Title: Early Morning of the Mind
Characters: Iroh, Zuko
Notes: Reflections on the nature of failure. I wrote this for a contest, the prompt for which was ‘failure’. I did not win.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling of the hovel they shared in Ba Sing Se. He’d lost everything – his home, his honour, his family. Well, most of his family; Iroh was still with him.
As he reflected on his dismal place in life – a former prince working in a tea shop for a meagre wage – he decided that he really had seriously screwed up, somewhere. At some unfathomably early point in his life, he’d apparently broken with tradition and thousands of years of unspoken laws of life. It really had started early and, because of his perpetual failures, he, first-born son of the Fire Lord, was going to be replaced by his sister.
He must have made some sound in his annoyance, because Iroh appeared suddenly on the edge of his vision, wielding a teapot. Does that man ever put down the damned tea?
"Good morning, Prince Zuko!" Iroh was, as always, cheerfully calm. Some days, he really bordered on belligerent cheerfulness. "You look like you need some jasmine tea."
"Good, uncle?" He was angry, not at Iroh, but he was a convenient target. "How is it a good morning when we will be spending the day dealing with cursing customers and spilled tea? What kind of good morning sees a prince and a general pouring tea for the very people they were once at war with?"
Iroh sat down. "Something more than this is bothering you. This alone does not incite such fury in you." He waited patiently, like a stone Buddha.
Zuko pressed his palm to his forehead. "It’s my doing, uncle. I was never good enough for father. I tried as hard as I could, but not hard enough. And now? Now I pour tea in the slums of an Earth Kingdom city." He sighed, and the breath caught in his throat.
"Do you think I do not know how you feel?" Iroh sipped his tea with a look of faint amusement. It was an honest question – he was never certain how much Zuko had absorbed of the past.
The prince looked pale and turned his face to the old general. "You laid siege to Ba Sing Se. We all thought you would take it. You were a great general.
"But you didn’t take the city; you came home when Lu Ten died. And now my father is Fire Lord instead of you…" He looked anguished. "How do you go on? Doesn’t this weigh on you? Don’t you regret…?" He gestured in vague fury.
Iroh smiled beatifically. "Once, it did. Once I was greatly troubled by what I perceived as my failures. Others perceived me as a failure and I believed them. I have learned, since then.
"You may fail, but you are not a failure. You are still here, forging a new life that my brother would not be able to imagine. You work, now, but you are known and loved by the people you have met while working. You are no longer the unapproachable figure you once were.
"You may make mistakes, but you are not a mistake. Do you remember your mother? I do. She was a kind and forgiving woman. She was, I’m afraid, all that kept my brother’s temper in check, sometimes. Without her, your way became hampered, but she loved you and meant for you to do well. I think that you are doing very well under the circumstances.
"You lose, but you are not a loser…" Iroh paused to think about that. "No, sorry, that’s not right. But loser refers only to the competition lost. You lost a duel with your father – or so he says. I see that you were honourable and he chose not to acknowledge that. Besides, you took it out of Commander Zhao, later."
Iroh smiled broadly. "You see? You are better off than you think."
"You’re crazy, old man." Zuko tried his best to scowl, but failed. He really was a very different person than he had been a year previously and he didn’t seem too much the worse for it. He glanced out the window as he stood. "Come on, or we’ll be late for work."