“I seriously have no idea how Zuko has gotten this good at making tea,” Sokka says, taking a sip of his. He doesn’t even particularly like tea, but Zuko’s is great. Definitely an improvement from the Western Air Temple. They’re in Iroh’s tea shop, because it was there and they had some time to kill.
“Takes after his uncle, I guess,” Toph says, and Ty Lee laughs on the other side of the table. “What’s so funny?”
“Well, you know,” Ty Lee says with another bright little laugh, waving them off.
“I know what?” Sokka asks, and she pauses, and gets a sheepish look on her face.
“You know,” she says, dropping her voice to a whisper as she leans forward across the table. “About Zuko and Iroh!”
“They’re . . . making tea?” Sokka says doubtfully, glancing to the other side of the shop where Zuko and Iroh are, in fact, making tea. Ty Lee laughs again.
“No, silly!” she says, still whispering. “Iroh and Princess Ursa had an affair.”
“. . . how did Azula not do anything with that,” Sokka says, his eyebrows shooting straight up. That seems like a grievous oversight on her part.
“Oh, well, I don’t know if Azula knew,” Ty Lee says, straightening back up in her seat with an easy shrug. “It all happened before she was born, obviously. And I don’t think anyone really wanted to tell her about it, because, well, Azula.”
“Yeah, that’s fair,” Sokka says, picturing how that one would’ve shaken out. Badly, for sure. “Woooow is that ever fair. But that explains, like, so many things.”
“Right?!” Ty Lee giggles. “It all makes so much more sense when you know!”
“Huh,” Toph says. “Yeah, that totally does make more sense. I just thought Ozai was a jerk.”
“I mean, he’s definitely still that, let’s not take that achievement away from him,” Sokka says, gesturing expansively with his free hand. “Biggest jerk in the world is that guy, may he rot in prison forever and then some.”
“Yeah,” Toph agrees, and Sokka looks over at Zuko and Iroh again. Zuko is doing something complicated-looking with a strainer, and Iroh is watching him with an aura of pleased and proud indulgence.
Yeah, this does explain some things, Sokka thinks, and takes another sip of his very, very good tea.
Aiko’s name means “love child”, which she’s sure wasn’t supposed to be so damning but definitely, definitely is. The other kids at school say plenty of mean things about it, anyway.
“Why did you name me that?!” she half-wails, sobbing with her head in her mother’s lap after another long, long day, and her mother passes a gentle hand over her head.
“Oh, darling, you know we didn’t mean it that way,” she says.
“Nobody else does!” Aiko says. “Everybody makes fun of me!”
“Well, everybody is wrong to,” her mother says. “I’m sorry, darling, but sometimes people are cruel to each other, and there’s no good reason for it.”
“There is a reason, it’s because I’m a bastard!” Aiko says, and her mother frowns down at her.
“Don’t use that word,” she says. “You were very much a wanted child, Aiko. If your father—”
“I don’t care about my father!” Aiko says, because her fathers are both long gone. The man who’s written down as her father left because of her mother’s affair and her existence, and the man who actually sired her died in the war, and Aiko was left stuck with both of their failures and both of their mistakes and no honor to aspire to.
“You should,” her mother says.
“Why?!” Aiko demands.
“He loved you very much,” her mother says quietly, which is how Aiko knows she’s talking about her sire and not the man who was supposed to raise her. He never loved her at all.
“If he loved me so much, he should’ve married you!” she says, and her mother sighs regretfully.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” she says, stroking a hand through Aiko’s hair again.
“It doesn’t matter,” Aiko says. “I’m a bastard. I’ll never have honor or be anything that matters.”
“That’s not true,” her mother says. “You aren’t the only child in the world born in a loveless marriage.”
“I might as well be!” Aiko says. “Who important was born like me?! Who was born like me and has any honor?!”
“Don’t you know about the Fire Lord, darling?” her mother says tenderly, and tells her a story.
The Fire Lord is speaking at the front of the room, impassioned and assured, and Mitsuru is listening. He’s such a young man, but he sounds just like his father when she followed him into battle all those years ago.
His real father, she means, of course.
He’s a little less loud than General Iroh and certainly not as battle-hardened, but if she closes her eyes she can almost picture it just the way it was back then. The Fire Lord makes people believe in him, believe in the dream of better things, and he isn’t afraid of the old ghosts that haunt the palace.
“Unbelievable,” Hiroki mutters as the Fire Lord stops speaking, and Mitsuru opens her eyes again and looks over at him. Speaking of old ghosts.
“Mm?” she says, noncommittal.
"We have built the single greatest nation on this earth, and he’d have us kowtowing to Water Tribe savages!" Hiroki hisses under his breath. Mitsuru hums, the sound again noncommittal, and he goes on. “The Earth Kingdom and the Avatar are bad enough!”
“Mm?” Mitsuru says, with the air of someone who is listening in interest.
“He’s out of his mind if he thinks the people will accept this!” Hiroki says.
“Did you ever serve under our lord’s father?” Mitsuru says. Hiroki gives her a strange look.
“Ozai was never—” he starts, and she raises an eyebrow at him.
“You know what I mean,” she says. Hiroki looks around furtively, then leans in closer.
“No, I didn’t,” he says with a frown. “I don’t see how that’s relevant, though.”
“General Iroh was always particularly convincing,” she says. “He could’ve told us to follow him anywhere and we would’ve all gone gladly, to the last of us.”
“It doesn’t matter what his father was like,” Hiroki says. “He’s barely more than a boy, for one thing.”
“Perhaps, but he certainly isn’t taking advice from Ozai, now is he?” Mitsuru says.
“Ozai understood the honor and glory of the Fire Nation,” Hiroki says.
“Ozai was defeated by a twelve year-old,” Mitsuru says dryly. And, she is quite certain, only cared about his own glory, and certainly no one’s honor. Everyone knows what he did to the Fire Lord’s face. They see it every day.
“The Avatar is hardly a normal child!” Hiroki hisses at her. “No doubt the spirits possessed him!”
“I have some doubt of that, to be honest,” Mitsuru says. She folds her hands in her lap, and glances to the front of the room. The Fire Lord is talking again, and is hardly a normal child himself. She hears his father in so many of the things he says, and sees him in him too. There’s no particular resemblance—he takes far more after his mother—but she sees a certain resemblance all the same.
She can certainly understand why Princess Ursa would’ve gone to General Iroh, given her alternative. And it had been so long since the general’s wife had passed . . .
“He will see us debased before the world,” Hiroki says.
“I have some doubt of that, too,” Mitsuru says, though really, what she has is a certainty.
Her general never steered her wrong, and Prince Lu Ten was just like him. The Fire Lord is showing no signs of being any different.
Jee barely survived the war, but survive it he did, and now that Prince Zuko is Fire Lord Zuko, he’s been very gracious to the men who knew him when he was young and angry. Sometimes Jee’s still not sure the Avatar didn’t replace him with a spirit, with how different he is.
Then again, he supposes that’s just the boy finally taking after his father.
Jee’s retired now, so he travels a bit, and in his travels sees no reason not to visit the general’s tea shop. Why not, after all? They can catch up some, maybe, if the man’s got the time. And he does miss the man’s tea; it was always miles better than the slop they brewed themselves, even when he was using the same terrible leaves. Somehow.
Iroh greets him gladly, and serves him a very fine tea. Jee is very appreciative, and savors the cup. It’s a strange experience, being waited on by a Fire royal, but it’s been a long time since Iroh was anything like the rest of his family, and he clearly raised Prince—Fire Lord Zuko to be unusual himself, to the entire world’s great, great fortune. Jee doesn’t know what Iroh did to turn that angry boy into a compassionate man, but he’ll be grateful for it until he dies.
Fire Lord Zuko always had honor, of course, at least in the sense of the way he behaved. He wasn’t always very patient or very reasonable about it, but he had it all the same. There were lines Jee knew the boy wouldn’t cross. Unlike, say, Zhao. Or Azula. Or Ozai.
“It’s very good tea, General,” he says, and Iroh gives him a pleased look and then talks his ear off about the blend. Jee listens attentively, though he only understands about half of what the man is saying. It’s the least he can do, since Avatars be damned, Iroh’s the one who raised the end of the war; the hope of true peace for their nation. He can’t imagine what would’ve happened to them with no Zuko to take the throne or see their wounds healed.
Most of those wounds were self-inflicted, so it’s especially necessary to see them healed.
“I’m glad to see you well, Jee,” Iroh says as he pours him another cup of tea.
“Thank you, General,” Jee says, because there are more things than that to thank him for. Iroh raised a good son and a very good Fire Lord, and an even better man than he himself is, where Ozai did his damnedest to raise a worse one. Jee doubts anyone else could’ve done it as well as Iroh, or perhaps even at all. “How is the Fire Lord? I haven’t been home for some time.”
“Busy spending that pension?” Iroh says with a laugh. “Zuko is quite well, thank you. He is doing an admirable job. Far better than I could’ve done.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Jee says, and really is.
Fire Lord Zuko is coming to the palace tomorrow morning, and Kuei is being briefed on a lot of things about the Fire Nation that he did not previously know—customs, beliefs, preferences, all kinds of things, and all kinds of things about the Fire Lord specifically as well.
“And you must never mention his father,” he is informed.
“I suppose that would be a sore spot,” Kuei muses. “But I thought he fought to defeat him with the Avatar?”
His tutors share an awkward look. Gui coughs. Lan clears her throat.
“Er, not Ozai, your highness,” she says. “His father.”
“I don’t understand,” he says. His tutors share another awkward look. Kuei is getting quite tired of those looks. He hasn’t been a very good king, he knows, but he’s doing his best to catch up now, and he doesn’t appreciate how often his tutors still feel they need to coddle him. “Explain it to me,” he orders, because that’s the only thing that’s consistently worked.
“Well . . .” Lan winces, glancing around nervously. It’s only them, and a servant or two tidying up in the back. Kuei doesn’t know what she’s so nervous about.
“Princess Ursa and General Iroh had an affair, back in the early days of the princess and Ozai’s marriage,” Gui says in a low voice. “Fire Lord Zuko is their son.”
“Oh,” Kuei says. “Oh! But—I’ve never heard that before. Everyone calls him Ozai’s son.”
“Ozai’s heir is Azula,” Lan says. Kuei . . . pauses, and considers. He pictures that girl showing up on his doorstep again with all the pomp and circumstance of a Fire Nation delegation, and how terribly it would certainly go.
“I see,” he says. “So Ozai raised him to save face, and everyone else went along with it to keep Azula from the throne?”
“More or less, your highness,” Gui says. “And honor matters a great deal to the people of the Fire Nation. They would never have followed a Fire Lord who’d turn out an innocent child. But of course Ozai took the first chance he had to banish him, as we all know.”
“He did?” Kuei says in surprise.
“. . . yes, your highness,” Gui says, looking a little pained. “Ozai burned and banished Fire Lord Zuko in an Agni Kai.”
“In a what?”
“It’s . . . an honor duel, more or less,” Lan says carefully, worrying at the edge of her sleeve. “You don’t need the particulars, it’s a thing they do between their own people. The details weren’t widely known, apparently, but Fire Lord Zuko challenged one of his father’s generals in a war meeting and Ozai took the opportunity to chase him out of the Fire Nation. He told him he could never come home until he found the Avatar.”
“This being when we all thought the Avatar was either dead or a story,” Gui puts in.
“But then he never would’ve been able to—” Kuei starts, and then realizes. “Oh. Ohhhhh. That’s . . . dreadful!”
“Ozai was not a merciful man,” Lan says. “Or an honorable one, as his people’s standards go.”
“So I shouldn’t mention him either?” Kuei assumes.
“Perhaps not, unless the Fire Lord brings him up first,” Gui says. “Most certainly, though, do not mention General Iroh. The peace is a very delicate creature, still, and to be seen to challenge the Fire Lord’s right to the throne in these times . . .”
“I don’t see why anyone cares who his father is,” Kuei says. “He’s certainly an improvement over Azula, either way.”
“Yes, your highness, but the Fire Nation could fall into a civil war, and if Azula’s supporters won . . .” Lan trails off with another wince.
“I won’t mention his father,” Kuei says, and his tutors breath very obvious sighs of relief. Kuei’s a bit insulted, honestly. He knows he’s still a naive man, and perhaps not the cleverest Earth King there’s ever been, but he doesn’t want to see this frail new peace lost more than anyone else does. “I suppose I should avoid bringing up his family in general, then?”
“That might be for the best, your highness,” Gui says, and they move on to the next lesson, which is a very complicated tea service that Kuei is really hoping he won’t need to remember.
He feels a little better about things, at least, knowing it’s not Ozai’s actual son on the throne of the Fire Nation. He can’t imagine that going particularly well in the long run, Avatar’s blessing or no.
Arnook is having a long day, and he is a very tired man. It’s almost the anniversary of Yue, and . . . it’s almost the anniversary of Yue. Really, that says everything.
It makes everything harder.
“Chief Arnook?” one of his men says to him uncertainly—Panuk—and he remembers himself and straightens his spine. He spares Panuk a smile, and hopes it doesn’t look as tired as he feels.
He’s very tired, today.
“Yes?” he asks. He hadn’t even noticed the man’s approach.
“We’ve received a letter from the Fire Lord,” Panuk informs him, holding out a scroll. Arnook takes it.
“Thank you,” he says, and breaks the little flamelike seal. The letter unfurls, and Arnook skims it. It’s a standard Fire Nation letter, or at least what’s become the standard—”standard” Fire Nation letters used to be demands for surrender, after all. This one, however, is a polite missive asking after his health and the well-being of his tribe, and inquiring if he’ll allow Fire Nation scholars into the North Pole to bridge the gap between their cultures and if he’d be interested in exchanging ambassadors. It’s a well-written letter, though it was also very obviously written by a sixteen year-old who’s new to the job and not an expert diplomat or scribe. Arnook finds that more convincing than a better turn of phrase and better handwriting would’ve managed, though.
He’ll have to write back personally, he supposes, though that thought tires him too. Everything does today.
Ozai was such an ungrateful man, he thinks, looking at the very sincere and very carefully written letter in his hands. Well—is, he supposes, since he doubts prison’s improved the man’s nature any.
Yue might’ve written a letter like this one, one day.
Arnook sighs, and rolls the letter back up to take back to his rooms. Yes. He’ll answer it personally.
“Is it important, sir?” Panuk asks. He has two daughters, Arnook remembers. He used to talk about them all the time, but less this past year. At least, less to him.
“Important enough,” Arnook says, tucking the letter away. He thinks of Yue, and aches. “I’ll write back tonight.”
Panuk nods in acknowledgement and leaves him. Arnook stares out over the water, and not at the sky. He imagines hating a child enough to banish them, and genuinely can’t wrap his mind around the concept. It’s lucky for all of them that Ozai wasn’t willing to be a better father and left the room for Iroh to step in and do his own duty, but . . .
Well. He just can’t wrap his mind around it.
He’s thinking a bit too much about the ins and outs of the Fire Nation royal family, now, but he can’t quite help it. It’s . . . something else to think about, he supposes. But any child is a gift from the spirits, no matter what preceded their arrival, and he cannot imagine throwing that gift away.
That was part of Ozai’s downfall, in the end.
Arnook would gladly fall, if it meant Yue were alive and well and living her own life. He would give up anything he has. But Ozai, of course, did not fall like that.
Iroh is not the Fire Lord. Zuko is.
Arnook is . . . tired, mostly, and thinking of a fate that could not have been avoided.
He wonders if all of this was fated, in the end. He wonders if it was all going to happen no matter what.
He takes the letter back out, and reads it again. It’s just a letter.
He hopes Iroh knows what he has, at least.
The Fire Lord is making tea again, which he does regularly. He doesn’t usually drink it himself, though, or at least not much of it; more often he’s making it for guests. No one really knew how to react the first time he served his own advisors, but they’re used to it now. It’s a peculiarity, perhaps, but a far less concerning one than almost anyone else in the line of Sozin has had.
He gets it from his father, they all suppose, and drink their tea with significant looks to each other, but without ever saying a word of that out loud.
Zuko is in a meeting in the throne room, probably being talked down to by his advisors again, and Mai is bored. She’s tossing a knife in the air, up and down over and over. She’s thinking she might go do her nails or something.
She’s really bored.
She almost wishes they’d gotten married like everyone wanted. At least then she’d be with Zuko right now, bored or not. The Fire Lord’s consort, unfortunately, does not get the same access as the Fire Lady would.
She really would be miserable in there, though.
Well, there’s a reason they didn’t get married. Her parents keep pushing her on it; she keeps ignoring them. They want a Fire Lady for a daughter so bad, but Mai wants to be able to run off whenever she feels like it and do as she likes. Maybe someday she’ll feel different about it, but she doubts it. She especially doubts it because her parents keep pushing her on it, which makes her like the idea less and less every time.
Zuko understands, which she appreciates. She wouldn’t be his consort if he didn’t.
She tosses the knife again. Up. Down.
How long is this going to take again?
Mai sighs to herself, and whips the knife at the throne room doors. It sticks. Probably she shouldn’t do that kind of thing in the palace, but she’s a consort, not a Fire Lady, so who cares? Somebody’ll fix it eventually, or they’ll just ignore it and it’ll become part of the palace landscape.
Her parents really won’t quit bothering her. They want her to take advantage of an opportunity, find political power, listen to them and be their voice in Zuko’s ear—like she’d ever. They think she’ll marry Zuko and turn into the perfect daughter they tried so hard to raise and advance all their goals and desires and empower the whole family, and Mai? Mai thinks, even if she does marry Zuko, that she’d be likelier to have them both thrown off a bridge.
Not a high bridge. Just a little one. But definitely a bridge all the same.
She pulls out another knife, and her parents show up with their usual terrible timing.
She really hates it when they visit.
“Mai!” her mother hisses, gesturing at the knife in the wall. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Mai says in a bored monotone. She tosses her new knife in the air. Her mother nearly grabs her arm, but they all learned that lesson years ago and Mai still has the scar on her thigh to show for it.
“Stop that!” her mother hisses.
“Not indoors, at least,” her father says. Mai stares blankly at both of them, then whips the knife at the doors without actually looking. It sticks. “Mai!”
“What?” she says, pulling out another knife.
“The Fire Lord will never marry you if you keep acting like this,” her mother says accusingly.
“I don’t remember asking him to,” Mai says, spinning the knife around her fingers. She’s got better things to do than bother Zuko into a wedding, though she knows he’d be happy to have one. Probably happier than her, honestly.
“Do you want to wind up like Princess Ursa?” her mother demands.
“I wasn’t planning on marrying any genocidal maniacs, so I don’t see how I could,” Mai says. Her parents scowl at her.
“She missed her chance with General Iroh,” her father says. Mai wrinkles her nose at him. She and Zuko made it through him defecting in the middle of a war and survived Azula. What do they think is going to break them up now? “You don’t want to be a consort forever, or worse, have to settle for someone of lower rank.”
“I kind of do, actually,” Mai says. She’d marry Sokka if it’d get her parents off her back, but she knows then they’d just be trying to curry favor with the Water Tribe instead and use that to improve their positions. He’s still a chief’s son, and all.
Maybe there’s a convenient peasant somewhere around here.
“Mai!” her mother hisses. “Don’t say such things, or you might find them happening!”
“I mean, I want them to happen, so . . .” Mai trails off meaningfully, and her father rubs at his temples and her mother glowers.
“I raised you better than this, young lady,” she says. “You’re so much smarter than this. The longer you wait the likelier the Fire Lord is to be offered a more agreeable bride, and what makes you think he wouldn’t leap at the chance?”
“I’m sure they’d be very happy together,” Mai says in her bored monotone again, because her parents literally would not understand Zuko LOVES me as a response. Her parents don’t understand a lot of things that are very, very obvious.
“Mai!” Her mother looks furious. “I will not have you waste an opportunity like this. The Avatar himself put that boy on the throne!”
“So?” Mai says. “He’s not even technically in the line of succession, anyway.”
“Mai!” her parents both exclaim. Mai gives them her most supremely bored look.
“What?” she says. “He’s not. If we wanted to we could just pick up and leave and never come back, and this’d all be someone else’s problem.”
“Probably doesn’t even know,” Mai says. Honestly, he probably doesn’t. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Zuko’d mention; he didn’t even tell them where he got the scar. “Did anybody tell him?”
“The specifics of our Nation’s politics are our own to worry about,” her father says stiffly.
“So no,” Mai says dubiously. “You all just don’t want to deal with Azula so you just keep pretending.”
“It’s for the good of the nation,” her mother says.
“Maybe to some people,” Mai says, because she knows for a fact her parents are only supporting Zuko because they think they can get to him through her. She tosses her knife in the air. Her parents take a step back, visibly appalled.
“You’re going to put your eye out,” her mother says crossly.
“I really am not,” Mai says, looking at the doors to the throne room and longing for Zuko to come out of them. She’s barely seen him today. “I already told you, I don’t want to marry him. I’m not going to magically change my mind because you keep bugging me about it.”
“You’d be the Fire Lady,” her mother says, like she somehow doesn’t know that?
“Yeah, sounds boring,” Mai says frankly. Her mother sucks air through her teeth.
“Mai,” she says. “He’s the best match you could possibly get, except perhaps for the Avatar. What is so repulsive to you that you wouldn’t accept the ruler of our nation?”
“I don’t need to be the Fire Lady to accept Zuko,” Mai says. They really don’t understand. Not that they ever have understood her or anything about her life, really.
“Darling,” her mother says with an unconvincing imitation of patience, putting a hand on her shoulder. Mai makes a face. “I know you’re young, and you don’t understand the full implications of what you’re saying. If you could just trust us—”
“Then what?” Mai says, giving her the most bored look she can muster. “Then you’ll have another in at court? Then Zuko will listen to what you want? That’s not happening.”
“You must understand, dear, it’s for the best,” her father says.
“It’s for your best,” Mai says, and whips another knife at the door. It lands directly between the first two. “Zuko and I are fine, and I like us the way we are. Drop it.”
“But Mai—” her mother starts, and then, mercifully, the throne room doors open. Mai just barely resists the urge to immediately jump out of her seat, and waits for the leaving advisors to pass. Zuko brings up the rear, looking tired, but smiles as soon as he sees her knives in the door and tugs them out, then comes over to return them to her.
That smile is so, so much more important than anything like marrying him.
“Hello,” he says, and her parents bow. Mai gets to her feet and he kisses her cheek.
“I’m bored,” she tells him.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, still smiling at her, and she sighs. “Want to go to the armory and find something to throw at things?”
“Yes,” she says immediately, and he smiles wider and takes her hand and nods his head to her parents. They leave them there in the hall, pretending not to be stewing in their own frustration, and everything is immediately better.
“Everything okay?” he says once they’re out of earshot, giving her a concerned look.
“Fine,” she says, though she appreciates that he can tell it isn’t really. Zuko makes a lot of things easier. “You know how parents are.”
“Yeah,” he says, his expression turning briefly wry. That is maybe not the most sensitive thing she’s ever said, in retrospect.
“They just don’t understand what I want,” she says, back-pedalling a bit for both their sakes.
“You want something?” he asks her, and she knows that if it’s in his power he’ll give it to her, which covers quite a lot of “wants” these days. She shakes her head, though.
“Nothing I don’t already have,” she says, and squeezes his hand. He smiles at her again. “They just think I should want what they do.”
“Normally I’d say sometimes people are right about that kind of thing, but . . .” he says, wincing a little without outright talking down her parents. She wouldn’t care if he did, personally, but Zuko is very careful about the kind of things he says about other people’s parents. Understandably, she guesses.
“Can’t all be General Iroh, I guess,” she says, and he laughs softly and laces their fingers together.
“Guess not,” he says, and they go to the armory.
Zuko and his friends are all visiting, which means the Avatar, the Fire Lord, the children of the chief of the South Pole, and the world’s first known metalbender are visiting, and Iroh had to close the tea shop for a private party to avoid any gawking. Mai and Suki, at least, don’t cause a fuss. Mai may be a politician’s daughter and the Kyoshi Warriors may be disciples of a past Avatar, but they are not major political players or once-in-an-age genius benders.
Iroh makes the tea, because that’s what he does, and Zuko serves it. It makes him think of their time hiding in Ba Sing Se, because of course it does, but Zuko is so, so different from that boy. Iroh is so proud of how far he’s come that he can’t even fully express it, though he’s certainly tried more than once.
Zuko comes back with the empty tray, and Iroh passes him a cup of his own. Zuko smiles at him, and Iroh again thinks how different he is. He has always loved Zuko, always been proud of what he’s managed to achieve, but what he’s done now . . .
Yes. Iroh is very, very proud.
“How are you?” he says, because this is the first moment they’ve had to talk. The other children are chattering amongst themselves, though Mai looks bored and Zuko will likely be going to her side soon enough.
“Fine, Uncle,” Zuko says, still smiling. “Things are going well with restoration and reparations, and the old guard of nobles are coming around.”
“Yes, Nephew, but how are you?” Iroh asks, trying not to laugh.
“Oh,” Zuko says, and reddens sheepishly. “I’m fine. Mai just wanted to get away from her parents for a while, so we thought we’d come out here, and Aang and the others were all in the area, so . . .”
“Are you comfortable in the palace?” Iroh says. It’s been a long time since Zuko lived there, even counting the time he spent back by Ozai’s side after the fall of Ba Sing Se.
“I think so?” Zuko frowns a bit and takes a sip of his tea. “It’s strange. It’s so different from how it used to be.”
“I would assume that was a good thing, myself,” Iroh says.
“It is, definitely, it’s just . . . different.” Zuko’s frown deepens for a moment, then clears away, though he doesn’t smile again. “The advisors want me to have an heir.”
“I imagine they do,” Iroh says, resisting the urge to glance at Mai. More than one Fire Lord was a consort’s child, though.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Zuko says, and Iroh gives him a curious look.
“A bad idea?” he says. He can see Zuko not being ready yet, and certainly wouldn’t blame him for that, but a bad idea?
“I’d be a terrible father,” Zuko says, and Iroh makes a surprised noise, setting down the teapot. “No, I would. I’ve got no idea how to parent someone.”
“Well, most parents don’t, to start,” Iroh says wryly. The learning curve had been literally vertical, with Lu Ten.
“My mother left and my father was my father,” Zuko says, shaking his head. “I don’t want to be like either of them. Who am I supposed to parent like?”
“Iroh, duh!” Toph yells from one of the tables, and Zuko turns red in embarrassment again.
“Don’t eavesdrop!” he sputters, and she laughs at him.
“Then don’t talk in the same room as everybody, Sparky!” she shoots back. Zuko scowls, but even his scowl isn’t as severe as it used to be. “I mean, he’s definitely a better dad than Ozai.”
“Yeah, definite improvement,” Sokka agrees, leaning back in his chair to peer over at them. “What’re we angsting about? Zuko’s got that angsting look on his face again.”
“I am not angsting,” Zuko grumbles. “My advisors want me to have an heir. I don’t want to.”
“Whoa, they want you having kids already?” Aang says, looking surprised. “You guys aren’t even married yet. Don’t you have to get married in the Fire Nation?”
“Consorts can have heirs,” Mai says neutrally, taking a sip of her tea. Her free hand is fiddling with a knife, as usual.
“You don’t have to be married to have kids. Did the monks get married?” Sokka says.
“Well, no, but I thought they did in the Fire Nation,” Aang says, shrugging helplessly. “They do in the Earth Kingdom.”
“Yeah, it’s real dumb,” Toph snorts. “When I have kids, I’m not getting married.”
“It does sound kind of complicated,” Katara says. Aang immediately looks worried.
“Why don’t you want an heir?” Suki asks, absentmindedly touching the blue necklace around her throat.
“I don’t think I’d be a very good father,” Zuko says. The children all just look at him, except of course for Toph who just snorts.
“That is . . . so stupid,” Sokka says, then points accusingly at Iroh. “Right there! Good one! Do what he did!”
“I did my best,” Iroh says, a little quieter than he means to as he thinks of Lu Ten. “It wasn’t quite enough, though.”
“Why? Zuko turned out fine,” Toph says. “I mean, for Zuko.”
“Yeah, he’s way less annoying now,” Sokka agrees. “Hasn’t tried to capture anybody in ages.”
“Very funny,” Zuko says, scowling at them.
“Not that I don’t appreciate your faith, but I didn’t exactly raise my nephew,” Iroh says wryly. Toph snorts again. Sokka eyes him skeptically, cocking an eyebrow.
“Did you not?” he says. “Because, like, everybody in the Fire Nation is pretty sure you did. For obvious reasons.”
“Ah,” Iroh says, and realizes that . . . well, of course one or two of them would’ve heard that particular rumor by now. He debates correcting them, but he still isn’t sure Zuko knows about that rumor and he doesn’t particularly want to tell him if he doesn’t. It’s certainly a pervasive thing, though, to have reached Water Tribe ears—even such well-travelled ones as Sokka’s. “No, I merely escorted him during his banishment.”
“You did a lot more than that,” Zuko says, looking abashed. “More than you had to.”
“I did nothing I did not want to, Nephew,” Iroh reassures him quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder. Zuko ducks his head.
“Yeah, see?” Toph says, pointing in their general direction. “Obvious. Suuuper obvious.”
“I do believe it is safe to say that ‘everybody’ believing something is not necessarily a confirmation of fact,” Iroh says noncommittally.
“You wouldn’t be the worst father,” Mai says in her usual backhanded compliment kind of way, slowly twirling a knife between her fingers. Zuko turns red again.
“I am sure you would be a fine one, Nephew,” Iroh says.
“I mean . . . maybe someday,” Zuko says uncertainly, and Iroh smiles at him. He knows, already, that Zuko is nothing like Ozai. He could’ve been, but he chose to be better, and he continues to make that choice every day. He would not respond to rumors and lies the way Ozai did, and certainly never be cruel to any child, much less his own.
“That day will be a wonderful day, then,” he says, and Zuko smiles back tentatively, that inextinguishable trace of hope inside him so much softer and kinder than it once was.
He isn’t Zuko’s father, but he would’ve been proud to be.