Written for Runrundoyourstuff on Tumblr for making the winning bid on my offer on the Fandom Loves Puerto Rico charity auction. Additional information for this universe can be found at my Tumblr, where my username is attackfish.
Find What You're Looking For (Standing Right Beside You)
The water broke around the hull of the little steamer skiff in ropy bulges, radiating out behind them in low waves. Zuko watched the flow, his arms folded on the guardrail, body slumped.
"This is not a bad thing, Nephew," his uncle, the traitor, tried to tell him. Zuko turned away. "Your father asked the impossible of you. There is no shame in not being able to give it to him."
"It wasn't supposed to be impossible," Zuko snapped, forgetting his determination not to talk to his uncle. "If it was, he wouldn't have asked me to do it!"
Behind him, Zuko could hear his uncle open his mouth and suck in a breath as if he were about to say something, and then close again. Good, Zuko thought. Maybe he had nothing to say to that. Maybe he would finally shut up.
"My brother banished you and by his own hand burned you so badly it is a wonder if you will ever see out of that eye again." There was a rumble underlying his Uncle's words, like distant thunder. Anger. And it startled Zuko into turning to stare at him as he continued to speak. "And he did this because you showed compassion."
Zuko looked away again. "I dishonored myself," he gritted out. "And I showed disrespect and cowardice."
They stood there on the deck of the little steamer skiff as Zuko tried to pretend the wetness on his face was the sea spray, and that he could ignore the persistent sting-ache of the burn underneath bandage. He didn't even bother to try to pretend the gnawing hole in the bottom of his stomach was anything other than what it was, the knowledge that nothing was ever going to go back to normal, and there was no way he was ever going home again.
His uncle's voice found him without seeming to touch the stillness around them. "No my nephew, you did not."
Zuko ignored him, keeping his eyes on the skiff's wake, and the ancient Fire Nation warship unknowingly sailing away without them, invisible beyond the horizon.
They landed on a desolate stretch of coastline, deep in the snowy, windswept parts of the southern Earth Kingdom, just as the last of their coal was running out. Zuko eyed the landscape dubiously. "What are we supposed to do here?"
His uncle smiled and led his nephew out over the sand dunes. Cold, tired, and entirely lost, Zuko had no choice except to follow him. Visible through the rolling gray fog was the pale glow of a campfire. This is where his uncle took him, drawing closer and closer even as the forms of the men around the fire, Earth Kingdom soldiers, materialized out of the mist.
As Iroh stepped into the firelight, one of the soldiers stood up. "Who knocks at the guarded gate?"
His uncle's mouth twisted wryly. "One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries."
The soldier bowed. "Grandmaster Iroh, His Majesty, King Bumi chose us personally to accompany you because we are each members of the Order, but you must understand, as the Firelord's brother and son, you and Prince Zuko will need to travel in disguise, and once we are within the city walls, you will be required to stay within the palace. For your safety of course."
"For our safety?" Zuko yelled indignantly. "Uncle, you're just going to give-"
"Of course," his uncle said, cutting him off. "I understand."
"Uncle!" Zuko hissed.
"Hush my nephew." He put a hand on Zuko's shoulder. "There are rules to this kind of thing. We need his protection, and we are old friends."
Zuko seethed. "Not a good enough friend not to take you hostage!"
"A king cannot risk becoming that good a friend to anyone." His uncle gave him a sad look. "And Bumi will change his mind when he learns why we have come."
The soldier frowned. "Forgive me, Grandmaster Iroh, but I have to ask, why have you come?"
His uncle shook his head. "I cannot tell you, for the same reason I could not write it down in my letter. It is too dangerous for anybody but your king to know."
The Earth Kingdom soldier's uniform hung off Zuko's boyish frame and bagged in half a dozen awkward and unfortunate places, like a small child dressed up in his father's clothes, and if anyone passed by, Zuko knew he didn't have a hope of fooling anyone. But there was nothing he could do about it as he pressed his ear to the audience chamber door.
"In your letter, you said there were things you needed to tell me in person, things that could turn the tide of the war," the king said at last. "The last time I saw you, you were still a Fire Nation general."
"I learned many things when my son died," his uncle said blandly. The door rattled suddenly, jarring his burn and making his head swim with pain. "That was one of them."
"Iroh," the king breathed.
Something tentative, almost shy crept into his uncle's voice as he continued, "I learned to airbend from my past lives, Avatar Yangchen, and a boy named Aang."
"I knew an Air Nomad named Aang, almost a hundred years ago now. I taught him to look beyond the obvious and see the possibilities."
"A lesson I have learned from you in two lifetimes."
King Bumi actually giggled. "Do you want me to teach it to your nephew?"
"That depends." His uncle said. "Do you think it's a lesson a firelord needs to know?"
The king laughed uproariously.
In contrast, his uncle's voice was subdued, thoughtful. "Ozai cannot be allowed to remain on the throne."
Zuko felt sick to his stomach, and it took everything he had not to burst in and scream in his uncle's face that he was a traitor, and he wanted nothing to do with this, it was… He held his breath.
"And your brother has handed us his replacement."
"He will need an education." His uncle said mock-thoughtfully. "My brother neglected it shamefully."
Zuko's fists clenched.
"Ah so this is why you bring him to me." King Bumi snorted. But when he spoke again, Zuko heard something like wonderment in his voice. "Iroh, this changes things."
The door opened. Zuko almost fell, catching his feet only with his uncle's arm under his. "Don't touch me!" he screamed.
His uncle snatched his hands back. "How did you get here, Nephew?"
Gritting his teeth, Zuko looked away pointedly.
His uncle heaved a sigh. "I suppose it is not a bad thing that you know our plans, Nephew."
"You're a traitor, and you want to make me a traitor," Zuko hissed. "But I guess I knew that already."
"It's not a bad thing I can be honest with you, Nephew," he said as if Zuko hadn't spoken. "I know you do not agree with me, but I want what is best for the Fire Nation, and you."
"You are a traitor!" Zuko repeated. "You want to kill my father!" His voice cracked humiliatingly on the last word, but he didn't care. His nails bit into the palms of his hands as he bared his teeth.
"Nephew," his uncle whispered.
His eyes closed, and tears leaked out, making the bandage damp and sticky.
"Let's go back to your room," his uncle murmured, wrapping his arm around Zuko's shoulders. "I will change your bandage."
"Don't touch me," Zuko said again, his voice sounding weak and pathetic even to his own ears.
This time, his uncle didn't let him go. He steered him down the palace halls, back to the empty section of wall that hid Zuko's room, and the two guards meant to keep him in it. Their eyes widened, and Zuko shot them a tired glare.
"How did he-"
"I'm so sorry-"
His uncle interrupted with a friendly smile, "Would you please open the door?"
"Right away, sorry." The wall opened, and his uncle guided him inside and over to his bed.
"This is never how I wanted you find out." His uncle sounded so tired as he knelt in front of him and unwound the bandage from Zuko's face. He stopped abruptly, fresh gauze already in his hand. "Nephew, did you move the bed?"
Zuko carefully did not look up at the air vent high in the wall above.
The long haired old waterbender strode into the room, arms already crossed. "No."
His uncle's eyes twinkled. "Oh yes."
"You and Bumi set this up as a prank."
King Bumi scuttled over to clap his arm heartily. "Come now Pakku, if you really believed that, you never would have left the North."
Pakku nodded at Zuko sharply. "Who's the boy?"
"Master Pakku." His uncle bowed. "May I introduce my nephew? He is here studying statecraft with King Bumi."
"And today he's learning about how to welcome foreign dignitaries," Bumi grinned. "Such as yourself, Master Pakku."
"Ugh," Zuko groaned, not bothering to hide his disgust.
Pakku rolled his eyes with a huff. "Okay, let's see what I have to work with."
Zuko's uncle smiled. He set his cup of tea down on a small table. He lifted his hand and the tea rose out of the cup, wobbling in the air before he lowered it carefully back down into the cup.
"Not bad," Pakku said optimistically.
Iroh picked up his cup and tipped it for a sip. He lowered it without taking a drink. The tea hissed as it melted and began to steam. "The freezing was an accident."
Pakku closed his eyes, face twisting as if in pain.
Bumi cackled. "Just remember, it could be worse. You could be teaching the boy."
"If you're trying to make me feel sorry for you Bumi." Pakku glanced over at Zuko who glowered poisonously back at him. "It's working."
"Of course," King Bumi said wickedly. "If you're lucky, you'll get a crack at that too."
Pakku's eyes widened in horror. "No!"
The lap writing desk went flying before Zuko knew what he was doing He tore out of the room as it clattered to the ground. Humiliation and fury washed over him, and he ran and ran, until his chest heaved and he could barely see. He slumped against the wall and waited. It felt like hours until his uncle came to take him back.
His uncle laid a hand on his back. "No one thinks you want this."
Zuko refused to answer.
"Concentrate on your leaf, Prince Zuko."
"This is so stupid," Zuko snarled. The only skill they would teach him that was any real use was firebending, and Jeong Jeong was determined to keep him on exercises for babies, and he wouldn't be surprised at all if this was all just a way to keep him from learning enough firebending to escape back to the fire nation to tell his father what was going on and that his uncle was the Avatar. It was so stupid.
"Learning control is stupid?" Jeong Jeong shouted, close to Zuko's ear, the bandage and the scarring thankfully muffling the sound and taking away from the intended effect. "Fire is not like the other elements. Fire is dangerous. It is hungry. Unless you control it, it will consume everything in its path, everything you have ever loved. Without a bender, water does not keep coming. Earth does not seek to grow. Only fire is like trying to tame a wild animal!"
"Be careful not to frighten him, Jeong Jeong," his uncle said sleepily from under the maple-peach tree, eyes closed.
"He should be frightened!" Jeong Jeong insisted. "He is a firebender, tasked with mastering a ravening beast inside himself. No other kind of bender is burdened this way!"
His uncle's eyes snapped open. "Master Jeong Jeong, I had no idea you see firebending as such a curse."
"Is it not?" Jeong Jeong demanded harshly.
"No it is not." He rose to his feet and folded his arms in his sleeves with a diplomatic smile. "And I do not think I want you teaching my nephew after all. I will take his training from here."
Jeong Jeong's eyes narrowed as he swept out of the room, his ragged robe flapping. Smirking at his retreating back, Zuko threw his leaf into the air and watched it burn away to ash before it had a chance to flutter to the ground.
"Not so fast, Prince Zuko." His uncle's voice caught him off guard. "You are not done."
His uncle picked up a leaf and held it out to him.
Concentrate on your leaf, Prince Zuko," his uncle intoned. "Master Jeong Jeong is misguided about the nature of firebending, but this does not mean he is wrong about technique."
"It's still an exercise for babies," Zuko snapped. "Azula mastered it when she was five."
"It is your control I care about, Nephew," he shot back evenly. "Is it so perfect you cannot improve it?"
There was nothing Zuko could say to that. He glared instead.
"This kind of control comes easy to your sister. It is what makes her so dangerous. But it does not come so easily to everyone." Something sly crept into his voice as he continued. "It did not come easily to your father, no matter what he pretends."
"You don't get to talk about my father. You want him dead!"
His uncle sighed heavily. "Without control, Prince Zuko, you are as dangerous to yourself as you are to your enemies. Master Jeong Jeong was not wrong about that."
Zuko ignored him. There was nothing else he could do.
His uncle took this as an invitation to fill the silence. "Master Jeong Jeong thinks too much like Sozin. He too believed firebending was different from all other bending, special. It is only that Jeong Jeong sees this as a bad thing. But they are both wrong. All the elements are dangerous, Nephew. An earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, these can kill as easily as a wildfire." His uncle sat back down beneath the tree and closed his eyes. "Feel the sun, Prince Zuko. It is easy out here on a lovely day like this, but you can feel it inside the palace too. It is inside all living things. We take it in with our food. Your leaf is full of the sunlight that fell on it as it grew, and it gives it back to us as fire. Everything alive has sunlight and fire within it. Fire is a living thing. It needs food to eat, air to breathe, and it can die. It is dangerous, my nephew, but life is dangerous, and fire is life."
"I know why you're teaching me all of this." Zuko snarled with frustration, rubbing furiously at a misplaced line of charcoal. It only served to turn the line into a dark smudge, and get black all over his fingers. "It's useless. You're just trying to keep me distracted."
Master Piandao chuckled. "Well Prince Zuko, I'm sure your uncle would love it if you would develop some interests other than spying and trying to sneak out."
Zuko refrained from pointing out that he didn't try to sneak out. It was the one thing he was actually good at. "You and my uncle want to keep me busy so I forget you're trying to kill my father and set me up as a puppet."
"So he has a king and, there's no need for false modesty, the best swordsman in the Fire Nation, distracting you." Master Piandao raised his eyebrows. "A little overqualified for babysitters, don't you think?"
"Well what else am I supposed to think?" he burst out. "You're not teaching me anything useful! Just calligraphy and sketching, and how to arrange a garden, nothing a firelord would actually use!"
Master Piandao watched him pensively until he finished. "Useless, huh? I'm so sorry you forgot everything I taught you before."
Zuko flushed. "It's not like that. You're not preparing me for sword training now."
"No I'm not."
"At least you admit it," Zuko said sulkily. "Everybody else pretends they really want me to rule the Fire Nation."
Master Piandao smiled sharply. "I'm not trying to teach you calligraphy and sketching, Prince Zuko. I'm trying to teach you to make a plan, and the patience and flexibility to carry it out. I am trying to teach you to take in every detail of the world around you and yet to never loose sight of the big picture, because the big picture is the way that all those details fit together. These are exactly the skills you will need as Firelord. Your father made sure your sister has them. You might want to think about why he didn't do the same for you."
"Now, leave your sketch. Look around, tell me about where you are."
Zuko unclenched his jaw, shoving down his anger. "I'm in a garden at the royal palace in Omashu. There's a maple-peach tree over there my uncle likes. Look, I don't know what you want."
"Let me tell you what I see, Prince Zuko." Master Piandao cast his eye on the garden wall. "The garden is small, with high walls. In the middle, there is a large well with a pump. There are several of these gardens, all with wells and high walls, all deep inside the palace. A source of water and fresh fruit in case of siege. I see a palace that was once a fortress, in the middle of a city swollen with refugees fleeing the Fire Nation invasion. I see a kingdom born from the war, ruled by a street kid who rose to fill the vacuum left when the governor from Ba Sing Se and his army left. I see one of only two great Earth Kingdom strongholds left. I see a city that has five years at most before the Fire Nation army arrives on its doorstep, and which has no real hope of fighting them off."
Zuko shot him a dark look. He wondered if Master Piandao realized be had given him a timeline. Five years at most. "Am I supposed to feel sorry for him? He's holding me prisoner."
"He is teaching you, the son of his greatest enemy, how to run a country, knowing that if your uncle fails, you might be running his."
Zuko silently glowered.
"Prince Zuko," he said, putting his shoulder. "The skills we're giving you won't disappear if side against us later. Consider what you're fighting for, and if maybe temporary compliance might work better." He hesitated, and then continued, "Your uncle loves you. At least acknowledge he wants the best for you."
"He doesn't love me," Zuko snapped. "He loves the person he thinks he can make me into."
Master Piandao sighed "I hope someday you realize how wrong you are about that, Prince Zuko."
The wall rumbled open with the disquieting sound of stone grinding against stone. Zuko yanked his foot up out of sight into the air vent just in time. His uncle's footsteps echoed in the empty space, along with his exhausted sigh. Zuko twisted around in the cramped tunnel until he faced out, only a single soft grunt escaping him. Anxiously, he glanced down at his uncle, but he didn't seem to have heard it.
His uncle sat down on Zuko's bed. The silence hung heavily around the room. Zuko was just about to turn back around and crawl his way up the air shaft when his uncle began to speak. "Do you know, Nephew, I learned to airbend from my own past life? His name was Aang, and he is a little younger than you are now."
Zuko didn't answer.
"The first time I saw him, I thought he was a hallucination, brought on by grief. I had watched my son die only four says before." His uncle sank into silence again, as if it were an old companion, but eventually, he continued. "I was too… lost, despairing, to learn from him then. I went home instead, and my father was dead, and I did not have it in me to fight him for the throne. If I had, none of us would be in this mess."
Zuko felt paralyzed, trapped.
"I have loved you since I first saw you, my nephew. I see you as a son now, but that is not because I loved you any less back then. I see now that you have no one else. My love for you is not a reflection of what I felt for Lu Ten. I will not stop missing him and stop loving you." He drew in a shuddering breath, thick with unshed tears. "I will put you on the throne because I cannot take it, and I have no one else. But I love you because you are Zuko."
When Zuko climbed out of the shaft, hid uncle stood ready with his arms open to help him down.