Zuko watched, idly interested, as the businessman from the Upper Ring entered negotiations to get Iroh to work for him instead. He wasn't surprised that the offer - an Upper Ring apartment, his own tea shop, total creative freedom - was winning Iroh over so easily. What did surprise Zuko was Iroh's one moment of hesitation...and his spared glances towards Cadence and Zuko.
Then Iroh spoke up. "I must say, your offer is astounding, and I would love to accept, but..."
"But?" the businessman asked, surprised.
"Well, you see, while tea has always been a high class affair, in my travels I've discovered that tea can have unexpected pleasures when drunk on the road," Iroh explained. "I've been working on finding a way to recreate that sensation in a tea shop, to let my customers experience an adventure in every cup."
The businessman grinned widely. "Now that is an interesting idea," he practically purred. "What's the problem?"
"Well, obviously tea on the road is not drunk in bone china," Iroh joked. "So I would need a fine ceramic...but I only know one potter who can craft such cups that are both fine quality and carry the essence of journey and adventure...and he lives here in the Lower Ring. And however carefully they are packed, they would lose some of that essence being brought between the Rings."
The businessman thought for a time. "Hmm...if this potter is as good as you say, I'll give him an apartment and shop in the Upper Ring as well, right across the road from yours."
"Deal!" Iroh agreed eagerly. He then turned to a table in the corner. "Jin, would you be so good as to guide this man to your father's shop?"
As the businessman followed Jin, and his men followed Zuko, Iroh, and Cadence to their apartment to help gather their belongings, Zuko leaned in to Iroh's side. "Uncle, what was that about?" he asked. "I thought you'd jump at the chance of your own tea shop. Why the added negotiation?"
"I wouldn't want your friendship with Jin to be upset by a sudden onset of prestige," Iroh replied with a wide smile. "She's been good for you."
Zuko rolled his eyes, looking away, most definitely not blushing. As he walked, however, he spotted something unexpected. A flier looking for a missing Sky Bison. Walking over, he saw that, indeed, the Avatar was searching for Appa...and was in Ba Sing Se.
Suddenly things were a lot more serious.
Zuko had decided not to tell Iroh, Cadence, Jong, or Zhin what his plan was. He was pretty sure Iroh and Cadence would notapprove, and Jong and Zhin would insist on going with to keep him out of trouble. But he knew...he had to do this alone. He didn't know why he felt so compelled, but deep down, he knew if anyone came with him, something would go terribly wrong.
He'd put on the blue oni mask he'd brought from the Fire Nation, the one he'd originally made for Mai back before everything started to change. He knew Mai had the red oni mask she'd made for him, though he didn't know if she'd brought it with her. He was wearing the blue mask now, both to hide his identity and to get some semblance of Mai's cool, calm deliberation to cool his angry heart.
Seeing that the Dai Li were actively watching Aang and his group, Zuko had come to the conclusion that they knew something about Appa's disappearance. Managing to waylay one of the Dai Li agents, Zuko discovered he was correct...and also learned where Appa was being kept...in an underwater facility under Lake Laogai.
Learning that the facility could only be accessed via Earthbending didn't dissuade Zuko too much. Once he'd made sure the agent wouldn't be reporting to anyone for a while, he camped out at the Lake until a Dai Li arrived to enter the facility. Once the tunnel was open, it was child's play to catch the agent off guard and knock him out. After that, it was only a matter of careful exploration and staying out of sight...easy for Zuko after all the tumbling lessons Ty Lee had given him.
When he found Appa, he saw how angry and afraid he was. Zuko didn't blame him. He entered the cell in silence, approaching the massive creature. Drawing his twin swords...he fell into his mind as he tried to decide what he was supposed to do.
He was a Prince of the Fire Nation. From the cradle, he'd been taught that the war was to unite the world under one banner...that it was for the good of the world that the Fire Nation rule all. As long as he'd lived in the Fire Nation, he'd believed that. The good of the Fire Nation and the good of the world had always been the same thing in his mind. That's why he was able to pursue the war - his mission - with such conviction.
But ever since he'd started travelling incognito, hiding from Azula, he'd seen the other side. The healer's burned legs...Lee's lost brother...Jin's lost home... The pain and suffering people dealt with, whether because of the war or those who sought to profit from it...
He no longer believed that the good of the Fire Nation and the good of the world were the same thing. And now he was confronted with a choice: the Fire Nation, or the world.
If he killed Appa here, Aang would likely never learn of it. He'd never know that Appa was dead, and would spend the rest of his life trying to find him. In one strike, Zuko would completely eliminate the threat Aang posed to the Fire Nation, without creating a new threat by creating a new Avatar. This was what his duty as a Prince of the Fire Nation demanded of him.
If, on the other hand, he set Appa free, Appa would seek out Aang. They would be reunited. The Avatar would once again be the symbol of hope for so many people, uniting the world against the Fire Nation. The war would likely come to a swift end as Aang gathered the whole rest of the world under his banner. The suffering caused by the war would be stopped...it would end.
Just turning around and leaving wasn't an option. If he left Appa imprisoned, it was the path of a Prince, but being too weak to act. Same if he alerted Aang to where Appa was, being weak and choosing the path of the world. He had only two choices here.
He brought his hand to his mask, remembering. Mai had always hated how she wasn't allowed to do anything she wasn't supposed to, how she had to be the perfect daughter at all times. The masks had been his idea. As the cool and collected one, he'd made the blue oni mask for her, wearing the red one she made to represent his more impulsive side. Wearing the masks and nondescript clothes, they would race about the town at night, sometimes playing pranks, sometimes watching things they weren't supposed to see...but mostly just having fun together without the rules hanging over their shoulders.
If he took the path of the world, it would mean truly becoming the traitor Azula had painted him as. It would mean forever turning his back on Mai. But if he took the path of the Prince...would he ever be able to look himself in the eye in the mirror again?
Rising slowly out of his minds, he raised his blades...and swung.
As he heard the chains break, he fell to his side. He had made his choice, for good or for ill...and in doing so turned his back on everything his life had ever stood for. His body felt hot, cold, sweaty, chilled...
He hardly noticed Appa picking him up and carrying him out. He barely heard the angry shouts of Dai Li agents. He barely felt the whistling of wind as they flew through the air.
The first thing he was truly aware of was Cadence curled up beside him, and Iroh's words.
"Rest now, Zuko...we will take care of you..."