A sweet warm wind blew across Zuko's face and teased a wisp of hair out of place from his top knot as he rode with his entourage across the Earth Kingdom. Memories of the last time he'd traveled through this land kept surfacing.
He'd been Fire Lord now for a month and technically there was peace for the nations. The Fire Nation was doing its best to make amends and rebuild. Humility still came hard at times to the young ruler. It wasn't easy to face your nation's former enemies and make peace after generations of war. Hatred still lingered toward his family and his nation – there was a long road ahead.
While he and his Uncle Iroh had been refugees in this land struggling to survive, there were many things he'd done that he'd not been proud of. One case in particular stood out to him – the one of young Miss Song and her mother. The two women despite their lowly means had only given he and his uncle kindness. Through these two women he saw the effects of the war on the people of the invaded nations. Yet he had repaid their kindness with taking their only ostrich horse. Zuko couldn't make everything right for the two women, but he could apologize, do what he could to make amends.
When he'd concocted his plan to make amends, he started out so self assured. But now, he was really starting to feel uneasy. What would he do if she refused to accept his apology – especially since she'd find out who he truly was? It seemed absolutely ironic and absurd to him at times that he, the Fire Lord – ruler of a powerful nation, felt he needed to make amends and have the forgiveness of a poverty stricken young girl and her mother in a hole in the wall Earth Kingdom town. But there it was – relentless in his mind. Back at the palace Mei had tried to brush it off at first when he brought it up, but seeing the look in his eyes – she knew he had to do this and she'd chosen to accompany him.
Now with the sun overhead on the outskirts of the little village, as he felt Mei's eyes on him as he closed his own, took a big breath and let it out slowly. Then he felt her hand reach over to squeeze his and let him know she was beside him all the way in this. He looked up at the Fire Nation banner his standard bearer carried and down at his full Fire Lord regalia. All of this pomp seemed so out of place – but this apology couldn't be a private simple one. It was to be an example for his nation. He didn't look at Mei but smiled slightly, squeezed her hand in return before letting go, then spurred his mount forward. Mei wondered silently to herself, why he seemed so much more attractive to her when he let himself be vulnerable?
A cloud of dust and thundering feet of the giant lithe mongoose lizards announced the eminent arrival of a group that was uncommonly large for this petite town. The Fire Nation banner was soon spotted by all outdoors and they fearfully and suspiciously gave the group a wide berth as they rode in. The group slowed to a canter. All the peasants' eyes were on the leader with the fire emblem in his hair.
Zuko did his best to ignore the hushed whispers and worried looks on the faces of the people he passed. When they reached the little hut that was the healing station, he gave the signal for the company to halt and dismounted his beast. All riders followed suit and Zuko handed the reins to his groom and stepped forward several paces from the group. The herald rushed over and Zuko quickly gave the man his orders, stressing the need for gentleness and humility. With the snap of a salute and a turn of his heels the herald bounded up the steps and into the hut.
"Is the young healer, Miss Song, here? She is needed," the herald politely but firmly asked the strangers in the little building. He heard a resounding intake of breath as they took in his crisp red and black Fire Nation uniform. The eyes of a girl darted to him in his official attire and back to the poultice she was about to apply to a child. From her mouth came the quiet wary response, "We have very little in this village. The nobility usually are treated with the best care in the neighboring larger village."
"Please, are you Miss Song? My master says this is important and he's requesting you specifically. I promise you won't be kept from your duties for long." the herald stepped forward entreating her with his words.
With her eyes still fixed on her work she replied with just an edge in her voice, "I don't know anyone from the Fire Nation and I'm just a peasant healer. Who could possibly know of me? Tell your master we have sick and wounded to tend here. We're still recovering from the war your nation brought to us."
"Miss Song, my master told me to tell you that you knew him as Mr. Li and his uncle, Mushi. Please Miss, just come outside for a moment."
She closed her eyes and let out a large sigh of resignation, "I need to finish several poultices and bandages first. Then I'll step out. But … only for a minute. I don't have much to say to the man who stole my ostrich horse after we showed him and his uncle hospitality."
The herald blinked for a second in disbelief at this talk of his Fire Lord, then recovered and bowed, "Very well miss."
He briskly stepped out the door and down to report to Zuko, "My Lord, I'm sorry but it will be a bit before the young lady will come out. She was attending a child. She's very guarded. Her mother is confirmed to be in the audience, Sir." After a pause he continued, "May I speak freely, Sir?"
Zuko paced as he responded, "Go ahead."
"You're really going to allow a peasant to make you, the Fire Lord, wait?"
There was such a determination in Zuko's, "Yes," that the herald quickly dismissed himself and retreated back to the hut's door to wait for Miss Song. Mei placidly looked to the herald for a sign of what the girl had said and he gave a nod and a confused shrug.
Twenty minutes into the wait Mei went over to offer a bit of solace to the still pacing Zuko, took his arm to gently stop his pacing and spoke softly, "Love, I know you're worried this won't go well. I know this is important to you and to our nation. You've changed since then and you're doing all you can. We can't make her change, but only show our nation has. That will be the difference – the world will see our peaceful intentions. "
He looked back to her with such doubt as he rethought this choice, "But what if she throws it all back in our face? Our people will be hesitant to offer any olive branch to those they've harmed. This has to go right. I shouldn't have made this my example, it's so public…"
"Chin up … or I'll punch you," she quipped. That had gained her at least a small smirk and a resolved look from him. Zuko stood with his hands clasped behind his back and feet in a solid stance. He stared at the door willing Song to come out.
Ten minutes later, the young woman cautiously opened the door and stepped out. The herald's voice quickly broke the silence and boomed in announcement, "Oy-Ay! Oy-Ay! Oy-Ay! Let all here bear witness!" Startled at the sudden sound and the sight of all the red and black uniforms, she backed up into the closed door. There was nowhere to run and fear began to creep in to her. The herald turned to face her with a kind look to help allay her fear and took her arm to escort her into the royal presence, "Miss Song, the Fire Lord Zuko wishes to speak to you." Her wide eyes confirmed her recognition of him and a quiet astonished, "Li?" escaped her lips.
When she was within a few yards feeling a little dazed, the herald released his gentle hold on her arm and stepped back with a, "My Lord as you requested."
"Miss Song," Zuko nodded as he spoke her name, then knelt down on his knees in a formal position, placed his hands on the ground and his head down in submission. In its entirety, the entourage – mounts and all, knelt before her. She blinked in astonishment looking around her. She had no clue what to do when royalty is next to you – let alone kneeling to you. Zuko began – "I've come to apologize for what I've done and for the sins of my nation." He looked up earnestly into her startled eyes as he continued, "I wronged you and your mother when my uncle and I sought help in our last visit here. It was an awful way to treat you after your kindness to us. I'm truly sorry. I was lost and finding my way and myself in this world. I've not forgotten the words you said that night – those words stayed with me."
"Also the Fire Nation wounded you and tore your family apart. I apologize on behalf of my country. Please know I've my best men searching for your father. All of the prisons and work camps have been emptied and the occupants set free to return to their families. When I hear word of him, a messenger hawk will be dispatched to you and his journey back to you and your mother will be expedited." As his words sunk in, her hands covered her mouth and tears started to flow down her cheeks.
"As to the loss of your ostrich horse, well…I'm unable to return it," he stated and the abashed mournful look he gave her would have melted stone. "But, will you allow me to make amends for it?" Her small bobbing nod brought a look of relief and he with confidence and a slight smile he stood . The rest of the host rose as well. "Then please, would you kneel – it's just…um…traditional," he requested and nodded to the herald as she hesitantly complied. The herald unrolled a scroll and proclaimed, "Let it be known from this day forth Miss Song is to be known as the Lady Song here in the Earth Kingdom and surrounding lands of Omashu as proclaimed by King Bumi and in the Fire Kingdom as proclaimed by Fire Lord Zuko. All rights, honors and lands befitting this title are herewith entrusted to her."
Zuko's quiet voice spoke his joy in seeing her realize the events unfolding, "Please rise, Lady Song. Now if you have the time to step away for a little while from your truly important clinic, Mei and I will show you your new lands and I wish for you to pick one of the mongoose lizards we brought to start as the first of the breeding stock on your new lands here just outside of this village. There is a need for more of these fast easy to tame beasts. Messages between kingdoms are increasing by the day and this area is perfect for raising them."
Mei, still looking absolutely serene, had silently glided up to Zuko and taken his arm to be escorted to her mongoose lizard. Zuko offered his other arm to Song and was about to mention how it will be possible to expand the clinic, but a light glinted in Song's eyes as she turned to look at him and interrupted, "Fire Lord … Zuko. I know which of the riding beasts I want."
"Oh? You've decided before really looking at them?" He raised an eyebrow as he questioned.
"Yes. Yours, it will be the best of the lot if it's the Fire Lord's," she said decidedly.
With a chagrinned chuckle he led the ladies over to his mongoose lizard and handed Song the reins. "Ironic, but fair. Do you know how to ride one of these?"
"I'll figure it out," she said with a growing confidence. Song was helped up by a servant and her mother was brought into the group and given her choice of a lizard too.
As Zuko led Mei over to her mount he sheepishly asked, "May I ride with you, Love? I seem to have just lost my ride…"
Author's note: Well, there it is - the apology that was missing! Hope you enjoyed this version. ;)