disclaimer: the grass is green, the sky is blue; me no own, so you no sue.
by Lady Flick
'Good morning, Fire Lord Zuko.'
That's what they said to me today.
The maids, I mean.
I didn't understand.
What was so good about it?
The sun was shining, the skies were clear-
And Uncle was dead.
Great fucking morning.
"I'm glad you were able to come," he greeted, standing from his extravagant throne that was far from comfortable; it was hard on his posterior and put a strain on his back. Usually the throne was not too unbearable, but that morning it was exceptionally so. "I…I appreciate it."
Aang waved a dismissive hand, elegant and childish all the same, the sleeve of his garment rustling quietly. "Don't be silly," he said in a voice much deeper than Zuko remembered, "Of course I came. What're friends for?" A quirky smile followed his words, gray eyes as wide and innocent as ever.
He tried to return the expression, but found that such optimism was beyond him. Instead, the newly crowned Fire Lord sunk back onto his seat. "Right," he murmured, mostly to himself, golden eyes lowering to the gold laden floors of the throne room. In it he could see the reflections of his friends, none of whom were with him when the tragedy hit. He was grateful that they had answered his call on such short notice, when they were busy with their own lives, but seeing them did not ease the pain. At all. Was he being selfish in hoping that being reunited with his old friends would ease the blow of his uncle's passing? Was it even worse that the reunion only prompted an even emptier feeling in the pit of his stomach?
"Zuko…" A hand at his shoulder (when did they approach him?) along with that nurturing voice he had nearly forgotten. He glanced up into her face; the waterbender he spent the earlier years of his life despising. Looking into her eyes betrayed his sorrows and loneliness, she could see it in him - was he so transparent? "It's alright to admit that you're hurting." Apparently so.
He knew she meant her words, knew she was right, but he didn't want to acknowledge that emptiness. He wanted to forget it, he wanted to overlook it and find the silver lining his uncle always seemed to spot. "Hurting?" The Fire Lord asked with mock disbelief, "Uncle wouldn't want me to be sad."
"Doesn't mean you won't be," Sokka countered sagely, peering over at the former prince with eyes that held a different sort of wisdom than his sister's insight.
"Yes it does," Zuko insisted, putting on a brave face as he shrugged away Katara's hand.
"I can tell you're lying." That too-familiar mocking song, a resonance of their adventures together, teased.
He made a face at the earthbender, one she couldn't even see, but said nothing. Toph had always been smug and one to provoke others; though it might have resulted in many qualms in the past, the firebender was suddenly very grateful that she hadn't changed – not one bit. There was a comfort in constants in a time where change is inevitable.
Nothing more than a lazy echo down a hall.
All heads turned to the corridor's entrance as the anticipated Fire Lady appeared, looking quite stunning in her scarlet robes. She showed no surprise in seeing the entire bending troop around the Lord, only pausing for a moment before sweeping into the throne room. "Your trips were good, I trust," a casual statement, prompting absolutely no response aside from expected pleasantries.
"A bit long, but otherwise good, yes," Katara politely confirmed.
Mai stood beside the firebender, briefly acknowledging each familiar face with less-than interested glances. "Glad to hear it." She was the very embodiment of culture and class, practiced in the art of polite greetings and demure expressions, but most if not all her words were rehearsed and empty of feeling, "It's so nice of you to stop by."
"Oh, we're not just stopping by," Aang corrected with a jovial smile. "We're staying."
The faintest tic in her brow betrayed her shock, but Mai remained collected and regal. "…Staying." Whether or not she was displeased with the news wasn't apparent, but the tone in her voice suggested that she was not expecting guests to host and would prefer not to have them in her silk, sheet-metal straight, ebony hair.
"Yeah, we're here to stay," the Avatar repeated, "Of course, if it's alright with you, Zuko."
The Fire Lord looked at him in disbelief. The thought of his friends remaining with him when he needed them most, acting as pillars of support when he found himself crumbling beneath the stress and the depression and the hysteria, strengthened Zuko with the vigor he had lost. He met Aang's congenial smile, awed at the Avatar's kind and sincere eyes, and wondered at the monk's endless selflessness. "You don't have to do that," Zuko answered at last, though it was clear he wished them to stay.
It was Toph's sharp voice that finally managed to crack a smile on his face. "Sorry, Sparky, but after everything your crazy family put us through, letting us stay for awhile is the least you could do!"
I didn't want them pitying me. That wasn't why I asked them to come.
I just wanted to be around people who knew me. Really knew me.
Knew me as I grew up and matured.
Mai didn't know me like that, as much as I loved her. She knew me on a different level.
She knew me in childhood, knew me in my innocence and naiveté.
But I needed people who understood.
Even what remained unsaid.
I would have liked to say that it was raining or something. That the skies were mourning his death.
Something poetic and depressing like that. But that's just not me. And besides, it was fucking beautiful outside.
Was it right to have a funeral in the middle of summer? The peak of the solstice?
"How are you feeling?"
He flinched at her intrusion, immediately shutting the book in which he had been writing and slipping it onto a shelf in a most conspicuous manner. The funeral had ended a few hours earlier and the denizens of the Fire Nation court remained in the Great Hall for the reception. It was nothing but an excuse to socialize and gossip, much to the Fire Lord's disgust – those people, the noblemen and ladies, didn't care an ounce of his Uncle. They were respectfully mournful, yes, but truly distressed of their previous leader's demise? Not likely.
Zuko was able to slip away, not in any mood to mingle. The addle-headed upper-class would do more damage to his already crumbling esteem, in fact, simply thinking about them and their ignorance for the gravity of the matter at hand was infuriating. Not even spending time with Mai could assuage the tumultuous thoughts plaguing his mind.
The interloper offered a tilted smile. "Don't worry, I won't read your diary."
"It's a journal," the Fire Lord snapped in defense, much to the waterbender's amusement. He scowled at her grin, standing from the couch. "What're you doing here, anyways? Shouldn't you be out there," and he made an awkward and slightly irate gesture somewhere in the direction of the reception hall, "with the rest of your friends?"
Katara arched a brow, only mildly offended. "Last I checked, they were your friends, too. Did that change over the years?"
"You tell me."
She shrugged and stepped into the study, idly tracing her fingers over the scant few books that lay scattered over the tables. "Well," the bender opened logically, adopting her brother's straightforward tone; "I'm here, aren't I?" Katara paused before a table not too far from the former prince and curiously flipped through the open pages of a particularly large tome.
"Yes, invading my privacy," the firebender groused, trying, and failing, to sound sincerely irritated.
The girl peered up at him from the pages of what she realized was a memoir. "I meant here, in response to your letter," she answered cheekily. Zuko fell into silence, and Katara resumed her perusal. The memoir was handwritten, it seemed, with a patient hand that penned characters with grace and discipline. She couldn't understand the ancient Fire Nation writing and failed to make out the title, but the actual memoir was written in the modern Fire Nation script, a widely accepted form of calligraphy that breached the nations. "Did you know your uncle wrote a—"
"—A biography?" Zuko interjected, voice quiet, weary, "Yeah."
Katara picked up the leather-bound book. "Have you read it, yet?"
"No," the Fire Lord scoffed, feigning disinterest, though he moved nearer, "It's probably all about tea and Pai Sho." Zuko leaned over to get a glimpse at the memoir despite his flippant remark, "He told me it was a journal and that it helped him collect his thoughts and the lessons he's learned through life."
Katara glanced up from the pages and offered him another guarded smile. "He told you to keep a journal, too," she surmised.
Zuko didn't reply, staunchly keeping his gaze on the fragile pages.
Katara handed him the journal, letting the weight drop into his unsuspecting hands, and turned to leave. "Well, I suppose I should head back and make sure Toph and Sokka haven't destroyed the Main Hall," she said in jest as she made her way towards the door.
"Katara—" hesitant and thoughtful, "—goodnight."
She grinned over her shoulder, "Goodnight, Zuko."
After Katara took her leave, the Fire Lord glanced down at the memoir in his grasp and settled comfortably into a large, excessively cushioned chair, reliving his uncle's many interesting stories.
A fine summer afternoon sitting on the riverbank. The sweet aroma of dew-drop grass and a running stream dull numbness in my feet. We had been walking for hours with little food and even littler water; our determination our only source of fuel. But without air a burning fire will die - the sand is thinning, our time ticking. I sit here, under the shade of a tree, and begin what I hope will be something precious to someone. Prince Zuko sleeps here, face hidden beneath his straw hat. I worry for him. Too much, he insists. But I never say that it is just enough, because he knows not just what being so related to me entails. I have cursed him, the sweet prince with a dark past and a potentially darker future. My never-ending apologies, Prince Zuko; you are so blissfully unaware of what I mean, and should you be lucky, will remain so. One can only hope.
"Here you are," that careless voice startled him from the first written words of his uncle's memoir, and Zuko jumped a bit in his seat, looking up at the doorway to see his soon-to-be Lady enter the library. "You just left me to die in there," she said tiredly, realizing the error of her words a second too late and instantly regretting the pained look that crossed Zuko's face. "Oh, don't be like that, you know I didn't mean it that way," Mai added, attempting to ease the distress in his eyes. He only looked down, onto the book laying open in his hands, and she sighed. "What're you doing in here, anyways?" The woman queried, lifting the tome's cover with a light touch as if to shut the book.
Zuko had ample time to stop her if he so wished.
Mai traced over the gold leaf imprinted title for a moment, wishing she could give him the comfort he desperately needed, "You can read anytime. It's not often the Ambassadors from every precinct and other old rich people from around the world come visit you."
Zuko shook his head, suddenly very annoyed. "They're not here to visit me," he snapped, moving the book out of her reach, "They're here because Uncle—"
"He was old, Zuko," Mai said with a hint of impatience, "It shouldn't have been too much of a surprise."
Had he not known any better, he would have written Mai off as selfish and insensitive, but he understood the way her mind worked. She didn't like to linger on things that would remain unchanged. It wasn't healthy. But she couldn't grasp the meaning of true sorrow - when had she ever lost someone she irrefutably and genuinely cared about? Someone as dear to her as Uncle was to him?
Her hand covered his and Zuko realized that, of anyone Mai had ever known, he was likely the person she considered herself to be closest to. She drew the book out of his grasp, gingerly placing it on the nearest table. "Come on, let's go back and see if your friends left us anything to eat."
Zuko eyed her, the woman who was meant to be his bride, the woman he would have already proposed to had the tragedy of his uncle's death not come to reality, and nodded, lacing his fingers through hers as she led him out to the public. He was somewhat grateful to her for pulling him away from what could have been a spiraling depression. Reading about the journey he had taken with Iroh could have been one of two things: 1 - mentally satisfying, or 2 - the instigator of the insanity that apparently ran in his family. And the feeling of her hand in his was enough calm him.
Mai had the softest hands.
They entered the Great Hall and stepped into what seemed to be a celebration rather than a funeral reception. Music was playing, people were dancing and laughing, and Zuko was both offended and relieved. How dare people celebrate his uncle's death - but he could hear Iroh's voice in the back of his mind.
'Death does not mark the end of a journey; it is the beginning of something far greater. When I die, I don't want those I love to be sad for me. Rather, delight in the memories we shared and look forward to the stories I will have to tell upon our next encounter.'
He smiled as the band struck up a familiar song. "Uncle used to sing this all the time," he mused, golden eyes taking in the scene; Sokka avoiding Toph's stomping feet (that were accurately guessing and second-guessing just where the warrior's toes would step next), Katara chatting up a few Ambassadors as Aang performed what he claimed to be an ancient air nomadic dance. It was a bright scene, happy, just as Iroh would want it to be. Somehow, it put Zuko in a better mood, and he took to humming the too-familiar tune, "It's a long, long way to Ba Sing Se…"
"I don't suppose you want to dance," Mai said with obvious indifference.
Zuko offered a cynical grin. "Do I ever?"
She sighed and took his hand, pulling him out onto the dance floor.
"What are you doing?"
"You should know better than to lie to me, Zuko," the girl said tiredly, "I know you."
For the first time that night, Zuko smiled.
As the night wore on, golden rays outlined the horizon in a strangely appropriate heavenly glow, and the last guests finally trickled out of the hall, bidding rather drunk farewells to the newly instated Fire Lord. Zuko plastered a smile on his face, one that Iroh taught him would win over trust and camaraderie. It was early into the next morning, just after the darkest part of night. Mai had left with her parents and Ty Lee after her two week visit at the palace, and Zuko never felt so alone as he stood in the Throne Room, emptied and dark and lonely. He sunk into the (uncomfortable, hard) chair and massaged his temples with a thumb and forefinger, when footsteps broke what would have otherwise been a montage of hysteria, depression, and self-pity.
"What are you still doing up?"
He knew who it was before his eyes adjusted to her face, hidden in the shadows, silhouette melting into the shadows of the room. "Me? What're you doing up? Shouldn't you be sleeping?"
Katara's sigh was so filled with trepidation that the former prince tensed in his seat. "I got hooked on this book, you see…" She revealed, and Zuko straightened up in his seat as she approached, holding out Iroh's memoir. "I couldn't help myself," she added a bit shyly, apologetic, "he always tells the best stories."
Zuko stared at the unseen leather cover. "Yeah," he said quietly, "He does."
The waterbender shifted, waiting for him to say something more, but he didn't. She handed him the book, pushing it into his hands, onto his lap. "I know you didn't get a chance to read it earlier," she said with a purpose, "I think you really should."
He grinned, recalling their earlier exchange, "I had a party to go to, remember?" Afterall, she was the one who had urged him to attend his the reception, though it wasn't until Mai physically dragged him from the study did the Fire Lord manage to make his reappearance.
"Since when are you the party-goer type?" Katara quipped, pursing her lips together.
Zuko quirked a brow, increasingly tired of her diligence. "Since I started hosting them."
The waterbender bristled, clearly struggling with some internal desire to cause him physical harm, and opened the manuscript to a page instead, a folded piece of paper serving as a book mark. "Read this," she commanded, all attempts at nonchalance abandoned.
"I'll read it in the morning," the Fire Lord answered, stiffly, glaring at the woman now. Who did she think she was, ordering him around? Zuko moved to stand, trying his best to maintain some form of civility, "I'm kind of tired and—"
Her hand found his shoulder and forced him down into the throne.
His golden eyes narrowed, "Katara—"
The former prince growled, boldly dismissing her demand. "Are you seriously ordering me around?" He asked incredulously as he stood with perfected defiance, shutting the book and stalking across the room. The nerve some people had!
"Zuko—" Katara's voice cracked with the purest sorrow, but the Fire Lord continued to adamantly walk away. She broke down as he disappeared around the corner, footsteps fading, and she yelled after him so that her words echoed about the narrow corridor — "I think your uncle was murdered!"
The heavy thud of Iroh's memoirs hitting the floor shook the portraits on the walls.
WEE. COMMENTS, CRITIQUES AND GENERAL FEEDBACK IS HIGHLY ENCOURAGED.
it's been revised and edited and injected with subtle fore-shadowing.
VERY subtle. so subtle that I'll probably forget about them
but now that Zutara Week is over and Acquiescence is done
i can return to this story that i adored when i began it
i sat down today and wrote down the entire back-story for iroh
and the reason and such for his murder -dances-
as well as various other things i hadn't had time to figure out
so i'm very excited to continue this story!
now, for the questions:
( 1 ) WHO KILLED IROH? WHY?
( 2 ) What happened to Suki?
( 3 ) What's the memoir title?