I suppose I should tell you the truth. I've been traveling with the Doctor and my sense of time is all...wibbly wobbly. There is also an alarming lack of Wi-Fi on the TARDIS. However, back in my own time (albeit a few weeks later than I promised), and here is PART ONE of Chapter 14. Part Two will be here shortly-stick with me if you want to see the Blue Spirit... ;)
I own nothing from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The Prince's Slave
"There's a storm coming."
The prince tore his gaze from the sea to look at Iroh, standing with Lieutenant Jee. "There's not a cloud in the sky, Uncle. The weather is perfect."
"The storm is coming from the north. We should change course, nephew. It will not be safe sailing."
"The Avatar is traveling north and so shall we. Nothing is more important than finding him." Zuko replied dismissively.
Iroh arched his eyebrows. "Not even the lives of your men?"
"Their lives are in the service of the Fire Nation. Finding the Avatar is all that matters." Zuko growled, the glare in his eyes exaggerated further by his scar.
"You would throw their lives away?" Fury covered Jee's face at Zuko's rash words. "You're a spoiled prince, to be so careless.
"Lieutenant. You'd better learn some respect," Zuko admonished. "Or I will teach it to you."
"Please. You know nothing about respect. The way you speak to everyone, from your hard-working crew to your honored uncle, shows you know nothing about respect. The only person you care about is yourself and finding your precious Avatar."
Zuko faced him abruptly, shifting into a fighting stance, his teeth clenched and steam rising from his hands, reflecting the burning temper within him.
Jee mirrored his position, only to have Iroh order them to stop, standing between them to prevent any further action.
"Enough! We are all a bit tired from being at sea for so long. I am sure after a bowl of noodles, everyone will feel much better."
Jee scoffed and turned away, heading below deck with several other crew members.
"I'm not hungry, uncle, I'm annoyed," Zuko said through clenched teeth, his eyes trained on Jee's retreating form.
"A soothing cup of tea will calm your nerves, then," Iroh said. "Or perhaps a nice game of-"
"I do not want any of your hot leaf juice or your old man games, Uncle!" The young prince snapped, his golden eyes flashing. Iroh simply returned his gaze calmly.
"Then perhaps you would like to see to Katara, nephew. The approaching storm might be worrying her."
Zuko looked uncomfortable rather suddenly. Katara and the baby. How could he have forgotten their safety? He was a poor prince indeed to put the Avatar before their lives and the lives of his men. Abruptly, the prince turned and went below deck, leaving behind all thoughts of the still fuming lieutenant.
"Doesn't even care about our lives. All he cares about is the damned Avatar," Jee muttered as he and the men sat around a fire later that night. "He would let all our lives be tossed away in his reckless pursuit. I'm sick of taking his orders! Who does he think he is?"
"Do you really want to know?" Iroh's quiet voice pierced the room as he walked in the door.
The crew jumped to their feet. "General!"
"May I join you?" Iroh's eyes smiled.
"Of—of course, general. Please, sit." They shifted awkwardly, uncertain of how the general would take the careless words they had been speaking of their prince.
"My nephew is a complicated young man. There is a reason that the prince is the way he is. You must not judge him so harshly."
The men grew quiet, still, anticipating a story as the old general took a seat by the fire, his eyes taking on a faraway look.
Iroh was no longer among the ship soldiers, but back in that war room, so many years ago. Zuko—a mere boy with caring, soulful eyes—standing up to the Fire Lord, something which learned generals did not dare to consider even in the privacy of their own thoughts.
"You can't sacrifice an entire division like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them?"
"They die for the sake of the Fire Nation."
"You knew they didn't have a chance! You knew they went there to die. They trusted your orders!"
Iroh shook his old head ever so slightly. "The Fire Lord was furious. He said that Prince Zuko's challenge of the general was a complete act of disrespect and there was only one way to remedy it—the Agni Kai. Prince Zuko was not afraid, but he misunderstood. In speaking out against the general in the Fire Lord's war room, he had disrespected the Fire Lord. He had to duel his own father."
The old general sighed. "Zuko was right, you see? But it was not his place to speak out. And there were dire consequences. When he saw it was his father in the Agni Kai, he begged for mercy.
"Please, father, I only had the Fire Nation's best interests at heart! I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!"
"You will fight for your honor!"
"I meant no disrespect! I am your loyal son!"
"Rise and fight, Prince Zuko."
"I won't fight you!"
"You will learn respect and suffering will be your teacher."
Iroh looked sadly into the embers of the fire. "I couldn't watch as the Fire Lord scarred his only son. I still remember Zuko's screams as his father marked him for life." It was a memory Iroh fervently desired to fade away. For a father hurt his only son in such a manner was an atrocity the gentle general would never understand.
"I always thought it had been a training accident." Jee murmured. "Carelessness in a lesson."
"It was no accident. But the Fire Lord said that, in refusing to fight, Zuko had shown himself to be weak, to be a coward, to be without honor." And when Ozai would have sent the prince into exile, Iroh had been able to convince him that the boy had been punished enough. Ozai permitted Zuko to remain in the Fire Nation, but he never looked at his son the same way again. The Crown Prince may as well have been banished. "Nothing has been the same since that fateful day."
"So that's why he's so obsessed." The lieutenant spoke up, realization flooding his dark eyes. "Capturing the Avatar is the only chance he has of things returning to normal."
"Things will never return to normal. But the important thing is, the Avatar gives Zuko hope." And who was he to take that away from his nephew, after Zuko had lost so much already? The men eventually bid the general goodnight and returned to their duties.
Katara stood quietly outside the room, unseen by any of the soldiers; she was fairly certain Zuko wouldn't want her here listening to this. In fact, he probably wouldn't want any of his men listening to the story of his downfall. Zuko's life had changed in a single moment when he was thirteen. In defending what he believed in, he was punished with severity and the course of his future was drastically changed. Now, they had changed their futures yet again. Anything could happen at any given time. It was a frightening thought.
"Do you ever worry about the future, Uncle?" Katara asked the old general, stepping out into the light and joining him by the fire once the men had dispersed.
He gave her a warm, tired smile. "At my age, my dear, there are few surprises left. I'd rather leave the last one a mystery. Things are neither easier nor simpler if you know what is going to happen. All it does is leave you living in the future and abandoning the present, or it keeps you terrified of what will happen today, what will happen tomorrow." He shrugged and poured her a cup of tea. The aromatic scent of ginseng tea wafted around them.
"Uncle—" Would it be wise to mention the drawing on his desk from several weeks ago? She wanted to know so badly but she didn't want to bring up any painful memories for Iroh. However, they were on a topic of pasts and futures. She couldn't help but think of it.
"A few weeks ago, when you sent me to your room to fetch a teapot, I saw a sketch of a young man by your bedside. Is that your son?"
She immediately regretted asking when she saw the deep-rooted melancholy on Iroh's face. "My only child, Lu Ten…he was killed during the siege I led on Ba Sing Se. I loved him very dearly."
"I'm sorry." She gently laid a hand on his arm. "I shouldn't have been nosy."
"It isn't good to ignore the dead who are dear to us. One should think of them fondly and remember."
"I think of my mother a lot." Her voice was quiet, empathetic. This war had caused painful losses on both sides. Right or wrong, both were hurt by the untimely deaths of their friends and families.
"I loved and lost my son. Zuko is a great blessing to me. Since losing Lu Ten, he has become like a second son to me. I do not wish to lose him as well."
"What happened to your wife?"
A heartrending, sad smile crossed Iroh's round, wrinkled face. "She passed away when Lu Ten was three. It was expected. She was always in poor health and things only grew worse after she gave birth."
The pair was quiet for another moment and Katara finished her tea. "I'm going to lie down, Uncle. Thank you—for talking to me." She kissed his cheek and retired below deck. As she opened Zuko's door, she could hear an old voice sing softly.
"Leaves from the vine,
falling so slow,
like fragile, tiny shells
drifting in the foam.
Little soldier boy,
come marching home.
Brave soldier boy,
comes marching home."