Catching the Flame

by llamajoy

The moth don't care when he sees the flame
he might get burned, but he's in the game.
and once he's in he can't go back, and
beat his wings till he burns them black.

-- Aimee Mann, "The Moth"

As Iroh had expected, a brisk walk did much to clear his head.

For one thing, it left the eerie stillness of the ship behind him, liuqin and sunghi horn abandoned and silent on the deck. None disagreed that Admiral Zhao was a man of influence and a force to be reckoned with, but he was also the sort of man to deliberately interrupt music night. And, unfortunately, one hot-headed banished prince had little recourse against such a man when it came to papers and politics. Every time they heard his name his title had changed, each new promotion marking him high in the Firelord's esteem.

Zhao commandeering the entirety of Prince Zuko's crew-- even the cook!-- must have been intended to thwart him in his quest. Half a score of men would make no difference to Zhao's fleet, but without that half score even a ship as small as Prince Zuko's could not travel far. No doubt, too, that most of the men were glad to go, to serve a respected admiral rather than an exile. A mostly unpleasant one, at that.

But Iroh allowed himself a smile, and a sigh. Surely there was still a way. For the determined mind there was always a way. Inhaling, he felt the cool evening air gathering within him, felt the spreading calm. If he had been more patient, back on the ship, he might have convinced his nephew to join him on his walk. Might even have persuaded him that this was an opportunity, rather than a setback. Ah well, he would give the prince the night to think. After sleep, he would feel better. In the morning, they would talk... over tea. Yes, Iroh would make tea and together they would make a plan.

After all, already they had been extraordinarily lucky: finding the avatar in the first place, learning his name and his face. Battles had been won with less intelligence, and far less persistence. He suspected that, those two and a half years ago, Zuko's father had never imagined his son would have even that much success. Firelord Ozai was many things, a powerful leader of men, but Iroh knew he had always been one to underestimate the strength of a flame.

They'd played a game, as boys, Iroh and Ozai. A dangerous game, perhaps, but the sons of a Firelord were never discouraged from learning the arts of war, not even during peacetime. And the time of their childhood was far from any peacetime; they were raised on Azulon's talk of battles and of strategy, of firebending and of fear.

The toss of a coin would determine which brother would start the flame, simple bending that either of them could do with their eyes closed. Sometimes, Ozai would use both hands to make the fire hotter, or Iroh would shape his fingers just so to change its color. Then, slowly building speed, they passed the budding flame from hand to hand, catching it, keeping it moving. As they grew older the fire grew stronger, brighter and harder to hold. They would move farther and farther apart, light on their feet and moving like circling birds-- until the fire streamed long as a dragontail between their sweating palms, and the tiny ornamental maples lining the courtyard were singed and dark and leafless.

As in most things between them, there was seldom a clear victor. The game would end when one of them got burned.

All it took was a stumble, a breath out of place, a slip of the hand. A moment's lapse in concentration could mean a week's time to heal; even mothers of the Fire Nation warned their children of the dangers of playing with fire. Letting go the flame meant it burned uncontrolled, and once released from the bender's will it would feed on firebender flesh as happily as on any other kind.

Occasionally their own mother caught them at it, playing somewhere they ought not to have been, scalding something of value. One soft word from Ilah would end it just as quickly as a burn, her disappointment stinging as much or more than any wound.

More often than not, though, Iroh judged his own endurance-- as well as his brother's-- and extinguished the flame before that could happen. He boiled away the water in a red lotus urn more than a few times, or sent the flame straight upwards to dissipate into ash and heat. Ozai sneered and called it cheating, especially if he was the one lagging behind. Iroh, ever the more reasonable, explained that both of them avoiding injury was its own kind of victory.

By the time Ozai finally got his height, catching up and then some, they rarely played anymore at catching the flame. The last time, both of them were more young men than boys, Iroh a Lieutenant in his father's army. He couldn't remember how the game began, or even if it was a game. Ozai, young for a Corporal but still ranks behind his older brother, was ever eager to prove his worth, to catch his brother off his guard.

Whatever its beginning, Iroh remembered its ending: his brother overextended his reach, struggling to hold the spilling flame. Hands grasping at something he couldn't quite keep, Ozai let go the flame. Iroh caught it back, bending it away, but not quite in time, and Ozai's ornate sleeves burst into flames. Without time for conscious thought, Iroh reached towards him, feeling the heat and the twisting energy at the heart of the blaze. The golden corporal insignia at Ozai's wrists was beginning to lose its definition, melting in the heat. "Wait--" Iroh said, and with his intake of breath the fire disappeared, simple as that, though his fingers smoked in its wake.

Not meeting his eyes, Ozai turned and walked away. There was no time for conversation before Lieutenant Iroh's battalion marched off to board the warships. Iroh never saw his brother's scars, and not until later years did it occur to him that the wound might not have left a mark, if treated in time.

No one in their family had ever been particularly adept at healing. On the steep hillside half a century later, Iroh tucked his hands into his sleeves with a shiver. Looking back over his shoulder, he watched the Prince's boat bobbing with the tide: alone in the harbor now, all of Zhao's forces already docked further out to sea. It looked so small and insignificant at that distance, smaller still when he thought of the young man who was its sole remaining occupant. He tried to call up the image of young Prince Ozai's face, and saw only Prince Zuko; his nephew's sour glance where his brother's scowl had been.

He'd made up his mind some time ago, where his loyalties lay. He looked forward to the morning, the warmth of a sensible sunrise and a nice cup of tea. Chamomile, he decided, for soothing the nerves and steadying the hand. Maybe some star anise to coax a smile out of Zuko; he had always liked the flavor as a boy. Hopefully the Prince was already sleeping--

The ship behind him exploded.

The fireball that engulfed it rocked him where he stood, the burst of brightness casting stark shadows all the way from the dock. For a breathless instant he was blinded, but even at this distance he could sense the sudden fire: hissing and hungry.


He ran back downhill with a sick sense of dread hard at his heels.

At the dock, thick bitter smoke caught in his throat and stung his eyes, untempered by his unshed tears. This fire was intense, burning through the windows and smokestacks, consuming the scant remainder of their fuel and making matchsticks of the wooden furniture aboard. Nothing on the ship could have caught fire so quickly. Not without outside help. Iroh swallowed against a wave of hot fury. Zhao! Damn the man to the depths. Wasn't it enough taking the crew, the fuel, the supplies?

The ship itself wouldn't burn, of course; the Fire Navy had learned many things over the past hundred years. Not much inflammable was risked aboard a boat of firebenders. But there was a loud sparking crackle from the hold, and suddenly the swift-moving smoke was tinged with tarragon, jasmine, rue. Iroh blinked against the heady smell: a month's worth of tea, on fire! The only supplies that Zhao had left untouched in the hold, no doubt. He laughed, though it was mostly a cough; how painfully ridiculous.

For a moment he raised a hand, thinking to quell the fire. After discovering the knack by accident he'd had many excuses to practice in the intervening years-- especially these past few, training the impatient prince in the close quarters of the ship. He never minded, not once, each time watching Zuko's temper subside with the dimming embers of his latest smoldering casualty. Ozai had attempted the same fire-dousing, mostly when he thought his older brother wasn't watching, but in the end he abandoned it as a parlor trick. What point, he said, to un-bending fire?

But the ship didn't matter; the burning tea didn't matter; the desperate heat and the oily soot staining his hands and his clothes didn't matter. Even Zhao and his plans and his crime were immaterial. The wash of anger burned itself out, leaving the dark flame of despair threatening to take its place. The chorusing if only could not extinguish the truth: in a moment of frustration, he'd left Zuko alone.

He had let go of the flame.

Ozai had let it go first, of course, two and a half years ago: banishing the bandaged prince-- his only son-- in a voice expressionless and flat. The Firelord made no comment when his brother volunteered to accompany the prince into exile, only a sneer for the fitting parallel, one disgrace trailing after another.

If Ozai suspected then that the Dragon of the West intended to catch and bend his discarded flame, he gave no sign. But now Zuko was nowhere to be found. Iroh bowed his head, feeling the bitter truth scorch its way into his heart. Both brothers stood empty-handed; that flame had gone out. The battle was lost, the war was lost-- more than just losing his weapon, his artfully brandished edge. This defeat cut deeper still. What now was left worth fighting for?

Out of the corner of his eye he saw it, refracted in the brightness of his watering eyes. Just there beyond the ship, among the scattered flotsam floating towards the shore: the smudge of a shadow, unburning, and the faintest noise borne over the water. Hope brought his head up and sent warmth pouring through his veins. The sound again, clearer this time: a groan.

A voice he knew.

Feeling weightless even before he waded deep enough for the water to buoy him, Iroh gathered his nephew from the wreckage.

The singed ends of Zuko's ponytail were still bright with fire. Iroh drew out the flame with unsteady hands, watching the rise and fall of his nephew's breathing, measuring the depths of the wounds on his face and hands. With a shudder Iroh let the wash of emotions evaporate from him, carried out on his breath like steam. Zuko was alive; everything else could wait until morning. Unwilling yet to let him go, Iroh held him there, needing the feel of his charred and soggy clothing to reassure himself.

The prince coughed smoke and seawater into his shoulder, then drew an even, rasping breath. "Uncle?" For all the bruises and the blood, Zuko's eyes were bright. Like golden fire-- Ozai's forgotten flame.

"Who else?" Iroh smiled, letting Zuko lean on him a moment longer before he found his balance.

He'd caught the flame; the flame had caught him.

This game wasn't over yet.


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