Trusting the Enemy
They were all sitting by the fire. His children. The Avatar. Toph. Suki. Chit Sang. The children whose escape they'd assured.
Zuko, son of the Fire Lord. The son of the man they wanted to stop, to kill if necessary (and judging by the Fire Lord's unwillingness to stop this war, they would have to kill him).
Hakoda had watched him carefully, at the Boiling Rock.
Well, after Zuko had managed to run past him and that warrior girl, Suki, without their initial noticing, to reach Sokka while knocking out a prison guard in the process. Silently, without the slightest hint of firebending.
He didn't look like a prince, nor did he act like one. He was lean, pale, small in comparison to many warriors Hakoda knew. Zuko's frustration at Sokka's lack of planning ahead in order to get the warden hadn't looked very royal either. When they were following Suki who'd gone after the warden… He'd been silent, slipping through fighting guards and prisoners without making a sound. He'd been out of breath just like the rest of them. Nothing had given the slightest hint on this teenager being the heir to the throne, or a Firebender at all.
Until… Until firebending had become a necessity. He remembered the teenager pushing his son out of the line, the almost playful way he'd fought off the attacking fire. The movements had been calculated and strong, but he'd launched no counterattack, as it would've been expected from a Firebender.
'Back off! We've got the warden!'
He'd neither begged nor threatened.
An order. A warning, almost casually spoken.
It didn't surprise the chief of the Southern Water Tribe in the least that not a single guard had dared to step in the way.
Zuko had told the rest to follow.
That was him, the prince, the heir to the throne of the Fire Nation.
And again, he didn't act the way Hakoda expected a prince to act. Instead of avoiding danger, he was always in the frontlines. When they had to make their way to the gondola, he was in the front. After they'd passed the guards he fell back insuring their escape.
And that leap! He would have to ask the teenager how he'd done that. He shuddered at the thought of what would have happened had he missed catching Sokka's arm.
Something inside of him told him that Zuko didn't miss, not when it came to survival.
The fight on the roof he'd only heard, but Sokka's and Suki's tale was making up for his lack of observation.
Oh, they mainly talked about their own accomplishments, but noticing the Avatar's reaction over the fact that Zuko had fought off his younger sister's firebending, told him more than he ever wanted to know.
The arrival at the camp had diffused his thoughts on the prince, his mistrust. He'd been too thrilled to embrace his children again. As if insistent on not being forgotten, Zuko had again surprised him after they'd sat down by the fire.
Imagine a Fire Nation Prince kneel beside you and to hand over tea!
It was unheard of and almost unbelievable. The only person more surprised than he'd been was Chit Sang, really. Hakoda briefly wondered how strange it was for a citizen of the Fire Nation to be served by one of your princes. The widened eyes and the suppressed flinch had given him a fair idea, though.
'Thank you,' Chit Sang said with a strangely high voice considering his height. Hakoda remembered Zuko's look.
Just for one second there, he could see that the criminal was being regarded, assessed and considered trustworthy. Seeing the former prisoner of the Boiling Rock shake like a leaf after the teenager continued his journey around the circle was evidence enough that Zuko could be unnerving if necessary.
Only, he wasn't.
His actions were humble and, more often than not, awkward. Hakoda distinctly noticed how he avoided his daughter's gaze (who seemed to be less than convinced of Zuko's honesty). He was acting like a servant more than a prince when serving tea. Surely, serving tea wasn't a common action of a member of the royal family, but his was moving quietly and modestly, never interrupting a conversation, never speaking up unless asked.
The best servants are neither heard nor seen. They do their best to resemble the columns, the floor. Nobody should know they existed.
He'd heard of that in the Earth Kingdom. He didn't know how things were at the Fire Nation, but it was remarkable that a prince fulfilled those requirements with such ease.
The last people whom Zuko handed out tea were the Sokka and Suki, who were still telling their tale.
"…You should have seen how she disabled the warden and all those guards! It was amazing!" Sokka gushed for what seemed the third time, "Thanks, Zuko." He added when reaching for his cup. The prince nodded, took the last cup off the tray and Hakoda could see him contemplating where to sit.
"You can sit beside me, Sparky," the child (and Earthbending Master) Toph declared loudly, obviously having picked up on the older boy's musings. The relief on Zuko's face was unsettling as he walked beside her and sat down between the little Freedom Fighter 'The Duke' and Toph.
"And how exactly did you reach that gondola when the guards undoubtedly saw you approach from a mile away?" Hakoda wondered why the young Earthbender was so annoyed by Sokka's and Suki's slightly exaggerated tale, "I mean, did you somehow use the boomerang you didn't have on you at the time, and knocked them all out or did Suki somehow dodge every fireball before charging them?"
"That wasn't necessary," the prince interfered quietly when he saw Sokka's overtly outraged expression in the face of Toph's sarcasm, "The chain of command is strict in the Fire Nation. Unless having other orders from the commanders themselves or from someone higher up in the food chain," 'Let's for example say, a prince,' "It is a soldier's or, in this case, a guard's duty to protect the senior officer with their own lives. We used the warden as hostage."
That piece of information concerning Fire Nation policy, he hadn't known. And judging by the expression of the others, he wasn't the only one.
"So, why attacking you?" Aang asked, completely confused, "You are a prince. Or did I misunderstand something? Aren't you a commander of sorts?" it was unsurprising to hear an airbending monk stumble over the word 'commander.'
Zuko was quiet for a moment, as if contemplating what to say.
"Before I was exi…," a little gulp, his left hand twitched reaching towards his face, "A prince is only inclined to respond to the Fire Lord and those closer in line to become Fire Lord. That is true. But… When we met, I was an exile. While, due to my rank, Admiral Zhao did not have enough influence to order me around personally, he could do pretty much everything else. Especially in the name of my f… the Fire Lord's orders. Then I was proclaimed a failure and my uncle a traitor, which meant either death or capture by any Fire Nation soldier. Harbouring either of us would have been declared treason with death penalty," Zuko sat on the other side of the fire as he spoke. The pale face was illuminated by the flickering flames. The golden eyes (he'd never seen such eyes, and he'd met many Firebenders) seemed to burn, "Now I'm considered a traitor. Every Fire Nation citizen has the duty to kill me on sight or to report me, at least."
Ah, the searching look regarding Chit Sang made so much more sense now.
"Okay," Sokka said slowly, his eyes glancing at Chit Sang as well, "I understand why Chit Sang's not attacking you, but why didn't they kill you when they captured you?"
"Because the warden is Mai's uncle," the answer contained a mixture of shame, sadness and deep affection for the girl he'd been forced to leave behind and who'd saved all of their lives.
"But the warden wasn't on the island when you were captured. Why didn't they kill you on sight?" Sokka asked, a bit ignorant to the prince's apparent pain. That provoked a snort from Chit Sang and everybody turned to look at him.
Startled at the sudden attention, the overly large man tried, rather unsuccessfully, to make himself small. In a muffled voice, the former prisoner explained, "Who's foolish enough to attack a member of the royal family? Everybody knows they're trained to kill."
Quickly, Hakoda turned his head to see Zuko's reaction. The Prince of the Fire Nation seemed frozen for a second before examining the ground. Everything was quiet and still, except for the crackling fire in their middle.
He saw the Firebender staring into it as if it had a calming effect on him. The almost hypnotizing ever changing alteration of shadow and light veiled Zuko's face in mysterious air.
"Kill?" Aang gasped, "No… Zuko doesn't…" He stopped when he noticed Katara's disbelieving stare.
"Sparky?" Toph said, seemingly untouched by the revelation. Her voice was level enough to shake the prince out of his reveries, "I'm cold."
Zuko looked at her with his eyes wide before he settled down and breathed. It was then when the chief of the Southern Water Tribe realized that it had indeed been cold (this blasted Fire Nation prison fabric was useless to resist the chilling wind of the Western Air Temple). The warmth seemingly emitted by the prince was like a blanket covering them all.
Chit Sang gasped and scrambled away, his eyes full of terror as he looked at the prince. "You…You are Moyasu Karada," he chocked in obvious terror.
Puzzled, everyone looked at Zuko whose scarred eye wasn't quite as wide as the unblemished one.
"No! No, Chit Sang!" he exclaimed, looking horrified himself, "I'm not. What I'm doing… It has nothing to do with the Forbidden Forms."
"You've just adjusted our body temperature," Chit Sang contradicted, standing in a fighting position.
"No!" there was the prince again. Zuko hadn't risen from the ground, but his posture indicated that attacking him would be a bad idea. His eyes hinted less of a warning than desperation, "No, the Moyasu Karada control the body from the inside out, what I'm doing, is warming people from the outside in!"
"You've met them," it was not a question but an appalled statement.
What he received was a snort in return, "How long have you been at the Boiling Rock, Chit Sang, or was Fire Lord Azulon just that good at keeping secrets?" Zuko looked so tired.
Sarcasm didn't suit the teenager, Hakoda decided. He looked so much colder.
"Stop!" Sokka interfered, "What are you two talking about?"
Zuko remained silent and continued staring into the fire. Chit Sang didn't speak either.
"You know, the whole 'trusting you' thing is so much easier when you talk to us, Zuko," Sokka said, there was only a soft jab in his voice. Hakoda still couldn't believe the amount of trust his intelligent, suspicious son put in the prince of the Fire Nation.
The still form on the other side of the cackling fire didn't say a word. His eyes seemed slightly veiled as if he was somewhere else completely.
"Chit Sang?" Aang asked, sounding wary.
"It is not my place to speak," was the reply of the Firebender. He was still upright, though not in a fighting position anymore.
"I was six. My sister and I were playing on the borders of the palace's gardens. Mother had to go inside when an important message arrived. She told us to stay put and the guards to be on watch," Zuko spoke quietly, his eyes focused on the crackling fire before him, "She wasn't out of sight for longer a minute before it happened. Kira and Kaoru, the guards just… All of a sudden, they gasped and hit the ground. Dead. Zula was scared and started to cry," it was almost impossible to imagine that he'd been fighting that girl to the death only hours before. He seemed to feel true affection for her when trapped in memory, "I ran towards her, but three figures appeared out of nowhere, one of them stood in between us. We were both cut off. They didn't speak. Zula screamed in fear and I asked them what they wanted from us. Again, they didn't speak and one of them approached Zula, she sent sparks towards him… I would've done the same, but I couldn't… I didn't have the spark for a long time," that admission was painful, Hakoda could see it when Zuko shut his eyes, "What followed…"
All of a sudden, the fire in between them flared and Hakoda jumped back. It didn't reach towards them but seemed to be a mirror of the prince's inner turmoil.
"They turned her sparks. Mid-air. You can't…" He stopped again, took a deep breath and continued, "I ran past one of them and pushed Zula out of the way. The flames missed us by inches. I picked up a rock to my feet and threw it at the one closest to my sister, but he breached it away as if chasing away a comodo-rhino calf. Zula whimpered in fear, one of them…" He gritted his teeth, "That coward stood right behind us, there was no chance for us to see him," 'Then how did you know he was there?' "He started to bend, but it was unlike anything I've ever seen. There were no flames, no sparks… And Zula started to scream. I was so scared."
A whisper, the whisper of a young boy having seen too much and Hakoda couldn't help but feel sympathy. A century of war had damaged everyone, even the royal family of a country he despised.
"I charged, but… I was thrust aside, and their leader, I'm sure he was... He was standing a few feet away from us. Agni, I'll never forget that voice… He said, 'Struck her down first. Ignore him, he's useless.'" Painfully, golden eyes disappeared twice over: he closed them and lowered his head. Attacked by assassins, but what hurt the most, was to be declared useless. Typical Fire Nation pride. "My sister was about to die, just because I couldn't…" Maybe, it had nothing to do with pride at all. "Suddenly, we heard someone scream: one of the servants and several guards had seen us and came closer. For a moment, I felt safe…relieved. But the leader lifted both arms and performed a bending form I never saw before. The guards fell, every single one of them, just like Kira and Karou. Then, he turned looking straight at me. I was unable to see him for his face and body were cloaked…" Zuko's breath hitched, the slim body shook like a leaf, "It hurt so horribly much. Nothing ever compared to this. Nothing. Not even… Then it stopped. An arc of fire parted the air and there was Father."
Fire Lord Ozai had been mentioned in Hakoda's presence a thousand times. Never had he heard his name spoken with that much affection and respect. The love of a son for his father. It gave him unease.
"They didn't fight. Didn't dare. They were cowards attacking children, but facing my father and uncle when they were scared for our lives… No. As quickly as they'd come, they vanished. Those were the Moyasu Karada. Slaughterers. Enemies to the Fire Nation. Not the kind of enemies you'd ever want to gain as allies," he added when he saw Sokka's busy mind already plotting his next move, "That day changed things. She was never the same after that."
So that was the day, when Zula became Azula in Zuko's eyes.
Hakoda didn't really want to feel sympathy for the family who'd caused this much evil. But seeing the prince's sad eyes, it was very hard not to.
A/N I'm not sure yet whether I should write a sequel to this. It can stand for itself, but it doesn't have to.
Thanks for reading. Please, review.
Dear MissGoali75: I'm not sure if you read this, but just in case: Sorry for running this past you, but I don't want to burden you with yet another story. Your advice is always welcome, though. As you know :)