The Brothers of Ba Sing Se
Chapter Six: The Long Road Home
By DamageCtrl & Ebontien
*All Standard Disclaimers Apply: We do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra.
Fire Nation Capital, Fire Nation - Era of Avatar Aang
"Zuko!" She dropped the formalities, meaning she was more than just a tad upset. "You cannot just hide from your responsibilities!"
A small, childish part of Zuko - frustrated with everything that had piled on to him lately, wanted to retort that he was the Fire Lord and thus could do anything he wished. However, he knew better and saying that would make him a hypocrite to what he was trying to accomplish.
"Councilwoman Mai," he began in a formal tone as he opened the doors to the family's private library. He stood up straight and peered down at the slender, frowning woman. "I appreciate your concern, however, let me assure you that I am not hiding from my responsibilities."
Her irritated expression did not leave her face. "Then what exactly are you doing, Fire Lord," she spat out. "For hours on end in a library when there are courts to be held and documents to review?"
"Trying to find a balance," he replied easily. "First I make changes, but people are angry. Then, I stop making changes to review, and people are still angry. I have done what is necessary to keep our external relations with the other countries going so far, which will stabilize import prices and reduce tariffs on Fire Nation exports. Common citizens, especially merchants, should be pleased with that."
"It is admirable that you are focusing on improving our relations with the other nations, but what of our own internal concerns?" Mai reminded him coldly. "The land reclamation requests, the joblessness, the uncertainty? Until those concerns can be quelled, the people, including the nobles, will continue to vilify you."
His eyes narrowed. "Then let them come up with an idea that will be of greatest benefit to the Fire Nation and lay it before me," he spat out. "I have not received a single, plausible piece of legislation from those nobles since I arrived."
Mai met his glare. "I am not your public relations person, Zuko. If you wish to tell them that, then call a court and tell them."
He let out a deep breath and furrowed his brows. "So be it. A week from now, set the date for a court hearing."
"Will you have a plan then to reveal to them?" the noblewoman asked suspiciously.
"No," Zuko stated unabashed. "But I will have new guidelines. They keep telling me to remember my place - that I am the Fire Lord," he said in a low voice as he turned around. "But they seem to constantly forget theirs and now it is my turn to remind them."
He closed the door and locked it, not bothering to wait and see if Mai protested his decision. As he stalked back to the large table in the center of the room, where scrolls and books had been strewn about in a sort of organized chaos, he decided that she had no objections when nothing else was heard.
Zuko settled in front of the thick book he was writing it. He had almost filled the book halfway with his notes and his numerous, messy brush strokes and ink stains filled pages on end. Yet, he wasn't done.
This plan would forever change the government of the Fire Nation and every aspect had to be taken into account.
Historical and religious records dictated a time when the Fire Nation was not ruled by a single person in a ruling family, but rather, guided by the Fire Sages. The position of Fire Lord was held by the most powerful of the sages, thus changing the position to the most qualified every generation.
It was his ancestor that made the position inherent to their bloodline, slowly leading to what they had now, including the eventual decline of the Fire Sages system itself. This gave absolute power to one ruler; one who could easily lead an entire nation into war for years, regardless of whether or not they were qualified in both mind, body, and heart to do so.
Zuko wasn't arrogant. He knew what unchecked, limitless power could do. It corrupted. It was dangerous. He himself, who had shed blood, sweat, and tears to attain his position, was also susceptible to the corruption. He also knew that the Avatar would not always be there to check his position or those of his successors.
So, for the sake of restraint, he took to the library for guidance. He knew he wouldn't find a perfect plan - there was no such thing. He would need to find what best worked for him and his people.
And he was close.
He had a rough idea of what could work. Clearly, the Fire Nation was unlike the others. The Air Nomads were theocracy. As of right now, he questioned the existing 'Fire Sages', who were supported by the previous monarchs and were dependent on the system that kept them afloat. He wasn't sure if they, weak-willed puppets used to support his father and the like, could be strong enough to guide the Fire Nation once more. In addition, the Nomads were all benders, everyone was literally equal in that sense, while in the Fire Nation, as with the other two nations, did not have that luxury.
Now that he thought about it, most of the nobles tended to be firebenders. Of course, there was a portion of them who were not, but had high military positions regardless, but the ratio of firebenders to non-benders among nobles was staggeringly higher than among the normal population.
The Earth Kingdom had a system of regional kings and then the main king. It was a confederation, which seemed to work well for them, considering the sheer size and variety within the Earth Kingdom. The Fire Nation was far smaller in comparison; if he assigned regional kings, the obvious choices would've been the nobles and where they were right now, it would only lead to anything from petty squabbles to a civil war. He couldn't completely displace the nobles themselves. As much as he hated to admit it, they held too much power to be ignored completely.
The Water Tribes were lead by a chief, though each tribe had a particular system. According to the documents he'd researched, the Northern Tribe was an inherited chief position, always to males and if the current chief lacked a son, it would go to his son-in-law. That was nearly what the Fire Nation had now, only it seemed that with such a strong communal aspect, the Northern Tribe kept itself in check.
The Southern Tribe was lead by someone considered most capable and, from what he learned from Sokka, the most practical for its small population as chosen by its people This meant that at that time when he first came ashore, the leader of the tribe wasn't the most able male - who was Sokka. It went to the most revered elder, someone who could guide the tribe best in their situation; Gran-Gran Kanna. Her son, Chief Hakoda, was the leader of the tribe overall, but she was his second-in-command in his absence. Technically, a woman could be elected chief if she passed the trials to allow her to be election candidate; one of them being hunting and once upon a time, Kanna could spear down tiger seal quite easily.
Zuko grinned slightly. She was a tough woman. Regardless, like the Northern Tribe, the Southern Tribe was deeply communal and so the tribe as a whole, not just a select few, had a say. Chief Hakoda was equal to everyone else in the tribe and his position as leader was a job, like being a merchant or farmer.
Zuko wanted to be a leader to all the Fire Nation; not just the nobles or the military. He knew his people were displeased. He was used to the nobles voicing their opinions; complaining about every little thing that went wrong and blaming it on him, but to see posters and hear of normal citizens in unrest - that was alarming. Why hadn't the nobles said anything about that?
He didn't want his people to think that he didn't care about them. The common man made up the nation.
Zuko's fingers twirled one of his ink brushes. He really did wish he paid more attention to his history and government lessons now. He pushed aside some recent surveys on the populace and grabbed a book on the last military survey done. Many more recruits were firebenders and thus also ended up getting higher positions as they moved through the ranks. The only non-bender group in the Fire Nation military were the Yu Yan archers; anyone who wanted to join could not be a bender because their abilities were needed elsewhere.
In the other countries, people sometimes rose to government positions due to lineage, power, skill or contribution. He remembered Sokka once telling him that was how lead hunters were chosen in the Southern Water Tribe; the best among them lead them. The Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation used examinations that people would have to study for, so that was similar. Aang had told him that monks and nuns who ran each temple were chosen based on their knowledge and contributions.
He needed something that would even it out for everyone, bender and non-bender, noble and commoner. Something that wasn't done yet - something revolutionary.
With all this on his slumped shoulders, Zuko sincerely hoped that Jet and Sokka were having an easier time figuring out the matter of the Dai Li and their hidden embargo.
Now was as good a time as any. When darkness covered the skies, Jet casually slipped out of the inn above the fancy restaurant where he had delivered the goods as he promised to Iroh that afternoon. It was time for his real work and quite frankly, work he was more comfortable doing. He was not that surprised to find among the packed items in the warehouse yesterday his Red Demon mask and gear carefully hidden and wrapped where he was sure to find them.
Jet rolled his eyes. Yes, coincidence indeed.
He couldn't complain though. Nighttime reconnaissance wasn't the same without his usual uniform. Tonight, he hoped to find out exactly where the mysterious Dai Li customs storage was and what they held.
He took care in his bearings in this new area earlier when he was making his way to the tea shop, Wulong Oolong. Never in his life he thought he was going to set foot on the Fire Nation, much less its capital, unless he was conquering it with the Freedom Fighters. Now he was doing it to save Ba Sing Se and to some small tiny extent, he hesitantly admitted, the Fire Nation.
And people said the spirits had no sense of humor.
They were also smiling on him in other ways. He'd only briefly met the restaurant's owner and founder, but the aging man only had time to greet Jet and thank him for his work before having to leave. Instead, the restaurant was put in charge of manager and his small handful of servers. It was a shaky opening, apparently, and Jet let his inner leader out after watching several servers spill and misplace Iroh's precious tea. The old man would have a heart attack if he had seen the carnage.
He had volunteered to help out at the restaurant, despite Mr. So, the restaurant manager's, protests, but given that the restaurant had just started, he was low on trained workers. Working at the Jasmine Dragon had given Jet more than exceptional skill as a waiter, host, and even restaurant manager, which helped ease the process, but only after Jet had convinced Mr. So through a couple rounds of dice. Iroh had told him about So's gambling habits, that he could never resist a game. Now, if Jet had tried Pai Sho, he would lose. Dice on the other hand...
It was a good thing he did. A few daring Earth Kingdom merchants had come in. These merchants were some of the same men he remembered from the ship. Again, there were no Dai Li uniforms, but he recognized their faces. He had taken a break when they left the restaurant to follow them to their hotel. It wasn't difficult for him to retire early enough to rest and then stake out the hotel earlier in the evening.
He told Mr. So not to worry if he didn't see him much since this was the first time he was in the Fire Nation, pulling off his best tourist impression. He had even asked about sending postcards to Republic City and Ba Sing Se. Mr. So had encouraged him to explore their 'beautiful city' and even gave him a map with circled places of interest, including the Fire Nation Museum of Calligraphy, the Royal Fire Nation Naval Center and Aquarium, and something called 'Lovers' Bluffs'. Was the man hinting at something?
Besides, he had bigger issues: what were the Dai Li doing.
"Nothing," Jet muttered, biting into a meat bun he had brought with him for a snack. "Of all the times to decide to sleep like ordinary people..."
He found their rooms easy enough, pretending to be a delivery boy, so that he would know which rooms to watch, but as far he could tell, the men had not left. It would be a little harder to follow them in daylight. He had hoped that they would be creatures of habit and only work at night, but if not, this was another night blown.
His eyes caught movement on the building he had lain on flat to avoid notice. It wasn't a person, but stone moving. The earth shifted a square piece above ground in the alley between both buildings, and the Dai Li came out. They were still not in uniform, but they were not in the finer merchant clothes they were in either. They, however, were wearing the stone gloves and shoes. Jet almost shook his head.
They divided up into smaller groups of two or three. Jet picked one to follow, but as he moved behind them with care, he discovered they were all moving towards the same direction: the docks. He decided to take a shortcut there, they waited.
That was when things became strange. Rather than head to the docks or the warehouses he had been the day before, they headed towards the guard stations.
Perhaps he had been mistaken? There was always the possibility the Dai Li's stuff had already been confiscated and maybe they were moved to a more secure location with the guards?
This can't be good. Jet thought to himself as he followed a distance behind. He stuck to the building tops. He doubted any of the Dai Li were like Toph, but it never hurt to be cautious in case they ever did recruit someone so talented into their ranks. He hoped none of them knew how to do metalbending just yet.
The Dai Li took a turn towards one of the storage units in the guard section. One of them picked the lock on the door while a couple others behind entered in once the door was opened. The remainder scattered a distance to remain on lookout. Once the men exited with crates in their arms, they stealthily moved back towards the warehouses in the other direction. These were the crates he remembered from the ship given the markings. So, they were on retrieval duty and the Fire Nation had confiscated their stuff.
Jet followed them till they reached a warehouse in a far corner of the compound, closest to the water and right next to the one that had previously stored Iroh's tea. Well, aren't I the idiot?
Instead of picking the lock this time, one of the men pulled out a key and merely opened the door. Inside the men went, depositing their loot. They then split up. Jet chose to follow the one with the key. He followed through the city, all the way back to their hotel. Disturbed dirt around showed that his comrades had came back earlier with one man coming in minutes after the Dai Li Jet had been following disappeared back into his room. Confident that they wouldn't be moving for the rest of the night, Jet headed back to the warehouse district and to his new find.
He picked the door's lock and proceeded to methodically inspect the place. Most items he found in there were run-of-the-mill imports: pottery, works of art, weaponry, clothing, tea. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Items were moved regularly, so there was no point in finding disturbances. He was lucky that Dai Li seemed overly reliant on their bending even the simplest tasks, as he found slight cracks in the floor towards a stack of crates.
Jet carefully pried one of them open to find a stash of Fire Nation armour. His lips automatically tugged into a frown. Why would they have been transporting Fire Nation armor? He wasn't that familiar with the rankings and uniform coding, so this was something he was going to have to ask Zuko about. Of all the things he expected tonight, this was not even on his list. Further searching of the crates revealed similar paraphernalia, but nothing downright incriminating.
"I might not like these guys," Jet thought to himself. "But they're not idiots. They wouldn't have left without checking these. They didn't bring them back, so I can assume that these were the original contents."
He needed help with this. Jet almost wished he had brought Sokka, but Zuko, for all of his ploy of keeping the Water Tribesman out of their hair, was right that Sokka was needed to keep an eye on the city and he was the best person for figuring out all their gathered intel, not just what they found here.
While that was all well and good, Jet faced another problem with their separation. He wasn't sure they'd have time to tell Sokka and have him put the puzzle pieces together. If the Dai Li were planning something soon, it unraveling the plans was up to him and Zuko.
The Fire Lord kept his head low in booth in the back of the Wulong Oolong. He hadn't been able to talk to Jet for days and no word had come from the former rebel turned vigilante. Zuko had made some headway when it came to the workload he missed, but he still had a lot of catching up to do. He was still spinning in circles when it came to how to rectify his country's situation in concerns of their political system, but his pet project was forced to take second place when it came to the more immediate matters of running his nation and his people.
The second he had a moment to himself, he knew he had to talk to his accomplice. He inwardly cringed; when had becoming a masked vigilante from another city, now in his own country, become a breather?
He had sent a message to Jet a day ago via messenger hawk to the Wulong Oolong saying he'd meet him here in the late morning, when this place would be the busiest. Most people would be too concerned with their own social lives and brunches to think about two guys talking in the back corner. It would also be too loud to eavesdrop unless someone was sitting intimately close.
"Well, that certainly took you long enough," Jet said as he slid himself into the booth, setting down a teapot, cups, and small tray of appetizers in front of him. "Do you know how busy I've been? Mr. So's so new at this, I'm practically running the place."
"You think this is hard? Try running a country," Zuko fired back at him as Jet diligently poured them both some tea. "I won't be able to meet after this for a few more days either. I'm still trying to sort things out with some of the ministers and the council. What did I miss?"
In between sips of his tea and comments on how the bakeries in Ba Sing Se were far superior, Jet managed to list his findings. "I still can't figure out why they would want or have Fire Nation armor."
Zuko was leaning back in the booth, mulling over a cup of tea as his eyes narrowed. "Describe them to me."
"Three. Three red spikes on the top of the helmet, three eye holes, and shard-shaped mouth holes," Jet counted off his fingers each time.
Zuko leaned in. "Were there any face masks? Skull-shaped?"
Jet raised a brow. "A few, why?"
The Fire Lord let out a silent swear. "They're private royal guard uniforms. Were they long sleeved or short?"
"Long." Jet rubbed the back of his neck. "So what does it mean?"
"There are exceptions, but since they're long that means they are for abroad royal guards, usually those accompanying a member of the royal family. While there is a short-sleeved version given the weather here sometimes, we've been stringent on standards so most wear long sleeves unless the weather is that unbearable. The face masks are old though."
"Really? I remember seeing those a few years ago when both sides were still fighting."
Zuko sighed. "After it became apparent that keeping the guards' faces was just asking for assassination, it became a better idea to not use face masks unless they held the occupation as an executioner or a spy."
Jet nodded approvingly. "Well, that's a smart idea."
"But not mine," the firebender snorted. "It was my sister's during the days she went crazy." He thought about his words. "But she had a point in her paranoia and I'm not a popular ruler right now."
"Still, I don't think the Dai Li came all the way here incognito just to return some armor."
"I don't either. Uncle sent a messenger hawk with a message from Sokka. He's not getting much from the intel we gave him, but he's going to continue working on it."
"Then I'll just keep looking. I might have missed something in the warehouse." He paused for a bit before asking, "do you want the bird back?"
"You mean Hawky II? Oh, keep him with you. We can keep in touch this way."
Jet raised an eyebrow. "Tell me you're joking about that being his name."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Blame Sokka. The hawk does have another name, but it's a fancy long one. I had sent it to Uncle and in the note back, Sokka insisted on calling him Hawky II...and babbled a couple paragraphs on how he could be our mascot."
The other man eyed him. "Are you sure it was such a good idea to bring him into this?"
Zuko clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I suggest you try to unconvince him. He's really hooked onto this whole vigilante thing. It only got worse since his second volume sold like hotcakes. I saw some shops starting to sell it over here too." His eyes crinkled up. "I don't even know how it got here."
Jet let out a heavy breath. "Great..."
"I might be busy, but if you need me, just send a message," Zuko said as he got up to leave.
"I will," Jet smiled, raising his cup. "And go get some sleep. You look like you've been going a few nights without it."
Zuko gave a small smile back, but his mouth reverted to a grimace the second his back was turned and he was out the door.
The truth was he was getting little sleep. If he wasn't working or in a meeting, he was sleeping. As news of his return spread, so did his appointments. Everyone had something to say to him and most didn't wait till he was holding court to make an audience. He tried to be polite in most cases, but the pressure was building. A couple years on the throne hadn't prepared him for the years of formal education and experience he had missed.
He quickly returned back to the palace where his valets were waiting for him. He had told his staff that he was going for a morning walk to clear his head. Once dressed in his formal regalia, he was about to go down the hallway to his office only to find his ministers and council members were outside.
"They insisted to meet with you immediately, Fire Lord," one of his valets said under his breath as he walked a set behind him. "Before today's called court meeting."
Zuko's lips tightened. The ministers and nobles stood at attention, having watched him approach them.
Normally, what would have happened for an audience with the ruler was for Zuko to have entered the throne room from the back door that lead to his throne, behind the wall of fire. He would then bend the wall of fire as he entered the room from the east side. Because the sun was the source of a firebender's power, the Fire Lord was the source for the Fire Nation's and thus when the Fire Lord entered this room, he always came in from the east and exited out the west. It was after he sat and gave the command were others allowed into the throne room. It was then everyone below the Fire Lord would be given an audience. That was how it was supposed to be done.
Nervous as he was, they began to speak before he could inquire about this breach in protocol.
"We ask understanding from Your Majesty for approaching you in this manner, but we have a crisis on our hands. The state of this nation is not well and we feel for the good of the people this must be rectified."
"Fine," Zuko nodded, glad that his ministers couldn't feel the shock and slightest hint of anger in his body. How dare they act as if this was a surprise meeting when he had sent word of it a week earlier? His eyes narrowed. Fine, if they wanted a breech in tradition, they would get it. "We shall continue this in the throne room."
It was when the group reached the table before the throne did Zuko do something inappropriate or rather undignified. Just as his officials broke protocol, he did too. Mai, who had been standing behind him was left confused as Zuko sat down before his council and ministers at the head of the table rather than going up to his throne.
In the back of his mind, Zuko recalled his uncle and the majesty he was able to carry himself with, through war and peace, capture and freedom. That was what he needed to be right now: that proud, awe-inspiring resilience and grace that demanded attention and respect that he would need. There was no running away from this.
He spoke before any of the officials could.
"I realized that I have been neglectful of my country and problems have risen both now and before my rule. I have heard your pleas and concerns and understand that these must be addressed accordingly. Therefore I will listen to what you all have to say," he stated, looking each member in the eye around and down the table. "And I will sit here for as long as that takes."
"Pier 12, pier 13...," Jet counted out as he double-checked his ticket. He hadn't made any more discoveries with the Dai Li, nor had he heard from Zuko. The newest waiters were now well-trained enough, leaving Jet with little to do. The first day was restful - sleeping in, trying out some food. The second was enjoyable - do a little sightseeing, sent a postcard to Katara featuring the Lovers Bluffs. By the third day, however, he wanted to murder something.
He could not remember a day in his life when he would take such a long break from any type of work. Growing up, he had to find food, water and shelter. With the Freedom Fighters, there were always raids to prepare for. The Jasmine Dragon didn't run itself and Jet often found himself helping Iroh with the orders and errands. It made him itch not to do anything.
Thankfully, Iroh had given him a list of items to look for while he was in the Fire Nation. While Iroh did visit his homeland once in a while, he had little opportunity to do so after the Jasmine Dragon reopened. The tea house was his baby. The old man was always coming up with new ideas here and there in his free time, of which he would use more free time later to implement them. To Iroh, there was no such thing as taking a vacation from the Jasmine Dragon. The fact that it existed was his vacation.
After taking a good look at the list, Jet decided to go down to the pier to check the date and time, not to mention the pier he would be boarding from, so that he could schedule his time correctly. He wanted to know how much time he had between Iroh's shopping and his departure to find out what the Dai Li were up to in the Fire Nation. It was unsettling that nothing had happened yet and he knew he had to leave eventually.
Spotting a man in a naval uniform nearest him, Jet hurried over, something he never would have done before in another life. "Excuse me, sir?"
The man turned and smiled at him. "Hello, there. Uh, may I help you?"
"Could you tell me where pier 15 is? I can't find it, though I found 13." Jet pointed at his ticket.
The man laughed. "Oh, that. When this port was built, the prince who built this was a superstitious one, so it ended at 13. It wouldn't do to launch ships from an unlucky pier, but that was long before this became a public port." He pointed in the other direction. "The numbers start from 15 over there. If anyone ever tells you to look for a pier 14, you've been duped. Doesn't exist at this port."
"Ah. Thank you, sir." Jet nodded back. With that, he reversed direction to where the man had been pointing to. Learn something new everyday, but who would have a fear of numbers? That would be like being afraid of like the number 13 or 666 or something.
Ships were arriving and leaving. There was intricate dance to keep everything moving with the dock workers directing, unloading, stocking and inspecting each vessel that came in. As each ship docked, passengers and crew unloaded and lined themselves up in the central travel security building. Passports were checked and goods were declared. If someone was travelling light enough, they were didn't need to return to pick up their goods the next day like Jet had to with Iroh's tea.
What do you know? Jet mused to himself, feeling his mouth curl into a frown. In front of him, standing near the entrance of the security building was the man he had followed a few days ago, the one he had assumed was the leader. Coming to meet him were more men. By now Jet was rather confident he could spot Dai Li agents for as thorough as they were, acting normal was not their forte. They stuck out like singing groundhogs in a crowd because their bodies just didn't relax with such stiff posture. Their clothing tended to be too clean-cut without trying. They carried themselves the same way and had similar ques of hair.
Jet stopped on the opposite street, pretending to be looking at his tickets again as well as Iroh's list with the pretense of being lost. His head stayed down, but his eyes stayed focus on the group. Talking beside the leader was another man.
Doesn't he look important? Dai Li? Back's too stiff. Could be a noble but I don't see an entourage. Upstart merchant maybe. Or Dai Li.
The man's clothes were richer in material and he carried himself with an air of authority. Ever since this new era of peace, and the forming of the United Republic, he was seeing a blend of cultures in clothing so he couldn't tell if this man was Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom.
Jet was unable to hear what any of them were talking about and he couldn't get too close without arousing suspicion. He was still close enough to see the leader pass a note to the important looking man, who glanced at it before slipping it into his pocket. With a final nod between both men, the new Dai Li arrivals left with their leader while the other man left the opposite way.
Casually, he made his way across the street with the list, slowly putting his tickets back into his shirt pocket, but keeping the list out in front of him till he bumped into his target, filching the note with practiced ease.
"Sorry about that, excuse me," Jet said hurriedly as he righted himself away from the man and easily melted into the crowds.
Once he was a decent distance away and he was sure there was no one following or around him did Jet take out the note. It wasn't a note. It was a map. He recognized it to be of the dock area, but he didn't recognize where the line was going towards. There were no words describing what the map was or what locations were represented, just a single line winding through to the enlarged dot at the end.
Jet had nothing to lose to follow where the map lead. He was cautious about his general direction, taking turns not dictated by the map but headed to the same area. Last thing he wanted to be was surrounded by Dai Li without his swords. When he reached where the dot was in the map, he was even more confused.
The map had lead him to the Fire Nation's naval yard.
"I wonder if it's too late to bring Sokka over," Jet muttered to himself as he tried to put everything together.
His mind was reeling. Stolen food. Hidden mountain base. Fire Nation Royal Guard uniforms. A map to the naval yard. What does it all mean? There's no way the Dai Li would be dumb enough to invade anywhere. He didn't think the Dai Li ever cared about anywhere else, but Ba Sing Se.
"They could be trying to infiltrate the military here, but why? Causing a fuss like that is like asking Aang to please come by for a visit," he whispered to himself.
There was something still missing. He just knew it. His gut feeling had never let him down before and he never had a reason to doubt it. Jet had learned the hard price of ignoring that gut feeling. He debated telling Zuko, but decided against it. There was no use in the both of them running around in circles, especially when Zuko had his handsful and he had time to kill.
Jet snapped out of his thoughts to see a group of Fire Nation guards heading towards him. Instinctively he reached behind him, only to realize he didn't bring his swords today and that he was no longer a Freedom Fighter. He pretended to be scratching his back as they drew closer. "Uh, hi?"
"This is a restricted area. I'm afraid you will have to come with us." The leader hovered closer to him, a stern look on his face.
"Oh, is it?" Jet said with faux sheepishness. "I'm so sorry. It's my first time here and I wanted to take a look around and wandered down from the aquarium. I've never been to the Fire Nation before!" He fumbled his pockets, pulling out Iroh's list. "I was told to go this way to get to the duty-free stores, since I'm looking for some things for my boss. You wouldn't happen to know where to buy a...tsungi horn mouthpiece?" Tsungi horn mouthpiece? Seriously Iroh?! "What is that by the way?"
"I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding, but I'm afraid you need to still come with us. It's policy for whenever we find anyone in restricted areas," the woman beside the leader explained. Judging by her uniform, Jet guessed she was his second-in-command.
The former rebel wanted to book it as fast as legs would take him, but his instincts told him to just go with them. If he ran now, he would just be calling attention to himself and that was never good. He had to keep a low profile. Just go with the questioning and then leave without a fuss.
The group steered him through the naval yard to a mid-ship. As he walked up the plank, Jet wanted nothing more than to get out of here as possible. The uniforms were different, but the environment was too similar as the last time he was caught by guards. He tried not to look frantic as he looked around.
"Easy there, son," one of the guards assured him. "You're not the first to get lost from the aquarium. We've told them time and time again to put up proper signs to the other piers, but nothing's come of it."
That admittedly eased Jet a bit. He was lead inside, down hallways till they reached the bridge of the ship. Behind all the navigational controls was a large table where several high-ranking officers were gathered while crew members were bustling around behind them.
Upon seeing the group, a man stepped away from the bridge, his armor and the behaviour of the officers around him marking him as a superior.
As Jet came closer, he watched as the man smiled before recognition in his own head kicked in. It was the store owner, the one he gave Iroh's painting and personal tea stash to.
"Is there a problem?" the man asked the guards.
"We found him wandering in the naval yard and brought him in for questioning with Captain Yao," the man beside Jet reported. "We were told to report here since he was to be with you on your ship with the other captains today, Captain Jee."
A woman at the table nodded, Captain Yao, Jet assumed. She was about to stand up when Jee gave a nod in her direction.
"This man," Jee pointed at Jet. "Works for the retired General Iroh. I apologize on behalf of these men, Mr. Jet."
"The Dragon of the West?!" The guard leader's eyes lit up as did various other members in the group with admiring enthusiasm.
"The very same. As you all know, General Iroh now owns and works at the Jasmine Dragon in Ba Sing Se. I had written to him about his new signature blend and this gentleman, Mr. Jet, was kind enough to travel all the way here to brew some for us. We should extend some courtesy for his generosity," Jee berated them.
"But...he said he was a tourist...," one of the guards sputtered.
The captain turned to the guard. "I gave Jet the morning off since he's never been here. Since he is a guest, we as representatives of the Fire Nation, should show our best foot forward to someone's first time in our country."
"Yeah," Jet finally spoke up, playing along. "I told you my boss had asked me to find him some things."
"General Iroh's tsungi horn?" If anything, the voice of the leader pitched itself an octave higher. "You've heard him play?"
"Uh...no," Jet said, stepping back. Who knew Iroh was so popular? "I think that might be why he wanted a new tsungi horn mouthpiece. Maybe his old one broke or something."
"My thanks to you all for being diligent on your patrols; we will take it from here," Jee said as he directed Jet towards the table. "You may resume your duties."
"Sir, yes Sir!" The group bowed to him before heading out the doorway.
"Thank...thank you, sir." Jet whispered to Jee. This man was a Fire Nation Naval Captain? And he opened up a restaurant? Is that what all old Fire Nation military personnel did? Open dining establishments?
"Don't thank me just yet, son," Jee whispered back. "You might not like me in a minute." Clearing his voice, he faced his compatriots. "Everyone! I have a surprise for you. As you know, the retired General Iroh had started a wonderful tea house in Ba Sing Se, the Jasmine Dragon. A few days ago, General Iroh had sent over one of his prized blends, which Jet here delivered. He also happens to be one of his best tea brewers at the tea house since he is here, he's graciously offered by to make some of that fine tea for us. A fitting refreshment for our meeting if I do say so myself."
Around the table, the other captains nodded in their agreement while Jee pointed Jet to the small kitchen area near the back of the room, close to the door. The young man wasn't sure how to feel, but automatically set to boiling the water and measured scoops of tea leaves into a giant pot, just as Iroh had taught him.
"Things I never expected to do in my life," Jet thought. "Work for a Fire Nation general, retired or not. Go to the Fire Nation as a tourist. Try to save the Fire Nation. I can now add brewing tea for Fire Nation naval officials to my list. Who would believe that I'd go to the nation I loathed the most one day...as a tourist."
But he knew the weight of debts. He did owe Iroh and right now, he definitely owed Captain Jee for saving his butt. This might be peace times but tensions were still uneasy.
While he was waiting for the water to boil, he surveyed his surroundings. This was a slightly newer model of ship. It was more streamlined, built more for surveillance and shipping than heavy artillery battle. Crew members seemed to be doing upkeep and stock around the ship, making everything was ready for departure. The ranked officers were talking about the latest improvements with the ships' engines and a lower ranked officers were bringing things to and from the cabin. A few young female officers caught his eye and he tossed them a casual wink before they seemed to bit their lips to keep from smiling back inappropriately.
Jet inwardly grinned. He supposed the day wasn't a total loss. There were a couple guards at the door but they were the only stationary people. Everyone else was coming and going.
That was when he saw him, the keyholder leader. Jet resisted doing a double take as he focused on his tea serving. He forced his heart to calm as he prepared a tray with the necessary items and turned around.
"Alright, Captain Jee had three of the Jasmine Dragon's signature blends," Jet said as he reached the meeting table and placed the tray on the edge. Three small pots were in a row for the officers to see as he methodologically went over each one. "We have the house special, jasmine," he began his usual introduction to the teas. "It is, by far, our most popular. Second is this fine oolong that the owner has personally blended to bring out the best flavors of the continent. My personal favorite, is this green tea blend specifically selected for it's cleansing taste and appealing aroma." He began to gather the cups and circled the table, placing one in front of each official. "Now, it is quite a difficult decision, but please remember that if you'd like to taste another after your first cup, it is not a problem."
"What do you think, Captain Jee?" one of the other captains asked curiously.
"I'm partial to the oolong," Jee replied as several small conversations revolving around the tea filled the room.
Jet looked around, holding a few spare tea cups and casually offering if anyone else would like to taste. Even as he knew the lower ranked officers would politely decline, it gave him a chance to get a look at all their faces, including that of the man he suspected was Dai Li.
Unfortunately, it also allowed for him to recognize another 'naval officer'. Silently, he wondered just how many of those men were on board and how they were able to... He lowered his eyes back to the tray of tea, only half-paying attention to the captains telling him which they'd like to try first.
"I do apologize; at the Jasmine Dragon, we like to serve most of our teas with local pastries, but I'm unfamiliar with the local bakeries here and admittedly, it is Master Iroh who selects which pieces go best with which tea," he smiled charmingly as he poured some oolong tea for a few captains. Meanwhile, his mind was exploding.
No one would question uniformed officer on a ship. It was one of the oldest espionage tricks in the boo; enter the enemy's lair by becoming the enemy. Those uniforms the Dai Li gathered and then stored away weren't confiscated by guards - they had been stolen from the guards' station to be used to sneak on board ships.
"This is delicious," Captain Yao complemented, sounding highly impressed. "Mr. Jet, you wouldn't know what may go well with this oolong, would you?"
"What we usually serve with this particular blend, during our brunch period, is a deep tasting, meat pastry. The pastry part doesn't overwhelm; it's more a finger food," Jet explained expertly. Silently, he wondered when he'd gotten so good, but quickly shook his head to remind him of where he was. "Oolong is also popular as the after meal drink at social events we've catered."
He needed to send a message to Zuko and tell him what was going on. Briefly, his eyes darted to Captain Jee, but mentally grimaced. There was no reason for Jee to believe him, even if he was an above average tea server. No, he needed to tell Zuko immediately. He could whistle for the hawk at any time, but he needed to write an actual note and didn't know if he had time to return to the restaurant.
"At the next Naval Ball, we must have this tea," one captain agreed.
"I'm partial to the jasmine, though," another captain said.
Jet jumped in. "I am probably overstepping my boundaries here, and I can't guarantee that he'd do it, but Master Iroh often likes to prepare special blends for events. We offer the standard teas at the Jasmine Dragon, but as a personal touch, there is an event-specific tea. If there is something you're interesting in trying, I can take down notes and mention it to Master Iroh when I return."
"He can do that?" Honestly, Jet had no idea why they were so surprised. From what he knew of the old man, he could do anything. "Officer Lao! Bring some scrolls and a brush and ink!"
Perfect. Jet quickly set about writing down requests and even taking a few orders, he glanced out the window and decided he needed to go.
"My apologies, Captains, but I believe it's going to get dark soon and I still need to find the store for Master Iroh," Jet told them. "In addition to the mouthpiece, there is an order for a dragon shaped crystal platter I need to pay for and pick up."
"Ah, Mr. Jet," Captain Jee said as he and a few others escorted the young man off the ship. "As we are leaving tomorrow night, would you also inform Mr. So to prepare some tea for the trip to bring aboard the ships? If he is uncomfortable selecting the variations, please feel free to do so."
"Of course, Captain Jee. I can bring that over myself before you leave. It won't take long to prepare, at all. Will you be out at sea for some time or a short period?" Jet asked, pausing before he continued down the pier.
"Just a few weeks or so at sea. We're going to Republic City," the captain told him. Jet looked surprised.
"Good will mission," Captain Jee smiled lightly, almost pleased. "We're escorting cargo with building material to help with the infrastructure there."
Jet nodded. So that's where the ships were heading. He filed that away before bowing, thanking the captain once more, and leaving. As soon as he was out of the ship's sight, he quickly made a beeline to an area behind the store houses.
He let out a high pitched whistle before taking out one of the papers he had been given and tore off a piece he had written on. As he rolled it up, a screech of a bird was heard and he glanced up. The large predatory bird was swooping down, baring the Fire Lord's crest on it's chest plate.
"Hey, there, Hawky," Jet smirked wryly as the hawk landed in front of him and turned his back and message canister to Jet. "Okay, take it to your boss. It's urgent."
As if understanding, the bird let out another screech before taking off into the air. Jet let out a heavy breath as he watched it fly in the direction of the inner palace. Silently, he hoped Zuko would get it in time.
After all, it really was urgent. The Dai Li were infiltrating boats to the United Republic posing as Fire Nation naval personnel. That was hardly a good will message the Fire Lord wanted to send.
Was he seeing two characters or just one character on the parchment and it was just his tired eyes playing tricks on him? That was when he decided it was enough for the night. He trudged out of his office, having gone through all he could covering that wretched meeting with the nobles.
Despite the predicted squabbles that arose, it had gone relatively well and a bit of faith was resorted to the noble ranks. People in their regions were suffering and they had voiced that. Offers had been made to sacrifice a few of their own privileges, temporarily, in order to benefit their specific regions. That was what he wanted to hear.
He had a self-imposed deadline to come up with plan after hearing all of their complaints, but for that night, he knew rest was in order. Guards greeted him before he numbly walked into his room and closed the door behind him.
A deliriously happy look graced his face as he saw his neatly made bed; soft and warm - waiting for him to climb in. He pushed forward and held his arms out before falling face first into the welcoming cushions of his bed before letting out a content sigh.
Then, a hawk cried out.
Zuko's closed eyes tightened. "No..." Another, quieter screech sounded, though it was closer. He lifted his head and pried open one eyes. Hawky was resting at the foot of the bed, his head cocked to the side, as if asking the Fire Lord what he was doing. He let out a defeated sigh. Of all the times for Jet to send him a message... Zuko forced himself up and crawled to the awaiting animal.
He turned his back to Zuko and the Fire Lord uncapped the message canister and took out the rolled piece of paper. His eyes widened as he reread it once more. Jet didn't give any sort of explanation as to why the Dai Li were doing what they were doing, but it didn't matter. If they were sneaking on board ships, that was a problem. That was an international incident waiting to happen and one he couldn't afford.
Whether it was concern for his country or fury that the Dai Li dared do this in his land, Zuko found himself dashing through the shadows of the capital, heading straight for the warehouses that lined the dock. How he found Jet so easily vexed him, but it didn't take him long to see the familiar Red Demon perched on the rooftop.
Jet barely made out the sound of Zuko landing beside him as he kept his eyes on the naval yard not far from them.
"I thought you'd come," he said as they laid low on the roof tops.
"Do you have any idea what they're planning?" Zuko asked, getting straight to the point. Jet shook his head once.
"No. I know what they're doing, but I don't get it. If they were going to try to infiltrate the Fire Nation military and try to destroy it from within or confiscate arms, I don't see why they'd take pains to board a vessel leaving," Jet frowned.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. He knew exactly which ships Jet was talking about, having selected them himself for the mission. "You're sure they're Dai Li?"
"Yeah, it's in the way they move," Jet snorted. "Trust me, I'd rather not be that familiar." He paused. "So...what do we do?"
For a moment, the Fire Lord was taken aback. "What do you mean, what do we do?"
"I mean, it's your nation," Jet reminded him. "What do you want to do, Fire Lord?"
Zuko let out a low, disagreeable grunt. "When the mask is on, I'm not the Fire Lord."
"Whatever helps you sleep, but that isn't going to help us right now. We need a plan. You're not going to just let them set sail for Republic City are you? What if they cause a mutiny or something?"
"On lightly armed escort vessels made of metal. Not worth it and not practical," Zuko murmured. "But exposing them like that will cause an international incident - a big one. There are those on both sides that will use it as an excuse to restart the war and we can't risk that."
"Then how are you going to stop them without exposing them?" Jet demanded.
"This is a delicate matter, Je-"
"Fine," Zuko rolled his eyes. "Red Demon. We're outmatched...and frankly, the Brothers of Ba Sing Se shouldn't be here in the first place."
Jet let out a scoff. "Details. Didn't you read Sok - I mean, Wang Fire's manifesto? Wherever there is injustice or something, the brothers will be nearby or whatever."
"Wow...you sure took that to heart," Zuko quipped sarcastically.
"I'm just saying that as the Red Demon and the Blue Spirit, we're entities of justice."
"Do you hear yourself? One doesn't simply walk into the Fire Nation military and tell them that on behalf of justice, we're going to expose some traitors to the Earth Kingdom," Zuko groaned. He tensed as his eyes widened behind the mask. "Or can we...?"
"You're talking Wang Fire talk now...and I'm not sure I like it," Jet frowned.
"Do you know where the Dai Li are headquartered?" Zuko asked suddenly.
"They seem to have taken up residence in some of the inns close to the docks. Their cargo is in warehouse 23, though," Jet replied easily.
"The ships are departing tomorrow night with the tide," Zuko recalled. "That means if they're going to board the ships, they'll be in this area tomorrow."
Jet could almost see a plan formulating in Zuko's head. "So how do we alert the authorities without causing an international incident."
"We probably can't, but we can lessen the damage." Zuko smirked a bit behind the mask. "I'll take care of that. Or rather, the Fire Lord will."
"Great," Jet frowned. "And what will the Red Demon and the Blue Spirit do?"
"The Red Demon and the Blue Spirit will simply walk into the Fire Nation military."
A piece of stone flew past his head and Jet wondered if he was having another bout of deja vu. Beside him, a black clad, blue-masked figure was running just as quickly.
"Explain to me!" Jet growled beneath his mask. "How is this walking!?"
"To be fair, we did walk a little bit," Zuko panted.
"Yeah! We got on the ship and then got chased out!"
"The point is that it worked!" Zuko snapped. "And they're chasing us!"
Jet didn't have the luxury of glancing over his shoulder. He had purposely led Zuko to the ship where he had identified the most Dai Li earlier that day, during his 'tea delivery'. The ships weren't due to leave for another few hours, but it was already dark and it was the perfect time for the duo to test just how popular the Brothers were amongst the Dai Li.
Their entrance was something Sokka could've coordinated. With no hesitation, they put on their masks and strode to the ship. Each had a small bag of rocks tied to their waists. They reached the deck and and Jet quickly recognized two Dai Li in uniform.
Someone called out to the two vigilantes; a legitimate officer, asking who they were. That was when the two reached for the back of rocks and threw them at the Dai Li. As expected, rather than duck or attempt to incinerate the pieces of stone, they were immediately stopped in mid air.
"Told you," Jet had smirked.
A moment later, the rocks they had throw were bended towards them as confused naval officers wondered why rocks were flying. Whistles were blown and several men in uniform were after them, including several coming down from other ships.
Zuko inwardly celebrated as someone yelled that the officers had broken rank. The Fire Nation military was strict for the most part and unless ordered, they would not leave the ship so easily and in such a panicked rush. That was a sign that something was amiss.
"How many more do you think there are?" Zuko asked.
"Don't know," Jet admitted. He grinned. "Do you think they recognize us?"
"They're from Ba Sing Se! Get them!" someone shouted behind them.
"Yeah," Zuko replied deadpan. "I'm sure they do." They rounded the corner.
"Are you sure about leading them to the warehouse, Blue Spirit?" Jet shouted over his shoulder.
"All the commotion will get the necessary authorities, trust me!" Zuko replied. Sirens were not wailing as fire sourced floodlights illuminated the area. "Don't pay attention to the lights! Just get to the warehouse!"
"Fine! But just to make this clear, I'm only doing what you're telling me because we're on your turf! You're not the leader!"
"Can we have this discussion another time?" Zuko snapped as they rounded a corner. He resisted the urge to shield his eyes from the lights. The ground beneath them began to move.
"Uh-oh," Jet frowned. "Looks like they really don't want us near their stuff!"
"We're at a disadvantage on the ground! Get on the roof!" Zuko ordered.
"Don't have to tell me twice," Jet mumbled as he and Zuko seemed to split apart. He darted to the left and easily pulled himself up to the top of a building. On the adjacent building, Zuko landed on the roof and continued forward. They could see warehouse 25 up ahead and Jet eyed a vent at the top. "Blue!" he shouted before motioning some fingers to the covered vent grating. Zuko nodded.
That was where they were to enter. The two easily jumped the gaps between the buildings, having plenty of practice between them, and reached the warehouse roof. Jet pried open the ventilation grating and allowed Zuko to slide in first before going after him.
It was a short way to slide. Rather than having a shaft that lead into a series of ventilation routes at the top of the building, the hole was literally a hole that dropped straight into the warehouse below.
Jet's eyes went wide as he realized his feet would not be landing on something and braced himself for the fall, all while silently cursing the Fire Lord.
"Red!" He felt an arm brush his in a frantic move to grab him before he dropped. Instantly, Jet turned and grabbed at the hand, instead managing to wrap his arms around some cloth and...
He was sure they both inwardly groaned. There they were, hanging from a iron beam at the ceiling, suspended only by Zuko's arms grabbing on to the structural framework. With his arms wrapped around Zuko's legs, was Jet.
"When this is over," Jet began in a low voice as he made an effort to avoid looking up and forward. "Let us never speak of it again."
"Agreed," Zuko grumbled. "Can you swing up-"
"Shh!" Jet hissed as he heard the door jiggling open. "Don't move!" Zuko rolled his eyes. They tried to stay as still as possible as several agents rushed in.
"Who said you could break rank?" one of the Dai Li dressed in a spiked uniform growled to another as the door slammed shut.
"Well, you ran off the ship!"
"That doesn't mean you have to also!" another hissed. "The Fire Nation military severely punishes breaking rank and disembarking without orders! If they do an investigation-"
"You are surrounded!" a voice echoed from outside. Light from the floodlights were pouring into the windows at the top of the warehouse. "You have nowhere to run! Please surrender!"
Growls were heard and Jet watched as they stomped their feet, trying to make an escape from the floor. "What the...?"
"Metal!? When did they put metal in!?"
"When did they put metal in?" Jet whispered.
"This morning," Zuko whispered back.
A loud banging sound was heard as the doors to the warehouse were open. Blinding lights were shone in as a row of firebenders readied themselves for any escape attempts. Zuko swung his body, swinging Jet upwards and allowing the other young man to grab on to the support beam before heading back towards the hole they had fallen from.
"Are you coming?"
"I never get to watch the good stuff," Jet snorted. He followed and the two crept out of opening and snuck into the shadows of the rooftop. "Now what?"
"Raids are being conducted on the inns in town after tracing some undocumented goods lead back to them," Zuko pointed out. "I'm sure by now, the navy has arrested the trespassers on the ship."
"How do they know they're fakes? You guys don't carry identification papers do you?" the red-masked man asked snidely.
"No, but everyone assigned to those ships were at least mid-level fire benders. They're lightly armed, so the personnel onboard had to be well trained to that extent," Zuko replied.
"Alright, alright...not bad, Blue Spirit," Jet snickered. He turned towards the commotion going on below as Dai Li agents were cuffed and escorted out. "What about down there? It's that international incident waiting to happen."
"That's not the Blue Spirit's place," Zuko said as he prepared to dart off. "That's the Fire Lord's."
He jumped from the top of the building and Jet shook his head. "And I thought Sokka liked flashy exits and entrances."
Part of Zuko couldn't wait to tell Sokka about his carefully planned bust, although wasn't sure how the Water Tribe warrior and 'artist' would translate that into story form. He shook his head and concentrated, waiting to make his arrival to the docks as soon as possible. He shed his mask as he reached a vacant area behind one of the buildings. He looked around and quickly removed a tarp from a patiently waiting mongoose dragon.
"Thanks for waiting," Zuko said as he patted the animal on the head. He reached for the pack hanging from its saddle and threw on some 'casual' Fire Nation clothes before he got back on the beast and steered it towards the docks.
As expected, several Kyoshi Warriors he had allotted to investigate were corralling the Dai Li into metal cages after disabling their bending using techniques Ty Lee had taught them. Several military police officers were wandering the area, including the warehouse, most likely taking note of the goods.
Mai was speaking one of the officers while Jee was standing beside her, paying attention to what she was telling them. "...a warning from Republic City to be on the lookout for illegal scrap metal traders, so we've been cracking down on questionable cargo."
"It's a good thing that you did, Councilwoman," the officer replied. "There are dozens of containers in there piled with illegally acquired armor and weapons. Many seem outdated, but some seem to have been taken directly from the armories."
"Those could easily be worth several million if they were sold off," Mai frowned.
"Lieutenant Ming!" Captain Jee shouted over his shoulder, clearly looking displeased at the breech. "Contact Admiral Wong and request an immediately assessment of the armories - take into account anything that has gone missing! Councilwoman," he said, turning to the bun-haired woman. "I believe we should notify the Fire Lord."
"There is no need," Zuko took that as his queue to enter the conversation. "I've heard what's going on. I had already received personal messages from Republic City informing me of the rogue traders, but I didn't expect them to be so daring with their attempt."
"In addition to this, several men have been arrest aboard three of the escort ships that would've been leaving tonight," Captain Jee frowned as he eyed the suspiciously conveniently appearing ruler. "They were also wearing stolen armor."
"They must've known about the metal being sent to the United Republic and wanted to get ahold of it," Mai assessed with a frown. "I'm afraid we'll have to hold back the mission for inquiry."
"How quickly can it be done?" Zuko asked. "I don't want it to look as if we've abandoned the mission."
"I will personally look into it, Fire Lord," Mai assured him.
"Speaking of investigations, may I speak to you for a moment, Your Highness?" Captain Jee asked carefully. Zuko nodded before telling Mai to inform him of her findings before following the older man.
"What do you want to speak about, Captain?" Zuko asked calmly.
"May I first ask what you are doing outside the palace?" Captain Jee frowned.
"Taking an evening stroll to calm myself," Zuko told him confidently. "I heard the sirens wailing and came down as soon as I could."
Jee released a heavy breath and lifted his hand to his head, rubbing hit tiredly. "Your Highness, you are aware that the charges are not as simple as theft and illegal trade, are you not? They have a reason for sneaking on board our ships, and I highly doubt it was to steal our metal, as the good Councilwoman stated. I believe we should do a complete and thorough investigation."
Zuko's face didn't show any sign of faltering. "I also know that any more serious charges will result in a full scale investigation and an international incident," Zuko replied in a low voice. "Both you and I know those are clearly highly skilled earthbenders from the Earth Kingdom, meaning they may have some sort of military background. That sort of threat on our shores will not only alarm the entire country, but can be used as an excuse to push us into another war. Better we say they are merely illegal traders."
"As per our current agreements with the Earth Kingdom, they are under no obligation to extradite these men to us. We will have to return them to the Earth Kingdom authorities," the captain reminded him in an irritated voice. "This is already an international incident."
"I am aware and as such, Councilwoman Mai will be working directly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and myself to deal with this, Jee," Zuko replied. "We can either press of more serious charges and cause tensions to raise or we use the obvious offenses and keep this spreading panic throughout the city."
Captain Jee took a deep breath. "Illegal trading, posing as military personnel, illegal transport of goods, theft, and possession of stolen government property."
"As well as trespassing and giving false information to our customs agents," Zuko agreed. "That's more than enough to put them away."
"But how do we know they'll be put away?" the captain frowned. "How do we know they won't try this again?"
"That's the hard part," Zuko narrowed his eyes. "We don't. Nothing is certain, Captain."
The older man let out a heavy breath. "I trust that you will push for the most severe punishment they can give for such offenses."
"You have my word."
The captain bowed his head. "It is good to see that your uncle has rubbed off on you, Your Highness," he said with a hint of amusement. "We'll keep an eye out for more men like those."
Since he had ascended the throne, the flames that were before him always felt oddly hotter than he thought they should've, but this time, they did not affect him so.
A thick, carefully prepared and reviewed book he had been writing and organizing after weeks of research had been finalized and copied and today was the day of truth. He had personally handed them out each of the nobles in a mandatory meeting that would change the Fire Nation.
Mai had been the first to read it and it had stunned her, but after she had reviewed it, she solemnly consented. She didn't want what had happened in the past to repeat itself; such unrestrained power had driven her friend insane and nearly took Zuko from them.
"These documents are the outline to what I believe will be a more well balanced and citizen focused Fire Nation," Zuko had begun as he took a seat before them, not on the throne of fire, but amongst them. "After weeks of review and hearing the testimonies from not only you, the nobles, but from the people, I have come to the conclusion that a monarch with absolute, unquestioned authority is far too dangerous. These guidelines were written with the intent to curb any extreme decisions a ruler of the Fire Nation would have, including issues with war. I have considered all that we have discussed in recent weeks to create this draft. It is a reformation of our current system and lay the path for stable governance that will benefit the Fire Nation as a whole."
As expected, shock and confusion had filled the room immediately. Nobles raised their hands and quickly descended into speaking out of turn. Only a few had begun to skim through the thick volume of paper Zuko had drafted. He knew that there were many parts that still needed to considered and revised, but he had tried to clearly outline his goals.
As the voices in the throne room reached his tolerance, he took a deep breath and yelled. "Quiet!" The flames behind him soared dramatically and from her seat, Mai raised a curious brow at the show. Regardless of what she thought, the order was heard and the nobles' disagreeing voices quieted down. "I expect every single one of you to read over this document thoroughly. Those who are ministry heads will convenience with your cabinets to discuss how these changes will affect you and any changes you feel should be made must be made into a proposal, detailing the concerns, plausible alternatives, expenditure, and timelines.
"I am aware that this legislature was not foreseen, but, as you all have said over and over, we cannot continue as we are. I refuse to go backwards and revert to our pre-war tactics that fueled this country. We are now an industrialized power and at a point where we can certainly make the lives of our people better, without war. We should turn our efforts to bettering the Fire Nation. Now, given the enormous complexity of this, it will take time for your review and for the ministries to convene. Until then, our current system is in place. You will have one month to review and propose changes. Then, a second month to complete any proposals. Extensions for proposals will be considered on a case by case basis. Should there be no contest to an issue, it will be considered accepted and put into place immediately. Are there any questions?"
"Were there?" Zuko snapped his head up as he was drawn out of his thoughts. He glanced over at his right, where a man was seated on the edge of the ship with him, arms draped over the wooden railing as his legs dangled over the edge. Jet's eyes were focused out towards the sunset as he chewed on a piece of straw in his mouth.
"Yeah," Zuko replied as he turned back to the horizon behind them. He could still faintly see the outline of capital city in the island he was leaving behind. "Plenty."
The two were quiet. Jet chewed on his straw thoughtfully. "So," he said quietly. "Why'd you leave? You'd think that with all those changes you want to make, you'd stay to make sure everything goes smoothly."
A small, bitter scoff escaped Zuko. "Even if I did stay, things would hardly go smoothly. I was strict with the request for proposals on changes. I want them to think long and hard about the changes we're making and that can't be achieved in a few days." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Besides, I brought work with me; other legislation, infrastructure proposals and ordinances I have to review and approve. I'll be back soon enough. Mai wasn't lenient when she found out I was going back and gave me more work than I thought I'd bring."
"Well, consider it punishment. You're pretty much ditching your girlfriend to take care of things in your place," Jet snorted. Zuko tensed. He snapped his head towards the other young man and frowned.
"I'm not abandoning her," Zuko stated firmly. "You know why I have to go back. My mother is still trapped there, being used as a puppet!"
"I know, I know," Jet snickered, pleased he had pressed some buttons. "I didn't say you didn't have a good reason. Still, you have to think about it from her point of view. Yeah, I get that she's this big councilwoman and what not, but her boyfriend is the Fire Lord and she seems to be carrying more weight than she should, let alone more than you. Worse, you're gone half the time. Maybe if you stayed, she wouldn't be angry all the time."
"She's not angry all the time!" Zuko rested his head on the railing despondently. "And I know about how much I've assigned to her," he agreed in a solemn voice. "I know what I'm putting her through. I know that I'm giving her more to handle; this isn't even her main job, but I don't know who else is in a position for me to trust there."
"I'm just saying that maybe you need to talk more. Girls can be stubborn, too," Jet mused.
Zuko gave him a disbelieving look. "What, you're speaking from experience now?"
"I wouldn't be lying if I said I never got some attention," Jet grinned as he lifted his hands. "If anything, I've learned that if you want to keep them in your life, you have to put in an effort" He smiled proudly. "That's why I sent a postcard to a certain lady friend I wouldn't mind having in my life," he winked.
The Fire Lord wasn't sure whether to laugh or snort. "You sent her a postcard?"
"Featuring those Lover's Bluffs; I thought she'd get the hint."
Zuko narrowed his eyes with dread. "This 'lady friend' wouldn't by any chance be...?"
"Don't worry, I have it on good authority that while she's still friends with baldy, they're currently separated and not pursuing their relationship," Jet assured him.
"What? Since when? And how did you know?" No one told him anything about and he was certain he was closer to Aang and the group than Jet was.
"Sokka was complaining about something and spilled it before I left," Jet grinned as he leaned back and rested against his arms.
"Do you hear yourself?" Zuko rolled his eyes. "You may be on good terms now, but from what I heard, I don't think she'll be giving you a second chance any time soon."
"Heh...are you kidding me? A reformed young man trying to do his country good by being a hero, not to mention my chiseled good looks? What fiery, proud heroine wouldn't want that?" Jet smirked. "It's what legendary stories are made of."
"And then?" Sokka's eyes were wide and pleading as he continued to scribble notes. Zuko wryly thought of the fans who lined up in front of the bookstores waiting for his next volume and how Sokka resembled them now.
"That was it," Jet shrugged. He had skipped out on a few things, including his brief stint as a tea server on a Fire Nation vessel and that moment where he was hanging far above a warehouse floor only thanks to Zuko's pants, but for the most part, he had told the writer and artist what he needed to know. "Fire Nation authorities arrested them without the proper credentials for trade. It wasn't like anyone wanted things to escalate from there but at least now all the countries will be on their guard for these 'Dai Li'." He said with finger quotations.
"We couldn't really pin it on the Dai Li without proof," Zuko pointed out. "We could have trumped up the charges, but that would have only helped the Dai Li in their plan to promote war."
"I still can't believe you guys left me behind like that!" The tribesman stood up abruptly from his writing spot. He pointed at them. "Again! You said you were there on Fire Lord business," Sokka accused, pointing at Zuko. "And you said you were going to deliver tea!" He pointed at Jet, who merely shrugged. "We're supposed to be Bros; it's part of the code!"
"We have a code?" Jet asked at the same time, one eyebrow raised. Zuko shot a glare at him, his facial expression stating that he was not helping the matter.
"You see! This is why I should be on the missions. You guys are so unobservant!" Sokka bemoaned while waving his arms. "And the lines...where's the humor? Where's the wit? I can't work like this!"
"We're not a performance art group, Sokka. Last time I checked, we're a group of illegal vigilantes running around on no official authority."
"But you're the Fire Lord," Sokka shot back at him. "That's as much authority as you can get!"
"Yeah, it's also his day job," Jet reminded him. "And what is this code, you keep talking about?"
"Shouldn't that code also include doing what's right, regardless of your situation?" Zuko pointed out. "Isn't that something you wrote in the comic?"
"Yes, but...wait," Sokka narrowed his eyes. "How did you know that?"
Jet was giving him a disturbed look. "You haven't actually be reading it, have you?"
"No!" Zuko frowned, turning slightly pink at the ears. "Mai's brother seems to be really into it and he was running around with his friends at some event, spouting out this nonsense. Anyway, forget about that for a moment," he shook his head. "We haven't reviewed what Sokka's done since we left."
"And that was his job," Jet agreed. The two looked over at the Water Tribe warrior.
"All right, Sokka. You're supposed to be the brains, so let's hear it," Zuko tried to placate Sokka. "What have you figured out? What do we have about that Wu Pang guy we told you about. You can help us take him down."
"Don't try to change the subject!" Sokka exclaimed. "I'll get to my research after I collect all this info while it's still fresh in your minds! Besides, this can also be used for actual Bros stuff, too. You never know what you may have noticed while you were off...without me..." His eyes began to crinkle and his lip began to tremble. "Making your grand debut in the Fire Nation!"
Jet swore that if Sokka burst into tears, he would hit him.
Zuko rolled his eyes, giving up. "I wouldn't call it a grand debut, Sokka. It was a necessity. You don't see me announcing to the whole world of 'Hey, I'm the Blue Spirit, want an autograph?'"
The expected sarcastic retort didn't come and Zuko turned to find that he had lost Sokka's attention. The blue-eyed brunette was staring off into the distance, his mouth slightly agape, seemingly lost in an idea. That wasn't a good sign.
"Now why didn't I think of that? Autographs! Those would so boost sales." He grinned proudly, smacking an enthusiastic fist into his other palm.
Both Jet and Zuko slapped their foreheads in eerie unison.
"Why don't we also put a sign outside to the Dai Li where we are?" Jet pointed out sarcastically. "I'm sure if you put all this out there, they'll figure us out eventually, anyway."
Sokka pouted. "Where's your heroic spirit?"
"I fail to see how signing autographs equals heroic spirit."
"It's exactly like the kind of cheer this city needs!"
Zuko let out a heavy sigh and rubbed his forehead. He never thought he'd do it, but he suddenly felt that he needed some tea. As the two continued to argue over the pros and cons of anonymity and boosting sales, Zuko slipped out of the house and into the back room of his uncle's tea house.
He almost envied the other two. They had such an easy thing to argue over while more pressing things weighed in his mind and heart.
The silence from the main floor signaled that the shop had closed for the night, but that didn't mean that the proprietor wasn't there. Zuko came in silently and saw his Uncle standing at stove, where he was working by lantern light on some new tea blend.
"Nephew," Iroh greeted warmly, without even looking back to confirm. The younger man at this point gave up in guessing how the old general did that. "You don't usually come in after hours," he pointed out. The old man slowly turned around and blew across a small cup. "Is something the matter?"
"It's nothing." When the older man's skeptical expression didn't change, Zuko gave in with a sigh. "Uncle...am I making the right choice?"
"I told you before; I cannot answer that. I have never been more than a prince and general to my men; I was never the Fire Lord. Whether or not you have made the right decision," he said with a comforting pat to Zuko's back. "Is up to you to decide. You must be firm with yourself and with your people. Our country has long fallen without a gentle, but steady hand. But I am confident...in you."
Standing by the window, Zuko looked away from his uncle, to the outside world. "What if I'm wrong? What if the decisions I've made do nothing? Not for me or the Fire Nation. I've tried to do so much already, but...but the people..."
"At the end of the day Zuko, you are but one man with many helpers. You cannot know or do everything. At the same time, the small things you can do is only on you when you fail to notice what you've neglected. You must strike a balance between the light and the dark and that is not always gained immediately."
Zuko really wanted to believe that. He had thought he could, but now, he was not so sure. In all the stories he had read and heard, the hero always got the girl after saving the town, the kingdom, the world. That was where the stories ended; with their happily ever afters that never went into detail on how they stayed happy. Did the girl stay with the hero? Did the kingdom prosper under the hero? Was he even worthy of such a title? But in his heart of hearts, Zuko doubted himself. Aang was hero. His uncle was a hero. Even in their own ways, Jet and Sokka were heroes, but Zuko was not convinced he was. He was one of the good guys...but a hero?
"Have some tea to calm you down," a scratchy voice gently ordered as he lifted one of Zuko's hands and cupped it around a small tea cup. "It has been a long journey for you, my nephew. You still have a long road ahead; do not be afraid to take a moment to rest."
Golden eyes lowered as Zuko nodded solemnly. "Thank you, Uncle."
"Go and rest." Iroh urged the young ruler. Zuko took his tea and took a sip of the hot liquid, allowing it to course down his throat and warm his body as he walked back to the house. He could still hear Jet and Sokka arguging, only the topic had switched to something even less relevant.
"...we didn't have time to pick you up souvenir snacks before we left! Is food all you can think about!?"
"I'm just saying that there are plenty of stops along the way-"
"We didn't even get to go ashore!"
Zuko shook his head and opened the door to his room, closing it quietly behind him and blocking out much of his companions' voices. He took another sip of his tea before placing it on a low table in the center of the room and lighting a flame in his hand to move over to the lantern.
A warm, steady yellow glow filled the room and illuminated the stacks of papers, books, and scrolls that he had been tasked with. He inwardly grimaced. Sooner or later, he'd have to start. Determinedly, he crossed the room to the pile and began going through. He'd work on the easiest, shortest pieces first to get those out of the way and then focus longer on the more complex pieces.
As he moved aside several bound volumes, a carefully folded letter slipped from the pile and landed at his feet. He placed the books aside and bent down to retrieve the letter.
His lips drew into a line as a feeling of dread filled him. It was fine stationery that had an elaborate knot tying it closed. Stamped red just above the knot was Mai's seal.
For a moment, Zuko could only stare down at the letter in his hands. Mai wasn't one to write letters. She was a direct person, for the most part. That may have been what bothered him about the letter most.
Silently, he sat down on the floor, beside the pile of work and carefully untied the knot. The paper sounded between his fingers as the neatly drawn characters stared back at him.
You love your secrets more than you love me or anyone else, I'm afraid. I remember telling you that a couple years ago and I thought maybe you cared enough to listen to me. I asked. I begged. I hoped. You said you wouldn't do this again. Maybe it's because I am not the girl for you, one who is willing to be left in the dark. I can't trust like that.
Why didn't you tell me you were looking for your mother? Did you believe that I wouldn't help, that I wouldn't support you? I love you. All above and around, I still love you and I hate it. Why did I find this out from Azula of all people?
I might have been known as the emotionless girl, the cold councilwoman, but this doesn't mean I don't have a heart. Keep your professional distance and I will keep mine. I know my duty for my country and my people and I will not abandon them.
Good bye Zuko, for good.
His vision had became blurry; his breathing clogged. She was gone. This time, she hadn't even bothered to tell him in person. He had never been more alone in the back of the bustling tea house. He had found one of the women in his life only to lose the other.
A voice seemed to echo in his head.
"...you have to think about it from her point of view. Yeah, I get that she's this big councilwoman and what not, but her boyfriend is the Fire Lord and she seems to be carrying more weight than she should, let alone more than you. Worse, you're gone half the time."
He really could never win.
Zuko closed his eyes and gripped the paper in his hand as he tilted his head back and grit his teeth. Maybe he was just never meant to be a winner.
A.N. - Thank you very much for reading! Before we get on to the next chapter, featuring another special cameo, we'll be doing a "Very Special" Episode of The Brothers of Ba Sing Se as an interlude.