Disclaimer: When I can find a lantern for my brainwashing room and can get the real owners inside, this will change, but for now I sadly own nothing.
This was written before Season 3 aired, so everyone is still in Ba Sing Se but are making preparations to journey back home soon.
The prince stared at the iron door handle, the keys warm from being held so tightly in his fist. A guard stood on either side of the entrance of the cell, pretending to ignore him but watching Zuko curiously from the corners of their eyes. The young prince's surprise arrival had disrupted their conversation and they were eager for him to leave, but the young man just stood there, staring at the cell door.
Iroh had been moved here a few weeks ago, after Azula decided that the cell he had been in wasn't secure enough to suite her. Zuko stared at his reflection cast in the metallic door by the torch light; this was the first time since then that he was going to try to talk to his uncle.
It wasn't that the prince had forgotten him in all of this change, indeed it was this dramatic change that made him think of Iroh.
Like the way the aroma of freshly brewed tea had been replaced by harshly perfumed incense, how the warm, caring smile of his uncle had become the amused smirk of his sister. How suddenly it had become more difficult to fall asleep in that king sized, feather bed, than it had ever been on the hard ground.
No, the change, though overall welcome, made him eager to see his uncle, it was something else that kept him away. A certain dread that barricaded him from that room, something that he had too much pride to admit to himself was guilt.
Zuko shoved the key into the slot; He wasn't going to hide from the old man, he had done nothing wrong. It was Iroh who had made the potentially fatal mistake, and for that very reason he must face him now; he had to talk some sense into Iroh.
The clash of metal echoed through the room as the heavy door shut, Zuko stood in the musty cell, momentarily forgetting the words he had carefully rehearsed in his mind; he hadn't realized the chamber's conditions were so terrible. Iroh had nothing but a thin cot to sleep in on these dirty, cold, floors. But these filthy surroundings kept Zuko's attention only until he saw the state of his uncle; he'd never seen his elder in such a condition, the fine robes he had bought to serve the earth king in were torn and stained beyond all hope of repair, a nauseating stench hung in the air; a smell from weeks of being denied proper hygiene and the chamber pot in the corner. Silver hair had fallen out of its braid and was all askew, some of it hanging in his face. Or at least Zuko thought it was, he couldn't really see, because just like the last time he had tried to talk to his uncle, Iroh wouldn't turn around.
The prince's heart ached at the sight of him, while his mind reminded him that Iroh had betrayed him and their nation, he'd helped the avatar get away; that act could destroy them all.
Iroh would have been happy to live out the rest of his life in Ba Sing Se brewing tea for ungrateful commoners. He didn't care about what happened to the Fire nation anymore, he'd forgotten what it meant to be a prince.
That's what he had always thought to himself upstairs in the palace when this sickly shame started to creep in, but now, looking at the old man, these thoughts held no cure for his guilt.
"You brought this on yourself, Uncle," Zuko said, although he was speaking just as much to himself as he was the old man. "we could have returned together, you could have been a hero! You would have been called the dragon of the west again, people would have remembered you as the great man that helped finally capture the avatar and saved our nation, but you chose to betray us!"
Zuko waited, waited for some kind of denial of wrong doing, for a wise proverb, an apology or even an outrage. But he received nothing in response, Iroh didn't even nod his head. Zuko was not someone used to being ignored, it should have angered him, it would have been easier to get angry, but no matter how much he tried, Zuko couldn't.
"Do you understand what you've done?" He asked. "That waterbender that you let take him has healing powers and sacred water. If she revives him the threat to our world will return and the search will begin all over again!"
Still Iroh said nothing, he never even flinched.
Again Zuko tried to be angry, to let the heat of his fury melt away this guilt, this unbearable pain that was gnawing at his insides, why won't the old fool admit that he had done anything wrong? Zuko knew that what he had done was unforgivable, but this was his father's brother, "Listen to me, Uncle, it might not be too late for you," He said. "you are a great war hero, a member of our family; if you will reswear your loyalty and beg for mercy then father may still forgive you. He might let you redeem yourself."
Zuko knew the chances for Ozai's forgiveness was about as great as Iroh ever begging to anyone. Which was to say that he had a better chance of that watertribe girl ever offering to heal his scar again; despite the odds Zuko hoped.
The old man never flinched.
"Uncle, talk to me," Zuko half begged, half commanded. "just look at me! Please."
Iroh might have moved a little, but Zuko couldn't be sure in the dim light.
"What did you want me to do?!" Zuko screamed suddenly and the old man jerked in surprise. "To give it all up?! To help the avatar and let him destroy my father and your brother?! No, Uncle. I've worked too hard for too long to let it all slip away from me again; Now I have my honor and birthright back and I can finally go home." He paused to catch his breath, watching his uncle for any movement, any reaction at all. "Why can't you understand that? Is it because you're afraid of Azula?"
Of course Iroh said nothing.
"I can talk to her for you, and she can talk to father, but you have to talk to me first. . ."
For a moment Zuko almost reached out to touch him, but his hand stayed glued to his side, partially out of pride, and partially because he didn't know if he could take it if his uncle pulled away from him.
"Uncle, please," A small voice echoed through the cell. "there's not much time, we're leaving soon, after we touch shore, there's nothing I can do."
A sad sigh escaped the old man but nothing more.
Minutes later the metal door clanged shut, Zuko would not humiliate himself any further by continuing to beg. He'd leave now and let all of this sink through to Iroh, Zuko would return tomorrow, perhaps then his uncle could to be reasoned with.
His angry steps echoed through the stone hall as he strode through the twisty corridor, passing dozens of empty cells and the agents Azula had posted though out the passageway to guard the dragon of the west. But as he approached the steps, the steps that would take him back into the palace, Zuko's stride slowed to a stop.
He was alone now, out of the sight of the Dia Lee until he climbed these stairs, Zuko slowly looked back, staring at the passage he had just come from, and felt his face fall out of its angry mask. For a few seconds he stood like this, feeling as if he were going to be sick, before Zuko closed his eyes and turned back to the stairwell.
The old prince was again alone in his dark chamber.
He rubbed his eyes with a dirty sleeve, and stirred a little to stretch his legs, Iroh's joints were aching from days of living in this cold, hard prison. He had been quite hurt after spending a few days in here without Zuko sending him so much as a blanket, but then he doubted Zuko had realized that his predicament had been so harsh. He could tell by the silence that had drug on when Zuko entered the room, as if he were at a loss for words.
Would he say anything to Azula about it? Would she humor him? It all depended on how much she still needed her brother's cooperation. Iroh knew that Azula was speaking so sweetly in order to finish what she had tried the last time she had uttered promises of restored honor and a fathers love, and feared that he would meet his brother again bound in chains linked to his nephew's.
He had thought that Zuko was happy after the metamorphosis, but the change that had taken place within him had not been enough to change the prince completely; he was still Zuko. Which meant that while he could be content here in Ba Sing Se, he would never be able to resist what Azula had offered, that his desperation would blind him to the obvious danger; he would never willingly refuse the chance to earn his father's love or the redemption of this honor.
Iroh scoffed at the thought. For three long years that had been all the young prince thought about, he had obsessed himself over it, but Iroh, who had known him better than anyone else, had never once doubted Zuko's honor.
Despite anything his brother had said, what other people believed, Iroh had always known that deep down Zuko was a man of morals, honesty, determination and loyalty; this is what honor is made of, and that is something that no man, not even a Fire Lord, could take away.
No, Zuko's honor had never been broken until that night in the catacombs, but even still it could be mended by his actions just as it had been broken by them.
"My nephew," He spoke to the darkness in a weak raspy voice. "you have betrayed me for the ones that forsook you. You are treading a deadly path now, and to help you on this journey is a cunning, sweet-tongued viper. She will whisper lies in your ear to numb the pain in you're heart, she'll let you wear a crown to give you enough pride to hide the shame you feel. She will tell you that you're safe, but you'll know better, you'll know. . .
"You'll see that nothing she offers, these things that you've yearned for for so long, can ease your feelings of self loathing. You are suddenly surrounded by people who bow and treat you with the respect you believe you deserve, but you have never been more alone, little one. To be alone was your choice, I won't be there to help you this time, but I will be there for you when you realize the path is getting darker as you tread.
"I will forgive you, Zuko, but first you must realize what you have done, you must decide for yourself whether all of this is truly as great as you thought it would be, whether it is among these people that you belong."
He sat back down and folded his hands into his sleeves as he leaned against the wall. "But you had better act quickly if you are to act at all, Zuko," He spoke quietly into the empty room. "because after we leave shore, there will be nothing I can do."
I had wanted to post this before season three, unfortunately it only made it to my DA account before then.