Avatar: The Last AirbenderCharacters:
Summary: Iroh discovers his baby brother creeping around the palace late one night.
Notes: Written for beckyh2112
The palace sleeps, hallways dark and quiet, and Iroh cannot help but walk a bit softer than he might during the day. Even so, his footsteps are a touch too loud, a little out of place in the warm still air; intruding over the chirrup of summer crickets coming in through open windows.
He’s worn to the bone, completely exhausted and grinning like a fool because it’s been ages since he’s sparred with anyone willing to wipe the floor with a prince. General Karo has no such compunctions, and he’d given Iroh the workout of his life.
Along with several new bruises in interesting places. Iroh is a damn good bender, but his other combat skills are somewhat lacking. A lack the old general seemed determined to rectify.
Iroh rolls sore shoulders and grins to himself. Too many people treat him like a prince and not a soldier, and he hates it. Someday yes, he’ll be a prince first, but not now. Now he’s just a soldier like any other, a man who fights for his nation. Treated with a deference he has not earned
, and while Father may think of it as his due, Iroh does not.
Not Karo though. He and a handful of others treat Iroh exactly as he is; a mid-ranked soldier with potential, but one that has yet to prove himself. Worthy of interest, but not special treatment, and he’s grateful for that.
Right now though, he’ll just be grateful for sleep.
He’s nearly back to his rooms when he hears it; a sound, a soft whimper. He stops short and listens, but all he hears are the crickets.
Iroh waits, patient, and after a moment the sound comes again, soft and pained from somewhere to his right. There’s nothing there except one of the small, ornate cupboards that the servants use to store linens. Certainly too small for an adult, but it couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
Iroh opens the cupboard and is surprised to find Ozai inside, his baby brother wedged in between the linens and staring at him with wide eyes. “Bit late to be playing in cupboards,” he says, startled. He isn’t sure what he was expecting, but his little brother definitely wasn’t it.
“I’m not playing
,” Ozai snarls with all the ferocity a six year-old can muster.
Iroh manages not to smile, but only barely. “I was mistaken.” he says gravely. “My apologies. Either way, you’d better get to bed. If Mother finds out you’ve been running around so late, she’ll have a fit.”
“You won’t tell, will you?” The ferocity is gone, replaced by uncertainty and the childish fear of getting caught.
“I won’t tell,” Iroh promises with a smile, reaching for his brother’s hand. He scarcely touches him when Ozai jerks away hard enough to rock the cupboard, hissing in pain.
“You’re hurt?” he asks, because it’s too dark to properly see, but Ozai’s cradling his hand to his chest and breathing hard.
He doesn’t answer, says instead, “You promised you wouldn’t tell!”Stubborn as an earthbender,
Iroh thinks with some affection. “I won’t, but if you’re hurt, you’d better let me have a look at it.” Ozai doesn’t look convinced, so Iroh adds, “It’ll stay between us. Promise.”
Ozai considers this a moment, before unfolding his tiny body from his hiding place. Iroh takes him back to his rooms because they’re close, and it’s only when Ozai hesitates on the threshold that Iroh realizes his little brother has never been inside. “It’s okay, you can come in.”
Iroh lights the lamps and Ozai hovers just inside the doorway, staring about uncertainly. Iroh ushers him to the bed, sitting him down and carefully taking the injured arm by the elbow to get a better look. The hand is burned, skin red and fingers curled. Not badly enough to scar, Iroh thinks, but badly enough that it probably hurts a great deal.
“You snuck out to practice?” Iroh asks mildly, releasing Ozai’s hand and going to grab the burn kit he always keeps on hand. He hasn't burned himself
since he was little, but firebenders are a volatile lot, and accidents happen.
Ozai doesn't reply, but he doesn't have to. There are many ways a young firebender might be burned, but the most likely scenario is bending without supervision. The very young never had the control necessary to keep their own flames from biting them.
Iroh thinks about chastising him, but doesn't. Spirits know he'd done the same enough times when he was a boy, and it’s clear from Ozai's hunched posture that he knows full well he'd done wrong. So instead of talking, Iroh just pulls out the burn salve and bandages.
Ozai sucks in a sharp breath and flinches as Iroh begins spreading the salve, but does not pull away. In fact, he sits still and quiet the entire time, not so much as fidgeting while Iroh bandages his hand, despite the pain it must be causing.
Wrapping such small hands isn’t easy, and when Iroh finishes the job looks far from neat. It will do well enough though, keeping the salve in place long enough for the goop to work its magic. By morning there should only be a bit of redness and lingering stiffness, if anything at all.
Iroh sits back on his heels, crossing his arms over his knees and looking up at the boy perched on the edge of his bed. “All done. Your hand should feel better in the morning.”
Suddenly Ozai seems to realize where he is, alone with a brother who’s scarcely more than stranger. Just like that, the last of his stubborn stiffness is replaced by shyness, and he looks somewhere over Iroh’s shoulder and mumbles, “Thank you.”
Twenty years between them, and Iroh can count on his hands the number of times they’ve ever been in the same room. He’s rarely home these days, and even when he is, he’s always busy. Too busy to take the time to get to know his own brother. Six years old in the blink of an eye, and if Iroh isn’t careful, he’s going to miss Ozai’s childhood altogether.
So instead of hustling the boy off to bed, he asks instead, “Why were you hiding in the cupboard?”
Ozai fidgets a little, and still doesn’t look at him. “I hid when I heard you coming.”
“Very clever,” Iroh praises, and Ozai looks at him in wide-eyed surprise. “I used to do the same thing myself when I was little. Sneak out to practice.”
Ozai’s already round eyes managed to stretch even wider. “Really?”
“Mm. They never let me practice as much as I wanted to.”
“I know!” Ozai explodes, and the last of his reserve dissipates entirely. “How am I supposed to become a master if they won’t let me practice
?” He throws his hands up with a disgusted grunt. “It’s so stupid.”
“A master isn’t made in a day,” Iroh quotes, but when Ozai’s face falls, he adds, “But more practice never hurt. When your hand is better, how about we sneak in a little extra? Just you and me.”
“Really?” Ozai looks at him like he’s just offered all the sweets in the Fire Nation, and Iroh feels guilty that he’s never made much effort before this. The boy is so easy to please.
“It’s a promise,” Iroh says solemnly, and Ozai positively beams
. Iroh gets to his feet and says, “But for now, we’d better get you back to bed.”
“Could I-” Ozai starts and stops, kicking his feet against the side of the bed. “Could I stay here tonight? Mother won’t be mad if I’m with you.”
Iroh ruffles his hair and grins when Ozai swats at his hand and glares. “Of course you can stay.” That decided, Iroh scoops the boy up by the waist, ignoring the startled squawk and tucking him under one arm. He turns back the blankets and deposits Ozai back in the bed, pulling the comforter back over his head.
Ozai flails and sputters and managed to free himself easily enough, trying his level best to glare Iroh to death when he does.
The effect is somewhat spoiled by the fact that he’s trying to keep a smile off his face and failing rather miserably.
Iroh snuffs the lamps with a gesture and crawls into bed himself, scarcely settled before a tiny body curls against his side. Iroh smiles and lets him, closing his eyes as exhaustion drags him down. He thinks, I will be a better brother,
and then he thinks nothing else at all.