A/N- I was assigned to read Sun Tzu's The Art of War for my Iaido class. As I was reading it, there were certain rules of war that made me think, "Oooh, the Zutara is strong with this one." lol I sat down to write, and this is what tumbled forth. Thought I'd share. I was going to break this up into mini-chapters but I didn't think it would flow well. If you, dear readers, disagree, please tell me so in the reviews and I'll break it up into mini chapters.
All bits that are italicized are taken from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. The bold italicized bits inside the hyphens (-like this-) indicate a jump in position or time. Please enjoy!
Spoiler Warning: This takes place after episodes 311 and 312
The Art of War
-The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.-
Katara shot him a venomous glare from over the fire, and he tried his best not to squirm under her callous gaze. Zuko was the former prince of the Fire Nation and had been raised to wage war. Even with all his training, the water bender could freeze the blood in his veins with the venom from her eyes, and he was reminded of younger years being tossed around by Azula's friends and their crazy, girlish mood swings.
He was raised surrounded by war propaganda, raised to fight without question, raised to bleed if his country asked for it. The smell of death and the blazing heat of the battlefield were sensations familiar to him. Leading troops to possible death was simple, mechanical, and had been reduced to a fine art by Fire Nation intellectuals. Admittedly, he hadn't taken to the teachings of war with the same zeal and enthusiasm as Azula, but why did all his teaching and training fall so short when he tried to handle the Avatar's moody waterbender?
Aang was much too light-hearted to bear a grudge for very long, and he was very soon conversing with the young Avatar as though it were normal. Haru, Teo, and The Duke didn't seem to have any problems with him other than his heritage and were soon as civil to him as they were to everyone else. Toph was likely the quickest ally that he had found. She had taken to him like a turtleduck to water. The way she teased him bore a strong resemblance to Uncle's, and he realized that he liked her better for it.
Admittedly, Sokka had taken longer to coax into a tentative friendship, but slowly, the water tribe boy's open humor and disposition eventually began to win over the mistrust. Katara, however, still seemed to loathe him with every fiber of her being, and he had to carefully plan all his words in front of her. He could see challenge flash on her face when he began to open his mouth. He would often find himself sputtering unintelligibly around her, and he was appalled by himself when it happened. He felt even more awkward and bumbling around her than he was normally, and he didn't like it.
If being nice wasn't going to win her over, he decided that he'd have to change his tactics. If she wanted to war against him, he would accept the challenge.
-The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer.-
Of course, Zuko had, among his scant possessions, carried a scroll emblazoned with the characters Sun Tzu. Within this scroll, Sun Tzu had written down the paradigm for battle that the Fire Nation used. He had thought the Avatar could use this wisdom himself when they began to devise a plan for invading and taking down his father. Now, however, he took it up as a method to win over the stubborn water bender. Sun Tzu was very clear about the matter of having spies, and Zuko decided he knew just who to recruit.
-Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men-
Toph kept her expression neutral. "So let me get this straight. You want me to tell you everything I know about Katara: her likes, dislikes, habits, childhood, and pretty much any other personal details that I can get out of her?"
Zuko muttered his assent and wished her expression was more readable.
Her expression still neutral, she continued, "You want me to go have girl talks with Sugar Queen, and then break the girl talk code by telling you?"
"Yeah," he muttered and began to squirm. Then Toph began to laugh heartily. He chuckled softly along with her, wondering if the laugh was good or bad for him.
With a wide grin, she said, "Sounds like fun, Sparky, but what's in it for me?"
Zuko froze for a moment. Sun Tzu was very precise in how converted spies should be treated. One was to give them everything that they needed to be comfortable and happy. This would ensure that they didn't change sides again, but as he leveled his eyes on the girl's wide smile, he decided that promising her anything she wanted would be a bad idea.
He carefully arranged his features into a stiff mask of formality. "What would you like in return?" This way, he could approve her price before agreeing to it.
She seemed to consider it, and he hung in suspense as her mind ticked away options. Finally she nodded to herself and said, "I want to know your story."
His mask slipped, leaving only incredulity. "Wh-what?!"
"You heard me. I want to know about your childhood, how you got the scar, how you ended up chasing Twinkletoes. All of it. That's my price."
Zuko briefly considered requesting a different price, but he knew that when Toph made up her mind she didn't change it.
"Deal," said Zuko, and the two shook hands on the bargain.
Toph grinned. "This may be the most fun I've had since Ba Sing Se."
-If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.-
Zuko's great campaign to win over Katara started, and he spent time with Toph every day exchanging stories with her. The more Zuko learned about Katara, the more puzzled he became. She was such a strange mixture of sweetness and anger, intelligence and fancy, maturity and childishness. 'But then,' he told himself. 'She is water, and I am fire. Can the sun truly understand the moon?'
One afternoon, after a peculiar mix of stories (one involving Katara the warrior facing down a water bending master, the other involving the loss of her romantic sensibilities over Jet), Zuko voiced this thought.
Toph scoffed at him and replied with the simplistic wisdom that sometimes falls from the mouths of children. "Why couldn't the sun understand the moon? They share the same sky, don't they?"
-Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality-
As promised, Zuko divulged his past. He left nothing out, and he didn't sugarcoat it. He knew that the young earth bender would understand his isolation and his tribulations. She listened silently to the somber stories and would laugh when he told her of Uncle's misadventures. Although she strived to listen to each story with the same interest, he could tell that she was particularly fond of the one's involving Iroh.
After hearing the stories of the verbal battles of Iroh and Zhao, she suddenly asked from where Zuko was acquiring his 'great plan.' Uncomfortably, he drew out the scroll of Sun Tzu and gave Toph a short explanation.
"Give it to me for a minute," she commanded, the hints of her former life seeping into her voice.
"I..." he stumbled on his words for a moment. "But you can't read."
"Yeah. Give it to me anyways." Reluctantly he obeyed, and she rolled the scroll through her fingers. She wrinkled her nose. "Feels old."
"It was transcribed a long time ago," he said and reached out a hand to take it back, but Toph suddenly sprang to her feet. Shoving the scroll into the folds of her shirt, she proclaimed in a hushed voice, "Someone's coming." With these two words, she bolted from the door and disappeared into the hallway of the Air Temple. Zuko never heard anyone coming, but Toph's hearing was better than his would ever be.
-Now a soldier's spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp. A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return.-
Zuko decided that Katara was weakest when she prepared the evening meal in one of the old kitchens in the temple. The moon wasn't quite up, and she was alone and distracted by her cooking. He would enter and perform small tasks for her such as stoking the fire, cutting vegetables, and similar kitchen chores. This became his daily ritual, and he enjoyed it more than he'd admit.
At first, Katara seemed furious and a tad nervous being in the small room alone with Zuko. He really did help, though, and soon her abrasiveness faded into begrudging acceptance. She ignored him mostly, but he would sometimes catch her eyes on him when she thought he wasn't looking.
-To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.-
During these ritualistic meetings in the kitchen, Zuko would remain silent. His silence was his bait, and he hung it in front of Katara in the hopes that she might speak first and set the topic of the conversation. He knew from Toph what subjects should not fall from his lips, but he didn't know what to say to her. He felt like a teenage boy who didn't know how to approach his crush. He thought that this was an utterly ridiculous way to feel.
So, instead of talking to her, he would silently arrange a thousand conversations in his head that could play out between him and the water bender. These conversations always started angrily but would usually end in a completely different mood entirely.
-He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.-
When Katara finally broke their silence, it was as he was arranging such a conversation in his head. He was so startled at the sound of her voice that he didn't even hear what she had said.
He turned and met her eyes reluctantly. "Huh?"
She rolled her eyes. "I said that if you think that helping me in the kitchen is going to make me forgive you, you're wrong."
Zuko smiled. He'd imagined this conversation before. "I'm not doing this to gain your forgiveness. I've already asked for that, and you can choose to forgive me or not. I'm doing this to be helpful."
She eyed him skeptically. "Just an earnest desire to be helpful? Why do I have problems believing that?"
He took a few steps toward her, and she took an unconscious step back. "I don't know why it's hard to believe. Our futures are intertwined now, whether you like it or not."
She scoffed and took a few steps towards him to reestablish her strength. Pulling herself up to full height, she peered into his face, challenging. She was very close to him now, and he was obviously more conscious of it than she was. He could smell her skin, and her eyes, even full of challenge, were pulling him in. He was drowning.
"What makes you think that our futures are intertwined? That they could ever even overlap beyond Aang's mission?"
It was then that Zuko made his first mistake. Drowning in her eyes and leaning closer to her floral scented skin, he said the first thing that came into his head, a very dangerous move indeed. "Of course our fates are intertwined. The fortune teller said you were going to marry a powerful bender, didn't she?"
In surprise, Katara fell back a few steps, and her eyes grew wide. She sputtered for a few moments, and then she began to laugh, loud and hard. Zuko's pride stung at having his rather inept attempt at flirting shot down, even if it was unplanned.
When she recovered herself, she returned to stand before him again. Zuko leaned away from her in an attempt to keep his head clear. "You're right, Zuko," she said, her voice softer than usual. "Our fates are intertwined, but our relationship is pretty far from romance, wouldn't you think? We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs."
Zuko didn't know how to respond, and he was oddly hurt by this statement. After a few moments of dithering and sputtering, however, he made a realization that made his stomach flip flop nervously.
Katara had just quoted Sun Tzu. As realization dawned on him, his mouth finally worked. "Toph told you?! She let you read the scroll?!"
Katara smiled widely and nodded. Zuko was mortified, shocked, and his face betrayed it. He turned and began to stomp towards the door. A voice stopped him, again quoting Sun Tzu.
"Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content."
He turned to gape at her, but she had already returned to her cooking. With her back towards him, she continued in a soft, gentle voice, "I didn't understand… why you did it, but Toph explained everything to me. I understand now. I'm sorry, Zuko. For everything."
In that moment, Zuko willed himself to feel angry or appalled that the water bender knew about his shameful past, but he couldn't quite get over the happiness bubbling up into his chest. She had said his name for the first time without hissing with revulsion. He decided he liked hearing that gentle, melodic voice say his name.
"I'm sorry, too, Katara. For everything." With this quiet statement, he turned and left.
-He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.-
Zuko had underestimated Toph, he decided as he approached the earth bender relaxing in the sun. He sat next to her, and they both waited for the other to begin the conversation.
Finally, when Zuko could stand it on longer, he said quietly, "You told her everything."
Toph grinned. "Yep!"
"Why?" he asked, voice still quiet.
Toph snorted. "I knew she wouldn't forgive you until she knew why you chased Aang and betrayed her in Ba Sing Se. You gave me the perfect solution, and it gave me the chance to mess with you both." She laughed at him.
Finally, he smiled. "You know, Toph, traitors must be punished."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "I didn't betray you. I agreed to tell you all about Sugar Queen. I never said that I wouldn't tell Sugar Queen all about you."
He huffed at her. "You should be punished anyway." Suddenly, he leapt towards her and tackled her into the grass. Her feet met his stomach and sent him sprawling away from her. A sparring match ensued, fire versus earth, but they were both laughing the entire time.
Twenty minutes later, as they both sat in the grass winded and happy, Katara appeared around a corner. She favored Zuko with a smile, and his heart sped up. He smiled back, red splashing over his cheeks.
Toph seemed to notice his quickening pulse and turned to grin knowingly at him much in the same way Uncle did. "You'll thank me for this one day," she said. As she spoke her grin softened to a smile; her voice was soft and far away as she shifted her attention from Zuko to Katara. Zuko couldn't fathom what she was thinking about at that moment, but he usually couldn't anyway.
He had fallen into Toph's trap, but with Katara smiling at him, a smile that actually touched her eyes, he decided that, trap or not, he really liked the changes Toph had brought about. He laughed and ruffled her bangs. "I'm thanking you for it now too." He smiled, and they walked next to each other in a comfortable, almost familiar silence. The former fire prince and The Blind Bandit looked very much like brother and sister as they approached Katara with the sun setting behind them.
Hope you liked it. Constructive criticism and comments are always nice. This wasn't quite supposed to be this long. Thanks for reading.