Chapter 1: The Contrary Corpse
Blame for this fic goes to Sistabro and Fryemturtle on Tumblr. The former asked for Hakuddles (Hakoda cuddles). The latter pointed out these could be in a new fic (and also coined the phrase 'Hakuddles'). Dammit Tumblr.
This will be a short fic, by my standards.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Body," Tuluk said, with the casualness of a man who'd spent all night tacking around the edge of a storm, and didn't have much emotional range left over for some other crew's misfortune. The morning had dawned bright and cheerful and near-windless, the clouds breaking up behind them.
Hakoda wasn't usually a man to spectate on death, but he was already leaning on the rail, letting the sun soak into his wet clothes. So. He cracked an eye, and watched the body drift past.
It was… smaller than he'd hoped to see. Not a child, but not a man grown. Arms caught over a bit of flotsam. Pale—Fire Nation pale or drowned pale, it didn't much matter anymore. He heard one of the others mutter a prayer to the ocean spirit.
As if to be contrary, the corpse chose that moment to squint open its eyes. The scar on his face turned the bleary stare into a glare.
"Throw him a line," Hakoda ordered. Because it suddenly mattered very much, whether the kid was Fire Nation or just pale with cold.
The boy didn't call out for help. That should have been the first sign of what Hakoda was getting his crew into.
Zuko shouldn't have been on deck in the storm. Not with Pohuai Stronghold less than a day behind him and two hours of sleep in him and a helmet firmly shoved over his head so Uncle wouldn't see the darkening bruise the Yuyan's arrow had left. But the last storm they'd been in, the Avatar had been in, too, and—
(Do you think we could have been friends?)
—His head hurt and the cold air helped and if traveling during storms to avoid detection was the Avatar's new strategy, then Zuko needed to know.
No one was particularly concerned when the wave hit. This wasn't as bad as the last storm they'd weathered, and even if their prince was stupidly standing in the center of the deck—as was his stupid princely right—they were all used to Zuko's reflexes. So was Zuko. But he'd nearly dislocated his shoulder the other week breaking Helmsman Kyo's fall from the tower, and he'd pulled at half-healed muscles with all his Blue Spiriting last night, and when his hand closed over the ship's rail he… couldn't hold on.
And then he was in the storm waves, wearing metal armor.
Everyone was a lot more concerned then.
"Gold eyes," Tuluk reported, as he patted the kid's back.
The boy continued to hack up saltwater on their deck.
"Could be from that colony ship we spotted the other day," one of the other crewman offered, with a shrug.
"Isn't that what their soldiers wear under armor?" another said, fingering the knife on his belt.
That was the detail Hakoda's eyes had settled on, as well. If a colonial or half-breed were wearing clothes like that, he'd better have a very satisfying explanation.
The boy paused for breath. Tuluk gave him another thump, and the water kept coming.
The crew tossed Zuko a line almost before he'd hit the water himself. It didn't help, when he couldn't reach it. As much as he swam, the only direction he went was down.
He clawed at the buckles and straps of his armor, it was meant to be put on with the help of others but if his crew had taught him anything it was that if he wanted things done he had to do them himself, he'd done this alone plenty of times, but every heartbeat he spent working at a shoulder buckle was another he spent sinking why weren't his fingers moving faster—
"Little young for a soldier, isn't he?"
"You know their boys don't age the same as ours. I swear, these people look twenty until they're seventy—"
The young soldier didn't seem to be following the conversation above his head. For the moment, he seemed content to fold over on his knees, and gasp in his first few unobstructed breaths.
He was shivering, but not as much as he should be. It was never a good sign, when they stopped shivering.
Zuko swam the opposite direction from the one his breastplate had sunk. ...Tried to. Thought he did. He could feel the waves pushing at him, but every direction was gray and more gray and he didn't know how much longer he could hold his breath—
(As long as he needed to, it was just air, he wasn't going to be weak about it—)
He broke the surface. Took in a breath, and got slapped with a faceful of rain. He couldn't see his ship, where was his ship—
"Zuko!" Uncle was yelling, Uncle shouldn't sound like that.
Zuko turned. The deck was farther than it had been, but it was fine, he'd make it—
Which was, of course, when the next wave crested over his head.
Hakoda crouched down. Caught the young soldier's chin in his hand, and made the boy look up. Tuluk had said his eyes were gold, but that's what they called all Fire-blooded eyes; the muddy yellows and burnt oranges, the dark ambers. Hakoda hadn't been prepared for gold. Like the actual metal, brighter even than a wolf-bear's and even more unnatural for it. It was a predator's gaze, not a human's.
"Are you Fire Nation?" he asked. Even though it was a redundant question, looking into those eyes.
"Of course I am," the boy said, like he had too much pride in that nation of murderers to even dream of denying it. Which sent him off coughing again, before Hakoda could ask his next question. Though Are you a soldier was probably a bit redundant, too.
The ship was even farther away when Zuko found the surface again. He… wasn't as sure he could make it. Not with the rest of his armor still weighing him down, the boots and wrist guards making every movement slow and heavy, trying to pull him under with every stroke. And the current was against him, dragging him back. He had to get the rest off, or he'd never be able to catch up.
He could barely make Uncle out on the deck, or the crewman holding the old General back. Good; the crew had better keep him safe. Uncle needed to—to stop those near-screams, to stop acting like Zuko wasn't right here and he wouldn't be right back.
(He came back from Pohuai Stronghold. He wasn't going to let a few splashes stop him.)
He took a breath. Prepared himself, this time, for the weight to drag him under while he wrestled against water-logged leather straps.
When he surfaced again, he couldn't see the Wani.
Rain, thunder, the crash of waves. His own shouts. No Uncle.
"He's probably not a firebender, at least," Tuluk joked, because that was the sort of thing Tuluk would joke about, in front of a kid whose face was half burned off.
"Yes I am," the soldier promptly corrected, his rough voice managing to be both dazed and affronted. Which was about the time Hakoda started paying as much attention to the recent dark bruise of a head wound as he'd been paying to the scar. The hypothermia couldn't have been helping, either.
"Well that was… very honest," Tuluk said, patting the kid again.
Behind him, another crewman made a not so subtle gesture: a glance to the ocean, a touch to his sword, a raised eyebrow towards Hakoda.
Zuko didn't know where he found the driftwood, anymore than he knew how long his breath of fire held out. Not long enough.
He felt cold—cold like its own kind of fire, that pricked and burned, made him shiver so hard his muscles convulsed, made them hurt. He wasn't trying to swim anymore, wasn't trying to make it to the tops of the waves in the hopes of spotting the Wani. He was just holding on.
He… couldn't feel himself holding on anymore. His fingers were thick and distant and weird. He worked his sash free, kept one end of it in his mouth because he could still feel things between his teeth, tied himself to the driftwood as best as he could by sight and not feel.
At least he wasn't as cold anymore. The waves were dying down, and the ocean was getting warmer.
(Which wasn't how oceans worked, part of him knew.)
(But what good would it do to think about that, when it might make him cold again. He could just… be warm. For awhile. Rest, get his fire back, he'd figure out what to do when he woke up—)
He jerked awake at sunrise. There was a ship on the horizon. Not the Wani.
When he opened his eyes again, it was much closer. People were staring down at him. He should… say something. The sun was up but his inner flame was still out, and he was too warm, and he didn't know where Uncle or his crew were and maybe these people could help—
Nobody ever wanted to help him, though.
A rope splashed down near him, in an extremely contradictory fashion. An arm span from him. An impossible distance to cross.
He was good with impossible.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. Fumbled at the knot in his sash, until it released him from the driftwood. Pushed off.
He sank, of course. But he sank towards the rope, whose end was sinking too, and once he got hold of it he just didn't let go. He had a lot of practice, focusing on one task until it almost killed him.
He wasn't as good at holding his breath as he'd been at the start of this all. But he didn't let go, and he didn't die before they realized they should be pulling him up, and then he was on a wooden deck (not metal) and somebody was making him let go of the rope (he didn't want to he needed to not let go that was important wasn't it?) and somebody else was hitting him on the back hard enough to jar his ribs, and also cause about half the ocean to come out of his lungs.
Theirs wasn't the sort of ship that kept prisoners for long. A kid as young as this was little more than a new recruit—he might not have done as much wrong as others in his country, might not have gotten the chance to do any wrongs at all. But he wouldn't know anything useful, either. They weren't going to torture a child for fun, anymore than they were going to let a firebending soldier bunk with them until the next port.
Sword, Hakoda decided, meeting his crewman's gaze as he briefly touched his own. The man nodded and started unsheathing his blade, quiet as he could. The kid had escaped the ocean; it would have been cruel to throw him back.
He was young. They'd make it quick.
Zuko didn't like that the one guy kept hitting him. He didn't like that the other guy grabbed his face. Didn't like that they kept talking over him like he was a fish they'd netted, not a person.
Didn't like that they were wearing blue, not red.
Didn't like that he was on his knees when he heard steel being unsheathed behind him, quiet as the Blue Spirit's own blades.
He knew they weren't going to help. No one ever did, but he always fell for it, every time—
The boy shrugged Tuluk's hand off his back, and struggled to his feet. The other crewman kept his blade in check, waiting on a clean kill. That would necessitate less wobbling. Hakoda would order the kid held still if he needed to, but the soldier clearly had something to say, and it didn't hurt to indulge him.
"My name is Prince Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. If you're going to execute me, do it while I'm on my feet, you cowards."
...Didn't hurt at all.
The man who'd grabbed Zuko's chin stood as well, and looked down on him with as much careful calculation as Azula, or Zhao, or Father.
"Do it," Zuko growled, because he couldn't remember how he'd gotten his legs to work well enough to be standing, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep it up.
"Tuluk, take him down to the healer."
"Chief," the man who'd kept hitting Zuko's back said, without much inflection.
"We'll deal with it if he lives," the Chief said.
Zuko would live, if only to spite them. He was good at that.
(And way too good at making Uncle worry.)
Chapter 2: The Captive is Made Primarily of Sharp Elbows
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They didn't have steel cuffs, or a brig. No spare rooms they could convert into a holding cell, no medicines that could safely interfere with firebending—Healer Kustaa had been as to-the-marrow honest as he could be: he had a few things that might have worked on an earthbender or a waterbender, but they affected control. The last thing they needed was a firebender with control problems.
All they had was flammable rope, and the hammock his second-in-command had left empty in the crew cabin.
Hakoda closed his eyes, pressed fingers to his temples, and tried not to wish death on a teenager. But life in the antarctic bred practicality, and it would be convenient if the boy didn't make it. Certainly more convenient than the alternative.
They were on a wooden spirits-damned ship.
Scuttles nosed at his hand. Hakoda absently scratched under the edges of the isopup's carapace, and opened his eyes on another problem, rather related: the blank parchment on his desk. How did a man go about writing a ransom note to the Fire Lord?
Another problem he wouldn't have to deal with, if—
There was a knock on his door. Tuluk came in.
"How's our passenger?" Hakoda asked.
"He's a charming little badger-viper," Hakoda's third-in-command—acting second—replied. "Kustaa's not sure whether he'll make it."
The Fire Prince had managed to stay standing, stiff-necked with arrogance, until he'd gotten below deck. He'd collapsed just as soon as he'd left the crew's eyes behind him, and needed to be carried the rest of the way. Fire Nation pride at its finest.
Scuttles clawed at his pant leg, ever-hopeful for lap time. Hakoda brushed the dog's pereopods away.
"Is he awake?"
"You think that's stopping him?" Tuluk's half-smile wasn't reaching his eyes, and never had. "Chief. We don't have any way to keep a firebender. Unless you fancy dipping him in the ocean now and again, and making the hypothermia a more permanent condition."
...He'd thought of it. Rumor had it that the Fire Nation kept waterbending prisoners from water, and earthbenders on metal rigs at sea; why couldn't they keep a firebender away from heat?
He didn't need Healer Kustaa to tell him the prince wouldn't survive that kind of treatment. He'd seen the boy kneeling on his deck, too tired to shiver.
"We'll deal with it if he lives," he repeated. The phrase lived in the back of his mind, now. "If he can't behave himself, we know how to handle firebenders."
Tuluk made the kind of noncommittal noise that would have been an argument, with Bato. His acting second let the issue drop. "Why don't you take a turn with him? If Aake hasn't strangled the kid, yet."
Aake had not, in fact, strangled the kid. But he looked close to changing his mind. The two of them were wedged into the bunk in the healer's room, under a pile of thick blankets and furs. The crewman took up most of the space; the firebender looked smaller in every possible comparison. Shorter, thinner, younger; with his eyes closed and that scar, he almost looked a victim of this war, rather than one of its perpetrators.
Aake had the makings of a black eye Hakoda couldn't remember, and the scowl of man much put upon. "It's not too late to toss him back, Chief."
"But you both look so comfortable," Hakoda grinned. On the other side of the room—which implied a greater distance than the cramped space actually provided—Healer Kustaa snorted. "Tuluk tells me we accidentally fished out a baby badger-viper."
"Tuluk rigged the draw so he wouldn't get the short straw," Aake groused. "You try sleeping next to this thing."
"That was the plan," Hakoda said.
He couldn't help but think Aake's relief was more dramatic than one unconscious teenager warranted, Fire Nation or not. The boy made a sort of half-protest, squirming sleepily as Aake shed blanket layers as fast as a man could. "All yours, Chief," he grinned.
"Remember," Healer Kustaa said, "don't jostle him too much, or let him overexert himself again. The last thing we need is for the cold blood to come back towards his heart too fast."
"I've helped with hypothermia before, Kustaa," Hakoda reminded the man, kicking off his boots.
Aake was still grinning. Kustaa was paying attention to some teapot concoction he had brewing, in a far too deliberate manner. Hakoda spared a suspicious glance at them both before sliding into the blanket nest.
The bedding was warm from Aake's body heat, but the kid was a spirits-damned icecube. They'd stripped him out of his clothes—they were dripping over in a pile in the corner. If Hakoda hadn't felt the shallow rise and fall of the teenager's chest, he'd have thought he was sidled up to a corpse. The soldier was on his side; Hakoda tucked an arm around him, and held back a shiver.
Aake was still grinning. And leaning against the doorframe, like he was expecting a show.
Which was the point Ozai's spawn shot an elbow into Hakoda's gut. Hakoda caught the other arm before it could slam back into his face.
"Don't let him move too much," Healer Kustaa reminded him. A warning, as much as it was medical advice.
"S'too warm," the prince protested, and kicked backwards with precision accuracy at Hakoda's kneecap.
He'd never had to pin down a hypothermia victim before.
"A little more gently, if you would. We've found hugging him to be effective."
"It's medicinal," Kustaa said, with a twitch of lips under his beard.
Aake was still grinning.
"Get to work," Hakoda ordered. "Unless you'd like to trade back?"
"I'll tell the men tales of your noble sacrifice, Chief," the man said, beating a smug retreat.
The boy squirmed weakly, his heartbeat erratic under Hakoda's palms. His predator's eyes were open again, and half-focused; his face twisted into a scowl.
"You want me to hug him," Hakoda repeated, casting another glance at the ship's healer.
Kustaa was pouring a cup of something that smelled surprisingly good. "And get him sitting up, while you're at it."
Zuko was too warm and people wouldn't stop touching him and they wouldn't let him get out from under the blankets, and the blankets were weird and furry, and the bed was more comfortable than his usual old futon (and higher off the floor), and the walls were made of wood which was just… a fire hazard, was what that was, and it felt like maybe these facts should be coming together to make something more but he—he didn't feel so good, and Uncle was here, so maybe it was okay to just let his head keep spinning for awhile.
"Come on, Prince Zuko. Tea."
"I don't want anymore of your stupid tea, Uncle."
"But you're going to drink it anyway. Such a polite nephew you are."
"Fine," Zuko said. He tried to take the cup but it was all… clattery-heavy in his hands, if Uncle wasn't helping him hold it he never would have been able to get it to his lips. It burned his throat going down, it was too hot, but Uncle made him take another swallow before letting him breathe.
"He thinks you're his Uncle?" said the thing he was leaning against, which was a person, who was holding him around the waist like he couldn't sit up on his own, and who was too hot. Zuko elbowed the man in the ribs. This led to the man wrapping himself around Zuko's arms too, what did he think he was doing, Zuko stomped on his foot. And then the man shook him a little, which made it a lot harder to breathe, and he missed whatever growled words the man said into his ear because he was too busy trying to remember when Uncle had changed his beard style, it was… less pointy.
"He's a bit out of it," Uncle said. "Makes him easy to handle, though I feel sorry for his real Uncle. Apparently he's fat and lazy, and makes terrible, stupid tea."
"...His Uncle is the Dragon of the West."
"Ah. I'll stop feeling sorry for him, then; they deserve each other. Come on, Prince Zuko, a little more."
Zuko groaned with appropriate levels of tea-related drama, but drank the rest of the cup. "Why are your eyes blue?"
"I'm trying something new," Uncle said. "You like it?"
"You're weird," Zuko decided, after a moment. He wanted to yell at Uncle not to buy random things they didn't need, there'd been nothing wrong with his old eye color, he didn't need a new one, but yelling took a lot of energy and just sitting up was… really hard, even with the stupid guy behind him still touching him. His head lolled forward, and the world went dark, probably because his eyes weren't staying open anymore. " 'M tired."
"Go ahead and lay him back down, Chief. He'll be out of it for awhile."
"No, that was just cloudberry. Trying to get him warmed up from the inside, too. He's… not doing well, Chief. He's cold even for a nonbender. For a firebender…"
"I'll be fine, Uncle," Zuko said, into his pillow. He was… on a pillow again. And the horrible furry blankets were suffocating him, and the man was a furnace behind him, but his arms were being held against his sides and everything was too heavy to try moving. He'd just… rest here. A little. "You worry too much."
There was a hand on his forehead then, and it didn't seem like the right size, but everything else about it was right. "That's an uncle's privilege, you brat."
Kustaa pulled his hand back slowly. Shook it out a little, like he wasn't quite sure what he'd been doing with it. He sat back down, and moved the teapot back on its little burner, keeping it warm for the next time the soldier woke up.
Hakoda, meanwhile, tried to ignore the collection of bruises he'd gotten since coming within range of the Fire Prince. How the kid could fumble a teacup but still have energy left over for spontaneous assault baffled him. He settled back down behind the little snake, and preemptively wrapped his arms around the kid to catch his wrists. It wasn't a hug; just basic tactics. Against a half-dead teenager. If the boy did live, he was going to be a nightmare.
That 'if' continued to hang in the air, as the kid fell back into the too-slow pulse and too-shallow breathing of earlier.
There was something around the boy's wrist. Hakoda idly traced it under the covers. It was still a little damp from the waves, and a little salt-crusted at the edges where it had begun to dry, but smooth and fine underneath that, like one of the ribbons women of his own tribe would wear for a necklace. A lover's token, perhaps? The prince was the right age to have some sweetheart waiting for him. Possibly the future Fire Lady. Strange to think that the short frame tucked up next to his belonged to the future Fire Lord. Maybe some good would come from his stay on their ship; if they treated him fairly, would he remember that when he was on the throne? Or would he only remember the humiliation of being held captive by those his own people called savages? Would he gain respect for their culture, or only a more personal reason to tear it apart?
More things to consider, if the boy lived.
There was a pendant on the ribbon; stone, round, just as cold as the boy was. A plain back, but a delicate carving on its front. It felt almost familiar under his fingers, like he'd traced this same pattern a hundred times in the darkness, with Kya's warmth tucked up next to him—
Hakoda's hand stilled. He threw back the sheets, and stood, and took the boy's wrist with him. The blue pendant dangled between them. He'd wanted to see it again, wanted to see it so badly, but not wrapped around a firebender's wrist like a fondly remembered trophy.
"Chief—" Kustaa started, rising.
"That's my mother's necklace. Kya's necklace. Katara's necklace. Where did you get this?"
Katara, who they'd left in the south two years ago, to try and keep safe. The Fire Nation had been to their home, sometime between then and now. The Prince of the Fire Nation had been to their home. How many warships did Ozai allow his son? How big of a name could the boy prince make for himself at court, with exaggerated tales of subduing the last of the Southern Water Tribe? How long ago had it been, and why hadn't Hakoda been there to stop it?
"Chief," Kustaa said, carefully. "You can try and get answers from him, or you can try and keep him alive. You can't have both, right now. And I don't think you'll be happy with the answers you get while he's like this."
He'd pulled the boy off the bed. He was kneeling in the tangle of furs that had fallen with him, not fighting Hakoda's grip on his wrist, head bowed as he muttered something fast and steady and practiced as a prayer.
The grip on Zuko's wrist was grinding his bones together and he couldn't remember what he'd done to make Father angry this time. He'd gotten so much better at hiding his swords, and he hadn't missed any lessons, and… and Father shouldn't be here, should he? He'd sent Zuko away—
(It didn't matter.)
Uncle wasn't helping but Uncle never helped against Father, he was always gone somewhere else or he was in the audience watching but he was never helping. Father was the Fire Lord and Uncle was loyal and that meant he knew his place, unlike Zuko. Zuko could never figure out what his place was, he was always bouncing off the edges, always needing to be taught so he could learn—
(It didn't matter.)
It was his fault, he knew it was his fault, but it seemed like the rules were always changing and no one ever explained them to him and he didn't know which one he'd broken now—
(It never mattered.)
"I'm sorry, I won't do it again, I didn't mean to disappoint you, I'm your loyal son—"
The grip on his wrist went blindingly tight for a white-hot moment, then loosened. Rough hands tore off the necklace he'd had wrapped around there, why did he have a necklace there. Then he was free. He placed his hand on the ground, ignoring the way his wrist screamed at the weight being put on it. Bowed properly. Didn't look up, the last time he'd looked up all he'd seen was fire he didn't want to see it again—
Hakoda was not entirely certain he wouldn't murder the prince if he spent any longer in this room. Kya's necklace pressed a hard circle into his palm, cold as a grave. The boy bowed at his feet and spoke to him like Hakoda was his father, but what kind of father would want a son that cowered in fear—
The Fire Lord, of course. He was a vile man, rising a viper of a son.
Healer Kustaa's gaze flickered between the boy and Hakoda. There was no judgement in his face; it was more like he was waiting to see just what degree of mess he'd be cleaning off his floor.
Hakoda let out a slow breath. "Don't tell the rest of the crew he's been south. Not until we know more."
"Of course. And the prince?"
"Do what you can. I have questions for him."
Kustaa waited until his Chief had shut the door. Then he let out his own breath, and crouched down. "Come on," he said, wrapping an arm around the teenager. "Back in you get. Guess it's my turn then, if I'm the only one that isn't about to strangle you."
The prince let himself be guided back under the covers without any of his usual complaining. When Kustaa slid in next to him, he got a firebender hiding a face in his shirt. The boy was shaking, not shivering. It wasn't a distinction Kustaa was particularly fond of.
Hakoda set the necklace on his desk, next to the blank paper. After a moment, he tucked the paper away, so only the necklace remained.
He'd only need to write to Ozai if the boy lived. The boy would only live if he made it through his illness, and through Hakoda's questions.
It was the kind of 'if' he wouldn't waste ink on.
Katara. Sokka. His mother. Everyone in his village, everyone in all their villages, as scattered and hidden as they were; he'd done this for them. Left, for them.
He never thought they would leave him, too.
The boy lived. His temperature crawled steadily upwards throughout the day until it was back up to normal, then higher to a firebender's; continued to spike overnight, until he was feverish to the touch, then nearly untouchable. Healer Kustaa hypothesized that they now had a feverish firebender on their hands. It was, hopefully, still within the bounds of normal for their kind.
This did nothing to stop the escape attempts, which began promptly the moment Kustaa left him alone to make his report.
A big thanks to all the people on Tumblr who helped me brainstorm about the ship pet, particularly Proximal, who suggested it be part Giant Isopod, and then promptly /illustrated/ the glory that is the Giant Isopuppy (clickie to see); CarolOfTheBell, who suggested the name Scuttles (and also made art! Click!); Courgette96, who came up with the idea of Hakoda having one name for the pup, and the rest of the crew calling it Sokka; and the beautiful Anonymous who came up with "Seal Jerky" for what Zuko will call it. Isopup is such a Good Boi he will have /three/ names.
The first escape was notable primarily because the Fire Prince was asleep for most of it. He vanished from the healer's room in the early morning; it took the better part of the day to find him, curled up under a tarp in the space between the ship's longboat and her whaler. Right up on deck, where he'd apparently gone in broad daylight. How no one had seen him doing that was a matter Hakoda was vocally interested in, to the deep consternation of the deck crew.
There were more than a few crewmembers who wanted to show His Highness their displeasure at hours of searching wasted, but very few who could justify doing so when the target of their ire couldn't stay awake for even a short, friendly sort of beating.
Healer Kustaa tsked at the boy's new bruises, tucked him back into bed, and made sure to lock the door on the occasions he was needed elsewhere. The prince didn't wake again until near sundown. He looked precisely as alert as Kustaa would expect of a firebender at that hour. Particularly one who had almost died the day before, and who was doing his best to keep death on the table as a viable option.
"You're eating before you go back to sleep," Kustaa said.
The boy's glare would have been more intimidating without the blanket half-pulled over his face. When he'd been hypothermic, he couldn't get out of that fur pile fast enough; now that he was feverish, Kustaa was surprised he hadn't dragged the whole mess with him on his escape attempt.
"You look nothing like my Uncle."
"Never said I did. And you still have to eat."
There was grumbling as Kustaa helped him sit up, and scowling as he passed the tray over, and stiff-shouldered embarrassment as he helped the boy hold the bowl of soup so he didn't dump it over his borrowed shirt. Fire Nation teenagers, Kustaa was learning, were both several degrees more prideful than Water Tribe warriors, and several sizes smaller. The boy was drowning in blue fabric. His Highness self-consciously slid a drooping shirt collar back up over his shoulder, and glared harder. The effect was ruined by the way he kept nodding off mid-glower.
Kustaa took the empty bowl away. "Get at least a day's rest before you try that again, okay? Doctor's orders."
Kustaa was joking. The prince, it turned out, was not.
The prisoner had been out for a day, barely waking up when Kustaa shook him for meals. The crew had rapidly adopted the habit of checking the knob on the healer's door every time they walked past, just to reassure themselves it was still locked. Sailors' superstition.
The room had a porthole. This was not considered an issue until the ship's dog started barking. The isopup had been doing as isopups do; scuttling over the ship's sides, gnawing off barnacles by starlight, keeping a general watch out for sea-slug-termites and other unsavory characters that might need a mauling eviction from the wood. The Fire Prince had been doing as Fire Princes were not supposed to be capable of, and scaling a near-seamless vertical wall.
The night watch stared down, holding a lamp out to better see this thing they still didn't quite believe they were seeing. The dog continued to bark murder.
"Could you call it off," the prince demanded irately, like he was perfectly entitled to be clinging to the side of their ship by his nails.
The crew did not call the dog off.
The isopup snapped at the kid's leg, taking a strip of fabric out of the boy's oversized pants. The Fire Prince scrambled upwards, moving… not terribly slower than the many-legged pup, actually. He paused just below the rail, making a clear choice between the dog, the ocean, and the Water Tribesman above.
Aake went ahead and cut that choice short. He grabbed the kid by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him on deck. And, having learned this lesson back in the healer's room, rather efficiently pinned the kid's arms before he got the chance to inflict new bruises. One black eye had gotten him laughed at quite enough, thank you.
When Hakoda reached the deck, the Fire Prince was either trying to get loose, or just trying to avoid the dog snapping at his feet.
"How did he get out?" Hakoda asked.
"The porthole, we think," Aake answered, keeping his arms tight as the kid bucked, bringing both of his legs off the ground. The isopup jumped after him, claiming another scrap of blue and a new line of red.
"Scuttles, down," Hakoda ordered. Which produced exactly zero results. Two years on this ship, and the dog still didn't know his name (and Hakoda refused to call him by the crew's nickname). He whistled sharply, and the pup broke off with a last warning growl. The Fire Prince let his bare feet touch the deck again, sagging a little in Aake's arms, his eyes tracking the isopup as it proudly clack-trotted to Hakoda's side.
"He'd be less trouble with a broken leg, Chief," Aake said, with grim practicality.
The prince took a moment to process this, panting in Aake's grip, his eyes darting between the unamused crewmen around him.
"My leg is fine," he said, in the moment before he got it.
Hakoda reached down, and thoughtfully scratched under Scuttles' head armor like the good growly boy he was. He didn't generally favor child abuse as a first line of action, but Ozai's heir was hardly a child. His own nation had sent him into the field: he must be of age, by their barbaric standards. Certainly old enough to understand that two escape attempts in as many days would have consequences.
The prince's face twisted into an ugly snarl. "You can't— You savages!"
At which point it became clear that he really had just been trying to dodge the dog earlier. This was him trying to get loose. Aake swore, doubling over his gut as the kid elbowed him, then slipped out of his oversized shirt and promptly took off across the deck. Where he thought he was going on a ship in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by more experienced combatants, Hakoda didn't know. He did know that a feverish teenager shouldn't be quite this adept at fending off multiple opponents, even if he was mostly dodging. And why a firebender's first thought was to try stealing Toklo's sword Hakoda couldn't fathom. The prince was a slippery eel-snake, and the whole affair looked more like a chaotic deckwide scramble to not fall over than an actual fight.
It was his own bending that did him in. Aake had him cornered against the rail. The kid shifted into a stance that every man here recognized, but all that came out of his fist was a puff of smoke and steam. Then he was falling over, his face flushed and eyes unfocused.
Aake wasted very little time in wrenching the prince's arms back and pinning him down. The crewman cursed, and grabbed the kid's discarded shirt; used it as a makeshift hand-wrap to avoid touching the firebender's bare skin. The kid squirmed, trying to draw his legs up under him. Like that would do anything to protect them, now that the rest of the crew was closing in.
"Chief?" Aake asked.
Hakoda was sorely tempted to nod. But the scene looked exactly like what it was: a group of grown men about to hurt a single, terrified boy.
The boy might deserve it. But Hakoda's men didn't deserve a chief who would let them sink so low. When they went home, they still needed to be able to look their own children in the eyes. ...Still needed to know that their children were waiting for them.
"Bring him to my office. With his legs, please." He leveled a stare down at the prince. "If you have enough energy for this, you have enough to answer my questions."
They pressed the boy into the chair across from Hakoda's desk and left the two of them alone, save for the sound of the dog scratching under the door crack with his sharp fore-pods. Hakoda crossed his arms, waiting for the prince to get his breathing back under control. It only took a few moments; he started some kind of deliberate breath-control exercise, and drew himself up in the seat as haughtily as if they'd scheduled this meeting in advance. He crossed his arms, too, mirroring Hakoda.
Hakoda pointedly un crossed his. "What was your plan, exactly?"
"Plan?" the prince echoed, taken aback in a way that thoroughly answered the question.
He has a fever, Hakoda reminded himself. And a head wound. ...And he had my daughter's necklace.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, with a tight nod towards the blue pendant on its salt-worn ribbon. It sat between them on the desk, a silent accusation.
"I didn't steal it." The passion behind this statement belonged to a conversation Hakoda wasn't privy to. "The stupid waterbender dropped it on the prison rig."
Hakoda's heart didn't stop at hearing waterbender and prison in the same sentence. It only felt like it should; reality continued to move on, with little regard to how he felt.
"Is she alive?"
"What? Yes." The boy's eyes unfocused a little, and his ever-present scowl slipped. "I think she was sick, though; he said she was sick. And he had frogs in his shirt? Why did he have frogs in his shirt?"
Hakoda didn't need Healer Kustaa to tell him the boy was still delirious. That any answers he would get from this wouldn't be ones he was happy with, that 'She's Alive' shouldn't be the new rhythm his heart was beating to when the prisoner clearly didn't know what he was saying. Hakoda shouldn't get his hopes up over an enemy's fever dream.
"You're going back to the healer's room," Hakoda said. "And you're staying there, or there will be consequences. Am I clear?"
The prince had been sagging a little in his chair; he jerked back upright, slid his scowl back on, and refused to answer. Hakoda gripped him by the shoulder, and marched him back to bed.
They set a watch this time. In the room. Mostly, the unlucky crewman on the first shift watched the kid watching him back, tense under his blanket pile. Those eyes really were unnerving.
"No bending until your fever breaks. You'll fry your brain out." Healer Kustaa said, changing the cloth on the prince's forehead. The first attempt at cooling him off had rapidly steam-dried in a manner Kustaa found both unnerving and fascinating. "No more escape attempts until then, either."
It was understood by both parties that neither was joking.
Zuko woke up and it was night, and he… couldn't get a straight count of how many times the sun had risen and set between now and when he'd first been hauled onto the enemy ship, but he knew from the sweat on his clothes and the way he could count again that his fever had broken. There was still a guard in the corner of his room, one that looked unnecessarily awake for a teenager he thought was asleep, a teen who'd probably been asleep for… for awhile? It had been bright through the porthole when the Not-Uncle-At-All doctor had last prodded him into sitting up for a meal.
He was hungry. And too hot. And he could feel bruises he hadn't had after Pohuai Stronghold, some of which he didn't remember getting. If Water Tribe hospitality included beating near-unconscious prisoners, he needed to get off this ship before they realized he was healthy enough for more.
He remembered, very clearly, their Chief's threat: there would be consequences for his next escape.
He remembered the man's cold blue eyes as he'd let Zuko think he'd allow his band of savages to break a prisoner's leg; he remembered the man himself nearly breaking his wrist, before his feverish brain had even started trying to get him out of this. Zuko hadn't done anything, he'd just been laying here sick, and the man had— (Zuko had knelt before the enemy and begged, like the honorless exile he was.) His arm was out of the blanket tangle, in front of his face; the bruise was a dark, irregular circle of black fading to blue-green at its edges.
The Chief was not his father.
The third escape attempt was discovered at the changing of the guard on His Highness' room. The previous guard was out cold. His key had been taken, and used to politely re-lock the door from the outside. Healer Kustaa admitted that the prince's fever had broken sometime between lunch and when he'd brought in the kid's dinner. He'd declined to report this to Hakoda immediately on the grounds of he could use a night of sleep before you kicked him around, Chief.
They checked the ship's boats first. All accounted for, with no stowaways. Which left them with exactly no idea of where to look next, besides everywhere, and thoroughly. Two years at sea had them thinking their ship was small. Cozy on the good days; cramped on the bad. All it took was one enemy on the loose to teach them how big it could be. How long had he had the run of the ship for? How much damage had he done?
Hakoda was going to murder the prince. After he got his answers. After they found him.
"Chief," Toklo said. Hakoda looked at him, and their youngest crewman subtly jerked his chin upwards.
It took Hakoda's eyes a moment to adjust to the shadows of the dark sails against the stars. To the shadow that shouldn't be there.
The prince was perched on the crossbeam of their main mast, as high as he could have possibly climbed. The Fire Prince was perched there. There was a firebender on their main mast.
Hakoda was going to murder him. Right after he convinced the prince he wasn't going to murder him, and could he please come down without starting any fires up there, no matter what a good distraction they would be for an escape.
The plan was simple: find a ship's boat, get it in the water, get as far away as he could before they noticed, fight as necessary.
Simple plans died simple deaths. There were too many people by the boats, just casually keeping a ridiculously over-staffed watch, like they knew he'd go for those. (...Had he already gone for those?)
And then there was talking behind him, coming up the hallway he was barely hiding in, and—where could he hide, on a Water Tribe ship? There wasn't any pipework in the ceiling or walls, just unbroken wood; no branching halls off to engineering and the officer's quarters and the mess hall, just this hall, that had stairs down and stairs up and he was already crouching at the top of the latter. He couldn't remember it well, just impressions from when he'd been half-drowned or fevered, but he knew this ship was small. How could he hide here? Maybe… maybe he should just jump back into the ocean, before they noticed he was missing, put as much room between himself and the ship as possible, maybe they wouldn't be able find him in the dark, and at least the ocean wasn't actively trying to hurt him—
(The waters were so cold his flames had guttered, he'd been so tired he could only sink, and he wouldn't even have his driftwood this time—)
The voices were coming up the stairs behind him. The deck crew wasn't watching (well, not close enough). Zuko didn't panic, he just took the only option available.
Which is how he found himself half-way up the main mast, and how was he ever going to get down again without them noticing, and where could he even go from here. He allowed himself one quiet thunk of forehead on wood, and a last glance at the ocean. Then he climbed higher, hoping the sails would hide him. At least until he had a chance to think.
The sails did not hide him.
His escape had lasted approximately five minutes. He didn't remember, but he'd lasted far longer when he'd been running a fever.
Hakoda set the men to filling as many water buckets as possible. Just in case. Not that there was much they could do, if the prince started a fire at the top of their sails.
"Prince Zuko," he called. "We know you're there. Come down."
The prince did not reply. The shadow at the top of the mast shifted slightly. Part of Hakoda wished for more light, so he could see the boy better; the rest of him was just as glad there was no flicker of flame up there.
"We could try shooting him down," Tuluk said. Except they didn't have any particularly talented shots on their crew, and they both knew it.
Hakoda refrained from rubbing his temples where the crew could see. "If you're not coming down, then I'm coming up," he called out. "I just want to talk."
He didn't sound very convincing, judging by the way Tuluk raised an eyebrow at him. In retrospect, he could have growled that last word a bit less. Hakoda let out a breath, and started climbing.
Into the highly flammable rigging. With none of his own hands free for weapons, or even basic self-defense, as he climbed towards a firebender who held the high ground.
Said firebender cautiously scooted aside to make room for him on the crossbeam. Hakoda eyed this generosity with suspicion, which was returned with a surprisingly lucid glare. Hakoda wasn't used to seeing the prince looking particularly aware. He didn't find himself liking the change. Now the badger-wolf pup looked ready to bite on purpose. The boy's whole body was tense, and those gold eyes were watching Hakoda's every move.
He finished hauling himself up, and asked the question he'd been dearly wanting an answer to since these little escape attempts began.
"What was your plan?"
Zuko hated that question, and hated the way he had to stop himself from shouting I don't know Uncle back. It was… a reflex.
"To get off your stupid ship before someone kills me," he snapped, instead.
That is not a plan, nephew, Uncle's voice whispered, as unhelpful as his advice always was.
"No one is going to kill you, Prince Zuko," the Chief lied, about half as well as Azula when she was eight.
The words were sincere enough—Zuko could never tell, from the words—but the warrior's eyes were glacier-cold and unblinking, promising something very different. And Zuko was stuck up here on the top of a stupid sail, and he was already getting cold in these ridiculous baggy clothes, and he couldn't stay up here but if he came down the man would—would be able to do whatever he wanted, would probably hurt him before he killed him, because there wasn't anything kind in those eyes.
"I'm not—I'm not even your enemy, I have my own mission. Just let me go; I swear on my honor I won't report your position to the fleet—"
(This wasn't his father, but talking to the man felt the same. His silence wasn't listening, it was waiting for Zuko to stack the kindling higher, and Zuko always did because he was stupid and he didn't know what these men wanted him to say—)
Sokka had once broken Hakoda's favorite spear, hidden the pieces in a snowbank, and gamely tried to talk his way out of the blame. He'd been seven. And had been, apparently, arguing his case more eloquently than an actual prince.
A prince who'd dared used the phrase I'm not your enemy. Hakoda let the boy talk himself out. Let the silence settle back over them.
"Have you been to the South Pole, Prince Zuko?"
"I… yes?" Those gold eyes blinked. What does that have to do with anything was implied in his tone. Far be it for a prince to anticipate a common savage's fears.
"With how many ships?"
"Just the Wani," Zuko said, with the uncomfortable spinning feeling that they were having very different conversations and if he didn't join the Chief's soon he was going to fall.
"Did you visit any villages?"
"One," he said, his fingers digging into the wood of the beam below him because he didn't know where the trap was.
"How many did you kill?"
"How many… what?" Zuko dug his fingers in harder, because it looked like the Chief might forego any planned torture and just shove him to his death right here.
"Why is my daughter in a Fire Nation prison, Prince Zuko?
"Your—? She did that to herself!"
That wasn't the right answer. That wasn't the right answer at all and he should have known that but he was always so stupid—
"Your Highness," Hakoda grit out. "You are a valuable hostage. We will not kill you out of hand. It isn't necessary for you to lie."
The Fire Prince jumped to his feet. The Fire Prince jumped to his feet at the top of the swaying main sail, with nothing to support him, forty feet in the air.
"I'm not lying!" Flames trailed his hands as he gestured, leaving sparking arcs in the night, which was alarming for entirely different reasons. "My mission is to capture the Avatar, not to deal with backwards Water Tribe savages. I wouldn't have even gone to that village if they weren't hiding him, and I didn't—I didn't hurt anyone, I'm not like you, it was just a bunch of old people and children and I don't try to stab people in the back when they're on their knees. I just scared them so they'd surrender the Avatar, and they did, and I left, and I didn't even go back when the Avatar broke his word and escaped because I'm not a monster like you. Stop making up crimes for me in your head!"
"...We shouldn't be having this conversation up here," Hakoda said, because he didn't know what else to say to a volatile teenager who might fall to his death at any moment, or light their ship on fire, and whose high fever may or may not have left him with permanent brain damage. The Avatar? Hiding in Hakoda's village?
Nevermind the boy's warped sense of justice, comparing a Fire Nation soldier like himself to children who'd done no worse in their life than hide from soldiers.
"You're climbing down," Hakoda ordered, leaving no room for disagreement. "Now. We will continue this discussion in my—"
"No." The prince's voice was nothing but disagreement. "I'm not going to let you break my leg, or—or whatever your consequences will be."
"You can't stay up here forever."
"Try me," the prince said, like a particularly stubborn toddler.
The boy was clutching his wrist. But his own hand was smaller than Hakoda's had been, and it couldn't hide the bruise underneath.
Climbing up here hadn't been an attempt to get leverage; if it were, the prince would have tried to use it by now, would have threatened their ship. The boy had simply treed himself like a panicked raccoon-kitten, and was too scared of the warriors below to come back down.
"My men won't hurt you. You have my word."
"And what about you?" the boy asked, his own grip too tight over that bruise.
"Answer my questions, and I won't have to."
The prince's jaw tightened. He tilted up his chin. "I'm not going to tell you anything about the Fire Nation."
"I'm more interested in the South Pole," Hakoda answered. "And my daughter."
"...I'm not going down first."
Which appeared to be as close to assent as Hakoda was going to get. He started climbing; a few moments later, leaving a generous gap between them, the prince followed.
The whole crew was staring and silent and ringing them in, and Zuko was hesitant to step on deck again before the ship's dog came bark-charging at him.
Zuko was half-way up the mast again before the Chief pried the dog's sharp, insectile legs off the wood and stopped it from chasing him.
Someone on the crew laughed. It was a too-loud, incredulous sound, clearly directed at him, and if Zuko ever found out who did it he was going to light something on fire. He glared at each of the men below him individually.
"It's safe to come down now, Your Highness," the Chief said, holding the growling, many-leg-scrabbling dog under one arm. He sounded amused.
"I know that," Zuko snapped, and let his grip slip so he came down fast in the way that always made Uncle shout Please use the ladder rungs nephew they are not there for decoration—
The Water Tribesmen flinched at the speed just as much as the Wani's deck crew always did. Zuko crossed his arms, and raised his chin, and tried not to think of how much taller than him they all were. It wasn't that people in the Fire Nation were short, and Zuko was a perfectly average height for his age and anyway he was expecting a growth spurt soon, but these barbarians were unnecessarily large.
The Chief looked down on him, and it wasn't even like he was trying to, he was just… too big. "Right this way, Your Highness," he said, with a slight bow to further mock formality. "Let's talk."
Zuko followed, stiff-backed, with only one glance towards the sea. He had the Chief's word he wouldn't be hurt.
The word of a savage, and a leader, and a father.
...It was too late to jump in the ocean now.
Chapter 4: The Prisoner is Unnervingly Cooperative During Interrogations
Fanart from last chapter!
Not a complete list, more on my Tumblr!
The Chief sat down behind his desk, and set the dog on the floor. Zuko stood stiffly behind the room's other chair, waiting for an invitation to sit, and resolving not to pull up his legs out of biting range when he did. It was just a stupid intimidation tactic. It was just a stupid dog. It growled from somewhere under the desk, but Zuko was very pointedly keeping his eyes on the Chief, not the knee-high hard-shelled menace.
The Fire Prince was apparently set on having this conversation while standing. He stood with arms clasped behind his back and legs set exactly shoulder-width apart, the picture of stiff militaristic formality. The way the borrowed shirt wouldn't stay up over both his shoulders at once seemed to be a fact the prince was studiously ignoring, as if that was more dignified than pushing it back up.
Hakoda let out a breath. If the kid wanted to be uncomfortable, let him. The chair was right there, whenever he decided to swallow his pride.
"Start from the beginning," Hakoda ordered.
"...What beginning," the prince said, setting the tone for exactly how difficult getting straight answers from him was going to be.
What beginning? From when he fell off the Wani, and ended up here? From the light at the South Pole? Why he went to the South Pole to begin with? The start of his banish—his quest for the Avatar? What did that even mean, 'Start from the beginning'?
The Chief was staring at him like he should know. Like he was being willfully disobedient by not answering, even though he'd asked for clarification, even though it was the Chief who wasn't answering him—
(He was making rules and waiting for Zuko to break them. They'd already had this discussion, up on the mast: the Chief wouldn't hurt him unless Zuko didn't answer his questions, so of course his questions weren't going to be fair—)
(No wonder the Water Tribe siblings were so dedicated to the Avatar; if this was their father, they couldn't disappoint him, either. Zuko didn't like them. But he didn't hate them enough to ruin this for them.)
"Your son showed great bravery in defending his home against superior numbers," he began, and had the immediate feeling, based on the stillness of the man in front of him, that he'd started wrong. Oh. Oh. The Chief kept asking about his daughter, not his son; he probably didn't even care about the non-bender. That made sense. "And. Your daughter, ah. She also fought to the best of her abilities on my ship, displaying a range of water and icebending techniques that my crew had never faced before—"
They'd never faced any waterbender before, so that was completely true, even if she'd iced over her own brother and not been able to hit anyone unless she was throwing water backwards—
It was not Hakoda's first interrogation. It was perhaps his most intentionally civil, but it was not his first. He was familiar with the poison that captured Fire Nation soldiers spat, words meant to deliberately hurt.
He wasn't used to them being so hesitantly chosen, and apparently politely intended, while also cutting him to the bone.
The Fire Prince mentioned Sokka once. Once. Sokka was brave in defending his home; that was all. That was the last.
And Katara—she'd fought on the prince's ship. A ship of Fire Nation soldiers had attacked his village, ki— fought against his son and took his daughter, who knew that revealing her bending would be a death sentence but felt desperate enough to do so anyway and why had they brought her aboard their ship to begin with —
Scuttles lunged forward, under the desk edge and around the chair the prince still refused to sit in. The young soldier backpedaled, tripping into Hakoda's bunk; he grabbed a pillow, and held it up like a shield between himself and the snarling isopup that had clearly picked up on its master's displeasure.
...The boy didn't use his fire. Or kick the dog away. He hadn't out on the deck, either.
Hakoda stood, and picked up the dog again. The prince… continued to hold the slightly-mauled pillow, like—
Like he expected Hakoda to hurt him, and wasn't sure how to defend himself.
Hakoda carried the dog to the porthole, and shooed him outside. Clicked it closed. And sat back down in his own chair, as sharp legs pawed ineffectually at the glass behind him.
The boy was watching him the same way he'd watched the dog. Warily; like it was only a matter of when he would be attacked, not if.
"I gave you my word, Prince Zuko. Keep your end, and I'll keep mine. Now sit."
"I'm already sitting."
Hakoda kept looking at the prince, until he finally uncurled from his awkward defensive huddle on Hakoda's bed and stood.
"Your, ah. Your pillow."
Was leaking feathers. Yes, Hakoda was aware. "Leave it."
The boy left it back at the head of the bed where he'd first snatched it from, turned over as if that would make Hakoda forget the damage. Then he sat, as stiffly as he'd stood, his golden eyes occasionally darting towards the porthole over Hakoda's shoulder and the muffled growling still coming through it.
"What was your mission in the South Pole?" Hakoda asked.
It quickly became apparent that the Fire Nation had no oral storytelling tradition of which to speak. Either that, or the prince was simply very, very bad at this.
"I was hunting the Avatar. And I found him, there was that pillar of light, and then the signal flares, and—"
"What? No. She attacked my ship, we didn't attack her! Why would I kidnap some random gross peasant girl—I mean, uh, young lady? She, ah. She comported herself well in battle, successfully executing a surprise tactical strike and recapturing the Avatar despite being outnumbered and facing a superior element—"
"—What? No, it wasn't your daughter in the dress, it was— and, and it's a highly respected tradition on their island, he must have truly impressed them for them to even allow him to train with them, the Kyoshi Warriors are— Of course he's alive, why would you think— I did not say that!"
Hakoda held up a hand to stop the prince from saying more words. He was having trouble keeping up, honestly. But there was one thing that was becoming bafflingly apparent in the prince's narrative:
"Are you trying to flatter my children?"
...Well. That established a baseline for how effectively the prince lied, at least.
Hakoda lowered his hand. The prince continued. At least he dropped the flattery.
"How would I know where they got that much blasting jelly, I wasn't there, but towns don't just flood themselves and regional command doesn't just send out urgent wanted posters—"
"No, that was after she tricked them into putting her into earthbender-prison."
"Before they made the volcano erupt. I am not mumbling, I said 'with us inside'—"
"I, uh. I didn't mean to imply that your daughter steals from pirates. But the pirates thought she did. So, uh. I saved her from them? Well I had to tie her to something, I couldn't just let the pirates bring her on their ship and I didn't trust her not to break something on mine! I am not mumbling, I said 'I used the good rope'—"
"They're your children! If they would just let me capture the Avatar maybe they'd be in less mortal peril!"
"If you're not going to believe me then why am I even talking to you!"
Hakoda wasn't sure when his headache had started, and could not fathom its end.
The boy sat across from him with arms crossed, glaring at a spot on the wall, refusing to speak further. Which was not what they had agreed on, up on that mast; there was no room for petty sulking in Answer my questions, and I won't hurt you. But it was late, and there was a tired slump to the teenager's shoulders that hadn't been there when they began, and Hakoda himself could use a night to think on what he'd just heard and how much he could trust any of it. It sounded… fantastical. But there was a convoluted sincerity to it that would be hard to fake.
Which by no means meant it was true; he wasn't ruling out the possibility that the prince had simply had very vivid fever dreams, which happened to involve two Water Tribe children his crew had killed.
...One of Hakoda's Earth Kingdom contacts would know if the Avatar had returned. If he had Water Tribe companions. If they were all safe. He would send an albatross-pigeon as soon as it was light enough; it would only be a few days before he had some form of confirmation—or denial—for the prince's story.
Which left a more immediate problem.
The prince tensed under his gaze. Apparently Hakoda's face hadn't been as blank as he'd intended.
"I answered you!" the soldier said. "What else do you want me to say?"
"You've said quite enough, Prince Zuko," Hakoda replied. "I need time to confirm it. In the meantime, there will be rules you need to follow while you are aboard this ship."
The boy's good eye narrowed almost as far as his burned one. "You said you weren't going to hurt me if I talked."
"And now I won't hurt you if you follow the rules. Your escape attempts must stop. It distracts my crew, and anything that distracts them might get them killed. If I have to break your legs, I will; if you force me to kill you, I will. It's up to you."
The boy didn't respond. He watched Hakoda with narrower eyes.
"You will follow orders from myself and my crewman. And you will work. We have no prison cell to keep you in, and every man here earns his meals. Understand?"
The prince still looked mutinous. Hakoda would be surprised if he'd worked a day in his life, but there was no way he'd leave the soldier idle. The boy was creative enough without being given time for his creativity.
"And no firebending. This is a wooden ship; even stray sparks like what you made up on the mast could cripple it, to say nothing of an actual attack, either against the ship or my crew. We have no way of restraining a firebender safely. I tell you this as a warning, not an invitation. If you start bending, I'll have no choice but to kill you. There may be other rules later, but for now—"
"I can't," the soldier interrupted.
Hakoda stared him down, waited for a protest he was sure he wasn't going to like.
"I can work, and the next time I escape you won't catch me, but I can't just… not bend. I'm not a master, I can't turn it off, and that's—it's not healthy, who does that? But—but I can give you my word of honor that I won't hurt anyone, and if I do start a fire I'll put it out, and—"
"Prince Zuko," Hakoda said, "you'll have to forgive me for doubting you."
There was a rather large, rather obvious reason he couldn't, staring him in… well, in the face. He'd never seen a firebender with such a serious burn. Someone who could simply put out fires wouldn't have a mark like that.
The prince seemed to realize where he was looking. He drew in a sharp breath, and then his hands were on fire. Hakoda was on his feet with knife in hand, and the grim thought that this was certainly one way to end their firebender problem—
The prince was on his feet, too, and backing away as far as the small cabin allowed. He let his flames go out, but stayed in a ready stance.
...His hands had been in his lap when the flames had started, but there were no singe marks on the cloth.
Hakoda lowered his knife slowly, gauging the prince's reaction; the prince lowered his hands, by the same degree as Hakoda. Hakoda sheathed his weapon, and the boy eased out of his stance fully.
"I didn't," the prince said. "To myself—I, I mean I did, but not like that—"
Hakoda let out a breath. "If you burn anything—or anyone— I'll have no choice. And I won't be responsible for the crew's reactions if you startle someone. My men have no love for your kind, firebender."
The boy nodded, jerkily. He crossed his arms again, and Hakoda had a suspicion it was less about prideful posturing, and more about hiding hands that might start shaking as the adrenaline wore off.
"...What are you planning to do with me?"
"I'll be opening talks with your father. You can go home just as soon as he meets our demands."
Hakoda had not predicted abject horror as the response to this statement.
"You can't tell Father, having his son captured would—it will shame him. You need to talk to my Uncle, not Father, he'll get you anything you ask for, just don't tell the Fire Lord—"
Fire Nation pride was ridiculous. "He's your father, Prince Zuko," Hakoda interrupted. "Does he want you home?"
"...Yes," the prince answered. "Yes, of course he does."
"Then he'll meet at least some of our terms. I'm not unreasonable; I don't expect your capture to end the war, and I won't put your father in a position where he has to refuse our demands entirely. Leave the negotiating to us. And stop trying to escape." Because if the rat-viper thought Hakoda had missed that 'next time I escape you won't catch me', he was mistaken. "You're safe here, so long as you obey the rules we set."
Zuko had never been very good with rules. Other people made them, and changed them when they wanted, and they were never in Zuko's favor and they'd certainly never made him safe. Thirteen years in the palace and two and a half dealing with the ever-changing restrictions of his banishment had taught him that. If the Water Tribe Chief seriously thought Zuko would believe it was any different on a barbarian ship, he was as much of an idiot as his children. Zuko wasn't naive; he knew how the world worked.
It was fine. He'd just do what he always did: agree, then do what he had to, and try not to get caught.
Hakoda didn't like that look in the prince's eyes at all. But it was good enough for tonight; it had to be, unless he wanted to kill the boy right now.
"You're going to bed, Prince Zuko," he said. "And you'll remain there until one of my men comes for you in the morning. Am I clear?"
If that nod wasn't the very definition of grudging, Hakoda didn't know what was. But he'd made no rules about general surliness. He opened the cabin door, and made an after you gesture. The healer's room was right across the hall, and the boy started towards it. "Not there," Hakoda corrected. "You'll forgive me for wanting extra eyes on you, Prince Zuko. And you're not sick anymore."
He motioned to the stairs down; the prince approached them with enough caution that Hakoda was reasonably certain he hadn't prowled below deck during his escapes.
The crew cabin took up most of this level; there was a bit of storage in the back, and a last set of stairs down to their main supplies. Primarily, though, it was a simple room. Hammocks for each of the crew, and sea chests tucked at the edges and secured against storms. There was only one empty spot. As practical as it was to give it to the Fire Prince, it still left a bitter taste in Hakoda's mouth. They'd left Bato at the abbey weeks ago—if he was well, then he'd meet them at the rendezvous point soon. If he wasn't—
"It's in the middle of the room," the prince complained.
"Will that be a problem?" Hakoda asked, his tone very clearly stating it would not be.
"...It's creepy," the boy muttered, but sat down.
Hakoda left orders with the crew at large: at least two pairs of eyes should always be on the boy. And starting tomorrow, they'd work him hard enough he was too tired for escape.
It was really creepy. The hammock moved in exactly the way a proper futon didn't, and he couldn't lay flat, and there were Water Tribesmen all around him and he couldn't see them all at once no matter how he twisted. And these furs and blankets were dusty, and—and was he in a dead man's bed? Why was this empty?
Healer Kustaa had a hammock near his, apparently. He snorted as Zuko turned over again.
"If I give you a cup of tea to help you sleep, are you going to drug someone else?"
Zuko flushed. The Chief hadn't asked about that, Zuko hadn't thought anyone had noticed. And anyway, it wasn't his fault their guard was an unobservant idiot who couldn't even tell when his tea had been spiked.
The guard had been huge and suspicious of him and huge; Zuko hadn't wanted to fight him. But the man had sucked at keeping track of his teacup.
"I wasn't going to drink your drugged tea," Zuko snapped. Quietly, because there were people sleeping, and the ones still awake hated him enough already.
"Nice of you not to let it go to waste," the Healer retorted. "...How are you feeling? Anything broken?"
"Why do you care?"
"Healer, kid. Don't make me come over there and start poking."
"...He didn't hurt me," Zuko answered.
There was absolutely nothing reassuring in the Healer's quiet huh.
"Good night, brat. If you make another escape, don't wake me up."
"I won't," Zuko said.
One of the other Tribesman snorted, like he thought they were joking. Healer Kustaa snorted, because he knew they weren't.
Chapter 5: Attempts to Tucker Out Ozai's Spawn Are Met With Inhuman Resistance
They went to drag the Fire Prince out of bed at the crack of dawn.
He was already sitting up in Bato's old hammock, arms crossed.
In retrospect, this was the phenomenon colloquially referred to as 'fair warning.'
"He finished," Tuluk said.
"He… what?" Hakoda looked up from their course charts, then out the porthole to the sun's position, then back to his acting second. Tuluk was nudging Scuttles with his foot, keeping the dog from bolting out the cabin door and towards the topic of their conversation. Who was down in the hold. Should be down in the hold. Should be down there all day, pushing all their cargo from one side to the other because they'd found a better way to organize things during two years at sea but had never quite found the time to implement it fully. "They weren't supposed to help him that much."
"They didn't help him at all," his acting second said. "Kid didn't even ask. Didn't take any breaks, either."
"...Make sure he does, before Healer Kustaa has our heads."
"The little viper gets growly if you imply he's tired." Tuluk snorted, and pushed off the doorframe. "I'm going to have him swab the deck next. Pretty sure Aake can have him missing-a-spot for at least an hour."
Zuko had done that spot three times he had not missed it, the stupid Tribesmen were just messing with him.
"If you're tried," one of them taunted, "you could take a—"
"I'm not tired."
His back just ached from moving every box in their hold while they didn't help at all and the dog had gotten out of the Chief's office and he'd gotten a splinter in his hand trying to climb away from it and now it was tied to the main mast and growling at him. Which was still better than the Water Tribe warriors, who were smirking.
Zuko pushed the stupid mop over the spot-he'd-missed. Again. And watched, out of the corner of his eye, as the crew changed the sails to catch the shifting wind.
He'd pushed around the ship's boats while he was mopping. They were as technologically deprived as the rest of this ship, but they clearly had places to rig up sails. Which would really increase the potential range and speed of his escape, if he could figure out how sails worked. And now he knew exactly where in their hold their food was stored, and their water casks, and if he could start sneaking things out little by little and hiding them under the tarps then—
One of the crewmen, the big guy with the black eye who was always glaring at him, the one who'd suggested breaking his leg, grabbed the end of Zuko's mop. Zuko glared up at him, harder.
"You're barely even getting the deck wet. Start over."
"You heard me."
Their deck wasn't even dirty. It hadn't been when he'd started and it definitely wasn't now that he'd already gone over the entire thing once (and more than once). The Leg Breaker was glaring down at him, waiting for him to cave, and the dog was still growling, and he just wanted to take five minutes and dig out the stupid splinter in his hand without someone being snide about him taking a break and his last guards had passed him off to this guy and then turned up on deck eating their lunch but no one had offered him anything yet, the crew was just taking turns eating in front of him like he hadn't earned it yet—
Zuko put a foot on the bucket's rim, and kicked it. It spilled across the deck and over the Leg Breaker's feet.
"Is that enough water?"
"I'm going to murder the brat if you let Tuluk saddle me with him again," Aake reported, after a polite knock on Hakoda's doorframe. "Just so you know."
He was smiling more pleasantly than a man should, with a split lip.
"Noted," Hakoda said.
"I wasn't escaping and I didn't use my bending and I was working, I've been working all day, whatever he said he's lying," the prince snapped, as soon as Hakoda stepped foot in the healer's room. The soldier was perched at the edge of a bunk, his hands tight around the wooden frame, gold eyes simmering unrepentantly up at Hakoda. His borrowed shirt was off; Healer Kustaa was poking at the new bruises on his ribs.
"He said you kicked a bucket of water over on him. Then you… exchanged blows."
"Oh," the prince said. "He's not lying, then."
"...New rule. No instigating fights with my crew, with or without bending."
"He 'instigated'," the future Fire Lord mumbled.
"What was that?"
"Nothing." He shifted his scowl to the wall, wincing slightly as Kustaa prodded an especially dark spot.
Hakoda held off on rubbing his temples until he was back in the hall.
Zuko mopped the deck. Again. At least he had different Tribesmen breathing down his neck.
Then he had to sweep below deck, and scrub out their… not hawkery, what even were these things? He scrubbed the cages of the world's biggest, loudest seagulls. One of them cooed, and got its beak tangled in his ponytail.
"Aww, look," one of his newest guards said, leaning against the doorframe. "She likes him."
"Or she's trying to eat him," his other guard said, more realistically.
When he was done, his guards ducked into the cramped room that served as the ship's kitchen, came out with their own dinners, and proceeded to eat in front of him. Again.
It was a nice night. Strong breeze, clear sky, the stars just starting to come out. The constellations were strange this far north—the familiar guiding stars low to the horizon, or hidden entirely. They'd had to purchase new charts two years ago, and their patterns still didn't speak to Hakoda like those in the south did. There was something unnerving in looking up, and finding that the stars that watched over their people had no eyes to see them here.
"Your prince is trying to starve himself," Panuk reported. He leaned back against the rail.
It had been a nice night. Hakoda lowered his sextant. "You got him food?"
"Yeah. We got a few plates, and tried to eat with him. He didn't touch anything. You sure he's not too used to eating babes and drinking the blood of the innocent? Might have a hard time switching diets."
Their second-youngest crewman was smirking, but there was something worried at the edges of his eyes. Worried for the prince or about him, Hakoda didn't know.
"Any more trouble?" He cast a glance over the deck, to where the prince was stiffly sitting, glaring at Toklo as he finished his own meal. The communal plates were right there, but the prince was keeping his distance from them.
"Just a lot of snarling and snapping, and I'm pretty sure brooms were an exotic animal he'd only seen from a distance before today. Better watch him with the albatross-pigeons, though."
"Did he threaten them?"
Panuk flashed a grin. "Naw, the big dummies like him. Seabreeze tried to preen him and spent about five minutes tangled in his hair, but the only ones he growled at were us. Better be careful he doesn't convert them to enemy birds."
The Chief wanted to see him. At least this time he didn't keep Zuko standing. Sit, was the first word out of his mouth. Then eat. He sounded so much like he was ordering his dog around that Zuko almost refused on principle, but—
But he needed to keep his strength up if he was going to escape. And after a day of doing all the Water Tribe's hard labor for them, any food at all smelled good.
(...It was good. There were more flavors than he was expecting, and the salt wasn't as overwhelming as the time Uncle had taken him to that 'authentic Water Tribe' restaurant—)
Besides. If the Chief was giving this to him, then he must have finally done enough to earn his meal.
Apparently the prince was not on a hunger strike. Just too prideful to ask for food, or eat from the same plates as the rest of the crew. They'd have to break him of that.
Hakoda waited until he was done. It… didn't take very long. Then the kid was looking up at him again, as surly-suspicious as always. Hakoda slid the empty plate away, and replaced it with a sheet of paper.
"Write to your father."
And there was that look of near panic again. Directed at the blank sheet, instead of him. "...Okay," the prince said. And proceeded to write exactly nothing.
Hakoda sat across the desk, and finished updating the ship's log for the day. He tried not to rush the boy. His own letter to the Fire Lord had… taken considerable time. In the end, he knew it wasn't up to whatever courtly perfection the man would be used to, but it was at least sincere. He'd tried to imagine what it would be like if it were Sokka in Fire Nation hands; what he would give to get his son back, what he couldn't give and still call himself Chief. The Fire Lord was a father, too, and that's how his final draft had turned out—an unadorned letter, from one father to another.
Their fleet had been forced to retreat from an attack a few weeks back; the same one that had left Bato on the brink of— had left his second in need of prolonged medical care. Several men from another ship had been captured. Hakoda's letter demanded the return of their men, and a treaty regarding the Fire Nation's presence in Southern Tribe waters. He hoped, by the end of this tasteless haggling, to at least have his men back.
The prince still hadn't written anything.
Hakoda let out a quiet breath. Not quiet enough that it didn't startle the kid. Wide gold eyes met his, glinting in the light of the oil lamp like the boy really did have fire inside. It was… unsettling.
"He's your father, Prince Zuko," Hakoda said. "Just tell him you're safe, and being well treated."
"But I'm not," the brat said. "And I'm not."
Hakoda set his jaw, holding in his response. We could be treating you a lot worse, Your Highness. This must all be very alarming to a palace-raised noble; asked to do basic chores, forced to eat basic meals, without a single servant in sight. The Fire Nation brought war elsewhere; the war didn't come to it. No doubt the prince had been sheltered on his ship until the Ocean had delivered him to Water Tribe hands.
"Write," Hakoda ordered.
Under the table, Zuko tucked his bruised wrist between his legs. He wrote.
It was entirely inadequate for expressing his shame over being captured. Not his apologies, apologies were excuses and Father didn't like—
And. And he vowed he'd do better if given another chance, he'd been so close, he'd found the Avatar when no one else had—
(Father didn't like bragging unless it was Azula doing it.)
But he would capture the Avatar and bring him home. If he was granted another chance he wouldn't squander it; he would make the Fire Nation proud.
The Chief read his letter when he was done. His growing silence was an uncomfortable preview of Father's reaction.
"Can I get back to work now?" Zuko asked.
"Go to bed, Prince Zuko. The crew will get you in the morning."
Zuko had that dream. The crew didn't appreciate it.
"Sorry," he snapped. "I'll try to have my nightmares more quietly."
The crew didn't like that, either.
He hadn't noticed Healer Kustaa leaving, but he came back with tea. It was just jasmine, but it was… calming. Just to hold it, and focus his breaths on keeping it warm as he waited for the sun to rise.
Apparently in the mornings, the crew went around rubbing sticks-with-sandstones-on-them across their deck before mopping. He'd just missed out on it yesterday. Zuko nearly asked if he could rearrange their entire hold again; at least that used different muscles.
"With the grain," a crewmen said.
He had been going with the grain, he'd just slipped a little, they didn't need to watch him literally every second waiting for his inevitable screw up—
"Put your back into it," another snapped.
His back wouldn't hurt if he wasn't putting his back into it—
It didn't help that it was colder today. They were moving farther south, or maybe the weather was just turning, but the breeze that had been cool yesterday was cold today. His loose clothes were doing nothing to help, it almost felt like they were funneling the wind against him. He was keeping up his breath of fire, but the crew was giving him looks for how his breath steamed in the air, and he remembered the Chief's warning: the man wouldn't even pretend to protect him if he 'startled' the crew with his bending. Whatever 'startled' meant.
'Startled' like having a giant bird fall out of the sky onto the deck in front of him.
"What," Zuko said. It was one of those giant seagulls they used as messenger birds. It had landed face first. And bounced. And now it was standing there next to his feet, cooing, and he wasn't sure if that was a distressed noise or not. "Is it... okay?"
"It's fine," a crewman said dismissively, picking up the whole giant bird under one arm. The thing was bigger than the ship's dog. And possibly less flight-capable.
"...Okay." Zuko watched the man carrying it below deck, probably to drop its message off with the Chief. And he knew it was too early for a reply from his Father, but—
"Back to work."
Zuko scowled, and attacked the deck like it was all his life problems. The deck didn't look particularly different after his efforts, either.
The albatross-pigeon carrying Hakoda's message to the Fire Lord, and the prince's own dubious confirmation of his safety, had gone out with the dawn.
Hakoda's message to his allies in the Earth Kingdom had gone out after his interview with the prince. This was the fastest reply he'd ever gotten from General Fong. By a significant margin.
The Earth Kingdom was pleased to offer a prison to hold the captured prince. Much safer and more secure than a wooden ship operating in contested seas.
The Earth Kingdom eagerly anticipated his reply, and was sending one of their fastest ships, fully equipped to restrain even a royal firebender.
The Earth Kingdom was happy to take this valuable prisoner and all negotiating power from the Water Tribe, and use the prince for their own agenda.
Postscript: Oh, and they'd send along the information they'd gathered on the Avatar and his traveling companions, as well.
Sometimes Hakoda wondered how stupid the Generals thought he was. They'd gotten off on the wrong foot two years ago, when he'd shown up with his fleet and offered to join the war for free. No terms, no contracts, no bartering. The Earth Kingdom had been only too glad to accept such undemanding allies, and had proceeded to treat them like uncultured but enthusiastic children ever since.
We thank you for your generous offer, Hakoda began to pen back, but—
Someone knocked on his door, and proceeded to shove the Fire Prince inside.
"He was bending," Aake said, following after.
"You said I could," the prince protested. Hakoda wondered if the firebender realized he'd rooted his stance the moment he found his feet, or that he was standing to the side of Hakoda's desk, naturally keeping both Water Tribesmen in view. Had he done that deliberately, or was it an instinct bred into the blood?
"The Chief told you," Aake said, "that you could go around deck breathing fire?"
Zuko hadn't been trying to breathe fire. But he'd done something else the crew didn't like and then someone had snidely said Your father must be so proud and— His breath of fire had been a fire breath . But only for a heartbeat or two, there were barely any flames and there hadn't even been anything flammable in front of him, and then the Leg Breaker was grabbing his arm and dragging him off and Zuko wasn't allowed to instigate fights so he'd gone with (and been stupidly relieved when the man had brought him to the Chief's room, not just someplace with less witnesses) (which was extra stupid because it wasn't like the Chief cared—)
"Prince Zuko," the man said, not even bothering to rise from his seat. "Explain yourself."
"I'm cold," he said. "It's cold. Is there a rule against being cold?"
The Chief watched him with those blue eyes. Zuko squared his shoulders, and drew himself up, and let out a few sparks on his next exhale.
The man finally stood. He stepped towards Zuko, and Zuko stiffened, but then he… knelt down. And rummaged through his sea chest. And pulled out a coat?
"There is a rule against being cold, actually," the Chief said, and his tone said he was trying to joke but his eyes were still glacier-cold. "You can borrow that. Now stop breathing fire."
Zuko tugged the coat on. The sleeves puddled over his arms, nearly to his knees. The fur trim of the hood tickled at his neck, and smelled musty with mildew like everything did that got stored for too long on a ship. It also smelled a little like sweat, which was actually an upgrade from the clothes he'd already been wearing—and from everyone else on this ship—which smelled a lot like sweat. He hadn't spotted a shower room. Which was fair, this ship was decades behind even the Wani's outdated design, maybe the Water Tribe didn't have showers yet. But he hadn't spotted any place to bathe at all. Did they bathe? No one here smelled like it, not even him.
"Better?" the man asked.
"It's too big," Zuko said. "And it smells weird."
"...Aake," the Chief said. "It's been awhile since we've had a laundry day, hasn't it? Why don't you grab Panuk and Toklo, and tell them the good news. His Majesty has offered to help with their favorite chore."
'His Majesty' was for Fire Lords, not princes. Zuko did not correct the Chief.
'Stop breathing fire' wasn't a phrase Hakoda had ever thought he'd use. He sat back down as Aake marched the prince out, and picked back up his quill. His reply to the Earth Kingdom was still waiting.
...He slid over a clean sheet.
We will consider your offer.
The Earth Kingdom's proposed rendezvous point wasn't far off their current course, and it was in the right direction for their meet up with Bato. Hakoda sent his reply.
Zuko's new guards were some of the same from yesterday, when he was cleaning below deck and scrubbing out the bird cages.
"I hate you so much right now," the younger of them said. "I hope you realize that."
Zuko's shoulders tensed, but he managed both to keep his mouth shut and not breathe fire, because he was pretty sure that was a rule now even if the Chief hadn't explicitly said it.
"He's joking, kid," the other crewman, who was not that much older than him, said. "Laundry is just the worst."
"...Why?" Zuko couldn't remember anyone complaining about it back on the Wani. Latrine duty and night watch had been the punishment details.
"Besides being women's work? Here, carry this." The older-but-too-young-to-be-calling-anyone-kid one said, pushing a woven basket into his hands. He'd grabbed one for himself, too, so Zuko took it. "Come on. We'll give you a demonstration."
They went back on deck. The older looked at the younger. And… took a step behind him. The younger one sighed dramatically.
"Laundry," he called out, with all the faked passion of an Ember Island Player butchering a death scene.
Which was when people started throwing dirty shirts at them. Which was disgusting enough, but then a few went below deck to change and came back with worse things to throw. The older one's name was Panuk, apparently, and he shamelessly kept hiding behind them as the crew threw taunts and over-ripe clothes. The younger's name was Toklo, and he was much, much worse than Zuko at dodging.
"Hate you both," Toklo sighed, as the rain of clothes died down. "And now to freeze our arms off. Hope you didn't like being able to feel your fingers, Your Majesty."
"...'Your Highness'," Zuko said. "'Majesty' is for the Fire Lord."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm talking to the Fire Lord," Toklo said.
They hauled up bucket after bucket of water, and filled the half-barrels that were apparently going to be their laundry tubs. The scrubboards looked a lot like the ones on his ship, just smaller. And this was the first sign Zuko had seen of soap existing on the Water Tribe ship, which was much more of a lift in spirits than it should be. He'd only been fully conscious for two days but he already missed soap so much.
"...What's 'women's work'?" Zuko asked, as he tried to touch this shirt as little as possible as he scrubbed it. Was he just supposed to… rub it up and down? For how long? Would that actually get the smell out, because there was a lot of smell—
"You know, women's work," Toklo said. "Like cleaning, and cooking, and sewing, and stuff. Only we don't have any women so they always make the youngest crewmen do it. And guess what, that's always us."
"He's just angry he's getting good at it," Panuk said. "We'll make a proper wife out of—Why. Is your water steaming."
"It's not," Zuko said. Because it wasn't steaming much, and with a careful exhale to vent a few degrees it wasn't steaming at all and they couldn't prove anything—
"Tui and La it's warm," Toklo said, because he'd just shoved both his arms in and was doing his best to drape himself over the side. "How did you do that, this feels amazing, do it to mine—"
The older of the two was staring at Zuko. It was a creepy measuring stare, and then his eyes flicked across the deck to the Leg Breaker, who was watching them with a frown while he tied off a line (he was always watching Zuko).
"Did Hakoda really give you permission to use your bending?" Panuk asked.
Zuko bristled. "I wasn't lying, Leg Breaker just didn't believe me—"
Panuk snorted, a half-smile pulling at his lips. "'Leg Breaker'?"
Zuko did not smile back. "He wanted to break my legs."
"Oh. Right. ...Well that just stopped being funny." He cleared his throat, very pointedly not looking back towards the senior crewman. "So. Can you heat ours, too?"
"Shouldn't we check with the Chief first? Make sure he actually said it was okay?" the younger crewman asked. He'd made no move to remove himself from either Zuko's water, or his personal space.
"I mean, we could. But if Hakoda says 'no', then no warm water. But if we just trust the Prince at his word..."
"...I believe you implicitly, Your Highness."
The two younger crewman had been sitting next to each other. They forced Zuko in the middle instead, where he could be an optimum water heater for all three barrels.
Zuko was glad he hadn't known about this yesterday, when he'd written the letter to his Father. Not that he would have said anything about it, or ever would to anyone, ever, but it would have been even harder to write if he'd known what his royal bending would be getting used for. ...Father would probably find it fitting for his level. Or maybe that was just Azula's voice, in the back of his mind.
At least he wasn't mopping again. Someone else was stuck doing that today.
"...Why do they use that much water?" Zuko asked.
"What, to swab the deck?" Panuk said. Zuko nodded, and the Tribesman stopped scrubbing for a moment to rap his knuckles against the deck. "Wood, not steel. Swabbing keeps the boards swollen, helps stop them from warping, makes sure we get rained on below deck as minimally as possible come the next storm. Wood isn't exactly waterproof unless you treat it right."
...So Zuko really hadn't been using enough water. And he'd missed every spot, and really had needed to start over.
Panuk was still giving him that measuring look. "Have you ever scrubbed a shirt in your life?"
So the Tribesmen showed him how, and after a while they'd done enough that they switched to having just him and Toklo wash while Panuk wrang things out. It wasn't hard, it was just really repetitive. Zuko could see how this would be awful with cold water. How maybe they wouldn't want to do it too often.
"We'd better stop and hang some of this up," Panuk said.
"Why don't you just bend the water out?" Zuko asked. Which got him a really strange look, from both of the crewmen. "Is that… not something waterbending can do?"
"We're not benders," Toklo said.
"Who is? Would they help?" They were still looking at him. So Zuko narrowed his eyes, and looked back. "Would they help or not?"
"We don't have any benders, Your Highness," Panuk said, and for the first time he didn't say the title like it was a joke or even just a name, he said it like it had weight. "Didn't your elders—or your teachers or your tutors, whatever—didn't they teach you what your nation did to ours? Why we're out here fighting you?"
They were a pirate fleet picking off lone navy ships and defying the Fire Lord's petitions for peace, forcing the need for strict dealings with the southern settlements who supported them.
...Was not a safe answer. Zuko tried to think what they would have been taught—
"There were… raids?"
"They took our benders," Panuk said. "Probably killed them; you'd know better than I would. We never saw them again."
"You still have benders, though. The Chief's daughter—"
"Is the last."
Which was crazy. And a lie. There had to be more, they were just hiding them. It wasn't possible that the navy had just… just gone in and taken all of them, what would a nation without any benders even look like? And what were the odds that the only village his ship had visited would have the South Pole's last waterbender living in its ice hovels?
(What were the odds he would really find the Avatar?)
"...I could dry."
The Tribesman blinked, his dark expression clearing to something a lot more confused. "You… what?"
"It wouldn't be as good as waterbending because I can't get the salt out, but neither would hanging them up. But I could dry them. If you want."
Hakoda was taking his turn at the wheel when Tuluk came up, and tapped him on the shoulder. Pointed down, without saying a word, and took the wheel from him.
Hakoda walked to the edge of the quarterdeck and looked over the rail. Directly below, the prince and their two youngest crewmen were doing laundry, as ordered. Toklo appeared to be scrubbing, Panuk was wringing the clothes out, and then passing them on to the prince, who was… pressing the fabric flat between his hands, a thin trail of smoke—no, steam— seeping out between his fingers. His face wasn't screwed up in a scowl for once; just in concentration. He looked almost like a normal teenager, one that wasn't fueled by spite and the desire to inflict headaches.
The other crewmen were watching Hakoda for a reaction. Which would require him to figure out how he felt about this. He leaned against the rail. It was… certainly an unanticipated use for firebending.
"That's a convenient trick."
The prince startled. Hard. He dropped the pair of pants he'd been drying, a bare moment before his hands lit on fire.
That was a much more familiar use of the ability, yes.
The boy looked up at him, eyes wide in the moment before he switched back to scowling. He closed his fists, dousing the flames. "I didn't burn it."
"I can see that."
"And it's faster than hanging them. And—and Panuk said I could."
"Wow. Just throw me under the charging elephant-walrus," the crewman in question said, with a wry smile.
Hakoda kept staring down. The boy kept glaring up, somehow managing to look more defiant with every moment that passed. It was little things: the way his shoulders tensed more and more, the way his spine straightened, the way his legs shifted like he was preparing to leap to his feet if it proved necessary. Like many from his nation, Prince Zuko did not know when to back down.
The prince had called Panuk by name. That was a first, as far as Hakoda knew—even Kustaa was just Healer. And he'd managed to go almost the whole morning without giving the crew another reason to haul him in front of Hakoda, or picking any more fights. Hakoda hadn't even heard any complaining.
...From any of them. Which was rather strange, for a laundry day.
"You heated the water too, didn't you?" he asked. Which caused his own crewmen to look vaguely guilty, almost like they'd spent the past hour actively covering for a firebender. Toklo squirmed when Hakoda met his eyes; Panuk offered a lazy shrug. The prince was drowning inside Hakoda's own coat, giving a fairly good impersonation of a moray-hermit-crab ready to strike from its shell.
"It was a good idea," Hakoda said, and the prince just… stopped. Stopped glaring, stopped looking ready to fight. Hakoda raised his voice, strong enough to carry, because it was about time to make some things official with the crew. "I did say you were allowed to bend, as long as it wasn't harmful. Just keep clearing it with whoever you're working with, exactly like you did. Carry on."
The prince still looked vaguely stunned by the time Hakoda left to take the wheel back from Tuluk. He clearly wasn't used to getting positive reinforcement from the enemy.
The wind brought their conversations up to the wheel, in bits and pieces.
"—Water's getting cold again, could you—?" Toklo said. Then, on the next gust: "How did I ever live without a firebender—"
"How do the sails work?" the prince asked.
"You are literally fishing for information to help you escape," Panuk said. "Don't think we didn't see you poking around the—"
"—Could help more, if I knew how they worked. It's not like I'm going to escape soon."
"You could at least bother denying it—"
There was suddenly rather more splashing then there should be. Hakoda handed the wheel off, and stared over the rail at three rather wet, rather guilty looking boys.
"He instigated, and anyway it wasn't a fight—" the Fire Prince hurried to say, pointing a finger at Toklo.
"Yeah, well, he wouldn't stop watching how to work the sails."
"Why would I not be watching, it's your own fault for bringing me on deck—"
"Please, for my sake," Panuk said, "please at least pretend to deny it?"
"But everyone knows I'm going to try escaping again," the Fire Prince said, like the concept of deceit was entirely baffling to him.
To be fair, everyone did know. But he could at least have the decency to deny it.
"Back to work," Hakoda ordered.
"That is convenient," Panuk said, a few minutes later.
"Could you dry my clothes, too?"
"You started it."
"I'm so cold, I'm probably going to die, but I won't blame you or haunt you even a little because I started it. And I've really learned my lesson—"
"Fine, shut up."
"—Nineteen, and Panuk there is a mighty twenty-one."
"And don't you forget it," Panuk said.
"...Sixteen," the Fire Prince said.
"Wait, seriously? But like… an old sixteen, right? Almost seventeen?"
"My birthday was two months ago."
...Everything made a little more sense, in Hakoda's world.
"Oh wow. Panuk, smell this."
"Don't shove things in my—wait, what is that?"
"I don't know, it's like a really cozy campfire? But with some kind of spice?"
"Here, give me that again—"
"You can't just sniff someone's bending," the prince protested. "It's—it's weird. Stop, put that—Give it back!"
Panuk stood, cracking his back. "I'm going to grab some lunch. You guys hungry?"
"Yeah," Toklo said.
"...Yes," Zuko echoed, when the Tribesman's gaze shifted to him. He hadn't worked nearly as long as yesterday, or as hard, but… maybe that was okay? The Chief had said he'd done a good job. Not that he'd even done anything special; just Uncle's tea-heating trick taken to the extreme, and a servant's trick for drying clothes that he wasn't supposed to know (but Azula had pushed him into that pond so often, and he couldn't keep coming inside with ruined clothes). Neither of them were even real bending. But to a crew of non-benders, maybe they looked harder than they were.
Panuk came back with a few different plates, and just sort of set them all over the deck around them. He and Toklo started eating.
"...Which one's mine?" Zuko asked.
"None of them."
...Right. Zuko picked up a shirt, took a breath to make sure he wasn't about to light it on fire, and then got back to work. Panuk was looking at him again.
"They're all a little different, right? So we'll share. Just take what you want. And take a break, would you?"
This looked… exactly like when they'd gotten food for dinner yesterday. But they'd stared at him then like—like he was being really weird. And not eating when they'd literally put food in front of him.
"We don't... share food, on my ship," he said, in an attempt to feel slightly less stupid.
"Sounds about right," Panuk said, with a half-grin. "I mean, the Fire Nation doesn't really share—"
"Wait," Toklo said. "So you were literally starving yourself with food in front of you yesterday? And with a whole room of food really obviously sitting there? And—"
"I wasn't going to just steal your food!"
"How can you steal food?" Toklo asked. "We put it out for everyone to eat. If you don't take any you're disrespecting the cook, and the hunters, and the animals—"
"How was I supposed to know that?"
"You could have asked," Panuk said.
Which implied that they were going to answer him. And that they'd tell him the truth when they did. Which was a really good way to get tricked, in Zuko's experience. But.
"...May I have seconds?"
"What? Oh, you want more?" Panuk jerked his head towards the stairs down. "You know where the kitchen is. But if you're not back in a minute I am sending a search party."
There was more than one crewmen in hearing range who tensed at Panuk's too-casual trust. But the kitchen was right down the hall, and half of the people Zuko was making paranoid could see him go in there without even leaving the deck, and he was back in a minute.
He sat back down and tried not to bristle when Toklo stole straight off his plate, because… because apparently it wasn't his plate.
The rest of the crew tried to ignore him completely, especially when he went back for thirds. This was safer than acknowledging that a Fire Prince could still just be a growing sixteen year old boy.
Zuko got to change into his own clothes that night, because Healer Kustaa had tossed them into the laundry basket. And he got to give back the Chief's smelly coat (newly washed), because Toklo let him borrow his. It was still too big but at least it only pooled a few inches past his fingers, instead of a foot. And he got to feel clean for the first time in days, because when he asked if he could bathe Toklo had realized the further implications of readily available hot water and had been… incredibly enthusiastic for this lifestyle shift.
The Water Tribe ship didn't have a shower or a proper tub aboard, but Zuko was willing to accept a bucket and a washcloth if it meant he could finally get rid of the disgusting fever-sweat he'd been wearing.
When the Chief ordered him to bed that night, he finally smelled clean.
He had more nightmares. But they were quieter, so it was fine.
Chapter 6: Fire Prince v. Ship's Dog (Guest Starring General Fong's Representative)
Fanart from last chapter!
Not a complete list. More on my tumblr!
Hakoda woke just after sunrise. He woke to scratching, and growling, and the general sounds of his dog trying to dig its way out under his cabin door.
This was going to be another tied-to-the-main-mast day, wasn't it.
"You can't maul the firebender, Scuttles," he groaned. "You're not fireproof."
Scuttles whined. And scratched. And did that half-whimper half-bark he usually reserved for begging to play fetch. Hakoda ran a hand over his face, and gave sleep up as a lost cause.
He opened his sea chest, and pulled out a freshly cleaned shirt.
"I am not a frying pan," Zuko deadpanned. This didn't stop Panuk from continuing to hold the plate out to him, or Toklo from making—what even was that face? What was he doing with his eyes and why was it so uncomfortable to look at, Zuko just wanted him to stop— "Fine."
He snatched the plate. And held it between his hands. And carefully breathed—in, hold, out—until the fish piled atop it started to sizzle and snap.
This was not the proper way to do morning meditation.
The Water Tribe served a lot of dried, salted, and smoked fish. The kind of food that lasted, away from port. Zuko hadn't seen a lot of fuel sources on board, either, when he'd been pushing around their entire cargo hold for them. A wind-powered ship didn't have need of a large coal store. Hot food was apparently a luxury.
And a reason to exploit the prisoner.
"That smells amazing," Toklo said. The youngest crewman was leaning way too far into Zuko's personal space. He leaned back, and—
And one of the older crewman walked past behind him, and blithely stole a fish off the plate. Zuko tried not to flinch; the man had come up from his blind spot, and he hadn't been paying enough attention, when had he let his guard down that far—
"Hey! Get your own!" Toklo snapped.
"I thought you shared food," Zuko said. Toklo fumed and Panuk snorted, and Zuko was no closer to understanding how Water Tribe meals were supposed to work.
It was nice, though. Eating a warm meal. Even if the younger crewmen kept interrupting him to shove just-one-more-plate-please into his hands. Whatever; at least no one was yelling at him for firebending today, even when a few sparks slipped from his mouth. Panuk just watched, more surprised than wary. Toklo didn't even notice.
He heard the whining first. And the scratching. Then the half-barking. Zuko's shoulders tensed; below deck, the dog was awake.
The barking was followed by snarling was followed by extremely loud cursing. Zuko's shoulders snapped taut; the Chief was awake. And not in a good mood. And why was Panuk staring at him like that?
He didn't have time to puzzle it out. A moment later, the dog was up on deck and growling at—
Everyone. It wasn't just lunging straight at Zuko, it was trotting a circle around the deck and sniffing and growling. It gave him exactly the same treatment, then moved on.
The Chief came on deck with a scowl, and dropped a particularly mauled shirt on Toklo's lap. "Congratulations. You'll be doing your second favorite chore today."
"Chief," the youngest crewman said, holding the shirt up and looking at the man through its holes, "I think you are greatly overestimating how well I sew."
Panuk's gaze was tracking the dog's progress. "It was the laundry, wasn't it? We all smell like ashmak—like firebenders."
Zuko scowled at him for the near-insult. And then the Chief was scowling down at Zuko and he straightened and glared back. "I didn't know."
The Chief let out a slow breath, the same way Lieutenant Jee did sometimes when he was counting to ten armor creaks in his head. "It's not your fault; you were only trying to be helpful. I should have seen this coming."
The Chief walked away. Zuko… kept sitting. And stared after him, until Panuk threw a shirt at his face. At least this one was clean, plus or minus some isopuppy slobber.
"Do you know how to sew?" Panuk asked.
"Neither do we." The Tribesman flashed a grin. "Hey, our food kind of got cold while we were talking, think you could—?"
"No," Zuko snapped. Because he was not helpful.
The dog was a problem. Zuko didn't remember much from his fever, but he remembered it chasing him across the hull trying to bite him. As soon as the crews' clothes aired out, it would be back to chasing him up the main mast, too. If he was ever going to escape, he needed to deal with it.
Azula and Father probably would have had a… a quicker solution to the problem. But Zuko had time, he didn't need to escape right this moment, he could do things his way—
(The weak way.)
He didn't know much about dogs. Some of the palace guards had used lizard-dogs when they made their rounds, but his mother had always told him those ones were working dogs and he couldn't pet them. He'd never been good enough in his studies to earn a pet. Azula had been good enough, but never wanted one—Father looked down on them and so did she. So all he really knew was that dogs needed a lot of attention, like being walked, and were overall very distracting.
He swabbed the deck as Toklo and Panuk got out the laundry baskets and were subjected to a rain of ripped seams and underarm-holes. He used this distraction to evaluate his enemy.
The dog was still snappish, but it was growling less now. The secret to this was simple: the Water Tribe men were kneeling down and letting it sniff their hands. Then it would let them scratch behind its ears and between its carapace segments, and would mostly stop growling at them.
(The men were also pausing to sniff their own clothes when they thought he wasn't looking. And getting weird expressions, not that Zuko cared, he was watching what the dog did not trying to figure out why some of them sniffed once, then blinked, and sniffed more deeply didn't they know how creepy that was, it wasn't his fault if they didn't like his inner fire, and it was even less his fault and he did not want to know if they did like it—)
The dog trotted below deck. No one was really watching him, and he could always say he was just grabbing more food. Zuko leaned his mop against the rail, and followed it down.
It turned back to growl at him. He knelt, and offered his hand.
Aake watched the Fire Prince stalk the dog down the stairs. The firebender came back with a scowl, trying to hide a bitten hand.
"How are you good at this?" Toklo complained. "Aren't you a prince?"
"How are you this bad?" Zuko countered. No one had told him what to do after he was done swabbing, so he'd sat down with the younger crewmen before one of the older crewmen could find something worse for him to do. It was just sewing, he didn't know why they were complaining so much. His stitches were awful, nowhere near as fine as Lieutenant Jee or Helmsman Kyo could do, and he was barely even using his left hand because the stupid dog hadn't drawn blood but he'd certainly left bruises, but his stitches were still better than Toklo's which were just deliberately awful. "Stop saying it's women's work! Haven't you ever heard of field medicine? Can't you do a basic suture? Or do Water Tribe men like having gaping wounds and getting infections?"
"Okay," the youngest crewman said. "So it's healer's work—"
Zuko set down the ripped pants he was (really badly) sewing before he lit them on fire, and stood up before he lit anything or anyone else on fire.
"Where are you going?" Panuk asked. His own sewing was slow, painstaking, and best described as 'grudgingly competent'.
"I'm getting something to eat!" Zuko shouted.
Which was reasonable, Panuk thought. The kid ate like he was burning it for fuel.
The dog was laying in the doorway leading down to the crew quarters. Its pereopods were tucked up under it and its body half-curled into an armored circle of abject, occasionally growling misery.
Zuko went into the kitchen. He shoved a piece of smoked fish in his mouth, and grabbed a stick of seal jerky. He… edged closer to the dog, nudging this peace offering across the floor in front of him. This time, he kept his fingers tucked into the sleeve of his borrowed coat.
"What happened to your sleeve?" Panuk asked, when he came back.
"Nothing," Zuko snapped. And pulled off the coat. And threaded a new needle like it had personally offended him.
Facts about the Fire Prince:
He didn't need to be ordered to work. He needed to be ordered not to work. Attempts to force him on a break were met with narrow-eyed suspicion, as if he thought they were setting him up for something; like they would call him out for slacking, or punish him for sitting down for five minutes so that just watching him didn't make them feel tired. Turning one's back on the prince while he was 'on break' frequently resulted in finding him halfway across the deck, doing something else. Now that he'd learned the basic chores he wouldn't stop doing them. He especially kept trying to help with the sails. He was getting better at it. This was not reassuring.
"Stop trying to escape!" Toklo shouted.
"I'm not escaping, he said to trim the sails and I was closest so—"
"You're not even doing the knots right!"
"So show me how!"
"You are fooling no one!"
"I'm not trying to!"
This was true. The prince was about as subtle as a house fire.
He was also definitely, undeniably sixteen. And the men were trying to remember if they or their children had eaten that much at sixteen, or if this was a firebender thing. It had taken the prince a few days to get comfortable with how the Water Tribe ate—two large meals a day, and it was perfectly acceptable to snack in-between. That's what the food was there for; no one was policing it. Now the prince was eating all the time, and the one day Panuk had made a joke about it the kid had stubbornly eaten only at the main meals and they'd had to listen to him and his stomach growling for the rest of the day.
"I was joking," Panuk said. "That was a joke. I didn't actually mean that we were going to send the Fire Lord back the world's fattest prince if you keep eating like that. Please, accept this jerky as a token of my apology."
He went back to snacking like a polar raccoon-fox went back to stealing from a hunting party's trash; furtively, like they were going to chase him away at any time.
And he started carrying seal jerky in his pockets. Because he was sixteen, and it was painfully obvious that he was trying to make friends by bribing their dog.
They'd been worried he was out to hurt the isopuppy, at first. The dog was barely knee-high. A working dog, not a fighter, with a carapace that had never been meant to stand up to a soldier, much less a firebender. And the prince couldn't make good on any kind of stealthily escape as long as the dog was around. Aake and some of the others kept a very careful eye out as the prince skulked down halls after the pup. They could have intercepted him before he left the deck, but then they wouldn't have a chance to catch him in the act, or dispense some instructional justice at the first sign of trouble.
The first sign of trouble was the prince stomping back on deck with new holes in the sleeves of his borrowed coat, and working even harder. When someone made the mistake of saying he should take a break, he stomped off again.
"I'm getting something to eat!"
When Hakoda walked past the kitchen, the kid was actually sitting down for once in his life. Hakoda very carefully pretended not to notice this. He ignored the golden gaze that followed him, and the way the kid was clearly ready to jump back to his feet at the first hint of a So you finally took a break, and just… kept walking. And shook his head, once more, for how ridiculous Fire Nation pride was.
At dinner that night, Toklo carried a curled-up isopup up on deck and kept it pinned under his arm so it wouldn't lunge.
"Want to pet him?" he asked. "If you hold out your hand and let him sniff you—"
"...Father says pets are a waste of time," the kid said, turning his face away.
Facts about the Fire Prince, abridged:
He got tired, but would only rest when no one was watching.
He was as hungry as a teenager should be, but wouldn't eat if anyone said a word about it.
The kid really, really needed a dog. The crew was staying out of that one.
Hakoda saw the albatross-pigeon coming in for a landing. The whole crew did; that's why they all subtly got out of the way. Except for the prince, who stepped directly into its flight path. And was, predictably, bowled over.
"How did you not see that coming?" Toklo asked.
"I did. Why does everyone just keep letting them crash? They're your birds, shouldn't you be helping?"
Because of course the Fire Prince had just tried to gently catch a bird half his own height, with a wingspan well over twice his size.
"They're fine, they always crash."
"That's why you should help them!"
Hakoda interrupted this baffling little spat by stepping forward, and undoing the bird's message from its back. The prince stiffened the same way he always did when Hakoda got too near—his incensed expression replaced by his usual narrow-eyed glare, he drew himself up as tall as he could like a bristling polar puppy. The bird in his arms was unaware of the image he was trying to project, and did its affectionate best to ruin his wolftail. Or topknot, or phoenix plume—whatever the Fire Nation was calling it.
"You can take Snowsquall down to her cage. Check if they need cleaning, while you're at it. Toklo, give him a hand."
Their youngest crewman grumbled. The prince nodded stiffly, but didn't move.
"Problem?" Hakoda asked.
"...Has my father replied? Sir."
Hakoda could see the Earth Kingdom seal on this letter, same as the prince could. But it was a fair question; as fleet commander, he had a fair few birds crashing on his deck every day.
"No," he answered, and barely had time to recognize the hopeful look in the prince's eyes before it shuttered back under his usual glare.
Prince Zuko carried the cooing bird below deck.
Hakoda slipped a thumb under the wax seal. General Fong's men had been forced off course by a storm, but made good time riding its winds; with a slight change in their own heading, they would make the rendezvous this afternoon.
The other ship came into sight later that day, after Zuko and Toklo had finished with the cages, and definitely after he'd convinced the Water Tribesman they should scrub off. Toklo didn't take much convincing; those seagulls were disgusting, and hot water was still some kind of novelty magic to him. Zuko even agreed to help him clean off the shirt Seabreeze had done her business on—well, he agreed to dry it if the tribesman washed it—and he should have seen this coming and he was never helping Toklo again.
"Stop sniffing your shirt!"
"Prince Zuko," the Chief said, as soon as they'd stepped foot on the deck. He must have been waiting for them. There could not be anything good in having the enemy leader waiting for him. Zuko took a half-step back into the doorway, because at least it was semi-defensible even if it wouldn't be for long. The Chief… didn't look angry. And Zuko had been working, except for the taking a bath part, but none of the crew that had seen them seemed to care and it hadn't taken much time and they were always telling him he should take a break (he knew that had been a trap) but he couldn't think of anything else he'd done wrong today— "I want you to stay in the crew quarters while our guests are around."
"What did I do?" Zuko snapped.
The Chief brushed off the question. "It's only a precaution, Your Highness. Aake, Ranalok? You're with him."
Aake was the one who wanted to break his leg and Ranalok was another of the huge older crewmen, and definitely not someone opposed to leg-breaking. Zuko did not take another step back as they approached, he wasn't a coward, he stood his ground.
"I could help guard him, Chief," Toklo put in.
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary."
Sorry, the younger crewman mouthed to him, as Leg Breaker tried to grab his arm and Zuko tried to shake him off and his other new guard looked on, one eyebrow raised.
Zuko… didn't know what Toklo was apologizing for. It wasn't his fault.
The last thing he saw before they marched him below deck was the ship drawing nearer. Earth Kingdom colors, and square sails. Zuko could see differences now in how they were rigged compared to the Water Tribe's, but he didn't know what difference it made, and it wasn't like anyone wanted him to learn about that.
The dog had been napping in the crew room. Neither of his guards said anything as it growled at him. Just in case he had any illusions about this being a friendly imprisonment.
They ran a board between the ships. Hakoda greeted the Earth Kingdom ship's captain and General Fong's representative. The former was a stiff grey-haired man he'd worked with before; no sense of humor, but he could pull maneuvers in that tub of his that made Hakoda want to try him on a proper Water Tribe ship. The latter was a new face. He had a trailing moustache, waxed; a uniform, ironed not quite as well as a firebender's hands could produce; and a smile, surprisingly genuine.
"Chief Hakoda, a pleasure. I am the General's Under Secretary, Hser Thoo. Would you like to transfer the prisoner immediately, or is he secure where you have him?"
Hakoda had no idea what an under secretary did. The Earth Kingdom liked their secretaries—the one in Ba Sing Se always handled King Kuei's correspondence. He would just assume this one was important, too.
And he would ignore the way certain younger members of his crew had reacted to the man's words.
"He's secure," Hakoda said. Though he doubted the Under Secretary was picturing the boy sulking down in the crew quarters, when he said 'secure'. "We'll have to talk terms before I'll approve of any transfer. I tried to make my letter to the General clear on that. And I believe you have information on the Avatar for me?"
It felt strange saying 'Avatar' out loud—like he was asking for spirit tales from another grown man. But the Under Secretary bobbed his head in a bow, and proceeded to dispel days of worry with a few careless words: "Of course, of course. The file is in my quarters, if you care to accompany me back on the ship. I am given to understand that the young Tribesmen with which the Avatar travels are your children?"
"Yes," Hakoda said, letting out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "I'm given to understand the same."
The Avatar was twelve. That… was exactly the kind of detail the Fire Prince would completely forget to mention, yes. It made Hakoda feel much better about the parts of that story in which his daughter and the Avatar were perhaps too close for a young girl and a monk to be.
He was not entirely certain if the prince himself had picked up on that detail, but a father knew.
The rest of the Under Secretary's file was… alarming.
"This volcano. It was in the Earth Kingdom, not the Fire Nation?" Hakoda asked.
"Yes, of course. I'm sure there have been eruptions on the Fire Isles as well, such a violent land, but we do not frequently hear news from beyond the blockade."
...His children had been at two volcanic eruptions. Twelve or not, Hakoda needed to have a long talk with this Avatar of theirs. How did a child with access to a flying bison keep getting into these situations?
"And of course, you'll wish to see our precautions for the prisoner," the Under Secretary said, as if Hakoda wasn't still hung up on the multiple volcanoes.
The cells were on the lowest level of the Earth Kingdom ship, just above the rotten sea-stink of the bilge.
"The smell isn't an intentional part of the experience, per se," the Under Secretary responded. "But our ships have found it helpful to keep firebenders near to the bilge pump, in case of flaring tempers."
"I thought your cells were fireproofed?"
"Oh, they are. It's more of a behavioral discouragement than a necessity." The Under Secretary gestured, and the crewman who'd been trailing after them like a servant rushed to open one of the doors. Inside, the cell was lined in steel.
"Stone insulates well enough," the man allowed. "But it doesn't really discourage unwanted behaviors. Steel, now… even the most stubborn firebenders very quickly learn not to burn themselves. We scavenged the metal from naval wrecks. Appropriate, wouldn't you say?" The man's smile continued to be genuine, and invited Hakoda in on the joke.
It was appropriate. A clever, simple, rather karmic solution to the problem. He didn't smile in response, though; just kept running his eyes over it. There were steel shackles bolted to the wall; the same as he'd seen in Fire Nation brigs, and no doubt taken from the same wrecks.
"Of course, this is all very basic. The Council of Five maintains a prison for high-ranking officers; those awaiting ransom. It's most secure, I assure you. Underground, of course—no sun means no fire. Though it may just be the chill; we have reports that the Fire Nation itself uses some sort of 'freezer' to deal with its own prisoners. We're hoping some of our less scrupulous merchants will come through with the blue prints sometime before the war is over."
There were spare supplies hung on the wall outside the cells. Extra shackles, a few things he hoped were for intimidation purposes in the prince's case—there was no need to interrogate the boy—and...
"...Is that a muzzle?"
"Did you know that some of their most skilled masters can actually breathe fire?"
"...Can they, now."
"Hard to believe, isn't it? I've never seen it myself. They do deal with the biters, though."
Hakoda could picture the Fire Prince biting, yes. It was harder to picture him in one of these rooms, barely able to move. The prince didn't do well with inactivity. But this was about what was best for his ship and his people, not what was best for Ozai's son.
"Prisoners can even earn luxuries, should they behave. Scrolls, blankets, a mattress. Though such luxuries are, as a general rule, flammable. General Fong has found it more cost effective to first ensure the prisoner's compliance—"
Hakoda checked back in on his ship, more as a break from how General Fong ensured compliance than because he anticipated any particular problems. He found the crew gossiping unashamedly about what they'd overheard earlier. Good. A ship couldn't work like a village; he couldn't circle them up and seek a consensus for every problem. But they'd bring their concerns to him later, before any deal was finalized. They understood that, even if General Fong's man clearly didn't. The General always did like to assume he'd get his way.
The prisoner was sulking down in the crew cabin, arms crossed and glare already in place when Hakoda entered. He was also sitting in the middle of the floor. Why…?
Because that's where the sunbeam was. Of course. Hakoda's eyes traced its path back; when he'd first sent the prince below deck, it would have been against the wall there. Had the boy been chasing it across the room like a cat-moth? Did he realize he'd been doing that?
"Can I come out yet?"
Aake and Ranalok had taken seats by the door. Aake did not look amused. Ranalok did. This had been their entire afternoon. At least Scuttles was keeping them company; he was sprawled across Ranalok's lap, tail lazily dusting the floor behind him.
"Just take a break, Your Highness," Hakoda said.
The prince glared harder, his shoulders hunched under his parka. "Why are you even keeping me down here? I'm not going to escape to an Earth Kingdom ship, they crush firebenders' hands."
"I'm sure you've heard a lot of propaganda—"
"They almost did it to Uncle! If I'd gotten there any later they would have. I don't care if you believe me, it's not like you ever do, but I'm not stupid enough to go over there. So can I not be locked in a tiny room the rest of the day?"
The room didn't have a door. And it was a lot bigger than any cell the Earth Kingdom would give him.
The Chief was giving him that Azula-Zhao-Father look again, and no matter how hard Zuko crossed his arms it still made his skin feel like it was going to crawl off. This wasn't just about keeping him from escaping, the Chief was doing something with that Earth Kingdom ship and he didn't want Zuko to know about it. And Zuko wouldn't, because he was trapped in this stupid room until whatever this was about was already over with, and no one was going to ask his opinion on it because that wasn't how things ever worked.
"Just stay put, Your Highness," the Chief said, and left him alone with two of the most intimidating men on the ship.
Plus the dog that hated him, and was coming closer. He pulled his hands inside his coat sleeves and glared at it. It… sniffed him.
Zuko darted a glance at the two guards. He didn't know which of them he distrusted more: Leg Breaker kept glowering at him, but the other one kept almost-smiling. Obviously neither of them were going to step in if the dog started mauling him, so he drew his knees closer to his chest and pulled down his hood and waited for this to end the same way it always did.
The dog sat down, and scratched at his arm.
"He can tell when people are upset," the amused guard said.
"I'm not upset!"
The guard kept talking like Zuko hadn't. "He used to be really good, with the kids back in the village."
"I'm not a kid, either."
The guard snorted.
The dog set its sharp pereopods all over Zuko's knees and leaned in towards his face, like Zuko needed more scars there. It whuffed a short half-bark right at him, its tail wagging slowly behind it. Which was… a good sign? He'd seen it do that with some of the crew, and it always seemed like a good sign. He shot another glance at his guards but Leg Breaker's glare hadn't changed, and the almost-smiling guard was looking to the side like he was deliberately ignoring this, which was weird and Zuko didn't know why he was doing it.
...But at least the dog didn't have any ulterior motives. It was either going to bite him, or it wasn't. He slowly uncurled and offered it a piece of seal jerky. It accepted, and trotted back towards the smiling guard to devour its prize.
"Hey, Not-A-Kid," the guard said. "Have you ever played fetch?"
The isopuppy's ears perked up at the word.
They sat down for negotiations in Hakoda's cabin, because he was familiar enough with Earth Kingdom ideas of power politics to not let them be held on the other ship. He could tell the Under Secretary found the room quaint. His lips quirked into another smile as he looked around at an office that was also a bedroom. Since Hakoda knew for a fact the Earth Kingdom captain had the same set up on his own ship, and used it when there weren't more prissy officers about, he tried not to extend his offense to the entire country.
The man found Hakoda's opening terms to the Fire Lord to be quaint, too. And not a cause for smiling. Apparently he'd started the bidding for the man's flesh-and-blood too low; it might be taken as an insult, and it would certainly be taken as a weakness. Proper ransoms didn't open with reasonable offers, they had to be grandiose gestures of posturing that both sides knew would never work (but would never admit to), until rounds and rounds of letters later both sides very grudgingly agreed to the final terms (that they had been dancing around the entire time)—
Not for the first time, Hakoda wished the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation both had reasonable councils of elders he could appeal to. Someone he could sit down and talk with, and have an honest discussion on how to leave the Water Tribes out of the rest of the world's insanity.
"You've put our own negotiators into a difficult position, Chief Hakoda. We'll have to wait for the Fire Lord's rejection before escalating our terms, and even then it will show clear disagreement in our ranks. And Shu forbid he accept your terms, what an insult that would be! Even a banished prince should be worth more than a handful of unranked prisoners—"
That handful of unranked prisoners were damn fine warriors, and tribesmen who'd followed him into war because they believed in him—
"...Banished?" Hakoda asked, his mind catching up with the rest of that sentence.
The Under Secretary tutted at him. "This is why you must trust us with the finer points of the war's politics, Chief Hakoda. Yes, banished; Prince Zuko offended his father somehow, and is forbidden from returning home without the Avatar."
That… explained a few things. But the prince couldn't have offended his father much if he'd been given such an easy path back—the Avatar was a twelve year old pacifist, and the prince had been on his heels from the start.
...How had he known when and where the World Spirit would reappear? Were the Fire Nation's sages so accurate in their predictions? The Water Tribe's own shamans had been lost a generation ago, waterbenders carried off with the rest of their kind, taking another piece of their culture with them.
There wasn't time to think deeper on it, and it wasn't the sort of issue that just thinking about would fix. There were negotiations here and now to focus on, and the first step was convincing the Under Secretary that he had not already agreed to handing over the prince. That, in fact, he had some very reasonable terms he needed the man and his General to agree to first, and though they might seem an insultingly low opening offer, they were also final. The Water Tribe was not going to lose so valuable a hostage without certain assurances that the Earth Kingdom would still be keeping Water Tribe interests in mind during its own negotiations.
Needless to say, this took the rest of the evening. It promised to continue the next morning, as well. Hakoda had just one final question before he let the man return to his own ship. A confirmation of facts.
"I've heard you crush firebending prisoner's hands. I doubt the Fire Lord would tolerate that kind of abuse to his son, if it's true."
The Under Secretary waved the concern off. "It's used in extreme cases, yes. If you've held him this long without difficulty, I doubt he will give us much trouble."
Hakoda sincerely doubted that.
Ranalok approached him not long after Fong's man had departed, and the walkway between their ships had been drawn back for the night. "Mind if the prince comes out on deck for a bit? Kid could do with stretching his legs. Not sure how he'll manage in an Earth Kingdom prison if he's this bad after a day."
Well. That was one opinion voiced, then. Hakoda nodded to the man; an answer to his request, and an acknowledgement of its meaning.
The prince paced the deck like he'd only just now remembered how small it was; like it could barely contain him. Which was true enough. All the while his gaze strayed over to the Earth Kingdom ship.
Wait, no. Higher than that. The prince was looking at the stars. At very specific stars.
"They're lovely tonight, aren't they, Your Highness?" Hakoda asked. "Looking for any in particular?"
"I've always been a fan of the Dragon, myself. Great for taking readings."
"...We call it Druk."
"I'm aware," Hakoda said. "Go stretch your legs below deck, Your Highness."
The boy had the good grace to look sheepish for once, at least. "Do I… need a guard?"
"Are you going to try escaping with the Earth Kingdom anchored right there? I might just give them the honor of fishing you out of the water."
"I won't try escaping tonight. You have my word." The boy 'gave his word' like he was daring Hakoda to turn it down; like he was expecting him to.
Hakoda nodded. The boy didn't seem to know what to do with that trust; he lost his scowl, and pulled a belated bow, and marched towards the stairs with enough backwards glances that Hakoda was sure he was waiting for him to change his mind.
It wasn't like half the crew wasn't below deck getting ready for the night, anyway. And Scuttles would sound the alarm if he went out a porthole again. The dog was already shadowing the prince down the stairs.
Zuko stopped in the kitchen, which always seemed to have something out, even though he didn't understand how that worked.
The dog followed him in, its legs clack-clattering unsubtly over the floor.
He stuck a dried fish in his mouth, and offered another down to the dog. It accepted. He grabbed a handful, and slid down the wall.
"I don't understand this place at all. Why keep me locked up all day and then just… let me walk around? Is he going to do something horrible or isn't he?"
The dog decided that the proper answer was licking crumbs off his face. This was a terrible answer, and Zuko tried to squirm away but the isopuppy had so many legs and it felt like half of them were hooked over his arms, so he just settled for trying to hide his face (it switched to licking his head, eww, no, why—) And then there were footsteps outside coming this way and he still couldn't get the dog off couldn't they please go back to being enemies—
Leg Breaker stared down at him from the doorway. At least he was consistent; he wanted to hurt Zuko, but his Chief wouldn't let him. Zuko could understand that. It was the Chief he didn't get.
"I was, uh…"
"Going to bed?" the crewman guessed-suggested-ordered.
"Yes. I was doing that. So I'll go... do that."
He couldn't get the dog to let go, so he… brought it with. Leg Breaker stepped aside just enough that they could slide past, his expression never changing.
Not as many crewmen approached him as Hakoda had anticipated; Panuk and Toklo had stopped by to put in a word in the prince's favor ("He's going to get himself killed. The Earth Kingdom isn't as... flexible as we are. Dead hostages don't get ransomed" and "I like him. I mean, he's snarly, but he's also infinite hot water", respectively.) Aake and a few others had stopped by with opinions to the contrary. But the majority of the crew was surprisingly undecided, and refraining from making their opinion known either way. Trusting in their Chief to figure out the right thing to do. He had to make that decision by the end of negotiations tomorrow, and he had to act like he was certain of it.
For now, Hakoda just wanted to sleep. But he was missing a part of his nightly routine. He stuck his head out the porthole and whistled, but there was no answering scrabble of running pereopods.
"Looking for something?" Tuluk asked, like he'd been waiting for him to come out. There was nothing urgent in the way he leaned against the wall across from Hakoda's cabin; no tension in his shoulders to indicate a problem, just a crinkle at the edges of his eyes that Hakoda didn't trust one bit this late at night.
"Do I want to know?" he asked.
"No," his acting second said. "But I'm going to show you anyway."
The prince had made his way safely to bed with no escape attempts, as promised. He'd also stolen Hakoda's dog. The isopuppy wagged his tail, but made no move to extract himself from the prince's arms.
Tuluk dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Your dog's a Fire Nation sympathizer, Chief."
Hakoda didn't miss the way Tuluk spoke quietly enough not to wake the prince up. The traitor dog yawned, and nuzzled up under the boy's chin.
"Are we handing him over?" Tuluk asked, when they were well out of earshot.
"Wooden ship, Tuluk," Hakoda said. "And we're painting a target on the whole fleet, keeping him here."
...Hakoda needed Bato here. To talk him into this or out of it, he didn't know.
Hakoda looked in on the prince in the morning. One last time before meeting with General Fong's man, though he didn't know what it was supposed to help.
Scuttles rolled past the doorway in a tightly curled disk. Hit a wall, fell over, and bounded back to the prince for another go. The prince obligingly steadied him as he curled up again, and gave him another push across the room.
Ozai's son was sitting in another sunbeam, playing fetch with Hakoda's dog. Because of course he was. The prince froze as soon as he noticed Hakoda, crossing his arms and scowling and ignoring the dog nuzzling at his hands, because of course he did.
"What? Is there a rule against playing with your dog?"
It wasn't the kind of question that should be snapped and Zuko felt stupid even as the words were coming out of his mouth. More stupid, when the Chief just stared down at him. His guards for the day were deliberately ignoring this, which didn't make it any better, because now there were three Water Tribe men deliberately not saying anything and he didn't know if that was good or bad. So. Probably bad.
"...Can I work today?" he asked. "If you don't want me on deck, maybe the Healer needs help. Or I could clean the seagull cages again. Or."
He just didn't want to be down here all day again when he hadn't even done anything wrong, and he wasn't even planning to. He didn't want to be trapped while something was going on up there. The crew had been acting strange last night, and again this morning—not looking at him, or looking at him too hard, and talking about nothing important where he could hear. And nothing at all about the Earth Kingdom ship, so obviously this was about it and about him, and the Chief still wasn't saying anything but he was doing that looking too hard thing too and—
"You're selling me. Aren't you?"
It was like the time Aake wanted to break the prince's leg; the boy didn't catch on fast, but he did catch on.
Hakoda watched something like betrayal flash in the prince's eyes, before his glare hid it again.
"I didn't break any of your rules. I—I've been helpful, you said so yourself, and I've done everything you've asked, and—and they crush people's hands—"
The prince hadn't broken the rules, no. And Hakoda had held up his end of that bargain: he hadn't hurt the boy. That was the extent of their agreement.
Hakoda didn't feel like arguing the point, because he wasn't sure he'd win.
"We're still discussing the arrangement, Your Highness."
Which meant stay here and be quiet even though good behavior gets you nothing now. The Chief turned and left and that was final. He didn't care what Zuko said or did, he never had. He'd been planning this from the beginning, hadn't he? These were the people he was confirming Zuko's story with, but all he'd ever cared about was news of his family. He hadn't even tried asking about the Fire Nation, that should have been Zuko's first sign that all of this was wrong because what enemy commander wouldn't ask about that? Even Healer Kustaa had been surprised the Chief hadn't pressed him harder. But it made perfect sense if he'd been planning to pass him off all along, if he just wanted to know about his kids and didn't want to get his hands dirty extracting anything else, if—
"I am breathing." ...He was now.
"No one's going to hurt you."
"Right." He was so sick of being lied to. More sick of falling for it. The Chief hadn't even lied, really; just because he'd set those stupid rules and let Zuko believe he was going to stay on this ship didn't mean that's what he'd ever meant, it just meant Zuko was stupid and had—had trusted the enemy, apparently, the same people who'd wanted to kill him from the moment they'd seen his eyes. The only reason they hadn't was because he was valuable. Just… not to them.
...Could he escape? But there were two ships, and it was daylight, and it wasn't like they would fail to notice their cargo disappearing when they were in the middle of selling it. He should have figured this out last night, at least maybe the darkness would have hidden him. Shouldn't have trusted them to begin with, should have tried stealing a boat days ago instead of finding better ways to do their laundry and heat their breakfasts and play with their dog.
What could he do right now? He'd be better off waiting until the deal was done, and the Water Tribe ship was gone. The Earth Kingdom probably had a real brig to put him in, they'd known they'd be picking up a prisoner, but he… he'd figure something out. Locks weren't that hard to pick, and a proper military ship probably didn't have a guard dog to give him away if he slipped out a porthole. He'd do it this time, he wouldn't be a coward, he'd just jump in the sea if he couldn't get a boat.
For now there wasn't anything he could do. Just… sit here like the obedient little prisoner he'd been, and hug a dog that had hated him until yesterday, and wait until the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes shook hands on a price. His tutors had been right; the Southern Fleet were just a bunch of pirates.
"General Fong won't be pleased with this," the Under Secretary said. The man was too professional to scowl, but it was a near thing. "He has always supported your fleet most generously."
"Our fleet has always supported your navy most generously," Hakoda said. "And we intend to continue. Our enemy is the Fire Nation; please remind General Fong of that. I appreciate his generous offer to house our prisoner, but his services aren't required at this time."
...He was going to regret that. He was already regretting it, as the Earth Kingdom crew unfurled their sails and set their course away.
Time to go see how much he would regret it.
"You can get back to work," the Chief said.
Zuko jerked his head up out of the dog's fur. "I… what?"
"They're gone," the man said. "Back to work."
It was a trap. It was a trap, right? He was going to get up on deck and they'd—they'd drag him away to the other ship, or—
But his guards look surprised too. And the Chief was standing there waiting, so if it wasn't a trap he'd better move before he took too long and broke some new rule. Zuko tried to set down the dog and failed (its legs were way too good at holding on, no wonder it could climb walls), and stood, and went back up to the deck with the three Water Tribe men following behind him.
It was still early morning, and the breeze was kind of cold after sitting in the hold but the sun was nice, and the Earth Kingdom ship was definitely moving away. He glanced back at the Chief. The Chief raised an eyebrow at him, whatever that was supposed to mean. Toklo waved at him, so Zuko… went there.
"You ever fixed a net?"
He shook his head.
"It's like the manly version of knitting. Take a seat."
He did. And kept trying to pry off the dog, but everytime he got one spindly leg off his shoulder three more hooked on. The dog was trying to be a dog scarf, but it was hard-shelled and poke-y and the only one comfortable here was the dog itself.
Were… were they all just going to pretend that didn't just happen? That the Chief hadn't kept him locked below deck for a day and a half, and threatened to sell him to the Earth Kingdom? Had that even been real, or had they just been trading goods and news with the other ship and the Chief decided to toss in the head games for free, make Zuko realize how good he had it on this ship, how much worse it could be—
And—and it definitely had been a head game no matter if it had been real or not, and he knew that was what it was, but he was still grateful not to be getting dragged down into an Earth Kingdom brig right now. It was nice just sitting on deck in the sun. No one had even hurt him since the night they'd almost broken his leg.
Which had been another kind of head game and if he knew what the Chief was doing why was it working and would this dog please just get off—
Toklo was trying to teach the prince how to mend nets. The prince was trying to get a comfortable isopup to stop using his shoulders as a sunning spot. These were mutually exclusive activities, and it was pretty clear the prince was reaching the limits of his patience. Hakoda's lips quirked.
He didn't know if he'd made the right decision. It was still dangerous, having Ozai's son aboard. The boy had his fire, even if he was making it easy to forget how dangerous that could be with all the warm water and hot meals he'd been ingratiating himself to the crew with. And he still had his father, who might decide to take him back rather than negotiate for him.
But for now, at least, it felt right to see him out in the sun, working alongside someone near his own age. He really was just a kid.
A kid who was losing to a dog a quarter his size.
"Scuttles," Hakoda called. And whistled. And was ignored.
Two years. Two years at sea, and the crew had ruined the pup for his real name. Hakoda let out a breath, and grit his teeth, and admitted—just this once—that there was a more effective way of getting his dog's attention.
"Sokka," he called, and the pup jumped down off the prince's shoulders and ran right over. "...Good boy."
"What did you call him?" the prince asked.
"Didn't you know?" Toklo grinned. "That's Sokka."
"Isn't… isn't that your son's name?"
The Chief was sighing and half-smiling like it was a joke, and some of the crew were smirking, and the dog had trotted back to Toklo with ears perked because it clearly knew its name and—
And Zuko might have made a poor life choice but he didn't realize that until he was already on his feet and shouting.
Shouting felt a lot better than thinking about whatever head games the Chief had been trying to play with him.
"You can't call him that! And you can't treat your son like that, just because he's not a bender, or he's not as talented as his sister, or—"
That stupid kid had tried to take on a warship with a wooden spear and a boomerang. He was an idiot, but his father had left him to defend his village and he had, even though he'd been set up to fail from the start because one teenager couldn't do that—
"He's trying his best for you and you shouldn't just—just use that against him, like it's a reason to make fun of him. And you can't name your dog after him!"
"Are you taking offense on my son's behalf?" Hakoda asked. To clarify.
"Someone has to," the Prince of the Fire Nation, Ozai's son and heir, future Fire Lord, scowled at him. "Just because he's not some kind of prodigy bender doesn't mean he's useless. He's loyal to you. You shouldn't just throw that away."
"...You're right. It was incredibly insensitive of me. I'll have to come up with a different name." Like Scuttles. His actual name.
The Prince crossed his arms. "He's Seal Jerky now."
"You lost naming rights."
Hakoda's mouth worked, but he didn't know what words existed for this situation. Especially not when Ranalok came over and clapped a hand on the prince's shoulder—the boy jumped— and said, with a perfectly straight face:
"He's right, Chief. It wasn't a good name. I can't believe you'd use it. Sokka deserves better."
The dog barked at its name. And in apparent support.
Hakoda had never been sure if it was Ranalok or Bato who'd come up with the name first, but he certainly knew it was them—and Panuk and Toklo and half the crew—who'd spent weeks bribing the dog with treats to get it responding to 'Sokka'.
And who were now biting their lips and stiffening their shoulders against laughter.
"Back to work," Hakoda ordered, because he was not dealing with this grinning mutiny. "All of you."
Fire Nation sympathizers, the lot of them.
"...Because he always trots around after the Chief, just like human-Sokka did back in the village. So Bato—you haven't met him yet—thought it would be funny if we could get dog-Sokka responding to 'Sokka' too…"
Zuko died a little inside as Toklo kept explaining the story of how much the Chief hated the crew calling his dog after his son. The more he spoke, the more Zuko understood that all the bursts of laughter across the deck were for him.
The Chief had just… just let Zuko speak to him like that, and the disrespect hadn't even been worth the risk because Zuko had been yelling at the wrong person from the start and everyone had let him. The Chief looked more annoyed with the rest of the crew than with him, but it had still been stupid and what had he been thinking, even if the Chief had been the one calling the dog 'Sokka' it wasn't like it was Zuko's place to step between him and his son—
When Seal Jerky stretched himself into a dog-scarf over his shoulders again, Zuko let him. At least it was something to hide under.
Chapter 7: Bato Enters Occupied Territory
Some liberties taken with the size of Bato's boat, to make it conveniently store-on-deckable rather than something I needed to make a plot point of. I suspect it was only as big as it was in the show so that the Gaang could all fit aboard (and look visually nice) during the ice dodging scene. One dude with a bad arm does not need a boat that big.
The cheering was a bit dramatic, but Bato appreciated the warm welcome. He even appreciated the rope ladder tossed down to him, as casual as if he'd just been out scouting. As casual as if his arm wasn't still half a dead weight at his side. He grit his teeth into a fierce grin, and climbed aboard like he was still the man he was when he'd left.
Hakoda offered him a hand, the last few feet. Pulled him up by his good arm, and didn't make a spectacle of whatever he'd noticed that prompted the gesture.
"How were the nuns?"
"Very healing," Bato smirked.
His best friend and chief pulled him into a half-hug, wordlessly careful of his bandaged side. Bato returned the gesture. It was good to be back.
Hakoda stiffened, and broke away to glare over the side of the ship. "Off the boat."
"Tuluk said to—"
Bato didn't recognize the face glaring up at them. The awful haircut made it hard to judge the boy's age; the scowl didn't help, nor did the mark of fire splayed over his face. A much older wound than Bato's. It wasn't until the kid sullenly scaled the ladder and stood on deck, a very deliberate arm's length-and-a-half out of Hakoda's reach, that Bato saw the rest.
Unnatural gold eyes. Morbidly pale skin. And a Fire Nation red shirt, barely hidden under a Water Tribe coat that neither fit nor suited him.
"He said to unload. I was unloading." The boy crossed his arms over his chest, and tilted his chin up in a challenge.
"You were examining the rigging," Hakoda said flatly, like a man who'd had this conversation too many times, in too many forms. "Thinking of going somewhere?"
"I wasn't escaping, everyone could see me and anyway it's the middle of the day, I'm not stupid—"
"Get below deck, Prince Zuko. Clean the bird cages."
"I cleaned them last night!"
"Clean them again."
"...Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation," Bato said, as everything about the kid's appearance—minus why he was on their ship—clicked together in his head.
"Bato of the Water Tribe," the Fire Prince returned, scowling like it was Bato who had something to answer for.
"And you couldn't have begged a pair of steel cuffs off of them before you ticked the Earth Kingdom off? Or asked their healer about bending suppressants?" his second-in-command questioned.
Hakoda groaned. "This is why I need you here."
"So you don't keep a royal firebender on a wooden ship?"
Said firebender was shouting something down the hall, about half as loudly as Toklo was laughing. Hakoda let his head sag into his hands, because this was Bato, and he didn't need to pretend to know what he was doing. Not when they were both behind the shut door of his cabin.
Bato was scowling in the direction of the noise. "Could Toklo or Panuk take him in a fight?"
"...Probably not." Not given how slippery the kid was while half-delirious. He was a fighter, and no mistaking.
"Then why are they the ones guarding him?"
Because they're friends wasn't an answer. "They work well together," he said instead, even though it wasn't any better justification, now that his Second was looking at him like that.
"Hakoda. The Fire Prince attacked our village. He chased your children and Avatar Aang over half a continent. Sokka and Katara are afraid of him. You should have seen them, looking over their shoulders at the abbey, like they expected him to turn up even there. They don't feel safe anywhere they go, and it's because of him. He isn't safe."
Nothing Bato had said about the prince while they caught up was new, really. Just further confirmation of the boy's own story, without the odd embellishments that made Hakoda's own children out to be strategic geniuses and master fighters. Whatever baffling respect the prince had for them, they didn't reciprocate: the version of events they'd relayed to Bato had delighted in detailing every time they'd nearly dropped their pursuer into polar waters, thrown him through walls, or blindsided him with a boomerang.
That head wound the prince had first shown up with was making a lot more sense.
"I know you miss your kids," Bato said. "I know the prince isn't much older than Sokka. But you didn't put your son in armor and set him in command of a war ship on a critical mission. The Fire Lord did. What does that tell you about his son?"
This is why he needed Bato: to call him out when he was letting himself get too soft for this. They had a war to win; the Fire Prince was a bargaining chip. Thinking of him in any other way was as counterproductive as it was dangerous.
"It's good to have you back," he said.
"Glad I made it before the ship was on fire," Bato grinned.
The bird cages were cleaner than they'd ever been, and the under decks swept and swapped, and Zuko was finally allowed above deck again. The Dog Namer's boat was stowed on deck, stacked on top of the others like the final piece in a set, its rigging stripped and packed away.
The Dog Namer himself was watching him. From the moment he stepped out on deck, like Zuko was going to do anything in the middle of the day, with everyone looking, while holding a wicker basket.
"Laundry," Toklo called, and promptly hid behind Zuko. Panuk was already several steps away getting the water tub filled up, keeping himself out of range.
Most of the crew had learned to politely walk their clothes over, or at least aim for the baskets. For everyone else, Zuko had quick reflexes and a glare. "Throw another shirt at me and see if yours get dried, Ranalok."
"Want me to grab your clothes, Bato?" Panuk called up to the quarterdeck.
"Good," the second-youngest tribesman flashed a grin. "Because I already did. No offense, but your stuff stinks."
The newly returned tribesman stared down, looking vaguely puzzled by the single laundry tub and its modest pile of clothes. A 'modest pile' was all they had when they did the washing regularly.
"I thought you two hated laundry days."
"They're not so bad." Toklo peeked out from behind Zuko's shoulder, shameless in his cowardice.
Toklo did the actual washing, because he really liked being elbow-deep in warm water and Zuko really didn't like touching the crew's dirty clothes. Zuko wrang things out once they weren't disgusting, dried them, and passed them on to Panuk, who was on check-for-holes duty because he was the best sewer. Also because Zuko had maybe yelled a little about how inefficient it was to put off the sewing pile until it took them two days to do and his fingers were cramped and his bad eye was blurry from squinting at little stitches and if this wasn't women's work they wouldn't let it pile up like this, they'd just do it when it needed doing like men—
Panuk had smirked too much for someone being yelled at. But he'd agreed, so that meant Zuko had won.
The Dog Namer wandered the deck like he owned it, not even working, just stopping to talk with everyone. And he kept watching Zuko, not even hiding it, like Zuko was going to attack someone the second he turned away.
"He'll get used to you," Panuk said.
"I don't care," Zuko snapped. And tried to get his shoulders to relax. It worked, until the next time the newcomer glanced his way.
The man watched him keeping Toklo's water warm, watched the steam that rose between Zuko's hands every time he dried something, watched when Zuko had to drop a pair of socks in his lap so he wouldn't light them on fire because the man wouldn't stop watching.
"You want to take a break?" Panuk asked.
"You want to go get some snacks for us? I could use something."
He pushed a pair of half-dry slightly-smoldering socks out of his lap, and stood, and went to grab a plate from the kitchen. Seal Jerky was curled up under the table, optimistically waiting for dropped crumbs; Zuko might or might not have dropped a whole fish. He crouched down, and pet the isopuppy until he didn't want to scream anymore. The dog thumped his tail in uncomplicated approval.
When Zuko came back on deck, the man was waiting for him. Not even waiting: he'd been another step away from coming down the stairs after him.
"That took you awhile."
"Were you timing me?"
The man kept staring. Zuko drew himself up and brushed past. No one had ordered him to deal with this.
The Fire Prince, Bato noted, dramatically stomped away and proceeded to ignore both his work and the food he'd spent so long getting. Instead he sat there on the open deck, playing with fire.
"Why is he acting like he's in charge?" Zuko asked. Quietly. He checked whether he'd be able to get back to drying things, and ended up with his hands on fire, which was a 'no'. So he went back to his breathing exercises. Quietly.
"He is in charge," Toklo said. "He's Hakoda's second in command."
Zuko's hands continued to be on fire. A little. ...Quietly. At least no one was yelling at him for it. Even though it was humiliating having an enemy crew be so used to his poor bending that they didn't even flinch from it. No one would ignore Azula if she was having control problems.
(Not that she would have real problems. She'd just smirk and say she was having them, and then his best robes would be on fire and he'd be late for a court function and smelling like burnt silk and bad bending, and it wasn't worth explaining that it wasn't his fault because Father didn't want his excuses.)
"He got burned," Panuk said, not that Zuko had asked. "It was a few weeks before we fished you out. A raid went really bad. We're not sure if it was a trap or just bad luck, but there was another Fire navy ship close enough to join the fight. Our fleet lost people. We weren't sure we hadn't lost Bato, until he made the rendezvous today. We'd left him at an abbey to heal, but—it was bad."
Zuko snuck a glance at the Dog Namer, in one of the rare moments the man wasn't looking straight back. White bandages started at his neck and spiraled down to his wrist. He wore his shirt with one shoulder shrugged off, like he couldn't stand to have the fabric touching him. If it had only been a few weeks, if the burn was anywhere near the size those bandages hinted at, he probably couldn't.
Zuko took in another breath. And let it out. And stopped letting himself have excuses. He grabbed the next piece of clothing and got back to work and didn't let there be fire. He could remember how sca— how he'd felt around flames, when his own bandages were still fresh. It had always been worse when it was someone else's fire, how could he ever trust someone else's fire—
(Except for Uncle's. Uncle was just as lazy as Father and Azula always said, and probably wouldn't have ever gotten back to his training if Zuko hadn't bullied him into it. For weeks, the only thing he did with his flames was light the little fire under his tea. He'd always been too excited describing his latest leaf blend to notice Zuko's flinches. Not like the rest of the crew, who startled almost as badly as Zuko did whenever they bent around him, and rushed to apologize like witnessing his shame was something they needed to apologize for.)
Zuko slowly (really slowly) finished drying the last of the laundry. Then he stood.
"Refill?" Panuk asked, holding the empty plate up hopefully.
"Get your own for once," Zuko said. "I'm going to see the Healer. ...If that's okay."
The tribesman suddenly looked really alarmed. "Are you hurt?"
"It's just that I was pretty sure you'd have to be dying before you ever asked to see Kustaa—"
Zuko scowled. "I just want to ask him something. Can I go or not?"
Panuk shrugged. "Don't see why not."
The Dog Namer clearly did. But Zuko ignored the intercept course the man set for him, and stalked down the stairs.
Healer Kustaa was in the cramped cabin that doubled as the ship's infirmary. He looked up from the book he'd been frowning over, and raised an eyebrow. "Are you dying?"
"No. I just—"
The Dog Namer took up a position looming in the doorway. "Everything all right in here?"
Kustaa's other eyebrow joined the first. "I'm sure my nephew will behave himself."
"You are not my uncle!"
The Dog Namer and the stupid healer exchanged looks, and Zuko didn't know what they meant but he didn't need to, not when fuming was already the answer.
With one last look, the newcomer left. Kustaa waited. Zuko crossed his arms, and glared at the wall.
"There was this salve," he said. "That the doctor on my ship used to make. When my burn was— It helped a lot. And it was easy to make, I think I remember—"
The Healer stood, and pulled another book down. He turned to a marked page. "This one?"
"...Yes." Of course the Healer already knew, Zuko shouldn't have bothered him, he'd been stupid, and probably insulting, and—
"Sit down, boy. Are 'degrees' temperature or time? Don't look at me like that; it's not everyday I have a Fire Nation hostage to translate for me. So?"
So Zuko sat. "...Time. You need to keep it at twice chi for twenty degrees of the sun. Umm, chi is temperature, sort of? Twice average resting chi."
"I have no idea what you just said," the Healer said. Followed immediately by: "Can you do it? That temperature, for those… degrees?"
"Of course. It's not that—"
The Healer shoved an empty pot into his hands, and started pulling supplies out of his cabinets.
"Why," Bato asked, "is the Fire Prince allowed to roam the ship?"
This was another point Hakoda found himself completely unable to explain.
"To be fair, he did ask first," Panuk put in, demonstrating both his unrepentant eavesdropping and his pity for Hakoda.
"Kustaa's not even a fighter," Bato pressed. "You leave them alone together?"
Ranalok came to his rescue, this time. "You haven't seen those two together long; the Prince imprinted on him when he was feverish, or something. Like a duckling-seal. He's about as likely to hurt Kustaa as he is to hurt the dog."
This statement clearly failed to reassure Bato on any level. "You leave him alone with Sokka?"
"Scuttles," Hakoda corrected.
"Seal Jerky," Ranalok grinned.
It was dark outside the porthole, and Seal Jerky was sprawled asleep in his lap, and Zuko was on his third plate of a late dinner and if Not-Uncle said anything Zuko was never helping him again. Keeping a steady temperature for hours was hard.
"That'll be the last batch for now," Kustaa said, pointedly ignoring both Zuko's scowls and his yawns. "When you're done, get to bed."
"Am I allowed to go without an escort?"
"Bato's giving you trouble already?"
"He's acting like I need to be watched all the time!"
"You do keep loudly talking about escape," the Healer commented, scraping out the bottom of the pot.
"He doesn't know that!"
Kustaa stored the last bottle of salve into the cabinet. "I suppose it's my bedtime, too. Are you done eating?"
Zuko glared. And shoveled the last of the food in his mouth, instead of complaining more.
They went down to the crew cabin together. Zuko was holding a sleepy-squirming dog that kept trying to lick crumbs off his face because dogs were disgusting, and didn't initially see why Kustaa had stopped.
Then he did. The Dog Namer was standing next to Zuko's hammock, holding a fur blanket up to his nose.
"...What are you doing to my bed?" Zuko asked.
Which was how Zuko ended up back in the infirmary, on a bed that was too flat and steady and didn't move with the ocean swells anything like a hammock, and it was creepy-quiet with only the dog in there with him.
The Chief had made him swear on his honor he wouldn't try escaping tonight if they let him sleep in here instead of on the floor in the crew cabin. Which had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the porthole was right there and if the Earth Kingdom ship had taught him anything, it was that maybe he should just drop into the sea and take his chances before everything changed for the worse—
(The Chief's Second had almost been killed by a firebender. Things were going to change, and changes were always for the worse.)
Seal Jerky stretched out over his back, and sleepily thumped Zuko with his tail.
Zuko glared at the moon. And didn't break his word, like an idiot. (Who didn't want to drown.)
"You trust him?" Bato asked. "You know how much honor means in the Fire Nation."
His Chief looked more amused than the situation called for. "Don't let the prince hear you say that."
"You didn't even lock him in, Hakoda."
"The men know to watch the porthole."
Bato had shared Sokka and Katara's stories of the Fire Prince. Now Hakoda shared his.
Bato continued to not be reassured.
Zuko jerked out of a worried half-sleep as the door opened. The isopuppy grumpily refused to let him sit up.
It was just the Healer, anyway. Kustaa dropped his pillow onto the room's other bed, got out a spare blanket, and lay down.
"What, you need to keep an eye on me, too?"
"I was having trouble sleeping without the world's quietest night terrors next to me."
...It was easier, falling back asleep to the sound of his stupid Not-Uncle's breathing.
It was easier for Kustaa to fall asleep, too, with the brat curled up under a dog just across the room. A lot easier than jolting awake, and realizing the prince had said his burn had been treated by his ship's doctor.
The prince was sixteen. That scar was years old. It wasn't the sort of math a man needed before bed.
Bato let out a breath, some of the tension bleeding out of his shoulders. Changing bandages was not a pleasant experience. The sudden shift of air over his healing skin, the press of sensation that he couldn't read as anything but pain.
"New recipe?" he asked, as Kustaa kept carefully applying the salve. It was almost cool, where it touched. Numbing. He wished the nuns had this.
"Finally worked out the Fire Nation one."
Bato snorted. "The Fire Nation would know burns."
"They would," the healer said tightly, capping the ointment jar with a very final sort of click. He reached for a bandage roll.
Bato's shoulders tensed again. He held his breath.
Zuko was learning to make a hammock. Maybe by the time he caught the Avatar, he'd make one he wouldn't fall through. It would be easier to figure this out if people would stop shoving plates at him while he was trying to remember what row he was on.
Bato was learning how uncomfortably comfortable the crew had become around firebending in his absence. The prince was breathing sparks as he yelled at them. Sane reactions to this would be dunking the firebender overboard or otherwise teaching him that prisoners weren't entitled to be yelling, and that there would be consequences for firebent threats.
Insane reactions included ignoring those behaviors completely and shoving more plates of food at him, thus encouraging him to firebend more. Bato appreciated a hot meal as much as the next man, especially after getting used to warm meals at the abbey, but he didn't need his fish with the aftertaste of global conquest.
"A little unnerving, isn't it?" Hakoda asked, following his gaze to the tongues of flame that chased the prince's shouts.
"I thought their dragonbreath was just a story." Bato had liked it better as a story.
"General Fong's secretary says it's a sign of a master bender."
"...Hakoda. How bad were their terms, exactly?" Why was the prince not enjoying Fong's hospitality, somewhere that had better methods for dealing with a master firebender than 'knock him on the head before he causes too much damage'?
"Pretty bad," his best friend said. "You know Fong. He'd have left us to deal with any blame for the prince's capture, and used the ransom terms only for the Earth Kingdom."
The prince shot a glance their way, almost like he could hear their quiet conversation from all the way across the deck. More like he just felt like sharing his glares; the kid had been doing nothing but glaring at him, since he'd come aboard yesterday. Everytime he turned around the prince was watching him.
The isopuppy was hanging around the firebender, probably waiting for one of those plates to get dropped. Bato patted his knees. "Here, Sokka. Who's a good boy?" He scruffed up the fur on the pup's face, and ignored his friend's sigh.
"Please don't call him that."
"But it's good to remember your kids, Chief."
Hakoda gained a certain glint to his eye. "You know what? Go ahead. Call him that."
Across the deck, the prince was glaring their way again.
"Seal Jerky, come," he snapped, his voice every bit the imperious royal. It said something that the Prince of the Fire Nation used the same tone for dogs as he likely did for the men under his command.
"You don't need to listen to the mean little future Fire Lord," Bato crooned, but the pup was already squirming away from him to trot back across the deck.
The prince scratched behind the isopup's ears, and smirked.
The dog's legs got hopelessly entangled in that shoddy excuse for a hammock he was making, and had to be cut free. Bato smirked.
"This is how I always do it!" Zuko shouted.
"Well, you always do it wrong," the Dog Namer said. "Who even taught you?"
Toklo did his best to fade into the background. Zuko pointedly did not glare his way as the Chief's Second made him coil every rope on the deck. Again. And Again. Because he'd shown him how to do it too fast on purpose, and Zuko wasn't going to beg the man to show him again when there'd been nothing wrong with how he was doing it in the first place, how was it even possible to coil rope wrong, and if he had been screwing it up then someone would have noticed by now because all the lines lead straight back to the—
"Stop watching the sails."
"There's sails everywhere! I can't not see them if I'm on deck!"
"I can fix that," the man said.
...Zuko regretted his life choices.
Bato was getting a crash course in their current strategy.
"—Now that you're back, we'll rejoin the rest of the fleet," Hakoda said, tracing out their path on the map between them. "General Fong might be angry with us, but General How was happy enough to send us intelligence on the Fire Nation's newest supply ports."
"Ah," Bato said. "Was that the albatross that came in today?"
"Exactly. I've got the rest of the fleet scouting their supply routes; by the time we're back north, we should have some targets to hit. Then we'll just see how many we can take out before they shift again. Maybe head back down to Chameleon Bay after that. Make sure no one's getting bright ideas about blocading the inland routes, and get the men some shore leave. Not everyone got an extended vacation with nuns."
"If you're jealous, I'm sure our firebender would be happy enough to arrange your stay," Bato said. "Where did you pick him up, anyway?"
It was a fairly anonymous strip of ocean, all things considered. No major routes that they knew of, near enough to shore but far enough from any Fire Nation friendly ports to make it clear the prince had been following the coast line, suspiciously far into Earth Kingdom controlled waters. The prince's ship, it seemed, did not move with the rest of their fleet. Which made sense, if they were on special assignment to track the Avatar down. One small ship could slip past areas a flotilla would have to fight through.
"How long has he been on board? He seems awfully comfortable here."
Hakoda ran a hand through his hair, in the way he did when he was trying not to get caught rubbing a headache away. "Almost a month, now."
"...And his father hasn't replied?"
"We tried routing the message through Earth Kingdom channels, to protect the fleet location. That was before I realized how petty Fong was going to be over this. It wouldn't surprise me if the first message was lost in transit."
That would certainly make more sense than the Fire Lord simply ignoring the capture of his eldest son, yes.
"I've re-sent through How. With any luck, we'll be hearing back within the next few days."
He was back up to speed on the fleet's activities by bedtime. The Fire Prince's sad attempt at a hammock hung in a corner of the crew cabin, with clear signs of something approximately the size of a sixteen-year-old menace falling through. Another night in the infirmary beds, then. Bato couldn't say he was disappointed; the idea of trying to sleep with a royal firebender a few hand's span away from him was less than pleasant. And Kustaa's bedding was gone; he was probably spending another night keeping tabs on the boy.
All of this did nothing to explain why his bed smelled like smoke . Even more than it had last night.
"Oh, you noticed?" Toklo said, with a smile that suggested this was a good thing. "We finished all the chores you gave him, and he said that you said that he wasn't allowed on deck, and for a hostage he really sucks at not working, so we started washing all the bedding. Isn't it awesome?" Their youngest crewman was buried up to his nose in his own blankets.
Bato's favorite blanket was thick and warm, stuffed with goose-hare down. It smelled like a campfire on the edge of flaring out of control. It smelled like the moment in his nightmares before he woke up. It didn't smell anything like being warm in bed while outside the winds howled, or like his late wife's careful hands as she'd stitched it, or home.
"We only did blankets today; we'll do furs tomorrow!"
Bato regretted his life choices.
"...Let the prince know he's allowed back on deck. And stay away from my furs."
It took Bato a long time to realize what was bothering him, the next morning. The prince was doing an admittedly thorough job of swabbing the deck. The breeze was as chilly as yesterday's, but the sky was cloudless today and the sun strong; apparently this translated to the boy keeping his hood down and his sleeves rolled up, like a sunning lizard.
There was something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Something more than the way the kid kept glaring back at him, or the complete ridiculousness that was his shaved head with that one prideful plume of carefully tied back hair.
"...Where is he getting a razor from?" Bato asked, to no one in particular.
No one in particular was able to answer.
"Not me," Toklo said. "I figured he was asking Panuk."
"I've been keeping tabs on mine. He hasn't touched it," Panuk said. "Maybe Kustaa?"
"You think that brat knows how to ask for things? I figure he's just been taking one when no one's watching, and putting it back when he's done. Probably cleans it before he does, too." Kustaa snorted, and put the lid back on another container of that divine burn salve. "Try looking for the cleanest kit. That's the one he's using."
The healer reached for clean bandages. Bato's shoulders tensed.
The cleanest kit was Aake's. Aake had been growing out his beard, and hadn't touched said kit for months. The straight razor inside gleamed like it was new, in exactly the way a piece of metal neglected in the humid, salty environment of a ship shouldn't.
Aake was not amused. Neither were Bato or Hakoda.
"I put it back!" the prince protested. Probably the only reason he was still sitting in the chair across from the Chief was because he'd been ordered to. He was splitting his glares evenly between Hakoda in front of him, and Bato standing near the door behind. "And I cleaned it! Better than he did!"
"You stole a weapon," Hakoda repeated, like it would get through any better on the second try.
"I'm a firebender," the kid scowled. "How am I more dangerous with a razor? And anyway, there's no rule against shaving."
"There is against theft."
The prince had the audacity to cross his arms. "No there's not. I need to work or I can't eat, if you catch me escaping you'll break my legs, no 'instigating fights' or people can beat me as much as they want, and if I hurt anyone or anything with firebending you'll kill me. Those are the rules."
The Chief let a slow breath out. "New rule. No stealing."
"Or what?" the prince asked.
Hakoda gave in to the urge to rub his temples. "Just don't, Your Highness. Sometimes things don't need consequences, because you shouldn't be doing them."
"I'm sure someone will let you borrow a razor if you ask. Go ask."
This was a clear dismissal. The Fire Prince stood, edged around Bato with his usual scowl, and made for the door.
He paused, one foot in the hall, shifting his weight uncertainly. "Did my father reply yet?"
Zuko had no idea what the consequences for stealing were. This was a problem. This was a problem because he'd been slowly moving the supplies he'd need once he stole a boat into a single spot in the back of their cargo hold (the cargo hold they'd let him reorganize, and oops, he'd left a space between a few crates that you'd have to move the contents of the entire room to find if you didn't already know where it was—)
He didn't like not knowing what would happen, if they found out. The Chief had been… weirdly consistent about his rules, and Zuko just wanted to know.
It was clearly part of an escape attempt though, so. He was just going to assume they'd break something, so he could stop worrying about his punishment being worse. Besides, it wouldn't matter if he never got caught.
(It was better to worry about them breaking his legs than it was to wonder how disappointed in him Father must be. Why else would he take so long to reply? Zuko had to escape on his own. Had to prove he was worthy of a second (third) chance, prove he wasn't just a drain on the royal resources only fit to be used as a tool against his Father—)
"That boy is actively plotting against you," Bato observed.
"I've noticed," Hakoda said.
"I hear Aake had a good idea."
Hakoda remembered when he'd considered Aake's leg-breaking suggestion and, in his naive idealism, discarded it as stooping too low. He discarded it again now, for a more practical reason: he couldn't picture a broken leg stopping the prince from doing something stupid.
"The Chief ordered me to ask someone if I can borrow their razor when I shave," Zuko said. "...Can I borrow your razor when I shave?"
Ranalok blinked down at him. "All right. As long as you clean it."
"Why didn't you ask me?" Toklo complained.
"Yours is filthy."
"...Just how many kits did you go through before you stole Aake's?" Panuk asked.
The prince turned a shade of red corresponding to his answer.
Bato let out a breath, his shoulders relaxing as that miracle salve went on.
Kustaa didn't reach for new bandages. "We're going to let it breath, today. You're healing well."
Bato's shoulders tensed. He made himself keep breathing as he headed back up on deck, his burned side on display for the whole tribe to see. A few crewmen stopped short at whatever they were doing, then went back to work like they hadn't seen a thing. A few nodded to him, and thankfully left it at that.
The Fire Prince was the only one to stare.
That was. That was… bigger than Zuko had thought it would be, even with the bandages. He didn't know people could survive burns that large. Even with a proper Fire Nation doctor, even with Father's mercy in sparing his eye and limiting the flame's spread, his own wound had gotten infected. Uncle had been really worried.
...He and Kustaa were going to need to make more burn salve, weren't they?
Bato cut himself off mid-sentence. He had been answering Aake and Ranalok's questions about the young Avatar. The Fire Prince had been hovering near them, sanding down the same spot on the rail for minutes.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
Everytime he went to get food, or left the deck for any reason, the stupid Dog Namer was right there on his heels.
"Can I help you?" Zuko snapped.
"No," the man said, grabbing a plate and putting exactly one tiny fish on it, like he was making a point.
This was making it really hard for Zuko to sneak extra food down to his cache.
...On the bright side, Seal Jerky was really happy that he had even more food than usual hidden in his pockets. And not even the Chief's Second was questioning the extras, not with their naming war going on.
"Sokka, here boy," the Dog Namer cajoled. "Sokka—"
"Good Seal Jerky," Zuko said, with firebender-warm belly scratches and an escape's worth of bribes ready for tactical deployment.
It helped that the rest of the crew seemed to be on his side.
"Good boy, Seal Jerky," Ranalok said, adding his own belly scratches in passing. For once, the Dog Namer glared at someone other than Zuko.
The prince was trying to sneak into the cargo hold. The prince was trying to sneak into the cargo hold, and no one else seemed to think this was a problem.
"We always bathe after cleaning the bird cages, they're filthy! And I don't need you staring at me!"
Toklo stood awkwardly between them, a full bucket of water dragging down his arms. "I mean, we usually do it up in the crew cabin. But you have been staring a lot. It's kind of creepy when we're naked, Bato."
...He was going to ignore that extremely valid point, because it did nothing to negate his own extremely valid point. "I do not trust you in the cargo hold, Your Highness. Bathe in the crew cabin, or stay dirty."
Bato kept guard—he did not stare, and he definitely didn't do so creepily. The prince glared back at him, and pointedly boiled the bucket of water between his hands.
"Well that's… toasty," Toklo said. "Could you…?"
The prince huffed out a breath, turned his glare to the wall, and did something that brought the roiling bubble of the water down to a simple cloud of steam.
"And could you…?" Toklo said, making a little shooing motion at Bato.
Bato stared at the prince until he caught his gaze again. "Stay out of the cargo hold. Or do I need to check it?"
The prince huffed again. Bato left them to it, with a final glare of warning.
Bato checked the cargo hold. He didn't find anything. Which might have been because he couldn't find anything.
...When had they found time to reorganize the entire place?
The man was following him again, Zuko hadn't even tried to sneak any extra food today, he was just eating, he was allowed to eat whenever he wanted, Panuk said so, so why did the man keep following him when he wasn't even doing anything wrong—
"Just leave me alone!" His fire was crawling under his skin. With the man always after him he hadn't even been able to pretend to meditate. There was nowhere he could just sit down for a minute and breathe without being stared at.
"Not hungry, Your Highness?" the Dog Namer mocked, and Zuko realized he'd started leaving without even grabbing anything. He'd—he'd come back later (and the man would still be right on his heels) or wait until Panuk or Toklo got hungry and take something off their plates (which they'd make fun of him for, because it was apparently hilarious that using his firebending all day for chores made him hungry), or—or he'd just wait until dinner and eat more then. This didn't matter, and he didn't care.
He did care when the man tried to get between him and the door, and suddenly his breath control was starting to slip.
"I know you've been taking more food than you need, Prince Zuko. I know you've been hiding it somewhere, probably for whatever idea of an escape attempt you have in your head, and I am going to figure out where. You're our hostage, not our guest. These little unescorted walks of yours are fooling no one, and they will stop."
"You don't make the rules," Zuko spat, and there was fire on his tongue, hot enough it almost singed him. The stupid room was too small and the man was too close and Zuko needed to not be here.
"I am the second in—"
Zuko brushed past him. The hall wasn't any better. He needed to get away and just breathe, but the man followed him everywhere. Almost everywhere.
"Where do you think you're going?"
He opened the infirmary door, but it was empty inside. Kustaa wasn't there to tell the man off for him, and the man was so close he was almost stepping on Zuko's heels and there wasn't anywhere else he could go, this was the Chief's Second, no one else on the crew would help him (could help him) except—
Zuko pushed inside the Chief's room. He saw a new message tube and a map that the Chief immediately moved to cover. And then the Dog Namer was grabbing Zuko's arm and—
"Leave me alone."
—then there was fire.
The man let go of him. Backed off fast, with the same fear in his eyes that Zuko had the first time after his burn that he'd sparred with Lieutenant Jee, because it wasn't a serious fight but what if it was, if his Father would burn him why wouldn't any other soldier and Bato had even less reason to trust him than that—
Zuko scythed a hand down quick. The flames followed, torn off the man's sleeve and snuffed in the air without anything to sustain them.
Sorry? It wouldn't change the way the man looked at him. Or the way the Chief looked at him.
Mean to? When had that ever mattered? The Chief was weirdly consistent about his rules, and Zuko had just used his flames against one of the crew. Maybe the man wouldn't go through with actually killing him, he was still the Prince of the Fire Nation, he was still a valuable hostage—
(Father hadn't written back to the Chief in a month.)
(Father hadn't written back to him in two and a half years.)
That was the point that Zuko lost his breath control completely.
The Prince of the Fire Nation was having some sort of breakdown in Hakoda's cabin. This was his life now.
"Sit," he ordered, but the boy just backed away from him, farther into the room, shifting into something that would have been a defensive stance if it wasn't so shaky. The kid wasn't breathing right. Hakoda didn't take his eyes off the firebender, but he shifted his attention to Bato. "Are you okay?"
His best friend wasn't looking much steadier.
...Prince first. Bato wasn't likely to light the ship on fire if he kept panicking.
Carefully, telegraphing the movement, Hakoda stepped out into the hall and whistled. "Scuttles. Sokka. ...Seal Jerky."
The pup trotted down from the deck, ears pricked. Hakoda picked him up, and carried him in to the prince.
"Hold. And sit."
Whatever the firebender had been expecting, it clearly wasn't a dog shoved into his arms. He sat on the edge of Hakoda's bed. Not the chair, which would have put his back to the Water Tribesmen.
Hakoda took Bato out into the hall, and sat him down. He left the door open enough to keep an eye on the prince, who was darting glances at the porthole too consistently for comfort. But he'd leaned back against the wall, and was curling his fingers into the dog's fur instead of just holding him, so.
"Let me see," Hakoda said, and rolled up his friend's sleeve. The fabric was singed and the skin underneath hot to the touch, but not visibly burned. He let out a slow breath.
(The prince had been watching, too. He jerked his gaze away when Hakoda looked at him.)
(Scuttles took this opportunity to lick the prince's undefended chin, which caused an entirely different and distinctly healthier kind of jerk.)
"What happened?" Hakoda asked, quietly.
Bato answered him, quietly.
(The prince pulled his feet up onto the bed. Scuttles filled up his lap, stopping him from curling up too tightly.)
The Chief's Second was telling him that Zuko had been taking extra food, which he had, and hiding it, which he had, and disobeying orders, which he had, and he didn't need to say anything about the fire because the Chief had been right there.
And then he'd… handed Zuko a dog. Which didn't make any sense, probably because Water Tribe culture was fundamentally incomprehensible. That would explain most of his experiences on this ship.
He should probably just jump out the window while they were distracted.
...Would the Chief hand his dog to someone he was about to kill?
Zuko just. Had no idea what was going on right now.
"Have Kustaa check it out," the Chief said. Both men stood, and the Dog Namer went back up on deck. The Chief straightened his shoulders, set his face to something unreadable, and then came to deal with his prisoner. He took the guest seat at his desk, and turned it to face the bed (which put him equidistant to stopping Zuko from escaping out either the porthole or the door.)
"He already told you."
The man let out a slow breath. "I'd like to hear it from you."
He wanted to hear Zuko confess, dig himself deeper when the Dog Namer couldn't even prove everything he'd said? He wanted Zuko to contradict the man he clearly trusted, give him an excuse to… to what?
The Chief had been really clear about what the consequences of hurting someone with his bending would be, and then he'd handed Zuko his dog.
"Prince Zuko," the man said, "I'd just like to hear your side of the story. I'm not going to punish you for an accident."
Which was. Which was such a lie. And what did it being an accident even have to do with anything?
"I broke a rule. You said—you said you couldn't ignore it if—"
"Are you trying to argue against yourself?" the man was almost smiling. They were having two different conversations again. This one felt friendlier than the one they'd held up on the mast, but that didn't make any sense, because that time all he'd been doing was trying to sneak away but this time he'd firebent at the man's friend. He'd done something actually wrong, instead of all the things the man had imagined him doing.
"Let's start with what happened, Prince Zuko, and figure things out from there."
"He kept following me and I couldn't just sit down and breathe, I haven't been able to meditate right since you pulled me on this stupid ship and I haven't been able to do it at all since he came aboard, and my fire is— I'm not trying to make excuses, I should have better control, I should be better—"
"It might blister, but that should be the worst of it," Kustaa said, leaving the cap off the jar of salve.
Bato flexed his wrist, appreciating the familiar numbness the medicine brought, and tried not to stare at the empty jar with as much trepidation as he felt. "Are we out of that stuff?"
"We'll make more." Kustaa's lips briefly twisted down. "If the Chief doesn't maim my heat source."
"It's a Fire Nation recipe, Bato. Who did you think helped me figure it out? The brat volunteered for it, too; he came to me, not long after you got back." Kustaa gave him one of those flat looks of his. The ones that said he wasn't judging, but it would be nice if his patients would stop hurting themselves.
The Fire Nation would know burns, Bato had said, and Kustaa had agreed with him, as he'd applied medicine the Fire Prince had helped make. The burned Fire Prince.
Bato's wrist wasn't the only thing that felt a little numb.
"You don't strike me as the meditating type," Hakado said, because it was his own fault for asking the prince to tell a coherent story. He already knew how that went.
The prince was running his hands over the dog's shell, smoothing the fur between carapace plates. "Uncle says it keeps our inner fire aligned with our intentions. Or something. He… says it better."
"So you're saying you burned Bato's sleeve because you haven't been able to meditate?"
"I burned his sleeve because I'm not a good bender. Father almost never meditates, but his fire never— He doesn't burn anyone unless they deserve it."
Scuttles nuzzled at the boy's still hands. It took him a moment to respond, to start moving again.
If what the Fire Lord was doing to the world was any indication, then Hakoda had opinions on how good his control really was versus how much the man simply didn't care who he hurt.
Unlike his son. Which was a strange realization, in that it didn't actually surprise Hakoda at all.
"This meditation—it helps your control?"
They talked about meditation instead of how Zuko had just burned someone.
And somehow that ended up with Zuko sitting on the Chief's floor with an oil lamp in front of him, trying to pretend the Chief wasn't over at his desk handling his correspondence and probably also waiting to see what else he'd light on fire today. Also as soon as he'd gotten his legs crossed the dog settled back into his lap which was just—this was not the proper way to meditate—
But he was being allowed to do it. Which was some sort of weird, nonsensical alternative to being murdered. So. He should at least try.
Zuko let out a breath, and tried to center himself even with a dog yawning in his lap, and a Water Tribesman sitting at the edge of his vision. (At least it was the good side of his vision. And at least the dog was warm.)
He inhaled, and reached his chi out to the flame.
It was entirely disconcerting to Hakoda when the flame on his desk lamp started moving, too. A few weeks ago, he would have called it a head game; the Fire Prince showing he could do more than he'd led Hakoda to believe. Now, he just wondered if the prince himself was aware of what a fire behind him was doing.
Or of the way he was still petting the dog, even as the flames in the room went from flickering erratically to settling down into the ever slower cadence of the boy's breathing. It was unnatural. ...Or perfectly natural, to a firebender. Katara had been moving water since she could toddle. The Fire Lord's son had probably been making lamps flicker from his crib.
Hakoda rolled up the map he'd been working on, hiding away their fleet's intended movements. He took out the week's letters, instead, and set himself to reporting to the many Earth Kingdom allies who demanded such things, as well as the captains of his own fleet who'd actually earned it.
When he looked up next, the prince's hands were still over the dozing isopup's back. His shoulders were squared, instead of hunched; his back held straight, instead of rigid. He was just… breathing. And the flames breathed with him.
Hakoda got more work done than he'd thought.
Zuko realized it was almost dinnertime. He'd been taking up space on the floor of the Chief's room for an embarrassingly long time. Uncle always said he should take as long as he needed to feel centered again, but the Chief was not Uncle, he hadn't even known firebenders needed to meditate.
He'd been sitting still a long time; his legs were numb under the dog's weight, and he was getting cold. He made his next breath more deliberate. Drew it in deep, coiled it up with his inner fire, spread the warmth outward into his body. His next breath came out with a lick of fire.
Which must have been way too obvious. The Chief had put down his quill, and was watching him.
"I've been told that breathing fire is the sign of a master."
The boy blinked up at him. "I—what? No. It's just one of Uncle's tricks. Like heating his tea without flames."
One of the Dragon of the West's tricks.
"I can't say I've seen that trick of heating before, either," Hakoda said.
"Why would you? It's not like it's even real bending. It's not useful in a fight, why would anyone want to learn it?"
The boy flushed. With embarrassment, not anger. "...Uncle keeps wanting me to make tea the traditional way, but it's really hard to get the temperature right without bending. So sometimes when he's not watching I… cheat. A little."
...The boy had learned a technique Hakoda had never heard of before, to cheat at making tea. Of course he had.
"How hard is it, to control heat without flame?"
"I—I think you have the wrong idea. I'm not a master, I'm barely past the basics, that's why Father— It's. I'm not good. But I swear I'll work harder, I won't hurt anyone again, I won't make you regret giving me another chance."
The boy didn't seem to understand the idea of an accident. At least he understood how serious the consequences of said accident could have been. And if he needed to sit and breathe with a flame to keep his own fires under control, then Hakoda wasn't blameless in this; he hadn't even asked if there were exercises a firebender in training needed to do. Katara had once almost brought down the ceiling of their home over a fight with her brother; how much worse would losing control of fire be? Hakoda didn't pretend to understand this 'inner fire' that their people took such pride in, or how anyone human could light things on fire with a mere act of will. But he didn't need to understand, to know that a flame needed to be maintained with care so it wouldn't burn out of control. Or extinguish.
"How often do you need to meditate?"
"Uncle does it for at least seven degrees every day. That's, uh. About half an hour, by Earth Kingdom sand clocks. ...I don't know how the Water Tribe measures time."
"By Earth Kingdom time is fine." The Southern Water Tribe didn't traditionally bother with such fiddly measures as hours; most of their activities went by the seasons the moon brought. The season the ice receded and the seal-gulls pupped, the season the blue-dye berries grew and the ground was loose enough to dig roots, the season the salmon-trout ran and the orca-wolves joined their boats in the hunt. An Earth Kingdom hour was an inconsequential unit, when there were days or weeks of work to be had.
"And I didn't ask about your Uncle. How often do you need to meditate?"
"...I usually did it in the evening. For an hour. Sometimes a little more earlier, if… if the crew was being too stupid, or Zhao was in port, or—or if Uncle started pretending to have hearing loss. I do not shout that loud." That pale skin of his did nothing to hide his increasing redness. But his shoulders stayed loose, and his voice at an appropriate volume for a small enclosed space, and for once he wasn't bristling defensively at Hakoda's mere gaze.
"I update the ship's log in the evening," Hakoda said, and could tell by the look on the prince's face that he didn't understand. "You can come here after your chores are done, if you want a quiet space. If you need a break—"
—And there was the bristling he was used to—
"— for meditation during the day, I expect you to find myself or Healer Kustaa. We both have rooms you can use. If this affects the safety of my crew, then I order you to meditate as needed."
"...Yes, sir." The prince still looked like he didn't understand. Hakoda was beginning to suspect that was an entirely different issue.
"Bato is right, though. You have been taking more food than you need. No more snacks for the dog, or whatever else you might have been doing with it. And stay out of the cargo hold, or you'll be rearranging it again, and I'll be watching this time. Wouldn't it be a shame if I found something."
"...Yes, sir." The prince really needed to work on not looking incredibly guilty.
Hakoda would need to bring Scuttles down into the hold, and sniff out whatever escape supplies the prince had been squirrel-ratting away. Later. Preferably without the prince noticing, so the boy didn't end up curled at the head of Hakoda's bed again, hugging a dog as he panicked over his punishment.
Toklo waved him over the moment he went back on deck. Zuko ignored him, and marched to where the Chief's Second was sitting, having dinner with other crewmen who really didn't like him but he kept walking towards their group anyway. When he was close enough, he bowed. Sometimes he wondered if bowing was invented so you didn't have to look at people when you apologized.
"I'm sorry. I should have had better control over my flames. My behavior was unbefitting of a firebender. I have no excuse for my actions; I need to be more careful."
The man wasn't saying anything. And he kept not saying anything. Zuko snuck a glance up, and found him exchanging looks with the Chief, like… like he thought Zuko had been put up to this, or something. If he'd been put up to this then he'd probably have said it better, like when Mother used to coach him and Azula on how to apologize to each other.
Whatever the Dog Namer saw in the Chief's face was apparently enough for him to at least look at Zuko again. Zuko ducked his head, and waited.
"Why don't you join us for dinner, Your Highness," he said, which was not in any way an acceptance of the apology. "Ever had sea prunes?" And his smile was in no way reassuring. Neither was the way he moved to the side and patted the deck between himself and the Leg Breaker.
"Um," Zuko said. Which was the point the Chief gave him a little push on the back, towards them. Which wasn't technically an order. Except that it was.
Zuko sat in perfect leg-cramping seiza, back rigid, as he was handed an entire plate of small round wrinkled blobs. Around him the men were snickering and smiling. The Chief took a seat nearby, and even he was shaking his head a little.
This was how Zuko got poisoned, wasn't it? He was pretty sure he was about to get poisoned. There was obviously something wrong with these things, they didn't even look like food, and they'd handed him the whole plate like it was his but that wasn't how Water Tribe meals worked—
He took one off the plate. The group visibly leaned forward in anticipation. The man he'd burned was grinning.
Zuko shoved the whole thing into his mouth, because he wasn't going to take a tiny little coward's bite. He was just going to take whatever was coming and try not to throw up no matter how bad it was—
It was—the outside skin was awful, squishy-briny-fermented-mush, but the inside was firmer and sour-sweet and it tasted almost exactly like the umeboshi grandmother used to send them (grandmother on his mother's side, when she still sent things to the palace for them, when Mother was still there and he and Azula weren't just Ozai's children).
(If he wasn't going to throw up in front of them, he definitely wasn't going to cry—)
It was. It was really good.
The men were laughing at him, and the Dog Namer was smirking. "They're a Water Tribe delicacy; you don't have to eat them if you don't like them, Your Highness."
The man was trying to take the plate back. But both of Zuko's hands were gripping the edges, and everyone was staring now, so.
"Get your own," he said, and took the plate back.
"...Those are for everyone, Your Highness."
"Joke's on you, then." Zuko said, and threw another one in his mouth.
People were laughing. The Chief was laughing. At his Second, not at Zuko. And the Dog Namer was ruefully taking it, he didn't look mad at all (and his sleeve was rolled up, but the burn Zuko had given him hadn't been bad enough to bandage, it just had the oily sheen of salve on it).
The man followed his gaze. "Is that stuff what you used on yours?" he asked, quieter than the conversations around them.
"Thanks," he said. "...You're still not allowed to wander the ship on your own."
"The Chief already told me."
Zuko shared the plate. Eventually. He even broke seiza, eventually. Dinner with the older men was weird and he didn't really say anything to them, and they didn't say anything to him, but when he kept sneaking sea prunes some of them smiled at him. This did nothing to make it less weird, but it felt… okay. To be smiled at.
After dinner, Ranalok helped him keep his latest hammock attempt untangled and dog-free for long enough that it took some kind of shape. A vaguely hammock-shaped one. It didn't even look that bad, when it was covered in the blankets Kustaa brought him from the infirmary. And he was pretty sure the ominous creaking was just it settling against its new hooks in the ceiling. Probably.
Seal Jerky listened to it with a dubious whine, then left to sleep with the Chief. Water Tribe traitor.
He made a better one the next day. And pointedly did not heat any plates for Toklo until he stopped laughing about the bruises Zuko did not have from that crash in the night they were not talking about.
It wasn't so strange to find the enemy prince in Hakoda's room, sitting quietly on the floor, the fire in front of him as well-behaved as this kid wasn't.
It felt like it should have felt stranger. But the steady rise and fall of the flames was oddly soothing in the otherwise dark cabin. Hakoda could see the appeal in this meditation of theirs.
The Fire Lord's first reply came four days later. Hakoda suddenly understood the appeal of setting things on fire, as well.
Chapter 8: The Fire Lord's Son Gets a Haircut
Credit goes to exactlygrandcrown for Hakoda's ship name, the Akhlut, which is a wolf-orca from Inuit folklore. When you see a wolf's tracks going to or from the sea, you may have found an Akhlut changing its forms to hunt...
The first letter came during a war meeting. The senior warriors were gathered in Hakoda's room for the briefing; if all went well, their first attack on the new supply line would begin before the week was out. The Captain of the Sea Woman had spotted their first target, and was keeping tabs on its movement from a safe distance. The rest of the fleet was positioning around it. Tangle mines would be deployed in any direction it could choose to flee. Scout boats would plot a wide course, making sure unexpected help didn't foul up their plan like it had in their last defeat. General How had come through on his promise of more blasting jelly. A few barrels rigged to her hull in the dead of night, and she'd be scuttled.
...Scuttles was a great dog name. No one appreciated Hakoda's complex humor. Or his concise tactical illustrations.
"Chief, Bato's back. Just let him draw." Ranalok had the face of a man speaking for them all.
"Right," Bato said, and picked up the charcoal, and a fresh sheet. "As the Chief was trying to explain—"
There were sudden nods of understanding, and murmurs of agreement.
"And where's the Fire Prince going to be during all this?" Aake asked. "You can't tell me the kid's going to sit still while we attack his people."
"He will if he knows what's good for him," another crewman replied, demonstrating a fundamental lack of Fire Prince understanding.
Hakoda pointedly kept his hands away from his temples. "There's a reason we're in the reserves this time, instead of taking the lead. We'll keep him below deck and guarded. With any luck, he won't even realize what's happening until it's over."
'With any luck' demonstrated a wishfulness almost as bad as 'if he knows what's good for him', but there wasn't much more they could do.
There was a knock on the door. "Message for you, Chief," Panuk called. And where one of the younger crewmen was—
Bato slid other papers over the drawing of their plans. This would have been more effective if he wasn't hiding it under Hakoda's drawings. His Second gave an unrepentant shrug under Hakoda's glare, but at least had the decency to turn the sketches upside down.
"Come in," Hakoda called.
Panuk stepped inside, and handed the message tube off. Out in the hallway the prince stood, looking ridiculous as always holding a bird half his size. Especially one dramatically letting her wing drag as she draped her long neck over his shoulder, and down the better part of his back.
"I think Stormsurge hurt her wing when she landed," he said.
"She did not hurt her wing," Panuk said, heading back towards the door. "She's suckering you, just like Seabreeze. You need to stop babying them—"
The door clicked shut. They waited a few moments before resuming their planning; there was a superstition spreading through the crew that the prince had uncanny hearing. Not with that husk of an ear, he didn't; Hakoda found it more likely that the boy just had exceptionally good timing for his scowls.
At least he wasn't outright glaring as much, now that he was meditating. Sometimes he could even go an entire day without stomping.
The planning wrapped up after a few more questions, and a few more suggestions. Hakoda noted down the changes he'd need to convey to the rest of the fleet as the men went back to their duties. It was only Bato still with him when he broke open an Earth Kingdom seal, and found the Fire Nation's flame underneath.
Came in with a tracking hawk following, one of General How's men had scribbled, in the outer note. Shot it down and waited a day before sending on. Should be clean.
...He'd keep sending through the Earth Kingdom's channels, then. A fortified inland outpost was better equipped to deal with fallout then a ship in contested waters.
The Fire Lord's sigil was pressed deep into red wax. It cracked under his nail.
From His Majesty Fire Lord Ozai, Agni's Mortal Flame, Righteous Upon the Dragon Throne, Eternal Light of the Civilized World, etcetera etcetera, as faithfully conveyed by the hand of Reo, Second Scribe;
—orders that you cease at once with this continued affront to his beloved son's memory. General-Prince Iroh has already reported the young Prince Zuko's tragic loss at sea in pursuit of his royal mission—
—your only proof a letter indistinguishable in tone and contents from any base forgery—
—the terms you request giving further proof to the lie with their offensive slander against the late Prince Zuko's worth—
—your half-breed or colony brat imposter reveals his baseborn nature with each day he tolerates being used as a tool against his supposed Nation—
—if the blood of Sozin's line truly stood next to a foul rebel pirate, his proud and noble ancestors would guide his hand—
The letter continued, despite Hakoda's unconscious efforts to throttle it.
"Well we can't show him that," Bato said. "Did the Fire Lord just tell his son to kill you?"
No. No, they definitely couldn't show this to the prince. Possible assassination attempts aside, the boy would probably try jumping over the side of the ship to escape, or remember that his firebending could be used for more than his Uncle's tricks. Or something even more drastic. He wasn't the first prisoner they'd kept; only the one they'd kept the longest, and the only firebender. The boy knew where they kept their razors. The others, the ones that they hadn't executed or turned over to the Earth Kingdom in time, had found more creative means than that. Was the Fire Lord trying to get his son killed?
"What will you do?" Bato asked.
What else could he do?
General Fong's man had warned him about the bluster of the first negotiation rounds; apparently denying Hakoda even had the man's son was part of that.
"Well," his best friend said, with a clap on his back. "Have fun with that."
He stared down at the letter long after Bato had left.
—this continued affront—
If his first letter had been waylaid by General Fong a month ago, why would the scribe call this 'continued'?
The knock sent a spike through Hakoda's temples, lodging next to his growing headache. The latest draft of his reply sat in front of him, the bulk of it crossed out.
"Come in," he said, with much less of a growl than he felt.
There was a brief hesitation, and then the prince opened the door. "I was going to meditate. If that's okay."
Hakoda realized it was almost dark, and that squinting at the mess of his own handwriting without a lamp might be one of the reasons his head was pounding. He realized the prince was still standing in the doorway, waiting for an answer.
"Not tonight. I've… got business to take care of. Ask Kustaa, please."
"Okay." The boy made to edge back out.
"...Wait," Hakoda said. "You need to write to your father again."
The boy froze for a moment, hope chased by terror crossing his face. He'd been a lot easier to read since he started meditating more, and shouting less.
"Did my father re—?"
"No." Hakoda let out a controlled breath. "But I'm not sure the first letter went through; the bird might have been shot down, or lost in a storm. So we'll try again. Make it something more personal this time, please. " The prince didn't need to know that Hakoda had already re-sent, using one of the boy's copious near-identical drafts. He'd known they were too distant for a son writing to his father, but getting the boy to write a personal letter was like asking him to tell a story without backtracking.
Zuko didn't know when he'd learned to read the Chief's expressions, but he had. Maybe. When the man pushed a blank paper towards him, there was dissatisfaction under the edges of his usual blankness. More dissatisfaction than usual, when he looked at Zuko.
...Was Father not replying because Zuko's first letter wasn't good enough?
He took the paper. And sat on the floor in the spot he usually meditated, because he didn't think the Chief wanted to share a desk tonight.
They both wrote. And crossed things out. And wrote. Seal Jerky stopped by the window once and, finding them both firmly engaged in not-petting-the-dog, went back to prowling the hull for barnacle-rats.
"Personal details," the man reminded him. "Make sure it's something that could only come from you."
Zuko wasn't sure if Father would remember details from his letters. They were pretty trivial, and happening far away from Caldera, and if Father was too busy to write back then—
(Maybe he didn't read Zuko's letters.)
So he awkwardly worked in half-remembered details from two and a half years ago. Nothing from the day he really remembered. Or about Mother, he'd learned quickly and well to never talk about Mother. Just… harmless things. He asked about the turtleduck pond (and hoped he wasn't making the ducks a target), and about whether the royal tailor was still Master Eito, because he would need new clothes once he returned after catching the Avatar—
Which was. It was too presumptuous, he scratched it out hard. And wondered what the Chief could be scratching out with just as much dedication.
It was late when their letters were done. Both stared at them for long moments after their quills had stopped.
"Did you still want to meditate?" Hakoda asked.
"No. I… no. Thank you." The prince handed his letter over, and did the royal equivalent of fleeing.
Hakoda passed by the healer's room later. The boy was on the floor, staring into a flame. Kustaa and Scuttles were resting on one of the infirmary's bunks, taking turns yawning.
Zuko needed to meditate. But he'd needed to not be in that room even more. His letter was probably already rolled up with the Chief's under the Water Tribe's seal, waiting for the morning, and—
"If you're going to keep doing this all night," Kustaa said, as Zuko's flame slipped out of his control again, "I'm making tea. Want any?"
It was calming jasmine, the same kind Uncle always used to force on him. It helped as much as it never did.
Ozai's next reply contained a small package. A plain wooden box, rich in the perfection of its angles and the dark stain of its polish, but otherwise almost insultingly unadorned for something that had come from the wealthiest man in the world.
Shot down another tracker. Checked the box for safety, General How's man wrote. And added, with awkward simplicity: Sorry.
Hakoda read the letter from Ozai's scribe first. He had to read it again later, after—
The lid slid along its grooves with impeccable craftsmanship. Inside was a bed of preserving salt, and ten dark-skinned fingers. Their fleet was missing ten men.
—the Fire Lord bids you continue with your lies, but warns that your men may soon lose count of the offenses you have dealt—
—His Majesty advises the following, in good faith: a respectable forgery should include personal accounts recent to his treasured son's life, not indifferent minutia years out of date—
—His Radiance understands that the Water Tribes are a simple people, but he hopes this message will appraise you of the seriousness with which he takes this matter. He hopes, in turn, to see proof of your own sincerity—
There was a compass inset in the wheel's mounting. Zuko hadn't realized what it was before, because Water Tribe compasses were weird.
"We're headed north," Tuluk told him. "Done staring?"
"I wasn't staring."
"Right," the third-in-command said. "You're not going to find the navigational charts out on deck, Prince Zuko. And you'd better not let the Chief catch you looking in his room."
"I wasn't looking for them!" Besides, the Chief's room was always locked when he wasn't in there, and they'd notice Zuko trying to slip off the deck and through a porthole, and he pretty much knew where the ship was anyway. "I was just… looking."
"Uh-huh. Why don't you do less looking, and more swabbing?"
"What's he doing up here?" the Chief snapped, coming up the stairs.
"Swabbing," Zuko said.
"Prying out the compass with his eyes," Tuluk replied.
"I don't want your stupid—!"
"I don't want to hear it," the Chief cut him off. "Get off the quarterdeck. You're not allowed near the compass, and if you even think of touching our charts…"
The Chief didn't say anything else. He just stared Zuko down, and for a moment it was like that first day, kneeling on the infirmary floor—
Zuko left the quarterdeck, and stood blinking on the main deck, holding a dripping mop.
"You look really lost," Toklo said.
"...I forgot the bucket."
"So? Go get it."
Zuko did not go get it. He should, it was right up there and he had a good reason to go back, he wouldn't even be there long, but—
Panuk watched him not move. "Toklo. Why don't you finish the swabbing."
"What, why me?"
"Because we're trying to fish tomorrow, and I want to show Prince Zuko how to make a net that holds more weight than his hammock."
Zuko bristled and shoved the mop at Toklo, who complained all the way up the stairs. And for some time thereafter.
"...Why does the compass point north?" Zuko asked, once his hands were full of netting, and his elbows were full of trying to nudge an isopuppy away from said netting.
"The ocean goes from south to north, right?"
"But you can't see which way north is."
"But lodestones point north."
Panuk raised an eyebrow. "Okay, now you need to tell me how Fire Nation compasses work."
"Uh," Zuko said. Which was not any more intelligent than 'I don't know'. "I've never really... used one?"
Hakoda stood on deck, facing into the wind from the fore, trying not to snap at anyone else. Not even Toklo, who was loudly swabbing behind him.
Down on deck, the prince set down the net he'd been working on and, for no apparent reason, stuck his arms out in opposite directions. Even standing in front of the compass, it took Hakoda a long moment to realize he was pointing unerringly east to west.
"Is that one of your Uncle's tricks, too?" Panuk asked.
"No; Lieutenant Jee's. It's not really proper bending. Just… keeping track of the sun? The lieutenant says every navy bender should always know direction and time. I don't think Uncle does it, it's… it's beneath a prince to keep track of, and anyway he was in the army not the navy. But I thought it was interesting when I was a kid and I, uh. I still do it. I guess."
"You're still a kid."
Direction and time. If the prince had thought star charts were 'interesting' too, enough to memorize the basic measurements of the Dragon or another guiding star, then he knew their exact location. One less thing stopping him from escaping.
The boy dropped his arms, and untangled the isopup, and went back to his net-making. He'd never protested the work they gave him; had never gone to the healer with the same blisters Toklo and Panuk had complained of, at very different volumes, those first weeks at sea. His fingers were oddly callused. More like a swordsman than a firebender, more like a navy man than a prince.
He noticed Hakoda watching. His shoulders snapped straight and his chin up and his scowl firmly in place, like he needed to act like the hedgehog-viper he'd been those first days on board.
Hakoda let out a breath. He smoothed his expression to something more neutral, and stopped staring at the boy.
"Another reply?" Tuluk asked, softly.
Hakoda nodded tightly. "Come to my quarters later."
It was best he kept the senior crewmen appraised of the situation. And he'd appreciate their counsel, on matters of fingers.
By noon, Zuko wanted to meditate. A lot. But Kustaa was relaxing on deck with one of his books, and the Chief was—
The Chief was mad at him and he didn't know why. Not that the 'why' mattered: Zuko had done something wrong, and now the man kept watching him with his jaw set. It could be the thing with the compass. Or maybe it was the letter he'd written the other day; maybe it still wasn't any good, but the Chief had sent it anyway because he knew Zuko couldn't do any better. Maybe he blamed Zuko for the Fire Lord's response taking so long.
(It had been too long. Even if Father hadn't gotten the first letter, he should have gotten the second, he should have replied by now.)
(What if he never did? What if he expected Zuko to be responsible, to take care of his own mistakes, to act like a prince for once in his life?)
(What if the Chief was realizing that he wasn't going to get his ransom?)
Zuko kept well away from the man that day, and meditated with the Healer again that night. And tried not to think too hard about the stars outside, and how knowing the ship's position didn't help when their position was in the middle of the ocean.
He had another nightmare. He wasn't quiet enough.
"Tea?" Kustaa offered, exactly like a man who didn't want to get out of bed but would do it anyway.
"I don't want tea. I'm—I'm going to start work early. If that's okay." He directed that last request to the Chief's Second, who was watching him (but not the way the Chief had been). Zuko kept his gaze on the man, so he wouldn't have to see how everyone else was looking at him.
He hadn't been quiet at all.
The man stifled a yawn, and rolled his burned shoulder in that skin-too-tight way that Zuko wished he could do with his face on cold mornings. Then he escorted Zuko to the deck, and tried leaving him in the care of Leg Breaker.
"Bato," Leg Breaker said. "Do not expect me to watch him. I've got a deal going with the Chief: the prince stays away from me, and I don't murder him."
Zuko rubbed at his arms in the pre-dawn chill. The sun was too far on the other side of the world to feel; he didn't know what time it was or how long until sunrise. He was standing only a few handspan away. He could hear them, and they knew he could hear them.
"Kid had a nightmare, Aake," the Chief's Second said, like that had any bearing on potential murders. Or on anything else. Zuko had nightmares all the time, it wasn't special, did they have to talk about this?
"I just want to work," Zuko said. "You have my word that I won't cause any trouble. ...Today. "
Leg Breaker snorted. The Dog Namer ran a hand down his face. And somehow it was decided, and Dog Namer was going back to bed while Leg Breaker was staring down at Zuko.
"What are you waiting for? Work."
So. Zuko did.
The prince kept his head down. Didn't watch when they trimmed the sails, didn't go near the ship's boats, stayed quiet and out of the night shift's way like their very own Fire Nation ghost. He worked.
And kept working, long past the time others were getting up.
He worked like he thought it might help something. Given the letters the Chief had been showing them, Aake doubted that.
"You got a moment, Chief?" Panuk called, after his knock.
Hakoda could count on one hand the times their second youngest crewman had called him 'Chief.' The boy wasn't from Hakoda's village; his uncle was chief of an inland tribe, one of the semi-nomadic ones that lived their lives around the honey-reindeer swarms. The fleet had learned not to keep every member of a tribe on the same ship. It was a lesson they'd only needed to be taught once.
Hakoda wasn't Panuk's chief. He saw no point in demanding the title, and the young man generally saw no point in giving it.
Hakoda moved his latest attempt at a reply to the side of his desk. "Come in."
The young man sat across from him. "Is there a reason you're freaking the prince out? He's been up all night holystoning the deck within an inch of its life, and now he's acting twitchy about taking a break for breakfast."
"It's not intentional," Hakoda said.
Panuk slung an arm over the back of his chair, and waited.
...He was a smart one. Perceptive. Even though his uncle had a wealth of sons, he stood a chance at being elected chief of his tribe one day. He certainly stood a chance of marrying into the position, in one of the many tribes that had lost a generation of young men. Panuk knew when to speak, and when to hold his tongue.
Hakoda regarded him for a moment more. Then he took two letters and a box out of his desk.
He could count on one hand the number of times he'd heard the young man swear. Two hands, now.
"The prince doesn't know," Panuk said. Hakoda noted how quietly he spoke, even when he was cursing. If Panuk believed in the prince's hearing, too, then maybe there was something to it. The boy was anything but superstitious. "He'd have done something more drastic than clean the deck. He's just picking up on the way you stare at him. ...The way all the older warriors do. Since… it came in yesterday, didn't it?"
"Don't tell Toklo," Hakoda said. "He doesn't need to know yet."
"I won't. He—" Panuk leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes on the box. "His brother is one of them. Isn't he?"
Hakoda had spent far too long wondering which finger belonged to which man, too.
"...How are you going to respond?"
"How would you?" Hakoda asked, from an acting chief to a potential future one.
The boy met his eyes in a way that said he knew exactly what Hakoda was doing, and resented the responsibility come early. Then he straightened himself up, and answered.
His ideas weren't any less grim than Hakoda's and the other warriors. They weren't notably worse, either. At least one was… darkly creative. Particularly since responding in kind was the majority opinion. He did not say yes. But he would consider it.
"Send the prince here after breakfast, please," Hakoda ordered, when they were done.
Panuk came back with a grin, and a plate hidden behind his back.
Zuko did not trust either. "You were gone a really long time."
"Is that how you thank your benefactor?"
The plate was full of sea prunes. The Dog Namer had said they were out of those. (The Dog Namer clearly just wanted them all to himself.)
"Before you ask," Panuk said, dropping down next to him, "I'm not telling you where Bato's hiding them."
"I wasn't asking," Zuko said, grabbing one.
"Not that I'm saying you'll eat our entire supply inside a week. Or that this is clearly a Fire Nation plot to deprive us of another element of our cultural heritage—"
"Shut up," Zuko said. He even remembered to swallow, first.
"Or that the briny goodness of Water Tribe sustenance is finding its way into your core, infecting your ashmaker body with truth, love, and justice—"
This was not worth a few sea prunes.
(...Yes it was.)
Panuk tilted his head back, watching the clouds above as he kept being unbearably annoying. He didn't meet Zuko's eyes, or Toklo's. Neither noticed.
"Oh. Hakoda said he wanted to see you, when you're done."
...Zuko stopped eating. He'd. He'd maybe eaten too much, even though he hadn't really eaten much at all before Panuk brought out that plate.
"Prince Zuko," the Chief said. "Take a seat."
"Prince Zuko," the Chief said. "I asked you to include something specific in your last letter." (The letter wasn't in front of him, nothing was in front of him, his desk was empty like he'd cleaned it off in preparation for this talk—) "Something that would identify it as coming from you. Can you tell me why everything you wrote was years out of date?"
"Prince Zuko," the Chief asked, a question no one had ever needed to ask, "how long have you been banished?"
Two and a half years. Two and a half years ago the Fire Prince had been tasked to find the Avatar. Two and a half years in which the Avatar was thought gone forever.
Hakoda was wrong: the boy was a fantastic liar. He'd said his father wanted him back, and Hakoda had believed him.
And now Hakoda had called the Fire Lord's attention to his men, men who might have been able to sit in the relative obscurity of some Fire Nation prison, treated with only the usual abusive indifference, but instead there was a box in his desk—
Hakoda had done this to them.
"Back to work," he said.
Scuttles whined, trotting in a circle between his master's legs and the retreating boy.
Zuko had another nightmare. His father had a different face, in this one.
Bato escorted him onto the deck. Left him with the Leg Breaker.
Those railings were going to be smoother than the day the Akhlut was launched, and the prince's hands were going to be aching the rest of the week if he didn't ease up.
"Kid. Stretch your fingers out, once a rail at least. Some of us are hurting just looking at you." Aake flexed his own hands half in demonstration, and half to chase out phantom pains.
The prince set down the sanding stone, and tried to work his fingers straight again. It took him awhile. "...I don't know how to fix this," he said.
Which sounded like it was part of a different conversation, but wasn't.
"You can't," Aake replied.
"I didn't lie. I didn't do anything wrong."
"You were born." It was the only excuse the Fire Nation had ever needed for attacking their villages. They'd set the rules, not the Water Tribe.
The prince paused. Nodded, like it as a reason he'd been given before. Got back to work. He kept stretching his fingers out, once a rail.
He wasn't a bad kid, really. But that had never been the problem.
Zuko needed to get off this ship. Because—because apparently the Chief hadn't known the details of his banishment, even though everyone knew. Just because Zuko hadn't lied about it didn't mean it wasn't his fault. Father still hadn't replied, and Zuko had stopped asking; he didn't want to remind the man.
Not that he needed reminding. He didn't talk to Zuko anymore, barely even looked at him. But the rest of the crew did. Toklo seemed confused by the older Tribesmen's change in behavior. Panuk didn't.
If the Chief had known everything a month ago, would he have let Zuko live?
How much longer until it wasn't worth keeping him fed? He'd cut himself back to just eating at the main meals, but—but he was an extra mouth, and even though he was working, he'd only had one real job on this ship and he was failing at it.
"The Chief won't do anything drastic," Healer Kustaa told him, as they drank tea one night. "So don't you go doing anything, either."
There were other Water Tribe ships on the horizon. There had been for the past few days, in fleeting glimpses he probably wasn't meant to see. Not even Toklo seemed surprised by them.
They were getting ready to attack a ship, weren't they? Like orca-wolves, circling a whale—
And he. He was a firebender on a wooden ship that they had no way of restraining. It might have been worth it to risk his presence before, maybe even to keep him for an extra day or two just to see if the Fire Lord's hawks had somehow gotten lost. But once the attack actually started, once he was an enemy sitting on their own ship—
He needed to leave. He needed to leave now.
"Their propellers are out," Hakoda told his senior warriors. "We attack tonight."
It was gone. The bag Zuko had found, the food he'd been sneaking, the water, it was gone it wasn't here it—
He spun, fire already on his fists. Panuk stood at the bottom of the cargo hold stairs, hands already raised.
"Most of the warriors are at that meeting. Let's not let anyone find you down here, okay? Hakoda dug your stuff out days ago, and you know there's no way you're getting a boat right now. Unless you're jumping overboard with nothing, you—" He lowered his hands a little, into more of an imploring gesture than a surrendering one. "Listen. Just. Don't jump overboard. You know we're too far from land. If you're going to die that way, you might as well give Hakoda a chance to not kill you, right? ...I am not explaining this well." He dropped his hands completely.
...So did Zuko. He wasn't good at explaining things, either.
"He's not going to kill you," Panuk said. "Just to be clear. We just… need you to not be in the way during the attack. They'll probably put you in the crew room with a guard. It won't even be Aake; he's too good a fighter to leave out. So. Let's just go upstairs and pretend this never—"
"You're going to attack one of our ships," Zuko said. "I can't just— And Father hasn't replied, he expects me to do this on my own—"
"Yeah," Panuk said, his expression going strange. "The Fire Lord not replying. That would be a problem. But it's not really the one we're dealing with tonight, so could you just…"
He took a few slow steps into the cargo hold. Stretched out his arm. Zuko didn't return the gesture, but when the tribesman wrapped a hand around his wrist, careful of his too-hot hands, he let himself be pulled back up and out and onto the deck, and they both pretended Panuk had known where he was the entire time.
And they hadn't even been gone that long, the meeting was only just letting out. The Chief came on deck and gave him that blank-faced look he'd been using for days, and called Zuko over.
Panuk gave him a little push. "Just listen to him," he said softly. "And don't freak out. No fire with him, okay?"
"What are you two talking about?" Toklo asked. "And what were you doing? I thought you went to get food, but you didn't—"
Panuk hushed him. And shooed Zuko on.
The prince approached with stiff shoulders, raised chin, and a scowl. How Hakoda had ever mistaken that for anything but a sixteen year old bracing himself, he didn't know.
"You've noticed we're preparing for an attack."
The boy nodded, the motion a tight jerk.
"I need you to stay in the crew cabin. I'll be posting a guard on you, and I expect you to remain down there and quiet until you're given permission to come on deck again."
Hakoda let out a slow breath. "I do not want you pulling any surprise stunts during this, Your Highness. I want your word of honor you'll stay down there and do nothing that would distract my men during this fight. That includes escape attempts, attacks, and anything else you might be thinking to get around the rules."
The prince crossed his arms, and turned his scowl to the side. The same thing he always did before caving. "...Fine. But if soldiers get on board, if they—if they come for me, I'm not just going to stay there. I won't try to hurt anyone. But I'll go with them."
"Fair enough," Hakoda said, and offered his arm.
The prince took it, after a moment. Hakoda adjusted both their grips, so they were clasping arm to arm.
They shook, for whatever such things were worth. Any deal was only as good as the word of the men behind it.
Even if Father wasn't replying, by now everyone must at least know that their prince had been captured. They'd—they might. They might come for him.
Zuko spent the night down in the crew cabin, sitting in his stupid hammock. There was a crewman guarding the door, and a dog on his legs, and a healer who had brought down books to share.
So Zuko read bookmarked pages about Earth Kingdom medicinal plants, and simultaneously tried and tried not to place every sound he heard from above deck. It didn't sound like a fight. It didn't sound like anything, except a lot of men being unnervingly quiet.
There was only one guard. He wasn't even one of the bigger crewmen. If Zuko heard anything, he would… he'd…
But he'd given his word.
But they were going to kill his people.
Something creaked above. He curled his hands away from the book's pages, so he didn't accidentally scorch them.
"How can you stand it?" he snapped.
Kustaa marked his place with a finger, and raised an eyebrow at him.
"They're up there getting ready to fight, and you're just—just sitting down here safe."
"It's not about liking it. I'm more good to them after a fight then during. If I die, so do a lot more men. Isn't it the same for a prince?"
Zuko fumed. Seal Jerky jumped down from his lap, and sprawled out on the much cooler floor, panting.
"And why am I reading about Earth Kingdom plants?" He brandished the book.
"The Southern Tribes don't have much of a history with medicinal plant lore."
"Because our benders could heal," he turned a page in his own book. "And then they were gone. We lost as many people to injuries and infection as to the raids."
"...Can't I at least read about how to make things? I'm not going to be picking any plants on a ship."
"Plants first, brat. If you're going to keep helping me, you need to know what's in my jars."
The Healer said it like Zuko was still going to be here, like there was any point in keeping him around.
Something outside exploded. It wasn't on their ship, but it wasn't distant, either.
"Stop messing with the lamps, boy," Kustaa said, before the guard had a chance to take more than a step forward. Zuko concentrated on his breathing. The flames on their reading lamps went back to a more normal size.
The crew had covered the porthole over. They didn't want light getting out. Didn't want to warn whoever they were attacking, because whatever he was hearing was not the sound of an honorable fight, they were ambushing some unsuspecting Fire Navy ship like the underhanded cowards they were—
(And he was just sitting here, like the coward he was.)
He read the same page over and over. He didn't even know what plant he'd been staring at, except that it looked like every leaf ever.
The attack was a success. The Sea Woman and had sent a longboat out; eight men and a barrel of blasting jelly, rowing as quick and quiet as they could in the darkness, their mother ship too far back to help.
Nights like this there was either a flash and a victory, or a fighting retreat. They'd never win against the Fire Nation fighting man to man. It had taken Hakoda and Bato long months arguing that point at every tribal council they could travel to, before they'd even left the South Pole. Fighting like their men wanted to fight would only leave their women without husbands, fathers, sons.
Tangle mines to foul propellers, the skunk-fish inside a bonus distraction to prissy Fire Nation noses.
Earth Kingdom blasting jelly, rigged at the waterline.
A fire arrow from a safe distance to set it off, if Tui shone for the longboat's crew; a blast from a too-alert firebender trying to take out a supposed boarding party if she didn't.
A slow sinking death, as the Southern fleet watched. Always over deep waters, where the wreck wouldn't be easily found or investigated. Always at night, when messenger hawks were half-blind and groggy, easy prey for the golden-nightjars of the steppe tribes.
The attack was a success. It was the clean up that was the nasty business: the Fire Navy ship had time to launch her life boats. Her crew had time to understand, to curse, to beg.
The longer they could keep their strategies confined to rumor, the safer they would be.
This was their war. They were better at it than Hakoda had ever wanted to be.
"I know you didn't say yes. But." Panuk stopped next to him, fidgeting with something cloth-wrapped in his hands. "It's an option. I still think replying in kind is… is what we have to do, or the Fire Lord is just going to think he can do whatever he wants to our men without repercussions. But we don't need to hurt Zuko."
Hakoda did not want to take that bundle. He did anyway. It was small, and light; the contents shifted under his grip, like so many sticks rolling over each other.
Hakoda hadn't said yes. But Panuk had felt the need to be creative, anyway. This… wasn't only one or two.
Panuk shrugged under his gaze. "Figured we might need more, later. If it goes bad. Better they come from a matching set, right?"
Hakoda sat down in his cabin with a dead man's fingers and a letter he didn't want to write.
Panuk brought in the next message later that day, bird and all. Snowsquall looked oddly irate to be tucked under his arm, and not baby-carried like she'd become accustomed to.
"Did you beat the prince to the catch?" Hakoda joked. Attempted to joke.
"...He's not really in a catching mood." Panuk's eyes flicked to the paper in front of Hakoda and the still-wrapped bundle on the far corner of his desk. He held out the message tube without further comment.
There was no reason the Fire Lord would be sending him anything. Not so soon, and not with his own reply still unwritten. Still, his stomach clenched at the sight of another message crossing his desk—
He'd never been happier to see General Fong's seal.
"Thank you," he said, dismissing the young man as he cracked the green wax open.
Fong still wanted the Fire Prince. Of course he did.
Another knock at his door. Aake this time.
"The prince is on deck with a fire, and he won't work."
Aake didn't look particularly alarmed, and the first was almost expected, to some degree or another. The second certainly wasn't. Hakoda slid Panuk's bundle into a drawer, and stood.
They didn't let Zuko on deck again until midway through the next day. There was no sign of the battle last night, if it could even be called that; he hadn't heard anything like real fighting. Only that explosion, and—and maybe some shouting, and then the long wait down in the crew cabin. There wasn't a sinking ship or flotsam, no sign of survivors, not even of the other Water Tribe ships.
He'd been wrong: they weren't orca-wolves, hunting in a pack. They were piranha-wasps, coming together to tear their prey to pieces, then separating again.
He didn't know what direction the ship had gone down. Didn't know where to direct the prayers for their spirits. He faced west; the direction of endings.
The prince was just... sitting there. Cross-legged, his knees nearly pressed against the rails; his back to the crew and face turned forward no matter who walked past him, determinedly ignoring them all. In his hands he cupped a small flame, barely more than a lamp would produce. It took a moment for Hakoda to remind himself that this sight was strange; that flames didn't burn without a fuel under them, or obediently stay contained in a teenager's hands.
It wasn't healthy, being this used to a firebender. Wasn't healthy for his crew, either: they were giving the prince a wide berth, but not out of fear. More in respect for whatever strange ceremony this clearly was. And only Aake had thought to mention it to him, even though Bato and Tuluk were still awake, talking about something up on the quarterdeck.
Hakoda eased himself down next to the boy, and turned his gaze out over the ocean. "What are you doing?"
"Sitting vigil," the prince answered.
The boy's face set into stubborn lines. He didn't look at Hakoda. "I'm not going to stop."
The ocean was choppy today. Gray clouds, gray water, and a gusting breeze that fought for control of the prince's flame. Hakoda didn't say anything; not when the prince himself clearly had more to get out.
"I should have stopped you," the boy spat. "I'm their prince. I should have done more, I should have…"
He didn't seem to know how to finish that sentence. If he had, he wouldn't have spent all night down in the crew quarters, letting himself be distracted by Kustaa and contained by one guard.
"You're sixteen and a prisoner, Prince Zuko. No one expects you to stop every attack against your people."
The boy's face twisted. "No one expects me to do anything."
"What could you have done?"
It was the sort of question Hakoda should have known better than to ask, if he didn't want a too-honest answer.
"I could burn down your ship," the boy said, with an unsettling lack of hesitation. "It wouldn't be hard. I could have done it last night, or—or anytime, I could do it right now, I would do it if I weren't such a coward."
"We'd kill you for trying," Hakoda said, trying to keep his voice at a level calm. This was not a conversation he wanted to escalate. "Or you'd burn or drown with the rest of us. Living isn't cowardice, Prince Zuko. You don't have to commit suicide for your nation."
"Father would want me to."
...Yes. The Fire Lord probably would.
"Your father is wrong."
The boy's shoulders jumped. He turned the quickest of glances Hakoda's way, then jerked his gaze back to the ocean. "...I just want to go home."
So did Hakoda. Strange that the same man stood in both their ways. "How long will this vigil last?"
The boy swallowed. "Until morning, so they don't get lost at night. They can't reincarnate until the next sunrise. ...Or, that's what Uncle says. He believes in spirits."
Hakoda raised an eyebrow at the boy who was even now sitting a spirit watch while claiming it was only his uncle who believed. If Hakoda had to guess, he would say the Fire Lord didn't give much respect to the spirits. It would explain why he thought he could burn the world without repercussions, in this or his coming lives.
"We can't have a fire on deck at night," Hakoda said. "Not this soon after a strike." Not for at least a few days, when they were well away from the area.
The boy's shoulders locked stubbornly.
"You're fine on the deck until sunset," Hakoda continued. "Then you can continue in my room. Or with Kustaa, if he's willing."
The boy darted another glance his way. "...Okay."
"And don't forget to eat." Panuk had pointed out to him how little the boy had been eating, these past few days.
"...But I'm not working."
Hakoda took in a very careful breath, and let it out just as slowly. "Prince Zuko. I've been meaning to go over the rules with you again."
Somehow, the boy managed to hold himself even more rigidly.
"No firebending with the intent to harm," Hakoda said, "or I might be forced to kill you. I trust fake accidents won't be a problem?"
The boy's chin jerked up. He faced Hakoda fully, the flame in his palms flaring. "I wouldn't do that!"
"I know you wouldn't." he kept talking over the prince's bafflement. "No picking fights, or I'll have to have a long talk with you and whoever else it was. If anyone tries to beat you, you will let me know. And if you could be a bit more subtle in your escape intents, we would all appreciate it. Make sure you're actually ready to survive when you go; we pulled you out of the water once, don't make me do it again. You'd better at least manage to get one of our boats."
"Lastly, work. Every man here earns his meals. This wasn't a problem for you yesterday, and I don't foresee it being a problem tomorrow. I'm approving your request for a one-day leave. So don't forget to eat."
"Sir?" the prince asked. "What direction did the ship sink in?"
"North-northwest of here."
The firebender glanced up at the sun for a moment, eyes half-lidded, then adjusted himself to face the new direction. Hakoda was sure if he went to check, the boy would be perfectly aligned with the compass' reading.
The prince chose his room that night. Whether it was a sign of trust or a sign he'd rather keep up Hakoda all night than the healer, Hakoda couldn't say. The boy settled down on his floor, facing towards where his people's ship had sunk, his flame small but steady.
Hakoda had a cloth-wrapped bundle of Fire Nation fingers in one drawer of his desk. Water Tribe, in another. And the Prince of the Fire Nation on his floor, trusting him with his turned back.
Hakoda sat the vigil with him. In the morning, after making sure the prince understood he was to sleep before returning to work, he took a certain bundle to the rail and gave it a too-quick burial at sea, with a quiet prayer to the wrong god. It was the best he could do.
Hakoda hadn't fought this war on the Fire Lord's terms. He wouldn't let the man force him into starting now.
—your son is stubborn and resourceful and loyal to an undeserved fault. If you didn't believe I had him, you wouldn't have seen fit to return my messages at all.
The Earth Kingdom informs me that my letters are too direct. As you offer only base savagery in our correspondence, allow me to likewise drop the trappings of civility:
I want my men and a treaty.
What do you want, Ozai?
His Majesty the Fire Lord advises that there will be no treaty, and no return of your men, so long as you dare put forth this imposter to the throne—
—leniency may be shown should you abandon this transparent Water Tribe ruse to cause the royal family more sorrow, and dispose of the pretender to Sozin's line—
Hakoda sat staring at the Fire Lord's reply for a long time. This was how long it took a proper father to process that another man was asking for his own son's head.
The price the Fire Lord named, in exchange for Hakoda's men.
...Hakoda kept sitting, awhile longer.
There was a Fire Nation ship on the horizon, and the wind was against them. Hour by hour, it drew closer.
The prince kept looking up from his chores, darting glances at it with the kind of hope they hadn't seen since the last time he'd asked Did my father reply. He thought it might be here for him.
The crew was extremely disillusioned on this particular subject. If the ship were here for him, it wasn't in the way he hoped.
"What are we going to do with him?" Tuluk asked, at the briefing that afternoon.
This wasn't like the last attack; they wouldn't be observing from a distance, only offering support. Their choices were to run fast enough to lose their pursuer, or close the distance swiftly enough to destroy the advantage of their catapult and fight at close arms. Either had to be done before other Fire Navy ships could catch up with them, and the wind had already made the decision for them. They were only stalling for night, now; to make the catapult operators blind, to face the firebenders at their weakest.
It was hard to forget the firebender they already had with them, the one who would not be happy about staying below deck with a fight raging above his head. Not when they were already wetting down the sails and sloshing water over the boards to make them even a little less flammable.
The prince was only good to them dead, in a very literal sense. The Fire Lord couldn't have timed his reply better.
"The same as last time," Hakoda answered, which was another way of saying I don't know.
The boy really wasn't subtle. He was staring at that ship.
"Not thinking of escape, are you?" Hakoda asked, and the prince jumped.
"I wasn't—I was just—" the boy slipped on his usual scowl. "It's one of Zhao's ships."
Well. There was certainly a history there. Hakoda raised an eyebrow, and waited for the inevitable outburst. It came, with dramatic gesturing, and surprisingly few sparks. The boy really did have better control when he meditated.
"Zhao is creepy. He's always—and—I don't want to be on one of his ships. I mean, I'd go with them, but—but why couldn't it be anyone else. Commander Nguyen doesn't follow me between ports, and Admiral Hoang doesn't care enough to block my supplies, and Commander Vu doesn't invite me for tea."
...It had somehow escaped Hakoda that, in two and a half years on his own ship, the prince would have a great deal of knowledge about his fleet's naval commanders. He sincerely doubted that point had escaped General Fong. No wonder the man's letters were so insistent; the prince represented more than just a potential ransom, to him.
It had also somehow escaped Hakoda that a prince banished on a fool's quest when he was only thirteen might not be on the best terms with said commanders. Particularly if the Fire Lord encouraged their behavior. Even if he simply ignored it.
The prince was bristling again, and not at remembered slights. Hakoda smoothed out his scowl, and did not press further on what exactly Admiral Zhao did that qualified him as creepy to a sixteen year old. This wasn't the time, and he wasn't the boy's father. Not that the Fire Prince had much of a father.
"I'm going to need all my men," Hakoda said. "Can I trust you down in the crew cabin without a guard?"
The prince nodded stiffly. "Unless—"
"Unless they come to rescue you," Hakoda agreed. They wouldn't. "I want your word you won't attack anyone on your way out, or damage the ship."
The boy nodded again, and they shook on it.
He couldn't afford a man to guard the Fire Prince. And at this point, it really didn't matter if he escaped.
Night fell. The Akhlut turned hard, racing to get under the catapult's arc. They closed the distance, and met the Fire Navy crew's boarding ramps with their own. The fight began.
It sounded like a fight, this time.
Zuko paced in the crew cabin, eyeing the open doorway, even though Kustaa was right and he—it wasn't that he couldn't do anything, but he shouldn't. If he went on deck now he'd (be breaking his word) probably just get killed because he'd be coming up on the enemy side of the fight. If— when —the navy ship won, they'd find him.
"Just wait it out, boy," the healer said. He wasn't pretending to read this time. His book was closed in his lap, and Seal Jerky was laying over it anyway. "You're the only one that'll make it out fine no matter who wins."
He scowled, because that didn't help. Justifying why he was a coward didn't make him less of one.
Zuko hadn't seen anyone in Fire Nation armor in over a month. Just the casual blue cloth of the Water Tribe, or the leather armor and wolf helms they donned for a fight. He wasn't expecting how rigid the soldier looked. How faceless. How exactly like every member of Zuko's own crew, except when his crew looked at him he was one of them, not sitting in the hold of a Water Tribe ship, with a Water Tribe healer stiffly grabbing for a weapon next to him, and a Water Tribe dog growling while Zuko was dressed in Water Tribe clothes.
The man didn't even hesitate; he entered from the hall at a run, and shifted smoothly into a firebending stance.
"Wait!" Zuko split his arms to the sides, and the fire followed. He closed his fists and exhaled, snuffing the sparks before they could catch.
That slowed the soldier. He shifted back to a defensive stance. His voice echoed inside his metal helm, coming out hollow and strange in a way Zuko wasn't used to anymore. "What are you, then, some kind of half-breed?"
The man had rushed in quick. But now he had time to look, and Zuko's face wasn't exactly subtle. How could… how could the soldier not recognize him?
(Unless no one was looking for him.)
Zuko drew himself up, falling into a neutral stance, his hands mostly down. He wished this stupid parka fit him better. He wished it was red. "I'm Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai, your prince."
The soldier froze a moment. Slowly he reached up and tilted his face plate back, giving himself a better range of vision. He was older than Zuko, of course, but not old. Around Panuk's age.
"Your Highness? How…?"
Why was the man surprised? He'd been captured by the Water Tribe, why wouldn't he be on a Water Tribe ship?
(Unless no one had told the fleet he might be on one.)
"I was captured."
"Let's get you out of here, then," the man said, still sounding mildly baffled. "Ah. Sir."
Zuko moved towards him, but the soldier wasn't heading towards the door. And he still hadn't relaxed fully from his stance. In the center of the hold, Seal Jerky was growling by Kustaa's legs. The Healer was standing ready, holding a knife Zuko wasn't sure he knew how to use.
"We need to go," Zuko said. "Before the rest of the crew stops us."
"Sir. I know you want to get out of here, I can't even imagine what these savages put you through, but… if we can take out their water store, everyone can retreat. We'll be safe. And it's a wooden ship. If this guy's the only one guarding the lower decks..."
Kustaa shifted towards the stairs down to the cargo hold, knife still in hand.
The soldier shifted his stance, sliding back into a form with fire on his hands, and Kustaa moved, and Seal Jerky was barking loud but not loud enough and Zuko—
The fight didn't go smoothly. But it went, and none of Hakoda's men were dead yet. Not even Aake and Ranalok, with whom Hakoda was going to have a very stern talk concerning when it was and was not appropriate to go off on their own with the blasting jelly. The enemy ship was too busy floundering to press the attack further, her soldiers retreating to salvage what they could, to send distress messages, to launch their boats.
The Akhlut wouldn't pursue. It was more important to put as much distance between them and the ship as they could, before any backup arrived. And the Fire Navy crew could only tell tales of how fiercely they fought in the sort of fight their kind expected from barbarians, not of their stealth and cunning.
They finished pushing off the boarding ramps. His men were in the process of cutting down the sails that had been burned. Once the new ones were hoisted, they'd be gone.
It was the injuries and the secondary infections they had to worry about, now. Firebenders were like snake-urchins; the aftermath of their bite far more dangerous than their fangs.
"Someone tell Kustaa we're clear," he ordered. Panuk and Toklo headed down. It didn't take two of them to deliver that message, but Hakoda let it slide with a shake of his head. They wanted to check on their friend, and it wouldn't hurt for the prince to see friendly faces after sitting through that. Hakoda was surprised the boy hadn't tried anything stupid during the fight.
The last body splashed into the waves. Someone sloshed a bucket over the spot the man had died, thinning the stain, if not quite removing it. It wouldn't be the first to set into the wood of their deck. Hopefully they could get the worst of it out before the prince saw.
Panuk was back. Without Kustaa.
"Chief. They got below deck," he said. "...One of them did, anyway."
The smell of burnt wood and furs paled under the smell of seared flesh. The closer they got to the crew cabin, the more overwhelming it became. Hakoda hated that smell. Not because of its distinctiveness, but the opposite: a burned man smelled no different than any other animal. It was a food smell; a living thing turned to meat.
Kustaa was fine. His dog was fine. The body in Fire Nation armor was not fine. The prince, somehow, even less so.
There was a tinge of blood to the air. And of vomit.
The reason their own crew hadn't lost anyone in the attack itself was simple. It was hard to burn a man to death. Easy to wound, to put a man out of the fight, but to kill? That took the kind of time no one had in a melee. Most deaths by fire came from shock, or infection.
The soldier had been burned. Badly. But it hadn't killed him, and wouldn't have, not for hours. Days, if he'd been unlucky.
"You were going to kill him anyway," the prince said hoarsely. "You were going to kill him, right? And he—he was in so much pain, and I couldn't just let you hurt him—"
The man's throat had been slit. The prince hadn't made it far from the body before throwing up. He was curled up against a wall now, Kustaa's arm over his shoulder, his face buried in his knees and a dog pressed against his side.
"Is it safe on deck, Chief?" the healer asked.
It suddenly seemed immensely unimportant to keep the boy away from a few bloodstains.
"Get him up there," Hakoda said.
It was easier said than done, getting the boy to uncurl. Kustaa and Toklo took him up.
"I'll start cleaning," Panuk said, as Scuttles lingered to sniff at the body.
The walls of the room were scorched. More than a few of their hammocks would need replacing. Along with their blankets, and clothes, and anything else in the sea chests unlucky enough to have been in the way of two firebenders disagreeing. Every fire that had lit the place was cold now, and had been for some time. There was no sign of any flame spreading far.
Hakoda didn't remember seeing any burns on the Fire Prince. Not a master, indeed.
The prince was sitting at the rail, his legs dangling, his forehead pressed against the wood. Kustaa was next to him. And gesturing, less and less subtly, for Hakoda to come talk with the boy.
It wasn't a conversation he wanted to have. But their healer was needed elsewhere, and for the moment, Hakoda… wasn't. The new sails were rigged up, and the wind in their favor. There weren't any orders to give that the men didn't already know.
Hakoda sat on the prince's other side. Kustaa gave the boy a final squeeze on the shoulder, and left.
"It wasn't an accident," the boy muttered.
"It wasn't. I… I knew what I was— It wasn't an accident. Are you going to kill me now?"
Of course the prince wouldn't see the difference between turning his flames on a member of the crew, and using them against a Fire Nation soldier. ...Of course he wouldn't. And Hakoda didn't even know where to begin explaining that one life wasn't equivalent to another. That intentions mattered. That killing enemies was what men did in war.
The soldier hadn't been the prince's enemy.
"Can you tell me what happened?" he asked.
"Why does it matter?" the boy lifted his head just enough to glare at Hakoda. He hadn't been crying, but he'd clearly been putting all his effort into trying not to.
"I'd like to hear it from you."
The prince leaned his forehead back against the wood. He spoke, as coherently as Hakoda had expected, about the firebender who hadn't recognized him at first, who'd been willing to help him escape anyway, who just wanted to keep his own crew safe by ending the fight without fighting.
By destroying the Akhlut's water supply, when they were at least a week from any port. By lighting a few things on fire below deck, as well, for a more immediate distraction. Even if they'd gotten the flames contained, even if they'd sent a message out to the closest of their allies, they'd still have a Fire Nation ship shadowing them from a safe distance like a jackal-scorpion trailing its poisoned prey.
Everything the boy said was from the Fire Nation's view; why what he'd done was traitorous and cowardly and wrong. He'd saved an enemy ship, the enemy leader's ship, he'd killed one of his own men, his father would never forgive this, let go of him—
Hakoda had wrapped an arm around the boy's shoulders. He didn't let go. The prince rested his head against Hakoda's shirt, and refused to cry.
He threw up again. Over the side of the ship, thankfully. Hakoda did let go of him for that. And when Panuk and Toklo approached, apparently done with their clean up below deck, Hakoda ceded his seat to them.
Hakoda didn't know how to explain to a banished sixteen year old that he might be a bad son, but a good man.
"If you want to hold another vigil tonight," he said instead, "my door will be open."
"I killed my first soldier there," Toklo said, pointing to an anonymous patch of deck. "Then I threw up there." The spot wasn't much farther.
"It was on their ship," Panuk said. "I didn't get sick. I kept waiting to, everyone told me it was normal, but I didn't. I killed him, and then Aake saved my ass from getting taken out by another, and after it was done I cleaned my weapon and ate dinner and went to bed. I don't know what that says about me. But I don't think it's something you should be ashamed of. Neither is defending someone you care about, no matter what color he's wearing."
"Maybe for the Water Tribe it's not."
"If you're trying to convince me that all Fire Nation soldiers are soulless monsters, you're doing a terrible job."
They didn't try to hug him. But they did lean into his shoulders, from either side. And. It wasn't terrible. And he kept living, even though the soldier didn't. Thinking about it didn't make him throw up again, even though—even though he should, even though he'd betrayed his country, even though he'd (saved Kustaa and Panuk and Toklo and everyone else)—
When he went to the Chief's room for his vigil, he flinched away from his own flames. The Chief handed him the lamp he used for meditating, the wick already lit like he was four and a bending-less baby again. Zuko set it on the floor on one side of the room and sat on the other, and the Chief still didn't say anything.
The flame didn't move with his breaths. It just burned, all night, and it didn't hurt him or anyone else.
General Fong's next letter contained none of the subtleties of the Fire Lord's missives. If they didn't hand over the prince, they could expect a less friendly experience the next time they resupplied, since the handouts offered to them by army outposts were for allies in good faith, not mere allies of opportunity.
Hakoda rubbed his temples, and invited the senior crewmen in to discuss his latest correspondence from both nations.
It didn't solve anything, but it did help. Sharing burdens was like that.
The fire prince was listless for the next few days. He barely even shouted when Toklo applied his usual over-friendly pressure for a warm breakfast, and the prince gave a 'no' he actually meant. Later, when Ranalok told him to take a break from working, he did.
But he tried to help with replacing the burned hammocks (...the night shift unwove his efforts to get the rope back), and did help Kustaa with the new batch of burn salve (the crew very pointedly did not see him throwing up again, after this first try at using his flames; they definitely didn't see the way he marched scowling back into the healer's room to try again). And when the next albatross-pigeon approached, he stood up to catch it.
He'd be okay.
...If they didn't kill him to get their own men back, or hand him off to the Earth Kingdom for whatever use Fong thought he'd get from the boy, he'd be okay.
Bato quietly stopped insisting that the prince needed an escort anywhere he went. If he escaped, it would save them all a lot of thinking that they'd rather delegate to the Chief.
"Why don't you give Hakoda the message," Panuk said. "I'll take Sealsled down."
Zuko was alone when he knocked on Hakoda's door, and offered him his latest letter.
The Chief thanked him, but didn't dismiss him. Zuko felt his shoulders tensing.
"Why don't you sit down, Prince Zuko. Your father replied."
Zuko realized he wouldn't recognize his father's handwriting even if it was in front of him. It had been years, and it wasn't as if Father had sent him letters while he was back home.
He recognized Second Scribe Reo's tersely perfect calligraphy, though. It had been on every letter amending Zuko's living allowance, and every previously overlooked condition of his banishment that would henceforth be enforced.
It was here on a letter dated days ago, that told him Uncle thought he was dead. It… it took Zuko a while to understand more than that. That Father thought he was dead too, and this was all some Water Tribe ruse—
(Father said he thought Zuko was dead. But… but Father should know his handwriting. And he'd written the same things in those letters that he had for two and a half years—)
"Are there," his throat was inexplicably dry, and his voice cracked. He swallowed. "Are there more?"
The Chief opened a drawer in his desk. He took out two letters and a box.
This wasn't the right way to do this. But if there was a right way to tell a boy that his father wanted him dead, Hakoda never wanted to know it.
The boy read each letter, and re-read, until Hakoda lost count of how many times he'd picked each up. The box, he only opened once. Stared inside. Slid the lid shut, and set it back on the desk. He read the letters again.
"...Are you going to kill me now?" he asked, when he was long past the point of delaying this conversation.
"I really wish you'd stop asking that," Hakoda replied. It was the wrong thing to say; the boy flinched, and visibly straightened himself. "No. The answer is always going to be no, Prince Zuko."
"But I'm worthless to…" to you, he didn't finish, because Hakoda could see him thinking and realizing and broadening that statement. "I'm worthless," he said. "And Father will give your men back if—"
"The Fire Lord promised no such thing. He promised that 'leniency may be shown'. Even if he offered my men returned to me on a new ship, carrying a peace treaty that would keep the Fire Nation out of our waters, how could I trust the word of a man who wants his own son dead?"
"But. I— You're not going to even try? It's not like you want me here, you don't want me—"
The prince was arguing against himself again. And he hadn't met Hakoda's gaze since he'd read that first letter. Hakoda stood and came around his desk, and tried to ignore how much shorter the boy's breaths became with every step closer he took. He knelt, and wrapped the prince into a hug as best he could from that angle. The prince didn't respond; his chin was on Hakoda's shoulder, and his body barely moving even to breathe.
"Are you going to sell me to the Earth Kingdom?" he asked, in a voice so quiet Hakoda might not have heard if they weren't so close.
"No, Prince Zuko. I'm not selling you to the Earth Kingdom, either."
"But. What do you want from me? I'm not any use to you, I—"
Hugging the boy tighter made him go stiffer, his breaths more ragged.
"Stop," the prince said. "Stop caring more about me than my own father, you can't—you can't."
It wasn't hard to.
The boy slipped from his chair, and Hakoda caught him. He finally cried. The lamp on the desk followed each breath; near-guttering on the inhales, flaring behind its glass on the exhales, unsteady and exhausting itself, but safe for all that.
Panuk ran interference at the Chief's door. There was to be no knocking, no new messages, and no dogs pressing their noses to the floor and trying to skitter-claw their way in under the door crack.
He picked the isopuppy up and carried it, legs still scrabbling, back up to the deck.
"I need a knife," the boy said.
Hakoda knew what Fire Nation prisoners did with knives, when they'd lost hope. He wanted to say no, but he couldn't watch the prince all the time, and he didn't want him finding another way. Some of their prisoners had… not died easily. It was why Hakoda didn't try to keep prisoners, not for long. And he knew that this was considered some perverse honor in their culture, that they were bred to view their own deaths as noble.
The lamp flame was rising and falling with steady determination. The prince's gold eyes were meeting his own again. Hakoda reached to his belt, and slid out his knife, even though he couldn't feel his fingers gripping it.
The boy didn't aim at his stomach. He grasped his ponytail in one hand, and cut it through at the base.
Hakoda didn't pretend to understand the full significance of the gesture, but its finality was unmistakable. And he'd seen Fire Nation soldiers break from being shorn.
The boy handed the knife back. He didn't seem to know what to do with the hair still in his hand; he set it on the floor, carefully straight, and stared at it.
"We could send a message to your uncle," Hakoda offered.
The boy jerked his gaze back up. "Don't. Please. I've ruined his life enough already. He can go home, without me."
Hakoda nodded. And didn't comment as the prince scrubbed his face clean with a parka sleeve.
"I'm going back to work," he said.
"You've had a long day," Hakoda said. "It's all right to rest."
"It's still morning," the prince bristled. "And I—I need to work."
"Okay," Hakoda said.
"...Okay," the prince said. He got to his feet while pointedly ignoring Hakoda's offered hand up. Straightened his shoulders. And stomped back up on deck, though not so fast that Hakoda wasn't able to stay right behind him.
It took a few moments for the crew to notice him. To notice the difference, and the redness around his eyes that a few sleeve-scrubs couldn't hide, and the way he shied back towards Hakoda for just a moment before forcing himself to glare their curious silence down.
It was Aake who broke the stand off. "Sit down, Prince Zuko. Your hair is even stupider than usual."
"...It's just Zuko. Not 'Prince.'"
The crewman eyed him. "Sit," he ordered again. "Panuk, go get my razor."
"The cleanest shaving kit on the ship, coming right up," the young man grinned, unrepentant under Aake's glare. He got the kit.
The prince—the former prince—sat, in that uncomfortable seiza position his people seemed to have invented purely to make their own lives more miserable. Aake sat cross-legged behind him, and shaved the boy's scalp clean.
"There," he said. "Now it can grow back even."
"Grow back?" the boy said, like he hadn't dared to think that far ahead.
"It's just hair." Aake patted him on the shoulder, with an awkwardness to match the boy's own. "Ready to get back to work?"
Hakoda had never been so proud of his crew.
He sent matching letters to Ozai and General Fong. The prince had been lost at sea. Very tragic. His condolences.
General Fong fumed, but stopped issuing threats.
Ozai received his own letter with great satisfaction, and promptly executed ten Water Tribesmen, as agreed. It was a greater leniency than sending them to the coal mines, or continuing his discussion with them regarding their fleet's movements.
Hakoda considered sending a message to Prince Iroh, as well. But he didn't know whether the man was any better than Ozai, and he didn't particularly want the Dragon of the West influencing the boy.
And he'd given his word that he wouldn't. It would be good for Zuko to be able to trust an adult at his word.
Prince Zuko— Zuko threw himself back into his work, like he was trying to prove something.
Like he thought children needed to be useful just to live.
Chapter 9: Teenager on the Main Mast
Baby and I are home from the hospital and doin' good! Thank you for the well wishes. <3
In related news, don't try to write 10k+ chapters with a newborn, kids. I've split the originally planned chapter nine up into three easier-for-sleep-deprived-mommy-to-write sections, hence the bumped up chapter count.
Zuko's hair was short bristles when the Chief came on deck during breakfast. He walked towards them, and Zuko tried not to let his shoulders tense, or his face get as hot as the plate between his hands—
(He'd cried. He'd cried on the man's shoulder. And Zuko still didn't know what the Chief wanted from him, he kept dodging the question or ignoring it or outright lying, he had to want something. Maybe he'd just needed time to think on it, and now he was going to tell Zuko what his place would be—)
"Can I speak with you?" He was talking to Toklo.
Toklo exchanged confused looks with Zuko.
"Keep some food warm for me?"
Zuko nodded, as the Chief and Toklo went below deck.
Panuk had stopped eating. And Toklo didn't come back. The Chief did, though. He sent Bato to wake up the off-duty crewmen. Then he explained, in a tone that not even the wind dared speak over, the meaning of the Fire Lord's leniency.
They held funeral rites on the open deck. Zuko stayed quiet, and tried to edge towards the door below without catching anyone's attention. Ten Water Tribe men were dead because of the Fire Nation. Because of his father. Because of him.
Panuk caught his arm. "Why don't you go check on Toklo. He's probably down in the crew cabin."
"...Why don't you go?"
"I don't think he'll want to talk to me, right now." Panuk had on one of those smiles of his, and Zuko had no idea what it meant.
But it was an excuse to leave that didn't feel as much like running. So Zuko picked up the plate he'd been saving, and reheated it, and went.
Toklo was in his hammock with his back to the door. He didn't turn before he said, "Go away."
"Okay," Zuko said. "But I, uh. I brought your breakfast. So I'll just… leave it?"
He set it on the floor. And straightened back up. And that was enough time for Toklo to have gotten up and then there was a Water Tribesman wrapping his arms around Zuko and crying on his shoulder and Zuko had no idea what to do with that.
After a moment, he got Toklo to sit back down on his hammock, because the way he was sagging, it was either that or the floor. Zuko remembered how uncomfortable floor-crying was. He rubbed one of his hands in circles on the older teen's back, because the Chief had done that for him, and he didn't really get it but it hadn't felt bad and maybe that's what you were supposed to do with crying people.
"They knew, they all knew, and they just— Did you know?"
These words were muffled by the shoulder of Zuko's parka. Which was technically Toklo's parka. So. It was probably okay that the older teen was getting it wet and gross.
He couldn't tell if louder sobbing meant that was the right or the wrong answer.
"My brother. He's dead, they—they cut off his finger and probably tortured him and then they killed him and—"
And Zuko realized that 'they' was 'Fire Nation', which was him, of course it was, and he should have just hid in the healer's room until people weren't as angry anymore. Weren't sobbing anymore. Toklo wasn't holding him any tighter, but suddenly it was so much harder to breathe.
"I'm sorry. It's my fault, if—if the Chief had given Father what he wanted, then—"
(The Chief had told Father that Zuko was dead. Father had still executed the Water Tribe prisoners. But Father probably knew he was lying, or maybe he'd already done the execution before the Chief's letter arrived, and if Zuko had been worth more to begin with then the Chief could have had his men back instead of having a firebending prisoner he didn't know what to do with—)
"How would you being dead help anything? Then I'd have a dead brother and a dead friend and the Fire Lord would still be awful."
Toklo really was hugging him tighter now, but it was somehow easier to breathe. Zuko let his hands rest on—on his friend's back. His fingers curled into the fabric, a little.
Toklo kept crying. So probably Zuko was doing this wrong. But he didn't yell at Zuko or shove him away, so not that wrong.
(Seal Jerky came in. Finding the Sad Human situation successfully handled and no dog assistance required, he helpfully cleaned up the plate on the floor, then clack-trotted back up the stairs. There were many other humans in need of a Good Boy to pet.)
"You okay?" Panuk asked, much later, when they came back on deck.
"I'm not talking to you," Toklo declared, his chin raised. "I hate you and I'm not talking to you or anyone else because I hate you all. Except Zuko. He didn't know he should have told me."
Toklo wrapped his arms around Zuko again, and just… didn't let go. Which made it really, really hard to even pretend like he was working. No one seemed to be angry with him for it, but then, their youngest crewman was hanging off of him. So.
The former prince was less shouty now that he wasn't their prisoner. This wasn't a good thing. He did whatever they told him to, and found things to do that they hadn't. He didn't talk back. He clamped his mouth shut when he started spitting sparks. One day he cleaned the birdcages twice, barely an hour apart, because Bato had been trying to find something for him to do and the boy didn't speak up about having done it already.
He didn't act like a kid who was safe now. He acted like he expected to be thrown overboard. There wasn't even anything they could take him aside and correct him for, because he wasn't doing anything wrong. That was the problem.
His nightmares were worse. Still too quiet, still something most of the crew could sleep through, but he was getting up earlier and earlier to start working now that he didn't need either Bato to escort him to the deck or Aake's permission to stay.
It probably didn't help, sleeping in the same room he'd killed one of his own. They'd scrubbed and sanded, but the walls still held scorch marks, and the men were sharing clothes and sleeping on the floor to share furs after the loss of so many of their more flammable belongings.
They made for the nearest port to resupply.
"It would be better if you stayed on board," the Chief told him.
"Okay," the kid said, and didn't ask any questions, or lodge any complaints.
It wasn't fair to him, but they were docking too close to General Fong's base for Hakoda's comfort.
"This isn't a punishment," Hakoda clarified that night, as the former prince finished his meditation. "You're not our prisoner anymore. I'll make sure our next port is somewhere safe for you to get off."
The kid took in another of those slow, calming breaths that shared Hakoda's room in the evenings. "Okay," he said.
The fleet had found a target while the Akhlut was resupplying. The boy tucked himself below deck with Kustaa without having to be told.
No one told him to hide his vigil away in the healer's room the next day, either, but he did anyway.
Panuk and Toklo both brought him something to eat. Independently. At the same time. Without talking about it first, of course. Which was another sort of drama, and one Hakoda would like to stay out of.
The kid's hair grew fast. The thick black chick fuzz softened the edge of his scar; made him look his age, even when he was scowling. Made him look… fuzzy. He was scowling more often again, at select parties.
"Whoa. Soft." Toklo announced, answering the question that had been in the crew's mind.
"But kind of bristly," Panuk added, as the former prince growled.
"Still not talking to you," Toklo said.
"I was talking to Zuko," Panuk said.
"Do you want your food or not?" the firebender-in-the-middle grumbled, far too patiently for a sixteen year old with two hands in his hair.
"Seems like you're heating it just fine," Panuk grinned.
Zuko ducked his head, and generally did his best to evade them. Politely. Without raising too much of a fuss. This was as unsuccessful as one might assume, and distracted him from Bato coming up behind.
"Quit it," he snapped, for the first time since his haircut. The moment he realized who he'd just snapped at was marked by wide eyes, tensed shoulders, and the plate in his hands going from simmering to flash-broiled.
Bato hesitated a moment, then did what any reasonable man with a giant healing burn would do: continued ruffling the hair of the firebender.
"I think those fish are done," he said. With a final pat, he left a petrified ex-prisoner in his wake.
"...Those are a little really burned," Toklo said, "Could you make new—?"
"No," Zuko snapped. And no one yelled at him, or corrected him, or really paid attention at all except to flash grins across the deck as Toklo and Panuk picked at their blackened breakfast.
The boy was almost as scruffy as Scuttles the next time they docked.
"This a free port," Hakoda told him. "You'll be safe here."
"I'm allowed off?" the boy asked carefully.
"I told you, Pri— Zuko. You're not our prisoner."
"...Am I allowed back on?"
Which Hakoda didn't know how to answer, because 'yes' didn't begin to cover it.
Kustaa had a more demonstrative reply, anyway.
"You'd better be," he said, tossing an empty bag at the boy. "Who else is going to carry the things I buy?"
The former prince relaxed under Kustaa's commands, or at having a clear job to do, or because there was no way they'd leave without their healer.
Zuko started yelling more. A little.
"No one's going to hurt you," the Chief told him. He liked to say things like that when they were alone together, just the two of them and the oil lamp Zuko was still borrowing.
Zuko hadn't asked if he was allowed to meditate on his own. If he could just take the lamp down into the hold and be alone, or sit in the healer's room and close the door. He wasn't sure what answer he wanted. It wasn't bad, coming to the Chief's office every night.
"Okay," Zuko said.
"You aren't our prisoner. Do you understand that?"
Zuko didn't need the reminder.
He was dead to his Nation. The Earth Kingdom wanted him dead. So did the rest of the Water Tribe, probably. Chief Hakoda and the people on this ship were the only ones who wouldn't just kill him on sight or worse, but no one would tell him why, or what the rules were now. He wasn't a prisoner. So what was he?
"Can I borrow a shirt?" Zuko asked.
"Sure," Toklo said. "What happened to yours?"
"Zuko," Panuk started, with a frown. "You can keep wearing your own shirt."
"Wait," Toklo said. "Why wouldn't you want to wear your own shirt? Why wouldn't he want to— Still not talking to you."
"I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to."
"Can I borrow the shirt or not?" Zuko snapped.
It was too big for him, of course. He wore it anyway, the same way a hermit-shrimp wore its shell: like if he was in blue he'd be protected. Like if he tried hard enough he could drown his fire in water.
It would work better if he didn't look so miserable after every battle. Miserable was an improvement over scared, at least. He didn't work like he was afraid they'd throw him overboard anymore; he just worked like he expected to get abandoned at every port.
Hugging the former enemy would have been a little much, for most of the crew; mussing up his hair was an acceptable compromise. The kid had a hard time being either miserable or scared when he was shouting.
They didn't seem to want anything from him. Except to be exceptionally irritating.
Maybe the Water Tribe really was just insane.
(Maybe this was okay. Maybe he really was safe here.)
Bato liked to wait until his arms were full of something, then ruffle his hair hard enough he had to drop whatever it was and flail for balance.
Ranalok liked to get him in headlocks.
The Chief liked to not help at all. He didn't help his own Tribesmen, either.
Bato rubbed at his ribcage, wincing. Hakoda raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.
...But what about next month? Next year?
He couldn't just live on a warship forever, or—or go back to the South Pole with them and live in an igloo for the rest of his life, in a place that barely saw the sun for half the year, with people who didn't know him at all and might not be as crazy as the Akhlut's crew, who wouldn't just be okay with him hanging around for no reason and what did the Chief want with him.
Everyone else might be okay with him for now, but it was a leader's job to think ahead.
The kid was following Aake. Had been following him all morning, as the Earth Kingdom's coast drew closer. On a ship the size of the Akhlut, when the one doing the following had a scowl that large, it wasn't exactly subtle. He'd also been swabbing the deck far longer than was strictly necessary. Hadn't finished yet, though, what with only swabbing within five paces of his target.
"There a reason you're lamprey-leeched onto me?" Aake asked.
"You're the only one not trying to touch my hair," the kid scowled. It was a scowl aimed at everyone outside of their extremely well-watered circle of deck.
"So if I touch it, you'll leave?"
The scowl turned on him.
Aake was unimpressed.
The scowl scowled harder.
Aake reached out a hand, and patted the kid's hair. Exactly two pats. Slowly, and deliberately. ...The kid's hair was soft. He didn't move away until Aake was done. (He never moved away first.)
Then there was shouting, and stomping, and climbing.
(This couldn't last.)
There was a teenager on their main mast. Again. In the past, other descriptors may have taken precedence: prince, soldier, firebender.
Hakoda looked up. The former-prince child-soldier not-a-master-firebender glared back down.
...That was definitely a teenager up there.
Hakoda pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn't know where he'd picked up the gesture, but it suddenly felt right.
"Good luck, Chief," Bato grinned, and slapped his best friend's back.
The kid shifted over to make room for him. Hakoda pulled himself up, and sat down. This, he decided, should not feel familiar.
"What are you doing up here?"
"I'm just... not working," the boy answered, somewhere between nervous and defiant. "And seeing what happens?"
...Was this teenage rebellion?
"I see," Hakoda said.
The boy's shoulders hunched, then straightened; his fingers tightened against the wood under him. "Well?"
Hakoda raised an eyebrow.
This seemed to tip things to defiant and semi-belligerent. "What are you going to do about it?" the kid challenged.
His other eyebrow joined the first. "Are you trying to get me to punish you?"
"Zuko. You're going to get bored and go back to work eventually."
This earned him a scowl. "What if I don't. What if I just… stop working. And stop listening to you. What would you do?"
This was teenage rebellion. Which Hakoda had never had to deal with, given that his own children had been twelve and barely thirteen when the fleet had sailed. And the world, as if to punish him for leaving them at home, had dropped a sixteen-year-old in his lap.
"What do you think a fair punishment would be?" It was a question he'd asked his own children, when Katara had knocked down Sokka's latest snow fortifications with her waterbending again, or Sokka had hidden Katara's hair beads in a snowbank and forgotten which one.
Judging by the former prince's expression, Make her rebuild it, but twice as big, and this time with ice, and she has to follow my plans exactly, dad you have to make her— or Make him wash his own clothes for a week and he can't complain or it's an extra day every time were not the kind of answers going through Zuko's mind. The boy's good eye had gone wide, and the scarred one's squint was not for lack of trying. The boy's fingers were white against the wood.
The Fire Lord's son might not have the best baseline for proportional punishments.
"I suppose you asked first," Hakoda said, because he didn't want to know what a boy banished at thirteen would think fair. "Hmm. Well I'm certainly not going to hit you, or take your food away. There aren't any chores you hate enough to use as a punishment, and if you're ignoring my orders, then you wouldn't do them anyway."
Zuko's eyes narrowed, and his face settled back into his usual scowl. It was a better look on him. "So you're just going to let me disrespect you, in front of your whole crew. If that's the kind of discipline the Water Tribe maintains, no wonder you're los—"
The boy flinched. Stopped talking. Did not stop bristling, and Hakoda noted that he'd waited until they were in sight of land to stage this particular rebellion. A boy who'd survived an ocean storm without drowning was probably a boy who could swim to shore from here, if he needed to. If he thought he needed to.
...At some point, they needed to have a talk about taking 'jump overboard' off his list of regularly considered options.
Hakoda let out a slow breath. "Do you think anyone here is going to hurt you?"
The boy looked away. He didn't answer for a worrying amount of time; then he did, which was no less worrying. "I don't know. I was valuable, when I was a prisoner. What am I now? You hate my father, you hate the Fire Nation, you're out here to kill us."
They were out here to end the war. Which involved too much killing of people who looked like Zuko for Hakoda to argue the point.
"You're more than who your father is, Zuko. You're safe here."
"Stop saying that. Stop lying. You would have killed me if he wasn't my father." The boy scowled at Hakoda's attempt to speak, and talked straight over him. "You would have, you were ready to. If—if I was just some random firebender, you would have slit my throat and dumped me in the ocean and never thought about it again. Or, or if I hadn't talked fast enough. You would have killed me."
Hakoda let out a breath. Slowly. "You're right. We would have. It would have been a mistake."
The boy glared harder. "Leaders can't just apologize, they aren't wrong."
"Would you rather be led by a man who's never wrong, or one who admits his mistakes?"
This was, rather apparently, not a question anyone had ever asked him.
That was—that was wrong. It had to be. Maybe it worked for the Water Tribe, they had so few people anyway—
(And who had made their tribes that way?)
But the Fire Lord had an entire empire to look after, the home islands and the colonies and the war. Too many people depended on him; he couldn't be wrong.
"You're not your father or your nation, Zuko."
But he was. He couldn't just… stop being Fire. His borrowed shirt was loose over his shoulders, his borrowed coat layered on top, but what was underneath was still someone everyone on this ship had hated barely two months ago and he didn't know why they didn't now.
"You don't need to change who you are for us; we know you."
Nothing had changed. He was still the same person, he'd always been the same person, and people who loved him (mother, uncle) had always loved him and the people who hated him had always hated him, even if he'd been too stupid to realize it. And—and everyone who did had a good reason to, including the Chief and his people.
"I'm not, Zuko," the Chief said, in that steady tone of his like everything was going to be fine, like everything was already fine.
"Like you didn't lie about my father replying? And you didn't lie to Toklo about his brother?" Or lie about Zuko being safe as long as he followed the rules and then almost selling him to the Earth Kingdom (or had he lied about the selling part, and Zuko had been safe? There was a lie somewhere in there, he just didn't know which way it went.) Or about the rules themselves, and what he'd do if Zuko broke them (and somehow that lie had worked out in Zuko's favor, which was… was weird.)
The Chief let out a slow breath. "Sometimes we lie because we're trying not to hurt people."
"Does it ever work?"
"Not usually," the man admitted.
"I can't just live here. And no one else wants— What do you want from me? What was your plan?"
Somehow, the former prince completely missed the irony in his own question.
"Anyone can do the work I'm doing," the kid continued. "You were fine before I was here, you don't need me to swab your decks or clean your seagull cages, or—or anything."
Hakoda's lips quirked. "You're pretty handy for laundry."
The boy scowled harder. "Stop pretending I'm one of your crew. I'm not."
"You're right; I haven't been treating you as part of this crew." Hakoda said. Which, judging by the former prince's expression, he was both vindicated and terrified to hear. "You'll have to work less."
"We take shifts, Zuko. No one else is working all day. Would you rather be on day or night?"
"What are you doing?"
"Making you part of this crew. Day or night?"
"You can't just punish me to work less."
"It's not a punishment. I'm just making things fair."
By the look on the boy's face, being ordered to only work for half the day might very well be a punishment. At the least, it was cause for confusion.
"So what, I'm going to do your laundry and heat your meals only half the time?"
"I'm sure Toklo and Panuk will make sure you keep doing that, regardless." Hakoda smiled. The expression was vehemently not returned. "I had something else in mind, actually. You're right; we don't need you on the deck. Kustaa says you've been helping him?"
"It's just memorizing plants and things. It's nothing special."
Hakoda was noticing a pattern: everything Zuko was good at was 'nothing special'.
"Well, if it's so easy for you," he continued talking, over the boy's scoff, "how would you feel about apprenticing under him?"
"I... What? But..."
Hakoda waited. The boy looked away before answering.
"...In the Fire Nation, healers apprentice for years."
"It's the same in the Water Tribes."
"...I'm not going to be good at it."
"Are you saying Kustaa won't be a good teacher?"
"No! But I—" He caught Hakoda's smirk, and glared. "I'll try."
"We can tell him once you come down, then."
"What if I don't?"
Were they really back to that? "Zuko. Are you going to stop working?"
The kid glanced away again, in exactly the way he always did before caving. "...Probably not. It's boring up here. But... nice boring?"
Hakoda hmmed his agreement, and shifted his weight on the wood, and crossed his arms over one of the ropes in the rigging. The wind tugged at his clothes; the sun was just emerging from behind the sparse clouds. Zuko crossed his arms over the same rope, and rested his chin on top. Their elbows touched, just barely, though Hakoda didn't know if the boy could feel it through that coat he was always wearing. Toklo's clothes were still loose on him, but less than they'd been; they still didn't fit, but he was growing into them.
"When you come down, I'll start teaching you how to work the sails. It's about time you learned."
"Are you bribing me?"
"Is it working?" Hakoda grinned, and set a hand on the boy's head—a hand he immediately pulled back. "Sorry, forgot you didn't like—"
"It's okay," the kid said, tilting his face away. "It's not like I care."
He slowly lowered his hand back down, and let it rest. The boy huffed, and didn't move away. They sat in the sun for awhile. It was nice-boring.
...Hakoda was going to be in so much trouble when he did meet his children again. Teenage rebellion wasn't conversations on a main mast; teenage rebellion was running off on their grandmother to gallivant across the world. Teenage rebellion was two volcanoes.
Chapter 10: Kustaa's Favorite Apprentice Wouldn't Get Kidnapped
So the original chapter nine is proving to be a hydra. I cut its head. I should not have been surprised at the result. *quietly ticks up chapter count again* I figured no one would complain at getting a 6k chapter now, rather than a 12k chapter who-knows-when.
Also: Someone reminded me that Zuko pulled his shoulder way back at the start of this. That someone should remind me who they are so I can credit them for making Zuko's life more difficult. Take pride, you someone you.
Kustaa had taken on another 'apprentice' before Zuko even had a chance to prove himself. Zuko did not want to talk about it.
"I don't need a break," Zuko said.
"It's not a break," the healer said, "it's the end of your shift."
"It's barely midday!"
"Maybe you shouldn't have snuck in here to work at midnight."
The night shift had weasel-ratted him out. Kustaa didn't see fit to share that information; he had the feeling that the brat would take it as a challenge to sneak in unobserved rather than a caution to stay in bed.
"We aren't even done with the new batch of salve," Zuko tried.
"My favorite apprentice can work all day," Kustaa said, well aware of the reaction this would get. "You can't."
The boy was literally steaming as he left.
"Why won't anyone let me help?" Zuko growled. He was sprawled on the deck glaring at the sky. No one saw fit to point out how dramatic he was being. A dramatic ex-prince was a healthy ex-prince.
"Kustaa told us not to," Panuk said, blocking his sun. "Never tick off the healer."
"I'm the apprentice healer. Why aren't you afraid of ticking me off?"
"I'll let you know when I feel threatened. Why don't you just train, or something?"
"...Training doesn't count as work?"
Downtime activities on the Akhlut, an incomplete list:
Bone dice. Luck-based. Zuko was not about to put his luck on quantifiable display.
"All I'm saying is that if you're as consistently unlucky as you claim," Panuk said, "I just need to bet against you, and—"
Storytelling. The Water Tribe didn't write down their stories on scrolls, or in books. They just… remembered them.
"I didn't see paper regularly until my first Earth Kingdom port," Toklo told him. "My gran-papa says we didn't have a writing system until we borrowed the one they use on Kyoshi—and made it way better, of course—but my other grand-papa says Kyoshi took ours . How is that part confusing, don't you have two grandpas? I mean of course you— How do you not know?"
...They were big on oral storytelling, apparently. Passed down in families, and tribes. Tuluk told him some of the stories went back to the first Avatar, and to the Spirit Dream that came before humans had their own lands. He wasn't clear on how much was true or not, and no one else seemed bothered by it. He liked to sit at the edges and listen at night, but it wasn't something he could do.
Pai Sho. Also no. Especially since their set was missing pieces and no one even cared, they just adjusted their strategies. Zuko didn't really know any openings that didn't involve the lotus tile. Not that he wanted to play.
Training. It was usually led by Leg Breaker, so he'd stayed as far from it as possible while he was their prisoner to avoid accidents. But. That wouldn't happen now, right?
"You ever used one of those?" Aake asked.
"Not exactly," Zuko replied, testing the balance and weight of the sword. It was shorter than he was used to, straighter, more of a stabbing blade than a slicing—
"Then don't start with two," the Leg Breaker said, unimpressed. "I swear, you kids. Why would you even try to use two?"
"I'm not a kid," Zuko snapped.
"It looks cool," Toklo said. "Hey Panuk, remember those wanted posters? The ones with the guy in the blue mask, with the two swords?"
"The Blue Spirit?" Panuk asked.
"Are we talking again?"
(Zuko studiously and silently examined the Water Tribe weapon, in a manner completely different from not-looking-at-anyone.)
Aake pinched the bridge of his nose. It was a gesture that was spreading amongst the crew. "'Looking cool' gets men killed. Leave it for the theatres."
Under the older crewman's frown, Zuko slowly set one of the blades back down. He kept the other in his right hand, because being ambidextrous might also be cool, but being left-handed was wrong.
The kid was pretty good, actually. A little off balance, like he didn't know how to react to things on his left side. Probably that eye of his. He kept looking at whoever he was sparring with like he needed reassurance, too, especially after he got a hit in; probably the lack of weapons experience. Firebender, after all.
Still, he clearly had some training. It wasn't like he was some kind of self-taught prodigy.
"Decent," Aake said. "I didn't think firebenders learned weapons."
"I'm not a good bender," the kid shrugged.
"Good for another round?"
Aake nodded back.
"You can't spend the entire day training," Kustaa said. "You're going to strain something."
"I'm not. I'm spending half the day. If you want me to stop, maybe I could spend the entire day doing my actual job—"
Kustaa was well aware of where the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose came from. And who. This did not stop him from self-prescribing the gesture. It was, after all, an effective remedy against teenager-induced headaches.
"I'm giving you homework."
The brat perked up. Somewhere along the line, threats and rewards had gotten disastrously mixed up in his education.
Zuko spent considerable hours on deck, reading medical texts during his free time.
He spent the rest of his free time convincing Aake to teach him how to fight with the Water Tribe's spears, and clubs, and boomerangs.
"No," Aake said, plucking the projectile weapon from his hand. "Not unless we're in port."
"Why not? I can figure it out, I'm not stupid."
Aake let the kid rant himself out. Then he explained, because not explaining would end with the kid sneaking sharp things out of someone's supplies. "You know how boomerangs come back? For beginners, they don't."
He glanced pointedly at the very deep ocean all around their very small deck. Zuko put down the boomerang.
"You can't spend half the day training," Kustaa said.
"I'm not," the brat smirked. "I'm spending a quarter."
Kustaa looked him in the eye, and gave him additional homework. He couldn't help but think he was rewarding this behavior. "...My favorite apprentice doesn't talk back this much."
The kid was actually quite good. Especially with a sword. Especially once he stopped worrying how the crew would react to being beaten.
Easy to rile up, though.
"Hey," Ranalok said, as they sparred, "how's Kustaa's favorite apprentice?"
The growl that followed was somewhat alarming. As was the sudden charge. And the easy-to-miss gasp, from nothing Ranalok had done.
"Told you you'd strain something," Kustaa said, slowly rotating Zuko's shoulder as the kid adamantly didn't react. It would have been a better act if he wasn't holding the rest of his body rigid.
"I didn't," Zuko snapped.
"I didn't! I pulled that weeks ago, on my own ship."
Catching a falling man's entire body weight, he didn't say. Also Pohuai, and all the craziness there, he also didn't say. Because the healer was already looking at him.
"Your shoulder has been bothering you for weeks?" Kustaa asked, with glacial calm.
"Was it bothering you while you were doing chores for us the entire day?" the Healer asked. "Was it bothering you while you rearranged the cargo hold?"
"Well it's not like I could say anything, the Chief said I had to work so I was working. It's not like anyone cared about the concussion. Or the days with a fever. Or the almost dying. Why would they care that my shoulder was a little stiff?"
This was a true and valid point, that Zuko promptly soured: "Besides, I've done more with worse."
Zuko was sprawled on deck again, his right arm in a sling. A dramatic ex-prince was… maybe not a healthy ex-prince, but at least a healing one.
"And no climbing the main mast!"
"It barely even hurts!"
Kustaa dropped a book on his chest. "Chapter ten," he said, and went back to his office.
Chapter Ten: Concerning damage of the lightning-chi paths
...permanent injury possible, generally manifesting as the false numbing of pain or other senses. Particular caution must be exercised as, once extinguished, not even the famed waterbending healers of North and South can rekindle the fire in...
Zuko very dramatically allowed chapter ten to fall onto his face.
(Which was a terrible way to treat a book. He picked it up and smoothed out the pages and set it on the deck just-so.)
When he looked back up, Panuk was smirking.
"If you say anything," Zuko glared, "I won't be talking to you, either."
"Toklo," Panuk said, "Please, please say it for me."
"I bet Kustaa's favorite apprentice doesn't cause him this much trouble," Toklo said.
Zuko rolled over, and growled into the deck.
Kustaa's favorite apprentice came aboard at the last port. Kustaa's favorite apprentice had been specially requisitioned for duty on their ship before anyone knew Zuko would be staying, much less that he would be an apprentice. Kustaa's favorite apprentice was straight from working with the researchers at Omashu Medical College, personally recommended by one of the healer's old friends there. Kustaa's favorite apprentice was approximately the length of a man's hand, the width of a child's pinkie finger, and more consistent and accurate than Zuko could ever hope to be.
Kustaa's favorite apprentice was a thermometer. The latest in Earth Kingdom technology.
"Once we figure out the temperature you're using on that salve," he'd said, when introducing the unassuming device to his new apprentice, "anyone can make it."
This uncovered the former prince's propensity for hating inanimate objects with a worrying intensity.
They'd started with small trials: Zuko used his hands to heat the mixtures in their little bowls like he'd always done, but now the thermometer was watching the whole time.
"Interesting," Kustaa said, marking down another number.
Which meant Zuko had gotten it wrong again, that the number had changed again, that someone in the Earth Kingdom had invented a way to quantify how inconsistent his bending was.
"We should test the extremes of the range, see whether it's still effective when you go higher or lower," Kustaa said, so Zuko spent days making salve even worse than he'd apparently been doing all along, and they figured out exactly how bad he had to be at this before the crew members they dragged into the healer's room reported that they didn't feel anything when it was used.
(There were still a lot of healing burns, from the raid when the soldier had—)
Zuko scowled at the latest batch. Maybe if he got it hot enough, the stupid thermometer would just break, its quicksilver insides bursting out and spilling over—
"Are you trying to murder your fellow apprentice?" Kustaa asked, eyeing him.
And then the healer fired up the little oil burner he'd used before Zuko came aboard, and started making the salve without him. Sure Zuko helped measure the ingredients and mix it now, but anyone could do that, and anyone could put it on the burner, and anyone could watch the stupid thermometer go up to the right temperature and settle the pot at just the right height to keep it there. Perfectly. It didn't flare with each breath, didn't slip with a lack of focus, didn't get tired or need a break or—
"If you're afraid it's going to take your job, nephew, then learn to be more than a glorified teakettle."
"I am not your nephew. And I'm not jealous!"
Which wasn't a word Kustaa had used, and both of them realized it at the same time. Zuko scowled. Kustaa raised an eyebrow.
"Weren't you trying to cut down on your bending, anyway?"
"Everyone's noticed, brat." He said it like he wasn't judging. But that didn't mean he approved. And that shouldn't hurt so bad, because the stupid healer was not his uncle—
Zuko looked away. This put the happily steaming pot and the awful thermometer right in front of his gaze, which at least gave him something to glare at.
So now Zuko was flopped face down on a deck, relegated to activities that only needed one arm, which was basically just memorizing stupid plants and their effects so Kustaa could quiz him on them. He was getting very, very sick of plants. He was classifying leaf shapes in his dreams, and if he had to learn another of the thirty-two regional names for foxfern while Kustaa did the real work with his favorite apprentice, he was going to take a page out of Azula's book and make himself an only apprentice.
Another book appeared on his hammock after they left the latest port. Zuko glanced suspiciously around, then picked it up.
It was a cookbook.
He never figured out if it was Toklo or Panuk who'd left such an unsubtle hint for him, but they'd wagered right: he was bored enough to open it.
(It had been Ranalok.)
At the next port, it was surprisingly easy to sell Chief Hakoda on the merits of buying a bigger laundry tub. One that could hold all the crew's clothes at once, now that they were doing it regularly, and also and purely by coincidence was big enough to take a halfway decent bath in. If a person didn't mind being half out of the water and also keeping their elbows in. But it was better than a bucket and a rag.
He also managed to successfully present his list of points in favor of purchasing a small coal stove to try cooking with, just on a trial basis, if they got a second-hand one it wouldn't even cost that much, and it was more practical than trying to cook for the whole crew on his hands, especially since Kustaa wouldn't even let him use one of his—oh, he was going to try cooking? that was what the stove was for— and he could make the coal last a really long time, there was this leaf-burning exercise that was basic for firebenders and he was pretty sure Engineer Hanako had done it with their own coal stores back on the Wani because a few times they'd limped back to port after investigating a spirit sighting when he didn't think they would be able to limp back, not all the way, and—
"Zuko," the Chief interrupted, bemused. "Can I just see your paper?"
Zuko handed over his List of Points. He stood at military attention as the Chief read it, because at least he knew what to do with his hands when he was at attention.
"Approved," the Chief said with a small smile, which might have been making fun of his posture. "And at ease," he said, which definitely was. "Have you ever cooked in your life? Besides just heating up food."
"Most recipes are just heating up food. After you stir it together."
Hakoda was forced to concede this point.
Zuko made stew for his first experiment. This was meat and vegetables and water stirred together. Then he heated it up. He only made a little, just in case it was terrible. He only let Kustaa try it, because only Kustaa deserved for it to be terrible.
"So it's okay for you to use a stove," the Healer said, "but not my favorite apprentice?"
It wasn't awful. Unfortunately.
"I need these spices," Zuko said, handing Hakoda another list.
Hakoda, having no particular idea of cooking requirements, added them to the supplies to be bought at the next port.
Kustaa was out on deck sitting in a particularly nice breeze, reading a letter from one of his former Earth Kingdom classmates about cutting edge advancements in battlefield amputations, when a teenage-shaped cloud blotted out his sun.
"If I have to take breaks, so do you," Zuko said. "Why don't you train?"
Behind his scowling apprentice stood Bato and Ranalok, grinning. Kustaa set his reading aside, and surrendered to his fate before he was bodily dragged to it.
"I'll have you know that I've spent a lifetime being terrible at this," he said.
"So have I," his apprentice said. "We'll start with falling exercises."
"So you know how to hit the deck when I beat you."
Bato was still grinning. Ranalok had moved on to holding in a laugh. Seal Jerky had joined the increasing number of people watching them, his tail thumping the deck at the air of general merriment.
"You're keeping that sling another week, no matter how much you bully an old man," Kustaa said.
"That's okay. I can do this one-handed."
Several crew members stopped trying to hold in their laughter. It was understood by both master and apprentice that this training was no joke.
(Neither of them mentioned a crew cabin lit by bursts of fire, or an old man who'd been protected by a child. Neither of them had to.)
Kustaa was sprawled flat on the deck. His personal thundercloud continued to follow.
"Again," the kid said.
"My favorite apprentice wouldn't do this to me," Kustaa wheezed. "Is this revenge?"
"Training is training," the brat said, and hauled him back to his feet.
"Huh," Toklo said, after his first bite of stew. He took another spoonful. "Huh," he repeated.
"Yeah," Panuk said, and didn't even get a Not talking to you thrown his way.
"What?" Zuko snapped.
"It's just…" Toklo said, "This is actually good?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" Zuko scowled. "Cooking recipes are just like medicinal ones. Except they don't taste awful, and it's harder to poison people on accident."
"That's real reassuring, kid," Tuluk said, as to his side Ranalok mouthed 'on accident' to Leg Breaker, who was sloshing around his own bowl like he expected something to still be moving. "It is good, though. Thanks."
"It's the easiest one in the book." Zuko ducked his head. Which really invited hair-ruffling, and more than one passing crewman helped themselves. "Hey!"
It was easy to miss Kustaa beginning to cough. Or his eyes starting to water.
"It's a little spicy," Bato said. "I thought that was an Earth Kingdom recipe book you had?"
"I, uh. Might have used some Fire Nation spices. But I toned it down."
Their healer doubled over, wheezing for entirely different reasons than earlier that day. "This is toned down?"
"Sorry," Zuko said. "I thought your favorite apprentice could measure heat."
Healer and student met each other's gaze. Zuko slid a container of fire-chilli powder out of his sleeve, and pointedly doused his own bowl.
Training was training. This was revenge.
"Stop growing," Toklo complained, tugging the sleeve of Zuko's borrowed shirt lower. It sprang right back up. "You can't be taller than me."
"That's why you need to stop growing! You're the ship baby, you need to act like it."
"Pretty sure the ship baby is still you," Panuk said.
"And that," Toklo said, pointing an arm at the other crewman—at their other friend—"is why we're still not talking."
"I feel like you're just making up reasons, at this point."
"I am not!"
They started arguing. Zuko sat to the side, smoothing out the creases in his sleeve cuffs. "Does this mean you are talking again?" he asked.
"But you were just…" he didn't finish that thought. He wasn't entirely sure how friendships were supposed to work, but he was starting to think that sometimes they just did. Even when people weren't talking to each other? ...Even though they were? "Um. So what are you going to do in port?" he asked, because Panuk always flashed him a grin behind Toklo's back when he changed the subject like this.
"We," Panuk said, "are going to get you," and Zuko stopped liking where this was going, "a haircut. That needs to stop growing, too."
'That' was accompanied by a hand-swirly motion in the general vicinity of Zuko's head.
"What?" Toko said. "No no no, that is almost long enough to do something with—"
Zuko was pretty sure Panuk said things Toklo would disagree with, just to get him talking again. He was very sure Toklo hadn't noticed the strategy.
"What we need to do is get him hair ties. Oh, and beads! Blue beads."
"Do I get a say in this?" Zuko asked.
...This was another part of friendship. Maybe.
"I, uh. Don't have any money," Zuko said. "And I always help Kustaa at port, anyway."
"We'll talk to him," Toklo said. "And don't worry about money, the hair beads are on me. We can match!"
"...Are matching beads not cool enough? Do we need to get tattoos?"
Zuko looked to Panuk for help. This was a mistake.
"What are friends for?" Panuk grinned.
"Making unwanted decisions about my life?"
This seemed to be the right thing to say. Or the wrong thing. It led to a lot more attempts to ruffle his hair, which quickly devolved into teaching his friends their own lessons on falling, via live demonstration. And then it was two on one, and he… was less invested in winning than usual.
Winning didn't seem to be the point, in friendships.
Hakoda was learning that he was only Panuk's 'Chief' when the young man wanted something. "Yes?"
"Zuko doesn't have any money. Zuko doesn't have anything."
This is how Hakoda ended up freeing a small portion of their supply funds for their newest crewman to pick up the things he needed. For once, the boy went into town with his friends instead of with Kustaa.
Kustaa watched the three depart, Panuk's arms around the shoulders of an ex-prince who was bristling but doing very little to actually move away. Kustaa raised an eyebrow, and kept it raised as he turned to Hakoda.
"It's not like he can carry your things with that sling of his," Hakoda defended.
Which apparently wasn't the topic on their Healer's mind. "How old are your kids, Chief?"
"Fourteen and fifteen, by now."
"And when you left?"
"Twelve and thirteen. Why?"
"No reason," the man said, watching three young men go into a port town with money.
"Are you sure this is okay?" Zuko asked. Again. "It's just that, the budget on my ship was—"
"Extravagant, your Highness?" Panuk asked, raising his eyebrow in the same way he did when he was baiting Toklo into a topic-changing argument.
"Limited. It's really okay to just… spend this? On anything?" It was reassuring, having friends he could ask for advice.
"We don't get much of a wage," Toklo said, "it's not like we're a merchant ship, or something; the Earth Kingdom gives us a—what's the fancy word?"
"Stipend," Panuk replied. "We're cost effective navy contractors, apparently."
"Yeah, that. But the point is, what we do get is ours. The Chief's not going to yell at you for spending your own money."
Hakoda was trying very hard not to yell at Zuko for spending what was, admittedly, his own money. He was instead taking a breath, and trying not to elbow Bato to make him stop laughing.
His second in command had gotten in the habit of standing with his still healing side to Hakoda. That action might be more pre-mediated than Hakoda had previously assumed.
"—Was a really good deal," Zuko continued, exactly like an excited teenager. "I don't think the pawn broker knew what he had. They're a little rusty, but look, it's barely even surface level. And the grips need to be redone but that's just cosmetic. And their last owner didn't know how to maintain an edge at all, but I got a good deal on the whetstone too—"
When Hakoda had given their resident firebender money to get what he needed, he hadn't expected the boy to come back with swords.
Or a theatre scroll.
"I've heard of this one, but it's technically banned in the Fire Nation, so anytime Uncle and I were in port not even the street performers would put it on in case we took insult—"
The hair ties were at least practical, even if the kid's hair wasn't quite long enough to stay in one, and over-long bangs kept slipping free from what was trying to be a wolf-tail.
"And the earrings?" Hakoda asked, keeping his arms crossed, where he couldn't either rub his temples or pinch the bridge of his nose.
The prince was, unfortunately, beginning to pick up on Hakoda's lack of enthusiasm. The bristling increased. The excited stream of words accompanying each of his purchases dried up. He stood between his friends, his posture tense, hugging his rusty second-hand swords to his chest.
"We match!" Toklo said, picking up where the boy left off. "See? Panuk and I got red, and Zuko got blue, and we got them on the same side because—well, you know."
Because Zuko had only gotten one in his good ear.
"We couldn't agree on a tattoo," Toklo confided.
"Tattoos are for crime syndicates," Zuko hissed.
"You're just upset they didn't have a turtleduck design."
"I was—I was just looking through the book! Because you were taking forever! I didn't actually want—"
"What is a turtleduck, anyway? Are they scarier than they sound? I had you pegged as a sabertooth moose-lion kind of guy—"
Hakoda continued to refrain from dealing with his headache, or inflicting bruises on his best friend's ribs. "When I gave you that money, this is not what I pictured you buying."
"Then why didn't you say that?" the kid said. And then managed to look even more like a snapping-viper trying to retreat back into its shell. "I could sell back the swords. And the scrolls. But Toklo paid for the earrings, that was all his idea, it wasn't even your money, I don't know why you care. ...Could— May I keep the scroll? It—it didn't cost much, see, it's from one of those new printing presses, and it has a tear in the third act—"
Bato was biting his lip, and not-so-subtly wheezing. Kustaa was also on deck. He'd very pointedly set himself up with a book, and hadn't much moved since the boys had left.
"Just be happy it wasn't hookers," their Healer chimed in, not even pretending to read now. "It wasn't hookers, was it?"
"No," Zuko said, his face about as red as that shirt he had hidden in his hammock.
Bato slung an arm over Hakoda's shoulders. "You sent him into port with a full purse and no directions, and he came back with a body piercing and sharp things. That's the most normal teenage thing he's ever done."
"Really?" the ex-prince said, perking up.
"Don't encourage him." Hakoda finally gave into the urge to rub his temples.
"Hey, this is a good thing," Panuk said, with that grin of his that made Hakoda glad he wasn't the boy's chief. "We're socializing him on the proper way to make bad decisions."
That should not have been a valid point.
"Just explain to me, please," Hakoda asked, "why you bought a cabbage? You could have put that on the supply list with the rest of the food."
The three boys exchanged looks.
"Yeah, that was weird," Toklo said. "Some guys were talking about the Avatar, and Zuko started kind of loudly yelling about him being twelve and a pacifist and more of a menace to the world than a savior, and then this cabbage merchant just kind of…"
"He gave it to me?" Zuko said. "Really enthusiastically?"
"I think he was crying," Panuk said.
Hakoda stopped asking. "We'll talk tonight," he told Zuko. "You're not in trouble."
"...Okay," the boy said, exactly like a boy in trouble would.
Hakoda caught Panuk later, while the prince was distracted trying to excavate the swords out of those rust piles he'd bought.
"Toklo is Toklo," Hakoda said, "And Zuko… doesn't have the best understanding of normal expectations. But you knew what that money was for."
The young man stood his ground. "Did you really want him coming back with a pile of blue clothes? Or would you like him to have a personality again?"
The former prince had bought swords, and seemed strangely confident in his own ability to repair them. A play scroll, when Hakoda had never seen him touch more than Kustaa's medical texts.
Hakoda let out a sigh. "And the earrings?"
Panuk flashed a grin, and tilted his head to set his own earring at a jaunty angle. "He really didn't want a tattoo."
"The Chief said you weren't in trouble," Toklo reassured him, as Zuko's hands ached from scrubbing off rust spots. "And the swords are cool. So relax, I'm sure it's fine."
Friends gave terrible advice.
That night, Chief Hakoda offered him his usual meditation lamp like nothing was wrong. Zuko didn't fidget, but he didn't sit down on the floor to start, either. The Chief had been going over his correspondence, and his maps, and all the other things he didn't bother hiding from Zuko anymore now that he wasn't a prisoner and wasn't a prince and didn't get any say on how the man was coordinating a fleet to kill people who weren't Zuko's anymore. Hakoda looked up, after another few moments of Zuko's not-fidgeting.
"We can talk after you're done," he said.
"Can't we talk now?" Zuko asked, because the man had already put it off all day. He didn't want to meditate first.
The Chief looked at him for a moment more, then moved some of his papers to the side. Zuko took a seat at his invitation, and set his mediation lamp to the side as well. Then the Chief got out a new sheet of paper and set it between them.
"It's about time you stopped living out of Toklo's sea chest. Let's make a list of what you actually need."
"...Okay," Zuko said.
They did. And then he meditated.
He really wasn't in trouble, though maybe he was, if he was going shopping with Hakoda instead of his friends. But it didn't feel like a punishment. The Chief was a busy man. Maybe Zuko should feel guilty for taking up his time. Instead… he felt like when Lu Ten had still been alive, and he would sneak Zuko and Azula the presents he'd bought them, when he'd come to see them first even before announcing himself to grandfather's court. Or when Uncle invited him to music night over and over even though Zuko always said no. Or when father came to one of his birthday celebrations. Not for the whole thing of course, his time was too valuable for that even when he'd still been a prince, but he came.
Zuko was… looking forward to tomorrow. A little.
The next day, they went shopping. Hakoda took the boy to get a sea chest, first, so they'd have something to carry all the rest in. And by "they" he meant "he", because Kustaa still had the boy confined to a sling. It was, he suspected, more than a little due to spite, and the fear of what kind of hand-to-hand training they'd start doing when the kid had both arms free.
"This one's okay," Zuko said, finding the plainest and cheapest trunk on display.
"Too boring," Hakoda said.
"Find one with personality. Otherwise how are you going to tell it apart from everyone else's?"
"Because theirs will have personality and mine won't?"
Hakoda waited. The kid glared for a moment, seemingly on principle. Then he huffed and actually started looking.
He hovered over one with a sea serpent design—rather dragon-like sea serpents—before picking out one with a repeating wave motif that was next to it. Hakoda paid for the one with the serpents. He worried a bit that it was a mistake, that maybe the boy really had liked the waves better, but when they stopped at the cobblers to get him in a pair of shoes that weren't three sizes too big, Zuko sat on his new chest during the sizing. His fingers traced the serpents' manes, followed their coiled bodies, fanned out over their wings.
The boots went on his feet. Tuluk's old pair went into the trunk.
They picked up a shaving kit next, much as Ranalok would be disappointed at having to keep his own razor clean and sharpened again. Hakoda caught the kid eyeing some Earth Kingdom style woven blankets on a stall as they passed. Earth and Fire shared similar tastes in bedding, Hakoda recalled. The blankets weren't as weighty or as warm as furs, but with spring around the corner they were cheap enough. The boy stepped into the haggling and somehow brought the price down to half what it was, and with a pillow tossed into the deal.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" Hakoda asked, avoiding his first thought on how to phrase things: Why does a prince haggle like he's on his last coppers?
The ex-prince flushed. "Father expected me to be frugal."
Hakoda didn't need more motivation to kill the Fire Lord. Nonetheless.
Just the seamstress, then. A few sets of clothes, and then maybe he could treat the kid to a lunch he hadn't cooked. The crew could figure out their own meal for the afternoon.
"Sure he doesn't need a coat, too?" The shopkeeper was a tall Earth-blooded woman with a critical gaze. It was currently turned on Zuko's—Toklo's—coat. And the way the sleeves still dangled almost to the end of his fingers.
Hakoda smiled. "Better to hold off on a coat until next winter, with the way he's growing."
The boy gave a start at the words next winter. Then he tucked his face half into the fur lining of his borrowed coat. Not far enough or fast enough to hide his flush. He hadn't been thinking that far ahead, had he? Hadn't pictured himself still with them a year from now, even with his apprenticeship. Hakoda realized, with his own start, that he hadn't pictured the boy anywhere else.
"Clothes about your size are over there." The woman pointed with a jerk of her head. "We can do adjustments if you grab something too big. Don't grab too small."
If Hakoda had thought ahead, he would have realized the boy would come back with an armful of blues. Panuk had been right.
"Zuko. Not even all of my clothes are blue. What other colors do you like?"
"Blue is fine," the boy said. And scowled into Hakoda's continued silence. He looked away. "...Black is okay."
"Why don't you go find something black, then," Hakoda said. He followed the prince, keeping two blue shirts, and returning the rest to the stacks. "Get something in red, too."
Hakoda cut that argument short by grabbing a red shirt himself, and adding it to the pile. The boy didn't argue further, which was as close to agreement as he'd get.
"You really want to put a kid like that in red?" The shopkeeper raised a brow.
"What do you mean?"
She shrugged, one-shouldered.
Hakoda had left the pile of their purchases next to Zuko. Zuko took this opportunity to snatch the red shirt off of it, and shove it deep in a stack of green. Hakoda cast a frown at the shopkeeper, and went to rescue it.
"I don't want it," Zuko said, as Hakoda set it back with the rest.
"It's what you wore before."
"But I don't wear it now."
"Red would look good on you, honey," one of the other customers put in, a woman with a somewhat lower neckline than Hakoda was used to seeing. And a significantly higher belly line. But then, life at the south pole hadn't much prepared him to see much skin. The Earth Kingdom had different standards of dress to begin with, and they varied from region to region. The man she was with certainly didn't seem to mind.
"Are you buying, or just touching?" the shopkeeper said, settling the question of whether she was rude to just Fire-blooded people, or everyone.
"You don't have to get it if you don't want it," Hakoda said, a bit more quietly.
"I don't want it."
The red shirt returned to the stacks, and stayed there. At least black clothes were taking its place.
"I need to check with Bato and see how the restocking is coming. I'll drop your sea chest at the ship, while I'm at it. Will you be fine doing adjustments alone? I'll leave the money with you, and I'll come back when I'm done."
"I'm not a little kid."
Hakoda took this as a yes. He shouldn't have, considering when he came back, the boy was gone.
"He left," said the shopkeeper.
Hakoda didn't think to ask 'with who'.
The shopkeeper was touching Zuko. Which she had to, to measure him. But that didn't mean he had to like it. Or her.
"That your father?" she asked. Zuko turned his head away, and set his jaw, which was all the answer either of them needed. "Ah. Nice of him to keep you around, then. Dote on you like this. You've got it better than most, boy."
The Chief expected Zuko to be here when he came back. And for the shop to not be on fire. Not that he'd do anything like that, but. Sometimes he wished he could solve problems like a proper Fire Prince. If he was back in Caldera, no one would dare talk to him this way. And if they did, he'd be well in his rights to—
But. But he still didn't think he'd want to.
(It was that weakness in him that had forced father to send him away. And Zuko hadn't learned his lesson, and now he was never going to see Caldera again, so he should get used to people talking to him however they wanted, because if he showed even a hint of firebending in an Earth Kingdom port—)
The shopkeeper was still talking, friendly-caustic advice about how he'd better work hard and keep his head down, or he'd end up begging in the streets like all the other lazy thieving coal children. Which wasn't a term he'd heard before. But it wasn't hard to figure out.
The two other customers were glaring their way. Zuko took deep breaths, and kept his mouth shut against any stray sparks.
"You don't need to take that from her, kid," the woman said. Her clothes were cut almost in a Fire Nation style. But with a higher neckline, and barely any of her stomach showing. It was also green and beige. So. Not actually Fire Nation style. She… wasn't glaring at Zuko.
"That's true," the man with her said. "She's the worst seamstress in port."
"Then why are you shopping here?" The shopkeeper scowled.
"It's cheaper to cut your shirts up than to buy new by the yard." He flashed a smile at Zuko. "Fabric is actually worth less after she gets her hands on it."
Which was approximately the point where all three of them got kicked out. At least Zuko had already paid for his new clothes. Now he just… needed to pick them up off the street before they got more trampled. But he still needed to get them fitted, Hakoda was expecting him to be done by the time he was back, not for him to have gotten in trouble the moment he was left alone—
The woman groaned, but she was smiling at her companion. "She's never going to let you back in there."
"Please, she never remembers me. I'll just do my hair different, unbind my chest, be a respectable lady."
"You are never a respectable anything."
"I didn't even do anything!" Zuko protested to the closed door, a tangle of dusty clothes clutched to his chest with one arm. "And I'm not with them!"
"But you could be," the man said. "You still need to get those adjusted, right? Wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable in all those clothes. We could help you out."
"I need to wait here."
"Come on," the woman said, slipping an arm around Zuko's waist. "We'll teach you everything you need to know."
"Do you really have to wait for your minder?" the man asked. "I thought you weren't a little kid, sweet fire."
Three hours later, after increasingly tense searching, Hakoda received a bill from Madam Sun's Massage Parlor. And a note.
Come collect your child.
Bato was significantly more entertained by this development than Hakoda.
Chapter 11: Kustaa's Favorite Apprentice Gets Kidnapping Assistance
Apparently "massage parlor" is more of a regional thing than I'd thought. That's a common cover for a brothel in many areas of the world, guys. Zuko got taken to a brothel.
Note to re-readers: Minor edits to two scenes. Changed pentapox to septapox, thank you to Kaylessa for correctly pointing out that that's in season two, and we're still in season one. Oops. Thanks also to @infinitelyalright on Tumblr, for cluing me in that septapox is a thing (used in Rise of Kyoshi, I'm told). Also edited the "Toklo is freaking out over a splinter" scene, because apparently the wood ships are constructed from makes splinters an actual concern, thank you to MysticPirate for the RW knowledge!
Madam Sun's was not the nicest massage parlor in town. It was located a few streets in from the docks, in that perfumed zone where it was close enough to the piers for the smell of rotting fish to underlay the background, but far enough that the ocean breeze couldn't blow said stench away. Bars bracketed either side, a testament to its proprietor's foresight. At this time of day, there weren't many customers apparent. The ones that were here would be inside.
Hakoda ran a hand down his face, and stepped through a door that was already open and ready for business.
"Ah," a woman said, looking up from where she was lounging. "You must be with Zuko. The blue's a giveaway; kid really likes his blue. The Madam's waiting for you."
He followed the woman through a fabric-draped doorway whose off-whites might once have been pinks, past an inner room where the midday employees cat-called him, and to a side office where an older woman sat waiting behind a desk. Her black hair was elaborately styled, held in place by a large phoenix pin whose gold paint was wearing away. Greened copper outlined its edges, in the same way silver haloed her hair.
"So good of you to come," she said, in a tone as flat and business-like as the accounting ledger in front of her. She shut it. "Take a seat."
He did, and waited. He didn't particularly care to speak first.
Neither did she.
"...Madam Sun, I presume."
"Chief Hakoda. Your boy owes me money."
"I find it extremely hard to believe that he owes you that much." He didn't bother taking the bill out; had left it back on the ship, in fact. Bato had still been laughing over it, last he saw.
"No one accused him of checking the prices." She took out a fresh sheet of paper and started tallying. "Two of my employees, for three hours." She glanced at the hourglass sitting on a corner of her desk. "Three and a half, make that. An unusual service surcharge. And then, of course, our discretionary fee."
The last number she scrawled in her perfectly perfunctory handwriting was several times an already ludicrous bill.
"Discretionary," Hakoda repeated.
The Madam's lips quirked. "You do want us to be discrete, I presume. What would our proud military think if they knew you spent your resupplying money on recreation?"
"Not much, I imagine," Hakoda said, "given I'm not paying."
"If you can't afford it," she said, lightly, "we could always pay you, instead."
He did not want to know what she meant. "What do you mean?"
She propped a cheek up against one palm. Her fingers were encrusted in rings, the gems too large and elaborate to be anything but cut glass. "Let's not flirt around it, love. That's a Fire brat you've got on your Water Tribe ship. Seems real eager to please you, too."
"What," Hakoda grit his teeth, "do you mean?"
"I mean," the Madam said, taping her numbers, "I'd at least pay him for it."
Hakoda took deep breaths, held himself perfectly still, and did not murder the owner in her own office. When he could see anything but red, he stood up. Calmly.
"I'm leaving. I'm taking Zuko with. Where is he?"
She kept leaning on her palm. Her finger kept tapping. Her eyes never left his face.
"So you do care. You'll forgive a lady for checking, Chief. Kid follows two of mine home just because they were nice to him; says the only money he has is yours; acts like having clothes of his own is a novelty. Mentions off-hand that one of your crewmen is called Leg-Breaker. Oh, and that he spends private time in your room every night."
"Honey, I've heard stranger euphemisms. A woman can have concerns."
"Your concerns are unfounded." And insulting. And moderately baffling. "Why do even you care?"
A smile quirked at her lips, and crinkled around her eyes. Gold eyes, he realized. Not gold like Zuko's; gold like he'd used to mean it, a dark amber that could pass for an Earth Kingdom brown, if someone didn't want to see the Fire.
"Same reason you do, probably: someone has to. Don't start judging which of us could do it better. I wouldn't have taken months to get him his own shirts."
Hakoda, fortunately, did not have to think of a response for that. The door behind them opened.
"Did you have another— Oh, are you Chief Hakoda?" The speaker was the woman from the seamstress' shop. Her shirt was unusually immodest, in retrospect. Or perhaps surprisingly modest, in context. "Wait. Sunny, are you extorting the Chief?"
"It's a slow day, Jia. Who wouldn't want to spend it in a small room with a big man, making some easy money?"
Hakoda flushed. The Madam laughed. It was a snorting sort of laugh, and not very attractive, and didn't care much that it wasn't.
He crossed his arms, aiming to look unamused in exact proportion to that laughter. "Are we done here?"
Her smile turned to something sharper. The bill she slid him contained a much more reasonable number; about what a seamstress would have cost, in fact. Plus tip.
The woman from the shop—Jia—rolled her eyes. She rummaged for a moment in one of the shelves along the Madam's walls, picking up a spool of thread which she wiggled at them in the same way another woman might have wagged her finger in a tsk-tsk. "Whenever you two are done talking dirty, we'll be out back. We've just got the one shirt left."
Once Hakoda's wallet had been divested of its virtue, the Madam led him to a courtyard behind the building. The space was cluttered with clotheslines, most in use. Between linens and things he'd rather not mention, he caught sight of Zuko, and several more of the Madam's employees. More than seemed necessary for the current activity.
"He really is sewing," Hakoda said.
"He's being a distraction," the Madam said. "That lot should be getting ready for the evening crowd, not fawning over lost milli-kittens. Get him out of here."
It would have been a domestic scene, if everyone had been properly clothed. It would have been a bit amusing even so, if Zuko didn't fit in so well.
Black hair. Pale skin. Gold eyes. Not all of the sex workers heckling him had all of those, but enough had one or more. After a hundred years of war, there was little wonder that Fire had left a few sparks in its path. Nor that Earth might try to snuff those flames, or at least scrape the coals off to corners they wouldn't be seen. Places they could never burn too brightly.
"Oh, and Chief?" the Madam said. "A word of advice: change his name. It's a little too princely for a sailor."
On an unrelated note, she held out her hand.
On an equally unrelated note, Hakoda paid her discretionary fee.
"Wow," Jia said. "That is the least straight thing I've ever seen. Well, one of the least straight things."
Seo-Yun, the other customer from the seamstress' shop, snorted. They'd already grabbed Zuko's work, and started undoing all of it.
At least it was still just pinned. Pinning things had been lesson one.
...Zuko was still working on that particular lesson. But now he knew how to do a slip stitch, and that lark-carp bones made for decent pins if you dabbed a bit of wax on one end, and when you turned a seam inside-out you always lost about a finger's width more fabric than you thought you would so keep that in mind, and to save ratty old shirts because the fabric could be used to make patches for other clothes, and if you made those patches into pretty shapes your shirts would look like Fancy Peoples' clothing.
(Zuko did not point out that coarse fabric like theirs—like his— would never fool actual Fancy People, no matter how elaborately it was shaped or sewn. Some of their patched clothes did look nice. From a distance.)
He'd also learned that hems were hard. He couldn't just lay the fabric on a bench and pin it straight all the way around, because human bodies were weird.
And that was why Zuko was standing still, one of his new shirts inside-out on him, while Seo-Yun adjusted the pins around its back edge.
"How am I supposed to do this alone?"
"It's easier with a friend," Seo-Yun said. "More fun, too."
"Most things around here are," another of the people who were spectating the sewing session said. And then most of them were giggling again. He didn't know why this was so entertaining, everytime anyone said anything they all laughed.
Zuko glared at the gigglers on principle as Seo-Yun finished. When they were done, he wiggled out of the shirt, careful not to stab himself this time. He was just sitting back down to sew when—
"We just bought you new shirts, Zuko," a voice said from behind him. Chief Hakoda's voice. "You could try wearing one of them."
"Oh, I like you," Jia said.
Zuko fumbled the shirt. And also his sling. Which he put on quick, he wasn't supposed to be out of it yet—
—but he really should have put the shirt on first—
—but there were still pins in it—
"This looks exactly like my last house call," one of the spectators commented fondly, to laughter.
Zuko gave up. It wasn't like he was doing anything wrong. Except for not being where he was supposed to be.
"Why didn't you wait at the shop?" Chief Hakoda asked.
That hadn't been his fault. Except that it had, since he'd been the one who'd chosen to leave. He could have stayed. Or gone back to the ship. Or waited until Jia and Seo-Yun left, and… and apologized to—
"That shopkeeper is a racist ass in want of a kicking," Seo-Yun said. "We couldn't leave the kid there alone, and you shouldn't have."
They were not helping. Zuko shot them a glare. "I didn't think it would take this long. I asked Madam Sun to send a note. Didn't she…?"
"She certainly did," the Chief said. "Are you done?"
"Yeah. I mean, no? But I can finish by myself, now." And why were people laughing at that—
"He did good, for his first time," Jia grinned.
A smile tugged at Seo-Yun's lips, too. "I'm satisfied."
The Chief was running a hand down his face. And Zuko was gathering up his clothes and leaving, which was the traditional way to exit this particular establishment.
"What were you talking about with Madam Sun?"
"Paying your ransom," Hakoda said, and completely failed to notice the way Zuko's eyes widened, or the way his shoulders ducked, or the very small smile that briefly touched his lips.
(It was a joke. He knew it was a joke. But—)
"You paid her? But I already paid Jia and Seo-Yun."
Madam Sun split the profits three ways: with her, herself, and her pension fund.
It was unclear whether the kid knew he'd been at a brothel. The crew prefered to make jokes rather than enlighten him, and Kustaa wasn't about to spoil their fun. Regardless, and unrelated, his sling came off the next day.
"Take it easy," Kustaa said, "or it goes right back on."
The boy rotated his shoulder, looking pleasantly surprised. "The massage really helped."
Matters remained unclear.
Kustaa graduated from falling exercises to combat basics. This continued to involve a lot of falling.
Zuko graduated from memorizing to diagnosing. This continued to involve his friends being optimally unhelpful.
"The splinter is out," he told Toklo, "and we disinfected it. Twice."
"But shouldn't you wrap it? Just to be safe?"
"I can't even see where it was."
"Wait, you're right. What if we disinfected the wrong spot? Maybe we should do it again—"
"Come back when you're dying," Zuko said.
"...And then these marks appeared," Panuk said. He coughed into his arm, his posture sagging.
"It almost looks like septapox, but I think the pattern is wrong." Which was a good thing, because a septapox outbreak on a ship would be the opposite of good. But was a bad thing, because a novel septapox-related illness might be even worse. Zuko frowned, comparing the marks across Panuk's skin with the illustration in Pests and Plagues .
"Boy." Kustaa eyed Panuk. "Faking a deadly disease isn't the smartest move."
Panuk stopped coughing. Straightened. Smirked. "Turns out if you stick a pentapus on your face—"
"Where did you get a pentapus?"
"Can you sprain your eyelid?" Toklo asked.
"What did you do."
"Either you're dying of mantis-measles," Zuko said, "or you're the one who stole Diseases of a Swamp Most Foul."
"But which one is it, doc?" Panuk asked, through the door Zuko had just closed.
"I think it's broken," Toklo said, "Is it broken?"
"Do you want it to be?"
"I have a better idea," Kustaa said.
"Why is Toklo's arm in a cast?" Hakoda asked. He'd been under the impression that the youngest crewmen—well, second youngest, now—had hit his elbow on a crate. Not shattered his arm from shoulder to wrist.
"I needed practice. He volunteered."
"I… see. How long is he going to be in it?"
"Until he stops volunteering."
Hakoda wisely left it at that.
"That sounds like rasbora-lizard rash," Zuko told Panuk, who grinned.
"It does," Kustaa said, and Panuk stopped grinning.
A well-poulticed Panuk sat next to a cast-armed Toklo.
"Did you volunteer for practice, too?" Panuk asked.
"I don't want to talk about it," Toklo said, for reasons unrelated to their fight.
There were more Fire Navy ships in the area than they'd accounted for. One of them caught the Akhlut alone.
Kustaa waited below deck with Zuko and a knife he still didn't know how to use. All he could do was fall, if it came to it.
It didn't, but not because of any action of Kustaa's.
Bandages. Burn salve. Debridements. Zuko had sufficient practice for this.
"What's for dinner?" Tuluk unwisely asked.
The boy went below deck. He came back with a supply box, the salted fish still packed together, and dropped it on the table in the kitchen loudly enough it woke two men in the crew room below. He went back to his vigil; he was doing it in Hakoda's room this time.
The healer's room smelled like his first week on the Wani.
Zuko had a medical text. He was sitting on the floor in front of the bird cages, staring at Seabreeze as she dragged her wing. As much as her cage allowed wing-dragging.
"It's not broken," the boy was mumbling, as he flipped pages. "A joint injury, maybe?"
Hakoda had been planning to talk to him about a change in names. Not a change, just… a name he could use in ports. A name to hide who he was.
'Zuko' was the only thing he'd kept from his old life. Hakoda had very little doubt that he'd take a new name, and never be that one again.
But it was Zuko sitting there, fussing over birds. Zuko who still came to his room to meditate every night, even though he tried not to show his flames anywhere else; heat for cooking and medicine and laundry, but not fire.
There would be something wrong in losing Zuko.
He'd paused too long; the boy looked up at him. Hakoda made himself smile, and kept walking.
Meal service resumed the next day, with just as little said on the subject as when it had stopped.
Kustaa started taking their practice more seriously. He became well acquainted with both the deck, and his Fire Nephew's loudly patient way of explaining the same concept over, and over, and over, until an old man got it.
(Kustaa had another nephew, back in his village. Loud, not the most respectful to his elders, always ready for a fight. The kind of puffed-up penguin-peacock who tried to protect the adults who should have been protecting him. A real brat.)
(Kustaa had another nephew. He wouldn't be so useless for this one.)
Spirits were higher again by the time they reached the next port. High enough for heckling.
"Can we really trust you to take Zuko out?" Toklo said.
"After last time…" Panuk agreed.
Hakoda stared the two younger crewmen down, unamused, but the two of them refused to be stared down.
"I'm not sure I trust you with my nephew," Kustaa said. "He's only got the one virtue, Chief."
"I'm not your—! And what virtue?" Zuko shouted. "What are you even talking about? We're just picking up the food supplies!"
"What I don't get is this," Ranalok put in. "Zuko didn't recognize them. But neither did the Chief. Sure you don't both need an escort?"
"I think an escort is the problem," Bato said.
Hakoda massaged his temples, and let the general laughter run its course.
"Wait," Zuko said, "you think I didn't know they were…? But I went to them all the time when I was Avatar hunting. Sex workers always know the local spirit rumors."
"You went to brothels," Bato repeated, "to gossip."
"To Avatar hunt. And what else would I do?"
"I don't know if this is better or worse," Ranalok said.
"It's better," Panuk said. "It's so much better. Did you even understand half the things they were saying to you?"
The kid scowled. "Of course I did. Everything except the proverbs."
"What. Wait. You mean innuendos?"
"Things that mean something besides what people are actually saying. Proverbs."
Cooking was just stirring things together and heating it. Tea was hot leaf juice. And innuendoes were sex worker proverbs.
Kustaa won custody rights, on this particular trip. Anyone could help carry supplies; only his second favorite apprentice could help comb the local apothecaries and herbalists for ingredients, some of which might be under names neither of them had heard of. The Earth Kingdom had as many terms for medicinal plants as it did kings.
The problem wasn't that Kustaa trusted him with half the list, and split off to his own side of the town for searching. The problem was that Zuko found the foxfern not in a shop, but growing between paving stones on the side of the road. Picking it led to following the road. Following the road led him out of the market, past the houses, to the edge of town. And at the edge of town, between one cart rolling by and the next, he was suddenly alone with the eyes watching him.
He didn't freeze; only idiots froze. He kept picking, and dropping the leaves into the pouch he'd made by holding out the front of his shirt, and shifted so his good eye was towards the feeling.
There was a man on an ostrich horse, stopped at the side of the road a few paces back. An Earth Kingdom soldier. Who was staring right at him, exactly as intently as it had felt.
A scout? A messenger? Passing through, or with a mission? Looking for someone?
(They crushed firebenders' hands, why hadn't he brought his swords, just because they weren't finished—)
Zuko dropped another leaf into his shirt-pouch, then stood, and started walking back into town. Calmly.
Maybe the man wasn't an earthbender. (He was built like an earthbender, and he didn't have any weapon on his belt.) Maybe he didn't recognize Zuko. (An ostrich horse could easily outpace someone on foot, and he was leaving plenty of room on the road for him to go around, but the guy kept the same distance behind him.) Zuko wasn't hurting anything— (Uncle hadn't been hurting anything, at those hot springs—)
Ranalok and Aake were at the edge of the market. It was perfectly appropriate to pick up pace when you saw your crewmates. He wasn't running.
"Easy, kid. What's got you spooked?" Ranalok said. Then: "Ah."
He and Aake looked towards the rider. The soldier looked back.
"Lunch with us?" Ranalok asked.
The soldier paused a moment. Then he flicked the reins, and rode on.
The soldier rode through the market. To the port. He tied his ostrich horse at the pier where a blue-sailed ship was docked. He was a messenger, under the command chain of General How, and familiar with anticipating which port the Southern Water Tribe's unassuming flagship would dock at next.
"Lieutenant Nergui!" the Chief hailed, a bag of supplies slung over his shoulder. Seemed he'd just gotten back.
"Chief Hakoda," Nergui said. "Would you care to explain why the dead Fire Prince is walking around port?"
Hakoda did not, but he'd have to anyway.
There was an ostrich horse tied to the end of their pier, one foot raised, head tucked under its wing in sleep.
Aake and Ranalok looked at it, then didn't look at him.
"Might want to head straight below deck, kid," Ranalok said. "There's probably a lot you could get done in the healer's room."
With the door closed, the older crewman didn't say.
Chief Hakoda's door was closed, too. But they weren't trying to whisper, and it wasn't Zuko's fault his good ear was on that side.
"...Surely General How can appreciate the advantage in having an heir to the Dragon Throne loyal to our cause," the Chief was saying.
He wasn't eavesdropping. He wasn't. So he kept walking, straight into the healer's room, and closed the door behind him.
"Something wrong?" Kustaa asked.
Nothing was. He'd just thought that Hakoda, maybe—
But this made more sense, anyway.
Since everyone was on the same page now, Zuko and the Earth Kingdom soldier included, Zuko didn't hide in the healer's room all day. He got the foxfern hanging up to dry, then he went out on deck to do his homework reading in the sun, and snuck a book on joint injuries to read when Kustaa wasn't watching. He kept a steady breath throughout, a small part of his mind keeping tonight's dinner simmering. A lot of people were eating in port, so he'd kept it simple.
"I didn't know the Water Tribe ate curry," the soldier said, later.
"We've expanded our diet," the Chief replied. He took a bite, and started coughing.
The soldier didn't. He ate spoonful after spoonful, stone-faced at the spiciness, and cast only one glance at Zuko.
The dearly departed Prince of the Fire Nation scowled at Lieutenant Nergui in a manner well in keeping with the reports of his temperament. How the Water Tribe's Chief had broken him to menial labor, Nergui did not know.
Hakoda hadn't broken him well, judging by the number of Tribesmen drinking copious amounts of water.
(He briefly entertained the thought that the food might be poisoned. But if it was, well, Nergui had already downed half a plate before he realized who'd cooked it. And it was… surprisingly decent. Not as spicy as they served in his hometown, but the underlying flavors were much the same.)
(Nergui was carefully avoiding the thought that 'the Fire Prince cooks like my older sister'.)
"Do you have any idea why so many ships are gathering?" the Chief asked, blithely unconcerned with their gold-eyed eavesdropper.
"We have theories. I'll discuss them with you after dinner."
"Isn't Aomori their northernmost port?" the Chief's second put in, and now the Prince was definitely listening. Even before the man turned to the boy and asked, "Do you know anything about it?"
"The port?" the prince asked, his voice raspier than Nergui had expected. "Or the ships?"
"Let's start with the ships," Bato replied, in that informal way that seemed so integral to Water Tribe society.
"They're for the northern invasion. Aren't they?"
That wasn't the right thing to say, Zuko realized, when everyone was looking at him. He straightened his shoulders, and met them stare for stare.
"You— How could you not know? There have been more and more ships coming north, I know you noticed, I've heard you talking about them. What else would they be doing?"
Hunting down a certain Water Tribe fleet, Hakoda didn't say. Or finally taking the northern route around the Earth Kingdom, and establishing an eastern fleet to chip at the territories that allowed the king in Ba Sing Se to feed his population and maintain some cohesion in the country at large, even as the Fire Nation colonies ate away at his western farmland and ocean access. There were more strategically valuable targets than invading a neutral nation that, to Hakoda's knowledge, had no material resources the Fire Nation wanted.
There'd been more strategic targets than the South Pole, as well.
"Are you guessing, or is this certain?" Hakoda asked.
The boy bristled further. "No one told me, but I'm not lying. Zhao's been pushing for an invasion of the north for years. And then he got promoted to admiral of the northern fleet. What else would he do? He wouldn't ever shut up about it at officer's parties, like anyone wanted to hear his stupid ice fishing jokes again—"
...Lieutenant Nergui could see why General Fong had been willing to risk an entire alliance over one banished sixteen-year-old. The prince didn't even seem to know how much he knew.
It was Zuko's normal meditation time. He'd thought the Earth Army soldier was spending the night in one of their spare beds in the healer's room. He wasn't trying to eavesdrop. He wasn't.
"He needs to be questioned, Chief Hakoda. Properly."
"I've had this discussion with General Fong already, Lieutenant, and I would appreciate your discretion—"
"You know I can't do that, sir."
Zuko went into the healer's room instead, but the man's things were already on one of the beds. So he just... didn't meditate. It was fine.
Lieutenant Nergui woke to a sunny late-winter morning on deck. He stood, scratching under his nightshirt, watching the prince of the Fire Nation glare at a bird.
The bird was one of the Water Tribe's giant message carriers. He'd never gotten used to the sheer size of the things. This one was dragging around its right wing, in a manner almost as dramatic as the way the prince was glowering at it.
"Roast messenger for breakfast?" he dryly commented to a young man leaning against the rail, also watching this show.
"Not unless you're volunteering," the young man just as dryly returned, before offering a hand. "Panuk."
"Nergui." He clasped the young man's arm, and shook in the Water Tribe style.
"I don't know what's wrong with her!" the prince exploded, only semi-metaphorically. There were more sparks than Nergui was comfortable with. From the kid's mouth.
"Didn't know they could do that, did you?" Panuk smirked. "Don't worry; only the bad firebenders can."
"Nothing's broken, and the joint has full mobility, and there doesn't seem to be any one place that hurts her more than the others, and she's not acting strange otherwise, and she can still fly—" the prince continued to rant.
Nergui looked at the bird. At the smirking crewman. At the prince. "Have you been giving her extra food?"
"She's injured," the firebender snapped.
"She's faking," Nergui said.
"And there's the proper diagnosis," another crewman said. Lieutenant Nergui recognized the ship's healer, from unfortunate past necessity. "Stop sneaking her fish, brat. Even if she's injured."
The healer closed the book he was reading. "Sometimes patients fake injuries to get medicine. That's why there's a lock on the healer's room; to keep the coca-poppy from becoming a temptation. You think that bird has more self control? Stop rewarding her behavior."
The bird briefly settled her 'injured' wing back against her side. Preened under it. When the prince looked back her way, she promptly returned to the act.
"And while we're on the subject: you're making the dog fat."
"I am not!"
"Seal Jerky." Panuk leaned down, and patted his legs. "Here boy. Want to play fetch?"
Nergui had never quite gotten over how many limbs the Water Tribe's dog had. It came crawling down from its sunning spot half-way up the mast, its approach heralded by the carapace-on-wood clacking of an unnecessary number of legs. He couldn't imagine hearing that moving over the ship sides in the middle of the night. Give Nergui an honest, quiet Earth Kingdom spider-hound any day, thanks.
"Fetch," Panuk repeated. "Fetch!"
The isopup rolled over and tried to curl up, but couldn't quite make it around the curve of its own belly. It whined.
The healer tucked his book under one arm, and stood. "While we've got you, Lieutenant, there's something you might be interested in."
Nergui didn't miss the way the healer glanced to the prince as he spoke. Or the way the prince stiffened, and looked away.
Kustaa led the way back below deck, and Nergui followed. So did the isopup's sounds of continued distress.
"Fetch! You can do it, you little tubby-tank, touch your toes—"
"Leave him alone, Panuk—"
The Water Tribe healer had scavenged a Fire Nation medical text off one of their ship's kills.
And convinced the prince of said nation to help him turn one of its most important recipes into something readable, and useable.
"What's this thing called?" Nergui asked, holding the construct of glass-encased liquid up to the porthole's light.
The healer's lips quirked, and it almost looked like he was going to say something else for a moment. Then he replied, "A thermometer. Measures heat; they're making them in Omashu. I'll give you the names of the researchers. Don't know how many you'll be able to get, but a little military sponsorship goes a long way for a college's research budget."
The healer raised an eyebrow, rather than repeating himself.
"Omashu surrendered," Nergui said.
"Ah. I'll give you the names anyway; might be a wise investment to get them out before the Fire Nation realizes what their work could mean. You can't make the salve without either one of these or a firebending assistant. That kid kept the temperature within a range of five degrees for an hour and a half, and turned around and did it again for every batch—"
"Aren't degrees time in the Fire Nation?" Whatever 'degrees' actually were. Give him a sand clock anyday; a man should be able to see the thing he was counting.
"And they're apparently temperature now, in the Earth Kingdom." The healer tapped the little markings etched into the glass. "You might want to have a talk with the researchers about that, if you get them out of Omashu; we don't need the world to be a more confusing place. Point is, too hot, too cold, or too inconsistent and the salve isn't much better than what we can already make. It's the temperature control that makes the difference. Hang on; I'll get paper from the Chief's room, and write down those names for you."
The healer left. Nergui continued to turn the thermometer over in his hands. Strange that a little thing like this could potentially change so much.
And then there was a gaze burning into his back.
"Your Highness," Nergui said, turning around.
The boy was glaring at him from the doorway. Not a boy for much longer; he was short by Earth Kingdom standards, but already taller than the Dragon of the West. Baby fat still rounded the edges of his face, but there was a lankiness to him that spoke of a growth spurt in progress. The tiger-shark was losing its baby stripes.
"Don't call me that. I'm not a prince anymore."
He'd been banished, but he'd not been removed from the line of succession. And now he was declared dead, which made it likely Ozai wouldn't bother correcting that oversight. It was a risky game that Chief Hakoda was playing.
Tiger-sharks kittens could be contained, too. They still mauled their fair share of zookeepers given half a chance, and there was always a choice to be made in the end: release them, or put them down?
He set the thermometer down on a table. Wouldn't want to risk breaking it. He kept his gaze on the boy, and waited for him to speak.
The prince crossed his arms. Which would, Nergui noted, slow down his bending by just the barest pinch of sand.
"How much trouble are they in? The Water Tribe," he clarified, when Nergui still didn't speak. "For hiding me. They faked my death, I didn't know he was going to— And. They lied to you about it, I know they did. ...Didn't they?"
Nergui wondered how much information he could get, just by letting the boy run his mouth. He wouldn't be a boy much longer, but he was certainly one now.
"The Chief won't give you up," Nergui said.
"I know that." Somehow the boy managed to scowl more. That scar of his really did help, for certain things. "But are they in trouble? Is it going to hurt your alliance if I stay with them?"
"And if it will?"
"I could… not. Stay with them."
"Are you offering to give yourself up, Prince Zuko?"
"I'm not a prince!""
He was certainly a kid trying to act the part. Nergui allowed himself the smallest of eyebrow raises. "Do you know the kind of trouble it would cause if I walked off with you without Chief Hakoda's consent?"
The boy's good eye widened.
"Try to think things through more, kid."
"I'm not a kid," he said, with as much grumbly persistence as his not-a-prince claims.
The healer returned then. He paused in the doorway a moment, looking between Nergui and the prince, his expression unreadable. "Doing something stupid?" he asked, to the room at large.
"No," the boy promptly answered.
The healer's lips quirked again under his beard. He handed a sheet of paper to Nergui: a list of names, as promised. Nergui added it to another paper, one with a deceptively simple recipe, and turned his gaze back on the boy. He'd leaned against the table.
"You're okay with this? It's a Fire Nation military secret."
"It's not a secret, you were just too stupid to figure it out for a hundred years." With that endearing commentary, his glare slipped momentarily down to the thermometer by his hand, then back up to Nergui. His expression became something more neutral. "...You're going to give it to the civilian doctors, too? Right?"
...Not unless there were enough of these thermometers to go around. Lieutenant Nergui looked into a pair of gold eyes that weren't scowling at him, and mentally prioritized extracting those researchers from Omashu, even though it wasn't his call to make.
"We'll get it out to them as fast as we can," he replied, with wartime honesty.
The boy nodded tightly.
"You done now?" the healer asked, to the boy. "My favorite apprentice doesn't consort with foriegn nationals behind my back."
The prince took this opportunity to remind Nergui of the spark spitting thing. "It can't consort, it's a piece of glass!"
"Then why so jealous, nephew?"
"You're not my uncle!"
Lieutenant Nergui tucked the names and recipe away in his bag, and went to bid goodbye to the Chief.
Hakoda led the way back on deck. He liked the Lieutenant—he was a practical man, in the employ of another practical man, which was a blessing to find in the Earth Army's sprawling half-nepotistic hierarchy even before factoring in multiple generals at the top, with multiple kings above them. But in current circumstances, he'd be glad to be back out at sea, where it would take a man of the Earth Army significantly more effort to step foot on his ship.
Too late to change the boy's name now. Not that it would have helped.
"Stop teasing him!" said boy was shouting, as they emerged into the sunlight. "It's not his fault he can't curl up—"
"Yeah, it's yours," Panuk said, and poked Zuko in the side.
The boy startled. And made a… sound. It took Hakoda a very long time to place said sound, in the context of this particular teenager.
Panuk was quicker. "Wait, are you ticklish?"
"No. No! Don't, I hate you, I hate all of you—"
He made the mistake of backing up into Aake, who had become their resident expert in pinning (ex-)princely arms. The crew advanced as he kicked. Panuk had gotten in that first accidental poke; Bato took the honor of the first intentional.
It was the first time anyone on the Akhlut had heard the boy laugh.
Which was, of course, only an incentive for the rest of the men.
Surprisingly, Toklo stayed where he was, studiously repairing one of their nets.
"Not joining in?" Hakoda asked.
"I don't want a real cast," their formerly youngest crewman sagely replied, and continued watching from safety.
The scene looked exactly like what it was: a single boy inflicting incidental bruises on his crewmates, who had thoroughly earned it. Hakoda left them to it. Would have left them to it.
"No wait, stop, help!"
Which may have been the first time Zuko had ever asked for that.
"You know, Bato is pretty ticklish, too." Hakoda pointed down at his own feet, and wiggled his toes inside his shoes.
"Fire Nation sympathizer!" his second accused, as the crew turned on him.
The kid bumped into Lieutenant Nergui's bag as he stomped towards a safer spot, flopping down like he was trying to bruise the deck next to the young man repairing the nets.
The boy wasn't a prince. Or a kid. Didn't have an uncle, and wasn't giving away state secrets just because it might save civilians that his own countrymen had hurt. He was not ticklish. He hated them all.
"I think General How may see the unique benefits of this situation, Chief Hakoda," the lieutenant said, and took his leave.
"Nephew. Where's my favorite apprentice?"
On a road far from town, long after a certain ship had sailed, Lieutenant Nergui found an involuntary stowaway in his bag.
Chapter 12: Zuko Does Not Catch the Avatar (His Dad Doesn't Care)
Note to re-readers: edited details in the manatee-megalodon story and removed a line about Zuko only cooking for the current shift, because that is not how real ships cook food. Thank you to MysticPirate and their Has Actually Worked On Ships knowledge!
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.