The second reason was that Mai had really been giving him the cold shoulder. Not that he'd expected anything else, the way he'd avoided her and yet let Katara follow him everywhere. He wondered constantly if the whole reason he'd refused to let Mai in on his secret wasn't to protect the Fire Nation, but to protect his own pride.
And now, to top everything off, Iroh had been acting strange lately. There was no doubt about that. In his mind, Zuko liked to imagine that it was just his uncle being his usual oddball self, but somehow, he knew better. Iroh could tell he was hiding something and was going to be determined to find out what. Zuko just never imagined exactly how conniving his uncle could be when he put his mind to it.
"Ow!" There was a loud clang as something fell over. Iroh generally came in several times a week to let everyone try his latest recipes before he tried them on customers. (Zuko's attendants had mixed feelings about that.) Lately, it seemed, he'd been coming in every day.
Zuko turned to see what the crash was. His uncle knelt down on the ground, his teapot turned over with a dull green liquid spilled out over the carpet. The metal pot's base was bright red with heat, and Iroh grasped his hand, wincing as he bent over.
"Oo, my hand! My hand! That really hurts!"
Zuko grasped the throne's arm to steady himself for a moment before kneeling down next to his uncle.
"Let me see," he said with a sigh.
Iroh relinquished his grip and allowed Zuko to examine the injury. It wasn't pretty, already the skin was peeling away under the burn. It would probably get infected and scar if not dealt with quickly.
"Come on, Uncle Iroh, since when are you this clumsy?" Zuko muttered. He glanced over at the few attendants in the room and ordered them out. They bowed and slipped away silently. Except for one that Zuko ordered to bring him a bowl of cold water. The attendant obeyed, and then she too slipped out of sight.
"It must be my hands getting all old and shaky," Iroh theorized as he dipped his injured hands in the cold water, wincing again.
"Yeah right," Zuko muttered. He looked at the injury again. It wasn't going to get any better with just some cold water. It needed some serious healing. It needed...
Zuko scowled. He could've cared less that his attendants thought he was odd for keeping his distance from them. He could even tolerate Mai thinking he was a complete jerk. But to let his uncle, who'd always defended him, sustain an injury that he knew perfectly well how to heal? It wasn't an option.
"Uncle, hold still for a moment," he said, holding up Iroh's hand.
"What?" Iroh asked. "What are you planning to do?"
"Just be quiet for a minute," Zuko snapped. He raised his hand over the water. It felt much more familiar now than it did a few weeks ago when he'd first become a waterbender. It still wasn't as comfortable as the fire, it was harder to deal with, but nevertheless, he could manipulate it.
A blob of water rested over Iroh's burned hands. It emitted a soft blue glow, and the skin that had begun to blister on Iroh's hand became smooth and uninjured.
Iroh's eyes widened in surprise, but somehow the surprise in his voice sounded less than genuine. He had a smug smile on his face.
"Zuko! Where did you pick up this little trick?"
"Oh, don't start," Zuko muttered. "You knew something was up right from the beginning."
The smile on Iroh's face grew into a grin. "Well, the change in your eye color did give a bit of a hint. But you haven't explained what happened exactly."
Zuko pulled the water back into the dish. "It's a long story. Maybe I'll have time for it later."
The next voice that spoke was neither Iroh's nor his own, but it drove fear through his spine. "Oh, but come now, brother, we've got plenty of time now for you to explain."
Zuko whirled around. Apparently the attendants had not left him as alone as he thought. And now, standing in their midst, surrounded by a pack of guards, was Azula. Her face sneered in triumph as she turned to face the same crowd of palace staff.
"How did you get out on the dungeon?" Zuko demanded and he and Iroh quickly got to their feet. Azula ignored him.
"You see? It's just like I said. Zuko has betrayed the Fire Nation by taking on the powers of a waterbender!"
A murmur went over the group. Clearly some of them were more skeptical than others. This was good, Zuko thought. It meant that Azula had lured many of them here out of curiosity, and they might not be traitors if steered in the right direction.
"But how is that even possible?" one of the guards asked. "I've never heard of any bender changing powers."
Azula looked annoyed, but kept her cool. "The avatar, of course. Don't you see? If he has the power to take away my father's bending, couldn't he have the power to change Zuko's?"
Iroh stood to speak. "May I ask you, Azula, even if what you say is possible, what reason you think the avatar could possibly have for doing such a thing?"
Azula hesitated. Clearly, this wasn't going in the direction she'd hoped. Before she could come up with a good answer, Zuko heard a voice calling out from behind the crowd.
"That was me!"
The guards turned and made a path for the person who had spoken. Katara walked past them and into the room, standing next to Iroh.
"The waterbending you just saw wasn't Zuko. It was me. I've been... practicing an advanced technique that allows me to bend water from another room. I can see how this would cause some confusion." She made a polite bow to show her apology. Some impressive quick thinking on her part, Zuko observed. Katara had been present at the coronation. Everyone in the palace knew of her waterbending skills. She must've heard just enough to know she had to cover for him.
Even better, the crowd was now starting to turn on Azula, anger and shame written all over their faces. Zuko prepared to give a forgiving speech about how clever Azula's trickery could be, planning to be particularly harsh on whoever had been manipulated into letting Azula out of her cell. However, he had little time to compose. A line of fire flew straight toward himself, Katara, and Iroh.