This story was born when I read Act 1, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar and wondered what Zhao would be like if he really wasn't evil. I'll have to warn you right now: I'm writing an X-Men fic and that's sort of my top priority, so I don't know when updates will come.
Plot: Commander Zhao played a very dangerous game. He acted the evil, ruthless Firebender to his sovereign's face, and in the night, he planned a revolt… to put Zuko on the throne.
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar. It's as simple as that.
Honor. What a strange concept, Zhao thought as he once again followed his lord and sovereign, Fire Lord Ozai, to the war room. Especially when the royal line had none.
Commander Zhao was not a cruel man. He didn't take pleasure in seeing humans burn and die before his eyes. The flames of hatred had not consumed his heart, and never would. He was not like Ozai, though he worked closely with the Fire Lord. He despised the work he had to do, but he had long since accepted it as part of his life. He forced himself to think of his soldiers as merely pawns, so his heart would not be ripped apart every time they were decimated by some lucky Earth Kingdom platoon.
Every since he had been a boy, his father had taught him of honor and truth, and what it meant to be a man. When Zhao had been thirteen, his father had mysteriously died. He had grieved, but thought nothing of it. His father was a soldier; soldiers died. Zhao the boy grew into Zhao the man, and he clung to the beliefs his father had instilled in him. He shed his childhood skin and opened his eyes to the adult world. That was when he had realized Ozai had killed his father for his peaceful ideas. Oh, there was no physical evidence, but Zhao, as a young officer, had felt the shift in mood when he spoke of anything except violence and the death of the Earth Kingdom.
Zhao had quickly learned the part he needed to play to survive. He had to be evil, merciless and wicked. He had to want the destruction of the Fire Nation's enemies. He could never find it in his heart to hate, so when he put on his armor and uniform on in the morning, he took on the persona he wanted the Fire Lord to see. The armor became the shell of Lieutenant Zhao, and then Captain Zhao, and finally, Commander Zhao, though those titles were years in coming. He was a charming military man who fought constantly for the Fire Nation's superiority. With his rich inheritance, courtesy of his father, and his self-made success in the army, he was an eligible bachelor.
The years passed, and he entered his thirties. He became Captain Zhao and was awarded his own Fire Navy ship as a gift from the Fire Lord himself. He quickly established himself as a scourge of the sea, destroying any intruders on the Fire Nation waters and wreaking havoc on the ports of the Earth Kingdom.
Zhao had always loved the sea, but he often longed to go home. Because of his superior intellect, the Fire Lord often kept him in the Fire Capital for months on end, drawing from his strategic mind.
On one such occasion, Zhao sat cross-legged in the war room, his dark eyes guarded as he watched the other advisors and officers talk about various plans to decimate the other nations. He practiced his breathing exercises to find his center. It was difficult to hear these stories from these hateful men. He didn't even like any of these advisors. He found them annoying and tedious. He eased his anger with deeper breathing, but he was shocked from his calm state.
He gave a respectful nod to General Iroh as he entered with a guest. It was the young prince, Zuko. Zhao met the boy's eyes for a moment, slightly amused when the prince quickly looked away. Either Zhao's reputation preceded him, or Prince Zuko was cowed from his youthful arrogance into a state of humility. Zhao made a mental note to keep an eye on the impressionable boy.
Zhao, once again, drifted from the meeting. Land battles were not his specialty, though he was proficient in planning those as well. He didn't foresee getting asked any abrupt questions in the near future, so he rested his mind from the stresses piled on his shoulders from recent reports of his ships. Seventeen of his men had been taken captive; one of them had been a childhood friend. He knew he would never see any of them again. The Earth Kingdom was unsurprisingly vengeful.
Zhao forced himself not to choke when the voice of young Prince Zuko rang through the room, speaking against the plan of an advisor to use a new division to distract the Earth Kingdom. He found some semblance of calm and looked up to see the prince standing up.
"With all due respect, sir," Zuko bowed deeply. "I simply think it is questionable to sacrifice the lives of our Fire Nation soldiers who have pledged themselves to our cause." He explained, his eyes moving to every advisor in the room.
The advisor who had suggested the plan smiled indulgently. "Our prince is very good to be concerned for his subjects, but…"
Zuko took a deep breath and spoke out once more. "No! You can't simply send them to their deaths. It is dishonorable." His words made even him freeze, and Zhao surmised he was suddenly regretting his words.
Ozai's venomous voice permeated the flames that burned in front of him, shielding him from view. "Prince Zuko, you will fight an Angi Kai for your disrespect."
That was the only sentence the Fire Lord spoke on the matter, but Zhao felt his heart sink into his stomach. This would not end well for the prince. It could very well end his life. Zhao watched General Iroh escort the prince from the war room, and then turned his attention back to the meeting that continued, despite the life-changing proclamation.
"Captain Zhao, what are your thoughts on this plan?" Another advisor asked.
Zhao met the advisor's gaze. He was familiar with this man, though his name escaped Zhao at the moment. He was the type of man to publicly test someone's loyalty. Zhao was aware of this game, and he was also aware of what he needed to say to protect himself. He wished he was once again young and could afford to be a dreamer and an idealist. As for now, he had to be a loyal Fire Nation soldier and had to play the game.
"I think it is sheer brilliance. New soldiers can always be found, but the training that has gone into the other brigade is invaluable." Zhao replied evenly. He did not betray his true thoughts. He simply couldn't do it, if he wanted to live to see the next sunrise. The only punishment for treason was death.
Zhao was uncannily reticent and uncomfortable as he stood by Princess Azula in the Agni Kai stadium, flanked by several dozen other officers of equal or higher ranking. He was in complete armor, as was fit his station, and his topknot was meticulously tied. He wished to hide in the crowd, but he had come to know the Fire Princess through his sister, who was her history tutor. She had requested for him to stand by her. He had never thought he would inwardly curse a child, but that was what he found himself doing. Now, he had an unimpeded view of the travesty that was to occur within moments.
He could not hear a word over the general din that several hundred people could create, even when they were completely silent. There was still noise, and all he could do was read the faces. Ozai was arrogant and cruel. His very being seemed to exude his wickedness. He knelt on one side of the stadium, while Zuko knelt on the other. The small teenage boy slowly stood up, dropping his vest and assuming a beginning Firebending stance.
Zhao saw Zuko's stance falter and completely disappear. Ozai's face remained impassive, as if he didn't care for the boy who begged for his forgiveness, for any semblance of a father's love. Zhao, behind his sadistic mask, found his heart heavy. He had known his father's love. One of his greatest heroes was his late father. Zuko had never experienced Ozai's approval or comfort.
Zuko fell to his knees, his forehead nearly touching the stadium floor. He looked up into his father's face, begging once more for mercy.
"Suffering will be your teacher." Were the only words Zhao caught.
Zhao could not look away as Ozai assumed a Firebending stance and shot fire directly into his son's left eye. Whatever innocence the Fire Nation captain still had left was ripped away as he heard Zuko's tortured screams. The boy continued to shriek until he twitched, falling unconscious. Ozai surveyed his son's broken body and cackled softly, only loud enough for Zhao to catch. Zhao's stomach turned as the Fire Lord left the stadium, and the crowds followed.
"Aren't you coming with me, Captain Zhao?" Princess Azula asked sweetly, her dark eyes glinting with smugness. "Now that I am the heir to the throne, I would like to celebrate with my closest friends." There was a steeled undertone in her voice, as if it was an order.
Zhao shook his head. "No, Princess. I feel a need to gloat over your brother's weakness. Surely you would not begrudge me that." He lied through his teeth, catching the attention of a few surrounding soldiers. He could feel their clandestine glances and made a note to speak with them.
Princess Azula threw her head back and laughed. "Of course not. Goodnight, Zhao." She bowed her head respectfully and then left with her entourage.
Zhao turned once more to see Zuko's broken body sprawled on the stadium floor. The severe burn had begun to blister and ooze pus and blood, and his normally smooth, youthful features were tortured in whatever death-like sleep he had been forced into. The crowds had disappeared quickly, and he could bow his head and sigh regretfully without worry of execution.
Zhao turned to see who was addressing him and it was a young lieutenant with whom he was relatively familiar. He nodded respectfully. "Lieutenant Ji." He greeted quietly. "It has been a while since we have last spoken. I miss your intelligent company." He gave the younger man another nod.
Lieutenant Ji bowed gratefully. "Thank you, sir. I, too, miss our conversations." He responded with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "What weighs on your mind, captain?" He asked casually.
Zhao raised an eyebrow. Ji was not a man to carry on political games, and if his voice had a casual air, he was treading dangerous ground. Ground that Zhao had wanted to travel over for a long time. He took a deep breath. "Only heavy things that are not to be spoken of." He answered cryptically.
"But what things?" Ji persisted. "I believe our minds follow the same course, but I would not reveal anything to you. I fear my mind is disloyal to our Fire Lord." He admitted, casting a glance at his fellows who stood further off, discussing something quietly amongst themselves.
"That, alone, is something that I could bring to the Fire Lord. That is treason, Ji. I caution you before speaking any further." Zhao warned him, turning his eyes away from the atrocity of Zuko's limp form to concentrate on Ji. "You are too brilliant to throw your life away because of treason."
The lieutenant exhaled, frustrated. "Zhao, I will be frank with you." Ji stated. "I need your help. My comrades and I… we have been horribly disturbed by the display here today." Ji shuddered slightly. "We have long since been colleagues, and I trust your sense of honor and your brilliant mind. I do not mean to flatter. I only mean to speak the truth." He assured the older man. "I play no games with you, either."
Zhao eyed Ji. He knew exactly what the lieutenant wished to plan with him. He did not find the idea too unwholesome either, but he could not be sure of Ji's trustworthiness. The Fire Nation captain nodded. "Ji, let us abandon pretense. Do not use riddles anymore. Ask what you would of me."
Lieutenant Ji considered Zhao's offer, and took the chance of possible death for his words. "My fellows and I… we wish to assassinate Ozai. His methods are too brutal, and he does not rule our people well."
The two men's eyes connected and Zhao allowed the tense moment to linger. He did wish for Ozai to be out of the picture, and was willing to go to whatever lengths necessary. He longed to be the man he was, instead of the cruel imitation he acted. The war was senseless. No longer was there a point to it.
Ji, awkward in the terse moment, continued quickly, "I would also ask you to exploit your friendship with the Fire Lord."
Zhao laughed humorlessly. "One doesn't become friends with the Fire Lord. You are either a subject or an enemy. Ozai does not have the capacity in his bastard heart for concepts such as love." He regarded Ji seriously. "You would do well to remember that, Ji."
Lieutenant Ji nodded, his eyes glinting with secret hope and unspeakable fear, swirling in his unique amber eyes. "Zhao, speak honestly with me. Will you help me? Or will you, at least, honor our business relationship and protect me?"
Captain Zhao gave Ji a rare, honest smile and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Lieutenant, I offer you all of my resources and services. We will work together on this. I find you to be worthy of my trust."
The two men considered each other for a silent moment, and Ji nodded. "Thank you, sir. Come to my estate tomorrow for breakfast. There, we will discuss various plans with the others. Think on this: when is the Fire Lord most vulnerable, and who would be best to take up the position when he is dead."
Zhao and Ji bowed deeply to each other and grasped each other's forearms in farewell. Ji and his comrades left silently.
Even as the last sounds of their armor clinking faded away, Zhao was aware of the fact eh was not alone in the stadium.
The overweight form of Iroh moved through the impenetrable shadows into the bright light of the stadium. His gait was mournful and heavy; he, more than Zhao, felt the weight of the events of the day on his shoulders. Iroh had always loved Zuko as his own son, and to see one's own in such a broken state had to be devastation.
Zhao did not know if Iroh realized his presence, so the Fire Nation soldier decided to drop any and all pretence. He lowered himself into the arena and approached the General cautiously.
The Dragon of the West whirled upon Zhao, immediately in an advanced firebending stance, ready to attack and protect his nephew. Zhao froze and raised his hands, slowly lowering himself to a submissive, kneeling position. He met the General's eyes, his hands still raised to show his aim was not to harm the old man or the prince.
"What do you want, Zhao?" He asked wearily. "I do not have time for your arrogance."
"I did not come to gloat, General Iroh." Zhao responded. "I swear this on my honor."
"Why should I trust your honor? Honor has done this to my nephew!" He shouted, his strong voice ringing through the stadium. "What do you want?"
Zhao remained on his knees. "I do not know if you heard my conversation with Lieutenant Ji. We were horrified at the Fire Lord's actions. We do not see him fit as a ruler anymore." He explained in a quiet voice. "I came to help you bring the prince back to the palace so we might tend to him, and await the Fire Lord's verdict."
Iroh's shoulders slumped even further as he knelt by his nephew. "He has a quest for Prince Zuko already." He murmured brokenly.
"Really?" Zhao raised an eyebrow. It was unlike Ozai to be so quick to make a decision with an advisory meeting. He feared what the Fire Lord had come up with in his murderous anger.
Iroh sighed. "He had decided to send Prince Zuko on a quest for the Avatar, exiling him from the Fire Nation until he does so." He raised a hand to silence the soldier. "Yes, the Avatar has not been seen for a century. The Fire Lord wants Zuko out of the way so Azula can rule."
Zhao bowed his head slightly, forgetting his physical position and allowing his mind to begin working. Prince Zuko was to be sent away. The Fire Lord's only impediment from a cruel successor was now out of the way. He would need a crew… "I might have… some way of making this blow less."
"How could this possibly become a good situation?" Iroh asked tiredly, taking his nephew's hand and gently touching it.
"I will explain as we return to the palace." Zhao moved to Zuko's side. "Shall I carry him?"
"I would appreciate the help." Iroh's voice was empty as his eyes stayed on Zuko.
"Of course, General." Zhao gently gathered the boy in his arms and stood up. "My plan… is not fully formed, and I will speak to Lieutenant Ji and the rest of our company in the morning, but here it is. You will, obviously, leave with your nephew." Iroh nodded. "I will advise the Fire Lord to assign Lieutenant Ji to the ship you will leave on. Other soldiers from my own crew will be placed in your company. You will be constantly surrounded by trustworthy men."
Iroh nodded to show his understanding. "And what will you do from here?"
Zhao took another breath, gently shifting the boy who stirred slightly in his arms as he allowed his mind to roam through various situations. "I will keep in contact with the lieutenant. We have been colleagues for a long time; it will not appear suspicious and our mail will not be opened. However, as a precaution, we will code our letters." He explained slowly, forming the plan in his mind. "Lieutenant Ji will keep you away from the Fire Nation, keeping the prince safe. I will work here, getting together likeminded men so we might remove the Fire Lord." He gave a small shrug. "The details will be worked out and I will report to you, General."
Iroh sighed as he and Zhao finally left the winding passages of the stadium and stepped out into the evening air. The two men walked in silence through a back alley passage to a lesser-known entrance to the palace. From there, they used servants' hallways to get to the prince's quarters. There, Zhao laid him gently on his opulent bed. He looked at the face of the young prince and reached to the unmarred side of his face and touched it gently. His throat closed up as he looked at the boy's wound. It would scar terribly.
"Why do you intend to protect my nephew so much that you would send your own men to be away from their home for months, if not years? Why is my nephew so important to your plans?" Iroh asked curiously, going to the door to call a healer.
Zhao met the General's eyes and then dropped his gaze to the floor. "I see in him what I once saw in my father." He answered abruptly.
"Your father was a good man." Iroh agreed.
Zhao looked up, grateful for Iroh's words. He let out a sigh and then spoke once more, "I intend to put Zuko on the throne after we have killed his father and barred his sister from her inheritance."