Nearly a year passed in the Fire Nation without incident. The war continued unabated. Soldiers continued to march into battle. Generals continued to give orders, leading to victory or death. The Fire Lord watched over it all, ensuring that all was to his satisfaction, for the good of the Fire Nation...which, to his mind, was for the good of the world. And Zuko continued his studies in Firebending, tactics, strategy, and statescraft under his tutors, and under his Uncle and cousin. He worked to shape himself into the Prince the Nation needed, one the Fire Lord - and Mai - could be proud of.
However, his passion and empathy for the people of his nation was both his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. Thus, when he was allowed to attend a war meeting in the Fire Lord's war room, he spoke out of turn against a plan that was foolhardy, wasteful of life, and doomed to failure...as it relied on the enemy being too stupid to see through an obvious trap. This, unfortunately, led to a confrontation that - in more ways than one - was fated, both now and in the future.
As Zuko stood up and turned to face his opponent for the Agni Kai, he felt his confidence and certainty drain out of him. It was not the general whose plans he had denounced that stood across from him. It was his father, the Fire Lord, standing tall and proud, ready to face off against him.
"Are you prepared to face the consequences of your actions, Prince Zuko?" Ozai demanded calmly, taking his stance. "The price for your disrespect?"
Zuko swallowed, trying to clear the dryness from his throat. "I-I am, Fire Lord," he stammered, struggling just to remain standing in his stance.
Ozai nodded with a firm grin. "Good. Then I will allow you the first strike. Attack when ready. I will make this quick."
Zuko stared up at his father, his mind racing as he considered all possibilities. As he struggled to remember every detail of his teachings in fire bending - as well as those techniques Cadence and Iroh had mentioned, which were derived from the other styles of bending - his mind instead jumped to his lessons in statescraft...in tactics and strategy. After a time, realization washed over him. He knew the only option available to him. "I yield, Fire Lord."
The crowd gasped in shock, and Ozai scowled. "What?" he demanded angrily. "What do you mean you yield?"
Zuko went down to one knee, bowing his head. "There is no point to fighting a battle that cannot be won."
Ozai's face curled into an enraged snarl. "You will learn both courage and respect," he growled out, gathering his fire. "And suffering will be your teacher."
Zuko lifted his head, his eyes closed. "...I accept the consequences of my choices," he managed to say, his voice quavering.
The flames struck across his face, and everything went white.
Three days later, Ozai was surprised as Iroh entered his throne room. "I humbly request a private audience with the Fire Lord," he spoke calmly.
Ozai raised an eyebrow, but waved his attendants out. As they left, Ozai stepped out from his circle of flames to once more speak at Iroh's level. "What is it, brother?" he asked.
"I have just come from Zuko's side," Iroh explained as they walked to the window together. "He is recovering...but he will carry the scar of what you did to him all his days."
Inside, Ozai winced, but he didn't let it show on his face. "Do you feel I acted too harshly?" he asked calmly.
Iroh shrugged. "I believe you acted as you had to, given the situation. However, I feel I must present Zuko's case, as he struggled through the pain of his wounding to present it to me."
Ozai schooled his features to listen. "Continue."
"Zuko knows he spoke out of turn in the meeting, and knew when he did so," Iroh explained. "However, he believed it was important enough to speak, for the sake of the people of the Fire Nation, and was ready to accept the consequences. Had it been an Agni Kai against the General, he would have battled with all his might, win or lose, and accepted."
"Then why hesitate against me?" Ozai demanded. "Because I am his father?"
"No," Iroh replied. "Because you are Fire Lord, and he is the Prince."
"I do not understand the distinction. Enlighten me."
Iroh held up three fingers. "From what Zuko has managed to tell me, he saw three possible outcomes should he fight you in the Agni Kai. The first and most likely was that you trounced him utterly, leaving him humiliated and shamed...a shame he would never recover from, meaning he could never be Fire Lord. When you eventually died, the throne would pass to Azula."
Ozai couldn't suppress a shudder. "That would be a disaster for the Nation and the world," he stated bluntly. "Azula lacks the capacity for empathy. She cannot sympathize with the pain of others. I...have had to work to forge her into a weapon - carefully wielded - to prevent her from becoming a monster. She would not do well as a leader, nor would the nation."
Iroh raised his eyebrow in surprise, not having expected such a forthright answer, nor such a dispassionate analysis of Azula. However, he decided to move on. "The second possibility would be if he performed well against you, managing to push you back or even injure you," Iroh elaborated. "That would be interpreted one of two ways. The first is that you went easy on him because he was your son, implying you didn't think he could hold his own."
"That would be the same result as if I'd bested him soundly," Ozai interpreted.
Iroh nodded in confirmation. "And if the people didn't believe that, then your image as our invincible Fire Lord would be shattered, since you were hard pressed by a 13 year old. The people's faith in you would waver, and the nation would become unstable."
Ozai paused in his walking. "And...the third possibility?"
"That he somehow won," Iroh concluded. "The only politically sound result of that would be you immediately passing the crown, as he would have triumphed over you."
"The nation would collapse under a child ruler," Ozai murmured. "The war effort would crumble. And then there's Azula."
"Indeed," Iroh agreed. "From the moment you became Zuko's opponent in the Agni Kai, there was no way he could fight you without bringing disaster - whether eventual or immediate - to the Nation and the people he has been raised and taught to put first in his thoughts. So he did the only thing he could...nothing." Neutral Jing, he thought silently. Bumi would be proud of how well you absorbed his lessons through Cadence, my nephew.
Ozai stood in silence for a time. "What can I do, then?" he asked finally. "How can I make things right with Zuko...without weakening myself?"
Iroh shrugged. "Perhaps you can give him a task that takes him out into the world...something he can do to prove himself, to make a man of him."
Ozai stared into the flames for a time. "...I believe I have just the task. And I can send you and Cadence with him, ostensibly to guide him, but also to ensure he comes home in one piece."
Iroh nodded. "And if you see him off in person, he will know...that you understand why he did what he did."
Ozai smiled softly. "You were always the wiser of us, brother," he murmured. "I am glad I can count on your wisdom."
Two weeks after his wounding, Zuko stood at the ramp of a ship, looking up into the Fire Lord's eyes. Aboard the ship was a crew, his Uncle Iroh, and his cousin Cadence. Ozai stared down at him firmly. "Prince Zuko, you have shown you do not presently have in you what it takes to be the Prince our nation needs. However, in your heart is the fire that can forge you into that Prince...and I give you that chance to achieve it. You have at your disposal our nation's fastest battleship, and a hand picked crew. With your Uncle's guidance, you will accomplish your mission, and return with glory to your name, and honor to your people."
Zuko nodded. "And what is my mission?"
"To complete the mission Sozin tried and failed to accomplish 100 years ago," Ozai explained. "Find the Avatar...and bring him back to be locked away, as an enemy of the Fire Nation."
Zuko nodded. "Understood." Bowing low, he turned and boarded the ship, ready to face his destiny.