"Body," Tuluk said, with the casualness of a man who'd spent all night tacking around the edge of a storm and didn't have much emotional range left over for some other crew's misfortune. The morning had dawned bright and cheerful and near-windless, the clouds breaking up behind them.
Hakoda wasn't usually a man to spectate on death, but he was already leaning on the rail, letting the sun soak into his wet clothes. So. He cracked an eye and watched the body drift past.
It was… smaller than he'd hoped to see. Not a child, but not a man grown. Arms caught over a bit of flotsam. Pale—Fire Nation pale or drowned pale, it didn't much matter anymore. He heard one of the others mutter a prayer to the ocean spirit.
As if to be contrary, the corpse chose that moment to squint open its eyes. The scar on his face turned the bleary stare into a glare.
"Throw him a line," Hakoda ordered. Because it suddenly mattered very much, whether the kid was Fire Nation or just pale with cold.
The boy didn't call out for help. That should have been the first sign of what Hakoda was getting his crew into.
Zuko shouldn't have been on deck in the storm. Not with Pohuai Stronghold less than a day behind him and two hours of sleep in him and a helmet firmly shoved over his head so Uncle wouldn't see the darkening bruise the Yuyan's arrow had left. But the last storm they'd been in, the Avatar had been in, too, and—
(Do you think we could have been friends?)
—His head hurt and the cold air helped and if traveling during storms to avoid detection was the Avatar's new strategy, then Zuko needed to know.
No one was particularly concerned when the wave hit. This wasn't as bad as the last storm they'd weathered, and even if their prince was stupidly standing in the center of the deck—as was his stupid princely right—they were all used to Zuko's reflexes. So was Zuko. But he'd nearly dislocated his shoulder the other week breaking Helmsman Kyo's fall from the tower, and he'd pulled at half-healed muscles with all his Blue Spiriting last night, and when his hand closed over the ship's rail he… couldn't hold on.
And then he was in the storm waves, wearing metal armor.
Everyone was a lot more concerned then.
"Gold eyes," Tuluk reported, as he patted the kid's back.
The boy continued to hack up saltwater on their deck.
"Could be from that colony ship we spotted the other day," one of the other crewman offered, with a shrug.
"Isn't that what their soldiers wear under armor?" another said, fingering the knife on his belt.
That was the detail Hakoda's eyes had settled on, as well. If a colonial or half-breed were wearing clothes like that, he'd better have a very satisfying explanation.
The boy paused for breath. Tuluk gave him another thump, and the water kept coming.
The crew tossed Zuko a line almost before he'd hit the water himself. It didn't help, when he couldn't reach it. As much as he swam, the only direction he went was down.
He clawed at the buckles and straps of his armor, it was meant to be put on with the help of others but if his crew had taught him anything it was that if he wanted things done he had to do them himself, he'd done this alone plenty of times, but every heartbeat he spent working at a shoulder buckle was another he spent sinking why weren't his fingers moving faster—
"Little young for a soldier, isn't he?"
"You know their boys don't age the same as ours. I swear, these people look twenty until they're seventy—"
The young soldier didn't seem to be following the conversation above his head. For the moment, he seemed content to fold over on his knees and gasp in his first few unobstructed breaths.
He was shivering, but not as much as he should be. It was never a good sign, when they stopped shivering.
Zuko swam the opposite direction from the one his breastplate had sunk. ...Tried to. Thought he did. He could feel the waves pushing at him, but every direction was gray and more gray and he didn't know how much longer he could hold his breath—
(As long as he needed to, it was just air, he wasn't going to be weak about it—)
He broke the surface. Took in a breath, and got slapped with a faceful of rain. He couldn't see his ship, where was his ship—
"Zuko!" Uncle was yelling, Uncle shouldn't sound like that.
Zuko turned. The deck was farther than it had been, but it was fine, he'd make it—
Which was, of course, when the next wave crested over his head.
Hakoda crouched down. Caught the young soldier's chin in his hand, and made the boy look up. Tuluk had said his eyes were gold, but that's what they called all Fire-blooded eyes; the muddy yellows and burnt oranges, the dark ambers. Hakoda hadn't been prepared for gold. Like the actual metal, brighter even than a wolf-bear's and even more unnatural for it. It was a predator's gaze, not a human's.
"Are you Fire Nation?" he asked. Even though it was a redundant question, looking into those eyes.
"Of course I am," the boy said, like he had too much pride in that nation of murderers to even dream of denying it. Which sent him off coughing again, before Hakoda could ask his next question. Though Are you a soldier was probably a bit redundant, too.
The ship was even farther away when Zuko found the surface again. He… wasn't as sure he could make it. Not with the rest of his armor still weighing him down, the boots and wrist guards making every movement slow and heavy, trying to pull him under with every stroke. And the current was against him, dragging him back. He had to get the rest off, or he'd never be able to catch up.
He could barely make Uncle out on the deck, or the crewman holding the old General back. Good; the crew had better keep him safe. Uncle needed to—to stop those near-screams, to stop acting like Zuko wasn't right here and he wouldn't be right back.
(He came back from Pohuai Stronghold. He wasn't going to let a few splashes stop him.)
He took a breath. Prepared himself, this time, for the weight to drag him under while he wrestled against water-logged leather straps.
When he surfaced again, he couldn't see the Wani.
Rain, thunder, the crash of waves. His own shouts. No Uncle.
"He's probably not a firebender, at least," Tuluk joked, because that was the sort of thing Tuluk would joke about, in front of a kid whose face was half burned off.
"Yes I am," the soldier promptly corrected, his rough voice managing to be both dazed and affronted. Which was about the time Hakoda started paying as much attention to the recent dark bruise of a head wound as he'd been paying to the scar. The hypothermia couldn't have been helping, either.
"Well that was… very honest," Tuluk said, patting the kid again.
Behind him, another crewman made a not so subtle gesture: a glance to the ocean, a touch to his sword, a raised eyebrow towards Hakoda.
Zuko didn't know where he found the driftwood, anymore than he knew how long his breath of fire held out. Not long enough.
He felt cold—cold like its own kind of fire, that pricked and burned, made him shiver so hard his muscles convulsed, made them hurt. He wasn't trying to swim anymore, wasn't trying to make it to the tops of the waves in the hopes of spotting the Wani. He was just holding on.
He… couldn't feel himself holding on anymore. His fingers were thick and distant and weird. He worked his sash free, kept one end of it in his mouth because he could still feel things between his teeth, tied himself to the driftwood as best as he could by sight and not feel.
At least he wasn't as cold anymore. The waves were dying down and the ocean getting warmer.
(Which wasn't how oceans worked, part of him knew.)
(But what good would it do to think about that, when it might make him cold again. He could just… be warm. For awhile. Rest, get his fire back, he'd figure out what to do when he woke up—)
He jerked awake at sunrise. There was a ship on the horizon. Not the Wani.
When he opened his eyes again, it was much closer. People were staring down at him. He should… say something. The sun was up but his inner flame was still out, and he was too warm, and he didn't know where Uncle or his crew were and maybe these people could help—
Nobody ever wanted to help him, though.
A rope splashed down near him, in an extremely contradictory fashion. An arm span from him. An impossible distance to cross.
He was good with impossible.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. Fumbled at the knot in his sash, until it released him from the driftwood. Pushed off.
He sank, of course. But he sank towards the rope, whose end was sinking too, and once he got hold of it he just didn't let go. He had a lot of practice, focusing on one task until it almost killed him.
He wasn't as good at holding his breath as he'd been at the start of this all. But he didn't let go, and he didn't die before they realized they should be pulling him up, and then he was on a wooden deck (not metal) and somebody was making him let go of the rope (he didn't want to he needed to not let go that was important wasn't it?) and somebody else was hitting him on the back hard enough to jar his ribs, and also cause about half the ocean to come out of his lungs.
Theirs wasn't the sort of ship that kept prisoners for long. A kid as young as this was little more than a new recruit—he might not have done as much wrong as others in his country, might not have gotten the chance to do any wrongs at all. But he wouldn't know anything useful, either. They weren't going to torture a child for fun anymore than they were going to let a firebending soldier bunk with them until the next port.
Sword, Hakoda decided, meeting his crewman's gaze as he briefly touched his own. The man nodded and started unsheathing his blade, quiet as he could. The kid had escaped the ocean; it would have been cruel to throw him back.
He was young. They'd make it quick.
Zuko didn't like that the one guy kept hitting him. He didn't like that the other guy grabbed his face. Didn't like that they kept talking over him like he was a fish they'd netted, not a person.
Didn't like that they were wearing blue, not red.
Didn't like that he was on his knees when he heard steel being unsheathed behind him, quiet as the Blue Spirit's own blades.
He knew they weren't going to help. No one ever did, but he always fell for it, every time—
The boy shrugged Tuluk's hand off his back and struggled to his feet. The other crewman kept his blade in check, waiting on a clean kill. That would necessitate less wobbling. Hakoda would order the kid held still if he needed to, but the soldier clearly had something to say, and it didn't hurt to indulge him.
"My name is Prince Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. If you're going to execute me, do it while I'm on my feet, you cowards."
...Didn't hurt at all.
The man who'd grabbed Zuko's chin stood as well, and looked down on him with as much careful calculation as Azula, or Zhao, or Father.
"Do it," Zuko growled, because he couldn't remember how he'd gotten his legs to work well enough to be standing, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep it up.
"Tuluk, take him down to the healer."
"Chief," the man who'd kept hitting Zuko's back said, without much inflection.
"We'll deal with it if he lives," the Chief said.
Zuko would live, if only to spite them. He was good at that.
(And way too good at making Uncle worry.)