Heating medicine by hand was boring.
"My favorite apprentice wouldn't have complained," Healer Kustaa said.
"I didn't say anything."
"Your face did. Remember this is the next time you're feeling fratricidal, brat."
"Fratri…? I am not related to your stupid thermometer!"
"Next you're going to say I'm not your uncle, or the Chief isn't your father."
Hakoda happened to be walking by with the proper timing to be dumbfounded.
"What is this family coming to," Kustaa said, as his nephew sputtered.
Not-Uncle groaned into the deck.
"Three degrees, then you're starting again," Zuko threatened. He used this break in their training to work on his swords. He'd stripped most of the rust away, but a few spots were challenging even his own stubbornness.
"Don't you have a dinner to cook?" Kustaa asked.
"I do. And you have stamina exercises." Zuko was fully capable of instruction while also dicing vegetables.
Aake ambled over, adding his own corrections to the healer's performance as Zuko shifted to cooking. But then he stayed, his eyes sliding to the weathered sheath next to Zuko's side. He tilted his chin. "May I?"
The older crewman took out the blades, handling them with due respect. "Good steel. Using two is harder than you think, though, and no one here knows the style. You might have to wait until we rendezvous with the fleet at Chameleon Bay to learn. Won't be until summer at the earliest."
Zuko shrugged, and dumped a cutting board's worth of onion-carrots into the pot.
The day shift was nearly ended, the night shift not yet begun. The crews of the two mingled on deck, along with those who were fully off-duty. The Water Tribe was blurry about things like this; they didn't keep any kind of clock aboard, they couldn't just know what time it was like a firebender, and they didn't seem to care anyway. People started work early or late, depending on how much needed doing; ended late or early, depending on the same. The shifts flowed together, like waves on a shore.
It was story night on the Akhlut. It wasn't on a calendar in the mess hall like Music Night. There was just a pull to it, some undercurrent that everyone had picked up on. It was why almost everyone was up on deck instead of sleeping. The off-duty crew settled on the deck as the sun set, and the on-duty crew grew quiet, and then someone started speaking without anyone deciding who it would be.
Aake liked old stories, from when the spirits walked more regularly among the people. He opened the night with the tale of Mother Fox-Python and her hugging contest.
"You're frowning a lot at this," Toklo quietly observed.
"He's probably frowning because you're making his hair heavy," Panuk just as quietly put in.
"Zuko, please tell Panuk that beads are both light and stylish."
"Zuko, please don't tell Toklo that I can hear him just fine, because he can hear me too."
Zuko continued frowning. "Is Mother Fox-Python… eating all the other spirits?"
Panuk smirked. "It's because she's the best hugger."
"That's not how hugs work."
"Because you are the hug expert."
"I know how to hug!"
"Uh-huh. Name three people who've hugged you, besides Toklo."
"My mother did all the time. And my Uncle, sometimes. And…" Chief Hakoda, Zuko thought, but did not say.
A lot of the men in their immediate vicinity were paying attention to this conversation; he didn't know why. Panuk was raising his eyebrows, and Toklo had stopped messing with his hair—
"And Ty Lee!" Zuko finished, victorious.
"That, ah," Panuk said. "Took you awhile."
Aake's story had finished. He'd missed the ending because of them, and stupid Leg Breaker never repeated his stories even when Zuko asked. He just said listen better next time. But 'next time' Toklo and Panuk would just distract him again. Tuluk had begun his own story, now, and Zuko hadn't caught the start.
"...And Amka, she realized it wasn't her daughter she was hugging, it was a shoebill raccoon-stork. Which, mind you, tells you something about Amka's eyesight, not about my dear wife's lovely, wide smile..." Tuluk liked to tell stories about his mother-in-law.
"If I asked you to name five," Panuk said, "could you? Still can't count Toklo."
Zuko glowered. And then Toklo wasn't messing with his hair anymore, he was hugging Zuko, so tight it would have been an effective anti-firebender combat strategy. They were both sitting, but Zuko was half-way lifted off the deck anyway. His flailing did nothing except clear out a little extra leg room in front of him, as other crewman shifted just far enough out of his way.
And then Toklo was dropping him back on the deck and shoving a bead in his face. "Hold this," he said, and started undoing all the little braids he'd doodled into Zuko's hair during the evening.
"We've just been doing your beads for fashion," Toklo said, as Panuk mouthed 'fashion', his eyebrows climbing further, "but that's not what they are. They're memories. They're people."
He held out his hand expectantly. Zuko set the bead in it. Toklo wove one single braid next to Zuko's face, and Zuko held very still as the older teenager's fingers came ghost-whisper close to touching his scar. When those hands were done and he could breathe again, there was a tiny blur of blue dangling in his peripheral vision.
"That," Toklo declared, "is me, and tonight. If you ever need a hug, you just have to touch it."
Zuko pointedly did not touch it. He crossed his arms, and tried to figure out how Tuluk's mother-in-law got her sewing basket back from the raccoon-stork (and how it had gotten it in the first place).
"So. Your mom hugged you all the time," Panuk said.
"Of course she did."
"But no one ever mentions a Fire Lady," he continued, and Zuko tensed, because he knew where this was going— "I bet she didn't hug as good as my mom."
Zuko did not realize it had become his turn to talk. He didn't realize until the crew had several fine examples of his mother's unimpeachable hug-quality delivered into their ringing ears, and Panuk was smirking.
Zuko flushed. And sat back down.
"No no," Panuk said, "I want to hear more about the turtleduck kisses. I bet she tucked you under her sleeve and called it a wing—"
She had. She favored robes with long trailing sleeves, big enough for him and Azula both to get tucked tight inside. And then she'd turtleduck-kiss them on the head, mussing up their hair with her nose as she 'preened' them—
(And she'd carefully smooth each strand back into place before they went inside again, because father didn't like for them to appear slovenly before him.)
"Shut up." He crossed his arms, and absolutely refused to speak again.
Ranalok snorted. "Apparently we've got a hug theme tonight," he said, and started in on a story about a grizzly-sloth that had gotten into his tent while he was hunting. "I was a younger man, and it seemed like a good idea at the time, so I grabbed my spare shirt and—"
Ranalok liked to tell stories that made Zuko wonder how he was still alive.
That night, with a fat isopuppy at his back making his hammock creak more than usual, Zuko tried to sleep. But Seal Jerky was grumbly tonight: he wanted two-thirds of the blankets and zero-thirds of the cuddles. Zuko was crammed on his side in the sliver of space left to him. He reached up and touched the bead in his hair. Toklo had lied; it wasn't like getting a hug at all.
Just like remembering one.
(The crew had not failed to notice certain clues in the prince's hug stories.
His mother knelt to hug him; had leaned down to pick him up; had tucked him under a sleeve where he was hidden safely and completely.
The prince had been small when hugs from his mother stopped.)
Good memories didn't stay good for long, in dreams. Seal Jerky was gone when he woke up, and his back was cold, and the shadows of fur-draped hammocks on the walls looked like long-sleeved robes walking away.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Toklo whispered, too loud. Not as loud as Zuko had been.
"No," he said, slipping out of his hammock, his bare feet touching down on wood. That was still a strange feeling—the wood wasn't warm, but it never got as cold as the metal floors of the Wani. He could go barefoot.
The crew room was dark, and so was the hallway, but he knew his way to the healer's room well enough. It wasn't like he could get lost. Once he was there, he could light a candle. Read, maybe, Or check inventory, and get a start on making whatever they were low on. Or he could begin breakfast early, there were some more elaborate recipes he'd been meaning to try, and it wasn't like the Water Tribe would know they weren't breakfast foods—
He tripped over a familiar carapace, and was apologizing to Seal Jerky before he was done hopping his way back to balance.
Seal Jerky didn't yelp, or try to milk the brief contact for all the Good Boy pats and snacks it was worth. He just whined, a small dark shape in a dark hall that wasn't moving.
For the first time in weeks, Zuko lit a flame in his hands without even thinking about who might be watching, or what they might think.
The dog was laying on the floor, back arched, and his shell was—it was splitting open—
Zuko's reaction was significantly louder than any previous nightmare.
"What do you mean he sheds," Zuko continued to shout. He hadn't lowered his volume in quite some time, and most of the crew had given up sleeping. Especially since the shouting kept traipsing in and out of the crew cabin as Zuko, Panuk, and Toklo lugged through buckets of water. "You told me he was fat!"
"He's fat, all right. They can only—" Panuk paused for a yawn "—only molt when they have the extra weight for it. Kind of a growth spurt thing. Like you, but with more splitting open your own back and climbing out the hole."
"That is the creepiest way you could have said that," Toklo said, too tired to forget they still weren't speaking. They went down the stairs in the back of the cabin and into the hold. The dog's empty, half-translucent exoskeleton was pushed against one wall. The pup himself was laying sprawl-legged in their half-filled laundry tub, his soft new shell unable to support his weight out of water.
They poured in their buckets, and he was able to raise himself up a few inches more. He whined, and splashed back down.
"Wait," Zuko said. "Were you starving him?"
"Not starving," Panuk said. "Letting him forage for a healthy, sustainable weight. He's a giant isopod-dog. Do you have any idea how big they can get? Trust me, they're only cute while they're iso puppies. "
Seal Jerky was stuck here until his new shell hardened. Zuko made sure to change his water every day. And when the pup whined in the night, Zuko dragged his tangle of blankets and furs and his new Earth Kingdom pillow down to sleep next to him.
"He's lonely," he snapped, when Panuk woke up enough to stare at him.
"You're a sucker." Panuk rolled over, and went back to sleep.
The last time they'd done laundry, before Seal Jerky's molt, the isopuppy had to stand on his hind pereopods to sniff at the soapy water. When he emerged from the tub, his carapace newly hardened, he simply stepped over the side.
"...I don't think you can fit in my hammock anymore," said Zuko.
Seal Jerky wagged his tail, either not understanding or completely ignoring the nonsense words coming out of his Fire Boy's mouth.
(Good Dogs were never too big for the bed.)
A message from General How:
—will advocate before the Council of Five as regards your unique situation, but your deception in this matter may have adverse—
—must strongly recommend, for his own safety; a warship in active combat being, I trust we can both agree, an unfit place to raise any child, particularly one of such value. Likewise, the prince should be continuing his tutelage in matters of state and such subjects as befit his station and future. You would be welcome to send with him a delegation representing Southern Water Tribe interests, and to provide familiarity as the prince adjusts to his new circumstances—
The Water Tribe's interests. The Earth Kingdom's interests. Even the Fire Prince's own interests. General How made a much better case than General Fong, that was for sure.
But were the best interests of the Fire Prince also the best for Zuko? If General How had been the one to ask for the prince at the start of this instead of Fong, if he'd made this offer then, Hakoda would have handed the prince over. But would the prince, in How's care, have ever relaxed enough to let them see just Zuko? Hakoda still wasn't sure how his own crew had won the boy over. Basic decency combined with clear threats of leg-breaking should not have been the bar for trust.
A ship wasn't a place to raise a child. It was why Sokka was still— had still been at home. General How's offer made sense.
It wasn't a choice Hakoda needed to make now. It wasn't his choice to make.
—intelligence corroborates a northern invasion; vessels and total troop strength estimated in excess of—
The choice in Hakoda's own hands was this: race north ahead of the Fire Navy fleet to join the strength of both tribes. Or go south, where the tactics that kept them alive would still work, where his men wouldn't be subjected to the ship-to-ship front line combat he'd spent two years protecting them from.
Support their sister tribe, or support themselves.
It was a choice the North had made a hundred years ago. That they'd renewed every year they ignored attacks on the South. Two years ago he'd stood before their chief—their singular chief, who called his daughter a princess, who'd been briefly interested in a marriage alliance between the girl and Sokka until he'd been reminded that the South still chose its leaders based on merit rather than birth—Hakoda had stood there, and been told in no uncertain terms that he needed to take his fleet and leave before his presence drew the North into this war. As if they weren't already a part of it; as if their sister tribe's decimation was no concern to them, and never had been.
Chief Arnook and his line of chief-kings had a hundred years worth of time in which to build a fleet and fortify their defenses. They had an untouched trove of waterbending masters, a culture that hadn't been frayed to its last threads, and a sense of family that did not extend past their own borders.
Hakoda would go south.
—rumors of the Avatar at the North Pole—
Going south gave his own people the best chance of survival, which gave them the best chance of winning this war.
Going south gave him time to broach General How's idea to Zuko, and time for the boy to decide. Chameleon Bay was soon enough for that discussion.
The Sokka and Katara he remembered were smart and brave; these two teenagers he'd heard so many tales of must be as well, to cross the world for the hope of peace. He wanted to meet them, to hold them, to shake them and demand what they'd been thinking. To tell them he loved them to their faces, and not just in his heart. To hear everything he'd missed from them, rather than second-hand.
But his children had a flying bison. His fleet did not. If he took them north, they'd be trapped by the Fire Navy coming up behind them with no guarantee of welcome ahead. The Earth Kingdom used them as a tool, but at least the Earth Kingdom fought with them: the Northern Water Tribe could not even be counted on for that much. What if they surrendered, like Omashu?
If the North's own forces could not protect her, then his children could take the Avatar and his waterbending master and flee. It wasn't as if firebenders could fly. Even in victory, eventually his children would eventually accompany the Avatar back south to search for an earthbending teacher.
Hakoda would send word to the Council of Five when his fleet reached Chameleon Bay; his children could meet him there. Would meet him there. He'd see them again.
If they could survive two volcanoes, one Fire Navy fleet wouldn't stop them.
Zuko bought new wraps for his sword grips. He couldn't afford silk cord, but he found a nice cotton that should hold up well, and he liked the color. It was a dark blue, almost black. Perfect for blending into shadows.
...Not that he needed to do that anymore. He wasn't a prince in need of reports the other fleet commanders were refusing to give him because they were petty and awful and Zhao; he was a healer's apprentice. Everything he needed was in Kustaa's books, back on their shelves.
"That's an awesome color," Toklo said. "I bet the Blue Spirit has ones exactly like that."
"Uh," Zuko said. "Maybe?"
Panuk cocked his head.
"What," said Zuko.
"Yeah! They make great souvenirs. Some of them are really collectible, too, like the first edition Jeong-Jeong with the scars on the wrong side," enthused Toklo. "I wonder if they have the Avatar yet?"
They were perusing a street cart specialized in Fire Nation wanted posters. Apparently that was a thing.
"They have the Blue Spirit! Did you know he broke the Avatar out of Pohuai Stronghold? It happened right after we found you."
"Before," Zuko corrected.
"Aww, you did hear?" Toklo sounded like a man deprived of telling the dirty details. Details he definitely didn't know as well as Zuko, but which he would have merrily invented. "They say he's Water Tribe. Wouldn't that be cool? A stealthy vigilante, hiding in plain sight on one of our ships, hassling Fire Nation nobles and outposts up and down the coast…"
Zuko kept quiet.
Panuk quirked an eyebrow.
Toklo pinned a Blue Spirit wanted poster to the wall by his hammock. Zuko wished his own hammock was much, much further away.
The boy hesitated that night, after his meditation. "I, uh. I bought you something. It came as a set, but I threw the Avatar out."
Hakoda was not quite sure what to make of that.
The feeling persisted as Zuko offered him two rolled-up papers. Hakoda unrolled them, and found wanted posters for two Water Tribesmen, companions to the Avatar. They'd misspelled Sokka's name. A startled laugh left his throat.
...This was not what Hakoda meant, when he hoped to see his kids again.
Wait. Were their bounties higher than his?
(Zuko would have given the Avatar's poster to Toklo, but then it would have been next to the Blue Spirit on the wall while Toklo gushed over how well they must work together. Zuko just. He couldn't. So he lit the Avatar on fire and didn't give him to anyone, which had been deeply cathartic.)
Zuko had not been aware that Seal Jerky was big enough to keep up with the Akhlut while it was moving, now. Or that swimming in the ocean was where he'd been all morning.
This state of ignorance was dispelled by the excited growl of a dog tugging at a toy, and then Seal Jerky hauled a tentacle on deck. And kept hauling. He dragged it all the way over to Zuko's feet, where he wagged his tail mightily.
The tentacle stretched from where they stood, across the deck, and flopped over the side of the ship, where Tuluk looked over the rail with a consummately blank expression.
...Was there a takoyaki recipe in his cookbook?
Hakoda was busy with his correspondence most of the day. He came on deck in time to scrounge up a late lunch, and was handed a fried sphere the size of an angry Katara's snowballs.
"...What am I eating?"
"Ask the dog," Tuluk said.
Across the deck, Zuko gave the happy pupper another shove. His armored circle rolled with the inarguable weight of destiny, taking out Ranalok at the knees and continuing on.
"Did you have to get a running start?" said man complained.
"Yes," the boy replied. Beyond them both, Scuttles hit the railing with a very decisive clunk, and fell over.
(It was just a squid-newt: anyone could tell that by the way the arm had been cleanly shed, letting the creature escape with its other limbs and its life. Zuko didn't know why all the tribesmen were eyeing the chewy chunks in their takoyaki-balls so weirdly.)
(The Southern Water Tribe did not have squid-newts. They had newt-squids, which were rather entirely the opposite in construction and size. They had not realized the difference until it was presented to them as lunch. Lunch is an unfortunate time to be blindsided by comparative anatomy.)
Seal Jerky's big catch led to stories of big fish. For example: the sword-crab Aake had to cut free from their nets last spring.
"You've got to let the females go that time of year, so they can spawn."
The leopard-lamprey Hakoda had very briefly shared a sleeping roll with, years ago.
"I'm telling you, it was Kya's idea," Bato protested.
"My Kya was a kind, loving woman."
"Who knew you'd blame it on me."
Zuko actually had a story for this one. One Panuk didn't have to trick him into sharing.
"Uncle caught a manatee-megalodon once. He wasn't actually fishing. I'd, uh. I'd maybe thrown his new tea overboard, we didn't have room for a whole crate, he was trying to turn the brig into storage like he was always trying to do, but I needed that for if—for when I found the Avatar. This, uh. This was before I made the rule about him only being allowed to buy what he could fit in his own quarters. And before we actually found the Avatar. So Lieutenant Jee was swimming out to get a line around it before it sank, but right as he got there this circle of teeth rose up, bigger around than the crate and him both, and of course he wasn't wearing his armor. He'd had time to take it off..."
When he was done, he was pretty sure the horror on their collective faces was reflective of his story, not his storytelling. "And anyway," he added, "they're herbivorous unless they're really hungry—"
"That's not what 'herbivorous' means," Panuk said.
Zuko glared at him. "—So it spit him and the helmsman out later," he finished. "...The end?"
Bato had a flask in his hand. Chief Hakoda slid it out of his fingers, and drank.
"Is he your uncle on your ma's side, your dad's, or Kustaa's?" Toklo asked.
"Kustaa is not my—!" Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, and let out a slow breath. "My… my father's."
"And he's the older brother?" Aake asked, like a man who already knew the answer, but was going somewhere with this. Zuko didn't know how any of this was related to the story he'd just told. If it even was. At Zuko's tightened shoulders and tighter nod, the Leg Breaker continued. "One thing I've never understood: why's he not the one on the throne?"
Which led to a different story.
"I— Azula was lying. She was. But mom believed her, I think, and Lu Ten had just died, so… so fath—the Fire L—Ozai asked for an audience. With grandfather."
They used all sorts of knots in the south. Knots for nets, knots for sails, knots for a polar dog's harness. There was a type of knot that didn't hold anything, ones made only for the challenge of making them, or the satisfaction of others to unravel. Puzzle knots.
The former prince's stories were like that. Puzzle knots. The cord one saw on the outside didn't connect to the line next to it, but through the center and out the side and back through again. Unravel it, though, and you'd find a straight line you could stretch from here to there.
Ozai had made a bid for the throne. Azulon ordered his grandson's death to punish this slight. Then Azulon was dead, Zuko's mother missing, and Ozai crowned before his brother could make it home.
"And Prince Iroh is fine with this?"
"Uncle is loyal."
Aake had pulled too hard at a thread and tightened the whole mess back up. But they'd get him straightened out, with enough patience.
"You have a sister?" Hakoda asked that night, after the boy had stirred from his meditation, but before he'd put out the flame.
"She's almost fifteen, now. Her birthday is the summer solstice." The boy scowled, and added at a mutter: "I can't even keep my age that far ahead of her."
Hakoda didn't like the thought of another child in the Fire Lord's hands. Not even one who was almost fifteen.
Zuko pulled the last tie tight, and held the cord as he singed the excess free. His swords were done: polished, honed, the wood of their grips replaced and re-wrapped. He'd only ever seen the wrapping done, so it had taken some experimenting. The pattern wobbled down the center line, and he could feel little lumps under his fingers as he ran them over it. And there were nicks in the blade too deep to get out, and he needed to save up and get a new sheath, a proper wooden one that would help protect the blade from moisture, he hated having to slide them back into this cheap leather one but he'd spent his last pay buying those stupid posters and—
And. They weren't perfect, but they were his.
"What do you think?" he asked, offering the blade hilt towards Seal Jerky's inquiring nose. The isopup sniffed obligingly, then yawned, and re-curled behind Zuko as the world's most segmented backrest.
"Do you actually know how to use those?" Aake asked. The first they'd spoken since the last story night. He had one eyebrow raised skeptically, and one hand offered invitingly.
Zuko took it. Let himself be pulled up, and led to a clear spot on the deck. No one much was paying attention, at the start.
"I'm decent," he said, and in very short order everyone was paying attention. It felt good to have his own swords again.
(It felt weird to be using them in daylight, his face unmasked, not caring who saw or how inferior the steel in his hands was, just being able to move—)
'Decent' meant 'master swordsman'. This gave the crew a baseline for reevaluating the boy's other self-assessed skills.
The Akhlut was being hunted.
"Pirates?" Hakoda asked.
Tuluk lowered the spyglass. "Pirates."
Pirates were, in an understated word, pointless. They targeted Water Tribe ships not out of hatred or duty, but for profit. Water Tribe weapons and 'artifacts' sold well among Fire Nation officers and Earth Kingdom nobles alike. Rare momentos from a near-extinct culture, each with the potential to be the last of its kind; most of their artisans were as dead as their waterbenders, or too busy fighting to pass down their techniques to the next generation. If the next generation would even survive to make use of them.
If the pirates happened to take out a few more tribesmen during the acquisition of their trade goods, all the better for the scarcity of their product.
Hakoda hated the Fire Nation, but he loathed pirates.
The enemy ship was of Earth Kingdom make, but built for speed. They could try to outmaneuver the other vessel and avoid a fight, cat-fox and hare-mouse this for days; but that would force the Akhlut off course, and possibly expose them to the Fire Navy, especially if these pirates were the sort to cut deals with the enemy. Hakoda loathed pirates, but he abhorred privateers. Especially the sort that relayed positions to their so-called allies. Tuluk hadn't spotted any birds leaving the ship, but that was no guarantee.
"Are we fighting?" his third-in-command asked.
"We're fighting," Hakoda confirmed.
At least pirates didn't have catapults. There'd be no waiting for dark; Tuluk was already shouting the orders that would get them turned around to engage. The men not working the sails were checking their armor, honing their blades. It was no different from when a navy ship caught them.
No different, except for the teenager with the dual dao standing stubbornly on their deck instead of getting himself to relative safely with Kustaa. That old sheath of his didn't even have a strap, and the boy didn't have a belt to hook it to; he just held it to his chest, and glared at Hakoda.
"I can fight," he said. "I won't help you hurt my—" my people, he swallowed back "—I won't help you with that. But I can fight pirates. I won't be in—"
"All right," Hakoda said.
"—your way— What?"
"All right. See if anyone has spare armour pieces. Toklo or Panuk might have something they've grown out of. Do you want to wear war paint?"
"...Yes?" he asked, like he was checking the answer.
"Ask someone to help you. And I want you to stay on the Akhlut during the fight."
"I know how to fight—"
"Pirates tend to be mixed crews. Mixed crews can have firebenders. Firebenders will go for our sails. I need you here to put them out, and I want you close to keep an eye out for anyone trying to get below decks. They're after anything they can steal; I don't want them getting past us, and finding Kustaa undefended. You're not the only one I'm posting to that duty, though; keep an eye out, but your main focus is protecting us from fire. Understood?"
Hakoda nodded at the boy. Zuko nodded back, looking a bit like a man who'd only gotten half-way through his prepared speech. He clapped the boy on the back; it was all the more time he had to spare.
When he saw Zuko next, he hadn't found any armor—there was nothing Hakoda could do to fix that, he couldn't worry about it now—but he'd at least found a belt for his swords.
The boy looked good in war paint. As fierce and ready as any other member of Hakoda's crew. Of his tribe. The paint smoothed over the edges of his scar, the rippled texture underneath an afterthought. His hair was tugged back into a wolf tail, except for Toklo's single blue bead hanging from a little braid in front.
The pirates did have firebenders. Plural. They were no match for the Southern Water Tribe's single bender. Who had not been told to turn the pirate's own strategies back against them, but the distraction of the enemy's sails going up like tinder was not unwelcome. The boy didn't even have to disobey orders to do it; his feet never left their own deck as he held his fingers together, and shot improbably precise darts of flame that severed rigging and lit the enemy captain's hat on fire—
Hakoda admitted to some distraction, himself. The pirates moreso. It didn't take them long to figure out who in the Water Tribe was starting fires. A small, unarmored target was a tempting one. The Akhlut's crew defended him. He defended himself, too.
The kid didn't puke this time, when all was done. But they didn't make him help with the clean up, either.
"I can help," he protested.
"You're our healer's apprentice," Hakoda said. "This isn't your job. Go get Kustaa, tell him we're clear up here."
"...Okay." His eyes shifted away from Hakoda's for a moment, then back. He squared his shoulders. "Was… was that okay? The firebending. I know you only said to keep them from damaging our ship, I didn't mean to—to presume to know your strategy better than you—"
Hakoda put that to a stop with a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I'm not the firebending master here, Zuko. You know how best to use your flames in a fight."
"...I'm not a master," Zuko said.
"Of course. One question, though: was lighting his hat on fire really necessary?"
The boy shrugged off Hakoda's hand and stomped off. He went to Kustaa, and did his actual job. He also found time to have hot water waiting for the crew to scrub with, and a laundry basket for them to toss bloodied clothes into. Not quite enough time to provide a hot meal on top of all of that, though, which led to Bato and Ranalok attempting to cook.
It was a valiant attempt.
The next day, their three youngest crewmen did laundry and sewed. Bato and Ranalok attempted to scrub char from the bottom of Zuko's cooking pans.
"Give me those," the boy snapped. "We're switching."
"But that's women's—"
...It was a valiant attempt.
"Why were you banished?" Aake asked.
"...Disrespect. And cowardice."
"Well you sure grew out of one of those."
Zuko flushed, and scrubbed harder.
Aake pricked his fingers on a sewing needle, and swore.
The world turned red when they were just south of the equator. There was no warning: one moment it was night, the full moon hanging above them in a cloudless sky. Zuko was just about to head below deck to meditate. Then red bled over the sky from north to south, so swiftly that anyone who hadn't been looking up, anyone who'd blinked, would have thought it changed in an instant.
Inside, Zuko felt cold.
"Get the Chief," Tuluk whispered, because this was the kind of sky men whispered under. Zuko was closest, so he went.
There was, of course, nothing Chief Hakoda could do.
The whole crew had gathered on deck before long. Despite its silence, it wasn't something a man could sleep through. It was… was a wrongness, a something-sideways, a cut that hadn't been felt yet, a—
They were all looking up when the whole sky flickered, and was right. Exclamations, indrawn breaths, shoulders slumped in relief and smiles just starting—
And then the moon went dark and lifeless. A dead thing still strung to the stars, its corpse blotting out a perfect circle of their small lights.
(Would the corpse of a spirit bloat? Would it cover the whole sky, would it change the air to something putrid, would the spirits of the stars scavenge its flesh and leave behind whatever bones lay under?)
The night was darker, obviously. But… but it was darker. Like Zuko had to squint to see colors, and he didn't know if it would be fixed when the sun rose, or the grays only sharpened to black and white by the sun. He didn't decide to light the fire in his hand, he just did it, and he would have put it out (everyone was staring at him no one liked fire what was he doing) but—
In the light of the fire, his shirt was blue. So were Toklo and Panuk's, where they stood next to him. And Seal Jerky's armor was gray, but the right gray, not like a layer had been pulled from him. No one was looking at his fire like it belonged with an enemy.
The lamps around deck were still greyed. It was just his flame that was right. Uncle would probably know why; whether it was a connection to Agni, or because it came from his spirit, or… or something. Zuko just breathed, and reached out. One by one the lamps came under this control. Breathed with him. One by one, they turned red and yellow, and the world within their flickering radius regained some part of what had been lost.
They didn't stay that way, if he let them go.
So he sat down on the deck. And. He meditated. Fire was life, Uncle used to say, and Zuko didn't know what that meant. But it was light, and it was warm and familiar, and it was a single ship stained with color in an ocean that had gone glassy-still around them. La's attention lay elsewhere tonight.
The crew gathered around his flames. A vigil for the dead.
(It was hard to keep up that many flames, especially after Bato disappeared below deck and came back with a box of candles, and the crew lit them from the fire in his palms. It was hard just to keep up his flame, with Agni so far on the other side of the world, and his sister Tui unable to pass his blessing on. How did a great spirit die?)
She didn't stay dead. Her body regained its luster again, white and resplendent, and the world settled back how it was. Or maybe it didn't. Maybe she didn't. Maybe, like everyone else, the spirits reincarnated. Did Tui have another name now?
Zuko let go of the lamps and the candles, but he stayed on deck with the fire between his hands. Until the next sunrise, so no spirits would be lost in the night.
That morning, after he released his vigil, the boy started practicing his firebending again. Not little tongues of fire or the occasional sparks, but full katas, right there on the deck. He snuck a glance at the crew now and then, his eyes shadowed from lost sleep and whatever else had happened last night. He looked like he was daring them to say something.
No one did. Fire was a friendlier sight now.
He continued practicing, every morning.
The Earth Kingdom sent word: the Fire Navy had been defeated at the North Pole. The Avatar, they said.
The Moon's name was Yue now, they said.
"—Isn't this Zhao guy three times your age?" Panuk asked.
Zuko kept sewing; Seal Jerky had decided one of his new black shirts was just the thing for playing tug-of-war, and Zuko's efforts to get it back had not changed the pup's mind. They'd left a few sizable holes, though. Kind of in a zig-zagging line. So he was patching it, like the people at Madam Sun's had taught him, using the old red shirt he'd been wearing when the crew had first pulled him out of the water.
"Can you put a dragon on my shirt, too?" Toklo asked.
"Do it yourself."
"If you say it's women's work—"
"What? No, dragons are super manly. But there's no way I could do it that good."
"And this guy is an admiral, right?" Panuk continued.
"So you'll do it?" Toklo said.
"And you beat him?" Panuk asked.
"Only because he sucks worse than I do," their walking self-confidence problem replied.
"Okay," said Panuk. "So who sucks less than you?"
"Father. Azula. Uncle."
"...You're worse than three people. In your entire nation."
"They're the only ones that matter."
Panuk made a little strangled half-laugh that neatly voiced the crew-wide opinion on this conversation. There was something retroactively disquieting in learning how many ways this kid could have hurt them or their ship.
"I'm not sewing your clothes for you, do it yourself, stop making those eyes—"
"What's that on the back?" Ranalok asked, which had the immediate effect of rendering the boy's face the same color as the fabric he was using to patch with.
"Wait," Toklo said, "is that what a turtleduck looks like? It's so cu—"
"Finish that sentence and you're cooking your own dinner."
There was something even worse in realizing they had Ozai to thank: if the boy's father hadn't screwed him up so badly, they could have been in real trouble, rather than Zuko-trouble.
"Hey," Panuk said, "spar with me."
"No," Zuko said, continuing his kata. "And stop watching."
"What, like you stopped watching us work the sails? I hear it's your own fault for doing this where I can see."
"Shut up. I'm not going to teach you how to kill my— How to kill firebenders."
This did nothing to stop the watching.
Toklo took things a step further: he tried to follow along with Zuko's moves. Badly. So badly he had to be doing it on purpose, except he wasn't, he was really that bad—
"You can't just throw your leg in the air, you have to kick."
"What's the difference?" Toklo asked.
Zuko refused to answer this the first time. Or the fifth. But the older teenager was just so bad, it was a mockery to everything Zuko had ever learned, and it wasn't like they hadn't fought actual masters during their raids—
"It's not about your leg strength, it's about momentum. Now stop flailing and do it right. No, like this."
Panuk continued watching. Toklo continued having more fun at being terrible than was strictly necessary. Zuko continued not being a master, despite all evidence to the contrary.
By the third day, Panuk was offering corrections to Toklo's stances, too. This did not decrease the shouting coming from their vicinity.
It was the anniversary. Zuko wouldn't have remembered, except they'd been close enough to shore today to see the hillside trees flushed pink with straw-cherry blossoms, and he'd caught sight of the date on one of Chief Hakoda's letters last week, and… And. It was the anniversary.
(He would have always remembered. The date was seared into his skin.)
"Are you still angry about this morning?" Panuk asked. "I could stop watching you train."
"It's fine," Zuko snapped. "It's not like you don't know how to kill firebenders already."
It had been a nice morning, and a nice afternoon, and now it was a night so nice he didn't even need to put on his coat. Absolutely nothing bad had happened today, because the world fundamentally didn't care that it was the anniversary.
Panuk bumped shoulders with him. Zuko shrugged him away, probably harder than he'd needed to.
It was another story night. The tribesmen made it look so natural, like anytime people were together they would just… talk. Like maybe 'story night' wasn't a thing like 'music night' was, with careful planning and officer approval. Had this happened back on the Wani? Was this what his crewman did when their princes weren't around?
(Not their princes; just Zuko. They didn't stop talking when Uncle entered a room. Not for longer than it took to welcome him.)
Chief Hakoda was talking. Chief Hakoda was talking about him.
"—And he just kept complimenting them. I love my son, but to hear Zuko tell it, Sokka's a master tactician capable of taking out an entire fleet with a single idea—"
The crew laughed.
Zuko stood, abruptly enough that people looked . "It's not funny," he said. Except… except it was, at least to them. It was a just a joke, Hakoda actually wanted his children, he acted like he'd want them even if they didn't or couldn't prove themselves to him—
(Zuko had needed to prove himself to his father, to the Wani and the Akhlut's crews, to Hakoda. No one just wanted him, not until he proved himself useful.)
"I'm going to meditate." He left. It took a few heartbeats, but behind him the conversations restarted, the laughter returned. By the time he shut the door to Hakoda's cabin behind him (was he allowed to be in here alone he hadn't asked first what if—) by then, it was like he'd never been there in the first place.
(For three years he'd seen peasant children in every port town, common as flea-rats, whose parents loved them. Maybe… maybe it was just him. He didn't always understand people; maybe this was part of that. Maybe everyone else could tell there was something wrong with him, something not worth wasting time on unless he proved himself first.)
Zuko sat down with his usual lamp. Breathed in, out, until the flame settled. Until he settled. He'd just meditate, and be gone before the Chief came in to do his logs for the night, and in the morning no one would even mention it because they were used to his screw ups. Chief Hakoda was right: he was safe here.
(The Water Tribe had lower standards than his father, after all.)
He hadn't expected the Chief to follow him.
"Zuko," Hakoda said, before the boy could finish his startled rise. "I'd like to apologize."
That fixed the rising, but not the startled expression. "What?"
"What I said upset you. I didn't mean it to, but I shouldn't have been telling jokes at your expense, either. I'm sorry."
It came as no surprise that the boy was unused to apologies. Hakoda sat down on the floor next to him. That Zuko just looked baffled and not afraid spoke to how much he'd grown.
"Why did you talk my children up like that?"
"I didn't want you to think they'd failed you." His hands curled in his lap. "It wasn't even believable, was it?"
"Not very, no." Hakoda half-smiled. Zuko didn't. The boy had tucked his shoulders, like this was another of his so-called failings. He'd been acting strange all day; snapping at Kustaa when the man tried to get him to take his breaks, hitting almost too hard during spars, and now this blow up out on deck. Hakoda had questions, but in this particular conversation, only one took precedent. "Zuko. When you… failed Ozai, did he hurt you?"
The boy jerked his head up, and turned startled eyes on Hakoda. "What? No. He—he disciplined me, but only when I deserved it."
The lamp light was flaring in time with his breaths, less steady than it had been. It wasn't enough to do more than soften the shadows around them. It was hard to read Zuko's face, especially with his scarred side turned towards Hakoda.
And suddenly Hakoda remembered another conversation, when the former prince was panicking over an accidental burn on Bato's arm: He doesn't burn anyone unless they deserve it.
He could ask. Zuko would answer. But he already knew: there were only so many people who could get away with scarring the prince.
"You didn't deserve anything that man did to you," he said. "He didn't deserve you."
"You weren't even there," the boy snapped.
"How old were you?"
The boy's shoulders tensed. Neither of them had to clarify what they were talking about. "Thirteen," he said, like he was the guilty party in whatever had happened.
"There is nothing a thirteen year old could have done to earn—" His anger was bleeding through into his tone, and the boy was slipping into a defensive scowl. Hakoda forced himself to take in a slow breath before he continued. "Do you think that's normal? That all fathers have to 'discipline' their children to that degree?"
"I'm not stupid. I know peasant fathers don't have to, but it's different for leaders. Someone who's going to be responsible for an entire nation needs to be better. They can't be a failure. He was trying to teach me, but I—I'm not good at learning. I'm not good. It's not his fault he had to— I made him. If I could just learn, he wouldn't have needed to."
Zuko had been protecting Sokka and Katara from him. Because the boy understood that he himself had been held to a different standard than other parents held their children, but he didn't understand why. Didn't understand that it wasn't something leaders did, it was Ozai.
Hakoda very deliberately kept his hands from curling into fists in his lap. Another breath in. Out.
"Suppose my children fail. When I see them next, they've lost the Avatar. Been beaten by the Fire Nation. As a leader, do you think I should hurt them?"
"They won't," the boy continued to scowl. "The waterbending gi—Katara, she was improving fast without even having a teacher. She's a prodigy, prodigies don't fail. And Sokka really is a master tactician. Or at least, of navigation. I knew they were going to the north pole to find a waterbending master, but I could never figure out what route they were going to take. The only times our paths crossed were just luck, and I can't trust that."
"Katara is fourteen. Sokka is fifteen. They're children, and children make mistakes. Adults make mistakes. Let's say they did fail. What should I do? Would they deserve to be hurt? Would it teach them anything that would help them do better next time?"
"They won't fail."
"Zuko. There is nothing you could have done to earn that scar."
The mediation flame almost guttered, then rose sharply. "Really? There's nothing your children could do that would make you hurt them?"
"What if they insulted you? Undermined you in front of your men? Made people doubt your orders in war time, put the effectiveness of your tactical planning and the lives you were responsible for at risk by—by trying to sow dissention in your general's minds? What if they forced your hand, left you no choice but to… to use them as a tool for instructing others on what happens when you disobey. And… and you didn't want to, fathers shouldn't want to do that, but leaders have to, they can't look the other way just because it's their own son—"
Hakoda couldn't take this anymore. He grabbed the boy, hugged him, and watched the lamp sputter and flare.
"There is nothing," he repeated, "that you could have done to deserve that."
The boy wasn't taking this hug laying down. He shoved his palms back against Hakoda's chest, and glared up at him. "There must be something. What if your children murdered someone, or betrayed you, or—"
"Maybe there is," he allowed, with a huffed laugh that was very far from humor. "But I would talk to them about it, first. I would try to understand why they did it. I wouldn't just throw them away."
The boy stiffened. Which was not at all the same as continuing to resist this hug, so Hakoda drew him back in, and set his chin in that ridiculously soft hair. "Thank you for protecting my children," he said.
"I didn't need to," the boy said, and meant because you wouldn't have hurt them.
"You didn't," Hakoda said, and meant but you did anyway.
They sat like that for a moment. The boy was still terrible at hugs; he didn't seem to realize that he could participate, too. He said, quietly: "It's been three years. Today. It's been three years."
Three…? The anniversary. That… would explain his behavior. Hakoda loosened his arms, but left one warm and heavy over the boy's shoulders. Room to breathe. "Can you tell me what happened?"
In retrospect, that overly passionate speech about dog names was the bravest thing Hakoda had ever heard. And, perversely, proved Ozai's point: his son really hadn't learned his lesson. Even burned and banished, the boy still stood up for those who couldn't stand up for themselves.
"I'm proud of you." The words were too little for the weight of it. "What you did was right. What happened to you wasn't your fault."
The boy leaned against him more fully. Hakoda took it for the invitation it was, and gave him another proper hug. For as long as he needed it.
Even after the boy pulled back, his gaze down and face flushed, Hakoda kept himself available for follow-up hugs. The boy took it for the invitation it was, and leaned against Hakoda. Neither of them had much more to say. After a few quiet moments, the boy shifted around to face his lamp again, and kept meditating under Hakoda's arm.
In the hall afterwards, Hakoda gave him one last hug good night. "You're supposed to hug back, you know," he said, and the boy did. Tentatively. "Good night, son."
The word had slipped out. He didn't regret it. He didn't regret any of this.
Apparently they'd been spotted, though.
"Are you giving real hugs now?" Toklo very nearly shouted. And then he very much did. "I want one."
The mid-morning sun was warm, and Zuko's sleeves were rolled up, and the world wasn't really any different than yesterday but it was still better. It was three years and one day since he'd been banished, and that meant he'd survived another year away from home. Now he just needed to keep surviving. Every year, for the rest of his life.
Zuko had bought beads at the last port. It was either buy beads or have them bought for him, with Toklo there, so. He'd bought some. He was rolling them over in his palm and letting the sunlight soak into his skin when Hakoda sat down next to him. He joined in dangling his feet between the ship's rails, over the waves below.
"What do you have there?" he asked, so Zuko showed him. "Red and gold?"
He felt his shoulders tighten, even though he knew they didn't need to. "Toklo said beads are for remembering," he said, like that explained anything.
"Ah," Hakoda said, like it actually did. He drew his own braids forward: two, with one bead on each. "Mine are for my children. This is Sokka's, and this is Katara's. Who are yours for?"
"My uncle. And my mom. And Azula."
"She's the gold?"
"She'd kill me if she found out hers wasn't special."
Hakoda laughed, like that was a joke. "And the others?"
"Oh. uh. The red came in a set of five, so. I have extras. I was just trying to figure out which ones to use."
Hakoda gave the beads a speculative look, like he was going to say something, but Bato called him away. He went below deck for a few minutes, then came back and sat again like he had nothing more important to do. Zuko should be working, too, but he'd snuck into the healer's room to study last night, and Kustaa had found out and was holding it against his shift hours today. It was… actually a nice day, to just sit, and not work.
"Did you decide?" Hakoda asked.
"Yeah, I think. The grain on this one is… elegant, I guess. It's nice. So that's my mom's. And the dye on this one got blotchy, like someone left a teacup on top of important ship documents, again, so that can be uncle's."
"What will you do with the spares?"
The Chief opened his hand. In his palm was a plain blue bead. "Would you accept a trade?"
"Why would you want…" Zuko started to frown, but Hakoda was smiling at him. And Zuko knew why someone in the Water Tribe would want a bead, even if he didn't know why the Chief would want one of Zuko's. "Last night. You called me son."
"I did," the Chief said.
Zuko looked out at the ocean. The waves were small today, and the wake the Akhlut left stretched behind them into the distance, growing wider and less distinct. Less theirs. He set his shoulders. "You told Lieutenant Nergui that… that it's valuable, having an heir to the dragon throne who's loyal to you."
The Chief stilled. He took in a breath, and let it out again, in a way Zuko had noticed him doing more and more. It was almost a firebender's breathing, like the pattern Zuko used during meditation each night. The man rolled the blue bead between his fingers.
"I'm sorry you heard that," he said.
Not I'm sorry I said it. Zuko's own beads pressed into his palm. Mother and Uncle and Azula. The people who actually cared for him. As much as a woman who'd left him could, or an uncle who was missing his own son, or a sister who knew that their father had to come first.
"Sometimes we do things for more than one reason. Some of those reasons might be more important to other people than they are to us. The Earth Kingdom understands political alliances. They understand power plays. That a Fire Prince may be the next Fire Lord, and that young men can be influenced: they understand that."
Zuko kept his breathing even.
"I don't think they'd have understood if I told them you spent days trying to make friends with Scuttles."
"Seal Jerky," Zuko corrected automatically.
"Or that you catch our birds so they won't hurt themselves, even though they don't need it—"
"They do." He could feel his face getting hotter. But he was still looking out over the water, so it was all right.
"—Or made burn salve for a man who didn't much like you at first. I told the Earth Kingdom what they needed to hear, and those reasons are true. But they're not the ones that are important to me. Can we trade, son?"
Zuko nodded, mutely.
Hakoda looked through each of the spare beads carefully before choosing one. He didn't say why. He left his blue one on Zuko's palm.
When Zuko saw him next, there were three braids in his hair. Blue and blue and red. The crew noticed as quickly as Zuko did. They were startled, and—and grinning. And then the teasing began. Hakoda winked across the deck at him, as Zuko dodged the first round of hair-ruffling hands. If he was flushing, it was obviously with anger and nothing weaker. Especially with the way the crew was laughing at them. But not at them? It… was nice laughter. It felt welcoming, somehow. Like coming home, except home had never felt like that, and if he did go home… it wouldn't be like this at all.
When Ozai called him son, it was as different from how Hakoda said it as the crew's laughter was to the Fire Nation royal court's. As 'couldn't go back' was from 'wouldn't'.
(Hakoda hadn't worn three braids in years, but he'd never needed help remembering Kya, or seeing a flash of blue in the corner of his eye and thinking of her.
The weight was still familiar. It was the red that would take some getting used to. )
At the last port before they rounded the bottom of the Earth Continent, Toklo decided Zuko needed to learn how to sail the ship's boats.
"How else is the Chief going to take you ice dodging next winter?"
"It's what the Seal-Fox Tribe use to prove they're men," Panuk said. "Because nothing says 'manly' like aiming your ship at an ice flow and trying not to die."
"And what does the manly Wolf-Wasp Tribe do?" Toklo addressed this question largely to the sky, because he was clearly not talking to Panuk.
Panuk shrugged. "Grab a honeycomb and run. And no cheating by soothing the herd with smoke first."
"What," Toklo said.
"You do it during mating season, if you really want your chest hair to grow. Even the bull-drones have antlers then. Ever been chased by a stampeding swarm of honey-reindeer? I swear, my voice dropped two octaves from the screaming. The manly screaming," Panuk said.
"You're all insane," Zuko said.
"How do they do it in the Fire Nation?" Panuk asked.
"With a birthday party."
"Lame," the tribesmen chorused.
It was the last thing they agreed on.
"We need to get to deeper water, so he can practice away from all these ships," Panuk said.
"But the currents are better here, and practicing dodging is the point."
"And crashing into some fisherman's ship? That's the point?"
"Good, just like that. Now let's take her north—" Panuk said.
"Wind is south."
"Which is why it's good practice to go north."
"But he's still learning the basics, so it's easier to go south."
"We could go west," Zuko suggested, by way of compromise. And was ignored. They were arguing still. And pulling on lines, adjusting sails, but not how they'd been showing Zuko. More like they were both trying to send the ship in an opposite direction.
"Um," Zuko said, as the wind shifted. "Um," he repeated, as it caught the sail. But not in the way anyone wanted. More in the flipping the entire boat over kind of way.
"This is your fault," Toklo said, as they were tipping. "If you'd listened to me—"
" 'Listened'?" Panuk said, when they were in water. "You aren't talking to me."
It was the first time Zuko had been swimming since… since. He was pleased to find that all he felt was deep irritation. "How do we right the boat?" he asked.
"Oh I'm sorry, has my grief gone on too long for you?" Toklo said, treading water by the still-sinking sail. "Maybe if you'd told me, I'd have had time to get over it by now."
"There is a difference," Panuk said, clinging to the stern. "between grief and being petty."
In the Fire Navy, they didn't practice righting capsized boats larger or more complex than a whaler. The next size up was the river steamer, which was steel. Capsized steel did not tend to float nicely while its crewmen argued.
Zuko needed leverage. There was a centerboard sticking out of their boat's bottom: it would do. He swam up to it, grabbed hold, and climbed up. His own weight wasn't enough, but if he grabbed that line, leaned back, and pulled...
"What's—? Well that didn't take him long to figure out, " Panuk said. "Get in Toklo, let him scoop you when it rights, I'll get the sail loosened."
"You get scooped. I'm closer, I'll loosen the sail—"
"I am trying to be nice."
Zuko gave one last tug. The surface tension holding the sail down gave, and the whole boat rolled.
Since no one had loosened the sail first, the wind promptly slapped it right back over. Zuko refused to comment on whose fault that was, despite their best efforts to drag him into it.
Kustaa found him on the beach, sometime after they'd pulled ashore on the white sand neighboring the harbor, but well before his friends stopped shouting at each other. Zuko had been sitting next to the boat, on the side where he didn't have to watch them, and wondering if he could make it back around them and to the Akhlut without them shouting in his direction again.
"I'm shopping," the healer said. "You in?"
Yes. Yes, he was.
"He's my brother!" Toklo was shouting. "He… he was."
"And would it really have helped to know he was getting tortured?" Panuk shot back. "To think about that for weeks, when there was nothing you could do? I was just trying to protect—"
"You don't get to make that choice for me."
Zuko didn't think they noticed him leaving. He wasn't sure he'd wanted them to.
He and Kustaa didn't talk much. They didn't have to. They just slipped into the same comfortable routine that the healer had established the first time Zuko stepped off the ship with him, and started finding their way through another town. Each was similar, whether Earth or Fire or free port: the deep draft piers here, family fishing boats there. Fish markets and taverns and massage parlors and trinket markets within a quick walk of the harbor. Food markets and proper stores and houses further in.
The last town they'd been in had been terraced, each street higher than the next, climbing up to a summit where the locals kept a shrine to their mountain spirit. He and Kustaa and Panuk had watched a sunset there; Toklo had missed it, because he'd been haggling with a street vendor over the best price for fried newt-squid on-a-stick. (Those had been a lot smaller than Zuko expected.)
This town didn't have terraces; they barely even had a slope. Many of the buildings were up on stilts, for when the storm surge inevitably rolled in. He wondered what it looked like then, with the waves rolling over the streets, separating each house from the next. Did the rain ever come down so hard they couldn't even see their neighbors? Just water, all around. The buildings were a mix of western and southern Earth Kingdom construction, their colors a spread of greens and blues, with roofs of a local white stone that made each house look like seafoam. Some of the styles reminded him of Kyoshi Island. Houses he'd burned. He… really hoped they didn't stop at Kyoshi.
They picked up healing supplies, and inquired about shortages in the area—some plants only grew in the north of the country, some only grew in the south, and many found themselves requisitioned for military use on the journey from here to there. Kustaa spared what he could. Things he'd stocked up on at the previous ports, because his notes told him what the people of this area had said before. They traded news, as well, both professional and otherwise: apparently the Earth Army had staged a daring rescue into occupied Omashu just to get some researchers out. Imagine that.
They passed a tea shop on the way back.
"We're running low on jasmine," Kustaa said.
"I like your cloudberry better," Zuko said.
The old men playing pai sho out front didn't take any particular notice of the two Water Tribesmen who were lingering in the street. Not until the younger one interrupted them.
"Excuse me. Could I buy that tile?"
"No," said the one who hadn't looked up yet.
"Yes," said the one who had.
"It reminds me of my uncle," explained the scarred young man, after the brief haggling was concluded. "He says the lotus title is the most important piece, that it's at the heart of all of pai sho's mysteries. Or something."
"Little big to use as a bead," Kustaa said.
"I'm not going to—!"
"Would you care to stay for a game?" the one who'd looked up first asked. "The guest has the first move."
"Sorry," Zuko said. "I don't really play."
"Perhaps another time," the old man cordially allowed.
(It would be hard for the Prince of the Fire Nation not to play this game.)
Panuk and Toklo were building a sand palace. Or at least, Panuk was building one. Toklo was building a moat around it, that had the effect of washing away a little more of its foundations with each wave he led in.
Zuko stopped a safe distance away. "Are you talking again?"
"Yes," Toklo said, and helped another wave destroy his friend's efforts. Panuk whooped as a particularly nice turret collapsed into the sea.
"That's where the Fire Lord's bedroom is," Toklo said. Then corrected himself, with a grin: "Was."
"...That doesn't look like the Fire Palace. At all."
Which was exactly the right thing to say, if one intended to get dragged into building an accurate representation of one's childhood home for one's friends to destroy with their native element.
The Water Tribe triumphed over Sand Ozai (here represented by a cracked crab-urchin shell, baked red from the sun.)
(Bead Azula stayed safe in Zuko's pocket, where he didn't have to explain to his friends that a member of the royal family could be both a terrifying threat to world peace and personal safety, but also his little sister.)
Their assault against the Sand Fire Palace led to splashing. And dunking. And ending up cold and shivering, with sand sticking to the back of their legs. And their backsides, period.
Aake glared at the grit they tracked, bare-footed, back onto the ship. "You're sweeping the deck."
"In the morning," Panuk said.
They'd found scallop-shrimp in the shallows. Panuk shucked them, and Zuko flash-seared them between his hands, and Toklo threw discarded shells at the older crewmen who were circling their catch like jack-gulls.
"Get your own!" he shouted, as Bato ducked his head against the pelting, and made off with a shrimp so hot he had to keep passing it between his hands.
Hakoda plucked it out in passing, and shoved it in his mouth.
"Hot!" their esteemed Chief said, along with a curated selection of Water Tribe curses.
"Thief!" Bato said.
"Double thief!" Toklo accused.
"...You're sweeping the deck tonight," said Aake, watching empty shells scatter to all corners of the deck.
"Hey, Toklo," Zuko said, staring intently at his hands, and the last of the sizzling shrimp. "When we're done, could you help me with my hair?"
These were, perhaps, the only words that could have drawn Toklo out of his vengeance-throwing. " Yes."
Zuko requested a wolf tail, with three braids by his temple. The furthest back was for his uncle, his mother, and Azula (in reverse order: Azula's gold was on top, of course.) The middle one was for Toklo's hug bead and, as soon as he realized where this was going, Panuk's 'indisputable triumph over your crappy sand father' bead, freshly plucked from his own hair. The last braid was for Hakoda, who'd called him son. And was a lot better than the previous man who'd laid claim to that word, who was pretty awful whether he was sand or not.
In the wake of the Great Shrimp Theft, Hakoda and Bato had been bickering. Bickering involved headlocks, and more wrestling than children assumed that grown men engaged in. One was never too old to almost drop one's best friend over the side of a docked ship.
"I give, I give!" Bato laughed, slapping at his arm.
When Hakoda turned, he saw Zuko, but it still took him another moment to see him. The new beads in his hair. Hakoda's bead in his hair. The kid's shy smile, growing into something more certain as Hakoda smiled back. The boy's hair was still damp from whatever wrestling he and his own friends had gotten up to out on the beach, and just starting to get that foof at the edges that it always got after he bathed. A hairbrush, Hakoda remembered yet again, was not something they'd remembered to buy him. No one had asked whose he was using instead; whichever was cleanest, no doubt.
"It looks good," Hakoda said, walking over. He gave in to the temptation to set his hand on the boy's head.
"Thank you," Zuko said, and meant it for more than the bead.
Hakoda did not give into the urge to ruffle the boy's hair. This did nothing to stop others on the crew, once their Chief's hand—and his hair protection—was removed.
"Stop it," the kid growled, and did absolutely nothing to get away.
"Wait," Toklo said. "You have extra red beads?"
"Just the two." Zuko offered them on his outstretched hand. "Do you want—?"
Panuk stole one. Kustaa stole the other. Bato stole the last scallop-shrimp.
Toklo, as it turned out, still had ample ammunition.
That night, after they were done sweeping, Zuko told them uncle's favorite joke. He told it all wrong, but they laughed anyway. At him, but also… not.
(He'd tried to find news of the Dragon of the West, in every port. No one was talking about him. So… so he probably wasn't still out there, looking for Zuko. Which made sense, and was good, he shouldn't still be looking. It made the most sense for Zuko to be dead. Uncle had sent that news to Ozai himself but… but. But it was good he wasn't looking.
He was probably home by now. Maybe he'd retired to his estates outside of Caldera; he'd never seemed to like it in the palace itself. And he couldn't have been there when Hakoda had been sending his messages, or...
So Uncle was home in the Fire Nation. Drinking tea in the countryside, and probably playing pai sho with other old men, just like those ones at the tea shop.
Uncle had recovered before, and from worse than losing a nephew. He was home now.
So was Zuko.)
Back in the town with houses like seafoam, an old man sat in a tea shop, composing a letter.
Chameleon Bay was only a few more days of good weather away, and there was, once again, a teenager on the main mast. Hakoda climbed up, and claimed his usual seat.
"They're going to kill me," Zuko said.
"The rest of the fleet already knows you're here, Zuko."
"So they've had time to plan how to kill me."
It was a conversation they'd had before, and didn't need to have again. Stay close to people you know, Hakoda had already told him, because he wasn't such an idealist as to assume every warrior would be fine with Ozai's flesh and blood walking among them. His captain's letters had been increasing shades of concern, disbelief, and anger since 'hostage' became 'crewman'. Hakoda was saving the change to 'son' for when he could articulate it better; when it wasn't something so fragile, still testing its boundaries between them.
They'll see what we see, he'd assured the boy. And if they didn't, he knew at least his own crew would stand with the boy. It would be enough to keep him safe. He would make it enough.
Zuko draped himself over a rope, and buried his face in his arms. Hakoda wrapped an arm over the boy's shoulders, and stayed.
Zuko didn't lean into the touch. But he didn't not. All of this still felt too new and too easy to lose no matter what his d— No matter what Hakoda said.
"I've been thinking," Hakoda said. "The Fire Navy doesn't usually come south, in winter. And I know you've been practicing your sailing with Toklo and Panuk. Once we clear the waters around the bay, what would you say to taking a trip? Just the two of us. We could find a few icebergs—"
(This would also, Hakoda did not say then, provide a chance to discuss a certain General's offer. Whatever future his new son decided on, it was getting to be the time to discuss it.)
Zuko felt his face scrunching. "Is this that trying-not-to-die thing Toklo was talking about?"
"Kids who don't die," Hakoda said sagely, "become men."
"I'm not a kid!"
"Until you go ice dodging, you are." The Chief was smirking at him. Zuko leaned a little closer, but only because it put him in better elbowing range.
Hakoda barely grunted at the elbow that jabbed his ribs. Just tightened his arm over Zuko's shoulders. "It's going to be fine. You're a member of the tribe, now. Part of my household. They just need to get used to you, same as we did. Trust me."
"I do." It was the rest of the fleet he didn't trust, all those men he hadn't met yet, who might still think that leg-breaking was a great idea. Or worse.
"I hope the next time you have a concern," Hakoda said, "you feel you can come to my office, instead of me climbing to yours."
Zuko scowled. He scowled right up until he noticed the cloud behind Hakoda's head, the one smaller and faster moving than the others, the one that made him want to reflexively shout at the helmsman to adjust their course—
Hakoda followed his gaze, then looked back to Zuko, his brows furrowed.
Zuko had to swallow before he could explain. "It's the Avatar's bison."
Others on deck were spotting it, now. It was coming closer, growing larger. It had spotted them and was coming down fast. The white cloud resolved itself into a giant white creature, its six legs pacing the air as it dove with purpose.
Hakoda took his arm off Zuko's shoulder. The wind moved into the spot, warm weight replaced by cold.
The Chief climbed down. So did Zuko.
The bison landed, softer than a creature that size should. The Chief's children jumped down. They were a little older than Zuko remembered, harder at the edges. But also… shorter? Had they always been that short? They looked tired and worried, happy and relieved. There were hugs, and exclamations, and—
In retrospect, he wished his first words to them had been something else. Anything else.
"Where's the Avatar?"
At the least, he could have scowled less while he said it.