Zuko was exhausted.
He stomped through the halls of the palace, hoping that if he scowled hard enough it might distract from his disheveled appearance. That morning, as the servants had pulled his hair into the usual topknot, his hair had been unusually sensitive, which sent him into a dark mood that he carried with him he prowled the dark halls. It was early in the morning, still dark, but he could tell instinctively that the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon. It warmed his blood and loosened his muscles. It didn't quite touch his headache.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he breathed out a rush of steam. Immediately, his heart dropped. Losing control of his bending surely meant the fog that had put its roots down in his head days ago was reaching capacity.
“Wow, bad time?” Came a familiar voice from the end of the dark hall.
“Aang!” He called, spotting a familiar yellow hued figure standing next to a shadowed pillar. “What are you doing here?” Zuko marveled at how Aang's simple presence had a calming effect. They embraced like brothers, and Zuko felt a rush of gratitude, realizing how much he had missed his friend.
“We got here early. Looks like it was a good call,” Aang said, looking at Zuko with a level of intense scrutiny that reminded Zuko painfully of the assessing looks he used to get in the aftermath of the Agni Kai. He narrowly avoided shrinking away out of pure instinct. “Did you forget our plan to visit your uncle?” He asked, half jokingly.
“Not at all. I have to give an address in Ba Sing Se also, so I couldn't have forgotten if I tried.” Zuko replied, motioning with a jerk of his head for Aang to walk with him. Aang's brow furrowed.
“I thought we were going to have a vacation!” Aang protested, staring at Zuko with his big plaintive eyes. At once, Zuko felt a rush of frustration. Aang, of all people, should understand the pressure of reuniting the splintered nations, especially when you couldn't seem to do anything right.
“It was! Before the third uprising in the Earth Kingdom this month, and before three generals in Ba Sing Se wrote to me personally complaining about how to rebuild their government, as if it's my fault that the coup even happened,” He ground out, deliberately leaving out the fact that his guard had warded off several assassination attempts within the same month, as well, one of which targeted Mai. Aang's expression turned stony.
“Hey, the Fire Nation may still be the most hated nation in the world, but the Avatar actually has a pretty good reputation right now! I'm with you, eventually people are going to understand.” Aang said lightly, smiling just goofy enough for Zuko to feel the corners of his lips turn up, despite himself.
When they reached the throne room, Zuko took another deep breath, let in out slowly, and smiled at his friend.
Sokka and Katara glanced at each other skeptically as they stood outside the door of the throne room. Neither of them could shake the feeling of trepidation that the palace always evoked, with the dark shadows and the ominous glowing light emanating from the entranceway.
“Aang's in there,” Sokka reminded Katara. They were exited to see Zuko and all of the Kyoshi Warriors that were currently guarding the palace, but their unease was still palpable.
They both started when a two armor-clad generals burst from the room, stormy eyed and grimacing. The siblings exchanged another significant look, but took it as a signal to enter the room.
The cavernous chamber had lost a touch of its terror as Zuko had chosen to stage a meeting table in the center of the room, where he and Aang sat more intimately with their guests. The typical fire remained lit in the background, but lacked it's usual flavor of intimidation.
“Looks like that went well.” Sokka said as he strode in, hoping to cut into the tension.
“Hateful old windbags,” Zuko spat out darkly, before looking up to see the them enter. He softened his expression when he saw them, although it looked like it took great effort to do so. “Welcome back!” He said, as Katara and Sokka came in. Katara kissed Aang briefly before sitting next to her brother.
“What was all that about? They look like someone just killed their pet koala-lemur,” Sokka asked, trying to maintain the levity even though he was pretty aware that the elephant in the room was that Zuko looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. The dark circles under his eyes were emphasized by the shadow of the tall blanket of fire, and his voice had a hoarse edge to it that spoke of exhaustion.
“Turns out the old generals still prefer war to peace,” Zuko explained vaguely. Katara narrowed her eyes.
“Easy for them to say,” she said.
“Ehh, that's enough shop talk for today,” complained Sokka, cutting off anything else Katara might say. She usually knew the right thing to say in any situation, but sometimes Katara's unrelenting bitterness eclipsed her good sense. “You wanna spar later, Jerkbender? Gotta keep sharp, especially since I heard some lame assassin almost turned you into a kabob last week. Looks like you're losing your edge,” He taunted.
“Sokka!” Katara protested, and punched him hard in the arm while Zuko grinned lopsidedly and easily took the bait.
The sound of metal clashing brightly with metal echoed in the immaculate and secluded garden space of the palace where Zuko had discovered as an appropriate place for him and Sokka to let loose on each other.
They finished their last round at an impasse, both breathing roughly. If Sokka were less of a man (which he wasn't) he would have a hard time admitting that the reason they were so evenly matched was the fact that Zuko was so clearly off his game. Still, it was hard to feel too bad for still giving it his all, considering that even while completely spent, Zuko still fought masterfully, and he fought dirty. It was exhilarating, and Sokka was reminded again how relatively new he was to the art of swordsmanship. Sokka was talented, but Zuko made it look like breathing.
Which is why Sokka may have still taken some satisfaction in catching him off guard long enough to land lightest of slices on his upper right bicep. As was his way, Zuko gave no indication that he was even mildly perturbed, but when they called it at the third round, Sokka did feel a wave of regret for not backing off. Still, for all that Katara loved to remind him that he had no social graces or tact, he did notice that Zuko seemed marginally less tightly wound after sparring.
He reminded himself to let Katara do her work later, but in the mean time, he would take satisfaction in putting the leader of the Fire Nation in a brotherly headlock as they headed back to their other friends.
Katara crept through the halls, invigorated by the cooler darkness of night time. She gently asked the Kyoshi Warrior to enter to Fire Lord's chamber, and tentatively knocked on the frame of the door as she saw Zuko organizing endless papers ostensibly to bring on their journey to Ba Sing Se. He started violently and nearly slipped on a stray piece of paper as he whipped around to see her, in perhaps the most graceless sequence of movement that she had ever seen. He deflated immediately upon recognizing the noise was Katara instead of some attack. He looked so pitifully embarrassed that she nearly smothered her burst of good-natured snickering.
“What are you doing here, Katara? Do you need something?” He asked, confused and somewhat sheepish from his burst of skittishness.
“Sokka told me that he cut you when you were fighting earlier. I came to offer to heal it for you,” She said, approaching him slowly.
“Oh. It was really nothing,” Zuko replied, his hand instinctively reaching for his upper arm. He seemed genuinely surprised by her concern. “It's really not worth it, honestly. It didn't even hurt, really,” He protested.
“Deeper cuts hurt less. Will you just let me see?” She requested firmly. Zuko raised his eyebrows, but acquiesced.
“Sit down.” Katara commanded, opening her water skein as Zuko sat down on the edge of his bed and rolled up his sleeve to reveal the long and slender cut mark directly below his shoulder. She could feel the tension in his muscles as she began the familiar process of healing his superficial wound.
“May I ask something?” She asked.
“Okay,” Zuko said cautiously, his eyes flickering in her direction.
“When I – uh- warned you about hurting Aang back at the Western Air Temple, were you intimidated?” She asked, casually. Zuko's eyebrows became even more furrowed, a feat that Katara hadn't thought possible.
“What do you mean? I mean... Of course?” He replied, looking anywhere but at Katara.
“Do I still intimidate you, then?” Katara asked, still remaining so eerily nonchalant that Zuko didn't waste any time in thinking of a reply.
“Good.” Katara smiled serenely. She finished healing his arm, but didn't make a move to return the water to her pouch. “That means you might actually listen to me when I tell you that you need to slow down. Or else.”
“Katara-” Zuko protested.
“Look, I spent a lot of time traveling with the Aang when he had to deal with the pressure of being the only hope the world had of defeating the Fire Lord and ending the war. I know what that kind of pressure does to a person.”
“Then you know that I can't slow down. There are still so many mistakes I have to fix. Everyone in the world hates the Fire Nation, and my own people hate me, too.” Zuko looked at her with a glint of desperation in his eyes.
They were both silent for a few moments.
“If there's one thing I learned throughout all of this is that you should never lose your faith in people,” Zuko looked up at Katara. She met his gaze fiercely.
Zuko opened his mouth as if to say something, but couldn't seem to find the words.
Hours later, Katara was long gone, and Zuko laid awake. He could tell that the late night was on the cusp of becoming early morning, but the hours seemed to melt together in an odd, sleepless blur. Despite Katara's kind words, his mind was racing. He had thought that mentally rehearsing his address for Ba Sing Se would bring some sort of comfort, but it proved to do exactly the opposite. He closed his eyes forcefully, willing himself to sleep.
Suddenly, there came a draft of night air as his blanket lifted slightly, and the mattress dipped. Before he had a chance to turn in the direction of the intruder, Zuko felt her arms slip around his body in a sly embrace. He felt the ever-present knot in the pit of his stomach tighten momentarily and then finally release its tension.
“Mai.” He said. She pressed a light kiss into the nape of his neck in affirmation.
“Don't know I'm here,” she said.
“We're getting up early so you can leave for the Earth Kingdom, I'll be back before I'm missed. In the meantime, go to sleep, idiot,” she teased. Zuko smiled, and finally drifted off to the pleasant feeling of Mai's fingers carding gently through his hair.
“Do you have any other brilliant ideas on how you can improve our city?” One of the endless Ba Sing Se officials asked. His voice was so laden with sarcasm that Aang couldn't help but smack a palm to his face. He eyed Katara, who also seemed to notice the vein throbbing dangerously in Zuko's forehead. It certainly wasn't a secret that the new Fire Lord had a tendency to be hotheaded, but the leaders of Ba Sing Se were clearly waiting for him to slip and reveal both his youth and his lack of experience so that they could use it to their advantage. Katara squeezed Aang's hand to the point that her short fingernails dug into his palm, but he couldn't blame her.
“Actually, yes,” Zuko grit out. “The Fire Nation has been working on introducing a new curriculum in schools, to get rid of the rampant nationalism and bring a factual understanding of the war and its effects. I think that if the Earth Kingdom followed suit-”
“You mean you want us to paint over the atrocities that the Fire Nation committed so that we can all just forget that you tore our city apart? Not likely!” The elderly general of education spat.
“That... is exactly the opposite of what I was saying- ,” Zuko said through his teeth.
“Okay! I think it's time for a recess for the day. Agreed, ladies and gentlemen?” The Earth King interjected, adjusting his glasses and visibly sweating. As much as Aang had been irritated with the king's distinct lack of leadership skills in the past, he could have hugged him. As the Ba Sing Se officials filtered out of the conference, the majority of whom were muttering bitterly under their breath, Zuko remained motionless, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Zuko?” Katara prompted.
“Yeah, I'm coming,” He said, and rose slowly.
“No wonder we were at war for a hundred years, if these are the type of people in charge,” Sokka complained. The four of them trudged through the Earth King palace halls, defeated after the third day of meetings had proved to be as lengthy and fruitless as the two before.
“At least maybe after Zuko and I speak to the public tomorrow we can get more support from the people of Ba Sing Se themselves. Because it doesn't look like those guys are budging any time soon,” Aang said.
“How could they possibly be worse than those hateful, idiotic-” Zuko ranted, only to be cut off when his voice gave out. He painfully cleared his throat in order to continue. “- nationalistic, uncompromising, dirty old geezers.”
“Yikes, are you losing your voice?” Aang asked.
“Must be too many hours of yelling at cranky generals,” Sokka diagnosed sagely.
“Or he's just getting sick,” Katara countered. She gave Zuko a scrutinizing look and he automatically increased his pace out of sheer nerves.
“Look, it doesn't matter! What does matter is that I'm going to try to win over this stupid hateful country tomorrow! Now if you'll all lay off for one second, I'm going to go meet with the Earth King privately,” Zuko said, and abruptly broke off into an adjoining hallway and disappeared around the corner.
“Huh. Guess you touched a nerve there, Katara.” Sokka said.
“We all just need to make it through tomorrow,” Katara said, trying to calm all their collective nerves. “Then we're seriously going on vacation.”
Tomorrow dawned overcast and oppressive. Katara, Sokka, and Aang spent the morning scouring the palace for Zuko, although they couldn't find any sign of him. They returned to their chamber to find Toph lounging casually on a pile of pillows in the center of the room.
“Finally! This place is so boring without you guys around,” Toph said with a smile, gesturing vaguely to the ornate palace chamber around her.
“Hey! Glad you could make it!” Aang said, hugging her.
“Yeah, the gangs all back together!” Sokka said. “Well, almost,” He remembered Zuko's current flightiness.
“If you're talking about Zuko, he's in the Earth King's drawing room or whatever,” Toph supplied offhandedly.
“Wow, you can tell that from your earthbending?” Aang asked, wide-eyed and impressed.
“Not exactly, twinkletoes. I ran into him on my way in. He said he was going to be a while. He also seemed a little... weird.”
“Weird how?” Katara asked, but Toph just shrugged.
“I dunno, he might be more high-strung than Katara, and that's saying something,”
“Oh brother,” Katara groaned, willfully ignoring the jab.
Suddenly, the door slammed open, and Zuko strode in, wearing his full Fire Lord regalia. It was fortunate for him that the Fire Lord's wardrobe was designed to inspire fear and intimidation, because, at a second glance, Zuko seemed anything but on his game as the world's newest leader. He looked more strung out than high-strung upon closer inspection. His eyes were a bit too bright, his face too pale, his eyes too shadowed.
“Are you ready, Aang?” He asked, somewhat standoffishly, as though he were daring anyone to comment on his appearance. Aang straightened his posture subconsciously at the question.
“Of course! Are you?” Aang countered, raising at eyebrow.
“Of course!” Zuko retorted. His voice was hoarse, and Katara couldn't help but wince a bit. Zuko beckoned for Aang to follow him before striding out. Aang threw a shrug of his shoulders to his friends and then jogged a bit to catch up.
Sokka, Katara and Toph stood frozen for a moment.
“Weird like that” Toph broke the silence.
“This... might be a disaster,” Sokka said.
Zuko would, after the fact, remember very little of what he said during his speech. Snippets would return to him in waves, but never enough to piece together into a full story. That he would have to rely on his friends for.
What he did remember is this.
Aang pulling on the sleeve of his shirt, looking up at him with those big earnest eyes.
“You don't have to do this.”
The sight of a mass of green and brown that his tired brain translated to be a large portion of the population of Ba Sing Se. The crowd was buzzing. It was an ominous sound.
“The leader of the Fire Nation himself, and my friend, Fire Lord Zuko-”
He had the impression that he himself was speaking. He allowed his desperation as well as his immense respect for the people of the Earth Kingdom overtake over him. I just wish I could convey the way I feel, he was thinking...
The sound of cheering washed over the palace grounds. It didn't seem to end.
Aang was smiling brilliantly at him, and then frowning.
Another pull on his arm, and he was suddenly in the cool shade of the inner palace.
“Fire Lord Zuko! That was most excellent!” The Earth King said exuberantly, and shook his hand with vigor. Katara was eyeing Zuko like a hawk. He was sitting down on the steps of the throne room, looking pale and shaky. She reasoned that they needed an exit plan. Zuko may have managed to deliver a heartfelt and inspiring address to the people of Ba Sing Se, but that seemed to be the last strand for him. Once he had delivered his last line, and the crowd had responded with enthusiasm, it became clear that his grip on lucidity was tenuous at best. Aang had been quick thinking, and after a short silent conversation with Katara, taken over closing remarks to the crowd while she sheperded the Fire Lord safely out of range in time for him to gingerly lower himself to the cold steps, where the Earth King found him upon arrival.
“Thank you, Earth King,” he returned, robotically.
“Isn't it your time to address the people?” Aang prompted, and the Earth King quickly became distracted with his own responsibilities, shuffling his way towards the terrace from which they were addressing the crowd.
“I think you need a cup of tea,” Katara said.
“I think you're right,” Zuko agreed thinly, swallowing convulsively and not regaining any of the color in his face.
“Well, I think that's the first sensical thing you've said today,” Katara said smiling.
It was dusk by the time that Appa crossed the wall separating from the inner level of Ba Sing Se from the rest of the city. Zuko had gathered himself just enough to bid farewell to the Earth King respectfully and was willing himself to remain awake through the flight in a bullheaded manner that couldn't help but remind Sokka of why he had been such a great threat to them when he was chasing them around the reaches of the world. Back then, it had been almost frightening. Now it was just impressive.
Aang and Katara were seated up front, speaking lowly to each other. Toph, out of practice in flying, was clearly just barely gutting the journey out. Which left Sokka mostly to himself. He couldn't help but think of the distinct irony in how certain he had thought he would feel when the war was over, how simple he had envisioned life would be. As he stared into the blur of city lights below, and then at his friend, the new leader of the most hated nation in the land, a nation that he himself couldn't bring himself not to hate, Sokka couldn't help but feel tired to his bones.
When they landed heavily at the shop, the last costumers were filtering out for the night. Iroh, still as vibrant as ever, felt the dull thud, and instantly materialized at the threshold to greet them. His lips quirked up when he saw Zuko's showy Fire Lord regalia, but smoothed into a slight frown when he saw his nephew waver a bit in his descent from the saddle.
“Welcome!” He greeted warmly.
“Thank you for having us.” Aang said, and bowed. Iroh returned the gesture. The others followed suit, save for Zuko, who was quickly engulfed in a hug.
“It is good to see you, nephew,” Iroh said, holding Zuko at the shoulders and inspecting him with half veiled concern.
“You too, uncle,” Zuko said thickly.
The group made it's way into the shop, where Iroh had somehow prepared five cups of tea, all of which were perfectly warm.
“You all must be tired from your journey,” Iroh said, in what felt like a ridiculous understatement.
“You could say that again.”
They all responded in affirmation, except for Zuko, whose apparent struggle to keep his eyes open answered the question more strongly than words could.
“How did the address at the palace go?” Iroh asked tentatively.
What proceeded was perhaps the longest tandem string of complaints that the gang had ever executed. No war general or world leader was safe- the description of the earth palace meeting blended into a general call out of any of the key players in the leadership of the four nations.
“It's like the earth king generals prefer their country to be a total disaster, honestly!”
“No one cares whether refugees find somewhere to live, of course,”
“The fire kingdom generals just want to go back to blowing things up for sport,”
Throughout, Iroh simply nod sagely, or occasionally interjected with an appropriate anecdote from his time as a general.
By the time they had all run dry of material, Zuko was dozing with his head pillowed in his arms, his tea left untouched. Iroh ushered them all to the their respective rooms for the night, and then returned to Zuko, who remained dead to the world. He observed his nephew, noting that his eyes were as shadowed and his face as pale and distinctly unhealthy-looking as when they had returned from the disastrous trip to the north pole. Iroh had meant to wake Zuko up just long enough to put him to bed, but found himself momentarily unable to bring himself to rouse his nephew from his peaceful sleep.
“He's making himself ill, trying to shoulder all this responsibility,” Came Katara's voice from behind. Iroh turned to see her standing in the doorway, he hair let down for the night, but otherwise wide awake.
“Yes, it seems to be an unfortunate side effect of caring so deeply and personally as my nephew tends to do,” Iroh said, smiling crookedly and fondly.
“I could try, with my water bending...” Katara said, reaching for her water skein, but trailed off when Iroh held up his hand.
“Sometimes the best medicine is sleep,” He said, and Katara knew he was right. There was a beat of silence.
“Does it...” She started, searching for the words. “Will it end? I don't know how long he can keep this up,” looking at Zuko's slumped over form. “Or any of us, for that matter,” She added, her voice uncharacteristically small.
“A journey never ends,” Iroh said firmly. “But you are all getting stronger. People change, and grow. Give it time,” He finished. Katara nodded, her eyes shining.
They sat in silence for a moment. Iroh took a deep breath. His nephew had always been stubborn, but channeling his relentless determination into changing the world for the better was doing him a world of good, compared to before. He was physically exhausted, but more spiritually sound than Iroh could remember.
Still, when everyone had finally gone to sleep for the night, Iroh couldn't help but remain awake, watching his nephew sleep, minding every steady breath in and out.