Life is a game with many rules, but, unlike the games Uncle taught on his rare breaks from being a General, no one told you the rules. No one wrote them down or sounded them out in easily memorized ways. No, life more closely resembled the games Azula liked to play. The ones that didn’t look like games until Zuko fell or got burned and Azula told Mother:
“It was just a game!”
So Zuko hated games. All games (except maybe Pai Sho, but only with Uncle, because that was when he told his best battle stories). Despite this overall dislike, he could easily rank his animosity towards individual ones: for example, he hated games with Father the most, but games with Father that included Fire Lord Azulon were the absolute worst.
Needless to say, as Zuko knelt in greeting to Fire Lord Azulon in the his Throne Room, he wished desperately that he wasn’t. He didn’t want to be inside the rooms of the palace at all, but back in the ancestor’s garden with mother, lighting candles for Lu Ten at his shiny new shrine, like they were supposed to be doing, if Father cared at all about Lu Ten’s soul finding his way home.
With greetings over, Father began speaking: first asking probing questions about Fire Lord Azulon’s health prompting a raised eyebrow from the Fire Lord that made Zuko’s skin itch, then Father turned his attention to Zuko and Azula, asking questions about Fire Nation customs and history that Azula dutifully answered. As the questions droned on, Zuko’s focus kept drifting back to the unlit shrine.
Mother promised that Lu Ten’s soul knew the way home, having made the trip from the Earth Kingdom to the Fire Nation many times in life, but Zuko remained skeptical. Lu Ten never sailed himself and Zuko knew the pitch black of the ocean at night from the trips to and from Ember Island. What if Lu Ten ended up over the ocean at night and mistook the stars for firelight? Would his soul become stuck in the inky cosmos? How could Agni find him there, guide him home?
“Just as young Zuko’s attention seems to have strayed,” a tired voice came, not from next to Zuko, but in front. Zuko felt as if all the blood he possessed had evaporated at once, leaving him a husk as Fire Lord Azulon’s words processed, “Mine has as well. Say what it is you actually desire, so that I may go light a candle for my grandson. In case you have forgotten the tragic loss our family has recently suffered.”
The fire that burned in front of the Fire Lord’s throne seemed to grow, just slightly, making the ashy taste in the air hang even heavier and the view to the Fire Lord himself a haze of burning and gray and heat. Next to him, Zuko could almost feel as Father quickly rearranged the plan in his head, looking for his next attack.
Zuko hated games.
“I actually wished to discuss the loss of our beloved Lu Ten, Father,” Father began, voice syrupy in the way that sent Zuko wanting to hide under his bed. “Iroh no longer has an heir and, at his age, there is no way for him to procure one – not one that the people would accept, at least. And where is he now? Not at Ba Sing Se, not here, but gallivanting around the globe, abandoning our family’s sacred mission!”
Fire Lord Azulon narrowed his eyes at Father, “What are you trying to say, Ozai?”
Zuko wished he had knelt next to Mother. Being in the middle, next to Father, next to Azula, attracted the Fire Lord’s gaze to him as the tension grew in the room. Zuko knew enough about the rules that people like Zuko did not want attention on the best of days, let alone in the presence of a powerful and angry man.
“Make me your heir, Father,” Ozai finally laid down his cards. “I have two living children to uphold your legacy.”
The room went silent. The flames grew and Zuko resisted the urge to cough; Azula, the perfect firebending prodigy, barely noticed the smoke.
“You dare suggest that I betray Iroh?” Fire Lord Azulon did not shout. “My first born? After the demise of his only beloved son?” The old man leaned back in his throne shaking his head, “You have made an irrevocable error here, today, Ozai. What man of honor, what brother, what Uncle, would use this tragedy, a death towards furthering our family’s sacred mission as you call it, for his own political,” He practically spat the word, “gain. No, no, Iroh has suffered enough, but you, my son, have been far too coddled.”
Zuko felt Father’s tension, but his stomach truly dropped when he saw Azula’s own worry, clear as day on her perfect actress face.
“You need to be taught a lesson,” Fire Lord Azulon decided. “You must, too, suffer the pain of losing your first born.”
Azula’s mouth twisted, just briefly, into a smirk, before her face went placid again. Father relaxed and Zuko wanted to cry. Zuko hated games, he did not understand the rules: Father needed to learn a lesson, but Zuko paid the price?
“No, please, Fire Lord Azulon,” Mother burst out, voice audibly heavy with sobs threatening to burst. “Zuko is only a child, he’s done nothing-”
Fire Lord Azulon appeared taken aback for a moment, before speaking, “I seem to have been misunderstood and, I admit, my wording perhaps a bit dramatic: Zuko will not be killed.” Zuko was ready for this toying with his emotions to be finished. “Zuko will, from now on, be Iroh’s son. His name will be written out of your lineage and into Iroh’s. He will be moved into the Crowned Heir’s Familial Chambers immediately and his education overseen by me until Iroh returns home. None of you, Ozai, Ursa, or Azula, will have contact with him until he is at least eighteen years of age, to be extended depending on circumstance. You shall also be relocating to Ember Island to prevent any accidental encounters.” Fire Lord Azulon nodded, apparently pleased with his wording, and gestured to his servants to carry out his orders. “You have three minutes for good-byes until your family is to leave to pack, Ozai.”
Numbness overcame Zuko, even as Mother snatched him in the tightest hug. She pulled back and pressed a hard kiss on his forehead. Her lips moved, but Zuko did not hear the words she said. Azula stood shell-shocked to the side, looking at Zuko in abject horror, before sprinting out of the Throne Room. Ozai simply turned on his heel and left. Mother’s lips kept moving, until Fire Lord attendants began to shuffle her out of the room. She kept looking back and Zuko finally heard:
“I love you so much, Zuko, always remember that.”
For the first time, Zuko appreciated that Uncle only had Lu Ten. Before, he wanted a million cousins as great as Lu Ten: to teach him how to use steel weapons and write in old calligraphy and stand up for him during Azula’s games. With only Lu Ten, however, Uncle’s chambers had many empty bedrooms, allowing Zuko to leave Lu Ten’s bedroom untouched when he claimed his own room in the new space.
Then again, as he slept alone, he felt more vulnerable than even in his old room that allowed Azula to sneak in at all times of the night. Located more centrally in the palace, the chambers only allowed for one entrance and one exit, so the guards stood at that doorway, leaving Zuko alone inside. Only the candle on his new bedside table gave Zuko company.
The silence and solitude made Zuko toss and turn into the night. By the time he finally got to sleep, he was being awoken by a new servant, a young woman with a soft voice holding a silk robe. Before he could even say good morning, she had him out of bed and wrapped in the robe, slippers appearing from nowhere to go on his bare feet. Soon, Zuko found himself lead out of his new room and down the various halls of his new Chambers. The hectic night before meant Zuko had not had much of a chance to explore, but in Agni’s light he gawked.
His family’s chambers, or, rather, Father’s family’s old chambers, were ornately decorated with fine gold and deep reds, occasional vivid blue and white streaks painted near the lofted ceilings as a call back to the Cold Flame. Large ceramic bowls burned bright constantly, making the air heavy and turning the ceiling into a constantly overcast, oppressive sky. On every wall, some painting or wood carving depicted a violent victory, some gruesome enough the servants avoided walking down certain passageways.
This new chamber certainly did not lack in decoration, either, but where Father placed solid gold statues, Zuko found heavy wooden shelves filled with scrolls. The reds, plentiful around them, tended toward the lighter shades and not a shred of blue to be found; candles attached in iron moldings on the walls lit the room where sunlight proved not enough. Gorgeous moldings ran along the crease where the wall met ceiling, depicting dragon after powerful dragon. Trinkets from Uncle’s travels held the place of honor on the walls: a fan from the Earth Kingdom, a waterbending scroll from the Northern Water Tribe, even a strange contraption with wings colored in the softest orange and yellow Zuko had ever seen (he wondered what Uncle would bring back from his latest trip – he had been gone so long already, would the trinkets sink his ship?).
The servant stopped at a pair of large, dark doors, opening one and ushering Zuko inside the room, closing the door behind him. Zuko jumped slightly at the loud sound and saw a long table in front of him, practically identical to the one at which Father and Mother entertained guests. Father allowed Zuko to sit at that table exactly once.
At the head of the table opposite to where Zuko stood, Fire Lord Azulon sat, bowls of untouched food and a clear plate in front of him. Zuko’s heart sped up and he immediately bowed as deep as he could manage.
“My apologies, Fire Lord Azulon,” his racing heart made the words trip clumsily out of his mouth as he remained bowed and he tried desperately to recall all the little rules about interacting with the Fire Lord. “I did not realize you were in here.”
“Straighten up, my boy, no need for the formalities,” Fire Lord Azulon said. Zuko straightened hesitantly to see the Fire Lord waving Zuko over to the seat at his left hand, “Come, sit.”
Zuko obeyed, hoping this was not another game.
“As I will be overseeing you until your father returns, I figured we should dine together, breakfast and dinner at least,” Fire Lord Azulon explained. “I did the same with your brother when Iroh left to lead various battles in the war.”
It unsettled Zuko just slightly to hear Uncle referred to as his father, even if, technically he was, now. Hearing Lu Ten referred to as his brother?
The news of Lu Ten’s death hit Zuko hard. His entire life, he looked up to the older boy, wanted to be exactly like Lu Ten in every way. Beyond that, Lu Ten was always there for Zuko, even when he left for the war, writing home with a frequency that Mother always seemed to find amusing. To suddenly not have Lu Ten devastated the young prince in a way he never felt before.
In a way, Zuko supposed it felt like he assumed losing an actual brother felt like.
“Thank you, Fire Lord Azulon,” Zuko said quietly, gaze fixed on the table.
“Grandson, please,” Fire Lord Azulon placed a bun onto Zuko’s plate, “Call me Grandfather.”
It took some time, but Zuko learned the rules whispered quickly as he changed into his best clothes, as Mother pushed him through doorways, as Father yanked him into another presentation, meant nothing to Grandfather. The old man demanded respect, but the everyday respect Zuko understood: not interrupting while he spoke (though, admittedly, Zuko sometimes had a problem with that depending on the topic, but Grandfather simply quirked his eyebrow and Zuko remembered; it never felt cruel, though, and Zuko could swear he almost caught Grandfather smiling at one such burst of excitement), using proper table manners, saying please and thank you. He never demanded the full titles Father told Zuko to use; he accepted the flash of the flame and slight bow of the head instead of a full bow.
But, it wasn’t just that Grandfather’s rules made sense.
It had been a week and a half since Grandfather’s proclamation. With all the change, Grandfather decided to give Zuko a break from his lessons until Uncle returned, but Zuko did need to keep up his firebending.
When Grandfather took Zuko into Uncle’s Private Training yard to practice, Zuko felt his heart sink to his feet. A few hours from noon yet, Agni just barely peaked over the roofline into the yard as Zuko began, knowing as he began moving his arms that he would fumble on some step of the kata. Zuko winced, feeling each misstep and false movement deep in his bones, his attempts at overcorrecting each mistake making them glaringly obvious, and resulting in a horrific performance of the ancient art, as his instructors would say.
Zuko stood in the center of the yard at the end of the kata, head bowed, waiting for Grandfather to say something. After a week and a half of practically being the man’s shadow, Zuko had become to use the old man’s peaceful tolerance of his presence; surely, after that awful display, Grandfather’s tune would change. He would see that Zuko needed a much firmer hand and the break from his lessons in which Zuko relished was entirely undeserved.
“That was quite well done, Prince Zuko. Just a bit more practice and you’ll have mastered that kata.” Zuko’s head snapped up, looking at Grandfather. The old man almost, almost, looked impressed.
“Azula mastered that kata a month ago,” Zuko could not hold himself from saying.
“Well, there is no denying that Azula is a prodigy,” Grandfather said. “However, that kata took me nearly a year to master.”
“But I’ve only been working on it for two months?” Zuko’s head tilted to the side.
“Exactly,” Grandfather never really smiled all the way, but he had little half ones that Zuko was learning to recognize, one he wore now. “You should take pride in your quick progress.” Grandfather stood from his seat on the bench at the side of the yard, “However, within your quick progress lies your problem.” Grandfather took position next to Zuko and began one of the first katas, “You need to remember to return to your basics, Zuko, even after you have mastered them. Do you know why our citizens who live in the colonies return every year?”
Zuko shook his head; he knew of the pilgrimage, though, when all of the colonists returned for a week of festival and kinship. He watched as Grandfather moved through the kata – the one Azula teased him for years ago when she advanced from it before he did, calling it the baby kata. It looked almost majestic, as if Grandfather danced through the movements.
“They return, every year, to come back to their roots – even those whose parents were born in the colonies. In our beginnings, grandson, lie our strengths.” The kata ended and Grandfather became still. “And a great leader needs great strength.”
A month passed before servants awoke Zuko before Agni, dressing him quickly in his nicest clothes, recently tailored as apparently Zuko’s new status required clothes an entire grade level nicer than his old ones (Zuko realized he may never understand the rules regarding dress, but, when he conveyed his concerns to Grandfather, the old man huffed in amusement before assuring Zuko that someone else would be able to keep track of that for him). Then, he found himself shuffled out of his chambers and into Grandfather’s palanquin.
“Your father is returning,” Grandfather explained, before Zuko could ask.
Even after a month, the phrase caught Zuko off guard. He didn’t miss Father, necessarily, not in the same way he missed Uncle whose company he always did enjoy, but he missed what came with Father being known as his father, like Mother and…well, Mother. His feelings towards Azula over the month became a twisted, wriggling disaster, as he found himself moving through the palace more confident than he could ever remember being, and being able to trace that back to not being concerned a fierce, though tiny, ball of rage and violence would jump out to attack him. He loved her, in a way, but he definitely did not miss her.
But, Zuko contemplated as the Palanquin began to move and he leaned, just slightly, against Grandfather’s leg, Zuko could not say the change was bad. Sure, he missed Mother dearly, but Grandfather had quickly become a welcome presence in Zuko’s life. He told fascinating stories during their downtime and, after meetings, questioned Zuko about his thoughts. Grandfather made Zuko feel heard, not ignored the way Father did, or ridiculed like Azula, and even Mother always brushed off his concerns (Azula scares me, Father hates me, my instructor hurt me).
So, no, Zuko could not say he actually regretted that night. Not at all. But, as they made their way to the harbor, he couldn’t help but realize that Grandfather acted as a grandfather, Father acted as a father, and Zuko had only known Uncle as an uncle. How would Uncle be as a father? Lu Ten never appeared to fear Uncle and, if Zuko tried (though it was over two years ago now and, at only ten, that was a life time), he thought he could remember them spending lots of time together, drinking tea and playing Pai Sho.
But Zuko was self-aware enough to recognize he measured up to Lu Ten about as well as he measured up to Azula, and Father always favored Azula. Grandfather said that Zuko’s upbringing would be Uncle’s responsibility as soon as he returned, so would that mean Grandfather step back entirely? Be as little involved in Zuko’s life as before?
Zuko leaned against Grandfather’s leg a little more forcefully, causing a withered hand to rest on Zuko’s shoulder, pulling him close. No words were said, but Grandfather shifted his robe so it wrapped around Zuko as well.
Many boats were docked in the harbor, but the large, gleaming Navy cruiser stood out against the rest. The rest of the dock was silent in the pre-dawn morning, but, on the small section where the cruiser was docked, men hustled to and fro to quickly unload. The palanquin came to a stop and the bearers placed it gently on the ground. The silence continued, Zuko’s thoughts still racing, until Uncle appeared, making his way slowly down the gangplank to the dock. He looked…larger, than Zuko remembered him.
Uncle approached the palanquin and bowed, a little deeper than Zuko’s typical greeting, but shallower than Zuko expected, but Grandfather appeared to accept it.
“Hello, Father,” Uncle said.
“Welcome home, Son,” Grandfather sounded incredibly pleased. Zuko quickly glanced up at him and surprise struck when he saw an incredibly familiar face: the same one Azula wore when one of her plans went exactly right.
The return to the palace proved largely uneventful. After a quick clean up, Zuko found himself sitting in his typical place to the left of Grandfather, but, this time, Uncle sat across the table.
“Ah,” Uncle sighed, breathing in a deep whiff of some tea a servant poured him. “I must say, while I missed many things on my travels, a good cup of tea definitely tops the list. One that I did not make myself, that is.”
Grandfather and Uncle leapt into conversation regarding Uncle’s travels after that while Zuko ate his food in silence. He tried to ignore the tightness in his chest, remembering the day before when Grandfather and he got so lost in conversation about classic plays that Grandfather nearly missed an important meeting with some high ranking official or nobility. It made sense, he supposed, adults liked to talk to other adults; Grandfather must have only tolerated Zuko’s ramblings because there were no adults to talk to and, with Uncle returned and taking the place of Father, this would be the way now.
“So, Prince Zuko,” Zuko’s attention snapped to Uncle, smiling at him from across the table, “I understand that you are now my son.”
“It was the best course of action,” Grandfather stated, sipping his tea. “This way, no one will…concern themselves about your bloodline and birth right.”
“Yes, of course,” Uncle nodded. “I was surprised to hear about Ozai needing to relocate, though. Something about Azula’s health?”
“Ah, yes,” Grandfather said, his gaze flitting to Zuko as he spoke, “Her poor constitution made her unsuitable for palace life. Ember Island will be a much calmer place for her to relax, hopefully build up some strength.”
Zuko kept his face blank as he watched Grandfather lie. He could remember hearing snippets of this story, but never truly paying attention, certain he had misheard and focused on other things.
“I will say, that is definitely surprising,” Uncle said. “The last I heard, she was a firebending prodigy.”
“It is a shame,” Grandfather clucked. “She won’t be doing any firebending from now on, though, if she doesn’t wish to burn her soul to a crisp. These things can happen, though, even to those that appear most promising.” Grandfather’s gaze returned to Zuko, “sometimes it’s those that take just a bit more time that see the best reward.”
“The physician believes she became a flame-addict?” Uncle asked.
“Quite sad, quite sad. I think one of my own cousin’s succumbed to a similar fate, but let us move away from such sad topics. Zuko has been officially and in every way been made your son.”
Uncle smiled at Zuko, “I am honored. Though, it has been so long, you’ve grown so much since I last saw you.”
“I got the present you sent me,” Zuko said. “I really like it.”
“Lu Ten said you might.”
“Which present was this?” Grandfather asked, looking at Zuko curiously.
“A dagger from the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko explained, feeling his face warm – Father always warned Zuko not to talk about his steel weapons to others, a firebender using steel weaponry brought only shame onto their family (Lu Ten being a nonbender himself).
His heart dropped when Uncle said, “From what I remember, Prince Zuko is quite skilled with steel weapons, actually. Took to it like a dragon to the sky when Lu Ten showed him a few things.”
“I-I haven’t done it in a while, I-”
“That’s quite a skill, Grandson,” Grandfather said. Zuko fell silent, having realized over the month that Grandfather tended to call him “Grandson” when he felt Zuko had done something praise worthy or impressive. “You haven’t mentioned it before.”
“Father says for a bender to use steel weapons is to bring shame to their family,” Zuko explained.
Grandfather scoffed, “That may be the belief of our lower citizens, but a good leader knows the strength in being well rounded. We shall call back Lu Ten’s old weapons teacher as soon as possible.”
“I’m nowhere near as good as Lu Ten is, was,” Zuko corrected with a wince.
“…which is why we shall call back Lu Ten’s old weapons teacher,” Grandfather repeated. “Zuko, you cannot expect to excel at a task in which you have not received the proper training.”
Zuko did not know how to respond to that, but, luckily, Grandfather did not seem finished talking.
“That is,” Grandfather turned to Uncle, “You approve. I do believe Prince Zuko should continue his weapons training and would push for an instructor, but do you believe that Lu Ten’s old one should suffice? His education is now your responsibility, after all.”
“Lu Ten’s teacher would do just fine,” Uncle said. “Though, I would rather he be the only instructor we bring in for Prince Zuko. I will take over the rest of his instruction personally, now that I have stepped down as general, like I did when Lu Ten was young.”
“Of course,” Grandfather seemed more than pleased with Uncle. “Back to the old ways, I say, a father should always know be a part of his son’s education. I never did appreciate Ozai’s insistence on bringing in outside instruction for every class. He was even considering sending Azula to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Now, it’s a fine school for nobility, but for an heir to the throne?” Grandfather tsked.
“Especially with her weak constitution,” Uncle said.
The excitement that made Zuko feel tingly all over gave way to a cold panic that froze him in his seat. All his instruction under Uncle? His old instructors could barely handle an hour of Zuko’s incompetence, how could he expect Uncle to make it an entire day?
But even as his anxieties grew, Uncle sat across the table, smiling at him as he drank his tea, his face illuminated by candlelight.
Lessons began the day after Uncle arrived in order to give the older man time to unpack and settle back into life at the palace. Zuko spent that day alone in the courtyard with the turtleducks, wanting to stay out of Uncle’s way and Grandfather being busy with war meetings. The next day, however, Zuko made sure to rise early and wear the nicer clothes that still somewhat resembled the clothes he used to wear for instruction. He made sure his face was clean and hair neat, then made his way to the dining room, arriving, for the first time, just as Grandfather was entering.
“Grandfather?” Zuko asked as the Fire Lord took his usual seat.
“Good morning, Prince Zuko,” Grandfather greeted. Zuko entered, still confused, and took his own seat. “You are certainly up early this morning. I usually make my way through at least half of this before I expect you.” He gestured a the pile of papers in front of him.
“Just excited for my lessons, I suppose,” Zuko lied, his stomach rolling. “I didn’t realize you would still be coming to meals – you weren’t at dinner last night.”
And hadn’t that been an awkward meal. Uncle asked questions the whole time, watching with eyes that reminded Zuko less of the man he remembered from two years ago and more of a hawk in the mail towers: some normal (how was he adjusting to his new quarters, did he enjoy his break from lessons, what had he last been learning), but some made Zuko pause before answering (what did he know of the spirits, the Avatar, bending forms beyond fire, pre-war history). The easy questions left Zuko feeling more confident and comfortable being alone with his Uncle, but the others made Zuko ache for his grandfather’s presence.
“Well, I do enjoy dining with my son and grandson,” Grandfather said. “My schedule may not always permit now that I don’t have the excuse of not wanting you to dine alone, but I shall still make an effort.” Grandfather shook his head, “I do fear that even our most experienced of military officials still fall short in some areas. It took far too long to create a plan to squelch those petty uprisings occurring in the eastern-most Earth Kingdom colonies.”
Zuko furrowed his eyebrows and his back straightened, “Uprisings, Grandfather?”
The old man nodded, pulling a map out from amongst his papers to show Zuko.
“Around…here,” He pointed. “You see, Zuko, people often don’t know what’s best for them, like Ozai, and that’s why we have leaders, like me. Sometimes, however, people think that they do know what’s best and they go against their leaders, so they need to be punished.”
“And that’s why you sent Fa…Ozai to Ember Island,” Zuko said.
“And why we’re bringing troops from Ba Sing Se,” Grandfather pointed at the walled city portrayed on the map and dragged his finger back to the colonies, tracing a path, “Down to these colonies. In reality, that’s too much manpower for such a small problem, but, if we nip these rebellions in the bud…” Grandfather trailed off, raising an eyebrow at Zuko.
“Then the uprisings won’t spread through the reason like they did fifteen years ago in the South Pole!” Zuko exclaimed, remembering this discussion from just a few days ago.
“Precisely, very good,” Grandfather smiled as the door to the dining hall opened, letting in Uncle and, behind him, the servants with breakfast.
“I see lessons have already begun,” Uncle commented as he sat down, noting the open map.
“Just going over a little bit of battle strategy,” Grandfather explained. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the uprisings in the east?”
“Yes,” The usual cheeriness of Uncle seemed to dim, just slightly. “I have.”
“What a stubborn people,” Grandfather grumbled, as the servants sat the food down and he plated his food.
Uncle hummed noncommittally, pouring his tea.
Beyond the somewhat odd exchange, breakfast passed smoothly, without talk of war or bizarre questions about spirituality or ancient history. For Zuko, it passed too quickly and, almost before he knew it, he was following Uncle to a room in which he had not been.
“This was where I taught Lu Ten,” Uncle explained, opening the door.
The room was smaller than the one that Zuko was used to, though, he figured, he shared that space with Azula and her instructors (Azula requiring higher level instructors, the quick study she was). Unlike that room, though, with its central location in the chambers, had three large windows that allowed Agni’s light and fresh air. Wheras the other room quickly became stifling and stuffy, this room appeared comfortable. While the rest of the chambers housed a large amount of shelves for scrolls, this room saw them on every piece of wall not taken by window and a soft, pale red rug decorated with small yellow flames covered the floor. Already, a steaming teapot and two cups sat on the small table in the center of the room.
“I had the servants clean it up a bit yesterday, for it was just a tad dusty,” Uncle explained as he entered the room and took a seat. Zuko followed, sitting across from Uncle as he began pouring the tea. “I also had them hang those,’ Uncle gestured to the wall above the center window.
Zuko turned his attention to see Lu Ten’s swords hanging proudly.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Uncle said, eyes still on the swords. “This is your study space now, but…we had some great memories in this room.”
Zuko shook his head, “Of course not, they belong here.” Then, after a moment, “I’m honored that you are allowing me to use this space.”
Uncle turned back to Zuko, smiling sadly, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He chuckled slightly, “Lu Ten always was trying to convince me to adopt you. Practically since the moment you were born.”
Zuko didn’t remember that at all, “Why?”
Uncle hesitated, “That’s a discussion for another time.” He placed his tea cup down. “Now, where shall we begin?”
When the lessons began, Zuko found them comfortingly average, though Uncle showed a patience Zuko had never experienced from an instructor before. Like Grandfather, he let Zuko be heard and gently corrected his misconceptions, instead of hitting his hand with a bamboo rod or smacking him upside the head. They studied geography and climate, the recent history of the Fire Nation, literature, and calligraphy.
In the end, the first week of Uncle’s return turned out better than Zuko ever expected. Grandfather still managed to attend most meals and sent a servant ahead, typically with some extra treat, the few times he couldn’t.
Then, Uncle decided to resume Zuko’s bending training.
During the midmorning, after a brief rehash of the early battles between the Southern Water Tribes and the Fire Nation Navy, Uncle and Zuko went to the training yard. Zuko actually felt excited to train for the first time, a mixture of it being so long since he had last properly trained, not the brief exercises he did to keep his fire healthy, but also anticipation of Uncle’s teaching style that made everything click properly in Zuko’s head.
As this was to be a full training session, Zuko took the time to shed his robes, leaving himself in only his pants.
When he turned back to Uncle, though, he found the man staring at him with an expression of pure horror.
“Prince Zuko,” Uncle gasped, “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” Zuko asked, looking down at himself. It looked the same as it had for months now.
Uncle was by his side, pointing out what he meant, “This, and this, these.”
Oh, Zuko realized, his scars. A part of him was surprised that the man caught them, as they were pretty faded by now. Even when Azula managed to burn him, she never burnt him beyond the second-degree at worst.
“Azula,” Zuko shrugged. “She likes…liked to play games. I was always pretty bad at them.”
The hard look on Uncle’s face nearly made Zuko shiver and something in the back of his head said this was the General, the Dragon of the West. “Was Ozai aware of this?”
“I’d assume so. Pretty much everyone knew. I had to go to the physician to get them iced and bandaged and stuff,” Zuko said. “I mean, it’s not that weird, kids burn themselves all the time.”
“Yes, kids burn themselves when their parents allow unsupervised firebending,” Uncle said. “How long did she do this?”
“Um, a while, I guess. But, I mean…” Zuko shuffled his feet awkwardly as Uncle continued to examine him. “It’s not like she’s even here anymore.”
Zuko didn’t understand the expression in Uncle’s face as he looked at him, though it seemed sad, in a way, “No, she is not.”
So they began their lesson and Zuko found himself enjoying learning how to bend in the same way he enjoyed learning how to swordfight. The exhilaration of the fire, the thrill and exhaustion of hard work had Zuko smiling by the end. After a quick wash-up, Uncle and he returned to the study room, staying there until dinner, which Grandfather was able to attend.
They were more than half-way through dinner, near the point where it became acceptable for Zuko to ask after dessert, when the subject turned to Zuko’s firebending lesson earlier.
“He is quite a dedicated student,” Uncle smiled at Zuko.
“I’d expect nothing less,” Azulon said. “From the short demonstrations I’ve seen, he will grow to be a fine firebending master.”
“I was skeptical about Azula being a flame-addict, but I see what you mean, now. Though, I will say,” Uncle looked at Grandfather, “I’m a bit worried about how a few of those scars will heal. I do, however, know of an excellent balm-”
“Scars?” Azulon’s eyebrows raised. “What scars?”
“On Prince Zuko, from where Azula burned him,” Uncle said.
“Azula burned you, Prince Zuko?” Grandfather’s voice was louder than normal.
Zuko swallowed thickly, “Yes, sir.”
“And you never mentioned it?”
“My-my parents knew,” Zuko explained, shrinking away. “And I always went to the physician for healing.”
“Father, you’re scaring him,” Uncle said. “It’s a misunderstanding, that’s all. I do wish we had caught it earlier, burning others that many times is one of the earliest signs of flame-addiction. Of course, if Ozai knew…”
“He put Prince Zuko in deliberate danger every day. Not to mention the lives of every person in this palace,” Azulon glowered. Zuko shrank further, catching Azulon’s eye. “I’m sorry, Grandson. I do not mean to frighten you, I am simply frustrated.”
“It’s okay, Grandfather,” Zuko said. He knew, logically, the old man didn’t mean to scare him, but, lately, Zuko forgot the force that truly was the Fire Lord, lost in his private persona of kindly, if somewhat severe, Grandfather.
Later that night, as Zuko was getting ready for bed, Uncle knocked on the door.
“May I come in, Prince Zuko?” Zuko simply nodded, putting away his clothes as Uncle sat on the bed. Once finished, Uncle pat the space next to him on the bed; Zuko sat down. “If I asked you a question, would you answer it honestly?”
“Of course,” Zuko said, slightly offended that Uncle thought he would lie to him.
“Do you know the real reason that you are now my son?” Uncle asked.
Zuko furrowed his eyebrows, “What do you mean?”
Uncle sighed, “I mean, that I got a very sudden letter one day, saying that you were now my son. Not asking if I wanted to make you my heir or add you to my lineage to make you my bloodline politically, but that I was now fully in charge of you as my child. That is not something, even your grandfather, would typically do without consulting me, not that I am not honored to now be your father. However, I believe there is more to it than your grandfather wanting to protect my birthright from hypothetical dissenters.”
Zuko squirmed on the bed, “Well…Grandfather said Fa…Ozai and his family were sent to Ember Island because Azula’s a flame-addict.”
“And while I’m now sure she is,” Uncle said, “your grandfather’s response tonight makes me think he did not suspect this until tonight, which is why he became so angry.”
Zuko broke, “Ozai challenged your birthright. He wanted to be made heir.”
Uncle did not seem surprised; hurt, yet, but not surprised, resigned rather. “Yes, that does sound like him.” He pat Zuko’s knee, “Thank you for telling me.”
As he stood up, Zuko asked, “Why would Grandfather want to keep that from you?”
Uncle paused, before turning to look at Zuko, “Because he thought that, if asked, I would have given Ozai my birthright.”
Zuko gawked, “Would you have?”
“That’s a question for another time, Prince Zuko,” Uncle simply smiled. “Good night.”
The next morning at breakfast came news that the house on Ember Island burned over night with Azula, the diagnosed flame-addict, believed to be the cause. There were no survivors.
Zuko sat in stunned silence, tears welling in his eyes. Uncle murmured a soft prayer.
“These things happens when you hide a flame-addiction,” Azulon stated matter-of-factly.
Zuko realized he did not understand his grandfather.
And he really hated games.