Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, or the world. I did make up flame-roses, however.
A/N: This piece is technically in honor of Irko week, which I hear is going on...somewhere. It turned out to be more of a Maiko/Irko piece, but whatever. I realized that I enjoy writing Iroh...I've never really tried him before.
Just pick the flower.
It wasn't like he had an aversion to flowers, really. Not even when it was a flame-rose, the most girly flower that existed, in Zuko's mind. Besides maybe panda lilies.
He had picked flowers before, usually for his mother. That thought brought a heavy pang, so he buried it quickly. And sometimes for Azula, too, when she wanted to burn their petals off one by one, and was too lazy to gather her own.
But picking this flower was a different matter. This flower was not for his mother, or for Azula, or even for him to wear in the clasp of his robe at a formal party.
Just pick it!
He needed something, after all. He slowly unclenched his hands from where they were clasped stubbornly behind his back, as if refusing to go through with this. He looked left and right, as if some nosy palace official was hiding behind a willow tree waiting to jump out and catch the crown price picking flame-roses.
His hand shot out suddenly, grabbing the largest and most open rose from the bush. He had meant to pluck it off so fast he wouldn't have time to think any more about it.
He had forgotten that flame-roses had thorns.
He didn't bite down quite fast enough on the cry. His face reddening, he looked around frantically, just waiting for a door or window to pop open and for someone to ask what was wrong.
Nothing happened. The only observers that he could see were the turtleducks, who were clustered around the pond's edge, watching with interest.
Zuko stuck his finger in his mouth, rapidly sucking away the pearl of blood that had appeared on his finger. Stupid flowers. Maybe they were more trouble than they were worth.
But he had to have something.
He tried again, this time making sure to make his grab in a place free of thorns. The flame-rose snapped off its stem easily. He held it gingerly between two fingers, wondering now where he could conceal it. It would get smashed in his pocket or his shirt. And he would rather fight an Agni Kai with Azula than be caught walking around the palace with a flower by choice. Especially since he couldn't tell anyone his reason for carrying it.
Maybe he could hide it somewhere. That was it. He'd get some water from the kitchens, then find an old weapons closet or something, and keep it there until he saw her again.
Cupping the rose against his chest, still looking around as furtively as if he'd stolen a priceless jewel, Zuko crept toward the palace door. If he could dart from pillar to pillar, maybe no one would see…
He ducked around the first post, looking over his shoulder, and ran into a surprisingly solid form.
He yelped on instinct, but because he was trying to keep a protective hold on the flower, his hands did not come down to break his fall. Fortunately, he was caught before he hit the stones.
"Well. Good afternoon, Prince Zuko. I didn't expect to see you here. Are you all right?"
"Uncle?" Zuko was too startled to do anything but stand there as Iroh righted him. He hid the flower behind his back in what he hoped was a quick and stealthy movement.
Iroh looked a little bemused, but he was smiling warmly as usual. "Don't you know gardens are places of peace and relaxation? Where are you going in such a hurry? Stop and smell the roses."
Zuko's hands tightened convulsively on the stem. Did his uncle know?
Iroh's broad hand patted him gently on the shoulder. "But I should be more considerate. After all, the young are always in a hurry, eh? You can afford to be slow when you get to be as old as me." He winked.
Zuko relaxed a fraction. Maybe he didn't know.
"I shouldn't keep you. Go on." Iroh gave him a tolerant smile and waved his hand expansively.
Zuko could have grinned. He was home free. He would just shift the flower around a little as he walked, and his uncle would never be the wiser.
"Oh, and you should put that lovely flower in some water soon. Otherwise, it will wilt."
Zuko froze. He knew that surprise had lain his features open; the embarrassment, defiance, guilt, horror. So much for being stealthy.
Iroh pretended not to notice his nephew's shock. "It is quite a beautiful specimen. A flame-rose, right? May I see it?"
Zuko swallowed. He couldn't see how things could get worse, so he stared at the flagstones and brought the flower from behind his back, holding it sheepishly in front of him.
"Ahhhhh." Iroh murmured in his gentle way. "One of the first of the season. See how the colors run together? Isn't nature wonderful?" He smiled peacefully, turning the rose in his fingers and admiring it from different angles. Then his smile grew shrewd.
"So, nephew. Who is it for?"
Zuko had dreaded that question, because he couldn't answer it without lying. There was no way he could tell anyone the truth. Only his mother had understood. If she were here, she would have helped him sneak the flower. She would have smiled tenderly at his motives. She had approved.
No one else would. No one else would understand his feelings. He had already overheard the words he'd dreaded. "Arrangement." "Betrothal." "Suitable." Zuko didn't know if she was suitable. And he was afraid of what he'd see in his father's eyes if he ever asked. Mocking. Cruel laughter. Fury. Bursts of fire or a dismissive shake of the head.
It had to stay secret. Or as secret as something could be kept in a royal palace.
"It's for…it's for…" Zuko scrambled for words. He had to come up with something quickly. "Um…"
"Don't worry," said his uncle, smiling again. "I understand." He looked at the flower again, this time with a more critical eye. Finally, he said, "Do you really think she will like it?"
Zuko was stunned speechless, which was fine, because he hadn't come up with an excuse anyway.
"Flowers are a thoughtful and considerate gift, my nephew," Iroh said matter-of-factly. "They are a good token for most young ladies. But she is not really 'most young ladies,' is she?"
Zuko's mouth was hanging open.
"Close your mouth, Prince Zuko. It is unbecoming, and spider-flies might get in." Iroh chuckled loudly at his own joke. Zuko shut his mouth, with effort.
"I don't know who you're talking about," he forced out, trying in vain to stop his neck and cheeks from turning red.
Iroh glanced at him. "Oh? That's unfortunate, nephew. I'm sure Mai will be very sad to hear you've forgotten who she is."
"How do you--?" Zuko had virtually given up on subtlety. He couldn't believe his uncle.
"I am very observant, Prince Zuko. I like to know what is going on, especially if it concerns my nephew. And pretty girls." Iroh winked again. Zuko also gave up trying to keep his whole face from turning the color of the palace walls.
Iroh looked at the flame-rose again. "Then again," he said to himself. "It is also a very thorny flower. Perhaps it is appropriate after all."
"You really don't think she'll like it?" Zuko burst out, dropping all pretense.
"She will like anything you give her," Iroh said calmly. "She is madly in love with you." Zuko wanted to crawl into the turtleduck pond and breathe through a reed for the next month. "But, I have always thought that the most meaningful people deserve a gift both practical and beautiful." He beamed. "Ah, good thing I attended the craftsmen's market this morning to buy a new sunghi horn. I have just the thing."
As if he had been waiting for this moment, Iroh drew a flat box out of his robe sleeve. He handed it to Zuko with a smile and expectant eyes.
Zuko lifted the box lid, still unable to believe this turn of events.
Resting on a bed of scarlet cloth inside was a flat silver knife. Its blade was perfectly symmetrical, and razor sharp on both edges. The hilt was also flat, and slightly curved to fit into the palm of a hand or the bend of a wrist. It was embossed with the design of a dragon, curling gracefully around the grip, its horns framing a tiny chip of black stone set at the very crown of the hilt.
It was one of the most ornate and beautifully crafted weapons Zuko had ever seen. It looked almost unreal.
While he stared, Iroh gently closed the box and pressed it deeper into Zuko hands. "It is yours. Although I hope you will choose to give it to someone with a…use…for it." He raised his graying eyebrows pointedly. As if to make absolutely sure his nephew got the message, he said, "I hear Mai has been learning the art of light weaponry lately."
Zuko nodded without really thinking about it. The image of the knife was burned into his mind's eye. And so were the beginnings of an elaborate fantasy involving Mai's reaction to him giving it to her.
Iroh clapped him on the back. "Good luck, Prince Zuko."
Those words penetrated Zuko's mind. Good luck. So his uncle approved too? He had believed he'd lost his only ally when his mother had disappeared. But maybe…
"Thank you, Uncle," he managed to croak out, giving Iroh a shaky grin. He tucked the knife inside his own robe pocket.
Iroh grinned back. "Just be careful, Zuko. Girls can be dangerous!" He pretended to look earnest. "Especially that one," he added in a stage whisper, winking.
Zuko thought he'd blushed enough for a lifetime. Pretty soon there'd be a black mark on the stones where he was standing from the heat of his embarrassment.
He was starting to walk again, still in a daze, when Iroh called out after him, "Oh, Zuko? What happened to your finger? It's bleeding."
"Um…the flame-rose stabbed me," Zuko admitted.
At this, Iroh took one look at the rose still in his hand and began to roar with laughter. Zuko stood there, completely nonplussed. He was even more confused when his uncle thrust the rose at him, still quaking with mirth.
"Here…nephew…" he managed between gasps. "Give Mai…this…too. It is even more like her than I suspected!" He held his stomach and laughed until he was wiping tears from the crinkled corners of his eyes.
"What's so funny, Uncle?"
"Nothing, Prince Zuko." Iroh gave one more quiet chuckle, as if to himself. "I hope everything goes very…well…for you." And with one last hefty pat on the back, Iroh wandered away toward the turtle duck pond, grinning into his beard.
Zuko looked after his uncle, shaking his head.
Privately, he'd always believed he was crazy.