Send his eldest, his discredited heir, to wander the world with only his brother – his failed brother, his pathetic brother, the brother whose name still at times outstripped his own, the brother who hid who knew what plots and schemes under tea and Pai Sho?
Ozai was many things, but a complete fool he was not.
Zuko wanted to protect his people. Very well. He would let the Home Guard have the foolish child, safely out of his Uncle's influence, and Ozai could wash his hands of the boy.
He knew they were coming.
Zuko made his way through the rubble and the blood, and fought the urge to scream.
He knew they were coming, and he let them.
Strategically, he could understand why. A joint enterprise by the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes – odds were, the Avatar had thrown every resource he could into this one hit. By letting the invasion come, Ozai had successfully cornered and captured the ringleaders of what was, most likely, the only resistance left, with Ba Sing Se fallen and the North Pole too secure inside their walls to risk venturing out.
He knew they were coming, and he didn't warn us.
The Home Guard were not stupid, dammit! A little warning, some shuffling of tactics – if they'd just known the plan was to let the invaders in and pincer them, they could have helped! The invaders had been… not overconfident so much as focused. So intent on getting past those first lines of defense that they hadn't paid attention.
If they'd known what was going on, Zuko's people could have put up a token defense, made it look like they were forced to give way, and pulled back before they took any heavy losses.
They hadn't known. So they'd stood – they'd died – defending their Fire Lord.
Their Fire Lord who'd never been in danger in the first place, because he wasn't even there.
He knew they were coming!
He blinked, realizing that he was staring up the slope to the caldera – and that his jaw hurt from gritted teeth, and sparks were beginning to strike around his clenched hands. Dammit. Focus – your people need you, not your damn temper.
He inhaled, held it for a few moments, then slowly exhaled, trying to let the anger escape with the steam streaming from his mouth. He turned.
"Comman… Acting Captain Karin?" Captain Zhen had died at the Palace Road Gate, half her chest crushed by earthbent-stone. Agni, her daughters had visited barely a week or two ago to celebrate the solstice – she'd threatened to drag him to the party "because my sons are away and my husband needs another man to commiserate with."
She'd been the one to take a shocked and scarred prince in hand, and turn his punishment into a calling to care for his people. Even when it was grim, even when it was thankless, even when it hurt to know that his father considered him worthless, to be shunted aside and forgotten.
How the hell do I tell them she's gone?
"We've secured the last of the invaders, sir. What are our orders?"
"Leaders are to be turned over to Lieutenant-General Bai's men," Zuko said, courteously ignoring the way the field-promoted Captain's dark eyes turned even darker and more distant at the name. Officers like Bai were exactly why many of the Home Guard avoided command positions like the plague.
The Home Guard would die for the Fire Nation. They didn't need to be mocked for it.
The Home Guard had died…
Enough. His mind wasn't on task. He closed his eyes and breathed. "For the others… see that the wounded are treated and that benders are secured, and prepare them for transport to holding facilities. Professionally. They're prisoners of war. Make sure that those assigned to the prisoners are prepared to remember that, and treat them with respect."
"Sir." By the set of Karin's face, anyone who 'forgot' the obligations of being civilized would have to deal with her in person. Good.
Zuko looked out over the bay. "Coordinate with Akihama and Ishigura for reinforcements. And find technicians to look over the walls here, soon. I do not want them coming down on our heads."
"Sir." Karin snapped a salute, then paused with uncharacteristic hesitation. "The casualty reports should be coming in soon."
Zuko swallowed. "…send them by messenger hawk. I need to report to the palace." To ask what the hell Father was thinking…
"My prince," Karin said quietly. "If you hadn't sent the orders to stand down, our losses would have been much greater. You did well today."
I didn't do enough! Zuko didn't shout it. He'd learned a few things about keeping thoughts behind his teeth since that Agni Kai. But Agni, his heart was still pounding from that terrifying realization of how badly his people had been betrayed, the need to warn them, Fire Lord safe. Eclipse immanent. Withdraw or surrender.
Don't die for nothing…
Candle flames sputtered, reflecting the chaos that Zuko couldn't show on the outside.
Zuko focused on forcing the taut muscles of his back and shoulders to relax; they'd stiffened over the course of the evening to rough-wrought iron knots, as he listened to Ozai and Azula and the generals congratulating themselves on a job well done.
Although Ozai had made a point of reprimanding him – and by extension, the Guard – for failing to stop the invading army at Azulon's Gate, or in the port.
As if the Army and Palace Guard did any better, once they got past us. As if you ever expected them to.
You never meant us to be able to stop them.
Oh, but it was more than that. His father had not only known about the invasion plan from its inception – he'd quietly tracked the Avatar, minor civil disturbance by minor civil disturbance, across the entire nation.
He knew where the Avatar was the whole time. He could have stopped him any time he wanted.
He wanted the invasion to happen.
At least the Avatar and his friends had done something Zuko had wanted to do for years – taken out that damn factory on the river near Kawanaka. Those people were poisoned and starving. Surely something could have been done?
But Ozai had forbidden his son to interfere with anything pertaining to the war effort in the Earth Kingdom. Resources were too limited, he'd made quite clear, to cater to the delicate sensibilities of a cowardly prince with no greater vision, no stomach for true battle.
While Azula gallivanted all over the Earth Kingdom – does she think that tanks grow on trees or something?
For all he knew, she might. Certainly Azula had never fought bureaucrats, merchants, and scant resources to try and equip an "insignificant," "unnecessary" force. The war and Father's favorite had never wanted for ready-made tools to hand.
Despite his best efforts, Zuko's hands clenched, and the flames roared up.
And that's exactly what this was, wasn't it. A tool.
Let the invasion happen. Let people die.
And then… the Avatar got away. He might do it again.
Make the people angry. Make them scared. Feed the fury and the fear until the people will agree to anything, so long as it makes them feel safe again. Then they'll cheer you as you set out to…
And what does it cost you? A few dead – and most of the dead were the Home Guard. The back lines. The ones who protect our people.
They're not army. They don't bring you glory.
So they don't matter.
Zuko's shoulders slumped as he pressed his hands against his face – though even that couldn't take the knowledge of that list resting at his desk, the names that would have to become letters, explaining that a mother, sister, daughter, father, brother, son wouldn't be coming home.
Agni. The Avatar cares for our people more than the Fire Lord does.
I wish Uncle were here.
But Uncle worries about the world. I… can't.
I care about my people.
And this war is killing us.
He stood up. Exhaled.
The candle flames went out.
Prince Zuko's smile matched the darkness – grim, determined, absolute.
Not on my watch.
"What about him?"
Following the earthbender's pointing finger, the group turned.
Zuko let them take in the sight of him: an armed, armored soldier in red and black – and gold, if they recognized the significance – standing "at ease" as he waited for them to notice his presence. Watched as they jumped, yelped, and reached for weapons. Don't react, he thought, watching the water swirling in particular, and remembering Uncle Iroh's odd philosophy lessons. Airbenders and earthbenders could start a move and then hold it – earth because holding fast was its strength, air because it liked to move. Water, though… water was like fire; once you started a move, you had to keep it going or finish it. If anyone was going to lash out immediately, then, it would be the waterbender.
But for that minute, they were too startled, too off-balance.
Best chance you're going to get. Use it.
He shrugged off the baldric holding his dao, and – with an internal wince and apology to the faithful weapons, but I need to make myself clear – put them on the ground, dropping to a kneeling position to do so.
Please get this, please understand this, Uncle has told me about the other nations but this is the only way I know how to talk to you…
The Water Tribe swordsman – not to mention, the only one of the group who might be even Zuko's age, and wasn't that a disturbing thought, given that he wasn't old enough to enlist? But the blue-eyed boy was eyeing him with a mix of skepticism, disbelief, and open curiosity, and waving his friends to stand down. "Hold up, guys. I don't think he's here to fight."
"Thank you," Zuko said, and grimaced when he had to clear his throat. An iron hand of tension was squeezing, and he'd probably be shaking if so much weren't riding on doing this right.
He reached up, pulled off the helmet, and set it aside.
Then he looked the Avatar squarely in the eyes, set his hands on the ground, and bowed like in the Agni Kai, please let this time be different!
"Avatar Aang? My name is Zuko. I… I want to help you."
AN: As a child, Zuko was headstrong, sheltered, idealistic, and honestly good-intentioned. If he'd been put in a position where those unfortunate scruples of caring about the fate of the people beneath him were encouraged…