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|The Tomb of Iroh|
It was dusk in Ba Sing Se and all the buildings glowed in the failing light of the sun. The yellow tiles of the upper ring roofs glittered and glowed gold. Every color seemed magnified in magnificence, even the walls of the Earth Kingdom Royal Palace shone with an extra polish. Yet not a soul within was paying any attention to the physical beauty of the city at sunset. On the steps to the Earth King's exuberant Palace many old friends were reunited for the first time in many years. Appa had touched down and the dismounting process for all members was finished. Aang and Katara were the last ones off the bison and as the Airbender looked up from helping his wife he saw that a young woman had replaced the tomboy he had known many years ago.
"Toph!" He exclaimed happily as the blind earthbender smiled a greeting.
"Hey Twinkle Toes," She said, her blank stare beaming her glee. "Glad to see you're still as light on your feet as ever." Then there came the blink of surprise. "Katara you feel...different somehow."
"Bigger?" Katara said in a slightly defensive tone.
"Well I wasn't going to put it that way." Toph countered as she strode over. Her bare feet made almost no noise on the smooth stone of the courtyard. The earthbender stopped before Katara and the two engaged in a mock stare down with Toph obviously very curious as to what exactly caused the change. There were several moments of silence where no one in the group said a word. They all held their tongues in an amused fascination at the scene before them. Finally Toph gave an abrupt intake of air as it came to her. Slowly she reached out a hand and placed it gently on Katara's stomach. Another few seconds of silence passed.
"You're pregnant!" Toph squealed suddenly before throwing her arms around Katara in a hug. She then turned and flung her arms around Aang; squeezing him just tightly enough to make his bones ache. "Always knew you had it in you Twinkle Toes!" She added with a certain smugness.
"Katara congratulations that's wonderful!" Came the voice of a young woman standing with a group of old men a few steps behind Toph. Suki smiled warmly and the other members each bestowed their own blessing upon Aang and Katara's happiness. Among the group were Master Pakku, Piandao, Jeong Jeong, Haru, and Huu. Next to them stood the respectable figure of the Earth King whose new wrinkles gave wisdom to his speckled visage. Bosco gave a friendly growl of greeting as the two groups merged and greetings were exchanged all around. Sokka and Suki's encounter was awkward as Aang noticed the two were unsure of how to greet each other, finally resorting to a clumsy handshake since Sokka appeared too hesitant to hug.
"I have so much to tell all of you!" Toph exclaimed after all greetings had been conveyed. "You won't believe the findings my research has turned up!"
"Uh...research?" Sokka asked in a confused voice.
"Yeah I'm working with the Ba Sing Se Department of Archeology over at the university." Toph clarified. She had raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you know I'm a teacher now?"
"Teacher?" Sokka exclaimed. "But what happened to Toph crush rock?"
"Hey just because I got an education doesn't mean I've gone sissy. I could still wipe the floor with most any of you any day of the week. It's just that after touring and saving the world with you guys I wanted to show my mom and dad that their little girl was capable of more than just crushing heads."
"Oh nice of you to tell us all this." Sokka replied, still flabbergasted at the news.
"But I did tell you." Toph responded haughtily.
"Yeah Sokka," Katara put in. "Remember she had her parents write us when she graduated? We sent our congratulations back using your messenger hawk!" Sokka blinked several times. A blush crept up over his cheeks.
"Oh how I wish I could see your face right now." Toph jeered.
"I'm sorry there was a lot on my plate that month. I just forgot!" Sokka stammered back.
"When is there not a lot on your plate?" Suki put in lightly. Aang turned and whispered so that only Katara could hear.
"Isn't that around the time Suki broke up with him?" He asked under his breath. Katara nodded but gave no vocal reply. The Earth King strode forward into the center of the group. He signaled to all and then gave a small bow to Zuko.
"Friends if we could put aside, for the moment, our cheerful reunion to focus on the more somber task at hand. It is with a sad honor that I welcome each of you, Firelord Zuko and you, Firelady Mai and you too, Prince Lu Ten. You are all members of a great royal family, which sadly has had the misfortune to shrink recently. You give this city a tremendous gift by allowing the great General Iroh, Dragon of the West, to rest within her walls. If you'll follow me we'll begin the procession to the tomb. I believe you will like it; it is truly a sight to behold." The Earth King said all of this in a formal manner but his eyes hid emotion. Even standing behind Zuko and the others Aang could still make out tears forming on the corners of the King's gaze.
"The way everything will follow is simple." The Earth King continued. "I will be at the immediate head of the march with the Fire Nation royal family directly following. Avatar, if your wife is feeling up to it, I would like you two to proceed after them. The Order of the White Lotus will come next, escorting the casket. They are to be flanked by a mixture of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom ceremonial guard. Other friends and distinguished guests are to go along after. Several long lines of major diplomatic figures will conclude everything. Firelord Zuko, does that meet with your approval?"
"It does." The young Firelord responded.
"Avatar Aang?" The Earth King repeated his question. The airbender looked to Katara.
"Will you be all right doing all that walking?" He asked, staring at her intently. She looked ready to tell him off again and that she could handle herself but at the last second that look broke into a soft smile.
"Let me use your staff?" She asked him sweetly. He grinned and nodded back at her.
"Of course." Was his reply. Katara Leaned forward and kissed his forehead.
"Then no problem." Came her answer, to both her husband and the Earth King.
"Ugh...will you two please lay off the displays of affection in front of me?" Sokka groaned. There was an adjusting of speckles and a rather loud cough.
"We should go." The Earth King had cut off further discussion. "Right this way." Then, grabbing Zuko lightly he went on: "This really does mean so much for our two peoples and peace. Your Uncle would have been proud of this decision." Zuko looked at him then shrugged almost indifferently.
"It was what he wanted." He said firmly. "Now come, I wish to be underway."
Northern Fire Nation, Six Years Ago
"You know, given all the places I've traveled so far in my lifetime, I think I'd like to be buried in Ba Sing Se." Iroh pondered out loud. He and Zuko sat under a small camouflaged tarp surrounded by a battalion of Fire Nation soldiers. Above them rain drizzled down, broken up by the dense foliage of the trees. They were in a forest about an hours walk away from a village. Intelligence had given them evidence that one of the more powerful remaining rebel leaders, Tsung, had taken refuge in the village along with his men and was using it as a weapons depot. Suki, Mai and Ty Lee had taken a small team of Kyoshi Warriors with them ahead and, after confirming that Tsung was indeed in the village, lay waiting for the attack order. The battle would have occurred already if at the last moment Zuko had not decided to send his most one of his most trusted military officers, Captain Matora, to fetch the Avatar for aid. Now they were sitting in the rain, getting soaked and waiting.
"Uncle don't talk like that." Zuko complained. "Not before a fight." Iroh laughed.
"This will hardly be a fight." He responded calmly. "Especially with the Avatar helping us. No, I suspect this will be more along the lines of catching badgerfrogs before bedtime."
"How can you say that? How can you be acting this way? You're the one who's always telling me not to underestimate an opponent, no matter how puny he seems." Zuko shivered slightly in the damp. He was grateful it was not cold tonight or the rain would be a much more dangerous factor.
"Do not underestimate him yes...but do not overestimate him either." Iroh reasoned plainly. "I have known Tsung for many years, since back when he was a colonel in your father's army. He was never a brave man and would always run before engaging in a serious battle."
"But Uncle," Zuko protested. "This time he has nowhere to run. That's the whole point of waiting for the Avatar, so we can come at the village from all sides. What does a cornered animal do when it no alternative?" His Uncle thought for a second before replying.
"I suppose it would lash out wildly in an attempt to save itself." He admitted at length. "However Tsung is not an animal. He does not face obliteration. My feeling tells me he will be much quicker to offer himself up and surrender." There was a gust of air all around them that blew the dampened branches down and showered all within range. Aang and Katara touched down, the pair having both ridden in on the Avatar's staff. Captain Matora came sprinting in from the brush, panting and out of breath but still full of energy at the same time. All three looked alert.
"You've found him?" Aang asked, keeping his face focused. Zuko nodded. The Firelord then motioned to Matora who stepped forth and laid down a map on a fairly dry stretch of grass.
"The traitor has walled himself in this section of the village here, most likely in one of the four larger structures." the Captain stated. "By surrounding the area and then charging in on komodo-rhinos we should cut off any and all chance he has to escape."
"Unfortunately we don't have enough rhinos to create a tight enough perimeter." Zuko added on. "If we used our forces to surround the entire area there is a chance we might be spread too thin in one spot. If Tsung escapes then all of this was for nothing. We need you and Katara to come in from behind – here." Zuko pointed to the northernmost point of the village. "Together the two of you can successfully contain the vicinity, and the fact that you're the Avatar will help to generate further panic and confusion. This should give Mai and the others enough time to infiltrate the town, find Tsung and capture him without any civilian casualties."
"Wow Zuko I'm surprised you're letting Mai go on such a dangerous mission." Katara teased. "Weren't you planning on asking her the big question soon?" Zuko shot the waterbender an angry look. Iroh burst out laughing.
"Let her go? There was nothing he could do to stop her!" He grinned, wiping a tear from his eye.
"That's enough Uncle!" Zuko snapped. The young Firelord fumed for a minute before regaining his composure. "Mai is her own person now, all the self-confidence and leadership she's built up, I couldn't control her even if I wanted to."
"At least not until there's a ring on her finger." Iroh mused. Captain Matora coughed loudly.
"Ahem, Firelord, General, I don't mean to interrupt Sirs but the night is getting on and the rhinos aren't getting any drier." The two stopped feuding and nodded toward the officer. Aang swished his glider open and Katara climbed onto the other side.
"We'll stay hidden and wait for your signal." Aang called as the duo rose up. In seconds they vanished amidst the branches of the trees and were as ghosts. The night betrayed no sign of their presence. Very briefly Zuko caught a glimpse of them flying against the moon but just as quickly as it had appeared it was gone.
"They make a lovely couple." Iroh remarked as he watched them go. Zuko stopped staring after a few moments and brought his gaze down to his Uncle.
"I have a favor to ask of you." He said plainly. His Uncle looked at him and nodded.
"Whatever the Firelord wishes is my command." He said.
"Please don't call me Firelord. When we raid the village tonight I wonder if you wouldn't mind heading up the southern section of our perimeter, it's where I think there'll be the least resistance."
"I will do as you say but I must ask why?" Iroh questioned.
"It's just that you've seen so many battles, been right there in so many fights. I thought you might like a chance to sit more to the sidelines this time." Iroh chuckled again.
"One thing you will learn about wars Nephew. Missing the start or the middle is not important. The only thing that is really worth participating in is the end. I will gladly stand wherever you tell me to." The rain intensified slightly overhead.
"Good." Zuko replied. "Matora, you'll have the west."
"By your command Firelord." The Captain complied. Zuko nodded once to each of them.
"Right then, move out!"
Ba Sing Se, Present Day
Aang could barely hear the click of his staff every time Katara brought it down; the noise was so omnipresent around them. Throngs of people filled his vision on either side as the troupe steadily made their way onward and upward. The going was slow and he was grateful for that. He was sure Katara was too although she would never admit it. Everything was very ceremonial. A step, a turn and wave, a step, a turn and a wave, so it went throughout the upper level of Ba Sing Se. He could see off in the distance a great structure, obscured at the moment from all eyes by a large sheet of cloth that lay draped over it. That must be the tomb.
It was certainly already impressive in its sheer size. The structure was at least three stories tall and as wide as Iroh's teashop, the Jasmine Dragon. The Avatar noted it had an unusual shape that was visible even through the cloth. This was clearly no ordinary tomb.
"Aang...do you feel at all...out of place?" Katara whispered from his side.
"What do you mean?" He asked. She turned and brought her blue eyes to meet his grey ones.
"I mean...do you really think Iroh would have wanted all this? I mean how much of this is being done for him vs. world peace." Aang was silent and thought a moment. He threw a random grin to the crowd before returning to his wife's gaze.
"I think that...if it's being done for world peace, then Iroh would have wanted it." He answered at last. Katara smiled at him and held out her hand. Happily he took it and the two continued walking.
Northern Fire Nation, Six Years Ago
Katara and Aang saw the fire-flair explode over the village, marking the signal to attack. Immediately the airbender sprang from the bushes, charging at full sprint for the rows of houses that stood facing away from him. As he approached he could make out three Fire Nation rebels squeezing out of a back window in an obvious attempt to flee. His legs instantly grounded to a halt and his staff was held out in front of him pointing at the aggressors.
"Halt!" Aang heard himself cry in an authoritative tone. The men nearly tripped over themselves as they spun to face this new threat coming from behind them.
"It's him!" One of them cried.
"The Avatar!" Declared another.
"Please come peacefully and you will not be harmed." Aang demanded, inching a step closer. The Fire Rebels looked at one another before simultaneously planting their feet in the ground and shooting forward three fireballs aimed directly at his spot. With nimble ease Aang dodged and rolled back up onto his feet, ready to strike back. "Why do I even bother to ask nicely?" He wondered out loud.
Suddenly a jet of water shot past his shoulder toward the three benders. Just before impact the beam curved and in one fluid motion whipped all three in the face, sending their unconscious bodies back against the wall before dropping to the ground. Turning, Aang just saw Katara blur past him. She ran and dived through the open window into the house. Sounds of scuffling and fighting broke out inside but died down quickly after a few moments. At length her face appeared in the window.
"Coming?" She asked in a mock tease. Her face then disappeared back into the blackness of the house. Aang stood standing there out in the open for a few minutes, letting the rain fall upon his baldhead.
"Wow..." He breathed eventually before following suit.
Katara had already cleared out the inside of the house. Aang ran past several more Fire Nation Rebels, all knocked out completely. Up ahead the front door laid pushed open and many sounds and lights flooded in. Rounding the corner the Avatar quickly assessed the situation. From the looks of things Zuko's rhinos were doing a good job of keeping everyone pinned in. Rebels ran to and fro, searching desperately for a place to escape. But every time, however, that one got close at least two of the great horned beasts would appear, as if from the night itself, the scare them back. Katara and a couple of Fire Nation soldiers were wading through the masses, pacifying any who did not surrender when confronted.
Up on one of the roofs Aang saw the shadowy outline of a Kyoshi Warrior. Whipping his glider forth he took off and landed a few paces from the geisha warrior.
"Hey Aang!" Ty Lee exclaimed in her normal happy-go-lucky tone.
"Hi there Ty Lee, have you guys found Tsung yet?" Aang was scanning the ground. He suddenly blasted a gust of wind at a rebel who was sneaking up on Katara. The shot knocked him out cold causing Katara to turn and, realizing what had happened, give Aang a grin of gratitude.
"No we haven't found anyone. I think he's run off again." Ty Lee was walking along the central beam of the roof on her hands. "Mai and Suki are just checking this house now and –" Suddenly another flair cut her off.
"It came from the southern border!" Aang heard Zuko shout. "Uncle, Uncle I'm coming!"
Ba Sing Se, Present Day
Firelord Zuko had stopped. Everyone had stopped. The procession was now directly in front of the covered tomb. A large raised platform stood in front of the shroud. At this moment the Earth King ascended a staircase on the side that lead up onto it. Presently he turned to address the zounds of people stretched out before him.
"My citizens!" He cried out. "Today is a day of mixed emotion. This is surely a tragic day in the Fire Nation, who all mourn the loss of their great leader and general. This is surely a tragic day for us too in the Earth Kingdom for never again will we see so fine an ambassador or friend. Most of you standing out there in the crowd knew Iroh only as a simple tea brewer. A man you could always count on for advice or to just give a smile."
"Yet this day is not all misery. No today is also a day of honor, as we honor and pay tribute to so deserving a person. My people I knew Iroh very well, and I know he would not want us to spend this day shedding tears for his sake. Iroh was not the one who would sit around a sea of sad faces and just be one of them. He would seek to change all for the better. And it is that feature, that astonishing aspect of his character that we must remember. So...without further ado I give you all General Iroh!"
At this the Earth King put up his hand and the cloth fell away. A great sigh of awe and reverence rippled out through the crowd at the sight of the tomb of Iroh. A gigantic statue stood atop a massively round Pai Sho tile. Zuko could not see what was on the side of the tile but he didn't have to. The jade-robed figure of Iroh was situated dead center in the white lotus. One look told the Firelord they had carved Iroh's robes from the glowing rock found beneath Ba Sing Se. None of the other rocks he recognized but he suspected that they had been imported. Every shade was correct, every minor detail down to the engraving of a dragon on the teapot that the statue was holding. It was like they had taken his body and blown it up several proportions. Zuko actually found himself taken aback slightly. He did not like how eerily close it was to the real thing. He had had barely a chance to react though before the Earth King clapped his hands and fire sprung out all along the edge of the Pai Sho tile.
"Wow...that sure is something." Mai said quietly. She grabbed Zuko's hand and gave it a tight squeeze. The Firelord squeezed back as the Earth King turned and motioned him up onto the platform.
"And now before he commits Iroh to his eternal rest I thought it best that his nephew and our ally, Firelord Zuko, should come up and say the final words." Zuko stood and started to slowly walk toward the stair. He was surprised to find he was shaking slightly. Images and memories flooded his head as the stage drew ever nearer.
Northern Fire Nation, Six Years Ago
"Uncle!" Zuko exclaimed as he tore out of the village toward the southern border.
"Firelord Zuko wait!" Exclaimed Captain Matora from behind. "You mustn't go rushing off ahead. Let me and my men check it out first in case some assassins have set a trap!" Zuko didn't listen though. He tore through the damp and the rain, through the brush and over the rocks. He didn't stop running until he had reached the clearing where his Uncle stood, leaning against a tree and nursing a bloody right leg.
"Uncle are you all right? Where's Tsung?" Zuko stalked around the area in his stance, ready to firebend the first thing that came near them.
"Zuko it's okay." Iroh held out a hand, compelling his nephew to calm down. "Tsung is gone. I...dealt with him." The Firelord stopped pacing.
"You dealt with him?" He asked quizzically. Iroh nodded before gesturing with his head at a patch of bushes to Zuko's left.
"Just through there." He said in a gravely tone. His chest was heaving slightly. Zuko advanced in peered briefly into the brush before turning away and grimacing.
"I see." he said flatly. "It is done then." Iroh nodded.
"You were right Nephew, when you said he would behave as if a cornered beast. I should have listened to your council. A gash like this is a steep price to pay at my age."
"You couldn't have known." Zuko responded in a modest voice. Just then Aang and Katara came bursting into the clearing with Captain Matora right behind them.
"Oh no let me take a look at that!" Katara cried before drawing out her healing water and rushing to Iroh.
"It'll mend." the General responded gruffly. "And the lesson learned was well worth the injury. Always remember Zuko, that even the very old like me are still in need of a lesson from time to time."
Ba Sing Se, Present Day
Zuko stared out blankly at the multitude of faces that looked back. Then he turned and gazed up at the statue. For several moments nothing happened. All held their breath as the Firelord turned back to speak.
"I cannot do my Uncle justice." He began. "Other than to say he was like the white lotus he stands on, he had that many different pieces that made him who he was. And, well, if you take out any one of the pieces than the lotus isn't perfect anymore. It becomes flawed. I know my Uncle would never accept this, but he was the full lotus. He didn't have a piece missing. He wasn't flawed." Zuko finished and looked back at the statue again. "And he will be missed." He concluded, letting the tears flow freely down his face. "Goodbye Uncle."
The crowd was silent as the Firelord descended the stairs. They were silent as he kissed his wife and hugged his son. They were silent as he and his friends slowly left the site of the tomb, not even watching as the Order placed the coffin inside it. They didn't speak at all, and it didn't matter.
It was Toph who broke the silence as they neared her house.
"I'm so glad you guys are staying with me a couple days." she said softly.
"Yeah, it should be fun." Aang answered back slowly.
"There's something we just found in the crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se." Toph went on. "You definitely want to be there for when they...open...it." The blind earthbender had stopped walking.
"Toph? Is something the matter?" Katara asked cautiously. "Toph?"
"Oh no!" Toph shouted and sprinted ahead of everyone, to where her house stood. The others hurried after her, confused as to what was going on.
"What is it Toph?" Sokka asked as they drew alongside her. Tears were streaming from the earthbender's face.
"Someone's been here." She responded back. "But now they're long gone. I think I've been robbed." And sure enough as all stared ahead the door to Toph's house was smashed in and the view inside showed that someone had clearly been through. The sun had completely set in Ba Sing Se.
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