The Northern Water Tribe is everything Zuko had hoped and imagined it would be and more. It stands, moulded into the ice like an impenetrable fortress. But it’s unlike anything he has ever seen in the Fire Nation, with the intricate carvings in the ice only perfected by waterbending masters.
He takes a breath, steam billowing out of his mouth.
“Nervous, captain?” Jee asks, tilting his head at him slightly as they pass under an intricate bridge, scared eyes of it's citizens looking down on them.
“I’m not good at… this,” Zuko says, making a vague gesture to his surroundings. Talking is never been something he’s been good at.
Words are complicated, powerful tools and more often than not, it seems like everyone else has a tight grip on their words, understanding their effect and implications and Zuko is left stumbling behind, picking up broken shambles of their impact in the wake of his impulsiveness.
How he convinced the crew to stay with him is a little beyond him - but then again, he thinks his actions did most of the talking.
“The general’s here,” Jee says, his voice is a little tense, as expected when travelling into what a few years ago would have been enemy territory, and plus, the people of the Northern Water Tribe have managed to remain entirely out of the war for so long and protected their people because of it, why would they want to change that for them of all people.
“I suppose,” Zuko says.
It doesn’t really matter what the Northern Water Tribe want to do anymore. The Avatar is alive, and there is more and more unrest in the Earth Kingdom, as the Fire Nation's influence broadens. Something is going to happen sooner rather than later and every day the Fire Nation are expanding their territory.
Ba Sing Se and the Northern Water Tribe are the next two logical places the Fire Nation will launch an attack on and they simply can’t afford to try and keep their noses out of it anymore.
Zuko has come here to warn them more than anything, but also to establish rapport and hopefully build up an alliance with these people.
The Fire Nation is an organised unit of operation, and that’s where they’re failing. With everyone so displaced, forming a proper alliance is going to be extraordinarily difficult. When push comes to shove, which it undoubtedly will, Zuko wants to have as many connections and people on his side as possible.
Arnook sits in front of Zuko, and it’s clear that once upon a time he would have been far more muscular and intimidating, but Zuko matches his height and he knows just by looking that Zuko outmatches him in terms of muscle mass. Still, the hairs on the back of Zuko's neck stand up under his scrutiny.
Iroh stands behind Zuko, ready to step in if Arnook needs more convincing. Iroh had dismissed Zuko’s suggestion that he do the diplomatic talking, despite Zuko’s pleading.
“Firebenders?” Arnook says, scepticism lacing every word and he raises his eyebrow, looking Zuko up and down.
Zuko takes a deep breath, trying to channel whatever confidence Uncle has in him.
“Yes,” Zuko says. “But the Fire Nation sees us the enemy. Surely you’ve at least heard rumours of us? It’s not every day that the Fire Nation spits out an entire crew of fugitives.”
Arnook frowns at him, glancing back at his crew behind him.
“Why come all this way?” another man asks. His hair has long since faded to white and receded, but Zuko’s met enough old men to know that age does not mean weak.
“There’s unrest growing,” Zuko says. “The Fire Nation is conquering more and more of the Earth Kingdom and the Southern Water Tribe is in shambles. It’s you and Ba Sing Se that are the next on the Fire Nation’s target. Conquering you and Ba Sing Se basically secures their win.”
He pauses a moment, studying the faces of the leaders before coming back to land on Arnook’s. “The Fire Nation will attack, and at the end of the day, regardless of where we have come from, we’re all in the same boat, Chief Arnook. If the Fire Nation wins, we all die.”
Zuko glances over to where a woman snorts, turning her head from him and it strikes somewhere in Zuko’s chest that just makes him furious .
He waits until the woman turns to the front again and Zuko tilts his face, so the scar on his face is facing her and he shoots her a forced smile. Her eyes widen, and the confidence from before drains from her face.
“The Fire Lord gave me this scar,” Zuko says, and he stands up a little straighter. “You all seem to have forgotten what he is capable of. If the Fire Lord is not afraid to set his son’s face on fire and cast him to the seas to die than what on this earth makes you think he will spare any of you an inch of his mercy.”
Zuko knows that’s a risky card to play, but Zuko has not travelled the world and seen it’s suffering to turn away from its agony. The people of the Northern Water Tribe have had the opportunity to live in relative peace, while the rest of the world has been screaming, burning and dying.
To remain neutral is being just as immoral the Fire Nation themselves.
He watches their faces, fists clamped at his sides and the swords on his back burn into his spine. If they decide to attack, then Zuko knows he is at a disadvantage, but then again, he’s been at a disadvantage since was born. This is nothing special.
Arnook’s lips are pressed into a thin line and the wrinkles on his forehead crease severely.
“I had heard rumours,” Arnook says, he glances at the young woman on his right - his daughter, possibly - and looks back at Zuko. “I didn’t want to believe it.”
“Of course,” Zuko says. “But he did. Believe me when I say he will not lose a minute of sleep killing you, your family, the children and your people.”
The image of his own father standing over him, a hulking figure that he never stood a chance against, the feeling of his skin setting alight, shrivelling up his face - the agony is burned into more than just his face.
In a perfect world, fathers love their children. But this is far from a perfect world.
“The Fire Nation will attack, I have been sailing the waters for the last few years, and the Fire Navy’s movements are building by the day, Chief Arnook,” Zuko says. “Don’t you want as many allies as you can obtain for when the inevitable occurs?”
The young woman at Arnook’s right is watching him carefully, her eyes pinched in sympathy. “Fighting fire with fire?” she asks.
“Precisely,” Zuko says.
The chief stands up, the tension leaving him in one swift movement as he walks to stand in front of Zuko.
He extends his hand and it takes Zuko a second to work out what the Chief wants when he remembers the boy he met at the Southern Water Tribe and the way he grasped his forearm.
Zuko reaches out and doesn't bother trying to fight the grin off his face as Arnook grips his arm.
“Don’t make me regret this, Prince Zuko,” he says.
“I haven’t been a Prince for years,” Zuko says. “I am merely a sea captain, looking for freedom.”
It seems to the right thing to say, as Arnook’s mouth quirks in amusement.
“Tell me more about the Fire Navy movements, Captain.”
“Of course,” Zuko replies, and he rolls his shoulders.
Finally, Zuko thinks, they will be able to do some real damage to his nation that's torn this beautiful world to pieces.