Ever since he had accidentally burned his cousin, his father set him to two hours of control drills before they even began firebending training. Two hours of meditation, breath control and simple repetitive exercises to drill into him how to command fire. If he made any mistakes or lost his temper during his lessons he would end his day with another hour of exercises.
His father was patient, and his father was never cruel, but Sazan was a strict taskmaster. No day passed where the simple exercises were shirked. Iroh had thought to complain, only once or twice. Each complaint earned an increased workload for the week and his father firmly reminded him that the time he spent on the meditation exercises was time that was taken away from actual firebending. Painfully aware that he was already considered far behind on the subject, he steeled himself to become a model student. Or as much of a model student as he could manage.
His mind wandered during the meditation, visualizing the last bit of history or tale he heard from his classes or his elders. He imagined seeing the sweeping sands of the Si Wong desert or the vast ice floes of the Southern Water Tribe. When controlling a spark of fire burning through a leaf he grew bored of trying to prevent it from reaching the edges and instead tried to coax it to burn in patterns or form pictures. When controlling a tiny bit of fire cupped in his hands he watched the flickering flames and worked to form them into the waving wings of birds or the flapping of butterflies.
His father bore through all of this with a thinly drawn patience. "Iroh, focus." "Iroh, please stop daydreaming." "Iroh, the point of the exercise is to prevent the fire from spreading not to draw a picture with it." He rarely became angry, but his frustration was always rippling just beneath the surface of his words. Frustration and disappointment.
The disappointment was the worst of all. And Iroh could read his father like a book.
While his mind was busy, it was also perceptive. Iroh quickly saw through his father's grim expressions and read the discontentment underneath. He quickly learned to hide the changes he made to the exercises to make them more interesting and enjoyable, trying to present the best, most focused face to his father whenever he was paying attention. It worked. Usually.
Sazan crossed his arms in front of his chest. "The point of the exercise is not to play with fire. You are to concentrate and bend the fire against the wind."
"I can bend it against the wind…" he protested and stopped himself. Raising his hands to emphasize his point, the tiny petals of flame were no longer hidden and they fluttered out on trails of smoke. Well, at least they had flown against the wind. Clamping his mouth shut, Iroh was still afraid the damage had already been done.
Frowning darkly his father spoke in a low, overly patient tone. "How many times must I tell you, fire is not a toy. If you concentrated on the exercise rather than pictures of animals or tales of far off places you would progress much faster."
Iroh knew better than to protest. Protesting just got him into trouble. He cast his gaze to the ground and quietly took in a breath. "I will do it again, Father."
Sazan shook his head. "Not today. You will complete the exercise tomorrow morning. You need to prepare for this evening, your grandfather is hosting guests from the other lands and he expects you to join Kuzon at the festivities."
Jaw dropping fractionally, the boy let this information settle in. After he had spoken out of turn at the last royal party, his father had told him in no uncertain terms that he would not be joining public events until he learned to present himself properly. "I did not know I would be attending."
"Your grandfather requested it." Sazan's voice was guarded, careful.
Iroh silently bit his tongue. He recognized that tone, no matter how hard his father tried to hide it. Father disagreed with Grandfather, and Father wasn't happy. But Grandfather held the power in the family both officially and unofficially. So whatever Grandfather wanted done was done. Slowly he raised his gaze to meet his father's eyes.
"I expect you to present yourself properly. I expect you to not speak out of turn and to show our honored guests the utmost respect. Do you understand?"
The boy gave his most polite, formal nod. "Yes, father, I understand."
"What are you doing on the roof?" Kuzon's voice was curious and slightly concerned.
Sounds of conversation and music drifted up from the dinner below, of tall tales and political arguments and greetings for old friends. It wafted up to the roof above the balcony like the smell of tarts you couldn't eat. Iroh picked his head up from where it was neatly planted on his knees and sighed. "Hoping no one would find me" he admitted.
Chewing his bottom lip, Kuzon took a tentative step forward. "Did you want me to leave?"
He mulled this over, wrapping his arms about his legs to fend off the chill in the night air and softly admitted, "no."
Considering that to be invitation enough, Kuzon settled himself beside his brother and slid over enough to sit shoulder to shoulder. "Any reason you're hiding up here?"
With a halfhearted shrug, Iroh stared solemnly out at the fading sunlight. Kuzon waited in silence and finally the younger boy waved towards the commotion inside and offered, "Big party. Lots of important people. Father told me I had to present myself well and not disappoint him."
"That shouldn't be so hard." The older boy reasoned. "It's mostly friends and family members. Just come down and say hello. You can't disappoint Father by greeting people."
"I always disappoint him! No matter what I do, I disappoint him!" the protest was soft but vehement and laced with an edge of bitter sadness. "If I can't be perfect, at least I can stay out of the way."
Kuzon's brows furrowed slowly together. "Iroh, we're both expected to attend. Grandfather is expecting us to make an appearance."
"Attend and make an appearance are not the same thing. You're expected to attend. I'm expected to show up long enough to smile and be seen and then disappear again." He crossed his arms across his chest. "I already showed up. Good enough."
"So you're going to spend the rest of the night up here. On the roof?"
Iroh shrugged lightly. "Why not? It's quiet."
The elder brother waited a few good long seconds as silence hung in the air before he drew in a slow breath. "You sure?"
"I'm sure." The younger replied with enough stubbornness to move a mountain.
Kuzon sighed, carefully picking his way down. Just before he jumped to the balcony below, he fixed his brother with one last glance. "It's awfully chilly, you sure you're staying up here?"
"Don't worry." He lit a tiny flame and let it dance gracefully across his fingertips. "I'll be warm enough."
If one concentrated hard enough, Iroh found, a tiny wisp of flame could be molded into coarse shapes. He has first amused himself by making the flame lean in one direction or another. Forcing the fire to flatten like a petal or split into to points. As he trained with his father, he moved his downtime toying to more creative outlets. Once he could split the flame, he tried to shape it into the form of wings beating in a tiny, clumsy, flickering flight.
Butterflies were easier than birds. Butterflies just beat their wings back and forth, while birds wings bent and rippled as they flew. With over a year of clandestine practice his birds still left something to be desired, but his butterflies were quite good. And so he leaned his head on one hand, calling up a tiny flame with the other. Molding it into the form of a butterfly and sending the little wisp of flame onto the evening breeze. Absorbed in his task, he tried to get each one to burn a little longer and fly a little farther than the last.
"Look, gran-gran, a butterfly!" the light voice of a young girl broke Iroh from his reverie.
He snatched the little wisps of flame back into his hands and extinguished them, sitting very still on the roof just above the speaker. One last, lone flickering butterfly of fire drifted past the balcony. A second voice, much older but with the same unusual accent, spoke up. "Don't be silly Kanna, you can't see butterflies at night. Come back inside where it's warm."
"I'm not being silly. It's right there." An overeager pudgy finger thrust towards the sky where the butterfly broke apart with a tiny puff of smoke. "Awww, it's gone now."
The older lady's eyes narrowed, gazing out to where her granddaughter had pointed.
"It was there, gran-gran, I swear it was." The girl stubbornly clung to her grandmother's leg, still staring to the fading smoke.
"I know, child. I saw it, too." She petted the girl's hair and gave her a gentle push. "Go find your sister. I will be in with you shortly."
As the girl trotted off, the grey-haired lady turned and cast keen blue eyes towards the roof, searching in the twilight shadows for a likely culprit. Iroh bit his lower lip. She looked as old as his grandmother. Maybe older. Maybe she couldn't see very well. Maybe if he was very still. Maybe she wouldn't spot him.
"Isn't it a bit dangerous for a young child to be up on a roof?" the lady started in a distinctly parental tone. Busted.
Iroh crossed his hands over his chest. "It's my roof and I can be on it if I like." He tried for a tone that was 'commanding' but ended up sounding petulant. Still it gave the older lady pause.
She furrowed her brow and glanced back towards the gathering. No, her mind was not playing tricks on her; she could see the Firelord speaking with her eldest son. Slowly she turned back to the darkened roof. "And who are you that you claim this roof?"
Well, this wasn't working the way he had planned. He wanted this lady to leave, not keep questioning him. "Who is asking?"
She put her hands on her hips and drew herself to her full height. For a lady easily the age of his grandmother it might have looked funny, but somehow this woman radiated confidence. "I am Master Katara, waterbender of the Southern Water tribe, wife to Avatar Aang and honored guest to the Fire Nation." She paused and smirked. "Your turn."
Groaning inwardly, Iroh closed his eyes for a second. He had come out here to stay out of trouble and here was Katara. Master Katara… the Master Katara standing on a balcony and ready to call him out for being a stupid child on a roof. Maybe if he was very quiet…
"I'm waiting." She chided lightly.
Frowning in the darkness he leaned forward fractionally and offered "I'm Iroh."
A faint smile played at the waterbender's weather-beaten lips. "Just Iroh? Not anything else?"
The child sighed. His father had expressly commanded him to show the utmost of respect to any guests at the gathering. At the moment he was at a loss of how to exit this situation gracefully. He slid over to where the roof dipped down towards the balcony and made the easy jump before turning into the light towards the older woman. In his best formal tone he offered, "Iroh, second prince of the Fire Nation, son to Princess Ursa and Fire Sage Sazan." He ended with a bow befitting respect to one's elders.
Katara's jaw dropped fractionally. Popular rumor held that Zuko's second grandson held a strong resemblance to the firelord. She mused that rumor was quite an understatement. He looked like he stepped directly out of the paintings she had seen on Ember Island. Resettling her best motherly expression on her features she eyed the child. "Well, Prince Iroh, what so ever are you doing on a roof?"
He fixed her with a canny gaze. "Staying out of trouble. Pretty badly I guess." The words were punctuated by a very faint apologetic smile.
Suppressing a rising urge to giggle, the master waterbender leaned back against the railing. "And why would a young man like you be in trouble?"
Biting his bottom lip he raised his gaze fractionally to meet her eyes, wondering if the somewhat reserved expression was hiding mirth or anger. Completely unsure of his ability to talk his way out of the situation he settled for answering her question as directly as possible. "Speaking out of turn, saying the wrong things… getting caught on a roof by a master waterbender." Plain innocence poured from his wide gold eyes.
"I suppose that might be an issue." She rocked back and forth, considering.
Iroh stood stock still, like a man ready to hear judgment. Half terrified and half committed to keeping his formal stance, the child reminded Katara exactly of the first time she had to dress Bumi up in formal clothes for a fancy gathering. Kya had done all right, enjoying playing the part of the 'pretty princess' in her dress; but Bumi had spent the majority of the night standing like a statue and struggling to keep any stains from his jacket.
But Bumi had Aang for a father. Aang had finally taken the awkward, fidgeting boy aside and given him express permission to be himself. And while the dinner conversation took a far more rambunctious turn after that, Bumi had relaxed and nothing had gone seriously wrong. Somehow Katara doubted that a fire nation prince was allowed such a luxury. She glanced back to the child. Still at attention. He had a stillness to his stance that would put any other eight year old to shame.
Relaxing, Katara spoke in a gentle tone. "I could be persuaded to forget the whole incident." Hope dawned ever so slightly in those gold eyes, but the boy stayed still. "On one condition…"
Iroh bit his bottom lip for a moment and looked up. "What condition?"
She smiled slightly. "My granddaughter wants to see your butterflies."
The boy's shoulders fell in a slow slump and he frowned. "I can't."
"Why?" She took a step forward, curious.
"I'm not supposed to play with fire." He sighed softly, shifting from foot to foot.
Katara frowned slightly and bent down to come more face to face with the child. She never quite understood the regimented culture of the fire nation, but this struck her as unusually strict. "What makes this different from other firebending?"
Iroh paused and went silent for a moment, finally answering her with a silent shrug. "Father says I should do the training exercises exactly as he shows me." He paused and took in a breath, admitting quietly, "he says I don't focus enough and I'm a bad firebender."
That caused the waterbender to raise a brow. She quietly took a seat on the patio bench and waved the boy to come sit beside her. "You know what, Prince Iroh? When I was a little girl I was afraid of fire. I didn't like what fire did to my family, and every time I saw firebending I thought it was scary. It took me a very long time to see things differently." She paused, watching the boy cast his eyes downwards. "My granddaughter is just forming her opinions on different sorts of people. She has a chance that I never had - she is young and impressionable. I would much rather have her witness beauty in firebending rather than fear. And you can do that." Another pause, letting that sink in. "I personally don't think that anyone who can create something beautiful is a bad bender. But if you like, I can get you permission to do so." Her blue eyes twinkled at last.
"You can?" He asked eyes wide in wonderment.
She smiled. "I am not Master Katara for nothing, young prince."
"You engineered this." Even after all these years Zuko's voice never lost its roughness.
Katara leaned against the threshold of the doorway and hid the smile in her voice. "Maybe I'm just a wonderful diplomat."
"You're not." He tossed back.
"And neither are you." She paused, letting her serious expression slowly fade into mirth. Even after all these years, she couldn't resist getting a friendly dig in.
Zuko shrugged, playing along. "I have ambassadors for that."
"And I had a husband for that." She paused and sighed ruefully. She had grieved Aang's already, but years later his memory still bubbled up in ways that caused her pain and pride all at the same time. "I guess now I have to leave it to my children."
"I doubt you have much to worry about." He offered stepping up to stand by her side. "I think they turned out all right."
Momentarily the waterbender turned towards him, as if she was trying to dissect his expression. "Any reason they wouldn't?"
Zuko indulged in a rarely seen smile. "No. But it is good to see they will move forward without the baggage their elders possess."
"I thought we agreed to drop that baggage years ago?" Katara perked a brow.
He shrugged. "We did." Another pause, "but I do worry that we are their baggage."
A momentary chuckle passed from her lips, a sound that hearkened back to the young girl she was decades ago. "I think, all things considered, the youngest generations are doing fairly well." A pause, she waved a hand to where the two children were talking and playing with animated joy.
The Firelord mused on this for several long seconds before giving a silent nod of agreement. Another pause and he mused, "She looks a lot like you."
"Look who's talking" the waterbender smirked.
Zuko perked his good brow. "I hope for his sake he never looks like me," He murmured quietly.
Katara smacked him lightly across the arm, the sort of playful gesture very few in creation could get away with. "I though we were dropping baggage tonight?"
Leaning back, the firelord watched as a tiny flame butterfly flew by and finally relaxed into a smile. "I suppose it's a good night to start."
A/N Ok, I went with the popularly held belief that Zuko's daughter might be named Ursa. Because I think Honora sounds a bit foolish. . I reserve the right to edit names if/when these characters are actually introduced.
Was hoping to have this done weeks ago, but work ate my face. I'm behind on comment replies, too. Most sincere apologies I will get on those! Many thanks for the comments and feedback readers have given so far!