A Thousand Miles
by Therienne

The wharf was a chaotic mass of tradesmen, sailors, and soldiers. The days when the market had crowded up to the edge of this pier were long since gone, the merchants pushed out by the barracks required for the men leaving for and returning from battle. Instead of rows of fish, squidlions, and crabrays, there were tradesmen who fought for space for their ships alongside those of the Royal Navy, and a few remaining fishermen who had not yet taken their tiny vessels and departed for the countryside and clearer waters. Their lean appearance and tense faces betrayed the fact that they knew this situation couldn't last much longer. Each day the trip to find life in the waters took them further and further abroad. The military vessels, arrayed in precise rows and belching black smoke and thick sewage, allowed little to survive their presence.

Iroh held himself centered and still amidst the jostling and noisy crowds. There was much to be done quickly, of course, but in this instance, he reminded himself, he needed his focus to be sharp, rather than his feet to be swift. A form in a red cap and leather vest was almost past him before he let himself react, hand striking outward, catching the man by the collar and hauling him back. Angry eyes turned towards him, but irate words died on his captive's lips when he took in Iroh's visage and wardrobe. "My Lord?" came the tentative query.

"That fine vessel," Iroh released the man and pointed at a small steamship, proud and clean and strong, but dwarfed by the massive warships that surrounded it. "You are its captain?"

"Indeed I am, my Lord." The captain straightened his spine and placed his feet more firmly on the ground in front of Iroh, clearly still concerned that a noble accosting him in this manner boded poorly for him, but eased somewhat by the compliment and apparent awareness of his correct place and status. "I am Torvay, of Torvay's Fine Pottery and Silks." He hesitated minutely, then executed a deep bow, obviously hoping for a response that would give him more of an indication of who he was dealing with, and how worried he should be.

Iroh declined the opportunity to impart this information. "How much?"

"I beg your pardon?" Torvay gave him a wary look, his friendly demeanor slipping a bit.

"For your ship. How much to buy it from you?" Iroh gave just the slightest twitch to indicate impatience.

Torvay tensed. "My Lord, I don't understand. Perhaps someone has misdirected you to the shipbuilder's pier--"

"There has been no mistake," Iroh replied. "The ships there are all under the commission of the Fire Lord, or are merely trawlers being built for fishermen. I desire a vessel that can hold its own on the seas, and travel with speed when required."

"But, your Lordship," Torvay licked his lips. Iroh watched the fear filling his eyes. They both knew the tales of ships commandeered, lives ruined, and families left destitute in the name of the Nation's honor. "Without that ship, I have no means of continuing my business. Of course, I will do anything I can to support our noble troops in this time of... of ascendancy, but our people must also have supplies if we are to--"

"Name your price." On another occasion, Iroh would have stopped to soothe, and thank the man for his loyalty and hard work. Today every moment he remained away from the noble courts he normally took such care to avoid was an eternity.

"I-- my Lord?" Torvay blinked at him, disbelief plain on his face.

"I fully agree. I would not ask you to part with your ship if I did not have a vital need for it. It is only fair that you be more than fully compensated for your loss. Whatever you deem it to be worth, please, take three times that amount." Iroh smiled.

Torvay's expression shifted rapidly then, from disbelief to anger, and when that was met in turn with Iroh's stolid, unwavering aura of honest intent, to hope, and then more subtly to greed, poorly masked with a false smile of solicitude.

"It is my honor and duty to do all I can for our Nation," he agreed finally, firmly. "Please, let me escort you to my place of business, and have my servants bring you a meal and some tea while I draw up the papers and the arrangements are made."

Iroh smiled falsely back, and reminded himself that he could not afford the time to locate another ship with such a greedy captain. This one would have to do. "I could never refuse down such of polite offer of tea," he replied.

"Lie still, my Lord," insisted the healer, sharp mouth turned down as her face hovered blurrily at the edge of his vision. "Was I unclear before? If we do not cleanse this properly, you will most certainly lose the eye."

"What difference does it make?" he heard his own voice asking, despite his resolve not to give any of them the satisfaction. "It'll be useless anyway." It came out as far more of a question that he had intended.

"That remains to be seen." Her face withdrew from his limited field of vision, but her hands were still there, prodding flesh without concern for the pain she was causing. Zuko bit the inside of his cheek.

"The scar will certainly be terrible. You'll lose mobility. This muscle here," her fingers pinched, "will certainly never work right again. Some loss of vision, probably, but not necessarily all." She stepped away from the table where Zuko lay on his back, covered only by a white sheet, to await her ministrations.

He clenched his fists beneath the sheet, dug his nails into his palms, and breathed shallowly. That she dared. That she should treat him so, with no respect or regard. It gave him something to focus on besides the pain. He stayed there, held his anger close, used it to keep himself from crying out as tortured flesh was rinsed with cold water that burned, then numbed; was slathered with ointments and medication, with less compassion than he'd seen the hostlers use to take care of injured komodo rhinos.

The healer stepped back into view, yet another porcelain bowl in her hands. She had never even bothered to tell Zuko her name.

"Hold still now," she said. "This will hurt."

He held his fury tight.

Young men and strong men, and every firebender of any caliber, were of course unavailable. The artisans had found no valid pleas to make on behalf of their offspring when the army had sent its scouts through, pointing to any who looked strong enough, any who looked old enough, and eventually, all who simply were not visibly disabled. The farmers had fared better at first, their work more immediately vital to the war efforts. But eventually, not even the need for food to supply the troops had saved their own sons from the same fate.

"Why place such pressure upon our lands, when those we conquer should be happy enough to provide their new guests with a good meal?" Iroh heard the words in his own voice, a memory far too recent to recall without pain. He pushed it firmly away. There was no time now to regret the past.

Young and strong and poor were gone, but officers who had served their time out, or those who belonged to families with large treasuries, had found their way home again, as had those deemed too old to continue in service.

And some of those officers found themselves bored. Others found the skills they had acquired abroad and in service provided them no means to put food on the table in a land where much of the population was currently abroad. The elderly sought any position they could. Better to work one's way to the next life, they said, than beg one's way there.

Lieutenant Jee had found that hard work and intelligence was not enough to overcome his family's modest bloodlines and property holdings, and that he would never rise beyond his current rank. He had left as soon as his commission had allowed, bitter and disillusioned. Iroh felt he was perfect for his need. It was a belief that Jee, unfortunately, did not share.

Jee's family was clearly thrilled to have him home. His old room had been taken over by his brand new niece and nephew, unfortunately (both of whom were currently seated in the front garden with a pile of small wooden soldiers, muddy and bickering and unwilling to call a halt to their invasion of Cabbage Land for the sake of an introduction to a strange old fat man), but the storage cupboard to the side of the living room was sparkling clean, with a small framed bed and brand new hand-sewn curtains in place. Jee's tiny, ancient, and apparently indomitable mother had beamed at Iroh and bustled him inside, pouring tea for them both, despite the sour look of protest on Jee's face.

"Men at arms must stick together for life," she had scolded him. "I'm sure your friend and you have so many old times and adventures to reminisce with one another about!" Jee had glared, but was clearly unable to go so far as to tell her that he had never met Iroh before in his life, and if he had encountered him while serving, it would have been on bended knee.

"I'll just go warm some of those meat pies for you two young men, then, shall I?" She patted Jee on the arm, causing him to frown still harder, and Iroh to pat a stray hair into place. It had been a long time since anyone had considered him young.

"The ship is a fine one, and fast," Iroh picked up where he had left off, as soon as she was out of the room.

"I'm sure its fine engines will allow it to outrace the stain of dishonor that will trail in its wake," Jee answered, with perhaps less politeness than was due Iroh's rank.

Iroh allowed idle hands to stray towards the model ship set aside on the table, half-carved mast abandoned, the pile of tiny, misshapen bowsprits beside it a testament to Jee's determination, if lack of talent in this area. "It's hard to find men these days, of course, but you'll have the final decision on who we take along," he continued.

"I'll want to pick ones with thick skins," Jee agreed. "It'll only consume precious time and effort if I must spend my days consoling them when they are mocked at every port we call upon."

"I know that during your time in service, you were confined mainly to the lower south coast, and often requested transfers that would have allowed you to see far more of the Earth Kingdom. Think of the lands you'll be able to visit!" The walls of the cottage had all been recently repainted. Twice. Iroh made a polite show of not noticing the container of fresh spackle set by the door.

"True, true, if we go so far abroad they do not know who we are, that would certainly cut down on the embarrassment factor." Jee rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"You'll have command," Iroh said forcefully.

Jee opened his mouth for one more sarcastic retort, caught Iroh's eye, and wavered.

"Oh, my dear," Jee's mother burst forth from the kitchen, half a pie balanced in one hand. "I almost forgot! Your sister asked me to make sure you tend the radish beds today."

Jee's tall frame slumped in his seat, defeated. "Could we start with the Dragon Falls Islands?" he asked, wistfully. "I used to read stories about them when I was little."

Zuko lay on his side on the floor and stared at the walls. White walls, white floor, barren and empty. The servants had led him here, telling him the healer had ordered that he stay in an environment as clean and empty as possible to avoid infection. They had brought him a soft pallet for the floor, and a tray with water and plain rice. Then they had told him he had three days before he would be expected to depart. It had been two days already.

His face throbbed beneath the bandages. He could not imagine rising from this floor with enough strength to undertake a journey in only one more day's time. He counted the pain in beats.

The only color in his new world was of the rose garden, just barely visible through the door to the courtyard. No one came there either, with the exception of bakka birds looking for a late afternoon meal. The flowers were all long since dead at this time of year, and a small crumbling path wound its way through leafless trees. This part of the court had been reserved for Avatar Roku when he had visited the Fire Lord, and had fallen out of favor, and into disrepair, upon his death.

No one had visited him since he had come here. The servants who returned each day with food, water, and fresh bandages would not even look at him directly, instead turning their heads to stare in any other direction, and standing as far away as possible.

Zuko closed his remaining eye and counted beats and told himself he did not care.

When he opened his eye again, Azula was there. So still he almost didn't notice her. Dressed in brown, and leaning against one of the trees at the very end of the garden. She was smiling the faintest of smiles, lips barely turned upwards, looking back at him.

He squeezed his eye shut, clenched his fist, and counted beats. Don't give her what she wants, he told himself. Don't look again. Don't care.

When he looked again, she was gone.

Masafumi was utterly distraught, and the emotion he was unable to contain, while not shaking Iroh's inner resolve, was certainly making it harder to hide behind a layer of false heartiness. "But my Lord Iroh," he said, extending his hands towards Iroh, then pulling them back again, tucking them against himself, desperately tugging at a stray thread on his sleeve, and then starting all over again, hands imploring wildly. "These lands, this house -- it's all been in your family, since, since --"

"Too long!" Iroh declared as cheerfully as he could, placing his hand on his friend's shoulder. "One must change and flourish, or stagnate and die, do you not find?"

Masafumi ignored the bluster. He knew Iroh far too well. "You've always loved this place. Even when-- You said it brought you peace to be here."

That was too much even for Iroh, and he turned his head away so he didn't have to look at the man he'd known his entire life. He focused instead on the teams of men crawling up and down the front paths like ants, carrying long-loved furniture away, carpets that Tora had picked out when they were newly married. He swallowed hard and felt his face slip slightly. The truly important items had already been removed by himself and Fumi, working late into the night and moving crate after crate to be sent into storage on one of Iroh's less valuable and more safely situated estates.

"I've made sure you'll be fine," he said breezily instead. "The lands of Olai have long since been set aside in your name and that of your family, and I've added the orchards at the spur end of the peninsula."

Fumi gave him a look of utter disgust, the mask of obedient servant not just slipping, but falling away completely unnoticed in a way it hadn't done since Lu Ten had co-opted a prototype mechanical wagon from the smiths, used it to race down an unpaved hill with his friend Daneth, and broken his leg. Fumi's furious rant over the dangerous and inconsiderate nature of boys who risked their own necks without thought to others around them had echoed through the valley and warmed Iroh's heart.

"I cannot help it," Iroh backtracked quickly, trying to recover from the unintended slight, making excuses he knew Masafumi would allow. "It's how I am! You know that!"

Fumi's expression softened. "Are you sure of this, then?"

Iroh shook his head. "I am sure of only one thing. That we cannot tell how long this may take, or what we may encounter along the way. And that means that above all else, we must be prepared."

"But might this not give him false hope?" Masafumi had lowered his voice, and moved to stand next to Iroh's side, the better to watch the activity.

"In this instance--" Iroh hesitated. "I believe that false hope is better than no hope at all." A carriage was coming up the road now, and he recognized the sigil. The estate's new owner, wife and children at his side, excited to give them a tour of the grounds even before the deal was formally concluded.

Masafumi stepped closer still, shoulder barely brushing his, and Iroh had never been more grateful for his friend.

Zuko stood in the middle of the haphazard stack of trunks and cases, utterly bewildered. He found he had no practical knowledge of how one went into exile. He hadn't really even known what to pack, and had simply started by hurling random pieces of clothing into trunks. After a few moments it occurred to him that he needed to be sensible. When one heard the legends about warriors who had roamed the land and sought adventure and fame, they'd all traveled light, with meager possessions, a sword, and a steed. He'd started over again, tossing everything back onto the floor, and tried to make a list of what might be most important to keep.

Then it had occurred to him that he didn't know when he would be back. If he would be back. These rooms, which had been his private retreat and respite from the rest of the Court for so long, would be fair game. People would be going through them, through his belongings, taking what was dear to him. Mocking him. He had become more frantic, unwilling to leave anything of even the slightest personal value behind. Nothing that might leave them any clues.

He was uncomfortably aware that the luggage currently arrayed about him like a small and easily destroyed barrier against the world presented an impossible conundrum. There was no way he could carry all of this with him on a steed. If he had a steed. And if the steed could swim a really long distance.

"Be gone from this land," echoed in his head. "Do not set foot here again with your task unfulfilled."

This was easier said than done when you lived on an island. A week ago, he would have considered it his right to demand transport on any ship docked in the port, military or otherwise, at a moment's notice. Now he was unsure what rights he still possessed. No one had come to tell him what the rules were, how he was supposed to proceed. He could pay for passage away from the Fire Nation-- if he had any idea of where he should go. And if he had any money. They can't expect me to swim my way into exile, he thought bitterly, desperately. He can't really-- they can't really expect me to do something that can't possibly be done.

Maybe he could sell some of these belongings. He'd far rather they go to the hands of strangers than remain here. Except he had no means of carrying them to the market. He wasn't even sure where the market was. He'd always traveled inside a covered carriage. He had a vague sense it was to the east, past the district with the pricey restaurants and tastefully arrayed homes of the officials stationed near the Court.

The servants were all giving him a wide berth, eyes running up and over the pile of belongings before they hastily found themselves another place to be. Zhao had passed by at one point, smiling broadly, and Zuko had haughtily stared him down as best he could with the one eye, trying to still any remaining trembling from having been on his feet and this active for so long.

He had just decided the only possible route to take was to corner a servant and demand a wagon as his due, and was in the process of sizing up the weakest possible target from those around him, when Iroh's voice boomed out from behind him, causing his heart to stutter and pain to lance up his body as his feet jolted on the cobblestones.

"Well then, nephew! Are you ready for us to be on our way?" Iroh was grinning widely at him, round face red and apparently oblivious to the fact that the world was basically ending.

"Uncle! What are you talking about?" Zuko put a hand on the nearest box to steady himself.

"Why, it's time to begin your quest for the Avatar, of course," Iroh replied. And there it was, stated plainly and out loud, something no one else had done since his father's decree. Not even Zuko.

"Well. Yes," Zuko hedged, looking about. "I was just about to summon a servant."

"No need." Iroh shook his head. "Your men are on their way."

"My -- my men?" Zuko stammered, flustered. But it would seem he did have men, as they appeared out of thin air, or possibly out of the side of his vision that no longer worked, and immediately began hefting boxes and conveying instructions to one another like a well-trained team while Zuko still blinked and stared, stunned to be at the center of such sudden activity after days of isolation.

"Do not worry," Iroh patted his shoulder gently. "They will make sure the more delicate objects are safely stowed. I had thought that we would stop in the Janyin Quarter on the way to the pier, and have a bite to eat in order to give them some time to prepare the ship for our departure."

"We have a ship?" Zuko blurted out. He felt a bit woozy. It had been a long time since he'd had a solid meal, he realized.

"Of course! A bit small, perhaps," Iroh ran his fingers through his beard, "but far more... discreet, and appropriate, for our business, I would say. There may be times you'll wish to go unnoticed, wouldn't you think?"

Zuko just stared at him.

"Your father has made every provision," Iroh assured him. "The men are all well spoken of by their former commanders, the ship is sound, our chests well stocked. And me, of course! For the wisdom and counsel of my years of experience!" He puffed himself out, a foolish-looking maneuver that Zuko was well familiar with.

"I thought... I didn't think--" Zuko heard his voice break. He blinked rapidly, his left eye beating a faster pace with renewed pain.

Iroh steered him gently away from the bustle of the men-at-arms, away past the curious probing eyes of the servants and lesser officials who had found an excuse to be at the gates to witness his departure.

"Of course, I should have realized that Father would make all the necessary arrangements," Zuko rasped out harshly. "He wants me to succeed."

"He knows you will succeed," Iroh said firmly, his hand wrapping around Zuko's shoulder, pulling him close. "And he would not want you to begin your journey on an empty stomach!"

Zuko straightened his stance, and swallowed, and allowed himself a smile.

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