"She'll be expecting a massed attack," Sokka had pointed out, "so let's do that. But not. Let's do it in the most doing-it-but-not-doing-it way possible."
"What," one of the Akhlut's crew said, weirdly flat.
"It's okay," Sokka said, "I drew pictures."
He held up the first of his glorious battle illustrations, scrawled as he synthesized the ideas everyone else was throwing out into The Ultimate Master Plan of Ultimate Genius. A moment later, a grin spread across his dad's face.
"I get it," Hakoda said.
"...Why don't you walk us through it, Sokka," Bato said. "I've never had your father's skill with diagrams."
"It's like Zuko said: if we capture Azula, then the whole ship will cave. So let's start with that. Now correct me if I'm wrong here, but," Sokka pointed to his clearly rendered Evil Fire Navy Ship, and then to Prince Iroh, "does she know you're a traitor?"
"She most likely does not," Iroh said, stroking his beard.
Azula looked at the little navy ship limping towards her. There was a Water Tribe ship chasing in its wake, kept from overtaking it only by the contrary wind. At first glance. But a ship that worn would have been decommissioned years ago; it was clearly an older model, captured in some past battle and brought forth now as a decoy to slip under her guard like a wolf-sheep in sheep-wolf's clothing. Cunning, but poorly executed.
"Isn't that Prince Iroh's flag?" asked one of the lieutenants who had come with her commandeered ship.
"Is it," Azula said.
Alternatively, her father had cheaped out on Zuko's banishment and sent him to sea on something already half-sunk, which her uncle now persisted in clinging to like a rusty memorial to his life's failures.
"Ready the catapults," she said. "Fire at will."
"We'll risk hitting the prince's ship, Your Highness."
"What a shame that would be for all parties involved," Azula said, studying her nails. "Remind me of the penalty for injuring royalty?"
Like most questions she'd posed on this voyage, the answer was "death." Amazing how they kept asking.
The catapult crews did not hit her uncle's ship. With that aim, they would have been lucky to hit the broadside of a lion turtle. Regardless, the pursuing ship broke off rather than risk coming into a better targeting range. Uncle's little wreck chugged into the nominal safety of her cruiser's shadow.
It was not long before the man himself was on her deck. He was older, fatter, and shorter than she remembered. He stood smiling at her as if he hadn't gone off with Zuko three years ago and never once bothered to contact her since. Dearest Uncle Iroh was about as subtle at playing favorites as father was.
"Princess Azula," he said, "what a fortunate surprise. I did not think to find you so far south. And east."
So far out of the palace, he did not say.
"Likewise, Prince Iroh. The last I heard, you were lost with the rest of the Northern Fleet."
"So," Sokka continued, "if you could, say, lure her to your ship and make with the capturing…"
"It is quite the story," her uncle said, his smile worn at the edges. Not as worn as when he'd lost Lu Ten; he'd been useless for years after that. Nephews, it would seem, did not rank so highly as sons. "As, I imagine, is yours. Perhaps we can share them over tea? I have come into possession of a lovely rosehip blend."
It was the type she'd preferred as a child; she and mother both.
It had become unfashionable to share her mother's preferences at the same time childhood had likewise lost its luster.
"I am not going to stop for tea while surrounded by enemy ships, Prince Iroh," Azula said.
He stroked his beard and raised a finger on his other hand, and for a moment she thought he was going to break out one of his long-winded and utterly transparent proverbs, like When the tiger-wolves pace both above and below, it is then that the man trapped on the cliff can appreciate the single strawberry-grape growing on the branch to which he clings.
He wilted somewhat under her gaze and, instead, coughed into his hand. "Ah. Perhaps you would be more interested in our prisoners? We were doing quite well against a lone Water Tribe ship, until we realized how very not alone it was. We have not had time to interrogate them, but I suspect they will know why their fleet has gathered so close to Whale Tail."
He didn't know she had the Avatar, she realized.
Or he did.
"Mai," she said, "why don't you go select a prisoner for us. Ty Lee, see that our own accommodations are in order."
Ty Lee smiled and slipped below decks to see to the security of the Avatar as Mai went to check if Prince Iroh even had prisoners. Azula stayed on deck with her uncle, both of them smiling pleasantly.
"If that fails…" Sokka continued, deep in his notes.
"When," Zuko said.
"Thank you for that vote of confidence, brother."
Said brother shrugged unrepentantly, his arms crossed over his chest. Zuko had changed back into the duckies and dragons shirt. He looked better in it than Sokka ever had, which Sokka correctly interpreted as a personal attack.
"If that fails," Sokka continued, "it doesn't actually matter, because the next part is all you, oh great and sneaky Blue Spirit."
Azula had commandeered an imperial class warship for her triumphant return. As Zhao had proudly used the same in his northern conquest, Iroh was pleased to share the details of its layout.
A patch of ice, rather far from the southern ice flows, bobbed to the surface on the side of the warship opposite a genial old dragon's ship.
Under the ice was an air-filled dome. Under the dome were two faces, one grimly determined, the other masked. Zuko pointed up to their target.
"If you think I'm just ferrying you over and waiting—" Katara argued.
"We need our escape route secured," Zuko argued right back. "What happens if you get injured?"
"What happens if you need backup?"
"They won't even know I'm there; that's the point. You'll get me caught."
"You, what, broke into a few forts where no one expected you to be?" Katara scoffed. "I hunted waterbending masters in their own city when they knew I was after them. How many of you saw me coming?"
The Northern contingent looked deeply uncomfortable, which was answer enough.
The Blue Spirit and the Southern Huntress rose on a column of water, quieter even than the waves against the hull.
Azula's crew had never been taught to watch their portholes.
They entered at the lowest possible point. The brig was another three levels down from there, back below the waterline. There were crewmen in their way: soldiers and sailors just doing their jobs. Anxious for an attack in the future, not one hiding around the corner from them.
With the first crewman they could neither avoid nor drag somewhere to hide after knocking them out, the sand clock began to run. They would be discovered: it was only a matter of time.
The Avatar was where he was supposed to be. They dealt with his guards, and his chains.
Dealing with the drugs he'd been kept on to prevent bending was slightly harder.
"Oh no," Aang said, "are you a real spirit now? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to leave you there, I thought you'd be okay, you were always okay, even when I threw you into walls you were okay—"
"I'm not dead," Zuko snapped, and was rewarded by the horrifying sight of the Avatar's eyes tearing up moments before the little monk hugged him.
"You're alive! You're alive and not evil and I knew you'd want to be friends. Katara look, Zuko is our friend now! I swear you're going to like him once you're not a hallucination."
"I'm not a hallucination, Aang," Katara said.
"That's what hallucination Katara says, too." The monk nodded agreeably, his head bobbling too loosely, his eyes wide and pupils dilated. He was nodding into Zuko's chest, because he still hadn't let go.
Zuko awkwardly held his arms away from his sides. And then he didn't. It was not a hug. To further clarify this point, he shifted his grip to the monk's middle and hiked him up over his shoulder. He nodded to Katara; she nodded back. Together, they ran.
They got as far as the door to the brig.
"Wow," Ty Lee said, "I used to have a friend with a mask just like that! He's, like, super dead, though."
"That's what I thought, too!" the upside down Avatar said.
Zuko shifted the Avatar's weight on his shoulder and pointed a sword at her. Ty Lee smiled and threw back her head.
"Intruders! Oh no, help!"
Never underestimate the vocal projection of a former circus performer. Or the child of a large family.
Whether she was loud enough to be heard on deck was a moot point, as that was when the Northern waterbenders surfaced, launching themselves upwards in spirals of water and ice.
"This sounds like an excellent way to leave my men outnumbered and without retreat should they be injured," Pakku said, his arms crossed.
"Northern Tribesmen being put in danger?" one of the Akhlut's crew muttered, not very quietly. "Perish the thought."
"Point," Sokka said, with a rather literal pointy-finger towards the speaker, which he then swiveled back to Pakku. "But also point. Which is why the goal of this isn't to attack, it's to stop their attacks."
Each waterbender carried a passenger dressed in blues that would, upon a closer inspection, appear ill-fitting.
An opportunity for closer inspection was not given. The pairs proceeded directly to their targets, keeping themselves over the ocean for as much of the distance as possible.
And then the catapults were on fire, which gave up the ruse rather more thoroughly than borrowed clothing.
Engineer Hanako of the Wani had submitted no less than three complaints to the Engineer Corps in Caldera about the design flaws of the Azulon-class catapult, i.e., how easily its gears could weld to their shaft under high heat such as may occur if, for instance, they were in an active war zone with firebenders. The Engineer Corps was of the opinion that if the catapults were on fire for the length of time necessary for such welding, their operators would have bigger concerns than sticky gear shafts.
Both were correct, but Engineer Hanako was vindicated.
As select portions of her deck were lit on fire behind her, Azula turned a very pointed gaze upon Iroh.
"Uncle. Is there something you'd like to tell me?"
"The offer for tea still stands," Iroh replied.
"This is mostly to distract the rest of the evil fiery people, of course," Sokka said. "No offense."
Zuko and Lieutenant Jee had incredibly similar scowls, almost as if they'd been living in close quarters for years.
"What we really need," the object of their mutual ire continued, "is volunteers to take down Azula. And before anyone does, might I remind everyone that she is terrifying, and also that she travels with Knifey-Terror and Pokey-Terror."
Pakku scoffed. "Three little girls? And two of them nonbenders?"
Sokka and Katara had incredibly similar shark-toothed smiles, almost as if they'd been waiting for exactly this.
"I'll just jot you down as volunteering, then," Sokka said.
Pakku opened his mouth, as if to protest.
"Azula is only a fourteen year old girl," said the fourteen year old girl. "How much of a fight could she possibly be for a master waterbender? And you'll have Iroh to help you with those nonbenders, if you run into any trouble."
Pakku shut his mouth. This action was also done in protest.
"Welcome to the fight," Iroh greeted, as a wash of water brought Pakku to his side.
"Let's get this over with," the waterbending master said, his gaze already locked on another little girl calling herself master. The nonbenders weren't even here.
The deck was a roil of black and red armor, rushing up from below decks to join the fight. The attack teams didn't give them one; they flowed back over the ship's rails, taking their injured with them.
Iroh and Pakku stood alone, facing Azula across the open space that always existed around her when neither Mai nor Ty Lee were present.
"That's two versus an entire crew," Hakoda pointed out, with a frown.
"Two versus my sister," Zuko said.
"All she has to do is ask for help—"
Everyone who had known Zuko before his Water Tribe adoption understood this on a visceral level: no child raised by Ozai knew how to ask for help.
The whole crew was watching Azula, waiting for her to fail, ready to tell father that she was too young, too inexperienced, too full of excuses. Mai and Ty Lee were different, because Mai and Ty Lee were hers, but neither of them were here. Who knew who the rest of these people answered to.
One of her commanders stepped up next to her, already settling into a bending stance, his face resolute.
He was good. Not as good as her, but they'd sparred one-on-one during the voyage and he was good.
(Had he been holding back because she was the princess? Was this the moment he stepped into the narrative, turned her victory into his, stole her prize out from under her?)
"Excuse you," she said. "I don't recall asking for help."
The man stepped back with marked slowness, as if proclaiming to all who saw them that she needed his support to win. She would deal with that insolent attempt at undermining her authority later.
For now, she blew her bangs out of her eyes and prepared for her only valid option: winning. As if she could ever do anything less.
Panuk raised his hand. "Zuko is demonstrably unlucky, and even with the catapults out it'll take time for the rest of our ships to get in boarding range. It's nice that Katara will be with him, but what's their backup plan?"
Zuko scowled. "We'll be fine."
Zuko's right arm hung limp at his side. Ty Lee advanced, smoothly pivoting around Katara's next attack like they'd choreographed this fight. Her arm stretched out, fingers poised to chi-block his left side, too.
Zuko did the reasonable thing: he swung the Avatar into her attack. The kid was limp and floppy already, it wasn't like he'd get any worse.
"Really?" Katara snapped.
"What?" Zuko slumped lower and scowled harder as everyone who knew him looked at him.
"Right," Hakoda said. "Backup plans."
Mai had gone to the Wani.
Mai had gone to the Wani's brig, which was in its lowest level, where it was hardest to hear anything that may or may not have been going down outside.
Mai had found Water Tribe prisoners there, as promised. This made Prince Iroh's story less suspicious and therefore infinitely more disappointing. The men inside all looked equally boring for interrogation purposes. Except the young one who seemed way too excited to be here; he looked like he'd get along with Ty Lee.
"That one, I guess," she said, swinging her finger to the other young man next to him, the one with all the beads.
"I'm flattered," the guy said, in a tone similar to her own.
This was approximately the time that one of the Wani's crew came rushing down.
"It's started," he said.
Certain things became apparent in rapid succession: that the prisoners' cells were not locked, and that Mai had a single passageway bottleneck to exploit and enough knives for everyone.
Backup was not coming.
It wasn't the porthole they'd come in through, but a sharp spike of ice shattered it all the same, leaving room enough to jump through.
"Go!" Zuko said.
He was fending off Ty Lee with flashes of fire and his one remaining sword, and there were more soldiers coming.
"I'm not leaving without—" Katara began.
"I'll be fine." Zuko threw an Avatar at her. The both of them fell backwards, to open air and ocean and safety.
"Bye Ty Lee!" Aang called out.
"Bye Aang!" She shifted her smile to Zuko. "You won't leave me too, will you Masky?"
"I'm not leaving," Zuko said, and fought his way through.
"All this assumes we can capture the princess," Tuluk said. "What if we can't?"
Pakku had faced firebenders twice in his life: the first, when an old dragon had snuck north for a game of pai sho and a bit of cross-element training. The second, during the siege.
This third instance was not particularly charming.
But he was used to fighting upstart girls who thought themselves masters—
He was also, he realized belatedly, used to them not wanting him dead. Used to razor-sharp ice being aimed off-center in a way that allowed for dodging; of icicles aimed to pin clothes rather than flesh.
Iroh had only just redirected the girl's lightning when she followed up with a hastily thrown strike, some hopelessly tiny fire dart to keep him off-balance. He had the entire ocean to work with; he rose a wall of ice as smoothly as thought.
Thinking was, suddenly, harder to do.
Ah, he thought, as he looked from the precise hole melted through his wall to the matching hole in his shoulder. The arm below it hung limply, a sudden stranger on his own body. It was nothing a healer could not handle—
(If they'd brought any. They had come south for diplomacy and for war. What place did women have in either?)
The pain hit, then. As well as the realization that he may have underestimated certain young women in his life.
"If we can't capture her, or force their surrender another way," Hakoda said, grimly, "then we have the rest of the fleet and our old plan."
Their old plan of getting the Avatar out, then sinking the ship with all hands.
Hakoda looked at Zuko. "We won't unless we have to."
"I understand," Zuko said. Which was nowhere close to I agree.
A bit of advice which Ozai could have given, had any over-eager father figures bothered to ask: encouraging the boy to speak up encouraged him to act up. Best to take a firm hand.
Stealth was no longer necessary for Katara. As soon as they were out of firebending range of the deck, she surfaced, dragging a rather floppy, thoroughly chi-blocked Aang onto the sheet of ice she'd made. It was a rapid return ride from there to the Akhlut.
Hakoda hugged her fiercely, Avatar and all.
"He stayed, didn't he," her dad said.
"He stayed," she confirmed, her head tucked against his shoulder. They really should have seen this coming.
His dad wouldn't sink the ship while Zuko was still on it. Probably. Because even if Zuko got to a lifeboat, there was no telling whether it would be the Akhlut that picked him up. Another ship in their fleet might not ask questions before killing a boy of obvious Fire Nation heritage; might kill him even if he was recognized, because he was still the Fire Lord's son. Biologically.
If their hate would make Hakoda hesitate long enough for Zuko to get this ship to surrender, then good: Zuko was used to working with people's hate.
Now if he could just get people to stop attacking him for long enough to talk to someone, that would be great.
He leapt up a companionway, scrabbling up the rungs with momentum more than muscle given that one of his arms was still a dead weight at his side. At the top, he kicked down a soldier who'd been coming at him from above. They didn't have long to fall; not with all the people coming up. Armor collided with armor and everyone collided with the floor below.
Zuko did not waste time looking back, because there was no way that had tripped up Ty Lee. Not if she was anywhere close to the little girl he remembered, the one who balanced to the very end of tree branches because Azula wanted the farthest of apple-pomegranates, then flipped her way down with a smile to hide that she'd ever been scared.
He ducked past people, elbowing them into her path; tripped them; ducked a shoulder into their guts and threw them.
It worked really well until the first firebender, who decided that flooding the passageway with flame was the best way to deal with the Blue Spirit, even though Ty Lee and the other nonbending soldiers were right behind him—
He couldn't split flames with only one arm, but he still had two perfectly good legs. He dropped and spun and sent all that fire into the overhead.
Ty Lee peeked from behind her instinctively raised arms, blinking out of her flinch as the soldiers behind her did the same. "Oh. Thanks."
"...Thanks enough to stop attacking me?"
She winced. "I don't think my friend would like that very much."
Yeah. Azula probably wouldn't.
"Sorry," she said, which gave him a generous second to start running again.
He elbowed the firebender in passing, right in the breath control. "Look before you bend, Ensign."
And then he was up another ladder and another and out onto the deck, which would have made for a more graceful entrance if Ty Lee hadn't tagged him in the leg on the final rung. He stumbled, hitting the deck with one knee while his other leg dragged behind him. With a flip she was above him, already chi-blocking his remaining arm and dropping to a picture-perfect finish in front of him. At least she'd left him a leg to kneel on.
Kneeling was definitely a position he was comfortable being in, with all the fire being thrown around him and a fight raging uncomfortably close by. His sister's flames were fully blue now, not the colorful flickers she'd run to show him when she was ten. Well, run to gloat to him about, but she'd been so excited—
Uncle was fighting more seriously than Zuko had ever seen, but defensively. Because Pakku was behind him and injured and needed to stay in good enough shape to get them both safely away. Because they didn't need to win this fight, only keep it going long enough that Azula's victory would mean the entire ship's defeat.
"You need to surrender," Zuko said. To Ty Lee and the crew and the commanding officer nearby, who'd been pushed to the edges of the fight and didn't look like he liked it much at all. "The fleet has you surrounded. Your catapults are down. They're going to plant explosives at the waterline, and they have enough waterbenders that you won't be able to stop them. Please, I can protect everyone if you surrender, they only really want the Avatar and they already have him—"
The commander was listening, with increasing alarm. So was Ty Lee, with a much different expression.
"You sound really familiar," she said.
He didn't have any hands left to stop her when she reached for his mask. She dropped it to the deck, her own hands clapping over her mouth.
"Zuko? You're alive?"
"Prince Zuko?" the commander echoed.
Uncle had spotted him, alone and surrounded by a hostile crew, and Zuko could see the moment his defense wavered as he moved to protect Zuko instead of himself—
Azula would have won regardless, of course. But it was so nice of her uncle to throw the fight over some ally of his. He was rushing to put himself in the way of her attack; she would have been quite the ungracious host to leave him waiting.
She followed his path, her bolts of fire striking just behind his footfalls as if he was too fast for her, as if a running man could move more swiftly than a girl who simply needed to turn. She waited until he was almost there, then shifted her aim with a smirk to the Water Tribe boy with the black hair and gold eyes and scar where she'd last seen a hand on fire he'd been so stupid he'd needed to be taught he should have known father would have to correct him he did it to himself he should have stayed quiet and dumb and safe—
Zuzu was alive and committing treason on her ship. He was looking at her, not the fire already springing from her fingers, or the uncle racing to rescue him. Of course Iroh would risk his life to rescue him.
She threw the shot. It was the opening they needed to take her down, so of course they did.
Caring for the weak made one weak. Father was right, of course.
The princess was down. The commander surrendered on behalf of his ship and crew.
The drugs were wearing out of Avatar Aang's system. Zuko did not find this to be an improvement.
"So," the boy said, his arms wrapped around Seal Jerky, who was kicking three of his hind legs with every belly scratch. The isopuppy was not paying any attention to Zuko at all, because he was an Air Nomad traitor.
"If Sokka and Katara adopted me," the Avatar continued, "and Hakoda adopted you, then we're family too, right?"
"No," Zuko said. He tested whether his limbs were working again. They weren't. Kustaa had checked him over briefly, then left him propped up next to the Avatar, because his Not Uncle was also a traitor.
"Actually, nephew…" Uncle Iroh said, with a slow stroke of his beard that Zuko did not trust at all. "What do you know about your great-grandfather?"
Uncle's eyes twinkled. "Ah, no. Your other great-grandfather."
Sokka looked over in time to see Aang tackle-hug Zuko. He observed, intrigued, how much of a struggle the ex-prince could put up with only one limb. He did surprisingly well until Sokka Junior started licking them. Might still have escaped, if Appa hadn't gotten jealous of an animal with even more legs than him getting too much of Aang's attention. The bison lumbered over, groaned exactly one warning, then flopped on top of them both. Momo helpfully flew down from the mast to move the bison hair out of their eyes. And then back into their eyes. And then out of their eyes—
Sokka turned back to his other source of entertainment: Katara. Katara who was, with consummate professionalism, healing Pakku's burns. And the Akhlut's crew, casually inflicting more.
"Why aren't you healing yourself?" Toklo asked with apparently honest confusion, as Kustaa gave him a final check for any more knife wounds. "I thought you were a master waterbender?"
"I bet," a thoroughly bandaged Panuk said, "that healing is women's work."
Pakku grit his teeth. Yagoda and their other healers had impressed upon him time and again how silence helped them heal. It had only recently occurred to him that they meant his silence.
There was a necklace around the girl's neck. A necklace he recognized, as he should have recognized a face and a spirit so similar to Kanna's.
He regretted his actions now that they affected him. He was self-aware enough to realize that was not a point in his favor.
As captured royalty, Azula was entitled to the finest cell her traitorous uncle's ship had to offer. What she got was a tiny, depressing cabin that she would not deign to call furnished. A mattress on the floor; a chipped desk with splay-bristled writing brushes in its drawers; the default fire nation banners that came with every ship that had been new in her grandfather's prime. Also, a wardrobe inexplicably full of Avatar-related scrolls, meticulously organized as if their owner had only just put them back.
...This had been Zuko's cabin, hadn't it.
The door was steel, and locked. She'd seen two guards outside and, more importantly, her uncle entering a cabin just down the passageway. The porthole would technically fit her, but only an idiot tried escaping via porthole over open ocean. There was nothing for it, then: she would simply have to wait for her first visitor, hereafter referred to as her first hostage, and work from there. Perhaps Mai or Ty Lee would beat her to it.
She sat down in the desk's chair for want of a better place and set her cuffed hands atop a particularly well read copy of Love Amongst the Dragons. This was apparently to be her prison entertainment. It was, at least, the unabridged copy, containing the pivotal backstory scene between the Spirit Servants and Dragon Emperor that the Ember Island players skipped every year to save time at the expense of destroying all sense of character motivation. As if villains simply existed, with no lives of their own. Just obstacles for the hero to defeat on the way to their happy ending.
There was a knock on her door. It was incongruously polite, particularly for the voice that accompanied it.
"Azula?" her brother said. "I, uh. I brought tea."
"Tea will certainly make up for the amount of time you've kept me waiting."
"I was chi-blocked."
That explained the past seven degrees. Less so the last three years.
She did not grant him permission to enter. Regardless, after a brief struggle with a lock secured more by rust then by intent, he shouldered his way inside. Tea tray and all.
By then, she was suitably arranged to face him. She'd shifted to leaning against the desk, the perfect mix of irreverence and nonchalance. Her hair was finger-combed to as fastidious a state as she could manage while cuffed and her expression set to a distantly amused sneer.
"That had better not be from Uncle," she said.
"I made it," he said, and proceeded to stand there awkwardly towering over her without even trying. Intellectually, she knew he was sixteen now. But she had not seen him since he was thirteen, and whenever she'd thought of him in the years between—a rare occurrence, of course—she had the impression of him being a short thirteen and herself a tall eleven, triumphant in the knowledge that girls got their growth spurts before boys. She had been looking forward to being taller than him for several glorious years.
They'd skipped that stage, apparently. She had not given permission for that, either.
"You may pour," she said, to end his undignified feet-shuffling. She remembered, just in time, that she could not magnanimously gesture while cuffed.
He set the tray on the desk. He did not pour like he was trying to impart the majestic time waste of a tea ceremony upon her; he poured like the pot had something to drink and he'd figured she'd be thirsty. His scarred side was to her. She'd watched it happen to him; she didn't look away now.
"I'd always pictured it as more of a hand print," she said.
"It was, but… infection. My ship's doctor had to…" He mimed a sort of scrubbing, scraping motion, and handed her a cup.
"Charming," she said, and took it.
He watched her take her first sip. "Do you like it?"
"It tastes like burnt berries."
His shoulders slumped. She rolled her eyes and kept drinking. She'd just fought two master benders, then been tossed into a cabin with no water; she was thirsty. And his tea wasn't any worse than every other cup she'd ever had.
"At least yours has a flavor," she said. "If I wanted to drink hot water, I'd boil it myself. And I wouldn't throw leaves in it first."
"I have been trying to tell Uncle that for years," he said.
"I'm surprised he wasn't the one who pushed you overboard. Or was he?" One did have to ask, in this family.
"There was a storm."
"I heard. I had also heard you were dead."
"I'm, uh. Not."
"A tragic oversight."
She kept drinking. The burnt aftertaste was pleasant, actually; like smoke, like a campfire smell she hadn't quite remembered.
He was looking at the play on the desk like he knew it wasn't in the same place he'd left it. She was drinking like she didn't care he knew. Which she didn't. Then his gaze shifted to her, and his expression went soft and weird, and she knew before he opened his mouth that he was going to say something fireball-worthy.
"You've really grown up, Azula. You look like mother."
"You look like father."
He winced. An adequate sign that he now knew how she felt.
"Uncle wrote when you drowned," she continued. "Father was very disappointed, you know."
"He was?" There was something wary in his words. Not hopeful, which gave her hope that his banishment had, in fact, succeeded in teaching him something.
"Of course." She uncrossed her legs and recrossed the other way. "Such a pointless death; you could have at least gotten yourself killed by the Earth Army or the Avatar so he could have made use of it. He was quite vocal on the subject."
"Quite." She gestured, but did not remember in time that one cannot flippantly twist one's wrist while cuffed. At least her teacup was nearly empty. If she'd spilled on herself, she might have had to murder Zuko on principle. One could only be imperfect if there were witnesses to one's imperfection. "In any case, the Water savages wrote us before he'd finished arguing with the Fire Sages against putting your empty little urn in the family shrine, so that solved that. Your second death came with a lovely state funeral and a national week of mourning. By the end, the public was frothing to attack the Northern Water Tribe."
"But I was captured by the Southern Water Tribe. And he was already planning the Northern invasion, the fleets had been shifting their movements for months."
"Details." Her cup was empty. She pointedly clicked it on the desk, so he could fix that for her. He did.
She'd expected more shouting in all this. The brother she'd known would have shouted. Would have been prideful and raging in the face of unfairness, as if righteous anger were a substitute for father's favor. But then, she didn't know him. Banished thirteen year olds did not grow up to be the same people they would have been. All the blue he was wearing was a clear enough sign of that.
Really, it was nice to see that he'd developed a political survival instinct during his banishment, however rudimentary. Allying with the Water Tribes—both North and South, judging by the flags she'd seen; gaining the favor of their uncle; sitting here playing the caring sibling when they both knew she was his largest remaining stumbling block to becoming the crown prince again. Zuzu had done quite well for himself.
To think she'd had feelings, when father invited her to laugh over the Water Tribe's replies. They should have been more suspicious when getting them to off her brother had taken any goading at all.
"Not that I don't appreciate the tea," she said, picking up her newly refilled cup, "but what do you want, dearest brother?"
She was, it seemed, at his mercy. It was an entirely ludicrous feeling and she did not like it at all.
He set his own cup down. "I need your help."
Oh, this was going to be good. Time to see if his skill at manipulation had gotten better in his years away from court.
"Uncle is going to be the next Fire Lord," Zuko continued. "He wants me to be his heir."
Unsurprising, except for the way it made her pulse pick up to hear it confirmed. She made sure her breathing didn't change. She would not be gloated at. Particularly not when father was still very much alive and likely of a contrary opinion.
"How delightful for you," she said.
The beads in his hair clicked together as he had the audacity to look down, to take his eyes off of her and rummage in his pocket. She could take him hostage now. Maim him a bit, at the least. But father had rather cornered the market on the instructive maiming of their family, and what he pulled from his pocket was the key to her cuffs.
"By all means," she said, instead of I dare you.
So he uncuffed her. He really did, the Dum-Dum. Then he took a little jar off the tea tray, one she'd taken to be extra leaves or something of the sort. The smell that wafted out when he removed the lid was not one she'd needed often, not since father had first taken a personal interest in her training, not since she'd gotten better. But the smell of royal-grade burn salve was not one she was likely to forget.
"May I?" he asked again.
He'd brought a little bag with him, slung over his shoulder. Clean cloth and water and bandages. She did not feel particularly witty as he found each place their uncle had landed a hit on her—mere glancing blows, of course, incidental heat burns, nothing worth mentioning and nothing Zuko would mention if he knew what was good for him—and cleaned each of the charred threads that clung to them. The salve hit her skin with startling lightning-prickles before smoothing out to a cool, numbing relief.
"I've been training as a healer," Zuko said, as if that explained anything. "There's a college in Omashu, where my Not Unc— where my teacher studied. I'd like to go there, when the war is over."
"Omashu is boring; just ask Mai." She stretched her newly treated skin, slowly testing her movements and the limits of the pain relief in the same casualness with which she inquired, "Where is Mai? And Ty Lee?"
They would both be okay, of course. They were her minions, not her friends: she had chosen them for their competence.
"They're safe," he said, packing away his supplies. "They're just in the brig for now, because if we put them with you you'd all escape. And probably take over a ship or two."
Aww, he did care.
"And where do I fit into this little fantasy of escaping your royal duties?"
"Ozai needs to be stopped, and Uncle is going to do it. He'll have the world's armies behind him soon and parts of ours, too. ...Join the winning side early?"
He offered a hand to her. It took her a moment to puzzle out why: it wasn't as if either of them were trying to stand, and she wouldn't have needed a hand up.
This was a Water Tribe thing, wasn't it. That custom of locking wrists over a deal. She'd spent a wasted afternoon reading about Water Tribe customs when the ransom letters had started.
She crossed her arms. The little burns on them still hadn't started hurting again, even under pressure. "You've spent three years chasing a way back to your inheritance, Zuzu. You can't expect me to believe you'd embrace competition."
"I wanted to go home. I thought I did. But I—"
"If you say you already are, that you'd rather live with your Water Tribe peasants, then I'm sending you to the Ember Island Players in a shipping crate. This isn't the theatre, Zuko. You are the son of Ozai, grandson of Azulon, great-grandson of Sozin. Even if you'd like to conveniently forget your place, the world will remember it for you."
"I am. But I'm the son of Hakoda, too." His face twisted. "And apparently the great-grandson of Avatar Roku."
Azula refused to be related to the child Avatar, even in spirit. On this they could agree. As to the rest...
"Why are we having this conversation, Zuko?"
"Because Uncle needs an heir, and you've always been better at politics than me."
She narrowed her eyes. "Flatterer."
"And because I'm disowning father, not you."
Her gaze flicked again to his hair beads; she knew their significance.
"That gold one had better be for me," she said.
Her brother's smile was sudden and startling. He looked nothing like father when he smiled.
The first time Hakoda had seen Zuko's sister was from a distance; startling blue flames parting Iroh's red and Pakku's ice, looking like some strange cross between water and fire. He saw her again only fleetingly when they brought the Akhlut in for boarding: a slightly singed figure, already cuffed, being led away by her uncle. She was not struggling. She strode with head high and her expression faintly amused, as if she was quite where she intended to be, and all this merely part of some greater plan.
If Hakoda hadn't met her brother and his own blustering version of that concealing confidence, he might have believed her. It didn't surprise him when Zuko, his own head high, came to him just as soon as he could move again.
"Go," Hakoda said. "If you think it's safe, you can bring her back."
"I'm not sure it will be," his son said, as honest as ever.
"I trust your judgement," Hakoda said. "And I'd like to meet your sister."
And he still wasn't certain he trusted the Dragon of the West with children.
The next he saw her, it was late in the day. The Akhlut was still tied to the princess' ship, but not for much longer. The winds were shifting again. It was fortuitous, in the increasingly suspicious way that all the wind's movements had been since this chase began. He would have to discuss with the Avatar how best a man could give thanks to the spirits. If this held, and he strongly suspected it would, it would see them to Chameleon Bay in record time.
They would bring the captured ship with them; between the Wani's brig and the warship's own, there was room enough to confine the original crew. Bato had taken a prize crew over to man her, with enough volunteers from the Wani to keep the hulk moving. Sokka was planning to go with them.
"Dad, I love you, but Iroh's people are going to teach us how everything works. Everything."
Hakoda had never seen his son so close to salivating over something that wasn't food. He'd given his blessings, and now Sokka was running around deck with his bag slung over his shoulder, making his goodbyes. They were longer than they needed to be given the short journey ahead. But then, the last time Sokka had said goodbye to these men, he hadn't seen them again for years.
They would figure out what to do with the prisoners once they arrived. Whether they'd hand them off to the Earth Kingdom—to General How, not to Fong—or to Iroh. All Hakoda knew at this point was that he had three new children under his care. Two of them were still in the Wani's brig. The last was newly arrived on his deck and stalking towards him with the confidence of a leopard-cassowary, Zuko a step behind her. She was pacing herself to keep him a step behind her, as if letting her brother stand at her side would be some kind of personal failing.
Princess Azula smiled right at Hakoda, but it was his children she addressed. His children that had come to his side the moment they'd spotted her, Sokka with a hand on his bone club and Katara with a thumb on the cap of her waterskin.
"Brother," Azula said, "sister, why didn't you just ask for a ride? I could have picked you up when I came for the Avatar."
Sokka sputtered indignantly. "No, nope, I am drawing the line. You're our prisoner, not our sister."
The girl dramatically rolled her eyes. "Of course I'm not. Someone needs to remain in the line of succession without declaring loyalty to a foreign power. But the brother of my brother…"
His children did not react well to this. The princess basked in their indignity.
"As for being your prisoner…" The princess shrugged and glanced over her shoulder to Zuko. "Are you going to tell them, or should I?"
Zuko was pinching the bridge of his nose. "Azula. You said you would be nice."
"I am being nice. And while we're on that subject, what a nice ship you have, Chief Hakoda." She turned her faultless piranha-shark smile on him. "Very... wooden. If we want to highlight who is the prisoner of whom."
She let a little blue flame dance over the tip of one finger before casually blowing it out.
Zuko could have tried that same tactic at any point while he was their captive. He hadn't. It had taken his little sister a single conversation.
Zuko was sixteen. As their prisoner, he'd shouted and fought, kicked over buckets and bristled at anyone who looked his way, like a catakeet kitten puffing its feather-fur out to look bigger.
His sister was fourteen and showing her claws instead. As strategies went, it wasn't much different. She was dangerous—Hakoda had seen her fight, if only from a distance, and he knew what his children had told him. Katara and Sokka were right to be concerned. And so was the princess: she'd just been captured by the enemy. Attacked by her own uncle, with only her brother's words to reassure her in any way.
She hadn't seen her brother in nearly three years; he'd come onto her ship to force her surrender. She couldn't know how different Zuko's motivations had been from his uncle's.
"If the ship burns, you'd go down with us," Hakoda said calmly. He remembered a similar conversation with Zuko at the boy's first spirit vigil. Zuko's threats had felt much more hypothetical.
"Eliminating enemies of our great nation is what Zuko's real father expects," she said. "You aren't asking us to disappoint our father, are you?"
The princess was watching Hakoda, that smile still armoring her face, one eyebrow raised.
How old had she been when she watched Ozai set a hand on her brother's face and publicly mutilate him? Hakoda could tell her that wasn't how they treated children, here. Wasn't how he treated children. That any father who would be disappointed in his children for living was a man Hakoda would like to have words with. But Zuko wouldn't have believed any of that on his first day aboard, either.
By now, his children were yelling. All three of them. The princess was ignoring them all, in exactly the overconfident, condescending manner that would have gotten under Hakoda's own skin, if he'd still been a teenager.
"Sokka," he interrupted, "don't you have a ship to catch?"
"And Katara, Tuluk mentioned he'd like your help with the course change. He said something about saving time, but I think he just wants to see you spin a whole ship in place."
"Kids." Hakoda crossed his arms. "I'd like to talk with the princess. Talking would be easier without all the shouting."
He got them wrangled. Eventually. The princess watched with a faint air of amusement until it was her turn to be wrangled.
"Your Highness, would you be more comfortable having your brother with you when we speak?"
The girl tilted her chin up imperiously. "Do I look like I need Zuzu to hold my hand?"
She looked like a kid who was on her third ship of the day, two of them less than voluntarily. She looked a head shorter than Zuko and twice as prideful. She looked like she could use a good scream, or someone—anyone—she could trust.
They'd just have to work on that.
"This way, then," Hakoda said, and led the way to his office. He settled in his chair and clearly motioned to the seat in front of him. "Have a seat, please. Did Zuko tell you the rules?"
The girl sat, crossing one leg over her knee. She crossed her arms, too. "Some. I assume he forgot a few; my brother has never been the quickest student."
"To start with, I'd like to make one thing clear: I won't force you to stay here. You can return to your uncle's ship whenever you want. If you choose to stay here, I'll expect good behavior."
"What an amazing choice," the girl said, likely thinking the same thing he was: that her uncle had taken her on board the Wani in cuffs. Possibly it had been temporary, until the man had time to speak with her after tempers had cooled; he'd obviously given Zuko permission to free her. Still. It made the choice a more manipulative one than Hakoda would have hoped for.
He continued. It was all he could do, right now.
"By good behavior, I specifically mean no picking fights, and no acts with the intent to harm anyone or anything on this ship. You're allowed to practice your firebending katas on deck; Zuko can show you the spot he uses. I'd like you to refrain from sparring against others for now."
Hakoda had heard enough about the Fire Lord's idea of sparring to know he didn't want to deal with it on his ship. After his banishment, Zuko had taken a few extra months to accept his Uncle's offer of friendly practice, because Ozai and his trainers had fought not to the yield, but to first burn. There had not been, so far as Hakoda could tell, rules on how large those burns could be.
"Zuko tells me you're a master?"
The girl raised her chin. "Of course."
"I'll trust accidents won't be a problem, then."
"And what would be my punishment, if I were to have an accident?"
Zuko had always wanted to know about exact punishments, too.
Hakoda met her gaze. "I don't punish accidents, Princess Azula. If you feel your control slipping, my office and the sick bay are always open for meditation. Zuko generally meditates in my office every night, as well; you're welcome to join us."
She narrowed her eyes. "I'm not a baby. I don't need to meditate."
Just like her father didn't need to meditate? Well. Hakoda would deal with that if and when it became an issue.
"As for accidents," he continued, putting the same emphasis on the word she had, "I don't see how they'd benefit you. Your brother is my son. You're currently on this ship as family."
"So I'm not your prisoner? I'll just take my ship and leave, then." She flashed a smile, all teeth.
"You and I both know it's more complicated than that. But harming this ship or my crew won't get you anything that waiting won't; we'll be making land in a week, if these winds hold. You'll have an easier time escaping there than at sea."
"Father wouldn't pay ransom, if that's what you're hoping for."
"I'm well aware of Ozai's response to ransoms. And before you ask: no, I am not selling you to the Earth Kingdom. Or the Northern Tribe. Or your uncle, for that matter."
She waited, eyes still narrowed, her posture so relaxed that he had to worry how often she'd practiced at not reacting to an authority figure telling her how her life would go.
"If we're being completely honest," he continued, "the only reason I have to hold you here at all is to stop you from returning to your father, for your own safety. As I understand it, he doesn't react well to perceived failure."
Her fingers twitched, as if wanting to curl into angry balls. They didn't. She didn't let them. "I didn't fail. Father wouldn't care if I lost a ship or two, so long as I returned with the Avatar. I could still win this."
"I did say perceived failure. You're an incredible fighter and a brilliant planner. You'd have to be, to have done what you've done with as few setbacks as you've had. I know that Zuko spoke with you about joining our side." He met her gaze. "I also know that one conversation, particularly under duress, isn't enough to change anyone's mind."
She stiffened, just slightly. Then relaxed, in a way that very closely bordered violence. Another difference between herself and her brother: Zuko readied himself for defense, when he thought himself in danger. Azula, for attack.
"I'm not asking for you to decide today, or tomorrow, or the moment we land. I only ask that when you do choose, you make that decision your own. Not your father's."
She didn't reply. He hadn't expected her to.
"Final rule," Hakoda continued. "Work. Everyone on this ship earns their meals."
She snorted, incredulous. "What, are you going to make me mop before breakfast?"
"If you'd like," he said. "But that seems a waste of your talents. I'd like you to tutor my children. Sokka is interested in Fire Nation technology and how it's reshaping the areas it spreads to: discuss with him how it affected your own nation and the colonies. Katara is trying to rebuild our bending practices from half-remembered stories; your insight as a fellow master would be invaluable. And Zuko has choices to make when we reach land, too. He needs to know about the current state of the Fire Nation court."
"So you can put your son on the throne?"
"So he doesn't go in unprepared, if he chooses to return with his uncle."
For the first time in this conversation, the princess hesitated. "He hasn't spoken to you, has he."
Hakoda let out a slow breath. "He doesn't need to. Not until he's ready."
She gave him a long, considering look. Then she uncrossed her arms and leaned back, to all accounts lounging in her chair.
"Well," she said, "as quaint as this has been, I believe it's time that I tell you how this is going to go. I'm going to observe, and judge, and if I find you lacking I'll be taking the Avatar and my brother both when I leave. How's that for a rule?"
Hakoda leaned back in his own seat, a smile creeping onto his lips. "If you don't leave," he said, "does that mean I've got a new daughter?"
Her Highness Azula looked very much as if she wanted to light something on fire. Hakoda had that effect on his (potential) children.
She did not storm out of his office, as Zuko might have done. She followed him back onto the deck, taking particular care to stalk after his steps menacingly. She paused at the top of the companionway. Hakoda followed her gaze up to the sails.
"Blue always has been my color…" She lit a flame above her fingertips and let it dance.
Teenage rebellion wasn't finding a legend and running off on an unsupervised world tour. It wasn't a surplus of volcanoes, either. Teenage rebellion was color coordination.
Later, Toklo would try introducing Azula to dogs.
"Isn't he cute? We call him Scuttles-Sokka-Seal Jerky, Junior."
"Even his name is a waste of time," the princess dismissed.
Later, Katara would need to take a break after comparing training regimens with the Fire Princess. What had started as a token attempt to be friendly, her dad had asked her to just try to talk to her, had escalated to a shouting match over what degree of injury was most motivational for a student.
"None," Katara said, "the answer is none."
"As if you've never bled for your bending," the princess scoffed.
"I shouldn't have had to! You shouldn't have had to!"
"What a pleasant little world you live in. Shall we call in Shouldn't-Have-Land? Hopetopia, perhaps? Don't tell me: you were one of those little girls who grew up wishing for the Avatar to come save them."
Katara had marched into her father's office, picked up a badly resewn pillow, and screamed into it.
Later, Panuk would somehow engage Azula in a conversation about cornering the Fire Nation market on reindeer honey.
"I figure if Zuko's uncle takes the throne, I can gift him the stuff. Get nice little branded jars to send it in, convince him it's a southern tradition to take it in tea."
"Get him to serve it to all his noble guests and visiting dignitaries," Azula picked up the thought.
"And sell it to his courtiers for a princely sum," he finished.
"Oh, I like you."
"I'll take that as an insult, your Highness."
The princess smirked, by way of reply.
Later, Zuko would wonder if he should be jealous of how easily Azula was integrating herself with the crew, when it had taken him months. The way she talked back to them, threatened, flaunted her flames in every little gesture, it would have gotten his legs broken. Or his body thrown back in the waves. Everything had always been easier for her. He'd like to see how easy she would have found it, if she'd been the one they'd pulled from the water.
But she was his little sister. Maybe making all the mistakes ahead of her was what big brothers were for.
Later, she'd shoo him away from his nervous hovering. He'd settle down at the rail with a flame in his hands, because while the attack on Azula's ship had been a success, it hadn't been completely bloodless. He'd sit vigil again, hopefully for the last time. It wouldn't be: there were still battles ahead, but one of those would be the last. The end of the war.
The Avatar, significantly more coherent after sleeping the last of the drugs off down in the crew cabin, edged around Azula and sat next to him. He adopted the same posture as Zuko, but without a flame.
"I'm not just meditating," Zuko said.
"I know. It's a spirit vigil, right?" he said, more serious than Zuko could remember ever seeing him. "Gyatso taught me about them. Sometimes when the monks were traveling in the Fire Nation, people would call on them to lead a vigil if they couldn't get a Fire Sage in time. I didn't think anyone remembered how to sit vigil anymore; I haven't seen anyone else doing it."
Leave it to Uncle to teach him some kind of ancient spirit-appeasing ritual.
"Why aren't you using your fire?" Zuko asked.
The monk startled. Looked guilty, almost. "I haven't really learned firebending yet. The last time I tried, I…"
His gaze darted to Katara, who'd returned to the deck. Who'd returned to the opposite side of the deck from Azula; who was very pointedly practicing her bending with shards of ice.
Zuko hadn't seen any burns on her. But it wasn't as if he'd been looking. And she could heal with her bending, really heal, in a way he could only dream of matching with fire. Maybe he should ask her to look at Azula's burns—
She rose an ice target into the air and pepper-artichoked it with surgical precision.
The Avatar was staring at his hands, his shoulders hunched. He was a scrawny kid. Zuko had known that, but… he was little. Zuko was suddenly, intensely thankful that the Avatar was also an honorless oath-breaker, or Zuko might have succeeded in bringing him back to the Fire Nation. A kid afraid of fire shouldn't be anywhere near Ozai.
To be fair, no children should.
"Stay here," Zuko said, and stood. He returned a few minutes later with a lamp. He set it in the Avatar's hands.
"Uh… thanks?" Aang said.
Zuko lit the wick.
"Oh. Oh! Thanks, Zuko." He beamed. "You know, you never answered."
"Do you think we could have been friends?"
"I answered." Zuko scowled. "I threw a fireball at you."
"The monks always said to use our words."
Zuko turned his scowl out over the ocean. The ocean, which was not cheekily grinning at him. And he continued to scowl, and definitely did not shift into a smile at all.
Do you think we could have been friends.
He had an answer, now. He knew what friends were, now.
"Shut up and concentrate on your flame," Zuko snapped. "I only gave you enough oil to last until midnight. You'll have to focus to make it to sunrise."
Aang straightened his posture very seriously. "Yes, Sifu Grandson."
...Zuko wasn't hunting the Avatar anymore. This didn't mean he couldn't throw him overboard.