Ozai was angry, sitting on his throne and glaring at nothing in his throne room. It had been two years since Zuko's banishment and nothing about it had gone as planned. He had seen Zuko speaking out as a way to finally be rid of the weakling, knowing the boy would be to much of a coward to actually fight against him but instead he had fought against Iroh and that had ended in his humiliating defeat against his brother.
Not only that but the follow up attempt of following through with calling the boy a coward for not fighting ended in him being scarred for life much like his son. He had been completely decimated against his brother's wrath. He hated showing weakness and hundreds saw weakness that day. Before fighting an Agni Kai was thrill for him showing the weak he was more powerful than them but now it had been spoiled anything being worn during Agni Kai was forbidden even the allowance for pants was fairly recent. Even he couldn't get away with wearing a shirt while fighting in one and that meant his defeat had to be shown to the world every time.
Not to mention the truth of what happened getting out, somehow word had gotten around the capital and from there the rest of the nation that he banished his son for daring to speak his mind and speak in defense of his own people.
The final nail in the coffin that completely ruined what should have been a victory was the arrival of the 41st division which swore allegiance to his banished son. Making what should have been a message that he was destined for failure be ruined by the arrival of a small fleet in which every ship swore to follow him. Everything about that day went poorly for him, his son left with a small army at his back, his weakness was told to the world and the only good thing to come out of this was that Iroh was no longer in the capital.
Azula was confused her entire life her father had told her that fear was the greatest way to rule, that respect whither but fear lasted forever. Yet for years now that view had been challenged, those men who followed her brother did so not out of fear but respect and admiration both things her father called useless. It wasn't fear that made Iroh so well respect but kindness, and the brother of the Fire Lord was far more powerful than her father. That was made clear in the one sided fight that led to her brother being banished. Yet she could see her father still was not as feared as he used to be, nobles who used to fear so much as hinting they were against one of his idea now openly talked about his mistakes and it seemed the harder he tried to instil fear the less of it there was.
Those men who followed her brother would fight to the end for him, he had earned their admiration from kindness. His decision to make what her father called a foolish and weak will decision led to the fire lord's position weakening, the so called disgraced and banished prince being greatly respected and the fallen dragon holding such great influence that her father feared him even now.
To clear up her confusion she decided to ask the one person she knew who would never lie to her.
"Harry?" she called walking into his room without knocking as always.
Harry put something that looked like a pai sho tile back into a small pouch. "I could have been changing you know." he pointed out but she just waved a dismissive hand.
"If I had seen anything I merely would have had you beheaded for daring to defile my innocence." Harry laughed at the idea of Azula being innocent he was pretty sure her first word was conquer, that or power.
"What's so amusing?" she asked with an elegantly raised eyebrow. "Are you implying your princess isn't innocent?" a subtle threat under voice.
"Of course not you are the embodiment of innocence." he said with heavy sarcasm.
"I don't know if I believe you?"
"Why wouldn't you it isn't as if innocent Lala has ever done anything wrong." Azula growled at the nickname that despite her best efforts Harry continued to use. She and Zuko had come to an agreement she stopped calling him Zuzu and he would stop calling her Lala. But with Harry no such agreement could be made, he enjoyed far too much watching her react to the nickname.
She took a deep breath and got back on track. "Any way I have a question for you." she said suddenly feeling uncomfortable, a foreign feeling for her. She was a princess people should fear her not the other way around.
"What is it?" Harry questioned, noticing Azula's sudden nervousness.
"Do you fear me?" she asked.
Harry laughed. "Of course I'm scared of you I still think you sometimes stand over me with a pillow at night deciding if you want to kill me or not." Azula smiled in amusement for a brief moment before it vanished.
"I'm being serious here." she repeated. "Are you scared of me?"
Harry sighed and looked at placing one hand over her own. "Azula I'm not scared of you. You're my friend."
"Than why are so loyal to me? why do you do as I say?" a normal person would say because she was their princess or she was royalty but she knew he didn't care about that.
"Because I care for you. Azula why do you think Iroh fought for Zuko?"
"Because he is family." she answered. "And he believes that sentimental stuff about family." she told him.
"Your father says things like that are a weakness but think about this how do people speak of Iroh even now?"
Azula considered it. "They speak of him with respect talking about how kind he is and fair." she stood up. "Thank you." she said it was rare for her to hand out genuine compliments even to Harry. She walked out of the room having realized something.
Being fire lord held no real power not if people didn't respect you. Her uncle had to spend easily four times as much time to gain the amount of respect her father commanded through fear but fear of her father was waning and with it respect on the other hand Iroh had been essentially banished along side his nephew and he was still respected far more than her father. Those men followed her brother out of respect for his kindness. The men who feared her father would die for him, the men who respected her brother would walk through hell for him.
Harry was conflicted. He pulled out the pai sho tile that he put into the bag earlier. It was given to him by Iroh just before he left, and in his room he found a letter explaining the tile and it's meaning. "The white lotus." he muttered looking down at the tile. The question was simple what was more important to him doing what was right or love. A simple question with an impossible answer in a perfect world he wouldn't have to chose but then again in a perfect world this war would have never happened. He placed the tile back in his bag and rolled over feeling unsettled.
Zuko was content and he felt strange about that he knew that he should have felt angry, ashamed and a thousand other things. But even here on the edge of fire nation territory he was content. He still had desire to go home to return as his father's heir but he also didn't feel as rushed as when he first started his mission. He realized shortly after his mission began that his father wanted him to fail to be rid of him.
"You sister was born lucky." Ozai said before sneering at his son. "You? You were lucky to be born."
He was snapped out of his thoughts by the screams of a crowd, he looked around the market place and a crowd had formed around an injured young man. "Lee what happened?" asked one of the men in the crowd.
"Bandits they took her!" he exclaimed looking down feeling ashamed.
"Who did they take?" Zuko asked pushing his way to the front of the crowd.
"My sister." the man said not caring that he wasn't showing proper respect to a royal.
"What about your father and mother?" the same man ask and tears welled up in the young man's eyes.
"Gone." he forced out with a choked sob.
His men looked to him, technically they were forbidden from leaving him unguarded but in the time it would take to get him back to the ship and get back here they bandits would be long gone. "Which way did they go?" Zuko asked kneeling next to the man.
Zuko stood. "Find those bandits." Zuko ordered and one of his men stepped forward.
"My prince we can not leave you unguarded." there were only six of them here at least three would have to stay behind. That would not leave much for searching for bandits that knew the area better than them.
"I know." Zuko said jumping on top of his mount. "That is why I shall be going with you." his men looked at him in surprise.
"My lord?" one of said not believing what he heard a noble risking his life for a commoner. They knew he was a step above the rest of the nobles by speaking out on behalf of them but to risk his life for some random commoner.
"Hurry up or we will lose them." Zuko said before taking off and his men scrambled on top on their mounts to catch up with him.
The bandits were careless in how they retreated clearly believing that nothing could touch them this far out in the middle of nowhere.
"Hey there pretty little thing." one of the men said to the girl they had taken pushing her to the ground with a stick as she glanced around scared tied up while the men leered at her. "How about we have some fun?" he asked if it wasn't for his tone of voice and leer she would have assumed he was just another drunk coming home from the tavern but this wasn't the tavern and he wasn't going to dealt with by her father. Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered the fate of her father.
"Looks like she is going to cry." one man laughed.
"Don't worry I'll give her something to smile about." the man said as he began to pull at his pants. But before anything could happen a crossbow bolt slammed into his throat the man collapsed to the ground gurgling blood. The bandits jumped to their feet weapons in hand immediately on guard. It wasn't to rare for some heroic idiot to think he could beat them and try take them on.
Them being prepared for the attack didn't help them in the slightest. From the woods burst a man riding an ostrich horse on the left side of his face was a horrible burn, but despite that in his armor he looked regal. He jumped from his ostrich horse and kicked one of the men in the head with his boot taking him out of the fight before sending a burst of fire in the face of another. As one man came up behind him another crossbow bolt shot out of the woods and impaled him in the head. More armored men burst forth from the woods and began to take down the rest of the bandits. Not that she noticed her attention was solely on the man who saved her as he fought gracefully through the half dozen bandits, taking them down with ease.
Zuko grabbed the last bandit by the wrist as he lunged at him with a dagger. Yanking him forward he chopped the bandit in the neck with his hand causing him to collapse to the ground holding his throat. Zuko heard a sigh of relief and turned to see the girl who had rescued lying on the ground. He bent down and moved her into an upright position before burning the ropes to set her free. "Are you alright?" he asked.
The girl blushed and nodded. "Yes thank you."
"Chen!" the injured young man called once he saw his sister.
"Lee!" she exclaimed rushing up to her brother and embracing him.
"Ow!" he exclaimed as his injuries were aggravated.
"Sorry." she said pulling back, feeling guilty remembering he was hurt trying to protect her.
"Hey it's alright." he said pulling her back into the hug with one arm. He turned to Zuko. "Thank you." he rose from the bed he was resting on and gave a short bow.
"You're welcome." Zuko nodded back feeling a little uncomfortable with affection the family was showing each other. A foreign sight in his own family.
As he headed for the door he felt something grab his sleeve turning around he saw it was Chen. "thank you." she said leaning over and giving him a kiss on the cheek. Zuko felt a small blush overcome his cheeks and quickly moved out of the room.
His men saw his blush and noticed him rub his cheek. "My lord is everything alright?" one of his men asked with a grin.
"Fine!" he snapped his blush slightly deepening. "Let's get back to the ship." he men followed exchanging amused looks it was funny to see the prince finally acting like every other boy his age.
Iroh was happy, he realized now that Hara was right. By allowing Ozai to continue his evil merely because he was waiting for the avatar was no excuse. Yes patience was important, but he wasn't waiting for the right time to strike but rather waiting for the avatar to come and solve the problem for them.
Watching his nephew slowly getting drunk as his own men pour just a little more alcohol into his drinks when he wasn't paying attention. He smiled when the men froze seeing him looking at them as they poured more alcohol into Zuko's goblet, but he merely raised his own in a toast and took a drink. When Zuko had first gotten on the ship for all his gratefulness of the men following him, he was still distant acting as a noble would normally. As time went on he slowly became closer to the crew of his ship but even than he was still distant. But now it seemed that last little barrier had been broken and he was sitting with talking, smiling and acting happier than he had seen him in a long time.
His thoughts turned to his adopted son Hara or Harry as he preferred. He didn't regret giving him the lotus tile the boy had more than earned it. He was also grateful because though he didn't believe Zuko needed the validation of anyone, he was happy to know that he nephew wouldn't have to deal with scorn from his scar and banishment. He truly did believe his adopted son would be a force for good, he had seen it. Azula had been following her father's destructive past even as a little girl Ozai had encouraged her to be cruel only giving her validation when she was. But Harry didn't have any of the fear her friends did nor any of the bitterness that Zuko held from her father favoring her. He was her friend for no other reason than that.
He laughed in amusement as he nephew tripped over a table and said he was going to destroy it to restore his honor. Yes he was happy.
DONE! also honor jokes! and lastly we see the conflict building up in azula and Harry and we also that Zuko is more content less rushed to return home. things are changing.