A small fanfiction, featuring the events immediately after Zuko's sentence to banishment. Strange that I should write this...I'm not a particularly big fan of Zuko. I do like Iroh, though.
These characters belong to Nick, not me, yadda yadda, you all know the drill...
"He Doesn't Understand"
He doesn't understand.
My nephew sits on a bench at the opposite end of the room, shaking slightly. His hand traces the bandages over his eye.
He doesn't understand why his father has banished him. I believe he is still coming to terms with what has happened.
Truthfully, I never knew my nephew very well. Since he was born, I have always viewed him as an appendage of his father. Only after he was given his burn-mark, did I begin to recognize him as a separate entity and come to know him better.
I was surprised when I had heard that Zuko had openly stood against Zhou, and shown his disapproval of some of the...methods...of the Fire Nation's conquer tactics. For a boy who obviously idolizes his father, I would have expected his father's beliefs to have been imprinted more strongly into his mind. That fact that his father's ruthlessness is not present in the boy fills me with much relief.
Word of Prince Zuko's impending exile has spread through our land like...well, wildfire. Though blatently disrespectful towards Zhou by challenging him to Agni Kai, even after his humiliating defeat, banishment still seems a harsh punishment. But it does not take a shrewd mind to see it is more than that. By fighting Zhou, he has shown he does not share his father's approval of win-by-all-costs methods. For which his father, as well as others, have come to question the loyalty of Prince Zuko towards his homeland.
Of course, this is rubbish. What they truly mean is they question whether Prince Zuko will be willing to carry on the Fire Nation's invasion in the same tone when he inherits the throne. They are worried he may stop the invasion to seek peace.
I know this. I know this through experiance. I have no illusions about the true intents of the Fire Nation and its mission of conquest. I used to...before I decided to retire from the military.
Prince Zuko's hand has not left his bandages. Looking at him, I can see we share something important in common: niether of us have any real desire to continue the war. We both love our homeland, and wish to see it prosper, but never at the unjust suffering of others.
When I first saw my nephew after his fight with Zhou, before he was sentenced to exile, I asked him why he challened the man.
"I didn't like the smell," he answered quietly.
I knew from then we shared a link. The smell of burning flesh after a battle-nay, a slaughter-had become as repulsive to him as to me. My nephew probably hadn't seen very many battles before he witnessed commander Zhou's attack on a water tribe. The fact that he tried to stop Zhou shows he has enough humanity in him to understand that killing civilians-even those of the enemy-is wrong.
A trait my brother and his council consider a sign of disloyalty. Disgusting.
My thoughts return to Prince Zuko when I see him flinch in pain and place a hand over his eye bandage. It takes him several moments before he realizes the source of pain: salty tears trickling from his eyes down to his chin. He catches my gaze and blushes furiously, the tears evaporating from his skin in a tiny puff of steam.
Poor boy. Facing exilation from his home and he cannot even be afforded the relief of crying: the burn to his eye causes too much pain. Perhaps even more tragically, he cannot cry because as a firebender-as a prince of firebenders-it is considered shameful to show weakness. Ever.
I walk over and sit next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder in comfort. He twitches, but does not push away. Normally, his pride would not allow it, but the boy is still too numb. Trying to understand his banishment placed onto him by his father; trying to understand the gilt of his idol that has come off on his hands.
This would have never happened if Zuko's mother were still alive. I heave a sigh. No sense in lamenting the past. Tomorrow I will see my brother to protest this cruel sentence he has laid on his own son. For now, I will do what I can to comfort my nephew.
I go prepare us some tea.
He does not understand.
My brother sits before my throne, unable to comprehend why I have refused his plea to relieve Zuko of his sentence. His outside is calm and controlled, but his slight movements betray his anger underneath, like the twitching of a cat's tail.
He is livid.
"You realize that by exiling Prince Zuko, you will be forcing him into foriegn lands who will have nothing but hostile intentions towards the prince of their most hated enemy?" he asks, voice slightly strained.
"By exiling Zuko into those foriegn and hostile lands," I answer smoothly, "he will be exposed to the true nature of our enemy, and come to understand that they are not people worthy of any mercy."
My older brother's eyes narrow. I count the steps between him and I. Twenty. That should give me enough time to strike should he become angered enough to attack.
"You would exile him...because he does not approve of the kind of slaughter Zhou was engaging in?"
"I would exile him" I respond, growing increasingly annoyed at my brother's inane questioning, "because his challenge of Captain Zhou shows that he does not support the Fire Nation's conquest of..."
"That he does not support YOUR methods of conquest...!"
"MY ways ARE the Fire Nation's ways!" I shout, immediately regretting losing control.
"I see," Iroh says, that knowing look on his face. What I would give to smite that look off his face. Better yet, to smite him.
I reign myself back in and start over. "My son will be banished from these lands until he comes to appreciate the Fire Nation and the good it is bringing to those barbarian lands. He will not be welcome home until he learns to respect his superiors, and understands that sometimes drastic actions must be taken for the greater good of the nation."
Iroh's eyes flash. "Since when was the extermination and enslavement of others for the benefit of...!"
"We are not here to argue politics, brother," I hiss, feeling my temper flare once again at a few simple words of his. I feel my loathing of him growing to the point I could choke on it. A thin smile forms at my lips; I will not let him get the better of me. "If I remember correctly, dear brother Iroh, it was your disdain of the Fire Nation's conquests that cost you the throne." I pause to let the words sink in. "When you quit-no, forgive me, 'retired'-from the military, and swore you would never participate in the 'atrocities' committed by our nation again, father was beside himself with outrage! Imagine his hero son, a prince and warrior of legends, saying 'No more!' What kind of king would that make, one that would do away with what our nation has strived for two generations to achieve? Which is why, older brother, you were stripped of your right to the throne to 'retire' into obscurity!"
"Leaving a nice opening for you, I suppose..." Iroh notes. The torches in the room flare as I struggle to resist the urge to reduce him to cinder. "But we are not here to reminice about the past, either..."
"Not so, brother. You see, like the Avatar cycle, history repeats itself. And I have no use for a son who refuses to serve his father and his nation to the fullest. He WILL be banished." I answer resolutely. I can see Iroh squirm under the wieght of the finality of my decision, filling me with a sense of satisfaction.
"You cannot! Ozai...!"
"Lord Ozai!" I snap. A tense silence fills the room. I recount the steps. Still twenty. A sneer curls my mouth as I stare directly into my brother's angry eyes. "Very well. Your pleas have touched me. I will terminate my son's exile on the completion of one task."
Hope sparks in Iroh's eyes. My smile deepens. "That being...?" he asks.
"He must find the Avatar, capture it, and bring it to me."
Iroh's jaw drops. He pales, then flushes in anger. "When he achieves that, he will be welcome home," I finish.
My brother's famed calm and control is gone now, and I can see his anger openly. The Avatar has been missing for almost a century; looking for the last Airbender would be nothing more than a wild goosechase. Zuko will do it nonetheless, because he is desparate to win favor again after his defiance and humiliation at the hands of Captain Zhou. Both my brother and I know this, and I can see his seething at it.
Unexpectedly, he calms, and smiles up at me. "I am sure with my training, Price Zuko will be fully able to capture the Avatar."
This time, it is my jaw that drops. "Training...?"
"Yes. As you said, this is a learning experiance for Prince Zuko. How appropriate his Uncle should teach him firebending skills while he learns the ways of war and the world."
No! "I forbid it!"
"Do you?" Iroh asks, a dangerous look on his face. "What kind of message would that send to the people, claiming Prince Zuko's exile as a means to educate him, only to then refuse a publicly made volunteer to teach him fighting skills by the great war hero, the retired General Iroh?"
I clench my teeth and the torches flare up again. Damn him. Damn him! Iroh will undoubtedly nurture the boy's...weakness...if he were to travel with him, and encourage his own flawed way of thinking. Plus, if under the tutalige of Iroh, the boy's powers could become great enough to become a threat even to me someday...
But...but...there is nothing I can do. Denying Iroh would point out my true motives behind Zuko's exile, and would create a ripple of questioning amoung my people I cannot afford. Furthermore, despite being retired, Iroh still retains much of the sway he had when he was a famed war hero. I have no doubts that Iroh would use his influence to stir and inflate trouble should I decide to refuse his...volunteering.
Dammit. In order to keep face, I must comply. "Very well," I hiss.
"Thank you, brother. If you will excuse me, I must go and prepare for the journey ahead." He bows, and quickly exits, pratically skipping.
I sit seething, for several minutes, until new thoughts invade my mind. That is one of my greatest strengths: I do not let small obstacles stop me...I merely find ways through and around them.
Hm. A quest for the Avatar. That goosechase will keep them occupied for sometime, and out of my hair. Enough to get things in order here, if nessessary. Enough time to produce another heir, if Zuko proves to be too much of a risk.
And if he should find the Avatar...bah. The Avatar has been missing for nearly a hundred years. Unlikely, if not impossible, that it would suddenly show up now.
I rise up from my thone and exit the hall. The torches extinguish as I leave the room.
He doesn't understand.
Somehow, somewhere, my father has made a mistake. This is the only reason possible that he would banish me.
He believes me disloyal to the Fire Nation, though nothing could be further from the truth. I can't say I'm...entirely surprised he was led to that conclusion, though, with snakes like Zhou whispering in his ear. I look over the rim of my ship to see Zhou at the docks, watching as I am about to set sail into banishment. He whispers something to one of his men and they snigger.
I would give my kingdom to wipe that smug look of satisfaction of his face. But that option isn't availible. I've already lost my kingdom...I couldn't wipe of that smile before, and I certainly can't now.
Disgusted, I spin around to look at the sea. Strange, the ocean never looked so big on the maps in my father's war rooms...
My father... I grit my teeth. For the first time in my life, I am angry with him. Angry that he would believe me a traitor. Angry that he would banish me, even for my "impertinence". Angry that he was able to do it without a second thought. Do I truly mean so little to him? That he would exile me into oblivion and not even bother to see me off...?
For the first time in my life, I feel that my father is WRONG. Always, always, my father has been just and right. Never wavering, he fought the lesser peoples to bring the great Fire Nation's rule to the world. He was a hero.
He still is a hero, but he is wrong: about my loyalty, about my punishment, about ME. Once he is shown the error of his judgements,he will take action to restore things to how they should be.
I will prove him wrong. I will prove them all wrong. I will show my valor, my loyalty, my worth to such a degree father will be proud to embrace me and call me his son.
The key to success. A thought that makes my heart soar and my stomach plummet at the same time. Only upon his capture can I return home. I am relieved and grateful father would give me an opportunity to redeem myself. But...no one has laid eyes on the Avatar for almost a century. How is one supposed to FIND him? Also, he is the master of all elements, and has had plenty of time to perfect his technique. How is one supposed to CAPTURE him? It is hard to keep hope with these prospects...
NO! I will not give up! I will not surrender! Having doubts is weaknessand weakness will only lead to defeat. I will not let Zhou and others have the satisfation of seeing me defeated. The Avatar WILL be captured by me, and I shall be welcome home once more. Father specifically chose this difficult task to test me. The fact that he left me to capture this threat to our nation shows he does have great faith in me...despite my banishment.
I turn away from the endless stretch of sea and turn back to land. Back to the last few glimpses of my home until I am sent away for...for...
Until I capture the Avatar. I let out a short breath.
I look at everything, trying to drink in all of my land in before I leave it behind. A hand clasps my shoulder. I start at the contact, and look over to find...Uncle Iroh!
"Uncle...what are you doing here?" I ask, surprised. "Come to see me off?" I add bitterly.
Uncle blinks. "Why, Prince Zuko, I am here to train you for when you face the Avatar...no easy task, that...surely you were told..." he states, as if it were the most completely obvious thing in the whole world. I am dumbfounded.
"No one has informed me..."
"Mm, I suppose not," my Uncle responds lazily, scratching his chin, "as I only recently publically announced I would be volunteering to train you while you were away. I have been busy preparing my things: books, maps, tea blends..." He looks very pleased with his little surprise. For several moments, I say nothing. I am so grateful, I could hug the man, but I restrain myself, as is proper.
"I am surprised father did not inform me about this..." I finally manage to say. Uncle Iroh's eyes darken for a moment.
"I am sure he has informed you about the Avatar...?" he asks, changing the course of the conversation quickly. I nod vigorously in affirmation.
The Avatar. I will capture him. I MUST.
A crewman shouts something to my Uncle, but I am not listening. I am looking at my home. The dark soil, the proud buildings, the fuming mountain off in the distance, the angry red morning sky. Home.
Uncle puts his hand on my shoulder. "Prince Zuko, it is about time to cast off. Are you ready to go?"
I take a deep breath, as if I could take my home with me and keep it with me inside my lungs.