The guard who stands outside the throne room has been at this post for nearly a decade. He doesn’t run his mouth, and he doesn’t forget his duty to his country, and that’s why he’s both alive and employed even after most guard positions were turned over to a pack of warriors from another nation.
It is not his job to cast judgement on the new Fire Lord, crowned weeks ago, but he knows what other people are saying.
Zuko is skinny and disfigured and he forgets how certain ceremonies and honors are to be run. When he goes to the temple to honor both his ancestors and Agni, he stumbles over rituals and speaks in stilted words that are half-remembered from his childhood in the palace. When the old remnants of Ozai’s staff see Zuko, they see a thirteen-year-old having his face melted off, crying and screaming at his father for forgiveness. They also see a young man, barely of age, working himself into an early grave because the Fire Nation is so deeply scarred with a century of wrongdoings that no one person could turn the tide all alone.
Around the staff, the popular bet is that the new Fire Lord won’t last another month.
The guard is not paid to speculate on such treasonous matters. The best he can do is stand at his post and pray to Agni that the next Fire Lord, probably General Iroh, will be kind and quiet like Zuko is.
Every night since his coronation, Zuko has tried and failed to sleep in a normal bed.
It’s not bad dreams that keep him awake. His nightmares are always confusing blurs of red, white, and hot-cold lightning, not even featuring specific people for Zuko to be afraid of (or afraid for ). Most of the time, he can push the unsettling remnants of those dreams away and go back into a half-doze. No, the ever-swelling anxiety under his breastbone is entirely of Zuko’s conscious making.
It comes from him hating the soft mattress under his back, and the soft pillows that threaten to envelop his head and suffocate him in his sleep. The blankets on top of him are too heavy and too warm. When he wakes up, there is nobody near him to reach out to. Zuko has burned a spot on the sheets in his sleep before, when he was in a semi-dream state, convinced that the lump in the blanket was a friend of his who had frozen to death in the middle of the night.
When he tires of tossing and turning, he reaches for a robe hanging by his bed and pulls a lighter blanket with him out to the corner of the room, where he settles in the juncture between two walls. Here, the door will swing open in a way that blocks him from immediate view, giving him the opportunity to attack someone from behind if they rush into his chambers. Here, he can see perfectly out the window onto the roof, giving him plenty of time to spot anyone who climbs up the outer wall.
Zuko sleeps in shallow dozes, awakening in regular intervals to make sure that everything is alright. He lies awake and prays that his uncle and his friends are safe where he cannot see them. He even hopes, somewhere deep in the pit of his heart, that Azula will be alright.
In the morning, when Zuko feels the sun gently prepare the horizon for its rise, Zuko stirs from his cocoon in the corner. If his bones ache, he doesn’t notice it anymore. Not after years of sleeping wherever wasn’t wet or cold, and sometimes even those standards weren’t met.
At the first rays of Agni, Zuko pulls the blanket up around his shoulders, and stumbles over to the bed, and tucks himself in like nothing ever happened. Like Zuko is a normal ruler, who doesn’t have to fear the most expensive assassins in the land crawling through his windows like termites.
(Who doesn’t convince himself on a nightly basis that this will be the night when a guard bursts into his chambers to breathlessly tell him that one of his friends has been killed in cold blood.)
When the sun rises enough for his attendant to knock on his door and call into his room, Zuko is able to sit up on the too-soft bed and appear natural, normal. She never comments on his appearance, so he figures that the raw, nauseous, dried-out feeling of too little sleep only exists in the pit of his stomach and behind his eyes.
“His staff is mostly women,” the woman who works at the inn says in a hushed voice, unsure if anyone powerful is listening--unsure if the new Fire Lord even sends out spies like Ozai used to. “My cousin works in the kitchen, and she says that all of his attendants are girls, and of course the Kyoshi Warriors are--”
“Mayumi,” her business partner interjects, nudging her to the side to wipe down the counter before opening, “you know how many men died in the war.”
“Yes, but don’t you think it’s odd how--”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” With a heavy sigh, the business partner tosses the rag back at the back counter, depressed because balancing overwhelming hope with her own penchant for cynicism is exhausting. She wants to believe things will get better, like the Avatar promised. She wants her partner to stop waking up every morning and choosing another worrisome rumor to fixate on. “Could we just worry about work for today?”
Their business has been doing better, now that all the troops are back. Now the business partner of the woman who works at the inn only needs Fire Lord Zuko to get engaged so that her partner will stop worrying about the virtue of the palace staff.
Zuko doesn’t think there is a moment of the day when he isn’t worrying about something. He’s either strategizing how to trick his body into eating or sleeping, or he’s throwing himself against a problem until it’s fixed. He wakes from his flimsy sleep most mornings, vaguely sweaty, having already thought of another letter to write or a meeting to schedule, and he staggers to his desk as soon as someone tells him to wake up, scratching into his first parchment of the day before his breakfast arrives.
The breakfast served to him is always, by royal standards, modest at best. For the first week after his return, Zuko’s stomach was completely unable to handle anything but broth and the occasional bread and tea, but it seems that the people in the kitchens have decided that he’s had enough time to get over that by now. Now, though the meals served to him are by no means opulent, they give him full hearty servings that make his stomach churn just looking at them. They are food fit for Fire Nation royalty, and they won’t serve him anything less even if he asks.
Zuko is something distinctly un-royal, judging by the strange, calculating look that Jiayi gives him every time he gives up on eating far too early.
Carefully pretending not to notice Jiayi’s gaze, Zuko picks up the cup of tea and the teapot, moving it off of the tray. He clears his throat, trying to get rid of the sticky, rich sensation of palace food, and says, “Thank you, Jiayi. I’m finished.”
“Of course, my lord,” she says, her voice consistently professional and empty of emotion.
Zuko always has to suppress the urge to look over suddenly, perhaps to see if her resting face holds any contempt for him. Perhaps he would confirm what he already suspects--that his staff is confused and off-put by him, that they’re trying to figure out what’s going to make him snap at them, that they consider him malnourished, unfit for rule, feral.
He doesn’t follow that impulse to check. He knows better than to make sudden movements around people who worked for Ozai. Instead, he sips his tea and keeps his eyes down, giving her the space to do her job while he begins his.
“This child is trying to kill himself,” a senior advisor hisses to his companion, who has worked for the royal family even longer than himself. Neither of them particularly fear being reported for such treasonous talk, because half of their colleagues think they’re senile and the other half are young and rightly fear speaking against their superiors. “He cannot move a mountain in a day.”
The Fire Lord in question has just entered their morning meeting, his posture perfect but the bag under his unscarred eye horrifically deep.
“His friend the Avatar could,” says the second advisor. “Perhaps he is just competitive.”
Both of them laugh at the joke, which they have made no less than eighty times since coronation day, but their laughs are more somber than they usually are. The young Fire Lord’s plans are ambitious, but they would be feasible if he only had a little more patience. The first advisor is exhausted just seeing the stacks of reports that Zuko churns out every day. The second has learned years ago how to sleep with his eyes open in meetings.
Every day in briefings, their Fire Lord seems more worn-down, more stressed. He only shouts at people who deserve it, but even then his voice has become hoarse and strained. The second advisor grows ever-nearer to offering the child a lozenge. The first advisor now has to consciously keep himself from taking over shouting duties for himself to give the kid a rest.
Immediately before Zuko calls the meeting to order, the second advisor says to his companion, “I’m going to do something rash.”
“Oh, be my guest,” says the first.
When prompted for individual concerns, the second advisor speaks, his elderly voice silencing the others in the room. “Fire Lord Zuko,” he says, calm, “I appreciate the vast amount of work that you have completed in such a short time. The reforms that you have brought to this table are both overdue and rational.”
“Thank you,” Fire Lord Zuko says. Agni , his voice is a crackling wreck.
“With that established, I would like to propose a motion.” The second advisor stares his monarch down with the same placid, nonthreatening gaze that he uses to request dinner in the evenings. “I believe that you are working at an unsustainable rate that is detrimental to your health, and I move to mandate that you take one day of rest every week.”
Fire Lord Zuko’s eye twitches.
“Motion seconded,” says the first advisor.
“Motion thirded,” says a third advisor, who has been flailing in their attempts to keep up with the Fire Lord’s breakneck work pace.
“This is unnecessary,” the Fire Lord says. This time, when his voice cracks, the noise is caused by adolescence and not from sickness. And the crack, horrifyingly, terrifyingly endearing to a group of men who almost a decade ago watched Fire Lord Ozai maim and banish this child, solidifies the fate of the vote.
“Do you think I’ll be fired for that?” asks the second advisor, when the meeting has adjourned.
“Agni, I hope so,” says the first advisor. “I’m tired of looking at you.”
Tonight, Zuko’s catastrophizing thoughts move faster than his exhaustion. Before his brain can shut down and force him to sleep a little bit, Zuko convinces himself that his Uncle could be in danger, and he stands from his spot on the floor and grabs a presentable outer robe and opens his door with purpose.
The guards on duty, Yasu and Suki, startle at his appearance.
“Is everything alright?” Suki asks.
“Yes,” Zuko tells her shortly. “I’m just going to see my Uncle. You don’t need to come.”
“We do need to come,” Yasu contradicts.
Tired of speaking to them, Zuko moves on ahead without permission. Predictably, they follow him through the silent halls, their three sets of footsteps punctuating the stale warm air that’s still evaporating from the hot day before.
The guards outside of Iroh’s room let him in without fuss. Zuko slips inside, leaving his own guards in the hallway, and shuts the door behind him, leaving him in darkness. No matter how much he blinks over and over, squints, moves closer, Zuko always sees flames as a dull, washed-out afterimage in his left eye. In his other eye, he manages to make out the outline of his uncle, curled underneath blankets.
Zuko pauses, fighting to see the rise and fall of Iroh’s breath through the dark. After ten or so seconds of being unable to see Iroh breathing, Zuko creeps closer, which is when he realizes with a start that Iroh isn’t snoring.
Because--Iroh snores. Zuko remembers the habit, at first soul-crushingly annoying, fading into a reassuring constant. Whether they were catching precious minutes of sleep as fugitives, or crashing after twelve hours of serving tea, or tossing and turning before a journey the next morning, Iroh snored. Zuko had learned to stop complaining about it, because every time he brought it up, Iroh just laughed in his face.
Now, Iroh isn’t snoring. Zuko can’t even see him breathing.
Breath hitching, Zuko drops all sense of decorum and rushes to Iroh’s side. His knee hits the side of the mattress and he doubles forward over the edge of the bed, reaching out to shake at his uncle’s shoulder.
“Uncle,” Zuko urges, voice catching on something primal in the back of his throat, “Uncle, are you--?”
Iroh stirs. He lifts his head from where it had been buried, blissfully asleep, in his mounds of pillows, and he meets Zuko’s wide eyes with sleep-puffy ones. “Zuko…?” he asks, rumbling and reassuring and alive.
Zuko snatches his hand back.
Iroh springs from sleep like a monkey-lemur, his gaze already clearing up into something alert. Pushing himself up to a sitting position, Iroh groans with the effort of waking up, and asks, “What is it, nephew? Did something happen?”
Silence drops over them.
“Zuko, you’re shaking like a leaf,” Iroh says. He reaches out towards Zuko, but Zuko cringes away from the touch like he hasn’t done in a year now.
“You weren’t snoring,” Zuko finally says, his tone caustic. He squeezes his hands into fists and crosses his arms over his chest.
This is so stupid. He’d run all the way across the palace for this, for no reason. Of course Iroh is fine--and now Zuko has interrupted a perfectly fine night of sleep for Iroh with his stupid fucking concerns. His nightmares have never come to pass, not immediately. He’s never had any particular skill at prophecy, and in any case, there was no reason for Zuko to assume that a lack of snoring meant death.
“I’m sorry,” Iroh tells him. He shifts around, and looks past Zuko to the door, where Yasu or Suki must be watching this all unfold. “Would one of you be able to go find a pot of tea for us?”
“I don’t need tea ,” Zuko hisses. He sweeps his robes out of the way of his legs to storm away. At the door, where both Yasu and Suki lurk, he weaves around both of them and goes back the way he came, determined to go back to sleep and act normal and not feel immense relief that despite all the theatrics, he had managed to make sure that his Uncle is still alright.
Jiayi’s morning duties take her on a loop through the palace kitchens. Usually, Jiayi keeps her head down and avoids getting distracted by the other people chattering around her, but today she is called out by name, and turns her head to find a trio of Kyoshi Warriors looking at her.
“Me?” Jiayi asks, with a reasonable amount of trepidation.
“Yeah, if your name is Jiayi,” Yasu says, unimpressed. Ty Lee has hold of one of her arms, holding it steady to finish tying a guard around a heavily bandaged wrist. Ty Lee makes a disapproving noise at Yasu for being rude, but Suki snickers.
“What did you need?” Jiayi asks, a little twitchy at her routine being disrupted.
“You’re headed to Zuko right now, aren’t you?” Yasu asks.
Jiayi nods cautiously.
“He had a pretty rough night, is all,” Yasu says. She avoids looking directly at Jiayi. Perhaps she’s embarrassed about spreading private information around. “Um, I just wanted to give you a heads-up. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
Ty Lee pipes up, “Yeah, just...he might not be good at eating today. Maybe treat him a little more like a person and less like your boss?”
“He is my boss,” Jiayi states. And then she adds, “I’m never rude to him.”
“Aww, I know,” Suki reassures her, “just...I think he had a bad dream, and he’s kind of embarrassed about how he handled it, if my sources are to be trusted.”
“Suki,” Ty Lee chides, still fastening Yasu’s arm guard for her, “he’s already trying sooooo hard to get respect even though his voice cracks twice a sentence. Stop making fun of him.”
“He needs to be made fun of, a little,” Suki reasons. “It’s good for him.”
Suki and Ty Lee are good friends of the Fire Lord’s. Jiayi doesn’t consider herself his friend, but if his friends are telling her specifically to change things with him, she’ll give it a shot. He hasn’t banished or executed anyone yet, and it’s been almost a month of him on the throne.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she finally says.
“You’re the best!” Ty Lee gushes.
Jiayi, face burning hot, turns and picks up Zuko’s breakfast tray, fleeing without further ado.
Today is the first day in weeks that Zuko and Jiayi break their routine.
Some mornings are worse than others. Perhaps a major contributor is his lack of sleep, compounding and crescendoing as the month slogs on. Last night, he’d barely managed to drift off at all, even after seeing Uncle. It’s hard for him to relax, even tucked into his safe corner, with apprehension making his lightning-damaged heart beat a stuttery, uneven, lurching beat.
Today, Jiayi sets a tray down in front of him, heaped with food that his body still isn’t used to, and Zuko wants to do something stupid like shout at her for doing her job.
Being unable to stomach steamed pears and heavy sweet cream, Zuko has also only managed a few bites of oatmeal, overwhelmed by the richness of it, when he pushes the tray aside. Setting his spoon down feels like a defeat. Not only is he freaking out his staff because he’s so unlike the kind of Fire Lord that they know, but he’s also wasting food for no reason. No reason other than the rolling of his stomach at the sight of what must be a week’s worth of food for somebody living in the former colonies.
Jiayi stands a respectful distance away, watching him. When Zuko guiltily looks over at her, meeting her eyes, he’s struck with the uncomfortable realization that she’s watching him without malice or annoyance. Jiayi just watches, and when he meets her eye, she nods at him and doesn’t flinch away from his gaze.
“What is it?” she asks.
“I’m finished,” Zuko says, because that’s what he always says. “Thank you, Jiayi.”
Today, though, Jiayi breaks script. She doesn’t move forward immediately, and instead asks him, slowly, “May I ask you something, your Majesty?”
“You don’t seem to enjoy the food that is prepared for you every morning. Are there other dishes that you would prefer?”
Zuko, in his surprise, doesn’t answer right away. But eventually, he decides to tell her the truth, because he’s tired of shying around it.
“I’m not used to...large portions,” he says. He looks down at the spread, at the small bowl of eggs on rice that he couldn’t even touch. “Not after all of the traveling I did. While…” While I was a refugee, a traitor to the Fire Nation. The nation that I inherited after my friends incapacitated the rest of the line of succession. “It seems like too much.”
“May I ask why you never mentioned this, when asked what you would prefer to eat?”
Zuko raises his gaze again. Jiayi’s impassive face prevents him from knowing if she’s curious or simply bored with Zuko’s terse silence.
“You don’t have to ask if you can ask me questions,” Zuko tells her, instead of answering her question. “You can just ask them. I won’t be angry.”
“Maybe you should be angry,” she says. Briefly, her eyes flare wider, startled at her own boldness, and she smoothly amends, “I think that many of us would rather that you speak your mind. It is your right.”
“Will you speak your mind in return?” Zuko asks.
“To an extent,” she tells him.
“Why do you think I should be more angry?”
Jiayi considers him. She glances left, to where Chesa is posted at the door, still having to hesitate, to balance the amount of wrath that she could incur by saying something too brash.
“With all due respect,” she says, “I served the Fire Lords Ozai and Azula. I know that you are cut from different cloth from them, but...perhaps it is presumptive of me to expect you to have a more forceful personality.”
Zuko blinks, and then frowns, and then says, before he can censor himself, “You’ve seen me at cabinet meetings.”
“You’re tame compared to your sister,” she shoots back, and Chesa at the door raises her eyebrows and turns partly away, as if attempting to hide her amusement. Jiayi is surprised by herself, and her hand comes up partway to conceal her mouth before she bows respectfully. “Please forgive that. I do not mean to say that I think you are any kind of pushover, or--”
“Don’t apologize,” Zuko says, and waves his hand.
Jiayi, head still bowed, stays in place.
“I’m serious,” Zuko tells her. “I know that Azula and I are different. I’ve been trying to be quieter than her, because I never liked growing up around people who shouted all the time. I can’t imagine that it is a very soothing place to work, either.”
“I respect that,” Chesa says, clearing her throat. Like the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors, she doesn’t apologize just for speaking to Zuko--he’s sure that Suki has told them some pretty embarrassing stories about him, so none of them have the same kind of fearful reverence that his servants hold for him. “I think part of what Jiayi is saying, though, is that people might think you’re just brewing for a huge explosion in front of someone who makes the wrong move.”
“You don’t have to shout at someone for no reason,” Jiayi adds, emboldened by Chesa’s support. “You just have to shout at something. You have a right to complain.”
“Huh,” Zuko says, uncomfortable because princes can complain but Zuko, the Fire Lord, is not going to complain. When he was a kid and angry and rude to people who cared about him, he was allowed to be a whiny little brat, he was allowed to curse like the rest of the sailors he traveled with, but Zuko is not that person anymore.
But now, after he’s tried to change...people seem to want that from him?
Finally, after too much contemplation, Zuko concedes, “Thank you for your honesty.” And Jiayi finishes retrieving his unfinished breakfast, and the morning proceeds like everything is routine again.
“Did I not tell you about how the Fire Lord served us tea when he was in Ba Sing Se?” Tain asks, a little too tipsy and his voice a little too loud. Around him, patrons at the restaurant tense, and then relax when they remember that talking like that isn’t a crime anymore.
Jin, who wishes she was still in Ba Sing Se instead of accompanying Tain and a hundred other Earth Kingdom students on a study abroad-slash-grand tour of the heart of the Fire Nation, says, “Sure he did.”
“No, I’m serious!” Tain waves his hand, and comes dangerously close to knocking over his drink. “He was undercover or something, working at a tea shop. I just saw him when he went to go to that memorial dedication and--” Tain hiccups, “--and I totally recognized him! How many other hot dudes with big facial burns do you fucking know?”
“What tea shop?” the bartender asks, raising a skeptical eyebrow as he dries off a clean glass.
“The Jasmine Dragon or something,” Tain says. “I think his undercover name was like. Li? Because my friend totally tried to hit on him, but he was not having it, honestly, she was pretty sure that he’s not into--”
“Woah there,” the bartender says, laughing. He starts to move Tain’s glass away from him. “The new Fire Lord’s pretty chill, but I don’t know if he’s chill enough for people to speculate about who he sleeps with.”
“It’s barely even speculation! Jin, back me up.” When Tain looks back over at her, Jin becomes aware of the fact that she feels like she hasn’t taken a breath in about ten years.
“Hey, are you okay…?” the bartender asks.
“His name was Li?” Jin asks, feeling rather like she’s having a stroke.
“Fuck, Jin, are you good?” Tain demands, panicking a little bit. “You look like you’re about to pass out--”
“Good morning!” someone shouts the next day, and Zuko, half-asleep and cowered in the corner like always, is smashed by the door that swings open into the side of his head.
Swearing, Zuko reels. The loud voice, so close to his ear, is familiar, but it has still rattled him, and the pain throbbing through the side of his skull doesn’t help him. Blinking panicked, bleary eyes, he shoves himself backwards against the stone behind him, trying to evade whoever has just entered his chambers.
No second strike comes, and nobody yells again. The brief, disorienting moment passes, and Zuko looks up to find Sokka and Toph staring at him, where he is a sad heap wrapped in a blanket behind the door of his bedroom.
“What the shit,” Toph says.
Sokka, already dressed for the day and surprisingly alert for this early in the morning, tilts his head to the side. “Why are you on the floor?”
“He’s what?” someone asks, muffled, from out in the hallway. Soon, Yasu has joined the other two spectators, and looks down on Zuko in confusion. She wrinkles her nose at him in his disheveled state. “Are you sick?”
“Do sick people normally sleep on the floor for no reason?” Toph asks her, unimpressed. She squats down, feet flat on the floor, close enough to reach out and lightly punch Zuko’s knee. “Your heartbeat is going crazy right now.”
It is. His heart, which leaps around and skips over itself and races for no reason on a good day, feels erratic enough to kill him. He finds, after he comes up with no answer to anyone’s questions, that he isn’t breathing. For some reason, his body’s impulsive solution to this discovery is to force him to take a sharp, wheezing breath that sounds like a death rattle.
“Hey, buddy,” Sokka says, a little freaked out. “What’s going on? You need a healer?”
Zuko shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he croaks. He is the Fire Lord, and he has been caught sleeping on the floor because the sun is covered by clouds today. It feels like Agni has abandoned him to his fate without the soft morning light on his face. “I’m sorry, I know I need to go and--”
“Hey, you--” Yasu takes a breath, and fixes her tone, her professionalism kicking back in and piercing through Zuko’s panic somehow, “--Fire Lord Zuko, today is a recess, remember? Your advisors told you they would invoke one every week.”
Alright, yes. That sounds familiar, even though most of Zuko’s advisor meetings pass in a panicked blur. They take place in the same room where he had caused his own banishment, and in the same room where he had accidentally caused the conquering of Ba Sing Se, and some mornings it’s all he can do to keep his hands steady and his voice strong when he talks to the group of elders that almost certainly despise him.
“Okay,” Zuko says. He clears his throat. “Yes. I should get back to responding to correspondences, though, would you mind asking Jiayi to--”
Toph’s jaw clenches, and she grunts disagreement, cutting Zuko off by yelling, “Jiayi, tell Zuko he can’t work at all today.”
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Jiayi’s voice says from the hallway, “I will not be bringing you your letters this morning.”
“Jiayi,” Zuko pleads, before he can stop himself, and Toph snorts, loud and undignified.
“That’s my name, your Highness,” Jiayi confirms, not budging an inch.
Zuko slumps, letting his face fall into his hands. “You’re fired.”
“Yes, your Highness,” she says, placid and disbelieving like a still lake. Sokka grins, triumphant, and Yasu’s face scrunches up with her wild, impolite laugh.
In the end, Zuko begrudgingly has to admit that his weird old advisors were correct to force him to take time away from work. After all, it’s only because Zuko has been ordered a day of rest that he sees the incident occur.
He watches, not comprehending it at first, as a general who is not watching where he’s going runs directly into a servant who is carrying too many items of folded laundry. In slowed time, Zuko watches the laundry scatter, the general shove the woman down, the general begin to yell.
Zuko quickens his pace, skidding to a halt in front of the confrontation with too much haste to reflect his station.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” says the general, surprised but not ashamed of what he’s just done. He probably assumes that Zuko will take his side, but Zuko is more concerned about the woman who had been shoved.
She remains on the floor, her head bowed, her hands almost clawed with the force that presses them to the ground. At the announcement of Zuko’s arrival, her face drains of color.
“Leave us,” Zuko snarls at the general, not monitoring his tone. He cannot stand the fact that this man is here, tall and imposing and shouting at someone for a mere accident. Zuko cannot fire his father’s entire cabinet all at once, but he will make sure that this man is the next to go. “You do not have the authority to raise your voice here.”
“She is a servant,” the general begins to protest, gesturing sharply at the woman who is still on the ground.
The woman on the ground has curled inwards, tucking her chin and exposing the jutting bones at the top of her spine near her neck. She’s fervently muttering, which Zuko doesn’t pick up until he’s taken two steps nearer to her.
“It was a mistake, I swear ,” she promises, fear almost obscured with forced formality. “I would never--I am your loyal servant, and--”
I am your loyal son , echoes in Zuko’s mind, unbidden.
The general shifts his weight, and Zuko just knows that he’s going to lash out at the woman again. Zuko darts into the way, shielding her with his body, forcing the man to back off. The anger rushing through him pulses, aches to be let out through his hands in fire, but Zuko will not allow that here. Instead, he does what he does very well, and hasn’t been able to do for weeks as he tiptoed around a very skittish staff.
“It was a mistake !” Zuko shouts. His breath sparks, an intentional lapse in discipline that makes the general startle backwards. With grim satisfaction, Zuko pins his shoulders back in what should be an imposing posture and stalks nearer to the man, purposefully forcing the general to take a step backwards in retreat. “If you can’t wait for someone to fix a small mistake, go make your own damn food. A grown man like yourself complaining about someone daring to bump into you, in a palace that isn’t his own. A child barely able to walk would have more fucking patience than you!”
“Alright, your Majesty,” Chesa says under her breath, suddenly reappearing at Zuko’s elbow and tapping the center of his back with a light hand. On Zuko’s other side, Suki has stepped forward as well, appearing in the edges of his blurry peripheral vision. “Language.”
Zuko backs off immediately, pulling his breath back into control, pulling his hands back to a respectful place behind his back. In his anger, he’d cornered the general against the wall, and the man looks terrified of him, but neither of the Kyoshi Warriors flanking him seem particularly perturbed with Zuko’s outburst.
In an attempt to regain some leverage in the conversation, the general asks, not quite managing huffy , “Are they in charge or are you, Lord Zuko?”
“I’m in charge. And I’m the one who will decide whether you remain employed. I don’t care how many generations your family has served here.” Zuko points down the hallway, feeling rather like his mother when the man is immediately cowed. “Leave my sight. I won’t ask again.”
“Yes, your Highness,” the general mutters, and bows, and flees.
Zuko watches his retreat, and then mutters to Chesa, “Will you follow him to make sure he doesn’t come back?”
“I love following people,” Chesa says, nodding seriously, and begins a slow and purposeful walk after the general, leaving Zuko and Suki with the servant woman who is still on the ground, frozen in fear.
For her, Zuko supposes that she might see this as a “out of the frying pan, into a larger and more life-threatening frying pan” situation. He feels like asking her outright not to be afraid of him would be condescending at best, so he exchanges a look with Suki and then tries something else.
Zuko, slowing his movements until they are cautious like molasses, crouches in front of the servant on the ground. He gathers the scattered pile of linens and what appear to be palace uniforms, perhaps for the kitchen staff, giving the woman time to relax out of her cage of panic.
With quiet hands, he begins to fold the laundry back into something presentable. Suki kneels next to him and accepts the folded linens to put into a carryable stack.
“Wait--” the woman says, and pushes herself up onto her knees. Her eyes are less wild now, at least, but her gestures are frantic when she reaches out for the cloth in Zuko’s hands and says, “Here, no, this is my mistake, and…”
“I don’t mind,” Zuko tells her honestly. He hears footsteps behind him--multiple pairs. Whether they are other servants or people of higher rank, they can wait for Zuko to deescalate this woman’s panic.
“He really doesn’t,” Suki adds. “He’s really bored because he’s not allowed to go to meetings today.”
The servant woman’s eyes glimmer, almost amusement. “Really?”
Zuko sighs, and sets the last tunic onto Suki’s pile. “Can none of my dignity remain intact?”
“None at all,” Suki says, beaming.
With another sigh, Zuko takes the pile of clothing into his arms and stands. Suki offers the woman a hand to stand up too, and then Zuko hands the laundry back over. “If someone, particularly a guest, treats you or someone else on staff like that, I want to hear about it,” he says. “Even if it is small. A note given to Jiayi will get to me within an hour.”
“Noted,” the woman says, face rather pink.
“He shouted at General Tseng yesterday, for pushing Itsuka,” Chiyo whispers to her companion with a reverent sort of glee. “Can you imagine that? It’d be like your son standing up to Tseng. He’s tiny!”
Her companion remembers the confidence in Itsuka’s step this morning. As part of a very small team, the laundry room knows exactly when something momentous has happened.
“Don’t talk about him like that,” her companion chides, as a reflex. Though they know, with a growing amount of conviction, that nothing bad will come raining down on Chiyo for saying such a thing.
“What? If he’s gonna keep refusing food like that, your twelve-year-old’s gonna outgrow him within the month.”
Chiyo’s companion sets their clothing down to glare at her more directly, but their expression softens in thought. “He’s still not eating?”
“No,” Chiyo says, and lowers her voice conspiratorially. “I heard his appetite hasn’t been the same since he was a refugee in the Earth Kingdom.”
“That’s enough,” their supervisor finally snaps, without any malice at all, and Chiyo and her companion shut their mouths and return to their work.
“Someone who works in the laundry room made them,” Jiayi says with a barely-perceptible shrug. “They were tested to make sure they’re safe.”
Zuko turns his gaze back down to his plate, examining the soft white buns on the plate. They smell like the ones sold in Ba Sing Se at the little stalls near the tea shop, where sometimes an older couple would wave at Zuko as he passed, perfectly content to be where they were.
“Someone...in the laundry room?” Zuko asks. His stomach makes a weird noise.
“They’re from the colonies,” Jiayi says. “I suppose that in the Earth Kingdom, they’re even more concerned than the Fire Nation when someone isn’t eating as much as they should.”
Zuko throws a half-hearted glare her way, but his mouth has begun watering--it’s a sensation that he hasn’t experienced in a very, very long time, and he can’t keep himself from shoving half of one of the buns into his mouth at once. The soft breading is just like he remembers. The filling, while sweet and rich, doesn’t overwhelm him like every other food does.
“Aw,” Yasu says from the door, “you’re eating like a real teenage boy.”
Zuko picks up his plate and turns his chair around. He settles the plate in his lap and refuses to engage in further conversation with such insolence.
His stomach doesn’t reject the steamed buns. Though Uncle could have probably told him this, Zuko finds that he works much better with food in his belly. He gets through his afternoon bloc of meetings without getting dizzy or faint.
And today, the guard who always stands outside the war room gives him a nod, one that’s filled with a new kind of assuredness.
Zuko nods back at him, something warm settles in his chest.