Disclaimer: Still don't own Avatar
The guards of the 'Gates of Azulon' had spotted him on board the ship and immediately sent word to the palace. By the time the shipped docked, a palanquin was waiting for him. The palanquin bearers greeted him with a smile, but he ignored them and sat on the palanquin. After a moment's pause, the bearers immediately lifted the palanquin up and headed toward the palace.
He hadn't been home for more than a year, not since his son died. He hadn't even come home after hearing word of his father's death. He didn't challenge his brother's ascension to the throne. What was the point? He didn't have an heir to pass it down to. Lu Ten was gone. His life was gone. He gave a long sigh and stared unseeingly at the curtains in front of him.
Thoughts of many returns flashed in his mind. A five-year-old Lu Ten waiting for him with a smile on his face and running up to him even before the palanquin stopped. A eight-year-old Lu Ten running from the halls with his tutors and valets at his heels obviously trying to get him back to the school rooms where he belonged. A 10-year-old Lu Ten with his arms crossed and regarding his father with an angry scowl and asking when he could join him in the war efforts. And a 13-year-old Lu ten with a 4-year-old Zuko grinning and waving at the Palanquin waiting for him.
His flashbacks were immediately put to a halt when he spotted an 11-year-old boy squatting at the steps of the Fire Nation Palace, obviously waiting for him.
"Uncle!" Zuko bounded over to him with a wide smile on his face and his arms wide open waiting to engulf him.
Instead of letting him do so, he pushed Zuko's arms out of the way and continued to the palace. Had he looked back, he'd have seen the hurt and disbelief in his nephews eyes, but he didn't. But he did see Zuko's tutors, who were at the top of the steps, look to him with anger and confusion.
It was the first time that all the members of the remaining royal family had eaten their dinner together. Dinner was a silent event.
Half-way through the 5th course, "Where have you been brother?" Asked Ozai.
"Around" Iroh replied without even looking up from his food.
"You must have been to a lot of places, Uncle", Zuko said carefully and giving him a tentative smile, "can you tell me about them? And about you're travels too? Oh and – "
"Can we please continue this meal in silence?", Iroh gazed at Zuko coldly with his face set in a harsh frown.
This time, he didn't miss the flash of hurt in Zuko's amber eyes but instead of gentling down he merely glared continuously at his nephew. And he didn't miss the smirk Azula shot at her brother and her whispered "dumb-dumb" either.
In the past, he would have given Zuko a placating smile. Silently asking him to calm down and ignore his litter sister. But now, he just couldn't bring himself to care.
Zuko looked into his eyes, as if trying to look for something. When he obviously didn't, Zuko cleared his throat and stood up, faced his father, "May I be excused, father, I don't feel like eating anymore". Ozai gazed at him with a cruel smirk and nodded his permission.
Zuko bowed to his father before leaving and as their norm dictated, bowed to him as well before heading out of the room.
He was in his study and reading a scroll when a knock at his door interrupted him. He looked up to see his nephew walking over to his desk with smile and a gaze openly imploring him to soften.
He gazed blankly at his nephew, openly ignoring the request asked of him.
"Don't you have anything to do? As I recall, being crown prince does not afford you much time."
Zuko ignored his uncle's words and his equally unwelcoming glare, "Uncle, I beat everyone the Royal Fire Academy for Boys sent to spar with me, today!", he grinned triumphantly, "they mistook me for a guard's son at first because I was training with my Dual swords but I beat them without bending, and then when they found out I was the prince, they genuflected and asked forgiveness for their disrespect"
"Anyway I waved it off, and we sparred as we should and I still beat all of them, isn't that great?"
"OFCOURSE YOU WON!" standing up from his chair, he roared, "YOU ARE THE CROWN PRINCE OF THE FIRE NATION, AND EVEN BEING THE WEAKEST LINK, YOU ARE STILL ROYALTY, AND THAT MEANS YOU ARE EXPECTED TO BE STRONGER AND BETTER THAN MOST"
He ignored the look of utter shock on his nephews face. He had never called Zuko the weakest link as how his father, Fire Lord Azulon had openly dubbed Zuko at the Fire Nation Courts. He knew it had hurt the young boy and had, along with Ursa and Lu Ten tried to convince the young boy otherwise.
Taking his seat and regaining calm, "Now that you have shared your wonderful news, Prince Zuko, do you have anything of importance to say, if not, you are dismissed" he said acidly. He saw Zuko fighting for his composure, tears he wouldn't let down shining in his eyes.
He saw Zuko take a moment before clearing his throat, bowing to him "Forgive me for wasting you're time, General Iroh"
His startled and unexpectedly hurt gaze followed his nephew's back. His nephew had never stood on formality with him. Zuko would occasionally call his mother 'Lady' Ursa instead of 'Mom', call his cousin 'Prince' Lu Ten but never had he called him 'General' Iroh, he had always been 'Uncle'. Ursa had always been a tad bit jealous of Iroh for that, and Iroh had always good-naturedly teased his sister-in-law about it.
He stared at the door which his nephew just exited through, and not even a moment passed before it opened again, but this time, it was his old tutor who appeared before it.
"I am disappointed in you, Iroh"
Iroh gazed at his mentor. This was the oldest of the tutors of the Royal Family and had taught all the princes and princess (as Azula was the only female in generations) at one point in their lives before the spares were sent to the Royal Fire Academy at the age of 10. This man was the only one trusted with the education of the heir to the fire nation throne, the Crown Prince—Iroh, and now, Zuko. And he was the man who inducted him to the 'Order of the White Lotus'.
"I heard from the other tutors what you had done when you first arrived, and from the guards & maids what you had done at dinner last night and I heard what you had said to your nephew, in fact the whole palace probably heard", the old man calmly addressed him but his eyes flashed with anger, "the weakest link? You know that he is not as weak as he thinks he is and certainly not the weakling you're whole family believes him to be"
"I know master, I-I" He stammered, not quite knowing what to say.
"You're hurt because you lost your only son and like a true son of fire, you're trying to destroy the only thing that can possibly hurt you" His mentor said quietly, "but I cannot permit you to destroy this one"
"He is the future of the Fire Nation, and the only means to restore our honor once the Avatar returns to restore balance to the world", the old man sat down on the chair before the desk and fumbled with a package in his robes, "I am not going to be here forever to protect him from the poison his father is forcing on him, and I am not going to be here forever to bring him back to the right path when he has strayed, and I am not going to be here forever to make sure he just be the person HE truly is"
"Ursa isn't here anymore to help, but you are", the old man hands him the package "you know the history as I have told you and Lu Ten, but I have not told Zuko…He is yet too young to know his destiny and at this age it is not wise for us to rush him. After all, he also has to the burden of being Firelord in the future to worry about"
"You seem to speak from experience, Master"
"I knew a young boy who was told about his destiny at a tender age, and that didn't turn out so well"
He gazes at the package in his hands, knowing what was in it. Ursa had first presented him with it, thinking he would want it as he was the Crown Prince; but, he knew what it meant and did not accept the gift. Obviously, Ursa had left it to the wisest man in the Fire Nation to help Zuko should he ever need it.
"Master, you aren't going to die" he said gazing fully at the old man before him.
The older man smiled, "Not now but I certainly will, and it would be remiss of me not to prepare my successor"
Silence fell betwen the two men, Iroh was wise enough to wait, knowing there was to be more. And sure enough-
"Agni blessed your nephew with power he does not know how to tap into and control yet, a mind of an idealist, a spirit that fights against all odds, bravery to the point of foolishness, and a heart of gold, but Agni also gave him too much humility that he cannot even see his worth", the old man gave him a look that made him feel like the guilty little child he once was, "He is sensitive and is very much aware of his father's disappointment in him. And now, you're deportment validates what he suspects – that he matters to no one, anymore"
Iroh looked down guiltily, "I'm sorry, Master"
The old man smirks before standing up to leave. He paused at the door and regarded his old pupil, "I'm not the one you need to apologize too".
Iroh looks up at the old man and nodded understandingly.
"Thank you, Master Kuzon"
"Good, I have to return to my lessons, you can come in, after then"
"Wait, Master? How is my brother running the country? He was not trained for this position, he was not trained to run the land. All he knows is what most second sons know- to be a soldier"
With a hand on the doorframe, his master pins him down with a gaze, "He doesn't run the country, he runs the war"
"Then how- "
"Zuko runs the country, although he doesn't know it. He thinks we're merely testing his decision-making. The ministers go to Ozai, he dismisses them and commands them to make the best decision. The ministers or the other tutors and I ask Zuko what should be done in certain circumstances"
"Is it wise for an 11-year-old boy to run a country?"
"The ministers were told to make the best decision, and most, if not all came from your nephew. Should he make a faulty decision, I will surely intervene. He is nothing but capable in running this country; even at this young age, that much is sure"
Iroh was impatient to apologize to his nephew. He had spent the time thinking and he arrived to several uncomfortable truths. He didn't know how to make it up to the boy but he would gladly spend the rest of his life trying to.
He headed towards Zuko's school room. He found the door slightly open, he grinned knowing his old tutor did so intentionally. Voices unimpeded, flowed clearly to him.
"Master, do I have to have a wall of flame separating me from my own family?"
"Firelord Azulon and Firelord Ozai have a wall of flame separating us when we talk. Last night was the first time I've talked to dad without a wall of flame between us. Do I have to have a wall of flame separating me from my family?"
"It depends on what you want, Prince Zuko"
"The flame that separates the Firelord and his subjects on an elevated platform, is symbolic of the Firelord's sovereignty – and his duty to watch over and protect the nation. The flame also serves like a curtain of sorts, a barrier that protects him from the outside world; but do I have to have a barrier with my own family? Do I need to protect myself from them?"
"You never have before, Prince Zuko. No matter how many times you got burned you never did protect yourself"
"And you find that foolish?"
"Mom said that family protect each other"
"Your family, or what is left of it does not"
"You are unnervingly blunt today. Honest but blunt"
Peeking through the door, he saw his nephew heave a long sigh and regard Master Kuzon, "But Master, you said I should be like tea and spread color to the water around me…or something that sounded like that"
"You never give up, do you? You should not be as naïve as you sound right now, you are to be Fire Lord after all"
"You do realize that I'm eleven, the youngest Crown Prince since Firelord Azulon. Uncle Iroh was Crown Prince when he was 30 when Firelord Sozin died and Firelord Azulon took the throne when he was 53, I am the youngest crown prince you have encountered, my naïveté is excused"
Iroh had to bite his hand to keep from laughing and whooping. His nephew had addressed him as 'Uncle' and, he found it amusing to hear his nephew sounding like an adult when trying to prove he was a child. The fact that Zuko's naïveté knows no limits and apparently withstand the more rigorous training and education of the future firelord also had a hand in his amusement. The responsibility of crown prince never compared to being 'just' a prince of the firenation, and being such quickly disillussioned you to the trappings of royalty. He was glad he was 30 when he had to take that responsibility.
"hmm…You only seem to admit you are a child when it suits your purpose"
"Just as you taught me. Using certain truths to my advantage"
Iroh opened the door fully, "Trying your hand at politics all ready, nephew?"
Zuko immediately stood up from his seat and bowed to him, "General Iroh"
"Is it not why I am here, and not at the Royal Fire Academy. I am heir apparent to the Fire Nation Throne, politics and diplomacy will be necessary, I should practice it often"
Hearing such breaks his heart, because Zuko had always train, practice and work harder than anyone he knew. No one ever had to tell him to, he just did. He pushes himself to be better to be worthy. Humble to a fault. He probably didn't even see that he was born a natural ruler.
"Wise, young man" Iroh commented, "but will you be wise enough to understand that an old man can make mistakes and accept an apology?"
Zuko looks up at him surprisingly and hopefully. And that breaks his heart all over again. His nephew shouldn't be hopeful to receive gentleness but it should have been freely given to him.
"Will you forgive me, nephew? I have been selfish. I am sorry"
Zuko grinned and Iroh couldn't help but pulling him close and giving him one of the fiercest hug he could muster, hoping to protect him, hoping to be his barrier from the world.