Prince Zuko was having a bad day.
To be fair, he could not really remember having a good day in the past seven years. He had had some neutral days and some really, really bad days. So a regular bad day was not unusual, and perhaps as good as he could hope for.
The first bad thing about this day came from the horrible, unrelenting cold of the North Pole. It was the literally the last place he had wanted to look, but he could only put off the inevitable for so long.
The second bad thing was that it was his birthday.
As a child, Zuko had loved his birthday. He had been spoiled by his mother and been allowed to eat all the sweets he had wanted. His sister, Azula, had done her best to be slightly less bossy, but he usually caved at let her be Firelord Sozin when they played Avatar Attack. Even his father had made an appearance: a pat on the head, or an approving nod as Zuko demonstrated his newfound skills in calligraphy, the tsungi horn, or soldier drills.
It had all changed when Azula began firebending. Zuko remembered the feeling of envy and excitement, and was even more thrilled when his own bending appeared just a few days later. But Azula had always outshone him, and every year on his birthday his father gave him less praise and more criticism. Azula stopped wanting to play Avatar Attack with him. She only wanted to play the Flinching Game.
“Turtleduck poop. A rotten egg in your mouth. Crunching a snail with your bare foot.”
“Gross, stop it!”
“You’re not suppose to flinch, Zuzu!”
And she would pinch his cheek with her piping hot fingers.
For a while, he at least had his mother, who would spend the day with him watching the turtleducks, making sure he had a candle in his dumplings to make a wish at dinner.
But then she had disappeared, and Zuko had endured three years of pure misery.
It was laughable, now, how foolish he was. Things could always get worse.
For the past four years, Prince Zuko had scoured the earth for the Avatar, his own private game of Avatar Attack. But he wasn’t like Azula — she had always found him and beat him. Zuko had never been good enough.
Zuko begs off from the birthday celebration his Uncle has planned — every year Uncle Iroh attempts a party, and Zuko loves and hates him for it — and instead spends his twentieth birthday like he has spent almost every night in exile.
Zuko has only seen the scar on his face a few times. There are no mirrors in his room, and he avoids his reflection at all costs. But he sees his face reflected in the eyes of the people he meets. Some look at him with pity, others with revulsion. Children are curious and stare. Once, a baby cried and although the mother tried to assure Zuko that her son was merely tired, not afraid, Zuko knew.
He was a failure.
Every night, Zuko lay in the dark and he would gently touch his scar, so softly that the damaged tissue underneath felt nothing. He passed his fingertips over the mottled skin and remembered.
“People choking to death. Blood and vomit. Mom dying.“
“Zuli, stop! Ouch!”
“Don’t flinch, dumb-dumb!”
The next day is almost good.
It is a cold, gray day. The further north they get, the closer the sky seems. Zuko is starting to feel claustrophobic.
He makes his usual rounds about the ship. He has long since lost the illusion of command. The men aboard follow his orders, but they don’t bow to him as he passes. They are not afraid of him — they often tease him when they see pretty girl his age, or try to goad him into joining them in song during Music Night. Firelord Ozai certainly would not tolerate such disrespect, but Zuko finds that, at the very least, it speeds things along. It’s hard to efficiently hunt for the Avatar if your crew is wasting time bowing to you every time you so much as sneeze.
A shout comes up from the bow of the ship. Zuko hurries towards it, then stops dead.
A beam of light, brighter than the moon, glows in the distance. It rises from the earth straight into the sky above. Zuko has spent the last five years obsessively reading every scroll he could find about the Avatar, and there is no mistaking this sign.
The Avatar has returned.
He spends the morning barking orders as the crew frantically redirects towards where the beam was spotted. Zuko feels fire in his veins.
His moment approaches.
They chase the Avatar for weeks and finally, finally they have him trapped.
The soldiers are out on the ice. They look a more rag-tag team than Zuko would have hoped, but they are determined. For as much as Zuko has longed to go home, he knows every man on his ship has longed for it as well. A blur of blue and orange speeds past them and Zuko and his troops don’t hesitate. Zuko flings some fireballs at the speeding sled, careful not to hit them. He needs the Avatar unharmed to prove to Firelord Ozai that he has accomplished his task.
The sled skids to a stop, and only one figure gets up. Blue, not orange.
Zuko feels flames erupting from his fingertips. He could not remember being angrier with himself. How could he be so stupid? The Avatar was miles away by now.
Then a roar echoes through the canyon, and Zuko freezes.
The Water Tribe peasant — a girl, by the size of her — is running back towards them.
“Run!” she screams. “Dog! Run!”
Zuko has just enough time to puzzle over why this girl was speaking in Fire Tongue before her meaning catches up to him. By then, it is too late. Zuko spots them: two small polar-dog cubs huddled together in the distance. That meant…
Shen had always been the fastest of all the soldiers, and it was he who was closest to the mother polar-dog. She swatted him aside as if he were nothing more than a pesky fly, and streaks of red stained the snow.
Zuko sprang into action, launching three fireballs at the polar-dog. Not direct hits — he could still see the little cubs in his mind’s eye — but close enough to frighten her. The polar-dog let out a groan of fury and fear, but another two fireballs saw her off, loping back to her waiting cubs. They disappeared into the blinding snow field behind them.
Zuko moved towards Shen, but he was not the first to the body.
The Water Tribe peasant was kneeling by Shen’s side, turning his body over.
“Get away from him!” snapped Zuko, and for a moment he felt a stab of fear. He remembered his father’s stories of Water Tribe savages — they ate their dead, they killed foreigners on sight, they were ugly and stupid — but the girl did not budge. She had pulled off her gloves and her hands danced inches above Shen’s chest.
Nothing could have prepared Zuko for this moment. He watched, stunned, as Shen’s wounds started to shrink and contract. The surface of his skin fused back together. If not for his terrible pallor and the red snow beneath him, it would look as if Shen were merely asleep.
The Water Tribe girl swore. Zuko jumped.
“His heart stopped,” she said. Her gaze fixed on Zuko, who was closest to her. “Do you know how to do chest compressions?”
He was completely speechless. Who was this girl? She dressed like a Water Tribe peasant, but spoke fluent Fire Tongue. She even knew curse words! And she had performed some sort of witchcraft to reverse Shen’s injuries.
Clearly annoyed, the girl set to work thumping on Shen’s chest. Zuko started and knelt next to her.
“I’ll do it,” he said, readying his hands to take over.
“Not too hard,” she cautioned, grabbing his arms into position. “Don’t let your adrenaline take over.”
Zuko tried hard not to grimace. Uncle was going to love repeating that phrase to him in the future.
He had no idea how long he labored — a minute? Five? An hour? — but the Water Tribe girl kept her hands dancing above him. It seemed she was doing something to the inside of Shen.
“Stop!” she said suddenly, grabbing Zuko’s hands again. “Look!”
Shen’s face, while still pale, was turning pink from the cold again. Zuko watched a lazy pulse jump in his neck.
“You did it!”
Zuko stared, wide-eyed. She sounded… proud? She was not quite smiling at him, but her face was filled with gratitude. Zuko flushed, embarrassed by her attention.
The girl looked around, realization dawning on her face. She made to stand, perhaps to run away again, but she went up too fast.
Zuko had never caught someone mid-faint before. He tried to use this as a defense to Uncle later when he was chastised for dropping her unceremoniously onto the ice.
Zuko re-heats the Water Tribe peasant’s tea five times before she wakes.
Uncle Iroh is scandalized, of course. He insists that they wait to brew the tea once their “guest” has woken, but Zuko is impatient. He hopes the smell of tea will rouse her, but it seems to have no effect. To pass the time, he keeps the tea warm, staring at the face of their new captive.
It is not the captive he was hoping for, true, but he is coming around to the idea slowly. He has been tracking the Avatar for weeks, watching as the yellow and orange-clad figure raced around with two Water Tribespeople. They had been reluctant to split up, despite Zuko and his crew’s best tactical efforts. Zuko had not fallen for the feint of sending the bison away, and it had paid off for a while.
Zuko might not have the Avatar, but he has the Avatar’s friend. Zuko does not have any friends of his own, but he is given to understand that friends might do foolish things like attempt daring rescues.
Father was right, Zuko thinks. Love makes people weak.
For all his impatience, he does not notice when the Water Tribe girl first stirs. She is staring at his face — his scar — but strangely it is only when he faces her head on that she is afraid.
She is the first person who ever flinches at his right side instead of his left.
Zuko does not have time to parse this, and he begins his interrogation at once. Uncle has dozed off, thankfully. If he knew she was awake, he would slow things down by offering tea.
Still, Zuko is not a total barbarian. He thrusts the now lukewarm tea in the girl’s direction. She scuttles backwards on the bed into a corner. She looks around wildly, no doubt disoriented by her surroundings and Zuko presses his advantage.
“Where is the Avatar?”
She looks at him as if he has grown a second head.
“It’s no use pretending you can’t understand me,” he says. “You spoke to us before. Now, tell me. Where is the Avatar?”
“Nephew!” Zuko clenches his fists in frustration. Uncle Iroh has roused himself from his chair and is now bowing to this Water Tribe peasant like she is some sort of honored dignitary aboard their ship. To her credit, she looks as bewildered by Uncle Iroh’s behavior as Zuko.
“Do not tell me,” says Uncle Iroh good-naturedly, “that you have not offered our guest tea?”
“She’s not our guest!” Zuko shouts. But he adds in a quiet grumble, “I did offer her tea but she didn’t take it.”
“Perhaps she has a more discerning palate than you, nephew. Please forgive him,” Uncle addresses the still baffled-looking Water girl. “My nephew has many talents, but brewing tea is not yet one of them.”
“Uncle!” Zuko shouts, furious. Flames lick at his wrists and the Water Tribe girl goes rigid at the sight.
Something curious happens. The open bewilderment slides off her face and is replaced with dead, dull eyes. She folds herself into a more dignified seated position, a slight bow to her spine. Zuko is reminded of his servants when he was young, only they looked upon him with a bit more kindness than the Water Tribe girl. She holds the same form, but her face betrays no emotion.
Zuko wonders again how on earth a girl with such blue eyes can look and act so very Fire Nation.
Uncle Iroh seems unsettled by the change as well, which makes Zuko even more nervous. They wait in awkward silence as the tea steeps, but when it is ready, the girl does not take the cup that is offered to her. Uncle Iroh sets it lightly in front of her and takes a sip of his own tea.
“You must be thirsty,” says Uncle, even more gently than before. “Please, drink.”
The girl says nothing, staring blankly at the table before them.
Zuko takes a sip of his own tea and sets it down. He is eager to start asking more questions, but just as he takes a breath to begin, the Water Tribe girl darts out a lightning fast hand and grabs his teacup.
Zuko braces himself for a splash of boiling water in his face — Idiot, he tells himself. How could you not see this coming? — but he cannot contain his shock when the Water girl downs his tea in one gulp instead.
The tea is too hot, and her eyes water a bit as the liquid must scald her throat, but she makes absolutely no sound. She merely sets the empty cup down before her and gently places her own in front of Zuko.
“Uncle would never poison tea,” Zuko says, and his voice sounds stupid even to his own ears. How could this stranger know the oddities of his uncle?
“Ah... you thought perhaps the cups themselves?” says Iroh, still gentle as ever. “A clever girl you are, Miss…?”
His attempt to fish for a name is fruitless. His pouring of a second cup of tea, however, is accepted.
“Where is the Avatar?” Zuko demands again. Enough with this tea nonsense.
His questions have no effect. He asks half a dozen — where is the Avatar going, who are you, how long have you know about the Avatar, why did you save Shen, why won’t you speak — before he can feel flames of anger threatening to consume him. He has come so close only to falter once again. She is afraid of him, he can tell, but not afraid enough.
What would Azula do? he asks himself. It is not a comforting thought.
What would Father do? That idea is even worse.
What would Mother do?
He closes his eyes. He does not like to think about Mother, but then he remembers the way his mother had with servants.
The inferno inside him quiets, and he takes care to meet the Water girl’s gaze.
“We are not going to hurt you,” he says, and he sees doubt and anger cloud her otherwise impassive face. “You have saved the life of one of my men. You did not have to do this. It was an honorable thing to do.”
She looks surprised, and he is surprised at himself as well. But she seems to be listening to him, so he presses on.
“I owe you a debt of gratitude for saving one of my soldiers. No harm will come to you while you are on this ship. You may not believe my word, but you have it.”
He wonders what is happening behind those blue eyes.
“We did not come here to hurt you or your people. We are here in search of the Avatar. I must find him.”
“And what does the Fire Nation want with the Avatar?”
Her voice drips with fury and poison. He almost wishes she had not spoken — the last person who spoke to him with such derision was his own father, and Zuko has tried very hard to erase that part of his memory.
He takes a steadying breath, and thinks of his mother and his home.
“My name is Prince Zuko. I —”
But the rest of his sentence dies at the strange sound she makes. A hysterical giggle bubbles out. She claps both hands over her mouth.
His faces twists in humiliation. He knows he is a laughingstock, but he does not enjoy being laughed at.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I’m not laughing at you, really. It’s just…”
She looks helplessly at him. He quirks his good eyebrow up but her expression remains the same. He soldiers on, knowing full well that the sound of her laughter will return to him later that night as he makes his usual inspections of his ruined face.
“I must find the Avatar to regain my honor. I have searched for him these past four years —”
“Four years?” she interrupts again. She looks a bit abashed at her outburst, but she continues nevertheless. “Everyone thought the Avatar was dead until a few weeks ago. Why did you start four years ago?”
“On the condition of my exile,” he says, feeling a bit wrong-footed. Anyone who has ever heard of him has known about his exile — they practically laugh in his face at his silly quest.
“Exile?” she says, looking alarmed. “You were exiled?”
“Yes,” he says slowly, looking at his Uncle for support.
“My dear Miss…” Uncle tries again, but the Water girl only gasps and looks at Uncle Iroh in horror.
“The Dragon of the West,” she whispers.
Uncle gives an almost imperceptible twitch.
“It has been a long time since anyone has called me that. You may call me Iroh,” he says, trying to keep his words light. The Water Tribe girl looks like he has just asked her to drink a cup of poisoned tea.
“How do you know who my Uncle is?” demands Zuko, thoroughly confused. “How do you know about me? Why do you speak Fire Tongue?”
He does not expect the black look that crosses the Water Tribe girl’s face. It could turn one’s blood to ice.
“You know why,” she says.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play stupid!” she hisses angrily. She abandons her pose of a docile servant and draws herself into a more offensive position.
“You’re one of them. A Firebender.” She says it like a curse.
Zuko is both confused and angry. A not uncommon combination of emotions for him, but it is unpleasant nevertheless. The Water Tribe girl absolutely refuses to elaborate or say another single word to either of them.
Despite her obvious anger, her earlier exertions had clearly taken a toll. After an hour of glaring at Zuko, she struggles to keep her eyes open and she falls asleep sitting against the wall. Uncle Iroh gently lowers her to lie back on the bed and covers her with a heavy blanket.
Zuko insists on taking the first watch. He knows this prisoner will be valuable, he just doesn’t know how yet.