zuko. I'm not going to question you. Just… Come enjoy the party soon, alright? I mean, you are the host." She walked over and kissed him on the cheek, then sighed in exasperation. "Sometimes I wonder about you." She walked away without another word, leaving Zuko with a smile on his face.
Zuko placed the Pai-Sho board on the grass near the pond and took a seat next to it. He set the tea pot down as well, and began rummaging in the pockets of his robe, finally pulling out two small tea cups. Feeling more than a little foolish, Zuko poured hot jasmine tea into each of the cups and set them on the Pai-Sho board to cool.
He stared at the board for a minute before realizing what was missing. Zuko searched through his pockets again and withdrew an old Pai-Sho tile – the White Lotus tile. He always kept it with him.
He had never considered it a good luck charm; keeping it near him simply felt like the right thing to do. He placed the tile in the center of the board and was taken back to that fateful day, exactly one year ago.
The Fire Lord sat at the old man's bedside, trying not to express the melancholy which often grasped him while in that particular room.
"How are you feeling, Uncle?" Zuko asked.
Iroh coughed weakly. "Not well, Nephew. Not well at all. My end is nearing, Zuko. My time is almost up." Zuko's golden eyes widened in alarm.
"It- it can't be, Uncle! Don't say things like that!"
"Ah, but it is true," Iroh rasped. "I am old, Zuko. My body has grown weary of this world. Soon, I will die."
"No…" Zuko whispered, already feeling the sting of tears in his eyes.
"Do not cry for an old man like me, Nephew. I have lived a long and fulfilling life. And death is but another journey that we all must take."
Zuko was silent for a moment as he took time to think this through. "Do you think… Do you think you will see your son, Uncle?"
A wide smile graced Iroh's old face. "… Yes. Finally, I will see my son Lu Ten again. It's been so long… I have so much to tell him." Iroh turned to look at Zuko again. "But my other son still has many good years left, I see."
The Fire Lord's sadness was replaced by confusion. "Your… other son?"
Iroh nodded weakly. "Yes. My other son, who sits by my bedside at this very moment. My other son, who has restored the honor to a nation and the balance to a world. I hope he knows how proud I am of him."
For the first time in many years, Fire Lord Zuko broke down and began to cry.
"… Thank you," he said through his tears, and those were the last words he ever spoke to his beloved Uncle Iroh.
Zuko stared at the White Lotus tile sadly, his heart heavy.
A light breeze swept through the courtyard, making the leaves on the nearby tree rustle gently. Turtleducks swam lazily in the pond, creating ripples across the water. If Zuko listened closely enough, he could even hear the raucous festivity taking place in the great hall.
Zuko took a sip of his jasmine tea. Thankfully, his tea-brewing skills had increased exponentially over the years. It tasted almost as good as his Uncle's tea. Almost.
The soft breeze blew past again, and carried on the breeze was the sound of someone singing. Zuko did not notice – he continued to study the White Lotus tile as if it held all of life's secrets. And perhaps it did. Suddenly, the corners of the Fire Lord's mouth upturned into a smile. He touched his tea cup to the one opposite him, as if toasting someone.
"Here's to you, Uncle," he whispered.
The sound of singing continued. If Zuko had been listening, he would have been able to hear the hauntingly beautiful lyrics.
Leaves from the vine,
Falling so slow…
Like fragile, tiny shells
Drifting on the foam.
Little soldier boy,
Come marching home.
Brave soldier boy,
Comes marching home.
A/N: Writing this made me sad. (And no, not just because of the Maiko moment… -shudder-) Poor Iroh… But at least he lived to a ripe old age, right? Oh, and for all of you who don't remember: Iroh sings that song during Tales of Ba Sing Se.
Love in a Mist