I'm going to kill him.
Zuko paced the length and breadth of his cabin - so many steps this way, so many steps that - still simmering with rage. Feet dodged bed and desk and other items he'd carefully set back into place, restoring the order the airbender had destroyed. After almost three years on the Wani, he could stalk this room with his eyes closed.
Which he was. There wasn't anyone to see.
I'm going to kill him. Take that boomerang and stuff it down his throat….
He could still hear that odd whirring it'd made, cutting back through air. Hadn't sounded like an arrow. Hadn't flown like one, either.
Take that staff and shove it down after… forget trophies, a chained airbender ought to be plenty….
Cold wind whipping up off the ocean, and colder steel between his fingers as he climbed - and cold wood too, damn it all. That had hurt.
Zuko stopped in mid-pace and breathed out, picturing his enemies. Small, slight airbender, impossibly young, calling to a creature no one had seen in decades. A waterbending girl not much taller and older, winter's chill flowing with a wave of her hands. And a taller teenager he suspected was her brother, who'd first attacked with a dark scent of lampblack and grease painting his face, and who'd later lunged onto the ship in a rustle of thick fur.
The benders were dangerous. The Avatar, beyond measure; he'd felt the world tremble that moment on the deck, waves and seals and ice all vibrating to the pulse of unleashed power. But the Water Tribe boy…. Zuko drew in a breath, and let it crackle out as flame.
A familiar knock. "Am I interrupting, Prince Zuko?"
Uncle. Alone. Zuko let his shoulders slump, rage finally flickering into weary fear. "No."
Iroh stepped through the door, shutting it with a quiet clang as he regarded his nephew. "What is wrong?"
No one in the hall. And he knew the door was closed. Zuko still hesitated. "…He knows. The Water Tribe boy."
"I do not think so," Iroh said thoughtfully.
"He has to - everyone must have seen that damn flying bone-!"
"They saw an unfamiliar weapon, which at first appeared to miss," Iroh said firmly. "I have already heard surprise from those of our men who had never seen combat with the Water Tribes. And it came in from your left. No one will think anything of that." The old general sighed. "Come, nephew. If anyone suspected, we would know. Trust me."
Reluctantly, Zuko opened his eyes. Not that it changed anything.
Uncle was still a stocky flame in front of him, armor and robes the patina of odd, shadowy reds his firebending etched on the darkness of the world. Flame-shadow gave him the feel of where and how warm; hardness and softness of sound gave him shapes and distance and solidity. Scent added its own fine details, painting the world with air warmed by coal smoke and tasting of armor oil and ginseng tea.
Always the same. Since the Agni Kai. Since the fever. Firebenders lived for the light of the sun, and he….
"I worry for you sometimes, nephew," Uncle Iroh said honestly. "It is not good for a man, to be living a lie. It is not good for anyone."
Zuko stiffened. "I will not shame my father."
"No," Iroh nodded. "No, of course you would not."
No. Not ever. Especially not now, so close... the Avatar, here. At last.
What if I'm not good enough? What if a sighted bender would catch something important - like that boomerang - and I don't? And I fail.
Failure wasn't an option. He had to do this. He couldn't shame his father. Not again.
If the crew knew, they could watch for me….
And turn him in to Azula as soon as she got in range to smirk at them. He knew his sister. "…They'd never understand, anyway."
"Hmm." Uncle stroked his beard.
"What?" Zuko said, suspicious.
"Oh, nothing really."
Which meant, of course, that it wasn't nothing. Wait for it, Zuko told himself firmly.
"I was just wondering how I might entice our Lieutenant Jee into another game of Pai Sho."
Meaning their new lieutenant and effective captain had enough brains not to get skinned out of a week's pay in a friendly game. At least, not twice. "What does Pai Sho have to do with capturing the Avatar?" Zuko demanded.
"I did say it was nothing," Iroh admitted. "Though I have been thinking of ways to make it easier for you to read the tiles; the strategies are difficult to properly learn when you must keep track of the pieces without touching them. Perhaps mismatched sets combined, much as it might offend classic masters..."
Zuko clapped a hand to his face in disbelief. "We're heading north after the Avatar, and you want me to play Pai Sho? When people might figure out I'm not looking at the tile symbols?"
"It will take us some time to locate him again, after we make repairs," Iroh said judiciously. "And it is not wise to train constantly. The mind loses focus; the body is over-wearied, and we have all been chilled to the bone." He chuckled. "And I am certain I can arrange to lose tiles in a... creative fashion."
"It is more than just a game, Prince Zuko," Iroh said steadily. "It teaches patience, and strategy. And it shows one the hazards of moving blindly."
"Nephew." Uncle's voice was gentle. "If you are ever searching for betrayal in innocent words, you will one day betray yourself."
"I can't," Zuko choked out. "I can't, Uncle, I have to do this-"
Iroh hugged him.
Zuko froze. But Uncle didn't let go, and finally Zuko reached up, resting a hand against flesh and bone and the bristle of trimmed beard. Warm, solid; real, in a way those he'd met since he'd lost the light never seemed to be. How could faceless voices ever be real? And the only way to give them faces would give every secret away...
"One day," Iroh said plainly, "we will find others you can trust." Reluctantly, he let go. "And on that day, Prince Zuko... no matter where you are, you will be home."
Zuko listened to him leave, fists clenching once the door was closed. The capital is home.
And he finally had a chance to see... to go home again. If he didn't screw it up.
Fingers tracing over a map of the world, Zuko plotted his next move.