Zuko quietly ran his fingers back and forth over the cool surface of the pond, the still water disturbed by small ripples. Petals from the cherry blossom tree hanging over him floated down, some landing in the pool to be carried away by the tiny waves.
Life must not be very fun, he thought. He was proud to tell anyone who asked that he was exactly four and three-quarters years old – as long as his father wasn't there to yell at him for bragging. He knew that being this age, he understood much more than anyone gave him credit for, and he knew that being denied a puppy was a cruel and fundamentally wrong thing to do. For some reason, the adults didn't seem to think the same way. Drawing his short legs up to his chest, Zuko folded his arms on his knees and laid his chin on his forearms.
He took one deep breath and let it out very slowly, telling himself that one day, he would be Fire Lord, and then everyone would listen to him. He would be important, and old, and tall, and no one would tell him he couldn't have a puppy then.
What? Zuko's sharp golden eyes caught ripples spreading out once again over the surface of the pond. He looked all around for the source, feeling for some slight breeze and waiting for more petals to drift down, but he saw nothing. After several long seconds, he settled down again with a shrug.
Life can't be fun, he reasoned, because life is so unfair. He knew that Azula, when she was finally able to talk, would get anything she managed to ask for. Mother and Father adored Azula. Even now, they were probably hanging around her cradle, ooh-ing and aah-ing at her cuteness. Zuko didn't understand how everyone thought she was so adorable – once, when she was even smaller, Zuko had asked to hold her. She was normally a silent and attentive baby, but as soon as she had been passed into his hands she had burst into tears. Zuko had quickly handed her back to Mother, but he had time to think that she was nothing more than a tiny, pudgy, pink thing.
Zuko never held her after that. Mother tried, but Zuko wouldn't hold someone who didn't want to be held by him. Azula could stay with the ooh-ers and aah-ers if that was what she really wanted, and Zuko wouldn't care.
He would care, though, if she was allowed to have a puppy. That thought made him exhale angrily, and to his shock, he saw ripples spread out from his feet.
For a moment he didn't know what to think, and then he felt warm pride spread through him. He knew Father would be impressed with his powerful breath. He could make ripples on the water from feet away! And Mother and Uncle were always telling him that he had to be able to breathe to learn firebending, and they would see that he could, and maybe he could finally learn!
The next moment, Zuko imagined himself gloriously showing his parents his amazing breath skills. Mother might faint out of sheer awe. Father would smile, and pat him on the back, and proudly say that he was a master of breathing. Uncle might laugh thunderously, his big belly shaking, and ruffle his hair. It would be a perfect moment, he decided.
When Zuko looked up, he discovered that the leaves were swirling around him. He laughed, in the high octaves of childhood, and stood so he could spin with the petals. He was even more amazing then he had thought! If his laugh could cause the tree to let go of his petals, his breathing must be truly tremendous! He was probably the best breather in the whole of the Fire Nation! He giggled again.
This time, a pebble at his feet shifted. That was what sealed it. Zuko ran off to find his mother.
As he had predicted, she was by Azula's cradle, saying nonsense words to the lump swaddled inside. He looked around, but Father wasn't there. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"Yes, Zuko?" She didn't turn from Azula.
"Come quick, there's something I want to show you!"
This time, she did face him with a smile. "Well, what is it, sweetie?"
He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "It's a surprise, Mother. Please come!"
She hesitated, and looked back to the cradle. "But Zuko, darling, I can't just leave Azula here. She might start crying, or get cold, or… what if she was taken!" Worried already, she turned back as if to check that her infant was still in place.
Zuko was getting desperate. He had to show off his breathing. "Bring her too, Mother, as long as she promises to stay quiet."
He regretted his words instantly, but he told himself that now Mother would come see him. He bounced impatiently from foot to foot as she smiled sweetly at him, and then the tiny baby.
"Well, Princess Azula? Do you promise to stay quiet?"
Zuko didn't see the baby nod, and Zuko knew she couldn't have spoken yet, but Mother stooped and picked her up anyway. The girl hadn't promised, but if Mother was coming he guessed it would do.
Zuko rushed back to the courtyard, and then stood waiting for Mother to catch up to him. Waiting was a horrible thing to do, but he supposed Mother couldn't be seen running through the palace.
Finally she arrived, after what had seemed like hours. "So, what is it you so desperately needed to show me, darling?"
He grinned and turned to the pool. "Watch my breathing, Mother!" He wanted to look very old and wise, like a Master, so he took a wide stance with his elbows pinned to his sides and his hands facing out. He took a really, really deep breath, and let it out quickly, punching out his arms as he did so. To his surprise and delight, this time a whole wave left the shore of the pond and migrated across it, crashing onto the dirt on the other side.
He turned to Mother, beaming, to see that she had gone very pale and was staring at him with wide eyes. He laughed – he had been right. Mother would faint. But he wasn't done yet.
Still laughing, he threw his arms out to his sides and started to spin, watching happily as petals started spiraling down around him. Eventually, quite dizzy, he stopped to see if Mother had fainted yet. She hadn't, but she was even paler than before and had one dainty hand clapped over her mouth. Now, he told himself, for the finale.
He took his wide stance again, just to make his breathing look fancy, and let his hands hover over a pebble in front of him. He took a huge breath, and let it out, shifting his hands over like he had seen the rock do. The rock obediently hopped under his hands, and Zuko was impressed with his acting. If he didn't know better, which he did, he might have mistaken his amazing breathing for bending. But that was impossible, after all.
"Well, Mother?" he panted, now quite out of breath from his huge breathing. "What do you think? Isn't my breathing awesome? Do you think you can teach me firebending now?"
She was silent, and stared at him for so long that Zuko started to get worried. She didn't look very proud. She did look awed, but it was almost… frightened.
Very slowly, she pulled her hand away from her mouth. "Firebending?" was the one word she croaked. Zuko didn't understand.
"Of course, Mother. I want to learn, but you and Uncle keep saying that I have to master my breathing. If I can do all that stuff just by breathing, I think I mastered it. So I want to learn."
He ended with as much strength as he could, hoping that she wouldn't be able to argue with him. She just continued to look at him, her eyes going from wide to narrow.
"Why don't you show me some more breathing?" she asked, almost… darkly. "Make fire do something this time."
Zuko was puzzled, but he was the world's best breather; he could do anything that breathing required. He looked for one of the lamps hanging in the hallway day and night, and concentrated on the flame flickering inside. He would have to suck in really, really hard to get it to come to him from all the way over there. He stared at it, and took the biggest breath in that he had ever taken, leaning backwards and pulling with his hands as he did so. To his shock, the fire came and hovered over one of his open palms.
This, he thought, is more than breathing – I'm bending!
"Well, there, Mother." He threw the little glob of fire back to its lamp, where it obediently followed.
Ursa watched the little globe fly peacefully through the air and turned back to Zuko. "Did you just tell it to go back there? And it did? You wanted it to go back to the lamp?"
Zuko was still confused why she wasn't proud and happy. "Yes. What's so wrong about that?"
"Nothing's wrong." she said, sounding confused herself. "But that control…" she trailed off and shook her head as if trying to displace an unpleasant thought. "Zuko," she leaned down to eye level. "I'm afraid that you can't breathe like that anymore."
"What do you mean?" he asked. This breathing was amazing. He loved doing it. He didn't want to stop breathing like this, ever. And now Mother said he had to?
"Your breathing is dangerous, sweetie." She adjusted Azula in her arms, but didn't look down to her. That made Zuko feel triumphant. He was finally more important than that stupid girl. But what she said was troubling – he didn't want Mother to be afraid of him.
"I don't understand," Zuko said, carefully slowly. "What could be wrong about breathing?"
"Your Father doesn't like people who breathe like that."
Zuko's blood ran cold, his fantasy vanishing in an instant and a hard lump of fear forming in its place. "Oh," was all he said. People that Father didn't like… didn't exist. Not for long, anyway. He looked up to Mother with pleading eyes.
"Don't tell him, Mother! Please don't tell Father! I don't want to… disappear…."
Ursa leaned down and planted a hesitant kiss on his forehead. "Okay, darling. It will be our little secret, right?"
Zuko nodded fervently. Suddenly, he didn't want to breathe like that ever again. "Mother, can we pretend that I don't know how to firebend?"
She stood and looked down on him. "Not for long, Zuko. Breathing like you did with the fire… that kind is okay. But the other types, you can't ever do. Seal them away, Zuko, and never let them out."
"Okay, Mother." He closed his eyes, concentrating very hard, and searched inside of him for how he knew the breathing that he did. It was hard work – he didn't know where breathing came from. Finally, he found something inside of him. He didn't know how to describe it, but it was like a warm ball of light, that felt almost like another person inside him. He reached out to it.
Are you what controls my breathing? he asked it hesitantly. He didn't expect a response – it was his body, after all. So he was very surprised when he got one.
We control your special kind of breathing, little one.
Zuko was concentrating too hard to open his eyes and look at Mother, otherwise he might have.
We? he asked.
We are all part of you. If you want, we can call ourselves, you.
Zuko thought that would be awfully confusing. No, we is fine. But could whoever…you…are, please go away? I can't have you...we... inside of me.
No? the being asked, sounding surprised.
No, Zuko said firmly. It's impossible, and you need to leave. He congratulated himself for sounding very adult and Father-like.
And where would you suggest we go, little dragon?
Zuko stopped. Umm… He thought for a long moment. Well, if you control breathing, you should go find that airbender that Father keeps talking about. Breathing needs air, right?
The entity laughed, if that was possible inside of Zuko. He was feeling quite puzzled by all this we, you stuff. We have been following that airbender since he was born, as we have you. Both of you would have made fine candidates. But you say it's impossible for you?
The we sounded almost amused. Zuko found himself wondering what a candidate was.
If you mean you being here, then yes. It is impossible.
Are you sure? You know, with us here, you will be more powerful than anyone. Even this Father of yours.
That was a very tempting offer, and Zuko almost accepted instantly. But he reminded himself that his Mother was afraid of this breathing ball, and whatever Mother didn't like should go away and leave her alone. I am sure.
Well then, little one, I suppose that airbender is going to be lucky. But don't think you can get off so easily, child. We will find you again.
With those words, the ball of light seemed to almost fizzle out. Zuko finally opened his eyes to see tears leaking from them.
"What is it?" Ursa asked him.
"It's lonely without them…." Zuko whimpered. Ursa furrowed her brow.
Zuko shook his head, which was hurting from speaking to the ball. It was a very confusing ball. He didn't want to try and explain it.
"But the breathing is gone, right honey?"
Zuko wondered why she sounded so desperate, but he nodded.
Ursa let out a sigh of relief. "Good. Good. Now, tell me if anything like this happens ever again, okay? And remember, this is our little secret. Nobody knows about it but us two, right?"
Zuko nodded again, and Ursa started to walk away. Zuko, watching her retreating form, noticed baby Azula look back at him, a small smile on her face. Zuko shivered, though he wasn't cold. Unfortunately, he couldn't say the same for his sister's smile.
A/N: Reviews are always appreciated! Please, leave a comment if you enjoyed it at all!
Also, if you're new to this story: the tone grows up with the kids! Stick around and you might find yourself liking it more and more.