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On the Wheel

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The prince of the Fire Nation sat quietly on the rail of an Earth Nation ship, headed for some other place. He couldn't remember the name of the island and he supposed it didn't really matter – one place was just as good as another, these days. The end of the war was near; Fire Lord Ozai – Zuko couldn't think of him as "father" anymore – had declared that the final battles would take place at the end of the summer and Zuko was more certain with every passing day that he would not make it back with the Avatar in time.

And what about the Avatar? His feelings toward the mythic saviour had changed after he met the boy a few times. The Avatar was a child, forced into fighting in a war by the social pressure from people he'd never met. Zuko shook his head. He hadn't exactly helped with that.

But what if the Avatar was correct? What if the Fire Lord was wrong? Certainly no man who could duel his own teenage son and then banish him – That's no way to speak of your father, Zuko. You were wrong. Far more wrong than he. Is he not the Fire Lord? Is he not the beloved and victorious ruler of a nation? But Zuko doubted the voices.

The time he'd spent with his uncle had made him oddly jealous of his deceased cousin. He truly wished that his own father had been more like Iroh – despite the Pai Sho, the incessant tea drinking, and that awful habit of remaining calmly amused in the face of everything. What an irritating old man General Iroh was! But, he was not a cruel man. Iroh believed in helping anyone who needed it, provided you weren't right in the middle of a battle against them. He remembered Zhao's attack on the moon and rethought that statement: "even if you were right in the middle of a battle with them." Even his enemies were welcome at his tea table. To Zuko, this seemed like foolishness, but at the same time, Iroh had many friends in strange places who were useful in times of trouble. Zuko couldn't be sure these two things were entirely unrelated.

But, the Avatar – The Avatar was like Iroh, in some ways. He was foolish and naïve, willing to believe the best of people, even as he fought them. And as much as Zuko hated to admit it, the Avatar was like him, too. Exiled with no hope of return to his home or his family, the Avatar fought in a war he hadn't chosen to be part of. Exiled with little hope of returning to his home or family – except for Iroh, of course – the prince fought in a war he'd chosen accidentally, the day he spoke without thinking. We are lost, we are freaks. He shook his head and looked out across the water at the setting sun. If only...

He jerked upright, with a look of disgust that was aimed at no one but himself. If only what? If only you could go home? If only you hadn't disappointed your father with your damned big mouth?If only... He rubbed his good eye absently. The sea air was making it tear up. If only I had what he has. If only I could make my own family and forget the one I left behind. Mother is dead, Azula is trying to kill me, and the Fire Lord is encouraging her. Some happy family I have. At least Uncle Iroh is here. At least Uncle Iroh believes in me, even though I disappointed him by not following his directions.

He contemplated his reflection in the water ...I never should have cut my hair off. I look like a fool. His eyebrows shot up at the thought – well, eyebrow, technically. What do you even care if you look like a fool! What girl would look twice at you? You're an exile, Prince I'm-Not-Paying-Attention! Besides, if you're going to catch the Avatar, you haven't the time for that sort of nonsense.

Well, maybe after I catch the Avatar –

You'll be home, then, and either you'll still look like a dumbass or your father will kill you for shaving your head. He may well have disowned you, but now you've agreed to it. You can never go back, you know.

I know. And in that moment, he did know. He suspected he'd known when he cut his hair at the river. Perhaps even before that, when Azula first showed up and lied, like she always did, saying that their father wanted him home. He decided that he would tell people that Iroh was his father, instead. He was sure the old man wouldn't mind.