It was the muffled groan that woke him, in the thin light before dawn.
Enemies? Surrounded? Ambush?
Zuko breathed in silently, deeply, ready to unleash a deadly surprise on anyone who might have succeeded in sneaking up on them-
No one. The Earth Kingdom night was quiet. Just their bare camp out of sight of the road, the annoyingly cheerful chirps of birds, the odd grassy smell of air with no coal smoke or salt in it….
And another sleepy grumble of complaint from Uncle's bedroll.
Zuko let his breath sigh out, flameless, wincing in sympathy. It'd been weeks since Zhao's hired pirates had blown him out of his own ship, and some of his deeper wounds still ached, despite all his uncle's efforts to clean them and keep them from getting infected. Work that had only gotten harder while they were drifting in the ocean without supplies. Fish caught under the raft and water chipped out of stray icebergs only went so far.
And now they were fugitives, sleeping in a brushy hollow without even a fire. If he was aching, Uncle was probably dreaming of a long, relaxing soak in a hot spring.
Right. Like the last time turned out so well.
Groaning, Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to blot out the memory of carting his all-but-naked uncle back to their ship, pulverized earthbenders eating their dust. If he never had to see that again, it'd be too soon.
…I'm not getting back to sleep today. Damn it.
He'd never been a heavy sleeper. Not since-
Sleep, and people disappear. Sleep, and the world falls apart, and nothing you do can make it right again, ever….
-Not for a long time. It hadn't been a problem on their ship. Much. Here on the run, though….
A pained grunt. Zuko froze. "Uncle?"
Silence. A sigh. "Old bones, my nephew. Do not worry. I'm sure in the next town, we will find a nice, soft bed." A chuckle. "Or at least a stable. Hay isn't so bad, if it is well-kept."
Uh-huh. The way his luck ran? The next town would be full of Fire Nation soldiers, or rabid Earth Kingdom thugs, or Azula. And if the spirits were in a particularly snippy mood, it'd be all three. "First we have to get to the next town," Zuko said shortly. "Turn over." He wasn't as good as Uncle - no one was, besides Azula and the Fire Lord himself - but he should be able to manage this.
Or at least, if he couldn't, Uncle would just end up with singed clothes. They could deal with that.
Slowly, he rubbed his hands together, palm just brushing palm in a tingling, circular flow. He built the heat carefully; kept it steady as he moved his hands apart, never quite reaching flame….
Fire was good. But sometimes - say, when you were trapped underwater, under ice - heat was better.
Air shimmering around his fingers, Zuko started kneading sore muscles.
"Hmm." Uncle sounded surprised, but not displeased. "Nephew?"
"Tricky," Zuko managed, holding hot-but-not-burning as he searched out knots and strains. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he saw them; muted copper where the body's natural flow of fire should be molten gold. "Not real good at this."
"Ah. Well. Higher, then."
A few minutes, and he had to stop. No breakfast and not enough sleep were making his concentration fray at the edges, and he didn't want to set his uncle on fire.
…Well, not unless that stupid lotus tile went missing again.
Uncle Iroh sat up as he moved away, face thoughtful. "An interesting adaptation of wound treatment, Prince Zuko."
"…It wasn't an adaptation. Much." Zuko stared into the dawn, trying to match the road they were on to memories of Earth Kingdom maps. Maps now lost with his ship, and damn Zhao-
"Take my hand!"
Zuko shook his head, trying not to see the anger and horror in those eyes. Who needed any more proof the spirits had it in for him? He couldn't even save an enemy….
"Just - something Mom would do," he got out. "When I'd try to keep up with Azula, and - it didn't work." When I failed again. Painfully. "Hadn't really thought about it in a while… can we go, already?"
"Ah, so we will eat on the road? Young people, so hasty…." At his glare, Iroh only smiled. "I will be fine, nephew. You did an old man's back a great deal of good."
Nothing else. Thank Agni. Relieved, Zuko started striking camp. Mentioning Ursa was always a risk. Mention her, and Uncle might want to talk about her. And that just… hurt.
Iroh followed more slowly, breathing a lick of flame at their battered camp pot for a bit of morning tea. Staring into steam, as if it would part like mist to reveal the future. Or the past.
But then again, that was Iroh and tea. Always.
We should have spoken more before my father's death, Ursa. Letting his nephew take the lead, Iroh walked, lost in thought. Keeping pace with far more ease than he had any right to expect, after yet another night sleeping rough. It could simply have been the lingering wellbeing of deep heat; Agni knew, it soothed a multitude of hurts. And yet….
We should have talked, indeed.
But it had never seemed to be the right time. Even from the beginning.
"Prince Iroh, you have to come…."
He'd rolled out of bed on the darkest watch of the night, awakened by one of Lady Ursa's braver attendants. The story had poured out of the maid like storm-water off a roof. Ozai's heir, finally born not at fortunate noon, but at the accursed hour of midnight. Infant and mother both exhausted by the struggle, abandoned by the father-to-be when physicians decreed the child was unlikely to see dawn. Lady Ursa's sudden blaze of temper, throwing out useless so-called healers, demanding enough wood brought in to set half the palace ablaze, and then ordering everyone away….
He couldn't blame the staff for their caution. Ozai's marriage, like his own, had been to a daughter of a family known for firebending prowess, the better to ensure strong heirs to Sozin's legacy. And fire drew strength from passion. Lady Ursa might ordinarily be a gentle soul, but if she were… upset….
The door was locked, but he knew ways around that. He entered quietly, wary as if he were sneaking into an enemy fortress.
At least nothing is on fire.
Though considerable ashes had been shoved to one side of the hearth. A small, steady fire still burned on the other, flames bending away to-
Iroh held still, scarcely daring to breathe.
Ursa was seated directly on the stones bordering the fire, heedless of soot and smoke staining her loose robe. Her eyes were closed in utmost concentration, and her hands….
Her hands were wreathed in flames.
Gold. Green. Violet. Like sunlight through spring woods.
Flames she ran first over herself, briefly, breathing in strength. Then, slow and lingering, over the tiny form curled in her lap. Every wash of fire chased a bit more blue from the child's skin, eased his breathing from fitful efforts to more healthy hiccups.
Carefully, fervently glad he was alone, Iroh sank down beside her. If he were fortunate, if this were indeed what it appeared, she would be too deep in the healing trance to notice.
But how can it be? I have seen waterbenders heal, but fire?
At last, a full-throated cry. Ursa opened her eyes, sagging-
He caught them both. "If the crisis has passed, my sister, perhaps you should both be in bed?"
Ursa went white. "You saw…."
"A mother caring for her son," Iroh said firmly. And smiled. "So. This is my nephew?"
"Zuko." Her chin lifted, a little color returning to her face. "His name is Zuko."
"Zuko," Iroh nodded. "Lu Ten will be glad to meet his cousin, in the morning." He glanced down into half-closed eyes of bright, true Fire Nation gold-
He'd held Lu Ten weeks after his own son's birth, looking into eyes of still-undecided infant blue. Only months later, with growth and time, should any child show what element they were born to.
"I was born like this, too."
Startled, he looked up at his brother's wife.
"My family wouldn't have mentioned it. Not with Fire Lord Azulon making the arrangements… my mother said it was like trying to hatch a stone." Ursa smiled at her son, bittersweet. "But I was strong enough to live. And so is he."
"So I see." Iroh raised an inquiring brow. "But how?"
"It's an old legend." She glanced up. "He can't know."
No need to ask who he was. His brother did not take kindly to secrets. Or to things he had not predicted, and could not control.
"As I will tell my brother," Iroh said firmly, "I have only seen a mother, sitting with her son where a warm fire could do them most good." He gave her his most endearing look. "Yet I cannot deny, it is a technique I would most dearly like to learn."
"I suppose we can try…."
They had, Iroh reflected now, trudging through the dust. Several times. He'd learned to use heat to prevent infection, and help the body heal itself; skills that had become crucial thirteen years later, when royal physicians were certain Zuko would lose his eye and hearing, if not his life.
Still, he could only encourage the body. He'd never been able to mend it, as Ursa had; shaping the very essence of flame into the energy of life itself. And she never had told him what legend had led her teachers to such a rare technique. Though given his travels, and what he had seen, he could guess.
Gold and green and violet, Iroh thought, side-stepping a passing hornet. Dragon's fire.
A flame he'd thought Zuko, like himself, had simply proved incapable of using. Or had never had time to learn; his bending had bloomed late - he was such a small child - and Ursa had been gone when he was only ten.
You assumed, Iroh scolded himself. You never asked. You know your brother. Zuko is impulsive, and too quick to anger, but he is not a fool. A healer, as the Fire Lord's heir? Unforgivable.
Yes. It would be, wouldn't it?
And it was most interesting, how Zuko had reacted to that young healer's apprentice, Song. Thinking, for once, even if he'd needed a nudge to get started….
We can't go home. Azula lies like she breathes, but even she would never dare imprison us if it were not the Fire Lord's will.
And once in Azula's hands, his nephew would die. She longed to be the heir; thirsted for it, and Ozai's approval, like travelers thirsting in the desert. Only Zuko's exile - Zuko's life - stood between her and all she desired.
He'd seen them battle. Zuko would hesitate. Azula would not.
We cannot go home. But my nephew must realize that for himself.
Of course, what kind of uncle would he be, if he didn't help?
"Uncle?" Under the sedge hat, Zuko was eyeing him with deep, deep suspicion.
Iroh smoothed any hint of plotting into innocent surprise. "I was only considering how we might gain that bed, nephew. And perhaps some supplies as well."
"We're royalty. They should give us what we want!"
…This may take longer than I thought. Though part of that was simply pain and injured pride; his nephew had always been reasonable dealing with their suppliers. If a bit inclined to argue prices down to the bone. Which, given many of those willing to deal with them inflated their demands simply because Zuko was exiled, seemed only fair. "To their sworn enemies, Prince Zuko? They may be Earth Kingdom peasants, but they are not fools."
Zuko's fists clenched, daggers of fire blazing before he started, and furtively quenched them.
"But there are ways to ask," Iroh went on easily, as if the slip were unimportant. They were safely unseen, after all… and he knew full well one could only deny the spirits' gifts so long without pain. "And if we have something to barter with, we may fare very well, indeed." He scanned the roadside. "Now, if we can only find some nice, polished rocks…."
"Are you insane?"
Hmm. And sometimes his nephew was a little too quick to catch on.
"I can't - they'll catch me - we'll be exposed as Fire Nation and - nobody's going to barter for us to use hot rocks on them-!"
"We can't know until we try," Iroh shrugged. "I found it most worthwhile. And you should know, people see what they wish to see." He brightened. "Ah! I think I see a good one."
"…Please let there not be any poisonous rocks."
Pocketing the innocuous quartz pebble, Iroh chuckled ruefully. His nephew had every right to be worried. The fine points of hunting and foraging might not be among their skills, but a crown prince learned of everything Fire Nation mines produced. Including, of necessity, the lovely and lethal ruby arsenic, so horribly known as dragons' blood. "Don't worry. I do know what I am doing, this time."
"I hope so." Quiet; much quieter than he was used to hearing from his impulsive nephew. "You frightened me, Uncle." Zuko swallowed. "Don't do that again. Please."
Longer than I thought, Iroh reflected. But perhaps, not as long as I had feared. "I will be careful," he reassured the young prince. "Look! This must be a stream of some kind, when the winter snows melt…."
Stifling a sigh, Zuko left the road to help him hunt pebbles.
Spying another candidate, Iroh smiled as he crouched, listening to grumbled complaints like quiet music. "Rocks… crazy… never going to work…."
Yet he hadn't said no. And Zuko would have, if he weren't at least willing to try.
One step at a time.