His parents were starting to catch on that Iroh was clever. At first Sazan had credited his ability to rapidly progress through his lessons on history, calligraphy, scroll reading and other academic pursuits as the counterpart to his slow firebending start. In the years he could not bend fire, he had extra time to spend studying other areas. But as he grew it became clear that while his firebending was still showing painfully slow progress, he was still progressing rapidly in his other lessons. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise, allowing him to spend more time on firebending without falling behind in his other studies.
In other ways it drove his tutors nuts.
In every history narrative, the boy would pick apart the tale and ask questions about why things happened and how the side that was villainized in the account came to their actions. Endlessly curious, when his tutors ran out of answers they would find other scrolls on the subject which Iroh voraciously consumed. Which would sate him only until the next subject arose, and he would start to endlessly pester the tutors with questions again. They said he had a 'restless mind' and encouraged Sazan to find other things for the boy to focus on.
So his father taught him how to play pai sho.
Sazan started with the basics, and encouraged him to play against his brother. He hoped it would strengthen Kuzon's beginning skills and be a pastime both children could share. And for the first few months it worked perfectly.
Then Iroh started to win. Once he learned the strategy of the game he could start to plan around Kuzon's moves. And once he found that he was actually better at something than his oh so perfect brother, Iroh threw himself into the study of pai sho with a dogged determination and a frightening focus. He tested moves and strategies, deliberately lost games to see the way certain gambits played out, tried pieces he didn't favor and forced himself to play different starting lineups just to test the theories he was reading about.
By the time Iroh was eight, the only times Kuzon won was when Iroh planned to let him win. At times he felt faintly guilty, but he valued the time spent with Kuzon enough to throw some games in his favor. So far Kuzon had not caught on. He hoped.
It was quiet in the palace today. Mother was away on an important diplomatic trip with Grandfather. Kuzon was invited to an important meeting with Father. Grandmother was at an important luncheon with a group of up-and-coming business owners.
Everyone seemed to have something important to do, except Iroh.
He sighed, wandering aimlessly about the hallways of the palace. His homework was done, his firebending practice done. His list of necessities crossed off, he was at a loss for what to do next.
Stopping by a window seat, he slumped down and sighed. If he thought about it academically there was plenty to still do. There were scrolls to read and maps to pore over. Extra firebending training couldn't hurt, or walking in the yard. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that his restlessness was less about boredom and more about loneliness. Any of those options would seem so much better if there were only someone to do them with.
Chewing his bottom lip, Iroh folded his arms across his chest. What he really longed to do was play Pai Sho, but he couldn't think of anyone left on the palace grounds who would make for an interesting match.
His breath caught in his throat. On second thought he could think of one person.
She had not been considered a threat for many years. After Avatar Aang removed her ability to firebend she spent several years in a hospital designed to treat ailments of the mind as well as the body. When she came back to the capital city she was quiet.
Firelord Zuko visited her almost every day, sometime for only a minute or two, sometimes for hours. It depended on how quickly she insisted he leave.
General Iroh had been the surprise. The first time he had stopped by she yelled at him until her throat was sore and yet he did not leave. He sat there calmly making tea while she ranted. He offered her a cup, she refused to drink. When she quieted, he suggested they play Pai Sho. She threw the board at him.
The next week he returned, again with tea. Again with Pai Sho. She didn't yell as long this time, and they actually played a game. To General Iroh's surprise, she was quite good at it.
It became a weekly ritual, the tea, the challenge of the game, the odd talks while they contemplated strategy. Azula never said thank you, and Iroh never pressed the issue. And yet the week he failed to come, she cried.
While Zuko had never forbidden her from leaving the grounds of her home he did stipulate that she have a guard when she did. It was never necessary; she enforced her own house arrest better than any guard could. The day of Iroh's funeral was the last time she ventured out.
Azula. Once Princess Azula, the favored daughter of Firelord Ozai and for a mere day Firelord Azula was now most commonly called 'Crazy Aunt Azula' or 'that witch hidden in the back of the palace'
That last one she actively cultivated by a well honed game of anger and fear designed to keep irritating children from bothering her. Waning out her days, aging and useless was insufferable enough; the teasing of those little brats was unbearable. When she heard the knock at her door she fell into her timeworn role as the insane witch, yelling threats and obscenities towards the landing.
After a few seconds she paused, listening for the all too familiar, satisfying pitter-patter of feet running away, the light yelps of fear.
Another knock, more polite than the first.
She gritted her teeth. That was not her brother; he never came to the front door. And her inability to see anyone through the nearby window told her that whoever was knocking was at least a head shorter than an adult. So a child. She didn't know any children who would want to see her. So either this one was particularly brave, foolhardy – or both. Standing, she pushed her grey hair back from her face and stalked towards the entryway. She fixed the sternest, most aggressive expression she could fit on her face and threw the door open.
Her jaw dropped.
She was thrown back to a memory of when she was seven, tossing stones at turtle ducks. The bank was slippery after a fresh rain and in her stupidity; she stepped too close and fell right in. It might have been all right had her idiot brother not witnessed the whole affair and run over to give her a hug.
She hated that memory.
But still the kid stood there, watching her without fear and without gawking. She narrowed her eyes to gaze back at him when he offered her a slight bow, the sort reserved for respectfully greeting elder family members. She frowned. "Who are you?"
"Iroh." He answered the question dutifully.
The name made her skin crawl. She had forcibly pushed that name from her mind, tried to forget the succor and time offered if only because she knew she had never repaid him for it. And yet he lingered in her dreams and every once in a while she could hear one of his stupid proverbs ringing in her ears. Her brother's face… her uncle's name. This had to be the brat grandchild of her precious Zuzu. "What do you want?"
He looked up; he had the same shy manner as his grandfather did at that age, but a stronger voice. "I came to ask for a game of Pai Sho."
She snorted in laughter. "Don't be silly, you're a child!"
"Does that mean you do not remember how to play?" he asked innocently, with an underlying bite to the words that fit any high court conversation like a glove.
Azula lifted a brow, vaguely interested. Rather than appeal to her sentiments, he had gone for wordplay and manipulation. Maybe he wasn't entirely like Zuzu after all. "Of course I know how to play" she struck back, leaning imperiously over him. She paused and considered the child for a moment, "I thought your fire sage father forbid you from coming over here."
He shrugged a little. "He did. I came anyways."
"You came even though you were forbidden? How interesting." She returned in a smooth tone. "Tell me, why are you really here?"
Iroh looked up and was silent for several long seconds. He considered confessing that he thought she might be lonely, but he also remembered his mother telling him that Aunt Azula never recognized her own failures, only those in others. He fixed her gaze and took in a breath, "I was lonely."
"Ha! Go away, foolish boy. Find someone else to play Pai Sho with," she scoffed. Her eyes were hard as she shut the door between them.
Iroh gave a small sigh, and turned. He had tried, at least.
Azula hadn't taken more than a step away from the door when she felt a chill pass over her, the sick sorrow and loneliness she felt ever since her uncle died seemed to hit her harder now than ever before. She brushed her hair back into place and opened the door once again.
His foot had just hit the top step when he heard her say, "One game, that's all."
Three games and an entire pot of white jasmine tea later, as the sun sank to the edge of the sky, young Iroh took his leave. Azula had, between moves here and there, daydreamed about how easy it would be to dispatch this young price, especially since he had come to her so willingly. She dismissed the thoughts with the notion that he was too young to really be a good challenge as a target. Maybe when he was older. But as the smell of tea faded and the sound of the Pai Sho pieces being put dutifully back into their place crossed the room she felt a tinge of regret, of sadness. Against her will her uncle was called to mind. She gave a short scoff as his voice rang through her head with one of those stupid proverbs.
"Anything wrong?" the boy asked, turning as he tucked the last of his things away, heading out.
"No." She snapped all too quickly. A pause, she eyed the child and an idea formed. "Actually yes. That Dreadnought Gambit of yours is terrible."
"It is not a move usually taught in Pai Sho anymore." he admitted, head turned slightly down.
"You realize it will only get better with practice?" she lectured, taking the tone of a teacher all too easily.
Iroh considered this for a moment and gave a slow nod. "I will practice." For a moment he raised his eyes to her, to confirm his suspicion of an unspoken invitation. "Lapsang souchong?"
"Preferable over white jasmine, yes." She eyed him, offering a barely perceptible nod of assent.
"Of course." He offered a light familial bow of respect to an elder. "Thank you Aunt Azula."
She pointed to the door, severe as ever, "Get out of here, kid."
Only when he was past the yard and out of sight did she permit herself the smallest of smiles.
A/N: So... have an unplanned move into a new house is not a good way to keep up on writing. But, the new house has a lovely writing nook, so hopefully more updates. :) Much love for patient readers ~PSG