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Hopeless

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Ba Sing Se

Yu Ling had expanded his father’s tea shop. Briefly, when he had been left a parcel of gold coins just after the war ended, he entertained the thought of leaving the Lower Ring and moving to a better part of Ba Sing Se. In the end, he decided to stay, for his father. The customers came no matter what part of town he lived in. 

While he poured over the accounts in his office, one of his servers knocked on the door. 

“Yu Ling, there’s some guy here to see you.”

Immediately, he thought that was strange. Running the tea shop didn’t leave him much time to make friends, especially ones that would feel inclined to visit him at work. He rinsed the ink from his fingers in the kitchen’s sink and walked into the cafe. He smiled when he saw the young man seated at the counter, wearing a green cloak. 

“Lee!”

Lee stood smiling to shake his hand. Then he bowed respectfully. Tara hugged him next. Their little boy waved from his seat between them. He had grown considerably. 

“Look at you,” he said to the boy. “You were just a baby the last time I saw you. How old are you now?”

“Four.”

“Four!” he said incredulously. The little boy nodded, smiling.

Lee looked around at some of the improvements to the shop. He took them all in approvingly, marveling at the pure white of the marble counter. With his arm around his wife’s waist, Yu Ling could see clearly that Tara was expecting another child. The four-year-old would be a brother soon.

“I see you got the donation,” Lee commented. 

“That was you?” Yu Ling asked, remembering the gold coins left in his office just after the war ended, with nothing more than a note that said ‘use them wisely’.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” Lee admitted sheepishly. “You didn’t exactly hire an average refugee. You hired the Fire Nation’s banished prince.”

The Fire Nation’s banished prince. The story had circulated to every corner of the world. The prince who taught the Avatar firebending, the prince who defeated his sister, the very one who had taken Ba Sing Se. The prince who now sat on the throne. 

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he realized.

“It’s good to meet you properly,” the Fire Lord said. There was no crown in his hair, no splendor to his clothing. He was traveling discreetly. 

Further realization dawned on him when he turned to Tara. Yu Ling remembered the rest of the story now, how the city talked and talked when the Fire Lord eloped with the Avatar’s waterbending teacher, the mother of his child. 

“Fire Lady Katara,” he greeted. She waved shyly. His attention turned to the youngest member of the party. “And I guess that makes you Prince Rei.”

The Fire Lady smiled. “We wanted to see you in person, to thank you for helping us all those years ago.”

“We’re visiting all of their Ba Sing Se friends,” the young prince said excitedly. 

“Is that so?”

“My uncle has given me leave from my duties. We’re renting a house for the next month in the Palace District. We want to have the baby here.”

“You’d think your ministers would prefer the child be born in the Fire Nation.”

“Oh, they would,” commented the Fire Lady bemusedly, “but we still have some liberties.”

“It’s hard to argue with her,” her husband said. 

“Rei was delivered by a friend of mine here in Ba Sing Se. Zuko and I agreed -“ she turned to him pointedly, “to have our new baby here too.”

“Yes, we agreed," he said and shared a private smile with his wife. "We’d love to have you over for dinner while we stay, if you can get away.”

“It would be rude to refuse the Fire Lord’s offer.”

“Good. How does tomorrow sound?”

The Fire Lady winced. “Oh, I forgot to tell you we’re having Suni and her husband over tomorrow.”

“What about the girls?”

“Suni’s leaving them with Jia. Then we’re having all the kids over next week.”

“Are the girls my age?” Rei asked.

“No,” said his father. The little prince pouted.

“How about the day after tomorrow then?”

“Works for me,” Yu Ling agreed. Before the family left, he offered little Prince Rei an iced tea cake. 

“What do you say?” Lady Katara asked, nudging the boy’s shoulder. 

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Did your parents tell you how they know me, Prince Rei?”

The boy shook his head, licking the icing from the cake as many children often did. 

“Your father worked for me. He used to serve tea here, and your mother would visit him all the time. Sometimes she’d bring you.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

The boy looked up to his father, smiling. “You don’t even like tea.”

“I never said that.”

“Uncle Iroh says you don’t appreciate it. His words.”

“Uncle Iroh exaggerates,” his father told him. He tapped the boy’s nose teasingly. Then he dug into the pocket of his cloak and pulled out a gold coin. “For the tea cake.”

“It’s on the house.”

“For an old friend then.”

Yu Ling accepted the coin gratefully. “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, my friends. I’m sure there’s a lot to catch up on.”

When they left, his server, Shang, approached him. “Who was that guy?”

“Someone who worked for me before the war ended,” he explained. 

“Oh. You know his scar looks exactly like Fire Lord Zuko’s.”

“Hmm.”

“Except it’s on the wrong side,” Shang commented. “Wouldn’t that be something, to have the Fire Lord come here of all places?”

“You have quite the imagination.”

“I know. Why would the Fire Lord ever come here for tea? He probably has a palace full of servants to make him a special blend.”

Yu Ling chuckled to himself. “Probably.”