It was supposed to be a simple mission. Sneak in under cover of darkness, take the supplies they needed, and get out. He and Pipsqueak had done this dozens of times before the Freedom Fighters broke up. The Duke had scouted out the area earlier, Pipsqueak knew exactly where the docked ships would be storing their food, and the night was overcast – there was no better weather for concealing their movements. All in all, it was a flawless plan.
What they hadn't counted on was the little blind Earthbender on guard duty.
Lying flat on his back and squinting up at his attacker in the darkness, just before the blow to his head that knocked him out cold, the Duke decided that she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen.
When the Duke came to, Pipsqueak explained the situation they'd found themselves in. As it turned out, they had been trying to steal from a Water Tribe fleet set to infiltrate the Fire Nation. The Avatar was aboard, but no one knew how long he would be unconscious. In the meantime, the crew of the ship had forgiven the attempted theft, on the condition that the two of them would assist with the invasion. Of course, Pipsqueak had gladly accepted.
The first question out of the Duke's mouth once all the explanations were over was, “What about the girl?”
“You know,” he said, tiny fists balling nervously in his blanket, not sure whether he hoped she would be around to overhear him or not. “The girl who knocked me out.”
Pipsqueak laughed. “Oh, the little Earthbender? Yeah, she really got the jump on us, huh? From what I've heard, she's traveling with the Avatar.”
The Duke had an idea about the concept of destiny from listening to Jet's speeches, and a somewhat vaguer idea of something Smellerbee referred to as “coincidence” when Jet wasn't around to hear her. He decided he liked the sound of destiny better.
It took two weeks (and the use of every surveillance tactic he'd ever learned) for him to work up the nerve to speak to the girl. He wasn't being shy, he insisted to Pipsqueak on the increasingly frequent occasions that his friend saw fit to tease him about it. He was just waiting for the right moment.
The only problem was, it looked like the right moment was never going to come.
The Duke liked watching her out of the corner of his eye while he was mopping. Everything she did, she did with the kind of absolute confidence he only wished he had, as though she was determined to make up for her small stature and lack of vision with sheer tenacity. She was loud and crass and stocky and perfect -- as rough-and-tumble as any boy he'd ever seen, but unmistakably female in all the ways that Smellerbee, the only girl he'd ever spent any meaningful amount of time with, hadn't been.
And for some reason, every time she turned his way, his stomach flipped and his heart raced like a leopard-hare and he sought cover behind the nearest barrel, or inside a crate, or behind Pipsqueak's huge legs. And his friend's chuckling only made it worse. The Duke definitely couldn't find anything funny about any of this.
One afternoon, when he and Pipsqueak had finished cleaning the deck, he hoisted himself up on the railing to wait for her to come by. She always took this way to get to dinner. Maybe today, if he was feeling particularly brave, he would say hi to her. In the meantime, he watched the dark ocean swells that reminded him of the color of her hair, and the light green seafoam on the crests of the waves that matched her eyes exactly.
And suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her! Walking his way! He turned his head sharply. Here she came! This was his chance! All he had to do was --
“Hey,” she said as she passed by, and his heart skipped a beat. In his surprise, he lost his grip on the railing and crash-landed painfully on the hard deck. The sharp pain in his head reminded him of her too. He decided to skip dinner that night.
“Hey Pipsqueak,” asked the Duke one evening, “What kinds of stuff do girls like?”
“Oh, all kinds of things. It depends on the girl, of course, but you usually can't go wrong with flowers and poetry... Why?” Pipsqueak grinned in a way that suggested he knew far too much. “Got a certain lucky young lady in mind?”
“No! And I asked for no reason!” He quickly had to add, blushing, “And don't laugh!”
After spending an hour and a half intensely pondering his options, he decided that nothing rhymed with concussion, and clearly the only suitable solution to this problem would be to write a haiku in her honor. There was just one thing standing in the way of his amazing new plan – he had never learned to write.
Pipsqueak, however, had.
And so the Duke had come to a crossroads: to sacrifice young love for the sake of his pride, or give up his dignity for the sake of the most perfect girl in the entire universe (or at least as much of it as he had yet to explore)?
He shut his eyes tight and imagined, as he had many times before, the sweet, raspy voice of the girl of his dreams saying everything he'd ever wanted to hear. “I like you too, the Duke.” Well, then. That was hardly a decision at all.
“Pipsqueak,” he said, eyes downcast and cheeks blazing, as he tugged at the leg of his friend's pants, “I'm about to do the most important thing I've ever done in my entire life... and I'm gonna need your help.”
The Duke found her on the deck the next morning, sitting on a crate, kicking her legs idly. Every step he took towards her was harder than the last. His feet were like bricks, but his head felt light enough to float. Finally, he was in front of her, looking right into those eyes. He tried not to faint.
“U-um,” he began, hands and voice both shaking as he held the small, tattered scrap of parchment in his hands, looking down at the words that neither of them could read because it was easier than looking at her. He could feel his face growing hot. “I... last night... I worked on this a really long time, and...”
This was it. The moment of truth.
“Spit it out, shorty,” she said.
His mind went blank.
He couldn't remember a single word he'd written.
“I've gotta go,” he blurted out, and shoved the paper into her hands. Every organ between his heart and his stomach seemed to lurch at the same time, and he ran back to the safety of his quarters as fast as his legs could carry him, without ever looking back.
The battle was a blur of blue and gray and red, and he stuck as close to her as was possible in the fray. He wished that it was because he thought he could protect her. The truth was, he was terrified, and she could hit harder than anyone else on the ship.
If it was destiny, they would have bid each other a touching farewell, exchanging tender promises to stay true and return to each others' sides on the eve of the final battle.
Instead, he had to hear about her leaving second-hand. He'd never even gotten the courage to properly introduce himself.
But he remained as brave as he knew she would want him to be, on the rare occasions when he could delude himself into believing that she knew he existed. There was no pining on his part, no long glances over the vast ocean as he thought poetic thoughts of the girl who'd stolen his heart without ever realizing it. Life for the Duke went on very much the same as ever, and if Pipsqueak noticed him marking off the days until the eclipse, he never said a thing.
The invasion had played out many ways in his head.
Once, he'd thought, she would come to his rescue just as he and Pipsqueak were about to be ambushed.
Or sometimes he was fighting a platoon of Fire Nation soldiers, about to be utterly overwhelmed, when her Earthbending saved him from certain death. He would compliment her, and maybe she'd even smile before going back to flinging rocks at the enemy.
He'd never once imagined that she would be huddled miserably inside a Water Tribe submarine, throwing up in his helmet as he patted her back in what he hoped was a comforting manner and wished that he was better with words. It wasn't supposed to go like this.
“It won't be too much longer,” he said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. She threw up again. The Duke winced, then gave her a nervous, utterly unconvincing smile. “Just think of all the Fire Nation butt you'll get to kick when we get up there.”
“That's for sure,” she croaked, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and passing his helmet back to him. “And I'll pay them back double for this.”
The Duke smiled. That was more like it.
As the battle was reaching its end and the children were saying their farewells to the ones they were forced to leave behind, it didn't even occur to the Duke to think about the girl.
Pipsqueak hoisted the Duke onto the armored back of the giant sky bison. “I'll miss you, Pipsqueak,” he said softly. He couldn't bring himself to really say good-bye to the last person who remained of the closest thing he ever had to a family. The bravest thing he could manage was holding back the tears that stung the corners of his eyes.
It was only once they had taken to the sky and he'd squinted through the fog in his vision until he could no longer see the figures they'd left behind that he realized the girl hadn't had a single person there to say good-bye to.
The next couple of days passed by so quickly he barely had time to think about missing his friend. Exploring the upside-down ruins of the temple with Haru and Teo was more fun than he'd had in as long as he could remember. Was this how other kids spent their time? Not having to steal food or sabotage Fire Nation encampments, struggling and scraping just to survive? He could get used to this. And other boys were fun and easy to get along with. They didn't treat him like a kid, and if sometimes they forgot that he was the Duke, not just Duke, well, he was pretty sure that worse things had happened. But he couldn't shake the feeling that they were missing out on something big.
“It's Avatar business,” said Haru nonchalantly, when he finally brought it up. “If it's important, they'll let you know.”
“Relax,” Teo interrupted, giving him an affectionate pat on the helmet. “What could we really miss?” He grinned wildly, shifting off his wheelchair's brakes. “Last one to the fountain's a snail-toad!”
Teo's words turned out to be utterly wrong. From the moment the Fire Nation prince showed up in their temple, the world around him seemed to rush by in a frenzied haze, full of important events that the Duke could only watch from the outside and changes of heart that he was sure would be meaningful if only he knew what was going on. Worst of all, the girl's feet had been burned, and he was all set to go find the boy who had done it and give the Fire Nation scum a piece of his mind. But before he even had a chance, the prince was already forgiven and a part of the group.
Not only that, but more a part of it than the Duke and his new friends had ever been. He was even talking to the girl! With real, actual words! More than three of them at a time, sometimes! What if she liked him? It wasn't fair. The Duke got here first. The Duke liked her better. And who did this Zuko guy think he was, anyway? He probably didn't even have a helmet.
The Duke tried all day to get the scarred young man's attention, but to no avail. Standing nearby and glaring didn't seem to work – it was like he was off in his own world. The tried and true tactic of throwing very small rocks at him did make that little vein in his forehead stick out further, but he just crossed his arms and seemed to be doing his best to ignore the pelting as though he was used to it. Finally, the Duke could take no more. He was going to walk right up to the prince and face his problem head-on. By the end of this, he'd make sure this Zuko guy thought twice before trying to get cozy with the girl he liked.
He stormed over to the prince, a righteous ball of eight-year-old fury. “Hey, you.”
Zuko looked down at him quizzically.
“Look, I might not spend all day strategerizing with the Avatar's friends, but that doesn't mean I'm not important! And just because I'm three feet tall doesn't make me invisible, okay? And just because I've never met you before in my life doesn't mean you can ignore me when I throw things at you!”
“Um,” managed Zuko wisely.
This didn't stop the tide. He was just getting to the good part. “So what if you're a prince? And so what if I'm a little shorter than she is? And so what if I've never said more than fifteen words to her ever? I'm working on it! Don't forget, she threw up in my helmet.”
The prince gave him a pained look before turning to walk as quickly as he could in the opposite direction, rubbing his temples and muttering, “I'm surrounded by crazy people.”
All in all, the Duke decided it had been a success.
It was night. The group gathered around their campfire, cooking their dinner. Only Haru sat between Toph and the Duke. That was barely any distance at all. It was the closest he'd really been to her since they arrived at the temple.
Maybe tomorrow, if he was feeling particularly brave, he'd sit right next to her. And maybe --
“Hey Toph,” said Sokka, and the Duke snapped to attention. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“No problem.” She stood up, shoving her meat-on-a-stick in Haru's direction. “Here, hold this for me.”
This was his chance! The Duke swallowed hard around the nervous tightness in his throat and reached across his friend to take it. “I'll do it! I'm... pretty good with food on sticks.”
“Great,” said Toph. “Thanks.”
The Duke wondered if she could feel him grinning.