Zuko dreamed the fall over and over again. Reaching out for Zhao's hand and watching the man pull away, stung pride on his face.
He dreamed voices, talking about him without noticing he was there, like his father discussing his shortcomings with his tutors over his head.
"You see where the lines of chi are knotted, here, and here?"
"I... I think I feel them! Yes... it's like little... twists!"
"Now, slowly, Katara, unwind it. This isn't combat bending. You have all the time you need, so do it right."
Katara. He'd heard that name before. Zuko tried to open his eyes, but by the time he had the thought, everything in the world was soft and fuzzy and the voices were far away.
It was still cold when he awoke. He was lying on some kind of fur, smothered in blankets, and yet it felt like there was icewater in his blood.
"So there has been no change, then?"
Uncle! Zuko tried to call out, but his throat wasn't working. He tried to swallow, and could barely move his tongue.
"Not yet." A young woman's voice. That Water Tribe peasant girl. "We've found most of the problems, but it's like all of his acupressure points are locked shut. Yugoda's helping me open them again, but..." she trailed off, and when she talked again she sounded rueful. "It's harder than it looks."
"I am most grateful for your assistance," Uncle Iroh said. "And I'm sure my nephew would say the same if he could."
What? He wasn't grateful for anything from the North Pole, not least attention from some... some Water Tribe girl!
He must have made some noise, because suddenly he felt someone's hands on his forehead. "Zuko?" the girl asked. "Are you awake?"
This time he tried to make a noise, and sort of succeeded. "Nhhh."
"Oh, good," the girl said, sounding relieved. "Finally. Okay. Um--General, can you see if you can't help him sit up? He hasn't had any food, I should get Yugoda and we can--"
"I'll see to my nephew," Uncle Iroh said, and it was such a relief to hear his solicitous voice that Zuko wasn't even annoyed with him. "You go find Miss Yugoda and some of that good soup. And tea!"
Feeling was coming back to his limbs. He could almost move his hands on his own. He got his eyes open after a try, and when he blinked them clear he could see the fuzzy face of his uncle hovering over him.
"Where..." he asked.
"Stay calm, Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said. "We are at the North Pole. I have given the chief of the Northern Water Tribe our parole."
Zuko felt a flush of furious energy rush through him. "You WHAT?" he yelled, and lunged at his uncle's throat. He got as far as twisting his shoulder out from under the blankets before he ran out of energy and collapsed, staring at the ceiling.
The ceiling was made of snow. He hadn't noticed that before.
"Calm yourself," Uncle said, as nonchalantly as he would discuss a Pai Sho game. "We are in good hands."
"Why..." Zuko asked.
"You were in dire need of a healer when you were pulled out of the ocean, Prince Zuko. Under the circumstances, asking for help from the Waterbenders of the Northern Water Tribe was the most expedient solution."
Zuko groaned and closed his eyes again. "You've put us in the hands of our enemies. And that girl... she was traveling with the Avatar. Protecting him."
"Ah, yes. Young Katara. She has been most conscientious in tending to your illness."
Zuko cracked one eye open to make sure his uncle was smirking. He was.
"Now. Do you think you can sit? You have not eaten in several days, and your body needs food to continue healing."
Of course he could sit up. He could do anything he needed to in order to accomplish his mission and capture the Avatar and go home. Zuko groaned and fought his way out from under the blankets and eventually accepted his uncle's help to prop himself up on a pile of cushions. The tunic he was wearing wasn't his, and it was blue.
There was a roaring fire in the middle of the room, just a few steps from his bed. He hadn't been able to sense it with his Firebending at all. Zuko stared at the flames in shock until the Water Tribe girl came back, carrying a tray and leading an old woman. "Here," the girl said, resting the tray over his legs on its little carved feet. "Be careful with the soup, if it's too hot just let me know."
He had just enough strength to pick up the bowl. The soup was warm... ish, and very salty, but after the first sip he was suddenly aware of a terrible hunger and thirst and he swallowed all of it as fast as he could. "Um," he said. "What was that?"
"Kelp and sea-flower soup," the old woman answered. "It's gentle on your stomach."
"Please forgive my nephew's lack of manners," Uncle Iroh said in that pitch that meant Zuko should be paying attention, even when he was saying something stupid. "He has been asleep for some time, and he is never at his best when he is ill."
Zuko put the bowl back on the tray and glared at it. "Thanks for the soup," he said grudgingly. "What did you do to my Firebending?"
"We didn't do anything--" the girl started, but the old woman held up her hand.
"My name is Yugoda, and I am the chief healer of the Northern Water Tribe," the old woman said. "You fell into the ocean and were underwater for quite some time. You're lucky that Katara found you."
"Your chi flow got all... knotted up," Katara said. "We think it was the cold."
Zuko scowled at her. "Or because you poked something wrong."
"What!" the girl yelped.
"As I said," Uncle Iroh said pointedly. "I think we could all use some tea."
"Excellent suggestion, General Iroh," Yugoda said. "Katara, can you fetch some?"
As soon as Katara was out of the room, Yugoda turned towards him and narrowed her eyes, and Zuko suddenly realized he had been rude to the wrong old lady.
"Now, young man," the healer said firmly. She made a negligent gesture and a clump of snow rose from the ground to her hand, softened into a glowing film of water. "I'll need you to tilt your head back while I look at the acupressure points in your throat."
Zuko stared at her until she put her other hand on his forehead and forcibly tilted his face upward, and then there was FREEZING COLD WATER on his throat and sinking into his skin. He felt a slippery, taut, humming sensation like she had run her fingers down a cord in his neck, and then all his muscles went limp and his head sagged back against the cushions.
"There, now, that's better," Yugoda said, and the water warmed up on his skin. "Now, with your help this should be easier. I need you to breathe in and hold it. Deep breath, now."
The only thing he was capable of doing was breathing, so he followed her instructions. There was a gentle tickle on the left side of his throat. "Good, now exhale slowly," Yugoda instructed.
Zuko concentrated on breathing out evenly. The tickling intensified, until it felt like tiny hot pinpricks, and then suddenly with a whooshing feeling it was gone.
"Excellent," Yugoda said, pulling her hands away. Zuko tilted his neck back and forth, gently, but everything seemed to be working. "Well, if the rest go that easily, we should be able to have you fully recovered in a few more days. A week at most."
"A week?" Zuko yelped. "We need to go now! I have to--"
"Nephew, you must not excite yourself," Iroh said. Zuko would have argued but he was already feeling a little dizzy after shouting. "You were unconscious for several days."
"But the Avatar--" he protested.
Uncle chuckled at him. "Avatar Aang is currently outside, finishing his training with Master Pakku. And you are in no condition to go chasing him around, even if that would not violate our parole."
That was when the girl stepped back into the room, this time carrying a teapot and several cups. "Don't tell me he wants to fight again," she said, then gave Zuko a look.
A challenging look. An 'I bet I could take you' look.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "If I remember correctly, I won our last encounter."
"And if I remember correctly, you're currently bedridden and counting on us to fix your Firebending," the girl said. "So maybe you should just be quiet and drink your tea."
"Tea, excellent," Uncle said, cutting off Zuko's response. Iroh took the teapot from her and concentrated on it until steam was rising from the mouth. "Ah, perfect. Miss Katara? The cups?"
The tea they eventually handed Zuko didn't taste like tea. It tasted salty, like everything else in this place. "What's in this?"
"Ah, yes, it's so marvelous what different people do with this beverage," Uncle Iroh said. "Here, they add salted buffalo yak butter. It takes a little getting used to but it's very good!"
Zuko stared at his cup in concern and disgust. Yak... butter?
"Just like gran-gran used to make," Katara said happily.
Zuko dredged up the last of his energy in an attempt to keep his uncle from using the voice on him again. "Thanks. But I think I should go back to sleep."
"Good idea, Prince Zuko," Iroh said. He took Zuko's cup, then helped him sit up until they could rearrange the cushions at his back and let him lie down.
Just in time, too. His eyes were closing of their own accord.
"We'll be back to check on you later," the old woman said. Zuko was going to say something back to her but the darkness closed over his head, swallowing him up.
Uncle wasn't there the next time he woke up. Neither was the old woman. It was just that girl--Katara.
This time it was easier to sit up without help. It wasn't until he got all the way up and was thinking about moving that the girl took any notice of him. "Hey, you're awake again," she said. "How are you feeling? Do you want something to eat?"
"Actually, uh..." he looked around, hoping to find what he was looking for, but there were no pots or bowls of any kind in the room, just the fire, the bed, and the chair. "I need to use the... uh..."
Katara picked up on what he meant. "Oh! There's a hole in the ice behind the wall there," she said, pointing. "Do you think you can walk?"
Zuko had thought very little of calling the Water Tribes savages, but this was appalling. "A hole?"
"Well... everything's frozen," Katara said. "It's not like it's hard to Waterbend a hole down to the canal level. Here, let me help you up."
She put down the fabric she was holding--she was sewing something, he finally noticed--and came over to offer him a hand. Zuko narrowed his eyes, then pushed himself to his feet roughly. "I'm fine," he said, then took a step and nearly fell over.
Katara grabbed his shoulders and held him upright. "Easy."
He shrugged her off and took another step. "I'm fine." He was going to do this. He took another step forward, then stumbled toward the wall she'd pointed at, grabbed it, and hung on while his legs trembled and his breathing came in painful gasps and his hands slowly turned to ice.
"Well, okay then," Katara finally said. "I guess you are fine. I'm gonna give you some privacy. Just yell if you need me, I'll be right outside."
"Thank you," he said acidly between breaths.
He managed the rest in stages, managing to not freeze himself to the walls or the floor only by determination and perseverance. He adjusted the borrowed clothes back into place and walked far too slowly back toward the promising warmth of his bed. It was only a few steps but it felt like miles. He collapsed on top of the furs and closed his eyes.
"You okay in there?" Katara called from outside.
"Fine," he yelled back. "You can come in."
She was carrying a bowl when she came back. "I had Hadi fetch you some soup," she said. "You should eat, it'll help get your strength back. And then I'll work on some of those chi knots."
"What happened to the old hag?"
Katara's mouth went thin and for a moment he thought she was going to throw the soup at him. "Respected elder and Chief Healer Yugoda is busy," she said, "So you're gonna have to deal with me."
Zuko looked away. Katara grumbled under her breath, then said, "Do you want the soup or not?"
He looked up at her. She was still glaring at him. "I'm hungry," he said instead. "Are you gonna let your patient starve?"
For a moment, Katara's face screwed up and he thought she really would throw the bowl at his head. Then she smiled. "Sorry your soup got cold!" she told him, and handed him the bowl.
Seaweed soup had been barely tolerable hot, and she'd Waterbended it cold enough that it nearly gelled. Zuko tried to heat it back up, but his Firebending still wasn't working, and he was tired, and hungry.
It tasted nasty and thick and salty and he still drank all of it as fast as he could. It was fuel, he told himself. Just like for the engines of his ship.
The ship Zhao had taken from him, much good it had done the jerk.
"So what happened?" he asked when the bowl was empty. "After Zhao got taken away by that... spirit?"
Katara still looked annoyed at him, but answered, "Well, the ocean spirit basically pushed the whole Fire Nation fleet away. We haven't seen them since. Aang was pretty wiped out after the whole thing..." at Zuko's perplexed look, she rolled her eyes. "Aang. That's his name. The Avatar?"
"Oh." He'd heard that, but he hadn't really paid attention. "So..."
"So while we were cleaning up, I found you in the water." Katara shrugged. "Your uncle had been looking for you. Yugoda and I worked to try and get you better, and your uncle gave Chief Arnook his word of honor that neither of you would try to escape or harm anyone while you were recovering."
"What about after I recover?"
Katara raised an eyebrow. "I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, your uncle thinks you should soak in hot water, and Yugoda agrees with him. Think you can make it as far as the steam room?"
Zuko thought longingly of wrapping himself up in fur and going back to sleep. Then he forced himself to his feet. "Yes."
Outside the sunlight was pouring down over the ice, leaving Zuko blinking and snow-blind for a second. They were in one corner of a broad plaza, mound-shaped ice buildings lining the square. In the center of the open space, a group of people in blue-dyed furs were cutting up a pile of fish and laughing.
"This way," Katara said. Zuko tugged his borrowed fur cloak tighter around himself and followed her.
The steam room was next door, and as soon as Zuko got inside he sighed in relief. It was much, much warmer, to the point where its floor and ceiling were made of wood to keep them from melting. There was a row of bathtubs across the floor, and his uncle was standing next to the second-to-last one, concentrating on heating it.
Yugoda was standing next to a patient in the last tub, looking halfway between amused and concerned. Zuko decided to just be glad she wasn't paying attention to him.
"Ah, good, nephew," Uncle Iroh said, gesturing him over. "Come. A soak will do you good."
Zuko padded over to the tub and pulled off his suddenly stifling fur cloak, then paused. Yugoda was pretty focused on the other guy, but Katara...
"Seen it," she said after a moment. "I pulled you out of the ocean, remember?"
Zuko glared at her. She rolled her eyes, but turned around.
The water in the tub was blissfully, achingly hot. Zuko curled up into a ball so he could duck his shoulders under the surface and closed his eyes.
"So..." Katara said, just when he was starting to relax. "I was going to try unlocking that next knot..."
He groaned. "Can't it wait?"
"You're immersed in water. I'd say now is a pretty good time."
"Why do you even care?"
"Hey, man," said the guy in the next tub over. "You should respect the healers. They're doing great work."
Zuko lifted his head up and glared at the boy. "Who are you?"
"Zuko, meet Hahn," Katara said. She sounded amused. "Hahn, this is Prince Zuko. From the Fire Nation."
"Oh, hey, that's funny," Hahn said, "because I was on a Fire Navy ship right before I fell in the ocean. I was floating for a week on an ice raft eating raw fish before they found me."
"This brave young man," Uncle Iroh said, "snuck aboard the Admiral's ship, made it past his bodyguards, and attacked him."
Uncle didn't seem too concerned and only mildly impressed. "So what happened then?" Zuko asked.
"Oh, he missed and fell overboard," Iroh said, "But it was a valiant effort."
"Hey, I'd like to have seen you do better," Hahn said, stung.
Iroh chuckled. "Ask me later about the time I took out the garrison at An Sing. And next time you sneak aboard a Fire Navy ship, pick a more current uniform. My father could have worn that into battle."
Hahn held up his hands. "You know, I have a new lease on life, I'm not going to spend time getting angry at stuff any more. I'm just gonna be happy to be here again."
"Now that's settled," Katara said, "can I get on with healing you?"
"Okay," he said dubiously.
Katara knelt next to the tub and put her hand on the back of his neck. "All right. Just breathe deeply, now."
It felt good to sit and breathe steam. Katara's hands moved to his shoulderblades, and there was that feeling again, of insubstantial fingers playing his chi lines like qin strings. She moved her hands up and down his back until one of her fingers slid across something that stuck and burned. "Ahh..." he hissed.
"Just breathe," Katara said, and took a deep breath herself. "Breathe..."
The burning faded as he exhaled. It took a few more breaths before the pain was entirely gone and Katara pulled her hands away. "Okay. I think that's enough for now," she said.
"Yeah, ow," Zuko said. "Is it supposed to hurt that much?"
Katara made an annoyed noise and threw her hands in the air. "You know what? Fine. You don't like it, I won't bother to heal you. I'm going to go work on my Pentapus Form with Aang, and you can just sit and turn into stew."
"Fine!" Katara turned and stomped out. Her exit was robbed of some drama when she was unable to slam any kind of door on her way out, but only a little.
Uncle cleared his throat disapprovingly.
"What?" Zuko said, looking up. "It hurt!"
"That's the price of being a warrior," Hahn said. "You have to take your lumps."
Uncle leaned down and said, "Also, keep in mind that we are guests here."
"They didn't have to fish me out of the water," Zuko said sullenly.
"No, they did not," Iroh said. He dipped his fingers in the tub and heated it back up to a comfortable temperature. "And perhaps you should think harder about the alternatives."
He had thought about it. And just because he liked not being dead didn't mean that he liked having to be grateful for it.
He thought about getting frozen underwater like the Avatar, sealed up and sleeping the years away. If he went missing for a hundred years, would anyone be nearly as upset to find him gone?
"This is really nice," he finally said, "Thanks."
"I have other duties this evening," Yugoda said. "Perhaps if you apologize to Katara she'll make time for another healing session with you tonight."
"Yeah, maybe," Zuko said. And maybe if he tried eating a rock it'd turn into tofu. "Later."
Dinner was more seaweed soup, but there were chunks of fish in it this time. Zuko felt better after he ate.
After dinner he tried meditating, but it got too cold to concentrate much. He couldn't even feel the fire in the pit, much less direct it with his own chi. Sighing, he bundled himself up in furs and closed his eyes.
The third day was a lot better. For one thing, he finally figured out what Katara had been sewing the day before. She'd mended the rips and the holes in his own clothes, the ones he'd been wearing when he'd tried to capture the Avatar.
And she'd done a really good job, too. If the thread she'd used had been white instead of blue, he'd never have been able to pick out what was mended.
He felt better in his own clothes, even if they weren't red. Of course he had to put the fur on over, because silk wasn't that warm if you were just standing around and not on a mission to track down the Avatar. And his hair was growing in and he didn't have a razor to shave it back properly so he was really starting to look like a Water Savage. But it was fine. He was just fine.
It was a lot colder outside than inside. Zuko blinked in the startling brightness and looked around, suddenly realizing he didn't really know where anything was.
The courtyard wasn't filled with women cleaning fish this morning, but three people playing some kind of game. After his eyes cleared he recognized the swiftly moving figures as Katara, her angry, club-weilding brother, and the Avatar.
They were throwing snowballs at each other. Zuko stared in bafflement until one went whizzing by his head, and he reflexively tried to Firebend at it even as he flinched. Nothing happened except the Avatar yelling "Sorry!"
"There you are," Katara said, dusting snow off her gloves. Her brother reluctantly put down the snowball he'd been aiming at her, then changed his mind and threw it at the Avatar instead. "Are you feeling better today?"
Zuko scratched at the back of his neck. "Yeah... a bit..."
Katara crossed her arms and just looked at him.
He knew what he was expected to say; his uncle had attempted to drill proper behavior into him enough times that he could say all kinds of things when he remembered. "Thanks for fixing my clothes," he started with; it was easier with something he really was grateful for.
"You're welcome," Katara said politely.
Zuko shoved his hands under his arms. Why was it so cold? "And... thanks for saving my life. From drowning. And stuff."
Katara's expression went all soft and kind for a moment. "We don't leave anyone to die of exposure. Not even our worst enemies."
Zuko stared at her. "Really?"
"No one deserves that death," Katara said seriously. "The only way someone from either Water Tribe would ever leave someone on the ice is if they'd done something terrible. Worse than trying to steal the Avatar or try to level the city."
"So you would have saved Zhao? Even after he killed the moon spirit?" Zuko shook his head. "You people are crazy."
"Yes, that's what I'm saying," Katara said. She sounded exasperated. "I'm not saying we don't have punishments for bad behavior, but nobody deserves that. Not Zhao, and not you."
"Okay," he said. It was their stupid custom, he wasn't going to argue. "So..."
Katara put her hands behind her back and waited.
"Do you really think you can fix my Firebending?" he asked, just to be sure.
"Well, sure," Katara said, "Eventually. Yugoda says that Waterbenders sometimes get their chi flows interrupted too, and she's fixed them."
Zuko sighed. No hope for it, then. He took a deep breath and concentrated on not getting anything wrong. "I'm sorry I was rude yesterday. I'd appreciate it if you'd work on healing me again later. At your earliest convenience." He looked up to check if she was impressed.
"Well," Katara's stupid brother said from much too close by, "Now I've heard everything."
"Stop helping, Sokka," Katara said. "And of course, Zuko. Have you had breakfast yet?"
He couldn't snap at her to use his title right after she'd just agreed to help him. Uncle would be mad and she'd probably go right back to refusing to heal him. "Not yet."
"Well, I think there's some poached fish and sea-lion-turtle eggs left," Katara said, "And there's always kelp and sea-flower soup. Come on, I'll show you where the kitchen is."
The Northern Water Tribe city was about as big as the Inner City in Caldera. There were a lot of different kitchens, and the closest one just served the healing huts. There weren't a lot of people there when Katara showed him in, Sokka and the Avatar trailing behind them. Just a bunch of empty tables made out of ice and three old women behind a huge cookpot.
"There's no fish in the soup today, Avatar," one of the women said when she spotted them.
"Thanks, Sugoya," the Avatar said, grinning.
There was still a little poached fish left, and some eggs. The women filled up Zuko's plate, and Sugoya smiled at him as she handed it over. "It's so good to see you on your feet."
"Thanks," Zuko muttered, and tried to look for an empty table.
The Avatar's friends weren't going to let him get too far away. They all clustered around the end of the table near him, eating soup and talking about Waterbending. Well, Katara and the Avatar were talking about Waterbending. Katara's brother was interjecting with stupid questions. The fish was too bland and too salty and the soup was too salty and the eggs were... actually okay, but he missed fire flakes and the servants' cooking and his kotatsu back home, and he even missed his ship with its steam-heated showers and the cook's food that was overpowered with spices but hearty and warm. The Northern Water Tribe didn't even have rice.
Then again, he thought as he poked at the kelp leaves floating in his bowl, maybe this was all he deserved. He was supposed to capture the Avatar and restore his honor, and here he was having breakfast with him. Near him. From the same kitchen, anyway.
"Oh hey, guys, can I join you?"
Zuko looked up. Hahn was standing at the end of the table, and Sokka and Katara were looking very uncomfortable.
"Sure," he piped up, to everyone else's surprise.
"Oh, hey, looking good there, man," Hahn said, sliding in to a seat across from him. "Are the healers done with you yet? I'm going home later today."
"... No," Zuko said, leaving that a little vague. "How come you're all better now? You said you were out on the ice a lot longer than I was."
"Dunno," Hahn said affably. "Maybe just 'cause I was born here, I'm used to it. I mean, your uncle said that where you come from, it's warm enough you don't even get snow." Hahn looked at him suspiciously. "No snow? I mean, seriously?"
"We have snow in the Fire Nation," Zuko said uncomfortably. "It's just up on the mountains where it belongs."
"Well, it's good to see you better, Hahn," Sokka said, with a tone in his voice that clearly meant it wasn't good at all. "I mean, after your secret mission was such a bust and all."
"Good to see you too, Soh-ka," Hahn said with the same tone of voice. "I mean, after you messed up and didn't save my fiancee."
Sokka looked like he was going to explode, and Hahn was suddenly Zuko's favorite person in the whole world. Sokka got to his feet as though he'd launch himself over the table. "You have no idea what--"
"Woah, woah, woah," Katara said, holding out her arms to separate them. "Sokka didn't have anything to do with Yue and the Moon Spirit, and you know that, Hahn. And Sokka, don't pick a fight, it's not worth it."
"It's okay, bro," Hahn said reasonably. "I forgive you. One warrior to another."
Sokka closed his eyes for a moment, then said, "I'm going to go practice hitting stuff with my club. A lot."
"So, Zeeko," Hahn said when Sokka had stalked safely off. "You know what's up with the Fire Nation and this War, right?"
Zuko blinked at him. "Um. My name's Zuko..."
"Yeah, so, the War?"
Zuko looked over at Katara. "I'm under parole, but I don't have to tell you guys anything about our military, right?"
Hahn made a frustrated noise. "I don't mean that, I mean--do you think the Fire Nation will give up after their navy got smashed?"
Zuko shook his head. "They won't give up. They never give up."
"That's what I thought." Hahn said. He sounded almost smug. "We should capitalize on what happened here and strike back."
"Um... I guess you should," Zuko said. He looked at Katara and the Avatar, who were looking back at him blankly. "So do you think you can try to fix my Firebending again?"
"Sounds good," Katara agreed, standing. "Um... good to see you, Hahn."
"You too, Kotara, Ong," Hahn said affably. Katara traded a look with the Avatar and shook her head.
The next chi knot that Katara unlocked didn't hurt nearly as much, and afterwards Zuko thought he might be getting some of his Firebending back. He reached out and suddenly he could feel the fire, like it was real. Like he wasn't broken.
He gasped and sat up. Katara stepped back. "What's wrong? You okay?"
"Yes," he said. "No, it's... good."
She pulled her hand back. "Is your Firebending working again?"
Zuko hesitated. He didn't want to lie, but--she was an enemy. She was only healing him because she was getting trained in healing. She didn't really want to know--and telling her could be risky.
"Yes," he said. "I think so."
"That's great!" she said, grinning wildly. "Yugoda said that if you can start practicing bending, the other chi knots might work themselves out on their own."
"Really?" He looked over at the fire, then back at Katara. "Hunh. Thanks."
He wrapped himself up in furs and sat in front of the fire, trying to meditate. He held up branches and concentrated on keeping the flame from burning them through. He worked on his breathing and concentrated and calmed his thoughts until he was going mad from boredom and ran outside to do katas.
Zuko started the basic set without even trying to create any fire. He just focused on his breathing, like uncle had taught him, and moved through the sequences. Sharp, focused movements. After the first run through he was warm enough to get rid of the fur cloak, and that made everything easier.
He knew he shouldn't be disappointed if he tried to Firebend and he didn't make any fire, but the first time he tried to make a fire punch and only got a lick of flame over his fingertips he felt like a failure.
He wanted to scream at someone, but everyone was gone. So instead he took a deep breath and moved through the sequence again, faster this time. And again, faster.
By the time the sun was touching the horizon he was panting and covered in sweat, and he hadn't been able to Firebend much more than a candle's worth of fire. He felt like an utter, irredeemable failure.
"Wow, you really practice Firebending a lot, don't you?"
Zuko looked up. The Avatar was perched on the roof of his ice building, sitting cross-legged with his staff across his knees. He looked like he'd been there for a while.
"I have to," he said. "At first I thought I was going to be fighting The Avatar, a hundred years old and master of all four elements." He bowed sardonically. "And instead I'm fighting a twelve-year-old boy and you're still beating me somehow. Obviously I need to practice more."
The Avatar tilted his head. "Well... I wouldn't say it's all me beating you. My friends helped a lot."
"Fine," Zuko said. He threw up his hands. "That helps my problem and my honor out a lot, knowing that."
"Well, it might make you feel better?" the Avatar said.
Zuko scowled. "Why do you care about making me feel better?"
"I dunno," the Avatar said. "You seem like you could use a friend."
Zuko would have thrown a fireball at him. Instead he scowled, turned, and walked as fast as he could in the other direction.
That was stupid, it turned out. It was cold out and with the sun going down it was getting colder, and he'd left his fur cloak behind. And he didn't want to go back and fetch it, and anyway he felt he might, possibly, without wanting to go too far, might be completely lost.
So it was almost good that he turned a corner and ran into Hahn. Who looked more or less pleased to see him. "Hey, Zeeko," Hahn said. "How are you doin'?"
"Fine," Zuko said, deciding correcting him wasn't worth it. "Kind of cold."
Hahn looked him up and down. "I'll say. What's that stuff your clothes are made of? It doesn't look warm."
"It's silk," Zuko said. "And it's not... really meant for this climate."
"Come on, didn't they give you a cloak? Where'd you leave it?" Hahn started leading him back, Zuko assumed, toward the healing huts. "Here, want some vodka?"
The water skin that Hahn handed over wasn't very big. Zuko sniffed at it, then took a sip. Whatever it was started out tasting like water and then turned into fire somewhere in his throat. Hahn laughed as he coughed and tried to get his breath back. "Yeah, okay, first sip is always the worst," Hahn said. "Here, go ahead."
Zuko took another drink. This one went down easier. "What is this?"
"What? Oh, man, that's right, you don't have Waterbending vodka in the Fire Nation." Hahn took the waterskin back and took a drink himself. "This stuff is a warrior's drink. Keeps you warm."
"Sounds good," Zuko said. He was, in fact, already feeling warmer.
When they got back to the healing huts, Zuko's fur cloak was there, neatly folded. He bundled himself up and followed Hahn down another series of alleyways, until they emerged on a ridge overlooking part of the city. Hahn sat down with his legs dangling over the edge and waved Zuko to sit down next to him.
Zuko sat, and Hahn handed him the vodka again.
"So, Zeeko," Hahn said. "You're a prince or something?"
Zuko sighed. "It's Zuko," he tried correcting Hahn again. "And yes, my father's the Fire Lord."
"Woah," Hahn said. "Does that mean you're going to be Fire Lord when he dies?"
Zuko winced. Not only because he couldn't imagine his father dying--his father was an immovable object, the pillar of the Fire Nation--but because he didn't want to think about what would happen if he didn't capture the Avatar and restore his honor and his place at his father's side. "I... yeah," he compromised, "if I ever leave this iceberg and go home."
"Heh, fine," Hahn said. "My dad's on the council, so I have a shot at being chief someday, if I play my cards right. I was hoping to marry the chief's daughter and get an in that way, but that got screwed up." Hahn sighed and took another drink of vodka. "That Admiral Cho did something and killed the moon spirit, so Yue had to turn into the moon."
Zuko stared at him for a few seconds. "That's ridiculous."
"Yeah, tell me about it." Hahn shook his head. "We were really hoping to change Chief Arnook's mind about the War."
Hahn took another drink and handed him the waterskin. "My dad and Hagoya. There are five members of the council, right? Including the chief. So the other two on the council want to stay up here and keep out of stuff, but my dad thinks we should go get involved, try and knock out the Fire Nation navy and beef up the Earth Kingdom's defenses."
Zuko felt his hackles rising, but decided to take another drink first. When he put the flask down his head was starting to feel funny. "So why don't you?"
"Why don't we what?"
"Why don't you just go try and end the War? If you think you can."
"Naw, like I told you," Hahn said. "Five members of the council, right? We've got two, they've got two, and Arnook's siding with the others. We were really psyched when he said Yue could marry me. Like maybe he was going to start listening."
"Maybe," Zuko said, "or maybe he was just giving you something you liked to keep you from complaining while he ignored you."
Hahn eyed him speculatively. "You're pretty good at this."
Zuko sighed. "If I were good at it, I wouldn't be here." He could feel something stinging at the corners of his eyes, scrubbed at them with his hand. "If I were good at it, my father would have listened to me when I said we shouldn't throw untrained soldiers at veteran Earthbenders, instead of saying I'd disrespected him and dishonored myself in front of the assembly."
"Ouch." Hahn held out his hand. "Stop hogging the vodka."
Zuko handed the waterskin back. "I just... the War is stupid, but there's nothing I can do about it. If we win, at least it'll be over."
Hahn took a long drink, tilted back his head, and said, "Wait, if you think the War is stupid, why don't you try to stop it?"
"I can't," Zuko said. "It doesn't work like that. The Fire Lord makes all the decisions, and my father doesn't want the war to stop."
"But there's gotta be, like, an opposing faction, right?" Hahn looked at him expectantly.
Zuko stared at him, trying to figure out if he was stupid or just that clueless. "That's not how it works."
"Well..." Hahn shook his head. "I mean, you could get together people from outside the Fire Nation, then, right? You could, like..."
"You're talking about me betraying my people," Zuko said, grinding his teeth together.
Hahn handed him the waterskin and he took another drink. "Yeah, but look," Hahn said. "You don't build alliances by just looking in one place, yeah? You have to work with your opposite number. So, like, if you married that girl Kotara--"
Zuko spit out a mouthful of vodka. "What?"
"The girl from the Southern Water Tribe? I was being hasty earlier, but like, her dad is the chief of their tribe. And they don't have much political power now, but like, if the war goes our way? Total bank."
Zuko opened his mouth to protest, then frowned. "'Bank'?"
Hahn nodded at him. "Yeah, like a snowbank, like a good defensible position?"
Zuko stared at him for a few seconds, then said, "Me marrying Katara is a stupid idea."
Hahn shrugged. "Fine." He held out his hand, and Zuko put the waterskin back in it. "Maybe I should, then."
"Nnnnnnn," Zuko said, frustrated. "I think that either she or her brother would kill you."
Hahn laughed. "Yeah, you're right. She's tough. I could take Soh-ka, though."
Zuko leaned back until he was looking straight up at the stars. The sun was fully down, now, and the half-lit moon shone down from overhead, high and bright. "I don't want to marry Katara," he said. "I don't want to marry anyone unless I at least like them."
Zuko turned and looked at Hahn's baffled expression. "What do you mean 'why'? You have to like the person you're married to. You have to at least like seeing them... y'know, naked."
Hahn shrugged and took another drink, then handed Zuko back the waterskin. "I dunno, I've got friends for that."
"Not for... that." Zuko stared at the waterskin and felt slightly dizzy. He just cradled it in his hand until Hahn grabbed it back from him. "Right?"
"No, I have friends I hang out with and friends I have sex with."
Zuko stared at him blankly. Then his eyes started stinging. "I don't think Fire Lords are allowed to have friends," he said.
"What? No way, man."
"Well, I don't know about my father." Zuko shook his head because the stinging wasn't going away and now everything was sort of shaking and not sitting still. "My father can do anything. My father does anything he wants. And he didn't want me to have friends. He ruined all of them."
Hahn was looking at him all blurry-like. "Not even friends when you were a kid?"
"My sister got to have friends," Zuko said. "That's because she was perfect."
"Your family sucks, man," Hahn said.
Zuko sniffed. "My uncle loves me," he said. "He said so. I don't... think my father ever said that he loved me..."
There was a long silence as Zuko slowly figured out that what was happening was that tears were appearing in his eyes and he had to work very hard at rubbing them away, otherwise bad things would happen to him, and finally Hahn said, "Dude... how much of this stuff did you drink?"
Zuko swallowed the taste in the back of his throat and said, "I dunno, how much was I supposed to?"
"Okay," Hahn said, and he pushed himself to his feet. Zuko tried to follow him, and Hahn had to grab him to keep him from tipping over, which was strange, because his feet felt fine but the ground kept moving on him. "Okay! We're going to get you back to the healing huts and get some soup in you. You need soup."
"Your soup sucks," Zuko said. "It's all bland and salty."
"You still need to eat something, bro," Hahn said. He was tugging Zuko so hard that the ground was dipping and weaving like he was on water. Wait--they were on ice, right, so wasn't that like being on water anyway? This was so stupid. Why weren't his feet working right?
"I don't like it here," he said. "Everything's cold and nothing tastes good. You don't have spices and you don't have rice and I can't Firebend because I'm cold. And..." his breath hitched. "And my father abandoned me on a ship and told me to capture the Avatar, and I'm not good at it and I'm going to fail and I don't know what to do..."
"You're gonna be fine, dude," Hahn said reassuringly. He dragged Zuko along through the snow. "Come on."
He closed his eyes for a second or something, and then he was leaning on Hahn really heavily and his uncle was prying his eyes open. "Ha!" Uncle said, very close to his ear. "This will be a learning experience, nephew. What were you drinking?"
"Vodka," Hahn said from his right side. "I thought he could use some, but I think he's not used to it."
"Stop... spinning," Zuko ordered.
Uncle leaned back and sighed happily. "Water Tribe vodka! We drank our last cask of that when Lu Ten was born. What a kick!"
Hahn held out the waterskin. Uncle Iroh laughed and held up his hands. "No, thank you, Hahn. It's still a little early for me."
"I don't feel good," Zuko said. He didn't. And then he felt REALLY not good and he clapped his hand over his mouth. "Urk--"
When he'd finished being sick into the snow, he realized that his uncle and Hahn had worked together to tip him over a snowbank. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Wow!" Piped up an enthusiastic, high-pitched voice from right behind him. "I haven't seen someone get that sick since Anhara mixed sylisbin mushrooms into Monk Gyatso's fruit pie batter! Heh. Nothing's less fun than puking on a glider."
The Avatar was there. Perfect.
"Here, let me clean that up for you," the Avatar said, still talking for some reason. Zuko straightened up in time to watch him Waterbend... something with the snow. The motion made his stomach want to do more heaves but the end result was clean snow. "Do you want some water?"
"Thank you, Avatar Aang," Iroh said. "I think that tea would be a better restorative. Could you ask the cooks to brew some up while we walk in that direction?"
"Oh! Sure!" Aang said helpfully, then zoomed off in a blur of snow. Or maybe just a blur. It was dark and Zuko's eyes weren't being helpful.
"The tea's going to have salt in it," Zuko said, for lack of anything else to say.
"Yes it will, nephew, which is exactly what you need," Uncle said, pressing his hand to Zuko's back and gently guiding him toward the cooking hut.
"I don't like salt," Zuko said as he stumbled into the cooking hut. "I don't like all the salt and I don't like my father. And I want the ground to stay still."
"Sit down, nephew."
"And it's cold," Zuko complained.
Someone pushed a cup of tea into his hands. He frowned at it, then picked it up and drank it. It was warm and really really good. "Okay, maybe I like the tea," he said grudgingly. "I still don't like my father."
"Dude," Hahn said from his right side. "Nobody says you have to."
Zuko blinked at him, trying to make his face come into focus. "You're right," he said. "You're right about that, and you're right about the war, and you're right about pol...liticking. How are you right about so many things?"
"That's a really good question," Sokka said from the other side of the table. Zuko blinked and wondered how he'd gotten there. Sokka rolled his eyes and continued, "considering how much he's wrong about."
"You're the... first person besides my uncle who's told me I'm good at something," Zuko told Hahn. "Why is everyone being so nice to me?"
"Hey, you're the one who attacked our village," Sokka said, "chased us across the world, threw fireballs at us, and kidnapped our friend. We're the good guys, here."
Uncle had pried the tea cup out of his hands, and handed him another one. Zuko sniffed back a sticky feeling in his throat and drank more tea. "I'm not like Zhao," he said. "I never wanted a... promotion or to win the war or to... I just wanted my father to be proud of me."
"Uh," Sokka said, then, "Mmmm."
Zuko sniffed again. "Doesn't mean I like him..." he said. "I... I hate him. I just wish he'd say he was proud of me..."
Sokka cleared his throat awkwardly, then leaned across the table and whispered to Hahn, "How much of that stuff did he drink?"
"Nephew, I think it would go better for you if you went to sleep," Uncle said. "Come, let's go."
"I miss home," Zuko said as Iroh pulled him to his feet. "I miss my bed at home, it was warm. Why did father make me leave? Why didn't he... ever think I could do anything right?"
"Come on, Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said. "Things will look better in the morning."
Things hurt in the morning. Specifically, his head.
Zuko screwed his eyes shut and pulled the blanket over his head and tried to will himself back to sleep. If he went back to sleep, maybe his head would feel better?
A few minutes later, he wasn't asleep and his head still hurt and he needed to pee. He moaned into his pillow. This was not fair.
Finally, driven by extremity, he pulled himself out of bed, staggered back behind the icy partition, relieved himself, and as soon as possible dove back under the blankets. But even as quick as he'd been, apparently his motion had alerted someone. "Zuko?" Katara called from outside. "Was that you? Are you awake?"
"Go away!" he yelled back, then winced.
There was a crunching sound of boots on snow, then Katara was putting her cold fingers on his forehead. "What's wrong?"
Zuko whimpered, then said, "Head..."
"Here." Katara pressed her other hand to his temple, and the coolness sank into his brain and slowly the thrumming pain stopped. "Your uncle said this might happen."
"What does he know about my head?" Zuko mumbled.
"He said he's accidentally drunk too much Water Tribe vodka before," Katara said. "And that a hangover is one of those things you have to suffer through to learn what it's like." She smiled at him and he repressed the urge to punch her. "Want me to work on your chi again?"
Oh, right. After drinking weird Water Tribe drinks and wandering around in the snow last night, he'd probably done permanent damage to his Firebending. "Uh... yeah. Thanks."
Katara turned down the blanket, and Zuko stripped off his shirt while she pulled water from the snow and charged it with that weird healing light. Then he concentrated on breathing as she ran her hands down his back.
"Well," she said after a minute, "You're basically back in one piece."
He started. "Really?"
"Yeah." Katara pulled her hands away, and Zuko reached for his shirt. "Looks good. Just don't catch frostbite again, and you'll be fine." When he turned around, she was looking down at the floor. She looked up again and smiled at him. "Breakfast?"
Outside in the courtyard, an old Waterbender and Uncle Iroh were fighting.
Not fighting, Zuko corrected himself after a moment of panic. Katara didn't seem to be worried, nor did any of the other Water Tribe people gathered around watching, and Uncle had an expression of happy concentration on his face. They were sparring. Totally different.
The Waterbender was good, too. And he was surrounded by water, which he was using to great effect. Uncle was holding his own, though, breaking through the Waterbender's attacks with breathtaking displays of power. The Waterbender was managing to turn aside and redirect all of Uncle's attacks, but it was clear it was costing him.
He glanced over at Katara, who was watching, rapt. She noticed him looking and grinned sheepishly. "Your uncle's really good."
"Yeah, he is," Zuko said. Then to be polite and because it was true, he added, "So's... um..."
"Master Pakku?" Katara nodded, turning her attention back to the match. "Yeah. He may be a fuddy-duddy at times, but he's a great Waterbender."
"Heh," Zuko said. "I could say the same thing about my uncle." He thought about that for a second. "I mean, except, Firebender. Not Waterbender. I mean--"
"Gotcha," Katara said.
There was a rush of water, and an almost-simultaneous whoosh of fire and steam. When the steam cleared, Master Pakku had Uncle Iroh trapped in a cage of ice crystals--but Iroh had his thumb pressed against Pakku's throat.
"Oooooooh," the watching crowd murmured. Zuko couldn't contain himself and let out a cheer.
Pakku threw back his head and laughed. "Well! I don't think anyone's managed to do that well since the last time I challenged the wrong Earthbender in Omashu." He gestured and the crystals flowed back into water, depositing Uncle Iroh back on solid ground.
Iroh bowed politely. "It was an honor, Master Pakku. I don't often get the chance to exercise against Benders from other nations without it being a matter of national security."
Something in Zuko's stomach twisted. Of course Uncle wouldn't fight other Benders, unless it was during the war. And Zuko had never realized why he'd want to, before now. But Zuko had fought Earthbenders, and he'd fought Katara, and there was something in fighting people who Bent other elements that there wasn't in sparring with other Firebenders. It was harder; it was a challenge he wanted to face, to prove himself.
But of course, the only way to practice against people from other nations was to fight in the front lines, or to find a place where they didn't care about the War.
Or to end the War.
He looked over at Katara. She grinned at him. "Still thinking about that rematch?"
"Oh," he said. "Um, maybe after breakfast?"
"Your call," she said, and led the way toward the cooking hut.
"Hey," Hahn announced at breakfast, "There's a polar-bear-dog jump tonight. You in?"
Sokka pointed his spoon at Hahn while Zuko tried to untangle that sentence. "Oh, yeah," Sokka said, "I am so in."
Zuko looked back and forth between their expressions. "What's a... polar-bear-dog jump?"
"It's a warrior rite, bro," Hahn said. "You start at the steam baths, right? The big ones? And then you run across the courtyard to a hole in the ice in your underwear, jump in the water, then climb out and run back."
Zuko blinked a few times. "You jump... in the ocean water?"
Hahn nodded. Sokka grinned.
"And you do this on purpose?"
"It is a warrior rite," Sokka said emphatically, as though that explained everything.
"There'll be girls there," Hahn added.
Zuko blinked, then looked at Katara. She rolled her eyes. "I am not doing anything that stupid."
"No, no, you get to wait in the hot tub," Hahn said. "But you have to cheer us on. For morale!"
"Can I go?" Aang asked.
"Sure, bro," Hahn said enthusiastically. "Zeeko, you in?"
Zuko winced, but mispronounced name or not, if the Avatar was in he wasn't going to get left behind. "Yeah, let's do this."
Katara threw up her hands. "I don't believe this. Okay, fine, I'll watch and make sure you don't die of frostbite."
Oh, Spirits, I'm going to go jump in the ocean again, Zuko thought. Why am I such an idiot?
It wasn't so much that he hadn't been allowed outside the small cluster of buildings near the healing huts, but aside from the previous night's drinking with Hahn he'd never had reason to go exploring. He did a few basic Firebending katas after breakfast, but when Katara came and asked if he wanted to spar he asked her to show him around instead.
So he spent the day learning about the place he had sort of been trying to burn down. It was nice, for a block of ice. And the canals meant that Katara could zip them along with Waterbending, making the trip through the city seem like a breeze. Zuko wondered if it would ever be possible to use Firebending like that, to move as easily as Waterbenders and Earthbenders and Airbenders moved through their elements.
He expected people would be staring at him, but nobody even gave him a second look. When he caught a glimpse of himself in the water, he realized his hair had grown out enough that he wasn't really distinctive; in his borrowed fur robe, he could have been any fire-scarred Water Tribe warrior.
It made him feel vaguely uneasy.
After the tour he went back to the healing huts' courtyard and went back to doing katas. Katara didn't bring up sparring again. After he'd moved on from the basic sets onto some of the more advanced sequences, she came back with the Avatar and they started drilling Waterbending beside him.
It took a while before they ended a set at the same time. Aang was smiling at him again. "Um," Zuko said, feeling kind of awkward. "Sun's going down, we should get going?"
"Neither of you has to do this stupid thing, you know," Katara said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Come on, Katara, it'll be fun!" Aang said, bouncing on his toes.
Katara narrowed her eyes at him, then turned to Zuko. "And you just got done being frozen. Is this really a good idea?"
Zuko crossed his own arms defiantly. "I'm not afraid of a little water."
Katara gestured, and a ring of water rose up from the ground and encircled her hand. "Oh, yeah?"
"Come on," Aang said, forestalling what was either going to be an argument or a sparring match. "We don't want to be late!"
By the time they got back to the steam room, Sokka and Hahn had already retreated to opposite sides of the hot tub and were pointedly ignoring each other. Hahn spotted them first. "Hey, Zeeko!" he said, waving Zuko over.
Zuko traded a look with the Avatar, then shrugged. "Hey, Hahn," he said.
"C'mere and meet my friends," Hahn said. He started pointing as Zuko walked over. "This is Gora and Kurim, they were on the strike team with me. This is Sangook, he's a waterbender. And these are Amara, Leika, and Ugora." Hahn gestured grandly at the three guys and three women and grinned.
Gora was tall, Kurim was stocky, and Sangook was giving Katara a nervous look. "Hi," Sangook said. "You know Katara?"
"Sort of," Zuko said. He looked over at where she was talking to her brother. "We got in a fight."
"Oh, man, you too?" Sangook said, sounding even more dejected.
Amara, who was the smallest of the three girls, snorted. "Sangook, get over it," she said. "So she's a better Waterbender than you. Big deal."
"Come on," Leika said. She was a hair taller than Amara, but she had shoulders as broad as any of the warriors. She hopped back and forth on her feet and gestured out at the snow. "When's everyone else getting here? It's already dark!"
"How exciting is watching us get frozen?" Zuko asked.
Leika laughed. "Who said anything about watching? I'm gonna jump!"
Zuko raised his good eyebrow, then turned to Hahn. "I thought you said this was a warrior thing."
"You wanna try and stop her?" Hahn said. "I'll bet she's better than you with a club."
Other young men and women were drifting into the room in twos and threes. A few of the Waterbenders swirled the pool, heating up the water through friction.
When the room was mostly full, Hahn stepped to the doorway and raised his hands for quiet. "Okay, you guys know the score," he said. "The hole in the ice is in the middle of the courtyard. Don't jump on top of anyone else, help people out if they need it, and get back to the party as fast as you can!"
"Wooooo!" yelled Sokka. "Let's do this thing!"
And then everyone was shucking out of their clothes, down to their underwear, shivering and dancing in the cold night air, warmed by the press of bodies and the heat rising from the pool behind them. The women yelled encouragement as the men rushed headlong into the darkness.
Sokka got back first, and he clapped a freezing wet hand on Zuko's shoulder before climbing into the pool. "Go for it!"
He went. The snow crunched under his bare feet and almost glowed in the dim moonlight. The cold hit him all at once like a wall when he left the building, but he pushed through it, lungs burning with crisp air. He ran fast enough that he didn't have to think, that he didn't have time to feel.
Sangook was in front of him. The Waterbender jumped into the air and wrapped his arms around his knees, tucked into a ball. He splashed into the water like a huge rock, disappeared for a moment, then rocketed back into the sky on a pedestal of water. "Woooooo!" Sangook yelled, arms and legs flailing. He landed unsteadily, shook himself off, then ran back toward the hut, pausing long enough to give Zuko another whack on the shoulder.
What is it with these people and their shoulder-hitting-solidarity oh no that water is going to be freezing cold, Zuko thought as he ran up to the hole in the ice.
He jumped at the last second. The dark water rushed up to meet him.
At first he was too numb to feel cold. Then he was too scared.
He was falling. Dark. Cold. His limbs felt heavy, unresponsive. He stared up at the hole in the ice above him, dimly edged, and wondered how it had gotten so far away. Why had he done this? Why was he so stupid? Why was he even at the North Pole in the first place?
He could just let go and keep sinking. It would save everyone a lot of trouble.
Then he remembered Hahn saying "There'll be girls there." And that Katara was waiting, and she'd put a lot of work into dragging him out of the ocean. And that the Avatar was going to be doing this, and he probably wouldn't spend time sinking in the water thinking about stuff he'd screwed up and hating himself.
He kicked to the surface and pulled himself out on his own power. Someone gave him a hand up, and he took it, struggling to his feet, to find himself eye-to-eye with the Avatar.
"Woah," Aang said, grinning shyly. "Thought we'd lost you for a second. Go warm up!"
"Yeah," Zuko said. It was too cold to think. "I--yeah. See you in there."
He stumbled back to the hot tub, and three or four people helped him climb in. The water was crowded with people sitting and kneeling, but the water was tepid at best. Without even thinking, he pushed his hands out and concentrated, Firebending gently until the water was warm.
There was a moment of silence. Then a bunch of people all started talking at once. "Okay," Sokka said, his voice cutting through the hubbub, "That is the best trick ever, and can you do that again?"
Zuko looked up to see everyone staring at him. It took him a moment to notice that they all looked happy with him. "Um sure," he said, and concentrated on Firebending again. He got the water up to where it wasn't quite hot--everything was colder at the North Pole, even what people thought of as hot water--and then leaned back against the wall of the tub. "That okay?"
"I nominate that as best use of Firebending discovered so far," Sokka said, which seemed to be answer enough. "Especially when the other way to heat up a pool quickly is--"
"Not under discussion," Katara said sharply. "Also gross."
Zuko was almost tempted to brave Katara's disapproval and ask, when he was distracted by the Avatar yelling, "Cannonball!" The Airbender went zipping over everyone's heads and splashed down in the middle of the pool. "Oh, hey," he said when he stuck his head up, "this feels great!"
"Yeah, apparently Firebending has some non-terrible uses after all," Sokka said magnanimously. Zuko felt awkward and maybe a little insulted but also kind of proud all at once, and wrapped his arms around himself while he tried to squash at least half of those things, because he didn't have the energy to deal with them.
There were maybe twenty people in the huge steam tub by the time the last warrior climbed in. Aang got in a splash fight with Sangook which was enhanced by Waterbending. Leika had her arm around one of the other women. Zuko drifted pleasantly in the water, letting the heat sink into him and trying to forget the icy cold outside.
"So, hey, Zeeko," Hahn said, and Zuko realized that everyone else had basically gone quiet. "How'd you get your scar?"
Zuko stopped moving. For a moment, it felt like he'd stopped breathing. "Hahn, dude," Sokka said in the silence. "Not cool."
"It was my father," Zuko said.
That just made the silence worse. And if he looked up, everyone was going to be staring at him. He looked down at his hands under the water, instead.
Katara was the one who finally broke the silence. "What do you mean, Zuko?"
"I messed up," he said. He curled his fingers, trying not to remember, trying to just say what happened, not remember what it had felt like. "I talked my uncle into taking me into a war council. I told one of the generals that his plan was stupid, and wrong." He was twisting his fingers together painfully. It helped him concentrate. "My father told me I was being disrespectful. Not only of him, but of the war council. Of the Fire Lord. And the Fire Nation."
"So..." Sokka said, warily, "He decided to fireball you?"
"He said I had to fight a duel," Zuko said. "I thought I was going to fight the general. But..."
"Wait," Katara said. "How long ago was this?"
"Three years." It felt like yesterday, sometimes. "I was thirteen."
The whole room was silent. When Zuko finally looked up, everyone was staring. "Dude," Hahn finally said, "Your dad is fucked up."
"Hahn!" Katara exclaimed, but she didn't seem to be disagreeing with him. "Language. Aang's only twelve."
"Hey, I've heard that word before," Aang complained. "And he's right."
Zuko shook his head. "It's still my fault. I--"
"No way," Sokka cut him off. "Listen, maybe you spoke out of turn, fine. That's, like, missing dinner, or having to do extra chores. It's not grounds for getting a fireball to the face."
Zuko curled in on himself. He wanted to vanish underwater and not come out. "But--if I'd just fought back right, or--"
"No. Listen," Sokka said. He scooted over until he was sitting next to Zuko, leaning over and setting his face in an intense expression. "If your dad thinks that 'fireball to the face' is a suitable response to... well, anything a kid does? That's his problem, not yours. That's on him. And let me tell you, where I come from? If we'd heard of someone doing something like that, we'd put them on an ice floe heading out to open ocean."
It took a moment, but Zuko looked up to meet Sokka's eyes. Sokka's intense look wasn't going away. And when he peeked out of the corner of his eye, it looked like everyone in the room was agreeing with Sokka.
Katara had said something about sending people to die of exposure. She'd said that they wouldn't even have done it to Admiral Zhao. Which meant that basically everyone in the room thought that what Zuko's father had done was worse than killing the moon.
"Oh," he said, because there wasn't really anything else he could say.
"Hey, Zuko," Aang said after a second, "can you heat up the water again?"
"Oh, yeah," Zuko said.
Firebending was easy, and it meant he didn't have to think for a few seconds again. And then he could duck his head under the water and clear out his eyes.
"Yeah, that's one thing I'm not going to miss when we go," Sokka said. "In the Earth Kingdom? You can build fires basically any time. They have so many trees!"
Zuko blinked at him. "When you go?"
"Yeah, we're leaving tomorrow," Aang said. At Zuko's expression, he shrugged. "I still have to find an Earthbending teacher."
"And you're on your feet again," Katara said, "And your Firebending's even working. So..."
"Oh," Zuko said. He sank back down into the water, until it was lapping at his chin. "Right."
"Besides," Aang chimed in again, "I think Appa's getting tired of eating seaweed."
"I'm getting tired of eating seaweed," Zuko said. "It's--"
"Too salty?" Aang, Sokka, and Katara all finished for him.
He blinked at them.
"Just a hunch," Sokka said. Katara smirked.
Zuko smiled warily. "Heh, yeah," he said. "I guess I'll get used to it."
Zuko felt colder than normal when he woke up the next morning.
He tried not to think about it. He went outside and practiced a few katas before the sun was all the way up. He got breakfast, saying quiet hellos to the cooks and leaving before the room got full. He did more katas in the courtyard and tried not to think about the Avatar heading south on the wind, toward sun and warmth and everything not here.
His uncle found him shortly after he'd finished his fourth set and was resting for a moment, breath steaming in the chilly air. "Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh greeted him. "Your form is improving."
"Thank you, uncle," Zuko said. "Have... have the Avatar and his friends left yet?"
Uncle gave him a measuring look. "No, they are still working on final preparations. I believe that Chief Arnook is sending a ship with men and supplies to the South Pole, and the Avatar and his friends are riding with them part of the way."
"Oh," Zuko said.
"You seem upset."
Zuko shook his head. "I'm not upset! I'm just stuck up here in the cold and the snow and ice, while they're going south to fight my father..."
Uncle Iroh raised his eyebrows, then smiled. "Well, nephew, if you don't want them to leave you behind, you had better run and ask if you can go with them."
Zuko felt as though he'd been punched. "What do you mean?" he asked, but he already felt like he knew. It was just that the entire idea would have seemed impossible even yesterday.
"Zuko, nephew, listen to me," Uncle said, placing the warm weight of his hands on Zuko's shoulders. "Your father has continued a path of war that is destroying the Fire Nation from the inside. You know this. You have seen the damage he has done. The Avatar can set things right, but only if he is free to do so."
"But..." Zuko said, paralyzed with indecision. "What can I do?"
"You can offer your support, and your knowledge of the Fire Nation. Not its military, but its people. The good and the bad." Iroh smiled. "If the Avatar is to bring the world into balance, he is going to have to work with people of all nations, including ours."
"But what if they don't want me?" Zuko said. He didn't realize until the words were already out of his mouth how that sounded. Or how much he really didn't want to know the answer.
Uncle just patted him on the shoulder again. "Go. Ask. I have a hunch you won't be disappointed."
Zuko bundled up his belongings and ran into the city, trying to find the docks, or the Avatar, or something. He was looking around quickly enough that he nearly ran over Hahn.
"Woah, dude, what's the hurry?" Hahn said, holding onto Zuko's shoulders so they didn't fall down.
"Have you seen the Avatar?" Zuko asked. "I mean... have you seen Aang and Katara and Sokka?"
"Yeah, man, they're down at the East Docks with Master Pakku. Want me to show you?"
"Thanks," Zuko said. As they started walking, he cleared his throat and said, "Thanks for everything, really. Even for the vodka, even though it made me sick."
Hahn laughed. "Yeah, you have to learn to take it easy on that stuff."
"Thanks for being my friend," Zuko said quietly.
Hahn didn't seem to notice anything odd. "Well, sure, bro," he said, clapping Zuko on the shoulder again. "C'mon, we're almost there."
They raced down to the docks, feet crunching in the snow. A small ship was moored in an open square of water, the Avatar's bison resting on the deck. Aang, Katara, and Sokka were standing around on the ground, talking to each other, but they stopped when Hahn and Zuko ran up.
"Here ya go," Hahn said. "Hey, guys. Gonna miss you, stay cool!"
"Uh... thanks, Hahn," Sokka said. "You, too."
Katara and Aang were looking at Zuko, instead. He shifted his bundle on his shoulder and said, "Um... I was wondering..."
"Yeah?" Aang asked.
Zuko licked his lips, then blurted, "Can I come with you?"
Sokka looked startled. Katara raised her eyebrows and looked dubious.
Aang just grinned. "You want to help?"
"Why?" Sokka demanded.
Zuko shifted from one foot to the other, trying to put things into words. "Well, I... I feel like I didn't know what I was doing, before. Like, the whole 'Capture the Avatar' thing, it was a really bad idea, but I thought I had to do it. But if I'm just doing what my father tells me to, then--"
Sokka held up his hand. "So you hate your father and you want to help us to get back at him?"
"Okay," Sokka said. "Sounds good to me."
"Awesome!" Aang said.
"Welcome aboard," Katara said.
Zuko smiled, and it was like something that had been pressing on his chest was lifted as he stepped forward. The four of them walked onto the boat, and Zuko turned his face south, toward the warmth of the sun.