He is aware from a very young age that there is no one in the palace who cares overly much for him, besides his mother, and even then she cannot be everywhere at once due to her duties. Azula, however, is a child his age and carefully able to do anything she might desire to her talentless older brother. She is capable of harming him with reckless abandon and he is not nearly strong enough to stop her.
It is one of these days, where he has limped off to nurse his wounds and attempt to hide them underneath bandages underneath his clothes, that he first meets his grandfather. He’s sure they’ve been around each other before, at the very least once when Zuko was announced as his father’s firstborn and presented to the Fire Lord, but they’ve never met mind-to-mind. He has crawled away from Azula, favoring his left leg and trying to ignore the tears that threaten in his eyes. He doesn’t even notice that he’s opened the doors to the Fire Lord’s audience chambers until he’s inside and making his way through red columns. He curls up behind one, panting a little from exertion, and growls to himself quietly. If he was stronger , meaner , better , Azula wouldn’t be able to hurt him so much. Azula wouldn’t be allowed to hurt him so much, somebody would step in because then he’d be their father’s prized child, capable of performing his katas and using strong fire.
“So,” says his grandfather’s voice, low and gravelly, and Zuko freezes in place. “My grandson favors me with a visit. What is it you want, child?” It’s odd; he doesn’t sound as mean as he always does when Zuko’s father requests an audience. Zuko’s never sought him out outside of those times: his father had heavily implied the sort of punishments that might befall a troublesome child who bothered the Fire Lord.
He crawls out from behind the pillar and bows before the Fire Lord’s dais, trying not to gasp at the seething pain in his leg. He knows he’s supposed to speak, and tries to remember what the tutors had always taught him about addressing the Fire Lord with respect.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Fire Lord,” he says loud enough for his grandfather to hear him despite how quiet he wants to be. “I didn’t realize I’d entered your audience chambers.” He still hasn’t raised his head. He’s not sure he’s allowed to.
“Stand up straight, boy!” says his grandfather, sounding exasperated, before continuing in a calmer tone. “What were you running from?”
Zuko snaps into an upright position but has to turn it into a kneel when his burned knee buckles. He can see his grandfather now; he’s a tall man, Zuko knows that despite only having seen him sitting down. His face is lean and angular, handsome even in his aging years, and his hair is combed to fall artfully over his shoulders. There are two small braids by his cheek, one for his late wife and one for Zuko’s late aunt, Uncle Iroh’s wife and Cousin Lu Ten’s mother. His eyes are an intense amber, and they burn down at Zuko imperiously. Zuko realizes he never answered his grandfather’s question.
“Just Azula, sir,” he says. “She’s getting better at finding me, and once she does she wants to play fighting games that I don’t know the rules to.”
“And you end up losing,” Azulon says shrewdly, gesturing with one hand to someone Zuko can’t see. A servant rushes from the corner of the room to attend Zuko’s leg.
“I can’t win if I don’t understand how to play,” Zuko says, looking down as he admits his weakness, but he knows that you don’t lie to the Fire Lord unless you’d like to die. “And she keeps changing the rules without telling me!” He knows what Father would say: he should anticipate Azula changing the rules, he should anticipate things not being fair because the world wasn’t fair, and he can imagine Mother’s smooth voice alongside: it’s good that he plays with Azula even if he doesn’t appreciate her games, and she worries for him when he spends too long in his room, it’s good that he gets out more.
“I see,” Azulon murmurs. The servant has rolled Zuko’s pants up to put salve on the burns blooming up the side of Zuko’s calf and is muttering indignantly to himself. Zuko sits up as straight as he can, loathe to ignore the Fire Lord’s orders.
They sit quietly for a while after that while the servant patches him up. When Zuko’s leg doesn’t hurt as much anymore the servant backs away and Azulon motions for him to stand. He points to the door. Zuko, not wanting to test his luck overly much, walks as quickly as possible to the doorway, but he’s still stopped halfway there by his grandfather calling his name and turns back. The Fire Lord is turned away from the small table at his side, facing Zuko, a thoughtful look on his face.
“Zuko,” he says again, as though testing the sound of it. The lines on his face even out and disappear, making him look younger than he usually does. “Come back tomorrow. Come alone; I am not interested in your father’s tiresome petitions and whining.” Zuko bows low, scuttles to the door, and is in his room before he has time to consider what’s happened.
He goes back the next day, of course. It’s an order from the Fire Lord and his grandfather, and in the Fire Nation you respect your ancestors and your Fire Lord. Zuko at least knows that .
Often they just sit quietly. Azulon always has paperwork he needs to fill out, permissions for dams and reports from the ships out at sea, estimates from farmers on supplies and predictions on major storms or natural disasters on the horizon from the Fire Sages. Zuko becomes practiced at sitting in silence, meditating to the sound of the Fire Lord’s flame dais and a scratching quill. He falls asleep a few times, grateful for the safe haven from Azula’s ability to get in and out of his room easily, but most of the time he just sits and thinks. He listens to the dull thudding of blood pumping through his veins, the slow push and pull of breath through his lungs, the shallow sting of each relaxing muscle in his body starting in his hands and ending at his toes.
After a while, Azulon will speak to him. Sometimes about stately things; this general proposes this plan for this battle, here’s some small background on the area, historical and cultural facts. He doesn’t make it a lesson, and Zuko’s glad. He’s always terrible at lessons. There’s endless facts to memorize that he can’t imagine a use for, and his knuckles are always sore from wrong answers and swinging rulers that crack across the wiry bones of his fingers. But in Azulon’s audience chamber wrong answers don’t earn him a ruler across the palms or knuckles, nor do they warrant disappointed sighs when he inevitably messes up. Azulon seems genuinely interested in his answers, and when something is wrong he slowly pulls Zuko through to the correct answer with careful questions and a more detailed explanation of the question. Zuko’s amazed.
His grandfather seems almost...proud of him? He’s called back everyday, and at some point they ended up playing strategy games, which Zuko loves but never had the chance to play himself, and he tells Grandfather stories about his day and funny things Mother said and what he could have done in sparring yesterday against Azula if she hadn't cheated and burned his foot. He doesn’t talk about Ozai. He doesn’t mention Mother’s absent-minded pats on the head when he told her he’s scared to sleep in his room because he’d watched Azula light that doll’s head on fire while watching him across the room. He doesn’t mention how katas make his stomach hurt and how the instructors never seem to care about hurting him, or how all the servants giggled about him in the hallways, maybe he’s a bastard maybe he’s crippled maybe he’s just STUPID . He doesn’t tell Grandfather because he likes meeting with him and playing games and talking strategy and sitting in silence and breathing deeply until nothing matters because at least Azula’s not able to get in here . He doesn’t tell because he thinks Grandfather might be proud of him and it’s such a new feeling that he doesn’t want to spoil it and make it go away. He doesn’t want to be alone again.
They’ve been meeting for a few months when Grandfather begins showing up at training. He sits in a palanquin at the side and drinks fancy tea and watches Zuko’s suddenly-nervous instructors show Zuko a new kick. Zuko runs up to him when training is done, happy because none of the teachers hit him today for surprise training, and the servants gape at how he doesn’t bow more than a nod of the head and a flash of the Flame to the Fire Lord.
“Grandfather!” He says, “You came!”
Azulon’s eyes crinkle into a small smile. Zuko’s grandfather has a grumpy face, he’s learned, so he doesn’t smile very often if you’re just looking at his mouth. You have to look at his eyes to see his smiles.
“I told you I would be stopping by, Grandson,” he says, gesturing with one hand for Zuko to sit with him. Zuko kneels in the packed training dirt before the palanquin and accepts a cup of tea from one of his grandfather’s personal servants. “I see your father is not here.” Azulon glances around the training ring with an eyebrow raised. The report in his hand says that Ozai hasn’t attended his son’s training for nearly a year now, but Zuko doesn’t seem overly bothered. He’s almost...relieved.
“Father’s very busy with Azula and matters of state,” Zuko recites from one of his mother’s lectures, sipping at his tea. It’s citrus, his favorite, but he drinks it slowly because Grandfather said once that good tea was not to be consumed, it was to be experienced. “He can’t come to my trainings anymore.” Zuko was glad of it, too. When Ozai attended training it always turned to insults and bruises and that particular disappointed sigh that meant Ozai would rather have been with Azula at that moment.
Azulon nodded slowly. From what he’d seen Zuko’s development wasn't actually that slow. It was even rather quick compared to the average Fire Nation child. It was simply that Azula’s training was progressing incredibly quickly and she overshadowed her calmer-hearted brother. Ozai was greedy for immediate wealth in Azula, when he could have been carefully cultivating Zuko’s ripening potential.
Ozai never was very good at playing the long game. Thankfully, Azulon is much more patient.
Azulon supposes he should have anticipated Ozai’s interest in his meetings with Zuko. The boy is surprisingly candid about Ozai’s intentions, telling Azulon about how Ozai asks Zuko to request things of the Fire Lord, or try to arrange audiences, or how he requests that Azula join her brother in his little meetings. Azulon quickly puts a stop to that; the few hours of the day he can spend watching over his grandson is short already, and the girl clearly frightens Zuko. There’s no need to give her access to one of Zuko’s safe places.
He knew all about Ozai’s desperation for his attention, but he supposes he didn’t realize the extent it went to until the letter came about Lu Ten.
Mother reads the official missive about Lu Ten’s death with a shaking voice; Uncle hadn’t sent a letter to explain. Zuko understands. Ozai stands poised in the doorway, body bowed as though grieving but eyes terribly alight with ambition. Azula is paused, sitting on the floor with a book, watching them all as though trying to understand how she should feel about this. She was too young to remember Lu Ten when he left, but Zuko remembers the cousin who gave piggyback rides through the palace and snuck sweet bean cakes from the kitchens and sat in the garden to eat them with his little cousin.
The next day Father has received an audience with the Fire Lord. It’s before Zuko’s regular meeting time with Grandfather and the servants had kept him busy trying to make him look neat so he hasn’t been able to see Grandfather yet and discover what they’re going to be meeting about, but from what Ozai says it’s not going to be well wishes for Cousin Lu Ten’s funeral.
Zuko only noticed this morning, but the servants have been treating him differently. Perhaps it’s because he has a more direct line to the throne now with Lu Ten gone? That’s awful if it’s true, but he can’t help but feel like they’ve been treating him differently for a while now. They dress him when they never really did before, or offer him hot towels or sweet fruit. When Mother demands he get his hair cut (which he doesn’t really mind, less hair means less of a handhold for Azula) their touches are less clinical, and the resulting massage would put him to sleep if he weren’t so careful around the servants! He thinks they may be plotting something; he’ll have to talk it over with Grandfather, but for now he watches them with suspicious eyes and refuses their offers.
The meeting goes terribly. Ozai acts as though he’s just presenting them, never mind that the timing is terrible and that he’s terribly arrogant. He doesn’t bow low enough to Grandfather when they enter as though he’s already decided Grandfather isn’t Fire Lord anymore (Zuko can see Mother’s scandalized and alarmed expression through her dark curtain of hair as they bow, so he knows he’s not the only one who noticed), nor does he speak with the proper respectful tones. Zuko can see Grandfather’s eyebrow raising in irritation and carefully doesn’t fidget, angling himself away from Ozai’s horrible example. Azula just looks overjoyed.
When Ozai presents Azula but neglects to even mention Zuko, it is a slight not only to his son but also to the Fire Lord, as though he is hiding Zuko from his Fire Lord’s view. Zuko quickly attempts to correct this mistake, announcing himself to Grandfather and moving through the same katas as Azula. He knows he can perform this kata, has performed this kata before for Grandfather, but at the critical moment something heats his foot terribly and his landing wobbles. He stumbles and lands in the dirt on his backside. Grandfather looks terribly displeased, and Zuko is terrified that he has disappointed Grandfather.
“Enough!” Azulon growls, and dismisses them. Zuko stands to go, but Azula pulls him behind the curtain. He’s tense as she touches him but she wouldn’t dare hurt him in Azulon’s own audience chambers, so he doesn’t squirm away how he wishes to. When the flames of the Fire Lord’s dais flare, however, he runs panicked to his rooms. He orders the servants away, almost surprised when they obey silently and immediately.
Azula visits in the night.
“Father’s going to kill you!” She singsongs, leaning on his doorway like she’s so happy she might faint. Zuko feels like he might faint. She explains what Grandfather said and Zuko feels sick. Did he disappoint Grandfather so greatly, that now he must die? He tears past Azula into the hall and almost slams into Mother’s legs but he doesn’t stop until he’s at the doorway to the Fire Lord’s audience chambers. He doesn’t realize he’s sobbing until he stops running but still can’t quite manage to catch his breath. The flames haven’t gone down yet, so he stumbles to the dais and throws himself into a kneel. He doesn’t know if he can stand again.
“Zuko,” says his grandfather’s even voice, and that somehow makes it worse. “I’ve been expecting you.”
Somehow that makes everything worse.
Azulon feels that the decision he’s reached is the right one. He’s already written Iroh about returning to the palace to take on care of Zuko and has the servants readying the Crown Prince’s wing for his return, but Zuko’s current state has him thinking through his decision again, trying to find the part that’s so upset his grandson.
He was expecting Zuko to come find him, but he’d thought he might be a tad happier.
The boy trembles in place, still kneeling with his face pressed against Azulon’s nice rugs.
“Azula said,” he manages to make out from between the boy’s whimpers, but he can already tell this won’t be good. He’s heard Zuko’s mantra of ‘Azula always lies’ and he knows it’s there for good reason. “Azula said you told Father he had to kill me!”
...no, that is most definitely not what he meant when he said ‘suffer the pain of losing your firstborn’ to Ozai, and how did Azula know before Zuko? No wonder the boy’s a wreck.
“Zuko,” he says, velveteen steel in his voice. “Come here.” He motions to the servants to help the boy up the thin steps that connect the dais to the rest of the room. When the boy has entered Azulon’s small pavilion he is enfolded in Azulon’s arms. He tucks his face against the boy’s hair and pats his back until he is quieter and sniffling. “Child, that is not at all what I meant. You will be staying with myself and your uncle from now on, and your family may not see you without my permission.”
“Even Mother?” The boy asks, staring with teary eyes up at Azulon through damp, sweaty bangs. Azulon sighs.
“Even your mother, though I may give her special permission if you desire it.”
The boy snuffles into his robes, still seated carefully on Azulon’s lap.
“Okay,” he says softly, and when Azulon stands to go to his rooms Zuko’s little fist is clenched around his fingers tightly.
Iroh’s not sure what he’d been expecting when he received his father’s letter. His nephew, Ozai’s son, being removed from his family’s care for abuse and neglect? He knew Ozai wasn’t attentive to his children but he never realized just how deep it went.
When he sees the boy in his father’s audience chambers, seated beside Azulon on the flame dais with his eyes closed and his body relaxed, so serious despite being so small, his lips quirk into a smile for the first time since Lu Ten’s passing. Azulon peers down at him before returning to his paperwork. Iroh wonders if he notices how his robes mark a protective half-circle around Zuko’s small body, and thinks that he probably does. Iroh used to inhabit that seat, and he remembers how safe it can feel to live inside that warmth.
“Father,” he calls, breaking the silent ambience of the room, and Zuko’s eyes snap open. As Azulon nods his own greeting Zuko quickly unfolds from his pretzeline position and takes the hidden stairs two at a time. He slams into Iroh with the force of an earthbender’s boulder, hugging tightly.
“Uncle!” He cries, burying his face in Iroh’s robes. “I’m sorry about Cousin Lu Ten. I have a little shrine for him in Grandfather’s gardens.” He bites his lip. “It’s not as big as Lu Ten deserves, but I light incense every day and leave sweet bean cakes for him so he doesn’t forget” Iroh can feel the story there but leaves it be, unsure if he can speak “and I tell him stories so he knows what’s happening here and can rest peacefully.”
The boy’s earnest sympathy warms Iroh’s battered old heart and for a moment he can almost see Lu Ten standing there, smiling at him over Zuko’s thin shoulders. He doubts Ozai’s even lit a candle for his son.
“Thank you, Zuko,” he tells the boy, smiling softly. The boy peers up at him.
“Grandfather says I can stay with you, if you don’t mind the company,” Zuko says, “I can be quiet! You won’t even notice me, I promise, and-”
“Zuko,” Iroh interrupts, heart clenching, “There’s no need to be quiet all the time. Lu Ten often made noise as a child. As long as you don’t mind all the tea, you can stay with me as long as you’d like.”
The boy’s smile is so bright, it wouldn’t look out of place on Agni himself.
[ seven years later ]
By the time the Avatar has landed in the courtyard the entire palace has realized he’s there. Zuko stands at the head of the group in the Crown Prince’s attire. Ever since Grandfather’s health began failing a couple of years ago, Uncle Iroh has been named Fire Lord and Zuko as his heir. Zuko still isn’t quite comfortable around the servants, unable to forget their casual ignorance of his suffering at Azula’s hands.
By the time the Avatar and his small retinue has disembarked their large, furry transport Zuko is ready to receive them, nerves shoved down into a small corner where he’ll confront them later.
“Avatar Aang,” he greets, bowing his head shallowly and making the Flame with his hands. Behind him, the servants bow an entire 90 degrees at the waist. “I am Crown Prince Zuko. Welcome to the Fire Nation, we’ve been expecting you.”