Chapter 1: Found
Iroh remembers well the day, and indeed the very hour, that everything changed for his nephew. …That everything changed again, that is.
Several hours earlier, Zuko had rescued Iroh from a patrol of earthbending soldiers who’d captured him and had been set on bringing him to Ba Sing Se for his execution. But since then they’d been riding through the night on a trail heading north-northeast, instead of back to the ship; Zuko had said that roughly two hours before finding and rescuing him, he’d seen the Avatar’s sky bison flying in that direction. Considering Zuko’s obsession with capturing the Avatar, Iroh supposed he should be flattered that Zuko had kept on his trail and rescued him instead of immediately turning to pursue the sky bison. But still, he would have preferred that they detour to rendezvous with the ship first; he would rather have been dressed in something besides a loincloth while Zuko rode forth in yet another attempt to meet his imposed destiny.
But destiny is a funny thing. Roughly three hours before dawn, while Iroh was fighting back the latest in a series of yawns, Zuko suddenly yanked on the komodo-rhino’s reins and brought them to a halt. Unprepared for the sudden stop, Iroh nearly tumbled from the saddle before catching himself. “Nephew, what--?”
“Quiet!” Zuko hissed, his posture alert, turning his head sharply to the right. Iroh fell silent and strained to listen as well, though at first he heard nothing unusual. But he knew Zuko’s hearing was far sharper than his, so he was not surprised when Zuko suddenly dismounted and started stalking into the woods alongside the trail. Neither was Iroh overly surprised when he glimpsed something glowing though the trees, shining with an unearthly light; he’d seen that dragon-spirit the day before (with the spirit of the Avatar riding on it, he was fairly sure), and the Winter Solstice was upon them, so increased spirit activity was only to be expected. But he was quite surprised to see Zuko heading straight for that glow; Zuko had never been to the Spirit World, and did not naturally have the gift for seeing or hearing spirits. What was he…?
Iroh slipped off the saddle himself to follow his nephew and the spirit-glow, and less than ten yards off the road he heard a sound he hadn’t expected to hear at all in this wilderness: a baby crying.
A few minutes later Iroh stepped gingerly around a large razzleberry bush, taking care to avoid the thorns, and abruptly found himself looking right at a kirin; a magnificent creature that he had heard of but never seen before with his own eyes. Dragon scales over an antelope-like body; a head adorned with great whiskers as well as antlers poking up through a fiery mane; delicate hooves that could walk without disturbing a single blade of grass, an instant before plunging right through an ogre’s heart… Kirins were beings of great spiritual power, devoted to protecting the pure and innocent and punishing the wicked. But this was a kirin-spirit; what had killed such a magnificent creature? And why was it prancing back and forth like—Iroh abruptly found himself skidding to a halt and windmilling his arms, to keep himself from falling headfirst into a steep ravine. The kirin danced on the other side of the ravine, while looking down into its depths…
Depths from which Zuko’s rasping voice was emerging, along with the baby’s cries. “I heard the baby; do you need help? What are you doing down… oh no.” A small ball of fire appeared; Iroh saw his nephew hold the fire high with one hand while using the other to gently check the neck of a woman sitting in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the ravine. But Iroh could tell even from up high that Zuko would find no pulse; the woman’s eyes were staring sightlessly up into the Spirit World.
The kirin soundlessly stamped its shining hooves. Iroh called downwards, “Nephew, the baby?”
“Alive, still clinging to her skirts,” Zuko said as he snuffed out his firelight. Iroh lit fires in both hands, the better to see as Zuko reached down towards a pair of tiny hands that were already reaching out to him. His nephew stood up with the baby in his arms, whispering reassurances to it, then looked doubtfully up at the ravine side he’d slid down just before Iroh’s arrival.
The ravine walls were too steep to walk up or even climb one-handed; Zuko would need to use both hands to get out. “Nephew, you’ll need to make a sling to carry the baby in, out of your own clothing. Take off your armor and toss the pieces up here; I’ll collect them for you.”
Before he could get his armor off, Zuko had to first get the baby to let go of him; it had a firm grip around his neck and was hanging on for all its worth. Iroh could hear his nephew muttering, “Come on, let go; I can’t help you get out of here if you don’t… Sshhh, sshhh, it’s okay, I’m not going to leave you down here… ah, cinders.” Zuko called upwards, “Uncle, did you finish off the travel rations earlier?”
Iroh hadn’t quite finished them off; there were still two small, stale rice balls left. And that was probably just what this baby needed, if it had been down there long. Iroh ran back to the war-rhino and got the nearly empty pack of travel rations, and the waterskin which still had a little water left in it. He carefully let them go over the side of the ravine one at a time so Zuko could catch them one-handed, and offer them to the baby. The baby immediately grabbed for a rice ball with both hands and started eating it, allowing Zuko to set him down and start taking his armor off.
Five minutes later Iroh had a neat pile of armor at his feet, and Zuko had stripped down to his loincloth. With Iroh calling down suggestions, Zuko fashioned his undertunic and leggings into a crude sling that he tied into place on himself; he gave the baby a drink from the waterskin, then tossed it back up to his uncle before he tucked the baby into the improvised sling, made sure it was safely secured to his front and began climbing.
Once his nephew was within arm’s reach, Iroh reached down a hand to haul him up the last few feet. “Well done, nephew! Now, let’s see what we have here,” as he deftly took the baby out of the sling.
“We have a stinking mess that actually smells worse than your sandals,” Zuko said with his nose wrinkled in disgust, and a wave of his hands to indicate that the baby was all his uncle’s problem now.
“Not surprising, if it’s been down there for a while. Any idea how the mother ended up dying there?” as Iroh cradled the baby, who was now babbling soft nonsense instead of wailing like he had when Zuko had first found him.
“It looked like her leg was broken, and she’s been dead for a day or so, but not from starvation or thirst. My guess is they fell in by accident, and she suffered internal injuries as well as broke her leg in the fall,” Zuko said curtly; the curt tone failed to hide the pained shadow in his eyes, visible in the light of the full moon.
“It’s a miracle the baby wasn’t injured too. The mother likely did everything she could to shield her child while falling… Nephew, if you’ll donate your tunic sleeves to the cause, I can fashion a new loincloth for the baby and get him cleaned up,” Iroh suggested. Zuko promptly started tearing the sleeves off his undertunic while Iroh set the baby down on the forest floor and set about stripping it out of its heavily soiled clothes—make that his heavily soiled clothes; definitely a boy, and looking to be roughly a year old—and cleaning his bottom with a little water from the waterskin and some leaves stripped from a nearby bush. “Now hold still, little wiggler… oh dear, that’s a terrible rash you’ve acquired on your poor bottom; we’ll have to get that treated with some ointment… But at least you’re clean now, with some food and water in your belly; that makes things just a little better, doesn’t it? Now let’s see about getting that poor bottom covered again… There we are; that should do for a few hours,” Iroh cooed to the baby with a smile as he tied the improvised loincloth in place. He stood up again, cradling the infant just as he’d cradled Lu Ten all those years ago, already thinking about how he could fit a crib into his cabin…
And abruptly found himself face-to-muzzle with the kirin. The spirit-beast had vanished while he wasn’t looking, being preoccupied with Zuko’s discovery down in the ravine; now it was back, and looking him straight in the eyes.
The kirin lowered its antlered head briefly, to nuzzle the baby’s fine black hair; then it looked him in the eyes again, holding his gaze as it took four delicate, deliberate steps to the left…
To stand right next to Zuko. Who had paused while getting dressed again and was looking at him with his lone eyebrow raised as he asked, “Uncle, what are you staring at?”
“Ah. Well. Nephew, I think you’d better take the baby now,” Iroh said as he slowly approached, holding the baby out.
“What? Oh, no; I don’t want it!” Zuko yelped in clear dismay, backing up a step with his hands raised to ward him off.
“He’s nearly asleep now, nephew; he’ll be no trouble at all to mind. Come on, hold your arms out; why are you afraid of a child?”
As predicted, Zuko stiffened at the word ‘afraid’, his face darkening in a flush of anger, and he wordlessly held his arms out for the baby. Iroh carefully transferred the baby into Zuko’s arms, with a murmur of “Easy now… Here, set him so he can lean on your shoulder. It’s just as well that you hadn’t put all your armor back on; your tunic will be more comfortable for him.”
Zuko did as he suggested, but still muttered querulously, “Why are you making me hold him? I don’t know anything about babies!”
“But you were the first to find this little one and hold him, and give him food and water. The baby already trusts you; he will sleep easier in your arms than he would in mine,” Iroh answered him while watching out of the corner of his eye as the kirin nodded in apparent satisfaction, then trotted away soundlessly over the grass until it abruptly faded from view, returning to the Spirit World.
Iroh knelt at the edge of the ravine, a full formal bow to show respect for the dead, and Zuko awkwardly got to his knees beside him as he said solemnly, “Young Earth Kingdom mother, may Oma and Shu guide you on your journey to the Spirit World. You may rest in peace, knowing that your child survives and will be cared for. We give our royal oaths that we shall see the boy placed in caring hands and raised to honor you. As Agni is our witness,” he finished with a quick glance sideways at Zuko.
“As Agni is our witness; we promise to see him cared for,” Zuko said with a mixture of discomfort and determination.
They rose to their feet together; then Iroh gestured for Zuko to back up a few paces, while he took a firm stance. “As children of Agni are given back to the fire, so children of Oma and Shu are given back to the earth,” he intoned as he stomped, putting the full force of his chi behind the move, then sprang back quickly. The edge of the ravine collapsed, sending rock and soil tumbling down to cover the body that lay below. Iroh nodded in satisfaction at the impromptu burial, then turned towards the road. “Now come, let’s get going. We’re bound to find a town sooner or later; according to the map you brought with you, this road should lead us straight to a village soon…”
With Zuko holding the baby in his arms, it fell to Iroh to take the reins of the komodo-rhino while his nephew sat behind him in the saddle. When they were all ready to travel, Iroh nudged the beast into a slow, easy amble instead of the steady canter that they’d been riding at before… then rolled his eyes as Zuko demanded, “Faster! We’re still chasing the Avatar!”
“Patience, nephew; we shall increase speed slowly, so as not to startle the baby. You wouldn’t want him to start crying again, would you?”
Zuko gave a soft wordless growl, but made no other protest as they started down the trail again. As good as his word, Iroh nudged the komodo-rhino into a faster pace by degrees, finally reaching a fast trot that was still slower than the canter they’d been riding at before. He waited for Zuko to demand they go faster, but evidently the teen recognized that the jouncing ride a cantering komodo-rhino gave would probably upset the baby, and kept silent. The baby kept silent as well, evidently rocked to sleep by the steady motion.
Roughly an hour later, they emerged from the forest onto a wide plain that smelled of soot and ashes; a part of the forest that had recently been burned down. Iroh looked up at the open sky… and sucked in air through his teeth as he spotted a silhouette made familiar by now, backlit by the setting moon. The Avatar’s sky bison! Rising into the sky almost straight ahead, then setting off on a west-by-northwest course.
They were roughly half an hour to an hour’s ride from the point where the bison had taken off. If they hadn’t stopped to rescue the baby…
“Uncle? What’s wrong?” Zuko asked, sounding puzzled and a little tense. “More earthbenders?”
His nephew must have had his head down, looking at the baby instead of up at the sky, or he would have seen it too. Iroh improvised quickly, with a look over the valley they were riding into: “This was a battlefield, nephew; not that long ago, judging by the ash layer.”
“I see it,” Zuko nearly growled. But a few minutes later he added hesitantly, “Uncle, are you sure this wasn’t just a forest fire? I see plenty of burned trees and stumps, but there are no corpses, even of the war-steeds for either side. No broken spears or swords, or any of the usual remains of battle.”
“I’m sure,” Iroh said grimly. “The fire started in that area,” as he pointed to the center, “and spread outwards from there. That one spot is scorched earth, with downed trees spreading out around it; some shattered stumps, and others that were completely uprooted by a great force; a powerful explosion. General Mushin has this theater of operations, and either he got his hands on a cadre of imperial firebenders working in tandem, or his men set off an entire barrel of blasting jelly. But you are right, the lack of the usual battlefield remains is puzzling. It’s rare for both sides of a battle to be quite so conscientious about cleaning up… It’s possible that a barrel of blasting jelly was set off by accident, while transporting it to another site.” Zuko must have agreed with his assessment, because he said no more as they rode past.
Soon afterwards they approached the gates of a village that had definitely been the site of a furious battle, though with what Iroh couldn’t say. The village gates and wall were badly damaged, and at least a third of the houses they glimpsed inside the walls were partly wrecked as well. But the damage was as much or more to roofs than to walls, as though they’d been attacked from above by a giant, or a flying monster… Or a giant flying monster. Iroh didn’t say it, but he was sure that the Avatar’s sky bison had risen from this village; perhaps he’d had a violent disagreement with them?
“Whatever happened here, is probably what the mother was running from,” Zuko growled as they rode through the damaged gates. “I don’t see any of our people standing watch, and it’s a safe bet that the natives won’t be friendly to us...”
“But they’ll have no reason to be unfriendly to one of their village’s children,” Iroh pointed out as he slid down from the komodo-rhino. He was hardly dressed for meeting strangers, but he knew better than to have his prickly and hot-tempered nephew go from door to door asking for shelter and charity, even if only for the baby. “Wait here, while I go wake somebody up. And just in case…” He took the reins and pressed them into Zuko’s free hand. “If there’s any attack at all, don’t fight, just run. I can still hold my own in a fight and catch up to you later, but the baby would only hamper you in battle.” Zuko nodded grimly and took a firm grip of the reins, while scooting forward in the saddle to put his feet in the stirrups.
The second door Iroh knocked vigorously on yielded a response; a middle-aged man, the village headman if the hat he’d hastily slapped on was any clue, fumbling to light a lantern as he yawned, “Did you forget something?” then the man’s eyes focused on Iroh, and he just stared in silence.
Standing there clad in only a loincloth, Iroh bowed and said pleasantly, “Greetings, and my apologies for disturbing you, but we have a child that we believe is from your village. An orphaned babe in need of shelter and caring hands to raise him, for his mother perished in an accident not far from here.”
The headman just gaped at him for a good five seconds before shaking himself, throwing off sleepy bewilderment like a lion-dog shedding water, and asking, “An orphaned baby, you said? He shouldn’t be from our village; I made sure at sunset that all our children were accounted for. But let’s see him; my wife and I can take him in for the night, then call for a village meeting tomorrow to see who will raise him.”
Zuko slowly dismounted from the komodo-rhino and walked over, stepping into the circle of light cast by the lantern. The headman’s eyes positively bulged at the sight of Zuko, who was wearing his armor from the waist down but only a now-ragged tunic from the waist up, topped off by the scarred face, and the phoenix-plume that marked him as a Fire Nation royal. Zuko gave him a silent glare of ‘what are you looking at?’ but held the baby out for him to take.
Having awakened while Zuko was dismounting, the baby rubbed at his face with tiny fists and babbled sleepy nonsense, looking almost unbearably cute for their benefit. Iroh considerately stepped up to take the lantern from the headman’s hand, so he’d have both hands free to accept the baby.
“So, little one; let’s see if you look familiar,” the headman said in the soothing singsong voice adopted by fathers everywhere, as he cradled the baby in his arms and examined him…
Then hissed in revulsion, while abruptly shoving him out to arm’s length. “The witch-child!”
Iroh was so startled, he almost dropped the lantern. Zuko instantly swooped in to snatch the baby back, clutching him to his chest; only after the baby was in his arms again did he demand, “What do you mean, witch-child?”
“Look at its eyes; it’s accursed!” the headman said as he backed up a step, while the baby began crying, startled by being jerked about so quickly.
Iroh and Zuko traded startled looks; then Iroh brought the lantern over so they could both use its light to look at the baby’s eyes. By moonlight Iroh had seen a standard-looking baby boy, ten fingers and ten toes and such, but moonlight isn’t enough light for noticing some details.
Given how much the Fire Nation was hated by most of the Earth Kingdom, Iroh half-expected the baby’s eyes to be gold, a sure sign of Fire Nation descent and a possible firebender. But no, the eyes weren’t gold; instead, the baby’s right eye was a common brown.
The left eye was … a grayish blue.
Well. That was different.
“That one’s mother came here three weeks ago, asking if she could live here; we had doubts from the start about allowing such a child within our walls, but she swore her babe was not a witch and some of the villagers took a liking to her, so I said she could stay if she proved her worth. But then the Hei-Bai spirit came and attacked our village, drawn by the witch-child’s power!” the headman spat as they stared at the mismatched eyes. “We banished her immediately, but that didn’t get rid of the Hei-Bai spirit; after it came back the next sunset, we sent men out to find her and put the baby to death, but they found nothing. Now you say the child’s an orphan; that it killed its own mother? No wonder it took the Av--”
The headman’s ranting was abruptly cut off by Zuko’s blow, a backhand hard enough to knock him sprawling.
“The baby didn’t kill his mother… you did!” Zuko snarled at the headman, smoke curling from between his clenched teeth as he held the crying child tightly to his chest. “We found her body in a ravine off the road, one she’d probably fallen into while being chased by your men! She died trying to protect her baby from your superstitious murdering idiocy!”
“Enough, nephew,” Iroh said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “The young mother’s spirit does not walk here, in need of vengeance before she can rest; she only needs for her baby to be cared for… and this is obviously not the place for that.”
Iroh turned to the headman, letting a little of what had made him the Dragon of the West show through. The headman had started to get back on his feet; the man paled and fell back again as Iroh growled, “You. You will bring us four sets of baby clothes, ten diapers, a baby blanket and sling, a day’s worth of food and water for three—and a set of clothes in my size. You will bring them all to me within the hour, or you will greatly regret it.”
The headman complied with all due speed. Less than an hour later, they were on their way back out the village gates with saddlebags full of the needed supplies. The tunic and trousers Iroh was wearing now were plain homespun peasant wear and rather tight in the waist, but they were better than nothing. Mounted behind him once more, Zuko kept a wary eye on their trail until the village was well behind them. But as he kept watch, he murmured, “Uncle… is he actually a witch-child? Or is he half-Earth Kingdom, half-Water Tribe? I’ve never seen a baby with eyes of two different colors before…”
“Neither have I, nephew. But I can tell you this; the baby has no more mystical power or evil in him than any other babe I’ve ever seen.”
“How can you tell?” Zuko persisted. “Even the Avatar looks like a normal boy, until he goes into the Avatar State.”
Iroh was silent for a few moments, then reluctantly decided that it was time to reveal a few of his many secrets. He had intended on waiting until Zuko was strong enough in spirit to break his father’s poisonous hold on his soul, but under the current circumstances… “Nephew, you may have heard the rumor that I once journeyed to the Spirit World.”
“Someone on the crew mentioned it once, while you were off shopping,” Zuko admitted. “Nobody on the bridge believed it, but he swore that he’d gotten the story straight from his cousin in the Army, one of last people to see you when you left the Siege of Ba Sing Se. He said that you went to the Spirit World to… to try to bring Lu Ten back…”
“You… you really went to the Spirit World?” Zuko sounded shocked.
“I did. But I did not succeed in my quest to bring Lu Ten back. And I do not speak of what I experienced in the Spirit World; some of it I am forbidden to speak of, ever… and some of it is just too painful. But I will tell you this; as a result of the trials I went through in order to enter the Spirit World, I now have the ability to see spirits when they walk in our world, even when they are invisible to all others.”
“You can see spirits?”
“Indeed. It has come in handy from time to time. I can also see when someone has great spiritual power within them, like a child with potential to become a Fire Sage. The baby you’re holding has no such power; he will likely not even bend an element when he is older. But there is something else you should know… Tonight, when you heard the child crying and went to its rescue, I saw a spirit there at the edge of the ravine.”
“An ubume?” Zuko asked quietly. Ubume were well-known spirits, but thankfully not malicious ones; each was the ghost of a mother who’d died in childbirth, or died unexpectedly before she could ensure her child would be cared for. If the mother’s will was strong enough even when her body failed her, her spirit became an ubume, in order to lead a living person to where her child was waiting in need of care.
“No, not an ubume; something far rarer. The spirit of a kirin.”
“A kirin?” his nephew echoed incredulously. “But those have been extinct for centuries!”
“Perhaps… or perhaps the few who remain have become very good at hiding. Nevertheless, it was not a living kirin I saw, but the spirit of one, and the spirit of an animal stays true to its nature. Kirin are renowned for protecting the innocent, and punishing the wicked. The kirin-spirit that I saw nuzzled the baby’s head as gently as a mother kissing her newborn; it’s obvious now that it did so to reassure me—and now you—that the child is indeed innocent and pure, not tainted by evil, despite its mismatched eyes. And…” Iroh hesitated, then forged on ahead; in for a copper, in for a gold piece. “After nuzzling the child, the kirin came to stand beside you, Prince Zuko. I was holding the baby at the time, but the spirit went to you; a clear indication of who it thought the child should go to and be raised by.”
“By me?!” Zuko almost squawked; Iroh could hear the incredulity warring with outright dismay in his voice. “But I don’t know anything about babies! I’m not even old enough for marriage yet!”
“Yes, you are,” Iroh corrected him. “You’re sixteen now; that’s old enough for marriage. I’ll grant you that it’s rare for any man of our country to get married quite so young, but you are legally old enough to do so.”
“But-but-but I’m not even betrothed to anyone! And I can’t be betrothed while I’m still banished! I--” Zuko’s semi-hysterical rant was interrupted by a wail; the baby had been whimpering, probably picking up on Zuko’s distress, and was starting to cry. “Oh, cinders! Sshhh, sshhh, it’s okay, don’t cry, sshhh…”
“Mind your language around innocent ears, nephew,” Iroh murmured almost automatically, looking over his shoulder at Zuko as his nephew hastily started rocking the crying baby in his newly acquired sling. Then he began to sing, “Leaves from the vine, falling so slow… Sing with me, nephew… Leaves from the vine, falling so slow…”
“Like tiny fragile shells, drifting through the foam,” Zuko sang with him, the teen’s rasping voice joining his gravelly tones. “Little soldier boy comes marching home; brave soldier boy comes marching home…”
It took ten verses before the baby settled back to sleep. “I still don’t understand,” Zuko whispered afterwards, careful not to wake the infant.
“To understand why they thought this poor babe to be a witch-child, simply because of one odd eye?” Iroh sighed in resignation. “Superstitions seem to spring up out of nowhere like mushrooms, nephew. And I doubt that belief is restricted to just that one village. The babe would not live long if he was left with the locals, that much is obvious. Both the oaths we swore to his mother’s spirit and sheer human kindness dictate that we take him with us.”
“All right, I get that, but… I’m not married, and I don’t know anything about kids; why would a kirin pick me to raise any baby?”
“Well… I have a theory, nephew, but it will not please you to hear it.”
Zuko snorted behind him in impatience tinged with disgust. “As if anything about the last few years has been pleasant… Tell me.”
Iroh kept his eyes on the road as he spoke. “The kirin did not pick you to raise any child; it picked you to raise this particular child. Perhaps because the baby is not the only one present… who must learn to live with mismatched eyes.”
The silence… hurt.
“You did ask, nephew.”
“You’ll have to think of a name, you know.”
Finally, Zuko spoke again. “A name?”
“Of course. We can’t just keep calling him ‘the baby’. You found him, you saved him; he is your responsibility now, and your first duty to him is to give him a name.”
That had been said in an awed and even shaken tone, as the weight of this new responsibility began to fall on his nephew’s shoulders. Iroh took pity on him and added, “There is no rush, though; we can keep calling him ‘the baby’ for a while longer, until you come up with something suitable.”
“A name…” He heard Zuko take several deep breaths, obviously trying to force calm on himself… and it obviously wasn’t working too well, either. “Uncle, I can’t do this! I can’t raise a baby all by myself; I’m not ready for fatherhood!”
“No man is ever truly ready for fatherhood, nephew, no matter how much he thinks he is. But I will be there to help and advise you… and I’ve heard you say before that all your struggles in life have made you strong. You are correct in that; you are far stronger in spirit than many young men your age. Strong enough to do this, Prince Zuko…” Iroh smiled to himself, then corrected it to “Papa Zuko.”
Chapter 2: Named
Author’s note: I know the common trope about mismatched eyes, but no, the baby isn’t half-Water Tribe, or a shapeshifter, or anything else of a supernatural/dual nature. He’s just got mismatched eyes; a condition called complete heterochromia iridis. More common in cats and dogs than people, but it does pop up occasionally, and when it does it usually takes the form of one blue eye. Sorry if anyone’s disappointed already!
Zuko had been told by his father more than once while growing up that his sister Azula had been born lucky, but he’d been lucky to be born. He didn’t know all the details of his birth, but he knew it had been long and hard and there had been many doubts that either he or his mother would survive; that he’d been born so weak that for nearly a full month after his birth, the servants had kept a funeral shroud and pyre ready to receive a tiny corpse.
Zuko didn’t like to remember the tone of his father’s voice when the funeral pyre had been mentioned. Father had sounded almost… disappointed that it hadn’t been used after all. As if the spirits had kept Zuko alive solely for the purpose of messing with his royal father.
Which was all ashes, of course; the spirits had no interest in messing with his father, because Zuko himself was clearly their favorite toy. They took delight in batting his whole life around like a pygmy-puma with a ball of string. His little sister had begun firebending before he did, and turned out to be a prodigy, getting all his father’s attention. His mother had vanished (died?) after… doing what she’d had to do to save him from being killed, after his grandfather had--had gone insane with grief. One moment of outraged protest in a war room had resulted in him being burned by his father and banished from his homeland.
And now he had proof that the spirits liked to mess with him. Proof in the form of a baby boy that the spirits expected him to adopt as his own… and worse, so did his uncle! Just because the baby had mismatched eyes. As if having eyes of two different colors was anything at all like being branded with a mark of shame for disrespect, and cowardice in the Agni Kai arena.
No doubt about it; this was a sign that the Avatar having beaten and escaped from him twice already wasn’t good enough for the spirits, and now they wanted to really see him suffer. Cold ashes, it just wasn’t fair…
He looked down at the baby sleeping in his arms, and sighed as he considered that the spirits hadn’t been fair to this little boy either. Look at the way those tiny hands were grabbing onto his tunic, even while asleep; this baby was so desperate for someone to love and take care of him, that he thought even Zuko would do! And no wonder; his mother had just died trying to save him, and there’d been no sign of a father around. No relatives at all to take care of him, not even a somewhat-crazy uncle. And to top it all off, the poor little guy had been born with something that made him different from everyone else, something that absolutely wasn’t his fault, but the villagers back there sure hadn’t seen it that way…
Okay, so maybe he and the baby had some things sort-of in common after all. They’d both lost their mothers, though this baby was so young now he might not even remember his mother later. (Which would be so much harder on him; at least Zuko still had memories of his mother and her love for him, intangible treasures more precious than gold.) And they’d both been blamed for things that weren’t their fault; Zuko sure hadn’t told the spirits that he wanted to be born weak, and with no luck except bad luck.
Zuko had been born weak, but he hadn’t stayed that way. Everything in his life that he’d had to struggle for, had made him stronger. He never gave up without a fight—he never gave up, period, so long as he was convinced that what he was doing was right and necessary—and now he was tough and strong enough to command a ship and take it around the world, and to take on up to four firebenders at once, or an entire team of earthbending soldiers with only a little help from his uncle.
Maybe the spirits had the right idea after all. Maybe Zuko could teach this little boy how to be strong and tough enough, that he could stand up to any villagers who dared to call him a witch-child again. He thought about that; about the little boy growing bigger, toddling next to him, and at first clinging fearfully to his side as they passed glaring peasants and jeering nobles… then learning to walk proudly on his own, his head held high, as Zuko whispered to him Never forget who you are.
As he pictured it, Zuko felt… he didn’t know how to describe it. Something in his chest suddenly felt too big, shoving the rest of his innards around, but it was too pleasantly warm to hurt. Such a weird feeling… but not weird in a bad way.
But first, he had to give the baby a name. Zuko had never named a baby before; cinders, he hadn’t even named any pets before. He’d thought of the turtle-ducks in the garden pond as pets, but his mother had always been the one to name them, and after she’d—vanished, he hadn’t dared show any attachment to the turtle-ducks anymore, for fear that Azula would fry them just to try to make him cry again. But now he had to name a baby, and he knew without asking that this was a thousand times more important than naming a pet. Some pets didn’t even come when their names were called, but a person’s name became part of their identity; it was what they would respond to all their lives, become part of how they thought about themselves, and part of what others thought of them too. This one act of naming could affect the baby’s whole life, making it that much better with the right name—or helping to ruin it, with the wrong one.
Preoccupied with the baby and thoughts of what to name him—and with how tired he was; Agni, he’d been up for two days and nights straight now—Zuko didn’t notice that they weren’t going north anymore until he saw the ocean through a break in the trees, and realized they’d turned west at the last fork in the road. “Uncle, we were chasing the Avatar!”
Iroh responded promptly, “We were, when the plan was to simply drop the baby off at the nearest friendly village that would accept him. But that plan has changed now, hasn’t it?” His tone became reproving. “Nephew, would you truly risk engaging in battle with the Avatar, not just as exhausted as you are, but with a helpless baby in your arms?”
“N-no, but… We have to keep tracking him! Who knows when we’ll have another chance at finding him?”
Iroh snorted in amusement. “Prince Zuko, you are underestimating yourself. Who hunted the Avatar for thirty-eight years without finding him? Your great-grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin. Who hunted the Avatar for even longer without success? Fire Lord Azulon. Who hunted the Avatar for only seven years before returning home, declaring the quest impossible? Your father, when he was still just Prince Ozai. Who hunted the Avatar for less than three years—and found him?”
“Me,” Zuko admitted, fighting down a grin. He’d never thought of it that way before, but Uncle was right; he’d done something even his father had never been able to do! It wasn’t enough, because he couldn’t go home until he’d actually captured the Avatar and brought him back to Fire Nation soil… but it was still something.
“And after the first time he escaped us, you found him again on Kyoshi Island despite all those insane tactical maneuvers he pulled over the southern seas, flying in every compass direction at least once in order to throw us off his trail. I’m certain that you’ll track him down again in due course. But for now we should rendezvous with the ship, and get our precious cargo aboard. Which inlet did you send them to wait at?”
Lieutenant Jee considered himself a patient man. He had to be, to put up with the demands of that spoiled brat of a prince who captained the ship. Prince Zuko was absolutely nothing like his esteemed uncle, the Dragon of the West; he didn’t listen to anyone concerning good advice, least of all his wise uncle, and he’d nearly gotten crewmen killed more than once in his quest to capture the Avatar. Under other circumstances, Jee would have taken Prince Zuko’s temporary absence from the ship as a gift from the spirits, and simply enjoyed it while waiting for his inevitable return.
But these weren’t the usual circumstances. The whole reason Prince Zuko had been gone for over a day now is that he was chasing after the earthbenders that had kidnapped his uncle, General Iroh. Not just Jee but the entire crew had a lot of respect for the retired general, and had even grown fond of his attempts to keep up ship morale with activities like Music Night. Jee had been ready to send an entire squad out after the general’s kidnappers, but Prince Zuko had insisted on going after him alone.
Jee had, for once, understood the prince’s reasoning; an entire squadron would make too much noise on the trail, and if the earthbenders knew they were being followed, they’d probably slit the general’s throat on the spot before scattering and going underground. Anyone who’d muttered about the prince right before catching one of his furious glares clear across the deck of the ship could testify as to how sharp Zuko’s hearing was; he’d have the best chance of hearing the kidnappers and sneaking up on them before they could detect him. And the prince was a powerful firebender who had been well-trained in combat by his uncle; Jee was one of the few people aboard who could still stand against him in a sparring match, even though he’d barely started on the advanced forms. But still, it rankled to just sit there and wait while the prince tried to rescue his uncle.
And now it rankled even more, because a few hours ago he’d been woken up from a sound sleep by Sergeant Goro excitedly saying that the night watch had spotted the Avatar’s sky bison flying almost directly over the inlet they were anchored in, heading out to sea, and what should they do?
They couldn’t do anything, that was the problem. Zuko had given them clear and direct orders to come to this inlet, set anchor and wait for him. Jee knew exactly what happened to officers who disobeyed direct orders without an extremely critical, life-or-death justification; it was how he’d ended up on Prince Zuko’s ship without his topknot. But that was the Avatar out there; the whole reason Prince Zuko was on this damned ship at all! If they could just catch that flying brat and chain him down, they could go home!
But Prince Zuko had to be the one to capture the Avatar, or be in command of the ship at the time of capture. General Iroh had made that clear, just over a year ago, when Jee had gotten frustrated enough with the prince to risk muttering to the general that the ship would fare better under his command. The elder had given him a kindly smile, thanking him for the vote of confidence, but insisted that he could not possibly take command; it was Prince Zuko’s mission, and he was along merely to help out his nephew. Then that kindly old man had let the Dragon of the West show while informing him that helping out his nephew extended to helping Prince Zuko put down mutinies in the crew; he’d done it before, and was prepared to do it again… In the face of such terrible wrath Jee had instantly kowtowed, sworn on his ancestors that he had no intention of mutinying, and dropped the subject forever.
So the crew weighed anchor and kept the boilers hot, ready to move out in an instant, but did not leave the inlet in pursuit of the Avatar; instead, they just sat there and kept waiting…
And soon after Agni began peeking over the horizon, a lone komodo-rhino with two riders came trotting up along the shore. Everyone on deck spontaneously started cheering at the sight of the prince and the rescued general; grinning from ear to ear, Jee gave the orders to move the ship in closer to shore, just enough that they could drop the bow into a boarding ramp and bring the komodo-rhino aboard.
“Sshh, shhh; soon, little boy,” Zuko murmured, while rubbing the baby’s back. Uncle was right, the rubbing seemed to soothe his fussing a little. The baby had woken up again a few minutes ago, probably in need of more food—and definitely in need of a diaper change; Agni, that smell—but now wasn’t the time to stop and deal with it, not with the ship in sight and preparing to receive them.
“The crew seems happy to have us back, nephew!” Iroh said cheerfully as they heard the shouts and cheers of the men on deck.
“Happy to have you back, anyway,” Zuko couldn’t help muttering very quietly. He knew too well that his entire crew hated him; had heard all their mutterings, everything they said behind his back and when they thought he couldn’t hear them. Spoiled brat. Royal pain. Arrogant. Volcano-tempered. Reckless. Obsessed. Insane…
He admitted he was obsessed with capturing the Avatar; who wouldn’t be, when accomplishing that was the only way he could ever go home again? But the rest… dammit, it hurt that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t win the respect of even the sea-rats on his crew, let alone from his father.
Uncle had said more than once that Zuko wanted their respect, he could try being nice to them; taking an interest in them personally. But he didn’t see how that could possibly help; he already knew too much about what his crew was like. He’d read their personnel records; every last one of them had ended up on his ship only after getting in trouble on another ship in the fleet. Caught drunk on duty, missing ship’s calls when leaving port, provoking fights within the ranks, disobeying direct orders… the list went on and on. He’d long suspected that most of them had been offered a choice between becoming a member of Prince Zuko’s crew or going straight to the brig; a suspicion confirmed when he’d overheard one of the men in the engine room mutter “I should’ve chosen the brig.”
As for being nice to them anyway, who did Uncle think he was kidding? His father never bothered being nice or friendly to people, and neither did Azula, but they got instant respect and obedience whenever they gave orders. Yes, Iroh was friendly to the crew, but that was because he could afford to be; he’d been The Dragon of the West in his heyday, the greatest general and most feared warrior in the entire world, and everyone knew it. All he had to do was frown and people started dropping into kowtows, even if he’d been smiling just moments before. Ashes, even that village headman had almost wet himself when Uncle had turned the Dragon on him, while still wearing just a loincloth!
The bow ramp was coming down not twenty years away from them. With an effort, he banished the tired slump in his spine and straightened up, determined to show no weakness in front of the crew. He also shoved away all his feelings of being inadequate and worthless compared to the rest of his family, and put on the hard frown he wore nearly all the time when aboard, to let the crew know he would tolerate no disrespect from them. He was not going to let any of them laugh at him or mock him, for taking care of a baby that wasn’t of his blood.
They rode the komodo-rhino aboard the ship, then dismounted to leave it to the beast-tender as Lieutenant Jee strode up to them. “Welcome back, sirs!” as he gave a brisk salute. “Glad to see you’re all right, General. Sirs, roughly three hours ago, we had a—baby?” as his salute dropped nearly as fast as his jaw.
“Yes, a baby,” Zuko said firmly, looking his lieutenant right in the eye as he shifted to settle the baby more firmly onto his shoulder. “I’m taking care of him.” Then he winced, as sharp pain radiated from the top of his head; his phoenix-plume had swung back within the baby’s reach again when he’d gotten off the komodo-rhino. He resignedly muttered “No,” while reaching back to pull his hair out of the infant’s surprisingly strong grasp for what felt like the umpteenth time—Uncle had said that Zuko just had to keep telling the baby ‘no’ when he did things he wasn’t supposed to, but hadn’t said how long it would take for the lesson to sink in. Then he continued telling Jee, “The saddlebags are full of baby supplies; have them brought to my cabin.”
“Uh… what?” as a still-gaping Jee looked past him, to Uncle—cinders, he hated when they did that! Why couldn’t they just listen to him?
“I believe you heard your commanding officer,” Uncle Iroh rumbled. “An orphaned Earth Kingdom child has fallen into our care; Prince Zuko will be raising him. Now, if you please; we really do need those saddlebags in short order. The baby is in dire need of a diaper change, and a decent breakfast.” Uncle interrupted himself with a yawn so wide it looked like the top of his head would fall off, then continued, “And the prince and myself will need breakfast, too, and a decent period of rest; after everything we’ve been through recently, a man needs his rest.”
Zuko was so tired, it seemed to take forever to drag himself up the ladders and through all the passageways between the beast-hold and his cabin; he reached his door just as a crewman sprinted up with a basket full of the baby supplies from the saddlebags. Tadao set the supplies down in his room, staring wide-eyed at the baby in his sling, then offered hesitantly, “Sir, I have a little brother I used to help take care of. Would you like me to help with the baby’s diaper change?”
Agni, yes! He’d been dreading the prospect of having to deal with all that stinking mess himself. Trying not to let the sheer relief show on his face, he agreed to the offer, then gestured towards the baby supplies.
Tadao quickly set out the supplies and got a change of clothes, fresh diaper and a cleaning rag ready, while asking, “Sir, ah... Sir, may I ask the baby’s name?”
Tearing his longing gaze away from the bed—so close, and yet so far—Zuko sighed. “We don’t know what his name used to be; his mother died before we found him. I haven’t decided on a new name for him yet.”
When everything was ready, Tadao gently took the baby from his arms, efficiently stripped the infant out of the soiled clothes and cleaned off his bottom, murmuring what sounded like a nursery song while he worked. Zuko made a mental note to have someone write that nursery song down for him to learn later; the only one he knew by heart was ‘Leaves From the Vine’—the one Uncle had sung to him over and over while he’d been wracked with fever, in the first few days after he’d been burned—and he’d sung it so many times in the last few hours he was already sick of it.
“There we go, little man, all clean and ready for new clothes,” Tadao was saying to the baby with a smile as he started putting the fresh diaper on. Then came the baby’s outer clothes, accompanied by the baby’s cheerful burbling and Tadao’s equally cheerful running commentary of “Here we go, let’s get the left arm in… good baby, now the right arm… aren’t you a good boy, hm? And now you’re all clean and dressed, and… huh?”
Zuko had been almost nodding off while still on his feet, but he suddenly snapped back to awareness to find Tadao kneeling in front of the baby while peering hard at his little face. Oh, cinders, was all he had time to think in dismay before Tadao suddenly scrambled back, almost crab-walking backwards away from the baby, while hissing, “A witch-child!”
To Koh’s Lair with that! Zuko reached down to grab Tadao by the collar and yanked him up to glare at him face-to-face while snarling, “Say that again and die! This baby is not a witch-child!”
But that fool Tadao still babbled, “B-but sir, its eyes--”
Zuko did his damndest to channel the Dragon of the West into his voice as he glared, growling, “Crewman, do you really have a problem with mismatched eyes?!”
Tadao’s face was almost bloodless with terror. “S-s-sir, no sir!”
“Good. Now get out!” as he shoved the private towards the door.
Tadao quickly scrambled out of the cabin, just barely missing General Iroh as he came in with a tray of food in his hands. His uncle gave him a reproving look, but Zuko ignored it as he reached down to scoop up the baby again, murmuring, “There, there; no one’s going to hurt you, I promise…”
Iroh set the loaded breakfast tray down on his desk with a raised eyebrow. “We have a problem already?”
Zuko sighed. “Apparently Earth Kingdom peasants aren’t the only superstitious fools in the world. Tadao saw the baby’s eyes and started almost screaming that he’s a witch-child!”
“Oh dear…” Iroh shook his head. “We’ll have to address the entire crew, and quickly; before any wild rumors start spreading. I’ll go fetch Lieutenant Jee, nephew; you can see about feeding the baby in the meantime.” His uncle got him situated with a cup of water, a small bowl of plain sticky rice and another of what looked like hastily diced mango pieces, advising him, “Use the spoon instead of chopsticks, so you don’t poke his mouth by accident.”
By the time his uncle came back with Lieutenant Jee in tow, Zuko was fighting an overwhelming urge to cry, from sheer frustration and despair. Only about half of the sticky rice had actually gone inside the baby’s mouth; the rest had somehow ended up all over his face and baby clothes, and even a few grains on Zuko’s own clothes! And some of the water had spilled, and—he just couldn’t do this! How could he take care of a baby and raise him up well, when he couldn’t even feed him right?
But when Lieutenant Jee walked in with his uncle, the officer took one look at him and then just sat right down on the deck and offered with his arms outstretched for the baby, “Please, sir, let me help you out for the moment. My wife and I raised a son and two daughters; I remember how hard it is to feed them solid food at this stage.”
Zuko glared at him. “If I hear one blasted word about his eyes…”
“The general already told me, sir. May I?” Jee still had his arms out, so Zuko carefully transferred the baby over to him, then watched him like a dragon-hawk. After only one brief glance at the baby’s eyes, Jee just settled him in his lap, accepted the spoon and remaining food from Iroh, and started feeding him without further comment.
Iroh, on the other hand, commented approvingly, “You did very well for a first try at feeding, nephew.”
Zuko gave him a sullen glare. “Don’t patronize me; you can see the mess here as well as I can!”
“But the bowl of rice is almost completely empty, and there isn’t quite enough of it spread around to make even half a bowl. Which means that a large portion of it actually went into the baby’s stomach; that’s very good for a first try!”
“Your uncle is right, sir,” Jee said without looking up from what he was doing. “For my first time feeding my eldest daughter, I averaged one spoonful in five actually going into her stomach. Mind you, she was a little younger than this fellow is now; I’d say he’s a year old or so…”
“That was my guess too,” Iroh put in. Zuko looked at them doubtfully, but neither seemed to be lying just to make him feel better. How about that; he wasn’t screwing things up too badly already…
Iroh urged Zuko to eat his own breakfast, get out of the clothes and half-donned armor he’d been wearing for two days straight, clean up and put on a dressing gown while together they told Jee all about finding the baby. Including Iroh’s account of the kirin-spirit, and what the village headman had said about the baby and his deceased mother. Jee didn’t seem at all surprised at Uncle Iroh’s admission that he could see spirits due to his journey to the Spirit World; Zuko wondered for a moment if he was the only one who hadn’t believed that crewman’s story about his uncle, and felt ashamed of himself again.
At the end of the tale, Jee set down the empty bowl and spoon and wiped the baby’s face as he declared, “I’ll call for an assembly, and ensure the crew knows the whole story.”
“Perhaps not every single thing I just told you,” Iroh said with an upraised finger. “I would prefer to keep quiet my ability to see the unseen; it leads to uncomfortable questions, many of which I can not answer. Simply assure the crew that I am quite certain he is not a witch-child.”
“As you command, general. But before I go, sirs, I can put him into fresh clothes for you, and take the soiled ones down to the laundry. And ask the quartermaster to whip up a few bibs for feedings; they’re good for keeping the mess off his clothes.”
They took him up on his offer, and the baby was wearing a clean set of clothes in just a few minutes, even before Zuko had finished dressing. “Thank you very much, Lieutenant,” Iroh said as the lieutenant got up to leave, and this time Zuko added his own thanks, quieter but no less fervent.
“My honor to serve, sirs,” Jee said as he bowed to them and left. The response was standard, but… Zuko blinked as he thought that this time, Jee had sounded like he really meant it.
Now that they were alone in the cabin, Zuko found himself pulled towards the bed like flotsam in a whirlpool. Uncle made some paternal noises as he virtually tucked Zuko into bed, tucking the baby in with him. “You’ll need to keep a good hold on him, nephew, until we can get a crib put together for him to sleep in. Offhand, I don’t see anything lying about that he could hurt himself with, but little babies always seem to find something that the adults missed at first.”
“Got it,” Zuko said drowsily, lying on his side and holding the baby to his chest. For his part, the baby seemed to find a fire prince’s bed to be warm and snuggly and perfect for napping in; he settled against Zuko without any fussing. The prince was vaguely aware of his uncle giving another face-splitting yawn and tottering off to his own cabin next door, before sheer exhaustion swept him away.
Tadao was down in the mess hall, telling two other wide-eyed crewmen what he’d seen of the witch-child’s eyes and what he feared it meant for the ship, when the word was passed that Lieutenant Jee wanted everyone on deck for an emergency assembly.
Twenty minutes later, everyone stood at attention with Jee standing in front of the formation, with an odd look on his face. He began without preamble, “I imagine the rumors are flying around the ship already, so I called you all here to set them straight. Yes, Prince Zuko and General Iroh brought a baby back with them; an orphaned Earth Kingdom peasant boy. Yes, the prince has stated he is going to take care of the boy. Yes, the baby has one brown eye and one blue eye. But General Iroh is certain that the baby is not a witch-child. Any questions?”
There were questions aplenty, so many that Jee had to tell them to ask them one at a time, starting with the front row on the right. Hūn asked the first question, and while normally Hūn wasn’t the brightest of candles, this time he asked what Tadao thought was the most sensible question ever: “How can he be so certain that it isn’t a witch-child?”
“The general has his methods; that’s all I can tell you, but personally, I believe him. Next?”
Goro asked, “Well, if it isn’t a witch-child, where’d the one blue eye come from? Is he half Water Tribe or something?”
“I don’t know, and they don’t know either. The baby’s mother was Earth Kingdom but they have no idea who the father was, so it’s possible. Next?”
Li Mein asked, “What happened to the mother?”
“They found her and the baby in a ravine; Prince Zuko said it appeared they’d fallen in while running from pursuit, and she broke her leg and suffered internal injuries that eventually killed her. They gave her some funeral rites and took the baby with them. Next?”
“You said ‘running from pursuit’; any idea what they were being pursued by?”
“I’m glad you asked that question.” Jee’s teeth showed in a horrendous scowl, though thankfully it didn’t seem directed at any of them. “The headman of the nearest village told them that men from his village had been after her, after they’d already turned her and the baby out into the wilderness; they blamed the pair for some spirit-trouble they were having and wanted to execute an innocent child in hopes of making the spirit-trouble stop, instead of doing what any sane man would do and calling for a Fire Sage… or Earth Sage, I suppose; they probably deal with spirits the same way.” The scowl had softened to an uncertain frown while talking about sages, but deepened with contempt as he continued, “Personally, I think those damn fool villagers are lucky they didn’t actually kill an innocent baby, on the eve of the Winter Solstice; that’s just begging for a flood of evil spirits to swarm into your home. Next?”
“Well… how long is the baby going to be aboard?”
“Right now, we can assume indefinitely. Next?”
“Indefinitely? As in, they’re keeping it?!” Joben asked incredulously. “You’re joking, right? I mean, I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about eyes that don’t match up, but… an Earth Kingdom peasant baby that’s probably a bastard child, and Fire Nation royalty?! You can’t get more mismatched than that!”
Jee gave an amused snort as he admitted, “Can’t argue with that. But… up until this morning, I would have said that Prince Zuko is…” he paused, looking in the direction of the prince’s cabin as if he was worried about being overheard—and he probably was—then continued a little more quietly, “I would have said he’s an arrogant, self-centered, spoiled brat of a prince who doesn’t care about anyone or anything that doesn’t have to do with his quest to capture the Avatar. And I would have guessed that anyone who even touched that royal phoenix-plume he’s so proud of would have been either kicked overboard, set on fire or both. But while he was telling me that he’d be taking care of the baby, that little one got his hands in the prince’s hair and yanked hard, hard enough that even I was wincing…”
Jee waited through the chorus of hisses from people sucking in air through their teeth, with expressions ranging from appalled to dismayed, then continued, “And all he did was pull his hair back out of the kid’s grasp and tell me about the baby supplies in the saddlebags. And later on up in his cabin, the prince was nearly asleep on his feet from being awake two days and nights straight, but he was still fussing over feeding the baby before he’d even had anything to eat himself. Fussing over the baby just like any…” Jee shook his head when he couldn’t quite manage to say the words, then continued, “I’m telling you, it was almost enough to make me ask the general what he’d done with the old spoiled brat prince, and how long we could keep this one.”
Stunned silence greeted his statement, that lasted for a good thirty seconds before Shoda indicated he had a question: “How old would you say this baby is?”
Jee shrugged. “I’d guess about a year, give or take a month. Next?”
“Um, I wasn’t finished,” Shoda said hastily, then hesitated before continuing, “Well, we’ve chased rumors of the Avatar into so many places, lots of them have sort-of blurred together, so I’m asking… Have we been in this region before?”
Jee gave a twisted smile. “Before, as in, a year and nine months ago? I already thought of that; I was checking the ship’s logs when the general came and asked me to come to the prince’s cabin. No, in that time frame we were over a thousand miles away from here, checking out the ruins of the Eastern Air Temple. This baby is not of the prince’s blood, even if he’s sure as sunset acting like it.”
Tetsuko’s question was, “So, what’s the baby’s name?”
Jee gave another shrug. “They’ve no idea what his old name was; Prince Zuko’s still deciding on a new one.”
Then Akio asked, “What did Prince Zuko say about the Avatar sighting?”
Jee opened his mouth… paused with it hanging open for a good five seconds, as he started flushing dull red… and finally admitted, “He doesn’t know about it yet. I was about to tell him when I saw the baby in his arms, and after that I got completely sidetracked...” He rubbed his sideburns in thought, then declared, “The bison was heading north-northwest at time of sighting. Navigator, determine what Earth Kingdom islands and towns lie in that general direction; we’ll set a course for the nearest one at top cruising speed. If we actually catch up to the beast—not likely, given that it’s got over three hours’ head start, but if we do—then I will wake the prince up and inform him. But until then, we let him sleep. He’s been up for two days and nights now, and men that tired do not make rational decisions; Agni knows what insanity he’d consider putting us through today, if he thought he had a chance to capture that flying brat at last.”
The assembly broke up soon afterwards, with everyone returning to their duties, but Tadao’s fears hadn’t been settled by what Jee had said; if anything, they’d gotten worse. The general could spout all his assurances about the baby not being a witch-child, but for a royal prince—not just any royal prince, but Prince Zuko the Royal Pain—to act so fatherly with a baby that wasn’t of his own royal blood, just wasn’t natural. Prince Zuko had been bewitched by the baby’s powers, and right under the general’s nose.
Given the way the prince had blown up at him earlier, Tadao knew better than to voice his suspicions to either of the royals; he had no desire to be set on fire. But he’d start carrying salt in his belt pouch, and writing prayers on paper to stuff inside his sleeves; he’d do what he could to protect himself, while waiting for disaster to strike.
Appa was flying as fast as he could, but Aang was still worried about their making it to Crescent Island in the Fire Nation before the sun set on the Winter Solstice. “Come on, boy! We've got a long way to go! Faster!”
“We should be about halfway there by now,” Sokka said, studying the map he had spread over his lap. “We should reach Fire Nation territory in the next few minutes… and run into that hothead Prince Zuko about thirty seconds later.”
“Don’t go borrowing trouble,” Katara scolded him, but the worried frown on her face said she feared Zuko would show up as well.
“Actually, I think we might have a better chance of not seeing Prince Zuko there,” Aang called over his shoulder to the Water Tribe siblings. “From what Zuko and his sailors were saying while I was aboard that one time, I kind-of got the impression that they couldn’t go home to the Fire Nation until after they captured the Avatar.”
But five minutes later, when they saw what was on the horizon at the Fire Nation border, Sokka groaned out loud, “Aw, man… that’s even worse than Prince Zuko!”
“A blockade!” Katara blurted out, her eyes wide with dismay. There were at least thirty ships steaming back and forth in a pattern to block foreign ships from coming through… and they were headed right for them!
Aang stared at the line of ships with worry. “If we fly north, we can go around the Fire Nation ships and avoid the blockade. It's the only way!”
But Katara said sternly, “There's no time!”
Aang glanced fearfully over his shoulder at his friends. “This is exactly why I didn't want you to come. It’s too dangerous!”
Katara gave him a look of fierce determination. “And that's exactly why we're here.”
Sokka gave a short nod of agreement, looking even more determined than his sister. “Let's run this blockade!”
Aang faced forward and gripped the reins even tighter, commanding, “Appa! Yip yip!”
When a lookout spotted the Avatar’s sky bison heading in their direction, attempting to fly right over the ships in his blockade, Zhao decided it must be his lucky day.
Ten minutes and dozens of catapult launches later, when the bison soared past them into Fire Nation territory apparently unscathed, Zhao wasn’t feeling quite so lucky anymore. If word got out that he’d let the Avatar slip past his forces, he’d be almost as much of a national disgrace as the ex-Prince Zuko! He ordered three ships, including his flagship, out of formation to follow the Avatar and bring him down.
His warships had been built for offensive firepower instead of speed and quick maneuverability; the sky bison was out of sight by the time the three warships had left formation and started the pursuit. But Zhao’s navigator plotted the sky bison’s course on their maps and predicted that he was heading for Crescent Island, the site of the Fire Sages’ main temple to the Avatar. Headed for the temple on the Winter Solstice, the day the walls between the Spirit World and mortal world were thinnest… Zhao scowled and ordered full steam ahead.
Zuko woke up when something hit the deck with a crash. He blearily blinked and shook himself awake, then looked around in dawning horror as he realized his normally tidy and spotless cabin had been trashed.
All his shoes and boots had been pulled out of the low shelf they were kept in and dragged here and there across the floor, which was now crisscrossed with black smudges and streaks. The crimson wall hanging he kept over the wall-mounted mirror had been yanked down and the mirror’s lower half covered with black fingerprints. The papers that had been piled on his desk under a paperweight were now scattered, tattered and torn to scraps, not to mention splotched with black from the inkwell he now saw spilled on the floor next to the desk. And that crash was from the teapot Uncle Iroh had given him as a birthday present last year; it had been pulled from its shelf and lay on the floor in ceramic shards all around the baby, whose ink-stained face was scrunching up in a—
Zuko scrambled out of bed so fast his feet got tangled in the sheets and he ended up toppling over, landing hard on his left shoulder… just as the baby finished sucking in breath and let loose another earsplitting wail.
He flopped over from his side to his stomach and half-crawled, half-dragged himself over to the baby, with words tumbling frantically out of him: “It’s okay, it’ll be okay, are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Come here, it’ll be okay, I never liked that thing anyway, I only kept it out because Uncle gave it to me, did it hit you on the head? Where does it hurt?” But all he got in response was another horrible shriek that made his sensitive eardrums want to retreat deeper inside his skull.
He didn’t see any blood, but he couldn’t tell if any bruises were forming under all the ink stains on the baby’s face, his hands, and his legs clear up to his butt. But the way he was screaming, he had to be hurt somewhere! Zuko scrambled to his feet with the baby in his arms—and then swore in startled pain when he stepped on a shard of the teapot.
Hopping on one foot, he made his way over to the door just as it opened and his uncle burst in, nearly bowling him over. “What happened?” Iroh demanded, looking around wildly.
“I screwed up, I let go of him while I was sleeping, and—I think the teapot fell on his head!” Zuko gasped as he managed, barely, to keep from falling over by steadying himself with a hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “How do you check for a concussion?!”
He was ready to hop-limp all the way to sickbay with the baby, but Uncle took a deep breath and gathered himself, then plucked the infant from his arms while ordering Zuko to sit down and calm himself. Zuko sat on the edge of the bed, pulling ceramic slivers out of his foot while looking anxiously up at his uncle. Iroh looked the crying baby over from head to toe, then pronounced with a crooked smile, “I believe he was merely scared by the loud crash, as I was. There, there, young one… That’s right, you’re safe, now calm down… Here, nephew; deep calming breaths for yourself, while holding him and rubbing his back,” as he handed the infant over.
Calm himself while holding a screaming baby? Uncle was absolutely insane… But Zuko took the baby and several deep shuddering breaths while Uncle held his gaze, radiating calm like heat waves while reciting a familiar koan for meditation. Soon he was able to force calm on himself… and almost as soon as he calmed down, so did the baby. Weird.
He kept rubbing the baby’s back to keep him soothed, while his uncle looked over the trashed cabin with a rueful expression and slowly shook his head. “Dear me, what a mess… We’ll have to get a cleaning detail in here quickly. And get the two of you cleaned up as well; perhaps we can wash at least a few of the ink stains off…”
Iroh put together a three-man cleaning party to scrub Zuko’s cabin, while Zuko took the baby down to the laundry room that doubled as the ship’s bathing room on non-laundry days. Today was actually a laundry day, but Joben took one look the baby now covered in black blotches, and hurriedly emptied the clothes out of the last rinsing tub without any questions.
Zuko scowled at the rinse tub, filled with cold clear water. “A cold bath? I wouldn’t do that to a spider-snake!” Cold baths were sheer misery, a mild form of torture as far as he was concerned, and nobody expected this Earth Kingdom kid to be a firebender.
“It'll be quicker for you to warm up cold water with some firebending than to wait for the wash water to cool down, sir," as Joben indicated the wash tubs with a jerk of his chin. The washing water was heated by steam piped in straight from the engine room’s main boiler; curling wisps of steam were visible in the air above those tubs, and Joben’s hands and arms were bright red from being immersed in them. “Babies have right delicate skin; they take baths in warm water instead of hot. Besides, the regular laundry soap would likely give the littl’un a rash. I’ll get you some mild soap powder, and some sword oil from the armory, while you’re heating the water.
“Sword oil?” Zuko echoed incredulously.
“For getting the ink off skin, sir; best thing for it,” Joben said over his shoulder as he hurried out.
Zuko stared after the crewman, then decided to believe him; it wasn’t like Zuko had any experience in washing babies to compare it with. After checking to make sure there wasn’t anything around for the baby to get his ink-stained hands on—all the laundry was up on tables well off the deck—Zuko set the baby down, rolled up his sleeves and plunged an arm deep into the cold water with a shudder of distaste, then set to heating it with firebending. It was tempting to fire several blasts into it until it was as hot as he liked his baths, but Joben had said warm but not hot.
While steadily heating the water, he turned enough to keep an eye on the baby. The little boy tried to stand up, made it to his feet for just a few seconds and then wobbled and fell backwards onto his butt; Zuko tensed, ready to grab him and comfort him again but the baby just seemed to shake it off without any tears. Maybe he was so low to the ground already that just the diaper padding prevented him from being hurt. After that, the baby crawled around, leaving smears of ink here and there on the floor—his crew was going to hate him even more after this, Zuko just knew it—until he reached the wall. Then he pulled himself up and started walking unsteadily along the perimeter, while keeping one hand against the wall for balance. Resourceful little boy, Zuko thought approvingly, while swirling around the heated water to warm the entire tub. He wondered if the baby really hadn’t learned to walk yet, or if he could walk on level ground but hadn’t gotten his sea legs yet.
Soon the water in the tub felt just a little bit warmer than his own skin; Zuko hoped that was what Joben had meant. With the water ready, he turned his attention to getting the baby out of his clothes and diaper—which was sodden with pee already; didn’t this kid do anything besides make messes? He’d just finished getting the baby stripped when his uncle came into the laundry room with a bundle of clean clothing, reporting that the cleanup had begun and his room should be presentable again in an hour or so. “Plenty of time to get both of you clean again,” he concluded with a wry smile.
Zuko nodded, grimacing at the ink stains on his hands that he’d noticed while rolling his sleeves up. “Well, it should probably come off my hands while I’m washing him,” he concluded with a shrug. The dressing gown was ink-stained too, but he had a strong hunch it was about to get wet anyway; he’d change clothes afterwards.
Iroh chuckled. “More than your hands need cleaning now, nephew.” He produced a small hand mirror from his belt pouch and proffered it. Zuko took it with dread pooling in his stomach, looked in it… and then groaned aloud. Tiny black smudges and handprints were all over his neck and collarbones, and even his cheeks and jaw! Everywhere the baby had touched him and grabbed at him while calming down and being carried here…
“There’s nothing for it but to hop into the tub with him,” Iroh said with a shrug. “Besides, you’ll be able to hold him more safely while washing him that way. Here, I’ll hold him while you strip.”
So Zuko resignedly stripped and got into the tub, just as Joben came back in with the sword oil and the mild soap powder. But when Iroh started to hand the baby to Zuko for washing, he began squalling and kicking up a storm, his voice rising to ear-piercing shrieks as he was brought closer to the tub. Iroh stared at the baby in consternation, muttering, “What on earth…?”
“It’s okay, ssshhh, I know, but I heated it nice and warm for you, it’s okay,” Zuko said soothingly as he stood up to take the baby, hugging the little boy to his chest while doing his best to ignore the flailing fists and feet. “It’s nice and warm, I promise,” he said over and over while lowering himself and the baby slowly into the water. When the baby’s feet first touched the water, he shrieked loud enough to deafen a komodo-rhino, but less than a minute later, he quieted down and was waving his hands in the water in wide-eyed wonder. “See? Nice and warm… Now let’s get you clean, okay?”
“If he came from peasant folks, this is likely the first warm bath the poor little tyke’s ever had,” Joben said wisely as he started mixing water and soap powder in a small bowl to make a rich lather.
“But you knew what was troubling him, even before I did,” Iroh said admiringly as he soaked a rag in the sword oil, then reached out to begin wiping ink off the nearest infant appendage. “Another indication that you’ll be a fine father to this boy.”
“Fatherhood had nothing to do with it,” Zuko snorted as he accepted another oil-soaked rag and started on the other side. “I just remembered how much I dreaded taking cold baths.”
Iroh paused and gave him a strange look. “Prince Zuko, when have you ever taken cold baths?”
“I took them for over four months, when I was six years old—hold still, baby! This oil’s making you slippery!—Anyway, the day after Azula made her first sparks, Father told the servants to stop heating my bathwater, and told me that if I ever wanted a hot bath again I’d better start firebending so I could heat it myself.” Zuko didn’t quite repress a shudder at the memory of those hideously cold baths he had endured, until his firebending had finally kicked in. Awful times, with his grim-faced servants scrubbing him clean as fast as they could while he tried so hard not to shiver from sitting in that cold, cold water… and Azula had delighted in playing tricks on him that ended up with him covered in mud or muck and needing baths twice a day. Once she’d gotten him dirty three times in the same horrible day, and that night he’d climbed into bed still shivering miserably.
The day after he’d made his first sparks (and came sooo close to setting fire to Azula’s hair; she hadn’t been expecting that at all, and the look on her face had exulted him almost as much as the sparks had), he’d triumphantly told the servants to stand aside so he could heat the water for his bath… then almost wept when, after ten minutes of throwing all the little fires he could make at the tub full of water, it was still unbearably cold. Then one of the firebending palace guards had wandered into the bathroom on a servant’s heels, faked a horrible cough that ‘accidentally’ sent a sizeable fireball into the tub, apologized for his poor manners at coughing so in the prince’s presence, and left as quickly as he came. And that had been the end of the cold baths… Zuko shook himself back to the present, and went back to scrubbing at ink stains.
With a snort of disgust, Joben commented, “Everyone knows cold water sucks a firebender’s power away; cold baths all the time would be more likely to keep a boy from making sparks at all! What kind of damnfool idiot would--” he abruptly cut himself off and went white as a funeral sheet, as he realized who he’d just been speaking ill of. “I-I-I mean, I’m sure the Fire Lord had his reasons, and they’re not for me to question!”
“Indeed,” was all Iroh said in response, looking very grim as he continued scrubbing ink off the baby. Zuko knew he should defend how his father had chosen to motivate him to begin making fire, knew he should harshly correct Joben’s comment… but right then he was busy trying to clean while fending off splashes; the baby was happily slapping the water while giggling with delight. And those giggles were… nice to listen to, really…
“It is good to see you smiling again, nephew,” his uncle commented a few minutes later, while deftly scrubbing the last of the ink off the baby’s backside.
“Huh?” Zuko was startled up from where he’d been tickling the baby’s tummy to keep him giggling.
“It has been a very long time since I’ve seen you smile at anything. But there is something wonderful about a laughing baby, isn’t there?” as Iroh gave him a knowing smile.
“…Yeah,” he admitted. Seeing and hearing the baby laugh and giggle at him, was giving him more of that too-big-but-warm feeling in his chest that he’d had earlier, while traveling with the baby to his ship. He still couldn’t put a name to what he was feeling, and it was actually not just weird but a little scary, but… he also liked it a lot.
Once they’d gotten off all the ink off the baby, Iroh handed Zuko the mirror and took over entertaining the baby while Zuko scrubbed the ink off himself. Then it was time to lather up with the soap and wash away all the sword oil, then rinse and climb out of the tub. “Ah, look at you now, all nice and clean,” Iroh cooed as he carefully patted the baby dry with a towel. “What did you think of your very first warm bath?”
“How soon will he start talking, anyway?” Zuko asked as he climbed out of the tub, wrapped a larger towel around his waist and wrung out his phoenix-plume. “I haven’t heard anything but babbling so far.”
“He’ll start using short sentences in another year or so, though I should think he already knows a word or two. But a child’s first words are usually about his favorite toys and his mother, and unfortunately, we don’t have either of those around here,” Iroh concluded sadly, as he finished putting the baby’s diaper on. Then he brightened a little bit as he added, “But there’s no time like the present for him to begin learning new words, eh?” Then he turned the baby to face Zuko and pointed right at his scarred face as he said, “Little one, this is your Papa Zuko. Can you say that? Can you say ‘Papa Zuko’?”
Zuko froze, and swallowed hard to force down the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat… But the baby only babbled some more nonsense in response to his uncle’s words. He couldn’t decide whether he was relieved or disappointed.
“Not yet, hm? Well, don’t worry, you’ll learn it soon enough. Let’s get you dressed, little one,” Iroh said as he began wrestling the baby into a fresh set of baby clothes while Zuko dried off and got dressed in the clothes Iroh had brought for him. “Another word he should learn, would be his own name. Have you thought of a good one yet, nephew?”
“Not yet,” Zuko admitted as he pulled on a fresh dressing gown. “I thought of ‘Li’, but… it just seemed too common for him. I mean, I know his mother was a peasant, but…”
Iroh smiled in understanding, then continued, “Well, there’s no better time than right now to think of a few more names. Since he will be your first son, how about ‘Ichiro’?”
Zuko froze again in sheer panic—-Bright Agni, was his uncle expecting him to go around finding and adopting more orphans?—-then finally managed to squeak out, “Um, no?”
“Well, I suppose not; others might then expect him to become your heir, but the Fire Sages simply wouldn’t allow that,” Iroh mused. “What about ‘Chokichi’? He did have the extremely good fortune of you hearing his cries and saving him from certain death.”
Joben looked up from where he was draining the tub so it could be refilled for laundry use, and shook his head. “Begging your pardon, general, but it might not be a good idea to name him that.”
“And why not?” as Iroh gave him a bushy raised eyebrow.
“Well… permission to speak freely, sirs?” Joben asked warily. They granted permission, so he went on, “Lieutenant Jee told everyone that you’re sure the baby’s got no witchy powers, but there are still a few folks that aren’t so sure. Reminding everyone whenever they hear his name how lucky he was that you found him, is just going to make those folks wonder more if it was really just luck or something more than that, like work of the spirits.” To which Zuko could say absolutely nothing, because according to his uncle, the spirits had been involved in his finding the baby after all.
Iroh must have silently agreed with him, because he said readily, “Not Chokichi, then. But please tell us plainly, Joben, besides those superstitious few, how does the rest of the crew feel about our bringing a baby aboard?”
“Uh, well…” Joben hesitated.
“Just spit it out,” Zuko growled at Joben, even as he accepted the baby from his uncle’s arms. “No honey-coating; I need to know the worst of it.”
“Yes, sirs!” Joben gulped. “Ah, well, about half the crew thinks it was absolutely crazy to bring a baby aboard the ship.” Zuko had been expecting that reaction—he still thought it was crazy—but it still hurt a little to hear the words spoken out loud. But then Joben went on, “The other half thinks it might be the best thing that’s happened since you first found the Avatar.”
Zuko stared at him. “…What?”
Joben shrugged and spread his hands. “Lots of us have family we haven’t seen in years, sir. Sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, a few even have grandchildren that they haven’t seen except in sketches. They think it’ll be nice to have a little boy running around as a ship’s mascot or something, even if he doesn’t belong to them.” Then he cracked a grin, showing the gap in his teeth. “Maybe ‘specially if he doesn’t belong to them, because then they won’t be expected to change his diapers all the time.”
“Understandable,” Iroh chuckled.
After blinking and absorbing that surprising information for a few moments, Zuko looked down at the baby in his arms and asked, “How about ‘Mushi’?” It meant ‘likes soldiers’ but could also mean ‘liked by soldiers’, which seemed appropriate now.
Iroh frowned. “Nephew, I know you have fond memories of him, but if you name that boy after the lion-dog that used to patrol with the imperial guards, I shall be very disappointed in you.”
Zuko blushed at the rebuke, and protested, “I don’t mean I think he’s a pet or anything!”
Dried off and dressed, they took the baby back to Zuko’s room, still debating baby names. All the names meaning ‘lucky’ were immediately rejected, for the reason Joben had given; all the names meaning ‘rare’ were likewise rejected, because Zuko felt there was no reason to emphasize his unusual eyes.
Zuko’s room was clean again by the time they got there, and with a new addition; a large earthenware jar with a heavy lid now sat in the corner by the door. “For putting soiled diapers in,” Iroh said, pointing it out. Stuff was missing, too, namely all his shoes and boots; Akio apologized for the inconvenience and promised that he’d have them back as soon as they got all the ink stains out of them. Zuko suppressed a sigh and decided that he could continue going shoeless for a while, then sat down on the bed with the baby in his lap while Iroh retrieved a tea set from his quarters and began brewing a fresh pot. “Instead of a name based upon his appearance or his circumstances, we should think of names that speak of his future,” his uncle suggested while gripping the teapot to heat the water inside.
“A name meaning ‘strong’, then,” Zuko mused aloud, while letting the baby grasp and tug at the frog closures on his dressing gown; he’d have to come up with some toys for the baby to play with, and soon. "He’ll need to be strong, to survive… ‘Ken’? ‘Takeo’?”
“Both are good names… but I had something else in mind. A name that is perhaps more of a promise to him than a wish for him,” Iroh said slowly. “You could name him ‘Teiji’.”
“ ‘Righteous’?” Zuko mused aloud.
“ ‘Well-governed’,” Iroh corrected him. “Consider it a promise that you will raise him well, with neither too much indulgence to spoil him, nor cruelty to make him fear you. It can be very challenging, to show love for someone without being too indulgent… to discipline them without being cruel. But I believe you can do it, nephew; you can raise him to be well-governed, so that someday far in the future, he will govern his own children just as well.”
“Teiji,” Zuko said aloud, thinking it over. It was scary, choosing a name like that, making a promise that big… but then, he and his uncle had already vowed to his mother’s spirit that they’d see her baby raised to respect and honor her memory. He’d meant at the time that they’d see the boy safely placed with a decent Earth Kingdom family, but… Really, the name wouldn’t be the promise, just a reminder of the promise already made. And it would be a reminder that what was truly important wasn’t how the baby looked, with those mismatched eyes, but how his elders raised him and how he behaved in response. “Teiji.” He looked down at the baby in his arms, and gave a little smile. “Hello, Teiji.”
Teiji smiled back at him, reached up to pat his chin with one chubby hand… and then pooped in his diapers again.
Iroh winced as the smell wafted to his nose, then chuckled wryly. “Oh, the joys of fatherhood… I’ll take care of it, nephew.”
“No, I’ll do it this time,” Zuko insisted, though with a gusty sigh, as he gestured for the diaper bag that had been put on his desk. “If I’m going to raise him, I’d better get used to this…”
When Zhao’s task force of warships reached Crescent Island, Zhao personally led the attack as his men stormed the Fire Sages’ temple there. They quickly captured the Avatar’s companions, and were almost in time to prevent the child Avatar from contacting his predecessor, Avatar Roku.
Unfortunately, the key word in that sentence was ‘almost.’
After the Avatar’s escape and the volcanic explosion that completely wrecked the temple and crippled one of Zhao’s ships, since Prince Zuko wasn’t handy to pin all the blame on, Zhao found the scapegoats he needed in the Fire Sages. The High Sage protested that only one of them had helped the Avatar, but he declared them all to be traitors and had them imprisoned in the flagship’s holding cells.
He glared off to the East, the direction the Avatar’s bison had been fleeing in, and vowed that one day the Avatar would be in one of those holding cells. To go down in history as the man to capture the Avatar… Zhao would make a glorious reputation for himself that would last for a thousand years, or die trying!
As an officer, Jee technically had the right to eat in the officers’ quarters. But he had risen through the enlisted ranks before becoming an officer, and on this ship the only other officers were royalty, so instead Jee always ate with the crew in the mess hall. Tonight he nodded to the galley assistant taking the tray of dinner up to the royal quarters, noting the extra cup, bowl and spoon on the tray, before sitting down in his usual spot next to Tetsuko.
Dinners were always noisy affairs, but tonight the conversation levels reached epic proportions, and most of them were about the baby Prince Zuko had brought aboard: Had the prince given the baby a name yet? Had the general said it wasn’t a witch-child because he was sure, or just to prevent a mutiny? What if the baby’s real father found out where he was and came for him? What would Fire Lord Ozai have to say about his son adopting an Earth Kingdom peasant child? What if the baby turned out to be an earthbender? When the general had assembled the cleaning detail for the prince’s cabin, had anyone heard him mention a name for the baby? That mess in the cabin; did normal babies make that much of a mess that quickly? (That was answered with a resounding ‘yes’ from nearly a dozen throats at once, followed by a round of competitive horror stories about messes their own children had made.) What if the one blue eye meant the baby was half-Water Tribe? What if he turned out to be a waterbender? What if the two different eye colors meant he could bend both earth and water?
“Attention on deck!”
That was almost never heard in the mess hall. Everyone scrambled up out of their seats while whipping around to stare at Akio, who’d leaped to his feet with eyes wide, then whipped around again to stare at what he was staring at: Prince Zuko standing in the doorway, with his uncle by his side, and the baby in his arms.
“Oh, please, sit down; no need to be so formal!” General Iroh said with a smile, making settling gestures with his hands. Prince Zuko didn’t say anything, so they slowly and warily sat back down, though no one was quite bold enough to pick up their chopsticks again.
In the sudden silence, the prince glared at them all for a few seconds before saying abruptly, “I’ve named him Teiji. The baby. His name’s Teiji.” Then he turned to leave, presumably to head back to his quarters with the baby.
But General Iroh stepped in his way without seeming to do so and said, “Prince Zuko, it occurs to me that since children are so brilliant at making messes when they eat, and the royal quarters have already been scrubbed clean once this afternoon, perhaps it would be more efficient to feed Teiji here in the mess hall.”
Zuko stared at his uncle, then glanced around the mess hall almost in a panic. For once, Jee could almost read the boy prince’s thoughts; did his uncle want the entire crew to see him trying—and occasionally failing—to spoon-feed the baby?
“Efficiency is important in running a tight ship, after all. You’ve said so many times yourself,” Iroh declared cheerily as he nudged the prince and his charge over to a table in the corner. Jiro and Tadao, who normally sat there, grabbed their food and scrambled out of their seats without being asked, leaving the table to the royals. The galley assistant, who had been right behind the royals, set their dinner tray on the table before bowing and withdrawing.
Jee knew that if the crew continued to stare at that proud prince while he fumbled his way through the feeding, there’d be hell to pay later for every moment of embarrassment. So he picked up his chopsticks again and started loudly talking with Tetsuko about the latest gossip from the colonies, while gesturing for the next table over to start doing the same. Within a few minutes there were at least a dozen reasonably loud, utterly pointless conversations going on all over the mess hall, while everyone discretely kept one eye and ear on the royals’ table:
“Open wide, Teiji… Good boy. Isn’t that—no, don’t spit it out! Oh, come on, it’s yummy food; open wide… Open your mouth, Teiji… Look, I’ll try some myself; see? It’s… yuck! This is so bland it’s horrible! No wonder Teiji won’t eat it. Why is the cook trying to feed my son this slop?!”
“Babies generally can’t tolerate the spicy foods we adults enjoy, nephew.”
“Well, there’s got to be something better than this that he can eat! Here, give me that rice, I know he’ll eat that… Look, Teiji, yummy rice! Open wide… there’s a good boy! Go ahead, eat it all up… ready for more? Here comes another spoonful… Good boy!”
“A baby will not thrive on rice alone, nephew; you’ll have to find a way to get him to eat his vegetables too. But I suppose that can wait for another meal…”
Jee couldn’t help smiling as he overheard the conversation; it almost exactly mirrored one he’d had with his wife many years ago. He privately decided that sometime soon, he’d let the new father know about the tricks he’d come up with to get his children to eat their vegetables.
“Didja hear him say ‘my son’ when he was complaining about the baby food?” Tetsuko murmured to him under cover of conversation. “Agni help us, I think he’s serious about keeping this Earth Kingdom kid…”
“Yes, he is. And yes, he heard you,” Jee murmured back to her. Tetsuko automatically turned her eyes towards the prince, who met her eyes with his usual fierce glare and a curt nod of acknowledgment; she blushed and dropped her eyes to her dinner.
Jee gave her a lopsided smirk of not-quite-sympathy, before returning to his own dinner. Agni help them, indeed; there would be interesting days ahead…
To be continued!
Chapter 3: Indulged
(Added after initial post) A few reviewers at FFnet commented after chapter 2 was posted, on how surprisingly quickly Zuko took to the idea of adoption and teenaged fatherhood. I'll admit that at first glance at Season One Zuko, the Angry Jerk, it seems pretty out-of-character for him to suddenly adopt a child. But Zuko has always had more going on beneath the surface than he lets others see.
Even in the first two seasons, underneath his misplaced anger and his Really Severe Daddy Issues, Zuko has a good heart. Flashbacks of his childhood aside, we saw evidence of his inner compassion when he risked his own life to save the helmsman during "The Storm". We saw it again in the second season episode "Zuko Alone", when the boy Li snuck into the barn where he was sleeping to take and play with his swords... and instead of chewing the kid up one side and down the other for taking his weapons without permission, Zuko gave him some basic pointers on swordsmanship. It was that compassionate impulse that sent Zuko running into the woods, following the sound of a baby crying in the wilds. The compassion continued through the baby's rescue from the ravine, though after that Zuko thought his good deed was done and was more than ready to resume hunting the Avatar; Iroh had to manipulate him into holding the baby again.
Never underestimate the power of Touch, particularly on someone with a trace of compassion. Zuko had nearly a full hour of holding the mostly-sleeping baby before they reached the village; an hour of holding a warm living being in his arms, when I'd bet gold that nobody, even Iroh, had dared do more than rest the occasional hand on his shoulder for a few seconds now and then over the last three years. The bonding started even then, which is why when they reached the village and Zuko found out the headman would have killed the baby, there was absolutely no question at all that they'd take the baby with them for safety, instead of just telling the headman that the baby was NOT a witch-child, and that the village owed it to his mother to look after the baby now.
When told by Iroh that a powerful spirit had chosen HIM to raise the baby, Zuko did a lot of panicking and mental flailing-and-running-in-circles; he didn't instantly think of the baby as his son. But he kept holding onto the baby because Iroh had the reins, and the baby was holding onto him in return... panicking slowly turned to resigned acceptance. And later on came that bathtub scene, being able to comfort the baby and more than that, make him laugh... that's the first time anyone has smiled because of something Zuko did in years. Positive feedback does wonders for any relationship!
Then came the naming, and naming someone is laying claim to them in a way. By the time of the mess hall scene, Zuko was indeed thinking of Teiji as his child.
Zuko awoke to his second day of fatherhood, still not knowing what the hells he was doing… but he thought with just a smidgen of pride that so far, he seemed to be okay at improvising.
Last night after dinner, he’d brought Teiji back to his—their cabin, then gotten down on his hands and knees and begun crawling everywhere. Teiji had been delighted to have company on the floor and had crawled right alongside him, and even right under him to come out giggling on the other side. But while Teiji had thought it was all a game, Zuko had done it for the purpose of Teiji-proofing his belongings. He’d figured that anything he could reach while crawling, Teiji could reach while standing up, and wanted to make sure that everything valuable or breakable was out of the baby’s range.
The new inkwell had gone straight up to a high shelf, one with a short retaining wall around the edge to keep items from sliding off as the ship rocked in the waves. He also moved up there the new stack of blank papers, and the ink brushes he used for writing. He’d been lucky that none of the papers Teiji had ruined earlier had been irreplaceable; one had been the weekly letter to his father that he’d barely begun writing, and the rest had been messages of Avatar sightings that were already outdated.
He’d cleared another high shelf for his shoes and boots, deciding that the low shelf they’d been on would be used for Teiji’s toys later on. All his clothes would be safe where they were, so long as he kept the lid to his sea chest not just closed, but latched and locked. He already kept the lid closed just to keep things tidy; unlocking and relocking it every morning would be a minor nuisance, but he could live with that easier than living with all his clothes stained with ink or whatever. He’d put Teiji’s clothes in the sea chest too, as they didn’t take up too much space, but put the clean diapers up on a shelf, already knowing he’d need them more than once or twice a day.
With a small sigh of mixed nostalgia and regret, he’d pulled the special rock Mai had given him, a bit of volcanic rock roughly shaped like a heart, out of the little hiding place he’d arranged for it by the head of his bed. If he could reach into the nook easily and get it out when he was feeling particularly wretched and in need of even a scrap of comfort from memories, then the baby could reach in and get it too. He'd heard somewhere that babies put anything and everything into their mouths, and he had no desire for Teiji to either choke on the small stone or get drool all over his keepsake.
Teiji had poked curiously at the rock in his hand, before he’d curled his fingers protectively over it. “It’s from someone I know, back in the Fire Nation,” he’d told Teiji solemnly. “I haven’t heard from her in nearly three years, since I was banished, but she used to be my… my girlfriend, sort of. We never called each other that, but we kissed once, just a week before the Agni Kai. She was really my only friend besides Ty Lee; I hope you can meet them both someday.” Then he’d mentally shoved aside all the questions his heart kept asking—did she even remember him? Had her parents betrothed her to someone else in the last few years?—and had put the rock under all the clothes in his sea chest, before locking the chest again.
Then he’d sat down on the floor again with Teiji and something he’d pulled off the high shelf he’d put his writing supplies on; an incense burner shaped like a resting dragon. Uncle Iroh had given it to him a couple of years ago, probably in hopes that he’d take up Kōdō as a hobby after he’d made it clear that he didn’t share his uncle’s obsession with tea. He’d never used it, since he had no use for sitting around sniffing incense any more than sitting around sipping tea, but he hadn’t thrown it away either. He’d taken out the lone stick of sandalwood incense, then set the long wooden dragon-shape in front of Teiji with a smile. “Look, Teiji; it’s a dragon! A toy dragon, I mean. …Well, actually it’s an incense burner, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a toy for you. Dragons were wonderful creatures; they flew through the sky like this,” as he’d made the incense burner swoop and soar over Teiji as he giggled with delight, “and they breathed fire, like this!” as he’d held the burner up next to his mouth and spit out a tiny tongue of flame, trying to make it seem like the dragon was doing it instead of him. “They were the very first firebenders. They’re not around anymore, which is really tragic—just don’t ever tell Uncle Iroh I said that—but you can still have this one as a toy!”
He’d played with Teiji and the toy dragon for a while, like his uncle must have played with him when he’d been really little. He had vague memories of hearing Uncle Iroh’s booming laughter and seeing his smiling face towering over him as he’d played with toy soldiers in the nursery, and helping to line them up in ranks (though he had no memories at all of his father doing that with him. Had he been such a disappointment to his father even when he’d been that young?) Teiji had clapped, giggled and shrieked with laughter as he’d made the dragon fly and swoop around the room, and over the bed as those rumpled sheets had suddenly become a wilderness of ridges and valleys for the dragon to hunt in.
Eventually he’d set the dragon toy aside and just played with Teiji directly: tickling him like he’d done earlier during the bath; picking him up to swoop him about the cabin like a hatchling dragon or messenger hawk; getting down on hands and knees to let Teiji crawl under and around him again, calling out ‘where’s Teiji?’ every time he lost sight of the boy and pretending surprised delight to find him again; taking the baby’s tiny hands to swing him back and forth just above the bed. Every time he’d been rewarded with giggles, laughter and spontaneous hugs, he’d thought again that playtime was clearly the best part of fatherhood; he hadn’t enjoyed himself this much in… in a very, very long time.
Eventually Teiji had started yawning, indicating he was ready for bed, with what Zuko had thought was perfect timing; the sun had been setting, and despite his long nap earlier he’d still been tired from being up for two days and nights straight. He’d managed to hold his breath long enough to do one final diaper change—an unexpected bonus to all the breath control exercises Uncle had drilled him in; they were good for more than firebending—and then they’d gone to bed together.
Teiji had been wiggly and refused to settle down at first, but after he’d put out the last candle with a touch of firebending, the little boy had huddled right up against him. “Afraid of the dark, huh?” he’d murmured soothingly. “It’s okay; I was afraid of the dark too, when I was really little. It wasn’t until I was a lot older than you that I learned how the darkness can be your friend… but I’ll tell you about that some other time.” He’d sung ‘Leaves from the Vine’ while cuddling Teiji close, and soon fallen asleep to the sound of the baby’s soft little snores.
The next morning they’d both woken up at dawn. By the time he’d gotten Teiji’s diaper changed again, Uncle had been knocking on the door with a tea tray for the two adults, and a cup of plain water for Teiji. And a wooden top and small kokeshi doll for the baby to play with, too; Uncle seemed to pick up souvenirs from every port they stopped in, so it wasn’t surprising that he’d picked up a few toys as well. Fortunately, Uncle was neither surprised nor displeased to see what Zuko had turned into Teiji’s first toy, and he’d played with the baby while Zuko had gotten dressed and ready for the day.
When his uncle had come in, he’d reported that Zuko’s shoes and boots were lined up outside his door; the crewmen had finished cleaning ink off them sometime during the night. He brought them in and looked them over critically; there were still faint shadows of ink stains here and there, but they weren’t too noticeable. “They actually did a better job of cleaning up the ink stains than I’d thought possible; perhaps because they were cleaned so soon after getting stained,” Iroh commented, and he absently nodded agreement as he donned a pair of boots. He put the remaining pairs up on the high shelf, and then they went together down to the mess hall again for breakfast.
Zuko had hated having dinner in the mess hall yesterday; he normally only ate with the crew when he was expected to, on the special feast days that officers traditionally shared with their crew. They always stared at him when he did, and he hated being stared at (he already knew he was ugly but he didn’t need constant reminders); those stares always killed his appetite. But this morning, the stares… weren’t as bad as before. He noticed some crewmen even sort-of smiling in his direction while he fed Teiji, which was weird, but not in a bad way. Maybe Joben had been right about some of the crewmen actually liking the idea of his bringing a baby aboard.
After finishing breakfast, he put Teiji in the baby sling for carrying him up ladders, and went up to the bridge; just because he had adopted a baby didn’t mean he’d forgotten his mission of capturing the Avatar. Lieutenant Jee was there waiting for him by the ship’s log, with a look on his face that Zuko had learned well over the last two years; that half-angry, half-resigned look that meant I did something that’s going to get me yelled at by Prince Zuko.
With a suspicious look at Jee, Zuko started reading the ship’s log to see what entries had been made since he’d started searching for his uncle… and soon found the reason for that look on his lieutenant’s face. “We had a sky bison sighting? Two nights ago? And you didn’t tell me about it?! You--”
“Uah, ah, waaahh!”
Cinders! He’d forgotten for a moment that he was holding Teiji. Yesterday after the mess in the cabin and his worries that the baby had been hurt, Teiji hadn’t calmed down until after Zuko had calmed himself. Now it seemed there was a flip side to this mirroring of his moods; if he got upset for any reason, so did the baby! So Zuko broke off his berating in a hurry, before Teiji started really shrieking, and started rubbing his son’s back instead. “Oh, ssshhh, Teiji; it’s okay, I’m not mad at you… Calm down, there’s a good boy,” he murmured soothingly. “Ssshhh, it’s okay…”
“My apologies for not informing you the moment you came aboard, sir,” Jee said stiffly while he was busy calming Teiji. “I had meant to, but I was… distracted by your unexpected companion.”
Zuko had to admit, Teiji was pretty distracting. He nodded curt acknowledgment, then admitted, “I also had a sighting of the sky bison, while searching for the general’s kidnappers. But I couldn’t pursue it at the time, and by the time I’d rescued first my uncle and then a baby, it had gotten too far ahead of me for further sightings.” Now that Teiji was calm again, he moved to the map at the navigator’s station. “When I spotted the bison, I was… right about here,” as he pointed to the spot on the map. “And the ship was waiting in this inlet; that’s a west-by-northwest course…”
“The bison looked to be flying north-by-northwest at the time of our sighting, sir,” the navigator said respectfully.
“Hmm. He changed course to keep clear of Fire Nation waters,” Zuko mused aloud as he studied the map. It made sense; the Avatar was somehow still a child instead of an old man, but he wasn’t a complete moron, and only an utter fool would fly right into enemy territory for no good reason.
“Based on our sighting, sir, we plotted a course to the nearest city in that direction; the colony of Pan Gao,” as Jee tapped the place on the map. Zuko nodded; again, that made sense. Pan Gao was the colony closest to the Fire Nation border and had been established decades ago, but by the last Zuko had heard, they still had some problems with rebels in the nearby forests, just like Gaipan further north. It stood to reason that anywhere you had rebel bases, you had people friendly to the Avatar; people he might try to make contact with.
Jee continued, “While you were sleeping, I took the river steamer and an away team into port and personally questioned the colony mayor and head of the guard on your behalf. Unfortunately, none of their people had seen any sign of the Avatar. I also asked about the rebels, but they haven’t had any recent incidents with them, either; not since capturing their ringleader two months back. If the Avatar had been thinking to join and rally them like he did the earthbenders aboard the prison barge, he was two months too late. So we’ve maintained this heading while waiting for further direction from you, sir.”
Zuko nodded acknowledgment again; Jee had done everything that Zuko would have ordered done if he’d been awake and aware at the time. “Maintain present course until we receive news of another sighting,” he ordered. He was sure that the Avatar had slipped past the colony undetected by veering inland to the forests and flying low over the trees. He’d escaped them this time… But Zuko remembered his uncle’s words from two nights before, and said aloud with confidence, “We’ll find him again. We found him the first time after he’d been hiding from everyone for a hundred years, and we found him again after all the tricks he pulled to confuse his trail in the southern seas. We’ll find him again, and next time he won’t escape!”
“Yes, sir!” everyone present on the bridge chorused, all of them standing tall… and sort-of not-quite-smiling at him again. That was really weird, but again, not in a bad way. “B’gaah!” Teiji said cheerfully, as if in agreement.
Iroh had come up onto the bridge while he was speaking, and looked both surprised and delighted with the crew’s response. Then he clapped and said “Very well said, Prince Zuko!” Which made Zuko blink in puzzlement; didn’t Uncle remember saying basically those same words to him earlier, while they were riding the komodo-rhino together? He almost said that aloud, but decided against it; his poor uncle didn’t need to start the morning with another reminder of his encroaching senility.
Soon afterwards, Zuko handed Teiji over to Uncle’s safekeeping and went with Lieutenant Jee down to the main deck for a sparring session. After his Agni Kai with Zhao, Uncle had acknowledged he’d finally learned his basics well enough and began teaching him the more advanced forms, but he definitely needed more practice in them. He tried out two of them in the sparring session, and while he wasn’t able to beat Jee using them he at least made the lieutenant work harder. But before either of them could win the last match, the deck suddenly tilted hard to starboard, as the ship abruptly changed course.
His heart in his throat, Zuko scrambled for the ladder to the bridge, with Jee right behind him. “What's the meaning of this mutinous behavior?” he demanded of the helmsman. “No one told you to change course!”
“Actually, someone did. I assure you it is a matter of utmost importance, Prince Zuko,” his uncle said gravely from where he was sitting at the pai sho board, with Teiji sitting in his lap happily babbling and waving at him.
His heart started pounding even harder, no longer from fear—the last mutiny they’d had aboard had been deadly enough, and now he had a helpless baby to worry about too—but from hope. “Is it something to do with the Avatar?” he asked, wondering if they’d gotten a hawk-message while he and Jee had been sparring.
“Even more urgent. Take a look at my lotus tile,” Iroh said as he picked a pai sho tile off the board and flipped it at him.
Confused, he caught the tile in midair and looked at it closely. The lotus design on it was looking somewhat mutilated now; it was covered with tiny… “Tooth marks?” he said aloud, then looked at his son reprovingly. “Teiji, this isn’t food! Besides, you should still be full from breakfast!”
“Your son is teething, nephew,” Iroh informed him, while bouncing Teiji on his knee. “Teething babies need things to chew on, to help their teeth rise up through their gums. You have a few wooden toys already that he may chew on, but he’ll gnaw them to bits soon enough… and there is still the matter of that rash on his poor bottom, from all the time he spent without anyone to change his diaper before you found him. Our ship’s doctor told me yesterday evening that he’s never treated any patient younger than you yourself; he doesn’t know what ointment is best for such cases.”
“So you set our course for a port town where we can find more baby supplies, and maybe a wise-woman for the doctor to talk to about medicine for babies,” Zuko guessed aloud.
“And perhaps a new lotus tile for me,” as Iroh nodded and beamed at him. “I knew you would understand, nephew!”
Zuko not only understood, he felt guilty about not having ordered that course change himself earlier; he’d seen that painful-looking rash on Teiji’s bottom more than anyone else aboard. (Not that he admitted that aloud, with his crew right there listening.) Instead, he told Teiji while caressing his son’s fine black hair, “Maybe we’ll find some toy soldiers for you to play with, too. I used to like playing with toy soldiers when I was a little boy.” Before Azula had grown up enough to start playing with his toys, anyway. One day she’d taken his soldiers and either lost them all in the turtle-duck pond or just hidden them somewhere he could never find, because he’d never seen them again.
“Unbelievable,” the helmsman whispered under his breath, and then tried to look like he hadn’t said anything when Zuko gave him a sharp look. What was so unbelievable about little boys playing with toy soldiers?
After Zuko had determined that they were headed for Laosing, an Earth Kingdom neutral port, Lieutenant Jee asked, “Will you grant the crew permission to go ashore?”
A neutral port wasn’t the same as a friendly port… but his men all knew that. Since babies didn’t normally live on ships, the docks likely had very few shops that carried baby supplies. They might have to venture off the docks, and into the village behind the port. It would probably take a while for his uncle to find the baby things they needed and wanted to get—plus another lotus tile for his uncle’s silly game—and for the doctor to find a good wise-woman to talk to. There was really no reason not to let his men go ashore if they expected to be there a while, so Zuko nodded and ordered, “They can go ashore in groups of four, with no more than two groups away at any time. They’re all to keep their ears open about Avatar sightings, and I want everyone back aboard by sunset.”
“Yes, sir,” as Jee nodded with another almost-smile and went to pass the orders along. His uncle beamed at him and complimented him on being so generous with his crew. Which just bewildered him again; what was with all these people smiling and almost-smiling at him lately? …Oh, they’d better not be hiding another illegal still in the beast-hold, or anywhere else…
Well, searching his ship for the new still would have to wait until nightfall, when he could put on the black clothing and mask and skulk about unseen. In the meantime, they had some shopping to do.
Soon after the prince learned about the course change, the baby’s diaper started stinking and the prince took him back to his cabin to get him changed and cleaned up. Jiro stared at the bridge door long after he’d left and whispered again, “Unbelievable.”
Lieutenant Jee was close enough to hear him, and gave him an enquiring look. “What’s unbelievable?”
“Sir, where do I start?” Jiro said with a helpless shrug. “This whole morning has been unbelievable! Normally, Prince Zuko would have… er, begging the esteemed general’s pardon; permission to speak freely?”
“Please do,” General Iroh said, giving him both a raised eyebrow and a genial smile.
“Thank you, sir. Normally, finding out we had an Avatar sighting but didn’t tell him about it as soon as possible, would have had him ranting at us all for ten minutes straight. But this time it wasn’t even for ten seconds! I’ve never seen him calm down so fast before. And after you ordered the course change… he just went along with it, no objection at all once he found out why, even said everyone could go ashore when we reach port. And now he’s changing a baby’s diaper? Royalty, changing diapers? It’s just unbelievable!”
General Iroh smiled wryly. “Perhaps so. And I am sure that if we were back home in the Fire Nation, living in the palace, the idea of changing his adopted son’s diapers would never have crossed Prince Zuko’s mind. But we are far from the palace, and my nephew knows it would be inefficient to assign a crewman to wait on Teiji solely for diaper changing duty. And I might add that he has my example to draw on; after we first found the baby, I handled the first two diaper changes myself. Not that I’d ever changed a diaper before, either, but in my days on the battlefield… I’ve seen men disemboweled, with the contents of their stomachs and intestines strewn all over their cooling corpses; men crushed to bloody pulps by boulders, to where they were barely recognizable as having once been human.” His face darkened with grim memory as he spoke, and the younger men on the bridge shivered as they tried not to picture what he’d seen with his own eyes. Then he lightened as he finished, “Compared to that, dealing with a baby’s soiled bottom is no hardship at all!”
“As you say, sir,” Jiro said dutifully, and decided to let the whole thing drop. It did make sense that the prince would start changing diapers for efficiency’s sake; Prince Zuko did talk about the importance of efficiency sometimes. Though the crew had been certain it was only as a counter-argument whenever his uncle tried to talk him into doing or allowing something even halfway fun.
What the general had said wasn’t actually a response to two of the unbelievable things Jiro had brought up. But he decided to let that drop too; if he kept on bringing up the fact that Prince Zuko was suddenly acting reasonable, instead of utterly obsessed with capturing the Avatar and regaining his honor as the crown prince and heir to the throne, it would only get more and more awkward.
Tadao was still sure that the baby with mismatched eyes was a witch-child that had somehow enthralled both the prince and the general, and Jiro had to admit that he wasn’t as dismissive of that idea now as he had been before. But he also didn’t think that this enthrallment was such a bad thing…
Iroh knew very well what the helmsman had been referring to about Zuko’s behavior, but chose not to respond because in truth, he didn’t know how to respond. He had some idea why Zuko had changed so abruptly, literally overnight, but honestly feared to speak of it yet; not when the change was still so new and raw and fragile…
Fragile as a baby boy. An innocent child who needed a parent, someone to protect and love him, and who freely returned all the affection shown to him.
It had occurred to Iroh more than once over the last few years of traveling the world and searching for the Avatar, that under the harsh and perpetually angry exterior Zuko kept between himself and the entire world, there was a lonely and miserable boy who was desperate for affection from anyone, but unable to accept it because he thought he didn’t deserve it.
Over the last five years Iroh had done his best to show the care and affection he felt for his nephew, but had generally been rebuffed; at first with too-polite deflection, but since the banishing, he’d been continually pushed back to arm’s length and sometimes even insulted for his efforts at guidance and affection. It was in part Iroh’s own fault, that distance between them; he could have reached out to that poor motherless boy as soon as he’d returned to the Fire Nation, but instead he’d spent over a year still wallowing in his own pain and grief over the loss of Lu Ten and even of his birthright as heir to the throne.
Once he’d even brushed aside little Zuko’s attempt to comfort him, soon after his return. Things would likely be very different now if he had accepted the boy’s shy invitation to have a picnic in the garden with the turtle-duck pond. But he had not, and by the time he had come to appreciate his nephew as a promising young man and as a second son, the boy’s walls had been raised, and nearly as difficult to breach as the walls of Ba Sing Se.
Since the banishing, Iroh had also had far fewer opportunities to safely show that affection; if he was seen treating Zuko as a parent-substitute would treat a son in front of the crew, it would only serve to undermine Zuko’s authority as captain of the ship. An authority that had been on shaky ground from the very beginning, considering the vast age difference between captain and crew: Zuko had come aboard a thirteen-year-old boy, in charge of forty men who averaged over twice that age.
And there had been other issues with the crew besides that vast age difference. Iroh never said so aloud, but he was certain that Ozai had deliberately ordered that the crew for Zuko’s ship be assembled from the dregs of the Fire Nation fleet. Far too many of them had come aboard with discipline problems, drinking problems and worse; it became clear from reading the records of court-martial that at least three men had been given the choice between serving the banished prince, and time in the brig. Even if Iroh were in command of the ship—a command he could never take even if Zuko had offered it to him; Ozai had deliberately forbidden him to ever take command, as a condition of his accompanying Zuko at all—even if Iroh had been in charge with his far greater experience at commanding troops, that mutiny in their first few months at sea would have been nearly inevitable.
Thanks in part to that mutiny, Zuko had decided early in their mission that to maintain his authority as ship captain, the young teenager would have to be hard as steel and harsh with the slightest signs of disobedience. There was some merit to that attitude, but it made it very difficult for Iroh to show affection for Zuko when he was constantly barking orders at everyone, and almost impossible for Zuko to show affection back. But now Zuko had been shoved into a new authority role; that of parenthood. And to Iroh’s surprised pleasure, his nephew was proving to be surprisingly good at it.
Iroh had spent most of the last evening after dinner with his ear glued to the bulkhead between his and Zuko’s cabins, ready to step in and help out if ever Teiji proved to be more than Zuko could handle, but it hadn’t been necessary. Instead, he’d heard the baby laughing, giggling and generally having a grand time playing with his new father… and had occasionally heard Zuko laughing right along with the child. And speaking in such warm and happy tones that Iroh had been very tempted to step in and interrupt just to see his nephew’s smiles with his own eyes. He hadn’t done that, knowing it was important for Zuko and Teiji to have time alone together for truly bonding as father and son, but he’d been sorely tempted.
It certainly helped ease Zuko’s abrupt shift to parenthood that little Teiji was generally a happy and affectionate baby, instead of one that fussed and cried all the time. But there was definitely more to it than the child’s amiable personality. True parenting involved not just giving children food, shelter and direction in their lives; it also involved showing affection—indeed, that was nearly a requirement. Being a father allowed Zuko to be an affectionate authority figure, someone who cared… and Iroh was inclined to believe that, despite all his harsh dealings with his crew, that is what Zuko had been all along. He’d spoken up in the war room nearly three years ago, and been ready to duel a highly decorated general, out of outrage that a division of raw recruits were to be sacrificed as bait; of course he cared about his people! He just hadn’t shown anyone how much he cared, until the spirits had seen fit to give him a baby to raise.
Iroh’s musings over the pai sho board were abruptly interrupted by the screech of an approaching messenger hawk. Lieutenant Jee received the message, unsealed and read it… then winced. After the message was handed to him, Iroh understood exactly why Jee had winced, because he was doing it himself.
Ten minutes later, Zuko came back onto the bridge, with a freshly diapered Teiji and a questioning look. “I heard a messenger hawk earlier; what’s the news?”
Iroh couldn’t help stalling for a moment, saying uneasily, “It will not please you to hear of this, nephew… but there is a bright side to the news!”
His delay only earned him an ugly glare as Zuko growled, “Tell me!”
“Well… it would appear that the Avatar’s change in course as it passed over the ship yesterday before dawn, was only temporary. Instead of heading for any of our colonies or Earth Kingdom cities, he flew over the border into the Fire Nation.” Zuko just gaped at him in astonishment as he hurried to continue, “According to the message, he cowardly evaded the blockade at the border by flying far around them and entering at an unguarded point, then flew straight to Crescent Island and persuaded the Fire Sages there to turn traitor and help him destroy the Fire Temple there, and crippled one of Zhao’s blockade ships when they came there in answer to a hawk-message for help.”
After a long and painful pause in which Zuko took several deep breaths, he said in low but deadly tones, “Because I failed to capture him before now, the Avatar invaded our country and destroyed a sacred temple.” From in his sling Teiji looked worriedly up at him, but the teenager managed to keep his temper enough that the baby didn’t start crying again. Zuko continued in that same deadly tone, “Please, tell me what you consider to be the ‘bright side’ to that.”
“Well, it involves a bit of reading between the lines… and reading a map as well,” as Iroh gestured at the navigator’s map on the table. “Look at what lies between Crescent Island and the inlet the ship was moored in yesterday."
Zuko did so, and his lone eyebrow rose. “That course would lead straight through the blockade. Which stretches clear to… this point here, and given what we’ve seen of the sky bison’s speed, diverting that far to an unguarded point would be at least another day’s flight. He couldn’t have detoured around the blockade and reached Crescent Island in just one day.”
“So he did not,” Iroh declared. “Instead of detouring around, I have absolutely no doubt that the Avatar flew right over that blockade.” He gave a wry smile. “Zhao stated that he would hunt the Avatar down before you. But instead of having to seek him out, the Avatar came right to him…”
“And Zhao still couldn’t capture him,” Zuko finished, with the beginning of a wicked smile curling his lips.
“Indeed. And when he failed to stop the Avatar from crossing the border, Zhao took at least one ship, broke blockade formation and followed the Avatar to Crescent Island. There was no hawk-message sent to the blockade for help; if there had been any such message, it would have been sent to the nearest Home Guard port instead. Zhao ignored his orders in yet another attempt to capture the Avatar and bring glory to himself… and botched it so badly that not only did his ship get damaged, so did the Fire Temple!” Iroh almost laughed as he said that, then sobered. “Not that he’ll ever admit that; not when he can seize someone else for a scapegoat. The Fire Sages haven’t been loyal to the Avatar for over a hundred years; after Avatar Roku died, they declared their allegiance to the Fire Lord above all others. Zhao can call them traitors, but he wouldn’t dare execute them all for treason on the spot. I have little doubt that once they are questioned by the imperial interrogators, the whole sordid story will come out, showing Zhao as an overambitious fool who no longer merits command of the blockade.”
“Which is such a shame for that poor fellow,” Lieutenant Jee said, the sarcasm in his voice so thick it could have been slathered on bread. “I might even shed a tear for him… if someone steps on my toes first.”
Zuko stifled a snicker at that crack, while Iroh outright chuckled. Teiji had no idea what was being said, of course, but he still contributed a happy burble and clapped his hands in delight, as if laughing at Jee’s joke Which actually made Zuko grin, as he patted Teiji to applaud his excellent timing; a genuinely mirthful smile that seemed to light up the whole bridge.
But the smile didn’t last long. Soon afterwards, Zuko was frowning and saying with clear regret, “If the spotters had only gotten the correct heading at the time of sighting two nights ago…”
No, Iroh wasn’t about to let his nephew start thinking that way again. He interrupted, “We should be glad they did not, nephew. Given that the Avatar had three hours’ head start by the time we were aboard, even if we ran the boilers into the danger zone the whole way, there is no way we could have caught up to the Avatar before he flew over the blockade. And you know what would happen if you attempted to cross the border into our home waters, without the Avatar already captured and chained in our hold!” And when Zuko opened his mouth again to protest, Iroh overrode him again with a sharp, “And if you think your father would make an exception for your being in hot pursuit of the Avatar at the time—which is very doubtful—consider the fact that Zhao commands the blockade. Zhao, whom you recently beat in Agni Kai; he will not have forgotten that. Or forgotten that he was doubly shamed in front of his men, by being caught in a dishonorable move afterwards!”
“If you’ll pardon my saying so, sirs,” Jee interrupted, “I had the misfortune of serving under Zhao for four of the most miserable years of my life, and I can tell you this: he never forgets an insult or an embarrassment, and he’ll get revenge on you in any way he can. If you’d been caught anywhere near that debacle Zhao was involved in yesterday, you can bet his official report would be blaming you for the whole thing, calling you a traitor instead of the Fire Sages.”
“Hm.” Zuko considered that for a few moments, then slowly nodded his acceptance. “Well, then… Anything in the message on the direction the Avatar was heading when he left Crescent Island?”
“East by northeast, sir. Back to the Earth Kingdom.”
“Back where we can hunt him down, and without Zhao’s interference for at least a short time, while he tries to cover all his tracks from yesterday’s mess,” Zuko said with an even firmer nod and another faint, fleeting but still noticeable smile. He went back over to the map, trying to determine where the Avatar might go next, while absentmindedly giving Teiji a couple of wiggling fingers to tug on and play with.
That had gone much better than Iroh could have hoped for… and all because Zuko had already figured out that Teiji would react poorly if he lost his temper. Iroh smiled as he thought to himself that at this rate, he wouldn’t be surprised if the entire ship took to calling the baby their good-luck talisman.
A short while later, Teiji began fussing, to which Zuko responded with first a soothing back rub, then a discreet check of his diaper, then quiet queries of whether baby wanted something to eat, and finally a frustrated look in Iroh’s direction. “I can’t figure out what he wants!”
“Given his young age and the time of day, what he most likely wants is a nap,” Iroh said equably as he moved a final pai sho tile to win his latest game, then got up from the table to hold his arms out for Teiji. “Let me take him; I spent some time last night clearing my cabin and putting breakables away with just this purpose in mind. He and I can nap together, while you get on with commanding the ship.”
Zuko willingly handed over Teiji and the baby sling, and soon afterwards Iroh was showing his cabin to his first grandson. “I suppose technically, the correct term is great-nephew,” he mused aloud as he settled back in his comfiest chair, with a still fussy Teiji draped over his chest and ample stomach. “But though I say it rarely, I’ve come to regard Zuko as another son. And that makes you my grandson, by heart if not by blood. Now settle down, Teiji; it’s time for your nap. Come, come, no fussing; I realize this is the first time you’ve been out of each other’s sight since we found you, but you’ll see your Papa Zuko again soon enough. Settle down, it will be all right… Leaves from the vine, falling so slow…” Soothed by his rumbling singing voice (a trick he’d learned decades ago when Lu Ten was still an infant), Teiji soon fell fast asleep on him, allowing Iroh to have a short nap as well.
In the early afternoon, the ship pulled into port at Laosing. As protocol demanded, the ship’s captain was first to set foot ashore. He’d done this plenty of times before over the last two-and-a-half years; not when they were merely resupplying unless he was required to personally sign for the goods, but every time they were chasing a lead on the Avatar. But this time, Zuko felt even more self-conscious about leaving the ship than usual. He was absolutely positive that there were more natives staring at him this time than ever before; he did his damndest to ignore it but he could almost feel their eyes on him. There were always stares at the banished prince, at the hideous scar of dishonor… but this time there seemed to be just as many people staring not at his face, but at the baby sling tied to his chest.
Right up until fifteen minutes ago, Zuko had thought the plan was simple. Send Uncle ashore with another crewman along for fetch-n-carry, to get the baby supplies they needed (and a set of toy soldiers, if any were available.) Send the ship’s doctor ashore to find a good wise-woman to talk to, and money for replacing the medical supplies they were low on. Let the rest of the crew depart eight at a time in groups of four, to go shopping for themselves or whatever, with a reminder to keep their ears open about Avatar sightings (just in case; always just in case) and another reminder that their behavior in this port would have bearing on whether they’d be granted shore leave in other ports. Meanwhile, he’d stay home with Teiji and take care of his new son until Uncle returned.
Then he’d found out that his uncle had gotten up from his nap with every intention of taking Teiji with him while shopping. “Have you gone mad, or just senile?!” Zuko had demanded, storming up to snatch Teiji back out of Iroh’s arms and hold him protectively, not caring that nearly everyone else was on deck watching their exchange. “Have you forgotten those villagers tried to kill him, because they thought his mismatched eyes made him a witch-child? I won’t let you deliberately expose Teiji to danger!”
“Nephew, really! As if I would ever deliberately endanger your son, who happens to be the closest I shall ever come to a grandchild!” Iroh had said with an offended look at the very thought. “There will be no danger if no one notices his eyes; all they will see is a perfectly adorable baby boy!”
“And how were you planning to keep them from noticing his eyes?” Zuko had snarled, then had to draw back when Teiji began working his way up to a distressed wail. “Oh, sshh, Teiji, it’s okay,” he’d soothed while rubbing the baby’s back. “Ssshh, ssshhh, I’m not going to let any of those horrible peasants hurt you…”
And while he’d been quieting Teiji down again, his uncle had revealed his stupid plan; no one would be noticing the baby’s eyes because they’d be too busy staring or trying not to stare at Zuko’s own face as he came with them on the shopping trip. And then somehow his soothing words to Teiji had turned into an agreement with that stupid plan, or so Uncle had claimed while bustling about and organizing more men to come with the three of them for fetch-and-carry…
“I hate this, and I hate you,” Zuko had quietly growled at Iroh as, with Teiji in his sling, he started down the gangplank. His uncle had looked very hurt for a moment, before covering it with another foolish grin as he started down the gangplank behind him.
So with no less than four crewmen with baskets along for fetch-and-carry duty—and to provide covering fire if the natives started howling about witch-children and they had to fight their way back to the ship; Zuko preferred to prepare for the worst—they went shopping together for teething rings and toys, and a replacement tile for Uncle’s stupid game. Zuko knew he was going to hate every minute of that afternoon…
Except that as it turned out, he didn’t really hate it as much as he’d thought he would. Plenty of people stared at him and Teiji, yes, but… some of the stares were… different than usual. Not staring in hatred or revulsion at the ugly banished prince, just staring in surprise, sort-of.
One total stranger even gave him and Teiji a small smile, just for a second. That was freaky.
Even without all the usual hatred and revulsion, he kept his guard up, making sure no one came close enough to get a good look at Teiji’s eyes. Uncle asked around, and they were directed to a shop that sold teething toys and other things for children and was fairly close to the docks.
In a few minutes they had found the shop and Zuko was looking over a selection of teething toys, wondering which one Teiji would like best. Uncle Iroh looked around the shop for only a moment, then told Zuko with a smile, “While you pick out toys for Teiji, I’m off to find a new lotus tile. I’ll meet you back here soon!”
“What? Wait!” Zuko said in almost a panic. He knew from past experience that when Uncle started shopping, he usually bought a lot more than just the few items he’d originally started seeking, and could be gone for hours at a time! “Don’t leave me without--”
“Oh, never fear, you’ll have Goro for fetch-and-carry,” his uncle said cheerily as he beckoned the other three crewmen with him. “And to advise you on any questions you might have about suitable toys; Goro has two children of his own, after all!”
Zuko blinked; that was news to him. But Joben had said there were plenty of fathers and even grandfathers aboard his ship…
Maybe Uncle had been right in his suggestion that Zuko should attend mail call even when he knew he wouldn’t be getting any mail himself. He knew the crewmen had a habit of reading their letters from home aloud to each other, and surmised that was how his uncle knew so much about his crew’s private lives. Well, that was a thought for the next mail call; right now he was shopping for Teiji.
He looked over the selection of teething toys again, then shrugged and decided that since Teiji was here, he might as well let his son choose which one he wanted. He took Teiji out of the sling and held him low over the table, saying, “Pick one, Teiji.” Teiji babbled in delight as he reached down into the display… and came up with a teething toy in each tiny hand. Zuko huffed in mild annoyance, “I said one, Teiji, not two! But I don’t suppose you know the difference between ‘one’ and ‘two’ yet…”
Goro made a soft sound that was probably a suppressed chuckle, though he sobered up fast when Zuko turned to glare at him. “May I make a suggestion, sir?” When Zuko stopped glaring and nodded, he continued, “Buy both of them, sir, and one more to hold in reserve. If he’s anything like typical babies, he’ll probably lose one within the first week, and gnaw another clear through before the next time we make port.” When Zuko suspiciously glared at him again, he insisted, “May Agni bear witness, sir; my wife used to buy those things three or four at a time.”
So Zuko bought the teething toy in Teiji’s left hand, the one already in his mouth and another one shaped like a flat koala-sheep. Then he looked over the display of toys meant for playing with instead of teething on, and asked the proprietor, “Do you have a set of toy soldiers?”
Unfortunately, the toy shop didn’t have any toy soldier sets. They sold a few individual toy soldiers, but only in Earth Kingdom uniforms, which wouldn’t be right at all for an adopted son of the Fire Nation. But they had a few other toys that Teiji seemed interested in; a cloth stuffed panda, and a pair of brightly colored kokeshi dolls that were slightly larger than the one Uncle had given him.
Teiji also squealed happily and made grabby-hands gestures at an akabeko figure that looked more like a red cow-pig than a proper hippo-cow, but still had the funny bobbing head. Zuko told the merchant they’d buy that too, having fond memories of the akabeko hippo-cow he’d had as a child, but Goro quietly advised him, “The boy’s still too young to handle it gently, sir; he’ll end up ripping the head right out of the socket.” When faced with Zuko’s heated glare for criticizing his son, the sergeant hastily added, “But you could put it on a shelf out of his reach, and let the waves bob the head for him; he’ll still enjoy it that way!” After a moment’s thought, Zuko decided he could make room for it on the shelf below his writing supplies, and nodded acknowledgement of Goro’s suggestion before adding the akabeko to the small pile of items on the counter.
The shop also had a monkey drum; Teiji didn’t have the knack for twirling it back and forth to make the beads on strings swing about and hit the drum faces, but he shrieked with delight and clapped his hands when Zuko showed him how it was done and the familiar pata-pata-pata sound bounced off the walls of the shop. “We’ll set that aside for when you’re a little older,” Zuko told his son with a smile as he added it to the small pile of items for purchase. But when the shop proprietor tried to interest Zuko in a display of whistles shaped like various animals, the prince firmly waved them away; Teiji might be able to handle one of them now, but with his sensitive ears, Zuko had absolutely no desire to hear a toy whistle being blown for hours on end.
Since Uncle Iroh still hadn’t returned to the shop, after the toys were paid for and dropped into Goro’s hand-basket, Zuko put Teiji back in his sling and set out to find his uncle. As they walked back to the docks, Zuko weighed his pride against his desperate need for more information on child-rearing, and finally broke down and told the sergeant, “I am entirely new to fatherhood, having been one for only two days now, and at this point, I do not even know what questions I should be asking. Therefore, I will allow you and Lieutenant Jee to offer advice on rearing Teiji… even when I do not request the information of you first.”
“Thank you for the honor, sir. I assure you that I will not abuse the privilege,” Goro said with a perfectly straight face.
A few minutes later, they ran into his uncle on the docks. Zuko asked him, “Did you find a replacement lily tile?”
“Lotus tile, nephew; lotus tile,” Uncle Iroh corrected him firmly. “You may think ‘a flower is a flower’, but I can assure you that there is a great difference between lilies and lotuses, and an even greater difference on the pai sho board. Most people think the lotus tile insignificant in pai sho, but it is essential for the unusual strategy that I employ.”
“Right, whatever,” as Zuko rolled his eyes; his uncle had tried many times to interest him in pai sho as well as tea, but he really could care less. “Did you find it or not?”
Uncle shook his head. “I've checked all the shops on this pier. Not a lotus tile in the entire marketplace!”
“Oh; too bad. Well, maybe you can paint a new lotus design over the tooth marks,” he suggested.
“Perhaps… but in the meantime, this trip wasn’t wasted,” as Uncle beamed at him. “I always say that the only thing better than finding something you were looking for, is finding something you weren't looking for at a great bargain!” And he gestured to the three crewmen he’d taken with him for fetch-and-carry duty as they came walking up, heading back to the ship with seriously overloaded baskets that they could barely see over.
Zuko gaped at the sight, then slowly shook his head; he hadn’t seen such a staggering collection of useless junk in ages… well, not since Uncle’s last shopping frenzy, anyway. One item in the third basket caught his eye, and he asked in disbelief, “You bought a tsungi horn?”
Uncle smiled wider. “Of course; for Music Night on the ship! And for you to use when your son has difficulty sleeping. Do you remember the evenings when I played the tsungi horn for you in the palace nursery?”
“Um, barely… But I haven’t played the tsungi horn in years!” Not since his mother had—disappeared; that had put an end to the family gatherings for playing music or anything fun.
“But you were quite gifted at it, even when you were scarcely bigger than the horn! I’m sure it will all come back to you with just a little practice. And I also bought a few things for Teiji; a set of puppets for entertaining him, a cloth platypus-bear and rabbaroo, a wind-up walking ostrich-horse, a rolling tiger-dillo ball…”
“At this rate, I’m going to need a separate sea chest just to hold Teiji’s toys,” Zuko grumbled, rolling his eyes again. And followed it up with a wry smile-grimace when his uncle informed him that he’d bought a small sea chest too, for just that purpose. Then he felt compelled to ask, “Did you find any toy soldier sets?”
“Not yet,” Iroh admitted, “but there are still a few places I haven’t shopped in yet!” and with that, he nearly dragged Zuko and Teiji with him towards the ships pulled into port that had merchant signs next to them on the pier. “Oh, this one looks promising!”
Zuko looked at the ship he was pointing at, noting the signs of past battle-damage haphazardly repaired and the look of the ship’s barker, and drew back with a scowl and a protective hand over Teiji, who was nearly asleep in his sling. “That one looks like a pirate ship, Uncle!”
But when they drew closer and Zuko heard the barker’s spiel of “Earth Nation! Fire Nation! Water Nation! So long as bargains are your inclination, you're welcome here!” he reconsidered. If the ship’s crew had regular dealings with the Fire Nation, then maybe they’d have a proper set of toy soldiers aboard… It was a slim chance, but when he voiced the thought aloud, his uncle was quick to agree with him that it was a chance worth taking.
He sent three crewmen back to the ship with his and Iroh’s purchases, but kept the best firebender of the lot with them, figuring that if it came to a fight, three trained firebenders could hold off the pirate crew long enough to escape without harming a hair on Teiji’s head. They cautiously boarded the ship, and Uncle immediately started pawing through all the useless junk on display, looking for bargains. Zuko asked the pirate captain he found in the merchandise cabin if there were any toy soldier sets for sale, sighed resignedly when he was told they had none, and waited for his uncle to finish up so they could go back to their own ship.
But while Uncle was cooing over a stupid monkey statue and declaring it would look magnificent in the galley, Zuko overheard one of the pirates saying to the captain, “We lost the Water Tribe girl and the little bald monk she was traveling with.”
No way! Could it be…? He stepped up and into their conversation, asking, “This monk; did he have an arrow on his head?”
To be continued!
Chapter 4: Frightened
Author’s note: this chapter takes place during the episode “The Waterbending Scroll”, but the first paragraph also refers to a Fire Nation soldier that appeared very briefly in the earlier episode “Imprisoned.”
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Crewman Hūn knew he wasn’t smart. Not because Prince Zuko had yelled at him and called him stupid lots of times, because Prince Zuko yelled at everyone. Hūn knew he wasn’t smart because people had called him all kinds of different words for stupid for most of his life, and even though he was full grown, he still had problems with reading and writing, multiplying numbers and remembering important history and stuff. (But at least he wasn’t as stupid as his cousin Baju, who’d somehow gotten it into his head that any Earth Kingdom animal that had paws like hands, like hog-monkeys and gorilla-goats, could be earthbenders! Hūn at least knew that it took more than hands to be a bender.)
Hūn knew he wasn’t real smart, but he knew enough to be able to work on a farm, like the one he’d grown up on. And after being drafted into the military three years ago, he’d eventually learned how to do his duties as a hull maintainer, and he knew how to take care of his armor and how to handle a spear, so he didn’t worry about the rest. Besides, he was smart enough to make good friends, like Li Mein and Tadao; they always helped him with the stuff he had trouble with, like writing letters home to his folks, and keeping track of his pay so he knew how much he could spend when he was in port.
Goro was his sergeant, and even though he was grouchy a lot, he knew how to tell Hūn what to do. Just say exactly what needed to be done, and exactly how he wanted it done, and Hūn would happily do exactly as the sergeant said. Clear and exact orders saved a lot of trouble, like that trouble aboard the troop carrier Aoba that had ended up with the captain being knocked overboard, one of the boiler pipes rupturing, and Hūn being transferred to the Wani.
Goro’s orders today had been really easy: Follow General Iroh around on the docks and carry whatever he tells you to carry. He had, and he hadn’t dropped anything the whole time, even that hard-to-balance tsungi horn! Then he’d gone back to the Wani with all the purchases, while Akio went with the prince, the new weird-eyed baby and the retired general to one more ship.
Hūn had followed Goro and Cheung with their baskets of purchases straight to the royals’ quarters, and done exactly as the sergeant told him; he set his basket of stuff on General Iroh’s bed, very carefully separated out all the toys for the baby and put them in the brightly painted chest the general had bought, then left the rest of the bed for the general to deal with and took the basket back to the laundry room. Then he’d gone back up on deck to resume his regular duties, since it wouldn’t be his turn to go and enjoy himself in the taverns for another four hours.
Hūn was carefully checking the railing on the port side for corrosion when all of a sudden Prince Zuko came charging up the gangplank with the baby in his arms, and General Iroh and Akio right behind him. The prince was shouting orders even before his feet hit the deck, demanding that the crew all drop what they were doing and lower the river steamer and make sure it was fully stocked with fuel and assemble the duty roster for manning the steamer and somebody find Lieutenant Jee Right Now!
“I think he’s in the showers, sir!” Cheung piped up even as he disappeared from view, through the hatch and down the ladder that led to the berth where the river steamer was kept when it was hoisted out of the water.
“Well, get him out of there and on deck!” Prince Zuko shouted, even while .patting the fussing baby’s back to soothe him.
“Ahem. Prince Zuko, would you really demand that your lieutenant appear in front of the crew in a state of undress?” General Iroh said with a raised bushy eyebrow.
Prince Zuko suddenly blushed as red as his armor and sputtered for a few moments. “I-I didn’t mean—I—he—Look, we’ve got to hurry! This could be the chance we’ve been waiting for, to capture the Avatar! And who else can we trust to mind Teiji while we’re working with those pirates?”
Then Prince Zuko looked right at Hūn, and his eyes narrowed in a demanding glare. “You! Hūn! Do you think this baby is a witch-child?”
Hūn answered honestly, “If the General is sure he isn’t, then that’s good enough for me.” He knew General Iroh was real smart, always winning at pai sho and stuff, so he figured that the elder knew what he was talking about.
Prince Zuko nodded curtly in acknowledgment, then demanded further, “Have you ever handled a baby before?”
“Yessir. I have three younger brothers, sir.”
“Good; you’ll do for now.” And with that, the prince took off the baby sling and handed it over to Hūn, baby and all. “Listen carefully, Hūn! You are to take this baby down to the showers and wait—that means wait outside, in the passageway, not in the shower room!—You are going to wait right there until Lieutenant Jee gets dressed and accepts the baby from you,” as he secured the sling on Hūn and stepped back, to glare at him again. “Do you understand? You wait there and you don’t let him out of your sight, you don’t even set him down, until Jee actually takes the baby from your arms!”
“Yes, sir!” Hūn saluted, then turned and headed for the shower room.
As he was going carefully down the ladders between decks, he heard a really loud ratcheting sound clanging throughout the ship; the ratcheting that came from the ship’s aft hatch being opened, so the river steamer could be cranked down the ramp into the water. Just as he reached the passageway leading to the shower room, Lieutenant Jee came bursting out with his hair wet and his uniform only partly on, shouting, “What the crawling Koh’s going on?” Without even looking in Hūn’s direction, he turned and started running for the aft, where all the noise was coming from, still stomping into his boots and fastening his tunic while shouting at nobody in particular, demanding to know what fool had decided to lower the aft main hatch without permission.
…Well, the prince had given him real clear and exact orders. Hūn stopped next to the door to the shower room, then leaned against the wall and settled in to wait.
When Jee got to the aft hatch, he found Prince Zuko back to his usual irritating self, shouting at a dozen crewmen to get the river steamer mission-ready as fast as possible. Since General Iroh was closer and not shouting, Jee approached him and asked, “What’s going on? And where’s the baby?” A horrible thought hit him, and he added while stifling sudden flames around his fists, “Has he been kidnapped by more idiot peasants?! Is the prince mounting a rescue?”
“Teiji is safely aboard, Lieutenant,” Iroh swiftly reassured him. “Prince Zuko has already decided that he will remain in your care while he goes on this mission.”
Iroh beamed at him, though the smile seemed fake somehow. “By sheer coincidence, we have stumbled across a new lead to the Avatar’s whereabouts! A ship full of pirates has already been searching for him and his Water Tribe companions since this morning, after the girl stole a waterbending scroll from them. We believe they are nearby, having traveled up the river leading to the port. We shall need a party to man the river steamer, if you wouldn’t mind…”
Jee nodded and turned to run for the bridge, where the duty rosters were kept. Since nearly a quarter of the crew was on shore leave at the moment, he’d have to fill the holes in the river steamer’s roster with personnel from other watches. He called over his shoulders as he started moving, “Have whoever’s got the baby right now take him straight to my quarters and wait for me there!”
Fifteen minutes later, Kunio grumbled he strode rapidly through the passageways with a short list in his hand, tracking down the crew members that Lieutenant Jee had said would be manning the river steamer. He grumbled because first he had drawn short straw and been put in the last party to take shore leave today instead of the first, and now he hadn’t been selected for crewing the river steamer for the latest mission, when this one promised some real action! Kunio hadn’t had the opportunity to beat up on anybody in weeks, and those pirates that he’d heard were somehow involved in this mission would have been perfect targets for some violence. But noooo, he had to stay here and keep the starboard watch while other people got to go have some fun…
Next-to-last on his list of crew members to track down was Hūn, and someone said they’d seen him heading towards the showers. Kunio grinned, hoping for the chance to order the idiot out of the shower and to the steamer while still half-dressed or even naked! Sergeant Goro had outright ordered him to keep his distance from Hūn after the last time he’d tried to have some fun with him, but now he had official orders from the lieutenant…
But to Kunio’s disappointment, Hūn was just standing there in the passageway by the shower room, fully clothed, facing aft and leaning against the wall. “Hey, Stupid!” he shouted at Hūn’s back. “Get moving! Lieutenant Jee wants you on the river steamer, right now!”
Hūn started to turn towards him, with the usual confused expression on his face. “But I--”
“Move it!” Kunio barked before Hūn could finish whatever idiotic thing he’d been about to say. “Do you want to keep the prince waiting?” And with that he turned and headed back to find the last person on the lieutenant’s list.
Well, if both Lieutenant Jee and Prince Zuko wanted him to go to the steamer… Hūn shrugged, then patted the bundle on his chest; the baby had dozed off in his sling while they’d been waiting in the passageway, but started to wake up when Kunio had shouted at him. “It’s okay, baby; go back to sleep.” Then, quietly singing an old farming song his mama had sung to him as a child, he headed for the river steamer’s berth.
The crew quarters were right along the way to the river steamer. Hun decided to stop by his bunk and get his thick winter cloak out of the sea chest; he draped it over the baby’s sling, so he wouldn’t be as bothered by loud noises and bright lights, and could keep napping until Lieutenant Jee came to take him.
Soon the sun was setting as the river steamer left the port far behind them, traveling up the river Gwan in search of the Avatar. Not that Zuko had told the pirates the true identities of their scroll thieves; he’d merely said they were wanted by the Fire Nation as well, and offered a temporary joining of forces until they were found.
Standing next to the pirate captain on the deck of the sailing ship, Zuko silently admitted to himself that the pirates certainly knew their watercraft. They were traveling upriver, which his steamer had been made for doing easily, but the pirates’ ship was actually keeping pace with them! That took some impressive work with the sails and rigging.
This was it! He could feel it, almost taste it; the Avatar was almost within his grasp! And this time he wouldn’t let that airbending brat trick him or get away; this time he’d personally escort him in chains straight to the holding cell, and make damn sure the Avatar was secured in there until they reached the Fire Nation again! By this time tomorrow, he’d really be going home!
The pirate captain peered at the forested riverbanks they were passing and growled, “Shouldn’t we stop to search the woods?”
Zuko said confidently, “We don’t need to stop. They stole a waterbending scroll, right?” And when the pirate captain muttered assent, he continued, “Then they’ll be on the water.”
Two seconds later, Zuko suddenly heard an odd sound coming from his boat. And when he figured out what he’d just heard, his confidence was abruptly and utterly shattered into tiny disordered pieces.
The pirate captain said querulously, “Did I just hear a—hey, what’re you doing?” But Zuko ignored him as he jumped onto the wooden ship’s railing. He leaped from the railing for a sail boom overhead, grabbed it, then swung out from there to flip and make a two-point landing aboard the deck of the riverboat.
Zuko threw open the door to the cabin and bolted inside, to confront the cluster of men standing in the aft of the cabin and demand with his heart in his throat, “The baby?!”
The cluster parted to reveal his uncle, holding a crying Teiji and looking more flustered than he’d ever seen the old man before, sputtering, “We had no idea until he woke up and started—Hūn has been carrying him under his cloak all this time!”
Since Hūn wasn’t carrying the baby now, Zuko felt free to grab the crewman by his tunic front, spin and slam him against the nearest bulkhead, snarling, “You brought a baby on a dangerous mission?! Those are pirates out there! And we’re hunting the Avatar! Babies don’t belong on dangerous missions, you idiot! Why didn’t you obey my orders?!”
“I did obey your orders, sir!” Hūn protested, looking ready to burst into tears from sheer terror and misery. “I went where you told me to and I never set the baby down, not even once! But the lieutenant never took the baby from my arms, and then I was told you and he both wanted me aboard here!”
Zuko stared at him, then relaxed his grip and let the crewman go, pushing him aside so he faced the bulkhead. Then he rested his forehead against the cool metal for a few moments, before beginning to rhythmically bang his head against it with a dull clong. Clong. Clong… Just then, it was the only appropriate thing to do.
For several long seconds, the only sounds filling the cabin were of Zuko banging his head against the wall and the baby’s crying, despite Iroh’s quiet attempts to sooth him. The cabin air, in the meantime, was slowly filling with the unmistakable smell of human urine and poop, unquestionably coming from Teiji’s hindquarters. Finally Zuko stopped abusing his forehead and turned around, his shoulders slumped and features filled with resignation. He wordlessly held his arms out, and Iroh swiftly passed Teiji over to him, along with a rueful, “We’ll have to improvise a diaper for him again.”
Zuko sighed as he propped Teiji against his shoulder, and started pointing to crewman without even looking at them. “You, strip off your undertunic. You, get fresh water for cleaning up. And you, make a pad to set him on for changing. Ssshhh, sshhh, Teiji, stop fussing; we’ll get you cleaned up soon…”
The orders were certainly unusual, but the crewmen he’d pointed to started scrambling to obey. The helmsman asked over his shoulder, “Your orders, sir?” while keeping them on a course upriver.
Zuko opened his mouth to order them to reverse course and head back to the Wani, when suddenly they all heard the pirate captain shouting at their boat, “Ahoy, you Fire Nation folk! You’re starting to fall behind; have you decided to stop hunting thieves in favor of minding babies?” From the gleeful note in the captain’s voice, he was hardly upset by the prospect.
If they went back to the Wani, the pirates would continue searching without them—and might well find the Avatar and capture him by surprise, all for themselves! Zuko snapped to the helmsman, “Increase speed until we’re matching their new pace, and maintain parallel heading!”
Uncle and the crew all stared at him in dismayed silence, so he growled at them all, “We are not going to pass up this opportunity to capture the Avatar—or let the credit go to those pirates!”
His uncle slowly nodded, looking very unhappy. “Even if we end the mission now, the pirates will not give up their quest for the scroll and their revenge against the waterbending girl. But… bringing an innocent babe into battle…”
After adjusting the engine to increase their speed slightly, the helmsman said almost offhandedly, “Maybe that’s what the spirit wants, sirs; maybe he has to be nearby for it to work.”
Zuko turned and stared at the helmsman. “For what to work? And what spirit? You’ve been told that Teiji is not a witch-child!”
The helmsman shrugged again, glancing over his shoulder at him. “Maybe he isn’t, sir, but I can’t help thinking that there’s a spirit out there that’s keeping an eye on him, and that spirit wants to thank you for adopting him by helping out in our mission.” He faced forward again as he went on, “I could be wrong, but… Think about it, sir; according to what you and Lieutenant Jee said on the bridge, the surprise of having a baby aboard all of a sudden made him forget to tell you about the Avatar sighting. Which turned out to be a good thing that time, because if you’d sent us after him then, we would have run right into Commander Zhao at the blockade. And after you beat him in the Agni Kai and showed him as being dishonorable too, he’ll take his revenge against you any way he can. Instead of catching the Avatar then, you’d have caught a boatload of trouble from him!”
Keeping his eyes focused on the river he was steering them through, the helmsman continued, “Now this time, the only reason we made port at Laosing at all is because you needed to buy supplies for the baby. And as I understand it, the only reason you even went aboard that pirate ship was to see if they had a replacement for the general’s lotus tile, the one that Teiji chewed up for a teething toy! So it was Teiji’s teething that led to you finding a lead on the Avatar again. Sir, there are coincidences, and then there are things that are just too fantastic to be a coincidence! It sure seems to me like somebody wants to give you another and even better shot at capturing the Avatar…”
Zuko shot his uncle a questioning look. They’d told no one about the kirin-spirit that Iroh said he’d seen where they’d found the baby, with his secret ability to see spirits; the kirin that had somehow indicated Teiji was now Zuko’s to raise. Was that kirin-spirit still following them around, and influencing events somehow to help Zuko in his quest? Uncle Iroh gave him a subtle shrug, indicating he had no idea whether the helmsman was right or not.
Just as the helmsman finished talking, they all heard the screech of a messenger hawk, and moments later saw it landing on the railing of the boat; Zuko recognized it as the Wani’s own hawk. Since Zuko had his arms full, Iroh stepped outside the cabin to retrieve the message from Jee, and brought it inside for him to read: Baby is not in my cabin, your cabin, general’s cabin or anywhere else aboard ship. Have sent divers down to check the harbor and search parties out to scour the docks; no sign of him yet.
“Poor Jee must be tearing his hair out right now,” Iroh said with a grimace of sympathy. “We must send a return message immediately to reassure him.”
“You’ll have to handle that, and Teiji for the next few hours,” Zuko said grimly, glancing out the porthole at the pirate ship. “I need to deal with the pirate captain and crew.”
It was harder than he’d thought it would be, to hand the baby back over to his uncle; Teiji was scrabbling with tiny fingers for a grip on his armor, wanting to stay with him, and his own arms didn’t seem to want to let go. But Iroh carefully gathered the baby into his embrace, and began cooing reassuringly to the still upset child as the crew finished improvising the supplies needed for a diaper change.
Zuko ordered them all, “Keep Teiji out of sight, and quiet if you can… and I want two crewmen guarding him at all times, understand? No pirate is to set foot on this boat or even catch sight of Teiji!” He glared at everyone for emphasis as he continued, “If any of them get too near, they get exactly one warning fireball; if they don’t turn and run in the very next instant, you are authorized to use deadly force!”
Iroh and a few of the crewmen looked surprised when he said that; it was the first time Zuko had ever authorized using deadly force on a mission. But other crewmen, like Akio, gave nods of grim approval; they knew what atrocities pirates were capable of, and he’d overheard a few of his men grumbling about working with such criminal scum at all. Zuko thought for a moment about emphasizing that he wanted them to fire a warning before aiming to kill, then decided it was unnecessary; the ones who’d grumbled about working with pirates were also the crewmen who held their own honor in high regard.
He went back out, swiftly climbed to the cabin roof and launched himself in a flying leap, caught the boom of the pirate ship’s main sail and swung from there onto the wooden deck. He landed almost right where he’d been standing before, and gave the pirate captain a challenging glare as he stood tall—which was still several inches shorter than the other man, dammit.
The pirate captain was smirking, instead of impressed by his doing such acrobatic stunts while wearing armor, and asked in a deliberately casual drawl, “So what’s a Fire Nation captain doing with a baby aboard his ship?”
“That’s none of your business,” Zuko hissed in response. He almost snarled about the other man’s impertinence in asking such questions of Fire Nation royalty, but restrained himself. He’d introduced himself as just ‘Captain Zuko’ earlier, not ‘Prince Zuko’; pirates were greedy above all else, and well known for kidnapping people in raids. Most of their victims were sold into slavery, but the wealthier ones were held hostage for exorbitant amounts of ransom… though even if the ransom was paid, they were apt to be returned horribly abused if alive at all. Zuko was sure that even his ragtag bunch of misfits could rally long enough to defeat such a small pirate crew if they discovered his royal status and tried taking him hostage, but he’d rather avoid the battle altogether; it would only get in the way of his mission to capture the Avatar.
But the captain only smirked even more instead of shutting up. “Let me guess; you believed some bar wench when she told you the kid was yours? Those girls spread their legs for anyone with enough coin; you can never--”
He would not allow anyone to insult Teiji’s mother, a mother who’d died trying to save her child! Zuko whipped a hand up and shot a blast of fire right past the main sail, snarling, “Let me guess; you want to see how fast your ship can go after the sails are burned off?!”
The captain drew back a pace in alarm. “No need for that, lad! I was just making conversation, is all.”
“Choose another topic,” Zuko growled. “Or better yet, choose silence! Do you want the thieves to hear us coming?” The pirate captain wisely chose silence, and they resumed scanning the riverbanks for signs of the Avatar’s party.
Frightened blue eyes stared into gleaming golden eyes, as a rasping voice said with dark amusement, “I’ll save you from the pirates.”
Katara couldn’t decide who she hated most, right at that moment: The pirates for chasing her, Zuko for being with them and capturing her, or herself for sneaking away from camp without telling anybody so she could practice with the waterbending scroll. If she hadn’t done such a stupid, selfish thing, then she wouldn’t have gotten captured while Aang and Sokka were still asleep and way out of shouting range!
Soon the list of Katara’s personal hates settled with Zuko right on top, when she found out that Zuko’s idea of ‘saving her from the pirates’ was tying her to a small tree on the riverbank, right in front of them. She could feel the pirates’ eyes on her, leering at her; making her feel like she needed a bath with an hour of hard scrubbing.
Zuko stood in front of her with his arms crossed, trying to look all important and I’m-in-charge-here, and demanded she tell him where her friend was. But she could handle his attitude a lot easier than the pirates’ leers; she said defiantly, “Go jump in the river!”
He glared at her, and then visibly decided to change tactics. His voice softened and he reached a hand out to her imploringly as he said, “Try to understand. I need to capture him to restore something I’ve lost; my honor.” As he spoke, he began walking around the tree she was tied to. From behind her, he said, “Perhaps in exchange, I can restore something you’ve lost.” And then his hands encircled her from behind, holding something; she looked down and saw
“My mother’s necklace!”
The necklace, all she had left of her mother! She had to have it back… she…
Zuko was now wayyyyy on top of her hate list. Right that moment, if her hands were free she would have happily drowned the rotten spider-snake. “How did you get that?!” she demanded.
“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said tauntingly as he turned away, taking the necklace with him. Then he faced her and demanded again, “Tell me where he is!”
“No!” She glared at him, trying to pour into that one glare just how much she hated him now, even more than the Fire Nation soldier that had murdered her mother. At least that monster hadn’t tried to pretend he was better than her!
Then the pirate captain stepped forward, growling, “Enough of this necklace garbage! You promised us the scroll!”
And Zuko pulled the scroll from behind his back and held it up in one hand, asking in a nasty voice, “I wonder how much this is worth?” Then he held his other hand right under it and the hand sprouted flames; he was going to burn the scroll! And as the pirates gasped and shouted in protest, he gloated, “A lot, apparently.” Then his voice turned hard as he demanded, “Now you help me find what I want, you'll get this back and everyone goes home happy. Search the woods for the boy and meet back here!”
The pirate captain muttered sullen agreement, and he and his men dispersed into the woods. Zuko sent four of his men out to search the woods as well, while two others stayed with him, guarding Katara and their boat.
After a minute or two of hard silence in which Katara tried to kill the rotten spider-snake with her eyes alone, and the Fire Nation prince arrogantly ignored her, a stout elderly man who’d been hanging back while Zuko had been talking came forward with a pleasant smile. “While we’re all waiting, would you care for some tea, young miss?”
Zuko rolled his eyes and groaned, “Uncle, she’s not our guest, she’s a prisoner!”
“Which is no reason not to treat her civilly,” the old man retorted, still wearing that pleasant smile. “Do you prefer ginseng or jasmine tea, miss? And I believe we have some lychee tea in the boat stores as well…”
Just then, Katara heard a sound she immediately recognized, but hadn’t expected to have heard coming from a Fire Nation vessel: a crying baby.
Zuko and the man he’d called ‘Uncle’ clearly heard it too; they exchanged quick, tense glances before Zuko abruptly started towards his boat—then just as abruptly turned back to look at Katara, his posture torn with indecision. His uncle muttered, “I’ll see to him,” before moving with surprising swiftness for such a poly-poly old greybeard, trotting up the boat’s short gangplank and vanishing inside the cabin.
After years of helping Gran-Gran take care of their village’s children, Katara could interpret baby sounds as well as any mother could. That baby was wailing not in hunger or from discomfort caused by a wet bottom, but in outright fear and distress. She glared as Zuko as she hissed, “Another prisoner? Did you ‘save the baby from the pirates’, too?”
“Shut up!” Zuko snarled over his shoulder at her as he faced the boat. “And not that it’s any of your business, but we saved him from superstitious peasants like you, before they could kill him!”
Peasants killing a baby? Katara considered the possibility for exactly one second before she declared, “That’s a load of arctic hippo dung!”
“I said shut up!” Zuko snarled again, still facing the boat and seeming to lean towards the baby’s cries.
She demanded, “What did you do to that baby’s family? Did you kill his parents on one of your raids?! You’re all monsters; murdering, evil--”
Zuko abruptly spun around, his already ugly features even uglier with rage. Smoke poured out from between clenched teeth as he hissed, “That’s it; I’m through being nice to you!” And then he reached for her and—
Aboard the boat, Iroh accepted a wailing Teiji from Jiro’s arms as the helmsman reported desperately, “I’m sorry, General, I thought he was sleeping just fine, but the next thing I knew he was crying and screaming fit to deafen Agni! I don’t know what—his diaper isn’t wet or full of poop again; what’s wrong with him?”
Taozu, the firebender currently assigned to guarding Teiji, suggested, “Maybe he got a tummy-ache after all, from the field rations we mashed up for his dinner. Or maybe he’s actually hungry again?”
Teiji refused another rice ball, so he wasn’t hungry. Iroh wondered if he had that ‘colic’ that he’d heard some babies are afflicted with; he thought it had something to do with constant tummy-aches, but Lu Ten had never had a problem with it. He rubbed Teiji’s back and belly with a carefully heated palm, hoping to soothe any aches he might have, and while the outright screaming diminished, the baby just would not stop crying. Blast it, why hadn’t they waited at the ship for the doctor to return—or better yet, actually made sure he was safely in Jee’s care before departing?
But berating himself and Zuko for not instantly becoming perfect parents after the joy and burden had been thrust on them so abruptly, wasn’t helping Teiji right now. Iroh finally poked his head out of the river boat’s cabin, took a good look around to be sure no pirates were anywhere in sight, then carried the crying baby over to his new father, with Taozu trailing after him.
Zuko demanded as he drew near, “Uncle, what are you doing?! I told you to keep him out of sight!”
“Out of sight of the pirates,” Iroh countered, “and they’re nowhere nearby right now. But what have you done to the waterbending girl?” as he frowned heavily at the sight of her. Her appearance had changed since he’d gone aboard the boat, and not for the better:
Now she had a gag over her mouth, made from a strip of cloth that appeared to have been torn from the hem of her own skirt. Over the gag, her eyes glared at Zuko with such pure fury that Iroh wouldn’t have been surprised if his proud phoenix plume had spontaneously combusted.
“All I did was shut her up, when she wouldn’t shut up on her own!” Zuko said defensively, his voice pitched to carry over Teiji’s cries as he reached out to take the baby from Iroh’s arms.
But Iroh took a step backwards, keeping Teiji for the moment and still frowning. “And you consider that civil treatment?”
“Civil?! I’ve been treating her civilly since the moment we laid eyes on her!” Zuko insisted, then began counting off on his fingers. “First, I kept her out of the pirates’ hands, and do you know what they wanted to do to her for stealing from them?! I overheard plenty while I was aboard their ship, including the crew’s plans for her! First they’d chain her to the deck and rape her, every last one of them getting a turn with her, and then they’d--” Abruptly he slapped a hand over his own mouth, his good eye wide with dismay as he stared at Teiji.
“I don’t think he’s listening to you at the moment,” Iroh said wryly over the noise of the still wailing infant. “But we must mind our words around him from now on.”
Zuko nodded agreement, then continued, “Anyway, I also tied her up with the good linen rope, instead of the twine we have a lot more of aboard, because that would have cut into her skin when she struggled. And she has information that could cut our search for the Avatar even shorter, but have I tried to torture it out of her? No! I even tried to bargain with her for it; you can’t get more civil than that! But she still has the nerve to call us monsters and evil!” He glared over his shoulder at the girl as he finished, “I’m tempted to give her back to the pirates after all. What do you think, peasant? Would you prefer to be out of the hands of these ‘evil monsters’—and in their hands instead?”
Her eyes wide with horror over the gag, the girl frantically shook her head. Iroh felt a moment of pity for her; the poor girl clearly had no idea of how much trouble she’d narrowly avoided, until hearing Zuko’s rant just now.
“Good. Now give him to me,” as Zuko faced forward and reached for Teiji again, and this time Iroh let him take the crying baby into his arms. Teiji flung his tiny arms around Zuko’s neck, but still didn’t stop crying, even as Zuko began rocking back and forth on his heels to soothe him. “Sshhh, ssshhh, little boy; what’s the matter?”
“His diaper doesn’t need changing, and he isn’t hungry; we can’t tell if he has a tummy-ache, but even if he does, we have nothing in the emergency medical kit for treating him,” Iroh said rather helplessly.
Zuko began walking back and forth on the riverbank with Teiji in his arms, rubbing his back and murmuring to him. “Does your tummy hurt, Teiji? Is that the problem?” After a short pause, he asked quietly, “Or did you have a bad dream? Nightmares can be really scary…” Iroh blinked as he overheard that, and wondered why the thought hadn’t occurred to him earlier.
“That’s what happened; you had a bad dream. Ssshhh, sshhh, it’s okay, the bad dream is over now… It’s understandable that you’re having bad dreams, considering what you’ve been through. A little boy, left all alone in the woods after your mama died…”
And finally, a single word emerged from Teiji’s incoherent wails, the first clear word they’d ever heard him say, and one that broke Iroh’s heart when he heard it: “Mama! Mama! Maamaaa!”
“Sh-she’s not coming, Teiji,” Zuko managed, his voice choked. “I’m so sorry; she’s not coming…”
Iroh felt tears stinging at his eyes, and pulled a kerchief out of his sleeve to dab at them. From the quiet sniffles he heard behind him, at least one of the men was similarly affected.
“I can’t give you your mother back,” Zuko went on, his voice thick with unshed tears. “If I could, I would, because I know just how you’re feeling; I lost my mother too. And I still miss her, so much…” After a quiet sniffle and hard swallow of his own, he said softly, “But you just go ahead and cry, as much as you need to. Father always called me weak and punished me for it, but it’s okay for you to cry; you’re just a little baby still. I’ll never punish you for crying, for missing her… I’ll never hurt you, or let anyone else hurt you either. I promise, Teiji.”
Iroh had the definite feeling that Zuko was no longer aware of everyone else around him, as he went on speaking softly to his newfound son. “And someday, after we go home… there’s a garden with a turtle-duck pond; it’s a beautiful, quiet place, my mom’s favorite spot in the whole palace. She and I used to sit by the pond together, and feed the turtle-ducks. Sometimes we’d even go out there when it rained, and sit in the gazebo, and see if we could toss the bread from there all the way out to the pond for the turtle-ducks. And after she… after she was gone, I sneaked into her room and got one of her hair combs, and I took it out to the garden, and I hid it deep in the branches of a bush by the pond where we used to sit together. I made it a sort-of secret shrine to her. After we go home to the palace, I’ll show it to you, and we’ll make it a shrine to both our mothers. And whenever you miss your mama, we’ll go out there and pray to her… pray to them together.”
Just for a moment, Iroh wished with all his heart that he could travel backwards in time over six years, grab his younger self by the scruff of the neck, and order him to climb out of his grieving depression long enough to accept young Zuko’s shy invitation to have a picnic in that garden, all those years ago.
Then Zuko began crooning “Leaves from the Vine” to Teiji, over and over as he paced on the riverbank with him. After a few more minutes of sobbing, Teiji’s crying finally subsided to little tired sniffles. Meanwhile, Iroh quietly made his way over to the waterbending girl and untied her gag, tucking the strips of fabric into the tops of her short boots so she could attempt to sew them back on later. The girl nodded her gratitude to Iroh but kept quiet, her eyes focused on Zuko as he sang the lullaby to Teiji. She seemed both perplexed and dismayed, as if the image of father and son together was as strange and wrong to her as a pink-and-purple striped platypus-bear stomping through her frozen village.
After Teiji stopped crying and while Zuko kept crooning to him, the girl finally said in a near-whisper, “You really love him, don’t you? Like he’s really your son.”
Zuko stopped singing and whirled in his tracks to stare at her as she spoke, as if he’d forgotten she was even there, and shifted to shield Teiji from her view—as if his child was in danger from a young teenaged girl currently tied to a tree, Iroh thought with some amusement. After a second or two of tense silence, Zuko snapped sarcastically, “Is the idea of adoption such a strange concept to you, waterbender?”
“No, I know what adoption is! But I don’t… I mean, you…” the girl seemed to flounder for a few moments, as if not knowing what exactly she wanted to ask, and then finally said, “Why did you bring a baby with you while trying to capture the Avatar? Didn’t you think it would be dangerous?”
Even in the moonlight, it was easy to see Zuko’s flush of acute embarrassment. He snapped, “There was a miscommunication!” He glared over at Hūn, who was standing guard nearby, as he continued, “He’s supposed to be safely aboard the ship, with my lieutenant minding him for me until we get back!”
Hūn cringed in guilty embarrassment, while Iroh said firmly, “That error in communication will never happen again, I assure you, miss… er, I don’t believe you’ve ever introduced yourself?”
After only a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “My name’s Katara. Uh, and you are?”
“Former General Iroh, uncle to Prince Zuko,” as he inclined his head to her. He judged that a bow would be inappropriate, not because she was a peasant but because she was currently unable to bow back. “And the child’s name is Teiji.”
“Um, I’d say ‘pleased to meet you’, but…” her voice trailed off into a few moments of awkward silence that spread throughout the group, before she determinedly began again. “There’s something else I don’t understand. You said you had to rescue him; why would anyone try to kill an innocent baby?”
“Because they feared him, for the way he is different from most babies,” Iroh said sigh a heavy sigh. “They believed him to be a witch-child… though I can assure you he is not!”
“Superstitious peasants, afraid of anything that they don’t understand,” Zuko grumbled as he turned towards the boat. “You keep an eye on her for a while, Uncle; I’m going to put Teiji back to bed.”
After Zuko disappeared with Teiji into the boat’s cabin, the girl—Katara—turned to Iroh and asked curiously, “You said the baby’s different; how so? The blanket you had around him was covering his legs; does he have birds’ feet instead of regular feet? Or are they just on backwards? I heard a story once about a witch like that…”
“No, his feet are quite normal. As are his hands; he has fingers instead of claws or hooves, and the normal set of five on each hand,” Iroh assured her. “He looks quite normal at first glance… until you look into his eyes. One is brown, but the other is blue.”
She blinked at him. “That’s all?”
“That’s all. Other than his eyes, he’s like any other baby. And normally a quite cheerful one; it’s ama--”
“Are you serious?” she interrupted him, her outrage obvious in her expression and flashing blue eyes. “Somebody was willing to kill an innocent baby, just because he has eyes like a polar-dog?”
“A what? A polar-dog?” It was Iroh’s turn to blink at her in surprise. “They normally have eyes with mismatched colors?”
“Well, it’s not exactly normal for them, but it’s not really rare either. Most polar-dogs have either brown eyes or blue eyes, but every once in a while you get one pup from a litter that has one blue eye and one brown eye. I’ve seen two like that myself, and my Gran-Gran knew a man who was real proud of having twin polar-dogs with different eyes; one with the blue eye on the left, and the other with the blue on the right. Some folks think that the mismatched eyes are a sign that they’re lucky, but I’ve never noticed that they are. And the other polar-dogs don’t treat them any differently, no matter what color their eyes are.”
Crewman Li Mein, also standing guard nearby, gave a derisive chuckle as he muttered, “How about that; those Earth Kingdom peasants weren’t even as smart as polar-dogs!”
Katara gave Li Mein a glare, apparently choosing to be offended on the peasants’ behalf, but had no words to argue with his opinion. Instead she turned back to Iroh and asked curiously, “Can I get a look at his eyes, the next time you bring him out?”
Iroh gave her a mild frown of chastisement. “I highly doubt my nephew will put his son on display for you, as a subject of curiosity. He himself dislikes being stared at for his mismatched eyes.”
Katara gave a slightly guilty blush at her faux pas, and said no more. Nor did she say anything when Zuko returned from the boat some time later, after putting Teiji back to bed, and ordered the guards changed so two other crewmen could nap for a few hours. She said nothing for several more hours, until shortly after dawn when the pirates returned with more captives.
“Nice work,” Zuko said almost grudgingly, while Iroh stared in barely-disguised astonishment at the sight of the Avatar and his other Water Tribe companion tied up with rope and being marched onto the riverbank by the pirates. He’d expected the Water Tribe boy to be easily overwhelmed, but the Avatar as well?!
While they’d been getting the river steamer ready for the mission, Zuko had confided in Iroh the plan he’d already come up with, and Iroh had been forced to admire its practical and rather ruthless efficiency. After having lost to the airbender both at the South Pole and on Kyoshi Island, Zuko would no longer underestimate the Avatar’s ability to wreak havoc and destruction, no matter how childlike his appearance or behavior. Therefore, the pirates would serve as their catapult fodder; the seafaring criminals would try to capture the airbender, not knowing him for what he was until the battle triggered the Avatar State. Then after the destruction stopped and the pirates were scattered to the four winds, when the young boy came down from the Avatar State and was momentarily exhausted as they’d seen happen before, their soldiers would swoop in and subdue him before he could recover.
But to see the Avatar now, bound by mere ropes just like any non-bending child… was it a ruse to lull them all into a sense of false security, as he’d done before at the South Pole? If so, the boy was about to regret it. Zuko had brought along not just manacles but an iron mask to cover his mouth, and several hundred feet of stout iron chain; he was prepared to wrap the airbender up from head to toe as soon as they laid hands on him.
When she saw her friend and her brother in captivity, Katara called out to them with clear regret in her voice, “Aang, this is all my fault!”
The Avatar called back, “No, Katara, it isn’t!”
Iroh felt almost compelled to point out, “Yeah, it kind-of is.” Katara shot him a sidelong glare to show how little she appreciated his agreeing with her just then. (He sighed internally and thought once again that there was just no pleasing the young in their teenage years.)
Aboard the river steamer, it was Hūn and Taozu’s turn to mind the baby. He’d woken up a little while ago, but not crying this time. They had mashed up some more field rations for his breakfast, and after breakfast it was time for another diaper change, using more of the field blanket they’d torn up for diapers last night. Taozu cocked his head to listen while setting the baby down on the changing pad they’d improvised, and said, “It sounds like one of the search parties is back. Take a look out there and tell me what’s going on, okay?”
Hūn went to the porthole and looked out, and reported, “The pirates are back. And they have the Avatar!”
“They what?” Taozu left the baby for a moment and scrambled to look out the porthole too. “Well, roll me in cinders; they really caught him! Without even a scratch on any of them, near as I can tell; how’d they manage that?” Then he turned back around with some alarm, saying, “Hey, kid, stay out of that; you could get hurt! Hūn, keep me posted on what’s happening!”
So Hūn kept looking out the porthole and listening, and reported on what he heard and saw : Prince Zuko pointing to the Avatar, and demanding he be turned over to them. The pirate captain shouting back at the prince about the scroll. And then all the pirates turning to look at the Water Tribe boy as he said something… Then the pirates turning to go back to their ship, still holding onto the Avatar. Which made Prince Zuko really mad, and then all their men were charging the pirates, and they started fighting…
Things ashore got really confusing after that. There was smoke everywhere, and shouting and steel clashing and fireballs flying while their crew fought the pirates, and Taozu got all excited and wanted to go out and help their side, but fretted that they’d been ordered to stay with the baby and keep him out of sight of the pirates, and he couldn’t leave the baby alone!
Hūn was about to point out that so long as he was there, the baby wouldn’t be alone, and he knew Taozu was a better fighter than he was—when suddenly he noticed that the waterbending girl had somehow gotten untied from the tree, and was standing next to the pirates’ ship, trying to push it into the water all by herself. And then the Avatar and the Water Tribe boy suddenly appeared next to her, and the Avatar and the girl did some waterbending thing together, and then the pirate ship was floating away with the Avatar and his friends on it!
Taozu started to bust up laughing when Hūn told him what the Avatar had done. “Serves those pirate scum right, for breaking the deal!”
Hūn was still grinning when he turned back to looking out the porthole… and lost his grin in a hurry. The fighting had stopped when the pirates had noticed that their ship had been taken away from them. Prince Zuko and most of the others on their crew were still laughing and pointing at the sight, and not noticing that the pirates had, almost in unison, started running for the river steamer…
For once, Hūn didn’t need anyone to tell him exactly what to do and how to do it. He grabbed his spear, stepped outside and closed the cabin door hard behind him, with Taozu and the baby still inside. Then he kicked hard at the short gangplank leading to the riverbank, knocking it into the water; making it at least a little harder for invaders to come aboard. And when the pirates came climbing aboard anyway, he raised his spear and shouted with all his heart, “For Honor, Glory and the Fire Nation!” before attacking.
The pirate captain bared his teeth in a savage grin when he saw the lone Fire Nation soldier suddenly jump out of the river boat’s cabin, spear in hand, and kick away the gangplank in a pitiful attempt to deny them the vessel. He’d already figured on there being one soldier left aboard; there had to be one minding the baby he’d heard yesterday, that the young hothead had foolishly brought on the mission. But the captain had no interest in babies, just in the river boat that his crew could use to catch up with his own ship. After he had his own ship back, the baby could be dropped off back at the port town, or just dropped over the side if it started crying again.
The lone spearman knew how to use his weapon against multiple foes; he jabbed quickly here and there to keep them at bay, instead of driving it in deep enough to be embedded in anyone. But with his crew climbing aboard on all sides, it took only a few seconds for someone to get past the defender’s guard with a blade. The first mate sliced him open with a scimitar, and the spearman screamed as he fell to the deck. The captain grinned as he stepped right over the man’s body to open the door to the cabin, where he knew the controls would be—
And only had time to realize that he’d miscalculated, and the Fire Nation crew had left two men aboard with the baby, before he caught a fireball right in the face.
The sight of the pirate crew’s ship sailing away without them, had been the funniest thing Zuko had seen in years! He joined the men of his crew in laughing at their misfortune, thinking that it served them right for breaking a deal with him—
And suddenly he heard someone behind him shouting “For Honor, Glory and the Fire Nation!” and realized that the fighting wasn’t finished after all. He turned around, and the pirates were boarding his boat! Hūn was out on deck with his spear, trying to hold them off all by himself—they were trying to kidnap TEIJI!
His uncle told him later that he’d screamed his son’s name and sprinted for the boat faster than a fireball, then made a running leap from the shore to land right in the middle of the fight and start laying waste all around him, but Zuko could never remember that afterwards. All he could remember was seeing Hūn go down from a sword stroke, and then the pirate captain opening the cabin door only to fall back an instant later screaming and aflame, but the other pirates were there and attacking and they had to die he had to protect his son he had to kill them all KILL THEM ALL—
And then suddenly there weren’t any pirates left to fight, and his uncle was shouting at him to calm down and let them come aboard. He looked around in a daze, down at the bloodied and soot-blackened swords in his hands—where had they come from? They weren’t his dao blades—and then at the charred and dismembered bodies littering the deck, and then at all his men standing on the riverbank or in the shallows, staring at him in something like awe, or maybe revulsion.
He dropped the borrowed swords onto the deck with a clatter and went inside the cabin, to find Taozu looking pale but on his feet, and holding Teiji. Teiji was crying again but there wasn’t any blood on him; he snatched his son out of the crewman’s arms and held him tight, whispering over and over, “You’re okay, you’re safe, you’re safe…”
“Yes, your son is safe,” his uncle said gravely, coming up behind him some time later and laying a hand on his shoulder. “He’s safe now; it’s over.”
The fight was over now… it was over, and he was—
He abruptly spun around and thrust Teiji into his uncle’s arms, and sprinted out of the cabin to the railing. He almost made it too, but the bile rising in his throat refused to wait until he’d reached the side. He ended up on hands and knees on the gore-spattered deck, adding to the mess with all the contents of his stomach, and maybe his intestines too.
He’d killed all those men. Flashes of what he’d done danced in front of his eyes like a demonic parade. Four pirates had been turned into screaming torches; another one’s blood and brains had spattered everywhere as his skull was caved in. The swords had been yanked from that one’s grip, and then—flames running down the blades, heads rolling, limbs flying, so much blood everywhere and the stench of burning flesh… They’d been pirates, probably killers themselves. But he’d never killed anyone before in his life; never even hurt someone seriously if he could help it! And now he’d…
He’d just humiliated himself in front of his crew. Vomiting in front of them like a sick pygmy-puma; how much more weak and shameful could he get?! But his stomach refused to listen to his demands for dignity, and continued forcing dry heaves on him even when there was nothing left to throw up.
Suddenly someone else was kneeling beside him; not his uncle, but Sergeant Goro. “Perfectly natural reaction, sir; over half the men in the fleet ended up feeding the fishies after their first kills,” the sergeant said gruffly, with a hesitant pat to his shoulder. “I remember one youngster puked right on his lieutenant’s shoes; oh, didn’t he just love that one…”
“It is indeed a natural reaction,” Iroh said, standing there with Teiji braced on one well-padded hip as Zuko slowly stood up again, feeling like he’d barfed up ten years of his life along with his breakfast. “Now do come inside; let’s get you cleaned up as best we can, while the men clear the deck.”
In the space of what seemed like only a few minutes, he’d gone from being excited and hopeful about capturing the Avatar at last, to feeling betrayed and angry at the pirates breaking their deal, then highly amused, then terrified and enraged, then relieved almost to tears, then nauseous and humiliated… The only thing Zuko could feel now was tired.
He nodded numbly, and started to follow his uncle inside the cabin.
Then they all heard Li Mein saying urgently, “He’s still alive! Someone get the medical kit!” Zuko turned to see Li Mein kneeling next to Hūn, feeling the pulse at his throat while looking around pleadingly. Hūn had survived the pirates’ attack!
…But not by much. Taozu came running out with the medical kit, and did his best to treat Hūn’s wounds. But the pirates had cut him so deep, and Hūn had lost so much blood already…
Clearing and cleaning the deck could wait! Zuko ordered them to shove off immediately, and make full speed back to the ship. The return trip would be faster, going with the river current instead of against it, but would it be fast enough?
Once they were underway, the crew started lightening the load on the engines by shoving pirate bodies over the sides. And when Hūn regained consciousness a few minutes later, Zuko fell to his knees beside him, and gripped his crewman’s hand tightly. “Hūn, you always obey clear and exact orders, don’t you? Well, I order you to stay alive until we get back to the ship!”
“Yes, sir,” Hūn said, and tried to give him a faint smile but didn’t quite succeed.
Zuko wasn’t any better at giving encouraging smiles either, but he still gave it his best try. “We’ll be back aboard the Wani in no time, and Ming-Hoa will fix you right up; you’ll be fit for duty again in another week or two! Just hang in there, Hūn…”
In the end, Hūn followed Zuko’s orders exactly… he lived until they got back to the ship.
But even as he was being loaded onto a stretcher for taking to the infirmary, Zuko heard his last breath catch in his throat, and end in a faint death-rattle. The ship’s doctor Ming-Hoa examined Hūn, then sorrowfully shook his head and drew a sheet up over his face.
A prince of the Fire Nation had to be strong at all times. Zuko gave a curt nod in acknowledgment of the verdict, then took Teiji and followed his uncle to his quarters without another word.
To be continued…
Just to make it clear to people who’ve been watching the new Legend of Korra episodes, the animal Katara referred to is not like Naga. Naga is a polar bear-dog; polar-dogs are considerably smaller, instead of solid white fur they have a black strip running from nose to tail, and their ears don’t flop over. The only known sighting of a polar-dog is in the very first ATLA episode, “The Boy in the Iceberg”; one is lying peaceably amidst the gathered children when Katara introduces Aang to the entire village, and when Aang is flying overhead later, curiously opens one blue eye.
Chapter 5: Discussed
A fan at FFnet asked me, “How to do you pronounce ‘Teiji’?” I had to admit that was a very good question! I chose the name from a baby-names list for its meaning, without ever hearing it said aloud. But Google comes to the rescue once more: "The baby boy name Teiji is pronounced as T-IYJHiy" So it's three syllables instead of two, with emphasis on the middle syllable, for anyone else who’s curious.
And since so many people at FFnet have been asking in reviews and PM’s about this story’s pairings: This story will eventually span all three seasons of the show and beyond, but I have no plans to pair up anyone romantically (at least, not in a lasting manner) during the first-season events. This story's first season will focus on familial relationships and friendships, as well as loyalty and group dynamics such as Zuko's changing relationship with his crew.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara had been rather proud of herself for coming up with the idea of using the pirates’ own ship to escape from them, while they were too busy fighting the Fire Nation troops to notice. Sokka called himself ‘the Idea Guy’, but he wasn’t the only clever person in the family! With Aang’s help, she floated the ship out into the water and they climbed aboard, leaving the battle behind them.
Yes, she was pretty proud of herself… until they realized that they’d missed the river fork that led to a long and gradual descent to sea level, and the ship was heading straight for a waterfall dead ahead. Then pride turned into a wailing Oh, slush!
The next five minutes were full of the most frantic waterbending she’d ever done in her life, desperately working with Aang to keep the ship from going over the falls. Aang shouted, “Sokka, I can’t take the time to stop and do it; you need to reach into my shirt!”
“I need to what?” Sokka shouted back while frantically tugging on the ship’s rigging, trying to use the sails to catch any wind that would help push them back upstream, and tossing Aang a look of outrage. “How can you be thinking about scratching an itch at a time like this?!”
“I don’t have an itch, I have the whistle! The bison whistle; it’ll summon Appa from wherever he’s gone to graze, so he can get us out of here!”
“That whistle you bought in the market yesterday? But it doesn’t even work!” Sokka protested. But Aang kept insisting, and they were all desperate enough that he reached into Aang’s shirt and fished out the bison-shaped whistle, blew into it as hard as he could, and kept blowing until he was red in the face.
Katara still couldn’t hear anything from the whistle, but in just a few minutes, the constant roar of the waterfall was joined by the roaring of a sky bison as Appa came soaring over to them. He hovered directly over the ship so they could grab onto the toes of his massive feet (Katara spared a brief moment to be thankful that Sokka had cleaned the mud and bugs out from between them yesterday morning), and he lifted them to safety as the ship swept forward and over the falls. “I knew a bison whistle would come in handy! Thanks, Appa!” Aang said happily.
“Yeah, we owe you one!” Sokka breathlessly agreed as Appa set down on the riverbank nearby just long enough for them to clamber aboard into his saddle. Even over the roar of the falls, Katara could hear the crash of the wooden ship hitting the bottom of the falls and smashing to pieces, and she promised herself she would buy the biggest, juiciest melon she could find at the market in the next town they stopped at, for Appa’s thank-you gift.
After guiding Appa to head due north, Aang hopped back to the saddle to be with his friends. Katara met him with a troubled expression as she said, “Aang, I still owe you an apology.” She looked down at the saddle as she continued, “You were just so good at waterbending, without really trying. I got so competitive that I put us all in danger. I'm sorry.”
“That’s okay, Katara,” he said cheerfully. He was just glad that they’d gotten away from Zuko and the pirates, and his best friend wasn’t mad at him anymore.
But Katara was still sad, as she said in a really unconvincing way, “Besides, who needs that stupid scroll anyway.”
“Is that really how you feel?” Sokka said with a smirk from the other side of the saddle, as he suddenly whipped out—the waterbending scroll!
“The scroll!” Katara almost squealed with delight, as she reached for it.
But Sokka pushed her back while holding it out of her reach and saying, “First, what did you learn?”
Katara made a face at her brother, but dutifully said, “Stealing is wrong.” And as Sokka handed over the scroll, she added with a little shudder, “And even if they stole it first, you don’t steal from pirates! Those horrible… you don’t want to know what they were planning to do to me; what they would have done if Prince Zuko hadn’t gotten to me first!”
Sokka gave his sister a weird look as he said slowly, “Are you trying to say that Angry Jerk saved you from the pirates?”
“Well… in a way, yeah,” Katara admitted, looking down at her hands.
“Pffft! If he did, he saved you from them only so he could capture you himself,” Sokka said with a dismissive wave. “One group is as bad as the other, if you ask me! But with any luck, they’ll both be so busy fighting over who gets the only ship left, that they’ll--”
“Fighting over the only ship left?” Katara interrupted him, her eyes wide.
“Yup,” as Sokka started grinning again. “You guys didn’t see it? I guess you were too busy waterbending us out into the main current to look back. But yeah, just after we took off, I saw everybody stop fighting long enough to look at us sailing away. And it looked like the Fire Nation troops were all laughing, but I’ll bet they stopped laughing when they noticed the pirates all running for their river boat instead!”
But instead of grinning with him, Katara’s face turned pale and her eyes went even wider as she clapped her hands to her mouth in sheer horror. “Thevavy!” they heard her say with her voice muffled behind her hands, before she lowered them to shout practically right in their faces, “We have to go back! We have to go back right now!”
“What?! Why, so we can get captured again?” Sokka demanded.
“No, you don’t understand; there’s a baby aboard that Fire Nation boat!”
“A what?” as Aang stared at her in astonishment, wondering for a moment if he’d heard her right. “A baby? What’s a baby doing there?”
“I’ll explain later! We have to make sure he’s safe!”
But even while Aang was still turning around, Sokka shoved past him to scramble up to Appa’s head. The Water Tribe teen yanked hard on the reins as he shouted, “C’mon, big guy, turn around! We’ve got a baby to save!”
Appa growled in protest at the way the reins and his horns were being abused, but banked hard to the right to turn around, so suddenly and steeply that everyone had to grab hold of something to keep from falling off. But even once they’d straightened out and were flying level again, Sokka was gripping the reins till his knuckles turned white, while muttering, “C’mon, faster, faster! We’ve gotta get there before they roast him! Curse those Fire Nation scum! Raiding, kidnapping, murdering--”
His words carried back to the saddle, and Katara shook her head, her long braid whipping in wind of their passage. “Not safe from the Fire Nation; safe from the pirates!” she shouted forward to Sokka. “If they find the baby, they could kill him!”
“Okay, so we’ll save him from all of them!” Sokka retorted over his shoulder, before he snapped the reins and barked “Yip yip!” to urge Appa to fly even faster. Katara looked like she was about to speak again, but instead just gripped the saddle edge and looked grimly determined as she nodded agreement.
Flying high over the forest, they passed over the clearing they’d camped in last night, then found the riverbank and began following the river downstream. They found the fork in the river that led away from the falls, and Sokka urged Appa to follow it until they saw the little Fire Nation river steamer heading swiftly back to the port town.
“Okay, how are we going to do this?” Sokka asked, thinking out loud as they began gaining on the vessel; it was moving at a fast pace with the current’s help, but Appa was still just a little bit faster. “Waterbend it into running aground and wrecking the hull? How close do you guys have to be to the water to bend it?”
“Closer than this, that’s for sure,” Katara said, looking worried. “Aang, do you see any pirates aboard?” They’d figured out a while ago that Aang had the best eyesight out of all of them, and years of experience at figuring out what things were from a long way up.
Aang peered hard at the people on the deck of the river boat ahead and below them, still nearly a thousand feet away, and shook his head. “No pirates at all; just Fire Nation troops. Maybe Zuko’s crew just chased them off before they could board.” He wondered briefly what the pirates would tell people had happened to their ship, after they walked all the way back to port.
“Or they couldn’t figure out how to operate the engine fast enough, before the Fire troops recaptured their boat,” Sokka suggested. “Either way it’s a good thing, because it means fewer foes for us to deal with. But we still have to… um, wait a minute,” as he glanced over his shoulder. “Katara, normally I wouldn’t doubt you, but before we go charging into battle, I have to ask this: are you absolutely sure there’s a baby aboard their boat? There are animals out there that sound a little like babies, y’know; did you see this kid with your own eyes?”
“I saw him, Sokka.” Katara’s voice was solemn, her eyes troubled. “They brought him out of the boat to Zuko when he woke up crying. And then Zuko…” her voice trailed off.
Sokka tensed up all over, and turned completely around to show them a terrible scowl that made him look years older than he really was. “What did he do? Shake it? Try to drown it? Tell us the worst, Sis; what did he do?!”
“He rubbed his back and sang a lullaby, over and over until the baby fell asleep again.”
In the sudden silence, Aang swore he could even hear Appa blinking in befuddlement. Sokka finally said simply, “What?”
Katara just spread her hands helplessly, as if she couldn’t understand it either. “I swear I’m not joking! Zuko was patient and kind with the baby; treated him like his own son! He even… he even talked about having built a secret shrine to his own mother after she died, and how he’d make it a shrine to the baby’s mother too!”
After another second of just staring, Sokka finally slapped his knee and gave a little shake of his head, as if he’d just realized something and was a little annoyed with himself for not figuring it out earlier. “Oh, it was a Fire Nation baby! Even wolf-gators are kind to their own young. Why didn’t you say so earlier? Never mind, Appa, false alarm,” he said breezily as he patted the massive head he was sitting on, before turning and tugging the reins—gently this time—to steer them north again.
But as they flew off north, Katara kept on looking back at the boat vanishing into the distance behind them, and occasionally shook her head. Aang finally asked, “What’s the matter, Katara?”
“Well… the elder with Prince Zuko, his uncle—Iroh, I think his name was—he said they’d found the baby, and saved him from some Earth Kingdom peasants that were going to kill him because of his eyes.”
“His eyes? What about them?” Aang asked.
Without looking at them, Sokka said over his shoulder, “They’re probably gold eyes.” Adding with a snort of disgust, “Three guesses how that happened to a kid from an Earth Kingdom mother.”
But before Aang could start guessing aloud, Katara spoke up again. “But that’s just it; they said his eyes weren’t gold at all! Instead, they were polar-dog eyes!”
That got Sokka twisting around to look at his sister again. “Huh?”
“You know; like Akia’s polar-dog Inu. One eye is blue, but the other one is brown.”
“A witch-child? Really?” Aang said eagerly. He’d heard stories of witches with eyes like that; the blue eye looked into the Spirit World instead of the mortal world, so they could treat small spirits like pets and summon them to do their bidding. But he’d never seen one with his own eyes, and even Monk Gyatso said he’d never actually met someone like that, only heard spirit-tales about them. The stories said that all witches were evil, but Monk Gyatso also said that sometimes people only acted the way other people expected them to act, and witches might turn out to be good if people treated them kindly and hoped they would be kind in return.
But Katara gave him a sharp look in response. “What makes you so sure he’s a witch-child, just because he’s got eyes of different colors?” And when he explained about the spirit-tales, Katara snorted in disgust before pointing out, “Both of my eyes are blue; do you think that means that I only see into the Spirit World?”
“Um, no… but that’s different; you’re from the Water Tribe! It’s normal for you to have blue eyes!” Aang shrugged. “Hey, all I know about them is what the spirit-tales say.”
“And those spirit-tales almost got this innocent baby killed,” Katara said harshly, as if she was somehow blaming Aang for those old stories. “Zuko and his uncle told me all that, but I didn’t want to believe them…” She crossed her arms as she huffed, “It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs when someone from the Fire Nation has to step in and save children from being murdered by their own people!”
But Sokka said slowly, “Sis, I couldn’t help noticing that you kept saying ‘Zuko said this’ or ‘Iroh said that’ and such. Did you actually get to see the baby’s eyes yourself?” And when Katara admitted she hadn’t, he went on, “So how do you know they weren’t lying to you about the whole thing? You know, as a ruse to get you to lower your guard or something?”
Katara stared back at him. “Sokka, when they brought out the baby, I was already tied to a tree. And even had a gag tied over my mouth, after all I gave Zuko was insults instead of information on where to find you! Why would he try to get me to lower my guard after doing all that?”
“Because they’re as crazy as they are vicious and cruel,” Sokka said with a shrug, as he turned around and went back to steering their course again; it was clear that the matter was settled as far as he was concerned. But from Katara’s expression, she was still bothered by what she’d seen while captive, and Aang admitted to himself that she wasn’t the only one.
Oh, it didn’t bother him that some Fire Nation people had rescued a baby; he was actually really glad to hear it, because that meant that there were still good people in the Fire Nation after all, good people like his old friend Kuzon had been! But he was really bothered by the idea of the baby being in danger in the first place, whether he was a witch-child or not. Would anyone really kill an innocent baby, just because they were afraid of what he might do to them when he was grown up?
Chun the pirate laboriously pulled himself out of the river and flopped onto the riverbank, gasping for breath. Enma’s balls, he’d thought he was a goner! The only way to escape that--that demon of a firebender, had been to jump overboard into the river and let the current sweep him far away. He and another crewmember—Hano, he thought—had done that after seeing six of their people killed in less than six seconds. But after some flailing and a couple of choked cries, Hano had gone under and not come up again; the Gwan River was strong and fast, and downright lethal to the unwary. Chun considered himself a damn good swimmer, but even he had barely made it back out of the current and to safety.
It was going to be a long, long walk back to civilization. And probably a long wait once he reached port, lying low since he was without a crew to back him up in case of trouble, until he found another pirate ship that would take him on. But at least he was still alive; Sil Jon, the patron spirit of pirates, must have really appreciated that offering of sake and tobacco that he’d made last week. Chun sat up with a weary, snaggletoothed grin, and saluted Sil Jon again before getting to his feet to begin trudging downriver.
Back aboard his ship and in his cabin, Zuko was absolutely at his wit’s end. His uncle had gone down to the records office to get Hūn’s file, with the information Zuko would need for writing his crewman’s eulogy, while Zuko stayed with Teiji. The baby just wouldn’t stop crying and fussing!
Taozu had said Teiji had been fine for the first minute or two after waking up that morning, but he’d started crying just a few moments before the pirates stormed aboard the ship, and he hadn’t stopped since then. (Zuko wondered if he had somehow sensed trouble coming for him; Uncle was downright firm on the baby having no spiritual powers, but the spirits of kirin didn’t hover around just any peasant baby.) But he hadn’t stopped crying after the danger was over, hadn’t stopped crying after Zuko had grabbed a rag and cleaned all the pirate blood and gore off himself to look less frightening, and hadn’t stopped crying even though nearly the entire mission team had taken turns singing rhymes and nursery songs to him. He’d fussed in Zuko’s arms, fussed in Iroh’s arms and even refused to eat the breakfast they’d improvised for him from field rations, while speeding back to the ship in their desperate and ultimately futile effort to save Hūn from dying. What had happened to the sweet-tempered and giggling child they’d rescued a few days ago?
Now that they were back in his cabin, Zuko had hoped that the familiar surroundings would calm him down, but so far it didn’t seem to be working. He tried to distract Teiji from whatever was making him cry by soaring the wooden dragon toy over his head, something that the baby had absolutely adored two evenings ago, but Teiji just kept on fussing. Teiji didn’t want the cloth stuffed panda he’d bought yesterday, either, or the monkey drum, and when Zuko handed him the kokeshi dolls, he—he threw them right back in Zuko’s face!
“Teiji!” he exclaimed, shocked and hurt—not by the actual impact, that was barely noticeable, but Teiji’s clear rejection of him hit and crushed him worse than a dozen earthbenders’ boulders. He knew it was because he’d failed as a father, he’d let Teiji be put in danger, they should have gone straight back to the ship as soon as they’d realized Teiji was aboard! But instead, Teiji had been scared by the pirates and battle and all the blood, and now he—
But just then his uncle came in through the door, with Hūn’s file in his hands. “What happened?” he asked as soon as he saw Zuko, his wrinkled brow creasing even more with worry.
“T-Teiji, he… he…” Zuko couldn’t actually make himself say the words, He hates me now; they clogged up in his suddenly tight throat, and his eyes were stinging but he was not going to cry, he was strong instead of a weak crybaby, he was not going to cry…
“Oh dear,” and suddenly Hūn’s file had been tossed onto the bed and Uncle was throwing his arms around him, hugging him tightly before he could protest—no hugs, he wasn’t a baby!—before just as suddenly stepping back to hold him at arms’ length while giving him an intense look. “Nephew, listen to me. Your son is grieving. He is mourning the loss of his mother, and right now that grief is taking the form of anger. He is angry at the entire world, for taking his mother away from him, likely the source of all the love and comfort he had ever known in his short life. And he is angry at you, because it is safe for him to be angry here.”
“I… I don’t understand,” he managed to say past that stupid lump in his throat. “Safe?” But he’d let Teiji be put in danger!
“Yes, safe. Sometimes, nephew, for survival’s sake, people can push their true emotions aside to deal with the situation at hand, even when those emotions would normally be overwhelming. When we found Teiji, he was cold, exhausted, starving, and alone with his mother’s corpse; a harrowing situation indeed. Then we rescued him, and brought him to safety; now he is warm and fed and surrounded by people who accept him despite his differences, you most of all. Teiji knows now that you, nephew, will never abandon him or reject him; that you will always be there for him, as a parent should be.” Iroh’s voice was firm, but there seemed to a hint of uncertain worry in his eyes, as if he was actually unsure Zuko had fully committed himself to parenthood. Zuko responded to both his words and his fears with a slow, firm nod while blinking back the tears again.
Iroh continued, “But he has already known so much rejection in his life; from those villagers his mother fled from, perhaps from every village they had ever been in. The only one who had always been there for him before was his mother, but now she is gone, and he is too young to understand how death took her from him; he only knows that she is never coming back. For him, it seems the ultimate rejection; do you understand?”
Zuko’s heart wrenched inside his chest, for reasons he was not going to think about right now, but he gave a quick jerky nod in response to Iroh’s question.
Iroh’s eyes were warm with sympathy, and his voice firm. “Now that Teiji knows he is safe with you, nephew, he can express the pain and loss that are currently wrenching his spirit. He must express it, or it will fester inside him for years and eventually poison his entire being. It is unfortunate for you that right now the pain is taking the form of anger, but you must remain firm and steady, and support him while you wait for it to pass.”
Zuko nodded again in acceptance if not full understanding, and looked over at where Teiji was sitting on the floor, alternately gnawing on one of his teething toys and beating it harshly against a leg of Zuko’s writing desk. “How long will he be like this, Uncle? How long will it take before he’s… before he’s ready to be happy again?”
Uncle heaved a huge, gusty sigh, and sounded defeated as he responded, “It can take years, Zuko. Long and miserable years…” Then his tone changed to one of encouragement as he added, “But that is for much older children and adults. The younger children are, the more quickly they adapt; I think this spell shall pass quickly, just a few weeks at most.”
At the word ‘years’, Zuko’s only thought was a bleak Oh bright Agni, please kill me now. Iroh’s later words of reassurance helped a little, but still, the next few weeks were going to be terrible for them both. He sighed and shook his head—he was strong, and he’d endure because he had to; it was as simple as that—and then reached for Hūn’s file. He had a duty to his crew as well as to Teiji, and it was time he attended to it.
“Yaaah!” Teiji shouted at him as he stepped carefully around the boy to take his writing supplies down from the shelf, and threw his teething toy at him too. Zuko took it without flinching this time, but as he set the supplies on his desk, he silently wondered how he was going to focus on everything he needed to do that day with Teiji behaving like that.
“Here, let me take him to my cabin while you work,” Iroh offered, scooping Teiji up off the floor while deftly avoiding the child’s waving fists. “…It may be that, even though I am a fat, lazy, foolish, disgusting, worthless, geezer, crazy old gasbag of a senile failure, I might be of some use to you that way.”
Zuko had been smoothing out some paper to begin, but he paused to turn and look askance at his uncle while Iroh was reciting that litany of insults. “Why are you calling yourself—oh, ashes,” as it suddenly hit him, like a hard kick to the chest. Those were all words that he’d called his uncle in the past few years, ever since his banishment and the start of their search for the Avatar.
When he could breathe again, he stammered out, “Uncle, I’m--”
“You have a duty to your crew, Prince Zuko,” Iroh quite deliberately interrupted without looking at him, as he walked out of the cabin with a still-fussing Teiji in his arms. “That must come first right now.”
- The cabin door closed, and Zuko just flopped forward to lay face-down on his desk, unable to lift his head under a crushing load of combined guilt and shame.
He’d been behaving just like Teiji. Taking all his anger and pain over being burned and banished out on his poor uncle, who didn’t deserve any of it. Uncle Iroh had tried to warn him against coming into the war meeting, hadn’t he? And then warned him to keep silent during it, but he hadn’t, because he’d been too outraged at General Bujing’s proposal. And then after he’d been burned by Father for his shameful behavior and banished, Uncle had chosen to stay by his side, to leave their beautiful homeland behind and travel the wide and inhospitable world with him. And how had he thanked Uncle Iroh for all of his sacrifice? With three years of insults, belittling, and blatant disrespect far, far worse than his single outburst in the war room.
His uncle should have declared an Agni Kai for all that disrespect, and just put an end to Zuko’s miserable existence years ago. He didn’t deserve to live…
But he was still alive, and while he lived he had responsibilities to take care of. Including performing his duties to his crew, as his uncle had just reminded him. Zuko slowly lifted his head from his desk, and discarded the now crumpled and tearstained sheet of paper on it. He opened up Hūn’s service record as well as his personal copies of the officers’ manuals for official ceremonies and for awards, set out the ink and more paper, and began writing.
The funeral tiles were brought out of storage just before noon; white ceramic tiles that were designed to resist sustained high heat and interlocked to form a low platform on the deck. Hūn’s body was placed reverently atop the tiles, wrapped in a specially-treated white cloth. The crew assembled on deck in either full armor or their dress uniforms, draped with white surcoats for mourning.
General Iroh wasn’t present for the assembly, and word was quietly passed through the ranks that he was staying in his cabin with the fussy baby. Prince Zuko stood in a spot facing the body and the assembled crew, wearing a white surcoat over his armor; the surcoat didn’t entirely cover the stains from that morning’s battle that hadn’t been completely scrubbed off yet.
The prince unrolled the scroll he was holding and began reading aloud from it: “We gather here to remember the life of our fallen comrade in arms, Hūn, son of Chao and Mikiko, of Shu Jing province. Born on the seventh day of the sixth month in the Year of the Dog, Hūn was a good and dutiful son to his parents.”
“After enlisting in the service and completing his initial training, he was assigned to the troop carrier Aoba and served there with honor, participating in the Battle of Hanu Strait, before being assigned two years ago to our ship, the Wani. Private Hūn died honorably, of wounds received in battle, and will be missed by all. We will honor his memory always, as we honor his remains today and send his spirit home to Agni’s warm embrace.”
Listening to the eulogy, Sergeant Anzu noted with resignation that it had been practically word-for-word from the fleet’s official book of ceremonies and rituals. Commanders usually personalized and added to the ceremonial words as appropriate, but Prince Zuko had only filled in the required information about Hūn’s background; there had been nothing about his personality or his personal achievements. But Anzu had to admit that Hūn hadn’t done much in his cut-short career that was worth celebrating, and at least the eulogy hadn’t mentioned his low intelligence, or the screw-ups ranging from minor mistakes to ship-wide disasters that had landed Hūn on the Wani in the first place.
After the reading was concluded, Prince Zuko rolled up the scroll and tucked it away. That was Anzu’s signal to step forward, along with Lieutenant Jee and Corporal Akio; three of the best firebenders in the crew. They each took a side of the rectangular funeral platform, Prince Zuko at the head, and they all fired their hottest blasts straight at the cloth-covered corpse on the tiles.
The accelerant impregnated in the white funeral cloth caught fire instantly, and flames roared towards the heavens. The four firebenders kept pouring out flames for a full five minutes, until all that was left of Hūn was a long low pile of ashes. Prince Zuko gave a polite bow to the ashes, then faced the sun and gave a far deeper bow to Agni, before dismissing the assembly. Lieutenant Jee nodded to Sergeant Goro, who picked up the urn the quartermaster had provided and silently began gathering up Hūn’s ashes to send home, while everyone else quietly filed away.
By unspoken but longstanding tradition, after the funeral for Hūn, there was an unofficial wake for the departed in the mess hall. The Wani was normally a ‘dry’ ship, with plenty of tea but no alcohol allowed aboard. But also by longstanding tradition, the people who had managed to sneak some sake, baiju or other nonregulation beverages aboard after their brief shore leave, broke out their small stashes to share with their crewmates.
But this wake was rather different than most that Jiro had attended in his military career. Today, the crew spent less time talking about their crewmate Hūn than they did about Prince Zuko and the baby he’d brought aboard.
Tadao darkly expressed his opinion that ‘the witch-child’, as he still called Teiji, was to blame for his friend Hūn’s death; that the baby brought bad luck to whoever held him for any length of time, and Hūn was the first example of just how bad that luck could get. But he was nearly shouted down by an utterly exasperated Lieutenant Jee: “In the first place, I’ve told you at least a dozen fucking times already that the baby is not a witch-child! And in the second place, maybe you never noticed before, but the mission we’re on is anything but sunshine and fire lilies! It’s spirits-damned dangerous, because the prince is trying to capture the Avatar! Remember what that bald-headed demon-child did to our ship and crew when we first encountered him? It was only by the grace of Agni that we didn’t lose anyone in those spirits-damned polar waters! Or on Kyoshi Island, where they have that sea serpent nearly three times the size of our ship!”
“And you could even make an argument that the baby has been good luck for us,” Taozu added in with a glare at Tadao. “Or don’t you remember how the surprise of him coming aboard made the lieutenant forget to tell the prince about the midnight watch’s Avatar sighting? I know you’ve heard just like everyone else by now, the hawk-message about where the Avatar went after that; right over Commander Zhao’s head, on his way to causing a volcanic eruption that wrecked the temple on Crescent Island! If Prince Zuko had been told about that sighting, sure as sunset, we would have been caught right in the middle of that catastrophe!”
Tadao shut up and just sat there sullenly nursing his drink, while the conversation turned from the baby to Prince Zuko, and what he’d done that morning to the pirate crew.
“I’m telling you, he killed every last one of them in less than thirty seconds; hells, less than fifteen!” Goro insisted, his features filled again with awe. “And using moves I’ve never seen him do before; hells, moves I’ve never seen any bender use before! Running fire down the blades he’d taken from one of his first kills, to make them look like an oni’s blades straight out of a spirit-tale… And may I be damned straight to Koh’s Lair if he didn’t handle those swords like a master, when I’ve never seen him use any blades besides that dagger he keeps in his boot!”
“(cough) witch-powers (cough)” Tadao grumbled, and then dodged the cuff Joben aimed at his head.
“It was pretty awesome,” Anzu agreed, “and you all know I don’t use that word lightly. I dunno how he mastered swords without anyone finding out—or why, for that matter! Because his bending’s becoming more impressive every day, now that he’s actually listening to his uncle’s advice. Lieutenant, you remember how you’d described to us his Agni Kai with Zhao?” None of the crew had witnessed the fight from the sidelines, having been confined to the ship by Zhao’s troops, but Lieutenant Jee had used the telescope to watch the duel from afar and given the crew a blow-by-blow description of the battle. “You said he’d tried early on to use the ‘tiger-dillo’s paw’ on Zhao, but Zhao sent him flying instead. Well, he was more than effective with it against one of the pirates; he caved in the bugger’s skull! And that was right after he used the ‘nova-burst’ technique while still leaping aboard, to take out four pirates before his feet even touched the deck!”
“He killed all of those pirate scum in probably less time than it takes to talk about it,” Li Mein said quietly, staring into his drink. “If he’d just gotten there a few seconds sooner, he probably could have kept them from killing Hūn…” Knowing that Hūn and Li Mein had been friends, Jiro was about to squeeze his shoulder in sympathy when the crewman sat up a little straighter and said firmly, “Understand, I’m not blaming him for Hūn’s death. Hells, he got to the ship faster than any of us did! And after the fight was over, when we found out Hūn was still alive… the prince was genuinely concerned for him, tried to rally him to hang in there and everything!”
“Oh come on; stop shoveling on the komodo-rhino dung,” Kunio sneered. “I can believe that the prince’s firebending is improving, because it had damn well better improve after three years of almost nothing but training! But being a master swordsman too? And actually giving a damn about any of us? Somebody must have spiked their booze with cactus juice, for you to be having hallucinations already!”
“I gotta admit, that last part is really stretching it,” Sheng said with a frown, while putting down his own drink. “If he actually cared at all about Hūn, he sure wasn’t showing it at the funeral. Or when Ming-Hoa pronounced him dead on arrival; I was standing right there with the stretcher, and even rocks would show more emotion than he did.” Then he gave a small start before quickly adding, “I-I mean, his face was just as emotionless as stone! You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, we know,” Tetsuko said glumly. “I’ll admit I’ve had worse commanders in my career—like Zhao, for instance—but I’ve sure had better, too.”
But several seconds later they heard the creak of the door to the mess hall swinging open, and everyone at the unofficial wake turned towards it—to see Prince Zuko standing there, with a scroll in his hand. They scrambled to their feet, some of them trying to quickly hide the booze they’d been drinking, but he ignored nearly everyone there, his eyes searching for and focusing on Lieutenant Jee.
He strode up to the table Jee had been sitting at while giving the room a general order of “Sit” instead of the more polite “Be seated,” as if they were all lion-dogs instead of people. Then he unceremoniously pushed Jee’s drink to one side so he could lay the scroll down on the table. Everyone slowly sat down, frowning at the prince’s rudeness—interrupting a wake, just for some paperwork? That was a new low even for the Royal Pain!—but he arrogantly ignored them as he unrolled the scroll and weighted it at one end with an inkwell he pulled out of his sleeve, and his hand at the other end. “Sign,” he ordered just as abruptly, whipping out an ink brush and handing it to Jee. “This one normally takes two officers’ endorsement before the Board of Admirals will review it, so I’m making sure they’ll have no grounds for refusal.”
Jee frowned at him, but accepted the ink brush, and dipped it into the inkwell as he redirected that frown down at the paper in front of him. And then he abruptly lost that frown, as his eyes went wide and his right hand froze with the ink brush dipped and ready.
“Don’t drip on the parchment!” Zuko snapped irritably.
“Uh-yes, sir,” Jee said, hurriedly moving the ink brush back over the inkwell, but otherwise still just staring at the document in front of him.
“Well? I told you to sign it, Lieutenant! Unless you have some objection,” but the glare and underlying growl in Zuko’s voice made it plain that he would not tolerate any objection at all.
“Er—no objection, sir! And I will sign it… but first, requesting permission to read this aloud, sir? For the benefit of the crew, sir; chances are that most of them have never heard one of these read aloud before.”
The prince gave an impatient huff, but indicated with a brusque wave of his hand that Jee could go ahead, so long as he got it over with quickly. Jee nodded, and then began reading aloud:
“Official Nomination for Fleet Honors. Nominee: Hūn, son of Chao and Mikiko, of Shu Jing province. Rank of Honor requested: Order of the Crimson Banner. The Justification:
“On the sixteenth day of the eleventh month in the year of the Ram, Hūn was on watch aboard a river steamer during a mission on the Gwan River in Senlin Province of the Earth Kingdom. An orphaned child was aboard the steamer, having been rescued by a member of the crew from certain death two days earlier, and was awaiting transport to the ship at the end of the mission; in the meantime, the members of the mission crew were taking turns minding the child. The river steamer had been beached and the engine stopped while most of the team was away on the mission; Hūn and only one other crewman were aboard with the child when a crew of river pirates stormed the boat, with clear intentions to seize it and kill everyone aboard.
“Leaving his shipmate inside the cabin to guard the child, Hūn stepped out to do battle with the entire crew of pirates. Despite the overwhelming odds, armed with only a spear and Agni’s own radiant courage, Hūn managed to hold all fourteen pirates off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save both the vessel and the child aboard. Hūn was mortally wounded in combat and died soon afterwards, but for his honor, compassion for the innocent, bravery and battle prowess he should be posthumously awarded the Order of the Crimson Banner.”
The crew had been quiet at the start of the reading, but by the end of it they were so silent that an observer could swear he heard dust motes falling, and all of them staring at Prince Zuko in utter disbelief. The Order of the Crimson Banner was the second-highest honor possible to be bestowed on a member of the military, and recipients were few and far between; less than a dozen of them were awarded each year (and most of them posthumously; it was a long and bloody war, after all.) An incredibly high honor, and Prince Zuko wanted it to be awarded to Hūn the Idiot?
The prince was clearly not happy with the way they were staring at him; he snarled in a way that sounded almost defensive, “Hūn can’t be awarded the Order of the Dragon Flame, the award usually given to palace guards who die in the line of duty. Teiji’s adoption hasn’t been made official yet, and anyway, he’ll never be in line for the throne because he’s not of royal blood!”
Jee blinked up at Prince Zuko a couple of times before saying, “Understood, sir. In that case, the Order of the Crimson Banner is more appropriate. But, ah, sir, if I may ask a question or two about the wording?”
Zuko slammed his hand down on the table. “The wording’s fine; I checked it against the example in the Awards Manual myself! Just sign, already!” as he jabbed a finger at the appropriate line.
“Yes, sir!” as Lieutenant Jee inked his brush and signed the document, and then waved a carefully heated palm over the ink to dry it faster. When it was dry, Prince Zuko rolled up the scroll and stomped out of the mess hall without another word to anyone.
After the prince slammed the door shut after him, Lieutenant Jee leaned back in his chair and said to the room at large, “That was the prince’s own handwriting… and if the general had dictated it to him, with Iroh’s decades of experience in writing up documents like that, he wouldn’t have bothered checking it against the Awards Manual afterwards. Roll me in cinders and straight to Koh’s Lair, but that was all Prince Zuko’s idea. Probably his way of thanking Hūn for helping to save little Teiji.”
“But that’s not right!” Li Mein protested. “I mean, I considered Hūn a friend, and it’d be some comfort for his family if they knew he died with honor, but it didn’t happen that way! So much of what you read to us was… For starters, we didn’t rescue the kid; the prince did!”
“But the prince is also our captain, which technically makes him a member of the crew,” Anzu mused aloud which stroking his graying mustache.
"And if he wants to call himself just ‘reinforcements’ too, I reckon that’s his right,” Goro said with a wry grin. “Maybe it’s not the whole truth, but technically not one single word of that scroll was a lie. And yeah, it sounds a helluva lot more impressive than what actually happened, with Teiji’s being there purely by mistake and with Hūn not lasting even thirty seconds against the pirates, but it probably takes a lot to impress the Board of Admirals. I wonder if they’ll agree he earned it, and give him the award?”
“Probably not; we’re required to send a copy of the nominee’s service record along for any honor that high, and Hūn’s record…” Jee let his painfully wry smile finish the sentence for him. Then he continued, “But they’re not going to outright refuse to give him any posthumous honors, not when it’s been requested by a prince, and the admirals will know General Iroh is aboard too. There’ll be some official recognition of his sacrifice; they’ll probably downgrade it to the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard, but that’s better than nothing.”
“Yup; from what I could tell of their letters to Hūn, even the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard is more than his family ever expected of him,” Li Mein said a little sadly. After another minute or two of drinking in the still quiet room, Li Mein stood up a little unsteadily but said firmly, “I want to make another toast.”
Everyone looked at him inquisitively, and Lieutenant Jee made a gesture to indicate he should go ahead and do it. Li Mein raised his cup and said loudly, almost defiantly, “To Prince Zuko!”
That was one toast that had never, ever been made by the crew before, even on the rare occasions they’d been able to smuggle booze aboard. But after a few heartbeats of silence, Lieutenant Jee raised his cup high and said firmly, “To Prince Zuko!” And in a ragged chorus, the rest of the crew followed suit in toasting the prince before downing their drinks.
Two decks away, Zuko paused and turned back towards the mess hall for a moment in puzzlement. Had he just heard… had the crew really just toasted him? Just a few minutes after what he’d overheard on the way down to the mess hall, Tetsuko saying he was only a little better than that honorless scum Zhao?
No, it couldn’t have been. He knew all too well what his crew thought of him; they’d be more apt to toast Zhao, or even an Earth Kingdom general, than ‘the Royal Pain’. Anyway, no matter what they’d been talking about, he’d done his duty today for the crew and as much as he could for poor Hūn; now it was time to do right by his family.
For the last few hours Iroh had been in his cabin with Teiji, trying his best to keep the baby’s fussing to a minimum, and reproving himself for sandbagging his nephew like that. Yes, when the opportunity had presented itself, the temptation to point out to Zuko how much his own behavior had been mirroring an upset baby’s had been nearly irresistible, but the key word was nearly. The poor boy was already swimming in waters well over his head but struggling as best he could to be to be a good father; this was hardly the time to remind him that he could be a better nephew as well!
But done was done, the tea had been poured, and he would not attempt to switch the cups now; he would only wait and see what his nephew chose to do next. If Zuko chose for his pride’s sake to forget what Iroh had said before leaving with Teiji, then Iroh would accept the pretense and carry on. There were larger issues to deal with, after all; very large and complex issues indeed, some of which Zuko himself wasn’t even aware of yet.
Iroh had found by trial and error that the best tactic for keeping little Teiji quiet had been to set the baby inside a ring composed of nearly all the toys Iroh had bought for him, and then skillfully dance one of the marionette dolls around just outside the ring and Teiji’s reach. Teiji had been fascinated by the dancing dolls, and by the wind-up walking ostrich-horse as well; they distracted him from his misery for at least a few minutes at a time, which Iroh figured was the best he could hope for right now. And a few times that morning Teiji had even let Iroh hug and cuddle him for a short while before he started fussing again; since the fussing tended to include yanking hard on fistfuls of Iroh’s own beard and hair, he would regretfully set the boy down amidst the toys again.
But finally, around noon and the time for the funeral, Iroh put away all but a few of the softest toys and settled Teiji in his bed, tucking the sheets firmly around him to keep him there, and just let the child cry himself to sleep. It had been early for a nap, but an overtired child would be even more difficult to deal with, and it could well be that more sleep than usual was still warranted for Teiji after his travails in the woods only a few days ago.
Some time after Teiji’s cries and squalls had finally died to whimpers and then silence, Zuko knocked very quietly on the door and then let himself in. And as soon as the door was closed behind him, he all but fell to the deck in a full kowtow, so deep and fast that his proud phoenix plume flopped over to lay in the dust in front of him.
Iroh hadn’t been expecting that of his prideful nephew, and he hurried over to him while whispering for fear of waking Teiji, “Nephew, don’t do that!”
Zuko’s muffled voice floated up from the deckplates, misery in every syllable. “I can’t commit hara-kiri. Teiji would think someone else has abandoned him.”
“Do not even suggest such an act!” Iroh scolded him in his very fiercest whisper as he reached down and bodily hauled Zuko to his feet. “To throw your life away like that, would rip my poor heart to shreds again!” He hugged Zuko close—and this time, Zuko just let him do it—as he murmured, “Zuko. Perhaps I have not said it outright before, but… I have come to see you as a second son. Part of my heart, just as… just as Lu Ten was, and always will be.”
And finally, after many long years of refusing or just barely tolerating hugs from him, Zuko hugged him back while saying just as quietly, “I know. And I… I’m so, so sorry for treating you so horribly, for so long! I was just… No, there’s no excuse for what I’ve done; I should always have known better!” Zuko pulled back just enough to look him in the face, tears tricking down from the corners of his mismatched eyes, as he said hoarsely, “How can I make it up to you?”
There were so many ways Iroh would have liked to answer that question, and so many reasons he dared not:
Renounce your terrible father. No, Zuko was not ready to do that; not when he still had not accepted the truth about Ozai. Not when he still thought his father had been forced by their nation’s traditions to challenge him in an Agni Kai, and forced to burn and banish him as well. And not when the men who crewed Zuko’s ship were loyal to the Fire Lord as well; the merest rumor of treason on either his or Zuko’s part would bring the entire Fire Nation fleet down hard around their ears.
Stop hunting the Avatar, and join him in ending the war instead, to restore balance to the world. Again, no, for all the same reasons.
Let me teach you pai sho. That was doable, and would be the very first step in preparing him to be a White Lotus member much later on… but regrettably, now was not the best time. Zuko would have enough trials of patience in the very near future, after being thrust so abruptly into parenthood; now was not the time to try to teach him a game that required patience and strategy, with Teiji underfoot and distracting them every other second.
But there was still one form of penance he could suggest to Zuko, and he did so with a wry smile. “You can make my life easier… by giving compliments to your crew.”
Zuko only blinked at him in honest puzzlement. “Huh?”
Since the teenager seemed to be expecting his uncle to despise him for the years of verbal abuse, Iroh assumed just enough of an impatient and reproving air to ensure his full attention. “Zuko. Surely you have noticed that I spend a great deal of time with the crew; playing pai sho with them, eating with them, drinking tea with them, and playing music with them on Music Night. Did it never once occur to you that I was not doing so for my own benefit, but yours?”
“Huh?” Zuko said again. Followed by him saying slowly and with furrowed brow, “Are you saying… you don’t actually like tea and pai sho and singing and drinking in port and all that nonsense?”
“Quite the contrary; I enjoy it all, very much! But I would honestly prefer not to overindulge as much as I have in recent years.” Iroh looked down at his vast belly and sighed, “I used to be a great deal slimmer, you know; never slender, understand, I’ve always had a sturdy figure, but I was still quite a bit more dashing in my uniform than I am now.”
Zuko blinked at him a few times before saying in bald honesty, “I’m confused. What does your gaining so much weight have to do with my complimenting the crew?”
“For starters, every meal we’ve had together in which I gave my compliments to the cook and asked for seconds--or even thirds!--was a meal in which you just ate your food and said nothing, or compared it scornfully to the delicacies we used to feast on at the palace.” Iroh sighed again. “I started doing that soon after we came aboard, and now my overindulgence in food has become so well-known and ingrained that the cook’s assistant always brings me a double portion, and if I don’t eat all of it, the cook will fret for hours if not days about what he did wrong with that meal.”
Zuko rubbed his chin in hard thought. “Sooo… you overeat all the time… because it makes the cook happy?”
“Yes!” as Iroh gave an emphatic nod, and a smile at his nephew for figuring it out.
“But why do you care whether he’s happy or not? We both know he’s aboard this ship as a punishment detail! It’s right there in his record; he was transferred off the Subuzon after he got so angry over some officer’s insult of his cooking that he deliberately burned the entire crew’s dinner!” Then Zuko blinked a few more times before saying, “I just answered my own question, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” Iroh said with an even more emphatic nod. “Zuko, I waged war in the Earth Kingdom for nearly forty years altogether… but since we boarded this ship, my primary role has been that of peacemaker. When the crew is upset with the way you treat them, I come along and do what I can to make them happy again, or at least less discontented with their lot, and prevent another mutiny from occurring.”
“So… you want me to be nice to them, so you don’t have to?” Zuko seemed to sag under a heavy burden, and Iroh sat down with him as Zuko looked up with something like despair on his face. “But, Uncle…”
“I know it will not be easy for you, nephew,” Iroh said gravely. “I have heard some of the things they have said about you, and I know too well how sharp your ears are; that you have heard their insults too. It will be extremely hard for you to put aside all those hurtful and cruel words you’ve heard, in order to treat them fairly, but I know you can do it; I have faith in you.”
“It’s not just that, Uncle!” Zuko protested. “It’s not just how I feel about them; I-I can’t just lie, and say good things about bad people! And don’t try to tell me they’re not; we’ve both seen their service records!”
His poor, young nephew, still so convinced that everything in the world was written in black and white… they really should have had this discussion long ago, but Zuko had never been ready to listen before now. Iroh said firmly, “Zuko, those service records rarely tell the whole story. Yes, there are some members of this crew that really do belong in the brig, and rest assured that the lieutenant and I keep a close eye on them. But others are here for lesser offenses that were the result of flaws in judgment, not flaws in character. Flaws in judgment are corrected by experience; experience those men have now, so they would not make the same mistake again if faced with those situations. And there are a few on board who are here precisely because they are good and decent men.”
“Really?” Zuko was openly skeptical. “How so?”
“Corporal Taozu is an excellent example. What’s in his service record? Honorable and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Haiza and two other campaigns, before he was summarily brought before his captain on charges, but transferred here instead of standing on trial. What were the charges?”
“Striking an officer,” Zuko said immediately. “Knocking out Lieutenant Fuka.”
“Yes. And do you know what Lieutenant Fuka was about to do when Taozu came upon him and knocked him unconscious? I do; it was all hushed up, because the lieutenant is the grandson of a general, but words still gets around in certain circles. Lieutenant Fuka was prevented by Taozu from raping an Earth Kingdom child.”
It was impossible for Zuko’s scarred eye to open much wider, but his unscarred eye was as round as the full moon. “He… he saved a child, he was doing the right thing, but he was punished for it?”
“Yes, nephew. Do you understand now?” Iroh wished with all his heart that Zuko would instantly draw the parallels between Taozu’s situation and his own, the first step in acknowledging Ozai’s cruelty and in severing the tyrant’s abusive grip on his soul…
But it was not to be; Iroh could already see it in his nephew’s expression. Instead, Zuko’s thoughts were traveling down a different path: “So, if some of the crew are actually good, loyal and hardworking people despite what their service records say, but some are not… how will I know which are which?”
It was a real struggle for Iroh to not roll his eyes. But that really was a legitimate question for someone who’d never had to really make his own assessments of people, discerning the bad from the good in both skills and temperament, before his banishment. Zuko had grown up in the palace, where only the best of the best were allowed to serve; guards and servants who failed to perform their duties to perfection were usually dismissed by the majordomo long before their flaws became noticeable to the royal family.
In truth, many of Zuko’s problems stemmed from having lived all his life behind the palace walls before being exiled; he had no real experience at all with people who were less than perfect, other than Zuko himself, and his abominable father had made it clear to him that ‘imperfect’ equaled ‘failure’. Iroh should have tried harder to get the young boy to come with him on trips around the nation, to see the lesser nobles and the commoners who lived every day in imperfection but still found happiness…
But ‘should have’s over the past were doing nothing for either of them right now. Iroh answered his nephew, “By observing them. By listening to what they say, not about you, but about each other. By watching them at their work, and even at their rest and recreation, if you can do so subtly enough. And when you see that they are doing well in their duties, say so to their faces. That is how you can make up your years of behavior to me, nephew; by striving to pay compliments to members of your crew on jobs well done, at least twice a day from now on. Never false compliments, because those do more harm than good in the long run, but true compliments that they have earned in the course of their duties. And not just to the same hardworking members of the crew, over and over again; seek out ways in which even the more lackluster crew members may shine. Do so, and you may find that your crew will surprise you.”
Just then they were interrupted by Teiji squalling; Iroh realized that their voices had gradually risen to normal levels over their conversation, and they’d woken the baby up. “Starting tomorrow,” Iroh concluded with a sigh, as Zuko bent down next to the bed to attempt to comfort Teiji, only to get smacked in the face with a stuffed rabbaroo toy. It was going to be a long day and night for them both.
That afternoon, Chun arrived back in Laosing a full day earlier than he would have gotten there by walking. He thanked the boatman who’d found a bedraggled, weaponless and penniless soul trudging alongside the river and given him a lift, by not killing the man with his own knife and claiming the riverboat for Chun’s own use. Instead, he rewarded himself for his mercy by going into the port’s best tavern and buying drinks with money from the purse he’d quietly stolen while the boatman had been tying up at the riverside docks.
The bartender knew him from previous visits, and casually asked after two others of his crew who’d been in there with him two nights ago, wanting to know who’d won the bet about which of them could dance a hornpipe jig longer while balancing on a sail boom. “Neither,” Chun said sourly. “They’re both dead now; all the crew’s gone sailing to the Spirit World, save me.”
The words inspired instant silence in his immediate vicinity, and after eyeing him with surprise for a moment, the bartender slid him another cup of baiju while saying, “A drink to wet your throat, if it dries while telling the tale."
Chun took the drink and the hint, and proceeded to tell... most of the story. Part of it, anyway; the parts he'd already decided while traveling back to port that he could tell without becoming a laughingstock.
Chun saw no reason to ruin his or his departed comrades' reputation by admitting that they honestly hadn't realized that the little bald-headed, airbending monk they'd encountered was the Avatar, when they'd heard the same gossip that everyone else had. The whole world knew by now that the Avatar had returned after a hundred years, as an airbending monk-child! But no one on the crew would ever have thought that someone so naive and pint-sized and--and silly, could also be the most powerful creature in the world.
Chun wasn't also about to admit that their ship had been stolen right out from under their noses, while fighting the Fire Nation troops. If anyone heard that, the jeers and laughter at the crew's expense would follow them all the way to the Spirit World, and Chun could kiss the pirate life goodbye forever; word of their outright stupidity would probably spread clear to the Fire Nation and both the Water Tribes, and he'd never be able live it down or get hired on again.
So, he omitted some truths, and stretched out a few more to cover the gaps. "We'd gone up the River Gwan in search of plunder, following a rumor we’d heard of rare bending scrolls being hidden somewhere upriver; there’s a collector of such things in Ba Sing Se who’ll buy them at grand prices with no questions asked. But along the way, we ran into one of those twin-hulled Fire Nation river craft, just lying there grounded on the riverbank with what looked like nobody aboard, or anywhere near it! Well, being no lovers of those Fire Nation conquerors, we decided to take the opportunity offering itself to us, and loot it of everything those cursed firebenders might have stolen from good Earth Kingdom folks before scuttling and sinking it.”
Growls of approval rumbled throughout the bar—after quick looks around to make sure that no one wearing Fire Nation colors was listening. Laosing was a neutral port, after all.
“We beached right beside it and went aboard to loot and scuttle, figuring we’d be on our way again in just a few minutes. But it turned out the Fire Nation had left one man aboard that boat; a spearman, who must have thought he was the finest warrior his nation had ever spawned, because the damn fool stood there on the deck and tried to fend off our entire crew instead of jumping off the far side! We made right quick work of him, but his comrades must have been close by in the woods, because they heard his death scream and came running before we could even get to looting. There must have been fifty firebenders, and a hundred more spearmen and swordsmen among them; we fought them all and they paid dearly for attacking us, but--”
But Chun’s tale was interrupted by a rude noise from another bar patron, who went on to jeer, “Tell us another one, mate! I’ve seen those river skiffs the Fire Nation uses for shallow-water missions; they hold maybe ten men, twelve at the most!”
Chun glared at the heckler, but the scars and tattoos on the man suggested that he might be as tough as Chun himself and not apt to back down when threatened, unless he had weapons handy to back up the threats. He berated himself for not going to a weapons shop and replacing his lost cutlass with the stolen cash before hitting the tavern. Rather than make empty threats and risk more scorn if he couldn’t back them up, he grudgingly admitted, “Aye, there were only twelve in the crew. But their captain fought like fifty of them! He’s a vicious demon-spawn, that one; got a terrible burn scar on the left side of his face,” as he covered his left eye and swept backwards from there to show the range of the scar, “and damned if he doesn’t shave off most of his hair, to show it off better!
“His body is that of a youth who’s not reached his full measure yet, and when we first started fighting, he seemed like he’d be an easy foe; our captain blade-danced with him for a bit, and he didn’t go for any killing blows that I could see. But then we found out he was just playing with us, like a pygmy-puma playing with a cricket-mouse; when he decided to stop playing… May I never drink again if he didn’t kill four of our men with one blast! And after he snatched Taro’s swords from his corpse, they turned into demon-blades in his grip, with hellfire running down them! I sprung at him to avenge my fallen brethren, but just as he kicked away the corpse of the man he’d just beheaded; what was left of poor Yama hit me and knocked me overboard, and the River Gwan swept me away. Sil Jon’s doing, no doubt, to get one of his more devoted followers away from that demon-spawn. By the time I’d struggled out of the current to shore, everyone else in my crew was dead and our ship had been sent over the falls, to be smashed to kindling.”
“That’s quite a story,” the bartender said with a carefully neutral expression, as Chun picked up his baiju and took a long swallow to indicate he was done with the telling.
“Quite a story indeed,” another man said, though not the scarred and tattooed heckler from before; this one had a koto slung across his back, marking him as a traveling musician. “But are you sure there isn’t more to tell?”
Chun eyed him sourly. “They’re all dead and gone to the Spirit World, and our good ship with them; what more is there to tell?”
The musician gave a knowing and somewhat derisive smile. “Well, I remember a rather interesting incident on the docks yesterday…”
Chun glared at the new heckler, knowing what the man must be referring to; when the crew had chased those cursed kids all over the docks that morning, trying to get back the waterbending scroll they’d stolen. But damned if he was going to admit that batch of brats had gotten the better of them even once, let alone twice!
So he growled, “Listen, stranger, there ain’t a port anywhere on this coastline that won’t tell you that the crew of the Leopard-Shark was the most dangerous batch of pirates that ever sailed the seas! We plundered any booty we pleased, from pearls to people, and slaughtered anyone foolish enough to stand in our way! But that Captain Zuko and his crew are even more dangerous; the captain alone killed over a dozen of us in less time than it takes to tell of it! That scarred and head-shaven demon-spawn is responsible for the death of the Leopard-Shark and all her crew, and that’s the honest truth! If I’m lying about that, may Sil Jon take my face with his blade and throw it to Koh for a doggy-treat!”
“I believe him,” the bartender declared abruptly, pushing another drink his way. “No true pirate will forswear himself when invoking Sil Jon. Here, have another, Chun, so you can toast the passing of the Leopard-Shark.”
Reijin the traveling koto player settled back in his chair as the pirate picked up his drink and toasted the souls of his old ship, while glaring straight at him in challenge. He made a show of scooting away a few inches, to make it plain he wasn’t looking for a fight, and decided to finish his drink quickly and go elsewhere. He’d already gotten what he wanted from this bar, anyway; the inspiration for another song.
He’d seen ‘that scarred and head-shaven demon-spawn’ yesterday in port, a teenager wearing Fire Nation armor but with a baby in a sling across his chest, being followed by a soldier carrying a basket of baby things. They had to be the same person; there couldn’t be two young men with the same type of facial scar and the same partially-shaved hairstyle in this region.
Reijin had been born in the Fire Nation colony Yu Dao, of a Fire Nation father and an Earth Kingdom mother, and would likely be there still if he hadn’t run into some trouble with the governor a few years back, over the man’s lovely daughter. (Really, as if it was Reijin’s fault that the girl liked koto music so much! And it wasn’t like he’d actually gotten her pregnant, he was always more careful than that…) The skin tone and eyes he’d inherited from his mother let him pass for a full-blooded native of the Earth Kingdom, but he didn’t have their habitual fear and hatred of anything Fire Nation, so he didn’t go out of his way to avoid their troops.
That scarred Fire Nation teen had been anything but friendly with strangers, glaring at anyone who came too close to him, but the baby in the sling had clearly been happy to be there, waving a teething toy about while alternately giggling and babbling nonsense. Highly intrigued by the unusual pair, Reijin had edged close enough to hear the teenager, evidently a ship’s captain, confide to his soldier that he was so new to child-rearing that he’d take any advice the man would offer him. Then, though Reijin had been sure he’d uttered no sound, the teen had whipped around to glare right at him in a clear warning to back off. Reijin had done so immediately, but for the rest of the day he’d wondered not just how that young man had been scarred, but how he’d become a parent so abruptly.
But now he knew the answer to at least one question. That pirate had just admitted that his ship’s plunder had included people; the crew had been slave-traders. More than likely the trip upriver had been a few days ago, and actually for the purpose of taking slaves from the less wary villages residing inland; young women and children sold for high prices in some obscene markets. There must have been a woman with a baby aboard their ship, taken in one of the raids, but the mother had died while Captain Zuko and his men had still been battling the pirates in order to free her. Since he hadn’t been able to save the mother, the young captain had decided to raise the baby as his own.
Saved from mortal peril as a child, and adopted by warriors that were strange to his own people; why, that was how spirit-tale heroes were made! As Reijin left the bar, his fingers were absently strumming thin air as his mind plucked out the koto chords for his next ballad; heroes were great inspiration for ballads. But it would be many years before the baby grew up to fulfill his heroic destiny; it would better to focus this ballad on his rescuer, Captain Zuko. Reijin already had a title for his next ballad: The Scarred Savior…
The next morning aboard the Wani, Lieutenant Jee brought the hawk-message he’d just received to the royals’ quarters, while they were still eating breakfast. At dinnertime last night General Iroh had shown up in the mess hall to ask the cook’s assistant to bring trays to the private dining room that Zuko had always eaten in before Teiji’s arrival, explaining loudly enough for all to hear that little Teiji was still fussy and misbehaving and they did not want his continual squalling to disrupt everyone’s dinners.
The general had explained his theory about the baby having finally decided it was safe to grieve over his dead mother, and unfortunately expressing that grief as anger, which he was showing to everyone but directing mainly at Prince Zuko. No one had dared comment on that in the general’s presence, but after he’d left the entire crew had agreed that it was about damn time the prince learned what it was like to have to put up with somebody else’s bad temper.
Jee knocked on the door to the private dining room and requested permission to enter. Prince Zuko growled for him to stay out, but General called out even louder for him to come in; Jee shrugged to himself and then opened the door. He entered to find the prince and the general in their informal dressing robes, the baby in the general’s lap, and all three of them spattered with baby food. Zuko had been holding a bowl and spoon while Iroh held the fussing and uncooperative Teiji, and as Zuko turned his attention from the baby and leveled a glare of pure exasperation on Jee for entering when he’d said not to, Teiji’s foot lashed out and hit the bowl on the underside, sending the contents flying—and Zuko ended up with still-warm congee splattered all over his scalp and dripping from his phoenix-plume.
In the seconds of dead silence that followed, Jee found out that it was indeed possible to hurt yourself from holding in bellows of laughter.
Zuko finally growled, “Lieutenant, you see nothing!”
“Yes, sir,” Jee finally managed in strangled tones. Oh Agni, his gut was starting to ache from strain and his lip was bleeding from biting down so hard, but it was so worth it! This was the funniest thing he’d seen in years; not since that time Commander Zhao, who’d been just Lieutenant Zhao back then but already an incurable arsehole, had gotten on the bad side of the base washerwoman and discovered all his uniforms dyed a lovely shade of lavender…
“I think we’ve gotten enough food into him for now,” Iroh said hurriedly while standing up with Teiji. “I’ll just go get him cleaned up, nephew, so you can deal with ship’s business.”
The general left with the baby, and by the time Zuko had grabbed a cloth napkin and wiped most of the congee off his head, Jee had composed himself enough to speak normally while proffering the message he’d carried in with him. “We received a hawk from the Unyo, sir. They’re in the area, ready to rendezvous with us for mail delivery and pickup.” This was great news for the crew, as they hadn’t had any mail delivered to them in nearly three months; the prince’s mission to capture the Avatar frequently took them far out of the Fire Nation’s swift and dedicated mail fleet’s theater of operations. “If we head north-northeast, we can meet up with them before noon tomorrow.”
The prince nodded curtly in acknowledgment, then ordered, “Send a return message of our intentions and set a course to intercept.”
“Yes, sir.” Jee took a deep breath, then continued, “Requesting permission to tell certain crewmembers that their mail will be examined before it’s handed over to the Unyo.”
That got Prince Zuko to stop straining food out of his phoenix plume and look at him sharply; normally a crewman’s mail was considered private, and that privacy was breached only in very serious situations, such as suspected treason. “Why?”
“Certain members of the crew are still convinced Teiji is a witch-child, sir. We don’t want them writing home and spreading the worst sort of rumors about your new son before his adoption is even made official. Hopefully, sir, just being told their mail will be examined by you will prevent them from writing such letters and eliminate the need for censorship.”
Prince Zuko scowled, though the scowl wasn’t directed at Jee, more at the universe at large. “Permission granted. Which crewmembers?”
“Tadao, Cheung and Shoda, sir.” Jee added urgently, “Sir, they’re all good crewmembers, and not planning anything against you or your son; they just believe too strongly in the old spirit-tales their honored elders and ancestors told them. Given time, they should accept Teiji as a normal child but with mismatched eyes, just as the rest of the crew already does.”
Still scowling, the prince muttered, “Add Jiro to that list; he said plainly while we were on the mission that he’s sure Teiji is spirit-touched. Even if he meant it in a good way, I don’t want that sort of talk about my son spreading back home.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll make it a friendly word of caution for him, sir.” But Jee just stood there instead of leaving the cabin to carry out the orders given, and finally asked, “Permission to speak freely, sir?” The prince eyed him warily, but granted permission, so Jee forged ahead, “The entire crew is impressed with your decision to nominate poor Hūn for the Order of the Crimson Banner. But why didn’t you mention your intentions at the funeral?”
- Jee had wondered if the prince would say he hadn’t wanted to get anyone’s hopes up—a nomination for the award was not a guarantee that it would actually be awarded—or if he would admit that he hadn’t thought of nominating Hūn until after the funeral. Jee also still had the nasty but nagging thought that, despite what he’d said to the crew about the paperwork being in the prince’s handwriting, the general had been the one to come up with the idea instead, and Prince Zuko secretly didn’t think Hūn deserved it.
But despite those thoughts, Jee wasn’t expecting the prince’s reaction, which was to look at him in clear puzzlement with a “How could I? There was no appropriate time for it.”
“…Sir? It was Hūn’s eulogy; I honestly can’t think of a more appropriate time for it.”
“But there’s no place for it in the ritual! Look, I’ll show you,” as the teenaged royal all but dragged Jee back to his cabin, got the officers’ manual for ceremonies and rituals down off a shelf, and found the section on funerals. “See?” as he pointed out the words of ceremony that Jee had probably learned by heart before the prince had even been born. “The deceased’s name, parentage, home of record and date of birth go here; tours of duty and honors earned while still alive go here; and what they died of goes here. Then it’s ‘and will be missed by all. We will honor his memory always, as we honor his remains today and send his spirit home to Agni’s warm embrace.’ There are no spaces available in those last words to mention receiving posthumous honors!”
Jee stared at the prince incredulously. “Sir, you don’t have to just follow the script exactly for these ceremonies! You can’t take any words out when you personalize them, but you can certainly add more in!”
Now it was the prince’s turn to stare, in utter shock. “You can?” And the shock became tinged with hurt, as if the prince had just found out that Jee had been keeping secrets from him. “No one told me that was allowed…”
“No one told you?! It was practically drilled into our heads by the instructor in the class on conducting ceremonies that we had in officer training…” Jee’s voice trailed off, as it was his turn to stare in shock. “Training you never had, did you, sir?”
Jee wanted to kick himself hard, for not realizing it a long time ago. Of course the prince hadn’t received officer training; he’d come aboard when he was only thirteen, and the very youngest age for teens to be eligible as cadets in officer training was fourteen. Prince Zuko had been given a ship to captain without any military leadership training at all; no wonder he was so terrible at it! There had always been his uncle the general to ask for advice and wisdom, but Jee knew damn well that the prince almost never listened to his uncle from the very first day they’d come aboard.
Jee was jolted from the shock of belated comprehension by the fierceness of Prince Zuko’s defensive glare; if it were any hotter, the lieutenant’s crewcut would be on fire already. The prince snarled, “Are you done now, Lieutenant? Don’t you have a message to send, and orders to carry out?”
“Yes, sir!” Jee said hastily, as he beat a retreat out of the cabin. Now was not the time to embarrass the prince by pointing out his shortcomings, not after the congee incident; Jee admittedly had his flaws but he also had principles, and they included not kicking a man when he was down.
There had been one more thing Jee had been going to say while still speaking freely, but it would keep, and perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary after all. If the prince just looked in a mirror, surely he’d notice on his own that he still had some streaks of dried congee around his scarred ear.
Except Prince Zuko always kept his mirror covered up…
Iroh spent over five hours that day minding Teiji, so Zuko could concentrate on writing what might be the most important letter of his life so far; explaining his adoption of an Earth Kingdom child to his father the Fire Lord. Judging by the fact that he heard Zuko step out of his cabin next door to bark at passing crewmen that he wanted a fresh supply of papers and ink from the quartermaster—twice—the prince was having difficulties with getting the wording right.
After putting Teiji down for his nap, and after the child had finally gone to sleep, Iroh went next door to see how Zuko was progressing in his task. The cabin porthole was open, but the scent of smoke still lingered in the air, and the heap of ashes in the wastebasket indicated that many rough drafts had been written and discarded already; a few crumpled bits of paper that hadn’t been burned yet still littered the desktop.
His nephew looked up from the desk to regard him with a smudge of ink on his nose, but a weary smile of not-quite-satisfaction. “I think I’ve finally got the wording right; see what you think,” as he handed over a sheet of paper.
Iroh schooled his features to stillness as a precaution; an old habit he’d acquired after years of receiving letters at the warfront that had been from the capital, with overanxious subordinates in the tent with him. Whether the news was good or bad, the subordinates would glean nothing from his features until he was ready to tell them. Then he began reading Zuko’s letter to his father.
The salutation was good, using all of Ozai’s appropriate titles and honorifics; the opening words of greeting from his son and hopes for his continued health and longevity were also appropriate. Iroh was abruptly reminded of that letter from Lu Ten that had started in similar fashion, a few years before the siege at Ba Sing Se. All the buttering-up that had preceded Lu Ten’s admission that he had accidentally crashed and wrecked the prototype tank that War Minister Qin had sent for his division’s use…
Then came the reason for Zuko’s letter; the news that he had rescued and adopted an Earth Kingdom peasant child. Zuko made no mention at all of the kirin spirit, which was sensible of him; Ozai had absolutely no patience for spiritual matters. Instead, after relaying what the village headman had said about the baby with eyes of different colors, Zuko said that Teiji’s very existence illustrated the need for the Fire Nation to rule the world, so they could stamp out the superstitious practices in other nations that call for the deaths of innocent children.
It was just as well that Iroh had already schooled his features to stillness, because otherwise he would have cried out in dismay. After three years of seeing what the Fire Nation was doing to the rest of the world, Zuko still believed their conquest was right and good for all concerned? But then Iroh remembered that Zuko had seen first-hand that the superstition about witch-children was prevalent in the Fire Nation as well. So it was possible that Zuko was just saying things he thought Ozai preferred to hear.
Zuko also spent several sentences reassuring his father than he had no intention of putting Teiji in the line of succession for the throne, and that so far as the Fire Sages were concerned, Teiji would be his ward instead of his son. Then he pointed out that there may well be advantages for the Fire Nation in the adoption; when the citizens of the Earth Kingdom learned that a child of their country had been adopted by the crown prince and walked the palace hallways without fear, perhaps they would understand that after being conquered they would be treated fairly, and they would stop all those troublesome rebellions.
‘Troublesome’ rebellions, indeed, Iroh thought darkly, thinking of all the lives lost on both sides when guerilla tactics were deployed against occupying forces. Then he returned to the letter, but there wasn’t much more left to read, and all that remained were words similar to the ones Zuko had been writing in letters to his father for months already. Zuko wrote about how he continued to hunt the Avatar, and had very nearly captured him in an encounter two days ago; with each encounter he learned more about the Avatar’s current abilities and strategies, and soon he would capture the Avatar with a foolproof plan, and drag him home to the Fire Nation in chains. In closing, your son, et cetera.
Iroh finally handed the paper back with an encouraging smile. “Very well written, Prince Zuko. You make excellent arguments in favor of Teiji being raised as your ward, that I doubt even a Fire Sage could find fault with.” Zuko looked very relieved, as he rolled the letter into a scroll and put his personal seal on it. Iroh was silently glad that Zuko did not ask how the Fire Lord would receive the news, though, because Ozai was certainly no Fire Sage.
That evening down in the cargo hold, Tadao worked with two other crewmen, all of them hull maintainers who were well experienced in sanding and painting, under the supervision of Taro the quartermaster as they worked on a crib for the witch-child. …For the prince’s baby, Tadao resignedly corrected his own thoughts, still remembering the ‘talk’ Lieutenant Jee had had with him earlier.
Lieutenant Jee had bluntly informed Tadao that thanks to his honest concerns—or, as the lieutenant had put it, his boneheaded superstitions and loose-flapping lips--his letters home were going to be examined and censored by the ship’s officers before being handed over to the mail ship tomorrow. And if Jee ever heard Tadao referring to that ‘poor innocent orphaned baby under the prince’s care’ as a witch-child again, the lieutenant would consider such talk as incitement to mutiny and Tadao would be punished accordingly. Knowing exactly what sort of punishment the lieutenant had in mind, Tadao had swallowed hard and decided it would be a good idea to just keep his mouth shut for a while.
“There we go; smooth as the proverbial baby’s butt,” Tetsuko proclaimed, interrupting Tadao’s train of thought at she held a sanded-down length of wood out for the quartermaster’s inspection. The quartermaster tested it by running the length right under his jawline, where the skin is thinnest and more sensitive than callused fingers would be, then agreed it was smooth enough for use.
The crib they were building was a far cry from the traditional cribs Tadao had seen back home, with fancy carving on the exterior done by professional woodworkers, or simple designs painted on by poor but still loving parents. All those cribs had been made to be cribs right from the start, while this crib was being built out of a munitions packing crate. The port of Laosing hadn’t had any cribs for sale—or at least hadn’t offered any for sale to Fire Nation troops, despite it being a neutral port—so the general had asked the crew to improvise.
The quartermaster had drawn out a basic design while they’d carefully dismantled the munitions crate and sanded off all the painted-on characters for what it had contained before. Then they’d spent long hours measuring, sawing, testing the pieces for proper fit, sawing a little more and then sanding, sanding and more sanding. Tadao had wrapped thin strips of cloth around his fingertips to help with the blisters he could already feel forming there.
After all the pieces were sanded so smooth there was absolutely no chance of splinters coming off them to hurt a baby’s tender skin, they started assembling the crib in accordance with Taro’s sketch and instructions. They were halfway finished when Tadao suddenly felt the heat of another firebender’s presence at his back, looked over his shoulder, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw the prince looming over him.
“Prince Zuko!” Taro was equally shocked. Everyone knew that sometimes the prince stopped shouting and stomping everywhere and went silent, making no noise whatsoever as he all but vanished and reappeared in various places about the ship, but he did it so rarely that it freaked them out every time. The flustered quartermaster began babbling about the crib they were making, apologizing that the design wasn’t up to royal standards, but it was the best they could do on such short notice and with the materials on hand. “After we finish assembling, then we’ll seal and paint it, and while the paint is drying we’ll make the bedding with some fabric I’ve already pulled from storage for airing out. It will be ready for the baby’s use and delivered to your quarters by tomorrow evening at the very latest, sir!”
The prince nodded curtly in acknowledgement of Taro’s words, while critically looking over the half-assembled crib. Tadao tried not to hunch in on himself as he waited for the inevitable royal tantrum about why wasn’t the crib finished already, what was taking so long, or about how shoddy the design was, or why the quartermaster was letting Tadao the ‘superstitious fool’ anywhere near something for the baby, or something else to do with honor or the Avatar or—
“Very smooth,” the prince commented while running his hand over the rail Tadao had been working on earlier. “Good sanding.”
Then Prince Zuko left, as abruptly as he’d come in, leaving the crewmen blinking at each other. Tetsuko asked for them all, “That was the prince, right?”
Zuko awoke at dawn the next morning, to find little Teiji still asleep in his arms. The quartermaster had reported that the crib ready for use by nightfall that night, but when he saw the little boy sweetly sleeping in his arms, yesterday’s nonstop fussing and even the battle of wills to get him to bed now just memories, Zuko admitted to himself that he really didn’t mind having to share his bed with Teiji. It was… really nice, having someone cuddle up to him, even just for warmth.
But as the sun began climbing higher over the horizon, Teiji slowly stirred, his eyes opening. Zuko sighed, halfway sitting up as he mentally braced himself for another hard day of parenting a fussy baby while running a ship. But instead of his face immediately scrunching up for a round of squalling, as had happened yesterday morning, Teiji just looked at him… and gave him a sleepy smile.
“Hi there. Is today going to be a good day, Teiji? Have you decided to stop being angry at the world already?” Zuko whispered hopefully as he lay back down beside the baby, practically nose to nose. Teiji’s sleepy smile only widened, and Zuko took it as a good sign. Uncle had said that children adapted really quickly; maybe two days and nights were all it took when they were still just babies, and their new parents tried hard to be good to them even in the worst moments. There had been many times in the last two days when Zuko had bitten back angry words at the baby who was making his life miserable, bitten them back so hard his lips had bled. But now he was glad he’d kept that iron hold on his temper, if that had helped Teiji feel better sooner.
Teiji reached out a tiny hand, and patted at Zuko’s chin. The first time Teiji had done that, right after they’d found him, Zuko had jerked back from the contact. Other than a few attempted hugs from Uncle, no one had touched him in years, not since Mom had—had disappeared. But when the baby had tried it again, a short while before they’d reached the ship, Zuko had sighed and let the baby touch the lower part of his face, feeling his chin and mouth. And still later that day, when Teiji had insisted on sticking his fingers right in Zuko’s mouth, Zuko had pretended to nibble on them, to Teiji’s evident delight at the little game.
This morning they played the ‘eat-your-fingers’ game, as Zuko made little growls and informed Teiji, “I’m a komodo-rhino. Mmm, tasty hay! Munch munch munch.” Teiji giggled in response; such a sweet sound, better than the finest singing he’d ever heard from the court musicians back home.
Then Teiji pulled his fingers out of Zuko’s mouth, and reached further up his face... for his scar.
Zuko swallowed hard. He’d never let anyone touch the scar, not since the bandages had come off for good and Uncle had declared sorrowfully that they could do no more for it. But he held still, and let Teiji reach out and touch it; feel the leathery surface of the scar and how different it was from normal skin.
“It feels weird and looks really ugly, I know, but… it’s just on my skin,” he whispered to Teiji. “Inside, I’m just like everyone else… well, just like any other firebender. In the same way that you’re just like any other baby, Teiji. That’s why the kirin wanted me to raise you, I guess; so I can teach you that looking weird or even scary on the outside, doesn’t mean you’re bad or evil like in the spirit-tales. I hope I’ll do a good job of raising you, Teiji; I promise that I’ll try my hardest, every day.”
At mid-morning, the fleet mail ship Unyo was sighted on the horizon, while Iroh was up on the bridge with Zuko and Teiji. The helmsman immediately began bringing the ship about, maneuvering to match their course, and the two ships’ signalmen began flashing the semaphore flags for communication as soon as they were within telescope range.
As the mail ship drew nearer, Zuko took off Teiji’s sling and began to hand the baby over to Iroh, but he forestalled his nephew with a raised hand. “Not this time, nephew; I will stand and wait with you instead, since my letter is not yet sealed. Lieutenant, would you be so kind as to mind both Teiji and the bridge for us?” Lieutenant Jee agreed with a nod and his arms out for the child, and in short order both Iroh and his nephew were descending to the deck, where a large sack and a small crate were waiting.
For the last two years and more, Lieutenant Jee had handled mail call, with Iroh’s unofficial assistance. Zuko usually avoided having anything to do with mail call; his uncle knew it was too painful for him to distribute the mail to the rest of the crew, when he never received any letters himself. But not this time, when the mail to be handed over included a crate containing Hūn’s ashes and personal effects. While any officer could receive the ship’s mail, it was an old tradition that personal effects were transferred from captain to captain until they were given in ceremony to the surviving family members of the deceased. Zuko had insisted that he would do his traditional duty, even before Iroh could remind him of it.
As they descended the ladder, they could hear Lieutenant Jee’s voice above them, directing the helmsman in continuing to match course and speed with the approaching Unyo. And when they were halfway down the ladder and Jee’s voice considerably fainter, Iroh stopped climbing and said quietly, “Stop and listen, nephew.”
Zuko had been nearly to the deck by then, having descended the ladder with his usual reckless speed (though he was thankfully much, much slower while carrying Teiji in his sling.) But the ring of his boots against the ladder rungs instantly stopped; as Iroh had hoped, he was listening with those ever-sharp ears of his. Iroh began descending again, slower than before as he said in a voice pitched only for his nephew to hear, “I heard a new rumor among the crew this morning. Now some of them not only think Teiji is a witch-child, but a shape-changer as well. Fortunately, this is a rumor we can easily disprove.”
Zuko tapped the ladder once sharply; Iroh took it for a wordless command to keep talking and explain himself. He quietly continued, “All we have to do is keep Teiji in a public area for a few hours, with a measure of salt next to him and a lit torch nearby. No shape-changer can hold his shape for long in the presence of both salt and fire. I know you normally avoid mail calls, but in the mess hall, where we always have salt on hand and torches ready to light, would be the ideal place and time to disprove this rumor. Mail call normally lasts at least two hours; that would be more than enough time to prove he’s not a shape-changer and dispel the rumor before it can spread further, without actually having to say anything to the crew about it.”
He stopped talking as he drew near, and after a few moments the ring of booted feet against metal indicated that Zuko had started climbing down again. When they were both on the deck a few moments later, Zuko gave him a nod and a significant frown; he wasn’t happy about Iroh’s proposed solution, but he’d do it all the same. Just as Iroh had hoped, when he’d made up the rumor a short while ago.
As the ships came closer together, crewmen on the Unyo’s deck gave them friendly waves; when one of them spotted Zuko and the stenciled crate at his feet, he nudged a fellow crew member who nodded and left. By the time the two ships were within boarding distance, Captain Sujin of the Unyo was standing on their deck, ready to receive the crate.
The boarding planks were set out to make a wide walkway between the two ships, and Captain Sujin came across first. “These are the personal effects of Private Hūn, who has journeyed on to the Spirit World,” Zuko said formally as he handed the crate over. “Please see that they are returned to his family in Shu Jing province.”
“I shall ensure they are delivered,” Captain Sujin said with a formal bow as he accepted the crate. Then he asked quietly, “How’d it happen? Killed by the Avatar?”
Zuko shook his head and said tersely, “Pirates.”
“Pirates who will never attack anyone, ever again,” Iroh added quickly, with a suitably fierce grimace. After reading the award recommendation that his nephew had drawn up yesterday, he’d gladly agreed to shade the truth for Hūn’s sake, and let others assume that they had suffered an utterly unprovoked attack, instead of their crewman’s death being largely the result of a deal that went sour. “Every last one of them is dead now, and their ship smashed to pieces.”
Captain Sujin gave a grim smile of approval. “Good job.”
“And this goes straight to the Board of Admirals in the capital,” Zuko said curtly as he handed over the sealed scroll containing his official recommendation for the Order of the Crimson Banner.
Captain Sujin accepted the scroll with a raised eyebrow as he asked, “A request for posthumous honors?”
Zuko nodded. “The Order of the Crimson Banner.”
Both of Captain Sujin’s eyebrows shot up nearly to his hairline. “The Crimson Banner? But… isn’t this the same Hūn that served on the Aoba? The entire fleet heard about what he did there, to the--”
Zuko’s face reddened as his features drew into a fierce scowl, but just as he opened his mouth to start shouting in one of his classic temper tantrums, Iroh snapped in a voice sharp enough to cut steel, “Captain Sujin!” Startled, both Zuko and Sujin shut up and looked at him as he continued in a hard tone that only gradually softened, “The request for fleet honors is valid; before he died, Hūn committed an act of great heroism. Prince Zuko’s scroll is sealed, as is proper, but my personal letter of endorsement has not been sealed yet,” as he pulled a scroll out of his sleeve and proffered it to the mail ship captain. “You may read the words of the Dragon of the West, all that I witnessed on the day of the battle, before I seal it for sending to the board of admirals as well.”
Captain Sujin accepted the scroll with a chastened expression, which pleased Iroh more than he wanted to admit; it was good to see that his reputation as a general still held strong among not just the troops of the army, but among the ships of the fleet as well. Before reading the scroll, Sujin turned and gestured wordlessly to his crewmen, who stepped onto the walkway of planks with a large sack of mail for the Wani.
Zuko accepted and signed for the sack of mail received, while Sujin read Iroh’s account of the battle. When he’d found out yesterday that Zuko had decided all on his own that Hūn deserved a posthumous award for his heroism, Iroh had been utterly delighted. Finally, his nephew was showing signs of really caring about his crew, for everyone to see! But he also knew how low his nephew’s reputation had sunk back home, thanks to that cursed Agni Kai that Ozai had maneuvered him into and what Ozai had done and declared afterwards.
Iroh was sure his own reputation had been tarnished by now as well, by officers and nobles seeking to curry favor with Ozai, but there were still many people who remembered him and honored him as the Dragon of the West. Having officially retired his command and aboard only as an unofficial advisor, Iroh’s signature did not belong on the award recommendation itself. But he was sure that his personal letter of endorsement would carry enough weight with the board of admirals that, instead of dismissing the banished prince’s request outright, they’d see fit to grant some lesser award. Probably the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard, but they might be impressed enough to award the Tiger-Dillo instead.
Captain Sujin’s eyebrows rose high again while reading what Iroh had written, but not in a look of incredulity this time. When he finished reading, he rolled the scroll up and handed it back to Iroh, saying simply, “I do not doubt the word of the Dragon of the West.” Then he turned to Zuko and said with a respectful bow, “Very impressive, your highness.”
Zuko looked startled and uncertain, at praise he clearly hadn’t been expecting just then, but he still remembered his manners enough to bow back while murmuring, “Thank you?”
Iroh smiled serenely, thankful that Captain Sujin hadn’t articulated exactly what he’d found so impressive; likely not Private Hūn’s heroic but ultimately ineffective attempt to keep the pirates from boarding, but Prince Zuko’s savage and entirely effective attack on them afterwards.
Iroh’s personal letter of endorsement had been worded just as carefully as Zuko’s more official letter. He detracted not one whit of honor and glory from Hūn’s actions, and indeed went into more detail about Hun’s part in the battle than Zuko had, describing the techniques he had seen Hūn use to hold the pirates at bay. While not one single word was a lie, Iroh had crafted every nuance he could wring out of words on a page to make it seem like Hūn had heroically managed to hold the pirates off for several minutes, as the away team had raced from deep in the woods back to the river, instead of mere seconds. He even implied that Hūn had killed the pirate captain instead of Taozu, by stating that the pirate captain had fallen by the time they’d arrived back at the river steamer.
And after describing Hūn’s part in the battle, he’d used equally great care and detail to describe Prince Zuko’s attack and the aftermath. He wrote of how the prince had been at the forefront of the charge back to the boat, and indeed reached the river vessel several steps ahead of his crew. He described every firebending move he had seen his nephew use, though he deliberately left out all mention of the swordfighting; he knew that the admirals, most of them firebenders, would scorn any firebender’s use of steel instead of flame. And naturally, he left out how Zuko had ended up feeding the fishies, like nearly every other 16-year-old boy/man after his first kill. But Iroh made it quite clear that that prince had killed every pirate within seconds, even before the rest of his crew could come aboard to join the battle… while not mentioning that they’d honestly feared to approach while Zuko was clearly in the grips of a berserker fury over the threat to the baby, possibly unable to tell friend from foe.
Then he explained why Prince Zuko had made no mention of his own part in the battle, in the posthumous awards request: As always, Prince Zuko seeks no honors for himself, save that which only his father can bestow on him. Quite true, while sounding far more noble than talking about his nephew’s utter obsession with capturing the Avatar And it implied that this wasn’t the first time Zuko had performed great feats in battle against the Fire Nation’s enemies and won the day for their cause.
Ozai had publicly scorned his own son as weak and cowardly, as every high-ranking officer in the military knew. But when the admirals read that letter, with his closing statement that I swear upon my honor and reputation as the Dragon of the West that every word I have written is true, those admirals could decide for themselves whether the banished prince, after displaying such bravery and prowess in battle, had ever deserved such scorn.
Iroh sealed his letter of endorsement with melted wax and handed the scroll back to Captain Sujin, who took it with Zuko’s scroll and Hūn’s personal effects over the walkway to the Unyo. Sujin’s crewmen followed him across, carrying the Wani’s outgoing mail. After the boarding planks were removed and stowed, while the ships began moving apart, Zuko turned to the deck handlers and said abruptly, “You were efficient in both coupling and decoupling our ship from theirs. Good job.”
Cheung was so startled by the praise he nearly tripped over his own feet while staring at the prince, but Zuko had already turned towards the ladder to the bridge. Iroh beamed at his retreating back, pleased beyond words that Zuko was actively seeking out things he could legitimately compliment his crew on, praising them for good performance, which would encourage even better performance in the future. He’d turn that boy into a true leader of men yet!
Zuko made a point of complimenting the helmsman on his smooth handling of the ship during the rendezvous—there, that made two today—before taking both Teiji and the supplies bag back from Lieutenant Jee. He firmly ignored both Jiro and Jee’s stares, automatically telling himself that no stare could ever hurt him (the same mantra he’d been using for nearly three years now, since beginning his exile) and went back down the ladder to rejoin Uncle. After giving the helmsman the usual order to keep a steady course and alert them via either the ship’s bell or whistle if there was any change in the situation, Jee followed him down the ladder, and went with him and his uncle to the mess hall.
From the sounds of the hubbub ahead, nearly the entire crew was waiting for them in the mess hall; of course they never missed a mail call, unless they were on an essential duty like the minding the helm or the engine room. Normally Zuko would be in his room right now reading scrolls about past Avatars, or down in the beast-hold with the komodo-rhinos for company, or out on deck after the mail ship was out of sight, practicing his firebending; anywhere but in here. Today he’d been planning on spending the hours with Teiji, now that the baby was in a good mood again; tickling him and pretending to make his toys talk and play together, and generally just having fun with his son. But nooo, instead he was going to be stuck in there the whole time, undergoing emotional slow torture… Stupid crewmen with their stupid superstitions and stupid rumors!
As soon as he was through the door of the mess hall, Zuko immediately headed to the right instead of the center of the room, aiming for the side cupboards where he knew they kept common spices for crewmen to season their meals with. He grabbed a container of salt from the cupboard, then went to the side table near a wall sconce, and glared at the two men sitting there until they got up and found new seats for themselves.
He set the salt container down in plain sight with the lid off, and sat down with Teiji almost right under the sconce, setting the torch alight with a flicked finger and flicker of will. There, fire and salt; the classic defenses against mischievous spirits. Now everybody would be able to see for themselves that his son was no shape-changer, and perfectly normal except for his mismatched eyes. That is, if they even looked his way, in the back of the room; right now everyone was focused up front.
When Uncle Iroh had come in with the sack, there had been an abrupt excited increase in noise, crewmen murmuring and jostling each other. But now there was a hush of anticipation, as the retired general and Lieutenant Jee stood together near the front of the room, with the mail sack on the table in front of them.
The crew seemed to be holding their breaths as Iroh and Jee made a big show of looking over the mail sack’s official seal, checking to be sure it was intact, then nodding to each other. Iroh took out a knife and cut through the wax, breaking the seal so the drawstrings could be opened; then he and Jee tugged the sack open together. The sack held dozens of scrolls, and a few small boxes; the general pulled out the first scroll, reading the name written on the end, and then announced, “Corporal Taozu!”
“Here!” Taozu said as he jumped to his feet, grinning from ear to ear. He accepted the scroll and went back to his seat as other crewmen congratulated him on getting the first scroll, and someone else asked him who it was from.
Lieutenant Jee pulled out the next scroll, looked it over, then announced, “Sergeant Goro!”
“Here!” the sergeant said as he jumped to his feet and came forward; normally he was a dour-looking man, but right now he was grinning just as widely as Taozu was.
After Goro got his letter and sat back down, Iroh pulled out another scroll, and announced, “Private Tadao!” Tadao not only jumped up to get his scroll, he eagerly opened it to start reading on the spot instead of going back to his seat. Instead of scolding him for blocking the way, Iroh just smiled and gently nudged him aside to clear the way for the next scroll recipient.
Lieutenant Jee held up a scroll and announced, “Sergeant Anzu!”
“On duty in the engine room,” one of the enginemen piped up, and Lieutenant Jee set that scroll aside while General Iroh reached into the sack for another one.
When it was Jee’s turn to hand out a scroll again, he read the seal and announced with a smile, “General Iroh!”
“For me?” the aged general exclaimed with delight, clapping his hands and looking for all the world like little Teiji had looked a few days ago, when Zuko had first made the toy dragon fly for him in play.
Jee handed him the scroll with an indulgent smile, then said kindly, “I can take it from here, sir.” Iroh promptly sat down with his scroll, opened it and began reading, while Jee reached into the sack for another scroll.
Zuko resolutely turned away from the sight of his uncle looking so delighted, to focus on Teiji and the flat wooden koala-sheep he was currently teething on. “We don’t need any of that,” he whispered very quietly, for only Teiji to hear. “We don’t need any stupid letters and packages from people who are hundreds of miles away from here. You’ve got me, right here, and I’ve got you; we don’t need anyone else.”
It was mostly true, too, though Zuko couldn’t deny that he needed his uncle’s advice on parenting, on almost an hourly basis. Teiji burbled at him while still teething on the koala-sheep, and he started counting the little boy’s fingers over and over again, to begin teaching him how to count to ten. By focusing on Teiji, he was able to almost completely ignore the lieutenant as Jee called out name after name after name, but never once said Zuko’s name…
And he was almost able to completely ignore the chatter going on at the tables all over the mess hall, from people reading their letters to their fellow crewmen. “My boy’s lost his second tooth—look, my wife pasted it to the scroll for me!” “My youngest daughter’s been accepted into the Home Guard!” “My wife says our komodo-rhino had twins—and one of ‘em has the lucky mark on his forehead! We’ll be able to sell it for half again the usual price when it’s weaned!”
Others were talking about their letters from home in a much less happy tone: “My girlfriend sent me a ‘Dear Lee’ letter. Says she’s found a new guy, some hotshot from the colonies…” “My boy’s having trouble in school again. If he doesn’t shape up soon, he’s going to be expelled…” Good news that was shared from people’s letters was celebrated with hearty slaps on the back, and promises to buy drinks at the next port. Bad news was commiserated with the squeezing of shoulders and gentler pats on the back, and even more promises of drinks to be bought at the next port.
Yes, Zuko was able to ignore the way that his crewmen celebrated and commiserated with each other (all around him but never with him, all he had was Teiji.) He completely ignored the fact that, once the large sack was empty of scrolls and packages, everyone in the room (except him) had at least one letter to read, and some of them had small stacks of scrolls and even a few packages from home (but nothing for him.)
Just after Lieutenant Jee left the mess hall with a basket full of scrolls, his own letters as well as letters for the crewmen who were on essential watches, Teiji made a smelly mess in his diapers again. But Iroh and the lieutenant had put together the ‘Teiji supplies’ shoulderbag for just this sort of occasion, when it would be inconvenient to go back to his cabin for changing. Zuko pulled a clean diaper, a wiping cloth and a padded mat out of the bag, set Teiji on the mat on the floor, and started changing Teiji’s diaper.
And just after he’d started, Uncle Iroh looked up from reading the letters he’d received from some old pai sho buddies of his, and said far too loudly and cheerfully, “Don’t fret, nephew; after the momentous news you put in your letter home this time, I’m sure that one way or another, you’ll finally receive a letter in the next mail call!”
…Agni curse his uncle.
He was in the middle of changing a diaper, so he couldn’t just get up and stomp out of the room as much as he dearly wanted to. Instead, Zuko kept his head down and his eyes focused on Teiji, and gritted his teeth as he heard all too clearly the whispers and murmurs from the crewmen to each other: “He didn’t get anything?” “No letters for him?” “Nothing from home…” “I’ve never heard his name being called out. Not just today, but not ever that I can think of.” “No wonder he never comes to these.” “I guess I can understand about his father, but he has a sister too; even the princess doesn’t write to him?” “No letters in over two and a half years…”
When he absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore, he lifted his head just long enough to glare at them all and growl, “Don’t you dare pity me.” That made the crew go silent, but Teiji started to fuss, catching his mood again and getting upset because of it, so he forced calm back into his voice and smiled reassuringly—or tried to, anyway—while he put a new diaper on his son.
If only he was a hog-monkey, then he could get away with flinging the poop-filled diaper at the crew to get them to back off! The thought made him grin just a little, one quick little grin, but it was enough to reassure Teiji as the baby gazed up at him, and he stopped fussing so Zuko could fasten the fresh diaper in place.
While determinedly not looking up, Zuko was well aware that after several seconds of uncomfortable silence, one of the crewmen got up and started walking in his direction. He finished putting fresh pants on Teiji just as the crewman said hesitantly, “Sir?”
“What do you want?” he snapped at the crewman, Li Mein, as he sat up and put Teiji in his lap.
Li Mein stood there with a small box in his hands, looking nervous but determined as he said, “Sir, my mother knows I’m friends with Hūn—was friends with him, Agni rest his spirit. She sent me some umeboshi with a note that I should share them with him, because I’d told her once that Hūn really liked the way she made them, said it was the best umeboshi he’d ever had. I can’t share them with Hūn now, but I’d be honored to share them with my prince and captain, the one who avenged his death,” as he dropped to one knee while offering the box of pickled plums to him.
If he’d offered the umeboshi out of pity, Zuko would have refused it outright. But… if Li Mein really felt it would be an honor, because even if he hadn’t been thinking that way at the time, Zuko really had avenged Hūn… Zuko nodded his thanks as he reached into the box and pulled out a pickled plum, then took a bite of it.
It was salty and sour as could be, and normally he hated umeboshi, but right then it tasted better than fresh mangoes or even dragonheart fruit. After swallowing the first bite he said sincerely, “It’s good.”
Li Mein smiled a little shyly. “Can I tell my mother you said so?”
Zuko said he could, then looked down at his lap where Teiji was eagerly reaching out to the box, and chided, “No, Teiji, that’s not yours.”
Li Mein’s smile got a little wider as he offered the box again, saying, “It’s okay, he can try one!”
So Zuko scooted Teiji forward on his lap a little, so the baby could grab an umeboshi for himself. But after just one bite, Teiji made a horrible face and spat the umeboshi out, and even turned a hurt look on Zuko for letting him put something so awful in his mouth.
“I fear that umeboshi are even more of an acquired taste than spicy foods,” Uncle Iroh said with a chuckle as he appeared at Zuko’s side. “We shall have to accustom him to eating them, as well as other shipboard staples.”
“How do we do that?” Zuko asked honestly. “I don’t want to just force him to eat foods he doesn’t like!”
“The trick is to make him think the food is good to eat before he even tastes it,” Goro said with a smile as he also stepped up to the table, on Zuko’s other side. “I used to make a big deal out of eating the vegetables in my food, with lots of ‘Mmm, this is really good!” and such, to help my wife get our children to eat their veggies too.”
“My mom tried to make eating vegetables kind of like a game for my little brother,” Sheng offered. “I remember how she’d swoop the spoon through the air like it was a bird flying around, and bring it up to his mouth a couple of times but back off before he could actually open it, kind-of teasing him with it,” as he pantomimed the actions with his hands. “Then when she slowed down enough for him to actually get the spoon in his mouth and eat the food, it was like he’d won it, y’know? That was how she finally got him to eat ocean kumquats.”
Iroh watched nearly half the crew gradually surround his nephew and grandson, giving the prince their parenting tips, asking what the prince had experienced with Teiji so far, trading stories of their children’s antics, arguing amongst each other as to the most effective parenting techniques… and generally including him in their discussion, in a way they’d never, ever included him before. And from the open and honest look on his nephew’s face, as his seated posture gradually relaxed from a defensive stance to leaning eagerly towards the others, he not only didn’t mind the way they were treating him—not as their prince and superior officer, but more-or-less as an equal—he actually liked it more than he’d ever admit.
It was all Iroh could do to not break out in song and dance, from sheer joy; his little scheme had paid off even better than he’d dared hope! After nearly three long years, his nephew was finally becoming part of the crew at last!
Meanwhile, many miles away, Katara trotted across a wooden bridge strung between two giant trees, with Aang right behind her, looking for the leader of the Freedom Fighters. In her hands she held the hat she’d made for Jet earlier; she’d let Aang try it on when he’d asked so eagerly, but told him to take it off as soon as Momo started sniffing at it a little too eagerly as well.
When they found Jet, she told him firmly, “We’re staying an extra day no matter what Sokka says, and we’ll help you tomorrow by filling the reservoir for fighting forest fires!”
“Thanks, Katara and Aang; I really appreciate that. You’re going to make a big difference here in our war against the Fire Nation,” Jet told them with a smile.
“Thanks,” Katara said, blushing; she wished she could stop doing that, but it seemed like every time she saw Jet, she blushed! Then she shyly held out the hat, with a hesitant, “Um, by the way… I let Aang wear this earlier to see how well it would hold up to being worn, but I really made it for you.”
Jet looked down at the hat in her hands, his expression completely blank for a moment, but before her heart could start sinking to her toes he smiled. “Well, that’s really kind of you! I don’t normally wear hats, but I might make the occasional exception for this one.” He took it in his hands, but looked it over instead of trying it on. “Just look at all the neat stitching; this must have taken you hours to make!”
“Only two hours,” Katara said, blushing even harder as she ducked her head. She shyly looked up again as she told him, “But you’re worth the effort; you’re so noble, with everything you’ve done here in the forest! Not just fighting the Fire Nation, but taking in all these children too. You’ve become like a father to them all!”
Even if they’d been from the same nation, Jet would still be sooo much more noble than that awful Prince Zuko. Katara had decided two days ago that the whole reason Zuko had saved the baby and adopted it was because it had mismatched eyes, like he did with that ugly scar; if the baby had been perfectly normal, just a regular innocent Earth Kingdom baby, the Fire Nation prince probably would have left it to die in the woods. But even though all these children had in common was that they’d lost their homes to the Fire Nation, Jet had adopted them all anyway; he really couldn’t be more noble and heroic by her tribe’s standards!
Jet looked intently at her as she spoke… and his smile widened. Then he looked past her, to Aang. “Hey, Aang, I meant to tell you earlier; The Duke came by looking for you. I think he’s been hoping you’d show him some airbending tricks; would you mind?”
Aang said he’d love to show The Duke some airbending tricks and happily zipped off on an air scooter, leaving Katara alone with Jet. Suddenly she felt even shyer under his intense gaze, and found herself looking at her feet instead, sure her cheeks were bright red from blushing.
“Thanks for the hat, Katara,” Jet said, sounding a little shy himself. She looked up again, to see him giving her a little smile while lightly stroking the hat in his hands. “I’m, um, I’m more used to doing things for other people, than people doing things for me.”
His words made Katara just melt inside. “Well, you’ll just have to get used to it where I’m concerned,” she said with a bold smile, as she dared to lay her hand over his on top of the hat.
Then he turned his hand over, to hold hers in his callused grip—they were holding hands, her heart was beating madly and they were holding hands—as his smile grew a little wider. “So you really think I’m like a father to all these kids?”
“Mm-hmm,” was all she could manage to say, dazzled by that smile.
“Well, you know, families usually have both a father and a mother…”
Great Ocean, was he saying what she thought he was saying? Her nerves danced with excitement, with growing hope and incredulous joy. This handsome hero was in love with her, just like she was in love with him!
“Shall we… discuss it further?” Jet asked. And then, still holding her hand, he led her back to his hut.
Some time after sunset, Zuko found himself yawning to match Teiji’s little yawns. “It’s bedtime, isn’t it, little soldier boy?” he asked rhetorically as he got two sets of sleepwear out of his sea chest.
Unlike the night before when he’d still been grieving/angry at the world, tonight Teiji cooperated with Zuko in getting dressed in his nightclothes. He didn’t put up a fuss at all… until Zuko set him down in the crib that the quartermaster had installed in his cabin a few hours ago, and put out the candles for sleep.
At Taro’s suggestion, Zuko had put the cloth stuffed panda as well as two of the soft toys Uncle had bought him into the crib, before setting Teiji inside it for the first time. Teiji had happily played with his toys in the crib while Zuko had gone over the ship’s budget, and had seemed quite pleased with the little bed made just for him. But now, a few hours later, Teiji was anything but happy with the new sleeping arrangements. And he made his unhappiness plain to his new father…
“Go to sleep, Teiji,” Zuko said tiredly after singing “Leaves From the Vine” for the umpteenth time, as the little boy continued crying and whimpering. “That’s your bed, and this is my bed, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Go. To. Sleep.” And finally he just rolled over onto his stomach and wrapped his pillow over his head, to muffle the cries so he could go to sleep himself. It took some time and some of Uncle’s meditation techniques, but he finally was able to drift off…
Teiji was crying the pirates were kidnapping him he was killing and killing and there was blood and fire everywhere and the pirates kept coming and now they had pinned Teiji down right in front of him and they were cutting out his eyes and—
Zuko gasped awake, and found himself fast-crawling on hands and knees over to the crib before he was even aware he’d gotten out of bed. Was Teiji all right? He’d— Asleep. Teiji was sleeping fitfully, with tiny whimpers, but there was no blood and no pirates anywhere around; it had just been another nightmare.
But judging by the little whimpers, Teiji was having a nightmare too, and that just wouldn’t do. “Okay, just this one time, you can come on back with me,” Zuko whispered to the baby as he scooped him up out of the crib, waking him from the nightmare in the process, and carried the baby back to his own bed. “Just this once,” he muttered as he snuggled down with Teiji, already knowing he was lying.
“Just don’t tell Uncle or any of the crew, all right?” he muttered to Teiji. Teiji babbled something that Zuko chose to interpret as agreement, then yawned again and went back to sleep with a contented smile.
“As much as I’d like you to stay, you can’t sleep in here tonight; your brother and the Avatar are probably already looking for you,” Jet told Katara, and she agreed as she got dressed again, some of her movements speaking of lingering soreness.
Before she slipped out the door, she turned to him and said very earnestly, “Once Aang and I are trained in waterbending…”
“I’ll count the days until your return,” he lied to her, with his very best ‘sincere’ smile on his face.
After she left to sneak back to the guest hut, he lay back with a grin, reliving some of the best parts in his head. There was just something about virgins, and foreign girls…
But after a couple of hours, when he was sure all their guests were asleep, he quietly gathered his most devoted Freedom Fighters and went to set up the explosives at the dam. By this time tomorrow, the valley would be washed clean of the Fire Nation taint forever!
The next morning Iroh knocked on his nephew’s door, a tea tray in his hands, and smiling as he heard Teiji’s happy squeals through the door. Zuko called out a little breathlessly that he could enter, so Iroh opened the door, wondering what exactly was causing his nephew to sound like that.
He found out as soon as he stepped past the door; Zuko was on the floor doing pushups while Teiji sat on his back. The toddler grabbed onto fistfuls of Zuko’s undershirt to steady himself, while jouncing up and down with each piston-like move of the firebender’s arms and torso. Judging by both the squeals and the ear-to-ear grin on Teiji’s face, this was possibly the most fun he’d ever had in his short life.
Iroh grinned as he thought that most fathers played komodo-rhino with their toddlers by crawling about with them on their backs, but trust Zuko to find a way to combine playtime with his physical training! “Quite ingenious, nephew,” he said as he set the tea tray down on the table, and was rewarded by seeing Zuko’s quick grin on the upstroke of his pushups.
A minute or so later Zuko grunted, “Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One Hundred,” on the final upstroke, before he settled slowly to rest on the floor. He turned his head to the side as he said warmly, “Okay, Teiji, ride’s over; time to get off!”
Teiji at first refused to budge, instead yanking on fistfuls of Zuko’s undershirt while babbling for more, so Iroh simply went over and picked him up, with a quick tickle or two to keep his good humor intact. “An excellent way to start the morning!” he commented as he set Teiji down on a cushion by the table. “Now let me mind him for a while, so you can get cleaned up and dressed for breakfast in the mess hall. I believe the cook is making your favorite side dish, tamagoyaki rolled with fire flakes…”
Even though he was frozen to a tree, Jet snarled, “Sokka, you fool! We could've freed this valley!”
Seated on Appa’s head, Sokka just stared at him incredulously. “Who would be free? Everyone would be dead.”
But Jet utterly refused to see it that way; instead he hissed with raw hatred twisting his handsome features, “You traitor!”
In contrast to Jet’s heated words, Sokka’s voice was cold and grim. “No, Jet. You became the traitor, when you stopped protecting innocent people.”
Then Jet turned his head to look imploringly at Katara, even though she was the one who’d frozen him to the tree. “Katara, please—help me! Didn’t last night mean anything to--”
A blast of water hit him in the face, and froze to become a thick ice gag over his mouth. “Shut up, Jet!” Katara screamed at him, red-faced and shaking with rage. Then she turned and ran for Appa’s saddle.
Aang hung back just long enough to make sure that the ice gag didn’t cover Jet’s nose so he could still breathe, and then air-hopped into the saddle to join Katara. Sokka said “Yip-yip,” and Appa rose into the air and soared away from the forest, leaving Jet far behind.
Aang was about to ask how come Sokka had gone to the town, when he and Katara had been so sure he would go to the dam, when Sokka spoke first, sounding suspicious. “Katara, what exactly was Jet talking about when he said ‘didn’t last night mean anything’?”
Katara just miserably hugged herself, looking down at the saddle as she mumbled, “Nothing. He was lying, just like he lied about everything else. He—Jet is evil! I hope the Fire Nation finds him there before his friends can!”
Aang sort-of agreed with her, even though he didn’t want to think about what the Fire Nation would probably do to Jet if they got their hands on him. But to change the subject a little, he asked Sokka about why he’d gone to the town instead of to the dam. And after Sokka replied that he’d listened to his instincts, Aang felt compelled to point out that right then, those instincts were sending them in the wrong direction, North was that way.
But even after he and Sokka joked around a little about instincts being right only sometimes, Katara refused to join in; she just sat there in the saddle acting utterly miserable. At lunchtime, after they pulled out some food for a picnic in midair, Aang nudged her a little as he said with determined cheer, “Come on, it’s not so bad, Katara. Nobody died back there, thanks to Sokka’s instincts! Yeah, the townspeople lost some belongings in the flood, but they’ll be able to rebuild; in another year or so, it’ll be like the flood never happened! Everything will go back to just like it was before.”
“Not everything,” Katara mumbled, looking down at the vegetable roll she had no appetite for. “Sometimes after you lose something, you can’t ever get it back…”
“Like what?” Aang wanted to know.
“Just drop it, Aang,” Sokka said suddenly and harshly from where he was sitting on the other side of the saddle. Aang looked worriedly at his friend, wondering what he’d just done wrong… but Sokka wasn’t looking at him; instead, he was looking at Katara with a hard frown of disapproval, and maybe even disgust.
Brother and sister didn’t talk to each other for hours after that, no matter how many times Aang tried to start a conversation between them. But finally, after they landed to make camp for the night, Sokka walked up to Katara and said very seriously, “Katara, I want you to know something… I’m your brother. You’re my little sister, and I’ll always love you and look out for you. And nothing will ever change that, okay? Nothing you do will ever change that.”
And all of a sudden Katara grabbed for Sokka as she burst into tears, and started bawling her eyes out. She cried on Sokka’s tunic while Aang stared at them, scratched at his arrow and finally burst out, “What’s going on?”
“None of your business, Aang,” Sokka said firmly while holding Katara and gently rubbing her back, as she hid her face in his tunic to muffle her sobs. “It’s a family matter, not up for discussion.”
Aang was hurt; it was the first time they’d ever shut him out of a conversation. He almost reminded them that Katara had said back at the Southern Air Temple that they were his family now… but looked at Katara as her shoulders shook with sobs, and decided to just let the matter drop.
Fans who’ve read my story “Promises to Keep” may recognize not just the names for several members of Zuko’s crew, but also some of the ceremonies and details about shipboard life that I used in this chapter. That’s because once I’ve built a good solid background, I see no reason why the same stage can’t be used again to tell a different story. Also, one small scene, the one where Jee realized that part of why Zuko sucks ashes at leadership is because he's had no officer training, was shamelessly stolen and adapted from a similar scene in the awesome Nele's utterly awesome story "People in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear." (Absolutely The Hottest Jeeko Story in existence, I swear!)
Yes, I made up Sil Jon, the ATLA world’s patron spirit of pirates; brownie points to anyone who figures out the inspiration for that name.
And finally, Reijin the minstrel and his spinning a heroic ballad out of just a few stray facts that he misinterpreted, may seem like too much of a stretch to some folks. But consider the fact that Korra-centric fics started appearing here in the fanfic archives nearly a full year before the show aired…Some people think it all started with Star Trek, but the principles of fanfic are far older than television! ;-)
Chapter 6: Commissioned
Be advised that there’s a promotion mentioned for Zhao in this chapter, that wasn’t ever stated in the series. I quite honestly believe that was an oversight on the writers’ part; either they never bothered to research military rankings, or they thought too many title changes would confuse the younger kids watching the show. But a single promotion that jumps a full three ranks from Commander to Admiral is just way too much for this veteran to take.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the full week since little Teiji had been brought aboard, the entire crew had noticed that the prince who captained their vessel seemed… nicer. He didn’t yell at them as much. He didn’t stomp around as much, even when he wasn’t carrying the baby. He showed signs he actually cared about the crew, like when he’d nominated poor Hūn for a posthumous award. He sometimes even said a few crewmembers were doing well at their jobs!
But they’d had to put up with his shouting and stomping and temper tantrums for over two-and-a-half years already, and none of them really believed the changes would last. So when word was passed that the prince wanted the whole crew assembled on deck, hours after the usual morning muster, everyone rolled their eyes and figured the honeymoon was over.
An off-time and all-hands assembly was never a happy occasion. The last time Prince Zuko had called for one, it was because he’d somehow found the still that two enterprising crewmen secretly rigged up behind the hay bales in the beast-hold. Everyone had been forced to stand there at attention while the Royal Pain ranted at them for twenty minutes straight, and while he either melted or burned every component of that still before their collective eyes.
Speculation quietly ran rampant as they gathered on the main deck—had someone started building another still? Had someone smuggled aboard some Earth Kingdom contraband, like poppy juice?—but they shut up and stood at attention when Jee cleared his throat, just as Prince Zuko came striding out onto the deck, with his uncle right behind him holding Teiji.
The prince stood in front of the formation, holding up what looked like a standard metal panel with all the rivets popped off for removal, and with graffiti all over it. "I just pulled this out of the crew’s latrine on the fourth deck," he announced loudly enough for them all to hear clearly. "And I want to know who drew this!" as he tapped a sketch at the center.
Dead silence filled the air, as all of them stared at the graffiti in question. It was actually a pretty decent drawing of General Iroh, grinning while characters beside the sketch showed him to be proudly proclaiming, "Grandchildren at last!" At least it wasn’t obscene or derogatory, unlike a lot of the graffiti that various crewmembers had written and drawn on that latrine door and walls over the last couple of years.
When the silence lasted more than five seconds, the prince’s face drew into a fierce scowl as he demanded, "Well?! Speak up! This wasn’t drawn by seafaring tengu; I know one of you did it!"
General Iroh cleared his throat for attention, while little Teiji in his arms teethed on a wooden koala-sheep. "Prince Zuko, perhaps you should explain to the crew exactly what sort of punishment you have in mind for the perpetrator."
The prince stared at his uncle with baffled outrage in his expression as he echoed, "Punishment? It’s not punishment if he gets extra pay for it!" Then he turned back to the assembly and declared, "This is the most promising art I’ve seen in the past two years on this ship, and I want the artist to make a portrait of Teiji’s mother!"
Several gasps were heard all over the assembly; some of surprise, some of dismay, and many of an emotion that could best be described as retroactive terror. The fourth-deck latrine was used only by enlisted men, since there was another latrine closer to the officers’ cabins that was reserved for the royal posteriors. Over the past two years many crewmen had written obscene haiku and drawn even nastier pictures on those latrine walls, indulging their creative streaks as well as visually venting their resentment over the brat-prince and the impossible mission they were on.
They’d done so safe in the knowledge that the royals would never see the graffiti; the maintenance crew always made sure those walls were carefully sanded down and painted over again the day before any inspection below decks. But the prince had still seen what they’d been drawing and writing all this time, and all too often about him?!
Some people must have murmured their dismay a little too loudly, or perhaps he just figured it out from their expressions, because the prince’s good eye narrowed to glare at them like the scarred one as he gritted out, "Yes, I’ve seen it all. Every caricature you’ve drawn, every last horrible thing you’ve ever written about me… Did you really think I wouldn’t know everything that goes on aboard my ship? But right now I want to commission a portrait, so who drew this?!"
After several more long seconds, knowing that sooner or later someone would let the truth slip out, Cheung swallowed hard and hesitantly raised his hand. "I did, sir. Um, your highness, I want to apo--"
"You’ll receive ten gold pieces for the portrait, but only after it’s completed to my satisfaction. Report to my cabin immediately," the prince rode right over Cheung’s verbal groveling, before barking to them all, "Dismissed!"
The assembly broke up as people headed back to their duty stations, many of them casting backward glances at Cheung, unsure whether they should offer him congratulations or condolences.
Cheung reported to the prince’s cabin, and immediately threw himself on the floor in a full kowtow, profusely apologizing for everything he’d ever drawn that had been less than complimentary of his royal highness. With his forehead on the floor, he heard the prince growl while standing over him, "You’re not sorry that you did it, only that you got caught at it. But if I was going to punish people for drawing graffiti there, I would have started doing it two years ago! Now, shut up and listen…"
Looking at the crewman kowtowing in front of him, Zuko fought again to control his temper as he remembered once more all the nasty, horrible things he’d read in their griping about him on those latrine walls; all the pictures they’d drawn that made him look even uglier than he already was. But he’d never said a word about any of it, not even to his uncle, because he knew it would have done more harm than good.
He’d seen that graffiti while he was skulking about the ship in his Blue Spirit guise, practicing stealth and acrobatics for his self-imposed missions ashore whenever they were in port. And checking for signs of incipient mutiny; two years ago the graffiti had gotten particularly vicious, suggesting inventive ways to dispose of his corpse, and that had been the only warning he’d had of the mutiny less than two days later. Punishing people for putting graffiti there could have raised the question of just how he’d found it, and would only have led them to doing it somewhere else, so he hadn’t said a word until now, when he needed a good artist for Teiji’s sake. And as he stared at Cheung groveling at his feet, he cynically wondered where the crew would start posting their nasty pictures and verses about him from now on.
Then he pushed those thoughts aside to give Cheung his instructions. "You’re actually going to draw two pictures. The first one will be of Teiji’s mother—of her corpse—exactly as I remember it from when we found them. Then you’ll use that picture for reference for the real portrait, one of her looking alive and smiling instead of dead. I want a portrait worthy of a royal shrine, because that’s where it’s going to end up someday!"
He and Uncle had promised at the mother’s poor Earth Kingdom-style funeral that they would see Teiji raised to honor her memory. But at the time, they’d thought it would just be a matter of finding the village Teiji had been born in, and getting someone there who’d known the mother well to raise her son. Now all they had to go on were what Zuko remembered of the mother’s corpse as she lay dead in the ravine; Teiji was far too young to retain his babyish memories of her as he grew older.
They couldn’t even tell Teiji his mother’s name (and Zuko once more kicked himself for not at least asking that while they’d been in Senlin Village, but at the time Uncle hadn’t told him about the kirin-spirit yet), but Zuko was determined that his son would at least know what his mother looked like, as well as the fact that she’d loved him dearly; loved him enough to die saving him.
After the initial instructions, he sent Cheung scrambling off to get his personal artistic supplies, and anything else he needed for painting portraits from the ships’ stores. Cheung would report back to his cabin at high noon to begin drawing the mother; every detail that Zuko could remember of her corpse. That picture would later be ceremonially burned in a private Fire Nation-style funeral that Zuko had already planned out in his mind; a ceremony in which he’d properly inform the mother’s spirit that he would personally raise her son, and the new name he had given him.
After Cheung had left, Uncle Iroh spoke up from where he’d been keeping Teiji occupied and giggling with tickled toesies. "You would have problems persuading the Fire Sages to mount an Earth Kingdom mother’s portrait in a royal shrine, nephew, though it could certainly be hung in Teiji’s room as he grows up."
"I know that," Zuko said with a dismissive wave. "I only told him that to make sure he does the best possible job he can on the portrait." The dead woman that he recalled seeing in the ravine had looked rather plain, but the royal portrait painters at the palace were famous for making even the plainest woman look beautiful on silk panels, while still being recognizable as herself. If Cheung’s best efforts just weren’t good enough, then he’d have her portrait redone when they finally captured the Avatar and went home.
Thoughts of home inevitably led Zuko to wondering, with anxiety-clenched guts and sweating palms, about how his father was reacting to the news that he was now an adoptive grandfather. Royal messages were always given top priority, so Zuko’s letter should have been flown by a relay of messenger hawks straight to Capital Island and the palace, and arrived there no later than today. How had his father and sovereign ruler reacted to the news? With surprise, certainly… and likely with initial disapproval too, no matter how many different reasons Zuko had given for this adoption to prove ultimately beneficial for the Fire Nation. His father had never liked surprises. But after reading about the circumstances, and all the foreseeable benefits, he would ultimately understand and give his blessing to the adoption, right? …Right?
Back in the Fire Nation, the Fire Lord’s official secretary sorted through all the messages that had arrived for the monarch’s review. Standard petitions in the large pile by the door, petitions from Ozai’s currently favored nobles in a much smaller pile on his desk, standard updates from the generals and admirals on the war front in another small pile on the desk, special updates on the golden tray. Then the secretary picked up the black-ribboned scroll, recognized the royal seal… sighed to himself, and put the scroll still unopened on a tray of papers destined for the throne room.
Fire Lord Ozai made a show of receiving and reading certain messages aloud for the benefit of the royal court. Usually news from the front of great victories, as well as any reports of Earth Kingdom savagery against their troops and colonists that proved how much the world needed the Fire Nation’s civilizing influence.
Today, Princess Azula was in attendance at the court, sitting on her father’s right side as she observed and learned how to rule. When she saw the pile of scrolls being carried in on the golden tray, and recognized the black-ribboned scroll near the bottom of the small pile, she smiled… and it was not at all a nice smile. The secretary saw it, but had learned long ago to keep his face expressionless no matter the occasion.
Fire Lord Ozai opened the topmost scroll, from General Bujing’s campaign at Omashu, and his eyebrows shot upwards for a moment as he read in silence. Then he smiled wide as he read aloud for everyone’s benefit how the Earth Kingdom stronghold of Omashu had finally been conquered… without the loss of a single Fire Nation soldier! After years of outfoxing and beating back campaigns against his city, when faced with the latest siege and invasion forces, King Bumi had finally recognized Fire Nation superiority and surrendered without a single boulder tossed.
Since it had been an unprecedented victory for their side, Fire Lord Ozai magnanimously decreed that Bumi would be merely imprisoned; sparing the native ruler from the usual custom of being burned alive on his palace steps. The secretary quickly wrote down Ozai’s response for sending back to Omashu, before the next scroll was opened.
There were news of other victories, though none greater than the one at Omashu. And for atrocities, Ozai scowled as he read aloud the report from Gaipan. Terrorists living in the forests surrounding that village had blown up the nearby dam, intent on drowning everyone in the valley, even their own countrymen! Most of the town had been washed away; only a last-minute warning from an unnamed outsider and a quick and resourceful evacuation led by the commander of the local garrison had saved all the villagers’ lives.
Then Ozai picked up the black-ribboned scroll, and one eyebrow arched as he asked in a clear voice filled with disdain, "What’s this?"
"It is a letter from the banished prince Zuko, your majesty," the secretary said without expression. He had learned over two years ago to never, ever add to that sentence, ‘your son’.
Ozai sneered as the scroll burst into flames in his palm. "I will not read the words of a coward and a weakling."
"Of course, your majesty," the secretary replied, still expressionless.
That concluded the formal scroll readings for the day. The secretary departed to send immediate word to Omashu to spare their king, while the undersecretaries remained to record further court proceedings, such as deciding which noble would be appointed governor of the conquered city of Omashu.
As he moved swiftly through the corridors, the secretary reflected the ceremonial burning of Prince Zuko’s letters hadn’t changed a bit in the last two years; not even after the Fire Sages had sent word that the Avatar had indeed returned after a century of hiding from the world. Not even after reports came in indicating that Prince Zuko himself had been the one to flush the coward out of hiding! The only thing Fire Lord Ozai had done when that news had been received, had been to summon a Fire Sage to reread the precise terms of Prince Zuko’s banishment. And the terms were very precise: in order to reclaim his honor and return home, Prince Zuko must capture the Avatar and bring him back in chains to present to his father.
The secretary had expected—well, just hoped, to be honest—that the Fire Lord would inform his staff that he would actually read Prince Zuko’s letters in the privacy of his office, now that there was indeed a chance for the prince to return home. But instead, the next thing Ozai had done was give a particularly ambitious, toadying and generally offensive military officer (in the secretary’s very private opinion, of course) named Zhao, an instant promotion and far more prominent command. Overnight, Zhao had gone from being a Commander in charge of a remote and relatively unimportant naval base, to a Commodore in charge of the entire blockade that kept Earth Kingdom forces out of their home waters.
There was precedence for awarding promotions that jumped two ranks at once, for truly outstanding military officers after their efforts and strategies had proven key to some great victory for the Fire Nation. But this promotion had been entirely undeserved, and Zhao had proved it just last week when he’d let the Avatar slip past the blockade and reach Crescent Island. And further proved his incompetence when he’d given chase and attempted to trap the Avatar on the island; he’d miscalculated, or just let his ego blind him to his limitations, badly enough that the Fire Sages’ temple had been completely destroyed as the Avatar had escaped. Zhao had immediately pinned all the blame on the Fire Sages, claiming they’d all turned traitor and supported the Avatar against him. But popular opinion was that if Zhao was looking for scapegoats, he should have looked elsewhere than at the very Fire Sages that had crowned Prince Ozai and declared him Fire Lord.
When the news had broken, everyone had expected the Board of Admirals to demote Zhao back to Commander on the spot, if not order him to resign his commission after such a fatal blunder. But since the Fire Lord himself had promoted Zhao to Commodore rank, only the Fire Lord could demote him or give him worse punishment. So far the Fire Lord had done no such thing, and the secretary really did not understand it. Ozai did not tolerate failures; everyone knew that. And Zhao’s family, while noble, had neither power nor prestige enough for them to influence the Fire Lord in his decisions. So far as the secretary knew, Zhao had never come to the Fire Lord’s attention at all before that Agni Kai report had crossed his desk a month ago…
Cheung was not a worrier by nature; he tended to take life as it came, enjoying it when everything went well and shrugging his shoulders when it didn’t. Though he’d conceded later that he probably shouldn’t have just shrugged his shoulders when the board of inquiry had asked him why he’d been absent from muster and missed the departure of his last ship; if he’d shown them more remorse over his mistakes and determination to do better in his military career, then he might not have ended up on Prince Zuko’s vessel in the first place.
But today, Cheung was not just worried but downright anxious, trying to discreetly wipe the nervous sweat off his brow so it didn’t drop onto the parchment he was drawing on. Drawing as Prince Zuko paced back and forth in front of him, while describing in detail the dead woman he’d found in a ravine a week ago.
Part of the reason Cheung was anxious was because he was drawing a picture of a corpse; it seemed disrespectful of the dead, even if General Iroh had discreetly assured him that later on the picture would be ceremonially burned in a funeral for the woman’s spirit. But the main reason he was anxious was because of Prince Zuko. The teenager who was simultaneously a royal prince, the captain of this vessel, and the terrible brat that he had mocked repeatedly in cartoons on the latrine walls over the last two years. With every stroke of his charcoal stick, Cheung couldn’t help recalling all the times he’d used that same stick to draw cruel caricatures of the prince, all the nasty and terrible things he’d drawn the prince doing—and drawn having done to him, too. All the drawings that it turned out the prince had seen with his own eyes…
He really shouldn’t have done that one last year of the prince and the koala-sheep. And Akio, the other good artist aboard the ship, really shouldn’t have done that one six months ago, of the prince and the komodo-rhino! Great Agni Above, if he’d really seen all those pictures and read all the other cruel things they’d written about him, no wonder the prince had been so harsh with the crew all the time!
Cheung knew with bone-deep certainty that if he didn’t create a brilliant, absolutely beautiful portrait of little Teiji’s mother, the very best work he’d ever done in his entire life, the rest of his life would be hellish now that the prince knew the identity of one of his tormentors. The prince had said he wouldn’t punish anyone for the graffiti on those walls, but… that one of him with the koala-sheep, and oh Agni, the caption Cheung had drawn to go with it… Even doing a portrait worthy of a royal shrine might not be enough to save him!
Ten minutes later, Cheung finished his sketch of an Earth Kingdom woman as Prince Zuko had described her, and turned the picture to face him with a very humble, "The first draft is finished, your highness; may I beg you to correct me and explain how it may be improved, to better capture the woman’s likeness?"
The prince scowled at the picture, criticized nearly every last detail about it and demanded it be entirely redrawn. And then he proceeded to stand there looking right over Cheung’s shoulder for the next draft, watching every single stroke he made. After a minute or two of watching and criticizing, the prince said scornfully that it was no wonder the first draft had been so far off the mark; he didn’t see how anyone could draw well with their hands shaking like that…
The next day, Zuko had just finished putting another diaper on Teiji when he heard a knock on the door of his cabin. He put Teiji in his crib so he could open the door without worries; it was amazing how fast his son could crawl across the floor when he wanted to, and more than once he’d had to make a desperate last-second grab to keep the baby from charging right out into the corridor. Then he opened the door, to find both his uncle and Lieutenant Jee standing there. He stiffened, bracing himself for bad news; they rarely came to see him together this way unless something had come up that could affect the entire ship.
Iroh began by saying, "Prince Zuko, I believe that the ship as a whole would benefit from having another watch added to the duty roster on a regular basis."
"What would this watch entail?" he asked warily.
Lieutenant Jee answered, "Watches of 2 hours in duration, 6 per day; first watch beginning one hour after the first morning gong, and last watch ending at the evening gong. Standing guard inside one room, specifically the 2-Port-7-Aft room, and performing assorted duties as required for the personage therein."
"The personage therein?" Zuko stared at him as his mind mapped out the entire ship and the contents of the room located on the second deck port side, seven frames aft of the centerline."That’s the auxiliary armory!"
"That’s currently what it is, yes," Iroh put in with a grin. "But if we relocate all the spears and bows, and do a little furnishing and redecorating, then it would make an ideal nursery!"
"A nursery for Teiji? You want to set up watches for minding him?" Zuko asked, unable to keep the dismay out of his voice. "But I thought…" He thought he’d been doing a good job lately of taking care of his son.
His uncle must have read his expression, because Iroh hastened to reassure him, "No one is trying to take your place as Teiji’s father! But creating a nursery for him where you can leave him without worries for his well-being, will give you more freedom for performing your own duties as captain of the ship. And more time to devote to your firebending skills as well; feel free to correct me, nephew, but you have not had the opportunity to meditate with fire since Teiji first came aboard."
"No, I haven’t," Zuko admitted, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment. "The one time I tried it, Teiji kept going for the candles." Just saying ‘no’ repeatedly hadn’t been enough that time; the flames had been too fascinating. Zuko had tried to explain to his son that fire was pretty but not safe for a non-bender to play with, but the baby just didn’t understand the words yet, and Zuko refused to let him burn himself and find out the hard way.
"So it would benefit you to have someone else minding Teiji for at least part of the day. And while I am certainly happy with any opportunity to spend time with my would-be grandson, it would not do for me to be too selfish with him."
"Too selfish with him?" Zuko echoed, confused. "You mean, you’re worried you’ll spoil him?"
Uncle Iroh chuckled. "Prince Zuko, spoiling a child is a grandparent’s privilege! No, I am referring to the fact that you and I are not the only people aboard this ship who think Teiji is a delightful and adorable child," as he crossed over to the crib, where Teiji was babbling joyously and holding his arms up for a lift.
"Over a third of the crew thinks so too, and they would like very much the opportunity to spend time with him," his uncle continued as he hoisted Teiji up into the air, rewarded for his efforts with happy squeals. "They want to go ‘kootchie kootchie koo!’ and ‘who’s a good little baby? Why, you are! Yes, you are!’ and play this-little-cowpiggie with him," as Teiji giggled and shrieked happy laughter in response to what Iroh was doing with him. "But none of them are brave enough to do so while the baby is still in your royal arms."
Lieutenant Jee held up a slate board with a list of names. "Personnel who have already volunteered for the nursery watch, sir, if you authorize its creation. Several of them are fathers themselves, and a few are grandfathers."
"But of course you’ll want to interview them yourself and verify their qualifications," Uncle Iroh put in swiftly. "Such as how competent they are at changing diapers, if they understand the importance of a regular naptime, and how well they interact with Teiji at playtime."
Zuko frowned at the slate full of names, then raised a challenging eyebrow at his lieutenant. "They’d better all understand ahead of time that standing nursery watch won’t get them out of standing their regular watches."
"Of course not, sir."
"And that minding Teiji is a serious responsibility! As serious as minding the engines or the helm; any dereliction of duty will be very harshly dealt with!"
"Absolutely, sir. They also understand that you may come in at any time of day, several times each day, to see for yourself how Teiji is faring." And play with him yourself, the twinkle in the lieutenant’s eyes and slight tug at the corner of his mouth seemed to say. But since it wasn’t said aloud, Zuko couldn’t say anything to deny it.
"All right. Start clearing out the armory, and talk to the quartermaster about making another crib for naptimes in the nursery. I’ll start the interviews right after lunch."
After the word was given, the crew took apart another packing crate and put together another crib even faster than the first one, while the armory was cleaned out and the quartermaster produced tins of red, brown, gold, green and even blue paint from Agni-knew-where for painting the room in cheerful colors. "We’ll paint murals of our home islands on the walls for Teiji, so he can see where he’ll be living someday!" Iroh asserted cheerfully. Everyone who could wield a paintbrush began volunteering for the job, and arguing amongst themselves as to which of their famous volcanoes should go on which wall as well as who made the best trees and clouds.
By the time the murals were finished and drying on the walls, the second crib and sets of bedding were ready, and the prince had conducted interviews and selected the six crewmen who would be standing the nursery watch each day for the first week. Lieutenant Jee told those who were disappointed, "You’ll get your turn when next week’s watchbill is drawn up. In the meantime, you can still see him at meal times along with the rest of us. But if I catch any of you loitering around the nursery when there’s work to be done…!"
The morning that the nursery was declared ready for use, Prince Zuko came into the mess hall for breakfast with General Iroh and his adopted son, and with an unmistakable smile—no, an outright grin—on his face. General Iroh was sporting an even wider grin, and he announced in ringing tones, "We are pleased to announce that our newest crewmember has finally gotten his sea legs under him!"
Grins sprouted like dandelions all over the mess hall as the crew quickly cleared a space for the demonstration. Prince Zuko handed Teiji to the general, then took four steps away before pivoting, crouching low to the floor and saying in coaxing tones, "Come to Daddy, Teiji…"
General Iroh set the baby gently on the floor, making sure the little tyke’s feet were firmly planted before carefully taking his hands off Teiji’s torso. With his eyes fixed on his adoptive father, Teiji took several toddling steps across the mess hall deck, accompanied by the prince’s continual words of encouragement and a chorus of quiet cheers from the crew. Eight steps, ten… on the twelfth step and only one foot away from his goal, he wavered when the ship hit a more significant wave and rocked slightly more than usual. He would have fallen onto his butt, but the prince swooped in and caught him before his diapered bottom could actually hit the deckplates.
The prince picked Teiji up and cuddled him close, cooing just like any proud new daddy, "You did it, Teiji! You’re walking! Who’s a big boy, hm? Why, you are! Yes you are; my big, brave and beautiful boy! Daddy’s so proud of you; Daddy’s so proud of his big boy…"
Then the prince looked up from where he was cuddling Teiji, and saw how everyone was smiling at him. He stiffened, his face reddening, and his features drawing into that familiar scowl. Everyone either hurriedly looked away or braced themselves for a tirade, figuring that the prince was embarrassed at being caught acting so affectionate in public, and an embarrassed prince was an angry prince.
Then they all heard Teiji say clearly, "Dada!"
Everyone whipped back around to stare at Teiji and the prince. The prince, embarrassment and anger forgotten in an instant, was staring down at the baby in his arms in astonishment as he almost whispered, "Did you just say…"
"Dada!" Teiji repeated, with a gap-toothed grin.
And that proud prince of the Fire Nation just melted into an even more adoring new daddy than before. Everyone close enough to actually see it would later swear up and down to the rest that there were actual tears of joy shimmering in his good eye as he turned to the general and said with an absolutely dopey grin, "He called me Daddy, Uncle!"
"He did indeed, Zuko!" as Iroh joyfully embraced father and son together—right in front of everyone, but the prince was quite obviously far past any concerns about his image just then. Then the general turned and addressed the room at large, "This calls for a celebration! Chu Si, let’s have a feast tonight! I shall contribute the finest teas in my collection and all the special treats I had been saving for a momentous occasion—for they are rarely more momentous than this!"
Baby’s first steps and first words, all in one morning! And a guaranteed feast to follow that night; this was the best day the crew of the Wani had had in years!
Sometime after breakfast, the prince finally came down off of his cloud enough to take Teiji to the new nursery, where old Joben had been waiting patiently and hopefully for nearly an hour for his charge to arrive. Teiji was delighted with his new playroom, and with all the toys that crewmembers had either surreptitiously bought at the last port or carved themselves in their spare time; he now had an entire farm’s worth of wooden hippo-cows, komodo-rhinos, pig-chickens and koala-sheep to play with. Add to that treasure trove the many toys that the general had bought on his last shopping spree, and Teiji probably had the best-stocked playroom for hundreds of miles around.
Joben, who’d raised four boys and had three grandchildren already (one of which he’d never seen, born after the prince’s mission had begun,) had the privilege of being the first enlisted crewmember to coo over and play with the baby in the nursery. He reported to everyone who was listening at lunchtime that the little tyke preferred bright red over other colors and that his current favorite toy was a komodo-rhino, which just proved that he’d always been meant to be a Fire Nation boy. And that about ten minutes after being left there in the nursery by the prince, Teiji had gotten a little upset when he’d finally realized that his daddy had left without him, but Joben had distracted him by making some toys sing and dance for him and he’d soon started playing cheerfully again.
"His fussing was probably going on while the prince was on the bridge," Lieutenant Jee said with a wry smile. "Soon after he arrived, he started looking worried and got so distracted for a few minutes that he nearly walked right off the ladder; the general had to almost drag him over to the charts to plot our course. I’d wondered what was on his mind, but it was probably what he was hearing with those too-sharp ears of his!"
An hour’s bison-flight south of the Great Divide, the Avatar and his companions had made camp for the evening. They could have flown further that day but Aang had said that the best time to see that natural wonder was in the morning, when the sunlight from the east hit all the age-old formations just right.
Sokka finished setting up the tent and emerged from inside it just as Katara walked up with an armload of kindling. She gave him a raised eyebrow as she said, "Um, aren’t you forgetting the tarp?"
"Right, got it," Sokka assured her, before picking up the rolled up tarp and throwing it through the open flap and into the tent.
Katara said crossly, "Sokka, you're supposed to put the tarp on top of the tent. You know, so we don't get rainedon."
"Ordinarily you'd be right, but seeing how it's the dry season, you're not," he retorted while gesturing at the utterly cloudless sky above them. "Besides, that tarp makes a pretty warm blanket."
"But what if it does rain?" she insisted.
Sokka thought he did a decent job of holding in his annoyance as he said, "But what if it doesn't? Then I would have put the tarp up for nothing,"
Katara, on the other hand, didn’t even try to hold in her temper; she stomped and gritted her teeth while growling, "You're infuriating!"
Sokka was about to toss back a comment that instead of worrying about nonexistent rain, she should worry about getting more firewood than that sorry little bundle she’d brought in. But he paused, looking at his sister, and realized… it was actually kind-of nice, in a perverse way, to see her getting all angry like that. This was the first time she’d gotten angry or even a little bit bossy since leaving Gaipan and that bastard Jet behind.
She’d been so—so subdued for the last few days; as if Jet had stolen not just her virginity, but all her confidence in herself. It had made for a few quiet and completely bicker-free days of traveling, but Sokka had to admit, he was actually kind-of glad now to be getting his bossy old sister back. So he went back inside the tent, brought out the tarp and began unrolling it while saying with a show of irritation, "Okay, fine, just to make you happy, I’ll put the tarp up over the tent. I still say it’s a waste of time, though."
The celebration feast that night was merry indeed, with good food and excellent tea for everyone, and even a brand-new outfit for the baby! Taro the quartermaster showed off the outfit he’d put together for Teiji to wear, now that he had started walking; a baby-sized black-and-red robe to match Prince Zuko’s usual informal wear! He explained that he’d made it from pieces of a robe that Zuko had outgrown two years ago, that he’d never gotten around to trading for other dry goods. Prince Zuko thanked him very sincerely, saying he’d done an excellent job and it was very much appreciated, as General Iroh grinned while dressing the baby in his fine new clothes. Then father and son paraded around the mess hall in their matching outfits, with Zuko bending down so Teiji could hold onto his finger with one chubby little hand.
The feast also included an impromptu Music Night; at the general’s request, everyone brought their musical instruments and got reacquainted with the rhymes and nursery songs they’d learned as children. They played and sang "Hoshi’s Komodo-Rhino," "Cherry Blossoms," "The Little Turtle-Duckling," and "Three Brave Colonists" for Teiji’s benefit, while he sat wide-eyed with wonder on his adoptive father’s lap; it was possibly the first time the baby had ever been exposed to good music.
Strumming his pipa to the tune of "Moon Peaches", Jee stole a glance at Prince Zuko. General Iroh had claimed that his nephew was an accomplished tsungi horn player, but in the past two-and-a-half years aboard, the prince had never once been coaxed into joining them for Music Night. Jee had figured that the Royal Pain equated Music with Fun and Enjoyment, and had no use for any of it. And maybe he still had no use for it himself, but at least the prince wasn’t begrudging his little boy’s enjoyment of it; he was looking down at the baby in his lap with pure affection in his eyes.
Then after they finished "Moon Peaches," General Iroh took off the tsungi horn he’d been playing and walked up to the prince and baby with a smile. "Here, nephew; it’s my turn to hold him now. And your turn to play for him!"
Prince Zuko got a not-quite-panicked look in his good eye as he echoed, "Play for him? But I-I don’t play anymore!"
"You were quite the talented tsungi horn player once," General Iroh said encouragingly. "I believe you’ll find that it will all come back to you with just a little practice."
"But I… it’s been years! Not since…" the prince’s voice trailed off into a pained silence, as he dropped his eyes to stare fixedly into Teiji’s baby-fine hair.
A silence that Teiji broke with a questioning sound while reaching for the tsungi horn; he grabbed it by the mouthpiece, and with an indulgent smile, the general let him tug it towards his tiny mouth—whereupon the baby instinctively tried to teethe on it.
"That’s not the proper technique, little one!" the general chuckled as he gently pried the tsungi horn mouthpiece away from the baby. Then he coaxed again, "Come, show your son how it’s done, Zuko. Play for him… the way his grandmother would have played music for him." The prince stiffened even further, but the general continued in a near-whisper, "Play for her… for them both."
After a long, silent moment, Prince Zuko swallowed hard, and then nodded with a jerky, abrupt motion. Keeping his eyes down, he hoisted Teiji and held him outwards for the general to accept, and a moment later, accepted the tsungi horn in return. He wiped baby drool off the mouthpiece, settled the horn around himself and set it to his lips.
The mess hall had fallen into utter silence during their short conversation, everyone picking up on the gravity and drama of the moment, even if they didn’t know what was really going on. There was definitely some royal family history involved, Jee was sure of that much…
The prince played a basic scale of notes, warming up, while Jee tried to recall the prince’s mother, the Fire Lady—no, wait, the last Fire Lady had been Fire Lady Ilah, General Iroh’s mother, and she’d died back when Jee had still been a midshipman. Fire Lord Ozai had no Fire Lady at his side. But he’d been married once; the lady’s name had been… Ursa, that was it. Lady Ursa, Prince Zuko’s mother, which would have made her Teiji’s grandmother. When had she died?
…Wait a minute; had she actually died? There was always a day of mourning declared when a member of the royal family passed on. Jee clearly remembered wearing a white armband with his uniform for Fire Lady Ilah. He’d worn one nearly seven years ago for Prince Lu Ten, and again a week later for Fire Lord Azulon. But there’d been no day of mourning declared for the passing of Lady Ursa; what had happened to her?
Then the prince stopped warming up, took a deep breath and started really playing, and Jee’s brain just about skidded to a halt in shock. General Iroh was good on the tsungi horn, but Prince Zuko… Bright Agni Above, the kid was a master! Jee knew the music to "Four Seasons, Four Loves" well; he’d played it and heard it played many times over the years. But he’d never heard a more sweet, sad and hauntingly beautiful rendition of that melody in his entire life; he’d stake a month’s pay on it.
Teiji sat wide-eyed and solemn while his new daddy was playing, as if he understood how special the occasion was. The general was dabbing at his eyes when the prince finished, and Jee heard him murmur, "Ursa always loved that song… Beautifully done, nephew."
In the simultaneously shocked and near-reverent silence that filled the mess hall after that performance, Jee could hear the prince’s raw and choked whisper of "Thank you."
"And now, perhaps… ‘Leaves on the Vine’?" Iroh suggested hopefully, with a glance and nod of his bearded chin to indicate Teiji in his lap.
Prince Zuko nodded with a small smile, and put the tsungi horn to his lips again. This time when he played, Teiji clapped his hands and babbled in delight, likely at recognizing the tune; Jee had heard both the royals singing it to the baby to calm or comfort him at one time or another.
"Permission to join in for the next round, sir?" Taozu abruptly spoke up, gesturing hopefully with hisflute. Prince Zuko looked startled, but nodded permission and played the tune again. As he did, not only Taozu but everyone who knew the tune joined in, playing the baby’s favorite lullaby.
After that, the prince joined in with the tsungi horn whenever the crew played a song that he knew. The general had someone fetch his hand drum from his quarters, and he played it whenever Teiji left his ample lap to make a circuit of the room, staring with fascination at everyone with their musical instruments. Several crew members indulgently let him try making music too, patting on drumheads and plucking at strings; most of the time all that came out was noise, but no one minded it at all.
There was no drink stronger than tea in the room, and to save the baby’s innocent ears they didn’t play any of the more adult tunes that were usually popular when they played together. But everyone agreed afterwards that it was the best Music Night they’d had in years.
Five days ago, after hours of nerve-wracking work in Prince Zuko’s cabin, Cheung had finally created a good likeness of Teiji’s poor mother, exactly as the prince had seen her while taking her son away from her cold corpse. General Iroh had also seen the final picture, though both royals had taken pains to keep little Teiji from seeing it.
After agreeing that the picture perfectly matched his memory of the one glimpse he’d gotten of the poor woman, the general had very kindly suggested that Cheung take the picture and his art supplies to a quiet corner elsewhere on the ship, to work on the formal portrait without distractions. The prince had been about to countermand his uncle’s suggestion, but had received a very pointed look from his elder and said nothing.
Since then Cheung had been working at a feverish pace in nearly every moment of his off-duty hours, in the corner of the cargo hold that the quartermaster had said he could use for an art studio. He went through so much of the available supplies while seeking to create perfection for the prince, that Taro bluntly warned him that if he didn’t get it just right soon, his work would have to be put on hold until they restocked at the next port. But he finished just before running out of anything, and when he did, he very carefully transported his work to Prince Zuko’s cabin just before dinnertime.
The prince took a good long look at the portrait that had been made of Teiji’s mother, with a small sad smile on his face, and said Cheung had done excellent work. Instead of having eyes glazed over and mouth slack in death, the still-unnamed woman was smiling out at the viewer, her gaze filled with maternal love; the way Cheung remembered his own mother smiling at him and his little brother and sister in tender moments. And Cheung had done his best to show how such a smile could make even the plainest woman look beautiful.
Prince Zuko had just reached for his money pouch when General Iroh opened the cabin door and came inside holding Teiji, after retrieving him from the ship’s nursery. "Here we are, ready to dress for dinner… ah, Cheung! Is the portrait ready, then?" he asked hopefully.
"See for yourself, Uncle," Prince Zuko said, gesturing to where the portrait lay on his desk. "He did great work; it’s ready for Teiji to see."
The general went over to the desk, still holding Teiji… and made a soft sound of awe, his eyes wide. "Lovely," he whispered, his tone almost reverent.
But Teiji’s reaction to the picture was the most extreme; he shrieked "Mama!" while almost lunging out of the general’s arms, grabbing for the picture. When Iroh hastily pulled him back, he burst into tears, and began howling his grief at the top of his lungs.
Prince Zuko took the baby out of his uncle’s arms, set Teiji to his shoulder and said soothingly while rubbing his tiny back, "Sshhh, I know, I know how much it still hurts… but someday you’ll look at that picture with a smile instead of tears. Now you’ll always have something to remember her by, and you’ll always know she loved you. She loved you so much, Teiji… Sshh, there there…"
General Iroh patted the baby’s back and made soothing whispers as well; Cheung waited patiently while the royals calmed the baby down. After a minute or two, the prince registered his presence in the room again, and arched that lone eyebrow at him as if to ask sharply why he was still here. Then he gave a small start and glance at his money pouch on the dresser, clearly remembering he hadn’t paid Cheung for his work yet.
But Cheung spoke up before the prince could reach for the promised ten gold pieces. "If it may please your highness, I have painted an additional portrait. Permission to show it to you, sir?" The prince looked startled, but gave permission, so Cheung picked up the portrait of the mother to show his other work underneath it:
A double portrait, of both Prince Zuko and his adopted son. The prince was holding the baby in his arms, with Teiji gazing outwards at the viewer while holding onto the prince’s robe with tiny chubby hands. Teiji’s grin was full of a child’s happy innocence, while Prince Zuko looked down at the baby in his arms with a smile both proud and doting. And though he’d included the scar in the picture, the mark that made the prince’s eyes just as mismatched as his son’s, Cheung again had done his very best to show how a loving smile could make anyone beautiful.
Prince Zuko just stared openmouthed at the portrait, struck utterly speechless. But General Iroh was far from speechless: "Fantastic! Magnificent! The finest portrait I have ever seen!" as he threw his hands in the air for emphasis. "Cheung, you have truly done a masterwork worthy of the royal palace! Nephew, what did you offer for the first portrait, ten gold? This is worth a hundred gold coins! No, two hundred! My cashbox, I must get my cashbox," as he began to bustle joyfully out of the room.
"I most humbly crave your pardon, General," Cheung said while hurriedly stepping in front of him, blocking his way even as he gave his deepest bow, "but this portrait is not for sale. It is offered as a gift to the prince," as he directed his bow towards Prince Zuko.
He’d done the second portrait to make up for all the horrible ways he’d portrayed the prince over the last two years. Part of it was a blatant bribe to keep the prince from burning him alive after seeing all that graffiti, and part of it really was genuine remorse for what he’d done. Cheung wasn’t the kind of guy who liked hurting people, and he’d have felt rotten about someone finding out they’d been the butt of a cruel caricature even if they’d been just a raw recruit, powerless as can be.
Zuko tore his glaze away from the portrait to stare at Cheung, his good eye even wider with utter shock as he silently mouthed ‘for me?’ As if he flat-out could not believe that anyone would ever do anything nice for him, even if it was to make up for being really nasty earlier. Cheung felt something like pity twist his innards, just a little, as he gave a humble confirming nod.
"Th-thank you; I accept," the prince finally said, stumbling over the formal words as if unused to saying them, which he probably was. Cheung bowed low again in response, then humbly accepted ten gold coins in payment for the first portrait and left.
As he made his way through the corridors and down the ladders to the crew quarters, Cheung heaved a sigh of great relief. Painting those portraits had been a lot of work, but as near as he could tell from the prince’s surprise and gratitude, it had really paid off! If not completely forgiven, then he was at least off the hook for all the graffiti he’d drawn for so—
"Cheung!" he heard, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when he looked up and saw Prince Zuko standing right in front of him, blocking the hallway. How in the world had the prince gotten there ahead of him? "Y-yes, your highness?" he stammered.
"You made my uncle look too fat. I mean, he is fat, but he doesn’t really want to be so fat. I want to commission another portrait, one of him holding Teiji this time, but he has to look thinner. Um, not thin, but…" as the prince rubbed the back of his head while looking down, clearly searching for words to describe what he wanted.
"Rather stout but still fit, your highness?" Cheung dared to say.
"Yes, exactly!" as the prince nodded vigorously. "Another ten gold pieces, for a portrait of him with Teiji, just as good as the first two. And you have to keep it secret; I want it to be a surprise for him."
"Yes, sir!" as Cheung beamed at him
Then the prince glared at him. "And if you do a good enough job, that will make up for the koala-sheep."
"(gulp) Yes, sir…"
Just a note to say that I do remember that ‘dada’ isn’t Teiji’s first word; he said ‘Mama’ when crying for his mother in chapter 4. But only the members of the team that went on the mission upriver know about that little incident, instead of the crew at large; so far as most of them are concerned, Teiji’s first word was ‘dada’.
Also, before anyone at this site asks about it: No, Katara’s not pregnant as a result of her mistake with Jet. Criminey, I’m not -that- cruel to my characters.
It had been nearly two weeks since the crew of the Wani had added a one-year-old baby to their roster, the prince’s adopted son. Everyone had more-or-less adjusted to his presence aboard, though there were still a few missteps now and then:
Down in the mess hall at dinnertime, Tadao was telling a ‘sea story’ about his time aboard the naval ship Suzikyu to the other people at his table, and got caught up enough in the tall tale to forget who else was near enough to hear him. “And we all knew that as soon as the skipper came in and saw the mess, there would be piles of shit hitting the fan! So we--”
“Hey!” grizzled old Anzu interrupted with a scowl, gesturing over at the royals’ table, where Prince Zuko had paused while feeding Teiji to look over at Tadao with the beginnings of a frown. “Where’s your manners? We got royalty and a baby present, so watch your fucking language!”
Anzu didn’t understand at first why the prince and the general traded startled glances, and then began quietly sniggering.
By his third day in the nursery, little Teiji was not just walking but running around the room, his high-pitched giggle and a chuckling attendant always trailing behind him. Some people figured that meant he’d actually learned to walk before Prince Zuko had found him, and had just taken a while to find his sea legs; other crew members thought it meant that Teiji was one of those rare ‘born sailors’, people who were honestly more comfortable on a rocking boat than on unmoving dry land.
Botan, who had two young daughters back in the Fire Nation, delighted in playing with the prince’s little boy. When his two hours of ‘Teiji watch’ were up, he tucked the laughing scamp under his arm like a calf-piglet before answering the knock on the door. Taozu stood on the other side, with a smile and what looked like a newly made toy drum in his hand. “Good afternoon, Botan! Diaper status?”
“Changed him about ten minutes ago,” Botan reported, while sneaking a last few tickles to the happily squealing child in his arms. “Words status: he’s added another one today! When we were rolling the tiger-dillo ball back and forth he said ‘ball’, clear as sunlight! …Well, mostly clear; you can definitely tell what he means by it!”
Taozu grinned at the news, before standing at attention and snapping a salute. “I stand ready to relieve you, crewman!”
It was a good deal harder with an armful of rambunctious baby, but Botan managed a decent salute before handing Teiji over with a wry, “I stand relieved.”
An hour later, Taozu was indecently proud of himself for having taught Teiji another word; ‘pa-da’, for the little stuffed panda toy he dragged with him everywhere he went. He made the panda bounce excitedly up and down at having been successfully named, and told Teiji that his daddy would be very proud of him too.
But now Teiji was hungry, and Taozu was pretty sure that they were already late for Snack Time, when the cook’s assistant brought Teiji some rice balls or other little treats to tide him over until dinner. What was keeping Sheng? Had something happened in the galley?
After making sure Teiji was occupied with his little wooden farm set, Taozu opened the nursery door to flag down a passing crewman and have someone find out when Teiji would be getting his snack. He saw Kunio ten feet away, climbing up the ladder between decks, and called out, “Kunio! Can you find out what’s keeping Sheng? Teiji’s getting hungry.”
Instead of going back down the ladder and through the open hatch to the third deck, the fastest route to the galley, Kunio just grunted, “I’ve got work to do,” popped the normally closed hatch above him open, and continued upwards to the main deck. Taozu sent an irritated glare after him, reflecting that he should have known better than to ask; Kunio never did favors for anybody, unless he expected to get something out of it in return.
Just as he was about to close the door and just go back to waiting with the baby, Taozu looked the other direction and saw Sheng turning the corner at the far end of the passageway, with a baking tray and bamboo carrier in his hands instead of the usual small basket. With a two-handed load to carry, Sheng must have decided to detour clear over to the mechanical lift that ran between the decks, instead of coming up the ladders. Sheng saw Taozu looking at him and called out with a smile, “Almond cookies, fresh out of the oven! Chu Si wants Teiji to taste-test them!”
“Almond cookies? I hereby volunteer to take part in the taste-test! Because Teiji’s going to need a baby-talk interpreter, you know,” Taozu said with a grin, as he held the door open and beckoned Sheng closer.
Sheng came trotting down the passageway, with the delicious aroma of fresh-baked almond cookies wafting ahead of him; the stoneware baking tray was keeping them warm and the warm air rising was spreading the aroma even further. The thought crossed Taozu’s mind that he wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find General Iroh trotting down the passageway after the tray; the general made no secret of his fondness for cookies…
Just then Sheng abruptly lost his smile, as he looked down near Taozu’s feet and cried, “Look out!”
Taozu looked down in alarm—a split-second too late, as Teiji slipped right past his feet and went running out into the passageway! “Teiji, no! Bad baby,” he scolded as he swooped down to catch the boy, but missed him by a hair. “Don’t leave the—NO!” The last word was almost screamed, as he saw Teiji running, giggling like it was just another game of chase around the room—but heading straight for the open hatch to the third deck! Bright Agni, if he fell down the ladder well—
“No!” Sheng shouted, as he saw the danger too. Taozu lunged again, grabbing desperately—
While Sheng flung the baking tray down the passageway, cookies flying everywhere in a sugary cascade—
And the baking tray landed on its edge in front of the ladder well, and directly in front of Teiji like a miniature stone wall. Teiji hit the tray and bounced off it, landing on his diapered butt.
Startled by the sudden impact, the baby screwed up his face and began to cry, while Taozu and Sheng stared first at the baking tray, then at each other with nearly identical expressions of shock and growing dismay.
Up on the main deck, Zuko had just finished berating a sullen Kunio for ignoring the ship’s posted schedule for firebending practice, and using that particular hatch during the off-limits hours. Uncle Iroh and Lieutenant Jee were frowning at Kunio as well, because his violation of regulations was also a safety hazard. Popping that hatch open in the middle of a heated sparring match was just asking to catch a fireball in the face; Kunio was damn lucky that this match hadn’t actually begun yet.
Kunio had muttered the usual ‘Yes, sir” and “No, sir” at the appropriate moments during his chewing-out, while Corporal Akio had helpfully secured the hatch again. They all knew that Zuko was impatient to begin his three-way sparring session with Lieutenant Jee and Corporal Akio, while his uncle refereed. Now that Teiji had nursery attendants, Zuko had found the time to meditate with fire again, but he hadn’t had a decent sparring match or any other active bending practice in well over a week.
Once Zuko was finished with him, Kunio slouched his way out of the restricted zone. An instant after he crossed the painted line marking the sparring area, Iroh bellowed from where he was sitting, “Begin!”
Zuko readied a fireball—
WHAT?! Nobody had even thrown anything yet! Zuko spun and glared at his uncle, but Uncle Iroh was frowning at the closed hatch, and the spinning handles indicating it was being opened rapidly from below.
As he glared at the hatch, already thinking of all the heated words he’d use on this next idiot, Zuko heard a sound that was faint, muffled by the deckplates and obscured by all the regular noises of a ship at sea, but still instantly recognizable to his sharp ears: Teiji was crying!
Instantly alarmed, Zuko was already heading for the hatch when it abruptly popped open and Sheng came bursting out, scrambling onto the deck and running for the rail like someone had set him on fire. Teiji’s wails wafted up through the open hatch, as well as another voice; Taozu shouting with alarm, “Somebody stop him!”
Zuko hit the crewman with a flying tackle, knocking him to the deck; they tumbled until Zuko pinned him down to snarl at him, with smoke pouring out between his teeth, “What did you do to my son?!” But Teiji’s wails of fear and pain were pulling at him like a grappling hook in his heart; he scrambled to his feet again and headed for the hatch, while ordering a wide-eyed Akio and an already scowling Jee, “Hold him there until I get back!”
He jumped through the hatch, grabbing the ladder only long enough to push off it and land on the deck below, facing the nursery. Teiji was out in the hallway, clinging to Taozu as the crewman crouched down to comfort him, but still entirely too close to the ladder well for Zuko’s peace of mind—and what was that baking tray doing there on the deck? He dismissed the question as irrelevant as he swooped in to take Teiji into his own arms, his voice shifting almost automatically to soothing tones as he stepped further away from the ladder: “Sshhh, little one, I’m here, Daddy’s here, sshhh…”
There was no blood on Teiji that he could see, though there were reddish spots on his nose and chin—something had hit his face? Not too hard, though; the redness was already fading. Struggling to keep his voice to that same even and soothing tone, he asked, “Taozu, what happened? What did Sheng do to my son?”
Taozu paused, just for a heartbeat or two before saying with an earnest fervor that absolutely demanded the hearer’s full attention, “He saved Teiji’s life, sir. Teiji ran out of the nursery when I held the door open a little too long—my deepest apologies, sir, I offer no excuses but I swear it will never happen again! But Teiji got out while Sheng was coming down the hall, and he ran straight for the ladder well! If Sheng hadn’t stopped him in time, Teiji might have fallen in before I could reach him! Sheng saved your son, sir!”
Zuko blinked twice before asking in utter bewilderment, “So why was he trying to escape, just now?”
Taozu’s brows drew together in a mixture of worry, wonder and dread as he answered, “Because of just how he saved the baby…”
Up on the deck, Akio was pinning Sheng’s arms up over his head to the deck while Lieutenant Jee pinned his legs, keeping him face-down. Sheng’s head was turned enough for Akio to see his face, and the expression of utter misery as he cried, “Just let me go—let me drown! Please, let me die now; I can’t bring dishonor on my family!”
Let him drown?! What the crawling Koh had just happened below? Had he hurt the baby somehow? Akio could hear the little guy crying, the sound echoing up through the still open hatch. General Iroh had been on his hands and knees next to the hatch, peering anxiously down to the second deck; now he was straightening up to sit back on his haunches, looking at Sheng and looking very worried indeed…
The baby’s crying quieted and stopped, quickly enough that whatever happened, he hadn’t been hurt too badly. A couple of minutes later, Prince Zuko came back up through the hatch, carrying Teiji in his sling. The baby looked okay, and Prince Zuko looked… troubled. He was frowning, but not the way he usually did; Akio thought it was more of a puzzled and worried frown than an angry one.
Prince Zuko crouched next to Sheng’s head and said in conversational tones, “Seaman Sheng, I’ve seen your personnel record. Born to parents Teru and Ling in Yu Dao colony, in the Year of the Ostrich-Horse. Listed as a non-bender. Enlisted in the Fire Nation Navy at eighteen years of age, and assigned to food preparation. Your first three performance evaluations had high marks. Then you were brought up on charges of assaulting an officer; the record states that, without any provocation, you hit Lieutenant Buyah hard enough to give him a concussion. Rather than spending time in the brig, you were reduced in rank and transferred to the Wani.”
“Yes, sir,” Sheng moaned, his expression filled with dread.
“And do you swear on all your ancestors that every word of that is true?”
After a long, tense silence Sheng whispered, “Nearly all of it, sir. Please, just let me jump overboard now, and spare my innocent family…”
General Iroh had come over to crouch next to his nephew, and now he spoke up with a firm, “As I’ve told Prince Zuko before, a crewman’s personnel record often does not tell the whole story. Tell me, Sheng, the reason you hit Buyah so hard that when he finally woke up, he didn’t even remember the assault… was it because he witnessed you earthbending?”
“Yes, sir,” Sheng whispered.
Earthbending?! Sheng was an Earth Kingdom spy?! Akio reflexively tightened and heated his grip on the traitor’s wrists, until Sheng gave a choked cry of pain.
The prince snapped, “Corporal!”
“Sir!” Akio said smartly, still holding on.
“Let go of his wrists.”
Akio stared at him in confusion. “Sir?”
“Now, corporal!” as the prince glared at him.
Akio let go of the traitor’s wrists and backed off, eyeing the marks left behind, the reddened skin already starting to blister. Sheng started to reflexively curl his burned wrists in towards his chest, but froze when the prince grabbed the nearest one.
Prince Zuko looked the burns over with a critical eye, then ordered, “Someone fetch Ming-Hoa and some burn salve.”
“In the meantime, if I may, Prince Zuko?” General Iroh said quickly, gesturing at Sheng’s wrists. The prince nodded and scooted back a pace, so the general could move closer and gently grasp Sheng’s wrists, one at a time, his brow furrowed with concentration and one hand held high with two fingers extended. After a few seconds Akio saw the air above the general’s fingers shimmer with heat waves, and blinked as he realized that he was witnessing a master-level firebending move; redirecting heat to cool something down instead of heating it up. By drawing the heat out of the burns so quickly, General Iroh was minimizing the damage Akio had done. But why were they being so considerate of an Earth Kingdom spy?!
While the general worked, the prince growled at Sheng, “By Agni, by—by Oma and Shu, and by all your ancestors, Sheng… tell me the truth. When did you start spying for the Earth Kingdom?”
“Never, sir; I swear it!” Sheng burst out, his voice choked with tears of either pain or anguish. “I’m an earthbender, yes, but I’m not a spy! I’m a Fire Nation citizen, loyal to the Fire Lord! I swear by every ancestor and every spirit in existence!”
“Then what’s an earthbender doing enlisting in the Navy? I thought all earthbenders got sick and weak when they were out at sea; that’s why the earthbender prisons are on stationary barges.”
“N-not all earthbenders get seasick, sir. More earthbenders do than non-benders, but some can handle the ocean all right.”
“I suspect most of the weakness comes from being cut off from their element,” General Iroh put in, eyeing Sheng shrewdly while drawing the heat out of his left wrist. “But you’re not entirely cut off from it, are you? Most of the baking trays we have aboard are stoneware instead of metal, and that small statue of Fire Lord Azulon you keep next to your bunk as part of your personal effects, is a ceramic figure.”
Prince Zuko looked sharply at his uncle as the general spoke. After a tense pause he said accusingly or incredulously, “You knew?! You knew he’s an earthbender?”
“I suspected,” the general countered calmly. “There has been a rumor floating about for some years now that a large number of bending Fire Nation citizens born in the oldest colonies, such as Yu Dao, are actually earthbenders instead of firebenders. But it is a rumor that no one ever speaks of in public, or when any homeland or government officials are within hearing distance. Not considering what would be sure to happen if such an accusation was leveled at anyone…”
“What?” Prince Zuko asked, before giving a slight start and a grimace, although it seemed directed more at himself than anyone else. “Right; they’d be sent to the prison barges.”
“If the magistrate handling the case was feeling merciful,” General Iroh said somberly. “But a far more likely outcome would be that they’d be executed, as presumed spies for the Earth Kingdom, and their immediate families as well. All of them would be put to death; Fire Lord Ozai will not countenance even the suspicion of treason.”
And Sheng started sobbing, “Please, your highness! My little brother is only eight years old! And he’s a firebender, like my mother! Don’t condemn him to death; please don’t tell—Please, let the dishonor end with me; just let me die!”
“Bright Agni,” Lieutenant Jee swore as he let go of Sheng’s ankles and backed off, staring in shock. “The suicide rates, the number of ‘accidental’ deaths; that’s why they’re over four times higher for recruits from the old colonies!”
“Very likely.” The general’s face was downright grim, though as Lieutenant Jee let go of the ankles, he rested a firm hand on Sheng’s back, keeping him in place on the deck. “Brave young men and women who, seeing their secret about to be exposed, chose certain death for themselves rather than risk their families.”
Akio felt like he’d been punched in the chest, as he heard the general’s words and suddenly remembered Mao. Mao, who’d been from Yu Dao just like Sheng was; Akio had served alongside him on the Makoto. They’d been more than just drinking buddies; Akio had considered Mao a good friend, maybe even his best friend, even though Mao had been a non-bender. Then one day, the morning after they’d pulled out of port from a shore leave, Akio had come back to the berthing area from standing the mid-watch to find Mao lying facedown on the deck with still-warm blood pooling around him, and a dagger buried in his guts.
Akio had sounded the alarm, convinced someone had murdered his friend, though he had no idea who or why. But when the captain had come down to see, bearing a crumpled message in his hand, he’d just shaken his head and called it a suicide. Without even asking if Mao had any enemies or if there was a suicide note!
Akio had heard later that just before learning of Mao’s death, Captain Liu—who had also come from the colonies—had received a hawk-message from the commander of the local shore patrol; a message he’d refused to let anyone see. But Akio hadn’t paid that bit of information any mind, too focused on finding out what had really happened to Mao; on who had killed his friend and why. But all his poking around and investigating on his own over the next three weeks had ruffled too many officers’ feathers, or at least he’d always thought that had been the reason the Makoto’s captain had ordered his transfer to the Wani…
While Akio was still trying to wrap his brain around the idea that one of his best friends might have secretly been an earthbender, the general looked straight at his nephew, with that same grim expression. “Sheng’s fate is in your hands, Prince Zuko. His fate, and his family’s.”
Prince Zuko’s face was pale, his good eye wide. Utter silence reined on deck, as everyone waited to hear what he would say.
Then he stood up from his crouch, drawing a deep breath before saying in almost ringing tones, “Understand this, everyone. Only a few minutes ago, my son was in mortal peril; about to fall down a ladder well, probably to his immediate death. Sheng prevented that from happening, but he did so by earthbending the stoneware tray he was carrying, in front of a witness. He exposed his deepest secret, to save an innocent child. His behavior is not that of an Earth Kingdom spy, but of a Fire Nation citizen and a good man!”
After a pause to let that sink in, he looked down at Sheng and proclaimed, “Seaman Sheng, your request for suicide is denied. But your personnel record states you are a nonbender, and I see no reason to change that.”
Then he turned to Lieutenant Jee and ordered, “Lieutenant, call for an all-hands assembly on deck just before dinner tonight! I want everyone aboard the Wani to give me their solemn oaths, swearing by Agni and their ancestors that they will also keep Sheng’s secret, clear to their ashes!”
Sheng burst into tears again, probably tears of relief and joy, as General Iroh let him go and leaped to his feet with his face wreathed in smiles. “Permission to be the first to give that oath, Prince Zuko!”
“Uh, permission granted,” the young prince said with some bemusement while looking down at Sheng, who had gotten up on hands and knees only long enough to throw himself into a full kowtow at his feet. The words were a little incoherent in between all the sobs, but Akio got the gist of it; Sheng swore to faithfully serve the prince until his dying breath, and so would his children and his children’s children and so on until the end of the world. Then Ming-Hoa arrived with bandages and burn salves, and the prince said, looking a little uncomfortable, that Sheng could start serving him by getting his wrists treated.
The doctor looked at Sheng with raised eyebrows, clearly wondering how the cook’s assistant had ended up in the sparring match area with his wrists burned, but said nothing as he started working. The royals left him to his work and walked away, and after they left Akio sidled up to Sheng and mumbled, “Listen, I’m sorry about your wrists. I thought… I’m sorry. But, uh, while you were growing up back home, did you know a guy named Mao? A little taller than you, round-faced, his dad was a fisherman…” When Sheng nodded, Akio took a deep breath before pressing further, “Was he…”
Sheng nodded again, sadly. “He was better at it than I am.”
“Ashes.” Akio rubbed at his eyes, denying the tears stinging at them. Why hadn’t Mao said anything to him? He’d been ready to take a spear for his friend; Mao could have trusted him…
After a couple of deep breaths, Akio looked Sheng in the eye again as he said, “Mao never gave me a chance to keep his secret… but I’ll keep yours. I’ll swear my oath in front of the prince later on, but I swear it to you right now, Sheng. And I’m sorry again about the wrists…”
Ming-Hoa really tried not to be a gossip or busybody; he took his healer’s oath of confidentiality seriously. But he was burning to know what secret Sheng had, that it seemed like everyone but him knew about but was swearing to keep!
After treating Sheng and sending him back to his duties, he sought out Lieutenant Jee, and found his friend just as he was leaving the engine room, calling over his shoulder, “Remember, half an hour before the dinner gong!”
“What happens half an hour before the dinner gong?” Ming-Hoa asked as he fell in alongside Jee.
“An all-hands assembly on deck; the captain announced it just before you arrived to treat Sheng,” Jee said distractedly, while looking down at the roster in his hand. “Let me finish making the rounds, and then I’ll come to sickbay and tell you all about it.”
Ming-Hoa turned to give his friend a raised eyebrow as he echoed, “The captain? Jee, you once told me you’d never refer to the Royal Pain as that; you said that he was a prince by his birth, but the title of Captain had to be earned.”
Jee gave him a sharp look right back as he almost growled, “He’s not the Royal Pain anymore, and you’d know that if you’d been paying attention to anything besides your scrolls and herbal compounds. As for the title… he’s well on his way to earning it.”
No one had announced that the scheduled sparring session had been canceled, but Iroh felt that recent events had certainly superseded it, so he quietly nudged Zuko and Teiji back to their cabins. He had a strong feeling that Zuko would need to talk about what he’d just done; an action that he had no doubt Ozai would not have approved of.
And sure enough, once they were behind closed doors, Zuko almost whispered, “Uncle… am I doing the right thing?”
“Yes, Prince Zuko,” Iroh assured his nephew with an emphatic nod. “There is a time when the letter of the law must be disregarded, in order to preserve the spirit of the law; to uphold justice and fairness, and grant mercy when it is well-deserved. You acted as a prince should act, as a true leader of men, and I am very proud of you for it!”
Zuko’s shoulders relaxed at Iroh’s words of praise, the worried expression on his face dissolving into a genuinely happy smile. Iroh’s own proud grin turned a bit rueful as he admitted, “I am not sure even Lu Ten would have been so compassionate towards Sheng, after such a shocking revelation. I must admit that when I was your age, I—nephew?!” he gasped in concern, because Zuko had abruptly gone stock-still, his face utterly stricken and turned white as a funeral sheet.
His nephew abruptly turned away and buried his scarred face in Teiji’s mop of hair, hiding his expression, but Iroh knew what he had seen; what he didn’t know was why. He went after Zuko, laying a hand on the teen’s shoulder as he asked plaintively, “What did I say wrong? I meant only praise; that your compassion is…” He replayed his words in his mind, and flinched in parental guilt as he realized what he’d done; compared his own son to Zuko’s noble behavior, and found Lu Ten somewhat wanting in the comparison. He’d meant to finish the contrast with a scornful reference to himself at Zuko’s age—as brash and intolerant as he’d been back then, he might well have executed Sheng on the spot! But dear Agni, how many times had Zuko heard his father compare him unfavorably to Azula? If Zuko now thought him no better than Ozai—
Wait. No, that didn’t fit his nephew’s reaction. Zuko’s stricken look had contained something like betrayal… but also despair. Despair for himself, not indignation on poor Lu Ten’s behalf.
Iroh spoke very seldom of his son, because it still hurt so much to know that he would never again see him in this world. But Zuko spoke of him even less, though every so often Iroh caught him glancing at the portrait of Lu Ten that Iroh kept in his quarters. As a young child, Zuko had adored and emulated his older cousin, often saying out loud that he wanted to hurry and grow up so they could go into battle together. And when Iroh had first returned home from the failed siege, grieving terribly for his dead son, at first little Zuko had quietly grieved with him, saying how much he missed Lu Ten too. But a few months later, after Iroh had begun taking an interest in Zuko, trying to give him the parental affection that Ozai never would… all reminiscences and indeed all mention of Lu Ten had stopped cold.
During Iroh’s pained musings, Teiji had started chewing on his fist again, and Zuko had fetched him a teething toy before sitting at his desk, bouncing the boy on his knee, chanting a children’s rhyme to him, and very pointedly not looking in Iroh’s direction at all. Whatever was wrong, Zuko had no interest in discussing it, that much was clear. But that look, though brief, had been so raw and full of pain… Iroh knew he could not let it go, not if the hurt was still so great after all these years.
Sitting down next to his nephew and near-grandson, Iroh spoke slowly. “Zuko… I know why speaking of Lu Ten is painful for me. Now that you are a father as well, surely you can see how much of a hole in your life and your heart would be carved out if you lost your son. But why does speaking of Lu Ten pain you so much, even now? You were cousins, yes, and close friends when we were all home together, but with all the war campaigns we were on, for nearly half your childhood you knew him only in letters. I do not mean to belittle your grief, but… Is it more than grief that pains you?”
Eyes still focused on Teiji instead of Iroh, Zuko smiled through gritted teeth and said in a lilting singsong, “I think we should talk about something else right now, don’t you? Which tooth do you think will come in next, Teiji?”
But this time Iroh would not be deterred. “Nephew, I had thought that we had come to a better understanding of each other lately. But if you do not want to speak of this… I shall simply start quoting tea proverbs to you. Morning, noon and night. And when I run out of tea proverbs—which will not happen for at least four days, possibly not for a full week—then I shall move on to proverbs about wine. And after several days of that--”
The look Zuko gave him now was of sheer horror, just before words came tumbling out: “All right all right, I’ll talk! I—I hate that I’ll never be as good as Lu Ten, either! And that one day you’ll realize that and…”
Ohhhh, my dear boy. Iroh looked at him sadly but steadily as he responded to the unfinished sentence. “That I will what, Zuko? That I will leave you?”
“…Yes,” Zuko finally admitted in a raw whisper as Azula’s words, still painful after all these years, echoed in his head again.
.It had happened a few months after Uncle had come back from Ba Sing Se; soon after he’d stopped looking so despairing all the time and started actually taking an interest in what was going on around him again. Uncle had invited Zuko to have tea with him in the palace east wing’s garden, and Zuko was really looking forward to it. Spending time with his uncle wouldn’t be like spending time with his mother again, he knew that, but… he was just so lonely, desperate to spend time with someone who wasn’t a kowtowing servant or actively despising him! He and Uncle used to get along great three years ago, back before the Siege of Ba Sing Se. Even when Lu Ten was too busy with officer stuff to play with his cousin, Uncle always seemed to find time for his nephew. He’d tell Earth Kingdom jokes, and serve tea and sweets, and they’d have tickle-fights, and lots of fun together. Having tea together could be the first step towards their having good times again.
Zuko normally didn’t care much at all about what he was wearing, but this time he actually made the servants wait with three different outfits on display while he considered which one to wear. Something nice, because this was a special occasion, the first time Uncle had invited him to tea in three long years. But not too nice, because if Uncle really wanted to recapture the good old times, they’d end up tickle-fighting and rolling around on the grass and stuff, and the servants always looked so distressed when he played in his good clothes.
He’d just decided on what he was going to wear when Azula came in without knocking, like she always did, and leaned against the door with an expression that probably looked sad and concerned, if you didn’t notice the gleeful look gleaming in her amber eyes. “Poor Uncle,” was all she said at first, with a shake of her head.
“What about Uncle? What did you do to him?” Zuko had demanded, instantly suspicious.
“Do to him? Nothing at all,” Azula said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I just happened to watch him getting ready for the tea party, that’s all. And I heard him muttering to himself…” She dropped her voice two octaves, then smiled in a mockery of Uncle Iroh’s old grin as she began graveling, “Oh, what kind of tea to serve? Jasmine; that’s Lu Ten’s favorite…” She paused, then turned the smile into a frown as she continued, “No, I must call him Zuko. He is not my Lu Ten… not yet. And cookies, we must have cookies. Honey-spice cookies, Lu Ten always loved those…”
She dropped the act, and shook her head again. “Pathetic, isn’t it? He still hasn’t accepted that Lu Ten is gone forever; now he’s decided to turn you into a copy of our cousin. It’s really too bad that you’re going to fail to measure up to Lu Ten’s standards, Zuzu, just like you fail at everything else. I give it six months, a year at most, before he figures that out for himself; then he’ll probably drop you in favor of some orphan boy who looks enough like our cousin did…”
“You’re lying!” Zuko snarled at her, his fists clenched, even while his stomach sank inside him.
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Am I? Just wait until you see what he serves at tea today. But don’t mind my words of warning; just enjoy your tea party today, and your own pathetic attempts to turn our uncle into your mother-substitute. You’re both so pathetic, you deserve each other,” as she turned and sashayed out of the room.
“Azula always lies! Azula always lies,” Zuko chanted desperately to himself after she left. But he knew that wasn’t accurate; Azula wouldn’t lie, when she was sure that the truth would be even more hurtful. And there was a nasty little voice of doubt inside him, that muttered that after all the times he’d failed to live up to his family’s standards, he should have known better than to think Uncle would like him just as he was…
The servants did their best to act like they’d seen and heard nothing in the last few minutes, and finally, he calmed down enough to choose what he would wear to tea: some very fine clothes, almost good enough for appearing in the royal court, and very unsuitable for rough-housing in.
When he arrived in the garden, Uncle Iroh served him jasmine tea and honey-spice cookies.
Zuko had never cared much for tea, but normally he loved honey-spice cookies. That day, however, they tasted like ashes in his mouth.
After they’d eaten, Uncle Iroh tried to interest him in a game of pai sho. Lu Ten had played pai sho; Zuko remembered his cousin promising to teach him and Azula how to play it when he returned from Ba Sing Se. When Uncle gestured again to the pai sho table he’d set up nearby, a hopeful expression on his face, Zuko said he had studying to do instead and returned to his quarters.
Once he was back in his rooms, he dismissed all the servants, climbed inside the closet where nobody could hear him and cried until he had no more tears to shed. Then he dried his tears, put on a hard expression and climbed back out to get on with his day, determined that would be the only time he’d ever cry over that old man. He’d never let Uncle Iroh get close enough to his heart that it would hurt when he got shoved aside, when Zuko failed to measure up to Lu Ten. Never again…
But now in the present, Uncle was looking at him with what could best be described as affectionate exasperation. “Nephew, I love you dearly, but I wish you would think things through sometimes. I’ve stayed with you all these years, through banishment and wandering the world and being subject to all the insults you’ve heaped on me, over and over again. After sticking with you through all of that, how can you possibly think that I would leave you now, or ever?”
Zuko had no answer for that, and the tightness in his throat would have prevented him from answering if he did. So instead, still holding Teiji steady on his knee with one hand, he used the other to pull his uncle in for a desperately apologetic and needy one-armed hug. A hug that Uncle Iroh returned with interest, while inside Zuko’s chest something cracked and loosened, like an iron band around his heart had broken and fallen away. He didn’t know it was possible to feel both heartily ashamed of himself, and ridiculously happy at the same time…
Half an hour before dinner, the crew had a formal assembly on the main deck. Prince Zuko reiterated what had happened earlier that day, for the benefit of the very few aboard who hadn’t heard the gossip flying all over the ship since then (only Gen and Bohai, as it turned out, because they had the mid-watch that week and had only woken up just before the assembly.)
The prince declared before them all that, despite his earthbending, Sheng had shown by his actions that he was a Fire Nation citizen and a good member of their crew. Then he called Sheng out of ranks to stand before the assembly, and bowed to him; not a deep bow, just a shade deeper than the minor inclination of the head that royalty usually gave to acknowledge a commoner, but it was still surprising considering that Sheng hadn’t had time to bow first.
A fact that Sheng hastily made up for, by throwing himself into a full kowtow again. While he was down there, Prince Zuko formally swore by Agni and his royal ancestors that he would keep the secret of Sheng’s bending safe, clear to his ashes. Then he told Sheng to stand up, and receive the same oath from each individual member of the crew; the general glare he gave the assembly while saying so made it clear that no matter what they personally thought of earthbenders, this was not open to negotiation.
General Iroh was first in line, and he swore his oath loud and clear for all to hear. Lieutenant Jee went next, and after also swearing the oath without hesitation, he went to relieve Jiro at the helm, so the navigator could come down and swear his oath as well. One by one, every member of the crew swore to never reveal Sheng’s secret to anyone. Whether they did it because they genuinely liked Sheng as a shipmate, because they felt they owed it to him for saving little Teiji’s life, or only because the prince had ordered them to do it, was their own business.
Afterwards, though, Prince Zuko pulled Lieutenant Jee aside for a quiet word. “I didn’t like the look in Kunio’s eyes back there, Lieutenant. If anyone’s going to forswear their oaths just to ruin Sheng’s life--”
“He’d be the first suspect,” Jee finished for him with a grim nod. “He’s already accompanied by at least two men I trust whenever he goes ashore, because by himself he’s apt to cause trouble for someone. We’ll make sure to keep a close eye on his correspondence for a while too.”
The next morning when the royal family came to the mess hall for breakfast, Lieutenant Jee and the navigator approached their table with respectful bows and informed Zuko, “Your highness, we are about to enter prime fishing waters for this region.”
“Fresh-caught fish would be wonderful to have for dinner tonight,” Iroh said promptly with a wide smile. “Not that our cook isn’t marvelous with all the culinary delights he can make with smoked fish, of course!”
Zuko nodded agreement; they hadn’t had fresh-caught fish for their meals since before confronting the Avatar on Kyoshi Island. He told Jee, “Set up the working parties for trawling operations. Cancel the nursery watch for the day if necessary.”
Some of the crewmen listening in were almost visibly disappointed—most of them the men on this week’s nursery watch—but others greeted the news with interest; trawling was a messy business, but at least it was a change of pace from their usual routine, and they’d all enjoy fresh-caught fish for a change.
Lieutenant Jee nodded acceptance of the orders, which he’d clearly anticipated; he whipped out a slate with names already scrawled on it and began assigning several crewmen their new duties after breakfast.
Uncle Iroh took Teiji back to his cabin instead of to the nursery after breakfast, while Zuko went to the bridge and approved the course change and greatly reduced speed that the navigator recommended. Once they were slowed to trawling speed, Zuko made his rounds of the rest of the ship, noting all the duty changes. In addition to assembling the team of mechanics that would convert the catapult into a crane for trawling, Jee had tripled the number of lookouts, making sure there were wary eyes peering in all directions while the catapult, their sole long-range weapon, was disabled. The Wani usually sailed in waters hostile to the Fire Nation, and while what little remained of the Earth Kingdom’s naval forces weren’t much of a threat to them, pirates and Water Tribe raiders were another matter.
It took the mechanic team an hour and a half to convert the catapult into a crane with the parts they kept in storage, while Tetsuko and Tadao methodically checked over every inch of the large net they’d be using and mended the few frayed strands they found. Then they hooked the net and the load-sensing bell up to the crane, and lowered the net over the side into the water. After that, it was just a matter of waiting until the ship cruised over a school of fish large enough to fill the net.
Zuko came back on deck as the mechanics started putting their tools away, and informed them all, “Well done, and in good time!” (He wondered if he should count that as eight compliments delivered for the day, since it was an eight-man crew, or only one towards his daily quota.)
The mechanics all beamed at the praise, and Lieutenant Jee smiled too before offering, “Perhaps we can have that sparring match while we’re waiting for the catch, sir?”
“Excellent idea,” Zuko declared, while trying not to look too eager; Sheng’s revelation yesterday had resulted in his scheduled sparring session being canceled, and after so long without doing any serious bending at all, he was beginning to feel almost itchy for the exercise.
“If your highness permits, I can mind your son in the nursery while the general referees the sparring,” Botan volunteered with a smile as he finished putting his tools away and started wiping the oil off his hands. Zuko agreed with a return smile, and went to let his uncle know of the plan while he got into his sparring clothes.
Fifteen minutes later he and Jee were dressed and ready for sparring, just waiting for Akio to arrive after changing. Uncle Iroh was on deck too, but before handing Teiji over to Botan he declared it was a good time for his grandson to get some fresh air as well as a little education on Fire Nation ingenuity. The mechanics still on deck watched with quiet pride as Iroh pointed out the catapult-cum-crane for Teiji’s benefit and explained what it was used for.
“And then they lowered the net down, down, down into the water,” Iroh told the baby, while making exaggerated gestures with his free hand. “Now we just wait for some fish to swim into the net! And when they do, the sudden drag on the net will pull hard on the rope, and make that bell ring,” as he pointed to it—and a split-second later, the bell rang!
Startled, everyone glanced between the bell and Iroh, who looked to be just as surprised as they were, while Teiji just clapped his hands and babbled happily at the bell-ringing. Iroh gave Teiji a quick but clearly wondering glance, before shrugging his shoulders and turning to everyone with a wide smile. “I believe that’s a record time for netting a catch; good luck for us indeed!”
Good luck for everyone but me, Zuko thought while glaring at the bell and suppressing a groan of irritation. Processing a net full of fish and converting the crane back into a catapult always took hours, and most of the crew; there went his opportunity for sparring today, too! While Jee waved for the helmsman to blow the ship’s whistle and summon everyone to work, he stalked off to his cabin to change clothes again.
By the time he came back on deck in uniform, the catch had been hauled aboard and dumped into a waiting giant crate, and Chu Si was handing out fish knives and cutting boards to the crew while Sheng was busy setting up the portable smoking racks. “The largest and finest catch I have ever seen in my many years at sea!” Chu Si said happily. “Teiji is bringing us good luck, I tell you!”
“Can’t argue with that,” Taozu said with a smile as he took a knife and cutting board, found a seat and began cleaning and gutting his first fish.
“We should lower the net again,” Cheung suggested with a grin as he sat down beside Taozu and grabbed a fish too. “Maybe next time we’ll haul the Avatar up in it!” Nearly everyone within hearing either chuckled or laughed out loud at the joke. Zuko didn’t laugh, but a grin came to his lips at the thought of seeing that bald-headed boy swinging in the net along with a few dozen flopping fish, and probably pouting up at the bell ringing over his head.
After seeing that Jee was supervising the crane’s re-conversion into a catapult and Chu Si and Sheng had the fish-cleaning operation well in hand (and that, other than a few very brief hesitations, everyone was treating Sheng just as they always had), Zuko took Teiji back to his cabin. He was still annoyed about the lost sparring session, but he had to admit at lunchtime that it was a delight to have truly fresh koi-salmon sashimi again; fish that had been swimming less than an hour ago, straight from the ocean into the cook’s expert hands! And at lunchtime instead of having to wait for dinner, thanks to netting the catch so early; after making sure the fish-cleaning was going smoothly, Chu Si had taken the best fish from the catch straight to the kitchen to prepare for his and Teiji’s lunch.
Lunch was served in the cabin that Zuko had always eaten his meals in, before Teiji. He complimented Chu Si on the excellent sashimi, and the cook positively beamed with joy before returning to the fish-cleaning crew. Once they were alone, Zuko almost whispered to Iroh, “Uncle, did you… notice anything today? Near Teiji, or by the crane and net?”
“If by ‘anything’, you’re asking if I saw any friendly spirits aboard today, then I must say that I did not,” Iroh said with a thoughtful look. “Nor have I ever heard of kirin, in flesh or as spirits, dancing over the waves to board ships at sea.” He finally shrugged. “It could be mere coincidence, nephew; stranger things have happened.” He added with a grin, “For instance, there was that time I found myself, by utter coincidence, trapped by a sudden rainstorm in an inn run by two lovely and unmarried twin sisters, and they--”
“Uncle! Not in front of the baby!” Zuko yelped as he hastily covered Teiji’s ears.
The next morning, many miles away from the Wani:
Katara paused while breaking camp and packing up their belongings to look up at Aang, perched atop Appa’s head as the sky bison yawned. Last night Aang had woken up from another nightmare; he seemed to be having them a lot lately, but he still wouldn’t talk to her about them. And in the daytime, he acted like everything was fine, cheerful as can be… just like he was now, saying, “Look at those clear skies, buddy! Should be some smooth flying.”
Katara turned back to the food bag she’d been about to pack up, then looked inside it and shook her head. Sokka must have had another midnight snack, or maybe Aang had after his nightmare… She announced as she walked up Appa’s tail to the saddle, “Well, we’d better smoothly fly ourselves to a market, because we're out of food.”
At her words, Sokka stopped tying down their gear in the back of the saddle and turned to them in alarm. “Guys, wait, this was in my dream, we shouldn't go to the market!”
Katara asked curiously, “What happened in your dream?”
Sokka’s eyes were practically bulging in horror, every muscle tensed for fight-or-flight. Katara half-expected him to say that the market would be attacked by some terrible monster like the Wendigo, or maybe burned to ashes in a Fire Nation attack, but instead he said in a hollow and haunted voice, “Food eats people!”
…Right. Katara wondered what it would be like to have a brother who was actually completely sane.
Then Sokka added, “Also, Momo could talk.” He turned to where Momo was perched on the saddle rim and said accusingly, “You said some very unkind things.” Momo’s giant ears sagged at his words, but Katara just shook her head and went back to getting ready to travel.
Back aboard the Wani:
“Ming-Hoa!” Zuko shouted as he burst out of his cabin, severely startling Lieutenant Jee who’d been approaching and was just ten feet away from the door. He grabbed the lieutenant and shouted, “Get the doctor, now! Uncle’s wounded, unconscious!”
Jee didn’t ask questions, just turned and ran for sickbay, while Zuko dashed back inside his cabin. Teiji was right where he’d left him, plunked hastily into his crib, and starting to really wail up a storm, but right then Zuko couldn’t spare any attention for him; it was all focused on Uncle Iroh, lying so still on the floor of his cabin with blood oozing through the strands of gray hair on his head. His mind kept replaying what had just happened:
Zuko had just finished getting Teiji dressed for the day, and was tickling him to make him giggle and laugh while they waited for Uncle Iroh to come in with the tea tray. It had become a habit for their little family, to have an affectionate moment together with tea (and water for Teiji, who was getting quite skilled at sipping without spilling) before they went down to the mess hall for breakfast with the crew.
Just then the door had opened and his uncle had come in, with the tea tray and a smile. “Good morning, nephew and grandson! How did youuuu?!” as his foot had come down on a kokeshi doll that Zuko had missed in last night’s toy roundup before bed, that had rolled to a spot near the doorway. The kokeshi figure had rolled underfoot, and the tea tray had gone up into the air as Iroh, flailing for balance, had fallen backwards—and slammed his head into the edge of the door still closing behind him.
The door had slammed shut with the force of the blow, while Uncle Iroh crumpled to the deck with a teapot and cups crashing all around him. Zuko had set Teiji down and scrambled to his uncle’s side, shouting his name and shaking his shoulder, but gotten no response. And even now that he’d gotten someone to go get the ship’s doctor, he still got no response, but as he knelt beside his uncle’s prone figure again he said in pleading tones, “Jee’s gone to get Ming-Hoa, Uncle; please be all right…”
After leaving the vendor’s stand without any melons, Sokka moaned, “Out of food and out of money, now what are we supposed to do?”
Katara said with some annoyance, “You could get a job, smart guy.”
Just then they noticed an old couple arguing on the docks in front of them. The louder of the two, and elderly woman, was nearly shouting, “We shouldn't go out there! Please, the fish can wait. There's going to be a terrible storm.”
But a bearded old man wearing a straw hat just shouted right back at her, “Ahh, you're crazy! It's a nice day. No clouds, no wind, no nothing, so quit your naggin', woman!”
Aang said hesitantly to Katara and Sokka, “Maybe we should find some shelter?”
Sokka looked at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding? Shelter from what?”
The old man and woman continued their argument, the woman insisting, “My joints say there's going to be a storm! A bad one.”
Her husband scoffed, “Well, it's your joints against my brain.”
His wife snapped right back at him, “Then I hope your brain can find someone else to haul that fish, cause I ain't coming!”
The old fisherman glared at her. “Then I'll find a new fish hauler and pay him double what you get! How do you like that?”
Almost instantly, Sokka ran up to the pair and said eagerly, “I'll go!”
The old man pointed at him and declared, “You're hired!” Then he grinned smugly back at his wife, who only glowered more fiercely at him in return.
Sokka turned back to his friends, who were blinking at him in surprise, and said with a shrug, “What? You said 'get a job' and he's paying double.”
“Double?” the old man barked immediately. “Who told ya that nonsense?”
The good news was, Iroh regained consciousness even as Ming-Hoa started examining him. After the examination and carefully treating the scalp wound (which took two stitches), the doctor said he was reasonably sure Iroh had avoided a concussion, but still recommended bedrest and someone checking on him periodically, just in case.
The bad news was, General Iroh’s injury had distracted Lieutenant Jee from telling the prince and captain of the ship some important news; that what looked to be a bad storm was on the way. On deck after seeing Iroh back to his cabin with a volunteer watcher and Teiji to the nursery, Zuko stared at the thick wall of dark clouds lining the horizon with shock. “I don’t believe this… I looked out the porthole just before the accident, barely an hour ago, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky!”
“Yes, sir,” Jee said with a grim expression. “I didn’t want to believe it either; it’s the wrong season for storms to spring up this quickly or this bad. But Anzu said his joints have been aching since dawn, and the air… there’s a whiff of ozone to it; have you noticed?”
Zuko sniffed, and scowled. “I do now.” Growing up with imperial firebenders, he knew all too well that where there was ozone, there was lightning or the potential for lightning.
“When I was first coming to get you, I was going to recommend that we turn and go south, try to outrun it to a safe harbor. But now…” Jee shook his head. “It’s too close, coming on too fast; there’s no way we can outrun it. We can still try to cut east-southeast across the storm front, but we’ll be getting it broadside for hours before we can make port in a harbor that’s deep enough to take our keel.”
Zuko stared grimly at the storm clouds ahead of them. “Or, since we can’t avoid it… we could just keep going north, and rhino right through the worst of it to the other side. Maybe get it over with more quickly…” He glanced at Jee. “What’s your experience with storms like this? Is the stormfront wider than it is deep?”
Jee frowned hard. “I want to say yes, sir, but this out-of-season storm is anyone’s guess. Either way, we’re going to take a beating.”
Zuko took a deep breath, then announced his decision: “Batten down the hatches, stow all the loose gear, and keep to a northerly course. The Avatar has been heading steadily north, anyway.”
“Yes, sir,” as Jee nodded grim acceptance of his orders. Then his expression lightened a bit as he offered, “If we’re lucky, by going straight in we’ll be able to find the eye of the storm. If we can find and stay in the eye, we’ll be fine while waiting for the storm to blow itself out.”
“If we’re lucky,” Zuko echoed glumly. He didn’t quite have the heart to tell Jee that he was almost never that lucky.
Four hours later, the ship was right smack in the middle of a torrential downpour, the rain coming down so hard that the lookouts could hardly see thirty feet in front of them. But though they’d charged right into the teeth of the storm, it still wasn’t snapping at them with lightning, and the waves were high but not reaching the deck yet; general consensus was that Agni favored the prince’s boldness in facing the storm head-on. (As for the few who suggested that Agni was smiting them with the storm, for bringing a witch-child aboard, they shut up fast when their crewmates suggested they could be strapped to the rails outside.)
In the nursery, Teiji refused to settle down for his nap; he just would not be quieted or comforted by anything or anyone, except when Zuko came in to check on him. When the baby latched onto his leg and refused to let go, he sighed and told Botan, “I’ll just take him back to our cabin; my paperwork’s finally caught up, anyway. Dismissed, and tell Taozu and the others not to bother with their watches today.”
So Teiji went with Zuko back to their cabin, while Iroh determinedly left his to go down to the mess hall, despite Seaman Yong’s worried insistence that he should stay in bed. “I have had enough bed rest and enough of you youngsters hovering over me, looking as though you think I could die at any second,” he said irritably. “If you must watch me, then watch me drink tea down in the mess hall! I want good tea, good conversation and the good company of people who’ve known me long enough know I’m too tough to die of a mere bump to the head!”
He found that company in Lieutenant Jee and a few other people, who’d been about to make their way down to the beast-hold with a sack of… something that they were quite happy to set aside, in favor of drinking tea with the general in the mess hall instead. Iroh almost asked for a shot of whatever was in that sack, but knew that worrywart Yong would probably feel obliged to tell the doctor if he was drinking illegal hooch right after a head injury, so instead he sighed and asked Chu Si to brew them some ginseng tea.
With the exception of Yong, everyone at the table was old enough to be a grandfather, and some of them actually were. After the tea was brewed and served, the conversation inevitably turned to their children and grandchildren back home, and to the general’s adopted grandchild. After taking a long drink of tea that just might have been sweetened with whatever was in that sack, Joben had enough liquid courage in him to say out loud to Iroh, “He may be a real mismatch, but that baby’s done wonders for the prince, he has! Made him downright human!”
Iroh looked down into his teacup and mused, “I think… I think that instead of a mismatch, this Earth Kingdom peasant child and Fire Nation prince are like yin and yang; opposites who are perfectly matched for each other. Teiji needs a father who will love and protect him, and prove by example that having mismatched features is nothing to be ashamed of. While Zuko needs someone to love and protect—someone who needs him, and in that needing give him the self-worth he has been lacking. And someone who will also prove, by his own innocent example, that having mismatched features is nothing to be ashamed of. Because even if we capture the Avatar and return to the Fire Nation, that scar his father gave him will always be there…”
Jee nodded agreement, raised his teacup to his lips for another drink
--and dropped it, to clatter on the deck as he gaped at the former general. “Did you say… his father gave him that scar? F-Fire Lord Ozai?! I’d heard it was from a training accident…”
Iroh looked up to meet Jee’s astonished gaze, and there was something terrible in those amber depths. “It was no accident.”
Ten minutes later, a grim-faced Jee was walking through the crew quarters, knocking on doors, rousing the crew and telling them firmly, “Everyone not on duty is meeting in the mess hall in fifteen minutes. It’s story time.”
Story time?! Everyone not too busy still holding onto their stomachs from the ship’s constant heaving in the waves, looked at Jee like he’d gone bonkers. But he was the lieutenant, so they got out of their bunks or put away their card games and converged on the mess hall as ordered. They found General Iroh there waiting for them, along with a few crewmembers clutching cold cups of tea while staring uneasily either at the general or at each other.
When most of the crew was present, Jee took a quick head count and nodded. “That’s everyone not on duty, sir.”
The general nodded, then pitched his voice to carry throughout the mess hall. “The story I am about to tell you is difficult for me to speak of… and your captain Prince Zuko would likely rather I didn’t speak of it at all. But from what Lieutenant Jee said earlier, I believe it is time you all knew the truth about my nephew, and why he is out here so far from home, chasing the Avatar.”
He began with a story of a war meeting, one that had taken place nearly three years ago. A war meeting that a much younger Prince Zuko had been determined to attend, to begin learning how to rule the country. A war meeting that he’d later disrupted, with his vehement protest against what one general proposed to use the 41st Division for: ‘fresh meat’ for baiting a trap for an Earth Kingdom Army battalion.
The normally quiet and reserved Shoda cursed blasphemously, and when startled glances came his way, murmured through almost bloodless lips, “I had a cousin in the 41st; they lost over half the division in that attack! We all cursed Army Intelligence, the usual oxymoron; figured somebody had dropped the torch on figuring the enemy’s strength and numbers. But the generals… they knew, and they still…”
“They knew,” Iroh said grimly, eyes focused on nothing, or on hard memory. “Prince Zuko was right in his opinion. But it was not his place to speak out, and there were… dire consequences.” A pause and long breath, as if gathering his strength to continue; then he nearly ground out, “After Zuko's outburst in the meeting, the Fire Lord became very angry with him. He said that Prince Zuko's challenge of the general was an act of complete disrespect, and there was only one way to resolve this…”
“An Agni Kai,” Jee supplied for him, his face pale as if all the blood had been drained away. “A thirteen-year-old kid, in a fire duel.”
“That's right,” Iroh nodded. “Zuko looked upon the old general he had insulted, and declared that he was not afraid. But Zuko misunderstood. In the Agni Kai arena, when he turned to face his opponent, he was surprised to see it was not the general. Zuko had spoken out against a general's plan, but by doing so in the Fire Lord's war room, it was the Fire Lord whom he had disrespected. Zuko would have to duel his own father.”
As Iroh described the Agni Kai to them, the crew were all riveted to their seats with dismay, horror and growing sympathy for what a young prince barely out of boyhood had been put through, just for speaking up for his countrymen. More than one man put a trembling hand to his own face, trying to imagine a hand wreathed in imperial fire being laid there deliberately, the flesh searing…
Cheung abruptly bent double in his seat and vomited, not quite missing the trousers of Taozu sitting next to him. Taozu futilely flinched away from the spattering, but was too busy keeping his own jaws clamped shut to protest. “S-sorry,” Cheung gasped after he stopped heaving, wiping his flecked lips, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. “Shit, I’ll clean it up, sorry…”
Cheung went scrambling for rags, and after a long pause in which Iroh struggled to keep his own composure, the former general continued, “After the duel, the Fire Lord said that by refusing to fight, Zuko had shown shameful weakness. As punishment he was banished, and sent to capture the Avatar. Only then could he return with his honor.”
If there had been only a few men present to hear Iroh’s tale, it might have ended there, with respectful silence. But in a room crowded with people, a mass of emotions churning in each one and amplified by the presence of so many more feeling the same, no silence could last for long…
“How the fuck is it ‘shameful weakness’ to not fight your own fuckin’ father?!” Tadao burst out. At the stares turned his way, he flushed but kept on with a mix of mortal embarrassment and determination, “I used to spar with my dad all the time, but there’s a helluva difference between a training session and an Agni Kai! I could probably take him these days, but if someone tricked me into facing my father in the arena, I’d surrender to him in a heart beat—because that’s showing respect for your old man!”
Once the words were said, there was no taking them back, and as they sunk into other ears they sprouted more words of dissent. “Kid could have been told to just sit down and shut up, and stay out of the adults’ business,” Joben muttered. “Would have been humiliating enough just to do that, ‘stead of calling for an Agni Kai.”
“Last I heard, fighting against the Fire Lord was considered treason,” Tetsuko sniped. “Wouldn’t that include facing him in the Agni Kai arena? Talk about a no-win situation!”
“The prince was set up,” Goro snarled, his teeth bared in anger and outrage. “Set up to fall hard…”
“Enough. I cannot hear these words,” General Iroh growled, throwing a meaty palm into the air as warning. Everybody shut up fast, many of them trembling as they realized anew just who they’d been speaking out against; the Fire Lord who was also the brother of the man sitting in front of them. After a few beats of suddenly nervous silence, he continued, “Now you know the story of how my nephew got his scar, and ultimately why we are out here in the middle of a storm.”
“That’s why he’s been so obsessed all this time,” Jee said, sounding a little numb with the realization. “Capturing the Avatar is the only chance he has of things returning to normal.”
“Things will never return to normal,” General Iroh corrected him almost wearily. “But the important thing is, the Avatar gives Prince Zuko hope… hope of going home again.”
With that, Iroh declared that the tale was over, and sent everyone back to their bunks and their card games. Everyone except Jee filed out, many of them with backward glances at him; glances filled with a variety of emotions. Unease, bewilderment… even censure.
Iroh sincerely hoped that the censure-filled gazes meant that some crewmen were unhappy with him for not allowing them to vent their displeasure at the monstrous thing Fire Lord Ozai had done to his own son. If only he could have told them all what he really felt, and what his true intentions were… but he dared not do so, not until he was sure that there were no more spies for Ozai left aboard the ship.
Even telling the crew the truth behind Zuko’s scar and exile had been risky. He’d always been ready to give the information before, but as a last resort; playing the sympathy card on whichever crewmembers he felt most needed it in order to ward off an impending mutiny. But after Iroh had heard from White Lotus members that, despite the hundreds of people who had been in the Agni Kai audience that day, the word spreading from the capital island was that Zuko’s scar was the result of a ‘training accident’, he’d known that telling the truth could very well lead to charges of sedition and treason.
If Iroh hadn’t noticed over the last week or so how much the crew was finally warming up to his nephew, he would never have dared to openly tell them all. But he had, and he’d been secretly gratified to see how many of them had been openly sympathetic to Zuko’s plight. The more people he could quietly turn against Ozai to support his nephew instead, the easier it would be for Zuko to hold the throne as Fire Lord when the time finally came to overthrow Ozai and end the war. If Iroh was lucky, now that everyone knew the truth about Zuko’s scar, even Ozai’s last remaining spy aboard would be horrified enough to turn against the current Fire Lord and support the eventual coup!
And if he was not that lucky, then perhaps by carefully observing people’s reactions to Zuko from now on, Iroh would be able to identify which crewmember was a spy for his brother and… remove him, before the spy could report to Ozai about Sheng and about Zuko’s decision to keep an earthbender’s secret, in some way that couldn’t be traced back to Iroh himself. Iroh was not looking forward to it; he had already accumulated far too high of a body count in his four decades of waging war against the Earth Kingdom, and he had no desire to pile more deaths on his already heavy conscience. But no matter the cost, Ozai had to be overthrown, in order to end the war and restore balance to the world.
The storm had gotten worse in the last half-hour or so; the ship’s rocking was even more violent as the Wani fought its way northward through increasingly higher waves. In his cabin, Zuko had sung himself hoarse—well, hoarser than usual—singing all the nursery songs and lullabies he’d learned in the last two weeks, while rubbing Teiji’s back to soothe him. But all his efforts paid off when finally, hours after his scheduled nap, Teiji finally yawned and settled down to a peaceful slumber. Zuko smiled down at his son, then began carefully tucking him into their shared bed.
Teiji was instantly awake again and screaming, but Zuko couldn’t spare the time to comfort him. The ship had been hit by lightning! He scooped Teiji up from the bed and rushed over to deposit him in the crib instead, saying urgently, “Teiji, I’m sorry, but I have to go find out how bad the damage is! I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise!” As he turned away, Teiji’s frightened and betrayed wails pierced his eardrums and stabbed into his brain, but he just hunched his shoulders against them as he ran out the door.
He emerged onto the main deck to see Uncle Iroh and Lieutenant Jee already there, fighting to keep their balance on the surging deck and with water coming over the rails. The storm roared all around them, a mighty god-beast expressing its displeasure with the puny humans who dared to venture into its domain. Fighting his way across the rain-slicked and heaving deck, he shouted, “Where were we hit?!”
“I don’t know!” Lieutenant Jee screamed back to be heard over the storm.
Everyone looked around wildly, until Zuko’s sharp ears heard a terrified cry coming from above them; he looked upwards just as his uncle pointed at the bridge and shouted, “Look!” The lightning had struck and wrecked the bridge, and now their helmsman was up there dangling from a railing, hanging on for his very life!
Zuko scrambled for the ladder up to the bridge, Jee right behind him. The driving winds threatened to rip his phoenix-plume right off his head and the torrential rain was making even the grooved rungs of the ladder slick, but he still climbed at top speed, desperate to reach the crewman in time.
Suddenly there was a brilliant flash of light, coming from behind him—more lightning! But all he heard was a heavy snapping sound, no explosion of impact; it must have missed the ship this time, thank Agni. Zuko kept climbing, his eyes locked on the helmsman, now close enough to see which one it was; Jiro (son of Hayao and Aki on Ember Island, and why the ash am I thinking of his personnel record at a time like this?! Faster, Zu-zu you idiot, he’s hanging on by only one hand!)
He climbed up to just twelve feet below the bridge—just as Jiro lost his grip! Zuko desperately gripped the ladder with one hand and stretched out to his falling crewman with the other—and got Jiro’s flailing hand by the wrist!
The sudden weight hanging off his arm almost ripped both his arms out of their sockets, but he grimly hung onto both Jiro and the ladder, until Lieutenant Jee was right below him and able to take Jiro from him. Jee smiled up at him, a smile filled with gratitude and—admiration? Was Jee actually proud of him for—no, he was reading too much into it, anyone would have done the same thing if they’d gotten to the ladder first. But still, Zuko couldn’t help smiling back.
Down on the main deck, Iroh’s main thought for the last few seconds had been a semi-stunned, It worked. That was incredible… It worked!
He’d been practicing that lightning move for years, nearly two decades, ever since getting the idea from studying waterbenders’ techniques. He’d created the technique with a defense against other imperial firebenders in mind, one in particular; he’d taken note of both Ozai’s volatile temper and his ruthless ambition when his little brother was still a teenager. But no matter how sure he had been of the theory behind the technique of redirecting lightning, he’d never had the opportunity to use the technique, until now.
Finally he shook himself back to awareness of current events, and turned to see Zuko and Lieutenant Jee coming back down the ladder with the helmsman, all safe and sound. Zuko’s feet were last to touch the deck, but as soon as he did he gripped Jiro by the shoulder and asked urgently, “Jiro, before the strike, did you see the storm easing up in any direction? Did you see which way to the eye?”
Jiro looked like he was in the first stages of shock, but he rallied and answered, “I think so, sir! Just before the strike, I noticed the storm clouds were lighter in one direction; east by northeast!” as he pointed with a shaking hand.
Iroh looked in that direction as well, and saw that Jiro was right; the sky was lighter in that direction, an indicator of either the eye or the end of the storm. Zuko ordered Jee, “Steer us straight to the eye, and keep us there! I’ve got to get back to Teiji; he’s alone and scared!” just before he rushed for the nearest hatch.
Iroh wanted to immediately join Zuko in comforting Teiji, who was no doubt extremely upset that his father had left him alone when he was scared. But he decided it would be best if he stayed on deck and ready to bend more lightning away from the ship, until they reached the eye of the storm and relative safety. So he stayed behind when Zuko rushed inside, and so was present when Cheung, also on the heaving deck, pointed to the northwest and shouted, “The Avatar!”
Everyone still on deck turned and looked, and sure enough, that was the Avatar’s sky bison flying low over the waves, apparently struggling to stay aloft. Iroh was silently appalled; what was that foolish child doing out in this weather?
Jee muttered something that Iroh didn’t quite catch, but it sounded very salty and extremely unprofessional. Then he said much louder, “We ignore him for now. The prince ordered us to steer towards the eye and get this ship to safety!”
“But, sir!” Akio protested. “The prince needs to--”
“I know, curse it!” Jee barked back. “But we’re pitching too much to aim a shot from the catapult even if we dared raise it right now; with no long-range weapons, we can’t do anything unless that bald-headed brat comes flying right over us! Now open the panel for the auxiliary bridge controls, so we can steer this tub!”
Akio ran to obey, and within two minutes they were turning east by northeast, steering for the eye of the storm.
Zuko burst into his cabin, already shedding pieces of armor like autumn leaves. “I’m back, Teiji, I’m so sorry!” as he hurriedly finished stripping off his upper body armor and sopping-wet undertunic, before scooping his wailing son up out of the crib and cradling him close. Teiji beat on him with his tiny fists, probably out of anger for having left him alone for so long, but only for a few moments before grabbing him tightly, sobbing into his chest.
Zuko held him close, murmuring his apologies over and over, and hoping that it wouldn’t take long for Teiji to forgive him for abandoning him, however briefly. It was hard, being both a new father and the ship’s captain; “I’m so sorry, Teiji, but I’m responsible for the safety of the crew, too! Jiro would have died if someone hadn’t reached him in time! I had to go out there, I’m sorry. But I’m here now; sshh, sshh, little soldier boy…”
Teiji’s sobs gradually quieted and he settled down, enough for Zuko to switch to a one-armed hold on the baby so he could awkwardly finish stripping out of his wet armor and clothing with his free hand. Once he was completely undressed, rather than getting into fresh clothing right away, he just climbed under the covers with Teiji and cuddled him to his chest. The ship’s violent heaving gradually settled to the much more sedate usual rocking; they must have reached the eye of the storm. Pushing the less immediate concerns—the damage done to the bridge, the money it would take to repair it and where they could dock for repairs—to the back of his mind, Zuko gradually relaxed as he felt the motion rock his son to sleep.
It took less than half an hour but felt like much, much longer than that, before the crew on deck felt the winds and driving rain lessening as they reached the eye of the storm. Once they were past the edge and fully in the eye, the rain reduced to a mere light drizzle
Iroh was sincerely glad that the worst was over; they’d had no more lightning strikes, but he was soaked to the skin and would have been shivering from the chill if he hadn’t been using his breath of fire to stay warm. Now that they were out of danger from lightning strikes, he turned to go back to his cabin, check on Teiji and get into dry clothes. But just before he reached the hatch, everyone heard a sharp rumbling sound like an underwater explosion, coming just forward of the bow. Alarmed, Iroh turned back around, just in time to see a massive sphere—a bubble of pure energy—erupting from the ocean depths, and bursting just after clearing the surface to reveal the Avatar and his companions inside.
The Avatar State receded, leaving Aang shaken as usual, but this time he had enough presence of mind to keep a good grip on Appa’s reins as the sky bison soared almost straight up into the suddenly clear sky.
He looked back over his shoulder, to see if Katara, Sokka and the fisherman were all still in the saddle—and saw a Fire Nation ship! Was it Prince Zuko’s ship? He couldn’t tell, those ships all looked alike to him, and there was no Prince Zuko in sight. There were a few people out on deck, though; one of them was pointing at him, and shouting something that he couldn’t make out as Appa carried them all up and away…
Lieutenant Jee shouted at the retreating airbender, “You got lucky today, Avatar, but we will capture you! We’ll bring you down and put you in chains, so our prince can go home with his son—and someday take the throne!”
The few other crewmen still on deck cheered and roared their agreement, while Iroh blinked at them in astonishment. After over two years of thoroughly disliking the boy they’d all called the Royal Pain, he hadn’t expected them to rally behind Zuko quite so quickly and thoroughly! Considering the words Jee had been shouting just now, he didn’t know if he’d just made things better for both Zuko and the world as a whole—or much, much worse…
Back in the Fire Nation Capital:
Fire Lord Ozai sat at his desk, signing the few items of paperwork that were too important to be delegated to a minister in the High Council. Dutifully attending him, the secretary judged that Ozai seemed to be in a good mood today; he hadn’t set any of the scrolls on fire.
After applying his royal seal to the last scroll and setting it on the outgoing pile, Ozai took a blank parchment from the stack that was always handy and began writing on it. The secretary was instantly nervous, though he tried not to show it. It was never a good sign, when Ozai wrote his own documents; people tended to disappear afterwards, never to be seen or heard from again.
He waited until the first few sentences had been written down, and then picked up the pot of coffee that was imported to the capital every day for the Fire Lord’s personal pleasure, and proffered it with a respectful, “More coffee, my lord?” Ozai waved absent agreement as he continued writing, so the secretary was able to approach the desk and glimpse the document while refreshing his drink.
It was a military article of promotion. Fire Lord Ozai stated that Commodore Zhao, having proved his worth in commanding the naval blockade (How’d he do that, given the recent debacle on Crescent Island? the secretary wondered but knew better than to say aloud), was now promoted to Admiral…
Yes, Azula lied. She spied on her uncle just long enough to find out what he’d be serving for tea that afternoon, and lied about the rest. She lied partly because she was secretly jealous that Iroh had invited Zuko to the tea party but not her, even though she’d treated her uncle with scorn instead of the respect and affection Zuko had shown before that day, and partly because cruelty had already become a habit with her by that age. That lie is my explanation for why pre-Agni Kai Zuko still seemed determined to be closer to his father than to his uncle, even though Iroh clearly had more time and affection for him.