I am, in fact, alive. I haven't been ignoring your letters. Things are just hectic in Ba Sing Se at the moment. You don't have to hop on the next airship to come see me, and it would be best that you don't. Some do not speak your name charitably right now, but I will get to that momentarily.
I haven't replied to your request to know about the Lily of the Valley because it is a difficult story. It is not just your mother's story, but mine and your father's as well. Those were different times, and we were all different people, especially your father, and I don't want you to think less of your mother and I because of it. You have always had a difficult relationship with your father, and I'm not sure how you'll react to some of the things I tell you. Many of these things will shock you because of their tenderness. Yes. Your father knew how to be tender, at least for a few brief months, and in his own way.
This is not an easy letter to compose, and you being exceptionally vague about your reasons for wanting to know do not put my mind at ease. I've put off writing this specific letter because I'm not sure how to relate things to you. Ultimately, it is my decision that what you ask is not suitable for letters. Far too many trees will be killed, too may hawks with too large a burden to carry between Ba Sing Se and the capitol. Too much emotional weight.
I'm coming to the Fire Nation, and I will tell you in person. But before I do, I want you to think very hard and carefully, and as clearly as you can about the price of this information. You know that I am not the man I always was, and the same is true of your mother. You know but little pieces of our lives, and what you ask will change your view of us. I do not know that I am ready to have you hate me.
To speak with you about your mother is not the only reason I am coming to the capitol. As I'm sure you've heard, there are riots in Ba Sing Se. The public is calling for Kuei to step down, and greed already glints in the eyes of some nobles of the upper ring. Kuei has no wife, no heirs, no prospects, though I can assure you, if the gossip that floats through my little tea shop is any indicator, he is a more sought after catch even than you. The Fire Nation is strong, still has some wealth and resources, and would be a powerful position for any aspiring family, but you, nephew, are a true leader. You run your country, as you should. Kuei, on the other hand, doesn't have a clue what he's doing. He was a figurehead for Long Feng, and unless something can be done, he will be a figurehead for his wife.
Aang is here quite often, but his knowledge of politics and political intrigue is nearly as extensive as Kuei's. In their desperation, the Council of Five has even come to me for advice on how to instruct Kuei, since the Fire Nation political system isn't that far from the Earth Kingdom's. The great fear, however, is that with Kuei out of the way and no clear candidates other than second and third cousins, civil war will start with Ba Sing Se, then the other kingdom-states will become involved, each trying to place their favored candidate on the throne. Kuei has Aang's backing, and for the moment, it appears that it is keeping the sabretooth moose lions at bay. The Council of Five is taking no chances, though. The moment rioting broke out, Long Feng was taken into protective custody, presumably to keep anyone from trying to put him on the throne. Where he is and how long he will be there, I have no clue. The Council of Five is keeping this as quiet as possible.
A defense force is being raised. Soldiers arrived from Gaoling late last week, and some warriors from the South showed up yesterday. Word has it that even Arnook is sending soldiers to help keep the peace, and many take this as a good sign that he is not quite willing to isolate the North to protect his people.
Nephew, I know I said that I would stay out of your political decisions, and that I would not try to influence you, but the question is being asked of me almost daily. Where are the Fire Nation soldiers? Every nation is represented except ours, and even if you sent 800 soldiers, it would make a big difference. While fighting is expected in the city itself, the concern is that it might spread into outlying municipalities, and that the problem might be too big for the city watch and the defense force. It is no secret that the Fire Nation still has the largest armed force amongst the nations.
They question why you won't even send a few hundred men to guard your own uncle. They say you have abandoned me, and this hurts me more than the words they sling at our nation in their frustration. I know you have not abandoned me. I know you have not abandoned your mission of restoring peace and balance to the world. I tell them that you must have your reasons for not sending help, and they say they hope this is true.
I have been asked to plead with you for aid. I am hesitant to do so, but Ba Sing Se has become home to Jun and I for the past three years, and I would hate to see it torn apart. We will be leaving a little early for our summer stay at the Fire Nation branch of the Jasmine Dragon. Perhaps from there, we will see about opening one in the South, though Jun keeps insisting that she doesn't want any part of the business.
I am concerned for you, Zuko. I hope things are not going so poorly at home that you cannot spare a little aid to those who helped us when we were down.
With much love,
There was a strong wind at the docks that plastered Zuko's hair on his head, keeping it away from his face. He stood with his hands in his pockets, waiting for the ship on the horizon to grow bigger. He did not wear his crown or the Fire Lord's mantle. He stood there, not as Fire Lord, but as Zuko, though there were months at a time when the two were inseparable, no matter how hard he tried to hold on to his old identity. Zuko had gone on a dangerous mission looking for his mother with his best friend, a young girl named Katara, and Zuko had made promises to Katara, promises that should have come from the Fire Lord. Zuko could have gotten himself killed, and suffered a serious injury—if his skull had fractured in the wrong way, a shard of bone could have pierced his brain. Zuko was making decisions the Fire Lord needed to make.
He'd written to his uncle two days after he and Katara had returned, and the reply didn't come until two months later. The first skirmish between the public and the bureaucracy of Ba Sing Se came a few days after he'd been back. A mid-level government official in charge of organizing documents had been attacked as he made his way through the middle ring. City guards came to his aid in time, and the man suffered only a broken arm, but the call had gone out for aid, and others had answered.
For a time, Zuko wrestled with whether he should send a response, or if it would be better for him to remain silent. He could not admit the truth: that he'd thrown off his office in order to go cavorting around in a forest with his secret lover in the hopes of finding his lost mother. That, despite having vast resources at his fingertips, he insisted on doing this mission alone for personal reasons. Zuko had personal reasons. Zuko was allowed to have personal reasons.
The Fire Lord was not.
The ship that was carrying Iroh and Jun to the Fire Nation grew larger. He could see the steam rising from the chimney stack, a genius invention dreamed up by Sokka, and realized with the help of the Mechanist. Zuko squinted into the sunlight, but did not move to shield his eyes.
He wondered if his uncle would notice the way things weighed heavily on him now, the gravity with which he considered every decision. He wondered how easily his uncle would be able to tell that he hadn't been sleeping, that the dreams had started again, and that guilt for the dead and the wounded made it impossible for him to eat. Dead that Zuko created. Wounded that Zuko created. There was no refuge from this. Becoming the Fire Lord did not change things. He wondered how quickly his uncle would notice that he was barely keeping his head above the waters on some days.
Zuko regulated his breathing, closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. Felt its warmth on his skin. He locked those memories away because they could do him no good now. Not now. Now, he needed strength.
What the Fire Lord would do in the coming months would not make his council happy. He would defy them. He had that power. He was already looking through old documents, finding the original boundaries given to the council, figuring out how to reinstate them, what would work, what wouldn't work. The council was created as an advisory body. It is impossible for one man to know the entirety of every subject related to governing a nation, and there was no shame in turning to those who possessed specialized knowledge.
He would have to levy heavier taxes on the richest tier to force them to hand over critical amounts of money to buffer what would be lost in the sending of aid to Ba Sing Se, and he would have to wait for that money to accumulate. The council would never agree to that tax since several of them would be among those receiving a heavier tax. While allowing the council to make some big decisions worked before, it would not work now. He needed control. He needed that ultimate power to do what needed to be done.
"Remember that part about growing up where we realized it's ok to ask for help?" Toph had asked him one morning. "You let all sorts of other stuff fly out your mouth. Maybe 'help' needs to be one of them."
She had slammed the door to his office, and he had continued reading over financial and military and production reports.
In all honesty, there were things the Fire Lord could be doing that were a bit more important than waiting for his uncle on the docks. But he needed to breathe and to think. Firebending practice was for when he didn't want to think. The ocean was for when he did. After three years at sea doing the deepest thinking and making some of the toughest decisions he'd ever made, water was a good place for him to think. He contemplated stepping into the surf, but the guards who were with him would probably panic. He did not want them to panic.
So he waited and smelled the sea and listened to the call of the albatross and thought. Before he made too many decisions, he needed to consult with someone who'd been in Ba Sing Se, had seen and heard things for himself. He needed to know if the situation was as dire as everyone made it out to be, if there weren't things the Fire Lord could do to help beyond sending people with swords and firebending. It would be too much like the Siege of Ba Sing Se or the coup that actually captured the city. These were only temporary measures. Ba Sing Se would need help for years to come.
The ship was bigger, and the Fire Lord frowned. Whoever his uncle had been, whoever his mother had been, he could not hate them. They were the ones to love and protect Zuko so that he could become Fire Lord. They taught Zuko forgiveness and affection and kindness so that the Fire Lord may use these things in his rule. He was slowly beginning to understand the importance of balance; his uncle's and his mother's histories were his history. There was darkness and there was light. There was balance, and he needed to know himself.
The bells on the dock rang to signify the arrival of a ship. The wind stopped blowing and Zuko's hair settled around his face. He left it, ruffled as it was. People swarmed the docks, eager to see loved ones and get news from Ba Sing Se. They chattered amongst themselves. Some criticized the Fire Lord's refusal to send aid. Some said he'd made the right choice, that no one would send aid to the Fire Nation if they asked. These were joined by a third group who said it was Ba Sing Se's own fault for having a worthless king, that Kuei should be deposed. Everyone had an opinion, and it was like listening to his council all over again.
Zuko closed his eyes and breathed in the salty smell of the ocean that sometimes stung his nostrils. Someone bumped into him, blamed him for it, even though he was standing still.
For the first time in years, he thought of Mai without prompting from Ty Lee or his council. She had always known that Zuko was different from the Fire Lord, and had a tendency to look at him like she wasn't quite sure who he was whenever he wore the crown and the mantle. He used to spend minutes staring at himself in the mirror, trying to see what she saw.
If he looked at his reflection now, he'd see the difference in an instant. Riots in Ba Sing Se taught him one of the most important lessons of his life:
No matter who else Zuko wanted to be, he was the Fire Lord, first and foremost. He had a duty to perform, and nothing would stop him.
Dearest readers! Thank you for sticking with this story, even through some bumps. You've made it all the awesome that it is! Each review made me smile and encouraged me and pushed me to do greater things. You have reached the end of The Chase.
I wanted to use this to transition into a new theme of growing up and accepting responsibility and our Gaang beginning to settle into the people they would probably be for the rest of their lives. The weight of his actions is beginning to press against Zuko; it's still too soon after the war for something like the Fire Nation's lack of response to be treated so lightly. The big thing, though, is that Zuko realizes this, and he takes steps to correct it. He sees that, while the council having a lot of power might have worked before, it won't work now, and a change must be made. The Fire Nation isn't so financially secure after the close of its main industry (war) that he can do without the financial support of many of the nobles, so there's a bit of political maneuvering that needs to be done before he can send aid. He's also thinking about the long run-while sending help now might be fine and dandy, they'll end up repeating this scene over and over until Kuei gets some power, or at least a powerful wife who's got the country's best interests at heart (for real, not in a Long Feng kind of way).
Highlights from Uncle's story about himself, Ursa, and Ozai in their younger years will make an appearance in Finding My Way Home, but for a full, detailed version, take a gander at Lily of the Valley, now completed!
Thank you, lovely readers, again, for sticking with me through this!