Kohaku watched with narrow eyes as Iroh walked in with Zuko at his side. He watched as his twin looked around with bright and stupid eyes, taking in everything around him. It made Kohaku want to poke them out.
Wordlessly, Zuko's eyes fell on his, and he jolted, startled. Kohaku was, after all, seated at his father's right hand on the dais. The flames were banked low, and both father and son were clear and visible.
When Kohaku grinned at Zuko, hoping to make him sweat, Zuko instead pressed his mouth closed and swallowed. He narrowed his light eyes and raised his head; it was clear that he felt he belonged there, just as much as his twin did. Kohaku wanted to laugh in his face, tell him that he had probably only gotten in there with Iroh's pity, but he said nothing. Anyone below the dais was therefore below him, and any words wasted on them were wasted for life.
Ozai rose and held up a hand, and the murmurs of the various generals fell silent. When Ozai sat down once more, so did the men. Kohaku's eyes stayed on Zuko, watching him sit down with a rail-straight back, his face excited.
As the meeting progressed - mostly standard things, like various reports from the colonies and occupations - Zuko's face lost its excitement, but gained a sort of sharpness, his eyes darting from man to man as the words were spoken. He seemed to be absorbing every single thing said, eager to learn. Kohaku wanted to roll his eyes; his brother was such a green little amateur.
It was only when one of the men brought up a rather controversial plan that Zuko's expression changed, from fascination - to pure shock. Kohaku raised a brow, marvelling at this; after all, what the general was suggesting was actually rather routine. Conscription, as well as equal-sex opportunities within the army, kept the soldier population flowing, and it was pretty normal to use the less trained or less intelligent as targets. What else would they be of use for?
Zuko's eyes blazed as the plan progressed, his eyebrows drawn close and his hands shaking in his lap. Kohaku watched with a tiny grin, barely able to pay attention to the plans going on. It was as if he could foresee what was going to happen - it was like it was racing through his blood, the knowledge that Zuko was going to speak up. It was so like his brother to be weak-willed like that - so why wouldn't he be so now?
But to his surprise, Zuko kept his mouth shut. His eyes shone, his cheeks went red, and his hands clenched together in his lap, but his mouth stayed pressed together.
Kohaku had to admit his disappointment.
However, once the meeting was dismissed and the men got to their feet and walked out, Zuko stayed kneeling on the floor, his eyes fixed on the map before him. As Ozai stood up and waved his hands to lower the flames, his eyes fell on his youngest son still seated there. Wordlessly, Zuko looked up, and their eyes met. For a moment, Kohaku felt as if he was no longer in the room - the gaze was that exclusive.
Zuko stood up and turned to Ozai, showing no sign of deference. "Why did you allow it, Father?" he said softly, his voice wavering. "Why did you accept that plan?"
Ozai blinked slowly. Kohaku stared at him, knowing what it meant: that Ozai was surprised into speechlessness.
"Those men and women fight for the Fire Nation," Zuko went on, his hands clenched at his fists. "They trust and love us. They fight for our victory, fight for what is right. Why did you accept that plan?"
A flash of movement startled Kohaku, and he followed it, noticing, with some confusion, that Iroh was standing in the doorway, looking blank and silent.
"Are you questioning my order?" Ozai wondered idly, his face a careful mask of bemusement. Kohaku knew it was a lie, and that his father was furious.
Zuko blinked, leaning back a little, pressing his lips close again. He swallowed hard, looking down for a moment, as if thinking about what to say.
But it only lasted a moment. He then looked back up, his eyes narrowed, his face crumpled in his rage. "Yes!" he snapped, his voice suddenly loud. "Yes, I'm questioning it! You sentenced them to death, and for what? Because they're not your idea of perfect? Because your men are too lazy to try and train them to be better? You treat them like fodder! Why, Father?"
Kohaku stared at his twin like he had never seen him before. And maybe he never really had.
Zuko didn't know what caused him to speak to his own father like that. He had never raised his voice to anyone before, really - not like that. And to his own father? It seemed... like it was another time, and he was a different person. Maybe?
And yet, he had never felt more alive.
Ozai stood there without moving for a long moment. Kohaku, at his side, was staring at him one moment, then Zuko the next. Zuko would have liked to take pleasure in utterly confounding his brother, but all he could feel was cold, frozen shock deep in his gut.
Then, Ozai said, "So you challenge the plan, then, Prince Zuko?"
Again, Zuko hesitated. Do I really want to do this? Uncle did say to keep silent... I wasn't even supposed to be there... I don't really know how things work in war...
But then all he had to picture in his mind was the plan going into action, and he felt so sick that he had to swallow hard.
"Y-yes," he answered, unable to keep his voice from catching. "I do."
"Very well," Ozai replied calmly, folding his hands in front of him. "Then I expect that you would be willing to defend your opinion?" Zuko blinked, and Ozai went on, still in that calm voice. "I assume, then, you are so set in your opinion that you would be willing to engage in an Agni Kai to defend it?"
The blood left Zuko's face in one fell swoop, so quickly that he felt as if he would faint. A duel? A firebending duel? I've barely managed the basics... I can't win a duel!
But then he remembered that the general who had spoken about the plan at length was old, well past his prime. Surely, then, didn't that mean that he would be easy to best, even just by using his own agility?
And if he won, the plan would not happen. He would be preventing an injustice.
"F-fine," he grated out. "I accept."
Ozai smiled thinly. For years, it would haunt Zuko's dreams.
Zuko knelt to the ground, his eyes closed. He knew his thoughts were supposed to be on nothing, or at worst, on the fire in his veins, but all he could think about was how scared he really was. While he knew that he would probably escape being seriously hurt, feeling the hundreds of eyes on him didn't help his nerves one bit. Especially since, he knew, Azula and Iroh were in the audience - and probably Kohaku, laughing at this whole thing until he was sick.
The ceremonial gong was hit, and Zuko stood up slowly, turning and raising his hands as the mantle fell from his shoulders. His eyes fell on his opponent, and he froze, something like a jolt shooting right into his gut.
Standing there, in a similar pose, was Kohaku.
From his place in the audience, seated beside Azula, Iroh watched as his nephews turned to face each other, a wave of dismay sweeping through him. At worst, Iroh had assumed that Zuko would have to fight Ozai himself - but Kohaku?
It made no sense.
With frozen shock, he watched it all, a sick fascination keeping him from looking away.
Kohaku watched Zuko balk visibly, his eyes going wide and his stance hunching over. A tinge of excitement coursed through him, unable to keep the small smile on his face.
He had to hand it to his father, really. It was such a brilliant idea, having Kohaku face Zuko instead of risking the general.
"You're my heir, the future of the Fire Nation," Ozai had said. "Things like this will come up several times - sometimes even from family. If you harden your heart now, teach him a lesson now, he will never rise up against you ever again."
Now, seeing Zuko cower before him. he realised just how right Ozai was.
"Kohaku," Zuko croaked out, looking wilted and pathetic before him. "What are you doing here? Why are you here?"
Kohaku shrugged one shoulder, slowly making his way over to him. He wanted to draw this out, wanted the lesson to be crystal clear. Maybe then, Zuko will finally grow up.
"You can't be serious," Zuko stammered, his hands held out before him, his face drawn in fear. They both knew who the better bender was, and they both knew who would win if it came down to it. "You can't honestly agree with what the general said!"
"Of course I do," Kohaku replied, stopping a foot before him, so close that he could see just how badly he shook. "We're so close to winning this war. If we have to use a few for the greater good, then what of it?"
Zuko hands lowered slowly. "Kohaku, you can't be serious."
"I haven't been more serious before in my whole life," was the reply. He held up his hands, lowering himself into a stance. "Get ready, brother."
Zuko shook his head. "No. I won't fight you. We shouldn't fight over this."
"We should, and will." Kohaku's temper flared just a bit. "Get into stance!"
Zuko stood up straight, looking at his brother with a pale face. He was scared - terrified, really - but he wouldn't move. Instead, he just stared at Kohaku, looking... unusual. Strange.
Pity. Is that pity? Is Zuko, the weakling, actually pitying me?
It was so unbelievable that he almost laughed. Instead, he held out his hand, a ball of fire sputtering to life over his palm. He smiled, a wide and unrestrained smile.
Zuko leaned back, looking shocked. "Don't, Kohaku," he pleaded, lowering himself to his knees, his hands out. "Don't. We shouldn't fight like this. You know this is wrong!"
"Dad thinks you should learn respect, Zuko," Kohaku replied, a surge of glee bringing him closer, the flames upon his hand leaping higher. "He thought that just by beating you at a duel it would teach you. But I think you need a more... permanent... reminder."
Zuko looked up in shock. It was just the opening he needed. With a shout, Kohaku's hand came forward, the flames leaping from his hand. It was a blaze of heat and flame, one that grew so bright it almost blinded him. But the sound of Zuko's screaming was enough to know his aim was true.
Zuko was banished the very same afternoon. He had no idea that the formal declaration was issued before thousands of people by his father. He was unconscious for days following.
When he woke, only his right eye would open. With a sick shudder, he remembered what had happened, how happy Kohaku had looked when exacting his "lesson".
He shut his eye tight, suddenly realising that nothing had been done, and those soldiers still would die.
Iroh was the one who told him the news. It was a week after the Agni Kai, one of the few days that Zuko found himself able to stay awake and walk around without blacking out.
When he heard it, he stood there, his hand cupped around a cup of cold water. His face went ashen, his eye filling with tears.
"Zuko?" Iroh said gently, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. Zuko jerked away, setting down the cup. The water within it was boiling.
The ship was small and woebegone. He hated it on the spot.
"Think of the good things, Prince Zuko," Iroh said gently, standing at his side. "A smaller ship can go several places that larger ones cannot. You will be able to find much more on a smaller ship."
Zuko grunted, looking away. He was grateful for Iroh, grateful that he wouldn't be sent out with a complete crew of strangers - but only deep down. In reality, he felt angry, furious that Iroh had to suffer his exile with him. He had no idea that it hadn't been an order, and that Iroh himself had forced his way to his side.
If he had, he would have resented it. He was done depending on people. It was clear that the only one he could depend on was himself.
"Let's just go," he snapped, storming up the ramp without looking back to see if Iroh followed. "The sooner we get this over with, the better."