Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar the Last Airbender
Zuko peered up at the wall of flames in front of him. He knew that somewhere behind that wall sat his father, silently processing Zuko's most recent military failure. Zuko knew that his father must have received a message several days before Zuko's arrival, which explained his father's calm exterior. If he squinted he could make out his father's figure through the flames as the flickered. He struggled to keep his feet from falling asleep under him as he continued kneeling in silence, preparing to dodge an onslaught of fireballs that may come at any moment.
"I knew that your promotion to Commandeer would prove to be a fatal error, however I could not have imagined even you were capable of such catastrophe." Zuko remained unmoving from his position, hoping the punishment would be quick.
"Nevertheless," continued the Fire Lord, "You are not to blame this time since it should have been obvious to Admiral Chang that you are far too weak and incompetent to take on such an ambitious endeavor." Zuko clenched his fists in an effort to contain himself. He was not weak and incompetent! The mission would have gone perfectly if their naval intelligence wasn't so careless. . . Zuko shook his head and tried to stop his thoughts from wandering. His father was still speaking. "I went along with the recommendations of your commanding officers, against my better judgment. None of that matters though, since you have made it home and we can put all of this behind us."
Zuko looked up suddenly, surprised by his father's last statement. Was he off the hook that easily? It seemed too good to be true. "Thank you father for your understanding" he responded gratefully.
"As a result, I have decided free you of your naval responsibilities, since they are too much your you to handle. Instead, I have a new assignment for you."
Zuko had enjoyed his time in the navy, and felt that he was extremely accomplished after only a few years. However, he didn't dare question his father's harsh decision. He had learned never to question his father. Zuko unconsciously lifted his hand to towards his scar as his father described the new assignment. "The Southern Water Tribe is in need of a new governor, since the last one failed so miserably."
Zuko groaned inwardly. Being sent to the South Pole was almost the equivalent of being banished. It was cold, isolated, and populated by a small group of rebellious barbarians. Almost a year ago the barbarians had revolted against the fire nation colonials and cost the Fire Nation several good troops to put down the rebellion. The situation had only recently been stabilized, and the Fire Lord was eager to dismiss the governor who had caused the problem in the first place.
"I am sending you there to act as governor. I believe that this is a position more suited to your. . . talents". So his father was punishing him after all. Zuko would rather spend years at the Boiling Rock than one week in the South Pole. He would be better off officially banished. . . "You will leave in one week. Dismised".
"Yes father. Thank you father." Zuko rose slowly and walked out of the hall, his fists still clenched at his sides and his head hung in despair. For how long would he be stuck in the South Pole?
Katara hung her last clothing item on the line outside her tent. She knew if she left them to air-dry that they would freeze and she would have to thaw them and start the process over. She took several quick glances over her shoulder before bending the water out of them. Water-bending had always been illegal, but her village hadn't been closely monitored in years since the Fire Nation thought they had found all of the water benders. She was folding the now dry material when she spotted Bato making his way toward her. "Good afternoon Katara" He said as he approached. "A ship from the Fire Nation came today with mail and supplies. I brought yours" He handed her a scroll.
"Thanks Bato" She smiled up at him and took the scroll.
He stood watching her unroll it "Is it from Sokka?"
Katara nodded silently as she skimmed over the wordy letter. She was hoping he had heard something about their father who had been in prison since their last revolt. She noticed Bato still standing there waiting. "He has a lot of news, it may take a while to read. Do you want to come inside and eat? I just made stew." Bato nodded eagerly and followed her inside.
"Where is your grandmother?" asked Bato as he took a seat in front of the small fire pit.
"Taking a nap" replied Katara, gesturing to the flap in the middle that divided the two sides of the tent. "Don't worry, she's a deep sleeper." Katara ladled two bowls and sat down on the other side of the fire.
Bato nodded and tasted the stew. He made an enthusiastic 'mmm' sound to express his appreciation. This made Katara smile. She slowly ate her own stew and returned to the letter. Several moments later both bowls were empty and Katara had reread parts of the letter a few times.
"Sokka's been invited to attend Fire Nation University". Katara tried to sound excited about the news in the letter as she repeated it to Bato but she could tell from his expression that he was not pleased by the news.
"Given all the prejudice and ill-treatment he has experienced, I would have thought that he would be eager to return home". Katara shrugged her shoulders. She knew that Bato had never been happy about Water Tribe children being taught by the Fire Sages who came to settle the South Pole. He had been even less pleased when Sokka had been selected by the sages to continue his education in the Fire Nation.
"It could be a wonderful opportunity for him" Katara offered as an explanation, for herself as much as Bato. As much as she resented the Fire Nation, she couldn't deny the benefits they provided for the younger generation. Her brother loved math and science and probably would never have such an opportunity if he were stuck in the South Pole all his life. If it wasn't for their brutal oppression of bending she sometimes wondered if they might live peacefully under Fire Nation Rule. But thoughts like that felt like treason so she shook her head to clear her mind of them.
"Maybe he plans to gather intelligence on the Fire Nation that could help us finally be rid of them. Although after our last defeat I'm not sure how we will ever regroup."
"Maybe we won't have to." said Katara. "What I mean is, maybe they will leave us be now that we no longer present a threat. After all, it's been almost a year and they have not sent a new governor." Bato's face became serious then. Years of war had hardened him, and although he usually tried to present a softer side to Katara, there were times when the effects of war were painfully apparent to her.
"Don't let your guard down Katara, not ever. We ran their governor out of town, a Fire Nation nobleman. I very much doubt that they will ever simply forget about us." Katara looked down sadly.
"I know, it was just a thought"
Bato smiled faintly at her. Katara's thoughts were always hopeful. It's something he admired about her, no matter how unrealistic her hopes seemed. He took her hand gently "Don't worry Katara, I have a feeling we will see your brother sooner than you think. Then he can tell us all about the Fire Nation."
Katara nodded and thought about the conversation long after Bato left. If the Fire Nation did send a replacement governor he would have his work cut out for him. Her people may be defeated at the moment but Bato's words made here realize that they were by no means pacified.