The train sped down the tracks, taking Zuko to the Fire Nation. Taking him home.
Despite the scream of the steam whistle, the clattering of the tracks, and the prattling of Ty Lee, Zuko felt deaf. All sound felt like he was underwater, muted and distant. Like he was back at the North Pole, drowning.
He felt the old anger rising up, making him snappish; the old pain in his scar, tainting his dreams when he slept. It was hard to remember his mother through the blinding pain, the pall cast over all his childhood by the day of the duel.
He did his katas, watching his flames light up the corners of the empty luggage car he practiced in. Zuko used to see things in the flames. His father. The Avatar. Now he saw nothing at all. He was hesitant to call it an improvement, because more than pain and anger, he felt numb. Even when Azula offered to teach him blue-hot firebending, he accepted with bored disinterest. It was just an excuse to torture him anyway, and she lost most of her interest in it when she discovered he couldn't be "accidentally" singed anymore. The part of her that still was interested, and showed up to spar with hungry eyes, made him feel sick to his stomach. As if he weren't having enough trouble keeping down food.
The one part of his day that differentiated itself from yesterday and tomorrow and the endless blur of weeks to come was his visits with Uncle Iroh. He could only visit briefly, because the guards would get suspicious if he wanted to spend too much time alone with the prisoner.
"I brought you tea," Zuko said, perhaps feeling the need to explain the tray and tea set he had brought. He folded out the legs of the tray and set it down in front of Iroh, who was manacled securely to the wall, his hands covered in thick bandages that made him look like he was wearing mittens. Azula had discovered unique ways of preventing prisoners from bending.
The motion of the train sent ripples through the tea that Zuko poured. "I hope it's up to your standards. I did learn from the best."
Iroh awkwardly wrapped his hand around a tea cup and raised it to his lips. "Small talk is not your forte, nephew." He sipped. "Tea, on the other hand…"
"I brought the go board, in case you would like to finish yesterday's game."
"Not necessary. You had me beaten in five moves anyway."
Zuko half-grinned. His uncle was being more than generous.
"So, what did you come to talk about?"
Zuko shook his head. "Nothing. I have everything I want. With the Earth Kingdom fallen, it's only a matter of time until the Avatar and his friends are rounded up."
Iroh nodded. "Then I am happy for you."
"You're happy." Anger welled up in Zuko, burning through his tear ducts and reddening his eyes. "Why'd you help the Avatar escape!? We had him! Do you know what my father will say--"
"You know what your father will say. He will be displeased, and you will go unloved."
"That's not the point! The Avatar is a threat to the Fire Nation. And all enemies of the Fire Nation…" Zuko broke off. His uncle had made himself an enemy of the Fire Nation.
"Finish the lesson, Prince Zuko. All enemies of the Fire Nation must be turned to ash if the flowers of peace are ever to blossom. And though ashes do make for very fertile soil, I've never known any plant to blossom if seeds are not laid."
"You talk in circles," Zuko complained, crossing his arms. "You told me to think things through and I did. I joined forces with Azula for the good of the Fire Nation."
"I don't care about the good of the Fire Nation!" Iroh shouted with anger that put all of Zuko's tantrums to shame. "The good of the Fire Nation will not bring my son back and it will not make you happy. Your father imposes conditions on his love, and as long as you chase after it he will always dangle it one step ahead of you and call it being a good father." The anger was snuffed out as quickly as it had started. Iroh hung his head. "I'm ashamed to say I let my son Lu Ten believe the same. He died never knowing how much I cared for him. I will not make the same mistake twice. All I want is for you to be happy, and continuing down the course you have laid for yourself will not accomplish that."
There was silence for long minutes. Zuko felt numbness edging out every other emotion. He poured himself some tea and drank it, for lack of anything better to do.
"Honor. Pah!" Iroh laughed. "A boy your age should be chasing girls, not honor or glory."
"And a man your age should be enjoying retirement, not moldering in a dungeon."
Iroh shrugged good-naturedly despite his restraints. "As I have always said, fate has a sense of humor."
"I don't care about fate." Wielding his flames like a knife, Zuko cut through his uncle's bonds. Then he melted the lock on the door. "You're no threat to the Fire Nation. You care more about tea than overthrowing an empire."
"What can I say? My priorities are well-placed." Iroh rubbed his wrists. "I hate to seem ungrateful, but you're being reckless again. Refusing to think through the consequences of your actions. Freeing me…"
"I've thought about the consequences." Zuko said. Then he did a funny thing. He chortled. "I just don't care about them. Go. Get out of here. You want me to be happy, then go live out the rest of your days in peace. No punishment can take away that. Besides, I can always say you escaped."
"That you could," Iroh said, taking one last sip of tea before vomiting out a blast that tore through the wall. "Very good tea, nephew!"
He walked to the hole in the wall, watching the landscape streaming by. "I fear it will not be as much fun to be free without you at my side."
"I'd only hold you back. Having some ill-tempered renegade along would drag you down."
"No, Zuko. If there's one thing you've never done, it's darken my days." He looked back. "Give my regards to your father. Tell him his brother still loves him."
"I will, uncle." Zuko bowed deeply. "Take care of yourself."
Iroh returned the bow. "You take care of yourself. I won't be around to do it for you."
And without another word, he stepped out into the wide open world.
Zuko smiled, raised a ball of fire to his face, and prepared to receive another scar. He'd thought about the consequences. He always had his father's disappointment branding him. It was only right that he wear a mark for his uncle's love.
The pain came and he welcomed it. It was better than feeling numb.