Zuko laughed as slim fingers found their way around his arms and attacked his sides, rendering him a ticklish mess in the soft spring grass. As he lie on the earth laughing, he could hear his mother's amused chuckles just beside his ears and a content flame sparked in his chest. It was at times like this he thought everything right in the world. The sun blazed fiercely above and the strong branches of the family courtyard tree gently shaded them as the small pond splashed with turtleduck activity. They were happy. Happy and away from the typical protocol that was normally demanded of them. But even Zuko knew that all good things came to an end and such was the case as his sister abruptly appeared behind his mother with a sneer of disdain marring her otherwise immaculate face.
"Wasting time again, Zuzu?"
Zuko suddenly didn't feel like laughing anymore. "Shut up, Azula."
"Zuko!" his mother scolded. "You know better than to speak to your sister that way!"
Azula coolly raised her eyebrows, knowing she had gotten to him again.
"And you, young lady, should know not to provoke your brother."
"But he's just so easy to bait," Azula shrugged. "No wonder father thinks you're completely useless."
Zuko felt a stone plummet in his stomach and he suddenly felt slightly sick.
"Azula! We need to have a talk. Now!"
Zuko's sister obviously wanted to do anything but. But she understood the system, the hierarchy. Her mother had the upper hand…for now.
Before walking away with her daughter, Princess Ursa turned towards her beloved son and said, "Your sister was just teasing you, Zuko. Your father doesn't –"
"Yes," Zuko interrupted. "I know." But he didn't, and that single uncertainty destroyed any hope of a good day. No, it wasn't even an uncertainty anymore. Zuko had seen the disappointment and contempt in his father's eyes too many times to think his sister merely teasing. Deep down, he knew his father despised him but hope of redemption and rising to his father's standards continued to bleed in his soul. In his mind, his father loved him just as his mother did. But he had to be stricter, firmer, in order to ensure Zuko never tarnished the family name and honor. At least, that's what Zuko always told himself. As his father's heir, Zuko had to reach high expectations and that was where he failed.
Zuko felt his throat constrict painfully and he walked away from his mother and his perfect sister. Oh, he knew the rumors, the gossip. He knew how the rest of the nobility and military generals spoke amongst themselves about how his sister excelled at everything she did. He knew how they spoke of her excellent marks in class and how she was such a prodigy with her firebending. A natural, they said. A born princess.
Zuko, on the other hand, was often the object of their laughter and their insults. What was he, compared to his sister? He was no genius, they chuckled. Even their own children would fare better. His studies were poor and he had only created his first flame a mere year before. Eight, they murmured. No child in Sozin's line had ever begun so late. Not even lowly peasants ever found their first spark at such a shameful age. Azula had created her first at four and sped through her studies. Zuko stumbled in everything he did. Almost nothing ever came naturally to him. Pity, they would say, that Azula hadn't been born first. All Prince Ozai had for an heir now was a mess-up.
Zuko wanted, more than anything, to prove them all wrong. But he couldn't no matter how hard he tried. Firebending katas took him days to learn, not minutes like it took Azula. His mind always wandered in tutoring sessions and he constantly cringed when taught where best to permanently strike down an enemy. His mother said it was his greatest virtue. His father said it made him weak. His sister just laughed and soaked up the lessons, enraptured.
At times, his only comfort in the world was his mother. She never turned him away with a clipped refusal or proclaimed him a failure again and again. She would stroke his hair and tell him stories. She would say that, no matter what, she would always love him. Azula teased him for it but Zuko honestly could have cared less. It was the one thing he didn't lose his fiery temper at because he knew that no amount of taunts could ever override his mother's love.
She would always be there for him. She had promised.
Zuko sighed to himself as his mother walked away with his sister and tried to console himself with the idea of Azula's upcoming a scolding. Azula got away with so many things it was almost comforting to see her being punished for once. He watched their disappearing forms for a moment more before turning away and heading into the East Wing of the Inner Palace.
The Royal Palace was situated at the heart of the Fire Nation's largest dormant volcano. It was neatly hidden among a string of other rocky mountains helping to create the many islands that constituted the dragon children's' land. It might have been the largest volcano, but other mountaintops devoid of snow or ice were easily taller. One would have to search each island individually in order to discover the capital's true location. Even once found, a plethora of firebenders and weapon masters alike protected the city. It was the most protected region in the entire nation because the Royal Palace was at the core.
The palace itself consisted of four main "rings". The outer ring was where the greatest artists and scholars resided. The third ring was home to the imperial firebenders, second only in skill to the Great Names ("nobles" was what the Earth Kingdom people called them, Zuko had heard), who lived in the second ring, and the royal family. The very inner core of the palace was dedicated to the royal family and the Fire Lord's throne room/war room.
Zuko had spend the majority of his life inside the innermost rings of the palace, but after his seventh birthday two years ago, he had been allowed to venture out into the city – with an extensive entourage of guards protecting him the whole way. Zuko wasn't stupid. He had grown up in the intricate thornwork of imperial politics and, while he had yet to completely understand most of it, he knew that it was a vicious competition to gain influence. He knew that even a child of the Fire Lord's second son was high on the list of potential assassinations. Zuko had grown up knowing this, preparing for any circumstance since his fourth birthday. Yet he couldn't help but wish he had been able to see the city unhindered. He had only been able to see the buildings (small in comparison to his home) and a mass of bowing heads. He had wanted to see the city in its natural state and explore but that had been impossible for him.
The East Wing of the royal family's ring was where Zuko and Azula met and studied with their private tutors. Zuko wasn't scheduled for a lesson for another half hour, but he had little else to do. His mother had insisted he finish his assignments the night before already and he still didn't have enough control of his inner fire in order to practice his firebending freely yet. It had been his greatest shame to create his first spark only at eight and it irritated him to no end that he was still on the basics while his sister was already on the forms.
Zuko huffed and crossed his arms as he fell into one of the soft, feather-stuffed sitting pillows in the "study room". Well, he could practice breathing techniques on his own and now was as good a time as any to do so. He frowned at the boring prospect of the respiratory exercise but closed his eyes and took his first deep breath. He knew how important this would be in the future. He had mastered extinguishing flames and that had been painful to learn. But now he had to learn to not only put out, but to also control his fire so that he would never need to put out his own flames. If he remained in control, his fire would never get out of hand and such restraining techniques of quenching one's flames would be needless.
It took him far longer to get into the rhythm of breathing than it took his sister. She would easily fall into the pattern while he had to sit for a few minutes before he was even able to get his breaths even. Zuko was getting better at it, but when he tried to maintain his breathing rate with candles before him, he still couldn't do even that. It was frustrating.
He had finally gotten into his own inner breathing pattern when quick steps broke his concentration and he opened startled eyes to stare into the eyes of his history tutor.
"Prepared for today's lesson, my lord?"
Zuko knew the mocking in the tutor's tone at the words "my lord" but he didn't comment on it. What could he do about it? His mother would smile and offer him her kindness but she could do little else. His father would scoff and tell him to toughen up. Zuko had learned long ago how to deal with disdain on his own.
At Zuko's nod, his tutor immediately said, "Very well. Now please explain to me how Sozin went about during his first campaign…"
Zuko came stumbling out of the East Wing four hours later with his head fit to burst. History, numbers, strategy, calligraphy, and politics had been quite a lot to take in. He had taken notes, of course, but he knew that unless he went back and rewrote them now, he would forget the lessons but tomorrow morning. It was a pain in the rear end, really, but he what had to be done had to be done. His sister could walk in and out knowing every little detail with only a single scroll of simple notes to assist her memory.
Again, life wasn't fair.
Zuko meandered down the hallways and eased himself into his bedroom. It was furnished with a large bed at the center with silk ruby sheets and a silk pillow. A canopy encompassed the bed and drapes were neatly tied to the wooden posts, ready to be drawn at the mere pull of a rope. A variety of weapons from his time under Master Piandao's tutelage decorated the majority of the left wall while a wooden desk with several bookshelves surrounding it occupied the right side of the room. A single, large wardrobe adorned the back wall but it only housed his robes. The majority of his clothes were held elsewhere where the servants would choose each outfit daily and dress him every morning. His mother occasionally withheld such services, though, in order to ensure that he knew how to dress himself should the necessary occasion arise. Although why she bothered Zuko didn't know. She never made Azula do such a thing and he knew. Her bedroom was directly adjacent to his and he would have known if she had woken up irritated in the morning, forced to dress herself.
Zuko walked over to his desk and deposited his many scrolls of notes on it. He groaned at the sight and briefly contemplated a quick nap before the sheer amount of work finally convinced him to discard his brief contemplation. If he didn't do it now, he would have to do it later and what if later held something important? No, better to do it now.
Zuko sighed and settled down before unrolling his first scroll and dipping his brush into black ink.
Penmanship and prose had, oddly enough, been one of the few things Zuko had actually picked up quickly. He could easily compose haikus on the spot or write a whole scroll's length of speech and articulation of certain subjects. It would have been impressive had he been a scholar's son or a female. But as it was, Zuko was almost embarrassed to have such aptitude for a subject a young prince shouldn't have in spades. The only bright side to it all was the fact that he could fly through his writing and composing assignments. It gave him a twinge of pride whenever he watched Azula almost struggling with hers.
Two hours later of recopying notes and completing his writing for the day, Zuko strode out to the courtyard where his firebending master waited. He both loved and dreaded these lessons with a passion. Love because he was finally studying his home element, his nation's pride. Dread because he was lacking in talent and often had to deal with being the butt of his master's contempt.
His firebending teacher was an old general who had served before Uncle took over. Azula studied under Father and that sent all sorts of jealousy through Zuko. It stung to watch his younger sibling do so well.
The aging man waiting in the courtyard turned severe, amber eyes Zuko's way as he approached.
Zuko flinched and silently berated himself for being so lax. He had always been able to feel where the sun was despite his lack of bending before two years prior. Even his father had been slightly astonished to learn that Zuko could already sense the sun's position back when he had babbled it out as a side comment at the age of three. Zuko couldn't remember a time he didn't rise with the sun. Azula had only begun to do so at four after she created her first spark.
"I apologize, Master," Zuko formally said while bowing and forming the Flame with his hands. "I was forgetful."
"No surprise there," the old general sneered. "A real firebender would never have forgotten the sun."
Zuko struggled to keep his blush down. "Forgive me, Master."
"Show me perfect breathing form for once and I will consider it."
So that was a "no". Both of them knew that Zuko was nowhere near perfect with his breathing exercises yet. But Zuko refused to quail in the face of challenge and he promptly settled into a meditating position with his hands upon his knees.
In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Slowly, Zuko reminded himself. He had to breathe slowly else his pattern and inner balance deteriorate. It was difficult for him to maintain a strict hold on the fire that begged to break free of its bonds and envelop everything. It was difficult for him to deny it when he so badly wanted it himself. He loved that fire, just as every firebender loved their own inner flame. At least this didn't hurt though. It had hurt when he had first learned to stifle his flame. This was more of an ache deep within his soul more than anything else.
Zuko felt a rush of elation as his silent control paid off. He suddenly felt his inner fire lock in time with his breath and the flame's desperate urge to escape its bonds slowly ebbed and took comfort in moving with Zuko's now-steady chi flow. Zuko could sense the energy moving slowly throughout his body and the energy settled deep within his bones like a warm bath. He sat in fierce concentration for a few minutes more before a single maple leaf from the tree nearby was placed into his lap. He didn't need the general to tell him what to do next. This was the part of the breathing control he had yet to do successfully.
Zuko gingerly picked p the leaf between two fingers while maintaining his breath. So far so good. It was usually at this transition he fumbled. He got distracted and his chi flow would stutter and flow out of control again.
After making sure the leaf was completely secure, Zuko allowed his flame to spark to life and, ever so slowly, a hole began to burn at the leaf's center.
A wave of relief flowed through Zuko and an excited smile broke out on his face. He was doing it! He was in enough control of his breath and chi to slowly burn the leaf! If he could do this, he would be able to study with Father soon and make him proud and all the imperial residents wouldn't gossip about him anymore and maybe he could finally catch up to his sister and –
Zuko let out a startled yelp as the leaf abruptly burst into flame.
"Keep your concentration!" his firebending teacher snapped. "It will do you no good to pride yourself in something so trivial and lose your head! Most peasant firebenders are capable of doing this by the age of eight!"
This time, Zuko didn't even try to hide his reddening cheeks. He shouldn't have lost his concentration to something as silly as dreams. Because that's what they were: dreams. Nothing more. They were just ethereal clouds of hope slipping from his fingers. His sister didn't have dreams because she didn't need them; she had everything she could dream about. Zuko had dreams. So many. But that was all they would ever be.
It was stupid of him to even think he could catch up to his sister or stop the other imperial families from speaking about him behind his back. His sister was a prodigy. He had seen one of her lessons once, her very first one. She had been brilliant. The breathing forms he had just been working on? She had gotten them down in one day. The spark of pride his father had never shown him had blazed like the brightest fire Zuko had ever seen that day.
He never watched another one of Azula's lessons again.
But Zuko wouldn't cry no matter how much he wished to. Not in the middle of the courtyard where his so-called master could see and prying noble eyes could sneakily catch. No. Crying was weakness. It produced water and water was fire's natural enemy. Perhaps when he was alone and in a room…
No. Not even then. Zuko knew better than that. He was old enough to know that. Nobody cried at his age.
Then again, nobody created their first spark at eight either.
Zuko took in a deep, agonizing breath before he tried to get his inner fire back under control.
I might not be able to have my dreams, but that won't stop me from trying.
It was that pleasant time again. His mother had found some time off from her duties assisting Father and Zuko was free for the remainder of the day. He had been fiercely working on his inner control and his other assignments but he could only go so long before his mind began to wander. His mother had teasingly poked her head in his room just a few minutes before to liberate him from the monotony. Zuko had jumped at the chance to escape for a little while and now quietly strolled alongside his mother around the perimeter of the family courtyard.
"How have your classes been, Zuko?" his mother asked with a gentle smile.
That smile always sent a warm happiness through his stomach. It showed that he was loved in this world and appreciated. "They're alright. I'm doing well in prose and calligraphy."
Princess Ursa raised her eyebrows. "And firebending? I can remember the very first day you began your lessons. You were so eager then. You still mention them now, Zuko, but I have been hearing less. Is there something wrong?"
Trust his mother to catch on. "No, Mom." Zuko hesitated the smallest fraction before saying firmly, "I'm doing fine."
Agni, Zuko wanted more than anything for that to be true, but he couldn't just go and whine to his mother anymore. He was nine years old! He could resolve his own problems. He had to. He never wanted to think about it, but if his mother were not here to help him as often as he needed it, who would offer him a hand? The answer was simple: nobody. Zuko knew he would have to handle himself because he had known since he was four that after Uncle Iroh, Lu Ten, and Father, he was the next in line for the throne. Fourth in line. It wasn't as far as it seemed to be, not in a nation where battles to the death were almost common.
His mother frowned, but didn't question her son any further. It made Zuko inwardly sigh with relief. As much as he liked to sound the determined independent, he knew that if his mother had pushed, he would have said something eventually. Spirits, he didn't like to admit it, but his mother could be more intimidating than a dillo-lion on a rampage when she wanted something.
Zuko was irritated when Azula suddenly ran up from playing cartwheels in the courtyard. It was always her to disturb his time with Mother.
"Mom, can Zuko play a game with us? We are brother and sister after all and isn't it important to spend time together?"
Oh, Zuko knew that sickly sweet smile from a mile away. He knew this so called "game" could mean nothing more than trouble. "I'm not playing cartwheels with you and Ty Lee."
"Zuko," his mother frowned. "I think it's a great idea to play with your sister."
"But Mom –"
"Only for a little bit, Zuko," Princess Ursa said with all the might a mother could muster.
Zuko sighed and grumbled to himself as he neatly jumped down from the pathway he had been walking on to follow his sister on the grass. He warily followed a good ten steps behind. After all, who knows what Azula was plotting now? For all he knew, she might "suggest" Ty Lee to practice her chi blocking on him again. It hadn't been so bad until the little smiley, pink girl had actually begun to hit more and more accurately. She was still a long way off from her family's legitimate technique yet, but she could occasionally paralyze him for a few minutes now and leave him with aching chi points for hours on end. He had tried to tell his mother about the "practice sessions" but even she had smiled and told him it was simply Azula's way of "playing". Surely, Mother had said, it was just harmless practice.
Needless to say, Zuko had become rather proficient in the art of dodging and more accustomed to the pain over time.
As Azula led him close to the fountain, he tensed as Ty Lee came skipping over only to relax as Mai sulked closely at her friend's heels. That was good sign. Azula never called Mai over to play when she was planning another "practice session".
Zuko's sister smirked for a brief moment and he knew that she had seen his tension. Of course, she had to gloat in that and the telltale smugness in his shoulders didn't disappear as she sauntered over to the nearby apple tree. She crisply plucked a large fruit from one of the lower branches and placed it upon Mai's head after commanding her to stand a ways off beside the fountain.
"You see the apple, right?" Azula asked. "Well this is how you play: you aim for it and try to hit it just like this." She quickly shot a burst of flame from two fingers at the last word and hit the apple's stem with unerring precision.
Zuko spent a brief second boiling over his jealously at his sister's prowess before he realized that the apple was burning right on Mai's head.
With a cry, he lunged at the government official's daughter and reached to shove the apple off her head and into the fountain. But he had miscalculated the height and instead of just sweeping the apple off her head, he ran into her and sent the both of them sprawling into the water.
Zuko had to blankly sit there for a moment before he realized that Azula and Ty Lee were laughing at him.
"Told you it would work," his sister snickered.
Anger soared at her words and he furiously shoved himself away from Mai and out of the fountain. What was Azula trying to prove anyway? Sure he had caught the sulky girl glancing at him from a distance several times with a faint blush to her cheeks. That didn't mean anything. He certainly didn't feel anything for her. As far as he was concerned, it was just plain creepy to see her doing stuff like that. It just irritated him to no end that his sister had recently taken a liking to exploiting Mai's reactions. It humiliated him and left him in situations like this one where his clothes were now soaking wet.
Zuko stormed away from the girls and swept past his mother shouting, "Girls are weird!"
Indeed, they were. All of the ones he had gotten to know were either acrobatic creeps smiling far more than was healthy, sullen bookworms who took a queer liking to knives, or sisters who were cruel prodigies. The rest of them were just giggling daughters of nobility.
Zuko took a deep breath once he was back inside the palace and slowly exhaled, careful to maintain his inner fire under control as it dried both him and his clothes. He smiled a bit when nothing spontaneously caught on fire and continued his path into the hallways with a more sedate temper.
"Looks like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed today," chuckled an older voice from one of the doorways.
Zuko jumped a bit before grinning in recognition. "Lu Ten!" He scrambled over to his cousin and gave him a squeeze around the middle with his arms. "You're back from the campaign!"
"It wasn't much," his older cousin laughed. "Just a few uprisings here and there around the colonies. This time Father didn't even have to worry about my men and me."
"You mean Uncle Iroh let you lead a campaign all on your own?" Zuko asked with wide eyes. "That's amazing!"
"It's my fifth campaign. I think I should be leading my own men alone now."
Zuko wrinkled his face. "I'm sure Uncle was just worrying a little about you."
"Everybody faces danger when going out on the battlefield," Lu Ten shrugged. "Father should recognize that by now." The older cousin gently unwrapped Zuko's arms and knelt down. "You've grown, haven't you?"
Zuko flushed. "You were only gone for a month. I didn't grow that much."
Lu Ten laughed and ruffled a hand through Zuko's black hair. "Kids your age grow pretty fast, Zuko. Look, I bet you're nearly to my waist now!"
Zuko laughed and teasingly punched his cousin. It was good to have Lu Ten back. He had always loved his cousin's company and when he had started to fight alongside his other countrymen during long periods of time, Zuko often felt as if a piece of the palace was suddenly missing. Lu Ten was like an older brother to him. Whenever he struggled with something, Lu Ten was there to help and he never looked at Zuko with disdain or anger. Lu Ten had been one of the very few in his life to not see him as a failure. Add the fact that he was a talented firebender at odds with Azula and that just made Lu Ten the best cousin ever.
"How have you been?" Lu Ten asked. "I'm sure you've been improving and getting into all kinds of trouble!"
Zuko knew that his cousin had been teasing, but at the mention of "trouble" he couldn't help the abrupt frown.
"I – I still have trouble with my history, Lu Ten. And my firebending…"
It was relief to see that there was no sign of pity in his cousin's eyes. Pity was something Zuko detested and he was grateful to only see sadness in those larger eyes.
"You've been studying, yes?"
"You know I do. I…I just can't seem to get it."
"The history and the firebending?"
Zuko looked down at his feet and mumbled, "Well…okay maybe I need to study a little more on all my subjects but firebending…I was so excited."
Understanding suddenly lit Lu Ten's eyes and he began to ruffle Zuko's hair again. "Well you need to study, little cousin. And I can always help you with firebending if you want."
Zuko lit up like the sun. "You would really do that?"
"Haven't I always?"
"Well…it's just that you just came back and you're probably tired and –"
An amused chuckle burst through Lu Ten's lips again and he stood up in one smooth movement. "Well, like I said, the campaign wasn't that difficult. I guess I just need to let loose some of that extra adrenaline I've been penning up."
Best cousin ever.
"I heard our dearest cousin came back today," Azula smirked form the doorway.
Zuko scowled as he untied his topknot and flopped lazily on to his bed. "Not like you bothered to say hello to him."
"Well how could I have possibly found the chance when you were so busy hogging him all day?"
Azula laughed in a condescending manner that sent Zuko's nerves on edge. "Please, I don't need his help. Father already told me that I'm progressing far faster than our cousin ever did. He might be talented, but I'm a prodigy, Zuko. I'll catch up to his tea loving kookiness's son before long."
"Then why did you even bother asking about him?" Zuko snarled. He hated it when Azula brought up her obvious genius when he was still so far behind. Even more than that, he hated it when she talked about Lu Ten like this. She had no right. His cousin was a genius too. All of Sozin's line was…except, apparently, for Zuko.
"Come now, we're brother and sister. Surely I can just talk to you before bedtime?"
Yeah right. It was more likely to suddenly discover that somebody had shot down the Moon Spirit. "Shove off, Azula. I'm going to bed."
"You know he only helps you because you're so pathetic."
Zuko grit his teeth but adamantly ignored his sister.
"You can't even control your inner fire yet and it's been, what, a whole year now? You've barely even started on the beginner forms."
He crawled underneath his sheets and turned away from the door.
"All he sees is his poor little cousin just begging for help with his big, innocent eyes. He's helping you because he feels obligated to, not because he actually likes you. Who could possibly like a dum-dum like you?"
Zuko tightened his lips but didn't move.
"Father is always telling me how much better I'm doing. How I'm going to be a great bender some day. He says I should have golden eyes, not you. He thinks the spirits made a mistake when you were born with Great-grandfather Sozin's eyes. Only the best have eyes like that."
Zuko tightened his hands into fists but he refused to react. That was what his sister wanted. That was what she was trying to get him to do.
"I bet even Mom pities you. You think she loves you? Well that's sweet. I bet she only likes you because you're so lost she can't help but treat you like a baby turtleduck – weak and soft."
Zuko snapped open his eyes and jolted into a sitting position. "Mom doesn't think that!"
"Really?" There was a smug grin on Azula's face now. "Then why do you think she always shows up to comfort you? Why is she always telling you 'it's alright, Zuko' or 'you'll get better, Zuko'? Anybody who is nice to you is just pitying you."
"At least she pretends to like me," Zuko snarled. "You're not even good enough for her to pretend to like you."
Ah, there it was. The tiniest slip in her mouth. It was only for a split second but Zuko had learned to notice every nuance of his sister's face. Often times, it warned him of an incoming attack more than anything else.
"Who needs Mom's love when I have Father's? You're nothing to him."
That hurt. That really hurt. His father didn't think that. His father loved him. Azula was just being stupid again.
"Shut up, Azula!"
"Or what?" she smirked. "You're going to call Mom?"
A wave of flame followed his outburst and he watched, horrified, as it slowly approached his sister. For a terrible second, Zuko actually believed that it would hurt her, that he would hurt his only sister. He couldn't do that. As annoying as she was, she was his family and he couldn't hurt family. His heart clenched for the briefest of moments before time sped up again and the firebending prodigy stifled the flame with a lazy wave of her hand.
"You call that firebending? I've seen better from a baby." She smiled, smug, and disappeared from the doorway.