Author: Lady Flick PM
A Prince fighting to claim his throne, a Gypsy dragged into his cause, and a journey to atone for the blood-splattered history of their people. AU ZUTARA and BluePainted.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Zuko & Katara - Chapters: 2 - Words: 7,853 - Reviews: 24 - Favs: 13 - Follows: 21 - Updated: 08-08-10 - Published: 08-01-10 - id: 6197945
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The sun rises in the desert, bringing with it a scorching and unforgiving heat. Shadows stretch across the barren wasteland, casting stripes along the uneven slopes. Little life flourishes in the merciless terrain, villages few and far between. Perhaps the only thriving city is that of Lord Ozai's kingdom. Towers and tiers break through the morning sky and peek over the impenetrable walls guarding his precious empire from outsiders, because land beyond those walls is dangerous and only death welcomes any who dare step out into The Waste.
Zuko watches the morning burst into the sky as the lights bleed from crimson to gold to pink to violet and it seems as though time stops for the sake of such beauty, before the colors fade to a constant and vast blue. Afterall, things of true beauty and brilliance are only fleeting – it is part of their wonder.
He leaves his balcony then, pushing through the gauze curtain and heads inside his royal chambers where attendants are already inside, eager to assist him.
"Greetings, Sire," they murmur together in a singular voice that the prince cannot differentiate.
He nods in turn, sparing no reply as he holds out his arms for them to remove his robes and the three attendants immediately take to stripping him of his satin sashes and lead him towards his bath. Zuko settles in the water, cool and refreshing, a welcome change from the heat of the morning, and he sinks deeper as his attendants mix in scented soaps and massage his hair with special oils. It is silent save for the sounds of his bath, water splashing occasionally, the shuffling of his servants' sandaled feet along the tiles. He closes his eyes, breathing in the soothing aroma, and sinks deeper into the water so only his eyes are not submerged.
When he finishes, he climbs out and a robe of the softest fabric is wrapped about his form, and the return to his chambers where his outfit is laid out onto his large bed. An outfit of white and gold rather than his usual red sits atop his satin sheets.
A knock at the door brings his attention to the door and one of his servants opens it, bowing. The others take their positions on their knees, arms reaching out over their heads, stretched along the floor.
"General Zhao," Zuko welcomes his guest.
The man standing at the door way sweeps into a graceful bow before straightening up and flattening out the wrinkles of his formal wear. "Forgive my intrusion, Prince Zuko, but I simply wanted to be the first to congratulate you on your marriage."
"I am not married yet."
"Ah, but you will be this morning," Zhao reminds him, "But I will not be attending the wedding." He shifts on the spot, struggling with a helmet tucked beneath his arm, and he smiles congenially at the Heir to the throne. "Your father has sent us on a mission to...negotiate…with the village of the East. We leave within the hour – but, congratulations, Sire. I am sure your marriage with Lady Mai will bring you eternal happiness."
His words are empty, spoken only out of politeness, and Zuko nods his thanks, only out of respect.
Both men know the marriage with Lady Mai is nothing more than a formality. In order to ascend the throne after his ill father passes, Zuko must have a woman at his arm.
"I wish you…success," the general finishes, "I am sure you deserve all that will come to you."
When he leaves Zuko glares at the threshold, wondering at the general's words, before dismissing his attendants. They avoid his eyes as they leave the prince to his thoughts, all save for one, still kneeling on the floor.
"I said you are dismissed," Zuko repeats, harsher this time, but the man does not move. "Did you not hear me? I said you may go!"
The man's shoulders shudder as he laughs into the tiles that are pressed against his lips. "I heard you, your majesty." His voice is distorted with his stifled laughs. "But I am afraid I cannot leave yet." And he lifts his head so his gaze meets the prince's. "I have orders, Lord Zuko."
"Orders?" The Heir demands, frowning at the servant and making a mental note to punish him for his disobedience. "What orders? From who?"
And just as swiftly as morning bursts into the sky, so is the darkness that strangles his yell for the guards.
What becomes of a man who is defined as his title?
What becomes of a Prince without a kingdom to rule?
Zuko's eyes stung as he woke from a fitful sleep, rough, jagged rocks pressing into his flesh. He sat up, head spinning in protest, and everything seemed to bombard his skull, creating an uncomfortable pulsing sensation. Pain throbbed at his temple, and Zuko cringed at the unwelcome greeting, doubling over in an uncontrollable attempt to relieve the ache. Whatever gruel was forced down his throat during his abduction surfaced once more and he coughed onto the charcoal-colored land, heaving what little contents were left in his stomach. Zuko writhed at the feeling and stood on shaky legs covered in scars and bruises. Fresh blood was at his lips and he ran his tongue across the chapped skin there, glancing around the area. None of it seemed familiar, save for the pictures in books he had seen in the royal library, books that spoke evils of the Waste and the death that welcomed its wanderers.
"No," the prince gasped, his voice hoarse from disuse. "No, it can't be!" Panic gripped him as he whirled around, desperate to find something, anything, that looked familiar, that looked like home. Boulders stretched on for miles, and where there were no rocks, there was only sand. Everything was black – a deep charcoal color that reminded him of what remained after a fire.
After the initial groggy moments of his jarring wake, reality settled upon the prince. He was there, in the Waste, alone without food or water, or clothes, for that matter.
"No," he said again, more distinct this time, moving swiftly along the rocks and ignoring the scratches and heat his bare feet faced. "This can't be!" Zuko exclaimed in rage when only more blackness appeared in the distance. "What happened," he wondered aloud, his breathing harsh as he sat upon a particularly large boulder, the warm dusk heat providing at least a little comfort.
He tried to remember the events prior to waking up alone and abandoned, but his mind was still unclear, the memories twisting in his head until everything was nothing more than a blur.
Zuko dropped his face into his hands in a futile attempt to calm himself.
The sound of horses drew his attention to the horizon where a band of people rode across the desert. Zuko stood at once, raising his chin in a regal manner, and waved them over as they approached. They appeared to be bandits or else dangerous, and Zuko refrained from demanding they return him home.
"I'm lost," the wounded and naked man said instead. "Someone abducted me and left me here for dead." His golden eyes stared down the rider who seemed to be the leader, bringing in the front with a posture befitting someone in command.
The strangers' faces were hidden beneath scarves that matched the terrain, only their eyes could be seen, eyes of varying wisdom and personalities, but all hardened from life in the Waste. The man on the blackest mare dismounted then, and removed his scarf, revealing a young face beneath it, a face that could not be much older than Zuko. "Here," the bandit offered, handing him the veil with a haughty smirk, "I think the Waste is shocking enough without you baring all."
Chuckles emerged from the rest of the men and Zuko scowled as he snatched the rough fabric, tying it about his waist.
"You can ride with Smellerbee," the stranger stated as he pointed over at a rider who must have been a young boy. The leader leapt onto his mare, and signaled for the others to move out.
The prince waited for someone to aid him atop the horse, but Smellerbee only scowled down at his expectant stare. "What'cha waitin' for?" He asked abrasively. "Someone t'help y'up?"
Zuko reddened slightly but bit back his response, grasping onto the saddle with two hands and hoisting himself behind the rider. The seat was uncomfortable, more-so due to the fact that he had only a sash to keep from chafing, and he shifted uneasily on the mare.
"Y'better hold on tight," Smellerbee warned as he kicked his horse into a full gallop to keep up with the others.
They rode for hours, it seemed, through the heat, and Zuko could feel the sweat drip down his face. How could these men wear such clothes and appear as though the heat had no effect on them? Smellerbee had mentioned something about the fabric itself – light and airy – not that the prince was aptly listening. It seemed that he had been stuck with the most talkative of riders; Smellerbee was eager to divulge all about his little clan of bandits.
"No," Smellerbee corrected, "Not bandits. Freedom Fighters. We're good guys."
Either way, Zuko couldn't complain, if it wasn't for them, he'd likely still be wandering alone.
He learned that the leader's name was Jet, and that the bandits—Freedom Fighters—were all victims of Lord Ozai's army, except for Smellerbee, whose home was attacked by strange Mages of the Desert. They were all wanderers now, creating a single family from broken, mismatched pieces.
"What makes these Mages so powerful?" Zuko inquired, hoping to move the subject away from his home, amber gaze scanning the slopes for any sign of the danger he probably couldn't recognize even if he saw it.
"They control the sand," Smellerbee explained simply, as though it was general knowledge – and perhaps it was general knowledge in the Waste, Zuko wouldn't know. "I call'em Sandbenders. There's a ring to it, don't'cha think?"
It was remarkable, the boy's optimism even in the face of such disaster.
Eventually the group found a place to rest and Zuko stood aside as they set up their camp. Unpacking bags and unfolding tents and building a fire – they each had their own job to do, even Jet, the leader, helped with the chores. It was strange to watch, everyone doing their part, all Zuko had ever known was servants he couldn't recognize tending to his needs.
"You just going to stand there or are you going to help?" Jet called as he struggled with pitching a tent.
Zuko moved towards him, unsure of what to do.
"Just hold these pegs down here," the man instructed, tapping each one with his foot. Zuko did as he was told and Jet slipped the pole up the center of the tarp, before moving to the other side and hooking a rope onto the two pegs there. "Alright, now, you see the ropes on your side? Hook it like I just did."
Zuko spotted the looped hooks and secured first one about the wooden peg, and then the other.
"Thanks," Jet replied, casually as they convened around a large bonfire. "You're not the camping out type, are you?"
"Uh, no," the prince answered.
A bowl was handed to him by a boy he later learned was called The Duke, and inside it was a chilly and unappetizing soup dish that the others eagerly partook. "I'm…not hungry," Zuko said.
Smellerbee only scoffed, "Yeah. That's why you're gut was growlin' the whole ride."
"I know it might not look or smell the best, but it's not so bad," Jet assured.
Zuko brought the bowl to his lips and nearly gagged on its contents.
Jet only laughed. "Well, I never said it tasted the best."
The rest of the night continued in much a similar manner, the people around him laughing and bickering. Zuko scowled into the fire, angry, confused, unsure, and unable to do anything about it. He was outnumbered, several to one – and even if he managed to overtake them, he had no idea where he was or where to go or what to do. He had to rely on these strangers, these bandits, with their deplorable manners and crude language and barbaric lifestyle.
"Your scar," Jet whispered when the others were tucked in their tents, "I know who you are."
Zuko hesitated as he stood from his seat around the extinguished fire. "What do you mean?"
"It's a burn scar," the leader said nonchalantly. "You must be a victim of the Arabian soldiers. I'd bet my horse that it was Ozai's men who did that to you. It's alright. You're safe with us. And one day, we will get our revenge."
The next morning he woke with the sun, unable to keep from the habit, and, despite the ugliness of the barren desert, the sky was even more spectacular than he remembered.
"You're an early riser, eh?" Smellerbee asked as he plopped himself down beside the prince. "Me, too. I can only sleep for a few hours every night since my home was destroyed. I think it's because the raid happened when I was asleep…now, I don't want to sleep anymore."
Zuko wondered why the boy was so eager to open himself up, but remained silent.
"You ain't the best conversationalist are'ya?"
Smellerbee laughed. "S'alright, my best friend's not the talkative type, either."
Zuko did remember. He was the only bandit who said absolutely nothing around the fire, though the name escaped him "Smellerbee," the prince said then, out of curiosity, "Why is it that Jet's recruited all males?"
That earned him a punch as well as a different horse to ride.
Zuko shifted on the saddle, increasingly uncomfortable as the soreness from the other night's journey made itself known. "Is it always so uncomfortable?" He asked of the bandit that was not Smellerbee. The stranger didn't reply. "Where are we going?" Again, no reply. The prince scowled at the irony, but decided to simply enjoy the peace.
It wasn't until later in the afternoon that they reached their destination and he was finally able to dismount the mare.
Jet had led them into small, surprisingly civilized village, and met with a tan-skinned woman with remarkably blue eyes.
Zuko's attention, however, was immediately diverted to a booming voice that came from a man donning a cloak of fur, and Zuko stepped back as the Chief pointed a staff in his direction. Whatever he had said stirred a sudden rage in the atmosphere and all eyes, brown and green and black and blue, fixated on the intruder.
The bandits on whom he relied moved away from him in shock, and Zuko found himself within the direct line of the hostile leader.
"You! How dare you enter our territory!" The Chief declared in a fury, marching towards Zuko.
"Chief Hakoda, there must be some mistake—" Jet began, but he was silenced with a glare.
"You fool, how could you let him deceive you? How can you not recognize the face of the enemy?"
The bandit leader shook his head, stepping forward to plead with the older man. "He is only a victim of the Arabian army," Jet explained, much to the tan-skinned woman's dismay.
She was at his arm, muttering inaudible words that went ignored.
Chief Hakoda scoffed and jabbed Zuko with his staff. "Are you or are you not the Prince of the Land of Fire, boy?"
Spears were pressed against his flesh then, and Zuko knew he couldn't do a thing. Jet couldn't help him. The bandits wouldn't help him. He was at the mercy of these outlandish people.
Even so, he would not be ashamed of who he was.
A simple nod sealed his fate.
If he wasn't so proud, he might have felt a twinge of guilt at the betrayal clear on Jet's face.
- I KNOW I have a whole bunch of other projects to do, what with my revisions for Memoirs and Sokka's Field Guide II still waiting for that last chapter to be finished, but I've been wanting to try my hand at a full-fledged AU zutara story, and, while sitting at the local Starbucks, coffee and notebook at hand, this little idea penned itself out and came to life in my head, and I've actually plotted out far into the chapters.
- It may seem like a rather slow and shaky start, for that I apologize, but I promise it will get better. The entire story will be told in a Zuko-centric perspective, and I'm trying to capture it as best I can. Keep in mind he is a Prince and has not had the same issues of banishment as he does in the Avatar series. He has been waited on since birth and, though practiced in the art of swordsmanship and other techniques, is not much of a fighter. Yet. But I don't want to reveal to much, you'll just have to trust me with this!
- I am aware that the prologue is in the present tense. I did that on purpose. The rest of the story will be, like the first chapter, in past tense.
- No worries. Zuko will properly meet Katara in the next chapter c:
- I would immensely love some feedback for this, seeing as it is a relatively new venture! Comments, Constructive Criticism, Questions, the whole shebang!
- Also, forgive the lame title. It is pending D;
* for those wondering, I am still debating between writing this or Aubade. Because, quite honestly, I may have the first four chapters of it written out, but it's a plot I had come up with a long time ago, one that I'm not sure I'm too interested in anymore.