As they walked, the Avatar filled Zuko in on how the fight went. About the ‘Freedom Fighters’ and how they had managed to take down the entire squad in a couple of minutes. That was rather impressive for a group of what were clearly non-Benders.
Zuko couldn’t help but perk up when the Avatar mentioned the leader’s -Jet’s- impressive swordsmanship. At the moment, Uncle (as well as Master Piandao, who had trained him) was the only one who knew about his own skill in swordsmanship. He hadn’t practiced in a while, though. It would be useless to go against a master of all four elements with a sword.
(It would also be essentially useless to go against a master of all four elements with just one, but Zuko didn’t dare to think about that. Father entrusted him with the mission, Zuko wouldn’t let him down)
From the way it sounded, Jet’s style was one Zuko had not studied. Hooked swords were also something he had never heard of before. He couldn’t wait to watch him fight.
“How do you know the Fire Nation’s native language, well, the one that every Fire Nation citizen has to learn?” The Avatar looked up at Zuko, then down at his feet.
“My friend Kuzon was from the Fire Nation. He taught me. And the monks thought it would be a good idea for the Avatar to know as many languages as possible.”
That made sense. Zuko was fairly certain he’d heard the Avatar talk about his past friends before. Zuko wondered where Kuzon’s family were now. If they had been publicly close with the Avatar, they were probably dead.
A month ago, Zuko wouldn’t have been bothered by that, so why was he filled with sadness at the thought? He was going soft.
(He refused to think about a twelve-year-old being killed because he had friends. Refused to wonder how many children the Fire Nation had killed)
Zuko was on top of the bison, with the Avatar leading them, so they arrived at the squad camp after about five minutes.
There were barrels of what were probably blasting jelly stacked next to boxes of something Zuko didn’t know. Most likely food. A group of about six children from very young to late teen were sitting in a circle with the water boy and girl.
If Zuko was going to be staying with the group for a while, he was going to need better names for them than water boy and water girl. Not their real names of course, that would imply emotional attachment and he couldn’t allow that, even in the privacy of his own mind.
A rather good looking boy –or he would be good looking, if there weren’t a stick of wheat in his mouth- looked up at their arrival. He smirked in a way Zuko wasn’t sure whether to trust and stood up.
“Aang, there you are. Who’s your friend?” Zuko resisted snapping at mouth-wheat. He and the Avatar weren’t friends (although, Zuko was wondering if he wanted to take up the Avatar’s offer). The Avatar grinned.
“This is Li. Li, this is Jet.” So mouth-wheat was in charge. He wasn’t a very good role model. Having a stalk of wheat in your mouth was unhygienic, unhealthy and unsafe. Mouth-wheat, Jet, walked over and held a hand out to shake.
“Nice to meet you, Li.” Zuko didn’t trust the look on his face. He was also uncomfortable with the way the boy looked at his scar, though Zuko was used to that by now. He was honestly surprised that the Avatar and his friends barely payed attention to it after that first night. It was freeing.
“That’s a bad scar.” Zuko resisted the urge to growl but couldn’t help scowling and ducking that side of his face away from mouth-wheat’s sight. Mouth-wheat sighed and stepped back, looking at the other children in the group.
“The Fire Nation took everything from us. Our families, our homes, our childhoods.” By now, everyone was listening to what mouth-wheat was saying. He seemed to have that kind of effect on people. Like Azula. Zuko didn’t trust him, even if he seemed genuine. “That’s why we do what we do. We’re fighting to make a difference.” The water girl -hair-loops sounded alright- walked up and placed a hand on mouth-wheat’s shoulder.
“Sokka and I lost our mother to the Fire Nation.” Zuko didn’t know that. Had they really attacked that recently? Zuko would have thought that when it became clear the Water Tribe didn’t have the Avatar, the Fire Nation left them alone. The sincerity in hair-loop’s face and voice, and the sadness in the water boy’s –he was going to be boomerang- expression, told him he was wrong.
Thinking about it, it made sense if the ones who attacked were like Zhao. Many of the higher-ranking soldiers were like Zhao. Zuko had seen them destroy entire towns when they didn’t get what they wanted. Zuko had never liked when they killed innocents.
He needed to stop thinking like that. They were traitor thoughts. Anyone who didn’t see the Fire Nation’s greatness deserved what they got.
But… children didn’t deserve to die. Civilians shouldn’t have to pay for their military’s decisions. He had seen children’s skeletons in every Air Temple he visited. At the time he had thought it was necessary, to make sure the Avatar wouldn’t return. But the Avatar was right next to him, and there were hundreds of people who didn’t deserve to be killed now nothing more than bone.
The Avatar was a child. He laughed at Boomerang’s terrible jokes. He refused to eat meat. Zuko isn’t sure what made an entire Nation so scared that they committed genocide (because that’s what it was, not a tactical victory, genocide) to make sure this child would never have the chance to grow up.
He was thinking traitor thoughts, but he wasn’t in the Fire Nation. He was in the middle of a group of children who had lost everything to his people. Maybe it was okay to start thinking traitor thoughts here. Maybe, if he did, things would start to make more sense.