The engine clanked noisily as its gears and pistons churned, speeding the small Fire Navy ship through the waters between the eastern peninsula of the Earth Kingdom and the outer reaches of the Fire Nation. It was comforting, in a way, to be back aboard a Fire Nation ship. Certainly, in Zuko's opinion, Hakoda's stolen ship was both a step up from Bei Hu's ship – and the concussion that had brought him there – and from traveling on Appa's back. The thick metal walls quivered with the incessant banging of a ship in motion, and loud footsteps from the hall vibrated along the floor. Chatter from the Water Tribe men echoed in the hall, but if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine that it was his ship.
He had better reason to close his eyes right now, though.
Zuko's breath hitched in his chest as Katara pressed closer, her hand leaving his neck to skate down his chest over his shirt. Her hand was a cool contrast to the thrum and heat of the floor plates they sat on, barely separated from the metal by thin, Fire Nation style tatami. Her legs hooked over his, bent at the knee, as they leaned against the metal wall. His arm curved around her waist, and she drew back, finally, to rest her head on his shoulder.
His fingers carded through her unbound hair, listening to her heartbeat as they sat together in his shared room. It was strewn with evidence of Zuko's erstwhile roommates. Aang's staff stood in one corner, while Sokka's boomerang hung from a hook on the opposite wall. Between the two of them, the boys had somehow accumulated enough junk to turn their side of the room into a typically teenage mess – scrolls from the Spirit Library and maps drawn onto old ship's logs littered the floor, as well as an increasingly large lump of Water Tribe clothes as the boys stripped more and more away to try to cool down in the baking heat of the ship.
There was a sleeve deposited ignominiously on the floor. The other had found its way into Aang's collection of sock puppets that he tried to entertain the ship with. Spirits, that kid was worse than Uncle…
Zuko's own side of the room was bare and tidy, but for a pair of candles scrounged from the mess for meditation. He'd packed his Water Tribe clothes away, happy to be free of the stifling, heavy fabric, but certain that they would be worth keeping for the future. Disguises were always a good thing to have on hand. He'd changed into a Fire Nation midshipman's uniform, found in the hold and adjusted to his slighter frame as much as it could be. The shoulders were almost right, but it was too wide in the waist and too long both at the hem and in the sleeves. His pants need to be cuffed up and tied as tightly as possible to keep them from slipping down, but despite all that it was a relief and a comfort to once again wear Fire Nation clothes.
Even if they were beneath his station.
In reality, he was only mildly irritated with the room situation. Sharing with Aang and Sokka while the rest of the Water Tribe men overtook the scant crew quarters or slung their hammocks from the beams of the hold wasn't really so bad. It was hardly even a step down from his old ship, where he'd slept on a reed mat in a private but empty room.
"This is nice," Katara murmured, eyes slipping shut in contentment.
"Be nicer if I had my own room," he grumbled back.
"Shush up, Zuko!" Katara said. She looked up, widening her eyes comically as she looked frantically toward the door. "You'll summon them. Again."
Zuko pulled a face. Aang, Sokka, and Toph's joint hobby of interrupting them – or worse, sidling in silently only to give color commentary – was not something he intended to let them get away with. He would have his revenge.
But… later. Right now, they were above deck, finishing loading up the steamer he and Aang would be taking on their trip. And while normally Zuko would be ready and willing to do his share of the work, he was busy taking this last opportunity to kiss his girlfriend without brothers, Avatars, or crafty, shameless earthbenders razzing him for it.
He put one finger under Katara's chin, nudging her back toward him. Her eyes lingered suspiciously on the door. Narrowing his eyes at her, Zuko kissed at the hinge of her jaw and smirked proudly to himself at her gasp. She jerked back, looking up at him with heat.
"Stop that," she said playfully.
He dragged his mouth down her neck, kissing softly as his fingers splayed out, gripping her unscarred side lightly. Her eyelids fluttered shut, and Zuko took the opportunity to bite at her collarbone, enjoying the shuddering, low sound she made.
"This mission is stupid," he said into her neck. "My firebending is fine."
Katara stiffened under his hands, pushing him away just enough to meet his eyes.
"No, it's not. You can't bend when you're happy, which is ridiculous by the way, and that's not what you're going to teach Aang. You need to go back to the source."
Zuko resisted the urge to cross his arms and glare her down. In the past two weeks aboard Hakoda's stolen Fire Nation ship, he had learned there were much better ways to persuade her. Leaning forward, he nipped at the frown on her lips.
"Come with us," he insisted. "Don't you want to make sure I don't keelhaul Aang?"
"Oh, come on. He hasn't been that annoying!"
Aang absolutely had been that annoying. Since getting over his jealousy issues, he'd been friendly. It was intolerable.
His thoughts must have shown on his face, because Katara sighed, nudging him with her shoulder as she cajoled, "Besides, you two need to learn to trust each other."
Her words settled oddly on him. He trusted Aang – he wouldn't even be here if he didn't – but he couldn't say the same for Aang. Sure, the Avatar had saved his life, both in Ba Sing Se and by rescuing him from Bei Hu in the Northern City, but Aang would rescue a rat-viper if it looked helpless enough, even if it did bite him back later. And despite Aang's cuddly nature, he could be damnably hard to read at times. They'd had opportunity and time, but they hadn't even begun their firebending lessons yet.
There really was only one explanation. Aang didn't trust him.
"Zuko. Stop," Katara commanded. She leaned into him, brushing his fingers across his brow to smooth away the furrow. He couldn't restrain a shiver at the feeling – he never could when she touched him on the face, so close to where he had been scarred.
"You know," Toph's voice called out brashly from the doorway. Her smile was wide and taunting beneath the hood of her oversized cloak. "You might want to cut it out with words like that. People might get the wrong impression."
"Toph! How could you say something like that?" Katara asked. She sprang up, scandalized expression on her face as she hurried over to wag her finger at the younger girl. Toph shrugged, her smile turning smug.
"I don't know… just seems like between all of the 'Zuko! Stop!'" she imitated Katara, voice going breathy and high, before pitching her tone lower. "And the 'No, don't struggle', it sounds like something awfully dishonorable is going on down here."
Zuko drew himself up from the floor to glare at her, refusing to recognize that rasp as his own.
"I have never said that," he snapped.
"Eh. I guess my memory's going. Hope that's not what I tell Chief Hakoda."
"You wouldn't!" Katara gasped, making a grab for her.
Toph just laughed, darting up the stairs, and Katara ran after her. With a steadiness borne of leashed fury – Dishonorable? How dare she! – Zuko followed. He grabbed the frame of the door, using his leverage to swing quickly around the tight corner and run down the hall. The door to the stairs was already open, with the girls quickly approaching it. Zuko's steps rang loudly on the metal deck plates as he dashed past them, taking the stairs two at a time. He turned as he reached the top, intending the block Toph's way, but a hand fell heavily on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise.
"Um. Hi," he said weakly.
Hakoda raised an eyebrow at him, replying with bemusement, "Hi."
The older man seemed just on the verge of asking precisely why Zuko had been blocking the stairs when Toph burst out from below decks, one arm dragging Katara who tried fiercely to pull her back below decks. Toph dug her toes in the metal, bending it to give herself traction as she grinned up at Hakoda.
"Told you I'd be able to get their butts up here," she crowed.
"Why you little brat!" Katara shouted. She pulled on Toph, expression malevolent as she leaned backwards. Zuko's eyes widened in alarm – she looked intent of tumbling them both back below decks, happy to take the fall as long as Toph went with her.
He sprang forward to separate them and from behind him, Hakoda spoke with resounding, fatherly authority, "Katara, that is enough!"
Katara dropped Toph's arm, wheeling her arms as she fought for balance. Zuko reached out quickly, grabbing onto her, and she gave him a relieved smile. Toph stomped over to Hakoda's side to grin back at them, unruffled and unrepentant. Ever since they'd arrived, she'd taken partiality to the Chief of the Southern Tribe. According to her, Hakoda was awesome because he'd actually stolen a Fire Nation ship, unlike her loser friends who'd wussed out at the last minute.
"Would anyone care to explain what is going on here?" Hakoda asked, arms crossed.
Zuko shifted awkwardly, avoiding the other man's gaze, while Katara seemed to set her jaw.
"No," she snapped. Zuko looked at her in surprise. She stalked forward and shouldered unnecessarily past her father. Casting a haughty look back, she added, "It's nothing that concerns you."
Hakoda watched her go, rubbing at his jaw sadly.
"She didn't mean that," Toph said. She reached up, patting at Hakoda's hand, and he gave a fond if wholly unpersuaded look down at her.
Zuko just watched them warily. He couldn't imagine talking to his father this way – neither as rudely as Katara nor as familiarly as Toph. And he absolutely could not imagine offering comfort. It was just weird.
"So," Hakoda started. Zuko's attention snapped to the man, and he instinctively straightened his back, hackles raised. "You about ready to go?"
"Of course," Zuko replied stiffly.
He stepped sideways to get around the man, inclining his head marginally in a show of respect, before escaping to the stern where Sokka, dressed in ill fitting Fire Nation armor, was throwing packages over the side. Standing on a small steamboat below, Aang caught it easily, cushioning it on a swirl of wind before settling it on the deck. It looked like they were almost finished. The tiny boat was so stacked full of provisions it was resting low in the water.
"How long are you expecting us to be gone?" he asked.
"Eh, I dunno. Figured it might take a while for you to teach Aang to lighten up," Sokka replied, grinning broadly as he nudged Zuko in the shoulder.
"But that… doesn't even work," he protested. "Aang's the cheerful one!"
Sokka pursed his lips.
"Yeah. I was going for a thing there. Had to follow the pun. Water Tribe – it's how we roll."
Zuko doubted that. From what little time Zuko spent around the Water Tribe men – whom he avoided whenever possible – even he had noticed that Sokka had done a good job wearing down their fond indulgence in last two weeks. Attempting to be encouraging, he offered, "Maybe just save that one for another time?"
Sokka nodded thoughtfully.
"Anything else?" Aang called up to him.
They both did a cursory scan of the deck, looking for the next parcel to toss down, but there was nothing left. Annoyance crossed Sokka face as he registered the fact that he had done all the work for Zuko's journey.
"Thanks for all the help, jerkbender," he huffed out, elbowing Zuko in the side.
Zuko glared back at him, rubbing at his ribs as he tried to decide how offended to be. He still struggled with the casual teasing amongst the group. It was hard not to lose his temper, and harder still to strike back without overreacting.
Schooling his expression into something a touch calmer, and far slyer, Zuko lifted his eyebrows.
"You're welcome," he replied smoothly – well aware of the suspicious look Sokka was giving him. "I appreciate you making sure I had time to say goodbye to Katara. Want me to tell you about it?"
Sokka twitched next to him, disgust and horror flashing across his face.
"Oh, man, not cool!"
"Huh? What's not cool?" Aang asked in confusion, pitching his voice loud to be heard up on the deck.
Zuko ignored him, focusing instead on Sokka, whose face had just taken on an overly casual look. Sokka leaned back against the guardrail of the stern, gazing out over the deck to where Hakoda was being bossed around by Toph.
"You know, I bet that'd be really instructional. For everyone. Maybe I should call Dad over, and you can tell him?"
Slumping, Zuko gave a baleful look to the other boy.
"Okay," he conceded grudgingly. "You win. This time."
"Hah! You bet I do. Although… you know, you really should have a talk with Dad. At some point."
Zuko was aware that talking with the father of his girlfriend was the done thing. It was the honorable thing. His mother's negotiations with Mai's family had been extensive and conducted well in advance of him even being introduced to his former betrothed. And it wasn't like such an arrangement wasn't on the table for him and Katara. Sokka had gone out of his way to mention Chief Arnook and Long Feng's little proposal on their first night on the ship – just to keep Zuko on his toes and aware of his obligations, he'd claimed.
However, Zuko was equally aware of the sharp bone machete Hakoda kept on his belt, and Katara's growing resentment of her father. Both represented ample excuse for him to keep his head down, honor be damned.
"I will," he asserted halfheartedly. "I just… I'm not good. With fathers."
Sokka nodding, a slightly abashed look crossing his face. He scratched at the back of his neck.
"Oh, right. It's easy to forget without your, you know." He gestured vaguely at Zuko's face; Zuko scowled. He didn't find it particularly easy to forget. "No problem. I'll talk to him on your behalf."
Zuko wasn't entirely sure he was on board with that.
"Katara, too," Sokka added belatedly. "Is it just me, or is something up with her?"
"I wouldn't know," Zuko lied.
Truthfully, she hadn't said much to Zuko about Hakoda. It was clear that she was upset with her father, angry even, but Zuko couldn't fathom why. No matter how Hakoda had hurt her, though, he was sure Katara would forgive him like a dutiful daughter.
"Wouldn't know what? Guys?" Aang called.
Both boys startled, looking over the side guiltily. Aang was still down there, tapping a foot impatiently and looking about ready to clamber up the rope ladder back onto the deck. Belatedly, Zuko remembered they were supposed to be setting out soon.
"Don't come up," he said to Aang. "I'm coming down."
Aang, of course, ignored him. Launching himself up from the last rung of the ladder, he leapt up high into the air, only to settle back down onto the deck. Zuko looked at him askance.
"Stealthy," he said sourly.
There weren't any patrol ships around at the moment, but nonetheless, the entire crew had been trying to cultivate a habit of not attracting Fire Nation attention. Which included not showing off airbending on the deck.
"Whoops! Right," Aang replied. Cheerfully, he flipped the hood of his appropriated Fire Nation cloak back up. Because that fixed it. "Anyway, we can't leave without saying goodbye. Or without my staff!"
"Gotcha covered, Twinkletoes," Toph said, coming up from behind them.
Zuko turned to see the group massing on the deck. There was the Water Tribe man bearing Aang's staff – who Toph gestured to imperiously, as if bestowing it back to the Avatar was her whim – as well as Hakoda's second in command, Bato. The stupid lemur was perched on the man's shoulder. Chief Hakoda himself stood at the fore of the group, taking up the space at Sokka's left. Katara walked up slowly and hesitantly from the side, edging past the others to take Zuko's hand.
"You weren't going to go without saying goodbye, were you?" she asked.
"I – uh. No! Of course, not!" Zuko flushed, aware at the same time of the Water Tribe men nudging each other with broad, amused grins. He shot a glare over at them – only to be distracted by Momo flapping his way past Zuko's nose directly over to Aang. He turned in place, leveling a glare at the kid. "Absolutely not! You are not taking that thing with us!"
"Aww, why not, Sifu Hotman?" Aang asked, sticking out his lower lip.
"Because. And don't call me that."
Aang appeared to mull that over, and then shrugged. The motion knocked his hood down once more. Zuko rolled his eyes, ignoring it. The disguise was probably a lost cause, anyway.
"Sorry, Momo. Take care of Appa for me, will ya?" he said, prying the lemur off of him and scratching softly behind its ears before handing it back off to Bato.
Sokka stepped forward, hugging Aang briefly and then rubbing his knuckles into the fuzz of black hair Aang was growing out.
"You guys be careful, alright?" Sokka said.
Aang smiled up at him, nodding.
Katara let go of Zuko's hand, rushing to bowl Aang over with a hug.
"Take care of him, okay?" she said, and just when Zuko was about to bristle at the sentiment, she turned a dazzling, bright smile on him. "That goes for you too."
He shifted awkwardly, wishing her hand was back in his.
Toph said her goodbyes with body blows that left both boys wincing, and then it was Hakoda's turn. He bowed to them, eyes serious despite the smile on his face.
"Avatar Aang, Prince Zuko, I hope that your journey finds you well and gives you the wisdom and strength we need. This is a hard war we fight – I regret that it is put on you boys, first among all of us. But I trust in your abilities and your honor. May the winds guide you back to us soon."
Zuko clenched his jaw, nodding stiffly. He couldn't deny the swell of emotion in his chest at the trust and respect in Hakoda's voice, but there was a strange, injured part of him that nonetheless wanted to snap back at him. Winds did nothing to guide Fire Nation ships.
Aang hopped down to the steamer, and the group was breaking up when Katara seized Zuko's hand again.
"Be careful," she whispered, leaning up close to him.
Zuko replied with a fervent kiss. His hands reached up to grasp at her, pulling her even closer. She gasped – and for a moment it sounded like pain. Distantly, he recognized that his hand was pressed against her side, fitting exactly into the impression of her scar. Knot twisting suddenly in his stomach, he slid his hand up, away from the scar. He could feel Katara relax under his fingers as he traced her shoulder blade.
When she finally stepped back, she looked away shyly, a blush darkening her cheeks.
"Come back soon," she said.
"I will," Zuko promised.
He levered himself over the rail, taking hold of the rope ladder and then jumping the rest of the way down to the steamer. He landed with a ringing thud and dusted himself off as he stood. Katara stood at the railing, wrapping her arms around her middle as she watched him. He nodded to her, eyes following the long banner of her hair that seemed so dark against the searing blue of the sky, and then he forced himself to look away.
Ignoring Aang, Zuko stalked into the pilot's cabin – his mind still on that kiss, that flinch – and a strange weight settled about his shoulders as he guided them out into the open ocean.