Writer's Note: Hello, and welcome a place I'd like to call "the dumping ground for related fics". In this section there will mostly be fics based on the Fire Nation post-war, mostly exploring Mai and Zuko's relationship. Updates will be slow, but they will happen (unless I someday decide to change the status to "Complete". So with that all said and done, enjoy!
Warning: Occurs one year post-series and contains spoilers
Sometimes, when everything got too overwhelming, when everything got too stressful or confusing, Zuko did something that no one, except a precious few, knew about.
At first, it had only been Iroh that knew about it, because that was inevitable. But then Mai, who was far more stubborn than he gave her credit for, found out as well, and started following him around while he did it. And soon, pretty much everyone he had fought beside in those horrible days past knew about it.
It wasn't hard. Like his father before him, and his father before him, for as long as anyone could remember, no one really knew what the Fire Lord looked like, and Zuko was no exception.
When he found out, however, he was surprised (and mildly insulted, if he were to be honest). He had figured that of all people he would be the most memorable, since he, needless to say, stood out quite a bit.
But the first time he went, he needed have worried; the only person that recognised him was his uncle. Everyone else thought he was just a man down on his luck.
That first time was a humbling memory.
Zuko trudged into his chambers, slamming the ornate doors behind him. The bickering had gone on and on (and on and on), and every time it started again, he wanted to reach out and throttle the very person who started it.
It was always about the territories, always about the land claimed during the Wars, and always about who got what and why. No matter how calm he was (which was a struggle all in itself), it always went in a full circle, and if it wasn't for Mai's reassuring hand on his arm throughout the whole exchange, he would have probably gone insane.
But it was finally over for the day, he thought, practically ripping off his ceremonial clothes and kicking off his shoes violently...at the same time. He yelped, his legs tangling up in his robes, and he tripped, falling ass over teakettle onto the floor.
From behind him came a husky chuckle, and his humiliation was complete.
"Just kill me," he moaned from his new place on the ground.
Mai walked over to him and leaned over him, her eyes dancing with amusement. "But then who would entertain me?" she wondered.
"Don't you care that I'm tangled up?" Zuko demanded, his cheeks burning.
"No," Mai replied, stepping over him.
Zuko fumed, then used this humiliation as fuel to get himself free. He tossed the heap of clothes towards Mai, who merely leaned to the side and let it go past. "Don't get huffy with me because your men and women are a bunch of morons," she scolded him, kicking at his discarded robes.
"Don't make fun of me because I'm tired then!" Zuko shot back.
Mai sighed, shaking her head a little. She walked over to him and placed a hand on his scarred cheek. He would have flinched, but he saw no pity or disgust in her eyes as her fingers made contact with the rough skin. She looked right into his eyes and said, softly, "You're wearing down, aren't you?"
Zuko sagged, physically. Her words seemed to drain the very anger out of him, and only because she finally forced him see why he was really angry in the first place. He nodded slowly. She was quiet, and he took that as a sign.
"It's like..." Zuko leaned into her hand a little, and she held it still. "It's like no matter how hard I try to change their minds, all they care about is how much land they get to keep. It doesn't matter that the land is stolen...not to them!"
Mai patted his cheek. "Zuko, these people have lived in the Earth Kingdom for generations. Some don't even know any other place."
Zuko's eyes flashed. "So what?" he growled, pulling away from her. He reached up and, in one practised move, freed his hair from its topknot. His shaggy hair fell down around his face and neck. "So what?" he repeated, tossing the hair ornament across the room.
Mai waited until it hit the wall and fell to the floor before going on. "So," she said, her voice low. "You can't ask people to leave their homes overnight just because it technically belongs to someone else."
Zuko didn't turn around, but his stance was rigid. "It's not their land. It's stolen land, land my father stole! I'm just trying to..." his voice broke, and at once his shoulders slumped. "I'm just trying to..."
Mai reached up and placed her hands on his shoulders. "You're an idiot," she said softly. "You can't do these things overnight, no matter how loud you yell. You need to at least pretend to be patient."
Zuko sighed again, leaning back into her embrace. She slid her hands down to his chest, and he closed his eyes. "I just want to make things right," he whispered.
"You can't do it overnight," Mai repeated. "Forget about it for tonight." She smiled into his shoulder. "Let's boss your servants around, like we used to, until the sun comes up."
Zuko smiled, a small laugh escaping him. "What would you do to them?" he wondered.
"Oh, you know, make them wear stupid clothes, have them find me stupid things. The usual."
He opened his eyes and tilted his head back, looking into her sly face. "You're so beautiful when you're devious," he teased her.
Mai gave him a sour look, and he chuckled again. Her words, however, had given him an idea. He pulled away from her and walked back to the wardrobe, opening it and pulling out some clothes.
"Uh," Mai frowned, crossing her arms. "What are you doing?"
Zuko held up the clothes. They were faded, made of a soft cotton material. Peasant clothes. "I, uh, was thinking of going out," he muttered sheepishly, looking away.
Mai's hand flashed in the dim light, and before he could say anything, his arm was pinned to the wardrobe. Caught in his sleeve was a shuriken. He winced.
"Where?" Mai repeated.
Zuko groaned. "Why do I have to explain myself to you?"
"Because the last time you went out, you dumped me," she answered flatly.
"Do you always have to bring that up?" he wondered.
Mai smiled. "It's my right," she replied.
Zuko yanked the shuriken out of his sleeve and tossed it over his shoulder. "I'm not going to do anything stupid," he snapped. "I'm just going out. I don't have to explain anything to you! I'm the Fire Lord, not you!"
Mai said nothing. She stood, her arms crossed, her eyes narrowed.
Zuko turned on his heel and walked out, leaving her behind. He slammed the doors after him.
As he walked, he pulled on the muted clothing as quickly as he could, muttering resentfully as he went. At one point, he tripped again, but mercifully, no one was around to catch him.
Since he was small, he knew his way around the Palace better than anyone. At times, it was explored with Azula as a game. Other times, it was to hide from Azula during one of her games. But it came in handy now, when he, probably the first Fire Lord in Fire Nation history, used the secret passageways as his own refuge from his own people.
It would have been funny, except that Zuko was at the end of his rope. His turmoil could be summed up in one neat and tidy sentence:
If I stay another second in there, I'm going to scream.
Once he made it outside, he breathed, deeply. The evening was slowly turning to night, and the humidity was finally leaving the air. He already felt a little better, but he knew it would take more than a lungful of air to ease his frustration.
He looked around, getting his bearings, before heading into town, and towards the boatyards. He was a little nervous, and horribly afraid of being caught (a fear he remembered quite well from his past), but he needn't of worried.
"Papers," the boat's warden snapped at him, blocking him from the dock.
Zuko inhaled sharply, about to explode, but he managed to keep it in check. "I don't have any papers," he said calmly.
"No papers, no boat," was the reply.
"Wait!" Zuko grabbed the man's arm, pulling him back. "Don't you know who I am?"
The warden looked him over slowly, from his shaggy hair, to his scarred face, to the muted clothes he wore. With a raised eyebrow, he replied, "A refugee from Ba Sing Se?"
Zuko felt a wave of his frustration wash over him like a familiar smell, but once again he barely managed to stave it off. His hands sparked a little, but only just. "Yes," he replied. "Yes! You see, uh..." he shifted, trying to think quickly. He wasn't too good at thinking of excuses on the fly. "I was, uh, visiting here, and...uh...now I want to go home...to Ba Sing Se."
Zuko flushed. "Uh, you see, I was eating at a restaurant, and, uh, this lizard-gull attacked me, and-"
The warden rolled his eyes. "And ate your papers?"
Zuko lowered his eyes. "Yes?"
The man laughed. It was the loudest, most grating noise that Zuko had ever heard. "You're full of it, and you know it." He turned to go.
Zuko grabbed him again. "Wait! I can..." he reached frantically into his cloak's pocket, fishing out a couple of pieces of gold. "Money!" he held it out, desperately.
"You want to bribe me?"
Zuko swallowed, then smiled, trying to make it like one of Aang's carefree and happy smiles. "Yes!" he agreed.
The man raised an eyebrow and took the pieces, looking at them closely. He jumped in shock, his eyes wide. "These are royal crown pieces!" he exclaimed.
Zuko's smile felt more like a grimace now, but he held it. "I'm...rich?"
The man grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "You're on!" he declared. He then shouted to his men to cast out.
Zuko stepped onto the boat with heavy steps. He looked back at the Palace, narrowing his eyes at it a little, before turning back to the boat.
Just a bit longer...he thought.
It wasn't until the next morning that they reached Ba Sing Se.
If Zuko were to be honest with himself, he would admit that he was actually very surprised by the speed of the trip. Even though some part of him knew that the warships had to be used somehow, he had never imagined that their superior speed and durability would actually make great travelling ships. It was sort of ironic, actually.
In any case, he was able to allude the ship's master the entire time, afraid of being asked too many questions and then being discovered. He was gaped at a little, and the first few times he actually felt really afraid, until he realised that it was his scar, and not his identity, that was the attention-grabber.
When the ship docked, Zuko practically sprinted into the town in order to get away. He was hungry, tired, and despite a night's sleep, still incredibly frustrated at the lack of progress he was making with the colonies.
I need...a break.
When he finally reached his destination, he hesitated. Of all of the places to be recognised, this was probably the worst, seeing as how it was right in the middle of a city his father had burned. It was unlikely he would be received with happiness.
Except for one thing.
He took in a breath, then walked in through the double doors, peering in.
The teahouse was exactly as he remembered. It was vibrant, with green and yellow motifs everywhere. The bright and airy space, coupled with the fragrant scents and the murmur of conversation, enveloped Zuko like a blanket. Instantly, he felt his muscles relax, and he practically hunched over in the doorway, feeling relief for the first time in months.
A cheerful young woman greeted him. He requested a table for one, close to the kitchen, which he got. The hostess' gaze lingered on his face for a moment before she turned to the next person in the doorway.
Carefully, not wanting to call attention to himself, Zuko opened a menu and hid behind it, peering over it and taking everyone in.
"Ah! A familiar face! What took you so long?"
The voice was familiar, warm, and welcome...or would have been. Zuko ducked lower behind the menu, but it was plucked from his hands and tossed aside.
"Like you don't know what's on the menu," Iroh teased him, his familiar and jovial face alight with joy. "One that you helped me write!"
Zuko froze, feeling exposed. Indeed, everyone was staring at the two men: One a weary stranger and the other the owner of the teahouse. Zuko felt the blood leave his cheeks and his stomach turn to ice.
Iroh, however, was completely nonplussed. With one swoop, he dragged Zuko to his feet and yanked him into a full-bodied hug. Instantly, the younger man forgot the eyes around him, instead focusing on the familiar embrace of his uncle. He hugged back, almost melting, and instantly he felt many years younger.
"What are you doing here, my nephew?" Iroh wondered, pulling away. Zuko squeezed his uncle's shoulders before sitting down again, but he didn't answer. Instead, he met Iroh's eyes and asked, "May I have some tea?"
His voice was so soft and tired that it surprised Iroh. "Of course," he agreed. "Anything you want, on the house. Or," and here he smiled, "at the price of knowing why you're here."
Zuko smiled, his heart feeling warm. "Deal," he agreed.
It wasn't a long wait. Only ten minutes had passed before Iroh returned with fritters and a pot of ginseng tea. He sat down across from Zuko, poured two cups of tea, then waited.
Zuko hesitated, unsure of how to express himself, so instead he grabbed a fritter and stuffed it into his mouth.
And shouted, spitting it back out and waving a hand in front of his mouth. It was incredibly fresh, and incredibly hot.
Everyone in the teahouse gaped at him, and he went pale again, frozen by the stares.
Iroh chuckled, waiting until Zuko sat back down and hid behind the menu again before speaking. "As impulsive as ever, I see. Always reacting, never thinking before doing something, and then you end up always surprised by the results and consequences."
Zuko's hands crumpled the menu, and he slapped it down. "I'm not a kid anymore," he snapped, getting defensive once more. "I don't do those kinds of things anymore!"
Iroh sipped his tea before answering. "And yet, here you are, in my teahouse, halfway across the world, when instead you should be sitting on the throne and hearing out the colonization reports."
Zuko's eyes widened, then looked from side to side, checking to see if anyone had heard that. "Are you crazy?" he hissed loudly. "Don't say that kind of stuff that loud! You'll get me caught!"
Iroh stared at him. "Who is going to catch you?" he wondered. "You?"
Zuko blinked, struck speechless. Iroh chuckled. "You forget that you are the one in charge now," he continued. "No one exists over you, and only you can answer for your own actions."
Iroh set his cup down and stared Zuko right in the eyes. The younger man gulped. "Now, tell me. Why are you here?"
Zuko opened his mouth, ready to lie, but the words he planned to say didn't come out. "I'm so sick of it!" he snapped. "I'm so sick of the selfishness and the ignorance!"
Iroh nodded slowly, his eyes still on Zuko's. He went on. "All I'm trying to do is make it fair for everyone! All I want is to make things right again! Nobody but me, and Aang, seems to get that things as they were before Sozin's comet were wrong!" He leaned down, his hands reaching up and getting tangled into his hair. He shut his eyes, his frustration finally bubbling up and out. "All I want is for everyone to just be happy! All I want...all I want is peace!" His voice broke, and he winced, lowering his head further.
Iroh stayed silent, but inside his heart was aching for his nephew.
"I'm so tired," Zuko whispered. "I'm just so tired...I just sort of...lost my mind last night. I had to get away...so I did." He looked up again, and his eyes were wavering. "So I ran off."
Iroh exhaled sharply. "Mai isn't going to be amused by that," he said lightly.
Zuko tugged at his hair. "It's not the same as last time, and both of you know it!"
Iroh held up a hand. "You're right," he acceded. "I'm sorry. This is just a momentary lull, right?" And here his voice became stern. "You will return before nightfall tonight, correct?"
Zuko nodded, his eyes closing. "Yes," he whispered. "I will."
Iroh smiled. "Then for now, we shall have a wonderful morning together, you and I! Tell me; has Aang come to visit you yet?"
Zuko smiled gratefully, and soon fell into familiar patterns with his uncle; indeed, he put up with much teasing and lecturing, and in return insulted his uncle's laziness and addiction to luxury, but nothing felt as good in a long, long time.
And, like he promised, he was back at the Palace before the day was out.
The moment he closed the doors to his chambers, he was pinned to the wall by several shuriken. He didn't even bother fighting it; he knew he deserved it.
Mai stood in front of him, her eyes blazing. She didn't say a word.
"I didn't dump you," Zuko snapped.
Mai rolled her eyes. "You're such a moron," she muttered.
And like that, it was all that was said about it.
That is, until the next time it happened.
Zuko had managed to get away with not telling Mai about where he had gone that night, although he was pretty sure that she, of all people, would understand. However, there was something inside him that stopped him from telling her, and it wasn't until she found out that he realised that it was shame.
While his council had definitely noticed his absence the last time, they didn't say a word about it. For some reason, Zuko took this as a sign that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't unusual for a Fire Lord to vanish for a while.
So he wondered if, this time, he could get away with more than one day.
This time, he had tried to sneak out while Mai was sleeping. He had tiptoed around their bed and towards the wardrobe, reaching in carefully and pulled out the bag that he had packed several days before. He had honestly never thought he would have to use it, but that day had been particularly bad, resulting in him losing his temper and freaking out in front of everyone...
He sighed quietly, shamefaced at the memory. Carefully, trying not to make a sound, he slipped the back onto his back and snuck out of the bedroom, tiptoeing his way through his chambers.
He had his hand on the door when a knife was thrust under his chin. The cold touch of metal stopped him, and he felt that all-familiar wave of adrenaline course through him. His hands went to his sides, his palms itched...
"Don't even try it," a low, husky voice warned. "It's cheap to use bending against someone who can't do it back."
"Says the woman with a knife at my throat!"
Mai pulled away, and Zuko turned to face her, furious. "You...you had a knife at my throat!" he sputtered.
Mai looked at her nails. "And you were going to firebend me," she answered boredly. "We're even."
"We are not!" He exploded, before stopping. His eyes went to her clothes. "Are you wearing Earth Kingdom clothes? And how did you even catch up to me?"
Mai looked up, deciding to answer the first question. "Yes, because I'm going with you," she answered.
"Because you're taking me to wherever you're going, and you're going to like it," she answered. A small smile played on her lips. "You never take me on vacation."
"I'm not going on vacation!" Zuko shouted.
Mai didn't even twitch. "You have a bag, you're wearing normal clothes, and your hair is down. You're going on vacation."
"Go back to the room!"
"No. You can't tell me what to do anyway, and this time, you're not leaving without me." Zuko opened his mouth, but suddenly Mai's eyes blazed, and he froze. "You are not. Leaving. Without me," she repeated, her voice steely.
Zuko felt the anger leave him at once, hearing the hurt in her voice. He lowered his head, embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"It's alright; I know you're stupid," Mai replied. "I just want to know where you're running away to while abandoning all of your duties and responsibilities."
Zuko looked up. She was smiling. He smiled back, weakly. "I'll show you."
"Oh," Mai said, her voice flat. "How...boring."
Zuko turned on her. "It's not boring!" he snapped. She smiled at him in amusement. "Stop getting me mad for fun!" he fumed.
"Ah, you again!" the hostess smiled, noticing Zuko in the doorway. "And you brought a friend!"
"She's my girlfriend," Zuko responded hotly.
Mai rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she answered.
The hostess smiled nervously. "Would you like the same table as before, sir?"
"Yes!" was the reply. Without waiting, Zuko stormed passed the hostess and to the table in question, sitting down in a huff. "And I want to speak to the owner!"
The hostess paled, but Mai shook her head. "Don't worry," she said coolly. "He's just in the middle of a temper tantrum."
"I am not! Stop doing that!"
Mai smirked, making her way to the table, but as she sat down, she said nothing. Zuko pretended to ignore her, which further amused her.
Needless to say, the second visit was far more lively than the first. With Mai there, Zuko was able to vent his anger instead of bottling it up inside, which was, he knew, her intention in the first place. Of everyone that he was close to, only Sokka came as close as Mai when it came to getting under his skin, but it was only Mai that did it in order to get him to vent it out instead of letting it fester inside of him.
With Iroh lecturing and spoiling him, and Mai poking fun of him and pretending to be bored by his outbursts, it was as close to any kind of home that he could ever feel. It was familiar, and comforting, and actually really fun.
He and Mai were away for three days. Iroh said nothing, but on the third day he did give him a stern look, one that was serious, and he got the message.
This time, his absence was not ignored. The council was practically hysterical by the time he returned on the fourth day, demanding to know where he had been and why he had left when the proceedings were making progress.
Zuko, instead, ignored the question and got back to the debates.
Zuko and Mai managed to sneak out to Ba Sing Se twice more before being caught by someone else. It was unlucky, because it was one of the most merciless people that he ever knew.
"Oh, ho, ho," the high-pitched and very loud voice declared from the doorway of the teahouse. "If it isn't Prince Cranky and Miss Icy-Cool."
Zuko groaned and hid behind the menu, but of course that wouldn't work. Mai raised an eyebrow, and Iroh stood up, laughing. "Ah, if it isn't Toph, gracing me with her immense presence! To what do I owe this occasion?"
Toph strolled into the teahouse like she owned it, grinning from ear-to-ear. She was dressed up in a long and fancy gown, but it was already muddy and tattered, and her hair was coming loose from its complicated plait and dangling into her unfocused eyes. "I was just here with my mother," she replied, somewhat evasively, since her mother was no where to be seen.
Iroh, however, didn't seem to notice this. "Well, as you can see - so to speak - you're not the only familiar face! Come, sit with us, and have some tea."
Toph grinned, her eyes flashing, and she did so, sitting right next Iroh and across from Zuko.
Mai looked at Toph, her eyebrows quirked. "Miss Icy-Cool?" she echoed.
Toph turned towards her, giving a laugh. "Yeah, well, you're not exactly the warmest of the bunch, are you?"
Zuko glared at her. "Why are you here?" he demanded.
Toph turned towards him, frowning. She reached up and dug a finger into her ear nonchalantly. "I'm here because Iroh is my friend," she answered. She pulled her finger out, sniffed it, then dug in again. "Just because you're here doesn't mean I have to leave."
"She has a point," Iroh replied, sipping his tea.
"You have to keep this to yourself, Toph!" Zuko snapped. "No one else has to know about this! It could seriously decrease morale!"
Mai sipped her tea. "Or make you look stupid."
Both Iroh and Toph laughed at his, and Zuko went red. "I mean it!" he pressed. "Keep this to yourself!"
Toph rolled her eyes and wiped her finger on her dress, leaving a faint smudge. "Fine, whatever!" she answered.
Zuko breathed in a little, so sure that that was the last of it.
"Zuko! Fancy meeting you here!"
Zuko groaned, recognising that cheerful - and so obviously lying - voice anywhere. Beside him, Mai chuckled, taking great pleasure in his predicament.
When he looked up, he saw both Aang and Katara standing before him, smiling so hard that they looked ready to burst into laughter.
"I'm gonna kill that dirty little..." Zuko muttered.
"Oh, don't blame Toph," Katara answered, sitting across from Mai. "You would have been busted eventually."
"Yeah," Aang agreed, sitting across from him. "Everyone comes here, anyway. It's not that big of a surprise."
Mai looked around mildly. "Where's Sokka?" she wondered.
Zuko shot a look at her. "Why do you want to know?" he wondered hotly.
Mai rolled her eyes. "So that I can jump him," she answered flatly. "Because he's always with Katara and Aang, you moron."
Zuko glowered at her.
"Sokka is with my father," Katara broke in. Zuko sent her a grateful look. "He and my father are trying to help the North Pole settlers...settle."
Aang grinned. "Which means more waterbenders for the South Pole."
"Which means a relief," Katara agreed.
Zuko looked up, curious now. "You mean no one from the Water Tribes want to settle outside of Tribal lands?" he wondered.
Aang turned to him, his eyes serious now. "It's not like it wasn't discussed," he admitted. "Some want to, and they're welcome to, but it's a bit awkward, since land disputes are already such a sticky issue."
Zuko leaned forward towards Aang. "Is it going to be an issue?" he wondered. "Will my people become a problem?"
Aang chewed on his lip, thinking about it. "Only the stubborn ones seem to take issue with it, but they were always the problem to begin with."
Mai and Katara exchanged glances of annoyance. Katara made a face, like she was gagging and Mai crossed her eyes. Both girls snickered.
Zuko clutched at his hair, feeling the all-familiar frustration well up in him. "I keep telling them that the land belongs to everyone. Why are they so ignor-"
"Ugh," Mai finally broke in. "Zuko, Aang, shut up. We came here to avoid talking about this. Shut up and drink your tea, or I'm going to pour it down your pants."
Katara and Aang laughed. Only Zuko knew that she was being dead-serious.
Conversation went to lighter topics from there; how Ty Lee was faring on Kyoshi island, whether or not King Bumi had finished repairs in Omashu, and so on. Iroh eventually joined in and asked questions of his own.
But Zuko knew that by the end of the week, everyone within their circle would know he was running away.
And it bothered him.
It was several weeks after the most recent visit that Mai brought up the fact that they hadn't gone to Ba Sing Se in a while. Zuko winced, but ignored her, and she let it go.
It was only when Aang was in the Palace to check up on the proceedings that it was brought up again.
"You know," Aang said, "we haven't seen you in a while. We keep checking in to see if you're there. Where have you been?"
Zuko stopped. They were walking together, on their way to the council room, when Aang asked him this. Zuko turned to the Avatar and gave him a look of disbelief. "You're joking," he said flatly.
Aang blinked, shaking his head. "Not this time," he replied.
Zuko sighed. "You of all people know that I can't run away all the time," he began.
Aang cut him off. "But you're not."
"Yes I am," was the reply. "I walk away without telling anyone, and come back without any explanation. They only take it because I'm the Fire Lord, but sooner or later..." Zuko smiled weakly. "Like everything, it's going to blow up in my face."
Aang looked at him for a moment in silence, which made him uncomfortable. "Why do you keep leaving, Zuko?" he finally wondered.
Zuko looked away, still smiling. "Because I'm a coward who can't take the heat of politics?"
Aang shook his head. "No," he replied. "Because you're still young, and still trying to figure out what to do. Zuko, anyone would be stressed out under this much, not just you." He smiled. "And it's harder for you, because you don't know how to play games and have fun."
Zuko frowned at him sourly. "I know how to have fun!"
"No, you don't!" Aang laughed, like it had been a joke. Zuko fumed, but was interrupted again. "Going to your uncle's teahouse is keeping you sane, Zuko."
He froze, the words cutting deep. It was true, and they both knew it. "But it's...cowardly."
Aang looked up at him, his eyes grave and ancient. "You're always telling me how you're afraid of becoming your father," he said. "It makes me wonder if, all of this time, the Fire Lords of the past are so attached to their thrones that they forget what real life is all about. When you go out, do you feel like the Fire Lord?"
Zuko swallowed. "No," he replied, his mouth dry. "I feel...normal. Well," he placed a hand to his face, smiling faintly. "As normal as can be."
"And you mingle with people, and most of all, the colonials." Aang threw out his arms, smiling. "You experience first hand what you've been fighting about all along. Don't you get it? What you're doing is for your people, and it's nothing to be ashamed of!"
Zuko said nothing, but the truth of the words struck a chord deep inside of him. He knew Aang was right, but he still felt that strange shame inside of him.
Aang seemed able to tell. "It's not something that's going to go away overnight, but it's not something you should be losing sleep over, either." He placed a hand on the older man's arm. "You're only one man."
Zuko snorted out a laugh. "That's rich, coming from you."
Aang grinned. "Yeah, I guess that's true!"
Zuko grinned back. "Shall we face the den of bird-lions, then?"
"Of course. Their outbursts are funny."
Together, they turned towards the doors. "Wait," Zuko said suddenly. Aang turned to him. "Uh..." He went red, and looked down. "Thank you," he muttered.
Aang nodded. "We're in this together, you know."
Zuko looked up, smiled, and turned back to the doors.
And so it went on. Zuko, and sometimes Mai (who didn't follow each time anymore, claiming boredom), would venture to Ba Sing Se and stay with Iroh for a while, sometimes overnight, sometimes for days at a time. After a while, he even started to help around the teahouse, serving guests and mingling with the customers.
He wasn't very good at it, since he had a short fuse and tended to feel awkward in front of so many people, but he remembered how it was back when he was banished, and soon he and Iroh fell into old routines while he was there.
And eventually, it became a sort of running gag among his friends to show up while he was there and hang around him like his shadow (or try to boss him around, in Sokka's case). It was infuriating, but it was also comforting, being surrounded by familiar faces that he respected and loved.
The meetings were no less frustrating, but being around the common people allowed his perspectives to broaden, and he was able to argue his points better and with more knowledge than his councilmen and women could ever dream of. When asked about it, he always refused to answer, or avoid the question. Eventually, they just assumed that he just knew.
It was the sort of mystery that he liked to cloak around himself, and he kept it that way.