What a heavenly morning! All the bells are ringing; the sky is so golden and clear - and before me lies your letter.
- Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck (who eventually became Clara Schumann)
It was late, very late, too late when he finally read the last report, signed the last document, pushed writing utensils and parchment away from him and put his head to his desk and closed his eyes. There was only four hours till daylight and, he thought, maybe it would be better to just stay here until then – save him the walk from his office to his bedroom and back. And after all sleep was sleep, even if it took place hunched over on a hard wooden desk. He felt what little energy he had seep out of him, he closed his eyes and-
"Kyung, why are you still here?"
"My Lord's work was not yet done and as his Lordship's head personal secretary-"
"I'm making a new rule."
He blearily looked up at the sixty-year-old (some would say severe looking) woman standing next to his desk.
"From now on all secretaries, even the head ones-"
"I'm the only head secretary my Lord."
"All of them, including you, must leave the palace and go home at a reasonable hour."
She arched an eyebrow at him, in a matter that reminded him of some of his more terrifying boyhood tutors.
"Your work was not finished at a reasonable hour my Lord."
She was a frightening woman. It was part of the reason he had hired her in the first place - she could scare off angry nobles that showed up without an appointment with a mere glance.
"I'm aware. But my work is my work not yours and only I will stay up late to do it, no one else."
"It is my job to make sure you're organized-"
"I cannot do my job, I cannot make sure that all the things that need to be done are done and in their proper place if I am not here my Lord. And, so as long as you are working, I am working."
It was a speech he'd heard from her before. He stood from his desk and stretched. He tried, as he often did in such situations, to imagine what Iroh would do, how he would handle a stubborn secretary. But alas he knew that he lacked most of his uncle's charms - mainly his quick wit and (what some people [women] called dashing) smile.
He rubbed his eyes.
"Not anymore. I've made a new rule. Earlier bed time for you."
"You also can't do your job if your unconscious, which is what you'll be in the middle of the day if you don't sleep. Last thing I need is you fainting on the job at the same exact time I do."
If Zuko didn't know any better, he would have thought he'd spied a small smile from the older woman.
"I am made of stronger stuff than that my Lord."
He nodded, quietly laughing to himself.
"Good to know. But it doesn't matter because I've made a new rule, and you see I'm the Fire Lord and I don't know what you've heard but the Sages tell me that means my word is law."
"Not when it comes to office work my Lord."
"Don't think I won't ask the sages about that."
"I am sure you will my Lord."
He groaned again and opened the doors that lead out into the hall. Kyung followed as he made his way down the darkened corridor. Three guards followed them, their armor clanking.
"I'm going to bed now."
"Very good my Lord, but first-"
"Dear Agni, please tell me there's nothing more to sign."
"No my Lord, nothing to sign, just to read."
"Kyung I'm done. I'll read whatever it is in the morning."
His secretary pulled a scroll from her pocket.
"Are you sure my Lord? You asked me to give it to you when all the rest of the work was done."
And then he remembered. He stopped walking and turned to look at the rolled up piece of parchment she held out to him.
"My Lord," she'd said, early that morning, in the quiet voice she only used when there were a large amount other people around, "you requested that I deliver this to you straight away when it arrived."
Amid chaos of aids scurrying about, informing him of schedule changes and other things he wouldn't remember and they'd have to remind him of a thousand times before the day was through, Kyung had placed the scroll, with it's blue seal and think paper, in front of him.
He'd snatched it up from the desk, eager and smiling much wider than was normal for the Fire Lord at such an early hour (or ever really).
He had started unraveling it when suddenly he stopped. He froze.
"No, my Lord?"
He stared at the scroll as if it might bite him.
"I shouldn't read this now."
"No. It's… There's too much to do, I shouldn't rush through it."
It was a statement but he'd looked up at Kyung with questioning eyes as if asking permission. Kyung (although he couldn't fathom how) understood.
"I see. A personal correspondence then for when you have a free moment, my Lord?
"Yeah! I mean, uh, that's accurate. Correct. Yes."
Kyung had nodded and gently took the scroll from his hands.
Now, in the darkened hallway, she handed it back to him. He took it and held it lightly in his hands, as if it were a fragile thing that might shatter in his grip.
"I will take my leave now, My Lord," said Kyung, her voice low, as if she was telling him a secret.
He nodded, his eyes on the scroll and it wasn't until Kyung was almost out of sight that he remembered to say goodnight. She turned back at the sound of his voice and Zuko thought he saw that quick flash of a smile again – although he was sure it must have been an odd trick of the light.
"Goodnight, my Lord. I hope you find your correspondence satisfactory."
She turned a corner and was gone, leaving him alone in dark… alone with his three guards.
"Late night huh boys," he said as he started walking again.
"Yes, my Lord," they said in unison, following him.
"Although, I guess this is the norm for you guys. You're normal shift?"
"Yes, my Lord."
When he at last alone, really alone, in the privacy of his bedroom, he sat himself down on the side of his bed and unrolled the letter. He blinked tiredly at the sea of words in front of him and was afraid, for a moment, that he would not be able to keep his eyes open long enough to reach any of it. But, as soon as he read the first line he found himself alert and awake in a way he hadn't expected… in a way he hadn't been in a long time.
Her first lines were full of the spark and passion he remembered, the outrage he'd hoped to inspire with his silly teasing and he felt nearly giddy as he read them. The rest of the letter was general news about her brother's family and the rest of their friends. Sokka's family was growing as was Toph's wrestling federation and Aang's number of disciples. All very interesting of course, but it wasn't until the end that he sat up straight and let the excitement flow through him properly.
A childish thought danced across his mind: My friend is coming. My friend will be here soon.
She would come and distract him from all the planning, all the stress. She would drag him out of his office and his aides would be helpless to stop her. Perhaps they would gape at her audacity, her foreign brazenness. He nearly laughed at the thought of it, tired as he was. He would take her on a tour of the capital, show her his mother's gardens, they would spar – at last a real challenge (he had not been defeated in months and it was infuriating).
Smiling stupidly, he reread the letter perhaps three times, before rushing over to his desk and pulling out his writing materials.
You claim not to be motherly and then you immediately instruct me on proper behavior and letter writing etiquette. And what do you know of it anyway? Is there some sort of charm school for unruly water benders in the South Pole that I wasn't aware of? Was it there that you learned how to scold tired Fire Lords on things they've been trained to do since birth?
But you're right we probably would have starved without you. Actually, there are days where I sometimes miss those salty dishes you used to make. Everything here is very spicy – very good mind you – but you can only have so much of one sort of food for so long before it becomes boring. I think I'm looking forward to the international cuisine at the conference the most. Maybe, when you get here you can sneak into the kitchens and trick my cooks into making some Southern dishes?
The next day he fell asleep in at least two different meetings but Kyung was there to subtly poke him in the side at the appropriate times. And he hardly cared about her stern looks because she had already posted his mail that morning.