Notes: Just a short oneshot, sprung out of a off-hand sentence in chapter I'm writing for another story. No relation to any of my other AU's.
"It's not fair!" Azula shrieked, and Zuko couldn't help but wince. She had been going on and on like this all morning, and while he liked finally having something hold over her, she could shrill like a real bat-hyena when she wanted.
"Sorry, 'Zula," he grinned, "No girls allowed."
"It's not fair," she repeated, as if that would change anything. A flicker of orange flame danced in between her fingers. "I'm better at firebending. Father should be taking me to the Fire Fields!"
Normally, her words would have gotten to him. Not today. Not when he finally had something she didn't. "Yeah, but you're a Princess." He jerked a thumb to his chest. "And I'm a Prince. So I'm better. Ha." With that he grabbed his pack and sped off down the hall, leaving his sister to seethe and smoke behind him.
He had been looking forward to this long promised trip since, forever. All firebenders were supposed to make the pilgrimage at least one point in their childhood. It was said that the Fire Fields had special powers to those who understood them, and even at six years old, Zuko instinctively knew that he would have to learn all he could to keep up with his little sister.
He rounded the last corner to the main chamber, fully expecting for his father to be there. Instead, all he saw was Mother and an aged man standing together, talking. Zuko slowed from a run to a reluctant walk. "Mom? Where's Father?"
Ursa glanced to the aged man and instantly, Zuko's heart sank. His mother knelt down so that she was at his height, a bright smile on her face. But her voice took on a high-type of quality; the same way his voice also got when he was upset, but trying not to show it. "Zuko, something important has come up. Your father has to attend a war meeting, and he cannot get away. But your uncle, Prince Iroh has agreed to take you. You do remember your uncle?"
Zuko glanced up at the man, recognizing him at last. He had met him a few times, when he was younger, and knew that he was cousin Lu Ten's father. But the crowned prince of the Fire Nation had often been out overseeing battles, and he didn't know him at all. Zuko glanced back towards his mother, almost desperately. "But… Dad's supposed to take me… he said… he promised…"
"Zuko," and now her voice took on a sharper edge, although her eyes were kind. "I just told you that your esteemed uncle will take you instead. Remember your manners, now."
He swallowed hard, forcefully holding back tears. He wasn't a little boy anymore. He was nearly seven. Giving a nod he turned, and bowed low to the old man, murmuring. "Thank you, Uncle."
Zuko sighed loudly and crossed his arms, blowing a piece of hair out of his face that had fallen out of his phoenix tail. This carriage ride was taking forever. His uncle hadn't spoken, and while Zuko wasn't the most observant boy in the world, he felt the old man was just as uncomfortable with him as he was. Plus, Prince Iroh smelled like an old spice-chest.
This was supposed to be a father-son trip. Not an uncle-nephew trip. He sighed again and swung his legs back and forth, kicking the paneled wall in front of him a few times. Father hated it when he fidgeted, and his uncle probably would snap at him soon, too. He didn't care. This wasn't how the trip was supposed to go.
His boots hit the front of the carriage again with a loud thump, and he noticed Iroh give a little start of surprise, as if noticing the child next to him for the first time.
But when his uncle broke the silence it wasn't a rebuke at all. "So, Prince Zuko, I understand you are advancing to the second forms of firebending."
He shrugged a reply. He had, but Azula had already started those weeks ago, and she was younger than him. "'guess," he muttered.
"And are you enjoying them?"
Zuko glanced at the old man with mild surprise. What an odd question. Firebending was something that he had to do, because he was a firebender. He wasn't even that good at it, according to Father. The grownups always used the word required, and he had learned that meant something serious — not play.
Now Uncle had a slight smile on his face, as if he took Zuko's silence for an answer. Then he nodded once, almost as if to himself. Leaning forward, he spoke to their carriage driver. "You can stop here. We'll be back in a few minutes." Then he opened the small door, and gestured for Zuko to get out.
Curious, but knowing that any questions would be seen as rude, he stepped out and waited for his uncle to join them. At the request of his mother, he had dressed simply. Now, for the first time he noticed that Iroh had dressed much the same way and he didn't even have his crown in his topknot. But… how were they to be known as royalty without his crown? And where were the guards that always accompanied them?
Dozens of people were roaming around him, some glancing with overt curiosity at the carriage. But none of them were bowing. No one knew who he was. What… why…?
His uncle put a warm hand on his shoulder, and Zuko found himself being walked into the middle of the fray.
It took Zuko a few moments to realize that they were in a market-place. He had seen them before in the capital city, but he didn't like them much. He always had to stay in the palanquin and wait and be bored while servants brought pre-approved wares to show Mother. None of the royal family actually strode along the market… at least he hadn't, until now.
His uncle walked him to a booth, and ordered two small boxes of flaming-flakes. Meanwhile, Zuko's head couldn't twist around enough to see everything there was to see. Vendors calling out orders, beasts of all shapes and sizes calling loudly to one another in a petting zoo, kids laughing and chasing each other with… flaming fists?
Zuko stared in amazement. There were kids both younger and older than himself running through the throng of people, laughing, chasing each other with fists aflame. No… they were throwing balls of fire at one another! It was the exact move that he was having problems with, right now… and these other these kids were treating as if it was nothing. Even more, they were playing with their fire, and looking like it was actually fun.
Suddenly something flashed in front of his face. He threw up his arms to cover his head, but fireball had no malicious force behind it. It dissipated an instant, leaving just a feather touch of warmth against his arms. "TAG!" a girl called out.
Zuko froze, unsure what to do, unable to respond. He had only the company of a few play dates with noble boys before — activities that were strictly regulated. He didn't even know these kids' lineage. How was he supposed to —
A touch to his back drew his attention. He glanced upward to see Uncle smiling, his amber eyes dancing with mirth. "What are you waiting for, Zuko? She tagged you."
Zuko. Not Prince Zuko. Without knowing why, a smile lit up his face. He set off after the girl who had tagged him. She squealed in mock-terror and ran with her giggling friends. He gave chase and his right fist lighting into a glove of flame without hardly thinking about it. Soon he was one of a number of children; ducking and weaving under playfully thrown balls of fire.
Uncle called to him sometime later, and Zuko reluctantly peeled away from his new temporary friends. They still had the Fire Fields to visit, but now it didn't seem to be as important. Zuko was breathless, flushed with excitement. He grinned up at his uncle. "I didn't know that it was this easy." He lit his fist again, showing off his new move before letting the flame dissipate.
His uncle nodded wisely and handed him his now cold box of flakes, steering him back to the carriage. When he spoke next, it was a piece of advice -- the first of countless Zuko would receive in later years. "It is often far easier to learn when you are having fun doing it. Learn to find joy in every day activities, my nephew, and you will able to do many great things."