Zuko met Sokka after he and his crew had officially, in the eyes of their once home, been labelled fugitives. The change had been significantly less horrific than he'd originally assumed. Zuko thought the sea may end up being his prison, the banished prince cursed to sail the nine seas until Agni took mercy on his soul.
But now, it was as though his shackles had been released. He wasn't trying to prove himself to anyone. He was improving himself for himself. His actions were on the principle of his own morals, his thoughts were his and his alone. There was suddenly no proper way to sit, no proper way to tie his hair, or to wear his robes.
Zuko could drink with the crew - people he had once thought mere commoners - but he had never felt more understood in his life.
With the salty wind whipping through his short hair, the hot metal of the ship burning his feet as he spared with Kazuo on the deck and the unhindered sun pounding on his bare, tanned skin, Zuko had never felt more at home.
The decision to go to the Southern Water Tribe was an offhand suggestion made by Jee whilst he was attempting to do a handstand on the deck of the ship during one of their many music nights as a dare. At the time, Zuko had been trying to convince Iroh that it would be a spectacular time to start swimming and that the liquor coursing through his veins would have no ill effect on his swimming abilities and had not paid the suggestion much consideration.
But when Jirou had mentioned it again that morning, while handing Zuko a bowl of something that smelt far too good to exist, he considered it.
They needed the world to know the soul of the Fire Nation wasn't evil, that at the heart of it, they were just victims of a mad tyrant. Zuko needed the world to know that there are Fire Benders that have their backs.
Organising their course for the South Pole had not been a day feat, from their position in the East Nomadic Sea, they still had a ways to go, but it had turned out to be entirely worth it. By the time Zuko, Iroh, Jee and the rest of the crew had left the South Pole, Zuko felt more than confident that they'd left the Water Tribe people in good stead.
Sokka had not been one to bend easily for Zuko, and he'd challenged Zuko at every opportunity, questioning his motives until he could truly understand what had led Firebenders to betray their own. When Sokka had finally extended his arm in what Zuko had come to know as a gesture for the Water tribe that was strictly between friends Zuko knew it had paid off.
Zuko rubs his hands together and squints into the distance, the sun glaring off the ice sharply. Since hearing of Sokka's arrival at the North Pole, his worry had piqued, concerned that things would have changed between them. Maturity, war and time could have forced them apart that they wouldn't be able to pick up things as easily as he did when he met him.
But, as Sokka nears him, his face split into the widest grin Zuko's ever seen, his nervousness evaporates.
Sokka extends out a hand, and Zuko reciprocates, grasping Sokka's forearm firmly, and the familiarity of the embrace has him grinning as well.
"Sokka," he says. "Awfully good timing."
Sokka's grin is just as incredible as he remembers it, and really, his arrival couldn't have been better timed, with Arnook's temporary trust hanging in the balance of Zuko's well-placed words, his familiarity and comradery with the son of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe basically solidifies Zuko's story.
And plus, seeing old friends again is better than anything Zuko could have hoped for.
"I could say the same to you," Sokka says. He ends the handshake and pulls Zuko into a tight hug.
"I was hoping we'd run into you again, but I didn't expect to run into you here of all places." He says as he pulls back, going over to Iroh and the old man immediately catches him in a bone-crushing hug, receiving similar treatment from the rest of the crew.
A woman steps forward, her gait sure and gaze fierce. Zuko vaguely remembers her as Sokka’s sister. They didn’t have an opportunity to talk much at the time, and Zuko had come to learn that the roles of females and males played a far more significant role in the Water Tribes than from that of the Fire Nation, and she hadn’t been involved between his and Sokka’s lengthy discussion.
But she’s grown a lot since then. Zuko can tell that by her gait alone, filled with confidence and a world of pressure on her shoulders.
"My name is Katara, this is my brother Sokka. We’re from the South. And this," she gestures to the young monk standing behind her who waves tentatively, "Is Aang, the Avatar."
Zuko whips his head around to Sokka, but Arnook steps forward before Zuko can even begin to fathom a response. He’d imagined someone far more aged, world-weary and incredibly, terrifyingly powerful, and he hadn't imagined that Sokka and Katara were the ones travelling with him.
Arnook steps around Zuko, ignoring the harsh whispers and open stares of confusion from anyone in close vicinity, and Zuko wonders if the news even reached this far, and if it did, how convoluted had it become since Zuko had first caught the rumours of the Avatar's survival.
Each stride is more powerful than the last, his face is pulled tight, but it reveals none of his inner thoughts. He is the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, Zuko reminds himself. He is not a man he wants to get in the way of.
He steps up close to the monk, and looks down at him.
"The Avatar?" he says, but it's more than clear that he doesn't expect an answer. He takes a careful breath and the boy meets his gaze, obviously trying his best to keep a strong facade in the face of the man’s oppressive aura.
"I need to learn Waterbending. Katara has taught me all she knows, but I need to get better. We thought we could find help here," the Avatar says.
His voice is high, having not even been broken into yet. The Avatar is a boy and Zuko’s chest burns the more he thinks about it.
It’s not odd for children to be sent off to fight even in the Fire Nation. The more the war progressed, the more hands both sides have needed, and the leaders of both sides don’t seem to be losing any sleep over sending children off to fight their battles.
But still, to see the Avatar in front of him, so young and full of so much life, it ignites a painful flame in his heart.
Arnook scratches his chin, the minute tension in his shoulders fading. "I suppose we should be honoured," Arnook says. It’s mildly condescending, but Zuko is willing to bet its origins are more frustration in nature.
The Avatar has been missing for 100 years after all, and it’s now, when an attack upon the Northern Water Tribe is practically imminent, that he appears.
Zuko glances across to Iroh, a million thoughts running through his mind. The presence of the Avatar is good so that he can learn Waterbending and so that Zuko can make a comrade out of such an invaluable asset. However, the Fire Nation, despite their element, know the ocean like the back of their hand. The Navy is an ever-growing force to be reckoned with, and the likelihood that they somehow managed to travel from the other side of the world and not be followed is highly unlikely, making an attack on the North all the more valuable and important for his old home.
Iroh places a hand on his shoulder, and Zuko knows what he means - later, wait until introductions are over before we bring up logistics.
Arnook sends a calculated glance at Zuko and Iroh, visibly resigning himself to accepting his new rag-tag group of unlikely comrades, before turning back to Sokka, Katara and Aang.
“You need to present your case before the council. You being the avatar does not put you above our law,” Arnook's gaze meets Aang with a hardened stare, but really it’s a message for Zuko and his crew more so than the boy at his feet.
At the end of the day, Zuko, Iroh, Jee, Kazuo, Sato and Jirou are still Firebenders.
It’s going to take a lot more than Zuko’s sweet talk to earn his trust.
Despite it all, Zuko finds himself eager to earn it.
“I don’t like this,” Jirou says the second that Sokka, Katara and Aang are bundled off to the council to properly decide their next actions.
Jirou runs a hand through his dark, oily hair, causing pieces to stick up at odd angles.
“I will swim three laps around the ship if the Fire Nation wasn’t on their case all the way here. The kid, Sokka, has a good strategy mind, but none of those squirts have any experience in evasion,” Jee grunts.
“We have a few days at the most before the Fire Nation arrives,” Iroh adds, his hand resting on Zuko’s back again, a comforting gesture Zuko can’t help but appreciate.
Silence descends on them for a moment, as Zuko presses his lips together, thinking hard.
“Captain?” Jee asks. “What will we do?”
Zuko would preferably like to avoid combat as serious as this as much as possible. On the off chance that the Fire Nation are successful in conquering the North, not only does that mean horrifically heavy consequences for the war itself, but the Fire Nation are one step closer from wiping out the Waterbenders entirely, and Zuko and his crew will be tortured, killed or both.
Zuko’s heard the rumours of what the Fire Nation does to traitors of their own kind and he’s not inclined to test their validity.
He takes a deep breath. Leaving pre-maturely only confirms Arnook’s and the council’s underlining suspicions that they’re not truly on their side and furthermore betrays Sokka’s trust. Not to mention the consequences if the Fire Nation got their hands on the Avatar.
Zuko knows they have to stay. He and his crew have committed this long to their cause - to back out now would be only shameful and make all their achievements redundant. Zuko also knows that he would raise Agni herself if it means keeping his crew safe, and out of the hands of the Fire Nation.
Kazuo’s careful eyes are watching him, and Zuko wouldn’t be surprised if the man already knew Zuko’s thoughts.
They can’t leave now, but Zuko will not let them die.
“We stay,” Zuko says. “We can’t leave now, and the North is going to need all the help they can get. If the North falls, then all our efforts up until now would have been for nothing.”
Iroh pats his back once again with far more force than necessary, and he doesn’t try to stop the smile blooming at his uncle’s approval. “But we need to be careful. Everyone will come through this alive even if I have to fight Agni herself.”
Sato laughs, a deep, booming sound that only serves to make Zuko smile harder and Kazuo to chuckle. Jee grins fiercely at him, his way of showing his pride and Zuko knows that this is the right thing to do.
They will not let the North fall. Not now, not ever.